Disclaimers: See Part 1
The decision to finally go into town had not been an easy one for Rachel to make. She had no doubt that Ben Crane had made good on his promise to announce to all of Sagebrush that he had, to put it mildly, engaged in intimate relations with her. Elizabeth Reddick would not look the blonde in the eye when she returned a pie tin a week ago, her husband, Matthew, demanding she hand the plate to Rachel and they leave immediately. The expression on Matthew's face was one of disdain and disgust, Elizabeth's one of question and confusion. And when Isaac Tipping brought the last order out from his father's store, even though he was young, he looked at her differently, too - probably shocked by the not-so-nice things that were being said about her in the stockroom. They should all know better but obviously they didn't. Or didn't dare not to.
Rachel did not understand how anyone could actually believe she would willingly submit to Ben Crane, of all people. Especially after their families had been at odds for years and she had so adamantly and publicly turned down his marriage proposals. Crane's flagrant womanizing was no secret and neither was the blonde's engagement to the dashing and much more upstanding Thomas Baines. Why anyone would think she would allow the town pig into her bed when she refused that privilege to her own fiancée was beyond all reasonable thought to her.
But then what had really happened defied all reasonable thought. She had not invited Crane anywhere near her private chambers, her body, he took what he wanted all on his own, without her permission, her consent. And now look at the mess she was in... She had heard stories about this sort of thing happening to other women and always thought they must have done something to encourage such behavior. Therefore, because she wasn't that kind of girl, she never thought something like this would happen to her.
And he was a Crane. Nobody went against the Cranes, not even the sheriff, the circuit judges or even Pastor Edwards. Bad things happened when a Crane did not get what they wanted and she was living proof.
If she could stay on the ranch the rest of her life and never have to go into town again, she would. If only that were a rational and plausible solution. However, it was not, and she steeled herself to face the stares, the whispers, the treatment and everything else that now went with her sullied reputation.
And now she was going to show up in town with a total stranger sitting by her side. Complicated by the fact that the man everyone would see was really a woman, pretending to be a man and hopefully no one would catch on and be the wiser. Rachel wasn't sure why they needed to perpetuate this charade as she believed her life would be so much easier right now if her companion dropped the facade, but she gave Trace her word that she would, indeed, go along with it and maybe it would work out for the best. Trace, as a woman, could have been easily explained away as a distant relative come to visit but the brunette, as a man, would create a little more stir...as if she needed anything more to add to the pot.
A month earlier, it would not have caused as much talk, cowboys wandered through town constantly, looking for work and there was no question Rachel needed the help. Her father had hired saddlestiffs all the time, especially during harvest, to work the land with him, to repair things that needed fixing, to help transport the modest head of cattle to auction, to do whatever needed to be done that required an extra pair of hands. But with the systematic destruction of the ranch's resources and Rachel's livelihood, and the bragging of Ben Crane, the townspeople would surmise that there would be only one thing the blonde could be paying the stranger with...herself.
It was humiliating that she would now be thought of like that, devastating that a place where her ancestors were some of its original settlers, where she was born, raised, schooled and almost married in, could turn on her so suddenly. The best she could do would be to bravely face down her detractors and deny everything and hope the knowledge that it was a blowhard, windbag Crane running her name into the ground would make the glimmer of difference in what people really believed deep down inside.
Regardless of the consequences, they were now on their way, the wagon being pulled leisurely by Moses, an old workhorse Rachel normally only used to go to town and back. He wasn't good for much else anymore at his advanced age but the blonde didn't have the heart to sell him and knew she couldn't shoot him.
As they ambled along, the ranch woman stole a glance at the detective. She looked pretty convincing in Rachel's father's pin-striped, cotton, collarless work shirt and blue denim trousers that needed to be held up by suspenders. Trace's binding had dried quickly in the sun so she was wearing it underneath the jersey and Rachel had fixed her up with a neckerkerchief to help disguise the fact she had no Adam's apple, and her father's black straw cowboy hatwith a 3 1/2" shapeable brim that pulled down over the detective's baby blues in a persuasively menacing dip. It was a little big for her but she wore it well and it added to the illusion of the detective being male. If only Trace didn't feel like Charles and Carolyn Ingalls from Little House On The Prairie.
The blonde had properly covered her head with a pale green bonnet that tied under her chin. It closely matched her green and white gingham 'going to town' dress that Trace thought looked absolutely adorable on her. Anyone riding upon them would assume they were the perfect couple and suddenly, unexpectedly, the brunette wished they were. That revelation struck her like ice water thrown in her face and she quickly looked around her, then skyward. Where the hell were all these outlandish instincts coming from? First protective, then nurturing and now commitment? She shook her head, as if that would result in clearing away these recent epiphanies.
"What's wrong?" Rachel asked, her voice bringing Trace back to reality.
"What's wrong? You look...I don't know...startled."
"No, I'm fine. So, what are we getting in town?"
"Well, I need flour, bacon, rice, coffee, tea, sugar, dried beans, dried fruit, hardtack -"
"Hardtack? What's that?"
"It's pilot bread...um...like a cracker...you've never had hardtack?"
"Well, if I had, would I have asked you what it was?"
Rachel narrowed her eyes. "Sometimes your tone leaves a lot to be desired."
Trace was about to argue that point when she realized the blonde was right. Smiling, she said, "I'll try to be more aware of that."
"Try hard," the blonde threw out before continuing the list. "Salt, corn meal, corn - parched and ground, saleratus -"
"Baking soda," Rachel amended, "and one small keg of vinegar."
"I use it for a lot of things, it doesn't last long."
"I think of keg, I think of beer," The detective commented, wishing she had one at that moment. "The town got a saloon?"
"Yes, Wilbur's, but you don't want to go there, do you?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Because that's where the men go -" she stopped and looked at the tall woman seated next to her. "Maybe you going into Wilbur's wouldn't be a bad idea."
Yeah...a damned bar! Woo hoo! Now they were talking. And if they had a pool table...had pool tables been invented then? Trace was pretty sure they had. All she needed to do was play a game or two of eight ball and that alone would be convincing enough...they never would have believed a woman could play pool like that. Maybe she could even hustle some money.
As if Rachel had been reading her mind, she piped up and said, "Or maybe it's not such a good idea..."
Trace noticed that the closer they got to the outskirts of Sagebrush, the more the blonde began to fidget. "You okay?"
Nodding apprehensively, Rachel said, "People are going to talk, just don't pay them any mind."
"You mean about me?"
"Well...yes. They might say other things, too. I live alone and people like to gossip."
"Would it be easier for you if I just stayed back on the ranch?" Trace inquired, trying to read the true meaning of Rachel's words.
"Easier? Yes. But then if anyone rode by or came out and saw you, it would seem as if I was ashamed of something and trying to hide you - or what you appear to be - a man - and that would only make things worse."
They rode a few more minutes in awkward silence until Trace decided that she needed to know. "Rachel, why are you alone on that big place? I gather your father died but since I've been here, I get the feeling something's going on. Mind telling me what it is?"
Looking away from the detective, the blonde inhaled deeply, holding the breath in for a long moment before expelling it, cautiously. "I just had a run of bad luck the past year, that's all. It's still hard to talk about it. All I'm trying to say is people are guessing about a lot of things and don't know, so just bear that in mind when you hear things."
Not the answer she wanted but it would have to do. For now. "Okay. Is there a pawn shop in town?"
"Yes. Right next to the bank. Joseph Turner owns it. Why do you need to go there?"
"Because I don't have any money. I had to leave in a hurry so I couldn't take any with me. But I have a few items of jewelry I would like to pawn." Looking over at Rachel, the brunette observed an expression of concern on the younger woman's face. "What?"
"It's just that Joseph Turner is a very nosy man, thinks he knows everything and wants to know everything that he doesn't already think he knows."
"So what you're saying is don't tell him anything and don't listen to anything he tells me."
"Want to give me a hint as to what I might be hearing?"
"How would I know that?" the blonde snapped, unreasonably defensive.
"I just thought you might have an idea, that's all." Trace responded, more composed than she normally would have been at anyone jumping down her throat like that for no apparent reason.
After another several seconds of silence, Trace felt Rachel's hand on her arm. "I apologize, Trace. I haven't been in town for a while and I know there will be questions about you..."
As the blonde's voice trailed off, Trace could not ignore her body's reaction to the light touch of Rachel's fingers on her bicep, even if it was through fabric. Goosebumps rose everywhere and she was grateful for the binding that covered her traitorous telltale nipples. She briefly covered the smaller hand with her own. "Don't worry about it, okay? I'll handle anyone who decides to be...disrespectful."
And Rachel instinctively knew Trace meant it as an unexpected and unusual rush of calm settled over her.
Main Street Sagebrush was right out of the movies, Trace marveled while Moses lumbered his way into town. As they rounded the corner, there was a boardwalk connecting the general store, mercantile, saloon, blacksmith shop and livery stable with the butcher shop. Across the street was a three story hotel, a shorter bank edifice, the three balls suspended over the next building which indicated a pawn shop, the barred windows which obviously marked the sheriff's office and jail and several other merchant shops not as easily identifiable - with a small chapel separated from the rest of the buildings by a good two blocks.
The blatant staring began as soon as they passed the first couple of people. The blonde nodded politely but received no such courtesy in return. Trace couldn't tell why the reception was so hostile but she simmered at the thought that Rachel might be treated so poorly and rudely because of her presence. She realized she had only lived there two and a half days but all she experienced was unconditional kindness from the woman seated next to her (well...maybe a few ecclesiastical conditions, but other than that...) and, regardless of the era she now lived in, the assumption was just wrong. Little did she know that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Stopping Moses in front of Foster's Grocery, Trace stepped down first and in a very gentlemanly manner, assisted the blonde from the wagon to the ground. Thanking her, demurely, Rachel walked to the back of the wagon and assessed the bounty she had brought to sell as Trace tied the horse's reins to the hitching post.
Luther Foster, the grocer, stepped out onto the wooden sidewalk in front of his store, wiping his hands on his apron. He glanced briefly at the blonde then eyed Trace suspiciously.
"Afternoon, Mr. Foster. I brought you your usual order," Rachel told him, indicating the baskets of vegetables. The blonde's tone was pleasant, devoid of the disgrace she felt at the hands of Ben Crane. Maybe if she pretended everything was fine, it would be.
Or not. "Rachel," he acknowledged her with an absent nod, as he scrutinized the tall stranger who glared back at him. "I'm not sure I'm gonna to be able to take your vegetables anymore."
"Why not?" the question came from the strong but modulated voice of the cowboy.
"This is Trace Sheridan, Mr. Foster. He is helping me out on the ranch for a bit." She had to consciously remind herself to refer to Trace as 'he.'
Foster frowned, shaking his head and returned his attention to Rachel, ignoring the outstretched hand of the unusual looking young man. "He staying out at the place with you?" The question was asked with obvious disapproval in his voice.
"Yes, but he's -"
"Sleeping in the barn," Trace supplied, interrupting the blonde and stepping forward. "And I am right here, Mr. Foster, you can speak to me directly."
The grocer was quickly angered by the insolence of this stranger but retreated a few paces when Trace stepped up on the boardwalk in front of him, towering over Foster by several inches. "O...Okay..." He now avoided looking the brunette directly in the eyes. "How is she paying you?"
"Paying me? She's feeding me and giving me a place to lay my head, that's how she's paying me. I'm sure you don't have a problem with that." The fierce blue eyes bore a hole through him.
Rachel was taken aback by how Trace could go from accommodating to intimidating in no time at all and was temporarily speechless at this woman so easily standing up to a man. She was beginning to understand why the brunette thought the men here would want to kill her. Maybe it wasn't quite that dramatic but no woman stood up to a man like that, challenged one like that. If Luther Foster had any idea Trace was female, he never would have backed down, especially since he had a tendency to be a bit of a browbeater, specifically toward women.
Despite that, the blonde liked Foster, was grateful that he continued to purchase her crop after everything that had happened on the ranch. She knew the Cranes had started to threatened him and he was running the risk of his home and business burning down if he didn't comply. But Foster had been her father's best friend and if Rachel didn't provide him with produce, he would have to get his vegetables from a grower in Jefferson, a town twenty miles east of Sagebrush. Also, if he lost his store, everyone in Sagebrush, including the Crane's would be affected so she was pretty sure at least half of that threat was empty. However, she wasn't quite so optimistic about the future of her own commerce.
"No. No problem with that." Foster was beginning to regain some of his composure. He cleared his throat. A small crowd had started to gather, watching this exchange.
"Now, why don't we try this again?" Trace stuck out her hand.
Looking at it, then back up into the unyielding expression on the flawless face, knowing it really wasn't a request, Foster accepted the handshake this time, the stranger's grip strong and steady.
"Trace Sheridan," the brunette offered.
"Luther Foster." He was a slightly rotund man, prone to sweating with no apparent provocation. Now he was perspiring profusely. He liked being the center of attention when he was on the upside of the situation but never when he appeared to be on the losing end. Wisely, he allowed the cowboy drop the handshake first. "Where you from, Mr. Sheridan?"
"Never heard of it. Where is that?"
"Far from here," Trace and Rachel chorused. Surprised by the blonde's joining her in her answer and on the boardwalk, Trace couldn't help but noticed the look of relief on the grocer's face.
"Trace, why don't you go tend to your errands and Mr. Foster and I will work out the problem, hmmm?" Again, the blonde laid a gentle hand on the detective's forearm, eliciting the same reaction as before.
Not taking her eyes off Foster, the brunette nodded. "Only if you're sure..."
"These people are my friends, Trace," Rachel continued, hoping to make a point not so much to the detective but to Foster and all the others who had stopped to watch. "I'm sure."
She looked at the blonde, searched her face for any hint that she should really stay. There was none. She patted Rachel's hand, nodded to Foster and left the boardwalk, heading toward the pawn shop.
"What's going on, Rachel?" Foster asked, after the wagon had been emptied and they were now in the privacy of the grocer's small office. He sat down, opening his cash box and counted out the few coins he owed the blonde minus the amount for the goods she would be taking away from his store.
"What do you mean, Mr. Foster?"
Shaking his head, grimly, the grocer said, "First, Ben Crane comes into town just before the drive to Dodge City and tells anyone who will listen at Wilbur's that you and he...well," he lowered his eyes, "you know." Flushed, he handed her the payment for the produce, "and then you bring a total stranger to town with you, surly as a grizzly, looks to be at least half-injun...people are talking, Rachel..." Foster marked the exchange in his grocer's book, then stood up as Rachel put the money in her purse.
"It isn't true. What Ben Crane said, Mr. Foster. You know why he is saying those things."
"Even if it ain't true, Rachel, he's a Crane and no one's gonna call him a liar."
"Not to his face, anyway," Rachel finished for him.
"Precisely. But he's got the town talking, anyway. And now this? What would your daddy say if he knew you had what looks to be a half-breed living out at your place? Don't matter where he claims to be sleeping, it don't look right, a man out at your place..."
"I need the help, Mr. Foster. I can't do it by myself anymore. Daddy used to hire drifters to help out certain times of the year, you know that. If he couldn't do it alone, no one should expect me to!" Her voice rose defensively with each word.
"I know, Rachel, but it just ain't proper!" He wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. "If you'd just sell that place to the Cranes, you wouldn't have to worry -"
"Mr. Foster, I should slap you for suggesting such a thing," Rachel said, boldly. "If my daddy heard you say that..."
Foster put his hand up. "I know. I know what your daddy went through to keep that spread away from them. But it's time to be reasonable, Rachel. They are going after you a little bit at a time. You can't win. It would be different if you could, but you can't."
"We'll see about that, Mr. Foster," the blonde stated in a tone more bitter than he had ever heard from her.
As he watched her exit his store, he shook his head in despair. Frank Young's little girl had indeed inherited his stubbornness, his tenacity and, unfortunately, his propensity for trouble.
Trace recognized the three spherical gilt balls, glittering in the light so they could be seen from all sides and attract customers to the building above which they were suspended. Seemed that symbol of yore hadn't changed over the past century.
The tall, dark stranger entered the pawn shop through an open doorway and was immediately hit with a thick, musty odor that nearly made her sneeze. Blinking a few times, rubbing her nose, Trace took in her surroundings peripherally. This wasn't like any of the places she had seen in her lifetime. This shop actually had some semblance of order, decency and credibility.
Browsing the items that had most likely been placed on deposit in exchange for cash were various styles and sizes of shawls, bonnets, undergarments, dresses, suits and shoes. There was also bedding, musical instruments, clocks, tools, guns (which she would look at later if she had the time or another time, if she didn't) and furniture. The jewelry area was on a display case in front of the proprietor, a tall, skinny, jowled, thinly-haired man who looked like he was straight out of a Washington Irving novel. This must be Joseph Turner. He stood when Trace approached the counter. He still had a pen in his hand and at his modest desk, there was an open book which Trace assumed to be his ledger.
"Afternoon," the man said, in a twangy voice that was immediately grating. "What can I do for you..." They stood there assessing each other and, for a brief second, the detective thought he might not buy into her act. "...Son?"
Trace took a breath and purposely lowered her voice register. She didn't want it to sound fake but she sure as hell didn't want it sounding feminine, either. It was different with the grocer. He had pissed her off and her voice always dropped an octave or two when she was angry. Reaching in her shirt breast pocket, she took out the two gold wedding bands Mark had given her. She placed them on the counter. "I'd like to pawn these."
Turner looked the items over, then picked them up and felt the weight, the substance. "Might be able to do something for you. Where'd you get them?"
"They were my...mother's. She's gone now and I need the money." Trace had a sudden, unexpected pang of guilt for saying that. Zelda wasn't deceased but the detective wondered how long her mother would last, thinking her daughter was dead. It was best that way. Zelda's confidence, sanity and sobriety was shaky, at best, and if she knew anything about Trace, the brunette knew the DeSiennas could get it out of her.
He performed a cursory authenticity examination of the rings, including biting down on the jewelry. "Don't think I've seen you around here before."
"You haven't. I'm from Cottonwood."
"Cottonwood? That's a full month's ride from here, isn't it?"
The question stopped Trace for a minute. Had this man really heard of a Cottonwood or was he already living up to Rachel's description of a know-it-all? "About that, yeah."
"What are you doing in this neck of the woods? Just passing through?"
He'd find out sooner or later, might as well be now. "I'm staying out at the Young place, helping out with land for a while," she tossed out, nonchalantly.
Turner responded with a raised eyebrow. "Is that so? Out there with Miss Rachel? Just the two of you?"
"For the time being. I got hurt, Miss Rachel found me and kindly fixed me up. I need a place to stay for a while and she needs some work done. It's the least I can do." Trace made sure her intention was clear. Pinning Joseph Turner with eyes like blue steel, she said, "And that's all. You understand?"
Shrugging, not even attempting to hide a lascivious grin, he said, "Whatever you say."
Holding her temper, she quietly seethed. "How much can you give me for the rings?"
"You need a loan for these or do you want to get paid outright? I mean these would be excellent collateral for -"
"No. Thank you. Just the money." Trace was sure his interest rates were quite high, even in this time period. He wouldn't make any profit, otherwise. As the pieces weren't sentimental to her, there was no need for her to hang on to them.
"I think I can give you, hmmm, fifty dollars each for them."
"What!? Just fifty dollars?" The look in the man's eyes at the outburst told her that it had been an honest offer. She then remembered where she was. She quickly calmed down. "I'm sorry...my mama said they were worth more. Fifty dollars a piece is fine."
Turner nodded, slightly ruffled by Trace's little flare-up. He took a step backward toward his small, open safe and set the rings on his desk. Sizing up the 'young man' in his shop, he made an immediate assumption. "Got some redskin in you, son?" He bent over and pulled a cash drawer from the knee-high iron vault.
"Not that I know of," Trace answered, wearily. "No gypsy, either. Maybe a little Greek."
"Oh, Greek, yeah...I would've guessed that eventually." Removing the correct amount in bills from the drawer, Turner stepped back up to the display case and held them out to the brunette.
Mark was right, money looked very different. "Could you count it out for me, please?" She needed to pay close attention as he did, insuring he was giving her every cent she was entitled to.
The pawn shop proprietor grinned. "Ah, can't add, huh? No problem..."
"No," Trace responded, trying to keep her annoyance in check, "I can add just fine. I can count and spell and read, too. It's just...we're strangers and I'm protecting my interests."
Turner was impressed by that admission. Not everyone would have the guts to say that to him and expect him to continue the transaction as it was tantamount to accusing him of being a cheat. The almost ghastly thin man proceeded to count out the total of the money, handing it to the brunette. "There you go. All there."
"Thank you." Hesitating, she looked back at the pawnbroker. After her mini-tirade regarding her scholastic abilities, she didn't want to appear to be contradictory or stupid. "I'd like to have a beer at the saloon, could you give me one of these in smaller change?"
"Yep. That I can do." Turner exchanged one of the bills for coins.
"How much you charge for a beer in this town?"
"Five cents for a cream ale...how much do they charge in Cottonwood?"
Trace shrugged nonchalantly. "The same. I was just making sure." Folding the paper money in half, the detective shoved that and the coins in her pocket. "Well, thank you, it's been nice doing business with you."
"So...how long you think you'll be staying...out at the Young place?"
She immediately saw the question for what it was, the pawnbroker being a busybody. "Don't know. Got thrown from my horse, sustained a puncture wound," Trace indicated the area on her chest. "Have to make sure that's all healed up before I...move on. Plus, Ra...Miss Rachel needs a hand out there. Since she helped me, it's only fitting that I help her."
"So you expect to be moving on? Not going back to Cottonwood?"
"No. No need to go back there. My family is gone now." She smiled, graciously, at him. "Who knows? Maybe I will take up residence here in Sagebrush."
For some unknown reason, Turner grinned back. "What's your name, son?"
"Sheridan. Trace Sheridan."
"Joseph Turner. Nice doing business with you, too, Trace Sheridan," the pawnbroker stated, extending a long, bony hand, which the detective briefly accepted. "Always good to welcome a hardworking cowboy to town."
"Thanks." He seemed sincere but Trace didn't trust him completely. There was something about him she didn't like and she couldn't put her finger on it just yet. She nodded in polite departure and left for the saloon.
Her order would be waiting for her when she returned to Foster's and then she would find Trace to help her load it onto the wagon. Needing to walk off some anger, Rachel bypassed the butcher shop where she was to purchase some bacon and ventured to Molly Ledbetter's dress shop to look at the new fabrics and styles. Molly was a gray-haired grandmotherly-type who had been very close with Rachel's mother. She knew, regardless of the rumors and gossip, Molly would welcome her, offer her a cup of tea and probably give her some excess material she always just happened to have hanging around so that Rachel could make herself something pretty.
The bell on the door clanged when the blonde entered. Looking up from hanging a woven waist jacket on a rack, Molly Ledbetter's eyes twinkled as she smiled warmly at the daughter of her much missed friend. The reaction of the two shop patrons weren't quite as congenial, however. Glaring at Rachel in condemnation, Rosalie Beauregard, turned to her daughter, Suzanne, and said, "We might have to leave."
The timid, mousy, brown haired Suzanne knew Rachel well. They had grown up singing in the church choir together. The blonde had always thought they were close until, because of pressure from her golddigging mother, Suzanne became engaged to Seth Carver, Ben Crane's cousin. That made it extremely difficult for the blonde to maintain a civil conversation with the brunette or anyone in her family.
Catching Rachel in town one day, about a week before Ben Crane's fateful visit to the ranch, Suzanne confided through tears that this was not her idea and begged the blonde not to hate her. Knowing how domineering Rosalie was and how accommodating the brunette's father would be by being associated with the Cranes, Rachel knew Suzanne didn't stand a chance.
"Good afternoon, Suzanne," Rachel addressed her, knowing the young woman probably would not dare to respond. "Mrs. Beauregard."
Sticking her nose in the air with an emphatic 'harumph!' Rosalie nearly wrenched Suzanne's arm backward, pulling her toward the door. The skittish brunette blinked apologetically at Rachel but stayed silent. "Molly? Are you going to allow this kind of person into your store?"
Molly Ledbetter gave the blonde a patient look and then turned to Mrs. Beauregard. "What kind of person is that, Rosalie? Certainly you wouldn't be referring to my very best, dear departed friend's daughter?"
"Well, honestly, Molly, she's out there on that ranch, all alone, entertaining men...sullying her mother and father's good name. It's disgusting."
"Unlike your daughter who is being whored out to Seth Carver just so you can get your talons into the Crane fortune?"
The look of shock on Rosalie's face was predictable and the look of near amusement on Suzanne's face was priceless. "Well! I never...!"
Looking pointedly at Suzanne, Molly responded with, "Well, you did at least once..."
"Molly Ledbetter! See if I ever shop here again!!" Rosalie spit out, quite vehemently.
"Suit yourself, Rosalie. If you're going to be more judgmental than the Lord concerning my other customers and people dear to me, then I would prefer that you go to Jefferson for your dresses from now on."
"You'll regret this," Rosalie warned, as she pulled Suzanne to the entrance. The younger woman mouthed the words, 'Bye, Rachel' before being yanked out the door by her mother.
Watching the activity then looking back at Molly, Rachel said, "I'm sorry, Miz Ledbetter, I didn't mean to cause trouble."
"Oh, honey, you didn't cause that..." Molly waved her hand at the vacant space left by Rosalie and Suzanne. "I've never had much use for John or Rosalie Beauregard, both of them always thought they were more high and mighty than anyone else in this town. Even before they got involved with the Crane clan."
"Yes. Poor Suzanne. She's the one coming out on the short end of all this."
"Girl needs to get a backbone. Needs some of that Young stock in her," Molly smiled, winking at the blonde. "Now, come have some tea with me and tell me what you've been up to because I surely don't believe what I've been hearing..."
Walking into Wilbur's Saloon was surreal, pushing through the hinged, swinging doors like cowboys did in so many of the westerns Trace had watched as a kid. She took in her surroundings, the dirty, dusty wooden floor, the four large round tables obviously used for card playing, several smaller tables just for sitting and drinking, a long and well-stocked bar up against the wall, a piano against a staircase that led upstairs to what Trace assumed were rooms occupied by a prostitute or two. But, sadly, no pool table.
Strolling purposefully up to the bar, the detective was aware that she was collecting a few stares along the way. So what else was new? The barkeep, a bear of a man probably Trace's age, with stringy dark hair and a thick brush of a mustache smiled at the tall stranger. He was always grateful for a new customer, especially if he turned into a regular and a good tipper. He wiped off the space in front of the brunette with a damp rag.
"Howdy," the man said to Trace in a voice that betrayed his build. It was adolescent in nature, as if he was a teenage boy still going through puberty. She couldn't help but smirk. Not because of his unusual tone or that, if he sounded like that, she could now relax and not worry about her own timbre but because he actually said, 'howdy.'
"Hi," Trace responded, noncommittally.
"What can I get ya?"
Shrugging, Trace remembered what the pawnbroker called it..."A cream ale would be good."
Well that stumped her. She didn't think she would actually have a choice. Any experienced beer drinker would know his ale, so she said, "First time here, give me your most popular."
"That would be Handel's. Good choice. Coming right up." The big man behind the bar pulled out a mug and poured a pint of foam. Trace wanted to tell him to tip the glass and aim the stream against the opposite side but she felt that might be overstepping a little bit. Miraculously, when it was set in front of her, the head was barely a quarter of an inch.
"Thanks. How much?"
Trace laughed. A nickle for a pint of beer. Maybe she really had died in Mark's time machine and gone to heaven...well, except for the no indoor plumbing thing. She removed a handful of coins out of her breast pocket and set down a silver dollar. "Keep the brew flowing, my friend, and what I don't drink you can have for a tip."
The barkeep's face lit up and he let out a hoarse laugh. "Stranger, you're welcome in this bar any time." He extended his big, beefy hand. "Silas Boone."
Accepting his hand with her own firm grip, sizing this big ape of a man up, she immediately thought, 'What's your mama's name? Bab?' She then wanted to ask him if he was any relation to Daniel Boone but as she couldn't exactly remember if that character really existed or was just folk lore and, if he really was an actual person, had he been born yet - why didn't she pay attention in history class? She wisely decided to keep the conversation short and to the point. "Trace Sheridan."
"Where you from, Trace Sheridan?"
"Cottonwood." And then, before he could ask, she added, "It's far from here." She released his hand and took a sip of her beer. It wasn't bad, it was different. A little thicker than she was used to, no doubt from less filtering and dilution than in modern times. It could have been colder but she wasn't complaining. It was beer.
"How 'bout a shot of bug juice to go with that ale?"
Bug juice? Trace could only imagine what kind of bug. "Uh, no thanks, I think I'll pass."
"So what brings you to this neck of the woods, Trace?"
"Well...I was just passing through but my horse threw me and took off and I got hurt, so I'm staying out at the Young ranch, recovering and working off my debt to Ra - Miss Rachel for fixing me up. Plus, I need to earn enough money to get another horse so that I can move on." Perish the thought, she suddenly mused.
A strange look clouded Silas' face. "You out there at Frank Young's place? Alone...?
This was getting tedious already. Looking the bartender square in the eye, Trace said, "Yes. I am. Look, Silas, I intend to be around for a while and I am just staying at the Young place, sleeping in the barn - alone - there is nothing going on between Miss Rachel and me. But if there's something I should know about, I'd like to hear it."
"No, no..." the big man shrugged, looking down. "I just heard she's had some trouble out there, that's all..."
"What kind of trouble?"
Glancing back up at her, the bartender shrugged again. "Well, if she didn't tell you then I supposed it ain't my place to." Wait until Ben Crane found out Rachel had a man living out there with her. A young, strangely appealing man who looked like he could be a half-breed. This would not be well received.
Studying him, Trace knew Silas wanted to say something to her about it. But then the detective stiffened as she felt somebody move up next to her. Never taking her eyes off the barkeep, she observed, with more than mild interest, that Silas slowly walked away.
"That's right, Silas, you don't want to be tellin' tales out of school."
Aware that she was being scrutinized by whoever the man was standing to her left, Trace relaxed her body, psychologically preparing herself for a fight. The vibe she got from this man was extremely confrontational. 'Go ahead, fuckwad,' she thought to herself, 'start something I can finish.' She stared straight ahead and took a long drink of beer. Never physically acknowledging the man, Trace said, "Something I can do for you?"
"Yeah, you can tell me what you're doing at Frank Young's place."
Not moving a muscle, Trace took another sip of beer. She kept her voice steady and even. "First, Frank Young is dead, so I believe that would make it Rachel Young's place now and second, what business is it of yours?" It was then she turned toward the man and regarded him with a defiant, cold, blue glare. Her eyes fell on the star stuck to the man's rawhide vest. Unimpressed, she looked back up at his craggy face.
Even though he stayed put, the look in Trace's eyes made him take a mental step backward. He was more than a little surprised that this young buck didn't seem at all intimidated by the fact that he was The Law. Then the man squinted at her. "My business is Frank was a good friend of mine and he wouldn't like no gypsy man living out there with his daughter."
"Well, Sheriff, I am not a gypsy and before you ask or assume, I have no Indian blood in me, either. What my heritage is doesn't concern you." Trace noticed the dead silence that now engulfed the saloon where only seconds before there had been the sounds of conversation, glasses clinking, laughter and poker chips flying across tables. "What should concern you is - especially since Frank was such a good friend of yours - is the condition that property is in and that poor girl has nobody out there to help her. When was the last time you or anyone else checked on good old Frank's daughter?" She knew she was being facetious but she couldn't help herself.
The sheriff at least had the decency to look slightly embarrassed. "It's...uh...been a while. But Isaac Tipping delivers feed out there once a week and he would have told someone if she needed help," he countered, defensively. Not to mention, he thought to himself, the Cranes would literally kill anyone who attempted to help her. And since they were paying him handsomely to look the other way, he certainly wasn't going to set foot on the land, friend or no friend of Frank's. "It would be worth your while, son, to move on. Quickly."
Trace didn't like him. She had interacted with many snakes in her time and this man had viper written all over him. "Is that advice, Sheriff, or a threat?"
"Right now, it's advice. Don't let it become a threat."
Now that she pegged this man for what he was, she calmly smirked and took another swallow of beer. "I don't take kindly to threats, Sheriff." Where was this dialogue coming from? Trace never talked like that...'take kindly'? What was next? She wasn't going to 'cotton' to things? She had to consciously stop herself from laughing. "I'll move on when I am damned well ready to move on and not before." She neither raised her voice nor changed her expression. She certainly didn't want to end up behind bars her first visit to town but she also needed to establish some rules of her own - and being threatened and bullied just wasn't going to fly.
The sheriff was more than flustered. He wasn't used to people not cowering in his presence. Not only was this stranger not even flinching, he wasn't even breaking a sweat. The lawman, himself, reacted more nervously than this baby-faced, dark-haired drifter. The most frustrating part was he couldn't arrest the young man for anything to prove his power because the cowboy had been nothing if not polite and respectful, even if not very agreeable. The Cranes would not be happy about this at all when they got back. "Suit yourself," the sheriff commented, turning away from Trace and to the bar. "Silas, gimme a shot of bourbon."
The detective watched with interest as the bartender, frowning, grabbed a bottle with a deep amber colored liquid in at and poured it into a small glass. He then walked over and placed it in front of the lawman, who tossed it back with practiced ease. Pushing the glass forward, he cleared the liquor residue out of his throat. "Well...better get back to it," he announced to no one.
"Drinking on the job?" Trace commented, in amused observance, knowing she was close to stepping over a line. If nothing else, she liked life on the edge. It kept her juices flowing.
"You're a brazen fella, aren't ya?" the sheriff asked.
"I've been known to be," Trace answered, almost pleasantly, turning to lean against the bar and study the faces of the customers in the saloon.
Shaking his head, smiling, the sheriff responded with, "Just keep buildin' that big ol' chip on your shoulder, boy, it's gonna give me great pleasure to knock it off."
"It's going to give me greater pleasure to see you try," Trace countered, congenially. She and the lawman locked stares. He was not happy at all with her but she made sure her expression told him she was not backing down.
Standing up, rigidly, he scanned the interior of Wilbur's, daring anyone to look back at him. No one did. Then he panned back to the icy blue eyes of the bold cowboy. "You watch your step, son. Ain't smart what you're doin'. I have no doubt I'll be seeing you in my jail before you leave Sagebrush. That's if you leave Sagebrush." And with that, he strolled through the doors.
All eyes followed the sheriff until he was gone and then focused on Trace. Oblivious, her eyes still on the door, she said, "He's kind of an asshole, isn't he?"
To Be Continued...
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