«You're not making sense,» Eve said flatly.
Hands on her hips, she faced the three hard-looking men and the slender red-headed woman who had gathered in front of the mine.
«You’re the one who isn’t making sense,» Caleb said. «First you were going to take on Slater’s bunch with a shotgun, and now you’re talking about going down alone into that hellhole and —»
«I went after Slater because I didn’t care if I killed some of his gang digging out Reno,» Eve interrupted. «You have a wife and child waiting for you.»
She turned to Wolfe. «And you have a wife right here who needs you. I’m the only one who knows how to get to Reno, and I don’t have a soul who looks to me for anything at all. Besides, there’s only room for one to dig at a time. When I can’t dig anymore, you can draw straws.»
As Eve spun around to go inside, a bullwhip snaked out and curled tightly around her knees, holding her in place without hurting her in the least.
«Wait up, miss. I’m going with you.»
Eve spun and confronted the big, blond man who smiled and spoke and moved so much like Reno, she could hardly bear to look at him. The color of the eyes was different, gray rather than green, but their catlike tilt and clarity were so similar, it was like a knife in her heart.
And like Reno, Rafe’s eyes could be as cold as winter ice when he was determined to get something.
«Don’t waste my time arguing,» Rafe said bluntly. «Either I go with you or I go alone. I’m no stranger to mines and Reno’s trail signs. I’ll find him.»
Eve didn’t doubt it.
«All right,» she said in an aching voice. «I’d be obliged. I’m not nearly as strong in the shoulders as you are.»
Rafe flicked his wrist. The long bullwhip fell away from Eve. Ignoring Wolfe’s and Caleb’s objections, she grabbed a lantern and went into the mine’s entrance. Rafe dropped the whip and followed, pausing only long enough to grab a shovel and a lantern.
Caleb and Wolfe were right behind them, sharing a third lantern between them. Jessi stayed just inside the mouth of the mine with a shotgun, standing guard on the off chance that one of Slater’s Comancheros had run the wrong way when the bullets started flying.
Eve heard the sounds of more than one person following her, looked over her shoulder, and felt warmed. Though there truly wasn’t room for more than one man at a time to dig, it made her feel better just knowing that so many hands would be available to help.
Rafe ducked lower and lower as the ragged ceiling of the mine came down. At every branching of the tunnel, he noted the signs Reno had left.
Eve went through the big, rockbound tunnel with a speed that set the lantern to swinging. Rafe followed her like a large, muscular shadow. Caleb and Wolfe kept back a bit, marking the branching tunnels in their own way.
A dust as fine as talcum powder still hung in the air back where the collapsed coyote hole cut away from the main tunnel. Rafe took in the place with a single glance. When he saw the pile of gold bars, his eyes widened. He looked swiftly at Eve. She paid no more attention to the gold than she would have to a similar pile of river rocks.
«This goes back about ten feet before it’s blocked,» Eve said, pointing to the coyote hole. «I shouted and shouted, but he didn’t answer.»
Rafe’s mouth thinned, but all he said was, «Let me try it. My voice carries a lot farther than yours.»
Eve nodded tightly and watched as Rafe knelt and set aside the lantern. The coyote hole looked about as inviting as a grave. He glanced down at the shovel. In that narrow opening, he would be lucky to have enough room to use it as a bludgeon.
«Surprised Reno went in here,» Rafe muttered. «He never cared much for dark, tight places.»
«Maybe he never had Spanish gold waiting on the other side,» she said tersely.
«There’s more?» Rafe asked as he crawled over the stacked ingots and into the dark, tight hole.
«Two ingots that we know of. Supposed to be a lot more buried somewhere down here. For all of me, they can stay buried.»
The only sound that came from Rafe was a low curse as he forced himself over the ingots and into the narrow coyote hole.
Eve sank to her knees and leaned against the cold wall of the tunnel. Distantly she realized that she was trembling. When Caleb touched her shoulder, she started wildly.
Rafe’s deep voice boomed through the coyote hole as he called for Reno. Silence followed. Rafe called again. More silence followed. It was no different the third and fourth time Rafe yelled his brother’s name.
«Cal, Wolfe, cart that gold up to Jessi,» Rafe said after a minute. «It’s just in the way down here.»
The sound of a steel shovel blade ramming into rocky rubble came back through the tunnel as Rafe began to dig.
«You’ll need someone to haul rubble out of your way,» Caleb said.
«It will have to be Eve. Two men just flat won’t fit in here.»
Wolfe bent, shone the lantern into the coyote hole, and began swearing in a combination of Cheyenne and British English.
«He’s right, Cal. The bloody thing fits Rafe like a stone skin.»
Caleb bent, looked, and began picking up the heavy gold ingots, swearing fit to raise blisters on the rock about the connection between fools, gold, and the kind of hell you didn’t have to die to discover.
The rhythm of the shoveling never varied as Rafe dug through loosely piled stones and crumbling rock, pushing the debris to either side of his body and praying that the rest of the coyote hole would hold.
While Rafe bored through the darkness like a grim, living drill, Caleb and Wolfe came and went until a stack of big ingots grew at the mouth of the mine. Eve barely noticed the absence of the bars except that it made her job easier as she crawled into the hole and dragged debris out, giving Rafe a bit more room to work.
«Send Eve when you need someone to spell you,» Wolfe said as he picked up the last ingot.
Rafe grunted an answer and kept digging.
In time, the first spectral flickers of lantern light gleamed through the rubble piled in front of Rafe.
«I see light!» Rafe called back.
«Is Reno there?» Eve called.
«Can’t tell. The ceiling keeps —»
Rafe’s words were cut off by a shower of stones. He cursed in the kind of searing invective learned in the toughest ports on earth. And as he cursed, he dug, knowing with every stroke of his shovel that he could be digging his own grave.
No matter how hard Rafe dug, he could not keep a hole open that was big enough to crawl through. The grim set of his mouth when he wriggled back out into the tunnel where Eve waited told her more than she wanted to know.
«The more I dig, the farther away I get,» Rafe said bluntly, wiping sweat from his eyes. «I got the biggest rocks out of the way, but the small stuff keeps coming down. It’s like digging through a riverbed. I can barely open up enough space for a cat, much less for a man my size.»
«Any sign of Reno?»
Rafe looked at Eve’s shadowed golden eyes and pinched face. He stroked her tangled hair with surprising gentleness.
«I got the shoved through to air twice,» Rafe said. «More stuff came down each time. I shouted through the opening, but…»
He looked away, unable to confront the anguished hope in Eve’s eyes.
She didn’t ask for any more information. If Reno had called out in return, Rafe would have heard.
«Well, we’re better off than we were,» Rafe said. «At least we know there’s new air going in through the hole, and enough space on the other side to echo when I shout, and there was enough air all along to keep Reno’s lantern burning.»
Eve nodded, but her attention was on the coyote hole.
«If he wasn’t killed outright,» Rafe continued, «he’s probably knocked out or in another part of the mine, looking for a way out.»
«Shall I get Caleb or Wolfe?»
«No,» Rafe said curtly. «You were dead right. That hole is no place for a family man.»
«Rest for a few minutes,» Eve said in a shaking voice. «There’s water in the canteen. It’s yesterday’s, but I don’t suppose you’ll mind.»
Rafe’s teeth were a white flash against his gritand sweat-streaked face.
«I sure won’t,» he agreed.
He set aside the shovel and went to the canteen, which Eve had put back up the tunnel, out of the way.
As soon as Rafe picked up the canteen, Eve grabbed the shovel and scrambled into the coyote hole. By the time he turned around and realized what she had done, she was beyond his reach.
«Come back here!» Rafe yelled. «It’s too dangerous. That ceiling is set to come down at the first excuse!»
Eve’s only answer was, «I can get through any hole a cat can. Ask Reno. He calls megata.»
Rafe slammed his open hand against the rock wall and swore viciously.
But despite his anger, he didn’t crawl into the coyote hole and drag Eve back. If she could get through the opening, she was Reno’s best chance of survival.
And if Reno was dead, Eve could find out that, too, before Caleb or Wolfe got killed trying to dig out a man who was no longer alive.
Eve crawled and clawed her way through the rubble, lured by the haze of lantern light ahead. The last foot was the hardest, for the cave-in all but filled the opening. There was just enough space for her to put one arm and her head through. Using her feet to push, she drove herself through the hole.
Abruptly the ceiling gave way.
For an instant Eve felt a crushing weight. Then a tongue of rubble shot forward, taking her with it. She sprawled across the uneven floor of the tunnel and fought for breath.
The first thing Eve saw was Reno’s lantern. The second was Reno’s head and shoulders sticking out of a pile of rubble left by the series of cave-ins. The third thing she saw was that Rafe had accidentally done what the Spanish had done many times by design; he had dug a new coyote hole connecting to the big tunnel.
Eve didn’t know she was crying Reno’s name until the broken echoes came back at her. Coughing dryly, she pulled her bandanna into place and crawled toward Reno through the swirls of dust stirred by the new cave-in.
«Eve!» Rafe yelled. «Are you all right?»
«I found Reno!»
«Is he alive?»
Eve reached out to Reno, but her hand was shaking so badly, she couldn’t tell if there was a pulse in his neck. Then she saw blood welling slowly from a cut on his forehead.
Distantly Eve became aware of Rafe shouting her name.
«He’s alive!» she yelled back.
«Praise God. Watch out. I’m coming through.»
Moments later another shower of rubble spurted from the unstable wall where coyote holes riddled the old tunnel. Stones as big as Eve’s fist hammered down. One of them struck the lantern, knocking it over and extinguishing it. Another struck Reno, who groaned softly. The remainder of the rocks added another layer to the mound covering him.
«Stop!» Eve yelled. «Rafe, stop! Every time you move, Reno gets buried deeper!»
«All right. I’m stopping. What happened to the light?»
«A stone knocked it over and spilled the fuel.»
Eve groped in darkness through her pockets. Finally she found the stub of candle that Reno had insisted she carry in case something happened to her lantern.
Suddenly light from Rafe’s lantern poured through the small opening that was all that remained of the coyote hole.
«Can you see now?» he asked.
A match sizzled. Soon a candle flame burned cleanly against the enveloping darkness. Eve crawled deeper into the old tunnel and wedged the base of the candle into a crevice.
«I’ve got light now,» she said.
«How bad is Reno hurt?»
«I don’t know. He’s facedown, buried from his heels to his ribs. He’s got a cut on his forehead.»
Rocks fell and rolled as the mine adjusted to its new shape.
«Can you get him out of reach of another cave-in?» Rafe asked urgently.
Eve put her hands beneath Reno’s arms and pulled. He groaned again. She closed her eyes and pulled harder.
The rocks covering Reno barely stirred.
«I’ve got to get the rubble off him first,» Eve said.
«Be quick about it. That opening is damned unstable.»
She worked frantically, pushing rocks until Reno was free to his hips.
«Eve?» Rafe called.
«I’ve got all but his legs uncovered.»
«Want me to try to come through and help?»
Even as Rafe spoke, more rocks came raining down on Reno.
«Stop digging!» Eve said frantically.
«I didn’t move!»
Rocks bounced and groanced and rattled.
«Get up the tunnel as far back from the coyote hole as you can,» Rafe ordered.
«But Reno —»
Another wave of rubble lapped out from the unstable wall as a low, grinding sound vibrated through the mine.
«You can’t help him now!» Rafe yelled savagely. «Save yourself!»
As though in a dream, Eve saw the wall shiver and shift minutely as it began to unravel.
Adrenaline poured through her in a wild cataract. She didn’t stop to think or worry or wonder. She just hooked her hands under Reno’s arms and pulled with every bit of strength and determination she had, dragging him in a single lunge away from the rubble and the unstable wall.
Rocks ground and gnashed and poured out in a wave of debris that lapped at Reno’s boots. Desperately Eve kept backing up, dragging him with her until she stumbled and fell. She struggled to her feet and kept pulling, but her frenzied burst of strength was spent, leaving her unable to budge him. Still she kept tugging and tugging, crying and calling brokenly to Reno.
«It’s all right, Eve. You can let go. You pulled him far enough.»
For a wild second she thought Reno was talking to her. Then she realized that it was Rafe kneeling next to her.
«How…?» Eve’s question ended in a cough.
«When the wall went, it opened up a whole new passage. I don’t know how long it will last, though. Can you walk?»
Shakily Eve got to her feet.
«Take the lantern,» Rafe said. «We’ll be right on your heels.»
He bent, levered his brother into place across his broad shoulders, and followed Eve. Soon they met Caleb and Wolfe, who had heard the rumble in the gut of the mine and had come running.
Fresh air and the jostling that came on the way through the mine revived Reno. He regained consciousness in a haze of pain and dizziness just as he was carried out of the mine. Sunlight was a hammer blow in his eyes. Groaning, he closed his eyes and wondered why the world was bumping so badly.
«Lie still,» said Rafe’s voice. «You’ve been hurt.»
Other voices came to Reno, men’s voices, Caleb and Wolfe talking as they carried him into the shelter of the camp.
Nowhere did Reno hear Eve’s voice, her touch, her scent. When he opened his eyes, sunlight blinded him.
«Eve?» he asked hoarsely.
«Other than being crazy enough to try to cut a deal with Slater, she’s fine,» Caleb said dryly. «Let’s set him down over here. Feet first, Wolfe.»
Reno heard nothing but the words about Eve. They echoed in his mind like the waves of concussion, pounding home the old truth about men and women and betrayal.
Tried to cut a deal with Slater. Cut a deal with Slater. Cut a deal…
The words echoed terribly in Reno’s mind, bringing a pain in their wake that was like nothing he had ever known. When he had felt the tunnel collapsing around him, his last thought was that at least Eve would be safe.
Her first thought had been to take the gold and cut a deal with Jericho Slater, leaving Reno to die in the mine.
«Should have learned…Savannah Marie,» he said bitterly.
«What?» Caleb asked.
«Did that cheating saloon girl…leave any gold?»
Before Caleb could answer, Reno passed out again.
Eve wished she could have done the same. She stumbled as though the ground had been taken away from beneath her feet.
Rafe caught her before she fell.
«Easy there,» he said kindly. «You’re at the end of your rope.»
She simply shook her head and said nothing.
«Who’s this Savannah Marie?» Caleb asked Rafe.
«A girl back home who used to drive boys crazy with her teasing. For a while there, Reno was young enough to think he loved her,» Rafe said as he set Eve back on her feet. «Who is the cheating saloon girl?»
«I am,» Eve said tonelessly.
Abruptly Caleb realized that his words about Eve cutting a deal with Slater had been misunderstood by Reno.
«Reno’s out of his head,» Caleb said roughly. «When he wakes up, I’ll set him straight.»
«It doesn’t matter,» Eve said, turning away.
«Eve,» Caleb said. «Wait.»
She shook her head and kept walking.
Everything that mattered had already been said. Reno might have enjoyed her company, might have been gentle with her, might have shared the most intense kind of passion with her; but he didn’t love her.
He never would. Love required trust, and Reno would never forget that Eve had been a card cheat and a saloon girl.
I understand that women have to make up in cunning what they lack in strength. Understanding isn’t the same as liking.
You can’t count on women, but you can count on gold.
Sugar child, would you feel better if I told you sweet lies about love?
While the others hovered around Reno, Eve went into a grove of trees and washed the grit of the mine from every bit of her, and while she did, she wished she could wash away the past at the same time.
But she couldn’t. She could only leave the past behind her, like the dirty water she was pouring from the basin onto the stony ground.
With a calm that came from a loss so deep it numbed her ability to feel pain, Eve pulled on her only remaining clothing — the red dress with jet buttons and a bullet hole in the hidden pocket where she carried her derringer.
Mechanically she went about her preparations. The most difficult part was figuring out how to carry the gold. Finally she brought her mount over to the mouth of the mine, tied on her empty saddlebags, and loaded them. Reno’s saddlebags, she tied around the saddle horn. Then she loaded them, too. Gold bars clanked and shifted within the heavy leather pouches.
Only Caleb noticed Eve’s transformation from grubby miner to tawny-haired saloon girl. He watched with brooding amber eyes that shifted between the half-conscious Reno and Eve’s quick, efficient preparations.
Abruptly Caleb stood up and went over to her.
«You’re getting ready to pull out,» he said.
«Where are you going?» he asked.
She shrugged. «Canyon City, I guess. It’s the nearest saloon.»
«You’ll need someone to ride shotgun. I’ll be ready in a few minutes.»
«I’ll pay you.»
«Like flaming hell you will. I was planning to get back to Willow as soon as I could anyway. Pig Iron is a fine guard, but he’s a mite short on social graces.»
Caleb stalked off, whistling shrilly. A black gelding stopped grazing in the meadow and trotted over to him. He saddled and bridled the horse with swift motions before he came back to camp to pick up his saddlebags. Their unexpected weight nearly yanked him off balance.
He spun toward Eve just as she mounted the lineback dun in a flurry of scarlet silk and rode across the meadow toward the people gathered around Reno.
Rafe and Wolfe looked up at her, saw the dress and the tightly drawn beauty of the girl with shining hair and golden eyes, and were too shocked to speak.
Jessi saw, too. Her eyes widened, but she said only, «Reno is much better. Steady pulse, good deep breaths. He’ll be coming around soon. I don’t think he’s badly injured at all. He’s strong as an ox.»
Eve’s smile was the saddest Jessi had ever seen.
«Yes,» Eve said softly. «He’s very strong.»
Caleb rode up, reined in beside Eve, and waited, saying nothing.
Jessi came to her feet and stood next to the girl who looked as though she had been pushed beyond her last reserves. Jessi knew what it was like to be pushed that hard by life.
«Caleb told me,» Jessi said in a low voice. «Reno didn’t know what he was saying. When he wakes up, he’ll call himself ten thousand kinds of fool.»
The compassion in Jessi’s blue eyes made Eve want to laugh and cry at the same time.
«You’re very kind,» Eve said huskily. «And very wrong. Reno knew exactly what he was saying. He’s said it often enough before.»
Jessi bit her lip and shook her head unhappily.
Eve continued speaking in an unnaturally calm voice.
«My half of the gold came to eight bars. I left two for you and Wolfe and two for Rafe. Caleb already has his.»
Wolfe and Rafe started to speak at the same time.
Eve ignored them. With breathtaking speed, she bent over and yanked Caleb’s belt knife from its sheath. The lethally sharp blade flashed, slicing through the tie that held Reno’s saddlebags to the saddle horn. They landed with a weighty thump a few feet from Reno’s legs.
«That gold belongs to Reno,» Eve said. «He can count on it.»
The lineback dun spun on its hocks and leaped forward as once again Eve left Reno behind in a drumroll of hoofbeats and a wild swirl of scarlet skirts.