Warnings - See Part 1.
IN-LAWS FOR AN OUTLAW
(aka The Hellcat and the Chivaree)
The sash window squeaked then jammed, and Zee froze. It wasn't much of a squeak, but in the midnight silence it had sounded deafening.
She waited, expecting the rhythm of soft breathing coming from the interior to alter... it didn't.
Been creeping into too many women's bedrooms lately. Hope this is the last!
She eyed the gap between the partially raised window and the ledge. It would be a tight squeeze, but it might do. She took off her hat and threw it inside, then went through head first, wincing as the ledge pressed into her ribs. Taking her weight on her gloved hands she did a controlled roll, coming to her feet in one smooth movement and scanning her surroundings.
The single bed was against the small room's far wall, and she crossed to it in two silent strides and knelt beside its head. Christie's face looked peaceful in repose. The blonde hair fanning out around her on the pillow gave the impression of an angel.
Zee smiled, pulled off her gloves, and leaned towards the other woman. "Hey, Darlin'," she whispered, placing her hand gently over Christie's mouth and feeling the warm breath on her palm.
Eyelids fluttered open instantly, and wide eyes stared up at her. Lips mouthed something against her palm. She removed her hand.
"Zee!" shrieked Christie, sitting up and throwing her arms around her in an enthusiastic hug.
So much for keeping the noise down, thought Zee, before soft lips pressed against hers, a tongue sought entrance to her mouth, and she couldn't think of anything much anymore....
The bedroom door crashed open. "Are you all right, Christie? I heard - What in God's name? Get the Hell away from my sister, you sonofabitch!"
Reluctantly, the two women broke the passionate kiss and turned, still short of breath, to regard the figure standing silhouetted in the doorway. Even in the relative darkness, Zee could tell a shotgun was pointing straight at her chest.
"Blue?" croaked Christie. She cleared her throat and tried again. "It's all right, Blue. It's Zee."
"What?" Disappearing abruptly from view, he reappeared moments later clutching a lantern. He shoved it forward so the light fell directly on Zee.
"Howdy, Blue." She shaded her eyes against the glare.
"Brodie." His voice was flat. "What are you doing with my sister?"
She stood up, and folded her arms across her chest. "What does it look like?"
A blush stole over his face. "Oh!" They regarded one another steadily, neither willing to be the first to look away. Christie's gaze seesawed anxiously between the two of them.
"Will you stop pointing that thing at me? Itís getting to be a habit."
He blinked, looked down at the shotgun as though wondering how it had got there, then placed it carefully on the floor.
"Much obliged." Zee unfolded her arms and perched on the edge of Christie's bed. A small hand slipped into hers; she squeezed it gently. "Didn't mean to wake the whole household, but since you're here, Blue...." She reached her free hand inside her vest pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and held it towards him.
He stepped forward and took it from her. "What's this?"
"Directions. To Angie's Palace. Jenny's waiting for you there."
She rolled her eyes. "The Blacksmith's daughter. Attractive girl. Belly out to here?" She ignored Christie's poke in the back.
"I know who she is!" Blue flushed. "But she made it clear she doesn't want me. She's going to marry Andrew LeRoy."
Zee turned to Christie. "Was this greenhorn dropped on his head as a baby?" Which got her another poke and a whispered, "Zee! Be nice."
"Look," she said, as patiently as she was able - the feel and scent of her lover was making her itch to do things she shouldn't while Christie's brother was present. "Farnham hornswoggled the both of you real good. Told you Jenny wanted to marry someone else. Told her you didn't want a baby complicatin' your life."
Blue's jaw worked, and the lantern light reflected off unshed tears. "She thought I didn't want her?" His voice was barely audible.
Zee breathed a sigh of relief. Finally! "That's right." She gentled her voice. "But she knows better now. And she's waiting for you, in Benson." When the stunned man still showed no inclination to move, she added, "Thought you might need a horse. It's in the garden...."
"But the... the store...." His was like a man coming awake after a nightmare, unsure whether it was finally over..
"Forget about the store," came Christie's soft voice. "Zee and I will arrange something, won't we?"
She became aware the blonde was looking at her enquiringly. "Sure."
"Go on, Blue. Go to her," urged his sister. "What are you waiting for?"
The transformation had continued while they spoke. Blue's shoulders no longer slumped, his eyes were bright. "She's in Benson and she wants me?" His voice was questioning, almost shy.
He reread the note again slowly, twice, then beamed from ear to ear. "Sonofabitch! She's in Benson and she wants me!"
The two women exchanged a wry glance. "Reckon he's got it," said Zee.
"A horse, you said?"
"Yeah. A grey. In your back garden." She gave Christie a sidelong glance. "Probably eating your flowers.... Ow!" She rubbed her back and pouted.
A madly grinning Blue was already turning, almost tripping over the shotgun in his haste to get going. The door slammed closed behind him.
"Manners!" Christie shook her head. "On Blue's behalf, Iíd like to say thank you."
Zee grinned. "It's all right, Darlin'. I'll take it as read." She turned and pulled Christie towards her. "Alone at last. Now. Where were we?"
"Right here, I believe. Mmmf!"
Absently Zee registered the sound of drawers opening and closing in another bedroom, followed by footsteps thundering down the stairs. The back door crashed open and shut, and in the back garden a horse whinnied.
A thought struck her and she broke the kiss. "And make sure you marry the girl," she yelled.
"I will," came Blue's faint reply.
Eager, soft lips reclaimed Zee's and she laughed and rolled onto her back, stretching her legs out on the tiny bed and pulling Christie on top of her.
She neither noticed nor cared when the sound of hoofbeats finally faded into the distance.
Zee yawned, squinted against the bright sunlight, and listened to the sounds of Contention waking up. Through the still half-open bedroom window drifted the clipclop of a horse going past, the rumble of a buggy's wheels, a shouted "Good Morning,"....
She stretched, careful not to disturb the sleeping woman draped over her, then glanced down at the blonde head nestled against her breast. Her gaze travelled further, lingering pleasantly on downy, pale skin, on the curve of a shoulder, the tapered waist, the swelling buttocks.... Her own feet shattered the vision of loveliness. They were jutting over the end of the tiny bed. Damn! Got another hole in my sock. She wiggled the offending big toe, and yawned again.
It was long past their usual getting up time, but she felt no urge to rise. Last night's, or rather this morning's, exertions had tuckered her out. They had made love twice, pent up passion making the first time fast and furious and causing them both to cry out - partly, in Zee's case, because she had aggravated her ribs. Later, they had taken things more slowly and tenderly, but still reached an intensity that left Zee shaking and Christie tearful and in need of much cradling.
She drew a circle with her index finger on a naked back that simply begged to be touched - Christie's nightdress had ended up on the far side of the room, along with Zee's boots and most of her clothes - and the blonde gave a contented sigh and snuggled closer.
"We should probably get up," came Christie's muffled voice, her breath warm on Zee's breast.
"Hey, that tickles!"
"What does?" A tousled blonde head lifted and green eyes regarded her drowsily.
Christie blinked, then awareness of her situation dawned and a wicked smile curved her lips. "This?" White teeth bit Zee's nipple, and she nearly shot off the bed.
The blonde seemed to take this oath as an invitation to an all out wrestling match, and it was a little while before Zee managed to pin her arms, and more importantly, her nimble fingers, without hurting her.
"Enough, Darlin', please," she begged. "My ribs are still sore from last night."
Christie's eyebrows shot up, then she blushed. "Sorry, Zee. I forgot. Do they hurt much?"
"Only when I laugh." Zee released her grip, and Christie sat up and immediately began to examine the battered bandage round her ribs, which was coming adrift. She took the opportunity to admire the blonde's pert breasts.
"This needs changing, Zee."
The Deputy grunted. "Later. Got other things to do this morning."
"Take care of Fred." Christie's face fell at the mention of her ex-fiancés name, and Zee studied her carefully. "Want to tell me about it?"
The blonde sighed. "To be honest, I think the best thing Blue and I can do is leave Contention altogether. Fred is never going to forgive me for what I did to him. That much is clear."
Zee pursed her lips. "Oh, I think we can do better than that.".
Christie's surprised look gave way to a mixture of curiosity and annoyance. "Have you finally got something you can hold over him, Zee? Because if you have and you haven't told me, and I've been through all this humiliation unnecessarily, I'll-"
"You'll what?" interrupted Zee unwisely. "Tickle me to death? Mmmmf!"
She removed the pillow that Christie had thrust in her face. "All right, all right. I would have told you earlier, Darlin', only we had much more interestin' things on our minds."
"I'm listening." Christie drummed her fingers pointedly on her thigh.
"It seems that Fred has set himself up in the mine salting business."
"He's defrauded someone?"
Zee nodded. "Used high grade ore from his father's mill to make it look like a clapped out silvermine is a going concern. Sold it to an English greenhorn with more money than sense."
Green eyes clouded. "I never thought he'd go this far, Zee. What's the matter with him? He has everything he could want: friends, wealth, connections.... And he's just got engaged to Colonel Fremont's daughter, Cecilia. Why would he risk all that?"
Zee kissed her on the nose. "Not everything," she corrected gently. "He ain't got you, has he?"
Christie tidied away the breakfast things and regarded Zee quizzically. The Deputy had her feet up on the kitchen table and was leafing through an illustrated 'erotic handbook' that Christie had purchased via mail order and then been too apprehensive to open.
When Zee had found the racy book in Christie's underwear drawer (what she was doing in there, heaven knows!) Christie's face had burned with embarrassment. But rather than being shocked or laughing at her, Zee had chucked her gently under the chin and settled down to read it. Christie suspected that Blue's reaction would have been considerably different.
Zee turned the book sideways. "Good Lord! Is that physically possible?" A dark eyebrow rose in mock astonishment. "The things you read, Miss Hayes! Are you sure this hasn't corrupted you?"
She flicked the tea towel playfully at the other woman, but Zee ducked it easily. "Of course it has. Why else do you think I ran off with you?"
"My good looks and charm?"
"That must be it, of course. Silly me."
Zee turned another page. "Maybe we should try that?" Pale blue eyes twinkled at Christie as curiosity got the better of her and she leaned over to check the illustration.
Her cheeks heated. "Um. I'd rather not."
Zee laughed and winked. "Just teasin'." She patted Christie on the rear. "Shame though. Looks rather pleasurable."
Christie simply looked at her lover, and Zee held up her hands. "All right, all right!"
She closed the slender volume and threw it aside, then stood up and stretched, a wince crossing her face momentarily.
"Your ribs?" Christie took off her apron and folded it.
"They're fine. C'mon. Let's get this cattle drive started."
Christie sighed. She had wanted to accompany Zee when she confronted Fred's father, but Zee wasnít having it
"You'd be walking into the lion's den, Darlin'," she'd said bluntly. "You told me you weren't that popular with his folks when you were their prospective daughter-in-law. How do you think they'll feel about you now?"
"And if Fred and his cronies are there...." Zee had pulled the disappointed Christie close and stroked her hair. "It ain't safe for you. Let me handle this, Darlin'. Let me put a spoke in his wheel he can't pull out. If nothin' else, I owe him for the whuppin' he gave me."
So she had sighed but reluctantly agreed to mind Blue's store instead.
Zee reached for her boots and pulled them on, then regarded Christie critically. "You going into town like that?" She buckled her gun belt and settled it more comfortably on her hips.
"What's wrong with it?"
Zee ran a hand through black cropped hair and grinned widely. "Not a thing. Can tell you left off your corset though."
Christie looked down at herself and blushed. Zee's arrival had upset her recently established routine and she had automatically dressed the way she did while in Benson. "No one else will be looking at me the way you do!"
"Don't bet on it."
She hesitated, then shrugged. People were going to be scandalised as it was, what did one more thing matter? Jutting her jaw a little, she grabbed her bonnet and tied the ribbons under her chin.
Zee crammed her own hat on her head and reached for her gloves. "Got everything you need?"
Christie draped her shawl round her shoulders, checked that the keys to Blue's store were in her reticule, and nodded.
Well, this is certainly interesting, reflected Christie ruefully, and an experience I am in no hurry to repeat.
She was walking into town, her head up and shoulders back, trying simultaneously to ignore the shocked looks and frowns coming their way and to keep up with Zee's long-legged stride.
"Sorry," murmured her lover, slowing her pace. "That better?"
"Much. Thank you."
Being seen with Zee was certainly sorting out who Christie's real friends were. She watched Mrs. McPherson step off the sidewalk and pointedly cross the street. That makes three.
"Is it me they object to, or you, or that we are back together again?" she whispered.
"Does it matter?"
"Not really." But she regarded Zee with new eyes. The ex-outlaw's past meant she had to put up with this kind of reaction all the time.
It was just their luck that the one person Christie wanted to ignore them was making a beeline for them.
Contention's chief gossip spoke when she was still a few yards away. "Good Morning, Miss Hayes." Black eyes gleamed as they turned towards Zee. "I donít believe we've been introduced. I'm Cora Chase."
"Deputy Brodie." Zee tipped her hat politely but kept on walking, her gloved hand under Christie's elbow making sure she did the same. The plump woman was forced to get out of the way or be mowed down. Wisely, she chose to step aside.
"Nice meetin' you," called back Zee to the blue-clad figure now gazing frustratedly after them.
Christie suppressed a snort. "That was unkind."
Zee turned to look at her. "Did you want to talk to her?"
Up ahead, a thin woman in a button-to-the neck black dress had appeared. At the sight of the two of them, she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Her eyes widened and she put a hand to her mouth, then she crossed herself and fled back the way she had come.
"Somethin' I said?"
"Wife of the Presbyterian Minister," explained Christie. "She was shocked by what Iíd done, so she probably thinks you're the Devil incarnate."
Zee grinned. "I'm workin' on it."
"Hey, Deputy Brodie... Miss Hayes," came a man's voice from behind. "Wait a minute, won't you?"
The tall woman came to a halt and turned round. "Howdy, George."
Zee put out her hand, and Christie turned in time to see Sheriff Milligan clasp it. She smiled at him and he tipped his hat to her.
"Giving our sheltered townsfolk something to talk about?" He fell into step beside them as they picked up the pace once more and headed towards Commercial Street.
"Guess so." Zee glanced slyly at Christie. "All we need is a nun. But she went home. Ain't that right, Darlin'?"
Christie's cheeks warmed but she simply smiled and shook her head at the incorrigible Deputy. Milligan gave them both a baffled look. "Er... yes, well, so, where are you two off to?"
"I'm minding the store," said Christie.
He blinked. "Blue ill?"
"No, he's gone to Benson."
"And I'm off to see Fred's Pa," chipped in Zee. "Tell him a few home truths about his son."
The sheriff's brow creased. "He ain't gonna like that. Need any help?"
"No thanks, George." Zee patted the butt of one colt. "Got all the help I need right here."
"Well, if you're sure...." He turned to Christie. "Does your brother have business in Benson, Miss Hayes?"
She opened her mouth, but Zee beat her to the draw. "Gone to see a girl about a weddin'," she said succinctly.
Milligan blinked. "Jenny Farnham?"
"Last I heard she'd gone missing."
"Really?" Zee brushed a speck of something from a glove. "Last I heard, she'd turned up."
Milligan looked at her then at Christie. He stroked his brown moustache. "Had she now?"
"Seems so." Zee gave him her butter-wouldn't-melt smile and Christie muffled a laugh.
He opened his mouth to ask another question, then thought better of it and closed it again. "Pass on my good wishes to the young couple when next you see them, will you?"
They had reached Blue's store, and now halted outside it. Milligan tipped his hat to both women and disappeared in the direction of the jail.
Christie opened her reticule and searched for the bunch of keys. Examining each in turn, she slid the correct one into the front door's lock. It turned stiffly, making a grating noise. She made a mental note to oil it then paused and looked up at Zee.
"Are you coming in?"
The Deputy shook her head. "Sooner I deal with Younger, the sooner we can go back to Benson."
"I'd like that too," said Christie, meaning it. "Contention just doesn't feel like home any more." The remark obviously pleased Zee though she didn't comment on it.
"Be back as soon as I can, Darlin'."
"Are you sure I can't come with you?"
"I know, I know," said Christie testily. "I'm as popular with the Youngers as horse dung on Fred's high-heeled shoes!"
Zee blinked then grinned. "Such language, Miss Hayes! You've been spending too much time with Angie's girls.... At least this piece of dung," she indicated herself, "has something to guarantee her a hearing." She patted her gun butt.
"You'll be careful?"
Zee raised Christie's gloved hand to her mouth and pressed her lips to it. "Ain't I always?"
Christie sighed. "Thatís what I'm afraid of."
The doorbell tinkled and Christie looked up from the bolt of serge she was straightening. Sheriff Milligan was standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the bright sunshine.
"Just checking you're all right, Miss Hayes."
"I'm fine." She blinked at him, puzzled. "What time is it?"
Where had the time gone? And why hadn't Zee returned yet?
He came further into the shop. "I walked past the Younger house. No sign of a disturbance."
What was Zee doing in there - playing checkers? "I suppose that's a good thing."
He nodded. "Well. Since you're sure you're all right." He tipped his hat. "I'll be on my way."
"Thanks, Sheriff. It was kind of you to look in on me."
When he'd gone, Christie tried to picture Zee talking to the wealthy mill owner in the library - Fred had once told her his father had read none of the books on his shelves; he purchased them by the yard. A setting like that would surely make Zee feel ill at ease. She thought about that for a bit then corrected herself. No. Zee would feel at home anywhere. It was Christie herself who would feel ill at ease.
When Fred was still on his best behaviour and trying to impress her, she had visited the Younger mansion several times. It wasn't a home, more a gloomy museum. Four times as large as the house she shared with Blue, its numerous rooms were stuffed with high quality furniture from San Francisco. Every surface boasted crystal vases and fragile ornaments (Caroline Younger always referred to them as 'objets d'art') which had been shipped over from Europe. Christie had always been terrified she would break something.
It wasn't just her own feelings of inadequacy, she realised with hindsight, it was the supercilious way in which Fred's family had treated her. Once, she asked if she might play their wonderful grand piano (hers was a little upright instrument, whose timbre couldn't compare), but his mother had flat out refused. Caroline Younger gave no reason, but Christie suspected she thought her future daughter-in-law's indelicate thumping would force the instrument to go too quickly out of tune.
She ground her teeth as she remembered the countless humiliations, the constant nagging. Fred, his snobbish sister Julia, his mother... everyone except his father, who was always in the library discussing matters of business of one kind or another, was always offering her unwanted pieces of 'advice'.
"Really, Christie. Why are your clothes are always so unfashionable? Here, look at the latest Godey's Lady's Book."
"You really should do something with your hair. A hair piece would be much more the thing."
"We donít use such a common term in this family, we say...."
"Christie, you are standing like a milkmaid! Stand up straight, and try to look more refined." ...
If she was so beneath them, why on earth had Fred asked her to marry him? Because he intended to mould me into something else.
It was a minor revelation and one which made her appreciate the absent Deputy all the more. Fred's family had never accepted her for who she was. Right from the start, Zee had.
Zee halted at the end of the drive and winced. Christie hadn't warned her that Alexander Younger (or his architect) was an aficionado of the Gothic Revival style now sweeping the West. Arched windows and doorways and a steeply gabled roof might suit a church, but on a residential house in an Arizona mining town they looked ridiculous.
It was also probably no coincidence that Younger had built his house here in the wealthy part of Contention, as far from his ore mill as possible. No choking dust, no rumbling day and night of the huge presses grinding the silver ore could be allowed to disturb his rest, she thought sourly
She continued up the drive. A lace curtain at one window twitched. Someone's home.
Mounting the step up to the front porch, she reached for the brass knocker. Before she could grasp it, the solid oak door opened.
"May I help you?" The mousy young woman was wearing a black and white maid's uniform.
Zee took off her hat. "Mr. Younger, please. Mr. Alexander Younger. He at home?"
"Who is at the door, Nellie?" The man's voice was muffled but familiar.
The maid turned her head and spoke to someone in the hall. "A visitor for Mr. Younger, Sir."
"I'll take care of it."
Nellie's brows drew together, but obediently she stood aside. A dapper little man with a Van Dyke beard took her place.
"Brodie! What the devil do you want?"
"With you, Fred? Nothin'. With your father? Reckon that's between him and me."
"Clear off." Ignoring the protests from the shocked maid, he slammed the door in Zee's face... or tried to. She had already stuck her booted foot in the gap. For a short and slightly painful period, Fred continued to try to force the door closed, then he gave up and opened it again.
"Now that ain't what I call hospitable," chided Zee.
"Damned if I'm going to let the Hellcat into my house!"
"Your house?" Pressing her palm flat against the middle of his chest, she simply pushed him backwards, out of her way, and stepped into the hall.
The maid was regarding the two of them with wide eyes.
Zee plucked the note she had written earlier from her vest pocket, and held it out. "Be mighty obliged, Nellie, if you'd give this to your employer. It explains the business I'm here to discuss." A male hand grabbed her right biceps but she shook it off.
"Do no such thing, girl," said Fred. "This... 'person' is leaving, or I will have her thrown out."
Zee laughed, crossed to a chair and sat down. "Yeah? Just try it!" She placed her upturned hat on the table beside the chair, then pulled off her gloves finger by finger and dropped them into it.
The maid hadn't moved. Her gaze kept flicking uncertainly between Zee, Fred, and the piece of paper held in her fingers.
"Mr. Younger will agree to see me," said Zee, "once he reads my note."
"What is all this commotion?" A female voice wafted down from the top of the stairs and they all turned to regard the woman descending towards them. Her gaze fell on Zee, taking in her male attire and the tin star pinned to her vest. "And who is this?"
"Name's Deputy Brodie," said Zee. The new arrival's expression was disapproving, her clothes expensive and up-to-the-minute. Her air was proprietorial, but she seemed too young to be Alexander Younger's wife. It must be Fred's sister, Julia. "I'm here to see your father."
"Deputy Br-. The one who stole Fred's silly little fiancée?" Zee bridled at this unflattering characterisation of Christie but kept her thoughts to herself. "See my father? About what, may I ask?"
Footsteps sounded down the hall and somewhere a door opened and closed.
"As I was just telling your brother, that's between- " She paused as Fred belatedly noticed that the little maid had taken advantage of the distraction to slip away.
"Come back, Nellie. I thought I told you- " With a face like thunder, he darted off.
While Julia gaped after her brother, Zee studied the paintings on the wall opposite her. Old Masters presumably; worth a few dollars, but far too dark and gloomy for her taste. She preferred landscapes or horses; Christie liked cheerful pictures - dogs, children, that kind of thing. Each to their own. Madam Angie favoured imported erotic prints. Zee had always preferred doing to watching. That little book of Christie's had given her a few ideas....
A shadow fell over her, and she looked up to find Julia frowning down at her.
"Yes?" she said mildly.
"I think you should leave. Now."
"That's queer. So does your brother. But I'll leave when I've talked to your father."
"He won't talk to you. He knows who you are. What you are. And what you did to Fred, to our family. You are not welcome in this house."
Zee shrugged. "Let him tell me that himself and I'll go."
Somewhere in the interior, a door opened, and heavy footsteps approached. Zee squinted through the gloom. A large, rather overweight man came into sight at the end of the hall. Close behind him, gesturing and protesting, was Fred. She stood up and reached for her hat.
"Deputy Zee Brodie?" The large man, who favoured oldfashioned whiskers, stopped in front of her. His gaze was difficult to fathom - hostility and curiosity combined.
"That's me." She held out a hand; he looked at it for a moment then shook it. "Alexander Younger, I presume."
A spluttering sound came from Julia's direction. Zee ignored her.
"Yes." Unlike his offspring, Younger senior was an imposing figure. His clothes were of the finest quality, conservatively cut. "Your note said you have some business to discuss. Come with me." He turned back the way he had come.
Fred's face was beet red. "But father, she's the one-"
The older man quelled him with a glance. "I know very well who she is, Fred." His eyes swivelled and found Zee again. "This way, Deputy."
Zee nodded, and, with one final smirk at the fuming Fred and Julia, followed.
He led her along the hall, towards a door at the far end then gestured for her to enter. She found herself in a large room that smelled strongly of tobacco; the shelves lining its walls groaned with leather-covered books. He closed the heavy door behind them, shutting out the distant sound of heated conversation between Fred and Julia.
"Sit." He skirted around her, took an armchair in front of the fireplace, currently unlit, and gestured at the other chair. She took it, trying to make herself comfortable, though its cushioned seat was so soft, she feared she might disappear into it, never to be seen again.
On an adjacent occasional table lay a silver handbell, and the note she had asked Nellie to give him. He took the bell and rang it. Moments later, the door opened and the maid came in.
"Some refreshments for our guest, Nellie." His gaze turned to Zee. "Tea? Coffee? Sherry? Lemonade?"
"Nothin' for me, thanks." She flashed a smile first at the maid then at her host. "But don't let me stop you."
He gestured dismissively. "None for me. That will be all." Nellie bobbed a curtsey and exited.
Alone once more, they regarded one another steadily. The silence stretched.
Younger was the first to give in. He reached for the note lying on the table, and held it up. "Is this a threat?"
"It's a statement of fact."
His eyes narrowed. "This 'sensitive information' you say you have about my son.... What makes you think I mind whether it is made public or not?"
"Reckon you're a man who cares about his hard-won reputation." She raised an eyebrow. "Am I right?"
There was a long pause. "Yes," he said finally. "I would take a very dim view of anyone who tried to tarnish my good name."
"And if the tarnisher was your own son?"
He blinked, stood up, and began to pace in front of the fireplace. "Why should I believe your lies, Deputy Brodie? I know who you are. I know what you did to Fred, how you seduced Miss Hayes and corrupted her."
Zee examined a fingernail and resolutely ignored his slur against Christie
"For all I know," he continued, "this is just another continuation of your rivalry with Fred." He stopped pacing.
She looked up. "Mr. Younger. This ain't about my rivalry with Fred. It's about his hurtin' of me and mine. Frankly, nothin' would give me greater pleasure than to see him get his comeuppance. The man's mean as a rattler, and his friends ain't no better.... Pardon my plain speakin'."
Alexander Younger's cheeks had reddened, and she thought he was going to tell her to leave. But he got a grip on his temper, then said carefully, "I must confess, in recent times the boy has been a severe disappointment to me, as for his friends...." He trailed off and shook his head wearily. "But he's still my son." He resumed his seat.
She leaned forward. "That's why I've come here rather that going to Sheriff Milligan."
"Milligan?" His face paled. "Has Fred really done something to bring shame to my family?"
"You can substantiate this accusation?"
The fight seemed to go out of the old man then, and he sighed and leaned back in his armchair. "Very well." He steepled his fingers. "You'd better tell me all about it."
So she did....
Nellie put down the tray of drinks, cast a curious glance at her now white-faced employer, then scurried out. Alexander Younger picked up the half-full whiskey decanter, filled the two glasses on the tray, pushed one towards Zee, and drained the other dry.
While he refilled his glass, Zee sipped her drink appreciatively. It was hard to believe the smooth amber liquor bore the same name as that rotgut they served in The Golden Slipper.
The colour had just about returned to his cheeks when he finally spoke. "What will it take for you not to go public with this?"
A feeling of triumph surged through her, but she kept her poker face in place. "First," she ticked off the points on her fingers, "Lord Murvagh gets his money back. By now, he should know the silvermine Fred and his friends sold him is worthless. Reckon he'll be feelin' pretty damn foolish and more than willin' to keep it quiet if the sale is declared null and void."
Younger grunted. "Go on."
"Second. From now on, Fred stays out of Contention and Benson." She considered for a moment then amended it. "Hell, out of Arizona entirely works better. Crux of the matter is, he stays away from both Christie and Blue. He's caused the Hayes family enough grief."
His eyebrows shot up. "Fred's mother will object to not being able to see her son-"
"It's not negotiable." Zee's gaze was hard.
Anger flared behind his eyes, then faded, replaced by thoughtfulness. "I had been wondering whether Fred might not benefit from some time in Europe. Many young men have their horizons broadened by a Grand Tour." He stroked his whiskers. "It might also help him to get over Miss Hayes." He nodded, once, decisively. "I'll talk to Caroline about it."
"You do that. Third. The store Fred got you to open in Commercial Street, opposite Blue's drapers shop. It closes, today."
He scratched his whiskers then shrugged. "All right. Is that it?"
"No. One final condition. But I don't think it'll be hard to fulfil. You agree to put Blue up for membership of the Cactus Club. His name was proposed once before, but your son blackballed him and since then, with his business so bad...." He had the grace to look guilty. "With your personal backing, that shouldn't happen again."
Younger stood up and crossed to a bureau, opening it and retrieving a box of cigars. He brought it back to his seat, flipped open the lid and took one, then absently held it towards Zee. She helped herself to one - the finest Cuban tobacco, she noted happily. He raised an eyebrow as she tucked it in her vest pocket for later, but said nothing, busying himself clipping and lighting his own cigar. She waited impatiently, until thick smoke was curling towards the ceiling.
"Well. Is it a deal or ain't it?"
He blew out a smoke ring then nodded. "You've got yourself a deal, Deputy Brodie."
Christie was gazing out of the draper shop window when an officious-looking man reined his horse to a halt outside the busy store across the street. She watched him dismount, tether his horse to the hitching rail, then barge his way inside.
She was just turning away, when the store's customers began to file out onto the sidewalk, some red-faced and gesticulating. A 'closed' sign appeared in one of the windows. Then the rider emerged and rode away.
"Well!" she murmured, absently registering the tinkle of the doorbell. "Wonder what that was about."
"Ain't it obvious?"
She swung round. A tall woman in a checked shirt and Levis was standing in her doorway, a rather smug grin on her face. "Zee!" Christie beamed at her. "What took you so long?"
Zee closed the door behind her and advanced further into the shop. Christie threw herself at her and gave her a bearhug.
"Sorry." She relinquished her grip and stood back, scrutinising the other woman. "Are you all right? When you didn't come back...." She could see no evidence of injury.
"Yeah. Took me a while to find the Younger place, plus getting past Alexander's guarddogs slowed me up some. Saw him in the end though." She took Christie's elbow and guided her back to her station by the window. "Went like clockwork."
"He agreed to call Fred off?"
"See for yourself." Zee gestured, and Christie saw that shutters were now going up on the store across the street.
That rider must've been Younger's messenger. "Blue will be very happy to get his customers back."
An arm circled Christie's waist and she leaned into it then twisted and looked up at Zee. Talk about the cat that got the canary! She hid a grin.
Zee's smile dimmed. "Erm, Darlin'?"
"That couple is headed this way."
Christie returned her gaze outside, and saw that two of the thwarted customers - a roly-poly woman in a bustle and bonnet, and a beanpole of a man with a walrus moustache - were indeed crossing the street towards the draper's shop.
"Oh!" Quickly, she disentangled herself from Zee's embrace, tidied her hair as best she could, and straightened her apron. "Looks like we're about to get busy." She scuttled behind the counter and tried to look nonchalant.
"Can't you just put up the 'closed' sign-" Zee broke off as the door opened, tinkling the bell. She rolled her eyes, but Christie ignored her and smiled her best smile at the new arrivals.
"Good morning, Mrs. Munro, Mr. Munro. Nice to see you."
"Miss Hayes!" The fat woman's eyebrows had shot up. "Is Bluford not here today then?" Her husband's gaze slid over Zee, who was lounging against the counter, and then away again.
"No. He's not.... What may I get for you today?"
"Oh... er.... Three yards of dimity, if you please."
Christie ran her gaze along the shelves and grimaced. Blue kept the bolts of that particular corded-cotton material on the very top shelf. She would need the little stepladder from the back. "We have a good selection, of stripes and checks, as you can see. Which one would you like?"
Mrs. Munro pursed her lips. "I'm not sure. Could I see that one," she pointed to a pale-blue striped dimity, "and that one."
Christie nodded, and was turning to fetch the steps when a hand on her arm halted her. A tall figure eased past her.
"Allow me." Zee reached up and lifted down the bolts in question, placing the heavy rolls of fabric on the counter as though they weighed no more than thistledown.
Christie shot her a grateful smile and began to unroll the material for Mrs. Munro's inspection. "Thank you," she murmured as she brushed past Zee. The Deputy winked at her, and she felt her cheeks warm.
"So, Mrs. Munro." She spread out the pale-blue material. "What do you think?"
"Hmmm." A thumb and forefinger rubbed the material between them. "A good thickness," said the fat woman grudgingly. "But I don't know.... That pink...." She turned to her husband. "What do you think, dear? The blue or the pink?"
He shrugged and looked out the window. Choosing material was clearly women's work. His wife frowned then turned back to Christie. "The blue," she said. "I'll have the blue."
"Three yards you said?" Christie fetched some dressmaking shears, measured the material against the gauge glued along the counter's edge, then cut off a length. While Zee helpfully restored the bolts to their rightful places on the top shelf, she folded the length of blue dimity, wrapped it in some brown paper, and tied it neatly with string. There. She gave the parcel a satisfied glance. Even Blue couldn't fault that.
The price book was under the counter and she retrieved it and checked the cost. "That'll be four dollars fifty, please."
"How much?" Mrs. Munro looked outraged. "They were selling dimity for a dollar a yard across the street."
"Then perhaps you shoulda gone there," suggested Zee.
It was the first time she had addressed the roly-poly woman directly, and Mrs. Munro started, like a horse on hearing a rattlesnake's tail. Her husband promptly turned from viewing the street outside - the other store's disgruntled customers had dispersed - and came to stand protectively beside his wife.
Christie shot Zee a quelling look. "I'm very sorry if you think it's too much, Mrs. Munro. Blue costed it very carefully, and I know my brother - he wouldn't set a price that isn't fair."
The woman looked as though she was going to disagree, but a hard stare from Zee made her close her mouth and shuffle closer to her husband. "Very well." She opened her reticule and counted out the exact money. "But I shall have to think twice before recommending your establishment to my friends."
Christie took the money and put it in the empty till. "I'm very sorry to hear that," she said diplomatically.
Mrs. Munro sniffed, tucked her brown paper parcel under one arm, and marched out of the shop, her husband giving Zee a wary look before following her.
As the door swung slowly closed behind them, Zee called a sarcastic, "Pleasure doing business with you." Then she vaulted over the counter, locked the door, and flipped the sign in the window round to say 'Closed'.
Christie rolled her eyes. "What are you doing? It's not even lunchtime yet and-"
"Far as I'm concerned, it's time to go home." The dark-haired woman strolled back towards her.
"But what about the store?"
Zee leaned her elbows on the counter, bringing herself face to face with Christie. "We didn't come to Contention so you can run Blue's shop."
"But-" A sloppy wet kiss on the nose stopped her. "Zee!" She blushed and wiped her nose dry with one hand.
Zee grinned and straightened up. "I'll ask Milligan to keep an eye on the place until Blue gets back. And if your brother wants to stay in Benson awhile longer, he can telegraph a friend, get him to run the store in his absence."
Christie pursed her lips and considered that. The store was Blue's responsibility, she realised. She and Zee had their own lives to lead. And she very much wanted them both to get back to them.
"You're right," she said, undoing her apron and hanging it on a hook. "I'll close up."
"That's my girl!"
As is always the way, it took far less time to pack for the return trip to Benson than it had for the trip out. There was no careful selecting of items that might be needed, it was just a case of spotting things that didn't belong in Blue's house and stowing them in the luggage. Even so, it took Christie longer than a fidgety Zee wanted.
"Will you stop pacing up and down?" she asked eventually. "There's plenty of time before the train leaves."
Zee sighed and threw herself on the bed. "I know." She clasped her arms behind her head. "It's just that... the sooner we leave here, the better."
Christie frowned and stopped her packing. "Whatís wrong?"
"Just a hunch."
"But his father said-"
"I know." Zee pushed herself up off the bed and began to pace once more. "But if Fred's the hothead I think he is, he won't take kindly to his father makin' deals 'bout his future. If I'm still here, he'll come lookin' for me 'stead of thinkin' things through."
"Oh." Christie considered that for a moment, compared the man she had known with the person he was now. Fred's pride had always been easily hurt, she remembered. Then he would lose his temper. She chewed her lower lip. "Maybe we should tell Milligan."
Zee stopped her pacing. "It's not my safety I'm worried about, Darlin'."
Christie blinked in confusion. "I'm sorry, Zee, I donít quite-"
"What if he comes after me and I have to kill him?" Pale blue eyes regarded her sombrely. "How will you feel about me then?"
"How will I...?" Christie stepped forward and slipped her arms around Zee's waist. "Oh, sweetheart." She leaned her head against Zee's chest, felt strong arms come up to hold her. "Nothing could change the way I feel about you."
She thought for a long moment. "Well, if you were to bed Red Mary...."
Zee chuckled. "You really don't like her, do you?"
Christie looked up and wrinkled her nose. "No."
Zee kissed her gently then drew back. "You don't have to worry about her, you know."
"I know." said Christie, smiling.
Reluctantly, she stepped out of Zee's arms and continued her packing, thinking of what Zee had said. When she had folded the last item and closed up the case, she turned to the waiting Deputy.
"Even so," she said. "if possible, Iíd rather you didn't kill him."
Zee's brows drew together. "Fred?" Christie nodded. "Why?"
"Because he's so far beneath you, he's not worth it. And anyway," she picked up one of the lighter cases and headed for the stairs, "you made a deal with his Father."
They had almost reached the station depot when, from nowhere, a lariat dropped round Christie's shoulders.
The Deputy, who was one step behind her, let out an oath.
As the rope tightened, pinning Christie's arms to her sides and pulling her off balance, she dropped the cases she was carrying. The rope jerked, pulling her sideways into the shadows. She fought against it, digging in her heels and squirming, trying to see if Zee was all right, but to no avail. All she could hear was the sound of scuffling, of solid blows finding their target. A man swore then shouted a warning, then came the sound of gunfire.
"Zee!" she called out again, horribly afraid for her lover.
A hand clamped itself over her mouth. "Shut up and you won't get hurt," came a man's voice.
He pulled her back into the shadows, turned her so her back was towards him, and held her firmly. She shuddered at the feel of his body pressed against hers, but at least now she could see what was going on.
The lariat meant for Zee had been sliced to ribbons. Zee herself was intent on taking down the last of three attackers. Two were already disabled - one was clutching his thigh, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood from a knife wound, the other was holding his privates, rocking and moaning low in his throat.
Smoke curled from Zee's Colts as she stalked towards the third man. His hand was bleeding, his own holster empty - Christie scanned the ground and spotted his revolver. As he backed away from Zee, he tripped over one of the dropped cases. Before he could regain his balance, the Deputy had darted forward and clipped his chin a resounding blow with a gun butt. The man's eyes rolled up in his head and he toppled over backwards like a felled redwood.
Behind Christie, Fred swore and tightened his grip.
"Ow! You're hurting me!"
Zee straightened and turned to face Fred, her blue eyes glacial. "Let her go." She hefted a gun meaningfully.
"Or what?" The short man tried to sound defiant, but Christie could smell the fear on him, hear it in his voice. "You can't risk hurting her." He pulled Christie even closer, trying to hide behind her.
"Can't I?" The Deputy raised the gun in her right hand and took careful aim.
Christie could have sworn the muzzle was pointing straight at her. Her heart was threatening to pound its way out of her chest, and she screwed up her eyes tight. Zee! Don't!
There was a single deafening gunshot. Then several things happened at once. Fred yelped. His grip on her disappeared. The lariat loosened. And she became aware that she was still in the land of the living.
Tentatively, she opened her eyes and saw the apologetic face gazing at her. She stepped out of the lariat, which had pooled around her feet, and staggered towards Zee.
"You all right?" A gloved hand rested comfortingly on her shoulder. Christie stared up at Zee and nodded dumbly. Then she turned to look back at Fred, who was kneeling, clutching his right shoulder. His sleeve was soaked with blood.
Zee walked over and looked down at him. His expression combined pain and fear. Christie thought he was near to tears.
"Please don't kill me."
"I don't intend to." The Deputy hauled him to his feet. "C'mon. Up you get."
He gave her a confused look. "Why not? I would've killed you."
She shrugged. "Made a promise to someone." She glanced at Christie who smiled back at her.
"Now git." Zee shoved her prisoner roughly towards his fallen comrades and reached for some short pieces of lariat rope. She bound his hands firmly together then started on the next man.
"First, you and me are gonna pay Sheriff Milligan a little visit." She turned to grin at Christie, who was collecting her cases. "And then we've got a train to catch."
CONTINUED AND CONCLUDED IN PART 4