Renegade by Cheyne

Renegade
By Cheyne

 

1.

She was powering herself forward, sure by now she was running on pure adrenalin alone. Sweat was running down her face, into her eyes and ears, trickling down her back, pain and strain reminding her of her limitations, muscles and ligaments screaming at her, “enough, already!” But it was not enough, it couldn’t be. She had not caught up to him yet and, damn it, this time she was not going to let him get away. The burn in her legs had long passed and now it felt like she was sprinting on two stumps. Thankfully breathing was automatic and not something she had to think about doing because right now her only focus was to catch the man who shot her partner. But not for any reasons of nobility, as one might expect of her. Her quest was not to capture this man and bring him to justice, but to finish him off for self-preservation.

It had happened so fast. They hadn’t been on duty that long when one of her most valuable confidential informants called her and asked for a meeting. Told her he had certain knowledge of a situation that would probably garner her another commendation. Told her that Vincent DeSienna, once a cohort, now the bane of her existence, had resurfaced and her CI knew where she could find him. The fact that she would act on this information was a no-brainer.

Responding to the requested area, Tracey Sheridan and her partner, Robert Montesano, pulled their vehicle into a secluded alley, the usual dark, obscure place to talk, and sat in their car, looking for Boney Jackson, her snitch. Checking her watch, Trace remarked to Bobby that it was unlike Jackson not to be right there. That’s when they saw a shadow move in the foreground and mistakenly assumed that person was the one who should have been there to meet them.

Complacently, almost lazily, Bobby Montesano opened the driver’s side door and was about to get out when a series of shots rang out, one striking the young detective of almost two years in the shoulder. Reacting quickly, Trace reached over and pulled him down level on the seat as two more bullets slammed into the backrest of the driver’s side seat, where Montesano’s head had been merely seconds earlier.

When the sound of gunfire stopped abruptly, Trace surmised whoever was shooting at them had emptied his clip and utilized the three seconds it took to slap another magazine in, to exit her side of the vehicle with her portable in one hand and her Glock in the other. Crouching by the wheel, hoping the engine block was between her and the shooter for some protection, Trace raised up quickly and unloaded her clip in rapid succession, drawing fire away from her wounded partner. Ducking down, she released the empty magazine, replacing it with a full one as more shots rang out, flying over her head, at least three striking the front grill of the sedan.

She was about to put out an emergency ‘shots fired, officer down’ call, when she heard Bobby’s voice, strong but in definite pain. “Trace! You all right?”

“Still here,” she yelled back. “You?” More gunfire. “Bobby! Hit the brights one time!” As he did, she laid prone on the pavement, peeking in the direction the vehicle’s headlights were pointing. Recognizing the blinded face, a startled Trace hesitated while the ramifications of this development registered, which gave the shooter enough time to dive down behind his trademark BMW. “Son of a bitch,” she whispered to herself, “It’s DeSienna. Fuck.” She yelled to Bobby to call it in and she moved her aim to the Beamer’s tires, flattening two so that he could not escape by vehicle.

“Can do. Go get that bastard,” he told her, as it was suddenly silent except for the sounds of footsteps running away. Jumping to her feet, Detective Tracey Sheridan took off after the fleeing figure as though she had been jettisoned from an idling spacecraft. If anyone could look into her normally alluring ice blue eyes right now, growing darker by the second, they would not see life in them, they would see death. Murder, to be more precise.

She had to have been chasing him for at least a mile. The only sound she could hear was her own breathing. The cadence of two sets of footsteps was no longer registering in her brain. On a casual day, Trace could do that length in eight minutes. With her intentionally putting on the speed, she knew she had covered twice that distance in the same amount of time. And yet she still had not caught up to him…but she was gaining.

2.

Damn, she was fast, he thought as he could hear her behind him, almost on top of him. He hadn’t thought this out fully, hadn’t planned on not killing her, or at least wounding her. What had gone wrong? Well, first, the bitch disabled his car, so he couldn’t make a quick getaway and, second, a back-up plan would have been good, maybe have one of his men at a rendezvous point to pick him up in case things had not worked out as intended. Well…spilt milk and all that, he was just going to have to keep running and stay ahead of her.

He had impatiently waited for them, set up the ambush, his vendetta against her so thorough and raging. She had been his father’s favorite dirty cop, taking money to make evidence disappear in any case involving his family. Then she suddenly stopped, defecting to an even more corrupt influence, and it appeared as though she was on a calling, trying to personally eliminate his family members one by one. She had been instrumental in the arrest of his father, a man who had been like a father to her, also – at least financially. She had been in on the apprehension of his younger brother, used her connection with him and knowledge of his deep anger issues to provoke him into taking a swing or two at her, resulting in jail time. Then she expertly entrapped and testified against his cousin, the family attorney, which helped get him disbarred.

He had laid low for a while, felt it was necessary for his own survival but her being such a traitor ate away at him, eroding what emotional security he might have had remaining. She left him with no choice, he needed to get her before she got him. He was the only one left to run the family empire, if he went down, the dynasty went with him. His other relatives were idiots, he couldn’t rely on them to keep the family on top where they deserved to be. He had to get this bitch. He had to. This mission couldn’t be left up to one of his flunkies, he had to do this himself, had to have that satisfaction.

It should have been so easy. He coerced one of her most faithful confidential informants into requesting a meeting. Then he killed him. Hey, the guy was useless anyway, working with the cops, betraying his streets, he didn’t deserve to live. And, the fact that the dirtbag informed to her just made said dirtbag’s demise even sweeter. Then all he had to do was wait for them to come into the alleyway expecting to meet with her CI and eliminate them both. He was really only after her. Capping her partner would have just been an added bonus.

His biggest mistake, he knew, was that he had underestimated her. Again. As much as he despised her, he couldn’t deny the bitch knew her shit. He should have had someone else take her out, someone who was expendable, just in case. But no, he had to do this himself, had to be the one claim bragging rights on this one. He would be damned if she would get him, too. He had to be the one to stop her, to eliminate her as a problem, it was only right. He owed it to his family to kill her.

But, as usual, her reflexes had been too quick, she was just too smart. He had kept himself adequately hidden and protected. Hitting her first had been his intention but she hadn’t been driving, her partner had. He’d started firing at them the second the car stopped and the doors opened, had unloaded two full clips thinking he couldn’t miss. Yet he had.

Missed her. And now, the sound of her gaining on him pushed him harder, even though he knew he was almost out of steam. And, as he was out of bullets, he knew if she caught him, she’d kill him.

DeSienna had led her through a labyrinth of back alleys which crisscrossed over several deserted side streets. He knew this territory well as he had spent most of his childhood here. He was running out of places to divert off to until he could hear music and noise up ahead, emanating from the usually overcrowded craft street fair that littered the next eight blocks. Turning the corner, he was relieved to enter a sea of people occupying the street and he quickly, gleefully, got lost in the haphazard throng.

3.

She was so close, not even ten steps behind him. She watched him turn the corner and disappear from her sight. She came bounding around after him and before she could slow down, she smashed into a young couple, who were heading toward the alley to get a little more privately acquainted. The force of the collision sent the two lovebirds crashing to the ground. Barely losing her balance, Trace recovered by turning out of the fall and was about to continue her foot chase when a hand reached out and grabbed her ankle.

“Hey! Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” the older teenage boy spit at her, his ego bruised more than his body.

She so did not have time for this, some little ham head trying to prove his machismo to some chick he probably didn’t even know. Looking at the crowd of people lining the street for the next eight blocks, she knew she had lost DeSienna. And even if she hadn’t, it would have been too dangerous to pursue him in this setting. Whirling, she stomped her free foot down on the young man’s wrist, which prompted the automatic, immediate release of his grip on her ankle. Howling, he let fly a string of uncomplimentary expletives that almost made Trace blush. Almost.

“Shut up,” Trace advised him, evenly, displaying her badge and pointing her gun at him…not so much for threat as for emphasis. She wasn’t sure but she thought he might have pissed his pants. She scanned the people enjoying the evening’s festivities and then realized she needed to catch her breath.

Bending at the waist, leaning the palms of her hands on her knees, she closed her eyes as perspiration continued to drip down her forehead, neck, chest and back. It was then and only then she realized how hard she had been pushing herself. Straightening up, she paced a bit, trying to regain a somewhat normal respiration.

“Shit! Son-of-a-bitch! Fuck!!” She sputtered, trying to collect her composure before she keyed the radio. A few deep breaths later, she reported in and cursed herself again for losing him. As she walked back toward the alley, she sneered at the man still on the ground, however, extending a hand toward the young woman, whose eyes were glued to her Glock, which had just been holstered. Accepting the offering, the girl rose to her feet easily with the help of the woman pulling her to a standing position. “You okay?”

“Yes…I’m…I’m fine, thanks,” the girl responded, a little nonplussed by the last couple of minutes.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, sincerely.

“Hey – what about me?” The young man asked bitterly, still seated on the sidewalk.

She looked down at him, with a smirk, shaking her head. “What about you?”

4.

Detective Sheridan walked toward the ambulance to where her young partner was about to be wheeled on and moved to a hospital. The EMT attending to him had given him something for the pain and it was starting to take effect. “How are you, Bobby?” she asked, clasping his hand, tightly.

“Great now,” he grinned, then grimaced. He indicated the paramedic. “Hector here gave me some good stuff, which I’m sure must be illegal,” he stumbled over his words, “and I feel pretty darn good, comparatively.” When Hector smiled down at him, Montesano looked at the nice looking Hispanic EMT and said, “If I weren’t straight, I’d marry you.”

Winking at Trace, Hector then patted Bobby’s arm and said, “First, that would make you a bisexual bigamist and second, you just love me for my drugs.”

“I never said I wasn’t shallow,” Montesano retorted.

“A couple minutes, Detective, then we need to get him out of here,” Hector advised Trace and then walked to the front of the vehicle.

“So I guess it’s not life threatening, huh?” she smiled at her usually dark complexioned, ruggedly handsome, twenty-eight-year-old partner who was now extremely ashen.

“No. Thanks to you.”

“Aw, come on, Bobby, I was only doing my job.”

“You saved my ass, Trace,” Detective Robert Montesano conceded, graciously. “If you hadn’t reacted so fast, we’d be the lead story on the eleven o’clock news.”

“You probably are anyway.” Looking up, she spotted their boss, Lieutenant Quintana, exiting a police cruiser. This was routine, so she wasn’t surprised to see him. His presence was required at any incident that involved his officers getting shot or discharging their weapons for any reason.

Behind him was Lance Eaker from the Internal Affairs Division. That wasn’t unusual, either, given the circumstances. She was grateful that it was Eaker, as he was one of the nicer IA officers, less obnoxious than most. Having run the gamut with nearly every officer from IAD, her being the focus of several investigations, which never amounted to anything, she liked Eaker the best. She also took full advantage of the obvious, hammering unrequited crush he had on her. Trace understood Internal Affairs had a job to do and they usually weren’t as bad as they were portrayed in the movies or on television, but if you had something to hide, they could be repugnantly relentless. As well they should have been. It was dirty cops that ruined it for the rest of them. If they got caught, she mused to herself, a satisfied smile curling her lips.

“Sorry you didn’t get him,” Bobby told her, sincerely.

“Me, too, the bastard,” she spit out. “If DeSienna didn’t have such a hard on for me, none of this would have happened. This isn’t over yet, partner. He still is going to have to explain what his car is doing here and why bullets registered to his gun are everywhere, including in you and our sedan.” And, hopefully, not explain to them why he was really trying to kill her.

“And in Boney Jackson,” Montesano supplied.

“What?” Shocked, Trace turned to see the coroner’s office loading a bagged body into their van. “No…”

“Sorry, partner,” Bobby consoled. Jackson was not a model citizen, he had an arrest record as long as his own arm, but he had redeemed himself by becoming Trace’s informant and he had done a damned good job. She could feel her blood pressure rise just at the thought that DeSienna most likely killed him because of her, that he would have killed Bobby because of her. That he would have killed her without a second thought.

She would make sure Jackson got a funeral and a proper burial. It was the least she could do. DeSienna’s blood money in her alias account should cover the expenses just fine. Or at least cover what she spent from her own pocket.

Hector reappeared and strapped Montesano securely to the gurney. “Okay, Detective, it’s time to go.”

As they lifted him slightly and rolled him backward, the legs of the stretcher collapsed, fitting nicely into the back of the ambulance.

Just as Quintana and Eaker stepped next to Trace and before the meat wagon’s doors were closed, Bobby grinned at his partner and slurred, “And if you were straight, I’d marry you, too!”

Laughing, Trace looked over at the stunned faces of her boss and Eaker. Oops. Oh well. Although she had never been blatant about anything neither did she go to great lengths to keep her orientation a secret, either. They had to know. They couldn’t be that dense. Or could they? Most of the men she knew or worked with were guided by their little head, rarely, if ever, thinking with their big head, so…her male colleagues probably couldn’t get passed the fact the she was naturally beautiful and had a body a bishop would have given up his vows for.

Even though she knew she wasn’t considered ‘stereotypical’ with her long black hair and mannerisms neither masculine nor feminine, she also didn’t own a dress or skirt, never carried a purse, always wore men’s jeans, was always ‘one of the guys,’ the fact that she never showed up at company functions with a date and – oh yeah, there was that ‘scandal’ two years ago when she picked up the gorgeous, recently divorced, female district attorney and left the holiday celebration with her. Even if none of the other signs clued them in, that incident should have been the kicker.

She specifically remembered that division Christmas party where she showed up late, had a few drinks, flirted outrageously with and, shortly thereafter, left with the city’s DA. It had been the talk of the surrounding precinct men’s bathrooms and workout rooms for months. Had they or hadn’t they? Neither was talking which only seemed to stimulate the rumor mill more.

And, boy, had they! Okay, so it was a one-night stand, as the sex did last one night, all night, and at a few points, they were standing. But she was the envy of all her co-workers, even though no one had the gonads to say anything to her about it. They all wanted the intelligent, deliciously sensual DA, a fantasy that dominated locker room conversation and personal dirty jokes between partners – but it was Trace Sheridan who got her.

Even the dayshift watch commander, the most conservative of cops, couldn’t help but be jealous – not that he approved of any form of homosexuality – but…just the thought of what the two women must have done in bed together, especially with them both being individually so hot and sexy, and that he would have preferred to be the one in bed with either…or both…or watching them…it was a scenario that stayed with him and the others a very long time. A lot of them thought that Trace and the DA were still secretly seeing each other but both women mutually agreed that it wasn’t a good idea. Not that one time in the sack was nearly enough but even if Trace did do relationships – which she didn’t – an affair between them would have been much too distracting. For everyone.

She never really thought about the possibility that most of her male colleagues did not want to believe she was a lesbian because a majority of them wanted her for themselves. It wasn’t that she was a great cop (because she wasn’t, the only thing she was really good at was being deceitful – not that any of them knew anything about that part of her life), it was more that Trace Sheridan was a looker.

The tall detective was a striking woman by anyone’s standards. She had expressive, intense, light crystal blue eyes, almost a shadowy aqua when angry or aroused, under inherently long, dark lashes, sculpted cheekbones and a strong set to her jaw which was somewhat reminiscent of a proud, noble tribal warrior from generations past. She had a spirituous, sensuous mouth which, when she smiled, parted to reveal an easy yet almost carnal grin. Her mahogany-streaked ebony hair always fell playfully tousled around her tanned, expressive face

She also had a body to die for stretched over a six-foot frame, and she knew this because she worked very hard at keeping it that way. It was not her initial intention to attract anyone with her figure as it was more to stay in shape just in case she had to rely on her own physical resources in situations like tonight. She ran five miles at least every other afternoon before her shift began, worked out for forty-five minutes three days a week at the gym and taught women’s unarmed self-defense classes at the local YMCA once a week. That and random good genes blessed her with the body now coveted by nearly all her male co-workers and a few of her female ones.

But even if Trace did do relationships, she didn’t want them or have time for them. It was difficult to commit to anything other than her profession and the times she had attempted something more than just a few dates had all ended badly. Going out with anyone ‘on the job’ proved either too competitive, too familiar or too much of a gamble at being found out as a cop on the take and dating a civilian was too difficult because they never really understood the dynamics of her profession and she got tired of explaining why she was always late, always being called away, always canceling plans.

It worked out better for her to rely on special ‘friends’ who didn’t mind sharing a bed now and then or meet someone when the mood and circumstances were right to satisfy her healthy sexual appetite. She wasn’t the most discriminate lesbian in town and she never had a problem finding accommodating women.

Shaking her head, the detective turned to them, resting her fist on her hip, waiting for either one of them to speak. From the looks on their faces, it might be a while.

5.

Opening a can of Canada Dry, thirty-year-old Detective Tracey Sheridan took a long drink, allowing the harsh carbonation to conquer the dryness all the way down her throat. She knew even the minute amount of ginger in the beverage would help settle her stomach somewhat. She wasn’t trying to calm herself from being afraid, on the contrary, she had been angry. Frighteningly angry. Had she got her hands on Vincent DeSienna, the ball-less, gutless little prick, she might have not had any need for her trusty service weapon, so incensed had she been at his cowardly attack of her and her partner. She was well aware of the risks that came with being a ‘double agent,’ so to speak, and that what had happened earlier was always a possibility but it didn’t make her any less furious. Getting even with her was one thing but taking out those around her, who had nothing to do with their personal fight, enraged her.

Looking across the table of the gray, dull but practical interview room at IA Officer Lance Eaker, Trace watched as he finished adding some information to his report. He glanced up and studied her intently. Of all the luck…his Greek Goddess was a dyke. He had heard the rumors but his feelings for her helped him deny them. Well – that didn’t mean he still couldn’t fantasize. She was staring at him but it was obvious her mind was a thousand miles elsewhere. Eaker snapped his fingers to bring her back to reality.

“I know it’s been a wild night there, Sheridan, but try to pay attention so we can both get the hell out of here and go home.” His words were playful but his eyes were humorless. Maybe it was perfect timing to find out that Detective Sheridan was gay and he didn’t stand a chance with her because he knew she wasn’t going to be around too much longer. She had already been on borrowed time with her systematic but barely legal elimination of the city’s most notorious crime family. Anyone who pissed off a DeSienna was a moving target and it was only a matter of time until she was taken out. Who she was or what she did for a living or who she knew couldn’t save her. Trace Sheridan was a dead woman walking.

“What else do you need, Lance? We’ve been over everything four times,” she sighed, wearily.

“Just want to make sure we didn’t miss anything – for your sake,” he replied, reviewing his paperwork one last time. “You going home or up to the hospital?”

“I’d be too antsy at home,” she answered him, not daring to mention she was concerned DeSienna might be waiting for her there with another sneak attack on his agenda. “I’m going to see Bobby. I hope someone called his wife.”

6.

Tracey Sheridan didn’t know she wanted to be in law enforcement until the month before she applied to the police academy. The decision was as much of a surprise to her as it was to everyone around her. Especially her mother, a former crack whore who’d spent more time in jail than out of it.

Zelda Sheridan had been cycled into the foster care system when she was three years old. Her biological parents had abandoned her and she journeyed through one abusive situation after another. At sixteen, she ran away, finding more love and compassion on the streets with strangers. She also learned she was sitting on a gold mine and used her natural ‘assets’ as a way to earn money. At eighteen, she looked thirty, acted fifty and found herself pregnant by an unknown john, who could have been one of many. For reasons even she didn’t understand, she cleaned herself up and decided to have and keep the baby.

After Tracey was born, Zelda actually settled down, secured a legitimate job and became a doting mom to her little girl. Until her daughter turned six. By then, the twenty-four year old woman was bored with a routine nine-to-five workday and barely earning minimum wage. She regressed to her former profession getting much more caught up in it than before, turning her little girl into a feisty, independent but protective, latch key kid.

Trace had always been spontaneous – as a child, an adolescent, a teenager – and headstrong. When she made up her mind to do something, she did it and never worried about the consequences of her choices until it was too late. That got her into more trouble than it was worth, usually. But not with her mother…Zelda had her own issues to deal with…like where her next fix was coming from. This left Trace to basically bring up herself.

From an early age, she learned how to get around the law, how to dodge any authorities looking for her, how to get what she wanted by manipulation and, more than anything, how much money was the passport to everything in life. At least in her life.

She also knew soon after she hit puberty that she liked girls much better than boys. She witnessed too frequently how men treated her mother, who was normally a kind, sweet woman who just happened to look for love in all the wrong places and through a syringe. As Trace matured, she realized that her predilections were inborn and not environmental, even though her experiences with the opposite sex were rarely positive. The difference between her and her mother, though, was that men never scared or intimidated her.

Then fate intervened and she got hooked up with a man named Vittorio DeSienna. Not by choice but by a mistake of her mother’s. Zelda and her ‘man of the minute’ found themselves dangerously beholden to the most notorious mob boss in three states for assaulting one of his ‘lieutenants’ who was walking back to his car after a payoff and stealing the money to support their drug habit. Trace came home from school one day and found her mother a bloody mess and the lifeless body of Zelda’s boyfriend on the kitchen floor. It was a warning. Since the DeSienna’s got most of the money back, they left Trace’s mother alive. Barely. If Vittorio did not get the rest of the money, Zelda would pay for it with her life, which she had little of, since she’d already paid for it with her soul.

The defiant but enterprising eighteen-year-old went directly to DeSienna and offered to work off her mother’s debt. DeSienna took one look at her and immediately wanted to employ her as a high-priced prostitute. When she told him just exactly where he could stick that offer, instead of being angry, he was amused by her courageous obstinence. He soon learned that Trace could get into places and accomplish things his sons and ‘family’ could not. And she found that she liked it – her mother was safe and the money was great. Then, two years after he took on Trace, Vittorio suggested she try to get into the police academy, wanting nothing more than to have his own personal cop on the payroll.

Liking the idea, she submitted her paperwork, aced her written exam, charmed her way through an oral board, easily passed her physical and smoked her psyche evaluation. The entire time she was in training, she had no contact with the DeSienna family or anyone affiliated with them. She wanted no previews of complicity or hint of impropriety in her behavior or associations, the promise of unlimited income so great if she could pull this off.

Graduating at the top of her class, Trace spent four years on patrol in Union City’s downtown station, the busiest area in the county, the precinct Vittorio ran his operations in. Trace learned quickly what she could and couldn’t do to be effective in her job and work for DeSienna on the side. Or, more correctly, be useful for DeSienna and work as a cop on the side.

The trouble started when Vittorio’s son, Vincent, became obsessively jealous of the attention his father was lavishing on the statuesque, stunning woman and, also, after he realized that he could never make her his mistress. Without his father’s knowledge, Vincent began to undercut everything Trace did, not only making her look incompetent but raising suspicion in Vittorio’s eyes that the woman might be double-crossing him. Knowing the old man would always side with his number one son, regardless of how many times Vincent had disappointed him and she hadn’t, Trace realized her ‘career’ with the infamous crime family was coming to an end.

Trace was not a stupid woman. Before she could be completely cut loose, she sold herself to the highest bidder, who happened to be the nemesis of Vittorio DeSienna and his nasty brood – the Union City Police Commissioner. She knew the commissioner was not the sterling character his publicity staff and PIO made him out to be as she had dealt with him a few times in the past in underhanded deals and agreements with the DeSienna family.

Her first assignment was a big one and one that would really prove her mettle with the highest police official in the county. She got promoted to Detective 2nd Grade following a single-handed take down of her former boss. Trace had previous knowledge of the day, time and place, the racketeering top mobster and two of his cronies were planning to personally torture a long time but traitorous colleague in an abandoned store in the old warehouse section of town.

That particular incident raised her to nearly legendary status which, for a brief time, almost became much more of a hindrance than a help. Keeping as low a profile as possible under the circumstances, she eventually had to be transferred out of the downtown precinct for two years while the dust cleared. In that two-year period, she took down another DeSienna, Vittorio’s youngest son. Angelo “Andy” DeSienna was a reckless punk who stupidly (and drunkenly) confronted her outside a cop bar one night. She had been on her way in after her shift when it happened. While in jail, awaiting his trial, hot head Andy killed another resident who he claimed made sexual advances, which earned him twenty-five years in an out-of-state prison.

After that, Trace requested to go back to the downtown station and was paired off with a rookie detective named Montesano. Their first week out, she subtly arranged for them to be in the right place at the right time to witness a bribe being taken by Evan Lenoci, the DeSienna family attorney and cousin of Vincent. Testimony given by Trace (but not her partner, who wasn’t completely sure of what he saw) resulted in Lenoci being disbarred. Vittorio’s oldest boy then stepped up his gunning for her before she could remove him from his rightly inherited throne in the DeSienna kingdom.

************

7.

Vincent DeSienna had been arrested the next day for the murder of one Reginald “Boney” Jackson and the attempted murder of Detectives Robert Montesano and Tracey Sheridan. Those were the major charges. He was being held in the county lock up with more charges pending. There was so much solid evidence against him even his crooked, high-priced attorneys couldn’t get him out of this one. She had even gone to visit him, just to rub his nose in it and to insure he would keep his mouth shut about her, very unprofessional she knew but it was too good an opportunity to pass up, regardless of the ass chewing she got from her boss.

If looks could indeed kill, Trace would have been a victim of multiple fatal wounds, courtesy of one Vittorio Vincent DeSienna Jr.’s steely gray homicidal orbs. It was a shame he was such a vindictive, loathsome person because, despite that, he wasn’t a bad looking man, a trait Trace was sure, got him places his muscle and influence ordinarily wouldn’t, even though it got him nowhere with her.

But this had been a deadly game of one-upmanship between the two of them for too long and she had finally won, she had destroyed the mighty DeSienna snake pit. Sure, other distant relatives would slither in to take Vincent’s place as the head of the ’empire,’ but she had been the driving force behind the demise of the truly powerful family members. It was a good feeling. It was a better feeling that her reputation would be fiercely defended by the police commissioner, regardless of what he had to do to keep their little secret.

The first thing she did, after personally informing Bobby, who was still in the hospital recovering from shoulder surgery, was phone her dear friend, Mark Teranovich, her very first patrol partner who had quit the force after his leg had been shattered during a gun battle with a few of the DeSienna entourage. Mark had barely been out of the academy four months when the attack occurred. Even though he was getting full disability and compensation for his line duty injuries, he was still sour at the abrupt end to his law enforcement career at the hands of the infamous family. This incident occurred on a day Trace wasn’t at work and even though Vittorio always denied it was intentional, she wondered if it was a warning to her to be loyal. Mark and Trace had remained fast friends, though, and she tried to take a day out of every two weeks or so and spend it with him.

Since then, Mark had become somewhat of a hermit, buying a small house in the mountains and wallowing in his hobby of inventing. He had made a fortune on a simple, silly little thing constructed from foam rubber, cloth and velcro, used to wrap around the hard plastic handles of a laundry basket. They were distributed in supermarkets, drug stores and discount stores, places that sold out of the product the very first week it went on the shelf. The income from that and his police pension allowed him to live very comfortably and lavishly indulge in more complex, technically innovative creations. He missed being a cop but he found his niche in inventing, in fact, the more eccentric, the better.

Following that phone call, she had gone out to celebrate with her best friend, Sandy Cline, but Trace had been so exhausted from the recent activities, that she really could not enjoy the evening. Returning home earlier than either would have really liked, Sandy and Trace agreed to go out at the end of the week and really make a night of it.

The next day she arranged for Boney Jackson’s services. That took a good chunk out of her legitimate savings but it was something she knew she had to do. Paying for the funeral out of her illegal savings would have been easier but unwise, as she was sure an investigation would be launched into where she got that much money. Regardless if the commissioner squashed any inquiry, the suspicion would remain. She would file a requisition to be reimbursed by the city, knowing it probably wouldn’t happen and, even if it did, she more than likely wouldn’t see the money until one of her retirement checks.

A majority of the rest of the week had been spent on paperwork, documenting the DeSienna bust, making sure all the ‘T’s were crossed and ‘I’s were dotted so that when this case went to court there would be no mistakes, no loopholes, no tricks the defense attorney could pull out of his ass to weaken the state’s case against good old Vinny. At least through no fault of the detective’s, that was.

****************************************

8.

Trace and Sandy had been out on their planned celebration night, blowing off steam. It had been four days since the shooting and the chase and three days since DeSienna’s arrest and, as there had been no further incidents, it was almost off the detective’s mind – almost – when the inevitable happened.

The night had started out pleasantly but went consistently downhill from there. Trace had barely got through the door and ran smack into one of her exes (and a prime example of why the detective didn’t do relationships). And, unfortunately, an ex who was not pleased with the break up and still not ready to let go of the tumultuous relationship. Karen Wong was attractive and, for all intents and purposes, congenial…to everyone but Trace. She hid her insanity well and Sandy used to tease Trace about her and Karen skipping down the psychopath of love. Or lust, more accurately. She became dangerously obsessed with the police detective, a fatal attraction of sorts, and Trace had to file a temporary restraining order against her after they broke up.

Since then, Karen had only tried to contact her once and that gesture was met with serious reprisal, so it had not happened again. However, there were times that they ended up at the same places, out of coincidence and Trace left it alone as long as Karen kept her distance. Tonight, they found themselves standing shoulder to elbow at the bar. Trace acknowledged her politely, civilly, and walked away with two Coronas for Sandy and herself. Karen just glared at her, eyes boring holes into her back, resenting her for being there with anyone, even knowing Sandy was just a friend.

Trace tried not to let it bother her that Karen was there and did not want to possibly aggravate an already tense situation even more by insisting her ex leave the bar, as the TRO required Karen to stay at least five hundred feet away from the detective. Sandy was more disturbed that the obviously spiteful and unstable woman was there than Trace was. Looking back on it, she would have much rather dealt with Karen at her worst than what eventually transpired.

Dancing, drinking, releasing all the tension in her body that had built up over the past week, Trace hadn’t let her guard down and enjoyed herself like this in what seemed like forever. The club was crowded and she danced with everybody. Or it felt like everybody. Except Karen.

She was having such a good time, in fact, that she couldn’t hide her annoyance at Sandy, who elbowed her way across the dance floor and grabbed her quite roughly, and escorted her toward a wall.

“Wh -? What are you doing?!” Trace yanked her arm out of her best friend’s grasp. She swallowed her anger, however, when she saw the look of sheer panic and fear on Sandy’s face. “What’s wrong?”

Leaning in, to be heard over the pulsating, loud music, Sandy said, “DeSienna is here…and I think he’s brought his whole gang with him.”

“That’s impossible – he’s in jail…” Following the direction of Sandy’s subtle pointing, Trace was sure her heart stopped beating…after it jumped into her throat. There, at the front entrance, was Vincent DeSienna, surrounded by three of the biggest goons she’d ever seen. All she could think of was the tuxedoed, gorilla door man in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” in triplicate. Her instinct pushed her automatically toward the back door but once again, Sandy stopped her. “Don’t bother, I checked. They’re back there, too.”

Crestfallen, stopping short of being downright panicky, she ran her hand through her long locks in contemplative frustration. “Fuck! How the fuck did he get out of jail?”

“Hello…! Earth to Trace…! He’s a freaking DeSienna, I’m surprised he was in jail as long as he was and you should be, too.”

“How the fuck did he know I was here? I know no one tailed us. I was extra cautious on that…how -?”

Realization struck them both at the same time. “Karen!” they furiously chorused.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Trace’s mouth went dry. “How could she do this?” Her head swiveled back and forth between the front entrance and the hallway leading to the back door as though she were intently watching volleying in a tennis match. Had they seen her yet? Hopefully not. She reached for her cell phone to call in reinforcements, feeling around the area where the device was normally clipped to her belt. It was gone. Physically looking down, she visually searched her own waistline and then the immediate area around her. “Shit…Sandy, my cell’s gone!”

“What do you mean?” Now the fear was beginning to rise in Sandy. Trace was never without her phone and Sandy did not have hers as she had dropped it and damaged it that afternoon. Suddenly this was turning into a real Murphy’s Law kind of a night.

“I mean I don’t know where it is…!” She was still frantically looking around.

“Did you leave it in the bathroom?”

“I haven’t been to the bathroom yet.” Trace’s eyes suddenly locked with Karen’s, who was standing at the bar, a smug yet contemptible expression crossing her normally delicate features. In an exaggerated movement, she raised her arm high into the air so that it could be seen above the heads of the other bar patrons. In her hand was Trace’s cell phone. “That bitch!” the detective bellowed, her voice roaring with anger.

Sandy scoured the bar until she focused on what Trace saw. “Man…she wants her revenge. Bad.”

“She’s signed my fucking death warrant, whether she’s realized it or not.”

“Let’s borrow someone else’s cell…show ’em your badge, tell ’em it’s a police emergency. Take your gun out, and -”

“No. No time. Besides, I don’t want to do anything that might provoke these idiots to open fire in this crowd.” Trace ushered Sandy toward the restroom area. “We’ve got to think of something fast or I’m never going to make it out of here alive…and you might not, either.”

“Fire,” she suggested, quickly.

“We can’t start a fire, Sandy. Jesus, people might get hurt or killed.”

“Who said anything about starting one? All we have to do is yell it and then we can move out with the crowd.”

A look of satisfaction and relief washed over the detective’s face. “No one would hear us over this noise…but if we could set the sprinkler system off…” she pulled Sandy into the ladies room with her.

Trace was never more grateful that Sandy smoked than at that moment. Sandy helped brace the detective who climbed precariously onto a stall wall, directly under a sprinkler valve and flicked on the lighter she had passed up to her.

Just then, a bar patron walked in and stopped, startled, by what she saw. “What are you doing?” she asked the two women. Before either of them could respond, she began to back out. “I’m going to get the manager…” and with that threat, she was gone.

“Yep, go ahead,” Trace muttered, continuing her task. “I may get banned from this place but I’ll be alive.” In a matter of seconds, water was spraying everywhere and an ungodly loud alarm began sounding. Jumping down from her perch, getting soaked, she handed Sandy her lighter back. “Let’s get out of here.”

****************

9.

It should not have worked as well as it did, both women thinking that it was almost too easy. But they had escaped, losing themselves in the thick of the crowd that moved quickly toward the exits, out into the streets, passed the henchmen watching the doors. The frenzied bar patrons had shot out of the club entrances, literally pushing DeSienna and his stooges out of their way, knocking a few down in the process, just enough confusion to distract the gangster from his worst intentions.

“Wow. That was close,” Sandy remarked, unnecessarily, as they ran to her car parked two blocks away. “Now what?” she asked, unlocking the doors with her remote.

“Just…just drive,” Trace told her friend as she climbed into the back seat and laid down.

Starting up the car, shifting it into drive, Sandy pulled away from the curb. “What are you doing?”

“I don’t know if they know your car or not or what Karen might have told them but even if they don’t, they’ll be looking for two people not one. It may not work, but I’ll just stay down here until we get out of the city.”

“Where are we going?”

“Head west, get on 105. I’ll tell you from there.”

While they drove, Sandy continued to check her rear view mirror for headlights following them. Once they made it past the city limits, they were pretty much alone on the highway. Slowly, Trace rose from the backseat, cautiously looking around before she sat up completely. There were no lights behind them and no tail lights ahead of them.

“How much gas do you have left?” the detective rubbed her eyes, trying to regain her focus.

“Half tank. Where did you want to go?”

“I…uh…I think I want to go to Mark’s.”

“Where is that?”

“In the mountains. I’ll tell you where to drop me off.”

“Drop you -? Are you insane?”

“I’m not going to tell you where exactly Mark’s place is, Sandy. If you don’t know, no one can torture it out of you.”

“You think they won’t kill me, anyway? Christ, Trace! No one will ever believe that I don’t know where you are. Take me with you, where ever it is,” she pleaded, desperately.

“No. I won’t turn you into prey with DeSienna as the hunter. You don’t deserve that. It’s bad enough one of us is going to have to be looking over her shoulder the rest of her life, both of us shouldn’t have to.”

“Come on, Trace, you can’t leave me now…”

She was shaking her head before Sandy could finish speaking. “No. You will be fine as long as you’re nowhere near me. Just – just don’t go back to your place tonight, let things cool down.” Reaching in her pocket, Trace took out ninety dollars in cash and handed the wad over the seat to Sandy. “Take this and get yourself a room somewhere. Tomorrow, call Bobby and tell him what happened…depending on what’s going on, he’ll be able to advise you from there.”

Sandy continued driving, concerned silence filling the time. Finally she said, “What about you? What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think of something at Mark’s. If DeSienna finds out where I am, by the time he gets to me, hopefully I’ll have a plan together and be out of there.” Pointing to a poorly lit gas station/convenience store, Trace said, “Stop up there and let me out. I’ll call Mark from that pay phone and tell him where to come get me.”

“When will I hear from you?” Sandy inquired, slowing the car to a stop.

“When I feel it’s safe. I’ll call you.” Trace exited the car and walked quickly around to the driver’s side, leaning in the window and hugging Sandy. “Take care of yourself. Don’t take any shit off anybody.”

“You take care of yourself, Trace. I’m frightened for you.”

Smiling ruefully, the tall detective told her, “I’ve been playing Russian Roulette with the DeSiennas for years. It was only a matter of time before I took the bullet.”

“Don’t say that! Jesus, Trace…”

“You need to get moving, Sandy. Now.” Trace commanded her, stepping away from the car. “We’ll talk in a few days, if not before.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.” She watched as the Firebird eased back onto the highway, heading further away from the city.

*******************

10.

“You just can’t keep yourself from stepping into a pile of shit, can you? Not going to come up smelling like a rose on this one, huh?” Mark commented, rhetorically. He maneuvered his pick-up truck uphill through a thickly forested, dirt road that wound around the mountain he called home. Taking nearly an hour to reach the house, it was close to midnight by the time he and Trace pulled in to his driveway.

He had picked up his phone on the second ring, alerting instantly on Trace’s tone of voice, somewhere between forced composure and agitation. He didn’t ask her why, when she asked that he come get her, knowing she would explain once they were together. After hanging up the pay phone at the store where Sandy had dropped her off, Trace then hiked directly into the woods for about a mile and a half, remembering the path that took her to the gravel road where she told Mark she would meet him.

After hugging him gratefully, she buckled herself in and unloaded her “story” to him as they drove. She neglected to advise him about the real reason Vincent was after her, knowing that he was too intelligent not to figure out that Trace may have been the reason he got shot and pensioned out all those years ago. Mark was too good a friend to ever have him find out any of the bad things she did, so she unraveled a tale of woe he would buy. He shook his head, sympathetically, cursing the DeSiennas for once again ruining another life.

Once inside Mark’s humble abode, he cracked open a Budweiser, handing it to her, and embraced her again for comfort. He could tell she was angry but also ready to break down and cry, an emotion he knew she considered weak and would never reveal to him unless keeping it in would literally cause her to implode. Holding her so close benefited him, as well…it wasn’t often he got to put his arms around such a sensuous woman. He knew Trace was a lesbian, that there would never be anything sexual between them but, respectfully, it didn’t stop him from having his fantasies.

Finishing her beer, she asked if he minded if she took a shower. Handing her a fresh towel, he provided her with an old but clean set of sweats for her to change into. Afterward, sitting on the futon where she would sleep, sipping on a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea, she seemed to physically relax, at least more than he’d seen her since she got into his truck.

“So,” she paused, looking around at all the contraptions and gadgets that cluttered Mark’s den, “invented anything interesting?”

“Well…interesting to you and interesting to me are two different concepts. I’m working on a few things that might tweak your shorts.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“Aw, come on, Trace, you know you’re really not interested,” Mark grinned at her.

She regarded him seriously. He was an attractive man, in a “B” prison movie sort of way. Kind of rough and swarthy, muscular, with short hair and almost always a two or three day stubble, very much contradicting the science geek image that he conveyed to anyone who had never personally met him. He had an even, white smile that enhanced that playboy look and an untapped charisma that only Trace rarely got a glimpse of. If she had been into men, she would have gone after Mark in a heartbeat.

She sighed. “I need to take my mind of my troubles, Marky-Mark, so tell me what you’ve been up to.”

“Well…if you mean it then let’s do the rounds.”

He took her on a tour around his den and office, showing her and explaining about all his new inventions, some that were finished and quite clever and a few that were still crude and in various stages of creation and completion. The internet had provided him with a plethora of areas that aided him in his research and the knowledge he gained was invaluable when combining it with his imagination.

Downstairs, in his basement, he led her to what looked like a seven-foot plexiglass tube, and beamed at her, contentedly. “And here is my baby…my pride and joy, my future Nobel Peace Prize winner.”

Trace studied the cylindrical shaped object before her with question and amusement. “What is it?”

“This? In lieu of a more scientific name which I doubt you would understand anyway, I call it my retro molecular transference device.”

She shook her head, laughing. “That sounds like something Frankenfurter and Riff Raff would come up with. What does it mean?”

“It’s a…uh…time machine.”

Nearly choking on her tea, Trace looked at the tube, then him. “You’re kidding. You mean like in ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Back To The Future’?”

“Well, not quite as elaborate or dramatic but…yeah, something like that.”

“Seriously? Have you experimented with anything yet?”

“Just plants and objects and a few annoying rodents.”

“And?”

“And…nothing…I’m not sure anything has made it to where I’ve sent it and

I haven’t figured out a way to get anything back yet. And don’t ask me why I can’t just reverse the process because, for some reason, it doesn’t work that way.”

Trace nodded, “Damn, Mark…still, that’s pretty impressive.”

***************

11.

By the time Trace woke up and roused herself from the warmth of the comfortable futon, Mark had already been down to the store and back, having retrieved his mail, two coffees, two cheese danish rolls and a local newspaper. Accepting the cup from him, Trace couldn’t help but notice the somber expression on his face. In contrast to his sunny, talkative, friendly mood the night before, he was silent and brooding.

“What’s wrong?” she looked up at him after taking a long swallow of coffee.

“Um…what kind of car was Sandy driving last night?”

Hesitantly, with dread, she answered, “A 2002 burgundy Firebird…why?”

Mark just shook his head, solemnly and tossed the paper to her, walking to the kitchen to get napkins for the danish pastries.

“NOOOO!!!” It was a wail, a voice of pain like he had never heard from anyone, especially his ex-patrol partner. “Those fucking bastards!! Why? Why her?? I’m the one they wanted…!!”

“They haven’t identified the body yet, are you sure it’s her?” Mark asked, sitting beside her on the futon.

“Oh, God, I’m positive. An African American woman, dressed in a black leather skirt and a lilac-colored blouse, found dead in a totaled maroon Firebird?” Trace fell back against the pillow, her arm covering her eyes, not being able to control the tears. “How did they find her? No one followed us…” She sat up quickly. “Mark. I’ve got to get out of here. You’re in danger…anyone around me is in danger now.”

Grabbing her before she catapulted off the futon, Mark put a reassuring arm around her. “Okay, just settle down a minute. Sandy’s car went off the road about a hundred miles from here in the other direction. So unless they talked to her first, they won’t have any clue where she dropped you off. And, even if they did, the guy who owns the gas station never said anything about any strangers around asking any questions about anyone. And, trust me, he is the highway busybody, if anything out of the ordinary was going on, he would have told me.” His tone was as soothing as it could be but it didn’t stop Trace from hugging her knees to her and rocking.

“You know these guys, Mark…they won’t stop until they find me, until I’m dead. I am not going to be responsible for your murder as well.”

“Trace, come on, you can’t just leave, you have to have a plan. Now calm down and lets put our heads together here.”

There was an awkward silence between them as they both thought the same thing: Trace was a dead woman, regardless of what they came up with. Her premature end was inevitable. Unless…

“Mark! What about your time machine?” She blurted, suddenly.

Eying her incredulously, he responded, “What about it?”

“Can it transport me?”

“What!? Are you nuts? I am nowhere near close to that kind of experimentation yet, and even if I was, I can’t get you back!! And…and…like I said, I don’t even know if the objects I’ve played around with have made it to wherever they go alive and in one piece!!”

“So what? Either way, I’m dead. I have nothing to lose.”

He looked at her, almost pleadingly. “I do.”

“Then help me do something. I can’t stay here and I will be a target wherever I go. Please, Mark…I am desperate…!”

“Then move to the Swiss Alps, to the jungles of Central America, to Alaska, somewhere remote where it won’t be worth it to them to look.”

“This man will never stop looking until he physically sees my dead body. I am not going to spend the rest of my life hiding, waiting to be ambushed, waiting to die.”

“Trace…I’m not -”

“Look, Mark, think of it this way, if I make it, you can start working toward your Nobel Prize.”

“But I won’t know if you make it, that’s my point.” He scratched his head, exasperated. “Trace, even if I was positive it worked, honestly, you’re not exactly the woman I’d handpick for this experiment.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s set for over a hundred years ago – the old west. You know nothing about the culture, don’t own a dress, every other word out of your mouth is ‘fuck.’ Five minutes of listening to you and they’d hang you for…for God knows what.”

“I could learn…” she argued, unreasonably.

“In a day? Even I’m not that much of an optimist.” And then he got an idea.

********

12.

Looking at the finished product, Mark was pretty pleased with himself. Standing at arms length from him, Trace was dressed in the comfortable, old pair of Frye boots she had worn the night before, a pair of Mark’s black jeans that hung a little loosely on her, which Mark assured her was a good thing and a faded black denim shirt Mark couldn’t wear anymore. The hardest part for both of them was binding Trace’s chest down with a bandage used to wrap the body to protect broken ribs. The brunette was pretty well endowed, a fact that needed to be hidden if she was going to be successful at this. Her face scrubbed of all make-up, all earrings and other modern jewelry removed, her hair now clipped in a shaggy boyish cut, Trace looked like an exotically adorable younger man. It just might work.

He knew he was crazy to go along with this but he also knew she was right. If she was going to die anyway, at least (he hoped) it wouldn’t be horrifically excruciating or at the hands of the DeSiennas.

“Okay…you’ll need money…” he continued.

“That’s not a problem, I have enough money to get me started,” she told him.

“Uh, no,” he smiled at her, patiently. “Money looked different back then. We need to find you jewelry and trinkets you can used to pawn for money, things that aren’t too modern or don’t look too suspicious.” Mark ran to his bedroom and, was gone for less than five minutes and returned with his hand closed. “Here.”

Trace displayed her palm and dropped onto it were two gold bands, a small diamond ring, two diamond earrings, a pearl, sapphire and a jade necklace. “What’s this?”

“My great grandmother’s jewelry.”

“No, I can’t take this -”

“Yes, yes, you can. You have to. You’ll need it. And it’s style and design is closer to the era you’ll be in. I won’t miss it. It’s just been sitting there in this small cedar box for a few generations.”

They studied each other for what felt like an eternity before he pulled her into a strong embrace. She pulled away and kissed him on the cheek. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” he told her quietly. “Are you?”

*****************

She didn’t expect to be dropped from mid-air…she had mistakenly thought if she made it at all, she would just ‘beam’ there like Captain Kirk. When she hit the ground, it was with a bone-crushing thud that knocked her unconscious.

******************

13.

The petite, pallid, slender blonde stepped cautiously, listening for any unusual or suspicious noises around her, ready to use the shot gun she would now carry with her at all times. She was still skittish and frightened from her attack three weeks earlier and wasn’t at all pleased that on her first foray outside the sanctity of her ranch, one of her horses got loose and trotted away. She should have just let him come back on his own but with all that had happened lately, she couldn’t be sure if he would return or meet with an untimely demise at the hands of the ruthless Crane family, who were doing everything they could to intimidate her off her land.

Any sane person would have just taken the monetary offer and let them have their way. But her resolve went way beyond what anyone one else considered rational. Small as it was, compared to others in the area, this ranch had belonged to her mother and father and it meant too much to her to just give it up. It was all she had left of her family. It was her home and she stubbornly did not care that it was blocking the influentially, territorial, strong-arming Crane clan from their direct cattle drive route eastward or their mission to own all the property west of the booming little town of Sagebrush. She had paid dearly for her obstinacy – slaughtered cows, burned crops, crippled horses and the worst of all, her rape.

Ben Crane was the youngest of the Crane boys, the only one who hadn’t married yet and was under a lot of pressure from his family to do so. But Ben was a notorious philanderer, considered merely roguish by his father and brothers but was known as a violent womanizer in the town. Ben was a mean drunk who preferred the company of the wayward women who resided above the saloon because he knew he could treat them any disrespectful way he pleased and pay them enough to take it.

However, now with the strong insistence of his family to take a wife, he cast his eye upon Rachel Young, perhaps the most beautiful woman in the valley, easily the comeliest of any female Ben had ever seen. After all, why shouldn’t he have the best? Besides, it would solve the problem of gaining access to the land she owned. It never occurred to him that she wouldn’t be interested, that she would resist his offer, that she would have the audacity (much less the courage) to turn down a Crane.

Well, he had to admit that his reputation wasn’t the most proper and maybe that was the deterrent. And she had been polite but firm in her refusal, even though he had taken a bath, donned his best Sunday suit and brought her a bouquet of flowers. However, a Crane never took no for an answer and he thought that he could just wear her down. He was, he knew, very handsome, rich and charming, when he put his mind to it, and he felt that the lovely Miss Rachel would never get another offer like his. So, why had she been so difficult? It wasn’t right that she lived on this big spread of land by herself, her father losing his battle with cancer three months before her mother, who passed away a year earlier from consumption, her beau had been killed in a train robbery almost right after her mother died. She had to be lonesome and she needed a husband to take care of her and all the manly responsibilities that owning a ranch entailed.

Ben Crane tried several times to call on her but Rachel Young would have none of it. The more persistent he was, the stronger her unyielding nature became. Stubborn woman. He was getting to be the town joke and began to feel humiliated at some of the more brazen comments aimed at his manhood. One evening, nearly a month ago at Wilbur’s Saloon, the more he drank, the more his anger soared. He rode out to the Young ranch, well after dusk, and caught Rachel leaving the stall of a new mama and her colt.

She fought him fiercely, screamed, yelled, struggled, begged, pleaded…but she was no match for his physical strength or nasty alcohol-induced demeanor. By the time he was finished, she had nearly passed out from the pain and injuries her body had sustained from the brutal attack.

She was weak and terrified, in shock, embarrassed and at a total loss for what to do next. Crane, reeking of stale whiskey and bitter tobacco, rolled off her, smug, arrogant, plainly lacking any shame. He staggered to his feet, pulled his trousers back up, sunk back to his knees and drew back his arm at her. She flinched, cowered, instinct directing her to cover her face but her limbs wouldn’t respond. She prepared herself to feel the blow of his fist again but something stopped him from following through.

“Now look at ya. Ain’t too good for me now, are ya? You’re a nice piece of tail, Miss Rachel, and I’ll make sure the whole town knows it, too. I’ll make sure if you don’t marry me, then no man will want ya.” And, with that, he left the stall, mounted his horse and rode away.

She laid there for several minutes after he was gone, frozen, her brain feeling paralyzed, not fully believing or comprehending what had just taken place. Tears involuntarily crept down her face as she slowly sat up, her favorite gingham work dress now in tatters, every movement excruciating, every bone in her body, every inch of her skin, feeling agonizingly damaged. She brushed straw and hay out of her hair with a shaky hand, her trembling fingers then inspecting the cuts and bruises on her cheek and lips. And then there was the blood on her dress. There seemed to be so much blood.

She had been a virgin, scheduled to marry her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Baines, and she had been saving herself for her wedding night as any respectably brought up woman did. But then Tommy had been killed in the crossfire of a train robbery gone horribly awry. He had been on his way back to Sagebrush after finishing school and earning his law degree…he was coming home to her, to marry her when the unthinkable happened. He had been sitting in his seat, minding his own business when a stray bullet from the revolver of one of the marshals pursuing the robbers went clean through his heart. It was as if the bullet had penetrated her heart as well, even though she was safely a hundred miles away, tending to her herb and vegetable garden. In a little over a year, she had lost the three most important people in her life…who could blame her for becoming a recluse?

Rachel had been warned by her mother that she might bleed on her wedding night, sometimes the breaking of the hymen would cause that, but if it happened, it was natural and she shouldn’t worry about it. Certainly her mother hadn’t meant it would have been like this…no, Tommy would have been gentle and loving, he never would have hurt her. Not that she had been even thinking about it, still being in mourning and all, but Ben Crane was right. No man would want her now. Yet that was the least of her worries, as she slowly rose to her knees, feeling as though someone had inserted a fist, which had grabbed hold of her female organs and yanked down with all their might. She collapsed to a fetal position, convulsing in pulsating pain and then she couldn’t stop herself from heaving up the contents in her stomach on what was left of the clothing remaining on her battered body.

Hours had passed before she felt able to leave the stall and even think about making her way back to the main house. Once inside, she bolted her door closed, not daring to face her reflection in the mirror, afraid of what she knew she would see. She utilized the indoor pump to fill the kettle that she would use to heat water for her bath. She barely waited for the liquid to roll to a boil before she finished filling the tub with tepid water right from the pump. And she scrubbed what skin wasn’t already raw and bleeding until it was.

In the twenty-five days since, she had lived off her own land, not leaving the ranch. Once a week, Caleb Tipping’s boy, Isaac, rode out to the property with a regular feed order from his store, so the stock was always taken care of. When he looked horrified by her appearance, she explained away her bruises by telling the teenager that she had been trying to break the new mustang she got and was thrown for her efforts.

Even if someone had believed she had been raped, no one would have done anything about it because her attacker had been one of the all-powerful Cranes. She would heal herself, keep her own counsel and do the best she could to keep her home and sanity intact. And then other incidents started to mysteriously happen to her animals, her property, her livelihood. That’s when she started carrying around the shotgun everywhere with her. She swore if Ben Crane ever came near her again, she would blow a hole in him bigger than the entire Texas territory.

*****************

14.

Rachel blinked, thinking the sun was playing tricks on her at first and then praying the man lying motionless on the ground in front of her was not dead. Approaching carefully, she first gently prodded the person with the barrel of her gun. There was no movement. She looked for obvious wounds such as bullet holes, slash marks, rope line around the neck…but she saw no evidence of any of that nor did she see any blood anywhere.

She wasn’t above thinking that Crane might have sent one of his men to trick her, so she was guarded when she knelt down to study the situation more closely. If it wasn’t a ploy, this person was hurt somehow and she just couldn’t leave him there to die or to suffer alone for the coyotes, buzzards and God only knew what else to finish him off. Seeing nothing to convince her that there was anything to be concerned about on this cowboy’s back, she rolled him over with great effort to observe the front side of him.

She started at the man’s boots, which didn’t look like any cowboy footwear she had ever seen before, then noticed that his denim trousers also seemed different…or maybe that was just the way they fit over this slender man’s lower frame. As her eyes traversed up this stranger’s body, her focus was suddenly pulled to his head. This was no one she had ever seen before and, having grown up in Sagebrush, she thought she knew everyone. Although, there were always saddle bums moving through town at any given time, picking up enough work to get them enough money to move on to the next town.

Her gaze finally focused on the drifter’s facial features and her heart stopped as she looked at the most striking face she had ever laid eyes on. The features were sculpted, high cheekbones and tanned complexion which could have indicated a possible Indian or Gypsy heritage, long dark eyelashes and shaggy, black hair cut in a style she’d never seen any man sport in these parts. The nose was slender, almost womanish, but it seemed perfect on this face. The lips looked soft and they were slightly parted, an expression which immediately got Rachel’s heart beating again, only a little faster than she was used to. She wasn’t sure exactly what emotion was washing over her but she knew it wasn’t fear.

Her hand automatically brushed against the cowboy’s face, feeling no stubble, no evidence of a beard and she guessed, despite his long and well filled out form, and this stranger must be young or reiterated the notion of some Indian blood in him. Transfixed, she had to mentally chastise herself to continue searching for injuries. Rachel’s free hand moved down to the stranger’s denim shirt, scanning for anything out of the ordinary. Finding a tear in the fabric, she then felt something odd. She began unfastening the metal buttons, opening the shirt to reveal an unusual looking wrap, a binding of some kind. Spotting a circle of blood, approximately the size of her fist, Rachel assumed she had found the wound that must have made this stranger pass out.

Feeling the odd stretchy material of the binding, she put her fingers on the dark, moist area that appeared to be bleeding. Separating the layers of the wrap to see what type of wound she was dealing with, when she found skin, she saw a small jagged cut that did not look like a bullet hole or a knife slice. Her eyes grew wide, however, when she immediately noticed something else. Cleavage.

Startled, she glanced back up at the fascinating face and found herself looking directly into the most intense pale blue eyes she had ever seen. Before she could react, a hand grabbed her wrist, holding her in place securely, strength she was surprised to find in a woman.

“What are you doing?” the stranger asked, tersely. Her voice was raspy but her register was a low alto, one that could have been possibly mistaken for a callow male.

“N-nothing…I…I was checking to see if y…you were hurt…” She sounded terrified and confused.

Trace realized how tightly she was holding this woman’s wrist and quickly eased up her grip and then let her go. Rachel lost her balance and fell back on her rear end, dropping her rifle. She scrambled backward, picking up her shotgun, got to her feet and fixed the weapon at Trace.

“Who are you? Why are you dressed like a man?” Rachel’s voice may have been shaking but her aim was steady.

“How do you know I’m not?”

“Well…” she hesitated, “…you don’t have any whiskers…”

“All the men in my family have light beards.” Trace scratched her chin for emphasis and moved to leaning on her elbows. She had to squint to protect her eyes from the sun, which was still high in the sky behind Rachel.

“And,” Rachel’s face reddened in embarrassment, “you have breasts.”

Trace smiled at her. “And you would know that because…?”

“I was checking to see if you were hurt.”

“Uh huh.” The brunette nodded, not taking her eyes off the blonde.

“Are you in some kind of trouble?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because you’re pretending to be a man,” Rachel reemphasized.

“Shit,” Trace swore. “Not even here, what, thirty minutes and I’ve already blown my cover.” She shook her head, disgusted with herself.

Rachel was more than mildly surprised that this woman did not seem at all afraid of facing down the barrel of her shotgun. And her words were peculiar. Blown her cover? What did that mean? “Answer my question,” The blonde demanded, readjusting the hold on her shot gun training it on Trace as she slowly, stiffly sat up.

The Twenty-First century police detective rubbed her eyes and then directed her attention to the Nineteenth Century woman. Her long, golden blonde hair probably bleached lighter by whatever time she spent outside in the sun, was pulled back away from her face and shoulders by a ribbon. She had intelligent, piercing, emerald green eyes and a lovely face. Her slender figure was covered from shoulder to toe by a dress that showed off her more than an adequate bust line, trim waist and then billowed out from there. When Trace’s eyes moved back up Rachel’s body and pinned her with a defiant glare, the blonde set her jaw and matched her recalcitrance.

Casually putting her hand up in surrender, Trace attempted to massage away the dull pain in her shoulder with her other hand. “Okay, okay, relax. You can put that thing down, I’m not going to hurt you or try anything. I promise.” Rachel lowered the shotgun to her side but her posture remained alert. “What year is it?”

“What?” The blonde blinked, wondering what was wrong with this very handsome woman.

“Year…what year is it?”

“Eighteen hundred and seventy-nine. Why don’t you know that? Did you hit your head?”

An exuberant smile crossed Trace’s face. “He did it!! Yes!!” Her enthusiasm and odd behavior startled the blonde, who leveled the weapon at her again. Once again, the brunette raised her hand. “No, it’s – never mind. I’m just a little fuzzy from my…um…fall.”

“You fell? Is that how you got cut?” There was a hint of concern in her voice.

“Cut?”

Rachel indicated the bloodstain on Trace’s wrapped chest. “There.”

Looking down, the detective’s hand instinctively went to her breast. “Shit.” She reached inside the binding and felt around. “Yep. Damn it.” Looking around her immediate area, she spied a jagged rock she must have landed on. Well, thankfully, it wasn’t bleeding profusely or too terribly painful. Her entire body ached from the impact. She knew she’d have a few bruises but was pretty sure nothing was wrenched, sprained or broken.

“You curse a lot. And you still haven’t answered my question.”

Sighing, Trace knew she couldn’t put it off, any longer. “I’m not from around here, which I’m sure you already noticed.”

“Where are you from?”

“Um…” She had to make up a name…if she said Union City and that was the name of the town now, the blonde would know she was lying. “…Cottonwood?”

“I’ve never heard of it…where is that?”

“Far from here.”

“How’d you get here?”

“Uh…my horse threw me?”

“Why do you say it like you’re asking me? Did your horse throw you or not?”

“Yes. Yes. My horse threw me. You haven’t seen him anywhere around have you?”

Rachel suspiciously squinted. “What did he look like?”

Think fast, Trace. “He was a…pinto with a…um…brown mane and tail. Black saddle.”

“Haven’t seen anything like that around here. A painted pony, huh? You Indian?”

“Me? No.” Not that I know of, Trace finished to herself. “Why? Do I look Indian?”

“Looks like you could have some Indian in you. Or Gypsy. So – are you running from somebody or not?”

What to do, what to do. Maybe this woman could help her. She definitely needed a friend and maybe explaining her circumstances in terms that the smaller woman might understand would make a difference. Not only that, Trace thought, as she ran her tongue over her bottom lip, giving the blonde a more than appreciative once over, maybe she could introduce this little cutie to a little Sapphic pleasure while she was here. Trace gave herself a mental slap. Those kinds of advances would probably get her executed in this era. Damn…maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. “Well…it’s like this. I’ll tell you if you put that gun down and we can get out of the sun.”

Not budging, Rachel said, “You’ll tell me now.”

Trace knew she could be on her feet and disarm the blonde in a heartbeat but she also knew that would be a mistake. This woman wasn’t a killer. She was frightened, Trace could sense it, could see it in her eyes. She certainly wouldn’t make any points by bullying her. Relaxing, Trace broke into her friendliest smile and shrugged in concession. “All right… may I ask your name?”

“Rachel.”

“Rachel, I’m Trace. And yes, Rachel, someone is after me.”

“What did you do?”

“Actually? Nothing.” She surely wouldn’t understand the dynamics of the vendetta, so Trace decided to keep it simple. “I made someone very angry with me and I did everything I could to fix the situation but nothing worked. So now he wants me dead.”

Her eyes widened in shock. That would explain the disguise but what could a woman have possibly done that was so bad to have caused a posse to be after her? “Why?”

“Because…well…where I come from, Rachel, things are more, um, advanced. Women are allowed to be cops -”

“What’s a cop?”

“Police…uh…peace officers…”

“Peace officers?” The expression of confusion on Rachel’s face told Trace she didn’t understand the vernacular.

“Marshals and sheriffs and deputies and jailers.”

At first she nodded in comprehension but then she raised an eyebrow, as though she felt the brunette was pulling her leg. She almost laughed. “You must think I’m a fool. Women can’t be the law. I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

“I’m serious. I am not lying to you. I was what was called a police detective in my town and -”

“Detective? Like Pinkerton?”

“No. Yes. Well, not exactly. It’s sort of like that but I was more of a sheriff. I arrested some men who had friends and relatives that didn’t like that very much. But they were very bad men and they needed to stay in jail. The leader of these men vowed to kill me. And I know he would, so…that’s why I came here.”

“Will he come here looking for you?” Rachel’s voice suddenly took on a small intonation of dread.

“I doubt it. He has no idea where to even start looking for me.”

“Then why must you keep dressing like a man?”

There was no way Rachel would understand the dynamics of that, either. “Because…I can’t guarantee he or his gang won’t eventually ride through the area hunting for me.” Trace’s blue eyes seemed almost pleading, which caused Rachel’s cautious green ones to soften. “I know this is a lot to ask because we don’t know each other but I need your help.”

“What could I possibly do to help you?” Her voice was laced with skepticism. “I won’t put my life in danger for someone I don’t even know. Besides, I’m still not sure you’re telling me the truth.”

“You’re right. You don’t. I’m not asking you to hide me; I’m asking you to keep my cover -”

“You’re what?”

“My disguise…I’m going to need to stay here a while – a long while – and I’m going to need to continue to convince everyone that I’m a man.”

“Why?”

“Um…well, first…as I said, if this man and his friends ride through town looking for me, they’ll be looking for a woman, not a man. Second, like I said, where I come from things are a lot more progressed. As an…uh… enforcer of the law, I am a lot more aggressive than any of your women and most of your men. I need to live here as a man. Trust me. Otherwise, men here will want to kill me, too.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“I don’t either but that’s the way things are. You seem like a very kind woman, Rachel, and I am pretty sure you wouldn’t do anything to intentionally send me to my death.”

“No, of course not!” the blonde exclaimed, indignantly. “But I cannot have a man living in my home.”

“Why? You’re husband?”

“I’m not married.”

“Really? A beautiful woman like you?” Trace’s smile was engaging. “Why not?”

Rachel cast her eyes downward. “I’m just not.” It wasn’t the fact that Rachel was not married that made her break eye contact with Trace, it was an odd, not easily undefined feeling the brunette generated in her that caused a burning in her cheeks. For the second time since meeting this stranger, Rachel’s heartbeat sped up.

Reading her reaction, Trace knew there was a story behind it. Now was not the time to pursue it. “Like I said, I’m not asking you to hide me, just to keep my secret.”

As if Rachel had not even heard her, she continued, her gaze still on the ground. “It’s just not proper. And even though I know you are not really a man, the town would not.”

“It’s okay, I understand.”

Rachel finally lowered the gun to her side. “Were you really a sheriff?” The interest sounded genuine.

“Absolutely. If you have a bible, I’ll put my left hand on it and raise the right one to God.”

That must have been the right thing to say. Rachel became pensive. “Well…if anyone asks, I could say that I found you hurt and that I’m nursing you back to health…”

“Yeah, that would work,” Trace added, hopefully. “Then the town could gradually get to know me.”

“And I really could use some help with the land…”

Trace cocked her head and shrugged. “You’d have to show me what you need done – I haven’t ever worked land at all.”

“You’d have to sleep in the barn.”

“With what?” An unpleasant thought crossed her mind…the odor of pig, chicken, cow and horse shit – or smelling like it – was something she didn’t think she could get used to. “What else lives in the barn?”

Rachel almost laughed at the brunette’s expression. “Nothing anymore. I had cows but they were all slaughtered,” she said, sadly. “Now I keep equipment in there for the field. There is a small room in the back. You can stay there.”

Alerting on Rachel’s demeanor at mentioning the cows, Trace figured she’d save that question for another time, too. “I really appreciate it, Rachel. Uh…would it be possible to get out of the sun now?”

The blonde thought about it briefly, then lowered the rifle to her side, pointing at the ground. “Okay. I should take a look at your cut, too. Looks like it needs tending to.”

Something about the thought of this tiny, adorable blonde putting her hands on her made Trace most eager to get back to her house, too. You can take the girl out of the sleaze but you can’t take the sleaze out of the girl, Trace smirked to herself.

Standing up, the detective unobtrusively studied Rachel. The young woman was at least seven inches shorter than she was, nice little body from the limited amount the dress showed off and all around extremely pleasing to the eye as Trace was noticing more and more accompanying Rachel back to her property. If she was subtle, maybe she could make the most of landing a century back in time.

*********

15.

Entering the quaint cabin, Trace was fascinated by its truly rustic atmosphere. It was somber, which made sense with the lack of electricity, the darkness of the log walls, the wood floor, the small windows and the obviously hand-made curtains closed over them. A quick visual sweep showed a neat and orderly provincial home with the absence of anything modern, one that should have exuded warmth but there was a hint of sadness that seemed to envelop the air and Trace sensed that there was more to this little blonde than met the eye.

“Sit over here and take your shirt off,” Rachel instructed, pointing to a hard wooden chair pulled slightly away from what Trace assumed to be the kitchen table. She was not looking at Trace when she said this as she was busy pumping water into a bowl.

Raising her eyebrows, shaking her said slightly, the detective began unbuttoning her shirt as she sat. “We hardly know each other,” Trace mumbled to herself, chuckling.

“Pardon?” the blonde asked, her attention now focused on pulling a small glass jar down off a shelf in an anteroom that held what looked like an iron claw foot bathtub.

“Nothing,” Trace replied, removing her denim top, feeling the strain of her jarred muscles and bones. She was starting to show signs of bruising and pain was beginning to settle in. She looked down at her wrap, surprised to see the blood had absorbed into the material and spread over most of her chest. “Aw, Christ,” she sighed, annoyed.

“I would appreciate it, while you are in this house, you not use the Lord’s name…” Rachel stopped as she saw Trace, seated, covered in only the bloody wrap from the waist up. It wasn’t the condition of the wound that rendered her speechless; it was the condition of the body the wound was on. “…in…vain.”

“Sorry,” Trace winced, as she stretched out her arm, attempting to pull the kink out of the muscle in her shoulder. Had she been looking at the small blonde, she would have been very amused by her expression.

Rachel had been a little shocked by Trace’s height when she stood up for the first time to accompany her back to the cabin. That alone would make it a little easier to convince the town’s people that she was a man, as the blonde had never seen a woman six feet tall before. She further noticed the absolute confidence with which Trace carried herself, again a trait she had only ever witnessed in men. There was a very powerful aura that surrounded this woman and it frankly had Rachel a little rattled. Suddenly it didn’t seem so far-fetched that she could have been someone with authority…like a sheriff.

Now, though, Rachel could physically see the strength in this strange woman, not just sense it. She had muscles like a man, too…but not really. They were visibly defined, shifting under the tall woman’s skin, but not coarse or bulky. She also had strong shoulders, Rachel observed, before her eyes traveled down to the bare skin below the bloody wrap. That was also muscular without an inch of excess skin anywhere. The small blonde forced her eyes back to the task of tending to the wound, embarrassed and confused that she had been almost gawking. At another woman. In a most un-ladylike way.

Staring specifically at the items in her hands – gauze, a canning jar with a light liquid in it, a bowl of water and a dry cloth, Rachel found her voice. “Um…we’re going to have to take that off.” Setting her load on the table, she purposely avoided looking at the dark haired woman

Trace glanced down. “This?”

“Yes, I need to stop the bleeding and clean that wound. You don’t want it to get infected.”

Alerting on her discomfort, Trace said, “Listen, if you’re uncomfortable with this, I can do it…”

Suddenly indignant, the small blonde shook her head. “No, I’ll do it.” She placed the cloth in water and unsealed the jar, dropping the gauze in to absorb the liquid. “Doesn’t that hurt?” Rachel inquired, as Trace began to unwrap her binding.

“Right now, everything hurts,” the detective confessed, her body now seriously aching and stiffening up. Peeling the last two layers of her wrap off, Rachel’s quickly averting eyes to the brunette’s now exposed breasts did not go unnoticed by Trace. Despite her rising pain, the detective was actually charmed by Rachel’s obvious modesty and couldn’t stop her mouth from curling into a slight smile. Reaching over, Trace grabbed her shirt and slipped it on, leaving it unbuttoned. It covered her breasts but the open garment allowed Rachel the freedom to work, undistracted.

“You didn’t have to do that,” the blonde said, quietly, very grateful that she had.

“I know but I feel better,” Trace lied. “So…whatcha got there?”

Pulling the gauze out of the jar and placing it directly on the oozing, bloody jagged cut next to Trace’s right breast, she was prepared for the quick jolt and sudden intake of breath from her patient as she put her free hand on the detective’s shoulder for support. “It’s nettle tea. It will stop the bleeding.” She took Trace’s hand and positioned it on the gauze. “Hold that there until I tell you to remove it.”

“Tea will stop my bleeding?” the detective asked, incredulously.

“Yes, nettle tea will.” Rachel wrung out the wet cloth and began cleaning the area around the wound. This required her to step between the detective’s legs for better access to the stained skin, a natural position under the circumstances and something that should not have left the blonde’s insides shaking. Yet it did. What was it about this woman that was so nerve-racking? Trying not to think about it, Rachel concentrated on washing all the blood off the detective’s chest and abdomen, the proximity of their bodies difficult to completely ignore.

Trace, on the other hand, was completely at ease with this small, adorable blonde so close to her. It was almost worth the pain she was in. Her face reflected her amusement as she watched Rachel studiously clean all the blood off her, gently but with enough pressure to get the job done.

Leaning to the side to wring out the cloth in the bowl of water, Rachel caught Trace’s eyes in her peripheral vision. She continued until water from the cloth was running light pink instead of deep red. “Why are you staring at me?” she asked quietly.

Why indeed. “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was. You’re just so efficient. Are you a nurse?”

“A nurse? No. I work here on the ranch. I grow vegetables and herbs and sell them to Luther Foster for his grocery store. Sometimes my neighbors come here to buy some herbs and I sell them or I barter.”

“For what?”

Engaging her in conversation appeared to have rendered the blonde a little more secure around Trace. “For necessities.” Rachel submerged the bloody cloth once more, wrung it out and began one final cleansing of the area. “You can give that to me now,” she instructed, taking the gauze from Trace. The detective, whose psyche was still in the twenty-first century, almost asked the blonde how she dared to handle blood without gloves…and then she remembered…these were the days where bodily fluids weren’t contaminated or potentially lethal.

Kneeling down to get a better look at the wound, Rachel inspected it, thoroughly, oblivious to the position she was in. Trace didn’t ignore it, though, and subtly studied the blonde as her warm hands felt around the detective’s sore, open flesh. A rather lewd smile attacked Trace’s face, and she thought, ‘heh, while you’re down there…’ but her fantasizing was interrupted.

“Hmmm…”

“Hmmm? Hmmm what?” Looking down, she was surprised to see that the bleeding had stopped. “How’d you do that?”

“I didn’t, the nettle tea did it. It has healing components in it, it will make your blood coagulate. It was used a lot in the war.”

“What war?” This question was greeted with two very large green eyes, staring at her in pure astonishment. Uh oh. Trace tried frantically to remember her American history. Shit. The Civil War, you dolt. “Oh, oh right, the war. War Between the States. Right.”

Not looking convinced that Trace wasn’t just guessing, she shook her head and returned to inspecting the cut. “You been living in a cave?” Rachel asked, a hint of sarcasm entering her tone. She stood up, placing the gauze into the bowl, moving it aside.

As the blonde returned to the anteroom, Trace watched her, not being able to hide her grin. This was really going to be interesting – she now realized another big reason why she would not have been Mark’s first choice for this experiment. She failed American history. Twice. “Can I button back up now?”

“No. I want to put something on that,” Her arm extended out toward Trace while she searched her shelves. “Ah. There you are.” She reached up and plucked off another jar.

“What are you going to put on me this time? Coffee?” There was sarcasm in Trace’s voice as well, as the blonde walked back over to her.

“No. Honey.”

Smirking, Trace said, “Wow, we’ve known each other less than an hour and you’re already calling me honey?” Off the befuddled, then impatient look she received from Rachel, she was about to do some major back peddling when the blonde held up the jar in her hand.

“Honey. I’m going to put honey on you.”

Shut up, Trace, just…shut up. In another setting, a hundred years from now you’d be in your glory, she thought to herself. “And what will that do…other than get me sticky?”

“Don’t you know anything?” Rachel was smiling at her, in spite of herself. She removed the lid from the jar, dipped her fingers in, pulled a glob out and paused before she applied it to Trace’s wound. “Honey attracts water. Germs cannot live without water and they die. Which means no infection and quicker healing.”

Impressed, Trace watched while Rachel rubbed some honey off her fingers with her thumb and tenderly applied the gooey substance along the jagged cut. Then she did something that made the detective’s jaw drop and prompted her to tightly cross her legs when Rachel, finished, stepped back. She stuck the fingers that never touched Trace’s skin in her mouth and sucked the rest of the honey off them. Trace could not believe the rush that seized her loins at seeing the blonde do that and immediately knew Rachel had no clue as to how erotic that came across.

“Let me get you something to keep that cov – what?” Seeing Trace’s expression startled her. Not being very worldly, she mistook the stricken look of lust on the detective’s face for discomfort. “Is that hurting? It shouldn’t cause it to hurt more…”

“No,” Trace rasped, putting her hand up to stop her from coming as close as she had been before. “It’s fine. Really. Thank you. Yes, something to cover it would be nice.”

Rachel searched her face, concerned. “Oh. Okay.” Skeptically, she returned to the anteroom, found another patch of gauze and brought it back to the detective. “Would you like me to -?”

“No,” Trace answered so quickly it made Rachel jump. Holding her hand out for the gauze, she said, “I’ll do it, thanks.” She forced her voice to be calm. “You’ve been very kind, Rachel. Thank you.” She placed the material over the honey and slowly stood up, beginning to feel like one big bruise. Reaching over to the table she picked up her blood-soaked binding. “Where do I wash this? And, I suppose you wouldn’t happen to have anything in your little bag of tricks to get the blood stain out of it?”

Sighing, bowing her head, Rachel leaned against the table. “You’re making fun of me,” she stated, softly.

Blinking at the statement, the tall woman shook her head. “No, I’m not.” She was very surprised at how the thought of hurting this beautiful young woman’s feelings affected her. In the past, she would not have cared but, for some reason, Trace felt almost protective of her. Where the hell was that coming from? She stretched her arm out, touching the blonde on her shoulder, a gesture which made Rachel look up into Trace’s mesmerizing eyes. “I’m not. I apologize if that’s how it sounded,” the brunette told her in a quiet voice. “I’m just a little…um…disturbed…about the events of today and the past few days…and my body aches so please forgive me if I sound, uh, grumpy or…difficult. I don’t mean to. Okay?”

Rachel nodded her head and, with great effort, broke eye contact with the detective, “Okay.” She tugged at the wrap in Trace’s hand. “Let me do that for you. I’ll wash it best I can. I don’t think I’ll be able to get all the blood out but it will be clean and with the sun hot as it is today, it’ll dry in not time.”

“Really, you don’t have to -”

“No, I want to. You should really rest. You’re looking mighty worn out. And you should give that cut a chance to heal.”

Trace couldn’t argue with her that she felt very tired and every tendon and joint was starting to scream their protest at her. “If you’re sure…”

“I am.”

“Then I would really appreciate it if you showed me to where I’ll be sleeping and I’ll get out of your way.”

“You’re not in my way,” Rachel admitted, almost shyly, “But I’ll show you to the barn, anyway.”

**********

16.

It really wasn’t a bad little room. Other than being dim, dusty, stark and depressing. A small, cot-sized bed occupied one side, up against a wall and an old bureau stood up against the opposite wall with a kerosene lantern sitting on top. Well…it was a place to lay her head, she had to be thankful for that.

Rachel had provided her with a linen sheet, a clean woven horse blanket and a feather pillow, one of the two from the bed she slept on. She had also given Trace an old nightshirt of her father’s so that she could wash and repair the hole in the detective’s denim one. Trace protested but her words apparently fell on deaf ears. She didn’t understand that Rachel was grateful to actually have someone to fuss over again. Even the blonde had not realized how very much she had missed that.

The long, white nightshirt had fit better than she thought it would which made her wonder what else of her father’s clothes Rachel had saved that might be suitable for her to wear.

Lying there stretched out, her legs almost too long for the bed, her hands folded behind her head, Trace stared at the gloomy ceiling, her body actually starting to relax and settle to an acceptable throb. What the hell had she gotten herself into? She had not thought this out thoroughly. Of course, it wasn’t like she really had much of a choice. Vincent would not have stopped until she was dead. At least here, she was alive…but could she stay that way?

She had forgotten that toilets were a luxury in this era and was not thrilled about having to utilize a stinky, spider-and-God-knew-what-else infested outhouse or find a tree marked “W.” Laundry was done with a washboard, bar soap and good, old-fashioned elbow grease and her baths would, no doubt, have to be taken in the nearby river. Until it got too cold and, hopefully by then, Rachel would feel comfortable with letting her use the indoor tub.

Fortunately, she had just gotten over her period and wouldn’t have to worry about that for a few weeks. Shit. She wasn’t looking forward to dealing with that little fact of life, pretty sure tampons had not been invented yet and almost afraid to ask the small blonde what she did every month. Therein lay another problem. How could she cleverly find out what Rachel used to absorb the menstrual flow? If she came right out and asked her, how would she explain not knowing? And the cramps. Damn it. Some months those annoying little pains were so intense they could drop a moose. She wondered if Rachel had a natural remedy for that, too.

She certainly was handy, Trace thought, not being able to stop the indecent smile that crept onto her face. Cute little thing, too. Not to mention a little bossy. Not that being bossy was necessarily bad, it meant she had some spunk. Shamelessly, a visual floated through the detective’s mind, involving her, the blonde and that feather bed in the room Rachel had retrieved her father’s nightshirt from. “Stop it, Trace,” she chastised herself, “keep your head where it needs to be.” Reining in her hearty libido would be difficult but anything else would be counterproductive to her survival there. And, Rachel was opening up her home to her, a stranger, an act of kindness for which Trace should be eternally grateful. To fuck that up in an attempt to satisfy her carnal urges, which she was sure would backfire, would be idiocy personified. But that thing with the honey… Jesus, that was…unexpected…as was the physical reaction it elicited from the detective.

But…as attracted to her as the detective was, she also needed to decipher that immensely alien feeling to protect her. Where was that coming from? Other than the desire to shelter her mother as much as possible (and usually from Zelda herself), Trace had never once experienced that particular need, except for in the line of duty but that was different, that was professional as opposed to personal. What was it about this…waif…that was poking into a previously untapped side of Trace? That was something she would have to investigate further as she was not sure she liked it. Feeling professionally responsible for someone else’s safety was a lot different than feeling personally responsible and, being a woman who demanded to be in total control of all her emotions, she resented this new one that had suddenly reared its strange head. Or did she? Maybe this shouldn’t be analyzed and should just ‘be.’ Yeah, right, Trace sighed, as if she ever just let anything be.

Her next curiosity revolved around the mentioning of Rachel’s father. Obviously she lived on this property alone and she had used past tense when speaking of him so it wasn’t hard to figure out her father was dead. But this darling, smart, skilled blonde who possessed what looked to be a very nice body was also not married. Dare she selfishly hope there was an alternative reason behind Rachel being unwed? Well, she could hope all she wanted but chances were there was a perfectly good explanation for that.

And what happened to the cows? When Rachel said they had all been slaughtered, there was a hint of anger in her voice, which indicated to Trace the cows had probably not been intentionally killed for meat. Something was going on here that gave the detective an uncomfortably insidious feeling. Her inquisitive nature would not permit her to let any of these subjects idle for too long. Later, when she knew Rachel a little better…

There was a soft knocking on the door.

“Come in,” Trace called, moving with the intention of sitting up. The pain which racked her body advised her staying supine would be a much better idea.

The blonde entered, almost timidly, carrying a tray which held a bowl of something, a hunk of what was probably homemade bread and a steaming cup of some mildly aromatic liquid. “Hi,” Rachel said, quietly. “I thought you might be hungry, so…” She let her words trail off, knowing the proffered tray would speak for itself.

As Rachel neared the bed, Trace pushed herself up slightly, her back resting against the wall. She couldn’t help but take in a sharp breath when she moved.

“That’s what I thought, so I made you something to help with that.” She set the tray down on the detective’s thighs.

Observing the contents of the bowl and cup, she looked up at the blonde. “Soup and tea?”

“And charoset bread to dip in the soup,” Rachel added. She pointed to the cup. “That’s peppermint tea with rue and wood betony. It will help with the pain.”

“And the soup?”

Rachel smiled, charmingly. “That will help with the hunger.”

Trace had to smile with her at that obvious conclusion. She picked up her spoon and sampled the chowder-like substance. Her face lit up. “Mmm. Potato soup.” Her absolute favorite soup in the whole world…how odd this would be the first meal the blonde would bring her. She took another spoonful. Then a bite of the deliciously sweet bread. “This is really very good.” She glanced up at the beaming blonde. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. How are your injuries?”

“Let’s just say they are there and leave it at that. I’ve had bruises before. They will go away.”

“Should I take a look at your cut?”

Trace stopped mid-taste and removed the spoon. “No…um…I’m pretty sure that’s fine also. But I appreciate it, anyway.” She resumed inhaling the contents of her bowl and her bread. She had not realized how hungry she was.

Standing there silently for a few minutes, Rachel was encouraged by the tall woman’s enthusiasm for the small supper she had prepared. “Your binding and shirt are washed and hanging on the line right now. They should be dry before nightfall. I also fixed the tear in your shirt.”

“Thank you again. You’re very kind.” Trace told her, sincerely.

Bowing her head, stepping back, the blonde shrugged slightly. “It’s nothing really. I enjoy it. Helping people.”

Trace studied her, finding her shyness irresistibly endearing. “Well, you’re obviously good at it.”

Nodding her thanks, Rachel indicated the tray. “I’ll be back for that later. Drink your tea. It will also help you sleep.”

Watching her leave, the detective shook her head, knowing there had to be a good reason why no man had snatched this exceptional woman up and made her his wife.

A little over two hours later, at dusk, Rachel returned to the little room she had allowed Trace to occupy, bringing with her the detective’s clothing items. She was pleased to see the dark haired woman sound asleep, a soft snore emanating from her sprawled out form. She had not told the detective that charoset was a combination of apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey and a few other ingredients – mainly the walnuts – that added up to a more than mild sedative. She had wisely assumed that Trace would have refused the calmant, not wanting to appear less than the tough facade she exuded, another more male than female characteristic of hers that puzzled the blonde.

She picked up the tray from the floor and set it on the bureau. Stepping back over to the bed, she looked down at this strong, however vulnerable at this point, woman and folded her arms. What was really her story? What had really brought this very handsome woman pretending to be a man to edge of Sagebrush and into Rachel’s life? The pale blonde figured whatever the reason, it would reveal itself soon enough. Knowing the night would get chilly, she pulled the blanket over Trace’s long body, retrieved the tray and left the room.

**********

17

A hideous noise attacked Trace’s dreamless sleep state and jolted her into sudden consciousness. The sound assaulted her ears again and she flew out of bed, regretting it the minute her feet hit the floor, having forgot about the huge contusion that was now her body. The piercingly shrill racket echoed again and in her fuzzyheaded state, she immediately thought someone was being murdered. Or worse. Forgetting where she was, she danced around the room in search of her Glock, confused at not being able to find it, and then realization hit her. And her first thought was of Rachel, that she needed help.

Racing out of the barn, toward the house, she nearly plowed the petite blonde over, having to grab her before she knocked her to the ground. An amused expression adorned Rachel’s face finding herself being held up and steadied by a very wild-eyed Amazon. “Morning,” she addressed Trace, calmly.

Holding her out at arms length for inspection, the detective frantically asked, “Are you all right??!!”

“I’m fine.” She scrutinized Trace, eyeballing the unruly bed head, the rather demented expression and, the piece de resistance, the unlikely armor of a gooey, disheveled nightshirt and cowboy boots. “Are you all right?”

“I’m…fine…what the hell was that noise?” she dropped her arms to her side and looked around, bewildered.

Rachel stepped back, cautiously, observing this addled woman in front of her. “What noise?”

As if on cue, the strange, horrendous sound cut through the air again, penetrating Trace’s eardrums, setting her teeth on edge, literally making her cringe. “That noise! What the hell is that?!”

It took every ounce of self-control she had not to burst into fits of hysterical laughter. Clearing her throat, holding onto as much of her composure as she could, Rachel said, “That is a rooster.”

“What the hell is wrong with it??!!” Trace demanded to know, her breathing now slowing down.

“Nothing. Roosters always crow at first light.”

“Why?”

Cocking her head, staring at Trace in disbelief, Rachel said, “For coming from a town that’s supposed to be ahead of the times, you sure are reactionary.” Off the irritated look on the tall woman’s face, the blonde hastily added, “but maybe you don’t have roosters there.”

Not moving, Trace folded her arms. “Is it going to do that every morning?”

“Of course, silly. That’s what roosters do.”

Her expression didn’t change. “Why?”

Yikes. She was obviously not a person who took a liking to awaking early, Rachel thought. Nervously fiddling with the fresh eggs in her basket, the blonde focused on checking each shell for breaks. “Well…the bible says the rooster crowing at dawn is a symbol of daily victory of light over darkness, good over evil.” She looked up at the detective who rolled her eyes. “What?”

“The bible. Uh huh.” She squeezed her eyes shut tightly as the rooster crowed one last time. “How do you feel about chicken for dinner?”

*****************

Okay, so she shouldn’t have made the crack about killing the rooster. But getting up every morning at before the sun was even up was going to be hell. She had adjusted her body clock to a swing shift schedule for the last five years. And what a temper that little blonde had, Trace thought, while putting on her freshly laundered denim shirt, buttoning up. It was just a question. She was used to working in the dark, why couldn’t she start her ‘chores’ in the afternoon and work late into the evening?

Damn, that wrap really hurt. She stretched her sore muscles as much as she could, pretty sure it was the injuries her body sustained from that fall to the ground yesterday and not the binding itself. God, she hoped not, knowing she was going to have to live with being wrapped every day regardless. She also needed a full bath. She cleaned up the honey that had smeared all over her chest during a night of obvious restless movement with a cloth and bowl of water Rachel had put in her room sometime before she awoke. But she still felt sticky. And just plain icky, in general.

And now she felt obligated to have breakfast, a meal she hated and usually skipped altogether in favor of sleeping, with her madder-than-a-wet-hen hostess.

Sighing heavily, she walked to the cabin with a slight apprehension that suddenly made her smirk. She had gone up against some of the most notoriously vicious criminals the streets had to offer and now she was nervous about facing an itty bitty farm girl? Well, Trace pondered, Rachel was quite irate when she stormed into the house after the dinner suggestion and the sleeping late question and then the detective had only poured gasoline onto the fire after Rachel quoted the bible to her again, something about laziness and Trace, being the up-at-the-crack-of-noon person she was, telling her what she could do with the ‘Good Book.’

Knocking on the open door, Trace leaned against the thick frame, watching Rachel putter, determined, around the wood stove, evidently still angry. Why the hell she wanted to feed Trace after she obviously insulted her faith in spouting bible verses was beyond her. God, Trace hated apologizing, it implied making mistakes and mistakes showed weakness. But she needed this woman’s help and she couldn’t get that by pissing her off the first day. And, for strange reasons unknown to her, she really did not want Rachel upset with her. At least, not this early in their alliance.

Clearing her throat, Trace stepped inside the cabin. “Uh, Rachel? I, uh, I apologize for my words earlier,” her voice was low and modulated. She wanted to get across that she was, indeed, sorry for being thoughtless and offensive but not for having, what would be around there, an unpopular opinion. That was something the blonde would have to live with if she wanted the detective to continue to keep her company and help her out with the land. “I was just a little unnerved by that bird and tired and hurting and…”

“And crabby. Don’t forget that one,” Rachel snapped at her. She was still facing the range, her hands on her hips.

“Okay. Crabby. Yes, I was certainly that,” Trace conceded, thinking she would have to make a conscious effort to be more congenial in the mornings, especially since there wasn’t going to be a way to get out of rising with that damn rooster.

“And surly…” The blonde’s tone had not lightened any, as she slid the contents of the skillet onto a plate with bread on it. There was also what looked like a cup of coffee next to the plate, which made Trace’s eyes light up. She took a small step toward the table as Rachel placed the pan back onto the stove.

“Surly, right, I thought we established that…” She so wanted to grab for that cup but was pretty sure Rachel wasn’t done verbally pouting yet. Well…maybe if she reached for it very slowly…

“And blasphemous!” Rachel whirled to face her, prompting Trace to pull her hand back so fast, she struck herself on the shoulder. The blonde pointed a finger at the detective, threatening impalement. “If you live here, you will have respect for the Lord’s word and the book that it is written in!”

Trace hadn’t realized it while it was happening but this little spitfire had just backed her up against a wall. She was beginning to wonder if it was safe to even eat the eggs the blonde scrambled for her. “Okay, okay…” She put her hands in front of her, gesturing a surrender. Rachel’s eyes flashed indignantly at her, as if daring her to dispute her behavior. “Okay. I’m sorry.” Trace reiterated, softly.

The blonde started to turn back toward the table when she heard Trace draw in a breath. Thinking the detective was going to start protesting or arguing, Rachel spun back toward her and held up her index finger again in warning.

“Okay, all right, I’ve got it. No bashing the bible.”

“And no taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

That was going to be a tough one…but Trace wasn’t going to admit it at that particular moment. “Got it.” She stayed put while Rachel walked back to the table and sat.

The blonde looked over at her. “Well, are you going to come eat or not?”

Prudently, she kept her mouth shut, walked to the table, joining her fiery little hostess. Picking up her coffee cup, she had it halfway to her lips when she noticed two very annoyed green eyes looking at her. Slowly, wisely, she silently set the mug back down, allowing Rachel to take her hand.

Bowing her head, Rachel closed her eyes. “Lord, we humbly thank you for your offering of this food. Amen.” She let go of Trace’s hand and began to eat.

Looking at the blonde for signs of anything else that might come between her and her caffeine, when Rachel said nothing and continued to eat, Trace finally got her first swallow of coffee. It was horrible. But when the blonde looked at her for her approval of the meal, the detective smiled, convincingly. “It’s wonderful. Thank you, Rachel.”

Oh, boy.

**********

18.

One of the good things about Rachel, Trace discovered, was that she only simmered briefly before boiling over, and then it was done. She said her piece about Trace’s attitude and before breakfast was finished, she was fine. The breakfast – with the exception of that sludge she called coffee – was actually quite tasty, too. Once she felt safe to actually dig in and eat it.

She was going to ask the blonde about washing up when Rachel told her the first thing she would like her to do. Bathing seemed futile if she was going to spend the morning on a sweaty horse, checking the perimeter fence for holes or breaks. Other than that, it sounded simple enough.

Until she walked into the stable. And realized that she would have to saddle up this suddenly mammoth-sized creature and actually sit on top of him, guiding him to where ever she needed him to go. She knew she would not be able to manipulate this animal as easily as she normally could human males. Her arms fell to her sides in defeat. The closest she had ever been to a horse was the carousel in the amusement park outside of town. And she couldn’t exactly ask Rachel, being that she was supposed to have been thrown from a horse resulting in her now mildly aching injuries.

Suck it up, Trace, she thought, how hard can it be?

An hour later, if she could have picked up the damn horse and thrown him, she would have. She was positive the beast was laughing at her, not that she blamed him. She was grateful Rachel had occupied herself with housework and cleaning the chicken coop and had not come to check on her.

In the previous sixty minutes she had attempted to saddle the horse. She had studied the leather seat intently, as if it was going to speak to her and give her implicit instructions. When it didn’t, she glanced at the horse, who was just as suspiciously eyeballing her in return, then grabbed the saddle by the horn and the cantle, pulling it off the post it was resting on, expecting to hoist it on the horse’s back just like John Wayne used to do in the movies. It never occurred to her that the damn thing would weigh almost thirty-five pounds.

Tugging it backward, freeing it of its support, momentum caused her to lose her balance and unintentionally thump down on her behind, finding the saddle unexpectedly on her lap. “Shit!’ As if her body needed any more bruising. Her sudden action prompted the horse to prance to the side a little and snort at her. “Shaaaadduuuup,” she told him, almost snickering at herself.

Standing up, brushing the straw off her jeans, she bent down and picked up the saddle, holding it, getting used to its weight. Feeling confident, she slowly closed in on the horse, a beautiful Palomino steed, and stood next to the animal’s left side. At least she remembered that mounting a horse was always done on the left, so it was natural to assume, any other kind of approach should probably be done on the left, also. Taking a deep breath, she lifted the saddle with concentrated strength, threw it up toward the horse’s back only to have it smack the animal on his right flank as it sailed over him and onto the stall floor on the other side. Which caused the horse to protest indignantly and dance, quite spiritedly, around her a few times, stopping directly in front of the door to his stall. Trapping her inside. She was positive she saw a ‘fuck you’ look in the animal’s big brown eyes. She and the horse repeated this strange ritual from several angles.

She stood there, making faces in contemplation, her hands resting on her hips, frustrated. “Look, buddy, work with me here, okay?” she addressed the horse, who had not moved from his stance between her and doorway. “All I want to do is take you out for a nice ride…with me on your back. If I knew how to ride bareback, I would. But I don’t, so it will be a lot easier if you just give me a break, okay?” She picked up the saddle once again. As fit as she was, her biceps were twanging from the continuous lifting of this awkwardly balanced item. “I don’t see why we can’t be friends.”

Her impatiently fake smile was rewarded by another snort and the clever animal quickly sidled over to her and trapped her up against the stall wall with his right flank. It happened so fast, Trace had no time to react, other than dropping the saddle, but suddenly there she was, unable to move with the side of the steed’s belly tight to her. “God, this is worse than a Laurel and Hardy movie,” she laughed, incredulously. Pushing the animal only resulted in his moving closer, if that was even possible.

“Very funny, very cute. Okay, you’ve showed me who’s the boss. You can move now.” He didn’t budge, other than shaking his head up and down several times. “Don’t piss me off, you future glue factory aspirant!” When pushing and raising her voice obviously didn’t impress him, Trace started to get angry. “Listen, Mr. Ed, I’m not fucking around here! Move!!” Which he did. Closer to her, really starting to restrict her movement. Maybe she shouldn’t be pissing him off.

Walking back to the cabin from the chicken coop, Rachel heard what she thought was an angry voice emanating from the stable. Stopping, she listened cautiously before reacting. Was that Trace? She should have been long gone checking the fences by now. Curiosity overtaking her, the blonde quietly entered the stable and walked toward the direction of the irate low alto she heard but could not see. Reaching Chief’s stall, Rachel clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from losing control to hilarity. As Chief had her pinned at an angle, all she could see was the very top of Trace’s head and her long legs next to the horse’s hind quarters.

“Move, you big bag of bones!! I’m not kidding here!” There was the sound of grunting and groaning, as though great effort was being put into getting the obstinate animal to move. “You big jackass, you’re not supposed to be this stubborn! Move, you son-of-a-bitch!” By this time, Trace was literally throwing her body against the horse, which seemed oblivious to this annoying creature in his space. “Augh!! God da-”

Rachel cleared her throat audibly, loud enough to interrupt the ranting brunette and get her attention. There was an abrupt silence.

“Gosh darn it,” Trace tempered, banging her head against Chief’s side. How was she ever going to explain her way out of this?

“Um…what are you doing?” this earnest question came from the disembodied voice of a sweet, young innocent woman who, the detective knew, was about to make a fool of her. Or, more accurately, enhance the fact that Trace was doing an excellent job of making a fool of herself. First the rooster, now the horse. Maybe working with animals was not going to be her forte.

There was no way out of this. Humility now raging through her normally arrogant persona, Trace started with a little chuckle. “Heh. Well, uh, it’s like this…I was trying to saddle him up and he wouldn’t cooperate.”

Shaking her head, Rachel stepped forward and easily coaxed Chief away from the now brooding, embarrassed detective. Flexing her arms the tall brunette folded them. “First,” the blond began, showing signs of smugness, “you have to be smarter than the horse.” She scratched the big steed under his chin, then leaned in and kissed him on the bridge of his nose. She then turned to Trace. “Were you actually trying to put a saddle on him without a blanket first? No wonder he rebelled.”

“Well…um…we do things differently where I’m from,” she bluffed, wondering how long she was going to be able to use that as an excuse.

Rachel raised an eyebrow. “Your horses must not last too long.” She lovingly ran her hand along the side of Chief’s head. “Did you even try to groom him first?”

“Uh…”

Rachel shook her head and picked up the brush. “You act like you have never saddled up a horse before. You sheriffs have someone do that for you?”

Trace knew an escape route when she saw one. “Yes, That’s it…we have a saddle person who does all that for us.” She studied Rachel intently as the blonde began removing dirt from Chief’s throatlatch, neck and then moved to his girth with a hard-bristled brush.

“Pick up that soft-bristled brush there and just do everything I do,” Rachel instructed.

Lifting the item, Trace began mimicking everything the blonde did. “Now…we’re doing this because…”

It took a minute for the blonde to realize she was supposed to finish the sentence. “If he’s not groomed first, he could get sores in his weight-bearing area. This keeps his coat in good condition, brings the oil up, keeps his coat healthy. Always start on his left side, always make sure he sees and hears you and always talk to him soft-like when you’re doing this.” Rachel waited and when she heard no noise coming from the tall detective, she straightened up and looked at her, waiting. “Well…?”

“Well what?”

“Talk to him.”

Trace scrunched up her face. Was the blonde kidding? She could barely hold a decent conversation with humans. She was grateful none of her co-workers were here to see this. She looked at Rachel, then at the horse and then back to the blonde like a deer caught in headlights. She opened her mouth to protest but nothing came out, so she snapped it shut. Glancing back at Chief, Trace cleared her throat. “Uh…heh…hi there, horsey…nice horsey,” she started, strained. Putting her hand up to pet the animal, Chief pulled his head back, abruptly, snorting again. Stepping back, Trace protested, “See? He just doesn’t like me!”

“Don’t much blame him. He knows you don’t like him.”

“Wh -? No, I like him. I do.” I just don’t have any experience around the damn things, she wanted to say, and the damn horse is taking advantage of it.

“His name is Chief,” the blonde supplied. “And we’ll work on your charm later,” she added dryly.

While both women continued to groom the cantankerous animal, Rachel advised the brunette in the etiquette of horse care, what specific equipment was for, safety tips on avoiding getting kicked, cleaning of the hooves and combing of the mane and tail.

Then, as opposed to demonstrate, Rachel instructed Trace on how to properly saddle Chief, how to fasten the cinches, how to adjust the stirrups and how to stay on the horse’s ‘good side’ while she was doing this. While the detective was concentrating on that task, Rachel fit Chief with his bit, bridle and reins. When it was time to ride out to the property line, Trace mounted Chief and did her best cowboy imitation by making a clicking noise with her mouth and kicking her heels into his haunches. The horse did not budge. Undaunted, she tried again, knowing the petite blonde was watching. Chief stubbornly remained in place.

Rolling her eyes, Rachel shook her head, stepped up to Chief and slapped him hard on his hind quarters. The animal responded immediately, lurching into a gallop out of the stable, nearly sending Trace backward onto the stall floor. But she hung on. And did something she’d never done before. She prayed.

**************************

By sheer luck, Trace had not fallen or been thrown from horse’s back and it certainly wasn’t from Chief’s lack of trying. She swore the animal waited until she eased up on her death grip around his neck and chose that particular time to jump over something – anything, the last object being a small shrub he could have just as easily moved around. When he landed, she thwacked down on the saddle so hard, her jaw slammed shut, nearly cracking every tooth in her head.

When Chief abruptly halted, it was about a foot away from the rail fence and it was only sheer strength that kept her from sailing over the horse’s head into that wooden barrier. Infuriated, Trace fluidly slid off the saddle, marching up to the front of the animal, staring him in the eyes.

“What the fuck is wrong with you??!!” Her fists rested on her hips, staring the horse down, the rage and terror so visibly on the surface, she was actually vibrating. “Are you trying to kill me??”

Chief snorted, blandly, then bent down and began dining on the high grass beneath him. Sputtering at this animal’s utter disregard for her safety and obvious lack of intimidation, she couldn’t even get any words out. Pacing, screaming, hissing, Trace continued to wear a path beside Chief until she calmed down. Taking deep breaths, she stopped in front of the horse.

“Okay, look. You’ve had your fun. You’ve made your point. But we’re not getting anywhere. I’m trying to help out your owner, here…” She paused as Chief actually looked up at her, accusingly. Trace rolled her eyes. “Okay! So she’s helping me out. Christ, what are you, a psychic?” Stopping abruptly, she stared at Chief, then looked skyward. “I don’t believe this…I’m trying to reason with a fucking horse!” Looking back at the animal, Trace slowly reached over to touch him, to hopefully signal a truce, make a connection.

Nodding his head up and down wildly, avoiding the detective’s hand, Chief backed away from her, turned around and, in a very cocky manner, trotted back toward the house, leaving the frustrated detective alone in the huge field.

“Son of a bitch!” the detective wailed, stomping her foot. She watched as Chief disappeared from her view. Great. Now she was stuck here, wherever ‘here’ was. Well…she knew she was still on Rachel’s land and maybe if she had been paying more attention to where she was going or had come from instead on concentrating on hanging on for dear life, she might have been able to find her way back. It wasn’t as if the damn horse had taken a straight line. He had carried her on a high speed tour of woods, through a shallow part of the river and what seemed like miles of flat, grassy land. Hopefully, if she wasn’t back by dark, the blonde would come looking for her. On a different horse.

That merry ride had done nothing to help the soreness and the aching her body was now barely tolerating. Concerned that the bouncing around may have re-opened her cut, she slipped her hand between the buttons of her shirt, feeling a minor seepage. “Shit,” she swore, softly but then could not help but break into a smile at the thought of Rachel sucking the excess honey off her fingers. She wasn’t too sure she could see that again and actually stay in her seat.

Trace looked around at the lush landscape that surrounded her, the range of grass, trees, shrubbery, a river and skies a deeper blue than she had ever seen before. Drawing in a deep breath, she inhaled fresh air for probably the first time in her life. She savored the moment, sighed, and then began walking along the rail fence in the direction from which she came. Common sense told her that, at some point, it had to bring her back to the house and the blonde.

In the two hours she had been walking along the fence, she had found a few minor breaks in the barrier, none of which appeared to be anything more than rotting or normal wear and tear. However, just before the river, she stopped and closely inspected a huge, probably fifty foot gap that most certainly looked as though it had been purposely created, almost as if it had been mowed down. Rails and splintered wood were everywhere, strewn about as though a herd of buffalo had trampled through it. Now that phrase finally made sense to the detective. The damage did not appear to be accidental, it looked malicious.

She was standing there, scratching her head, wondering how this may have occurred when she heard approaching horse hooves. Turning toward the sound, she was relieved to see Rachel canter up to her on Chief. Pulling up easily on the reins, the horse slowed to a stop.

“You know…” Rachel began, mildly amused, leaning her arms across the saddle horn, “one of the main reasons I need you here is so that I can get work done at the house while you do the field work. It isn’t much helping me, if I have to come out here and do your work, too.”

“Don’t you have any other horses?” Trace asked, glaring at Chief.

“Sure do. I have four others. Chief is the best, though.”

“That’s not particularly reassuring,” the detective commented, looking down, showing tiny signs of embarrassment.

“And he was already saddled up. So…what happened?”

“I have no idea. I got off him and he took off.”

“I meant the fence,” Rachel corrected her.

Trace looked up at her, while the blonde surveyed the destruction. “Oh. I don’t know. I was just thinking about that. Stampede, maybe? Do you have those around here?”

“Where there are cattle, there are stampedes.”

“Think that’s what happened, then?”

“More than likely,” she responded, her tone disgusted. “But I don’t think it was an accident.”

“Why?” Trace’s curiosity was genuine.

“I just don’t, that’s all.”

It was the expression on the blonde’s face that made Trace hesitate. It was a combination of emotions – anger, apprehension and something that definitely did not belong – shame.

What the hell was going on here?

There was a reason this young woman was living on this big area of land by herself…no parents, no husband, slaughtered cows, destroyed property… Something was going on and it was obvious Rachel was not going to be forthcoming with the details. At least not yet.

“Come on, let’s go back, have some lunch and then you can come back out here and start fixing it.”

Oh, goody. Manual labor. Well, hopefully she could muddle through mending a fence better than she could saddling and riding a horse. Speaking of which, “Do I have to ride Chief?”

“Better get used to him. He’s the fastest and the strongest.” Rachel held her hand out to Trace. “Haul up here.”

Looking at Rachel’s extended arm as though it were an electric eel, Trace blanched. “You mean ride? Together?”

“Well, yes. You do want something in your belly before you start working don’t you?”

Trace was hungry and Rachel obviously was a good cook. Hopefully, she hadn’t made any coffee. She looked up at the blonde again. Hmmm…why was she balking? Look how close their bodies would be…Trace you are such a hound, she admonished herself, nevertheless, sticking her foot in the stirrup, grabbing Rachel’s hand and swinging her tall, solid body closely behind the blonde’s.

“Hang on,” Rachel commanded and before Trace had time to react, the blonde kicked Chief into gear. She had no choice but to hold tight to the blonde’s waist. If she hadn’t been so terrified, she would have enjoyed the proximity much more.

**********

19.

Lunch consisted of homemade bread, and a broth thick with sliced vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, cabbage, celery, tomatoes and onions. Trace was also surprised to find the soup loaded with fresh basil and garlic, loving how those two herbs flavored just about anything to her liking.

Rachel was a chatty little thing, Trace discovered as she devoured her meal. Surprised at her ravenous appetite, she just listened and ate while the blonde rambled on about seasonal flowers coming up in her garden and then moving on to the novel she was reading, Wuthering Heights and, debating with the air the virtues of Emily Bronté’s writing.

Finishing, after two hefty helpings, Trace desperately needed something with which to cleanse her mouth. Swishing fresh apple cider around just wasn’t doing it. Waiting for Rachel to take a breath in between her solo conversation, the brunette finally jumped in when the blonde took a sip of her beverage.

“You wouldn’t happen to have an extra toothbrush lying around anywhere, would you?”

Setting her cup back on the table, she squinted into the pale blue eyes. “Toothbrush? One of those things with a bone handle and boar’s hair bristles?”

Well, that certainly did not sound like something Trace wanted to stick into her mouth. “Is that all you have?”

Standing, picking up her bowl and Trace’s and carrying it to the bucket to be washed, Rachel said, “I don’t have one of those. They cost a lot of money.”

“What do you use to clean your teeth?” She almost dreaded the answer but she knew, whatever it was, she would have to abide by it because her teeth were feeling pretty fuzzy and her mouth was tasting like what one might remove from Chief’s stall with a pitchfork.

“Depends on what I have available…baking soda or chalk.”

“Chalk?” The thought of chalking her teeth was not an appealing one…but neither was never brushing her teeth again.

It was off the blonde’s expression after asking about being able to immediately use either item to clean her teeth with, that Trace realized brushing three times a day was not going to be a plausible habit. Nor were regular hot showers or daily ‘constitutionals’ in the comfort of one’s own indoor bathroom, timely shaving, douching or reaching into her refrigerator after a shift and cracking open a cold beer or two.

Oh, the challenges…

****************************************

After placing clean gauze over her slightly oozing cut, the detective reluctantly left the house to utilize the ‘facilities’ again. Trace was at least grateful that an old Farmer’s Almanac with a hole punched in the corner was hung on a nail in the outhouse for the sole use of wiping one’s self. It sure as hell beat drip dry and she didn’t even want to think at how long she’d have to sit there or what she might have to use for anything more complicated than emptying her bladder. Old jokes about corn cobs suddenly sprang to mind making her shudder at the thought.

Using the outdoor pump, Trace rinsed off her hands and headed into the barn where, together, without much talking, she and Rachel lifted rails, posts and stakes onto the light, uncovered wagon which was already loaded with an axe, shovel, nails, string and a mallet. Then Rachel hitched Chief up and sent the tall stranger on her way.

Twelve half-round pine rails, eight feet long, hung over the end edge of the five foot flat bed wagon and, placed on top of them had been six posts extending only a foot longer, as Trace let the horse lead her back to the area by the river where the fence line had been destroyed. Maybe by her not trying to be in charge, she and Chief might be able to suspend their mutual hostilities. That would be nice, since the horse was getting on her last nerve.

Rachel had told her that this was all the extra, prepared rails and posts she had, that any other mending would have to be done with freshly split wood. Which meant Trace was probably going to have to find a Home Depot, she ruefully laughed to herself, a logging place that would sell her pre-cut fencing, another giggle, or chop the damn things herself, which stopped any frivolous thinking altogether. Oh, well…if she hadn’t been in shape before she got here, she had no doubt that would change. Soon.

Once again, the small blonde had been somewhat vague and non-committal regarding the possible reason for the damaged barrier. What was it she said, Trace thought, as she climbed down from her perch and walked back to the strong standing fence area to inspect it? It was probably the neighbors not being very neighborly. That was understating it, she was sure, kind of like Trace saying, Vincent DeSienna just didn’t like her.

Never having built or repaired one of these, Trace studied the simple structure so that she would have an idea as in how to begin. Looked easy enough, she mused, the rails inserted into holes in the posts that seemed to be held in place by their own weight. Walking the fence line – or where it should have been – she was relieved to see that only two posts had been splintered beyond repair and the rest were still intact. The ground holes that the posts set in were still there and all it would take is a little more dirt to support the standing post.

Five hours later, the sun was setting and the detective was finished and pretty darned proud of herself. Not to mention pretty darned sore and exhausted. Riding a horse had used muscles she hadn’t even known existed and mixed with the lifting, hauling, dragging and balancing of the posts and rails, had taken its toll. Looking around one last time at her handy work, she nodded. Not bad for a novice. All the splintered wood cleaned up and loaded back on the wagon, she climbed into the driver’s seat, yanked the reins to the right and Chief snorted and sauntered back toward the main house. Huh. She fixed the fence without incident and the horse didn’t give her a hard time. Things were looking up.

She wondered what the blonde might have prepared for supper. She didn’t care, as long as it was edible and plentiful. She felt so hungry she could have chewed on the reins all the way back, and convinced herself it was jerky.

Thirty minutes later, it was pitch black and she was back at the barn, barely being able to move off the wagon. Her muscles had tightened up to the point where they felt locked into place. Not one to complain about or easily show pain, Trace inhaled sharply as she landed on her feet, concerned her back was going to give out before she could unhitch Chief and get him back to his stall.

She had just hung up his tack when she heard a voice behind her say, “I was kind of expecting you back before sunset. I was getting a little worried. Everything okay?”

The inflection from the blonde was soft, concerned. Despite her discomfort and her body’s demand for rest, the detective found herself smiling. She took in air, breathing from her diaphragm, hoping not to show how miserable she really felt and turned around, plastering a smile on her face. “Everything’s great,” she fibbed, hoping she had not missed dinner.

“How much did you get done?”

“All of it,” Trace told her, indignantly. Did she think she was incapable?

“All of it?! Oh my Lord, no wonder you’re moving like you’re wading in a lake of molasses!” Rachel was astounded. “I never expected you to do it all, Trace, just to start it, maybe get two or three done.”

“What?” the detective intoned, weakly. “I just thought…” She leaned back against the wall. “Augh!” Trace exhaled in frustration, deflating.

The blonde approached her, placing a hand on her arm. “Next time, I’ll be more clear.” She tugged lightly on Trace’s shirt. “Come on, wash up and let’s get something in your belly and then let’s see if I can get you feeling better…”

For the first time, the brunette was glad that didn’t have the double meaning she would have originally hoped for. She was just too damned tired.

**************************************

Trace sat at the table, barely able to hold her head up as Rachel set a bowl of stew before her, the heavenly heat rising and caressing her sense of smell. Her first bite provoked an almost indecent moan at the tasty array of vegetables, meat and gravy-thick liquid. After the famished detective had eaten most of the contents of the bowl, she finally spoke.

“Rachel, this is wonderful, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the blonde beamed, “one of my specialities is rabbit stew.”

Stopping mid spoonful, Trace looked up at her. “Rabbit? That’s what the meat is in here?”

Rachel could not read the expression on the brunette’s face. “Yes.”

“This wouldn’t be one of those cute little bunnies around the side of Chief’s stall, would it?”

“Yes. That is what they are bred for. Food.”

Trace put the spoon down and wiped her mouth with her hand. “Thanks. Think I’m done.”

“But you didn’t finish…”

“It’s…I’m fine…too tired to eat, anyway.”

“Didn’t you like it?”

“It was delicious, Rachel, really.” Except during her fiasco with that stubborn horse today, she had made friends with the six rabbits in that cage and even named them: Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, Bugs and Thumper. She couldn’t bear to think of which one she might have just eaten.

Rachel cleared the dinnerware in front of Trace, who put her head down and rested it on her folded arms on the table. Moments later she felt a hand on her shoulder. “I know what will make you feel better.”

“A sledgehammer to the forehead?” Trace muttered.

“Heavens, no,” Rachel looked horrified, not realizing the detective was joking. The twenty-first century sense of humor was not making the nineteenth century woman laugh. Yet. “I have a jar of peppermint oil that I want you to take to your room and rub it on your aching areas. You will feel better by morning.”

Trace peeked up at the blonde, skeptically.

“The menthol from the peppermint leaves soothes irritation and ache.”

Sitting up, the detective looked at Rachel, cocking her head. “How do you know all this stuff?”

The blonde smiled warmly at her. “The Bible.”

“You learned all of this healing and nutritional stuff from reading the bible?” Trace’s tone was incredulous.

“Absolutely. The use of peppermint can be traced back to Moses and the burning bush -”

Putting her hand up, Trace said, “All right, I believe you.” She slowly, agonizingly stood up, turning toward her. “What I really need is a full body massage.” She had said it as a thought out loud, never expecting a comment in return.

So, when Rachel responded with, “I agree but my supply of olive oil is low. Otherwise, I would have given you one,” Trace nearly lost all semblance of decorum and restraint. She had to bite her lip, close her eyes and shake the X-rated thought out of her R-rated brain.

She looked the innocent blonde directly in the eyes. “You were going to massage me with olive oil?”

“Yes.”

“All over?”

“Yes.”

“That’s in the bible??”

“Yes. Olive oil massaged into the skin has wonderful healing powers, more long-term than peppermint.”

The image of Rachel’s hands rubbing oil deeply into Trace’s body made her shiver. A hint of a smile graced the detective’s face as she passed Rachel, putting a hand on the smaller woman’s shoulder. “I think we’re luckier you just had this.” She accepted the small jar from the perplexed blonde, thanked her and retreated to her room in the barn.

*****

20.

The tall, black-haired detective barely moved a muscle once she got into bed. She had applied the peppermint to the areas of her body that hurt the most and settled down to reap the rewards of the chilling then hot sensation that followed, almost as if she had gone to the drugstore and bought a mentholated rub. Her exhaustion so overwhelming, Trace fell into unconsciousness and never even woke up when the rooster crowed at the break of dawn.

Because of all the work Trace had done yesterday and assuming how much discomfort she must have been in, Rachel decided not to disturb her. She had checked on her at least three times since gathering eggs at sunrise and the detective had not shifted from the position she had fallen asleep in the night before.

Preparing breakfast, the blonde was going to rouse the brunette to feed her before the day wasted away when sudden nausea took hold of her and she barely made it outside. The smell of eggs cooking had never bothered her before but they were sure making her pretty sick now. She didn’t actually heave anything but it rose to her throat threateningly.

Halfway to the stove, the queasiness returned and Rachel raced back to the front porch not being able to control the contents of her stomach spewing forward, missing the sore, sleepy detective by mere inches.

“Yeow,” Trace jumped aside. “Whatever you had for breakfast, don’t make me any…” she joked, then wished she hadn’t. She watched helplessly as the blonde, held her belly, lurched and trembled until finally the sensation subsided. By that time the detective was on the porch, holding the blonde’s hair away from her face with one hand, her other hand on Rachel’s back. “You okay?”

Nodding, gasping, eyes tearing uncontrollably, Rachel straightened up. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I must be coming down with something…”

“Stomach flu?” Trace offered.

The blonde looked at her alarmed. “Influenza? I hope not.”

Keeping a hand on her back, Trace slowly ushered Rachel into the house and to a chair. “You look pale. Can I get you anything?”

Before Rachel could respond, bile rose in her throat again and she clamped her hand over her mouth. Recognizing the warning, Trace reached a long arm over to the bucket and grabbed a clean bowl, getting it to the blonde just in time but not before she got splashed by the smaller woman’s vomit. Not exactly the bodily fluid exchange bonding moment between them Trace was hoping for.

When Rachel’s stomach finally seemed a little more stable, the brunette left the bowl in her lap and retrieved a rag she had dampened under the indoor pump. As Trace wiped the blonde’s face with it gently and then rested it against her forehead, Rachel was grateful for the cooling stimulation

“What can I get you to help with that upset tummy there?” Trace asked the blonde, still squatting by the chair Rachel was sitting in.

“Ginger powder. I have some in a jar over there.” A shaky finger pointed toward the anteroom. “There should be hot water in the tea kettle. If you would be kind enough to get me a cup, I’ll mix it together and it should help.”

Trace placed the blonde’s hand on the rag and guided it back up to her forehead. Standing, she retrieved everything Rachel asked for and placed it on the table in front of her. The blonde still looked a little green around the gills as Trace kneeled before her again and felt for a fever.

“You’re clammy,” the detective announced. “Could have been something you ate.”

“I haven’t eaten anything yet,” Rachel stated, taking in big gulps of air. She poured some powder from the jar into the steaming cup of hot water, stirred it with a spoon and left it there as another wave of nausea overtook her.

Now racked with dry heaves, the blonde bent over at the waist, resting her head on her own lap. Trace gently placed her hand on Rachel’s back and stroked up and down her backbone. “It’s okay. You’re okay,” the detective comforted in a soothing tone of voice. Once again she surprised herself by a nurturing instinct she never thought existed in her. First she felt protective and now this? Well, she would try to sort it all out later. “Do you need to go lay down, Rachel?”

“No,” came the muffled response, “I’ll be okay in a moment…soon as I get some ginger in me…”

When Rachel made no attempt to raise her head, Trace took the cup off the table and stirred the contents, blowing on it to make it cool enough for the blonde to hopefully sip. When she felt it was drinkable, she smoothed Rachel’s hair. “Come on, try some of this…you need to get something in you to make you feel better.”

Lifting her head slightly, it was just enough for Trace to slide the cup in. Holding it to the blonde’s lips, she patiently waited until the blonde took a small drink, then another, then took the cup in her own hands, sitting up slowly. A few more sips and Rachel closed her eyes. “Thank you, Trace,” she told her, gratefully.

“Sure. You okay?”

“I think I will be,” Rachel responded, weakly

“Good. Listen…I, um, need to bathe. Do you have anything I could use for soap? And my clothes smell of sweat. I hate to ask this but I have nothing else to wear…do you think I might be able to borrow something of your father’s until I can wash my stuff?”

Nodding, the blonde said, “You know where his clothes are…you are welcome to wear anything that fits.”

“Thank you.” She placed her hand over Rachel’s before standing up. “Anything I can do for you?”

“No…I’m…I’ll be fine. The ginger is helping.” Her voice and mannerisms were still somewhat frail but stronger than before.

Pausing at the door to the bedroom, Trace looked back at the blonde and studied her intently. Rachel was staring blankly toward the anteroom, holding her cup with both hands, tears streaming down her face. The look of despair on her face was heartbreaking and the detective felt compassionate and powerless at the same time. Something had happened to draw this blanket of desolation over this house and this woman. Something bad. Trace could feel it, taste it, and she was going to find out what it was.

******

21.

The area of the river where Trace chose to strip and bathe, then wash her clothes appeared isolated enough. This was going to be a new experience, public exhibitionism…although, most likely, her only audience would be some wildlife and vegetation, she still felt exposed and vulnerable. She remembered reading stories or seeing movies regarding the ‘old west’ that had mischievous packs of boys who would spy on individuals washing themselves in rivers, streams and lakes and steal their clothes. Should that happen, this particular case would present an interesting set of circumstances and would mean Trace would have to move on, a thought that, at once, made her sad. This situation she had fallen into with Rachel was as close to perfect as she was probably going to get. She needed the petite blonde and obviously – although she didn’t know why yet – the smaller woman needed her.

Cold at first but refreshing, Trace let her skin adjust to the temperature before she moved about underwater, feeling the strain of the motion literally drain from her body. Although this felt like heaven, she wisely decided not to stray too far away from her clothes, just in case.

She was grateful it was such a nice warm day as she scrubbed herself with lye soap – not quite the ‘ocean breeze’ scent she was used to emerging from the shower smelling like but since, before entering the water, she carried the odor of a rancid wart hog, she could deal with the thick but cleaner aroma of a smoking coal stove.

Washing her hair with soap was also something she was not used to. It was bad enough it wasn’t shampoo but with no conditioner to calm down her normally unruly mop, she could only imagine the results. Thankfully she had less hair now to have to deal with and it’s not like she felt she had to look particularly attractive for anyone…except maybe Rachel. Which was probably a wasted effort, anyway.

Once she had finished rinsing the minute amount of lather out of her hair, she waded back toward the rocks her belongings were piled on and began abrasively scouring her shirt, jeans, socks, wrap and boy briefs she was so fond of. Satisfied that they were as clean as she could get them, she cautiously emerged naked from the water, toweled off with a large linen cloth Rachel had provided her with and quickly dressed in a bulky flannel shirt, much too warm for the weather, and a pair of worn blue jeans that were at least one size too big. She chose those specific items to wear in case she happened to run into anyone between the river and the house, so that her rather ample chest without it’s being bound down, wouldn’t be quite so noticeable.

Walking barefoot back to toward the barn to hang her clothes to dry, Trace marveled once more at the crisp, fresh air and the untainted setting surrounding her. If only the world didn’t have to change in a way where it ravaged Mother Nature.

Seeing the cabin come into view as she rounded a corner, she observed Rachel on the porch shaking out a small, woven rug, then watched her go back inside. Trace shook her head in disbelief. Had she only been here a little over a day? It felt like so much longer. By choice she had left her troubled existence behind and come here but by fate she had landed smack dab in the middle of Rachel Young’s distraught life. She could tell herself whatever was going on was none of her business but she instinctively knew that wasn’t an option. Whatever was going on here, Trace was bound and determined to find out fix it.

**********

Rachel robotically placed the throw rug back on the floor by the indoor pump. Knowing Trace would be returning any minute now, she knew it was time to prepare to go into Sagebrush to get some groceries. This would be the first time she would have been in town since before the…incident.

Well, at least Trace would be with her, that gave her some consolation. And then she wondered why. She felt safe in the presence of the taller, rather chivalrous woman she hoped everyone would believe was a man. She freely admitted she liked having the detective around, even if she did have some rather strange habits and was a little…spoiled. As for Sagebrush and this outsider, there would be questions…and speculation…and definitely talk. Oh, yes, the town was definitely good at that. But, she knew, there would be gossip soon enough anyway, what was a little more at this point?

A slight taste of ginger bubbled up into the blonde’s throat and she swallowed it back, reliving the morning’s queasiness. Just that reminder and what it meant caused tears of shame to sting her eyes again. She couldn’t be carrying Ben Crane’s baby, couldn’t be! Yet just as sure as she knew the day was long, she knew she was with child. Her monthly curse should have come and gone eleven days ago and she was never late. And now she was sick in the morning, just like her cousin, Esther, had been eight months before she bore twin girls and her neighbor, Elizabeth Reddick, had been before she twice miscarried.

Wiping her eyes with her apron, Rachel took a deep breath and looked skyward. Why did this have to happen? She had always considered herself a faithful Christian woman, never did anything that would have embarrassed the church, the congregation, or disgraced her family, never betrayed the teachings of the bible, never turned her back on God. Why did she feel as though the Lord was turning His back on her? First her father suffered so horribly before he died, then her mother was taken from her, then Tommy and then…that night. Why did it seem like the devil himself was after her?

And who really was this Trace Sheridan and why did she feel so secure with total stranger, a woman, of all things?

Hearing footsteps on the porch, Rachel turned to see Trace enter the cabin. “Well, I feel better, cleaner,” the brunette commented.

“Good,” Rachel smiled, absently.

“How about you? Feeling better?” Her concern was genuine.

“Oh, yes,” the blonde lied. “Much.”

*****************************************

22

The decision to finally go into town had not been an easy one for Rachel to make. She had no doubt that Ben Crane had made good on his promise to announce to all of Sagebrush that he had, to put it mildly, engaged in intimate relations with her. Elizabeth Reddick would not look the blonde in the eye when she returned a pie tin a week ago, her husband, Matthew, demanding she hand the plate to Rachel and they leave immediately. The expression on Matthew’s face was one of disdain and disgust, Elizabeth’s one of question and confusion. And when Isaac Tipping brought the last order out from his father’s store, even though he was young, he looked at her differently, too – probably shocked by the not-so-nice things that were being said about her in the stockroom. They should all know better but obviously they didn’t. Or didn’t dare not to.

Rachel did not understand how anyone could actually believe she would willingly submit to Ben Crane, of all people. Especially after their families had been at odds for years and she had so adamantly and publicly turned down his marriage proposals. Crane’s flagrant womanizing was no secret and neither was the blonde’s engagement to the dashing and much more upstanding Thomas Baines. Why anyone would think she would allow the town pig into her bed when she refused that privilege to her own fiancée was beyond all reasonable thought to her.

But then what had really happened defied all reasonable thought. She had not invited Crane anywhere near her private chambers, her body, he took what he wanted all on his own, without her permission, her consent. And now look at the mess she was in… She had heard stories about this sort of thing happening to other women and always thought they must have done something to encourage such behavior. Therefore, because she wasn’t that kind of girl, she never thought something like this would happen to her.

And he was a Crane. Nobody went against the Cranes, not even the sheriff, the circuit judges or even Pastor Edwards. Bad things happened when a Crane did not get what they wanted and she was living proof.

If she could stay on the ranch the rest of her life and never have to go into town again, she would. If only that were a rational and plausible solution. However, it was not, and she steeled herself to face the stares, the whispers, the treatment and everything else that now went with her sullied reputation.

And now she was going to show up in town with a total stranger sitting by her side. Complicated by the fact that the man everyone would see was really a woman, pretending to be a man and hopefully no one would catch on and be the wiser. Rachel wasn’t sure why they needed to perpetuate this charade as she believed her life would be so much easier right now if her companion dropped the facade, but she gave Trace her word that she would, indeed, go along with it and maybe it would work out for the best. Trace, as a woman, could have been easily explained away as a distant relative come to visit but the brunette, as a man, would create a little more stir…as if she needed anything more to add to the pot.

A month earlier, it would not have caused as much talk, cowboys wandered through town constantly, looking for work and there was no question Rachel needed the help. Her father had hired saddlestiffs all the time, especially during harvest, to work the land with him, to repair things that needed fixing, to help transport the modest head of cattle to auction, to do whatever needed to be done that required an extra pair of hands. But with the systematic destruction of the ranch’s resources and Rachel’s livelihood, and the bragging of Ben Crane, the townspeople would surmise that there would be only one thing the blonde could be paying the stranger with…herself.

It was humiliating that she would now be thought of like that, devastating that a place where her ancestors were some of its original settlers, where she was born, raised, schooled and almost married in, could turn on her so suddenly. The best she could do would be to bravely face down her detractors and deny everything and hope the knowledge that it was a blowhard, windbag Crane running her name into the ground would make the glimmer of difference in what people really believed deep down inside.

Regardless of the consequences, they were now on their way, the wagon being pulled leisurely by Moses, an old workhorse Rachel normally only used to go to town and back. He wasn’t good for much else anymore at his advanced age but the blonde didn’t have the heart to sell him and knew she couldn’t shoot him.

As they ambled along, the ranch woman stole a glance at the detective. She looked pretty convincing in Rachel’s father’s pin-striped, cotton, collarless work shirt and blue denim trousers that needed to be held up by suspenders. Trace’s binding had dried quickly in the sun so she was wearing it underneath the jersey and Rachel had fixed her up with a neckerkerchief to help disguise the fact she had no Adam’s apple, and her father’s black straw cowboy hatwith a 3 1/2″ shapeable brim that pulled down over the detective’s baby blues in a persuasively menacing dip. It was a little big for her but she wore it well and it added to the illusion of the detective being male. If only Trace didn’t feel like Charles and Carolyn Ingalls from Little House On The Prairie.

The blonde had properly covered her head with a pale green bonnet that tied under her chin. It closely matched her green and white gingham ‘going to town’ dress that Trace thought looked absolutely adorable on her. Anyone riding upon them would assume they were the perfect couple and suddenly, unexpectedly, the brunette wished they were. That revelation struck her like ice water thrown in her face and she quickly looked around her, then skyward. Where the hell were all these outlandish instincts coming from? First protective, then nurturing and now commitment? She shook her head, as if that would result in clearing away these recent epiphanies.

“What’s wrong?” Rachel asked, her voice bringing Trace back to reality.

“What?”

“What’s wrong? You look…I don’t know…startled.”

“No, I’m fine. So, what are we getting in town?”

“Well, I need flour, bacon, rice, coffee, tea, sugar, dried beans, dried fruit, hardtack -”

“Hardtack? What’s that?”

“It’s pilot bread…um…like a cracker…you’ve never had hardtack?”

“Well, if I had, would I have asked you what it was?”

Rachel narrowed her eyes. “Sometimes your tone leaves a lot to be desired.”

Trace was about to argue that point when she realized the blonde was right. Smiling, she said, “I’ll try to be more aware of that.”

“Try hard,” the blonde threw out before continuing the list. “Salt, corn meal, corn – parched and ground, saleratus -”

“Saleratus?”

“Baking soda,” Rachel amended, “and one small keg of vinegar.”

“A keg?”

“I use it for a lot of things, it doesn’t last long.”

“I think of keg, I think of beer,” The detective commented, wishing she had one at that moment. “The town got a saloon?”

“Yes, Wilbur’s, but you don’t want to go there, do you?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because that’s where the men go -” she stopped and looked at the tall woman seated next to her. “Maybe you going into Wilbur’s wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

Yeah…a damned bar! Woo hoo! Now they were talking. And if they had a pool table…had pool tables been invented then? Trace was pretty sure they had. All she needed to do was play a game or two of eight ball and that alone would be convincing enough…they never would have believed a woman could play pool like that. Maybe she could even hustle some money.

As if Rachel had been reading her mind, she piped up and said, “Or maybe it’s not such a good idea…”

Trace noticed that the closer they got to the outskirts of Sagebrush, the more the blonde began to fidget. “You okay?”

Nodding apprehensively, Rachel said, “People are going to talk, just don’t pay them any mind.”

“You mean about me?”

“Well…yes. They might say other things, too. I live alone and people like to gossip.”

“Would it be easier for you if I just stayed back on the ranch?” Trace inquired, trying to read the true meaning of Rachel’s words.

“Easier? Yes. But then if anyone rode by or came out and saw you, it would seem as if I was ashamed of something and trying to hide you – or what you appear to be – a man – and that would only make things worse.”

They rode a few more minutes in awkward silence until Trace decided that she needed to know. “Rachel, why are you alone on that big place? I gather your father died but since I’ve been here, I get the feeling something’s going on. Mind telling me what it is?”

Looking away from the detective, the blonde inhaled deeply, holding the breath in for a long moment before expelling it, cautiously. “I just had a run of bad luck the past year, that’s all. It’s still hard to talk about it. All I’m trying to say is people are guessing about a lot of things and don’t know, so just bear that in mind when you hear things.”

Not the answer she wanted but it would have to do. For now. “Okay. Is there a pawn shop in town?”

“Yes. Right next to the bank. Joseph Turner owns it. Why do you need to go there?”

“Because I don’t have any money. I had to leave in a hurry so I couldn’t take any with me. But I have a few items of jewelry I would like to pawn.” Looking over at Rachel, the brunette observed an expression of concern on the younger woman’s face. “What?”

“It’s just that Joseph Turner is a very nosy man, thinks he knows everything and wants to know everything that he doesn’t already think he knows.”

“So what you’re saying is don’t tell him anything and don’t listen to anything he tells me.”

“Yes. Please.”

“Want to give me a hint as to what I might be hearing?”

“How would I know that?” the blonde snapped, unreasonably defensive.

“I just thought you might have an idea, that’s all.” Trace responded, more composed than she normally would have been at anyone jumping down her throat like that for no apparent reason.

After another several seconds of silence, Trace felt Rachel’s hand on her arm. “I apologize, Trace. I haven’t been in town for a while and I know there will be questions about you…”

As the blonde’s voice trailed off, Trace could not ignore her body’s reaction to the light touch of Rachel’s fingers on her bicep, even if it was through fabric. Goosebumps rose everywhere and she was grateful for the binding that covered her traitorous telltale nipples. She briefly covered the smaller hand with her own. “Don’t worry about it, okay? I’ll handle anyone who decides to be…disrespectful.”

And Rachel instinctively knew Trace meant it as an unexpected and unusual rush of calm settled over her.

**********

23

Main Street Sagebrush was right out of the movies, Trace marveled while Moses lumbered his way into town. As they rounded the corner, there was a boardwalk connecting the general store, mercantile, saloon, blacksmith shop and livery stable with the butcher shop. Across the street was a three story hotel, a shorter bank edifice, the three balls suspended over the next building which indicated a pawn shop, the barred windows which obviously marked the sheriff’s office and jail and several other merchant shops not as easily identifiable – with a small chapel separated from the rest of the buildings by a good two blocks.

The blatant staring began as soon as they passed the first couple of people. The blonde nodded politely but received no such courtesy in return. Trace couldn’t tell why the reception was so hostile but she simmered at the thought that Rachel might be treated so poorly and rudely because of her presence. She realized she had only lived there two and a half days but all she experienced was unconditional kindness from the woman seated next to her (well…maybe a few ecclesiastical conditions, but other than that…) and, regardless of the era she now lived in, the assumption was just wrong. Little did she know that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Stopping Moses in front of Foster’s Grocery, Trace stepped down first and in a very gentlemanly manner, assisted the blonde from the wagon to the ground. Thanking her, demurely, Rachel walked to the back of the wagon and assessed the bounty she had brought to sell as Trace tied the horse’s reins to the hitching post.

Luther Foster, the grocer, stepped out onto the wooden sidewalk in front of his store, wiping his hands on his apron. He glanced briefly at the blonde then eyed Trace suspiciously.

“Afternoon, Mr. Foster. I brought you your usual order,” Rachel told him, indicating the baskets of vegetables. The blonde’s tone was pleasant, devoid of the disgrace she felt at the hands of Ben Crane. Maybe if she pretended everything was fine, it would be.

Or not. “Rachel,” he acknowledged her with an absent nod, as he scrutinized the tall stranger who glared back at him. “I’m not sure I’m gonna to be able to take your vegetables anymore.”

“Why not?” the question came from the strong but modulated voice of the cowboy.

Who’s this?”

“This is Trace Sheridan, Mr. Foster. He is helping me out on the ranch for a bit.” She had to consciously remind herself to refer to Trace as ‘he.’

Foster frowned, shaking his head and returned his attention to Rachel, ignoring the outstretched hand of the unusual looking young man. “He staying out at the place with you?” The question was asked with obvious disapproval in his voice.

“Yes, but he’s -”

“Sleeping in the barn,” Trace supplied, interrupting the blonde and stepping forward. “And I am right here, Mr. Foster, you can speak to me directly.”

The grocer was quickly angered by the insolence of this stranger but retreated a few paces when Trace stepped up on the boardwalk in front of him, towering over Foster by several inches. “O…Okay…” He now avoided looking the brunette directly in the eyes. “How is she paying you?”

“Paying me? She’s feeding me and giving me a place to lay my head, that’s how she’s paying me. I’m sure you don’t have a problem with that.” The fierce blue eyes bore a hole through him.

Rachel was taken aback by how Trace could go from accommodating to intimidating in no time at all and was temporarily speechless at this woman so easily standing up to a man. She was beginning to understand why the brunette thought the men here would want to kill her. Maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic but no woman stood up to a man like that, challenged one like that. If Luther Foster had any idea Trace was female, he never would have backed down, especially since he had a tendency to be a bit of a browbeater, specifically toward women.

Despite that, the blonde liked Foster, was grateful that he continued to purchase her crop after everything that had happened on the ranch. She knew the Cranes had started to threatened him and he was running the risk of his home and business burning down if he didn’t comply. But Foster had been her father’s best friend and if Rachel didn’t provide him with produce, he would have to get his vegetables from a grower in Jefferson, a town twenty miles east of Sagebrush. Also, if he lost his store, everyone in Sagebrush, including the Crane’s would be affected so she was pretty sure at least half of that threat was empty. However, she wasn’t quite so optimistic about the future of her own commerce.

“No. No problem with that.” Foster was beginning to regain some of his composure. He cleared his throat. A small crowd had started to gather, watching this exchange.

“Now, why don’t we try this again?” Trace stuck out her hand.

Looking at it, then back up into the unyielding expression on the flawless face, knowing it really wasn’t a request, Foster accepted the handshake this time, the stranger’s grip strong and steady.

“Trace Sheridan,” the brunette offered.

“Luther Foster.” He was a slightly rotund man, prone to sweating with no apparent provocation. Now he was perspiring profusely. He liked being the center of attention when he was on the upside of the situation but never when he appeared to be on the losing end. Wisely, he allowed the cowboy drop the handshake first. “Where you from, Mr. Sheridan?”

“Cottonwood.”

“Never heard of it. Where is that?”

“Far from here,” Trace and Rachel chorused. Surprised by the blonde’s joining her in her answer and on the boardwalk, Trace couldn’t help but noticed the look of relief on the grocer’s face.

“Trace, why don’t you go tend to your errands and Mr. Foster and I will work out the problem, hmmm?” Again, the blonde laid a gentle hand on the detective’s forearm, eliciting the same reaction as before.

Not taking her eyes off Foster, the brunette nodded. “Only if you’re sure…”

“These people are my friends, Trace,” Rachel continued, hoping to make a point not so much to the detective but to Foster and all the others who had stopped to watch. “I’m sure.”

She looked at the blonde, searched her face for any hint that she should really stay. There was none. She patted Rachel’s hand, nodded to Foster and left the boardwalk, heading toward the pawn shop.

*********

24

“What’s going on, Rachel?” Foster asked, after the wagon had been emptied and they were now in the privacy of the grocer’s small office. He sat down, opening his cash box and counted out the few coins he owed the blonde minus the amount for the goods she would be taking away from his store.

“What do you mean, Mr. Foster?”

Shaking his head, grimly, the grocer said, “First, Ben Crane comes into town just before the drive to Dodge City and tells anyone who will listen at Wilbur’s that you and he…well,” he lowered his eyes, “you know.” Flushed, he handed her the payment for the produce, “and then you bring a total stranger to town with you, surly as a grizzly, looks to be at least half-injun…people are talking, Rachel…” Foster marked the exchange in his grocer’s book, then stood up as Rachel put the money in her purse.

“It isn’t true. What Ben Crane said, Mr. Foster. You know why he is saying those things.”

“Even if it ain’t true, Rachel, he’s a Crane and no one’s gonna call him a liar.”

“Not to his face, anyway,” Rachel finished for him.

“Precisely. But he’s got the town talking, anyway. And now this? What would your daddy say if he knew you had what looks to be a half-breed living out at your place? Don’t matter where he claims to be sleeping, it don’t look right, a man out at your place…”

“I need the help, Mr. Foster. I can’t do it by myself anymore. Daddy used to hire drifters to help out certain times of the year, you know that. If he couldn’t do it alone, no one should expect me to!” Her voice rose defensively with each word.

“I know, Rachel, but it just ain’t proper!” He wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. “If you’d just sell that place to the Cranes, you wouldn’t have to worry -”

“Mr. Foster, I should slap you for suggesting such a thing,” Rachel said, boldly. “If my daddy heard you say that…”

Foster put his hand up. “I know. I know what your daddy went through to keep that spread away from them. But it’s time to be reasonable, Rachel. They are going after you a little bit at a time. You can’t win. It would be different if you could, but you can’t.”

“We’ll see about that, Mr. Foster,” the blonde stated in a tone more bitter than he had ever heard from her.

As he watched her exit his store, he shook his head in despair. Frank Young’s little girl had indeed inherited his stubbornness, his tenacity and, unfortunately, his propensity for trouble.

*************************************

Trace recognized the three spherical gilt balls, glittering in the light so they could be seen from all sides and attract customers to the building above which they were suspended. Seemed that symbol of yore hadn’t changed over the past century.

The tall, dark stranger entered the pawn shop through an open doorway and was immediately hit with a thick, musty odor that nearly made her sneeze. Blinking a few times, rubbing her nose, Trace took in her surroundings peripherally. This wasn’t like any of the places she had seen in her lifetime. This shop actually had some semblance of order, decency and credibility.

Browsing the items that had most likely been placed on deposit in exchange for cash were various styles and sizes of shawls, bonnets, undergarments, dresses, suits and shoes. There was also bedding, musical instruments, clocks, tools, guns (which she would look at later if she had the time or another time, if she didn’t) and furniture. The jewelry area was on a display case in front of the proprietor, a tall, skinny, jowled, thinly-haired man who looked like he was straight out of a Washington Irving novel. This must be Joseph Turner. He stood when Trace approached the counter. He still had a pen in his hand and at his modest desk, there was an open book which Trace assumed to be his ledger.

“Afternoon,” the man said, in a twangy voice that was immediately grating. “What can I do for you…” They stood there assessing each other and, for a brief second, the detective thought he might not buy into her act. “…Son?”

Trace took a breath and purposely lowered her voice register. She didn’t want it to sound fake but she sure as hell didn’t want it sounding feminine, either. It was different with the grocer. He had pissed her off and her voice always dropped an octave or two when she was angry. Reaching in her shirt breast pocket, she took out the two gold wedding bands Mark had given her. She placed them on the counter. “I’d like to pawn these.”

Turner looked the items over, then picked them up and felt the weight, the substance. “Might be able to do something for you. Where’d you get them?”

“They were my…mother’s. She’s gone now and I need the money.” Trace had a sudden, unexpected pang of guilt for saying that. Zelda wasn’t deceased but the detective wondered how long her mother would last, thinking her daughter was dead. It was best that way. Zelda’s confidence, sanity and sobriety was shaky, at best, and if she knew anything about Trace, the brunette knew the DeSiennas could get it out of her.

He performed a cursory authenticity examination of the rings, including biting down on the jewelry. “Don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”

“You haven’t. I’m from Cottonwood.”

“Cottonwood? That’s a full month’s ride from here, isn’t it?”

The question stopped Trace for a minute. Had this man really heard of a Cottonwood or was he already living up to Rachel’s description of a know-it-all? “About that, yeah.”

“What are you doing in this neck of the woods? Just passing through?”

He’d find out sooner or later, might as well be now. “I’m staying out at the Young place, helping out with land for a while,” she tossed out, nonchalantly.

Turner responded with a raised eyebrow. “Is that so? Out there with Miss Rachel? Just the two of you?”

“For the time being. I got hurt, Miss Rachel found me and kindly fixed me up. I need a place to stay for a while and she needs some work done. It’s the least I can do.” Trace made sure her intention was clear. Pinning Joseph Turner with eyes like blue steel, she said, “And that’s all. You understand?”

Shrugging, not even attempting to hide a lascivious grin, he said, “Whatever you say.”

Holding her temper, she quietly seethed. “How much can you give me for the rings?”

“You need a loan for these or do you want to get paid outright? I mean these would be excellent collateral for -”

“No. Thank you. Just the money.” Trace was sure his interest rates were quite high, even in this time period. He wouldn’t make any profit, otherwise. As the pieces weren’t sentimental to her, there was no need for her to hang on to them.

“I think I can give you, hmmm, fifty dollars each for them.”

“What!? Just fifty dollars?” The look in the man’s eyes at the outburst told her that it had been an honest offer. She then remembered where she was. She quickly calmed down. “I’m sorry…my mama said they were worth more. Fifty dollars a piece is fine.”

Turner nodded, slightly ruffled by Trace’s little flare-up. He took a step backward toward his small, open safe and set the rings on his desk. Sizing up the ‘young man’ in his shop, he made an immediate assumption. “Got some redskin in you, son?” He bent over and pulled a cash drawer from the knee-high iron vault.

“Not that I know of,” Trace answered, wearily. “No gypsy, either. Maybe a little Greek.”

“Oh, Greek, yeah…I would’ve guessed that eventually.” Removing the correct amount in bills from the drawer, Turner stepped back up to the display case and held them out to the brunette.

Mark was right, money looked very different. “Could you count it out for me, please?” She needed to pay close attention as he did, insuring he was giving her every cent she was entitled to.

The pawn shop proprietor grinned. “Ah, can’t add, huh? No problem…”

“No,” Trace responded, trying to keep her annoyance in check, “I can add just fine. I can count and spell and read, too. It’s just…we’re strangers and I’m protecting my interests.”

Turner was impressed by that admission. Not everyone would have the guts to say that to him and expect him to continue the transaction as it was tantamount to accusing him of being a cheat. The almost ghastly thin man proceeded to count out the total of the money, handing it to the brunette. “There you go. All there.”

“Thank you.” Hesitating, she looked back at the pawnbroker. After her mini-tirade regarding her scholastic abilities, she didn’t want to appear to be contradictory or stupid. “I’d like to have a beer at the saloon, could you give me one of these in smaller change?”

“Yep. That I can do.” Turner exchanged one of the bills for coins.

“How much you charge for a beer in this town?”

“Five cents for a cream ale…how much do they charge in Cottonwood?”

Trace shrugged nonchalantly. “The same. I was just making sure.” Folding the paper money in half, the detective shoved that and the coins in her pocket. “Well, thank you, it’s been nice doing business with you.”

“So…how long you think you’ll be staying…out at the Young place?”

She immediately saw the question for what it was, the pawnbroker being a busybody. “Don’t know. Got thrown from my horse, sustained a puncture wound,” Trace indicated the area on her chest. “Have to make sure that’s all healed up before I…move on. Plus, Ra…Miss Rachel needs a hand out there. Since she helped me, it’s only fitting that I help her.”

“So you expect to be moving on? Not going back to Cottonwood?”

“No. No need to go back there. My family is gone now.” She smiled, graciously, at him. “Who knows? Maybe I will take up residence here in Sagebrush.”

For some unknown reason, Turner grinned back. “What’s your name, son?”

“Sheridan. Trace Sheridan.”

“Joseph Turner. Nice doing business with you, too, Trace Sheridan,” the pawnbroker stated, extending a long, bony hand, which the detective briefly accepted. “Always good to welcome a hardworking cowboy to town.”

“Thanks.” He seemed sincere but Trace didn’t trust him completely. There was something about him she didn’t like and she couldn’t put her finger on it just yet. She nodded in polite departure and left for the saloon.

****

25

Her order would be waiting for her when she returned to Foster’s and then she would find Trace to help her load it onto the wagon. Needing to walk off some anger, Rachel bypassed the butcher shop where she was to purchase some bacon and ventured to Molly Ledbetter’s dress shop to look at the new fabrics and styles. Molly was a gray-haired grandmotherly-type who had been very close with Rachel’s mother. She knew, regardless of the rumors and gossip, Molly would welcome her, offer her a cup of tea and probably give her some excess material she always just happened to have hanging around so that Rachel could make herself something pretty.

The bell on the door clanged when the blonde entered. Looking up from hanging a woven waist jacket on a rack, Molly Ledbetter’s eyes twinkled as she smiled warmly at the daughter of her much missed friend. The reaction of the two shop patrons weren’t quite as congenial, however. Glaring at Rachel in condemnation, Rosalie Beauregard, turned to her daughter, Suzanne, and said, “We might have to leave.”

The timid, mousy, brown haired Suzanne knew Rachel well. They had grown up singing in the church choir together. The blonde had always thought they were close until, because of pressure from her golddigging mother, Suzanne became engaged to Seth Carver, Ben Crane’s cousin. That made it extremely difficult for the blonde to maintain a civil conversation with the brunette or anyone in her family.

Catching Rachel in town one day, about a week before Ben Crane’s fateful visit to the ranch, Suzanne confided through tears that this was not her idea and begged the blonde not to hate her. Knowing how domineering Rosalie was and how accommodating the brunette’s father would be by being associated with the Cranes, Rachel knew Suzanne didn’t stand a chance.

“Good afternoon, Suzanne,” Rachel addressed her, knowing the young woman probably would not dare to respond. “Mrs. Beauregard.”

Sticking her nose in the air with an emphatic ‘harumph!’ Rosalie nearly wrenched Suzanne’s arm backward, pulling her toward the door. The skittish brunette blinked apologetically at Rachel but stayed silent. “Molly? Are you going to allow this kind of person into your store?”

Molly Ledbetter gave the blonde a patient look and then turned to Mrs. Beauregard. “What kind of person is that, Rosalie? Certainly you wouldn’t be referring to my very best, dear departed friend’s daughter?”

“Well, honestly, Molly, she’s out there on that ranch, all alone, entertaining men…sullying her mother and father’s good name. It’s disgusting.”

“Unlike your daughter who is being whored out to Seth Carver just so you can get your talons into the Crane fortune?”

The look of shock on Rosalie’s face was predictable and the look of near amusement on Suzanne’s face was priceless. “Well! I never…!”

Looking pointedly at Suzanne, Molly responded with, “Well, you did at least once…”

“Molly Ledbetter! See if I ever shop here again!!” Rosalie spit out, quite vehemently.

“Suit yourself, Rosalie. If you’re going to be more judgmental than the Lord concerning my other customers and people dear to me, then I would prefer that you go to Jefferson for your dresses from now on.”

“You’ll regret this,” Rosalie warned, as she pulled Suzanne to the entrance. The younger woman mouthed the words, ‘Bye, Rachel’ before being yanked out the door by her mother.

Watching the activity then looking back at Molly, Rachel said, “I’m sorry, Miz Ledbetter, I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”

“Oh, honey, you didn’t cause that…” Molly waved her hand at the vacant space left by Rosalie and Suzanne. “I’ve never had much use for John or Rosalie Beauregard, both of them always thought they were more high and mighty than anyone else in this town. Even before they got involved with the Crane clan.”

“Yes. Poor Suzanne. She’s the one coming out on the short end of all this.”

“Girl needs to get a backbone. Needs some of that Young stock in her,” Molly smiled, winking at the blonde. “Now, come have some tea with me and tell me what you’ve been up to because I surely don’t believe what I’ve been hearing…”

*************************************

Walking into Wilbur’s Saloon was surreal, pushing through the hinged, swinging doors like cowboys did in so many of the westerns Trace had watched as a kid. She took in her surroundings, the dirty, dusty wooden floor, the four large round tables obviously used for card playing, several smaller tables just for sitting and drinking, a long and well-stocked bar up against the wall, a piano against a staircase that led upstairs to what Trace assumed were rooms occupied by a prostitute or two. But, sadly, no pool table.

Strolling purposefully up to the bar, the detective was aware that she was collecting a few stares along the way. So what else was new? The barkeep, a bear of a man probably Trace’s age, with stringy dark hair and a thick brush of a mustache smiled at the tall stranger. He was always grateful for a new customer, especially if he turned into a regular and a good tipper. He wiped off the space in front of the brunette with a damp rag.

“Howdy,” the man said to Trace in a voice that betrayed his build. It was adolescent in nature, as if he was a teenage boy still going through puberty. She couldn’t help but smirk. Not because of his unusual tone or that, if he sounded like that, she could now relax and not worry about her own timbre but because he actually said, ‘howdy.’

“Hi,” Trace responded, noncommittally.

“What can I get ya?”

Shrugging, Trace remembered what the pawnbroker called it…”A cream ale would be good.”

“What kind?”

Well that stumped her. She didn’t think she would actually have a choice. Any experienced beer drinker would know his ale, so she said, “First time here, give me your most popular.”

“That would be Handel’s. Good choice. Coming right up.” The big man behind the bar pulled out a mug and poured a pint of foam. Trace wanted to tell him to tip the glass and aim the stream against the opposite side but she felt that might be overstepping a little bit. Miraculously, when it was set in front of her, the head was barely a quarter of an inch.

“Thanks. How much?”

“Five cents.”

Trace laughed. A nickle for a pint of beer. Maybe she really had died in Mark’s time machine and gone to heaven…well, except for the no indoor plumbing thing. She removed a handful of coins out of her breast pocket and set down a silver dollar. “Keep the brew flowing, my friend, and what I don’t drink you can have for a tip.”

The barkeep’s face lit up and he let out a hoarse laugh. “Stranger, you’re welcome in this bar any time.” He extended his big, beefy hand. “Silas Boone.”

Accepting his hand with her own firm grip, sizing this big ape of a man up, she immediately thought, ‘What’s your mama’s name? Bab?’ She then wanted to ask him if he was any relation to Daniel Boone but as she couldn’t exactly remember if that character really existed or was just folk lore and, if he really was an actual person, had he been born yet – why didn’t she pay attention in history class? She wisely decided to keep the conversation short and to the point. “Trace Sheridan.”

“Where you from, Trace Sheridan?”

“Cottonwood.” And then, before he could ask, she added, “It’s far from here.” She released his hand and took a sip of her beer. It wasn’t bad, it was different. A little thicker than she was used to, no doubt from less filtering and dilution than in modern times. It could have been colder but she wasn’t complaining. It was beer.

“How ’bout a shot of bug juice to go with that ale?”

Bug juice? Trace could only imagine what kind of bug. “Uh, no thanks, I think I’ll pass.”

“So what brings you to this neck of the woods, Trace?”

“Well…I was just passing through but my horse threw me and took off and I got hurt, so I’m staying out at the Young ranch, recovering and working off my debt to Ra – Miss Rachel for fixing me up. Plus, I need to earn enough money to get another horse so that I can move on.” Perish the thought, she suddenly mused.

A strange look clouded Silas’ face. “You out there at Frank Young’s place? Alone…?

This was getting tedious already. Looking the bartender square in the eye, Trace said, “Yes. I am. Look, Silas, I intend to be around for a while and I am just staying at the Young place, sleeping in the barn – alone – there is nothing going on between Miss Rachel and me. But if there’s something I should know about, I’d like to hear it.”

“No, no…” the big man shrugged, looking down. “I just heard she’s had some trouble out there, that’s all…”

“What kind of trouble?”

Glancing back up at her, the bartender shrugged again. “Well, if she didn’t tell you then I supposed it ain’t my place to.” Wait until Ben Crane found out Rachel had a man living out there with her. A young, strangely appealing man who looked like he could be a half-breed. This would not be well received.

Studying him, Trace knew Silas wanted to say something to her about it. But then the detective stiffened as she felt somebody move up next to her. Never taking her eyes off the barkeep, she observed, with more than mild interest, that Silas slowly walked away.

“That’s right, Silas, you don’t want to be tellin’ tales out of school.”

Aware that she was being scrutinized by whoever the man was standing to her left, Trace relaxed her body, psychologically preparing herself for a fight. The vibe she got from this man was extremely confrontational. ‘Go ahead, fuckwad,’ she thought to herself, ‘start something I can finish.’ She stared straight ahead and took a long drink of beer. Never physically acknowledging the man, Trace said, “Something I can do for you?”

“Yeah, you can tell me what you’re doing at Frank Young’s place.”

Not moving a muscle, Trace took another sip of beer. She kept her voice steady and even. “First, Frank Young is dead, so I believe that would make it Rachel Young’s place now and second, what business is it of yours?” It was then she turned toward the man and regarded him with a defiant, cold, blue glare. Her eyes fell on the star stuck to the man’s rawhide vest. Unimpressed, she looked back up at his craggy face.

Even though he stayed put, the look in Trace’s eyes made him take a mental step backward. He was more than a little surprised that this young buck didn’t seem at all intimidated by the fact that he was The Law. Then the man squinted at her. “My business is Frank was a good friend of mine and he wouldn’t like no gypsy man living out there with his daughter.”

“Well, Sheriff, I am not a gypsy and before you ask or assume, I have no Indian blood in me, either. What my heritage is doesn’t concern you.” Trace noticed the dead silence that now engulfed the saloon where only seconds before there had been the sounds of conversation, glasses clinking, laughter and poker chips flying across tables. “What should concern you is – especially since Frank was such a good friend of yours – is the condition that property is in and that poor girl has nobody out there to help her. When was the last time you or anyone else checked on good old Frank’s daughter?” She knew she was being facetious but she couldn’t help herself.

The sheriff at least had the decency to look slightly embarrassed. “It’s…uh…been a while. But Isaac Tipping delivers feed out there once a week and he would have told someone if she needed help,” he countered, defensively. Not to mention, he thought to himself, the Cranes would literally kill anyone who attempted to help her. And since they were paying him handsomely to look the other way, he certainly wasn’t going to set foot on the land, friend or no friend of Frank’s. “It would be worth your while, son, to move on. Quickly.”

Trace didn’t like him. She had interacted with many snakes in her time and this man had viper written all over him. “Is that advice, Sheriff, or a threat?”

“Right now, it’s advice. Don’t let it become a threat.”

Now that she pegged this man for what he was, she calmly smirked and took another swallow of beer. “I don’t take kindly to threats, Sheriff.” Where was this dialogue coming from? Trace never talked like that…’take kindly’? What was next? She wasn’t going to ‘cotton’ to things? She had to consciously stop herself from laughing. “I’ll move on when I am damned well ready to move on and not before.” She neither raised her voice nor changed her expression. She certainly didn’t want to end up behind bars her first visit to town but she also needed to establish some rules of her own – and being threatened and bullied just wasn’t going to fly.

The sheriff was more than flustered. He wasn’t used to people not cowering in his presence. Not only was this stranger not even flinching, he wasn’t even breaking a sweat. The lawman, himself, reacted more nervously than this baby-faced, dark-haired drifter. The most frustrating part was he couldn’t arrest the young man for anything to prove his power because the cowboy had been nothing if not polite and respectful, even if not very agreeable. The Cranes would not be happy about this at all when they got back. “Suit yourself,” the sheriff commented, turning away from Trace and to the bar. “Silas, gimme a shot of bourbon.”

The detective watched with interest as the bartender, frowning, grabbed a bottle with a deep amber colored liquid in at and poured it into a small glass. He then walked over and placed it in front of the lawman, who tossed it back with practiced ease. Pushing the glass forward, he cleared the liquor residue out of his throat. “Well…better get back to it,” he announced to no one.

“Drinking on the job?” Trace commented, in amused observance, knowing she was close to stepping over a line. If nothing else, she liked life on the edge. It kept her juices flowing.

“You’re a brazen fella, aren’t ya?” the sheriff asked.

“I’ve been known to be,” Trace answered, almost pleasantly, turning to lean against the bar and study the faces of the customers in the saloon.

Shaking his head, smiling, the sheriff responded with, “Just keep buildin’ that big ol’ chip on your shoulder, boy, it’s gonna give me great pleasure to knock it off.”

“It’s going to give me greater pleasure to see you try,” Trace countered, congenially. She and the lawman locked stares. He was not happy at all with her but she made sure her expression told him she was not backing down.

Standing up, rigidly, he scanned the interior of Wilbur’s, daring anyone to look back at him. No one did. Then he panned back to the icy blue eyes of the bold cowboy. “You watch your step, son. Ain’t smart what you’re doin’. I have no doubt I’ll be seeing you in my jail before you leave Sagebrush. That’s if you leave Sagebrush.” And with that, he strolled through the doors.

All eyes followed the sheriff until he was gone and then focused on Trace. Oblivious, her eyes still on the door, she said, “He’s kind of an asshole, isn’t he?”

***************************************

26.

The stillness nearly swallowed Trace up. When she finally looked around the room, she noticed everyone had been struck mute by her statement and they were all staring at her, dumbfounded. “What?” she asked, bewildered. Surely they had all noticed that the sheriff was an asshole…

“You got some sand, boy!” Silas said, breaking the silence as Trace turned back to face him. “Nobody talks to Ed like that. ‘Specially not nobody ain’t even wearing a six gun on his hip.”

She shrugged slightly and took another few swallows of her beer. Who would have thought she would have needed to be armed just to come to town to get groceries? She guessed she needed to go back to the pawn shop at some point and buy a gun. Unless Rachel had some back at her place. “He doesn’t scare me. He’s a bully with a badge.”

“Which is the worst kind. He’s got the law to back him up.”

“Only if he makes up the laws as he sees fit,” the detective commented. Slowly the din of the saloon began to rise again as the patrons went back to what they had been doing before the exchange between Trace and the sheriff. Drinking down the rest of the pint, Trace signaled Silas for a refill, which the bartender did gladly.

She had not realized until that point how hazy with cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke the saloon had been. It burned her throat a little and she remembered that these were the days when no one knew how hazardous tobacco was to one’s health and if she couldn’t explain that to them, there was no way she was going to convince them that breathing secondhand smoke was just as bad. Smoking was a nasty little habit she was glad she had never picked up. She had tried it a few times, each attempt making her a little more nauseated than the last and after one final lightheaded, overly queasy moment, she decided cigarettes were not for her and she never touched them again.

Zelda, on the other hand, smoked as though she was on fire. Trace never remembered seeing her mother without a cigarette between her fingers, dangling out of her mouth or, usually, a beer in her hand. Trace obviously had no such problem adjusting to alcohol the way she did to nicotine. Nope. That could have been a gene passed down by both her parents, for all she knew.

She wondered about her mother and if Zelda had been told yet that Trace was missing. She wondered about Mark and how crazy with worry he must be, never knowing that she made it here alive and in one piece. She wondered, sadly, if Sandy’s family had identified her and buried her yet. She wondered how Bobby and the rest of her co-workers were taking her sudden, mysterious disappearance. She wondered if DeSienna was tearing his hair out trying to find her. She wondered if she’d ever have a hot shower again as long as she lived.

Suddenly feeling very melancholy, she thanked Silas for the refill and drained half the glass.

***********************************

Rachel and Molly Ledbetter sat opposite each other in the small back room of the dress shop. They were sharing a cup of hot tea and a corn meal muffin.

“Now, Rachel, I’ve known you since you were in pinafores and pigtails and you’ve never lied to me. Least not that I’ve known of. Don’t think you’re going to start now. What’s all this I’ve heard about you and that turd with lips, Ben Crane?”

Rachel couldn’t help but snicker. Molly was nothing if not colorful. “What has that serpent been saying?” She was trying to sound aloof but she knew the moment she heard the words, it would hurt deep in her bones.

“He’s saying that he showed you the pain and glory of consummation and that you warmed that bed like a cold night’s fire.” The older woman watched the blonde for a reaction and her heart sank when she saw Rachel bite her lip and bow her head. “Oh, Rachel Frances Young, you did not give yourself to that touch hole…!”

Shaking her head, the tears flowed without pretense or warning. “No, Miz Ledbetter, I certainly did not,” she choked out.

“Then why in heaven’s name are you crying like you did?” When the blonde could not answer her, Molly reached over and gently lifted Rachel’s chin and waited until the emerald green eyes met her weary hazel ones. The look of shame was not guilt but mortification. The anguish in Rachel’s eyes caused Molly’s breath to catch and a lump to form in her throat. “Oh, my Lord, child, what did he do?”

Staccato words came out in between gasps and sobs. “He hurt me real bad, Miz Ledbetter…”

Without hesitation, the dressmaker enfolded the distraught blonde in her arms and began to rock her, comfortingly. “Why that no good son of a snake! What happened?” She was trying to hold her fury back not wanting this lovely albeit destroyed young woman to think she was angry at or judging her. If she had Ben Crane in front of her right now, she would have killed him with her bare hands. “Isaac Tipping told everybody that you looked terrible bruised when he was delivering out there last month, said you told him you fell off that new mustang of yours…was that really Crane what did that to you?”

“Yes, Ma’am. He…he…well, Rosie had just foaled and I was going back to the house from the stable and he came up behind me and…he grabbed me…and brought me back inside and… took me… like a wild animal…” She was now hysterical. First at the memory and second at the relief of finally being able to tell someone.

Molly’s arms stiffened. “Are you telling me that Ben Crane knocked you about and had his way with you?” The small blonde she was holding, nodded her head against the older woman’s shoulder. Squeezing Rachel more emphatically, she said, “Lord, help me, those damned Cranes! They’re never going to stop. And that damned Ed Jackson, he’ll never do one thing to any of them. My word, child, if I’d had any idea, I’d have been out there to see you!”

“Mr. Ledbetter needs you here,” Rachel managed to get out and she knew it was true. The dress shop was connected to the Ledbetter residence, which made it easy for Molly to frequently check on her husband, who was confined to their bed or a chair by the bed.

Three years earlier, a strapping Harvey Ledbetter was shot in an attempt to assist Rachel’s father in a territorial dispute with the Cranes. The bullet hit his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down. Sheriff Jackson said since no one could prove who fired the shot, he couldn’t arrest anyone and since it was a property issue, he really should keep his nose out of it. Since then, with Harvey being nearly as helpless as a baby, Molly Ledbetter didn’t stray too far from her home.

“Please don’t tell anyone, Miz Ledbetter, please!!” the blonde pleaded. “I’ll be disgraced and no one will believe me…!”

“Shhh, shhh, Rachel, the problem is everybody will believe you, they all know what those Cranes are capable of, just no one will speak out against them. But now that Ben has spread what he has about you -”

“But that I can deny because it’s true, I did not give myself to him in that manner and because everyone knows Ben’s reputation, there’s a chance they might think it’s just him boasting. If it gets around that he truly did…have me…it won’t matter how it happened and you know that. People’ll feel sorry for me but it won’t stop them from talking. And being thought of just like one of those pleasure girls at the sporting house over Wilbur’s.”

Shaking her head in frustration, she knew the younger woman was correct in her assessment of the situation. “It isn’t right, you having to live out there all alone, having to deal with all this hell on earth! Why’d the Lord see fit to take Tommy from you? They wouldn’t be doing this if Tommy had made it back and married you.”

Yes, Thomas Baines would have put a legal damper on the Crane’s brutish behavior, no doubt about that, Rachel thought. But it obviously wasn’t meant to be. If the bullet on the train hadn’t killed him, no doubt he still would have met his maker at the hands of one of the Cranes. Leaning back away from Molly, wiping her tears away with a delicate handkerchief, she took a deep breath. “I’m not alone anymore. At least not presently.”

“You take on a hand?” Molly looked surprised.

“Yes. Well kind of.” Again, she had to consciously remind herself to refer to Trace as male. “Rosie got out a couple days ago. Guess she thought she needed a vacation from nursing her baby. I went looking for her and came on this drifter got thrown from his horse. He was hurt so I brought him back to the house and fixed him up and he’s going to stay and help me out with the land.”

“What do you know about this stranger?” the older woman asked, cautiously.

“Only that he’s not from around here and that he’s willing to stay around, hole up in the barn and help me out for a while.”

“How you paying him?” Off Rachel’s weary look, she said, “I know, you’re not like that, child, but everyone else will be wondering, ‘specially after Ben running off at the mouth like he did.”

“Just feeding him and giving him a place to lay his head seems to be enough. Lost his horse and wasn’t wearing any guns when I found him, laying there, hurt.”

“Sure he’s telling you the truth?”

“He’s been here almost three days and he hasn’t tried anything yet. He’s already fixed the break in the south fence for me. I really don’t think he has any dishonorable intentions,” Rachel responded, thinking, if Molly only knew…

“Well, hopefully, he’ll still be around when the Cranes come back from their drive. A man out at your place won’t exactly be popular with them. ‘specially not Ben, but it might make them think twice before they try anything again. Young buck, is he?”

Rachel shrugged, then nodded. “Young enough.”

“Young enough for you?” There was almost a twinkle in the older woman’s eye.

“Molly Ledbetter! The last thing that will happen between me and this man is that!”

**********************************

27.

Trace knew she should be getting back to the wagon to help Rachel load it but the beer had started tasting very good and, despite the setting, she was starting to feel like herself again.

After the initial shock of her standing up to the sheriff, Silas returned to being his talkative self and before she knew it, she had the lowdown on just about everyone in town. Curiously, though, any subject even bordering on the Young family and their land was deftly avoided.

She was about to finish her final swallow of beer when the sound of running footsteps above them drew everyone’s attention to the staircase. There appeared a half-clad, quite voluptuous redhead, shouting frantically, “Someone come quick! It’s Jed, I think he’s chokin’ to death!!”

Several people ran for the stairs but Trace beat them all. Her training and instinct kicked in without a second thought and she followed the redhead to a room at the end of the hall. Flying through the open doorway, nearly skidding on the slick wooden floor, the detective observed an older man, sitting on an obviously just used bed, his face beet red, eyes popping, his mouth open, not a sound coming out of it. Yep, Trace thought, he’s definitely choking. The prostitute began smacking him roughly on his back.

“No!” Trace yelled, “You’ll just lodge it further!” Rushing over to the distinguished looking, silver-haired man, Trace pulled him to his feet and moved behind him, putting her arms around him, finding the right spot and performing the Heimlich maneuver.

As the onlookers watched in horror and fascination, the piece of steak the man had been dining on left his mouth and flew halfway across the room. Weak and gasping for breath, the half-naked man began coughing. Trace removed her arms but kept one hand on his back, should he need continued support.

“What the hell you doin’, son?” a voice bellowed from the doorway, as another older, white-haired man moved through the crowd and into the room. He looked like pictures of Mark Twain Trace had remembered seeing. “What were you trying to do? Break the mayor’s ribs?”

Looking at the man she had just saved and then at the prostitute, she shook her head. The Mayor. It figured. “No, I was saving his life,” Trace stated, calmly.

“Squeezin’ him like a bear’s savin’ his life?” the man continued, outraged.

“Shut up, Amos, you jackass!” the once choking man sputtered at the other man. “Jesus H. Kee-rist, whatever this young man did was the only thing got that darned piece of meat out of my gullet.” He then indicated the redhead. “Cassandra pounding on my back like that was only making it worse.”

Trace glanced at the prostitute, who shrunk back against the wall. “Hey, she tried.” That elicited a smile from the redhead, holding her short, silky robe closed in the front.

Silas stepped into the room, hands raised in the air. “Okay, show’s over, let the mayor have his privacy.” Minimal grumbling followed the bartender’s command and the room cleared out, Silas closing the door behind him. This left Trace, the prostitute, the mayor and the other older man in the room.

“What’s you name, son?” The mayor asked, sitting back down on the bed, now breathing normally.

“Trace Sheridan.”

Extending his hand, the mayor said, “Jedediah Turner.”

“Turner?” Trace questioned, accepting the rather limp handshake. “Any relation to the pawnbroker?”

“Ah, you’ve met my baby brother, Joseph.” The mayor ran his hand through an unruly shock of white hair. “I know what you’re thinking, everybody does…we couldn’t look any more different if we were strangers.” It was the truth, Trace thought, other than a slight resemblance around the eyes, they did not look related in the least. “He and me had different mamas.” He looked back in the general direction of the prostitute. “Cassandra, bring me that bottle.”

The redhead obeyed and handed the unmarked bottle to the mayor.

“Now, Jed, take it easy on that stuff…” the other man began and was immediately cut off by Jed Turner.

“Amos, will you shut thee hell up?! Your mouth flaps more’n a duck’s ass.” The mayor looked at Trace for the first time. “Why, you’re a handsome feller, aren’t ya? Bet you got the ladies after you like bees to honey…”

You have no idea, Trace thought.

“…unlike me who has to get me arms willin’ but only if they’re bought.” He stated this matter-of-fact, no shame to his voice. “Have a shot of this bug juice with me.”

What’s with the freaking bug juice, Trace thought. “No, thanks, I’ll pass.”

“Suit yourself.” And with that, he took a hearty swallow of the bottle’s contents, making a long, satisfied rasping noise as the liquid burned its way down his throat. “Trace, you met Doc Smith, yet?”

Looking over at the other man in the room, the detective shook her head. “Not officially, no.” She went to extend her hand but the doctor brushed by her to sit on the bed next to the mayor.

“Jed, let me check you out now -”

Slapping his hand away, the ornery mayor took another swig from the bottle in his hand. “Damn it, Amos, get away from me before I bean you with this! Now shake this boy’s hand before I tell your wife you were in here playing poker.”

Looking at Trace, the doctor now had an even more sour expression. “Don’t need to make his acquaintance, he won’t be staying around long enough for any of us to get to know.”

“Why is that?” The mayor looked up at Trace then over at Amos Smith.

“Yeah,” Trace folded her arms, complacently, also looking at the doctor. “Why is that?”

“You were given some good advice by the sheriff,” Smith said, “I suggest you take it.”

Confused, Jed Turner briefly studied both Trace and Smith, then refocused on the detective. “What’s going on?”

Squinting at the doctor with unmistakable suspicion in her eyes, Trace directed her conversation toward the mayor before actually looking his way. “Your sheriff has suggested I move on, out of town.”

“Really? Huh. Do you want to move on, son?” The mayor sounded sincere.

“It’s growing on me. If I move on, I’d like to do it when I choose and not because someone suggests it.”

“Then I think you should stay,” the mayor declared.

“But, Jed, he’s living out at -”

“Amos! I don’t give a good Goddamn where he’s livin’, if he wants to stay then he should stay. This is still my town, ain’t it?!”

“Well…yes, but Ed…”

“But, nothin’! Ed Jackson’s as much of a horse’s ass as you are!” Turner looked up at Trace. “You wanted by the law, son?”

“No, sir.”

The mayor looked back at the doctor. “Then you tell Sheriff Jackson he can go plum to hell, he won’t be running anyone out of my town, and surely not anyone who just saved my life!” With that, the mayor stood up and reached for his pants. “Guess I won’t be finishin’ my dinner here. Kinda lost my appetite.” Stepping into his trousers, Turner began muttering, “Goddamned Ed Jackson! Nothin’ but a big bag of wind. If those Cranes weren’t behind him, he’d be runnin’ out of town the other way with a stripe down his backside!”

Trace let the mayor continue mumbling, while the unfriendly doctor tried to fuss over him. She looked over at Cassandra and nodded. “You okay?”

Startled not only by the question being directed at her but by the sincerity the voice that was asking, the redhead lifted her wide green eyes to engage Trace curiously.

Before she could answer, the mayor piped up, “Of course, she’s fine, why wouldn’t she be fine? I’m the one who damn near choked to death!” He snapped his fingers toward his shirt and the prostitute picked it up without hesitation and helped him put it on.

Trying not to look too disgusted at this display of false gender superiority, Trace quietly chewed the inside of her cheek to stay quiet. After all, the mayor was on her side…but just exactly what that meant remained to be seen.

“How’s it you came to learn that little bear hug trick, anyway?” It was the doctor speaking to her this time in a tone of voice that was a little more friendly than before but not much. “You got some doctor training?”

“Um…no, nothing like that. Just some little thing I picked up in my travels.”

“How’s it work?”

“Well…here,” Trace went to assume the position on the doctor and he flailed and pushed her away.

“I don’t want you bear hugging me! Show me on Cassandra.”

An eyebrow shot up into Trace’s hairline as she assessed the redhead with the hourglass figure. Hmmmm… this might not be so bad. And the way the prostitute was eyeballing her back, it was obvious Cassandra was more than agreeable to the request. She practically leapt toward the detective with a predatory grin on her face.

Stopping her at arms length, Trace turned the redhead around, instructing as she slowly demonstrated, beginning with wrapping her arms around the prostitute’s waist. Making a fist and placing the thumb side of her fist against the redhead’s upper abdomen, below her ribcage and above her navel, the detective tried not to think about the heavy breasts that were almost touching her forearms. Focusing back on her task, Trace grasped her right fist with her left hand and pressed into Cassandra’s upper abdomen with a quick upward thrust, which made the prostitute gasp with surprise. Of course, the detective minimized the effort, as not to do any harm. “You don’t actually squeeze the ribcage,” Trace explained. “You confine the force of the thrust to your hands and then you repeat until the object is expelled.”

Cassandra could have cooperated a little better and not constantly tried to lean her body back into Trace’s but the detective was able to get her lesson across without molesting the nearly nude body of the prostitute in her arms. Although embracing this woman, regardless of the circumstances, did make the detective’s mouth water a little. Snapping out of it, she gently let go of the redhead, smiled politely and stepped back. “Understand?” she asked the doctor.

“Makes no sense to me,” Smith spat back.

“Don’t have to make no sense if it worked,” the mayor countered, putting his jacket on. He walked up to Trace and clapped her on the shoulder. “Thank you, son, for letting me live to see another day.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Mayor,” Trace responded.

“Mr. Mayor!” Jed Turner repeated, cackling. “Polite feller, too.”

“He wasn’t so polite to Ed,” Doc Smith muttered, following the mayor out the door.

“Nobody should be polite to Ed, he don’t deserve it, the damned fool!” Jed Turner yammered out into the hallway.

Suddenly Trace and Cassandra were alone in the room. The detective was about to ask a few questions about the mayor and the doctor when the prostitute let the robe slide off her body and she posed seductively in front of the brunette. Trace couldn’t help but stare at the natural – she noticed now – redhead while her brain adjusted to the situation. Cassandra was not an unattractive woman by any means and although she was a bit more plump than Trace was used to, her body certainly wasn’t unpleasing to the eye. Her first attempt to speak produced no words, so she cleared her throat and tried again.

But not before Cassandra purred, “How ’bout one on the house? Seein’ as you just saved my best customer and all.”

Taking one last look at breasts that begged to be fondled and lips that looked like they could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch, Trace nodded her head toward the doorway, somewhat reluctantly. “I’m…uh…really flattered, Cassandra, and maybe some other time but right now, I should get back to the store.” But her feet seemed glued to that spot on the floor. It was only when the redhead took a step toward her and reached out to cup a part of anatomy she didn’t have that she shook herself out of her mini-fantasy and ducked out the door. “Thanks anyway,” Trace tossed back in, removed her hat, wiped her brow and headed back downstairs. It was a close call and one that the detective put in her mental archives to be cautious of in the future.

Cassandra, initially surprised that anyone – especially such a young, healthy man like Trace Sheridan obviously was – would turn down a freebie, found herself smiling. She had never encountered a challenge before and definitely not one as good looking. Why, he was almost pretty, he was so handsome. She suddenly decided to make it her mission to get this cowboy into her bed before he was run out of town.

A quick round of ‘goodbyes’ and ‘good jobs’ and exiting the saloon didn’t mean the detective wasn’t mildly turned on. Yes. She would definitely have to purchase a gun. If, for nothing else, to use the bullets to bite on in situations like this. Added to all the other things, she also wondered if she’d ever have sex again as long as she lived…

************************

28.

Trace found Rachel waiting impatiently in front of Foster’s Grocery. She suppressed a smile. It was amazing how they already seemed to have fallen into a rhythm with each other. The brunette felt a sense of relief at seeing the smaller blonde and when Rachel finally saw Trace, the same look of relief crossed her face, also. That mollifying sensation stopped abruptly when Trace got close enough to see that Rachel had been crying.

Her defensive nature provoked her temper to flare immediately and she reached out and touched the blonde’s arm. “What’s wrong? Did that grocer make you cry?!”

Before the detective went off half-cocked to evidently give Luther Foster a piece of her mind, Rachel clamped on to Trace’s arm, circling her back around to face her. “No, Mr. Foster did not make me cry. I visited with a dear friend of my mama’s and it was just…sad…that’s all.” She watched the brunette’s eyes soften.

“Oh. Okay. I just thought…he was being such a jerk to you and all…” She instinctively wanted to pull the blonde into her arms and comfort her but common sense stopped her. First, they were in public view of the whole town and second, Rachel probably wouldn’t be very receptive to it. Unfortunately. After the offer she had just had over at Wilbur’s, she would have welcomed this particular woman in her arms.

Trace’s automatic protectiveness flattered Rachel and she felt a warmth surge through her that should not have stirred her blood the way it did. She was confused by the alien emotion and disturbed because this was not the first time she had experienced it around the mysterious woman. The blonde reasoned that it was more than likely because she had to think of Trace as a man…still, it didn’t make it any less troubling that she wished Trace would take her in her arms and make it all go away.

They loaded the wagon and headed out of town back to the ranch. Trace couldn’t stop the smirk when she lifted the two gallons of olive oil onto the back. In fact, she was visualizing the blonde’s skilled hands massaging her when her thoughts were interrupted by the sound Rachel’s voice.

“Trace?”

“Yeah?”

“You want to pay attention to guiding Moses? Otherwise we’re going to end up down by the river. I swear that horse would live there if I ever set him loose.”

“Oh…sure…” She forced herself back to reality and noticed that they were about twenty feet off the dirt road, heading to the left. She pulled the reins slightly to the right and the horse wandered back to the path.

“What were you thinking about?” Rachel asked, curiously.

“Nothing…just, um, daydreams.”

“Daydreams?”

Change the subject, Trace, the sooner the better, she thought. “Rachel, do you own any guns?”

“Yes. My father left me with two Colt Peacemakers, a Sharps, a Winchester and a Carbine…why?”

“Until I buy my own, can I use one of those?”

Cautiously, Rachel said, “Of course. But why? Did something happen in town?”

“No, no…” Oh hell, with that grapevine, she’d find out soon enough. “Well, sort of…”

“Sort of?” She was staring directly at Trace, alarmed.

Shrugging, the detective was looking for a way to minimize the detail, when she did a double take at Rachel’s expression. “No, Rachel, everything’s fine, really. I just kind of had a run in with the sheriff…”

“Oh, no…” The blonde closed her eyes in dread. “Not Sheriff Jackson…” Shaking her head, she let her chin drop. “I just left you on your own for a few hours…and the one person I would have preferred you not run into is that vile excuse for a man…”

“Aha! So you know he’s an asshole!” Trace declared, triumphantly, as Rachel briefly reacted to the vulgarity by glaring at the brunette, wide-eyed. “He threatened me, told me to move on if I knew what was good for me,” the detective told her, incredulously.

“Because he found out you were staying with me?”

“Yes.” She searched the blonde’s face for a clue. “Why is that?”

“I told you how people would react -”

“No, it was more than that. Because when I was saving the mayor’s life, the doctor -”

She grabbed Trace’s arm. “Wait – what? You saved Jed Turner’s life? What in heaven’s name went on over at the saloon?” As the detective laid out the story for her, the blonde absorbed it all, amazed at how the circumstances just kept evolving, curious about this technique the brunette described and, also, grateful for the diversion.

“So, how is it that no one is surprised that your mayor is choking on his lunch upstairs in a prostitute’s room?” Trace asked, pointedly.

“Oh, Jed eats his lunch every day up in that redheaded harlot’s room, everybody knows it. He’s a crusty old bird…he’s a widower and never remarried. Not that any of the widow women in this county would ever hitch up with him. Everybody just looks the other way and he wouldn’t care if they didn’t.”

“How did somebody like that get to be mayor?”

“He inherited the job from his daddy. Got elected after he’d already had it for a month because no one else wanted it.” Because no one else wanted to deal with the Cranes, she finished, silently.

“And who are the Cranes?” Trace did not expect the intake of breath and the deathly quiet that came from the woman sitting next to her. Looking at the blonde, the detective found her pale and staring straight ahead. “Rachel…who are the Cranes?”

Finally, Rachel found her voice. “I really would rather not speak of them…”

“Just saying their name seems to strike terror in the heart of everyone and since they were referred to in the sheriff’s warning to me, I’d kind of like to know.” Watching the blonde’s expression, Trace knew the name struck terror in her heart, too. Softly, she said, “I would really appreciate knowing what I might be facing with these Cranes…”

“They…they are not nice people.”

“I gathered that. Are they responsible for the destruction of the fence I fixed yesterday?”

“I believe so, yes.”

“Why?” Even though Trace was trying to be gentle in her questioning, her adrenalin was pumping pure rage through her veins.

Sighing, the blonde knew that Trace was right, she had been threatened, she needed to know at least the basics. But just the basics. “Jacob Crane is a cattle baron. He owns most all the land west of Sagebrush. Everyone has sold their land to him. Except me.”

“And the reason you haven’t sold?”

The blonde’s eyes flashed in indignant anger before she spoke, the words coming out in stiff bites. “My great-grandfather bought this land when the first settlement came to town. Everything I have today was built on the sweat of my ancestor’s brow. Jacob Crane moved his family and his cattle business here just a little over a decade ago. They’ve been forcing everyone off their lands ever since.”

“Forcing or buying people out?” Trace could tell by the tone of the blonde’s voice and the expression on her face that this was delicate territory, so she tried to tread lightly.

“Oh, they’re offering money but if you say no, things happen.”

“What kind of things?” But even before the words left her mouth, she knew. The empty barn, the vandalized property…the loss of her parents, perhaps?

Avoiding the obvious, Rachel confirmed Trace’s speculation. Great. She left one turf war only to step into another one. Different stakes, same principle. In response to the query regarding her parents, the blonde unfolded the tale of sickness that claimed both her mother and father, then onto the untimely death of her fiancée. The longer the blonde went on, the more Trace’s heart ached for her. This poor woman had been through enough, the detective decided.

“And they have been after you ever since?” The detective watched Moses clop through the entrance of the Triple Y ranch and looked around at the deceivingly serene setting.

“Yes,” Rachel responded, with a rebellious lilt.

“What did they offer you?”

“Their most recent is fifty thousand dollars for just the land, plus a twelve percent profit on the house and improvements.”

Thinking back to the era they were in and that Rachel might be able to start a nice little life on that amount, Trace said, “That’s a nice little chunk of change, you -”

“I am not selling to them!” Rachel’s bellow overrode anything Trace was going to say. Folding her arms stubbornly across her chest, they endured the next few minutes in awkward silence.

“Why is it so important for them to have your land?”

“Because it runs right smack dab in the middle of their cattle drive route.”

“Can’t they go around?”

“Sure. But every mile runs that much more beef off the steers.”

Thinking about this ignited the fire in Trace’s belly. It had been a long time since she had stood up for the underdog and she loved a good fight. These Crane people were probably not going to stop until Rachel gave in. Looking over, seeing the fierce set in the blonde’s jaw, Trace knew she now had another reason, other than personal obstinacy, to stay put. “When are these Cranes due back?”

“Shouldn’t be for another two months, more or less.”

As the wagon stopped in front of the house, Trace smiled at Rachel with more self-confidence than the blonde had ever seen in any man. “Then it looks like we have our work cut out for us, huh?”

********************************

29.

While Rachel busied herself making dinner, Trace put the items that were brought back from town away in their proper places. Finding out where everything went occupied most of the conversation between the two women and when the detective was done, she left the blonde alone in the kitchen, while she made her way to her room in the barn to remove her wrap.

Her cut was mending itself nicely but she was not used to being bound down for so many hours and her injuries, though also healing quickly, were still healing, nonetheless, and parts of her skin cinched into the binding remained tender. She was pretty sure no one would be out to the ranch so she was unconcerned about going braless. If, by chance, someone did show up, she would deal with it but right now…it would be pure bliss to free her poor corralled breasts.

Each woman separately contemplated the events of their day. Rachel was not surprised that her fear regarding Ben Crane making good on his promise to taint her virtuous name had been realized. However, being right about it didn’t make it hurt any less that people actually believed it. Maybe if she kept denying it, the talk would go away. Yeah, and maybe babies really were found in cabbage patches…

She further considered the strange woman who was now living there. Just the knowledge of the existence of another person on the property – especially one thought to be a man – would stir up a hornet’s nest. Trace had made a rather conspicuous entrance into the Sagebrush community by saving Jed Turner’s life, an act that would be hailed by some and cursed by others. And, by ruffling the feathers of the sheriff, she was positive the tall brunette had unintentionally poked at that hornet’s nest with a very big stick.

She didn’t know why…but regardless of the gravity of the situation, something about that made her chuckle.

Trace reflected on the tone of the town as she had seen it, felt it. A lot tamer than what she was used to but still unsettling. The bartender liked her, as did the pawnbroker and, of course, his half-brother, The Mayor. The whore named Cassandra really liked her. But the doctor and the sheriff did not. On the other hand, His Honor and Rachel did not have good things to say about the obnoxious man wearing the badge. And everyone in the saloon seemed afraid of him.

Ed Jackson was a bad cop. If anyone could readily recognize one, it was Trace. Her lip curled into a predatory smile. She was a better bad cop. Jackson was obviously in the back pocket of the Cranes. She knew what that was like and no matter how ruthless these Cranes were, they couldn’t be as abominable as the DeSiennas. If she was going to stay in Sagebrush, she wasn’t going to allow herself to be restricted by anyone or anything. She glanced toward the house and sighed. Oh, yes…she definitely wanted to stay here.

She had a chance to redeem herself. Right now. Even though she wasn’t in her own time where the people she hurt could benefit from it, she had the opportunity to make up for the sins of her past. If this town’s above-the-law family wanted to hold the county hostage, she could deal with that. She was used to it. Except this time she would be the negotiator on the right side of the law.

As she walked back to the house, she vowed to herself that Rachel would never again have to worry about the Cranes. Talk was cheap, so she would have to prove it as she was quite sure the nineteenth century woman would never believe a female would be able to hold such an overly dominant, mighty clan at bay. But to be successful, Trace would have to get herself back in shape while learning a whole new way of life. God, she loved a challenge.

**************

After a dinner of hearty, thick corn chowder with bacon and biscuits, which was delicious, Rachel did the dishes while Trace went to the stable to make sure the horses had enough food and water. The supper conversation was slightly strained but not in a way that represented anger or awkwardness. Both women were lost in their own individual thoughts and neither really seemed to notice the other one was not talking much.

When the detective was finished filling up the trough, she strolled outside the stable and stretched the lameness out of her bones. Movement caught her eye and she saw Rachel disappear behind the east corner of the house. Curiosity getting the better of her, Trace followed the blonde up to a knoll. Joining her on the other side of the slanted hill, the detective saw three small tombstones. Roughly etched on the stones were the names of Rachel’s mother and father and Thomas Baines. Kneeling down, the blonde silently began clearing away grass growing wildly around the base of the granite markers.

“Your fiancée is buried here, too?” Trace stated the obvious with a question in her voice.

“He had no family left but mine. Not that we were any relation, of course. He was sixteen when his folks were killed coming back here on the stage. They had been in Kansas, at a service for Tommy’s grandmother.”

“How were they killed?” The brunette bent down and began brushing dust and dirt off the tops of the stones with her hand.

“Well, word got back to town that they were ambushed by Indians but I don’t believe it. There hasn’t been an Indian uprising since the plains nations got together at Little Big Horn. Least not around these parts anyway.” She looked over at Trace. “That’s why people aren’t trying to run you out of town ’cause you look like you could have some Indian in you. Any tribes left around here are all friendly.”

“So why would someone lie about how they died?”

“Because everything was slaughtered – including the horses. Even if it was a savage bunch, Indians wouldn’t have done that, they would have taken the horses with them.”

“Where are his parents buried?”

“They aren’t. Stagecoach was set on fire, wasn’t enough of them left to bury. What made everybody suspicious was it was Seth Carver came to town with the news.”

Trace straightened up, rubbing the side of her neck. “Who is Seth Carver?”

“He’s Jacob Crane’s nephew.” The blonde went back to pulling weeds. “Mr. and Mrs. Baines were also holding on to their land and didn’t want to give it up. Tommy couldn’t keep up with it and was forced to sell and used the money to go to law school. He was on his way back here to marry me and hang out his shingle and go into private practice. He was going to fight the Cranes, all legally, and try to stop them.”

“And how would he have been able to do that with a crooked sheriff so obviously siding with the Cranes?”

Rachel looked up at the brunette. “He would have found a way. Because he had to do what was right…nobody else had the guts to.”

Tears glistened the corners of the blonde’s eyes and Trace could not decide if it was due to her love for and grief over the loss of her fiancée or her determination to not become another casualty of the immoral Cranes. This made Trace even more resolved to take them down.

One at a time if she had to.

****************************

30.

The next morning showed Rachel an entirely different Trace. The detective was up with the rooster, dressed and grooming the horses before the blonde had to resort to guilting her out of bed with numerous wake-up visits, each one usually a little less friendly than the last.

In fact, Rachel was so surprised at this unexpected behavior that she nearly dropped all the eggs she had gathered when she passed the stable and heard whistling. Cautiously, she stepped inside and observed the tall brunette brushing Chief with an enthusiasm that she had not previously seen the detective display before. Consequently, the way the horse glanced over at his owner, he looked a tad nonplussed, too.

“Uh…morning…?” Rachel squinted to make sure it wasn’t actually her eyes playing tricks on her.

“Good morning!” Trace responded, brightly.

Nope. Not an apparition. “Um…you all right?”

Trace smiled at the hesitancy in the blonde’s tone. “Couldn’t be better. Thought I’d get Chief ready and then after breakfast, I’d ride him around the perimeter and see what else needs fixing.”

“You want to ride Chief?”

“Didn’t you say he was the fastest and the strongest?”

“Yes, but…”

“Then he and I need to get used to each other because we’re going to be spending a lot of time together.” Then she lightly slapped Chief’s muscular flank. “Aren’t we, you handsome creature?”

The blonde literally shook her head in speechless confusion. She could have swore the look in Chief’s eyes said, “Help me!”

“I didn’t go into the other section where your mustang is, he seemed pretty restless but I’ve already brushed Moses and I was going to groom Rosie but she’s pretty protective of that precious little colt she’s got in there. Have you named her yet?”

“No, I was waiting to see…” …if I needed to sell her to keep the place going, she finished to herself.

“How about Zelda?”

“Zelda…I’ve never heard that name before.”

“It’s my mother’s name.”

“You want to name a horse after your mother?”
“Sure, why not?”

Rachel couldn’t think of a reason, so she shrugged. “Um…okay, we’ll call her Zelda.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Cool. Thanks.” Trace continued to run the bristles over Chief vigorously.

“Cool?” Rachel repeated, cocking her head. “It’s hotter than a whipped boy’s behind this morning.”

“No – cool…it means, uh…it’s an expression of approval where I come from. When something is cool, it means it’s -” she nodded her head for emphasis, “okay.”

“Then why don’t you just say it’s okay? You talk strange sometimes, Trace Sheridan.” Smiling, she turned around, heading back toward the entrance. “Don’t saddle him up before breakfast,” she called back.

“Okay.”

Rachel stopped and looked back at the brunette, flustered. “You mean ‘cool’?”

“No, I mean okay, I won’t saddle him up until after breakfast.” Now it was the detective’s turn to smile as she watched the blonde shake her head while exiting through the stable entrance.

*************************

After Trace had washed up at the outdoor pump, she walked into the house to find a very pale Rachel at the stove, holding onto her stomach.

“Still feeling a bit ill, huh?” the brunette asked, as she approached the table which held only one full plate of bacon, eggs and pancakes dripping with butter and honey and a cup of, what Trace’s was sure, was criminally horrible coffee. Maybe she could use some of that honey to make a difference in the taste. Although she doubted it. She returned her attention to the greasy compilation of food that smelled unbelievably delicious and despite the amount of bad cholesterol she knew she would ingest, she couldn’t wait to start shoveling it in. “I can feel my arteries harden as we speak,” she mumbled, pulling out the chair. “You’re not eating?” Trace asked the blonde, acknowledging the absence of a second plate on the table.

“I’m not hungry,” Rachel said, weakly and ran for the door where Trace heard her retching violently off the porch.

Looking down at her breakfast with the blonde’s regurgitating sound effects in the background, the brunette muttered, “Neither am I anymore.”

Walking to the pantry, the detective located the container of powdered ginger and brought it back out to the table. She set the kettle onto the stove to get the water heated, then she walked out to the porch. Rachel was bent over at the waist with her hands resting on her knees. “I’m okay, Trace,” the blonde rasped, not looking at her. “Go back inside and eat.”

Placing her hand on Rachel’s back, once again pulling the long blonde hair back away from the smaller woman’s face, Trace said, “I’ve got the ginger out and the water boiling for you.”

Managing to look up at the brunette, Rachel wiped her eyes with her apron, then ran it over her mouth. “Thank you. But I’m not so sure I can go back in there right away. The aroma is warring with my belly.”

Nodding, Trace helped her straighten up and over to a wooden porch chair. “No worries. I’ll bring it out to you.”

“You don’t have to do that…” the blonde told her, very grateful that she was going to.

Smiling at her, Trace said, “I don’t have to do anything except eat, shit, pay taxes and die.”

“Lord, Trace, your language…” Rachel sighed, as the detective left her to go into the house. The blonde couldn’t remember the last time anyone had been this kind to her and the brunette had never met anyone she had wanted to be this kind to before.

Preparing the calming solution the way she had seen Rachel do it the day before, Trace brought a steaming cup back out to the porch and handed it to the blonde who was still looking quite peaked.

“Please go back inside and eat,” the sickly woman asked of the brunette. “It’s not as tasty when it’s cold.”

Now that there were no vomiting sounds, Trace found she was hungry again. “If you’re sure you are going to be all right…”

Nodding in concession, Rachel said, “I’ll be fine in a bit…soon as I get this down.”

“If you keep feeling like this, maybe you should go to the doctor’s.”

“No,” Rachel answered, quickly. “I’m sure I’m fine.” Except she knew this was only the beginning and she would be anything but fine.

**************************************
31.

Following a breakfast that, despite it having cooled, was still quite palatable, Trace ate every bite, knowing she would need the energy. While Rachel, feeling better, cleaned up the kitchen, Trace perused Frank Young’s closet for something less encumbering to wear than her denim shirt. It was going to be a muggy day and surely the blonde’s father had something appropriate for this kind of weather.

After a cursory search she found a few dirt-stained, worn, faded cotton shirts that she pulled out and draped over her arm. If Rachel was agreeable, she would cut the sleeves off and use them to work in. She also looked over the pants hanging there. She was probably going to have to sacrifice comfort for decorum, as she was pretty certain men did not alter blue jeans to wear as shorts back then. Not that she had to worry about her legs…if she didn’t see a razor soon, they would be hairy enough to look like a man’s. Returning her focus to the jeans, she knew they were at least one size too big for her and she didn’t think she would get any points for being trendy by holding up cut-offs with suspenders. Their next visit to town, she was going to have to buy clothes that fit.

As if Rachel had been reading her mind, the blonde addressed her from the doorway. “Those dungarees might be more suitable if I took them in a bit.”

Looking up, Trace saw that she had a little more color in her face and that she was holding a rifle, the barrel pointed at the floor. Rachel gingerly ran her thumb over the Sharps’ hand oiled forestock.

“You might want to take this with you. Needs to be cleaned but it was the last one I used and that was only a week ago, so it still shoots good.” Rachel then jerked back the brass slide-hammer to be sure Trace would have bullets at her disposal. The blonde fingered the metal button embedded near the handle before turning it over to the detective.

“Am I going to need this?”

Rachel shrugged. “You never know. Irritating Ed Jackson probably wasn’t the wisest idea. Can’t have you riding into a heap of hot lead.”

“No, we can’t have that,” Trace agreed, sarcastically. The detective examined the eight pound weapon. The .54 caliber cartridge rifle had a thirty-inch round blued barrel attached to a one-piece walnut-finished stock with three-metal bands. She noticed it had a fixed front sight and an adjustable rear sight. The overall length was about three and a half feet long. Interesting little trinket. Did she dare admit she had no idea how to shoot it? Well, it couldn’t be that difficult if a little slip of a farm girl could do it. She’d take it with her and practice. “What about handguns?”

“What?”

“You know…um…a revolver, a, uh, a six-shooter…”

“Oh, the Colts. Sure but I thought you might want something that could reach past six-gun range.”

“Good idea…but I am more used to using a handgun, a six-gun, than I am a rifle.” She drew a deep breath. “Actually, I’m a little rusty at both. I’ve been traveling a while and I could use some practice.”

“Oh. I don’t have a lot of extra bullets but you’re welcome to what I have.”

Setting the Sharps across the bed, Trace thanked the blonde with a nod. “You said I could help myself to anything of your father’s that fit. I found these shirts and – ”

“Oh, I meant to take them out of there, cut ’em up and use them for rags.”

“Can I have them?” Off Rachel’s addled expression, Trace explained her plans for the shirts and why. With the blonde’s blessing (and her shears), a half hour later, the detective had some sleeveless garments to work in.

Unconsciously, the blonde’s eyes were glued to the muscular arms of the brunette as she watched Trace saddle up Chief with very few mistakes. The detective was quite a breathtaking specimen of womanhood and someone the blonde should not have felt so infatuated with. Rachel automatically blamed these disquieting feelings on messed up hormones. It certainly couldn’t be anything else.

Rachel watched, amazed, as the brunette heeled the big horse to a canter, as though she had been doing it all her life. When Trace and Chief were out of sight, she went back inside the house to start her chores. Maybe she’d bake a damson pie today, wondering if Trace liked plums.

Despite the trouble she had growing inside her, why did she suddenly feel like she had a life again?

*******************
The detective was pleased at Chief’s cooperation. Maybe just like any other male she had dealt with in her life, she had to show him who was in charge by letting him think he was the boss. Chuckling at that, Trace headed back to the house after discovering three minor wear and tear breaks in definite need of immediate repair before they became worse.
Fortunately, she had not needed to use the rifle but because of Rachel’s ‘light’ warning, practicing until she became proficient with the Sharps and the other firearms was no longer a choice. However, she held off on target practice because she did not want to waste ammunition when she might actually need to defend herself. She would take a trip into town, using some of the money she got from the rings and either buy bullets or the materials she needed to load her own.
In the meantime, this afternoon, she would learn the joys of splitting rails
**************
32.

Under Rachel’s direction, Trace found the tools she needed in the barn – an axe, an eight-pound sledgehammer, and three four-pound wedges. Carrying the implements to the gathering of logs behind the house, near the wooded area close to the river, Trace had figured out she needed fourteen rails to fit into holes in the still standing posts. She was going to use Moses to help her move the logs from the pile onto the ground where she had access.
After Moses had pulled four logs free of the stack, Rachel took him back to the stable while Trace assessed the amount of work ahead of her. She needed to split the wood into four sections as even as she could get them. Returning to observe, the blonde stood back, crossing her arms, anticipating the worst. She knew Trace had never done this before and was praying the detective would sport the same number of fingers and toes when she was done that she did when she started.
The tall brunette followed the blonde’s instruction and looked over the unsplit timber for knots so as not to drive her wedge through one, Rachel telling her that hitting a knot tended to split the wood crooked. Trace placed the wedge vertically in the exact center of the butt end of the log and tapped it in with the mall until it stuck. Lifting the sledgehammer over her head, the detective brought it down in a straight square blow that jolted her from her toes to her teeth. Recovering from the shock of that, Trace saw where the log had cracked a good two feet from the end.
“Hey – look at that! Not bad, huh?”
Rachel couldn’t help but smile at Trace’s undisguised thrill at what she had done. When the brunette leaned down, reaching for the wedge, the blonde said, “Use another one. That one’s stuck.”
“Stuck? Did I hit it too hard?”
“No,” Rachel laughed, “you did just fine. Put a second one there.” She pointed to the end of the crack. “Hit it again like you did the first one and you should open that original split another two or three feet. That should free that wedge there,” she pointed to the first one, “so that you can leapfrog it to keep splitting it until the trunk breaks into two halves. Then you just split the halves.”
Doing as she was told, Trace split the trunk into four nearly equal rails. Two hours later, panting like a work horse, she had cut sixteen rails, had blisters that stung like they were on fire and an upper body ache that rivaled her first week at the police academy.
Wiping her brow with the back of her arm, she set the mall down, admiring her work. Yes, her arms and her back were killing her but looking at what she had just accomplished made her quite proud of herself.
An ice cold beer would have tasted great tight now…
After Rachel had placed her pie on the porch to cool, she thought it might be a good idea to check on the detective, to see how she was doing. Again, she was a bit startled at the fact that Trace was on her last rail and she admonished herself because it should not have surprised her. The brunette had already proven she was as robust as any man and had muscles as taut as her rotund grandmother’s corset laces. It was watching those firm, nicely defined muscles shift beneath Trace’s skin as she wielded the sledgehammer that provoked another accelerated heart rate in the blonde.
Approaching the detective, Rachel held out the cup of water she had brought out for her. Nodding her thanks, Trace took the small tin container and tried not to gulp the cool liquid down too fast, regardless of how dry she felt. As Rachel took a step closer, Trace smiled. “I wouldn’t get too close if I were you…or at least stay upwind of me.”
“Nothing wrong with a good earned sweat,” the blonde commented as she inspected the rails. “I do think you just may have a calling for this kind of work.”
“Thank you…but,” the brunette responded, scrutinizing her own hands, blistered and bleeding, “I don’t think I want to do this too often. Haven’t you ever heard of plywood?”
“Of course, I have. Plywood’s been around since the days of the Pharaohs. But why pay money for what we already have?” She gestured to a forest full of trees behind her. “You should notch those rails a little so that the fence will fit tight.”
“I think I’ll wait until tomorrow…my hands are a little raw now…”
Stepping closer, Rachel took Trace’s hands in her own and examined them carefully. “I thought you were wearing those gloves of my father’s?”
Regardless of the burning soreness, she enjoyed the small blonde touching her in any manner. “I was but they were too big and kept slipping. That’s what started the blisters in the first place.”
Sighing, Rachel shook her head. “You’re awfully tender-fleshed.” Looking up at a raised eyebrow of the taller brunette, the blonde added, “for someone who’s supposed to fight outlaws.”
“Yeah? Well, give me a couple weeks and I’ll amaze you with these hands,” Trace commented, innocently, then stopped. She closed her eyes, mentally kicking herself. Hopefully the blonde wouldn’t take that out of context.
“I’m sure you will,” Rachel answered her in a tone of voice that came out much huskier than she had intended, absently running her thumbs lightly over the brunette’s fingers. Locking gazes with the detective, the blonde audibly swallowed and abruptly dropped the Trace’s hands. Slowly pulling her eyes away from the much too engaging blue ones, Rachel bowed her head and stared at the ground. “It’d be better to notch ’em now. Tomorrow your hands will hurt too bad.” She began walking away and then called over her shoulder, “When you’re finished, come on to the house, I’ll fix you up.”
“Thanks.” She watched the blonde leave. Well that was interesting, Trace thought. What the hell was that about? She didn’t think the smaller woman had been flirting – at least not consciously. But when the moment was realized, what did she see in Rachel’s jade eyes? Definitely not disgust. It could have been fear. It was indeed shock but at what? She easily read uncertainty in the blonde’s expression. Yet it was difficult for Trace to decide if Rachel was offended, bewildered or, dare she hope, curious, by her own behavior.
She would have to gauge her interaction with the smaller blonde carefully. She in no way wanted to overstep any boundaries and she breathed a sigh of relief that she had not resorted to being her often obnoxiously bold self. That worked fine for her in her time but it would not bode well here.
Trace shook it off. Of course Rachel wasn’t interested, it was dehydration mixed with wishful thinking. The poor woman had been through so much and Trace’s sudden appearance in her life and the unusual circumstances under which they were sharing space had to be confusing, at the very least. You need to keep your damned libido on a short leash, Trace! Her sudden surge of frustration motivated her through scoring both ends of each rail until fourteen out of sixteen were done.
Rachel could not have gotten inside the house fast enough. When she knew she was completely out of the detective’s sight, she braced herself by holding onto the back of a chair and let out the breath she had been holding since she dropped the brunette’s hands. What in heaven’s name had just happened out there? Had she just made a subtle overture toward the detective? No. No, she couldn’t have, she wasn’t like that, she did not think about women like that. She had heard about women like that and no, she definitely was not one of them. She couldn’t be. She had been engaged to be married, she was in love with her fiancée. She liked kissing him, being in his arms and had dreamed of…other things…they might do together. No, it was settled. She was not that kind of woman. It must be her innards being all messed up that made her feel all crazy inside.
Yes, that must be it…hormones must have been making her belly flutter and heart clench whenever the tall woman entered her vision. It must be knowing deep inside that Trace was a protector that made her feel so safe in the detective’s presence. Had to be that baby growing inside her discombobulating everything in her body and head, making her feel a kind of kinship, like she had known this woman her entire life. That and her desperate loneliness. Trace had unknowingly filled a gap in her life she hadn’t even admitted was missing until she realized that if the detective moved on, everything would be twice as empty as it had been before. How odd when she had only met this woman days ago.
Embarrassment burned in the blonde’s cheeks. Good Lord, what must Trace have thought? Well, obviously the detective wouldn’t think anything peculiar about her, she reasoned, the brunette knew she had been engaged. She comforted herself with that information and smiled. She moved to the stove and put the water on to boil before gathering what she would need to address Trace’s blisters.
**********
33.

When Trace walked into the house, she smelled two distinctly different aromas other than herself. One was the freshly baked sweetness of a fruit pie with brown sugar and the other was the rather overpowering scent of garlic.

The blonde was busy at the table using a granite mortar and pestle to crush fresh cloves of garlic and was heating olive oil in a small iron pan.

“Let me guess…pasta Italiano for supper and apple pie for desert.” the detective cracked. In response she received a blank stare from the blonde.

“I didn’t think you would want supper after the late lunch just a couple of hours ago.”

Although it was true, Rachel had prepared them a very filling meal just before Trace split the rails, the detective had worked up an appetite and was a little disappointed, especially with the smell of garlic in the air. She suddenly longed for a huge dish of shrimp fettucini alfredo.

“Would you do me a favor and take the kettle off the fire? I thought we might have some tea with our pie…and it’s not apples, it’s damson plums.”

Doing as Rachel had asked, Trace said, “I’ve never had a plum pie before but it smells delicious.” Both were secretly grateful that what had happened in the yard was obviously not going to be mentioned. “And the garlic…?”

“…is for your blisters.”

“For my -?” She stopped herself before finishing. In the short time she had been there, she had learned to not question the blonde’s methods of healing.

“I’m going to make an oil to rub onto the blisters and I have a comfrey salve to put on the open sores. If you don’t rub it all off before or during sleep, you hands should feel better by morning. We’ll see how they look tomorrow.”

Trace poured and steeped two cups of tea while Rachel cooked the garlic and olive oil concoction for five minutes, let it cool and then strained it into a small jar, letting it sit before cutting two slices of pie for herself and the brunette.

“Mmmm, Rachel, this is wonderful,” the detective complimented, with a mouthful of pie still not swallowed. “You really are an excellent cook. And baker.”

“Thank you,” the blonde blushed. “I thought you’d like it.”

Nodding, Trace took another bite and was glad they were having tea instead of coffee. Sooner than later, she needed to ask Rachel to please allow her to make the coffee…so far, it was the only thing the adorable blonde didn’t do obviously well.

***

Because of what had occurred between the two women that afternoon, Rachel advised Trace of how to treat her blisters instead of doing it for her. It was difficult to keep her hands to herself, however, as she had always been quite demonstrative. And for some reason, she was compelled to touch this woman, to the point where she almost had to sit on her hands.

It was dusk before the solution had seeped in and started drying. As the sun set, Trace watched as Rachel lit candles in every window, lit the parlor lamp and took up her sewing. She began mending one of her dresses when she noticed the detective had found an old deck of cards and started to play solitaire at the table.

“How do your hands feel?”

“They burn a little but,” Trace smiled, turning a card over, “I’ll live.” She looked up at the blonde. “Tell me about Sheriff Jackson.”

“Ed? Other than him being an insufferable know-it-all, more crooked than the letter S, pretty adept at manure-spreadin’ and having an abundantly abysmal personality, what would you like to know about him?”

Chuckling, the detective turned over another card. She didn’t know why she bothered to play solitaire, she never won. “What’s he like when he’s backed into a corner?”

“That doesn’t happen very often. Only strangers who don’t know him think they can do that and they don’t stay in town too long. Billy the Kid rode through one day. Went to Wilbur’s for a couple of shots of whiskey before moving on. Seems Ed didn’t know who he was and behaving like he normally does, thinking he can bully anybody he wants because he’s working for the Cranes, made the mistake of sticking his finger in the Kid’s face.”

Billy the Kid. Wow. Trace thought he was just a folk legend. “So what happened?”

Obviously tickled by this story, Rachel almost giggled. “Billy grabbed him by the finger and, um, shall I say ‘escorted’ him out to his horse, shoved the barrel of his six-gun practically up Ed’s nose, demanded he mount up and some of the boys the Kid was riding with accompanied Ed out of town, acting like they were going to kill him. Well, obviously they didn’t but I don’t think Ed’s saddle dried out for months.” Shaking her head, Rachel tied off her thread. “Ed don’t know what to do when he runs up against men who aren’t scared of the Cranes. And nobody – especially not the Cranes – are going to go up against Billy The Kid, so Ed was on his own.” The blonde looked over to see Trace move a card to be able to lay another one on top of it. “Trace Sheridan! Did you just cheat at solitaire?!”

Looking up into the surprised green eyes, Trace half smiled. “Why, yes, I believe I did.”

“Doesn’t that hurt your conscience?”

The detective mulled it over for a half-second and shrugged. “Nope.” Of all the things that should have bothered Trace’s conscience, cheating at any card game was not even in the top one hundred.
******************
34

Although Rachel seemed perfectly fine at breakfast, Trace awoke to the sounds of the young woman intensely heaving in the middle of the night. When the detective sat opposite her at the breakfast table, other than being a little pale, she seemed fine. Whatever Rachel had, it was a strange kind of bug.

The brunette had also awakened to her blisters having drained and dried and her cuts were closing up. Her hands were sore but not like they would have been without Rachel’s natural remedies. The blonde’s advice to notch those rails yesterday was wise. She wasn’t too sure she would even be able to hold a hammer today much less swing one. Which also meant she wouldn’t be able to grip a gun so target practice was also out. But she still might be able to look them over and clean them.

Laying the two Colts, the Winchester and the Carbine on an old tattered cloth on the table, Trace studied them before dismantling each weapon as best she could while Rachel brought her the cleaning equipment she would need to complete the task. She was used to much more advanced paraphernalia but even as archaic as the materials were, they were still basic enough to get the job done. Plus this would help her to get to know these guns before she actually had to shoot them.

Even though she did not normally shoot a revolver, she had been required to familiarize with them at the academy and, along with her automatic service weapon, she had been timed in taking them apart and putting them back together in working firing condition.

Basically, Trace found the guns to be in pretty good shape but with exception of the Sharps, they were all quite dirty and dusty. While the detective was cleaning and oiling the Carbine, Rachel tended to the household chores.

It almost felt blissfully domestic, Trace thought as she ran a long brush resembling a pipe cleaner with a thyroid condition, a tiny, well oiled patch of cloth affixed to the end, through the individual chambers of the cylinder of one of the Peacemakers. She did all the “butch” things while the blonde prepared the meals, washed dishes, pots and pans, did the mending, darning, sweeping, dusting, making the bed, washing, ironing, refilling the lamps and building fires in the evening. She smiled at the thought of Rachel being her “wife.” Then immediately choked on saliva that went down the wrong pipe.

“Are you okay?” the blonde asked, quickly getting out of her chair, grabbing a cup and stepping over to the pump to fill it with water.

Putting a hand up to indicate she was all right, Trace nodded, coughing, finally getting control of her automatic body functions of breathing and swallowing. “I’m fine…really…” She accepted the water and took a few sips. Where the fuck were these ruminations coming from? Wife? Just the word make her choke again, provoking the blonde to pound her on the back. While Trace was recovering, she widened her eyes at Rachel, surprised that such small hands could pack such a painful wallop.

Moments later, when it was clear the detective was going to live, after Rachel had reseated herself and Trace had gone back to her weapon cleaning, the brunette revisited the thoughts that caused such a reaction in her. What was going on? She had never entertained any desire to get attached to or settle down with anyone. Ever. It just wasn’t in her make up. Sneaking a glance at the lovely yet troubled blonde, two words crept into her head: until now. She was suddenly dizzy and needed some air.

Her standing made Rachel look up at her, once again a concerned expression crossing her innocent features. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Nodding, feeling a little awkward, Trace said, “Uh…yeah. I think the fumes of the bore oil are getting to me.” She pointed toward the door. “I’m just going to step outside for a little bit.”

Watching her leave, the blonde just stared after her. Trace was awfully pale, like she had just seen a ghost. If Rachel hadn’t known any better, she would have thought her morning sickness was contagious. She shook her head and went back to sewing.

Outside, Trace took several gulps of air. She had not even known Rachel a week, she could not have possibly developed feelings this deep for her. And yet…the thought of the blonde not being there provoked a numbing emptiness inside her that was beyond explanation. ‘No, no, no,’ Trace thought, ‘this isn’t happening, I am not falling in love, I am not falling in love…’ Yet when she closed her eyes, her only images were of Rachel and the different things the blonde did, different expressions she wore in reaction to different situations and a fond smile appeared on the detective’s face and a warmth surged through her she had never felt in the past. ‘Fuck me to tears,’ the brunette thought, sighing helplessly, ‘I’m falling in love.’

Great. Now what? Talk about closeted…she was living in an era where she was pretty sure there had to be jail sentences for homosexuality and if there wasn’t, whatever punishment the town took into its own hands had to be severe, if not deadly. Fortunately, no one had a clue that she was a female, so that particular issue was not a problem. No one but Rachel. The only one who really mattered to her.

She began to pace, chewing on her lip. What was she going to do? It was different when it was just lust, that was old hat to her, it was emotionless…but love? She’d never been in love before but she somehow knew that there was a point of no return in that phase which is why she always fought against it. She couldn’t be in love with this woman. Rachel was straight and naive and sweet good, not at all the type of woman the detective was used to hooking up with and the very idea of Trace having these kind of feelings for her would, no doubt, horrify and terrify the poor girl. In reality, it terrified Trace. She thought she had gotten past having ‘things’ for heterosexual women years ago…although, she never had much of a problem with curious, straight women… But the blonde was different. Regardless of what happened yesterday.

The detective realized that she had a powerful presence, that she could be intimidating and she could pour on the charm without even trying. Trace had always been a very successful flirt, especially when it came to attractive women. It was second nature to her. But she was always in control. Always. Now she felt anything but in control as far as Rachel was concerned. This had never happened before. Which brought up another reason for the brunette’s panic.

“This was such a mistake,” she reflected, quietly to herself, “I should have stayed and took my chances with the DeSiennas.” Even though she knew, had she made that decision, she would probably be dead by now. Maybe she should just leave. She had enough money to buy a gun and a horse, hell, she could even steal one or two of Rachel’s guns and one of the horses. She leaned against a post, crossing her arms over her chest, looking down at the weathered wood of the porch floor. Of course she wouldn’t do anything to bring this wonderfully kind and noble woman any more pain and strife.

And what would be the consequences of her moving on? The benefit being that somewhere she might be able to find a place to settle down where her sexual proclivities would be welcomed by a woman or two. The problem, however, was that they wouldn’t be Rachel.

The harm of moving on heavily outweighed that measly personal advantage. The blonde would be alone again and defenseless. What was left of her livestock and crops would probably be destroyed. She would be forced to give up her home. And Trace would appear as though she was kowtowing to the sheriff’s ‘request’ and falling in line behind the rest of Sagebrush and allowing the Cranes to run her life. She inhaled deeply. If she did not permit that with a much more powerful twenty-first century crime family, she would be damned if she would allow it with a group of nineteenth century rubes.

“Trace?” The voice interrupted her train of thought and she looked up to meet innocently inquiring green eyes. She wondered how long the blonde had been there, watching her. “Are you all right?”

Christ, she was beautiful, the brunette mused, committing Rachel’s face to memory. Trace smirked. “Yeah. I’m fine. Thanks.” And when the blonde returned a relieved smile, the detective knew right then and there she would never leave this woman.

**************************************

35.

When the small arsenal of four weapons had been cleaned, reassembled and put away, Trace kept out one of the revolvers so that she could look it over. Hand guns with cylinders fascinated her. She always wondered why people chose to buy and use them when, at least in her opinion, automatics were so much quicker, more accurate, packed so much more firepower and, with the higher caliber, definitely more potent. Or maybe she had convinced herself of that because she had been lazy…by being able to slap in a clip, she could pop off more rounds faster and not have to worry about counting to six and stopping to use a speed loader. Now that she was in a situation where she would have no choice but to use this magnificently authentic Colt Peacemaker in her hand, she knew she needed to get comfortable with it and become more than competent at firing it.

The detective decided that tomorrow, if the cuts and slices on her hands were better, she would take the new rails out and repair the fence and then, if she was up to it (and definitely after a bath), she would ride into town and buy ammunition, a gun belt and look over what else might come in handy for her. She glanced over at Rachel, who had dozed off in her chair. Poor kid was obviously exhausted and she didn’t wonder with trying to keep this place up and running all by herself. She must have literally made herself sick and tired.

Studying the blonde, Trace’s expression softened. Rachel appeared so unguarded, so unblighted, so powerless…yet she had endured, so far, against these brutal and, obviously merciless Cranes. But it was clearly taking it’s toll. She sighed and shook her head…well, no more if Trace had anything to do with it. The detective vowed to herself that she would move a mountain – one shovel at a time – if it finally meant peace for the blonde. As she passed Rachel, she reached down and pulled the knitted shawl up around the younger woman’s shoulders and stepped out onto the porch, sitting down on one of the old but solid wooden chairs.

Kicking her feet up and resting them on the railing, Trace inspected the clean Colt cavalry single action .45 Peacemaker in her hand. She felt the weight with an empty chamber. Even without bullets the revolver wasn’t exactly heavy but it was sturdy, something she attributed to the nickel plating and the walnut grips, which were a little worn but certainly not in need of replacing. The barrel, cylinder and frame were very strong and when she was putting it back together she noticed that the mechanics seemed as close to perfect as she would probably ever see in a gun like this…cocking, indexing, firing…was all very smooth. She pointed the Colt at a slender tree opposite her in the distance and looked down the six-inch barrel, lining up the sights. Hmmm…she might just be able to get used to this. As soon as it stopped hurting to close her fingers around the handle.

**********************

With Rachel busy preparing and baking a chicken pot pie for supper, Trace was too bored with just hanging around, waiting for her injuries to heal. Using what was left of the garlic concoction from yesterday, the detective rubbed the oil into her skin then wrapped her hands with cloth, slipping the suede work gloves on she had started to use the day before. She then donned nasty-looking, heavily stained overshoes several sizes too big as she began mucking out the stable.

All the horses, except the mustang, had been out in the pasture, so the detective did not have to be concerned about being trapped again, like that first day with Chief. By the time she reached the final stall, the one occupied by the feisty Spanish horse, she had poked quite a few eye-watering, nose hair burning pockets of fecal ammonia with her pitchfork, making her hate her life every time she came across one of the steaming, moldy, rotting matted clumps.

Entering the stall of the horse that had tentatively been named Rio because he had been found by the river, the two stubborn mammals stared each other down. “Don’t even think of starting with me,” Trace advised the wary animal in a low, serious, whiskey-burnt alto. “I like being in here even less than you do.”

It must have been her unyielding attitude that made Rio ignore her and go back to chewing on hay. Known for their survival instincts, mustangs were highly intelligent creatures with innate senses of self-preservation and not prone to place themselves in any situation which might be perilous or destructive. Something in the brunette’s tone told him crossing this human with the pitchfork in her hands was not conducive to his welfare. He was very cooperative in moving when she needed to get around him and when she was finished, she pushed the wheelbarrow to just outside the stable entrance and went back into the stall to replenish Rio’s food staples. Once she was done with that, she would round up the other horses and get them back inside for the night.

Trace couldn’t help but notice that Rio was a beautiful animal. Standing fourteen hands high, he was a smoothly muscled, deeply girthed, narrow chested, roan-colored horse with a well crested neck. The detective smiled at him, still respecting his space, feeling they were a lot alike. She instantaneously decided she wanted Rio to be her horse…maybe she could eventually talk Rachel into that little notion. Suddenly sensing another presence, Trace spun around to see her favorite little blonde standing at the entrance, hands on her hips, surveying the stall.

“Gosh, Trace, this looks right tidy. You did a fine job!” Rachel was starting to wonder if Trace had been telling the truth about never having done any of these kind of chores before, she always seemed to do such a complete and nearly error-free job.

“Thank you,” the detective grinned. Amazing how even a little praise from the blonde could make her heart swell. Rio barely acknowledged his owner and went back to eating.

“How are your blisters feeling?”

“A little sore but not bad.”

“You probably should have given them a little more time to get better.”

“Yep, probably. But I couldn’t sit still. Idle hands and all that…”

Rachel folded her arms and nodded her head toward Rio. “Looks like he doesn’t mind you.”

“Yeah…speaking of that -” Trace was interrupted by the sound of an explosive, rolling flatulence and looked up to see Rachel staring at her with eyes as big as pie tins. Defensively, she said, “It was the horse!”

And then the odor to match the sound encircled them both and bile immediately scalded Trace’s throat as both women made a mad dash for untainted oxygen. Outside the stable, the brunette breathed in mouthfuls of fresh air.

“Okay, that was just wrong…” Trace commented, wiping the sting away from her eyes.

“I think he’s still getting used to the oats,” Rachel offered.

So am I, Trace thought, remembering the oatmeal for breakfast, but I don’t smell like that. At least she hoped she didn’t. “I think I’ll wait a bit before I bring the other horses back to their stalls,” the brunette stated.

“Well, I came to get you to tell you that supper was ready.” Off Trace’s expression, she then added, “but since I’ve seen pallbearers look happier than that, it won’t hurt it to cool a bit until you get your appetite back.”

“No, no, I’ll be fine. Just let me get these clothes off and washed up and I’ll be right in. You worked too hard to let it sit and get cold.” Reaching over and patting the blonde’s arm, reassuringly, Trace then headed off in the direction of the barn.

Watching the brunette’s retreating form, Rachel ran her fingers lightly over the area of skin the brunette had just touched, feeling goosebumps. She realized she was smiling. She had never experienced anything like that before. The blonde could not explain her reaction and then thought it was best not to try. She walked back to the house to set the table, suddenly feeling as though she wanted to start skipping.

****************************

36.

Right after dinner, Trace offered to do the dishes but Rachel wouldn’t hear of it. Instead she suggested the detective ‘mosey’ out to the corralled pasture and bring the horses in. Sure, Trace thought, so they can start immediately messing up those nice clean stalls.

The tall brunette led a lazily trudging Moses into the stable, followed by Rosie and her shy baby, who seemed determined to play ‘peekaboo’ with Trace from behind her mama and then a surprisingly cooperative Chief brought up the rear. The detective secured them all into their stalls and stopped long enough to talk softly to Zelda, who still hid behind Rosie but seemed as fascinated with the human as she was with the colt.

Once, out of the stable, Trace knew she could not go to bed smelling the way she did. She didn’t know how Rachel managed to sit opposite her all through the meal and not start throwing up again. She no further got that thought out than she heard the sounds of vomiting. Picking up her pace, she rounded the corner to find the blonde bent over at the waist, depositing her supper in the bushes by the out house. By the time Trace reached her, Rachel was finishing up with a few dry heaves.

“Rachel, I don’t like this…” the detective began as she watched the pale, drawn face focus on her.

“I’m all right.”

“No, you’re not. You’re obviously very stressed.”

The blonde cocked her head. “Stressed?”

“Yeah…um…out of sorts, upset, agitated.”

Rachel nodded. “Well, that is the truth.” If only the brunette understood the enormity of her ‘stress.’ Well, she would soon enough and then she would move on, certainly not wanting to have any association with an unwed mother. Suddenly the notion of Trace leaving her made her very emotional and before she could stop herself, she started to cry.

Without delay, the detective pulled the blonde into her arms and held her securely, smoothing her hair with her palm as Rachel wept silently against her shoulder. “Shhhh, shhhh, it’s okay,” Trace soothed. “I don’t want you to worry. I’m going to help you fight these Cranes, to keep your land.” Once again the detective was experiencing a new aspect of herself. She had never been a demonstrative person yet she did not hesitate for one second to physically comfort the blonde. Normally, she considered herself as having all the gentility of a NASCAR wreck. Rachel was pulling out a side of her she never knew she had.

As for Rachel, there was also no indecision regarding immediately accepting this act of kind reassurance. Being held by Trace seemed the most natural thing in the world for her. She might have pondered it further but she was hit by another wave of nausea and she pushed herself away from the detective before she risked spraying the brunette with the contents of her stomach…if there was anything left in there.

Later that evening, after Trace had taken a discreet, naked plunge in the creek, preferring the strong smell of lye soap over the more pungent odor of manure, she sat on the porch with Rachel, listening to the crickets, the frogs, the river and the occasional howl of an animal or two. They discussed Trace’s plans for the next day by the light of a full moon. Under different circumstances, it could have been very romantic, which is exactly what Ed Jackson must have thought when he rode up to the house.

Hearing the sound of slow hoofbeats approaching, both women stood, Trace immediately alerting on Rachel’s stiffening posture. When the glint of the sheriff’s badge became distinct, it made the blonde visibly disturbed.

“Now, what could he want?” Rachel mumbled in a voice just loud enough for her companion to hear.

When Jackson got close enough that his features could be recognized, he spoke, his tone arrogant and condescending. “Rachel,” he nodded to the blonde. “Mr. Sheridan,” he regarded Trace with a sneer. He looked at both women pointedly and after neither barely acknowledged him with a word or gesture, he said, “Am I interruptin’ something?”

It was the disrespectfully blatant leering at the blonde, that caused Trace’s hand down by her side to curl into a fist. Rachel must have sensed the detective’s barely contained wrath and stepped forward. “Nothing but an evening’s discussion about tomorrow’s chores.”

Jackson did not hide his disbelief. “Right,” he smirked.

“What is it we can do for you, Sheriff?” Trace responded, her vocal inflection even less friendly than the lawman’s.

“I just thought, as a courtesy, I’d tell Miss Rachel, here, that her fence is busted over by the south end of her property.”

“Yes, I know that,” the blonde spoke up. “That’s old news, Sheriff. If that’s all you came for…”

“Now, there ain’t no need to be inhospitable,” Jackson admonished her. “With all the mysterious things happenin’ out here, I would think you’d want to be just a little more sociable to -”

“Mysterious? There is nothing mysterious about anything that has happened here, Sheriff,” Rachel spit out unable to hold onto her forced composure any longer. “You know very well who’s responsible for slaughtering my herd and crippling my horses, for burning most of my crops, for…” she stopped herself before she revealed the rest of it. “And you know, despite how sociable, I became to you, you wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. You disgrace that badge!” Literally vibrating from her own rage, she felt a gentle hand at the back of her elbow which brought her back to some semblance of calm.

Jackson didn’t seem fazed in the least by her outburst. “Why, Rachel, your respect for the law is right heartwarmin’.”

“She has respect for the law, Sheriff. That doesn’t mean she has to respect the man badly representing it. That respect is not automatic. It has to be earned and it sure looks to me like you’re a long way from doing that.”

Trace’s words got Jackson’s attention and he narrowed his eyes. “You know, Sheridan,” he began. “I don’t like you. Didn’t like you from the moment I laid eyes on ya.”

Imitating Ed’s drawl, Trace almost smirked. “Well, Ed, that just plum hurts my feelings.”

Rachel had to turn her head away and bite the inside of her cheek to keep from snorting in laughter. Sheriff Jackson probably hadn’t been defied like this since that incident with Billy The Kid. When she was able to sneak a look at him, she couldn’t help but comment. “Why, Sheriff, you look madder than a centipede with bunions.”

Trace was sure if the sheriff could have had steam come out of his ears, plumes would have been sending smoke signals by now. Somehow, he managed to rein in his temper and was able to raise a simper. “Ain’t no way some half-breed, gypsy-lookin’ drifter’s gonna get my back up,” he lied. The truth was if Rachel hadn’t been there as a witness, he would have cut Trace down where she stood. He still could, no one would dispute him on it, except the courtly blonde and no one would believe her. Well, they might but it wouldn’t matter. Jackson decided it would be smarter to wait for Jacob and the boys to get back. They would decide on a suitable course of action for this insolent cowboy who was way too big for his breeches. The sheriff wondered how big a talker this stranger would be up against the youngest, most virile Crane…especially when it involved Rachel Young, a woman Ben hated and desired at the same time. Nope, it would be too much fun to watch the volatile Crane boy deal with it. In the mean time, maybe a little lesson in manners wouldn’t hurt.

“Say, Rachel, I just come from a nice dinner of roast cur at the Reddicks and I’m a might thirsty. Why don’t you fancy ol’ Ed with a nice big shot of bug juice and I’ll be on my way.”

Looking at the ground, Rachel sighed and turned to walk inside when she was quietly stopped by Trace’s arm in front of her. In a voice loud enough for Jackson to hear, the detective asked, “Do you want to wait on him? Because he can be on his way without the bug juice.”

They both heard the squeaking leather of the sheriff shifting in his saddle. In a tone barely above a whisper, the blonde said, “I just want him out of here with no trouble. I know this will do it.” She gently pushed Trace’s arm down and passed her, entering the house.

“Now, you listen to me, boy,” Jackson started, once Rachel was out of their sight. Trace slowly looked back up at this ugly man on his tired horse. “That pretty little thing may be warmin’ your bed for now and you might be feeling like a stud ’cause of it, hell, I would be -”

Words became strangled in the detective’s throat, she was so furious at the implication. It was okay if she thought that but for some scrote like this crooked lawman to just assume it turned her damned near homicidal. It took a great deal of self-control not to pick up the chair she had been sitting in and slam Jackson upside the head with it.

“…but if I was you? Enjoy it while you can because when those boys get back from Dodge and find you here? I guaran-damn-tee you’ll be like a field mouse with a cat at his tail. And…well, let’s just say you keep shootin’ off your mouth like that to those boys and you might wind up on the end of a rope over a cottonwood branch. Now, ain’t that just befittin’ seein’ as how that’s where you say you’re from,” he continued, oblivious to the rage that radiated from the brunette.

Trace was about to annihilate him with a tirade that would have made his head spin when Rachel stepped back out onto the porch and over to the first step, handing the glass to the sheriff. Jackson drained the glass in one huge gulp, belched loudly and tossed the glass unexpectedly to Trace who caught it effortlessly. Her quick, smooth reaction provoked a raised eyebrow from the sheriff and that was all.

Touching his index finger to the brim of his hat, he smiled and nodded once again at Rachel. “You have a good night. And don’t forget about your south fence, there.” He then guided his horse away from the house and trotted into the shadows of the trees in the distance.

Both women silently watched him go. The first one to speak was the blonde. “Man’s got a grin like a rabid dog.”

Through clenched teeth, Trace then said, “I don’t like that man. I don’t like the way he talks to you, I don’t like the way he looks at you and I don’t like the way he threatens you.”

Rachel was a little taken aback at but also flattered by the detective’s protective and almost possessive tone. She returned her attention to the dark woods the sheriff rode into. “They say when a snake rattles, you ought to kill it. Unfortunately, if you cut the head off that particular snake, several more will grow back. I’d shoot him for trespassing but that would only get me a cross planted above my brow.” She sighed and swatted away a black fly who, with its many relatives, had begun to annoy her within the past ten minutes. She watched while Trace also attempted to bat one away. “Blessed things are as big as buzzards. Let’s go inside. I’ll make some tea.”

“Rachel, what the fu- heck is bug juice?”

“Whiskey.”

“Whiskey…?” She followed the blonde inside. closing the door. “Why don’t they just call it whiskey?”

Rachel shrugged. “Why don’t you just say ‘okay’ instead of ‘cool’?”

Good question, Trace thought. The blonde’s simplistic approach to things was always enlightening in its own way and she had a feeling that seeing life through Rachel’s eyes would force her to re-evaluate quite a bit in the days to come.

**********************************

37

Trace spent another forty-five minutes having a cup of tea with Rachel and then headed for her room in the barn. Still unnerved by the sheriff’s unexpected visit, she was only now starting to calm down. She was tired and should have been sleepy but something just did not feel right and she laid awake, staring at the ceiling, for several hours until the normal night sounds faded into the recesses of her subconscious.

A little after midnight, one noise stood out from the rest and the detective immediately reacted to it. Like a phantom, she silently slid out of bed, donned her clothes and boots and crept out to the barn door, which was ajar. Slipping into a defensive mode of every nerve in her body feeling totally aware and ready for anything, she automatically monitored her own breathing, went on peripheral alert, scanning the limited area of her vision for the source of the noise. It was then she saw two shadows in close proximity to where she was standing and heard voices.

“Ed said just to scare ’em. Maybe drag the gyspy out of bed and wail the bejesus out of him in front of her.”

“What about Miss Rachel?” the second male inquired. He sounded young and a little unsure.

With a lascivious little snicker, the first man said, “As much as I’d like to have a little piece of that for myself, Ed said to leave her alone. But if she gets a little too rambunctious, she may have to be taught a lesson as well.”

That was all Trace needed to hear. She stepped forward on her left leg, shifted her weight and let loose with a front jump kick, snapping her right leg up at the knee and striking the door with the ball of her foot with such force, the door lurched outward with a splintering crack, stopping only when it slammed against two bodies, knocking them to the ground. Moving quickly outside, she faced the dazed men, who both wore black hoods with eye holes cut out.

“Come on, boys,” Trace teased, beckoning them. “I’m ready for my lesson now.”

Both men staggered to their feet. “He was supposed to be in the house,” the shorter one whined.

“Never assume,” the detective advised, in an almost playful tone of voice.

The taller, obviously older of the two men barreled toward the brunette, fist raised. Trace simply stepped aside, letting him pass where, under his own momentum, he tripped and fell face first into the dirt.

“Too bad that cowardly mask doesn’t have a hole cut out where your mouth should be. You deserve to be spitting out Mother Earth right now,” the detective told him. She watched as he jumped back on his feet pretty quickly, angry and embarrassed.

“What the hell’s the matter with you, boy?” He was addressing his companion who was just standing there, unmoving. “Get him!”

Glancing at the smaller of the two, Trace sensed he would not be a problem. Almost timidly, the shorter man advanced at the detective from one side as the other man charged at her from the other. A deceptively fast roundhouse kick caught the older man on his right cheek, sending him flying backward, stunned, as he once again hit the ground. While he was shaking it off, the younger one drew back, propelling his fist forward with the intention of punching the brunette and the hope of knocking her down.

Catching his fist in mid-thrust, Trace abruptly stopped the action by counter grabbing his hand and twisting it in a direction nature never designed it to move. As she brought him to his knees, he began yelling for mercy. He knew with a little more effort, his whole arm could be broken.

Seeing the brunette occupied with his companion, the taller intruder mistakenly believed he could gain control of the situation now. When he was about two feet away from the detective, she back kicked him away from her and once again he found himself on his ass in the dirt. Pounding the ground in frustration, he stood up and drew his gun.

Hearing the click of the trigger being cocked back, Trace shook her head and spun her prisoner around so that he was now in front of her, wrenching his now badly sprained arm into a choke hold against him. She found herself looking up into the muzzle of a nicked and worn pistol. Regardless, she was sure, at that range, the bullet fired from it would still be just as deadly.

“If you shoot me, he dies,” Trace stated, matter-of-fact.

“And the second shot will be you joining him in Hell.”

Surprised, all three looked up to see Rachel, in her nightshirt covered by an unbelted cotton robe, on the porch with the carbine trained on the taller man. Her voice had been steady, angry and there was no doubt she meant what she said.

Trace couldn’t help but smile. She had no qualms that she could have handled the situation just fine on her own but the blonde coming to her ‘rescue’ nearly made her chest burst with pride. The man holding the gun lowered it to his side.

“Good boy,” Trace commented, smugly. “Now lay it down and kick it toward Rachel.” When he hesitated, Trace tightened her hold on his partner, who howled in pain. “Do it.”

He reluctantly obeyed and the detective was about to pull off the hood of the intruder in her grasp when they heard a rustling from the woods and the sheriff appeared, riding his weary horse. Jackson’s expression was a cross between fascination and disappointment. One hand was on the reins and the other resting on his gun belt near the holster. “Put the gun down, Rachel.” He then looked directly at Trace. “There’ll be no killin’ here tonight.”

Not letting her prisoner go, Trace’s eyes became slits as she addressed the sheriff in a deadly tone of voice. “You son-of-a-bitch. You sent them here.”

“Why, I don’t know you’re talking about, son.” But his complacent expression betrayed him.

Once more, tightening her hold on the younger intruder, making him cry out again, the detective continued. “Really? I heard these two say that this was what you wanted. But if they’re lying, just what are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

Jackson shrugged. “Been reports of coyotes around, attacking the hen houses after dark. I heard the commotion. Noise travels far this time of night.”

“How convenient,” Trace scoffed. “I think these men were here to do your dirty work for you. If you’ve got a problem with me, Sheriff, then get down off that horse and take it up with me.” Then she hastily added, “man to man,” nearly gagging on the words as they left her mouth.

“I don’t mind sayin’ you got some imagination there, Sheridan.”

“I don’t mind saying you’re a consummate liar there, Jackson,” Trace countered, unflinchingly.

This made him stiffen and his hand then rested on the handle of his Colt, still holstered but the threat was there, nonetheless. He looked back up at Rachel. “Thought I told you to put that gun down.”

“You’re on my property without an invitation,” the blonde told him, firmly. “I’ll lower my rifle when you leave.”

In a flash, Jackson’s revolver was out and aimed at the blonde. Glancing quickly at Trace, he said, “One move from you and I’ll shoot her.”

The action had surprised Rachel who hadn’t had time to load the shotgun before running out to the porch. She was hoping just the sight of it would have calmed everything down. It further shocked the detective that the sheriff took such a chance. And then she remembered the chauvinistic time she was in, a realization that was just punctuated by Jackson’s next words.

“Don’t ever threaten me, missy. When I tell you to do something, you do it. Now put the gun down.”

“Don’t do it, Rachel,” Trace advised.

“Don’t listen to him. He ain’t on the business end of my Colt. I ain’t gonna tell you again, Rachel.”

“He won’t shoot you, Rachel,” the detective said.

“You sure about that, son?” Jackson asked. “She’s got that carbine lookin’ right at me. I need to defend myself. Especially when all I’m doing here is trying to protect her fowl from gettin’ ate up.”

“You are so full of crap, Sheriff, I’m surprised your eyes aren’t brown.”

Jackson smiled, “Gotta tell ya, Sheridan. You got some sand. I don’t like ya. Not one iota. But you don’t scare easy. I ‘spect that’ll change in a month or two but for now, I am damned impressed.” He turned back to the blonde. “Rachel?”

Slowly, to Trace’s dismay, she lowered the gun. Squeezing her eyes shut, the detective let her head drop.

“Sheridan, let him go.” He cocked the pistol, extending his arm in the blonde’s direction. “Now.”

“Stop aiming that at her and I will.”

“You ain’t in no position to be givin’ ultimatums here.”

When Trace did not move, a shot rang out and the bullet seared into the porch at Rachel’s feet, just missing her. The blonde jumped back with a frightened yelp, immediately covering her mouth with one hand to stifle a scream. “Rachel!” Pushing her prisoner to the ground, releasing him, the detective started toward the porch. Jackson then turned his revolver to face her, which made the brunette stop in her tracks.

“I didn’t touch her. She won’t be so lucky next time if she doesn’t do as she’s told.” He smirked at Trace. “And neither will you.” Jackson then turned his attention to the two hooded men. “You fellas get movin’. Don’t be caught out here again. You may not be so lucky, either.” The sheriff’s tone was completely insincere. “Git! Go on, now!”

As both men ran until they were out of sight, Trace turned back to Jackson. “They attacked me on private property! They had malevolent intent! Why didn’t you arrest them?”

“Malevolent intent? Looked to me like you was gettin’ the best of ’em.”

Trace looked over at Rachel, whose hand was still covering her mouth, tears brimming at her eyes. The detective could have killed Ed Jackson without a second thought at that moment. “I want to press charges against them. I want you to arrest them.”

“And just who am I supposed to arrest? They were masked, they can’t be identified.”

Seething, the detective pinned him with a murderous glare that made his back hairs rise. “You fucking bastard,” Trace said through clenched teeth, “If I ever catch you on this land again without permission, I’ll hurt you.”

No one had ever looked at him like that, not even any of the Cranes in their most hostile moments and he was also a little taken aback by the potency in the cuss words. He could not hide the bit of tremor in his voice when he said, “That a threat?”

“No. That’s a promise.”

He aimed his gun at the brunette. “Maybe I ought to kill you right now, save the Cranes the trouble.”

“You do and Rachel will shoot you right off that flea-bitten thing you call a horse. Is killing me worth losing your life over?”

“She’d go to jail.”

“And you’d still be dead.”

Lowering the Colt, Jackson holstered the sidearm and jerked the reins, causing his horse to start a slow pace. As he passed the detective, he said, “Let this be a warning not to cross me, son. Things can get out of hand right quick. As I said…you got lucky tonight. You both did. I think you need to reconsider movin’ on.”

“And I told you I’d move on when I was ready and not before.”

“We’ll see about that.” With that, he heeled his horse to a trot and rode in the direction the two men had run.

Scrambling onto the porch, Trace enveloped Rachel into a tight embrace. “Are you all right?”

She felt the blonde nod against her. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, tearfully into the brunette’s chest. “So very sorry.”

Leaning back, the detective tried to look into those jade eyes that said everything but Rachel wouldn’t look at her. “Sorry for what?”

“For getting you into this.”

“You didn’t get me into anything. I’m choosing to stay here. I’m choosing to do this, to fight this battle with you. How you’ve been doing this all by yourself is amazing to me. At first I thought you were just being stubborn. Now I see that you’re being very brave and very strong.”

“You really think so?” Green eyes finally blinked up at her.

“Absolutely…but I have to ask you – why did you put your gun down?”

“It wasn’t loaded. I woke up and heard the ruckus out here, looked out the window and saw what was going on and I grabbed the first rifle I could get my hands on. I remembered it wasn’t loaded after I was already pointing it at that man.”

Pulling the blonde into another hug, the detective closed her eyes, grateful that Rachel wasn’t hurt. Releasing her, Trace bent to pick up the carbine. “Well, we’ll make sure everything’s loaded from now on. I don’t think we can take the chance that this won’t happen again.” She looked back at the blonde, she said, “Did you happen to recognize anything about either of those men?”

“No. But I’m positive they were from Crane’s spread. About a dozen cowboys stay behind during the drive to tend to the ranch and make sure nobody brings the property or the Crane women any harm.” She crossed her arms, studying the detective briefly. “Trace?”

“Yeah?”

“Where’d you learn to fight like that? I’ve never seen a woman whup the tarnation out of any man before, much less two men at the same time…”

Shrugging, the brunette said, “Some of it’s instinct, some of it’s training. I needed to learn to defend myself for my job.” She reached over and rested her hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes. I’m…” She almost smiled, glancing shyly up at Trace through light eyelashes, “…cool.”

Shaking her head, grinning unexpectedly, the detective ruffled her hair, affectionately. “Yes, you are. You are very cool, indeed.”

Holding the carbine out to Rachel, the blonde accepted it and then said, “Trace?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Exchanging a meaningful look, Rachel was the first to look away.

“Trace?”

“Yeah?”

“Would you, um, stay in the house the rest of the night? In case they come back?”

Brushing her hair out of her eyes with one lazy stroke of her hand, she thought about what that would have indicated to her just a week ago and how she would have taken advantage of the circumstances. Now? Hell, yeah, she was still desperately attracted to the blonde but she was, at this particular moment, more concerned for Rachel’s welfare and safety. “Sure. I’ll bunk down on the sofa.”

“There’s a bed in the loft.”

“I know. But if they come back, I want to meet them head on.”

“Oh. Okay. Thank you. Again.”

Nodding, Trace closed the door behind her, thinking, ‘You can thank me when they are no longer bothering you.’ Instead, she smiled reassuringly at the blonde and went to retrieve all four guns so she could load them.

********************************

38

Trace awoke to the smell of something burning on the stove. Flying up off the couch, knocking the carbine, which had been resting upon her chest, to the floor, she grabbed a linen napkin, folded it over several times and removed all three pans from the heat. She waved the smoke away and looked around for the blonde.

“Rachel?” There was no answer. “Rachel?”

“Out here,” came a weak response.

Walking out to the porch, the brunette found the blonde seated in one of the chairs, bent forward at the waist with her head on her lap. Her pasty, clammy exterior revealed the details of her nauseated, unpredictable interior. “Glad I like my breakfast well done,” the detective cracked.

Rachel raised her head high enough to rest it on her hand. “Sorry. I was going to surprise you with corn meal, fried potatoes and fried apples and the aroma just soured my stomach.”

Trace knelt by the blonde’s chair. “Are you sure you don’t want to see a doctor?”

“No.” Debating with herself as to whether or not she should confide in the brunette, something told her now was not the time.

“Can I do anything for you?”

“Ginger tea would be nice.”

Standing, the detective smiled kindly at the blonde. “Coming right up.”

*****************

After Rachel’s nausea went away, she helped Trace hitch Moses up to the wagon. With the assurance that the invertebrate sheriff and his band of not-so-merry chickens would not return to do their bullying in the light of day and that Rachel would be fine with a loaded shotgun and pistol within reach at any given time (and the promise that she would use it), the detective headed for town.

On her ride into Sagebrush, Trace pondered Rachel’s nausea. It wasn’t constant but it was daily. Odors seem to trigger it but she was also getting sick at night, apparently waking from a sound sleep when there were no smells to provoke the vomiting. Although Rachel was clearly a hard worker, she seemed exhausted during the day, abnormally so for someone in the physical shape the blonde seemed to be in. And she was making frequent trips to the outhouse. She balked at seeing a doctor, which meant she was either afraid or knew what was wrong. Since Rachel did not seem to be fearful of much, the detective figured it was the latter.

The blonde was reluctant to talk about her chronic stomach distress and Trace had not pushed. The idea of Rachel possibly being persistently ill was not something Trace wanted to think about as she was already too attached to the young woman. Then another thought crossed Trace’s mind.

Could Rachel be pregnant? No. She shook her head at the speculation. There was no man in the picture. The blonde’s fiancée had been gone too long for her to have had reproductive sexual contact with him. And Rachel did not seem like the type of woman to have indiscriminately slept with anyone else who was not a constant in her life. No, it had to be something else. Well, when the blonde was ready to talk about it, Trace was sure she would let her know what was wrong.

As Moses sauntered along, the detective checked the position of the Colt and the Sharps, ready for anything at this point. Fortunately, she made it to town without incident, not sure what might happen once she got there.

Her first visit was to a shop next to the livery called Nathan’s Saddlery where, after several try-ons, she purchased a black cowhide prairie cartridge belt, which had twenty-four loops to hold extra .45 Colt ammunition. With it, she bought a floral carved skirted holster with a retaining strap and a matching hand-stitched Bowie sheath with simple tooling that was fitted onto the rig. From the second she buckled the gunbelt on, it felt natural, as though it had always belonged there. She recalled her first week as a cop on patrol, how the other rookies complained about the awkwardness and getting used to the weight of wearing a rig and she felt as though that gun on her hip, attached to the Sam Brown utility belt, had grown there.

Following that little excursion, she hit the gunsmith’s where she bought several boxes of .45 caliber rounds for the revolver and cartridges for the Sharps and then bronze shell casings, fine black powder, primer, propellant and wads so that she could load her own bullets.

Trace then went to Joseph Turner’s pawn shop, where the detective bought an eight-inch Bowie knife, the blade three fingers wide, a couple pair of well-worn, softened suede work gloves, a few assorted items that caught her fancy and a guitar. She didn’t know why she felt compelled to get it because she had not played one in years but once she had the hand-crafted rosewood instrument in her possession, it was clear to her that the reason did not matter.

Her next stop was to Tippings Feed and Grain to pick up Rachel’s standing order. She introduced herself to Caleb, the proprietor, who seemed very friendly and accommodating. Trace advised him that, from now on, she would be retrieving the food for the animals so deliveries would no longer need to be made out to the ranch. When Caleb directed his son to assist with loading the order onto the wagon, a troubled-looking Isaac refused, telling his father he had other tasks to attend to first. Embarrassed, older Tipping apologized for his son’s uncharacteristic rudeness and offered to help. Thanking him but declining, Trace paid for the feed and led Moses and the wagon around to the back of the store, where she began lifting the sixty pound sacks by herself.

Halfway through the loading, Isaac Tipping stepped into the supply area, unaware of the detective’s presence. Taking a break, Trace observed the teenager with more than a casual interest. He had the same voice, was of similar height, had the approximate build of one of the hooded trespassers and, the most curious of all, his right arm was in a sling.

“How’d you hurt your arm?” Trace’s voice may have startled the boy but the person it belonged to terrified him even more.

He wanted to run, to get far away from this cowboy. He had seen what he could do without a gun in his hand and now he was wearing a sidearm. Head bowed, eyes scanning the floor, Isaac said, “Got thrown from a horse yesterday.” Well, although it was a lie, he certainly felt as though he’d been dragged behind a fast stallion.

Yep, the detective thought, that’s one of the sheriff’s henchmen from the night before. The young man’s timbre was identical to that of the intruder she had in a choke hold.

“Did you now?” Trace made sure she sounded as though she did not believe him. “If I go back in there and ask your father, is that what he’s going to tell me?”

Isaac did not respond. It was obvious the cowboy knew what caused his injury. The teenager could still not look Trace in the eyes.

“Was your father the man with you?” The detective knew he wasn’t, as the physical and vocal characteristics did not match but she was pretty sure the boy would react to this. If the kid had a conscience, he would protest his father’s innocence by inadvertently admitting his own guilt at the same time.

“No!” The boy denied, defensively, and then looked skyward, realizing his mistake.

“You feel good about what you did last night?” the brunette inquired with more calm than she really felt.

“No, Sir,” Isaac answered. “I like Miss Rachel. Please don’t tell her it was me.”

“Then why?”

He lowered his head again. “Crane’s are trying to get a cut of my pa’s store. Sheriff Jackson said if I did this, he’d hold ’em off.”

Unconsciously gritting her teeth, Trace was both angry and sympathetic. Sighing, the detective returned to loading the rest of the order onto the wagon.

“Are you telling me the truth?”

“Yes, Sir!” Isaac answered, enthusiastically.

“Who was the man with you?”

“John Carver.” Responding to the blank stare of the detective, he offered more information. “Mrs. Crane’s younger brother.”

Trace nodded, absorbing the information. “If the sheriff ever asks you to do anything like that again? I want you to come tell me. Okay?”

“Yes, Sir. But what good is that going to do?”

“You let me worry about that.” Lifting the last burlap bag, Trace looked over at the mortified teenager. “And Isaac?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Don’t worry about your father’s store.” Off the boy’s disbelieving, questioning stare, she wanted to say, ‘there’s a new sheriff in town,’ but instead she actually found a smile for him. “Just…don’t worry…”

Skeptically, the teenager acknowledged the brunette’s words without expression. He was obviously still terribly embarrassed by the whole incident. Instinctively, though, Trace knew she had an ally if she needed it. One down, the rest of the town to go.

And, finally, Trace stopped by Wilbur’s to have a drink. This was a calculated visit to not only have a beer before she returned to The Triple Y Ranch but to take in the atmosphere of the town once again, to get the latest gossip from Silas and anyone else who might have loose lips while they imbibed.

Because of the huge tip Trace had left at her last visit to the saloon, Silas gave her a shot of whiskey on the house. Not one to be ungrateful, the detective accepted it, graciously and slammed the small glass of liquor back, swallowing the nasty substance that felt as though it was searing the flesh all the way down her throat. She could not stop her eyes from watering, when she set the empty glass back down on the bar.

“Blaze a trail clear to your gullet, did it?” Silas laughed.

“So that’s what you call bug juice, huh?”

“No, the bug juice is over there with the red-eye. What you just had was what we like to call rotgut.”

“I can see why,” Trace rasped, chasing the burn with a few gulps of ale.

“It’ll put hair on your chest.”

“Yeah. Just what I need.” Draining her beer mug, the brunette tossed the affable saloon keeper twenty-five cents and headed out the swinging doors. On her way out, she passed the sheriff on his way in. Jackson immediately alerted on the fact that Trace was now armed. He could only hope the cowboy did not handle a gun as well as he wielded his fists and feet.

The detective and the sheriff glared at each other but neither spoke to the other one. However, Trace did notice that the jovial mood in the bar immediately became solemn at Jackson’s dour presence. It did not take a rocket scientist to see that the sheriff was not a popular man. She would use that to her advantage.

Checking to make sure everything was secure, the detective climbed into the driver’s seat and directed Moses back to her new home.

***********************

39

Trace decided not to tell Rachel about Isaac Tipping’s involvement in the event of the night before. Not just because the boy asked her not to or she felt it would accomplish nothing other than hard feelings but she understood the position the teenager had been put in. Twelve years earlier, she had been in a similar situation. No, the detective would keep that information to herself for now.

She needed to figure out a plan, think of something to use the sheriff’s own game against him and, ultimately, against the Cranes. She needed to find a way for Rachel to keep what was rightly hers with no more problems and help the people of Sagebrush get their town back.

Once again, she shook her head at her abrupt personality change. A little over a week ago, she was on the side of the bad guys and thought nothing about her unscrupulous behavior or her underhanded and corrupt acts. She felt little concern about the consequences of her actions against others, about how her decisions might trickle down and affect the helpless people…like Rachel. When Trace got into her life of crime, she did so with noble intentions. Greed and power kept her there. And now, suddenly, twelve years of shame burned white hot within her causing her, again, to almost choke with rage at her own ignorance and voraciousness.

Continuing to beat herself up for things she could not change was futile and a huge waste of her time and energy. Realizing and acknowledging the error of her ways and moving on and improving was the only way to earn her self-respect back and to, hopefully, help save this town. She needed to use the knowledge and experience she had gained from surviving on the wrong side of the law and put it to use on the righteous, ethical and moral side. Trace realized that this may mean she would still have to fracture an ordinances or two in order to make things right but if it all led in the direction of the greater good and she could redeem her prior bad acts, it would be worth it.

*******************

After she unloaded the purchases she had made in town, Trace piled the rails she had split two days earlier onto the back of the wagon and headed out to the south fence to repair it.

Two hours later, the tall brunette was back in the barn, unhitching Moses and leading him to the stable. Before she returned to the house, she ensured all the horses were in their stalls and they had enough food and water and checked the tack to see what was in need of conditioning and cleaning. Making a mental note that some of the equipment looked a little worn and, worse yet, dry, she would ask Rachel where she kept the saddlesoap and make it a point to work on that within the next day or two. Even though she was new at being around horses and their equipment, she was not a novice at caring for leather as her gunbelts, holsters, sheaths and boots needed attention from time to time, usually determined by how often they were used.

Following dinner, Trace and Rachel were seated out on the porch again. The blonde was ripping the seams out of her father’s pants and taking them in so that they would fit the detective better and the brunette was tuning her guitar.

“Do you hunt, Trace?” The blonde inquired, breaking the cozy silence between them.

“Hunt what?”

“Game…you know…food.”

“No. Do you?”

“I’ve had my share of dinners on the hoof.” She glanced over at the detective picking the scale on her new toy. “I don’t like to but sometimes I’ve had to. Do you fish?”

“Nope.”

“Do you want to learn?”

“Nope.” Trace looked back at the blonde, meeting her eyes and smiling. “But something tells me I am going to whether I want to or not.”

Nodding, Rachel returned the brunette’s grin. “There are a couple willow poles in the barn. Tomorrow we’ll go fishing.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Not if you want to continue to eat here.” The blonde was still smiling as she returned to her sewing.

Trace chuckled. This just felt so…comfortable. She finally had the guitar tuned and strummed a G chord. “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…,” she sang out, her voice clear and strong. Warbling a few more verses, she stopped to retune an E string. She again looked over at Rachel, who appeared a little stunned. “What?”

“You have a very nice voice.”

“Why, thank you, Ma’am.”

“I’ve never heard that song before.”

That’s because it hasn’t been written yet, Trace mused. “It’s a standard where I come from,” she told the blonde.

“What’s a trucks?”

“What?”

“A trucks. In your song. ‘don’t let ’em pick guitars and drive them ol’ trucks.’ What does that mean?”

“Oh. Truck. It’s like a strong wagon that moves with the power of a couple of plow horses.”

The blonde tried to picture it and shook her head. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen one of them.”

“No, I would guess you haven’t. They’re very rare right now.” In fact, downright non-existent, she thought.

Nodding, Rachel then said, “Well, it’s nice to hear music around here again. My mama used to play piano in church and sing.”

“Do you sing?”

“Only on Sundays in front of Pastor Edwards.” The blonde did not volunteer that she had not been to church in a month. She set her sewing aside. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Yes, I would. That would be very nice, thank you.” She watched Rachel stand and enter the house. The blonde had asked Trace to spend the night on the sofa again as it made her feel very protected the night before. The detective agreed without hesitation. She was pretty sure there wasn’t much Rachel would request of her that she would or could refuse. She sighed. This was all so very…domestic. Shaking her head, she went back to plucking out notes on her guitar.

Inside, the water was almost to a boil as Rachel filled the metal tea ball. Feeling a pang of cramps and a wave of nausea, she held her belly tightly until the feelings passed. Listening to the detective singing right outside the window, the blonde silently argued with herself again about whether or not to tell Trace about the baby. And once more, she talked herself out of it. Placing the steeping teacups on a tray, Rachel returned to the porch.

“…and she’s buy-eye-ing a sta-air-way…to…heaven…”
“That was a beautiful song, Trace. I’ve never heard that one, either.”

“Another classic where I come from.”

“Sounds like you have a lot of fond memories from where you come from.”

“Some.”

“If you felt like it wasn’t dangerous anymore to go back there, would you?”

Would she? Good question. Would she return to the Twenty-First century if she had the option to? She took a deep breath, inhaling clean, fresh air and looked over to her left at an unspoiled sunset. Then she looked over to her right, into the emerald gaze of a woman she would never want to expose to the modern world. She stared into the trusting eyes of a woman she suddenly felt she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Right here. Forever.

“No,” Trace answered, softly. “I like it right where I am.”

“Good,” Rachel smiled, almost shyly. “I like you right where you are, too.”

“Really?” The detective tried to gauge the intent behind the words – she knew what she wanted them to mean but she was sure it was just that the blonde was grateful for her presence, thankful to have someone, anyone finally on her side, who felt no misgivings about getting involved in this mess. Trace knew she made Rachel feel safe…if the blonde felt any more than that, chances were she had not realized the full implications of it.

“You’re good company. And you work hard. And you’re not afraid of anything. I am very appreciative of the first two.” She shook her head. “But I don’t know how foolish that last one may be.”

Chuckling softly, Trace sipped her peppermint tea and went back playing her guitar. Without warning, she felt her loins clench and a current of sexual stimulus galvanized her center and then radiated outward through every nerve of her body. The detective broke out into an unexpected sweat and knew she needed to excuse herself to take care of this urge, somewhere privately and quickly. Putting the instrument aside, she took another sip of tea and stood up. “I…uh…need to use the outhouse and, uh, then I’m going to get washed up at the river and be back in for the night.” She began edging away.

“Right now?”

“Uh…yeah…” She stretched and faked a yawn. “It just hit me how tired I am.”

As the detective descended the steps, she knew Rachel didn’t quite believe her but she was positive the blonde didn’t have a clue as to the real reason for her hasty departure, either. Skipping the trip to the outhouse, she headed for her room in the barn. Leaning against the closed door, just in case Rachel had chosen to follow her, it would ensure she would not get walked in on, she unbuttoned her jeans and slipped her hand inside her underwear. Closing her eyes, envisioning the blonde, it took her no time at all to relieve the pleasurable yet almost painful pressure. Feeling incredibly less tense now, she waited for her breathing to regulate and she grabbed her night clothes, heading for the bathing hole.

***********************

40.

The next morning, Trace was up and about and had even made some coffee before Rachel was out of bed. She noticed that the blonde seemed tired, sluggish and, again, pale but the smaller woman arose and dressed quickly, cooking some oatmeal for both of them without showing signs of or admitting to any nausea.

Following breakfast, the detective set up temporary targets of firewood, rusted out tin cans of various sizes, old pieces of furniture which had been broken or had fallen apart, and chipped dinnerware at different intervals and decided on which tree stumps and other fixed objects were sturdy enough to be standing marks. She further made sure that whatever she was going to shoot at was in a direction away from the house, barn, stable, pasture and path that connected the road from town to the house. That way, if she missed, the only element in danger of getting shot would be assorted vegetation.

Observing Trace from the porch, Rachel was mesmerized by how confident and methodical the detective was. She also couldn’t keep her eyes off the nicely defined bulging muscles on the brunette’s arms every time she lifted anything off the ground that required a little effort. Realizing she was darned near ogling the detective again, she blushed furiously and returned to her chores inside.

Oblivious to her confused admirer, Trace continued to set up and readjust marks before and after shooting at them. It seemed to take her no time at all to get used to the weapons that would now be her lifeline if her unarmed self-defense tactics failed her.

After several hours of gunfire, the blonde returned to the porch to call Trace in for lunch and watched as the detective gripped the Colt in a manner she had never seen anyone clutch a pistol before. The brunette had the revolver in front of her at arm’s length, holding the .45 with her right hand, her left arm bent and clasping her right wrist, supporting the weight for, what Rachel could only assume was, a more smooth and precise shot. The blonde knew that one aimed with a rifle but had only seen pistol shooting either from the hip or with an extended arm, the gun positioned somewhere between the waist and shoulders. Trace’s form and style was obviously working because her accuracy was downright impressive.

Firing off all six bullets in rapid succession, Rachel saw as debris from the targets splintered out when the slugs hit their mark dead in the center. The blonde could not help but smile. Was there anything this woman couldn’t do?

That afternoon, while the blonde engaged in cleaning out the chicken coop, Trace busied herself with rigging up a makeshift boxing bag. She took several empty burlap feed sacks, threading them together with leather straps and stuffed them with dirt and hay. She kept testing the weight, adding or removing contents until she was satisfied with the heaviness and resistance and then, having already tied a thick hemp rope tightly around it and up over a solid barn beam, she pulled the rope toward her, hoisting the approximate two hundred pound, four feet high bag until it was about a good eighteen inches off the ground. She secured the rope on a wall hook and then looked at her invention. It wasn’t great but it would have to do.

Protectively wrapping her hands with material she ripped up from an old discarded linen sheet and then fitting Rachel’s father’s oversized suede gloves over them, the detective then began to work out, using the hanging sack as a sparring opponent. Trace felt good again to be moving, throwing punches, snapping kicks, practicing doing what she felt she had been born to do – fight. Ironically, the brunette never felt more at peace than she did when she was fighting.

****************************

Rachel making the two of them tea every night as they sat down on the porch during sunset became a welcomed ritual, as did Trace breaking out the guitar and plucking out a few tunes on it. Most of the songs the blonde had never heard before and the meaning of quite a few of the lyrics were alien to her as well. However, she got to the point where she stopped asking questions regarding what Trace was singing about and just enjoyed the private concert.

What also became routine was the detective sleeping in the house. Within a week, she switched from the barn to the couch to the loft. She was not without one revolver or one rifle within reach and made sure that Rachel was equally prepared. Just in case.

She had yet to start bathing in the house and would continue to use the river until the blonde invited her to use the clawfoot tub in the anteroom. She had bought a straight razor in town and after a few nasty nicks and cuts finally got her legs and underarms shaved but it was a grooming habit she would practice sparingly from now on…she certainly couldn’t help Rachel do much of anything if she were sidelined by massive blood loss…

Trace proceeded to get up every morning when the rooster crowed and ran on a path that she had created with the help of Moses and a rake, which took her approximately one-half mile around the house, the barn, the stable and the perimeter of one of the corralled pastures. Rain or shine, the detective jogged on that path, circling it at least ten times. She knew she needed to be in her best shape if there was to be a confrontation – and she had no doubt there would be one, if not many. Trace also worked out with her suspended punching bag after her jog and before beginning her chores.

Every third day, the detective reluctantly but faithfully mucked out the stalls, also checking tack and equipment for needed upkeep, becoming friendlier with all the horses, gaining Rio’s trust, and provoking Zelda to become less shy around her. Every day, she saddled up Chief and rode around the boundaries of the property checking all the fence lines. Every five days, she target practiced, getting better and better with Colts and both rifles, until it was more unusual for her to miss than to hit. Every sixth day, she hitched Moses up to the wagon, directed him into town, picked up whatever supplies, groceries and necessities were required for the next week, had a beer or two at Wilbur’s and slowly became more sociable with the townspeople, slowly integrating herself into the quirky, rural, Sagebrush groove, deftly avoiding the sheriff – or maybe it was the other way around.

In the meantime, Trace and Rachel became much more comfortable with each other, as though they had always lived together, shared space. Their interaction was always respectful, mutually esoteric and even though it borderlined on flirtatious, it never crossed that line into anything more. Rachel was afraid of what that would really mean and Trace was afraid her feelings would be too overpowering for the already overwhelmed blonde. For the first time in her life, Trace Sheridan thought about the impact of her actions on someone other than herself.

Every day for two weeks, the blonde suffered from some form of nausea and then went on about her day as though nothing was wrong. Every day, the brunette became more and more suspicious of the reasons behind Rachel’s sickness.

*****************************************

41

Shaking off the excess water from the torrential rainstorm, Trace entered the house with the intention of advising Rachel about the break in the north fence. She was sure it was nothing but wind damage but would need to be fixed, just the same. She was about to call out the blonde’s name when she heard the sound of a soft snore emanating from the area of the hearth. Removing her soaked overshirt, Trace quietly stepped closer, observing Rachel asleep in her mother’s rocking chair. A small flame was flickering in the fireplace and Trace’s breath literally caught at the vision before her. Rachel’s natural beauty and innocence were only enhanced by the blazing light and all Trace wanted to do was reach down and take this woman into her arms. Oh, if only they were in another time.

Kneeling by the chair, Trace gently placed her hand over the blonde’s which was resting in her lap. Squeezing it gently, the detective tried not to startle her. “Hey…Rach?” Her voice was soft but firm enough to stir the slumbering woman before her.

Slowly shifting her in chair, the green eyes fluttered open, pure and unguarded, slowly focusing on Trace, capturing the brunette with a warmth to match the logs burning in the fireplace. Rachel smiled easily at Trace and with a voice hoarse from having dozed off and her most recent dry heave session, she said, “I fell asleep.”

“I see,” the brunette responded, empathetically. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately. You okay?”

Unconsciously, Rachel’s free arm moved across her belly, protectively. “I’m…I’m fine…why?”

The reaction did not go unnoticed by the detective. Trace’s voice was tender, compassionate, “Rachel, are you…preg…with child?”

It was the kindness and lack of judgment in Trace’s expression that immediately brought water brimming to the blonde’s eyes. “How…how did you know?” She looked away, humiliation now flowing through every fiber of her being.

Pulling up a foot stool and sitting on it, Trace firmly took Rachel’s hand in her own. The blonde did not pull away. “Well…” The detective’s tone of voice was still soothing and benevolent, “…you’ve been tired a lot, you’ve had morning sickness, backaches, frequent trips to the outhouse. I have endured many of my various partners’ wives pregnancies, I recognize the symptoms.” Not being able to ignore the tears streaming down the pale face, Trace reached up and brushed a few drops away from the delicate cheek, cupping her jaw. “You don’t have a husband, you don’t have a boyfriend…a beau…no man in your life that I’ve seen any evidence of…yet you’re going to have a baby. How does that happen?”

Turning her face away from Trace’s touch, Rachel cried even harder. “I can’t talk about it. I’m so ashamed.”

“Ashamed? Why? What do you have to be ashamed of?” Trace pressed gently. “What did you do?”

“I don’t know,” she was beginning to get hysterical, “but I must have done something because he came here and took me and -”

“What? Wait – who ‘took’ you? When? What happened?” This was not what Trace expected to hear and the thought of it instantly brought pain to her heart and an angry knot in her chest that seemed to hold her lungs hostage.

“I can’t talk about it, Trace, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. You can talk to me.”

Rachel shook her head, biting her lip, unable to speak.

Trace’s eyes were now as dark and stormy as a raging sea. “You were raped, weren’t you? You did not willingly have relations with the father of your child, did you?” The only audible response to this was a soft whimper from the obviously deeply wounded blonde. Furious, but not at Rachel, Trace had to, once again, visibly swallow her rage. She laid her head on the blonde’s hand, counting to ten and then she looked up at the distraught woman, who was looking down at her. “Rachel, you have no reason to feel ashamed, do you understand? You didn’t do anything wrong. You were raped. You are not pregnant by choice. It’s not your fault, you didn’t do anything to deserve it.”

“How could you know that? You weren’t there.”

“Okay, let me guess what happened – you were somewhere, probably here, minding your own business, going about your day, when this man came out of nowhere and forced himself on you. You did not invite it, you did not ask for it, you did not want it…but it didn’t matter. He took what he wanted anyway. You fought him, you screamed ‘no’ and ‘stop’ and he ignored you. And he hurt you. He violated you against your will.”

Stunned, Rachel stared at her, wide-eyed, her voice barely audible. “How…how did you know that?”

“Because I used to have to arrest guys like the one who did that to you. It’s always the same story. I know all about how they work.”

“No one is ever going to believe me.”

Trace took both of Rachel’s hands and held them to her. “I believe you. I know what happened.”

Silence enveloped them, the only noise in the room being the crackling of the fire. Both women looked at each other for a long time, eyes locked in a strange battle of emotions. Feeling her stomach flutter and heart flip, which generated those odd but pleasurable sensations throughout her body that seemed to gather in her groin, Rachel was the first to break visual contact and look down. Trace was sure she was blushing but in the dim glow of that wavering light, it was difficult to tell. Then the blonde spoke in such a hushed tone, Trace almost didn’t hear her. “You are so wonderful to me…why can’t you really be a man?”

“Why? What good would that do?”

Suddenly shy, Rachel turned away, squeezing Trace’s hand tightly. “I would marry you.”

Swallowing hard, stunned, Trace felt nearly strangled by her overwhelming want for this woman possibly within reach. “Y…you would?”

Nodding, the blonde still couldn’t look at Trace. “Does that shock you? It does me.”

Answering her in a voice thick with desire, trying to keep the circumstances of the confession in perspective, Trace needed to clear her throat just to be able to vocalize sound. “Um…no, it doesn’t shock me.” Shifting her position, Trace knelt once again by Rachel’s feet, placing her forearms across the blond’s lap, interlacing their fingers. She could hear Rachel’s breath stop but the blonde did not resist the position. “Rachel, where I come from, it doesn’t matter if a couple is a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman. All that matters is who your heart tells you to fall in love with.”

Rachel looked inquisitively at the detective, not being able to tear her eyes away from the magnetic pull of Trace’s gaze. “I’m not sure I understand…”

The connection between them was now undeniable. “I think you do.” When that was greeted with placid, yet complicated quiet, Trace continued. “Just don’t limit yourself. That’s all I’m saying. You can’t make yourself love someone if the feeling isn’t there and you can’t always control who you fall in love with. The people in my town understand that.”

“Where you come from two women or two men can get married?”

Hmmm…no way to explain the civil union as opposed to marriage in terms a nineteenth century woman would understand – frankly, she was more than a hundred years progressed and why there had to be a difference still confused the hell out of her, so she just simply said, “Yes.”

“Two women or two men are allowed to publicly love each other as man and wife do?”

“Yes.” Okay…so it was a lie and it wasn’t. Again, much too complicated a subject to get into at this particular point and time and because Trace was masquerading as a male, it now all seemed somewhat incidental.

“Are…are you one of those women?”

“I have never been married to a woman but, yes, I have had love affairs with women.”

Rachel suddenly looked like she wanted to bolt from the room. Trace felt a slight tug, as though the blonde might yank her hands away but then another expression took over – curiosity.

“Rachel, please understand. I would never hurt you. I would never do anything to make you uncomfortable, never do anything to make you ask me to leave.”

Relaxing, the blonde pressed her hands more securely into the brunette’s. “I know that. I know you would never hurt me.” Awkwardly, Rachel cleared her throat. “Do, um, you think about me like that?”

Sighing, Trace again rested her forehead on their joined hands, then looked back up. “Would it frighten you if I said yes?”

The detective could tell that the blonde was immediately flushed, obviously never having been confronted with this particular issue before. “No,” she responded, in a whisper.

Nodding, Trace couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “So…what are we going to do?”

“Um…about what?”

“You’re delicate condition? You’re not going to be able to hide it very much longer.”

Hanging her head again, the blonde’s voice took on a tone of shame again. “I don’t know. I don’t want this child. It’s a part of someone horrible. But the good lord gave me this child to carry, so I will do what I have to do.”

“You know what?” Trace began, gently, “I was born from a similar situation. My mother was a prostitute, a whore, just like the women on the second floor at Wilbur’s. She got pregnant with me and she never knew which man out of a possible hundred – or more – was my father. There are legal ways where I come from to …uh…get rid of the baby before it’s born but she chose to keep me. And…here I am.” The brunette’s smile was sincere.

The love and admiration in Rachel’s eyes could not have been more clear. “It will be hard to raise a child alone here. It will just bear out everybody’s inclinations that I’m wayward.”

Lightly massaging the blonde’s fingers with her thumb, Trace said, “You don’t have to raise the child alone.” Off Rachel’s questioning stare, the brunette said, “Let me make a suggestion and hear me out before you say No.”

“Okay.”

“Everybody in town thinks I’m a man. God help me but they do. And they already suspect we’ve more than likely been intimate. Let me marry you and give you and the baby a name and respectability.”

“Me marry you? How could that be respectable? You’re a woman…”

“Yes but only you and I know that. And then, when you do meet a man who you would like to spend your life with – if you do – I will leave,” Trace told her, instinctively knowing that would be a lot easier said than done. The palpable stillness suddenly seemed deafening. “Well, you think about it.” Slowing sliding her hand out from Rachel’s grasp, Trace stood up and stretched. “Would you like some coffee?”

“It’s okay, I can make it,” the blonde told her.

“No,” Trace responded, a little too quickly. “No, I’ll do it. You sit still.”

“There is nothing wrong with my coffee,” Rachel argued, playfully.

Trace made a hideous face. “No, not if it’s your last request before the hanging,” she quipped, “Your coffee would kill you first.”

“Fine, then you make it,” the blonde said, trying to sound indignant. It didn’t work. With Trace staring at her, amused, with a raised eyebrow, Rachel broke into a grin.

“By the way, there is a small split in the north fence. I don’t think it was anything other than wind. I put a temporary barrier there but I’ll have to go back and repair it tomorrow.”

Rising from her chair, Rachel nodded. “Thank you.”

“Sure.” As the blonde stepped by her, Trace gently fastened her hand to Rachel’s elbow. “Are you going to tell me who did this to you?” the brunette inquired, non-confrontationally.

“No,” Rachel responded, crossing her arms and continuing through to the kitchen.

That’s okay, Trace thought to herself, I’ll find out anyway. She had no doubt it was someone associated with the Cranes.

*****************

42.

Had Trace really suggested marriage to the blonde? The severity and weight of that idea hit her like an anvil dropped from the top of a ten story building. Marriage? In the past, despite a few disastrous attempts, Trace’s longevity (and faithfulness) in a relationship barely lasted much beyond foreplay. And now she wanted to actually marry someone? Well…as a matter of fact, yes, she did. And not just ‘someone,’ she wanted to marry Rachel Young. The more she contemplated this, the more elated she became.

Trace had never felt like this before, as though her heart was trying to burst through her chest, every extremity tingling, all nerve endings standing at attention. Whenever she looked at or thought about the blonde, her pulse raced, her blood pounded through her veins and her body reacted to Rachel’s presence in spite of itself.

It was, to put it mildly and bluntly, the most wonderfully fulfilling and exhilarating feeling the brunette had ever experienced and she had experienced a lot. No one who knew her, from her own time, would believe this. A fact that made her smile and deeply blush at the same time.

“What are you thinking about?” Rachel inquired, bringing the brunette back to the present. Seeing the detective smile was not unusual. Seeing Trace turn red was. Fleetingly, the blonde hoped the taller woman’s thoughts had been of her which, in turn, caused Rachel to become a telling shade of crimson herself.

Shrugging, not missing the blonde’s reaction, Trace still held onto the tail end of a smirk. “Just thinking about how good supper was and what a good cook you are.”

This, of course, made Rachel pinker and threw her off. Stammering, she finally was able to get out a shy ‘thank you.’

There had been a significant change in their relationship just in the past hour. Trace’s suggestion of and willingness to marry the mother-to-be had displayed a selflessness neither of them expected. Rachel presumed when the detective discovered she was with child, Trace would pack up and move on, disgusted, and it would not have mattered how the baby was conceived. She never even considered the brunette would unquestionably stand by her. The detective had once more surprised her with her kindness, compassion and understanding.

Her entire body flushed when she thought about the other momentous change between the two of them. This extremely handsome, capable and noble woman was in love with her. Trace didn’t have to say it for Rachel to be able to feel it. And the main reason the blonde felt it, was that she was in love with Trace. In love. On the one hand, this scared her witless. What if anyone ever found out Trace was not a man? Two women loving each other the way a husband and wife did just wasn’t right, it wasn’t natural. Yet it felt like the most natural thing in the world. On the other hand, it thoroughly and almost insatiably excited her. Not even Tommy had conjured up the sexual feelings within her that Trace had, now that she had finally recognized and acknowledged them for what they were.

Rehashing their conversation before dinner prompted the blonde’s knees to weaken and she reached out to hold onto the table to maintain her balance. Sneaking a look at the brunette, Rachel was relieved Trace had not noticed. She was not ready to openly confront her feelings for the detective yet or the possible meaning behind them.

Just then a deep roll of thunder growled over the house. “Storm’s getting bad. Are all of the horses in?” The blonde’s voice was shaky. She hoped the brunette thought it was nervousness due to the worsening weather.

“In and fed and tucked in and read a bedtime story for the night. Zelda kept wanting a drink of water but I knew it was only because she didn’t want to stay in bed. But Rio seemed quite snug.”

She favored Trace with a mock reprimanding glare and then she broke into a small chuckle, a sound that made the hard-ass detective’s heart melt. “Well, don’t be so sure. That mustang is not fond of the wind when it howls like that and I’m sure the added noise just makes him more restless.”

“Will he get destructive? Should I go out there and stay with him until the storm calms down?” Trace was sincere about her offer but hoped Rachel would say no.

“If I thought it would do any good, yes, but this might go on all night. We can’t baby him or we’ll be out there all the time.”

“I like that horse, Rachel. I’d like to make him my horse…if that’s cool…okay…with you.”

The blonde crossed her arms, studying the brunette. “He’s cantankerous. He’s not really wild but he’s not tame, either. If you can break him, he’s yours.” She sighed. “I’m certainly in no position to do it.” She looked toward the window as a bolt of lightening lit up the sky.

About four seconds later, more thunder cracked and rumbled and the rain could be heard heavily beating on the roof. Trace was sure if there had been electricity in the house, it would have been out. She placed three more logs over the two already aflame, stoking the embers, so that the wood easily caught fire.

“Tomorrow, I thought we could have rabbit stew again. Or maybe we could spit-cook it.”

Trace’s expression revealed that this idea was not agreeable to her. “Do we have to? I mean, it was delicious, Rachel, it’s not that but…they’re just so damned…I mean, darned cute…” She still had not gotten over eating Flopsy without knowing it until it was too late.

This made Rachel smile. “Why, Trace Sheridan, you big baby,” she playfully taunted. “You can beat up men without a second thought, probably kill them if you had to, but you can’t stand the thought of hurting a little bitty bunny?”

The detective did not like being challenged and hated being teased. But the irony of Rachel’s words were true and forced a frustrated, embarrassed smile from the brunette.

“We never did go fishing like I wanted to. We are going to need something other than vegetables to eat, Trace. You don’t hunt but even if you were able to kill it, something tells me you have never cut out a steer. I need the chickens for the eggs. We can’t afford to keep buying our meat and soon there won’t be enough food in the pantry for even the field mice to trouble themselves.”

“I have money…” the detective began to protest.

“For how long? You don’t make any money helping me out here and once it is gone, it’s gone.”

“Rachel…what happened to your cattle?”

“We had five cows, two calves and one steer. They were grazing on the south pasture one day. Went out to herd them in and they were all dead. Not rustled. Slaughtered. It was awful.” She shuddered at the memory. “That night I got a visit from Gideon Crane and two of his cousins. Told me if I had sold my land to his daddy this never would have happened. I reported it to Ed Jackson and he told me I couldn’t prove who did it and even with Gideon saying what he did, he didn’t admit to anything.”

Trace nodded. “And your crops?”

“Everything in the north sweep, which was most of the vegetables plus a field of corn was burned to the ground. Now I tend to what I can only keep an eye on from the house. Which doesn’t leave me much to sell to Mr. Foster anymore. And before you ask, I had four other horses but they were spitefully crippled and they had to be destroyed.”

“All because of the Cranes wanting your land?”

“Yes.”

“It stops here and now, Rachel. I promise you. It’s done.” The conviction in Trace’s oath was impenetrable. And it sent a shiver down the blonde’s spine both for the intensity of the pledge behind the words and the passion with which they were said. She could only shake her head. The detective couldn’t possibly have any idea what she was up against.

Tonight before bed, she would pray for Trace.

***********************

43.

The subject of marriage did not come up again the following week, nor did the internal admission regarding the discovery of being in love with each other. The conversation the night of the terrible storm had been soul baring, to say the least but, because it was also new and unchartered territory for both Trace and Rachel, for entirely different reasons, the topic was deftly avoided as each woman was not exactly sure how to broach it again.

Both desperately wanted to openly analyze their feelings but neither dared to bring it up just in case the exchange had been a scenario really born of sympathy or misplaced chivalry. Trace knew it was not, her feelings were as genuine and valid as she had ever felt in her life but the depth was just as frightening to her as it was to the blonde, who was still trying to come to terms with the fact that she was actually in love with a woman.

Rachel would start out every morning arguing with herself about the moral implications of that and how it had to be something else. She would go to bed every night after spending concentrated time with the detective during the day, believing it could not be anything else but love, regardless of Trace’s gender.

Their interaction was friendly yet it remained infuriatingly neutral and any subject coming close to touching upon what they talked about the night of the storm was cautiously danced around. Still, it was constantly, individually, thought about as was Rachel’s pregnancy but other issues needed to be attended to that diverted them away from the obvious.

The most pressing for Trace was that she got her period. This was utterly unwelcome, not just because it was a figurative pain but a literal one, as well. The detective had always had a rough time with first day cramping, her female organs contracting as though trying to eject one or both ovaries. Rachel, of course, had a remedy for this: peppermint herb boiled in milk and drunk hot. It worked…until it wore off. The blonde made sure this concoction was in abundant supply as the brunette’s menstrual distress appeared to debilitate her immensely and make her very grumpy, indeed.

As for what was used to deal with the blood…well, this was something Trace was definitely going to have to improve on. The menstrual belt and cup Rachel had, as uncomfortably antique as it was, was all fine and dandy – if one wore a dress – however, with the detective having to wear trousers, the device would just not work. Instead, Trace made the best of rags she wrapped around small beds of cotton, washing the materials out nightly and discarding the batting that could not be cleaned, dried and re-used. She constructed ten of these little pads so that she would always have one to change into and fastened them in place with safety pins.

It was spartan but it absorbed the flow and, for the most part, stopped the blood from leaking through to her jeans. Accustomed to wearing tampons, this made her feel like she was walking with a king-sized pillow between her legs. It took some adjusting but, putting it in perspective, it was a minor cog in this new wheel of life Trace had incorporated herself into.

In the interim, the detective was very industrious with her time. She efficiently completed her daily chores, each one getting easier with practice, not to mention patience. Every morning, after grooming the horses and inspecting the tack for deterioration of any kind, Trace saddled up Chief and checked the perimeter fence of the Triple Y Ranch, dutifully noting and fixing any weakness or damage in the property line. Returning, she then mucked out the stables when they needed it, cleaned the rabbit cage, noting that Mopsy and Cottontail seemed to be getting a little heavier every day and ensured that the horses had enough to eat and drink. Then she would assist Rachel in anything the blonde needed done around the exterior of the house, barn, stable and open grounds.

Every afternoon, she followed Rachel’s direction and worked with Rio to gain his trust. She had plenty of carrots and apples to offer him, treats he began to look forward to whenever he sensed Trace anywhere near him. Conditioning of living in the wild since birth predicted that the mustang learned to listen for predators on the attack and his ears would go up as soon as anything approached him. He adapted quickly to the detective’s scent and the sound of her gait and reacted accordingly when she came into his line of vision.

Slowly, letting the tall brunette know he was beginning to feel confident with her, Rio allowed Trace to gently run her hands all around his head and neck but only after he got his treats. He then associated the tasty delicacies and relaxing massage with the tall detective, who was showing him he had no reason to fear her. This became a ritual with Trace speaking to him soothingly and lovingly, to the point where if the brunette wasn’t with him by a certain time every afternoon, he would poke his head over the stall door and look for her.

On the fourth day, Trace hung a halter and lead on a hook by the stall door and left it there, letting Rio get used to its presence and learn it was nothing that would hurt him. Rachel advised her that in a couple days, Trace could attempt to loosely place the rope around the mustang’s neck and if he did not put up any kind of a struggle or react negatively in any way, she could try leading him around. If Rio got spooked, which was always a possibility, Trace could quickly and easily remove the rope. The detective began to look forward to any time she spent with the mustang as she seemed to find a spiritual buoyancy in her connection with this horse.

By late afternoon, every other day, the detective would work an hour of target practice in with the four weapons she was easily familiarizing herself with. She was altogether proud of how efficient she was becoming with such different guns than what she was used to. She checked her ammunition and made a mental note that she was going to have to start loading her own bullets and be a little more frugal with her supply.

On the days she was not honing her proficiency with firearms, Trace was working out her self-defense skills in the barn with her hanging punching bag. She imagined the heavy, dangling dirt and hay-filled burlap container as the scum who raped Rachel. The poor, unsuspecting sack didn’t stand a chance.

Then Trace spent her time busily working on and perfecting a coarse prototype shower out of a wooden beer keg with holes in it, suspended by a hemp cord over the limb of an oak tree. Connected to the barrel was a crude version of an elevated sluice where water from an offshoot of the river about twenty yards from the house could be pumped through and then held by a valve to stop or regulate its flow. When the small floodgate was lifted by yanking on a string accessible to the person standing underneath the cask, a stream of pent up water would rush into the keg and drain out through the several tiny openings Trace had created with a large nail. For privacy, the detective built a wooden stall that would enclose the showering individual, covering their modesty from shins to shoulders.

Her reward for this innovative contraption was Rachel’s reaction when it was done and Trace demonstrated how it worked. The blonde clasped her hands together and nearly squealed in delight, not so much at the idea of being able to bathe this way but at the excitement and enthusiasm the detective couldn’t hold back at exhibiting her ‘invention.’ Rachel’s appreciative, complimentary and almost childlike behavior caused Trace to mentally reinforce her sudden, intense love for this young woman and her substantially inherent need to protect her.

Every evening, after supper, Trace and Rachel would sit on the porch and drink tea while the detective serenaded the blonde with some strange songs she had never heard before. Sometimes the younger woman would request a repeat of something she found catchy and worth listening to again but most of the time she just let Trace play and enjoyed the music. She had never heard a voice like Trace’s before, so clear and deeply soulful, impressively always on key, with a range of several octaves.

Suggesting that maybe Trace should sing in the church choir brought about a raised eyebrow and a look that needed no commentary to accompany it. That was obviously a bad idea. Someday she would have to ask the tall detective why she appeared to carry such a disagreeable opinion of anything religious.

****************

44.

In the next couple of days, Trace continued to work with Rio. After he got used to seeing the halter hanging in his stall, the detective brought the device over to him and let him examine it, smell it, see it up close. Still speaking gently and encouragingly to him, she slowly slipped the noseband on him, to which he snorted and moved his head slightly. Under Rachel’s guidance, the detective did not remove it, she just stopped what she was doing and let the mustang settle down while she used comforting words to calm him.

Delicately, she helped the halter over his sensitive ears, leaving the chin strap loose. Although he didn’t appear to like it very much, he consented to keeping it on when Trace plied him with more carrots and apples. Never known for her patience, even the brunette was surprised at her equanimity with this animal. She certainly did not have it with Chief, nor did he express it with her. They had reached a state of mutual tolerance and that’s how it stayed. There was no doubt, he was Rachel’s horse and very loyal to her.

Once Rio was used to the sensation of wearing the halter, the detective began to lightly tug on the strap, leading him around his stall, then the stable, a little bit at a time. Rachel told Trace the most important thing was not to rush him and, instead of being anxious about this, both human and horse were finding great solace in each other’s company.

The detective had never bonded with an animal before and could only now understand how rewarding it could be. The repugnant thought of anyone doing harm to the mustang – or Rosie, Moses, Chief and the precious little Zelda – horrified and infuriated her and then recalling Rachel telling her that her other horses had to be killed because of intentional maiming by the Crane clan made her even more determined to ‘get even’ with these brutes.

*********************

When it was time to go into town again, Trace had made a list of personal errands she needed to attend to, added to the usual business that took her to Sagebrush. First she intended to see Joseph Turner at the pawn shop. Then, depending on what transpired from there, she would open an account at the bank, talk with a few businessmen in town and after that, get what she needed for the ranch, buying a few extras like a buttery soft, French-milled soap that was lightly perfumed with lavender as a gift for Rachel. The anticipated look on the blonde’s face would be worth the small extravagance. She wondered when the last time was that Rachel received or bought herself something nice.

With Isaac Tipping nowhere in site, which the detective found a bit unusual, Trace finished loading the feed and mercantile supplies on the wagon and looked over at the saloon. She was hot, tired and a beer would taste very good right about now. Rachel was not going to start dinner until dusk, so one mug shouldn’t do any harm. Securing her load, she left Moses tied up to the post, patting his neck affectionately and strolled across the street to Wilbur’s.

Pushing through the swinging doors, it was still hard to believe that she was actually living in the real old west. Staying on the ranch was definitely a reminder but coming into town was the clincher. She stepped up to the bar and Silas grinned at her and poured her an ale. It had only taken her a few visits to main street Sagebrush before she was known and, it seemed, pretty well liked.

Her ‘male’ facade was working, no doubt about that, she was automatically being taken for a tall but gangly young man and, no matter how much she protested, one of possible Native American descent or of gypsy heritage. Not that it mattered, she certainly would not be ashamed of or be offended by being either. It was the attitude of prejudice with which it was always stated that bothered her more than anything. Besides, for all she knew, she could be part anything as her father’s ancestry was a mystery. She knew her mother was of Greek descent and that’s what she attributed her darker features and complexion to but the piercing azure eyes must be a paternal trait as her mother’s lifeless orbs were chocolate brown with gold flecks.

Well, whatever they thought she was, she knew her appearance was deceiving and anyone who confused her tall but lithe (lanky for a man, anyway) frame for inexperience and weakness would be making a deadly mistake. Hopefully, the scumbag who had raped Rachel would fall victim to that bias of thinking ‘youth’ and weight mattered. She had already proven to two men and the sheriff that it didn’t.

Just the thought of that ugly incident and how horribly violated and destroyed the blonde must have been, set Trace’s teeth on edge, nearly making her quake with rage, after her first swallow of the contents of her glass.

“Why, hell, Trace, you look as ornery as an undertaker in a ghost town. What’s that expression for?” Silas cracked, pouring a shot of whiskey for himself. He held the bottle up to the detective.

Snapping herself back to reality, Trace shook her head, declining the offer, remembering her last encounter with that nasty stuff. “Nothing that this can’t cure,” she smiled, slightly raising her glass.

“Or that…” Silas nodded toward the staircase.

Following the direction of his gaze, Trace noticed Cassandra bounding down the stairs, making a beeline for her. The brunette couldn’t help but smile at the redhead’s blatant attraction for her and unbridled enthusiasm every time she saw her. Cassandra was not a bad looking woman, light-skinned, hazel-eyed and full rosy lips that Trace could, once again, only imagine what they could accomplish. It would be nice to take some comfort and ease some sexual tension that had built up to nearly volcanic proportions but there were two problems involved: the first being, if Trace allowed this prostitute to ‘service’ her, her secret wouldn’t be a secret for very long and second, she wasn’t Rachel.

Cassandra stopped her gallop and sashayed the last five or six feet to Trace’s side, making an obvious show of her arrival. Leaning her elbow on the bar, Cassandra pursed her lips at the brunette and said, “Buy a lady a drink?”

Smiling, Trace bowed her head, shaking it in mild disbelief, looked back up into clearly interested eyes that today were taking on the color of her dark green dress and said, “I guess if I see a lady anywhere around, I’ll be sure to do that.”

The five male saloon patrons and Silas laughed uproariously at that and Cassandra pretended to sulk until Trace reached over squeezed her upper arm briefly. “You know I’m just kidding, right? What’ll you have?”

“You.” Her expression was sultry and practiced. She stepped so close to Trace, the brunette could feel the redhead’s breath against her neck.

Taking a subtle step away from Cassandra, Trace tried to be gracious. “You can’t drink me.”

“Wanna bet?”

That drew a round of ‘Oooooh’s from the boys in the bar but Trace didn’t blink. She slowly, appreciatively, gave the redhead a once over and smiled again. “Cassandra, I am sure you could make my toes curl if I gave you a chance.”

“Well?”

“Sorry…although I’m sure your charms exceed most men’s wildest dreams, I’m not going to give you that chance.”

“Why? Don’t you like me?” She pouted.

“It ain’t that, Cass,” Joseph Turner, standing by the staircase, jumped in, “Trace, here, is getting his toes curled by Rachel Young.”

Pinning him with a glare, the force of which should have knocked him clear across the room, in a voice even and definite, Trace said, “Mind your manners, Joseph. Miss Rachel is a lady. I won’t have anyone talking about her like that.”

“Come on, you’re telling me you’re living out there on that big spread, just the two of you, and you two have never – ”

“Never what, Joseph?” Trace interrupted, not believing this idiot didn’t get the hint to shut up.

“You know…” Grinning lewdly, he gestured obscenely with his hands.

“I told you no, Joseph. Miss Rachel is a lady. She has nursed me back to health and given me a place to stay and that is all,” Trace replied, crisply.

“Well, you’re probably better off,” Cassandra shrugged. “Word has it she’s no virgin.”

“Word has it?” Trace snapped. “Whose word?” The look in the brunette’s captivating eyes turned ice blue and she was no longer playful.

“Well,” Joseph said, “Ben Crane, for one. He said he’s had her and she’s real…uh…spirited in the bedroom.”

“Who the fuck is Ben Crane and why would he say something like that?”

None of them really knew this cowboy, Trace Sheridan, that well but somehow each and every one of them realized they had just stepped over a line. Cassandra mistakenly thought she could sooth the savage beast in Trace. Reaching out for the brunette, she said, “You don’t want to mess with Ben Crane, Trace.”

Swatting the redhead’s hand away, a motion which startled everyone, most of all the prostitute, Trace glared at Joseph. “I said: who the fuck is Ben Crane?”

No one in the saloon could believe that someone actually existed who hadn’t heard of Ben Crane. They all exchanged glances. Silas cleared his throat. “Uh…the Cranes are cattle barons, Trace. They run this town. When they’re here.”

“That much I know.” Trace stated, still not impressed. “And the Cranes, including Ben, are away, heading up their cattle drive to Kansas, right?”

“Right,” Joseph offered. “They get fifty dollars a head delivering them to Dodge City. They round ’em up and drive ’em twice a year and this is one of them times. They own most of the property that surrounds the town. All except for the Young spread.”

“And that spread – which Rachel won’t sell – is right in the middle of their drive route, which adds an extra half-day to their trip east,” Silas added, reiterating again what Trace was already aware of and then he said something the detective did not know. “Ben asked Rachel for her hand a few times, hoping it would solve the problem but she turned him down every time. Guess he finally gave up.”

Gave up, my ass, Trace thought. An idea started forming in Trace’s mind, putting some missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together that was Rachel’s life before she entered it. “So why would this Crane dickhead say what he is saying?”

It was obvious the normally amiable Trace was not receptive to this particular subject at all and the atmosphere in the room had changed. The tension in the air was thick and suddenly everyone in the saloon wished they had somewhere else to be. Including Cassandra, who was still a little stung by Trace’s action.

“Look, Trace, Crane told us he’s had Rachel…that’s all I’m telling you,” Joseph told her.

“And you believe him?”

“Why would he lie?”

“You tell me.” Trace glanced from face to face, her eyes challenging every one of them. No one said a word. “Okay…just for shits and giggles, let’s say he had her. What’s the problem?”

They all exchanged looks with one another, then back at Trace, almost embarrassed. It was Silas who finally spoke. “Well…come on, Trace…you wouldn’t want a woman who’s already been -”

“Don’t even think about finishing that sentence, Silas,” Trace warned. “First, that’s an insult to Cassandra and second, if what this Crane asshole said is true, why does that make her undesirable and not him?”

Even the three men playing poker at the table against the stairs looked up at that one but no one responded to the ridiculous question.

Laughing, caustically, Trace said, “Let me get this straight, he beds her and he’s a big stud and she’s a whore? How come he’s not considered a whore?”

“You’re kidding, right, Trace?” Silas asked, a nervous little laugh getting caught in his throat.

“No, I’m not,” she began, agitated. “Women are sexual beings. They have urges, wants, needs, desires just like men. But, no, we can’t allow women to express that, to behave just like us because then we lose that control over them.” Trace noticed, out of the corner of her eye, Cassandra smirk and look down at the floor. “Men come in here and pay for the pleasure of Cassandra’s services and that’s okay, we all just look the other way because that’s what men do. But women…the minute they show any inkling of enjoying the sex act like a man does, deriving any pleasure from it at all, she’s a whore, a hussy. Ain’t right, guys,” Trace told them.

Joseph, Silas and the other men all snickered. “Damn, Trace! How you talk sometimes,” Silas shook his head.

“Yeah, yeah, but let’s just look at this for a second…say this prick, Crane, is telling the truth and he and Miss Rachel got romantic and frisky one night and they had…relations. Who are you going to respect more? Rachel, who most of you have known since she were born – she’s a good, kind, law-abiding woman who’s had some pretty horrible things happen in the past year, who may have made a mistake with Crane? Or him, who slept with her and bragged about it to everyone, knowing it would ruin her good name? I don’t see where there’s even a choice here, boys.”

Amazingly, her words sunk in and they all considered this.

“But,” Trace added, employing what Bobby Montesano used to tell her was one of her most annoying traits – rubbing salt into an open wound, “I still think either he’s lying or he took her against her will.”

Matthew Reddick, one of the younger men playing poker, put his cards down and said, “Uh…Trace…are you accusing Ben Crane of rape? Because that could be real dangerous around here.”

Knowing she had hit a nerve, Trace almost smiled at the reaction. “I’m just throwing out the scenario…you draw the conclusion yourself. Somehow, just hearing how you talk about this Crane pig tells me that Miss Rachel wouldn’t willingly give him the time of day, much less give him anything else – if you understand me. And,” she said, her voice steady and stern, “make no mistake, the threat of a Crane being pissed off at me doesn’t scare me. Bullies never scared me.”

“If the Cranes don’t scare you, then you’re a fool, Trace,” Cassandra stated, shaking her head.

“Yeah…maybe, but I don’t want to hear any more of that talk about Rachel Young. She is a good, decent woman and she has been a saint to me,” Trace advised them.

Silas smiled. “Kind of sweet on her, ain’t ya, Trace?”

Knowing she was blushing, Trace broke into a smile. “Well…yeah…I mean, shouldn’t I be? Look at her. She’s beautiful.”

Matthew Reddick folded to a bobtailed flush, cleared the three dollars he had won previously off the table and stood up, putting the money in his pocket. He passed the detective with a smile. “Ya know, Trace? She deserves to finally have something good in her life again. Rachel is a good woman.” He clapped the brunette on the shoulder and left the saloon.

***************************************

45

One beer had turned into four and it was just past dusk when Trace steered Moses to the hitching post outside the front door. She could smell dinner, as she hopped down off the wagon and decided to unload the supplies afterward. Unhooking the old horse, Trace led him to the barn, took the reins and harness off, placing them in the tack room and made sure the he and the other horses had enough oats and water. Then she strolled back to the main house.

“Hey,” she greeted the blonde as she walked in.

Smiling more brightly at her than she ever had before, Rachel had just finished setting the table. “Hi. Go get washed up. I thought you were going to be late.”

“Yeah, me too, for a minute,” Trace moved to the pump and basin. “Kind of lost track of time at Wilbur’s.”

Concealing a wider, rib-busting proud smile, Rachel said, “Yes, I heard you defended my honor there today.”

Stunned, Trace looked over at her. “How did you find that out?”

“Elizabeth Reddick came over to visit. Brought us an apple pie. Matthew hasn’t allowed Elizabeth to come over here in almost a month. She said Matthew got home from playing cards and told her that Joseph Turner was saying some things about me that weren’t very nice and you almost hit him.”

“I didn’t almost hit him. I felt like it…but I restrained myself. Good Lord, people have big mouths around here.”

“So…did you defend my honor?”

Trace looked over at the glowing blonde who was grinning radiantly at her. It was contagious. “And if I did?” She was about to wipe her hands on the towel when Rachel’s smile turned to a stern smirk. “What?”

“Wash your hands again, Trace Sheridan, and this time use soap!” she pointed at the basin. “Those hands are not clean!”

Trace held them up, displaying both palms and then knuckles. “No, but they match,” she said in a playfully defensive tone. Shrugging in defeat, the brunette returned to the pump. “You didn’t answer my question,” she continued, scrubbing her hands in an exaggerated manner with a powdered, gritty borax. She anxiously looked forward to Rachel’s reaction when she gave her the perfumed soap she bought her.

“If you did, I just wanted to say thank you.” She said it almost timidly, after she placed a bowl of steaming hot potatoes on the table.

Wiping her hands – again – Trace studied the beautiful woman next to her. “You’re welcome,” she replied, sincerely, her tone almost loving. “Rachel, did Ben Crane rape you?” she questioned, gently.

It came out of nowhere, like a hard slap. Closing her eyes, Rachel stopped in her tracks. “Leave it alone, Trace,” the blonde said, quietly, her now open eyes pleading and fixed on the brunette. “Ben Crane is a dangerous man.”

Approaching her slowly, non-threateningly, Trace said, “Ben Crane doesn’t scare me, Rachel. I’ve dealt with hundreds of Ben Cranes. He’s an overgrown bully and bullies never scared me.” Her tone was still gentle, caring.

Rachel’s voice, however, was panicky. “You have no idea what he’s capable of. He’s a very powerful man, he and his father and brothers. You don’t want to make a Crane angry. They run this town, they keep money flowing into this town. No one in Sagebrush, no matter how much they hate the Cranes, will back you up if you cross a Crane -”

“Hey, hey…” Trace’s voice was loud enough to override Rachel’s rising hysteria but soothing enough to let her know she wasn’t arguing with her. “The town is afraid of them, I get it. They’re not nice people, I get that, too. And they own Sagebrush so, in a way, they are holding the town hostage, I understand. But that does not give them the right to browbeat, antagonize, intimidate or rape anyone.”

Approaching the brunette quickly, frantically, Rachel took her by the shoulders. She was crying. “Please, Trace, I’m begging you, don’t go up against the Cranes!! They will kill you,” she was practically sobbing, then her voice broke into a desperate whisper. “And I can’t lose you.”

The impact of that hushed confession stunned Trace into momentary silence. She pulled the frantic blonde into her comforting arms, and rubbed her back with one hand while tightly holding Rachel against her with another. The response from the frightened woman in her embrace simultaneously surprised and excited her. Rachel held her back, almost intimately, like a lover, burrowing into her uninhibitedly as though releasing her would have caused her to vanish into thin air. “Shhh, shhh, it’s okay…I’m not going anywhere… I promise,” Trace consoled her, quietly, lightly pressing her lips several times to the top of the blonde’s head, absently, an action that seemed to come naturally.

She suddenly felt Rachel’s body stiffen and Trace closed her eyes, mentally cursing herself for stepping over that line. She knew – whatever Rachel may have been feeling – was all new and bewildering and complicated and she was trying not to force her rapidly growing love and libidinous feelings on the blonde. As strong as Rachel was, she was still very fragile. Holding her breath, Trace decided to let Rachel make the next move.

An immediate reaction or response did not appear to be forthcoming from the blonde but neither did moving out of the brunette’s embrace. Allowing the moment to play itself out, she finally heard Rachel nervously clear her throat. “Trace?”

“Yeah?” A thousand thoughts invaded her brain at once. But one seemed stronger than all the rest. She would ask Trace to leave, regardless of her not wanting to “lose” the detective. Trace was disgusted with herself for not having more self control. In modern times, her gesture would have meant nothing – right here, right now, it said much more than she felt Rachel was ready to handle.

“Did you mean what you mentioned last week?” Rachel’s voice was somewhat muffled but her question came out clearly.

“I said a lot last week…what specifically?”

“About…getting married…”

Now it was Trace’s turn to freeze. More from confusion than anything else. Never in a million years would she have ever expected this from the traditional, moral blonde. She stepped back putting herself at arm’s length from Rachel. Reaching over, Trace gently placed her finger under Rachel’s chin and lifted, forcing their eyes to meet. “What about it?”

“I want to get married…if you still want to.” There it was out. Rachel had been thinking about the offer since the brunette brought it up that night of the storm. It had been difficult to think about anything else. She tried to look away from the detective but she couldn’t. The expression on Trace’s face was too priceless.

“If I – of course, I still want to. Why do you want to?”

“I’ve been thinking about what you said and…I know you would be good to me, protect me, take care of me. I know I won’t find a husband, especially not being…with child. And nobody has to know the truth except you and me.”

Trace’s hand was now caressing her face and the blonde closed her eyes and unconsciously leaned into the touch. “I will never hurt you, Rachel. And I will make sure no one else ever hurts you again.” She stepped closer and lightly massaged the blonde’s belly. “I will raise this child as my own flesh and blood.”

Falling into the brunette’s arms again, Rachel hugged her fiercely. “I feel so safe with you. I don’t care if you’re a woman.”

Looking skyward, Trace mouthed the words, ‘Thank you.’ The two women’s eyes captured each other’s again and Trace said, “I know you mean it.”

“I do mean it. I don’t care. I just never want you to leave me.”

“Sweetheart, I will be here as long as you want me here, need me here.” Trace didn’t know when things had changed but she wasn’t about to question or try to analyze it.

“I think I will always need you…” the blonde admitted, looking down, “…will always want you.”

A surge of solid rapture washed through Trace’s body, coursing through her veins like water through a firehose, jolting her between the legs like nothing ever had before. Heat radiated outward, igniting ever nerve in her body. She could not tear her eyes away from the flawlessly beautiful face, now staring directly at her once more.

“Would…you…” the blonde’s voice was shaking, “…kiss me? Like a man kisses a woman?”

“You mean, like, romantically? Like lovers?” The detective’s voice was hoarse, desire for this woman almost incapacitating her.

Blushing, Rachel smiled. “Yes…like that.”

“Then let me kiss you like a woman kisses a woman. Romantically. Like lovers.”

Receiving permission from the blonde’s intensely willing emerald eyes, Trace leaned in and met Rachel’s lips tentatively but tenderly. She let the blonde get used to the sensation, get comfortable with the idea before she attempted to deepen the gesture. Her lips were so soft, so wanting. When Rachel’s arms snaked around Trace’s neck, pulling their bodies even closer, the detective took that as a cue to move forward with the kiss.

Returning Trace’s passion, Rachel kept up her part of the kiss as though it were normal for her to be standing in her kitchen wrapped in the arms of the female detective, as if she had been kissing women her entire life.

Trace opened her mouth, licking gently over Rachel’s bottom lip. Startled, the blonde stilled for no more than a second, deciding she really liked that feeling and mimicked Trace’s action. Not being able to contain a smile, Trace moaned into Rachel’s mouth and fervently pursued the inexperienced woman’s tongue, her own dancing with it. The blonde must have liked that, too, because she began to match Trace move for move with as much, if not more, enthusiasm.

It took every ounce of self-control the 21st century woman possessed not to let her hands roam over every inch of the 19th century woman’s body, not to even remotely act aggressively with her, as she would a modern conquest. That would, no doubt, frighten the blonde, something she instinctively knew she would die before doing, die before allowing Rachel to equate the act of lovemaking with violence, which was the only experience Rachel had ever had. As she felt the blonde’s body melt into hers, she continued to explore every fraction of Rachel’s mouth, stopping occasionally to lightly suck on the blonde’s tongue – a gesture which more than obviously made Rachel’s knees grow weak.

At the same time Rachel pushed back from Trace, extricating their lips from each other, she also grabbed on to the brunette’s denim shirt for support and nearness. They touched foreheads, panting, almost gasping for air.

“Oh my Lord,” Rachel breathed, not completely understanding the signals her loins were sending her body.

“Are you okay?” Trace rasped, sure she should be asking herself the same question.

“I…I’ve never been kissed like that before. It was as wonderful as I thought it would be,” she smiled, flushed, caught between feeling chagrined and aroused at the sensations Trace had stirred up within her.

“You’ve thought about kissing me?” Trace blinked back the astonishment.

Turning even more crimson, Rachel nodded, shyly. “Yes. A lot.”

Taking the blonde’s hand and pressing it to her heart hammering in her chest, Trace said, “Feel that? That’s what your kiss just did to me. Anticipating kissing you has been almost as bad. Why didn’t you say anything before now?”

“I didn’t know what to say, how to bring it up. I was embarrassed. I’ve never known about women like you before. But when you told me about you, it made me think…and…I think, um, I think I might be like you…”

Leading Rachel to the table where supper had already grown cold, she gestured for Rachel to sit, while Trace squatted by the blonde’s legs. “You’re telling me you think – romantically – you like women better than men?”

“I don’t have much to compare it to, some courting, some kissing and, well, except for -” she bowed her head almost regretfully, “you know… but nothing has ever made me feel the way that just did.”

Trace reached up and cupped Rachel’s chin, provoking another shiver in the blonde as their eyes met. Bringing the younger woman’s fingers to her lips, Trace kissed every one. “Rachel Young, will you marry me?”

The blonde tumbled into her arms, knocking them both back onto the wood floor, Trace cushioning the fall with her own body. Both women were laughing, Rachel practically fusing herself to her new ‘fiancée.’

“I take it that’s a yes?” Trace asked, knowing if her smile was any wider, her face would split.

“Yes! Yes, I will marry you, Trace Sheridan!!” The small blonde spread short kisses all over the brunette’s face before their lips met, inflaming both their desires once again.

Getting lost in everything that had just taken place, added with the touch of Rachel’s mouth sealed to hers, Trace knew she had to stop them now, or she wouldn’t be able to. She simply sat up, carefully bringing Rachel with her, so that the blonde was sitting on her lap. “So…” she inhaled, then exhaled to regain her equilibrium, “when do you want to get married? And how do we do that here?”

“We need to talk to Pastor Edwards, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

“That easy, huh?”

“Well, yes… and we have to see the circuit clerk and recorder at the county courthouse. Did you think getting married would be difficult?”

“Believe me when I tell you that me marrying anyone was the last thing on my mind.”

“You never wanted to get married?” The look of amazement on Rachel’s face was precious.

“Not until now,” Trace smiled at her, giving her a playful squeeze. “How soon can we do this?”

“Someone’s eager,” the blonde kidded her, demurely, running a hand through the detective’s thick, dark mane.

Caught off guard, Trace laughed. “Well, yeah…for a lot of reasons,” she admitted, pinning Rachel with an undeniably lusty gaze. Without realizing it, the blonde crossed her legs, as though damming up the pool gathering there, not quite understanding her body’s reaction. Trace noticed it and her mouth went dry as all the moisture in her body headed south, also. She gingerly lifted Rachel off her, stood up and assisted the blonde to her feet. “You’re going to start showing soon,” Trace laid her hand across Rachel’s abdomen, “and I would like everyone to think that this is my baby.”

“I would like everyone to think that, too.” She stood on her tip toes and kissed Trace on the cheek. “I will make you believe this is your child. I love you so much, Trace Sheridan, I think I’m going to burst. You’ve made me the happiest woman alive today!”

Maybe the second happiest, Trace thought, as she lovingly embraced the warmth of the small blonde.

********************************

46.

It was difficult through supper to keep their eyes off each other, to refrain from holding hands so that they could consume their food, to hold back from clearing the table by crawling over it to kiss each other. Again. Sexual impulses were new to Rachel and not acting on them was new to Trace. The much more pure blonde could not stop thinking about the brunette’s lips touching hers. Trace, on the other hand, was more focused on what would happen next even though she knew she could not, would not rush Rachel into anything.

Regardless of the individual motivation provoking these impulses, both women could not stop smiling. Unfortunately, neither ended up doing much damage to the very nice dinner Rachel had prepared because they were both too excited about everything that had just transpired between them.

This was, indeed, a revelation for Rachel. The blonde had never felt like this before, not even with Tommy. His kisses were pleasant, if not a little anxious and sloppy. But even in his eagerness, as charming as he was, his overtures were comparatively boring to what she just had a taste of. And she couldn’t think of the brutal and violent way Ben Crane had kissed her…she shuddered and bile rose in her throat just at the thought of being touched by him. Shaking that nightmare from her consciousness as much as possible, Rachel successfully focused back on the woman sitting across from her.

The blonde understood she did not have the sexual sophistication the brunette most likely had, but as she sat opposite the dark beauty, Rachel knew that was to her advantage. The very idea of Trace teaching her, well, everything brought a deep, anticipating, satisfying blush to her cheeks and an almost urgent heat to the lower half of her body. Enlightenment, indeed.

Trace, on the other hand, had not experienced this kind of spontaneous euphoria since her senior year in high school when she boldly kissed her androgynously cute P.E teacher, a woman she had a wicked crush on, right in the middle of being reprimanding by her for hogging the basketball during practice.

Everyone else had gone to take showers or left and Ms. Weaver, who everyone suspected was a lesbian anyway, furiously hauled the six foot tall teenager into her office and gave her the ‘there’s no I in team’ speech. Young Trace, of course, was sassy and mouthy, protesting that nobody was working the ball and she was, without fail, the highest scorer out there so what was the big fucking deal?

The language and disrespect angered the coach but the attitude, confident bearing and feral intensity of the beautiful student took control of her better judgment, hypnotically drawing her in. Regardless of how unethical, to suggest she was not deeply attracted to the cocky eighteen-year-old would have been a lie and when, in mid-argument, Ms. Weaver found herself in the strong arms of Trace Sheridan, pushing their bodies together against her office wall and kissing her…passionately, frantically, irrationally…stupidly, she did not resist in the least.

Immediately, after the kiss was broken, the coach realized her mistake, despite how much she enjoyed it, and apologized profusely to the young girl who was stunned at her success and smiling, Trace’s teenage hormonal circuits on obvious overload. Then Ms. Weaver begged and pleaded with the tall brunette not to say anything to anyone, knowing she would not only lose her job but most likely be brought up on charges, as well, even though she didn’t initiate it.

Seeing only benefit in the awkward situation, the hotshot high school basketball player recognized an opportunity of emotional extortion when she saw it. Knowing she now had the upper hand, Trace worked out a deal with the mortified and reluctant coach where Trace could get away with anything on the court and never be yelled at, pulled out of or suspended from the games personally by Ms. Weaver. This ‘agreement’ lasted two weeks before the teacher, barely avoiding a nervous breakdown, resigned and transferred out of state. Trace never thought about that unexpected kiss though, without getting butterflies in her stomach and a foolish, shit-eating grin on her face…kind of like the one she was sporting right now, as she got up from the table.

Their supper had been relatively quiet. They ate a tepid meal almost mechanically, each women preoccupied with her own thoughts about what the immediate future might bring them together and individually. Helping Rachel clear the table, Trace affectionately kissed the blonde on top of the head, squeezing her shoulders as she went outside and unload the wagon.

Now that she had proposed – an act she would have previously not believed she was capable of either suggesting or accepting – she never thought she would be so thrilled about getting married. Hadn’t she always said that marriage was another word for ‘ownership?’ Was that what this was about? Did she want to possess Rachel, claim her as her private property by right of conquest? No, she detested that kind of behavior. And yet, she knew as sure as she was standing there that she did not want anyone else to have Rachel, just the thought of that caused pain to claw at her heart. This may have been all new to the blonde but it was all pretty foreign to Trace, as well.

Before Rachel Young had entered her life, the idea of spending twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with anyone was ludicrous and unacceptable. Now, the thought of spending one minute away from her seemed unbearable. Shaking her head at how she could change so completely because of one person and in such a short period of time, the detective finished stocking the pantry shelves with her trademark raised eyebrowed smirk.

When Trace had finished, she stepped back out into the kitchen with her hands behind her back, approaching the blonde who was putting the dishes away. With uncharacteristic reserve, the brunette cleared her throat to get Rachel’s attention. Turning around, the blonde beamed at the detective, then tilted her head, questioningly at Trace’s body language.

“I brought something back from town for you,” the brunette told her, watching an expression of near cherubic wonder appear on the blonde’s face.

“You…? Did you buy me a present?” Rachel asked, with childlike enthusiasm.

“Mmm hmm,” the brunette nodded, inching closer.

“What is it? Let me see!” She attempted to dance around Trace’s back but the brunette simply moved with her. “No fair, Trace…! It isn’t nice to tease me…!”

Highly amused at the blonde’s eagerness, the brunette said, “I’ll give it to you for a kiss.”

Stopping before her, Rachel got goosebumps at the thought of Trace’s lips against hers again. Grinning, the blonde crossed her arms. “How about you give it to me and if I like it, then I’ll give you a kiss…”

“Oh? You feel you’re in a position to barter?” the detective intoned with a grin.

Knowing Trace wanted to kiss her just as much as she wanted to be kissed, she said, “Uh huh.”

Shrugging, the detective then nodded, knowing that, either way, she was going to get her wish. “Put your hands out and close your eyes,” Trace requested.

After Rachel did as she was told, the detective then brought her arms around to her front and placed the tissue enfolded gift in the blonde’s palms. Opening her more than appreciative emerald eyes, they widened in surprise and gratitude, as she immediately recognized the wrapping. “Oh…Trace,” she breathed, holding the soap up to her nose and appreciatively inhaling its fragrance. Her eyes blinked back up at the incredible blue ones that looked into her soul. “You are so sweet I could eat you with a spoon.”

She had to stop saying stuff like that, the brunette thought, knowing the blonde had no clue of the double entendres she so frequently and innocently spouted. “Now…where’s my kiss?”

Eyes brimming with tears at Trace’s thoughtful gesture, Rachel almost jumped into her arms. “Thank you,” she whispered, lifting her face to meet the brunette’s.

Trace’s lips lightly brushed the blonde’s, tauntingly, then claimed them for a slow, sweet, lusciously deep kiss that left Rachel quivering and eager for more. And the only reason Trace didn’t comply was that the response from the blonde left her breathless and almost too light-headed to stand.

When the detective pulled back slightly, she saw Rachel’s eyes glistening for an entirely different reason now, fully aware of the fire she kindled in the blonde. “My body hungers for you, Trace,” Rachel confessed, in a hushed tone, as though she were embarrassed by her own desires. “You have awakened something way down inside me and I have never known a need so blind and demanding and unreasoning…”

As this came from someone quite inexperienced with being in touch with her own sexual feelings, Trace found this declaration enticingly erotic. She was about to suggest the possibility of taking this to the next level when the blonde then said something that caused her carnal urges to put on the brakes.

“…But I want to wait until we can be together in our, um, marriage bed…”

Trying desperately not to act out the disappointment she felt, knowing that this request was extremely important to the blonde, Trace exhaled and nodded. She caressed Rachel’s face and kissed her forehead. “Can we get married tonight?”

Hugging her fiercely, Rachel chuckled into Trace’s shoulder. “Don’t think it’s not killing me, too, ’cause it is.”

Smiling lovingly and indulgently, the detective knew it was going to be an impossibly long night.

Continued in Part 47

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