Name: Cheyne


Title: Renegade

Disclaimers: See Part 1







The stillness nearly swallowed Trace up.  When she finally looked around the room, she noticed everyone had been struck mute by her statement and they were all staring at her, dumbfounded. "What?" she asked, bewildered. Surely they had all noticed that the sheriff was an asshole...

"You got some sand, boy!" Silas said, breaking the silence as Trace turned back to face him. "Nobody talks to Ed like that. 'Specially not nobody ain't even wearing a six gun on his hip."

She shrugged slightly and took another few swallows of her beer. Who would have thought she would have needed to be armed just to come to town to get groceries? She guessed she needed to go back to the pawn shop at some point and buy a gun.  Unless Rachel had some back at her place. "He doesn't scare me.  He's a bully with a badge."

"Which is the worst kind. He's got the law to back him up."

"Only if he makes up the laws as he sees fit," the detective commented. Slowly the din of the saloon began to rise again as the patrons went back to what they had been doing before the exchange between Trace and the sheriff. Drinking down the rest of the pint, Trace signaled Silas for a refill, which the bartender did gladly.

She had not realized until that point how hazy with cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke the saloon had been. It burned her throat a little and she remembered that these were the days when no one knew how hazardous tobacco was to one's health and if she couldn't explain that to them, there was no way she was going to convince them that breathing secondhand smoke was just as bad. Smoking was a nasty little habit she was glad she had never picked up. She had tried it a few times, each attempt making her a little more nauseated than the last and after one final lightheaded, overly queasy moment, she decided cigarettes were not for her and she never touched them again.

Zelda, on the other hand, smoked as though she was on fire. Trace never remembered seeing her mother without a cigarette between her fingers, dangling out of her mouth or, usually, a beer in her hand. Trace obviously had no such problem adjusting to alcohol the way she did to nicotine.  Nope.  That could have been a gene passed down by both her parents, for all she knew.

She wondered about her mother and if Zelda had been told yet that Trace was missing.  She wondered about Mark and how crazy with worry he must be, never knowing that she made it here alive and in one piece. She wondered, sadly, if Sandy's family had identified her and buried her yet. She wondered how Bobby and the rest of her co-workers were taking her sudden, mysterious disappearance. She wondered if DeSienna was tearing his hair out trying to find her. She wondered if she'd ever have a hot shower again as long as she lived.

Suddenly feeling very melancholy, she thanked Silas for the refill and drained half the glass.


Rachel and Molly Ledbetter sat opposite each other in the small back room of the dress shop. They were sharing a cup of hot tea and a corn meal muffin.

"Now, Rachel, I've known you since you were in pinafores and pigtails and you've never lied to me. Least not that I've known of.  Don't think you're going to start now. What's all this I've heard about you and that turd with lips, Ben Crane?"

Rachel couldn't help but snicker.  Molly was nothing if not colorful. "What has that serpent been saying?" She was trying to sound aloof but she knew the moment she heard the words, it would hurt deep in her bones.

"He's saying that he showed you the pain and glory of consummation and that you warmed that bed like a cold night's fire." The older woman watched the blonde for a reaction and her heart sank when she saw Rachel bite her lip and bow her head. "Oh, Rachel Frances Young, you did not give yourself to that touch hole...!"

Shaking her head, the tears flowed without pretense or warning. "No, Miz Ledbetter, I certainly did not," she choked out.

"Then why in heaven's name are you crying like you did?" When the blonde could not answer her, Molly reached over and gently lifted Rachel's chin and waited until the emerald green eyes met her weary hazel ones. The look of shame was not guilt but mortification. The anguish in Rachel's eyes caused Molly's breath to catch and a lump to form in her throat. "Oh, my Lord, child, what did he do?"

Staccato words came out in between gasps and sobs. "He hurt me real bad, Miz Ledbetter..."

Without hesitation, the dressmaker enfolded the distraught blonde in her arms and began to rock her, comfortingly. "Why that no good son of a snake!  What happened?" She was trying to hold her fury back not wanting this lovely albeit destroyed young woman to think she was angry at or judging her. If she had Ben Crane in front of her right now, she would have killed him with her bare hands. "Isaac Tipping told everybody that you looked terrible bruised when he was delivering out there last month, said you told him you fell off that new mustang of yours...was that really Crane what did that to you?"

"Yes, Ma'am. He...he...well, Rosie had just foaled and I was going back to the house from the stable and he came up behind me and...he grabbed me...and brought me back inside and... took me... like a wild animal..." She was now hysterical. First at the memory and second at the relief of finally being able to tell someone.

Molly's arms stiffened. "Are you telling me that Ben Crane knocked you about and had his way with you?"  The small blonde she was holding, nodded her head against the older woman's shoulder. Squeezing Rachel more emphatically, she said, "Lord, help me, those damned Cranes! They're never going to stop. And that damned Ed Jackson, he'll never do one thing to any of them. My word, child, if I'd had any idea, I'd have been out there to see you!"

"Mr. Ledbetter needs you here," Rachel managed to get out and she knew it was true. The dress shop was connected to the Ledbetter residence, which made it easy for Molly to frequently check on her husband, who was confined to their bed or a chair by the bed.

Three years earlier, a strapping Harvey Ledbetter was shot in an attempt to assist Rachel's father in a territorial dispute with the Cranes. The bullet hit his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down. Sheriff Jackson said since no one could prove who fired the shot, he couldn't arrest anyone and since it was a property issue, he really should keep his nose out of it. Since then, with Harvey being nearly as helpless as a baby, Molly Ledbetter didn't stray too far from her home.

"Please don't tell anyone, Miz Ledbetter, please!!" the blonde pleaded. "I'll be disgraced and no one will believe me...!"

"Shhh, shhh, Rachel, the problem is everybody will believe you, they all know what those Cranes are capable of, just no one will speak out against them. But now that Ben has spread what he has about you -"

"But that I can deny because it's true, I did not give myself to him in that manner and because everyone knows Ben's reputation, there's a chance they might think it's just him boasting. If it gets around that he truly did...have won't matter how it happened and you know that. People'll feel sorry for me but it won't stop them from talking. And being thought of just like one of those pleasure girls at the sporting house over Wilbur's."

Shaking her head in frustration, she knew the younger woman was correct in her assessment of the situation. "It isn't right, you having to live out there all alone, having to deal with all this hell on earth! Why'd the Lord see fit to take Tommy from you? They wouldn't be doing this if Tommy had made it back and married you."

Yes, Thomas Baines would have put a legal damper on the Crane's brutish behavior, no doubt about that, Rachel thought. But it obviously wasn't meant to be. If the bullet on the train hadn't killed him, no doubt he still would have met his maker at the hands of one of the Cranes. Leaning back away from Molly, wiping her tears away with a delicate handkerchief, she took a deep breath. "I'm not alone anymore.  At least not presently."

"You take on a hand?" Molly looked surprised.

"Yes.  Well kind of." Again, she had to consciously remind herself to refer to Trace as male.  "Rosie got out a couple days ago. Guess she thought she needed a vacation from nursing her baby. I went looking for her and came on this drifter got thrown from his horse. He was hurt so I brought him back to the house and fixed him up and he's going to stay and help me out with the land."

"What do you know about this stranger?" the older woman asked, cautiously.

"Only that he's not from around here and that he's willing to stay around, hole up in the barn and help me out for a while."

"How you paying him?" Off Rachel's weary look, she said, "I know, you're not like that, child, but everyone else will be wondering, 'specially after Ben running off at the mouth like he did."

"Just feeding him and giving him a place to lay his head seems to be enough. Lost his horse and wasn't wearing any guns when I found him, laying there, hurt."

"Sure he's telling you the truth?"

"He's been here almost three days and he hasn't tried anything yet.  He's already fixed the break in the south fence for me.  I really don't think he has any dishonorable intentions," Rachel responded, thinking, if Molly only knew...

"Well, hopefully, he'll still be around when the Cranes come back from their drive. A man out at your place won't exactly be popular with them. 'specially not Ben, but it might make them think twice before they try anything again.  Young buck, is he?"

Rachel shrugged, then nodded. "Young enough."

"Young enough for you?" There was almost a twinkle in the older woman's eye.

"Molly Ledbetter! The last thing that will happen between me and this man is that!"



Trace knew she should be getting back to the wagon to help Rachel load it but the beer had started tasting very good and, despite the setting, she was starting to feel like herself again.

After the initial shock of her standing up to the sheriff, Silas returned to being his talkative self and before she knew it, she had the lowdown on just about everyone in town. Curiously, though, any subject even bordering on the Young family and their land was deftly avoided.

She was about to finish her final swallow of beer when the sound of running footsteps above them drew everyone's attention to the staircase. There appeared a half-clad, quite voluptuous redhead, shouting frantically, "Someone come quick! It's Jed, I think he's chokin' to death!!"

Several people ran for the stairs but Trace beat them all. Her training and instinct kicked in without a second thought and she followed the redhead to a room at the end of the hall. Flying through the open doorway, nearly skidding on the slick wooden floor, the detective observed an older man, sitting on an obviously just used bed, his face beet red, eyes popping, his mouth open, not a sound coming out of it. Yep, Trace thought, he's definitely choking. The prostitute began smacking him roughly on his back.

"No!" Trace yelled, "You'll just lodge it further!" Rushing over to the distinguished looking, silver-haired man, Trace pulled him to his feet and moved behind him, putting her arms around him, finding the right spot and performing the Heimlich maneuver.

As the onlookers watched in horror and fascination, the piece of steak the man had been dining on left his mouth and flew halfway across the room. Weak and gasping for breath, the half-naked man began coughing. Trace removed her arms but kept one hand on his back, should he need continued  support.

"What the hell you doin', son?" a voice bellowed from the doorway, as another older, white-haired man moved through the crowd and into the room. He looked like pictures of Mark Twain Trace had remembered seeing. "What were you trying to do?  Break the mayor's ribs?"

Looking at the man she had just saved and then at the prostitute, she shook her head.  The Mayor.  It figured. "No, I was saving his life," Trace stated, calmly.

"Squeezin' him like a bear's savin' his life?" the man continued, outraged.

"Shut up, Amos, you jackass!" the once choking man sputtered at the other man. "Jesus H. Kee-rist, whatever this young man did was the only thing got that darned piece of meat out of my gullet."  He then indicated the redhead. "Cassandra pounding on my back like that was only making it worse."

Trace glanced at the prostitute, who shrunk back against the wall. "Hey, she tried." That elicited a smile from the redhead, holding her short, silky robe closed in the front.

Silas stepped into the room, hands raised in the air. "Okay, show's over, let the mayor have his privacy."  Minimal grumbling followed the bartender's command and the room cleared out, Silas closing the door behind him. This left Trace, the prostitute, the mayor and the other older man in the room.

"What's you name, son?" The mayor asked, sitting back down on the bed, now breathing normally.

"Trace Sheridan."

Extending his hand, the mayor said, "Jedediah Turner."

"Turner?" Trace questioned, accepting the rather limp handshake.  "Any relation to the pawnbroker?"

"Ah, you've met my baby brother, Joseph." The mayor ran his hand through an unruly shock of white hair. "I know what you're thinking, everybody does...we couldn't look any more different if we were strangers." It was the truth, Trace thought, other than a slight resemblance around the eyes, they did not look related in the least. "He and me had different mamas."  He looked back in the general direction of the prostitute. "Cassandra, bring me that bottle."

The redhead obeyed and handed the unmarked bottle to the mayor.

"Now, Jed, take it easy on that stuff..." the other man began and was immediately cut off by Jed Turner.

"Amos, will you shut thee hell up?! Your mouth flaps more'n a duck's ass." The mayor looked at Trace for the first time. "Why, you're a handsome feller, aren't ya? Bet you got the ladies after you like bees to honey..."

You have no idea, Trace thought.

"...unlike me who has to get me arms willin' but only if they're bought." He stated this matter-of-fact, no shame to his voice. "Have a shot of this bug juice with me."

What's with the freaking bug juice, Trace thought. "No, thanks, I'll pass."

"Suit yourself." And with that, he took a hearty swallow of the bottle's contents, making a long, satisfied rasping noise as the liquid burned its way down his throat. "Trace, you met Doc Smith, yet?"

Looking over at the other man in the room, the detective shook her head. "Not officially, no." She went to extend her hand but the doctor brushed by her to sit on the bed next to the mayor.

"Jed, let me check you out now -"

Slapping his hand away, the ornery mayor took another swig from the bottle in his hand. "Damn it, Amos, get away from me before I bean you with this! Now shake this boy's hand before I tell your wife you were in here playing poker."

Looking at Trace, the doctor now had an even more sour expression. "Don't need to make his acquaintance, he won't be staying around long enough for any of us to get to know."

"Why is that?" The mayor looked up at Trace then over at Amos Smith.

"Yeah," Trace folded her arms, complacently, also looking at the doctor.  "Why is that?"

"You were given some good advice by the sheriff," Smith said,  "I suggest you take it."

Confused, Jed Turner briefly studied both Trace and Smith, then refocused on the detective. "What's going on?"

Squinting at the doctor with unmistakable suspicion in her eyes, Trace directed her conversation toward the mayor before actually looking his way. "Your sheriff has suggested I move on, out of town."

"Really? Huh. Do you want to move on, son?" The mayor sounded sincere.

"It's growing on me. If I move on, I'd like to do it when I choose and not because someone suggests it."

"Then I think you should stay," the mayor declared.

"But, Jed, he's living out at -"

"Amos! I don't give a good Goddamn where he's livin', if he wants to stay then he should stay. This is still my town, ain't it?!"

"Well...yes, but Ed..."

"But, nothin'! Ed Jackson's as much of a horse's ass as you are!" Turner looked up at Trace.  "You wanted by the law, son?"

"No, sir."

The mayor looked back at the doctor.  "Then you tell Sheriff Jackson he can go plum to hell, he won't be running anyone out of my town, and surely not anyone who just saved my life!" With that, the mayor stood up and reached for his pants.  "Guess I won't be finishin' my dinner here.  Kinda lost my appetite." Stepping into his trousers, Turner began muttering, "Goddamned Ed Jackson! Nothin' but a big bag of wind. If those Cranes weren't behind him, he'd be runnin' out of town the other way with a stripe down his backside!"

Trace let the mayor continue mumbling, while the unfriendly doctor tried to fuss over him. She looked over at Cassandra and nodded. "You okay?"

Startled not only by the question being directed at her but by the sincerity the voice that was asking, the redhead lifted her wide green eyes to engage Trace curiously.

Before she could answer, the mayor piped up, "Of course, she's fine, why wouldn't she be fine? I'm the one who damn near choked to death!" He snapped his fingers toward his shirt and the prostitute picked it up without hesitation and helped him put it on.

Trying not to look too disgusted at this display of false gender superiority, Trace quietly chewed the inside of her cheek to stay quiet. After all, the mayor was on her side...but just exactly what that meant remained to be seen.

"How's it you came to learn that little bear hug trick, anyway?" It was the doctor speaking to her this time in a tone of voice that was a little more friendly than before but not much. "You got some doctor training?"

", nothing like that. Just some little thing I picked up in my travels."

"How's it work?"

"," Trace went to assume the position on the doctor and he flailed and pushed her away.

"I don't want you bear hugging me!  Show me on Cassandra."

An eyebrow shot up into Trace's hairline as she assessed the redhead with the hourglass figure. Hmmmm... this might not be so bad. And the way the prostitute was eyeballing her back, it was obvious Cassandra was more than agreeable to the request. She practically leapt toward the detective with a predatory grin on her face.

Stopping her at arms length, Trace turned the redhead around, instructing as she slowly demonstrated, beginning with wrapping her arms around the prostitute's waist. Making a fist and placing the thumb side of her fist against the redhead's upper abdomen, below her ribcage and above her navel, the detective tried not to think about the heavy breasts that were almost touching her forearms. Focusing back on her task, Trace grasped her right fist with her left hand and pressed into Cassandra's upper abdomen with a quick upward thrust, which made the prostitute gasp with surprise. Of course, the detective minimized the effort, as not to do any harm. "You don't actually squeeze the ribcage," Trace explained. "You confine the force of the thrust to your hands and then you repeat until the object is expelled."

Cassandra could have cooperated a little better and not constantly tried to lean her body back into Trace's but the detective was able to get her lesson across without molesting the nearly nude body of the prostitute in her arms. Although embracing this woman, regardless of the circumstances, did make the detective's mouth water a little. Snapping out of it, she gently let go of the redhead, smiled politely and stepped back. "Understand?" she asked the doctor.

"Makes no sense to me," Smith spat back.

"Don't have to make no sense if it worked," the mayor countered, putting his jacket on. He walked up to Trace and clapped her on the shoulder. "Thank you, son, for letting me live to see another day."

"You're welcome, Mr. Mayor," Trace responded.

"Mr. Mayor!" Jed Turner repeated, cackling. "Polite feller, too."

"He wasn't so polite to Ed," Doc Smith muttered, following  the mayor out the door.

"Nobody should be polite to Ed, he don't deserve it, the damned fool!" Jed Turner yammered out into the hallway.

Suddenly Trace and Cassandra were alone in the room. The detective was about to ask a few questions about the mayor and the doctor when the prostitute let the robe slide off her body and she posed seductively in front of the brunette. Trace couldn't help but stare at the natural - she noticed now - redhead while her brain adjusted to the situation. Cassandra was not an unattractive woman by any means and although she was a bit more plump than Trace was used to, her body certainly wasn't unpleasing to the eye. Her first attempt to speak produced no words, so she cleared her throat and tried again.

But not before Cassandra purred, "How 'bout one on the house? Seein' as you just saved my best customer and all."

Taking one last look at breasts that begged to be fondled and lips that looked like they could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch, Trace nodded her head toward the doorway, somewhat reluctantly. "I'm...uh...really flattered, Cassandra, and maybe some other time but right now, I should get back to the store." But her feet seemed glued to that spot on the floor.  It was only when the redhead took a step toward her and reached out to cup a part of anatomy she didn't have that she shook herself out of her mini-fantasy and ducked out the door. "Thanks anyway," Trace tossed back in, removed her hat, wiped her brow and headed back downstairs. It was a close call and one that the detective put in her mental archives to be cautious of in the future.

Cassandra, initially surprised that anyone - especially such a young, healthy man like Trace Sheridan obviously was - would turn down a freebie, found herself smiling. She had never encountered a challenge before and definitely not one as good looking. Why, he was almost pretty, he was so handsome. She suddenly decided to make it her mission to get this cowboy into her bed before he was run out of town.

A quick round of 'goodbyes' and 'good jobs' and exiting the saloon didn't mean the detective wasn't mildly turned on. Yes.  She would definitely have to purchase a gun. If, for nothing else, to use the bullets to bite on in situations like this. Added to all the other things, she also wondered if she'd ever have sex again as long as she lived...



Trace found Rachel waiting impatiently in front of Foster's Grocery.  She suppressed a smile. It was amazing how they already seemed to have fallen into a rhythm with each other. The brunette felt a sense of relief at seeing the smaller blonde and when Rachel finally saw Trace, the same look of relief crossed her face, also. That mollifying sensation stopped abruptly when Trace got close enough to see that Rachel had been crying.

Her defensive nature provoked her temper to flare immediately and she reached out and touched the blonde's arm. "What's wrong? Did that grocer make you cry?!"

Before the detective went off half-cocked to evidently give Luther Foster a piece of her mind, Rachel clamped on to Trace's arm, circling her back around to face her. "No, Mr. Foster did not make me cry. I visited with a dear friend of my mama's and it was just...sad...that's all." She watched the brunette's eyes soften.

"Oh.  Okay. I just thought...he was being such a jerk to you and all..." She instinctively wanted to pull the blonde into her arms and comfort her but common sense stopped her. First, they were in public view of the whole town and second, Rachel probably wouldn't be very receptive to it. Unfortunately. After the offer she had just had over at Wilbur's, she would have welcomed this particular woman in her arms.

Trace's automatic protectiveness flattered Rachel and she felt a warmth surge through her that should not have stirred her blood the way it did. She was confused by the alien emotion and disturbed because this was not the first time she had experienced it around the mysterious woman. The blonde reasoned that it was more than likely because she had to think of Trace as a man...still, it didn't make it any less troubling that she wished Trace would take her in her arms and make it all go away.

They loaded the wagon and headed out of town back to the ranch. Trace couldn't stop the smirk when she lifted the two gallons of olive oil onto the back. In fact, she was visualizing the blonde's skilled hands massaging her when her thoughts were interrupted by the sound Rachel's voice.



"You want to pay attention to guiding Moses?  Otherwise we're going to end up down by the river.  I swear that horse would live there if I ever set him loose."

"Oh...sure..." She forced herself back to reality and noticed that they were about twenty feet off the dirt road, heading to the left. She pulled the reins slightly to the right and the horse wandered back to the path.

"What were you thinking about?" Rachel asked, curiously.

"Nothing...just, um, daydreams."


Change the subject, Trace, the sooner the better, she thought. "Rachel, do you own any guns?"

"Yes. My father left me with two Colt Peacemakers, a Sharps, a Winchester and a Carbine...why?"

"Until I buy my own, can I use one of those?"

Cautiously, Rachel said, "Of course.  But why?  Did something happen in town?"

"No, no..." Oh hell, with that grapevine, she'd find out soon enough. "Well, sort of..."

"Sort of?" She was staring directly at Trace, alarmed.

Shrugging, the detective was looking for a way to minimize the detail, when she did a double take at Rachel's expression. "No, Rachel, everything's fine, really. I just kind of had a run in with the sheriff..."

"Oh, no..." The blonde closed her eyes in dread. "Not Sheriff Jackson..." Shaking her head, she let her chin drop. "I just left you on your own for a few hours...and the one person I would have preferred you not run into is that vile excuse for a man..."

"Aha! So you know he's an asshole!" Trace declared, triumphantly, as Rachel briefly reacted to the vulgarity by glaring at the brunette, wide-eyed. "He threatened me, told me to move on if I knew what was good for me," the detective told her, incredulously.

"Because he found out you were staying with me?"

"Yes."  She searched the blonde's face for a clue. "Why is that?"

"I told you how people would react -"

"No, it was more than that. Because when I was saving the mayor's life, the doctor -"

She grabbed Trace's arm. "Wait - what?  You saved Jed Turner's life? What in heaven's name went on over at the saloon?" As the detective laid out the story for her, the blonde absorbed it all, amazed at how the circumstances just kept evolving, curious about this technique the brunette described and, also, grateful for the diversion.

"So, how is it that no one is surprised that your mayor is choking on his lunch upstairs in a prostitute's room?" Trace asked, pointedly.

"Oh, Jed eats his lunch every day up in that redheaded harlot's room, everybody knows it. He's a crusty old bird...he's a widower and never remarried. Not that any of the widow women in this county would ever hitch up with him.  Everybody just looks the other way and he wouldn't care if they didn't."

"How did somebody like that get to be mayor?"

"He inherited the job from his daddy.  Got elected after he'd already had it for a month because no one else wanted it." Because no one else wanted to deal with the Cranes, she finished, silently.

"And who are the Cranes?" Trace did not expect the intake of breath and the deathly quiet that came from the woman sitting next to her. Looking at the blonde, the detective found her pale and staring straight ahead. "Rachel...who are the Cranes?"

Finally, Rachel found her voice. "I really would rather not speak of them..."

"Just saying their name seems to strike terror in the heart of everyone and since they were referred to in the sheriff's warning to me, I'd kind of like to know." Watching the blonde's expression, Trace knew the name struck terror in her heart, too. Softly, she said, "I would really appreciate knowing what I might be facing with these Cranes..."

"They...they are not nice people."

"I gathered that. Are they responsible for the destruction of the fence I fixed yesterday?"

"I believe so, yes."

"Why?" Even though Trace was trying to be gentle in her questioning, her adrenalin was pumping pure rage through her veins.

Sighing, the blonde knew that Trace was right, she had been threatened, she needed to know at least the basics. But just the basics. "Jacob Crane is a cattle baron. He owns most all the land west of Sagebrush. Everyone has sold their land to him.  Except me."

"And the reason you haven't sold?"

The blonde's eyes flashed in indignant anger before she spoke, the words coming out in stiff bites. "My great-grandfather bought this land when the first settlement came to town. Everything I have today was built on the sweat of my ancestor's brow. Jacob Crane moved his family and his cattle business here just a little over a decade ago. They've been forcing everyone off their lands ever since."

"Forcing or buying people out?" Trace could tell by the tone of the blonde's voice and the expression on her face that this was delicate territory, so she tried to tread lightly.

"Oh, they're offering money but if you say no, things happen."

"What kind of things?" But even before the words left her mouth, she knew. The empty barn, the vandalized property...the loss of her parents, perhaps?

Avoiding the obvious, Rachel confirmed Trace's speculation. Great. She left one turf war only to step into another one. Different stakes, same principle. In response to the query regarding her parents, the blonde unfolded the tale of sickness that claimed both her mother and father, then onto the untimely death of her fiancée.  The longer the blonde went on, the more Trace's heart ached for her. This poor woman had been through enough, the detective decided.

"And they have been after you ever since?" The detective watched Moses clop through the entrance of the Triple Y ranch and looked around at the deceivingly serene setting.

"Yes," Rachel responded, with a rebellious lilt.

"What did they offer you?"

"Their most recent is fifty thousand dollars for just the land, plus a twelve percent profit on the house and improvements."

Thinking back to the era they were in and that Rachel might be able to start a nice little life on that amount, Trace said, "That's a nice little chunk of change, you -"

"I am not selling to them!" Rachel's bellow overrode anything Trace was going to say. Folding her arms stubbornly across her chest, they endured the next few minutes in awkward silence.

"Why is it so important for them to have your land?"

"Because it runs right smack dab in the middle of their cattle drive route."

"Can't they go around?"

"Sure. But every mile runs that much more beef off the steers."

Thinking about this ignited the fire in Trace's belly. It had been a long time since she had stood up for the underdog and she loved a good fight. These Crane people were probably not going to stop until Rachel gave in. Looking over, seeing the fierce set in the blonde's jaw, Trace knew she now had another reason, other than personal obstinacy, to stay put. "When are these Cranes due back?"

"Shouldn't be for another two months, more or less."

As the wagon stopped in front of the house, Trace smiled at Rachel with more self-confidence than the blonde had ever seen in any man. "Then it looks like we have our work cut out for us, huh?"


To be continued...

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