Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Davies.

Warnings

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.

Important Notice.

This is the sixth and final novelette in my series of Westerns starring Zee Brodie and Christie Hayes. It is the sequel to Home Sweet Home.

IN-LAWS FOR AN OUTLAW

(aka The Hellcat and the Chivaree)

by

Barbara Davies

(Email: bhdavies@cheltenham1.demon.co.uk )

Deputy Zee Brodie shaded her eyes against the noonday sun and peered through the dirty windowpane.

Damn it, Blue! It's a pigsty.

Stacks of dirty crockery marred the crumb-strewn kitchen table, and that dishcloth was a disgrace even to Zee's unfussy gaze. Christie would have the vapours if she knew how her brother was living now that she wasn't here to keep house for him.

She scanned the interior again, its emptiness explaining why no one had answered her knock at the back door. Must be eating his dinner at the store. Wherever that is.

Cramming her shabby Stetson back on her head, she stepped down off the back porch and made for the garden gate. Pity her mare wasn't tethered outside instead of back in Benson. Still. The walk won't kill me.

Zee strolled into town, tipping her hat to various passers-by and ignoring the looks coming her way. The stares would be for the usual reasons: the Levis, the guns. Civilised folks tended to think women shouldn't wear either. Too bad.

"Hang on, Deputy," came a familiar voice from behind. "To what do we owe this honour?"

She stopped and turned, smiling as Contention's Sheriff hurried across the street to join her. "Howdy, George."

Milligan's clothes bore knife-sharp creases, and his boots and badge of office shone. His linen shirt and serge trousers fit more snugly across his belly than they used to.

Nothing like the loving attentions of a new wife! "How's Kathy?"

"Never better." He stroked his brown moustache and tried not to look smug. "Christie?"

A thought had struck Zee and she was looking down at the gun belt she had had to let out another notch only last week. Hmmm. "Oh," she said absently, "she's fine."

"Good, good."

She pulled herself together. "It's not official business, George." They resumed walking. "I've come to talk to Bluford Hayes. Know where his store is?"

"Commercial Street. I'll show you." Milligan's brows creased. "Have those two patched things up between them yet?"

Zee regarded her boots. "No. But I aim to change that. Christie's been fretting about the rift between 'em. Plus, Blue's got a piano belonged to their parents. He don't play and Christie could sure use it. "

"Piano?" Milligan guffawed. "Watch out, Zee. She'll be holding musical soirées next."

She winced and pretended not to hear.

They were walking past a clapboard building with an elegant false front, bearing the name 'The Cactus Club'. It was a social club frequented by Contention's wealthier businessmen. Some of them were clustered in the large bay window, smoking expensive cigars, drinking whisky, and preening themselves after an undoubtedly excellent dinner.

One man's profile was instantly familiar. Zee checked her stride, then continued on. That ridiculous beard. Last time she had seen that particular profile, its owner had been threatening to call her out. As though aware of her scrutiny, the face turned towards her. Fred Younger's eyes widened and his jaw dropped.

Just my luck!

She strode on, hearing the creak of the Cactus Club's front door opening and the sudden murmur of male voices. Her nape hairs prickled, and she glanced in a nearby window, seeing in it the reflection of the men now gathered on the sidewalk staring after her. Christie's ex-fiancé's face looked like thunder.

Zee rested a gloved hand on the butt of one gun. Unless she missed her guess, Fred was the type to shoot someone in the back.

Milligan saw the gesture and glanced back. The watching men eyed him, muttered something to one another, then went back inside the social club. Zee relaxed her shoulders and blew out a breath.

"So, Christie's been fretting about her brother, eh?" Milligan resumed their conversation as though nothing untoward had happened. "Well, don't get your hopes up." He frowned. "Blue may not be very... approachable." They turned the corner into Commercial Street.

Zee glanced at him. "I ain't top of his popularity list, George, I know. But when it comes to Christie's happiness -"

Milligan's raised hand stopped her. "Your timing's bad, that's all. His business is going up the spout."

As she digested that interesting titbit, she scanned the storefronts up ahead. There it was, on the left, a little way past the Undertaker's. Large black letters spelled out the name 'Hayes' on the false front of a shabby-looking wooden building.

"And that's the reason." Milligan pointed at the brand new storefront directly opposite Blue's draper shop. The contrast could not have been starker. 'Younger's Fabric Emporium' proclaimed bright red letters. 'We sell it Cheaper!'

Zee chewed the inside of her cheek. "'Younger's'?"

The Sheriff nodded. "Alex Younger put up the money, but I'm betting it was his son's idea. Fred's had a burr under his saddle about Blue ever since Christie jilted him."

"Strictly speakin', it was Fred jilted Christie."

Milligan blinked. "Was it?" He shrugged. "Makes no difference. He's bound and determined to ruin anyone named Hayes. And he's succeeding."

Zee sighed. She had come to Contention to solve problems not add them to her list. When Christie heard about this....

"Well, I've errands to run, so I'll be on my way." Milligan tipped his hat to her. "Give my regards to Hogan when you get back, will you, Deputy?"

"Sure thing, George." She gestured at the draper's shop. "Much obliged for the directions."

"You're welcome."

She watched him walk away, then sighed, mentally girded her loins, and set off up the street.

"Oh, it's you!" The apron-clad man behind the counter slumped back onto his stool, the light dying from eyes the same green as his sister's.

"Yeah." Zee busied herself closing the door, eliciting another tinkle from the bell above it. In spite of Milligan's warning, the state of the store's interior and of its owner had come as something of a shock. She donned her poker face and removed her hat, then turned and strode towards the counter.

"Sorry to hear things aren't going well, Blue." She fiddled with her hat then placed it on the counter and began to remove her gloves finger by finger.

Christie's brother snorted and gestured at his empty store. "Where did you get that idea? I'm rushed off my feet." He had lost weight since their last encounter, and there was a grey cast to his complexion. He also badly needed a haircut and shave.

Zee laid her gloves next to her hat and glanced at her surroundings. The cotton reels, boxes of pins, and pattern books needed dusting and the bolts of fabric straightening, but Blue didn't seem to notice or care. Bad sign that. Best to change the subject maybe. "Christie sends her love."

Mention of his sister seemed to perk him up a bit. "Is she with you?" He looked around eagerly.

"No."

His posture slumped again. But his reaction gave Zee hope that her journey hadn't been wasted.

"But she's well. She was hoping for a reply to her letter."

For a moment, the draper seemed puzzled, then his cheeks flushed. "I meant to answer. Had a lot of things on my mind."

Zee frowned. "She thinks you're still mad at her."

Blue shook his head. "I was, but... that doesn't seem important now. Besides, it wasn't her fault." A flash of his old spirit returned. "What chance did she have?" He glared at her. "You marched into her home, stole her right out from under the noses of her brother and fiancé."

She blinked. "I did?"

"How else do you explain what happened?" he ground out. "Christie was well-brought up, respectable, until she met you. Now she's mixing with outlaws and whores."

Zee rubbed her chin. "That's how you need to see it, be my guest." She regarded him thoughtfully. "Given how he's behaving now, though, would you really rather she'd married Fred?"

The draper dropped his head in his hands and groaned. "I donít know. I donít know anything anymore."

"Even so. Christie'll be mighty glad to hear you don't bear her a grudge. She's been frettin'."

He doodled in the dust on the countertop. "Tell her I'm sorry."

"Why don't you tell her yourself? We've got our own place now; your sister's done it up real nice too. She'd love it if you paid us a visit."

He stared at her as if she was insane, and she tamped down an urge to shake him. "Look. What's really going on, Blue? Everyone has setbacks from time to time, it don't mean they fall apart."

"Setbacks?" He laughed slightly hysterically and ran a hand through dishevelled blond hair. "My life is in ruins, and you call it a 'setback'!"

Zee frowned. All this drama just because his store was going broke? Something didn't add up. "There's more to it than the store, isn't there?" she ventured. He didn't answer. "Look, don't make me shake it out of you." That got her a wide-eyed look that showed her he had just remembered who he was dealing with. The Arizona Hellcat had had a fierce reputation.

There was a long, tense silence. Then he murmured, "It's Jenny."

Ah. "Jenny?"

"The blacksmith's daughter."

She leaned comfortably against the counter and folded her arms. "All right. So, tell me all about this girl of yours...."

It was a torturous job, getting the details out of him, but eventually she managed to piece the story together. For nearly a year, Christie's brother had been courting Tom Farnham's youngest daughter Jenny. More than that, he had got her pregnant! Such things weren't a scandal these days, as long as the boy married the girl. And that's what Blue had wanted to do. But his dreams had turned to dust when he asked her father for permission... and was refused.

"Why in blazes was that?" asked Zee, genuinely startled.

"Not good enough. He didn't object when I started seeing Jenny - business was good, then, and my name had just been put forward for membership of the Cactus Club. But after Christie took up with you...." His voice trailed off.

Zee could imagine what had happened next. Still stinging from his treatment at Zee and Christie's hands, Fred Younger had blackballed Blue and set out to ruin him. That didn't necessarily mean an end to his prospects as Farnham's son-in-law though. Especially since the girl was pregnant.

"Why didn't you two just elope?"

"Jenny went away." His voice quavered and he turned away, but not before she saw his tear-filled eyes.

"Away?" She thought about that. There was only one explanation. "To have the baby in secret?"

He nodded. "Farnham has other plans for her. She's to marry Andrew LeRoy. He owns the Hotel; it's doing well and-" His voice broke and he stopped.

Zee filled in the blanks. So Jenny's family had spirited her away somewhere, to spare the family the shame that would become more obvious with every passing day. They were probably planning to give away the baby. That way, nothing would stand in the way of marriage to LeRoy.

Meanwhile, Blue, poor chump, stood to lose his prospective wife and baby. And his business was following hard on their heels. No wonder he was falling apart.

She thought about that for a moment, then reached over the counter and patted him on the shoulder. "Iíll get her back for you."

"What?" He stared at her from red-rimmed eyes.

"Jenny. I'll find her and bring her back. Then you two can get hitched." She waited for him to thank her. But got a different reaction altogether.

"But she doesn't want me. She agrees with her father. And who can blame her?" He gestured at himself. "Some catch!"

Zee frowned. "She told you that herself?"

"No. I haven't spoken to her since she left. But her father told me-"

"And you believed him?" She tried not to roll her eyes.

Blue sat back and folded his arms defensively. "Well-"

Her impatience got the better of her. "Of all the stupid, yellow-" She paused as a dangerous glint appeared in his eyes. Uh oh! I may just have pushed him too far.

He stood up, kicking the stool back as he did so, and placed his hands flat on the counter-top. "You have the nerve to come here and insult me?" He jutted his jaw. "After all you've done? This is YOUR fault, Hellcat." His voice rose. "If it hadn't been for you seducing my sister, Fred wouldn't be trying to ruin me, my business would be thriving, Iíd be a respected member of the Cactus Club, and Farnham would think I was perfect for his Jenny, and so would she." He reached beneath the counter and produced a shotgun.

Zee held up her hands. "Easy, now. Don't wanna be firin' that thing by mistake."

"Don't I?" He pointed the muzzle at her belly and her mouth went dry. The way his hands were trembling....

Slowly and carefully, she reached for her hat and gloves and put them on. "Think, Blue, before you do somethin' you'll regret. How will Christie feel if you ventilate me?" The knuckle of his trigger finger was white. "And killin' a deputy," she tapped the tin star pinned to her vest, "ain't somethin' you should do lightly."

His eyes were glazed, his forehead clammy.

"I'm gonna walk out of here, nice and easy. No sudden moves. See?" She kept her voice calm and even, as though she were talking to a skittish colt. "We'll talk about this some more in a few days. All right?"

She took a pace towards the door. Then another. The shotgun barrel followed her every step of the way. By the time she reached for the door handle, her shirt was sticking to the small of her back.

The tinkling of the doorbell was deafening in the fraught silence, and she braced herself for a shotgun blast. It didn't come. She twisted round. Blue was looking at the shotgun with appalled astonishment. He released his grip, and it clattered to the counter top. Then he bowed his head and began to sob.

Zee paused. Should she stay and comfort him, or would that just make matters worse? She flipped a mental coin, then shrugged, took the final step to freedom, and closed the door behind her.

Man has some spunk after all. Shoulda figured that; he's Christie's brother.

It was only as she was walking away that she remembered the second errand that had brought her to Contention. Damn! Forgot to ask Blue about the piano.

The mournful sound of a train whistle came from just up ahead. Zee grinned and quickened her pace.

She had passed her spare time until the train was due playing cards in one of the saloons. There wasn't much else to do in Contention if you excluded the red light district, and she had no hankering to visit that. It was seedier than its Benson equivalent - the whores as different from the girls at Angie's Palace as alleycats from Siamese.

But, preoccupied as she was with some good drinking whisky and a winning hand, time had got away from her. She had opted for a shortcut to the station, relying on instinct to get her there. The train whistle confirmed she was heading in the right direction.

She began to recognise her surroundings. Just a right, then a left, and the depot should be -

A lariat dropped round her shoulders.

"What the...?"

The whisky had dulled Zee's edge, and before she could react, the thick rope was biting into her arms, pinning them to her sides and preventing her from drawing her guns.

A leg from behind scythed her feet out from under her, and she fell heavily, unable to cushion her fall. Damn!

Zee rolled over, seeking her attacker, and saw there were in fact three of them, all with bandannas masking the lower parts of their faces. They halted a yard from her, laughing at her attempts to get free of the rope pinioning her.

A thin man in a blue bandanna drew back his foot. The tip of his boot caught her in the ribs, and pain flared, causing bright spots before her eyes.

"That's the spirit," came the muffled voice of the leader, a small man, his bandanna green. "Give the bitch what she deserves."

A big man, his bandanna red, crouched next to her, studied her, then pulled back a meaty fist. She jerked back, and the punch meant for her eye glanced off her cheekbone instead. It stung.

Grimly, she brought her knees up towards her chest - as well as providing a measure of protection, it also allowed her to tuck her feet in, bringing them closer to her bound hands. A blow to her kidney made her cry out, and the man in the green bandanna kicked her ribs with enough force to bring tears to her eyes.

For a moment she wondered where she was. The sound of a train whistle pulled her back to her surroundings. Leaving without me.

"Think she's had enough?" asked the big man.

"Donít be stupid. We've only just started."

She blinked away the blurriness, then stretched out her right hand towards her feet. Gloved fingertips brushed against the handle of the knife she kept in her boot. Almost.

Movement warned her. Barely in time, she dodged the kick aimed at her head. While the man drew his foot back for another go, she reached for the razor-sharp knife.

Got it.

She pulled the knife from its sheath, flipped it round, point upwards, and began sawing at the rope. Once, twice.... With a twang, the last strand of the lariat parted and her arms were free at last. She came to her feet swiftly, knife in one hand, the other drawing a six-gun in one smooth movement.

"Look out!" yelled Green Bandanna. A bullet zoomed through the space his head had occupied a second ago and ploughed into a wall. Another nicked Red Bandanna's ear. Zee cursed. The pins and needles as her circulation returned were throwing off her aim.

They didn't wait for her to recover fully. Like a cattle stampede, the three attackers turned and ran for it....

***

Christie hung the skillet from its hook more vigorously than was strictly necessary. "Where is she?"

She didn't know whether to be angry or concerned or both. She did know that clattering the breakfast utensils and crockery as she washed them up and put them away wasn't helping.

She needed to make her feelings known, at full volume, to that good-for-nothing woman of hers. But that was just the problem. Zee wasn't here. She had promised faithfully to return last night, but the train from Contention had been and gone and there was still no sign of her. Christie checked the kitchen clock for the second time in as many minutes - nearly 8.30 am.

It didn't help that Christie hadn't slept well. She had tossed and turned all night in a bed that felt far too large, cold, and empty without the rangy ex-outlaw in it, radiating body heat and providing other comforts.

"What's in heaven's name are you up to? And why haven't you sent a telegram...?"

She was stacking the crockery so noisily, she didn't hear the sound of the kitchen door opening and closing . But it must have, because suddenly there was an unmistakable sense of presence behind her. She spun on her heels and gaped at the tall figure standing there, sheepishly turning her hat in her gloved hands.

"Zee!"

The cutting phrases she had carefully rehearsed evaporated, and she launched herself across the room. Her bearhug brought a grunt of pained protest and she hastily released the other woman and stood back. Only then did she register the bruised face and torn clothes. "You're hurt!" She put a hand to her mouth.

Zee gave her a rueful smile. "Got bushwhacked in Contention. Feel as if a herd of beeves ran me down." She flinched as Christie reached for the sore cheekbone and the puffy eyelid above it, but Christie kept her touch feather-light.

"Let me look at you."

Tugging an unresisting Zee over to a kitchen chair, Christie sat her down. Zee placed her hat on the table and took off her gloves, then allowed Christie to unbutton her checked shirt and ease it off over her shoulders and down around her waist. A clean white bandage had been wrapped expertly round her ribs.

Christie blinked. "You didn't put this on yourself. Who did?"

"Kathy Milligan." Zee ran a hand through cropped black hair. "I missed the last train back. Spent the night on a cot at their place."

Christie eased the bandage off, wincing at the black and blue bruises it revealed, and cautiously pressing Zee's skin to assess the damage. The worst of it seemed to be on her right side.

Zee grunted and shifted. "Careful, Darlin'. Reckon a couple of ribs got cracked."

"Sorry." Christie sighed, rewrapped the bandage, and stood back. Zee rebuttoned her shirt and gestured, and Christie gladly accepted the invitation to sit on her lap.

"I wish you had let me know what was going on." She snuggled closer, careful to avoid Zee's damaged ribs. "I was worried." A large hand curled itself comfortably around her waist.

"Knew I'd be home before you got a telegram." A bloodshot eye considered her. "Anyway, I thought you'd worry more if you knew about the beating."

"You're probably right." A horrible thought suddenly occurred to her. "Was it Blue who did this to you?" She'd never forgive herself if her brother-

"Nope. Sonsofbitches got a lariat over me just outside the station depot. I'd had a couple of drinks, which slowed me down some. Took me a while to get my knife from my boot and cut myself free."

"But who-"

"Don't know for sure. There were three of them, wearing masks. Once I could fight back, they skedaddled." She gestured ruefully at herself. "They got a few punches and kicks in before that happened though."

Christie backtracked. "'For sure'? Could you make a guess?"

Zee nodded. "The leader, the one who cracked my ribs, was wearing shoes."

"Not boots?" Most men in these parts wore boots.

"Nope. Custom-made, shiny shoes with higher than usual heels. He was short, dapper, wearing checked trousers." Her blue gaze was keen. "Remind you of anyone?"

Surely not- "But Fred isn't violent. He wouldn't do anything like that!"

"He's not the same man you knew, Darlin'. He's turned bitter, twisted.... And he hates my guts."

A wandering hand had begun to unbutton her bodice, and Christie slapped away the long fingers that were trying to slip inside it. "Zee! Stop that. You should be taking things easy."

"Are you prescribing bed rest, Doc Hayes?" Zee's eyes had that knowing glint, and Christie's pulse rate picked up. It was tempting. But....

"What about your ribs?"

Zee pushed her off her lap, stood up, and held out a hand. "Long as we're careful," she said. "C'mon. Bed's awaitin'."

Christie laughed. She held her bodice closed with one hand, and with the other reached for Zee's hand. "Deputy Brodie! You're incorrigible."

"Ain't I just?"

"So, did you see Blue?"

Christie was feeling pleasantly drowsy and relaxed, loving the feel of Zee's skin against her bare back, the arm draped around her waist. The sore ribs had cramped their style a bit, but they had managed surprisingly well.

"Yeah," came Zee's drawl. "He meant to reply to your letter, but he's had other things on his mind."

Christie turned over eagerly. "Does that mean-?" She tried not to get her hopes up, but her heart was hammering.

"Things are all right between you? Yeah, it does." Zee stroked Christie's nose with a fingertip. "But he's still sore at me."

Christie bit the finger gently then released it, earning herself a grin. "That's wonderful! About him and me, I mean." She had hated being estranged from her brother. Blue was all the family she had left in this world... besides Zee of course. It felt as though a great weight had rolled off her shoulders. She hummed a few bars of 'Beautiful Dreamer'.

"Guess that's what you wanted to hear, huh?" Zee was grinning annoyingly at her but she didn't mind.

"Yes." She settled herself comfortably against Zee again. "How is he?"

The long pause that followed alerted her something was up and she twisted round until she could look Zee in the face.

"What is it?" The other woman grimaced, and apprehension washed over Christie.

"Well, you know I said he had other things on his mind?"

She nodded.

"He has problems, big problems. And most of them come down to Fred."

Christie blinked. "What do you mean?"

So Zee told her, the whole sorry story, from the opening of the rival establishment opposite Blue's draper's shop, to the ruin of his hopes for Jenny and the baby.

Indignation became shock then turned to anger. One thing in particular stuck in Christie's mind. "Jenny's pregnant?!" That her straight-laced brother could have done the deed, and with that little chit of a girl... well!

Zee was laughing at her and she frowned. "What?"

"Guess he's as partial to bed sports as his sister. Must be a family trait."

Her cheeks went hot. "Oh!" She hit Zee a playful blow in the ribs, then spent the next five minutes apologising profusely, and trying to rub it better. When Zee opined that kissing it better might be nicer, she knew the other woman had recovered from the pain, and turned her roiling thoughts back to the subject at hand.

"The point is," she continued, "that Blue's clearly in a very bad way and needs our help."

"Well, he won't accept it from me, Darlin'. I offered and got turned down flat. He thinks I'm to blame for this in the first place."

Zee's tone was studiedly neutral, but Christie could tell she was offended. She stroked a muscled biceps soothingly.

"Well, I'm his sister. He'll have to accept help from me."

"Wouldn't bet on it. Besides, your presence might just make things worse."

"How so?"

"Here's how I figure it. Most of Blue's troubles stem from Fred's interference. That weasel is mad at you and me but he's taking it out on Blue. You go to Contention to help your brother, and it'll be like waving a red rag at a bull -" An indignant Christie tried to interrupt. Zee held up a hand. "No, Darlin'. Hear me out."

Christie subsided.

"Fred's dangerous." Zee gestured at her bandaged ribs. "And he's got friends. Someone could get seriously hurt. And if it was you, I'd never...." She trailed off.

Zee was right, she realised frustratedly. She wanted to make Blue's life better... not worse. But how.... A brainwave hit her.

"I know. Suppose Fred didn't feel the need to punish Blue anymore? Suppose he was able to crow about me, to gloat and say 'I told you so' to my face?"

"I donít like the sound of-"

"No, it's my turn, Zee. Let me finish. Suppose he thinks he's won? That might defuse his anger, mightn't it?"

"It might." Zee's gaze was sombre. "But just how are you going to do that?"

She was quite taken with the simplicity of her solution and she smiled. "I'm going to break up with you."

Zee's jaw dropped open. It was the perfect opportunity to kiss her soundly, and Christie took it.

***

The waiting train vented steam and whistled, a mournful sound accurately reflecting Zee's mood. She glanced at the blonde standing next to her. Christie was wearing a flattering blue dress that Julie, the pretty octoroon who had stayed with them a few months back, had helped her make.

"It won't be for long." She forced a smile.

"I know. But still..." Doleful green eyes gazed up at her. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all, Zee. Maybe-"

"No, Darlin'. You were right." She squeezed the small hand resting in hers. "Gonna be tough though, not having you around to kiss and cuddle."

Christie sighed. "It certainly is."

"And it's gonna be worse for you," cautioned Zee. "Fred'll say things," she searched for the words, "'bout you and me. Things I'd probably tear his tongue out for if I was there."

The blonde made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and, for the umpteenth time, Zee wished she were accompanying her to Contention.

"But whatever he says, no matter how he tries to dirty what's between you and me, it don't signify. All right?" She squeezed Christie's hand again for emphasis. "I'm yours. I ain't ashamed of that. And when I'm through here, I'm coming to get you."

The small hand gave her an answering squeeze. "I know," said Christie, smiling tremulously. "Please don't worry about me, Zee. You take care of yourself."

The deputy gave a frustrated sigh and balled her free hand into a fist. If only- But it couldn't be helped. She couldn't go with Christie, and that was an end of it. The thought made her pull out her pocket watch and check it. Plenty of time before her appointment.

The train whistle blew again, louder and more impatient this time.

"C'mon, Darlin'. She's getting set to depart. Let's get you on board." Zee helped Christie up the steps into the carriage, then returned for the cases. When the other woman was installed in a good window seat, her luggage safely stowed nearby, she turned to say goodbye then froze. What she wanted, more than anything, was to kiss Christie on the mouth. But some of the other passengers nervously eyeing her would be getting off at Contention too. She couldn't risk revealing Christie's play this early in the game.

She took a deep breath and drew herself to her full height. "Safe journey, Miss Hayes," she said formally. "Give my regards to your brother."

The startled disappointment in Christie's gaze quickly gave way to comprehension. "Thank you, Deputy Brodie," she said equally politely. "I will."

Zee nodded, then did one of the hardest things she'd ever had to do - turned her back on her lover and walked away.

Back on the station platform once more, she turned and gazed up into the lovely face behind the soot-streaked glass. Christie glanced to either side, then mouthed, "I love you," and blew her a kiss.

Zee found herself grinning inanely. She blinked, and quickly assumed a more sombre expression. "Me too," she mouthed back. The blonde nodded and smiled.

The train's connecting rods rose, rotating the wheels. Couplings clanged all along the line of cars, then it lurched forward. Zee locked gazes with Christie, and kept pace with her carriage for as long as she could, but soon the train had left her behind.

She came to a halt, took off her hat and used it to shade her eyes against the bright morning sunlight. Shoulders slumped, she watched the train disappear into the distance. Then she sighed, resettled her hat, and set off to keep her appointment.

He was waiting for her as arranged, sitting in the far corner of the Last Chance Saloon, his chair pressed against the wall, his gaze trained on the street door.

If Hogan hadn't told her about Charlie Judkins' background, she would have dismissed him instantly. 'Nondescript' was the word, she decided. He could be anyone, go anywhere without attracting attention. Good.

She nodded a greeting and noted that the shot glass on the stained table in front of him was empty. Appropriating another glass and some whisky from the bartender, she made her way over.

"Judkins?" He nodded. "Brodie."

She placed the bottle and glass on the table, placed her hat next to it, then sat down, eyeing him openly, and liking what she saw. His clothes were clean but well worn and slightly old-fashioned, and his greying hair and moustache needed a trim. Though he wasn't small, his self-effacing manner gave the impression that he was. The ex-Pinkerton detective had been giving Zee the once-over too, his gaze lingering on her tin-star before returning to her bruised cheek and eye.

He'll do.

She poured whisky into the two glasses, then pushed his towards him. "Thanks for coming." She downed her drink in one, wincing at the bite of cheap whisky on a cut, then wiping her lips on the back of her gloved hand. He cocked his head to one side, inviting her to get down to business.

"All right. Here's what I need from you." She outlined what she wanted, and he listened intently until she had finished.

"Just the one man?" He took a gulp of whisky.

"That's right. But I want to know his every move, no matter how small. He so much as looks at someone, I want to know the when and the where. Round the clock. That clear?" He nodded and she topped up his glass then her own. "So. Can you do it?"

"Anything to be found, I'll find it, Deputy." Calculation filled his gaze. "For a price."

He named a figure that made her wince mentally. Hogan had warned her good detectives came expensive, but still.... They'd have to put off buying that couch for the parlour that Christie had her eye on.

"You've got yourself a deal." She pulled off her right glove, spat on the palm of her hand and held it out. He did the same and they shook.

"Half in advance."

Fortunately, Zee had been prepared for that. She pulled the little leather pouch from her vest pocket and threw it to him. He caught it deftly, opened the tie, and stared at the half-eagles nestling inside. Then he nodded his approval.

"Pleasure doing business with you, Deputy." He pocketed the pouch, eased himself out of his seat and stood up. "I'll be in touch." He tipped his hat.

"I'm counting on it."

After Judkins had left, she topped up her glass and stared moodily into it for a while. If he didn't find anything on Fred Younger, she'd have squandered their money for nothing. It was a gamble. But she had a hunch about Christie's ex-fiancé, and she always gambled on her hunches.

Zee shrugged and drained the shot glass dry. Then she kicked back her chair, and stood up. It was time to get moving on the next part of her plan.

Madam Angie was in her office doing her accounts, and in dire need of a distraction if her reaction to Zee's entrance was any indication.

"Deputy Brodie." She smiled and pushed away the thick ledger with undisguised relief. "Is this a social call?" She reached for her pipe. "Is Christie with you?"

"No to both." Zee took the seat offered.

Angie stopped tamping tobacco into the bowl and cocked her head. "From the state of your face, I'd say you've been brawling."

"You'd be right." Zee examined her fingers for a moment then looked up. "I need a favour."

"Oh?"

"Concerning The Sisters of Charity."

The brothel madam's eyebrows crawled skywards. "You wonít find any of them here."

"Reckon I knew that," said Zee dryly.

They both chuckled for a moment, then Angie leaned forward. "I take it you're meaning Sister Florence's establishment?"

"If she's the one who runs that place just outside Fairbank, yeah."

"The Willows. It's an Orphanage."

"It's more 'n that, from what I hear."

Angie lit up and puffed on her pipe for a moment before answering. "That's true. The Sisters also take in 'fallen' women, until their babies are born. A good proportion of the children in their care come from that source." She gestured towards the door, through which Zee could see glimpses of whores in various states of undress. "Also from my girls." She grimaced. "Occupational hazard."

Zee nodded as Angie confirmed what Hogan had told her. "I also heard tell you and one of the Sisters have been..." She cast around for the words. "... close friends for a while."

The Madam crossed her dainty, Turkish-trouser-clad ankles and laughed. "My my, you have done your homework, haven't you, Brodie. Yes, Florence and I are friends. Not in the way you mean though."

"Uh huh."

"I wasn't always a brothel madam, you know. There was a time in my life when things were very... bad." The older woman's gaze clouded. "Florence wasn't in charge of the orphanage then, of course. That's a recent development. But she found me and took me in when no one else would. For that I will always count her my dear, dear friend." She forced a smile and Zee knew she wasn't going to hear any more on that particular topic. "So, are you going to tell me what this mysterious favour is?"

"A letter of introduction. Figured the Sisters aren't going to take too kindly to someone like me," she gestured at herself, "nosing around. Thought if you could vouch for me, it might prevent them having the vapours."

The Madam's eyes gleamed with curiosity. "But why on earth would you want to -"

Zee held up a hand. "Personal business, Angie. Let's just say I've a hunch one of their current charges is someone who needs my help, and leave it at that. I'll tell you 'bout it once it's all over and done with. All right?"

"How intriguing!" Angie sighed and sat back. "And how vexing. But all right." She opened the desk drawer, pulled out a blank sheet of paper and reached for a pen. While the pen scratched noisily across the page, Zee got up, crossed to the door, folded her arms and leaned comfortably against the doorframe. Whistles and catcalls greeted her appearance and she grinned at the whores now looking at her.

"Enjoying the view, Deputy?" called Nellie the Fox.

"Mighty fine, thanks." Zee winked.

Rowdy Mollie was straightening a garter. "Where's Christie?"

"Gone to Contention."

Red Mary's face lit up at that piece of news. "Well, and about time. Does that mean you'll be requiring our services?"

Zee was about to set her to rights when Angie's voice came from behind her. "There. It's done."

Turning, she stepped back into the office and took the envelope the other woman held out to her. She frowned at the red blob of wax bearing the imprint of Angie's signet ring. "But this is sealed!"

A roguish smile curved the brothel madam's mouth. "Of course."

"Wanted to read what you wrote. What did you say about me?"

"None of your damned business."

"But -" Lost for words, Zee rolled her eyes, and Angie laughed.

"It's confidential. Between Florence and me."

Zee knew when she was beaten. She sighed and tucked the envelope in her vest pocket. "All right," she grumbled. "But if Sister Florence comes after me with a shotgun, I'm coming back here and -"

"Promises, promises." Angie wagged a finger at her. "Have a little faith, Brodie."

"Thanks. I'll try."

The ride was a long and dusty one, and by the time Zee arrived at the clump of willows (an underground spring was the reason the Sisters of Charity had chosen this site a few miles from Fairbank) she was hot and in need of some shade. It didn't help that her cracked ribs were aching fiercely. She moistened her bandanna with water from her canteen, and retied it, enjoying the coolness on the nape of her neck.

A dozen children, ages varying widely but all energetic and grubby, were playing in the fenced-off yard next to the smaller of the two clapboard buildings - the school presumably. After the silence of the last couple of hours, their shrieks were piercing, and Zee's mare whinnied in protest; she couldn't help but agree.

She dismounted and tethered her horse in some shade. By now, the shrieks had subsided and the children were crowding the fence, staring at her.

"Howdy, varmints." She tipped her hat and winked. Eyes widened, and mouths dropped open. While one small, freckled girl noisily sucked a thumb, the tallest of the boys hared off indoors, presumably to fetch an adult.

"It's a woman!" said a girl in a much patched, pink dress.

"Don't be stupid!" The speaker was a boy with ears like jug handles. "Women don't wear trousers."

"That's quite enough of that," boomed a female voice. As one, the children turned, to face the large woman in a black habit, veil, and pleated cape who had appeared. She strode towards them; behind her trailed the tall boy.

"Playtime is over. Indoors now, all of you, and leave our visitor alone." She clapped her hands twice. "I said now, if you please. Sister Euphrasia is waiting." She cast a sharp glance at a blond boy who was about to pinch the girl next to him. "That includes you, Sam."

There were a few protests and whines, but a frown from the formidable Sister soon had the children disappearing obediently indoors. That done, the nun turned her attention to Zee. Her mouth curled in disapproval at the disreputable-looking stranger. Her greeting was polite enough though. "May I help you?"

Zee took off her hat. "Sister Florence?"

"No. My name," hands chapped by housework worked a rosary with a click, click, click of beads, "is Sister Agnes. You wish to see Sister Florence?"

She nodded.

"Very well. Wait here and I will see if she is receiving visitors." She turned to go then paused and turned back. "Who shall I say is calling?"

"Deputy Zee Brodie." Zee fished the envelope from her pocket. It was still sealed, though the temptation to open it had almost got the better of her. "Got a letter of introduction."

Sister Agnes took it from her, gave it a cursory inspection, then turned on one heel (Zee assumed she had heels. Her habit was so long she might not even have legs) and glided off towards the other building, a two storey structure which must be the Orphanage proper.

Zee sighed, put her hat back on, and went to join her horse in the shade. She filled her palm with water from the canteen and let it drink its fill. That chore done, there was still no sign of either Sister Agnes or the mysterious Sister Florence

Wonder what Angie put in that letter? She squatted comfortably on her heels, and whistled tunelessly under her breath. Pulling out her pocket watch, she flipped it open. Christie should be in Contention by now.

Somewhere, a door opened and she looked up. A large black crow was heading towards her. She blinked and straightened, pulling the brim of her stetson down against the glare. The crow resolved itself into Sister Agnes, habit flapping.

"Deputy Brodie," called the Sister, beckoning. "Sister Florence will see you now. Please come with me."

Zee banged her hat against her thigh, to get the worst of the dust off, then followed Sister Agnes into the hallway. It was a welcome relief to be able to get out of the heat.

She blinked while her eyes adjusted to the relative gloom of the interior, then allowed the Sister of Charity to lead her through into a small room labelled 'Vestry'. One wall was lined with closets. Furniture consisted of a small table and four uncomfortable-looking chairs. On the table was a brass handbell.

"Someone will be with you shortly," said Sister Agnes, leaving Zee alone.

Moments later, a different Sister entered, bearing a glass of lemonade on a tray. Zee accepted it gratefully, drained it in two swallows, and handed it back with her thanks. Grey eyes, already wide at her appearance (must be the battered face, she supposed) widened even further. Then the nun, who was short and thin, and much less imposing than her colleague, recollected herself, and exited as silently and demurely as she had entered.

"Guess she wasn't Sister Florence either," muttered Zee, wandering over to the window and staring out at the windmill turning fitfully in the breeze. That must be how The Willows pumped up its water from the spring, she guessed. In the distance a lesson bell rang.

"No. But I am."

Zee swung round in surprise.

"It's not often we are paid a visit by the Arizona Hellcat," said the new arrival. Like the other Sisters, she was wearing a black habit, veil, and pleated cape.

Zee sighed. "The Hellcat donít exist no more, Sister. I'm...." She trailed off as she registered the twinkle in the grey eyes and the flamboyant handwriting on the piece of paper clutched in her hand. Damn you, Angie!

"Deputy Zee Brodie," completed Sister Florence amiably. "I know. But allow an old woman a moment of excitement. It'll have to last me several years."

Zee snorted. 'Old' was pushing it, she decided, taking an instant liking to Angie Tucker's friend. More like in her fifties. She'd also hazard a guess that Florence had once been quite a looker, before time and the elements had coarsened her complexion.

"Please." Florence gestured with a work-worn hand. "Sit." Zee did so. The Sister did likewise and clasped her hands in her lap. "Now. Tell me what brings you to my establishment. As far as I am aware, none of the Sisters is wanted by the law. Nor any of our charges come to that. Though with scamps like Sam Baker, it's surely only a matter of time." She gave a rueful smile.

Zee started to lean forward, but her sore ribs made her think twice. "You take in 'fallen' women here. That right?"

"If you mean desperate and wronged young women in need of our help," corrected the Sister gently, "then yes, we do. We care for them during their confinement, until they are well enough to pick up the pieces of their lives. Some take their babies with them, some entrust them to our care."

"I'm looking for one in particular."

Sister Florence's expression became watchful. "I cannot divulge the identities of the young women here, Deputy. It is a matter of trust and confidentiality."

Zee thought for a moment. "Suppose you donít tell me anything, but I tell you?"

The other woman considered. "Very well."

"Her name's Jenny Farnham." The Sister's poker face was perfect. Damn! "The baby's father, Blue, wants to marry her, but it seems her parents have other ideas."

"I see."

"'I see'? She's here against her will!"

"No one is here against their will," said Sister Florence. "I am certain of that. Perhaps the parents have their daughter's best interests at heart. Or did that not occur to you?"

Her statement brought Zee up short. Could Blue have been right. Did Jenny agree with her parents' plans for her? Surely not. Her mind raced. "Maybe it's just she's accepted her fate," she guessed. "Maybe she thinks she has no choice."

Sister Florence frowned. "That is a possibility," she conceded. She got up, went to the window, and stared out.

Time stretched. Zee could hear the faint buzzing of a fly, the distant ticking of the clock in the hall.... She picked at a loose thread on her Levis and schooled herself to patience. At last she was rewarded.

"Deputy Brodie." The Sister turned to face her, her expression sombre. "Partly because of the endorsement my old friend has given you," she lifted the letter she still held, "and partly because I myself have had some doubts about this particular young woman, I'm going to break my cardinal rule."

Zee let out a sigh of relief. "Obliged."

"Jenny Farnham is here... accompanied by her Aunt. Her companion rarely leaves her side."

They exchanged significant glances.

"It could of course just be that Jenny has been so upset by recent events she needs constant support. But...." Florence sighed and began to pace, her long skirts making a swishing noise as they brushed the floorboards. "As yet, none of us has made any serious effort to talk to the girl on her own." She shook her head. "A highly unsatisfactory state of affairs."

Zee nodded. "We need the facts, ma'am."

"'The facts'," repeated Florence, halting mid stride and nodding once, decisively. "I think I can arrange that." She reached for the handbell and rang it. Moments later, the little Sister who had brought the lemonade reappeared. The deputy was obviously still a source of fascination to her; she couldn't help glancing curiously at Zee before regaining control and bowing her head respectfully to her superior.

"Yes, Sister Florence?"

"Sister Euphrasia. Will you please tell Miss Farnham that I wish to speak with her at once? Bring her to the Vestry, will you?"

"Yes, Sister." Euphrasia bowed her head again, then hurried away, but not before giving Zee one last curious glance.

"But the Aunt will come too," objected Zee.

"Indeed."

"She won't let Jenny speak to me."

"She'll let her speak to me, or I shall ask them both to leave." Sister Florence gazed thoughtfully at the closets lining the wall of the vestry then walked towards one and opened the door. "You must hide in here, Deputy."

Zee grimaced but stepped forward. Inside the closet was a rail, from which hung numerous black habits and other items of clothing. As she made space for herself amongst the nuns' apparel, which gave off the faint whiff of mothballs, she smiled ruefully. I'd never hear the end of this if anyone found out. The door closed with a click and she was in pitch blackness. Good thing I'm not scared of the dark.

She resigned herself to a lengthy, suffocating wait. But it actually wasn't long before she heard the sound of a door opening, followed by the murmur of voices. She turned awkwardly in the cramped space, easing aside a clothes hanger that was digging into her back, and pressed her ear to the door.

"- Jenny alone, if you donít mind, Mrs. Archer."

"I do mind," came a rather shrill voice. "I see no reason why anything you might have to say to my niece cannot also be spoken in my presence. We keep no secrets from one another. Do we, Jenny?"

"No, Aunt." The reply was barely audible.

"Nevertheless," came the Sister's firm reply, "I need to talk with Miss Farnham about certain.... ahem... delicate, one might even say intimate, matters. Her health and the health of her baby, you understand, are my chief concern."

"Oh." There was a long embarrassed silence. "Well, in that case.... I shall wait outside."

There was a sound of the door opening and closing and Zee smiled in the darkness.

"Now, Miss Farnham. I have a favour to ask of you."

"Of m...me?"

"Yes. I want you to promise that, whatever happens in the next few minutes, you will keep it strictly between ourselves. Will you?"

"Yes, Sister Florence. But I don't understand."

"Thank you, child. It's quite simple. I have a visitor for you."

There was a click, then the closet door was swinging open. Zee blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the brightness, and stepped out into the vestry.

Faun-like eyes blinked at her. Their owner, a pretty young woman of about Christie's height wearing a shapeless grey dress, put a hand to her mouth. "But who are you? And why are you hiding in the closet?"

"Name's Deputy Zee Brodie," said Zee. She reached for a chair and urged the very pregnant girl to sit. Florence nodded her approval.

Comprehension filled the brown eyes. "Oh! You're the one who seduced Blue's sister."

Zee winced and glanced up, but fortunately Sister Florence seemed unperturbed by this shocking revelation. Angie must have told her in that damned letter. "That's right."

Long lashes blinked. "How is Blue? Is he all right?"

Jenny's concern for Blue instantly raised her a notch in Zee's estimation. "As well as can be expected," she said. "Considering his prospective wife and child left him."

Confusion filled the girl's eyes. "But, I donít understand. I was told that Blue had gone back East. Is that not what he wanted? A fresh start, without me and the encumbrance of a baby?"

Zee's lip curled. "Nope. It's a damned lie!"

"What?"

A hand on Zee's shoulder made her aware she was looming over Jenny. She drew back apologetically, and Sister Florence took her place.

"This situation appears rather... tangled," said Florence diplomatically. "Deputy Brodie is merely trying to ascertain the facts." She turned to Zee. "Would you care to lay them out for us?"

"Far as I can tell, " said Zee, "Blue thinks Jenny wants to get rid of his baby and marry Andrew LeRoy. And Jenny thinks Blue wants nothing more to do with her. That about cover it?"

"Concisely put," said Florence.

Jenny was frowning. "But.... I don't understand. Papa said.... Do you mean to tell me, Blue does want me after all?" Her eyes filled with tears, and one spilled down her cheek.

Zee squeezed the girl's shoulder gently. "Yep. He's a broken man without you."

"Oh!" She put her face in her hands and began to sob. Florence produced a large handkerchief from some hidden pocket and pressed it into the girl's hands.

There was a loud knock at the door.

"Sister Florence," came Aunt Archer's voice. "Sister Florence. Is my niece all right? What in the world can be taking you so long?"

"Jenny's perfectly well," called Florence, glancing meaningfully at Zee then at the closet. "Nearly finished."

She got the message. "I have to go," she murmured in Jenny's ear. "But I'll be back to get you out of here."

The girl's head came up and tearful brown eyes regarded Zee in startlement.

"You and Blue will be together again," she promised, giving the slender shoulder a final squeeze. "Be ready to leave at a moment's notice. And whatever you do, donít tell your Aunt anything. All right?"

Two spots of colour had appeared in the girl's cheeks. She nodded, tentatively at first, then more firmly.

"Good girl." Then Zee was stepping back inside her hiding place, and the closet door was swinging closed behind her.

***

 

CONTINUED IN PART 2