Warnings - See Part 1.
HOME SWEET HOME
(aka A Full House for the Hellcat.)
It was only after Zee had ridden off back into town that Christie noticed the burlap sack lying forgotten on the kitchen table.
She opened the drawstring and tipped out the wizened brown contents onto the scrubbed wood, then laughed out loud. Buying flower bulbs for her was getting to be a habit for the rangy deputy. Who'd have guessed the former Hellcat was such a romantic? She sorted through the bulbs and corms with a fingertip, then replaced them in the sack for later.
Humming softly to herself, and feeling much happier than she had before Zee came home, Christie finished making the parlour curtains and hung them, cocking her head first to one side then the other as she viewed them from all angles, and feeling quietly pleased with the results.
After that, she made some more lemonade, then found a scrap of paper and stub of pencil and sat down to make a list of all the things they would need in order to turn this house into a home.
Madame Angie's whores had ferried Zee and Christie's possessions over from their little room at the brothel, but they didn't amount to much. Christie glanced round the kitchen then bent her head and wrote busily.
Cutlery. Crockery. Tinware. Theirs was on loan from Mattie, Angie's not very competent cook, but they would need their own - just the essentials first, of course.
Bedlinen. She had discovered (with mixed feelings - they felt wonderful on the skin but were hard to launder) that the satin sheets were only on loan from the brothel too.
She pursed her lips then bent her head to write again. Material for shirts and some new Levis for Zee. The deputy was rough on her clothes... and on Christie's too. She had lost count of the number of buttons that needed replacing and seams that needed restitching due to Zee's impatience. She chuckled fondly and sucked the end of the pencil.
Whitewash. Matches. Kerosene oil for the lamps. Soap...
Time passed quickly, and almost before Christie knew it, Zee was riding into the back yard and tying up the horse. She put down her pencil and hurried to put the food on the table.
After Zee had devoured boiled beef and canned vegetables, and eaten more than her fair share of that peach pie Ann Young had sent over (Christie had been unable to resist gently ribbing her about it, but Zee merely grinned unrepentantly) Christie asked the other woman about her day. Zee's interest in the gambler from New Orleans and the girl in yellow intrigued her.
"Is she his mistress?"
Zee stretched like a cat then relaxed. "Hogan telegraphed New Orleans and I got a reply today. She's his ward. Name of Julie Fontenot."
Christie blinked. "His ward. But I thought you said...."
Zee patted her lap and Christie slid eagerly onto it. One large hand curled round her waist, the other settled on her knee. Contentedly, she snuggled up to the other woman.
"Yep, I did," continued Zee. "And I've a feeling he's a mite more 'friendly' with Miss Julie than a Guardian oughtta be."
Christie pulled a face.
"They ain't blood relatives, if that's what you're thinking."
She twisted and looked up at Zee. "Oh. So what exactly are they?"
"It's quite a story." The deputy smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. "Want to hear it?"
For reply, Christie poked her in the ribs.
Zee chuckled and squeezed the knee she was holding. "Few years back - bit before your time, Darlin' - steamboats were all the rage. Well, it seems Americus Millain used to do his gambling on the Delta Queen, one of the boats that sailed between New Orleans and St. Louis. Bit of a card sharp. Quick to defend himself against those accusing him of cheating. Too quick, if you get my drift."
"He killed people?"
"Twelve, all told."
The dark-haired woman's gaze was distant and Christie wondered if she was thinking about those she herself had killed.
Zee sighed and shook off her melancholy. "Anyway. The Delta Queen had a five-piece orchestra, the finest in wines and liqueurs, a restaurant filled with dee-lectable offerings, and," she glanced at Christie, "lots of beautiful women. Pretty much a floating Bordello."
She felt her eyes bulge, and Zee chuckled and chucked her on the chin.
"Not like Angie's Palace, though. The Delta Queen girls were high-class whores. Spanish, French, some even had Haitian blood. Filles de joie, they called themselves. And they didn't come cheap."
Christie chewed her lower lip. "How do you know all this?"
"Knew a woman who worked on the Delta Queen." She shrugged. "Her looks were going by the time I met her, but you could see she must once have been really something. She liked to talk about the good old days... you know, afterwards."
"Oh." Christie stifled the pang that mention of Zee's previous conquests always brought. She became aware the other woman was studying her and smiled brightly. "Go on."
"That's all in the past, Darlin'," said Zee softly.
She gave the deputy a reassuring pat on the belly. "I know," she said just as quietly. "Go on about the riverboats."
It was a moment before Zee continued. "Well," she said. "One of the filles de joie was a quadroon named Marian Fontenot."
"Fontenot. Isn't that the same-"
"Yup. She was very beautiful by all accounts... tall, long-legged, graceful and very popular. She could have had her pick of the beaux, but the poor woman fell in love with Americus Millain." Zee sighed. "She and him got intimate." She gave Christie a significant glance.
"She had a child?"
Zee nodded. "Died of it too."
"What a tragedy! So Julie's their daughter? But I thought you said-" A hand clamped itself over her mouth. "Mmmph!"
"Are you gonna let me tell this story or not?"
For answer, Christie licked Zee's palm, and the dark-haired deputy rolled her eyes but withdrew the offending hand.
"No, the child died. The little octoroon I met today is Marian's by a previous 'liaison' - she was six when her mother died."
"Marian knew she was fading fast, so she made Millain promise to look after Julie. Had the guardianship papers drawn up, all above board and legal like."
Christie didn't like the way this story was developing. "And you think...?"
"No matter how well intentioned he started out, somewhere along the way he changed. Maybe when he saw how pretty she turned out, he decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth." Zee shrugged. "Who knows."
"So you think he's had..." Christie searched for the right word, "'relations' with his ward?"
Zee nodded. "Think he's been thumping her too."
"That poor girl! He's supposed to protect her."
"Sure is, 'til she's married or turns 21 anyway." Zee stroked Christie's hair. "But he's in my jurisdiction now, Darlin', and if I see him doing something he shouldn't...."
"You'll take him to task," finished Christie.
Zee's pale blue eyes darkened. "Damned right," she growled.
They had been sitting, cuddling quietly, in the kitchen for a hour when Zee looked at the clock, gave a start, and stood up, the suddenness of her movement tipping Christie off her lap and onto the floor. Outraged, Christie stared up at her.
Zee chuckled and held out a hand. "Stop dawdlin' and get your glad rags on."
"What are you talking about?" Christie allowed herself to be pulled up and crossly set about straightening and dusting off her skirt.
"We're going over to Angie's." Zee grabbed her shabby hat from the hook, reshaped the crown, and crammed it on her head. "Go on. Get changed. I'll get the buckboard ready."
Christie had been looking forward to spending time alone with Zee and she said so. Zee paused in the doorway and looked back at her.
"It'll do you good, Darlin'," she said seriously. "Besides, some of the girls are bound to have letters they need help with. We've been away awhile."
Christie threw up her hands and stomped up the stairs, grumbling all the way to the bedroom. There she hurriedly changed into her only good visiting dress - the one she had run away from Contention in - and eyed her reflection doubtfully in the mirror. She was still trying to fix her hair so it didn't look like a bird's nest when Zee's shout wafted up the stairs.
Giving her reflection a despairing last glance, she stomped loudly down stairs and through the kitchen, muttering about inconsiderate good-for-nothings who sprung unexpected and unwanted invitations on their spouses. Grabbing her reticule, bonnet and shawl, she slammed the back door behind her and grumpily allowed herself to be helped up into the buckboard.
The corner of Zee's mouth quirked and Christie silently dared her to make just one, just one, smart-aleck comment. But the tall woman merely flicked the reins and said, "Walk on." Then the gelding was pulling the buckboard forward, and they were rattling out of the yard and down the track.
Christie gazed sullenly at the night sky. It was a full moon, and the stars were clear and bright. She stared up at them trying to remember her constellations. She sucked in a lungful of air then exhaled slowly, feeling her bad mood evaporate.
A hand reached across and adjusted the shawl around her shoulders and she looked over at the silent, silhouetted figure sitting next to her.
She bit her lip. "Sorry for being so bad tempered."
The shoulders shrugged. "I deserved it," came Zee's voice. "Shoulda told you earlier. Truth is, we were sitting there so snug and cosy, I forgot all about Angie's invitation."
Her profile turned to face Christie. "Told her this afternoon we'd go. Thought, what with the Riker lad and everything, being with folks who appreciate you for who you are might cheer you up." A pause. "And I know you've been missing playing the pianola."
Christie reached over and patted Zee on the leg. "You're right," she said. "It will do me good. And I have missed playing the pianola." She sighed.
"One day I'll buy you one," said Zee.
"A pianola?" She snorted. "With what?"
White teeth gleamed in the moonlight. "I'll think of something."
Four hours later, Christie lay in the back of the buckboard, hands laced comfortably over her stomach, staring hazily up at the stars, and conceded that she'd thoroughly enjoyed her evening.
The inhabitants of Angie's Palace had welcomed them like long lost friends - even Red Mary's sour face had cracked into a smile (though it was probably more for Zee's benefit than Christie's.)
They spent the evening in the brothel's back room, with Madame Angie, who was wearing her trademark Turkish trousers and smoking her pipe. The whores popped in, in between clients, staying to tell them the latest gossip and laugh and tell funny stories about Zee that made her curse under her breath and on one occasion - Christie had unfortunately been too far away to overhear the exchange - spray a mouthful of whiskey all over her cards.
Zee had played poker and complained about the chattering women gathered eagerly around her, but Christie could see that, despite protestations to the contrary, the tall woman loved all the attention. As for Christie, she wrote some letters for Lazy Alice, played the pianola to her heart's content, laughed until her cheeks ached, sang until she was hoarse, and danced until her feet hurt. She also drank rather more champagne than she was used to.
"You all right back there?" came Zee's voice.
"Jush fine," said Christie. For some reason her tongue wouldn't work properly. "T'morrow," she said thickly, "I am going to see Miss Bartlett."
"The school teacher?"
"The very shame." Christie licked her lips and tried again. "Same... Aha!" She crowed in triumph.
"Why are you going to see Miss Bartlett?"
"'Cause that'sh what Madame Angie suggested."
A longsuffering sigh drifted back to her on the cool night air. "And why did Angie suggest that?"
"'Cause if anyone can stop that little brute from playing hookey and teach him some mannersh, it'sh hish teacher." Why did so many words have to have the letter S in them?
"Ah. Good idea."
"My thoughtsh exackly."
"Doubt if she'll be able to help though."
The stars were spinning in a clockwise direction, Christie noticed. How fascinating! "Of course she will. Anyway... better'n doing nothing."
A thought struck Christie. "Zee?"
"What was it that Clubfoot Liz said that made you spit out your whiskey?"
"Must've been something. Standsh to reason."
"Sure you really want to know?"
"Would I ask you otherwise, hmm?"
A moment's silence, then Zee said dryly, "According to Liz, things are a lot quieter since we got our own place."
"Ah, how sweet. You mean the girls miss ush...." She flexed her lips and tongue and tried again. "Us?"
"Then what exackly?"
"Seems whenever I bedded you, all the cats in the alley out back yowled fit to wake the dead."
Christie blinked and tried to make sense of that. Then her cheeks grew hot, and so did the tips of her ears.
"Hey," came Zee's voice. "You OK back there?"
"Oh, sure. Just dying of embarrashment," muttered Christie, so softly surely not even Zee could hear her.
"Well, you did ask," chuckled the deputy.
Not softly enough apparently.
"Why've we shtopped?" Christie peered fuzzily up at Zee. One minute the deputy had been carrying her up the stairs, making interesting threats involving a feather, the next she was standing frozen outside the bedroom door, an odd look on her face.
"Wait here." Zee deposited a disappointed Christie carefully back on her own two feet. Then she drew one of her Colts, cocked it in one smooth movement, and with her left hand relieved Christie of the lamp.
"Wha-?" Christie blinked at the empty space that had held the deputy only seconds before. Next time, I'll avoid the champagne.
Then Zee was back, and Christie was relieved to see that her gun was holstered. She didn't look happy though. "Window's broke," she said tersely.
Christie thought about that rather muzzily. "What broke it - a bird?"
"Must've been," said Zee, though for a moment Christie had the impression she was going to say something else.
She grimaced. "Blood and feathersh everywhere?"
Zee shook her head. "No. No sign of the bird now either. Must have flown away." She started down the stairs. "I'll get something to board up the window." She paused and looked back. "Stay clear of it, Darlin'. There's glass on the floor."
"OK." Christie pushed open the bedroom door and walked unsteadily through it. The cold struck her instantly - it must have been that which had alerted Zee. She frowned at the shattered windowpane and the shards of glass glittering on the floorboards beneath it. More money down the drain. Dratted pigeon!
She was still struggling to undress when she heard booted feet clattering up the stairs. Zee took one look at her dishevelled state, grinned, then put down the hammer, planks, and broom she was carrying and came to help.
"My fingers won't do what I tell them to," complained Christie.
"Mine will." In no time flat, Zee had stripped off the troublesome visiting dress, followed by the impossible petticoat and undergarments. "See."
"That's only because you've had lots of practice undressing me," grumbled Christie. The breeze from the window was raising goosepimples and she hugged herself to keep warm.
"Here." Zee had found Christie's nightdress and was holding it out to her. These days, Christie seldom wore one (Zee kept her warm at night), but tonight, she gratefully allowed the other woman to help her into it.
"Get into bed," ordered Zee. "I'll fix the window. Wonít take long."
Huddled beneath the satin sheets, Christie watched Zee sweep the shattered glass safely into one corner then nail some boards over the broken pane. Almost at once, the room felt warmer.
"There." The hammer joined the broom in the corner with a thud that made Christie wince, then the mattress was sagging as Zee sat next to her and put an arm round her shoulders. "You OK?"
"Tired." Christie leaned into Zee. A huge yawn overtook her and the other woman laughed.
"So I see. Still cold?"
Zee pulled her shirt over her head then began unbuckling her belt. "Have to see what I can do about that," she said, grinning.
The sound of distant gunfire made Zee look up. Knew it was too good to last.
She threw aside the Police Gazette, grabbed her stetson from the hatstand, and left the jailhouse at a run. Seconds later, she was in the saddle, riding instinctively north.
Outside The Golden Slipper, Jack the barkeep flagged her down. "In here, Deputy," he called. "Millain's gone and killed Polly!"
Zee's lips thinned. She dismounted and handed him the reins. As she pushed open the swing doors, faces turned towards her, and a nervous silence greeted her. The crowd drew back as she elbowed her way through. Then she saw the body sprawled on the floor, blood pooling around its head. Apollinar Juarez's disreputable, striped trousers and shabby leather vest were instantly recognisable.
Damn you, Polly! What were you thinking?
She squatted on her heels, reached for his skinny wrist, and confirmed what she already knew - the amiable little Mexican was dead as a doornail. Uncurling his fingers from the Smith and Wesson Schofield, she sniffed the muzzle. It had been fired recently.
She looked up then, pushing back her hat and scanning the faces peering down at her, seeking one in particular. Americus Millain's expression was unapologetic.
"It was self-defence. He drew on me." The gambler from New Orleans gestured with his half-smoked cigar. "Ask anyone."
Zee straightened and looked him in the eye. "I will."
Bob Lewis was standing next to Millain. She raised an eyebrow at him. "Bob?"
He mopped his forehead with a kerchief. "Polly shot first. He called Millain a cheat and then he drew."
She caught sight of a familiar pair of whiskers. "You agree with that, Silas?"
"Reckon so, Deputy."
Millain smiled smugly. "See."
She chewed the inside of her cheek then nodded. She saw only too well. Polly had been no great shakes with a gun; he carried it mostly for show and wouldn't have drawn unless provoked. Millain probably feinted with his left hand, then drew with his right. But there was no way she could prove it. "I see all right.... Anyone sent for McGillivray?"
"He's on his way, Deputy," called Kitty Lee.
"Better pass the hat then. Man deserves a decent funeral." She gave Millain a significant glance. "You first." She took off her stetson, upturned it, and held it out.
The gambler's bearded jaw dropped. "Damned if I'm going to contribute! I killed him fair and square."
She regarded him coldly, pleased when something - uncertainty, fear? - flickered in the depths of his brown eyes. "You took Polly's money and his life. Least you can do is give him a decent burial."
A murmur of approval had greeted her words and he glanced uneasily at those standing nearby before meeting her gaze again. "Well," he said. "When you put it that way...."
"I do." She waited.
Reluctantly, he tossed a handful of silver dollars into the hat. Several of the onlookers gave money too. Zee reached a gloved hand in her pocket and pulled out a dollar; it jingled as it joined the others. Already there was a tidy sum - enough for McGillivray to give Polly one of his better quality coffins and a Christian burial.
She emptied the contents of the hat into Bob Lewis's hands and put the stetson back on. "Give that to McGillivray when he gets here." Bob nodded.
Satisfied she'd done the best she could, for now at least, she gave Millain a last considering look then spun on her heel and headed for the door.
As she passed the bar, a flash of jade green caught her eye. She turned, saw it was the pretty octoroon wearing yet another fashionable dress, then glanced back at Millain. The gambler was already settling down to another card game and seemed fully occupied. Zee headed for his ward.
The girl looked startled to be addressed directly. She glanced over to where her guardian was sitting, then ducked her head, her dark eyes shyly refusing to meet Zee's. "Yes." Her voice was barely audible above the rising hubbub.
"I'm Benson's Deputy Sheriff," said Zee. "You need any help, you come to me. Understand?" The girl fiddled with her gloves. "Understand?"
Julie smoothed her dress before replying. "Yes."
Zee sighed . If she was any judge of character, the girl was so scared she would have to be in mortal danger before she asked for help. Well. At least she'd tried.
Feeling in need of some fresh air, she pushed her way through the swing doors and out onto the street.
Zee had just looped her mare's reins over the jail's hitching post when a terrible clattering, clanging noise hurt her ears. She turned. Benson's fire wagon, its bell clanging, its mangy mule braying in protest, was heading along Main Street towards her. Straggling along behind the fire appliance ('Appliance?' Ha! It's just a rusty old water tank and pump.) came a motley group of townsfolk, some still doing up their shoelaces or pulling on their coats.
"Hey, Marvin," she called to the fire chief, as the wagon passed. "Where's the fire?"
Marvin's usual job was distributing the water he hauled up from the nearby San Pedro River each day. "Angie's Palace," he replied.
No wonder there are so many volunteers. Angie had a longstanding arrangement with the fire service - a week's worth of free passes for those who helped put out a fire at the brothel.
Now Zee knew where to look, she could see the dark plume of smoke curling up into the blue sky. Sure hope none of the girls are hurt. She ran back inside the jailhouse, grabbed a shovel, and set off after the fire wagon.
The whores were pacing up and down in front of the brothel in varying states of soot-stained undress. Some of the townsfolk had gathered to watch the fun, and were whistling and calling out comments - the men appreciative, the women disparaging - earning themselves obscene gestures and replies for their pains. When Zee arrived, the onlookers rapidly developed interests elsewhere.
The fire was out back by the kitchen, so Zee made her way round there in time to see the fire crew (Marvin and three men pumping the lever, two more pointing the hose nozzle, the rest getting in the way) enthusiastically damping down the flames. It hadn't been a big blaze, fortunately, just a very dirty one.
She used her shovel to beat out some still glowing embers then became aware that Angie had joined her. "Anyone hurt?" She wiped the back of her hand across her brow.
"Only their pride." The brothel owner surveyed the damage and sighed.
Zee frowned. A strange scent underlay the overpowering smell of soot and wet wood. It reminded her of something.
Marvin came over to join them. "It's out, Angie," he said triumphantly. "Looks like it started over there." He pointed to some singed timbers lying next to the kitchen.
"That's odd," said Angie. "I thought it must be a spark from Mattie's stove that started it." She shrugged. "Anyway, thanks, Marvin. Usual arrangement?"
He nodded happily and went to tell his men. Zee chuckled then became aware the Madame was studying her, a small smile on her face.
"You're entitled to a free pass too, Deputy."
Zee grinned. "Thanks, but no thanks, Angie. Christie's more'n enough for me."
The Madame laughed. "I thought youíd say that." She frowned at the singed timbers again. "Whatever can have caused that?"
"Or whoever," said Zee. She had placed the scent at last. "Someone used kerosene oil."
The older woman blinked. "You think it was arson?"
"It's a good bet."
"But who would do such a thing?"
"There's plenty as has a motive. The Temperance Union biddies, the Benson Society for Improvement of Public Morals, not to mention a member of the fire crew eager to receive a week's free pass to bliss.... Hey!" She sucked the knuckles that Angie had rapped smartly with her pipe, and regarded her reproachfully. "But I'd say," she continued, "the likeliest person is the one who set fire to the Last Chance Saloon while I was in Phoenix."
Angie frowned. "And just who would that be?"
"Donít know yet." Zee grabbed her shovel and prepared to head back to the jailhouse. "But I will."
Zee smiled as she rode past the Old Barn's front door. Part of the neglected front garden had now been neatly dug and watered. It looked as though Christie had planted the flower bulbs.
Christie herself wasn't home, she discovered as she dismounted and gave her horse some water. The gelding and buckboard were missing from the barn, which meant the younger woman had either gone to visit the schoolteacher or gone shopping.
As she unstrapped the new pane of glass she had collected from the glasscutter's and carried it inside, Zee tried not to feel hard done by. It wasn't as if Christie was expecting her - she had packed Zee some sandwiches, which were in her saddlebags. But after such a frenetic morning - a killing and a fire was going some, even for Zee - things had quieted to such a degree she'd been twiddling her thumbs. And since there was work to be done around the house....
Grumbling softly to herself, she sat in the kitchen, eating the ham sandwiches Christie had made for her and listening to the loud ticking of the clock. For the first time in her life, she realised, she felt.... Lonely, damn it!
She carried what was left of her sandwiches out back, and leaned against the trough while she ate, glad of her horse's company. The mare whinnied and nosed her shoulder. Zee rubbed the animal's nose.
"Think yourself lucky you ain't romantically involved, girl," she counselled. "It ain't all sunshine."
The mare nickered and Zee could have sworn the animal was laughing at her.
"Pathetic, ain't I?" she said ruefully. "Let's just keep this our little secret, eh?"
When she'd finished her food, she headed back indoors, grabbing a hammer and some nails as she went. In the bedroom, she rolled up her shirtsleeves and set about removing the damaged pane of glass and fitting its replacement.
As she worked, she glanced out at the Rikers' house, which was only a stone's throw away. A blonde boy was playing with a ball in their yard, but when he saw her glaring at him, he quickly disappeared.
Stone's throw is right. She wondered whether she should have told Christie about the fist-sized rock she had found lying on the floorboards instead of just shoving it back out the way it had come.
Nope. It had been the right decision. The blonde had been tipsy and tired and would only have been upset. She didn't need to know it hadn't been a bird crashing into their window but a rock thrown by the Riker kid. One thing was for sure, if Zee caught the little hooligan sneaking around their house again, she'd tan his hide so he couldn't sit down for month.
She hammered in the last nail, then stood back and admired her handiwork. Then she swept up the glass and other debris and went downstairs.
The basket of wood beside the stove was running low, so while her mare tossed her head in annoyance at the noise, she split some logs in the yard, brought the pieces inside and added them to the basket. That job done, she set about putting up the extra hooks and shelves Christie had hinted she would like added to the kitchen as soon as possible.
When she had finished, a glance at the clock showed it was time to head back to the jailhouse. She stripped off her shirt and undershirt, dunked her head in a pail of cool water (more water had been delivered, she was glad to see), and sponged herself down, glad to be free of the accumulated grime and sweat at last.
Dressed in a clean shirt, wet hair slicked down, and the dust banged off her hat, she felt almost presentable as she mounted up and headed back into town. As she rode, she wondered whether things would be as quiet as they were when she left. Knowing her luck, she thought wryly, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would be waiting for her....
Christie reined in the gelding outside Taylor's General Mercantile Store and put on the brake. She reached for her reticule, then jumped down from the buckboard and went inside.
Ned Taylor was standing behind his counter, serving a woman in a hideous dress with a huge bustle. As the apron-clad storekeeper smiled and waved at Christie, his customer turned to see who had come in. The gaze she gave the blonde would have frozen running water; she sniffed and turned away again.
Christie sighed. It would have to be Madame Clemence. Ever since the aborted appointment for a trousseau, she and the supposedly French seamstress had kept their distance, the other woman even crossing the street to avoid her on one occasion.
She couldn't blame Henrietta Clemence. When she'd eloped with Zee, her ex-fiancé had cancelled the trousseau. The seamstress had spent time and effort on the measurements, but Fred refused flat out to pay her for it.
Fred always was tight fisted, she thought ruefully, as she wandered round the store examining the goods while she waited for Taylor to finish serving his customer. She found it hard even to imagine she had ever considered marrying him.
She picked up a skillet, hefted it, decided it was too heavy for comfort, and put it back on the shelf. A murmur of voices and faint footsteps signalled the presence of other customers on the far side of the shelves. When she turned the corner, she came face to face with a woman in a black broadcloth dress and a fat man whose high collar looked as though it was cutting off his circulation.
Christie froze. Oh dear! "Good afternoon, Mrs. Riker," she said politely. "Mr. Riker."
When Adah remained mute. Her husband frowned and looked enquiringly at her. "What's wrong, my dear?"
"This is the Hellcat's whore," she growled, taking a step towards Christie, whose heart pounded but she held her ground. "How you have the nerve to show your face in here!" continued the other woman, her cheeks flushing with anger. "Decent people frequent this establishment not -"
"I'll handle this, my dear." The President of the Bank turned a stern gaze on Christie, who pressed her lips together in an attempt to contain her building anger. "I'll thank you to take your custom elsewhere from now on, Miss erm... whatever your name is."
"I beg your pardon!" The indignant voice Christie made her jump. She turned to find Ned Taylor standing behind her. The storekeeper had finished with Madame Clemence and come to see what was going on. "I'll be the one to say who I will serve in my own store."
Ernie Riker drew himself up to his full height. "I shouldn't have to remind you, Jack," he said pompously, "that only last year the bank gave you a substantial loan -"
"No, you shouldn't." Taylor's brows lowered. "And as far as I recall, it was the Bank loaned me the money, not you personally, Ernie Riker. I shouldn't have to remind you of that."
Riker blinked and his jaw worked. Christie got the impression he wasn't used to having people talk back to him. Serve him right.
The silence seemed to stretch, then the tinkling of the bell above the front door broke it, and to everyone's surprise it was Adah who spoke next.
"Well!" she said indignantly. "If that 'woman'," - her eyes shot daggers at Christie - "isn't going to take her custom elsewhere, then I certainly am."
"That's your prerogative, ma'am," said Taylor stoutly. "But you'll not find anywhere else selling such quality at these prices."
"We'll see about that." With a toss of her head, Adah Riker turned on her heel and stormed towards the exit. After an indecisive moment, her fat husband followed her.
"I'm so sorry," said Christie to Ned Taylor. "I had no intention of causing any trouble."
"Of course not." The storekeeper led her towards the counter. "Sour-faced old hypocrites don't need rhyme or reason."
Even so. "But surely, you can't afford to lose a good customer -"
"Truth be told, I'm glad to be rid of them. All I ever got was complaints about weevils in the flour, or snags in the muslin...." He smiled at her. "So, what have you got for me, Miss Hayes?"
She blinked, nonplussed, before remembering the shopping list in her reticule. Fumbling, she pulled it out and gave it to him. He perused it for a moment, then nodded and disappeared behind the counter. When he came back he was carrying kerosene oil and matches. He ticked off the items then headed off to a different shelf. Companionably, she followed him.
"Besides, there was no possibility of me asking you to take your custom elsewhere," he added. "Deputy Brodie's a good friend of mine." He picked up the skillet she had rejected earlier, cast an assessing glance at her wrists, then put it back and selected a lighter one.
"Two years ago," he continued, "our boy Frank got mixed up with a bad crowd. Drinking, gambling, women.... Hope I'm not shocking you by speaking about such things, Miss Hayes?"
She blinked. "Not at all."
He grinned. "Guess you must be pretty unshockable, being with the deputy and all." He looked at the list and moved further along the shelf. "Martha and me thought Frank was destined for the end of a rope." He picked up some knives, forks, and spoons and raised an eyebrow at Christie. She nodded.
"We were at our wits end," he continued. "Then one day, Brodie asked me what was up, and I told her. She said not to worry none, she'd straighten him out." He smiled at the memory. "Good as her word she was, too."
He carried the goods back to the counter and set them down. Christie followed him, eager to know more.
"What did she do?"
"Never did find out. Brodie wouldn't talk about it, neither would Frank."
Christie suppressed a growl of frustration while he grabbed a stub of pencil, jotted down the prices for the items now littering the countertop, and began to tot them up. When he'd finished adding up the column of figures he looked up and regarded her seriously.
"All I know is, one night Frank came home as white as a sheet. Said he was sorry for the grief he'd caused his mother and me, and that it wouldn't happen again."
He rechecked his sums, drew a line under the total, and showed it to Christie, who sighed then nodded.
"Well, the long and short of it is," he continued, "Frank mended his ways. Found hisself a nice girl and settled down. They're married with baby now: Frank junior." His proud smile became businesslike. "Will that be cash or credit, Miss Hayes?"
"Oh, cash," she said, reaching inside her reticule.
There was something odd about the front garden, decided Christie, slowing the buckboard and leaning over for a better look. When she had left the Old Barn, the little garden surrounded by the picket fence had looked neat, its soil - still dark from the watering - had been level, but now.... Clumps of soil lay everywhere.
Someone's dug up my bulbs! Jaw clamped against her anger, she turned the gelding up the track. That dratted Riker boy. It has to be.
Miss Bartlett had told her the boy wasn't in school that morning, and the silly young woman (she was Christie's age but you'd never have guessed) had seemed quite unconcerned about it.
"Oh, Joe is frequently ill, Miss Hayes," she said, as she distributed the textbooks for the next lesson while the school children played noisily outdoors. "He has quite a delicate constitution, you know. I had a letter from his parents about it."
Christie chewed her lip. 'Delicate'? That little ruffian? "Are you sure it was from his parents?"
That got her a wide-eyed stare. "Why ever should it not be?"
"You donít think... maybe Joe himself...."
Jenny Bartlett considered the suggestion for all of two seconds before emitting a peal of merry laughter. "Oh, Miss Hayes. You are so amusing! Why would any child want to miss school? They love it here. We have such fun."
Having faith in the children she taught was wonderful, but being wilfully blind to their shortcomings was surely not to anyone's benefit. Resisting a strong urge to shake some sense into the dangerously naive woman, Christie had left.
As she drove into the back yard, she saw the depleted logpile and her pulse quickened.
"Zee," she called, leaping down from the buckboard and dashing into the kitchen. "Are you here?" There was no answer, though, and she recalled there had been no sign of Zee's mare either. She sighed, sad to have missed her lover.
It took her an arduous half an hour to unload the buckboard, stable the gelding, and stack everything where she wanted it. She hung up the last of the tinware - the new hooks and shelves Zee had put up were perfect - then went upstairs to freshen up.
The windowpane was fixed too, she saw as she entered the bedroom. She stared out of it, noticing how close the Rikers' house was to theirs and pursing her lips. Last night she had been too fuzzy headed to think clearly, but now....
As she sponged herself down, changed into her housedress, and brushed her hair, she wondered if Zee had misled her about the real source of the broken glass -
A knocking at the back door jarred her out of her musings. Who is it now? She smoothed down her dress, and headed downstairs.
Ann Young was standing on her doorstep. The smiling woman came in, duly admired the additions Zee had made to the kitchen, then got down to business.
"Curly and I are having a social tonight. And we were wondering if you and Zee would like to come."
Christie blinked - an invitation of this kind was the last thing she had expected. Socials had been a common in Contention, the women sitting and sewing or crocheting while they talked (gossip was the main purpose of such get-togethers), or playing whatever puzzle games or card games were all the rage. There was always a good supper....
"The Meekers and Nortons have said they're coming," Ann was blithely continuing, "and we're having hot cakes, eggs, side pork and coffee." She stopped and looked expectantly at Christie.
But was this the kind of evening that would appeal to Zee? "I don't think Zee-"
Ann Young waved a hand dismissively. "She'll love it. And what better way to introduce the two of you into more respectable circles? It can only do Zee's standing in Benson good."
"We-ell. If you think so."
"All right, then. We'll come." After all, what harm could it do?
Ann beamed at her. "Splendid." She turned to go. "We'll see you at eight then."
Zee looked at her cards again. Not bad! But was it enough?
She glanced at Silas, who was absently rubbing his earlobe. That 'tell' of his was a sure sign he didn't have much of a hand. She flipped another dollar into the pot. "Raise you."
"Mind if I sit in?" Americus Millain was grinning down at the three players; behind him, looking cowed as always, stood Julie Fontenot.
Silas and Bob exchanged a wry look - this morning's killing of Polly had not endeared the New Orleans gambler to anyone - then they shrugged.
"It's a free country." Silas wiped the back of his hand on his moustache.
"So they say," grumbled Bob.
Zee shoved the empty chair towards Millain with her booted foot. "Have a seat." One of the reasons she had come back to the Golden Slipper was to keep a close eye on him - this was as close as she could get.
"Thanks." He sat down, then twisted round in his chair, irritated to see that the Slipper's hostesses were all currently occupied. "Get me a whiskey," he told the girl in the jade green dress.
No please, no thank you, noted Zee. Julie nodded mutely, her gaze once again refusing to meet Zee's, and headed towards the bar.
She watched the pretty octoroon go then turned back to her game. She tossed in a couple more dollars. "And see you, Silas."
"Dang it. I'm gonna have to fold," said Bob glumly.
Silas frowned, then laid out his cards - three of a kind. Zee bared her teeth at him and laid down hers - a straight.
"Goldarn it, Brodie!" Silas's voice was exasperated. "The missus is gonna skin me alive."
She raked in her winnings. "Why d'you bet it if you can't afford to lose it, you old coot?"
Bob chuckled. "You tell him, Brodie." He gathered the cards and began to shuffle, then looked enquiringly at Millain and the others. "Five card draw?"
"Fine with me," said Zee.
The gambler from New Orleans nodded assent then busied himself lighting up a cheroot. In the meantime, his ward had returned carrying a tray on which sat a full glass of whiskey and an unopened bottle (the rotgut kind, Zee was glad to see). Without so much as a thank you, he grabbed it, drained the glass dry, then opened the bottle and refilled it.
"Make yourself scarce," he told her, without even looking at her. "I'm busy."
The girl gave him a frightened glance, then scooted towards the bar again. Probably felt relatively safe, there, thought Zee. Jack the bartender would fend off the worst of the predators, and it was a lot less crowded away from the gaming tables.
While Bob dealt the cards, she pushed back her hat and leaned back in her chair. Surreptitiously, she gave Millain the once over. He sported two Colt revolvers low on his hips, but only the right holster was tied down, and the bulge in his coat pocket was probably a Derringer - deadly at close quarters but otherwise inaccurate.
She picked up her cards, saw at once they were useless and threw them down. "I fold."
The others grunted but decided to play on. Zee reached for her own glass, winced at the cheap whiskey's bite, then let her gaze wander round the room before returning to the game at hand.
The bidding was fast and furious, and as far as she could tell no one was cheating. Silas started rubbing his earlobe once more, and it was Bob who won the contents of the pot with a measly two pairs. Then it was Silas's turn to cut the cards and deal - which he did, muttering under his breath the while - and Zee was back in the game.
Over the next five hands, the winnings were spread fairly evenly - money ebbed and flowed first one way then another. As the level of whiskey in Millain's bottle dropped, his play became more aggressive. He bet early and high, forcing the other players out of their comfort zones and betting the limit more and more. Finally, his style of play began to pay off and the pile of winnings on the green baize in front of him grew.
Zee frowned and poked the meagre heap of coins in front of her with a forefinger. This was Christie's money as well as hers; did she have the right to risk it?
"Too rich for your blood, Deputy?" The New Orleans gambler was smiling smugly at her. She restrained herself to a grunt.
He laughed and signalled someone, and moments later Julie Fontenot was making her way gingerly through the raucous crowd of gamblers and coquettish hostesses, a fresh bottle of whiskey clasped in one gloved hand.
Zee frowned. The girl was obviously uncomfortable in these surroundings, but Millain didn't seem to notice or care. He snatched the bottle from his ward and topped up his glass.
Her next hand was a better one - a straight - and Zee bid up to her limit, only to be beaten at the last minute by Millain's straight flush. She regarded him thoughtfully. Straight flushes were rare, and the ex-riverboat gambler was getting entirely too many of them. She had suspected he was cheating, now she was sure of it.
Two can play at that game.
In her Hellcat days, she had ridden for a while with Poker Bill. The Mechanic's Grip, the Peek, Second and Bottom Dealing, False Shuffling, Palming, Shifting the Cut... her fellow outlaw had taught her all those skills and more. These days, she played fair and only used her skills for party tricks or games of strip poker with Christie. But someone needed to give Millain a taste of his own medicine, and it might as well be her.
Over the next half an hour, Millain's fortunes slowly but surely went into reverse, the tide sweeping his money in Zee's direction being stemmed only when it was his turn to deal. At first, his brown eyes held puzzlement, then disbelief, then a growing anger. She could see from his expression that he knew he was getting taken at his own game - he just couldn't work out how.
She suppressed a grin as she placed her cards on the baize - four of a kind. "Mine I think."
Silas snorted and Bob cursed, but Millain's face paled dramatically. He had bet his last buck on this hand... and lost.
She pulled the money towards her. "Guess that's you out of the game, Millain."
His eyes glittered, then his hand moved towards his inside coat pocket. She rested her fingers on the gun butt of her Colt then paused. Was he trying to make her draw first?
When his hand emerged, it was clutching a folded piece of paper rather than the Derringer she had been expecting. "Guess again, Deputy. This should keep me in the game."
He tossed the paper onto the table, and Bob reached for it and unfolded what looked to Zee like a legal document.
"What is it?" asked Silas eagerly. "Title deeds? To a silver mine? Your ranch?"
"No. To the ride of your life, boys." Millain leered at Zee. "Might interest the Deputy here too. Heard she likes fillies."
Zee frowned. "I ain't interested in your horse."
Bob had been reading the document slowly, mouthing each word. "Who's this Ju- Julie Font- Fonten-"
"Give me that." She snatched the paper off him.
"Hey, that hurt!" He sucked his fingers.
She read the document quickly then gaped at the gambler from New Orleans. "You'd bet your ward in a poker game?"
He laughed. "She's my property, isn't she?"
Zee resisted the sudden urge to shove the guardianship papers down his gullet. This was going too far, even for him. Then it dawned on her... he had no intention of losing his ward. It was his turn to deal next - the odds would be in his favour.
News of the unusual nature of Millain's proposed bet had spread around the Golden Slipper and a chattering crowd had gathered around their table. Any hope Zee might have had that Julie didn't know what was going on was dashed when she saw the girl among their number. The octoroon's face was a frozen mask, her dark eyes wide.
I wouldn't treat my dog like that.
Zee considered and discarded possibilities. It would be tough to pull off in a single hand, but if she played her cards right, this could solve the girl's problems at a stroke. She tossed a mental coin. OK, then.
"I do like a nice filly," she told Millain equably. "I've no objections if no one else has." Silas and Bob were gawping at her. "How about you, boys?"
"What if I win?" complained Silas. "My missus wonít let me take another woman home, 'specially a young and pretty one." A burst of laughter greeted his remark.
"Yeah," said Bob. "That goes for me too."
"Donít worry, boys. If you win, I'll take her off your hands." Zee's sally provoked even louder laughter. She ran a hand through her hair and resettled her hat. God knows what Christie's going to say when she hears about this!
She glanced at Millain. "So. Who's dealer?"
He stroked his beard then gave her wet lipped smile. "I am."
She feigned a wince, earning herself a curious look from Silas. "Then deal, damn you." A mutter of consternation ran through the watchers and she suppressed a chuckle.
As the cards were dealt, you could have heard a pin drop. Breaths were bated, eyes eager, as the crowd of onlookers watched the progress of the game. Zee ignored them and concentrated on Millain's hands. That one came off the bottom. And that. She picked up her cards and glanced at Silas. He was rubbing his earlobe.
She discarded two cards and asked for replacements, which came once more from the bottom of the pack. She regarded her new hand interestedly. He'd tried to give her a single pair - nines. No doubt his own hand was much more powerful.
So. Pair of nines, a six, a ten, and a Jack. What the gambler from New Orleans didn't know was that she had two more tens up her sleeve from earlier. When his attention was elsewhere, she swapped them over. Keeping her actions hidden from the bystanders as well as the players was difficult, but she managed it.
Silas folded. Then Bob. Now only Zee and Millain were in the game. At last, with an air of triumph, he placed his cards, all hearts, face up on the green baize.
A sharp intake of breath was followed by murmurs, "It's a Flush. He's got a Flush."
"Mine, I think." Millain reached forward to gather in the pot.
"Not so fast," said Zee. His head jerked up and he stared at her. Carefully, she laid out her Full House.
He blinked at the cards in amazement then came to his feet in a rush. "You can't have...." She could see the realisation dawning on him. "You cheated, damn you!"
People backed hastily away, clearing a space around the table.
"Prove it." She reached for her winnings, her nerves on hair-trigger alert.
He feinted with his left hand; she let him. "Damn your yellow hide, Brodie," he hissed. "Go for your gun."
She shook her head and stood up, taking a third of the money for herself then pushing the rest towards a startled Silas and Bob. "Split that between you." She tucked the guardianship papers in her pocket.
"Anyone draws first, it'll have to be you." Zee gave Millain a cold glance. "And it'll be the last thing you do."
She waited, her right hand resting gently on her gun butt. Millain lowered his gaze, and she assumed he had seen sense and was going to accept the situation. She nodded in satisfaction and turned, scanning the room for Julie and finding her trembling in a far corner, her eyes wide. She took a step towards her.
"Brodie." Millain's voice halted her in her tracks. So. She sighed and turned to face him.
A vein in his temple was bulging and his face was red. "You're a cheating, lowdown, double-crossing, lily-livered bitch...." His hand hovered above his six-gun.
She nodded and waited. But he refused to draw. Impatient to get this matter over with, she feinted with her left hand and, as she'd known he would, he fell for it. In front of witnesses, he drew first - pulling the gun on his right hip.
Americus Millain was fast, but Zee was faster. A wisp of smoke was still curling up from the six-gun in her own right hand when the New Orleans gambler hit the floor with a crump. He looked startled by the bullethole in the middle of his chest, as well he might.
Her right biceps stung and she glanced down and registered blood-soaked fabric. Damn! My favourite shirt too.
Dismissing the wound, which was only a scratch, she crossed to the dying man and squatted next to him. She leaned closer. "That's for Polly," she said, her voice so low only he could hear. His eyes glazed over and he was gone.
Zee shrugged and straightened. It had been his choice, and he was no loss as far as she was concerned. Pulling the guardianship papers from her pocket, she went in search of her ward.
Christie heard the sound of hoofbeats in the yard and smiled. Supper was almost ready - as a treat, she had bought some fresh beef from the butcher and roasted it. And after she and Zee had eaten, they would head over to their neighbours' social and spend a pleasant, and for once civilised, evening.
Strange. Were those voices she could hear, and the rumble of a buckboard fading into the distance? She must be imagining it. She straightened her apron and turned just as the kitchen door was flung open and Zee filled the doorway.
"Hey, Darlin'. Something sure smells good." Two strides brought the deputy to Christie's side, then she was in the tall woman's arms. She was returning the kiss enthusiastically, when something caught the corner of her eye. Something jade green.
She gaped. A pretty young woman with wavy chestnut hair and dark eyes was standing in the kitchen doorway. Her faille dress could have walked straight off the pages of the latest Godey's Lady's Book.
Mmmph! She pushed Zee away and turned to face the intruder. "Who are you?"
Zee looped one arm around Christie's waist. "This is Julie."
"Millain's ward. I told you 'bout her. Remember?" The deputy smiled at the newcomer. "Julie, this is my lady, Christie."
"Good evening," said the octoroon shyly.
"Good evening," managed Christie between gritted teeth. She shook Zee's arm off, earning herself a puzzled look.
"You all right, Darlin'?"
"I'm fine," she said stiffly. "Only you should have warned me you were bringing someone home for supper, Zee. I'm not sure I've cooked enough for three."
"We'll manage." The deputy pulled out a chair and straddled it, then beckoned to their guest to sit down. The girl did so rather gingerly, then peered at Christie through lowered lashes.
"And Julie's here for more'n supper, Darlin'," continued Zee. " I've asked Mrs. Sandridge to send her bags over from the boarding house. She'll be staying for a while."
Christie stared at the dark-haired woman in disbelief. "She's staying here? But wonít her guardian be wondering where she is?"
"Nope. He's dead." Zee reached for the plate of freshly baked biscuits and helped herself to one. "I shot him.... Besides," she continued blithely, crunching her biscuit, "we've got plenty of room. It'd make a change for you, having company about the place while I'm not here." She smiled at Christie. "Mmmm. Great biscuits!"
Christie backpedaled. "You shot him?"
"Drew on me," explained the dark-haired woman, her tone unconcerned. "Got lucky and nicked me too." She indicated the red bandanna wrapped around her biceps, which Christie had been wondering about.
"You were wounded?!"
"Now donít get het up - it's only a scratch."
It took Christie all of two seconds to untie the bandanna from Zee's arm and examine the wound. When she saw it was indeed only a scratch, she felt unaccountably worse rather than better. "Why must you be so hard on your clothes?" she complained, knowing she was being unreasonable but unable to stop herself. "Now I'll have to mend it."
Zee winked at Julie, who was watching their interaction curiously. The wink made Christie furious. To relieve some of her tension she crossed to the stove and began banging pots and pans about. It didn't help. She turned and glared at Zee, who blinked then got up and came to join her.
"Look, I know I shoulda asked you first, Darlin'," she muttered, in a low voice so Julie couldn't hear, "but she ain't got no place else to go."
"She could have stayed at Mrs. Sandridge's."
"On her own? She's only 16. Besides," Zee looked sheepish. "I felt kinda obligated."
"Because you killed her guardian?"
The tall woman rubbed her jaw. "Nope. Because I won her in a poker game."
"You did what?" Christie stared at her. "How could you even consider using a person as a poker stake?"
"I didn't. Millain did."
"And you accepted his bet." Christie was so angry, she didn't know what to do with herself.
Zee looked nettled. "Only 'cause I thought it would be a way to get her away from him."
She put her hands on her hips. "So now she's your property? Doesn't that make you as bad as Millain?"
The blue eyes filled with hurt. "Is that what you think of me?" Zee looked down at her hands then back up, her expression puzzled. "You ain't usually like this, Darlin'. What's got into you?"
Since Christie didn't know herself, the question was unanswerable. A sudden need to be on her own overtook her. She untied her apron.
"I have to go out." She marched across the kitchen, grabbed her bonnet and put it on.
"But what about supper?"
She wrapped a shawl round her shoulders and pulled on her gloves. "The roast beef's nearly ready. Give it five more minutes then you can serve yourself and Julie. There should be plenty for two."
"Aren't you going to eat with us?"
"No. I'm going over to Ann and Curly's." She picked up her reticule. "They invited us both to a social, but since you'll be too busy entertaining our new 'houseguest'," her mouth twisted on the word, "I'll make your excuses."
"Darlin'." Zee reached for her, her gaze pleading.
Christie evaded the hand deftly and headed for the door. She was on the verge of tears and she didn't want anyone to see.
"I have to go. Don't wait up," she managed. Then she walked out into the night.
The short walk round to the Youngs' house did Christie some good. The cool air cleared her head a little and dried the angry tears that had welled up as soon as the door latch closed behind her.
Well, she should have asked me first. She opened the gate to the Youngs' spread, went through, and closed it behind her. A poker game, for heaven's sake! She trudged up the path to the front door. That girl is lovely, suppose....
Pushing away that distressing thought, she rapped her gloved knuckles on the door and waited.
Curly Young was still tying his tie when he answered the door. "Christie! You're early," he said, looking startled. Then he remembered his manners and stepped back. "Come in." He peered past her into the night. "Zee not with you?"
She stepped inside, easing herself past his ample stomach. "No. She's busy." A tear spilled over onto her cheek, and she wiped it angrily away. Curly's brows drew together as he looked at her. He seemed about to speak, but was forestalled by the appearance of his wife.
"Christie," said Ann Young warmly. "No Zee?"
"She's busy," put in Curly, saving Christie the trouble of answering.
"Oh. What a pity." The middle-aged woman looked disappointed for a moment then she brightened. "Still, it'll do you two good to get out of one another's pockets for an evening. And I'm sure we'll still have fun. I thought we could play Authors."
Ann ushered Christie through to the parlour, and gave her a stack of Harper's to keep her occupied while she finished getting ready. Christie turned the pages of the magazines glumly, not really taking in the articles or illustrations.
Probably laughing and chatting... haven't even noticed I've gone. I hope their roast beef chokes them.
A tear dampened the page, and she blotted it dry with her handkerchief. There was movement outside then, and when Ann and Curly bustled into the parlor, Christie had assumed a cheerful mask....
The evening passed pleasantly enough, though it lacked the zest of the socials she had attended in Contention. She pondered that for a while then came to a startling conclusion: the evening's ingredients were much the same, it was her taste which had changed.
Life at the brothel had always been lively, full of music and laughter and dancing. She had never known what was going to happen next. Cat fights (the name Zee gave to spats between the whores) were frequent, and involved much name calling, hair pulling, and dress ripping. Then there was that time a drunk client fired his six-guns into the ceiling, the bullets bringing down the chandelier then ricocheting round the salon, smashing mirrors and sending glass everywhere. Not to mention the games of strip poker in the back room, which, when Zee was dealing, always seemed to end with Christie stripped down to her drawers. Compared to all that, an evening of polite conversation, sewing, and a few hands of Authors seemed quite... well, dull.
"-shot a man in The Golden Slipper, but he deserved it."
The snippet of conversation jerked Christie out of her reverie. "I beg your pardon? Were you talking about Zee?"
"Of course we were, dear," said Ann Young, looking up from her crocheting. "Who else gets herself into constant trouble? Go on, John."
"Happy to," said John Meeker, obligingly, "but perhaps Miss Hayes would care to tell us Deputy Brodie's version of events?"
All heads turned to regard her and she blushed. "I didn't have time to ask her the details," she stammered. I didn't give her the chance.
"Indeed?" John seemed disappointed. "Well, then. By all accounts, the man she shot was that gambler who arrived last week from New Orleans, what was his name...."
"Americus Millain," supplied his wife.
He nodded. "Thanks, Ginny. That's him. Anyway, Millain killed Polly-"
"Polly?" asked a puzzled Christie.
"Apollinar Juarez," explained John. "The talk is all over town, how Millain cheated Polly out of his money, then lured him into shooting first. Folks weren't best pleased. They liked Polly." A grin spread over his bluff features. "But Deputy Brodie soon settled the score. Did to him what he did to Polly. Took his ward off him in the process too." He shook his head in admiration. "Got to hand it to her."
Christie sieved the nugget from John's narrative. "Zee cheated?"
"Get her to show you her card tricks, Miss Hayes," broke in Maggie Norton eagerly. "She cheats so well you simply can't tell."
Virginia Meeker looked up from her sewing and nodded agreement.
George Norton took up the tale. "The way I hear it, Brodie didn't keep her winnings but split 'em three ways with the other players, Bob and Silas." He stroked his bushy moustache and grinned. "They couldn't believe their luck."
"What about the ward?" asked Curly curiously.
"Oh, her," said George. "Zee tore up the guardianship papers and set the little octoroon free."
Christie blinked. "She tore them up?" The six other people in the room were all giving her odd looks, she realised. She stood up abruptly. "Please excuse me. I have to go."
Someone had turned down the lamp in the kitchen, and Christie blinked as she peered round the dimly lit room. The dirty pots and crockery had been washed and put away in all the wrong places, she noticed, and a cot now stood beside the stove.
She crossed towards the portable bed and looked down at the girl nestling there beneath the blankets. Julie Fontenot looked like an angel. Sleep had brought serenity to her anxious features, or perhaps it was feeling safe for the first time in years. Poor thing.
Christie turned, searching for Zee. The tall woman was sitting in the corner with her feet resting on the kitchen table and her chair propped against the wall. Her hat was pulled low over her face, but the tension in her body showed she wasn't asleep.
"Zee," called Christie, keep her voice low so as not to wake the sleeping girl.
A hand pushed the stetson back, then pale eyes leached of colour by the lamplight were looking at her. A pang shot through Christie at the wariness in Zee's gaze. I put that there.
"Oh, Zee!" She rushed towards the frozen figure, crawled onto her lap (almost tipping the chair over in the process), and hugged her.
For a heartstopping moment, she thought Zee wasn't going to respond. Then strong arms wrapped themselves tightly round her and pulled her close. She buried her head in Zee's shoulder and from sheer relief started to cry.
"Hey, hey! What's all this?" came Zee's voice. "The social can't have been that bad."
"No," she sniffed. "Though it was dull as ditchwater without you. Oh, Zee. I'm so sorry."
A hand brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. "Me too, Darlin'. I shoulda made it clear. I don't 'own' Julie-"
Christie pressed two fingers to Zee's lips, silencing her. "I know. You tore up the guardianship papers." A kiss was placed on her fingers and she removed them.
"Yeah." Zee glanced at the sleeping girl. "But I couldn't leave her on her lonesome, Darlin'. She's never had to fend for herself before. Not sure she even knows how."
"That's why you brought her home?"
Zee nodded. "Pretty girl like her would be easy prey for some goodfornothing sonofabitch. Probably end up in a whore house." She sighed. "It may still come to that."
Christie frowned. "There must be something more respectable she can do." Now she was safely in Zee's arms again, she felt compassionate towards the vulnerable young woman. (Is that what the problem was? Simple jealousy? It was an unflattering and salutary thing to learn about herself.)
She considered the problem of the girl's future. "Those fashionable dresses of hers. She made those herself, if I'm not mistaken. Which means she a pretty fair needlewoman. Maybe she could get a job with Madame Clemence?"
Zee gaze her a squeeze of approval. "Knew if I brought her home you'd think of something."
Christie pressed her face into a broad shoulder to hide her flush of shame. Zee had had faith in her; why had she not reciprocated?
"Hey now, none of that," ordered Zee, tucking a finger beneath her chin and raising it. Their gazes locked and held for a long solemn moment, then Zee broke into a grin. "It's time to kiss and make up."
The Deputy bent her head and kissed Christie, a kiss so long and deep it made the blonde's heart race and her toes curl and her head spin.... Except that the cause of the spinning turned out to be Zee standing up, with Christie clutched tightly in her arms.
"Bed," growled the tall woman, elbowing the door open and heading for the stairs.
Christie had to clear her throat twice before she could speak. "Mmmm. Bed," she agreed.
CONTINUED IN PART 3