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Chapter One


 

I
When I opened my eyes the next morning at first I thought it had all been a dream. Then I rolled over and felt Hank’s strong arms around my waist, felt him pull me up against his hard, strong body. And I couldn’t help but

I was Mrs. Wade. Mrs. Hank Wade.

I looked down at the simple ring Hank had slipped on my finger during the impromptu ceremony. It had been given to Hank by Lila Jacobs, the oldest member of the wagon train. Her husband had died before she decided to head west with her son and his wife.

“I don’t need it anymore,” she told Hank with tears in her eyes. “I just hope it means as much to your bride as it meant to me…”

I stared at the ring then through a veil of tears. The marriage had been suggested as a way to keep me from being claimed by Richard Conlin, the toad of a shopkeeper my mother had almost forced me to marry. I remembered how terrified I’d been when he’d showed up flanked by several equally arrogant men and demanded I return with him to Woodsdale, and how relieved I’d been when he’d been driven away and Hank had volunteered to marry me so Conlin’s claim would be nullified should he return as he’d threatened to do.

During the ceremony my head had spun with. I’d always said I’d only marry for love, and yet there I stood, forced into marriage by circumstance. And yet…I did love Hank Wade. But did he love me? Was the marriage simply a noble gesture on his part? A sacrificial act to save me from the clutches of a monster?

But when he’d said “I do,” to the preacher, it was with genuine affection in his eyes. And when he’d taken my maidenhead in his wagon later that evening he’d been so patient, so gentle that I’d responded to his touch the way I’d always dream she’d respond to a husband, a loving husband.

He’d made me a woman, and when sun broke in the east I’d face my first full day as a wife, his partner, a full-fledged member of this traveling band of brave pioneers looking for a new life.

And as a woman, I thought, would come adult responsibilities. And, thank the Lord, adult treatment. That’s what I thought, anyway.

“No more spankings,” I’d said to myself with relief as I cuddled into Wade’s arms. He was my husband now, not my guardian and if I displeased him, well, he’d have to find some other way to deal with me. And that was fine with me. Wade’s strong arm coupled with a strong sense of order had resulted in two very painful punishments I was all too eager to forget.

Beside her Hank stirred and I shyly snuggled in closer to him and was rewarded by feeling his stiffening member pressing up against my bottom. My skin flushed warm with shameful pleasure and I arched up against him as his hands lifted the hem of my nightgown.

“G’morning, Mrs. Wade,” he said into her ear as he guided his stiff member to the entrance between my legs. I gasped with pleasure pain as he entered her and he moved gently, carefully until the soreness turned to ecstasy.

It was over too soon for either of us, but day was dawning now and we both had jobs to do.

I washed and dressed quickly but even so by the time I made it out of the wagon my new husband was way ahead of me. I could hear his voice in the distance giving directions as I began walking towards the chuckwagon.

Pierce gave me a knowing wink as she approached.

“Sleep good?” he asked, chuckling.

“Yes I did,” I said, giving him a peck on the cheek. “Never better.”

The cook rubbed his stubbly face and smiled. “I’ll bet,” he said.

“So what’s for breakast?” I asked.

“Hominy cakes, ham and biscuits. It’s getting cold and folks’ll need something that’ll stick to the ribs today.”

Fat was already sputtering over the fire so I got to work right away fashioning the starch hominy into patties that I dropped into the grease and quickly covered with a lid before putting the biscuits Pierce had already formed into the makeshift oven.

As the sun peaked over the horizon and the men began to make their way towards the chuck wagon, I could see a heavy layer of frost covering the ground. Nearby the oxen and horses shot thick steamy breaths from the mouths and noses.

Open land stretched far as the eye could see, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the incredible turn my life had taken.

The men came first to get breakfast so they could hitch the horses and check the wagons while the women and children ate. All smiled and congratulated me on my marriage save one – Ned did more than just withhold his congratulations; his eyes shot veritable daggers at me as I handed him his plate and I knew he likely still blamed me for Maisy’s developing independence streak.

I didn’t imagine Ned would like her any more after Maisy broke the news to him that she wasn’t going to marry him. I knew he’d likely blame me for that, too, not that such would surprise me; men like Ned were quick to blame women for all their bad luck, even when it was they who were at fault.

Ned had always intimidated me, but her marriage to Hank felt like an armor about me on this chilly morning. And when he showed up in line for his breakfast I served it to him with a kiss that sent up a cheer from all the men except Ned, who merely turned away as he continued to chew on his biscuit.

Then came the women with children in tow, each one giving me a warm hug as I handed them their morning rations. Sarah’s hug was the tightest of all.

“We’re sisters now!” she said to me. I’d always wanted a sister and now I had that and a loving extended family besides. Life in this harsh wilderness was offering me more happiness than I ever dared to dream back in the well-furnished prison I’d shared with her cold, uncaring mother.

Hank had said he was staying out west this time. And since he wasn’t going back that meant I’d never have to go back either. The thought made me so happy that even the long day’s walk I faced across the cold wilderness couldn’t dampen my spirits, for each step would take me farther away the life I’d rejected and closer to whatever adventures awaited me with her new husband.

II

The air grew steadily colder as we made their way through the wilderness that moved from open plains to patches of forest. I was amazed at the different kinds of wildlife I saw, and tried to remember details of the large elk and thickly furred foxes that Hank pointed out to me with a smile along the way.

But late in the afternoon he spotted an animal that put a frown on his face. A lone wolf, gray and grizzled stalked along a stream, casting sidelong glances at the wagon train as it made its way along a narrow path.

“He’s beautiful,” I told my husband. “He looks like something out of a fairy story.”

“Well, if he’s out of a fairy story then he’s the villain,” her husband said, raising his rifle.

“No!” I cried as Hank took aim at the wolf and pushed his arm just as the rifle fired with an ear-splitting report, missing its target.

As the animal retreated into the underbrush, Hank turned and grabbed my arm.

“Anna, what the heck do you think you’re doing? Don’t you have any idea how dangerous those animals are?”

“I’ve read about them,” I said defensively. “But it’s just one, Hank.”

He gave her a little shake. “One is as dangerous as a dozen, maybe even more,” he explained. “A lone wolf without a pack to help keep it fed is ten times more desperate than a group. The last thing we need is that devil stalking after us.”

I felt my chin tremble as tears welled up in my eyes. I’d only been trying to save the wolf, not anger my husband on our first day of married life.

“Sorry,” I said.

But Hank wasn’t moved.

“That’s not good enough,” Hank said. “Out here ‘sorry’ doesn’t cut it, and if you ever interfere like that again I won’t even bother taking you to the wagon before putting you over my knee and tan that pretty butt of yours.”

My eyes widened in disbelief.

“You can’t,” I protested. “We’re married now.”

Now it was Hank’s turn to looks surprised – and slightly amused. “Excuse me, young lady? Do you really think being married to me is gonna get you out of punishment if you’ve earned it fair and square?”

“But I’m a wife!” she persisted.

“Then you better learn to act like one real quick,” he cautioned. “Because if you act like a little girl then that’s just how you’ll be treated, wedding band or no.”

He stood then from the log where they had – until then – been sharing a pleasant break while the animals and fellow travelers rested up.

“Remember that,” Hank said as he went back to the front of the wagon train.

“I’d have thought you’d have known better than to think marrying him would save you from a sore butt,” Sarah said as she sat down beside me and I flushed to know that she had heard. For some reason, being threatened with a trip over Hank’s knee was more embarrassing now than it was before we were married.

My embarrassment must have showed, too, because my new sister-in-law reached over go give me a hug.

“Don’t fret, Anna,” she said. “He’s just trying to keep us safe is all. Once we get where we’re going and there’s not so much danger about he’ll relax a little and won’t be so strict.”

“I suppose,” I said with a sigh, pulling my shawl around. The sun was starting to descend and it was getting colder. We’d be breaking for camp soon, and as we continued on I found myself doing just what Anna had said I shouldn’t do.

I fretted.

I should have known better, I told myself over and over. The wolf wasn’t some animal in a picture book but just what Hank said it was – a threat to our safety. I thought about the little children in our group, and how terrible I’d feel if one of them got taken. The thought made me want to cry but I swallowed the lump in my throat and instead began planning what I could do to redeem myself in Hank’s eyes.

I thought about it as we broke for camp, thought about it while Pierce and I prepared a dinner of venison stew and flatbread. I thought about it as he and I washed dishes in the nearby spring, and was feeling more and more hopeless until I passed a few men standing nearby with guns.

“Apparently he shot at it,” one of the men was saying. “But he missed.”

I walked over and the men nodded. “Evening ma’am,” they said in unison.

“Are you talking about the wolf?”

“You saw it?” asked one.

“Yes,” I replied. “Is it still around?”

“Don’t know,” another said. “But we’re going to build a big fire tonight to keep it at bay. So don’t you worry.”

“I won’t,” I said, brightening. Finally there was something I could do.

I didn’t say anything to Pierce or to anyone else as I went to the wagon and picked up an empty flour sack. All I could thing was how proud Hank would be when I returned with a big bag of kindling for the fire.

I began searching for dry wood, putting what I’d learned on the trail so far to use. The best kind of wood for fire-starting was fallen or dead wood that wasn’t yet rotted. The first few trees I found on the edge of the clearing were rotten and no good. So I went a little further.

Soon I began to find small pieces of what Pierce called “fat lighter” and stuffed into the sack. I turned around when the sack was half full and stopped, realizing that it had not only grown nearly dark but that I couldn’t see the wagons anymore.

“Hello!” I called, hoping someone would hear me and answer. But no voice came in reply.

I was afraid to start walking for fear of going deeper into the woods. But I was afraid not to. I listened for the sound of the stream we’d camped near and could hear it, but it seemed to be coming from all directions.

“Hello!” I called louder this time and waited for a response.

But what I heard was not a welcome sound.

The growl was low and deep and so primal that I felt my blood run cold.

I turned in the sound I thought it had come from and stepped back. A stick under my foot snapped and I stopped. I could hear the sound of my own heart beating now, and above it the rumbling sound of the growl. It was louder now, bolder and then the wolf stepped from the shadows.

Its hackles were raised and its golden eyes so intense that I could not look away as the growl turned to a snarl. The wolf’s teeth gleamed white in the dying light and its tongue darted out to lick them nervously as it stepped towards me.

If it had been a picture in a book I’d have felt sorry for it, for the wolf was thin. That I could see even in the dimming light. It was starving and I was just thinking that this was what it was like to stare death in the face when I heard the sound of a scream and a rifle shot.

The animal collapsed in front of me just as it jumped and I stared in stunned shock as it lay dead at my feet.

The next thing I was aware of was the pressure of someone’s hand on my arm and then being spun around to face Hank, his worried face illuminated by someone’s lantern.

“Hank…” I said. “I was getting wood..”

“What were you thinking?” He gave me a shake. “That animal was seconds away from ripping your throat out. If we hadn’t heard you screaming?”

“I was screaming?” I had not been aware I had done that.

“Is it the same wolf?” Ned walked over and nudged the carcass with his shoe.

Hank nodded.

“It’s starving,” Ned said. “That’s a killer wolf.”

“What the hell were you doing out here?” Hank asked, his voice low.

Over his shoulder I could see Nate smirking. He wasn’t even trying to hide his satisfaction at seeing how I’d made a mess of things. Again.

“I thought if I collected some wood we could use it for the fire. To keep the wolf away…” I looked up at him, searching his eyes for the understanding I so desperately needed to see.

“So you just walked into the woods knowing there was a rogue wolf on the loose?” he demanded.  “You know you risked your neck, don’t you?”

“Not to mention the necks of anyone sent after you,” Nate said and then walked over to slap Hank on the shoulder.

“It’s one thing to invite trouble,” he said quietly but loudly enough for me to hear. “It’s another thing to marry it.”

I felt me face flame red and was glad for the darkness that hid me now. Hank waited until Ned was out of sight before turning to me.

“You know you earned yourself a good whipping, don’t you?”

“Hank,” I said, tears spilling from my eyes. “I’m sorry. Please.”

“No,” he said. “Don’t beg. Don’t you dare beg. The group’s going to expect me to tan your hide for this display of stupidity.”

“So you’re going to beat your wife to please everyone else?” I asked, feeling betrayed.

For a moment, Hank was quiet.

“I’d blister your butt for this even if we were the only two people on this journey,” he finally said. “Just in case you have any doubts. That’s how disappointed I am in you right now, Anna.”

He turned and pointed me in the direction of where I assumed the camp lay.

“So I go from a brush with death to a trip over your knee?” I asked, crying now. “Some rescuer you are.”

“Not exactly,” he said. “You’re going to go over my knee, but not tonight. I’ve never hit a woman in anger, Anna, and I’m not going to start now. So I’m going to wait until I calm down before I redden that backside of yours. But don’t to thinking you’ve escaped anything just because I don’t turn you tail up tonight. Because you’ve a reckoning to look forward to as sure as the sun rises in the morning.”

At first I was relieved that I wasn’t going to get spanked that night. But looking back now I can only say that it would have been a lot better for me if he had just gone ahead and gotten it over with. I don’t think I slept a wink that night and poor Sarah, having seen how furious her brother was, had been afraid to offer me any support beyond a sympathetic look cast in my direction.

I wondered if Hank was too mad to sleep with me. But he wasn’t. He sent me off to bed early like an errant child while everyone else sat around the fire and talked – probably about me – and came to join me later. I was still awake, my stomach in knots, when he lay down beside me.

He was warm against me and I was glad for that because it was so cold out. I felt safe in his arms, even if he was sore at me and wondered if the closeness of my body soothed him any.

“Hank?” I whispered in the darkness. “Please reconsider. I’m sorry for what I did. Don’t spank me. Please?”

“Don’t go fussin, Anna,” he said sternly. “You earned a whuppin pure and simple and if you go bothering me much more you’re going to make it a lot worse. Understand?”

I couldn’t answer. It was impossible to get the words around the huge lump that formed in my throat. So I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. But sleep wouldn’t come until the wee hours of the morning.

III

I woke the next morning feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Shivering, I donned a dress one of the older women had give me as a wedding present, a simple blue frock that fit better than Maisy’s cast-offs, and made my way over to the chuck wagon.

Pierce wasn’t in a chatty mood, which was fine because I wasn’t either. It didn’t help to see the skin of the wolf I’d encountered draped over a log. I’d hoped to put all memory of the animal behind us, and there it was. It’s outsides, anyway.

Breakfast was dried beef, hominy and biscuits. As Pierce was handing Hank a plate I overheard them talking.

“Think you can do without her at lunch?” my husband was asking.

“Sure, if you need me to.” Pierce looked over and nodded when he saw me listening in. “I reckon you and the missus are going to have to have a talk after what happened last night.”

Hank looked at me. “I reckon so.”

I turned away and walked with a stack of dirty dishes to the river, taking my hurt and frustration out on the tin cookware. I couldn’t believe he expected me to walk the next fie hours and watch the sun climb in the sky knowing that when it was overhead I faced a trip across his knee. The thought was too horrible to comprehend. Everyone would hear me getting spanked if he carried out the punishment in our wagon. And then afterwards to face everyone? Panic filled my chest but even as it did I knew I had not choice but to prepare for the inevitable. I couldn’t run away; where would I go. And besides, I didn’t want to run away. I didn’t want to leave, for I loved Hank. Even in spite of my fear and hurt I loved him still.

Normally the days seemed to go on forever as we walked. But this one went far too quickly for my liking. It was overcast, but the clouds parted occasionally and when they did it revealed the sun to be higher than I figured it would be. It was as if nature itself was mocking me for having tested her by going into the woods.

When the call came to break for a rest and lunch my stomach lurched nearly as hard as it had when I’d come face to face with the wolf whose skin had been salted and rolled before we left for our morning trek.

I knew better than to go to the chuck wagon. I’d already thought about that – pretending I’d forgotten and just carrying on as normal. But I knew Hank well enough now to know he’d have no problem fetching me away in front of everyone.

“I won’t cry,” I vowed when he finally walked to the back of the wagon and pointed at the entrance, indicating I should go in. Sarah usually spent the early part of the lunch break resting inside; today it was obvious she’d been told to stay away, for she was nowhere in sight.

Hank followed me in and made himself comfortable on a trunk. It was then that I saw the willow switch in his hand. It was about eighteen inches in length and green. He’s stripped it already and I wondered how many people had seen him preparing it. No doubt they knew what it was for.

I felt a strange relief. With this at least there’s be no loud sound of smacks. I didn’t imagine it would hurt as bad, either. It was so small. I’d already resolved not to cry. I’d done wrong, and I’d prove to Hank and to everyone else that I was tougher than they thought. I’d take my punishment stoically and when it was over I’d walk out with Hank and – like him – act like nothing had even happen.

“Come on, Anna. Let’s get this over with.” He nodded towards me, and I walked over. I started to apologize again but it seemed pointless. He knew I was sorry and it didn’t matter. As he had told me, out in the wilderness “sorry” didn’t cut it.

I laid myself over his lap and felt him pull up the hem of my dress. Heat came rushing to my face as he did. He’d seen all of me in the dim light of the lantern, every square inch of my naked flesh. But still, the notion that I was staring at the floor while he was staring at my bottom made me feel more naked than I had on our wedding night.

The air was cool on my exposed skin and I clenched my fist, preparing for the little stick to descend. But when it did, the pain was so scorching, so awful that I cried out in spite of myself and looked back to see what he’d replaced the implement with.

But it was just the switch and when it fell the second time I screamed in spite of myself.

“No, Hank!” I cried, tears coming to my eyes. “Don’t! It hurts! Please, no more!”

“Stop your fussin’,” he said. “And hold still or you’re going to get forty instead of twenty.”

“Twenty!” I screamed the word. He couldn’t be serious. I couldn’t survive twenty. That wolf had been given an easier punishment. At least when his hide was tanned he’d been unable to feel it.

Hank caught my hand and held it at the base of my back. I was in a complete panic and fighting hard, but for a man used to wrestling oxen and horse, a small frightened wife wasn’t much of a challenge.

He began to spank me with the kind of single-minded dedication reserved for people who know they need to finish a jot quickly if they’re going to finish it at all. And as the switched left criss-cross wheals from the middle of my bottom to the tops of my thighs I wailed and blubbered so loudly the whole camp likely wondered whether Hank was killing me inside our wagon.

By halfway through the punishment I was crying like a baby, my gasping sobs pushing aside any capacity to beg for mercy I knew I wouldn’t get. My struggles had turned to spasms of pain. I was Pain and when Hank finally let go of my hand and I put it back to rub my stinging backside I was genuinely surprised not to find the skin covered in blood.

“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.” They were the only words I could form as I lay there in a heap over Hank’s lap.

“It’s over now, girl.” I felt him rearrange my under things and pull my skirt back down as he raised me to my feet. “It’s over.”

I think it was then that he realized what a wretched mess I was. I was shaking and crying as I rubbed my bottom, where the pain had gone from a white hot burn to a throbbing ache combined with an itchiness that I knew better than to scratch. Even rubbing it hurt.

“Never been switched, neither, I see,” he said. “Well, maybe now that you’ve had a taste you’ll be more careful.”

“I can’t….” I began, wanting to tell him that I couldn’t yet walk or move. I was suddenly tired, exhausted even, both from the switching and from the lack of sleep and emotional turmoil I’d experienced since I’d faced the wolf.

And Hank seemed to know.

“Look,” he said. “Don’t you worry about walking when we start up again. You need to calm down and stop crying before you make yourself sick. So you just rest.”

“No.” I said through my sobs. “It’s not fair to everyone else.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everyone else will understand. And I’m not askin’, Anna, I’m telling you. Understand?”

I wasn’t going to argue.

“I’ll lay down then,” I said. “But just for a few minutes. Just until I can get myself together.”

“You do that,” he said kindly, guiding me to the padded blankets that made up the bed we shared. “Just until you get yourself together.”

I didn’t realize at the time that he already knew what I did not, that I’d pushed myself to the point of complete emotional exhaustion. I’d only settled on my stomach for a few moments before I was fast asleep.

The last thing I was aware of before I slipped away was my strict husband kissing me gently on the temple before he left.

 

 

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