Disclaimers: See Part 1
The petite, pallid, slender blonde stepped cautiously, listening for any unusual or suspicious noises around her, ready to use the shot gun she would now carry with her at all times. She was still skittish and frightened from her attack three weeks earlier and wasn't at all pleased that on her first foray outside the sanctity of her ranch, one of her horses got loose and trotted away. She should have just let him come back on his own but with all that had happened lately, she couldn't be sure if he would return or meet with an untimely demise at the hands of the ruthless Crane family, who were doing everything they could to intimidate her off her land.
Any sane person would have just taken the monetary offer and let them have their way. But her resolve went way beyond what anyone one else considered rational. Small as it was, compared to others in the area, this ranch had belonged to her mother and father and it meant too much to her to just give it up. It was all she had left of her family. It was her home and she stubbornly did not care that it was blocking the influentially, territorial, strong-arming Crane clan from their direct cattle drive route eastward or their mission to own all the property west of the booming little town of Sagebrush. She had paid dearly for her obstinacy - slaughtered cows, burned crops, crippled horses and the worst of all, her rape.
Ben Crane was the youngest of the Crane boys, the only one who hadn't married yet and was under a lot of pressure from his family to do so. But Ben was a notorious philanderer, considered merely roguish by his father and brothers but was known as a violent womanizer in the town. Ben was a mean drunk who preferred the company of the wayward women who resided above the saloon because he knew he could treat them any disrespectful way he pleased and pay them enough to take it.
However, now with the strong insistence of his family to take a wife, he cast his eye upon Rachel Young, perhaps the most beautiful woman in the valley, easily the comeliest of any female Ben had ever seen. After all, why shouldn't he have the best? Besides, it would solve the problem of gaining access to the land she owned. It never occurred to him that she wouldn't be interested, that she would resist his offer, that she would have the audacity (much less the courage) to turn down a Crane.
Well, he had to admit that his reputation wasn't the most proper and maybe that was the deterrent. And she had been polite but firm in her refusal, even though he had taken a bath, donned his best Sunday suit and brought her a bouquet of flowers. However, a Crane never took no for an answer and he thought that he could just wear her down. He was, he knew, very handsome, rich and charming, when he put his mind to it, and he felt that the lovely Miss Rachel would never get another offer like his. So, why had she been so difficult? It wasn't right that she lived on this big spread of land by herself, her father losing his battle with cancer three months before her mother, who passed away a year earlier from consumption, her beau had been killed in a train robbery almost right after her mother died. She had to be lonesome and she needed a husband to take care of her and all the manly responsibilities that owning a ranch entailed.
Ben Crane tried several times to call on her but Rachel Young would have none of it. The more persistent he was, the stronger her unyielding nature became. Stubborn woman. He was getting to be the town joke and began to feel humiliated at some of the more brazen comments aimed at his manhood. One evening, nearly a month ago at Wilbur's Saloon, the more he drank, the more his anger soared. He rode out to the Young ranch, well after dusk, and caught Rachel leaving the stall of a new mama and her colt.
She fought him fiercely, screamed, yelled, struggled, begged, pleaded...but she was no match for his physical strength or nasty alcohol-induced demeanor. By the time he was finished, she had nearly passed out from the pain and injuries her body had sustained from the brutal attack.
She was weak and terrified, in shock, embarrassed and at a total loss for what to do next. Crane, reeking of stale whiskey and bitter tobacco, rolled off her, smug, arrogant, plainly lacking any shame. He staggered to his feet, pulled his trousers back up, sunk back to his knees and drew back his arm at her. She flinched, cowered, instinct directing her to cover her face but her limbs wouldn't respond. She prepared herself to feel the blow of his fist again but something stopped him from following through.
"Now look at ya. Ain't too good for me now, are ya? You're a nice piece of tail, Miss Rachel, and I'll make sure the whole town knows it, too. I'll make sure if you don't marry me, then no man will want ya." And, with that, he left the stall, mounted his horse and rode away.
She laid there for several minutes after he was gone, frozen, her brain feeling paralyzed, not fully believing or comprehending what had just taken place. Tears involuntarily crept down her face as she slowly sat up, her favorite gingham work dress now in tatters, every movement excruciating, every bone in her body, every inch of her skin, feeling agonizingly damaged. She brushed straw and hay out of her hair with a shaky hand, her trembling fingers then inspecting the cuts and bruises on her cheek and lips. And then there was the blood on her dress. There seemed to be so much blood.
She had been a virgin, scheduled to marry her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Baines, and she had been saving herself for her wedding night as any respectably brought up woman did. But then Tommy had been killed in the crossfire of a train robbery gone horribly awry. He had been on his way back to Sagebrush after finishing school and earning his law degree...he was coming home to her, to marry her when the unthinkable happened. He had been sitting in his seat, minding his own business when a stray bullet from the revolver of one of the marshals pursuing the robbers went clean through his heart. It was as if the bullet had penetrated her heart as well, even though she was safely a hundred miles away, tending to her herb and vegetable garden. In a little over a year, she had lost the three most important people in her life...who could blame her for becoming a recluse?
Rachel had been warned by her mother that she might bleed on her wedding night, sometimes the breaking of the hymen would cause that, but if it happened, it was natural and she shouldn't worry about it. Certainly her mother hadn't meant it would have been like this...no, Tommy would have been gentle and loving, he never would have hurt her. Not that she had been even thinking about it, still being in mourning and all, but Ben Crane was right. No man would want her now. Yet that was the least of her worries, as she slowly rose to her knees, feeling as though someone had inserted a fist, which had grabbed hold of her female organs and yanked down with all their might. She collapsed to a fetal position, convulsing in pulsating pain and then she couldn't stop herself from heaving up the contents in her stomach on what was left of the clothing remaining on her battered body.
Hours had passed before she felt able to leave the stall and even think about making her way back to the main house. Once inside, she bolted her door closed, not daring to face her reflection in the mirror, afraid of what she knew she would see. She utilized the indoor pump to fill the kettle that she would use to heat water for her bath. She barely waited for the liquid to roll to a boil before she finished filling the tub with tepid water right from the pump. And she scrubbed what skin wasn't already raw and bleeding until it was.
In the twenty-five days since, she had lived off her own land, not leaving the ranch. Once a week, Caleb Tipping's boy, Isaac, rode out to the property with a regular feed order from his store, so the stock was always taken care of. When he looked horrified by her appearance, she explained away her bruises by telling the teenager that she had been trying to break the new mustang she got and was thrown for her efforts.
Even if someone had believed she had been raped, no one would have done anything about it because her attacker had been one of the all-powerful Cranes. She would heal herself, keep her own counsel and do the best she could to keep her home and sanity intact. And then other incidents started to mysteriously happen to her animals, her property, her livelihood. That's when she started carrying around the shotgun everywhere with her. She swore if Ben Crane ever came near her again, she would blow a hole in him bigger than the entire Texas territory.
Rachel blinked, thinking the sun was playing tricks on her at first and then praying the man lying motionless on the ground in front of her was not dead. Approaching carefully, she first gently prodded the person with the barrel of her gun. There was no movement. She looked for obvious wounds such as bullet holes, slash marks, rope line around the neck...but she saw no evidence of any of that nor did she see any blood anywhere.
She wasn't above thinking that Crane might have sent one of his men to trick her, so she was guarded when she knelt down to study the situation more closely. If it wasn't a ploy, this person was hurt somehow and she just couldn't leave him there to die or to suffer alone for the coyotes, buzzards and God only knew what else to finish him off. Seeing nothing to convince her that there was anything to be concerned about on this cowboy's back, she rolled him over with great effort to observe the front side of him.
She started at the man's boots, which didn't look like any cowboy footwear she had ever seen before, then noticed that his denim trousers also seemed different...or maybe that was just the way they fit over this slender man's lower frame. As her eyes traversed up this stranger's body, her focus was suddenly pulled to his head. This was no one she had ever seen before and, having grown up in Sagebrush, she thought she knew everyone. Although, there were always saddle bums moving through town at any given time, picking up enough work to get them enough money to move on to the next town.
Her gaze finally focused on the drifter's facial features and her heart stopped as she looked at the most striking face she had ever laid eyes on. The features were sculpted, high cheekbones and tanned complexion which could have indicated a possible Indian or Gypsy heritage, long dark eyelashes and shaggy, black hair cut in a style she'd never seen any man sport in these parts. The nose was slender, almost womanish, but it seemed perfect on this face. The lips looked soft and they were slightly parted, an expression which immediately got Rachel's heart beating again, only a little faster than she was used to. She wasn't sure exactly what emotion was washing over her but she knew it wasn't fear.
Her hand automatically brushed against the cowboy's face, feeling no stubble, no evidence of a beard and she guessed, despite his long and well filled out form, and this stranger must be young or reiterated the notion of some Indian blood in him. Transfixed, she had to mentally chastise herself to continue searching for injuries. Rachel's free hand moved down to the stranger's denim shirt, scanning for anything out of the ordinary. Finding a tear in the fabric, she then felt something odd. She began unfastening the metal buttons, opening the shirt to reveal an unusual looking wrap, a binding of some kind. Spotting a circle of blood, approximately the size of her fist, Rachel assumed she had found the wound that must have made this stranger pass out.
Feeling the odd stretchy material of the binding, she put her fingers on the dark, moist area that appeared to be bleeding. Separating the layers of the wrap to see what type of wound she was dealing with, when she found skin, she saw a small jagged cut that did not look like a bullet hole or a knife slice. Her eyes grew wide, however, when she immediately noticed something else. Cleavage.
Startled, she glanced back up at the fascinating face and found herself looking directly into the most intense pale blue eyes she had ever seen. Before she could react, a hand grabbed her wrist, holding her in place securely, strength she was surprised to find in a woman.
"What are you doing?" the stranger asked, tersely. Her voice was raspy but her register was a low alto, one that could have been possibly mistaken for a callow male.
"N-nothing...I...I was checking to see if y...you were hurt..." She sounded terrified and confused.
Trace realized how tightly she was holding this woman's wrist and quickly eased up her grip and then let her go. Rachel lost her balance and fell back on her rear end, dropping her rifle. She scrambled backward, picking up her shotgun, got to her feet and fixed the weapon at Trace.
"Who are you? Why are you dressed like a man?" Rachel's voice may have been shaking but her aim was steady.
"How do you know I'm not?"
"Well..." she hesitated, "...you don't have any whiskers..."
"All the men in my family have light beards." Trace scratched her chin for emphasis and moved to leaning on her elbows. She had to squint to protect her eyes from the sun, which was still high in the sky behind Rachel.
"And," Rachel's face reddened in embarrassment, "you have breasts."
Trace smiled at her. "And you would know that because...?"
"I was checking to see if you were hurt."
"Uh huh." The brunette nodded, not taking her eyes off the blonde.
"Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because you're pretending to be a man," Rachel reemphasized.
"Shit," Trace swore. "Not even here, what, thirty minutes and I've already blown my cover." She shook her head, disgusted with herself.
Rachel was more than mildly surprised that this woman did not seem at all afraid of facing down the barrel of her shotgun. And her words were peculiar. Blown her cover? What did that mean? "Answer my question," The blonde demanded, readjusting the hold on her shot gun training it on Trace as she slowly, stiffly sat up.
The Twenty-First century police detective rubbed her eyes and then directed her attention to the Nineteenth Century woman. Her long, golden blonde hair probably bleached lighter by whatever time she spent outside in the sun, was pulled back away from her face and shoulders by a ribbon. She had intelligent, piercing, emerald green eyes and a lovely face. Her slender figure was covered from shoulder to toe by a dress that showed off her more than an adequate bust line, trim waist and then billowed out from there. When Trace's eyes moved back up Rachel's body and pinned her with a defiant glare, the blonde set her jaw and matched her recalcitrance.
Casually putting her hand up in surrender, Trace attempted to massage away the dull pain in her shoulder with her other hand. "Okay, okay, relax. You can put that thing down, I'm not going to hurt you or try anything. I promise." Rachel lowered the shotgun to her side but her posture remained alert. "What year is it?"
"What?" The blonde blinked, wondering what was wrong with this very handsome woman.
"Year...what year is it?"
"Eighteen hundred and seventy-nine. Why don't you know that? Did you hit your head?"
An exuberant smile crossed Trace's face. "He did it!! Yes!!" Her enthusiasm and odd behavior startled the blonde, who leveled the weapon at her again. Once again, the brunette raised her hand. "No, it's - never mind. I'm just a little fuzzy from my...um...fall."
"You fell? Is that how you got cut?" There was a hint of concern in her voice.
Rachel indicated the bloodstain on Trace's wrapped chest. "There."
Looking down, the detective's hand instinctively went to her breast. "Shit." She reached inside the binding and felt around. "Yep. Damn it." Looking around her immediate area, she spied a jagged rock she must have landed on. Well, thankfully, it wasn't bleeding profusely or too terribly painful. Her entire body ached from the impact. She knew she'd have a few bruises but was pretty sure nothing was wrenched, sprained or broken.
"You curse a lot. And you still haven't answered my question."
Sighing, Trace knew she couldn't put it off, any longer. "I'm not from around here, which I'm sure you already noticed."
"Where are you from?"
"Um..." She had to make up a name...if she said Union City and that was the name of the town now, the blonde would know she was lying. "...Cottonwood?"
"I've never heard of it...where is that?"
"Far from here."
"How'd you get here?"
"Uh...my horse threw me?"
"Why do you say it like you're asking me? Did your horse throw you or not?"
"Yes. Yes. My horse threw me. You haven't seen him anywhere around have you?"
Rachel suspiciously squinted. "What did he look like?"
Think fast, Trace. "He was a...pinto with a...um...brown mane and tail. Black saddle."
"Haven't seen anything like that around here. A painted pony, huh? You Indian?"
"Me? No." Not that I know of, Trace finished to herself. "Why? Do I look Indian?"
"Looks like you could have some Indian in you. Or Gypsy. So - are you running from somebody or not?"
What to do, what to do. Maybe this woman could help her. She definitely needed a friend and maybe explaining her circumstances in terms that the smaller woman might understand would make a difference. Not only that, Trace thought, as she ran her tongue over her bottom lip, giving the blonde a more than appreciative once over, maybe she could introduce this little cutie to a little Sapphic pleasure while she was here. Trace gave herself a mental slap. Those kinds of advances would probably get her executed in this era. Damn...maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. "Well...it's like this. I'll tell you if you put that gun down and we can get out of the sun."
Not budging, Rachel said, "You'll tell me now."
Trace knew she could be on her feet and disarm the blonde in a heartbeat but she also knew that would be a mistake. This woman wasn't a killer. She was frightened, Trace could sense it, could see it in her eyes. She certainly wouldn't make any points by bullying her. Relaxing, Trace broke into her friendliest smile and shrugged in concession. "All right... may I ask your name?"
"Rachel, I'm Trace. And yes, Rachel, someone is after me."
"What did you do?"
"Actually? Nothing." She surely wouldn't understand the dynamics of the vendetta, so Trace decided to keep it simple. "I made someone very angry with me and I did everything I could to fix the situation but nothing worked. So now he wants me dead."
Her eyes widened in shock. That would explain the disguise but what could a woman have possibly done that was so bad to have caused a posse to be after her? "Why?"
"Because...well...where I come from, Rachel, things are more, um, advanced. Women are allowed to be cops -"
"What's a cop?"
"Peace officers?" The expression of confusion on Rachel's face told Trace she didn't understand the vernacular.
"Marshals and sheriffs and deputies and jailers."
At first she nodded in comprehension but then she raised an eyebrow, as though she felt the brunette was pulling her leg. She almost laughed. "You must think I'm a fool. Women can't be the law. I've never heard of such a thing!"
"I'm serious. I am not lying to you. I was what was called a police detective in my town and -”
"Detective? Like Pinkerton?"
"No. Yes. Well, not exactly. It's sort of like that but I was more of a sheriff. I arrested some men who had friends and relatives that didn't like that very much. But they were very bad men and they needed to stay in jail. The leader of these men vowed to kill me. And I know he would, so...that's why I came here."
"Will he come here looking for you?" Rachel's voice suddenly took on a small intonation of dread.
"I doubt it. He has no idea where to even start looking for me."
"Then why must you keep dressing like a man?"
There was no way Rachel would understand the dynamics of that, either. "Because...I can't guarantee he or his gang won't eventually ride through the area hunting for me." Trace's blue eyes seemed almost pleading, which caused Rachel's cautious green ones to soften. "I know this is a lot to ask because we don't know each other but I need your help."
"What could I possibly do to help you?" Her voice was laced with skepticism. "I won't put my life in danger for someone I don't even know. Besides, I'm still not sure you're telling me the truth."
"You're right. You don't. I'm not asking you to hide me; I'm asking you to keep my cover -"
"My disguise...I'm going to need to stay here a while - a long while - and I'm going to need to continue to convince everyone that I'm a man."
"Um...well, first...as I said, if this man and his friends ride through town looking for me, they'll be looking for a woman, not a man. Second, like I said, where I come from things are a lot more progressed. As an...uh... enforcer of the law, I am a lot more aggressive than any of your women and most of your men. I need to live here as a man. Trust me. Otherwise, men here will want to kill me, too."
"I still don't understand."
"I don't either but that's the way things are. You seem like a very kind woman, Rachel, and I am pretty sure you wouldn't do anything to intentionally send me to my death."
"No, of course not!" the blonde exclaimed, indignantly. "But I cannot have a man living in my home."
"Why? You're husband?"
"I'm not married."
"Really? A beautiful woman like you?" Trace's smile was engaging. "Why not?"
Rachel cast her eyes downward. "I'm just not." It wasn't the fact that Rachel was not married that made her break eye contact with Trace, it was an odd, not easily undefined feeling the brunette generated in her that caused a burning in her cheeks. For the second time since meeting this stranger, Rachel's heartbeat sped up.
Reading her reaction, Trace knew there was a story behind it. Now was not the time to pursue it. "Like I said, I'm not asking you to hide me, just to keep my secret."
As if Rachel had not even heard her, she continued, her gaze still on the ground. "It's just not proper. And even though I know you are not really a man, the town would not."
"It's okay, I understand."
Rachel finally lowered the gun to her side. "Were you really a sheriff?" The interest sounded genuine.
"Absolutely. If you have a bible, I'll put my left hand on it and raise the right one to God."
That must have been the right thing to say. Rachel became pensive. "Well...if anyone asks, I could say that I found you hurt and that I'm nursing you back to health..."
"Yeah, that would work," Trace added, hopefully. "Then the town could gradually get to know me."
"And I really could use some help with the land..."
Trace cocked her head and shrugged. "You'd have to show me what you need done - I haven't ever worked land at all."
"You'd have to sleep in the barn."
"With what?" An unpleasant thought crossed her mind...the odor of pig, chicken, cow and horse shit - or smelling like it - was something she didn't think she could get used to. "What else lives in the barn?"
Rachel almost laughed at the brunette's expression. "Nothing anymore. I had cows but they were all slaughtered," she said, sadly. "Now I keep equipment in there for the field. There is a small room in the back. You can stay there."
Alerting on Rachel's demeanor at mentioning the cows, Trace figured she'd save that question for another time, too. "I really appreciate it, Rachel. Uh...would it be possible to get out of the sun now?"
The blonde thought about it briefly, then lowered the rifle to her side, pointing at the ground. "Okay. I should take a look at your cut, too. Looks like it needs tending to."
Something about the thought of this tiny, adorable blonde putting her hands on her made Trace most eager to get back to her house, too. You can take the girl out of the sleaze but you can't take the sleaze out of the girl, Trace smirked to herself.
Standing up, the detective unobtrusively studied Rachel. The young woman was at least seven inches shorter than she was, nice little body from the limited amount the dress showed off and all around extremely pleasing to the eye as Trace was noticing more and more accompanying Rachel back to her property. If she was subtle, maybe she could make the most of landing a century back in time.
Entering the quaint cabin, Trace was fascinated by its truly rustic atmosphere. It was somber, which made sense with the lack of electricity, the darkness of the log walls, the wood floor, the small windows and the obviously hand-made curtains closed over them. A quick visual sweep showed a neat and orderly provincial home with the absence of anything modern, one that should have exuded warmth but there was a hint of sadness that seemed to envelop the air and Trace sensed that there was more to this little blonde than met the eye.
"Sit over here and take your shirt off," Rachel instructed, pointing to a hard wooden chair pulled slightly away from what Trace assumed to be the kitchen table. She was not looking at Trace when she said this as she was busy pumping water into a bowl.
Raising her eyebrows, shaking her said slightly, the detective began unbuttoning her shirt as she sat. "We hardly know each other," Trace mumbled to herself, chuckling.
"Pardon?" the blonde asked, her attention now focused on pulling a small glass jar down off a shelf in an anteroom that held what looked like an iron claw foot bathtub.
"Nothing," Trace replied, removing her denim top, feeling the strain of her jarred muscles and bones. She was starting to show signs of bruising and pain was beginning to settle in. She looked down at her wrap, surprised to see the blood had absorbed into the material and spread over most of her chest. "Aw, Christ," she sighed, annoyed.
"I would appreciate it, while you are in this house, you not use the Lord's name..." Rachel stopped as she saw Trace, seated, covered in only the bloody wrap from the waist up. It wasn't the condition of the wound that rendered her speechless; it was the condition of the body the wound was on. "...in...vain."
"Sorry," Trace winced, as she stretched out her arm, attempting to pull the kink out of the muscle in her shoulder. Had she been looking at the small blonde, she would have been very amused by her expression.
Rachel had been a little shocked by Trace's height when she stood up for the first time to accompany her back to the cabin. That alone would make it a little easier to convince the town's people that she was a man, as the blonde had never seen a woman six feet tall before. She further noticed the absolute confidence with which Trace carried herself, again a trait she had only ever witnessed in men. There was a very powerful aura that surrounded this woman and it frankly had Rachel a little rattled. Suddenly it didn't seem so far-fetched that she could have been someone with authority...like a sheriff.
Now, though, Rachel could physically see the strength in this strange woman, not just sense it. She had muscles like a man, too...but not really. They were visibly defined, shifting under the tall woman's skin, but not coarse or bulky. She also had strong shoulders, Rachel observed, before her eyes traveled down to the bare skin below the bloody wrap. That was also muscular without an inch of excess skin anywhere. The small blonde forced her eyes back to the task of tending to the wound, embarrassed and confused that she had been almost gawking. At another woman. In a most un-ladylike way.
Staring specifically at the items in her hands - gauze, a canning jar with a light liquid in it, a bowl of water and a dry cloth, Rachel found her voice. "Um...we're going to have to take that off." Setting her load on the table, she purposely avoided looking at the dark haired woman
Trace glanced down. "This?"
"Yes, I need to stop the bleeding and clean that wound. You don't want it to get infected."
Alerting on her discomfort, Trace said, "Listen, if you're uncomfortable with this, I can do it..."
Suddenly indignant, the small blonde shook her head. "No, I'll do it." She placed the cloth in water and unsealed the jar, dropping the gauze in to absorb the liquid. "Doesn't that hurt?" Rachel inquired, as Trace began to unwrap her binding.
"Right now, everything hurts," the detective confessed, her body now seriously aching and stiffening up. Peeling the last two layers of her wrap off, Rachel's quickly averting eyes to the brunette's now exposed breasts did not go unnoticed by Trace. Despite her rising pain, the detective was actually charmed by Rachel's obvious modesty and couldn't stop her mouth from curling into a slight smile. Reaching over, Trace grabbed her shirt and slipped it on, leaving it unbuttoned. It covered her breasts but the open garment allowed Rachel the freedom to work, undistracted.
"You didn't have to do that," the blonde said, quietly, very grateful that she had.
"I know but I feel better," Trace lied. "So...whatcha got there?"
Pulling the gauze out of the jar and placing it directly on the oozing, bloody jagged cut next to Trace's right breast, she was prepared for the quick jolt and sudden intake of breath from her patient as she put her free hand on the detective's shoulder for support. "It's nettle tea. It will stop the bleeding." She took Trace's hand and positioned it on the gauze. "Hold that there until I tell you to remove it."
"Tea will stop my bleeding?" the detective asked, incredulously.
"Yes, nettle tea will." Rachel wrung out the wet cloth and began cleaning the area around the wound. This required her to step between the detective's legs for better access to the stained skin, a natural position under the circumstances and something that should not have left the blonde's insides shaking. Yet it did. What was it about this woman that was so nerve-racking? Trying not to think about it, Rachel concentrated on washing all the blood off the detective's chest and abdomen, the proximity of their bodies difficult to completely ignore.
Trace, on the other hand, was completely at ease with this small, adorable blonde so close to her. It was almost worth the pain she was in. Her face reflected her amusement as she watched Rachel studiously clean all the blood off her, gently but with enough pressure to get the job done.
Leaning to the side to wring out the cloth in the bowl of water, Rachel caught Trace's eyes in her peripheral vision. She continued until water from the cloth was running light pink instead of deep red. "Why are you staring at me?" she asked quietly.
Why indeed. "Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was. You're just so efficient. Are you a nurse?"
"A nurse? No. I work here on the ranch. I grow vegetables and herbs and sell them to Luther Foster for his grocery store. Sometimes my neighbors come here to buy some herbs and I sell them or I barter."
Engaging her in conversation appeared to have rendered the blonde a little more secure around Trace. "For necessities." Rachel submerged the bloody cloth once more, wrung it out and began one final cleansing of the area. "You can give that to me now," she instructed, taking the gauze from Trace. The detective, whose psyche was still in the twenty-first century, almost asked the blonde how she dared to handle blood without gloves...and then she remembered...these were the days where bodily fluids weren't contaminated or potentially lethal.
Kneeling down to get a better look at the wound, Rachel inspected it, thoroughly, oblivious to the position she was in. Trace didn't ignore it, though, and subtly studied the blonde as her warm hands felt around the detective's sore, open flesh. A rather lewd smile attacked Trace's face, and she thought, 'heh, while you're down there...' but her fantasizing was interrupted.
"Hmmm? Hmmm what?" Looking down, she was surprised to see that the bleeding had stopped. "How'd you do that?"
"I didn't, the nettle tea did it. It has healing components in it, it will make your blood coagulate. It was used a lot in the war."
"What war?" This question was greeted with two very large green eyes, staring at her in pure astonishment. Uh oh. Trace tried frantically to remember her American history. Shit. The Civil War, you dolt. "Oh, oh right, the war. War Between the States. Right."
Not looking convinced that Trace wasn't just guessing, she shook her head and returned to inspecting the cut. "You been living in a cave?" Rachel asked, a hint of sarcasm entering her tone. She stood up, placing the gauze into the bowl, moving it aside.
As the blonde returned to the anteroom, Trace watched her, not being able to hide her grin. This was really going to be interesting - she now realized another big reason why she would not have been Mark's first choice for this experiment. She failed American history. Twice. "Can I button back up now?"
"No. I want to put something on that," Her arm extended out toward Trace while she searched her shelves. "Ah. There you are." She reached up and plucked off another jar.
"What are you going to put on me this time? Coffee?" There was sarcasm in Trace's voice as well, as the blonde walked back over to her.
Smirking, Trace said, "Wow, we've known each other less than an hour and you're already calling me honey?" Off the befuddled, then impatient look she received from Rachel, she was about to do some major back peddling when the blonde held up the jar in her hand.
"Honey. I'm going to put honey on you."
Shut up, Trace, just...shut up. In another setting, a hundred years from now you'd be in your glory, she thought to herself. "And what will that do...other than get me sticky?"
"Don't you know anything?" Rachel was smiling at her, in spite of herself. She removed the lid from the jar, dipped her fingers in, pulled a glob out and paused before she applied it to Trace's wound. "Honey attracts water. Germs cannot live without water and they die. Which means no infection and quicker healing."
Impressed, Trace watched while Rachel rubbed some honey off her fingers with her thumb and tenderly applied the gooey substance along the jagged cut. Then she did something that made the detective's jaw drop and prompted her to tightly cross her legs when Rachel, finished, stepped back. She stuck the fingers that never touched Trace's skin in her mouth and sucked the rest of the honey off them. Trace could not believe the rush that seized her loins at seeing the blonde do that and immediately knew Rachel had no clue as to how erotic that came across.
"Let me get you something to keep that cov - what?" Seeing Trace's expression startled her. Not being very worldly, she mistook the stricken look of lust on the detective's face for discomfort. "Is that hurting? It shouldn't cause it to hurt more..."
"No," Trace rasped, putting her hand up to stop her from coming as close as she had been before. "It's fine. Really. Thank you. Yes, something to cover it would be nice."
Rachel searched her face, concerned. "Oh. Okay." Skeptically, she returned to the anteroom, found another patch of gauze and brought it back to the detective. "Would you like me to -?"
"No," Trace answered so quickly it made Rachel jump. Holding her hand out for the gauze, she said, "I'll do it, thanks." She forced her voice to be calm. "You've been very kind, Rachel. Thank you." She placed the material over the honey and slowly stood up, beginning to feel like one big bruise. Reaching over to the table she picked up her blood-soaked binding. "Where do I wash this? And, I suppose you wouldn't happen to have anything in your little bag of tricks to get the blood stain out of it?"
Sighing, bowing her head, Rachel leaned against the table. "You're making fun of me," she stated, softly.
Blinking at the statement, the tall woman shook her head. "No, I'm not." She was very surprised at how the thought of hurting this beautiful young woman's feelings affected her. In the past, she would not have cared but, for some reason, Trace felt almost protective of her. Where the hell was that coming from? She stretched her arm out, touching the blonde on her shoulder, a gesture which made Rachel look up into Trace's mesmerizing eyes. "I'm not. I apologize if that's how it sounded," the brunette told her in a quiet voice. "I'm just a little...um...disturbed...about the events of today and the past few days...and my body aches so please forgive me if I sound, uh, grumpy or...difficult. I don't mean to. Okay?"
Rachel nodded her head and, with great effort, broke eye contact with the detective, "Okay." She tugged at the wrap in Trace's hand. "Let me do that for you. I'll wash it best I can. I don't think I'll be able to get all the blood out but it will be clean and with the sun hot as it is today, it'll dry in not time."
"Really, you don't have to -"
"No, I want to. You should really rest. You're looking mighty worn out. And you should give that cut a chance to heal."
Trace couldn't argue with her that she felt very tired and every tendon and joint was starting to scream their protest at her. "If you're sure..."
"Then I would really appreciate it if you showed me to where I'll be sleeping and I'll get out of your way."
"You're not in my way," Rachel admitted, almost shyly, "But I'll show you to the barn, anyway."
It really wasn't a bad little room. Other than being dim, dusty, stark and depressing. A small, cot-sized bed occupied one side, up against a wall and an old bureau stood up against the opposite wall with a kerosene lantern sitting on top. Well...it was a place to lay her head, she had to be thankful for that.
Rachel had provided her with a linen sheet, a clean woven horse blanket and a feather pillow, one of the two from the bed she slept on. She had also given Trace an old nightshirt of her father's so that she could wash and repair the hole in the detective's denim one. Trace protested but her words apparently fell on deaf ears. She didn't understand that Rachel was grateful to actually have someone to fuss over again. Even the blonde had not realized how very much she had missed that.
The long, white nightshirt had fit better than she thought it would which made her wonder what else of her father's clothes Rachel had saved that might be suitable for her to wear.
Lying there stretched out, her legs almost too long for the bed, her hands folded behind her head, Trace stared at the gloomy ceiling, her body actually starting to relax and settle to an acceptable throb. What the hell had she gotten herself into? She had not thought this out thoroughly. Of course, it wasn't like she really had much of a choice. Vincent would not have stopped until she was dead. At least here, she was alive...but could she stay that way?
She had forgotten that toilets were a luxury in this era and was not thrilled about having to utilize a stinky, spider-and-God-knew-what-else infested outhouse or find a tree marked "W." Laundry was done with a washboard, bar soap and good, old-fashioned elbow grease and her baths would, no doubt, have to be taken in the nearby river. Until it got too cold and, hopefully by then, Rachel would feel comfortable with letting her use the indoor tub.
Fortunately, she had just gotten over her period and wouldn't have to worry about that for a few weeks. Shit. She wasn't looking forward to dealing with that little fact of life, pretty sure tampons had not been invented yet and almost afraid to ask the small blonde what she did every month. Therein lay another problem. How could she cleverly find out what Rachel used to absorb the menstrual flow? If she came right out and asked her, how would she explain not knowing? And the cramps. Damn it. Some months those annoying little pains were so intense they could drop a moose. She wondered if Rachel had a natural remedy for that, too.
She certainly was handy, Trace thought, not being able to stop the indecent smile that crept onto her face. Cute little thing, too. Not to mention a little bossy. Not that being bossy was necessarily bad, it meant she had some spunk. Shamelessly, a visual floated through the detective's mind, involving her, the blonde and that feather bed in the room Rachel had retrieved her father's nightshirt from. "Stop it, Trace," she chastised herself, "keep your head where it needs to be." Reining in her hearty libido would be difficult but anything else would be counterproductive to her survival there. And, Rachel was opening up her home to her, a stranger, an act of kindness for which Trace should be eternally grateful. To fuck that up in an attempt to satisfy her carnal urges, which she was sure would backfire, would be idiocy personified. But that thing with the honey... Jesus, that was...unexpected...as was the physical reaction it elicited from the detective.
But...as attracted to her as the detective was, she also needed to decipher that immensely alien feeling to protect her. Where was that coming from? Other than the desire to shelter her mother as much as possible (and usually from Zelda herself), Trace had never once experienced that particular need, except for in the line of duty but that was different, that was professional as opposed to personal. What was it about this...waif...that was poking into a previously untapped side of Trace? That was something she would have to investigate further as she was not sure she liked it. Feeling professionally responsible for someone else's safety was a lot different than feeling personally responsible and, being a woman who demanded to be in total control of all her emotions, she resented this new one that had suddenly reared its strange head. Or did she? Maybe this shouldn't be analyzed and should just 'be.' Yeah, right, Trace sighed, as if she ever just let anything be.
Her next curiosity revolved around the mentioning of Rachel's father. Obviously she lived on this property alone and she had used past tense when speaking of him so it wasn't hard to figure out her father was dead. But this darling, smart, skilled blonde who possessed what looked to be a very nice body was also not married. Dare she selfishly hope there was an alternative reason behind Rachel being unwed? Well, she could hope all she wanted but chances were there was a perfectly good explanation for that.
And what happened to the cows? When Rachel said they had all been slaughtered, there was a hint of anger in her voice, which indicated to Trace the cows had probably not been intentionally killed for meat. Something was going on here that gave the detective an uncomfortably insidious feeling. Her inquisitive nature would not permit her to let any of these subjects idle for too long. Later, when she knew Rachel a little better...
There was a soft knocking on the door.
"Come in," Trace called, moving with the intention of sitting up. The pain which racked her body advised her staying supine would be a much better idea.
The blonde entered, almost timidly, carrying a tray which held a bowl of something, a hunk of what was probably homemade bread and a steaming cup of some mildly aromatic liquid. "Hi," Rachel said, quietly. "I thought you might be hungry, so..." She let her words trail off, knowing the proffered tray would speak for itself.
As Rachel neared the bed, Trace pushed herself up slightly, her back resting against the wall. She couldn't help but take in a sharp breath when she moved.
"That's what I thought, so I made you something to help with that." She set the tray down on the detective's thighs.
Observing the contents of the bowl and cup, she looked up at the blonde. "Soup and tea?"
"And charoset bread to dip in the soup," Rachel added. She pointed to the cup. "That's peppermint tea with rue and wood betony. It will help with the pain."
"And the soup?"
Rachel smiled, charmingly. "That will help with the hunger."
Trace had to smile with her at that obvious conclusion. She picked up her spoon and sampled the chowder-like substance. Her face lit up. "Mmm. Potato soup." Her absolute favorite soup in the whole world...how odd this would be the first meal the blonde would bring her. She took another spoonful. Then a bite of the deliciously sweet bread. "This is really very good." She glanced up at the beaming blonde. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. How are your injuries?"
"Let's just say they are there and leave it at that. I've had bruises before. They will go away."
"Should I take a look at your cut?"
Trace stopped mid-taste and removed the spoon. "No...um...I'm pretty sure that's fine also. But I appreciate it, anyway." She resumed inhaling the contents of her bowl and her bread. She had not realized how hungry she was.
Standing there silently for a few minutes, Rachel was encouraged by the tall woman's enthusiasm for the small supper she had prepared. "Your binding and shirt are washed and hanging on the line right now. They should be dry before nightfall. I also fixed the tear in your shirt."
"Thank you again. You're very kind." Trace told her, sincerely.
Bowing her head, stepping back, the blonde shrugged slightly. "It's nothing really. I enjoy it. Helping people."
Trace studied her, finding her shyness irresistibly endearing. "Well, you're obviously good at it."
Nodding her thanks, Rachel indicated the tray. "I'll be back for that later. Drink your tea. It will also help you sleep."
Watching her leave, the detective shook her head, knowing there had to be a good reason why no man had snatched this exceptional woman up and made her his wife.
A little over two hours later, at dusk, Rachel returned to the little room she had allowed Trace to occupy, bringing with her the detective's clothing items. She was pleased to see the dark haired woman sound asleep, a soft snore emanating from her sprawled out form. She had not told the detective that charoset was a combination of apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey and a few other ingredients - mainly the walnuts - that added up to a more than mild sedative. She had wisely assumed that Trace would have refused the calmant, not wanting to appear less than the tough facade she exuded, another more male than female characteristic of hers that puzzled the blonde.
She picked up the tray from the floor and set it on the bureau. Stepping back over to the bed, she looked down at this strong, however vulnerable at this point, woman and folded her arms. What was really her story? What had really brought this very handsome woman pretending to be a man to edge of Sagebrush and into Rachel's life? The pale blonde figured whatever the reason, it would reveal itself soon enough. Knowing the night would get chilly, she pulled the blanket over Trace's long body, retrieved the tray and left the room.
A hideous noise attacked Trace's dreamless sleep state and jolted her into sudden consciousness. The sound assaulted her ears again and she flew out of bed, regretting it the minute her feet hit the floor, having forgot about the huge contusion that was now her body. The piercingly shrill racket echoed again and in her fuzzyheaded state, she immediately thought someone was being murdered. Or worse. Forgetting where she was, she danced around the room in search of her Glock, confused at not being able to find it, and then realization hit her. And her first thought was of Rachel, that she needed help.
Racing out of the barn, toward the house, she nearly plowed the petite blonde over, having to grab her before she knocked her to the ground. An amused expression adorned Rachel's face finding herself being held up and steadied by a very wild-eyed Amazon. "Morning," she addressed Trace, calmly.
Holding her out at arms length for inspection, the detective frantically asked, "Are you all right??!!"
"I'm fine." She scrutinized Trace, eyeballing the unruly bed head, the rather demented expression and, the piece de resistance, the unlikely armor of a gooey, disheveled nightshirt and cowboy boots. "Are you all right?"
"I'm...fine...what the hell was that noise?" she dropped her arms to her side and looked around, bewildered.
Rachel stepped back, cautiously, observing this addled woman in front of her. "What noise?"
As if on cue, the strange, horrendous sound cut through the air again, penetrating Trace's eardrums, setting her teeth on edge, literally making her cringe. "That noise! What the hell is that?!"
It took every ounce of self-control she had not to burst into fits of hysterical laughter. Clearing her throat, holding onto as much of her composure as she could, Rachel said, "That is a rooster."
"What the hell is wrong with it??!!" Trace demanded to know, her breathing now slowing down.
"Nothing. Roosters always crow at first light."
Cocking her head, staring at Trace in disbelief, Rachel said, "For coming from a town that's supposed to be ahead of the times, you sure are reactionary." Off the irritated look on the tall woman's face, the blonde hastily added, "but maybe you don't have roosters there."
Not moving, Trace folded her arms. "Is it going to do that every morning?"
"Of course, silly. That's what roosters do."
Her expression didn't change. "Why?"
Yikes. She was obviously not a person who took a liking to awaking early, Rachel thought. Nervously fiddling with the fresh eggs in her basket, the blonde focused on checking each shell for breaks. "Well...the bible says the rooster crowing at dawn is a symbol of daily victory of light over darkness, good over evil." She looked up at the detective who rolled her eyes. "What?"
"The bible. Uh huh." She squeezed her eyes shut tightly as the rooster crowed one last time. "How do you feel about chicken for dinner?"
Okay, so she shouldn't have made the crack about killing the rooster. But getting up every morning at before the sun was even up was going to be hell. She had adjusted her body clock to a swing shift schedule for the last five years. And what a temper that little blonde had, Trace thought, while putting on her freshly laundered denim shirt, buttoning up. It was just a question. She was used to working in the dark, why couldn't she start her 'chores' in the afternoon and work late into the evening?
Damn, that wrap really hurt. She stretched her sore muscles as much as she could, pretty sure it was the injuries her body sustained from that fall to the ground yesterday and not the binding itself. God, she hoped not, knowing she was going to have to live with being wrapped every day regardless. She also needed a full bath. She cleaned up the honey that had smeared all over her chest during a night of obvious restless movement with a cloth and bowl of water Rachel had put in her room sometime before she awoke. But she still felt sticky. And just plain icky, in general.
And now she felt obligated to have breakfast, a meal she hated and usually skipped altogether in favor of sleeping, with her madder-than-a-wet-hen hostess.
Sighing heavily, she walked to the cabin with a slight apprehension that suddenly made her smirk. She had gone up against some of the most notoriously vicious criminals the streets had to offer and now she was nervous about facing an itty bitty farm girl? Well, Trace pondered, Rachel was quite irate when she stormed into the house after the dinner suggestion and the sleeping late question and then the detective had only poured gasoline onto the fire after Rachel quoted the bible to her again, something about laziness and Trace, being the up-at-the-crack-of-noon person she was, telling her what she could do with the 'Good Book.'
Knocking on the open door, Trace leaned against the thick frame, watching Rachel putter, determined, around the wood stove, evidently still angry. Why the hell she wanted to feed Trace after she obviously insulted her faith in spouting bible verses was beyond her. God, Trace hated apologizing, it implied making mistakes and mistakes showed weakness. But she needed this woman's help and she couldn't get that by pissing her off the first day. And, for strange reasons unknown to her, she really did not want Rachel upset with her. At least, not this early in their alliance.
Clearing her throat, Trace stepped inside the cabin. "Uh, Rachel? I, uh, I apologize for my words earlier," her voice was low and modulated. She wanted to get across that she was, indeed, sorry for being thoughtless and offensive but not for having, what would be around there, an unpopular opinion. That was something the blonde would have to live with if she wanted the detective to continue to keep her company and help her out with the land. "I was just a little unnerved by that bird and tired and hurting and..."
"And crabby. Don't forget that one," Rachel snapped at her. She was still facing the range, her hands on her hips.
"Okay. Crabby. Yes, I was certainly that," Trace conceded, thinking she would have to make a conscious effort to be more congenial in the mornings, especially since there wasn't going to be a way to get out of rising with that damn rooster.
"And surly..." The blonde's tone had not lightened any, as she slid the contents of the skillet onto a plate with bread on it. There was also what looked like a cup of coffee next to the plate, which made Trace's eyes light up. She took a small step toward the table as Rachel placed the pan back onto the stove.
"Surly, right, I thought we established that..." She so wanted to grab for that cup but was pretty sure Rachel wasn't done verbally pouting yet. Well...maybe if she reached for it very slowly...
"And blasphemous!" Rachel whirled to face her, prompting Trace to pull her hand back so fast, she struck herself on the shoulder. The blonde pointed a finger at the detective, threatening impalement. "If you live here, you will have respect for the Lord's word and the book that it is written in!"
Trace hadn't realized it while it was happening but this little spitfire had just backed her up against a wall. She was beginning to wonder if it was safe to even eat the eggs the blonde scrambled for her. "Okay, okay..." She put her hands in front of her, gesturing a surrender. Rachel's eyes flashed indignantly at her, as if daring her to dispute her behavior. "Okay. I'm sorry." Trace reiterated, softly.
The blonde started to turn back toward the table when she heard Trace draw in a breath. Thinking the detective was going to start protesting or arguing, Rachel spun back toward her and held up her index finger again in warning.
"Okay, all right, I've got it. No bashing the bible."
"And no taking the Lord's name in vain."
That was going to be a tough one...but Trace wasn't going to admit it at that particular moment. "Got it." She stayed put while Rachel walked back to the table and sat.
The blonde looked over at her. "Well, are you going to come eat or not?"
Prudently, she kept her mouth shut, walked to the table, joining her fiery little hostess. Picking up her coffee cup, she had it halfway to her lips when she noticed two very annoyed green eyes looking at her. Slowly, wisely, she silently set the mug back down, allowing Rachel to take her hand.
Bowing her head, Rachel closed her eyes. "Lord, we humbly thank you for your offering of this food. Amen." She let go of Trace's hand and began to eat.
Looking at the blonde for signs of anything else that might come between her and her caffeine, when Rachel said nothing and continued to eat, Trace finally got her first swallow of coffee. It was horrible. But when the blonde looked at her for her approval of the meal, the detective smiled, convincingly. "It's wonderful. Thank you, Rachel."
One of the good things about Rachel, Trace discovered, was that she only simmered briefly before boiling over, and then it was done. She said her piece about Trace's attitude and before breakfast was finished, she was fine. The breakfast - with the exception of that sludge she called coffee - was actually quite tasty, too. Once she felt safe to actually dig in and eat it.
She was going to ask the blonde about washing up when Rachel told her the first thing she would like her to do. Bathing seemed futile if she was going to spend the morning on a sweaty horse, checking the perimeter fence for holes or breaks. Other than that, it sounded simple enough.
Until she walked into the stable. And realized that she would have to saddle up this suddenly mammoth-sized creature and actually sit on top of him, guiding him to where ever she needed him to go. She knew she would not be able to manipulate this animal as easily as she normally could human males. Her arms fell to her sides in defeat. The closest she had ever been to a horse was the carousel in the amusement park outside of town. And she couldn't exactly ask Rachel, being that she was supposed to have been thrown from a horse resulting in her now mildly aching injuries.
Suck it up, Trace, she thought, how hard can it be?
An hour later, if she could have picked up the damn horse and thrown him, she would have. She was positive the beast was laughing at her, not that she blamed him. She was grateful Rachel had occupied herself with housework and cleaning the chicken coop and had not come to check on her.
In the previous sixty minutes she had attempted to saddle the horse. She had studied the leather seat intently, as if it was going to speak to her and give her implicit instructions. When it didn't, she glanced at the horse, who was just as suspiciously eyeballing her in return, then grabbed the saddle by the horn and the cantle, pulling it off the post it was resting on, expecting to hoist it on the horse's back just like John Wayne used to do in the movies. It never occurred to her that the damn thing would weigh almost thirty-five pounds.
Tugging it backward, freeing it of its support, momentum caused her to lose her balance and unintentionally thump down on her behind, finding the saddle unexpectedly on her lap. "Shit!' As if her body needed any more bruising. Her sudden action prompted the horse to prance to the side a little and snort at her. "Shaaaadduuuup," she told him, almost snickering at herself.
Standing up, brushing the straw off her jeans, she bent down and picked up the saddle, holding it, getting used to its weight. Feeling confident, she slowly closed in on the horse, a beautiful Palomino steed, and stood next to the animal's left side. At least she remembered that mounting a horse was always done on the left, so it was natural to assume, any other kind of approach should probably be done on the left, also. Taking a deep breath, she lifted the saddle with concentrated strength, threw it up toward the horse's back only to have it smack the animal on his right flank as it sailed over him and onto the stall floor on the other side. Which caused the horse to protest indignantly and dance, quite spiritedly, around her a few times, stopping directly in front of the door to his stall. Trapping her inside. She was positive she saw a 'fuck you' look in the animal's big brown eyes. She and the horse repeated this strange ritual from several angles.
She stood there, making faces in contemplation, her hands resting on her hips, frustrated. "Look, buddy, work with me here, okay?" she addressed the horse, who had not moved from his stance between her and doorway. "All I want to do is take you out for a nice ride...with me on your back. If I knew how to ride bareback, I would. But I don't, so it will be a lot easier if you just give me a break, okay?" She picked up the saddle once again. As fit as she was, her biceps were twanging from the continuous lifting of this awkwardly balanced item. "I don't see why we can't be friends."
Her impatiently fake smile was rewarded by another snort and the clever animal quickly sidled over to her and trapped her up against the stall wall with his right flank. It happened so fast, Trace had no time to react, other than dropping the saddle, but suddenly there she was, unable to move with the side of the steed's belly tight to her. "God, this is worse than a Laurel and Hardy movie," she laughed, incredulously. Pushing the animal only resulted in his moving closer, if that was even possible.
"Very funny, very cute. Okay, you've showed me who's the boss. You can move now." He didn't budge, other than shaking his head up and down several times. "Don't piss me off, you future glue factory aspirant!" When pushing and raising her voice obviously didn't impress him, Trace started to get angry. "Listen, Mr. Ed, I'm not fucking around here! Move!!" Which he did. Closer to her, really starting to restrict her movement. Maybe she shouldn't be pissing him off.
Walking back to the cabin from the chicken coop, Rachel heard what she thought was an angry voice emanating from the stable. Stopping, she listened cautiously before reacting. Was that Trace? She should have been long gone checking the fences by now. Curiosity overtaking her, the blonde quietly entered the stable and walked toward the direction of the irate low alto she heard but could not see. Reaching Chief's stall, Rachel clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from losing control to hilarity. As Chief had her pinned at an angle, all she could see was the very top of Trace's head and her long legs next to the horse's hind quarters.
"Move, you big bag of bones!! I'm not kidding here!" There was the sound of grunting and groaning, as though great effort was being put into getting the obstinate animal to move. "You big jackass, you're not supposed to be this stubborn! Move, you son-of-a-bitch!" By this time, Trace was literally throwing her body against the horse, which seemed oblivious to this annoying creature in his space. "Augh!! God da-"
Rachel cleared her throat audibly, loud enough to interrupt the ranting brunette and get her attention. There was an abrupt silence.
"Gosh darn it," Trace tempered, banging her head against Chief's side. How was she ever going to explain her way out of this?
"Um...what are you doing?" this earnest question came from the disembodied voice of a sweet, young innocent woman who, the detective knew, was about to make a fool of her. Or, more accurately, enhance the fact that Trace was doing an excellent job of making a fool of herself. First the rooster, now the horse. Maybe working with animals was not going to be her forte.
There was no way out of this. Humility now raging through her normally arrogant persona, Trace started with a little chuckle. "Heh. Well, uh, it's like this...I was trying to saddle him up and he wouldn't cooperate."
Shaking her head, Rachel stepped forward and easily coaxed Chief away from the now brooding, embarrassed detective. Flexing her arms the tall brunette folded them. "First," the blond began, showing signs of smugness, “you have to be smarter than the horse." She scratched the big steed under his chin, then leaned in and kissed him on the bridge of his nose. She then turned to Trace. "Were you actually trying to put a saddle on him without a blanket first? No wonder he rebelled."
"Well...um...we do things differently where I'm from," she bluffed, wondering how long she was going to be able to use that as an excuse.
Rachel raised an eyebrow. "Your horses must not last too long." She lovingly ran her hand along the side of Chief's head. "Did you even try to groom him first?"
Rachel shook her head and picked up the brush. "You act like you have never saddled up a horse before. You sheriffs have someone do that for you?"
Trace knew an escape route when she saw one. "Yes, That's it...we have a saddle person who does all that for us." She studied Rachel intently as the blonde began removing dirt from Chief's throatlatch, neck and then moved to his girth with a hard-bristled brush.
"Pick up that soft-bristled brush there and just do everything I do," Rachel instructed.
Lifting the item, Trace began mimicking everything the blonde did. "Now...we're doing this because..."
It took a minute for the blonde to realize she was supposed to finish the sentence. "If he's not groomed first, he could get sores in his weight-bearing area. This keeps his coat in good condition, brings the oil up, keeps his coat healthy. Always start on his left side, always make sure he sees and hears you and always talk to him soft-like when you're doing this." Rachel waited and when she heard no noise coming from the tall detective, she straightened up and looked at her, waiting. "Well...?"
"Talk to him."
Trace scrunched up her face. Was the blonde kidding? She could barely hold a decent conversation with humans. She was grateful none of her co-workers were here to see this. She looked at Rachel, then at the horse and then back to the blonde like a deer caught in headlights. She opened her mouth to protest but nothing came out, so she snapped it shut. Glancing back at Chief, Trace cleared her throat. "Uh...heh...hi there, horsey...nice horsey," she started, strained. Putting her hand up to pet the animal, Chief pulled his head back, abruptly, snorting again. Stepping back, Trace protested, "See? He just doesn't like me!"
"Don't much blame him. He knows you don't like him."
"Wh -? No, I like him. I do." I just don't have any experience around the damn things, she wanted to say, and the damn horse is taking advantage of it.
"His name is Chief," the blonde supplied. "And we'll work on your charm later," she added dryly.
While both women continued to groom the cantankerous animal, Rachel advised the brunette in the etiquette of horse care, what specific equipment was for, safety tips on avoiding getting kicked, cleaning of the hooves and combing of the mane and tail.
Then, as opposed to demonstrate, Rachel instructed Trace on how to properly saddle Chief, how to fasten the cinches, how to adjust the stirrups and how to stay on the horse's 'good side' while she was doing this. While the detective was concentrating on that task, Rachel fit Chief with his bit, bridle and reins. When it was time to ride out to the property line, Trace mounted Chief and did her best cowboy imitation by making a clicking noise with her mouth and kicking her heels into his haunches. The horse did not budge. Undaunted, she tried again, knowing the petite blonde was watching. Chief stubbornly remained in place.
Rolling her eyes, Rachel shook her head, stepped up to Chief and slapped him hard on his hind quarters. The animal responded immediately, lurching into a gallop out of the stable, nearly sending Trace backward onto the stall floor. But she hung on. And did something she'd never done before. She prayed.
By sheer luck, Trace had not fallen or been thrown from horse's back and it certainly wasn't from Chief's lack of trying. She swore the animal waited until she eased up on her death grip around his neck and chose that particular time to jump over something - anything, the last object being a small shrub he could have just as easily moved around. When he landed, she thwacked down on the saddle so hard, her jaw slammed shut, nearly cracking every tooth in her head.
When Chief abruptly halted, it was about a foot away from the rail fence and it was only sheer strength that kept her from sailing over the horse's head into that wooden barrier. Infuriated, Trace fluidly slid off the saddle, marching up to the front of the animal, staring him in the eyes.
"What the fuck is wrong with you??!!" Her fists rested on her hips, staring the horse down, the rage and terror so visibly on the surface, she was actually vibrating. "Are you trying to kill me??"
Chief snorted, blandly, then bent down and began dining on the high grass beneath him. Sputtering at this animal's utter disregard for her safety and obvious lack of intimidation, she couldn't even get any words out. Pacing, screaming, hissing, Trace continued to wear a path beside Chief until she calmed down. Taking deep breaths, she stopped in front of the horse.
"Okay, look. You've had your fun. You've made your point. But we're not getting anywhere. I'm trying to help out your owner, here..." She paused as Chief actually looked up at her, accusingly. Trace rolled her eyes. "Okay! So she's helping me out. Christ, what are you, a psychic?" Stopping abruptly, she stared at Chief, then looked skyward. "I don't believe this...I'm trying to reason with a fucking horse!" Looking back at the animal, Trace slowly reached over to touch him, to hopefully signal a truce, make a connection.
Nodding his head up and down wildly, avoiding the detective's hand, Chief backed away from her, turned around and, in a very cocky manner, trotted back toward the house, leaving the frustrated detective alone in the huge field.
"Son of a bitch!" the detective wailed, stomping her foot. She watched as Chief disappeared from her view. Great. Now she was stuck here, wherever 'here' was. Well...she knew she was still on Rachel's land and maybe if she had been paying more attention to where she was going or had come from instead on concentrating on hanging on for dear life, she might have been able to find her way back. It wasn't as if the damn horse had taken a straight line. He had carried her on a high speed tour of woods, through a shallow part of the river and what seemed like miles of flat, grassy land. Hopefully, if she wasn't back by dark, the blonde would come looking for her. On a different horse.
That merry ride had done nothing to help the soreness and the aching her body was now barely tolerating. Concerned that the bouncing around may have re-opened her cut, she slipped her hand between the buttons of her shirt, feeling a minor seepage. "Shit," she swore, softly but then could not help but break into a smile at the thought of Rachel sucking the excess honey off her fingers. She wasn't too sure she could see that again and actually stay in her seat.
Trace looked around at the lush landscape that surrounded her, the range of grass, trees, shrubbery, a river and skies a deeper blue than she had ever seen before. Drawing in a deep breath, she inhaled fresh air for probably the first time in her life. She savored the moment, sighed, and then began walking along the rail fence in the direction from which she came. Common sense told her that, at some point, it had to bring her back to the house and the blonde.
In the two hours she had been walking along the fence, she had found a few minor breaks in the barrier, none of which appeared to be anything more than rotting or normal wear and tear. However, just before the river, she stopped and closely inspected a huge, probably fifty foot gap that most certainly looked as though it had been purposely created, almost as if it had been mowed down. Rails and splintered wood were everywhere, strewn about as though a herd of buffalo had trampled through it. Now that phrase finally made sense to the detective. The damage did not appear to be accidental, it looked malicious.
She was standing there, scratching her head, wondering how this may have occurred when she heard approaching horse hooves. Turning toward the sound, she was relieved to see Rachel canter up to her on Chief. Pulling up easily on the reins, the horse slowed to a stop.
"You know..." Rachel began, mildly amused, leaning her arms across the saddle horn, "one of the main reasons I need you here is so that I can get work done at the house while you do the field work. It isn't much helping me, if I have to come out here and do your work, too."
"Don't you have any other horses?" Trace asked, glaring at Chief.
"Sure do. I have four others. Chief is the best, though."
"That's not particularly reassuring," the detective commented, looking down, showing tiny signs of embarrassment.
"And he was already saddled up. So...what happened?"
"I have no idea. I got off him and he took off."
"I meant the fence," Rachel corrected her.
Trace looked up at her, while the blonde surveyed the destruction. "Oh. I don't know. I was just thinking about that. Stampede, maybe? Do you have those around here?"
"Where there are cattle, there are stampedes."
"Think that's what happened, then?"
"More than likely," she responded, her tone disgusted. "But I don't think it was an accident."
"Why?" Trace's curiosity was genuine.
"I just don't, that's all."
It was the expression on the blonde's face that made Trace hesitate. It was a combination of emotions - anger, apprehension and something that definitely did not belong - shame.
What the hell was going on here?
There was a reason this young woman was living on this big area of land by herself...no parents, no husband, slaughtered cows, destroyed property... Something was going on and it was obvious Rachel was not going to be forthcoming with the details. At least not yet.
"Come on, let's go back, have some lunch and then you can come back out here and start fixing it."
Oh, goody. Manual labor. Well, hopefully she could muddle through mending a fence better than she could saddling and riding a horse. Speaking of which, "Do I have to ride Chief?"
"Better get used to him. He's the fastest and the strongest." Rachel held her hand out to Trace. "Haul up here."
Looking at Rachel's extended arm as though it were an electric eel, Trace blanched. "You mean ride? Together?"
"Well, yes. You do want something in your belly before you start working don't you?"
Trace was hungry and Rachel obviously was a good cook. Hopefully, she hadn't made any coffee. She looked up at the blonde again. Hmmm...why was she balking? Look how close their bodies would be...Trace you are such a hound, she admonished herself, nevertheless, sticking her foot in the stirrup, grabbing Rachel's hand and swinging her tall, solid body closely behind the blonde's.
"Hang on," Rachel commanded and before Trace had time to react, the blonde kicked Chief into gear. She had no choice but to hold tight to the blonde's waist. If she hadn't been so terrified, she would have enjoyed the proximity much more.
To be continued…
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