Disclaimers: See Part 1
It was difficult through supper to keep their eyes off each other, to refrain from holding hands so that they could consume their food, to hold back from clearing the table by crawling over it to kiss each other. Again. Sexual impulses were new to Rachel and not acting on them was new to Trace. The much more pure blonde could not stop thinking about the brunette's lips touching hers. Trace, on the other hand, was more focused on what would happen next even though she knew she could not, would not rush Rachel into anything.
Regardless of the individual motivation provoking these impulses, both women could not stop smiling. Unfortunately, neither ended up doing much damage to the very nice dinner Rachel had prepared because they were both too excited about everything that had just transpired between them.
This was, indeed, a revelation for Rachel. The blonde had never felt like this before, not even with Tommy. His kisses were pleasant, if not a little anxious and sloppy. But even in his eagerness, as charming as he was, his overtures were comparatively boring to what she just had a taste of. And she couldn't think of the brutal and violent way Ben Crane had kissed her...she shuddered and bile rose in her throat just at the thought of being touched by him. Shaking that nightmare from her consciousness as much as possible, Rachel successfully focused back on the woman sitting across from her.
The blonde understood she did not have the sexual sophistication the brunette most likely had, but as she sat opposite the dark beauty, Rachel knew that was to her advantage. The very idea of Trace teaching her, well, everything brought a deep, anticipating, satisfying blush to her cheeks and an almost urgent heat to the lower half of her body. Enlightenment, indeed.
Trace, on the other hand, had not experienced this kind of spontaneous euphoria since her senior year in high school when she boldly kissed her androgynously cute P.E teacher, a woman she had a wicked crush on, right in the middle of being reprimanding by her for hogging the basketball during practice.
Everyone else had gone to take showers or left and Ms. Weaver, who everyone suspected was a lesbian anyway, furiously hauled the six foot tall teenager into her office and gave her the 'there's no I in team' speech. Young Trace, of course, was sassy and mouthy, protesting that nobody was working the ball and she was, without fail, the highest scorer out there so what was the big fucking deal?
The language and disrespect angered the coach but the attitude, confident bearing and feral intensity of the beautiful student took control of her better judgment, hypnotically drawing her in. Regardless of how unethical, to suggest she was not deeply attracted to the cocky eighteen-year-old would have been a lie and when, in mid-argument, Ms. Weaver found herself in the strong arms of Trace Sheridan, pushing their bodies together against her office wall and kissing her...passionately, frantically, irrationally...stupidly, she did not resist in the least.
Immediately, after the kiss was broken, the coach realized her mistake, despite how much she enjoyed it, and apologized profusely to the young girl who was stunned at her success and smiling, Trace's teenage hormonal circuits on obvious overload. Then Ms. Weaver begged and pleaded with the tall brunette not to say anything to anyone, knowing she would not only lose her job but most likely be brought up on charges, as well, even though she didn't initiate it.
Seeing only benefit in the awkward situation, the hotshot high school basketball player recognized an opportunity of emotional extortion when she saw it. Knowing she now had the upper hand, Trace worked out a deal with the mortified and reluctant coach where Trace could get away with anything on the court and never be yelled at, pulled out of or suspended from the games personally by Ms. Weaver. This 'agreement' lasted two weeks before the teacher, barely avoiding a nervous breakdown, resigned and transferred out of state. Trace never thought about that unexpected kiss though, without getting butterflies in her stomach and a foolish, shit-eating grin on her face...kind of like the one she was sporting right now, as she got up from the table.
Their supper had been relatively quiet. They ate a tepid meal almost mechanically, each women preoccupied with her own thoughts about what the immediate future might bring them together and individually. Helping Rachel clear the table, Trace affectionately kissed the blonde on top of the head, squeezing her shoulders as she went outside and unload the wagon.
Now that she had proposed - an act she would have previously not believed she was capable of either suggesting or accepting - she never thought she would be so thrilled about getting married. Hadn't she always said that marriage was another word for 'ownership?' Was that what this was about? Did she want to possess Rachel, claim her as her private property by right of conquest? No, she detested that kind of behavior. And yet, she knew as sure as she was standing there that she did not want anyone else to have Rachel, just the thought of that caused pain to claw at her heart. This may have been all new to the blonde but it was all pretty foreign to Trace, as well.
Before Rachel Young had entered her life, the idea of spending twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with anyone was ludicrous and unacceptable. Now, the thought of spending one minute away from her seemed unbearable. Shaking her head at how she could change so completely because of one person and in such a short period of time, the detective finished stocking the pantry shelves with her trademark raised eyebrowed smirk.
When Trace had finished, she stepped back out into the kitchen with her hands behind her back, approaching the blonde who was putting the dishes away. With uncharacteristic reserve, the brunette cleared her throat to get Rachel's attention. Turning around, the blonde beamed at the detective, then tilted her head, questioningly at Trace's body language.
"I brought something back from town for you," the brunette told her, watching an expression of near cherubic wonder appear on the blonde's face.
"You...? Did you buy me a present?" Rachel asked, with childlike enthusiasm.
"Mmm hmm," the brunette nodded, inching closer.
"What is it? Let me see!" She attempted to dance around Trace's back but the brunette simply moved with her. "No fair, Trace...! It isn't nice to tease me...!"
Highly amused at the blonde's eagerness, the brunette said, "I'll give it to you for a kiss."
Stopping before her, Rachel got goosebumps at the thought of Trace's lips against hers again. Grinning, the blonde crossed her arms. "How about you give it to me and if I like it, then I'll give you a kiss..."
"Oh? You feel you're in a position to barter?" the detective intoned with a grin.
Knowing Trace wanted to kiss her just as much as she wanted to be kissed, she said, "Uh huh."
Shrugging, the detective then nodded, knowing that, either way, she was going to get her wish. "Put your hands out and close your eyes," Trace requested.
After Rachel did as she was told, the detective then brought her arms around to her front and placed the tissue enfolded gift in the blonde's palms. Opening her more than appreciative emerald eyes, they widened in surprise and gratitude, as she immediately recognized the wrapping. "Oh...Trace," she breathed, holding the soap up to her nose and appreciatively inhaling its fragrance. Her eyes blinked back up at the incredible blue ones that looked into her soul. "You are so sweet I could eat you with a spoon."
She had to stop saying stuff like that, the brunette thought, knowing the blonde had no clue of the double entendres she so frequently and innocently spouted. "Now...where's my kiss?"
Eyes brimming with tears at Trace's thoughtful gesture, Rachel almost jumped into her arms. "Thank you," she whispered, lifting her face to meet the brunette's.
Trace's lips lightly brushed the blonde's, tauntingly, then claimed them for a slow, sweet, lusciously deep kiss that left Rachel quivering and eager for more. And the only reason Trace didn't comply was that the response from the blonde left her breathless and almost too light-headed to stand.
When the detective pulled back slightly, she saw Rachel's eyes glistening for an entirely different reason now, fully aware of the fire she kindled in the blonde. "My body hungers for you, Trace," Rachel confessed, in a hushed tone, as though she were embarrassed by her own desires. "You have awakened something way down inside me and I have never known a need so blind and demanding and unreasoning..."
As this came from someone quite inexperienced with being in touch with her own sexual feelings, Trace found this declaration enticingly erotic. She was about to suggest the possibility of taking this to the next level when the blonde then said something that caused her carnal urges to put on the brakes.
"...But I want to wait until we can be together in our, um, marriage bed..."
Trying desperately not to act out the disappointment she felt, knowing that this request was extremely important to the blonde, Trace exhaled and nodded. She caressed Rachel's face and kissed her forehead. "Can we get married tonight?"
Hugging her fiercely, Rachel chuckled into Trace's shoulder. "Don't think it's not killing me, too, 'cause it is."
Smiling lovingly and indulgently, the detective knew it was going to be an impossibly long night.
Trace awoke to the sounds of her bride-to-be retching downstairs. Getting out of bed, slipping into some clothes, the detective descended the loft and found the blonde outside on the porch, once again bent over at the waist and dry heaving into the bushes.
The sun had at least one more hour before debuting another day and the morning was dawning clear and cold, a fact that was contradicted by Rachel's profuse sweating. She sensed Trace behind her before she actually saw her or felt the detective's hands on her back. The brunette gently pulled the blonde's hair away from her face and held it while Rachel experienced another round of convulsive nausea. When she was finished, she turned slightly and sat on a porch chair, holding her belly, looking up pathetically at Trace.
The detective's expression was helpless, sympathetic. "Oh, sweetheart, I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better..."
"Just your being here makes me feel better," Rachel managed to get out.
"Why don't you sit here and take in the fresh air and I'll go heat up some water and get the ginger," Trace suggested. Receiving a weak nod in response, the detective disappeared into the house. Returning to the porch a few moments later, the brunette sat down in the chair opposite the blonde. "So, Rachel, what else is going on with you? What else are you feeling?" Trace reached over and gently massaged the blonde's shoulder. "Craving anything special or different to eat?"
Looking up into caring blue eyes, the startled blonde answered, "Yes. Something, anything soaked in salted vinegar. How could you know that?"
Trace smiled, patiently. "It's a well known symptom of being pregnant. Just like you starting to take more and more trips to the outhouse, you being tired all the time, I bet your back is starting to ache..."
Rachel's expression confirmed Trace's list of subtle physical changes.
"What about headaches?"
"Are your breasts tender and swollen?"
"A little. I...I get cramping, too and I don't know if that's normal. I don't want there to be anything wrong with the baby."
"Are you constipated?" Trace's voice was not intrusive, instead, it was laced with concern and compassion.
"Yes," the blonde admitted, shyly. She wasn't used to talking about her bodily functions with anyone except Doc Smith and her mother.
The detective recognized Rachel's discomfort and chuckled lightly. "It's okay, sweetheart. All of that sounds very typical. And your cramping is most likely due to your being constipated and that, and your more frequently having to pee means the baby is growing and beginning to press against your bowel and your bladder. Unfortunately, it's only going to get worse. I'm sure the baby is fine. But it's getting bigger, Rachel, and we need to get married before that baby begins to show."
Flattening her nightshirt across her tummy, she displayed what she thought was a slight bump. "I'm already starting."
Focusing on the blonde's lower abdomen, Trace couldn't really see any obvious bulge but Rachel must know her own body. Even if it was just bloat, the detective could not help but grin excitedly. Moving off the chair, she knelt down to the side of Rachel's legs and looked up into sparkling jade eyes. "May I?" the detective asked, her hand hovering a few inches above the blonde's belly.
"Yes, of course," Rachel answered, breathless by Trace's reaction.
The brunette slowly laid her palm across the material covering the area indicated on the blonde's stomach. Knowing the baby was probably only slightly larger than a walnut at this stage, Trace didn't expect to feel any movement but it didn't matter. It almost felt like her son or daughter was growing inside this beautiful woman she now knew she was desperately in love with. Leaning in, Trace lovingly planted a kiss on Rachel's tummy before looking up into the reverent eyes of the blonde. "I love you," she stated, simply.
"I love you, too," Rachel answered, in an intense whisper. "What ever did I do to deserve you, Trace Sheridan?"
"Oh, no," the detective, shook her head, smiling, as she stood up. "I'm sure it is much more 'what did I do to deserve you'." Not being able to stop herself, she leaned down and kissed the blonde tenderly on the lips. Rachel did not resist.
"How could you want to do that after what I was just doing?" the blonde wondered out loud.
"For better or for worse," the brunette responded, caressing Rachel's face. Trace then went back inside the house to take the boiling water off the stove. When she walked back out onto the porch, the blonde was standing. Handing Rachel the steaming cup of liquid that smelled strongly of ginger, Trace stood behind the blonde, encircling her arms around the still slender waist and Rachel leaned back into the strong, comforting body. Together, with an intimate silence surrounding them, they watched the sunrise.
Three days later, Trace and Rachel were once more on their way to town. Rachel needed to stop into Molly Ledbetter's Dress Shop and ask her about possible alterations on the wedding gown she was bringing to her. But first, since she wanted to start going to church again on Sunday, the blonde did not want to put off talking to Pastor Edwards about performing the marriage ceremony too much longer.
Trace was not as enthusiastic about going to meet the preacher, as she was sure getting the cleric's blessing would involve a promise to join his congregation. Looking over at her bride-to-be who was seated quietly next to her, obviously lost in thoughts of her own, the detective could not keep the smile off her face. If it paved a smoother path to the altar, that is what she would do - whatever it took to make Rachel happy.
The past couple days had been extremely productive. Trace's breaking of the mustang was coming along just fine and her afternoon workout with the punching bag dangling from the barn beam was getting her back in not only physical fighting shape but it was also helping to discipline her psychologically, as well. Then she and Chief would take a scouting ride around the perimeter of the ranch, making mental note of anything that looked broken or suspiciously out of place.
During the detective's last visit to Sagebrush, she had pawned two more items that Mark had given her. She still had plenty of cash left over from her previous visit to Joseph Turner's shop but her plans for the Triple Y required quite a bit of money - if she was going to become the 'man of the house,' so to speak, securing the property was going to be done her way.
After speaking to Pastor Edwards, with Rachel most likely spending a good portion of the afternoon being fitted for her wedding dress, Trace would check to see if her order came in to the mercantile yet. It only had to be brought in from Jefferson, which was a five hour wagon ride, and the request went out the next day by horseback. Then it would be off Wilbur's to throw back a few ales, maybe play a hand or two of poker and check on the progress of her 'under-the-table' deal with Silas. She had not said anything about her plans yet to her future wife, knowing that Rachel would fret unnecessarily at the tauntingly insolent challenge it would present to the Cranes.
With the exception of kissing, now that the physical boundaries of the engagement had been set, with Trace literally sitting on her hands at times to keep them from inappropriately touching her betrothed, the detective and the blonde discussed plans for their wedding in practical terms. The brunette would absolutely defer to Rachel concerning any matter of the ceremony because Trace had no idea how any of this went. Even in modern times, Trace had never been a part of a wedding, other than being a guest, so she would have to follow the blonde's lead in this matter.
The detective expressed a desire to get Rachel an engagement ring but the blonde felt money shelled out on something so frivolous could be better spent in more necessary and realistic areas...like food and supplies. It was the blonde's desire to wear her grandmother's wedding band, which had been passed down to her mother and now sat in a small, red velvet-lined jewelry box in the bedroom Rachel now occupied. Fortunately, she and her mother were the identical ring size and the thin, rose gold band fit nicely on her small, delicate hands.
Frank Young's wedding band did not fit Trace however, the larger version of what Rachel would wear being at least two sizes larger than the brunette's left hand ring finger. So, as it was the blonde's wish for the brunette to wear the matching band, Trace would have to have it resized, hoping the goldsmith in town would be able to accomplish that with little problem.
Also in the wagon, folded neatly between two shawls, was Rachel's mother's wedding dress. She was taking it to Molly Ledbetter's to be altered so she could wear it. Fortunately, Minnie Young had been a smidgen taller and a little thicker around the waist than Rachel, so when the blonde tried it on two days earlier, the saffron taffeta oval-printed gown fit almost perfectly, good enough to where she didn't want it taken in anywhere. Rachel was lucky to have a figure that didn't have to be cinched into a corset, although a bone bodice underneath would certainly make the dress look nicer. However, with a baby now growing inside her, she would sacrifice style for comfort. What she hoped Molly would be able to do was provide crinoline petticoats and turn the high collared gown into one with a moderate sweetheart neckline. If she couldn't, that was okay, too, just the satin, lacy underskirt would be fine.
Nearing the outer edge of Sagebrush, Rachel boldly reached over and slipped her hand in Trace's, interlacing their fingers and squeezing. The detective brought the blonde's fingers to her lips and kissed every one, only letting go of Rachel's hand when she absolutely had to.
Trace glanced around at the repetitive scenery as she guided Moses through Main Street. Passing the barber shop, the detective observed the same four older gentlemen she always saw, sitting outside, gossiping. If she didn't know it had not been invented yet, she would have believed they were human-looking animatronics, as the old boys, who sat in the same order, in the same relaxed, lazy positions, always seemed to stop speaking when she passed and all nodded their heads simultaneously, the only part of their body which seemed to move at all. It happened precisely in the same sequence every time she came to town.
Noticing what the detective was looking at, Rachel smirked, reaching up and ruffling the shaggy locks that hung below Trace's cowboy hat. "Obviously, your hair has not seen a barber's shears in a while. You may need to stop in there before the wedding."
"Spare me. You can trim up my hair."
"Well...I used to cut my father's, I suppose I could cut yours."
"No supposing about it, I'm not setting foot in there."
Moses slowly continued by the bustling entrance of the hotel where at least three people were having their luggage loaded onto the stagecoach. Trace shook her head...a real, live stagecoach with gilt lettering on the side...it was unbelievable. She further observed a few cowboys standing around talking, rolling cigarettes or disgustingly spitting out long streams of tobacco juice into the street in front of Wilbur's. Above them, leaning over the second floor railing, shouting down teasingly at the young, virile men, were at least three 'pleasure women' from the bordello over the saloon. Cassandra wasn't among them, Trace noticed, and she guessed that the voluptuous redhead must be entertaining the mayor since it was a round lunch time.
The old horse then moseyed past the deserted telegraph office, heading straight toward the small, quaint, wood-constructed, white-washed church. Rachel quietly studied her 'husband'-to-be. She had the sudden urge to lean over and kiss the stunning detective, her heart rate picking up at the mere thought of it. But taking such public liberties, especially before they were married, would only add to mounting rumors that Rachel and the drifter had probably shared a bed already. Suddenly without warning, a blush crawled up the blonde's face, her imagination supplying her with impure visions. And then she became annoyed with herself for feeling as giddy as a schoolgirl.
There had been a mild argument before they left the house, as she insisted Trace trade her sleeveless cotton workshirt and dungarees for 'go-to-meeting' clothes. The brunette was stubborn but finally compromised by donning one of Rachel's father's not-so-freshly boiled, button-down, white shirts and a clean pair of denim trousers that the blonde had taken in so that Trace no longer needed suspenders. The blonde sighed deciding that the brunette looked mighty handsome. And somewhat jittery, Rachel gathered, watching the detective remove her hat and wipe some perspiration off her brow with a faded red bandana that had also belonged to Frank Young.
"Why, Trace, you're sweating like a whore going to election. There's no need to be nervous. Pastor Edwards is a very nice man."
"I am not nervous," Trace said, nervously, as Moses slowed in front of the church.
Stepping into the apparently unoccupied house of worship behind Rachel, Trace looked around at the antiquated setting. It had an unexpected charm and character and a warmth she was very surprised to actually be able to feel. She hoped the atmosphere reflected the attitude of the minister in charge of this multi-denominational church.
"Pastor Edwards?" Rachel called out, her voice reverberating around the empty chapel. "Trace, remove your hat," the blonde advised, in a low voice.
The detective took the hat off and twirled it in her hands. Reaching out, the blonde snatched the hat and held onto it, glancing up, rather impatiently at the tall brunette. Trace just grinned sheepishly.
Rachel took another couple steps forward into the main aisle that divided the ten rows of pews. "Hello? Pastor Edwards? It's Rachel Young."
There was still no answer as Trace moved up behind the blonde, suddenly getting the urge to whistle. So she did. Until she looked down into the very exasperated green eyes of her fiancée. "What?"
"Good Lord, Trace, you act like you've never been in a church before!" Rachel mildly reprimanded.
She was about to say she was surprised the sky didn't fall the second she stepped over the threshold, when a middle-aged man appeared in a doorway off to the right. "Got his attention, didn't it?" Trace countered, her voice hushed.
"Hello?" He squinted, then recognizing the blonde, he smiled affectionately. "Rachel. I'm so happy to see you. It's been a while." Reaching her, halfway down the aisle, he stopped, taking the blonde's hands in his own, in a gentle, fatherly manner.
"Yes, Sir, I know. I really have no excuse, other than it has been a bad couple months at the ranch."
"I know The Lord forgives you, Rachel," Peter Edwards told her, his tone appeasing, which immediately sandpapered Trace, who was caught rolling her eyes by her irritated bride-to-be.
Shrugging defensively, the detective began conspicuously focusing on other objects in the church, like the pulpit, the crucifix on the wall behind it and the one small stained glass window above the cross...and, wow, nice use of exposed beams in the ceiling. Which was obviously more necessity than fashion statement. A sudden poke in the ribs brought her attention back to a pair of curious and, as much as she hated to admit it, wise brown eyes.
"Pastor Edwards, I would like you to meet Trace Sheridan...the man I am going to marry."
A hand had begun to extend toward the detective and it was quickly pulled back. "Marry?" Edwards tried his best not to glare at Trace before fastening his gaze at the blonde. "This is...abrupt...why, I didn't even know anyone was courting you since Thomas passed on."
Rachel tried her best to stay upbeat and not be put off by the reverend's less than enthusiastic reaction. She had anticipated it. "Yes, I am sure it does seem quite sudden but Trace has been courting me for a month now and, well, I don't want to wait. We're in love and we would like to be joined in holy matrimony as soon as you can arrange to do that."
Again, Edwards gave Trace a once over, then looked back at the blonde with the determined set to her chin. "But, Rachel, I have never seen this man before, we don't know him...Does he understand - do you understand that him marrying you might get him an audience with the Lord?"
"Uh, hello...I'm right here..." It annoyed the detective enormously when people talked about her like she was not even in the same room with them.
Linking her arm with Trace's, Rachel ignored the obvious and then stated, "I know him, Pastor Edwards. And I do not think that I could find anyone better suited to me." She winked, reassuringly, at the detective, a gesture that instantly calmed Trace down.
"I don't know, Rachel..." He shook his head and studied Trace who suddenly felt like a specimen in biology class. "How long have you been in Sagebrush, Mr. Sheridan?
"About a month now."
"You got here a month ago and you've been
courting her for a month? You don't waste any time, do you? Where are you from?"
"Never heard of it. Must be far from here."
"Is Trace your full Christian name?"
"Trace is my name, yes." She knew how ministers liked to use the complete name of the individual they were addressing or speaking about and she would be damned if anyone would call her Tracey except her mother. Her middle name, Lee, was both masculine and feminine, so that wouldn't have been a problem but she wasn't going to volunteer that, either. Someone calling her Tracey Lee would bring her back to being seven years old and flushing her mother's cigarettes down the toilet and having Zelda repeat it over and over as her little behind got whaled on. Whenever she heard, "TRACEY LEE!" she knew she was in trouble. She did not need that reminder here.
"Where is your family?"
"All I had was my mother and she's gone now." A tiny line of pain seared through her heart as that might very well be the truth. "I left there because I had no more reason to stay and I ended up here."
"What is it that you do?"
"Currently? Or as a trade?"
"I am a ranch hand, as of the last month, but before that I was a...well...kind of like a deputy sheriff."
Edwards eyes widened. "A sheriff?" He was clearly shocked. "A sheriff..." He said it again, as though trying to digest the idea of it. "Like Ed Jackson?"
"I was nothing like Ed Jackson," Trace responded, evenly. But that was a lie. She had been exactly like Sheriff Jackson...only more corrupt.
Immediately, a broad smile adorned the preacher's face. He then proceeded to let loose a big, boisterous guffaw that startled both the blonde and the brunette. "Rachel, you have made my day! You're going to marry someone who used to be the law! That will certainly ruffle a few Crane feathers. I cannot wait to see the look on Benjamin's face when he returns from Dodge City and you are no longer available to him."
"I was never available to him, Sir," the blonde replied, respectfully but indignantly.
"I know that, Rachel," Edwards said, kindly. "Diabolic intent runs through the blood of those Cranes, especially Benjamin. Don't think for one second I ever believed any of those sinful stories Benjamin was spreading about you. But he is going to be madder than a flea without a dog when he gets back here and finds you married." His tone of voice was quite tickled as he looked at Trace. "And to someone he cannot immediately get a rise out of, I would suspect."
"No, Sir, I am not easily intimidated."
"That's good, son. You're going to need a backbone to face down this man - and I use that word loosely. You're also going to need eyes in the back of your head because these Cranes are sneaky and not honorable. You sure you're up to that?"
"Yes, Sir. I want to marry Rachel and take on all the responsibility that goes with it," Trace told him, sincerely.
Smiling at the detective, eyes twinkling in a mischievous manner, the reverend clamped a big hand on Trace's shoulder. "And all the glory, too, I suspect," he chuckled, winking at the blonde.
"Pastor Edwards!" Rachel said, cheeks burning with embarrassment.
Joining the minister in laughter, Trace decided she liked this man. His slightly off-color insinuation was not accompanied by any kind of leer or lascivious intention. It was more like he was just stating an obvious fact. Even as aghast as Rachel was at the pastor's implication, she could not stop herself from smiling through her moral indignation, even if she still held a mortifying blush. "It's a guy thing," the detective appeased, hoping she'd never have to say that again.
"Well, come on back to the parsonage and let's talk about getting you two hitched. Mrs. Edwards was just baking some raisin bread when I left, we can at least enjoy that and some tea while we go over the details. I'll let Henry know, over at the court house that you two will be stopping by later."
"Who's Henry?" Trace wondered.
"He's the county circuit clerk," Rachel supplied, as they followed Edwards out of the church.
"And the town crier. I don't know who you have or haven't told but once Henry knows, everybody will know." Shaking his head in amusement, the minister was thinking out loud. "If you know what you're up against and still want to marry this woman, you've got a spine, boy. My hat is off to you. Maybe there's hope for this town yet."
Following a nice visit with Pastor and Mrs. Edwards who offered a snack of dry-as-a-bone raisin bread that Trace had to literally choke down every bite with several gulps (requiring several refills) of tea, the detective could not wait to get to Wilbur's Saloon for a mug of ale.
They had agreed on a small wedding to be performed on the upcoming Wednesday evening, which was only three days away. In private, Trace had to convince the amiable reverend that she had not yet had 'relations' with Rachel, therefore had not caused Rachel to be in a 'family way' and the reason for the hasty ceremony was that Rachel wanted to be married and settled before the Cranes returned from their drive and Trace wanted to get married quickly because, well, you know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Edwards bought it.
The detective had not lied and hopefully this baby would not be born early because it was going to be suspicious enough that Rachel would deliver well before nine months after Wednesday night (and she knew people always counted) and them persuading everyone that the full-term, full-size infant was really "premature."
Walking Rachel to Ledbetter's Dress Shop, Trace handed the wedding gown to her betrothed, wanting desperately to lean over and kiss her senseless. The blonde's expression revealed that the feeling was mutual. They stood still on the boardwalk letting life pass them by unnoticed, until a customer emerged from the store and snapped them out of their connected daydream. Sighing, Rachel stepped back, turned and disappeared inside the shop.
Trace moved on to the goldsmith's, where he measured her finger and promised to have the ring ready in approximately two hours. He put a rush on it, as the detective allowed him to keep the gold extracted from the band and paid him a twenty-five cent piece as a good faith tip.
She then strolled to the mercantile to find only half of her order had come in and if she wanted the rest, she would have to go to Jefferson to get it herself. Problem seemed to be that the man who drove the wagon with supplies once a week had two lame mules. The detective knew it was useless to get angry, a man certainly couldn't do much about lame mules, other than let them heal. She debated as to how soon she would need the other half of her order and if she could wait. She decided she would rather have it all before she began the project she had in mind.
It looked like she would be taking a trip to Jefferson. She wondered if her bride would like to go with her, spend the night and then come back. The idea of Rachel being alone at the ranch all night long did not sit well with the detective. Especially with the shitstorm this marriage was going to create. The newlyweds-to-be were upping the stakes and they would have to be extra vigilant now.
Loading the merchandise carefully onto the wagon, Trace noticed a pair of dungarees and boots standing a few feet away from her. Looking up, she met the curious eyes of Isaac Tipping.
"What can I do for you, Isaac?" Trace asked, much more politely than she felt.
"Need some help loading that?"
The detective stopped and studied him. He appeared straightforward. "Sure. But don't get cut. Those edges there will draw blood if you're not careful."
Nodding, the teenager cautiously picked up a coiled batch and placed it onto the back of the wagon. "What is this stuff?"
"What do you do with it?"
Again, Trace scrutinized the young man. Was he really asking out of curiosity or was he scouting again, doing dirty work for the Cranes? His arm had obviously mended, as he had no problem lifting and moving. Had she really changed his mind about a life of crime or did he just agree with her to pacify her? She might as well tell him, it would probably be all over town by the time they got back to the Triple Y anyway. "It's a fence."
"A fence?" He stopped loading and looked intently at the mass of spiky wire curled in circles and tied with strings of hemp. "Miss Rachel already has a fence on the property."
"Yes, she does...a fence that doesn't seem to mean diddly to a certain cattle family."
Isaac cracked a smile. "Diddly." He shook his head. He'd never heard that word before but he liked it. He continued loading. "So you gonna put this up to stop them?"
"Well...it sure as hell will surprise them. At the very least, slow them down."
"I was inside when Mr. Taylor told you that only half your fence was here. I
have to go into Jefferson on Thursday to pick up a some staples and supplies for my father. If you'd like, I could pick up the rest of your fence and bring it back for you. I could even bring it out to the ranch, if you want."
"Why would you want to do that?" Trace inquired, curiously.
He hung his head. "I did a bad thing. And I will do anything to make up for it. Now, maybe I ain't right in the head, but I think I would rather be on your side than do anything again for them awful Cranes." Slowly, he looked back up at the brunette. "So, if you'll let me, I want to help you fight them."
Even though he seemed sincere, Trace was hesitant. "That will be dangerous, Isaac. I don't think your father would approve."
"I'm all growed up and haired over, Mr. Sheridan, I been a man for almost a year now, even had myself a painted lady on my last birthday, did her up right nice, too" he protested, indignantly.
"That's a little too much information, Isaac," Trace smiled.
"I don't need my father's permission to do anything. I'm trying to save my father and my mama and the store. You're the only one willing to help me do that. So, you tell me what you need done and I'll do it."
The detective looked him over again. He was shorter than she was, hadn't really filled out yet but...she could work with him, get him in shape. An army gets built one person at a time. "Okay, Isaac. Tell you what...I'd appreciate it very much if you picked up my order in Jefferson. When you get back, we'll talk about how we're going to fight these Cranes, okay?"
"Really?" His voice cracked, causing him to curse under his breath but he recovered quickly.
"Really. Wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it."
"Thank you, Mr. Sheridan!" Isaac said, gratefully. He thrust his hand forward and Trace shook it, almost laughing at his enthusiasm. He returned to loading the barbed wire with a fervent energy he hadn't displayed before.
"Call me Trace, okay? I mean if we're going to work together, you can't be calling me Mr. Sheridan all the time."
He nodded. "All right, Trace."
"Have you ever been a best man before?"
"Married?!" Molly Ledbetter bellowed. "Who are you marrying? That drifter ranch hand you said this was the last thing that would happen between the two of you?"
"That would be the one," Rachel beamed.
Molly held the blonde out at arms length and looked her over from head to heels. "Rachel Frances Young...you are radiant. I do believe you have fallen in love."
"Yes, Ma'am, I do believe I have. I have never felt like this before, not even with Tommy, and I cannot wait to marry him," the blonde admitted, wistfully.
"When's the wedding?"
"Wednesday evening. Pastor Edwards will be presiding."
The middle-aged store proprietor dropped her hands by her sides. She looked skeptical, almost disappointed. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer to her next question. "That's right quick, Rachel...any reason for that?"
"I know what you're asking, Miz Ledbetter, and I have not had Trace Sheridan in my bed. He has been nothing if not a gentleman. We are waiting for the wedding night."
Molly nodded, sighing, relieved. "I believe you, girl, I just had to ask. Why so soon then?"
"Just want to be all settled in as a wife before the Cranes get back."
"You know Ben's heart will be black with jealousy."
"Then that is just something Ben is going to have to find peace with," Rachel responded, unrealistically.
"That young man you're marrying, does he have a notion as to what he's getting himself into?"
"Yes, Ma'am, he is aware and he will be ready for it all."
"Just think about it. You already lost one man to an untimely bullet, you don't need to be a widow on top of it."
Rachel followed Molly to her counter, knowing the older woman was fretting about her like her mama would have. "I deserve to be happy, Miz Ledbetter. I deserve more choices than Ben Crane or spinsterhood. Trace Sheridan is the only one to come along who isn't afraid of them."
"No. He's just sure of himself."
Molly laughed, ruefully. "Being too sure of yourself can be deadly in Crane territory. Let's hope he won't be joining the other ones who were too sure of themselves in the Almighty's Kingdom." She turned around to see the blonde pouting. "Now, Rachel, I am not trying to be downtrodden but I just don't want to see you go through this again."
Quietly, the blonde said, "I don't want it to happen, either, surely I do not and with Trace, I don't think it will. No disrespect, Miz Ledbetter, but I would like you to help fit me into something I can get married in, so could we not talk about me choosing a mourning dress before you alter my wedding dress?"
Suddenly feeling quite maternal toward the young woman, Molly pulled her into a warm hug. "You're right. I am sorry. Here, you come to me with this wonderful news and all I can do is be discouraging. I do apologize Rachel. You are all I have left of your mama and I just want what's best for you." Taking the blonde's hand, she tugged her toward a fitting room. "Now, let's see what we can find you."
Finally, Trace was able to get to Wilbur's. She was beginning to really like the place, the atmosphere being a combination of unpretentious raunch and folly. She was happy that she had been accepted into the fold, for the most part, held in rather high, if not silent, esteem for standing up to Sheriff Jackson and becoming known for her generosity with gratuities for the bartender.
There was a method to her madness on that last one. Bartenders always had their fingers on the pulse of life that circulated through their realm. Trace learned quickly that Silas was the 'go-to' guy in town for information and deals. The more benevolent she was with the affable barkeep, the more she could count on his feeling obligated to help her out. And, she knew, he genuinely liked her, so that helped. She also knew that he had to trust her implicitly to assist her in doing anything that would defy the great Crane empire. She smiled to herself. Yep. An army one person at a time.
Stepping through the hinged half-doors, Trace scanned the saloon for familiar faces, friendly and hostile alike, and unfamiliar individuals who might be up to no good. As she did not know who was 'owned' by the Cranes and who wasn't, she had to depend on Silas and her own sixth sense to tell her when someone might have a desire to cause her some problems. It's not that Trace didn't expect it but she did not like to be blindsided.
Moving over to the bar and a grinning Silas Boone, who already had a full mug of ale waiting for her, Trace noticed a table full of Native Americans in the corner by the staircase. She wasn't sure if that was unusual or not but no one in the bar seemed to pay any extra attention to the four men dressed in pullover shirts that looked to be made of deer skin, leggings bordered with (what she hoped was) horsehair and knee-high rawhide-soled moccasins. Three of the Indians wore their long jet-black hair tied back away from their noble, proud, weather-beaten faces and one, who appeared to be considerably younger than the others, let his silken dark mane flow freely. They were all watching Trace with more interest than menace and that intrigued her. Did they think she shared a partial heritage with them?
Trace slapped a couple dollars on the bar. "Silas, a drink for everyone on me. I'm getting married," Trace announced, which caused a sudden stillness to envelope the saloon. The detective wondered if that had more to do with her impending nuptials or free booze.
"Married? You and Rachel?" The palpable silence seemed to be balancing on Trace's response.
"Yes, Sir, and I consider myself a lucky man." The brunette turned around to face the other bar patrons. "Anybody have a problem with that?" Her tone wasn't so much defiance as it was clarification of who was okay with the news and who wasn't. Trace wanted to know just what she was up against and wanted to memorize the faces of the men who did not seem agreeable to this union.
"Trace," Matthew Reddick spoke up, shattering the tangible quiet, "as long as you keep the bug juice flowing, you can marry anyone you want."
Sincere laughter filled the interior of Wilbur's and as the detective studied each and every man carefully, she saw no one who appeared to outwardly object, even by expression. Nodding, somewhat triumphantly, Trace turned to face Silas. In a hushed voice, she asked, "Whatcha got for me?"
Leaning in, the bartender slanted his head toward the table of four who had caught Trace's attention when she walked in. "I don't know how you feel about dealing with injuns..."
"I have no problem dealing with anyone as long as they won't cheat me."
"These boys won't do that. I've dealt with them before. Injuns are notional. They see and act on the moment. And these boys don't want no trouble with the white man if they can help it. Treat them fairly and they'll respect you. Do them dirty and they will get revenge one way or another. They may be peaceful now but I don't think it would take but the weight of a pup's turd to turn them back into savages."
"No one likes to be taken advantage of, Silas. And I am sure they have had their fill of it. If they did get barbaric, I am sure they would have every right to do so."
Silas shook his head. "They're gonna like doing business with you."
"I hope so." She took a sip of her beer. "What do they think of the Crane's?"
"They think the whole bunch is lower than a snake's belly, beneath contempt."
Trace's grin was sly. "Oh, really?" She raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Very good to know."
After the quartet finished their second shot of fire water, compliments of the detective, they rose from the table and left the saloon, nodding to Silas on their way out.
"Where are they going?" Trace asked, a little surprised that they had not even acknowledged her.
"Settle down there, cowboy. They just wanted to get a good look at you. Buying them whiskey was a good idea, too. It'll make them much more willing to barter with you." Looking into questioning blue eyes, the bartender said, "Don't worry. Your deal is as good as set. They'll find you."
Rachel pushed back the curtain of the dressing room and stepped out into the store and to the anticipating gaze of Molly Ledbetter. The admiring, adoring look on the older woman's face told the blonde that the dress was perfect. In fact, she was sure she saw a tear roll down Molly's cheek. The blonde cocked her head inquisitively. "What?"
"Oh, Rachel," she gasped, folding her hands together, "you will be the most exquisite bride. If only your mama and daddy could be here to see you."
"Does it really look good?" The blonde slowly spun around. Molly had pinned a lacy, satin ecru petticoat beneath the dress and strips of pale beige velvet that she would sew into the cuffs and collar. She had tried to talk Rachel into wearing a fitted bone bodice but the blonde declined. The dressmaker had persuaded the younger woman not to go with the sweetheart neckline and opted to remove just the high collar so as to leave it respectable. After all, people would be talking enough about the abrupt ceremony, Rachel did not need to give them anything more to go speculating about.
"Just a full crinoline underskirt and it should be all you need to make it befitting of the beautiful woman you have become." She smiled warmly at the blonde standing before her. "But, Rachel, I declare you could wear a sackcloth and make it look pretty. Now you go take that off before your intended bursts through that door and sees you. That's bad luck, you know."
"Yes, Ma'am, I know." Rachel looked at herself in the full-length mirror before stepping back into the dressing room to change into her underwear, camisole, shirtwaist and chemise. She was glowing and happy and in love. Just the way a bride and expectant mother should be.
"I hope this young man is worthy of you, child," Molly commented as the blonde was gingerly removing the garment. Rachel did not want to disrupt the pinning or get poked by one of the sharp little varmints, either.
"The way this town talks and you haven't heard anything about him?" Rachel inquired, carefully hanging the gown up.
"Oh, I've heard things...I just wasn't sure whether or not I should listen to them."
"Like what?" Rachel's curiosity was getting the better of her.
"That he is a restless soul with a gambler's appetite for trouble. It scares me a little, Rachel, because you really don't know anything about him."
"I know he would hammer down the gates of hell for me. I know he will love me and protect me and do his best to keep the Cranes away from my...our land."
"That's another thing. He marries you and inherits your entire dowry. You sure that's not all he's after?"
"I couldn't be more positive." Rachel emerged from the dressing room and handed the garment to Molly. "Are you sure that's not expecting too much work from you to have that done by Wednesday?"
"Child, I will make the time to finish this. Why, you're like my own flesh and blood getting married. I am invited to the wedding, aren't I?"
Shyly, the blonde clasped her hands in front of her and swung slightly back and forth. "I need a witness, Miz Ledbetter, would you be my matron of honor?"
Molly stopped dead in her tracks. "You don't want an old thing like me to stand up for you, girl, I'm sure Elizabeth Reddick would be pleased to do it."
"But I don't want Elizabeth, I want you."
Tears stung the eyes of Molly Ledbetter for the second time that afternoon. She reached out, taking Rachel's hands in her own. In a quiet, reverent voice, she said, "I would be honored to stand up for you."
By the time Trace came to pick up Rachel, she had won three dollars in stud poker, arranged a 'bachelor' party Tuesday night at Wilbur's, had bought a couple more rounds of drinks, picked up the wedding band at the goldsmith's and met with the Native American men in the alley next to the livery.
Through them, she could purchase a herd of cattle. They were the only available resource that wasn't controlled by the Cranes. She could get fifteen prime cows and steers for fifty dollars a head. Although she could afford the full $750, that would deplete her finances, so instead she gave them one hundred ninety dollars in cash, the rest to be handed over when the cattle arrived and bartered the rest of the cost.
The Indians would be allowed to hunt on the Young property and have access to wood from the dense forest. Trace also promised them a quarter of the yield from the corn field she intended to plant next week. The land the tribe inhabited was mostly dirt and rock and not good for growing much of anything. The solemn foursome considered this a good deal. They shook hands on it and Trace walked away hoping if she ever needed them as warriors and allies, they would be there for her. If they despised the Cranes as much as most of the town did, their skills would come in very handy indeed if the rebellion she could see slowly growing became a reality.
Passing a customer exiting the shop, the detective walked into Molly's to collect her fiancée and was not surprised to find Rachel and the kindly proprietor sitting down, having tea. Trace's heart swelled at the absolute adoring and enamored expression on Rachel's face when the blonde spotted her. Jumping up, her bride-to-be flew into her arms and hugged her fiercely, then led her back to the small table where she had been seated.
"Molly, I would like you to meet the man I am going to marry, Trace Sheridan. Trace, Molly Ledbetter, my mama's best friend in the whole wide world."
As they shook hands, Molly no longer had any questions about whether or not these two young people loved each other. They could have heated the whole store with their obvious affection. Neither could keep their eyes off each other and the middle-aged shopkeeper suddenly longed for the days when she and Harvey had shared that rapturous feeling.
"Why, my goodness, you are a handsome devil, aren't you?" Molly remarked, scrutinizing every inch of Trace's face. There was an animal strength about this young man, she thought, yet an almost feline grace in the way he moved. She stood up, her full height coming up to Trace's shoulder. "Just promise me one thing..."
"That little gal in your arms is very special to me. She's had a lot of awful things happen to her the past year or so. Don't you become one of them."
"No, Ma'am, I do not intend to." Her gaze was steady, unrepentant. "I will promise you right here, right now that I will die before I let anything bad happen to her again. And I don't have any plans to die any time soon." She gave Rachel's shoulder an extra squeeze.
"Amen," the blonde responded.
Molly Ledbetter's eyes softened. "You have my blessing. Not that you asked for it or need it but I do approve. And, Rachel, I think your mama and daddy would have, too. Looks like you got yourself one hell of a stallion here."
Blushing, as images of just exactly what that meant filtered through her brain, Rachel smiled, coyly. "Me, too." She looked up into Trace's eyes. "Guess I'll be finding out soon enough."
Now it was Trace's turn to be embarrassed. She had no doubt she could make good on the description but it was a tad uncomfortable mulling it over in the presence of a woman old enough to be her mother. Clearing her throat, the brunette said, "We need to get going before - what's his name, Henry - before he goes home for the day."
"Oh, that's right, you have to register with Henry," Molly shook her head. "Hope you weren't expecting to keep this quiet. That weasely garter-sleeved clerk just has to put his eagle-beaked nose into everybody's business. He is just damned unpleasant. Why, he is so ugly, he'll hurt your feelings just to look at him."
"Miz Lebetter, that's not very nice," Rachel told her and then mildly slapped Trace in the arm for laughing. "Henry can't help his looks, he has to make do with what the good Lord gave him."
"Well, the good Lord must've had it out for that boy because his personality matches his face and there just ain't no quit in ugly." Molly picked up the tea cups from the table and put them on the counter. "You two get going, get your registering done. Don't hold that hedgehog up or you'll never hear the end of it."
Rachel left Trace's side long enough to embrace her mother's best friend. "Thank you, Miz Ledbetter. I'll be back Tuesday night for the dress."
"Now don't you worry, girl, that dress will be perfect. Just like you are."
"How much do you think you will want for your services so I will know what I need to bring with me?"
"The only thing I want from you, Rachel, is to give me some babies to spoil."
The detective and the blonde exchanged a knowing glance. "We'll start working on that Wednesday night."
To be continued...
Back to the Academy