Copyright © 2000 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This story depicts a loving relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
This is the third novelette (the sequel to A Prior Engagement) in my series of Westerns starring Zee Brodie and Christie Hayes. It also uses up the plot my Western Muse whispered in my ear, so that's your lot (for now at least <g>). Hope you enjoyed the ride.
(aka A Mission for the Hellcat.)
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
When the knock came at the door, Zee was unbuttoning Christie's dress.
"Go away," she growled. "I'm busy." The third button came free, and she peeled back the gingham, only to reveal ... a corset.
The little blonde whimpered, and Zee smiled into dilated pupils.
"Easy, darlin'." She cupped a corseted breast and gently kneaded it. "I'll have you outta there in a trice."
The knock came again ... louder.
"Deputy Brodie." It was Angie Tucker's voice; the brothel Madame didn't sound amused. "There are two men downstairs waiting for you. They say they're here on Sheriff's business. Oblige me by seeing to them at once ... they're deterring our customers!"
Zee dropped her chin onto her chest and groaned. Reluctantly, she withdrew her hand. "Hold that thought." She kissed Christie, darting her tongue into the other woman's mouth, then pulled back and rolled off the bed.
"Hold your horses, Angie." It was lucky she had kept her levis on. The check shirt was still on the dresser where she had flung it, and she reached for it. "I'll be right there."
She was still buttoning her shirt as she eased out of the room, careful to hide the interior, and the half-undressed blonde, from prying eyes ... unnecessarily as it turned out. The Madame had better things to do than wait around. Grumbling under her breath, and settling her gun belt over her hips, Zee made her way along the corridor and down the stairs to the salon.
In other circumstances it would have made her laugh. The two men waiting with their backs to her, standing directly beneath the chandelier, could have been plague carriers judging by the distance separating them from the Cyprians. Zee wasn't quite sure who despised whom more.
As the whores glanced up at her and smiled, the men became aware of her too and turned.
"Deputy Brodie?" said the taller one, a blond with ears like jug handles. "We were just over at the jail looking for Sheriff Hogan. Saw your note directing us here. There's been a train robbery."
"You!" spat the other, a dapper little man with a Van Dyke beard.
Zee blinked at the all too familiar face. "Afternoon, Mr. Younger," she said evenly. She wondered if Fred had any idea that his fiancée was upstairs in her bed. Probably not.
Both men smelled of sweat, and alkali had streaked their clothes and faces, she noted. "Train robbery? What happened?"
"They were waiting for us at the water tank stop. About 30 miles north west of here," said jug ears.
30 miles? That would be Pantano, which strictly speaking is out of Cochise County jurisdiction. She gave a mental shrug. "Who were?"
"Six men on horseback. They had guns, rifles ... threatened the passengers and crew. Told us if we tried anything ..." He threw up his hands. "They uncoupled the engine and express car and left us stranded."
Zee nodded. "So how did you two get back here, Mr. -?"
"Comstock," he supplied. "Fortunately, there was a railroad pump car by the water tank. Mr. Younger here wanted to use it to pursue the locomotive, but the rest of us thought it would be more prudent to fetch help."
They were right. "Anyone hurt?"
"Just the train driver. They knocked him out. I couldn't say about the messenger. Locked himself inside the express car, he did. Still inside, last I saw."
Christie's fiancé was regarding Zee's feet with disdain, and she glanced down. Her big toe was poking through the hole in her sock. Mustn't forget my boots. "So who drove the engine?" she continued, ignoring him.
"One of the gang," said Comstock.
"Never mind all that," said Fred impatiently. "They've got my shipment of silver, and I want to know what are you going to do about it, Deputy."
She ran a hand through her hair. "Well, first, I'm going to get my boots."
He opened his mouth then closed it again.
"And, second, I'm going to get me a horse, and some guns and ammunition." She glanced at the two men. "If you want to rejoin your train, you'd better borrow some mounts. Either that or -" she glanced meaningfully at their blistered palms, "- take the pump car back out."
"Livery stable?" prompted Comstock at once.
She gave him an approving glance. "Out the front door. Turn left. Down the street a ways. Can't miss it. Tell Bradley he'll get his horses back, if I have to return 'em myself."
Comstock tipped his hat. "Thanks, Deputy." He turned and made for the exit, the scantily clad women parting ahead of him like the Red Sea. After an indecisive moment, Fred followed.
As the chatter, which had been subdued while strangers were present, resumed its normal volume, Zee headed for the back room and her boots. Had that game of strip poker taken place only an hour ago? She sighed, and wondered what in tarnation she was going to say to a certain frustrated, green-eyed blonde.
Christie leaned further out of the window and shaded her eyes. It was just possible, if she stood on tiptoe, to see the jail from here. A black horse, saddled and ready to go, was tethered to the hitching rail in front of the only stone building in Benson, but there was no sign yet of the rangy deputy.
When Zee had returned to their room and told Christie she was called away on Sheriff's business, Christie had tried to hide her disappointment. Not very successfully. The feelings the tall woman's touch evoked in her were ... well, overwhelming was the only word for it. She blushed at the memory.
The deputy, who now had her boots on, she'd noticed absently, had grabbed her shabby stetson, given her a bruising kiss, told her to 'Take care', and left ... only to return a moment later, hat in hands, an apologetic look on her face.
"Been taking it for granted you'll be here when I get back." Zee's tone was full of self-reproach. "Guess I should have asked you." She fiddled with her hat.
Christie opened her mouth to speak but the other woman continued.
"I'll understand if you don't want to hang around. There wonít be a train to Contention until the track's cleared, though, and the stage doesn't leave till tomorrow afternoon. You can stay at the hotel overnight -"
Christie pressed two fingers to Zee's lips. "Of course I'll stay here and wait for you," she said indignantly.
Those remarkable pale blue eyes pinned her. "Sure?"
Christie gave a half laugh, half sob. "I'm not sure of much of anything anymore. But I know I want to be with you." Needing to touch the other woman, Christie reached up and reordered a messy strand of cropped black hair.
Zee gave her a brilliant smile and took the hand in her own. "Me too, darlin'." She kissed Christie's knuckles. Then her smile turned crooked. "Come to think of it, it might be better if you did stay at the hotel in any case. This room can get kinda noisy, if you know what I mean."
Christie didn't, but she had no intention of telling Zee that. "I'll stay here," she repeated firmly.
Which had earned her a kiss that made her head spin, then Zee reluctantly released her and vanished out the door once more.
She sighed. There hadn't been much time for Zee to tell her what was going on. There had been a robbery, that much she knew. Fred's train, no less! He would be furious, and probably taking the theft of his father's silver shipment personally. Her fiancé always took things personally.
She craned her head towards the jail again, just in time to see two riders come into view. One of the men seemed vaguely familiar, but his hat obscured his face so she couldn't be sure. Then Zee was bounding down the jail steps, her vest almost hidden under ammunition belts, clutching a shotgun and a rifle, which she shoved into saddle holsters. The deputy mounted her horse and headed out. The two men fell in behind her.
As the riders approached 'Angie's Palace', the whores on the balcony below Zee's room began hooting and cheering. Christie hoped Zee would look up and see her, but just then a small boy on the other side of the street yelled at the deputy, who removed her hat and waved it at him, and the moment was lost. The smallest of the three riders, however, looked up at the Cyprians then straight at Christie. She gaped at the familiar face with its neatly trimmed beard.
Fred! Oh, my Lord!
Hands pressed to suddenly hot cheeks, heart hammering, she reeled back from the window. Did he see me? He must have done. Does he know this is a brothel? He'd have to be blind not to. Suppose he comes in and drags me back to Contention with him? Suppose he hurts Zee?
Her thoughts in a whirl - seeing her fiancé had turned romantic fantasy into stark reality - she sat on the bed, deep in thought.
When she came back to her surroundings, the shadows had shifted. It was the noise that brought her back, a strange rhythmic, creaking sound coming from the room on the right. Boing ... Creak ... Boing ... Creak ... She frowned. It sounded rather like ... bedsprings?
"Oh! ... Ah! ... Ooh! ... Ugh!"
The moaning and groaning brought Christie to her feet. Someone was in pain! She must fetch help. She was half way to the door when she belatedly registered that it wasn't one voice she was hearing but two, a man and woman's.
How could they both be in pain simultaneously, unless it wasn't pain of course, unless .... Oh! Her cheeks felt hot.
The noises were coming faster now, and louder. Christie paced up and down the tiny room, clapping her hands to her ears, agitatedly trying to block out the moans and twanging and failing miserably.
Zee's words came back to her then: "This room can get kinda noisy, if you know what I mean." I do now. Maybe I should have stayed at the hotel after all.
But Christie had made her bed, now she must lie on it (she winced at the unfortunate aptness of the old saying). She had told Zee she would wait for her, and she would. But not here, not listening to this!
Abruptly, the voices cried out, then all sound ceased. She blinked and sat back down on the narrow bed. Perhaps it would be quiet now. Perhaps she could stay here and ...
Boing ... Creak ... Boing ... Creak ... "Ooh! ... Ugh! ... Ah! ... Oh!" This time the noises were coming from the room on the left.
Suppressing a small scream, Christie stood, straightened her dress, and made for the door.
Zee guided her mare along the railroad track, keeping its pace to a steady trot. Her companions had wanted to gallop. She had patiently explained that getting to the stranded train was only the first hurdle; who knew how far she'd have to travel on after that?
For most of the trip from Benson, Fred had been unnaturally quiet. He was acting like a man who'd been hit over the head. Losing his silver had rocked him, she supposed. Conversation wasn't lacking though. Comstock liked the sound of his own voice, and it was no skin off her nose so she let him talk.
The jug-eared man was from 'Frisco, it emerged - an architect specializing in the Mediterranean style that was all the rage. He was relating anecdotes about some of his more colourful clients when Fred suddenly spoke.
"What was she doing in that place?"
Comstock fell silent, and a startled Zee turned in her saddle and blinked at Fred. "She?" I didn't think he knew.
"My fiancée, Miss Christie Hayes. What was she doing in that ... that den of iniquity?" His gaze became accusing. "Was she there with you, Brodie?"
For a moment, she was tempted to get it all out in the open, to tell him Christie had chosen her over him. Once she did, though, Christie's break with her namby-pamby beau would be irreversible; the blonde herself must make that momentous decision.
Instead, she said evenly, "A gentleman wouldnít ask such a question. And I wonít answer it."
"How would someone like you know what 'a gentleman' would or wouldn't do?" A vein throbbed in Fred's forehead. "By God, if you've touched her, I'll -" Anger made him speechless, for which Zee was grateful.
She turned to face the front again, and almost instantly spotted the top of the water tank in the distance. Eagerly, she kicked her mare into a canter, and left the two men behind.
By the time they had caught up with her, she had dismounted, tethered her horse to a door handle, and boarded the first railcar. The stranded passengers greeted her arrival with cries of joy and relief that quickly turned to complaints and grievances.
"I was supposed to meet my mother in Tucson," said a man with muttonchop whiskers and a fancy waistcoat. "I'm going to be hours late."
"At least you'll be alive." She eased past him and headed for the far end of the car where a groggy figure, a bloody bandage round his head, sat huddled on a bench.
She stopped beside him and squatted. "You the driver?"
He nodded weakly.
"How are you feeling?"
He eyed the tin star pinned to her vest. "Lousy headache, Deputy, but I can still drive a train, if that's what you're asking."
"It is. Feel up to a little horse ride?"
He groaned. "Do I have a choice?"
She considered for a moment. "Yeah, you do."
He sighed. "I'll come. Just donít let the sonsofbitches who did this,"- he indicated his bandaged head -"near me again."
"I wonít." She helped him to his feet, then steadied him until the colour returned to his cheeks. "My name's Brodie."
She patted him on the shoulder then turned to address the passengers, who had gathered and were watching her, murmuring speculatively.
"Now listen up. Mr. Olmsted here is coming with me. He'll be driving your locomotive back and once it's reconnected, the train will be able to continue its journey to Tucson and points west. You'll be late some," - she shot muttonchop whiskers a pointed glance - "but you'll get there."
A cheer greeted this announcement.
"What about my silver?" It was Fred, of course, who thankfully seemed to have regained control of his temper.
"And what about my government bonds?" asked a portly businessman in a top hat, stiff collar, and flat ascot tie.
"They're next on my list," she said.
She helped Olmsted step down from the train and mount the horse Comstock had ridden. Then she mounted her mare, and turned to reach for the reins of the gelding Fred had ridden ... only to find the man himself climbing into the saddle once more.
She blinked. "Why donít you stay with the other passengers and let me do my job, Mr. Younger?"
"And let the Arizona Hellcat get her hands on my silver?" He curled his lip. "I donít think so!"
She ground her teeth and wondered what in tarnation Christie had ever seen in Fred. If she refused, the damned fool was so obsessed with his silver, he'd probably find a way to follow the train robbers anyway. Probably get himself killed into the bargain ... which would certainly solve the prior engagement problem! For a moment she was tempted, then her conscience got the better of her. At least with her around to protect him, he stood a chance.
She sighed. "C'mon then, if you're coming." She kneed her horse into a trot, and the other two riders fell in alongside her.
They hadn't travelled far along the railroad track when Olmsted's curiosity got the better of him. "You're the Hellcat?"
"Was," she told him. "The Governor granted me a full pardon. Want to see it?" The precious piece of paper went everywhere with her and was currently nestling in her shirt pocket.
He studied her for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. "Guess I trust you, Deputy."
"Thanks." She meant it.
"Well I donít," said Fred. "And I'll be watching you every step of the way."
After that, they rode on in silence, the only sound the dull thud of hooves, the nicker of horses, and the distant call of a warbler.
It was mid afternoon, the sun a brilliant furnace in cloudless blue sky. Considering his injury, Olmsted was bearing up well, but in his tight suit and stiff collar, Fred looked distinctly uncomfortable. Zee shrugged and tied her bandana over her nose and mouth against the dust.
When the engine and express car finally came into view, a brown horse was tethered alongside it. Zee reached for her six-gun, then relaxed when a familiar figure emerged from the deep shadows thrown by the car and strolled towards her.
"Hogan." She reined in her mount next to her boss and pulled down her bandana.
He smiled up at her, his brown eyes twinkling. "Took you long enough to get here." He fingered his moustache.
"You too, you old coot." She slid out of the saddle, and tethered her mare alongside his gelding. "Did you follow their tracks?" She reached for her canteen, then poured some water into her palm and let her mare drink.
He nodded. "Picked 'em up just outside Benson. Been trailing them all day." He grimaced. "They'd already got the heck out of here by the time I arrived though." He indicated some fresh and very deep wheel ruts. "Had a wagon waiting here, by the looks of it." He pointed to the many scuffed hoofprints. "Ten or twelve men. Looks like Cody got himself some help. We're outnumbered and outgunned, Brodie!"
She flashed him a cocky grin. "Outnumbered, but not outgunned."
He chuckled, then stopped as Fred and Olmsted rode up to join them. Hogan tipped his hat. "Cole Hogan, Cochise County Sheriff. Glad you could join the search for the Cody Brothers, gentlemen."
Fred gaped at him. "How do you know it's them?"
Hogan shrugged. "Recent sighting of them in these parts."
Zee helped Olmsted off his mount. He was obviously feeling well enough because he joked, "Now my rear end aches as much as my head."
"Mr. Olmsted here's the driver," she told her boss as she tethered the horse and gave it some water. "Mr. Younger is the son of the Contention Ore Mill owner whose silver they took." A thought struck her. "They did take it?"
Hogan nodded. "That, $13,000 in government bonds, and $10,000 in cash, according to the messenger's notebook."
Zee whistled. "Quite a haul!"
"Sheriff Hogan," said Fred urgently. "I take it youíre now in charge of this matter, so Deputy Brodie's services are no longer required?"
Hogan blinked at him then gave Zee a wry look. "I may be good, Mr. Younger, but even I can't take on an armed gang of a dozen men by my lonesome!" He turned to Zee, his expression suddenly sombre. "They're killers."
She had noticed the express car's doors hanging off their hinges, their battered state indicative of crowbars and hammers. "The messenger?"
He nodded. "Pistol whipped him until he gave them the keys to the safes, then shot him through the head."
She sucked air between her teeth. "Sonsofbitches didn't need to do that."
"No," agreed Hogan.
Olmsted had gone pale. "Poor Joe. He had a wife and two boys." He started towards the express car, but Hogan intercepted him.
"I wouldn't go in there," he said. "It ain't pretty and there's nothing you can do."
Zee urged Olmsted toward the locomotive instead. "Leave getting those who did this to Hogan and me," she told him. "Your job is to collect your passengers and get the train to Tucson." She stopped and studied him. "How's the head?"
"Hurts like Blazes," he admitted. "Guess I'm in better condition than Joe though."
"Yep." She helped him up onto the locomotive's footplate then hopped up there with him. An overpowering smell of grease and soot greeted her; it was even hotter in the cab than it had been outside.
Olmsted crossed to a steam gauge and tapped it. "Not enough pressure," he said. He opened the furnace hatch and frowned at the cooling coals. "Needs stoking." A shovel was leaning beside the coal pile, and he reached for it.
"Let me." Zee took it from him.
Reluctantly, he sat on the pull-down seat and watched her alternate shovelling coal into the furnace with working the bellows. From time to time he would examine the gauge then resume his seat.
It was hot and sticky work, and Zee's face and hands were soon covered in coal dust. She regarded herself wryly. "Damn it, I should have brought the stoker. He'd have been a damned sight more use than Younger is."
"He doesn't like you, does he?" said Olmsted.
"Understatement of the year," she said sourly.
The engine driver checked the gauge again and made a satisfied noise. "Nearly there." Experimentally, he tooted the whistle.
Zee jumped. "Hey, donít waste steam!"
"Strong woman like you shouldn't mind doing a bit more shovelling."
She mock-scowled at him. "Good thing you're leaving soon, Olmsted."
He grinned, and she wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of one hand then leaned on the shovel handle while he checked the gauge again.
"That should do it," he said.
With relief, she stretched her overworked muscles and turned to go, then she stopped and held out her hand. "Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Olmsted."
"Likewise, Deputy." He shook her hand. "Good luck."
Hogan was waiting for her when she stepped off the plate, holding the reins of three horses. Fred was already mounted.
Her boss eyed her dubiously. "What happened to you?"
Zee wiped her face and hands then retied the now sooty red bandana round her neck. "Donít ask!"
"Are we going to stand here all day?" asked Fred.
Both Hogan and Zee ignored him. The mount Olmsted had ridden was surplus to requirements, so she looped its leading rein round her saddle horn. Then she put her foot in the mare's stirrup and mounted up.
A sudden whoosh of steam made everyone, including the horses, jump. Slowly at first, but gradually gaining speed, the locomotive began to reverse up the track, pushing the express car ahead of it. Olmsted's face appeared at the footplate window and he waved at them.
Zee waved back and watched the train diminish into the distance for a few minutes, then she sighed and turned her horse to the north.
"Right. Let's go catch us some killers."
"Hey, girlie. You're new here, ain't you?" A leathery old gent in a tobacco-juice stained vest lurched towards Christie, and she recoiled from his whiskey breath. "Fancy going for a little ride upstairs?"
Her cheeks went hot. "I'm afraid you are under a misapp-"
"Leave her alone, Jack," said a little Cyprian in red frilly petticoats. "She ain't on the menu."
Christie gave her rescuer, whose name she recalled was Clubfoot Liz, a grateful look.
"No?" The hopeful client's face fell.
"No. She's Deputy Brodie's."
His eyes widened, and he began backing away. "I never laid a finger on her, Liz." Frightened bloodshot eyes swivelled towards Christie. "You can vouch fer that, can't you, little lady?"
He backed into a card table and sent it flying. Liz chortled as the players cursed then set about retrieving their jumbled cards.
Christie, meanwhile, was pondering the whore's words. "'Deputy Brodie's'?" She frowned, unsure whether to feel pleased or insulted.
Brown eyes blinked at her. "That what Madame Angie told us. I'm Liz, by the way." Liz regarded her keenly. "Ain't you hers, then?"
Christie flushed. "I suppose I am. It's just ... well ... I'm not used to belonging to anyone except myself. My name's Christie. Christie Hayes."
"I know. We've been talking about you .... Look out for Red Mary. She don't like you."
"Why should she dislike me? I don't even know her," objected Christie.
"That's her." Liz pointed to a statuesque redheaded woman talking to old Jack..
Christie recognized her immediately. The Cyprian who had teased her from the balcony as she walked past the brothel on her way to her appointment with the seamstress, and then again when she first dared to enter 'Angie's Palace'. Was it only this morning Madame Clemence was measuring me for my trousseau? It seems like years ago.
Red Mary nodded, took Jack's skinny arm, and set off upstairs to the bedrooms.
"She wants Brodie all to herself, that's why," continued Clubfoot Liz. She laughed. "Ain't going to happen though. Lot of us are crazy about the deputy. Probably 'cause she's treats us right." She turned back to Christie. "She treat you right, Miss Hayes?"
"Call me Christie, please." What did she mean by 'right'? Chances were a Cyprian would have a very skewed view of right and wrong. "May I ask you, Liz," she began tentatively, seeking to satisfy her mounting curiosity, "how you came to be a -" She paused, searching for a term that wouldn't offend.
"Jane about Town? Horizontal Worker? Fallen Woman? Cyprian?" Liz laughed at Christie's expression. "You can't call us anything we haven't already heard, Christie. Whores we are and 'whore' you can call me. I ain't proud of it, but I ain't ashamed of it neither. This ain't back East. Out here, men gotta let off a little steam now and then. And whoring's better than killing, donít you think?"
Christie blinked. "I ... er ... I hadn't thought of it quite that way," she admitted.
"Why would you?" The whore's voice held no resentment. "As to how or why ... well, a girl's got to make a living."
She pointed to the buxom woman sitting at the Pianola, pumping its foot pedals vigorously, and singing along to the melody in a loud and surprisingly accomplished soprano. "That's Diamond Dust Kate."
The spangled stockings must have been the source of her working name, decided Christie.
"Her no good husband," continued Liz, "used to sell her to his friends for a dollar, then drink the proceeds. She figured, since she was already whoring, she might as well do it properly. Left him, and took the kids to her sister's in Phoenix. Sends money home every month."
Liz's gaze travelled on, then settled on a lanky limbed blonde in a plunging green dress that left little to the imagination. "Rowdy Molly's husband was a different matter," she confided. "He gambled their money away then drank himself to death."
As the sad tales about the women's backgrounds continued - she suspected Liz was exaggerating, but there was undoubtedly some truth in them - Christie thanked God for her own good fortune. Though their parents had died of the cholera, Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Will had made sure she and her brother Bluford were well looked after until they were old enough to follow their dream and head out west. These poor women though ... She became aware of the other's gaze.
"It ain't such a bad life, Christie," said Liz. "Specially when you work for Madame Angie." She regarded the middle-aged woman in the garish Turkish trousers fondly. "She's fair, and she looks after us when we're ill, and best of all she bars any man who hurts us."
Christie suppressed a shudder at the thought.
"Lazy Alice should have told Madame about Norton." Liz's gaze had drifted to a mousy-haired little whore sitting quietly in one corner talking with some of the other women. Her face was puffy and bruised, and if Christie didn't know better she would have said she'd been pistol-whipped.
"What do you mean?"
"He came near to hurting Alice on several occasions - he was a mean drunk - but she went with him all the same." Liz shrugged. "Still, Zee took care of him for what he did to her."
"Took care ... " Christie's voice trailed off as she remembered the red stained sawdust in the street outside the brothel. Oh so that's what that was about!
"I've got to go to work now." Clubfoot Liz stood up and straightened her petticoats. "You'll be all right if you stay away from the benches, Christie." She pointed to the two benches packed with waiting clients and rolled her eyes. "Going to be a busy night." She turned to go. "Donít be afraid to slap 'em if they get too familiar. All right?"
Christie nodded numbly and watched the little whore limp over to a bench, pick the youngest and cleanest looking of the men and disappear upstairs.
"Good choice," came a voice from beside her. She turned to find Rowdy Molly standing there, a glass of apple-juice in her hand. "Taking a break," she explained. "He's young and healthy," she continued, "and he hasn't learned to despise us yet."
"Does that happen?"
"Sure. The respectable married ones are the worst. Reckon they'd throw us away when they've finished if they could." She grimaced and took another gulp of apple-juice. "I donít know what's worse - them or the 30-second Charlies -"
Christie decided not ask.
"- or the 'great lovers'." Molly gave a humourless laugh.
She couldn't resist. "'Great lovers'?"
The other woman nodded. "With them, you have to pretend youíre having a good time too or their pride gets hurt. Of course," she gave Christie a sideways glance, "some actually are great lovers. Deputy Brodie for one. But I expect you've already discovered that." Her gaze was knowing.
"I ... um ... not yet ... we ... er ..." Christie was sure that even the tips of her ears must be bright red.
"You mean you haven't?" Molly began to chuckle. "My, my. The deputy must be losing her grip. Either that, or," - she gave Christie a speculative glance - "she's taking it slow 'cause you ain't been saddle broke yet."
Christie flushed. She still wasn't used to all this open talk about ... 'relations', as her mother used to call it.
"After all, she can't risk tarnishing that famous reputation of hers," continued the woman in the green dress.
"What reputation?" asked Christie.
"Don't you know?" Molly laughed and finished up her apple-juice. "Well, you'll find out soon enough. But in the meantime, think on this ..." She strolled away, and Christie had to strain to hear her next words above the hubbub. " ... Why do you think we give Brodie our services for free?"
Zee had been following the wagon tracks for what seemed like hours. They led across desert and scrub, past saguaro cacti and palo verde trees - but heading always towards the Rincon Mountains.
The heat was relentless, and she had been forced to stop frequently to water her wheezing mare and to snatch the odd mouthful herself (that, plus some jerky from her saddlebag had been her only sustenance since breakfast). Now, much to her relief, dusk was falling and the temperature dropping.
It was also getting difficult to see the trail. Fortunately, she no longer needed to. This was familiar territory; she knew where the train robbers were heading, and it wasn't far.
Zee pulled her horse to a halt. While she waited for the sheriff to join her, she removed her hat and ran a hand through damp hair.
"Ain't nothing much out this way 'cept cactus," he grumbled, as he came up beside her.
"There's the old Spanish Mission." She put her hat back on and tried to ignore the fact that her undershirt was sticking to her in all the wrong places.
"Dang. Forgot about that." Hogan nodded to himself. "Perfect place to hole up for the night."
Zee nodded and glanced back, wondering what was delaying Fred. From his drooping head, the figure in the distance was dozing; his horse had seized the opportunity to slow to a walk.
Hogan followed her gaze. "Not much love lost between you two."
"A leftover from your Hellcat days?"
She shook her head. "More recent. Remember that little green-eyed blonde I told you about?"
Hogan stroked his moustache then nodded.
"She turned up in Benson today ... looking for me." Zee smiled at the memory. "Found me too. We were just getting ... reacquainted, when news arrived about the robbery." She sighed.
"Danged bad timing," he agreed. "But what's that got to do with Younger?"
"He's her fiancé."
Hogan's loud guffaw made Fred's head jerk up. "Tarnation, Brodie! I said you were a hounddog, didn't I?" He wiped his eyes.
"Keep it down, will you," she said sourly. She kneed her horse forward, and the still chuckling Hogan fell in behind. She rolled her eyes and ignored him.
When the top of a ruined two-storey bell tower finally came into view over the rise, as she had known it would, she reined in and dismounted. She grabbed her rifle from its saddle holster and crawled the rest of the way on her belly.
The compound was just as she remembered it, though ten years had knocked a few more holes in the adobe wall encircling the crumbling Mission church and priest's living quarters. Two silhouettes were pacing up and down behind the wall.
The Sheriff crawled up beside her.
"They've posted lookouts," she whispered. "Two out front, probably more round the back. Donít think they've put one in the tower - too unstable."
"Why have we stopped?" came a loud voice from behind them. Zee twisted and saw Fred, still mounted, heading towards them. In a moment, he would be visible to the guards.
Cursing, she scrambled towards him and yanked him out of the saddle. He landed with a squawk of surprise. She clapped a gloved hand over his mouth and ignored his muffled protest. "Shut up! Behind that wall are ten maybe twelve killers. Got me?"
She could just make out the whites of Fred's eyes as he blinked at her then nodded. Without further ado, she released him, then crawled back to her viewpoint.
"No reaction from the lookouts," said Hogan. "Guess they didn't notice anything."
"Just as well!"
Fred crawled up awkwardly beside them. "Is my silver in there?"
"Too early to tell," said Hogan. "It's going to get rough when we go in. You stay with the horses, Mr. Younger."
"It's my silver." Fred's voice grew louder. "And I have every right to -"
"Will you shut up?" hissed Zee.
A moment's shocked silence. His next utterance was a determined whisper. "I'm going."
Hogan sighed. "If you must. But stay down, and keep quiet ... and when the lead starts flying, find yourself a deep hole and stay in it."
"There's a corral out back," said Zee. "That's where the wagon will probably be." She sensed Hogan looking at her. "Stayed here a time or two myself," she admitted.
Fred said something uncomplimentary under his breath. She ignored him.
"There'll most likely be extra lookouts posted round the wagon, to keep thieving hands off." She paused. "Thatís what I'd do anyway."
Hogan nodded. "I'll check it out."
"And I'll see where the rest of the gang are. My guess is the church ... It's the only building that still has a halfway decent roof."
She set off, flitting from shrub to cactus whenever the lookouts' attention was engaged elsewhere. Hogan followed. Then came Christie's fiancé.
A twig cracked beneath the sole of Fred's shoe, and he froze. For a tense moment, Zee wasn't sure if the lookouts had heard or not. When they didn't deviate from their routine, she released her breath.
"Younger's gonna get us all killed," she murmured to Hogan, who had joined her in the shade of a large saguaro.
"What do you suggest?" he asked "We tie him to his horse?"
"Donít tempt me!"
Fred scuttled up to them, breathing hard.
"Stay here," she told him.
"I said STAY HERE!" To Hogan, she muttered: "We'll reconnoitre, then meet back here in ... quarter of an hour?" He nodded, and wormed off into the darkness.
Zee took a breath, hefted her rifle in a more comfortable grip, then darted towards one of the larger gaps in the wall. She waited for the lookouts to pass, then eased quietly through, heading past the living quarters, which as she had thought were unoccupied, towards the church.
Lanternlight spilled out of the huge arched doorway, and from the interior came laughter and talk. She blinked in surprise. Sounds like they've got women with them.
A fat man in a stained check shirt suddenly appeared in the doorway, and Zee ducked deeper into the shadows. She watched him stretch, scratch his ample belly and stare up at the night sky. He lit a cigarillo. Gritting her teeth, she schooled herself to patience. At last, the man threw down the butt, and went back inside.
She crept to the now empty doorway and peered gingerly inside, then ducked back. The single glance had been enough. Quickly she headed back the way she had come, pausing until the lookouts had paced past, then heading for the saguaro that was the rendezvous.
Hogan was waiting impatiently for her. There was no sign of Fred.
"Before you ask," he said. "I have no idea where Younger has got to. I've only just got back."
"Damn!" The moon was almost full, but even so, tracking Fred would be difficult; besides they were running out of time. "What did you find?"
Hogan shrugged. "Twelve horses - two for the wagon. Three lookouts guarding the loot."
She nodded. "The gang are in the church. Looks like they've settled in for the night. Got a nice fire going, and a couple of women cooking for them. Probably not all they do."
"That'd be my guess."
"Hmmm. All the comforts of home."
"So, what do you reckon?"
Before Hogan could reply, a man's voice boomed out of the darkness. " If you don't want your dandy friend to get hurt, come out where I can see you."
"Dang it! I knew he'd be trouble," sighed Hogan.
There was something oddly familiar about the voice, but Zee couldn't place it.
"I'm not joking," came the voice again. "You donít show yourselves sharpish, your friend here will be dogmeat."
A dull thud was followed by Fred's panicky wail, "Donít hit me! Please ... Hogan. Brodie. Do as he says."
"Sonofabitch!" hissed Zee. "He's just told them how many we are and who we are too!" The identity of the voice's owner still eluded her.
"I've half a mind to let Younger take what's coming to him," said Hogan.
Abruptly, the missing piece slotted into place. "Tucson Pete!" She chewed the inside of her lip then turned to face Hogan. "Do you trust me?"
"Do you need to ask?"
"Then unbuckle your gun belt and give it to me."
A moment's hesitation, then he did as she asked. She, meanwhile, was unpinning her tin star and tucking it safely in her vest pocket.
"Lord knows, Brodie, if you double-cross me ..."
She ignored the grumbled threat, took the gun belt from him and looped it over her shoulder. "Turn around." He did so, and she stuck her rifle muzzle in his back.
"Mind the waistcoat!" said Hogan indignantly. "Cost me plenty."
"Quit moaning. If I donít do this, your fancy vest will get shot full of holes for sure."
"Might happen anyway."
"Might," she agreed. "But I'm betting not."
"Enough, Hogan." Her patience was at an end. "This is our only chance. Now, move." She prodded him forward, and stepped towards the voice.
Christie had never felt so superfluous. Every woman in 'Angie's Palace' except her, it seemed, was occupied.
If they weren't 'working' upstairs, they were singing along to the Pianola (If she heard 'Oh, Susanna!' one more time, she was going to scream.), or dancing (Spanish Rose did a wonderful flamenco), or serving drinks, or dealing Lansquenet or some of the other card games she had never heard of let alone played. It didn't help that, every time Christie was in earshot, Red Mary would wonder loudly and pointedly what on earth Brodie saw in such a 'useless little chit' of a girl.
The fact that night had fallen and Zee still was not back wasn't helping the blonde's mood either, nor was her worry about what Fred might decide to do.
"Cheer up. It might never happen." Rowdy Molly was smiling at her.
It already has!
'Oh, Susanna!' started up again.
"That does it!" Teeth gritted, Christie stamped over to the Pianola, and dragged Serena bodily from the piano stool. As the indignant whore's feet left the pedals, the music died, so did the chatter. Every head in the place swivelled to regard her.
"Hey!" yelled Red Mary. "What do you think you're playing at?"
Christie tossed her head, smoothed her dress over her rump, and sat down purposefully. "I'm 'playing' this." She laced her fingers and flexed them, then positioned them over the keys.
She had played for her own family, and for Fred, but the size and composition of this particular audience was daunting. At first, she fumbled the notes, but she soon got into her stride.
Her own repertoire was limited of course, and she'd automatically discounted many pieces as being unsuitable, but that still left plenty of up-tempo numbers. She chose 'Old Dan Tucker'. After a moment, one of the clients began to stamp his feet in time, and Diamond Dust Kate began to clap. Next, two of the girls began to dance together, laughing wildly as they careered up and down the salon, whirling in and out of the card tables and round the chaise longues and sofas.
Madame Angie came out of her office to see what was going on, blinked at Christie, then smiled benevolently and disappeared again.
Thank the Lord for that! Christie relaxed and began to enjoy herself.
At the end of 'Old Dan Tucker', she moved on to 'Weevily Wheat', and after that to 'Skip to my Lou'. Then she took pity on the by now flagging dancers and slowed the tempo with 'When the Swallows Homeward Fly'. She had learned these tunes at her mother's knee, and she smiled sadly. Emily Hayes would never in a million years have pictured her daughter playing them under such circumstances and to such people.
Christie had been playing for half an hour, when a hand on her shoulder made her look round. Madame was smiling down at her. "Time for a breather, Christie," she said. "You've earned it. Besides. Itís supper time."
So with a flourish, she ended her current tune, and stood up. The girls (and some of the clients) crowded round her, offering congratulations and praise. Only Red Mary remained aloof, a look like thunder spoiling her looks. Christie blushed and smiled and hoped Zee would be proud of her when she learned how successful her efforts to fit in had been.
Over supper - a cold collation of salt pork and potato salad, which was served at a much later hour than Christie was used to - she realized she had yet another skill to offer. The food was tasteless, and she resolved to give Madame Angie's cook (a downtrodden woman named Hattie) a few tips regarding spices.
Some time later, when she was resting after playing the Pianola for another half hour (the women were quite giddy at the novelty of fresh tunes), she saw Lazy Alice putting pen to paper in a corner and went to offer her help. The little whore was barely literate, she learned, and was struggling to write a letter to her mother. Christie was pleased to be able to offer suggestions and then write the final draft in her elegant hand.
The result brought a beaming smile to Alice's battered face. "Thank you, Miss Hayes."
Christie smiled in genuine pleasure. "You're very welcome."
Then, of course, other whores noticed and came to her with their own writing requests ...
"We're coming out," called Zee. "Donít shoot." Hogan moved obediently out from behind the giant saguaro and she followed.
Moonlight illuminated a stark tableau: Fred was on his knees in the dirt, kept there by a tall man in shabby, fringed buckskins, who had twisted the prisoner's arm high up behind his back. More critical from Zee's point of view was the cocked six-gun he was holding to Fred's temple.
Buckskin laughed. "Well, if it ain't the Hellcat!"
"Howdy, Pete." said Zee. "Itís been a while. So you're working for the Cody Brothers these days, huh?" She inclined her head towards Fred. "That ain't necessary. As you can see." She prodded Hogan with her rifle and he grunted.
"You expect me to believe you're turning outlaw again?" Tucson Pete's tone was sceptical. He jerked his prisoner's arm higher, and Fred whimpered piteously. She pretended not to notice.
"Shipment of silver, $13,000 in government bonds, and $10,000 in cash. It's a powerful incentive. Figured you'd cut me in if I had me a bargaining tool."
Her old colleague raised an eyebrow. "And that would be?"
"Hostages and information." She gave him a slow smile. "The one ain't much use without the other."
Pete looked thoughtful. "Makes sense. But I ain't the boss of this outfit, Hellcat. You need to talk to John Cody."
She shrugged. "Then lead me to him."
After a moment that seemed to stretch for forever, the tall man uncocked his gun and dragged Fred to his feet. "Come on, hero." His tone was sarcastic. "Let's go for a walk."
It was a strange procession that made its way inside the Mission compound past the startled lookouts. Tucson Pete led the way, dragging Fred with him. Next came Hogan, and behind him, her rifle muzzle still jammed between his shoulder blades, came Zee. Boots crunched over dust and grit, then they were entering the arched doorway where earlier the fat man had smoked his cigarillo.
She took in her surroundings quickly, noting that nothing much had changed since she had last used the church as a hiding place. Round the fire, in the spot where the altar used to be, lounged seven men and two sorry-looking women.
Zee found herself at the centre of a circle of gun muzzles. She wasn't impressed. Their reaction times had been lousy. The empty beer bottles that littered the place probably had something to do with that. Or maybe they were just lousy gunmen.
She smiled, knowing her bargaining power had just gone up, and calmly allowed herself to be relieved of her rifle and two Colts. She still had a knife hidden in her boot, after all.
Tucson Pete sat Fred next to the fire with a thump, then turned to address a bear of a man with long grizzled hair and an unkempt beard. He had been watching events unfold with keen eyes, and was clearly the man in charge.
Pete's next words confirmed his identity. "Mr. Cody," he said respectfully. "We got us a visitor." He gestured at Zee. "Arizona Hellcat meet John Cody."
"Howdy," said Zee.
The gang leader didn't reply. He blinked coldly at her then beckoned Pete over. The buckskin clad man obliged, and the two men fell into deep discussion, interspersed with occasional glances and gestures at the deputy and her boss.
At last, Cody turned to study her. "Pete thinks you're all right, Hellcat. But I need to know why I should even consider taking you on."
Zee smiled. "Because I can outshoot any man here ... even Tucson Pete." The tall man acknowledged her remark with a wry nod. "And because I bring collateral."
Cody stroked his beard. "I'll admit, your guns could come in handy. As for the hostages ... Well, Hogan I can use. The next posse on our trail will think twice about an ambush if we have the Cochise County Sheriff with us. But as for the other man ... " he gestured dismissively. "Might as well shoot him."
Fred squeaked in protest, and one of the gang cuffed him into silence.
"Ah, but that's where my information comes in handy," said Zee.
Cody tilted his head expectantly.
"That's Fred Younger." A blank look. "His father owns the Contention Ore Mill." Another blank look. She suppressed a sigh. "That's his shipment of silver you took." Cody's eyes began to gleam. "Very wealthy family, the Youngers," she said for good measure.
The gang leader turned to regard Fred interestedly, and Zee knew she had bought Fred a little time if nothing else.
"All right," said Cody. "That piece of information I can use." He turned back to her. "But I'm still not sure about you, Hellcat. I heard you'd got yourself a pardon, gone straight. You expect me to believe you'd give all that up for money?" He pursed his lips.
"Frankly, Mr. Cody, I got bored. Ain't much excitement in locking up the town drunk night after night," she drawled. "And there are other things than money. Right now, for example, I've got an itch needs scratching, and," she gave the whores a lascivious grin, "I couldnít help noticing, you have just the ointment I need."
It took a moment for the penny to drop, then Cody followed her gaze towards the women and began to chuckle. He turned to Tucson Pete. "You said the Hellcat liked the ladies, Pete. Looks like you were right."
He slapped his thigh then, and roared with laughter. Some of his men joined in. "All right." Cody paused then nodded and held out one meaty hand.
Zee shook it, let him outgrip her, then pretended to shake the pain from her fingers.
Laughing again, Cody turned and called out, "Happy." A little man with a doleful face looked up. "Fetch the Hellcat's horses and put them in the corral with ours." He smiled at her, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Want to tell Happy where they are?"
There was no way out that she could see, so she gave the lugubrious little man directions. "Much obliged," she told Cody, playing along. She knew he planned to keep her horses for himself, and he knew she knew.
He nodded complacently, then called out, "Frank." This time, the man who looked up appeared to be a younger version of Cody himself. "Tie up the prisoners and keep an eye on them."
Frank nodded, and dragged a subdued Fred to the corner of the room, where he roped him like a steer. Then he came back for Hogan, and did likewise - but not before Zee had exchanged a covert glance with her boss that promised this indignity would be only temporary.
Cody, in the meantime, had resumed his seat by the fire, and was beckoning Zee to join him. Obediently, she took her place beside him. He signalled to one of the women. "Get our latest recruit some coffee."
Zee accepted the tin cup full of black sludge with a sigh. It was going to be a long night.
Christie placed the lamp on Zee's dresser, drew the curtains, and sat dejectedly on the narrow bed. In the salon downstairs, surrounded by music and gaiety, and pestered by Cyprians wanting her to play the Pianola or write letters, she had been kept too busy to think. But now ...
Half of the women downstairs want Zee. Some are real beauties. Others are spirited, independent. All are worldly-wise .... What in the world does she see in me?!
The silence pressed in on her. At least it was better than those sordid noises. They'd probably start up again soon too, and she could expect little sleep before dawn, when the whores stopped 'work'.
Belatedly she realized she had no night attire and would have to sleep in the clothes she was wearing. Perfect!
A knock at the door jarred her from her despondency. "Yes?"
"Christie." It was Madame Angie's voice. "May I come in?"
"Of course." Nervously, the blonde stood and smoothed her dress.
The door opened and the brothel owner came in. "Deputy Brodie said you'd need this." She held something out. It was a nightgown - plain but serviceable.
Christie exclaimed, both at the nightgown and at Zee's thoughtfulness. Then Angie held out something else.
Christie frowned at the wad of cotton wool. "I beg your pardon, but what -"
"Pack some into your ears before you go to sleep."
Christie blinked. "Why should I wish to do such a thing?"
Angie gave her an arch look.
"I - " Then she had it. "Oh!" The tips of her ears felt as red as her cheeks.
"You really are delightful, my dear. Where in the world did Zee find such an innocent?" Angie chuckled.
Her comments struck a nerve, and Christie flushed and turned away.
A pause. "I'm sorry if I offended you." The older woman sounded uncharacteristically chastened.
"It's not that," sighed Christie.
"No. You just reminded me how impossible all this is." She sat on the bed and put her head in her hands.
"Me and Zee. Red Mary is right."
The mattress sagged as Angie sat next to her. "Enlighten me, do, dear."
Suspecting ridicule, Christie turned angrily towards the other woman, but found nothing but interest and sympathy in her gaze.
"As you so accurately detected," she began, slightly bitterly, "I am - " she blushed, "- inexperienced in the ways of the world."
Angie pulled a little clay pipe from the pocket of her Turkish jacket. "May I?" she asked.
"Er ... Please do." Christie watched fascinatedly as Madame packed the pipe bowl with tobacco from a small pouch, lit it, and puffed to get it burning properly.
"So ... "She struggled to pick up her thread. "Red Mary asked what Zee can possibly see in a 'useless little chit' like me. More and more, I'm wondering that same thing myself." She raised her hands then dropped them loosely in her lap. "It was insane of me to come. What was I thinking?"
A long silence followed and both women watched the fragrant clouds of smoke drift towards the ceiling.
"You followed your heart," said Angie suddenly. "You're here because not only does Deputy Brodie think you're special, you are special."
"'Special'? That's the last thing I am!"
The brothel Madame shook her head. "Not to Brodie. I think she sees something in you she hasn't seen in anyone since Molly."
Angie laughed. "No. Molly Hart was rowdy, by all accounts, but she went by the name of Molly Purple. Worked out of Madame Miller's place over in Tucson."
"Oh." Christie digested this new information.
"Molly and the deputy were close for quite a while. Then Molly died of the cholera."
The Madame turned to regard her appraisingly. "By all accounts, she looked something like you: short, blonde, nice figure."
Her depression returned twofold. "So, you think that's why? Because I remind her of Molly Purple?"
"Lord save us, girl!" Angie shook her head in exasperation. "There's more to Brodie than that! And if you donít know that by now, then you certainly donít belong here!"
Christie ducked her head in shame. "I do know it," she admitted. "I just ... forgot it momentarily."
"When she came back here after that trip to Yuma," continued the other woman, as though she hadn't spoken, "you were all she could talk about."
"The girls were mighty upset about it. Red Mary especially. They knew when she was bedding them it was you she was thinking of."
Christie let out a strangled gasp. Zee had been doing ... that, and thinking of her while she did it? She felt suddenly quite faint.
"Brodie told us you were engaged, though." Angie looked at her. "That correct?"
She nodded mutely..
"You know," continued Angie, "When the deputy sees something she wants, she pursues it relentlessly, and takes it. That's her nature. That's what made the Arizona Hellcat so daunting." She regarded Christie thoughtfully. "She wanted you. Do you really think a little thing like an engagement stopped her?"
Christie wasn't sure what the Madame was getting at. "I don't -"
"Nope." Vigorous puffing of the pipe. "She stopped herself. She wanted you, my dear, but she considered what was best for you and she let you go. Pretty remarkable behaviour given her track record, donít you think?"
"That's what I meant by 'special'. Of course the deputy wants to bed you. You're a pretty girl, and she's quite the one for the pretty girls." A smile. "But she wants more than that with you." A stern glance. "Understand me?"
The lump in Christie's throat made it hard to speak so she nodded.
"If you donít want that too," Angie continued, waving her pipe for emphasis, "then admit it now and leave. Go to the Hotel - they have plenty of rooms." Christie opened her mouth to speak but Angie continued relentlessly. "But donít lead Brodie on, then turn around and say it was all a big mistake. 'Cause that would surely break her heart."
"I wonít," managed Christie.
"That's good, 'cause Brodie may have a steel shell, but her heart is pure molasses." A conspiratorial wink. "Donít tell her I told you that, by the way."
Her pipe finished, Angie got to her feet, stretched, then smiled at Christie. " I'm glad we had this little chat, my dear." She crossed to the door and opened it.
"So am I," said Christie sincerely. "So am I."
Though John Cody had accepted Zee as one of his gang, his men were much less welcoming. She could understand that; they had one more person to split the loot with, after all.
It wasn't all animosity though. She declined the beer the fat man with the cigarillo (who she had since learned was called Ed) offered her and for the umpteenth time turned down his invitation to 'have a little fun'. Ed was the gang leader's brother (she had discovered there were four Cody brothers in all) and his attentions were growing tiresome, but she didn't want to offend anyone before she had to. She was relieved when he at last took the hint and disappeared with one of the whores instead.
The condition of the two women - Josie and Lola - appalled her, though she was at pains not to show it. Their cowed demeanour, the cuts and bruises on their faces, and the rips in their thin dresses showed they had been 'used' frequently and brutally. And it wasn't over yet.
They had finished with the cooking and taken portions of lumpy stew out to the five lookouts, and now were performing their other duty. Every so often, one of the gang would grab one of the women by the arm, and take her off into one of the disused chapels that adjoined the main body of the church. Animal-like grunting noises would drift back to those by the fire. Not much later, the man would return, a satisfied grin on his face, and the bedraggled whore would slump back in her seat ... until the next member of the gang felt the urge.
Zee turned her eyes back to the fire. She would have to rescue the whores too.
Tucson Pete had noticed the direction of Zee's gaze. "Donít remember you being so slow to sample the merchandise." Crooked teeth gleamed in the firelight.
She returned his grin. "You know me, Pete. I like to take my time, do a good job." She glanced significantly at the men around her. "Wouldn't want to hold up the others none."
That brought a shout of laughter from him, but she knew she couldnít put off going with a whore for much longer.
I need to talk to one of them anyway. Warn them to be ready.
She got to her feet, and stretched. "Think I'll go get me a piece," she said to the world in general, and since Josie was currently 'entertaining' approached the little Mexican.
"Lola, ain't it? C'mon with me, darlin'." She reached down and took the other woman's arm. "You and me gonna have us a good time."
The whore stared up at her, her brown eyes very wide. Her reluctance to go with Zee was obvious to everyone, and brought a wave of laughter and comment.
"Ain't never been with a woman before," called Pete, as she pulled Lola gently but firmly to her feet. "Reckon you'll be teaching her some new tricks."
Zee grinned at him and urged the other woman away from the fire. "Better wish me luck, then, boys," she called back. "Got me a reputation to live up to, after all."
As they walked towards the chapel where Lola had been 'working' on and off all night, Zee picked up a spare lantern. She could feel the tension radiating from the Mexican. "Donít be frightened," she whispered. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Lola showed no sign she had heard. Once inside the ruined chapel - stars were visible through the huge holes in the roof - she led Zee towards the stained mattress that someone had thrown on the floor. Zee regarded it with distaste, then released her grip on the other woman and put down the lantern.
The whore rubbed her arm and stared dully at her. She began to unbutton her tattered dress.
"No," said Zee quickly, putting out a hand. "Just sit. I want to talk."
Lola gave her an uncomprehending look, then sighed. "Si. Talk first." She sat cross-legged on the mattress. Zee joined her there, adopting the same pose.
"Talk only," emphasized Zee.
"You not want me?"
The whore's face was easy to read. Confusion was followed by insult. "I not good enough for you?"
"I donít want to. You donít want to." The deputy shrugged. "Simple as that."
"Si. Simple." Calculation was creeping into the other's gaze and Zee hoped she hadn't misjudged her. If Lola were to tell anyone else ...
"Here's the deal," she said hurriedly. "I need the others to think I'm bedding you."
"What you do meantime? Steal loot maybe? You want all for yourself?"
Zee shook her head. "I'm not going anywhere, Lola. It's too soon to make my move. Hogan and Younger could get hurt."
"The men you came with?"
Zee nodded. "This badge," - she pulled out the tin star she had pocketed earlier - "is for real. I'm a deputy."
Lola's eyes widened, then the calculation returned. "What about me?"
"How would you like to work in a properly run brothel?" asked Zee. "Where you donít have to bed anyone who hurts you."
A wistful look crossed the whore's face. "You not joking? This could happen? For Josie too?"
Zee nodded. "When this is over, I'll take you and Josie to meet Madame Angie. She'll give you a chance if I ask her to."
"You can promise this?" Hope was warring with disbelief.
The deputy traced a cross over her heart with her forefinger. "And hope to die." She hoped she could keep her promise.
The silence stretched. "All right," said Lola at last.
Zee nodded. "But first," she said, "we have to make this look good." She gestured at the mattress and gave Lola a wry grin. "My women always scream."
An interested look. "Always?"
"Always ... Think you can pretend?"
A sly smile, the first she had seen from Lola. "Si, Señorita ... I pretend all the time."
Twenty noisy (and at times hilarious) minutes later, Zee and Lola emerged from the ruined chapel and rejoined the rest of the gang. The glances that met the two as they returned to the fire were envious.
"Sounds like you both had a good time." Tucson Pete spat tobacco juice into the flames.
Lola went to sit by Josie. Ed frowned at the Mexican woman who was now murmuring to her friend.
"Better not have ruined her for the rest of us, Hellcat. Takes a while to break in a new whore."
Zee shrugged. "Had no complaints so far," she said equably. Aware of John Cody's hawklike gaze on her, she resumed her own place by the fire. She gave it a few minutes, then yawned widely. "I'm beat. Think I'm gonna turn in."
The gang leader snorted. "Takes me that way too," he remarked. He took out his pocket watch and squinted at it, then stood up and reached for Josie. "Gonna take my little bedwarmer here," - he gave the whore's left buttock a squeeze - "and get me some shut eye.
"George, Happy, Tom," he ordered. "You relieve the boys guarding the wagon." The three men groaned but got dutifully to their feet. "Bud and Walter," he continued. "You take over out front." He turned and urged Josie towards the other chapel, which presumably had a better roof. "See you in the morning, boys."
"Night, boss," came the chorus.
The shift change and Cody's departure seemed to be the signal for a general preparation for bed. Zee commandeered a spot near the fire, stretched out, and pretended to sleep for a while.
Her thoughts turned to Christie, as they frequently had all day, and she wondered how the innocent young woman was faring. She hoped Christie hadn't changed her mind about waiting for her, or been picked on. Some of the whores at 'Angie's Palace' could get a bit out of hand, and catfights were common. Nothing Zee could to about it now, though. And Angie would look out for the blonde ....
She pushed such thoughts away and concentrated on her surroundings. Though her eyes were closed, she was aware of every sound, every movement in the high ceilinged room and beyond. In the distance was the pacing of the lookouts, the occasional faint snatch of their conversation, the restless movements and nickers of the horses in the corral. Nearer, in the chapel, Cody's grunts as he took Josie had long ago changed to snores. The whore was almost certainly still in there with him.
Zee turned her attention to her immediate surroundings. In the corner, the two men guarding the prisoners were sleeping heavily - a combination of too much beer and a belief that trussed men posed no threat. Fred was asleep, that was true, but an alert silence radiated from Hogan.
Around the fire near her, the relieved lookouts were sleeping heavily, tired by their long watch. Zee slitted her eyes and let her pupils adjust to the dim light, then discreetly flexed her hands and reached carefully for her boot. Now or never. Like a cobra striking, she came to her feet with the knife in one hand.
Silently she closed the gap between herself and the nearest sleeper. A hilt to the temple put him out for the count. She gave the same medicine to the two men near him. Her next target came groggily awake as she approached, sensing her presence or perhaps hearing the muffled thud, but before he could raise the alarm she had clapped a gloved hand over his mouth and knocked him out. The fifth man was still dreaming when she rendered him unconscious. Then she was turning, heading towards the corner, and the two sleeping guards, who received the same treatment.
Now she could do so at her leisure, she checked the identities of the unconscious men and frowned. Ed Cody was missing, so was Tucson Pete. Lola had disappeared too. Together or separate? Using the latrine or fornicating?
"Nice going, Brodie," said Hogan, as she crouched beside him and sliced through his bonds.
Fred stirred and opened his eyes wide. Zee clapped a gloved hand over his mouth. "One word from you," she hissed, "and you're dead. Got that?"
His eyes bulged at the razor sharp knife she still held, and he nodded quickly. She released him and handed the knife to Hogan who was helping himself to a guard's six-guns and checking the cylinders were full.
"Think you can take out the lookouts?" she asked him, as she found her own Colts and holstered them. He gave her a feral grin. She clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Good luck."
"You too." He disappeared towards the exit.
Fred had remained still as a statue throughout. "Stay here," she told him. He nodded rather fearfully, and she glided towards the chapel and John Cody ....
The bearlike gang leader was not only wide-awake but also holding a gun to the terrified Josie's temple.
"As you can see, I was expecting you, Hellcat," he snarled.
His forefinger was resting lightly on the trigger, she saw. Too lightly.
There was no time for finesse. She drew her Colts and fired in one movement. Her first shot hit the barrel of his gun, knocking it from his grasp; her next took him between the eyes. He gazed at her in shocked surprise, then fell backwards like a felled tree trunk.
Josie collapsed to the mattress in a sobbing heap and Zee spared a moment to check she was unharmed and give her a reassuring pat. Then something spooked her and she was turning, seeing a tall buckskinned figure standing in the doorway, hearing his snarl of anger.
Instinctively, she threw herself to one side. As the bullet smashed through the space she had just occupied, she was already coming back to her feet. Her bullet took Tucson Pete high in the chest and spun him round. Even as he fell, he was coughing up blood, and she knew his wound was fatal. Then she was leaping over his thrashing body, heading back towards the body of the church, knowing the gunshots would have alerted the rest of the gang.
Movement. She ducked back as a bullet ricocheted off the wall next to her. Ed Cody. A rifle. Two paces to the left.
She took a quick breath, then dove forward, firing and rolling as she went, getting off a quick shot at the fat man silhouetted against the fire's embers. A cry of pain. He clutched at his thigh and fell over, then she was on him, kicking the dropped rifle out of reach, grabbing his still holstered six-gun and bashing him on the head with its butt.
How many more are there?
As she left the church and ran towards the corral, she came across two bodies. She stopped and turned them over with the toe of her boot. Throats cut; Hogan's work. The third body she came to a little later still had the knife she had given the County Sheriff in his chest. She pulled it out and wiped the blade clean on the dead man's shirt. She sighed. These were killers who deserved what they got, but she didn't have to like it.
Then Hogan himself appeared. "Get 'em?" he asked.
"Mostly. Lola's still missing. What about you?"
"One of the lookouts out front got away."
"Damn! I hope he hasn't got her."
In fact, it was the other way around. When they found the remaining man - who turned out to be Walter, at 17 the youngest of the Cody brothers - he wasn't threatening Lola but rather cowering behind her skirts. Much to Zee's relief, the boy gave himself up without a fight.
"That the lot?" said Hogan.
Christie was in the middle of her morning ablutions when a knock came at the door.
"They're back," came Rowdy Molly's voice. "Madame sent me to tell you Deputy Brodie's back, Christie."
Christie put down her wash cloth and wrapped a towel round herself. She opened the door and regarded the grinning Cyprian eagerly.
Molly ticked off the points on her fingers. "Zee and Hogan just rode in. With a wagonload of loot, and seven prisoners. And five bodies, face down over their own saddles. Oh, and two women."
"Is she all right?"
"Right as rain." Molly gave her a hug then laughed. "Only the deputy could ride out into the middle of nowhere and come back with two women on her arm."
"Oh, itís not like that, silly!" chided Molly. "They were the gang's whores." She sighed. "Looks like they had a rough time of it too. Zee's asked Madame if they can work here for a bit."
Christie didnít know whether to rush over to the jail or wait here. But after the doubts of last night, she really needed to see Zee. And for all Molly's reassurances, only the deputy's physical presence would convince her that she was safe and sound.
"I'll finish getting dressed and come down," she said decisively.
Molly nodded and left her to it.
Such was her hurry, Christie left off her corset - lacing it would take too long. She shrugged into her petticoats, pulled on her increasingly wrinkled gingham dress and buttoned it, slipped her feet into her shoes, and with a despairing glance at her reflection - her hair looked a mess - dashed down the corridor towards the stairs. She was crossing the salon towards the entrance when it slammed open and a rangy figure stood there.
Christie literally flung herself at the deputy, who grinned and grabbed her and swung her round like a child. Then she was being crushed in a welcome embrace that was anything but motherly.
She lost herself in the warm lips pressed against hers, relishing the sensation of love, and strength, and unrestrained sexuality ... things she had never known she craved until this singular woman came crashing into her life without so much as a by your leave, changing it forever. As she returned the kiss with equal fervour, her doubts vanished like early morning mist, and she knew this was where she belonged, no matter where it led.
A need to breathe made them part at last, and they became aware of the gazes fixed on them - some mischievous, some admiring, some (in the case of Red Mary) envious.
A man's voice broke the mood. "Unnatural creatures!"
Christie flushed and turned to face a scowling Fred. She wondered how she could ever have thought him handsome.
"You ain't wanted here, Mr. Younger," said Zee, snaking an arm protectively round Christie's shoulder. "So if I were you, I'd vamoose."
He ignored her and addressed Christie. "Ever since that 'woman' came into our lives, she's caused nothing but trouble. She should be hanged for the murdering Hellcat she is."
Christie sucked in her breath.
"As for you," - his gaze was venomous - "you disgust me. I thank God that I found out your true nature before it was too late. You are not fit to be my wife, and I never want to see you again."
The arm around her tightened and she glanced at Zee.
"Call me what you like, Younger," came Zee's deceptively relaxed drawl. "But have a care how you speak to my lady. She's got more spunk than you'll ever have. Your yellow streak damn near got us all killed out there today."
'My lady'. A warm glow spread through Christie, banishing the fear Fred's presence had brought.
He flushed crimson. "If you were a man, Brodie, Iíd call you out!"
Zee grinned mirthlessly. "And if you were a man, Younger, Iíd accept."
Fred's indrawn breath echoed round the suddenly silent salon, and his face paled. Christie knew, with deadly certainty, that if she didn't intervene, her lover would kill her ex-fiancé... and all because of her.
"Go home, Fred," she said urgently. "She's faster than you and in your heart you know it. Go home before it's too late. There's nothing for you here."
Her words seem to break him out of his trance. He blinked, the rage visibly leaching from his face and fear taking its place. Clearly, he knew all too well what Zee was capable of. Christie wondered what exactly had gone on out there today.
A long pause. Then with a desperate attempt at dignity, Fred jutted his jaw, turned on his heel and left.
The door slamming was the signal for jeers and catcalls. The Pianola started up then, and the normal salon hubbub resumed.
Christie, who had almost collapsed in sheer relief at Fred's departure, felt Zee pulling her close, and pressed into her like a kitten seeking warmth.
"You all right, darlin'?"
"I think so." She gave a half-laugh half-sob.
"Sorry you had to go through that."
"Me too. But the silver lining is: he broke off our engagement, which means he has no grounds for 'breach of promise'." Christie gazed up into the deputy's face and drew her fingertip tenderly down one tanned cheek. "I'm very glad I'm free."
"I'm glad you are too." Zee smiled down at her, took her hand and kissed each knuckle in turn.
Catcalls greeted their antics.
"Leave 'em be, girls," came Madame Angie's voice above the din. "Looks like they've got some loving to catch up on, but they're going to take it up to the good deputy's room." She turned a pointed gaze on Zee. "Aren't you?"
Zee laughed. "If you insist." She swept Christie up into strong arms, and headed for the staircase, which she took two steps at a time.
Christie relaxed in the secure grip and enjoyed the ride. "You know," she said, after a few minutes, "you smell." She sniffed ostentatiously.
"Yeah?" Zee was carrying her along the corridor now. "Good smell or bad smell?" The rangy deputy shouldered open the door to her tiny room.
Christie considered the mixture of sweat, and horses, and woodsmoke, and - rather oddly - coal dust ... and the enticing, musky scent that she was beginning to learn was Zee herself. "Oh. Good smell."
"We could wait until after I've taken a nice, long, hot bath ..." The suggestion clearly wasn't serious, and Christie humphed playfully.
With a groan of relief and muttered aside about 'heavy blondes' that Christie was determined to make her pay for later, Zee deposited her on the narrow bed, which gave a boing of protest.
Revenge is sweet.
The deputy threw her stetson onto the dresser, kicked off her boots, and began unbuckling her gun belt. Christie watched, her mouth going dry with anticipation, then realized she should be getting undressed too.
She reached down and unfastened her shoes then kicked them off, hearing a distant clatter as they landed she knew not where. She had just begun to unbutton her dress when Zee, her undershirt and red flannel drawers revealing long tanned limbs, landed on the bed beside her - eliciting another boing from the abused bedsprings.
"Hands off. That's my job." A few buttons later ... "Mmmm! No corset. Nice."
"I didn't have time this morn-" Christie almost fainted as callused hands stroked and kneaded warm flesh.
"Just the way I like them," murmured Zee reverently. Her lips took over from her fingers, which sought the remaining buttons.
"Oh!" Christie gasped and bucked. "You know, Zee," she managed, as the delicious sucking sensation threatened to overwhelm her, "the girls told me quite a lot about you while you were gone ... Uh!"
The last obstinate button came free and Christie's dress was lifted over her head. The air was suddenly cool on her skin, but the fire inside her was like a furnace.
"Yes. ... Oh! ... I found out why they donít charge you for their services." She couldnít help but writhe in pleasure, as Zee applied her tongue to every inch of bare skin she could find.
"Yeah?" purred the Hellcat, turning her attention to the rainbow-coloured petticoats that were Christie's secret rebellion against conformity. They sailed through the air, heading for the same destination as her shoes. Moments later, Christie's drawers followed them and a warm hand found its way to the secret places she had allowed no one else to visit before.
"Uh!" Christie bucked as practised fingers stroked her. "Yes!" she said, but if it was in answer to Zee's question, or indeed what the question was, she could no longer say.
"You sure, Darlin'?"
"That's all the answer I need."
And a little (and increasingly noisy) while later, Christie found to her delight that Zee's reputation was indeed well deserved, and her record as yet unbroken.
Thanks to fellow bard Advocate for help during the final editing stages of this story.