Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This story depicts a loving relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
Though I researched the period and place in which this story is set, I have taken extensive liberties with both.
This is the sixth and final novelette in my series of Westerns starring Zee Brodie and Christie Hayes. It is the sequel to Home Sweet Home.
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Deputy Zee Brodie shaded her eyes against the noonday sun and peered through the dirty windowpane.
Damn it, Blue! It's a pigsty.
Stacks of dirty crockery marred the crumb-strewn kitchen table, and that dishcloth was a disgrace even to Zee's unfussy gaze. Christie would have the vapours if she knew how her brother was living now that she wasn't here to keep house for him.
She scanned the interior again, its emptiness explaining why no one had answered her knock at the back door. Must be eating his dinner at the store. Wherever that is.
Cramming her shabby Stetson back on her head, she stepped down off the back porch and made for the garden gate. Pity her mare wasn't tethered outside instead of back in Benson. Still. The walk won't kill me.
Zee strolled into town, tipping her hat to various passers-by and ignoring the looks coming her way. The stares would be for the usual reasons: the Levis, the guns. Civilised folks tended to think women shouldn't wear either. Too bad.
"Hang on, Deputy," came a familiar voice from behind. "To what do we owe this honour?"
She stopped and turned, smiling as Contention's Sheriff hurried across the street to join her. "Howdy, George."
Milligan's clothes bore knife-sharp creases, and his boots and badge of office shone. His linen shirt and serge trousers fit more snugly across his belly than they used to.
Nothing like the loving attentions of a new wife! "How's Kathy?"
"Never better." He stroked his brown moustache and tried not to look smug. "Christie?"
A thought had struck Zee and she was looking down at the gun belt she had had to let out another notch only last week. Hmmm. "Oh," she said absently, "she's fine."
She pulled herself together. "It's not official business, George." They resumed walking. "I've come to talk to Bluford Hayes. Know where his store is?"
"Commercial Street. I'll show you." Milligan's brows creased. "Have those two patched things up between them yet?"
Zee regarded her boots. "No. But I aim to change that. Christie's been fretting about the rift between 'em. Plus, Blue's got a piano belonged to their parents. He don't play and Christie could sure use it. "
"Piano?" Milligan guffawed. "Watch out, Zee. She'll be holding musical soir»es next."
She winced and pretended not to hear.
They were walking past a clapboard building with an elegant false front, bearing the name 'The Cactus Club'. It was a social club frequented by Contention's wealthier businessmen. Some of them were clustered in the large bay window, smoking expensive cigars, drinking whisky, and preening themselves after an undoubtedly excellent dinner.
One man's profile was instantly familiar. Zee checked her stride, then continued on. That ridiculous beard. Last time she had seen that particular profile, its owner had been threatening to call her out. As though aware of her scrutiny, the face turned towards her. Fred Younger's eyes widened and his jaw dropped.
Just my luck!
She strode on, hearing the creak of the Cactus Club's front door opening and the sudden murmur of male voices. Her nape hairs prickled, and she glanced in a nearby window, seeing in it the reflection of the men now gathered on the sidewalk staring after her. Christie's ex-fianc»'s face looked like thunder.
Zee rested a gloved hand on the butt of one gun. Unless she missed her guess, Fred was the type to shoot someone in the back.
Milligan saw the gesture and glanced back. The watching men eyed him, muttered something to one another, then went back inside the social club. Zee relaxed her shoulders and blew out a breath.
"So, Christie's been fretting about her brother, eh?" Milligan resumed their conversation as though nothing untoward had happened. "Well, don't get your hopes up." He frowned. "Blue may not be very... approachable." They turned the corner into Commercial Street.
Zee glanced at him. "I ain't top of his popularity list, George, I know. But when it comes to Christie's happiness -"
Milligan's raised hand stopped her. "Your timing's bad, that's all. His business is going up the spout."
As she digested that interesting titbit, she scanned the storefronts up ahead. There it was, on the left, a little way past the Undertaker's. Large black letters spelled out the name 'Hayes' on the false front of a shabby-looking wooden building.
"And that's the reason." Milligan pointed at the brand new storefront directly opposite Blue's draper shop. The contrast could not have been starker. 'Younger's Fabric Emporium' proclaimed bright red letters. 'We sell it Cheaper!'
Zee chewed the inside of her cheek. "'Younger's'?"
The Sheriff nodded. "Alex Younger put up the money, but I'm betting it was his son's idea. Fred's had a burr under his saddle about Blue ever since Christie jilted him."
"Strictly speakin', it was Fred jilted Christie."
Milligan blinked. "Was it?" He shrugged. "Makes no difference. He's bound and determined to ruin anyone named Hayes. And he's succeeding."
Zee sighed. She had come to Contention to solve problems not add them to her list. When Christie heard about this....
"Well, I've errands to run, so I'll be on my way." Milligan tipped his hat to her. "Give my regards to Hogan when you get back, will you, Deputy?"
"Sure thing, George." She gestured at the draper's shop. "Much obliged for the directions."
She watched him walk away, then sighed, mentally girded her loins, and set off up the street.
"Oh, it's you!" The apron-clad man behind the counter slumped back onto his stool, the light dying from eyes the same green as his sister's.
"Yeah." Zee busied herself closing the door, eliciting another tinkle from the bell above it. In spite of Milligan's warning, the state of the store's interior and of its owner had come as something of a shock. She donned her poker face and removed her hat, then turned and strode towards the counter.
"Sorry to hear things aren't going well, Blue." She fiddled with her hat then placed it on the counter and began to remove her gloves finger by finger.
Christie's brother snorted and gestured at his empty store. "Where did you get that idea? I'm rushed off my feet." He had lost weight since their last encounter, and there was a grey cast to his complexion. He also badly needed a haircut and shave.
Zee laid her gloves next to her hat and glanced at her surroundings. The cotton reels, boxes of pins, and pattern books needed dusting and the bolts of fabric straightening, but Blue didn't seem to notice or care. Bad sign that. Best to change the subject maybe. "Christie sends her love."
Mention of his sister seemed to perk him up a bit. "Is she with you?" He looked around eagerly.
His posture slumped again. But his reaction gave Zee hope that her journey hadn't been wasted.
"But she's well. She was hoping for a reply to her letter."
For a moment, the draper seemed puzzled, then his cheeks flushed. "I meant to answer. Had a lot of things on my mind."
Zee frowned. "She thinks you're still mad at her."
Blue shook his head. "I was, but... that doesn't seem important now. Besides, it wasn't her fault." A flash of his old spirit returned. "What chance did she have?" He glared at her. "You marched into her home, stole her right out from under the noses of her brother and fianc»."
She blinked. "I did?"
"How else do you explain what happened?" he ground out. "Christie was well-brought up, respectable, until she met you. Now she's mixing with outlaws and whores."
Zee rubbed her chin. "That's how you need to see it, be my guest." She regarded him thoughtfully. "Given how he's behaving now, though, would you really rather she'd married Fred?"
†The draper dropped his head in his hands and groaned. "I donít know. I donít know anything anymore."
"Even so. Christie'll be mighty glad to hear you don't bear her a grudge. She's been frettin'."
He doodled in the dust on the countertop. "Tell her I'm sorry."
"Why don't you tell her yourself? We've got our own place now; your sister's done it up real nice too. She'd love it if you paid us a visit."
He stared at her as if she was insane, and she tamped down an urge to shake him. "Look. What's really going on, Blue? Everyone has setbacks from time to time, it don't mean they fall apart."
"Setbacks?" He laughed slightly hysterically and ran a hand through dishevelled blond hair. "My life is in ruins, and you call it a 'setback'!"
Zee frowned. All this drama just because his store was going broke? Something didn't add up. "There's more to it than the store, isn't there?" she ventured. He didn't answer. "Look, don't make me shake it out of you." That got her a wide-eyed look that showed her he had just remembered who he was dealing with. The Arizona Hellcat had had a fierce reputation.
There was a long, tense silence. Then he murmured, "It's Jenny."
"The blacksmith's daughter."
She leaned comfortably against the counter and folded her arms. "All right. So, tell me all about this girl of yours...."
It was a torturous job, getting the details out of him, but eventually she managed to piece the story together. For nearly a year, Christie's brother had been courting Tom Farnham's youngest daughter Jenny. More than that, he had got her pregnant! Such things weren't a scandal these days, as long as the boy married the girl. And that's what Blue had wanted to do. But his dreams had turned to dust when he asked her father for permission... and was refused.
"Why in blazes was that?" asked Zee, genuinely startled.
"Not good enough. He didn't object when I started seeing Jenny - business was good, then, and my name had just been put forward for membership of the Cactus Club. But after Christie took up with you...." His voice trailed off.
Zee could imagine what had happened next. Still stinging from his treatment at Zee and Christie's hands, Fred Younger had blackballed Blue and set out to ruin him. That didn't necessarily mean an end to his prospects as Farnham's son-in-law though. Especially since the girl was pregnant.
"Why didn't you two just elope?"
"Jenny went away." His voice quavered and he turned away, but not before she saw his tear-filled eyes.
"Away?" She thought about that. There was only one explanation. "To have the baby in secret?"
He nodded. "Farnham has other plans for her. She's to marry Andrew LeRoy. He owns the Hotel; it's doing well and-" His voice broke and he stopped.
Zee filled in the blanks. So Jenny's family had spirited her away somewhere, to spare the family the shame that would become more obvious with every passing day. They were probably planning to give away the baby. That way, nothing would stand in the way of marriage to LeRoy.
Meanwhile, Blue, poor chump, stood to lose his prospective wife and baby. And his business was following hard on their heels. No wonder he was falling apart.
She thought about that for a moment, then reached over the counter and patted him on the shoulder. "Iíll get her back for you."
"What?" He stared at her from red-rimmed eyes.
"Jenny. I'll find her and bring her back. Then you two can get hitched." She waited for him to thank her. But got a different reaction altogether.
"But she doesn't want me. She agrees with her father. And who can blame her?" He gestured at himself. "Some catch!"
Zee frowned. "She told you that herself?"
"No. I haven't spoken to her since she left. But her father told me-"
"And you believed him?" She tried not to roll her eyes.
Blue sat back and folded his arms defensively. "Well-"
Her impatience got the better of her. "Of all the stupid, yellow-" She paused as a dangerous glint appeared in his eyes. Uh oh! I may just have pushed him too far.
He stood up, kicking the stool back as he did so, and placed his hands flat on the counter-top. "You have the nerve to come here and insult me?" He jutted his jaw. "After all you've done? This is YOUR fault, Hellcat." His voice rose. "If it hadn't been for you seducing my sister, Fred wouldn't be trying to ruin me, my business would be thriving, Iíd be a respected member of the Cactus Club, and Farnham would think I was perfect for his Jenny, and so would she." He reached beneath the counter and produced a shotgun.
Zee held up her hands. "Easy, now. Don't wanna be firin' that thing by mistake."
"Don't I?" He pointed the muzzle at her belly and her mouth went dry. The way his hands were trembling....
Slowly and carefully, she reached for her hat and gloves and put them on. "Think, Blue, before you do somethin' you'll regret. How will Christie feel if you ventilate me?" The knuckle of his trigger finger was white. "And killin' a deputy," she tapped the tin star pinned to her vest, "ain't somethin' you should do lightly."
His eyes were glazed, his forehead clammy.
"I'm gonna walk out of here, nice and easy. No sudden moves. See?" She kept her voice calm and even, as though she were talking to a skittish colt. "We'll talk about this some more in a few days. All right?"
She took a pace towards the door. Then another. The shotgun barrel followed her every step of the way. By the time she reached for the door handle, her shirt was sticking to the small of her back.
The tinkling of the doorbell was deafening in the fraught silence, and she braced herself for a shotgun blast. It didn't come. She twisted round. Blue was looking at the shotgun with appalled astonishment. He released his grip, and it clattered to the counter top. Then he bowed his head and began to sob.
Zee paused. Should she stay and comfort him, or would that just make matters worse? She flipped a mental coin, then shrugged, took the final step to freedom, and closed the door behind her.
Man has some spunk after all. Shoulda figured that; he's Christie's brother.
It was only as she was walking away that she remembered the second errand that had brought her to Contention. Damn! Forgot to ask Blue about the piano.
The mournful sound of a train whistle came from just up ahead. Zee grinned and quickened her pace.
She had passed her spare time until the train was due playing cards in one of the saloons. There wasn't much else to do in Contention if you excluded the red light district, and she had no hankering to visit that. It was seedier than its Benson equivalent - the whores as different from the girls at Angie's Palace as alleycats from Siamese.
But, preoccupied as she was with some good drinking whisky and a winning hand, time had got away from her. She had opted for a shortcut to the station, relying on instinct to get her there. The train whistle confirmed she was heading in the right direction.
She began to recognise her surroundings. Just a right, then a left, and the depot should be -
A lariat had dropped round her shoulders.
The whisky had dulled Zee's edge, and before she could react, the thick rope was biting into her arms, pinning them to her sides and preventing her from drawing her guns.
A leg from behind scythed her feet out from under her, and she fell heavily, unable to cushion her fall. Damn!
Zee rolled over, seeking her attacker, and saw there were in fact three of them, all with bandannas masking the lower parts of their faces. They halted a yard from her, laughing at her attempts to get free of the rope pinioning her.
A thin man in a blue bandanna drew back his foot. The tip of his boot caught her in the ribs, and pain flared, causing bright spots before her eyes.
"That's the spirit," came the muffled voice of the leader, a small man, his bandanna green. "Give the bitch what she deserves."
A big man, his bandanna red, crouched next to her, studied her, then pulled back a meaty fist. She jerked back, and the punch meant for her eye glanced off her cheekbone instead. It stung.
Grimly, she brought her knees up towards her chest - as well as providing a measure of protection, it also allowed her to tuck her feet in, bringing them closer to her bound hands. A blow to her kidney made her cry out, and the man in the green bandanna kicked her ribs with enough force to bring tears to her eyes.
For a moment she wondered where she was. The sound of a train whistle pulled her back to her surroundings. Leaving without me.
"Think she's had enough?" asked the big man.
"Donít be stupid. We've only just started."
She blinked away the blurriness, then stretched out her right hand towards her feet. Gloved fingertips brushed against the handle of the knife she kept in her boot. Almost.
Movement warned her. Barely in time, she dodged the kick aimed at her head. While the man drew his foot back for another go, she reached for the razor-sharp knife.
She pulled the knife from its sheath, flipped it round, point upwards, and began sawing at the rope. Once, twice.... With a twang, the last strand of the lariat parted and her arms were free at last. She came to her feet swiftly, knife in one hand, the other drawing a six-gun in one smooth movement.
"Look out!" yelled Green Bandanna. A bullet zoomed through the space his head had occupied a second ago and ploughed into a wall. Another nicked Red Bandanna's ear. Zee cursed. The pins and needles as her circulation returned were throwing off her aim.
They didn't wait for her to recover fully. Like a cattle stampede, the three attackers turned and ran for it....
Christie hung the skillet from its hook more vigorously than was strictly necessary. "Where is she?"
She didn't know whether to be angry or concerned or both. She did know that clattering the breakfast utensils and crockery as she washed them up and put them away wasn't helping.
She needed to make her feelings known, at full volume, to that good-for-nothing woman of hers. But that was just the problem. Zee wasn't here. She had promised faithfully to return last night, but the train from Contention had been and gone and there was still no sign of her. Christie checked the kitchen clock for the second time in as many minutes - nearly 8.30 am.
It didn't help that Christie hadn't slept well. She had tossed and turned all night in a bed that felt far too large, cold, and empty without the rangy ex-outlaw in it, radiating body heat and providing other comforts.
"What's in heaven's name are you up to? And why haven't you sent a telegram...?"
She was stacking the crockery so noisily, she didn't hear the sound of the kitchen door opening and closing . But it must have, because suddenly there was an unmistakable sense of presence behind her. She spun on her heels and gaped at the tall figure standing there, sheepishly turning her hat in her gloved hands.
The cutting phrases she had carefully rehearsed evaporated, and she launched herself across the room. Her bearhug brought a grunt of pained protest and she hastily released the other woman and stood back. Only then did she register the bruised face and torn clothes. "You're hurt!" She put a hand to her mouth.
Zee gave her a rueful smile. "Got bushwhacked in Contention. Feel as if a herd of beeves ran me down." She flinched as Christie reached for the sore cheekbone and the puffy eyelid above it, but Christie kept her touch feather-light.
"Let me look at you."
Tugging an unresisting Zee over to a kitchen chair, Christie sat her down. Zee placed her hat on the table and took off her gloves, then allowed Christie to unbutton her checked shirt and ease it off over her shoulders and down around her waist. A clean white bandage had been wrapped expertly round her ribs.
Christie blinked. "You didn't put this on yourself. Who did?"
"Kathy Milligan." Zee ran a hand through cropped black hair. "I missed the last train back. Spent the night on a cot at their place."
Christie eased the bandage off, wincing at the black and blue bruises it revealed, and cautiously pressing Zee's skin to assess the damage. The worst of it seemed to be on her right side.
Zee grunted and shifted. "Careful, Darlin'. Reckon a couple of ribs got cracked."
"Sorry." Christie sighed, rewrapped the bandage, and stood back. Zee rebuttoned her shirt and gestured, and Christie gladly accepted the invitation to sit on her lap.
"I wish you had let me know what was going on." She snuggled closer, careful to avoid Zee's damaged ribs. "I was worried." A large hand curled itself comfortably around her waist.
"Knew I'd be home before you got a telegram." A bloodshot eye considered her. "Anyway, I thought you'd worry more if you knew about the beating."
"You're probably right." A horrible thought suddenly occurred to her. "Was it Blue who did this to you?" She'd never forgive herself if her brother-
"Nope. Sonsofbitches got a lariat over me just outside the station depot. I'd had a couple of drinks, which slowed me down some. Took me a while to get my knife from my boot and cut myself free."
"Don't know for sure. There were three of them, wearing masks. Once I could fight back, they skedaddled." She gestured ruefully at herself. "They got a few punches and kicks in before that happened though."
Christie backtracked. "'For sure'? Could you make a guess?"
Zee nodded. "The leader, the one who cracked my ribs, was wearing shoes."
"Not boots?" Most men in these parts wore boots.
"Nope. Custom-made, shiny shoes with higher than usual heels. He was short, dapper, wearing checked trousers." Her blue gaze was keen. "Remind you of anyone?"
Surely not- "But Fred isn't violent. He wouldn't do anything like that!"
"He's not the same man you knew, Darlin'. He's turned bitter, twisted.... And he hates my guts."
A wandering hand had begun to unbutton her bodice, and Christie slapped away the long fingers that were trying to slip inside it. "Zee! Stop that. You should be taking things easy."
"Are you prescribing bed rest, Doc Hayes?" Zee's eyes had that knowing glint, and Christie's pulse rate picked up. It was tempting. But....
"What about your ribs?"
Zee pushed her off her lap, stood up, and held out a hand. "Long as we're careful," she said. "C'mon. Bed's awaitin'."
Christie laughed. She held her bodice closed with one hand, and with the other reached for Zee's hand. "Deputy Brodie! You're incorrigible."
"Ain't I just?"
"So, did you see Blue?"
Christie was feeling pleasantly drowsy and relaxed, loving the feel of Zee's skin against her bare back, the arm draped around her waist. The sore ribs had cramped their style a bit, but they had managed surprisingly well.
"Yeah," came Zee's drawl. "He meant to reply to your letter, but he's had other things on his mind."
Christie turned over eagerly. "Does that mean-?" She tried not to get her hopes up, but her heart was hammering.
"Things are all right between you? Yeah, it does." Zee stroked Christie's nose with a fingertip. "But he's still sore at me."
Christie bit the finger gently then released it, earning herself a grin. "That's wonderful! About him and me, I mean." She had hated being estranged from her brother. Blue was all the family she had left in this world... besides Zee of course. It felt as though a great weight had rolled off her shoulders. She hummed a few bars of 'Beautiful Dreamer'.
"Guess that's what you wanted to hear, huh?" Zee was grinning annoyingly at her but she didn't mind.
"Yes." She settled herself comfortably against Zee again. "How is he?"
The long pause that followed alerted her something was up and she twisted round until she could look Zee in the face.
"What is it?" The other woman grimaced, and apprehension washed over Christie.
"Well, you know I said he had other things on his mind?"
"He has problems, big problems. And most of them come down to Fred."
Christie blinked. "What do you mean?"
So Zee told her, the whole sorry story, from the opening of the rival establishment opposite Blue's draper's shop, to the ruin of his hopes for Jenny and the baby.
Indignation became shock then turned to anger. One thing in particular stuck in Christie's mind. "Jenny's pregnant?!" That her straight-laced brother could have done the deed, and with that little chit of a girl... well!
Zee was laughing at her and she frowned. "What?"
"Guess he's as partial to bed sports as his sister. Must be a family trait."
Her cheeks went hot. "Oh!" She hit Zee a playful blow in the ribs, then spent the next five minutes apologising profusely, and trying to rub it better. When Zee opined that kissing it better might be nicer, she knew the other woman had recovered from the pain, and turned her roiling thoughts back to the subject at hand.
"The point is," she continued, "that Blue's clearly in a very bad way and needs our help."
"Well, he won't accept it from me, Darlin'. I offered and got turned down flat. He thinks I'm to blame for this in the first place."
Zee's tone was studiedly neutral, but Christie could tell she was offended. She stroked a muscled biceps soothingly.
"Well, I'm his sister. He'll have to accept help from me."
"Wouldn't bet on it. Besides, your presence might just make things worse."
"Here's how I figure it. Most of Blue's troubles stem from Fred's interference. That weasel is mad at you and me but he's taking it out on Blue. You go to Contention to help your brother, and it'll be like waving a red rag at a bull -" An indignant Christie tried to interrupt. Zee held up a hand. "No, Darlin'. Hear me out."
"Fred's dangerous." Zee gestured at her bandaged ribs. "And he's got friends. Someone could get seriously hurt. And if it was you, I'd never...." She trailed off.
Zee was right, she realised frustratedly. She wanted to make Blue's life better... not worse. But how.... A brainwave hit her.
"I know. Suppose Fred didn't feel the need to punish Blue anymore? Suppose he was able to crow about me, to gloat and say 'I told you so' to my face?"
"I donít like the sound of-"
"No, it's my turn, Zee. Let me finish. Suppose he thinks he's won? That might defuse his anger, mightn't it?"
"It might." Zee's gaze was sombre. "But just how are you going to do that?"
She was quite taken with the simplicity of her solution and she smiled. "I'm going to break up with you."
Zee's jaw dropped open. It was the perfect opportunity to kiss her soundly, and Christie took it.
The waiting train vented steam and whistled, a mournful sound accurately reflecting Zee's mood. She glanced at the blonde standing next to her. Christie was wearing a flattering blue dress that Julie, the pretty octoroon who had stayed with them a few months back, had helped her make.
"It won't be for long." She forced a smile.
"I know. But still..." Doleful green eyes gazed up at her. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all, Zee. Maybe-"
"No, Darlin'. You were right." She squeezed the small hand resting in hers. "Gonna be tough though, not having you around to kiss and cuddle."
Christie sighed. "It certainly is."
"And it's gonna be worse for you," cautioned Zee. "Fred'll say things," she searched for the words, "'bout you and me. Things I'd probably tear his tongue out for if I was there."
The blonde made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and, for the umpteenth time, Zee wished she were accompanying her to Contention.
"But whatever he says, no matter how he tries to dirty what's between you and me, it don't signify. All right?" She squeezed Christie's hand again for emphasis. "I'm yours. I ain't ashamed of that. And when I'm through here, I'm coming to get you."
The small hand gave her an answering squeeze. "I know," said Christie, smiling tremulously. "Please don't worry about me, Zee. You take care of yourself."
The deputy gave a frustrated sigh and balled her free hand into a fist. If only- But it couldn't be helped. She couldn't go with Christie, and that was an end of it. The thought made her pull out her pocket watch and check it. Plenty of time before her appointment.
The train whistle blew again, louder and more impatient this time.
"C'mon, Darlin'. She's getting set to depart. Let's get you on board." Zee helped Christie up the steps into the carriage, then returned for the cases. When the other woman was installed in a good window seat, her luggage safely stowed nearby, she turned to say goodbye then froze. What she wanted, more than anything, was to kiss Christie on the mouth. But some of the other passengers nervously eyeing her would be getting off at Contention too. She couldn't risk revealing Christie's play this early in the game.
She took a deep breath and drew herself to her full height. "Safe journey, Miss Hayes," she said formally. "Give my regards to your brother."
The startled disappointment in Christie's gaze quickly gave way to comprehension. "Thank you, Deputy Brodie," she said equally politely. "I will."
Zee nodded, then did one of the hardest things she'd ever had to do - turned her back on her lover and walked away.
Back on the station platform once more, she turned and gazed up into the lovely face behind the soot-streaked glass. Christie glanced to either side, then mouthed, "I love you," and blew her a kiss.
Zee found herself grinning inanely. She blinked, and quickly assumed a more sombre expression. "Me too," she mouthed back. The blonde nodded and smiled.
The train's connecting rods rose, rotating the wheels. Couplings clanged all along the line of cars, then it lurched forward. Zee locked gazes with Christie, and kept pace with her carriage for as long as she could, but soon the train had left her behind.
She came to a halt, took off her hat and used it to shade her eyes against the bright morning sunlight. Shoulders slumped, she watched the train disappear into the distance. Then she sighed, resettled her hat, and set off to keep her appointment.
He was waiting for her as arranged, sitting in the far corner of the Last Chance Saloon, his chair pressed against the wall, his gaze trained on the street door.
If Hogan hadn't told her about Charlie Judkins' background, she would have dismissed him instantly. 'Nondescript' was the word, she decided. He could be anyone, go anywhere without attracting attention. Good.
She nodded a greeting and noted that the shot glass on the stained table in front of him was empty. Appropriating another glass and some whisky from the bartender, she made her way over.
"Judkins?" He nodded. "Brodie."
She placed the bottle and glass on the table, placed her hat next to it, then sat down, eyeing him openly, and liking what she saw. His clothes were clean but well worn and slightly old-fashioned, and his greying hair and moustache needed a trim. Though he wasn't small, his self-effacing manner gave the impression that he was. The ex-Pinkerton detective had been giving Zee the once-over too, his gaze lingering on her tin-star before returning to her bruised cheek and eye.
She poured whisky into the two glasses, then pushed his towards him. "Thanks for coming." She downed her drink in one, wincing at the bite of cheap whisky on a cut, then wiping her lips on the back of her gloved hand. He cocked his head to one side, inviting her to get down to business.
"All right. Here's what I need from you." She outlined what she wanted, and he listened intently until she had finished.
"Just the one man?" He took a gulp of whisky.
"That's right. But I want to know his every move, no matter how small. He so much as looks at someone, I want to know the when and the where. Round the clock. That clear?" He nodded and she topped up his glass then her own. "So. Can you do it?"
"Anything to be found, I'll find it, Deputy." Calculation filled his gaze. "For a price."
He named a figure that made her wince mentally. Hogan had warned her good detectives came expensive, but still.... They'd have to put off buying that couch for the parlour that Christie had her eye on.
"You've got yourself a deal." She pulled off her right glove, spat on the palm of her hand and held it out. He did the same and they shook.
"Half in advance."
Fortunately, Zee had been prepared for that. She pulled the little leather pouch from her vest pocket and threw it to him. He caught it deftly, opened the tie, and stared at the half-eagles nestling inside. Then he nodded his approval.
"Pleasure doing business with you, Deputy." He pocketed the pouch, eased himself out of his seat and stood up. "I'll be in touch." He tipped his hat.
"I'm counting on it."
After Judkins had left, she topped up her glass and stared moodily into it for a while. If he didn't find anything on Fred Younger, she'd have squandered their money for nothing. It was a gamble. But she had a hunch about Christie's ex-fianc», and she always gambled on her hunches.
Zee shrugged and drained the shot glass dry. Then she kicked back her chair, and stood up. It was time to get moving on the next part of her plan.
Madam Angie was in her office doing her accounts, and in dire need of a distraction if her reaction to Zee's entrance was any indication.
"Deputy Brodie." She smiled and pushed away the thick ledger with undisguised relief. "Is this a social call?" She reached for her pipe. "Is Christie with you?"
"No to both." Zee took the seat offered.
Angie stopped tamping tobacco into the bowl and cocked her head. "From the state of your face, I'd say you've been brawling."
"You'd be right." Zee examined her fingers for a moment then looked up. "I need a favour."
"Concerning The Sisters of Charity."
The brothel madam's eyebrows crawled skywards. "You wonít find any of them here."
"Reckon I knew that," said Zee dryly.
They both chuckled for a moment, then Angie leaned forward. "I take it you're meaning Sister Florence's establishment?"
"If she's the one who runs that place just outside Fairbank, yeah."
"The Willows. It's an Orphanage."
"It's more 'n that, from what I hear."
Angie lit up and puffed on her pipe for a moment before answering. "That's true. The Sisters also take in 'fallen' women, until their babies are born. A good proportion of the children in their care come from that source." She gestured towards the door, through which Zee could see glimpses of whores in various states of undress. "Also from my girls." She grimaced. "Occupational hazard."
Zee nodded as Angie confirmed what Hogan had told her. "I also heard tell you and one of the Sisters have been..." She cast around for the words. "... close friends for a while."
The Madam crossed her dainty, Turkish-trouser-clad ankles and laughed. "My my, you have done your homework, haven't you, Brodie. Yes, Florence and I are friends. Not in the way you mean though."
"I wasn't always a brothel madam, you know. There was a time in my life when things were very... bad." The older woman's gaze clouded. "Florence wasn't in charge of the orphanage then, of course. That's a recent development. But she found me and took me in when no one else would. For that I will always count her my dear, dear friend." She forced a smile and Zee knew she wasn't going to hear any more on that particular topic. "So, are you going to tell me what this mysterious favour is?"
"A letter of introduction. Figured the Sisters aren't going to take too kindly to someone like me," she gestured at herself, "nosing around. Thought if you could vouch for me, it might prevent them having the vapours."
The Madam's eyes gleamed with curiosity. "But why on earth would you want to -"
Zee held up a hand. "Personal business, Angie. Let's just say I've a hunch one of their current charges is someone who needs my help, and leave it at that. I'll tell you 'bout it once it's all over and done with. All right?"
"How intriguing!" Angie sighed and sat back. "And how vexing. But all right." She opened the desk drawer, pulled out a blank sheet of paper and reached for a pen. While the pen scratched noisily across the page, Zee got up, crossed to the door, folded her arms and leaned comfortably against the doorframe. Whistles and catcalls greeted her appearance and she grinned at the whores now looking at her.
"Enjoying the view, Deputy?" called Nellie the Fox.
"Mighty fine, thanks." Zee winked.
Rowdy Mollie was straightening a garter. "Where's Christie?"
"Gone to Contention."
Red Mary's face lit up at that piece of news. "Well, and about time. Does that mean you'll be requiring our services?"
Zee was about to set her to rights when Angie's voice came from behind her. "There. It's done."
Turning, she stepped back into the office and took the envelope the other woman held out to her. She frowned at the red blob of wax bearing the imprint of Angie's signet ring. "But this is sealed!"
A roguish smile curved the brothel madam's mouth. "Of course."
"Wanted to read what you wrote. What did you say about me?"
"None of your damned business."
"But -" Lost for words, Zee rolled her eyes, and Angie laughed.
"It's confidential. Between Florence and me."
Zee knew when she was beaten. She sighed and tucked the envelope in her vest pocket. "All right," she grumbled. "But if Sister Florence comes after me with a shotgun, I'm coming back here and -"
"Promises, promises." Angie wagged a finger at her. "Have a little faith, Brodie."
"Thanks. I'll try."
The ride was a long and dusty one, and by the time Zee arrived at the clump of willows (an underground spring was the reason the Sisters of Charity had chosen this site a few miles from Fairbank) she was hot and in need of some shade. It didn't help that her cracked ribs were aching fiercely. She moistened her bandanna with water from her canteen, and retied it, enjoying the coolness on the nape of her neck.
A dozen children, ages varying widely but all energetic and grubby, were playing in the fenced-off yard next to the smaller of the two clapboard buildings - the school presumably. After the silence of the last couple of hours, their shrieks were piercing, and Zee's mare whinnied in protest; she couldn't help but agree.
She dismounted and tethered her horse in some shade. By now, the shrieks had subsided and of the children were crowding the fence, staring at her.
"Howdy, varmints." She tipped her hat and winked. Eyes widened, and mouths dropped open. While one small, freckled girl noisily sucked a thumb, the tallest of the boys hared off indoors, presumably to fetch an adult.
"It's a woman!" said a girl in a much patched, pink dress.
"Don't be stupid!" The speaker was a boy with ears like jug handles. "Women don't wear trousers."
"That's quite enough of that," boomed a female voice. As one, the children turned, to face the large woman in a black habit, veil, and pleated cape who had appeared. She strode towards them; behind her trailed the tall boy.
"Playtime is over. Indoors now, all of you, and leave our visitor alone." She clapped her hands twice. "I said now, if you please. Sister Euphrasia is waiting." She cast a sharp glance at a blond boy who was about to pinch the girl next to him. "That includes you, Sam."
There were a few protests and whines, but a frown from the formidable Sister soon had the children disappearing obediently indoors. That done, the nun turned her attention to Zee. Her mouth curled in disapproval at the disreputable-looking stranger. Her greeting was polite enough though. "May I help you?"
Zee took off her hat. "Sister Florence?"
"No. My name," hands chapped by housework worked a rosary with a click, click, click of beads, "is Sister Agnes. You wish to see Sister Florence?"
"Very well. Wait here and I will see if she is receiving visitors." She turned to go then paused and turned back. "Who shall I say is calling?"
"Deputy Zee Brodie." Zee fished the envelope from her pocket. It was still sealed,† though the temptation to open it had almost got the better of her. "Got a letter of introduction."
Sister Agnes took it from her, gave it a cursory inspection, then turned on one heel (Zee assumed she had heels. Her habit was so long she might not even have legs) and glided off towards the other building, a two storey structure which must be the Orphanage proper.
Zee sighed, put her hat back on, and went to join her horse in the shade. She filled her palm with water from the canteen and let it drink its fill. That chore done, there was still no sign of either Sister Agnes or the mysterious Sister Florence
Wonder what Angie put in that letter? She squatted comfortably on her heels, and whistled tunelessly under her breath. Pulling out her pocket watch, she flipped it open. Christie should be in Contention by now.
Somewhere, a door opened and she looked up. A large black crow was heading towards her. She blinked and straightened, pulling the brim of her stetson down against the glare. The crow resolved itself into Sister Agnes, habit flapping.
"Deputy Brodie," called the Sister, beckoning. "Sister Florence will see you now. Please come with me."
Zee banged her hat against her thigh, to get the worst of the dust off, then followed Sister Agnes into the hallway. It was a welcome relief to be able to get out of the heat.
She blinked while her eyes adjusted to the relative gloom of the interior, then allowed the Sister of Charity to lead her through into a small room labelled 'Vestry'. One wall was lined with closets. Furniture consisted of a small table and four uncomfortable-looking chairs. On the table was a brass handbell.
"Someone will be with you shortly," said Sister Agnes, leaving Zee alone.
Moments later, a different Sister entered, bearing a glass of lemonade on a tray. Zee accepted it gratefully, drained it in two swallows, and handed it back with her thanks. Grey eyes, already wide at her appearance (must be the battered face, she supposed) widened even further. Then the nun, who was short and thin, and much less imposing than her colleague, recollected herself, and exited as silently and demurely as she had entered.
"Guess she wasn't Sister Florence either," muttered Zee, wandering over to the window and staring out at the windmill turning fitfully in the breeze. That must be how The Willows pumped up its water from the spring, she guessed. In the distance a lesson bell rang.
"No. But I am."
Zee swung round in surprise.
"It's not often we are paid a visit by the Arizona Hellcat," said the new arrival. Like the other Sisters, she was wearing a black habit, veil, and pleated cape.
Zee sighed. "The Hellcat donít exist no more, Sister. I'm...." She trailed off as she registered the twinkle in the blue eyes and the flamboyant handwriting on the piece of paper clutched in her hand. Damn you, Angie!
"Deputy Zee Brodie," completed Sister Florence amiably. "I know. But allow an old woman a moment of excitement. It'll have to last me several years."
Zee snorted. 'Old' was pushing it, she decided, taking an instant liking to Angie Tucker's friend. More like in her fifties. She'd also hazard a guess that Florence had once been quite a looker, before time and the elements had coarsened her complexion.
"Please." Florence gestured with a work-worn hand. "Sit." Zee did so. The Sister did likewise and clasped her hands in her lap. "Now. Tell me what brings you to my establishment. As far as I am aware, none of the Sisters is wanted by the law. Nor any of our charges come to that. Though with scamps like Sam Baker, it's surely only a matter of time." She gave a rueful smile.
Zee started to lean forward, but her sore ribs made her think twice. "You take in 'fallen' women here. That right?"
"If you mean desperate and wronged young women in need of our help," corrected the Sister gently, "then yes, we do. We care for them during their confinement, until they are well enough to pick up the pieces of their lives. Some take their babies with them, some entrust them to our care."
"I'm looking for one in particular."
Sister Florence's expression became watchful. "I cannot divulge the identities of the young women here, Deputy. It is a matter of trust and confidentiality."
Zee thought for a moment. "Suppose you donít tell me anything, but I tell you?"
The other woman considered. "Very well."
"Her name's Jenny Farnham." The Sister's poker face was perfect. Damn! "The baby's father, Blue, wants to marry her, but it seems her parents have other ideas."
"'I see'? She's here against her will!"
"No one is here against their will," said Sister Florence. "I am certain of that. Perhaps the parents have their daughter's best interests at heart. Or did that not occur to you?"
Her statement brought Zee up short. Could Blue have been right. Did Jenny agree with her parents' plans for her? Surely not. Her mind raced. "Maybe it's just she's accepted her fate," she guessed. "Maybe she thinks she has no choice."
Sister Florence frowned. "That is a possibility," she conceded. She got up, went to the window, and stared out.
Time stretched. Zee could hear the faint buzzing of a fly, the distant ticking of the clock in the hall.... She picked at a loose thread on her Levis and schooled herself to patience. At last she was rewarded.
"Deputy Brodie." The Sister turned to face her, her expression sombre. "Partly because of the endorsement my old friend has given you," she lifted the letter she still held, "and partly because I myself have had some doubts about this particular young woman, I'm going to break my cardinal rule."
Zee let out a sigh of relief. "Obliged."
"Jenny Farnham is here... accompanied by her Aunt. Her companion rarely leaves her side."
They exchanged significant glances.
"It could of course just be that Jenny has been so upset by recent events she needs constant support. But...." Florence sighed and began to pace, her long skirts making a swishing noise as they brushed the floorboards. "As yet, none of us has made any serious effort to talk to the girl on her own." She shook her head. "A highly unsatisfactory state of affairs."
Zee nodded. "We need the facts, ma'am."
"'The facts'," repeated Florence, halting mid stride and nodding once, decisively. "I think I can arrange that." She reached for the handbell and rang it. Moments later, the little Sister who had brought the lemonade reappeared. The deputy was obviously still a source of fascination to her; she couldn't help glancing curiously at Zee before regaining control and bowing her head respectfully to her superior.
"Yes, Sister Florence?"
"Sister Euphrasia. Will you please tell Miss Farnham that I wish to speak with her at once? Bring her to the Vestry, will you?"
"Yes, Sister." Euphrasia bowed her head again, then hurried away, but not before giving Zee one last curious glance.
"But the Aunt will come too," objected Zee.
"She won't let Jenny speak to me."
"She'll let her speak to me, or I shall ask them both to leave." Sister Florence gazed thoughtfully at the closets lining the wall of the vestry then walked towards one and opened the door. "You must hide in here, Deputy."
Zee grimaced but stepped forward. Inside the closet was a rail, from which hung numerous black habits and other items of clothing. As she made space for herself amongst the nuns' apparel, which gave off the faint whiff of mothballs, she smiled ruefully. I'd never hear the end of this if anyone found out. The door closed with a click and she was in pitch blackness. Good thing I'm not scared of the dark.
She resigned herself to a lengthy, suffocating wait. But it actually wasn't long before she heard the sound of a door opening, followed by the murmur of voices. She turned awkwardly in the cramped space, easing aside a clothes hanger that was digging into her back, and pressed her ear to the door.
"- Jenny alone, if you donít mind, Mrs. Archer."
†"I do mind," came a rather shrill voice. "I see no reason why anything you might have to say to my niece cannot also be spoken in my presence. We keep no secrets from one another. Do we, Jenny?"
"No, Aunt." The reply was barely audible.
"Nevertheless," came the Sister's firm reply, "I need to talk with Miss Farnham about certain.... ahem... delicate, one might even say intimate, matters. Her health and the health of her baby, you understand, are my chief concern."
"Oh." There was a long embarrassed silence. "Well, in that case.... I shall wait outside."
There was a sound of the door opening and closing and Zee smiled in the darkness.
"Now, Miss Farnham. I have a favour to ask of you."
"Yes. I want you to promise that, whatever happens in the next few minutes, you will keep it strictly between ourselves. Will you?"
"Yes, Sister Florence. But I don't understand."
"Thank you, child. It's quite simple. I have a visitor for you."
There was a click, then the closet door was swinging open. Zee blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the brightness, and stepped out into the vestry.
Faun-like eyes blinked at her. Their owner, a pretty young woman of about Christie's height wearing a shapeless grey dress, put a hand to her mouth. "But who are you? And why are you hiding in the closet?"
"Name's Deputy Zee Brodie," said Zee. She reached for a chair and urged the very pregnant girl to sit. Florence nodded her approval.
Comprehension filled the brown eyes. "Oh! You're the one who seduced Blue's sister."
Zee winced and glanced up, but fortunately Sister Florence seemed unperturbed by this shocking revelation. Angie must have told her in that damned letter. "That's right."
Long lashes blinked. "How is Blue? Is he all right?"
Jenny's concern for Blue instantly raised her a notch in Zee's estimation. "As well as can be expected," she said. "Considering his prospective wife and child left him."
Confusion filled the girl's eyes. "But, I donít understand. I was told that Blue had gone back East. Is that not what he wanted? A fresh start, without me and the encumbrance of a baby?"
Zee's lip curled. "Nope. It's a damned lie!"
A hand on Zee's shoulder made her aware she was looming over Jenny. She drew back apologetically, and Sister Florence took her place.
"This situation appears rather... tangled," said Florence diplomatically. "Deputy Brodie is merely trying to ascertain the facts." She turned to Zee. "Would you care to lay them out for us?"
"Far as I can tell, " said Zee, "Blue thinks Jenny wants to get rid of his baby and marry Andrew LeRoy. And Jenny thinks Blue wants nothing more to do with her. That about cover it?"
"Concisely put," said Florence.
Jenny was frowning. "But.... I don't understand. Papa said.... Do you mean to tell me, Blue does want me after all?" Her eyes filled with tears, and one spilled down her cheek.
Zee squeezed the girl's shoulder gently. "Yep. He's a broken man without you."
"Oh!" She put her face in her hands and began to sob. Florence produced a large handkerchief from some hidden pocket and pressed it into the girl's hands.
There was a loud knock at the door.
"Sister Florence," came Aunt Archer's voice. "Sister Florence. Is my niece all right? What in the world can be taking you so long?"
"Jenny's perfectly well," called Florence, glancing meaningfully at Zee then at the closet. "Nearly finished."
She got the message. "I have to go," she murmured in Jenny's ear. "But I'll be back to get you out of here."
The girl's head came up and tearful brown eyes regarded Zee in startlement.
"You and Blue will be together again," she promised, giving the slender shoulder a final squeeze. "Be ready to leave at a moment's notice. And whatever you do, donít tell your Aunt anything. All right?"
Two spots of colour had appeared in the girl's cheeks. She nodded, tentatively at first, then more firmly.
"Good girl." Then Zee was stepping back inside her hiding place, and the closet door was swinging closed behind her.
It was lucky the house was so close to the station depot, thought Christie, as she struggled along the road. She had forgotten a certain rangy deputy wouldn't be here to carry her luggage.
Maybe she should have wired Blue and asked him to meet her after all. But that would have given him the chance to say he didn't need her help.
She sighed and swapped the heavy cases over, redistributing the weight. It helped... for all of three paces. Her arms still felt as though there were being pulled from their sockets.
Will Zee still love me when my knuckles drag along the sidewalk?
Fortunately, the little clapboard house that had been home since Christie and her brother came out West was just up ahead. Maybe if she took the last few yards at a brisk trot....
Her grip gave out two paces from the front porch. The cases fell to the ground with a thud.
A bewhiskered old man in a blue flannel shirt was passing and he stopped at her muffled exclamation. "Are you all right, Miss?"
She turned, flexing her fingers as she tried to ease the cramp. "Yes, thank you for asking."
He returned her smile, tipped his shabby hat to her, and continued on his way, whistling.
She shook her hands until the pain began to ease, then turned and regarded what had once been her own front door. The roses around it were dying, she saw with some sadness. Blue had obviously given up watering them.
Was her brother at home or still at the store? Only one way to find out.
She stepped up onto the porch, smoothed her dress over her hips, and ran a hand through her dishevelled hair. It probably made little difference to her appearance, she thought ruefully. Train travel always left her feeling crumpled, sweaty, and smut-stained and the trip from Benson had been no exception. She took a deep breath, exhaled, then rapped the doorknocker twice.
For a long moment there was no response, then from inside came the sound of approaching footsteps. The door creaked open, and there stood her brother.
His jaw dropped. "Christie!"
"Blue." She flung herself at him and hugged him warmly. After a moment, he returned her embrace. Then she stood back and looked at him.
Though Zee had prepared her for a change, his appearance shocked her. He had lost weight, she saw at once. And there were shadows under his eyes that hadn't been there before. He was also badly in need of a shave and haircut, and (she tried not to be too obvious as she sniffed) both he and his clothes could do with a good wash.
"What are you doing here, Sis?"
One of their neighbours was coming down the street. Christie wasn't sure if he was in earshot yet, but, if he was, now was the perfect moment to put her plan into action.
Aiming for melancholy but suspecting she had achieved merely melodrama, she struck a pose. The music hall actress who had shared their stagecoach to Phoenix would have done much better. I'm no Vesta Galvin.
"Oh, Blue," she said loudly. "Please don't turn me away. I made a terrible mistake. But I've come to my senses at last."
He stared at her.
"I've left her," she announced. "I've left Zee and I'm never going back."
Christie shut the front door behind her. "I haven't really," she told the still dumbfounded Blue. "That was just in case anyone was listening."
His brows knit together and he stroked his shaggy moustache. "Are you feeling all right, Sis?"
"Perfectly well, thank you." She beamed at him, overjoyed to be reunited with the brother she had thought was permanently estranged from her. Her joy faded as she saw how red and puffy his eyes were. Had he been crying?
"But you're not well at all, are you, Blue? Zee told me all about it."
He stiffened. "Is that why you're here? Because if so-"
"Of course it is!" She raised a hand to stifle further protest. "What kind of sister would I be if I didn't help my brother when he needs me?"
"You most certainly do." She wagged a finger at him. "Look at the state of you! And of this house!" A thin layer of dust covered everything, and there was a huge cobweb hanging in the corner by the stairs. "Mama would be horrified."
Blue looked at his surroundings, as though seeing them for the first time. "I suppose you're right. I've let things go a little."
Christie let a raised eyebrow speak for her, and he flushed a delicate shade of pink that spread to the tips of his ears. With their colouring, the two siblings had always been susceptible to blushing. Seeing Blue's face now in all its glory, she suddenly understood why Zee was always teasing her. It must be irresistible.
She patted his arm. "Don't worry. I'll soon have this place... and you... looking spick-and-span again."
He sighed and changed the subject. "Shall I bring in your luggage?"
"Please." As he fetched the cases indoors, she crossed to the banister and gazed up the stairs.
It was peculiar being back here. It was still her home, and yet it wasn't. It made concrete something she had been beginning to suspect. Her place now was with Zee, in the ramshackle house in Schoolhouse Lane that they were transforming into a comfortable home.
"Thank you, Blue." She picked up the lightest of the cases. "Is my room still the small one at the back?"
He nodded. "It's just as you left it."
She started up the stairs. But I'm not.
The first thing Christie did, when she had unpacked, shaken the creases from her clothes and put them away, was to prepare them both some supper. She was ravenously hungry, but Blue's cupboard was almost bare (she made a note to go shopping for supplies tomorrow). Fortunately, she had come across some cold cooked potatoes during her search, and, with the aid of an egg, some milk, and sugar, was able to improvise.
While supper was cooking, she laid the kitchen table. Then she found some scissors in a drawer, sharpened them on a whetstone, and trimmed Blue's moustache and hair. She also handed him the cut-throat razor and stood over him while he shaved. That he allowed her to do so without a word of complaint worried her, though she tried not to let it show. The man she knew would have complained vigorously, but this new version of Blue couldn't seem to work up the energy.
By this time, an appetising aroma of potato pudding had spread round the house and her stomach was rumbling insistently. She removed the supper from the stove and served it, calling to her brother to wash his hands and come and eat. He did so, looking almost presentable if you overlooked his stale and crumpled clothes.
As she ate her food, she wondered idly what Zee was having for her supper. Then she noticed that Blue was only picking half-heartedly at his.
"Don't you like it?"
He shrugged. "It's fine. I'm just not hungry."
No wonder he was losing weight. "Well, try to eat a little," she urged. "You need the nourishment." He smiled at her and made an effort, but when she came to clear away their dishes, she saw that half his food remained. Luckily, potato pudding was excellent served cold, so she covered the plate and placed it in the pantry, in case he should feel peckish later.
After she had washed and dried the dishes, the day's exertions finally caught up with her, and though it was earlier than her usual bedtime, she said goodnight to her brother and made her way up to bed.
After a perfunctory wash, she put on her nightdress and slipped between the sheets. It was then that she made an unwelcome discovery. The single bed that had once been cosy now felt cramped and yet at the same time empty. She was used to their huge double bed, she realised, to having Zee's arms wrapped around her. Used to making love then whispering affectionate sweet nothings before falling asleep. Without these things, she found herself suddenly wide-awake and lonely.
She sat up, twisted irritably round, and plumped up her pillows, then lay down once more and felt sorry for herself. Was Zee missing her as badly as she was missing Zee? She jolly well hoped so.
Christie snorted as anger and self-pity gave way to wry amusement, and she took herself severely to task. If Zee could be here, she would be, but she's off finding the blacksmith's daughter. So stop being selfish, and just get used to it. After all, it won't be for long.
After that, she found if she closed her eyes and pictured Zee lying on her bedroll beneath the stars somewhere and hopefully thinking of her, things didn't seem so bad. And somehow, before she knew it, she was sound asleep, dreaming of a dashing dark-haired outlaw who held up her stage coach and carried her off into the desert, there to have her wicked way with her....
The next morning, a rejuvenated Christie sent her brother off to work with a belly lined with pancakes. She was glad he had managed to eat most of his breakfast, but less happy about his attire. There wasn't a clean shirt or pair of trousers in the house; she'd had to settle for the least offensive of his dirty ones.
The first chore on her list was obvious: laundry. Just to be on the safe side, she washed, rinsed, and put Blue's clothes through the wringer twice. Emptying the big iron kettle onto the parched back garden, she marvelled at how grimy the wastewater now soaking away was. She was transferring the wet shirts from the laundry basket to the bushes, for the hot morning sun to dry, when she heard the sound of a door opening.
Blue's overweight neighbour appeared in her back garden, carrying her own basket of laundry. Coincidence or was she wanting to chat? She was a kind enough soul, but she did love a good gossip, Christie remembered.
The other woman smiled over the fence. "Good to have you back, Miss Hayes. Blue's house has been in need of a woman's touch."
She arranged the shirt to her liking before answering. "Thank you, Mrs. James. I'm pleased to be back."
She wondered whether to add anything further then thought better of it. The town grapevine would spread the news of her 'break-up' with Zee around Contention soon enough.
"Excuse me, won't you? I have a lot to do, so I'd better get on."
When she realised that Christie wasn't going to stay to chat, Mrs. James's face fell, but she nodded pleasantly enough and began to hang out her own washing. Christie grabbed the empty laundry basket and went back indoors.
After a brief rest and a glass of freshly made lemonade (she had also found some wizened lemons in the pantry), she tied a scarf around her hair to keep it out of the way, then grabbed a broom and dustcloth. The house wasn't as filthy as The Old Barn had been when she and Zee first moved in, but it was getting there. After an hour of sweeping and dusting, she was tired and grimy. She looked at the clock in the parlour.
That time already? The rest will have to keep. I must go shopping.
Christie opened a window, leaned out and shook the dust from her cloth, then stowed away her cleaning implements. She removed her clothes, poured some water into a basin and had a quick wash.
The next problem was what to wear for her first jaunt into town. She must look respectable and repentant. Which meant a corset. With a sigh, she put one on and awkwardly laced it, instantly missing the freedom of movement that had become second nature to her. I hope you appreciate all this, Blue.
She eyed the rack of dresses she had left behind when, acting on romantic impulse, she'd decided to remain with Zee in Benson. The dove-grey calico dress had once been her favourite but it now looked rather drab and conservatively cut. I've been mixing with Madam Angie's girls for too long.
Nevertheless. She pulled it out, held it against her body, and gazed at herself in the mirror. Then she nodded.
As Christie walked briskly into town, she wasn't sure whether to be pleased or disappointed when few heads turned to follow her progress, and those that did smiled and greeted her politely. Strange how, when you want a rumour to spread, it won't.
The sun was like a furnace, and she was relieved to step into the cool of McClellan's General Store. She pushed the door shut behind her, making the bell above it tinkle, then turned to see the big man in the starched white apron coming out from behind his counter.
"Welcome back, Miss Hayes." His smile was genuine. "Haven't seen you for a while."
"Thank you. No. I've been away." She pulled the list of supplies from her reticule. "Will you arrange for these to be delivered as soon as is convenient, Mr. McClellan?"
His took the list from her and perused her order carefully, his smile broadening as he saw the extent of it. "My my! Quite an order!" He stroked his beard.
"Add it to Blue's account, if you please. I'll get him to settle up next week."
He pursed his lips, regarded her assessingly, then nodded. "Certainly, Miss Hayes."
His hesitation made her realise that she had no idea of her brother's current financial status. If the store was making a loss, he might be in trouble. Still, she could always dip into her own savings, which had remained untouched since she left Contention. (She had felt too awkward to ask him to send the money on while he was still angry with her.)
McClellan grabbed the pencil stub that hung from a string round his ample waist, licked it, and began to tick off the items one by one. He paused. "End of the week before my next consignment of buckwheat flour comes in, I'm afraid. Would tomorrow be convenient for the rest?"
"Oh. I'd hoped to at least get the beef, butter, and apples this afternoon, if that's -"
He smiled. "No trouble at all. I'll send young Malachi round with them."
"Will that be all, Miss Hayes?"
She thought for a moment then nodded. "I believe it will. Good day to you, Mr McClellan." Retying her bonnet strings more securely, she headed out into the hot sun once more.
As Christie walked past the Cactus Club, she resisted the urge to tuck her head into her shoulders like a tortoise. So what if Fred was inside the building? Contention was a small town. She was bound to run into him sooner or later. Grimly, she walked on, telling herself that she had chosen this course of action and must go through with it. But when her former fianc» didn't come running out of the building to confront her or jeer at her, she heaved a sigh of relief.
Her relief was short lived, however, when she saw the matronly figure in royal blue coming along the sidewalk towards her. Cora Chase's progress put Christie in mind of a steamboat at full paddle. Contention's worst gossip obviously scented a juicy titbit.
She was debating whether to cross the road, when Cora placed herself firmly in her path, effectively blocking her way.
"Miss Hayes. Well I never!" Black eyes gleamed with curiosity. "So you've come back to look after your brother, have you? Very sisterly, I'm sure."
"It's been very distressing to all of us to see on what hard times Bluford has fallen," continued the other woman.
Christie was hard pressed not to make some angry retort. She contented herself instead with "I'm sure he would be very pleased to know of your concern," spoken through gritted teeth. Her move to edge pass the matron was subtly but emphatically blocked.
"And your companion," continued Cora, her emphasis adding quotation marks to the last word. "Has she come with you?"
It dawned on Christie suddenly. If she wanted her cover story to spread, this was the perfect opportunity. Drop a private word in Cora Chase's avid ear at breakfast, and you could be sure that by sundown it would be common knowledge among half the town's womenfolk... and their husbands. She took a deep breath and plunged in.
"No. Deputy Brodie and I have... parted company."
For once, Cora looked startled. She had clearly not expected her prey to surrender so easily. She recovered quickly though.
"Very wise, I'm sure. Did she..." she licked her lips with a very pink tongue, "do something? To bring you to your senses, I mean."
"I... I'd rather not speak of it." Christie lowered her gaze as though embarrassed, knowing that Cora would be only too glad to make up her own reasons.
"How terrible! And how wise of you to separate yourself from that notorious woman, Miss Hayes, before your reputation was ruined entirely."
Christie had discovered, with Zee's help, that she didn't care a jot for reputation, but she didn't let on. Instead, she nodded agreeably.
"As I'm sure you have come to realise," continued the town gossip, "that particular episode caused great ... upset. It didnít show your brother in a good light, either, which can't have helped his present predicament."
Impertinence! Christie bit her tongue and counted to ten.
"But all that is behind you now."
"Indeed it is." Christie forced a smile. "But I have a lot of chores to do, Mrs Chase. So I really must be going." She edged around the other woman, and this time Cora didn't move to block her.
"Your brother has been without a housekeeper for too long for you not to have. I do hope he is appreciative of your efforts?"
"Oh, he is, Mrs. Chase. Very." And with that she made her escape.
Zee pushed back her hat and watched the last of the sunset's lemon, peach, and coral tints disappear. Night fell in earnest.
She'd grown tired of twiddling her thumbs, waiting for it to get dark. But what she was about to do couldn't be attempted in daylight. At least not without attracting unwelcome attention.
She stood up and stretched the stiffness from her limbs, wincing as a twinge reminded her of her injured ribs. A ripe aroma wafted up to her nostrils and she grimaced.
These duds of Andy's smell like something died in 'em.
The gelding tethered nearby nickered softly in protest.
"Yeah," she agreed. "Shoulda borrowed from someone who bathes regular, huh?"
Her own clothes were back in Benson, along with her tin star. She had decided it wouldn't do for a lawman to be seen stealing a very pregnant young woman out from under the noses of her Aunt and the Sisters of Charity. But a bandanna round the bottom half of her face and buckskins borrowed from one of Madam Angie's 'regulars' should take care of the identification problem.
Trouble was, as well as stinking to high heaven, Andy Street's 'second best' buckskins were too loose around the crotch and too tight under the arms. She wriggled, trying to ease the pinching. The gelding shifted restlessly in its traces.
"Easy, boy." She patted its neck. Normally it pulled Christie's buckboard, but tonight it was hauling a two-seater buggy Zee had borrowed. The buckboard would be too bumpy a ride for Jenny in her present condition. And it wasn't as if she could just throw the girl over her saddle and gallop off into the sunset.
This ain't no dime novel. And besides, Christie might have something to say about that. She grinned, picturing the little blonde's reaction.
It was three days since Zee had seen her lover, and she was missing her sorely. But, she consoled herself, if all went well tonight....
The stars were coming out in force now, a half moon rising swiftly. She sucked her teeth and hoped there'd be some cloudcover when it mattered.
Pulling out her pocket watch, she peered at it. Sister Florence had told her the schedule at The Willows. The children would all be tucked up in their beds, and the adults would be finishing their supper before retiring for the night. And if all went to plan, the cup of after-supper coffee handed to Jenny's Aunt would contain a little extra something that Zee had provided (courtesy of Old Doc Pellet in exchange for a bottle of good drinking whisky).
Sister Florence had stared at the little phial of knockout drops in disbelief. "Is this really necessary, Deputy Brodie?"
"It's for her own good."
The nun's eyebrows rose.
"Jenny's aunt sees some masked desperado spiriting off her niece," explained Zee patiently, "it'll be 'hit him first, ask questions later'. I'd have to defend myself. Wouldn't intend hurtin' her, but...." She shrugged.
Florence pursed her lips, then nodded. "Very well. If I have your assurance that these will not cause Mrs. Archer permanent harm?"
The phial disappeared into some hidden pocket.
That had been yesterday and the deputy had been on the go ever since, fetching the buggy, borrowing the buckskins, taking delivery of the canvas-and-leather sling she had designed, and arranging a place for Jenny to stay while she waited for Blue to join her.
Zee checked her watch again then clicked the lid closed and repocketed it. It was time to get moving. She pulled the brim of her stetson lower and tied the bandanna over her mouth and nose. Then she untethered the gelding, grabbed the reins, and slid into the buggy's driving seat.
"Hi." She flicked the reins. The horse tossed its head and pawed the ground. "I said git movin', you." Reluctantly it broke into a trot....
When the silhouetted orphanage at last came into view, Zee found some suitable cover, reined in the gelding, and hopped out of the buggy. She tethered the horse securely to a tree, whose leaves he began instantly to crop. Grabbing the sling and the rope attached to it, she looped them over her shoulder and headed towards the Willows. The sound of contented munching faded into the darkness behind her.
According to Sister Florence, the room Jenny shared with her Aunt was on the second floor. She peered up at it assessingly. Had her ribs been in better shape, she would have thought nothing of clambering up the outside. As it was, she was glad she had persuaded Florence to leave the front door unlocked.
She slunk up to the door in question, and tried the handle with one gloved hand. It turned easily and she grinned in the darkness. Slipping quietly inside, she closed the door behind her. She wouldn't be coming back the same way.
A lamp was burning on a table in the hallway, and she paused to check that the coast was clear before continuing past the vestry. At the bottom of the stairs, she paused and raked her memory. It was the third and seventh treads that creaked on the first flight, wasn't it? She started up, carefully stepping over the steps Florence had warned her about. At the landing, she stopped to catch her breath. So far so good.
A murmur of voices from downstairs made her press herself against the wall and hold her breath. Two nuns in black habits and veils came into view through the banister, their footsteps almost silent. Fortunately for Zee, they didn't look up. They were deep in conversation, about tomorrow's school lessons from the sound of it.
When they had disappeared into the interior, she let out her breath. That had been close! She resumed her progress up the final flight of stairs, stepping over the fourth and sixth treads as instructed
As she tiptoed along the corridor, she thanked her lucky stars that, unlike the school children, the 'fallen' women were allowed separate rooms. Plucking Jenny out of a dormitory unremarked would have been impossible. As it was, she only had to deal with the girl's Aunt. She checked the number on the first door she came to and moved on. Jenny and Mr. Archer were in Number 8.
Zee had barely registered the loud snores issuing from the next door she came to when something else distracted her. Voices, getting louder. She scanned the corridor for cover. Hell! Nothing for it. She opened the adjacent door and slipped inside, leaving it open the merest crack.
The snoring stopped.
Heart pounding, shoulders braced for the inevitable scream, Zee turned. The woman in the single bed was little more than a silhouetted lump under the covers. She moved, not to sit up though, but to roll over. Seconds later came a snuffle and a snort, then the loud snoring resumed.
Zee slumped against the wall and tried not to laugh. Sonofabitch! She shook her head, then turned back to the door, pressing her ear to the crack and trying to ignore the noisy breathing coming from the bed.
"... you were right, Rose," came a young woman's voice, muffled by the door. "That glass of milk did settle my stomach."
"Told you," said her companion. "Think you can get some rest now, Hetty?"
Then the voices were past. Moments later, Zee heard the sound of a door opening and closing. She waited a little while longer, to be sure, then tipped her hat to the snorer.
"Much obliged," she whispered, slipping out into the corridor once more.
Number 8 was the door before last. No noise came from its interior. Zee took a deep breath and reached for the door handle.
The occupants of the two single beds were both sleeping. Jenny's big belly made her identity immediately obvious. After checking the Aunt was sleeping soundly - three pats on her cheek didn't wake her - Zee lit the oil lamp she found on the dresser and knelt beside the girl's bed. She pulled down her bandanna. Don't want to shock her into having the baby on the spot.
"Jenny," she whispered
The girl's brows drew together but she didn't wake up.
Zee tried a bit louder. "Jenny."
Eyelids fluttered open, revealing dazed brown eyes, then the blacksmith's daughter gasped and sat up with a start. "What?" Comprehension dawned. "Oh, it's you, Deputy Brodie. I didn't recognise you for a minute in those clothes." She yawned. "I was wondering when you would come for me."
"Sorry it took so long." Zee helped the girl out of bed. "Had one or two things to arrange. Get dressed."
Obediently, Jenny headed towards the clothes closet, then she paused and turned to look at her aunt. Despite the disturbance, the older woman hadn't stirred. She frowned. "What have you done to Aunt Archer?"
"She's sleeping. I got someone to slip something in her drink."
"Oh!" The girl considered that for a moment. "Oh." She nodded and began to root through the closet. "I should wear something Blue likes, shouldn't I?"
Zee rolled her eyes. "We haven't got all day. Just pick something comfortable."
Jenny made her selection quickly then began to dress. Zee busied herself uncoiling the sling and rope from her shoulder.
"A sling. Had it made specially." She had designed it so it wouldn't cut into the girl's belly; extra straps spread the load evenly between the hips and shoulders instead.
Jenny's jaw dropped. "You're going to lower me out of the window!"
"Don't worry. It would lift a horse." Zee stood up and turned to face Jenny. The girl's shoes were still unbuttoned. "Here. Let me." She knelt, pulled off her gloves, and buttoned them.
"Thank you. Aunt Archer usually does them for me, now that I can no longer bend." The girl's nose wrinkled and she looked around. "Is there a curious smell in here?"
Zee winced but said nothing. She pulled on her gloves, straightened, and crossed to the sash window. Sliding it open as quietly as she could, she leaned out, checking that the ground two storeys below was clear. Nothing was moving. In the distance a lone coyote yipped. The night air, cool on her cheeks, reminded her to pull her bandanna back up.
The moon had gone behind a bank of clouds. Might just pull this off after all. She pulled her head back inside.
When the reluctant girl was safely stowed inside the sling, and all its buckles were fastened securely, Zee placed a chair beside the window and lifted her up onto it.
Jenny's eyes widened. "You're as strong as Blue!"
Zee grunted and concentrated on taking up the rope's slack around her waist. She helped the girl sit on the window ledge, her legs dangling outside.
Jenny's eyes widened. "Are you sure this will hold me?"
"Don't look down. Yeah, I'm sure." Besides, if I drop you, Blue and Christie will lynch me. "Remember. Be quiet. Sound carries at night."
"Good girl." She patted her on the shoulder. "All right. Let's go."
Carefully, she eased Jenny through the window, bracing her feet and knees against the wall and leaning back, paying out the rope inch by inch. Soon the girl's weight was fully committed to the canvas-and-leather contraption and the rope was biting into Zee's palms. Hand over hand, she began to lower her precious burden to the ground, rotating every now and then to release more of the rope from around her waist.
Her forearms burned with effort, and the rope threatened to rip open the palms of her gloves, but it was as smooth a ride as she could make it. At frequent intervals, she paused to check the girl's progress, making sure she wasn't swinging like a pendulum or spinning. The entire time, Jenny's frightened eyes were staring up at her, her lips pressed firmly together.
At last the girl's feet touched the ground, and the strain on Zee's arms eased. She sighed with relief, exchanged a triumphant wave with Jenny, then untangled herself and chucked the rope down too. With a last look at the Aunt, who had slept peacefully throughout the whole enterprise, she eased herself out of the sash window, slid it closed behind her, then, ignoring her protesting ribs, half climbed, half slid down the clapboard to the ground.
Jenny was still struggling to unbuckle the straps when she landed softly next to her.
"Oh!" The girl put a hand to her mouth. "You startled me," she whispered.
"Sorry." Zee stripped off her battered gloves and tucked them in her waistband, then took over the unbuckling. In a trice, Jenny was free. Zee picked up the sling and rope in one hand, then held out her free hand to the girl. "Come on," she whispered. "Buggy's this way."
Jenny nodded and took her hand.
The gelding snorted and backed away as they ran towards its hiding place. Zee calmed it with a soothing word and a pat on the neck before turning to throw the sling into the buggy and help Jenny up onto the seat. Once the girl was comfortably settled, she draped a shawl around her shoulders and a rug around her legs.
"All set, Miss Farnham?"
Jenny yawned and nodded. "Where are we going now, Deputy? Blue's house?"
Zee untethered the horse, hopped in next to her companion, and took up the reins. "Reckon we should steer clear of Contention until the two of you are hitched, don't you?"
The girl blinked then looked sheepish. "Oh. Yes. That makes sense."
"Hi." Zee flicked the reins and the horse started forward at a gentle trot. "I'm taking you to Benson. Friend of mine has agreed to put you up for a bit."
They travelled on in silence for a while. Then, from back the way they had come, a faint clanging began to gust towards them on the cool night air.
"Oh no!" said Jenny. "They've discovered I'm missing."
Zee wondered who had sounded the alarm bell. She shrugged. "Too late for them to do anything about it anyway." She flicked the reins again. "Git." The gelding broke into a gallop and the buggy rocketed forward, bringing the smell of freshly crushed sage to her nostrils.
She glanced at the girl next to her. Jenny's knuckles were white. "Itíll be all right. Get some sleep. We've got a ways to go."
"At this speed?" gasped the girl, "I don't think I can." Even so, she pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders, closed her eyes, and curled up in her seat.
Zee concentrated on guiding the gelding safely around boulders and thickets of scrub, glad when the moon at last reappeared from behind the clouds to illuminate the way. A little later, she felt something slump against her. She turned in some surprise, to find a soundly asleep Jenny using her as a pillow.
The girl's condition; the excitement of her escape; the rhythm of hooves and the rumbling of buggy wheels - all had probably contributed to the girl's tiredness. Even so, this evidence of Jenny's trust touched Zee.
She wondered if the girl was dreaming of Blue. Don't fret, Jenny. I'll get you to him safe and sound.
Smiling, she drove into the darkness.
"She's little more than a child herself," said Madam Angie, coming into the back office of Angie's Palace where Zee was sitting twiddling her thumbs.
"Jenny all right? And the baby?" A pointed glance made the Deputy take her booted feet off Angie's desk and relinquish the chair.
Angie took her rightful place with a groan of relief, smoothing her housecoat over her knees. "Waking me up at this hour of the morning, Brodie. It's indecent!" She reached for her pipe and tobacco pouch. "They're both fine. Strong as an ox, that one. Just as well after all this excitement. Kidnapping her from the Orphanage! Whatever next?" She packed tobacco into the bowl then looked up at Zee. "I've given her your old room. And a wad of cotton wool so she can block out the noise if need be."
Zee grunted. Brothels were noisy places at the best of times, but the sound effects coming through the walls had never bothered her the way they bothered Christie. "Thanks. I owe you one." She grabbed her hat from Angie's desk
"And you can be sure I'll collect." The Madam rapped Zee with her pipe bowl.
She rubbed her forearm. "What was that for?" A huge yawn took her unawares, and when she had recovered, she saw Angie was looking sternly up at her.
"Get some sleep, Brodie. You look done in."
"Could use a little shut-eye," she admitted. She glanced at the ornate clock that a pillar of Benson society had once awarded Angie unofficially for 'services to the community'. It had just turned 5 am. "Think I'll go home. Got a few hours to kill before my next appointment."
"And while you're at it, take a bath." The brothel madam lit up and took a few puffs of her pipe. "Christie won't let you near her smelling like a skunk."
"That's the duds not me!" protested Zee. "And you coulda warned me Andy stinks, you know."
"Sorry." Angie's smile was unrepentant.
Zee crammed her hat on her head and pulled on her battered gloves, then yawned again. "I ain't gonna see Christie till tonight. First I've got to see a man about a weasel."
They had agreed to meet in Canisteo. The little town was close to Contention but enough out of Fred Younger's way to make running into him unlikely.
Zee headed for the shabby saloon with the cracked window and pushed open the door. Charlie Judkins was ensconced in a corner seat, his back to the wall, his gaze on the door. She strolled over, her footsteps muffled by the sawdust underfoot, and put a bottle of whisky on the table next to his empty glass.
"Howdy." She took the chair opposite the ex-Pinkerton detective. "You got something for me?"
He smirked, then took his time pouring himself a drink, gulping it down, and smacking his lips. Zee sighed and let him have his fun.
"Reckon I do," he said at last.
Pulling a battered old notebook from his pocket, Judkins flipped it open to a dog-eared page, then placed it on the table and with a forefinger pushed it towards her.
She squinted at the pencil scrawl that passed for handwriting, then raised an eyebrow at him. He nodded, and she pulled the notebook towards her for a better look. Then she frowned thoughtfully.
Well, well! So Fred was trying to make himself some easy money, huh? An English Lord too. Well, members of the English aristocracy weren't exactly renowned for their brainpower and would have no knowledge of the mines hereabouts.
"You're sure about this? The lumps of ore were taken from Fred's pa's stamp mill? His friend Grayson owned the worked-out mine?"
Judkins nodded complacently. "Seen the title deeds m'self. Also saw Fred march into the mill in broad daylight and snatch up that ore before it reached the crusher. No one tried to stop him - boss's son and all that, it woulda been more'n their jobs were worth."
"High grade ore?"
"Yeah. Lord Murvagh's in for one helluva shock if he thinks his new silver mine's gonna cough up more of the same."
"Hmmm." Zee drummed her fingers on the table while she thought about Fred's mine salting activities. "His pa involved?"
"Alexander?" Judkins shook his head. "Stake my reputation he ain't."
She leaned back in her chair and finally allowed herself to smile.
"Reckon you were right." She pulled out the pouch containing the balance of his fee, and tossing it to him. "You did have something for me."
Christie put down the rolling pin, smoothed her apron, and went to open the kitchen door. A man was standing on her back porch, his shirt and trousers newly pressed, his tin star polished to a dazzle. He took off his hat.
"Afternoon, Miss Hayes."
"I've just heard the news. Is it true?"
She glanced quickly over the fence - no sign of Mrs. James. "I take it you're referring to Deputy Brodie?"
Agitated hands were crushing his hat, but he didn't seem to notice. "That's right. I can't believe she'd do something like this. Why, just the other day-"
"You'd better come in." She stood back to allow him over the threshold, and closed the kitchen door firmly behind him. Her decision was instinctive. This was one of Zee's friends and his distress was obvious. "No, it's not true."
Milligan blew out his breath. "Doggone it!" He pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down heavily, resting his hat in a sprinkling of flour on the kitchen table. "I knew it couldn't be. Kathy thought the same." He regarded her intently. "You two are still together then?"
"Yes." She took a chair opposite him and folded her hands in her lap. "We concocted the story to keep Fred from wanting to hurt Blue any more than he already has... It was my idea," she added.
Milligan shook his head. "I'm not sure this is wise, Miss Hayes. These days, Fred's a wild one. Partly the company he's been keeping, partly...." He shrugged and trailed off.
She sighed. "I'm sorry for my part in making Fred do this. I truly didn't intend to hurt him when I left him for Zee. Things just... turned out that way. But he's hurting my brother in revenge. I can't allow him to do that. And I don't believe Fred will physically injure me, for all that he hurt Zee."
He looked sombre. "Well, if Fred or his friends cross the line, you come get me, licketysplit. Understand?"
"And remember, if you need to confide in someone or just to see a friendly face, come round to our place. Kathy and me will always be glad to see you, no matter what the gossip is."
"Thank you. I appreciate that."
Milligan sighed. "It's a bad business about Blue's store, and that's a fact. But I can't touch anyone for it. Younger's within his rights to open up any kind of store anywhere he pleases."
"I know. But coming on top of losing Jenny... well, it was the final straw for Blue," said Christie.
"Jenny? Jenny Farnham, the blacksmith's daughter?" He looked thoughtful. "I knew she and Blue were walking out together, but I thought that was all over. She's to marry LeRoy, so they say."
"That's her father's idea." She tried to gauge his likely reaction to what she was about to reveal, but couldn't. With a mental shrug, she dived in. "She's carrying Blue's child."
The plump Sheriff whistled. "Is she now? So that's why they got her out of town double quick. Visiting relatives back East, hah!" He leaned back in his chair and regarded her steadily. "So what's Brodie's part in all this, Miss Hayes? And donít tell me she isn't up to something, because I've known her too long. You're here on your own, which means she's on the loose."
Christie gave him a rueful smile. "I'm not certain I should tell you, Sheriff. It's not exactly... lawful." Kidnapping a young woman? It certainly wasn't.
He sighed. "Why am I not surprised?"
She chose her words carefully. "What I can say is that, if everything goes to plan, Blue and Jenny will be back together again very soon."
He stroked his brown moustache while he thought long and hard, then came to his decision. "Guess that's all I need to know, then." He stood up, banged the worst of the flour from his hat then brushed ineffectually at the soiled brim with his sleeve muttering, "Kathy'll kill me!"
Christie escorted him to the back door, where he paused as if struck by something.
"The Arizona Hellcat playing Cupid. If that don't beat all! Must be your influence on her, Miss Hayes."
She thought about all Zee's loving gestures: the little sack of bulbs brought back from Yuma to replace those munched by Zee's horses, the turquoise bead necklace, the plush hotel suite in Phoenix where they had celebrated their 'honeymoon', not to mention buying The Old Barn for her....
"No, Sheriff. Zee always did have a romantic streak. She just never had much opportunity to show it."
The apple pie was baking in the stove, the beef roasting on the shelf beneath it, when her next caller arrived. The rail-thin woman at the front door was dressed all in black; her buttoned-to-the-neck dress had never been considered fashionable.
"Mrs Fair." Christie stared in dismay at the wife of the Presbyterian Minister.
"I came as soon as I heard, Miss Hayes. Now you have broken with that woman," Christie could almost hear the quotation marks, "all is not lost. You were bound for the fires and agonies of Hell, but it's not too late. Repent and Almighty God in all his mercy will forgive you."
"My husband is waiting at the church. Come with me now." The other woman reached out a black gloved hand, which Christie avoided by taking a step back.
Christie had once had the misfortune to sit through one of Rev. Fair's sermons, and she had no intention of repeating the experience. It had been neither instructional nor edifying, indeed the austere minister seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with applesauce that was beginning to ferment - 'a temptation of Satan', he called it.
"This is your chance to turn the page, to start a new chapter, Miss Hayes," urged her unwelcome visitor. "One devoid of the sins of the flesh, of drunkenness and debauchery...."
Christie's eyebrows rose. Emily Fair's own personal life clearly wasn't enough for her, if she had to satisfy her fantasies imagining other people's in so lurid a manner. "No thank you," she said firmly.
"I beg your pardon?" The thin woman gaped at her. "Have you no care for your immortal soul, Miss Hayes?"
"Of course I have. But I will make my own peace with God in my own way. Please do thank your husband for his concern though. Now, I am sorry, but I am very busy at present...." And with that Christie stepped back and closed the door firmly in the annoying woman's face.
Christie didn't mention her visitors to her brother when they were eating supper that night. He'd had another disastrous day at the draper shop, and the conversation, such as it was, was punctuated by long, gloomy silences.
"It'll be all right in the end, Blue, you'll see," she reassured him for the umpteenth time, hoping to God she was right. "Zee will get Jenny back for you, and then, if you want, you can leave Contention, start again elsewhere."
He grunted and pushed his half-eaten slice of beef round the plate. She resisted the urge to shake some sense into that stubborn blond head of his. Lingering resentment against the Deputy and lack of faith in anyone, especially the Arizona Hellcat, had made it difficult for him to be other than pessimistic these days, she conceded. Time alone would prove that her faith in Zee was justified.
If only the annoying woman would send her a telegram to let her know how things were going. It would be no easy thing spiriting off a pregnant girl.
The fact that Blue had a baby on the way still shocked Christie, though she was not quite sure why - perhaps it was just that a sister didn't like to imagine her brother being active in 'that' way. That their relationship had progressed so swiftly, and that they had been so careless! It was understandable though. Perhaps it had simply been for them the way it was between her and Zee, and passion had overwhelmed all good sense and reserve. She smiled, remembering how, shy and inexperienced as she was, she had practically flung herself at the tall woman in that noisy little bedroom in Angie's Palace.
Blue put down his knife and fork and stood up, his scraping chair jarring her back to the present.
"I'm tired, Sis. Think I'll go to bed."
"All right." She kissed him on a stubbly cheek and began to collect up the used cutlery and plates. As she washed and rinsed the dirty crockery, she suddenly realised something and her eyes widened. My goodness! I'll be an aunt. And so will Zee.
It was fun to speculate how the deputy would react when she heard the news. Christie's amusement turned to a deep longing though, as she put the last of the plates away. She felt an almost physical craving for her lover's touch and an ache at the thought it was beyond her reach.
As she made her way up the stairs, the thought of spending yet another night alone in that cramped bed actually brought tears to her eyes.
"This does no one any good and what's more it's ridiculous," she told herself sternly. "So just buck up your ideas, girl, and get on with it."
She dried her eyes on the washcloth and briskly prepared for bed, certain that sleep would be beyond her. But in the event, she was so tired, both physically and mentally, after the events of the day, she was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow....
Christie closed the door behind her, hiding her brother's doleful countenance from view, and set off down Commercial Street. She had spent the morning at Kathy Milligan's, talking mostly about Zee, she realised with slightly mortified hindsight, and then on the way home had dropped by Blue's shop, to check he had eaten all of the lunch she had packed for him.
She glanced at the bustling store opposite her brother's deserted establishment with something like hatred. Was it her fault that Fred had turned out to be so despicable? Or had he been that way all along and she had just not recognised it? The thought of what marriage to him could have been like made her blood run cold. Thank heavens Zee had come along when she did!
"Well, well, well. If it isn't the Hellcat's little whore," came a familiar voice.
For a moment, she though she has somehow conjured up the object of her ruminations, and she turned fearful of what she might find. It was a dapper little man not a demon, of course, but his smile had a diabolical edge to it.
"Good afternoon, Fred."
"So. You've come back to Contention with your tail between your legs, have you, Christie?" He fingered his neatly trimmed beard and exchanged a sly glance with the two men accompanying him. "Thatís not all she's had between her legs, if I'm any judge."
His indelicate language shocked her; he had never treated her this way before. Her heart was threatening to pound out of her chest, and she took a deep breath to steady herself.
Several of the townsfolk had halted and were observing this encounter eagerly. And why not? They had heard the gossip, and Mrs. Chase and Mrs. Fair had no doubt embroidered it further. They would relish the treatment Fred was meting out. After all, Christie had broken the rules, first in eloping with a woman once notorious as an outlaw, and second in returning home unrepentant - a public humiliation was her just desert.
Stick and stones, she told herself. I knew this would happen. I'm ready for it. "I've come back to look after Blue."
"Ah yes, your brother. And how is Bluford?" His smile was malicious.
She bit her lip before replying "As well as can be expected, given the circumstances."
"You have no idea how it has pained me, pained all of us," Fred exchanged another look with his friends, "to see Bluford brought so low."
"You are wrong," she said coolly. "I have a very clear idea."
This rejoinder made him blink, then he frowned. "Your brother should simply close that store of his. There are plenty of other men, better men, who could make a go of such a business, even if Blue is incapable of it."
She wondered if he could hear her teeth grinding. "No one could tell, to hear you talk that way, that you once considered him your friend. But I have no wish to discuss my brother's affairs with you. Good afternoon, Mr. Younger." She turned and made to walk on. But somehow Fred was there, blocking her way. She blinked and came to a halt.
"I'm to be married, you know," he said, conversationally.
"Congratulations. Do I know your intended?"
"I shouldn't think so. Cecilia moves in quite different circles from those you frequent." His lip curled.
In spite of herself, she asked, "Cecilia?"
"The Eldest daughter of Colonel Fremont." He preened himself. If the occasion hadn't been so fraught, she would have found his smugness amusing. "She is a much more suitable match," he continued, "than you would ever have been. She is beautiful, refined, wealthy...."
"Then I wish you both much joy and happiness." She was sincere in her good wishes. If it would heal the harm she had caused him, assuage the bitterness he so obviously still felt....
"And there is absolutely not the slightest likelihood," he continued, "that she will lose all sense of decency and decorum and go off with an unnatural she-devil who should be hanged from the nearest gallows."
"You tell her, Fred," shouted the leaner of his two companions. The other man guffawed loudly.
Christie had just about had enough of this game of cat and mouse. She moved forward, only to be blocked by Fred once more. "Please," she said, wishing Sheriff Milligan was nearby. "Let me pass."
"My dear," came a woman's loud voice, startling both of them, "I can't wait all day. You promised to give me directions. Will you come now or must I find my way alone?"
Christie turned to see who the voice belonged to, and Fred did likewise. A horse and four-seater buggy had stopped nearby, and its owner, an impressive looking woman wearing a black habit, veil, and pleated cape, was leaning out of it. To Christie's immense surprise, the woman seemed to be addressing her.
She vaguely recognised the outfit. What's a Sister of Charity doing here? "I beg your pardon?"
"Come, child." The nun beckoned.
Though she had no idea what the woman wanted, it was too good a chance to miss. Christie nodded stiffly at the discomfited Fred, and pushed her way past him towards the buggy.
The hand that helped her up was strong and careworn, she noticed. She let herself be seated comfortable beside the driver, deliberately ignoring the bystanders who were goggling at her.
"Walk on," said the nun, and the buggy rolled forward. The horse had gone but a few paces when she said gently, "Are you all right, my dear?"
Christie turned and blinked at her rescuer. Kind, grey eyes looked back at her.
"I'm... well, thank you. But I think you must have mistaken me for someone else."
"That's unlikely." The Sister of Charity put a finger to her lips and donned a thoughtful expression. ''Small, pretty, long blonde hair, green eyes, likely to be in some trouble or other...."
Christie's indignant protest died away when she saw the twinkle in the other woman's eyes. A suspicion began to form.
"'... answers to the name 'Christie Hayes'," finished the nun. "Have I missed anything out?"
"Do you know Zee Brodie? Who are you?"
"Sister Florence, currently in charge of the Willows Orphanage, at your service. And yes, I have had the pleasure of Deputy Brodie's acquaintance." They had come to a junction, and the Sister reined the horse to a halt and looked perplexedly about her. "But I really do need directions, Miss Hayes. I am unfamiliar with Contention. Which way is it to Blue's house?"
A dazed Christie pointed out the way.
"Zee sent you?" They were in Blue's parlour, drinking a reviving cup of tea from the best china, and Christie's heartbeat had as last calmed to something near normal.
"No, child. I had to bring Jenny Farnham's aunt home. Mrs. Archer is very distraught at having lost her charge. And so is Mr. Farnham. They blame my establishment for its lax security, and I fear they may be right. I shall have to refund their donation and say forty Hail Marys as penance." Sister Florence seemed surprisingly cheerful at the prospect.
"'Lost'?" queried Christie, holding her breath.
"Yes. It seems that Jenny unaccountably went missing in the night. Mrs. Archer fears some demon bent on evil intent spirited the girl away, and she said as much to the Fairbank Sheriff." Grey eyes flicked to Christie's face then away again.
Christie's heart sank. "The Fairbank Sheriff is involved?"
"Nominally. Sheriff Powell is an old friend of mind. It is my opinion that the girl simply ran away, and I told him so. It happens, on rare occasions, when a girl is held against her will. I do not think he will be pursuing the case with his usual vigour."
"I see." She breathed a sigh of relief. So Zee's plan had worked. But where was the deputy now?
"I thought you might." The nun smiled. "And so, since I was already in Contention anyway, I thought I might as well call on you."
"I'm very glad you did."
Sister Florence gave her a sympathetic glance. "That unpleasant young man with the beard was your ex-fianc»?"
"Yes and no." Christie sighed. "Fred's not the man I knew. He's become bitter and cruel. I don't think he would have hurt me, but I certainly wasn't enjoying our encounter. Thank you so much for rescuing me."
"You're welcome." The nun finished her tea and stood up. "Well, time is getting on and I have a long way to travel today. I must be on my way."
Christie nodded and accompanied her unusual guest out front where the horse and buggy were waiting. Several bystanders had gathered to speculate about the vehicle's owner. When they saw the black habit and veil, their eyes bulged and they conferred excitedly before hurrying away. Christie suppressed a laugh. More food for the gossips.
The horse had finished up its water, and Christie retrieved the pail she had filled then helped Sister Florence up into the driving seat.
"I'm sorry to have missed your brother, Miss Hayes," said the nun, gathering the reins. "Will you tell him that, though I have no knowledge of her present whereabouts, when I last saw his Jenny, she was in good health and spirits? I am sure he will be hearing from her soon."
Christie nodded. "I will." She paused and debated whether to ask about Zee. "And, er... Deputy Brodie?"
Florence winked. "Better keep a lamp burning in your window tonight, Miss Hayes. If I'm any judge of character, you can expect a visit of the romantic kind.... Walk on, boy."
By the time Christie had picked her jaw up off the ground, the nun had flicked the reins and driven away.
The sash window squeaked then jammed, and Zee froze. It wasn't much of a squeak, but in the midnight silence it had sounded deafening.
She waited, expecting the rhythm of soft breathing coming from the interior to alter... it didn't.
Been creeping into too many women's bedrooms lately. Hope this is the last!>
She eyed the gap between the partially raised window and the ledge. It would be a tight squeeze, but it might do. She took off her hat and threw it inside, then went through head first, wincing as the ledge pressed into her ribs. Taking her weight on her gloved hands she did a controlled roll, coming to her feet in one smooth movement and scanning her surroundings.
The single bed was against the small room's far wall, and she crossed to it in two silent strides and knelt beside its head. Christie's face looked peaceful in repose. The blonde hair fanning out around her on the pillow gave the impression of an angel.
Zee smiled, pulled off her gloves, and leaned towards the other woman. "Hey, Darlin'," she whispered, placing her hand gently over Christie's mouth and feeling the warm breath on her palm.
Eyelids fluttered open instantly, and wide eyes stared up at her. Lips mouthed something against her palm. She removed her hand.
"Zee!" shrieked Christie, sitting up and throwing her arms around her in an enthusiastic hug.
So much for keeping the noise down, thought Zee, before soft lips pressed against hers, a tongue sought entrance to her mouth, and she couldn't think of anything much anymore....
The bedroom door crashed open. "Are you all right, Christie? I heard - What in God's name? Get the Hell away from my sister, you sonofabitch!"
Reluctantly, the two women broke the passionate kiss and turned, still short of breath, to regard the figure standing silhouetted in the doorway. Even in the relative darkness, Zee could tell a shotgun was pointing straight at her chest.
"Blue?" croaked Christie. She cleared her throat and tried again. "It's all right, Blue. It's Zee."
"What?" Disappearing abruptly from view, he reappeared moments later clutching a lantern. He shoved it forward so the light fell directly on Zee.
"Howdy, Blue." She shaded her eyes against the glare.
"Brodie." His voice was flat. "What are you doing with my sister?"
She stood up, and folded her arms across her chest. "What does it look like?"
A blush stole over his face. "Oh!" They regarded one another steadily, neither willing to be the first to look away. Christie's gaze seesawed anxiously between the two of them.
"Will you stop pointing that thing at me? Itís getting to be a habit."
He blinked, looked down at the shotgun as though wondering how it had got there, then placed it carefully on the floor.
"Much obliged." Zee unfolded her arms and perched on the edge of Christie's bed. A small hand slipped into hers; she squeezed it gently. "Didn't mean to wake the whole household, but since you're here, Blue...." She reached her free hand inside her vest pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and held it towards him.
He stepped forward and took it from her. "What's this?"
"Directions. To Angie's Palace. Jenny's waiting for you there."
She rolled her eyes. "The Blacksmith's daughter. Attractive girl. Belly out to here?" She ignored Christie's poke in the back.
"I know who she is!" Blue flushed. "But she made it clear she doesn't want me. She's going to marry Andrew LeRoy."
Zee turned to Christie. "Was this greenhorn dropped on his head as a baby?" Which got her another poke and a whispered, "Zee! Be nice."
"Look," she said, as patiently as she was able - the feel and scent of her lover was making her itch to do things she shouldn't while Christie's brother was present. "Farnham hornswoggled the both of you real good. Told you Jenny wanted to marry someone else. Told her you didn't want a baby complicatin' your life."
Blue's jaw worked, and the lantern light reflected off unshed tears. "She thought I didn't want her?" His voice was barely audible.
Zee breathed a sigh of relief. Finally! "That's right." She gentled her voice. "But she knows better now. And she's waiting for you, in Benson." When the stunned man still showed no inclination to move, she added, "Thought you might need a horse. It's in the garden...."
"But the... the store...." His was like a man coming awake after a nightmare, unsure whether it was finally over..
"Forget about the store," came Christie's soft voice. "Zee and I will arrange something, won't we?"
She became aware the blonde was looking at her enquiringly. "Sure."
"Go on, Blue. Go to her," urged his sister. "What are you waiting for?"
The transformation had continued while they spoke. Blue's shoulders no longer slumped, his eyes were bright. "She's in Benson and she wants me?" His voice was questioning, almost shy.
He reread the note again slowly, twice, then beamed from ear to ear. "Sonofabitch! She's in Benson and she wants me!"
The two women exchanged a wry glance. "Reckon he's got it," said Zee.
"A horse, you said?"
"Yeah. A grey. In your back garden." She gave Christie a sidelong glance. "Probably eating your flowers.... Ow!" She rubbed her back and pouted.
A madly grinning Blue was already turning, almost tripping over the shotgun in his haste to get going. The door slammed closed behind him.
"Manners!" Christie shook her head. "On Blue's behalf, Iíd like to say thank you."
Zee grinned. "It's all right, Darlin'. I'll take it as read." She turned and pulled Christie towards her. "Alone at last. Now. Where were we?"
"Right here, I believe. Mmmf!"
Absently Zee registered the sound of drawers opening and closing in another bedroom, followed by footsteps thundering down the stairs. The back door crashed open and shut, and in the back garden a horse whinnied.
A thought struck her and she broke the kiss. "And make sure you marry the girl," she yelled.
"I will," came Blue's faint reply.
Eager, soft lips reclaimed Zee's and she laughed and rolled onto her back, stretching her legs out on the tiny bed and pulling Christie on top of her.
She neither noticed nor cared when the sound of hoofbeats finally faded into the distance.
Zee yawned, squinted against the bright sunlight, and listened to the sounds of Contention waking up. Through the still half-open bedroom window drifted the clipclop of a horse going past, the rumble of a buggy's wheels, a shouted "Good Morning,"....
She stretched, careful not to disturb the sleeping woman draped over her, then glanced down at the blonde head nestled against her breast. Her gaze travelled further, lingering pleasantly on downy, pale skin, on the curve of a shoulder, the tapered waist, the swelling buttocks.... Her own feet shattered the vision of loveliness. They were jutting over the end of the tiny bed. Damn! Got another hole in my sock. She wiggled the offending big toe, and yawned again.
It was long past their usual getting up time, but she felt no urge to rise. Last night's, or rather this morning's, exertions had tuckered her out. They had made love twice, pent up passion making the first time fast and furious and causing them both to cry out - partly, in Zee's case, because she had aggravated her ribs. Later, they had taken things more slowly and tenderly, but still reached an intensity that left Zee shaking and Christie tearful and in need of much cradling.
She drew a circle with her index finger on a naked back that simply begged to be touched - Christie's nightdress had ended up on the far side of the room, along with Zee's boots and most of her clothes - and the blonde gave a contented sigh and snuggled closer.
"We should probably get up," came Christie's muffled voice, her breath warm on Zee's breast.
"Hey, that tickles!"
"What does?" A tousled blonde head lifted and green eyes regarded her drowsily.
Christie blinked, then awareness of her situation dawned and a wicked smile curved her lips. "This?" White teeth bit Zee's nipple, and she nearly shot off the bed.
The blonde seemed to take this oath as an invitation to an all out wrestling match, and it was a little while before Zee managed to pin her arms, and more importantly, her nimble fingers, without hurting her.
"Enough, Darlin', please," she begged. "My ribs are still sore from last night."
Christie's eyebrows shot up, then she blushed. "Sorry, Zee. I forgot. Do they hurt much?"
"Only when I laugh." Zee released her grip, and Christie sat up and immediately began to examine the battered bandage round her ribs, which was coming adrift. She took the opportunity to admire the blonde's pert breasts.
"This needs changing, Zee."
The Deputy grunted. "Later. Got other things to do this morning."
"Take care of Fred." Christie's face fell at the mention of her ex-fianc»s name, and Zee studied her carefully. "Want to tell me about it?"
The blonde sighed. "To be honest, I think the best thing Blue and I can do is leave Contention altogether. Fred is never going to forgive me for what I did to him. That much is clear."
Zee pursed her lips. "Oh, I think we can do better than that.".
Christie's surprised look gave way to a mixture of curiosity and annoyance. "Have you finally got something you can hold over him, Zee? Because if you have and you haven't told me, and I've been through all this humiliation unnecessarily, I'll-"
"You'll what?" interrupted Zee unwisely. "Tickle me to death? Mmmmf!"
She removed the pillow that Christie had thrust in her face. "All right, all right. I would have told you earlier, Darlin', only we had much more interestin' things on our minds."
"I'm listening." Christie drummed her fingers pointedly on her thigh.
"It seems that Fred has set himself up in the mine salting business."
"He's defrauded someone?"
Zee nodded. "Used high grade ore from his father's mill to make it look like a clapped out silvermine is a going concern. Sold it to an English greenhorn with more money than sense."
Green eyes clouded. "I never thought he'd go this far, Zee. What's the matter with him? He has everything he could want: friends, wealth, connections.... And he's just got engaged to Colonel Fremont's daughter, Cecilia. Why would he risk all that?"
Zee kissed her on the nose. "Not everything," she corrected gently. "He ain't got you, has he?"
Christie tidied away the breakfast things and regarded Zee quizzically. The Deputy had her feet up on the kitchen table and was leafing through an illustrated 'erotic handbook' that Christie had purchased via mail order and then been too apprehensive to open.
When Zee had found the racy book in Christie's underwear drawer (what she was doing in there, heaven knows!) Christie's face had burned with embarrassment. But rather than being shocked or laughing at her, Zee had chucked her gently under the chin and settled down to read it. Christie suspected that Blue's reaction would have been considerably different.
Zee turned the book sideways. "Good Lord! Is that physically possible?" A dark eyebrow rose in mock astonishment. "The things you read, Miss Hayes! Are you sure this hasn't corrupted you?"
She flicked the tea towel playfully at the other woman, but Zee ducked it easily. "Of course it has. Why else do you think I ran off with you?"
"My good looks and charm?"
"That must be it, of course. Silly me."
Zee turned another page. "Maybe we should try that?" Pale blue eyes twinkled at Christie as curiosity got the better of her and she leaned over to check the illustration.
Her cheeks heated. "Um. I'd rather not."
Zee laughed and winked. "Just teasin'." She patted Christie on the rear. "Shame though. Looks rather pleasurable."
Christie simply looked at her lover, and Zee held up her hands. "All right, all right!"
She closed the slender volume and threw it aside, then stood up and stretched, a wince crossing her face momentarily.
"Your ribs?" Christie took off her apron and folded it.
"They're fine. C'mon. Let's get this cattle drive started."
Christie sighed. She had wanted to accompany Zee when she confronted Fred's father, but Zee wasnít having it
"You'd be walking into the lion's den, Darlin'," she'd said bluntly. "You told me you weren't that popular with his folks when you were their prospective daughter-in-law. How do you think they'll feel about you now?"
"And if Fred and his cronies are there...." Zee had pulled the disappointed Christie close and stroked her hair. "It ain't safe for you. Let me handle this, Darlin'. Let me put a spoke in his wheel he can't pull out. If nothin' else, I owe him for the whuppin' he gave me."
So she had sighed but reluctantly agreed to mind Blue's store instead.
Zee reached for her boots and pulled them on, then regarded Christie critically. "You going into town like that?" She buckled her gun belt and settled it more comfortably on her hips.
"What's wrong with it?"
Zee ran a hand through black cropped hair and grinned widely. "Not a thing. Can tell you left off your corset though."
Christie looked down at herself and blushed. Zee's arrival had upset her recently established routine and she had automatically dressed the way she did while in Benson. "No one else will be looking at me the way you do!"
"Don't bet on it."
She hesitated, then shrugged. People were going to be scandalised as it was, what did one more thing matter? Jutting her jaw a little, she grabbed her bonnet and tied the ribbons under her chin.
Zee crammed her own hat on her head and reached for her gloves. "Got everything you need?"
Christie draped her shawl round her shoulders, checked that the keys to Blue's store were in her reticule, and nodded.
Well, this is certainly interesting, reflected Christie ruefully, and an experience I am in no hurry to repeat.>
She was walking into town, her head up and shoulders back, trying simultaneously to ignore the shocked looks and frowns coming their way and to keep up with Zee's long-legged stride.
"Sorry," murmured her lover, slowing her pace. "That better?"
"Much. Thank you."
Being seen with Zee was certainly sorting out who Christie's real friends were. She watched Mrs. McPherson step off the sidewalk and pointedly cross the street. That makes three.>
"Is it me they object to, or you, or that we are back together again?" she whispered.
"Does it matter?"
"Not really." But she regarded Zee with new eyes. The ex-outlaw's past meant she had to put up with this kind of reaction all the time.
It was just their luck that the one person Christie wanted to ignore them was making a beeline for them.
Contention's chief gossip spoke when she was still a few yards away. "Good Morning, Miss Hayes." Black eyes gleamed as they turned towards Zee. "I donít believe we've been introduced. I'm Cora Chase."
"Deputy Brodie." Zee tipped her hat politely but kept on walking, her gloved hand under Christie's elbow making sure she did the same. The plump woman was forced to get out of the way or be mowed down. Wisely, she chose to step aside.
"Nice meetin' you," called back Zee to the blue-clad figure now gazing frustratedly after them.
Christie suppressed a snort. "That was unkind."
Zee turned to look at her. "Did you want to talk to her?"
Up ahead, a thin woman in a button-to-the neck black dress had appeared. At the sight of the two of them, she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Her eyes widened and she put a hand to her mouth, then she crossed herself and fled back the way she had come.
"Somethin' I said?"
"Wife of the Presbyterian Minister," explained Christie. "She was shocked by what Iíd done, so she probably thinks you're the Devil incarnate."
Zee grinned. "I'm workin' on it."
"Hey, Deputy Brodie... Miss Hayes," came a man's voice from behind. "Wait a minute, won't you?"
The tall woman came to a halt and turned round. "Howdy, George."
Zee put out her hand, and Christie turned in time to see Sheriff Milligan clasp it. She smiled at him and he tipped his hat to her.
"Giving our sheltered townsfolk something to talk about?" He fell into step beside them as they picked up the pace once more and headed towards Commercial Street.
"Guess so." Zee glanced slyly at Christie. "All we need is a nun. But she went home. Ain't that right, Darlin'?"
Christie's cheeks warmed but she simply smiled and shook her head at the incorrigible Deputy. Milligan gave them both a baffled look. "Er... yes, well, so, where are you two off to?"
"I'm minding the store," said Christie.
He blinked. "Blue ill?"
"No, he's gone to Benson."
"And I'm off to see Fred's Pa," chipped in Zee. "Tell him a few home truths about his son."
The sheriff's brow creased. "He ain't gonna like that. Need any help?"
"No thanks, George." Zee patted the butt of one colt. "Got all the help I need right here."
"Well, if you're sure...." He turned to Christie. "Does your brother have business in Benson, Miss Hayes?"
She opened her mouth, but Zee beat her to the draw. "Gone to see a girl about a weddin'," she said succinctly.
Milligan blinked. "Jenny Farnham?"
"Last I heard she'd gone missing."
"Really?" Zee brushed a speck of something from a glove. "Last I heard, she'd turned up."
Milligan looked at her then at Christie. He stroked his brown moustache. "Had she now?"
"Seems so." Zee gave him her butter-wouldn't-melt smile and Christie muffled a laugh.
He opened his mouth to ask another question, then thought better of it and closed it again. "Pass on my good wishes to the young couple when next you see them, will you?"
They had reached Blue's store, and now halted outside it. Milligan tipped his hat to both women and disappeared in the direction of the jail.
Christie opened her reticule and searched for the bunch of keys. Examining each in turn, she slid the correct one into the front door's lock. It turned stiffly, making a grating noise. She made a mental note to oil it then paused and looked up at Zee.
"Are you coming in?"
The Deputy shook her head. "Sooner I deal with Younger, the sooner we can go back to Benson."
"I'd like that too," said Christie, meaning it. "Contention just doesn't feel like home any more." The remark obviously pleased Zee though she didn't comment on it.
"Be back as soon as I can, Darlin'."
"Are you sure I can't come with you?"
"I know, I know," said Christie testily. "I'm as popular with the Youngers as horse dung on Fred's high-heeled shoes!"
Zee blinked then grinned. "Such language, Miss Hayes! You've been spending too much time with Angie's girls.... At least this piece of dung," she indicated herself, "has something to guarantee her a hearing." She patted her gun butt.
"You'll be careful?"
Zee raised Christie's gloved hand to her mouth and pressed her lips to it. "Ain't I always?"
Christie sighed. "Thatís what I'm afraid of."
The doorbell tinkled and Christie looked up from the bolt of serge she was straightening. Sheriff Milligan was standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the bright sunshine.
"Just checking you're all right, Miss Hayes."
"I'm fine." She blinked at him, puzzled. "What time is it?"
Where had the time gone? And why hadn't Zee returned yet?
He came further into the shop. "I walked past the Younger house. No sign of a disturbance."
What was Zee doing in there - playing checkers? "I suppose that's a good thing."
He nodded. "Well. Since you're sure you're all right." He tipped his hat. "I'll be on my way."
"Thanks, Sheriff. It was kind of you to look in on me."
When he'd gone, Christie tried to picture Zee talking to the wealthy mill owner in the library - Fred had once told her his father had read none of the books on his shelves; he purchased them by the yard. A setting like that would surely make Zee feel ill at ease. She thought about that for a bit then corrected herself. No. Zee would feel at home anywhere. It was Christie herself who would feel ill at ease.
When Fred was still on his best behaviour and trying to impress her, she had visited the Younger mansion several times. It wasn't a home, more a gloomy museum. Four times as large as the house she shared with Blue, its numerous rooms were stuffed with high quality furniture from San Francisco. Every surface boasted crystal vases and fragile ornaments (Caroline Younger always referred to them as 'objets d'art') which had been shipped over from Europe. Christie had always been terrified she would break something.
It wasn't just her own feelings of inadequacy, she realised with hindsight, it was the supercilious way in which Fred's family had treated her. Once, she asked if she might play their wonderful grand piano (hers was a little upright instrument, whose timbre couldn't compare), but his mother had flat out refused. Caroline Younger gave no reason, but Christie suspected she thought her future daughter-in-law's indelicate thumping would force the instrument to go too quickly out of tune.
She ground her teeth as she remembered the countless humiliations, the constant nagging. Fred, his snobbish sister Julia, his mother... everyone except his father, who was always in the library discussing matters of business of one kind or another, was always offering her unwanted pieces of 'advice'.
"Really, Christie. Why are your clothes are always so unfashionable? Here, look at the latest Godey's Lady's Book."
"You really should do something with your hair. A hair piece would be much more the thing."
"We donít use such a common term in this family, we say...."
"Christie, you are standing like a milkmaid! Stand up straight, and try to look more refined." ...
If she was so beneath them, why on earth had Fred asked her to marry him? Because he intended to mould me into something else.>
It was a minor revelation and one which made her appreciate the absent Deputy all the more. Fred's family had never accepted her for who she was. Right from the start, Zee had. >
Zee halted at the end of the drive and winced. Christie hadn't warned her that Alexander Younger (or his architect) was an aficionado of the Gothic Revival style now sweeping the West. Arched windows and doorways and a steeply gabled roof might suit a church, but on a residential house in an Arizona mining town they looked ridiculous.
It was also probably no coincidence that Younger had built his house here in the wealthy part of Contention, as far from his ore mill as possible. No choking dust, no rumbling day and night of the huge presses grinding the silver ore could be allowed to disturb his rest, she thought sourly
She continued up the drive. A lace curtain at one window twitched. Someone's home.
Mounting the step up to the front porch, she reached for the brass knocker. Before she could grasp it, the solid oak door opened.
"May I help you?" The mousy young woman was wearing a black and white maid's uniform.
Zee took off her hat. "Mr. Younger, please. Mr. Alexander Younger. He at home?"
"Who is at the door, Nellie?" The man's voice was muffled but familiar.
The maid turned her head and spoke to someone in the hall. "A visitor for Mr. Younger, Sir."
"I'll take care of it."
Nellie's brows drew together, but obediently she stood aside. A dapper little man with a Van Dyke beard took her place.
"Brodie! What the devil do you want?"
"With you, Fred? Nothin'. With your father? Reckon that's between him and me."
"Clear off." Ignoring the protests from the shocked maid, he slammed the door in Zee's face... or tried to. She had already stuck her booted foot in the gap. For a short and slightly painful period, Fred continued to try to force the door closed, then he gave up and opened it again.
"Now that ain't what I call hospitable," chided Zee.
"Damned if I'm going to let the Hellcat into my house!"
"Your house?" Pressing her palm flat against the middle of his chest, she simply pushed him backwards, out of her way, and stepped into the hall.
The maid was regarding the two of them with wide eyes.
Zee plucked the note she had written earlier from her vest pocket, and held it out. "Be mighty obliged, Nellie, if you'd give this to your employer. It explains the business I'm here to discuss." A male hand grabbed her right biceps but she shook it off.
"Do no such thing, girl," said Fred. "This... 'person' is leaving, or I will have her thrown out."
Zee laughed, crossed to a chair and sat down. "Yeah? Just try it!" She placed her upturned hat on the table beside the chair, then pulled off her gloves finger by finger and dropped them into it.
The maid hadn't moved. Her gaze kept flicking uncertainly between Zee, Fred, and the piece of paper held in her fingers.
"Mr. Younger will agree to see me," said Zee, "once he reads my note."
"What is all this commotion?" A female voice wafted down from the top of the stairs and they all turned to regard the woman descending towards them. Her gaze fell on Zee, taking in her male attire and the tin star pinned to her vest. "And who is this?"
"Name's Deputy Brodie," said Zee. The new arrival's expression was disapproving, her clothes expensive and up-to-the-minute. Her air was proprietorial, but she seemed too young to be Alexander Younger's wife. It must be Fred's sister, Julia. "I'm here to see your father."
"Deputy Br-. The one who stole Fred's silly little fianc»e?" Zee bridled at this unflattering characterisation of Christie but kept her thoughts to herself. "See my father? About what, may I ask?"
Footsteps sounded down the hall and somewhere a door opened and closed.
"As I was just telling your brother, that's between- " She paused as Fred belatedly noticed that the little maid had taken advantage of the distraction to slip away.
"Come back, Nellie. I thought I told you- " With a face like thunder, he darted off.
While Julia gaped after her brother, Zee studied the paintings on the wall opposite her. Old Masters presumably; worth a few dollars, but far too dark and gloomy for her taste. She preferred landscapes or horses; Christie liked cheerful pictures - dogs, children, that kind of thing. Each to their own. Madam Angie favoured imported erotic prints. Zee had always preferred doing to watching. That little book of Christie's had given her a few ideas....
A shadow fell over her, and she looked up to find Julia frowning down at her.
"Yes?" she said mildly.
"I think you should leave. Now."
"That's queer. So does your brother. But I'll leave when I've talked to your father."
"He won't talk to you. He knows who you are. What you are. And what you did to Fred, to our family. You are not welcome in this house."
Zee shrugged. "Let him tell me that himself and I'll go."
Somewhere in the interior, a door opened, and heavy footsteps approached. Zee squinted through the gloom. A large, rather overweight man came into sight at the end of the hall. Close behind him, gesturing and protesting, was Fred. She stood up and reached for her hat.
"Deputy Zee Brodie?" The large man, who favoured oldfashioned whiskers, stopped in front of her. His gaze was difficult to fathom - hostility and curiosity combined.
"That's me." She held out a hand; he looked at it for a moment then shook it. "Alexander Younger, I presume."
A spluttering sound came from Julia's direction. Zee ignored her.
"Yes." Unlike his offspring, Younger senior was an imposing figure. His clothes were of the finest quality, conservatively cut. "Your note said you have some business to discuss. Come with me." He turned back the way he had come.
Fred's face was beet red. "But father, she's the one-"
The older man quelled him with a glance. "I know very well who she is, Fred." His eyes swivelled and found Zee again. "This way, Deputy."
Zee nodded, and, with one final smirk at the fuming Fred and Julia, followed.
He led her along the hall, towards a door at the far end then gestured for her to enter. She found herself in a large room that smelled strongly of tobacco; the shelves lining its walls groaned with leather-covered books. He closed the heavy door behind them, shutting out the distant sound of heated conversation between Fred and Julia.
"Sit." He skirted around her, took an armchair in front of the fireplace, currently unlit, and gestured at the other chair. She took it, trying to make herself comfortable, though its cushioned seat was so soft, she feared she might disappear into it, never to be seen again.
On an adjacent occasional table lay a silver handbell, and the note she had asked Nellie to give him. He took the bell and rang it. Moments later, the door opened and the maid came in.
"Some refreshments for our guest, Nellie." His gaze turned to Zee. "Tea? Coffee? Sherry? Lemonade?"
"Nothin' for me, thanks." She flashed a smile first at the maid then at her host. "But don't let me stop you."
He gestured dismissively. "None for me. That will be all." Nellie bobbed a curtsey and exited.
Alone once more, they regarded one another steadily. The silence stretched.
Younger was the first to give in. He reached for the note lying on the table, and held it up. "Is this a threat?"
"It's a statement of fact."
His eyes narrowed. "This 'sensitive information' you say you have about my son.... What makes you think I mind whether it is made public or not?"
"Reckon you're a man who cares about his hard-won reputation." She raised an eyebrow. "Am I right?"
There was a long pause. "Yes," he said finally. "I would take a very dim view of anyone who tried to tarnish my good name."
"And if the tarnisher was your own son?"
He blinked, stood up, and began to pace in front of the fireplace. "Why should I believe your lies, Deputy Brodie? I know who you are. I know what you did to Fred, how you seduced Miss Hayes and corrupted her."
Zee examined a fingernail and resolutely ignored his slur against Christie
"For all I know," he continued, "this is just another continuation of your rivalry with Fred." He stopped pacing.
She looked up. "Mr. Younger. This ain't about my rivalry with Fred. It's about his hurtin' of me and mine. Frankly, nothin' would give me greater pleasure than to see him get his comeuppance. The man's mean as a rattler, and his friends ain't no better.... Pardon my plain speakin'."
Alexander Younger's cheeks had reddened, and she thought he was going to tell her to leave. But he got a grip on his temper, then said carefully, "I must confess, in recent times the boy has been a severe disappointment to me, as for his friends...." He trailed off and shook his head wearily. "But he's still my son." He resumed his seat.
She leaned forward. "That's why I've come here rather that going to Sheriff Milligan."
"Milligan?" His face paled. "Has Fred really done something to bring shame to my family?"
"You can substantiate this accusation?"
The fight seemed to go out of the old man then, and he sighed and leaned back in his armchair. "Very well." He steepled his fingers. "You'd better tell me all about it."
So she did....
Nellie put down the tray of drinks, cast a curious glance at her now white-faced employer, then scurried out. Alexander Younger picked up the half-full whiskey decanter, filled the two glasses on the tray, pushed one towards Zee, and drained the other dry.
While he refilled his glass, Zee sipped her drink appreciatively. It was hard to believe the smooth amber liquor bore the same name as that rotgut they served in The Golden Slipper.
The colour had just about returned to his cheeks when he finally spoke. "What will it take for you not to go public with this?"
A feeling of triumph surged through her, but she kept her poker face in place. "First," she ticked off the points on her fingers, "Lord Murvagh gets his money back. By now, he should know the silvermine Fred and his friends sold him is worthless. Reckon he'll be feelin' pretty damn foolish and more than willin' to keep it quiet if the sale is declared null and void."
Younger grunted. "Go on."
"Second. From now on, Fred stays out of Contention and Benson." She considered for a moment then amended it. "Hell, out of Arizona entirely works better. Crux of the matter is, he stays away from both Christie and Blue. He's caused the Hayes family enough grief."
His eyebrows shot up. "Fred's mother will object to not being able to see her son-"
"It's not negotiable." Zee's gaze was hard.
Anger flared behind his eyes, then faded, replaced by thoughtfulness. "I had been wondering whether Fred might not benefit from some time in Europe. Many young men have their horizons broadened by a Grand Tour." He stroked his whiskers. "It might also help him to get over Miss Hayes." He nodded, once, decisively. "I'll talk to Caroline about it."
"You do that. Third. The store Fred got you to open in Commercial Street, opposite Blue's drapers shop. It closes, today."
He scratched his whiskers then shrugged. "All right. Is that it?"
"No. One final condition. But I don't think it'll be hard to fulfil. You agree to put Blue up for membership of the Cactus Club. His name was proposed once before, but your son blackballed him and since then, with his business so bad...." He had the grace to look guilty. "With your personal backing, that shouldn't happen again."
Younger stood up and crossed to a bureau, opening it and retrieving a box of cigars. He brought it back to his seat, flipped open the lid and took one, then absently held it towards Zee. She helped herself to one - the finest Cuban tobacco, she noted happily. He raised an eyebrow as she tucked it in her vest pocket for later, but said nothing, busying himself clipping and lighting his own cigar. She waited impatiently, until thick smoke was curling towards the ceiling.
"Well. Is it a deal or ain't it?"
He blew out a smoke ring then nodded. "You've got yourself a deal, Deputy Brodie."
Christie was gazing out of the draper shop window when an officious-looking man reined his horse to a halt outside the busy store across the street. She watched him dismount, tether his horse to the hitching rail, then barge his way inside.
She was just turning away, when the store's customers began to file out onto the sidewalk, some red-faced and gesticulating. A 'closed' sign appeared in one of the windows. Then the rider emerged and rode away.
"Well!" she murmured, absently registering the tinkle of the doorbell. "Wonder what that was about."
"Ain't it obvious?"
She swung round. A tall woman in a checked shirt and Levis was standing in her doorway, a rather smug grin on her face. "Zee!" Christie beamed at her. "What took you so long?"
Zee closed the door behind her and advanced further into the shop. Christie threw herself at her and gave her a bearhug.
"Sorry." She relinquished her grip and stood back, scrutinising the other woman. "Are you all right? When you didn't come back...." She could see no evidence of injury.
"Yeah. Took me a while to find the Younger place, plus getting past Alexander's guarddogs slowed me up some. Saw him in the end though." She took Christie's elbow and guided her back to her station by the window. "Went like clockwork."
"He agreed to call Fred off?"
"See for yourself." Zee gestured, and Christie saw that shutters were now going up on the store across the street.
That rider must've been Younger's messenger. "Blue will be very happy to get his customers back."
An arm circled Christie's waist and she leaned into it then twisted and looked up at Zee. Talk about the cat that got the canary! She hid a grin.
Zee's smile dimmed. "Erm, Darlin'?"
"That couple is headed this way."
Christie returned her gaze outside, and saw that two of the thwarted customers - a roly-poly woman in a bustle and bonnet, and a beanpole of a man with a walrus moustache - were indeed crossing the street towards the draper's shop.
"Oh!" Quickly, she disentangled herself from Zee's embrace, tidied her hair as best she could, and straightened her apron. "Looks like we're about to get busy." She scuttled behind the counter and tried to look nonchalant.
"Can't you just put up the 'closed' sign-" Zee broke off as the door opened, tinkling the bell. She rolled her eyes, but Christie ignored her and smiled her best smile at the new arrivals.
"Good morning, Mrs. Munro, Mr. Munro. Nice to see you."
"Miss Hayes!" The fat woman's eyebrows had shot up. "Is Bluford not here today then?" Her husband's gaze slid over Zee, who was lounging against the counter, and then away again.
"No. He's not.... What may I get for you today?"
"Oh... er.... Three yards of dimity, if you please."
Christie ran her gaze along the shelves and grimaced. Blue kept the bolts of that particular corded-cotton material on the very top shelf. She would need the little stepladder from the back. "We have a good selection, of stripes and checks, as you can see. Which one would you like?"
Mrs. Munro pursed her lips. "I'm not sure. Could I see that one," she pointed to a pale-blue striped dimity, "and that one."
Christie nodded, and was turning to fetch the steps when a hand on her arm halted her. A tall figure eased past her.
"Allow me." Zee reached up and lifted down the bolts in question, placing the heavy rolls of fabric on the counter as though they weighed no more than thistledown.
Christie shot her a grateful smile and began to unroll the material for Mrs. Munro's inspection. "Thank you," she murmured as she brushed past Zee. The Deputy winked at her, and she felt her cheeks warm.
"So, Mrs. Munro." She spread out the pale-blue material. "What do you think?"
"Hmmm." A thumb and forefinger rubbed the material between them. "A good thickness," said the fat woman grudgingly. "But I don't know.... That pink...." She turned to her husband. "What do you think, dear? The blue or the pink?"
He shrugged and looked out the window. Choosing material was clearly women's work. His wife frowned then turned back to Christie. "The blue," she said. "I'll have the blue."
"Three yards you said?" Christie fetched some dressmaking shears, measured the material against the gauge glued along the counter's edge, then cut off a length. While Zee helpfully restored the bolts to their rightful places on the top shelf, she folded the length of blue dimity, wrapped it in some brown paper, and tied it neatly with string. There. She gave the parcel a satisfied glance. Even Blue couldn't fault that.
The price book was under the counter and she retrieved it and checked the cost. "That'll be four dollars fifty, please."
"How much?" Mrs. Munro looked outraged. "They were selling dimity for a dollar a yard across the street."
"Then perhaps you shoulda gone there," suggested Zee.
It was the first time she had addressed the roly-poly woman directly, and Mrs. Munro started, like a horse on hearing a rattlesnake's tail. Her husband promptly turned from viewing the street outside - the other store's disgruntled customers had dispersed - and came to stand protectively beside his wife.
Christie shot Zee a quelling look. "I'm very sorry if you think it's too much, Mrs. Munro. Blue costed it very carefully, and I know my brother - he wouldn't set a price that isn't fair."
The woman looked as though she was going to disagree, but a hard stare from Zee made her close her mouth and shuffle closer to her husband. "Very well." She opened her reticule and counted out the exact money. "But I shall have to think twice before recommending your establishment to my friends."
Christie took the money and put it in the empty till. "I'm very sorry to hear that," she said diplomatically.
Mrs. Munro sniffed, tucked her brown paper parcel under one arm, and marched out of the shop, her husband giving Zee a wary look before following her.
As the door swung slowly closed behind them, Zee called a sarcastic, "Pleasure doing business with you." Then she vaulted over the counter, locked the door, and flipped the sign in the window round to say 'Closed'.
Christie rolled her eyes. "What are you doing? It's not even lunchtime yet and-"
"Far as I'm concerned, it's time to go home." The dark-haired woman strolled back towards her.
"But what about the store?"
Zee leaned her elbows on the counter, bringing herself face to face with Christie. "We didn't come to Contention so you can run Blue's shop."
"But-" A sloppy wet kiss on the nose stopped her. "Zee!" She blushed and wiped her nose dry with one hand.
Zee grinned and straightened up. "I'll ask Milligan to keep an eye on the place until Blue gets back. And if your brother wants to stay in Benson awhile longer, he can telegraph a friend, get him to run the store in his absence."
Christie pursed her lips and considered that. The store was Blue's responsibility, she realised. She and Zee had their own lives to lead. And she very much wanted them both to get back to them.
"You're right," she said, undoing her apron and hanging it on a hook. "I'll close up."
"That's my girl!"
As is always the way, it took far less time to pack for the return trip to Benson than it had for the trip out. There was no careful selecting of items that might be needed, it was just a case of spotting things that didn't belong in Blue's house and stowing them in the luggage. Even so, it took Christie longer than a fidgety Zee wanted.
"Will you stop pacing up and down?" she asked eventually. "There's plenty of time before the train leaves."
Zee sighed and threw herself on the bed. "I know." She clasped her arms behind her head. "It's just that... the sooner we leave here, the better."
Christie frowned and stopped her packing. "Whatís wrong?"
"Just a hunch."
"But his father said-"
"I know." Zee pushed herself up off the bed and began to pace once more. "But if Fred's the hothead I think he is, he won't take kindly to his father makin' deals 'bout his future. If I'm still here, he'll come lookin' for me 'stead of thinkin' things through."
"Oh." Christie considered that for a moment, compared the man she had known with the person he was now. Fred's pride had always been easily hurt, she remembered. Then he would lose his temper. She chewed her lower lip. "Maybe we should tell Milligan."
Zee stopped her pacing. "It's not my safety I'm worried about, Darlin'."
Christie blinked in confusion. "I'm sorry, Zee, I donít quite-"
"What if he comes after me and I have to kill him?" Pale blue eyes regarded her sombrely. "How will you feel about me then?"
"How will I...?" Christie stepped forward and slipped her arms around Zee's waist. "Oh, sweetheart." She leaned her head against Zee's chest, felt strong arms come up to hold her. "Nothing could change the way I feel about you."
She thought for a long moment. "Well, if you were to bed Red Mary...."
Zee chuckled. "You really don't like her, do you?"
Christie looked up and wrinkled her nose. "No."
Zee kissed her gently then drew back. "You don't have to worry about her, you know."
"I know." said Christie, smiling.
Reluctantly, she stepped out of Zee's arms and continued her packing, thinking of what Zee had said. When she had folded the last item and closed up the case, she turned to the waiting Deputy.
"Even so," she said. "if possible, Iíd rather you didn't kill him."
Zee's brows drew together. "Fred?" Christie nodded. "Why?"
"Because he's so far beneath you, he's not worth it. And anyway," she picked up one of the lighter cases and headed for the stairs, "you made a deal with his Father."
They had almost reached the station depot when, from nowhere, a lariat dropped round Christie's shoulders.
The Deputy, who was one step behind her, let out an oath.
As the rope tightened, pinning Christie's arms to her sides and pulling her off balance, she dropped the cases she was carrying. The rope jerked, pulling her sideways into the shadows. She fought against it, digging in her heels and squirming, trying to see if Zee was all right, but to no avail. All she could hear was the sound of scuffling, of solid blows finding their target. A man swore then shouted a warning, then came the sound of gunfire.
"Zee!" she called out again, horribly afraid for her lover.
A hand clamped itself over her mouth. "Shut up and you won't get hurt," came a man's voice.
He pulled her back into the shadows, turned her so her back was towards him, and held her firmly. She shuddered at the feel of his body pressed against hers, but at least now she could see what was going on.
The lariat meant for Zee had been sliced to ribbons. Zee herself was intent on taking down the last of three attackers. Two were already disabled - one was clutching his thigh, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood from a knife wound, the other was holding his privates, rocking and moaning low in his throat.
Smoke curled from Zee's Colts as she stalked towards the third man. His hand was bleeding, his own holster empty - Christie scanned the ground and spotted his revolver. As he backed away from Zee, he tripped over one of the dropped cases. Before he could regain his balance, the Deputy had darted forward and clipped his chin a resounding blow with a gun butt. The man's eyes rolled up in his head and he toppled over backwards like a felled redwood.
Behind Christie, Fred swore and tightened his grip.
"Ow! You're hurting me!"
Zee straightened and turned to face Fred, her blue eyes glacial. "Let her go." She hefted a gun meaningfully.
"Or what?" The short man tried to sound defiant, but Christie could smell the fear on him, hear it in his voice. "You can't risk hurting her." He pulled Christie even closer, trying to hide behind her.
"Can't I?" The Deputy raised the gun in her right hand and took careful aim.
Christie could have sworn the muzzle was pointing straight at her. Her heart was threatening to pound its way out of her chest, and she screwed up her eyes tight. Zee! Don't!
There was a single deafening gunshot. Then several things happened at once. Fred yelped. His grip on her disappeared. The lariat loosened. And she became aware that she was still in the land of the living.
Tentatively, she opened her eyes and saw the apologetic face gazing at her. She stepped out of the lariat, which had pooled around her feet, and staggered towards Zee.
"You all right?" A gloved hand rested comfortingly on her shoulder. Christie stared up at Zee and nodded dumbly. Then she turned to look back at Fred, who was kneeling, clutching his right shoulder. His sleeve was soaked with blood.
Zee walked over and looked down at him. His expression combined pain and fear. Christie thought he was near to tears.
"Please don't kill me."
"I don't intend to." The Deputy hauled him to his feet. "C'mon. Up you get."
He gave her a confused look. "Why not? I would've killed you."
She shrugged. "Made a promise to someone." She glanced at Christie who smiled back at her.
"Now git." Zee shoved her prisoner roughly towards his fallen comrades and reached for some short pieces of lariat rope. She bound his hands firmly together then started on the next man.
"First, you and me are gonna pay Sheriff Milligan a little visit." She turned to grin at Christie, who was collecting her cases. "And then we've got a train to catch."
Part 4 (Conclusion)
Zee ran a finger round the inside of her collar and winced. This is gonna chafe. "Why'd you have to use so much starch?"
Christie turned from her position in front of the mirror. "It's a wedding, Zee. You have to look dressy for a wedding." She turned back to the mirror, smoothed the fashionable green dress Julie Fontenot had helped her make over her hips, and cocked her head first to one side then the other. "Hmmm. Hair up or hair down?"
The question was clearly rhetorical so Zee ignored it. "Dressy, huh? Don't see why," she grumbled. Undoing the shirt's top two buttons, she reached for a clean red bandanna and tied it round her neck. That should help.
Christie gathered up her long blonde hair and did something complicated with it involving hairpins. Zee could never be bothered with stuff like that - it was one of the reasons she kept her own hair cropped short - but she had to admit, the end result was worth it. She advanced on Christie.
The blonde jumped as Zee dipped her head and nibbled the enticing nape of her neck. "That tickles!"
"Ain't quite what I had in mind," mumbled Zee, reaching round and cupping the blonde's breasts. She checked the other woman's reaction in the mirror. Christie's mouth was slightly open but her eyelids were closed, the long lashes pale against flushed skin. She grinned and continued her attentions, sucking a tender earlobe, stroking the generous curves she could feel beneath the silk.
Christie gasped, then recollected herself and shook Zee off. "Not now. We'll be late."
Zee grinned. "Some things are worth being late for." But Christie avoided her reaching hands and wagged her finger at her. She sighed, and backed off.
On the bed lay the embroidered waistcoat Hogan had lent her. She slipped it on and buttoned it up. It was a bit loose on her, and too fancy for her taste, but still....
"You look very nice." Christie had finished with her hair and was now regarding Zee with a critical eye. "There's a spot on the toe of your right boot."
Obediently, Zee made to rub it off on the back of her Levis.
"Not on your clean trousers!"
Zee rolled her eyes, reached for a dirty bandanna, and bent to remove the offending mud. "That better?" She straightened and let the smaller woman circle her slowly.
Christie finished her inspection, smiled, and nodded. "You'll do."
Zee let out a sigh of relief.
They had got back from Contention the day before, and, after dropping off their luggage at the Old Barn and retrieving their horses from Curly and Ann next door, headed over to Angie's Palace to see how Blue and Jenny were getting on. There, the brothel madam had greeted them with a broad smile, the news that Blue had managed to get a wedding license, and an embossed invitation to the happy couple's wedding on the morrow when the travelling Justice was due.
Zee had received the news tranquilly. She'd been to quite a few weddings in her time. The ceremonies were quickly over, and she always enjoyed the celebrations that followed. This state of happy anticipation lasted until Christie told her in no uncertain terms that she must 'dress for the occasion'.
She sighed and looked for her hat, which Christie had sponged the worst of the dirt off. It was on the dresser. She crammed it on her head then looked at herself in the mirror, raising an eyebrow.
"See," said Christie from behind her. "You can look quite presentable when you try."
Still not entirely sure about the waistcoat, Zee merely grunted.
A smack on the bottom startled her out of her introspection. "Hey!" She turned and blinked at the grinning blonde.
"Come on, handsome," said Christie cheekily. "Time to see my brother make an honest woman of Jenny."
Zee surveyed her surroundings with interest. Madam Angie had closed up the brothel for the day and transformed her largest reception room especially for the wedding. The card tables had been stacked away or were lined up at the side, draped beneath pretty tablecloths and awaiting the arrival of the buffet Mattie was preparing in the kitchen; and most of the ornate gold mirrors had been demurely covered.
Which was more than could be said for the whores. Even done up in their Sunday best, their dresses were cut far too low. She smirked at the sight of them mingling with more respectable folks. Their profession was all too obvious. As was that of the black habit-clad nuns. Sister Florence had brought a few of her Sisters of Charity with her. They were apparently looking forward to the day out.
It was just as well Jenny's parents hadn't been invited to the wedding, she mused. (It was thought best to present them with a fait accompli.) The Farnhams would have had a blue fit.
"Blue looks terrified." Christie was eyeing the forlorn figure standing at the front.
"Can't imagine why."
"Suppose Jenny changes her mind?" The little blonde was apparently too het up to register Zee's irony. "Supposed she jilts him at the altar?"
"Well, for one thing," said Zee, "there ain't no altar. And for another, in her condition? Ain't likely. I'm just hoping she don't have the baby during the ceremony!"
Christie put her hands on her hips and glared at Zee who chuckled. It was so much fun teasing her. "It'll be all right, Darlin'," she soothed. "You'll see."
The entrance doors swung open and every head turned. Sheriff Hogan came into view, wearing a fancy new embroidered waistcoat. With him was a bandy-legged little man wearing a black sombrero and shabby chaps. A murmur went round the room.
"Is that the marrying squire?" asked Christie.
Zee nodded. "Crutchfield's quite a character," she said, "but he's quick and he's legal."
"What do you mean?" The blonde frowned as the little man threaded his way towards the front of the throng. There, he smiled and shook hands with Blue, then took his place facing the guests. Hogan patted the wan-looking Blue on the back and stood next to him.
A stir to one side proved to be Diamond Dust Kate, plonking her buxom bottom on the pianola stool and pumping the instrument's pedals for all she was worth. As the first chords of 'Here Comes the Bride' boomed around the large room, the guests excitedly craned their necks round towards the entrance doors. Zee was no exception.
The bride-to-be was standing in the open doorway, protectively cradling her belly. Beside her, looking magnificent in crimson Turkish trousers, stood Madam Angie. (Since there was no Father to give Jenny away, the brothel owner, who had taken quite a shine to the young woman, had offered to do the job instead).
When she saw all the faces looking at her, Jenny froze, unable to take another step. But Angie whispered something in her ear, and the young woman nodded, took a deep breath, and continued on. As she passed, people shouted well wishes to her. The fear in her wide brown eyes made her look even more faunlike than usual, and Zee gave her an encouraging wink. Then the young woman saw Blue and had eyes for nobody else.
Zee watched the pregnant girl hurry towards her intended, stand next to him, and shyly take his hand. From beside her came a muffled sniffle. She pulled out a clean handkerchief and handed it to Christie who accepted it gratefully. She had pegged the blonde as the type to cry at weddings. Looked like she was right.
Justice Crutchfield had been watching the proceedings with a wide smile. Now, he stepped forward, clasped his sombrero to his chest with one hand and raised the other for silence. With a discordant squawk, the pianola fell silent.
"Howdy, folks." A ripple of laughter met his greeting. "Reckon we all know why we are here this fine morning." He nodded at the young couple looking nervously at him. "Blue Hayes and Jenny Farnham are here to get spliced.... And by the looks of it," he eyed Jenny's belly, "not a moment too soon!"
As the couple tried vainly not to look at one another, their cheeks blushing matching shades of pink, the wedding guests laughed louder. Zee glanced at Christie - her eyes were beginning to widen. She reached for the blonde's hand and squeezed it.
"So," continued the little Justice, "let's get the formalities over and done with, and then we can get on with the important thing - the celebrating!"
He assumed a solemn face, waited for the laughter to die away, then turned to Jenny. "Take him?" he asked.
She blinked, looked at Blue, looked back at Crutchfield, who was clearly waiting for an answer, then murmured rather tentatively, "Yes."
The little Justice nodded and turned to face Blue. "Take her?"
By now the groom had got the hang of things, and he nodded and said, loud and clear, "Yes."
Crutchfield's face broke into a smile. "Done. One dollar, please."
Blue blinked and began to pat his clearly empty pockets. Hogan produced a silver dollar from somewhere, and flipped it to the Justice, who caught it deftly and tucked it in his own pocket.
For a moment there was silence, then Crutchfield said, "Well. What are you waiting for, son? Kiss your wife."
As Blue shyly kissed his bride, a cheer went up and a few hats were thrown into the air. The hand holding Zee's tugged her round.
"Is that it?" Christie looked astonished.
"Reckon so. Told you he was quick."
A side door opened and Mattie, the brothel's cook, appeared with a tray of full champagne glasses. She placed it on a table and disappeared, returning seconds later with several more.
"C'mon," said Zee. "Let's go congratulate the bride and groom."
They made their way between the other guests towards Blue and Jenny, Zee guiding Christie with a hand in the small of her back. Around them, the noise rose steadily as the trays of food appeared, and the mood turned to one of post-nuptial celebration. By the time they reached Christie's brother and his new wife, they were having to shout to make themselves heard..
"Congratulations, Blue... Jenny," bellowed Christie. She hugged them both in turn. "I finally have a sister-in-law!"
Jenny gave her a shy smile.
Blue put his arm protectively round his wife. "Do you think our parents would have approved?" he asked Christie.
She laughed. "Probably not at first, but they'd have come around to the idea. You know they only wanted us to be happy."
He grinned and squeezed his wife who laughingly protested. "Well, Lord knows, I am happy," he said, kissing her on the cheek.
"Goodness only knows what they'd have made of Justice Crutchfield, though!" The blonde craned her head. "Where is he?"
A few enquiries by Zee elicited the fact that the little man had disappeared, saying he had another wedding to attend. Not before eating a whole peach pie and drinking three glasses of champagne though. Which reminded her....
A tray was passing within reaching distance, so she deftly confiscated it. Its former owner's protests died away when he saw who had snatched it, and he shrugged and went off in search of another tray. Zee handed out the glasses of champagne and took one for herself.
Christie's brow wrinkled. "Should Jenny be drinking in her condition?"
"A sip of champagne wonít hurt her." Zee raised her glass. "A toast. To Blue and Jenny. May you both find as much happiness with each other as I've found with Christie."
Green eyes brimmed instantly and a tear threatened to fall from pale lashes. Zee wound an arm round the smaller woman's shoulders, and pulled her close. "I mean it," she murmured. The tear fell.
"Sorry, Blue," managed Christie, producing her handkerchief and blowing her nose loudly. "I always cry at weddings."
Her brother nodded sagely, but Zee knew Christie well enough by now to know that her tearfulness was due to more than that. When an arm looped itself around her waist and squeezed, she smiled and dropped a fond kiss on a blonde head.
"To the happy couple!" she said. Glasses clinked, and they drank.
"Waistcoat looks better on you than it does on me." Hogan's voice came from beside Zee. "But not by much."
"Have to take your word for it." She gave her boss a wry smile. "Be glad to get back to my old duds, though. This collar's killing me."
She passed him the whisky bottle she had found and whose contents she had already made a good-sized dent in. Champagne was all very well for special occasions, but it wasn't a real drink. She glanced across the room, to where Christie was talking to a tall figure in a black habit, veil, and pleated cape, and winced.
The Sheriff followed her glance, then laughed so hard she thought he was going to choke. "You don't need to worry, Brodie," he chuckled, when he had regained control of himself. "I don't think she'll be joining the Sisters of Charity any time soon."
Zee grunted and took another sip of whisky. "Better not. Wouldn't be the first time I kidnapped a girl from them."
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
"Do that." Her gaze travelled to Blue and Jenny, who were in animated conversation with Madam Angie, then continued on to where some of the whores were huddled, deep in conversation, their sly gazes occasionally settling on the newlyweds. "Mm."
"Reckon that lot are planning a Chivaree."
Hogan's gaze swivelled then became thoughtful. "Reckon you're right. Want me to put a stop to it?"
Zee considered. "No," she said at last. "Can't have a wedding without a Chivaree. But I'll go along, keep an eye on things.... Jenny being pregnant and all."
He nodded and took a gulp of whisky. "Know where they're spending the honeymoon?"
She checked for eavesdroppers then lowered her voice. "Got themselves a room in Mrs. Sandridge's boarding house."
It was Hogan's turn to wince. "Good luck, then. And watch out for the rolling pin!"
"What were you and the Sheriff talking about?" Christie had tracked the Deputy down beside the buffet table.
"Oh, you know." Zee's voice was muffled by a mouthful of apple pie. It wasn't as good as Christie's, but it would help mop up the whisky - she had drunk too much and was feeling fuzzy around the edges. "Bit of this, bit of that." She gestured vaguely.
Christie folded her arms and tapped one foot. "Zerelda Brodie," she said, her use of Zee's full name signally her displeasure. "I know you're up to something. If it involves my brother and his very pregnant wife, then I'm entitled to know about it. So if you don't tell me, this minute...."
Zee held up her hands in mock surrender. "All right, all right." Aware of the curious glances coming their way, she took Christie by the elbow and guided her to a corner where they could talk unobserved.
"We're pretty sure that Red Mary and the others are planning a Chivaree."
Christie looked dismayed. "Oh no. But Zee, Jenny is pr-"
Zee pressed a finger to her lips. "I know she is, Darlin'. That's why Hogan agreed to my goin' along too."
"Oh." Christie looked thoughtful.
"I promise, no harm will come to either Blue or Jenny or the baby. I'll make sure of that."
Christie nodded once decisively. "Good. Then so will I."
Green eyes fixed her with a look. "Yes? You have some objection to my going too?"
Zee knew that stubborn tone. She sighed and instantly conceded defeat. "No, Darlin'. It's a celebration. The more the merrier."
Zee halted outside Mrs. Sandridge's boarding house. Christie did too, inadvertently setting off a domino chain of collisions amongst those crowding her heels. Each bump was accompanied by the rattle of a tambourine, the bonk of a drum, the clang of a tin pail, each in their turn followed by shushing noises and whispered apologies.
The Deputy rolled her eyes. As though they can't hear us a mile away!
She hadn't expected so many people to turn up. There were about twenty in all, mostly the whores and their friends, but also a few old reprobates and hangers-on who had heard that there was fun and free drinks to be had tonight. Many were already the worse for liquor, which had made instructing them in the 'dos and don'ts' more tedious than it should have been. In the end, she had simply threatened to throw them in jail if they so much as pulled out a gun let alone fired it. What's more, while Blue was fair game, she insisted, his wife was out of bounds. Most had grumbled at that, but in the end all had agreed to her conditions.
The revellers had dressed as was traditional for a Chivaree. Some had blacked their faces or donned their clothes backwards, and others were wearing masks. Zee hadn't bothered - there was no way to disguise her height and pale blue eyes. Neither had Christie, who saw herself more as an observer than a participant.
Zee pointed up at the window on the top floor of the boarding house. "That's their room." The curtains were drawn, the room dark.
"They're probably sleep," said Christie.
"Yeah. Won't be for long though." She turned to the waiting crowd and signalled. A cheer went up, and suddenly every hand was brandishing a musical instrument.
Well, maybe not 'musical', exactly, amended Zee as the ensuing cacophony threatened the eardrums of everyone in the vicinity. Kettles and tin pails clanked, drums banged, a horn tooted, but the worst caterwauling by far came from a cracked fiddle that the bewhiskered Silas Ward had brought along. Christie stuck her fingers in her ears and gave Zee an appalled look.
She laughed and turned her gaze up towards the window once more. A lamp had been lit, and as she watched, someone slid open the sash window. Next minute, the unmistakable blond head of Bluford Hayes was leaning out, gesticulating and mouthing something that Zee thought might have been, "Keep the noise down. My wife's asleep!" but she could've been wrong.
A hand on her shoulder pulled her down to Christie's level, and she felt the blonde's breath warm against her ear. "Look at his face! He's furious!"
"It's a Chivaree. What did he expect?"
Straightening, Zee made her way towards the front door. There, she raised her fist and was about to thump loudly and yell at the owner for admittance, when it opened of its own accord.
"What on earth's all this noise? Can't decent God-fearing people get any sleep in this town?"
An old woman, stood there, her hair tied up in papers, her expression stormy. One age-spotted hand held closed her dressing gown, whose vivid shade of fuchsia made Zee wince, the other clasped a rolling pin. "Deputy Brodie! Might have guessed you'd be involved in this tomfoolery." She raised her makeshift weapon.
Whoops! †Zee held up her hands in a placating gesture. "Evenin', Mrs. Sandrich. Sorry 'bout the ruckus. We're here to chivaree Blue Hayes and his new wife."
The boarding house landlady clearly expected her to step back, so instead, she darted past her into the hall. The rolling pin came down, missing her arm by mere inches. Laughing under her breath, she headed for the foot of the stairs and peered up. At least the impromptu 'concert' was slightly muffled in here.
"Hallooooooo, Blue!" she called. "The sooner you come down and take your medicine, the sooner we'll be off your hands."
Doors opened upstairs, and moments later startled faces were peering down the stairwell at her.
"Well, really!" said the landlady. "You're disturbing everyone in the place! Call yourself the Law?"
Zee turned and gestured at the empty spot on her vest where her tin star was usually pinned. "No, ma'am. I'm off duty." A loud harrumph met that remark but at least the rolling pin kept its distance. Keeping a wary eye on it, Zee turned back to the stairwell. Blue's face had joined the others peering down at her, she saw.
"Come on down, Blue. We promise to go easy on you."
For a moment he simply stared at her, then he gave a single reluctant nod. Mission accomplished, Zee turned and eased her way past the still visibly annoyed Mrs. Sandrich.
Outside, lamps had gone on all along the street, and faces now peered from every open window and door as people watched the chivaree. In the distance, a coyotee had added its howling to the noise. If anything, it improved it.
Zee was contemplating putting her fingers in her ears, when something hit her on the cheek. She touched her smarting skin and glanced up, puzzled. Something hit her on the forehead. Hailstones?
Snatching one of the tiny missiles out of the air, she examined it. Some of the more resourceful revellers, barred from using their guns, were firing pea-shooters up at Blue's window instead, peppering the pane with a loud hail of dried peas. She laughed and shook her head.
Christie came up beside her and pulled her down to her level. "Is he coming?" bellowed the blonde in her ear.
Zee nodded and ducked another shower of peas. "On his way."
"Good. I can't take much more of this."
The 'music' stopped abruptly, and a loud cheer erupted. They turned in time to see an apprehensive Blue standing in the boarding house doorway. He stepped outside, the fuchsia-clad Mrs. Sandrich slamming the door closed behind him, and the crowd surged forwards, taking Zee and Christie with it.
When things settled again, they saw that several of the stronger men had heaved Blue up onto their shoulders and were parading him up and down in front of the boarding house. The blond man gazed helplessly down at them from his high perch and mouthed, "What do I do now?"
Zee squeezed Christie's hand before releasing it. Reaching into her shirt pocket for the wad of bills she had crammed there earlier, she eased her way between the rowdy chivaree participants. Most if not all were yelling catcalls, making aspersions about Blue's sexual prowess, sending well wishes to the happy couple, and demanding drink.
A glance up at the open window of Blue's room revealed that Jenny was now looking anxiously down at her husband. No doubt she had heard the stories of other Chivarees. Some grooms had ended up kidnapped and dunked in the river. Zee gave her a reassuring thumbs-up then turned to Blue.
"Take this," she shouted, pressing the bills into Christie's brother's hand. "Tell them to buy themselves drinks with it."
He stared at the money, then nodded his understanding. Struggling upright, his supporters adjusting their grip to keep him from tumbling, he held up his hands for silence. It took a moment for everyone to notice, then the crowd quieted expectantly.
"Thank you, folks, for all your good wishes. I very much appreciate them. Now if you don't mind, my wife," he gestured towards the watching Jenny, "is waiting for me, and it is our honeymoon!"
"What about us?" yelled someone.
"Yeah. What will you give us to leave you in peace?" shouted out someone else.
"By way of a thank you," Blue held up the money, eliciting a loud cheer, "the drinks are on me. Enjoy yourselves!"
A big woman in a sparkly purple eye mask, probably Red Mary though it was hard to be sure, hurried to the front and snatched the bills from Blue's hand.
"Everyone follow me," she called. "The celebration is just beginning."
After a momentary confusion, as those who wanted to go home and those who wanted to continue partying parted company, Zee, Christie, and Blue found themselves alone on the sidewalk watching the motley procession wending its way away from them towards the nearest saloon. As the laughter and chatter, the clank and bong and rattle of their instruments faded into the distance, Christie breathed a loud sigh of relief. One by one, the watching faces disappeared and the doors and windows closed.
"Jenny, you'll catch cold." Blue was gazing up at his wife. "Go back to bed. I'll be up very soon." She nodded, ducked back out of sight, and seconds later the sash window slid shut.
Zee pulled Christie close. "All right?" The blonde nodded. "Blue?"
He gave her a rueful grin. "I think so. Thanks for the dollars. You probably saved my bacon."
She grinned and shook his outstretched hand. "Hey, always glad to help out my brother-in-law!"
His eyes widened and he glanced thoughtfully at Christie. The blonde merely cuddled closer to Zee.
"Can we go home now?" she said plaintively.
Zee yawned as the day's excitement caught up with her. "Reckon so." She regarded Blue pointedly. "Goodnight then, Mr. Hayes. Reckon your bride's awaitin'."
He started, as though out of deep thought. "Oh... yes." Turning on his heel, he headed for the boarding house. "Good night," he called, as he reached for the doorknob. "And thank you again for keeping things under control."
"You're welcome. And look out for the rolling pin." He gave her a puzzled look, shook his head, then disappeared inside.
"What a day!" said Christie, as they strolled arm in arm to where they'd left the buckboard.
"Mmm hmmm." Zee helped Christie up before untethering the horse. "But you know what?" She hopped up beside the blonde and winked at her. "The best bit's still to come."
SIX MONTHS LATER
Christie hurried into the kitchen, glad to leave the tobacco smoke and noisy hubbub behind for a short while. No wonder Zerelda had burst into tears!
She peered out the window. There, in the welcome silence of the yard, a rangy figure with cropped black hair was talking to their niece. Christie tried to make out what Zee was saying. Something about 'the horsey'? Whatever it was met with an enthusiastic wave of miniature hands and feet from the baby. She chuckled and turned away.
Glasses. I came for glasses.
She was kneeling, unearthing them from a bottom cupboard, when the door to the interior opened, the noise from the parlour increasing. Someone was playing 'Beautiful Dreamer', badly. It couldn't be Blue or Jenny, Hogan or Angie, Ann or Curly, as none of them could play a note. Which left... Surely not Sister Florence? Well, she had had rather a lot to drink....
Ann Young peered round the door. "Need any help, Christie?"
She smiled at her plump neighbour. "You and Curly have already done more than your fair share, Ann. Those peach pies were a great success."
The middle-aged woman came into the room and closed the door behind her, thankfully muffling the noise. "I think Blue ate two all by himself," she said. "He's putting on weight, don't you think?"
Christie straightened and carried the glasses to the sink where she proceeded to wash the dust from them. "Let's not mince words, Ann. My brother is getting fat. He is also boring. If he tells me one more longwinded story about what he and the other members of the Cactus Club have been up to...." She broke off and sighed. "He's happy though. That's the important thing."
Unbidden, Ann picked up a tea towel and began to dry the glasses. Christie smiled her thanks. "And Jenny expecting again too! Already!" said her neighbour.
"I know. Poor girl! Maybe someone should have a word with her and Blue about where babies come from."
Ann shot her a mischievous glance. "Sister Florence, perhaps?"
Christie snorted with laughter. "Now that I would pay to see!"
She started to stack the clean glasses on a tray then looked out the window once more. Zee appeared to be explaining the intricacies of saddles to her namesake. She chuckled. Ann turned to see what had amused her and smiled.
"Curly was the same, when our two were young. Soft as butter, he was, though he pretended otherwise."
Christie leaned forward and rapped her knuckle sharply against the windowpane. The Deputy turned at the sound, saw her, and grinned.
"Everything all right?" mouthed Christie.
Zee nodded, bounced her niece up and down one last time and rested her against her shoulder, then began to walk towards the house. Moments later the back door opened, and she came in.
"Peaceful out there," she said.
Christie sighed. "Remind me again whose idea this soir»e was?"
Zee grinned. "Yours, Darlin'. All yours." She bent forward, careful not to jog the sleepy baby, and pressed a kiss on Christie's cheek. "What are you two doin' in here? Evenin's still young. You had enough already?"
Christie gestured at the tray. "We ran out of glasses."
Zee pursed her lips. "The way Florence and Angie are knocking back the hard stuff, we'll soon be out of whisky."
"She's certainly not your 'run of the mill' nun, is she?"
Zee's snort disturbed the baby who yawned, opened tiny hands like starfish then curled them closed again. "She's Angie's friend. What can you expect?"
Christie regarded the two Zees fondly. With her blonde hair and faunlike eyes, her new niece looked nothing like her namesake. But Jenny had insisted on naming her after the tall woman out of gratitude, and Zee hadn't had the heart to say no.
"Come on. Let's get this little one back to her mother." She picked up the tray and led the way.
Faces turned in Christie's direction as she entered the parlour, and a loud cheer greeted the new arrivals. She placed the tray of glasses on the top of the piano. Sister Florence grinned up at her then resumed her haphazard playing. Christie tried not to wince at the discordant plinkety plink.
She turned and watched Zee make her way towards Jenny and gently deposit the baby in her arms. The young mother, who was sitting on the sofa next to her husband, smiled, exchanged a few words with the tall woman, then stood up.
"I'm just taking her upstairs," she told Christie, as she came within earshot. "She'll sleep now, I think."
Christie nodded. The tobacco smoke had grown thicker, if anything. It made her eyes smart. She crossed to the windows, and flung another wide open.
"So," said Madam Angie, whose pipe was the primary source of the noxious fumes. "You never did tell us what this little shindig is in honour of, Christie. Your new piano?"
The upright pianoforte had arrived unexpectedly by wagon just over a fortnight ago - unexpectedly as far as Christie was concerned; it was clear from Zee's reaction that she and Blue must have been hatching the plot to transport it to Benson for some time. Overjoyed at the instrument's arrival, Christie had at once arranged for the tuner to call.
She had missed being able to play Chopin and Beethoven sonatas whenever the mood took her - the whores tended to favour popular songs. Now, she could play the classics to her heart's content, though she was happy to switch to something lighter whenever Zee was around. On occasion, the other woman even accompanied her - she had revealed an unsuspected talent for the jew's-harp and the harmonica (all those long evenings spent sitting by a camp fire, Zee sheepishly explained).
"Partly. But today is also a very special anniversary of sorts."
Sister Florence stopped playing. "Really?" Her grey eyes were bright. "Whose? Do tell!" The abrupt cessation of the music made all heads turned towards them. Christie's cheeks grew warm, and she felt an urge to flee, but she stood her ground.
"Exactly one year ago today," she announced, as a quizzical-looking Zee came to stand beside her, "something happened to change the course of my life." The parlour door opened, and Jenny returned minus the baby, to be met by shushing noises and nods in Christie's direction. The young woman slid into her seat quickly then looked attentively at Christie.
Embarrassed, she cleared her throat. A warm hand slid into hers and she gripped it firmly. "A year ago today, someone came to my house in Contention who has since become indispensable to my happiness. Zee." She turned to regard the woman standing next to her.
The Deputy's gaze was turned inwards. After a moment, she nodded, her expression becoming one of surprised pleasure. "To the very day," she confirmed, raising the hand she held to her lips.
A chorus of oohs and ahs met this gesture, until Hogan spoiled the mood by shouting, "Anyone got a bucket of cold water handy?"
"And what's more, it was my brother, Blue, who brought us together," added Christie.
"I did not!" said an indignant Blue.
Christie put her hands on her hips. "Did you or did you not invite Zee and her prisoner to stay at our house while they waited for the train to Yuma?"
He stroked his moustache. "Well, when you put it that way.... But I was only doing my duty. Didn't know the Deputy was a woman either." He put his arm round his wife. "Also didn't know she was going to seduce you right out from under my nose!"
The shout of laughter proved to be from Madam Angie.
"Wasn't under your nose, Blue," contradicted Zee. "You weren't there, as I recall."
Jenny clapped her hands together in delight. "And was it love at first sight?"
Christie gave her a wry smile. "No indeed. My first impression of Zee was that she was the most frightening woman I had ever met."
"Ha! Frightening," called out Hogan. "That's Brodie all right."
Zee turned an exasperated glance his way and he held up his hands and gave her a wide grin. "Donít kill me, Deputy. I'll come peaceable."
Christie ignored this by-play. "My second impression was an improvement of sorts. I thought she was the most insufferable and impudent person I had ever met." Her words were greeted with catcalls and laughter. Zee raised her eyebrows in mock outrage and pointed wordlessly at herself. "Yes, you."
The goodwill coming from their guests was palpable now, and Christie felt suddenly at ease. This was her home; she was among friends; the love of her life was standing beside her. "But she was also the most fascinating." She shrugged. "What else could I do but follow Zee? My goose was cooked!"
The tall woman pulled her towards her and gave her a hug. "And so was mine, Darlin'," she murmured in her ear. "And I wouldn't change a thing."
"A toast," yelled Sister Florence. "Everyone, fill your glasses."
A mad scramble for bottles and glasses ensued, and when the chaos had turned to order once more, a sea of smiling faces and raised glasses met them. They looked at one another, half pleased, half embarrassed by the attention, then shrugged and reached for their own glasses, which someone had helpfully topped up.
"To Zee and Christie, Happy Anniversary," chorused their guests.
Christie turned and saw reflected in Zee's eyes a deep love and affection that more than matched her own. Smiling, she raised her glass and clinked it against Zee's. "And many more to come, my love."
Thanks to fellow bard Advocate for her help during the final editing stages of this story.
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