Part Apache, part gambler, Matt Drago was no angel, but he swore he was innocent of any crime. Lacey was frightened by the savage intensity she saw in his dark eyes, but helpless and alone, she offered to tend Matt’s wounds if he would help her find her father.
Stranded in the burning desert, desperation turned to fierce passion as they struggled to stay alive on their dangerous journey. Matt longed to possess his beautiful savior body and soul, but if he wanted to win her heart, he’d have to do it Lacey’s Way….
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 killed him.
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 heavily armed.
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 water.
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 body.
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 speak of.
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.
Matt had grown up in poverty. He had hunted the verdant hills for game to feed his family from the time he had been old enough to lift a rifle. It had been evident to everyone from the beginning that Matthew Drago was a born marksman. In his spare time, he had practiced shooting with an old Walker Colt that belonged to his older brother, Abraham. Matt had a natural feel for guns, a steady hand, and a keen eye. No one in all Virginia could outshoot him.
As he grew to manhood, Matt had often wondered why he looked so different from his two brothers and his sister, who were all blond and fair while he was dark-skinned and had hair as black as midnight. He had been sixteen when Leticia Drago told him the truth about his parentage. It had been a hard thing to accept, being a half-breed and a bastard, harder still to learn that the mother he had idolized was not his mother at all. After that, he had pestered his father for information about his true mother, but Saul had insisted he didn’t know anything about her except that she had been a Chiricahua Apache, pretty as a spring flower, and that her name had been Hummingbird. It hadn’t been until Matt met old Smoke Johnson that he learned anything about the Apache people. Smoke had lived among the Apache and admired them. They were a proud and fierce people, Smoke had said, loyal to their friends, deadly to their enemies. There was no shame in being a half-breed, Smoke had remarked, no shame at all so long as a man was true to his word and loyal to his kin and country.
For a time, Matt had toyed with the idea of going West to learn more about his mother’s people. The stories Smoke Johnson had told him excited him, making him anxious to see the mountains where he was born, to lie under a desert sky and listen to the night wind sigh across the face of the land. But then the war had come and he had gone to fight for the South. Smoke Johnson had joined up, too.
The war had been hell. Matt saw men blown to bits, felt his stomach churn as he heard horses and men scream in agony. He suffered hunger and fatigue, marched through the snow in his bare feet, ate food that would make a hog puke. His two brothers were killed at Vicksburg, and his sister entered a convent. Leticia (he never called her Mother again after he learned who he was) died of smallpox. Saul Drago had gone to war and was never heard from again, no doubt long dead and buried in an unmarked grave.
After Lee surrendered, Matt headed West, settling in Texas for no reason other than he’d never been there before and was eager to start a new life in a place that held no memories. There he met Claire Duprey. He fell for her the minute he saw her alighting from her father’s carriage, a vision of loveliness in a fashionable gown of the palest pink satin and lace. He idolized her for months, always from a distance, of course. After all, she was a lady of quality, and he was just a no-account wrangler. She was rich and beautiful and well-educated, everything he was not, and he never dreamed she would give him a second look. And then, one soft summer night at a church social, she had noticed him, seemingly for the first time. Encouraged by the angelic smile she had bestowed upon him, Matt had taken his courage in hand and asked Claire to dance. Things had progressed beautifully after that. He had walked her home, mesmerized by her charm and elegance, by the slightly haughty tilt of her chin. Many carriage rides and dances and barbecues followed in the months ahead, and he had been a happy man, secure in her love. And then, out of the blue, she had changed her mind.
“I’m sorry, Matthew,” Claire had said in her soft Southern drawl, “but I’ve decided to marry Ross.”
Well, who could blame her? Ross Kilkenny was a rich young man, well-mannered, well-bred, handsome as the very devil.
Matt hadn’t argued with Claire’s decision. He wasn’t one to beg, or one to hang around where he wasn’t wanted. He had no one in Texas, no reason to stay. He quit his job as head wrangler at the Dawson ranch the next day, packed his few belongings, hopped on his horse, and rode away without looking back. He had a good horse, money in his jeans, and that was all he needed, all he’d ever needed. He had headed West, drinking and gambling his way from one cow town to another, cursing all women in general and one raven-haired beauty in particular.
He had been drowning his sorrows in an Arizona town no bigger than a postage stamp when he drank his way through one bottle too many and passed out cold. When he woke up, he was in jail, accused of murder…
Matt Drago shook his head ruefully. He’d always had a quick temper and he was a fast hand with a gun, but he’d never gunned a man down in cold blood, not even during the war.
He lifted his head and stared out the back of the wagon. The dust cloud was still there, and now he could make out an indistinct shape on a dark horse.
Matt scowled bleakly as his thoughts drifted back in time once more. As luck would have it, the man he’d been accused of killing had been the only son of the local sheriff. In court, three men had taken the stand and testified, under oath, that Matt Drago had rousted young Billy Henderson, harassing the boy, calling him names. And when Billy wouldn’t agree to a shootout, the man known as Drago had shot him down in cold blood and then passed out.
Matt had expected to be hanged, but Sheriff Henderson had taken the judge aside and asked that Drago be sentenced to life in prison instead. A hanging would be over too quickly, the sheriff had said, and he wanted the man who had killed his son to suffer for a long time.
Matt let out a long, discouraged sigh. How could he have killed a man—a boy, really—and not remember it? He couldn’t have been that drunk. Damn!
He glanced at the four men who shared the prison wagon with him. The prisoner on his left was just a kid, no more than seventeen or eighteen. He had been convicted of robbing the bank in Salt Creek. The two men sitting across from Matt were brothers. They were the last surviving members of the Belmont gang, a notorious bunch of men who had terrorized trains and stagecoaches across the Southwest. The last train they had robbed had been filled with heavily armed lawmen instead of frightened passengers.
Matt slid a look at the man sitting on his right. He seemed old to be an outlaw. He never spoke, just sat there, his head cradled in his hands, a morose expression on his weathered face. The guards called him Gramps and kidded him about being the oldest first-time con they’d ever met.
Matt shook his head wearily. They’d been on the trail for six days now and every day seemed longer than the last. The wagon bounced and jolted over the rough terrain, raising clouds of dry yellow dust that irritated his eyes and clogged his throat. The shackles on his hands and feet clanked with each movement, the sound mocking him like evil laughter. His temper was frayed to the breaking point, and when one of the Belmont brothers accidentally bumped into him, he lashed out, his knotted fist driving into the man’s face. Only the intervention of the prisoner called Gramps kept Matt from beating George Belmont to a pulp. Thereafter, the other men kept away from Matt as best they could in the confined space.
He felt as if he were going mad. It was galling, being in chains, having the guards treat him like dirt. And things would only get worse. In another four days, the doors of the Yuma pen would slam shut behind him. He had never liked small, enclosed places. How could he spend the rest of his life in a cramped, iron-barred cell? Damn. He’d grow old and die there, his only hope the slim possibility of parole. And that was a slim hope indeed. Rehabilitation was not one of Yuma’s objectives. Their main concern was preventing escapes and riots. The guards were brutal and corrupt. There had been so many escape attempts in the last few years that Gatling guns had been installed to discourage prisoners from trying to go over the wall. Yuma was the most feared and hated prison in the Territory. A lot of men had died behind the grim gray walls, unable to survive the cold winters and sweltering summers, the hard work, the whippings, the unpalatable food, the scummy water. At dusk the wagon came to a halt alongside a high yellow bluff. Matt stood up, eager to get out of the cart and stretch his muscles, which were cramped after so many hours of sitting on the hard wooden bench. He swore under his breath as the guards took their own sweet time about unlocking the door. Climbing out of the wagon, Matt jostled the arm of one of the guards, causing the man to spill the drink in his hand.
“You clumsy ass!” the guard snarled, driving his fist into Matt’s midsection. “Why the hell don’tcha watch where you’re goin’?”
Matt choked back the angry words that sprang to his lips, knowing anything he said would only bring more of the same.
A few minutes later one of the deputies herded the prisoners a short distance away from the cart so they could relieve themselves. Matt scowled, irritated by the lack of privacy, and by the way the lawman kept his rifle aimed steadily in his direction.
Thirty minutes later the prisoners sat down to a lukewarm meal of red beans, greasy bacon, and cold biscuits. When dinner was over, they were shackled to the wagon’s wheels for the night.
Matt lay on his back, his head pillowed on his free arm as he gazed up at the stars that twinkled overhead like a million tiny lights in a dark house. Four more days until they reached Yuma, he mused bleakly, and shuddered with dread as he imagined himself caged behind cold iron bars for the rest of his life, never again to ride across the prairie with the wind in his face. Never to savor the taste of good whiskey, or the delights of a bad woman. With an effort, he shook the dismal thought from his mind and stared out into the empty darkness, wondering where the mysterious rider had bedded down for the night.
Lacey woke early the following morning. She had slept badly, afraid she would awake to find the wagon gone again. They were riding in canyon country now, and she had to stay closer to the prison cart for fear of losing sight of it.
Rising, she pulled on her boots and began saddling Cinder. The horse was beginning to show signs of the long ride, too, Lacey thought as she affectionately stroked the mare’s sleek black neck. Cinder was used to short, quiet rides, not long, arduous treks across wild, unbroken country.
Lacey was about to swing into the saddle when a ferocious cry rent the still morning air. Turning, she felt her blood run cold as she saw a dozen painted Indians swarm around the prison wagon.
The prisoners had been released from the wagon to stretch their legs and relieve themselves. Now they scrambled for cover under the cart while the guards and deputies fired at the shrieking Indians. Their cries were more animal than human, Lacey thought in dismay, and covered her ears with her hands as shivers of fear raced down her spine.
She held her breath as the battle raged some forty yards away, gasped as one of the guards slumped to the ground, an arrow quivering in the center of his back. Too frightened to move, Lacey huddled behind the mound of boulders that screened her from sight, one hand covering Cinder’s nose to keep the horse quiet.
Time seemed to stand still as Lacey watched the awful scene of life and death being enacted before her eyes. Two of the Indians had been wounded, a third lay unmoving on the ground. The three remaining guards put up a good fight, but they were outnumbered and, one by one, they were cut down, until only the prisoners remained alive, still huddling under the wagon for protection.
Abruptly, one of the convicts rolled out from under the prison cart, scooped up a rifle lying on the ground, and began firing at the Indians. It was a brave but foolhardy move. Two of the warriors swung around, returning his fire, and the prisoner was knocked to the ground as their bullets slammed into him.
As the wounded convict struck the ground, three of the other prisoners panicked. Scrambling from beneath the cover of the wagon, they ran blindly across the desert, their steps hindered by the chains hobbling their feet. With wild shrieks of delight, the Indians gave chase, quickly catching and killing all three men.
Lacey bit down on her lower lip as the Indians rode back to the wagon. Her father was there, and she watched in helpless horror as Royce Montana crawled out of his hiding place and faced the Indians. One of the warriors fitted an arrow to his bowstring and sighted down the feathered shaft. Lacey watched, her eyes filling with tears, as she waited for the warrior to kill her father. Time seemed to slow, and she was aware of every detail. She saw the black paint smeared across the lower half of the warrior’s face, the eagle feathers tied in his long black hair, the mocking grin on his swarthy face as he prepared to draw back the bow string. The arrow was striped in black and red. For death and blood, Lacey thought dully, and turned her eyes to her father once again. His face was drained of color, his hands, bound with chains, were tightly clenched, the knuckles white. But his head was high and his shoulders were back, and she felt a wave of pride sweep over her. She knew he must be terribly afraid, knew his heart must be pounding with fear as he stared death in the face, but it didn’t show. Not one bit.
The other warriors were waiting, their dark eyes glinting with eager anticipation as they waited for their companion to take the old man’s life.
Royce Montana did not flinch, though he was more frightened than he had ever been in his life. Still, if he was going to die, he thought he would rather die here, out in the open under a blazing summer sun, than die a little each day locked up behind the cold iron bars of the Yuma prison. Head high, he returned the warrior’s gaze. And, inexplicably, the warrior lowered his bow. He spoke a few words to the young brave beside him, and the young warrior leaped gracefully from the back of his calico pony and walked toward the white man.
Royce Montana held his ground, the hair prickling on the back of his neck as the Indian came to stand in front of him. With a curt nod, the young brave dropped a rope around Royce Montana’s neck, vaulted onto the back of his pony, and rode away. Royce Montana followed in the wake of the calico pony, his leg irons clanking with each hurried step.
The remaining Indians did not bother with the dead white men. They quickly rounded up the four-horse team that had pulled the wagon, as well as the two saddle horses the deputies had ridden, collected all the guns, rifles, and ammunition, and left the scene of the slaughter with the dead warrior tied facedown across the back of his horse.
Fearful of discovery, Lacey held her breath until the war party was out of sight. Only then did she feel it was safe to breathe again. Absently, she stroked Cinder’s neck. What was she going to do now? Her father was alive, but for how long? Did she dare follow him? How could she not? Perhaps she could find a way to help him escape. The odds were against it, she thought bleakly, but she had to try. She quickly formed and rejected a half-dozen ideas, and then she laughed bitterly. What could she possibly do against a dozen armed warriors? And yet, she had to try to free her father. She couldn’t stay out here alone, and she couldn’t just ride away and leave her father in the hands of those savages, never to know what happened to him.
With her mind made up, Lacey stepped into the saddle and rode toward the wagon. Perhaps she could find some food and water to add to her dwindling supplies.
She swallowed hard as she urged Cinder toward the wagon. She had never been so close to death before, never seen anyone who had died violently, or seen so much blood. Already vultures were gathering in the distance, drawn by the scent of blood and death. Cinder pranced beneath her, nostrils flaring and eyes rolling as they neared the wagon.
How quickly a life could be snuffed out, Lacey thought sadly. One moment these men had been alive, filled with hopes and dreams and fears, and now they were dead.
Lacey shivered, the food she had hoped to find suddenly unimportant in the face of such carnage. Better to go hungry, she thought, than linger here a moment longer.
She was about to leave when a low moan reached her ears. Lacey cocked her head. Was she hearing things? She glanced at the bodies lying on the ground, and quickly looked away. They were all dead, and she felt her heart begin to pound. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but she was suddenly afraid. And then she heard it again, a muffled cry of pain. Dear God, someone was alive. She urged Cinder closer to the wagon, her eyes darting from one body to the next. Was it one of the guards, she thought hopefully. Or one of the prisoners?
Dismounting, she walked cautiously among the bodies, her heart in her throat. What if it was one of the convicts? He might be a murderer, a molester of women and children, anything.
The man was lying on his back. Drawing closer, Lacey recognized him as the man who had charged the Indians. His eyes, dark as a midnight sky, were open and clouded with pain. He gazed up at her, opened his mouth to speak, and fainted dead away.
Lacey stared at him for a long moment. What was she going to do? If she stayed to help him, she would probably lose any chance she had of following her father. On the other hand, she couldn’t just ride off and leave the man to die in the desert alone.
With a resentful sigh, Lacey knelt beside the injured prisoner. Unbuttoning his shirt, she contemplated his wounds. The first, high in his left shoulder, was bleeding profusely. Lifting him was an effort, but she was relieved to see that there was an exit wound in his back. The bullet had passed cleanly through his shoulder. The second wound was in his left arm also, just above the elbow. The bullet was lodged in the meaty part of his arm.
Lowering the man carefully to the ground, Lacey searched through the camp gear until she found a sharp knife, a bottle of rye whiskey, and a clean undershirt that she ripped into long strips for bandages. Then, kneeling beside the unconscious man once more, she soaked a strip of the cloth with whiskey and began to clean his wounds.
The man moaned and began to thrash about as the fiery liquid seared his flesh. One of his elbows caught Lacey full in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. Mouth set in a determined line, she placed her hands on the man’s shoulders and held him down until he lay quiet once more. Then, teeth clenched, she quickly bound the wound in his shoulder with a strip of whiskey-soaked cloth, wrapping the bandage just tight enough to stop the flow of blood.
For a moment, she sat back on her heels and stared at the wound above his elbow; then, with a grimace, she began to probe for the slug. Thankfully, it was not embedded too deep in his arm and she had it out in a matter of moments. She let the wound bleed for a moment, and then doused the shallow wound with whiskey. Deep lines of pain etched the man’s face as the liquor penetrated his torn flesh.
Lacey let out a sigh of relief as she bound the wound with a strip of cloth. Thank God, that was done. Now there was nothing to do but wait.
To pass the time, she rummaged through the supplies loaded on top of the wagon. Her efforts were rewarded with a sack of coffee, a side of bacon, some hard biscuits, a couple of red apples, several cans of peaches, a good supply of red beans, a loaf of dark brown bread, and a dozen eggs.
Lacey’s stomach rumbled hungrily, reminding her that she had not eaten since the night before, and she quickly scrambled down from the wagon, built a fire, and fried up some bacon and eggs, washing it down with two cups of hot coffee heavily laced with canned milk and sugar.
Feeling much better, she gathered up some blankets and covered the dead men. Then, head bowed, she murmured the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm over the bodies, giving thanks all the while that her father was still alive.
A low groan interrupted Lacey’s prayers, and she glanced over her shoulder to find the wounded man staring at her. Lacey hesitated a moment before going to him, a little fearful of getting too close. He was a convicted felon, after all, and while she was fairly certain he was in no condition to do her any harm, it wouldn’t hurt to be careful. There was no telling what horrible crime he had been accused of, what foul deeds he had committed.
Matt Drago blinked several times, not daring to believe his eyes. Surely the young woman standing beside him was a figment of his fevered imagination. Even decked out in boy’s clothing, there was no disguising the trim feminine shape of her, the soft curves. Her hair, swept away from her face, was a deep reddish-brown. Her eyes, wide-set and heavily lashed, were the color of warm chocolate. There was a smattering of freckles across her cheeks and over the bridge of her tip-tilted nose, a beguiling dimple in her chin.
“How are you feeling?” Lacey asked.
“Rotten.” Matt Drago glanced at the makeshift bandages on his arm and shoulder. “Thanks for patching me up.”
“You’re welcome,” Lacey mumbled, disturbed by his steady gaze. Earlier, she had been too busy tending his wounds to give any thought to his appearance, but now she noticed he was quite handsome.
She realized with some embarrassment that she was staring at him. “Would you like something to eat?” she asked, drawing her gaze from his face.
“You really should eat something,” Lacey urged. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
Matt nodded. He wasn’t hungry, but the girl was right. He needed nourishment. He felt as weak and helpless as a day-old pup. Not only that, but his left arm ached as if all the fires of hell blazed inside.
In an effort to ignore the pain, he watched the girl as she began to fry up a batch of bacon and eggs. She was a pretty little thing, and his eyes lingered on the provocative swell of her breasts and her shapely bottom as she knelt beside the fire. He wondered absently how old she was. Not more than seventeen or eighteen, he decided. Young. Much too young.
He dutifully ate the meal the girl prepared, drank several cups of strong black coffee, and then fell asleep.
When he woke again, it was night and the girl was sitting beside him.
Lacey smiled tentatively when she saw the prisoner was awake, but frowned when she noticed he was shaking.
“Cold,” he husked.
With a nod, Lacey spread her blanket over him, then added another as chills continued to rack his body. She thought of the blankets she had used to cover the dead men, but she could not make herself go to them in the dark, could not leave them lying dead and uncovered. Her eyes filled with concern as violent tremors shook the prisoner. Matt tried to smile reassuringly, but a low moan escaped his lips instead. His left arm and shoulder throbbed mercilessly, and he was cold, so cold. Lacey sat there for a few minutes and then, with a shrug, she crawled under the blankets and lay beside him, warming him with the heat of her body.
Later, the fever came, and he tossed fretfully, throwing the blankets aside. Lacey replaced the covers time after time, becoming more and more frightened as he began to mutter incoherently. Once he stared, unseeing, into the distance, his face a dark mask of rage as he cried, “I didn’t kill him! Dammit, why won’t anyone believe me?”
Another time he called for someone named Claire. Over and over again he murmured the woman’s name, his voice sometimes soft and tender, sometimes filled with anger and bitter regret.
Not knowing what else to do, Lacey kept him covered as best she could. In his quiet moments, she forced him to drink as much water as he could hold, afraid he might dehydrate from the fever and from the amount of blood he had lost.
It was the longest night of her life. Thoughts of Indians and wild animals preyed on her mind, and she dozed sporadically, only to wake with a start each time the man cried out. She prayed fervently that he would be better in the morning. Her nursing skills were minimal at best. She had always been squeamish in the face of pain, and blood made her queasy. If his fever got worse, or his wound became infected, what would she do? Ride for help and leave him out here alone, prey to scavengers? Or sit by and watch him writhe in pain until he died?
WHAT I'M WORKING ON NOW
THE LIGHTNING SERIES
THE RECKLESS SERIES