Disclaimers: See Part 1
When the small arsenal of four weapons had been cleaned, reassembled and put away, Trace kept out one of the revolvers so that she could look it over. Hand guns with cylinders fascinated her. She always wondered why people chose to buy and use them when, at least in her opinion, automatics were so much quicker, more accurate, packed so much more firepower and, with the higher caliber, definitely more potent. Or maybe she had convinced herself of that because she had been lazy...by being able to slap in a clip, she could pop off more rounds faster and not have to worry about counting to six and stopping to use a speed loader. Now that she was in a situation where she would have no choice but to use this magnificently authentic Colt Peacemaker in her hand, she knew she needed to get comfortable with it and become more than competent at firing it.
The detective decided that tomorrow, if the cuts and slices on her hands were better, she would take the new rails out and repair the fence and then, if she was up to it (and definitely after a bath), she would ride into town and buy ammunition, a gun belt and look over what else might come in handy for her. She glanced over at Rachel, who had dozed off in her chair. Poor kid was obviously exhausted and she didn't wonder with trying to keep this place up and running all by herself. She must have literally made herself sick and tired.
Studying the blonde, Trace's expression softened. Rachel appeared so unguarded, so unblighted, so powerless...yet she had endured, so far, against these brutal and, obviously merciless Cranes. But it was clearly taking it's toll. She sighed and shook her head...well, no more if Trace had anything to do with it. The detective vowed to herself that she would move a mountain - one shovel at a time - if it finally meant peace for the blonde. As she passed Rachel, she reached down and pulled the knitted shawl up around the younger woman's shoulders and stepped out onto the porch, sitting down on one of the old but solid wooden chairs.
Kicking her feet up and resting them on the railing, Trace inspected the clean Colt cavalry single action .45 Peacemaker in her hand. She felt the weight with an empty chamber. Even without bullets the revolver wasn't exactly heavy but it was sturdy, something she attributed to the nickel plating and the walnut grips, which were a little worn but certainly not in need of replacing. The barrel, cylinder and frame were very strong and when she was putting it back together she noticed that the mechanics seemed as close to perfect as she would probably ever see in a gun like this...cocking, indexing, firing...was all very smooth. She pointed the Colt at a slender tree opposite her in the distance and looked down the six-inch barrel, lining up the sights. Hmmm...she might just be able to get used to this. As soon as it stopped hurting to close her fingers around the handle.
With Rachel busy preparing and baking a chicken pot pie for supper, Trace was too bored with just hanging around, waiting for her injuries to heal. Using what was left of the garlic concoction from yesterday, the detective rubbed the oil into her skin then wrapped her hands with cloth, slipping the suede work gloves on she had started to use the day before. She then donned nasty-looking, heavily stained overshoes several sizes too big as she began mucking out the stable.
All the horses, except the mustang, had been out in the pasture, so the detective did not have to be concerned about being trapped again, like that first day with Chief. By the time she reached the final stall, the one occupied by the feisty Spanish horse, she had poked quite a few eye-watering, nose hair burning pockets of fecal ammonia with her pitchfork, making her hate her life every time she came across one of the steaming, moldy, rotting matted clumps.
Entering the stall of the horse that had tentatively been named Rio because he had been found by the river, the two stubborn mammals stared each other down. "Don't even think of starting with me," Trace advised the wary animal in a low, serious, whiskey-burnt alto. "I like being in here even less than you do."
It must have been her unyielding attitude that made Rio ignore her and go back to chewing on hay. Known for their survival instincts, mustangs were highly intelligent creatures with innate senses of self-preservation and not prone to place themselves in any situation which might be perilous or destructive. Something in the brunette's tone told him crossing this human with the pitchfork in her hands was not conducive to his welfare. He was very cooperative in moving when she needed to get around him and when she was finished, she pushed the wheelbarrow to just outside the stable entrance and went back into the stall to replenish Rio's food staples. Once she was done with that, she would round up the other horses and get them back inside for the night.
Trace couldn't help but notice that Rio was a beautiful animal. Standing fourteen hands high, he was a smoothly muscled, deeply girthed, narrow chested, roan-colored horse with a well crested neck. The detective smiled at him, still respecting his space, feeling they were a lot alike. She instantaneously decided she wanted Rio to be her horse...maybe she could eventually talk Rachel into that little notion. Suddenly sensing another presence, Trace spun around to see her favorite little blonde standing at the entrance, hands on her hips, surveying the stall.
"Gosh, Trace, this looks right tidy. You did a fine job!" Rachel was starting to wonder if Trace had been telling the truth about never having done any of these kind of chores before, she always seemed to do such a complete and nearly error-free job.
"Thank you," the detective grinned. Amazing how even a little praise from the blonde could make her heart swell. Rio barely acknowledged his owner and went back to eating.
"How are your blisters feeling?"
"A little sore but not bad."
"You probably should have given them a little more time to get better."
"Yep, probably. But I couldn't sit still. Idle hands and all that..."
Rachel folded her arms and nodded her head toward Rio. "Looks like he doesn't mind you."
"Yeah...speaking of that -" Trace was interrupted by the sound of an explosive, rolling flatulence and looked up to see Rachel staring at her with eyes as big as pie tins. Defensively, she said, "It was the horse!"
And then the odor to match the sound encircled them both and bile immediately scalded Trace's throat as both women made a mad dash for untainted oxygen. Outside the stable, the brunette breathed in mouthfuls of fresh air.
"Okay, that was just wrong..." Trace commented, wiping the sting away from her eyes.
"I think he's still getting used to the oats," Rachel offered.
So am I, Trace thought, remembering the oatmeal for breakfast, but I don't smell like that. At least she hoped she didn't. "I think I'll wait a bit before I bring the other horses back to their stalls," the brunette stated.
"Well, I came to get you to tell you that supper was ready." Off Trace's expression, she then added, "but since I've seen pallbearers look happier than that, it won't hurt it to cool a bit until you get your appetite back."
"No, no, I'll be fine. Just let me get these clothes off and washed up and I'll be right in. You worked too hard to let it sit and get cold." Reaching over and patting the blonde's arm, reassuringly, Trace then headed off in the direction of the barn.
Watching the brunette's retreating form, Rachel ran her fingers lightly over the area of skin the brunette had just touched, feeling goosebumps. She realized she was smiling. She had never experienced anything like that before. The blonde could not explain her reaction and then thought it was best not to try. She walked back to the house to set the table, suddenly feeling as though she wanted to start skipping.
Right after dinner, Trace offered to do the dishes but Rachel wouldn't hear of it. Instead she suggested the detective 'mosey' out to the corralled pasture and bring the horses in. Sure, Trace thought, so they can start immediately messing up those nice clean stalls.
The tall brunette led a lazily trudging Moses into the stable, followed by Rosie and her shy baby, who seemed determined to play 'peekaboo' with Trace from behind her mama and then a surprisingly cooperative Chief brought up the rear. The detective secured them all into their stalls and stopped long enough to talk softly to Zelda, who still hid behind Rosie but seemed as fascinated with the human as she was with the colt.
Once, out of the stable, Trace knew she could not go to bed smelling the way she did. She didn't know how Rachel managed to sit opposite her all through the meal and not start throwing up again. She no further got that thought out than she heard the sounds of vomiting. Picking up her pace, she rounded the corner to find the blonde bent over at the waist, depositing her supper in the bushes by the out house. By the time Trace reached her, Rachel was finishing up with a few dry heaves.
"Rachel, I don't like this..." the detective began as she watched the pale, drawn face focus on her.
"I'm all right."
"No, you're not. You're obviously very stressed."
The blonde cocked her head. "Stressed?"
"Yeah...um...out of sorts, upset, agitated."
Rachel nodded. "Well, that is the truth." If only the brunette understood the enormity of her 'stress.' Well, she would soon enough and then she would move on, certainly not wanting to have any association with an unwed mother. Suddenly the notion of Trace leaving her made her very emotional and before she could stop herself, she started to cry.
Without delay, the detective pulled the blonde into her arms and held her securely, smoothing her hair with her palm as Rachel wept silently against her shoulder. "Shhhh, shhhh, it's okay," Trace soothed. "I don't want you to worry. I'm going to help you fight these Cranes, to keep your land." Once again the detective was experiencing a new aspect of herself. She had never been a demonstrative person yet she did not hesitate for one second to physically comfort the blonde. Normally, she considered herself as having all the gentility of a NASCAR wreck. Rachel was pulling out a side of her she never knew she had.
As for Rachel, there was also no indecision regarding immediately accepting this act of kind reassurance. Being held by Trace seemed the most natural thing in the world for her. She might have pondered it further but she was hit by another wave of nausea and she pushed herself away from the detective before she risked spraying the brunette with the contents of her stomach...if there was anything left in there.
Later that evening, after Trace had taken a discreet, naked plunge in the creek, preferring the strong smell of lye soap over the more pungent odor of manure, she sat on the porch with Rachel, listening to the crickets, the frogs, the river and the occasional howl of an animal or two. They discussed Trace's plans for the next day by the light of a full moon. Under different circumstances, it could have been very romantic, which is exactly what Ed Jackson must have thought when he rode up to the house.
Hearing the sound of slow hoofbeats approaching, both women stood, Trace immediately alerting on Rachel's stiffening posture. When the glint of the sheriff's badge became distinct, it made the blonde visibly disturbed.
"Now, what could he want?" Rachel mumbled in a voice just loud enough for her companion to hear.
When Jackson got close enough that his features could be recognized, he spoke, his tone arrogant and condescending. "Rachel," he nodded to the blonde. "Mr. Sheridan," he regarded Trace with a sneer. He looked at both women pointedly and after neither barely acknowledged him with a word or gesture, he said, "Am I interruptin' something?"
It was the disrespectfully blatant leering at the blonde, that caused Trace's hand down by her side to curl into a fist. Rachel must have sensed the detective's barely contained wrath and stepped forward. "Nothing but an evening's discussion about tomorrow's chores."
Jackson did not hide his disbelief. "Right," he smirked.
"What is it we can do for you, Sheriff?" Trace responded, her vocal inflection even less friendly than the lawman's.
"I just thought, as a courtesy, I'd tell Miss Rachel, here, that her fence is busted over by the south end of her property."
"Yes, I know that," the blonde spoke up. "That's old news, Sheriff. If that's all you came for..."
"Now, there ain't no need to be inhospitable," Jackson admonished her. "With all the mysterious things happenin' out here, I would think you'd want to be just a little more sociable to -"
"Mysterious? There is nothing mysterious about anything that has happened here, Sheriff," Rachel spit out unable to hold onto her forced composure any longer. "You know very well who's responsible for slaughtering my herd and crippling my horses, for burning most of my crops, for..." she stopped herself before she revealed the rest of it. "And you know, despite how sociable, I became to you, you wouldn't lift a finger to stop them. You disgrace that badge!" Literally vibrating from her own rage, she felt a gentle hand at the back of her elbow which brought her back to some semblance of calm.
Jackson didn't seem fazed in the least by her outburst. "Why, Rachel, your respect for the law is right heartwarmin'."
"She has respect for the law, Sheriff. That doesn't mean she has to respect the man badly representing it. That respect is not automatic. It has to be earned and it sure looks to me like you're a long way from doing that."
Trace's words got Jackson's attention and he narrowed his eyes. "You know, Sheridan," he began. "I don't like you. Didn't like you from the moment I laid eyes on ya."
Imitating Ed's drawl, Trace almost smirked. "Well, Ed, that just plum hurts my feelings."
Rachel had to turn her head away and bite the inside of her cheek to keep from snorting in laughter. Sheriff Jackson probably hadn't been defied like this since that incident with Billy The Kid. When she was able to sneak a look at him, she couldn't help but comment. "Why, Sheriff, you look madder than a centipede with bunions."
Trace was sure if the sheriff could have had steam come out of his ears, plumes would have been sending smoke signals by now. Somehow, he managed to rein in his temper and was able to raise a simper. "Ain't no way some half-breed, gypsy-lookin' drifter's gonna get my back up," he lied. The truth was if Rachel hadn't been there as a witness, he would have cut Trace down where she stood. He still could, no one would dispute him on it, except the courtly blonde and no one would believe her. Well, they might but it wouldn't matter. Jackson decided it would be smarter to wait for Jacob and the boys to get back. They would decide on a suitable course of action for this insolent cowboy who was way too big for his breeches. The sheriff wondered how big a talker this stranger would be up against the youngest, most virile Crane...especially when it involved Rachel Young, a woman Ben hated and desired at the same time. Nope, it would be too much fun to watch the volatile Crane boy deal with it. In the mean time, maybe a little lesson in manners wouldn't hurt.
"Say, Rachel, I just come from a nice dinner of roast cur at the Reddicks and I'm a might thirsty. Why don't you fancy ol' Ed with a nice big shot of bug juice and I'll be on my way."
Looking at the ground, Rachel sighed and turned to walk inside when she was quietly stopped by Trace's arm in front of her. In a voice loud enough for Jackson to hear, the detective asked, "Do you want to wait on him? Because he can be on his way without the bug juice."
They both heard the squeaking leather of the sheriff shifting in his saddle. In a tone barely above a whisper, the blonde said, "I just want him out of here with no trouble. I know this will do it." She gently pushed Trace's arm down and passed her, entering the house.
"Now, you listen to me, boy," Jackson started, once Rachel was out of their sight. Trace slowly looked back up at this ugly man on his tired horse. "That pretty little thing may be warmin' your bed for now and you might be feeling like a stud 'cause of it, hell, I would be -"
Words became strangled in the detective's throat, she was so furious at the implication. It was okay if she thought that but for some scrote like this crooked lawman to just assume it turned her damned near homicidal. It took a great deal of self-control not to pick up the chair she had been sitting in and slam Jackson upside the head with it.
"...but if I was you? Enjoy it while you can because when those boys get back from Dodge and find you here? I guaran-damn-tee you'll be like a field mouse with a cat at his tail. And...well, let's just say you keep shootin' off your mouth like that to those boys and you might wind up on the end of a rope over a cottonwood branch. Now, ain't that just befittin' seein' as how that's where you say you're from," he continued, oblivious to the rage that radiated from the brunette.
Trace was about to annihilate him with a tirade that would have made his head spin when Rachel stepped back out onto the porch and over to the first step, handing the glass to the sheriff. Jackson drained the glass in one huge gulp, belched loudly and tossed the glass unexpectedly to Trace who caught it effortlessly. Her quick, smooth reaction provoked a raised eyebrow from the sheriff and that was all.
Touching his index finger to the brim of his hat, he smiled and nodded once again at Rachel. "You have a good night. And don't forget about your south fence, there." He then guided his horse away from the house and trotted into the shadows of the trees in the distance.
Both women silently watched him go. The first one to speak was the blonde. "Man's got a grin like a rabid dog."
Through clenched teeth, Trace then said, "I don't like that man. I don't like the way he talks to you, I don't like the way he looks at you and I don't like the way he threatens you."
Rachel was a little taken aback at but also flattered by the detective's protective and almost possessive tone. She returned her attention to the dark woods the sheriff rode into. "They say when a snake rattles, you ought to kill it. Unfortunately, if you cut the head off that particular snake, several more will grow back. I'd shoot him for trespassing but that would only get me a cross planted above my brow." She sighed and swatted away a black fly who, with its many relatives, had begun to annoy her within the past ten minutes. She watched while Trace also attempted to bat one away. "Blessed things are as big as buzzards. Let's go inside. I'll make some tea."
"Rachel, what the fu- heck is bug juice?"
"Whiskey...?" She followed the blonde inside. closing the door. "Why don't they just call it whiskey?"
Rachel shrugged. "Why don't you just say 'okay' instead of 'cool'?"
Good question, Trace thought. The blonde's simplistic approach to things was always enlightening in its own way and she had a feeling that seeing life through Rachel's eyes would force her to re-evaluate quite a bit in the days to come.
Trace spent another forty-five minutes having a cup of tea with Rachel and then headed for her room in the barn. Still unnerved by the sheriff's unexpected visit, she was only now starting to calm down. She was tired and should have been sleepy but something just did not feel right and she laid awake, staring at the ceiling, for several hours until the normal night sounds faded into the recesses of her subconscious.
A little after midnight, one noise stood out from the rest and the detective immediately reacted to it. Like a phantom, she silently slid out of bed, donned her clothes and boots and crept out to the barn door, which was ajar. Slipping into a defensive mode of every nerve in her body feeling totally aware and ready for anything, she automatically monitored her own breathing, went on peripheral alert, scanning the limited area of her vision for the source of the noise. It was then she saw two shadows in close proximity to where she was standing and heard voices.
"Ed said just to scare 'em. Maybe drag the gyspy out of bed and wail the bejesus out of him in front of her."
"What about Miss Rachel?" the second male inquired. He sounded young and a little unsure.
With a lascivious little snicker, the first man said, "As much as I'd like to have a little piece of that for myself, Ed said to leave her alone. But if she gets a little too rambunctious, she may have to be taught a lesson as well."
That was all Trace needed to hear. She stepped forward on her left leg, shifted her weight and let loose with a front jump kick, snapping her right leg up at the knee and striking the door with the ball of her foot with such force, the door lurched outward with a splintering crack, stopping only when it slammed against two bodies, knocking them to the ground. Moving quickly outside, she faced the dazed men, who both wore black hoods with eye holes cut out.
"Come on, boys," Trace teased, beckoning them. "I'm ready for my lesson now."
Both men staggered to their feet. "He was supposed to be in the house," the shorter one whined.
"Never assume," the detective advised, in an almost playful tone of voice.
The taller, obviously older of the two men barreled toward the brunette, fist raised. Trace simply stepped aside, letting him pass where, under his own momentum, he tripped and fell face first into the dirt.
"Too bad that cowardly mask doesn't have a hole cut out where your mouth should be. You deserve to be spitting out Mother Earth right now," the detective told him. She watched as he jumped back on his feet pretty quickly, angry and embarrassed.
"What the hell's the matter with you, boy?" He was addressing his companion who was just standing there, unmoving. "Get him!"
Glancing at the smaller of the two, Trace sensed he would not be a problem. Almost timidly, the shorter man advanced at the detective from one side as the other man charged at her from the other. A deceptively fast roundhouse kick caught the older man on his right cheek, sending him flying backward, stunned, as he once again hit the ground. While he was shaking it off, the younger one drew back, propelling his fist forward with the intention of punching the brunette and the hope of knocking her down.
Catching his fist in mid-thrust, Trace abruptly stopped the action by counter grabbing his hand and twisting it in a direction nature never designed it to move. As she brought him to his knees, he began yelling for mercy. He knew with a little more effort, his whole arm could be broken.
Seeing the brunette occupied with his companion, the taller intruder mistakenly believed he could gain control of the situation now. When he was about two feet away from the detective, she back kicked him away from her and once again he found himself on his ass in the dirt. Pounding the ground in frustration, he stood up and drew his gun.
Hearing the click of the trigger being cocked back, Trace shook her head and spun her prisoner around so that he was now in front of her, wrenching his now badly sprained arm into a choke hold against him. She found herself looking up into the muzzle of a nicked and worn pistol. Regardless, she was sure, at that range, the bullet fired from it would still be just as deadly.
"If you shoot me, he dies," Trace stated, matter-of-fact.
"And the second shot will be you joining him in Hell."
Surprised, all three looked up to see Rachel, in her nightshirt covered by an unbelted cotton robe, on the porch with the carbine trained on the taller man. Her voice had been steady, angry and there was no doubt she meant what she said.
Trace couldn't help but smile. She had no qualms that she could have handled the situation just fine on her own but the blonde coming to her 'rescue' nearly made her chest burst with pride. The man holding the gun lowered it to his side.
"Good boy," Trace commented, smugly. "Now lay it down and kick it toward Rachel." When he hesitated, Trace tightened her hold on his partner, who howled in pain. "Do it."
He reluctantly obeyed and the detective was about to pull off the hood of the intruder in her grasp when they heard a rustling from the woods and the sheriff appeared, riding his weary horse. Jackson's expression was a cross between fascination and disappointment. One hand was on the reins and the other resting on his gun belt near the holster. "Put the gun down, Rachel." He then looked directly at Trace. "There'll be no killin' here tonight."
Not letting her prisoner go, Trace's eyes became slits as she addressed the sheriff in a deadly tone of voice. "You son-of-a-bitch. You sent them here."
"Why, I don't know you're talking about, son." But his complacent expression betrayed him.
Once more, tightening her hold on the younger intruder, making him cry out again, the detective continued. "Really? I heard these two say that this was what you wanted. But if they're lying, just what are you doing out here in the middle of the night?"
Jackson shrugged. "Been reports of coyotes around, attacking the hen houses after dark. I heard the commotion. Noise travels far this time of night."
"How convenient," Trace scoffed. "I think these men were here to do your dirty work for you. If you've got a problem with me, Sheriff, then get down off that horse and take it up with me." Then she hastily added, "man to man," nearly gagging on the words as they left her mouth.
"I don't mind sayin' you got some imagination there, Sheridan."
"I don't mind saying you're a consummate liar there, Jackson," Trace countered, unflinchingly.
This made him stiffen and his hand then rested on the handle of his Colt, still holstered but the threat was there, nonetheless. He looked back up at Rachel. "Thought I told you to put that gun down."
"You're on my property without an invitation," the blonde told him, firmly. "I'll lower my rifle when you leave."
In a flash, Jackson's revolver was out and aimed at the blonde. Glancing quickly at Trace, he said, "One move from you and I'll shoot her."
The action had surprised Rachel who hadn't had time to load the shotgun before running out to the porch. She was hoping just the sight of it would have calmed everything down. It further shocked the detective that the sheriff took such a chance. And then she remembered the chauvinistic time she was in, a realization that was just punctuated by Jackson's next words.
"Don't ever threaten me, missy. When I tell you to do something, you do it. Now put the gun down."
"Don't do it, Rachel," Trace advised.
"Don't listen to him. He ain't on the business end of my Colt. I ain't gonna tell you again, Rachel."
"He won't shoot you, Rachel," the detective said.
"You sure about that, son?" Jackson asked. "She's got that carbine lookin' right at me. I need to defend myself. Especially when all I'm doing here is trying to protect her fowl from gettin' ate up."
"You are so full of crap, Sheriff, I'm surprised your eyes aren't brown."
Jackson smiled, "Gotta tell ya, Sheridan. You got some sand. I don't like ya. Not one iota. But you don't scare easy. I 'spect that'll change in a month or two but for now, I am damned impressed." He turned back to the blonde. "Rachel?"
Slowly, to Trace's dismay, she lowered the gun. Squeezing her eyes shut, the detective let her head drop.
"Sheridan, let him go." He cocked the pistol, extending his arm in the blonde's direction. "Now."
"Stop aiming that at her and I will."
"You ain't in no position to be givin' ultimatums here."
When Trace did not move, a shot rang out and the bullet seared into the porch at Rachel's feet, just missing her. The blonde jumped back with a frightened yelp, immediately covering her mouth with one hand to stifle a scream. "Rachel!" Pushing her prisoner to the ground, releasing him, the detective started toward the porch. Jackson then turned his revolver to face her, which made the brunette stop in her tracks.
"I didn't touch her. She won't be so lucky next time if she doesn't do as she's told." He smirked at Trace. "And neither will you." Jackson then turned his attention to the two hooded men. "You fellas get movin'. Don't be caught out here again. You may not be so lucky, either." The sheriff's tone was completely insincere. "Git! Go on, now!"
As both men ran until they were out of sight, Trace turned back to Jackson. "They attacked me on private property! They had malevolent intent! Why didn't you arrest them?"
"Malevolent intent? Looked to me like you was gettin' the best of 'em."
Trace looked over at Rachel, whose hand was still covering her mouth, tears brimming at her eyes. The detective could have killed Ed Jackson without a second thought at that moment. "I want to press charges against them. I want you to arrest them."
"And just who am I supposed to arrest? They were masked, they can't be identified."
Seething, the detective pinned him with a murderous glare that made his back hairs rise. "You fucking bastard," Trace said through clenched teeth, "If I ever catch you on this land again without permission, I'll hurt you."
No one had ever looked at him like that, not even any of the Cranes in their most hostile moments and he was also a little taken aback by the potency in the cuss words. He could not hide the bit of tremor in his voice when he said, "That a threat?"
"No. That's a promise."
He aimed his gun at the brunette. "Maybe I ought to kill you right now, save the Cranes the trouble."
"You do and Rachel will shoot you right off that flea-bitten thing you call a horse. Is killing me worth losing your life over?"
"She'd go to jail."
"And you'd still be dead."
Lowering the Colt, Jackson holstered the sidearm and jerked the reins, causing his horse to start a slow pace. As he passed the detective, he said, "Let this be a warning not to cross me, son. Things can get out of hand right quick. As I said...you got lucky tonight. You both did. I think you need to reconsider movin' on."
"And I told you I'd move on when I was ready and not before."
"We'll see about that." With that, he heeled his horse to a trot and rode in the direction the two men had run.
Scrambling onto the porch, Trace enveloped Rachel into a tight embrace. "Are you all right?"
She felt the blonde nod against her. "I'm sorry," she mumbled, tearfully into the brunette's chest. "So very sorry."
Leaning back, the detective tried to look into those jade eyes that said everything but Rachel wouldn't look at her. "Sorry for what?"
"For getting you into this."
"You didn't get me into anything. I'm choosing to stay here. I'm choosing to do this, to fight this battle with you. How you've been doing this all by yourself is amazing to me. At first I thought you were just being stubborn. Now I see that you're being very brave and very strong."
"You really think so?" Green eyes finally blinked up at her.
"Absolutely...but I have to ask you - why did you put your gun down?"
"It wasn't loaded. I woke up and heard the ruckus out here, looked out the window and saw what was going on and I grabbed the first rifle I could get my hands on. I remembered it wasn't loaded after I was already pointing it at that man."
Pulling the blonde into another hug, the detective closed her eyes, grateful that Rachel wasn't hurt. Releasing her, Trace bent to pick up the carbine. "Well, we'll make sure everything's loaded from now on. I don't think we can take the chance that this won't happen again." She looked back at the blonde, she said, "Did you happen to recognize anything about either of those men?"
"No. But I'm positive they were from Crane's spread. About a dozen cowboys stay behind during the drive to tend to the ranch and make sure nobody brings the property or the Crane women any harm." She crossed her arms, studying the detective briefly. "Trace?"
"Where'd you learn to fight like that? I've never seen a woman whup the tarnation out of any man before, much less two men at the same time..."
Shrugging, the brunette said, "Some of it's instinct, some of it's training. I needed to learn to defend myself for my job." She reached over and rested her hand on Rachel's shoulder. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes. I'm..." She almost smiled, glancing shyly up at Trace through light eyelashes, "...cool."
Shaking her head, grinning unexpectedly, the detective ruffled her hair, affectionately. "Yes, you are. You are very cool, indeed."
Holding the carbine out to Rachel, the blonde accepted it and then said, "Trace?"
"You're welcome." Exchanging a meaningful look, Rachel was the first to look away.
"Would you, um, stay in the house the rest of the night? In case they come back?"
Brushing her hair out of her eyes with one lazy stroke of her hand, she thought about what that would have indicated to her just a week ago and how she would have taken advantage of the circumstances. Now? Hell, yeah, she was still desperately attracted to the blonde but she was, at this particular moment, more concerned for Rachel's welfare and safety. "Sure. I'll bunk down on the sofa."
"There's a bed in the loft."
"I know. But if they come back, I want to meet them head on."
"Oh. Okay. Thank you. Again."
Nodding, Trace closed the door behind her, thinking, 'You can thank me when they are no longer bothering you.' Instead, she smiled reassuringly at the blonde and went to retrieve all four guns so she could load them.
Trace awoke to the smell of something burning on the stove. Flying up off the couch, knocking the carbine, which had been resting upon her chest, to the floor, she grabbed a linen napkin, folded it over several times and removed all three pans from the heat. She waved the smoke away and looked around for the blonde.
"Rachel?" There was no answer. "Rachel?"
"Out here," came a weak response.
Walking out to the porch, the brunette found the blonde seated in one of the chairs, bent forward at the waist with her head on her lap. Her pasty, clammy exterior revealed the details of her nauseated, unpredictable interior. "Glad I like my breakfast well done," the detective cracked.
Rachel raised her head high enough to rest it on her hand. "Sorry. I was going to surprise you with corn meal, fried potatoes and fried apples and the aroma just soured my stomach."
Trace knelt by the blonde's chair. "Are you sure you don't want to see a doctor?"
"No." Debating with herself as to whether or not she should confide in the brunette, something told her now was not the time.
"Can I do anything for you?"
"Ginger tea would be nice."
Standing, the detective smiled kindly at the blonde. "Coming right up."
After Rachel's nausea went away, she helped Trace hitch Moses up to the wagon. With the assurance that the invertebrate sheriff and his band of not-so-merry chickens would not return to do their bullying in the light of day and that Rachel would be fine with a loaded shotgun and pistol within reach at any given time (and the promise that she would use it), the detective headed for town.
On her ride into Sagebrush, Trace pondered Rachel's nausea. It wasn't constant but it was daily. Odors seem to trigger it but she was also getting sick at night, apparently waking from a sound sleep when there were no smells to provoke the vomiting. Although Rachel was clearly a hard worker, she seemed exhausted during the day, abnormally so for someone in the physical shape the blonde seemed to be in. And she was making frequent trips to the outhouse. She balked at seeing a doctor, which meant she was either afraid or knew what was wrong. Since Rachel did not seem to be fearful of much, the detective figured it was the latter.
The blonde was reluctant to talk about her chronic stomach distress and Trace had not pushed. The idea of Rachel possibly being persistently ill was not something Trace wanted to think about as she was already too attached to the young woman. Then another thought crossed Trace's mind.
Could Rachel be pregnant? No. She shook her head at the speculation. There was no man in the picture. The blonde's fiancée had been gone too long for her to have had reproductive sexual contact with him. And Rachel did not seem like the type of woman to have indiscriminately slept with anyone else who was not a constant in her life. No, it had to be something else. Well, when the blonde was ready to talk about it, Trace was sure she would let her know what was wrong.
As Moses sauntered along, the detective checked the position of the Colt and the Sharps, ready for anything at this point. Fortunately, she made it to town without incident, not sure what might happen once she got there.
Her first visit was to a shop next to the livery called Nathan's Saddlery where, after several try-ons, she purchased a black cowhide prairie cartridge belt, which had twenty-four loops to hold extra .45 Colt ammunition. With it, she bought a floral carved skirted holster with a retaining strap and a matching hand-stitched Bowie sheath with simple tooling that was fitted onto the rig. From the second she buckled the gunbelt on, it felt natural, as though it had always belonged there. She recalled her first week as a cop on patrol, how the other rookies complained about the awkwardness and getting used to the weight of wearing a rig and she felt as though that gun on her hip, attached to the Sam Brown utility belt, had grown there.
Following that little excursion, she hit the gunsmith's where she bought several boxes of .45 caliber rounds for the revolver and cartridges for the Sharps and then bronze shell casings, fine black powder, primer, propellant and wads so that she could load her own bullets.
Trace then went to Joseph Turner's pawn shop, where the detective bought an eight-inch Bowie knife, the blade three fingers wide, a couple pair of well-worn, softened suede work gloves, a few assorted items that caught her fancy and a guitar. She didn't know why she felt compelled to get it because she had not played one in years but once she had the hand-crafted rosewood instrument in her possession, it was clear to her that the reason did not matter.
Her next stop was to Tippings Feed and Grain to pick up Rachel's standing order. She introduced herself to Caleb, the proprietor, who seemed very friendly and accommodating. Trace advised him that, from now on, she would be retrieving the food for the animals so deliveries would no longer need to be made out to the ranch. When Caleb directed his son to assist with loading the order onto the wagon, a troubled-looking Isaac refused, telling his father he had other tasks to attend to first. Embarrassed, older Tipping apologized for his son's uncharacteristic rudeness and offered to help. Thanking him but declining, Trace paid for the feed and led Moses and the wagon around to the back of the store, where she began lifting the sixty pound sacks by herself.
Halfway through the loading, Isaac Tipping stepped into the supply area, unaware of the detective's presence. Taking a break, Trace observed the teenager with more than a casual interest. He had the same voice, was of similar height, had the approximate build of one of the hooded trespassers and, the most curious of all, his right arm was in a sling.
"How'd you hurt your arm?" Trace's voice may have startled the boy but the person it belonged to terrified him even more.
He wanted to run, to get far away from this cowboy. He had seen what he could do without a gun in his hand and now he was wearing a sidearm. Head bowed, eyes scanning the floor, Isaac said, "Got thrown from a horse yesterday." Well, although it was a lie, he certainly felt as though he'd been dragged behind a fast stallion.
Yep, the detective thought, that's one of the sheriff's henchmen from the night before. The young man's timbre was identical to that of the intruder she had in a choke hold.
"Did you now?" Trace made sure she sounded as though she did not believe him. "If I go back in there and ask your father, is that what he's going to tell me?"
Isaac did not respond. It was obvious the cowboy knew what caused his injury. The teenager could still not look Trace in the eyes.
"Was your father the man with you?" The detective knew he wasn't, as the physical and vocal characteristics did not match but she was pretty sure the boy would react to this. If the kid had a conscience, he would protest his father's innocence by inadvertently admitting his own guilt at the same time.
"No!" The boy denied, defensively, and then looked skyward, realizing his mistake.
"You feel good about what you did last night?" the brunette inquired with more calm than she really felt.
"No, Sir," Isaac answered. "I like Miss Rachel. Please don't tell her it was me."
He lowered his head again. "Crane's are trying to get a cut of my pa's store. Sheriff Jackson said if I did this, he'd hold 'em off."
Unconsciously gritting her teeth, Trace was both angry and sympathetic. Sighing, the detective returned to loading the rest of the order onto the wagon.
"Are you telling me the truth?"
"Yes, Sir!" Isaac answered, enthusiastically.
"Who was the man with you?"
"John Carver." Responding to the blank stare of the detective, he offered more information. "Mrs. Crane's younger brother."
Trace nodded, absorbing the information. "If the sheriff ever asks you to do anything like that again? I want you to come tell me. Okay?"
"Yes, Sir. But what good is that going to do?"
"You let me worry about that." Lifting the last burlap bag, Trace looked over at the mortified teenager. "And Isaac?"
"Don't worry about your father's store." Off the boy's disbelieving, questioning stare, she wanted to say, 'there's a new sheriff in town,' but instead she actually found a smile for him. "Just...don't worry..."
Skeptically, the teenager acknowledged the brunette's words without expression. He was obviously still terribly embarrassed by the whole incident. Instinctively, though, Trace knew she had an ally if she needed it. One down, the rest of the town to go.
And, finally, Trace stopped by Wilbur's to have a drink. This was a calculated visit to not only have a beer before she returned to The Triple Y Ranch but to take in the atmosphere of the town once again, to get the latest gossip from Silas and anyone else who might have loose lips while they imbibed.
Because of the huge tip Trace had left at her last visit to the saloon, Silas gave her a shot of whiskey on the house. Not one to be ungrateful, the detective accepted it, graciously and slammed the small glass of liquor back, swallowing the nasty substance that felt as though it was searing the flesh all the way down her throat. She could not stop her eyes from watering, when she set the empty glass back down on the bar.
"Blaze a trail clear to your gullet, did it?" Silas laughed.
"So that's what you call bug juice, huh?"
"No, the bug juice is over there with the red-eye. What you just had was what we like to call rotgut."
"I can see why," Trace rasped, chasing the burn with a few gulps of ale.
"It'll put hair on your chest."
"Yeah. Just what I need." Draining her beer mug, the brunette tossed the affable saloon keeper twenty-five cents and headed out the swinging doors. On her way out, she passed the sheriff on his way in. Jackson immediately alerted on the fact that Trace was now armed. He could only hope the cowboy did not handle a gun as well as he wielded his fists and feet.
The detective and the sheriff glared at each other but neither spoke to the other one. However, Trace did notice that the jovial mood in the bar immediately became solemn at Jackson's dour presence. It did not take a rocket scientist to see that the sheriff was not a popular man. She would use that to her advantage.
Checking to make sure everything was secure, the detective climbed into the driver's seat and directed Moses back to her new home.
Trace decided not to tell Rachel about Isaac Tipping's involvement in the event of the night before. Not just because the boy asked her not to or she felt it would accomplish nothing other than hard feelings but she understood the position the teenager had been put in. Twelve years earlier, she had been in a similar situation. No, the detective would keep that information to herself for now.
She needed to figure out a plan, think of something to use the sheriff's own game against him and, ultimately, against the Cranes. She needed to find a way for Rachel to keep what was rightly hers with no more problems and help the people of Sagebrush get their town back.
Once again, she shook her head at her abrupt personality change. A little over a week ago, she was on the side of the bad guys and thought nothing about her unscrupulous behavior or her underhanded and corrupt acts. She felt little concern about the consequences of her actions against others, about how her decisions might trickle down and affect the helpless people...like Rachel. When Trace got into her life of crime, she did so with noble intentions. Greed and power kept her there. And now, suddenly, twelve years of shame burned white hot within her causing her, again, to almost choke with rage at her own ignorance and voraciousness.
Continuing to beat herself up for things she could not change was futile and a huge waste of her time and energy. Realizing and acknowledging the error of her ways and moving on and improving was the only way to earn her self-respect back and to, hopefully, help save this town. She needed to use the knowledge and experience she had gained from surviving on the wrong side of the law and put it to use on the righteous, ethical and moral side. Trace realized that this may mean she would still have to fracture an ordinances or two in order to make things right but if it all led in the direction of the greater good and she could redeem her prior bad acts, it would be worth it.
After she unloaded the purchases she had made in town, Trace piled the rails she had split two days earlier onto the back of the wagon and headed out to the south fence to repair it.
Two hours later, the tall brunette was back in the barn, unhitching Moses and leading him to the stable. Before she returned to the house, she ensured all the horses were in their stalls and they had enough food and water and checked the tack to see what was in need of conditioning and cleaning. Making a mental note that some of the equipment looked a little worn and, worse yet, dry, she would ask Rachel where she kept the saddlesoap and make it a point to work on that within the next day or two. Even though she was new at being around horses and their equipment, she was not a novice at caring for leather as her gunbelts, holsters, sheaths and boots needed attention from time to time, usually determined by how often they were used.
Following dinner, Trace and Rachel were seated out on the porch again. The blonde was ripping the seams out of her father's pants and taking them in so that they would fit the detective better and the brunette was tuning her guitar.
"Do you hunt, Trace?" The blonde inquired, breaking the cozy silence between them.
"No. Do you?"
"I've had my share of dinners on the hoof." She glanced over at the detective picking the scale on her new toy. "I don't like to but sometimes I've had to. Do you fish?"
"Do you want to learn?"
"Nope." Trace looked back at the blonde, meeting her eyes and smiling. "But something tells me I am going to whether I want to or not."
Nodding, Rachel returned the brunette's grin. "There are a couple willow poles in the barn. Tomorrow we'll go fishing."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Not if you want to continue to eat here." The blonde was still smiling as she returned to her sewing.
Trace chuckled. This just felt so...comfortable. She finally had the guitar tuned and strummed a G chord. "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys...," she sang out, her voice clear and strong. Warbling a few more verses, she stopped to retune an E string. She again looked over at Rachel, who appeared a little stunned. "What?"
"You have a very nice voice."
"Why, thank you, Ma'am."
"I've never heard that song before."
That's because it hasn't been written yet, Trace mused. "It's a standard where I come from," she told the blonde.
"What's a trucks?"
"A trucks. In your song. 'don't let 'em pick guitars and drive them ol' trucks.' What does that mean?"
"Oh. Truck. It's like a strong wagon that moves with the power of a couple of plow horses."
The blonde tried to picture it and shook her head. "Don't think I've ever seen one of them."
"No, I would guess you haven't. They're very rare right now." In fact, downright non-existent, she thought.
Nodding, Rachel then said, "Well, it's nice to hear music around here again. My mama used to play piano in church and sing."
"Do you sing?"
"Only on Sundays in front of Pastor Edwards." The blonde did not volunteer that she had not been to church in a month. She set her sewing aside. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Yes, I would. That would be very nice, thank you." She watched Rachel stand and enter the house. The blonde had asked Trace to spend the night on the sofa again as it made her feel very protected the night before. The detective agreed without hesitation. She was pretty sure there wasn't much Rachel would request of her that she would or could refuse. She sighed. This was all so very...domestic. Shaking her head, she went back to plucking out notes on her guitar.
Inside, the water was almost to a boil as Rachel filled the metal tea ball. Feeling a pang of cramps and a wave of nausea, she held her belly tightly until the feelings passed. Listening to the detective singing right outside the window, the blonde silently argued with herself again about whether or not to tell Trace about the baby. And once more, she talked herself out of it. Placing the steeping teacups on a tray, Rachel returned to the porch.
"...and she's buy-eye-ing a sta-air-way...to...heaven..."
"That was a beautiful song, Trace. I've never heard that one, either."
"Another classic where I come from."
"Sounds like you have a lot of fond memories from where you come from."
"If you felt like it wasn't dangerous anymore to go back there, would you?"
Would she? Good question. Would she return to the Twenty-First century if she had the option to? She took a deep breath, inhaling clean, fresh air and looked over to her left at an unspoiled sunset. Then she looked over to her right, into the emerald gaze of a woman she would never want to expose to the modern world. She stared into the trusting eyes of a woman she suddenly felt she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Right here. Forever.
"No," Trace answered, softly. "I like it right where I am."
"Good," Rachel smiled, almost shyly. "I like you right where you are, too."
"Really?" The detective tried to gauge the intent behind the words - she knew what she wanted them to mean but she was sure it was just that the blonde was grateful for her presence, thankful to have someone, anyone finally on her side, who felt no misgivings about getting involved in this mess. Trace knew she made Rachel feel safe...if the blonde felt any more than that, chances were she had not realized the full implications of it.
"You're good company. And you work hard. And you're not afraid of anything. I am very appreciative of the first two." She shook her head. "But I don't know how foolish that last one may be."
Chuckling softly, Trace sipped her peppermint tea and went back playing her guitar. Without warning, she felt her loins clench and a current of sexual stimulus galvanized her center and then radiated outward through every nerve of her body. The detective broke out into an unexpected sweat and knew she needed to excuse herself to take care of this urge, somewhere privately and quickly. Putting the instrument aside, she took another sip of tea and stood up. "I...uh...need to use the outhouse and, uh, then I'm going to get washed up at the river and be back in for the night." She began edging away.
"Uh...yeah..." She stretched and faked a yawn. "It just hit me how tired I am."
As the detective descended the steps, she knew Rachel didn't quite believe her but she was positive the blonde didn't have a clue as to the real reason for her hasty departure, either. Skipping the trip to the outhouse, she headed for her room in the barn. Leaning against the closed door, just in case Rachel had chosen to follow her, it would ensure she would not get walked in on, she unbuttoned her jeans and slipped her hand inside her underwear. Closing her eyes, envisioning the blonde, it took her no time at all to relieve the pleasurable yet almost painful pressure. Feeling incredibly less tense now, she waited for her breathing to regulate and she grabbed her night clothes, heading for the bathing hole.
The next morning, Trace was up and about and had even made some coffee before Rachel was out of bed. She noticed that the blonde seemed tired, sluggish and, again, pale but the smaller woman arose and dressed quickly, cooking some oatmeal for both of them without showing signs of or admitting to any nausea.
Following breakfast, the detective set up temporary targets of firewood, rusted out tin cans of various sizes, old pieces of furniture which had been broken or had fallen apart, and chipped dinnerware at different intervals and decided on which tree stumps and other fixed objects were sturdy enough to be standing marks. She further made sure that whatever she was going to shoot at was in a direction away from the house, barn, stable, pasture and path that connected the road from town to the house. That way, if she missed, the only element in danger of getting shot would be assorted vegetation.
Observing Trace from the porch, Rachel was mesmerized by how confident and methodical the detective was. She also couldn't keep her eyes off the nicely defined bulging muscles on the brunette's arms every time she lifted anything off the ground that required a little effort. Realizing she was darned near ogling the detective again, she blushed furiously and returned to her chores inside.
Oblivious to her confused admirer, Trace continued to set up and readjust marks before and after shooting at them. It seemed to take her no time at all to get used to the weapons that would now be her lifeline if her unarmed self-defense tactics failed her.
After several hours of gunfire, the blonde returned to the porch to call Trace in for lunch and watched as the detective gripped the Colt in a manner she had never seen anyone clutch a pistol before. The brunette had the revolver in front of her at arm's length, holding the .45 with her right hand, her left arm bent and clasping her right wrist, supporting the weight for, what Rachel could only assume was, a more smooth and precise shot. The blonde knew that one aimed with a rifle but had only seen pistol shooting either from the hip or with an extended arm, the gun positioned somewhere between the waist and shoulders. Trace's form and style was obviously working because her accuracy was downright impressive.
Firing off all six bullets in rapid succession, Rachel saw as debris from the targets splintered out when the slugs hit their mark dead in the center. The blonde could not help but smile. Was there anything this woman couldn't do?
That afternoon, while the blonde engaged in cleaning out the chicken coop, Trace busied herself with rigging up a makeshift boxing bag. She took several empty burlap feed sacks, threading them together with leather straps and stuffed them with dirt and hay. She kept testing the weight, adding or removing contents until she was satisfied with the heaviness and resistance and then, having already tied a thick hemp rope tightly around it and up over a solid barn beam, she pulled the rope toward her, hoisting the approximate two hundred pound, four feet high bag until it was about a good eighteen inches off the ground. She secured the rope on a wall hook and then looked at her invention. It wasn't great but it would have to do.
Protectively wrapping her hands with material she ripped up from an old discarded linen sheet and then fitting Rachel's father's oversized suede gloves over them, the detective then began to work out, using the hanging sack as a sparring opponent. Trace felt good again to be moving, throwing punches, snapping kicks, practicing doing what she felt she had been born to do - fight. Ironically, the brunette never felt more at peace than she did when she was fighting.
Rachel making the two of them tea every night as they sat down on the porch during sunset became a welcomed ritual, as did Trace breaking out the guitar and plucking out a few tunes on it. Most of the songs the blonde had never heard before and the meaning of quite a few of the lyrics were alien to her as well. However, she got to the point where she stopped asking questions regarding what Trace was singing about and just enjoyed the private concert.
What also became routine was the detective sleeping in the house. Within a week, she switched from the barn to the couch to the loft. She was not without one revolver or one rifle within reach and made sure that Rachel was equally prepared. Just in case.
She had yet to start bathing in the house and would continue to use the river until the blonde invited her to use the clawfoot tub in the anteroom. She had bought a straight razor in town and after a few nasty nicks and cuts finally got her legs and underarms shaved but it was a grooming habit she would practice sparingly from now on...she certainly couldn't help Rachel do much of anything if she were sidelined by massive blood loss...
Trace proceeded to get up every morning when the rooster crowed and ran on a path that she had created with the help of Moses and a rake, which took her approximately one-half mile around the house, the barn, the stable and the perimeter of one of the corralled pastures. Rain or shine, the detective jogged on that path, circling it at least ten times. She knew she needed to be in her best shape if there was to be a confrontation - and she had no doubt there would be one, if not many. Trace also worked out with her suspended punching bag after her jog and before beginning her chores.
Every third day, the detective reluctantly but faithfully mucked out the stalls, also checking tack and equipment for needed upkeep, becoming friendlier with all the horses, gaining Rio's trust, and provoking Zelda to become less shy around her. Every day, she saddled up Chief and rode around the boundaries of the property checking all the fence lines. Every five days, she target practiced, getting better and better with Colts and both rifles, until it was more unusual for her to miss than to hit. Every sixth day, she hitched Moses up to the wagon, directed him into town, picked up whatever supplies, groceries and necessities were required for the next week, had a beer or two at Wilbur's and slowly became more sociable with the townspeople, slowly integrating herself into the quirky, rural, Sagebrush groove, deftly avoiding the sheriff - or maybe it was the other way around.
In the meantime, Trace and Rachel became much more comfortable with each other, as though they had always lived together, shared space. Their interaction was always respectful, mutually esoteric and even though it borderlined on flirtatious, it never crossed that line into anything more. Rachel was afraid of what that would really mean and Trace was afraid her feelings would be too overpowering for the already overwhelmed blonde. For the first time in her life, Trace Sheridan thought about the impact of her actions on someone other than herself.
Every day for two weeks, the blonde suffered from some form of nausea and then went on about her day as though nothing was wrong. Every day, the brunette became more and more suspicious of the reasons behind Rachel's sickness.
Shaking off the excess water from the torrential rainstorm, Trace entered the house with the intention of advising Rachel about the break in the north fence. She was sure it was nothing but wind damage but would need to be fixed, just the same. She was about to call out the blonde's name when she heard the sound of a soft snore emanating from the area of the hearth. Removing her soaked overshirt, Trace quietly stepped closer, observing Rachel asleep in her mother's rocking chair. A small flame was flickering in the fireplace and Trace's breath literally caught at the vision before her. Rachel's natural beauty and innocence were only enhanced by the blazing light and all Trace wanted to do was reach down and take this woman into her arms. Oh, if only they were in another time.
Kneeling by the chair, Trace gently placed her hand over the blonde's which was resting in her lap. Squeezing it gently, the detective tried not to startle her. "Hey...Rach?" Her voice was soft but firm enough to stir the slumbering woman before her.
Slowly shifting her in chair, the green eyes fluttered open, pure and unguarded, slowly focusing on Trace, capturing the brunette with a warmth to match the logs burning in the fireplace. Rachel smiled easily at Trace and with a voice hoarse from having dozed off and her most recent dry heave session, she said, "I fell asleep."
"I see," the brunette responded, empathetically. "You've been doing that a lot lately. You okay?"
Unconsciously, Rachel's free arm moved across her belly, protectively. "I'm...I'm fine...why?"
The reaction did not go unnoticed by the detective. Trace's voice was tender, compassionate, "Rachel, are you...preg...with child?"
It was the kindness and lack of judgment in Trace's expression that immediately brought water brimming to the blonde's eyes. "How...how did you know?" She looked away, humiliation now flowing through every fiber of her being.
Pulling up a foot stool and sitting on it, Trace firmly took Rachel's hand in her own. The blonde did not pull away. "Well..." The detective's tone of voice was still soothing and benevolent, "...you've been tired a lot, you've had morning sickness, backaches, frequent trips to the outhouse. I have endured many of my various partners' wives pregnancies, I recognize the symptoms." Not being able to ignore the tears streaming down the pale face, Trace reached up and brushed a few drops away from the delicate cheek, cupping her jaw. "You don't have a husband, you don't have a boyfriend...a beau...no man in your life that I've seen any evidence of...yet you're going to have a baby. How does that happen?"
Turning her face away from Trace's touch, Rachel cried even harder. "I can't talk about it. I'm so ashamed."
"Ashamed? Why? What do you have to be ashamed of?" Trace pressed gently. "What did you do?"
"I don't know," she was beginning to get hysterical, "but I must have done something because he came here and took me and -"
"What? Wait - who 'took' you? When? What happened?" This was not what Trace expected to hear and the thought of it instantly brought pain to her heart and an angry knot in her chest that seemed to hold her lungs hostage.
"I can't talk about it, Trace, I can't."
"Yes, you can. You can talk to me."
Rachel shook her head, biting her lip, unable to speak.
Trace's eyes were now as dark and stormy as a raging sea. "You were raped, weren't you? You did not willingly have relations with the father of your child, did you?" The only audible response to this was a soft whimper from the obviously deeply wounded blonde. Furious, but not at Rachel, Trace had to, once again, visibly swallow her rage. She laid her head on the blonde's hand, counting to ten and then she looked up at the distraught woman, who was looking down at her. "Rachel, you have no reason to feel ashamed, do you understand? You didn't do anything wrong. You were raped. You are not pregnant by choice. It's not your fault, you didn't do anything to deserve it."
"How could you know that? You weren't there."
"Okay, let me guess what happened - you were somewhere, probably here, minding your own business, going about your day, when this man came out of nowhere and forced himself on you. You did not invite it, you did not ask for it, you did not want it...but it didn't matter. He took what he wanted anyway. You fought him, you screamed 'no' and 'stop' and he ignored you. And he hurt you. He violated you against your will."
Stunned, Rachel stared at her, wide-eyed, her voice barely audible. "How...how did you know that?"
"Because I used to have to arrest guys like the one who did that to you. It's always the same story. I know all about how they work."
"No one is ever going to believe me."
Trace took both of Rachel's hands and held them to her. "I believe you. I know what happened."
Silence enveloped them, the only noise in the room being the crackling of the fire. Both women looked at each other for a long time, eyes locked in a strange battle of emotions. Feeling her stomach flutter and heart flip, which generated those odd but pleasurable sensations throughout her body that seemed to gather in her groin, Rachel was the first to break visual contact and look down. Trace was sure she was blushing but in the dim glow of that wavering light, it was difficult to tell. Then the blonde spoke in such a hushed tone, Trace almost didn't hear her. "You are so wonderful to me...why can't you really be a man?"
"Why? What good would that do?"
Suddenly shy, Rachel turned away, squeezing Trace's hand tightly. "I would marry you."
Swallowing hard, stunned, Trace felt nearly strangled by her overwhelming want for this woman possibly within reach. "Y...you would?"
Nodding, the blonde still couldn't look at Trace. "Does that shock you? It does me."
Answering her in a voice thick with desire, trying to keep the circumstances of the confession in perspective, Trace needed to clear her throat just to be able to vocalize sound. "Um...no, it doesn't shock me." Shifting her position, Trace knelt once again by Rachel's feet, placing her forearms across the blond's lap, interlacing their fingers. She could hear Rachel's breath stop but the blonde did not resist the position. "Rachel, where I come from, it doesn't matter if a couple is a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman. All that matters is who your heart tells you to fall in love with."
Rachel looked inquisitively at the detective, not being able to tear her eyes away from the magnetic pull of Trace's gaze. "I'm not sure I understand..."
The connection between them was now undeniable. "I think you do." When that was greeted with placid, yet complicated quiet, Trace continued. "Just don't limit yourself. That's all I'm saying. You can't make yourself love someone if the feeling isn't there and you can't always control who you fall in love with. The people in my town understand that."
"Where you come from two women or two men can get married?"
Hmmm...no way to explain the civil union as opposed to marriage in terms a nineteenth century woman would understand - frankly, she was more than a hundred years progressed and why there had to be a difference still confused the hell out of her, so she just simply said, "Yes."
"Two women or two men are allowed to publicly love each other as man and wife do?"
"Yes." Okay...so it was a lie and it wasn't. Again, much too complicated a subject to get into at this particular point and time and because Trace was masquerading as a male, it now all seemed somewhat incidental.
"Are...are you one of those women?"
"I have never been married to a woman but, yes, I have had love affairs with women."
Rachel suddenly looked like she wanted to bolt from the room. Trace felt a slight tug, as though the blonde might yank her hands away but then another expression took over - curiosity.
"Rachel, please understand. I would never hurt you. I would never do anything to make you uncomfortable, never do anything to make you ask me to leave."
Relaxing, the blonde pressed her hands more securely into the brunette's. "I know that. I know you would never hurt me." Awkwardly, Rachel cleared her throat. "Do, um, you think about me like that?"
Sighing, Trace again rested her forehead on their joined hands, then looked back up. "Would it frighten you if I said yes?"
The detective could tell that the blonde was immediately flushed, obviously never having been confronted with this particular issue before. "No," she responded, in a whisper.
Nodding, Trace couldn't keep the smile off her face. "So...what are we going to do?"
"You're delicate condition? You're not going to be able to hide it very much longer."
Hanging her head again, the blonde's voice took on a tone of shame again. "I don't know. I don't want this child. It's a part of someone horrible. But the good lord gave me this child to carry, so I will do what I have to do."
"You know what?" Trace began, gently, "I was born from a similar situation. My mother was a prostitute, a whore, just like the women on the second floor at Wilbur's. She got pregnant with me and she never knew which man out of a possible hundred - or more - was my father. There are legal ways where I come from to ...uh...get rid of the baby before it's born but she chose to keep me. And...here I am." The brunette's smile was sincere.
The love and admiration in Rachel's eyes could not have been more clear. "It will be hard to raise a child alone here. It will just bear out everybody's inclinations that I'm wayward."
Lightly massaging the blonde's fingers with her thumb, Trace said, "You don't have to raise the child alone." Off Rachel's questioning stare, the brunette said, "Let me make a suggestion and hear me out before you say No."
"Everybody in town thinks I'm a man. God help me but they do. And they already suspect we've more than likely been intimate. Let me marry you and give you and the baby a name and respectability."
"Me marry you? How could that be respectable? You're a woman..."
"Yes but only you and I know that. And then, when you do meet a man who you would like to spend your life with - if you do - I will leave," Trace told her, instinctively knowing that would be a lot easier said than done. The palpable stillness suddenly seemed deafening. "Well, you think about it." Slowing sliding her hand out from Rachel's grasp, Trace stood up and stretched. "Would you like some coffee?"
"It's okay, I can make it," the blonde told her.
"No," Trace responded, a little too quickly. "No, I'll do it. You sit still."
"There is nothing wrong with my coffee," Rachel argued, playfully.
Trace made a hideous face. "No, not if it's your last request before the hanging," she quipped, "Your coffee would kill you first."
"Fine, then you make it," the blonde said, trying to sound indignant. It didn't work. With Trace staring at her, amused, with a raised eyebrow, Rachel broke into a grin.
"By the way, there is a small split in the north fence. I don't think it was anything other than wind. I put a temporary barrier there but I'll have to go back and repair it tomorrow."
Rising from her chair, Rachel nodded. "Thank you."
"Sure." As the blonde stepped by her, Trace gently fastened her hand to Rachel's elbow. "Are you going to tell me who did this to you?" the brunette inquired, non-confrontationally.
"No," Rachel responded, crossing her arms and continuing through to the kitchen.
That's okay, Trace thought to herself, I'll find out anyway. She had no doubt it was someone associated with the Cranes.
To Be Continued....
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