Authors: Peggy Ann Craig
Adjacent to the camp, a lone figure stood in the shadows. Wade tilted his head to get a better look at Chuck Rhodes. Years of experience told him the man would not enter the camp perimeters. It wasn’t because he wasn’t welcome. Hell, on cold nights like this Wade would welcome a grizzly bear by the fire. No, it was simply the man himself that kept him apart from the group.
George, one of the older ranch hands broke out singing and drew Wade’s attention away from the old man. As voices went, Wade didn’t have a whole lot to compare, but he sure did enjoy the old cowboy’s baritone voice as he sounded out old campfire songs passed down from generations.
The boy next to him shuddered and tried to draw his blankets closer to warm himself. Wade put down his coffee mug and grabbed his slick to drape over the boy’s shoulders. He looked up in surprise and Wade gave him a friendly wink before getting himself comfortable on his bed once more. The night was exceptionally cold and he didn’t doubt sleeping would be rough, but he carried a lot more meat on his body than the boy.
* * *
Anna gave a violent shiver. She was utterly freezing. Her bedroll did little to protect her from the elements. She had slept beneath the stars many times before, but never in such cold weather. Drawing the slick around her shoulders, she glanced over at the man next to her. His back was to her and, by the sound of his breathing, was asleep. As was the rest of the men in the camp.
A twig snapped from somewhere near the horses and she glanced up to see Chuck Rhodes appear in the clearing. He stood for a moment surveying the group of sleeping cowboys. Anna held her breath and tried not to shiver. Hopefully, he didn’t realize she was the only one still awake. The below zero temperatures was making sleep impossible.
The old man shuffled toward them, moving stealth-like between each wrangler. Now and then he would stop and what Anna thought appeared to be smelling something. Perplexed, she continued to watch until with alarm she realized he was approaching the area in which she and Wade slept. Trembles threatened to erupt all over her body as she clenched her jaw tightly and willed its silence.
The crooked form of the old man now loomed over her and she definitely heard him sniffing. She wanted to reach out and touch Wade. Maybe if he was awake the old man would leave. But he only leaned over Anna and came even closer. Fear shot to the forefront. She wanted to move or push him aside, but prayed remaining motionless would send him away. However, he knelt down and lifted the blanket covering her and put it to his nose. He smelled it and Anna held her breath.
Her body was now exposed to the cold air and she couldn’t help but start to shake. Maybe if she reached out and touched his arm, Wade would awake. She waited to see if the old man would throw her blanket back down and move on.
Instead, he dropped down on all fours and pressed his nose into the “
of her pants. Fear shattered Anna’s stillness the same moment her hand shot out and grabbed Wade’s arm. He murmured something and rolled over. The old man bolted upright and scurried swiftly back into the trees.
“What?” Wade muttered close to her ear.
Anna realized with a start that he had rested his head in the cradle of her neck above her shoulder. His body lay cupped against her own.
Shooting a cautious glance toward the tree line where Chuck Rhodes had disappeared, she released a sigh of relief. She was right to have distrusted him. Her instincts had warned her to be wary of him and she was lucky she had listened. And that she happened to be awake. She couldn’t imagine what his next step would have been if she hadn’t.
An arm draped across her belly and Anna froze. Having resolved one issue she now was left with yet another. Gently, so as not to wake him, she picked up Wade’s wool covered sleeve and tried as quietly as she could to remove him from her person. It was much heavier than she realized. She exhaled wearily and tried to think how to get herself out of this predicament.
But she was beginning to realize that her shivers had subsided and she felt utterly warm all over. Wade’s large and overpowering form was a wonderful source of heat. Biting her lip, she knew she ought to push him aside. What if he woke up and found them like this? She could only imagine how horrified he would be. After all, he believed her to be a boy.
Anna, however, knew full well she was very much female. In particularly at that moment. Not only was his body producing heat, it was stirring up a warmth from deep within. She yearned to turn into his arms and cuddle up against his broad chest. To feel the safety of his embrace close around her. She feared she did not have the strength to push him aside, so desperately she wanted to be there.
With despair, she raised her hand and shook his shoulder. Nothing at first. She attempted again and succeeded in getting a groan. He shifted next to her and tightened the arm across her belly, drawing her close against his body. Horrified, Anna caught her breath and waited for him to wake. She could feel his heavy breathing against her temple and realized he had fallen back to sleep.
Biting her bottom lip, she contemplated her position. If he woke up and found her in his arms there would be no accounting his reaction. Or the cover of her disguise. But the heavenly joy of being in his arms was a temptation she could not resist. If she lay awake all night, she could slip away unnoticed in the morning before anyone awoke. Satisfied with her decision, she relaxed slightly and allowed herself the pleasure and warmth of his embrace.
* * *
“Hey, kid, time to get moving.” Wade’s voice woke her and with a start she sat upright. She had fallen asleep. Blinking hard, she focused on her surroundings. Wade crouched low beside her, holding a mug of steaming coffee out to her. “Here, drink this. It’ll warm your belly.”
She frowned at the coffee as if not recognizing it. What had happened? She had fallen asleep in his arms. Why wasn’t he upset?
“The rest of the men are saddling up. Once you finish this, you do the same.” He gestured toward her shoulders. “You just about done with that?”
She looked down to see he meant his slick. Hurriedly, she slipped it off and handed it back.
He gave her a friendly smile then stood up and walked away.
Anna glanced around the camp and gave a shudder. Without his coat she felt altogether a lot colder. Not to mention the heat of his body. She felt her face flush and stole a quick glance to the men closest to her to see if they noticed. But they were preoccupied with rolling up their bedrolls.
She lifted the steaming brew he had given her and enjoyed the warm fluid as it ran down her throat. Over the rim she studied the group once more. Her wary eyes scanned the men for Chuck Rhodes. She planned on staying as far away from the man as possible. Last night had been a close call. Too close. If she hadn’t been lying next to Wade, she wasn’t sure what could have happened.
The morning had brought a cold wind down through the valley, but thankfully not as sharp as the evening before. Nevertheless, Anna gulped down her drink and scurried out of the warm blankets and began rolling them back up. As she did, her mind traveled back to last night. She had wanted to remain awake so Wade would not find her in his arms. But exhaustion won and she fell into a deep soundless sleep.
Since he appeared his usual self, she wondered if perhaps during the night he had released her and rolled back to his own side. Perhaps that was why he apparently did not realize he had kept her safe and warm throughout the night. Anna couldn’t but help feel a great burden of anxiety lift off her shoulders. She was grateful to have escaped that bullet.
The men set out in the same order as the day before with Anna pulling up the rear. She liked it that way. She was able to keep a watchful eye on old Chuck Rhodes as he rode up ahead with the wranglers, towing the pack mule behind him.
They rode all morning through the wooded basin amongst soaring aspens whose leaves had long before turned a brilliant yellow and fallen to cover the earth below. Between their bare branches she could make out the magnificent mountains overlooking the valley. Their rocky peaks towered high toward the sky. The glacier tops were testament to the coming cold winter.
Anna shivered and tried to pull her tweed closer around her body. The magnificent beauty of the countryside was beguiling to the harsh and unrelenting climate. The riders moved in a southwestern direction, having covered the east side of the southern plateau the day prior. Trying to keep her mind off the freezing temperatures she examined the vegetation along their route and tried to identify them. As a child, her father had taught her all the names of the flowers and trees that grew on the mountain. Her mother had thought it a waste of time, believing Anna would never be in need of such information, but it was the time they spent alone she cherished the most. They both had a love of the country and all its natural splendors.
Up ahead, she heard shouts and realized they had come across a herd of cattle taking shelter among the tall trees. Anna watched Wade ride Sty along the herd, forcing the animals to wind and turn through the forest. He sat tall and formidable on his saddle and moved with an ease and comfort that made it look like he was part of the horse. The man was as awe-inspiring as the mountains around him. If any man more belonged to this land, it was him.
By noon they had rounded up a good fifty heads of cattle before stopping for lunch. As the night before, Joe was the appointed cook and whipped up a fire in no time. Anna had begun to feel hunger pains, but it was the fire she yearned most. She quickly tied her horse with the others before hurrying over to the warmth of the budding flames. Joe tossed a log on the fire and sent sparks flying into the air.
“Watch out, kid,” he said. “You’re going to get yourself singed.”
She just glanced at the man in acknowledgment, but silently cared less if a flame the size of Mount Louis leaped out and licked her on the face.
Wade approached the fire and held his hands out to warm them. “Boy, you still cold?”
She looked up into his eyes and caught her breath. There was a small trace of dirt circling his face from being out on the trail all day, but only managed to intensify the blueness of his eyes.
She blinked and remembered he had asked her a question. Nodding vaguely, she dragged her gaze from his face.
“Hell, it has been cold.” Joe grumbled as well. “I don’t think I recall a roundup or cattle drive ever being this damn cold.”
“We are running late into the season.” Wade reminded his foreman.
“Still the same, another night like last night and I may as well forget about seeing Ada tonight. I nearly froze my pecker off.”
Anna immediately turned away, not used to such vulgar speech.
“You men should have used common sense.” Wade told him. “And used each other’s body warmth as the boy and I did.”
Her head snapped up.
“Hell, ya, but I bet the boy smells like a bouquet of flowers compared to these old farts. He ain’t being working up a sweat all day.” Joe said and poked the fire. “Not to mention, them beans are mighty potent and one hell of a hazard.”
Wade smirked and gave her a wink before heading in Prescott’s direction. Anna watched him go. She couldn’t believe her luck. He hadn’t thought anything unusual in finding her in his arms. He had simply written it off as a result of the cold. Which, in fact, it was, but for Anna it meant just a bit more. She was just grateful his hands hadn’t landed anywhere they weren’t supposed to and discovered something that shouldn’t be there. Or worse, wasn’t there.
The ranch hands loaded their plates with the canned goo Joe served and filled their mouths with relish. Anna eyed the contents of her plate with skepticism. She was by far not a finicky eater, but where she relied more on the natural resources available from the land than the processed contents of a can, she wasn’t eager to down her lunch.
“Lord, tonight can’t come soon enough. I can see my Edie right now. Naked as the day she was born.” Frank, one of the ranch hands spoke with delight over a mouthful of food.
“Ah, I can’t wait to get my hands on sweet Molly’s pearly white ass.” Neil jeered and a few men next to her snickered.
Anna buried her chin deep into her chest and decided her lunch looked appetizing after all.
“Hell, yes, there ain’t nothing sweeter than the juices flowing between a bonnie’s legs.”
The plate in her hand rattled. “Mm-mamma.” Another crooned. “I’m going to bury myself deep in those pussy lips and not come out to mornin’.”
Her plate and fork clattered to the ground. All heads turned in her direction. Quickly bending down to hide her red face, she gathered up her utensils with nervous fingers.
“You ain’t getting a refill, boy,” Joe said.
“I think we embarrassed the kid.” Ed, another cowboy who sat closest to her laughed. She tried to avoid him by cleaning the remainder of food off her plate.
“Hell, kid, ain’t you never got laid?” Joe frowned hard across the flickering fire.
Since she sincerely had no idea what he meant, she didn’t feel mortified by his question like she would have had she any inkling of his meaning.