Disclaimers: See Part 1
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.
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."
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.
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."
"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!"
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.
To Be Continued...
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