Disclaimers: See Part 1
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.
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.
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.
To Be Continued...Return to the Academy