By day Reno rode with the rifle across his saddle. By night he and Eve slept with the mustangs picketed around their remote, hidden campsites. As a further precaution, he scattered dried branches along the obvious approaches to the campsites.
Several times a day Reno would send Eve and the packhorses on ahead while he backtracked along the trail to a high point. There he would dismount, pull out his spyglass, and study the land they had ridden over.
Only twice did he catch sight of Slater. The first time he had six men with him. The second time he had fifteen.
Reno collapsed the spyglass, mounted, and cantered quickly to catch up with Eve and the packhorses. At the sound of hoofbeats, she turned. He saw the golden flash of her eyes beneath her hat brim and the intense honey color of her hair beneath the hot August sun. He also saw the subtle lines that fatigue and worry had drawn around her curving lips.
When Reno reined in beside Eve, the temptation to lean over and taste once more her subtle blend of salt and sweet and heat almost overwhelmed his control. He scowled savagely at his own growing, unruly hunger for the girl from the Gold Dust saloon.
«Are they closer?» Eve asked anxiously, looking at Reno’s grim face.
She licked her dry lips.
Eyes like green crystal followed the tip of her tongue.
«Are they falling back?» she asked hopefully.
Her mouth curved down. «I guess those Tennessee horses are tougher than you thought.»
«We’re not in the desert yet.»
Eve made a startled sound and looked at the surrounding land. They were riding down a long, troughlike valley that was bracketed for its entire length by two flat-topped ridges. So little vegetation grew on the ridges that their layered stone bodies showed clearly through the scattered brush and pinon. As a result, the ridges took on a dappled sandy color that owed more to stone than to plants.
«Are you sure we aren’t in the desert?» Eve asked. «It’s so dry.»
Reno looked at her in disbelief.
«Dry? What do you think that is?» he demanded, pointing.
She looked beyond his hand. Winding down the center of the valley was a ribbon of water that was more brown than blue, and so narrow a horse would have to work to get all four feet wet at the same time when crossing it.
«That,» Eve said, «is a poor excuse for a creek. More sand than water.»
With a wry grin, Reno took off his hat, wiped his forehead on his sleeve, and resettled his hat.
«By the time you see that much water again, you’ll think it’s God’s own river,» he promised.
Dubiously Eve looked at the thin, dirty ribbon of water coiling through the dry valley.
«Really?» she asked.
«If we find the shortcut, yes. Otherwise, we’ll see a river that owes more to hell than to God.»
Reno nodded. «I’ve known a lot of men who like wild country, but I’ve never known a man to cross the Colorado where it runs through the bottom of the stone maze, and come back to tell the tale.»
A sideways glance at Reno convinced Eve that he wasn’t teasing her. But then, it was too hot and dusty for anyone to have any energy left for teasing.
Even Reno was feeling the heat. The sleeves of his faded blue chambray shirt were rolled up, and the collar was open for several buttons. Sweat glittered like tiny diamonds in the thicket of black hair revealed by the half-undone shirt. Three days on the trail had left a thick, black stubble of beard that made his smile savage rather than reassuring.
No one looking at Reno now would have been misled into thinking him anything but what he was — a hard man with a reputation for coming out on the winning end of gunfights.
Yet despite Reno’s threatening appearance and the currents of sensual tension that coiled invisibly between herself and him, Eve had never slept more securely than she had in the past few days.
For the first time since she could remember, she was not the one who had to sleep lightly, listening for every noise, ready to grab whatever weapon was at hand and defend those who were weaker than she was from whatever predator was prowling the night beyond the campfire or cheap hotel room.
Being able to depend on someone else was such a simple thing, yet the realization that she could depend on Reno kept rippling through Eve like currents through a river, changing old certainties.
Reno saw Eve take in a breath and let it out, then do it again as though breathing deeply were a luxury.
«Looks like the thought of going dry doesn’t bother you,» he said.
«What? Oh.» She smiled slightly. «It’s not that. I was just thinking how nice it is to sleep through the night without worrying.»
«About a bully or a lecher trapping one of the younger kids in bed at the orphanage, or about outlaws stumbling over the Lyons’ campsite.» Eve shrugged. «That sort of thing.»
Reno frowned. «Did much of that happen?»
«Bullies and lechers?»
He nodded curtly.
«They learned to leave me alone after a while. But the younger kids…» Eve’s voice faded. «I did what I could. It was never enough.»
«Was old man Lyon a lecher?»
«Not at all. He was kind and gentle, but…»
«Not much good in a fight,» Reno said, finishing Eve’s sentence.
«I didn’t expect him to be.»
Reno’s eyes narrowed in surprise. «Why? Was he a coward?»
It was Eve’s turn to be surprised.
«No. He was simply kind. He wasn’t as quick or hard or strong or mean as most men are. He was too…civilized.»
«He should have lived back East,» Reno muttered.
«He did. But when his hands started slowing down, and Donna was too old to distract men with her looks, they had to come to the West. People out here were more easily entertained.»
«Especially once they bought you off the orphan train and taught you to ‘distract’ the men and deal the cards,» Reno said roughly.
Eve’s mouth thinned, but there was no point in denying it.
«Yes,» she said. «They lived much better after they had me.»
Reno’s expression told Eve that he had little sympathy to spare for the Lyons’ difficulty in making a living.
She hesitated, then spoke again, trying to make him understand that the Lyons hadn’t been vicious or cruel to her.
«I didn’t like what they made me do,» Eve said slowly, «but it was better than the orphanage. The Lyons were kind.»
«There’s a word for men like Don Lyon, and it sure as hell isn’tkind.»
Reno lifted the reins and cantered on ahead before Eve could answer. He didn’t trust himself to listen to her defending her whoremaster.
He was kind and gentle.
Yet no matter how quickly Reno rode, he couldn’t leave behind the sound of Eve’s voice, for it echoed within the angry silence of his mind.
They lived much better after they had me.
I didn’t like what they made me do.
He was kind.
The thought of Eve being so lonely that she welcomed the smallest crumbs of human decency and called it kindness disturbed Reno in ways that he couldn’t name. He could only accept them as he accepted other things he didn’t understand, such as his desire to protect a saloon girl who had been carefully taught to lie, cheat, and «distract» men.
A girl who trusted him so much that she had slept better in the past few days than she had in years.
I was just thinking how nice it is to sleep through the night without worrying.
Reno knew the thought of giving the girl from the Gold Dust saloon that kind of peace shouldn’t touch him.
But it did.
THE mountains receded behind Reno and Eve like a cool blue tide, leaving nothing but the memory of heights where water danced in crystal beauty and trees crowded so closely together that a horse couldn’t walk between. There was plenty of room for horses in the dry washes and on the spare plateau tops where the two of them rode now. There was nothing but room for miles and miles.
«Look!» Eve said.
As she spoke, she reached across the small space between her horse and Reno’s, grabbed his right arm, and pointed.
Reno stared beyond Eve’s fingertip and saw only tawny, curving outcrops of sandstone, like the bones of the land itself pushing up through the thin skin of earth.
«What?» he asked.
«Over there,» Eve insisted. «Can’t you see it? Those stone buildings. Is that one of the ruins you talked about?»
After a moment, Reno understood.
«Those aren’t ruins,» he said. «They’re just layers of sandstone shaped by wind and storms.»
Eve started to argue, then thought better of it. When Reno had first told her that they would be riding through whole valleys where no creek drained the highlands and no water collected in the lowlands, she had thought that he was teasing her.
He hadn’t been. There were such valleys. She had seen them, ridden through them, tasted their sun-struck dust on her tongue. She was riding in one of them now.
For Eve, the transformed land was a constant source of wonder. In all the years she had read the journal of Cristobal Leon, she had never truly understood what it must have been like for the Spanish explorers to ride out into the unknown desert, following rivers that grew smaller and smaller until they disappeared entirely, leaving only thirst behind.
Nor had she imagined what it would be like to look a hundred miles in all directions at once, and see not one creek, not one pond, not one lush promise of shade and water to ease a thirst as big as the dry land itself.
Yet even more than the lack of water, Eve was astonished by the naked, multicolored, fantastically shaped rocks that rose out of the land. Taller than any building she had ever seen, drawn in shades of rust and cream and gold, the massive, seamless stone formations fascinated her.
Sometimes they resembled sleeping beasts. Sometimes they resembled mushrooms. And sometimes, like now, they resembled the picture she had once seen of a Gothic cathedral with flying buttresses of solid stone.
Reno stood in the stirrups and looked over his shoulder. The mountains were no more than a dark blue blot against the horizon. He could have covered them with his hand. The long, dry valleys he had led the way through offered few chances of concealment, whether for him or for the men who pursued him.
Yet since dawn Reno had seen nothing move over the face of the land but cloud shadows, and very few of those.
«Looks like Slater’s horses finally gave up,» Eve said, staring out over their back trail.
Reno made a sound that could have meant anything.
«Does that mean we can camp early?» Eve asked hopefully.
He looked at her and smiled.
«Depends,» he said.
«On whether that spring Cal’s daddy marked is still flowing. If it is, we’ll fill up the canteens and make camp a few miles away.»
«Miles?» Eve said, hoping she had heard wrong.
«Miles. In dry land, only a fool or an army camps next to water.»
She thought about it and sighed.
«I see,» Eve said unhappily. «Camping by water would be like camping in the center of a crossroads.»
«How far is the spring?» she asked.
«A few hours.»
When Eve was silent, Reno glanced aside at her. Despite the hard miles on the trail, she looked good to him. The shine of her hair was undiminished, her color was high, and the quickness of her mind hadn’t changed.
Even more pleasing to Reno, Eve shared his fascination with the austere land. Her questions showed it, as did her long silences while she studied the layers of stone he pointed out, trying to imagine the forces that had built them.
«How big is the spring?» she asked.
«What did you have in mind?»
The thought of getting Eve naked in a pool of water had a rapid, pronounced effect on Reno’s body. With a silent curse he forced his thoughts away from the memory of her nipples drawn taut and shiny from the searching caresses of his mouth.
Reno tried very hard not to think about Eve in that way at all. It was too damned distracting. He was a man of unusual self-control, yet he had very nearly reached for her at dawn that morning, and to hell with worrying about the outlaws on their trail.
«You might get a basin bath out of the spring,» he said evenly.
The purring sound of pleasure Eve made did nothing to decrease Reno’s sensual awareness of her.
«Is it at the end of this valley?» Eve asked.
«This isn’t a valley. It’s the top of a mesa.»
She looked at Reno, then at their back trail.
«Looks like a valley to me,» she said.
«Only if you come at it from this direction,» he said. «You come at it from the desert, you have no doubt. It’s like climbing up onto a big, broad step, then another and then another until you come to foothills and then real mountains.»
Eve closed her eyes, recalling the maps from the journals, thinking of how different the land had looked to her than it had to the Spanish, who often were approaching from a different direction than she and Reno took.
«That’s why they called it Mesa Verde,» she said suddenly.
«The Spanish. They first saw the mesa when they were in the desert. And compared to the desert, the mesa was as green as grass.»
Reno took off his hat, resettled it, and looked over at Eve with a smile.
«That’s been bothering you for days, hasn’t it?» he asked.
«Not anymore,» she said with satisfaction.
«The Spanish might have been fools for gold, but they weren’t crazy. What something looks like depends on how you come at it, that’s all.»
«Even red dresses?» Eve asked.
The instant the words left her mouth, Eve regretted them.
«You just never give up, do you?» Reno asked coolly. «Well, I’ve got bad news for you. Neither do I.»
For a long time after that, nothing broke the silence but the sound of hooves striking the ground in a rhythm so familiar, it was like a heartbeat, unnoticed unless it changed suddenly.
The valley that wasn’t really a valley began to descend with increasing steepness. As it slanted down to the stone maze, the land changed, rising slowly on either side of the dry wash Reno had chosen to follow.
The wash was lined with stunted cottonwoods whose leaves were a dusty green that gave shade but little coolness. Plants that required surface water to survive had long since flowered, gone to seed, and died back to brittle stalks that rustled with every breeze, waiting for the seasonal rains to come.
The farther the wash went to the west and north, the higher the walls on either side became, and the more narrow the passage between. After a time, Reno slipped the thong that held his six-gun in the holster and pulled his repeating rifle from its saddle scabbard. He levered a round into the firing chamber and rode with the rifle across his lap.
Reno’s actions told Eve that there was no other way to go but the one ahead. And that one led farther and deeper into what was rapidly becoming little more than a crack in the dry body of the land. She pulled the old double-barreled shotgun from its worn scabbard and checked the load.
The dry, metallic sound the shotgun made as Eve broke it open to put a shell in each firing chamber turned Reno’s head. She closed the gun and rode as he did, with a gun across the saddle, its muzzle pointed in the opposite direction of Reno’s rifle. The look on her face was intent and wary, but not frightened.
At that moment Reno was reminded of Willow, who once had stood with her back to him and a shotgun in her hands, waiting to see if the next person coming out of the forest would be Caleb or a member of Jed Slater’s savage gang.
It had been Caleb who came out of the forest, but Reno had no doubt that Willow would have shot anyone else.
He didn’t doubt Eve’s courage, either. Not in that way. She had spent too many years defending herself to flinch from what must be done.
They learned to leave me alone.
Reno’s eyes moved ceaselessly, probing shadows and the random turnings of the stream bed. The blue roan mustang he rode liked the narrowing wash no better than he did. Her ears swiveled and pricked at the least sound. Despite the long trail behind, she carried herself lightly, muscles coiled, ready to leap in any direction at the first appearance of danger.
The lineback dun was equally edgy. Eve could feel the mare’s wariness in her quick movements and nervously lashing tail. Even the two Shaggies were skittish. They crowded up on the dun’s heels as though taking no chance on being left behind.
Dry watercourses came in from the right and the left, yet still the main channel narrowed, eating deeper and deeper into the land. The bluffs on either side became cliffs that rose high enough to cut off the sun.
Abruptly Reno reined the mare into one of the side channels. The other horses followed. When Eve would have spoken, he gestured curtly for silence.
Long minutes later, a small band of wild horses trotted past the mouth of the narrow side canyon. The sound of their passage was all but smothered by the sandy ground. The horses were heading back the way Eve and Reno had come.
Eve felt the dun’s barrel swell as the horse drew breath to whinny. Immediately she leaned forward in the saddle and clamped her fingers around the mustang’s nostrils.
The motion caught Reno’s eye. He saw what Eve had done, nodded approvingly, and went back to watching. Long after the last wild mustang had gone by, he waited.
Nothing else moved.
Reno considered the tiredness of the horses, the time of the day, and the map in his mind.
It didn’t take long to decide.
«We’ll camp here.»
THE spring was marked only by the shocking green of growing things. Where water overflowed, there was a narrow ribbon of fern and moss that gave way almost immediately to plants better suited for surviving the relentless sun. Yet even those plants didn’t last long, for the air drank water more quickly than any growing thing. Fifty feet from the spring, the trickle of water vanished into sand and pebbles.
Reno sat on his heels, studying the tracks leading to and from the water hole. Deer had been to drink. So had coyotes, rabbits, ravens, and horses. None of the horses showed clear signs of being shod, but something about the tracks disturbed Reno just the same.
He had used various herds of wild horses to hide the tracks left by his own horses. There was no reason to think that Slater was any less clever at disguising his own tracks. But Reno couldn’t prove that it had happened here.
Reluctantly he stood, mounted Darlin’, and rode back up the wash to the place where Eve and the packhorses waited. After a hundred feet he turned to look at his own back trail. Darlin’s shod hooves left clear marks in the damp, churned earth at the fringes of the spring.
«Has Slater been here?» Eve asked with outward calm as Reno rode up.
He had been expecting the question. The hours and days on the trail had taught him that Eve was accustomed to using her eyes and her brain. Even though there was no trail marked in the journals that Slater could have taken to get in front of them, that possibility still remained.
The Spanish hadn’t found all the ways through the wild land. Nor had the U. S. Army. The Indians had; some of the men who rode with Slater might easily know things that no white men did.
«Couldn’t prove it by the tracks,» Reno said.
She let out a silent breath of relief.
«Couldn’t disprove it, either,» he continued. «Not all of Slater’s men are riding shod horses.»
«They were in Canyon City.» Then, before Reno could say it, she added dryly, «But we’re not in Canyon City anymore.»
The corner of his mustache lifted in a smile.
«Comancheros aren’t welcome in Canyon City,» Reno pointed out.
«Couldn’t the tracks you saw have been made by mustangs?»
«Some of them were. And some of them were cut deep into the ground.»
«Like a horse carrying a man?» Eve asked.
«Or a horse digging in to shy away from an irritable neighbor. A lot of nipping and squealing goes on at a water hole this small.»
Eve made a sound of exasperation and licked her dry lips.
«Don’t worry, gata,» Reno said. «I’m not planning on making you go without your bath.»
She smiled with delight. As she did, she realized that somewhere along the hot, hard trail to Spanish gold, she had lost her displeasure over Reno’s nickname for her.
Or maybe it was simply that his voice had lost its cutting edge when he called hergata. Now his tone was darkly caressing, as though she were indeed a wary cat being coaxed closer and closer to his hand for a thorough petting.
The thought brought a flush to Eve’s cheeks that had nothing to do with the heat radiating from the canyon’s stone walls.
«Cover me from here while I fill the canteens,» Reno said. «When I’m finished, I’ll water the horses one by one.»
By the time the canteens, the humans, and the horses had drunk their fill and returned to the small side canyon, the sun no longer touched even the highest edges of the rock walls. The air was hushed, for no breeze disturbed the hidden canyon. Shadows flowed out from every crevice, pooled, and rose in a soundless tide. Overhead the sky flushed darkly with the passionate hues of sunset.
While Reno took care of the horses, Eve built a small fire against a boulder. By the time the smoke rose to the boulder’s top, nothing remained to give away the camp’s presence but a faint fragrance of pinon fire and coffee. With the meager light of the flames to aid her, Eve ate quickly and gathered up what she would need for a «bath.»
Silently Reno watched Eve walk out into the darkness with a canteen, a small metal pan, a soft rag, and a piece of soap. The faded dress made of old flour sacks was draped over her shoulder. He couldn’t decide if she was going to wear it back to camp or use it as a towel.
«Don’t go far,» Reno said.
Though he had spoken quite softly, Eve froze.
«And take the shotgun with you.»
Reno followed the small sounds Eve made as she picked up her shotgun and walked once more into the darkness. She didn’t go far. Just enough to be well beyond the reach of light from the fire.
Reno heard the muted splash of water and told himself he could not possibly hear the subtle whisper of cloth against skin as Eve undressed. Nor could he hear her sigh of pleasure as the cool water caressed her. He most certainly couldn’t hear her breath shiver when her nipples peaked in response to the wet cloth. But he could imagine it.
And he did.