Warnings - See Part 1.
HOME SWEET HOME
(aka A Full House for the Hellcat.)
Zee strode up to the telegraph office window, shook the handbell for service, and waited. The clerk appeared from the backroom, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
"Morning, Deputy. What can I do fer you?"
"Sorry to disturb your breakfast, Frank." She reached in her vest pocket and pulled out the slip of paper she had worked hard on, paring the words to a minimum. "Need you to send this to New Orleans for me."
He accepted the message, then peered at it short-sightedly and began to count the words. She pulled out the exact money and slapped it down. "That oughtta cover it."
He finished his mental arithmetic, looked at the coins, then nodded and scooped them up. "Pinkerton Detective Agency? You fixin' to track down some bad guys?"
She smiled and shook her head. "Nope. Some good guys."
He blinked at her, then, when no explanation was forthcoming, shrugged and wandered off to send the message. She leaned against the counter and waited, the uneven tapping of the Morse key punctuating her thoughts.
The idea had come to her this morning, when she was snuggling contentedly in bed with Christie, listening to the dawn chorus and the distant yapping of the Rikers' dogs as they fought over their breakfasts. Searching for Marion Fontenot's kin was a long shot - after all she had died a decade ago and assigned guardianship to her lover rather than a relative - but blood was thicker than water, and, if it paid off, it would be one more choice of futures to offer Julie.
More importantly, it would take the girl away from Benson and from Christie. The gentle blonde was trying hard to accommodate the octoroon, Zee knew. But she was struggling. Take this morning. On her way to feed and water the horses, Zee had tiptoed through the kitchen, expecting Julie to still be sleeping, only to find a delicious smell of frying ham wafting round the kitchen and the girl up and dressed and happily preparing breakfast for three.
"Least I can do," said Julie, giving her a shy smile.
Zee had paused, her mouth watering in anticipation, and wondered whether to warn the girl that Christie might want to cook breakfast herself. Then the door opened and the blonde came in.
In other circumstances it might have been funny, seeing the wide smile on Christie's face disappear so abruptly. She stared indignantly at the scene before her.
Julie glanced round from serving out the portions. "Oh, I hope you donít mind, Miss Hayes." She ducked her head anxiously, the mannerism confirming Zee's suspicions that Millain used to hit the girl.
"No, no, of course not." Christie managed a weak smile that made Zee want to hug her. "How very kind of you to take the trouble, Julie."
What made thing even worse, of course, was that the ham and eggs were delicious, and Julie's freshly brewed coffee was even better than Christie's. Zee thoroughly enjoyed her breakfast, though Christie, she noticed, seemed to have lost her appetite.
When the octoroon rose to clear away the dirty dishes, Zee leaned towards the blonde and said in a low voice, "She can dressmake and cook. That should improve her prospects some."
"It should, shouldn't it?" Christie brightened noticeably at the thought.
When Zee was leaving for work, she grabbed Christie by the arm and gently urged her out into the yard. "Don't worry, Darlin'," she said loyally and not entirely truthfully, "Your cooking's more to my taste." Then she kissed the blonde until Christie was weak at the knees. "And anyway, that ain't the reason I keep you around." She winked, enjoying the flush her remark had brought to the blonde's face, then mounted up and rode off.
The telegraph key stopped tapping out its dots and dashes and she looked up.
"It's sent," called the clerk.
"Thanks, Frank." Zee ran a hand through her hair and resettled her hat, then stepped outside and headed back towards Main Street.
Hogan's horse was tethered next to her mare, she saw, as she neared the jailhouse. She took the steps up two at a time and pushed open the door with a bang that made the moustachioed man sitting in the office look up with a pained glance.
"Mornin'." She lassoed the hatstand with her hat, then perched on the corner of the desk. "Nice break?"
"Fair to middling." He put down the logbook he had been perusing. "Sounds like you've had a high old time while I've been away." He gave her a sly glance. "So now you're living with two pretty women? Hound dog!"
"It ain't like that!" she protested.
He laughed and gave her a shrewd glance. "How's Christie taking it?"
"Not well." She sighed. "It never occurred to me she'd feel so... proprietorial."
He fingered his moustache. "About the house?"
Zee nodded. "Guess it's 'cause I've only ever felt possessive about horses... and Christie. It was different with Molly - her heart was mine, but her body...." She fiddled with a loose thread in her Levis. "It's kind of flattering Christie feels that way, actually." She looked up and caught his grin. "What?"
"By God, I do believe that little blonde's tamed the Hellcat! Never thought Iíd see the day."
She felt herself blushing and changed the subject rapidly. "Yeah, well.... So have you taken care of Granpappy Carpenter? I left him sobering up overnight." She grimaced. "He spends more time in the cell than he does at home."
Hogan nodded. "Gave him some coffee and beans and sent him packing."
"Good." She stood up and paced towards the window, watching the customers coming and going at the barbershop across the street. "Wonder what delights today holds in store," she said sarcastically.
"Temperance Union meeting," said Hogan. "Outside the Last Chance Saloon at 10 this morning."
She turned and looked at him. "First I've heard of it."
He tapped his nose. "You just donít have the right contacts, Brodie."
She gave him a knowing grin. "Ah, that pretty little widow over on Second Avenue?"
It was Hogan's turn to blush.
"Well," she turned to stare out the window again. "It's your turn to deal with those sour-faced old biddies."
"Hey, I'm the boss. I say who does what."
She turned, folded her arms, and simply looked at him.
He sighed. "All right. Toss you for it."
A silver dollar spun through the air and landed on the desk... tails up.
Zee shook her head. "Damn it, Hogan! It ain't fair."
He laughed, pocketed the dollar, then ostentatiously put his feet up on the desk and crossed his ankles. "You only just found that out?"
Zee could hear the women a block away. They were singing 'Rock of Ages' out of tune. She winced and strode on.
It was the usual culprits, she saw, as she drew nearer to the group of women huddled on the sidewalk outside the saloon - Adah Riker, Eliza Atkey and their Temperance Union cronies. One young woman was rushing around handing out placards she had clearly made at the last minute. Zee read the slogans: 'Down with the Demon Drink', 'Woe to Whisky', and her favourite 'Outlaw Licker'.
She suppressed a bawdy laugh and approached the ringleaders. The singing faltered as the women registered her presence (some undoubtedly remembering last time when she picked them up by the bustle and scruff of the neck and threw them into the street).
"You can't stand here, ladies," said Zee.
"It's a peaceful protest, Deputy," protested the dumpy Eliza Atkey.
"I sure hope it is, but you still can't stand here. You're blocking the way." She was aware of frightened male eyes watching her through the Last Chance Saloon's large front window. Wonder if their husbands are in there?
Grumbling and muttering, the women reluctantly moved until they were half on the sidewalk and half in the street.
"Much obliged," said Zee. She leaned back against a rail, folded her arms, and scrutinised the members of the Temperance Union one by one. They shifted nervously under her gaze.
"Well, really!" said one.
"Who does she think she is?" said another.
'Rock of Ages' came to an end, and after a short bout of vigorous chanting - "Say No to liquor!", "Save our Menfolk from Ruin!" - the women switched to 'There Is A Fountain'.
Zee winced at the caterwauling. I'll get you for this, Hogan.
The protestors began to march up and down, waving their placards. A few interested bystanders were now watching, hoping for a brawl.
Sorry, folks, but there ain't going to be a show tod- Wait a minute!
One of the women who'd caused trouble last time, Martha Curry, was having difficulty marching. Either her drawers had fallen round her ankles, or something hidden under her petticoats was hampering her stride.
Zee straightened and advanced on the woman, who froze and regarded her apprehensively. "Want to hand it over?"
Martha's abrupt halt caused disarray as the marching women behind her bumped into one another.
"What's going on?" asked someone. "What does she want with Martha?"
"Hand what over?" Martha was trying desperately to look down her nose at Zee, but since she was a foot shorter than the Deputy, it didn't work.
"I wonít ask you again." Zee assumed the menacing glare that had once cowed her fellow outlaws and Martha quailed visibly. "I'll just turn you upside down and search under your petticoats. Is that what you want?"
The women standing next to Martha gasped and went pale. "I can't believe it!"
"She's going to assault Martha!"
"Someone get the Sheriff!"
But Zee's attention was focussed on her quarry, who was now awkwardly wriggling, doing something with her bustle - God only knows what!
Something thudded onto bare earth.
"Step back," ordered Zee.
Sheepishly, Martha obeyed. On the ground where she had stood now lay a hatchet. A shocked gasp went up.
Zee picked up the hatchet, which was still warm from its unusual hiding place, and looked first at it then at the other woman. "Peaceful protest?"
"Martha!" hissed Adah Riker. "I thought we agreed...."
Zee tossed the hatchet from hand to hand. "Any more of these?" She raised an eyebrow. One by one, as she held their gazes, the women blushed a bright red then shook their heads.
"That's good," she growled. "That's very good. Because if there's even the remotest hint of trouble here today, you'll all - and I mean ALL - be spending the night in jail." She waited. "Is that clear?"
They nodded meekly.
"Fine." Satisfied that they would behave themselves this time, she turned and, hatchet in hand, headed back towards the jailhouse. She had gone only a few paces when she remembered something.
She turned and shouted, "Oh, and by the way. It's spelled L... I... Q... U... O... R."
One look at the women's mortified faces was enough to keep her guffawing all the way back.
"How long have you and Deputy Brodie lived together, Miss Hayes?"
The rolling pin halted, and Christie considered the question. "Well, I've known her longer of course, but we've actually lived together for about two months. And please, call me Christie."
She smiled at the octoroon's surprise. "It isn't very long, is it? Yet sometimes I feel as if I've known Zee all my life." She shrugged at the mystery of it, and resumed rolling out her pastry.
Julie half-heartedly turned the pages of her magazine. Christie had selected it carefully. Every Saturday was running an adventure serial about a heroine stranded on a desert island, and she hoped the exciting story would hold the girl's interest and encourage her to persist with her reading.
Christie had discovered that the octoroon's literacy skills were sadly lacking - Millain hadn't considered such things important in a ward - and she was taking steps to remedy that. Unfortunately, the girl seemed more interested in her hosts' personal lives than in fiction.
Julie peered at Christie from beneath lowered eyelashes. "Was it love at first sight?"
Christie snorted. "Hardly." She rested an empty pie dish upside down on top of her pastry, and cut around it." The first time I met Zee, I was so frightened of her, I got her shot."
The girl's eyes widened. "Indeed?"
"Indeed." She lined the dish with the pastry and began to pile in the beef in gravy she had cooked earlier.
"But then you fell in love?"
"No, then I decided she was the most insufferable and impudent woman I had ever met... and also the most fascinating," she said wryly, remembering her painful confusion. "I didn't know what was happening to me. That I could be in love with a woman like Zee was unthinkable."
Christie had a feeling the pretty octoroon didn't see at all. She knew nothing of love. How could she, given her life with Millain?
"But then you realised you loved her?" persisted Julie.
The pie now ready for the oven, she cleared away her pastry making equipment and wiped down the table with a cloth. "No, then I became engaged to someone else."
By now the girl looked totally confused and Christie laughed. "You look the way I felt."
"But if you were engaged...." Julie fiddled with the corner of a page.
"I left my fiancé to follow Zee," explained Christie, still amazed in retrospect at her boldness.
"Just like that?"
She nodded. "Just like that." She took off her apron and took the seat next to Julie. "We were supposed to be practising your reading," she reminded gently. "Now." She pointed at the first paragraph on the page open in front of Julie. "Can you read that aloud for me?"
Julie sighed but obliged. Haltingly she began to read, stopping often to ask about a word. Christie gently offered suggestions and encouragement, pleased at the slow but steady progress the girl was making - she had obviously been taught the rudiments when she was young, probably by her mother.
"Oh, I meant to mention... I saw a boy in the back yard earlier," commented Julie, when they paused at the end of a chapter.
"Oh?" Christie gave her a sharp glance. "What was he doing?"
"Nothing... just staring in the window. When he saw me he ran away."
"It was probably the Riker boy, Joe. Horrid little brat!" She chewed her lip worriedly. What had he been doing in the yard? "Excuse me one moment."
She got up and went outside. But a cursory inspection revealed that the gelding was unharmed and nothing looked out of place. Must have scared him off before he did anything.
She went back indoors. Julie looked up expectantly. "Perhaps we should practice your writing for a while." The girl made a face. "Donít you want to be able to sign your name instead of having to make your mark?"
"My name?" A slow smile transformed Julie's face.
Christie fetched a piece of paper and a pencil and sat next to Julie. "Now watch me." Carefully and clearly she wrote the words 'Julie Fontenot'. "Now you try it."
While Julie busied herself laboriously tracing out her name over and over, the tip of her tongue poking out in concentration, Christie fetched some vegetables from the pantry and began to peel them. As she stared out of the kitchen window, she pondered again what Joe Riker had been doing in their back yard.
"Deputy Brodie is very strong, isn't she?" came Julie's voice.
Back to that topic, are we? Christie rolled her eyes, glad the girl couldn't see her expression. "Yes. She is."
"Does she hurt you when she beats you?"
"Pardon?" A shocked Christie spun on her heel and stared at the girl .
"When you won't do what she wants you to," clarified Julie, stopping writing and looking up at her.
"When I won't.... Zee has never raised her hand to me!"
"Oh.... Well, perhaps she will, when you've been together longer." She bowed her head and began to write once more.
"She would never hurt me. She loves me. People who truly love you don't hurt you or force you to do things you donít want to. Surely you know that?" Silence met her remark, and Christie frowned thoughtfully. "Did he... did your guardian beat you, Julie?"
Wordlessly, the girl rolled up one of the long sleeves of her pink dress. Christie's hand flew to her mouth as she saw the bruises on the thin arm. "Oh!"
"He told me it was for my own good. And he was always careful to make sure they wouldn't show." Julie shrugged and rolled down her sleeve.
Christie blinked. Was the girl really as stoic as she seemed? She had her suspicions that - given the chance and a sympathetic ear - she might be able to release some of the pent up hurt and anguish of her long, lonely painful years with Americus Millain.
For the next hour, she told deliberately funny anecdotes about her recent adventures with Zee, trying to show Julie there was another way to live and to build up the girl's trust. Then, there came a moment when she sensed Julie was waiting for her, expecting her even, to ask the question that had been hanging over them unspoken. She crossed her fingers that her instincts were sound, took a deep breath, and obliged.
"Julie. Did Millain make you do things... intimate things with him," she asked as delicately as possible, "which you would rather have not done?"
A teardrop landed with a loud plunk on the table, startling them both. "Yes," said the girl, her voice a mere whisper.
"Oh, my dear!" Impulsively, she swept the octoroon into a hug, rocking the now openly crying girl, stroking her wavy hair and making soothing noises. It was probably the first time since her mother died, Christie reflected sadly, that anyone had held her this way.
Over the next hour, which was characterised by long tearful silences followed by confessional outbursts, Julie told her the pitiful story.
At first, Millain had been kind to her. She never went hungry, and he bought her pretty fabrics and pattern books so she could make herself fashionable dresses. (It reflected badly on him, he told her, if she looked old-fashioned and shabby.) But gradually, as the gambling fever and the drinking took hold of him, he changed....
Getting to this point had taken a lot out of the girl, and they both needed the brief respite that came when Christie got up to put the pie in the oven and the vegetables on to boil. Then she resumed her seat, invited the girl back onto her lap and into her arms, and the story continued.
The worst had come when Julie turned 12 and became a woman at last. One night soon after, her guardian came home the worse for drink, remarked how much like her mother she looked, and took her forcibly to his bed. She tried to fight him off, but he gave her a black eye and nearly broke her arm. She had quickly learned not to resist. And he had praised her then, and called her his 'good girl'. The comments her appearance caused the next morning also taught him a lesson - to make sure any bruises were hidden.
Bedding the girl had become a regular occurrence, and caused her much distress and, to Christie's surprise, guilt. "I'm going to go to Hell, aren't I?" she said, in between sniffles.
"No, Julie, you're not." But Americus Millain certainly is. She smoothed the girl's hair and thought privately how lucky Julie had been to escape having Millain's child. A faint smell of smoke made her glance across at the stove, but the meat pie and vegetables seemed to be cooking as normal so she shrugged and dismissed it as her imagination.
She found a clean handkerchief and handed it over. "Here."
Julie accepted it and blew her nose daintily. "I'm glad he's dead," she said, giving Christie a sideways glance from those striking dark eyes, as though she expected disagreement.
"So am I."
That got her a pleased grin. "You are?"
Christie nodded. "He hurt you. He tried to kill Zee." She rocked the girl some more. "Oh, yes," she said grimly. "I'm very glad he's dead."
Zee was sweeping out the cells when the faint sound of the fire bell made her set aside her broom and go outside to investigate.
The clanging was coming and going on the gusting breeze, and it was hard to judge either direction or distance. Quicker just to check for telltale signs of smoke. She found it almost instantly, a dark stain smudging the sky to the north-west. But surely that's -
Loud hoofbeats made her turn. A rider was coming towards her at the gallop and she knew him instantly.
Hogan reined his mount in in front of the jailhouse steps. "It's your place, Brodie. It's on fire."
He had barely finished speaking before Zee was leaping into her own horse's saddle. A heel to the mare's ribs brought an indignant snort, but it obliging broke into a gallop.
Zee headed north-west, driving her horse hard towards Schoolhouse Lane. If anything's happened to her.... Or Julie....
A few minutes hard riding, then she could see the Old Barn in the distance. To her relief, the oddlooking house appeared untouched. Wisps of smoke were still rising from the rear though. Must be the barn.
She rode full tilt up the track alongside the house, scanning half hopefully, half fearfully for signs of Christie. What colour dress had the blonde been wearing when she saw her last? Her mind was a blank and she cursed under her breath. She turned the blowing mare into the crowded yard, managing to avoid trampling the members of the fire crew underfoot only with difficulty, slid out of the saddle, and took in her surroundings in one appalled glance.
The barn was a smoking ruin, still dripping with the water that the soot-stained fire-fighters had pumped onto it. The buckboard was a pile of cinders, as was the water trough and log pile. No sign of the gelding. She turned anxiously towards the house. It looked like the fire hadn't spread that far, thank God!
"It's out," reported Marvin, who had spotted her instantly and come to report.
"Anyone hurt?" She had yet to spy either Christie or Julie.
The leader of the fire crew shook his head, and she felt almost dizzy with relief. "Sent the women over to the Youngs' place," he told her. "Your gelding's there too. He's fine. Miss Hayes managed to get him clear of the barn before the roof collapsed." He whistled softly. "Just as well your lady had the sense to send for our help as soon as she did, Brodie. Fire could've spread to the house."
Zee slapped him on the shoulder. "I'm obliged to you," she said feelingly. She assessed her surroundings again and shook her head. "Any idea what started it?"
"Thought I caught a whiff of kerosene oil."
She chewed her lip. "Arson?"
"No proof, but it could be." He tipped his hat then and went back to join his crew.
She took one last look around the ruined yard, then set off to the Youngs' house, taking the most direct route and easily vaulting the boundary fence. She was just raising one gloved hand to knock on the front door when it opened.
"She's fine, Zee," were Curly's first words. "Absolutely fine."
"I'll be the judge of that," growled Zee. "Where is she?"
"In the parlour. It's through-"
But Zee knew where the parlour was and had already pushed past him. Ann Young came out of the kitchen, took one look at her, and stood back.
"When there's a stampede," Zee heard Ann telling her husband, "it's best to get out of the way." Then her attention was abruptly fixed elsewhere. Before she had even touched it, the parlour door had swung open and an adorably soot-smudged whirlwind with blonde hair and green eyes was flying towards her.
She braced herself just in time, as Christie flung herself into her arms, threatening to overbalance them both. She returned the squeeze that was crushing the breath out of her and tried to speak, but couldnít for the huge lump in her throat. Instead, she simply gazed at Christie, grazing her thumb over soft cheeks, drinking in the wonderful sight of her, though she currently looked like a soot-stained, drowned rat and reeked of woodsmoke.
Zee had an overwhelming urge to kiss those soft lips and gave in to it. Time passed, she had no idea how much, then a soft clearing of the throat made her remember her surroundings. Breaking the kiss (to a murmur of protest from Christie), she looked up, blinking. She kept hold of the little blonde though, reluctant after her recent narrow escape to let her go.
Familiar dark eyes were regarding the two of them.
"You all right, Julie?" asked Zee.
The girl nodded. "Thanks to Miss Hayes. She made sure I got to safety."
"Good girl." Zee gave Christie an approving squeeze, and got one in return. Now she had her lover safely in her arms, she could relax and take in her surroundings.
Julie didn't look much better than Christie did, she decided. And both women would need the octoroon's dressmaking skills. Neither of their dresses looked salvageable.
Green eyes regarded her fearfully, clearly expecting the worst. "The fire crew made us leave. Is it bad?"
"Barn's gone. Yard's a mess." She shrugged. "We can fix 'em both."
Christie sighed with relief. She made Zee put her down then laced her fingers through Zee's and led her into the parlour. Still holding hands, they sat on the settee, pressed together along their length, though there was room and to spare. Julie chose a chair.
"Er...." They turned to see a wary looking Curly standing in the doorway. "Ann sent me to see if anyone would like some more lemonade."
Christie nodded. "I would love some. That smoke, you know." Julie nodded.
"Me too," said Zee. After he'd gone, she placed her hat in her lap, took off her gloves, and ran her free hand through her hair. "So," she said. "How did it start?"
"We think the boy did it," said Julie.
"Boy?" Zee sat forward. "The Riker boy?"
"It must have been him," agreed Christie. "Julie saw him earlier... in the yard. He ran away then, but he must have come back."
Zee let go of Christie's hand and surged to her feet. "Why, that little-"
"We donít know it was him for certain, though," cautioned the blonde.
Zee crammed her hat back on. "I'd bet those odds," she said. "Anyway, whoever did it'll have left tracks."
Christie stood up then, her chin jutting with determination. "I'm coming with you."
"Not this time, Darlin'." She ignored the look of outrage her reply brought. "You'll only slow me down." She raised a hand to forestall Christie's protest. "And 'sides, if you don't mind me saying so, the two of you could both do with a wash and brush up and a change of clothes."
Christie glanced down at herself and frowned. "What does that matter when-"
Zee silenced her protest with a kiss that left the blonde's cheeks a pretty shade of pink. "It matters to me," she said, when she let Christie back up for air. "Tracking the culprit may take a while, and I want you to be comfortable." The blonde's gaze softened and she followed up her advantage. "Besides, it's my job and I'm damned good at it. Let me do this, Darlin'. I'll meet you back at the house later."
Christie sighed but acquiesced. "All right."
Zee pressed Christie's hand gratefully, gave her a last loving look, then strode towards the door and opened it. Curly was about to enter, and he almost dropped the tray he was carrying. He paused, uncertainly.
"Well, are you coming in or going out?"
"Coming in." She stepped aside and he suited the word to the deed.
Zee grabbed one of the glasses of lemonade, drained it dry, and replaced it on the tray. "Mmm, good. Thanks."
With a wink at Christie, and a tip of her hat at Julie, she headed for the front door.
The fire crew had packed up their water wagon and gone home by the time Zee returned to the charred wreckage of her back yard. Her mare whinnied a greeting then dropped its head pointedly to where the water trough used to be. Zee took the hint, poured some water from her canteen into a palm, and let the horse drink its fill. As she patted the broad neck with her free hand, and whispered encouraging words in a twitching ear, her eyes scanned her surroundings.
Marvin's crew, their fire appliance, the mule, the water, her own horse... all had contributed to the churned up muddy mess. All traces of any boy who might have been lurking about had been well and truly obliterated. Perhaps if she started looking outside the yard, where the ground was still dry....
The mare lipped up the final drops of water, and she gave the animal one last pat. Then she slung her canteen over one shoulder, the rope she kept coiled round her saddle horn over the other, and set off.
It took her five minutes' scrutiny of the track alongside the Old Barn before she found it - half of a footprint: a right shoe, its heel worn badly down on one side, and so small it must belong to a child. She crouched and rubbed her thumb in the dirt, comparing the colour and texture of the freshly disturbed patch against that of the print.
Recent, very recent.
Satisfied she would know the footprint again, she straightened and looked consideringly towards the Riker residence. The print was leading away from the large, white house with the green trim not towards it. Much as she would have liked to go over there and accuse the boy, as Christie had pointed out, she was the Law and couldn't take things into her own hands just because she felt like it. She needed proof first, and she was going to get it.
The hard packed earth didn't hold tracks well - but a fragment of footprint here, a broken grass stem there was enough. As always, the skills Indian Pete had taught her ten years ago (the outlaw had been half Apache on his mother's side) served her well.
She followed the tracks across Schoolhouse lane, along the boundary fence between two properties, then east towards the San Pedro River. Once away from Benson, they became easier to follow - the trail was obviously well used.
Determined not to spook her quarry, she kept a low profile, taking cover where it was offered, be it a lone saguaro standing guard over its surroundings, or, as the river drew nearer and the terrain changed correspondingly, a thicket at the base of a stand of cottonwoods.
She paused to catch her breath and gulp lukewarm water from the canteen. A coyote was yipping in the distance, she noted absently. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and considered what to do with the boy when she caught him. Was he a lost cause, or could he still be turned around? She sighed, slung the canteen over her shoulder, and picked up the trail once more.
Zee had been tracking for half an hour when the winding trail led her towards what had once been a coyote's den. Human hands had enlarged the entrance in the soft earth. She paused, checked her surroundings quickly, then tiptoed forward and peered in.
Her senses told her the hideout was empty, and she eased herself inside the cramped quarters. Someone had left a stub of candle just inside the entrance and she lit it and examined her surroundings. The occupant clearly didn't believe in tidiness.
Some of the items littering the den were typical of a boy's possessions: a stack of yellowing Dime Novels of the detective variety; a knife worn thin with honing, its bone handle snapped off; a pack of playing cards; a gunny sack containing some cheap cigars and matches; and several pieces of string.
Other things were more surprising: a grimy shot glass and empty bottle of whiskey; and a lady's spangled garter. She twanged the garter reflectively and grinned. The grin vanished when she spotted the delicate necklace of turquoise beads she had given to Christie for a one-month anniversary present. There were also a surprising number of containers of kerosene oil given there was no lamp in sight.
Carefully, she replaced each item as she had found it. Catching him surrounded by this stuff oughtta do it.
She checked to make sure the coast was clear then vacated the hideout and hunkered down in a nearby thicket to wait....
It was dark and the temperature had dropped considerably when something brought her back to alertness. Her subconscious had tuned out the yipping coyotes and the call of a nighthawk hunting insects, so it must be something else. She sat up and pushed back her hat, which had fallen forward while she dozed. Footsteps, she decided, hearing the faint rhythmic crunch and feeling the slight vibration accompanying them. Coming her way.
Movement caught her eye. A small figure, silhouetted by the rising moon, was heading directly towards the hideout. This was no innocent bystander; whoever it was knew exactly where he was going. She held her breath and waited. He should reach the entrance to the hideout about... now.
The silhouette disappeared from view.
Zee's lips curled into a savage grin and she waited a couple of minutes more then crept towards the den. The entrance was now illuminated by the faint, flickering glow of the candle. Quietly, she positioned herself just outside.
"Didn't your parents tell you it's wrong to steal?"
Joe Riker barely had time to look up from his dime novel and turn wide eyes in her direction before she was lunging into the hideout, grabbing him by his collar and belt, and hauling him bodily out into the open.
"Wha- ? Let me go, you bitch!"
His arms and legs flailed wildly, and a heel thunked painfully into her left shin, while a fist came too close to her eyes for comfort. Unceremoniously, she plonked the thrashing boy face down in the dirt, pressed her knee into his back to keep him pinned there, then grabbed the coil of rope and hog-tied him.
"Whatever it is, I didnít do it."
She straightened and dusted herself off. "You're caught; might as well get used to it."
Since his struggles were only succeeding in bringing him mouthfuls of dirt, he subsided. "But Deputy Brodie," - she noted the belated polite appellation with a wry smile - "It wasn't me. Honest."
She shrugged. "Got you fair and square for theft and arson, Joe. No use protesting. You played with fire, and you just got burned."
Ignoring her prisoner's further squawks of protest, she ducked back inside the hideout, then emptied the cigars from the gunny sack (then reconsidered and stuffed a couple of them in her pocket, along with Christie's bead necklace) and refilled it with incriminating evidence. One last look. Should be enough. She blew out the candle.
On emerging from the hole, Zee stretched, and inhaled an appreciative breath of cool night air. Then she turned to her now silent, sullen prisoner.
"On your feet, son." She yanked Joe up by his collar, then with a grunt of effort heaved him over her shoulder.
"Now let's see what your parents have to say about this."
Bam. Bam. Bam.
Somewhere out back, dogs started barking, and inside the house a man's voice bellowed, "Adah, will you see to those dogs?"
Zee raised her fist again. Bam, bam.
"All right, all right. I'm coming."
The door swung open and Ernie Riker stood in the doorway, his high collar unbuttoned, his cravat askew. His look of annoyance intensified when he saw who had disturbed him. "Oh, it's you, Brodie. What do you want?"
Zee shifted the weight draped over her shoulder into a more comfortable position. "It's about your boy."
"Our Joe?" came Adah's voice from behind her husband. "Tell that awful woman to come back tomorrow. He's in bed and I won't have him disturbed."
"No he isn't." Zee heaved the hog-tied bundle off her shoulder, letting it drop the final foot deliberately. It emitted a faint "Oof!" as it thudded to earth.
Riker's eyes widened as the light spilling from the porch illuminated his son's features. "Joe?"
Zee straightened, glad to be free of the boy's weight at last. "Found him in his hideout near the river. Spends more time there than he does in school, I'd bet. But you wouldn't know about that, would you? You let your son run wild. No wonder he's gone to the bad."
"How dare you!" Adah elbowed her husband to one side and stepped outside. She crouched next to Joe. "Are you all right, son? Did she hurt you?"
"She attacked me, Mama. She tied me up and slung me over her shoulder."
Adah's lips thinned. "Disgraceful! I shall be complaining to Sheriff Hogan-"
Zee interrupted the diatribe. "Be thankful that's all I did, Mrs. Riker. By rights Joe should be in jail, since he's the one been setting all these fires. But him being so young and all, I decided to act lenient. Besides, I don't think he's the only one to blame."
"The fires? You must be mistaken." Adah looked at her son. "She is, isn't she, Joe?"
The blonde boy opened his mouth then closed it again. His mother gave him a puzzled look then began untying the rope, giving Zee a challenging glare as she did so.
Zee shrugged and let her get on with it. "Got the evidence right here," she said, reaching for the gunny sack that was hanging from her belt. "Found these in Joe's hideout." She began to pull out the items one by one.
First, the playing cards. "See these?" She flipped one over to display the design on the reverse - a yellow lady's slipper. "Only place you can get these is the Golden Slipper." She arched an eyebrow significantly. "There was a fire there the other day."
"Anyone could have given him those." The final knot came undone, and Adah helped Joe to his feet and hugged him. He grimaced but submitted to her embrace.
Zee pulled out the grimy shot glass. She tapped it with a fingernail, the sound ringing out clear as a bell in the night air. "This is from the Last Chance Saloon. They all have this lettering L C S on the base here - see?" She held out the glass for inspection but Adah pointedly ignored it. "They had a fire there too," she added.
Ernie came out to stand with his wife and son, putting a burly arm round their shoulders. "So what?"
Zee displayed the spangled garter. "And this is unmistakable. Only one person I know wears these - Diamond Dust Kate." She saw no recognition in the adult Rikers' eyes, but the boy flushed. "Kate works down at Angie's Palace," she clarified. "There was a fire there too. See a pattern yet?"
Joe's parents exchanged perturbed glances.
Carefully, Zee pulled the delicate necklace of turquoise beads from her pocket. "He had this too. Came from my place. There was a fire there today. You must have seen the smoke from your house, Mrs. Riker." Her lips twisted. "Strange how you were too busy to help. Fire caused a lot of damage. Christie and the 16-year-old girl we've got staying with us could have been killed."
Adah had the grace to look uncomfortable at that titbit, she saw with some satisfaction.
"So what does any of that prove?" challenged Ernie. "Our son has accumulated a few souvenirs. That doesn't prove he started the fires."
"When you take into account the stash of kerosene oil in his hideout, it does."
"Kerosene oil?" Adah blinked.
"Even if he did have such a 'stash', as you call it," persisted her husband. "Why would our son want to set those fires?"
Zee folded her arms. "That puzzled me too," she admitted. "But I think I've worked it out. The kind of places and people targeted - your son simply did what you told him to."
Adah blinked. "How dare you! I have never... NEVER told Joe to burn anywhere down."
"Not directly, perhaps. But every time you said the saloon and gambling den and whorehouse are a disgrace, every time you told him certain folks were headed straight for hell, that was the message he got." She eyed the boy. "Ain't that right, Joe?"
He scuffed the dirt with his toe, and for a moment, she thought he wasn't going to answer. Maybe she'd chosen the wrong punishment. Maybe a spell in jail would have been better for him after all.
Then he looked up and stared her straight in the eye. "They deserved it," he said defiantly. "They'll all burn in hell anyway - whores and gamblers and heathens the lot of them."
Adah gasped and put a hand to her mouth. "Joe!"
Zee nodded. "See? This is where all that hate talk has got you. The way he's heading, he'll end up with a noose around his neck. But he's young, there's still time to turn him around...."
The glance Ernie shot her was full of hatred not gratitude, and she sighed. What chance did the boy have with parents like these?
"This would never have happened," said the Bank President bitterly, "if you and your kind hadn't come here where you're not wanted."
She ignored the jibe. "I wouldn't be so certain." She gave the sullen-faced boy a stern glance. "Now listen, Joe, and listen good. I'm letting you off, but things are going to change from now on."
Adah opened her mouth to speak but a glare from Zee silenced her.
"If I hear you've been skipping school again," she said pointedly, "I'm taking you into custody. Any more fires, you're the first suspect on my list. First sign of trouble at my place," she continued, "I'll come looking for you.... Do I make myself clear?"
Joe looked anxiously up at his parents. Adah avoided his gaze, and Ernie's face was so suffused with rage he couldn't speak.
Kid doesn't stand a chance. She tried one last time. "Just so we're clear as crystal. This doesn't happen again, or you'll all have me to answer to." She put on her fiercest glare and at last saw the fear she had been looking for appear in their eyes. "And believe me, I ain't called the Hellcat for nothing."
Then she turned and walked away.
Christie woke up to find herself in her favourite position - wrapped like an octopus round Zee. She sighed contentedly and snuggled even closer.
"Comfy?" came an amused voice.
She smiled sleepily. "Very."
Her reward was a gentle squeeze, then a hand began to draw lazy circles on her back. For a while she simply basked in a blissful haze, enjoying Zee's touch, then it slowly dawned on her... something was different.
The stroking stopped. "What?" asked Zee.
"I was just thinking how quiet it is. What's happened to the Rikers' dogs? Usually at this hour they're barking." Christie twisted in Zee's arms and stared up at her. "Did we oversleep?"
"Nope." Zee bent her head and pressed a gentle kiss on Christie's mouth. She pulled back and grinned. "Mornin'."
Christie returned the grin. "Good morning, my love." Then her mind returned to the puzzle. "So why aren't they barking?"
"'Cause they're gone," said Zee.
"Not just the dogs, the whole damned lot of 'em." She brushed a lock of blonde hair out of Christie's eyes. "Left a few hours ago - while you were snoring. Donít know how you managed to sleep through it, the din they were making loading up their wagon." The tall woman stretched languidly, the play of muscles under tanned skin distracting Christie pleasantly.
Zee's words registered belatedly. "I do not snore!" She poked the other woman in the ribs. "They left? Just like that? I donít believe it!" Releasing her hold on Zee, she rolled over and got out of bed. She padded over to the window, drew the curtains and stared out at the Riker place.
Unusually, no smoke curled from the chimney, and the open porch door was banging in the morning breeze. There were no curtains at the windows, she noticed suddenly. She turned her head to look at Zee. The dark-haired woman was now sitting up and leaning back against the headboard, hands clasped loosely behind her neck showing off her breasts in all their naked glory. Christie licked her lips unconsciously.
"You're right," she said. "The place looks deserted."
"Just as well," drawled the deputy. "'Cause otherwise they'd see a mighty fine eyeful."
Christie frowned, looked down at herself, and abruptly realised what Zee meant. "Oh!" Hastily crossing her arms over her own naked breasts, she scuttled back to bed, pulling the sheets over herself.
"Nuh uh." Zee pulled the sheets off her. "I was enjoying the view."
A flushed Christie let herself be pulled into Zee's lap. Then strong fingers were stroking her belly and ribs, and a warmth whose source was not embarrassment began to spread over her....
She tried to focus on the topic under discussion. "But why did they go? You didn't run them out of town, did you? I thought you said were trying to turn the boy around."
Zee shrugged and shifted her attention higher. "Looks like Riker put his own needs first. Thought, maybe, just this once.... But no."
By now Christie was finding it hard to catch her breath let alone concentrate on the Rikers. "Uh?"
"Ernie knew his standing would plummet when news about Joe got out," clarified Zee. "Couldn't face it. Skedaddled. Plain and simple. Good riddance, I say."
The deputy eased her onto her back then, and straddled her, a predatory look on her face. "Less talk, more action," she ordered.
Christie laughed and obligingly suited the word to the deed.
A delicious smell of frying ham and eggs wafted up to Christie as she descended the stairs. She sighed. Julie must be cooking again. She couldn't begrudge the girl - this was Julie's way of recompensing them for putting her up, and she was an excellent cook - it was just that.... She chewed her lip and analysed her feelings. Just that the girl made her feel like a guest in her own home.
Resolutely pushing such meanspirited thoughts aside, she plastered a smile on her face and pushed open the kitchen door.
Julie was standing at the stove, spatula in hand. "Good morning, Christie."
"Good morning. Did you sleep well?"
The pretty octoroon nodded.
A clatter of boots on the stairs, the sound of whistling, followed by the crash of the door flying open and hitting the wall, made Christie roll her eyes at Julie (who covered her smile with one hand and turned quickly away) and swing round.
"Mmmm, smells good." Zee draped her gun belt over the back of a chair. "I'll just take care of the horses." She sauntered past Christie, giving her a slap on the rump as she did so, and escaping out into the yard before Christie could react.
"She's in a good mood," commented Julie, as Christie crossed to the window and gazed out at Zee, who was giving the mare and gelding water and hay, and as she always did talking to them as though they were people.
"Mmmm." She smiled and turned back. "Can I do anything to help?"
"No, thank you. It's nearly ready."
Christie sat down, and passed the time admiring Julie's dress, which was the height of fashion and made of scarlet velveteen if she wasn't mistaken. She fingered her own much more modest outfit, made of shabby grey calico, and suppressed a sigh.
The octoroon has just finished doling out breakfast when Zee returned. She washed her hands, wiped them on the front of her check shirt (Christie tried not to roll her eyes), then took a seat and began cheerfully tucking into her ham and eggs. Julie's indulgent glance at the tall woman was not lost on Christie.
"So," said Christie, taking a sip of the excellent coffee. "What are your plans for today, Zee?"
The deputy swallowed before speaking. "Need a new buckboard. Got to order some lumber too." She forked more ham into her mouth then registered Christie's puzzled look. "For the new barn," she added indistinctly.
"You?" Zee arched an eyebrow.
Christie mopped up her egg with some bread. "Laundry and mending." She sighed. "Though I think the dresses Julie and I were wearing yesterday are probably beyond saving."
Zee reached in her pocket and pulled out some dollars. "Get yourself some pretty fabric. Make yourselves some new ones." She slapped the coins down on the table then pushed them towards Christie. "That oughtta cover it."
Christie looked first at the money then at Zee. "Can we afford it?" she asked bluntly.
Zee nodded. "Won it off Millain," she said complacently. "Wonít be needing it where he's gone."
Julie has stiffened at the mention of her guardian, but now her face broke into a smile. It was that which decided Christie. She scooped up the dollars and put them in her reticule. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Zee gave both women a lopsided grin, then she drained her coffee cup dry and wiped her mouth on one of the napkins that Christie had lately been insisting they use.
"Better get going." She buckled on her gun belt, settled it more comfortably on her hips, then reached for her hat. Christie stood up and went to join her.
"Are you going to tell Hogan about the Rikers?" she asked, as Zee pulled her into a hug. She cast an apologetic glance Julie's way but fortunately the girl didn't seem to mind such public displays of affection... which was just as well, since Zee then decided to kiss her thoroughly.
"Yep," said Zee, when they came up for air. "I'll tell him. Now the Rikers are gone, you should have no more trouble here either."
Her cheeks burning, Christie straightened her dress self-consciously and refused to look at the octoroon. "Good."
She grabbed the still smirking Zee by the arm and urged her outside, where the dark-haired woman took the opportunity to kiss her thoroughly again.
"Zee!" she protested, half amused, half serious.
The deputy laughed and backed off. "Sorry, Darlin'. Can't seem to keep my hands to myself, where you're concerned." She pulled on her gloves and mounted up.
Christie smiled and shook her head but inside she felt deeply flattered by Zee's comment. Then a thought struck her and she rested a hand on Zee's thigh, which felt warm through her Levis, and looked up at her. "It's a long walk into town, and rolls of dress material are heavy," she hinted.
Zee grinned and patted her hand. "I'll get Bradley's boy to bring the new buckboard out to you. All right, Darlin'?"
Christie nodded and stood back. "All right."
The hoofbeats and Zee's whistling had faded into the distance when Christie took a last look round the bedraggled yard, sighed, and went back indoors. Julie had already started on the washing up and she went to help her. Nothing was said about the kiss, for which she was thankful.
After helping Julie to practice her reading for an hour, they started on the laundry. As she had feared, the torn and singed cloth came to pieces in her hands. She sighed, set the material aside for rags, and got on with the rest of the wash. She had just finished draping a petticoat over a bush to dry when the boy from the livery stable drove up in a buckboard.
"Miss Hayes," he called, reining in and tipping his hat to her. "Your buckboard, with Deputy Brodie's compliments." He climbed down and unhitched the horse that had pulled the wagon, then mounted up and rode off.
Christie watched him go for a moment, then inspected the buckboard and gave a pleased smile. She popped her head round the kitchen door. "Get yourself ready to go to town, Julie," she called. "The buckboard's arrived."
She fetched the gelding from its temporary home beneath the makeshift canvas awning Zee had erected, and hitched it, then went back inside for her bonnet, shawl and reticule. She was waiting impatiently in the driving seat when Julie hurried out to join her.
That velveteen red dress was simply magnificent, she decided.
Julie saw the direction of her gaze. "Do you like it?"
"It's very fine," said Christie wistfully. "But I suppose not very practical."
"We'll find you something practical and pretty," promised the girl, with a smile.
The promise was soon made good. With Julie to advise her on taste and the latest fashion, and Ned Taylor to caution the women about the cost and important laundering considerations, they were soon home again with two rolls of very serviceable fabric.
Christie had found a turquoise cotton faille that exactly matched the anniversary necklace Zee had returned to her last night (much to Christie's surprise, since she hadn't noticed it was gone from her jewellery case), and Julie had clapped her hands when she sighted a deep gold silk that would complement her skin tone nicely.
Hoofbeats in the yard made both women look up from the lengths of material strewn all around them, and they glanced at the kitchen clock then regarded one another curiously.
"Sound like Zee," said Christie. "Wonder why she's home early."
The door banged open and the rangy deputy filled the doorway. She was clutching a piece of paper in one gloved hand. It looked like a telegram.
"Hey, Julie," said Zee. "Good news." She strode across the kitchen and stopped in front of the girl, who stared up at her. "Found your kin. And they want you to go and live with them."
For a moment, the girl looked stunned, then her face crumpled and she burst into tears.
A disconcerted Zee gazed helplessly at Christie, who stood up and snatched the piece of paper from her hands. "Give me that!" She put her arms round the weeping Julie and gave Zee a furious look. Of all the hamfisted - "Haven't you got horses to water or something?"
Zee's expression reminded Christie of a kicked puppy, then her stoic mask clamped into place and she turned and stamped out into the yard, cursing under her breath. Christie sighed. She had handled Zee all wrong, but she would have to fix it later. Right now, Julie was her main concern.
"How could she play such a cruel joke on me?" sobbed the girl. "She knows I have no one in the world to care about me, except you two."
One-handed, Christie opened the piece of paper, which was from New Orleans, from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. She read its contents through quickly, then more slowly a second time.
"It's no joke," she told Julie. "It seems you have an Aunt Sarah and Uncle William, and they are very much alive." The sniffles stopped and Julie blinked at her from red-rimmed eyes. "Do you remember them?" she asked gently.
A long silence followed and Julie's gaze turned inwards. "There was a man, with a big, soft beard," she said at last, softly. "And a woman who smelled of lavender. I donít know who they were. My mother took me to see them. I had ice cream."
Christie could see the child in Julie as she spoke. "You must have been very young," she said. She tapped the telegram with a fingernail. "According to this, they wanted to bring you up themselves, but Millain wouldn't relinquish custody - he said it was your mother's last wish, which it was. Later, he told them you were dead."
"Dead?" Julie's eyes widened. "But-"
"They also say you can have a home with them in New Orleans if you want it. They loved your mother very much and they have no children of their own."
"You don't have to make up your mind now," she continued. "You can live with your real family, or you can stay here with Zee and me while we get something else sorted out. There's always that dressmaker's job with Madame Clemence we talked about... I'm sure Zee could convince her to take you on... or -"
But Julie still appeared overwhelmed by the news and Christie knew it would take her some time to digest this information, let alone decide about her future. So she stopped talking and simply rocked the still tearful girl in her arms for a while.
"Think about it. Take as long as you like."
When she was confident Julie was sufficiently recovered from her shock to be left, she left her alone and went in search of Zee. Dusk had fallen, and the stars were coming out. She followed the acrid smell of smoke to the far the corner of the yard and there found the tall woman leaning against the fence, smoking quietly and looking up at the night sky.
She eased herself under Zee's arm and was relieved when the other woman pulled her close.
"She all right?" asked Zee gruffly.
"She will be."
"You all right?" The cigar tip glowed red in the darkness.
"Yes." Christie turned to look up at the strong profile. "But what about you? Zee, I'm sorry about earlier-"
A finger to her lips brought her to a halt. "You did the right thing," said Zee. "I forgot she's still only sixteen. Direct isn't always best."
"It usually is," said Christie. "And it's one of the things I love about you," she admitted.
Teeth gleamed in the moonlight. "Is it now?" Amusement coloured Zee's voice and she stubbed out her cigar butt with her boot heel.
"Since when did you start smoking?"
Zee shrugged. "Since I found some cigars in Joe Riker's hideout."
"Yep." The tall woman moved behind Christie, draped both arms loosely around her, and rested her chin on the crown of her head. "So," she said. "What do you think she'll do?"
Zee grunted agreement.
"I honestly donít know." She sighed. "I hope she chooses to go back to her family though." She turned to looked up at the tall silhouette. "Is that mean of me, do you think? Wanting to keep our home just for us?"
"No, Darlin'," said Zee. "That ain't mean, that's natural. 'Sides, you ain't got a mean bone in your body."
Christie winced at Zee's faith in her, especially considering how she had treated her earlier. "I wouldn't be too sure about that."
"I would." She felt a kiss pressed into her hair and relaxed back into Zee's embrace.
"Anyway, if she decides not to go..." Zee's voice vibrated through her, " well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, OK?"
"... Willcox, Lordsburg, Deming, El Paso," yelled the train attendant. "Alpine, Sanderson, Del Rio...."
Zee barged her way through the huddle of passengers waiting to board a car and headed for one further down the train, a glance satisfying her that Christie and Julie were following in her wake. Both looked wonderful in their new dresses, and it felt good to be seen in the company of two such pretty women.
It had been a fraught week, with Julie unable to decide about her future, swinging first this way then that, her tears never far beneath the surface. At least Zee could escape from the emotional storm by going to work each day. Christie had no such relief.
"Suppose my Aunt and Uncle mistreat me the way my guardian did?" the girl wailed one evening.
"Then just get on the train and come straight back here," said Zee pragmatically.
But the exasperated look Christie gave her told her that practical answers weren't what the girl needed at present, so she shrugged and left them to have yet another convoluted talk.
They had had an awful lot of those it seemed to her. They involved a lot of crying and 'what if' ing on Julie's part, and a lot of hugging and 'there, there' ing and hair stroking on Christie's, and, inevitably, more tears. She was glad to be out of it. The first few evenings she had occupied herself making furniture for the parlour. Then the lumber for the barn arrived, and she had another perfect excuse.
She was standing admiring the posts she had just sunk for the new barn, when a tired looking Christie came out into the back yard to join her.
"She's going," was all she said.
Zee arched an eyebrow. They had been here before, twice. "Definite?"
Christie nodded. "Definite."
Zee had draped an arm around her tired lover. "I'll wire William and Sarah Fontenot tomorrow," she said. "Get them to meet her off the train."
And that had been that.
There were some empty seats in the next car, Zee saw. She dumped the luggage at the bottom of the steps and waited for Julie and Christie to catch up. "This should do," she told them, handing them up, then grabbing the bags and following them inside.
While Christie selected a bench and helped Julie get settled, Zee stowed the cases. She also had a word with the conductor, asking him to make sure no one bothered the pretty octoroon, slipping him twenty dollars for his trouble when he agreed.
When she rejoined the others, Christie was asking Julie for the umpteenth time, "Are you sure you'll be all right?"
The girl nodded. "I'm used to trains," she said. "Millain travelled a lot."
Zee ran a soothing hand down Christie's back. "She'll be fine. The conductor's agreed to keep an eye on her," she said. "And her Aunt and Uncle are meeting her at the other end."
Christie sighed. "I'm acting like a mother hen, aren't I?"
Zee laughed but knew better than to agree or disagree. She peered out of the window, and saw the guard preparing to wave his flag. "Darlin', we'd better go. Looks like the train's about ready to leave."
The blonde leaned over and gave the girl a wordless hug, then turned, hand pressed to a trembling mouth, and hurried towards the exit.
"Good luck to you, Julie," said Zee sincerely. "And if you should ever be back this way again...."
The dark eyes were brimming with tears and the octoroon wiped them away with a gloved hand. "Thank you for everything," she said softly.
The whistle blew loudly, and the car lurched, setting off a clang of couplings all along the train. Zee tipped her hat and ran for it. The train was already moving when she almost fell down the steps, accepted Christie's outstretched hand to steady herself, then turned to watch.
As the train left Benson on the first stage of its long journey east, she draped her arm round Christie's shoulder and waved her hat at the forlorn gold-clad figure gazing back at them through a dirty window.
"She'll be all right," she told Christie, giving her a squeeze.
"I know she will."
Zee put her hat back on. As they walked arm in arm back to where the buckboard was, Christie was uncharacteristically silent.
"You OK?" asked Zee.
"About how strange it's going to be to have the house to ourselves again."
"Good strange or bad strange?"
Christie gave her a wry look. "Good strange, of course. It's nice to have visitors, but it's also nice when they go home."
Zee handed Christie up into the buckboard driving seat, then climbed up next to her. "Let me drive," she said, taking the reins before Christie could. "You look beat."
The blonde sighed. "I am," she said. "I feel as though I could sleep for a week."
"Walk on," Zee told the gelding, and flicked the reins. The buckboard lurched into motion. "I know what you mean," she said, when they'd travelled a few yards. "When it comes to weeping women or a gunfight, I'll take the gunfight any day.... Hey!" She rubbed the ankle that Christie had kicked then grinned unrepentantly at her.
They were passing Angie's Palace now, and Zee slowed as Angie herself spotted them and came hurrying over.
"Hey, you two," called the brothel madame. "We've just had some new pianola tunes arrive. Why donít you come over tonight and we can have some fun."
Zee was about to accept but she caught herself and looked at Christie. They had their signals down pat these days. A raised eyebrow from her was answered by a slight moue from the blonde.
"Sorry, Angie," she said. "Not tonight. Been a tough week. Me and my lady were planning a quiet night in, just the two of us... you know?" A knowing grin from Angie showed that she did indeed know. "Maybe tomorrow?" added Zee.
Angie smiled and stepped back. "We're not going anywhere, Brodie," she called. "Come over when you feel like it. We can have a game of strip poker."
Zee didn't dare look at Christie. They had had a heated discussion on the subject of strip poker the other night in bed. She had a feeling the other woman was only pretending to be angry about the cheating that ensured Christie always ended up clad only in her drawers, but Zee still wasn't 100% sure. So instead she merely nodded at Angie, and flicked the reins again. The buckboard moved forward.
"Thank you," said Christie feelingly. "I really do just want some quiet time alone with you."
"My pleasure." Zee reached out and took a small hand in hers. "Home?"
The blonde smiled, a smile that lit up not just her eyes but her entire being. "Home," she agreed.
Thanks to fellow bard Advocate for her help during the final editing stages of this story.