“Boss! They’re going to run!” Davey yelled as he rode into camp. The wind had been picking up all afternoon and now, in the evening twilight, the recent flashes of lightning had unsettled the beeves to the point of stampeding. Wheeling his horse, Davey cantered back to the herd to help the other drovers try to keep the steers calm.
“Everyone in the saddle!” Mr. Jordan called. He turned back to look over his shoulder at Jessica as he strode away toward the remuda. “Jessica, you get into the wagon with Billy and stay out of the way!”
“But I want to help,” she protested, leaping up as Johnny got to his feet next to her.
“No!” Mr. Jordan’s order was uncompromising and stern.
“Listen to him, Jessie,” Johnny whispered in her ear, planting a kiss on her cheek. He tipped his hat to her, winked, and hurried to his horse.
Chuck was riding with his arm still bandaged up and even Monty, the old cook, was headed toward the horses, so she knew they needed all the hands out there that they could get, to save the herd. I’m not staying here! she thought. As quickly as she could, she saddled up the nearest horse and galloped out to the herd. So far, they hadn’t stampeded, but they were restless, milling around and bellowing, and she knew that if thunder crashed again, that would be it. She’d never seen a stampede before, but she’d heard the drovers all talking about how to stop one. And how hard could it be, really? From what she’d heard, it was just a matter of getting in front of them, yelling and waving your hat, and milling them, making them turn back. It certainly didn’t sound very hard.
She could see the other drovers riding back and forth around the herd, she could hear the ones closest to her singing softly, trying to keep them calm. Mr. Jordan was on the far side of the herd and Johnny was at the back. Knowing she was defying orders by being out here, she deliberately kept out of sight, riding at the side of the herd where she wouldn’t be seen by either of them.
The flash of lightning illuminated the ground all around her and she could see the steers quivering in fear. The crash of thunder that followed shook the ground and echoed on and on… then she realized that it wasn’t the thunder she heard at all, but the pounding hooves of the stampeding beeves.
Spurring her horse, she galloped alongside them, trying to get in front of them, but it was impossible. They weren’t running in an orderly line—they were fanning out into a wide front, they were turning, and they were headed straight for her. Waving her arms and shouting, Jessica tried to get them to turn back but she may as well have been invisible—the steers were running blindly, in a panic. She couldn’t see any of the drovers now, and she was frightened.
I need to get out of the way! Twisting in her saddle to look around, she could see that she was surrounded by stampeding steers and there was no escape. Her heart was in her throat as she took in the hundreds of Texas Longhorns bearing down on her, getting closer and closer.
I’m going to die. Tonight, right here in the wilderness, I’m going to get trampled to death by runaway beeves. The realization came as a shock, and she screamed. Reliving her childhood as her life flashed before her eyes, her mind conjured up the image of Johnny. That strong, handsome young man who had rescued her, who had been her strength during the darkest moments of her life… that image stayed with her.
Spurring her horse, she tried desperately to outrun the advancing steers, but the front was just too wide and it was moving too quickly. There was nowhere for them to go—the steers were headed straight for them.
“Jessica!” She heard Johnny yell over the roar of the pounding hooves and she stood up in the saddle to see where he was. He’s too far, he’ll never make it! she thought desperately. Woody was racing urgently toward her from the other direction, trying his best to reach her, and Mr. Jordan was yelling orders at his men to head the cattle off the other way, trying to buy Johnny a few more seconds to get to her. But it was futile. The cattle were out of control and the noise was deafening. The horns clinking together sounded like cymbals and the pounding hooves like drums—the prairie version of the symphony orchestra she’d enjoyed visiting in Boston in her past life.
Suddenly her horse stumbled and went down on one knee. Panic overwhelmed her as she clutched desperately at the saddle horn and yanked on the reins. She fell off anyway, flying over his head in a spectacular somersault to land hard on the ground just in front of him. The breath whooshed out of her and she lay winded, stunned, gasping for breath. In a second, the horse was up and galloping again, leaving Jessica lying in the dust, at the mercy of the herd of frenzied steers.
“Johnny!” she screamed, terror making her voice shrill. With great effort she got to her feet, her body trembling, her forehead drenched with sweat. She could feel the ground rumbling beneath her feet, being shaken by the fast-approaching steers.
“Jessica!” She heard Johnny’s voice over the thudding of the hooves, that deep baritone rumble resonating through her, snapping her out of her panic. And behind him was another drover, waving his hat and yelling, trying to mill the herd, to regain control. Further over, galloping along the front from the other direction was Woody, doing the same. But it wasn’t working—the steers weren’t slowing. They were still headed directly for her, for them, and they were still out of control.
Johnny’s horse loomed closer and closer and she reached out for him. Without even breaking stride, he leaned out of the saddle and swung her up behind him, galloping at an angle in front of the herd. Wrapping her arms tightly around him, she pressed her body against his hard back, comforted by his warmth and awed by the muscles she could feel rippling under his shirt. Relieved now that she was safe, she let out the breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding and snuggled up closer against Johnny.
It took several more long minutes before the drovers finally got the herd under control, and as the steers milled, still bellowing but calmer, Davey rode up next to them.
“The boss is not happy with you, Miss Jessica,” he drawled. “But I’m glad you’re both okay.” Then he turned to Johnny. “As close as I can figure it, we’re about three miles southwest of camp. Take them back slowly; it’ll be easier to do it now than in the morning.” Tipping his hat to them both, he rode off to relay Mr. Jordan’s instructions to the other drovers.
Once the herd was on the move and they had fallen into position as swing riders, Johnny swiveled around in his saddle to look at her. “What the hell did you have to go and do that for?” he asked her angrily. “What were you thinking? There’s going to be hell to pay when we get back to camp; you know that, don’t you? Why didn’t you just stay in the wagon like you were told? We’ll probably both be fired now.”
“I wanted to help.” Jessica’s voice was small, but there was unmistakable defiance in it. “I thought I’d be needed. Even Chuck and Monty went out. I’m a drover now too; it felt right that I should be helping.”
“But you don’t have the experience—you were just about killed!” Johnny snarled. “Me and Woody both could have been killed trying to rescue you! Orders are given for a reason. You need to start obeying them.”
They continued riding in silence; the steers were easy to manage now that they’d exhausted themselves and they walked placidly back to camp with Johnny having to do very little to keep them headed in the right direction.
“Do you really think we’ll be fired?”
Without turning around, Johnny answered her, his tone hard and cold. “You probably will be. And if you go, I’ll be going with you. Someone needs to take care of you and I promised you I’d do it.”
“You don’t need to take care of me. I don’t need you.” The instant the words were out of her mouth she regretted them, but she couldn’t take them back. The truth was, she did need Johnny, and she knew it. Maybe she could make out just fine on her own, maybe she wouldn’t. But she wanted to be with Johnny. She’d come to depend on his quiet strength, his constant companionship, and she liked the way he took care of her. It wasn’t an accident that his face was the one that flashed into her mind as she waited to be trampled to death by the herd of stampeding steers. His face was there because she loved him.
Reining his horse to a halt, Johnny slid her down off the horse, only to promptly haul her back up again, in front of him this time. And before she was even properly across his saddle, she knew what was about to happen. He’d had her belly-down across his horse once before, and the experience that had followed hadn’t been pleasant. She had no doubt that this one wouldn’t be any nicer.
Smack! The flat of Johnny’s hand landed hard on her seat, and she yelped. This was definitely worse than last time, much worse. Last time she’d been upended like this, the layers of skirts and petticoats she’d been wearing had afforded her some protection from Johnny’s heavy hand, but the man’s pants she was wearing didn’t absorb very much of the stinging impact at all. Smack! Smack! Smack! Johnny’s big hand fell hard and fast, his fingers spread out to cover most of her bottom with each blow.
Jessica was debating in her mind whether or not the embarrassment was worse than the pain when Johnny landed an extra-hard swat down low, in the juncture where her bottom met her thighs. She buried her face in Johnny’s pants leg to stifle her cry of pain, but the debate raging inside her head was solved; the pain was worse.
“You’re hurting me! Please stop!” she begged, wrapping her fingers tightly around Johnny’s ankle.
“Do you actually think that’s all you deserve?”
“No,” Jessica admitted. “But it really hurts. I’m sorry!”
“It’s meant to hurt,” Johnny snarled, smacking the tops of her thighs again. “You’re lucky I’m just using my hand. If there were any trees around I’d be cutting a switch to wear out on your backside.” He punctuated that statement with two more hard slaps on each cheek.
He stopped spanking and held her securely as he spurred his horse into a canter to head a runaway steer back into the herd, but the reprieve was short-lived. It took less than a minute for Johnny to herd the steer back to the main mob, then he slowed his horse down and continued his task of making Jessica sorry for disobeying orders, landing another hard swat to her thighs. He took up a steady rhythm, spanking her in time with the horse’s strides, alternating between her bottom, her thighs, and the juncture between them.
Clinging frantically to Johnny’s legs, Jessica bit her lip to fight the urge to cry out. The last thing she wanted to do was draw attention to herself; she didn’t want all the men to see her being spanked like a naughty child again. Twilight had deepened, but it wasn’t dark yet, and she had no doubt that many of them would be close enough to see what was happening, if they chose to look. She was trying not to kick or struggle too much for fear of spooking the horse, but her legs were kicking of their own accord, spreading wide as well as up and down, flailing around.
Smack! Johnny landed a swat right up high on the inside of her sensitive thigh, one of his fingers brushing against the crotch of her pants. Jessica gasped in both pain and shock. Surely spanking her right there, so close to her intimate lady parts, was crossing a line? She was outraged! Scandalized!
“You stop that right now, Johnny Truman!” she ordered in a quaking voice. “You’ve punished me enough!”
Johnny just smacked her again, in exactly the same spot. “I’ll decide when you’ve been punished enough.”
Squeezing her legs closed to prevent any further assault in that area, she dug her fingers into his ankle and concentrated on keeping her legs still, as Johnny kept up the unrelenting rhythm of fiery swats.
When they heard the sound of hooves cantering up behind them, Johnny stopped spanking her and reined his horse up, lowering Jessica to the ground. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself to face the wrath of Mr. Jordan as best she could.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Mr. Jordan yelled down at her from his horse. “You were told to stay in the wagon! When I give an order, it’s given for a reason.” He glowered fiercely at her from under his hat and she wanted the ground to open up and swallow her whole. Instead, she forced herself to hold her head high and look at the furious, stern trail boss as she answered his question.
“I was only trying to help. It’s what you pay me for.”
“I pay you to follow my orders! Nothing else!” He’d stopped yelling, but his voice was still raised enough for her to be intimidated. “Not only did you just about get yourself killed, you endangered the lives of some good men who had to rescue you. And you ruined a good horse. The horse you were riding got gored; I had to put him down. If you’d just listened and stayed in the wagon like you’d been told, none of that would have happened. When we get back to camp I’ll pay you off—you can leave in the morning.”
“No!” Jessica protested. “Please, Mr. Jordan, I know I was wrong, but please give me another chance. If you fire me, Johnny will leave too—he’s got it in his head that he needs to take care of me. Please don’t make him suffer for my mistake. Please, sir, let me stay with the drive. Punish me in some other way. I’ll accept whatever punishment you give me. Dock my pay… anything… just please let me stay.”
“So you want to stay with a bunch of filthy, stinking cattle men?” Mr. Jordan asked, using the same words Jessica had used when she’d first been offered employment on the trail.
“Yes, sir. Please,” she begged, looking up at him.
Mr. Jordan scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Is she right, Johnny?” he asked. “If I fire her, will you be leaving too?”
Johnny nodded. “Yes, sir. I promised to take care of her. You can’t just abandon a woman in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest town. She wouldn’t last a day. You know that as well as I do.”
Inwardly, Jessica grinned, although there was no sign of that on her face. She knew Mr. Jordan well enough to know that he was a man of honor—now that Johnny had pointed out the lack of chivalry in his decision, she knew he would change his mind. She wouldn’t be fired.
Mr. Jordan sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Okay then, Miss Jessica, you can stay. But this isn’t over, and don’t you be thinking that it is. I’ll be taking a razor strop to your bare backside once we’re back in camp. If you’d rather me pay you off instead, you let me know.” Whirling his horse, he cantered away, leaving Jessica standing in a cloud of dust.
Johnny extended his hand and reached down, swinging her up behind him on the horse. She inhaled sharply as her bottom came into contact with the horse, then grimaced as she remembered what awaited her back at camp. She knew from experience that Mr. Jordan packed a powerful wallop—he’d already made short work of reducing her to a sobbing mess using just his hand over her skirts. How much more would a razor strop on her bare behind hurt? She didn’t want to find out.
Wrapping her arms around Johnny, she inhaled the scent of him, then pressed her cheek against his back. “Maybe I should just let him fire me,” she murmured into his shirt as the horse broke into a trot. “You need to stay on though—this is your opportunity for regular work. Don’t give up your life for me.”
Johnny swiveled around to look at her. “Do you want me to spank you all the way back? I promised to take care of you. I don’t go back on my promises.”
“But I’m scared, Johnny. A razor strop is going to hurt.”
“It will hurt a hell of a lot less than getting trampled to death by steers,” Johnny pointed out. “It’s only a walloping. No one’s ever died from a walloping before.”
“I might be the first,” Jessica sulked.
“You might,” Johnny agreed. “Somehow I doubt it though. Mr. Jordan isn’t going to beat you to death.”
As they neared camp, Jessica started to tremble. She was truly frightened of the fate that awaited her. She was no stranger to a strap—she’d felt it plenty when she was growing up—but her father’s strap was a lot smaller than a razor strop, and her father was a lot smaller than Mr. Jordan. And, more important, her father had loved her, and hadn’t wanted to actually hurt her. The same could not be said for Mr. Jordan. Mr. Jordan was a fair man, and she knew he could be kind, but he was tough as nails and very hard. He was furious with her, and he wouldn’t go easy on her just because she shed a few tears.
Johnny could feel Jessica’s fear. She was pressed up against him so tightly that he could feel her heart beating in her chest; he could feel her trembling. The poor girl was shaking so much, he was half afraid she was going to fall off the horse. It wasn’t all fear of the fate that awaited her back at camp either; he knew that the bad scare she’d had when she’d fallen off her horse in front of the stampede hadn’t helped matters. Had she been hurt when she’d fallen off? He’d been so intent on rescuing her and stopping the herd that he hadn’t even thought to ask.
“Did you get hurt when you got thrown?” he asked, without turning around.
“No. Just bruises.”
“Good. You’re going to be okay, you know,” he told her gently, wanting to reassure her. He wished she hadn’t disobeyed. More than anything, he wished she had followed orders and remained in the wagon. Oh, he was well aware that she was only trying to help, and he admired her for that, but her defiance wasn’t going to remain unpunished. Not when her inexperience had put her in such grave danger. He just wished Mr. Jordan wasn’t the one who was going to punish her. Mr. Jordan was tough—Johnny had seen him knock a man down with just one punch. He was a big man, and Jessica was so small. Just as it was her vulnerability that had spurred him to want to protect her after tragedy struck their wagon train, it was her vulnerability that made him want to protect her now. But what could he do?
After unsaddling his horse, Johnny put his arm around Jessica’s waist and pulled her close to walk with her into camp. He knew how scared she’d been out there in the stampede, and he knew she was afraid of Mr. Jordan, and he wanted to comfort her. Her trembling had eased, but she was still tense beneath his hands.
They had the herd bedded down for the night and the night riders were circling, keeping them calm. After their stampede, it was unlikely they would have any more problems tonight—the steers were too tired to run again.
“Come to the supply wagon,” Mr. Jordan ordered as they approached, his voice hard, his face stern and unyielding. “I told you what was going to happen. You will learn to obey my orders. Are you going to accept your punishment or would you rather I pay you off now?”
Johnny squeezed Jessica’s shoulders. She was trying to be brave, but he could tell she was afraid. He watched as she took a deep breath and raised her chin.
“I will accept whatever punishment you give me.”
Johnny looked around the camp as darkness encroached. The supply wagon was right on the edge, and the men had obviously been given orders to remain by the fire, as they were all hunkered down talking quietly and playing poker. He was relieved. Jessica would have some modicum of privacy at least, although they weren’t far enough away for her cries to go unheard. And she would cry—Johnny was sure of that. No matter how hard she fought it, the razor strop would bring her to sobbing and wailing, that was certain.
Hanging a lantern on a hook on the back of the wagon, Mr. Jordan leaned inside and took the razor strop down off the wall. “Take down your britches and bend over the back of the wagon,” he ordered gruffly.
Her eyes glistened with tears already but her fingers fumbled with the buttons at her small waist. Johnny’s heart constricted with pain, watching her. And surprisingly, he was jealous. Jessica was his girl—his responsibility. He couldn’t stand back and let another man punish her. He stepped forward.
“Let me do it. You’ll be too hard on her—you don’t love her like I do.”
Mr. Jordan glared at him for a moment, then sighed and handed the strop over. “Fine. But if you’re not hard enough on her, I’ll do it again myself.” Jessica had wrestled her pants down to her thighs and had bent her body forward to rest her forearms on the back of the wagon when Mr. Jordan leaned down and touched her shoulder. “When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed.”
“Yes, sir,” she stammered as he strode back to his men.
In the glowing light of the lantern, Johnny stared at her naked behind. She was stunning—her copper locks trailed down her back, accentuating her slim shoulders. Her waist was slender and her bottom was shapely. Her legs were parted slightly and he could just make out the tuft of curls nestled between her thighs. His breathing changed. His cock was straining at his pants, begging to be let out. He wanted to ravish her, not punish her. He wanted to sink his cock into the dewy wetness of her and make her scream in delight, not scream with pain.
Her pale skin was smudged with pink splotches and he could see the outline of his fingers in several places. He knew she was already sore. She hadn’t been punished enough though; Johnny had been intending to spank her all the way back to camp. He’d only stopped because of the walloping Mr. Jordan had promised; he didn’t want to make it any worse for her than it had to be.
Steeling himself, Johnny raised the heavy leather strop high and brought it down hard across the crest of her buttocks. She was clinging to the wagon so tightly her knuckles were turning white, but it didn’t help. When the strop landed, leaving a bright red stripe in its wake, she arched her back and screamed, a long, drawn-out wail that echoed across the plains.
Johnny put the strop down. He couldn’t listen to that noise the whole time. It made him feel too guilty. Besides, the drovers all knew what was happening, but they didn’t need to hear the consequences of it. Untying the bandanna at his throat, Johnny pulled it free and folded it over and over, into a pad.
“Here, bite on this. It will help.” He placed the cloth between her lips, holding it until she bit down, pinning it securely between her teeth. “Good girl.” He traced a circle on her back with his fingers, trailing his fingertips down her spine to the crease of her buttocks, inhaling sharply as the pads of his fingers brushed against the heat of her scorched skin. Grimacing, he raised the strop again and brought it down repeatedly, relentlessly, crisscrossing her bottom with welts. He lashed her from the top of her buttocks all the way down to mid-thigh then back up again, forcing himself to continue the punishment, wanting to throw the strop down and take Jessica in his arms each time her body jarred in response to the blows he was dishing out. Despite the makeshift gag, small squeaks kept escaping her lips and her body had gone limp, hanging over the back of the wagon like a rag doll.
Steeling himself for the last blow, Johnny raised the strop one final time and brought it down as hard as he could, on an angle across the roundest part of her buttocks. He didn’t want to give Mr. Jordan any reason to repeat this punishment—he had to make this final stroke count. Although Mr. Jordan was over by the fire with his men, Johnny knew he was watching.
This time, the cloth clenched between her teeth wasn’t enough to stifle her screams and as her entire body went rigid with pain, Johnny threw the strop down and took her in his arms. He held her tightly as she collapsed against him, sobbing so hard he thought her heart would break.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered in her ear, “but I couldn’t let him punish you.”
Twining his fingers in her hair, he massaged the nape of her neck while he held her tightly with his other hand, pressing her in against his chest. Bending forward, he kissed her forehead tenderly as she sobbed into his shirt, her body shaking.
“Shhhhh,” he murmured. “It’s all over, you’re okay now.”
Gradually, he felt her relax against him, her sobs easing, and her legs stopped trembling. Still holding her close to his chest, he kissed her forehead again, then he shook out his wet bandanna that she’d been biting on and used it to wipe the tears from her face.
“It’s all right now,” Johnny whispered again.
Jessica’s sobs had eased to sniffles when Mr. Jordan strode over.
“Here comes the boss,” Johnny whispered. “Pull your pants back up.” Gently, he eased her drawers back up and fastened them quickly. Gripping the waistband of the heavy pants, he pulled them up over her hot, swollen bottom. The rough material chafed and she hissed in pain. He winced on her behalf, a stab of guilt slicing through him. He’d been hard on her, and he knew it. Would Mr. Jordan actually have been any harder on her that what he had been? And if not, why had he insisted on punishing her himself? Why hadn’t he just let the boss handle it? He knew the answer to that question though, without even having to think: Jessica was his.
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