They arrived at their homestead in the dark of the night, the wheels of the creaky buckboard scrabbling madly over the rocks and hard clumps of dirt. It was still a young spring and bitterly cold, as he prepared to stop.
Maddie sat rigidly, as if awaiting the hangman's noose to envelope her slender neck. The pale moonlight painted her still face a milky white. If one peered closely, they'd see the slight tremble of her lips. She stared straight ahead at the looming shape of the small house as it pierced the darkness.
The reins were pulled to the left and Benjamin guided the horse to a stop near the front door. Maddie turned her head slightly, watching her new husband throw off his part of the heavy traveling rug and jump down lightly onto the frozen ground.
She could see her warm breath curdling like thick milk in the dark air, shuddering at the thought of a true winter here.
Benjamin's heavy boots scrapped loudly over the ground. He quickly secured the sturdy draft horse to a short railing in front of the house, patting the beast on a muscled flank as he past.
He was a large man, well over six feet. A shaggy head of thick, black hair made him appear even taller. He had shaved the beard he sported in the small tintype she'd seen.
Watching as he walked around the tethered horse to her side of the buggy, Maddie realized she'd barely looked at this man when they met at the train station in town. He had materialized like a phantom, his huge frame stepping out of the billowing steam, pouring off the engine.
She waited now, as he came to her and pulling back the rug, took her hand to help her down. His own hand was smooth and strong, the long fingers wrapping tightly around her own. She allowed herself to be swept from the hard seat, engulfed in a strong arm. For a moment, she was carried like a feather, floating to the ground.
Benjamin had barely spoken since taking her from the platform of the railway station. After installing her in the open buggy, she heard only the occasional clicking sounds as he encouraged his nag to hurry over the rough country roads to her new home, her new life as his mail-order bride.
Now, with his arm clutching her slim body to his muscled bulk, his voice sounded rich and warm.
"Welcome to our home, my dear. Go inside and warm yourself by the fire, while I see to the horse in the barn."
Maddie felt a twinge of fear when he walked back to the buggy and began unfastening the rigging. She turned and relying on the creamy light of the moon, she walked up the path to the front door.
She stepped inside, closing the heavy door behind herself. Without warning, a roaring fire sprang to life in a hearth occupying the far wall of a spacious room. Maddie blinked, but the cold that seeped into her body during the long ride in the open buggy, drove her toward its welcoming, if strange, warmth.
Standing with her hands held out like a supplicant to the heat, Maddie slowly became aware of another presence.
"I hope the chill has left you, Maddie," her husband said, his voice deep and caressing in its tone.
"I feel quite warm now, but...how..."
"Never ask questions of me, wife. All will be clear shortly. For now, rest yourself at the table and let us have a bite."
Maddie turned her head slightly and wondered how she hadn't noticed a roughly made kitchen table, set with steaming plates of what appeared to be a stew and hot breads.
"Maddie, remember what I just told you. I shall demand little of you, but you are never to question me!"
Benjamin's anger flashed from pale, gray eyes. He took her heavy coat and felt covered bonnet off of her, as if she were a young child. These he laid on top of a long wooden chest set against the far wall, before leading her to a chair at the table.
"You need to eat before it cools, wife. I shall see to the bedroom so you can retire after. I know you must feel exhausted from your travels."
Maddie watched Benjamin's back as he walked toward the rear of the small house. The aroma wafting up from the steaming food, made her mouth water with anticipation. She hadn't eaten since the morning and it was now, far past midnight.
As she spooned the thick, meaty meal, her mind wandered back to the circumstances that brought her to this place.
She answered an advertisement she found in her town's local paper. "Wanted. A bride to share my wealth and bounty and who will find everlasting happiness as my wife."
Her life had been nothing but drudgery and hardship up to that point. Working long, stifling hours in a cotton mill, she saw her future as clearly as if she'd read it in the paper she clutched to her chest. She knew this was her only way out of that fate and leapt at the chance.
Her picture didn't do her beauty justice, but did show her fine features and full figure as she stood near her deceased husband, Jack. Dying unexpectedly of a brain fever before his twenty-first birthday, he left her widowed less than two months after they ran off together.
At twenty-two, Maddie considered herself little better than a spinster and saw a glimmer of hope in becoming a mail order bride.
Not wanting to deceive the bachelor who might consider her as a wife, she fully explained the circumstances of her widowhood and desire to establish a new life. Her words must have moved Benjamin, who quickly proposed marriage, hiring a man to stand as his proxy in a hurried wedding.
Her spoon clanked against the bottom of the empty bowl, bringing Maddie back to the present. The fire still swayed in red and orange flames, though Maddie couldn't remember her new husband coming back to tend it. She stared into the deep hearth, feeling the warmth radiate out and wrap around her whole body like a heavy quilt.
She snapped out of her dreamy state at the sound of something heavy scraping the wood floorboards.
Her new husband was dragging yet another long, black box, similar to the one her things laid upon, into the bedroom he was preparing. She vaguely wondered why he wouldn't be joining her in their marriage bed. Why do they need the long box in there? Perhaps, she thought, it's a wedding gift, filled with fine dresses and shoes!
She leaned back and let the warmth caress her face. Without warning she was floating like a paper boat on a stream. Benjamin lifted her in one movement into his arms an through to the bedroom.
"It is time to consummate our marriage, dear Maddie," he spoke close to her ear.
His breath felt cold against her neck and she shivered in his embrace. He laid her upon a narrow bed, barely able to accommodate her slender body. Maddie found both her arms slipping off the sides, dangling freely.
"This isn't...big enough...bed," she mumbled through the haze that settled into her brain.
"Do not distress yourself, wife," Benjamin said smiling down at her from a great distance it seemed.
"Very soon, we'll have no need of it. You shall lie peacefully next to me upon a cushion of red satin, just as they all do, in time."
Maddie's eyelids felt heavy. They were drifting shut as Benjamin's mouth came down hard on the pulsing life in her throat. There was a sudden stab of pain, followed by the sound of her voice as she whispered her last question, "What are you..."