Name: Cheyne

Email: Whenpiggsfly55@aol.com

Title: Renegade

Disclaimers: See Part 1

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Renegade

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62

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"There are still the Carvers and whatever assorted ranch hands were left behind to keep the place running. I don't trust any of them and you shouldn't, either," the brunette stated softly as she picked out notes on individual strings. Suddenly she stopped playing and an impish grin crossed her face. "Oooh, Rachel, I have just the song for you." She strummed the chord of G. "I shot the sheriff... but I swear it was in self-defense..." she crooned.

The blonde's eyes widened then narrowed while she listened to the rest of the lyrics. At first, she was shocked that Trace would treat her murdering someone so lightly. But then the blonde realized that her spouse was trying to get her to not take on any unnecessary and unwarranted guilt. They both knew that Rachel had undoubtedly saved Trace's life that night...and maybe her own and her baby's as well. The moment of feeling sinful had passed and was replaced by overwhelming relief that her family was safe and the threat of Ed Jackson was gone forever.

The memory of that night was still surreal. Rachel recalled sitting on the porch for quite a while as sunset became dusk, then evolving fully into night and she was getting a little concerned that Trace was not back yet. Had the detective found the cow and in what condition had she found her? She was sure if the brunette had located a dead or injured cow, Trace would have already been back. And if she had found nothing by sunset, she would have turned around and returned to the house. A sudden, unexplained chill went through the blonde and she fully remembered wondering out loud, "Is this a trick?"

Of course it could have been. It was no secret that The Pawnee would not be doing their usual idling on the property because of their celebration. What if Ed Jackson decided to make some kind of a move? He could have very easily sneaked up to the corral gate while they ate supper and lured one of the herd away, knowing Trace would go looking.

Then she heard the shot that shattered the peaceful night, echoing through her soul and her heart stopped. Oh, no, not again. She had already lost one love to a sheriff's bullet...could the Lord really be this cruel? Instinct caused her to reach for the carbine. The sound came from the woods behind the house and that is the route on which she took off.

At that point, Rachel was not thinking as pure adrenaline was pushing her forward and while she had just been mildly cursing the starless night only minutes earlier, she was now grateful for it. It was the pitch blackness that allowed her to see the glow of the muzzle flashes when six shots rang out in rapid succession and led her in the direction of where she was sure she would find Trace. The closer she got, fear and dread seized her gut. What would she see there? What if Trace was dead and she was walking into a trap, too? Well, if Trace was dead, she did not want to live, either.

When she heard Ed Jackson's voice, she stopped running and slowed to a standstill to get her bearings, positive he must have heard her heartbeat from where she was standing. It was pounding so forcefully in her ears, she could barely make out the sheriff's words. But then she heard the weak but impossibly welcomed voice of her lover and knew Trace was still alive.

Stepping quietly up to the scene, she saw Jackson facing her but focused on the ground just in front of a clump of bushes before her. His Winchester was aimed at what she assumed must have been Trace. When she heard the horrible things the sheriff was saying, the carbine fired as if from its own volition. She didn't remember raising the rifle or aiming. However, the second shot would stay with her forever and she would never forget Jackson's head jerking back before she passed out.

Red Sky had told Rachel the next day that he found the missing cow lazily grazing in a lush area of grass not too far from the river just outside the barbed wire fence. Matthew Reddick, who had stopped by to see how the detective was doing, figured Jackson had probably thought he would come back for the cow later after Trace, and most likely Rachel too, was dead. Hell, Matthew had said, knowing Jackson, he was probably planning on taking the whole herd to the Crane spread as a gift after eliminating anyone with a rightful claim to the Triple Y.

Rachel snapped out of it and absorbed the moment as the brunette ended the song, only too grateful that Trace was still there and able to finish anything at that point. As if in agreement, the baby seemed to kick her a few times, emphasizing the sentiment.

"Where'd you go?" The detective was smiling fondly at Rachel and the fact that, totally lost in thought, the blonde's hand appeared to be unconsciously and affectionately massaging her bulging belly.

"Huh? Oh," she grinned, looking down at her stomach, "just thinking about how you make every day worth rising and especially every night worth retiring." She glanced up at the brunette with an unmistakable twinkle in her green eyes. "And about how much I love you and how much in love with you I am. And about how our baby is so lucky to have you for a father - well...you know what I mean."

It was the way Rachel just came out with these things, so open, honest and unpretentious that always took the detective by surprise and caused her to nearly dissolve into a puddle each time. Trace let the meaning of her wife's words sink in and the put the guitar aside. Her voice was low and seductive. "What do you say we retire right now and I'll definitely make it worth your while."

That particular tone always sent a jolt of heat right through Rachel and settled like a brewing volcano between her thighs. It still amazed her how the detective could so completely mesmerize her, making her feel weak in the knees just from a certain vocal inflection or a look in those baby blues that reflected pure want, meant for her and only her. "But...you have your monthly..."

Trace recognized the hesitation in Rachel's voice and reached over, intertwining her fingers with the blonde's. Even as far as Rachel had progressed in anything and everything to do with lesbian love and sex, there were still a few things that tested her comfort zone. Touching the detective anywhere 'down there' while she was bleeding was one of them. Bringing the blonde's hand to her mouth, Trace kissed the strong fingers that brought her so much pleasure. "Yes but you don't..."

From the flush barely visible yet still noticeable on the smaller woman's face, Trace knew her wife was already too aroused to say no. Besides, the detective wanted to please Rachel, to get her off so totally and completely that the blonde quivered for days afterward and, knowing how responsive Rachel would be to that, it was enough for Trace to sympathetically climax with her. If that didn't happen, she had no qualms about satisfying herself while doing the same to her lover.

Anticipating the rest of the evening, a rush of unmitigated lust surged through the tall woman. Standing, the detective eased Rachel up with her, where they kissed passionately and walked arm-in-arm inside the house, closing the door behind them.

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

Seven days after her election, the new sheriff rode into town and started her first day as the one and only lawman in Sagebrush. It felt odd to be wearing a badge again, especially so openly on her rawhide vest. She was used to wearing a flat shield clipped to her belt, which only needed to be visible when she chose to show it. Now, she sported a bright, shiny, brass star ending in five points with the words 'Sheriff' engraved across the center, 'Sagebrush' in a half-circle above the middle and 'Jefferson County' in a semi-circle below it. Whereas in her former career, she kept a low profile while working, her new life would not permit it.

She looked around the damp, filthy, musty smelling building - the only one in the small community made mostly of brick - and her first official decision was to clean the place up and personalize it, exorcising the spirit of Ed Jackson and removing any physical reminders of him as well. Not knowing who Jackson may have provided with keys to the cells, Trace had also arranged to have the locks changed sometime during the week. If, by chance, she did get a Crane behind bars, it wouldn't be very effective if he could just reach in his pocket, produce a key and simply unlock the door, freeing himself.

Isaac Tipping dropped in, bringing with him a young woman who looked to be about his own age. He introduced her to Trace as Lydia Canfield, his sweetheart. With a smirk and a raised eyebrow, an expression that made both teenagers blush, Trace said, "And when did this happen?"

The last time Isaac had worked on the ranch with her, he spoke of no one in particular, much less a girlfriend. The young woman was a little slip of a thing, strawberry blonde, big green-hazel eyes and freckles. Trace suddenly wondered what Rachel looked like at Lydia's age which triggered a tender smile.

"Well...we always kinda liked each other but two weeks ago at the dance at the schoolhouse, we promised ourselves to each other."

"Promised? Is that like being engaged to marry?" the new sheriff inquired.

"It's kind of like promising to get betrothed," Lydia shyly volunteered.

"Well, then. That's a big commitment." Trace reached over and extended her hand to Isaac, who shook it enthusiastically. "Congratulations." The detective then took Lydia's hand and kissed the back of it. "And congratulations to you, too." Flushed for a different reason now, Isaac's girlfriend was charmed.

Seeing the expression on Lydia's face, Isaac reached over and politely but firmly removed his girlfriend's hand from Trace's grasp and held onto it tightly. "So, we thought we'd stop by and see if you needed any help. Sheriff Jackson never put much effort into keeping the place clean..."

Amused by the boy's insecure, possessive action, the brunette shook her head and cleared her throat. Looking around, disgusted, Trace said, "He was a pig. But then, I guess we all knew that. Well, kids, if you really want to get your hands dirty, be my guest. I'll go sterilize the jail cells as best I can and Lydia, if you want to start in the office and Isaac, you take the room in the back, that would be great."

"Anything you don't want us to throw away?" Lydia asked, untying her bonnet.

"Whatever looks official, I guess. I'll need to look over the paperwork and see if there is any unfinished business that might be sneaking around to haunt me. So if you could just put it all into a neat pile, it would be much appreciated."

As the two teenagers rolled up their sleeves, Trace stepped over to the detention area and took a deep breath. The holding cells smelled like urine and vomit. Some things never changed.

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

Before the day was over, it seemed that everyone in town had stopped by to congratulate Trace, wish her well and bring her some kind of gift, mostly homemade food dishes or dessert. Since she had ridden in on Rio and had no way to transport any of it back home, what she, Isaac, Lydia and the visitors to her new office did not eat, she would bring over to Wilbur's at the end of the day.

After the teenagers left, having done a fine job of tidying the place up, Trace sat down behind the desk and began looking over the paperwork Lydia had put in neat piles. Nothing out of the ordinary jumped out at her, which she was grateful for, but with Jackson having been her predecessor, she still wasn't completely comfortable that everything associated with that particular office was on the up and up. Until she completely claimed the position as her own, she would err on the side of caution.

Around mid-day, Trace had walked over to the lumber mill and purchased three wooden crates to use as file boxes. She organized her paperwork to divide the official blank and filled-out documents of annual reports, civil dockets, prisoners' dockets, cell room ledger, prisoner records, transferring prisoners to state or county institutions ledger, execution fee dockets, common pleas court files, time book, expense book and daily account book.

Scanning over what Jackson had entered in his daily account/incident log book disgusted and disturbed Trace deeply. It was a memoir in engaging in the exact type of behavior he should have been arresting criminals for - extortion, fraud, deception, forgery, perjury and shaking down the very people he had sworn to protect and defend. She shuddered, thinking that's exactly what she used to do. The brunette put that book aside, to take home with her when she left the office for the day. She wanted to keep it somewhere safe as evidence against the Cranes, should whatever was to happen in their future battle, went to trial.

Mayor Turner had also made a visit to the office on his way back from his nooner with Cassandra. Trace had sent word over to the saloon that she would like to speak with Jed when he was available. The detective wanted to know exactly what the town expected from her now that she had this responsibility and there was no one better to explain it to her than the mayor.

Settling in the uncomfortable chair opposite Trace, the mayor more than enjoyed a couple of slices of Mrs. Edwards' peach pie, as he rattled off some of the duties of the town sheriff.

"Lesse here, well...enforcin' the law and arrestin' people, surely, that's the big ones," he began, shoveling an enormous forkful of pastry into his mouth. "When the circuit judge comes to town, transportin' and escortin' prisoners, if ya got any, to and from the courtroom - which, here, is usually the school house on a Saturday. Then there's...uh...servin' and executin' writs and warrants, enforcin' injunctions..." He paused to take another few bites, then wash them down with coffee. "Then there's conductin' property sales and collectin' fees and funds, related to that...that's where ol' Ed seemed to go astray..."

"Your Honor, 'ol' Ed' went astray long before that became an issue, trust me." Trace could have expounded more on what she had read earlier but she had no doubt she would not have been telling Jed Turner something he did not already know.

Trace's title of respect for the mayor just tickled him. Not many people referred to him by His Honor, and he had always liked that expression. "Nope, guess you'd be right about that, son." He held out his coffee cup toward the brunette, indicating that he would like more. As Trace reached for the graniteware pot, Jed shook his head. "Ain't ya got something a little bit...stronger...than that layin' around? My mouth is dry as a cactus."

How anyone could be dry after what seemed like a whole gallon of coffee was beyond her, but she knew what he meant and smirked, returning the pot to the nicely purring, small iron stove to her left. Standing up, Trace walked over to a pile of junk that was to be thrown out before she closed the office for the night. From it she plucked a half-empty bottle of light orange-colored liquid. Sniffing of it earlier, she knew it was alcohol, some kind of rotgut, but whatever kind it was escaped her. She had opted to toss it out as she was not particularly fond of the assumed potency of the mystery liquor and anything that had touched Ed Jackson's lips would never knowingly touch hers. Bringing it back to the desk, she saw Turner's eyes light up. "Is this what you mean?"

"That'll do. Can always use a little whiskey to keep that fire in my belly stoked." Taking the bottle from the detective, the mayor filled his cup to half and continued. "A snootful in the afternoon never hurt nobody," he declared, throwing the cup back, swallowing the contents with minimal reaction. "Now...where was I? Oh, yeah...if there's a trial, which there ain't been one in near ten years - Jacob Crane seen to that with his havin' to have everythin' his way, but now that you're sheriff, I reckon things'll change a might..."

"Count on it."

"Yep, I figgered as much. Anyways," he poured another shot into his coffee cup, "if there's a trial, you and me, we get to select a jury. Not that we've had any for a long while but if there is any kind of unlawful assembly or disturbances, you'd be the one to break that up and arrest anyone who don't mind ya respectful and proper. If you need deputies, you can call on the powers of the county to deputize anyone or pick yerself a posse."

"Ever been the need for a posse around here?" Trace asked, pouring herself one more cup, feeling the unusual need for the caffeine in the afternoon. Her weariness was probably due to her not having all her strength back yet.

"Oh, hell, no...the only posse that's ever been needed here was one that shoulda gone over to the Crane spread...but any sheriff try that, they'd be a dead sheriff." Turner's eyes then met Trace's. "No offense, son. If anybody can do it without gettin' hisself killed, I'd bet a month's pay, it'd be you."

"Why, thank you, Mayor. I appreciate your confidence in me."

"Whether or not you can actually round up enough men to ride with you will be another thing. As it is, if you don't get Sagebrush back to an orderly town and, Lord help us, Jacob and his boys get the best of you - well, let's just say that might lead to some unpleasantness like scaffolding and ropes and none of us want to see that."

Especially not Trace. "How can Crane legally do that to anyone without a trial?"

"Without a sheriff to testify against him, no judge will ever lock him or his boys up. And there are some circuit judges who pass through here who, it won't matter if you do testify against them anyways, they still won't lock him up...Jacob has too much money and them judges are too greedy." As Turner reached for a piece of apple pie, which had been sent over by Molly Ledbetter, Trace absorbed all that he was telling her.

"So, tell me, Mayor, why did the town elect me? Especially since I had no interest in running."

"'Cause you got sand, boy. Ain't no one else in this town ever stood up to Ed Jackson. Not only did you stand up to him, you killed him, gettin' him out of our hair!"

Only the Pawnee knew that Rachel had been the one who shot Jackson. They all agreed it would bode much better with the town for them to think Trace did it. Regardless of the circumstances, no one looked too kindly upon ladies who killed anyone. And, although the detective very much wanted to give credit where credit was due, she went along with it because Rachel asked her to.

"I gotta tell ya, Trace, even them snooty ol' gals who only leave home to go to Sunday meetin' ran into town here to vote for you. They never come to town. Too damn scared they'll get dirt in their dimples." Finishing up the pie, Turner held out his cup. "Any more of that coffee left?"

The detective picked up the pot and swirled the contents around, feeling the weight. "Just about one more cup. If you're going to want more, I'll have to make another pot." She poured him the last cup.

"Gotta tell ya, boy...even before Ed Jackson got hisself planted, you had him shakin' like a congressman at a revival meetin'. Damned worthless, pickle puss of a man, he was. It was always my fondest wish to knock Ed Jackson colder'n a wagon tire, he caused so much trouble in this town..."

"Why couldn't you stop him?" Trace asked, pointedly.

"The Cranes. Plain and simple. You'll understand when they get back. Although I do think you'll make a difference, I don't believe you can perform miracles."

The detective smiled inwardly. No, miracles were not within her capacity but insight into a modern world of strategy and self-defense were. Maybe Jed Turner was still afraid of the Cranes. Trace Sheridan was not.

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

63.

A few weeks after Trace's election, she and Rachel were asked to attend a celebration at the Pawnee settlement five miles almost directly west of Sagebrush. It was a high honor which both women recognized and acknowledged as such. No one from the town, since the tribe took claim to that area and inhabited it fifteen years earlier, had ever been invited into the fold or asked to witness or participate in any festivity, much less one that celebrated the hopeful preservation of their heritage. Trace and Rachel were not about to refuse the privilege of being the first.

When the couple arrived at the village, they were welcomed as though they had always belonged there. Rachel was assisted down from the wagon by Black Feather and a gaggle of women, mostly around Rachel's age, who surrounded her, laying hands on her belly, as though consecrating the baby. The blonde was then cloaked in a colorful poncho, placed over her shoulders by one of the older females in the group and escorted away from Trace to an area primarily designated for the wives. The food smelled delicious and the blonde was fascinated by the flatbreads and cornmeal creations that were being put together, her stomach immediately rumbling from a hunger she didn't realize she'd had. As a guest, the mother-to-be was not expected to help prepare the meal but Rachel being Rachel, she pitched in, anyway.

Watching her pale, blonde wife so easily blend in with the dark-haired, dark-skinned Pawnee women, caused the tall brunette to smile appreciatively and proudly. Momentarily studying her beautiful, glowing lover, Trace never once regretted her decision to stay in Sagebrush and commit herself and her life to this riveting, impressive woman. Rachel being eight months pregnant now just added to her appeal and made her that much more adorable. Despite her unpredictable mood swings.

Little Hawk greeted Trace, shaking her hand and offering her a pipe, a ceramic calumet with a long stem which connected the wide mouthpiece to a tall, deep bowl. Dare she even venture to guess what it could be stuffed with?

"Thanks, Little Hawk, but I don't smoke," the new sheriff told him, firmly but politely.

"I do not smoke, either. Only when we have raahisii." He extended the pipe once more. "It is custom, Tsápaat, to take haaktuu'at when it is offered."

With an eyebrow raised in skepticism and by now, very used to Little Hawk's droll but productive sense of humor, Trace hesitantly accepted the long device. "What's in it?" She fully expected him to say peyote. She had heard all kinds of legends and horror stories about the effects of the cactus plant, the least of which was that hallucinations from ingesting it lasted twenty-four hours. Well...maybe if she only took a cursory hit, she could escape the normal side effects. It's not that she opposed getting high but she in no way wanted to lose control for possibly a day.

"Cannabis."

Trace's eyes popped open, looking at the pipe and then back at Little Hawk. Why hadn't she smelled it? Was the aroma of meat roasting and bread frying and other vegetable cooking so strong that she completely overlooked the odor of burning leaves? Bringing the bowl of the pipe closer to her nose, she inhaled. Ah, yes. There it was. Cannabis, huh? Well, this certainly was a welcomed surprise. Taking a quick draw off the pipe, she let the psychoactive relaxant slowly burn down her throat and sear into her lungs with a pleasant familiarity and a forbidden sensation she had, suddenly, very much missed. And this was some damned good shit.

"You have smoked cannabis before?" There was a disappointment in Little Hawk's tone of voice. He had been expecting to see the brunette cough her head off and was looking forward to teaching her how to properly enjoy this herb.

"Oh, yeah..." Trace took another hit, holding her breath, savoring the prompt placidity that settled over her body before handing the pipe back to the Pawnee hunter.

The detective was pretty sure marijuana was not illegal yet, something she had not even considered until now. She smiled. It was a habit she had picked up in high school and one she continued after she graduated from the police academy. She had been a hypocrite and arrested people for selling, buying and possessing pot and then, after her shift, going home and getting high. It wasn't a constant in her life but she did not hesitate to partake in smoking it following a very stressful day.

She got her quarter bags from the same man who supplied Andy DeSienna with his. Having that connection always got her the best grade for minimal price. This dealer's stash came directly from Columbia but it wasn't half as good as what she had just inhaled.

"Where did you get this - the cannabis?"

Little Hawk made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "Hemp. It grows everywhere."

Hemp. Of course. It was probably flourishing, wild all over the Triple Y. Hmmmm...this was certainly a dilemma. Even though hemp wasn't against any laws yet, she did not want to get back into the routine of relying on pot again to get her through her tough situations. Before, it hadn't mattered, her life had become pretty meaningless so it made no difference whether she got high or not. Now she had a responsibility - to her wife, to the child she would raise as her own and, most importantly, to herself to not return to being the kind of ruthless, indifferent, uncaring person she had been before she got there. Pot had a tendency to neutralize all her emotions, dulling her senses and making her unobserving and sometimes downright negligent. She could not afford to be that way here and now. However, there was no reason she could not get together with her new friends occasionally and enjoy herself, recreationally, when her accountability was not as front and center, when Rachel was safely ensconced in a secure environment. Like tonight.

"I thought you guys all sat around smoking peyote," Trace smiled, feeling much looser already.

Little Hawk shrugged. "Peyote is not as strong through the pipe. We take peyote by mouth, whole. We suck on it slowly and then chew it and swallow. We will share some later, if you wish."

"No, no, thanks. I'm fine with this right here. But I am curious - what's the difference?"

Little Hawk thought a moment before responding. "When we smoke cannabis, we feel the same. If I eat peyote and you eat peyote, we will not feel the same. It is personal...how would you say...individual. My visions would not be like your visions. If I am ill, I can ask the Great Spirit why I am ill and what I have to do to make it better. I can ask the Great Spirit if I will heal or if I will meet Him. If you are ill, you would have to ask about you and the answers would not be the same. It is the Great Spirit's message to me. For you? It would be His message to you."

"So Peyote allows you to have a religious experience?"

Again, Little Hawk tapped his own chest. "Spiritual. Between you and The Creator." He then held up the pipe. "This - between you and everyone. We all feel the same."

"But what about hallucinations - seeing things that aren't there? Nausea? The amount of time it takes for it to wear off?"

The Pawnee hunter shrugged. "It is a choice, Tsápaat. Sometimes the reward of wisdom for yourself is worth the bad things that happen to gain that knowledge."

Trace stared at him, intently. Wasn't that the truth.

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

Before the beginning of the festivities, Little Hawk, joined by Howling Wolf, took Trace on a tour of their earth lodge, a large dome-shaped, circular structure, perhaps fifteen or sixteen feet high in the center with a hole left open at the top for a combined chimney and skylight. The floor was semi-subterranean, approximately three feet below ground level, the framework of the building covered with layers of willow branches, grass, dried mud and dirt.

Howling Wolf explained that the earth lodge was divided into northern and southern sectors and each sector was further divided into three stations where the tribal women were separated. The mature women who performed most of the labor occupied one section, another station housed the older female tribal members who cared for the children and tended to household matters and the final section was for young, single women who were being taught their obligations and responsibilities to their tribe.

Trace was surprised to learn that after the semi-annual buffalo hunt, when the men returned to the village, they sometimes did not settle into the same sectors as when they left. The younger Pawnee males being the more transient and moving fluidly from household to household, certainly made it sound like the communal environment Trace first guessed it was. That and the fact that Little Hawk had twelve children by different wives was also a big clue.

When they returned outside, Trace joined Rachel and they were seated to start the meal. Even though the brunette and blonde were both females, they were also guests of honor, and were not required to help serve the food. Under normal circumstances, Rachel would have protested this and insisted on doing what the other women did but she did not want to insult their culture and, now heavy with child, she was grateful to get off her feet.

She was, however, a little taken aback at Trace's unusually ravenous appetite and the detective's sudden propensity to think everything was just absolutely hilarious. Her spouse seemed abnormally relaxed and it wasn't that she was not happy to witness this, she just didn't understand it. She had not seen the detective partaking in any imbibing and, besides, Trace didn't act like she regularly did when she had been drinking. And where were her irises? Those gorgeous eyes were now nothing but black pupils with blue rims.

The brunette was also extremely horny, her public restraint seemingly absent. When her fingers weren't grabbing at whatever was edible that passed by her, her hands were pawing at Rachel uninhibitedly, which caused the blonde to blush and playfully swat her lover's advances away for most of the evening, even though no one else seemed to notice or care. What had gotten into her beloved Trace? And how soon before they could leave and finish this amorous behavior at home, if they even made it that far?

After the meal was done and the food remnants had been cleared away, just as Trace was about to whisk Rachel behind a tree somewhere, the atmosphere stilled and the happy couple heard the sound of a softly beating drum. This was accompanied by a vocable, a sound to replace words in a song, and then from inside the earth lodge, emerged a procession.

Leading this regal group was the tribal chief, a prominent, elderly man with an eagle feathered headdress that not only reached the ground but continued to trail a good two feet behind him as he moved to a distinct rhythm. He had a fiercely proud nobility about him and a leathery, weathered skin that advertised his approximate age, which the couple guessed later was maybe his eighth decade. They also correctly assumed that this was Moving Elk. Although he was frail, he had an undeniable presence and bearing that almost made Trace and Rachel feel like they should have bowed when he passed by them.

Behind Moving Elk walked the tribal princes and princesses, elders, the warriors and the hunters, then the women. Once they were all gathered into a circle, the drumming and the song ended. The Pawnee Chief recited a prayer in Skiri, akin to blessing the celebration which was followed by a full tribal dance.

As Moving Elk stood tall in the middle of the circle, the dance stopped and Little Hawk stepped next to his leader. Moving Elk nodded and the Pawnee hunter looked directly at Trace. "Tsápaat. Come." He gestured her forward.

Confused, she released her hold around Rachel's waist and entered the sacred circle. She stood before Moving Elk who sang what sounded like a hymn in his native tongue. When he was finished, he raised his hand and said another prayer, waving it over the detective's head then moving his arm in a circle three times. Then he spoke two words: "CkÝri" and "Awataarihur."

The entire tribe broke into a raucous cheer and then a lively song and dance. Moving Elk placed his palm flat against Trace's breastbone and bowed his head. Then he took two steps backward and quietly returned to the earth lodge. Rachel joined her spouse and appeared to be just as confounded as Trace.

"What was that about?" the detective asked a grinning Little Hawk.

"You are now an honorary member of our tribe."

Speechless, Trace was rescued by her lover. "Wait - do you mean this whole ceremony was really for Trace? To induct her into the tribe?"

The Pawnee hunter nodded and looked at the detective. "We knew if we told you that, you would find reasons not to come."

"I'm...I'm...I'm honored," the detective stammered. "Thank you."

"Does she have a tribal name?" Rachel inquired, beyond curious.

"Yes. Awataarihur. Raging Fire."

Now it was Rachel's turn to laugh. "My goodness, he certainly got that one right." Immediately after she said it, the remark made both her and the brunette turn crimson.

***

By the time Moses had them halfway home, Rachel had control of the reins, the rifle across her lap and Raging Fire was snoring up a storm in the back of the wagon. So much for the romantic plans she had for their bed time. Raging Fire, my butt, Rachel thought, shaking her head. More like Fading Ember.

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

The next morning had started out badly and the day gave no indication of getting any better. For some reason Trace had awakened with a pounding headache which put her in a horrendous mood. But to Rachel, especially since she had not seen the detective drink any kind of potable the night before, it seemed provoked by nothing obvious and even in their short, impromptu lovemaking - a session initiated by Trace who roused Rachel out of a sound sleep - the brunette was a little rougher, more brusque than she had ever been. It was not that it wasn't still enjoyable, just...different.

Her surly disposition just intensified when the tall detective got out of bed, tripped over a stick Ramiro had dragged in the night before and, to keep her balance, grabbed onto the bedroom door. This was not a well thought out move as the momentum of Trace's solid body propelled the door to shut, causing her to slam into it, stubbing both big toes and pinching her fingers in the process.

Rachel had never heard such a string of obscenities in her life. Every day, something proved to the blonde that Trace had made the right decision to pretend she was a man. Although her mannerisms seemed neutral, her strength, skills and confidence were like nothing she had ever seen in a woman before and ladies just did not have the rather earthy and extensively naughty vocabulary the brunette did.

Yet despite Trace annoying her greatly that morning, she would not trade her 'husband' for anything in the world. And 'annoying' was most definitely an understatement. The detective cursed Ramiro for leaving the damned stick where he did, even though she knew the dog had not done it on purpose, cursed not being able to get the lamp lit on the first, second or third try, cursed the damned stubborn cattle for not getting out into the corral exactly when she wanted them to and even clipped off her words to her new three Pawnee brothers who showed up to help with the crops. The taller woman explained this behavior to the blonde once, calling it pee em ess or some such thing, but those incidents of temperament never reached the level of Trace's unexplainable current irritation.

The normally amiable detective even complained about breakfast, which she never did, even after the smaller woman had cured Trace's throbbing head with a spoonful of honey and Rachel was about ready to reconsider the thought about trading her spouse, almost relieved when the brunette went out and saddled up Rio to go to town. When she came in to kiss Rachel goodbye, Trace still appeared to be out of sorts.

"Sweetheart, what's wrong?" the blonde inquired, loosely hanging on to the detective's waist.

"Nothing. Well, nothing I can put my finger on, exactly," the brunette sighed, hugging the smaller woman very close to her. Trace was pretty sure it was the lingering after-effects of the marijuana, as she almost always ended up with a mild headache at some point. Why did she smoke the stuff again? Oh, yeah, right. Because it made her feel better. However, the agitation that was accompanying the headache was not something she was used to and that bothered her. "I should head out, I have that meeting this morning with Caleb Tipping. He's filing a complaint to get the money back that the Cranes have extorted from him." She kissed Rachel again. "I think Caleb is a brave man to start the ball rolling like that. Once he does it, I think everyone else will follow suit."

Reluctantly, letting Trace go, Rachel said, "Please try to have a better day than you have had so far..."

The detective wiggled her mildly bruised fingers, glared at the dog and pouted. "Don't remind me..."

It wasn't two minutes later and Rachel heard her beloved yelling, outside. Wiping her hands on her apron, she stepped out on the porch to see Trace on Rio, shouting at Ramiro, who was bouncing around and barking. "No! Go back to the house right now!" Ramiro sat. "I mean it!" As she reined the mustang back around in an attempt to leave the area, the wolf hybrid puppy trotted after her, which made her stop again. "Goddamn it, Ramiro!"

Rachel knew better than to remark about Trace's language when she was in moods like this. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Trace, take him with you! What harm can it do??

"I want him here to protect you," Trace shot back.

"Good Lord, Trace, he's just a puppy...the only thing he could do right now would be gnaw at whoever's ankle bones!"

"That's not the point! He needs to learn to -"

The blonde pointed toward the field, exasperated. "Little Hawk, Red Sky and Thundercloud are here. I will be fine. Let him go to town with you. He literally pines until you come home, anyway." Rachel heard a growl and wasn't sure if it came from the dog or her lover. Without another word, Trace turned around again, riding away with Ramiro happily following.

Returning inside, the mother-to-be shook her head, blowing out a deep breath. Hopefully that proverbial bee that had flown into Trace's bonnet would fly out before she came home for lunch.

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

The morning went by quickly for the new sheriff, the paperwork for Caleb Tipping easy to fill out and most of their meeting became a bitch session about how the Cranes had been taking advantage of the town for so long. When Trace ran out of coffee, Tipping decided it was time to go back to work.

After that, the brunette visited Emmet Hallack, Esquire, a private defense attorney who had stayed out of the Cranes' hair as much as possible, which allowed him an acceptable amount of success in all minor legaln matters that did not involve the cattle baron or his family. Trace had heard that Hallack was a decent man and was constantly looking for a bigger case that would allow him to do better than break even for once and maybe even make a name for himself. With Ed Jackson gone and the not-so-easily intimidated Trace Sheridan now in the job, maybe Hallack could actually start practicing law and be backed up like he always should have been.

Having been told that Hallack was one of the good guys and that his hands had been tied by politics, Trace decided to make an appointment to meet the man and judge for herself. Showing the rotund lawyer the complaint and assuring him there would, no doubt, be more, Hallack advised the sheriff to write an official letter to the governor requesting an impartial circuit magistrate to come to Sagebrush or Jefferson City if Sagebrush wasn't convenient and try all five Crane men on whatever charges they could file against them. Hallack's enthusiasm at helping Trace nail these bastards was reassuring.

Trace was ready to leave her office and head back to the ranch for a quick lunch when John and Seth Carter, surprisingly cordial, walked in, wanting to put in a claim for a couple more acres of land southwest of the Crane spread. Great...that land touched the Triple Y...just what they needed...closer proximity to the devil. And her day had actually started to go well...

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

64

Rachel had just chopped some vegetables Thundercloud had brought to her from the field and dropped them into her beef stock, which was now boiling on the stove. She was about to enter the pantry to retrieve some spices and herbs to flavor her soup when she heard a noise behind her.

"Howdy Rachel."

The blonde froze. She did not have to turn around to know who that voice belonged to. Panic seized her heart. The carbine was across the room and Trace was in town. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to rein in her fear and not let him know she was terrified by his presence but all that kept replaying in her mind was that night...that horrible, violent night and she started to involuntarily shake.

Her hand automatically went to her growing belly, protectively, and her other hand held onto a chair for support. She thought her knees were going to buckle and she felt faint and she knew that couldn't happen. Calling up all the strength she ever possessed, she somehow got her voice to lose its quiver when she said, "You have no business here, Ben. And you need to leave before my husband gets back."

Crane smiled, arrogantly. He was very much aware of the effect he had on her, regardless of how she tried to disguise it. He loved that women were afraid of him. The better to control them with.

He was leaning against the doorway. "Nope. Don't think so. Seth and Uncle John are keeping the new sheriff busy in town. And those Injuns you got watching the place? They're putting out a small fire in that nice corn crop right now. So, looks like I got you all to myself." He took a few steps inside. "You goin' and marryin' someone else just wasn't right, Rachel. He know I had you first?"

"He knows all about you, Ben. He knows what kind of vile vermin you are."

"Aw, now that just ain't nice. Maybe you and me need to get reacquainted. No man with any respect for hisself would stay married to a woman who cheated on him, especially with her very first."

She knew she could no longer keep her back to him, she had to know where he was, watch exactly what he was doing. She nonchalantly reached over and grabbed her broom. If nothing else, she might be able to wield the handle defensively if Crane decided to attack her again, at least hit him in a sensitive area, like Trace taught her, to debilitate him until she could get to the loaded rifle by the bedroom door. "You were only my first because you took me against my will."

"Don't matter none how it happened, now does it? I'm still -" Crane stopped dead when Rachel fully faced him and his steel gray eyes fell to her bulging stomach. "Well, well, well...lookie what we got here...don't that just beat all now."

"That's right, Ben. I'm with child. Trace's child. Sure you don't want to think again about touching a man's expectant wife? I think even you might take exception with that."

The veins in Crane's neck were pulsating and he was trying to not only control his temper but his disappointment as well. He had no doubt now he was going to kill this Trace son-of-a-bitch. Why hadn't anyone warned him that Rachel was in the family way? Had they been afraid he would go berserk? Well, he probably would have, knowing his obsession with the blonde. He eyeballed her uncomfortably, noting that she was still so beautiful it literally made his insides ache. "Damn, Rachel, you are still the prettiest creature that ever drawed a breath. I bet you still got a smile that could melt snow caps."

"You'll never see it again." She was gripping the broom handle so tight, her fingers were getting numb. "You really need to go, Ben. Trace won't be happy when he finds out you've been here."

Crane fingered the hammer of his shiny new Smith & Wesson six-gun, hanging low on his side. "Well, you know, I'd kinda like to stick around and meet this Trace fella. Been hearin' a lot about him. Kinda expectin' him to walk on water or somethin'. Wonder if he can stop bullets...oh, that's right. He can't. Didn't Ed plug him a few times? Yep. Sorry to hear about ol' Ed becomin' worm bait. Hope your Trace don't follow in his footsteps."

"I swear, Ben Crane, you touch one hair on Trace Sheridan's head and I will kill you myself." The look in the green eyes was pure venom, enough to literally make Crane take a small step back. What the hell had happened to his sweet Rachel? It left him a little unsettled.

"Now don't go gettin' yourself all riled up, I never said I was gonna kill 'im. Just that bein' sheriff is a dangerous job."

"Especially when the sheriff isn't working for you," Rachel spat at him.

Crane just smiled. "Why, I have no idea what you might mean by that Miss Young," he said, too sweetly.

"Mrs. Sheridan," the blonde corrected, stiffly.

"Right. My apologies, Mrs. Sheridan," he amended, with a sarcastic half-bow. He had been intently studying her since walking through the door and especially since he had discovered she was pregnant. Something was bothering him, something wasn't right. Then a thought hit him. "How long you been married?"

"Six months."

"Huh. Belly's mighty big for six months, ain't it? He musta nailed you on the first night. Unless you and he got right friendly before that."

"I am sure I conceived on my wedding night," she threw back, defensively. Uh oh. Where was he going with this?

"Alls I'm sayin' is my sister, Hannah, and my brothers' wives were all about your size just shortly before they birthed them babies. Now, if that follows, then that would mean you're lyin' and that baby was conceived maybe a little over eight months ago? When your husband was nowhere around...but I was. You carryin' a Crane baby in there, Rachel?"

"I would cut any child out of me before I spawned another Crane! Fire Arrow says this is just a very big baby."

"Fire Arrow? Who the hell is that? What does Doc Smith say?"

"Doc Smith will never get his hands on this baby or me. He's as far into your back pocket as Ed Jackson was." She was trying not to sound panicky and hoping it was coming out more like indignation.

"So who's this Fire Arrow? One of them crazy Pawnee?"

"I am done talking to you. I want you to leave my house this instant."

He laughed. "You ordering me off your property, Rachel?"

"Yes. You are trespassing, Ben. I'll have my husband arrest you."

"Oh, I don't think that would be a good idea at all." He could not stop staring at her and could not believe how drawn he still was to her. He would bet real big money that he had planted the seed that was growing inside her. So much so that he didn't care if some other man had been with her, he just had to touch her, kiss her, have her again right now. He didn't want to hurt his baby, so he'd trap her against the wall and get her standing up, from behind...

When he leapt for her, Rachel was prepared but her body did not move fast enough. By the time she raised the broom handle, Crane had knocked it out of her grip and sent it flying across the room, the force of his body suddenly against her, pushing her helplessly backward. Getting one hand free, she slapped him so hard across the face, her palm stung. This action was answered by the back of his hand, which she was able to deflect but that hurt her forearms and threw her slightly off balance. Unfortunately, this was enough for him to regain the advantage and he grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her against the wall.

"No, Ben, Stop it!! Stop!!" She was screaming but was pretty sure no one was around, no one could hear her. Oh, dear Lord, this can't be happening again... Trying to kiss her was not working as she would not keep her head still. "Please, Ben, don't - you'll hurt the baby." Her pleas were met with silence as he powerfully spun her around, pushing her face against the rough logs, attempting to still her flailing arms with one hand and pull up her dress with the other. She was hysterical now, her sobs loud and coming out in gasps and when his feet moved apart in an attempt to pin her legs open, she saw her opportunity and brought her heel up as hard as she could.

Everything suddenly stopped as she heard him suck in air unexpectedly and a strangled noise emitted from his throat. He was no longer touching her or even focused on her as he crumpled to the floor behind her in a fetal position, his hands buried deeply in his crotch. Enraged, Rachel kicked him several more times, in the face, in the back and in his sides and reached down, removing his revolver from its holster. She emptied the cylinder of all six bullets, dropping them into the pocket of her apron and threw the pistol out the front door. Then she ran and picked up her rifle. Raising the carbine, she cocked the hammer back and took aim. She was breathing hard and fast and shaking like a leaf but she pointed the rifle in the general area of the writhing, groaning lump on the floor.

Trying to regulate her breathing, Rachel was also unreasonably wrestling with her conscience. What was happening to her? Was she capable of taking another man's life? Ed Jackson was barely cold in his grave and here she was ready to kill someone else. But this wasn't just anyone, this was Ben Crane and if anyone deserved to die, he did.

The injured man rose slowly to his knees. "Son-of-a-fucking-bitch, Rachel..." His voice was raspy and he was still holding onto his damaged manhood. His face was bruised and bloody from the blonde kicking him and it startled Rachel momentarily to see the results of her violence. But it did not last as her eyes narrowed once again in fury, knowing he would have raped her again.

The blonde brought the carbine to bear once more when, despite all the emotional turmoil, she felt a gentle presence beside her and a hand wrapped around the barrel of the gun, pushing it downward. She looked over into the kind, wise gaze of Little Hawk. He shook his head gently at her. Letting go of the carbine, she allowed him to take possession of the weapon.

He held the rifle loosely in his grasp, the muzzle pointed toward the floor. He looked over at Red Sky who was standing in the doorway and instructed him, in Pawnee, to go to town and get Trace, as he calmly, quietly guided Rachel behind him. When Red Sky left quickly, Little Hawk spoke, his voice strong and commanding. "You will go, Crane. And you will thank whatever spirit you pray to for letting you live."

Slowly, Crane rose to his feet. Bending at the waist, he rested his palms just above his knees, still grimacing. He raised his angry eyes to glare at the blonde, the expression he wore no longer filled with lust or want for this woman. "You just made the biggest mistake of your life, Rachel. You should have killed me while you had the chance." He let his gaze fall to Rachel's stomach again and then met her eyes. "Tell you what...that baby comes out of you in another month instead of two and looks anythin' like me? I'm comin' to get it."

"Over my dead body!"

"Careful what you wish for...Mrs. Sheridan." He pointed at her.

"You come back here, you die." The words from Little Hawk were simple but potent. There was no mistaking the Pawnee's tone or intent and his eyes burned holes through Crane as he left.

When she heard his horse ride away, Rachel sank to the floor and broke down, weeping uncontrollably, her face in her hands.

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

Rachel heard Rio splashing through the river and the rapid click of his hooves on stone as he crossed the wide base of rocks that covered part of the stream bed. Trace must be pushing him hard, the blonde thought, listening to the staccato hoofbeats on the ground from the river to the house. Plus it only took the detective ten minutes to get there from Sagebrush, instead of the usual half hour.

'Rachel!" Trace yelled as she jumped off Rio and up the steps.

Almost flying through the door, Trace searched for her wife, spotting Little Hawk first. "Rachel?" When the Pawnee cast his eyes downward, the brunette saw the top of Rachel's head and nearly upturned the table to get to her.

Trace dropped to her knees, not missing the bruise on the side of Rachel's face where she had been pushed into the wall. She held Rachel's chin with her thumb and forefinger and inspected her for any other marks. The frightened, wounded look in those green eyes, wet and swollen, clutched at Trace's heart, attempting to rip it out. She took the blonde into her arms, not even daring to breathe until Rachel spoke to her. The detective gently rocked her lover as the blonde began to cry again. Through clenched teeth, the detective asked, "Did he touch you?"

Rachel could not seem to find the breath to answer so she nodded her head against Trace's shoulder. The very idea of Ben Crane laying one finger on Rachel again made the detective's heart beat like a triphammer and rage seethe through every pore of her body, the desire to rip his eyes out for even looking in the blonde's direction again was so strong it was hard to contain it. She positioned herself on the floor so that she could look in Rachel's eyes, see her face.

"What...did...he...do?" The brunette could barely get the question out, her body shaking with rage.

"He...he...tried...to...have...his...way...with...me...again..." Every word was divided by an inhaling of breath, as she was trying to get her tears under control.

Trace slowly stood, helping Rachel up with her, pulling her into a full body hug, too incensed to think clearly at the moment. It did not slip by her that Rachel clung to her as though she were hanging on for dear life. "What did he do to you? How did he touch you? Did he hit you across the face?"

"No. He pushed my face into the wall and tried to keep me there while he was trying to lift up my dress and - and I kept begging him not to hurt the baby and -"

"Wait - he was trying to rape you from behind?"

Again, the movement of Rachel's head against her spouse's shoulder indicated Trace had guessed correctly.

The detective really believed at that moment that she was going to explode from hatred and anger building up within her for this man. "But he didn't succeed..." She could not even phrase it in the form of a question, instead opting to say it as a statement, as if willing Rachel to say No. Trace really did not think she would be able to control her homicidal tendencies if the blonde told her yes, he did succeed or even partially succeed. As it was, it took every ounce of self-discipline not to leave her wife in the safety of Little Hawk and track this monster down and tear him limb from limb with her bare hands.

"No."

"How did you get away from him?" This manner of mild interrogation was working well. If Rachel did not have to look at her, she seemed to have more strength to talk about it, without breaking down. Trace adjusted her embrace, fully supporting the blonde's weight against her.

"I lifted my heel up and caught him between the legs. He let me go when he fell to the floor. Then I kicked him and took his gun and emptied it. Then I got the carbine and I swear I would have shot him but Little Hawk stopped me."

Trace cut a sharp glare to the Pawnee hunter, who met her eyes and then casually looked away, eventually focusing on something out the door. She returned her attention to the shattered blonde in her arms. "You did great, baby, you did everything you should have. You beat him, Rachel, you stopped it from happening again - you took your power back, sweetheart."

The detective kissed the top of her head several times and then led her into the bedroom where she encouraged her to lie down. "I really think you should rest, honey. It's been a very rough morning for you." She helped Rachel position herself as the blonde laid her head back on the pillow, covering her up with a shawl that had been folded at the foot of the bed. "It's going to be all right now. Okay? I'm not going to let anything happen to you or the baby." Trace lightly rubbed the back of her hand up and down over her wife's nasty looking contusion adorning her cheekbone. "You're going to be okay..."

When the detective went to remove her hand, Rachel grabbed it. "Trace...it's not going to be okay. He knows."

Seeing the blonde getting visibly upset again, Trace tried to calm her. "Shhhh, shhhh...everything is going to be fine. I won't let anything happen to you, I promise. What does he know?" Her gentle tone of voice contradicted the detonations going off inside her.

"He knows the baby is his."

Trace could see hysteria slowly rising in Rachel's expression. She once more began lovingly stroking her face. "Sweetheart, you have to calm down. This is not good for the baby. Now - tell me exactly what he said that makes you think he knows the baby is his."

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

After Rachel's recollection of Ben Crane's words and Trace promising that she was not going anywhere but out into the kitchen to get her a cup of water and to speak with Little Hawk, the blonde finally, if not reluctantly released the detective to leave her side.

Stalking by her Pawnee brother, Trace plucked a cup from the cupboard and pumped water into it. She approached Little Hawk, trying to keep her voice quiet enough as to not disturb her wife any further. "What the hell is wrong with you?!" she whispered, harshly. "Why didn't you let her kill the bastard?"

Gazing intently at her, perceptive brown eyes capturing blue, he said, "It is not meant for Caskí Custíra'u to kill Crane. It is your destiny to do this."

Trace returned a startled look. "Why? Why is it my destiny? Why does it matter who takes this prick out, as long as he is gone?"

"You will understand when the time comes." Little Hawk patted her on the shoulder and walked to the door, setting the carbine by the arch.

"Wait! Then you stay here with Rachel and I'll go after him now!"

The Pawnee hunter turned and walked back toward her. "No. You ride after Crane and you will die. He will be waiting for you. Your wife needs you here tonight. Tomorrow, we will find him. Tomorrow, you will send him back to his Creator."

Could she trust herself to wait until tomorrow? "All right," she conceded, "but if he comes back here before tomorrow, he is a dead man."

"Yes. He has been warned."

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

When Little Hawk left the house, before he rode back to his settlement, he instructed Red Sky to keep a vigil on the property, close to all inhabited buildings. When he reached Pawnee ground, he sent back two young warriors to assist in standing guard. They were further instructed not to kill Ben Crane if he returned, that they were to restrain him until Tsápaat could get to him and then they should follow her lead.

Trace thought she would let Rachel nap, after she cried herself to sleep, but the distraught blonde slept only as long as it took for the detective to heat a kettle for tea. So infuriated she thought her head would implode, the detective did not notice Rachel at the bedroom door until, she heard the blonde sniff back some tears.

Standing, then walking to her, Trace said, "Baby, what are you doing up? You should be resting."

"I feel so dirty..." It came out in a desperate whisper. Rachel appeared dazed and tormented and, most of all, lost. Even when Trace pulled her into a hug, the smaller woman's arms remained folded across her chest.

Resting her chin on the top of Rachel's head, Trace knew what she had to do, needed to do, even if it was just symbolic. She led the blonde to the pantry area where the tub was. "I'm going to heat some more water," the detective told her wife, gently. "Then I'll help you get your clothes off."

*******

Rachel sat, semi-submerged, in the warm water. Trace made sure not to make it too hot as she remembered reading somewhere about the dangers of raising the body temperature while pregnant. Trace began lightly scrubbing the blonde's back with a cloth as Rachel's arms were encircling her knees, hugging them as close to her body as she could get them, considering the size of her tummy.

Even though the smaller woman was not saying a word, trying not to make a sound, tears were still streaming down her face, her body still slightly shaking with every drawn breath. Trace's heart was breaking and, as she was bathing her once again violated wife, her own eyes misted over.

"Rachel...I am so sorry..." the detective's voice wavered from soft to repentant to barely controlled rage. "I should have been here. I should have known better than to have started working in town before that bastard got back."

She soaked the washcloth and drained the water on Rachel's shoulder, then repeated the action on the other shoulder. Gently, she pushed the smaller woman back and she began to wash her neck and chest.

"I should have known when those Carvers showed up wanting to claim land - land that's been there all along - and they were being so damned nice that something wasn't right. I should have known -"

"Trace? It's all right. Really. You couldn't have known." Moist green eyes connected with deep blue ones. A single tear fell from Trace's left eye. Rachel reached up and wiped it away with her thumb, caressing her spouse's cheek and chin. The love conveyed with that one look, that one gesture caused Trace to break down. Rachel reached out and brought the brunette closer in a tight embrace. "You can't be everywhere at once."

"You needed me here, Rachel, and I wasn't. God, baby, I love you so much and I failed you." The detective went back to tenderly scrubbing the blonde. "I will never do that again, I promise you. Anyone ever comes near you again, meaning you harm and I will kill them with my bare hands. You are the best thing that has ever happened in my life and if anything ever happened to you, I...just couldn't go on, I know it." And she meant it. How Rachel had changed her so completely in just mere months, had made her want to be a good person, want to be responsible for another's happiness, want to spend the rest of her life just pleasing this incredible young woman and living up to her expectations amazed her, and the thought of all that being taken away from her devastated her in a way that defied description.

Numb, and trying but failing miserably at holding back her own tears, Rachel pulled Trace to her and kissed her, a gesture that communicated the adoration, devotion and necessity of her love for her sable-haired spouse. "I never want to find out what that's like, either, Trace." In silence that was now more comfortable, the brunette went back to lovingly, compassionately and protectively cleansing her wife.

Funny...but the detective bathing her did make her soul feel cleaner.

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

65

It was a sleepless night for Trace. Knowing she would be killing Ben Crane the next day had very little to do with it. Rachel's recurring nightmares were what kept her fully conscious. Each time the vulnerable blonde awoke, it was with a frightened yelp or agonizing sob, accompanied by sweating and shaking. The fact that - regardless of whether or not Rachel forgave her - Trace had not been there to protect her as she had promised to do was only the half of it. That the detective was not going to be able to stop this round of horrific dreams left the normally fearless brunette feeling helpless, an emotion so alien to her, she wasn't even sure that's what she was experiencing at first. Trace hated Ben Crane for what he did to Rachel, what he tried to do again and now what he had done to her...make her feel weak and psychologically impotent.

Every time her wife woke up, Trace would calm her and kiss her reassuringly, hoping that Rachel would believe again that Trace could keep her safe. The blonde brought out an odd sense of chivalry in the brunette, an attribute that had obviously remained well hidden until Rachel came into her life. Trace liked being Rachel's protector, her 'knight in shining armor.' It was the one pure thing, other than her love, that she could offer the smaller woman and now...now this monster had destroyed that. Sure, Rachel would probably get it back but it would never be the same.

When Rachel would settle down from the previous nightmare, the detective just held onto her more securely than the last time, hoping she wasn't squeezing her too tightly or suffocating her. Toward morning, Trace wasn't sure who needed the body contact more and the taller woman was torn between staying and holding her wife, knowing her presence would give her comfort and stability and leaving to eliminate Ben Crane from their lives once and for all, which would also result in the same effect. She, of course, opted for the latter.

She never wanted to see a man so dead in her life...not even Vincent DeSienna. She was sure revenge would never taste so powerfully sweet.

Trace would have preferred to have left Rachel with another familiar female, like Elizabeth Reddick or brought her into town to stay with Molly Ledbetter for the day - or until this was over. But the fewer people who knew about yesterday or were in on what Trace was about to do, the better.

Little Hawk, Fire Arrow and Dancing Leaf, one of the mature women of the tribe who performed duties similar to a midwife, stayed with Rachel inside the cabin. The Pawnee medicine man was there in case the blonde went into a premature labor. Yesterday had been profoundly upsetting to Caskí Custíra'u so, as a precaution, Fire Arrow thought it was best to be there, just in case. The detective agreed.

Warriors Howling Wolf and Black Feather, who was also a scout, rode with Trace to get Ben Crane. They arrived in the woods just outside the Crane property line and waited there for the right opportunity to present itself. From their perch on the side of a hill overlooking the main ranch house and several other structures, they could easily see when Crane saddled up and left the property. The detective knew she really didn't need her Pawnee brother's there, that she could certainly handle an overgrown punk like Ben Crane. However, on the off chance Trace could not 'fulfill her destiny' like Little Hawk had predicted, their presence, if nothing else, would ensure that Crane would never lay his hands - or anything else - on Rachel again.

While they waited, Black Feather offered a suggestion to the detective regarding the fate of the cattle baron's youngest son. Although Trace really did feel the desire to rip this man apart all by herself, after listening to the reasoning of the scout, she concurred that, following a well deserved and severe ass-kicking, a prolonged, painful death was in order.

After an hour, Howling Wolf saw movement in the bunkhouse as a few ranch hands emerged and then ambled into the cookhouse. Not too long after that, the cowboys moved out into the fields to start their respective days. It took another two hours before the object of their attention showed himself, walking out onto the porch and stretching what Trace assumed to be very stiff and sore muscles.

**********

Feeling as though she were ready to crawl out of her skin, Rachel needed to occupy herself with something as a diversion. Housework, baking a pie or tending to the garden just wasn't going to do it. She had already knitted enough booties to warm the feet of every infant in Jefferson County and taking Chief out for a nice leisurely ride was out of the question.

A barking Ramiro caught her attention and she went out onto the porch to see what the commotion was. She was greeted with a very dirty, dusty puppy who began happily jumping around at her feet.

"My goodness, boy, where have you been?" Rachel wrinkled her nose. At least he didn't smell like he'd been in the pasture, rolling in something one of the cows left behind like he did last week. Well, it certainly solved the problem of what she could do to busy herself. But someone else was going to have to catch him, she thought as she went back inside to ask Dancing Leaf if she would help her get the ten gallon bucket ready.

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

Her Pawnee brethren had remounted and stayed concealed, assuring Trace they would only show themselves when it became necessary. Trace had tied Rio to a low branch, leaving the horse to contentedly munch on various vegetation while she waited for Crane to pass. She had also removed her gunbelt as she did not want to do battle with him that way - she wanted to feel her hands on him when she hurt him.

Ben had been surprised that the new sheriff had not come to the house to try and get even with him for touching his wife. What kind of man must this Sheridan fellow be, not to want to defend his woman's honor? He wondered, with amusement, if the new lawman of Sagebrush was all bluster and now that he was actually faced with a Crane, he wasn't really so tough after all.

The next thing he remembered was lying on the ground, having been knocked off his horse. Something came flying at him from the right, something big...and quick. Picking his face up from the dirt, he saw a pair of boots.

"Hello, Crane." Trace's voice was shaking - not from anything remotely having to do with fear - and she found it difficult to restrain herself until the man got to his feet. She was in a defensive stance, ready for anything from this bully.

"Sheriff Sheridan, I reckon?" Ben rolled onto his knees.

Trace's heart went up in her throat...that voice...where had she heard that voice before? And then he stood up and lifted his face, steel gray eyes meeting her ice blue ones. The detective had to take a step back, nearly losing her balance, reeling from the shock. Ben Crane was the spitting image of Vincent DeSienna.

Crane silently appraised her. "You look like you've seen a ghost, Sheriff."

She felt as though she had. Everything about him was identical to DeSienna - vocal inflection, physical characteristics, height, build and most of all, arrogance. Trace was still reacting from the jolt of that cruel surprise, the ramifications of the likeness not lost on her. Could this possibly mean that Rachel was carrying an ancestor of yet another horrendous family? Was she going to help raise a distant relative of the man she hated most in the world?

On the verge of hyperventilating, she forced her focus back to the situation at hand and thought of how much better it would feel now, it would be as though she were killing Ben Crane and Vincent DeSienna at the same time. Oh, how she wished that were true. Trace abruptly relaxed and steadied herself, suddenly feeling very much in control. Now she knew what Little Hawk meant, that it was her destiny to kill Ben Crane...but how did he know? A question obviously for another time.

She blatantly stared at his bruises and regarded him with a cocky smirk. "My wife do that to you? She did a nice job. Too bad she didn't kick your nuts off in the process."

His eyes constricted in contempt. "You gotta lot of nerve, Sheridan, comin' to this town and takin' over, takin' my woman..."

"She was never your woman, Crane. I think she proved that yesterday. And now, you're going to answer to me. Let's see how big of a man you are by picking on someone your own size...messing with someone who's not afraid of you."

She watched his hand move to his hip and hover around his holster. "Then fill your hand, Sheridan!"

Trace gestured to her lower body, no sign of a gun in sight. "No. We are going to settle this without weapons. Shooting you would be way too easy, way too quick."

"There's just one thing wrong with that...you ain't running this show." He was able to release his pistol from his holster but that was all.

Her lightening-fast front roundhouse kick disarmed him with an accuracy that startled him speechless. "You fucking ball-less, gutless, piece-of-shit coward." She punctuated that with a wicked backhand blow that sent him sprawling. "Get up, you son-of-a-bitch, we're going to do this right." She planted her feet and beckoned him forward with her hands. "What's the matter, Crane? You can only beat up on girls?"

Furious now, Crane hopped to his feet and charged her, a move she anticipated, stepping aside and sweeping his feet out from under him, sending him bouncing on his backside. "Where do they teach you boys how to fight?"

He didn't know what infuriated him more...the fact that he had yet to get a punch in or that the new sheriff was laughing at him. Nobody laughed at a Crane...and lived to tell about it. Scrambling to his feet, he took a boxer's stance, hopping around a bit, one fist extended in front of his face, the other curled about six inches from his chest. "Take your best shot, Sheridan, 'cause it'll be your last."

Trace shook her head at him. "Silly boy," she commented before winding up and jumping. While in the air, her right leg shot out as if she were going to perform a side kick and, instead, her other leg launched to the left in a ball kick, executing a scissor kick after her rotation, striking him with the back of her heel, which caused his own fist to smack him hard in the face, resulting in his taking a few off-balanced steps backwards, dazed. The eye that Rachel hadn't blackened, immediately started to swell.

"You don't fight like no man I ever seen," Crane spat out, getting madder and more frustrated.

"Neither do you," Trace commented. Gifted with dexterity, that natural hand and eye coordination permitted her to have exceptionally precise fighting skills. She was good at what she did and she was not used to losing in hand-to-hand combat. Ben Crane was no match for her and she knew it.

There was a huge part of her that just wanted to grab him in a head lock and break his neck. But he deserved to be brutalized and if Trace had been a different type of individual, she would have done it in the exact same manner in which he had brutalized Rachel, so he could know exactly what it felt like - not just physically but the loss of control, security, self and, most of all, she wanted him to feel humiliation as he had never felt it before.

However, Trace was many things but a rapist was not one of them and even as tempting as it was in this situation, she was not ready to add it to her resume. No, she could degrade, demean and emasculate him by not letting him get one hit in and then when he was well weakened, she would hand him over to Black Feather and Howling Wolf.

It would be enough for both her and Crane to possess the knowledge that she was not only capable of killing him but would have, if she had chosen to do so. But until then, she had some serious ass kicking to do. Crane had resumed his previous fighting stance, at first doing his best imitation of a banty rooster and then advanced toward Trace in a menacing posture.

"Obviously, you don't learn from your mistakes, asswipe." The detective made sure her center of gravity was low and moved out of Crane's path, executing a stepping side kick, thrusting her leg out and connecting severely with Crane's hip, stopping him dead in his tracks before moving her foot in a crescent motion and literally kicking him in the posterior, planting him once again in the dirt, face first.

Not waiting for him to recover this time, Trace walked over to Crane and picked him up by the back of his shirt, using her anger and adrenaline as momentum and swung him around, releasing him so that he ran headlong into a tree. Bouncing back from contact with the unyielding fixed object, the cattle baron's son staggered backward before he, once again, fell on his butt.

"Get up, you sorry fucking excuse for a man!" When Trace approached him, he promptly scooted away from her. "What's the matter, Benjy? You afraid of me? Huh?" She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. Letting him go, she stomped her foot as though she were going to let loose with another side kick and he backed away, almost whimpering.

Relaxing her body language, Trace baited Crane into thinking she was letting her guard down. He did not disappoint her when he raised his fist, sending it forward with all the strength he had. She simply raised her hand in an upward motion, obstructing his attempt. Since she blocked him wrist-to-wrist, he took most of the impact. Crane tried again with his other hand but Trace deflected his movement once again, never taking her eyes off his. He repeated this action several times, becoming more overcome with exasperation with every swing.

Having backed him up against a large oak tree, Trace was ready to do some serious damage. Seeing the look in her eye, Crane's blood ran cold. All semblance of color drained from his face. This Sheridan character was really beginning to scare him. He had yet to make intentional contact with the lawman and he was exhausted and his injuries were seriously smarting and that damned sheriff wasn't even winded. He visibly flinched when Trace slowly, deliberately, raised her arm, bending it at the elbow, close to her body, her fingers fully extended and joined, palm downward. She let it hover in front of him, threateningly.

"What are you going to do to me?" He asked, his eyes going back and forth from Trace's face to her hand.

"Exactly what you did to my wife..." she growled at him.

His eyes grew wide with shock and fear. The sheriff couldn't mean what he thought...

"Is your asshole puckering, Crane? It should be. No, I'm not going to do that, although nothing would give me greater pleasure to see you suffer that way. No, I'm not going to rape you because that would make me just like you...and I realize I may have been as bad as Ed Jackson at one point in my life, but I was never anything like you and I will never be anything like you. Make no mistake though, Benjy, I am going to hurt you. Bad. And then you are going to die."

His heart started to pound because he knew, as sure as he was standing there, that Sheridan meant it. Or at least he thought he did. Well...not if he had any say in the matter. He drove his head forward in a failed attempt to smash it against hers. With the hand that was not in position, she caught him by the forehead and slammed the back of his skull against the tree.

Having him pinned, she then effected a move she had learned years ago from a Shaolin sensei, a remarkable woman who personified the word 'self-control.' Trace's teacher called it a penetrating power punch, a move that required a lot of concentration and discipline to develop and perfect. The theory of this move was that, with just a touch, energy was used to penetrate the body of her opponent. Following the strike, the surface of the body looked untouched but a bruise appeared on the opposite side, destroying whatever internal organs were in that specific area.

She had only used it once before and the man had eventually died from internal injuries. The individual in question had been a henchman of the DeSienna's and was trying to kill her. She had disarmed him but he was huge and starting to get the better of her and she had exhausted all of her other fighting skills and tricks, to no avail. After having practiced this move on a heavy punching bag for years, she felt she had nothing to lose by using it then. The guy got a few more hits in and then he slowed down, losing his energy quickly before he passed out.

Now, she could not think of a better subject to repeat this scenario on. Staring into the strangely familiar wide eyes of Ben Crane, Trace felt a sudden vindication. He wasn't Vincent DeSienna but he was the next best thing. "That was for me," she told him, without remorse. "What happens next will be for my wife."

Letting Crane go, he fell to his knees. He was aware the sheriff had just done something to him, something terrible, but he wasn't sure what and a small ache in his gut was starting to rapidly grow into a throbbing, searing pain.

Once Trace was satisfied that Crane was terrified and suffering, she dragged him over to Black Feather and Howling Wolf who picked him up and tied him between two smaller trees, one arm and one leg was tied to each tree so that he was spread eagle. Normally, this kind of death would have even been a little too gruesome for her but not when it came to this subterranean piece of shit.

She had known whatever 'justice' was going to happen to this man, she would have to inflict as there was no law, other than herself, to turn him over to and no jail that would hold a Crane for very long. A territorial prison perhaps, where an unbiased warden could keep him behind bars might work but who knew when Crane would be able to be transported. By that time all hell could and would break loose. Anyway, that might be fine for the rest of the Crane clan but Ben didn't deserve the courtesy of an impartial trial. He didn't deserve any consideration as would someone who might actually be innocent of the crimes she knew for a fact he had committed.

The Pawnee warriors had picked two trees that would be easy to chop through but also be heavy enough so that when they fell in opposite directions, they would take Cranes limbs with them. It would be an agonizingly slow and painful death and when his body was found, it would very much look like he had been torn apart by a wild animal. It wasn't that Trace wasn't willing to take responsibility for Ben Crane's demise but she wanted to play by the Crane's rules. Ben would be found right outside his own property, in pieces, the circumstances surrounding the incident, an unprovable mystery. It would also be a warning to the rest of the Cranes. They weren't invincible after all.

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

Trace glared at the evil apparition staring back at her, his eyes now as fixed and dull as a dead man's. "Any last words?"

He was going to be defiant and arrogant to the end. "Yeah, I found fulfillment in the arms of your pretty little wife, Sheridan, and she was more than eager and willin'."

"You raped my wife, Crane. You came up behind her, drunk, and like the coward you are, ambushed her and you beat her into submission and then you took her against her will. You violated her. You humiliated her. You degraded her. You stole her virginity. You took away her security. But as much as you wanted to, you never took her dignity. You couldn't take no for an answer. No, she didn't want to sell her land. No, she didn't want to be courted by you. No, she didn't want to marry you and the biggest no of all, she did not want to have sex with you. But being the vicious, vile creature you are, you took her anyway. And then, you disgusting bastard, you tried to do it again."

"You don't know what happened in that cabin, Sheridan. All you got is that little bitch's lies and the word of these Injuns, which ain't much better."

"My wife doesn't lie, Crane. And neither do my brothers."

"She doesn't lie, you say? You think that baby inside her is yours? She lie to you about that? 'Cause it don't matter what she told you, she knows and I know that kid is mine!"

Trace stepped up to Crane, almost nose to nose. "You may have injected the seed, you fucking piece of shit, but that child will never be yours. My wife - yes, MY wife, not yours - would have never let you be a part of that baby's life. Whine, piss and moan all you want but Rachel would have convinced the town that the baby is biologically mine. And, you know what? Since everybody hates your guts and your family's guts, it wouldn't take much for everyone to believe her. As much as it would kill you, my wife would finally get the best of you."

"No woman is ever gonna get the best of me, Sheridan.," he spat out.

"Oh, really?" Even as enraged as she was, a smirk crossed her face and she stepped back, raising an eyebrow. Looking up at Black Feather, who smiled back at her and nodded, she returned her attention to Ben Crane.

As the Pawnee began to chop, Trace unbuttoned her shirt, removing the garment, revealing a chest wrapped in a stretchy, binding cloth. Slowly, she unwound the material until it also fell to the ground. Crane's eyes popped open at the vision presented before him. "What in the hell...?"

The last thing he saw before the trees fell and ended his life were the breasts of the woman who got the best of him.

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

To Be Continued...

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