Disclaimers: See Part 1
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."
To Be Continued...
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