Warnings - See Part 1.
IN-LAWS FOR AN OUTLAW
(aka The Hellcat and the Chivaree)
Part 4 (Conclusion)
Zee ran a finger round the inside of her collar and winced. This is gonna chafe. "Why'd you have to use so much starch?"
Christie turned from her position in front of the mirror. "It's a wedding, Zee. You have to look dressy for a wedding." She turned back to the mirror, smoothed the fashionable green dress Julie Fontenot had helped her make over her hips, and cocked her head first to one side then the other. "Hmmm. Hair up or hair down?"
The question was clearly rhetorical so Zee ignored it. "Dressy, huh? Don't see why," she grumbled. Undoing the shirt's top two buttons, she reached for a clean red bandanna and tied it round her neck. That should help.
Christie gathered up her long blonde hair and did something complicated with it involving hairpins. Zee could never be bothered with stuff like that - it was one of the reasons she kept her own hair cropped short - but she had to admit, the end result was worth it. She advanced on Christie.
The blonde jumped as Zee dipped her head and nibbled the enticing nape of her neck. "That tickles!"
"Ain't quite what I had in mind," mumbled Zee, reaching round and cupping the blonde's breasts. She checked the other woman's reaction in the mirror. Christie's mouth was slightly open but her eyelids were closed, the long lashes pale against flushed skin. She grinned and continued her attentions, sucking a tender earlobe, stroking the generous curves she could feel beneath the silk.
Christie gasped, then recollected herself and shook Zee off. "Not now. We'll be late."
Zee grinned. "Some things are worth being late for." But Christie avoided her reaching hands and wagged her finger at her. She sighed, and backed off.
On the bed lay the embroidered waistcoat Hogan had lent her. She slipped it on and buttoned it up. It was a bit loose on her, and too fancy for her taste, but still....
"You look very nice." Christie had finished with her hair and was now regarding Zee with a critical eye. "There's a spot on the toe of your right boot."
Obediently, Zee made to rub it off on the back of her Levis.
"Not on your clean trousers!"
Zee rolled her eyes, reached for a dirty bandanna, and bent to remove the offending mud. "That better?" She straightened and let the smaller woman circle her slowly.
Christie finished her inspection, smiled, and nodded. "You'll do."
Zee let out a sigh of relief.
They had got back from Contention the day before, and, after dropping off their luggage at the Old Barn and retrieving their horses from Curly and Ann next door, headed over to Angie's Palace to see how Blue and Jenny were getting on. There, the brothel madam had greeted them with a broad smile, the news that Blue had managed to get a wedding license, and an embossed invitation to the happy couple's wedding on the morrow when the travelling Justice was due.
Zee had received the news tranquilly. She'd been to quite a few weddings in her time. The ceremonies were quickly over, and she always enjoyed the celebrations that followed. This state of happy anticipation lasted until Christie told her in no uncertain terms that she must 'dress for the occasion'.
She sighed and looked for her hat, which Christie had sponged the worst of the dirt off. It was on the dresser. She crammed it on her head then looked at herself in the mirror, raising an eyebrow.
"See," said Christie from behind her. "You can look quite presentable when you try."
Still not entirely sure about the waistcoat, Zee merely grunted.
A smack on the bottom startled her out of her introspection. "Hey!" She turned and blinked at the grinning blonde.
"Come on, handsome," said Christie cheekily. "Time to see my brother make an honest woman of Jenny."
Zee surveyed her surroundings with interest. Madam Angie had closed up the brothel for the day and transformed her largest reception room especially for the wedding. The card tables had been stacked away or were lined up at the side, draped beneath pretty tablecloths and awaiting the arrival of the buffet Mattie was preparing in the kitchen; and most of the ornate gold mirrors had been demurely covered.
Which was more than could be said for the whores. Even done up in their Sunday best, their dresses were cut far too low. She smirked at the sight of them mingling with more respectable folks. Their profession was all too obvious. As was that of the black habit-clad nuns. Sister Florence had brought a few of her Sisters of Charity with her. They were apparently looking forward to the day out.
It was just as well Jenny's parents hadn't been invited to the wedding, she mused. (It was thought best to present them with a fait accompli.) The Farnhams would have had a blue fit.
"Blue looks terrified." Christie was eyeing the forlorn figure standing at the front.
"Can't imagine why."
"Suppose Jenny changes her mind?" The little blonde was apparently too het up to register Zee's irony. "Supposed she jilts him at the altar?"
"Well, for one thing," said Zee, "there ain't no altar. And for another, in her condition? Ain't likely. I'm just hoping she don't have the baby during the ceremony!"
Christie put her hands on her hips and glared at Zee who chuckled. It was so much fun teasing her. "It'll be all right, Darlin'," she soothed. "You'll see."
The entrance doors swung open and every head turned. Sheriff Hogan came into view, wearing a fancy new embroidered waistcoat. With him was a bandy-legged little man wearing a black sombrero and shabby chaps. A murmur went round the room.
"Is that the marrying squire?" asked Christie.
Zee nodded. "Crutchfield's quite a character," she said, "but he's quick and he's legal."
"What do you mean?" The blonde frowned as the little man threaded his way towards the front of the throng. There, he smiled and shook hands with Blue, then took his place facing the guests. Hogan patted the wan-looking Blue on the back and stood next to him.
A stir to one side proved to be Diamond Dust Kate, plonking her buxom bottom on the pianola stool and pumping the instrument's pedals for all she was worth. As the first chords of 'Here Comes the Bride' boomed around the large room, the guests excitedly craned their necks round towards the entrance doors. Zee was no exception.
The bride-to-be was standing in the open doorway, protectively cradling her belly. Beside her, looking magnificent in crimson Turkish trousers, stood Madam Angie. (Since there was no Father to give Jenny away, the brothel owner, who had taken quite a shine to the young woman, had offered to do the job instead).
When she saw all the faces looking at her, Jenny froze, unable to take another step. But Angie whispered something in her ear, and the young woman nodded, took a deep breath, and continued on. As she passed, people shouted well wishes to her. The fear in her wide brown eyes made her look even more faunlike than usual, and Zee gave her an encouraging wink. Then the young woman saw Blue and had eyes for nobody else.
Zee watched the pregnant girl hurry towards her intended, stand next to him, and shyly take his hand. From beside her came a muffled sniffle. She pulled out a clean handkerchief and handed it to Christie who accepted it gratefully. She had pegged the blonde as the type to cry at weddings. Looked like she was right.
Justice Crutchfield had been watching the proceedings with a wide smile. Now, he stepped forward, clasped his sombrero to his chest with one hand and raised the other for silence. With a discordant squawk, the pianola fell silent.
"Howdy, folks." A ripple of laughter met his greeting. "Reckon we all know why we are here this fine morning." He nodded at the young couple looking nervously at him. "Blue Hayes and Jenny Farnham are here to get spliced.... And by the looks of it," he eyed Jenny's belly, "not a moment too soon!"
As the couple tried vainly not to look at one another, their cheeks blushing matching shades of pink, the wedding guests laughed louder. Zee glanced at Christie - her eyes were beginning to widen. She reached for the blonde's hand and squeezed it.
"So," continued the little Justice, "let's get the formalities over and done with, and then we can get on with the important thing - the celebrating!"
He assumed a solemn face, waited for the laughter to die away, then turned to Jenny. "Take him?" he asked.
She blinked, looked at Blue, looked back at Crutchfield, who was clearly waiting for an answer, then murmured rather tentatively, "Yes."
The little Justice nodded and turned to face Blue. "Take her?"
By now the groom had got the hang of things, and he nodded and said, loud and clear, "Yes."
Crutchfield's face broke into a smile. "Done. One dollar, please."
Blue blinked and began to pat his clearly empty pockets. Hogan produced a silver dollar from somewhere, and flipped it to the Justice, who caught it deftly and tucked it in his own pocket.
For a moment there was silence, then Crutchfield said, "Well. What are you waiting for, son? Kiss your wife."
As Blue shyly kissed his bride, a cheer went up and a few hats were thrown into the air. The hand holding Zee's tugged her round.
"Is that it?" Christie looked astonished.
"Reckon so. Told you he was quick."
A side door opened and Mattie, the brothel's cook, appeared with a tray of full champagne glasses. She placed it on a table and disappeared, returning seconds later with several more.
"C'mon," said Zee. "Let's go congratulate the bride and groom."
They made their way between the other guests towards Blue and Jenny, Zee guiding Christie with a hand in the small of her back. Around them, the noise rose steadily as the trays of food appeared, and the mood turned to one of post-nuptial celebration. By the time they reached Christie's brother and his new wife, they were having to shout to make themselves heard..
"Congratulations, Blue... Jenny," bellowed Christie. She hugged them both in turn. "I finally have a sister-in-law!"
Jenny gave her a shy smile.
Blue put his arm protectively round his wife. "Do you think our parents would have approved?" he asked Christie.
She laughed. "Probably not at first, but they'd have come around to the idea. You know they only wanted us to be happy."
He grinned and squeezed his wife who laughingly protested. "Well, Lord knows, I am happy," he said, kissing her on the cheek.
"Goodness only knows what they'd have made of Justice Crutchfield, though!" The blonde craned her head. "Where is he?"
A few enquiries by Zee elicited the fact that the little man had disappeared, saying he had another wedding to attend. Not before eating a whole peach pie and drinking three glasses of champagne though. Which reminded her....
A tray was passing within reaching distance, so she deftly confiscated it. Its former owner's protests died away when he saw who had snatched it, and he shrugged and went off in search of another tray. Zee handed out the glasses of champagne and took one for herself.
Christie's brow wrinkled. "Should Jenny be drinking in her condition?"
"A sip of champagne wonít hurt her." Zee raised her glass. "A toast. To Blue and Jenny. May you both find as much happiness with each other as I've found with Christie."
Green eyes brimmed instantly and a tear threatened to fall from pale lashes. Zee wound an arm round the smaller woman's shoulders, and pulled her close. "I mean it," she murmured. The tear fell.
"Sorry, Blue," managed Christie, producing her handkerchief and blowing her nose loudly. "I always cry at weddings."
Her brother nodded sagely, but Zee knew Christie well enough by now to know that her tearfulness was due to more than that. When an arm looped itself around her waist and squeezed, she smiled and dropped a fond kiss on a blonde head.
"To the happy couple!" she said. Glasses clinked, and they drank.
"Waistcoat looks better on you than it does on me." Hogan's voice came from beside Zee. "But not by much."
"Have to take your word for it." She gave her boss a wry smile. "Be glad to get back to my old duds, though. This collar's killing me."
She passed him the whisky bottle she had found and whose contents she had already made a good-sized dent in. Champagne was all very well for special occasions, but it wasn't a real drink. She glanced across the room, to where Christie was talking to a tall figure in a black habit, veil, and pleated cape, and winced.
The Sheriff followed her glance, then laughed so hard she thought he was going to choke. "You don't need to worry, Brodie," he chuckled, when he had regained control of himself. "I don't think she'll be joining the Sisters of Charity any time soon."
Zee grunted and took another sip of whisky. "Better not. Wouldn't be the first time I kidnapped a girl from them."
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
"Do that." Her gaze travelled to Blue and Jenny, who were in animated conversation with Madam Angie, then continued on to where some of the whores were huddled, deep in conversation, their sly gazes occasionally settling on the newlyweds. "Mm."
"Reckon that lot are planning a Chivaree."
Hogan's gaze swivelled then became thoughtful. "Reckon you're right. Want me to put a stop to it?"
Zee considered. "No," she said at last. "Can't have a wedding without a Chivaree. But I'll go along, keep an eye on things.... Jenny being pregnant and all."
He nodded and took a gulp of whisky. "Know where they're spending the honeymoon?"
She checked for eavesdroppers then lowered her voice. "Got themselves a room in Mrs. Sandridge's boarding house."
It was Hogan's turn to wince. "Good luck, then. And watch out for the rolling pin!"
"What were you and the Sheriff talking about?" Christie had tracked the Deputy down beside the buffet table.
"Oh, you know." Zee's voice was muffled by a mouthful of apple pie. It wasn't as good as Christie's, but it would help mop up the whisky - she had drunk too much and was feeling fuzzy around the edges. "Bit of this, bit of that." She gestured vaguely.
Christie folded her arms and tapped one foot. "Zerelda Brodie," she said, her use of Zee's full name signally her displeasure. "I know you're up to something. If it involves my brother and his very pregnant wife, then I'm entitled to know about it. So if you don't tell me, this minute...."
Zee held up her hands in mock surrender. "All right, all right." Aware of the curious glances coming their way, she took Christie by the elbow and guided her to a corner where they could talk unobserved.
"We're pretty sure that Red Mary and the others are planning a Chivaree."
Christie looked dismayed. "Oh no. But Zee, Jenny is pr-"
Zee pressed a finger to her lips. "I know she is, Darlin'. That's why Hogan agreed to my goin' along too."
"Oh." Christie looked thoughtful.
"I promise, no harm will come to either Blue or Jenny or the baby. I'll make sure of that."
Christie nodded once decisively. "Good. Then so will I."
Green eyes fixed her with a look. "Yes? You have some objection to my going too?"
Zee knew that stubborn tone. She sighed and instantly conceded defeat. "No, Darlin'. It's a celebration. The more the merrier."
Zee halted outside Mrs. Sandridge's boarding house. Christie did too, inadvertently setting off a domino chain of collisions amongst those crowding her heels. Each bump was accompanied by the rattle of a tambourine, the bonk of a drum, the clang of a tin pail, each in their turn followed by shushing noises and whispered apologies.
The Deputy rolled her eyes. As though they can't hear us a mile away!
She hadn't expected so many people to turn up. There were about twenty in all, mostly the whores and their friends, but also a few old reprobates and hangers-on who had heard that there was fun and free drinks to be had tonight. Many were already the worse for liquor, which had made instructing them in the 'dos and don'ts' more tedious than it should have been. In the end, she had simply threatened to throw them in jail if they so much as pulled out a gun let alone fired it. What's more, while Blue was fair game, she insisted, his wife was out of bounds. Most had grumbled at that, but in the end all had agreed to her conditions.
The revellers had dressed as was traditional for a Chivaree. Some had blacked their faces or donned their clothes backwards, and others were wearing masks. Zee hadn't bothered - there was no way to disguise her height and pale blue eyes. Neither had Christie, who saw herself more as an observer than a participant.
Zee pointed up at the window on the top floor of the boarding house. "That's their room." The curtains were drawn, the room dark.
"They're probably sleep," said Christie.
"Yeah. Won't be for long though." She turned to the waiting crowd and signalled. A cheer went up, and suddenly every hand was brandishing a musical instrument.
Well, maybe not 'musical', exactly, amended Zee as the ensuing cacophony threatened the eardrums of everyone in the vicinity. Kettles and tin pails clanked, drums banged, a horn tooted, but the worst caterwauling by far came from a cracked fiddle that the bewhiskered Silas Ward had brought along. Christie stuck her fingers in her ears and gave Zee an appalled look.
She laughed and turned her gaze up towards the window once more. A lamp had been lit, and as she watched, someone slid open the sash window. Next minute, the unmistakable blond head of Bluford Hayes was leaning out, gesticulating and mouthing something that Zee thought might have been, "Keep the noise down. My wife's asleep!" but she could've been wrong.
A hand on her shoulder pulled her down to Christie's level, and she felt the blonde's breath warm against her ear. "Look at his face! He's furious!"
"It's a Chivaree. What did he expect?"
Straightening, Zee made her way towards the front door. There, she raised her fist and was about to thump loudly and yell at the owner for admittance, when it opened of its own accord.
"What on earth's all this noise? Can't decent God-fearing people get any sleep in this town?"
An old woman, stood there, her hair tied up in papers, her expression stormy. One age-spotted hand held closed her dressing gown, whose vivid shade of fuchsia made Zee wince, the other clasped a rolling pin. "Deputy Brodie! Might have guessed you'd be involved in this tomfoolery." She raised her makeshift weapon.
Whoops! Zee held up her hands in a placating gesture. "Evenin', Mrs. Sandrich. Sorry 'bout the ruckus. We're here to chivaree Blue Hayes and his new wife."
The boarding house landlady clearly expected her to step back, so instead, she darted past her into the hall. The rolling pin came down, missing her arm by mere inches. Laughing under her breath, she headed for the foot of the stairs and peered up. At least the impromptu 'concert' was slightly muffled in here.
"Hallooooooo, Blue!" she called. "The sooner you come down and take your medicine, the sooner we'll be off your hands."
Doors opened upstairs, and moments later startled faces were peering down the stairwell at her.
"Well, really!" said the landlady. "You're disturbing everyone in the place! Call yourself the Law?"
Zee turned and gestured at the empty spot on her vest where her tin star was usually pinned. "No, ma'am. I'm off duty." A loud harrumph met that remark but at least the rolling pin kept its distance. Keeping a wary eye on it, Zee turned back to the stairwell. Blue's face had joined the others peering down at her, she saw.
"Come on down, Blue. We promise to go easy on you."
For a moment he simply stared at her, then he gave a single reluctant nod. Mission accomplished, Zee turned and eased her way past the still visibly annoyed Mrs. Sandrich.
Outside, lamps had gone on all along the street, and faces now peered from every open window and door as people watched the chivaree. In the distance, a coyotee had added its howling to the noise. If anything, it improved it.
Zee was contemplating putting her fingers in her ears, when something hit her on the cheek. She touched her smarting skin and glanced up, puzzled. Something hit her on the forehead. Hailstones?
Snatching one of the tiny missiles out of the air, she examined it. Some of the more resourceful revellers, barred from using their guns, were firing pea-shooters up at Blue's window instead, peppering the pane with a loud hail of dried peas. She laughed and shook her head.
Christie came up beside her and pulled her down to her level. "Is he coming?" bellowed the blonde in her ear.
Zee nodded and ducked another shower of peas. "On his way."
"Good. I can't take much more of this."
The 'music' stopped abruptly, and a loud cheer erupted. They turned in time to see an apprehensive Blue standing in the boarding house doorway. He stepped outside, the fuchsia-clad Mrs. Sandrich slamming the door closed behind him, and the crowd surged forwards, taking Zee and Christie with it.
When things settled again, they saw that several of the stronger men had heaved Blue up onto their shoulders and were parading him up and down in front of the boarding house. The blond man gazed helplessly down at them from his high perch and mouthed, "What do I do now?"
Zee squeezed Christie's hand before releasing it. Reaching into her shirt pocket for the wad of bills she had crammed there earlier, she eased her way between the rowdy chivaree participants. Most if not all were yelling catcalls, making aspersions about Blue's sexual prowess, sending well wishes to the happy couple, and demanding drink.
A glance up at the open window of Blue's room revealed that Jenny was now looking anxiously down at her husband. No doubt she had heard the stories of other Chivarees. Some grooms had ended up kidnapped and dunked in the river. Zee gave her a reassuring thumbs-up then turned to Blue.
"Take this," she shouted, pressing the bills into Christie's brother's hand. "Tell them to buy themselves drinks with it."
He stared at the money, then nodded his understanding. Struggling upright, his supporters adjusting their grip to keep him from tumbling, he held up his hands for silence. It took a moment for everyone to notice, then the crowd quieted expectantly.
"Thank you, folks, for all your good wishes. I very much appreciate them. Now if you don't mind, my wife," he gestured towards the watching Jenny, "is waiting for me, and it is our honeymoon!"
"What about us?" yelled someone.
"Yeah. What will you give us to leave you in peace?" shouted out someone else.
"By way of a thank you," Blue held up the money, eliciting a loud cheer, "the drinks are on me. Enjoy yourselves!"
A big woman in a sparkly purple eye mask, probably Red Mary though it was hard to be sure, hurried to the front and snatched the bills from Blue's hand.
"Everyone follow me," she called. "The celebration is just beginning."
After a momentary confusion, as those who wanted to go home and those who wanted to continue partying parted company, Zee, Christie, and Blue found themselves alone on the sidewalk watching the motley procession wending its way away from them towards the nearest saloon. As the laughter and chatter, the clank and bong and rattle of their instruments faded into the distance, Christie breathed a loud sigh of relief. One by one, the watching faces disappeared and the doors and windows closed.
"Jenny, you'll catch cold." Blue was gazing up at his wife. "Go back to bed. I'll be up very soon." She nodded, ducked back out of sight, and seconds later the sash window slid shut.
Zee pulled Christie close. "All right?" The blonde nodded. "Blue?"
He gave her a rueful grin. "I think so. Thanks for the dollars. You probably saved my bacon."
She grinned and shook his outstretched hand. "Hey, always glad to help out my brother-in-law!"
His eyes widened and he glanced thoughtfully at Christie. The blonde merely cuddled closer to Zee.
"Can we go home now?" she said plaintively.
Zee yawned as the day's excitement caught up with her. "Reckon so." She regarded Blue pointedly. "Goodnight then, Mr. Hayes. Reckon your bride's awaitin'."
He started, as though out of deep thought. "Oh... yes." Turning on his heel, he headed for the boarding house. "Good night," he called, as he reached for the doorknob. "And thank you again for keeping things under control."
"You're welcome. And look out for the rolling pin." He gave her a puzzled look, shook his head, then disappeared inside.
"What a day!" said Christie, as they strolled arm in arm to where they'd left the buckboard.
"Mmm hmmm." Zee helped Christie up before untethering the horse. "But you know what?" She hopped up beside the blonde and winked at her. "The best bit's still to come."
SIX MONTHS LATER
Christie hurried into the kitchen, glad to leave the tobacco smoke and noisy hubbub behind for a short while. No wonder Zerelda had burst into tears!
She peered out the window. There, in the welcome silence of the yard, a rangy figure with cropped black hair was talking to their niece. Christie tried to make out what Zee was saying. Something about 'the horsey'? Whatever it was met with an enthusiastic wave of miniature hands and feet from the baby. She chuckled and turned away.
Glasses. I came for glasses.
She was kneeling, unearthing them from a bottom cupboard, when the door to the interior opened, the noise from the parlour increasing. Someone was playing 'Beautiful Dreamer', badly. It couldn't be Blue or Jenny, Hogan or Angie, Ann or Curly, as none of them could play a note. Which left... Surely not Sister Florence? Well, she had had rather a lot to drink....
Ann Young peered round the door. "Need any help, Christie?"
She smiled at her plump neighbour. "You and Curly have already done more than your fair share, Ann. Those peach pies were a great success."
The middle-aged woman came into the room and closed the door behind her, thankfully muffling the noise. "I think Blue ate two all by himself," she said. "He's putting on weight, don't you think?"
Christie straightened and carried the glasses to the sink where she proceeded to wash the dust from them. "Let's not mince words, Ann. My brother is getting fat. He is also boring. If he tells me one more longwinded story about what he and the other members of the Cactus Club have been up to...." She broke off and sighed. "He's happy though. That's the important thing."
Unbidden, Ann picked up a tea towel and began to dry the glasses. Christie smiled her thanks. "And Jenny expecting again too! Already!" said her neighbour.
"I know. Poor girl! Maybe someone should have a word with her and Blue about where babies come from."
Ann shot her a mischievous glance. "Sister Florence, perhaps?"
Christie snorted with laughter. "Now that I would pay to see!"
She started to stack the clean glasses on a tray then looked out the window once more. Zee appeared to be explaining the intricacies of saddles to her namesake. She chuckled. Ann turned to see what had amused her and smiled.
"Curly was the same, when our two were young. Soft as butter, he was, though he pretended otherwise."
Christie leaned forward and rapped her knuckle sharply against the windowpane. The Deputy turned at the sound, saw her, and grinned.
"Everything all right?" mouthed Christie.
Zee nodded, bounced her niece up and down one last time and rested her against her shoulder, then began to walk towards the house. Moments later the back door opened, and she came in.
"Peaceful out there," she said.
Christie sighed. "Remind me again whose idea this soirée was?"
Zee grinned. "Yours, Darlin'. All yours." She bent forward, careful not to jog the sleepy baby, and pressed a kiss on Christie's cheek. "What are you two doin' in here? Evenin's still young. You had enough already?"
Christie gestured at the tray. "We ran out of glasses."
Zee pursed her lips. "The way Florence and Angie are knocking back the hard stuff, we'll soon be out of whisky."
"She's certainly not your 'run of the mill' nun, is she?"
Zee's snort disturbed the baby who yawned, opened tiny hands like starfish then curled them closed again. "She's Angie's friend. What can you expect?"
Christie regarded the two Zees fondly. With her blonde hair and faunlike eyes, her new niece looked nothing like her namesake. But Jenny had insisted on naming her after the tall woman out of gratitude, and Zee hadn't had the heart to say no.
"Come on. Let's get this little one back to her mother." She picked up the tray and led the way.
Faces turned in Christie's direction as she entered the parlour, and a loud cheer greeted the new arrivals. She placed the tray of glasses on the top of the piano. Sister Florence grinned up at her then resumed her haphazard playing. Christie tried not to wince at the discordant plinkety plink.
She turned and watched Zee make her way towards Jenny and gently deposit the baby in her arms. The young mother, who was sitting on the sofa next to her husband, smiled, exchanged a few words with the tall woman, then stood up.
"I'm just taking her upstairs," she told Christie, as she came within earshot. "She'll sleep now, I think."
Christie nodded. The tobacco smoke had grown thicker, if anything. It made her eyes smart. She crossed to the windows, and flung another wide open.
"So," said Madam Angie, whose pipe was the primary source of the noxious fumes. "You never did tell us what this little shindig is in honour of, Christie. Your new piano?"
The upright pianoforte had arrived unexpectedly by wagon just over a fortnight ago - unexpectedly as far as Christie was concerned; it was clear from Zee's reaction that she and Blue must have been hatching the plot to transport it to Benson for some time. Overjoyed at the instrument's arrival, Christie had at once arranged for the tuner to call.
She had missed being able to play Chopin and Beethoven sonatas whenever the mood took her - the whores tended to favour popular songs. Now, she could play the classics to her heart's content, though she was happy to switch to something lighter whenever Zee was around. On occasion, the other woman even accompanied her - she had revealed an unsuspected talent for the jew's-harp and the harmonica (all those long evenings spent sitting by a camp fire, Zee sheepishly explained).
"Partly. But today is also a very special anniversary of sorts."
Sister Florence stopped playing. "Really?" Her grey eyes were bright. "Whose? Do tell!" The abrupt cessation of the music made all heads turned towards them. Christie's cheeks grew warm, and she felt an urge to flee, but she stood her ground.
"Exactly one year ago today," she announced, as a quizzical-looking Zee came to stand beside her, "something happened to change the course of my life." The parlour door opened, and Jenny returned minus the baby, to be met by shushing noises and nods in Christie's direction. The young woman slid into her seat quickly then looked attentively at Christie.
Embarrassed, she cleared her throat. A warm hand slid into hers and she gripped it firmly. "A year ago today, someone came to my house in Contention who has since become indispensable to my happiness. Zee." She turned to regard the woman standing next to her.
The Deputy's gaze was turned inwards. After a moment, she nodded, her expression becoming one of surprised pleasure. "To the very day," she confirmed, raising the hand she held to her lips.
A chorus of oohs and ahs met this gesture, until Hogan spoiled the mood by shouting, "Anyone got a bucket of cold water handy?"
"And what's more, it was my brother, Blue, who brought us together," added Christie.
"I did not!" said an indignant Blue.
Christie put her hands on her hips. "Did you or did you not invite Zee and her prisoner to stay at our house while they waited for the train to Yuma?"
He stroked his moustache. "Well, when you put it that way.... But I was only doing my duty. Didn't know the Deputy was a woman either." He put his arm round his wife. "Also didn't know she was going to seduce you right out from under my nose!"
The shout of laughter proved to be from Madam Angie.
"Wasn't under your nose, Blue," contradicted Zee. "You weren't there, as I recall."
Jenny clapped her hands together in delight. "And was it love at first sight?"
Christie gave her a wry smile. "No indeed. My first impression of Zee was that she was the most frightening woman I had ever met."
"Ha! Frightening," called out Hogan. "That's Brodie all right."
Zee turned an exasperated glance his way and he held up his hands and gave her a wide grin. "Donít kill me, Deputy. I'll come peaceable."
Christie ignored this by-play. "My second impression was an improvement of sorts. I thought she was the most insufferable and impudent person I had ever met." Her words were greeted with catcalls and laughter. Zee raised her eyebrows in mock outrage and pointed wordlessly at herself. "Yes, you."
The goodwill coming from their guests was palpable now, and Christie felt suddenly at ease. This was her home; she was among friends; the love of her life was standing beside her. "But she was also the most fascinating." She shrugged. "What else could I do but follow Zee? My goose was cooked!"
The tall woman pulled her towards her and gave her a hug. "And so was mine, Darlin'," she murmured in her ear. "And I wouldn't change a thing."
"A toast," yelled Sister Florence. "Everyone, fill your glasses."
A mad scramble for bottles and glasses ensued, and when the chaos had turned to order once more, a sea of smiling faces and raised glasses met them. They looked at one another, half pleased, half embarrassed by the attention, then shrugged and reached for their own glasses, which someone had helpfully topped up.
"To Zee and Christie, Happy Anniversary," chorused their guests.
Christie turned and saw reflected in Zee's eyes a deep love and affection that more than matched her own. Smiling, she raised her glass and clinked it against Zee's. "And many more to come, my love."
Thanks to fellow bard Advocate for her help during the final editing stages of this story.