The next four days were an eye opener for Winnie. She had never witnessed so much abundance in her life. Having seen only a threadbare existence, she marveled at the enormity and grandeur of the Circle T.
There were hundreds upon hundreds of gorgeous acres flowing with golden hay, twelve-foot stalks of corn, and beautiful carpets of grazing hills for the nourishment of the finest livestock. Stables and corrals were teeming with majestic wild, unbroken mustangs and healthy cattle. The root cellar was stocked high with carrots and radishes and onions, and potatoes, canned vegetables and bottles of wine. A large smokehouse held sides of the meatiest beef, pork, and fowl she had ever seen. Compared to her ramshackle of a home, this was a spread of shocking abundance.
Winnie discovered a new section of the ranch every day; whether she was called to help cook lunch, groom and feed the horses, oil up the saddles, help mend a fence, or milk the stable cows, she attacked each task with enthusiasm. Gone were the cotton fields as far as the eye could see. She was now a ranch hand for the most respected ranch for hundreds of miles.
She never wanted to leave.
Despite her new boss’s irritating proclivity for corporal punishment, Adam Talbert was a fine figure of a man, and Winnie found herself staring at him more and more. She found herself stealing glances at his muscled buttocks as his pocket watch chain slapped teasingly against them as he walked. She would get lost in a desire that she had experienced before, but hadn’t understood until Mama Luella had explained it to her.
The men and boys in the town of Stockdale where she grew up were mostly farmers with physiques that gave Winnie a comforting and warm shudder of throbs at her core by the time she was fifteen. Luella had been the only woman she could talk to about the way her very loins had been reacting to men. Luella had explained to her that her body was changing and it was telling her that it was time she took a husband.
“Time to what?” Winnie’s response had been, her eyes wide with shock. She still considered herself a little girl.
“Your body knows things that your head don’t understand,” the older woman told her. “Even when your head tells you that you too young to be with a man, or you ain’t married yet, your body tells you it’s time.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
“You supposed to wait ‘til you married.” Luella shook her finger at Winnie and her voice became stern.
Winnie frowned at the injustice of it all. “But men don’t wait for a wife. They be in the whorehouse in town all the time. It ain’t fair.”
Luella’s face softened. “Oh, mon petite cherie. For us, life will never be fair.”
Luella had ended most of her conversations with that sentiment, and Winnie was left to navigate through life with just the information handed to her by the only older, wiser woman in her life. Luella had stepped up to the task of raising her with her words of wisdom, and a slap on her backside with a wooden spoon once in a while. She was hard on her when Winnie made a mistake in her kitchen, or didn’t clean sufficiently, and she didn’t take excuses or manipulative puppy-dog eyes. But she really did love Winnie. She had taken the girl under her wing when Winnie was just fourteen, and Winnie realized that she was so grateful to have a woman in her life that she had taken to calling her Mama Luella. Luella had embraced it and took her new role as Winnie’s mentor very seriously.
Luella’s words rang true when it came to the involuntary reactions her body experienced when she was around Adam. She wasn’t sure why it didn’t happen around the other cowhands on the ranch, and it disturbed her that the only unavailable black man on the spread was the only one who could make her nipples strain against her shirt. If indeed her body was actually talking to her, like Mama Luella said, then hers was practically screaming for a man who she could never have. Screaming for a man who had touched her so intimately in the woodshed, and made her pulse with a desire that made her ache.
When Adam summoned her to report to one of the hands to assist in a job, she obeyed and got out of his presence as quickly as possible. She didn’t trust herself to be around him, and each time she was in close proximity to him, she drank him in with her eyes, and then forced herself to look away to keep from making a fool of herself by staring at him. She had to remember that he belonged to someone else, and she had no right to desire a man who was her superior, anyway.
Winnie asked God to help her get over her jealousy that a rich black man and a rich black woman were going to merge and produce rich black babies. She supposed in the long run, it was a good thing… but she sighed mournfully that she didn’t fit into that equation. This was Texas royalty, and a black man was on the throne about to marry his princess. She shuddered, not knowing whether she admired him or resented him. She knew she’d never have what they had, and often found herself feeling a little sorry for herself. The haves and the have-nots didn’t mix, even when the haves had her color skin.
Winnie scraped and labored for everything she owned, which wasn’t much. In the end, she would always be a black servant, and her future was to marry another black servant, and produce black servant babies.
She understood that that was the way the world worked.
So Winnie threw herself into the only other thing that captured her attention almost as much as Adam Talbert. While everyone did a little bit of everything on the ranch, she was magnetically drawn to the corral, where the mustangs were being broken and trained by the best wranglers in the territory. There was nothing more regal than a wild mustang, and Winnie was mesmerized by the horses that were rounded up from the plains and held in a circle of sleek, muscly, high-tensioned beauty. She found herself straddling the corral fence whenever she had finished a chore, heading there almost on instinct when she was told to go in the opposite direction for her next job, and eventually shooed away.
She knew now why Adam had made fun of her horse’s name. The name Thunder belonged to one of these animals. The strong, lustrous, powerful, lightning fast, and proud. Her Thunder was just a little thing that couldn’t beat a dog in a race, but Winnie loved her for getting her safely to the Circle T.
On Wednesday afternoon, Winnie sat upon the corral fence as she watched a couple of Negro hands prepare to break a stallion named Levi that had been stubborn for way too long. She had come to know the two hands by Ray and Chester. Ray held the horse by its halter, as Chester, a huge cowhand particularly good at breaking by virtue of his massive weight, descended upon its back from the rail. Winnie watched in astonishment as the beautiful, shiny dark brown stallion realized it had been violated, and with wild eyes began a bucking dance that landed Chester on his rear end in a cloud of dust as though he had only weighed a pound.
Winnie cheered and laughed from her seated position on the rail and teased Chester as he hobbled off holding his hip.
Ray frowned at the mocking girl on the fence as he recaptured the angry horse. “Looks like somebody needs a lesson in respect,” he said.
“Yeah? Who’s gonna teach it to me?” Winnie shot back with a grin.
“Ain’t you got work to do, little girl?”
“I’m just takin a rest for a minute,” she shot back defensively. “Say, what’s that horse’s name, anyway? Ain’t that Levi? Manuel told me about him. Y’all been workin’ on that horse for days. Ain’t you figured out how to break him yet?” she bantered playfully. “Looks like that horse got you trained.”
“Oh, I suppose you could do better?” Ray teased.
“Can’t do no worse,” she chuckled.
Chester limped over to her and shot a look of incredulity at Ray. “Did I hear right? Was that a challenge?”
“I was countin,” Winnie said. “You only stayed on for six seconds. I bet I can stay on longer than six seconds,” she teased. “Shoot, I bet my grandmama could stay on for longer than six seconds.”
“Well, I’d like to see that,” Chester said as he lifted himself up on the railing next to her.
Ray laughed. “If the boss caught us putting you on this horse, he’d gut us like a couple of fish.”
“He don’t have to know,” she said. “Mister Adam is in town with Manuel getting a couple of horses shod, and Mister Zach is on the other side of the ranch mending a fence.”
Ray and Chester glanced at each other cautiously.
“C’mon, it’ll only take seven seconds to beat your scrawny six seconds.”
Oh, that did it!
“So you want to bet with the big boys, little girl? Well, we’re just gonna have to teach you a lesson,” Ray said. “A bragging woman can squawk like a crow, but can’t get her tail in the cornfield.”
“Oh, them’s fightin’ words.” Winnie leveled a gaze filled with a challenging bravado.
“Come on over here and take your punishment,” he laughed.
Winnie gleefully jumped off the fence and walked boldly over to Ray where he held the skittish animal by the bridle as it angrily chewed on a bit that infuriated him even more than sudden weight on his back.
“You don’t mount the usual way,” Ray said. “You get up on the fence above him and come down from the top.”
Winnie nodded, climbed up on the fence, and swung her legs over the side as Ray maneuvered the snorting and angry animal up against the railing.
“As soon as you feel your butt hit the saddle, you squeeze them knees as hard as you can, and take one hand and grab a hold o’ that horn. In the other hand you hold his reins tight with a big ol’ hunk of his mane in your fist.”
Winnie’s heart raced with excitement. She was actually going to do this.
Ray held the animal still as it writhed and shook its head in spasms of angry tension. “Don’t fight his bucks. You move like he moves. You relax your body, but keep your neck and your legs as stiff as you can. When he gets his thrust going steady-like, you gonna need to let go and swing your arm. Only let go of the horn, never let go of the reins. That bit in his mouth is what controls him. Not the horn. You hear me?”
She gripped the railing tight behind her with both hands, and leaned into the waiting, adrenaline-filled animal in a launching position. Before she had time to change her mind, her butt hit the saddle. She struggled to find the stirrups with her feet but they flopped all over as Levi took off in a fit of bouncing rage, practically knocking Ray off his feet.
Suddenly Winnie couldn’t remember anything Ray had told her, and she stiffened up and dropped the reins. She flew into the air, and came slamming down on the saddle over and over again until her thighs were aching and her tailbone had taken enough punishment to swear the average person off of horses for life. She tried desperately to squeeze her knees, but couldn’t get a good grip. Finally she realized she had lost what little control she had, and she felt herself once again flying through the air.
She landed with a thud on her backside in a cloud of dust.
She heard footsteps coming at her at a run. One person passed her and retrieved the still bucking horse, while the other lifted her up by her shoulders. “You okay, Miss Cookie?”
Winnie caught her breath and looked in the concerned face of Chester. It had been the most exhilarating experience of her life. “I wanna do it again!”
“Ray, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Adam was on his horse as he emerged from around the side of the barn. He cantered over to the corral and dismounted before his horse had stopped moving. Winnie rolled over onto her knees and stood up with Chester’s assistance, her mouth open, and her eyes just as wide.
She was frozen in that position as she watched Adam stalk over to the corral. “Winnie, you do anything like that again, and I’ll make sure you don’t sit down for a week, you understand me?”
“But Mister Adam, I know I can…”
“I know you can break your fool neck!” He eyed Chester and Ray. “Whose stupid idea was this anyway?” Adam unlatched the gate and angrily stalked over to the three of them.
Ray, Chester, and Winnie all glanced at each other as they wondered who among them would fall on the sword for the other two. They were all guilty.
“It was mine,” Winnie mumbled. “I wanted to see if’n I could do seven seconds.”
“This ain’t no game, and that horse ain’t no toy.” He looked at Ray and Chester. “And you two should know better.”
“Mister Adam, you ain’t have a problem when Manuel was on Levi last week, and he’s just a boy,” Ray piped up.
If looks could melt a man, Ray would have been reduced to a puddle with a Stetson.
“Y’all have work to do. You gonna break this horse, I suggest you get to it before you choke on your damn foot.” His eyes darkened and his voice became gravelly. “And let me be clear. The next man that helps Cookie get on the back of a horse that ain’t broke is fired. I might not be able to find a trail cook in the next few days, but I can damn well replace a cowhand in a heartbeat.”
He turned to Winnie. “And you! Come with me.” He walked out of the corral, mounted his horse, and headed for the barn.
Winnie felt a hand on her shoulder and she looked up at Chester, who bent down to whisper in her ear, “You did six seconds, sweetheart.”
Winnie grinned at him and ran after Adam.
When Adam dismounted, he handed his horse off to Manuel and walked into the house, not even looking back to see if Winnie was behind him. She had run to keep up, heart pounding, caught in between fear and anger as she often found herself when dealing with the boss.
He turned and looked at Winnie, expecting to see shame and repentance. What he saw, again, was the same righteous indignation and unapologetic demeanor that he experienced when he whipped her for beating on Miss Beatrice.
“I told you when I hired you that you were to stay away from the mustangs, didn’t I?”
“Yes, sir,” she mumbled.
“Yes, sir!” She shouted it out like a cadet at West Point.
“And you deliberately disobeyed me, didn’t you?”
“Mister Adam, I just wanted to…”
“I know what you just wanted to do. You don’t get to do what you want to do around here. You get to do what I tell you to do. Do you have any idea what could have happened if you were trampled, or if your fall had been head first? Me and the boys would be digging your grave right now!”
“And you’d have to go lookin’ for another cook for the drive,” she shot back angrily. “Lord knows I wouldn’t want my dyin’ to put you out,” she said under her breath.
Adam let the silence linger for a moment in a thick cloud of resentment. “Excuse me?”
She had just accused him of not wanting her to die because it would inconvenience him. Yet… admitting that he cared about her would have revealed something that he wasn’t ready to admit, especially to himself. He turned his head dramatically to give her better access to his ear as he glared at her.
She dropped her head and the bravado dissipated into thin air. “N… nothin’.”
“You want to sass me again?”
“Now let’s just write that in stone, shall we?”
“What?” Winnie wasn’t sure what he meant.
Adam grabbed a kitchen chair and sat down. “Get over my knee, right now,” he demanded.
Winnie took a step back and moved her hands to her bottom. “No!” It was more instinct than disobedience. She assumed she’d be punished, but she thought it would come in the form of having to spend the rest of the day mucking stalls, or scrubbing out the boys’ long underwear on the washboard. She never thought he’d whup her again. Not so soon, anyway. But he could do whatever he wanted to do. He was the boss.
“Winnie, do not make me come after you.”
“But Mister Adam, I thought… I thought…”
“You thought I was going to be gone all day, and you could get away with it.”
“No, I… well, yes, sir, but I thought maybe…”
“You didn’t think I’d warm your hide? Good. Maybe next time I tell you to do something, you’ll obey me. Now let’s get this over with.”
She realized he hadn’t taken his belt off or produced that razor strap, so it was definitely just a spanking. She could handle this. She took a deep breath, and took the few steps over to stand at Adam’s lap.
“Britches come down,” he said.
From where she stood she could see out the back door and she glanced around to see if anyone was coming toward the main house. The door was open, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to control the sound of her cries from reaching the far corners of the bunkhouses and the mess room, all four corrals, and the outhouses.
Angrily, she unbuttoned her britches and pushed them down around her knees. Adam grabbed her by the arm and roughly guided her down as his thigh dug into her belly. He immediately opened the back of her drawers to expose the two soft brown mounds of quivering flesh, and placed the palm of his hand on his target.
“Yeah, I’d be put out if I lost another cook,” Adam whispered as he held her down. “But if I had to bury you, I’d probably cry like a goddamn cat caught in a bear trap. And so help me, if you ever tell anybody I said that, I’ll deny it, and then I’ll whup your ass again. You hear me?”
“Yes, sir.” Winnie’s anger went away, and her heart swelled. She would have smiled had that not been the moment his hand rose and swung down, making a stinging impression on her bottom.
Winnie tightened her lips to muffle the grunts of pain with each blow as her bottom began to sting like the dickens. After about the sixth slap, she heard the back door open, and recognizable heavy footsteps strolled in.
“Didn’t you just whup her a few days ago?” Zach’s voice reached her ears.
“She doesn’t seem to understand the way things are done around here.” Adam’s voice had become gravelly. “She and me are just gettin’ a few things straight.” He punctuated every other word with a resounding smack to her hind cheeks as Winnie squirmed and tried to roll herself off of his lap.
“Well, don’t let me interrupt, I’m just getting a cup of coffee.”
Winnie attempted to appeal to her other boss, desperate for an ally in her quest for clemency. “Mister Zach, please, make him stop! I won’t disobey no more. I swear! Please!”
“What she do, anyway?” Zach asked.
“I told her to stay away from the mustangs. Come back to find her ridin’ one!”
Zach watched the spanking for a few more seconds before he stepped over to Winnie’s face. She only had enough strength to keep her head down. He knelt down on one knee to get closer to her. “No shit?” he said with a bit of a turned-up corner to his mouth. “How’d you do?” he asked.
Adam stopped spanking as he listened to his brother’s ridiculous consultation with the girl upended over his knee. He froze with his hand in the air so that he, too, could hear Winnie’s answer.
Winnie lifted her face, and took as deep a breath as she could so that she could answer the boss’s question. “Six seconds on Levi,” she managed to blurt between breaths.
“Not bad for a first time,” he said, lifting his gaze to meet his brother’s with a twinkle in his eye.
Adam rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Oh, for the love of…” He reached for Winnie’s shoulders and lifted her into a standing position. “Get the hell out of here. Go to the barn and help Manuel curry the cattle horses.”
She gratefully grabbed her britches and pulled them over her hips. “Yes, sir,” she whimpered. She held the top of her pants and turned, running out of there as though she were afraid that he’d change his mind at any moment.
“And you stay away from them mustangs, you hear me?” he called after her as the outer kitchen door closed with a bang.
Zach sat down at the kitchen table and smiled knowingly at his brother. Adam turned his chair back around to face the table when he caught the look on Zach’s face. “What the hell is the matter with you?”
“When Manuel was caught ridin’ Levi last week, you didn’t whup him.”
“That’s different. He’s a boy.”
“So if he got hurt or killed, it wouldn’t bother you so much?”
“Don’t you start that twisted bullshit with me, Zach. You know damn well why I had to…”
Zach laughed. “Why don’t you just admit it?”
“Admit what?” He slapped the table and his hazel eyes flashed silver.
“That you’re sweet on that little girl.”
Adam froze. “Don’t be ridiculous. And so help me, you go around repeatin’ that shit and I’ll beat the hell outta you! The last thing I need is everyone around here thinkin’ that Cookie means something to me.”
Zach laughed. “You couldn’t beat the hell outta me on your best day. But I’ll tell you what… you tell me the truth, and I’ll keep it between us. But if you lie to me, I’ll tell everyone that you’re in love with her.”
Adam fumed as though they were eight and ten years old again. “I already told you the truth, dammit. Don’t you think I got better sense than that? She’s disobedient, she’s sassy, and she can be ornery enough to beat up your girl or maybe even break your nose.”
“You gonna tell me the truth or not?”
“Did I ever tell you how much of a pain in the ass you are?”
“Many times. Now tell me the truth.”
Adam leaned back against the chair and crossed his muscled arms over his chest as he regarded Zach with battle fatigue. He opened his mouth and then immediately shut it before something stupid came out. Zach had been teasing him with his famous blackmailing no-way-out offer since they were kids, and Adam had yet to find a way out after all these years. The truth was that in just the last few days he had done nothing but think about the pretty little vagabond he had picked up in town and given the most important job on the most important trail drive in the history of the Circle T.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll admit that when I saw her fly off that horse just now, my heart almost jumped out of my damn throat.”
The playfulness on Zach’s face melted away as he stared into the hazel eyes of the Talbert gene pool. “And?”
“And… and I ain’t never met anybody like her. She’s brave. A little too brave.”
“And I just wanna keep her safe. She could’a got killed tryin’ to break that horse.”
“There, now. Was that so hard?”
“You protect your woman, Adam. You work your ranch hands. You can’t have it both ways. You, little brother, have to decide what she is.”
“She’s just an employee,” Adam said sternly as though he were desperate to convince not only Zach, but himself.
Then, in a moment, the hard lines on Zach’s face smoothed out and he began to chuckle as if something funny had just occurred to him. “Can you imagine what everyone would say if the little drifter you picked up off the street became the boss’s wife?” Zach flung his head back and laughed heartily for a few seconds until he realized that Adam wasn’t laughing with him. He quieted down and looked at Adam for some semblance of humor in his eyes. Adam remained stoic and still as the joke flew over his head. “I guess you didn’t think that was funny,” Zach said.
Adam shook his head. There was a hint of a smile beneath his irritation. “Dammit, Zach, the older you get, the crazier you talk. Ranch hands marry ranch hands,” he said. “I’m gonna marry Miss Beatrice and take over the deed to the sawmill someday. It’s just the way it is.”
Zach peeked at his brother from under his bushy eyebrows. “Yeah, Cookie will do just fine without you. There are twenty-five men workin’ on this spread who have been looking at her like she was an apple pie coolin’ on the windowsill. I seen the way the boys have been looking at her backside in those tight britches when she walks by.”
“Who? Who’s looking at her backside?” Adam demanded, the scar over his brow twitching furiously.
“What do you care? Ranch hands marry ranch hands, remember? You’ll be fine with Miss Beatrice, where you belong.”
Zach moved his chair back, scraping it noisily on the floor, and with a knowing smile on his lips, walked out the back door.
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