Blush: This is a suggestive romance (love scenes are not graphic).
The desperate convict...
Wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, Nathan Chasing Elk has never lost hope of avenging her death and reclaiming his lost daughter. His only chance is to break free from prison--but with his escape comes a grave injury that threatens his life.
The prisoner of love...
Catharine Lyons is struggling to maintain the family ranch in the wake of her parents' untimely deaths. When Nathan shows up on her property, badly wounded and close to death, Catharine provides him with sanctuary.
Their Dakota dream...
As they grow closer, Catharine offers Nathan more than the healing of his body and mind. She agrees to join him on his journey into Lakota territory to avenge his wife's death. But as they trek through the dangerous West, they discover a passion just as untamed--one that will change their destinies forever.
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Dakota Dreams by Madeline Baker
Chasing Elk walked the perimeter of the prison yard. A ball and chain, punishment for trying to escape the week before, hampered his steps. How he hated dragging that damn thing around! The rattling of the chain was a constant irritation. He hated the sound, hated the feel of the cold iron cuff scraping against the skin of his ankle.
Other prisoners moved around the yard, their feet shuffling, while guards kept watch from the observation towers located at each corner of the enclosure.
Chasing Elk looked up at the vast blue vault of the sky, his gaze lifting past the walls of his prison as he followed the graceful flight of an eagle as it dipped and soared high overhead. Would he ever know that kind of freedom again? Or would he die here, lost and forgotten, far from the Black Hills, where he had been born? He had hoped to take his daughter there one day so she could meet her grandparents and learn the ways of the People. It didn't look like that would ever happen now.
Lost in despair, he didn't see the guard approaching from his left until it was too late.
The guard known as Fat Tom yelped as hot coffee spilled out of his cup and splashed down the front of him. "Why the devil don't you watch where you're going, you dirty half-breed?" he bellowed.
Knowing anything he said would be the wrong thing, Chasing Elk clenched his hands at his sides and kept his mouth shut. The punishment for touching a guard, by accident or design, was a week in the dark cell, which was just what its name implied--a narrow cell completely devoid of light, where recalcitrant prisoners were chained to the floor. But Fat Tom had his own method of punishment.
There was no need for words. The guard jerked his head toward the dead tree at the far end of the yard, the tree that he used as a whipping post. Whipping the inmates was against prison policy, but who was going to complain? Fat Tom's cronies wouldn't rat on him, and the prisoners certainly weren't going to say anything. Squealing on a guard would only bring a worse punishment, or death.
There was a sudden hush from the other prisoners as Chasing Elk walked toward the dead tree, his stomach churning with dread. Two of the other guards fell in step beside Fat Tom.
When Chasing Elk reached the tree, he removed his shirt and tossed it aside.
"You know the drill," Fat Tom said. "Hug the tree."
Chasing Elk spread his arms. The other two guards stepped forward, grinning expectantly as they tied Chasing Elk's hands together. One of them tossed the whip to Fat Tom, who was well named. He was near as wide as he was tall. There were squint lines around his deep-set brown eyes. His bulbous nose had been broken at least twice and looked it.
Chasing Elk sucked in a deep breath. He knew the feel of that whip, had endured the kiss of that long black lash countless times before.
The other two guards made small talk, laughing now and then, while Fat Tom cracked the whip a few times to get the feel of it.
Chasing Elk waited in terrible anticipation. He didn't know which was worse, being tied and helpless, waiting for the first breath-stealing stroke of the lash, or the humiliation of being whipped by a white man.
He broke out in a cold sweat as Fat Tom cracked the whip again. There was a sudden, ominous silence from the other two guards. Chasing Elk's whole body went rigid. And then the whip whistled through the air again, striking his flesh, wrapping around him like a tongue of fire. The first stroke was always the worst. And always something of a surprise, because the pain was inevitably worse than he remembered.
It was pain beyond description.
As the whip bit deep into his flesh, Chasing Elk heard one of the guards grunt softly. Blood splattered through the air, dotting the earth at his feet like drops of red rain.
His fingernails dug into the bark, finding and deepening the furrows his nails had left before.
His knuckles went white.
His back was on fire.
Blood dripped down his back, a river of heat threading through the cold sweat that covered every inch of his flesh.
He pressed his cheek to the cool bark, his legs shaking, his whole body quivering from the pain and the effort to keep from crying out.
"He never makes a sound," one of the guards complained. "Come on, Tom, really lay it on him."
Chasing Elk closed his eyes, his jaw tightly clenched. His back was a solid sheet of flame. Blood ran freely down his back, seeped inside his trousers to run down his legs. He bit down on the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out as Fat Tom put all the strength at his command behind the next stoke of the lash. The whip whistled through the air, landing with a sickening wet smack against torn flesh.
Chasing Elk swallowed the groan that rose in his throat. One more, he thought. Just one more.
Chasing Elk sagged against his bonds, his forehead resting against the tree trunk. One of the guards stepped forward to cut him loose. It took all the willpower Chasing Elk possessed to remain upright. He couldn't give in now, couldn't let them know how badly he was hurting, how much he wanted to curl up on the ground and give voice to the pain. The blood of chiefs ran through his veins. He would not let the wasichu win, would not give them the satisfaction of knowing how close he was to breaking.
Pushing away from the tree, he squared his shoulders and made his way to his cell, the insufferable ball dragging behind him, the chain rattling like mocking laughter with every step. Inside, he lowered himself onto his cot. Knowing the worst was not yet over, he closed his eyes and waited.
A few minutes later, one of the old cons came in with a length of cloth and a bucket of salt water.
Chasing Elk buried his face in the mattress, smothering the groan he couldn't suppress as Pappy dipped the rag in the salt water and began washing the blood from his back.
"Try to relax," the old man said gruffly.
Chasing Elk grunted.
"Ya got to be more careful," Pappy admonished as he gently wiped the blood from Chasing Elk's back. "'Specially around Fat Tom. You know he's got it in for ya."
"I know." Chasing Elk hissed the words between clenched teeth.
"I'll sneak ya in some dinner later," Pappy said.
Chasing Elk nodded, his body rigid as Pappy laid a damp cloth over his back, then covered him with a threadbare blanket.
Taking up the bucket and rag, Pappy shuffled out of the cell.
"Someday," Chasing Elk ground the word through clenched teeth. Someday Jim Buckner would pay for every hour, for every degrading, agonizing minute he had spent in this godforsaken place!
But it would not be today.
He spent the rest of the afternoon lying face down on his cot, trying to pretend that his back belonged to someone else. Closing his eyes, he imagined he was lying on his back, floating in a pool of cold water. The Black Hills rose in the distance. Tall trees and the scent of pine rose all around him. He could hear the chatter of squirrels, the cheerful song of a bird. His favorite paint horse grazed on a patch of greening grass...
He muttered an oath, shuddered convulsively as a fresh wave of pain speared through his back. Never again, he vowed. Never again would he submit to being bound to a tree and whipped like a cur dog.
In spite of the whipping and the fact that his back was still almost raw, he was back at work two days later, making little rocks out of big ones. It was tedious, backbreaking work, work that required little concentration, leaving him way too much time to think about things best forgotten. Like the last time he had seen his daughter, more than four and a half years ago. Pain twisted through his gut. She would be eight years old next week. Another birthday missed, he thought bitterly. Had she forgotten him? Jaw clenched, he swung the sledgehammer again and again. Each blow sent pain lancing through his lacerated flesh. Blood oozed down his back as the day wore on.
His whole body tensed as Fat Tom strolled up. Fat Tom hated all the cons, but he took special delight in tormenting those prisoners whose skin wasn't lily-white. He especially hated Indians, Mexicans, and half-breeds.
Chasing Elk stared at the bucket in the guard's hand, grimaced with the knowledge of what was coming.
"Looks like you're bleeding," Fat Tom observed with a malicious grin. "This'll help." And so saying, he doused Chasing Elk's back with the contents of the bucket.
A low groan erupted from Chasing Elk's throat as the cold salt water sprayed over his bare back. He lifted the sledgehammer in his hands. One swing, he thought. One swing would wipe that smirk from the bastard's face.
Fat Tom drew his Colt. "Try it."
Slowly, Chasing Elk lowered his arm. The sledge�hammer hit the ground with a muffled thud.
"Want a shot at me?" Fat Tom asked.
Fat Tom glanced around the yard. "Meet me behind the shed in five minutes."
Chasing Elk glanced at one of the other guards standing nearby. "I can't just walk away."
"I'll fix it," Fat Tom said with a shrug.
"What happens if I win?" He had to ask, though he knew there wasn't a chance in hell of that happening, especially now, when his back was still practically raw. But then, he might never get another chance to take a swing at Fat Tom. "You gonna lock me in solitary, or beat the shit out of me again?"
"You ain't gonna win. Five minutes," Fat Tom said, and walked away.
Chasing Elk stared after him. He flexed his hands and arms. Did he dare? How could he not? It was an opportunity that might never come his way again.
With a casual glance around, he headed toward the shed.
Fat Tom was waiting for him. The first thing Chasing Elk noticed was that the guard wasn't wearing his gun.
Fat Tom made a "come here" gesture with his hand.
"How about removing my chain?" Chasing Elk asked.
Fat Tom shook his head.
"Kind of gives you an unfair advantage, doesn't it?"
Fat Tom's eyes narrowed; then, muttering an oath, he pulled a ring of keys from his back pocket and tossed them to Chasing Elk.
Chasing Elk quickly unlocked the iron cuff around his ankle and tossed the ball and chain aside, along with the keys.
He was turning to face Fat Tom when the guard plowed into him. Driven off-balance, Chasing Elk fell backward. He landed hard on his back, muttered an oath as dirt and rocks were ground into his already battered flesh.
Four and a half years of rage welled up inside him. Four and a half years of scummy water and wormy meat. Four and a half years of being whipped, of being caged, of being treated as if he was less than human.
A low growl rose in his throat. Gathering all his anger, all his suppressed pain and fury, he threw the guard off and scrambled to his feet. Fat Tom was still trying to rise when Chasing Elk slammed a hard right into his face. Fat Tom reeled backward from the force of the blow, and Chasing Elk drove his fist into the guard's face again and again. Blood spurted from the guard's nose and mouth.
With a roar, Fat Tom lumbered to his feet. He shook his head to clear it, grunted as Chasing Elk struck him again and yet again. Fat Tom staggered backward. His foot caught in the chain Chasing Elk had tossed aside and he fell heavily, striking his head against a corner of the shed. He started to rise, then fell back and lay still.
Breathing hard, his knuckles bruised, his back bleeding, Chasing Elk stared down at the guard. One minute passed. Two. And still Fat Tom didn't move.
Damn. There would be hell to pay if the bastard was dead.
Grabbing the shackles and Fat Tom's keys, Chasing Elk made his way around the barn and back to his place on the work detail. No one remarked on his absence.
"Wagon coming in!"
Chasing Elk's head jerked up as the gates to the prison swung open to admit the monthly supply wagon, giving him a view of the desert beyond. Freedom. It was only a few yards away.
Save for one, all the guards watching the prisoners started toward the supply wagon, eager to receive their mail and hear the latest news from town.
Chasing Elk glanced at the sentries posted at the four guard towers. All attention was on the wagon that was now parked in front of the Mess Hall.
His gaze moved to the gates, still open, and then to the lone horse tethered near the stable. One of the prisoners had just finished saddling the stud. It was a beautiful horse, a long-legged black that belonged to the captain of the guards. The captain took the stud out for a run once a week.
Chasing Elk looked over at the guard who had stayed behind with the prisoners. The man's attention was on the men gathered near the wagon, obviously trying to overhear what the driver was saying. Something about a bank robbery in town. Moving as inconspicuously as possible, Chasing Elk walked toward the horse.
The prisoner who had saddled the horse blinked in surprise as Chasing Elk picked up the stud's reins. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Getting the hell out of here." Holding the reins in one hand and grasping the horn with the other, Chasing Elk put his mouth next to the horse's ear and let out a bloodcurdling war cry.
Startled, the horse spun on its hocks and lined out in a dead run. Swinging into the saddle, Chasing Elk jerked on the reins, turning the horse toward the gates that two of the guards were closing.
Leaning low over the horse's withers, Chasing Elk drummed his heels against the horse's flanks.
He heard the guards hollering as he thundered through the narrow opening, the sharp report of a rifle. A sudden stinging in his upper thigh told him he had been hit at least once.
And then, miraculously, he was through the gates and racing across the desert.
Chasing Elk took a deep breath, his first breath of freedom in over four and a half years. It was sweet indeed.
Glancing over his shoulder, Chasing Elk thought his bid for freedom might be over before it began. Strung out behind him were a half-dozen armed and mounted men, all firing in his direction. He had no weapon and little hope of outrunning them. Desperate to escape, he offered a fervent prayer to Wakan Tanka. It had been years since his vision quest, but he had nowhere else to turn.
"Wakan Tanka, hear me! My enemies pursue me like foxes after a hare. I have nowhere to hide, nowhere else to turn. Oh, Great Mystery, have mercy on me. Let the four winds blow my enemies away. Let Mother Earth hide me from their sight lest I perish!"
Bullets whined past his ear, sounding like angry hornets. Chasing Elk bent lower over the stud's neck. He would escape or he would die, but he would not go back to prison.
Heart pounding, his thigh oozing blood from where he had been shot, he rode determinedly onward. If they caught him, they would have to kill him.
Gray clouds swirled overhead, blocking out the sun, stealing the warmth from the day. A blast of cold wind stung his face, sending dust devils and tumbleweeds spinning across the desert. Thunder rumbled overhead.
Chasing Elk looked over his shoulder again, startled to see that a wall of dust now stood between him and his pursuers.
Hope, that feeling he thought had been forever extinguished, rose within him. With a heartfelt prayer of thanks to the Great Spirit, he raced across the desert. Behind him there was a crash of thunder followed by a sudden downpour. Rain, he thought with a grin. It would wash away his tracks.
A short time later, he reached the river, a river that was already rising. He urged his horse into the water, and it struck out swimming strongly. Lightning flashed overhead, and Chasing Elk urged the horse toward the far shore. After scrambling up the bank, the horse shook itself.
Chasing Elk patted the horse's neck while he considered which way to go. There was little to see but sand and sage in either direction, save for the mountains in the distance. Tall craggy mountains that called to something primal deep within him even as they reminded him of the home he had not seen in more than ten years.
Kicking the horse into a gallop, Chasing Elk headed toward the high country. The rain, welcomed as an answer to his desperate plea only moments ago, now became another discomfort. Raindrops pelted his bare back and shoulders, and he hunched forward, shivering uncontrollably as a cold wind blew across the desert.
Even though he was certain he had lost his pursuers, he kept the horse at a gallop for several miles. He was grateful once again for the rain that would have washed out his tracks. No doubt his pursuers had turned back. Only the most foolhardy would endeavor to cross the river in such a downpour.
Now that the first rush of adrenaline had passed, he grew increasingly aware of the pain in his thigh. It burned as if all the fires of hell were lit within it. Chin resting on his chest, it was all he could do to stay upright in the saddle as the weary horse plodded on.
He lost track of time. He dozed and woke and dozed again. He shivered with chills, burned with fever, and only the thought of seeing his daughter again kept him going, but even that hope couldn't keep the pain and the thirst at bay. After a day and a night in the saddle, without seeing any sign of life in the barren desert, he was ready to admit defeat.
It was time to give up, he thought bleakly, time to surrender to the hunger and the pain and the hopelessness that had been his constant companion for the last four and a half years. Death whispered to him, beckoning him with the promise that the next world was better than this one.
It was then, when despair sat on his shoulder a carrion crow, that he saw smoke rising from the chimney of a farm house in the distance.