Dawn came, with the sun peeking across the Sawtooth Mountains and illuminating Baldy’s top with the promise of a warm and bright day. Perfect for a picnic, thought Emma as she rolled out of bed. The girls did not have to work today and had been pestering her to show them the hot springs. She got out of bed and made for the kitchen to prepare breakfast.
Peeking out at the woodshed and Nate’s quarters above it, she noticed he’d apparently left early. Then she remembered. Today was the day he was going to hunt for Joe Bean’s mountain lion. Well, if they were hunting the thing, she had little to fear from it, notwithstanding Nate’s admonition. We’ll go and be back before he returns anyway, she thought, brushing aside the thought of the possible consequence of ignoring his edict. I’m a grown woman and he can’t think he’s going to treat me like some child who can’t take care of herself. She rattled the dishes as she fumed over Nate’s admonition of the previous evening.
Emma was determined to make a day of it, but Cora and Jenny wanted to shop down the road in Hailey. They had finagled a ride with someone, but were vague as to the company or means of conveyance. Emma decided to let it go. There was only so much mothering she could do, and the girls were not breaking any rule. With Laura Lee’s new beau on the same hunt with Nate, leaving her with nothing to do on her day off, a trip to see the warm springs sounded just fine to her. Like Emma, she brushed aside the warning from Luke Strahan as the annoying directive a typically overprotective man.
“Maybe it makes them feel like they are doing something,” said Laura Lee as she and Emma rode in the buckboard, pulled by Jonesy, Emma’s dray horse.
“It’s all overblown,” said Emma, clicking at Jonesy and tapping with the reins. “Giddyap, gal, let’s get going.”
Jonesy, though, moved at her own pace, a relatively slow one. They had a picnic lunch packed in the back and were ready for a dip in the hot springs. It was a gorgeous day for an outing and some grumpy sheriff’s deputies were not going to spoil it.
They rode out the Warm Springs road and turned west, following a trail that narrowed into a pretty canyon carved out of the rock by a creek that fed into the Big Wood. Soon the road brought them to a series of pools. Rocks had been moved about in the creek bed creating a series of small pools that spilled bubbling water from one to the other.
“Well, isn’t this pretty?” said Laura Lee. Evergreens dotted the bank, casting shadows here and there, while sunshine illuminated the water and shone on the surrounding rocks. The sounds and sights made the place seem like a magical cove.
“See? I told you how pretty this was. My late husband brought me here a few times. It was always such a treat.” At that point she was both reminiscing and thinking how nice it would be if Nate were here with her, too. Maybe Laura Lee was wishing the same thing about Luke.
“Those dogs are on to something,” said Nate. “I think they can smell it.” They had picked up the cat’s tracks near a well-used game trail and were following them when the Homer’s dogs became agitated.
“Oh, he’s nearby, Colonel. I think he went up, though, over this ridge.” Homer pointed up toward a ridge top about fifteen hundred feet above them.
The cat was impressive. The paw prints were the largest Nate had ever seen. “This animal is a big ‘un,” said Joe Bean.
“Yep, and he’s staked all this out as his new territory.”
Nate pushed his hat back onto his head and stared up at the bluff. They had picked up the track at the western edge of Bean’s sheep ranch, which lay right along the base of Bald Mountain. The cat had followed a creek that sprung from somewhere up on the mountain, but the animal had now turned to the north and seemed to be climbing into higher country.
“What’s on the other side of that ridge, Joe?” Nate was still unsure of the geography of Blaine County.
“Well, if you cross that spine there, you got Warm Springs Creek on the other side.”
Nate nodded. “Well, let’s go then. We got some climbing to do.” He kicked his horse forward and the troop threaded its way through the pines toward the top of the rise. Nate checked to make sure that his Henry .44 caliber was secure in his saddlebag scabbard. He was an excellent shot with it, and taking the cat out at long range might be necessary. He told himself if he got that shot, he’d take it. No use getting the dogs hurt.
Something about the area’s name tickled his memory. “Luke,” he said, addressing his new colleague, “what’s at Warm Springs Creek?”
“Nothing much—oh, there is the hot springs. Folks go there for the mineral bath.”
That was it. Nate remembered now. “Let’s head up, boys.” Suddenly Nate felt a sense of urgency. It was a nice day. People could be around.
“Oh, this is lovely,” said Laura Lee, sitting back in a rock-walled pool and basking in the sun that filtered through the trees. “I’m so glad you brought me out here.”
“They say it’s a health tonic for all sorts of ailments, so just let the water flow over you. Don’t mind the smell,” said Emma. They had changed in the bushes, stripping out of their skirts, petticoats and blouses, and leaving them clad in chemises and drawers. They didn’t have proper bathing costumes so these would have to do. Only a few knew about the hot pools and at any rate only women bathed here so she felt there was little risk at being seen by men in her underwear out in public.
A faint odor of sulfur permeated the glade, an indicator of the subsurface origin of the warmth issuing from fissures in the creek bed. Emma found a smooth spot, sat back, and let her body and mind go. For the longest time both women were completely still, content to relax and absorb the sounds and sensations of the pretty glade. The creek’s stream flow, except where impeded by the makeshift pools, was loud, and Emma knew from experience that they could not really hear anything beyond the babbling of the water rushing over the rocks.
Emma was staring drowsily up the creek, not really focusing on anything, when something flitted into her field of view. It had appeared for a moment, right there in the corner of her eye. A shape. It moved in a stealthy fashion, something slinking through the brush adjacent the creek. A deer? No, not a deer. It didn’t move like a deer. Whatever it was, it was big. She sat up and searched the glade with her eyes. Where was it? What was it? All she saw were patches of sunlight on leaves. Then she heard the growl.
“Lost him,” said Homer. The dogs appeared confused. They had crested the ridge and were headed down the other side. “He might’ve gone higher. They tend to move into the high country if they sense something coming their way. He may have a den way up there on some rocky scree field.”
“Drat,” said Nate. “Tell you what, you and Joe see if you can pick up the scent going up toward the top of Baldy. Me and Luke will check the creek, see if we can pick up his track. If you hear a shot, bring the dogs and come a-runnin’. We’ll do the same.”
Nate and Luke made their way down the side of the ridge toward the creek bed below. It was rough going and they had to take it easy, lest the horses stumble.
Emma froze. She knew she’d heard something. From experience, she was aware that sometimes the sound of water rushing over rocks sounded like voices. It could fool you, especially at night. But what she had heard wasn’t voices. It was an animal growl.
“Laura Lee,” said Emma. “Don’t panic, but something is here.”
Laura Lee swiveled around, alarmed. “What do you mean?”
Emma strained her ears. “I mean an animal. A bear, maybe.”
“A bear?” Laura Lee pushed herself up out of the pool and half stood, looking all around. In the clearing nearby, old Jonesy snorted and whinnied and struggled against his tether.
Just as Emma rose to stand in the middle of the pool, an unmistakable roar shattered the silence of the glade and both women jumped. A tawny mountain lion emerged from the brush and leapt onto a rock just a few feet above the pool. The women stared at it in shock. They were trapped in the pool. If it attacked, it would be on them before they could move. Laura Lee shrieked. The cat reacted by pinning its ears back and lowering itself into a crouch, ready to spring.
“You hear that?” said Luke. The lion’s roar echoed off the canyon walls. A second later came a woman’s scream.
“Yes, I did. Let’s go,” said Nate. “There’s people down there.”
The time for stealth was past. They rode roughshod down the slope toward the creek bed. At a turnout they got a view of the scene below.
“I’ll be damned,” said Nate. Directly below and about one hundred and fifty yards away were two women whom he recognized as Emma and Laura Lee. They were wearing underclothes and standing thigh-deep in a pool formed from rocks. On a rock shelf directly above them was the largest mountain lion Nate had ever seen.
He didn’t waste a second. There was no time for anything else. Dismounting as fast as he could, he slid the Henry out of its sheath and plopped down on his belly in the dirt in a prone rifleman’s position. He flicked the sight up, realizing he had to adjust for a downhill shot, but there was no wind and that was good. He cocked the rifle, took a deep breath, and sighted the cat dead center. He squeezed the trigger.
Emma and Laura Lee screamed as the cat launched itself right at Laura Lee, who was the closer of the two. She leapt toward the creek bank but slipped on the rocks. Emma watched in horror as the thing sprang with claws outstretched. But the leap for its prey was interrupted when something hit it, and it writhed, spinning in the air. The cougar landed with a splash right at Emma’s feet and she scrambled to get away from it. As she did, she heard the boom of a rifle shot and looked up. Two men were visible up the slope on a trail above the creek. She saw one rise up off the ground holding a rifle. The cat lay in the water, not moving. Emma stopped. Her heart beat rapidly, and she realized just how close a call that had been. Laura Lee had made it out of the pool and stood on the bank of the creek shivering.
“Oh my gosh, Emma. That thing made straight for me.”
Emma gulped. “Yes. I suppose we have someone to thank for killing the beast.”
The women gazed uphill waiting for the men they’d seen. “Oh, my,” said Emma when Nate appeared, walking through the brush, rifle in one hand, his horse’s reins in the other. With him was Luke, and the women ran up and embraced them.
“Oh, what a fright,” said Emma, hugging Nate. “When I saw that animal with his ears back ready to spring, I didn’t know what to do.”
“We both just froze,” said Laura Lee, embracing Luke.
Nate put his hands on Emma’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “Are you two all right?” he said. The ladies appeared bedraggled and frightened, but not injured.
“Yes, yes. Just frightened half out of our wits.”
As the men loaded the cat’s carcass onto the buckboard in preparation for the trip back to town, the ladies had to retreat to the thicket to exchange their damp garments for some suitable dry clothes. That raised Luke’s eyebrows and he mentioned it to the girl who had a claim on his heart as they rode along beside the wagon.
“You mean to tell me, Laura Lee, that you took your clothes off out here in the woods?”
“Well, no one was around, so no one could see,” she sniffed. “I don’t see that’s your business, Luke Strahan.”
“Well, I think it might be my business,” said Luke. “What would your pa have done if he’d caught you stripping down to your underwear out here, not knowing who was around? I bet he’d have tanned your hide.”
Laura Lee blushed, and for a moment Luke figured he must have touched a nerve.
“Well, you’re not my pa, so there.” She folded her arms and stared straight ahead.
So far, Nate had been silent, but Emma could see the storm clouds building. Once he was satisfied that no one had been hurt, his attention turned to what could have happened.
“We got a bigger problem,” said Nate, as they pulled into Emma’s place, “and that is you both went out there when I warned you not to. I told you to stay out of that area.”
Emma averted her eyes and blushed shamefully. She should have listened.
“Look at me, Emma.” Emma made herself obey and turned her eyes up to meet his. It was uncomfortable, subjecting herself to his disapproving gaze. “You know I’m right, don’t you?”
Emma bit her lip and nodded.
“Let’s take a walk to the barn, then. We got to put Jonesy up anyway.”
They unhitched the horse and headed for the barn out back. Nate didn’t say a word as they took care of Jonesy. Inside, Emma shivered with dread anticipation. Nate’s silence was unnerving. It would be better if he unloaded and scolded her royally for being so foolish.
Nate took her by the arm and led her into the woodshed where he sat down on a stump used for splitting wood, while she stood facing him like some recalcitrant schoolgirl.
“If that lion had landed on Laura Lee, she’d be dead. You know that? You know what they do?”
Emma shook her head.
“They go for the neck with their jaws. They got powerful jaws. Snaps the neck in an instant. The prey is dead.”
“But you shot it…” Emma started to interject.
“Dammit, woman,” said Nate, genuine anger in his voice, “I had to, but I also might have hit you or Laura Lee. It was terrible to have to take that shot.”
He put up a hand. “I don’t want to hear it. You disregarded my warning and almost got yourself or Laura Lee killed.”
There was nothing she could say. His face displayed a mix of emotions—anger because she had disobeyed his instruction, concern for her well-being, relief that she had come through it unscathed. And maybe that last one was not quite true, she realized, as Nate got up and calmly strode over to the wall. She was not going to come through this completely unscathed. There was to be a reckoning. She inhaled sharply as he took the strap off its peg and turned to face her. Now his face bore a new look, one of grim determination. It was clear he meant to punish her.
“Lift your dress, Emma. Then bend over and put your hands on the stump,” said Nate. “Let’s just get this over with.”
His expression was completely serious now. She wasn’t going to talk him out of this one, and part of her didn’t want to. She slowly raised her dress, bunching it above her waist, then awkwardly bent over until her palms rested on the stump. The posture thrust her rump out, presenting it for Nate’s attention. She flinched as she felt Nate’s hands on her hips, peeling down her drawers. The flimsy garment came to rest at her feet and she found herself bare from the small of her back to her ankles.
“You stay in that position until I’m done, Emma. You know you deserve this licking and you’re going to take it. I’m going to stripe that bare fanny of yours until I think you understand how terrified I was that the woman I love might have been killed today.”
Emma jerked her head to glance over her shoulder. Had he just said he loved her? She started to speak, then thought the better of it. Best just to try and get through this with some dignity intact.
“Emma, I wish this was going to be different. Seeing you here like this, all I want to do is take you in my arms. But you have got to learn an important lesson. When it comes to matters of your safety I won’t tolerate you behaving like a foolish schoolgirl.”
Emma heard the words and they burned her ears. She wished she were in his arms, too, instead of turned up for a strapping. She bit her lip, hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as she feared. Knowing Nate’s determination and sense of duty, however, she imagined she was in for a hot time before he absolved her of her foolishness. She only hoped the making up afterward would be worth it.
There was a whooshing sound and then a line of fire seared the flesh of her bottom. She twisted and writhed, trying to keep still and take it with at least some dignity.
Splat! The next lick took her breath away. From there it was all she could do to hold on, as one fiery stroke after another scorched her bare bottom. She gasped and shuffled her feet. It was stinging like mad. The strokes fell with steady regularity, each one causing her to flinch and suck in her breath. Ow! Ow! she breathed silently to herself.
How many would it be? Could she maintain her posture and take her well-deserved licking or would she fall to the floor, writhing and squalling like a baby? No, she decided. Instead she held on and hollowed her back, thrusting her bottom out—daring Nate to do his worst.
Splat! The strap burned. An ever-escalating heat, it seared and stung worse with each stroke. Nate knew what he was about, she decided. Her punishment was calmly deliberate, each lick placed just so. It stung ferociously, causing her eyes to water. Was she going to cry? Oh, yes, she surely was.
“Ow! Ow!” She wailed. Then she broke down and cried like a naughty well-punished little girl.
It seemed that was what Nate was waiting for because the strapping stopped. She had not counted, but she figured he had handed out more than twenty hard lashes.
“All right, Emma. It’s done. Get up, darlin’”
Emma rose and let her skirts fall. She turned and put her arms around Nate. “Oh, Nate, I’m sorry,” she said, hugging him, molding her body to his. She could feel the hardness of his erect member pressing against her, and it made a thrill shoot up her spine. Her bottom throbbed, fiery hot. It would be a while before she could sit comfortably.
He patted her back. “I couldn’t bear to lose you. That thought has been tearing me up, Emma.”
She pulled back and looked up to see a worried grimace on his face. She managed to smile through her tears. “You didn’t—and next time I won’t be so foolish.”
Nate bent to kiss her, a strong masterful kiss that practically curled her toes. When they finally broke the embrace Nate said, “I want you something awful right now. I’m coming to your bed tonight, woman, and I don’t care who knows about it.”
Emma’s heart leapt. The intensity of his desire for her made her want to melt inside. “Of course, Nate. I want you too, and I don’t care either.”
“Sounds like he’s taking care of business,” said Luke as he and Laura Lee sat on the porch of the boarding house. The cracks of the strap could be heard coming from the woodshed. Laura Lee blushed. “He’s very much in charge. Emma laid down some rules for us, but it’s the colonel who makes sure we toe the line.”
“Emma too, eh? Well, from what you did today I’d say that you need some rules—and a man to make sure you obeyed them.”
Laura Lee huffed, building up a head of steam. “Just what do you mean by that, Luke Strahan? We are not children, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, I know that, but look at what you did,” said Luke. “The colonel told you all not to go to the warm springs before they shot that cat. You went anyway. And then you undressed in the bushes? Someone could have come along.”
Laura Lee shifted uncomfortably.
“I suppose it’s your turn next in the woodshed,” he mused.
That got her ire up. “If you think I’m going to march into that woodshed and turn up to let the colonel tan me with that strap, you got another think coming,” she said with a pout and folded her arms.
“I agree,” said Luke. Laura regarded him with surprise. “I think I’ll take care of that chore myself.”
Laura squawked as Luke took her by the wrist and led her off the porch and into the parlor.
“What do you think you are doing, Luke Strahan?” she sputtered, trying to drag her heels and squirm out of his grasp.
“Just this,” said Luke. He sat on a parlor chair and toppled Laura Lee across his knee. Holding her down with one hand, he flipped up her skirts with the other.
“Don’t you dare, Luke! Let me go.” Horrified, she realized that her bottom, clad in thin drawers, was exposed to Luke’s gaze, and she blushed beet red. She wriggled and bucked, but Luke was too strong.
“I think a good spankin’ is just what you need, Laura Lee, and I’m just the man to give it to you.”
“Oh—you! Stop this!”
“Not until I’ve warmed your backside good and proper, woman. It’s what your daddy would have done.”
“You’re not my daddy! Ow!” she squealed as the first husky spank landed.
That was followed by another, then another. Luke spanked at a fast tempo, a barrage of stinging slaps spread all over the surface of her behind. Laura Lee squirmed and kicked her legs, but Luke held her fast.
“That was foolish, what you did,” he said, interspersing the lecture with sonorous spanks that sounded explosively loud in the small parlor. “If that lion had jumped on you, my future wife would have been lunch.” The smacks continued to land as he spoke.
“Ouch! You stop!” Then she stopped wriggling and craned her head around so she could see his face. “Future wife?” That one had her attention. “Why, I hate you, Luke Strahan! I’ll never marry you, you brute!” Secretly the idea thrilled her, but her pride would not let her admit it.
“No, you don’t, Laura Lee,” said a grinning Luke Strahan, “And yes, you will.”
The spanking slowed, allowing her to assess how she really did feel. He continued to swat her thinly clad fanny, but they weren’t hard swats and he frequently paused to rub. The gesture was more a statement of dominance and possessiveness than anything else. She willed herself to dislike it, but her body was responding to the treatment. The spanking stung a little, but more than anything else it was showing her Luke’s masterful side, and there was a part of her responding to it in a most un-ladylike manner. All kinds of thoughts ran through her head about the man who held her over his knee and peppered her bouncing fanny with lusty smacks.
“What’s that?” said Emma. As they approached the house, the sounds of spanks and squeals could be heard emanating from inside.
“Hmm… I think my partner is impressing on your boarder the folly of today’s little adventure.”
Emma edged around the porch and peeked in the window in time to glimpse a squirming Laura Lee, held securely over Luke’s sturdy knees, getting what seemed to be a very sound spanking right on the seat of her drawers. “Oh, my,” she said.
“Let’s give those young people their privacy, Emma.”
Emma smiled at him. “We’ll use the other entrance. Up the back stairs and into my bedroom.” Nate took her hand and the pair of conspiratorial lovers quietly made their way to the second level.
“There,” said Luke, giving Laura Lee’s bottom one last hearty smack. He grabbed her waist and propped her back up on her feet.
“Oh, you monster,” said Laura Lee, vigorously rubbing her behind through her skirt. Part of her wanted to slap him, part of her wanted to plant a big kiss right on his face.
“I aim to marry you, Miss Laura Lee. Don’t you forget that.” He tipped his hat back and smiled, then turned to exit the parlor.
“Where do you think you’re going, mister?” she said. Luke stopped and turned, surprised now. She grabbed him and did plant that kiss, right on his lips, while she allowed her body to melt into his. Then she pushed him away. A girl has to have some dignity, she decided.
“Now, get on back to town, and the next time I see you, you better have flowers and something pretty for me.”
“Yes, ma’am!” said Luke with a broad grin.
Once in her bed, after their clothes had been shed, Emma reveled in the feel of Nate’s hands as they caressed her all over. He smothered her with kisses and she swooned with desire as he ran his hand up the inside of her thigh, eventually slipping it into her womanly cleft, seeking that little nub, the one that brought her so much pleasure. By the time he had fondled it while kissing her neck, she was delirious with her need and when he mounted her, his cock slid in smoothly, all the way to the hilt. She wrapped her legs around him and pumped her pelvis, rocking her body. The bed creaked under their motion but Emma didn’t care. Their coupling grew more frantic until the wave of pleasure that had been building from down below finally overcame Emma and she writhed in climactic abandon.
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