Fandom: Xena Uber
Summary: Trace Sheridan is a dirty cop in trouble with time running out. How can a dead woman walking get her life back?
A/N: This is my first Uber attempt. It started out as an Olivia/Alex Uber but when writing it, I just couldn't picture those two, I kept seeing Xena and Gabrielle - which is odd because I have only seen four episodes of "Xena Warrior Princess" (don’t ask…it’s complicated) but I have read and been intrigued by many Xena Ubers. So, I went back and tweaked the beginning with a few changes to make it fit the characters as I know them...which may or may not be way off base. With that said, no infringement is intended to the powers that be at MCA/Universal. Other than that, the story is mine, the characters are mine, the fantasy is mine.
I am not an American history buff...which will be quite evident to anyone who is. So please bear with the glaring inacuracies.
This story also contains a recollection of a rape, although not graphically depicted, it is there, nonetheless, so be forewarned.
This is for Canna who helped me get my notes back after they were accidentally deleted. I owe you one...
Archive: Only with permission from the author
Lunch consisted of homemade bread, and a broth thick with sliced vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, cabbage, celery, tomatoes and onions. Trace was also surprised to find the soup loaded with fresh basil and garlic, loving how those two herbs flavored just about anything to her liking.
Rachel was a chatty little thing, Trace discovered as she devoured her meal. Surprised at her ravenous appetite, she just listened and ate while the blonde rambled on about seasonal flowers coming up in her garden and then moving on to the novel she was reading, Wuthering Heights and, debating with the air the virtues of Emily Bronté's writing.
Finishing, after two hefty helpings, Trace desperately needed something with which to cleanse her mouth. Swishing fresh apple cider around just wasn't doing it. Waiting for Rachel to take a breath in between her solo conversation, the brunette finally jumped in when the blonde took a sip of her beverage.
"You wouldn't happen to have an extra toothbrush lying around anywhere, would you?"
Setting her cup back on the table, she squinted into the pale blue eyes. "Toothbrush? One of those things with a bone handle and boar's hair bristles?"
Well, that certainly did not sound like something Trace wanted to stick into her mouth. "Is that all you have?"
Standing, picking up her bowl and Trace's and carrying it to the bucket to be washed, Rachel said, "I don't have one of those. They cost a lot of money."
"What do you use to clean your teeth?" She almost dreaded the answer but she knew, whatever it was, she would have to abide by it because her teeth were feeling pretty fuzzy and her mouth was tasting like what one might remove from Chief's stall with a pitchfork.
"Depends on what I have available...baking soda or chalk."
"Chalk?" The thought of chalking her teeth was not an appealing one...but neither was never brushing her teeth again.
It was off the blonde's expression after asking about being able to immediately use either item to clean her teeth with, that Trace realized brushing three times a day was not going to be a plausible habit. Nor were regular hot showers or daily 'constitutionals' in the comfort of one's own indoor bathroom, timely shaving, douching or reaching into her refrigerator after a shift and cracking open a cold beer or two.
Oh, the challenges...
After placing clean gauze over her slightly oozing cut, the detective reluctantly left the house to utilize the 'facilities' again. Trace was at least grateful that an old Farmer's Almanac with a hole punched in the corner was hung on a nail in the outhouse for the sole use of wiping one's self. It sure as hell beat drip dry and she didn't even want to think at how long she'd have to sit there or what she might have to use for anything more complicated than emptying her bladder. Old jokes about corn cobs suddenly sprang to mind making her shudder at the thought.
Using the outdoor pump, Trace rinsed off her hands and headed into the barn where, together, without much talking, she and Rachel lifted rails, posts and stakes onto the light, uncovered wagon which was already loaded with an axe, shovel, nails, string and a mallet. Then Rachel hitched Chief up and sent the tall stranger on her way.
Twelve half-round pine rails, eight feet long, hung over the end edge of the five foot flat bed wagon and, placed on top of them had been six posts extending only a foot longer, as Trace let the horse lead her back to the area by the river where the fence line had been destroyed. Maybe by her not trying to be in charge, she and Chief might be able to suspend their mutual hostilities. That would be nice, since the horse was getting on her last nerve.
Rachel had told her that this was all the extra, prepared rails and posts she had, that any other mending would have to be done with freshly split wood. Which meant Trace was probably going to have to find a Home Depot, she ruefully laughed to herself, a logging place that would sell her pre-cut fencing, another giggle, or chop the damn things herself, which stopped any frivolous thinking altogether. Oh, well...if she hadn't been in shape before she got here, she had no doubt that would change. Soon.
Once again, the small blonde had been somewhat vague and non-committal regarding the possible reason for the damaged barrier. What was it she said, Trace thought, as she climbed down from her perch and walked back to the strong standing fence area to inspect it? It was probably the neighbors not being very neighborly. That was understating it, she was sure, kind of like Trace saying, Vincent DeSienna just didn't like her.
Never having built or repaired one of these, Trace studied the simple structure so that she would have an idea as in how to begin. Looked easy enough, she mused, the rails inserted into holes in the posts that seemed to be held in place by their own weight. Walking the fence line - or where it should have been - she was relieved to see that only two posts had been splintered beyond repair and the rest were still intact. The ground holes that the posts set in were still there and all it would take is a little more dirt to support the standing post.
Five hours later, the sun was setting and the detective was finished and pretty darned proud of herself. Not to mention pretty darned sore and exhausted. Riding a horse had used muscles she hadn't even known existed and mixed with the lifting, hauling, dragging and balancing of the posts and rails, had taken its toll. Looking around one last time at her handy work, she nodded. Not bad for a novice. All the splintered wood cleaned up and loaded back on the wagon, she climbed into the driver's seat, yanked the reins to the right and Chief snorted and sauntered back toward the main house. Huh. She fixed the fence without incident and the horse didn't give her a hard time. Things were looking up.
She wondered what the blonde might have prepared for supper. She didn't care, as long as it was edible and plentiful. She felt so hungry she could have chewed on the reins all the way back, and convinced herself it was jerky.
Thirty minutes later, it was pitch black and she was back at the barn, barely being able to move off the wagon. Her muscles had tightened up to the point where they felt locked into place. Not one to complain about or easily show pain, Trace inhaled sharply as she landed on her feet, concerned her back was going to give out before she could unhitch Chief and get him back to his stall.
She had just hung up his tack when she heard a voice behind her say, "I was kind of expecting you back before sunset. I was getting a little worried. Everything okay?"
The inflection from the blonde was soft, concerned. Despite her discomfort and her body's demand for rest, the detective found herself smiling. She took in air, breathing from her diaphragm, hoping not to show how miserable she really felt and turned around, plastering a smile on her face. "Everything's great," she fibbed, hoping she had not missed dinner.
"How much did you get done?"
"All of it," Trace told her, indignantly. Did she think she was incapable?
"All of it?! Oh my Lord, no wonder you're moving like you're wading in a lake of molasses!" Rachel was astounded. "I never expected you to do it all, Trace, just to start it, maybe get two or three done."
"What?" the detective intoned, weakly. "I just thought..." She leaned back against the wall. "Augh!" Trace exhaled in frustration, deflating.
The blonde approached her, placing a hand on her arm. "Next time, I'll be more clear." She tugged lightly on Trace's shirt. "Come on, wash up and let's get something in your belly and then let's see if I can get you feeling better..."
For the first time, the brunette was glad that didn't have the double meaning she would have originally hoped for. She was just too damned tired.
Trace sat at the table, barely able to hold her head up as Rachel set a bowl of stew before her, the heavenly heat rising and caressing her sense of smell. Her first bite provoked an almost indecent moan at the tasty array of vegetables, meat and gravy-thick liquid. After the famished detective had eaten most of the contents of the bowl, she finally spoke.
"Rachel, this is wonderful, thank you."
"You're welcome," the blonde beamed, "one of my specialities is rabbit stew."
Stopping mid spoonful, Trace looked up at her. "Rabbit? That's what the meat is in here?"
Rachel could not read the expression on the brunette's face. "Yes."
"This wouldn't be one of those cute little bunnies around the side of Chief's stall, would it?"
"Yes. That is what they are bred for. Food."
Trace put the spoon down and wiped her mouth with her hand. "Thanks. Think I'm done."
"But you didn't finish..."
"It's...I'm fine...too tired to eat, anyway."
"Didn't you like it?"
"It was delicious, Rachel, really." Except during her fiasco with that stubborn horse today, she had made friends with the six rabbits in that cage and even named them: Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, Bugs and Thumper. She couldn't bear to think of which one she might have just eaten.
Rachel cleared the dinnerware in front of Trace, who put her head down and rested it on her folded arms on the table. Moments later she felt a hand on her shoulder. "I know what will make you feel better."
"A sledgehammer to the forehead?" Trace muttered.
"Heavens, no," Rachel looked horrified, not realizing the detective was joking. The twenty-first century sense of humor was not making the nineteenth century woman laugh. Yet. "I have a jar of peppermint oil that I want you to take to your room and rub it on your aching areas. You will feel better by morning."
Trace peeked up at the blonde, skeptically.
"The menthol from the peppermint leaves soothes irritation and ache."
Sitting up, the detective looked at Rachel, cocking her head. "How do you know all this stuff?"
The blonde smiled warmly at her. "The Bible."
"You learned all of this healing and nutritional stuff from reading the bible?" Trace's tone was incredulous.
"Absolutely. The use of peppermint can be traced back to Moses and the burning bush -"
Putting her hand up, Trace said, "All right, I believe you." She slowly, agonizingly stood up, turning toward her. "What I really need is a full body massage." She had said it as a thought out loud, never expecting a comment in return.
So, when Rachel responded with, "I agree but my supply of olive oil is low. Otherwise, I would have given you one," Trace nearly lost all semblance of decorum and restraint. She had to bite her lip, close her eyes and shake the X-rated thought out of her R-rated brain.
She looked the innocent blonde directly in the eyes. "You were going to massage me with olive oil?"
"That's in the bible??"
"Yes. Olive oil massaged into the skin has wonderful healing powers, more long-term than peppermint."
The image of Rachel's hands rubbing oil deeply into Trace's body made her shiver. A hint of a smile graced the detective's face as she passed Rachel, putting a hand on the smaller woman's shoulder. "I think we're luckier you just had this." She accepted the small jar from the perplexed blonde, thanked her and retreated to her room in the barn.
The tall, black-haired detective barely moved a muscle once she got into bed. She had applied the peppermint to the areas of her body that hurt the most and settled down to reap the rewards of the chilling then hot sensation that followed, almost as if she had gone to the drugstore and bought a mentholated rub. Her exhaustion so overwhelming, Trace fell into unconsciousness and never even woke up when the rooster crowed at the break of dawn.
Because of all the work Trace had done yesterday and assuming how much discomfort she must have been in, Rachel decided not to disturb her. She had checked on her at least three times since gathering eggs at sunrise and the detective had not shifted from the position she had fallen asleep in the night before.
Preparing breakfast, the blonde was going to rouse the brunette to feed her before the day wasted away when sudden nausea took hold of her and she barely made it outside. The smell of eggs cooking had never bothered her before but they were sure making her pretty sick now. She didn't actually heave anything but it rose to her throat threateningly.
Halfway to the stove, the queasiness returned and Rachel raced back to the front porch not being able to control the contents of her stomach spewing forward, missing the sore, sleepy detective by mere inches.
"Yeow," Trace jumped aside. "Whatever you had for breakfast, don't make me any..." she joked, then wished she hadn't. She watched helplessly as the blonde, held her belly, lurched and trembled until finally the sensation subsided. By that time the detective was on the porch, holding the blonde's hair away from her face with one hand, her other hand on Rachel's back. "You okay?"
Nodding, gasping, eyes tearing uncontrollably, Rachel straightened up. "I don't know what's wrong. I must be coming down with something..."
"Stomach flu?" Trace offered.
The blonde looked at her alarmed. "Influenza? I hope not."
Keeping a hand on her back, Trace slowly ushered Rachel into the house and to a chair. "You look pale. Can I get you anything?"
Before Rachel could respond, bile rose in her throat again and she clamped her hand over her mouth. Recognizing the warning, Trace reached a long arm over to the bucket and grabbed a clean bowl, getting it to the blonde just in time but not before she got splashed by the smaller woman's vomit. Not exactly the bodily fluid exchange bonding moment between them Trace was hoping for.
When Rachel's stomach finally seemed a little more stable, the brunette left the bowl in her lap and retrieved a rag she had dampened under the indoor pump. As Trace wiped the blonde's face with it gently and then rested it against her forehead, Rachel was grateful for the cooling stimulation
"What can I get you to help with that upset tummy there?" Trace asked the blonde, still squatting by the chair Rachel was sitting in.
"Ginger powder. I have some in a jar over there." A shaky finger pointed toward the anteroom. "There should be hot water in the tea kettle. If you would be kind enough to get me a cup, I'll mix it together and it should help."
Trace placed the blonde's hand on the rag and guided it back up to her forehead. Standing, she retrieved everything Rachel asked for and placed it on the table in front of her. The blonde still looked a little green around the gills as Trace kneeled before her again and felt for a fever.
"You're clammy," the detective announced. "Could have been something you ate."
"I haven't eaten anything yet," Rachel stated, taking in big gulps of air. She poured some powder from the jar into the steaming cup of hot water, stirred it with a spoon and left it there as another wave of nausea overtook her.
Now racked with dry heaves, the blonde bent over at the waist, resting her head on her own lap. Trace gently placed her hand on Rachel's back and stroked up and down her backbone. "It's okay. You're okay," the detective comforted in a soothing tone of voice. Once again she surprised herself by a nurturing instinct she never thought existed in her. First she felt protective and now this? Well, she would try to sort it all out later. "Do you need to go lay down, Rachel?"
"No," came the muffled response, "I'll be okay in a moment...soon as I get some ginger in me..."
When Rachel made no attempt to raise her head, Trace took the cup off the table and stirred the contents, blowing on it to make it cool enough for the blonde to hopefully sip. When she felt it was drinkable, she smoothed Rachel's hair. "Come on, try some of this...you need to get something in you to make you feel better."
Lifting her head slightly, it was just enough for Trace to slide the cup in. Holding it to the blonde's lips, she patiently waited until the blonde took a small drink, then another, then took the cup in her own hands, sitting up slowly. A few more sips and Rachel closed her eyes. "Thank you, Trace," she told her, gratefully.
"Sure. You okay?"
"I think I will be," Rachel responded, weakly
"Good. Listen...I, um, need to bathe. Do you have anything I could use for soap? And my clothes smell of sweat. I hate to ask this but I have nothing else to wear...do you think I might be able to borrow something of your father's until I can wash my stuff?"
Nodding, the blonde said, "You know where his clothes are...you are welcome to wear anything that fits."
"Thank you." She placed her hand over Rachel's before standing up. "Anything I can do for you?"
"No...I'm...I'll be fine. The ginger is helping." Her voice and mannerisms were still somewhat frail but stronger than before.
Pausing at the door to the bedroom, Trace looked back at the blonde and studied her intently. Rachel was staring blankly toward the anteroom, holding her cup with both hands, tears streaming down her face. The look of despair on her face was heartbreaking and the detective felt compassionate and powerless at the same time. Something had happened to draw this blanket of desolation over this house and this woman. Something bad. Trace could feel it, taste it, and she was going to find out what it was.
The area of the river where Trace chose to strip and bathe, then wash her clothes appeared isolated enough. This was going to be a new experience, public exhibitionism...although, most likely, her only audience would be some wildlife and vegetation, she still felt exposed and vulnerable. She remembered reading stories or seeing movies regarding the 'old west' that had mischievous packs of boys who would spy on individuals washing themselves in rivers, streams and lakes and steal their clothes. Should that happen, this particular case would present an interesting set of circumstances and would mean Trace would have to move on, a thought that, at once, made her sad. This situation she had fallen into with Rachel was as close to perfect as she was probably going to get. She needed the petite blonde and obviously - although she didn't know why yet - the smaller woman needed her.
Cold at first but refreshing, Trace let her skin adjust to the temperature before she moved about underwater, feeling the strain of the motion literally drain from her body. Although this felt like heaven, she wisely decided not to stray too far away from her clothes, just in case.
She was grateful it was such a nice warm day as she scrubbed herself with lye soap - not quite the 'ocean breeze' scent she was used to emerging from the shower smelling like but since, before entering the water, she carried the odor of a rancid wart hog, she could deal with the thick but cleaner aroma of a smoking coal stove.
Washing her hair with soap was also something she was not used to. It was bad enough it wasn't shampoo but with no conditioner to calm down her normally unruly mop, she could only imagine the results. Thankfully she had less hair now to have to deal with and it's not like she felt she had to look particularly attractive for anyone...except maybe Rachel. Which was probably a wasted effort, anyway.
Once she had finished rinsing the minute amount of lather out of her hair, she waded back toward the rocks her belongings were piled on and began abrasively scouring her shirt, jeans, socks, wrap and boy briefs she was so fond of. Satisfied that they were as clean as she could get them, she cautiously emerged naked from the water, toweled off with a large linen cloth Rachel had provided her with and quickly dressed in a bulky flannel shirt, much too warm for the weather, and a pair of worn blue jeans that were at least one size too big. She chose those specific items to wear in case she happened to run into anyone between the river and the house, so that her rather ample chest without it's being bound down, wouldn't be quite so noticeable.
Walking barefoot back to toward the barn to hang her clothes to dry, Trace marveled once more at the crisp, fresh air and the untainted setting surrounding her. If only the world didn't have to change in a way where it ravaged Mother Nature.
Seeing the cabin come into view as she rounded a corner, she observed Rachel on the porch shaking out a small, woven rug, then watched her go back inside. Trace shook her head in disbelief. Had she only been here a little over a day? It felt like so much longer. By choice she had left her troubled existence behind and come here but by fate she had landed smack dab in the middle of Rachel Young's distraught life. She could tell herself whatever was going on was none of her business but she instinctively knew that wasn't an option. Whatever was going on here, Trace was bound and determined to find out fix it.
Rachel robotically placed the throw rug back on the floor by the indoor pump. Knowing Trace would be returning any minute now, she knew it was time to prepare to go into Sagebrush to get some groceries. This would be the first time she would have been in town since before the...incident.
Well, at least Trace would be with her, that gave her some consolation. And then she wondered why. She felt safe in the presence of the taller, rather chivalrous woman she hoped everyone would believe was a man. She freely admitted she liked having the detective around, even if she did have some rather strange habits and was a little...spoiled. As for Sagebrush and this outsider, there would be questions...and speculation...and definitely talk. Oh, yes, the town was definitely good at that. But, she knew, there would be gossip soon enough anyway, what was a little more at this point?
A slight taste of ginger bubbled up into the blonde's throat and she swallowed it back, reliving the morning's queasiness. Just that reminder and what it meant caused tears of shame to sting her eyes again. She couldn't be carrying Ben Crane's baby, couldn't be! Yet just as sure as she knew the day was long, she knew she was with child. Her monthly curse should have come and gone eleven days ago and she was never late. And now she was sick in the morning, just like her cousin, Esther, had been eight months before she bore twin girls and her neighbor, Elizabeth Reddick, had been before she twice miscarried.
Wiping her eyes with her apron, Rachel took a deep breath and looked skyward. Why did this have to happen? She had always considered herself a faithful Christian woman, never did anything that would have embarrassed the church, the congregation, or disgraced her family, never betrayed the teachings of the bible, never turned her back on God. Why did she feel as though the Lord was turning His back on her? First her father suffered so horribly before he died, then her mother was taken from her, then Tommy and then...that night. Why did it seem like the devil himself was after her?
And who really was this Trace Sheridan and why did she feel so secure with total stranger, a woman, of all things?
Hearing footsteps on the porch, Rachel turned to see Trace enter the cabin. "Well, I feel better, cleaner," the brunette commented.
"Good," Rachel smiled, absently.
"How about you? Feeling better?" Her concern was genuine.
"Oh, yes," the blonde lied. "Much."
The decision to finally go into town had not been an easy one for Rachel to make. She had no doubt that Ben Crane had made good on his promise to announce to all of Sagebrush that he had, to put it mildly, engaged in intimate relations with her. Elizabeth Reddick would not look the blonde in the eye when she returned a pie tin a week ago, her husband, Matthew, demanding she hand the plate to Rachel and they leave immediately. The expression on Matthew's face was one of disdain and disgust, Elizabeth's one of question and confusion. And when Isaac Tipping brought the last order out from his father's store, even though he was young, he looked at her differently, too - probably shocked by the not-so-nice things that were being said about her in the stockroom. They should all know better but obviously they didn't. Or didn't dare not to.
Rachel did not understand how anyone could actually believe she would willingly submit to Ben Crane, of all people. Especially after their families had been at odds for years and she had so adamantly and publicly turned down his marriage proposals. Crane's flagrant womanizing was no secret and neither was the blonde's engagement to the dashing and much more upstanding Thomas Baines. Why anyone would think she would allow the town pig into her bed when she refused that privilege to her own fiancée was beyond all reasonable thought to her.
But then what had really happened defied all reasonable thought. She had not invited Crane anywhere near her private chambers, her body, he took what he wanted all on his own, without her permission, her consent. And now look at the mess she was in... She had heard stories about this sort of thing happening to other women and always thought they must have done something to encourage such behavior. Therefore, because she wasn't that kind of girl, she never thought something like this would happen to her.
And he was a Crane. Nobody went against the Cranes, not even the sheriff, the circuit judges or even Pastor Edwards. Bad things happened when a Crane did not get what they wanted and she was living proof.
If she could stay on the ranch the rest of her life and never have to go into town again, she would. If only that were a rational and plausible solution. However, it was not, and she steeled herself to face the stares, the whispers, the treatment and everything else that now went with her sullied reputation.
And now she was going to show up in town with a total stranger sitting by her side. Complicated by the fact that the man everyone would see was really a woman, pretending to be a man and hopefully no one would catch on and be the wiser. Rachel wasn't sure why they needed to perpetuate this charade as she believed her life would be so much easier right now if her companion dropped the facade, but she gave Trace her word that she would, indeed, go along with it and maybe it would work out for the best. Trace, as a woman, could have been easily explained away as a distant relative come to visit but the brunette, as a man, would create a little more stir...as if she needed anything more to add to the pot.
A month earlier, it would not have caused as much talk, cowboys wandered through town constantly, looking for work and there was no question Rachel needed the help. Her father had hired saddlestiffs all the time, especially during harvest, to work the land with him, to repair things that needed fixing, to help transport the modest head of cattle to auction, to do whatever needed to be done that required an extra pair of hands. But with the systematic destruction of the ranch's resources and Rachel's livelihood, and the bragging of Ben Crane, the townspeople would surmise that there would be only one thing the blonde could be paying the stranger with...herself.
It was humiliating that she would now be thought of like that, devastating that a place where her ancestors were some of its original settlers, where she was born, raised, schooled and almost married in, could turn on her so suddenly. The best she could do would be to bravely face down her detractors and deny everything and hope the knowledge that it was a blowhard, windbag Crane running her name into the ground would make the glimmer of difference in what people really believed deep down inside.
Regardless of the consequences, they were now on their way, the wagon being pulled leisurely by Moses, an old workhorse Rachel normally only used to go to town and back. He wasn't good for much else anymore at his advanced age but the blonde didn't have the heart to sell him and knew she couldn't shoot him.
As they ambled along, the ranch woman stole a glance at the detective. She looked pretty convincing in Rachel's father's pin-striped, cotton, collarless work shirt and blue denim trousers that needed to be held up by suspenders. Trace's binding had dried quickly in the sun so she was wearing it underneath the jersey and Rachel had fixed her up with a neckerkerchief to help disguise the fact she had no Adam's apple, and her father's black straw cowboy hat
with a 3 1/2" shapeable brim that pulled down over the detective's baby blues in a persuasively menacing dip. It was a little big for her but she wore it well and it added to the illusion of the detective being male. If only Trace didn't feel like Charles and Carolyn Ingalls from Little House On The Prairie.
The blonde had properly covered her head with a pale green bonnet that tied under her chin. It closely matched her green and white gingham 'going to town' dress that Trace thought looked absolutely adorable on her. Anyone riding upon them would assume they were the perfect couple and suddenly, unexpectedly, the brunette wished they were. That revelation struck her like ice water thrown in her face and she quickly looked around her, then skyward. Where the hell were all these outlandish instincts coming from? First protective, then nurturing and now commitment? She shook her head, as if that would result in clearing away these recent epiphanies.
"What's wrong?" Rachel asked, her voice bringing Trace back to reality.
"What's wrong? You look...I don't know...startled."
"No, I'm fine. So, what are we getting in town?"
"Well, I need flour, bacon, rice, coffee, tea, sugar, dried beans, dried fruit, hardtack -"
"Hardtack? What's that?"
"It's pilot bread...um...like a cracker...you've never had hardtack?"
"Well, if I had, would I have asked you what it was?"
Rachel narrowed her eyes. "Sometimes your tone leaves a lot to be desired."
Trace was about to argue that point when she realized the blonde was right. Smiling, she said, "I'll try to be more aware of that."
"Try hard," the blonde threw out before continuing the list. "Salt, corn meal, corn - parched and ground, saleratus -"
"Baking soda," Rachel amended, "and one small keg of vinegar."
"I use it for a lot of things, it doesn't last long."
"I think of keg, I think of beer," The detective commented, wishing she had one at that moment. "The town got a saloon?"
"Yes, Wilbur's, but you don't want to go there, do you?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Because that's where the men go -" she stopped and looked at the tall woman seated next to her. "Maybe you going into Wilbur's wouldn't be a bad idea."
Yeah...a damned bar! Woo hoo! Now they were talking. And if they had a pool table...had pool tables been invented then? Trace was pretty sure they had. All she needed to do was play a game or two of eight ball and that alone would be convincing enough...they never would have believed a woman could play pool like that. Maybe she could even hustle some money.
As if Rachel had been reading her mind, she piped up and said, "Or maybe it's not such a good idea..."
Trace noticed that the closer they got to the outskirts of Sagebrush, the more the blonde began to fidget. "You okay?"
Nodding apprehensively, Rachel said, "People are going to talk, just don't pay them any mind."
"You mean about me?"
"Well...yes. They might say other things, too. I live alone and people like to gossip."
"Would it be easier for you if I just stayed back on the ranch?" Trace inquired, trying to read the true meaning of Rachel's words.
"Easier? Yes. But then if anyone rode by or came out and saw you, it would seem as if I was ashamed of something and trying to hide you - or what you appear to be - a man - and that would only make things worse."
They rode a few more minutes in awkward silence until Trace decided that she needed to know. "Rachel, why are you alone on that big place? I gather your father died but since I've been here, I get the feeling something's going on. Mind telling me what it is?"
Looking away from the detective, the blonde inhaled deeply, holding the breath in for a long moment before expelling it, cautiously. "I just had a run of bad luck the past year, that's all. It's still hard to talk about it. All I'm trying to say is people are guessing about a lot of things and don't know, so just bear that in mind when you hear things."
Not the answer she wanted but it would have to do. For now. "Okay. Is there a pawn shop in town?"
"Yes. Right next to the bank. Joseph Turner owns it. Why do you need to go there?"
"Because I don't have any money. I had to leave in a hurry so I couldn't take any with me. But I have a few items of jewelry I would like to pawn." Looking over at Rachel, the brunette observed an expression of concern on the younger woman's face. "What?"
"It's just that Joseph Turner is a very nosy man, thinks he knows everything and wants to know everything that he doesn't already think he knows."
"So what you're saying is don't tell him anything and don't listen to anything he tells me."
"Want to give me a hint as to what I might be hearing?"
"How would I know that?" the blonde snapped, unreasonably defensive.
"I just thought you might have an idea, that's all." Trace responded, more composed than she normally would have been at anyone jumping down her throat like that for no apparent reason.
After another several seconds of silence, Trace felt Rachel's hand on her arm. "I apologize, Trace. I haven't been in town for a while and I know there will be questions about you..."
As the blonde's voice trailed off, Trace could not ignore her body's reaction to the light touch of Rachel's fingers on her bicep, even if it was through fabric. Goosebumps rose everywhere and she was grateful for the binding that covered her traitorous telltale nipples. She briefly covered the smaller hand with her own. "Don't worry about it, okay? I'll handle anyone who decides to be...disrespectful."
And Rachel instinctively knew Trace meant it as an unexpected and unusual rush of calm settled over her.
Main Street Sagebrush was right out of the movies, Trace marveled while Moses lumbered his way into town. As they rounded the corner, there was a boardwalk connecting the general store, mercantile, saloon, blacksmith shop and livery stable with the butcher shop. Across the street was a three story hotel, a shorter bank edifice, the three balls suspended over the next building which indicated a pawn shop, the barred windows which obviously marked the sheriff's office and jail and several other merchant shops not as easily identifiable - with a small chapel separated from the rest of the buildings by a good two blocks.
The blatant staring began as soon as they passed the first couple of people. The blonde nodded politely but received no such courtesy in return. Trace couldn't tell why the reception was so hostile but she simmered at the thought that Rachel might be treated so poorly and rudely because of her presence. She realized she had only lived there two and a half days but all she experienced was unconditional kindness from the woman seated next to her (well...maybe a few ecclesiastical conditions, but other than that...) and, regardless of the era she now lived in, the assumption was just wrong. Little did she know that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Stopping Moses in front of Foster's Grocery, Trace stepped down first and in a very gentlemanly manner, assisted the blonde from the wagon to the ground. Thanking her, demurely, Rachel walked to the back of the wagon and assessed the bounty she had brought to sell as Trace tied the horse's reins to the hitching post.
Luther Foster, the grocer, stepped out onto the wooden sidewalk in front of his store, wiping his hands on his apron. He glanced briefly at the blonde then eyed Trace suspiciously.
"Afternoon, Mr. Foster. I brought you your usual order," Rachel told him, indicating the baskets of vegetables. The blonde's tone was pleasant, devoid of the disgrace she felt at the hands of Ben Crane. Maybe if she pretended everything was fine, it would be.
Or not. "Rachel," he acknowledged her with an absent nod, as he scrutinized the tall stranger who glared back at him. "I'm not sure I'm gonna to be able to take your vegetables anymore."
"Why not?" the question came from the strong but modulated voice of the cowboy.
"This is Trace Sheridan, Mr. Foster. He is helping me out on the ranch for a bit." She had to consciously remind herself to refer to Trace as 'he.'
Foster frowned, shaking his head and returned his attention to Rachel, ignoring the outstretched hand of the unusual looking young man. "He staying out at the place with you?" The question was asked with obvious disapproval in his voice.
"Yes, but he's -"
"Sleeping in the barn," Trace supplied, interrupting the blonde and stepping forward. "And I am right here, Mr. Foster, you can speak to me directly."
The grocer was quickly angered by the insolence of this stranger but retreated a few paces when Trace stepped up on the boardwalk in front of him, towering over Foster by several inches. "O...Okay..." He now avoided looking the brunette directly in the eyes. "How is she paying you?"
"Paying me? She's feeding me and giving me a place to lay my head, that's how she's paying me. I'm sure you don't have a problem with that." The fierce blue eyes bore a hole through him.
Rachel was taken aback by how Trace could go from accommodating to intimidating in no time at all and was temporarily speechless at this woman so easily standing up to a man. She was beginning to understand why the brunette thought the men here would want to kill her. Maybe it wasn't quite that dramatic but no woman stood up to a man like that, challenged one like that. If Luther Foster had any idea Trace was female, he never would have backed down, especially since he had a tendency to be a bit of a browbeater, specifically toward women.
Despite that, the blonde liked Foster, was grateful that he continued to purchase her crop after everything that had happened on the ranch. She knew the Cranes had started to threatened him and he was running the risk of his home and business burning down if he didn't comply. But Foster had been her father's best friend and if Rachel didn't provide him with produce, he would have to get his vegetables from a grower in Jefferson, a town twenty miles east of Sagebrush. Also, if he lost his store, everyone in Sagebrush, including the Crane's would be affected so she was pretty sure at least half of that threat was empty. However, she wasn't quite so optimistic about the future of her own commerce.
"No. No problem with that." Foster was beginning to regain some of his composure. He cleared his throat. A small crowd had started to gather, watching this exchange.
"Now, why don't we try this again?" Trace stuck out her hand.
Looking at it, then back up into the unyielding expression on the flawless face, knowing it really wasn't a request, Foster accepted the handshake this time, the stranger's grip strong and steady.
"Trace Sheridan," the brunette offered.
"Luther Foster." He was a slightly rotund man, prone to sweating with no apparent provocation. Now he was perspiring profusely. He liked being the center of attention when he was on the upside of the situation but never when he appeared to be on the losing end. Wisely, he allowed the cowboy drop the handshake first. "Where you from, Mr. Sheridan?"
"Never heard of it. Where is that?"
"Far from here," Trace and Rachel chorused. Surprised by the blonde's joining her in her answer and on the boardwalk, Trace couldn't help but noticed the look of relief on the grocer's face.
"Trace, why don't you go tend to your errands and Mr. Foster and I will work out the problem, hmmm?" Again, the blonde laid a gentle hand on the detective's forearm, eliciting the same reaction as before.
Not taking her eyes off Foster, the brunette nodded. "Only if you're sure..."
"These people are my friends, Trace," Rachel continued, hoping to make a point not so much to the detective but to Foster and all the others who had stopped to watch. "I'm sure."
She looked at the blonde, searched her face for any hint that she should really stay. There was none. She patted Rachel's hand, nodded to Foster and left the boardwalk, heading toward the pawn shop.
"What's going on, Rachel?" Foster asked, after the wagon had been emptied and they were now in the privacy of the grocer's small office. He sat down, opening his cash box and counted out the few coins he owed the blonde minus the amount for the goods she would be taking away from his store.
"What do you mean, Mr. Foster?"
Shaking his head, grimly, the grocer said, "First, Ben Crane comes into town just before the drive to Dodge City and tells anyone who will listen at Wilbur's that you and he...well," he lowered his eyes, "you know." Flushed, he handed her the payment for the produce, "and then you bring a total stranger to town with you, surly as a grizzly, looks to be at least half-injun...people are talking, Rachel..." Foster marked the exchange in his grocer's book, then stood up as Rachel put the money in her purse.
"It isn't true. What Ben Crane said, Mr. Foster. You know why he is saying those things."
"Even if it ain't true, Rachel, he's a Crane and no one's gonna call him a liar."
"Not to his face, anyway," Rachel finished for him.
"Precisely. But he's got the town talking, anyway. And now this? What would your daddy say if he knew you had what looks to be a half-breed living out at your place? Don't matter where he claims to be sleeping, it don't look right, a man out at your place..."
"I need the help, Mr. Foster. I can't do it by myself anymore. Daddy used to hire drifters to help out certain times of the year, you know that. If he couldn't do it alone, no one should expect me to!" Her voice rose defensively with each word.
"I know, Rachel, but it just ain't proper!" He wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. "If you'd just sell that place to the Cranes, you wouldn't have to worry -"
"Mr. Foster, I should slap you for suggesting such a thing," Rachel said, boldly. "If my daddy heard you say that..."
Foster put his hand up. "I know. I know what your daddy went through to keep that spread away from them. But it's time to be reasonable, Rachel. They are going after you a little bit at a time. You can't win. It would be different if you could, but you can't."
"We'll see about that, Mr. Foster," the blonde stated in a tone more bitter than he had ever heard from her.
As he watched her exit his store, he shook his head in despair. Frank Young's little girl had indeed inherited his stubbornness, his tenacity and, unfortunately, his propensity for trouble.
Trace recognized the three spherical gilt balls, glittering in the light so they could be seen from all sides and attract customers to the building above which they were suspended. Seemed that symbol of yore hadn't changed over the past century.
The tall, dark stranger entered the pawn shop through an open doorway and was immediately hit with a thick, musty odor that nearly made her sneeze. Blinking a few times, rubbing her nose, Trace took in her surroundings peripherally. This wasn't like any of the places she had seen in her lifetime. This shop actually had some semblance of order, decency and credibility.
Browsing the items that had most likely been placed on deposit in exchange for cash were various styles and sizes of shawls, bonnets, undergarments, dresses, suits and shoes. There was also bedding, musical instruments, clocks, tools, guns (which she would look at later if she had the time or another time, if she didn't) and furniture. The jewelry area was on a display case in front of the proprietor, a tall, skinny, jowled, thinly-haired man who looked like he was straight out of a Washington Irving novel. This must be Joseph Turner. He stood when Trace approached the counter. He still had a pen in his hand and at his modest desk, there was an open book which Trace assumed to be his ledger.
"Afternoon," the man said, in a twangy voice that was immediately grating. "What can I do for you..." They stood there assessing each other and, for a brief second, the detective thought he might not buy into her act. "...Son?"
Trace took a breath and purposely lowered her voice register. She didn't want it to sound fake but she sure as hell didn't want it sounding feminine, either. It was different with the grocer. He had pissed her off and her voice always dropped an octave or two when she was angry. Reaching in her shirt breast pocket, she took out the two gold wedding bands Mark had given her. She placed them on the counter. "I'd like to pawn these."
Turner looked the items over, then picked them up and felt the weight, the substance. "Might be able to do something for you. Where'd you get them?"
"They were my...mother's. She's gone now and I need the money." Trace had a sudden, unexpected pang of guilt for saying that. Zelda wasn't deceased but the detective wondered how long her mother would last, thinking her daughter was dead. It was best that way. Zelda's confidence, sanity and sobriety was shaky, at best, and if she knew anything about Trace, the brunette knew the DeSiennas could get it out of her.
He performed a cursory authenticity examination of the rings, including biting down on the jewelry. "Don't think I've seen you around here before."
"You haven't. I'm from Cottonwood."
"Cottonwood? That's a full month's ride from here, isn't it?"
The question stopped Trace for a minute. Had this man really heard of a Cottonwood or was he already living up to Rachel's description of a know-it-all? "About that, yeah."
"What are you doing in this neck of the woods? Just passing through?"
He'd find out sooner or later, might as well be now. "I'm staying out at the Young place, helping out with land for a while," she tossed out, nonchalantly.
Turner responded with a raised eyebrow. "Is that so? Out there with Miss Rachel? Just the two of you?"
"For the time being. I got hurt, Miss Rachel found me and kindly fixed me up. I need a place to stay for a while and she needs some work done. It's the least I can do." Trace made sure her intention was clear. Pinning Joseph Turner with eyes like blue steel, she said, "And that's all. You understand?"
Shrugging, not even attempting to hide a lascivious grin, he said, "Whatever you say."
Holding her temper, she quietly seethed. "How much can you give me for the rings?"
"You need a loan for these or do you want to get paid outright? I mean these would be excellent collateral for -"
"No. Thank you. Just the money." Trace was sure his interest rates were quite high, even in this time period. He wouldn't make any profit, otherwise. As the pieces weren't sentimental to her, there was no need for her to hang on to them.
"I think I can give you, hmmm, fifty dollars each for them."
"What!? Just fifty dollars?" The look in the man's eyes at the outburst told her that it had been an honest offer. She then remembered where she was. She quickly calmed down. "I'm sorry...my mama said they were worth more. Fifty dollars a piece is fine."
Turner nodded, slightly ruffled by Trace's little flare-up. He took a step backward toward his small, open safe and set the rings on his desk. Sizing up the 'young man' in his shop, he made an immediate assumption. "Got some redskin in you, son?" He bent over and pulled a cash drawer from the knee-high iron vault.
"Not that I know of," Trace answered, wearily. "No gypsy, either. Maybe a little Greek."
"Oh, Greek, yeah...I would've guessed that eventually." Removing the correct amount in bills from the drawer, Turner stepped back up to the display case and held them out to the brunette.
Mark was right, money looked very different. "Could you count it out for me, please?" She needed to pay close attention as he did, insuring he was giving her every cent she was entitled to.
The pawn shop proprietor grinned. "Ah, can't add, huh? No problem..."
"No," Trace responded, trying to keep her annoyance in check, "I can add just fine. I can count and spell and read, too. It's just...we're strangers and I'm protecting my interests."
Turner was impressed by that admission. Not everyone would have the guts to say that to him and expect him to continue the transaction as it was tantamount to accusing him of being a cheat. The almost ghastly thin man proceeded to count out the total of the money, handing it to the brunette. "There you go. All there."
"Thank you." Hesitating, she looked back at the pawnbroker. After her mini-tirade regarding her scholastic abilities, she didn't want to appear to be contradictory or stupid. "I'd like to have a beer at the saloon, could you give me one of these in smaller change?"
"Yep. That I can do." Turner exchanged one of the bills for coins.
"How much you charge for a beer in this town?"
"Five cents for a cream ale...how much do they charge in Cottonwood?"
Trace shrugged nonchalantly. "The same. I was just making sure." Folding the paper money in half, the detective shoved that and the coins in her pocket. "Well, thank you, it's been nice doing business with you."
"So...how long you think you'll be staying...out at the Young place?"
She immediately saw the question for what it was, the pawnbroker being a busybody. "Don't know. Got thrown from my horse, sustained a puncture wound," Trace indicated the area on her chest. "Have to make sure that's all healed up before I...move on. Plus, Ra...Miss Rachel needs a hand out there. Since she helped me, it's only fitting that I help her."
"So you expect to be moving on? Not going back to Cottonwood?"
"No. No need to go back there. My family is gone now." She smiled, graciously, at him. "Who knows? Maybe I will take up residence here in Sagebrush."
For some unknown reason, Turner grinned back. "What's your name, son?"
"Sheridan. Trace Sheridan."
"Joseph Turner. Nice doing business with you, too, Trace Sheridan," the pawnbroker stated, extending a long, bony hand, which the detective briefly accepted. "Always good to welcome a hardworking cowboy to town."
"Thanks." He seemed sincere but Trace didn't trust him completely. There was something about him she didn't like and she couldn't put her finger on it just yet. She nodded in polite departure and left for the saloon.
Her order would be waiting for her when she returned to Foster's and then she would find Trace to help her load it onto the wagon. Needing to walk off some anger, Rachel bypassed the butcher shop where she was to purchase some bacon and ventured to Molly Ledbetter's dress shop to look at the new fabrics and styles. Molly was a gray-haired grandmotherly-type who had been very close with Rachel's mother. She knew, regardless of the rumors and gossip, Molly would welcome her, offer her a cup of tea and probably give her some excess material she always just happened to have hanging around so that Rachel could make herself something pretty.
The bell on the door clanged when the blonde entered. Looking up from hanging a woven waist jacket on a rack, Molly Ledbetter's eyes twinkled as she smiled warmly at the daughter of her much missed friend. The reaction of the two shop patrons weren't quite as congenial, however. Glaring at Rachel in condemnation, Rosalie Beauregard, turned to her daughter, Suzanne, and said, "We might have to leave."
The timid, mousy, brown haired Suzanne knew Rachel well. They had grown up singing in the church choir together. The blonde had always thought they were close until, because of pressure from her golddigging mother, Suzanne became engaged to Seth Carver, Ben Crane's cousin. That made it extremely difficult for the blonde to maintain a civil conversation with the brunette or anyone in her family.
Catching Rachel in town one day, about a week before Ben Crane's fateful visit to the ranch, Suzanne confided through tears that this was not her idea and begged the blonde not to hate her. Knowing how domineering Rosalie was and how accommodating the brunette's father would be by being associated with the Cranes, Rachel knew Suzanne didn't stand a chance.
"Good afternoon, Suzanne," Rachel addressed her, knowing the young woman probably would not dare to respond. "Mrs. Beauregard."
Sticking her nose in the air with an emphatic 'harumph!' Rosalie nearly wrenched Suzanne's arm backward, pulling her toward the door. The skittish brunette blinked apologetically at Rachel but stayed silent. "Molly? Are you going to allow this kind of person into your store?"
Molly Ledbetter gave the blonde a patient look and then turned to Mrs. Beauregard. "What kind of person is that, Rosalie? Certainly you wouldn't be referring to my very best, dear departed friend's daughter?"
"Well, honestly, Molly, she's out there on that ranch, all alone, entertaining men...sullying her mother and father's good name. It's disgusting."
"Unlike your daughter who is being whored out to Seth Carver just so you can get your talons into the Crane fortune?"
The look of shock on Rosalie's face was predictable and the look of near amusement on Suzanne's face was priceless. "Well! I never...!"
Looking pointedly at Suzanne, Molly responded with, "Well, you did at least once..."
"Molly Ledbetter! See if I ever shop here again!!" Rosalie spit out, quite vehemently.
"Suit yourself, Rosalie. If you're going to be more judgmental than the Lord concerning my other customers and people dear to me, then I would prefer that you go to Jefferson for your dresses from now on."
"You'll regret this," Rosalie warned, as she pulled Suzanne to the entrance. The younger woman mouthed the words, 'Bye, Rachel' before being yanked out the door by her mother.
Watching the activity then looking back at Molly, Rachel said, "I'm sorry, Miz Ledbetter, I didn't mean to cause trouble."
"Oh, honey, you didn't cause that..." Molly waved her hand at the vacant space left by Rosalie and Suzanne. "I've never had much use for John or Rosalie Beauregard, both of them always thought they were more high and mighty than anyone else in this town. Even before they got involved with the Crane clan."
"Yes. Poor Suzanne. She's the one coming out on the short end of all this."
"Girl needs to get a backbone. Needs some of that Young stock in her," Molly smiled, winking at the blonde. "Now, come have some tea with me and tell me what you've been up to because I surely don't believe what I've been hearing..."
Walking into Wilbur's Saloon was surreal, pushing through the hinged, swinging doors like cowboys did in so many of the westerns Trace had watched as a kid. She took in her surroundings, the dirty, dusty wooden floor, the four large round tables obviously used for card playing, several smaller tables just for sitting and drinking, a long and well-stocked bar up against the wall, a piano against a staircase that led upstairs to what Trace assumed were rooms occupied by a prostitute or two. But, sadly, no pool table.
Strolling purposefully up to the bar, the detective was aware that she was collecting a few stares along the way. So what else was new? The barkeep, a bear of a man probably Trace's age, with stringy dark hair and a thick brush of a mustache smiled at the tall stranger. He was always grateful for a new customer, especially if he turned into a regular and a good tipper. He wiped off the space in front of the brunette with a damp rag.
"Howdy," the man said to Trace in a voice that betrayed his build. It was adolescent in nature, as if he was a teenage boy still going through puberty. She couldn't help but smirk. Not because of his unusual tone or that, if he sounded like that, she could now relax and not worry about her own timbre but because he actually said, 'howdy.'
"Hi," Trace responded, noncommittally.
"What can I get ya?"
Shrugging, Trace remembered what the pawnbroker called it..."A cream ale would be good."
Well that stumped her. She didn't think she would actually have a choice. Any experienced beer drinker would know his ale, so she said, "First time here, give me your most popular."
"That would be Handel's. Good choice. Coming right up." The big man behind the bar pulled out a mug and poured a pint of foam. Trace wanted to tell him to tip the glass and aim the stream against the opposite side but she felt that might be overstepping a little bit. Miraculously, when it was set in front of her, the head was barely a quarter of an inch.
"Thanks. How much?"
Trace laughed. A nickle for a pint of beer. Maybe she really had died in Mark's time machine and gone to heaven...well, except for the no indoor plumbing thing. She removed a handful of coins out of her breast pocket and set down a silver dollar. "Keep the brew flowing, my friend, and what I don't drink you can have for a tip."
The barkeep's face lit up and he let out a hoarse laugh. "Stranger, you're welcome in this bar any time." He extended his big, beefy hand. "Silas Boone."
Accepting his hand with her own firm grip, sizing this big ape of a man up, she immediately thought, 'What's your mama's name? Bab?' She then wanted to ask him if he was any relation to Daniel Boone but as she couldn't exactly remember if that character really existed or was just folk lore and, if he really was an actual person, had he been born yet - why didn't she pay attention in history class? She wisely decided to keep the conversation short and to the point. "Trace Sheridan."
"Where you from, Trace Sheridan?"
"Cottonwood." And then, before he could ask, she added, "It's far from here." She released his hand and took a sip of her beer. It wasn't bad, it was different. A little thicker than she was used to, no doubt from less filtering and dilution than in modern times. It could have been colder but she wasn't complaining. It was beer.
"How 'bout a shot of bug juice to go with that ale?"
Bug juice? Trace could only imagine what kind of bug. "Uh, no thanks, I think I'll pass."
"So what brings you to this neck of the woods, Trace?"
"Well...I was just passing through but my horse threw me and took off and I got hurt, so I'm staying out at the Young ranch, recovering and working off my debt to Ra - Miss Rachel for fixing me up. Plus, I need to earn enough money to get another horse so that I can move on." Perish the thought, she suddenly mused.
A strange look clouded Silas' face. "You out there at Frank Young's place? Alone...?
This was getting tedious already. Looking the bartender square in the eye, Trace said, "Yes. I am. Look, Silas, I intend to be around for a while and I am just staying at the Young place, sleeping in the barn - alone - there is nothing going on between Miss Rachel and me. But if there's something I should know about, I'd like to hear it."
"No, no..." the big man shrugged, looking down. "I just heard she's had some trouble out there, that's all..."
"What kind of trouble?"
Glancing back up at her, the bartender shrugged again. "Well, if she didn't tell you then I supposed it ain't my place to." Wait until Ben Crane found out Rachel had a man living out there with her. A young, strangely appealing man who looked like he could be a half-breed. This would not be well received.
Studying him, Trace knew Silas wanted to say something to her about it. But then the detective stiffened as she felt somebody move up next to her. Never taking her eyes off the barkeep, she observed, with more than mild interest, that Silas slowly walked away.
"That's right, Silas, you don't want to be tellin' tales out of school."
Aware that she was being scrutinized by whoever the man was standing to her left, Trace relaxed her body, psychologically preparing herself for a fight. The vibe she got from this man was extremely confrontational. 'Go ahead, fuckwad,' she thought to herself, 'start something I can finish.' She stared straight ahead and took a long drink of beer. Never physically acknowledging the man, Trace said, "Something I can do for you?"
"Yeah, you can tell me what you're doing at Frank Young's place."
Not moving a muscle, Trace took another sip of beer. She kept her voice steady and even. "First, Frank Young is dead, so I believe that would make it Rachel Young's place now and second, what business is it of yours?" It was then she turned toward the man and regarded him with a defiant, cold, blue glare. Her eyes fell on the star stuck to the man's rawhide vest. Unimpressed, she looked back up at his craggy face.
Even though he stayed put, the look in Trace's eyes made him take a mental step backward. He was more than a little surprised that this young buck didn't seem at all intimidated by the fact that he was The Law. Then the man squinted at her. "My business is Frank was a good friend of mine and he wouldn't like no gypsy man living out there with his daughter."
"Well, Sheriff, I am not a gypsy and before you ask or assume, I have no Indian blood in me, either. What my heritage is doesn't concern you." Trace noticed the dead silence that now engulfed the saloon where only seconds before there had been the sounds of conversation, glasses clinking, laughter and poker chips flying across tables. "What should concern you is - especially since Frank was such a good friend of yours - is the condition that property is in and that poor girl has nobody out there to help her. When was the last time you or anyone else checked on good old Frank's daughter?" She knew she was being facetious but she couldn't help herself.
The sheriff at least had the decency to look slightly embarrassed. "It's...uh...been a while. But Isaac Tipping delivers feed out there once a week and he would have told someone if she needed help," he countered, defensively. Not to mention, he thought to himself, the Cranes would literally kill anyone who attempted to help her. And since they were paying him handsomely to look the other way, he certainly wasn't going to set foot on the land, friend or no friend of Frank's. "It would be worth your while, son, to move on. Quickly."
Trace didn't like him. She had interacted with many snakes in her time and this man had viper written all over him. "Is that advice, Sheriff, or a threat?"
"Right now, it's advice. Don't let it become a threat."
Now that she pegged this man for what he was, she calmly smirked and took another swallow of beer. "I don't take kindly to threats, Sheriff." Where was this dialogue coming from? Trace never talked like that...'take kindly'? What was next? She wasn't going to 'cotton' to things? She had to consciously stop herself from laughing. "I'll move on when I am damned well ready to move on and not before." She neither raised her voice nor changed her expression. She certainly didn't want to end up behind bars her first visit to town but she also needed to establish some rules of her own - and being threatened and bullied just wasn't going to fly.
The sheriff was more than flustered. He wasn't used to people not cowering in his presence. Not only was this stranger not even flinching, he wasn't even breaking a sweat. The lawman, himself, reacted more nervously than this baby-faced, dark-haired drifter. The most frustrating part was he couldn't arrest the young man for anything to prove his power because the cowboy had been nothing if not polite and respectful, even if not very agreeable. The Cranes would not be happy about this at all when they got back. "Suit yourself," the sheriff commented, turning away from Trace and to the bar. "Silas, gimme a shot of bourbon."
The detective watched with interest as the bartender, frowning, grabbed a bottle with a deep amber colored liquid in at and poured it into a small glass. He then walked over and placed it in front of the lawman, who tossed it back with practiced ease. Pushing the glass forward, he cleared the liquor residue out of his throat. "Well...better get back to it," he announced to no one.
"Drinking on the job?" Trace commented, in amused observance, knowing she was close to stepping over a line. If nothing else, she liked life on the edge. It kept her juices flowing.
"You're a brazen fella, aren't ya?" the sheriff asked.
"I've been known to be," Trace answered, almost pleasantly, turning to lean against the bar and study the faces of the customers in the saloon.
Shaking his head, smiling, the sheriff responded with, "Just keep buildin' that big ol' chip on your shoulder, boy, it's gonna give me great pleasure to knock it off."
"It's going to give me greater pleasure to see you try," Trace countered, congenially. She and the lawman locked stares. He was not happy at all with her but she made sure her expression told him she was not backing down.
Standing up, rigidly, he scanned the interior of Wilbur's, daring anyone to look back at him. No one did. Then he panned back to the icy blue eyes of the bold cowboy. "You watch your step, son. Ain't smart what you're doin'. I have no doubt I'll be seeing you in my jail before you leave Sagebrush. That's if you leave Sagebrush." And with that, he strolled through the doors.
All eyes followed the sheriff until he was gone and then focused on Trace. Oblivious, her eyes still on the door, she said, "He's kind of an asshole, isn't he?"
The stillness nearly swallowed Trace up. When she finally looked around the room, she noticed everyone had been struck mute by her statement and they were all staring at her, dumbfounded. "What?" she asked, bewildered. Surely they had all noticed that the sheriff was an asshole...
"You got some sand, boy!" Silas said, breaking the silence as Trace turned back to face him. "Nobody talks to Ed like that. 'Specially not nobody ain't even wearing a six gun on his hip."
She shrugged slightly and took another few swallows of her beer. Who would have thought she would have needed to be armed just to come to town to get groceries? She guessed she needed to go back to the pawn shop at some point and buy a gun. Unless Rachel had some back at her place. "He doesn't scare me. He's a bully with a badge."
"Which is the worst kind. He's got the law to back him up."
"Only if he makes up the laws as he sees fit," the detective commented. Slowly the din of the saloon began to rise again as the patrons went back to what they had been doing before the exchange between Trace and the sheriff. Drinking down the rest of the pint, Trace signaled Silas for a refill, which the bartender did gladly.
She had not realized until that point how hazy with cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke the saloon had been. It burned her throat a little and she remembered that these were the days when no one knew how hazardous tobacco was to one's health and if she couldn't explain that to them, there was no way she was going to convince them that breathing secondhand smoke was just as bad. Smoking was a nasty little habit she was glad she had never picked up. She had tried it a few times, each attempt making her a little more nauseated than the last and after one final lightheaded, overly queasy moment, she decided cigarettes were not for her and she never touched them again.
Zelda, on the other hand, smoked as though she was on fire. Trace never remembered seeing her mother without a cigarette between her fingers, dangling out of her mouth or, usually, a beer in her hand. Trace obviously had no such problem adjusting to alcohol the way she did to nicotine. Nope. That could have been a gene passed down by both her parents, for all she knew.
She wondered about her mother and if Zelda had been told yet that Trace was missing. She wondered about Mark and how crazy with worry he must be, never knowing that she made it here alive and in one piece. She wondered, sadly, if Sandy's family had identified her and buried her yet. She wondered how Bobby and the rest of her co-workers were taking her sudden, mysterious disappearance. She wondered if DeSienna was tearing his hair out trying to find her. She wondered if she'd ever have a hot shower again as long as she lived.
Suddenly feeling very melancholy, she thanked Silas for the refill and drained half the glass.
Rachel and Molly Ledbetter sat opposite each other in the small back room of the dress shop. They were sharing a cup of hot tea and a corn meal muffin.
"Now, Rachel, I've known you since you were in pinafores and pigtails and you've never lied to me. Least not that I've known of. Don't think you're going to start now. What's all this I've heard about you and that turd with lips, Ben Crane?"
Rachel couldn't help but snicker. Molly was nothing if not colorful. "What has that serpent been saying?" She was trying to sound aloof but she knew the moment she heard the words, it would hurt deep in her bones.
"He's saying that he showed you the pain and glory of consummation and that you warmed that bed like a cold night's fire." The older woman watched the blonde for a reaction and her heart sank when she saw Rachel bite her lip and bow her head. "Oh, Rachel Frances Young, you did not give yourself to that touch hole...!"
Shaking her head, the tears flowed without pretense or warning. "No, Miz Ledbetter, I certainly did not," she choked out.
"Then why in heaven's name are you crying like you did?" When the blonde could not answer her, Molly reached over and gently lifted Rachel's chin and waited until the emerald green eyes met her weary hazel ones. The look of shame was not guilt but mortification. The anguish in Rachel's eyes caused Molly's breath to catch and a lump to form in her throat. "Oh, my Lord, child, what did he do?"
Staccato words came out in between gasps and sobs. "He hurt me real bad, Miz Ledbetter..."
Without hesitation, the dressmaker enfolded the distraught blonde in her arms and began to rock her, comfortingly. "Why that no good son of a snake! What happened?" She was trying to hold her fury back not wanting this lovely albeit destroyed young woman to think she was angry at or judging her. If she had Ben Crane in front of her right now, she would have killed him with her bare hands. "Isaac Tipping told everybody that you looked terrible bruised when he was delivering out there last month, said you told him you fell off that new mustang of yours...was that really Crane what did that to you?"
"Yes, Ma'am. He...he...well, Rosie had just foaled and I was going back to the house from the stable and he came up behind me and...he grabbed me...and brought me back inside and... took me... like a wild animal..." She was now hysterical. First at the memory and second at the relief of finally being able to tell someone.
Molly's arms stiffened. "Are you telling me that Ben Crane knocked you about and had his way with you?" The small blonde she was holding, nodded her head against the older woman's shoulder. Squeezing Rachel more emphatically, she said, "Lord, help me, those damned Cranes! They're never going to stop. And that damned Ed Jackson, he'll never do one thing to any of them. My word, child, if I'd had any idea, I'd have been out there to see you!"
"Mr. Ledbetter needs you here," Rachel managed to get out and she knew it was true. The dress shop was connected to the Ledbetter residence, which made it easy for Molly to frequently check on her husband, who was confined to their bed or a chair by the bed.
Three years earlier, a strapping Harvey Ledbetter was shot in an attempt to assist Rachel's father in a territorial dispute with the Cranes. The bullet hit his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down. Sheriff Jackson said since no one could prove who fired the shot, he couldn't arrest anyone and since it was a property issue, he really should keep his nose out of it. Since then, with Harvey being nearly as helpless as a baby, Molly Ledbetter didn't stray too far from her home.
"Please don't tell anyone, Miz Ledbetter, please!!" the blonde pleaded. "I'll be disgraced and no one will believe me...!"
"Shhh, shhh, Rachel, the problem is everybody will believe you, they all know what those Cranes are capable of, just no one will speak out against them. But now that Ben has spread what he has about you -"
"But that I can deny because it's true, I did not give myself to him in that manner and because everyone knows Ben's reputation, there's a chance they might think it's just him boasting. If it gets around that he truly did...have me...it won't matter how it happened and you know that. People'll feel sorry for me but it won't stop them from talking. And being thought of just like one of those pleasure girls at the sporting house over Wilbur's."
Shaking her head in frustration, she knew the younger woman was correct in her assessment of the situation. "It isn't right, you having to live out there all alone, having to deal with all this hell on earth! Why'd the Lord see fit to take Tommy from you? They wouldn't be doing this if Tommy had made it back and married you."
Yes, Thomas Baines would have put a legal damper on the Crane's brutish behavior, no doubt about that, Rachel thought. But it obviously wasn't meant to be. If the bullet on the train hadn't killed him, no doubt he still would have met his maker at the hands of one of the Cranes. Leaning back away from Molly, wiping her tears away with a delicate handkerchief, she took a deep breath. "I'm not alone anymore. At least not presently."
"You take on a hand?" Molly looked surprised.
"Yes. Well kind of." Again, she had to consciously remind herself to refer to Trace as male. "Rosie got out a couple days ago. Guess she thought she needed a vacation from nursing her baby. I went looking for her and came on this drifter got thrown from his horse. He was hurt so I brought him back to the house and fixed him up and he's going to stay and help me out with the land."
"What do you know about this stranger?" the older woman asked, cautiously.
"Only that he's not from around here and that he's willing to stay around, hole up in the barn and help me out for a while."
"How you paying him?" Off Rachel's weary look, she said, "I know, you're not like that, child, but everyone else will be wondering, 'specially after Ben running off at the mouth like he did."
"Just feeding him and giving him a place to lay his head seems to be enough. Lost his horse and wasn't wearing any guns when I found him, laying there, hurt."
"Sure he's telling you the truth?"
"He's been here almost three days and he hasn't tried anything yet. He's already fixed the break in the south fence for me. I really don't think he has any dishonorable intentions," Rachel responded, thinking, if Molly only knew...
"Well, hopefully, he'll still be around when the Cranes come back from their drive. A man out at your place won't exactly be popular with them. 'specially not Ben, but it might make them think twice before they try anything again. Young buck, is he?"
Rachel shrugged, then nodded. "Young enough."
"Young enough for you?" There was almost a twinkle in the older woman's eye.
"Molly Ledbetter! The last thing that will happen between me and this man is that!"
Trace knew she should be getting back to the wagon to help Rachel load it but the beer had started tasting very good and, despite the setting, she was starting to feel like herself again.
After the initial shock of her standing up to the sheriff, Silas returned to being his talkative self and before she knew it, she had the lowdown on just about everyone in town. Curiously, though, any subject even bordering on the Young family and their land was deftly avoided.
She was about to finish her final swallow of beer when the sound of running footsteps above them drew everyone's attention to the staircase. There appeared a half-clad, quite voluptuous redhead, shouting frantically, "Someone come quick! It's Jed, I think he's chokin' to death!!"
Several people ran for the stairs but Trace beat them all. Her training and instinct kicked in without a second thought and she followed the redhead to a room at the end of the hall. Flying through the open doorway, nearly skidding on the slick wooden floor, the detective observed an older man, sitting on an obviously just used bed, his face beet red, eyes popping, his mouth open, not a sound coming out of it. Yep, Trace thought, he's definitely choking. The prostitute began smacking him roughly on his back.
"No!" Trace yelled, "You'll just lodge it further!" Rushing over to the distinguished looking, silver-haired man, Trace pulled him to his feet and moved behind him, putting her arms around him, finding the right spot and performing the Heimlich maneuver.
As the onlookers watched in horror and fascination, the piece of steak the man had been dining on left his mouth and flew halfway across the room. Weak and gasping for breath, the half-naked man began coughing. Trace removed her arms but kept one hand on his back, should he need continued support.
"What the hell you doin', son?" a voice bellowed from the doorway, as another older, white-haired man moved through the crowd and into the room. He looked like pictures of Mark Twain Trace had remembered seeing. "What were you trying to do? Break the mayor's ribs?"
Looking at the man she had just saved and then at the prostitute, she shook her head. The Mayor. It figured. "No, I was saving his life," Trace stated, calmly.
"Squeezin' him like a bear's savin' his life?" the man continued, outraged.
"Shut up, Amos, you jackass!" the once choking man sputtered at the other man. "Jesus H. Kee-rist, whatever this young man did was the only thing got that darned piece of meat out of my gullet." He then indicated the redhead. "Cassandra pounding on my back like that was only making it worse."
Trace glanced at the prostitute, who shrunk back against the wall. "Hey, she tried." That elicited a smile from the redhead, holding her short, silky robe closed in the front.
Silas stepped into the room, hands raised in the air. "Okay, show's over, let the mayor have his privacy." Minimal grumbling followed the bartender's command and the room cleared out, Silas closing the door behind him. This left Trace, the prostitute, the mayor and the other older man in the room.
"What's you name, son?" The mayor asked, sitting back down on the bed, now breathing normally.
Extending his hand, the mayor said, "Jedediah Turner."
"Turner?" Trace questioned, accepting the rather limp handshake. "Any relation to the pawnbroker?"
"Ah, you've met my baby brother, Joseph." The mayor ran his hand through an unruly shock of white hair. "I know what you're thinking, everybody does...we couldn't look any more different if we were strangers." It was the truth, Trace thought, other than a slight resemblance around the eyes, they did not look related in the least. "He and me had different mamas." He looked back in the general direction of the prostitute. "Cassandra, bring me that bottle."
The redhead obeyed and handed the unmarked bottle to the mayor.
"Now, Jed, take it easy on that stuff..." the other man began and was immediately cut off by Jed Turner.
"Amos, will you shut thee hell up?! Your mouth flaps more'n a duck's ass." The mayor looked at Trace for the first time. "Why, you're a handsome feller, aren't ya? Bet you got the ladies after you like bees to honey..."
You have no idea, Trace thought.
"...unlike me who has to get me arms willin' but only if they're bought." He stated this matter-of-fact, no shame to his voice. "Have a shot of this bug juice with me."
What's with the freaking bug juice, Trace thought. "No, thanks, I'll pass."
"Suit yourself." And with that, he took a hearty swallow of the bottle's contents, making a long, satisfied rasping noise as the liquid burned its way down his throat. "Trace, you met Doc Smith, yet?"
Looking over at the other man in the room, the detective shook her head. "Not officially, no." She went to extend her hand but the doctor brushed by her to sit on the bed next to the mayor.
"Jed, let me check you out now -"
Slapping his hand away, the ornery mayor took another swig from the bottle in his hand. "Damn it, Amos, get away from me before I bean you with this! Now shake this boy's hand before I tell your wife you were in here playing poker."
Looking at Trace, the doctor now had an even more sour expression. "Don't need to make his acquaintance, he won't be staying around long enough for any of us to get to know."
"Why is that?" The mayor looked up at Trace then over at Amos Smith.
"Yeah," Trace folded her arms, complacently, also looking at the doctor. "Why is that?"
"You were given some good advice by the sheriff," Smith said, "I suggest you take it."
Confused, Jed Turner briefly studied both Trace and Smith, then refocused on the detective. "What's going on?"
Squinting at the doctor with unmistakable suspicion in her eyes, Trace directed her conversation toward the mayor before actually looking his way. "Your sheriff has suggested I move on, out of town."
"Really? Huh. Do you want to move on, son?" The mayor sounded sincere.
"It's growing on me. If I move on, I'd like to do it when I choose and not because someone suggests it."
"Then I think you should stay," the mayor declared.
"But, Jed, he's living out at -"
"Amos! I don't give a good Goddamn where he's livin', if he wants to stay then he should stay. This is still my town, ain't it?!"
"Well...yes, but Ed..."
"But, nothin'! Ed Jackson's as much of a horse's ass as you are!" Turner looked up at Trace. "You wanted by the law, son?"
The mayor looked back at the doctor. "Then you tell Sheriff Jackson he can go plum to hell, he won't be running anyone out of my town, and surely not anyone who just saved my life!" With that, the mayor stood up and reached for his pants. "Guess I won't be finishin' my dinner here. Kinda lost my appetite." Stepping into his trousers, Turner began muttering, "Goddamned Ed Jackson! Nothin' but a big bag of wind. If those Cranes weren't behind him, he'd be runnin' out of town the other way with a stripe down his backside!"
Trace let the mayor continue mumbling, while the unfriendly doctor tried to fuss over him. She looked over at Cassandra and nodded. "You okay?"
Startled not only by the question being directed at her but by the sincerity the voice that was asking, the redhead lifted her wide green eyes to engage Trace curiously.
Before she could answer, the mayor piped up, "Of course, she's fine, why wouldn't she be fine? I'm the one who damn near choked to death!" He snapped his fingers toward his shirt and the prostitute picked it up without hesitation and helped him put it on.
Trying not to look too disgusted at this display of false gender superiority, Trace quietly chewed the inside of her cheek to stay quiet. After all, the mayor was on her side...but just exactly what that meant remained to be seen.
"How's it you came to learn that little bear hug trick, anyway?" It was the doctor speaking to her this time in a tone of voice that was a little more friendly than before but not much. "You got some doctor training?"
"Um...no, nothing like that. Just some little thing I picked up in my travels."
"How's it work?"
"Well...here," Trace went to assume the position on the doctor and he flailed and pushed her away.
"I don't want you bear hugging me! Show me on Cassandra."
An eyebrow shot up into Trace's hairline as she assessed the redhead with the hourglass figure. Hmmmm... this might not be so bad. And the way the prostitute was eyeballing her back, it was obvious Cassandra was more than agreeable to the request. She practically leapt toward the detective with a predatory grin on her face.
Stopping her at arms length, Trace turned the redhead around, instructing as she slowly demonstrated, beginning with wrapping her arms around the prostitute's waist.Making a fist and placing the thumb side of her fist against the redhead's upper abdomen, below her ribcage and above her navel, the detective tried not to think about the heavy breasts that were almost touching her forearms.Focusing back on her task, Trace grasped her right fist with her left hand and pressed into Cassandra's upper abdomen with a quick upward thrust, which made the prostitute gasp with surprise. Of course, the detective minimized the effort, as not to do any harm. "You don't actually squeeze the ribcage," Trace explained. "You confine the force of the thrust to your hands and then you repeat until the object is expelled."
Cassandra could have cooperated a little better and not constantly tried to lean her body back into Trace's but the detective was able to get her lesson across without molesting the nearly nude body of the prostitute in her arms. Although embracing this woman, regardless of the circumstances, did make the detective's mouth water a little. Snapping out of it, she gently let go of the redhead, smiled politely and stepped back. "Understand?" she asked the doctor.
"Makes no sense to me," Smith spat back.
"Don't have to make no sense if it worked," the mayor countered, putting his jacket on. He walked up to Trace and clapped her on the shoulder. "Thank you, son, for letting me live to see another day."
"You're welcome, Mr. Mayor," Trace responded.
"Mr. Mayor!" Jed Turner repeated, cackling. "Polite feller, too."
"He wasn't so polite to Ed," Doc Smith muttered, following the mayor out the door.
"Nobody should be polite to Ed, he don't deserve it, the damned fool!" Jed Turner yammered out into the hallway.
Suddenly Trace and Cassandra were alone in the room. The detective was about to ask a few questions about the mayor and the doctor when the prostitute let the robe slide off her body and she posed seductively in front of the brunette. Trace couldn't help but stare at the natural - she noticed now - redhead while her brain adjusted to the situation. Cassandra was not an unattractive woman by any means and although she was a bit more plump than Trace was used to, her body certainly wasn't unpleasing to the eye. Her first attempt to speak produced no words, so she cleared her throat and tried again.
But not before Cassandra purred, "How 'bout one on the house? Seein' as you just saved my best customer and all."
Taking one last look at breasts that begged to be fondled and lips that looked like they could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch, Trace nodded her head toward the doorway, somewhat reluctantly. "I'm...uh...really flattered, Cassandra, and maybe some other time but right now, I should get back to the store." But her feet seemed glued to that spot on the floor. It was only when the redhead took a step toward her and reached out to cup a part of anatomy she didn't have that she shook herself out of her mini-fantasy and ducked out the door. "Thanks anyway," Trace tossed back in, removed her hat, wiped her brow and headed back downstairs. It was a close call and one that the detective put in her mental archives to be cautious of in the future.
Cassandra, initially surprised that anyone - especially such a young, healthy man like Trace Sheridan obviously was - would turn down a freebie, found herself smiling. She had never encountered a challenge before and definitely not one as good looking. Why, he was almost pretty, he was so handsome. She suddenly decided to make it her mission to get this cowboy into her bed before he was run out of town.
A quick round of 'goodbyes' and 'good jobs' and exiting the saloon didn't mean the detective wasn't mildly turned on. Yes. She would definitely have to purchase a gun. If, for nothing else, to use the bullets to bite on in situations like this. Added to all the other things, she also wondered if she'd ever have sex again as long as she lived...
Trace found Rachel waiting impatiently in front of Foster's Grocery. She suppressed a smile. It was amazing how they already seemed to have fallen into a rhythm with each other. The brunette felt a sense of relief at seeing the smaller blonde and when Rachel finally saw Trace, the same look of relief crossed her face, also. That mollifying sensation stopped abruptly when Trace got close enough to see that Rachel had been crying.
Her defensive nature provoked her temper to flare immediately and she reached out and touched the blonde's arm. "What's wrong? Did that grocer make you cry?!"
Before the detective went off half-cocked to evidently give Luther Foster a piece of her mind, Rachel clamped on to Trace's arm, circling her back around to face her. "No, Mr. Foster did not make me cry. I visited with a dear friend of my mama's and it was just...sad...that's all." She watched the brunette's eyes soften.
"Oh. Okay. I just thought...he was being such a jerk to you and all..." She instinctively wanted to pull the blonde into her arms and comfort her but common sense stopped her. First, they were in public view of the whole town and second, Rachel probably wouldn't be very receptive to it. Unfortunately. After the offer she had just had over at Wilbur's, she would have welcomed this particular woman in her arms.
Trace's automatic protectiveness flattered Rachel and she felt a warmth surge through her that should not have stirred her blood the way it did. She was confused by the alien emotion and disturbed because this was not the first time she had experienced it around the mysterious woman. The blonde reasoned that it was more than likely because she had to think of Trace as a man...still, it didn't make it any less troubling that she wished Trace would take her in her arms and make it all go away.
They loaded the wagon and headed out of town back to the ranch. Trace couldn't stop the smirk when she lifted the two gallons of olive oil onto the back. In fact, she was visualizing the blonde's skilled hands massaging her when her thoughts were interrupted by the sound Rachel's voice.
"You want to pay attention to guiding Moses? Otherwise we're going to end up down by the river. I swear that horse would live there if I ever set him loose."
"Oh...sure..." She forced herself back to reality and noticed that they were about twenty feet off the dirt road, heading to the left. She pulled the reins slightly to the right and the horse wandered back to the path.
"What were you thinking about?" Rachel asked, curiously.
"Nothing...just, um, daydreams."
Change the subject, Trace, the sooner the better, she thought. "Rachel, do you own any guns?"
"Yes. My father left me with two Colt Peacemakers, a Sharps, a Winchester and a Carbine...why?"
"Until I buy my own, can I use one of those?"
Cautiously, Rachel said, "Of course. But why? Did something happen in town?"
"No, no..." Oh hell, with that grapevine, she'd find out soon enough. "Well, sort of..."
"Sort of?" She was staring directly at Trace, alarmed.
Shrugging, the detective was looking for a way to minimize the detail, when she did a double take at Rachel's expression. "No, Rachel, everything's fine, really. I just kind of had a run in with the sheriff..."
"Oh, no..." The blonde closed her eyes in dread. "Not Sheriff Jackson..." Shaking her head, she let her chin drop. "I just left you on your own for a few hours...and the one person I would have preferred you not run into is that vile excuse for a man..."
"Aha! So you know he's an asshole!" Trace declared, triumphantly, as Rachel briefly reacted to the vulgarity by glaring at the brunette, wide-eyed. "He threatened me, told me to move on if I knew what was good for me," the detective told her, incredulously.
"Because he found out you were staying with me?"
"Yes." She searched the blonde's face for a clue. "Why is that?"
"I told you how people would react -"
"No, it was more than that. Because when I was saving the mayor's life, the doctor -"
She grabbed Trace's arm. "Wait - what? You saved Jed Turner's life? What in heaven's name went on over at the saloon?" As the detective laid out the story for her, the blonde absorbed it all, amazed at how the circumstances just kept evolving, curious about this technique the brunette described and, also, grateful for the diversion.
"So, how is it that no one is surprised that your mayor is choking on his lunch upstairs in a prostitute's room?" Trace asked, pointedly.
"Oh, Jed eats his lunch every day up in that redheaded harlot's room, everybody knows it. He's a crusty old bird...he's a widower and never remarried. Not that any of the widow women in this county would ever hitch up with him. Everybody just looks the other way and he wouldn't care if they didn't."
"How did somebody like that get to be mayor?"
"He inherited the job from his daddy. Got elected after he'd already had it for a month because no one else wanted it." Because no one else wanted to deal with the Cranes, she finished, silently.
"And who are the Cranes?" Trace did not expect the intake of breath and the deathly quiet that came from the woman sitting next to her. Looking at the blonde, the detective found her pale and staring straight ahead. "Rachel...who are the Cranes?"
Finally, Rachel found her voice. "I really would rather not speak of them..."
"Just saying their name seems to strike terror in the heart of everyone and since they were referred to in the sheriff's warning to me, I'd kind of like to know." Watching the blonde's expression, Trace knew the name struck terror in her heart, too. Softly, she said, "I would really appreciate knowing what I might be facing with these Cranes..."
"They...they are not nice people."
"I gathered that. Are they responsible for the destruction of the fence I fixed yesterday?"
"I believe so, yes."
"Why?" Even though Trace was trying to be gentle in her questioning, her adrenalin was pumping pure rage through her veins.
Sighing, the blonde knew that Trace was right, she had been threatened, she needed to know at least the basics. But just the basics. "Jacob Crane is a cattle baron. He owns most all the land west of Sagebrush. Everyone has sold their land to him. Except me."
"And the reason you haven't sold?"
The blonde's eyes flashed in indignant anger before she spoke, the words coming out in stiff bites. "My great-grandfather bought this land when the first settlement came to town. Everything I have today was built on the sweat of my ancestor's brow. Jacob Crane moved his family and his cattle business here just a little over a decade ago. They've been forcing everyone off their lands ever since."
"Forcing or buying people out?" Trace could tell by the tone of the blonde's voice and the expression on her face that this was delicate territory, so she tried to tread lightly.
"Oh, they're offering money but if you say no, things happen."
"What kind of things?" But even before the words left her mouth, she knew. The empty barn, the vandalized property...the loss of her parents, perhaps?
Avoiding the obvious, Rachel confirmed Trace's speculation. Great. She left one turf war only to step into another one. Different stakes, same principle. In response to the query regarding her parents, the blonde unfolded the tale of sickness that claimed both her mother and father, then onto the untimely death of her fiancée. The longer the blonde went on, the more Trace's heart ached for her. This poor woman had been through enough, the detective decided.
"And they have been after you ever since?" The detective watched Moses clop through the entrance of the Triple Y ranch and looked around at the deceivingly serene setting.
"Yes," Rachel responded, with a rebellious lilt.
"What did they offer you?"
"Their most recent is fifty thousand dollars for just the land, plus a twelve percent profit on the house and improvements."
Thinking back to the era they were in and that Rachel might be able to start a nice little life on that amount, Trace said, "That's a nice little chunk of change, you -"
"I am not selling to them!" Rachel's bellow overrode anything Trace was going to say. Folding her arms stubbornly across her chest, they endured the next few minutes in awkward silence.
"Why is it so important for them to have your land?"
"Because it runs right smack dab in the middle of their cattle drive route."
"Can't they go around?"
"Sure. But every mile runs that much more beef off the steers."
Thinking about this ignited the fire in Trace's belly. It had been a long time since she had stood up for the underdog and she loved a good fight. These Crane people were probably not going to stop until Rachel gave in. Looking over, seeing the fierce set in the blonde's jaw, Trace knew she now had another reason, other than personal obstinacy, to stay put. "When are these Cranes due back?"
"Shouldn't be for another two months, more or less."
As the wagon stopped in front of the house, Trace smiled at Rachel with more self-confidence than the blonde had ever seen in any man. "Then it looks like we have our work cut out for us, huh?"