Renegade by Cheyne (part 2)

47.

Trace awoke to the sounds of her bride-to-be retching downstairs. Getting out of bed, slipping into some clothes, the detective descended the loft and found the blonde outside on the porch, once again bent over at the waist and dry heaving into the bushes.

The sun had at least one more hour before debuting another day and the morning was dawning clear and cold, a fact that was contradicted by Rachel’s profuse sweating. She sensed Trace behind her before she actually saw her or felt the detective’s hands on her back. The brunette gently pulled the blonde’s hair away from her face and held it while Rachel experienced another round of convulsive nausea. When she was finished, she turned slightly and sat on a porch chair, holding her belly, looking up pathetically at Trace.

The detective’s expression was helpless, sympathetic. “Oh, sweetheart, I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better…”

“Just your being here makes me feel better,” Rachel managed to get out.

“Why don’t you sit here and take in the fresh air and I’ll go heat up some water and get the ginger,” Trace suggested. Receiving a weak nod in response, the detective disappeared into the house. Returning to the porch a few moments later, the brunette sat down in the chair opposite the blonde. “So, Rachel, what else is going on with you? What else are you feeling?” Trace reached over and gently massaged the blonde’s shoulder. “Craving anything special or different to eat?”

Looking up into caring blue eyes, the startled blonde answered, “Yes. Something, anything soaked in salted vinegar. How could you know that?”

Trace smiled, patiently. “It’s a well known symptom of being pregnant. Just like you starting to take more and more trips to the outhouse, you being tired all the time, I bet your back is starting to ache…”

Rachel’s expression confirmed Trace’s list of subtle physical changes.

“What about headaches?”

“Yes.”

“Are your breasts tender and swollen?”

“A little. I…I get cramping, too and I don’t know if that’s normal. I don’t want there to be anything wrong with the baby.”

“Are you constipated?” Trace’s voice was not intrusive, instead, it was laced with concern and compassion.

“Yes,” the blonde admitted, shyly. She wasn’t used to talking about her bodily functions with anyone except Doc Smith and her mother.

The detective recognized Rachel’s discomfort and chuckled lightly. “It’s okay, sweetheart. All of that sounds very typical. And your cramping is most likely due to your being constipated and that, and your more frequently having to pee means the baby is growing and beginning to press against your bowel and your bladder. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse. I’m sure the baby is fine. But it’s getting bigger, Rachel, and we need to get married before that baby begins to show.”

Flattening her nightshirt across her tummy, she displayed what she thought was a slight bump. “I’m already starting.”

Focusing on the blonde’s lower abdomen, Trace couldn’t really see any obvious bulge but Rachel must know her own body. Even if it was just bloat, the detective could not help but grin excitedly. Moving off the chair, she knelt down to the side of Rachel’s legs and looked up into sparkling jade eyes. “May I?” the detective asked, her hand hovering a few inches above the blonde’s belly.

“Yes, of course,” Rachel answered, breathless by Trace’s reaction.

The brunette slowly laid her palm across the material covering the area indicated on the blonde’s stomach. Knowing the baby was probably only slightly larger than a walnut at this stage, Trace didn’t expect to feel any movement but it didn’t matter. It almost felt like her son or daughter was growing inside this beautiful woman she now knew she was desperately in love with. Leaning in, Trace lovingly planted a kiss on Rachel’s tummy before looking up into the reverent eyes of the blonde. “I love you,” she stated, simply.

“I love you, too,” Rachel answered, in an intense whisper. “What ever did I do to deserve you, Trace Sheridan?”

“Oh, no,” the detective, shook her head, smiling, as she stood up. “I’m sure it is much more ‘what did I do to deserve you’.” Not being able to stop herself, she leaned down and kissed the blonde tenderly on the lips. Rachel did not resist.

“How could you want to do that after what I was just doing?” the blonde wondered out loud.

“For better or for worse,” the brunette responded, caressing Rachel’s face. Trace then went back inside the house to take the boiling water off the stove. When she walked back out onto the porch, the blonde was standing. Handing Rachel the steaming cup of liquid that smelled strongly of ginger, Trace stood behind the blonde, encircling her arms around the still slender waist and Rachel leaned back into the strong, comforting body. Together, with an intimate silence surrounding them, they watched the sunrise.

**********

Three days later, Trace and Rachel were once more on their way to town. Rachel needed to stop into Molly Ledbetter’s Dress Shop and ask her about possible alterations on the wedding gown she was bringing to her. But first, since she wanted to start going to church again on Sunday, the blonde did not want to put off talking to Pastor Edwards about performing the marriage ceremony too much longer.

Trace was not as enthusiastic about going to meet the preacher, as she was sure getting the cleric’s blessing would involve a promise to join his congregation. Looking over at her bride-to-be who was seated quietly next to her, obviously lost in thoughts of her own, the detective could not keep the smile off her face. If it paved a smoother path to the altar, that is what she would do – whatever it took to make Rachel happy.

The past couple days had been extremely productive. Trace’s breaking of the mustang was coming along just fine and her afternoon workout with the punching bag dangling from the barn beam was getting her back in not only physical fighting shape but it was also helping to discipline her psychologically, as well. Then she and Chief would take a scouting ride around the perimeter of the ranch, making mental note of anything that looked broken or suspiciously out of place.

During the detective’s last visit to Sagebrush, she had pawned two more items that Mark had given her. She still had plenty of cash left over from her previous visit to Joseph Turner’s shop but her plans for the Triple Y required quite a bit of money – if she was going to become the ‘man of the house,’ so to speak, securing the property was going to be done her way.

After speaking to Pastor Edwards, with Rachel most likely spending a good portion of the afternoon being fitted for her wedding dress, Trace would check to see if her order came in to the mercantile yet. It only had to be brought in from Jefferson, which was a five hour wagon ride, and the request went out the next day by horseback. Then it would be off Wilbur’s to throw back a few ales, maybe play a hand or two of poker and check on the progress of her ‘under-the-table’ deal with Silas. She had not said anything about her plans yet to her future wife, knowing that Rachel would fret unnecessarily at the tauntingly insolent challenge it would present to the Cranes.

With the exception of kissing, now that the physical boundaries of the engagement had been set, with Trace literally sitting on her hands at times to keep them from inappropriately touching her betrothed, the detective and the blonde discussed plans for their wedding in practical terms. The brunette would absolutely defer to Rachel concerning any matter of the ceremony because Trace had no idea how any of this went. Even in modern times, Trace had never been a part of a wedding, other than being a guest, so she would have to follow the blonde’s lead in this matter.

The detective expressed a desire to get Rachel an engagement ring but the blonde felt money shelled out on something so frivolous could be better spent in more necessary and realistic areas…like food and supplies. It was the blonde’s desire to wear her grandmother’s wedding band, which had been passed down to her mother and now sat in a small, red velvet-lined jewelry box in the bedroom Rachel now occupied. Fortunately, she and her mother were the identical ring size and the thin, rose gold band fit nicely on her small, delicate hands.

Frank Young’s wedding band did not fit Trace however, the larger version of what Rachel would wear being at least two sizes larger than the brunette’s left hand ring finger. So, as it was the blonde’s wish for the brunette to wear the matching band, Trace would have to have it resized, hoping the goldsmith in town would be able to accomplish that with little problem.

Also in the wagon, folded neatly between two shawls, was Rachel’s mother’s wedding dress. She was taking it to Molly Ledbetter’s to be altered so she could wear it. Fortunately, Minnie Young had been a smidgen taller and a little thicker around the waist than Rachel, so when the blonde tried it on two days earlier, the saffron taffeta oval-printed gown fit almost perfectly, good enough to where she didn’t want it taken in anywhere. Rachel was lucky to have a figure that didn’t have to be cinched into a corset, although a bone bodice underneath would certainly make the dress look nicer. However, with a baby now growing inside her, she would sacrifice style for comfort. What she hoped Molly would be able to do was provide crinoline petticoats and turn the high collared gown into one with a moderate sweetheart neckline. If she couldn’t, that was okay, too, just the satin, lacy underskirt would be fine.

Nearing the outer edge of Sagebrush, Rachel boldly reached over and slipped her hand in Trace’s, interlacing their fingers and squeezing. The detective brought the blonde’s fingers to her lips and kissed every one, only letting go of Rachel’s hand when she absolutely had to.

**********

48

Trace glanced around at the repetitive scenery as she guided Moses through Main Street. Passing the barber shop, the detective observed the same four older gentlemen she always saw, sitting outside, gossiping. If she didn’t know it had not been invented yet, she would have believed they were human-looking animatronics, as the old boys, who sat in the same order, in the same relaxed, lazy positions, always seemed to stop speaking when she passed and all nodded their heads simultaneously, the only part of their body which seemed to move at all. It happened precisely in the same sequence every time she came to town.

Noticing what the detective was looking at, Rachel smirked, reaching up and ruffling the shaggy locks that hung below Trace’s cowboy hat. “Obviously, your hair has not seen a barber’s shears in a while. You may need to stop in there before the wedding.”

“Spare me. You can trim up my hair.”

“Well…I used to cut my father’s, I suppose I could cut yours.”

“No supposing about it, I’m not setting foot in there.”

Moses slowly continued by the bustling entrance of the hotel where at least three people were having their luggage loaded onto the stagecoach. Trace shook her head…a real, live stagecoach with gilt lettering on the side…it was unbelievable. She further observed a few cowboys standing around talking, rolling cigarettes or disgustingly spitting out long streams of tobacco juice into the street in front of Wilbur’s. Above them, leaning over the second floor railing, shouting down teasingly at the young, virile men, were at least three ‘pleasure women’ from the bordello over the saloon. Cassandra wasn’t among them, Trace noticed, and she guessed that the voluptuous redhead must be entertaining the mayor since it was a round lunch time.

The old horse then moseyed past the deserted telegraph office, heading straight toward the small, quaint, wood-constructed, white-washed church. Rachel quietly studied her ‘husband’-to-be. She had the sudden urge to lean over and kiss the stunning detective, her heart rate picking up at the mere thought of it. But taking such public liberties, especially before they were married, would only add to mounting rumors that Rachel and the drifter had probably shared a bed already. Suddenly without warning, a blush crawled up the blonde’s face, her imagination supplying her with impure visions. And then she became annoyed with herself for feeling as giddy as a schoolgirl.

There had been a mild argument before they left the house, as she insisted Trace trade her sleeveless cotton workshirt and dungarees for ‘go-to-meeting’ clothes. The brunette was stubborn but finally compromised by donning one of Rachel’s father’s not-so-freshly boiled, button-down, white shirts and a clean pair of denim trousers that the blonde had taken in so that Trace no longer needed suspenders. The blonde sighed deciding that the brunette looked mighty handsome. And somewhat jittery, Rachel gathered, watching the detective remove her hat and wipe some perspiration off her brow with a faded red bandana that had also belonged to Frank Young.

“Why, Trace, you’re sweating like a whore going to election. There’s no need to be nervous. Pastor Edwards is a very nice man.”

“I am not nervous,” Trace said, nervously, as Moses slowed in front of the church.

**********

Stepping into the apparently unoccupied house of worship behind Rachel, Trace looked around at the antiquated setting. It had an unexpected charm and character and a warmth she was very surprised to actually be able to feel. She hoped the atmosphere reflected the attitude of the minister in charge of this multi-denominational church.

“Pastor Edwards?” Rachel called out, her voice reverberating around the empty chapel. “Trace, remove your hat,” the blonde advised, in a low voice.

The detective took the hat off and twirled it in her hands. Reaching out, the blonde snatched the hat and held onto it, glancing up, rather impatiently at the tall brunette. Trace just grinned sheepishly.

Rachel took another couple steps forward into the main aisle that divided the ten rows of pews. “Hello? Pastor Edwards? It’s Rachel Young.”

There was still no answer as Trace moved up behind the blonde, suddenly getting the urge to whistle. So she did. Until she looked down into the very exasperated green eyes of her fiancée. “What?”

“Good Lord, Trace, you act like you’ve never been in a church before!” Rachel mildly reprimanded.

She was about to say she was surprised the sky didn’t fall the second she stepped over the threshold, when a middle-aged man appeared in a doorway off to the right. “Got his attention, didn’t it?” Trace countered, her voice hushed.

“Hello?” He squinted, then recognizing the blonde, he smiled affectionately. “Rachel. I’m so happy to see you. It’s been a while.” Reaching her, halfway down the aisle, he stopped, taking the blonde’s hands in his own, in a gentle, fatherly manner.

“Yes, Sir, I know. I really have no excuse, other than it has been a bad couple months at the ranch.”

“I know The Lord forgives you, Rachel,” Peter Edwards told her, his tone appeasing, which immediately sandpapered Trace, who was caught rolling her eyes by her irritated bride-to-be.

Shrugging defensively, the detective began conspicuously focusing on other objects in the church, like the pulpit, the crucifix on the wall behind it and the one small stained glass window above the cross…and, wow, nice use of exposed beams in the ceiling. Which was obviously more necessity than fashion statement. A sudden poke in the ribs brought her attention back to a pair of curious and, as much as she hated to admit it, wise brown eyes.

“Pastor Edwards, I would like you to meet Trace Sheridan…the man I am going to marry.”

A hand had begun to extend toward the detective and it was quickly pulled back. “Marry?” Edwards tried his best not to glare at Trace before fastening his gaze at the blonde. “This is…abrupt…why, I didn’t even know anyone was courting you since Thomas passed on.”

Rachel tried her best to stay upbeat and not be put off by the reverend’s less than enthusiastic reaction. She had anticipated it. “Yes, I am sure it does seem quite sudden but Trace has been courting me for a month now and, well, I don’t want to wait. We’re in love and we would like to be joined in holy matrimony as soon as you can arrange to do that.”

Again, Edwards gave Trace a once over, then looked back at the blonde with the determined set to her chin. “But, Rachel, I have never seen this man before, we don’t know him…Does he understand – do you understand that him marrying you might get him an audience with the Lord?”

“Uh, hello…I’m right here…” It annoyed the detective enormously when people talked about her like she was not even in the same room with them.

Linking her arm with Trace’s, Rachel ignored the obvious and then stated, “I know him, Pastor Edwards. And I do not think that I could find anyone better suited to me.” She winked, reassuringly, at the detective, a gesture that instantly calmed Trace down.

“I don’t know, Rachel…” He shook his head and studied Trace who suddenly felt like a specimen in biology class. “How long have you been in Sagebrush, Mr. Sheridan?

“About a month now.”

“You got here a month ago and you’ve been courting her for a month? You don’t waste any time, do you? Where are you from?”

“Cottonwood.”

“Never heard of it. Must be far from here.”

“It is.”

“Is Trace your full Christian name?”

“Trace is my name, yes.” She knew how ministers liked to use the complete name of the individual they were addressing or speaking about and she would be damned if anyone would call her Tracey except her mother. Her middle name, Lee, was both masculine and feminine, so that wouldn’t have been a problem but she wasn’t going to volunteer that, either. Someone calling her Tracey Lee would bring her back to being seven years old and flushing her mother’s cigarettes down the toilet and having Zelda repeat it over and over as her little behind got whaled on. Whenever she heard, “TRACEY LEE!” she knew she was in trouble. She did not need that reminder here.

“Where is your family?”

“All I had was my mother and she’s gone now.” A tiny line of pain seared through her heart as that might very well be the truth. “I left there because I had no more reason to stay and I ended up here.”

“What is it that you do?”

“Currently? Or as a trade?”

“Both.”

“I am a ranch hand, as of the last month, but before that I was a…well…kind of like a deputy sheriff.”

Edwards eyes widened. “A sheriff?” He was clearly shocked. “A sheriff…” He said it again, as though trying to digest the idea of it. “Like Ed Jackson?”

“I was nothing like Ed Jackson,” Trace responded, evenly. But that was a lie. She had been exactly like Sheriff Jackson…only more corrupt.

Immediately, a broad smile adorned the preacher’s face. He then proceeded to let loose a big, boisterous guffaw that startled both the blonde and the brunette. “Rachel, you have made my day! You’re going to marry someone who used to be the law! That will certainly ruffle a few Crane feathers. I cannot wait to see the look on Benjamin’s face when he returns from Dodge City and you are no longer available to him.”

“I was never available to him, Sir,” the blonde replied, respectfully but indignantly.

“I know that, Rachel,” Edwards said, kindly. “Diabolic intent runs through the blood of those Cranes, especially Benjamin. Don’t think for one second I ever believed any of those sinful stories Benjamin was spreading about you. But he is going to be madder than a flea without a dog when he gets back here and finds you married.” His tone of voice was quite tickled as he looked at Trace. “And to someone he cannot immediately get a rise out of, I would suspect.”

“No, Sir, I am not easily intimidated.”

“That’s good, son. You’re going to need a backbone to face down this man – and I use that word loosely. You’re also going to need eyes in the back of your head because these Cranes are sneaky and not honorable. You sure you’re up to that?”

“Yes, Sir. I want to marry Rachel and take on all the responsibility that goes with it,” Trace told him, sincerely.

Smiling at the detective, eyes twinkling in a mischievous manner, the reverend clamped a big hand on Trace’s shoulder. “And all the glory, too, I suspect,” he chuckled, winking at the blonde.

“Pastor Edwards!” Rachel said, cheeks burning with embarrassment.

Joining the minister in laughter, Trace decided she liked this man. His slightly off-color insinuation was not accompanied by any kind of leer or lascivious intention. It was more like he was just stating an obvious fact. Even as aghast as Rachel was at the pastor’s implication, she could not stop herself from smiling through her moral indignation, even if she still held a mortifying blush. “It’s a guy thing,” the detective appeased, hoping she’d never have to say that again.

“Well, come on back to the parsonage and let’s talk about getting you two hitched. Mrs. Edwards was just baking some raisin bread when I left, we can at least enjoy that and some tea while we go over the details. I’ll let Henry know, over at the court house that you two will be stopping by later.”

“Who’s Henry?” Trace wondered.

“He’s the county circuit clerk,” Rachel supplied, as they followed Edwards out of the church.

“And the town crier. I don’t know who you have or haven’t told but once Henry knows, everybody will know.” Shaking his head in amusement, the minister was thinking out loud. “If you know what you’re up against and still want to marry this woman, you’ve got a spine, boy. My hat is off to you. Maybe there’s hope for this town yet.”

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

48

Following a nice visit with Pastor and Mrs. Edwards who offered a snack of dry-as-a-bone raisin bread that Trace had to literally choke down every bite with several gulps (requiring several refills) of tea, the detective could not wait to get to Wilbur’s Saloon for a mug of ale.

They had agreed on a small wedding to be performed on the upcoming Wednesday evening, which was only three days away. In private, Trace had to convince the amiable reverend that she had not yet had ‘relations’ with Rachel, therefore had not caused Rachel to be in a ‘family way’ and the reason for the hasty ceremony was that Rachel wanted to be married and settled before the Cranes returned from their drive and Trace wanted to get married quickly because, well, you know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Edwards bought it.

The detective had not lied and hopefully this baby would not be born early because it was going to be suspicious enough that Rachel would deliver well before nine months after Wednesday night (and she knew people always counted) and them persuading everyone that the full-term, full-size infant was really “premature.”

Walking Rachel to Ledbetter’s Dress Shop, Trace handed the wedding gown to her betrothed, wanting desperately to lean over and kiss her senseless. The blonde’s expression revealed that the feeling was mutual. They stood still on the boardwalk letting life pass them by unnoticed, until a customer emerged from the store and snapped them out of their connected daydream. Sighing, Rachel stepped back, turned and disappeared inside the shop.

Trace moved on to the goldsmith’s, where he measured her finger and promised to have the ring ready in approximately two hours. He put a rush on it, as the detective allowed him to keep the gold extracted from the band and paid him a twenty-five cent piece as a good faith tip.

She then strolled to the mercantile to find only half of her order had come in and if she wanted the rest, she would have to go to Jefferson to get it herself. Problem seemed to be that the man who drove the wagon with supplies once a week had two lame mules. The detective knew it was useless to get angry, a man certainly couldn’t do much about lame mules, other than let them heal. She debated as to how soon she would need the other half of her order and if she could wait. She decided she would rather have it all before she began the project she had in mind.

It looked like she would be taking a trip to Jefferson. She wondered if her bride would like to go with her, spend the night and then come back. The idea of Rachel being alone at the ranch all night long did not sit well with the detective. Especially with the shitstorm this marriage was going to create. The newlyweds-to-be were upping the stakes and they would have to be extra vigilant now.

Loading the merchandise carefully onto the wagon, Trace noticed a pair of dungarees and boots standing a few feet away from her. Looking up, she met the curious eyes of Isaac Tipping.

“What can I do for you, Isaac?” Trace asked, much more politely than she felt.

“Need some help loading that?”

The detective stopped and studied him. He appeared straightforward. “Sure. But don’t get cut. Those edges there will draw blood if you’re not careful.”

Nodding, the teenager cautiously picked up a coiled batch and placed it onto the back of the wagon. “What is this stuff?”

“Barbed wire.”

“What do you do with it?”

Again, Trace scrutinized the young man. Was he really asking out of curiosity or was he scouting again, doing dirty work for the Cranes? His arm had obviously mended, as he had no problem lifting and moving. Had she really changed his mind about a life of crime or did he just agree with her to pacify her? She might as well tell him, it would probably be all over town by the time they got back to the Triple Y anyway. “It’s a fence.”

“A fence?” He stopped loading and looked intently at the mass of spiky wire curled in circles and tied with strings of hemp. “Miss Rachel already has a fence on the property.”

“Yes, she does…a fence that doesn’t seem to mean diddly to a certain cattle family.”

Isaac cracked a smile. “Diddly.” He shook his head. He’d never heard that word before but he liked it. He continued loading. “So you gonna put this up to stop them?”

“Well…it sure as hell will surprise them. At the very least, slow them down.”

“Uh…Mr. Sheridan?”

“Yes?”

“I was inside when Mr. Taylor told you that only half your fence was here. I

have to go into Jefferson on Thursday to pick up a some staples and supplies for my father. If you’d like, I could pick up the rest of your fence and bring it back for you. I could even bring it out to the ranch, if you want.”

“Why would you want to do that?” Trace inquired, curiously.

He hung his head. “I did a bad thing. And I will do anything to make up for it. Now, maybe I ain’t right in the head, but I think I would rather be on your side than do anything again for them awful Cranes.” Slowly, he looked back up at the brunette. “So, if you’ll let me, I want to help you fight them.”

Even though he seemed sincere, Trace was hesitant. “That will be dangerous, Isaac. I don’t think your father would approve.”

“I’m all growed up and haired over, Mr. Sheridan, I been a man for almost a year now, even had myself a painted lady on my last birthday, did her up right nice, too” he protested, indignantly.

“That’s a little too much information, Isaac,” Trace smiled.

“I don’t need my father’s permission to do anything. I’m trying to save my father and my mama and the store. You’re the only one willing to help me do that. So, you tell me what you need done and I’ll do it.”

The detective looked him over again. He was shorter than she was, hadn’t really filled out yet but…she could work with him, get him in shape. An army gets built one person at a time. “Okay, Isaac. Tell you what…I’d appreciate it very much if you picked up my order in Jefferson. When you get back, we’ll talk about how we’re going to fight these Cranes, okay?”

“Really?” His voice cracked, causing him to curse under his breath but he recovered quickly.

“Really. Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sheridan!” Isaac said, gratefully. He thrust his hand forward and Trace shook it, almost laughing at his enthusiasm. He returned to loading the barbed wire with a fervent energy he hadn’t displayed before.

“Call me Trace, okay? I mean if we’re going to work together, you can’t be calling me Mr. Sheridan all the time.”

He nodded. “All right, Trace.”

“And Isaac?”

“Yes, Trace?”

“Have you ever been a best man before?”

**********

“Married?!” Molly Ledbetter bellowed. “Who are you marrying? That drifter ranch hand you said this was the last thing that would happen between the two of you?”

“That would be the one,” Rachel beamed.

Molly held the blonde out at arms length and looked her over from head to heels. “Rachel Frances Young…you are radiant. I do believe you have fallen in love.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I do believe I have. I have never felt like this before, not even with Tommy, and I cannot wait to marry him,” the blonde admitted, wistfully.

“When’s the wedding?”

“Wednesday evening. Pastor Edwards will be presiding.”

The middle-aged store proprietor dropped her hands by her sides. She looked skeptical, almost disappointed. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer to her next question. “That’s right quick, Rachel…any reason for that?”

“I know what you’re asking, Miz Ledbetter, and I have not had Trace Sheridan in my bed. He has been nothing if not a gentleman. We are waiting for the wedding night.”

Molly nodded, sighing, relieved. “I believe you, girl, I just had to ask. Why so soon then?”

“Just want to be all settled in as a wife before the Cranes get back.”

“You know Ben’s heart will be black with jealousy.”

“Then that is just something Ben is going to have to find peace with,” Rachel responded, unrealistically.

“That young man you’re marrying, does he have a notion as to what he’s getting himself into?”

“Yes, Ma’am, he is aware and he will be ready for it all.”

“Just think about it. You already lost one man to an untimely bullet, you don’t need to be a widow on top of it.”

Rachel followed Molly to her counter, knowing the older woman was fretting about her like her mama would have. “I deserve to be happy, Miz Ledbetter. I deserve more choices than Ben Crane or spinsterhood. Trace Sheridan is the only one to come along who isn’t afraid of them.”

“He crazy?”

“No. He’s just sure of himself.”

Molly laughed, ruefully. “Being too sure of yourself can be deadly in Crane territory. Let’s hope he won’t be joining the other ones who were too sure of themselves in the Almighty’s Kingdom.” She turned around to see the blonde pouting. “Now, Rachel, I am not trying to be downtrodden but I just don’t want to see you go through this again.”

Quietly, the blonde said, “I don’t want it to happen, either, surely I do not and with Trace, I don’t think it will. No disrespect, Miz Ledbetter, but I would like you to help fit me into something I can get married in, so could we not talk about me choosing a mourning dress before you alter my wedding dress?”

Suddenly feeling quite maternal toward the young woman, Molly pulled her into a warm hug. “You’re right. I am sorry. Here, you come to me with this wonderful news and all I can do is be discouraging. I do apologize Rachel. You are all I have left of your mama and I just want what’s best for you.” Taking the blonde’s hand, she tugged her toward a fitting room. “Now, let’s see what we can find you.”

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

49.

Finally, Trace was able to get to Wilbur’s. She was beginning to really like the place, the atmosphere being a combination of unpretentious raunch and folly. She was happy that she had been accepted into the fold, for the most part, held in rather high, if not silent, esteem for standing up to Sheriff Jackson and becoming known for her generosity with gratuities for the bartender.

There was a method to her madness on that last one. Bartenders always had their fingers on the pulse of life that circulated through their realm. Trace learned quickly that Silas was the ‘go-to’ guy in town for information and deals. The more benevolent she was with the affable barkeep, the more she could count on his feeling obligated to help her out. And, she knew, he genuinely liked her, so that helped. She also knew that he had to trust her implicitly to assist her in doing anything that would defy the great Crane empire. She smiled to herself. Yep. An army one person at a time.

Stepping through the hinged half-doors, Trace scanned the saloon for familiar faces, friendly and hostile alike, and unfamiliar individuals who might be up to no good. As she did not know who was ‘owned’ by the Cranes and who wasn’t, she had to depend on Silas and her own sixth sense to tell her when someone might have a desire to cause her some problems. It’s not that Trace didn’t expect it but she did not like to be blindsided.

Moving over to the bar and a grinning Silas Boone, who already had a full mug of ale waiting for her, Trace noticed a table full of Native Americans in the corner by the staircase. She wasn’t sure if that was unusual or not but no one in the bar seemed to pay any extra attention to the four men dressed in pullover shirts that looked to be made of deer skin, leggings bordered with (what she hoped was) horsehair and knee-high rawhide-soled moccasins. Three of the Indians wore their long jet-black hair tied back away from their noble, proud, weather-beaten faces and one, who appeared to be considerably younger than the others, let his silken dark mane flow freely. They were all watching Trace with more interest than menace and that intrigued her. Did they think she shared a partial heritage with them?

Trace slapped a couple dollars on the bar. “Silas, a drink for everyone on me. I’m getting married,” Trace announced, which caused a sudden stillness to envelope the saloon. The detective wondered if that had more to do with her impending nuptials or free booze.

“Married? You and Rachel?” The palpable silence seemed to be balancing on Trace’s response.

“Yes, Sir, and I consider myself a lucky man.” The brunette turned around to face the other bar patrons. “Anybody have a problem with that?” Her tone wasn’t so much defiance as it was clarification of who was okay with the news and who wasn’t. Trace wanted to know just what she was up against and wanted to memorize the faces of the men who did not seem agreeable to this union.

“Trace,” Matthew Reddick spoke up, shattering the tangible quiet, “as long as you keep the bug juice flowing, you can marry anyone you want.”

Sincere laughter filled the interior of Wilbur’s and as the detective studied each and every man carefully, she saw no one who appeared to outwardly object, even by expression. Nodding, somewhat triumphantly, Trace turned to face Silas. In a hushed voice, she asked, “Whatcha got for me?”

Leaning in, the bartender slanted his head toward the table of four who had caught Trace’s attention when she walked in. “I don’t know how you feel about dealing with injuns…”

“I have no problem dealing with anyone as long as they won’t cheat me.”

“These boys won’t do that. I’ve dealt with them before. Injuns are notional. They see and act on the moment. And these boys don’t want no trouble with the white man if they can help it. Treat them fairly and they’ll respect you. Do them dirty and they will get revenge one way or another. They may be peaceful now but I don’t think it would take but the weight of a pup’s turd to turn them back into savages.”

“No one likes to be taken advantage of, Silas. And I am sure they have had their fill of it. If they did get barbaric, I am sure they would have every right to do so.”

Silas shook his head. “They’re gonna like doing business with you.”

“I hope so.” She took a sip of her beer. “What do they think of the Crane’s?”

“They think the whole bunch is lower than a snake’s belly, beneath contempt.”

Trace’s grin was sly. “Oh, really?” She raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Very good to know.”

After the quartet finished their second shot of fire water, compliments of the detective, they rose from the table and left the saloon, nodding to Silas on their way out.

“Where are they going?” Trace asked, a little surprised that they had not even acknowledged her.

“Settle down there, cowboy. They just wanted to get a good look at you. Buying them whiskey was a good idea, too. It’ll make them much more willing to barter with you.” Looking into questioning blue eyes, the bartender said, “Don’t worry. Your deal is as good as set. They’ll find you.”

***********

Rachel pushed back the curtain of the dressing room and stepped out into the store and to the anticipating gaze of Molly Ledbetter. The admiring, adoring look on the older woman’s face told the blonde that the dress was perfect. In fact, she was sure she saw a tear roll down Molly’s cheek. The blonde cocked her head inquisitively. “What?”

“Oh, Rachel,” she gasped, folding her hands together, “you will be the most exquisite bride. If only your mama and daddy could be here to see you.”

“Does it really look good?” The blonde slowly spun around. Molly had pinned a lacy, satin ecru petticoat beneath the dress and strips of pale beige velvet that she would sew into the cuffs and collar. She had tried to talk Rachel into wearing a fitted bone bodice but the blonde declined. The dressmaker had persuaded the younger woman not to go with the sweetheart neckline and opted to remove just the high collar so as to leave it respectable. After all, people would be talking enough about the abrupt ceremony, Rachel did not need to give them anything more to go speculating about.

“Just a full crinoline underskirt and it should be all you need to make it befitting of the beautiful woman you have become.” She smiled warmly at the blonde standing before her. “But, Rachel, I declare you could wear a sackcloth and make it look pretty. Now you go take that off before your intended bursts through that door and sees you. That’s bad luck, you know.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I know.” Rachel looked at herself in the full-length mirror before stepping back into the dressing room to change into her underwear, camisole, shirtwaist and chemise. She was glowing and happy and in love. Just the way a bride and expectant mother should be.

“I hope this young man is worthy of you, child,” Molly commented as the blonde was gingerly removing the garment. Rachel did not want to disrupt the pinning or get poked by one of the sharp little varmints, either.

“The way this town talks and you haven’t heard anything about him?” Rachel inquired, carefully hanging the gown up.

“Oh, I’ve heard things…I just wasn’t sure whether or not I should listen to them.”

“Like what?” Rachel’s curiosity was getting the better of her.

“That he is a restless soul with a gambler’s appetite for trouble. It scares me a little, Rachel, because you really don’t know anything about him.”

“I know he would hammer down the gates of hell for me. I know he will love me and protect me and do his best to keep the Cranes away from my…our land.”

“That’s another thing. He marries you and inherits your entire dowry. You sure that’s not all he’s after?”

“I couldn’t be more positive.” Rachel emerged from the dressing room and handed the garment to Molly. “Are you sure that’s not expecting too much work from you to have that done by Wednesday?”

“Child, I will make the time to finish this. Why, you’re like my own flesh and blood getting married. I am invited to the wedding, aren’t I?”

Shyly, the blonde clasped her hands in front of her and swung slightly back and forth. “I need a witness, Miz Ledbetter, would you be my matron of honor?”

Molly stopped dead in her tracks. “You don’t want an old thing like me to stand up for you, girl, I’m sure Elizabeth Reddick would be pleased to do it.”

“But I don’t want Elizabeth, I want you.”

Tears stung the eyes of Molly Ledbetter for the second time that afternoon. She reached out, taking Rachel’s hands in her own. In a quiet, reverent voice, she said, “I would be honored to stand up for you.”

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

By the time Trace came to pick up Rachel, she had won three dollars in stud poker, arranged a ‘bachelor’ party Tuesday night at Wilbur’s, had bought a couple more rounds of drinks, picked up the wedding band at the goldsmith’s and met with the Native American men in the alley next to the livery.

Through them, she could purchase a herd of cattle. They were the only available resource that wasn’t controlled by the Cranes. She could get fifteen prime cows and steers for fifty dollars a head. Although she could afford the full $750, that would deplete her finances, so instead she gave them one hundred ninety dollars in cash, the rest to be handed over when the cattle arrived and bartered the rest of the cost.

The Indians would be allowed to hunt on the Young property and have access to wood from the dense forest. Trace also promised them a quarter of the yield from the corn field she intended to plant next week. The land the tribe inhabited was mostly dirt and rock and not good for growing much of anything. The solemn foursome considered this a good deal. They shook hands on it and Trace walked away hoping if she ever needed them as warriors and allies, they would be there for her. If they despised the Cranes as much as most of the town did, their skills would come in very handy indeed if the rebellion she could see slowly growing became a reality.

Passing a customer exiting the shop, the detective walked into Molly’s to collect her fiancée and was not surprised to find Rachel and the kindly proprietor sitting down, having tea. Trace’s heart swelled at the absolute adoring and enamored expression on Rachel’s face when the blonde spotted her. Jumping up, her bride-to-be flew into her arms and hugged her fiercely, then led her back to the small table where she had been seated.

“Molly, I would like you to meet the man I am going to marry, Trace Sheridan. Trace, Molly Ledbetter, my mama’s best friend in the whole wide world.”

As they shook hands, Molly no longer had any questions about whether or not these two young people loved each other. They could have heated the whole store with their obvious affection. Neither could keep their eyes off each other and the middle-aged shopkeeper suddenly longed for the days when she and Harvey had shared that rapturous feeling.

“Why, my goodness, you are a handsome devil, aren’t you?” Molly remarked, scrutinizing every inch of Trace’s face. There was an animal strength about this young man, she thought, yet an almost feline grace in the way he moved. She stood up, her full height coming up to Trace’s shoulder. “Just promise me one thing…”

“What’s that?”

“That little gal in your arms is very special to me. She’s had a lot of awful things happen to her the past year or so. Don’t you become one of them.”

“No, Ma’am, I do not intend to.” Her gaze was steady, unrepentant. “I will promise you right here, right now that I will die before I let anything bad happen to her again. And I don’t have any plans to die any time soon.” She gave Rachel’s shoulder an extra squeeze.

“Amen,” the blonde responded.

Molly Ledbetter’s eyes softened. “You have my blessing. Not that you asked for it or need it but I do approve. And, Rachel, I think your mama and daddy would have, too. Looks like you got yourself one hell of a stallion here.”

Blushing, as images of just exactly what that meant filtered through her brain, Rachel smiled, coyly. “Me, too.” She looked up into Trace’s eyes. “Guess I’ll be finding out soon enough.”

Now it was Trace’s turn to be embarrassed. She had no doubt she could make good on the description but it was a tad uncomfortable mulling it over in the presence of a woman old enough to be her mother. Clearing her throat, the brunette said, “We need to get going before – what’s his name, Henry – before he goes home for the day.”

“Oh, that’s right, you have to register with Henry,” Molly shook her head. “Hope you weren’t expecting to keep this quiet. That weasely garter-sleeved clerk just has to put his eagle-beaked nose into everybody’s business. He is just damned unpleasant. Why, he is so ugly, he’ll hurt your feelings just to look at him.”

“Miz Lebetter, that’s not very nice,” Rachel told her and then mildly slapped Trace in the arm for laughing. “Henry can’t help his looks, he has to make do with what the good Lord gave him.”

“Well, the good Lord must’ve had it out for that boy because his personality matches his face and there just ain’t no quit in ugly.” Molly picked up the tea cups from the table and put them on the counter. “You two get going, get your registering done. Don’t hold that hedgehog up or you’ll never hear the end of it.”

Rachel left Trace’s side long enough to embrace her mother’s best friend. “Thank you, Miz Ledbetter. I’ll be back Tuesday night for the dress.”

“Now don’t you worry, girl, that dress will be perfect. Just like you are.”

“How much do you think you will want for your services so I will know what I need to bring with me?”

“The only thing I want from you, Rachel, is to give me some babies to spoil.”

The detective and the blonde exchanged a knowing glance. “We’ll start working on that Wednesday night.”

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

50

It had almost been a perfect day. Almost. As Trace settled Rachel on the wagon seat, she was approached by Sheriff Ed Jackson and Mayor Jed Turner. Jackson looked smug. His Honor looked uneasy. They stopped a few feet in front of the detective.

“Well, well, well, I hear congratulations are in order,” Jackson said, his tone conveying that the last thing he felt was benevolence.

“If you are referring to my upcoming marriage, then yes,” Trace responded, not friendly at all. After the trouble Jackson had already caused, she didn’t feel the need to be ‘right neighborly’ toward him. She nodded to Turner. “Afternoon, Mayor.”

“Trace,” Jed acknowledged, looking as though he wished he were anywhere but there.

“Actually, I was more referrin’ to knowin’ that you’ll be in my jail before you have a chance to walk down that aisle.”

Handing the reins to Rachel, Trace turned and nonchalantly leaned against the wagon, studying the sheriff. “And why would that be?”

“Trace,” Mayor Turner spoke up, clearing his throat uncomfortably, “Ed here got a telegram from Cottonwood. Said there’s a five thousand dollar price on your head.”

“What?!” Rachel looked at Trace, stunned.

Trace shook her head calmly at her bride-to-be, putting her hand up to stop any further frantic reaction. “He’s lying.”

Jackson sneered. “Is that so?”

“Yeah, that’s so,” Trace shot back, trying to keep her cool. She wanted to tell this bastard that if there even was a Cottonwood, she wasn’t from there, had never been there, so there was no way there could be a bounty on her. “I’d like to see this telegram.”

“You don’t need to see it. Who do you think you are challenging me? I’m the law around here, son, and if I say it’s so then it’s so and you just need to take my word for it!” Jackson yelled, thinking the elevation in his voice would emphasize his authority.

The detective burst out laughing, riling the sheriff to the point of veins bulging in his neck. “You can’t be serious. Take your word for it? Does anyone actually fall for that?”

“Damn you, Sheridan, I’m the sheriff and if I say it’s so, then it’s so!!”

“Mayor? Have you seen this alleged telegram?” The detective focused on Jed.

“Well, no, Ed just came and got me and told me about it and said we needed to go arrest you before you left town.”

Trace beckoned the mayor over to the side, out of hearing range from Jackson, who appeared to be close to hyperventilating, and addressed Turner in a hushed voice. “Mayor, you know the sheriff has it out for me. You know the sheriff is stuck up the Cranes’ asses and is pissing his pants to think that Ben is going to come back to town and find Rachel married and he couldn’t do anything to stop it. There is no telegram, there is no price on my head and I give you my word that I will not leave town. When that moron produces a legitimate telegram from -” she had to think up a name, quickly. Looking up she saw the silver gilted spheres of the pawn shop, “Marshal Silvers saying that there is, then and only then will I surrender to that piece of crap wearing a badge.”

Nodding, Jed turned to Jackson. “Ed?”

“Yeah?”

“Who sent you that telegram from Cottonwood?”

“What?” This question obviously surprised him, if the tone of his voice was any indication.

“You hard of hearin’? I said, who sent you that telegram? What’s the damned sheriff’s name?”

Too much hesitancy confirmed the mayor’s suspicion, cleared Trace and infuriated the devious and caught sheriff. “Uh…” Jackson had obviously not expected to be questioned as, usually, no one wanted to deal with the wrath of the Cranes and whoever Ed was picking on always suffered the consequences of his coercion.

“Thank you,” Trace smiled, triumphantly, hauling herself up to the seat beside her intended. “You boys have a nice day.” With that, she snapped the reins and Moses slowly started clomping forward. Rachel proudly linked her arm with her fiancée’s and smiled sweetly at both men.

They weren’t even a wagon’s length away when they heard the mayor turn on the sheriff. “Why, you horse’s ass! What thee hell ails you? Maybe you want to make a blasted idjit out of yerself in front of that Sheridan feller but I sure as hell do not!”

“B-but Jed…you know what will happen when Jacob and his boys come back and Rachel is married…I’m trying to do that boy a favor!”

“You’re trying to save your own crooked hide, you imbecile! Next time, don’t bother me, ‘less you got proof! I am fed up to here with your horseshit!”

***********

“Trace? I know how you knew that Ed was lying because you would obviously know if there was or wasn’t a bounty out for you…but how did you know how to trap Ed like that?” They were well beyond the outskirts of the main street.

“Because he thinks he is smarter than everyone else and those he isn’t smarter than are intimidated by his connection to the Cranes.”

“You do know that he will probably show up at the wedding and object.”

“On what grounds?”

“He won’t need any. He’s Ed Jackson.”

“Oh? Well, we’ll just see about that.”

Wondering what Trace had up her sleeve, Rachel decided not to question it. The detective had not steered her wrong yet and the blonde fully believed that Trace would not let anything disrupt their special day. Leaning her head against Trace’s shoulder, Rachel closed her eyes, dreaming about Wednesday night.

“Rach?”

“Uh huh?”

“I asked Isaac Tipping to be my best man.”

Opening her eyes, Rachel looked over at the brunette. “Really?”

“Well…I don’t really know anyone that well and Isaac seems to be a good kid. Plus, he wants to help around the ranch a little bit.”

“Doing what?”

Trace chewed on her lip. Why was it she had no problem going toe-to-toe with the sheriff yet the thought of the petite blonde being upset with her caused her to pause. “Helping me fix up the fence…” she said, almost demurely.

“I thought the fence was all fixed.”

“It is…we’re going to reinforce it.” Off Rachel’s confused expression, Trace explained, “I bought barbed wire.”

“Barbed wire? Wh -?”

“Half of the order is in the back,” Trace said, as Rachel turned around to look, “and Isaac is going to pick up the other half on Thursday then help me put it up.”

Rachel looked at the detective, her expression more inquisitive than suspicious. “When did you decide this?”

“A little over two weeks ago. Rachel, the land needs protection and we can’t be everywhere at once. With barbed wire wrapped around the fence, no one will just be able to crash through, not without causing damage to their herd or their horses. And if they want to physically knock it down then that will make them extra work and a project they will not be able to complete without me noticing.”

“You thought a lot about this.” Again, it was a statement of acknowledgement instead of a question.

“Yes. If we are going to take a stand, we need to start now, before the Cranes get back. I want everyone to know we mean business. And Rachel…I think I can turn people in this town around, I really do.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…it sounds like everybody is damned tired of being run by the Cranes. I think all they need is a little incentive to make it stop.”

“And you think you can be that incentive?”

She looked at her bride-to-be and smiled, reassuringly, at her. “I know I can.”

Rachel wanted to believe that was true but since Trace had not even dealt with the Cranes yet, the blonde felt she had a reason to be afraid and skeptical. Time would definitely tell.

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

51

The next day was Tuesday and both women had a full day ahead of them. The morning began with a kiss, a loving embrace and a big breakfast. Rachel could not contain her building excitement at her approaching wedding day. So much to be done, so little time to do it in.

The first order of business, which Trace impatiently indulged the blonde by doing, was to fit the detective into Frank Young’s wedding trousers. The brunette stood there, fidgeting, while Rachel pinned the black cotton slacks with a satin pinstripe running the length of the outer seams at the waist and an inch at each inseam. Once Trace stepped out of them, she could get to her daily chores and then start on that fence before returning to the house, taking a shower and going into town for her ‘bachelor’ party.

At approximately noon, Trace came back to the house to announce to Rachel that they were the proud grandparents of five little baby bunnies. The blonde could not help but smile at the big, tough detective’s soft heart when it came to the rabbits and it prompted her not to reiterate, at this time, that Trace should not get too attached to the tiny critters for, at some point, they would be on her plate.

The detective also arrived just in time to try on the pants that had been taken in. They weren’t perfect but they fit well enough to compliment the tall stance of the brunette. Thanking Rachel with a kiss that neither wanted to end, Trace then hitched up Moses, loaded tools onto the back of the wagon and headed out to the area of the property that seemed to be the hardest hit by the cattle drive.

Carefully, she began to affix the barbed wire to the wooden rails in a manner that immediately looked ominous and threatening. Trace had completed about fifty feet of fence when she heard the unmistakable sound of hoofbeats closing in. Turning, she smiled, recognizing Isaac Tipping as the boy rode up and dismounted a big, gorgeous palomino stallion, strong and well-muscled.

“Hey, Trace,” Isaac greeted.

“Hey, yourself, Isaac.”

Admiring the detective’s handiwork, the teenager grinned. “So this is how you do it, huh?”

“Yep.” Trace sighed, glad to be able to take a break. “When you come back and bring me the rest of my order, I’ll put you to work. But you’ll need some good strong gloves and tools like these,” the detective indicated the implements by her feet.

“I can get them from the store. Trace?”

“Yes?”

“I’m invited to your gatherin’ tonight at Wilbur’s, ain’t I? I mean, bein’ you best man and all.”

“You allowed to be in Wilbur’s?”

“Hell, yeah,” he stated, indignantly.

“Then I would be proud to have you there, best man,” the detective smiled. Looking up at the position of the sun, Trace decided she might as well be done for the day and loaded everything back onto the wagon. “Isaac…I have a favor to ask of you.”

“Anythin’, Trace, you just name it.”

“Well…don’t be so quick to agree because it will involve you not going to my party.”

The teenager’s shoulder’s sagged a little. “What is it?”

“Matthew is going to bring Mrs. Reddick by here this evening to keep Rachel company while we’re in town. Now, you know the sheriff doesn’t like me and I don’t trust him and, since he is not invited to the celebration tonight, I want to make sure he doesn’t come poking around here, bothering the ladies. Now…when I go to town I will have a five gallon can of eggnog spiked with two quarts of whiskey. If you meet me by the gate, I’ll make sure you have some of that if you find a place to keep yourself hidden and keep an eye on the women.”

“Okay…what do you want me to do, just watch the house?”

“Yes. And, if Ed Jackson, or anyone you recognize to be representing the Crane clan comes anywhere near the house, I want you to ride into town as fast as you can and get me. Think you could do that for me?”

He shrugged. Eggnog and whiskey? That beat the flat ale he knew Silas would serve him any day. So what if he might not see Cassandra do a harlot dance for Trace, there would be other opportunities for that, he was sure. What Trace was asking of him was a very grown-up responsibility and he suddenly felt very honored and proud that Trace would trust him to do this. It would give him the chance to start proving himself to the cowboy. His chest suddenly puffed out. “Yup. I could do that for ya.”

“Great, thanks, I appreciate it.”

They agreed on a time, shook on it and Trace climbed on the wagon, heading back to the house.

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

Before Trace took her shower, Rachel insisted on ‘trimming up’ her hair. The detective was initially apprehensive about this but then she knew the blonde could not do a worse job than Mark had done. However, she relaxed, when Rachel stood in front of her, concentrating on the top of her head and had to stand between the detective’s open legs for proper access.

The part of Trace’s hound-dog nature that controlled her libido from her past, reared its head as the detective’s face was eye level with Rachel’s breasts. Thankfully, the blonde could not see the lascivious grin the brunette displayed as she gazed longingly, just imagining what she would do to them. Just one more day, Trace, she kept telling herself, just one more day…

After a cold shower, something she was getting used to – her next invention would be to figure out how to heat the water – she dried off and dressed in brown denim trousers and a beige button-down shirt with dark brown stripes. Brushing her hair, she decided she liked the trim Rachel had given her, still longish and shaggy but not unkempt. She had gotten used to herself with shorter hair, just like she had started to get used to her body hair growing wild. After all, she was pretending to be a man and men did not shave legs and underarms. She had to admit it was a little awkward at first, especially wearing sleeveless shirts but it certainly helped with the illusion. Although, tomorrow, she would be clean-shaven, smooth for her bride, for her wedding night. Just thinking about that made Trace give herself another splash of cold water.

While Trace had been showering and dressing, Rachel had been preparing the eggnog/whiskey concoction which would be the detective’s contribution to the gathering at Wilbur’s. Since Silas couldn’t close the saloon and Trace didn’t want to be paying for drinks for cowboys who weren’t a part of the celebration, they agreed on the spiked beverage as a compromise. If the small group of men wanted anything else, they could buy it themselves. It was the best they could do with an event planned on such short notice.

Descending from the loft, the detective approached her bride-to-be, whose eyes roved over Trace more than appreciatively. “My…don’t you look…just good enough to eat,” Rachel breathed.

Stopping, looking skyward, Trace chuckled. “You have got to stop saying stuff like that…” She stepped closer to Rachel and took her in her arms.

“Why? You want me to admire you, don’t you?”

“Oh, absolutely…it’s just…you don’t realize the meaning of your words sometimes…”

Rachel cocked her head. “My meaning or how you interpret them?”

Good point, Trace thought, although she knew the blonde would not comprehend the vulgarity of the brunette’s interpretation and she was not about to introduce her to that aspect of her personality…at least not yet. She preferred Rachel in her pristine state of mind. The idea of the blonde knowing what she did about the vile side of human nature was enough and for her to still maintain her inviolate outlook after everything that had happened to her showed Trace just what kind of woman she was dealing with and one she did not want to change. She enveloped the blonde in her arms, lovingly, and kissed her forehead, then her cheek, then her lips, lingering there, not pressing for anything more intense.

Breaking the kiss, Trace smiled at Rachel, who kept her lips pursed, eyes closed and face angled up waiting, expecting another kiss. When Trace obliged with only a peck, the blonde blinked at her. “That’s it?”

“For now. Elizabeth and Matthew are due here any minute and I’m not about to start something I can’t finish.”

“Big talker,” Rachel teased. “You better be able to back those words up tomorrow night…”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, Miz Rachel,” Trace countered with a knowing smirk, making the blonde shiver. “I don’t think you’ll have any complaints.”

“Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

Shrugging, the detective released the blonde and shoved her hands into her pockets, rocking back and forth from her heels to the balls of her feet. “Guess you’ll just have to wait and see…”

The sound of a creaking wagon and the jingling of reins pulling up to the house interrupted their conversation. Reluctantly taking her eyes off the detective, Rachel stepped out onto the porch to greet the Reddicks.

Matthew Reddick, a strapping young man in his late twenties, entered the house and saw Trace lift the can of whiskey-laced eggnog. “Here, let me help you with that.”

“No, I’ve got it, just make sure my way is clear to the back of the wagon.” And with that, they flew by the two women who backed away from the door to let them through.

“Oh, my…” Elizabeth mused, watching Trace. “Got yourself a strong one, don’t you? And good looking, too…”

Rachel smiled at the compliment, the adoration on her face and in her body language more than apparent. “Yes, I think I got mighty lucky.”

The women walked inside the house while Trace and Matthew situated the can on the wagon. “Sure you want to do this, Trace?” Matthew asked.

“Do what? Go to town and have a good time?”

“No, get married,” Matthew grinned. “Your life won’t ever be the same.”

Looking toward the doorway, Trace sighed, “I hope that’s true, Matthew, I hope that’s true.”

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

52

Matthew was surprised to meet up with Isaac Tipping as they were leaving the Triple Y property line. Trace filled the boy’s pint flask, like she promised she would and then they parted ways.

“How come Isaac won’t be at your stag session?” Matthew wondered.

“He’s doing me a little favor.”

“Keeping an eye on the house for you?”

“Yep.”

“I thought of suggesting that myself but I was hoping it was just me being spooked.”

“Ed Jackson is a coward, Matt. And right now he is desperate. I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

“You think it’s wise to leave the ladies? I mean, we could bring them into town and take them to visit with Mrs. Ledbetter…” Matthew suggested.

“We could…but then, that opens a different can of worms. Jackson is a snake but I don’t think he would burn the house, barn or stable down with Rachel and Elizabeth there. He doesn’t want to kill Rachel, he just wants to save her for Ben Crane. But I don’t think he would have any qualms about torching the place while no one is there.”

“What do you think he’ll do if he finds Rachel and my wife there?”

“You’ve been dealing with him a lot longer than I have, what do you think he’ll do?” Trace wondered.

“Just try to scare them, threaten Rachel, try to warn her off getting married.”

“Yes, that’s what I think. And Rachel can handle that, Jackson doesn’t intimidate her anymore,” Trace stated.

“So, what do you think Isaac can do?”

“He’s got a fast horse. He can get to town and get us.”

Reddick nodded. “You sure you aren’t biting off more than you can chew here, Trace? I mean, Ed Jackson’s one thing. The Cranes are entirely another.”

Looking over at the man seated next to her, Trace said, “You want your town back, Matt? Your freedom? The chance to live your own life and raise your kids not to be afraid?”

“That’s a nice dream, Trace…but it’s just that – a dream. You don’t know what it’s like. But you will. And, unfortunately, by marrying the one and only woman Ben Crane really wants, you’ll see it a lot clearer than any of the rest of us.”

Nodding, acknowledging Matthew’s words, Trace sighed. “I think I can turn things around, Matt. But I can’t do it alone.”

Absorbing that, Matthew cocked his head. “Not that I think you have an ice block’s chance in hell but I’d be interested to hear how you think you can do that. And no one’s ever called me Matt before.” He locked looked over and Trace and grinned. “I like it.”

**********

“You have got the whole town talking, Rachel,” Elizabeth told the blonde as they sat out on the porch with cups of tea. “This mysterious drifter comes to town, shakes everything up, makes Ed Jackson face every day like he’s got a bee in his bonnet and then claims you as his bride? What’s going on?”

“I love him, Elizabeth. I think I fell in love with him the moment I laid eyes on him, I just didn’t know it,” Rachel gushed. “He’s strong and loving and protective and fearless, everything a…” she stopped and thought about her words. “Everything a spouse should be.”

“It’s that fearless part that concerns me and it should full well concern you, too.” It sounded as though she were reprimanding the blonde. The her tone softened. “But I can certainly see why you fell for him.”

**********

The sun had set maybe two hours earlier and there was a chill in the air that was unusual for that time of year. Pulling his collar up around his neck, Isaac was debating dismounting and sitting down by one of the bigger trees to shield himself from the strong breeze that had just come up. He had positioned himself two rows of trees thick in the forest on the north side of the house. He could see the porch from his viewpoint and was pretty sure no one from the house had seen him or could see him now. The teenager was three-quarters through the contents of his flask and feeling cocky and unconquerable when he heard a voice behind him.

“Whatcha doin’ here, Isaac? Gettin’ an eyeful or planning on gettin’ a piece of that pretty little blonde before she gets taken?”

Reining his horse around, the boy’s eyes narrowed when he saw the sheriff. “Don’t talk about Miss Rachel like that.”

“Funny…just a few weeks ago, you were thinking about her like that,” Jackson reminded him.

“No, I was just goin’ along with you because you threatened my father’s store.”

“Well, just remember, son, I can still put your father out of business. Now..why don’t you run along back into town and let me do what I have to do. You’re missing the festivities. After all, aren’t you the best man? How you ever got yourself mixed up in that, I will never know. There’s still time to get smart, boy. Now get out of here.”

“No.” Isaac sat tall in his saddle. “Leave Miss Rachel and Miz Reddick be, Sheriff.”

Jackson was startled by his defiance and then he laughed. “And just what do you think a scrawny little thing like you is gonna do to stop me?”

“Ride to town and get Trace and Mr. Reddick.”

Jackson considered this. “You know, I could shoot you right here, boy, and no one’d be the wiser.”

“You could. But you won’t.”

The sheriff unholstered his six shooter and pointed it at the teenager. “And what makes you think I won’t?”

Holding his head high, the teenager feigned composure he did not really have. He pressed on, not wanting Jackson to see his fear. “Because you’re afraid of Trace Sheridan and you know he’d kill you in your sleep if anythin’ happens to Miss Rachel.”

“Why, you little snot-faced…!” He sputtered, angrily. “I ain’t afraid of nobody, ‘specially not that half-breed lookin’ cowboy. All I’d have to say is that I caught you out here gettin’ ready to do somethin’ to Rachel and I had to shoot you to stop you.”

“Nobody would believe you, Sheriff,” Isaac continued, not sure at this point if it was courage or idiocy propelling him forward. “Miz Reddick is in there with Miss Rachel and Mr. Reddick was with Trace when they left and Mr. Reddick knows I’m here and why and it ain’t to give either of them ladies trouble. But they was expectin’ you would. I ain’t tryin’ to show you disrespect, Sheriff, but I was asked to make sure you or nobody else went anywhere near them ladies and that’s just what I aim to do.”

Locking stares, Jackson shook his head and reholstered his gun. “You just bought yourself a whole heap a trouble, boy, you know that, don’t ya?”

“I ‘spect so, Sheriff.” And trouble for his father, too, he was sure. But he did not back down. He believed what Trace promised him about not letting the Cranes take his father’s store. “It’s up to you, ‘course, but if I was you, I’d ride outta here and save yourself a heap a trouble.”

“Well, you ain’t me, now are ya, boy?” Jackson spit out.

Amen to that, Isaac thought. “No, sir. Just sayin’ s’all.”

Gritting his teeth, Jackson glared at the teenager, ugly distaste showing in his eyes. “You’ll regret this, boy,” the sheriff uttered through clenched teeth.

“Yes, sir.” The teenager knew there was probably truth to that, as he swallowed hard. No one was more surprised than young Isaac Tipping when Ed Jackson turned his horse around and rode away.

It was only after he could no longer hear the horse’s hooves trotting over dried twigs that he let out his breath in a sigh of relief. It was then he realized that his saddle was wet.

***********

53

The party at Wilbur’s was winding down. All of Trace’s new friends had been in attendance – Jed and Joseph Turner, Caleb Tipping, Luther Foster, the goldsmith, the banker, the usual men who played cards with Matthew every time Trace was there and even two of the Indians she was doing business with stopped in for a couple shots of whiskey. Trace was surprised but actually pleased when the four old gentlemen who sat in front of the barbershop dropped by and they didn’t turn out to be bad company at all.

As the evening wore on, more and more men joined the festivities, deciding they liked this Trace person very much and seemed sincerely happy that Miss Rachel had found someone who seemed honest and would be good to her. When the subject finally got around to the contemptible things Ben Crane had said about the bride-to-be, everyone discreetly admitted they did not believe it and had never believed it.

Everybody only had kind things to say about Rachel and the more the group imbibed, the more the conversation leaned toward grumbling about the Crane reign and how it individually affected them all, not just as business owners but as citizens of Sagebrush, as well. Normally, the fact that John Carver and his son, Seth, were drinking at the bar, listening to every word, would have put a damper on any grousing out loud but, for some reason, Trace’s presence was empowering and seemed to make everyone just a bit bolder. The Carvers were not there to listen in as much as they were there to keep an eye on Trace while they knew the sheriff was making a little visit to the Triple Y. The two men allowed the celebration to continue without incident as they were quite sure there would be no wedding the following night.

The highlight of the evening turned out to be Cassandra’s very seductive dance, ending it by plunking herself down abruptly Trace’s lap. This delighted the mayor, who was willing to buy Trace an hour with the prostitute as a wedding gift. If Jed hadn’t offered, Cassandra would have given Trace one on the house anyway. The detective respectfully declined and found herself very uncomfortable with the redhead’s constant attempts to cuddle her. She must be in love if she wasn’t even taking advantage of the invitation to cop a feel whenever she wanted.

All too soon for some (but not soon enough for Trace), the party was over and Silas was amiably kicking everyone out. All of the attendees promised that they would, indeed, be present at the chapel to witness the marriage of Trace Sheridan and Rachel Young, which pleased Trace because she knew it would be a nice surprise for her bride.

Singing ‘Buffalo Gals’, loud and off key, Trace and Matthew shushed each other as Isaac Tipping rode up to them. He had heard them long before they reached the entrance to the property. They weren’t really drunk…but neither were they sober.

“Hey, Isaac,” Trace grinned. “Quiet night?”

“Well, the sheriff did come by just as you ‘spected he would.”

“What! Why didn’t you come and get us?”

The teenager took a deep breath, his damp saddle and britches now starting to chafe. “I told him to leave.”

“And he left?” Matthew blinked, shocked.

“Well, not right away. But I told him that you wouldn’t take kindly to anything happenin’ to Miss Rachel, Miz Reddick or me and he saw my way and rode out.”

Trace was impressed. “Why, thank you, Isaac. Obviously, I picked the right man for the job. You are the best man.”

Grinning proudly at the compliment, Isaac could feel his chest expand. “Thank you, Trace.”

“No, thank you, Isaac.” The brunette smiled then started sniffing the air as she was sure she detected the distinct odor of urine and wet leather. “What’s that smell?”

“Well, I gotta get goin’,” the teenager said, quickly. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the church, okay, Trace?”

“Sure. Thanks again, Isaac, I appreciate it.”

“Me, too,” Matthew shouted at the retreating Palomino.

They looked at each other, shrugged and continued to the house, resuming their horrendous rendition of ‘Buffalo Gals.’

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

54

“Ooooh, my head,” Trace wailed, from the sofa. She had never made it to the loft and Rachel was so annoyed that she didn’t even try to assist her. The detective awoke fully dressed, including her boots. “Oh, God, oh, shit,” the detective moaned, her head hammering, stomach lurching and the room spinning. Trace remembered that sometimes it helped with ‘the whirlies’ if she put one foot on the floor. First, she had to find the floor…

“Trace, your language…” Rachel reminded.

“I think I’m going to be really sick,” the detective whined, face first into the cushion.

“Then you better get yourself outside to throw up.”

“I can’t move, my head hurts too bad.”

“And whose fault is that?” Rachel was not amused.

“Oh, God, God, please, if you get me through this, I’ll never drink again, I swear…”

“That’s a hangover talking.” Rachel shook her head. “Funny how you’re calling for the Lord now…”

“Rachel, don’t you have anything to get me through this?” Trace still didn’t dare to move.

“I am making you some cabbage soup.” The blonde heard the detective make a noise that closely resembled gagging. “It will work.” And then she looked pointedly at the brunette prone on her sofa and said, “It better work.”

**********

Two hours later, the detective’s head had stopped pounding and ginger tea was starting to soothe her nausea. Puking a few times into the bushes hadn’t hurt, either. And Rachel’s comment of “I’ve seen more life in a corpse,” was said with a little more sting than it should have had. The last thing she wanted was the blonde to be mad at her, especially not with what was at stake following the wedding.

If Trace hadn’t looked so pathetic, Rachel might have been able to stay perturbed with her but now that the brunette was beginning to become human again, all the blonde wanted was for the detective to feel better so that their special day would go as smoothly as possible.

**********

Taking her shower, Trace angled the straight razor carefully, running the freshly sharpened blade over her underarms and legs, fortunately only acquiring a few minor nicks. She had never used such an archaic implement as the ivory-handled razor before and respected it immensely, knowing the edge could probably cut a limb off if need be. Oh, how she longed for the gels of the modern world, which softened and moisturized the skin and made shaving a much more tolerable event. However, the matching ivory shaving cup and brush with badger bristles that belonged to Rachel’s father, came in handy as she was able to work up a decent lather with the borax soap. The water had been warmed by the sun, which made it a bit more enjoyable and a little easier to remove all the body hair she had accumulated by not having to shave over goosebumps.

Rachel had already been picked up by Matthew and Elizabeth Reddick, who had taken her to Molly Ledbetter’s, where she would bathe, address any last minute alteration issues and then get dressed for the wedding. Trace had another half hour before she had to saddle up Chief and head to town. It was her fondest wish to ride in on Rio but the mustang just wasn’t ready for his public debut yet.

After binding herself down, the detective put on white button-down shirt that Rachel had boiled clean the day before, her wedding slacks, a grey satin vest and a string tie. Her swallowtail coat with satin lapels that matched her trousers was waiting at the church. Rachel had brought it in on the wagon with her so it would not get all wrinkled. She asked Trace to wear different clothes in and change at the chapel but the detective did not want to take the chance of anyone seeing her undressed.

Taking one last look around the cabin, Trace closed the door behind her knowing that when she returned, she would carry the love of her life over the threshold and they would start a new journey together, beginning it with a much anticipated consummation. At that thought, a rush of heat captured her body and then left as quickly as it had come. Shaking the sensation out of her system, Trace walked down the steps and to Chief, who she had saddled up prior to her shower.

“You have a good wedding. Do not worry about here.”

Trace turned to smile at Little Hawk, one of the four Indians who were going to deliver cattle to the ranch. “Thank you. I am grateful to you and Black Feather for watching over the house while we are in town. I will make sure you will not go unrewarded for this.”

“You standing against Crane is reward enough.” Little Hawk was anything but little. He was burly and barrel-chested and almost as tall as Trace. He had weathered skin and a wrinkled face but he had kind eyes. Trace had not asked the two warriors to come and guard the house. They decided on their own that it would be done. Trace could not have left the homestead in more capable hands.

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

At Five o’clock, Trace took her place at the alter, with Isaac standing next to her, dressed in his Sunday best. The small church was packed with faces of men Trace had mingled with at her party and women she had never seen before and assumed they must be ‘the wives.’

The detective was not accustomed to feeling anxious. She wasn’t scared of getting married to Rachel or regretting her decision in any way, yet she was suddenly cold and her insides were shaking. She drew in several deep breaths to steady her nerves.

“Stop fidgeting.” The firm yet melodic voice of Pastor Edwards snapped Trace out of it and, as the organ music pealed forth Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, startling Trace and Isaac nearly out of their respective skins, she suddenly stood very straight and tall, accepting and acknowledging the full responsibility of this moment.

Everyone turned and looked toward the entranceway as Molly Ledbetter, attired in a dusty rose-colored velvet dress proceeded down the aisle, beaming as though it were her own wedding. When she reached the chancel rail directly in front of the altar, she winked at Trace, who smiled in reflex.

Then Rachel stood in the doorway and began her walk down the aisle. Trace’s heart stopped at the sight of the gorgeous women floating toward her, radiantly beautiful in her mother’s wedding gown, altered just enough to personalize it as Rachel’s. Her hair was braided and held back by sapphire-studded silver combs and she carried a shower bouquet of white asters.

Reaching the altar, Rachel handed her flowers to Molly and Trace took a step forward, standing next to this stunning apparition who, within a matter of minutes was to be her wife. Even though they faced Reverend Edwards, neither woman could take their eyes off each other. When Trace mouthed the words, “I love you,” Rachel was sure she was going to pass out from sheer euphoria.

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

Hearing the organ music was the cue for Ed Jackson and the Carvers to enter the church. Their plan was to stand in the back and wait for the preacher to ask if anyone had reason to object to the union and they would all object…for different made up reasons. And being that Pastor Edwards was never one to cross the sheriff, the marriage ceremony would not be completed.

So, it was with great surprise when Jackson and his sidekicks ascended the steps of the church, their entry was blocked by two fully armed members of the neighboring Indian tribe. The were carrying Remington rifles, Bowie knives, a bow slung across their backs and a full quiver of arrows. The looked like they meant business and they were foolishly brushed by.

“Out of my way, Injun, we got business in the church.” It was John Carver who spoke. Then he made the mistake of trying to push the Native American out of his way. The next thing he remembered he was flat on his back, five feet away from the doorway.

“Big mistake, son,” Jackson told the young warrior.

“I am not your son. You have no business here,” the young man responded.

“I’ll throw you in jail, savage!” Jackson yelled at him.

“White man’s laws do not mean me. You lock me up, you answer to my father.”

Jackson and the Carvers blanched. Could this young warrior blocking their way indeed be the son of Moving Elk, one of the best known and bravest warriors in the plains nations? It had been rumored that he migrated his tribe to a stretch of land a couple miles from Sagebrush. Yes, things may be friendly now but there were horror stories about how the tribal chief had single-handedly cut down platoons of cavalries who dared to attack his family. Did they want to take that chance? John Carver decided for them by getting back up, dusting himself off and keeping his distance. Extremely peeved, he crooked his finger at Jackson.

“Now what, Ed?” Carver glared at the sheriff. “This cowboy isn’t turning out to be quite the little pantywaist you thought he’d be. Jacob is not going to be happy with you.”

Standing in the middle of the street, stewing, Jackson said, “Maybe it’s time we paid a little visit to the Triple Y…if everybody’s here, no one will be out there.”

With that, the three men ran in the direction of the sheriff’s office to find their horses. The two warriors just smiled.

***********

Immediately after the ceremony, where for the first time in the history of Sagebrush, people actually cheered when Pastor Edwards said,’I now pronounce you man and wife,’ the invited guests assembled at the home of the minister, where a sumptuous wedding supper was served. The house was very attractively decorated in green and white festoons, tastefully arranged with ferns and asters.

While everyone ate and drank and had a merry time, all the bride and groom could think of was how soon would be an appropriate time to leave. After the dinner, Trace and Rachel were driven by Isaac in a double horse-drawn coach, courtesy of grocer Luther Foster, to the photo gallery, where they had their wedding picture taken.

Returning to the pastor’s house, they thanked everyone, bid them goodnight, hitched Chief up to the Reddicks wagon and were taken back to the Triple Y.

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

55

Reaching the front door of the house, Trace easily picked Rachel up in her arms, a compelling action that was very typical of the tall detective, which shouldn’t have surprised the blonde but it did. It also made Rachel giggle in response to the feeling of being lifted and the chivalrous manner in which her spouse was behaving, obviously taking her role as ‘husband’ very seriously.

“What are you doing?”

“Indulging in a tradition,” Trace responded as she pushed the door open with her foot and carried her bride over the threshold. Kissing the woman in her arms with loving abandon, Trace set her down and bolted the door shut behind them. She turned and admired her ‘wife,’ who seemed to be glowing, even in the dim light of twilight, enhanced only minimally by a kerosene lamp Rachel lit. “Hi, Mrs. Sheridan,” Trace said, unable to disguise the unbridled affection in her voice.

“Hi, Mr. Sheridan,” Rachel threw back, her voice just as thick with allure. “It was a nice ceremony, wasn’t it?”

Removing her suit jacket, hastily undoing her tie and shedding her vest, she said, “The reception was nice, too. You have a lot of people who love you in this town, Rachel.”

“Thanks to you. You brought them all back to me.”

Grinning, Trace put on her best old west accent and said, “Why, t’wernt nothin’, Miz Rachel. I jes’ set ’em straight, s’all.” She touched the blonde on her perfectly proportioned nose. “Now what do you want to do?” Her body was almost vibrating with anticipation.

Rachel blushed, slowly peering up at her through honey-hued eyelashes. “How about another tradition?”

Studying her for any hint of trepidation, her taller companion said, “Are you sure? I mean, really sure?”

Not releasing Trace’s eyes for a second, her intent clear, Rachel exhaled a shaky breath. “I’m absolutely sure. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

Enclosing Rachel’s hands in her own, Trace said, “Then let’s go up there.” She nodded her head toward the loft.

“Why up there?” the blonde asked, still not losing eye contact with the tall, striking woman in front of her.

“Total privacy. I overheard a few drunken whispers at the reception about peeking in our windows. Going up there will guarantee our privacy. And I don’t want to have to think about any interruptions. I want to be free to be me making love to you, Rachel, not the Trace Sheridan everyone in town knows.”

“Me, too,” she said, her voice a low quiver. The arc of emotion passing between them was jarring and Rachel was enchanted by it and by the woman standing before her.

“Are you ready?”

“I’ve been ready,” she admitted as she doused the kerosene lantern.

“Well, you were the one who insisted on waiting until the wedding night,” Trace nudged the smaller woman as they headed to the stairs.

“That’s the proper and traditional thing to do.”

“Sweetheart,” Trace chuckled, following her bride up the steps, “there isn’t anything traditional about this relationship.”

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

“I haven’t been in this bed since my Mama died,” Rachel told Trace, staring at the quilt her mother had made when the blonde was a little girl.

“Is it okay that we’re up here? If it’s too painful, we can go back downstairs.”

“No. This was my bed. I just started sleeping downstairs because that room smelled like my folks and it made me feel close to them. But you’ve been sleeping up here and now the pillows will smell like you.”

Stepping up behind the smaller woman, her bride, Trace wrapped her arms around Rachel’s waist, lacing her fingers together, kissing her on the top of the head. Leaning back into the embrace, the blonde covered Trace’s hands with her own. “I love you Rachel Young,” the brunette whispered.

“Rachel Sheridan,” the blonde corrected, smiling, slapping one of Trace’s hands lightly.

“Right, right…best I don’t forget that, huh?” Trace grinned, swaying, slowly moving Rachel with her, toward the bed.

“Not if you don’t want my wifely duties withheld,” the petite blonde teased.

Turning her around, Trace fully focused on her, the look so mesmerizing, Rachel forgot to expel any air from her lungs. “What we’re about to do? I guarantee you won’t ever consider it a ‘duty’.”

Breathlessly, the newlywed said, “Show me?”

“Exhale, sweetheart,” Trace smiled, “I don’t want you passing out…at least not from this.” Dipping her head, she placed a gentle kiss on Rachel’s lips, intensifying the motion as the blonde urged her on, following her lead. One thing Trace had learned was that Rachel was an extremely quick study, a thought now that made the brunette’s body almost tremble with expectation.

Rachel dissolved into the kiss, the sensation of her taller companion’s tongue swirling around the inside of her mouth, sensually pillaging everything it touched. Rachel wasn’t sure how all this was supposed to go, all she knew was the room was sweltering and spinning and she wanted nothing more than to be laying on the bed with Trace holding her, kissing her, doing things to her that made her cheeks burn deeply.

Removing her lips from Trace’s, Rachel gasped for air, sitting on the bed.

Proud of the spell she could cast on this young woman, Trace smiled. “Are you all right? I’ll go slow, okay?”

“This can’t hurt the baby, can it?” the green eyes almost begged her to say no.

“Nothing that we do tonight, or any night for that matter, will harm the baby, I promise.” Trace removed the white shirt she had worn for the ceremony and began to take off the binding, when Rachel stopped her.

“Let me…please?”

***********

The detective nodded silently and handed the blonde the end of her wrap. She slowly spun while the material was unraveled. Before she turned around to reveal her naked breasts, Trace drew a deep breath. It was not that she was suddenly shy and the word ‘inhibited’ could certainly never be used to describe the detective, but she knew that anything that happened between her and her ‘bride’ tonight would deeply impact the blonde and how Rachel would react or respond to the thought of their making love from here on.

To her knowledge, Trace had never been with a ‘virgin’ before. Nor had she ever been with a woman whose only experience with sex had been a horrific, intensely degrading one. The responsibility of showing this lovely and pure-of-heart woman how wonderful making love could and would be was immensely intimidating in its own right but the detective felt almost…blessed…that it would be she who would be Rachel’s teacher, lover.

The detective had never before been concerned about what she did in bed or what her ‘conquest’ may or may not have been feeling, emotionally, although her ego predicted that she also performed to provoke a highly vocal and sexual response from whomever was the recipient of her lust. Actually caring about whatever nameless, faceless woman happened to be in her embrace was just never an issue before. Trace was out for Trace and would have said and done whatever it took to get her prey into bed. But this…being in love thing…was now having a very profound effect on her. Their first time would be an awakening for both of them.

Trace stood there, before her new bride, feeling more exposed than she ever had before. It wasn’t that she was naked from the waist up, fully displaying her breasts for the first time to Rachel, it was the way the blonde’s appreciative eyes took in every inch of her skin, the reverence in which Rachel regarded her and how time seemed to stand still as the blonde reached up to touch her. Fingertips chilled from excitement and fear caused instant goosebumps on Trace’s flesh as Rachel lightly circled the brunette’s areola. The dark ring on the detective’s breast got smaller as Trace’s nipple became impossibly erect. It was torture and they hadn’t even begun yet.

Rachel could not stop herself from staring at the womanly physique in front of her. She had been so used to seeing Trace bound down that she had almost forgot the brunette even had breasts, much less the magnificent pair she was now touching. The blonde only had her own body to compare them to and had no idea seeing another woman’s would provoke such a beguiling feeling deep inside her.

The brunette exhaled, panting slightly, not even realizing she had been holding her breath. She covered Rachel’s hand with her own, pressing the blonde’s fingers against her. Trace knew Rachel did not, would not have a clue as to what she needed to do to make love to the detective and it was up to Trace to set the pace, to create the atmosphere in which this night would be one neither of them would soon forget.

Trace watched Rachel as she looked up expectantly into the detective’s baby blues, now darkened with desire. The blonde was obviously overwhelmed and a little unnerved by what was happening between them and within her own body.

“I…I…don’t….” Rachel could not get the words to come out of her mouth, could barely raise her voice above a whisper.

Reaching over, Trace put a finger to the blonde’s lips. “Shhhh…I know,” she soothed. Her eyes sparkled as they held the emerald gaze, conveying a deep love and compassion for the woman behind them. Almost imperceptibly shaking her head, just awed by the vision about to give herself to the detective, Trace raised Rachel’s hand and kissed her palm, then the inside of her wrist.

Letting go of the blonde’s arm momentarily, the brunette sat on the edge of the bed and removed her shoes and socks, then her trousers. She wasn’t wearing any underwear. Standing up, she turned to face Rachel again, silently, letting the blonde absorb her toned, muscular, desirable body. Rachel’s eyes automatically fell to the dark triangle of curls at the apex of her thighs. It made Trace chuckle, slightly.

“Like what you see?”

Blushing furiously, Rachel closed her eyes and turned her head away. “I’m sorry. I feel so bold. I’ve never seen another woman bare before.”

Leaning in, Trace gently guided the blonde’s face straightforward. “Sweetheart, please open your eyes.” When the blonde slowly obeyed, the detective said, “I want you to look at me. I want you to get comfortable looking at me like this. You have no need to feel embarrassed or bold, no need to apologize. I intend to make love with you every chance I get and I refuse to do it with my clothes on. Okay?”

“Okay,” Rachel responded but did not drop her gaze from the detective’s face.

Nodding, the detective sat back down on the bed. “And I want you to get comfortable with me looking at you with no clothes on. Because I intend to do that a lot.”

“Even when my belly gets big?”

“Especially when your belly gets big.”

“Oh my Lord, Trace, whatever you are going to do, would you hurry up and get started? My blood is starting to stir something awful,” Rachel admitted, breathlessly.

If the blonde hadn’t been so serious about it, Trace would have laughed at the tension breaker. She could not suppress her smile at Rachel’s admission to getting ready to burst. “Stand up. I want to undress you.”

Complying, Rachel helped only when she had to as the naked detective removed all of the blonde’s clothes. In no time at all, Rachel was standing nude before her ‘husband.’ Ranching and farming were certainly a workout and Rachel’s body showed it. Except for a very slight, almost unnoticeable bulge in the blonde’s abdomen, there was not once ounce of excess skin anywhere. Rachel’s creamy white complexion was all muscle, femininely defined. Her breasts were in perfect symmetry with the rest of her figure, tantalizingly round and firm and just begging to be caressed. Trace could not stop herself from licking her lips. Suddenly the aroma of arousal was everywhere.

“Oh my God, Rachel. You are so beautiful,” Trace commented in a tone of near worship.

“Like what you see?” Rachel asked, not feeling half as shy as she expected to.

Stepping forward, the detective took the blonde in her arms and kissed her feverishly, pressing their bodies together, both women craving the full contact. At first, Rachel was stiff but within seconds, she relaxed, molding her form to Trace’s warm contours.

Knowing they both needed to lay down before they fell down, the tall detective masterfully took the weight of the smaller woman and eased her back onto the bed, breaking the contact only once, to position the blonde and climb on top of her. Resting the length of herself over her wife, Trace kissed Rachel’s lips until she was sure they must be swollen and bruised. Moving to her forehead, nose and cheek, the detective then nibbled on the blonde’s earlobe, causing Rachel’s entire body to tremble. From there she blazed a trail down the blonde’s neck and shoulder.

“Oh, my, Trace, I have never felt like this before. I never knew the places you are kissing could feel like this.”

“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Trace promised. She kissed to the base of the blonde’s throat and then rested her face there. “Rachel…I know what I want to do to fulfill your desires. But if I do anything that hurts you or makes you uncomfortable, I want you to tell me, all right?”

“Must we discuss this now?” she asked, a little impatiently, between breaths coming in spurts.

“Yes. I’m just making sure you know that you do not have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“Trace?”

“Yes?”

“Please hush up and make love to me.”

That did prompt Trace to laugh. “As you wish, my lady.” She rose up and kissed the blonde again, more passionately than she ever had before. If Rachel had the ability to melt, she would have been a puddle in the brunette’s arms. The blonde watched, as Trace kissed down her chest, fascinated as the detective hovered over her breast. The brunette knew, because of Rachel being pregnant, the hormonal changes would make her erogenous areas much more sensitive. She would have to remind herself not to stimulate her partner to the point of being irritated. After all, it was all about giving Rachel pleasure and hopefully replacing the painful experience of her first time, not reminding her of it.

The detective placed her mouth on Rachel’s nipple and began flicking it with her tongue. Hearing a sharp intake of breath and a hiss, Trace knew the blonde was experiencing a new, positive sensation. When Trace started to lightly suck on the rock hard bud, Rachel grabbed a handful of the detective’s hair and squeezed with the same amount of intensity she was feeling. Lingering on her left breast until such a time where Rachel’s chest was rapidly rising and falling, Trace then moved over to give equal time to the blonde’s right breast, while still rolling and slightly pinching Rachel’s nipple between her thumb and forefinger.

“Oh, lord in heaven, Trace…” Rachel sighed, holding onto the detective’s head.

“You like this?” Trace’s voice was low, husky, thickly laced with desire. The brunette only lifted her face long enough formulate words, her warm breath on the blonde’s wet nipple sending another shiver through Rachel.

“It…it feels wonderful. Please don’t stop,” she breathed to her partner. If this was all Trace did to her, it would surely be enough. But she knew there was more to being made love to than this. She had figured out since the detective didn’t have the proper equipment to penetrate her and her loins were begging for it, that Trace would no doubt use her fingers. That was exciting enough but when the brunette began kissing down her ribcage, taking special care to lavish extra affection on her belly and then went further down…well, this certainly had never occurred to her…Where was she going? What was she going to do? What – oh, Jesus, Jesus, that felt…oh good God…!

The detective nuzzled the soft blonde curls that smelled like a mixture of sex and lavender soap, then kissed the line that, when parted, would reveal the secrets of Rachel’s very being and make her feel born again. Running her tongue the full length, Trace pushed through, feeling Rachel jump, then settle as she let an involuntary moan escape her. Slowly, gently, the detective located that little bundle of nerves, the only spot in the human body solely put there for pleasure and served no other purpose, and ravished it in a desperately tender manner, gauging Rachel’s reaction as she did, taking cues when to go faster, when to slow down, when to add pressure and when to back off. Tasting this woman beneath her, remembering that this was all new to the blonde, knowing what she was doing to her brought Trace to the edge herself, the tingling warmth between her own legs building to its own crescendo.

Rachel had never felt anything like this before and wasn’t quite sure how to respond. She had no idea another human being could make her feel this way, could make her feel like her entire body was ready to explode in a sensation of such ecstasy she didn’t think she was going to survive it. She didn’t even realize she was rocking to a rhythm Trace had set with every stroke and thrust of her tongue. Suddenly, an indescribable, wonderful feeling ignited right in the area the detective was concentrating on and radiated outward to every nerve in her body and then just intensified to a glorious white heat that continued to grow until she lost her breath. Her lower body spontaneously convulsed, racked with pleasurable waves and as Trace sucked every last drop of orgasm from her soul, she thought she was going to lose her mind from sheer bliss.

And then, so overpowered by what she had just experienced, Rachel began to weep.

Crawling quickly up the blonde’s torso, Trace embraced Rachel securely. “Shhh, shhh, it’s okay…” The detective soothed, kissing the blonde’s forehead.

Holding onto the detective as though her life depended on it, Rachel cried into Trace’s neck. “I…I have never felt anything like that before…it…you…”

Giving her an extra squeeze, Trace cuddled the blonde, smiling. “It’s okay, baby, I understand.” Although this wasn’t quite the reaction she expected, she found it touching and endearing. The fact that the detective could produce that kind of emotion from Rachel made her heart pound in her chest. She had never brought anyone to tears before.

***********

Following several soft words of love and reassuring kisses, Trace lightly ran her fingers in wide, lazy circles over Rachel’s stomach, once again moving toward and targeting the blonde’s lower body.

The blonde quivered everywhere the brunette’s hand brushed. “Oh, lord, you’re going to touch me there again…”

“Mmm hmmm,” Trace intoned. “Unless you would rather I didn’t…”

Green eyes snapped open and glared at her. “Don’t you dare stop now, Trace Sheridan, why, that would just be cruel.”

The detective erupted into a deep, throaty chuckle as she fondled damp curls that now appeared almost auburn. She began to gently stroke the area that had just taken the blonde over the edge, causing Rachel to cling to Trace’s shoulders as once again, thrilling, titillating sensations seized her brain, holding her body hostage, releasing itself only when she no longer had the strength to grip the detective or even form a fist to grasp a handful of sheet.

Not waiting until Rachel was completely recovered, Trace gathered some moisture and inserted a finger very slowly, drawing it out and pushing it in a little further with each thrust. The detective locked eyes with the blonde, who could still not formulate thought at this point, much less speak, as Trace watched for any signs of emotional or physical discomfort. She saw nothing but want and desperate need in Rachel’s expression and while the detective steadily and leisurely drove her finger into the blonde, Trace gently kissed her, silently conveying the love and desire that she inherently felt for her receptive lover.

“Baby,” Trace whispered in Rachel’s ear, “does this feel good?”

“Oh, yes,” The blonde could barely get out.

“I’m going to add a second finger…I think I can make it more enjoyable for you. But if it is too much, you tell me, okay?”

“Okay,” Rachel agreed. She trusted Trace implicitly and if the brunette thought it would make it better then she would believe her. Yet, when the detective removed the one finger, Rachel grabbed Trace’s wrist. “No…”

“Shhh, it’s all right.” Trace’s comforting tone and kiss on the forehead calmed the blonde as the detective ran her fingertips around Rachel’s opening, gathering more wetness from the abundance pooled there and then delicately, easily slid inside, once more increasing her depth slowly with each push.

Rachel didn’t think she could feel rapture beyond anything that she had already experienced. Any more would certainly drive her to madness. Yet what Trace was doing and the way Trace wouldn’t take her eyes off her enticed the blonde to near frenzy and as close to heaven as she was sure she would ever get without actually dying. The sensation of Trace’s strong fingers thrusting inside her in a blissful cadence was exhilarating enough but when she curled them and began massaging a certain spot, Rachel couldn’t stop her eyes from rolling back in her head and uttering moans of ecstasy with each expelled breath. She was quickly approaching orgasm but this one felt different, this one felt almost ecumenical in its origin and when her insides exploded, the climax shook her to her core, sizzling out to her extremities then back through to her groin.

The blonde laid there, thoroughly winded, chest heaving, not at all sure she was even going to survive, not having the strength to fight it if the Lord wanted to take her at that very minute. When she was able to focus, she looked up into the most loving, caring eyes she had ever seen.

“How’re you doing?” Trace asked, unnecessarily. She had wanted to make this experience memorable for the blonde. She was pretty sure she succeeded. And she almost had a sympathetic orgasm with Rachel on that last one.

When Rachel regained the capability to vocalize sound, she said, “I love you, Trace Sheridan. I never knew my body had the ability to do that.”

“So…you’ve never…”

“Never what?” Her voice was cautious.

“Never…um…done that to yourself?”

“What? Oh, heavens, no!” Since her whole body was already flushed, it was hard to tell if she was blushing. “Do you…do that?”

“All the time.”

Rachel’s eyes grew wide. “You do?” Off Trace’s nod, the blonde said, “Is that because you don’t have anyone to do that for you?”

“Partly…”

“Well, now you have me.” Rachel’s smile was so sincere and her words were stated in such a decisive manner, that Trace couldn’t help but fall in love with her all over again. “In fact,” she reached up, taking the detective’s face in her hands and pulled Trace toward her, “let me do it for you now…” The blonde kissed the brunette with such wantonness, Trace was at the point where all Rachel would have to do was touch her and it would be over.

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

Late into the night, an hour after both women had finally fallen asleep, Trace’s arm circled around Rachel’s waist, the blonde snuggled tight against her solid frame, the detective awoke to kisses on her eyelids. The soft lips moved to Trace’s cheek and then mouth, an insistent tongue finding its way inside, provoking the detective to respond regardless of being oblivious in slumber. Without too much coaxing, Trace climbed into full consciousness to find Rachel half on top of her, lips fused to her own and the blonde’s hand stroking her with such precision, it was as though she had been doing it all her life.

With very little guidance and direction, Rachel found the exact spot that incited a rush of arousal, a sharp, electrifying passion that enveloped Trace and overtook her in a way that was new, freeing and more exciting than she had ever known.

Growling, the detective flipped the blonde onto her back and wasted no time, spreading Rachel’s legs, putting them over her shoulders and diving in. She was a little less gentle this time, a little less patient as Rachel seemed almost greedy for the sensory overload she knew was deliciously inevitable. The blonde came quickly, riding out every ripple as it surged around her like a whirlpool creating a vortex she never wanted to stop. When she descended from nirvana, Trace took her again, encouraging her not to hold back, to let it all out vocally and sexually, which Rachel did, surprised to discover how much it enhanced the experience. She hadn’t even noticed that the detective had pleasured herself while bringing Rachel to climax, coming about thirty seconds behind her. Settling the blonde contentedly back in her arms, both women fell asleep, spent, exhausted, sated.

Two hours later, Rachel’s kissing the back of Trace’s neck and fondling the detective’s breast, stirred her awake again. Smiling, the brunette said, “I think I’ve created a monster…”

***********

56

The newlyweds did not get out of bed until later that afternoon. Some of that time had even been spent sleeping.

As much as Trace was used to the muscle aches that occurred after vigorous marathon sex, even she was mildly surprised at the stiffness and the soreness she was experiencing. She looked over at the petite blonde who was baking an apple pie and humming. Humming. Trace had never heard Rachel hum. There was also a bounce in her step that had not been there previously. The detective knew the blonde had to be feeling some physical discomfort but if she was, she certainly wasn’t showing it.

Chuckling, a sound that was deep, throaty and, most of all, content, Trace drained her coffee cup and approached her bride from behind. “I think married life suits you, my love.” She ensnared Rachel around her waist, catching the blonde off-guard, causing the smaller woman to blush and grin.

“Being in your bed suits me much better,” the blonde commented, shyly. She spun in the brunette’s embrace and lovingly looked up into sparkling blue eyes.

“How are you feeling? Does anything hurt?”

“Everything hurts,” Rachel smiled, shrugging. “That’s the pain and glory of consummation, isn’t it?”

That caught the detective off guard. Thinking about it, she shrugged and said, “As long as it was more glory than pain.”

‘It was…wonderful, Trace,” the blonde breathed, her expression very sultry and satisfied. “I just never…had any notion…that it could be like that.”

“Well, then,” Trace grinned, proudly, “glad I could be of service.” She leaned in and kissed waiting, luscious lips, a kiss so heated that Trace’s stomach clenched and Rachel actually moaned into the detective’s mouth. Reluctantly breaking the contact, Trace held the blonde closely against her. “And you, my love, were amazing.”

“I pleased you, then?” Her tone reflected genuine curiosity mixed with the need to be encouraged.

“Oh, yes. You couldn’t tell?”

“I figured I did but not having anything to liken it to…”

“Oh my God, Rachel, you did just fine.” Trace held the blonde at arms length and gazed directly into her eyes. “I have never been more in love or in lust in my life. And disappointed would be the last word I would use to describe last night…and this morning. Your instincts are, well, impressive.” And the detective wasn’t just being kind. The fact that Rachel had never participated in anything like that before and was able to bring Trace to the heights of sexual satisfaction that she did, galvanized the brunette. And the blonde could only get better as she became accustomed to and more relaxed with her role as a lesbian lover.

Complimented by her spouse’s praise, Rachel stood on her tiptoes and initiated another long, sensual kiss, which Trace finally ended, short of breath. “Sweetheart, I would like nothing better than to carry you right back up to that loft and make love to you again, but I need to check on the animals.”

Rachel smiled at her, complacently. “We’ll have time tonight.”

“Oh, that we will,” the detective needlessly reassured her. The thought of the blonde writhing beneath her even from the simplest of ministrations set her loins on fire.

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

Trace had just finished painfully riding Rio bareback around the corral and was leading him back to the stable when she saw Matthew Reddick approach her. His buckskin had entered her field of vision at a gallop but then slowed to a trot and when Rio began to react to the scent of an unfamiliar animal, Trace put her hand up to Matthew, who reined his mount to a halt.

Matthew’s horse sensed the wariness of Rio and snorted, nodded his head repeatedly and pranced sideways before stopping. The buckskin was a distant relative of the mustang, his superior genetic heritage a mix of Spanish and Scandinavian, and a breed so old that his actual origin was thought to have been lost somewhere between legend and antiquity. Handsome and proud, the buckskin had more determination, stronger feet, better bones, more stamina and, because of that, was one of the toughest breeds of horses.

“Let me just put him in and I’ll be right with you, Matt,” Trace explained, admiring the steed her neighbor was sitting on. The detective was learning that a man’s horse was akin to the type of car he drove in modern times. It was a status symbol and a representative of his personality.

Nodding, Matthew dismounted, tying his spirited horse to the hitching post in front of the house. He met Trace exiting the stable. He appeared troubled. “I apologize for interrupting your special time, Trace, but…have you seen Sheriff Jackson?”

“Why would I have seen that useless waste of oxygen?”

“Well…the last anyone knew, he was supposed to have been heading out this way with the Carvers who, by the way, are also missing.” They strolled back toward the porch.

“When was this?”

“They had a confrontation with one of the Pawnee guarding the door of the church yesterday. When they couldn’t get in, they were overheard saying they were coming out here.”

Trace couldn’t help but smile. Little Hawk and Black Feather were not around when the Reddicks dropped Trace and Rachel off last night. The detective had automatically assumed they were still present, just making themselves inconspicuous. Maybe they had found something better to do.

“All three horses showed up at the Crane spread later this morning but with no riders. Hannah Burnett came to town looking for the sheriff to ask him where John and Seth were.”

“Who is Hannah Burnett?”

“The only Crane daughter.”

Trace wondered just exactly how many Cranes there were. The family must breed like bunnies. “I haven’t seen them, Matt. But…maybe we should take a look around the ranch, make sure they didn’t get lost anywhere on the property.”

“Yep, that’s what I was thinking.”

“Let me tell Rachel where I’m going and I’ll be right with you.”

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

Trace had decided not to take Rio back out and saddled up Chief instead. It wasn’t that the mustang wasn’t used to her or cooperative, she didn’t want to push it with the temperamental horse. Besides, not knowing exactly what they would find, the detective figured Rio was better off in his stall. At least he was somewhat predictable in his own familiar environment.

As their mounts ambled along, Trace concentrated on her entire peripheral vision while Matthew kept his attention pretty much straight ahead of them. “So…Trace…how was your wedding night?”

Looking over at her neighbor and new friend, the detective chuckled at the smirk Matthew wore, which bordered on lewd. “It was just as it should have been and that’s all you need to know,” Trace playfully admonished.

“Think there might be a little Sheridan running around come winter?”

Grinning proudly, as if she had actually made a baby with Rachel the night before, the brunette said, “I have no doubt.”

“Good. I can’t tell you enough how pleased Elizabeth and I are that Rachel has found happiness.”

“Matt…when I got here, she was alone. It looked to me like everyone had abandoned her, seeming not to care. She told me that you wouldn’t allow Elizabeth to even come visit her. That hurt her immensely.”

Hanging his head, showing the shame he should have felt, he said, “I know. You don’t understand what it’s like, Trace. These Cranes…they want Rachel’s land bad and have stopped only short of burning her place down and maybe even killing her to get it. If it wasn’t for Ben’s being sweet on her, I can’t even think of what could have happened before you came along. We were all warned off from going near her and cautioned that if we didn’t stay away things might start happening to us and our lands. I have to be honest with you, Trace, none of us could understand why Rachel just didn’t sell. It would have been easier on her. Hell, would’ve been easier on everybody.”

“I know why she didn’t and I’m proud of her for not knuckling under. It’s all she has left of her family, her heritage. Yes, she has paid dearly for her defiance. But if they take this land, they take her soul with it. And nobody is worth selling your soul to. I don’t care how much money it is.” Trace was startled by her own words. Only months ago, she would have sold hers to the highest bidder. Who was this person inhabiting her body? Just when had this momentous change taken place, anyway? The detective was reflecting on all this when Matthew’s voice brought her back to the present.

“Well, I apologize, Trace. Things looked pretty hopeless. You’ve kind of showed us all that we have a choice. No one’s ever stood up to Ed before so they never knew that he would back down so easily when he doesn’t have one of the Crane brothers standing behind him.”

“Matt, I guess I can understand that it’s been easier for everyone else to go along with things the way they’ve been but it hasn’t been easier on my wife.”

Trace actually liked the sound of that…’my wife.’ She realized that, in the era she was living in, it implied Rachel was her property, but she liked the message the word sent to others – especially the one it would send to Ben Crane – Rachel was now off limits. “Whether you stand with us or we stand alone is your choice. But that family terrorizing Rachel is over. I may go down protecting what’s now mine but if I do, I’m taking as many of them as I can with me.”

Matthew thought that over. “I don’t know if that’s being courageous or downright crazy, Trace…but I’ve got to admire your determination.”

“If everybody in town decided to do that, the Cranes would have the fear factor taken out of their threat. Once that’s gone, it’s more of an even fight. If they suddenly realize that people have had enough and not only are they willing to go down fighting but take out the family bullies along with them, you might see a big difference in how things happen around here.”

“You’d be willing to kill a Crane?”

“The Cranes won’t think twice about killing me,” the detective responded. “And now that Rachel is no longer available to Ben, I don’t think they’ll think twice about killing her, either.”

“I think you might be right.”

They rode in silence for a few more minutes when they both heard something in the distance that faintly sounded like two or more people calling for help. Heeling their horses into a canter, they headed in the direction of the voices and stopped their mounts abruptly when they reached a scene that made Trace wish she’d had a camera.

Sliding off Chief, joined by a more than amused Matthew, the detective surveyed the setting before her. There, tied naked to three separate trees, were Ed Jackson, John Carver and his son, Seth. The expression on the sheriff’s face at not only being found this way by Trace but also probably having to be rescued by her was a mixture of fury, embarrassment and humility. However, his attitude was purely indignant.

“You know how much trouble you’re in, Sheridan?” He spit out.

“Me? Looks to me like you’re the one who has a little problem here.” She let her eyes fall to the sheriff’s lower anatomy. “And I do mean little.”

Matthew couldn’t help but laugh at Trace’s insolent but obviously delighted tone of voice.

Looking down at his manhood, then back up into the twinkling eyes of the brunette, Jackson’s face was beet red. “I don’t get no complaints!”

“Yeah but your hand doesn’t count.” Smirking, the detective continued, “Gee, Ed, other than yourself, who you gonna satisfy with that shriveled up little talliwacker?”

Despite their unfortunate situation, snickers could be heard from the other two men strapped to the trees. “Damn it, Sheridan, untie me this minute or I’ll -”

“Or you’ll what? Doesn’t look to me like your in the position to do much of anything, least of all, give orders, Ed.”

“You…you…you’re behind this, Sheridan, I know it,” he sputtered. “Now untie us right now.”

“When did you boys get tied up, anyway?” Matthew asked, standing next to Trace, taking his cue from her.

“Yesterday evening,” Seth offered.

Trace shrugged. “Then you know it wasn’t me, I was getting married and you know I have plenty of witnesses.”

“Then you had them injuns do it.”

“You mean you didn’t see who did this to you?”

“No, we was attacked from behind and knocked out. Next thing we knew, we was here…like this.”

“Sheriff, those two at the church never left and everyone who had been at the wedding and after at the preacher’s saw them,” Matthew volunteered.

“Well, I see it like this, Ed,” Trace began, “You and your friends here, entered our property – and yes, it is our property now – mine and Rachel’s – as marriage gives me that claim of co-ownership, without permission or probable cause. That’s trespassing and you were previously warned about trespassing. That gives me the right to designate anyone I damn well please to act as an agent of the owner, while I am away, to protect my home and my land. The way I see it, Ed, you should be the one whose incarcerated in your own jail.” She absorbed Jackson’s speechlessness with a sense of triumph. She knew she was using legalese that may have been confounding to the three sets of captive ears but she also knew it made sense that she, in reality, was the wronged party. “And, hmmm, let me recall as to how you put it to me a while back, you didn’t see who did this to you so they can’t be identified…just who are you supposed to arrest?”

“Hey, Sheridan,” John Carver said, his tone more defeated than angry, “we get your point, we really do. But do you think you could show us a little mercy and untie us? I can’t feel my arms or legs no more.”

“Show you mercy? Show you mercy?” Trace repeated, incredulously. “I should leave you all tied there and for scavengers to pick over just for saying that. When was the last time you boys showed anyone in this town – most specifically my wife – any mercy?” Now the detective was mad. Trace turned and walked back toward Chief, as though she was actually going to leave them there.

“Wait! Wait.” It was the younger Carver speaking up this time. “What do you want? What will make you free us from these trees?”

Trace spun and walked back to the three pathetic looking men. “Do you think I am foolish enough to believe anything any one of you would promise me? You guys are at an extreme disadvantage right now and I know you would do or say anything get free. I’ve been dealing with criminals like you -” She looked pointedly at Jackson, “especially like you – all my life. I know how you think. You will be agreeable until you get your clothes and your horses back and then you’ll hate me twice as much and come after me with a double vengeance.”

No one said a word as Trace pulled her knife from it’s sheath and walked toward the younger Carver, whose eyes grew wide with fear. Matthew held his breath, wondering what the brunette was going to do. Raising the blade menacingly, she swung it down in a blindingly fast arc that sliced the rope freeing’s Seth’s hands and stepped back. “That’s all I’m going to do. You want out of this situation, you do the rest yourself.”

Trace then returned to Chief and mounted him, waiting for Matthew to follow suit with his horse.

“Reddick, you ain’t gonna leave us here like this, are you?” Jackson asked, sourly.

Stepping into the stirrup and swinging his leg over the saddle, Matthew settled in. “It’s not my property, Sheriff, so it’s not my call. But to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have even freed Seth’s hands. You boys deserve anything you get. And my sentiment is that it is about damned time.”

“Why, you ungrateful, no good -”

“Shut up, Ed!” John and Seth Carver chorused. They were not thrilled with the situation either but at least now, with Seth’s hands free, they had a chance.

“This is your final warning, Ed,” Trace told him, evenly. “I see you on this property again without official business and I will kill you.”

Wisely, the sheriff stayed quiet while Seth tried to figure out how to untie his legs.

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

57

That night, lying in bed with Rachel in her arms, basking in the afterglow of more passionate, inventive and exhausting lovemaking, Trace asked about the tribe of Native Americans who had saved their wedding day and possibly their house, barn, stable, animals and whatever crops they had left.

The detective had advised her bride about the events of her afternoon and her warning to Ed Jackson. Instead of being frightened, as she normally would have been involving anything to do with Jackson which ultimately meant The Cranes, Rachel just beamed with pride and felt very safe in the embrace of her lover.

The blonde understood that Trace was only one person and therefore outnumbered by the cattle baron’s entourage, yet she felt no sense of impending doom like she always had in the past. In a flash of melancholy, Rachel told her spouse that if it all ended tomorrow, Trace had still made her the happiest person on earth and she would never regret any of the last couple months of her life.

After the brunette related what she suspected was the work of Black Feather and Little Hawk which resulted in the situation with the three naked men tied to the trees, she finally told Rachel about the deal she had made with the four tribal members regarding the cattle. Overwhelmed and deeply touched by Trace’s actions and generosity, the detective once again held and comforted the blonde while she cried her appreciation. The emotional release then led to more steamy sex depleting any energy reserve of either woman for a while, so they relaxed and just talked.

Rachel explained what she knew about the Native Americans who came to town infrequently. Matthew Reddick had referred to them as Pawnee but to Rachel’s knowledge, that was a generalization as, from everything she had been told, this band was a mixture of Chaui, Skidi and the most rare, Quiveras, three smaller groups of The Pawnee.

As the story went, Moving Elk, depending on who you believed, was either a charmingly persuasive leader or a savage of barbaric proportions. After a majority of his large tribe was systematically slaughtered by particularly violent groups of plains Apaches, British-armed Sioux and Osage Indians, he took what was left of his family from a burned Platte River village in Nebraska and migrated southwest, picking up other stray Pawnee along the way.

The other warriors had survived raids that killed many of the men, and resulted in their women and children being sold into slavery to the Spanish and Pueblo Indians. Those who weren’t murdered outright were lost to white men’s diseases like small pox and cholera. The original purpose of the direction of the migration was to hopefully find and rescue lost family members. It turned out to be a fruitless mission as none were located.

This assorted band of Pawnee finally settled in an area not more than five miles from Sagebrush about fifteen years earlier. Even though they had always seemed to be a peaceful tribe, Moving Elk’s legend just continued to grow and Rachel was quite sure that certain tribal members enhanced that lore with each shot of whiskey at Wilbur’s, knowing it would make the white men think twice about treating them badly.

“Matt said something about the male members of the tribe offering female captives as a sacrifice to ensure good crops…” Trace brought up, running her fingers lightly up and down Rachel’s back. “Do you know anything about that?”

Feeling the blonde’s body shake against her in laughter, Rachel said, “I’ve heard that, too, but I’ve never seen anything to make it so. I mean, unless they are taking women from Jefferson, which wouldn’t make sense because it’s a lot farther away, no one has come up missing from here. Besides, why do you think they took up your offer of corn so quick? They don’t have hardly any fertile land to grow on. My daddy used to tell me that the Pawnee were known for their bountiful maize crops and skill at hunting buffalo. The buffalo aren’t a problem but seems though they don’t do so well with the corn growing. At least not around here.”

Traditionally, in Pawnee settlements with better farming land, corn was plentiful and considered a sacred gift, one which they called ‘mother.’ The Pawnee linked various spiritual rites to its planting, hoeing, and harvesting and their lifestyle alternated between hunting buffalo and planting or harvesting crops. After planting and hoeing, the men left their villages in the summer for the buffalo hunt and then returned to harvest crops in the fall. Following storage of their bounty, they would leave in late autumn for their winter buffalo hunt and return to their villages in early spring to plant their crops and begin the cycle all over again.

Trace smiled. “No wonder they were so eager and appreciative of the corn deal. Maybe with our new friendship and business arrangement, I’ll be able to go visit their village. I can’t recall ever seeing a real tepee before.”

“You won’t see one in their village, either,” Rachel told her. “They live in an earth lodge. They only build tepees when they are out on the buffalo hunt.” The blonde then went on to explain about the circular, dirt-roofed, dome-shaped dwelling which housed all fifty some-odd tribal members.

“You mean they all live together – like a commune?”

“Well…I guess…I don’t really know,” Rachel admitted. As Trace’s hands lightly caressed the cheeks of Rachel’s firm rear end, the blonde swatted at the brunette playfully. “Maybe you can find out on your visit to the village.” Trace’s seemingly unconscious finger activity was stirring Rachel slowly to arousal again…not that she minded but she was beginning to wonder if she was becoming some kind of sex fiend. The more the detective touched her, the more she craved the physical intimacy.

“Maybe I will,” the detective agreed, fascinated by what the blonde was telling her.

Rachel rose up and leaned on her elbow, looking into Trace’s eyes. “How come you don’t know anything about Indians? Weren’t there any around Cottonwood?”

How unfortunate that the brunette would have to keep lying to the blonde concerning her ‘hometown’ but Trace knew that the truth was too unbelievable and her relationship with Rachel was too fragile to try to tell her anything different now. The detective vowed that she would be the last person to ever betray the blonde again but this was one facade she would have to keep up. “Where I come from, they are called Native Americans and they live on a reservation, which is now sovereign land. The closest tribe was well over sixty miles away and they ran a cas- a gambling house called the Mystic Sun.”

The blonde looked completely bewildered by what Trace was telling her. She blinked at the detective. “Indians run gambling houses?”

“Yes. And quite successfully, too. Cottonwood is very different from here…”

“So you keep saying. Too bad you don’t want to ever go back there,” Rachel sighed, settling back into the comfortable position of her head on Trace’s shoulder and one leg slung over Trace’s abdomen, “because I would love to see it someday.”

“Unfortunately, sweetheart, I can never return. I would be killed if those men ever found me.”

“Then we will never go there,” Rachel stated, simply. “My goodness. Gambling houses…”

“Tell me more about my silent business partners,” Trace requested, enjoying what she was learning. While one hand had returned to massaging the blonde’s backside, the detective’s other hand began to circle Rachel’s breast. Even though it appeared to be a movement Trace wasn’t even aware she was doing, the blonde could feel the heat start liquefying her lower body.

“Well, again, this tribe of Pawnee has always been kind of mysterious. It isn’t that they aren’t friendly, they just mostly keep to themselves…until now. They come to town to -” Rachel closed her eyes when Trace’s fingers brushed over her nipple. She took a breath and continued. “They come to town to barter and do business and to drink and Lord knows what else at Wilbur’s.”

“What about Moving Elk? Does he ever come to town?” The detective had suddenly realized what she had been doing with her hands and the effect it was having on her responsive companion. She could not keep the smirk from forming as she assessed her own body’s rising readiness and could feel the wetness of her lover whose center had just ground into her hip.

“I don’t know as anyone has ever seen him. Maybe he doesn’t even exist.” Rachel was finding it difficult to concentrate. “Maybe on your visit to their village, you can…see…if…” Not being able to stand it anymore, the blonde turned Trace’s face to hers and seized the brunette’s lips hungrily.

Breaking the sizzling kiss, Trace carefully positioned Rachel fully on top of her. She cupped Rachel’s behind and pulled her up the length of her body to a sitting position. The blonde straddled her rib cage and looked down at the brunette questioningly. “Trust me?” Trace asked, needlessly, an anticipating smile on her lips.

“Of course,” the blonde answered, her voice hoarse from want. She allowed the detective to slide underneath her as Trace guided her down. “Wh -?” Then the sensation of the detective’s tongue inside her hit her full force. She grabbed onto the headboard and threw her head back, “Ohhh, sweet Lord in heaven…”

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

Trace had not expected to see Isaac bringing her the rest of the fence order until Saturday, as it was a one day trip to Jefferson and a one day trip back. Toward early morning, the detective had been up with Rachel, who had experienced a rather prolonged bout of nausea, so Trace was tired from that and the lack of sleep resulting from her extremely active sex life with her new partner.

The brunette was grateful and felt fortunate that Rachel enjoyed all aspects of lovemaking as much as Trace did but if they were going to keep up their current pace, they were going to have to start going to bed a lot earlier.

Trace’s original plans for the day was to work some more on reinforcing the fence or begin marking off an acre of land in which to start plowing. Rachel so enjoyed growing herbs and vegetables to use in her natural remedies and now that the town was embracing her again, Trace was sure they would start calling on the blonde for her concoctions once more. That and selling her vegetables to Luther Foster had been lucrative for her in the past and the detective was going to make sure it was profitable for her again.

But, today, the brunette could barely put one foot in front of the other one. There just did not seem to be enough energy in her entire reserve. Rachel’s stamina, however, appeared intact, which surprised Trace considering they were up half the night indulging each other’s desires and then a good portion of the morning with the blonde’s vomiting. Shaking her head at the irony of a smaller, younger, inexperienced, pregnant woman having more vigor than she, Trace smiled to herself. “God, I must be getting old,” she mumbled to no one in particular.

While Rachel heated water and began to wash clothes, the detective made up her mind to do something hopefully productive that wouldn’t be too taxing and decided to try her hand, finally, at fishing. Locating the pole and a pail in the barn, the detective headed down to the river, equipment in hand, sleeves and pant legs rolled up, ready for business. If she’d been wearing a straw hat, she would have felt like Tom Sawyer.

Stopping approximately five feet from the river bed where the ground was softer, the brunette dug for worms. It didn’t take her long to find a handful of big, fat juicy ones, which she stuck in the pail with a clump of pliant dirt. The big, tough detective made a terrible face at handling these slimy little creatures and when she speared one through a hook, she looked even more distressed.

However, settling in on a comfortable patch of ground, leaning her back against a smooth boulder, Trace leisurely tossed her line in, noticing for the first time, the beauty of the shimmer from the sun on the river. Looking up at cottony white, billowy clouds, she marveled once again at how clear, vivid and vibrant the bright blue sky was. Her eyes then focused on how those same clouds cast shadows on the green crown of the mountains in the distance. The rustling of the water, along with the faint stirring of the leaves from a small, warm breeze prompted Trace to, again, not regret her decision to come back in time. Never in her world would she have ever noticed these things, much less taken the time to appreciate them.

Two hours later, she had forgotten all about her admiration of nature. She had caught no fish but lost plenty of worms to their hungry, conniving little mouths. Frustrated could not even begin to describe how Trace felt at her inability to catch the cold blooded creatures with a brain far inferior to her own. Of course, she realized she had never tried it before but how difficult could it be? Obviously it was a lot harder than the cocky detective had originally anticipated. She had one more worm left, which she skewered several times – in an exaggerated manner – onto the rather ordinary hook that was still sharp enough to poke her and draw blood. Tossing the line back in the water, telling the worm, ‘bon voyage,’ Trace tried one last time.

Rachel had taken a break from doing the laundry and thought it might be a good idea to see what Trace was up to. The brunette had not told her where she was going or what she was going to do but the blonde knew she couldn’t be too far, especially after checking the corral and finding all of the horses grazing and accounted for. She grinned at Zelda, who was getting big and starting to feel her oats as she jumped and bounced around the pasture for no particular reason. It was then she heard yelling coming from the direction of the river.

Approaching Trace from behind, Rachel stopped a few feet behind the detective and just observed, crossing her arms in amusement.

“Augh! I can’t believe this! Son-of-a-bitch!” The frustration in her voice was clear as she held the pole in one hand and the empty hook in the other. She looked directly into the water. “All I want is one little fish, just one…okay maybe not so little but that’s not the freakin’ point here! Can’t one of you give me a break?” Exasperated, she threw the pole to the ground and turned around, coming face to face with Rachel.

“You tryin’ to catch a fish or scare it to death?” The blonde inquired, taking in Trace’s surprise at her presence.

“Well, I thought I could bring home dinner but the fish have other ideas…and don’t say I need to be smarter than the fish,” Trace warned.

“Well…” Rachel drew the word out as though she was contemplating just that. “You gotta admit it when your licked.”

A smirk crossed the detective’s face and she wanted to come back with, ‘No, that was last night.’ Knowing that was crude and would embarrass the blonde, Trace said, “I will not concede defeat to a fish.”

“There’s a fish trap in the barn. It would be easier to set it up and just let the current of the river guide them in.”

The detective blinked at her. “You have fish traps? Why aren’t they already set up?”

“Well, I just have one but it needs to be fixed. A section of wire rotted out a few months back. Wasn’t very useful. The fish could swim right through.”

“I can fix it. In fact, maybe I can get to that tonight after supper. In the meantime, I’m not coming back to the house until I catch a fish.”

“You going to will it onto your hook?” The blonde asked, nodding toward the empty pail.

“No, I’m going to dig up some more worms,” Trace told her, almost defensively, unconsciously making a face at the mere thought.

Rachel briefly stared at the ground, shaking her head at the detective’s stubbornness. “Okay.” Turning and walking back to the house, the blonde bit her lip to keep herself from responding with something sarcastic. She felt she must show her faith in the brunette, at the very least, by remaining silent and not undermining her determination. However, that didn’t stop Rachel from thinking about preparing something else to eat, just in case.

Trace smiled fondly as she watched the blonde disappear through the trees on her way back to the house. Not wanting to disappoint her spouse, the brunette fell to her knees and began digging through the soil again.

**********

The detective had just finished baiting the hook with a very long worm, when she felt a presence before she saw one. Tensing, she mentally prepared herself for anything.

“You want to catch fish, Tsápaat?”

Trace relaxed as she recognized the voice of Little Hawk, who stepped up to stand beside her. “You move like a damned ghost,” the detective told him, unnecessarily. She paid no attention to the name in which he addressed her, figuring it was some kind of nickname in his own language.

The solid-framed man took the comment in stride. “You found the sheriff.” It wasn’t a question. His English was broken but comprehensible.

“Kind of took a big chance with that one, didn’t you?” the detective couldn’t keep the smile out of her voice. Neither looked at each other when they spoke, both preferring to glance out over the sparkling water.

“No. We knew you would find them.”

Trace was about to throw her line in when Little Hawk raised his hand, indicating that he wanted her to stop. “Yeah, I’m not having much luck at this,” the brunette chuckled. If nothing else had come of this journey, she had learned to stop taking herself so seriously.

Little Hawk stuck his hand into a pouch on his cloth tunicle and pulled out a fistful of something, took a step closer to the edge of the river and let chunks of the substance fall into the water. “Now we wait,” he advised her.

“What’s that you dropped in there?” Trace wondered.

“Walnuts.” Off the detective’s questioning expression, he said, “You will see.”

Nodding, Trace set her pole down. “I really appreciate your help two days ago, Little Hawk. The day would have been a disaster had it not been for you and the others.”

“Crane’s time has come, Tsápaat. It only needed the right leader. We knew you would come. We just did not know when.”

Trace should have been rattled by that but curiously enough, she was not. When Little Hawk began walking downstream along the bank, the detective automatically followed. “I’m going to be planting the corn hopefully at the end of next week,” she told him, just for small talk.

“We will make sure you have some help and we will bring you seeds to plant squash. We have very little earth now that is not barren.” Little Hawk stopped about twenty feet from where they previously stood and walked into the river until he was submerged to his waist. He looked at Trace. “Come. You must learn.”

As Trace joined him, the water not being as cold as she expected it to be, she watched, astounded as one fish, then two, then four more floated to the surface. She grabbed three and Little Hawk plucked out the rest. “Are they dead?” the detective inquired as they made their way back to where Trace had left her equipment.

“No. Just sleeping,” Little Hawk told her as they dumped their catch into the pail.

“Walnuts put fish to sleep?” The brunette asked, incredulously.

The Pawnee hunter just nodded, not knowing how to explain that the meat from the walnut held a powerful sedative. He pointed to the fish.”Bring them home to your wife, Tsápaat. She needs to eat well. She has another growing inside her.”

Stunned, Trace attempted to speak but nothing came out. How could he possibly know that? “How could you possibly know that?” She watched his face which remained impassive.

“It does not matter how. I do not question knowledge when it comes to me. And you should not. I also know you are not the father, Tsápaat.” The sage, brown eyes captured astonished blue ones.

Trace felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. It was one thing to sense someone was pregnant, that could possibly be explained away. She knew Indians were very spiritual people and had insight to so much more than, well, white people, but to know the baby was not hers was another matter entirely. Did she dare ask him how he knew? And what was this name he kept calling her? “Why do you keep calling me Tsápaat? What does that mean?”

For the first time, Little Hawk cracked a hint of a smile. “Woman.”

Oh. That’s how he knew, the speechless, wide-eyed brunette absorbed.

**********

58

Walking up the steps, pail full of fish in hand, Trace couldn’t stop laughing to herself. All, mysticism aside, Little Hawk admitted that he had been on the other side of the river, tracking a deer two months earlier, when he saw her bathing in the water. It must have been right after she had arrived there and was a little less cautious. He also told her that he would have known anyway after their actual meeting. There was a different scent to a woman than there was to a man.

She did not have to ask him not to tell anyone. It went without saying that he would respect her secret, as The Pawnee were very altruistic people. Besides, he had been aware of it for some time now and never said a word to anyone, other than his own tribe.

He also told her that he knew Rachel was with child by the way she walked. Little Hawk advised her that he had three wives and a total of eleven children with them. He was sensitive to many things that indicated when he would become a father again, and how a woman carried herself, even in the earliest stages of pregnancy was one of them. He then reassured Trace that he knew Rachel was a woman pure of heart and chaste and he sensed the circumstances that resulted in the blonde being with child were not. Little Hawk put his hand on the detective’s arm and told her that what she was doing was noble and selfless and he was proud to know such an honorable woman.

His honesty touched Trace deeply, to the point where she had to choke back tears. No one had ever said – nor had she ever given anyone any reason to say – words like that to her before. She asked him if it bothered him that she was a woman disguising herself as a man. Little Hawk answered by telling her that his people measured worth by deed and dignity not by wealth or gender. He then clapped her on the shoulder and said, “You are more man than most white men, Tsápaat. You will make a great leader someday. Perhaps someday soon.” And then as swiftly as he had arrived, he was gone.

Entering the cabin, Trace set the pail on the table and approached Rachel who was peeling vegetables.

“You’re back soon. Did you give up?” the blonde asked, her tone fully expecting the detective to say yes.

“Ha! Ye of little faith,” Trace replied, gently taking her bride by the elbow and leading her to the table.

Seeing the contents of the pail, Rachel looked back up at Trace, stunned. “You did it.”

“Of course I did it,” the detective was almost preening.

Setting two carrots down on the table, Rachel grabbed the pail and walked out to the porch with the detective right behind her. Sitting on the top step, the blonde removed the first fish. “You never stop confounding me, Trace,” Rachel told her spouse who joined her on the step. “I am so proud of you, you never give up.”

The detective flashed her a dazzling smile and was about to lean over and kiss her when Rachel unceremoniously lopped off the head of the fish, an action that caused Trace’s stomach to lurch, repulsed.

After a delicious supper of trout cooked over an open flame, Trace repaired the fish trap, replacing one entire side with new wire while Rachel boiled the trout heads, bones and skins for stock. Having not told the detective what she was doing came back to bite her when, in another bout of nausea, she ran to the edge of the porch and deposited most of her supper. After making sure the blonde was okay, Trace returned inside – at Rachel’s request – to check that the pot on the stove was not boiling over. Whatever was in there smelled damned good. Taking a towel to lift the lid, Trace stirred the substance with a spoon and stopped dead when at least three sets of eyes attached to three very ugly heads were suddenly staring at her from the steaming water. In a matter of a minute, the detective joined her wife, heaving up her trout consumption also.

Trace wondered when her stomach got so weak. Or maybe it was sympathetic morning sickness. Or maybe it was those damned fish heads. The thought then reminded the brunette of Rachel beheading and gutting the trout earlier and her insides turned once more.

Later, when the mood had returned to tranquil, both women sat on the porch and watched the sunset. Rachel quietly remarked that she liked the effect it had on the leaves just before the sun went to sleep for the night behind the mountains. Then Trace got her guitar out and sang a few songs while Rachel started sewing the detective a new binding from a remnant of stretchy material she got from Molly. The brunette never thought being so domestic would have ever made her so happy.

By the time they went to bed that night, Trace had confessed about Little Hawk and the walnuts. Rachel was a little disappointed that the detective had not caught the fish the traditional way but she was not surprised at the effect of the nuts. The blonde told Trace that the sweet fragrance of walnut shell shavings had a relaxing and soothing effect because it was a natural tranquilizer.

Trace would have to remember that after the baby was born.

***********

Isaac brought a wagon load of barbed wire the next morning and he and Trace got to work on the fence right away. Within an hour, Black Feather and two other Pawnee showed up and began to silently help affix the dangerous wire to the wooden rails. Approximately ninety minutes later, a few men from town arrived with their own tools and began on another section. Soon after that, Matthew Reddick and his card playing buddies were there to complete the last fifty feet of reinforcement for the fence. A project that should have taken three to four days was suddenly done in one.

When Trace made the rounds and thanked everyone for their help, they further surprised her by telling her that, as repayment, she could return the favor as all of them except The Pawnee had decided to copy her idea with their own land. When the detective, Isaac and the others reached the house, Trace saw a buzzing of activity hovering around the cabin, too. While the ‘men’ had been out toiling, the women had converged on the homestead with food, plates, cups and utensils and created a feast to feed the tired, hungry workers.

Washing up before supper, Trace was able to catch her wife on her way out of the house. They smiled, inspecting each other appreciatively and stood very close together, the urge to be physical nearly overwhelming them both.

Nodding her head in the direction of the crowd, Trace said, “Did you arrange this and not tell me?”

“No. This is as much a surprise to me, Trace.” The genuine bewildered but pleased look on her face backed up Rachel’s words.

Reaching over and subtly rubbing the blonde’s shoulder, the detective stood there as Rachel returned to their guests. Trace took a minute to observe the blonde mingle with their neighbors, obviously thrilled to have these people back in her life again. Watching Rachel’s glowing demeanor, adoration completely inhabiting every inch of her body for the smaller woman, the detective shook her head and took a deep breath, focusing on the horizon.

As Trace witnessed light bathe the summit of the purple mountains in the distance, the reality of what was happening washed over her as surely and as richly as the inevitability of the sunset. Although, conversation was predominantly loud and different timbred voices surrounded her, it filtered through her head as a chorus behind the echoing of Little Hawk’s words: You will make a great leader someday. Perhaps someday soon. It was indeed happening. An Army one person at a time.

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

A repeat of the same community generosity occurred that next week when Trace began plowing and harrowing the ground. A few tribal members and several residents of Sagebrush showed up at different intervals to help till the deep, black soil, uproot weeds, break up crop residue, then plant and cover seeds.

A task that should have taken seven days at the least, took three and instead of one acre for corn, Trace now had two and Rachel’s current vegetable and herb garden was stretched out another half-acre. If they could keep the ‘varmints’ away – animals and humans, they might actually be able to reap a good harvest.

Over the next six weeks, with the new property barrier in place and the contents of the garden and cornfield beginning to break through the earth, Trace and Rachel then concentrated on helping their neighbors toughen up their boundaries and reinforce their rights, as limited as they were. Time was of the essence if they were going to finally take a stand and do what they needed to do to get their town and their liberties back.

The Reddicks would come by every Sunday morning and pick Rachel up for worship services while Trace and assorted members of the Pawnee would police the property, ensuring everything remained alive and intact. Then they would go back to the river, fish with walnuts and imbibe in one hundred ninety proof grain alcohol, a double distilled spirit derived from the fermentation of different grains.

Rachel would always return from church and find them all the same way – splitting their britches laughing over nothing obvious and she would have to break up the party and send them all on their way. Then she would assist her ‘drunk as a lord’ spouse into the house and Trace would spend the night on the couch. It wasn’t that Rachel was punishing her for indulging in the weekly ritual, which never failed to take its toll on the tall brunette but the blonde had learned it was easier when Trace got sick. Less steps to the bushes outside.

The newlyweds settled into married life, responding to and interacting with each other as though their partnership was meant to be, as though they had always been together. Anyone who spent any time around Trace and Rachel could not picture one without the other, Matthew Reddick even joking that the brunette without the blonde would be like having half of a yo-yo.

Their union was loving, respectful, productive and familiar and easily became the envy of anyone in and around Sagebrush. That didn’t mean there wasn’t occasional discord in the marriage. Although Trace was happier than she had ever been, she still was not used to sharing every aspect of her life with someone and sometimes her self-sufficient, stubborn, solitary ways got on Rachel’s nerves. However, with the blonde’s hormones fluctuating to opposite ends of the spectrum at lightning speed, it didn’t take that much to perturb her and the brunette would find herself temporarily in the doghouse at least once a day. The best thing about that was making up afterward, which never ceased to be passionate and fulfilling, and each silently wore that satisfaction proudly. So, it surprised no one when Rachel revealed she was pregnant, especially not Molly Ledbetter who loftily appraised Trace and commented, “I knew that boy was fertile from the minute I laid eyes on him.”

None of this activity went unnoticed by Sheriff Ed Jackson. With every passing day, the obnoxious and devious lawman grew angrier and more nervous. It wasn’t just this strangely charismatic cowboy that made him jittery, it was the unmistakable change in the townspeople that also made him pause. For the first time, since the Cranes established their rule over Sagebrush and ensured Jackson’s continued election into office, the sheriff was losing his control by proxy and the very idea of doing something/anything to provoke the Cranes’ wrath no longer seemed to have the terrifying impact it used to.

To make matters worse, he had to stand by and watch it happen because ever since that humiliating incident in the woods, John and Seth Carver wanted no part of anything having to do with Trace Sheridan…at least until all the Cranes were back and a family meeting decided just exactly what strategies would be put into place to deal with this issue. If Sheridan had the Indians on his side, which he obviously did, this put a whole different twist on how Jackson – and the Cranes – normally handled dissident behavior.

Even the sheriff thought that the Cranes may have gotten a little overly confident when it came to the normally passive Pawnee. Jackson had noticed that the tribe tended to make alliances when and as it suited them. At their will, they could be the consummate diplomats even with people they did not like, agree with or, sometimes, even openly get along with. They certainly were not afraid of conflict or war but if it could be avoided, the tribe went out of their way to keep the peace, without losing their dignity. The Pawnee had, no doubt, learned to be masters at unity within diversity as they had already lost too much to put themselves in the position of being victimized again. But even they had their limits and, as the Cranes had severely hampered their trade habits with Sagebrush and Jefferson, Jackson knew an uprising of some sort was imminent and regardless of how mild, it would mark a serious shift in power – especially if the legendary Moving Elk led the rebellion.

Jackson was not happy that Sagebrush seemed to be coming alive again under the guidance and leadership of Sheridan and that he was incapable of stopping it. The sheriff would threaten his ‘subjects’ with arrest and/or retribution and that damned Cottonwood cowboy would advise them of how they could lawfully avoid it. And every day that passed just seemed to empower the townspeople more and more. Jackson knew it was reaching a critical point when he went around to collect the monthly ‘tax’ from the store proprietors and homeowners – the one that insured they be allowed to stay in business and keep their houses and properties from getting burned to the ground – and they refused.

Then fifteen head of prime cattle suddenly showed up at the Triple Y. Jackson nearly bit his cigar in half when he performed his daily patrol of the exterior of the ranch and heard before he saw the strong, healthy bovines grazing beyond the new barbed wire fence. Nobody except the Cranes were allowed to own cows and steers. How and when the animals had got there as well as where they could have come from was a mystery to Jackson. One day they weren’t there, then next day they were. The sheriff’s rising suspicion that there was more to this Sheridan character than met the eye grew with every mounting incident.

But the last straw came when the news reached him that Rachel was now with child and he actually broke out with flop sweat when he sent the telegram to Webb City where he knew it would reach the Cranes who should have been on their way back to Sagebrush. Sheriff Ed Jackson was no longer complacent about his position in town or his worth to Jacob Crane and he began having nightmares about being at the serious end of a hemp rope wrapped around the Crane’s barn’s center beam. The bet that they would not react to his inability to control this anarchy were not the sort of odds even a desperate gambler would have wanted to draw to.

In four short months, he had gone from feared tyrant to town laughing stock. The Cranes weren’t going to care how it happened, just that it had happened and he had not been able to prevent it and keep order in the jurisdiction they had been so successfully terrorizing and controlling for the past ten years.

And the one thing he had never thought twice about – ever – was that anyone would have the balls to take Rachel Young away from Ben Crane. Who was this Trace Sheridan, anyway? How could a total stranger just waltz into Sagebrush, rile up the townspeople, steal the object of Ben’s misguided affection without a second thought, befriend the Indians to the point of blind loyalty and cut him down to size with so little obvious effort?

There was only one thing Ed Jackson could do to rectify this situation before the Cranes got back. Trace Sheridan would have to die.

**********

59

Plumes of dust billowed up as the dirt was kicked back underneath thundering hooves. The animal’s ears were pinned, his nostrils were flaring, he was snorting and almost to the point of gasping, sweat slick on his forequarters, his passenger riding belly down and hell bent for leather, crouched low over the horse’s withers and pushing the animal hard.

Ben Crane had received Sheriff Jackson’s telegram. He had left his father and brothers and the drive’s other cowboys behind in Webb City and traded their leisurely ride back for a quicker path, one that would take him three weeks as opposed to another month and a half. Crane didn’t know who this son-of-a-bitch was who had taken his woman but when he got back to Sagebrush, this man would be one dead son-of-a-bitch.

**********

Rachel was now in her fifth month of pregnancy and could not have been more beautiful or happier. Even though she knew it was biologically impossible, she had almost convinced herself that the child she was carrying belonged to her and Trace.

When her morning sickness had dwindled to only rare occasions, she had other symptoms that were just as annoying and she was glad she had the understanding, compassionate companion she did and did not have to suffer any more abuse and humiliation at the hands of Ben Crane. Had Trace not come along, Rachel was positive the cattle barons would have taken over her life, knowing another Crane offspring was on the way and even as adamant as she had been about never surrendering to that horrible family, her being with child may have gravely altered that decision for her. So she was endlessly grateful for the detective’s showing up when she did, for her presence in the blonde’s life, for her guiding Rachel down a path of enlightenment and unconditional love and she would be eternally beholden to the Lord that it was her partner and it was not, thank heaven, the baby’s father who ministered to her fluctuating and unusual moods and needs, not that he would have even if they had been married, God forbid.

No, it was the tall, striking brunette that massaged her head, neck and back when her daily chores caused everything to ache unmercifully. It was Trace who applied a bruised fresh peppermint leaf to her forehead, rubbing the oil of it in what attempted to become migraine territory, soothing the pain. And it was her dearly beloved who tolerated her hormonal tantrums and then tears, who told her she was stunning and glowing with a face spotted by temporary blemishes and held the smaller woman against her when she felt bloated and frustrated and calmed her by bestowing gentle kisses to her growing belly, constantly reassuring Rachel she was going to be a wonderful mother.

When leg cramps would startle her out of a sound sleep, it was her lover who pushed the ball of her foot back to stretch the muscles and ligaments so the pain stopped. It was the detective who suggested they start sleeping downstairs when Rachel’s numerous nightly trips to the outhouse became more urgent and her foraging in the pantry for a snack became more frequent. And it was Trace, not Ben Crane, who was working her firm, tantalizing butt off to get the Triple Y back into a running, prosperous ranch again so as to provide the family with a comfortable living.

It was also Trace who enthusiastically, regardless of how tired she was, satisfied every amorous whim the blonde was now having due to intensified sexual arousal. Sometimes it would be in the middle of the day when Rachel would get frisky and the brunette always obliged her, always ensured that Rachel was satiated, that every carnal need was lovingly indulged.

One day in the early afternoon, when Matthew Reddick stopped by to excitedly give Trace and Rachel the news that Elizabeth was now expecting, he couldn’t understand where the couple could be. He had hollered their names several times and knew they had to be about because Rio had been tethered to the front hitching post. Becoming concerned, he ascended the steps, about to enter the house to make sure everything was okay, when a very mussed, tousled and flushed Rachel met him at the door in her housecoat.

As inconvenient as it was, especially since Trace had gotten her right there, the blonde had to prevent Reddick from making it inside the cabin so that he did not catch them doing what they were doing, but more specifically, so he didn’t catch Trace naked. It was much easier for Rachel to throw on clothes in a pinch than it was for the brunette. Observing her appearance, she really didn’t need to explain to Matthew that she and Trace had been ‘better occupied.’

It was an embarrassing, if not defining, moment for Rachel and her neighbor, but Matthew left with a healthier respect for Trace that ‘he’ could get ‘his’ wife into bed in the middle of the afternoon and that the blonde, more than obviously, had no complaints. At that time, he never would have believed Rachel was the initiator, however, in a few months, if Elizabeth experienced the same hormonal changes, he was in for a big, hopefully pleasant, surprise.

Then there was the first time the baby kicked. Rachel wasn’t quite sure what had just happened to her but Trace did and was more excited than the mother-to-be was. The blonde had been sitting on the porch, sewing another maternity dress, when she experienced a feeling similar to a large swarm of butterflies in her stomach. Trace had just returned to the house for a cup of water and was about to take Rio out for a perimeter check, when she noticed the strange look on Rachel’s face.

“What’s wrong?” the detective asked, more curious by her wife’s expression than alarmed.

“I don’t know…something’s fluttering in my belly.”

With one leap, Trace cleared the steps and was on her knees at Rachel’s side with her hand on the blonde’s abdomen. “It’s the baby kicking, I bet!” However, even when Rachel had the sensations again, the baby was still too small for Trace to feel the movement on the outside. That still didn’t stop the detective from nuzzling the area and speaking softly to the child within, an act that made Rachel’s heart swell with overwhelming love for this woman.

So, it was easy to convince herself that this baby was not fathered by Ben Crane and that Trace Sheridan was this child’s other parent. Even if the idiot figured it out, Rachel would make sure that Ben Crane would lay no rights to the little boy or girl growing inside her. Now if she could just persuade the townspeople that when this baby was ready to come out, it was two months early.

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

Trace had been bugging Rachel about names for the baby but the blonde thought it was too soon. However, Rachel’s one request was that the child’s middle name either be Frank or Minnie, depending on its gender. The brunette didn’t have a problem with that and wished there was a way to tell the sex of the baby before it was born. The detective then remembered that the Pawnee were intuitive…maybe the medicine man would be able to help with that.

Little Hawk and his fellow tribal members became daily visitors to the ranch. They helped with the fields and the stock, and, as the cows were there strictly for dairy purposes, they further made sure that the expectant parents had fresh meat. This was fine with Trace as the thought of hunting was not something she really wanted to do but the blonde put her foot down and was insistent that the Pawnee take the brunette with them when they went in search of game the next time. As Rachel’s wrath was nothing to be trifled with – especially lately – Trace appeased her and accompanied Black Feather and two more Sunday drinking buddies, brothers Rising Moon and Red Sky, the next time they went hunting.

The detective rode along, quietly at first, really hoping they did not see anything she would have to kill. Then she decided to start telling jokes, which, unfortunately, went right over her companions’ heads, until she told the only Indian-related joke she knew. “…so then the boy goes to the Chief and says, ‘how do we get our names?’ and the Chief says, ‘when you are born, you are named after the first thing I see, like a blowing leaf or a howling wind. Why do you ask, Two Dogs Fucking?”

Her Pawnee friends were silent at first and then laughed uproariously at this joke, which pleased her on two levels. The first being the noise would probably warn away any game in the area and the second, she loved to make her new friends laugh and sometimes that wasn’t easy unless they were all rip-roaring drunk. One thing she had learned, from her first visit to Wilbur’s, was that the word ‘fuck’ was just as alive and well in the old west as it was in her era.

“You do not like to hunt, Tsápaat?” The question was coming from Red Sky.

“I’ve never done it before. I don’t like to kill animals, unless they are sick, gravely injured or about to kill me.”

“Out here we just kill what we need to live,” Black Feather interjected.

“I could live on fish and vegetables,” Trace smiled.

“Caskí Custíra’u needs the meat for the young one growing inside her,” Black Feather stated. The Pawnee now always referred to Trace as Tsápaat and Rachel by a name which, loosely translated in their native language, meant ‘little mother.’ Suddenly things got very still and Black Feather reined up, raising his hand for the others to do likewise. He sniffed the air. “We need to find gamesoon. Rain is coming. Not a good time for hunting. Rahúrahki holes up when it rains,” he advised, using a Pawnee word for wild animals.

Not more than ten minutes later, Red Sky, who obviously had ears like a cat, directed the party to the right of the path, spotting a few antelope grazing in an open area located in the upper most quadrant of the north side of the Triple Y property. They all stopped and looked at Trace, who returned their stares skeptically. “You’re going to make me kill one of them, aren’t you?”

Rising Moon didn’t understand Trace’s reticence. “You must be the one. You must learn to do this. For Caskí Custíra’u. For the little one who will learn how to hunt from you.”

The detective did not want to do it. Every fiber of her being silently protested having to execute an innocent animal just to fill her and Rachel’s belly, when she knew they could survive on fish, rabbit (which Rachel killed), eggs and vegetables and it would be just as good for the baby. But she also knew that her refusal would not be met with humanitarian understanding, it would be looked upon as a flaw and would definitely bring her credibility as a leader and ‘warrior’ down a few notches. Right now, it was critical that she continue to do everything to show her mettle so that the town would follow her lead and believe in her abilities.

Trace knew it was hypocritical that she gladly devoured meat the Pawnee brought them but eating it was one thing, killing it was quite another. She did not have to look the target in the eye and shoot it, watch it drop to the ground and die. Somehow, when a cut of meat came to her she could blur the idea of how it got to that point, block out any possible gruesome details of its demise. Today, right now, she could no longer do that. She had to prove her ‘manliness.’ She knew if she did not kill this antelope, it would go no further than the four of them in that group. She also knew if she did kill the animal, the word, ‘hunter’ would be added to her already growing reputation and would spread quickly.

Come on, Trace, buck up, she told herself. How hard can it be? Just aim and pull the trigger and it will be over quickly, you’ll have proven yourself. Hell, you can kill a man and not think twice about it, this should not be such a dilemma.

But it was. She emerged from her thoughts and stared into the expectant eyes of the three Pawnee with her. They dismounted to find concealment behind tall shrubbery as Trace reluctantly removed her Winchester from its sheath on the saddle and she joined her companions. She watched the antelope peacefully grazing and drew a deep breath. Sensing slight movement to her left, Trace glanced over to see a waterskin offered to her from Black Feather.

“Kiiráhkata,” he told her, which Trace knew could be whiskey, bourbon or generally anything alcoholic. Accepting the deer hide container, the detective removed the small stopper and took a long swig of the spirit that burned all the way down her throat. The light amber liquid did make her eyes water a bit and there was a small part of her that wondered what she just drank and a bigger part of her that didn’t want to know. She was about to raise her rifle when Black Feather nudged her again, indicating she take another swig. “Raahikuuc. Courage.”

Trace shook her head. She wanted to get this over with. It wasn’t courage she lacked, it was desire. She raised the Winchester once more and took careful aim, catching the exquisite, unsuspecting animal precisely in her sights. After a small wave of sheer panic, her nerves steadied, she took a breath, relaxed her stance and squeezed the trigger. As Trace was a dead shot with any kind of weapon, she did not miss and when the antelope fell, so did her tears.

It was the first indication the Pawnee had, other than her scent, that Tsápaat was indeed a woman, with emotions accordingly. She stoically, robotically participated in the skinning and gutting and rode back to the cabin, sad and angry. When they reached the house, the Pawnee gave her the best cuts of meat and took the rest and the hide and headed back to their village as it began to sprinkle.

**********

The minute the detective stepped through the door, Rachel knew something was wrong. She could see it on Trace’s face and in her demeanor, feel the chill in the air when the brunette handed her the meat and then walked by her.

“Trace?” The bewilderment in her voice was apparent.

The detective spun on her heel and stalked back to her lover. “Don’t you ever ask me to do that again, Rachel. Not ever!” Trace was almost spitting out every word. “I hate killing animals unless I absolutely have to and it is something I will not do again unless I am faced with those circumstances. I don’t mind doing anything else around here but if you want fresh meat from now on, you can do it yourself or we can barter with the Pawnee, but I will not do that again!”

At first, the rage in her spouse’s voice frightened her a little but when she realized Trace was not as irate as she was regretful and heavyhearted, it became easier to understand what motivated this outburst. “Trace…I’m sorry…I had no notion hunting would affect you like this, I…”

“Well, it did! And I will forever have the memory of that innocent creature falling to the ground, dying, because of something I did, the memory of those beautiful eyes staring at me while we cut it out.” The fact was Trace had nailed the antelope almost directly between the eyes and it was most likely dead before it even dropped, therefore causing it an instantaneous, painless death. Somehow that didn’t seem to make her feel any better.

“But, Trace, we need red meat, I need it for -”

“Then you kill it next time. I don’t need it, I can live on whatever we have been surviving on without it.” She then walked to the bedroom and pulled out clean clothes. “I’m going to take a shower and wash this blood off me.”

As the detective moved toward the front door, Rachel followed. “Trace, at least let me -”

The brunette stopped and looked at her. “Don’t…don’t come near me for a while.”

The flash of anger in those expressive blue eyes caused Rachel to stop in her tracks. Tears welled as she watched Trace disappear from her view. She had never seen that side of the brunette before and wasn’t sure she liked it, as her emotions fluctuated from hurt to indignation back to hurt. The blonde began to prepare the meat for storage and one cut for supper, as she wiped away tears with her sleeve.

She had practically demanded that Trace go hunting with the Pawnee, even over the brunette’s rather strong protestations. She honestly believed this was something the detective needed to learn, to get used to, as the winters had a tendency to be rough and food became scarce. Killing an animal for food never bothered her, she had been doing it since the first time her father took her hunting at seven years old. It was not a matter of liking it or not liking it, it was a necessity and it served a purpose. Well, if she had to be the hunter of the family, then so be it. Trace was a good provider in everything else and this was the first time the detective ever balked at one of Rachel’s requests. If hunting was the only thing Trace wouldn’t do, she was still pretty fortunate.

After the blonde stored the haunch of meat for later meals, she cleaned up her mess and readied the thick portion of flank she had put aside for supper, spicing it with herbs, skewering it with metal rod and setting it to broil slowly over a small flame. As she began to peel potatoes, Trace re-entered the house, taking in the aroma of dinner starting to cook.

“I don’t want any,” the detective stated flatly as she crossed to the bedroom, running her fingers through her hair to help it dry faster. Her tone of voice still showed signs of upset.

“You have to eat,” Rachel told her softly, as she continued to fix the potatoes.

“I don’t have to eat that,” the brunette pointed at the fireplace.

Putting her knife down, the blonde wiped her hands on her apron and went to their bedroom, where she sat on the bed, watching the detective search for a pair of socks. “Trace…I won’t ever ask you to do that again, all right?”

“It wouldn’t matter if you did because I won’t,” she responded, her defiance clear.

“Please don’t be mad at me, honey, I can’t bear it,” the blonde pleaded. The thought of Trace really being angry with her tore her apart and once again she began to cry, burying her face in her hands.

“Now, don’t start that, Rachel,” Trace said, exasperated, knowing that tears from the blonde always got to her, “I’m not done being pissed off yet and I’m not backing down on this…”

“I don’t want you to,” Rachel sobbed, forlorn. “I was wrong and I’m sorry. I should not have made you go…”

Emitting a huge sigh, Trace said, “No, you shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have made me feel like less of a person because I had not put meat on the table that I had killed, myself. Who cares how it gets there, Rachel? If the Pawnee don’t mind bartering for it, then what is the problem?”

“There isn’t one.”

“No, there isn’t. So…we will never have this discussion again, all right?”

“All right,” the blonde agreed, trying to regain her composure.

Calming down, the detective looked over at her wife who was obviously distraught, most of the emotion, no doubt, fueled by raging hormones. When Rachel could not stop bawling, Trace moved over on the bed and enveloped the blonde in a secure embrace. “Shhhh, it’s okay, baby. Shhhhh,” the brunette spoke softly, soothingly. “I know you didn’t really understand my feelings about this, I should have made myself more clear.”

She kissed the top of Rachel’s head, reassuringly, feeling the blonde settle down in her arms. Lightly stroking the smaller woman’s back and arms, Trace held her for a while, until it smelled like the meat was beginning to burn in the other room. It was then she heard a soft snore emanate from the expectant mother, which triggered a smile in the brunette. She gently laid Rachel back on the bed, positioned her as comfortably as possible and went to tend to dinner.

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

60

A few days later, Little Hawk rode over to where Trace and Isaac were working on repairing a trough that had been kicked in by one of the steers. When the Pawnee dismounted, it was apparent he was carrying something in his hand as he approached.

“Ráwa,” Little Hawk greeted the hard workers.

“Hey, Little Hawk,” Trace smiled, always happy to see the hunter. “Whatcha got there?”

Both the detective and Isaac walked to meet the Pawnee, who held his hand out to the brunette. On his palm was a tiny, sleeping puppy. “For you and Caskí Custíra’u, Tsápaat. And for your little one.”

Deeply touched by this gesture and automatically in love with this precious little gift, Trace took the puppy from the Pawnee and cradled him up by her neck. He was gray and off-white and had an area of black on his head that made him look like he was wearing a World War II flying ace’s cap with goggles. “He’s beautiful, thank you, Little Hawk. He’s so tiny. How old is he?”

“Old enough to be away from his mother. He is special, Tsápaat. He is mostly wolf. He will be loyal to you and to your family. He will be calm but he will be fierce in his loyalty.”

Isaac was also smitten and reached over to scratch the little dog behind his ears. The puppy yawned, making a small whining noise and then went back to sleep.

“I have to show Rachel. Come with me?” The offer was made to Little Hawk, as Trace knew Isaac would follow her, regardless.

“No, I am needed back in my village.”

“Anything wrong?”

Little Hawk shrugged. “One of my wives is giving birth,” he said nonchalantly.

“What?” Trace was incredulous and then shooed him back to his horse. “Then, yes, you should be there.”

“I have seen it before,” he replied, not exactly disinterested but not enthusiastic, either. “This will make twelve.”

“I know, but Little Hawk, you should still be there,” Trace reprimanded, softly.

Mounting his horse, Little Hawk grinned. “She is not ready. It takes time. You will see, Tsápaat.”

“Why do you call him that – Tsápaat?” Isaac asked, curiously. “What does that mean?”

Exchanging glances with the Pawnee hunter, Trace said, “Uh…cowboy,” at the exact same time Little Hawk said, “Warrior.” Looking at each other again, the detective then said, “Warrior,” as the tribal hunter said, “Cowboy.”

Isaac appeared confounded and Trace spoke up and said, “It means Cowboy Warrior. Let’s go show this little guy to Rachel.” The teenager seemed okay with that and beat the detective to the steps. Turning to Little Hawk, she rolled her eyes in mild relief, and patted the Pawnee’s horse on his side. “Thank you again.”

Putting his hand up in response, the Little Hawk heeled his stallion into a trot and rode away.

When presented with the puppy, the blonde gushed her approval and appreciation and Trace did not get to see him or hold him again until sometime after midnight when he began whine and cry for his mother. The detective knew it was wrong but both she and Rachel were exhausted and the only thing that would shut the puppy up so that they could get any rest was to bring him into their bed, where he promptly curled up between them and immediately went back to sleep. As the blonde smiled fondly at the dog, rubbing his warm little tummy, Trace shook her head, laughing and said, “This will not happen with the baby.”

Leaning over the dog and kissing Trace on the forehead, Rachel smiled and said, “We’ll see…”

***********

They named the dog Ramiro, after a neighbor’s German Shepherd Trace had adopted while growing up, who had that same name. The neighbor, a Basque woman who was very kind to the detective, feeding her meals when her mother was too ‘busy’ to do so, told Trace that the name Ramiro meant Great Judge. That animal became her best friend and when the dog died of old age, she grieved as though she had lost someone very dear to her (which, in fact, she had) and she could think of no better honor to bestow on this puppy than to name him after someone so very special. Rachel agreed.

Another couple weeks went by with Ed Jackson making his appearances uncharacteristically rare and that made Trace suspicious. Even when she went to town either with or without Rachel, the sheriff was not out and about, performing his usual routine of making himself abundantly and annoyingly present where he was not wanted…which was pretty much everywhere. Silas, who was always a fountain of information, advised the detective that, for some reason, Jackson had been sticking close to his office, apparently, not even going home at night, preferring instead to sleep in a little room behind the office of the jail. While everybody else seemed okay with the sudden scarcity of Ed Jackson, Trace didn’t like it. A warning bell tolled in her gut and she had learned a long time ago never to ignore that feeling. He was up to something, she was sure of it and she was even more sure that whatever it was, she was going to be the target.

**********

Ben Crane was one-quarter of the way home. His rage was so complete that he felt he could have walked the rest of the way to Sagebrush and still made it in the same amount of time as it would take him and his horse to get there. He wouldn’t have stopped now if it hadn’t been that his horse was too exhausted to travel any further tonight. After both he and his mount got a drink by a stream, he hobbled his pure ebony Friesian to a grassy lair by some rather large boulders and a few trees, where he decided to bed down for the night.

He stripped the saddle from the shiny, black horse and watched as the sweaty animal rolled on the ground. Crane rubbed him down with handfuls of dried grass, then hitched the stallion to a low branch where the horse began to dine on the lush vegetation at his feet. Crane also needed to think about dinner, something substantial, as he had been living on whatever he had in his pack since he had left Webb City. Within the last half mile at least, he had seen the tracks and droppings of both deer and elk, so he was pretty sure he would eat well before he went to sleep that night.

Getting his things settled around where he would later build a campfire, he then took up his rifle and wiped it down, removing any dampness and exterior dirt from it. His backhair continued to bristle at the thought of Rachel being with anybody else, at the visual of some other man having her every night and getting it lovingly, willingly and, he had no doubt, eagerly. Crane could not bear the thought of that pretty little face and body that just begged to be touched again and again, warming the bed of anyone else. Well, if it was one thing he could tuck up under his belt, it was the knowledge that he’d had her first. He grinned, sadistically, at the memory and wondered if the blonde’s husband knew that he hadn’t married a virgin. Of course he knew, Crane then thought, all men know. And the son-of-a-bitch obviously stayed married to her anyway, which immediately put him right back into another sour mood.

No man had ever gone up against him or his family and the ones who tried, lived to regret it, if they lived at all. What could possibly be so different about this man where Jackson, his uncle John and cousin Seth couldn’t keep him in line? Why the man had to be downright crazy in the head and, for that matter, so did Rachel, to think that someone, anyone, would keep him away from her, keep him from taking her whenever he damn well pleased. However, if the man was a touch insane, it would make the confrontation a little more interesting because crazy people weren’t afraid of anything. Crazy didn’t scare him…but he learned to never underestimate it. Regardless, he could not stop thinking of Rachel and what it felt like to have her and then after he killed her husband, what it would be like to have her again.

Without realizing it until it became almost painful, he’d sprouted an erection that began straining the fabric of his trousers. Looking down, he wasted no time unbuttoning his pants and immediately went to work on taking care of that little problem, fantasizing about a certain feisty blonde while he did.

**********

Life had been evolving smoothly. Too smoothly for Trace’s liking. The fence was in place and strong, the cattle were healthy and productive, the crops were starting to thrive, Ramiro was growing like a little weed and Rachel was really showing now. The reality that there would soon be an infant in their lives was becoming more and more clear and the detective began preparing the house for the arrival of a baby. She had found some items packed away in the barn that had been Rachel’s when she was a newborn and the brunette pulled out all the clothes and set to work at reinforcing a lovely cradle with intricate hand carvings on all sides.

Trace was so settled into her new life that memories of her past were really beginning to fade into obscurity. She could not think of anywhere else she would rather be, anyone else she would rather be with, regardless of the impending threat by, return of and inevitable showdown with the Cranes. The brunette truly believed she had been given a second chance and she was not going to screw this up. Redemption was a funny thing. She had never felt she needed redeeming and now that she had been, she didn’t know how she could have existed the other way. But, back then, she selfishly lived for nothing other than more money and cheap thrills. Now, she knew, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she would die for Rachel and this unborn child and that was a revelation to someone who never would have believed she’d had that kind of selflessness inside her.

She had grown up always being cast aside, always having to fight for whatever little crumb of life was tossed her way, always thinking that taking was the key to survival, that ‘honor’ and ‘integrity’ and ‘truth’ and ‘benevolence’ were for suckers. The meek would never inherit the Earth, they would inherit nothing but insurmountable bruises from always turning the other cheek. A part of her still believed this. Trace was far from being meek but she was learning that compromise could be life’s saving grace.

Before ending up here, in 1879, the detective would have never settled on anything. Compromise meant weakness in her eyes and Trace hadn’t known weakness or dependability since right around the time she was potty trained. She knew the Cranes would never concede in any situation, either. However, her advantage was knowing how they thought and knowing she could use it against them. Hopefully she could eventually accomplish a peaceful, agreeable arrangement with no one getting killed but she sincerely doubted it. Too much was at stake. For everyone.

All these thoughts passed through the detective’s head while digesting a hearty supper of steak and sliced potatoes all fried in bacon grease. As delicious as that was, she was going to have to expound on the dangers of high cholesterol to the normally health conscious blonde. After cleaning up the dishes from the table, Trace stepped out onto the porch about to pick up her guitar when she sensed that something was amiss. Focusing on the herd that had come into the barn to eat, she immediately saw that one was missing.

“Sweetheart, I don’t see all of the cows,” she told Rachel, who joined her on the porch. Both women searched the immediate area surrounding the house, stable and barn and the errant heifer was nowhere to be found. “It will be dark in an hour or two, so I’m going to take Rio out now and look around the property. I’m sure she just wandered off. I’ll find her and get her back here as soon as I can. Will you be okay here by yourself?”

The Pawnee were having a celebration that night and since Trace had intended on being home, their absence had not been a big deal. Usually there were one or two tribal members close by to keep an eye on not only their own interests in the growing corn and squash but on the ranch buildings as well. They trusted the Cranes and anyone affiliated with them less than the detective and the blonde did.

“I’ll be fine.” Rachel was grateful for the protectiveness of the brunette but Trace had drilled armed self-defense into her and she felt confident if she had to use the Winchester or the carbine, she would. Or would she? She had never shot a human being before. She had used the rifle on plenty of animals but never on a person. When it came down to it, could she, would she really pull that trigger? She guessed it depended on the circumstances and she hoped she would never have to find out. “Go round up our cow. I’ll just sit here on the porch and get some fresh air.” She looked down at the happy puppy dancing around her feet. “Ramiro will protect me,” she smiled, reaching down to pick up the dog.

Trace kissed the blonde goodbye, patted Rachel’s belly, ruffled the fur on Ramiro’s head and went to the stable to saddle up the mustang.

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

She sat atop Rio, gazing out over the landscape, sweeping her periphery with a more than appreciative study of what Mother Nature was offering her. Sunlight suddenly poked through the clouds and dropped through the trees, eliciting a shattered radiance from the overcast sky, the oaks and pines poised in almost regal beauty. She could hear the river babbling to her left, as a soft breeze whispered through her and she looked down at the moss on the nearby rocks that was of the deepest shade of kelly green. No artist could recreate this majesty on canvas and no photographer would ever be able to capture this dazzling display on film.

Trace heeled her mustang into an ambling walk and came out over a small rock landing. Before her was a lovely meadow and beyond that loomed the northern wall of the mountains, cut by deep ridges and furrowed by shallow folds. Scanning the area completely, she neither could see nor hear any signs of the lone, runaway cow. Neither could she kick the feeling that Ed Jackson was somehow behind this.

As the sun was beginning to quickly set and the sky was starting to darken into night, Trace decided to turn Rio around and head back to the house. As it was, she would be leaving Rachel alone in the cabin longer than she cared to. Trace knew Rachel could handle herself with a gun and that, sacred celebration or not, one or two Pawnee were never very far away but she would never forgive herself if something were to happen and she was not right there to help deal with it. Hopefully the cow would be fine until morning when she would again start looking for her at first light. If she found the bovine in any other condition than safe, there would be hell to pay.

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

61

It had been dark for nearly thirty minutes when a noise alerted the man lying in wait that the time had come to take care of business before his bosses got back to town.

Sheriff Ed Jackson brought his rifle to bear, trying to estimate the height and distance of Trace Sheridan, sitting tall on that mustang, then aimed where he believed the bane of his existence’s body would be. He put a careful bead on her silhouette with his Winchester and then squeezed the trigger, the sound of the shot splitting the night. The noise echoed to the mountains and back and a cruel smile crossed the sheriff’s face, knowing Rachel had to have heard it and just imagined the terror and dread that filled the traitorous blonde’s heart.

Hearing the rifle bark, the stab of flame struck her eyes before the bullet slapped her like a whiplash, feeling the jarring impact of the slug as it entered her shoulder, tumbling her from her saddle. It took her a moment to realize what had happened and instinct told Trace to get the hell out of there. Rio had already retreated to some place safe at a thundering pace and now it was his rider’s turn to do the same.

The wound was on her left side which was fortunate as she was right-handed. Drawing one of her Colts from its holster, she knew she had to move behind something that would provide her with some semblance of cover or at least concealment. Trace started to rise but another shot slammed her back onto the ground as she felt a stab of agony in her side. She inhaled in the coppery smell of blood and knew she was in trouble.

The detective used her legs to slide herself behind a clump of bushes, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness, staying as still as she could, drawing in shallow, careful breaths and listening for the slightest movement, the remotest of sounds. She heard nothing.

Suddenly a wild barrage of gunfire flew inches over her head, into the trees behind her, the flash from the barrel coming from the south band of forest to her right and then there was silence. The detective knew it was searching fire, that her attacker was shooting blindly, either hoping to hit her again or provoke her to fire back, so that he could see the direction from which the barrel flame was coming. Trace counted six shots and figured whoever it was must be reloading. Her shoulder was throbbing and she knew that with every beat of her heart, blood was pumping out of her body. Quickly checking out the wound on her side, she assessed it to be a graze, even though it stung like an entire swarm of hornets and oozed red like a stuck pig.

She knew this had to be the work of Ed Jackson. The Carvers made it clear that they were staying out of this vendetta the sheriff had for Trace. When the Cranes got back, that would be a different matter but until then, Ed was on his own. It did not surprise her in the least, he would ambush her like this and she quietly cursed herself for letting her guard down. While she waited, she used her right hand to remove the revolver from her left holster and laid it on her lap. Her entire left side was starting to feel as though it was weighted down with cement. Propping her back up against a stump, the detective heard dry twigs snapping and dead leaves crunching and she knew the sheriff was closing in on her.

“Hey, Ed…” Trace acknowledged, as the sheriff came into view. Her Colt was trained on him, her hand very steady. “I knew you’d pull a sneak attack and you didn’t disappoint me.” Her voice was strained, regardless of how calm she was trying to be, as her pain was evident. “You’re a dirty fighter, Ed, no way around it. No code of the west with you,” Trace stated, her wavering voice reflecting her weakened state. She referred to the unspoken decalogue between honorable gunfighters of not drawing and firing first and especially not bushwhacking someone.

“Say what ya gotta, Sheridan, but it ends here.” He had put his pistol away and was aiming his rifle at her.

“You do realize that if you shoot me, reflex will make me shoot you back, right?”

“That’s if you can even hit me. You look in pretty bad shape. I know I can kill you with one shot…I don’t think you can do the same.” He snickered, salaciously. “I’m gonna love taking your head off, son. Then you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna bring your lifeless corpse back to your wife and drop it at her doorstep. And then, I’m gonna take advantage of her grief and get me a little piece of that. And since we don’t need no more little Sheridans running around, I’m gonna -”

His eyes popped open in wide disbelief as the bullet struck him in the midsection. Dropping his Winchester, he just simply sat down, staring at the hole in his shirt, the ring of blood surrounding it rapidly getting larger. Jackson, for all his bullying, had never been shot before and in his cocky ignorance, never thought he would be. As his body washed over in shock, he looked up at Trace, who was focused behind her.

There stood Rachel, holding the carbine, smoke emanating from the barrel. Trace had never seen that look in the blonde’s eyes before. She hoped she’d never see it again – at least not directed toward her. The brunette then returned her attention to the wounded sheriff, as the blonde took a step closer, looking down at her injured spouse.

“How bad are you hurt?” Rachel asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

“I’ll live.” Trace responded, her breath now coming out in gasps. She hoped that was true.

The blonde never dropped her rifle and looked back at Jackson, her eyes narrow slits, her voice even and deliberate. “You know, Sheriff, you got away with tormenting and threatening my parents, you got away with killing my fiancée’s folks and bullying me ever since they have been gone. You stood by knowing that Ben Crane raped me and now you tried to take the most precious thing I have in my life right now…You’re right, Sheriff…it ends here. Say hello to Satan for me.” Squeezing off another shot, Rachel did not react when Jackson’s head snapped back and the sheriff slumped to the ground.

Then she passed out.

**********

When Rachel awoke, she was lying on her own sofa, her forehead covered by a cool, damp cloth. Standing over her was Little Hawk and another Pawnee she did not recognize.

“Trace?” It was the first thought she had, the only thing she could ask.

The other Indian placed his hand gently on Rachel’s shoulder to stop her from rising too quickly. “She is strong, like a horse. The bullet did not stop in her body. Her wounds will heal quickly.”

Rachel looked up at Little Hawk, who nodded. “She is resting. She lost much blood. Not enough to stop her. She said you saved her life.”

“I…I guess I did. What about the sheriff?”

“The sheriff no longer walks this earth. He will not be missed.”

She supposed she should have felt something – remorse, guilt, shame…but all she felt was relief. The fact that she had killed a man, taken a life, did not affect her in a manner that she would have previously expected. At least not yet as she was sure most of her indifference was due to shock. Her hand then went to her belly. “My baby?”

“The child is strong like Tsápaat,” Little Hawk assured her. When Rachel looked back over at the man standing next to the hunter, questioningly, Little Hawk said, “this is Fire Arrow. He is a medicine man.”

Sitting up slowly, she glanced toward the other room, seeing a figure on the bed, in the darkness, covered by the thick quilt. Standing, gaining her equilibrium, Rachel extended her hand to Fire Arrow, who took it warmly in his own. “Thank you, Fire Arrow.”

“We are never far away, Caskí Custíra’u.”

Rachel found a smile for the medicine man. Even though they had never met before this moment, he referred to her by the pet name his other tribal members had been calling her. It made her feel like she had known him a long time.

Still a little unsteady on her feet, she slowly walked into the bedroom and sat down on the bed, taking one of Trace’s hands in her own. She watched the detective sleeping, worried about the clamminess of the brunette’s palm and her ghostly white pallor, wondering exactly how much blood Trace had lost. Fire Arrow had cooked pine resin to fashion a poultice for inflammation and pain but the area around her wounds still looked angry and were seeping. Before daybreak, she would replace the medicated covering with nettle tea and honey – the thought of which elicited a memory that made Rachel smile and sad at the same time, as it reminded her of the first time she ever patched the brunette up, the day they met. The blonde had never seen the detective look so helpless and debilitated and, regardless of what the medicine man had told her, she was frightened of losing the one and only thing in her life that made her feel whole. Trying to be brave, Rachel still could not stop a single tear that rolled down her cheek.

“I was hoping the lead had not been molded yet that had your name on it,” the blonde told her quietly. With Ramiro curled up by Trace’s side, Rachel and the puppy held a vigil while various members of the Pawnee and her neighbors stood guard of the house and property and made sure that the blonde ate and slept.

The first time Trace moved, she groaned softly and the sound went through Rachel like a chill. But it was the most beautiful noise the blonde had ever heard. After the bleeding had stopped, the blonde continued to attend to the detective’s wounds with a poultice of chamomile flowers for the swelling and honey to draw the infection out.

Within the next few days, the detective was awake more than she was asleep and started to get her strength back. Rachel fed her broth made from venison, with healing ingredients of cabbage and garlic and only left her side to make trips to the outhouse.

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

“You’re tougher than post oak, Trace,” Rachel smiled, looking into precious blue eyes. It was a week after the incident and life had once again begun to settle down for them. They were together, in bed, alone in the house, this being the first night that a Pawnee or someone from town had not been with them. With Ed Jackson gone and the Carvers’ idle, the need to stand guard seemed less urgent.

“I love you, Rachel. Slap me if I don’t say that to you every day, at least once a day,” Trace told her, gratefully. The mark on her side from the graze had already scabbed over and looked a hell of a lot worse than it felt. The wound through her shoulder was still mending and with Rachel’s natural remedies and devoted nursing abilities, it felt much better than Trace thought it should have under the circumstances. Her mobility was limited but she was getting more movement back every day and as soon as she could, she would begin working her left arm out with the punching bag still hanging in the barn.

“Jed Turner stopped by today while you were napping,” the blonde said, as she leaned over and lightly kissed the detective’s bandaged shoulder several times.

“What would bring him all the way out here?” It was odd, the detective thought, that the mayor made a trip to the Triple Y, as according to everyone else, he seemed very disturbed about being left with making all the funeral arrangements for the sheriff. “He wasn’t nasty to you or anything, was he?”

“Jed? Oh, no, he was fine. He told me he was upset that there was no one to do all that stuff for Ed, seeing as he had no family anywhere and Mrs. Crane refused to, denying that Ed Jackson was ever on any Crane payroll.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Trace…your language…” the blonde quietly reprimanded. “Anyway, everybody knows it’s a lie but his griping about that was not why he was here.” Rachel gingerly ran her fingers in wide circles around the brunette’s contusion. Now that Trace was going to be fine, Rachel shamelessly admitted to herself that if it was one thing she missed the most while her spouse was infirmed, it was their daily and/or nightly lovemaking. As she could feel her pulse in her loins, she was wondering just how she could manage to give both her and the brunette pleasure without harming Trace any further.

“So why was he here?” Trace could not ignore that the blonde’s touch was starting to stir her up, sexually. And as much as everything ached and pulled and was generally uncomfortable, her brain engaged in strategical maneuvering at just exactly how she could position herself so that they could both get off with a minimal amount of pain. And if Rachel did not stop touching her like that, to hell with the pain…

“He said that the town needed a new lawman. Elections were held this morning.” The blonde’s fingers were now lightly rubbing the detective’s taut abdomen, making the brunette’s stomach muscles quiver at her touch. Smirking, not making eye contact with Trace, Rachel was enjoying the effect she was having.

“So…now who’s the sorry sucker in that thankless position?” Trace’s breath caught as Rachel’s hand began to float lower. There was no mistaking her wife’s intention now. “Don’t start something you can’t finish here, Blondie.”

Rachel dipped her head down, nuzzling Trace’s neck, nipping at her earlobe. “Who says I can’t finish it…Sheriff.”

The brunette’s eyes closed as the blonde began leaving a trail of kisses and nibbles along the detective’s throat and jawline. She was about to give in to the signals her body was sending to her and respond when Rachel’s words sunk in and her eyes snapped open. “WHAT?” Sitting up, quickly, she stupidly forgot her injuries and nearly tore the stitching in her shoulder open. “Ow! Fuck!”

“TRACE!!”

Ramiro hopped around the bed, yapping.

“Don’t you ‘Trace’ me, Rachel Sheridan! Why did you just call me sheriff?” The look in those blue eyes was not pleased and the blonde was quite sure it was not from nearly wrenching all her body parts again and re-injuring herself.

“You won the election,” she stated simply.

“I wasn’t running!”

“Seems the people of Sagebrush didn’t care about that. Your name came up at an emergency town hall meeting and it was unanimous. No one associated with the Cranes showed up to vote.”

“No! No way in hell, Rachel, I am not going to be this town’s sheriff.”

The blonde began her featherlight touches again, concentrating on bringing the brunette back to a heightened state of arousal. “The people have spoken, Trace. They look up to you. You give them hope.” She leaned in again and kissed the detective under her jaw. “You give them an unspoken promise of fairness.” Rachel pushed Trace’s hair aside with her free hand and kissed a very sensitive spot behind the brunette’s ear. Fingers had found their way to damp curls covering a bundle of nerves that now seemed to have a mind of their own as the detective’s mound raised up for stronger contact. “And you give them an expectation of finally getting their freedom back. They need you, Trace.” Burying her fingers into hot, wet folds and stroking, the blonde’s mouth hovered over the brunette’s. “I need you, too. Right now.”

The detective reached up, placing her hand on the back of Rachel’s neck and drew her down, roughly, so their lips met, grinding together in passion. Trace pulled the blonde on top of her, to give Rachel better access and to also allow herself a gateway to her wife’s intimate areas as well.

The pressure of Rachel’s body on her hurt like a motherfucker but she was not about to stop the encounter when she was ready to explode – in a good way – and the blonde was obviously not too far behind her. Even though it had not been that long since they’d had sex, she had missed this, had missed how Rachel always readily and gratefully responded to her, had missed how much the blonde so thoroughly enjoyed all the new things she had learned (and taken to it like a fish to water) in the bedroom.

Their complete sexual compatibility still amazed the detective and right now, she did not care how much agony her body was in or that she had just been sacrificed to the Crane family by becoming the town cop. She would deal with all that in the morning. Right now, she wanted to watch her beautiful, pregnant wife come all over her hand, cry out her name repeatedly in ecstasy and then she wanted to take her again, sinking her tongue where her fingers had just been. It was going to be a long, glorious night.

***********

62

Sheriff Trace Sheridan. After saying it to herself for two days, it started to sound not so bad after all. Sure, it was a huge obligation but, actually, it was a lot less commitment than she’d had before she ended up in 1879, that’s for sure. The brunette had basically been slowly taking on the responsibilities without the badge, anyway, at least now she would have the authority to back up what some might have passed off as bravado.

The Cranes were going to be a problem, there was no way around that, but if anyone in Sagebrush was ready for the sneaky, pompous, above-the-law family, it was the 21st Century detective. The more she got used to the idea of her new job, the more she realized it was meant for her to do this.

The hardest part was going to be leaving Rachel alone on the property while she did business in town. Jed Turner had visited the ranch once again and told Trace she would be making a whopping sixty dollars a month and that was as high as he could go and with that extra money, she could hire someone to not so much work the land and do what she normally did on a daily basis but to, more or less, act as a lookout. Just in case.

“But Ed Jackson’s gone,” Rachel argued, mildly at Trace’s suggestion. “The Pawnee are out here every day…and usually most nights…helping out…it should be fine.”

“The Cranes are coming back, sweetheart,” Trace reminded her, carefully easing herself down into the porch chair, enjoying the cool breeze that came with the sunset. She was feeling incredibly better and was much more mobile, her shoulder now free of its sling. Rachel had been lovingly administering to the brunette’s wounds with her natural remedies and feeding her a lot of protein to try and ward off any anemia the detective may have developed due to blood loss.

Trace picked up her guitar with her right hand, laid it over her lap and wiggled her fingers deftly around the neck, holding down notes to see if the instrument needed tuning. Once she tightened that stubborn E string again, she plucked out a chord progression that sounded like she was going to play ‘Stairway To Heaven.’

“Yes, I know. But they aren’t due back for a while…” Rachel had got so she just loved that song. That and “How Do I Live?” which, although that tune spoke about the possibility of breaking up, she still thought it was one of the most beautiful songs she had ever heard, the message so clear and the way Trace sang it gave the blonde goosebumps and brought tears to her eyes. She adored Trace’s voice and would drop just about anything to listen to the brunette sing.

“There are still the Carvers and whatever assorted ranch hands were left behind to keep the place running. I don’t trust any of them and you shouldn’t, either,” the brunette stated softly as she picked out notes on individual strings. Suddenly she stopped playing and an impish grin crossed her face. “Oooh, Rachel, I have just the song for you.” She strummed the chord of G. “I shot the sheriff… but I swear it was in self-defense…” she crooned.

The blonde’s eyes widened then narrowed while she listened to the rest of the lyrics. At first, she was shocked that Trace would treat her murdering someone so lightly. But then the blonde realized that her spouse was trying to get her to not take on any unnecessary and unwarranted guilt. They both knew that Rachel had undoubtedly saved Trace’s life that night…and maybe her own and her baby’s as well. The moment of feeling sinful had passed and was replaced by overwhelming relief that her family was safe and the threat of Ed Jackson was gone forever.

The memory of that night was still surreal. Rachel recalled sitting on the porch for quite a while as sunset became dusk, then evolving fully into night and she was getting a little concerned that Trace was not back yet. Had the detective found the cow and in what condition had she found her? She was sure if the brunette had located a dead or injured cow, Trace would have already been back. And if she had found nothing by sunset, she would have turned around and returned to the house. A sudden, unexplained chill went through the blonde and she fully remembered wondering out loud, “Is this a trick?”

Of course it could have been. It was no secret that The Pawnee would not be doing their usual idling on the property because of their celebration. What if Ed Jackson decided to make some kind of a move? He could have very easily sneaked up to the corral gate while they ate supper and lured one of the herd away, knowing Trace would go looking.

Then she heard the shot that shattered the peaceful night, echoing through her soul and her heart stopped. Oh, no, not again. She had already lost one love to a sheriff’s bullet…could the Lord really be this cruel? Instinct caused her to reach for the carbine. The sound came from the woods behind the house and that is the route on which she took off.

At that point, Rachel was not thinking as pure adrenaline was pushing her forward and while she had just been mildly cursing the starless night only minutes earlier, she was now grateful for it. It was the pitch blackness that allowed her to see the glow of the muzzle flashes when six shots rang out in rapid succession and led her in the direction of where she was sure she would find Trace. The closer she got, fear and dread seized her gut. What would she see there? What if Trace was dead and she was walking into a trap, too? Well, if Trace was dead, she did not want to live, either.

When she heard Ed Jackson’s voice, she stopped running and slowed to a standstill to get her bearings, positive he must have heard her heartbeat from where she was standing. It was pounding so forcefully in her ears, she could barely make out the sheriff’s words. But then she heard the weak but impossibly welcomed voice of her lover and knew Trace was still alive.

Stepping quietly up to the scene, she saw Jackson facing her but focused on the ground just in front of a clump of bushes before her. His Winchester was aimed at what she assumed must have been Trace. When she heard the horrible things the sheriff was saying, the carbine fired as if from its own volition. She didn’t remember raising the rifle or aiming. However, the second shot would stay with her forever and she would never forget Jackson’s head jerking back before she passed out.

Red Sky had told Rachel the next day that he found the missing cow lazily grazing in a lush area of grass not too far from the river just outside the barbed wire fence. Matthew Reddick, who had stopped by to see how the detective was doing, figured Jackson had probably thought he would come back for the cow later after Trace, and most likely Rachel too, was dead. Hell, Matthew had said, knowing Jackson, he was probably planning on taking the whole herd to the Crane spread as a gift after eliminating anyone with a rightful claim to the Triple Y.

Rachel snapped out of it and absorbed the moment as the brunette ended the song, only too grateful that Trace was still there and able to finish anything at that point. As if in agreement, the baby seemed to kick her a few times, emphasizing the sentiment.

“Where’d you go?” The detective was smiling fondly at Rachel and the fact that, totally lost in thought, the blonde’s hand appeared to be unconsciously and affectionately massaging her bulging belly.

“Huh? Oh,” she grinned, looking down at her stomach, “just thinking about how you make every day worth rising and especially every night worth retiring.” She glanced up at the brunette with an unmistakable twinkle in her green eyes. “And about how much I love you and how much in love with you I am. And about how our baby is so lucky to have you for a father – well…you know what I mean.”

It was the way Rachel just came out with these things, so open, honest and unpretentious that always took the detective by surprise and caused her to nearly dissolve into a puddle each time. Trace let the meaning of her wife’s words sink in and the put the guitar aside. Her voice was low and seductive. “What do you say we retire right now and I’ll definitely make it worth your while.”

That particular tone always sent a jolt of heat right through Rachel and settled like a brewing volcano between her thighs. It still amazed her how the detective could so completely mesmerize her, making her feel weak in the knees just from a certain vocal inflection or a look in those baby blues that reflected pure want, meant for her and only her. “But…you have your monthly…”

Trace recognized the hesitation in Rachel’s voice and reached over, intertwining her fingers with the blonde’s. Even as far as Rachel had progressed in anything and everything to do with lesbian love and sex, there were still a few things that tested her comfort zone. Touching the detective anywhere ‘down there’ while she was bleeding was one of them. Bringing the blonde’s hand to her mouth, Trace kissed the strong fingers that brought her so much pleasure. “Yes but you don’t…”

From the flush barely visible yet still noticeable on the smaller woman’s face, Trace knew her wife was already too aroused to say no. Besides, the detective wanted to please Rachel, to get her off so totally and completely that the blonde quivered for days afterward and, knowing how responsive Rachel would be to that, it was enough for Trace to sympathetically climax with her. If that didn’t happen, she had no qualms about satisfying herself while doing the same to her lover.

Anticipating the rest of the evening, a rush of unmitigated lust surged through the tall woman. Standing, the detective eased Rachel up with her, where they kissed passionately and walked arm-in-arm inside the house, closing the door behind them.

***********

Seven days after her election, the new sheriff rode into town and started her first day as the one and only lawman in Sagebrush. It felt odd to be wearing a badge again, especially so openly on her rawhide vest. She was used to wearing a flat shield clipped to her belt, which only needed to be visible when she chose to show it. Now, she sported a bright, shiny, brass star ending in five points with the words ‘Sheriff’ engraved across the center, ‘Sagebrush’ in a half-circle above the middle and ‘Jefferson County’ in a semi-circle below it. Whereas in her former career, she kept a low profile while working, her new life would not permit it.

She looked around the damp, filthy, musty smelling building – the only one in the small community made mostly of brick – and her first official decision was to clean the place up and personalize it, exorcising the spirit of Ed Jackson and removing any physical reminders of him as well. Not knowing who Jackson may have provided with keys to the cells, Trace had also arranged to have the locks changed sometime during the week. If, by chance, she did get a Crane behind bars, it wouldn’t be very effective if he could just reach in his pocket, produce a key and simply unlock the door, freeing himself.

Isaac Tipping dropped in, bringing with him a young woman who looked to be about his own age. He introduced her to Trace as Lydia Canfield, his sweetheart. With a smirk and a raised eyebrow, an expression that made both teenagers blush, Trace said, “And when did this happen?”

The last time Isaac had worked on the ranch with her, he spoke of no one in particular, much less a girlfriend. The young woman was a little slip of a thing, strawberry blonde, big green-hazel eyes and freckles. Trace suddenly wondered what Rachel looked like at Lydia’s age which triggered a tender smile.

“Well…we always kinda liked each other but two weeks ago at the dance at the schoolhouse, we promised ourselves to each other.”

“Promised? Is that like being engaged to marry?” the new sheriff inquired.

“It’s kind of like promising to get betrothed,” Lydia shyly volunteered.

“Well, then. That’s a big commitment.” Trace reached over and extended her hand to Isaac, who shook it enthusiastically. “Congratulations.” The detective then took Lydia’s hand and kissed the back of it. “And congratulations to you, too.” Flushed for a different reason now, Isaac’s girlfriend was charmed.

Seeing the expression on Lydia’s face, Isaac reached over and politely but firmly removed his girlfriend’s hand from Trace’s grasp and held onto it tightly. “So, we thought we’d stop by and see if you needed any help. Sheriff Jackson never put much effort into keeping the place clean…”

Amused by the boy’s insecure, possessive action, the brunette shook her head and cleared her throat. Looking around, disgusted, Trace said, “He was a pig. But then, I guess we all knew that. Well, kids, if you really want to get your hands dirty, be my guest. I’ll go sterilize the jail cells as best I can and Lydia, if you want to start in the office and Isaac, you take the room in the back, that would be great.”

“Anything you don’t want us to throw away?” Lydia asked, untying her bonnet.

“Whatever looks official, I guess. I’ll need to look over the paperwork and see if there is any unfinished business that might be sneaking around to haunt me. So if you could just put it all into a neat pile, it would be much appreciated.”

As the two teenagers rolled up their sleeves, Trace stepped over to the detention area and took a deep breath. The holding cells smelled like urine and vomit. Some things never changed.

***********

Before the day was over, it seemed that everyone in town had stopped by to congratulate Trace, wish her well and bring her some kind of gift, mostly homemade food dishes or dessert. Since she had ridden in on Rio and had no way to transport any of it back home, what she, Isaac, Lydia and the visitors to her new office did not eat, she would bring over to Wilbur’s at the end of the day.

After the teenagers left, having done a fine job of tidying the place up, Trace sat down behind the desk and began looking over the paperwork Lydia had put in neat piles. Nothing out of the ordinary jumped out at her, which she was grateful for, but with Jackson having been her predecessor, she still wasn’t completely comfortable that everything associated with that particular office was on the up and up. Until she completely claimed the position as her own, she would err on the side of caution.

Around mid-day, Trace had walked over to the lumber mill and purchased three wooden crates to use as file boxes. She organized her paperwork to divide the official blank and filled-out documents of annual reports, civil dockets, prisoners’ dockets, cell room ledger, prisoner records, transferring prisoners to state or county institutions ledger, execution fee dockets, common pleas court files, time book, expense book and daily account book.

Scanning over what Jackson had entered in his daily account/incident log book disgusted and disturbed Trace deeply. It was a memoir in engaging in the exact type of behavior he should have been arresting criminals for – extortion, fraud, deception, forgery, perjury and shaking down the very people he had sworn to protect and defend. She shuddered, thinking that’s exactly what she used to do. The brunette put that book aside, to take home with her when she left the office for the day. She wanted to keep it somewhere safe as evidence against the Cranes, should whatever was to happen in their future battle, went to trial.

Mayor Turner had also made a visit to the office on his way back from his nooner with Cassandra. Trace had sent word over to the saloon that she would like to speak with Jed when he was available. The detective wanted to know exactly what the town expected from her now that she had this responsibility and there was no one better to explain it to her than the mayor.

Settling in the uncomfortable chair opposite Trace, the mayor more than enjoyed a couple of slices of Mrs. Edwards’ peach pie, as he rattled off some of the duties of the town sheriff.

“Lesse here, well…enforcin’ the law and arrestin’ people, surely, that’s the big ones,” he began, shoveling an enormous forkful of pastry into his mouth. “When the circuit judge comes to town, transportin’ and escortin’ prisoners, if ya got any, to and from the courtroom – which, here, is usually the school house on a Saturday. Then there’s…uh…servin’ and executin’ writs and warrants, enforcin’ injunctions…” He paused to take another few bites, then wash them down with coffee. “Then there’s conductin’ property sales and collectin’ fees and funds, related to that…that’s where ol’ Ed seemed to go astray…”

“Your Honor, ‘ol’ Ed’ went astray long before that became an issue, trust me.” Trace could have expounded more on what she had read earlier but she had no doubt she would not have been telling Jed Turner something he did not already know.

Trace’s title of respect for the mayor just tickled him. Not many people referred to him by His Honor, and he had always liked that expression. “Nope, guess you’d be right about that, son.” He held out his coffee cup toward the brunette, indicating that he would like more. As Trace reached for the graniteware pot, Jed shook his head. “Ain’t ya got something a little bit…stronger…than that layin’ around? My mouth is dry as a cactus.”

How anyone could be dry after what seemed like a whole gallon of coffee was beyond her, but she knew what he meant and smirked, returning the pot to the nicely purring, small iron stove to her left. Standing up, Trace walked over to a pile of junk that was to be thrown out before she closed the office for the night. From it she plucked a half-empty bottle of light orange-colored liquid. Sniffing of it earlier, she knew it was alcohol, some kind of rotgut, but whatever kind it was escaped her. She had opted to toss it out as she was not particularly fond of the assumed potency of the mystery liquor and anything that had touched Ed Jackson’s lips would never knowingly touch hers. Bringing it back to the desk, she saw Turner’s eyes light up. “Is this what you mean?”

“That’ll do. Can always use a little whiskey to keep that fire in my belly stoked.” Taking the bottle from the detective, the mayor filled his cup to half and continued. “A snootful in the afternoon never hurt nobody,” he declared, throwing the cup back, swallowing the contents with minimal reaction. “Now…where was I? Oh, yeah…if there’s a trial, which there ain’t been one in near ten years – Jacob Crane seen to that with his havin’ to have everythin’ his way, but now that you’re sheriff, I reckon things’ll change a might…”

“Count on it.”

“Yep, I figgered as much. Anyways,” he poured another shot into his coffee cup, “if there’s a trial, you and me, we get to select a jury. Not that we’ve had any for a long while but if there is any kind of unlawful assembly or disturbances, you’d be the one to break that up and arrest anyone who don’t mind ya respectful and proper. If you need deputies, you can call on the powers of the county to deputize anyone or pick yerself a posse.”

“Ever been the need for a posse around here?” Trace asked, pouring herself one more cup, feeling the unusual need for the caffeine in the afternoon. Her weariness was probably due to her not having all her strength back yet.

“Oh, hell, no…the only posse that’s ever been needed here was one that shoulda gone over to the Crane spread…but any sheriff try that, they’d be a dead sheriff.” Turner’s eyes then met Trace’s. “No offense, son. If anybody can do it without gettin’ hisself killed, I’d bet a month’s pay, it’d be you.”

“Why, thank you, Mayor. I appreciate your confidence in me.”

“Whether or not you can actually round up enough men to ride with you will be another thing. As it is, if you don’t get Sagebrush back to an orderly town and, Lord help us, Jacob and his boys get the best of you – well, let’s just say that might lead to some unpleasantness like scaffolding and ropes and none of us want to see that.”

Especially not Trace. “How can Crane legally do that to anyone without a trial?”

“Without a sheriff to testify against him, no judge will ever lock him or his boys up. And there are some circuit judges who pass through here who, it won’t matter if you do testify against them anyways, they still won’t lock him up…Jacob has too much money and them judges are too greedy.” As Turner reached for a piece of apple pie, which had been sent over by Molly Ledbetter, Trace absorbed all that he was telling her.

“So, tell me, Mayor, why did the town elect me? Especially since I had no interest in running.”

“‘Cause you got sand, boy. Ain’t no one else in this town ever stood up to Ed Jackson. Not only did you stand up to him, you killed him, gettin’ him out of our hair!”

Only the Pawnee knew that Rachel had been the one who shot Jackson. They all agreed it would bode much better with the town for them to think Trace did it. Regardless of the circumstances, no one looked too kindly upon ladies who killed anyone. And, although the detective very much wanted to give credit where credit was due, she went along with it because Rachel asked her to.

“I gotta tell ya, Trace, even them snooty ol’ gals who only leave home to go to Sunday meetin’ ran into town here to vote for you. They never come to town. Too damn scared they’ll get dirt in their dimples.” Finishing up the pie, Turner held out his cup. “Any more of that coffee left?”

The detective picked up the pot and swirled the contents around, feeling the weight. “Just about one more cup. If you’re going to want more, I’ll have to make another pot.” She poured him the last cup.

“Gotta tell ya, boy…even before Ed Jackson got hisself planted, you had him shakin’ like a congressman at a revival meetin’. Damned worthless, pickle puss of a man, he was. It was always my fondest wish to knock Ed Jackson colder’n a wagon tire, he caused so much trouble in this town…”

“Why couldn’t you stop him?” Trace asked, pointedly.

“The Cranes. Plain and simple. You’ll understand when they get back. Although I do think you’ll make a difference, I don’t believe you can perform miracles.”

The detective smiled inwardly. No, miracles were not within her capacity but insight into a modern world of strategy and self-defense were. Maybe Jed Turner was still afraid of the Cranes. Trace Sheridan was not.

**********

63.

A few weeks after Trace’s election, she and Rachel were asked to attend a celebration at the Pawnee settlement five miles almost directly west of Sagebrush. It was a high honor which both women recognized and acknowledged as such. No one from the town, since the tribe took claim to that area and inhabited it fifteen years earlier, had ever been invited into the fold or asked to witness or participate in any festivity, much less one that celebrated the hopeful preservation of their heritage. Trace and Rachel were not about to refuse the privilege of being the first.

When the couple arrived at the village, they were welcomed as though they had always belonged there. Rachel was assisted down from the wagon by Black Feather and a gaggle of women, mostly around Rachel’s age, who surrounded her, laying hands on her belly, as though consecrating the baby. The blonde was then cloaked in a colorful poncho, placed over her shoulders by one of the older females in the group and escorted away from Trace to an area primarily designated for the wives. The food smelled delicious and the blonde was fascinated by the flatbreads and cornmeal creations that were being put together, her stomach immediately rumbling from a hunger she didn’t realize she’d had. As a guest, the mother-to-be was not expected to help prepare the meal but Rachel being Rachel, she pitched in, anyway.

Watching her pale, blonde wife so easily blend in with the dark-haired, dark-skinned Pawnee women, caused the tall brunette to smile appreciatively and proudly. Momentarily studying her beautiful, glowing lover, Trace never once regretted her decision to stay in Sagebrush and commit herself and her life to this riveting, impressive woman. Rachel being eight months pregnant now just added to her appeal and made her that much more adorable. Despite her unpredictable mood swings.

Little Hawk greeted Trace, shaking her hand and offering her a pipe, a ceramic calumet with a long stem which connected the wide mouthpiece to a tall, deep bowl. Dare she even venture to guess what it could be stuffed with?

“Thanks, Little Hawk, but I don’t smoke,” the new sheriff told him, firmly but politely.

“I do not smoke, either. Only when we have raahisii.” He extended the pipe once more. “It is custom, Tsápaat, to take haaktuu’at when it is offered.”

With an eyebrow raised in skepticism and by now, very used to Little Hawk’s droll but productive sense of humor, Trace hesitantly accepted the long device. “What’s in it?” She fully expected him to say peyote. She had heard all kinds of legends and horror stories about the effects of the cactus plant, the least of which was that hallucinations from ingesting it lasted twenty-four hours. Well…maybe if she only took a cursory hit, she could escape the normal side effects. It’s not that she opposed getting high but she in no way wanted to lose control for possibly a day.

“Cannabis.”

Trace’s eyes popped open, looking at the pipe and then back at Little Hawk. Why hadn’t she smelled it? Was the aroma of meat roasting and bread frying and other vegetable cooking so strong that she completely overlooked the odor of burning leaves? Bringing the bowl of the pipe closer to her nose, she inhaled. Ah, yes. There it was. Cannabis, huh? Well, this certainly was a welcomed surprise. Taking a quick draw off the pipe, she let the psychoactive relaxant slowly burn down her throat and sear into her lungs with a pleasant familiarity and a forbidden sensation she had, suddenly, very much missed. And this was some damned good shit.

“You have smoked cannabis before?” There was a disappointment in Little Hawk’s tone of voice. He had been expecting to see the brunette cough her head off and was looking forward to teaching her how to properly enjoy this herb.

“Oh, yeah…” Trace took another hit, holding her breath, savoring the prompt placidity that settled over her body before handing the pipe back to the Pawnee hunter.

The detective was pretty sure marijuana was not illegal yet, something she had not even considered until now. She smiled. It was a habit she had picked up in high school and one she continued after she graduated from the police academy. She had been a hypocrite and arrested people for selling, buying and possessing pot and then, after her shift, going home and getting high. It wasn’t a constant in her life but she did not hesitate to partake in smoking it following a very stressful day.

She got her quarter bags from the same man who supplied Andy DeSienna with his. Having that connection always got her the best grade for minimal price. This dealer’s stash came directly from Columbia but it wasn’t half as good as what she had just inhaled.

“Where did you get this – the cannabis?”

Little Hawk made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Hemp. It grows everywhere.”

Hemp. Of course. It was probably flourishing, wild all over the Triple Y. Hmmmm…this was certainly a dilemma. Even though hemp wasn’t against any laws yet, she did not want to get back into the routine of relying on pot again to get her through her tough situations. Before, it hadn’t mattered, her life had become pretty meaningless so it made no difference whether she got high or not. Now she had a responsibility – to her wife, to the child she would raise as her own and, most importantly, to herself to not return to being the kind of ruthless, indifferent, uncaring person she had been before she got there. Pot had a tendency to neutralize all her emotions, dulling her senses and making her unobserving and sometimes downright negligent. She could not afford to be that way here and now. However, there was no reason she could not get together with her new friends occasionally and enjoy herself, recreationally, when her accountability was not as front and center, when Rachel was safely ensconced in a secure environment. Like tonight.

“I thought you guys all sat around smoking peyote,” Trace smiled, feeling much looser already.

Little Hawk shrugged. “Peyote is not as strong through the pipe. We take peyote by mouth, whole. We suck on it slowly and then chew it and swallow. We will share some later, if you wish.”

“No, no, thanks. I’m fine with this right here. But I am curious – what’s the difference?”

Little Hawk thought a moment before responding. “When we smoke cannabis, we feel the same. If I eat peyote and you eat peyote, we will not feel the same. It is personal…how would you say…individual. My visions would not be like your visions. If I am ill, I can ask the Great Spirit why I am ill and what I have to do to make it better. I can ask the Great Spirit if I will heal or if I will meet Him. If you are ill, you would have to ask about you and the answers would not be the same. It is the Great Spirit’s message to me. For you? It would be His message to you.”

“So Peyote allows you to have a religious experience?”

Again, Little Hawk tapped his own chest. “Spiritual. Between you and The Creator.” He then held up the pipe. “This – between you and everyone. We all feel the same.”

“But what about hallucinations – seeing things that aren’t there? Nausea? The amount of time it takes for it to wear off?”

The Pawnee hunter shrugged. “It is a choice, Tsápaat. Sometimes the reward of wisdom for yourself is worth the bad things that happen to gain that knowledge.”

Trace stared at him, intently. Wasn’t that the truth.

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

Before the beginning of the festivities, Little Hawk, joined by Howling Wolf, took Trace on a tour of their earth lodge, a large dome-shaped, circular structure, perhaps fifteen or sixteen feet high in the center with a hole left open at the top for a combined chimney and skylight. The floor was semi-subterranean, approximately three feet below ground level, the framework of the building covered with layers of willow branches, grass, dried mud and dirt.

Howling Wolf explained that the earth lodge was divided into northern and southern sectors and each sector was further divided into three stations where the tribal women were separated. The mature women who performed most of the labor occupied one section, another station housed the older female tribal members who cared for the children and tended to household matters and the final section was for young, single women who were being taught their obligations and responsibilities to their tribe.

Trace was surprised to learn that after the semi-annual buffalo hunt, when the men returned to the village, they sometimes did not settle into the same sectors as when they left. The younger Pawnee males being the more transient and moving fluidly from household to household, certainly made it sound like the communal environment Trace first guessed it was. That and the fact that Little Hawk had twelve children by different wives was also a big clue.

When they returned outside, Trace joined Rachel and they were seated to start the meal. Even though the brunette and blonde were both females, they were also guests of honor, and were not required to help serve the food. Under normal circumstances, Rachel would have protested this and insisted on doing what the other women did but she did not want to insult their culture and, now heavy with child, she was grateful to get off her feet.

She was, however, a little taken aback at Trace’s unusually ravenous appetite and the detective’s sudden propensity to think everything was just absolutely hilarious. Her spouse seemed abnormally relaxed and it wasn’t that she was not happy to witness this, she just didn’t understand it. She had not seen the detective partaking in any imbibing and, besides, Trace didn’t act like she regularly did when she had been drinking. And where were her irises? Those gorgeous eyes were now nothing but black pupils with blue rims.

The brunette was also extremely horny, her public restraint seemingly absent. When her fingers weren’t grabbing at whatever was edible that passed by her, her hands were pawing at Rachel uninhibitedly, which caused the blonde to blush and playfully swat her lover’s advances away for most of the evening, even though no one else seemed to notice or care. What had gotten into her beloved Trace? And how soon before they could leave and finish this amorous behavior at home, if they even made it that far?

After the meal was done and the food remnants had been cleared away, just as Trace was about to whisk Rachel behind a tree somewhere, the atmosphere stilled and the happy couple heard the sound of a softly beating drum. This was accompanied by a vocable, a sound to replace words in a song, and then from inside the earth lodge, emerged a procession.

Leading this regal group was the tribal chief, a prominent, elderly man with an eagle feathered headdress that not only reached the ground but continued to trail a good two feet behind him as he moved to a distinct rhythm. He had a fiercely proud nobility about him and a leathery, weathered skin that advertised his approximate age, which the couple guessed later was maybe his eighth decade. They also correctly assumed that this was Moving Elk. Although he was frail, he had an undeniable presence and bearing that almost made Trace and Rachel feel like they should have bowed when he passed by them.

Behind Moving Elk walked the tribal princes and princesses, elders, the warriors and the hunters, then the women. Once they were all gathered into a circle, the drumming and the song ended. The Pawnee Chief recited a prayer in Skiri, akin to blessing the celebration which was followed by a full tribal dance.

As Moving Elk stood tall in the middle of the circle, the dance stopped and Little Hawk stepped next to his leader. Moving Elk nodded and the Pawnee hunter looked directly at Trace. “Tsápaat. Come.” He gestured her forward.

Confused, she released her hold around Rachel’s waist and entered the sacred circle. She stood before Moving Elk who sang what sounded like a hymn in his native tongue. When he was finished, he raised his hand and said another prayer, waving it over the detective’s head then moving his arm in a circle three times. Then he spoke two words: “Ckíri” and “Awataarihur.”

The entire tribe broke into a raucous cheer and then a lively song and dance. Moving Elk placed his palm flat against Trace’s breastbone and bowed his head. Then he took two steps backward and quietly returned to the earth lodge. Rachel joined her spouse and appeared to be just as confounded as Trace.

“What was that about?” the detective asked a grinning Little Hawk.

“You are now an honorary member of our tribe.”

Speechless, Trace was rescued by her lover. “Wait – do you mean this whole ceremony was really for Trace? To induct her into the tribe?”

The Pawnee hunter nodded and looked at the detective. “We knew if we told you that, you would find reasons not to come.”

“I’m…I’m…I’m honored,” the detective stammered. “Thank you.”

“Does she have a tribal name?” Rachel inquired, beyond curious.

“Yes. Awataarihur. Raging Fire.”

Now it was Rachel’s turn to laugh. “My goodness, he certainly got that one right.” Immediately after she said it, the remark made both her and the brunette turn crimson.

**********

By the time Moses had them halfway home, Rachel had control of the reins, the rifle across her lap and Raging Fire was snoring up a storm in the back of the wagon. So much for the romantic plans she had for their bed time. Raging Fire, my butt, Rachel thought, shaking her head. More like Fading Ember.

**********

The next morning had started out badly and the day gave no indication of getting any better. For some reason Trace had awakened with a pounding headache which put her in a horrendous mood. But to Rachel, especially since she had not seen the detective drink any kind of potable the night before, it seemed provoked by nothing obvious and even in their short, impromptu lovemaking – a session initiated by Trace who roused Rachel out of a sound sleep – the brunette was a little rougher, more brusque than she had ever been. It was not that it wasn’t still enjoyable, just…different.

Her surly disposition just intensified when the tall detective got out of bed, tripped over a stick Ramiro had dragged in the night before and, to keep her balance, grabbed onto the bedroom door. This was not a well thought out move as the momentum of Trace’s solid body propelled the door to shut, causing her to slam into it, stubbing both big toes and pinching her fingers in the process.

Rachel had never heard such a string of obscenities in her life. Every day, something proved to the blonde that Trace had made the right decision to pretend she was a man. Although her mannerisms seemed neutral, her strength, skills and confidence were like nothing she had ever seen in a woman before and ladies just did not have the rather earthy and extensively naughty vocabulary the brunette did.

Yet despite Trace annoying her greatly that morning, she would not trade her ‘husband’ for anything in the world. And ‘annoying’ was most definitely an understatement. The detective cursed Ramiro for leaving the damned stick where he did, even though she knew the dog had not done it on purpose, cursed not being able to get the lamp lit on the first, second or third try, cursed the damned stubborn cattle for not getting out into the corral exactly when she wanted them to and even clipped off her words to her new three Pawnee brothers who showed up to help with the crops. The taller woman explained this behavior to the blonde once, calling it pee em ess or some such thing, but those incidents of temperament never reached the level of Trace’s unexplainable current irritation.

The normally amiable detective even complained about breakfast, which she never did, even after the smaller woman had cured Trace’s throbbing head with a spoonful of honey and Rachel was about ready to reconsider the thought about trading her spouse, almost relieved when the brunette went out and saddled up Rio to go to town. When she came in to kiss Rachel goodbye, Trace still appeared to be out of sorts.

“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” the blonde inquired, loosely hanging on to the detective’s waist.

“Nothing. Well, nothing I can put my finger on, exactly,” the brunette sighed, hugging the smaller woman very close to her. Trace was pretty sure it was the lingering after-effects of the marijuana, as she almost always ended up with a mild headache at some point. Why did she smoke the stuff again? Oh, yeah, right. Because it made her feel better. However, the agitation that was accompanying the headache was not something she was used to and that bothered her. “I should head out, I have that meeting this morning with Caleb Tipping. He’s filing a complaint to get the money back that the Cranes have extorted from him.” She kissed Rachel again. “I think Caleb is a brave man to start the ball rolling like that. Once he does it, I think everyone else will follow suit.”

Reluctantly, letting Trace go, Rachel said, “Please try to have a better day than you have had so far…”

The detective wiggled her mildly bruised fingers, glared at the dog and pouted. “Don’t remind me…”

It wasn’t two minutes later and Rachel heard her beloved yelling, outside. Wiping her hands on her apron, she stepped out on the porch to see Trace on Rio, shouting at Ramiro, who was bouncing around and barking. “No! Go back to the house right now!” Ramiro sat. “I mean it!” As she reined the mustang back around in an attempt to leave the area, the wolf hybrid puppy trotted after her, which made her stop again. “Goddamn it, Ramiro!”

Rachel knew better than to remark about Trace’s language when she was in moods like this. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Trace, take him with you! What harm can it do??

“I want him here to protect you,” Trace shot back.

“Good Lord, Trace, he’s just a puppy…the only thing he could do right now would be gnaw at whoever’s ankle bones!”

“That’s not the point! He needs to learn to -”

The blonde pointed toward the field, exasperated. “Little Hawk, Red Sky and Thundercloud are here. I will be fine. Let him go to town with you. He literally pines until you come home, anyway.” Rachel heard a growl and wasn’t sure if it came from the dog or her lover. Without another word, Trace turned around again, riding away with Ramiro happily following.

Returning inside, the mother-to-be shook her head, blowing out a deep breath. Hopefully that proverbial bee that had flown into Trace’s bonnet would fly out before she came home for lunch.

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

The morning went by quickly for the new sheriff, the paperwork for Caleb Tipping easy to fill out and most of their meeting became a bitch session about how the Cranes had been taking advantage of the town for so long. When Trace ran out of coffee, Tipping decided it was time to go back to work.

After that, the brunette visited Emmet Hallack, Esquire, a private defense attorney who had stayed out of the Cranes’ hair as much as possible, which allowed him an acceptable amount of success in all minor legaln matters that did not involve the cattle baron or his family. Trace had heard that Hallack was a decent man and was constantly looking for a bigger case that would allow him to do better than break even for once and maybe even make a name for himself. With Ed Jackson gone and the not-so-easily intimidated Trace Sheridan now in the job, maybe Hallack could actually start practicing law and be backed up like he always should have been.

Having been told that Hallack was one of the good guys and that his hands had been tied by politics, Trace decided to make an appointment to meet the man and judge for herself. Showing the rotund lawyer the complaint and assuring him there would, no doubt, be more, Hallack advised the sheriff to write an official letter to the governor requesting an impartial circuit magistrate to come to Sagebrush or Jefferson City if Sagebrush wasn’t convenient and try all five Crane men on whatever charges they could file against them. Hallack’s enthusiasm at helping Trace nail these bastards was reassuring.

Trace was ready to leave her office and head back to the ranch for a quick lunch when John and Seth Carter, surprisingly cordial, walked in, wanting to put in a claim for a couple more acres of land southwest of the Crane spread. Great…that land touched the Triple Y…just what they needed…closer proximity to the devil. And her day had actually started to go well…

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

64

Rachel had just chopped some vegetables Thundercloud had brought to her from the field and dropped them into her beef stock, which was now boiling on the stove. She was about to enter the pantry to retrieve some spices and herbs to flavor her soup when she heard a noise behind her.

“Howdy Rachel.”

The blonde froze. She did not have to turn around to know who that voice belonged to. Panic seized her heart. The carbine was across the room and Trace was in town. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to rein in her fear and not let him know she was terrified by his presence but all that kept replaying in her mind was that night…that horrible, violent night and she started to involuntarily shake.

Her hand automatically went to her growing belly, protectively, and her other hand held onto a chair for support. She thought her knees were going to buckle and she felt faint and she knew that couldn’t happen. Calling up all the strength she ever possessed, she somehow got her voice to lose its quiver when she said, “You have no business here, Ben. And you need to leave before my husband gets back.”

Crane smiled, arrogantly. He was very much aware of the effect he had on her, regardless of how she tried to disguise it. He loved that women were afraid of him. The better to control them with.

He was leaning against the doorway. “Nope. Don’t think so. Seth and Uncle John are keeping the new sheriff busy in town. And those Injuns you got watching the place? They’re putting out a small fire in that nice corn crop right now. So, looks like I got you all to myself.” He took a few steps inside. “You goin’ and marryin’ someone else just wasn’t right, Rachel. He know I had you first?”

“He knows all about you, Ben. He knows what kind of vile vermin you are.”

“Aw, now that just ain’t nice. Maybe you and me need to get reacquainted. No man with any respect for hisself would stay married to a woman who cheated on him, especially with her very first.”

She knew she could no longer keep her back to him, she had to know where he was, watch exactly what he was doing. She nonchalantly reached over and grabbed her broom. If nothing else, she might be able to wield the handle defensively if Crane decided to attack her again, at least hit him in a sensitive area, like Trace taught her, to debilitate him until she could get to the loaded rifle by the bedroom door. “You were only my first because you took me against my will.”

“Don’t matter none how it happened, now does it? I’m still -” Crane stopped dead when Rachel fully faced him and his steel gray eyes fell to her bulging stomach. “Well, well, well…lookie what we got here…don’t that just beat all now.”

“That’s right, Ben. I’m with child. Trace’s child. Sure you don’t want to think again about touching a man’s expectant wife? I think even you might take exception with that.”

The veins in Crane’s neck were pulsating and he was trying to not only control his temper but his disappointment as well. He had no doubt now he was going to kill this Trace son-of-a-bitch. Why hadn’t anyone warned him that Rachel was in the family way? Had they been afraid he would go berserk? Well, he probably would have, knowing his obsession with the blonde. He eyeballed her uncomfortably, noting that she was still so beautiful it literally made his insides ache. “Damn, Rachel, you are still the prettiest creature that ever drawed a breath. I bet you still got a smile that could melt snow caps.”

“You’ll never see it again.” She was gripping the broom handle so tight, her fingers were getting numb. “You really need to go, Ben. Trace won’t be happy when he finds out you’ve been here.”

Crane fingered the hammer of his shiny new Smith & Wesson six-gun, hanging low on his side. “Well, you know, I’d kinda like to stick around and meet this Trace fella. Been hearin’ a lot about him. Kinda expectin’ him to walk on water or somethin’. Wonder if he can stop bullets…oh, that’s right. He can’t. Didn’t Ed plug him a few times? Yep. Sorry to hear about ol’ Ed becomin’ worm bait. Hope your Trace don’t follow in his footsteps.”

“I swear, Ben Crane, you touch one hair on Trace Sheridan’s head and I will kill you myself.” The look in the green eyes was pure venom, enough to literally make Crane take a small step back. What the hell had happened to his sweet Rachel? It left him a little unsettled.

“Now don’t go gettin’ yourself all riled up, I never said I was gonna kill ‘im. Just that bein’ sheriff is a dangerous job.”

“Especially when the sheriff isn’t working for you,” Rachel spat at him.

Crane just smiled. “Why, I have no idea what you might mean by that Miss Young,” he said, too sweetly.

“Mrs. Sheridan,” the blonde corrected, stiffly.

“Right. My apologies, Mrs. Sheridan,” he amended, with a sarcastic half-bow. He had been intently studying her since walking through the door and especially since he had discovered she was pregnant. Something was bothering him, something wasn’t right. Then a thought hit him. “How long you been married?”

“Six months.”

“Huh. Belly’s mighty big for six months, ain’t it? He musta nailed you on the first night. Unless you and he got right friendly before that.”

“I am sure I conceived on my wedding night,” she threw back, defensively. Uh oh. Where was he going with this?

“Alls I’m sayin’ is my sister, Hannah, and my brothers’ wives were all about your size just shortly before they birthed them babies. Now, if that follows, then that would mean you’re lyin’ and that baby was conceived maybe a little over eight months ago? When your husband was nowhere around…but I was. You carryin’ a Crane baby in there, Rachel?”

“I would cut any child out of me before I spawned another Crane! Fire Arrow says this is just a very big baby.”

“Fire Arrow? Who the hell is that? What does Doc Smith say?”

“Doc Smith will never get his hands on this baby or me. He’s as far into your back pocket as Ed Jackson was.” She was trying not to sound panicky and hoping it was coming out more like indignation.

“So who’s this Fire Arrow? One of them crazy Pawnee?”

“I am done talking to you. I want you to leave my house this instant.”

He laughed. “You ordering me off your property, Rachel?”

“Yes. You are trespassing, Ben. I’ll have my husband arrest you.”

“Oh, I don’t think that would be a good idea at all.” He could not stop staring at her and could not believe how drawn he still was to her. He would bet real big money that he had planted the seed that was growing inside her. So much so that he didn’t care if some other man had been with her, he just had to touch her, kiss her, have her again right now. He didn’t want to hurt his baby, so he’d trap her against the wall and get her standing up, from behind…

When he leapt for her, Rachel was prepared but her body did not move fast enough. By the time she raised the broom handle, Crane had knocked it out of her grip and sent it flying across the room, the force of his body suddenly against her, pushing her helplessly backward. Getting one hand free, she slapped him so hard across the face, her palm stung. This action was answered by the back of his hand, which she was able to deflect but that hurt her forearms and threw her slightly off balance. Unfortunately, this was enough for him to regain the advantage and he grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her against the wall.

“No, Ben, Stop it!! Stop!!” She was screaming but was pretty sure no one was around, no one could hear her. Oh, dear Lord, this can’t be happening again… Trying to kiss her was not working as she would not keep her head still. “Please, Ben, don’t – you’ll hurt the baby.” Her pleas were met with silence as he powerfully spun her around, pushing her face against the rough logs, attempting to still her flailing arms with one hand and pull up her dress with the other. She was hysterical now, her sobs loud and coming out in gasps and when his feet moved apart in an attempt to pin her legs open, she saw her opportunity and brought her heel up as hard as she could.

Everything suddenly stopped as she heard him suck in air unexpectedly and a strangled noise emitted from his throat. He was no longer touching her or even focused on her as he crumpled to the floor behind her in a fetal position, his hands buried deeply in his crotch. Enraged, Rachel kicked him several more times, in the face, in the back and in his sides and reached down, removing his revolver from its holster. She emptied the cylinder of all six bullets, dropping them into the pocket of her apron and threw the pistol out the front door. Then she ran and picked up her rifle. Raising the carbine, she cocked the hammer back and took aim. She was breathing hard and fast and shaking like a leaf but she pointed the rifle in the general area of the writhing, groaning lump on the floor.

Trying to regulate her breathing, Rachel was also unreasonably wrestling with her conscience. What was happening to her? Was she capable of taking another man’s life? Ed Jackson was barely cold in his grave and here she was ready to kill someone else. But this wasn’t just anyone, this was Ben Crane and if anyone deserved to die, he did.

The injured man rose slowly to his knees. “Son-of-a-fucking-bitch, Rachel…” His voice was raspy and he was still holding onto his damaged manhood. His face was bruised and bloody from the blonde kicking him and it startled Rachel momentarily to see the results of her violence. But it did not last as her eyes narrowed once again in fury, knowing he would have raped her again.

The blonde brought the carbine to bear once more when, despite all the emotional turmoil, she felt a gentle presence beside her and a hand wrapped around the barrel of the gun, pushing it downward. She looked over into the kind, wise gaze of Little Hawk. He shook his head gently at her. Letting go of the carbine, she allowed him to take possession of the weapon.

He held the rifle loosely in his grasp, the muzzle pointed toward the floor. He looked over at Red Sky who was standing in the doorway and instructed him, in Pawnee, to go to town and get Trace, as he calmly, quietly guided Rachel behind him. When Red Sky left quickly, Little Hawk spoke, his voice strong and commanding. “You will go, Crane. And you will thank whatever spirit you pray to for letting you live.”

Slowly, Crane rose to his feet. Bending at the waist, he rested his palms just above his knees, still grimacing. He raised his angry eyes to glare at the blonde, the expression he wore no longer filled with lust or want for this woman. “You just made the biggest mistake of your life, Rachel. You should have killed me while you had the chance.” He let his gaze fall to Rachel’s stomach again and then met her eyes. “Tell you what…that baby comes out of you in another month instead of two and looks anythin’ like me? I’m comin’ to get it.”

“Over my dead body!”

“Careful what you wish for…Mrs. Sheridan.” He pointed at her.

“You come back here, you die.” The words from Little Hawk were simple but potent. There was no mistaking the Pawnee’s tone or intent and his eyes burned holes through Crane as he left.

When she heard his horse ride away, Rachel sank to the floor and broke down, weeping uncontrollably, her face in her hands.

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

Rachel heard Rio splashing through the river and the rapid click of his hooves on stone as he crossed the wide base of rocks that covered part of the stream bed. Trace must be pushing him hard, the blonde thought, listening to the staccato hoofbeats on the ground from the river to the house. Plus it only took the detective ten minutes to get there from Sagebrush, instead of the usual half hour.

‘Rachel!” Trace yelled as she jumped off Rio and up the steps.

Almost flying through the door, Trace searched for her wife, spotting Little Hawk first. “Rachel?” When the Pawnee cast his eyes downward, the brunette saw the top of Rachel’s head and nearly upturned the table to get to her.

Trace dropped to her knees, not missing the bruise on the side of Rachel’s face where she had been pushed into the wall. She held Rachel’s chin with her thumb and forefinger and inspected her for any other marks. The frightened, wounded look in those green eyes, wet and swollen, clutched at Trace’s heart, attempting to rip it out. She took the blonde into her arms, not even daring to breathe until Rachel spoke to her. The detective gently rocked her lover as the blonde began to cry again. Through clenched teeth, the detective asked, “Did he touch you?”

Rachel could not seem to find the breath to answer so she nodded her head against Trace’s shoulder. The very idea of Ben Crane laying one finger on Rachel again made the detective’s heart beat like a triphammer and rage seethe through every pore of her body, the desire to rip his eyes out for even looking in the blonde’s direction again was so strong it was hard to contain it. She positioned herself on the floor so that she could look in Rachel’s eyes, see her face.

“What…did…he…do?” The brunette could barely get the question out, her body shaking with rage.

“He…he…tried…to…have…his…way…with…me…again…” Every word was divided by an inhaling of breath, as she was trying to get her tears under control.

Trace slowly stood, helping Rachel up with her, pulling her into a full body hug, too incensed to think clearly at the moment. It did not slip by her that Rachel clung to her as though she were hanging on for dear life. “What did he do to you? How did he touch you? Did he hit you across the face?”

“No. He pushed my face into the wall and tried to keep me there while he was trying to lift up my dress and – and I kept begging him not to hurt the baby and -”

“Wait – he was trying to rape you from behind?”

Again, the movement of Rachel’s head against her spouse’s shoulder indicated Trace had guessed correctly.

The detective really believed at that moment that she was going to explode from hatred and anger building up within her for this man. “But he didn’t succeed…” She could not even phrase it in the form of a question, instead opting to say it as a statement, as if willing Rachel to say No. Trace really did not think she would be able to control her homicidal tendencies if the blonde told her yes, he did succeed or even partially succeed. As it was, it took every ounce of self-discipline not to leave her wife in the safety of Little Hawk and track this monster down and tear him limb from limb with her bare hands.

“No.”

“How did you get away from him?” This manner of mild interrogation was working well. If Rachel did not have to look at her, she seemed to have more strength to talk about it, without breaking down. Trace adjusted her embrace, fully supporting the blonde’s weight against her.

“I lifted my heel up and caught him between the legs. He let me go when he fell to the floor. Then I kicked him and took his gun and emptied it. Then I got the carbine and I swear I would have shot him but Little Hawk stopped me.”

Trace cut a sharp glare to the Pawnee hunter, who met her eyes and then casually looked away, eventually focusing on something out the door. She returned her attention to the shattered blonde in her arms. “You did great, baby, you did everything you should have. You beat him, Rachel, you stopped it from happening again – you took your power back, sweetheart.”

The detective kissed the top of her head several times and then led her into the bedroom where she encouraged her to lie down. “I really think you should rest, honey. It’s been a very rough morning for you.” She helped Rachel position herself as the blonde laid her head back on the pillow, covering her up with a shawl that had been folded at the foot of the bed. “It’s going to be all right now. Okay? I’m not going to let anything happen to you or the baby.” Trace lightly rubbed the back of her hand up and down over her wife’s nasty looking contusion adorning her cheekbone. “You’re going to be okay…”

When the detective went to remove her hand, Rachel grabbed it. “Trace…it’s not going to be okay. He knows.”

Seeing the blonde getting visibly upset again, Trace tried to calm her. “Shhhh, shhhh…everything is going to be fine. I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise. What does he know?” Her gentle tone of voice contradicted the detonations going off inside her.

“He knows the baby is his.”

Trace could see hysteria slowly rising in Rachel’s expression. She once more began lovingly stroking her face. “Sweetheart, you have to calm down. This is not good for the baby. Now – tell me exactly what he said that makes you think he knows the baby is his.”

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

After Rachel’s recollection of Ben Crane’s words and Trace promising that she was not going anywhere but out into the kitchen to get her a cup of water and to speak with Little Hawk, the blonde finally, if not reluctantly released the detective to leave her side.

Stalking by her Pawnee brother, Trace plucked a cup from the cupboard and pumped water into it. She approached Little Hawk, trying to keep her voice quiet enough as to not disturb her wife any further. “What the hell is wrong with you?!” she whispered, harshly. “Why didn’t you let her kill the bastard?”

Gazing intently at her, perceptive brown eyes capturing blue, he said, “It is not meant for Caskí Custíra’u to kill Crane. It is your destiny to do this.”

Trace returned a startled look. “Why? Why is it my destiny? Why does it matter who takes this prick out, as long as he is gone?”

“You will understand when the time comes.” Little Hawk patted her on the shoulder and walked to the door, setting the carbine by the arch.

“Wait! Then you stay here with Rachel and I’ll go after him now!”

The Pawnee hunter turned and walked back toward her. “No. You ride after Crane and you will die. He will be waiting for you. Your wife needs you here tonight. Tomorrow, we will find him. Tomorrow, you will send him back to his Creator.”

Could she trust herself to wait until tomorrow? “All right,” she conceded, “but if he comes back here before tomorrow, he is a dead man.”

“Yes. He has been warned.”

**********

When Little Hawk left the house, before he rode back to his settlement, he instructed Red Sky to keep a vigil on the property, close to all inhabited buildings. When he reached Pawnee ground, he sent back two young warriors to assist in standing guard. They were further instructed not to kill Ben Crane if he returned, that they were to restrain him until Tsápaat could get to him and then they should follow her lead.

Trace thought she would let Rachel nap, after she cried herself to sleep, but the distraught blonde slept only as long as it took for the detective to heat a kettle for tea. So infuriated she thought her head would implode, the detective did not notice Rachel at the bedroom door until, she heard the blonde sniff back some tears.

Standing, then walking to her, Trace said, “Baby, what are you doing up? You should be resting.”

“I feel so dirty…” It came out in a desperate whisper. Rachel appeared dazed and tormented and, most of all, lost. Even when Trace pulled her into a hug, the smaller woman’s arms remained folded across her chest.

Resting her chin on the top of Rachel’s head, Trace knew what she had to do, needed to do, even if it was just symbolic. She led the blonde to the pantry area where the tub was. “I’m going to heat some more water,” the detective told her wife, gently. “Then I’ll help you get your clothes off.”

**********

Rachel sat, semi-submerged, in the warm water. Trace made sure not to make it too hot as she remembered reading somewhere about the dangers of raising the body temperature while pregnant. Trace began lightly scrubbing the blonde’s back with a cloth as Rachel’s arms were encircling her knees, hugging them as close to her body as she could get them, considering the size of her tummy.

Even though the smaller woman was not saying a word, trying not to make a sound, tears were still streaming down her face, her body still slightly shaking with every drawn breath. Trace’s heart was breaking and, as she was bathing her once again violated wife, her own eyes misted over.

“Rachel…I am so sorry…” the detective’s voice wavered from soft to repentant to barely controlled rage. “I should have been here. I should have known better than to have started working in town before that bastard got back.”

She soaked the washcloth and drained the water on Rachel’s shoulder, then repeated the action on the other shoulder. Gently, she pushed the smaller woman back and she began to wash her neck and chest.

“I should have known when those Carvers showed up wanting to claim land – land that’s been there all along – and they were being so damned nice that something wasn’t right. I should have known -”

“Trace? It’s all right. Really. You couldn’t have known.” Moist green eyes connected with deep blue ones. A single tear fell from Trace’s left eye. Rachel reached up and wiped it away with her thumb, caressing her spouse’s cheek and chin. The love conveyed with that one look, that one gesture caused Trace to break down. Rachel reached out and brought the brunette closer in a tight embrace. “You can’t be everywhere at once.”

“You needed me here, Rachel, and I wasn’t. God, baby, I love you so much and I failed you.” The detective went back to tenderly scrubbing the blonde. “I will never do that again, I promise you. Anyone ever comes near you again, meaning you harm and I will kill them with my bare hands. You are the best thing that has ever happened in my life and if anything ever happened to you, I…just couldn’t go on, I know it.” And she meant it. How Rachel had changed her so completely in just mere months, had made her want to be a good person, want to be responsible for another’s happiness, want to spend the rest of her life just pleasing this incredible young woman and living up to her expectations amazed her, and the thought of all that being taken away from her devastated her in a way that defied description.

Numb, and trying but failing miserably at holding back her own tears, Rachel pulled Trace to her and kissed her, a gesture that communicated the adoration, devotion and necessity of her love for her sable-haired spouse. “I never want to find out what that’s like, either, Trace.” In silence that was now more comfortable, the brunette went back to lovingly, compassionately and protectively cleansing her wife.

Funny…but the detective bathing her did make her soul feel cleaner.

***********

65

It was a sleepless night for Trace. Knowing she would be killing Ben Crane the next day had very little to do with it. Rachel’s recurring nightmares were what kept her fully conscious. Each time the vulnerable blonde awoke, it was with a frightened yelp or agonizing sob, accompanied by sweating and shaking. The fact that – regardless of whether or not Rachel forgave her – Trace had not been there to protect her as she had promised to do was only the half of it. That the detective was not going to be able to stop this round of horrific dreams left the normally fearless brunette feeling helpless, an emotion so alien to her, she wasn’t even sure that’s what she was experiencing at first. Trace hated Ben Crane for what he did to Rachel, what he tried to do again and now what he had done to her…make her feel weak and psychologically impotent.

Every time her wife woke up, Trace would calm her and kiss her reassuringly, hoping that Rachel would believe again that Trace could keep her safe. The blonde brought out an odd sense of chivalry in the brunette, an attribute that had obviously remained well hidden until Rachel came into her life. Trace liked being Rachel’s protector, her ‘knight in shining armor.’ It was the one pure thing, other than her love, that she could offer the smaller woman and now…now this monster had destroyed that. Sure, Rachel would probably get it back but it would never be the same.

When Rachel would settle down from the previous nightmare, the detective just held onto her more securely than the last time, hoping she wasn’t squeezing her too tightly or suffocating her. Toward morning, Trace wasn’t sure who needed the body contact more and the taller woman was torn between staying and holding her wife, knowing her presence would give her comfort and stability and leaving to eliminate Ben Crane from their lives once and for all, which would also result in the same effect. She, of course, opted for the latter.

She never wanted to see a man so dead in her life…not even Vincent DeSienna. She was sure revenge would never taste so powerfully sweet.

Trace would have preferred to have left Rachel with another familiar female, like Elizabeth Reddick or brought her into town to stay with Molly Ledbetter for the day – or until this was over. But the fewer people who knew about yesterday or were in on what Trace was about to do, the better.

Little Hawk, Fire Arrow and Dancing Leaf, one of the mature women of the tribe who performed duties similar to a midwife, stayed with Rachel inside the cabin. The Pawnee medicine man was there in case the blonde went into a premature labor. Yesterday had been profoundly upsetting to Caskí Custíra’u so, as a precaution, Fire Arrow thought it was best to be there, just in case. The detective agreed.

Warriors Howling Wolf and Black Feather, who was also a scout, rode with Trace to get Ben Crane. They arrived in the woods just outside the Crane property line and waited there for the right opportunity to present itself. From their perch on the side of a hill overlooking the main ranch house and several other structures, they could easily see when Crane saddled up and left the property. The detective knew she really didn’t need her Pawnee brother’s there, that she could certainly handle an overgrown punk like Ben Crane. However, on the off chance Trace could not ‘fulfill her destiny’ like Little Hawk had predicted, their presence, if nothing else, would ensure that Crane would never lay his hands – or anything else – on Rachel again.

While they waited, Black Feather offered a suggestion to the detective regarding the fate of the cattle baron’s youngest son. Although Trace really did feel the desire to rip this man apart all by herself, after listening to the reasoning of the scout, she concurred that, following a well deserved and severe ass-kicking, a prolonged, painful death was in order.

After an hour, Howling Wolf saw movement in the bunkhouse as a few ranch hands emerged and then ambled into the cookhouse. Not too long after that, the cowboys moved out into the fields to start their respective days. It took another two hours before the object of their attention showed himself, walking out onto the porch and stretching what Trace assumed to be very stiff and sore muscles.

**********

Feeling as though she were ready to crawl out of her skin, Rachel needed to occupy herself with something as a diversion. Housework, baking a pie or tending to the garden just wasn’t going to do it. She had already knitted enough booties to warm the feet of every infant in Jefferson County and taking Chief out for a nice leisurely ride was out of the question.

A barking Ramiro caught her attention and she went out onto the porch to see what the commotion was. She was greeted with a very dirty, dusty puppy who began happily jumping around at her feet.

“My goodness, boy, where have you been?” Rachel wrinkled her nose. At least he didn’t smell like he’d been in the pasture, rolling in something one of the cows left behind like he did last week. Well, it certainly solved the problem of what she could do to busy herself. But someone else was going to have to catch him, she thought as she went back inside to ask Dancing Leaf if she would help her get the ten gallon bucket ready.

**********

Her Pawnee brethren had remounted and stayed concealed, assuring Trace they would only show themselves when it became necessary. Trace had tied Rio to a low branch, leaving the horse to contentedly munch on various vegetation while she waited for Crane to pass. She had also removed her gunbelt as she did not want to do battle with him that way – she wanted to feel her hands on him when she hurt him.

Ben had been surprised that the new sheriff had not come to the house to try and get even with him for touching his wife. What kind of man must this Sheridan fellow be, not to want to defend his woman’s honor? He wondered, with amusement, if the new lawman of Sagebrush was all bluster and now that he was actually faced with a Crane, he wasn’t really so tough after all.

The next thing he remembered was lying on the ground, having been knocked off his horse. Something came flying at him from the right, something big…and quick. Picking his face up from the dirt, he saw a pair of boots.

“Hello, Crane.” Trace’s voice was shaking – not from anything remotely having to do with fear – and she found it difficult to restrain herself until the man got to his feet. She was in a defensive stance, ready for anything from this bully.

“Sheriff Sheridan, I reckon?” Ben rolled onto his knees.

Trace’s heart went up in her throat…that voice…where had she heard that voice before? And then he stood up and lifted his face, steel gray eyes meeting her ice blue ones. The detective had to take a step back, nearly losing her balance, reeling from the shock. Ben Crane was the spitting image of Vincent DeSienna.

Crane silently appraised her. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Sheriff.”

She felt as though she had. Everything about him was identical to DeSienna – vocal inflection, physical characteristics, height, build and most of all, arrogance. Trace was still reacting from the jolt of that cruel surprise, the ramifications of the likeness not lost on her. Could this possibly mean that Rachel was carrying an ancestor of yet another horrendous family? Was she going to help raise a distant relative of the man she hated most in the world?

On the verge of hyperventilating, she forced her focus back to the situation at hand and thought of how much better it would feel now, it would be as though she were killing Ben Crane and Vincent DeSienna at the same time. Oh, how she wished that were true. Trace abruptly relaxed and steadied herself, suddenly feeling very much in control. Now she knew what Little Hawk meant, that it was her destiny to kill Ben Crane…but how did he know? A question obviously for another time.

She blatantly stared at his bruises and regarded him with a cocky smirk. “My wife do that to you? She did a nice job. Too bad she didn’t kick your nuts off in the process.”

His eyes constricted in contempt. “You gotta lot of nerve, Sheridan, comin’ to this town and takin’ over, takin’ my woman…”

“She was never your woman, Crane. I think she proved that yesterday. And now, you’re going to answer to me. Let’s see how big of a man you are by picking on someone your own size…messing with someone who’s not afraid of you.”

She watched his hand move to his hip and hover around his holster. “Then fill your hand, Sheridan!”

Trace gestured to her lower body, no sign of a gun in sight. “No. We are going to settle this without weapons. Shooting you would be way too easy, way too quick.”

“There’s just one thing wrong with that…you ain’t running this show.” He was able to release his pistol from his holster but that was all.

Her lightening-fast front roundhouse kick disarmed him with an accuracy that startled him speechless. “You fucking ball-less, gutless, piece-of-shit coward.” She punctuated that with a wicked backhand blow that sent him sprawling. “Get up, you son-of-a-bitch, we’re going to do this right.” She planted her feet and beckoned him forward with her hands. “What’s the matter, Crane? You can only beat up on girls?”

Furious now, Crane hopped to his feet and charged her, a move she anticipated, stepping aside and sweeping his feet out from under him, sending him bouncing on his backside. “Where do they teach you boys how to fight?”

He didn’t know what infuriated him more…the fact that he had yet to get a punch in or that the new sheriff was laughing at him. Nobody laughed at a Crane…and lived to tell about it. Scrambling to his feet, he took a boxer’s stance, hopping around a bit, one fist extended in front of his face, the other curled about six inches from his chest. “Take your best shot, Sheridan, ’cause it’ll be your last.”

Trace shook her head at him. “Silly boy,” she commented before winding up and jumping. While in the air, her right leg shot out as if she were going to perform a side kick and, instead, her other leg launched to the left in a ball kick, executing a scissor kick after her rotation, striking him with the back of her heel, which caused his own fist to smack him hard in the face, resulting in his taking a few off-balanced steps backwards, dazed. The eye that Rachel hadn’t blackened, immediately started to swell.

“You don’t fight like no man I ever seen,” Crane spat out, getting madder and more frustrated.

“Neither do you,” Trace commented. Gifted with dexterity, that natural hand and eye coordination permitted her to have exceptionally precise fighting skills. She was good at what she did and she was not used to losing in hand-to-hand combat. Ben Crane was no match for her and she knew it.

There was a huge part of her that just wanted to grab him in a head lock and break his neck. But he deserved to be brutalized and if Trace had been a different type of individual, she would have done it in the exact same manner in which he had brutalized Rachel, so he could know exactly what it felt like – not just physically but the loss of control, security, self and, most of all, she wanted him to feel humiliation as he had never felt it before.

However, Trace was many things but a rapist was not one of them and even as tempting as it was in this situation, she was not ready to add it to her resume. No, she could degrade, demean and emasculate him by not letting him get one hit in and then when he was well weakened, she would hand him over to Black Feather and Howling Wolf.

It would be enough for both her and Crane to possess the knowledge that she was not only capable of killing him but would have, if she had chosen to do so. But until then, she had some serious ass kicking to do. Crane had resumed his previous fighting stance, at first doing his best imitation of a banty rooster and then advanced toward Trace in a menacing posture.

“Obviously, you don’t learn from your mistakes, asswipe.” The detective made sure her center of gravity was low and moved out of Crane’s path, executing a stepping side kick, thrusting her leg out and connecting severely with Crane’s hip, stopping him dead in his tracks before moving her foot in a crescent motion and literally kicking him in the posterior, planting him once again in the dirt, face first.

Not waiting for him to recover this time, Trace walked over to Crane and picked him up by the back of his shirt, using her anger and adrenaline as momentum and swung him around, releasing him so that he ran headlong into a tree. Bouncing back from contact with the unyielding fixed object, the cattle baron’s son staggered backward before he, once again, fell on his butt.

“Get up, you sorry fucking excuse for a man!” When Trace approached him, he promptly scooted away from her. “What’s the matter, Benjy? You afraid of me? Huh?” She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. Letting him go, she stomped her foot as though she were going to let loose with another side kick and he backed away, almost whimpering.

Relaxing her body language, Trace baited Crane into thinking she was letting her guard down. He did not disappoint her when he raised his fist, sending it forward with all the strength he had. She simply raised her hand in an upward motion, obstructing his attempt. Since she blocked him wrist-to-wrist, he took most of the impact. Crane tried again with his other hand but Trace deflected his movement once again, never taking her eyes off his. He repeated this action several times, becoming more overcome with exasperation with every swing.

Having backed him up against a large oak tree, Trace was ready to do some serious damage. Seeing the look in her eye, Crane’s blood ran cold. All semblance of color drained from his face. This Sheridan character was really beginning to scare him. He had yet to make intentional contact with the lawman and he was exhausted and his injuries were seriously smarting and that damned sheriff wasn’t even winded. He visibly flinched when Trace slowly, deliberately, raised her arm, bending it at the elbow, close to her body, her fingers fully extended and joined, palm downward. She let it hover in front of him, threateningly.

“What are you going to do to me?” He asked, his eyes going back and forth from Trace’s face to her hand.

“Exactly what you did to my wife…” she growled at him.

His eyes grew wide with shock and fear. The sheriff couldn’t mean what he thought…

“Is your asshole puckering, Crane? It should be. No, I’m not going to do that, although nothing would give me greater pleasure to see you suffer that way. No, I’m not going to rape you because that would make me just like you…and I realize I may have been as bad as Ed Jackson at one point in my life, but I was never anything like you and I will never be anything like you. Make no mistake though, Benjy, I am going to hurt you. Bad. And then you are going to die.”

His heart started to pound because he knew, as sure as he was standing there, that Sheridan meant it. Or at least he thought he did. Well…not if he had any say in the matter. He drove his head forward in a failed attempt to smash it against hers. With the hand that was not in position, she caught him by the forehead and slammed the back of his skull against the tree.

Having him pinned, she then effected a move she had learned years ago from a Shaolin sensei, a remarkable woman who personified the word ‘self-control.’ Trace’s teacher called it a penetrating power punch, a move that required a lot of concentration and discipline to develop and perfect. The theory of this move was that, with just a touch, energy was used to penetrate the body of her opponent. Following the strike, the surface of the body looked untouched but a bruise appeared on the opposite side, destroying whatever internal organs were in that specific area.

She had only used it once before and the man had eventually died from internal injuries. The individual in question had been a henchman of the DeSienna’s and was trying to kill her. She had disarmed him but he was huge and starting to get the better of her and she had exhausted all of her other fighting skills and tricks, to no avail. After having practiced this move on a heavy punching bag for years, she felt she had nothing to lose by using it then. The guy got a few more hits in and then he slowed down, losing his energy quickly before he passed out.

Now, she could not think of a better subject to repeat this scenario on. Staring into the strangely familiar wide eyes of Ben Crane, Trace felt a sudden vindication. He wasn’t Vincent DeSienna but he was the next best thing. “That was for me,” she told him, without remorse. “What happens next will be for my wife.”

Letting Crane go, he fell to his knees. He was aware the sheriff had just done something to him, something terrible, but he wasn’t sure what and a small ache in his gut was starting to rapidly grow into a throbbing, searing pain.

Once Trace was satisfied that Crane was terrified and suffering, she dragged him over to Black Feather and Howling Wolf who picked him up and tied him between two smaller trees, one arm and one leg was tied to each tree so that he was spread eagle. Normally, this kind of death would have even been a little too gruesome for her but not when it came to this subterranean piece of shit.

She had known whatever ‘justice’ was going to happen to this man, she would have to inflict as there was no law, other than herself, to turn him over to and no jail that would hold a Crane for very long. A territorial prison perhaps, where an unbiased warden could keep him behind bars might work but who knew when Crane would be able to be transported. By that time all hell could and would break loose. Anyway, that might be fine for the rest of the Crane clan but Ben didn’t deserve the courtesy of an impartial trial. He didn’t deserve any consideration as would someone who might actually be innocent of the crimes she knew for a fact he had committed.

The Pawnee warriors had picked two trees that would be easy to chop through but also be heavy enough so that when they fell in opposite directions, they would take Cranes limbs with them. It would be an agonizingly slow and painful death and when his body was found, it would very much look like he had been torn apart by a wild animal. It wasn’t that Trace wasn’t willing to take responsibility for Ben Crane’s demise but she wanted to play by the Crane’s rules. Ben would be found right outside his own property, in pieces, the circumstances surrounding the incident, an unprovable mystery. It would also be a warning to the rest of the Cranes. They weren’t invincible after all.

***********

Trace glared at the evil apparition staring back at her, his eyes now as fixed and dull as a dead man’s. “Any last words?”

He was going to be defiant and arrogant to the end. “Yeah, I found fulfillment in the arms of your pretty little wife, Sheridan, and she was more than eager and willin’.”

“You raped my wife, Crane. You came up behind her, drunk, and like the coward you are, ambushed her and you beat her into submission and then you took her against her will. You violated her. You humiliated her. You degraded her. You stole her virginity. You took away her security. But as much as you wanted to, you never took her dignity. You couldn’t take no for an answer. No, she didn’t want to sell her land. No, she didn’t want to be courted by you. No, she didn’t want to marry you and the biggest no of all, she did not want to have sex with you. But being the vicious, vile creature you are, you took her anyway. And then, you disgusting bastard, you tried to do it again.”

“You don’t know what happened in that cabin, Sheridan. All you got is that little bitch’s lies and the word of these Injuns, which ain’t much better.”

“My wife doesn’t lie, Crane. And neither do my brothers.”

“She doesn’t lie, you say? You think that baby inside her is yours? She lie to you about that? ‘Cause it don’t matter what she told you, she knows and I know that kid is mine!”

Trace stepped up to Crane, almost nose to nose. “You may have injected the seed, you fucking piece of shit, but that child will never be yours. My wife – yes, MY wife, not yours – would have never let you be a part of that baby’s life. Whine, piss and moan all you want but Rachel would have convinced the town that the baby is biologically mine. And, you know what? Since everybody hates your guts and your family’s guts, it wouldn’t take much for everyone to believe her. As much as it would kill you, my wife would finally get the best of you.”

“No woman is ever gonna get the best of me, Sheridan.,” he spat out.

“Oh, really?” Even as enraged as she was, a smirk crossed her face and she stepped back, raising an eyebrow. Looking up at Black Feather, who smiled back at her and nodded, she returned her attention to Ben Crane.

As the Pawnee began to chop, Trace unbuttoned her shirt, removing the garment, revealing a chest wrapped in a stretchy, binding cloth. Slowly, she unwound the material until it also fell to the ground. Crane’s eyes popped open at the vision presented before him. “What in the hell…?”

The last thing he saw before the trees fell and ended his life were the breasts of the woman who got the best of him.

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

66

Ben Crane’s body was discovered that afternoon by Seth Carver, who threw up several times before he could even get back on his horse and return to the Crane spread to report what he had found. He advised his father first, who called for three ranch hands to saddle up and accompany him back to the place where the mangled and ripped apart corpse of his cousin lay.

“What do you think happened, Pa? Looks to me like he got tore up by an animal of some sort…a wolf maybe?” Seth asked his father from afar. He could not bear to look at that grisly scene again. Just the recollection of it made his stomach roll. Scavengers had been feeding on the body when he rode up on Ben the first time.

John shook his head. This was going to be hard on Jacob but it was absolutely going to kill Priscilla, Ben’s mother. “A pack of wolves, maybe. Aw, Ben…” John sighed. “You really did it this time…” The older Carver was pretty sure the only animal who got to Ben Crane was a man named Trace Sheridan. He didn’t have any proof but the timing was just too coincidental.

Ben had come home yesterday and bragged about paying a little visit to Rachel the day before, swore up and down that the baby she was carrying was his, not the sheriff’s, and further boasted that he’d taken Rachel again right there in her own parlor. If that was true, the sheriff had every right to come after Ben. Regardless of how willing Rachel may have been, you just didn’t go messing with another man’s woman, especially when that woman was in the family way.

But John knew better. Rachel Young never wanted his nephew. If she had, they would have been married by now, would have been starting their own family. Ben was the only one who considered himself a ladies’ man and suitable for the likes of Frank Young’s daughter. John had been around when complaints filtered back to Jacob about Ben’s abusive behavior toward the painted doves over Wilbur’s Saloon and, even more telling, when his brother-in-law paid off a few of the hands to keep them still about Ben’s unwanted, uninvited advances towards their wives and sweethearts. Although John was loyal to Priscilla and Jacob, he considered Ben a mean, spoiled, unruly swine and if he did have Rachel, John made a good guess that it was by force. If his nephew hadn’t been planning something insidious two days ago, why did he instruct them to ‘keep the sheriff occupied’ for a while so he could let Rachel know he was back?

Looking at the horrific setting before him though, John thought this may have been a little too brutal an ending, even for Ben, despite how or why the sheriff may have managed to get the body in the ghastly condition it was. No, Jacob wasn’t going to be happy about this at all.

“You boys go back to the ranch and get a box out here and pick him up. I’ll go back and tell his mama,” John instructed.

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

Rachel had been napping when Trace and the warriors got back to the Triple Y. Once the trees had done their job, as disturbingly bloody and repulsive as the process was, Trace felt a satisfaction that almost alarmed her in the fact that she experienced no guilt or remorse for causing the death of this man. The scream that ripped from deep within his very being echoed in her ears for barely a second and, as he fell quickly into shock, the guttural, pleading moan that rose up from his throat, died quicker than he did. Trace did not even flinch, watching Ben Crane’s limbs separate from his body as he bled out before her eyes.

They had removed the ropes, covered their tracks, dug up the tree stumps and replaced the holes with dirt, leaves and other assorted vegetation, making the area look like nothing or no one had been there. As they left the scene of Ben Crane’s death, carting the trees back with them to chop for firewood, Trace was sure she would immediately fall under suspicion, that she would be held responsible, even if not accountable, for what the detective considered this justified act of reprisal. She shrugged it off. The biggest threat to Rachel was now gone, forever, and with that knowledge, she felt no qualms about taking on the rest of the family.

Walking into the house, she was greeted by Little Hawk. “It is done?”

Trace nodded. “Yep. He won’t be bothering Rachel – or anyone else – ever again. How is she?”

“She is resting.”

“Good.” Untying and removing her fingerless, rawhide gloves, she looked directly at him. “How did you know?”

She did not have to clarify, he knew exactly what she was asking him. “I cannot explain this, Tsápaat. There are things I just know. Do you know why?”

“Why it had to be me and not Rachel who caused his death? Yeah. It was very clear to me once I saw him.” And boy, had that been a shock. The face and voice of Vincent DeSienna not only suddenly haunting but taunting her as well her through the body of Ben Crane. The irony was not lost on her, having felt almost mentally sucker punched by the shock. Had she not reacted purely on instinct, Rachel’s rapist could have very easily got the best of her, too.

She could only hope through wishful synchronicity that, while she was killing Ben Crane, Vincent DeSienna was also experiencing a death of similarly torturous proportions. And, because she was sure she would never know, it gave her great, sadistic pleasure to assume that he had. The recollection of Crane’s well deserved, agonizing scream echoed in her ears one more time, sending a shiver of satisfaction down her spine. Trace closed her eyes to still her sanguine nature that had risen from it’s dormancy, awakened when Ben Crane laid his filthy hands on Rachel again. She took several deep breaths, consciously swallowing her rage at that single thought. If only she could have got to him before, if only…

“You killed him? Ben is dead?”

They turned to see Rachel walking toward them, her expression a mixture of curiosity, incredulity and relief.

“Yes, sweetheart. Ben Crane will never bother you again.”

Rachel threw herself into her spouse’s arms, not unexpectedly, but with a fervor Trace had not anticipated. The detective embraced her wife comfortingly and securely.

“I will leave you two alone now.” Little Hawk moved toward the door, sensing the couple’s need for solace and privacy.

Kissing the top of Rachel’s head, Trace said, “Thank you, Little Hawk.”

“I will be in the field. There is maize to harvest.” It was his subtle way of letting them know he would not be too far away…just in case.

As he left the house, the full impact of the burden lifting hit her like a dam breaking and, safe in the loving and protective arms of her lover, Rachel broke down and wept.

***********

John Carver watched his sister break down and weep. She had asked how, not needing to ask why. Even though she would never say it out loud, Priscilla Crane knew that Ben had a miserable mean streak in him that her other children did not have and a pattern of behavior that eventually was going to bring him to an early grave. It was just one of those things a mother knew. She was honestly surprised that it had not happened sooner.

Ephraim, her first born, despite having Jacob’s temper, was more like her, possessing a quiet strength and an almost regal bearing. Gideon was more like his father in that he was sometimes too stubborn and too proud, never admitting to making mistakes and having little patience with people who did not see things his way. Then there was Micah who was a combination of the best parts of Jacob and the worst parts of her. Although he was virile and decisive, her middle child had a tendency to be gullable and easily manipulated, traits that she hated to admit allowed her to be unwillingly matched up with the most eligible bachelor in her parents’ elite circle.

Oh, it wasn’t that Jacob Crane hadn’t been devastatingly handsome and hadn’t provided her with a secure future and a fine family, it was just that she had not been impressed with the sneaky, petty and tyrannical way Jacob’s father and grandfather had done business and, most importantly, she had been in love with another young man. James Powell, the preacher’s son, who had nothing to offer her but his devotion and a meager life as a minister’s wife, at best, was the man she had secretly promised herself to, the man she really wanted to marry and bear children by. Her parents wouldn’t hear of it. Certainly the ministry was a noble calling but it, in no way was suitable for the only daughter of Omaha’s most aristocratic banker. She would learn to love Jacob, her mother had told her, just the way her mother had learned to love Priscilla’s father.

And, learn to love him, she did. But that did not stop her from occasionally and wistfully thinking about what might have been with James and how, maybe, he would have helped her raise their children with different values.

Hannah, their only daughter, was beautiful and took full advantage of her privilege as a member of the most influential family in the county but had grown up to be a disagreeable and bitter woman. Priscilla could only think that was caused from being overshadowed constantly by her brothers and regardless of how subtly Hannah competed, never quite got equal amounts of attention from a father she adored. As much as Priscilla loved her husband, he made no secret that he favored his sons over his daughter and that damage was irreparable, if not unforgivable.

And then there was Benjamin whom she named after her father. He had been spoiled from the day he was born. She had nearly died giving birth to him and that pretty much guaranteed that he would be the last baby. He was six years behind Ephraim and treated like a little prince by all his siblings, including Hannah. By the time young Ben was in school, he already had the idea in his head that he could do no wrong and the opinion that anyone, who wasn’t a Crane, owed him. She tried to rectify that, tried to discipline him for his bad conduct and manners but her husband always overruled her. Jacob had wanted at least ten children, preferably all boys and, it seemed, because Ben was the definite end of the Crane line, not counting whatever future grandsons there would be, punishment of any sort involving Ben was just not tolerated.

So Priscilla stood by and watched her youngest child slowly become the monster he grew up to be and was powerless to stop him. And now he was dead, something she knew was just a matter of time. She grieved for the loss of her son and she prayed for his soul, ashamed to carry the thoughts that a child of hers might be too evil to get into heaven.

John had told her that the circumstances surrounding Ben’s death were too unspeakable to describe to her and he suspected that the sheriff was somehow involved. Priscilla just nodded when her brother further stated that Jacob and the boys would have to know and, no doubt, declare all out war on the rebellious town and their new, renegade lawman. She held no ill will toward Trace Sheridan…in fact, she almost respected the man for having the courage to stand up for what he believed was right, in spite of the fact that it may have very well resulted in the death of her youngest child.

It had to stop some time, somewhere. She just wasn’t sure if she was ready for it to be right now.

********

John and Seth Carver paid Trace a visit that afternoon at the sheriff’s office in town. The younger Carver still looked a little peaked and both men acted as though the wind had been taken out of their communal sail. Although, the older Carver continuously eyeballed Trace in a suspicious manner, he never once leveled an accusation at the sheriff during the entire time spent in the office, reporting Ben’s death.

Trace knew they would be looking for her conduct and mannerisms to be questionable or leery, revealing something, anything to them that might exhibit her guilt. But the detective was too good at playing the passive game when she need to, too experienced at donning a facade that hid any real emotion, a mask no one had ever before been able to see through…except for Rachel. And, the only reason the beautiful blonde had achieved that feat was that she had unexplainably and miraculously penetrated the hardness that once surrounded Trace’s heart from the very first day the detective entered this new world.

Filling out paperwork, recording all the details, Trace assured the father and son team that she would look into the possibility of wolves roaming too close to the Crane property. When Seth hinted that the Pawnee may have had a hand in his cousin’s death, the brunette advised him that those were serious allegations without any kind of proof. The younger Carver was about to comment that the sheriff would, no doubt, cover the tribal members’ tracks just like when they found themselves stripped naked and tied to a tree on Trace’s wedding day but John wisely interrupted the boy before too many maligning words could leave his mouth.

Honestly surprised that the sheriff displayed no incriminating behavior, nothing indicative of a guilty conscience, John left the building, wondering if Trace really did have anything to do with Ben’s death. The sinewy young lawman sounded almost compassionate while asking questions and discussing what Seth had found there in the woods not too far from the entrance to the Crane property. In fact, Trace remained so professionally neutral that the older Carver just stopped short of apologizing for Ben’s violent actions toward the sheriff’s wife. Despite the fact that the dark haired stranger had kicked the crap out of him that night outside the barn, he was beginning to conclude that Trace wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

Thinking back, John had no business following any of Ed Jackson’s hairbrained schemes, avenging the former sheriff’s cowardice. It had been a mistake to make any kind of a move like that without Jacob’s okay. The Crane patriarch really had no claim on Rachel or the Young ranch, either, but the situation definitely would have been handled face-to-face as opposed to the sneaky, underhanded manner in which Jackson decided to retaliate for a wounded ego.

After the Carvers left the jail and rode out of Sagebrush, Trace decided to head over to Wilbur’s. Decorum could wait, she needed a drink. It wasn’t so much that, even though the Pawnee had carried out the actual execution on Trace’s behalf, she had ordered and witnessed the death of the feared and dreaded Ben Crane, it was the realization that she had more than likely just started an irreversible war, one that just might get innocent people killed. Yes, the situation had been hostile before this but everybody just went along with it, preferring to keep the peace, knowing they were no match for the family who controlled the town’s purse strings.

She knew the domineering Cranes had no clue what they were really up against now that she had the entire Pawnee tribe behind her but they were a family used to getting its own way, regardless of the means they had to use or the consequences of their actions. The citizens of Sagebrush were stronger now and more aware of their own power but, in the long run, very few of them could rival the conniving dynasty that had terrorized them for the past ten years. At the very least, someone undeserving was going to get hurt, would end up a casualty of her actions and decisions and for the first time in her life, that really bothered her.

When she entered through the double doors of the saloon, even Silas stopped what he was doing and observed with tacit fascination the almost revered silence that fell over the room as all eyes watched the sheriff move to the bar. A majority of them were sitting in the exact same places they had been the day before when Isaac Tipping came running in and advised his father that one of the Pawnee just told Trace that Ben Crane was at the Triple Y. And not more than an hour ago, one of the Crane ranch hands stood by the stairway, drinking cheap rye, trying to calm his nerves and forget about what was left of Ben Crane that he had just shoveled into a box and couldn’t stop shaking and talking about it.

Matthew Reddick laid down his cards and was the first to speak, asking the obvious. “Hey, Trace…did you hear about Ben?”

Stepping up to the opposite side of the counter where Silas was standing, the detective nodded. “Yep. John and Seth Carver were just by my office.”

“What do you think happened?” the usual jovial bartender inquired, with genuine curiosity. He brought the sheriff a shot and an ale.

Shrugging nonchalantly, Trace downed the shot, cleared the burn out of her throat and said, “I have no clue. Sounds like wild animals got him.”

“You don’t sound too upset.” That comment came from Joseph Turner.

“Should I be?” Trace pinned the pawnbroker with a glare. “The man came to my house and attacked my wife yesterday. I don’t need to remind you that Rachel is with child, Joseph, he could have hurt her more than he did or hurt my son or daughter. If you’re looking for me to be sad or upset that the son-of-a-bitch met his maker sometime this morning, then you’re going to be disappointed.”

“Did you have anything to do with it, Trace?” That questioned came from Cassandra, who had inconspicuously descended the stairs. She still harbored a serious attraction for the tall, shaggy-haired, sensual sheriff. Nothing would have given her greater pleasure than to know that Trace had been the one to finally call out Ben Crane because, in a town that was in the process of being rescued, killing that evil bastard would have only cemented Trace’s hero status in her book.

The detective gauged the prostitute’s demeanor and decided that the redhead was being straightforward. Taking a long swallow of beer from the cool mug in her grasp, Trace responded with, “Now, if I had, do you think I would actually stand here and admit it to a roomful of people?” A slight smirk crossed the sheriff’s lips and everyone exhaled a collective, relieved breath. No one was sure if they were more afraid of the lawman’s answer being that he was involved or that he wasn’t.

Before anyone else put their foot in their mouth, Matthew spoke up. “We’re with you, Trace. Whatever happened, we know Jacob will probably come after you anyway and we’ve all been talking and we just want you to know that we’ll all stand with you.”

The detective slowly turned and faced the saloon’s inhabitants. Each and every one of them were nodding and agreeing with Matthew Reddick. Trace then looked at Joseph Turner, who grinned sheepishly at the tall brunette.

“Tell ya the truth, Trace, I’m not real upset by the news, either. That man gave me nothing but headaches.”

Breaking out into a more relaxed smile, Trace signaled Silas for another shot. As the bartender refilled the sheriff’s glass, she inclined her head toward the prostitute, who had joined her at the bar. “And give Cassandra one, too. On me.”

Setting the shot glass next to Trace’s, the bartender looked at the redhead expectantly. The prostitute pointed to a medium-priced bottle of scotch, which Silas retrieved. “How much of this you want, Cass?”

Just as Trace brought her glass to her lips and threw the shot back, the redhead stood impossibly close to the sheriff and purred, “I’ll take three fingers.”

Whiskey being expelled from the nostrils hurt like hell.

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

Following the sheriff’s embarrassing choking incident to which after it was determined that Trace was going to live, Cassandra returned upstairs with a knowing wink and smile, the brunette sat at the table with Matthew and a few others. Her eyes were still spontaneously tearing forty-five minutes after she had involuntarily inhaled the shot of amber liquid up her nose.

“What’s John Carver’s story?” she asked no on in particular, as she wasn’t sure who might have the most information. She should have known it would be a toss up between Joseph Turner and Silas.

“You mean other’n him not knowin’ one end of the horse from t’other?” That remark came from Clay Canfield, the father of Isaac Tipping’s sweetheart, Lydia.

“That’s not true,” Joseph corrected, sniffing. He pulled up a stool next to Matthew and sat. “John Carver causes the least amount of trouble of anyone related to the Cranes. My wife and I had him and his late wife to dinner many times. He changed a bit after Margaret died, got a little cantankerous, but I still think he may be the most honorable of any of that bunch.”

“Something tells me that’s not saying much,” Trace commented. She distinctly recalled Carver saying he’d like a little piece of Rachel for himself that night he and Isaac set out to attack them on the Triple Y and if she didn’t cooperate, she just might have to be ‘taught a lesson.’ That didn’t make him very honorable in her estimation. “How did his wife die?”

“Nobody really knows. He told around that he accidentally shot her,” Joseph offered.

“What? And that’s honorable, how?” The sheriff asked, incredulously.

“Story supposedly goes like this…Seth came back early from Jefferson City and caught his mama warmin’ the bed of one of the ranch hands and that boy shot her on the spot, cold as satan’s breath about it. Probably would have shot the hand, too, ‘cept he took off and never came back. John got back, found out about it and needed to save face. So, he told everyone that he was shootin’ at targets and Margaret walked into his path, not knowin’ he was there.”

“And there were actually people who bought that story?” Trace asked.

“Oh, hell, nobody bought it,” Clay argued, “That’s cuz if you gave John Carver a gun and told him to shoot hisself, he’d miss. There was all kinds of crazy stories goin’ around about that day. There was even one that Priscilla shot her for betrayin’ her brother.” He stared blatantly at the pawnbroker. “What’s with that hair on your face, Joseph? Those whiskers tryin’ to make up fer what yer losin’ on top?” He dipped a big, dirty hand in a bowl of peanuts on the table.

“Winter’s coming, you know Joseph always grows a beard to keep his face warm,” Silas offered.

“You know, Clay, you’ve always been one rude sunnavabitch. I’m telling you that I knew Margaret Carver better than anyone in this town and -”

“Yeah? Just how well did you know her, Joseph?” Canfield teased.

“He didn’t know her like that,” Silas laughed. “Why, if Ruth ever thought he was unfaithful, she’d shoot that little dauber square off him.”

“Well, I always thought your wife was right handsome, Joseph, so if worse comes to worse, I promise I’ll do all your screwin’ for ya.”

“Gentlemen, please,” Trace interrupted, “we’re getting off track here.” She ordered another round for everyone at the table, hoping it would give Turner a chance to get his blood pressure down. The last time she saw something that red, it was on a fireplug. After Silas delivered everyone’s drinks, he collected the price out of the change Trace had left lying on the bar.

“Joseph is right,” Silas began the conversation again, leaning his elbows on the counter. “John really isn’t as bad as the rest of them. He always stays behind during the drives to handle everything for Jacob, makes sure everything stays running smooth, makes sure the women are all safe and protected…when none of the Crane boys are around, John is the number one man there.”

“Personally, I think he shoots long range with a short gun, if you know what I mean.” They turned around to see Emmet Hallack, who had strolled in, unnoticed. He removed his derby and joined the others at the table.

“You think he’s not quite all there?” Her question was meant to clarify the metaphor which caused the others at the table to look up at the attorney, puzzled by his words. She’d have to remember that expression since ‘one french fry short of a happy meal’ wouldn’t cut it in this era. “Why?”

Hallack shrugged. “Something has to be wrong with him…he’s the son of Benjamin Carver, who, before he died, was one of the most influential businessmen in Omaha. Why isn’t John a man of his own fortune? Francis, the older brother was…until he died from whooping cough five years ago. It was arranged for Priscilla to marry well…what happened with John? Instead of being a man of his own means, his life has been spent following his sister around like a lost little boy, marrying her best friend, making his livelihood from her husband instead of making his own way? It’s not right, doesn’t add up.”

Hallack had a good point. “Anybody know why John Carver isn’t a rich man in his own right?” Trace threw the question out there.

No one answered…but it certainly gave them all something to speculate about…which they did far into the evening, long after Trace left them and returned home to her not-so-happy wife, who became that way seeing the intoxicated condition the brunette was in when she got there. Watery, bloodshot blue eyes tried to fix their gaze on green eyes Trace could only equate with belonging to that of a pissed off grizzly bear.

It wasn’t that Rachel didn’t understand Trace was probably struggling to come to grips with what she had done that morning and tempering the weight of the responsibility with alcohol but the blonde didn’t feel that her spouse should have gotten herself quite this stupefied.

As Trace collapsed on the bed, sideways, Rachel just left her there after pulling the detective’s boots off. While loud snores resonated from the bedroom, Dancing Leaf embraced the blonde before she left, giving her advice on what would alleviate the impending hangover they all knew Trace would have the next morning. Thanking the Pawnee midwife, Rachel told her that she had her own remedies which worked extremely well but since she would really like to cure her spouse’s penchant to get this drunk when she hung out at Wilbur’s, she was going to opt to let Trace suffer through this one. Although, Rachel knew very well that when Trace had a hangover, they both suffered.

*********

The next morning, Trace awoke, unable to focus or to move. She was pretty sure if she did, her head was going to explode. If dental floss had been invented, she certainly could have been blindfolded with it. The brunette felt the presence of someone by the bed and knew from the scent of what smelled like fresh milk with honey in it, that it was Rachel. And, even though it was a fragrance she normally cherished, at that very moment, it was making her stomach turn.

“Morning, sweetheart!” The blonde yelled right next to the detective’s ear.

“Oh, Jesus Christ…” Trace bit off, squeezing her eyes shut tighter, riding out the wave of agony that accompanied the loud voice and her pulsating skull.

“Language, dear. You promised not to take the Lord’s name is vain in the house.” She was sounding way too sweet, enjoying this entirely too much

“I’m not,” Trace whispered, desperately, “I’m praying that he will be merciful and take me right now…”

“What’s the matter? Head big as a washtub, is it? Or does it feel more like a shriveled up prune?”

“Yes. Please, baby, please stop talking and do your thing with the cabbage soup. I’m dying here…”

“Well…maybe next time you’ll remember this and not drink so much.”

“These were mitiga…miti…mitigat…exten…” Concentration was eluding her. Thinking hurt. “It was different this time.”

“It was different last time. Now, get up and haul yourself out here so I can fix you some tea.”

“Can’t you bring it to me in here?”

“Trace, you have not moved, not one muscle, since you got home last night. I couldn’t even move you so that I could fit on the bed. I had to sleep on the sofa.”

“I’ll make it up to you, I promise…” Her eyes felt crusted shut, her teeth felt like they were wearing slouch socks and her hair throbbed.

“Oh, you bet you will,” the expectant mother promised. “Now, get up and I’ll fix you a nice big breakfast of greasy bacon and runny eggs and -”

“Oh, Rachel, you can be a hateful woman sometimes…” Trace defied gravity and stood, abruptly, ignoring the anvil that was slamming into her head, racing outside to throw up. When she was done, she returned inside and sat at the table, awaiting more punishment from her lovely wife.

Standing there, hands on her hips, Rachel almost felt sorry for the pitiful-looking brunette. Almost. She sighed. “You know, Trace, when this child gets here, you’re not going to be able to get this way, all liquored up like this. I can’t have you as helpless as the baby and it shouldn’t fall to the Pawnee to do your chores around the house. You understand that, right?” Her tone was on the side of reasoning and not nagging.

Trace was slumped over the table so low, she almost bumped her nose on it when she nodded.

Her voice softening, Rachel bent over and kissed the detective on the top of her head. “Your forehead’s hotter than a pistol and I’ve seen corpses with more color.”

“No matter how bad I look…I feel worse.” the detective mumbled.

“I was going to really make you regret coming home lit up again but I just don’t have the energy and it’s just too hard to watch you like this. I think you’ve suffered enough. I’ll make you your soup now.”

Resting her cheek on the cool wood surface of the table, Trace sighed a heartfelt, “Thank you.”

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

67

The day the Cranes rode into Sagebrush, back from their cattle drive, autumn was in full foliage. The welcomed crisp fall air, the brilliant colors of the trees that dotted the mountains and the burnished leaves painted brightly by Mother Nature that were quickly gathering on the ground were not reflective of the cutting chill the town felt now that word got around regarding the return of the feared family.

Jacob and his remaining sons had learned about Ben’s death three weeks earlier by telegram. They would not find out the speculative details surrounding the youngest Crane boy’s untimely ending until after they got back to their estate and spoke with John, Seth and the ranch hands who had scooped up his remains and buried him. But this was not before they ran into a surprise when they tried to cut across the Triple Y to get back into Crane territory. Not only were they blocked by nearly a mile of barbed wire fencing, there were flourishing cattle grazing on the Young land and evidence of recently harvested corn and crops on what looked like acres to the east, inside the fence line. And, had there not been nearly an entire tribe of Pawnee hunters and warriors on horseback roaming close to the inner boundaries of the Triple Y, Jacob would have ordered the fence torn down and brought his entourage through, ignoring the hand painted signs that announced it as being private property and warned against trespassing.

Jacob and his sons exchanged stunned looks. Ed Jackson had wired them about all the changes going on here but since the former sheriff had a tendency to elaborate on the exaggerated dramatic side, no one was quite expecting this sophisticated set up. This Sheridan fellow was going to be a bigger problem than they had originally anticipated. The eldest Crane did like a worthy adversary but only if he could pretty much guarantee he could defeat the opposition. Jacob was now returning home with one less son, a sheriff not under his control, and still coveting land that was now no longer owned by a frightened young woman but what appeared to be a strong, respected married couple and guarded by a group of possibly hostile Indians.

Hmmmm…maybe he could appeal to the new sheriff’s financial acumen…money, after all, was almost always the great equalizer and greed was a well known human character flaw. Sure, it had not worked with Rachel but she was a woman and too stubbornly sentimental about the property. Men were much more reasonable about these things – especially if the offered monetary figure was…appropriate. Although, if the fortress this Sheridan man had set up surrounding the Triple Y was any indication, he might not be as easily swayed as Jacob’s other conquests. And, if that was the case, sheriff or not, they could always burn them out.

The Crane patriarch was running out of patience and options, especially now that it may have cost him the reign over the town’s judicious proceedings and, most importantly, a son. Had that little Young bitch just given in to Ben, all of this could have been avoided. So, if neither the sheriff nor his wife cooperated, then they had no one to blame but themselves for whatever death and destruction was brought onto their land, their new stock and maybe even themselves.

On the other hand, there would still be the Pawnee to deal with. Not knowing much about them, Crane deduced that if they had been a savage bunch, they would have shown that side of them and attacked the townspeople years ago. With that in mind, Jacob reasoned that the Pawnee could probably be bought, also. Everybody had a price.

Jacob had no real idea as to what he was up against until after he returned to his home and spoke with John, Seth, the hands, Priscilla and Hannah. After hearing the tale of Trace Sheridan’s mysterious appearance a month after they had left for their drive, the drifter immediately taking up residence on the Young property, his defiance of Ed Jackson and the incidents which followed up to and including the former sheriff’s demise and the whole town supporting and following the new sheriff like the pied piper, the eldest Crane was puzzled. Then, with the Pawnee getting involved, Ben claiming that the baby the Sheridans were expecting was really his and Ben’s suspicious death, Jacob had many more questions than answers.

Whatever was going on with this clearly charismatic lawman, his luck would have to start running out at some point. Maybe it would serve Jacob and his sons well to bide their time. Meanwhile, Crane would take his oldest son into town in the morning and have a little chat with the new sheriff. He wanted to meet this Sheridan fellow face to face, get a feel for him, see what his vulnerabilities were and if he couldn’t be reasoned with, plan their attack through that. Obviously a big weakness would be his wife and, no doubt, the unborn child, especially if the infant was his. However, if indeed the baby was Ben’s – which made sense with what he told his mother and uncle – that would put a whole new twist on things, specifically if the sheriff was not aware that he was not the father.

Exhausted from their near six month trip, all Jacob wanted now was a good home-cooked meal, a glass of his expensive scotch and his own bed with his wife in it, performing her conjugal obligations. It wasn’t that he had not entertained a ‘lady of the evening’ or two while they had been away, but it was Priscilla’s duty to serve him, her responsibility as his wife to satisfy his needs when he told her to, when the urge was there. Even after twenty-eight years of marriage, she never once resisted him when he demanded she indulge him in the bedroom. Unless she was having her monthly and then she would still be expected to service him even though he would not touch her.

And if it was ‘that time’ for his wife, perhaps Ephraim’s wife would be willing to…fulfill his needs. Whereas Priscilla never refused him his missionary requirements or manual stimulation, any other kind of copulation was out of the question for his ‘proper’ spouse. However, he knew that Julia, Ephraim’s wife, secretly liked being ordered to do and engage in the sometimes degrading sexual acts he could only get from a prostitute and that excited and fascinated him.

Jacob knew his oldest son was a washout in the bedroom. The patriarch found Julia crying one evening out by the stables not too long after the couple had been married. The young minx confessed to Jacob that Ephraim could not perform and would get drunk and pass out because of it. Why, Jacob got her so hot and bothered by telling her what he was capable of that he took her right then and there in the hayloft. Since then, he knew what Priscilla wouldn’t give him, Julia would.

Smiling lasciviously, he put all thoughts of the new sheriff aside until morning.

**********

Trace knew a meeting with at least one Crane, if not all of them, was inevitable. Isaac Tipping rode into town and told the sheriff that the cattle baron and his clan had just been stopped at her property by the menacing fence and the presence of the Pawnee and Jacob did not look happy.

She had really expected a visit that afternoon and, primed though she was for the confrontation, she was relieved when it did not happen. This would give her a chance to mentally steel herself for what she knew was going to be the beginning of the end. Trace had no intention of losing to these people but if things went awry, she would arrange for Little Hawk to get Rachel away from Sagebrush and somewhere free from harm, maybe even staying with the Pawnee. The blonde would be safe with them, they would protect her, and she and the baby would at least be alive.

Of course, she could not mention this little tidbit to her wife because Rachel would in no way agree to any of it. The thought of Trace getting herself killed, regardless of the nobility of the cause, was something unfathomable to the blonde. The detective and Rachel had talked about this nearly every night since Ben’s death and the significant, sobering idea of retaliation was just something the expectant mother was now not willing to negotiate on. The ranch, the stock, the property, the sentiment – none of it was worth losing Trace or the baby over. Pride was all well and good but pride had already cost Rachel so much. She was now prepared to sacrifice what was lawfully and deservedly hers if it meant she, Trace and the child could walk away with their lives.

Comprehending the theory behind this, Trace knew what her wife was willing to give up for her and she was floored by it. However, they had come so far and at this point, it wasn’t a matter of pride, it was more a matter of justice, respect, dignity and what was clearly right. It wasn’t about glory or complacence if they won, it was about digging the town out of submission, meekness, humiliation and, for some, outright disgrace. It was about giving the citizens of Sagebrush back was rightfully theirs to begin with. If Rachel ceded, regardless of why, the town would be lost to the Cranes forever and none of them would have any peace, least of all the Sheridan family.

And, even though it was difficult for Trace, on any level, to surrender to anyone under any circumstances, she still would have consented to yield power on Rachel’s behalf, if there had not been quite so much at stake. The former 21st Century police detective knew that, on principle alone, just like the DeSiennas, the Cranes would not rest until they hunted Trace down and hung her, probably killed Rachel or worse and took the baby with them. No aspects of that idea were acceptable to the brunette, especially knowing if that happened, the child would be brought up as a Crane and that would cement the beginning of the DeSienna legacy somehow. If Trace could do anything humanly possible to stop that, she would.

She was not sure how this baby Rachel was carrying would tie into the DeSienna patrimony but after being bitch-slapped into reality at the site of Ben Crane’s face, she knew the link was inescapable. Was it possible to change the impending decades by rearing Vincent’s great-grandparent in a healthy, law abiding, environment? Would instilling good, decent and scrupulous values in a child be enough to alter at least four generations of reprehensibly criminal behavior? There would only be one way to find out. And, in order to do that, Trace could not allow the reign of the cattle baron to continue through or even touch the life of the child she was about to raise as her own.

She found it ironic that she, with her lifelong beliefs and morals, would be responsible for instilling honorable ethics and standards into the psyche of any individual, much less one who could grow to wield enormous power, whose future offspring would have so much influence on her life and the world she grew up in. Trace was also curious as to what would have happened had she not come along. Would Rachel have given in and married Ben? She shuddered at the thought. Would the Cranes have blackmailed her wife to possess the baby or worse, yet, murdered her to get custody of the child? All of it was unthinkable and now, unnecessary, because she was very much present in this lifetime, knowing what lay ahead if she didn’t do something to try and change the course of the future.

Also, since the question had been brought up at Wilbur’s the afternoon of Ben’s death, Trace discovered why John Carver was not the man of means everyone thought he should have been, which in a way, made her almost empathize with him. Rachel had found out through her former best friend, Suzanne Beauregard, Seth’s fiancée, that John was an orphan boy that Priscilla’s mother and father had taken in when he was barely two years old. Although they raised him and eventually adopted him, he was never quite made to feel like one of the family.

He and Priscilla grew up very close and his sister refused to allow John to be left behind so when she married Jacob, her younger brother went to live in the bunk house of the ranch the newlyweds inhabited outside Omaha. When John and her best friend, Margaret, met and fell in love, they wed and built a house on the corner end of the property the Carvers had given Priscilla and Jacob as a wedding gift. John had been by her side ever since.

Suzanne had told Rachel this in the strictest of confidence, as it was not something anyone wanted to get out and about in the town. Seth had wallowed in a little too much drinking and had confessed this to her in the throes of his intoxication. The younger Carver was not a nice or happy drunk, he became angry and resentful while inebriated and he was complaining about how his ‘grandparents’ had mistreated his father who was a good, hard-working man. Benjamin Carver did not feel that John, who wasn’t a true, blood Carver, should have been allotted the same rights and opportunities as Francis and Priscilla had been given.

Trace reasoned that this must have been why John always appeared to be trying to prove himself. Maybe Joseph and Silas were right, maybe the older Carver really wasn’t on the same level of thug as the rest of the family. He did, after all, opt to back off after the second time Trace got the better of him while he followed Ed Jackson’s supervision so he wasn’t a stupid man and obviously not ruled by his ego. Still, as Trace now knew, there were always choices and John continued to make his in the wrong direction. Maybe, like her, he was salvageable, but it was not an immediate priority of hers to find out. If he had a magnanimous side, his true colors would show themselves soon enough.

In the meantime, there were the big boys to contend with.

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

The next morning, bright and early, Trace was in town, tinkering with a jammed lock of one of the archaic handcuff bracelets, when two men entered her office.

Without even looking at them to see the expected resemblance to Ben, she could sense that these ‘gentlemen’ were Cranes. That just had an aura about them that screamed pretentiously tyrannical. Highfalutin’ was what Silas referred to them as. It was as good a word as any.

Glancing at them briefly, she returned her attention to her task. “Something I can help you men with?” She purposefully made her voice casual.

She had incorrectly guessed that Jacob was going to look like Vittorio DeSienna and was gratefully relieved when he didn’t. Although he was a roguishly handsome older man with distinguished wisps of gray hair at the temples and widow’s peak and obviously was used to people cowering in his presence, he just did not have quite the bearing Vittorio did. Trace remembered the first time she had garnered an audience with the head of the DeSienna crime family…the air seemed suddenly stifling and the atmosphere was quite unnerving, regardless of what she showed him on the outside. Jacob just did not have that kind of efficacy.

The posture of the man with him, obviously one of his three remaining sons, was infused with poise and an almost quiescent dignity, unusual under the circumstances. He was a near carbon copy of his father, with identical mustache and tempestuous, yellow-tinted brown eyes. Making a quick assessment, Trace decided that Ben must have looked like his mother.

“I’m Jacob Crane and this is my oldest boy, Ephraim.”

Trace then gave them her full, undivided attention. She pushed the handcuffs aside and stood, extending her hand first to the older Crane. How they responded to that gesture would be very telling. “Trace Sheridan. My condolences regarding your son.”

“I appreciate that, Sheriff.” Jacob gracefully accepted the brunette’s hand and shook it firmly. Ephraim’s poise and dignity, however, stopped at his physical appearance. When he would not take Trace’s hand, his father touched him on the shoulder. “Ephraim, you were brought up better than that.”

Gripping the new lawman’s hand, the oldest Crane son, then squeezed it with the intent of breaking it if he could. He had no idea that Trace had been prepared for the immature action and not only gave as good as she got but never flinched at the discomfort, something he could not manage, which infuriated him even more when he had to let go first. Damn, he thought, the new sheriff was a lot stronger than he looked.

“Well, well, well…nothing like a good cockfight,” Jacob chuckled, watching the two stare each other down.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Crane?” Trace motioned for them to sit as she returned to her seat behind the desk.

“First, congratulations on your marriage and the upcoming birth of…your…child.”

Trace smirked, at the emphasis Crane placed on the doubt in the word ‘your.’ “Thank you. I’m very lucky to have found Rachel and we are very excited about…our…baby.” Two could play this game and she was frankly a little surprised that – at least so far – Crane wasn’t playing it better.

“Also, I wanted to tell you that you have done a nice job on the Young property and -”

“Mr. Crane, let’s cut the crap, shall we?” She almost laughed out loud at the startled expression both men wore but she swallowed it and kept her voice to a professional monotone that not without its unmistakably dangerous edge. “You didn’t come in here to congratulate me on my personal good fortune nor did you come here to compliment me on my ranching skills. It’s doing us all a disservice to dance around the fact that I know you’ve been told that I could have possibly been responsible for your son’s death. So, let’s just get it all out in the open right here and now…but be warned, Mr. Crane…the playground is mine now and I don’t play well with others.” Her enigmatic blue eyes pinned them both to their chairs, rendering them momentarily mute.

Finally Jacob cleared his throat and he nodded. “Your, uh, candor, is much appreciated, Sheriff. I respect a man who likes to get right down to business.” He wasn’t used to anyone so blatantly challenging him like that without so much as a quiver to his voice. “Did you kill my son?”

“No. Next question.” Well, it wasn’t a lie. Black Feather and Howling Wolf with the aid of two trees killed Ben.

“I don’t believe you,” Ephraim spit out, his eyes narrowed, accusingly.

“I don’t care,” Trace responded, simply. “What reason would I have had to kill your brother?”

“Because of Rachel,” Ephraim replied.

“What about Rachel?”

Just as the oldest Crane son was about to respond, Jacob put his hand up to silence him. If the sheriff had no idea that Ben may have fathered the baby his wife was carrying, that could be their ace in the hole to bring this audacious, cocky, disrespectful upstart to his knees. Plus, Jacob did not want Ephraim saying anything out of anger that could implicate Ben in any obvious crime – especially against a woman who had obviously become the town ‘sweetheart’ in their absence.

“Sheriff, I don’t think it was any secret that my son was in love with your wife,” Jacob interjected, in an attempt to quell the mental chest bumping occurring between the sheriff and his son.

“No, it was not a secret but as far as I know that wasn’t a crime. Unlike my predecessor, I take my job very seriously, Mr. Crane, and I am not about to abuse the power and authority of this office to avenge a petty jealousy. Besides, it’s also no secret that my wife couldn’t stand your son. So, that was not a worry to me.”

The Crane men exchanging looks did not go unnoticed by Trace. She knew exactly what they were thinking. If they did not bring up the question of the baby’s paternity, she was not about to. “I did an investigation and I filled out a report that I sent to the state attorney’s office to be kept on file just in case anyone wanted to make a big deal over this. It looked to me and, I might add, to your brother-in-law, nephew and four ranch hands, that Ben had been killed by a wild animal or a pack of wild animals.” She glared at Ephraim. “If you want to protest that, be my guest. But, under oath, in a court of law, your people will back up my findings. Now…what else can I do for you gentlemen today?”

**********

They had left the office frustrated and furious. Diplomacy certainly had not worked, nor had implied intimidation. Whatever they threw at Trace Sheridan, the sheriff had a legitimate response for it. When Jacob gingerly broached the subject of the ‘rent’ the Cranes had been receiving from local shopkeepers to keep their businesses running, Trace not-so-gingerly informed them that the merchants of Sagebrush owed them nothing.

Ephraim tried to tell the sheriff that they owned most of the commercial land on main street and that Ed Jackson had lost the deeds in his ineptitude. They were counting on the old contingency that no one would dispute and defy them by calling them liars. The sheriff just smiled and advised them to bring in their copies of the signed covenants and she would agree to let them go back to collecting their fees. Because, the lawman added, rather sweetly, no businessman in his right mind would ever have contracts and ownership papers that important and not have had copies drawn up when the originals got lost.

Even though the suggestion was never outwardly verbalized, it was made very clear that this principled sheriff could not, would not be bought. Well…they would revisit that prospect after this baby was born. Until then, or if the child turned out to actually belong to the sheriff, they would have to come up with another plan and one that made a final statement to the lawman that he really wasn’t in charge after all. After that, it would be easy to get the town back under their thumb again.

The problem would be executing it without bringing the whole damned Indian nation down on them in the process.

***********

68.

Cold weather settled in quickly in the immediate weeks to come, as though it had followed the Cranes into the county and stayed there, emulating the clan’s frigidity and nastiness since their return. They had uncharacteristically kept to themselves, doing business in Sagebrush only when necessary and avoiding the sheriff and the Triple Y at all costs. Although grateful, Trace was neither arrogant nor naïve regarding their self-imposed segregation, knowing the Cranes were up to something and in order to figure out what that was, she would have to think like one of them.

The first thought that hit her was probably the correct one because it was what she would have done had she been in charge, which was wait until the upcoming annual Pawnee buffalo hunt when half the tribe was gone and then come en force and take her out. She knew that the Cranes referred to her as ‘the viper’ because of the way they felt she had snaked her way into the unsophisticated hearts and minds of the townspeople. Of course, it was true but not in the manner the Cranes had envisioned.

They had never encountered anyone like her before, who so easily led the people of Sagebrush in this mutiny against them. With Trace in control, backed by the Pawnee and the more stouthearted men in town, they would never get their power back. But if they cut the head off this ‘serpent,’ the body would shrivel up and die and the best way to do that would be when it was most vulnerable for an attack. With that in mind, the sheriff knew she only had about ten days to formulate a defense.

In the meantime, she was pretty sure that Rachel was safe puttering around the house, getting everything ready for the birth of their child. That visual of the glowing young mother-to-be brought a fond smile to the detective’s face as she tried to hunker deeper into her wool winter coat, walking across the street from her office to the livery. Snow clung to her eyelashes as she made a vain attempt to tug her collar higher, she had a spare sock wrapped around her ears under her hat and sheepskin-lined gloves pulled over her hands. She didn’t remember winters being quite this cold in her time but maybe the tall buildings cut the wind and kept the chill at bay.

Mounting Rio, whom she left at the town’s stable during these colder days, she rode home, grumbling, muttered and cursing as she shifted from one stirrup to the other trying to keep some feeling in her feet and reach the warm embrace of her wife before anything important froze and fell off.

Halfway home, the flurries became a blinding blizzard, the intensity of which concerned her, though Rio forged ahead, undaunted. She dragged her hat lower over her eyes, bundling even deeper into her coat, which was becoming heavier by the second from the wet snow that fastened its flakes to the fibers. The sight of smoke from a chimney never looked so good as she drew a breath into lungs seared by the skin-scorching wind, which had picked up and sliced into her exposed flesh like little razors her last quarter mile to the house. By the time she walked in the door, she was just bone-deep miserable. Even Ramiro’s happy bark at Trace’s entrance and wiggling like he was trying to turn himself inside out didn’t immediately bring a smile to her face like it normally did.

Rachel was cooking dinner at Trace’s arrival and greeted her spouse with a kiss that should have melted anything frozen on the brunette. It worked. The taller woman held the blonde and kissed her again, hoping the heat would get her mouth to the point where it could actually move and form words again.

“Brrrrrrr…” Rachel commented, playfully knocking Trace’s hat off and helping her remove her coat. “Take your boots off, you’re dripping on the floor.” Looking up at the detective’s head, she laughed. “Did you know you have a sock wrapped around your head?”

“Yes and it saved my ears,” Trace admitted, untying it. She took the weighty coat from her wife and hung it up on a large peg by the door. While Rachel continued getting dinner ready, Trace squatted on her heels by the fireplace and fed some logs onto the fire, rubbing her hands close to the heat, hoping to get some sensation back in them soon. “Is it always this cold here?”

“Usually it’s colder this time of year. We were lucky we had a late fall and the weather stayed as pleasant as it did for so long.” She tasted the stew to see how close it was to being ready. “Didn’t it get cold in Cottonwood?”

“Oh, yeah, but not like this.” Standing, Trace approached Rachel from behind, encircling the blonde with her arms, kissing the side of her neck. “Quiet day, I presume?”

“Not a peep from the Cranes, if that’s what you’re asking. How about you?”

“Nope. Nothing. But as long as the Pawnee are a visible threat, I think it will stay that way.”

“But the Pawnee aren’t a threat, why, they are the least threatening people I have ever known.”

“Yes but the Cranes don’t know that and I would like to keep it that way for as long as I can.” Trace looked over Rachel’s shoulder at the huge pot of stew simmering on the stove. “Wow…you expecting an army?”

“No,” Rachel smiled, “just a small tribe.” A few Pawnee had been hunting elk on the property that afternoon. She hadn’t told Trace but they had caught a big buck and had already skinned it, gutted it, chopped it up, leaving the best cuts of meat for the expectant parents and keeping the rest for themselves.

As if on cue, the door opened and Little Hawk walked in, accompanied by Rising Moon and Red Sky, all stomping the snow off their high moccasins.

“Hey! Do that outside!” Rachel reprimanded, pointing.

They all stopped and looked at Trace’s feet. “You heard her,” the detective told them. Then looking down at her own wet boots, she said, “And I’ll take mine off while I’m on my way out behind you.”

With Rachel’s fluctuating moods, Trace wasn’t about to push her into a hormonal tantrum as the littlest things seemed to set her off lately. Ushering the three Pawnee outside, the detective grabbed the mop and cleaned up the excess water on the floor that had already melted from their shoes.

Watching Trace snap to like that made the blonde almost giggle. All these big, strong people scared of the temper of a tiny, very pregnant woman. She knew her disposition had been horrible at times lately and it was getting harder and harder to control the usually unreasonable outbursts but, she had to admit, she actually liked that little bit of power she exerted recently.

“Thank you!” she called out to them, hoping her appreciation helped.

Re-entering the house, shoeless, everything but the hearty meal was forgotten when they all sat down to eat. It was the last homecooked meal the Pawnee men would get before they left for their buffalo hunt in the morning.

**********

“Phoebe.”

“No.” That was Trace’s response to Rachel’s suggestion of a first name for the baby. This name game was becoming a nightly discussion since they had begun the process of elimination and so far they were not in accord on much of anything.

“Leah?”

“Leah Minnie Sheridan…ummmmm…no.”

“Why?”

“Just doesn’t do anything for me, sweetheart.”

They had readily agreed on Minnie as a middle name for a daughter and on Frank as a middle name for a son. Trace had hoped she could sneak the name Mark in there somewhere, in honor of the man who placed her in the situation that brought her together with Rachel but regardless of what they seemed to come up with, it just didn’t flow. She also knew that Rachel was adamant about biblical names but so far, everything the blonde brought up just wasn’t striking Trace’s fancy.

And it was driving the blonde crazy. “Bethany.”

“Now, that’s nice…but, like Naomi, which I also liked, it goes great with Sheridan but it doesn’t go with Minnie as a middle name. Bethany Minnie. Naomi Minnie. See?” Trace was cleaning her guns, seated opposite her wife who was rocking quietly, her arms resting on her stomach, facing the moderate flame in the fireplace.

“Good Lord, Trace, I’m running out of names. What are some more of your ideas?” She almost dreaded asking the tall brunette, recalling the last session they went through like this, when discussing the possibility of boy’s names, her spouse suggested names like Dylan and Hunter and Tyler and Dalton. Although those names were nice, they were just plain odd and a baby needed a good, solid Christian name.

“Well…I really like Kylie but it suffers the same fate as Bethany and Naomi, so that’s out…”

“Kylie?” A blonde eyebrow rose skeptically.

“Yeah. And Lindsay. But again…not with Minnie.”

“Lindsay??” A second eyebrow joined the first.

“What? I like that name. I like Chelsea, too.” Off Rachel’s blank, silent stare, Trace shrugged. “Okay, what about Nicole? That sounds good…Nicole Minnie Sheridan.”

“It’s not a name from the bible, though…”

“Does it have to be from the bible?” Trace asked, frustrated. She held one of the Colts up and looked down the barrel, checking for grit.

“Yes, I think it should be.” Rachel’s tone now reflected annoyance.

“Then let’s keep trying until we can agree on something,” Trace sighed, trying not to sound peeved at an argument that was starting to become habitual.

Picking up on the detective’s mild exasperation only served to enhance the blonde’s irritation. “Hopefully this child won’t be married with babies of its own before that happens…”

Trying not to react to the hormonal moodiness that was still increasing with every passing day, Trace smiled patiently and as sincerely as she could muster. “I’m sure we can reach a compromise before little Travis or Brianna is born,” she joked. She closed the cylinder of her pistol and set it aside with the other guns.

“Augh! Trace, you are impossible!!” Rachel was not amused. “We need to decide on this and we are running out of time and you sit there and poke fun and…”

Standing up and stretching, the brunette took a step toward her wife, addressing her in a soothing tone of voice. “Rachel, we’ve got time, we’ll settle on something we both like and everything will be fine. In fact, let’s go to bed and,” she winked at the blonde, “sleep on it.”

“I don’t want to settle on a name! I want to decide on something we both love and will be proud to call our child and something that Pastor Edwards will approve of when he baptizes the baby!” She stood up with difficulty and when Trace went to assist her, the blonde swatted the taller woman’s hands away. “Don’t touch me. You…you…piss me off,” Rachel declared, using an expression she had picked up from the detective. “We’ll sleep on it all right but you can sleep on it either upstairs or here on the sofa. Maybe then you’ll start realizing how serious this is!” And with that, the feisty blonde stomped off to bed with a startled Trace watching her, only able to blink, mildly stunned.

Hoo, boy. It was going to be a long night.

***********

“Have you decided on a name yet?” Molly Ledbetter asked Trace, who was in her shop to pick up more material for Rachel to make another maternity dress.

“God, I hope so. We’ve at least – finally – narrowed it down. Zachary Frank Jeremiah Mark Sheridan or Jared Frank Timothy Mark Sheridan if it’s a boy and Rebecca Minnie Abigail Sheridan or Chloe Anna Minnie Sheridan if it’s a girl.”

Molly chuckled. “Placating all the branches of the Young family tree in one fell swoop, are ya?”

“I guess. Except for Mark, that was my suggestion, after a good friend of mine – the only name I came up with she liked.”

Molly smirked at the hint of sarcasm in that statement. “Well, you still have time to change your minds…baby should have another month or two before it gets here.”

“Yes, at least,” Trace smiled, paying the dressmaker. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell Molly that Rachel was due any day now, just for the sake of propriety. When the dressmaker asked why Trace’s wife had not been to town to visit her in so long, the detective advised Molly that Rachel had not been feeling very well these last few months and Trace did not want to take any chances with the health of the blonde or the baby. Of course Molly would know soon enough because since Minnie Young couldn’t be there, Rachel wanted the next best thing present for the birth of the long awaited grandchild.

She remembered the day Rachel asked her, practically begged her, if Molly Ledbetter could come out when she went into labor. Big, green eyes blinked in desperate question, as Rachel knew Trace wanted the birth as private as possible, due to the fact of the timing and hoped to keep the inquiries to a minimum. Molly probably wouldn’t be fooled for a second that this baby was early – especially once she got a look at the size of Rachel’s belly. But Molly adored Rachel – would it matter if she figured out that the blonde was pregnant before she got married? The older woman already knew that Ben had raped Rachel…had she already figured everything out?

Well, Rachel wanted her there and the blonde knew the consequences of anyone finding out. It was difficult for Trace to deny Rachel anything lately and if she wanted Molly Ledbetter there then Trace would make sure the dressmaker was there, even if she had to carry her from town on her back.

“Listen, Miz Ledbetter…Rachel wanted me to be sure to ask you again if you’d be there when -”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Trace. I’ve already arranged for Ruth Turner to come over and stay with Harvey when the blessed event happens.”

“Thank you. It will mean a lot to her.” Great. Ruth Turner. She was a bigger town crier than her husband.

“But,” Molly patted Trace’s hand, in a motherly manner, reassuringly, “as I said, we have plenty of time, dear…”

**********

“Trace…Trace…Trace!!!”

When the detective raced inside, she saw Rachel, gripping her belly, slightly bent at the waist, standing in a small puddle. The mother-very-soon-to-be looking frightened and confused.

“It’s okay, sweetheart, it’s fine,” Trace reached her and helped her to a seat. “Your water broke, have you been in labor?”

Sitting down, Rachel looked up at her spouse. “I didn’t think so…my back really started hurting about two hours ago, I felt a lot of…um…pressure…but no labor pains that I know of…”

“Baby, you’re probably having back labor. Let me send Isaac for Fire Arrow and Dancing Leaf -”

“And Miz Ledbetter? Please, Trace, I promised her I would let her know…”

“Okay, I’ll make sure Isaac stops and tells her.” As Trace sped outside to get Isaac, who had been helping the detective pile wood in a lean-to outside the barn, her heart was pumping faster and harder than she’d ever known it to. She couldn’t believe how excited she was…she was about to become a father…

**********

Trace never thought sitting in for her former partner, Bobby Montesano, when his wife needed a coach for their fourth child, would be a skill she would ever use again. She had cursed not being able to say no to the puppy dog eyes of her pleading patrol partner to take his place in the Lamaze classes while he had been temporarily assigned to another shift.

But Laurie Montesano was a nice woman, not too hard on the eyes, and Trace hadn’t really minded in the long run. She and her partner’s wife bonded and now the detective was more than grateful for the experience. Although she could not offer Rachel soft, soothing music or privacy, she could furnish the dim lighting, warmth and semi-peaceful surroundings.

Molly Ledbetter observed in awe as Trace so lovingly touched and administered to Rachel during this long, waiting process. The older woman had never before witnessed a husband so participatory and attentive by choice during his wife’s labor. Sure, she had known men who were anxious and nervous in anticipation of becoming fathers but as much as they loved their wives, she also saw them begin to grow impatient after too much time had passed – as if the mother-to-be had any control over the process. For heaven’s sake, Molly thought, if women had any druthers – especially in this matter – they certainly wouldn’t choose to have a rambunctious unborn infant thrashing about in their loins, stirring so violently within them, wanting to get out as much as their mothers wanted them out at that point. But not this man…he seemed more patient and understanding than Rachel did.

Watching Trace with Rachel was an amazing thing to behold. Why, he seemed almost womanly in his devotion to helping his wife through this the best he could. The older woman felt her heart fluttering a little when watching this young, almost pretty, man attend to the blonde. Where did he come from to be so strong, good-looking, chivalrous, caring, thoughtful, dedicated, loyal…she couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect husband if she’d tried. Tears stung the corners of her eyes knowing how proud and happy Minnie would have been at this moment, to see the birth of her first grandchild, to see her daughter so blessedly content, loved and in love.

And, although, Molly completely understood why Rachel would not want Doc Smith present for any of this, she was a little nervous about having the Pawnee in charge of the birth of the closest thing she would ever have to a grandbaby. Grimacing, she chastised herself for having those thoughts…after all, the Pawnee had only engaged in behavior that had helped Rachel and Trace, not hurt them and that, in turn, had helped the town start getting back to what it once was and what it needed to be again.

While Molly continued to knit a second blanket for the cradle, she observed Trace, in intervals, as the sheriff cuddled Rachel, massaging and stroking the blonde’s back, adding counterpressure when the pain seemed to be at its most uncomfortable, and either placing a cloth warmed by heated water or cooled by water fresh from the indoor pump on Rachel’s lower spine when unbearably strong labor pains seemed to clutch at her.

Trace had Rachel up walking and even at one point, when the blonde seemed to start getting frustrated that this baby was taking so long, held her and slowly moved her around the floor as though they were dancing. The sheriff made her wife focus on breathing in a very funny way and when Rachel would try her best not to cry out at the pain, Trace would speak to her in a very quiet, gentle, soothing voice and ask her to pretend they were somewhere else, vividly describing the ocean and white sandy beaches, warm sun and something called ‘palm trees’ or tried to get Rachel to pretend they were in a mountain meadow with fresh flowers and warm breezes and, my goodness, even Molly could almost feel as though she were running barefoot through soft, green grass, smelling lilacs, her face being heated by the sun.

Even Dancing Leaf and Fire Arrow were exchanging glances at this technique, knowing it wasn’t something they would ever incorporate into their birth ritual but it certainly appeared as though it calmed the white woman in a manner they had never seen. Although Rachel wasn’t like any white woman they had ever dealt with in the past…nor was Trace. This young couple had returned their faith in the Taka’ piíta. Or at least the white man in Sagebrush. Not that the Pawnee had ever really been bothered by anyone in Jefferson County but neither had anyone extended an invitation to become a part of the community, either. Not until Trace Sheridan.

**********

“Shouldn’t she be lying down?” Molly asked Trace, as she wiped sweaty tendrils of hair away from the small woman’s forehead with a cool cloth.

“Honestly, I have heard that it’s better if she doesn’t have to,” Trace stated, seated snugly behind Rachel, supporting the blonde who was in a squatting position, leaning back against her spouse. “Gravity will help the baby descend the birth canal easier and -” she looked up to see the startled faces of the four other people in the room, including her wife in last stages of labor who, through very heavy breathing, glanced back at the woman who had changed her life, with curious, astonished eyes. “What?”

“How do you know all this without no doctor trainin’?” The older woman asked. “I mean, I admit it makes sense and all, but…”

“Uh…well…when I was back in Cottonwood, uh, I…”

“Oh, Lord, Trace, I think the baby’s coming out!” Rachel interrupted, parting her legs even wider, feeling the need to squat lower. Both Dancing Leaf and Fire Arrow got into position. Whew…saved by the blessed event itself.

“Yes, piirakíripahki is here,” Dancing Leaf announced, as the baby crowned.

Sixteen and a half hours after Rachel’s water broke, the baby drew it’s first breath. “Is piíraski – you have a son,” Fire Arrow told the waiting parents, as both Rachel and Trace broke into tears. Easing the new mother back into the chair as Trace slid out from behind her, Molly handed a sharp pair of scissors that had been boiled clean to the detective. Trace cut the cord and helped Fire Arrow check out and clean up the baby while Molly and Dancing Leaf awaited the delivery of the placenta.

He was perfect. He a shadow of strawberry blonde hair on his tiny head, ten fingers and toes and Trace guessed he weighed about six pounds and some change. He also possessed a healthy set of lungs. She then lovingly bathed him, put a diaper on him and brought him to his mother, who saw him for the first time.

“Oh, sweet Lord, Trace, he’s beautiful,” Rachel gasped and then could not stop the tears of joy that came again and again as she held this infant close to her heart.

“Yes he is. And he’s hungry.” Trace helped the waiting little mouth find its way to Rachel’s exposed nipple and watched the baby suck greedily at her breast. “Yep,” she smiled, ” just like a man.” She leaned in and kissed the baby on the top of the head and then gently, reverently, kissed her wife. “You did great, sweetheart.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Of course you could have,” Trace reassured her. “You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever known, Rachel.”

Looking at her adoring spouse, tears flowed freely again from the blonde. She then focused on her new son. “Trace…you name him. Whatever you want,” Rachel said, overwhelmed with emotion, overcome with an unconditional love she never knew existed. His paternity now not even an issue, she instantaneously fell totally and hopelessly in love with her baby.

Molly approached the new parents and spoke in a hushed tone. “Everybody has gathered…they have been keeping warm in the barn but they are waiting on an announcement from you, Trace.”

“Really? How many people are out there?”

“If I were to guess, I would say the only ones left in town would be Ruth Turner and my husband.”

Shocked but pleased that so many people cared, Trace nodded. “Give me a minute with my family and tell them I’ll be right there.”

Nodding, smiling, Molly walked away, throwing on a shawl and stepping outside.

When Rachel finally dozed off from exhaustion about twenty minutes later and the baby had seemed to have it’s temporary fill of milk, Trace bundled him up and took him outside. Taking his fragility into consideration and making sure she supported his neck, she held him up to the waiting crowd like Mufasa did to Simba in ‘The Lion King.’ Of course, the significance was lost on them but Trace loved doing it.

“May I present Mr. Wyatt Frank Sheridan!”

**********

69

The new parents settled in rather quickly considering neither one had ever had a child in her life before, much less an infant. Although it was Rachel’s responsibility to breastfeed, Trace did not slack off on any of the baby duties, either. She changed Wyatt’s diapers and washed them out every day, sponge bathed him and got up with him when he was fussy. As he ate almost every two hours, his mother didn’t have time for much else, and Trace seemed only too happy to take over while her worn out wife caught up on her sleep.

The blonde would sometimes wake up to find the brunette cradling Wyatt securely against her, as she cooed or spoke softly or sang to him. He would always settle down and make little squeaking noises when the detective rocked him gently and serenaded him. When he seemed extra restless, she would get his attention with a small rattle Black Feather had made for him and as it stimulated his hearing, he quieted down, fascinated with it. Rachel would observe the doting manner in which her spouse interacted with their son and she would fall in love with Trace all over again.

Rachel was getting used to the name Wyatt. It wasn’t a name Trace had previously suggested so when she came up with it, it was a surprise. Trace told her that when she looked at the baby, he just looked like a ‘Wyatt.’ The new mother actually liked it, thought it was a very virile name…even if it wasn’t biblical.

With different Pawnee warriors coming out to the property every day, accompanied by a few of the women from the tribe, to assist with the outside chores, Trace was able to spend quite a bit more time with Rachel inside, helping out with the baby. The sheriff had temporarily deputized Matthew Reddick to keep an eye on things in town while she and Rachel adjusted to their new life. Matthew rather enjoyed his new appointment, although if the Cranes began misbehaving, he would just as happily hand the responsibilities back over to Trace.

For a couple hours every day, before Rachel made dinner and while she and Wyatt napped, Trace busied herself in the barn. With Isaac’s help, the brunette made a crib and then, with leftover slivers of wood, fishing line and small cloth baby toys Molly Ledbetter had sewn for him, fashioned a mobile to hang over it. When it was completed, they placed it in the bedroom. At three weeks old, the tiny little boy was moved from a cradle to a small bed with enclosed, high-slatted sides, the mattress at eye-level from where Trace and Rachel would lay so they could just look over and check on him. When he wasn’t crying, eating or sleeping, Wyatt was mesmerized by the little suspended sculpture dangling above his head.

Life seemed blissfully perfect. They knew it wouldn’t last.

*********

Molly Ledbetter stopped by unexpectedly to visit with Rachel and Trace, to see her surrogate grandchild and to bring with her a baptismal gown she made for Wyatt. As the dressmaker cuddled the baby, she watched with delight as Rachel held and looked over the garment admiringly, marveling at the tiny, light blue suit with an attachable robe and square collar, lace applique cross over the front and a matching cap. “Oh, Miz Ledbetter, this is just exquisite…Trace, honey, feel this…”

The detective obligingly reached over and moved the soft, delicate cloth with the mildly rough surface between her thumb and forefinger. “Yeah. Nice.”

“Nice? Well, ain’t it just like a man to under appreciate such beautiful material. This is shantung silk, Trace, directly from China,” Molly emphasized to a still unimpressed sheriff. It wasn’t that the brunette wasn’t pleased with the gift, it’s just that she wasn’t the kind of woman who got all gushy over fabric.

“Okay.” She still didn’t get the big deal. Nor was she all that enthusiastic about a baptism, either. Rachel had explained to her that the ceremony symbolized the cleansing of sins and meant that the baby would be ‘saved,’ but she considered it all hogwash. She knew many a ruthless killer who had been baptized and it certainly had not saved them, nor put them on any path of remorse or remission. However, the religious ritual was important to her wife so Trace would keep her mouth shut and go along with it. The blonde had precious little go right in her life until the last six months and the detective was going to ensure that – within reason, of course – whatever Rachel asked for, Rachel would get.

“Trace, don’t burst my bubble now,” Molly kidded. “Here I thought you weren’t like most men…”

“Trace isn’t like most men,” Rachel smiled, blushing, glancing over at the detective, who winked back at her, causing the blonde’s heart to flutter.

Just as the dressmaker was about to comment, there was a knock on the door. Not expecting anyone and, during the day, the Pawnee just walked in, Trace’s relaxed body instantly went on alert. She reached for one of the Colts out of her holster which was draped over the back of a chair. “Who is it?” the brunette called through the door.

“It’s Doc Smith! Open up!”

Trace’s eyes flashed in anger and indignation and she swung the door back toward her with such force, it made both Molly and Rachel jump and it startled the baby into crying. Stepping outside and into the face of Amos Smith, slamming the door closed behind her, she had to take a second before she could speak. “Are you insane? You ride onto MY property, uninvited, and demand that I open my door to you? You better damned well have business here, Doc, or I could shoot you for trespassing – and don’t think I’m not considering it, depending on your answer. What the hell are you doing here?”

“I want to talk to Rachel.” He still sounded ornery and imposing but his original bark had lost some of its bite and his stance wasn’t quite so challenging as it had first been.

“She’s busy with our new son and there isn’t anything you say to Rachel that you can’t say to me.” Leaving the barrel of the Colt pointed downward, she cocked the hammer back. “Now,” she intoned, evenly, “you’ve got one more chance to tell me why you’re here.”

“I need to see that baby, Sheriff. You didn’t have nobody here medically trained during the birth and him, being premature and all, he needs a doctor to check him out.”

Trace quickly raised the pistol and nearly shoved the barrel up his left nostril. “Now, I know it doesn’t say ‘stupid’ across my forehead. You go back and you tell Jacob Crane that my son is just fine. He’s healthy and he’s perfect and he looks just like me, not Ben – which is the real reason you’re here, not that baby’s welfare. As you can hear, he has a hearty little cry on him. He was delivered with no complications and Rachel is doing fine, too, thanks for asking. Now, you have ten seconds to get your sorry ass off my land and eight of those seconds are already gone. You ever try this again? I’ll shoot you, Doc. Understand?”

Amos Smith nodded as much as possible with six inches of iron stuck to his nose. When Trace lowered the gun, Doc barely touched a step leaving the porch and mounted his horse. As he rode away as fast as his steed would take him, Trace looked down at Black Feather and another warrior, Wounded Dog, who were staring back at her, blandly, arms folded.

“Why didn’t you stop him?” She asked, curiously.

Black Feather shrugged. “We wanted to see you cause him to make water in his trousers.”

Wounded Dog nodded. “You are good at that. Little Hawk say we learn much from you.”

Easing the hammer forward, Trace couldn’t help but smirk. Oh, that Little Hawk. What a card. Oh, that Jacob Crane. What an infuriating idiot.

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

The next day, Matthew brought a letter to Trace that had arrived at the office that morning. It had an official state seal on it and was marked ‘Office of the Governor.’ While Deputy Reddick stood by, Trace opened the envelope and read the contents of the mail with stunned interest. Seeing the look on the sheriff’s face, Matthew walked over to her.

“Everything okay, Trace?”

The brunette glanced at the letter again and then stared over at the flickering fireplace. “Yeah. Yeah, Matt, everything’s fine.” She folded the piece of paper back up and held it up. “Thanks for bringing me this.”

“Is it bad news?”

“No. It’s good news. In fact, when you go back to town, let the mayor know that the governor is planning to visit Sagebrush in about three weeks.”

“Governor Armitage is coming here?” Matthew couldn’t hide his excitement.

“According to this letter, yes. And stop by Emmet Hallack’s office and tell him I heard from the governor. He’ll know what that means.”

Rachel observed Trace’s demeanor and was puzzled by it and after Matthew left to return to town, she approached the brunette and gave her a hug. “What’s really in that letter, Trace?”

Kissing the blonde on the top of the head, Trace sighed. “It’s just the governor answering my request for an impartial circuit judge to try the Cranes once I arrest them.”

“Did he say he would send one?”

“Yes,” Trace responded, still a little shocked by what else she had read. “He said let him know the time and the place and he had just the judge in mind.”

“Wow, I take it Governor Armitage knows of the Cranes.”

“He definitely is well aware of one of them.” Releasing her wife, Trace sat down at the table. “Seems that the governor has been looking for Jacob for a little over ten years.”

“Jacob? Why?”

Trace handed the letter to Rachel, who unfolded it and started to read. “According to that, about ten years ago, Jacob fathered a child with his daughter. Seduced her, got her pregnant and just left her. ”

“Well, looks like the rotten apple didn’t fall far from the poisonous tree…”

“You seem less shocked than I am.” Trace looked up at her while the blonde finished the letter.

“Nothing that man or his spawn would do would shock me. Must be that’s why he uprooted and moved his whole family to Sagebrush. So what are you going to do?”

“Well…” Trace weighed the possibilities. “Definitely use it against him. Now that I have the assurance from the governor that a trial will not be a one-sided farce, I can actually put together a posse and go arrest the lot of them.”

“When will you do that?”

“As soon as I can arrange for a wagon to transport them all safely to the territorial prison. Emmet Hallack said he would put it together once the governor gave his okay.”

Rachel sat in Trace’s lap and snuggled against the detective’s neck. “Lord, Trace, I can’t believe this town is finally going to be rid of the Cranes.”

**********

“Trace! The barn’s on fire!!” Rachel awoke to the smell of smoke, Wyatt crying and the flickering of active flames as the colors reflected through the bedroom window and onto the wall. While the blonde tried to calm the screaming baby, Trace raced out of bed, throwing on a wool shirt over her longjohns and pulling boots onto her feet, flying outside to get a better assessment of the situation, with Ramiro right on her heels. She herded all of the cows outside the barn as Howling Wolf and Black Feather were already there, throwing buckets of water on the fire to no avail.

“No, knock it down!” Trace yelled. “We don’t have enough water to stop it in time.” She ran inside the dark, smoky interior and removed the rabbit cages to the outside, then picked up an iron shovel and thrust it forcefully against the side of the structure that wasn’t burning. She swung it like a baseball bat, weakening the beam, while the Pawnee retrieved axes and began to chop. Before the side of the structure farthest from the flames collapsed, Trace saw sparks jumping to the stable. “Black Feather, get the horses out of there!”

While the Pawnee hunter ran to the stable, Trace and Howling Wolf worked feverishly to knock the barn down and throw as much dirt on the blaze as possible to keep the fire contained. Fortunately, the few embers that had drifted to the stable had burnt out before they ignited anything. With the horses and cows safely in the fields and Ramiro sticking right to the brunette, the two Pawnee continued to hammer at the burning wood, collapsing the barn one section at a time, while Trace dug dirt and tossed it onto anything flaming.

They were so occupied that they never saw the man and the woman walk into the house.

Seeing that the fire was out, Rachel had just succeeded in getting Wyatt back to sleep, putting him down in his crib when she turned around to see Gideon Crane and Hannah Burnett standing behind her.

**********

Just when it appeared Trace and the Pawnee had the situation under control, cowboys suddenly seemed to be coming at them from all sides, out of nowhere. Thank god Trace had been keeping herself in shape because it was going to take all her fighting skills to fend off this bunch.

When Rachel stirred and roused from her position on the floor, her head hurt and everything seemed woozy. She sat up, slowly, trying to steady herself and then looked over into the crib next to her. The baby was gone.

“No….nooooo…Trace!!!” But she knew her spouse could not hear her as she was too busy protecting the homestead from the attacking Cranes and their ranch hands, in a fierce attempt to keep them from burning down the house, the stable, the chicken coop and from getting killed.

Rachel had finally reached her breaking point. As if propelled by pure rage, the blonde pulled on a pair of Trace’s dungarees, rolling them up at the bottom, donned a denim shirt over her nightshirt, marched over to the carbine, checked to see if it was loaded and rushed out the door. Looking around at the chaos, not letting it distract her, she concentrated on where the horses were. Spotting Chief in the corral, she ran to him, using the bottom rail on the fence to boost herself up onto him, swinging her leg over, gaining immediate balance. With a sharp kick to his sides, and a vocal command in his ear, Chief broke into a dead run with Rachel on his bare back, holding onto his mane with one hand and the rifle with the other. She had not completely healed yet from giving birth and the pain of riding this horse quickly became excrutiating but it was nothing compared to anguish she felt right now in her heart.

Seeing this action out of the corner of her eye, Trace started to get frantic.”Rachel!” Where was she going and why would she leave the baby alone in the house? Suddenly Trace’s priorities shifted drastically.

As Chief disappeared into the night, Trace wasted no more time with the men fighting her. She effortlessly disarmed them, breaking a few ribs here, shattering a kneecap there, cracking someone else’s skull…until she went after her wife, anyone else’s health and welfare was irrelevant. Just as she was grabbed by three men and took kick to the gut, an entire tribe of Pawnee warriors rode out of the woods. It wasn’t that she couldn’t defeat her restrainers but she needed to get away and go after her wife. Trace was never so glad to hear a war cry in her life.

**********

Amid a living room full of Crane men and their wives, Hannah Burnett brought the infant to her mother, gently handing him over to the waiting arms of Priscilla Crane. As much as she had protested and voiced her disapproval of this plan, if this baby was indeed the child of her youngest son, she wanted to at least get a good look at him. When she did, her heart melted. “He looks just like Ben did when he was a baby,” Mrs. Crane remarked, admiringly, as she cuddled him close.

Just then the door splintered open, crashing against the wall. Rachel entered, her rifle trained directly at Jacob Crane’s head. “GIVE. ME. MY. SON!”
The shock of this was followed by deafening silence. It was Ephraim who finally spoke. “Put the gun down, Rachel, you know you aren’t going to shoot anybody.”

Moving the carbine mere inches away from the Crane patriarch’s head, the blonde fired off a shot, blowing a hole in the wall and making everyone in the room, either jump or duck. The noise awoke and startled the baby and he began to cry. She pointed the carbine back at Jacob. “I want my son, Crane, and I want him now.”

“This is Ben’s child, Rachel,” Hannah told her in a challenging tone of voice. “That boy is a Crane and he rightfully belongs with us.”

Through clenched teeth, she said, “This baby is mine and Trace’s, he belongs to us and he is going home with me.”

“An eye for an eye,” Jacob spoke up, standing beside his wife who was rocking the baby to quiet him down. “Your husband took my son away from me and now we’re taking your son away from you. Don’t try to stop us, Rachel. You’ll get hurt.”

“No, I think you’ll get hurt.” Rachel visibly relaxed, recognizing the voice behind her, however, she did not drop the rifle or change her stance. Trace stood next to her wife. “We’ll take our son now.”

“You’re a foolish man, Sheriff,” Jacob Crane said, not taking his eyes off Rachel. “Your wife laid with Ben, got herself in the family way and you marry her anyway? Then she lets Ben take her again while you’re in town? What kind of man are you to stand by a jezebel like this? I don’t want this woman raising my grandson.”

“Crane, you’re the last one on this planet who should be talking to anyone about morals. Right now, let’s focus on Ben. Your son was a rapist and you know it. He used to abuse the women at Wilbur’s and no decent woman wanted him, despite how much money your family has.”

“How dare you speak of Ben that way!” Hannah spat out. “He’s dead and can’t defend himself.”

“Lady, your brother couldn’t defend himself even when he was alive.” She returned her attention back to Jacob. “If my wife was the kind of woman you say she is, she would have been after the Crane fortune and would have married him in a heartbeat. Your son raped my wife and then tried to rape her again, which is how he got that dandy black eye that you never saw but your wife and daughter did. Now you can believe what you want about that baby’s heritage but I am going to tell you one time and one time only. That child is Rachel’s and mine.” Trace put her hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “And you will hand him over to me now or I swear my wife will splatter your brains all over that wall behind you.”

“You can’t come here and threaten us like that!” Gideon interjected.

Trace cocked her head, not at all intimidated by the raised voice of the second oldest Crane son. “I can and I just did. You came to my house, on my land and stole my child. Your hands set my barn on fire and attacked me, my wife and my guests. I have every right to be here.”

When Priscilla voluntarily walked forward and, in an almost loving manner, handed the infant to Trace, no one was more stunned than her own family. Rachel lowered the rifle, leaning it against Trace’s leg and gently took the baby, whose wailing slowed to a slight whimpering, as the sheriff picked up the carbine.

Amid the cries of ‘Mother!’ and ‘Priscilla!’ the Crane matriarch stood with Trace. “No,” she said, firmly. “Enough.”

“For heaven’s sake, Priscilla, what are you doing?” Jacob’s surprise overpowered his normal condescension and irritation.

“I’m doing something right for a change. This child does not belong to us or with us, Jacob.”

“But if Ben is the father -” Hannah began but was cut off by her mother.

“If Ben is the father, it was not because he intended to be. What the sheriff says is true…if this poor girl got in the family way because of your brother, I don’t even want to think about how that happened. I am not proud that we all had a hand in raising a boy who became nearly as evil and immoral as Satan himself. He always got his way and what wasn’t given to him, he took.” Priscilla looked deeply into Rachel’s eyes. “I’m suspecting that’s how he was with you.”

The blonde held her gaze for only a second before she returned her attention to her son. “Yes,” was all she said. Well, this certainly was a surprise. Never in a million years would she have ever thought Ben Crane’s mother would be defending her instead of her own son. And from the expressions on the faces of Priscilla’s family, Rachel wasn’t alone.

Mrs. Crane looked over the people standing stock still in the living room of her home for the past ten years. “I loved my son but thanks to all of you, he was a brute. Any human feelings that boy possessed only made themselves obvious when he got an ache in his loins.”

“Mother!” Hannah was already shocked by her mother’s perceived betrayal but to hear her talk like this made her feel faint.

“He had nothing but sheer contempt for everyone who would not kowtow to him and he allowed no room for opposition. And he was worse when he took to the drink. He did horrible things to women, Jacob. I loved him with all my heart but I am ashamed to say he was my son.”

“Priscilla, stop this foolishness this instant, take that baby back and get over here!” Jacob commanded.

“Jake, you lay one finger on my son and you will live to regret it,” Trace advised him. “Now shut up and listen to your wife.”

“How dare you -”

“Shut up, Jacob,” Priscilla reiterated, feeling empowered by Trace’s authoritative presence. Yes, the sheriff may have very well killed her son but if he did, he had every reason to. She glared at her husband who was staring back at her, speechless and beet red.

Comforting the baby, hugging him to her and enveloping him inside her shirt, Rachel decided to take Wyatt outside as Trace seemed to have the Cranes right where she wanted them. She was not at all surprised when she got to the porch and saw half the town and what looked like the entire Pawnee tribe there. When had the hunters returned from the buffalo hunt? Rachel couldn’t help but smile when a resounding cheer rose from the waiting crowd. Several of the men dismounted and approached the porch, Matthew Reddick being in the lead. He looked at Rachel, expectantly.

“I think he’s got it under control…but you should probably stand by out here until he calls for you or comes and gets you,” she told the deputy. She looked at a group of men, tied up in the back of a wagon. “Anybody get killed?”

“No but quite a few of them need a doctor. Those boys weren’t hired to be gunfighters and it showed. None of us are much good at that, either. Thank the Lord for the Pawnee. Soon as they showed up everybody just kind of surrendered.”

“How’s my home?” She dreaded to ask but needed to know.

“Fine. We’ll need to rebuild your barn.” He pointed to a wagon that just pulled up. “Elizabeth’s come to take you and the baby back to our place until this is over.”

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

“What was that noise?” Gideon Crane asked, reacting to the sound of acclamation coming from outside the house.

“Oh, that? That was just the people of Sagebrush letting you know that as of tonight they have completely taken their town back. I think it’s a very nice, long overdue sound, how about you?” The sheriff inquired, smugly.

“You know, Sheridan, you’re a pompous, self-centered, high-handed cretin,” the eldest Crane sputtered.

“Kind of like looking in a mirror, isn’t it, Jacob?” Priscilla countered, once again stunning her family into silence.

“Yeah, what she said,” Trace smiled, nodding toward Mrs. Crane. “Now, this is what we’re going to do. I can easily and legally place you all under arrest -”

“For what?” Hannah interrupted.

“Trespassing, kidnapping, assault, arson, extortion, cruelty to animals, fraud, deception, forgery – oh, and let’s not forget complicity, duplicity…”

“What are those?” Micah inquired.

“Complicity is the association or participation in or, as if in, a wrongful act and duplicity is contradictory doubleness of thought, speech, or action, especially the belying of one’s true intentions by deceptive words or action,” Trace recited, remembering the definitions from her police exams.

“What does that mean?” Gideon spoke for the rest who, with the obvious exception of Jacob, were still confused.

Trace rolled her eyes. “Being underhanded and then trying to cover it up through lying and trickery. You’re all guilty of that and I have enough deputies waiting outside to make sure it ends here.”

“My God, you are a lawman, aren’t you?” Jacob stated, almost impressed.

“We’re not going anywhere, Sheridan,” Micah told her being ridiculously stubborn. “This is our home, our land and you can’t make us leave.”

“Oh, I think I can. Because if you don’t, there are very angry people outside who are willing to burn you out of house and home.” Trace looked around, pointedly. “You have a lot of nice, expensive things here. It would be a shame to lose them.”

“You wouldn’t do that,” Hannah gasped.

“Yeah, I would. That’s how you would do it, isn’t it, Jacob? That’s what your boys were going to do to me, to my family…why should you be treated any differently? You’re nothing but a common criminal. The only difference between you and those boys up in the penitentiary is that they got caught and didn’t have the money to get their asses out of trouble.”

“Sheriff, your language,” Hannah acted, offended.

“Mrs. Burnett, where you and your family are going? Language like that is the least of your worries.”

“No judge who travels this circuit will ever hold charges against me or my family.” Jacob stated, patronizingly.

“Don’t worry. I have no intention of sending you before a judge on your payroll. You’ll be going before the governor.” Trace waited for the reaction and she was not disappointed as the eldest Crane blanched. “Yeah. Thought you might feel that way.”

Priscilla looked at her husband, curiously. “Jacob?”

He shook his head slightly at her, as though to dismiss her.

“What’s the matter, Jake? Don’t want your missus, there, to know your dirty little secret?” Trace smirked.

“Jacob, what is he talking about?”

“Tell her Jake…or I will.” It was so nice to have this man by the short hairs. Now, his whole family had turned to look at him with more than mild curiosity.

“Listen, Sheriff, there is no need to get into this here in front of my family…why don’t we go into my study and talk. I’m sure we can come to some sort of…agreement.”

“Agreement? Now I need to add attempted bribery to your charges? No. Let’s share this news with everybody, shall we?” Trace scanned her rapt audience. “Ever wonder why you all moved so abruptly from the your last homestead? Seems your daddy, here, fathered a child with the governor’s oldest daughter, Willa – who was only 15 at the time, didn’t want the scandal, so he abandoned her and his paternal responsibilities and moved you all here to the nice, unknown little hamlet of Sagebrush. It’s taken the governor this long to catch up with him.”

Priscilla was white with shock and rage but not as furious as Ephraim seemed to be.

“You’re all certainly not going to listen to this nonsense, are you?” If he had not been sweating profusely, his outrage would have been more convincing. “Look, she was a little tramp…she threw herself at me…!”

“Why you son-of-a-bitch!” Ephraim hauled off and punched his father, knocking him back against the wall.

Jacob looked at his oldest son, startled and wounded, wiping the blood from his lower lip. “What was that for?”

“You doing to that poor girl what you did to my wife! Tell me that my daughter is not really yours! Tell me, Father! I always suspected it but now I just know!”

Looking immediately guilty, Julia tried to unobtrusively slink back into the background. Trace just watched in amusement as this family simply fell apart before her eyes.

“You can’t blame me, Ephraim, that you can’t satisfy your own wife. She came to me for help and advice.”

“And you helped her all right, didn’t you?” He turned and looked at Julia, his voice dripping with venom. “You must be real proud of yourself. Well, if you want him, you’re welcome to him.”

Gideon and Micah turned to their wives, almost accusingly. “Don’t you look at me like that, Gideon Crane, I wouldn’t let that old coot touch me if he was the last man on earth,” Esther Crane told her husband, indignantly.

Micah’s wife, Emily, looked almost insulted. “He never came near me…”

Trace had seen and heard enough. “So, this is what we’re going to do. You are going to pay back every single businessman and his family all the money you extorted from them, for the revenue they lost because of your shake downs. You will make it up to the farmers and ranchers whose land you ordered burned and destroyed, for the stock you crippled and killed and then you will live here on house arrest like good children until the governor and his personally appointed magistrate gets here. In the meantime, you will be guarded and monitored so that you do not destroy your land or any of your possessions and then, when you’ve been taken away to jail, we’ll have Joe Turner preside over a public auction, put the word out to Jefferson City and some of the other surrounding cities where the more well-off can afford to bid on your things…any profit made from will be divided up equally among the townspeople who got screwed by you.”

“You’re making a big mistake, Sheridan.” The patriarch spit out.

“Shut up, Jacob,” Priscilla told him again, disgusted. “What would you like me to do to help you, Sheriff?”

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

A month later, all four remaining Crane men and George Burnett, Hannah’s husband, were on their way to a territorial prison, being found guilty on various charges. John and Seth Carver were convicted of lesser infractions and would spend a year in Jefferson County jail. Hannah and Priscilla were both given a hefty fine for their participation in the Crane crimes. Rachel and Trace testified at Priscilla’s trial and asked for leniency because of her circumstances and the fact that she helped close the case against Jacob, which left no doubt in the judge’s mind of just how reprehensibly accountable this man was of everything he had been charged with.

And then, before being taken away, Jacob was led out back, unshackled and left alone with the governor for ten minutes. Trace wrote up his injuries as due to a nasty spill en route to the paddy wagon.

Nobody expected Priscilla to be invited, much less show up to Wyatt’s baptism. But after all the baby’s biological grandmother had done to make amends, Rachel and Trace felt is was only fair. And, since her stagecoach left that afternoon, it was her only chance to say goodbye to her grandson.

While a majority of the townspeople avoided Priscilla, Rachel brought Wyatt to her and let her hold him. “What happens now, Mrs. Crane?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m moving back to Omaha. I’ll divorce Jacob from there. I guess that means I’ll be divorcing Gideon, Micah, Hannah and all the wives and grandchildren, too. How they can stand by their father and husbands after all this, I’ll never know. Maybe I’ll look up my one and only true love. I hear he’s a widower.” She gently kissed the baby on the forehead. “You and Trace have a beautiful son, Rachel. I’m grateful for the time you have let me spend with him. But it is time for me to move on, I’m not wanted here and I don’t blame these people. What my family has done to this town is unforgivable. It was hard losing everything but it was worth the redemption and my freedom.”

Trace approached her wife, son and Priscilla Crane. The sheriff looked very uncomfortable in the ‘Sunday best’ that Rachel had no doubt, insisted her spouse wear. “You’ll let us know when you get settled? We could send you pictures of Wyatt when we have them taken.”

The Crane matriarch smiled, ruefully. “No. I appreciate it but it will be too difficult. My son did a horrible thing and I don’t deserve the privilege of being this child’s grandmother. If I have pictures of him I will want to display them and if I do that, then I’ll have to explain who he is and then there will be more questions and…well, I need to let go of my past when I get back to Omaha, start my life over. I can’t do that with any ties to here.”

“I understand,” Rachel told her, sympathetically. Somewhere inside her, her heart broke for Priscilla Crane.

As the older woman handed a sleeping Wyatt back to his mother, she leaned over and kissed him one last time. “I think I should get my things to the stage.” And with that, she nodded gratefully at both women, her eyes tearing up at her final look at her grandson.

Watching her walk out of the schoolhouse, where the reception for Wyatt’s baptism was being held, Trace draped her arm over Rachel’s shoulder. “There goes a very brave woman,” Trace commented.

“And the last of the Cranes.” Rachel looked up at Trace. “What do you say we finally get our life started?”

Squeezing the blonde closer to her, Trace ignored the crowd and brazenly kissed her wife passionately on the lips. Looking down at Wyatt, she said, “Oh, I think we’ve already got a pretty good beginning.”

THE END

Visit the Sheridan family six years later in The Present Moment

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