Authors: Madeline Baker
Blush sensuality level: This is a suggestive romance
(love scenes are not graphic).
When Lacey Montana’s father is
sentenced to twenty years in Yuma Penitentiary, she’s left all alone and has
little choice except to follow the prison wagon. But the trip ends well before
they get to Yuma when the wagon is attacked by a group of Indians. Her father
is kidnapped—and only one prisoner is left alive. Lacey isn’t sure she can
trust the half-breed Apache gambler, Matt Drago. But he swears he’s innocent.
Helpless and alone, stranded in the middle of nowhere with him, she has no
other recourse except to throw her lot in with his.
Lacey agrees to tend to Matt’s
wounds in return for his help in finding her father. But desperation soon
ripens into desire, and when lust turns to love, Matt discovers he wants Lacey,
body and soul. But to win her heart, he’ll have to do it Lacey’s way.
from Ellora’s Cave
To all the heroes of the Old West, who gave me a
lifelong love for cowboys and Indians.
Lacey Montana stared blankly at the empty courtroom, her
ears still ringing with the resounding bang of the judge’s gavel as he
sentenced her father to twenty years in the Yuma Penitentiary. Twenty years,
she thought numbly. Her father would be an old man when he got out. If he ever
got out. Royce Montana was not in the best of health. His heart was bad, the
doctor had told her only a few months earlier; might give out at any time. How
would her father survive the hardships and deprivations of prison life?
It was an effort to make her legs move, and Lacey walked
stiffly out of the courtroom, her eyes filling with tears. Her father was her
only kin left since her mother died five years ago. What would she do without
him? She was not quite eighteen years old and she had no money to speak of. No
close friends to turn to for help. No family.
She walked slowly down the main street toward the south end
of town, and then kept walking, hardly aware of her surroundings. Only a few
weeks ago, everything had been wonderful. Her father had had a steady job as
cook at the Double L cattle ranch, and Lacey had helped out in the kitchen on
weekends and after school. For once, her father’s future seemed secure, and
Lacey had been looking forward to finally staying in one place for longer than
a month or two. She had been thrilled at the idea of making friends, of
settling down and becoming part of the community. Life had been good at the
Double L. She’d had a room of her own, a horse, a growing wardrobe. The
housekeeper, Mrs. Drebin, had been teaching Lacey how to sew, and Lacey had
made herself two dresses she was quite proud of. She had met several girls her
age at church and had been certain that, in time, she would be welcomed into
their circle. Yes, life had been good and had promised to get better.
And then, in a moment, it was all over.
Lemuel Webster, owner of the Double L, had caught Royce
Montana drinking on the job. There had been a heated argument. Angry words. A
fight. Her father had hit Mr. Webster over the head with a whiskey bottle. And
Lacey choked back a sob as she sat down on a broad tree
stump. Her father had promised on his word of honor that he would not take
another drink. It was a promise he had made at least two dozen times in the
last five years. But this time she had believed him. He’d been dry for over a
year. And now this.
She stared into the distance, not seeing the stark beauty of
the land around her, unaware of the clump of yellow wildflowers growing at her
feet. The last few weeks had been awful. Visiting her father in jail, seeing
the guilt and remorse in his eyes, hearing him beg for her forgiveness because
he had failed her again. Then sitting through the trial, seeing the pity on the
faces of people she knew…
The sun had slipped behind the distant hills when Lacey
began the long walk back to town. She had been spending her nights in the loft
of the livery stable since her father’s arrest. She had been too ashamed to
return to the Double L to collect her few belongings, too ashamed to face Mrs.
Webster and the others who had been kind to her. Consequently, she had nothing
to her name but the clothes on her back and her horse, Cinder.
The wind began to blow, and Lacey shivered as she ducked
down the alley and made her way to the livery barn. Climbing up the ladder that
rested against the west side of the building, Lacey pulled herself through the
narrow window of the loft and nestled in the hay. It was warm and fragrant
inside the barn, quiet save for the soft snorts of the horses in the stalls
below. Her own mare was corralled behind the stable.
With a sigh, Lacey closed her eyes. Tomorrow they were
taking her father to the territorial prison. Until now, she had not known what
she was going to do, but in a lightning-like decision, she decided she would
follow the prison wagon to Yuma. Perhaps there was a rooming house near the
penitentiary. Perhaps she could find a job there, cooking or cleaning or making
beds. At least then she would be close to her father. Perhaps she could even
visit him occasionally.
She fell asleep with that thought in mind.
It was in the cool gray hours just before dawn when Lacey
crept out of the loft and made her way through the town’s back alleys until she
found a pair of boy’s pants hanging from a washline. They looked to be about
her size, as did the plaid flannel shirt hanging beside them.
Her conscience bothered her as she tucked the stolen
clothing under her arm and darted back down the alley. Her mother had taught
her that stealing and lying and cheating were wrong, and that nothing ever made
them right. But Lacey needed a change of clothing and she didn’t have any
money. What other choice did she have? She couldn’t go back to the Double L and
ask for charity, not after what her father had done. No one in town would give
her credit, and her pride would not let her beg from people she hardly knew.
Running lightly, Lacey went back to the loft and quickly
changed out of her blue cotton dress into the pants and shirt. The pants felt
strange. They hugged her legs and thighs like a second skin. She knew her
father would be scandalized if he saw her in such an outrageous outfit. No
decent lady ever wore pants, but there was no help for it. Riding across
country in a dress was out of the question.
Coiling her long, russet-colored hair into a knot on top of
her head, she pulled on her hat, carefully tucking the loose ends of hair under
the broad brim. Lastly, she pulled on her boots. Hopefully, no one would notice
she was a girl. Hopefully, from a distance, she would be mistaken for a
cowhand, or a drifter on the move.
Saddling Cinder, Lacey mounted the mare and rode down the
main street toward the jailhouse. It was still early and no one was out on the
street yet. She slowed her horse as the sheriff’s office came into view. The
prison wagon was just pulling away from the boardwalk. She could see her
father, his face pale and haggard, his eyes downcast, sitting on the narrow
wooden bench that ran the length of the heavy iron-barred wagon on both sides.
He looked old, she thought sadly, old and ashamed.
One other man caught Lacey’s eye. He appeared to be in his
early thirties. His hair was long and black and straight, his eyes dark. He was
staring out of the bars, a decidedly sour expression on his face.
Two uniformed guards sat on the wagon’s high spring seat.
One held the reins of the four-horse team in his gloved hands, the other held a
sawed-off shotgun across his lap. Two deputies rode alongside the wagon, both
Lacey waited until the heavy prison cart had a good start,
then, with a look of determination on her face, she touched her heels to
Cinder’s flanks and set out after the wagon. She had no money, no clothing
other than what was on her back and the simple blue cotton dress stuffed inside
her saddlebag. But she had plenty of food, thanks to her nimble fingers. She
had managed to steal quite a good supply of beans, hardtack, beef jerky, and
canned peaches from the general store. She had a canteen filled with fresh
Lacey grinned ruefully. If her name was written in the
Lord’s Good Book in Heaven, there were likely a number of black marks beside it
now. But it couldn’t be helped. She had needed something suitable to wear for
her journey, and she had needed food to eat along the way. Perhaps at some
future date she would be able to make restitution for the items she had stolen.
If not, she would just have to trust that the good Lord would understand her
motives and forgive her.
Belatedly, she wished she had thought to steal a kerchief to
keep the dust out of her nose and mouth.
Ordinarily it was only a five-day ride to Yuma, but the
prison cart was heavy and cumbersome and traveled slowly, doubling the travel
time, and after four days in the saddle, Lacey began to wonder if they would
ever reach their destination. She knew little about Yuma, only that it was a
small town near the Colorado River in the southeast corner of Arizona, and that
temperatures often reached over one hundred degrees in the summertime.
She was bone weary by the end of each day. The guards halted
the wagon only once each afternoon to rest the horses and eat lunch. Lacey’s
heart went out to her father, knowing that the long hours he was forced to
spend caged in the wagon must be miserable. The only time the prisoners were
allowed out of the cart was at night, and then they were shackled to the wagon
wheels to prevent any escape attempts.
Lacey slept fitfully at night, afraid the wagon would leave
before she woke in the morning, afraid she would be left behind, lost and alone
in the trackless Arizona desert. There were snakes in the desert, and she was
deathly afraid of snakes. During the day, she was careful to keep a goodly
distance between herself and the wagon, leery of getting too close to the
prison guards for fear they would make her go back to Salt Creek.
The guards were mean-spirited and cruel, free with their
fists if a prisoner did not immediately do whatever he was told. She had
watched in horror as one of the guards struck her father for not climbing out
of the cart fast enough to suit him. Another time, one of the guards had kicked
one of the prisoners in the stomach because he spilled a cup of water. The two
deputies who were accompanying the wagon never interfered, apparently feeling
that the prisoners deserved whatever they got.
On the evening of the fifth day, Lacey climbed wearily from
the saddle. Her legs, back, and shoulders were a constant, throbbing ache. She
was a good horsewoman, skilled and knowledgeable about horses and horsemanship,
but spending almost ten hours a day on horseback was eight hours more than she
was accustomed to. She had ridden often at the Double L, but only for pleasure,
never like this.
Smothering a yawn, she stripped the bridle and saddle from
Cinder, slipped a halter over the mare’s head, and tethered the animal to a
stout tree. With that done, she sank down on the ground and pulled off her
boots and thick wool socks. With a sigh of pleasure, she wriggled her toes,
yawning again as she did so.
Sitting there, contemplating a cold meal and another night
spent on the hard ground, she fell asleep.
She woke with a start to find the sun high in the sky.
Alarmed, she jumped to her feet and uttered a cry of dismay when she saw that
the prison wagon was gone.
Muttering under her breath, she pulled on her socks and
boots and quickly saddled her horse. Reluctantly she climbed into the saddle.
Pulling a hunk of jerky from one of her saddlebags, she gnawed the tough strip
of dried meat as she followed the deep ruts left by the heavy prison wagon.
Absently she noted that the desert was in bloom. Cactus
flowers made bold splashes of color against the dun-colored sand. The
palo-verde trees were flowering, and the gray-green ironwood trees were crowned
with beautiful pale violet blossoms. The flowers of the ocotillo were as red as
flame, the blooms of the yucca as white as snow. Once, she passed a giant
saguaro cactus that stood over forty feet high.
But she was too busy watching the trail of the wagon and
keeping an eye out for snakes and scorpions to really give heed to the wonders
of nature. While living at the Double L, she had not given much thought to the
wildlife of Arizona, but it was frequently uppermost in her mind now. Besides
snakes and scorpions, there were poisonous spiders in the desert. And a
poisonous lizard, as well. She had seen only one Gila monster in her life, and
it had been dead, but she had been repulsed by its chunky black and orange
An hour passed. Two. The wagon left deep ruts that made the
trail easy to follow, and for that Lacey was grateful. She breathed a sigh of
relief when, at last, she saw the wooden cart far ahead.
Matt Drago grunted softly when he saw the small cloud of
dust rising from the southeast. So, the mysterious rider was still trailing
them. He wondered, not for the first time, who the rider was, and what he
wanted. Was it a friend of one of the prisoners? A father or a brother,
perhaps, hoping for a chance to spring his kin before the wagon reached Yuma?
Matt shrugged. Whoever the unknown rider was, it had nothing
to do with him. He had no friends in this part of the territory, no family to
He swore under his breath as he contemplated the heavy iron
shackles on his hands and feet. Their infernal clanking was a constant reminder
of the precious freedom he had lost. He had spent the last five years wandering
across the southwest, never staying long in any one place, keeping to himself
as he roamed from town to town. After the misery and deprivation of the war, it
felt good to roam at will, to be his own man again. He rubbed his wrists,
noting they were chafed and red from the constant rubbing of metal against his
flesh. Damn. He’d go crazy if he had to spend the rest of his life behind bars,
doing hard time for a crime he was certain he hadn’t committed. If only he
could remember what had happened that night.
Closing his eyes, he let his thoughts wander backward in
time, back to the very beginning of his life…
He had been born deep in the wilds of the Sierra Madre
Mountains. His father, Saul Drago, had been an itchy-footed wanderer, roaming
far and wide in search of fortune and adventure, returning home to Virginia
from time to time, staying just long enough to get his wife pregnant again,
then riding off to explore mountains and valleys he had never seen. One year,
Saul had gone West. In his travels, he had acquired an Apache squaw to warm his
blankets and had quickly gotten her with child. Matt Drago was the result of
their union. The squaw had died in childbirth. Saul had contemplated letting
the squalling brat he had so carelessly sired die with the mother, but, in the
end, he had taken his newborn son home to Virginia. Leticia Drago had raised
the boy as if he were her own. She had been a devout Christian woman, and
although she spent the rest of her life hating Saul Drago for what he had done,
she had not blamed the child for the father’s sins.