Copyright © 2001 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 fifth novelette (the sequel to Stage to Phoenix) in my series of Westerns starring Zee Brodie and Christie Hayes.
HOME SWEET HOME
(aka A Full House for the Hellcat.)
(Email: email@example.com )
Zee careered round the corner into Main Street, gambling that the heavy sacks in the back of the buckboard would keep it from turning over.
A whiskery old gent in threadbare duds leaped out of the way. "Goldarn it, Brodie! Where're you off to in such a hurry?" he yelled after her.
"Sorry, Silas. My lady's waitin' and I'm late."
Collecting the horse and wagon had been no problem - Zee had telegraphed the livery stable before she and Christie left Phoenix, and when she arrived Bradley had the gelding and buckboard ready and waiting for her, along with her own mare. It was loading Taylor's supplies and selecting the surprise bolt of dress fabric that had taken the time - Zee had absolutely no idea if the colour would be to the blonde's taste or not.
A quick glance to check that the mare tethered to the back of the buckboard was keeping up - an indignant whinny greeted her, but the mare seemed fine - then she was facing front again and cracking the reins.
As she neared Benson's Wells Fargo office, where she had left Christie, she was relieved to see the little blonde in the green dress wasn't pacing impatiently up and down and cursing (not that the gentle Christie ever cursed) but was talking animatedly to a moustachioed man in an embroidered waistcoat.
Zee brought the buckboard to a halt beside them. "Hands off, Hogan. She's spoken for."
Christie stopped talking and turned to smile up at her. Zee never got tired of seeing her lover's eyes light up when she looked at her. "I've been telling Sheriff Hogan all about Phoenix."
Zee winked. "Not everything I hope?"
The blonde's cheeks pinked prettily, and Zee laughed and jumped down from the buckboard.
"Brodie," said her boss. "Glad to have you back."
"Thanks. But I ain't officially back 'til tomorrow." Zee reached for the luggage Christie had been guarding and began stowing the bags in the back with the supplies.
"Can't blame a man for trying," said the Sheriff equably. "You and Miss Hayes have had your holiday, now I need one."
"Aw. You getting old?"
Hogan laughed. "It wasn't looking after the jailhouse all on my lonesome wore me out, Brodie, it was listening to Angie going on and on about what it was taking to make your place even remotely habitable. Old Coop let that place go to rack and ruin."
Zee grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. "That's why it was dirt cheap." She turned to find Christie looking dubiously at the gelding and buckboard. "Will it do?"
The blonde nodded. "It's been some time since I drove one of these though."
Zee handed Christie up into the driver's seat, then hopped up beside her. She picked up the reins and handed them to Christie, who blinked and looked at her then sighed.
Hogan came to stand beside them. "Angie said there's enough water to tide you and the horses over for a couple of days," he said. "And she's fixed for the water wagon to call day after tomorrow."
Zee tipped her hat. "Tell her 'much obliged' for me, will you?"
He grinned. "Oh, you'll be able to thank her in person." Zee wondered what he meant by that, but before she could enquire he had stepped back, tipped his hat to the two women, and started to walk away.
The buckboard remained stationary, and she glanced at Christie who seemed to have been struck by paralysis. "We gonna sit here all day, Darlin'? Got us a new home to go to and," she lowered her voice, "a new bed to christen."
That got Zee a startled look, a poke in the ribs, and a hasty "Shhh!" Still chuckling, she made herself as comfortable as possible on the hard wooden seat, pulled down the brim of her Stetson against the noonday sun, and folded her gloved hands across her stomach. Then she waited.
Christie took a deep breath, exhaled, muttered something under her breath, then flicked the reins. The dozing gelding started into life and the buckboard jerked forward with a rumble.
By the time they reached Schoolhouse Lane, which was on the edge of town, Christie was handling the gelding and buckboard as though she had been doing so all her life and was even humming quietly to herself. Zee gave her an amused glance then tipped her hat to a passer-by.
They had passed several of the townsfolk on the way. Zee knew them all, and most had called out a greeting or tipped their hats to her. One or two of the more 'upright' citizens had pretended not to see her, but that was only to be expected given Zee's Hellcat past and the disreputable circles she moved in. Christie's acquaintances were as yet limited (unless you counted those who frequented Angie's Palace), but Zee hoped, now they had a home to which Christie could invite more respectable guests, that would soon change.
The buckboard trundled past the schoolhouse on the left, then Curly Young's spread on the right. "Nearly there," said Zee as, up ahead, an odd looking house (its origins as a barn were all too obvious) came into view.
"Is that it?" Christie's voice was hoarse with excitement and she was on the edge of her seat as she stared at the little fenced front garden, and the rutted track leading round the side of the house.
"Yup." Zee gave her an affectionate glance. "Ain't much but it's all ours, Darlin'. Home sweet home."
At her direction, Christie turned the buckboard up the track, which brought them round to the yard at the back of the house. She jumped down, opened the gate, and closed it again once Christie had driven through. Then she helped the blonde down, and watched her gape at their surroundings.
"Needs work," she admitted, bashing her shabby hat against her thigh to get the worst of the dust off. "Fence needs fixing. And there's a hole in the barn roof." She pointed at the ramshackle barn that the previous owner had built next to the house and where she intended to keep the horses and buckboard. "I asked Angie to focus on the kitchen and main bedroom. Anything else we can fix later."
She ran a hand through her cropped hair then resettled her hat. "Not as grand as your place in Contention but...." She moved behind the blonde and hugged her.
"It's fine." Christie relaxed against her, and Zee gave in to the urge to press her lips against blonde hair. "Anyway, making this place spick-and-span will give me something to do while you're at work."
"Yep." Zee reluctantly relinquished her hold. "OK. First things first."
The water trough in the yard was dry, so she emptied her canteen into it, unharnessed the gelding, and led him to it. While he drank, her mare nickered. "I'm getting to you!" she protested. She loosed the mare's leading rein and led her to the trough too.
Christie meanwhile had climbed into the back of the buckboard and was investigating the supplies. "I hope you got everything I asked for," she called.
"Everything but the kitchen sink," muttered Zee.
She turned to find Christie regarding her suspiciously. "Yep," she said innocently. "Taylor assured me everything on your list is there."
"Oh. Good." Christie resumed her excavations among the sacks of coffee and flour. "Seems to be all present and correct.... Wait a minute. I didn't order this!" She was peering at the bolt of fabric.
Zee smiled complacently. "That's a little something extra. Thought you might have a use for it."
The blonde put her hands on her hips and gave her an exasperated look. "Anyone would think we had money to burn!" Then her expression relaxed into a smile. "But it will make some lovely curtains. Thank you, Zee."
It's curtain material? Zee held her smile, but only with an effort.
"Now help me down." Christie gestured imperiously.
"Sure." Zee grabbed her round the waist, but instead of helping her down, swept her up in her arms and headed for the back door.
"Hey!" The blonde squirmed and wriggled, her attempts to free herself sending pleasurable sensations straight to Zee's groin. "What are you doing? Put me down!"
"Putting first things first," said Zee. "Now keep still or I'll drop you." She stopped on the doorstep, shifted Christie into a more secure grip, and clouted the door hard with one booted foot. It resisted momentarily then swung open in a spray of splinters. "I'll mend it later," she told the gaping Christie, who had finally realised what she was up to and stopped struggling, indeed far from trying to escape, she was trying to burrow into her instead.
Careful not to bang Christie's head or ankles on the doorjamb, Zee carried her lover across the threshold of their new home. Once inside, she settled the blonde gently on her feet again, and found herself on the receiving end of a kiss so intense her knees almost buckled.
"Phew!" she said, when Christie finally allowed her back up for air. "You sure know how to kiss!"
"I had a good teacher." The blonde took her first look at her surroundings. "Oh! It's lovely."
The kitchen certainly looked different from the last time she was here, thought Zee, gazing round in amazement. Old Coop had lived like a pig in a pigsty, but Angie and the girls had transformed the place. The floorboards had been swept and scrubbed, the kitchen table scrubbed within an inch of its life, and the disreputable stove had been renovated and was ready for action.
Christie disappeared into the cool of the pantry. Zee put her hat on the table, turned one of the four wooden chairs round and straddled it.
"Look! How thoughtful." Christie had emerged from the pantry bearing a jug and now poured them both glasses of lemonade.
Zee drank hers down in one then licked her lips and considered. "Not as good as yours, Darlin'." Christie beamed at her and sipped hers more sedately.
She let her gaze wander round the room, over the tinware hanging on the wall, and the zinc sink, which she was pleased to see, had a foot of water in it. She stopped at the lace-edged gingham curtains now framing the sparkling windowpanes and chuckled.
"Something amusing?" Christie eyed her curiously.
"Just glad Angie didn't think to do this place up like the Palace," she explained. "Wouldn't have put it past her." A thought struck her. "Damn. The bedroom...." They exchanged horrified looks.
"She wouldn't have!"
"She might have!"
Zee was out of her chair and out of the kitchen at the double, and took the stairs three at a time. Christie's long dress hampered her but she wasn't far behind.
Thank God! No red wallpaper, velvet drapes, or mirrors, was Zee's first thought as she pushed open the door to the main bedroom. Her second was: Now thatís what I call a bed!
A pointed cough signalled Christie was standing behind her and she stepped aside to allow her to enter. The blonde blinked.
"My goodness!" Christie's cheeks flushed. "It's bigger than that bed at the Republic Hotel!" She fingered the pillowcases gingerly. "Are these satin? Whatever possessed her to buy something so impractical?"
Zee strode across to the bed and flung herself down on it. "Good old Angie!" She gave an exploratory bounce and grunted with satisfaction. "Must've oiled the springs." Another bounce. "Comfy too." She grinned and reached out a hand to Christie. "C'mere."
For a moment the blonde looked as though she was seriously considering joining her. Then Christie sighed and shook her head. "Later, Zee. Those supplies are in the sun. They'll spoil if we donít get them inside."
"Aw, Darlin'!" Zee pouted but it was wasted on a Christie who was no longer there. She listened to the footsteps descending the stairs, flopped back against the pillows, and stared gloomily up at the ceiling. "Damn it!"
The horses in the yard outside nickered a greeting, then Zee heard a grunt that must be Christie trying to unload something heavy on her own. "Of all the stubborn-"
She was out of the bed, down the stairs, and out in the back yard in six seconds flat, just in time to relieve a rather flushed Christie of a sack of meal.
"Thank you." The blonde woman brushed back a sweatslicked lock of hair and smiled down at her.
Zee slung the sack over her shoulder. "OK, later," she said. It was a concession and a promise.
It took an hour and much toing and froing (Christie had very decided opinions about what should go where) before they got the supplies stowed and the two horses fed and watered and stabled in the barn with the buckboard. Then the little blonde cut them both some well-earned slices of bread and ham.
The late lunch had been reduced to crumbs on plates, and they were drinking lemonade and lazily bantering about whether 'now' had become 'later' (Zee was of the opinion that it had and was having some success in talking Christie round to her way of thinking), when there came a loud knock at the back door.
"Are we expecting anyone?" asked Christie.
Zee made no move to answer the door. "Not that I'm aware of." Perhaps they would go away.
"Shall I see who's there?" She stood up.
Zee shrugged. "You're the mistress of the house." She took another gulp of her drink.
"'Mistress'?!" The indignant exclamation caught Zee just as she was swallowing, and she was still trying to catch her breath when Christie returned from the back door with a familiar figure in tow. The plump, middle-aged woman was proudly carrying a pie.
"It's Mrs. Young," said the blonde unnecessarily. "Our new neighbour."
"Howdy, Ann," said Zee, in between coughs.
Ann Young stared at her. "Are you all right, Zee?"
Christie gestured dismissively. "Her lemonade went down the wrong way. Please. Sit down, Mrs. Young." She pulled out one of the chairs and gestured.
"Call me Ann, please. And I'm not stopping. I know the two of you must be very busy - just back from Phoenix, your first day in a new house and so on. In fact, I thought you might not have time to cook. So I brought you this." She thrust the pie at Christie who accepted it graciously and placed it on the table.
"How very considerate. Please, call me Christie."
"It was no trouble, Christie.... I'm sure youíd have done the same had our positions been reversed."
Zee's coughing fit had passed and she opened her mouth to make a joke, but a glance from Christie made her think better of it.
"My. What a nice kitchen." Ann was looking eagerly around. "I didn't dare come in here when Cooper owned the place." She grimaced. "I was afraid I might catch something."
"It is nice, isn't it? Some... er, friends of ours organised it while we were away. Of course there's still a lot of work needs doing on the rest of the house. And I want some more shelves put up here and here...."
While Christie's attention was elsewhere, Zee pulled the pie dish towards her and sniffed at it. Mmmm. She poked her forefinger through the pastry crust then licked the juices off it. Yep. As she had thought. Peach. She helped herself to more.
The conversation has ceased she realised belatedly and she looked up. Two pairs of outraged eyes, one green, one grey, were looking at her.
She stopped sucking her fingers. "What?"
Christie opened her mouth then closed it again. Then humour replaced the outrage. "I see you've started without me," she said dryly.
"But, Darlin'... it's peach pie." Surely that was reason enough?
The blonde reached out and reordered a strand of Zee's hair. "Well, OK. As long as you donít forget... half of it is mine."
At that, Ann Young began to laugh. In fact, when she left, five minutes later, to walk back to her own house, she was still chuckling.
"Alone at last," said Zee, pulling Christie onto her lap for a quick kiss and cuddle which rapidly escalated into something more intense. Was that a horse whinnying outside? she wondered hazily. And where were the voices and laughter coming from? Christie's renewed assault on her mouth banished every thought except taking her lover to bed. Still kissing passionately, she grasped the blonde firmly in her arms and stood up. She was half way up the stairs when -
Bang... bang... bang.
Zee blinked and broke the kiss. "Damn it!"
Christie sighed. "There's someone at the back door." Reluctantly she disentangled herself from Zee's embrace and made her put her down.
This time is was Zee who answered the door. (Must get that latch fixed, she reminded herself).
"Surprise!" A beaming Angie Tucker was standing on the doorstep. Behind the brothel Madame were Clubfoot Liz, Rowdy Molly and Lazy Alice, who had all helped to make Christie feel at home during her 'stay' at Angie's Palace.
At any other time Zee would have been glad to see her friends, but right now....
"Who is it?" yelled Christie from behind her.
She noticed the champagne bottles clutched in each hand and that the women were all wearing their Sunday Best. This wasn't just a flying visit by the looks of things.
"The Welcome wagon," she called.
Angie poked Zee in the ribs with her fan. "Are you going to invite us in, then?"
A hand grabbed the back of her shirt and yanked her out of the way. "Yes she is." Christie beamed delightedly at Angie and her whores. "It's lovely to see you. Come on in."
The giggling women stepped past Zee into the interior and then a round of hugging and kissing and noisy chattering ensued. Zee sighed, enviously eyed the horses contentedly lapping water from the trough in the quiet of the yard, then closed the door and went to join her 'guests'.
Zee stretched. "I like this bed," she announced. "It's roomy. A person can spread out." She suited the action to the deed then curled herself back around Christie.
"Mmmm. It's certainly an improvement on that cramped bed at Madame Angie's." Christie yawned. "What a day!"
Zee smiled, thinking of Rowdy Molly's startled expression just before she passed out from too much champagne and had to be carried to the shabby wagon that had brought the women from the brothel and was waiting to take them back. "I thought they'd never leave."
"I could tell," came the response. "You had that glint in your eye all evening. The girls were ribbing me about it."
In the dark, Zee frowned. "What glint?"
"You know. That 'I can't wait to take you to bed' one."
"Oh." Zee smiled complacently and rubbed her thumb over the soft skin of Christie's belly, eliciting a hum of pleasure. "That glint."
She pressed her lips against the fragrant-smelling blonde hair, and thought about the woman in her arms, the house that was now theirs, the life together that lay ahead of them. Before, it had been a dream; now.... The reality of it was a little overwhelming.
"Bed's been well and truly christened," she said instead.
"Mmmm." A sleepy sigh. "Well and truly." Christie was fighting hard to stay awake and keep her company, but she was losing the battle.
"'S alright, Darlin'," she said tenderly, recognising that their recent travelling, plus the day's excitement, followed by lovemaking had all taken their toll on the blonde. "I'll be here when you wake up. Sleep now. Sweet dreams." Once more she pressed her lips to Christie's hair.
"Uh." Christie snuggled back against Zee and captured her hand, pressing it against her belly. "'Morrow, love," she slurred. Then there was only the sound of their breathing.
If Christie could have whistled while she worked, she would have. But since, even with Zee's expert tutelage, she had still not quite got the hang of it, she contented herself with humming instead.
As she stoked the stove then put her loaf in to bake, she hummed a few bars of 'Beautiful Dreamer'. And as she washed and dried the breakfast dishes and cutlery and put them in their appointed places, she hummed some more.
Her thoughts were only half on her work, however. She was preoccupied with a certain rangy deputy. After feeding Zee a large helping of ham and eggs and extracting a promise that she be home for dinner at noon, she had sent her off to work with a loving kiss that still made her lips tingle.
I'm happy, she realised. She laughed and resumed her humming.
It was odd keeping house again. Christie had kept house for her brother for years of course, but with Zee it was... 'different' was the best description she could manage. And after the cramped and embarrassingly noisy confines of the brothel, this kitchen, the bedroom, that bed... why, they were heavenly!
She stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, stretched out her arms, and spun in a circle until she was giddy, then stopped and took herself severely to task. There was work to be done - so much that she didn't know quite where to start. So she had better get on with it.
Christie smoothed down her apron, tied back her hair in a headscarf, and fetched a broom from the closet. Then she ventured into the front room Zee had ruefully shown her yesterday. It was to be the parlour eventually, but at present it was a cobweb-festooned health hazard.
Whatever the previous occupant had believed, it certainly wasn't that cleanliness is next to godliness. Clouds of dust billowed up all around her and set her coughing. She laid aside the broom, ran upstairs, and helped herself to one of Zee's red bandannas, then stared wryly at her reflection in the mirror. The mask over her nose and mouth made her look rather rakish, she decided. "I'm Hellcat Hayes," she drawled, trying to arch her eyebrow the way Zee did. "The terror of Benson." She shook her head at herself, then ran downstairs laughing and resumed her sweeping.
When the worst of the dust had been successfully brushed into the yard, she fetched a mop and a pail of their precious water (thank heavens the water wagon was coming tomorrow) and started washing down the walls. As she worked, she hummed and thought about the future.
It would be nice to have a proper parlour in which to receive guests. The kitchen was all very well for informal occasions, but.... She glanced assessingly at the windows, which needed a clean. That surprise bolt of sky blue calico Zee had bought would not only do for curtains but matching tablecloths too. Of course they'd need some tables first. The furniture in this room had been beyond saving, so they would have to start from scratch.
Maybe it would be cheaper for Zee to make the tables herself, she mused. The raven-haired woman was good at carpentry and they had spent an awful lot of Zee's savings on the house already. Though the deputy had said she'd have no difficulty providing Christie with the weekly allowance she'd asked for, they would still have to be careful. It was up to Christie to be frugal and make economies where she could.
She finished washing down the wall and stood back to admire the result, rubbing her itchy nose until she realised she was probably coating it with more dirt. What was one more blob, though, when she was covered from head to foot in the stuff already? She emptied the dirty water over the vegetables in the front garden - at least she assumed they were vegetables - then put away the pail and mop.
Sponging her face and hands clean and brushing her hair made her feel human again. She put on a fresh apron, poured herself a glass of lemonade, and sank gratefully into a kitchen chair.
She had been resting quietly for ten minutes when a knock at the back door dragged her from a very pleasant daydream involving Zee and the huge bed upstairs. The unexpected visitor turned out to be their neighbour, Curly Young. The big man, who owed his nickname to his riot of curly black hair, was bearing another of his wife's peach pies.
"Truth be told, I'm glad to get rid of it," he confessed, waving aside Christie's thanks. "I'm mighty sick of peaches, but donít tell my wife I said so."
He crushed his hat against his expanding belly (the result of too many peach pies?) and glanced assessingly at his surroundings. The kitchen seemed to meet with his approval.
Then he took a breath and exhaled, his words coming out in a rush. "Main reason I'm here, Miss Hayes, er, I mean, Christie, is... Well, it's this way." His face reddened and Christie wondered what on earth was coming next. "Seeing as how there's no man about the place.... And seeing as how there's bound to be heavy work: chopping wood, fixing things that get broke and the like.... Well, it occurred to Ann and me that you might, er... well, might be in need of some male assistance now and then."
Christie blinked and considered this rather garbled speech. Her puzzlement eased. "Oh, you're offering to be our handyman if we need you?"
"That's it exactly." He gave her a relieved glance. "It was Ann's idea. She said, seeing as we're your closest neighbours and all...."
"Quite." Christie nodded. "And how very kind of you to offer. We really do appreciate it." She smiled. "But Zee is more than capable of taking care of all the things that need doing around the place. She's strong and she's very good with her hands."
A vivid memory of last night's bed-christening activities popped into her head and she looked down and tried not to blush. Fortunately, when she looked up again, Curly didn't seem to have noticed anything amiss.
He was nodding vigorously, clearly at ease once again. "Thought that's what you'd say. But I had to go through the motions. Once Ann's got an idea in that pretty little head of hers-" He gave her a conspiratorial grin. "She forgot that one of the two women in question is Zee, I reckon."
He crammed his hat on his head. "Well, Iíll be on my way then, Miss Hay... erm, Christie." He tipped the brim of his hat. "The offer still stands though, should you two ever need it."
"Thank you. That's very kind."
Christie was sitting on the parlour floor, surrounded by lengths of sky blue cloth marked with tailor's chalk, when an odd sound caught her attention. She stopped cutting, and cocked her head to one side.
It seemed to be coming from the front garden. She put down her dressmaking shears, got to her feet, and approached the now sparkling windows.
A boy of about ten, clad in clean but patched dungarees, was swinging on the front gate.
"Well!" She supposed he must belong to their other neighbours, the Rikers, since the Youngs' two children had grown up and left home long ago, according to Zee.
Zee had also told her not to expect any neighbourly treatment from the Rikers. "Hymn singing hypocrites the pair of 'em. Adah's one of them Temperance Union busybodies. I ain't exactly their flavour of the month since I stopped 'em smashing up the Last Chance Saloon." She grimaced. "Ernie's just as bad. He's President of the Bank."
"Banking's not necessarily a bad thing," said Christie cautiously
"It is if you call in the loans of folks who are desperate and steal their homes off 'em."
"That doesnít sound very Christian!"
"It ain't." Zee hugged her warmly. "There's more charity in your little fingernail, Darlin', than in their whole sorry carcasses. My guess is they'll give us a wide berth, which suits me just fine."
Zee hadn't mentioned the Rikers had a son.
Christie tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, smoothed her apron, and went out to talk to him.
"Hello, young man. Would you please stop swinging on our gate? You'll have it off its hinges."
The stare he gave her was disconcerting. "No." Squeak
She blinked at him. "I beg your pardon."
She frowned and considered what to do next. "Do your parents know you are not in school?"
"You're the Rikers' boy, aren't you?" She folded her arms and waited.
"I said you're the Rikers' boy, aren't you?"
"And you're the Hellcat's whore."
She sucked in her breath sharply. For a child to even know such a word! "Donít speak to me like that."
Abruptly, the boy stopped swinging and stepped down from the gate. That unnerving gaze was fixed on her again. "Why not? You're the Hellcat's whore," he repeated. "Everyone knows it."
Her face felt hot. "I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, young man, or I'll put you across my knee!"
He smiled and she was suddenly reminded of those boys who pull the wings off flies. He was trying to goad her, she realised. Sticks and stones, she told herself grimly. Sticks and stones. She kept her breathing slow and steady.
"A killer and her whore, living as man and wife," continued the boy, watching her closely. "Itís disgusting."
Now Christie's dander was well and truly up. Where was the broom when you needed it? A good swift smack would have to do. She marched determinedly towards him, raising her hand, but he stepped back and darted off.
He had gone barely ten yards before he turned and yelled at her, "Why don't you go back to the brothel where you belong? You're both going to Hell anyway."
Still boiling with anger - an unfamiliar sensation and one she could well do without - she shaded her eyes and watched him hare off down the road.
Christie marched indoors and headed for the kitchen. There, she shucked her apron and grabbed her bonnet. She had barely tied the ribbons under her chin, before she was outside again and on her way to the Rikers' place.
It was smaller than the Youngs' rambling old spread, but larger than the Old Barn. Its inhabitants clearly had money - a nice porch ran across the front of the house, which was painted white with a green trim, and the roof was shingled. As she crunched up the stony path towards the front door, between the tubs that someone had planted up with bay trees, she could hear dogs barking.
She knocked at the ornate front door and waited. The parlour's lace curtain twitched. Moments later, a plump woman was standing in the doorway, staring down her prominent nose at her.
"Mrs. Riker?" Since the boy was about 10 years old, Christie supposed his mother couldnít be more than 30, but the staid dress she wore, of black broadcloth, added 10 years to her appearance .
"Yes," said the woman.
"I'm Christie Hayes, your new neighbour. Pleased to meet you."
Adah Riker stepped back and began to close the door.
"Hey, wait a minute!" said an indignant Christie. "It's about your son."
The closing door paused, seemed to think about what it should do next, then opened again. "Joe?"
"Is that his name? Small boy, about ten years old, curly blonde hair, brown eyes, freckles, wearing dungarees."
"Joe." Adah's tone was stiff. "What about him?"
"He's been round at my house, damaging my front gate and insulting me."
"When was this?"
The woman shook her head. "Can't be our Joe. He's in school."
"He should be in school but he isn't. He insulted me and Deputy Brodie."
Mention of the Deputy made Adah Riker blink nervously. "What did Joe say?"
Christie's cheeks grew hot. "I... it's too upsetting to repeat."
"If he said you should be in a brothel and the Deputy should be in the jail not running it, then it was the simple truth."
Christie gaped at the woman. "I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me. If that's all, I have better things to do than talk to the Hellcat's whore." Her neighbour stepped back and shut the door in her face.
Shock rooted Christie to the spot. She stared at the door, finding the wood's grain oddly fascinating, and noticing that a fly that been caught in the paint.
"Told you!" The hateful voice jolted Christie out of her paralysis. She twisted and saw Joe Riker peering round the corner of the porch at her. Then the parlour curtain twitched, and the boy ducked back out of sight again.
She didn't remember walking back to the Old Barn, but somehow she found herself back in her own kitchen. She tore off her bonnet, hung it up, then pulled out a chair and sat down. Leaning one elbow on the table, she rested her chin in her palm, and stared blankly at the wall. If everyone felt as the Rikers did, her dreams for a normal life with Zee were only so much smoke and mirrors....
The ticking of the clock seemed deafening in the silence, and she could hear the logs crackling and shifting inside the stove. She felt oddly detached. The numbness would wear off soon, she supposed, and then would come some other emotion - hurt, anger, sadness... maybe all three?
A little while later - ten minutes by the clock - Christie realised with a start that she had better begin preparing Zee's dinner or the Deputy would go hungry. Mechanically, she peeled some potatoes and put them on to boil, then she got out the salt pork from the pantry and began to slice....
Zee whistled as she strode along the boardwalk towards the Wells Fargo office. She had been in the jailhouse, leafing through the bundle of bulletins and wanted posters that had come in during her absence, when she heard the hoofbeats and rumble of wheels that meant the stagecoach was here. With a little luck the package she had ordered should be on it.
A crowd of passengers and passers-by had gathered next to the stage. She broke into a run as she realised that they were watching two men fight.
"Out of the way." She elbowed her way to the front, took in the situation at a glance, then grabbed Jim Marlin by the back of his collar and hauled him off the stage driver, Cal Unger, who was half his size.
"What in tarnation's going on, Jim?" She gave the big man a shake that clapped his jaws together before releasing her grip on his collar.
He glowered at her from beneath bushy eyebrows. "No call to treat me that way, Deputy. I'm within my rights." Disgustedly, he kicked a wooden crate that lay on the ground next to the stage, and she heard the tinkling of broken glass. "This ain't no earthly use to me."
Blood had spattered the front of Unger's shirt. Zee pulled off her bandanna and shoved it at the young man. He gaped at her then accepted the neckerchief and pressed it to his bleeding nose.
"Says I damaged his glassware." The cloth muffled the driver's voice. "But it was like that when I took possession."
Unger had always been honest in his dealings with her, so she was inclined to believe him. She turned to Marlin. "Reckon your beef's with the Stage line, Jim, not Cal here."
Unger nodded carefully, so as not to exacerbate his nosebleed. Marlin cursed under his breath, but his shoulders slumped and Zee knew the fight had gone out of him. Sensing the fun was over, the bystanders began to disperse.
She watched the big man pick up his crate and carry it inside the Wells Fargo Office. Moments later came the sound of raised voices. Zee sighed and hoped she wouldn't be called on to break up yet another fight.
The driver fingered his nose gingerly and decided it had stopped bleeding. "Thanks, Deputy." He offered Zee her now sodden bandanna.
She grimaced and declined it with a quick shake of the head. "Just doing my job. 'Course, I might have to whup you myself if I find you've given the same treatment to my package."
He blinked uncertainly at her. "No, no, your stuff is just fine and dandy." He hurried round to the stage's boot and pulled out a burlap sack. "Here it is, safe and sound." His hands, she was amused to see, were shaking.
She took the sack from him, hefted it to assess its weight, then loosened the drawstring around its neck and peeked inside. The contents looked unprepossessing, but then, she was expecting that. She tipped her hat at him and grinned. "Looks all present and correct, Cal. Thanks."
While he breathed a sigh of relief and turned back to his unloading, she swivelled on her heel and headed back to the jail, jiggled the little bag as she walked and whistling the chorus from 'Come into the Garden, Maud'. Hope Christie likes 'em.
"Hey, Brodie." The familiar voice made her stop whistling and glance round. Red Mary was across the street waving at her, her ample bosoms threatening to spill over the top of her low cut blouse. "You coming to the Palace for a bite to eat?"
Zee shook her head. "Thanks for the invite, Mary, but my lady's making me dinner," she called. "I'm on my way back home now." 'Home.' She tasted the word and found it good.
The whore wasn't quite quick enough to hide the scowl that mention of Christie provoked and Zee covered her grin with a cough. It did a person good, she decided, to have two women fighting over 'em. Not that there was any contest, of course. Christie had won her heart and the sooner Red Mary accepted that the better. She tipped her hat to the disgruntled whore and resumed her progress.
The mare was waiting patiently for her at the shady hitching post outside the jail. She tucked the burlap sack into a saddlebag and patted the horse's neck. "Won't be long, girl," she murmured in one twitching ear. "Just got to leave a note for people." Another pat, then she was taking the steps up to the jail two at a time, and flinging open the door to the little office.
The cells were empty today, fortunately - Granpappy Carpenter had sobered up and she'd given him a final cup of strong coffee and sent him home - so no prisoners needed feeding. It took her only moments to find some paper and scrawl a note to the effect that she'd 'Gone Home For Dinner. Back in One Hour'.
She was halfway out the office door, when a thought made her smile, and she went back and struck out the 'One' and scribbled a 'Two' in its place. There. That should provide enough time for after-dinner plans involving a certain pretty blonde and a bed
Outside, she untied the mare's rein and mounted up, then she kneed the horse into a trot. As she headed up Main Street, she pulled down the broad brim of her hat against the sun's overhead glare and pondered a puzzle. Why was it that, as soon as she returned to work, things always got interesting?
Hogan's logbook said things had been as quiet as a mouse while she was away. There'd been a fistfight or two, and minor fires at The Golden Slipper and The Last Chance Saloon, oh and the arrival of that gambler from New Orleans which had provoked the Sheriff into sending a telegram to check up on him, but that had been it.
Her first morning back, and already she'd had to separate two of Madame Angie's new girls (they'd been trying to knife one another, over a handsome young client), and a pair of silver miners, lifelong friends, had taken it into their heads to brain one another with shovels, all because one had called the other's new shirt 'puke-coloured'. Then there had been the scuffle outside the Wells Fargo Office....
She waved at the blacksmith's boy, who was playing knucklebones on the boardwalk then turned the mare off Main Street.
She'd assess the gambler herself this afternoon, she decided, as she cantered past McGillivray's, where a loud hammering indicated the undertaker was hard at work. Americus Millain might be an honest cardplayer, he might also be the biggest cardsharp this side of the Mississippi. Hogan had noted that Millain had a pretty little octoroon in tow; Zee was curious to see her too.
Her stomach rumbled. Wonder what Christie's got for dinner. Whatever it is, it'll sure be welcome.
The Old Barn came into sight, and impulsively she kicked the mare into a gallop. Soon she was pounding up the track alongside the house, jumping the back gate (she hoped Christie wouldn't yell at her for risking the mare so foolishly), and pulling up in the back yard. The horse whinnied indignantly and tossed her head.
"Thanks, girl." She dismounted, gave the sweating horse a consoling pat, and led her to the trough. Seconds later, burlap sack in hand she was lifting the latch and pushing open the back door with an enthusiastic thump.
Christie was standing with her back to her, serving up an appetising smelling dinner. She admired the shapely rump for a brief moment then strode towards the other woman.
"Did you miss me, Darlin'?" She flung her hat unerringly at the hatstand, discarded the sack and her gloves on the table, and pulled the blonde into a bearhug. To her surprise, Christie let out a sob and turned in the circle of her arms, grabbing hold of her, and pressing herself into Zee.
"Hey!" Zee was in danger of toppling backward under the unexpected assault, and she hastily steered them both over to a chair and sat down. "What's wrong, Darlin'?" She pulled her onto her lap. Damn! "Is it something I did?"
But Christie was crying so hard it was impossible to make out what she was saying in between the sniffles and sobs and hiccups.
First she had to get the other woman calmed down. Zee rocked her gently, pressed her lips to hair and cheek, stroked Christie's back, all the while whispering the soothing stream of nonsense that worked when her horse got skittish. After a while, the sobbing lessened and the death grip round her neck eased.
The blonde head lifted and puffy green eyes regarded her blearily.
"Darlin', what's wrong?" asked Zee quietly.
Christie's nose was congested and her lips were swollen, but Zee caught the mumbled words 'Rikers' and 'whore' and 'Hell'. Her lips tightened.
"Tell me again," she ordered. "Slowly." When the whole sorry mess had been laid out for her inspection, she carefully disentangled herself from the blonde and stood up.
Christie looked at her in alarm. "Where are you going?"
She reached for her gloves. "To teach those Rikers a lesson." A cold rage was pulsing through her. Those sanctimonious lumps of horsedung! How dare they treat her gentle lover like that! She flexed her hands, anticipating the satisfying feel of fists thudding into flesh.
Christie grabbed hold of one arm. "No!"
"Darlin' -" Zee tried to shake loose the hand restraining her.
"No." Christie's voice was urgent. "Listen to me. Youíre not the Hellcat anymore, Zee. You're the Law and you can't go taking it into your own hands."
She growled. "Just watch me."
"What the Rikers said was just words, Zee. Horrible, hurtful words, it's true, but I should have been thick-skinned enough to ignore them."
"Words can cause as much harm as bullets," she objected. But Christie's impassioned plea had reached her, and her anger was already ebbing. She could see from Christie's relieved look that the blonde knew it.
"Damn." She sat down with a thump, feeling as though she had just wrestled a bear. One finger at a time, she pulled off her gloves. "Why can't I whup someone when I feel like it?" she complained, only half in jest.
"Because then you'd be little better than a savage." Christie plopped herself down on Zee's lap again, as though she belonged there by right, and, the way it felt to Zee, she did.
"The Rikers are the savages." She slipped an arm round Christie's waist. "They had no call to speak to you that way."
Christie sighed. "A lot of people seem to feel the way they do. Blue does." The sadness of her expression almost broke Zee's heart.
"Your brother does not think you're a whore," she protested. "He thinks you keep bad company... and that bit's true." She gave Christie a rakish grin.
Green eyes regarded her wistfully. "Maybe I was foolish to think we could set up house like normal couples do, Zee. Maybe we should go back to Madame Angie's and-"
"Damn it!" Zee grabbed the blonde roughly by the shoulders, earning herself a startled glance. "Just because the Rikers think we should live a certain way don't mean we should. Hell, the way I see it, their disapproval is a point in our favour."
"No buts. I ain't going to apologise for who I am and neither are you."
"But respectable fo-"
"Respectable folk ain't worth a plugged nickel. It's folk like Ann and Curly Young who matter. Kind folk, decent folk. Got me?" Christie winced, and Zee released her grip on the other woman's shoulders as though burned. "Damn, Christie! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt-"
"It's all right, Zee." The blonde smiled at her, then ran a knuckle tenderly over one cheek. "I understand." She snuggled into Zee again and sighed softly. "You're right, of course. I know it. It's just... I don't feel it... here- " she thumped her own chest, "yet."
Zee held her close. "You will, Darlin'. Give it time."
Zee's grumbling stomach broke the companionable silence.
"Oh!" Christie sat up, a hand to her mouth. "Your dinner! It must be stone cold by now. Maybe I can reheat-" She tried to get up, but Zee held her firmly in place.
"Stay put." She stretched across the table and pulled one of the plates towards her. Sprinkling some salt on a cold potato, she held it to Christie's lips.
The blonde gave Zee a doubtful look, then shrugged. Small white teeth took a tentative bite. "Actually, it's not bad."
While the other woman chewed contentedly, Zee popped a potato in her own mouth and reached for a slice of salt pork.
"There are knives and forks, you know," chided Christie, but she didn't seem to mind when Zee tore up the meat with her fingers and fed her. Soon both plates were empty.
"Somehow, eating food like this tastes better," said the blonde, carefully licking crystals of salt from Zee's palm and sending a pleasant jolt straight to the deputy's groin.
"Yup." Zee grabbed Christie's hand and returned the favour... and got a wide-eyed look in response.
"When do you have to go back?" Christie's voice was a mere husk.
She glanced at the kitchen clock. "Half an hour." She smiled slyly. "Got something in mind?"
Christie slid off her lap then held out a hand. Zee took it and stood up.
"I think that bed needs rechristening, don't you, Darlin'?"
"My thoughts exactly."
Zee looped the mare's reins over the rail outside The Golden Slipper and pushed her way through the swing doors. The chatter, laughter, and clink of glasses stopped abruptly.
She raised an eyebrow. Every eye in the gambling den was on her, and that meant quite a few. She tipped back her hat and grinned. "Afternoon, gents," she called. "And ladies," she added, causing a ripple of laughter to run around the crowded room - there were plenty of women in the Golden Slipper, but few of them were 'ladies'. The mutter of conversation and the slap of playing cards on baize resumed.
The beautiful young woman in the lemon-yellow dress, sitting on her own by the bar, was a class apart from the gambling den's hostesses whose job was to siphon the customers' remaining money into the gambling den's pockets by serving drinks at the tables and flirting outrageously. Her dress flattered her figure but kept it discreetly under wraps, her flawless complexion required no face paint, and her manner was demure.
Zee gave the woman a closer look, and decided she was in fact little more than a girl, aged around 16. Her dark chestnut hair was slightly wavy and Zee would have bet that her tanned complexion owed little to the sun.
Guess she's the octoroon Hogan mentioned. Which means Americus Millain is in here somewhere.
She crossed to the bar, positioning herself so she could see the girl clearly in the mirror. The pretty octoroon seemed to be on edge. When she wasn't fiddling with her gloves, her eyes, which were so dark as to be almost black, were fixed on a man in a small-brimmed hat, striped silk shirt, and embroidered vest, who was sitting at one of the poker tables. In that get-up, he certainly wasn't one of the Golden Slipper's regulars.
Must be Millain.
Kitty Lee, one of the Golden Slipper's hostesses, came over and fluttered her long eyelashes at Zee. When the deputy politely but firmly declined her invitation to buy some house champagne and go upstairs with her, Kitty shook her head sadly, making her ringlets dance, but left her in peace.
Zee rested a boot on the foot rail. "Whiskey, Jack," she called. She felt in her vest pocket for a coin and flipped it towards him.
The barkeep caught it deftly. "Sure thing, Deputy." He reached below the counter for a bottle. When he'd finished pouring she took the bottle off him and examined the label. "This the best you've got?"
"Sorry. Been a run on the good stuff - that new fellow mostly. Won't be getting another delivery 'til next week."
"Guess it'll have to do then." She took a sip of the rough liquor and shuddered. "By 'new fellow' d'you mean Millain?"
Her words carried, and the girl further along the bar stiffened at the name
"That's him. Got a mean winning streak going."
Winning streak, huh? Zee knocked back her shotglass of rotgut in one, then turned and leaned back against the bar. Millain's pointed beard disguised a weak chin, she decided, just as he glanced up. His eyes widened as she caught and held his gaze, but he recovered his poise quickly, flashed her a charming smile that set her teeth on edge, and resumed his game of cards.
Zee turned her back on him. "'Nother whiskey, Jack," she called, depositing another coin on the counter, and shifting so she could see both the girl and Millain in the mirror.
"Tell me about this winning streak." She gulped down her drink. Either the liquor was improving on closer acquaintance or her taste buds had just died.
"Already cleaned out Luke Howells," said the barkeep, polishing the bar with a cloth. "And it looks like he's just done the same to Horace Beecher."
Zee glanced in the mirror. Horace's gleaming bald head was cradled in his hands, and his friends were trying to comfort him. A smirking Millain, meanwhile, was raking in the contents of the pot.
"Remarkable luck," she said dryly.
She smiled her thanks at the barkeep, then turned and strode over to Millain's table. Easing past a white-faced Horace, who was now being helped from the room, she grabbed the chair he had vacated, swivelling it round, and straddled it.
The players looked at her in surprise.
"Howdy, Brodie," said Bob Lewis, mopping his forehead with a kerchief. "You thinking of sitting in for a spell? I should warn you, Millain here is on form."
Silas Ward stared dolefully at the depleted pile of coins in front of him and grunted agreement.
Judy Silver - so-called because of her fondness for silver dollars - came over then to see if Zee wanted a drink. The smiling hostess leaned over, treating Zee to an eye-popping view of her cleavage. Zee blinked, cleared her suddenly dry throat, then declined the offer... of the drink and anything else the bosomy blonde might have in mind. Judy's smile disappeared instantly and she flounced off.
"Nope," continued Zee, gathering her wits. "Just came over to introduce myself." She held out a gloved hand to the gambler from New Orleans. "Deputy Zee Brodie."
He shook it firmly. "Americus Millain. At your service, Ma'am."
"Deputy or Brodie will do fine, thanks. So what brings you and your ladyfriend to Benson?" She glanced meaningfully at the girl in lemon-yellow who was watching them intently.
He shrugged, unwrapped a fresh deck of cards, and began to shuffle them. "Oh, you know how it is, Deputy. A man gets tired of staying in one place all the time." He smiled. "I had a sudden urge to travel."
She raised an eyebrow. "Uh huh?"
He knocked back the contents of the glass of whiskey sitting by his elbow. Almost as soon as he put it down, Judy Silver had brought the bottle and refilled it. He smiled charmingly at her and tossed her a dollar, then looked enquiringly at the other players. "Ready to win back some of your money, gentlemen?"
Bob nodded. "Count me in."
"Sure you wonít sit in, Deputy?"
She shook her head.
"OK, gentlemen. Ante up." Millain tossed a dollar in the pot, and waited for the others to add their token bets.
As he dealt, Zee rested her chin on the chair back and followed his every move with an eagle eye. He handled the cards like an expert. He glanced up, saw the direction of her intent stare and smiled slightly. She pursed her lips. Either he wasn't cheating or he was damned good at it.
When everyone had their cards (they were playing five card stud), Millain placed the remainder of the deck in the middle of the table and reached for his own cards.
He was the type to wear out his welcome everywhere he went, she guessed, watching the players examining the hands they had been dealt. The sooner the reply to Hogan's telegram came, the better.
Bob was sitting to the left of the dealer, so it fell to him to open the betting. He tossed in a dollar.
"See your dollar and raise you five," said Silas.
Zee considered the old man's rapidly dwindling pile of coins. Risky play, Silas. What've you got, a Full House?
Millain hesitated then reached for some bills. "See your five," he said, tossing them into the centre of the table.
As the game unfolded, it became clear that the New Orleans gambler's winning streak had deserted him.
Guess he couldn't risk cheating with me around.
He placed his cards face down on the table. "Gentlemen, regretfully, I fold."
Bob grunted. "Me too." He laid down his cards. "Let's see what you got, Silas."
"No yer don't. Didn't pay to see 'em, did yer?" A cackling Silas mixed his cards back into the deck, then began to rake in the pot's contents. "You've brought me luck, Brodie," he said, giving her a gap-toothed smile.
"Reckon we're quits then," she said, "seeing as how I nearly ran you down yesterday."
The old man scratched his whiskers then gestured dismissively.
Millain, meanwhile, appeared to be taking his change in fortunes philosophically. "Lady Luck is renowned for her fickleness. She deserted me today," he shrugged, "but there's always tomorrow."
He stood up. "And now, if you'll excuse me, gentlemen... Deputy. I have more pleasurable activities to pursue." He gave them a knowing wink and zigzagged his way through the tables and their occupants towards the attentive girl.
Zee watched him grab the pretty octoroon by the wrist, and guide her (though it verged on dragging) towards the exit. It was almost imperceptible, but she was sure the girl had flinched when the gambler reached for her. Zee frowned. If she was as terrified of Millain as she seemed, why did she stay with him? Something wasn't right about those two.
"Know anything about her?" she asked.
Bob snickered, noting the direction of her gaze. "Thought youíd already got your hands full with that little blonde of yours, Brodie." She glared at him and he held up his hands defensively. "Hey, only joking!"
"Her name's Julie," piped up Silas. "That's all I know, 'cepting that he's got her wrapped round his little finger. Millain says 'Jump,' and she says 'How high?'" He looked wistful. "Wish my missus was like that." He jingled his winnings and a smile split his craggy features. "At least I ain't gonna catch it in the neck this time."
Zee rolled her eyes. "You bet Martha's housekeeping money again?"
"Hey, I earned it," protested Silas.
Still shaking her head at the silver miner's antics, Zee made her way out of the crowded room. Outside the Golden Slipper, she paused beside her mare and glanced up the street.
Millain and his companion were walking briskly towards Mrs. Sandridge's boarding house. He still had hold of the girl's arm. The conversation between them seemed to be all one way - she was listening and nodding meekly. As though sensing Zee's gaze, he glanced back at her. She pretended to tighten her horse's girth, and by the time she looked up again, the couple had vanished inside the boarding house.
She put her foot in the stirrup and mounted up. As she rode towards the railroad station, Zee pondered Millain's treatment of the girl. Slavery had never taken off in Benson, and it was now illegal anyway, but she couldn't help wondering.... She sighed. All she had was hints and suspicions, nothing to grab hold of.
The stomping of her boots on the station telegraph office's floorboards brought old Frank, the clerk, to the window. He peered short-sightedly at her.
"What can I do for you, Deputy? Want to send a telegram?"
"Nope. Just wonderin' if there's been any reply to Hogan's telegram yet."
"The one to New Orleans?"
She nodded, and he beamed at her. "It came in five minutes ago. Now where did I put it?" He blinked vaguely at his surroundings then brightened. "Ah, I know."
Moments later, with the extremely interesting telegram folded neatly in one pocket, she stepped out of the office and headed for her horse.
CONTINUED IN PART 2