Chapter One: Jack’s Trap
The crack of thunder startled Nettie despite the lightning bolt that warned her it was coming. She felt the first raindrop and cursed her luck. It was unusual for a rainstorm to happen in August, even in the cold climate of northwest Montana, but she wasn’t surprised. The way her life had been spiraling downward for some time, further misfortune felt ordinary. From her hiding spot behind a lone Douglas fir, she peered at the cabin ten paces south and waited for the man inside to open the door and allow his pet wolf in for the night.
It would be the third chicken in as many weeks that Nettie would steal from Trapper Jack, and she knew by then how to carry out the theft without being caught. First, she needed the cover of night. Second, she needed the wolf to be inside. As a result of spying on him over the last month, she knew that Trapper Jack was gone for most of the day setting and collecting from his traps, but he often left the wolf behind, so Nettie couldn’t steal in the daytime without risking injury.
Each of the previous times she stole from him, she was almost caught due to not abiding by these basic precautions. The first time, the wolf chased her away until by some miracle Jack whistled for him, likely saving her from being attacked. She went back later that night and finished the task. The second time, she stole a chicken in the morning and was barely able to sneak away without being spotted. She heard the cabin door open and bolted out of sight moments before Trapper Jack rounded the corner.
A torrent opened from the sky, and the rain beat down without mercy. Within a few minutes, Nettie was soaked to the bone and shivering. Her misery was such that she considered returning to the cave she’d called home for the last two months, where she could light a fire and get warm, but the gnawing in her gut kept her feet and determination in place. She hadn’t eaten anything but huckleberries for three days, and she salivated with the very idea of her first bite of chicken.
Finally, she saw a sliver of light from the cabin’s door. It grew wider, and she heard the whistle Trapper Jack used to summon his beast. A moment later, Nettie saw the dark outline of the wolf entering into the light and a moment later, all light was gone. The time had come for her to carry out her theft.
The chicken coop wasn’t far from the cabin. On a normal evening, she would have to make an effort to walk quietly and then catch a chicken with as little ruckus as possible. The thunder and the sound of rain on the cabin’s roof would muffle the chicken’s squawking, though, so Nettie reckoned she should have a modicum of gratitude for the weather, despite it causing her such abject misery as the cold bit her to the bone.
Taking a deep breath, she moved toward the chickens’ house. A flash of lightning lit her path briefly, and she was able to creep along in the right direction. When she thought she had reached her destination, she waved her hands in front of her, feeling for the wooden slat that fastened the coop’s door. All she felt was rain and air, so she took another tentative step forward.
That’s when she fell. A crash of thunder muffled her shriek as she grasped for something to hold onto during her descent. The small branches and leaves that covered the hole fell with her, and she and the debris landed at the bottom in a heap. Nettie scrambled to her feet. She reached out and felt something hard and cold. Pivoting, she touched the walls of the circular space around her. Another bolt of lightning lit her surroundings and confirmed what she’d already figured out in the dark. She was in a pit, the walls of which were slick with mud on account of the rain, making it impossible for her to climb out. Terror gripped her as realized she must be caught in one of Trapper Jack’s traps.
Her mind raced to make sense of her situation. He must have figured out his chickens were going missing. She’d never heard of or seen a trap like this and wondered why he hadn’t set one of the traditional clamp traps the trappers were known to use. Her musing about his trapping methods didn’t last long, for her thoughts soon switched to her dire situation. She might die tonight from hypothermia, she realized. The freezing rain beat down on her relentlessly as she considered her only two options. She could either holler at the top of her lungs in the hope that Trapper Jack would hear her and set her free, or she could wait in the hole overnight until he found her in the morning.
She trembled from both fear and cold. She surely would die tonight, either way. If she were able to alert Trapper Jack, he’d likely leave her in the hole to suffer for her sins. He had a reputation for being the meanest man in Montana. If he did let her out, she couldn’t imagine he would let her go without causing great harm to her person. Another tremor went through her.
Nearly every man she’d met since her husband’s death had treated her poorly, and she had no reason to believe that Trapper Jack would be any different. Her husband had been a good man, and he was the last good man she’d known. He volunteered to fight for the Union out of principle, believing that slavery was abominable and wishing to do his part in ending it, and died in battle. Shortly after, Nettie was evicted from the house she previously shared with him. Her landlord offered her a way to pay the rent on her back, but Nettie had refused, something she regretted later, when desperation forced her to prostitute herself anyway later in the town’s saloon.
Another crack of thunder, and the heavens opened even more, dumping what felt like buckets of rain on her head. She decided it would be better to take her chances with Trapper Jack than to stay in the hole overnight. She screamed and yelled for him, taking breaks only to catch her breath. Tears and water streamed down her face as she began to lose strength, and with it, hope. Her voice became hoarser the longer she yelled. As the rain and thunder grew louder, her voice grew softer for lack of energy. She knew her chances of being discovered diminished the longer she stayed there. Finally giving up, she sank to the ground.
That’s when she heard a sharp voice call out, “Who’s down there?”
A surge of both hope and fear coursed through her veins. Her response came out in a rasp that took nearly all her strength. “Please, sir, I’ve fallen in your hole. Please help me out.”
Trapper Jack didn’t respond. She wondered if he’d even heard her. When a flash of lightning lit the spot at the top of the hole, she saw that no one was there. This is it, she thought. Whether he’d heard her or not, she didn’t know, but regardless, she’d been left alone to die. From her position on the muddy ground, Nettie pulled her knees to her chest and buried her head in her arms. How low she had fallen. She would die like an animal outside, trapped and alone. It was fitting, she realized. Since becoming a widow, her thoughts and manner of living were no longer human. She used to recite poetry and notice the flowers in bloom. Now, like an animal, she thought of little else but how to find her next meal.
If she had been strong enough, she would have cried, but she felt too weak to expend the energy. She began to slip into unconsciousness, when suddenly she felt something touch the top of her head, startling her awake. She thought a creature must have joined her in the hole, but what she found was a thick rope with a loop at the end that continued its descent to the ground.
“Sit in the rope and I’ll pull you up,” the same deep voice instructed.
Nettie struggled to her feet and stepped inside the rope’s loop. She secured it to her seat and waited for the rope to move. Soon she felt it go taut under her bottom, and she clung to the portion of rope above her head as tight as she was able.
The ascent was short, and when she reached the top, she collapsed in a heap at Trapper Jack’s feet. Quick hands freed the rope from under her, and she felt herself being thrown over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She hung limply as he carried her to the cabin, his shoulder pressing into her empty stomach with every step he took.
She felt a rush of warm air when he walked inside with her, and the scent of stew and burning wood alerted her dying senses. “Stay,” Trapper Jack ordered, and Nettie reckoned that he was talking to the wolf, since she didn’t have the option to leave her place over his shoulder until he was good and ready for that to happen. He set her on the fireplace’s hearth next to a Dutch oven and regarded her for a brief moment.
Nettie’s eyes widened as she took in the sight of Trapper Jack up close. He looked even meaner than he had from a distance. Quite possibly the biggest man she’d ever seen, his shoulders spanned double the width of hers. His hair and beard were thick and black, and his brows shaded fierce eyes that she imagined would cause even the bravest gunslinger’s hands to tremble and miss their aim in a fight. He wore a checkered flannel shirt and worn brown trousers linked to suspenders.
The scariest thing of all was that he didn’t speak when he reached out with a giant paw and ripped at the collar of her soaked shirt. He didn’t bother with the buttons, which flew off as he ripped the shirt down to the waist. When he peeled the sleeves away from her arms, she let out a strangled sob. “Please don’t.”
He ignored her plea and continued to undress her without a word. His rough hands gripped the hem of her wet shift and jerked upward. With the last of her strength, she pinned her arms to her side, not wanting to give his eyes or rough hands access to her breasts. Her husband had been gentle with her, but the men after were rough, just like Trapper Jack, and she’d loathed their touches and groping. Trapper Jack looked like the worst kind of man, a beast who could easily tear her apart and might do just that for the thrill of it.
Her resistance was of little use. He merely grabbed her wrists together in one of his hands and lifted her arms, simultaneously tugging her shift over her head. Now bare from the waist up, Nettie wrapped her arms around her chest and trembled, her teeth chattering.
Without delay, Trapper Jack pushed her to lie on her back. He stripped her of her shoes and stockings, then tugged her britches down off her hips, leaving her naked except for her drawers, which were soaked clear through like the rest of her clothing. If she had any doubts before about his intentions to have his way with her, they were completely removed when he grasped the end of the ribbon that tied the cotton to her waist and, with a pull, loosened them and uncovered her most intimate places.
Nettie squeezed her eyes and legs shut, mentally preparing herself for the worst. She lay there naked in front of him, her heart pounding loud enough that she heard the blood pumping in her ears. The warmth of the fire roaring beside her would have provided her relief from how cold she felt if her fear hadn’t overcome every other feeling. When Trapper Jack grabbed her arms, she shrieked, and her eyes flew open when he pulled her to her feet. That wasn’t what she’d expected him to do, instead assuming he would pin her to the floor. Before she understood what was happening, he had wrapped a large fur blanket around her entire body, shrouding her in sudden warmth.
Her knees buckled with relief and weariness, and Trapper Jack caught her before she fell to the floor. Now that she understood he was helping her, his strong arms around her brought comfort. She clung to his shirt to balance as he gently lowered her to the hearth. He sat near her on his sofa, which was cushioned with animals hides stitched together and stuffed with feathers, judging by the few that spilled out of a ripped seam when he sat. He watched her in silence, not saying a word until she’d warmed up enough to stop trembling. That’s when he spoke to her for the first time since coming inside.
“Are you hungry? Is that why you tried to steal a chicken tonight?”
She nodded forlornly. He stood to his full, foreboding height and walked the few strides to what she thought might be considered the kitchen, with a table and single stool. He opened a crude, makeshift cupboard and removed a bowl. She was afraid to hope. Even as he ladled stew into it, she worried that he was playing a cruel trick on her. He would show her the food but then not give it to her.
When he shoved the large bowl filled to the brim into her hands, her eyes widened with hunger and awe. She looked up at him and whispered, “Thank you.”
He gave her a curt nod. She brought the bowl to her lips as he returned to the sofa and sat down. Every gulp of the liquid warmed her from her throat to her belly. The carrots and venison tasted better than she ever remembered anything tasting.
Trapper Jack continued to watch her as she ate, and she felt like his captured prey from the way his predatory eyes studied her so intently. That’s what she was, really. He’d caught her, just like he caught other animals. She felt oddly excited by the way he looked at her, as though she were some special puzzle to figure out. When he leaned back and crossed his arms in front of his chest, her stomach flopped. The movement caused the muscles in his upper arms to bulge, giving him an even more intimidating appearance.
She set the bowl aside and asked meekly, her voice coming out in a tremor despite her body having stopped shaking some time ago, “Did you dig that hole to trap me?”
He scowled. “I dug that hole to trap the animal that was stealing my chickens.”
Nettie wrapped the blanket around her tighter. “You done good. You caught it,” she said, offering him a wry smile.
He didn’t look amused. “You think that’s funny, do you, stealing?”
Her small smile vanished. She shook her head and looked down. “No.”
“What’s your name, young lady?”
She looked at him with some surprise. The way he addressed her in a scolding fashion, like she was a wayward child who needed to be corrected, sent a shiver of apprehension through her. At the same time, she felt relieved. He didn’t seem interested in forcing himself on her, since the look on his face was that of someone about to punish her, not take to his bed.
“My name is Sarah Antoinette Woodward.”
He raised a brow slowly. “That’s quite a fancy name for a thief.”
“I go by Nettie,” she said in a small, apologetic voice. Actually for the last two years, she more often than not went by Slick Kitty, but she wasn’t about to mention that to him.
“All right, Nettie. My name is Jack Abrams. I own those chickens you’ve been stealing, and in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I don’t take kindly to stealing.”
“Yes, I know. You go by Trapper Jack. I know who you are.”
His voice lowered. “I doubt that.” He cleared his throat, and his deep voice took on a tone of resolve. “Are you warm now?”
She nodded. “Yes, sir. Thank you for the blanket.”
“You’re welcome. And are you injured at all?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t get hurt when I fell in the hole. I only got surprised.”
“Good,” he said solemnly. One of his giant hands reached out and took hold of her wrist. He pulled her to her feet and toppled her over his lap before she understood his intent. She lost the blanket in the shuffle and found herself lying over his legs fully naked.
Any sense of impropriety she might have felt over her nakedness disappeared with the first crack of his palm. Her only feeling then was sheer agony. His hand crashed against her exposed bottom with the force one would expect of a man who relied on his own strength to survive in the wild. “You could have asked. I would have fed you,” he said, and then fell into silence. His hand landed again even harder, jerking her forward. The third strike caused her to cry out, which only seemed to spur him into giving her another hard smack. He found a faster rhythm, spanking back and forth on each cheek, hard, with scarcely a moment’s delay, and the sting soon became a scorching pain that she felt desperate to escape.
Writhing over his thighs, her shrieks turned into strangled sobs, interrupted only by her pleas for him to stop. Still the spanking continued with no end in sight. He didn’t speak. He didn’t need to say why he was spanking her. She knew it was because she’d stolen from him. As he blistered her, she frantically recalled the rumors she’d heard about him. If there was any truth to them, he was a mean and unforgiving man. An irrational thought entered her head that he might never stop spanking her. She could only appeal to him in words, having no strength to fight him or even move an inch from where he wished her to be, since his forearm pinned her to his left leg.
“P-please, Trapper Jack. I’m sorry.”
He didn’t acknowledge her apology. She twisted and reached her hand back to cover her poor assaulted seat, but he caught her wrist and held it against her lower back without slowing the swats. The pain became such that she cried without abandon, her sobs loud, open-mouthed wails. She didn’t know how much more she could take. She thought starving to death or dying of hypothermia would have been easier to bear by the time his hand settled. When it finally did, she shifted nervously over his legs, weeping and praying it was finally over.
After such a loud spanking, the room seemed especially quiet. The only sounds were the rain pelting the roof, the crackling of the fire, and the sound of her crying. She didn’t think she’d ever be able to sit again comfortably after being so thoroughly punished by the big man’s hand. When Trapper Jack released her wrist, she swiped at her tears with the backs of her hands. She heard a whimper that didn’t come from her and looked over to find the wolf inching toward them on his belly, whining as he did.
“Go lie down, Cager,” Trapper Jack growled, and the wolf complied immediately, returning to his rug, his ears and eyes still fastened on them with interest and concern over what had just happened.
Some time passed during which Trapper Jack said nothing. Nettie apologized again through her tears. “I’m sorry, I was so hungry. I promise I never used to steal. It’s not like me.” She didn’t know why she needed him to know that. He surely didn’t care about her previous behavior—only that she had stolen his chickens recently. Her sobs became hiccups. She was afraid to move, not wanting to displease him, so she waited for his permission to get off his lap.
He settled his left hand on the center of her back. Still not speaking, he ran his punishing hand lightly over her hot skin. His gentle touch surprised her even more than his hauling her over his lap. Slowly he caressed her swollen globes. Nettie felt a tug at her core, an arousal that built the longer she remained helpless and naked over Jack’s lap. He rubbed her bottom until the sting dissipated into a dull ache.
She felt confused. Five minutes earlier, she would have sworn he was the meanest man to ever exist, but now he seemed almost tender. What confused her more was the fact that she felt disappointed when he stopped caressing her. A man’s touch wasn’t something she had welcomed in a very long time.
“You’ll sleep here tonight, young lady. Tomorrow I’ll figure out what to do with you.”
“All right. Th-thank you,” she said, still sniffling. She was relieved by his pronouncement. She felt too weary to return to the cave now, where she would no doubt struggle to get warm once again. Trapper Jack made her nervous, but she didn’t feel afraid anymore. He’d punished her, and it had hurt, but he’d also fed and warmed her.
He stood with her in his arms and carried her to the bed against the far wall of the room, where he laid her down on her stomach. The bed felt wonderfully soft beneath her. Trapper Jack retrieved the fur blanket from its heap in front of the fireplace and placed it over her naked body. She hissed as it scraped against her punished bottom, but the discomfort she felt from that was nothing compared to the discomfort she’d felt for weeks lying on the hard ground of the cave. She rested her head on the pillow he provided, and she realized then just how weary she was. Through half-lidded eyes, she watched Trapper Jack wring the water from each of her garments into a bucket, then hang them near the fire to dry.
He lay by her side in the bed, and she stiffened for a moment, suddenly worried that he might have dishonorable intentions. But when he turned his back to her, she breathed a sigh of relief, and she appreciated the warmth radiating from his large body. Lying in a warm bed with a belly full of food, an aching bottom, and no fear of molestation, she closed her eyes and fell into her first deep, dreamless sleep since the night before word had come of her husband’s death.