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HEART POUNDING, BODY FLATTENED to the hot earth, Janna
Wayland peered down the brush-covered slopes and watched the tall stranger run naked between a double line of Cascabel's renegade Ute warriors.
He'll never make it, Janna thought. Her heart turned over in pity for the man as blow after blow rained onto his powerful body, staggering him, sending him to his knees. No matter how big or how strong he looks from here, they'll kill him. They always kill the white men they catch.
Crimson streaks appeared on the man's broad back as he struggled to his feet and began to run once more, doubled over in pain, lurching from side to side between the two lines of half-drunk warriors. When he reached the end of the gauntlet he straightened unexpectedly and surged forward, his legs driving hard, his head up, running with the power and grace of a wild stallion.
The laughing, jeering Utes remained unconcerned about their prey's apparent escape. Other men had run the gauntlet before. Most of them never reached the end before being knocked unconscious and clubbed to death. The few prisoners who managed to survive the gauntlet had provided great sport for the renegades as they tracked their bleeding quarry through the rugged canyons, plateaus and mountains of the lower Utah Territory. Whether they found their prisoner a hundred yards away or a mile, the end was always the same--torture and a death that was no more merciful than the red-rock desert itself.
Go to the left, Janna prayed, her slender body vibrating with intensity. Don't take the first side canyon that offers itself. It's a death trap. Go left. Left!
As though he heard her silent pleas, the manpassed up the brush-choked entrance of a small ravine and ran on. For a few more moments Janna watched him through her spyglass, assuring herself that he was running in the correct direction. Despite the crimson blood staining his skin, the man ran smoothly, powerfully. Janna's breath caught and then wedged in her throat as she watched the stranger run. Every line of his body proclaimed his determination to survive. She had seen nothing so beautiful in her life, not even Lucifer, the black stallion every man pursued and every shaman said no man would catch.
The stranger disappeared around a bend in the dry wash, still running hard. Janna collapsed the spyglass, stuffed it into her hip pocket and began wiggling backward out of the brush that had concealed her from the warriors below. As she moved, she automatically smoothed out signs of her passage and replaced stones or twigs that her body overturned. She had survived for years alone in Indian country by being very, very careful to leave few traces of her presence.
Once Janna was out of sight of the warriors below--and of the guard on the rimrock at the head of Raven Canyon, where Cascabel's renegades had their camp--she began running on a roundabout course that skirted one of the many prows of rock that jutted out from the sloping base of Black Plateau. She crossed a dry wash by leaping from boulder to boulder, leaving no trace of her passage. Then she set off on a course that she hoped would cut across the stranger's trail within a few hundred yards.
If he got that far.
Despite her urgency, Janna used every bit of cover along the way, for she could do the man no good if she were caught by renegades herself. After five minutes she stopped, held her breath and listened. She heard nothing to suggest that the renegades had begun pursuing the stranger. Hope rose a little higher in her heart. She resumed running, moving with the grace and silence of fire skimming over the land. It was the silence of her movement as well as the rich auburn blaze of her hair that had caused the natives to call her Shadow of Fire.
Just before Janna reached another dry wash, she saw the stranger's trail. She veered left, following him, wondering which hiding place the man had chosen of all those offered by the tiny finger canyons and rugged rock formations that riddled the base of the plateau. Not that hiding would do him much good. He tried to conceal his trail, but he was bleeding so much that every few feet bright crimson drops proclaimed his passage.
Janna slowed and began rubbing out the telltale drops, using sand or dirt or brush, whatever was near at hand. When his blood trail began to climb up the slope, she noted with approval that the man had passed up obvious hiding places where the renegades would be sure to look. In spite of injuries and the certain knowledge of pursuit, the man hadn't panicked. Like the elusive Lucifer, the stranger relied on intelligence as well as raw strength for his survival.
Yet it was the man's determination that impressed Janna while she followed his twisting trail up the steep, rocky flank of the plateau. She realized that he was hiding in the most unexpected manner. He was taking a route up the plateau's north face that was so difficult the warriors wouldn't believe their prey could possibly have gone that way. The renegades would search the easier escape routes first, perhaps wasting enough time that darkness would fall before the stranger was discovered.
It was a long chance, but it was the only one he had, and he had been smart and tough enough to take it.
Janna redoubled her efforts, moving quickly, wiping out signs of the man, doing everything she could to help him elude the warriors who were sure to follow. The farther up the flank of the plateau she climbed, the more her admiration for the stranger's determination and stamina increased. She began to hope that he knew of an ancient footpath to the top of the plateau, a path that had been abandoned by the Indians, who now rode horses.
The farther up she climbed, the more she allowed herself to believe that the stranger would make it to the top. Up there was water, cover, game, all that a man would need to survive. Up there she could hide him easily, care for his wounds, nurse him if he required it.
Hopes high, Janna levered herself over a rockfall, only to find a stone cliff cutting off all possibility of advance or escape. At the base of the cliff, piñon and rocks grew in equal profusion.
There was no one in sight.
But there was no way out of the rugged little canyon except the way he had come, and she certainly hadn't seen anything bigger than a rabbit. He had to be somewhere in the piñon-and rock-filled hollow behind the landslide--unless he had spread spectral wings and flown from this trap like a shaman.
A frisson went over Janna's skin at the thought. If any man could have flown like a pagan god, this one could have. He had taken a beating that would have killed most men, then he had run three miles and threaded his way to the head of a nameless rocky canyon over land that had tried even Janna's skill.
Don't be foolish, Janna told herself firmly. He's as human as you are. You've looked at enough of his blood in the last mile to swear to that on a stack of Bibles as tall as God.
Intently Janna stared at every foot of the sloping hollow. Despite her sharp eyes, it took two circuits of the ground before she spotted the stranger lying facedown amid the low, ragged piñon branches. She approached him cautiously, unwilling to make any unnecessary sound by calling out to him. Besides, he could be playing possum, waiting for her to get within reach of those powerful hands. He wouldn't expect to be followed by anyone but a renegade Indian out to kill him.
A few minutes of silent observation convinced Janna that the stranger wasn't lying in ambush. He was too still for too long. Janna began to fear that the man was dead. He lay utterly motionless, his limbs at very awkward angles, his skin covered by blood and dirt. In fact it was the slow welling of blood from his wounds that told her he was still alive. She crawled beneath piñon boughs until she was close enough to put her mouth next to his ear.
"I'm a friend. Do you hear me? I'm a friend."
The man didn't move.
"Mister?" Janna whispered, touching his naked shoulder, shaking him lightly, calling to him in her low, husky voice.
There was no sign that he heard.
Carefully Janna sat on her heels next to the man, letting fragrant piñon boughs brush over her. She slid her hand around his neck until she could press against the jugular...and breathed out. Her first impression was of fiery heat, then of the strength in his muscular neck, and then finally she felt the slow, somewhat ragged beating of his heart. From the size of the lump on the side of his head, she was surprised that he had remained conscious long enough to get this far.
"You're not going another inch, are you?" she asked very softly.
The man didn't disagree.
With gentle fingers Janna probed his head wound. Though it was puffy, there was no softness of crushed bone beneath. Nor was blood pooling in the dirt anywhere around his big body, which meant that none of his wounds were bleeding him to death.
Once Janna assured herself of that, she didn't waste any more time checking injuries. The stranger's extraordinary efforts had ended up defeated by a dead end against a stone cliff, but his original plan was still good--take such a difficult route up the side of the plateau that Cascabel wouldn't think to look there for an injured man. All Janna had to do was backtrack, thoroughly wiping out the man's trail as she went. Then she would lay a false trail in another direction and sneak back up to the stranger to make sure that he kept quiet until Cascabel tired of the game and went back to camp.
Slowly Janna worked back down the man's trail, doing a thorough job this time of removing all signs that anyone had come this way. Where blood had fallen onto loose stone, she picked up the stained rock and substituted another of like size. Where the man's feet had disturbed earth, she brushed it flat once more and sifted dust and plant debris over the surface.
She worked in this manner past several places where he could have chosen other routes to the left or right, up the slope or down. When she came to another place where he had a choice of directions, she pulled a knife from the sheath at her waist, gritted her teeth and cut her arm until blood flowed.
Using her own blood, Janna laid a false trail, concealed it so hastily that it could be detected readily by a warrior with sharp eyes, and began a long, slanting descent to the base of the plateau, heading away from the renegades' camp. As she went, she made more obvious attempts to conceal her direction each time there was a logical choice in routes to make. The closer to Mustang Canyon she came, the less blood she left behind, for she wanted to suggest to the renegades that their quarry wasn't badly wounded; that, in fact, he was bleeding less and less with each moment. Hopefully, when the blood spoor disappeared, the Indians wouldn't be suspicious.
Just as Janna reached the broad mouth of Mustang Canyon, she heard Cascabel's men. They were behind her--and they had just discovered the trail of their prey.