Ryan Farraday had fought in war zones around the world, but he’d never felt so vulnerable as right at that moment, standing on a ridge overlooking the river, watching Elizabeth Malone work her way toward him along the mountain track. He had waited fifteen years to be alone with her again, and he had no idea how she was going to greet him.
“There you are,” Elizabeth smiled, when she reached the spot where he waited. “My penniless soldier of fortune.” She eyed him critically, up and down. “Ripped shirt,” she sniffed. “Patched-up pants. I bet you’re even poorer than before. But, damn, you look as good as ever.”
Before she could say another word, Ryan scooped her up in an impetuous embrace. Elizabeth laughed as she struggled to break free.
“Not so fast,” she protested, pushing him away with a playful slap. “You’ve had to keep your distance up to now, and I think I prefer it that way. I like the idea of just tempting you.”
Ryan stepped back, hoping for another opportunity. Elizabeth had always kept him off-balance. Even years before, when their passions had burned wild enough to shame a libertine, she’d always left just enough doubt to keep him trying harder.
“You should be thankful,” he said finally, “that I’ve stayed away from you till now. I didn’t take this job for the money.”
“What if I told you,” she replied quietly, “that I didn’t want you hired for financial reasons, either?” She raised a hand to stop him as he reached out for her once more. “Oh, no you don’t,” she warned. “Don’t think I’m that easy. We have a lot to catch up on.”
Ryan backed away a little farther. Elizabeth was the only person who’d ever crossed him without fearing the consequences. He knew she reveled in that power, but it only made him love her all the more.
“We’ll be more comfortable out of the sun,” he suggested, his thumb arcing to the tent behind him. “Let’s start by sharing some memories, and see where we go from there.”
She patted his butt as she slipped past him and headed for the tent door. He followed her in with a final look over his shoulder.
The rest of the afternoon rolled by in an emotional blur, all reminiscences and tease. Ryan knew Elizabeth was controlling the pace but he didn’t care. He never noticed the hours slipping away.
So much depended on his vigilance, and the security he provided, especially now with their gold mining operation so close to completion, yet it was almost too late when he finally realized the daylight was dying.
“What the hell?” he muttered, leaping to his feet. “It must be later than I thought. I should be checking on the crew right now.”
“Your timing never was very good,” Elizabeth chuckled. “This light’s perfect for what I have in mind. You’ve finally got me in the mood.”
“Now you’re ready?” Ryan growled. “Damn it, Liz, why do you always play me like this?” He ripped her from her chair and hugged her fiercely.
She wriggled free to nibble on his ear.
“All right,” he said, his temper quickly easing. “Let me see what I can do.”
He threw on his jacket and reached for his rifle. As he hurried from the tent, he could see the night sky flowing out of the east, trailing a storm of stars across the northern Rockies. The camp in the valley was already lost in shadow, the mining camp with the work crew he had been hired to watch.
Elizabeth called out from the tent, “I’m not going to wait here all night,” she prodded him.
Ryan hesitated, his eyes on a spark in the valley below, a camp fire much larger than usual. That could only be the crew, he realized. He should have been down there much sooner. Elizabeth’s sensuality matched her beauty, and she was promising all he’d been hoping for, but that fire was a warning he couldn’t ignore.
“It’s no use, Liz,” he said. “I’ve got to go. Don’t let your husband catch you here.”
He moved off in a sprint down the slope. His leaving seemed heartless, too hasty by far. He knew Elizabeth would never understand, and he cursed the crew for ruining everything. The spot of light in the valley winked out as the forest closed around him. Despite his anger and frustration, he felt a tension in the evening more troubling than the risks they had taken that day.
The thud of an axe broke the silence. Ryan squeezed the bolt of his rifle and slid a bullet to the chamber. As he worked his way blindly toward the shiver and crack of a falling tree, he smelled smoke spill past him down the valley.
The glow from the work camp began to filter through the branches. He inched closer until he could crawl beneath a bearberry bush to peer out between the leaves.
The air above the camp clearing tossed with flames. Shafts of light smoked through the high branches. In the glare, Ryan saw Jim Malone’s crew gathering, First Nations workers from the only settlement in the region. He saw their grim faces, and heard the outrage in their voices. Ryan didn’t need to know their language to understand their anger. Their rage had been brewing far longer than a summer’s worth of exploitation and bad wages. The grievances of generations were stirring while he watched. The twentieth century had come and gone with no attempt at reconciliation, no treaty, to soothe that lost corner of British Columbia where he lay.
Elizabeth was far from safe, he knew now. His own situation was even less certain. Ryan had seen how labor unrest could be an excuse to settle all wrongs. He pulled himself nearer.
A lone figure appeared on the fringes of light, dragging a coffin-sized box still wet from the river. The Native was tall with rolling shoulders and a scar that etched a high cheekbone.
“Martin Bravewolf,” Ryan muttered. He should have guessed that he would be in the thick of it.
Bravewolf paused and called to the others. As he waited, he inspected the sluice box he had filled all season long for every ounce of gold it could trap. He eyed its wooden belly with the same hatred that a slave might show their oppressor. Others joined him, hoisting the sluice to their shoulders. Every hand struck it, as if each man wanted a claim in its destruction. With a shout, they hurled the box into the flames.
Ryan brought the rifle to his shoulder, his 30-06 Springfield that had kept the operation secure since work began in the spring. Now, more than ever, he missed his M4 carbine. The RCMP had confiscated his weapon of choice two days before he’d left for the Interior. He still had no idea who’d tipped them off. That hadn’t been the first time he’d cursed the gun laws in Canada.
Without counting, Ryan knew the number of men he faced. He wondered if any of them would have to die. He never wanted to kill, but he would feel no remorse if they forced his hand. Killing was what he was trained to do.
A drum sounded softly. At first the beat was barely audible, like distant footfalls on hard-packed earth. The fire swelled around the box as the cadence grew louder. Soon the throbbing filled the night. It overwhelmed the roar of the flames. The drumming rose above the forest to the dark cliffs and rolled like thunder through the camp of the White people there. Their tents showed no light, though Ryan knew that no one in those flimsy shelters dared to sleep.
In the growing furor by the river, sweat shone in a dull polish on brown and knotted skin. Boots stamped the cinders into miniature mushroom clouds. Voices blended with the drums, songs of frustration, songs of revenge, chanting to the angry and relentless beat.
Ryan knew he could wait no longer. As he tensed to challenge their defiance, another shadow emerged from the trees. A man in a black overcoat with skin as dark as midnight strode through the uproar and stopped, his hands on his hips, and on his face a cast of impatient authority. The drumbeats ceased, the voices died, fading like disembodied spirits into the blackened forest. The sluice box groaned and sank into the fire. The work camp settled into silence.
Elizabeth Malone waited through the drums for Ryan to return, disturbed more by his abrupt departure than the turmoil from below. She thought his leaving was all about her, and Elizabeth did not lose men in such a way. She only let them go when they were hers to discard. Ryan had learned that before—to his regret.
She slipped quietly from his bed at last and stole away through the night, heading for the main campsite and the tent she and her husband shared. She had her explanations ready. Without a glance to either side, she gripped the flashlight and followed its beam down the trail.
A watching prowler crept from the mesh of Ryan’s tent window. A hint of his copper hair showed in the moonlight before it dissolved into the trees behind her. Someone would pay well to learn what had gone on there that day. Ryan had condemned more than himself.