Warnings - See Part 1.
IN-LAWS FOR AN OUTLAW
(aka The Hellcat and the Chivaree)
It was lucky the house was so close to the station depot, thought Christie, as she struggled along the road. She had forgotten a certain rangy deputy wouldn't be here to carry her luggage.
Maybe she should have wired Blue and asked him to meet her after all. But that would have given him the chance to say he didn't need her help.
She sighed and swapped the heavy cases over, redistributing the weight. It helped... for all of three paces. Her arms still felt as though there were being pulled from their sockets.
Will Zee still love me when my knuckles drag along the sidewalk?
Fortunately, the little clapboard house that had been home since Christie and her brother came out West was just up ahead. Maybe if she took the last few yards at a brisk trot....
Her grip gave out two paces from the front porch. The cases fell to the ground with a thud.
A bewhiskered old man in a blue flannel shirt was passing and he stopped at her muffled exclamation. "Are you all right, Miss?"
She turned, flexing her fingers as she tried to ease the cramp. "Yes, thank you for asking."
He returned her smile, tipped his shabby hat to her, and continued on his way, whistling.
She shook her hands until the pain began to ease, then turned and regarded what had once been her own front door. The roses around it were dying, she saw with some sadness. Blue had obviously given up watering them.
Was her brother at home or still at the store? Only one way to find out.
She stepped up onto the porch, smoothed her dress over her hips, and ran a hand through her dishevelled hair. It probably made little difference to her appearance, she thought ruefully. Train travel always left her feeling crumpled, sweaty, and smut-stained and the trip from Benson had been no exception. She took a deep breath, exhaled, then rapped the doorknocker twice.
For a long moment there was no response, then from inside came the sound of approaching footsteps. The door creaked open, and there stood her brother.
His jaw dropped. "Christie!"
"Blue." She flung herself at him and hugged him warmly. After a moment, he returned her embrace. Then she stood back and looked at him.
Though Zee had prepared her for a change, his appearance shocked her. He had lost weight, she saw at once. And there were shadows under his eyes that hadn't been there before. He was also badly in need of a shave and haircut, and (she tried not to be too obvious as she sniffed) both he and his clothes could do with a good wash.
"What are you doing here, Sis?"
One of their neighbours was coming down the street. Christie wasn't sure if he was in earshot yet, but, if he was, now was the perfect moment to put her plan into action.
Aiming for melancholy but suspecting she had achieved merely melodrama, she struck a pose. The music hall actress who had shared their stagecoach to Phoenix would have done much better. I'm no Vesta Galvin.
"Oh, Blue," she said loudly. "Please don't turn me away. I made a terrible mistake. But I've come to my senses at last."
He stared at her.
"I've left her," she announced. "I've left Zee and I'm never going back."
Christie shut the front door behind her. "I haven't really," she told the still dumbfounded Blue. "That was just in case anyone was listening."
His brows knit together and he stroked his shaggy moustache. "Are you feeling all right, Sis?"
"Perfectly well, thank you." She beamed at him, overjoyed to be reunited with the brother she had thought was permanently estranged from her. Her joy faded as she saw how red and puffy his eyes were. Had he been crying?
"But you're not well at all, are you, Blue? Zee told me all about it."
He stiffened. "Is that why you're here? Because if so-"
"Of course it is!" She raised a hand to stifle further protest. "What kind of sister would I be if I didn't help my brother when he needs me?"
"You most certainly do." She wagged a finger at him. "Look at the state of you! And of this house!" A thin layer of dust covered everything, and there was a huge cobweb hanging in the corner by the stairs. "Mama would be horrified."
Blue looked at his surroundings, as though seeing them for the first time. "I suppose you're right. I've let things go a little."
Christie let a raised eyebrow speak for her, and he flushed a delicate shade of pink that spread to the tips of his ears. With their colouring, the two siblings had always been susceptible to blushing. Seeing Blue's face now in all its glory, she suddenly understood why Zee was always teasing her. It must be irresistible.
She patted his arm. "Don't worry. I'll soon have this place... and you... looking spick-and-span again."
He sighed and changed the subject. "Shall I bring in your luggage?"
"Please." As he fetched the cases indoors, she crossed to the banister and gazed up the stairs.
It was peculiar being back here. It was still her home, and yet it wasn't. It made concrete something she had been beginning to suspect. Her place now was with Zee, in the ramshackle house in Schoolhouse Lane that they were transforming into a comfortable home.
"Thank you, Blue." She picked up the lightest of the cases. "Is my room still the small one at the back?"
He nodded. "It's just as you left it."
She started up the stairs. But I'm not.
The first thing Christie did, when she had unpacked, shaken the creases from her clothes and put them away, was to prepare them both some supper. She was ravenously hungry, but Blue's cupboard was almost bare (she made a note to go shopping for supplies tomorrow). Fortunately, she had come across some cold cooked potatoes during her search, and, with the aid of an egg, some milk, and sugar, was able to improvise.
While supper was cooking, she laid the kitchen table. Then she found some scissors in a drawer, sharpened them on a whetstone, and trimmed Blue's moustache and hair. She also handed him the cut-throat razor and stood over him while he shaved. That he allowed her to do so without a word of complaint worried her, though she tried not to let it show. The man she knew would have complained vigorously, but this new version of Blue couldn't seem to work up the energy.
By this time, an appetising aroma of potato pudding had spread round the house and her stomach was rumbling insistently. She removed the supper from the stove and served it, calling to her brother to wash his hands and come and eat. He did so, looking almost presentable if you overlooked his stale and crumpled clothes.
As she ate her food, she wondered idly what Zee was having for her supper. Then she noticed that Blue was only picking half-heartedly at his.
"Don't you like it?"
He shrugged. "It's fine. I'm just not hungry."
No wonder he was losing weight. "Well, try to eat a little," she urged. "You need the nourishment." He smiled at her and made an effort, but when she came to clear away their dishes, she saw that half his food remained. Luckily, potato pudding was excellent served cold, so she covered the plate and placed it in the pantry, in case he should feel peckish later.
After she had washed and dried the dishes, the day's exertions finally caught up with her, and though it was earlier than her usual bedtime, she said goodnight to her brother and made her way up to bed.
After a perfunctory wash, she put on her nightdress and slipped between the sheets. It was then that she made an unwelcome discovery. The single bed that had once been cosy now felt cramped and yet at the same time empty. She was used to their huge double bed, she realised, to having Zee's arms wrapped around her. Used to making love then whispering affectionate sweet nothings before falling asleep. Without these things, she found herself suddenly wide-awake and lonely.
She sat up, twisted irritably round, and plumped up her pillows, then lay down once more and felt sorry for herself. Was Zee missing her as badly as she was missing Zee? She jolly well hoped so.
Christie snorted as anger and self-pity gave way to wry amusement, and she took herself severely to task. If Zee could be here, she would be, but she's off finding the blacksmith's daughter. So stop being selfish, and just get used to it. After all, it won't be for long.
After that, she found if she closed her eyes and pictured Zee lying on her bedroll beneath the stars somewhere and hopefully thinking of her, things didn't seem so bad. And somehow, before she knew it, she was sound asleep, dreaming of a dashing dark-haired outlaw who held up her stage coach and carried her off into the desert, there to have her wicked way with her....
The next morning, a rejuvenated Christie sent her brother off to work with a belly lined with pancakes. She was glad he had managed to eat most of his breakfast, but less happy about his attire. There wasn't a clean shirt or pair of trousers in the house; she'd had to settle for the least offensive of his dirty ones.
The first chore on her list was obvious: laundry. Just to be on the safe side, she washed, rinsed, and put Blue's clothes through the wringer twice. Emptying the big iron kettle onto the parched back garden, she marvelled at how grimy the wastewater now soaking away was. She was transferring the wet shirts from the laundry basket to the bushes, for the hot morning sun to dry, when she heard the sound of a door opening.
Blue's overweight neighbour appeared in her back garden, carrying her own basket of laundry. Coincidence or was she wanting to chat? She was a kind enough soul, but she did love a good gossip, Christie remembered.
The other woman smiled over the fence. "Good to have you back, Miss Hayes. Blue's house has been in need of a woman's touch."
She arranged the shirt to her liking before answering. "Thank you, Mrs. James. I'm pleased to be back."
She wondered whether to add anything further then thought better of it. The town grapevine would spread the news of her 'break-up' with Zee around Contention soon enough.
"Excuse me, won't you? I have a lot to do, so I'd better get on."
When she realised that Christie wasn't going to stay to chat, Mrs. James's face fell, but she nodded pleasantly enough and began to hang out her own washing. Christie grabbed the empty laundry basket and went back indoors.
After a brief rest and a glass of freshly made lemonade (she had also found some wizened lemons in the pantry), she tied a scarf around her hair to keep it out of the way, then grabbed a broom and dustcloth. The house wasn't as filthy as The Old Barn had been when she and Zee first moved in, but it was getting there. After an hour of sweeping and dusting, she was tired and grimy. She looked at the clock in the parlour.
That time already? The rest will have to keep. I must go shopping.
Christie opened a window, leaned out and shook the dust from her cloth, then stowed away her cleaning implements. She removed her clothes, poured some water into a basin and had a quick wash.
The next problem was what to wear for her first jaunt into town. She must look respectable and repentant. Which meant a corset. With a sigh, she put one on and awkwardly laced it, instantly missing the freedom of movement that had become second nature to her. I hope you appreciate all this, Blue.
She eyed the rack of dresses she had left behind when, acting on romantic impulse, she'd decided to remain with Zee in Benson. The dove-grey calico dress had once been her favourite but it now looked rather drab and conservatively cut. I've been mixing with Madam Angie's girls for too long.
Nevertheless. She pulled it out, held it against her body, and gazed at herself in the mirror. Then she nodded.
As Christie walked briskly into town, she wasn't sure whether to be pleased or disappointed when few heads turned to follow her progress, and those that did smiled and greeted her politely. Strange how, when you want a rumour to spread, it won't.
The sun was like a furnace, and she was relieved to step into the cool of McClellan's General Store. She pushed the door shut behind her, making the bell above it tinkle, then turned to see the big man in the starched white apron coming out from behind his counter.
"Welcome back, Miss Hayes." His smile was genuine. "Haven't seen you for a while."
"Thank you. No. I've been away." She pulled the list of supplies from her reticule. "Will you arrange for these to be delivered as soon as is convenient, Mr. McClellan?"
His took the list from her and perused her order carefully, his smile broadening as he saw the extent of it. "My my! Quite an order!" He stroked his beard.
"Add it to Blue's account, if you please. I'll get him to settle up next week."
He pursed his lips, regarded her assessingly, then nodded. "Certainly, Miss Hayes."
His hesitation made her realise that she had no idea of her brother's current financial status. If the store was making a loss, he might be in trouble. Still, she could always dip into her own savings, which had remained untouched since she left Contention. (She had felt too awkward to ask him to send the money on while he was still angry with her.)
McClellan grabbed the pencil stub that hung from a string round his ample waist, licked it, and began to tick off the items one by one. He paused. "End of the week before my next consignment of buckwheat flour comes in, I'm afraid. Would tomorrow be convenient for the rest?"
"Oh. I'd hoped to at least get the beef, butter, and apples this afternoon, if that's -"
He smiled. "No trouble at all. I'll send young Malachi round with them."
"Will that be all, Miss Hayes?"
She thought for a moment then nodded. "I believe it will. Good day to you, Mr McClellan." Retying her bonnet strings more securely, she headed out into the hot sun once more.
As Christie walked past the Cactus Club, she resisted the urge to tuck her head into her shoulders like a tortoise. So what if Fred was inside the building? Contention was a small town. She was bound to run into him sooner or later. Grimly, she walked on, telling herself that she had chosen this course of action and must go through with it. But when her former fiancÚ didn't come running out of the building to confront her or jeer at her, she heaved a sigh of relief.
Her relief was short lived, however, when she saw the matronly figure in royal blue coming along the sidewalk towards her. Cora Chase's progress put Christie in mind of a steamboat at full paddle. Contention's worst gossip obviously scented a juicy titbit.
She was debating whether to cross the road, when Cora placed herself firmly in her path, effectively blocking her way.
"Miss Hayes. Well I never!" Black eyes gleamed with curiosity. "So you've come back to look after your brother, have you? Very sisterly, I'm sure."
"It's been very distressing to all of us to see on what hard times Bluford has fallen," continued the other woman.
Christie was hard pressed not to make some angry retort. She contented herself instead with "I'm sure he would be very pleased to know of your concern," spoken through gritted teeth. Her move to edge pass the matron was subtly but emphatically blocked.
"And your companion," continued Cora, her emphasis adding quotation marks to the last word. "Has she come with you?"
It dawned on Christie suddenly. If she wanted her cover story to spread, this was the perfect opportunity. Drop a private word in Cora Chase's avid ear at breakfast, and you could be sure that by sundown it would be common knowledge among half the town's womenfolk... and their husbands. She took a deep breath and plunged in.
"No. Deputy Brodie and I have... parted company."
For once, Cora looked startled. She had clearly not expected her prey to surrender so easily. She recovered quickly though.
"Very wise, I'm sure. Did she..." she licked her lips with a very pink tongue, "do something? To bring you to your senses, I mean."
"I... I'd rather not speak of it." Christie lowered her gaze as though embarrassed, knowing that Cora would be only too glad to make up her own reasons.
"How terrible! And how wise of you to separate yourself from that notorious woman, Miss Hayes, before your reputation was ruined entirely."
Christie had discovered, with Zee's help, that she didn't care a jot for reputation, but she didn't let on. Instead, she nodded agreeably.
"As I'm sure you have come to realise," continued the town gossip, "that particular episode caused great ... upset. It didnt show your brother in a good light, either, which can't have helped his present predicament."
Impertinence! Christie bit her tongue and counted to ten.
"But all that is behind you now."
"Indeed it is." Christie forced a smile. "But I have a lot of chores to do, Mrs Chase. So I really must be going." She edged around the other woman, and this time Cora didn't move to block her.
"Your brother has been without a housekeeper for too long for you not to have. I do hope he is appreciative of your efforts?"
"Oh, he is, Mrs. Chase. Very." And with that she made her escape.
Zee pushed back her hat and watched the last of the sunset's lemon, peach, and coral tints disappear. Night fell in earnest.
She'd grown tired of twiddling her thumbs, waiting for it to get dark. But what she was about to do couldn't be attempted in daylight. At least not without attracting unwelcome attention.
She stood up and stretched the stiffness from her limbs, wincing as a twinge reminded her of her injured ribs. A ripe aroma wafted up to her nostrils and she grimaced.
These duds of Andy's smell like something died in 'em.
The gelding tethered nearby nickered softly in protest.
"Yeah," she agreed. "Shoulda borrowed from someone who bathes regular, huh?"
Her own clothes were back in Benson, along with her tin star. She had decided it wouldn't do for a lawman to be seen stealing a very pregnant young woman out from under the noses of her Aunt and the Sisters of Charity. But a bandanna round the bottom half of her face and buckskins borrowed from one of Madam Angie's 'regulars' should take care of the identification problem.
Trouble was, as well as stinking to high heaven, Andy Street's 'second best' buckskins were too loose around the crotch and too tight under the arms. She wriggled, trying to ease the pinching. The gelding shifted restlessly in its traces.
"Easy, boy." She patted its neck. Normally it pulled Christie's buckboard, but tonight it was hauling a two-seater buggy Zee had borrowed. The buckboard would be too bumpy a ride for Jenny in her present condition. And it wasn't as if she could just throw the girl over her saddle and gallop off into the sunset.
This ain't no dime novel. And besides, Christie might have something to say about that. She grinned, picturing the little blonde's reaction.
It was three days since Zee had seen her lover, and she was missing her sorely. But, she consoled herself, if all went well tonight....
The stars were coming out in force now, a half moon rising swiftly. She sucked her teeth and hoped there'd be some cloudcover when it mattered.
Pulling out her pocket watch, she peered at it. Sister Florence had told her the schedule at The Willows. The children would all be tucked up in their beds, and the adults would be finishing their supper before retiring for the night. And if all went to plan, the cup of after-supper coffee handed to Jenny's Aunt would contain a little extra something that Zee had provided (courtesy of Old Doc Pellet in exchange for a bottle of good drinking whisky).
Sister Florence had stared at the little phial of knockout drops in disbelief. "Is this really necessary, Deputy Brodie?"
"It's for her own good."
The nun's eyebrows rose.
"Jenny's aunt sees some masked desperado spiriting off her niece," explained Zee patiently, "it'll be 'hit him first, ask questions later'. I'd have to defend myself. Wouldn't intend hurtin' her, but...." She shrugged.
Florence pursed her lips, then nodded. "Very well. If I have your assurance that these will not cause Mrs. Archer permanent harm?"
The phial disappeared into some hidden pocket.
That had been yesterday and the deputy had been on the go ever since, fetching the buggy, borrowing the buckskins, taking delivery of the canvas-and-leather sling she had designed, and arranging a place for Jenny to stay while she waited for Blue to join her.
Zee checked her watch again then clicked the lid closed and repocketed it. It was time to get moving. She pulled the brim of her stetson lower and tied the bandanna over her mouth and nose. Then she untethered the gelding, grabbed the reins, and slid into the buggy's driving seat.
"Hi." She flicked the reins. The horse tossed its head and pawed the ground. "I said git movin', you." Reluctantly it broke into a trot....
When the silhouetted orphanage at last came into view, Zee found some suitable cover, reined in the gelding, and hopped out of the buggy. She tethered the horse securely to a tree, whose leaves he began instantly to crop. Grabbing the sling and the rope attached to it, she looped them over her shoulder and headed towards the Willows. The sound of contented munching faded into the darkness behind her.
According to Sister Florence, the room Jenny shared with her Aunt was on the second floor. She peered up at it assessingly. Had her ribs been in better shape, she would have thought nothing of clambering up the outside. As it was, she was glad she had persuaded Florence to leave the front door unlocked.
She slunk up to the door in question, and tried the handle with one gloved hand. It turned easily and she grinned in the darkness. Slipping quietly inside, she closed the door behind her. She wouldn't be coming back the same way.
A lamp was burning on a table in the hallway, and she paused to check that the coast was clear before continuing past the vestry. At the bottom of the stairs, she paused and raked her memory. It was the third and seventh treads that creaked on the first flight, wasn't it? She started up, carefully stepping over the steps Florence had warned her about. At the landing, she stopped to catch her breath. So far so good.
A murmur of voices from downstairs made her press herself against the wall and hold her breath. Two nuns in black habits and veils came into view through the banister, their footsteps almost silent. Fortunately for Zee, they didn't look up. They were deep in conversation, about tomorrow's school lessons from the sound of it.
When they had disappeared into the interior, she let out her breath. That had been close! She resumed her progress up the final flight of stairs, stepping over the fourth and sixth treads as instructed
As she tiptoed along the corridor, she thanked her lucky stars that, unlike the school children, the 'fallen' women were allowed separate rooms. Plucking Jenny out of a dormitory unremarked would have been impossible. As it was, she only had to deal with the girl's Aunt. She checked the number on the first door she came to and moved on. Jenny and Mr. Archer were in Number 8.
Zee had barely registered the loud snores issuing from the next door she came to when something else distracted her. Voices, getting louder. She scanned the corridor for cover. Hell! Nothing for it. She opened the adjacent door and slipped inside, leaving it open the merest crack.
The snoring stopped.
Heart pounding, shoulders braced for the inevitable scream, Zee turned. The woman in the single bed was little more than a silhouetted lump under the covers. She moved, not to sit up though, but to roll over. Seconds later came a snuffle and a snort, then the loud snoring resumed.
Zee slumped against the wall and tried not to laugh. Sonofabitch! She shook her head, then turned back to the door, pressing her ear to the crack and trying to ignore the noisy breathing coming from the bed.
"... you were right, Rose," came a young woman's voice, muffled by the door. "That glass of milk did settle my stomach."
"Told you," said her companion. "Think you can get some rest now, Hetty?"
Then the voices were past. Moments later, Zee heard the sound of a door opening and closing. She waited a little while longer, to be sure, then tipped her hat to the snorer.
"Much obliged," she whispered, slipping out into the corridor once more.
Number 8 was the door before last. No noise came from its interior. Zee took a deep breath and reached for the door handle.
The occupants of the two single beds were both sleeping. Jenny's big belly made her identity immediately obvious. After checking the Aunt was sleeping soundly - three pats on her cheek didn't wake her - Zee lit the oil lamp she found on the dresser and knelt beside the girl's bed. She pulled down her bandanna. Don't want to shock her into having the baby on the spot.
"Jenny," she whispered
The girl's brows drew together but she didn't wake up.
Zee tried a bit louder. "Jenny."
Eyelids fluttered open, revealing dazed brown eyes, then the blacksmith's daughter gasped and sat up with a start. "What?" Comprehension dawned. "Oh, it's you, Deputy Brodie. I didn't recognise you for a minute in those clothes." She yawned. "I was wondering when you would come for me."
"Sorry it took so long." Zee helped the girl out of bed. "Had one or two things to arrange. Get dressed."
Obediently, Jenny headed towards the clothes closet, then she paused and turned to look at her aunt. Despite the disturbance, the older woman hadn't stirred. She frowned. "What have you done to Aunt Archer?"
"She's sleeping. I got someone to slip something in her drink."
"Oh!" The girl considered that for a moment. "Oh." She nodded and began to root through the closet. "I should wear something Blue likes, shouldn't I?"
Zee rolled her eyes. "We haven't got all day. Just pick something comfortable."
Jenny made her selection quickly then began to dress. Zee busied herself uncoiling the sling and rope from her shoulder.
"A sling. Had it made specially." She had designed it so it wouldn't cut into the girl's belly; extra straps spread the load evenly between the hips and shoulders instead.
Jenny's jaw dropped. "You're going to lower me out of the window!"
"Don't worry. It would lift a horse." Zee stood up and turned to face Jenny. The girl's shoes were still unbuttoned. "Here. Let me." She knelt, pulled off her gloves, and buttoned them.
"Thank you. Aunt Archer usually does them for me, now that I can no longer bend." The girl's nose wrinkled and she looked around. "Is there a curious smell in here?"
Zee winced but said nothing. She pulled on her gloves, straightened, and crossed to the sash window. Sliding it open as quietly as she could, she leaned out, checking that the ground two storeys below was clear. Nothing was moving. In the distance a lone coyote yipped. The night air, cool on her cheeks, reminded her to pull her bandanna back up.
The moon had gone behind a bank of clouds. Might just pull this off after all. She pulled her head back inside.
When the reluctant girl was safely stowed inside the sling, and all its buckles were fastened securely, Zee placed a chair beside the window and lifted her up onto it.
Jenny's eyes widened. "You're as strong as Blue!"
Zee grunted and concentrated on taking up the rope's slack around her waist. She helped the girl sit on the window ledge, her legs dangling outside.
Jenny's eyes widened. "Are you sure this will hold me?"
"Don't look down. Yeah, I'm sure." Besides, if I drop you, Blue and Christie will lynch me. "Remember. Be quiet. Sound carries at night."
"Good girl." She patted her on the shoulder. "All right. Let's go."
Carefully, she eased Jenny through the window, bracing her feet and knees against the wall and leaning back, paying out the rope inch by inch. Soon the girl's weight was fully committed to the canvas-and-leather contraption and the rope was biting into Zee's palms. Hand over hand, she began to lower her precious burden to the ground, rotating every now and then to release more of the rope from around her waist.
Her forearms burned with effort, and the rope threatened to rip open the palms of her gloves, but it was as smooth a ride as she could make it. At frequent intervals, she paused to check the girl's progress, making sure she wasn't swinging like a pendulum or spinning. The entire time, Jenny's frightened eyes were staring up at her, her lips pressed firmly together.
At last the girl's feet touched the ground, and the strain on Zee's arms eased. She sighed with relief, exchanged a triumphant wave with Jenny, then untangled herself and chucked the rope down too. With a last look at the Aunt, who had slept peacefully throughout the whole enterprise, she eased herself out of the sash window, slid it closed behind her, then, ignoring her protesting ribs, half climbed, half slid down the clapboard to the ground.
Jenny was still struggling to unbuckle the straps when she landed softly next to her.
"Oh!" The girl put a hand to her mouth. "You startled me," she whispered.
"Sorry." Zee stripped off her battered gloves and tucked them in her waistband, then took over the unbuckling. In a trice, Jenny was free. Zee picked up the sling and rope in one hand, then held out her free hand to the girl. "Come on," she whispered. "Buggy's this way."
Jenny nodded and took her hand.
The gelding snorted and backed away as they ran towards its hiding place. Zee calmed it with a soothing word and a pat on the neck before turning to throw the sling into the buggy and help Jenny up onto the seat. Once the girl was comfortably settled, she draped a shawl around her shoulders and a rug around her legs.
"All set, Miss Farnham?"
Jenny yawned and nodded. "Where are we going now, Deputy? Blue's house?"
Zee untethered the horse, hopped in next to her companion, and took up the reins. "Reckon we should steer clear of Contention until the two of you are hitched, don't you?"
The girl blinked then looked sheepish. "Oh. Yes. That makes sense."
"Hi." Zee flicked the reins and the horse started forward at a gentle trot. "I'm taking you to Benson. Friend of mine has agreed to put you up for a bit."
They travelled on in silence for a while. Then, from back the way they had come, a faint clanging began to gust towards them on the cool night air.
"Oh no!" said Jenny. "They've discovered I'm missing."
Zee wondered who had sounded the alarm bell. She shrugged. "Too late for them to do anything about it anyway." She flicked the reins again. "Git." The gelding broke into a gallop and the buggy rocketed forward, bringing the smell of freshly crushed sage to her nostrils.
She glanced at the girl next to her. Jenny's knuckles were white. "Itll be all right. Get some sleep. We've got a ways to go."
"At this speed?" gasped the girl, "I don't think I can." Even so, she pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders, closed her eyes, and curled up in her seat.
Zee concentrated on guiding the gelding safely around boulders and thickets of scrub, glad when the moon at last reappeared from behind the clouds to illuminate the way. A little later, she felt something slump against her. She turned in some surprise, to find a soundly asleep Jenny using her as a pillow.
The girl's condition; the excitement of her escape; the rhythm of hooves and the rumbling of buggy wheels - all had probably contributed to the girl's tiredness. Even so, this evidence of Jenny's trust touched Zee.
She wondered if the girl was dreaming of Blue. Don't fret, Jenny. I'll get you to him safe and sound.
Smiling, she drove into the darkness.
"She's little more than a child herself," said Madam Angie, coming into the back office of Angie's Palace where Zee was sitting twiddling her thumbs.
"Jenny all right? And the baby?" A pointed glance made the Deputy take her booted feet off Angie's desk and relinquish the chair.
Angie took her rightful place with a groan of relief, smoothing her housecoat over her knees. "Waking me up at this hour of the morning, Brodie. It's indecent!" She reached for her pipe and tobacco pouch. "They're both fine. Strong as an ox, that one. Just as well after all this excitement. Kidnapping her from the Orphanage! Whatever next?" She packed tobacco into the bowl then looked up at Zee. "I've given her your old room. And a wad of cotton wool so she can block out the noise if need be."
Zee grunted. Brothels were noisy places at the best of times, but the sound effects coming through the walls had never bothered her the way they bothered Christie. "Thanks. I owe you one." She grabbed her hat from Angie's desk
"And you can be sure I'll collect." The Madam rapped Zee with her pipe bowl.
She rubbed her forearm. "What was that for?" A huge yawn took her unawares, and when she had recovered, she saw Angie was looking sternly up at her.
"Get some sleep, Brodie. You look done in."
"Could use a little shut-eye," she admitted. She glanced at the ornate clock that a pillar of Benson society had once awarded Angie unofficially for 'services to the community'. It had just turned 5 am. "Think I'll go home. Got a few hours to kill before my next appointment."
"And while you're at it, take a bath." The brothel madam lit up and took a few puffs of her pipe. "Christie won't let you near her smelling like a skunk."
"That's the duds not me!" protested Zee. "And you coulda warned me Andy stinks, you know."
"Sorry." Angie's smile was unrepentant.
Zee crammed her hat on her head and pulled on her battered gloves, then yawned again. "I ain't gonna see Christie till tonight. First I've got to see a man about a weasel."
They had agreed to meet in Canisteo. The little town was close to Contention but enough out of Fred Younger's way to make running into him unlikely.
Zee headed for the shabby saloon with the cracked window and pushed open the door. Charlie Judkins was ensconced in a corner seat, his back to the wall, his gaze on the door. She strolled over, her footsteps muffled by the sawdust underfoot, and put a bottle of whisky on the table next to his empty glass.
"Howdy." She took the chair opposite the ex-Pinkerton detective. "You got something for me?"
He smirked, then took his time pouring himself a drink, gulping it down, and smacking his lips. Zee sighed and let him have his fun.
"Reckon I do," he said at last.
Pulling a battered old notebook from his pocket, Judkins flipped it open to a dog-eared page, then placed it on the table and with a forefinger pushed it towards her.
She squinted at the pencil scrawl that passed for handwriting, then raised an eyebrow at him. He nodded, and she pulled the notebook towards her for a better look. Then she frowned thoughtfully.
Well, well! So Fred was trying to make himself some easy money, huh? An English Lord too. Well, members of the English aristocracy weren't exactly renowned for their brainpower and would have no knowledge of the mines hereabouts.
"You're sure about this? The lumps of ore were taken from Fred's pa's stamp mill? His friend Grayson owned the worked-out mine?"
Judkins nodded complacently. "Seen the title deeds m'self. Also saw Fred march into the mill in broad daylight and snatch up that ore before it reached the crusher. No one tried to stop him - boss's son and all that, it woulda been more'n their jobs were worth."
"High grade ore?"
"Yeah. Lord Murvagh's in for one helluva shock if he thinks his new silver mine's gonna cough up more of the same."
"Hmmm." Zee drummed her fingers on the table while she thought about Fred's mine salting activities. "His pa involved?"
"Alexander?" Judkins shook his head. "Stake my reputation he ain't."
She leaned back in her chair and finally allowed herself to smile.
"Reckon you were right." She pulled out the pouch containing the balance of his fee, and tossing it to him. "You did have something for me."
Christie put down the rolling pin, smoothed her apron, and went to open the kitchen door. A man was standing on her back porch, his shirt and trousers newly pressed, his tin star polished to a dazzle. He took off his hat.
"Afternoon, Miss Hayes."
"I've just heard the news. Is it true?"
She glanced quickly over the fence - no sign of Mrs. James. "I take it you're referring to Deputy Brodie?"
Agitated hands were crushing his hat, but he didn't seem to notice. "That's right. I can't believe she'd do something like this. Why, just the other day-"
"You'd better come in." She stood back to allow him over the threshold, and closed the kitchen door firmly behind him. Her decision was instinctive. This was one of Zee's friends and his distress was obvious. "No, it's not true."
Milligan blew out his breath. "Doggone it!" He pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down heavily, resting his hat in a sprinkling of flour on the kitchen table. "I knew it couldn't be. Kathy thought the same." He regarded her intently. "You two are still together then?"
"Yes." She took a chair opposite him and folded her hands in her lap. "We concocted the story to keep Fred from wanting to hurt Blue any more than he already has... It was my idea," she added.
Milligan shook his head. "I'm not sure this is wise, Miss Hayes. These days, Fred's a wild one. Partly the company he's been keeping, partly...." He shrugged and trailed off.
She sighed. "I'm sorry for my part in making Fred do this. I truly didn't intend to hurt him when I left him for Zee. Things just... turned out that way. But he's hurting my brother in revenge. I can't allow him to do that. And I don't believe Fred will physically injure me, for all that he hurt Zee."
He looked sombre. "Well, if Fred or his friends cross the line, you come get me, licketysplit. Understand?"
"And remember, if you need to confide in someone or just to see a friendly face, come round to our place. Kathy and me will always be glad to see you, no matter what the gossip is."
"Thank you. I appreciate that."
Milligan sighed. "It's a bad business about Blue's store, and that's a fact. But I can't touch anyone for it. Younger's within his rights to open up any kind of store anywhere he pleases."
"I know. But coming on top of losing Jenny... well, it was the final straw for Blue," said Christie.
"Jenny? Jenny Farnham, the blacksmith's daughter?" He looked thoughtful. "I knew she and Blue were walking out together, but I thought that was all over. She's to marry LeRoy, so they say."
"That's her father's idea." She tried to gauge his likely reaction to what she was about to reveal, but couldn't. With a mental shrug, she dived in. "She's carrying Blue's child."
The plump Sheriff whistled. "Is she now? So that's why they got her out of town double quick. Visiting relatives back East, hah!" He leaned back in his chair and regarded her steadily. "So what's Brodie's part in all this, Miss Hayes? And dont tell me she isn't up to something, because I've known her too long. You're here on your own, which means she's on the loose."
Christie gave him a rueful smile. "I'm not certain I should tell you, Sheriff. It's not exactly... lawful." Kidnapping a young woman? It certainly wasn't.
He sighed. "Why am I not surprised?"
She chose her words carefully. "What I can say is that, if everything goes to plan, Blue and Jenny will be back together again very soon."
He stroked his brown moustache while he thought long and hard, then came to his decision. "Guess that's all I need to know, then." He stood up, banged the worst of the flour from his hat then brushed ineffectually at the soiled brim with his sleeve muttering, "Kathy'll kill me!"
Christie escorted him to the back door, where he paused as if struck by something.
"The Arizona Hellcat playing Cupid. If that don't beat all! Must be your influence on her, Miss Hayes."
She thought about all Zee's loving gestures: the little sack of bulbs brought back from Yuma to replace those munched by Zee's horses, the turquoise bead necklace, the plush hotel suite in Phoenix where they had celebrated their 'honeymoon', not to mention buying The Old Barn for her....
"No, Sheriff. Zee always did have a romantic streak. She just never had much opportunity to show it."
The apple pie was baking in the stove, the beef roasting on the shelf beneath it, when her next caller arrived. The rail-thin woman at the front door was dressed all in black; her buttoned-to-the-neck dress had never been considered fashionable.
"Mrs Fair." Christie stared in dismay at the wife of the Presbyterian Minister.
"I came as soon as I heard, Miss Hayes. Now you have broken with that woman," Christie could almost hear the quotation marks, "all is not lost. You were bound for the fires and agonies of Hell, but it's not too late. Repent and Almighty God in all his mercy will forgive you."
"My husband is waiting at the church. Come with me now." The other woman reached out a black gloved hand, which Christie avoided by taking a step back.
Christie had once had the misfortune to sit through one of Rev. Fair's sermons, and she had no intention of repeating the experience. It had been neither instructional nor edifying, indeed the austere minister seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with applesauce that was beginning to ferment - 'a temptation of Satan', he called it.
"This is your chance to turn the page, to start a new chapter, Miss Hayes," urged her unwelcome visitor. "One devoid of the sins of the flesh, of drunkenness and debauchery...."
Christie's eyebrows rose. Emily Fair's own personal life clearly wasn't enough for her, if she had to satisfy her fantasies imagining other people's in so lurid a manner. "No thank you," she said firmly.
"I beg your pardon?" The thin woman gaped at her. "Have you no care for your immortal soul, Miss Hayes?"
"Of course I have. But I will make my own peace with God in my own way. Please do thank your husband for his concern though. Now, I am sorry, but I am very busy at present...." And with that Christie stepped back and closed the door firmly in the annoying woman's face.
Christie didn't mention her visitors to her brother when they were eating supper that night. He'd had another disastrous day at the draper shop, and the conversation, such as it was, was punctuated by long, gloomy silences.
"It'll be all right in the end, Blue, you'll see," she reassured him for the umpteenth time, hoping to God she was right. "Zee will get Jenny back for you, and then, if you want, you can leave Contention, start again elsewhere."
He grunted and pushed his half-eaten slice of beef round the plate. She resisted the urge to shake some sense into that stubborn blond head of his. Lingering resentment against the Deputy and lack of faith in anyone, especially the Arizona Hellcat, had made it difficult for him to be other than pessimistic these days, she conceded. Time alone would prove that her faith in Zee was justified.
If only the annoying woman would send her a telegram to let her know how things were going. It would be no easy thing spiriting off a pregnant girl.
The fact that Blue had a baby on the way still shocked Christie, though she was not quite sure why - perhaps it was just that a sister didn't like to imagine her brother being active in 'that' way. That their relationship had progressed so swiftly, and that they had been so careless! It was understandable though. Perhaps it had simply been for them the way it was between her and Zee, and passion had overwhelmed all good sense and reserve. She smiled, remembering how, shy and inexperienced as she was, she had practically flung herself at the tall woman in that noisy little bedroom in Angie's Palace.
Blue put down his knife and fork and stood up, his scraping chair jarring her back to the present.
"I'm tired, Sis. Think I'll go to bed."
"All right." She kissed him on a stubbly cheek and began to collect up the used cutlery and plates. As she washed and rinsed the dirty crockery, she suddenly realised something and her eyes widened. My goodness! I'll be an aunt. And so will Zee.
It was fun to speculate how the deputy would react when she heard the news. Christie's amusement turned to a deep longing though, as she put the last of the plates away. She felt an almost physical craving for her lover's touch and an ache at the thought it was beyond her reach.
As she made her way up the stairs, the thought of spending yet another night alone in that cramped bed actually brought tears to her eyes.
"This does no one any good and what's more it's ridiculous," she told herself sternly. "So just buck up your ideas, girl, and get on with it."
She dried her eyes on the washcloth and briskly prepared for bed, certain that sleep would be beyond her. But in the event, she was so tired, both physically and mentally, after the events of the day, she was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow....
Christie closed the door behind her, hiding her brother's doleful countenance from view, and set off down Commercial Street. She had spent the morning at Kathy Milligan's, talking mostly about Zee, she realised with slightly mortified hindsight, and then on the way home had dropped by Blue's shop, to check he had eaten all of the lunch she had packed for him.
She glanced at the bustling store opposite her brother's deserted establishment with something like hatred. Was it her fault that Fred had turned out to be so despicable? Or had he been that way all along and she had just not recognised it? The thought of what marriage to him could have been like made her blood run cold. Thank heavens Zee had come along when she did!
"Well, well, well. If it isn't the Hellcat's little whore," came a familiar voice.
For a moment, she though she has somehow conjured up the object of her ruminations, and she turned fearful of what she might find. It was a dapper little man not a demon, of course, but his smile had a diabolical edge to it.
"Good afternoon, Fred."
"So. You've come back to Contention with your tail between your legs, have you, Christie?" He fingered his neatly trimmed beard and exchanged a sly glance with the two men accompanying him. "Thats not all she's had between her legs, if I'm any judge."
His indelicate language shocked her; he had never treated her this way before. Her heart was threatening to pound out of her chest, and she took a deep breath to steady herself.
Several of the townsfolk had halted and were observing this encounter eagerly. And why not? They had heard the gossip, and Mrs. Chase and Mrs. Fair had no doubt embroidered it further. They would relish the treatment Fred was meting out. After all, Christie had broken the rules, first in eloping with a woman once notorious as an outlaw, and second in returning home unrepentant - a public humiliation was her just desert.
Stick and stones, she told herself. I knew this would happen. I'm ready for it. "I've come back to look after Blue."
"Ah yes, your brother. And how is Bluford?" His smile was malicious.
She bit her lip before replying "As well as can be expected, given the circumstances."
"You have no idea how it has pained me, pained all of us," Fred exchanged another look with his friends, "to see Bluford brought so low."
"You are wrong," she said coolly. "I have a very clear idea."
This rejoinder made him blink, then he frowned. "Your brother should simply close that store of his. There are plenty of other men, better men, who could make a go of such a business, even if Blue is incapable of it."
She wondered if he could hear her teeth grinding. "No one could tell, to hear you talk that way, that you once considered him your friend. But I have no wish to discuss my brother's affairs with you. Good afternoon, Mr. Younger." She turned and made to walk on. But somehow Fred was there, blocking her way. She blinked and came to a halt.
"I'm to be married, you know," he said, conversationally.
"Congratulations. Do I know your intended?"
"I shouldn't think so. Cecilia moves in quite different circles from those you frequent." His lip curled.
In spite of herself, she asked, "Cecilia?"
"The Eldest daughter of Colonel Fremont." He preened himself. If the occasion hadn't been so fraught, she would have found his smugness amusing. "She is a much more suitable match," he continued, "than you would ever have been. She is beautiful, refined, wealthy...."
"Then I wish you both much joy and happiness." She was sincere in her good wishes. If it would heal the harm she had caused him, assuage the bitterness he so obviously still felt....
"And there is absolutely not the slightest likelihood," he continued, "that she will lose all sense of decency and decorum and go off with an unnatural she-devil who should be hanged from the nearest gallows."
"You tell her, Fred," shouted the leaner of his two companions. The other man guffawed loudly.
Christie had just about had enough of this game of cat and mouse. She moved forward, only to be blocked by Fred once more. "Please," she said, wishing Sheriff Milligan was nearby. "Let me pass."
"My dear," came a woman's loud voice, startling both of them, "I can't wait all day. You promised to give me directions. Will you come now or must I find my way alone?"
Christie turned to see who the voice belonged to, and Fred did likewise. A horse and four-seater buggy had stopped nearby, and its owner, an impressive looking woman wearing a black habit, veil, and pleated cape, was leaning out of it. To Christie's immense surprise, the woman seemed to be addressing her.
She vaguely recognised the outfit. What's a Sister of Charity doing here? "I beg your pardon?"
"Come, child." The nun beckoned.
Though she had no idea what the woman wanted, it was too good a chance to miss. Christie nodded stiffly at the discomfited Fred, and pushed her way past him towards the buggy.
The hand that helped her up was strong and careworn, she noticed. She let herself be seated comfortable beside the driver, deliberately ignoring the bystanders who were goggling at her.
"Walk on," said the nun, and the buggy rolled forward. The horse had gone but a few paces when she said gently, "Are you all right, my dear?"
Christie turned and blinked at her rescuer. Kind, grey eyes looked back at her.
"I'm... well, thank you. But I think you must have mistaken me for someone else."
"That's unlikely." The Sister of Charity put a finger to her lips and donned a thoughtful expression. ''Small, pretty, long blonde hair, green eyes, likely to be in some trouble or other...."
Christie's indignant protest died away when she saw the twinkle in the other woman's eyes. A suspicion began to form.
"'... answers to the name 'Christie Hayes'," finished the nun. "Have I missed anything out?"
"Do you know Zee Brodie? Who are you?"
"Sister Florence, currently in charge of the Willows Orphanage, at your service. And yes, I have had the pleasure of Deputy Brodie's acquaintance." They had come to a junction, and the Sister reined the horse to a halt and looked perplexedly about her. "But I really do need directions, Miss Hayes. I am unfamiliar with Contention. Which way is it to Blue's house?"
A dazed Christie pointed out the way.
"Zee sent you?" They were in Blue's parlour, drinking a reviving cup of tea from the best china, and Christie's heartbeat had as last calmed to something near normal.
"No, child. I had to bring Jenny Farnham's aunt home. Mrs. Archer is very distraught at having lost her charge. And so is Mr. Farnham. They blame my establishment for its lax security, and I fear they may be right. I shall have to refund their donation and say forty Hail Marys as penance." Sister Florence seemed surprisingly cheerful at the prospect.
"'Lost'?" queried Christie, holding her breath.
"Yes. It seems that Jenny unaccountably went missing in the night. Mrs. Archer fears some demon bent on evil intent spirited the girl away, and she said as much to the Fairbank Sheriff." Grey eyes flicked to Christie's face then away again.
Christie's heart sank. "The Fairbank Sheriff is involved?"
"Nominally. Sheriff Powell is an old friend of mind. It is my opinion that the girl simply ran away, and I told him so. It happens, on rare occasions, when a girl is held against her will. I do not think he will be pursuing the case with his usual vigour."
"I see." She breathed a sigh of relief. So Zee's plan had worked. But where was the deputy now?
"I thought you might." The nun smiled. "And so, since I was already in Contention anyway, I thought I might as well call on you."
"I'm very glad you did."
Sister Florence gave her a sympathetic glance. "That unpleasant young man with the beard was your ex-fiancÚ?"
"Yes and no." Christie sighed. "Fred's not the man I knew. He's become bitter and cruel. I don't think he would have hurt me, but I certainly wasn't enjoying our encounter. Thank you so much for rescuing me."
"You're welcome." The nun finished her tea and stood up. "Well, time is getting on and I have a long way to travel today. I must be on my way."
Christie nodded and accompanied her unusual guest out front where the horse and buggy were waiting. Several bystanders had gathered to speculate about the vehicle's owner. When they saw the black habit and veil, their eyes bulged and they conferred excitedly before hurrying away. Christie suppressed a laugh. More food for the gossips.
The horse had finished up its water, and Christie retrieved the pail she had filled then helped Sister Florence up into the driving seat.
"I'm sorry to have missed your brother, Miss Hayes," said the nun, gathering the reins. "Will you tell him that, though I have no knowledge of her present whereabouts, when I last saw his Jenny, she was in good health and spirits? I am sure he will be hearing from her soon."
Christie nodded. "I will." She paused and debated whether to ask about Zee. "And, er... Deputy Brodie?"
Florence winked. "Better keep a lamp burning in your window tonight, Miss Hayes. If I'm any judge of character, you can expect a visit of the romantic kind.... Walk on, boy."
By the time Christie had picked her jaw up off the ground, the nun had flicked the reins and driven away.
CONTINUED IN PART 3
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