AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is my first Uber attempt. It started out as an Olivia/Alex Uber but when writing it, I just couldn't picture those two, I kept seeing Xena and Gabrielle - which is odd because I have only seen four episodes of "Xena Warrior Princess" (don't ask
it's complicated) but I have read and been intrigued by many Xena Ubers. So, I went back and tweaked the beginning with a few changes to make it fit the characters as I know them...which may or may not be way off base. With that said, no infringement is intended to the powers that be at MCA/Universal. Other than that, the story is mine, the characters are mine, the fantasy is mine.
I am not an American history buff...which will be quite evident to anyone who is. So please bear with the glaring inacuracies.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have since, in the course of writing this, watched many XWP reruns on Oxygen and I now own Seasons 1, 5 & 6 (which I have yet to watch) plus the 10th anniversary addition on DVD (which I have seen several times). Why I never watched this show when it was originally airing, I will never know as I have grown very fond of Xena and Gabrielle. That said, the story is still mine, the characters are still mine, the fantasy is still mine. Anyway, I appreciate everyone hanging in there with me as this took a little longer than I thought it was going to. But, yay, it's done! Although, I'm really going to miss Trace and Rachel...at least in this incarnation. ;-)
WARNING: This story also contains a recollection of a rape, although not graphically depicted, it is there, nonetheless, so be forewarned.
This is for Canna who helped me get my notes back after they were accidentally deleted. I owe you one...
I also want to thank The Raven for all her help, advice and suggestions.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Ben Crane's body was discovered that afternoon by Seth Carver, who threw up several times before he could even get back on his horse and return to the Crane spread to report what he had found. He advised his father first, who called for three ranch hands to saddle up and accompany him back to the place where the mangled and ripped apart corpse of his cousin lay.
"What do you think happened, Pa? Looks to me like he got tore up by an animal of some sort...a wolf maybe?" Seth asked his father from afar. He could not bear to look at that grisly scene again. Just the recollection of it made his stomach roll. Scavengers had been feeding on the body when he rode up on Ben the first time.
John shook his head. This was going to be hard on Jacob but it was absolutely going to kill Priscilla, Ben's mother. "A pack of wolves, maybe. Aw, Ben..." John sighed. "You really did it this time..." The older Carver was pretty sure the only animal who got to Ben Crane was a man named Trace Sheridan. He didn't have any proof but the timing was just too coincidental.
Ben had come home yesterday and bragged about paying a little visit to Rachel the day before, swore up and down that the baby she was carrying was his, not the sheriff's, and further boasted that he'd taken Rachel again right there in her own parlor. If that was true, the sheriff had every right to come after Ben. Regardless of how willing Rachel may have been, you just didn't go messing with another man's woman, especially when that woman was in the family way.
But John knew better. Rachel Young never wanted his nephew. If she had, they would have been married by now, would have been starting their own family. Ben was the only one who considered himself a ladies' man and suitable for the likes of Frank Young's daughter. John had been around when complaints filtered back to Jacob about Ben's abusive behavior toward the painted doves over Wilbur's Saloon and, even more telling, when his brother-in-law paid off a few of the hands to keep them still about Ben's unwanted, uninvited advances towards their wives and sweethearts. Although John was loyal to Priscilla and Jacob, he considered Ben a mean, spoiled, unruly swine and if he did have Rachel, John made a good guess that it was by force. If his nephew hadn't been planning something insidious two days ago, why did he instruct them to 'keep the sheriff occupied' for a while so he could let Rachel know he was back?
Looking at the horrific setting before him though, John thought this may have been a little too brutal an ending, even for Ben, despite how or why the sheriff may have managed to get the body in the ghastly condition it was. No, Jacob wasn't going to be happy about this at all.
"You boys go back to the ranch and get a box out here and pick him up. I'll go back and tell his mama," John instructed.
Rachel had been napping when Trace and the warriors got back to the Triple Y. Once the trees had done their job, as disturbingly bloody and repulsive as the process was, Trace felt a satisfaction that almost alarmed her in the fact that she experienced no guilt or remorse for causing the death of this man. The scream that ripped from deep within his very being echoed in her ears for barely a second and, as he fell quickly into shock, the guttural, pleading moan that rose up from his throat, died quicker than he did. Trace did not even flinch, watching Ben Crane's limbs separate from his body as he bled out before her eyes.
They had removed the ropes, covered their tracks, dug up the tree stumps and replaced the holes with dirt, leaves and other assorted vegetation, making the area look like nothing or no one had been there. As they left the scene of Ben Crane's death, carting the trees back with them to chop for firewood, Trace was sure she would immediately fall under suspicion, that she would be held responsible, even if not accountable, for what the detective considered this justified act of reprisal. She shrugged it off. The biggest threat to Rachel was now gone, forever, and with that knowledge, she felt no qualms about taking on the rest of the family.
Walking into the house, she was greeted by Little Hawk. "It is done?"
Trace nodded. "Yep. He won't be bothering Rachel - or anyone else - ever again. How is she?"
"She is resting."
"Good." Untying and removing her fingerless, rawhide gloves, she looked directly at him. "How did you know?"
She did not have to clarify, he knew exactly what she was asking him. "I cannot explain this, Tsápaat. There are things I just know. Do you know why?"
"Why it had to be me and not Rachel who caused his death? Yeah. It was very clear to me once I saw him." And boy, had that been a shock. The face and voice of Vincent DeSienna not only suddenly haunting but taunting her as well her through the body of Ben Crane. The irony was not lost on her, having felt almost mentally sucker punched by the shock. Had she not reacted purely on instinct, Rachel's rapist could have very easily got the best of her, too.
She could only hope through wishful synchronicity that, while she was killing Ben Crane, Vincent DeSienna was also experiencing a death of similarly torturous proportions. And, because she was sure she would never know, it gave her great, sadistic pleasure to assume that he had. The recollection of Crane's well deserved, agonizing scream echoed in her ears one more time, sending a shiver of satisfaction down her spine. Trace closed her eyes to still her sanguine nature that had risen from it's dormancy, awakened when Ben Crane laid his filthy hands on Rachel again. She took several deep breaths, consciously swallowing her rage at that single thought. If only she could have got to him before, if only...
"You killed him? Ben is dead?"
They turned to see Rachel walking toward them, her expression a mixture of curiosity, incredulity and relief.
"Yes, sweetheart. Ben Crane will never bother you again."
Rachel threw herself into her spouse's arms, not unexpectedly, but with a fervor Trace had not anticipated. The detective embraced her wife comfortingly and securely.
"I will leave you two alone now." Little Hawk moved toward the door, sensing the couple's need for solace and privacy.
Kissing the top of Rachel's head, Trace said, "Thank you, Little Hawk."
"I will be in the field. There is maize to harvest." It was his subtle way of letting them know he would not be too far away...just in case.
As he left the house, the full impact of the burden lifting hit her like a dam breaking and, safe in the loving and protective arms of her lover, Rachel broke down and wept.
John Carver watched his sister break down and weep. She had asked how, not needing to ask why. Even though she would never say it out loud, Priscilla Crane knew that Ben had a miserable mean streak in him that her other children did not have and a pattern of behavior that eventually was going to bring him to an early grave. It was just one of those things a mother knew. She was honestly surprised that it had not happened sooner.
Ephraim, her first born, despite having Jacob's temper, was more like her, possessing a quiet strength and an almost regal bearing. Gideon was more like his father in that he was sometimes too stubborn and too proud, never admitting to making mistakes and having little patience with people who did not see things his way. Then there was Micah who was a combination of the best parts of Jacob and the worst parts of her. Although he was virile and decisive, her middle child had a tendency to be gullable and easily manipulated, traits that she hated to admit allowed her to be unwillingly matched up with the most eligible bachelor in her parents' elite circle.
Oh, it wasn't that Jacob Crane hadn't been devastatingly handsome and hadn't provided her with a secure future and a fine family, it was just that she had not been impressed with the sneaky, petty and tyrannical way Jacob's father and grandfather had done business and, most importantly, she had been in love with another young man. James Powell, the preacher's son, who had nothing to offer her but his devotion and a meager life as a minister's wife, at best, was the man she had secretly promised herself to, the man she really wanted to marry and bear children by. Her parents wouldn't hear of it. Certainly the ministry was a noble calling but it, in no way was suitable for the only daughter of Omaha's most aristocratic banker. She would learn to love Jacob, her mother had told her, just the way her mother had learned to love Priscilla's father.
And, learn to love him, she did. But that did not stop her from occasionally and wistfully thinking about what might have been with James and how, maybe, he would have helped her raise their children with different values.
Hannah, their only daughter, was beautiful and took full advantage of her privilege as a member of the most influential family in the county but had grown up to be a disagreeable and bitter woman. Priscilla could only think that was caused from being overshadowed constantly by her brothers and regardless of how subtly Hannah competed, never quite got equal amounts of attention from a father she adored. As much as Priscilla loved her husband, he made no secret that he favored his sons over his daughter and that damage was irreparable, if not unforgivable.
And then there was Benjamin whom she named after her father. He had been spoiled from the day he was born. She had nearly died giving birth to him and that pretty much guaranteed that he would be the last baby. He was six years behind Ephraim and treated like a little prince by all his siblings, including Hannah. By the time young Ben was in school, he already had the idea in his head that he could do no wrong and the opinion that anyone, who wasn't a Crane, owed him. She tried to rectify that, tried to discipline him for his bad conduct and manners but her husband always overruled her. Jacob had wanted at least ten children, preferably all boys and, it seemed, because Ben was the definite end of the Crane line, not counting whatever future grandsons there would be, punishment of any sort involving Ben was just not tolerated.
So Priscilla stood by and watched her youngest child slowly become the monster he grew up to be and was powerless to stop him. And now he was dead, something she knew was just a matter of time. She grieved for the loss of her son and she prayed for his soul, ashamed to carry the thoughts that a child of hers might be too evil to get into heaven.
John had told her that the circumstances surrounding Ben's death were too unspeakable to describe to her and he suspected that the sheriff was somehow involved. Priscilla just nodded when her brother further stated that Jacob and the boys would have to know and, no doubt, declare all out war on the rebellious town and their new, renegade lawman. She held no ill will toward Trace Sheridan...in fact, she almost respected the man for having the courage to stand up for what he believed was right, in spite of the fact that it may have very well resulted in the death of her youngest child.
It had to stop some time, somewhere. She just wasn't sure if she was ready for it to be right now.
John and Seth Carver paid Trace a visit that afternoon at the sheriff's office in town. The younger Carver still looked a little peaked and both men acted as though the wind had been taken out of their communal sail. Although, the older Carver continuously eyeballed Trace in a suspicious manner, he never once leveled an accusation at the sheriff during the entire time spent in the office, reporting Ben's death.
Trace knew they would be looking for her conduct and mannerisms to be questionable or leery, revealing something, anything to them that might exhibit her guilt. But the detective was too good at playing the passive game when she need to, too experienced at donning a facade that hid any real emotion, a mask no one had ever before been able to see through...except for Rachel. And, the only reason the beautiful blonde had achieved that feat was that she had unexplainably and miraculously penetrated the hardness that once surrounded Trace's heart from the very first day the detective entered this new world.
Filling out paperwork, recording all the details, Trace assured the father and son team that she would look into the possibility of wolves roaming too close to the Crane property. When Seth hinted that the Pawnee may have had a hand in his cousin's death, the brunette advised him that those were serious allegations without any kind of proof. The younger Carver was about to comment that the sheriff would, no doubt, cover the tribal members' tracks just like when they found themselves stripped naked and tied to a tree on Trace's wedding day but John wisely interrupted the boy before too many maligning words could leave his mouth.
Honestly surprised that the sheriff displayed no incriminating behavior, nothing indicative of a guilty conscience, John left the building, wondering if Trace really did have anything to do with Ben's death. The sinewy young lawman sounded almost compassionate while asking questions and discussing what Seth had found there in the woods not too far from the entrance to the Crane property. In fact, Trace remained so professionally neutral that the older Carver just stopped short of apologizing for Ben's violent actions toward the sheriff's wife. Despite the fact that the dark haired stranger had kicked the crap out of him that night outside the barn, he was beginning to conclude that Trace wasn't such a bad guy after all.
Thinking back, John had no business following any of Ed Jackson's hairbrained schemes, avenging the former sheriff's cowardice. It had been a mistake to make any kind of a move like that without Jacob's okay. The Crane patriarch really had no claim on Rachel or the Young ranch, either, but the situation definitely would have been handled face-to-face as opposed to the sneaky, underhanded manner in which Jackson decided to retaliate for a wounded ego.
After the Carvers left the jail and rode out of Sagebrush, Trace decided to head over to Wilbur's. Decorum could wait, she needed a drink. It wasn't so much that, even though the Pawnee had carried out the actual execution on Trace's behalf, she had ordered and witnessed the death of the feared and dreaded Ben Crane, it was the realization that she had more than likely just started an irreversible war, one that just might get innocent people killed. Yes, the situation had been hostile before this but everybody just went along with it, preferring to keep the peace, knowing they were no match for the family who controlled the town's purse strings.
She knew the domineering Cranes had no clue what they were really up against now that she had the entire Pawnee tribe behind her but they were a family used to getting its own way, regardless of the means they had to use or the consequences of their actions. The citizens of Sagebrush were stronger now and more aware of their own power but, in the long run, very few of them could rival the conniving dynasty that had terrorized them for the past ten years. At the very least, someone undeserving was going to get hurt, would end up a casualty of her actions and decisions and for the first time in her life, that really bothered her.
When she entered through the double doors of the saloon, even Silas stopped what he was doing and observed with tacit fascination the almost revered silence that fell over the room as all eyes watched the sheriff move to the bar. A majority of them were sitting in the exact same places they had been the day before when Isaac Tipping came running in and advised his father that one of the Pawnee just told Trace that Ben Crane was at the Triple Y. And not more than an hour ago, one of the Crane ranch hands stood by the stairway, drinking cheap rye, trying to calm his nerves and forget about what was left of Ben Crane that he had just shoveled into a box and couldn't stop shaking and talking about it.
Matthew Reddick laid down his cards and was the first to speak, asking the obvious. "Hey, Trace...did you hear about Ben?"
Stepping up to the opposite side of the counter where Silas was standing, the detective nodded. "Yep. John and Seth Carver were just by my office."
"What do you think happened?" the usual jovial bartender inquired, with genuine curiosity. He brought the sheriff a shot and an ale.
Shrugging nonchalantly, Trace downed the shot, cleared the burn out of her throat and said, "I have no clue. Sounds like wild animals got him."
"You don't sound too upset." That comment came from Joseph Turner.
"Should I be?" Trace pinned the pawnbroker with a glare. "The man came to my house and attacked my wife yesterday. I don't need to remind you that Rachel is with child, Joseph, he could have hurt her more than he did or hurt my son or daughter. If you're looking for me to be sad or upset that the son-of-a-bitch met his maker sometime this morning, then you're going to be disappointed."
"Did you have anything to do with it, Trace?" That questioned came from Cassandra, who had inconspicuously descended the stairs. She still harbored a serious attraction for the tall, shaggy-haired, sensual sheriff. Nothing would have given her greater pleasure than to know that Trace had been the one to finally call out Ben Crane because, in a town that was in the process of being rescued, killing that evil bastard would have only cemented Trace's hero status in her book.
The detective gauged the prostitute's demeanor and decided that the redhead was being straightforward. Taking a long swallow of beer from the cool mug in her grasp, Trace responded with, "Now, if I had, do you think I would actually stand here and admit it to a roomful of people?" A slight smirk crossed the sheriff's lips and everyone exhaled a collective, relieved breath. No one was sure if they were more afraid of the lawman's answer being that he was involved or that he wasn't.
Before anyone else put their foot in their mouth, Matthew spoke up. "We're with you, Trace. Whatever happened, we know Jacob will probably come after you anyway and we've all been talking and we just want you to know that we'll all stand with you."
The detective slowly turned and faced the saloon's inhabitants. Each and every one of them were nodding and agreeing with Matthew Reddick. Trace then looked at Joseph Turner, who grinned sheepishly at the tall brunette.
"Tell ya the truth, Trace, I'm not real upset by the news, either. That man gave me nothing but headaches."
Breaking out into a more relaxed smile, Trace signaled Silas for another shot. As the bartender refilled the sheriff's glass, she inclined her head toward the prostitute, who had joined her at the bar. "And give Cassandra one, too. On me."
Setting the shot glass next to Trace's, the bartender looked at the redhead expectantly. The prostitute pointed to a medium-priced bottle of scotch, which Silas retrieved. "How much of this you want, Cass?"
Just as Trace brought her glass to her lips and threw the shot back, the redhead stood impossibly close to the sheriff and purred, "I'll take three fingers."
Whiskey being expelled from the nostrils hurt like hell.
Following the sheriff's embarrassing choking incident to which after it was determined that Trace was going to live, Cassandra returned upstairs with a knowing wink and smile, the brunette sat at the table with Matthew and a few others. Her eyes were still spontaneously tearing forty-five minutes after she had involuntarily inhaled the shot of amber liquid up her nose.
"What's John Carver's story?" she asked no on in particular, as she wasn't sure who might have the most information. She should have known it would be a toss up between Joseph Turner and Silas.
"You mean other'n him not knowin' one end of the horse from t'other?" That remark came from Clay Canfield, the father of Isaac Tipping's sweetheart, Lydia.
"That's not true," Joseph corrected, sniffing. He pulled up a stool next to Matthew and sat. "John Carver causes the least amount of trouble of anyone related to the Cranes. My wife and I had him and his late wife to dinner many times. He changed a bit after Margaret died, got a little cantankerous, but I still think he may be the most honorable of any of that bunch."
"Something tells me that's not saying much," Trace commented. She distinctly recalled Carver saying he'd like a little piece of Rachel for himself that night he and Isaac set out to attack them on the Triple Y and if she didn't cooperate, she just might have to be 'taught a lesson.' That didn't make him very honorable in her estimation. "How did his wife die?"
"Nobody really knows. He told around that he accidentally shot her," Joseph offered.
"What? And that's honorable, how?" The sheriff asked, incredulously.
"Story supposedly goes like this...Seth came back early from Jefferson City and caught his mama warmin' the bed of one of the ranch hands and that boy shot her on the spot, cold as satan's breath about it. Probably would have shot the hand, too, 'cept he took off and never came back. John got back, found out about it and needed to save face. So, he told everyone that he was shootin' at targets and Margaret walked into his path, not knowin' he was there."
"And there were actually people who bought that story?" Trace asked.
"Oh, hell, nobody bought it," Clay argued, "That's cuz if you gave John Carver a gun and told him to shoot hisself, he'd miss. There was all kinds of crazy stories goin' around about that day. There was even one that Priscilla shot her for betrayin' her brother." He stared blatantly at the pawnbroker. "What's with that hair on your face, Joseph? Those whiskers tryin' to make up fer what yer losin' on top?" He dipped a big, dirty hand in a bowl of peanuts on the table.
"Winter's coming, you know Joseph always grows a beard to keep his face warm," Silas offered.
"You know, Clay, you've always been one rude sunnavabitch. I'm telling you that I knew Margaret Carver better than anyone in this town and -"
"Yeah? Just how well did you know her, Joseph?" Canfield teased.
"He didn't know her like that," Silas laughed. "Why, if Ruth ever thought he was unfaithful, she'd shoot that little dauber square off him."
"Well, I always thought your wife was right handsome, Joseph, so if worse comes to worse, I promise I'll do all your screwin' for ya."
"Gentlemen, please," Trace interrupted, "we're getting off track here." She ordered another round for everyone at the table, hoping it would give Turner a chance to get his blood pressure down. The last time she saw something that red, it was on a fireplug. After Silas delivered everyone's drinks, he collected the price out of the change Trace had left lying on the bar.
"Joseph is right," Silas began the conversation again, leaning his elbows on the counter. "John really isn't as bad as the rest of them. He always stays behind during the drives to handle everything for Jacob, makes sure everything stays running smooth, makes sure the women are all safe and protected...when none of the Crane boys are around, John is the number one man there."
"Personally, I think he shoots long range with a short gun, if you know what I mean." They turned around to see Emmet Hallack, who had strolled in, unnoticed. He removed his derby and joined the others at the table.
"You think he's not quite all there?" Her question was meant to clarify the metaphor which caused the others at the table to look up at the attorney, puzzled by his words. She'd have to remember that expression since 'one french fry short of a happy meal' wouldn't cut it in this era. "Why?"
Hallack shrugged. "Something has to be wrong with him...he's the son of Benjamin Carver, who, before he died, was one of the most influential businessmen in Omaha. Why isn't John a man of his own fortune? Francis, the older brother was...until he died from whooping cough five years ago. It was arranged for Priscilla to marry well...what happened with John? Instead of being a man of his own means, his life has been spent following his sister around like a lost little boy, marrying her best friend, making his livelihood from her husband instead of making his own way? It's not right, doesn't add up."
Hallack had a good point. "Anybody know why John Carver isn't a rich man in his own right?" Trace threw the question out there.
No one answered...but it certainly gave them all something to speculate about...which they did far into the evening, long after Trace left them and returned home to her not-so-happy wife, who became that way seeing the intoxicated condition the brunette was in when she got there. Watery, bloodshot blue eyes tried to fix their gaze on green eyes Trace could only equate with belonging to that of a pissed off grizzly bear.
It wasn't that Rachel didn't understand Trace was probably struggling to come to grips with what she had done that morning and tempering the weight of the responsibility with alcohol but the blonde didn't feel that her spouse should have gotten herself quite this stupefied.
As Trace collapsed on the bed, sideways, Rachel just left her there after pulling the detective's boots off. While loud snores resonated from the bedroom, Dancing Leaf embraced the blonde before she left, giving her advice on what would alleviate the impending hangover they all knew Trace would have the next morning. Thanking the Pawnee midwife, Rachel told her that she had her own remedies which worked extremely well but since she would really like to cure her spouse's penchant to get this drunk when she hung out at Wilbur's, she was going to opt to let Trace suffer through this one. Although, Rachel knew very well that when Trace had a hangover, they both suffered.
The next morning, Trace awoke, unable to focus or to move. She was pretty sure if she did, her head was going to explode. If dental floss had been invented, she certainly could have been blindfolded with it. The brunette felt the presence of someone by the bed and knew from the scent of what smelled like fresh milk with honey in it, that it was Rachel. And, even though it was a fragrance she normally cherished, at that very moment, it was making her stomach turn.
"Morning, sweetheart!" The blonde yelled right next to the detective's ear.
"Oh, Jesus Christ..." Trace bit off, squeezing her eyes shut tighter, riding out the wave of agony that accompanied the loud voice and her pulsating skull.
"Language, dear. You promised not to take the Lord's name is vain in the house." She was sounding way too sweet, enjoying this entirely too much
"I'm not," Trace whispered, desperately, "I'm praying that he will be merciful and take me right now..."
"What's the matter? Head big as a washtub, is it? Or does it feel more like a shriveled up prune?"
"Yes. Please, baby, please stop talking and do your thing with the cabbage soup. I'm dying here..."
"Well...maybe next time you'll remember this and not drink so much."
"These were mitiga...miti...mitigat...exten..." Concentration was eluding her. Thinking hurt. "It was different this time."
"It was different last time. Now, get up and haul yourself out here so I can fix you some tea."
"Can't you bring it to me in here?"
"Trace, you have not moved, not one muscle, since you got home last night. I couldn't even move you so that I could fit on the bed. I had to sleep on the sofa."
"I'll make it up to you, I promise..." Her eyes felt crusted shut, her teeth felt like they were wearing slouch socks and her hair throbbed.
"Oh, you bet you will," the expectant mother promised. "Now, get up and I'll fix you a nice big breakfast of greasy bacon and runny eggs and -"
"Oh, Rachel, you can be a hateful woman sometimes..." Trace defied gravity and stood, abruptly, ignoring the anvil that was slamming into her head, racing outside to throw up. When she was done, she returned inside and sat at the table, awaiting more punishment from her lovely wife.
Standing there, hands on her hips, Rachel almost felt sorry for the pitiful-looking brunette. Almost. She sighed. "You know, Trace, when this child gets here, you're not going to be able to get this way, all liquored up like this. I can't have you as helpless as the baby and it shouldn't fall to the Pawnee to do your chores around the house. You understand that, right?" Her tone was on the side of reasoning and not nagging.
Trace was slumped over the table so low, she almost bumped her nose on it when she nodded.
Her voice softening, Rachel bent over and kissed the detective on the top of her head. "Your forehead's hotter than a pistol and I've seen corpses with more color."
"No matter how bad I look...I feel worse." the detective mumbled.
"I was going to really make you regret coming home lit up again but I just don't have the energy and it's just too hard to watch you like this. I think you've suffered enough. I'll make you your soup now."
Resting her cheek on the cool wood surface of the table, Trace sighed a heartfelt, "Thank you."
The day the Cranes rode into Sagebrush, back from their cattle drive, autumn was in full foliage. The welcomed crisp fall air, the brilliant colors of the trees that dotted the mountains and the burnished leaves painted brightly by Mother Nature that were quickly gathering on the ground were not reflective of the cutting chill the town felt now that word got around regarding the return of the feared family.
Jacob and his remaining sons had learned about Ben's death three weeks earlier by telegram. They would not find out the speculative details surrounding the youngest Crane boy's untimely ending until after they got back to their estate and spoke with John, Seth and the ranch hands who had scooped up his remains and buried him. But this was not before they ran into a surprise when they tried to cut across the Triple Y to get back into Crane territory. Not only were they blocked by nearly a mile of barbed wire fencing, there were flourishing cattle grazing on the Young land and evidence of recently harvested corn and crops on what looked like acres to the east, inside the fence line. And, had there not been nearly an entire tribe of Pawnee hunters and warriors on horseback roaming close to the inner boundaries of the Triple Y, Jacob would have ordered the fence torn down and brought his entourage through, ignoring the hand painted signs that announced it as being private property and warned against trespassing.
Jacob and his sons exchanged stunned looks. Ed Jackson had wired them about all the changes going on here but since the former sheriff had a tendency to elaborate on the exaggerated dramatic side, no one was quite expecting this sophisticated set up. This Sheridan fellow was going to be a bigger problem than they had originally anticipated. The eldest Crane did like a worthy adversary but only if he could pretty much guarantee he could defeat the opposition. Jacob was now returning home with one less son, a sheriff not under his control, and still coveting land that was now no longer owned by a frightened young woman but what appeared to be a strong, respected married couple and guarded by a group of possibly hostile Indians.
Hmmmm...maybe he could appeal to the new sheriff's financial acumen...money, after all, was almost always the great equalizer and greed was a well known human character flaw. Sure, it had not worked with Rachel but she was a woman and too stubbornly sentimental about the property. Men were much more reasonable about these things - especially if the offered monetary figure was...appropriate. Although, if the fortress this Sheridan man had set up surrounding the Triple Y was any indication, he might not be as easily swayed as Jacob's other conquests. And, if that was the case, sheriff or not, they could always burn them out.
The Crane patriarch was running out of patience and options, especially now that it may have cost him the reign over the town's judicious proceedings and, most importantly, a son. Had that little Young bitch just given in to Ben, all of this could have been avoided. So, if neither the sheriff nor his wife cooperated, then they had no one to blame but themselves for whatever death and destruction was brought onto their land, their new stock and maybe even themselves.
On the other hand, there would still be the Pawnee to deal with. Not knowing much about them, Crane deduced that if they had been a savage bunch, they would have shown that side of them and attacked the townspeople years ago. With that in mind, Jacob reasoned that the Pawnee could probably be bought, also. Everybody had a price.
Jacob had no real idea as to what he was up against until after he returned to his home and spoke with John, Seth, the hands, Priscilla and Hannah. After hearing the tale of Trace Sheridan's mysterious appearance a month after they had left for their drive, the drifter immediately taking up residence on the Young property, his defiance of Ed Jackson and the incidents which followed up to and including the former sheriff's demise and the whole town supporting and following the new sheriff like the pied piper, the eldest Crane was puzzled. Then, with the Pawnee getting involved, Ben claiming that the baby the Sheridans were expecting was really his and Ben's suspicious death, Jacob had many more questions than answers.
Whatever was going on with this clearly charismatic lawman, his luck would have to start running out at some point. Maybe it would serve Jacob and his sons well to bide their time. Meanwhile, Crane would take his oldest son into town in the morning and have a little chat with the new sheriff. He wanted to meet this Sheridan fellow face to face, get a feel for him, see what his vulnerabilities were and if he couldn't be reasoned with, plan their attack through that. Obviously a big weakness would be his wife and, no doubt, the unborn child, especially if the infant was his. However, if indeed the baby was Ben's - which made sense with what he told his mother and uncle - that would put a whole new twist on things, specifically if the sheriff was not aware that he was not the father.
Exhausted from their near six month trip, all Jacob wanted now was a good home-cooked meal, a glass of his expensive scotch and his own bed with his wife in it, performing her conjugal obligations. It wasn't that he had not entertained a 'lady of the evening' or two while they had been away, but it was Priscilla's duty to serve him, her responsibility as his wife to satisfy his needs when he told her to, when the urge was there. Even after twenty-eight years of marriage, she never once resisted him when he demanded she indulge him in the bedroom. Unless she was having her monthly and then she would still be expected to service him even though he would not touch her.
And if it was 'that time' for his wife, perhaps Ephraim's wife would be willing to...fulfill his needs. Whereas Priscilla never refused him his missionary requirements or manual stimulation, any other kind of copulation was out of the question for his 'proper' spouse. However, he knew that Julia, Ephraim's wife, secretly liked being ordered to do and engage in the sometimes degrading sexual acts he could only get from a prostitute and that excited and fascinated him.
Jacob knew his oldest son was a washout in the bedroom. The patriarch found Julia crying one evening out by the stables not too long after the couple had been married. The young minx confessed to Jacob that Ephraim could not perform and would get drunk and pass out because of it. Why, Jacob got her so hot and bothered by telling her what he was capable of that he took her right then and there in the hayloft. Since then, he knew what Priscilla wouldn't give him, Julia would.
Smiling lasciviously, he put all thoughts of the new sheriff aside until morning.
Trace knew a meeting with at least one Crane, if not all of them, was inevitable. Isaac Tipping rode into town and told the sheriff that the cattle baron and his clan had just been stopped at her property by the menacing fence and the presence of the Pawnee and Jacob did not look happy.
She had really expected a visit that afternoon and, primed though she was for the confrontation, she was relieved when it did not happen. This would give her a chance to mentally steel herself for what she knew was going to be the beginning of the end. Trace had no intention of losing to these people but if things went awry, she would arrange for Little Hawk to get Rachel away from Sagebrush and somewhere free from harm, maybe even staying with the Pawnee. The blonde would be safe with them, they would protect her, and she and the baby would at least be alive.
Of course, she could not mention this little tidbit to her wife because Rachel would in no way agree to any of it. The thought of Trace getting herself killed, regardless of the nobility of the cause, was something unfathomable to the blonde. The detective and Rachel had talked about this nearly every night since Ben's death and the significant, sobering idea of retaliation was just something the expectant mother was now not willing to negotiate on. The ranch, the stock, the property, the sentiment - none of it was worth losing Trace or the baby over. Pride was all well and good but pride had already cost Rachel so much. She was now prepared to sacrifice what was lawfully and deservedly hers if it meant she, Trace and the child could walk away with their lives.
Comprehending the theory behind this, Trace knew what her wife was willing to give up for her and she was floored by it. However, they had come so far and at this point, it wasn't a matter of pride, it was more a matter of justice, respect, dignity and what was clearly right. It wasn't about glory or complacence if they won, it was about digging the town out of submission, meekness, humiliation and, for some, outright disgrace. It was about giving the citizens of Sagebrush back was rightfully theirs to begin with. If Rachel ceded, regardless of why, the town would be lost to the Cranes forever and none of them would have any peace, least of all the Sheridan family.
And, even though it was difficult for Trace, on any level, to surrender to anyone under any circumstances, she still would have consented to yield power on Rachel's behalf, if there had not been quite so much at stake. The former 21st Century police detective knew that, on principle alone, just like the DeSiennas, the Cranes would not rest until they hunted Trace down and hung her, probably killed Rachel or worse and took the baby with them. No aspects of that idea were acceptable to the brunette, especially knowing if that happened, the child would be brought up as a Crane and that would cement the beginning of the DeSienna legacy somehow. If Trace could do anything humanly possible to stop that, she would.
She was not sure how this baby Rachel was carrying would tie into the DeSienna patrimony but after being bitch-slapped into reality at the site of Ben Crane's face, she knew the link was inescapable. Was it possible to change the impending decades by rearing Vincent's great-grandparent in a healthy, law abiding, environment? Would instilling good, decent and scrupulous values in a child be enough to alter at least four generations of reprehensibly criminal behavior? There would only be one way to find out. And, in order to do that, Trace could not allow the reign of the cattle baron to continue through or even touch the life of the child she was about to raise as her own.
She found it ironic that she, with her lifelong beliefs and morals, would be responsible for instilling honorable ethics and standards into the psyche of any individual, much less one who could grow to wield enormous power, whose future offspring would have so much influence on her life and the world she grew up in. Trace was also curious as to what would have happened had she not come along. Would Rachel have given in and married Ben? She shuddered at the thought. Would the Cranes have blackmailed her wife to possess the baby or worse, yet, murdered her to get custody of the child? All of it was unthinkable and now, unnecessary, because she was very much present in this lifetime, knowing what lay ahead if she didn't do something to try and change the course of the future.
Also, since the question had been brought up at Wilbur's the afternoon of Ben's death, Trace discovered why John Carver was not the man of means everyone thought he should have been, which in a way, made her almost empathize with him. Rachel had found out through her former best friend, Suzanne Beauregard, Seth's fiancée, that John was an orphan boy that Priscilla's mother and father had taken in when he was barely two years old. Although they raised him and eventually adopted him, he was never quite made to feel like one of the family.
He and Priscilla grew up very close and his sister refused to allow John to be left behind so when she married Jacob, her younger brother went to live in the bunk house of the ranch the newlyweds inhabited outside Omaha. When John and her best friend, Margaret, met and fell in love, they wed and built a house on the corner end of the property the Carvers had given Priscilla and Jacob as a wedding gift. John had been by her side ever since.
Suzanne had told Rachel this in the strictest of confidence, as it was not something anyone wanted to get out and about in the town. Seth had wallowed in a little too much drinking and had confessed this to her in the throes of his intoxication. The younger Carver was not a nice or happy drunk, he became angry and resentful while inebriated and he was complaining about how his 'grandparents' had mistreated his father who was a good, hard-working man. Benjamin Carver did not feel that John, who wasn't a true, blood Carver, should have been allotted the same rights and opportunities as Francis and Priscilla had been given.
Trace reasoned that this must have been why John always appeared to be trying to prove himself. Maybe Joseph and Silas were right, maybe the older Carver really wasn't on the same level of thug as the rest of the family. He did, after all, opt to back off after the second time Trace got the better of him while he followed Ed Jackson's supervision so he wasn't a stupid man and obviously not ruled by his ego. Still, as Trace now knew, there were always choices and John continued to make his in the wrong direction. Maybe, like her, he was salvageable, but it was not an immediate priority of hers to find out. If he had a magnanimous side, his true colors would show themselves soon enough.
In the meantime, there were the big boys to contend with.
The next morning, bright and early, Trace was in town, tinkering with a jammed lock of one of the archaic handcuff bracelets, when two men entered her office.
Without even looking at them to see the expected resemblance to Ben, she could sense that these 'gentlemen' were Cranes. That just had an aura about them that screamed pretentiously tyrannical. Highfalutin' was what Silas referred to them as. It was as good a word as any.
Glancing at them briefly, she returned her attention to her task. "Something I can help you men with?" She purposefully made her voice casual.
She had incorrectly guessed that Jacob was going to look like Vittorio DeSienna and was gratefully relieved when he didn't. Although he was a roguishly handsome older man with distinguished wisps of gray hair at the temples and widow's peak and obviously was used to people cowering in his presence, he just did not have quite the bearing Vittorio did. Trace remembered the first time she had garnered an audience with the head of the DeSienna crime family...the air seemed suddenly stifling and the atmosphere was quite unnerving, regardless of what she showed him on the outside. Jacob just did not have that kind of efficacy.
The posture of the man with him, obviously one of his three remaining sons, was infused with poise and an almost quiescent dignity, unusual under the circumstances. He was a near carbon copy of his father, with identical mustache and tempestuous, yellow-tinted brown eyes. Making a quick assessment, Trace decided that Ben must have looked like his mother.
"I'm Jacob Crane and this is my oldest boy, Ephraim."
Trace then gave them her full, undivided attention. She pushed the handcuffs aside and stood, extending her hand first to the older Crane. How they responded to that gesture would be very telling. "Trace Sheridan. My condolences regarding your son."
"I appreciate that, Sheriff." Jacob gracefully accepted the brunette's hand and shook it firmly. Ephraim's poise and dignity, however, stopped at his physical appearance. When he would not take Trace's hand, his father touched him on the shoulder. "Ephraim, you were brought up better than that."
Gripping the new lawman's hand, the oldest Crane son, then squeezed it with the intent of breaking it if he could. He had no idea that Trace had been prepared for the immature action and not only gave as good as she got but never flinched at the discomfort, something he could not manage, which infuriated him even more when he had to let go first. Damn, he thought, the new sheriff was a lot stronger than he looked.
"Well, well, well...nothing like a good cockfight," Jacob chuckled, watching the two stare each other down.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Crane?" Trace motioned for them to sit as she returned to her seat behind the desk.
"First, congratulations on your marriage and the upcoming birth of...your...child."
Trace smirked, at the emphasis Crane placed on the doubt in the word 'your.' "Thank you. I'm very lucky to have found Rachel and we are very excited about...our...baby." Two could play this game and she was frankly a little surprised that - at least so far - Crane wasn't playing it better.
"Also, I wanted to tell you that you have done a nice job on the Young property and -"
"Mr. Crane, let's cut the crap, shall we?" She almost laughed out loud at the startled expression both men wore but she swallowed it and kept her voice to a professional monotone that not without its unmistakably dangerous edge. "You didn't come in here to congratulate me on my personal good fortune nor did you come here to compliment me on my ranching skills. It's doing us all a disservice to dance around the fact that I know you've been told that I could have possibly been responsible for your son's death. So, let's just get it all out in the open right here and now...but be warned, Mr. Crane...the playground is mine now and I don't play well with others." Her enigmatic blue eyes pinned them both to their chairs, rendering them momentarily mute.
Finally Jacob cleared his throat and he nodded. "Your, uh, candor, is much appreciated, Sheriff. I respect a man who likes to get right down to business." He wasn't used to anyone so blatantly challenging him like that without so much as a quiver to his voice. "Did you kill my son?"
"No. Next question." Well, it wasn't a lie. Black Feather and Howling Wolf with the aid of two trees killed Ben.
"I don't believe you," Ephraim spit out, his eyes narrowed, accusingly.
"I don't care," Trace responded, simply. "What reason would I have had to kill your brother?"
"Because of Rachel," Ephraim replied.
"What about Rachel?"
Just as the oldest Crane son was about to respond, Jacob put his hand up to silence him. If the sheriff had no idea that Ben may have fathered the baby his wife was carrying, that could be their ace in the hole to bring this audacious, cocky, disrespectful upstart to his knees. Plus, Jacob did not want Ephraim saying anything out of anger that could implicate Ben in any obvious crime - especially against a woman who had obviously become the town 'sweetheart' in their absence.
"Sheriff, I don't think it was any secret that my son was in love with your wife," Jacob interjected, in an attempt to quell the mental chest bumping occurring between the sheriff and his son.
"No, it was not a secret but as far as I know that wasn't a crime. Unlike my predecessor, I take my job very seriously, Mr. Crane, and I am not about to abuse the power and authority of this office to avenge a petty jealousy. Besides, it's also no secret that my wife couldn't stand your son. So, that was not a worry to me."
The Crane men exchanging looks did not go unnoticed by Trace. She knew exactly what they were thinking. If they did not bring up the question of the baby's paternity, she was not about to. "I did an investigation and I filled out a report that I sent to the state attorney's office to be kept on file just in case anyone wanted to make a big deal over this. It looked to me and, I might add, to your brother-in-law, nephew and four ranch hands, that Ben had been killed by a wild animal or a pack of wild animals." She glared at Ephraim. "If you want to protest that, be my guest. But, under oath, in a court of law, your people will back up my findings. Now...what else can I do for you gentlemen today?"
They had left the office frustrated and furious. Diplomacy certainly had not worked, nor had implied intimidation. Whatever they threw at Trace Sheridan, the sheriff had a legitimate response for it. When Jacob gingerly broached the subject of the 'rent' the Cranes had been receiving from local shopkeepers to keep their businesses running, Trace not-so-gingerly informed them that the merchants of Sagebrush owed them nothing.
Ephraim tried to tell the sheriff that they owned most of the commercial land on main street and that Ed Jackson had lost the deeds in his ineptitude. They were counting on the old contingency that no one would dispute and defy them by calling them liars. The sheriff just smiled and advised them to bring in their copies of the signed covenants and she would agree to let them go back to collecting their fees. Because, the lawman added, rather sweetly, no businessman in his right mind would ever have contracts and ownership papers that important and not have had copies drawn up when the originals got lost.
Even though the suggestion was never outwardly verbalized, it was made very clear that this principled sheriff could not, would not be bought. Well...they would revisit that prospect after this baby was born. Until then, or if the child turned out to actually belong to the sheriff, they would have to come up with another plan and one that made a final statement to the lawman that he really wasn't in charge after all. After that, it would be easy to get the town back under their thumb again.
The problem would be executing it without bringing the whole damned Indian nation down on them in the process.
Cold weather settled in quickly in the immediate weeks to come, as though it had followed the Cranes into the county and stayed there, emulating the clan's frigidity and nastiness since their return. They had uncharacteristically kept to themselves, doing business in Sagebrush only when necessary and avoiding the sheriff and the Triple Y at all costs. Although grateful, Trace was neither arrogant nor naïve regarding their self-imposed segregation, knowing the Cranes were up to something and in order to figure out what that was, she would have to think like one of them.
The first thought that hit her was probably the correct one because it was what she would have done had she been in charge, which was wait until the upcoming annual Pawnee buffalo hunt when half the tribe was gone and then come en force and take her out. She knew that the Cranes referred to her as 'the viper' because of the way they felt she had snaked her way into the unsophisticated hearts and minds of the townspeople. Of course, it was true but not in the manner the Cranes had envisioned.
They had never encountered anyone like her before, who so easily led the people of Sagebrush in this mutiny against them. With Trace in control, backed by the Pawnee and the more stouthearted men in town, they would never get their power back. But if they cut the head off this 'serpent,' the body would shrivel up and die and the best way to do that would be when it was most vulnerable for an attack. With that in mind, the sheriff knew she only had about ten days to formulate a defense.
In the meantime, she was pretty sure that Rachel was safe puttering around the house, getting everything ready for the birth of their child. That visual of the glowing young mother-to-be brought a fond smile to the detective's face as she tried to hunker deeper into her wool winter coat, walking across the street from her office to the livery. Snow clung to her eyelashes as she made a vain attempt to tug her collar higher, she had a spare sock wrapped around her ears under her hat and sheepskin-lined gloves pulled over her hands. She didn't remember winters being quite this cold in her time but maybe the tall buildings cut the wind and kept the chill at bay.
Mounting Rio, whom she left at the town's stable during these colder days, she rode home, grumbling, muttered and cursing as she shifted from one stirrup to the other trying to keep some feeling in her feet and reach the warm embrace of her wife before anything important froze and fell off.
Halfway home, the flurries became a blinding blizzard, the intensity of which concerned her, though Rio forged ahead, undaunted. She dragged her hat lower over her eyes, bundling even deeper into her coat, which was becoming heavier by the second from the wet snow that fastened its flakes to the fibers. The sight of smoke from a chimney never looked so good as she drew a breath into lungs seared by the skin-scorching wind, which had picked up and sliced into her exposed flesh like little razors her last quarter mile to the house. By the time she walked in the door, she was just bone-deep miserable. Even Ramiro's happy bark at Trace's entrance and wiggling like he was trying to turn himself inside out didn't immediately bring a smile to her face like it normally did.
Rachel was cooking dinner at Trace's arrival and greeted her spouse with a kiss that should have melted anything frozen on the brunette. It worked. The taller woman held the blonde and kissed her again, hoping the heat would get her mouth to the point where it could actually move and form words again.
"Brrrrrrr..." Rachel commented, playfully knocking Trace's hat off and helping her remove her coat. "Take your boots off, you're dripping on the floor." Looking up at the detective's head, she laughed. "Did you know you have a sock wrapped around your head?"
"Yes and it saved my ears," Trace admitted, untying it. She took the weighty coat from her wife and hung it up on a large peg by the door. While Rachel continued getting dinner ready, Trace squatted on her heels by the fireplace and fed some logs onto the fire, rubbing her hands close to the heat, hoping to get some sensation back in them soon. "Is it always this cold here?"
"Usually it's colder this time of year. We were lucky we had a late fall and the weather stayed as pleasant as it did for so long." She tasted the stew to see how close it was to being ready. "Didn't it get cold in Cottonwood?"
"Oh, yeah, but not like this." Standing, Trace approached Rachel from behind, encircling the blonde with her arms, kissing the side of her neck. "Quiet day, I presume?"
"Not a peep from the Cranes, if that's what you're asking. How about you?"
"Nope. Nothing. But as long as the Pawnee are a visible threat, I think it will stay that way."
"But the Pawnee aren't a threat, why, they are the least threatening people I have ever known."
"Yes but the Cranes don't know that and I would like to keep it that way for as long as I can." Trace looked over Rachel's shoulder at the huge pot of stew simmering on the stove. "Wow...you expecting an army?"
"No," Rachel smiled, "just a small tribe." A few Pawnee had been hunting elk on the property that afternoon. She hadn't told Trace but they had caught a big buck and had already skinned it, gutted it, chopped it up, leaving the best cuts of meat for the expectant parents and keeping the rest for themselves.
As if on cue, the door opened and Little Hawk walked in, accompanied by Rising Moon and Red Sky, all stomping the snow off their high moccasins.
"Hey! Do that outside!" Rachel reprimanded, pointing.
They all stopped and looked at Trace's feet. "You heard her," the detective told them. Then looking down at her own wet boots, she said, "And I'll take mine off while I'm on my way out behind you."
With Rachel's fluctuating moods, Trace wasn't about to push her into a hormonal tantrum as the littlest things seemed to set her off lately. Ushering the three Pawnee outside, the detective grabbed the mop and cleaned up the excess water on the floor that had already melted from their shoes.
Watching Trace snap to like that made the blonde almost giggle. All these big, strong people scared of the temper of a tiny, very pregnant woman. She knew her disposition had been horrible at times lately and it was getting harder and harder to control the usually unreasonable outbursts but, she had to admit, she actually liked that little bit of power she exerted recently.
"Thank you!" she called out to them, hoping her appreciation helped.
Re-entering the house, shoeless, everything but the hearty meal was forgotten when they all sat down to eat. It was the last homecooked meal the Pawnee men would get before they left for their buffalo hunt in the morning.
"No." That was Trace's response to Rachel's suggestion of a first name for the baby. This name game was becoming a nightly discussion since they had begun the process of elimination and so far they were not in accord on much of anything.
"Leah Minnie Sheridan...ummmmm...no."
"Just doesn't do anything for me, sweetheart."
They had readily agreed on Minnie as a middle name for a daughter and on Frank as a middle name for a son. Trace had hoped she could sneak the name Mark in there somewhere, in honor of the man who placed her in the situation that brought her together with Rachel but regardless of what they seemed to come up with, it just didn't flow. She also knew that Rachel was adamant about biblical names but so far, everything the blonde brought up just wasn't striking Trace's fancy.
And it was driving the blonde crazy. "Bethany."
"Now, that's nice...but, like Naomi, which I also liked, it goes great with Sheridan but it doesn't go with Minnie as a middle name. Bethany Minnie. Naomi Minnie. See?" Trace was cleaning her guns, seated opposite her wife who was rocking quietly, her arms resting on her stomach, facing the moderate flame in the fireplace.
"Good Lord, Trace, I'm running out of names. What are some more of your ideas?" She almost dreaded asking the tall brunette, recalling the last session they went through like this, when discussing the possibility of boy's names, her spouse suggested names like Dylan and Hunter and Tyler and Dalton. Although those names were nice, they were just plain odd and a baby needed a good, solid Christian name.
"Well...I really like Kylie but it suffers the same fate as Bethany and Naomi, so that's out..."
"Kylie?" A blonde eyebrow rose skeptically.
"Yeah. And Lindsay. But again...not with Minnie."
"Lindsay??" A second eyebrow joined the first.
"What? I like that name. I like Chelsea, too." Off Rachel's blank, silent stare, Trace shrugged. "Okay, what about Nicole? That sounds good...Nicole Minnie Sheridan."
"It's not a name from the bible, though..."
"Does it have to be from the bible?" Trace asked, frustrated. She held one of the Colts up and looked down the barrel, checking for grit.
"Yes, I think it should be." Rachel's tone now reflected annoyance.
"Then let's keep trying until we can agree on something," Trace sighed, trying not to sound peeved at an argument that was starting to become habitual.
Picking up on the detective's mild exasperation only served to enhance the blonde's irritation. "Hopefully this child won't be married with babies of its own before that happens..."
Trying not to react to the hormonal moodiness that was still increasing with every passing day, Trace smiled patiently and as sincerely as she could muster. "I'm sure we can reach a compromise before little Travis or Brianna is born," she joked. She closed the cylinder of her pistol and set it aside with the other guns.
"Augh! Trace, you are impossible!!" Rachel was not amused. "We need to decide on this and we are running out of time and you sit there and poke fun and..."
Standing up and stretching, the brunette took a step toward her wife, addressing her in a soothing tone of voice. "Rachel, we've got time, we'll settle on something we both like and everything will be fine. In fact, let's go to bed and," she winked at the blonde, "sleep on it."
"I don't want to settle on a name! I want to decide on something we both love and will be proud to call our child and something that Pastor Edwards will approve of when he baptizes the baby!" She stood up with difficulty and when Trace went to assist her, the blonde swatted the taller woman's hands away. "Don't touch me. You...you...piss me off," Rachel declared, using an expression she had picked up from the detective. "We'll sleep on it all right but you can sleep on it either upstairs or here on the sofa. Maybe then you'll start realizing how serious this is!" And with that, the feisty blonde stomped off to bed with a startled Trace watching her, only able to blink, mildly stunned.
Hoo, boy. It was going to be a long night.
"Have you decided on a name yet?" Molly Ledbetter asked Trace, who was in her shop to pick up more material for Rachel to make another maternity dress.
"God, I hope so. We've at least - finally - narrowed it down. Zachary Frank Jeremiah Mark Sheridan or Jared Frank Timothy Mark Sheridan if it's a boy and Rebecca Minnie Abigail Sheridan or Chloe Anna Minnie Sheridan if it's a girl."
Molly chuckled. "Placating all the branches of the Young family tree in one fell swoop, are ya?"
"I guess. Except for Mark, that was my suggestion, after a good friend of mine - the only name I came up with she liked."
Molly smirked at the hint of sarcasm in that statement. "Well, you still have time to change your minds...baby should have another month or two before it gets here."
"Yes, at least," Trace smiled, paying the dressmaker. Unfortunately, she couldn't tell Molly that Rachel was due any day now, just for the sake of propriety. When the dressmaker asked why Trace's wife had not been to town to visit her in so long, the detective advised Molly that Rachel had not been feeling very well these last few months and Trace did not want to take any chances with the health of the blonde or the baby. Of course Molly would know soon enough because since Minnie Young couldn't be there, Rachel wanted the next best thing present for the birth of the long awaited grandchild.
She remembered the day Rachel asked her, practically begged her, if Molly Ledbetter could come out when she went into labor. Big, green eyes blinked in desperate question, as Rachel knew Trace wanted the birth as private as possible, due to the fact of the timing and hoped to keep the inquiries to a minimum. Molly probably wouldn't be fooled for a second that this baby was early - especially once she got a look at the size of Rachel's belly. But Molly adored Rachel - would it matter if she figured out that the blonde was pregnant before she got married? The older woman already knew that Ben had raped Rachel...had she already figured everything out?
Well, Rachel wanted her there and the blonde knew the consequences of anyone finding out. It was difficult for Trace to deny Rachel anything lately and if she wanted Molly Ledbetter there then Trace would make sure the dressmaker was there, even if she had to carry her from town on her back.
"Listen, Miz Ledbetter...Rachel wanted me to be sure to ask you again if you'd be there when -"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world, Trace. I've already arranged for Ruth Turner to come over and stay with Harvey when the blessed event happens."
"Thank you. It will mean a lot to her." Great. Ruth Turner. She was a bigger town crier than her husband.
"But," Molly patted Trace's hand, in a motherly manner, reassuringly, "as I said, we have plenty of time, dear..."
When the detective raced inside, she saw Rachel, gripping her belly, slightly bent at the waist, standing in a small puddle. The mother-very-soon-to-be looking frightened and confused.
"It's okay, sweetheart, it's fine," Trace reached her and helped her to a seat. "Your water broke, have you been in labor?"
Sitting down, Rachel looked up at her spouse. "I didn't think so...my back really started hurting about two hours ago, I felt a lot of...um...pressure...but no labor pains that I know of..."
"Baby, you're probably having back labor. Let me send Isaac for Fire Arrow and Dancing Leaf -"
"And Miz Ledbetter? Please, Trace, I promised her I would let her know..."
"Okay, I'll make sure Isaac stops and tells her." As Trace sped outside to get Isaac, who had been helping the detective pile wood in a lean-to outside the barn, her heart was pumping faster and harder than she'd ever known it to. She couldn't believe how excited she was...she was about to become a father...
Trace never thought sitting in for her former partner, Bobby Montesano, when his wife needed a coach for their fourth child, would be a skill she would ever use again. She had cursed not being able to say no to the puppy dog eyes of her pleading patrol partner to take his place in the Lamaze classes while he had been temporarily assigned to another shift.
But Laurie Montesano was a nice woman, not too hard on the eyes, and Trace hadn't really minded in the long run. She and her partner's wife bonded and now the detective was more than grateful for the experience. Although she could not offer Rachel soft, soothing music or privacy, she could furnish the dim lighting, warmth and semi-peaceful surroundings.
Molly Ledbetter observed in awe as Trace so lovingly touched and administered to Rachel during this long, waiting process. The older woman had never before witnessed a husband so participatory and attentive by choice during his wife's labor. Sure, she had known men who were anxious and nervous in anticipation of becoming fathers but as much as they loved their wives, she also saw them begin to grow impatient after too much time had passed - as if the mother-to-be had any control over the process. For heaven's sake, Molly thought, if women had any druthers - especially in this matter - they certainly wouldn't choose to have a rambunctious unborn infant thrashing about in their loins, stirring so violently within them, wanting to get out as much as their mothers wanted them out at that point. But not this man...he seemed more patient and understanding than Rachel did.
Watching Trace with Rachel was an amazing thing to behold. Why, he seemed almost womanly in his devotion to helping his wife through this the best he could. The older woman felt her heart fluttering a little when watching this young, almost pretty, man attend to the blonde. Where did he come from to be so strong, good-looking, chivalrous, caring, thoughtful, dedicated, loyal...she couldn't have dreamed up a more perfect husband if she'd tried. Tears stung the corners of her eyes knowing how proud and happy Minnie would have been at this moment, to see the birth of her first grandchild, to see her daughter so blessedly content, loved and in love.
And, although, Molly completely understood why Rachel would not want Doc Smith present for any of this, she was a little nervous about having the Pawnee in charge of the birth of the closest thing she would ever have to a grandbaby. Grimacing, she chastised herself for having those thoughts...after all, the Pawnee had only engaged in behavior that had helped Rachel and Trace, not hurt them and that, in turn, had helped the town start getting back to what it once was and what it needed to be again.
While Molly continued to knit a second blanket for the cradle, she observed Trace, in intervals, as the sheriff cuddled Rachel, massaging and stroking the blonde's back, adding counterpressure when the pain seemed to be at its most uncomfortable, and either placing a cloth warmed by heated water or cooled by water fresh from the indoor pump on Rachel's lower spine when unbearably strong labor pains seemed to clutch at her.
Trace had Rachel up walking and even at one point, when the blonde seemed to start getting frustrated that this baby was taking so long, held her and slowly moved her around the floor as though they were dancing. The sheriff made her wife focus on breathing in a very funny way and when Rachel would try her best not to cry out at the pain, Trace would speak to her in a very quiet, gentle, soothing voice and ask her to pretend they were somewhere else, vividly describing the ocean and white sandy beaches, warm sun and something called 'palm trees' or tried to get Rachel to pretend they were in a mountain meadow with fresh flowers and warm breezes and, my goodness, even Molly could almost feel as though she were running barefoot through soft, green grass, smelling lilacs, her face being heated by the sun.
Even Dancing Leaf and Fire Arrow were exchanging glances at this technique, knowing it wasn't something they would ever incorporate into their birth ritual but it certainly appeared as though it calmed the white woman in a manner they had never seen. Although Rachel wasn't like any white woman they had ever dealt with in the past...nor was Trace. This young couple had returned their faith in the Taka' piíta. Or at least the white man in Sagebrush. Not that the Pawnee had ever really been bothered by anyone in Jefferson County but neither had anyone extended an invitation to become a part of the community, either. Not until Trace Sheridan.
"Shouldn't she be lying down?" Molly asked Trace, as she wiped sweaty tendrils of hair away from the small woman's forehead with a cool cloth.
"Honestly, I have heard that it's better if she doesn't have to," Trace stated, seated snugly behind Rachel, supporting the blonde who was in a squatting position, leaning back against her spouse. "Gravity will help the baby descend the birth canal easier and -" she looked up to see the startled faces of the four other people in the room, including her wife in last stages of labor who, through very heavy breathing, glanced back at the woman who had changed her life, with curious, astonished eyes. "What?"
"How do you know all this without no doctor trainin'?" The older woman asked. "I mean, I admit it makes sense and all, but..."
"Uh...well...when I was back in Cottonwood, uh, I..."
"Oh, Lord, Trace, I think the baby's coming out!" Rachel interrupted, parting her legs even wider, feeling the need to squat lower. Both Dancing Leaf and Fire Arrow got into position. Whew...saved by the blessed event itself.
"Yes, piirakiripahki is here," Dancing Leaf announced, as the baby crowned.
Sixteen and a half hours after Rachel's water broke, the baby drew it's first breath. "Is piiraski - you have a son," Fire Arrow told the waiting parents, as both Rachel and Trace broke into tears. Easing the new mother back into the chair as Trace slid out from behind her, Molly handed a sharp pair of scissors that had been boiled clean to the detective. Trace cut the cord and helped Fire Arrow check out and clean up the baby while Molly and Dancing Leaf awaited the delivery of the placenta.
He was perfect. He a shadow of strawberry blonde hair on his tiny head, ten fingers and toes and Trace guessed he weighed about six pounds and some change. He also possessed a healthy set of lungs. She then lovingly bathed him, put a diaper on him and brought him to his mother, who saw him for the first time.
"Oh, sweet Lord, Trace, he's beautiful," Rachel gasped and then could not stop the tears of joy that came again and again as she held this infant close to her heart.
"Yes he is. And he's hungry." Trace helped the waiting little mouth find its way to Rachel's exposed nipple and watched the baby suck greedily at her breast. "Yep," she smiled, " just like a man." She leaned in and kissed the baby on the top of the head and then gently, reverently, kissed her wife. "You did great, sweetheart."
"I couldn't have done it without you."
"Of course you could have," Trace reassured her. "You're the strongest woman I've ever known, Rachel."
Looking at her adoring spouse, tears flowed freely again from the blonde. She then focused on her new son. "Trace...you name him. Whatever you want," Rachel said, overwhelmed with emotion, overcome with an unconditional love she never knew existed. His paternity now not even an issue, she instantaneously fell totally and hopelessly in love with her baby.
Molly approached the new parents and spoke in a hushed tone. "Everybody has gathered...they have been keeping warm in the barn but they are waiting on an announcement from you, Trace."
"Really? How many people are out there?"
"If I were to guess, I would say the only ones left in town would be Ruth Turner and my husband."
Shocked but pleased that so many people cared, Trace nodded. "Give me a minute with my family and tell them I'll be right there."
Nodding, smiling, Molly walked away, throwing on a shawl and stepping outside.
When Rachel finally dozed off from exhaustion about twenty minutes later and the baby had seemed to have it's temporary fill of milk, Trace bundled him up and took him outside. Taking his fragility into consideration and making sure she supported his neck, she held him up to the waiting crowd like Mufasa did to Simba in 'The Lion King.' Of course, the significance was lost on them but Trace loved doing it.
"May I present Mr. Wyatt Frank Sheridan!"
The new parents settled in rather quickly considering neither one had ever had a child in her life before, much less an infant. Although it was Rachel's responsibility to breastfeed, Trace did not slack off on any of the baby duties, either. She changed Wyatt's diapers and washed them out every day, sponge bathed him and got up with him when he was fussy. As he ate almost every two hours, his mother didn't have time for much else, and Trace seemed only too happy to take over while her worn out wife caught up on her sleep.
The blonde would sometimes wake up to find the brunette cradling Wyatt securely against her, as she cooed or spoke softly or sang to him. He would always settle down and make little squeaking noises when the detective rocked him gently and serenaded him. When he seemed extra restless, she would get his attention with a small rattle Black Feather had made for him and as it stimulated his hearing, he quieted down, fascinated with it. Rachel would observe the doting manner in which her spouse interacted with their son and she would fall in love with Trace all over again.
Rachel was getting used to the name Wyatt. It wasn't a name Trace had previously suggested so when she came up with it, it was a surprise. Trace told her that when she looked at the baby, he just looked like a 'Wyatt.' The new mother actually liked it, thought it was a very virile name...even if it wasn't biblical.
With different Pawnee warriors coming out to the property every day, accompanied by a few of the women from the tribe, to assist with the outside chores, Trace was able to spend quite a bit more time with Rachel inside, helping out with the baby. The sheriff had temporarily deputized Matthew Reddick to keep an eye on things in town while she and Rachel adjusted to their new life. Matthew rather enjoyed his new appointment, although if the Cranes began misbehaving, he would just as happily hand the responsibilities back over to Trace.
For a couple hours every day, before Rachel made dinner and while she and Wyatt napped, Trace busied herself in the barn. With Isaac's help, the brunette made a crib and then, with leftover slivers of wood, fishing line and small cloth baby toys Molly Ledbetter had sewn for him, fashioned a mobile to hang over it. When it was completed, they placed it in the bedroom. At three weeks old, the tiny little boy was moved from a cradle to a small bed with enclosed, high-slatted sides, the mattress at eye-level from where Trace and Rachel would lay so they could just look over and check on him. When he wasn't crying, eating or sleeping, Wyatt was mesmerized by the little suspended sculpture dangling above his head.
Life seemed blissfully perfect. They knew it wouldn't last.
Molly Ledbetter stopped by unexpectedly to visit with Rachel and Trace, to see her surrogate grandchild and to bring with her a baptismal gown she made for Wyatt. As the dressmaker cuddled the baby, she watched with delight as Rachel held and looked over the garment admiringly, marveling at the tiny, light blue suit with an attachable robe and square collar, lace applique cross over the front and a matching cap. "Oh, Miz Ledbetter, this is just exquisite...Trace, honey, feel this..."
The detective obligingly reached over and moved the soft, delicate cloth with the mildly rough surface between her thumb and forefinger. "Yeah. Nice."
"Nice? Well, ain't it just like a man to under appreciate such beautiful material. This is shantung silk, Trace, directly from China," Molly emphasized to a still unimpressed sheriff. It wasn't that the brunette wasn't pleased with the gift, it's just that she wasn't the kind of woman who got all gushy over fabric.
"Okay." She still didn't get the big deal. Nor was she all that enthusiastic about a baptism, either. Rachel had explained to her that the ceremony symbolized the cleansing of sins and meant that the baby would be 'saved,' but she considered it all hogwash. She knew many a ruthless killer who had been baptized and it certainly had not saved them, nor put them on any path of remorse or remission. However, the religious ritual was important to her wife so Trace would keep her mouth shut and go along with it. The blonde had precious little go right in her life until the last six months and the detective was going to ensure that - within reason, of course - whatever Rachel asked for, Rachel would get.
"Trace, don't burst my bubble now," Molly kidded. "Here I thought you weren't like most men..."
"Trace isn't like most men," Rachel smiled, blushing, glancing over at the detective, who winked back at her, causing the blonde's heart to flutter.
Just as the dressmaker was about to comment, there was a knock on the door. Not expecting anyone and, during the day, the Pawnee just walked in, Trace's relaxed body instantly went on alert. She reached for one of the Colts out of her holster which was draped over the back of a chair. "Who is it?" the brunette called through the door.
"It's Doc Smith! Open up!"
Trace's eyes flashed in anger and indignation and she swung the door back toward her with such force, it made both Molly and Rachel jump and it startled the baby into crying. Stepping outside and into the face of Amos Smith, slamming the door closed behind her, she had to take a second before she could speak. "Are you insane? You ride onto MY property, uninvited, and demand that I open my door to you? You better damned well have business here, Doc, or I could shoot you for trespassing - and don't think I'm not considering it, depending on your answer. What the hell are you doing here?"
"I want to talk to Rachel." He still sounded ornery and imposing but his original bark had lost some of its bite and his stance wasn't quite so challenging as it had first been.
"She's busy with our new son and there isn't anything you say to Rachel that you can't say to me." Leaving the barrel of the Colt pointed downward, she cocked the hammer back. "Now," she intoned, evenly, "you've got one more chance to tell me why you're here."
"I need to see that baby, Sheriff. You didn't have nobody here medically trained during the birth and him, being premature and all, he needs a doctor to check him out."
Trace quickly raised the pistol and nearly shoved the barrel up his left nostril. "Now, I know it doesn't say 'stupid' across my forehead. You go back and you tell Jacob Crane that my son is just fine. He's healthy and he's perfect and he looks just like me, not Ben - which is the real reason you're here, not that baby's welfare. As you can hear, he has a hearty little cry on him. He was delivered with no complications and Rachel is doing fine, too, thanks for asking. Now, you have ten seconds to get your sorry ass off my land and eight of those seconds are already gone. You ever try this again? I'll shoot you, Doc. Understand?"
Amos Smith nodded as much as possible with six inches of iron stuck to his nose. When Trace lowered the gun, Doc barely touched a step leaving the porch and mounted his horse. As he rode away as fast as his steed would take him, Trace looked down at Black Feather and another warrior, Wounded Dog, who were staring back at her, blandly, arms folded.
"Why didn't you stop him?" She asked, curiously.
Black Feather shrugged. "We wanted to see you cause him to make water in his trousers."
Wounded Dog nodded. "You are good at that. Little Hawk say we learn much from you."
Easing the hammer forward, Trace couldn't help but smirk. Oh, that Little Hawk. What a card. Oh, that Jacob Crane. What an infuriating idiot.
The next day, Matthew brought a letter to Trace that had arrived at the office that morning. It had an official state seal on it and was marked 'Office of the Governor.' While Deputy Reddick stood by, Trace opened the envelope and read the contents of the mail with stunned interest. Seeing the look on the sheriff's face, Matthew walked over to her.
"Everything okay, Trace?"
The brunette glanced at the letter again and then stared over at the flickering fireplace. "Yeah. Yeah, Matt, everything's fine." She folded the piece of paper back up and held it up. "Thanks for bringing me this."
"Is it bad news?"
"No. It's good news. In fact, when you go back to town, let the mayor know that the governor is planning to visit Sagebrush in about three weeks."
"Governor Armitage is coming here?" Matthew couldn't hide his excitement.
"According to this letter, yes. And stop by Emmet Hallack's office and tell him I heard from the governor. He'll know what that means."
Rachel observed Trace's demeanor and was puzzled by it and after Matthew left to return to town, she approached the brunette and gave her a hug. "What's really in that letter, Trace?"
Kissing the blonde on the top of the head, Trace sighed. "It's just the governor answering my request for an impartial circuit judge to try the Cranes once I arrest them."
"Did he say he would send one?"
"Yes," Trace responded, still a little shocked by what else she had read. "He said let him know the time and the place and he had just the judge in mind."
"Wow, I take it Governor Armitage knows of the Cranes."
"He definitely is well aware of one of them." Releasing her wife, Trace sat down at the table. "Seems that the governor has been looking for Jacob for a little over ten years."
Trace handed the letter to Rachel, who unfolded it and started to read. "According to that, about ten years ago, Jacob fathered a child with his daughter. Seduced her, got her pregnant and just left her. "
"Well, looks like the rotten apple didn't fall far from the poisonous tree..."
"You seem less shocked than I am." Trace looked up at her while the blonde finished the letter.
"Nothing that man or his spawn would do would shock me. Must be that's why he uprooted and moved his whole family to Sagebrush. So what are you going to do?"
"Well..." Trace weighed the possibilities. "Definitely use it against him. Now that I have the assurance from the governor that a trial will not be a one-sided farce, I can actually put together a posse and go arrest the lot of them."
"When will you do that?"
"As soon as I can arrange for a wagon to transport them all safely to the territorial prison. Emmet Hallack said he would put it together once the governor gave his okay."
Rachel sat in Trace's lap and snuggled against the detective's neck. "Lord, Trace, I can't believe this town is finally going to be rid of the Cranes."
"Trace! The barn's on fire!!" Rachel awoke to the smell of smoke, Wyatt crying and the flickering of active flames as the colors reflected through the bedroom window and onto the wall. While the blonde tried to calm the screaming baby, Trace raced out of bed, throwing on a wool shirt over her longjohns and pulling boots onto her feet, flying outside to get a better assessment of the situation, with Ramiro right on her heels. She herded all of the cows outside the barn as Howling Wolf and Black Feather were already there, throwing buckets of water on the fire to no avail.
"No, knock it down!" Trace yelled. "We don't have enough water to stop it in time." She ran inside the dark, smoky interior and removed the rabbit cages to the outside, then picked up an iron shovel and thrust it forcefully against the side of the structure that wasn't burning. She swung it like a baseball bat, weakening the beam, while the Pawnee retrieved axes and began to chop. Before the side of the structure farthest from the flames collapsed, Trace saw sparks jumping to the stable. "Black Feather, get the horses out of there!"
While the Pawnee hunter ran to the stable, Trace and Howling Wolf worked feverishly to knock the barn down and throw as much dirt on the blaze as possible to keep the fire contained. Fortunately, the few embers that had drifted to the stable had burnt out before they ignited anything. With the horses and cows safely in the fields and Ramiro sticking right to the brunette, the two Pawnee continued to hammer at the burning wood, collapsing the barn one section at a time, while Trace dug dirt and tossed it onto anything flaming.
They were so occupied that they never saw the man and the woman walk into the house.
Seeing that the fire was out, Rachel had just succeeded in getting Wyatt back to sleep, putting him down in his crib when she turned around to see Gideon Crane and Hannah Burnett standing behind her.
Just when it appeared Trace and the Pawnee had the situation under control, cowboys suddenly seemed to be coming at them from all sides, out of nowhere. Thank god Trace had been keeping herself in shape because it was going to take all her fighting skills to fend off this bunch.
When Rachel stirred and roused from her position on the floor, her head hurt and everything seemed woozy. She sat up, slowly, trying to steady herself and then looked over into the crib next to her. The baby was gone.
"No....nooooo...Trace!!!" But she knew her spouse could not hear her as she was too busy protecting the homestead from the attacking Cranes and their ranch hands, in a fierce attempt to keep them from burning down the house, the stable, the chicken coop and from getting killed.
Rachel had finally reached her breaking point. As if propelled by pure rage, the blonde pulled on a pair of Trace's dungarees, rolling them up at the bottom, donned a denim shirt over her nightshirt, marched over to the carbine, checked to see if it was loaded and rushed out the door. Looking around at the chaos, not letting it distract her, she concentrated on where the horses were. Spotting Chief in the corral, she ran to him, using the bottom rail on the fence to boost herself up onto him, swinging her leg over, gaining immediate balance. With a sharp kick to his sides, and a vocal command in his ear, Chief broke into a dead run with Rachel on his bare back, holding onto his mane with one hand and the rifle with the other. She had not completely healed yet from giving birth and the pain of riding this horse quickly became excrutiating but it was nothing compared to anguish she felt right now in her heart.
Seeing this action out of the corner of her eye, Trace started to get frantic."Rachel!" Where was she going and why would she leave the baby alone in the house? Suddenly Trace's priorities shifted drastically.
As Chief disappeared into the night, Trace wasted no more time with the men fighting her. She effortlessly disarmed them, breaking a few ribs here, shattering a kneecap there, cracking someone else's skull...until she went after her wife, anyone else's health and welfare was irrelevant. Just as she was grabbed by three men and took kick to the gut, an entire tribe of Pawnee warriors rode out of the woods. It wasn't that she couldn't defeat her restrainers but she needed to get away and go after her wife. Trace was never so glad to hear a war cry in her life.
Amid a living room full of Crane men and their wives, Hannah Burnett brought the infant to her mother, gently handing him over to the waiting arms of Priscilla Crane. As much as she had protested and voiced her disapproval of this plan, if this baby was indeed the child of her youngest son, she wanted to at least get a good look at him. When she did, her heart melted. "He looks just like Ben did when he was a baby," Mrs. Crane remarked, admiringly, as she cuddled him close.
Just then the door splintered open, crashing against the wall. Rachel entered, her rifle trained directly at Jacob Crane's head. "GIVE. ME. MY. SON!"
The shock of this was followed by deafening silence. It was Ephraim who finally spoke. "Put the gun down, Rachel, you know you aren't going to shoot anybody."
Moving the carbine mere inches away from the Crane patriarch's head, the blonde fired off a shot, blowing a hole in the wall and making everyone in the room, either jump or duck. The noise awoke and startled the baby and he began to cry. She pointed the carbine back at Jacob. "I want my son, Crane, and I want him now."
"This is Ben's child, Rachel," Hannah told her in a challenging tone of voice. "That boy is a Crane and he rightfully belongs with us."
Through clenched teeth, she said, "This baby is mine and Trace's, he belongs to us and he is going home with me."
"An eye for an eye," Jacob spoke up, standing beside his wife who was rocking the baby to quiet him down. "Your husband took my son away from me and now we're taking your son away from you. Don't try to stop us, Rachel. You'll get hurt."
"No, I think you'll get hurt." Rachel visibly relaxed, recognizing the voice behind her, however, she did not drop the rifle or change her stance. Trace stood next to her wife. "We'll take our son now."
"You're a foolish man, Sheriff," Jacob Crane said, not taking his eyes off Rachel. "Your wife laid with Ben, got herself in the family way and you marry her anyway? Then she lets Ben take her again while you're in town? What kind of man are you to stand by a jezebel like this? I don't want this woman raising my grandson."
"Crane, you're the last one on this planet who should be talking to anyone about morals. Right now, let's focus on Ben. Your son was a rapist and you know it. He used to abuse the women at Wilbur's and no decent woman wanted him, despite how much money your family has."
"How dare you speak of Ben that way!" Hannah spat out. "He's dead and can't defend himself."
"Lady, your brother couldn't defend himself even when he was alive." She returned her attention back to Jacob. "If my wife was the kind of woman you say she is, she would have been after the Crane fortune and would have married him in a heartbeat. Your son raped my wife and then tried to rape her again, which is how he got that dandy black eye that you never saw but your wife and daughter did. Now you can believe what you want about that baby's heritage but I am going to tell you one time and one time only. That child is Rachel's and mine." Trace put her hand on Rachel's shoulder. "And you will hand him over to me now or I swear my wife will splatter your brains all over that wall behind you."
"You can't come here and threaten us like that!" Gideon interjected.
Trace cocked her head, not at all intimidated by the raised voice of the second oldest Crane son. "I can and I just did. You came to my house, on my land and stole my child. Your hands set my barn on fire and attacked me, my wife and my guests. I have every right to be here."
When Priscilla voluntarily walked forward and, in an almost loving manner, handed the infant to Trace, no one was more stunned than her own family. Rachel lowered the rifle, leaning it against Trace's leg and gently took the baby, whose wailing slowed to a slight whimpering, as the sheriff picked up the carbine.
Amid the cries of 'Mother!' and 'Priscilla!' the Crane matriarch stood with Trace. "No," she said, firmly. "Enough."
"For heaven's sake, Priscilla, what are you doing?" Jacob's surprise overpowered his normal condescension and irritation.
"I'm doing something right for a change. This child does not belong to us or with us, Jacob."
"But if Ben is the father -" Hannah began but was cut off by her mother.
"If Ben is the father, it was not because he intended to be. What the sheriff says is true...if this poor girl got in the family way because of your brother, I don't even want to think about how that happened. I am not proud that we all had a hand in raising a boy who became nearly as evil and immoral as Satan himself. He always got his way and what wasn't given to him, he took." Priscilla looked deeply into Rachel's eyes. "I'm suspecting that's how he was with you."
The blonde held her gaze for only a second before she returned her attention to her son. "Yes," was all she said. Well, this certainly was a surprise. Never in a million years would she have ever thought Ben Crane's mother would be defending her instead of her own son. And from the expressions on the faces of Priscilla's family, Rachel wasn't alone.
Mrs. Crane looked over the people standing stock still in the living room of her home for the past ten years. "I loved my son but thanks to all of you, he was a brute. Any human feelings that boy possessed only made themselves obvious when he got an ache in his loins."
"Mother!" Hannah was already shocked by her mother's perceived betrayal but to hear her talk like this made her feel faint.
"He had nothing but sheer contempt for everyone who would not kowtow to him and he allowed no room for opposition. And he was worse when he took to the drink. He did horrible things to women, Jacob. I loved him with all my heart but I am ashamed to say he was my son."
"Priscilla, stop this foolishness this instant, take that baby back and get over here!" Jacob commanded.
"Jake, you lay one finger on my son and you will live to regret it," Trace advised him. "Now shut up and listen to your wife."
"How dare you -"
"Shut up, Jacob," Priscilla reiterated, feeling empowered by Trace's authoritative presence. Yes, the sheriff may have very well killed her son but if he did, he had every reason to. She glared at her husband who was staring back at her, speechless and beet red.
Comforting the baby, hugging him to her and enveloping him inside her shirt, Rachel decided to take Wyatt outside as Trace seemed to have the Cranes right where she wanted them. She was not at all surprised when she got to the porch and saw half the town and what looked like the entire Pawnee tribe there. When had the hunters returned from the buffalo hunt? Rachel couldn't help but smile when a resounding cheer rose from the waiting crowd. Several of the men dismounted and approached the porch, Matthew Reddick being in the lead. He looked at Rachel, expectantly.
"I think he's got it under control...but you should probably stand by out here until he calls for you or comes and gets you," she told the deputy. She looked at a group of men, tied up in the back of a wagon. "Anybody get killed?"
"No but quite a few of them need a doctor. Those boys weren't hired to be gunfighters and it showed. None of us are much good at that, either. Thank the Lord for the Pawnee. Soon as they showed up everybody just kind of surrendered."
"How's my home?" She dreaded to ask but needed to know.
"Fine. We'll need to rebuild your barn." He pointed to a wagon that just pulled up. "Elizabeth's come to take you and the baby back to our place until this is over."
"What was that noise?" Gideon Crane asked, reacting to the sound of acclamation coming from outside the house.
"Oh, that? That was just the people of Sagebrush letting you know that as of tonight they have completely taken their town back. I think it's a very nice, long overdue sound, how about you?" The sheriff inquired, smugly.
"You know, Sheridan, you're a pompous, self-centered, high-handed cretin," the eldest Crane sputtered.
"Kind of like looking in a mirror, isn't it, Jacob?" Priscilla countered, once again stunning her family into silence.
"Yeah, what she said," Trace smiled, nodding toward Mrs. Crane. "Now, this is what we're going to do. I can easily and legally place you all under arrest -"
"For what?" Hannah interrupted.
"Trespassing, kidnapping, assault, arson, extortion, cruelty to animals, fraud, deception, forgery - oh, and let's not forget complicity, duplicity..."
"What are those?" Micah inquired.
"Complicity is the association or participation in or, as if in, a wrongful act and duplicity is contradictory doubleness of thought, speech, or action, especially the belying of one's true intentions by deceptive words or action," Trace recited, remembering the definitions from her police exams.
"What does that mean?" Gideon spoke for the rest who, with the obvious exception of Jacob, were still confused.
Trace rolled her eyes. "Being underhanded and then trying to cover it up through lying and trickery. You're all guilty of that and I have enough deputies waiting outside to make sure it ends here."
"My God, you are a lawman, aren't you?" Jacob stated, almost impressed.
"We're not going anywhere, Sheridan," Micah told her being ridiculously stubborn. "This is our home, our land and you can't make us leave."
"Oh, I think I can. Because if you don't, there are very angry people outside who are willing to burn you out of house and home." Trace looked around, pointedly. "You have a lot of nice, expensive things here. It would be a shame to lose them."
"You wouldn't do that," Hannah gasped.
"Yeah, I would. That's how you would do it, isn't it, Jacob? That's what your boys were going to do to me, to my family...why should you be treated any differently? You're nothing but a common criminal. The only difference between you and those boys up in the penitentiary is that they got caught and didn't have the money to get their asses out of trouble."
"Sheriff, your language," Hannah acted, offended.
"Mrs. Burnett, where you and your family are going? Language like that is the least of your worries."
"No judge who travels this circuit will ever hold charges against me or my family." Jacob stated, patronizingly.
"Don't worry. I have no intention of sending you before a judge on your payroll. You'll be going before the governor." Trace waited for the reaction and she was not disappointed as the eldest Crane blanched. "Yeah. Thought you might feel that way."
Priscilla looked at her husband, curiously. "Jacob?"
He shook his head slightly at her, as though to dismiss her.
"What's the matter, Jake? Don't want your missus, there, to know your dirty little secret?" Trace smirked.
"Jacob, what is he talking about?"
"Tell her Jake...or I will." It was so nice to have this man by the short hairs. Now, his whole family had turned to look at him with more than mild curiosity.
"Listen, Sheriff, there is no need to get into this here in front of my family...why don't we go into my study and talk. I'm sure we can come to some sort of...agreement."
"Agreement? Now I need to add attempted bribery to your charges? No. Let's share this news with everybody, shall we?" Trace scanned her rapt audience. "Ever wonder why you all moved so abruptly from the your last homestead? Seems your daddy, here, fathered a child with the governor's oldest daughter, Willa - who was only 15 at the time, didn't want the scandal, so he abandoned her and his paternal responsibilities and moved you all here to the nice, unknown little hamlet of Sagebrush. It's taken the governor this long to catch up with him."
Priscilla was white with shock and rage but not as furious as Ephraim seemed to be.
"You're all certainly not going to listen to this nonsense, are you?" If he had not been sweating profusely, his outrage would have been more convincing. "Look, she was a little tramp...she threw herself at me...!"
"Why you son-of-a-bitch!" Ephraim hauled off and punched his father, knocking him back against the wall.
Jacob looked at his oldest son, startled and wounded, wiping the blood from his lower lip. "What was that for?"
"You doing to that poor girl what you did to my wife! Tell me that my daughter is not really yours! Tell me, Father! I always suspected it but now I just know!"
Looking immediately guilty, Julia tried to unobtrusively slink back into the background. Trace just watched in amusement as this family simply fell apart before her eyes.
"You can't blame me, Ephraim, that you can't satisfy your own wife. She came to me for help and advice."
"And you helped her all right, didn't you?" He turned and looked at Julia, his voice dripping with venom. "You must be real proud of yourself. Well, if you want him, you're welcome to him."
Gideon and Micah turned to their wives, almost accusingly. "Don't you look at me like that, Gideon Crane, I wouldn't let that old coot touch me if he was the last man on earth," Esther Crane told her husband, indignantly.
Micah's wife, Emily, looked almost insulted. "He never came near me..."
Trace had seen and heard enough. "So, this is what we're going to do. You are going to pay back every single businessman and his family all the money you extorted from them, for the revenue they lost because of your shake downs. You will make it up to the farmers and ranchers whose land you ordered burned and destroyed, for the stock you crippled and killed and then you will live here on house arrest like good children until the governor and his personally appointed magistrate gets here. In the meantime, you will be guarded and monitored so that you do not destroy your land or any of your possessions and then, when you've been taken away to jail, we'll have Joe Turner preside over a public auction, put the word out to Jefferson City and some of the other surrounding cities where the more well-off can afford to bid on your things...any profit made from will be divided up equally among the townspeople who got screwed by you."
"You're making a big mistake, Sheridan." The patriarch spit out.
"Shut up, Jacob," Priscilla told him again, disgusted. "What would you like me to do to help you, Sheriff?"
A month later, all four remaining Crane men and George Burnett, Hannah's husband, were on their way to a territorial prison, being found guilty on various charges. John and Seth Carver were convicted of lesser infractions and would spend a year in Jefferson County jail. Hannah and Priscilla were both given a hefty fine for their participation in the Crane crimes. Rachel and Trace testified at Priscilla's trial and asked for leniency because of her circumstances and the fact that she helped close the case against Jacob, which left no doubt in the judge's mind of just how reprehensibly accountable this man was of everything he had been charged with.
And then, before being taken away, Jacob was led out back, unshackled and left alone with the governor for ten minutes. Trace wrote up his injuries as due to a nasty spill en route to the paddy wagon.
Nobody expected Priscilla to be invited, much less show up to Wyatt's baptism. But after all the baby's biological grandmother had done to make amends, Rachel and Trace felt is was only fair. And, since her stagecoach left that afternoon, it was her only chance to say goodbye to her grandson.
While a majority of the townspeople avoided Priscilla, Rachel brought Wyatt to her and let her hold him. "What happens now, Mrs. Crane?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'm moving back to Omaha. I'll divorce Jacob from there. I guess that means I'll be divorcing Gideon, Micah, Hannah and all the wives and grandchildren, too. How they can stand by their father and husbands after all this, I'll never know. Maybe I'll look up my one and only true love. I hear he's a widower." She gently kissed the baby on the forehead. "You and Trace have a beautiful son, Rachel. I'm grateful for the time you have let me spend with him. But it is time for me to move on, I'm not wanted here and I don't blame these people. What my family has done to this town is unforgivable. It was hard losing everything but it was worth the redemption and my freedom."
Trace approached her wife, son and Priscilla Crane. The sheriff looked very uncomfortable in the 'Sunday best' that Rachel had no doubt, insisted her spouse wear. "You'll let us know when you get settled? We could send you pictures of Wyatt when we have them taken."
The Crane matriarch smiled, ruefully. "No. I appreciate it but it will be too difficult. My son did a horrible thing and I don't deserve the privilege of being this child's grandmother. If I have pictures of him I will want to display them and if I do that, then I'll have to explain who he is and then there will be more questions and...well, I need to let go of my past when I get back to Omaha, start my life over. I can't do that with any ties to here."
"I understand," Rachel told her, sympathetically. Somewhere inside her, her heart broke for Priscilla Crane.
As the older woman handed a sleeping Wyatt back to his mother, she leaned over and kissed him one last time. "I think I should get my things to the stage." And with that, she nodded gratefully at both women, her eyes tearing up at her final look at her grandson.
Watching her walk out of the schoolhouse, where the reception for Wyatt's baptism was being held, Trace draped her arm over Rachel's shoulder. "There goes a very brave woman," Trace commented.
"And the last of the Cranes." Rachel looked up at Trace. "What do you say we finally get our life started?"
Squeezing the blonde closer to her, Trace ignored the crowd and brazenly kissed her wife passionately on the lips. Looking down at Wyatt, she said, "Oh, I think we've already got a pretty good beginning."
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