I.

He had her – by all that was God, he had her.

Jim wasn't sure what he'd find inside the shack, just knew that the outlaw Beau Tinker would be out for a kill, and that Dulcey had to be nearby. That's why he'd held Francis back after he'd dispatched Tinker, because whatever lay inside was going to be seen by his eyes first. Because he'd seen too many things in his time, and if it was Dulcey, and if she was…

But now his arms were full of her – Dulcey, dirty and stressed, but wholly alive. With absolute relief shimmering in her eyes as she'd run to him. Yes, he had her now…

Always wondered what it'd take to melt you, Crown…

Dulcey…

She was pressed tight up against him, as if she couldn't get close enough and somehow crawling in under his vest would be the only thing that would comfort her. And so taut she felt like she'd break apart in his embrace. It scared Jim, paralyzed him. All he could muster was an awkward pat on her back, his fingers splayed yet frozen, each tap reminding him how close – how damnably close – he'd come to losing her. How he didn't deserve anything less than her complete vitriol because he'd used her and she'd paid the price. He should be on his knees to her, asking her for forgiveness. Days – how many had it been? Too damned many. And now all this, because of his single-minded idea to press the boy nicknamed Whitey into revealing the Tinker Gang's whereabouts, when he hadn't paid enough attention to the youngster himself. The mistake was all his – but what it'd cost Dulcey…

"Dulcey…"

He tried to say more but couldn't because she was starting to sob, shuddering with great dry gulps that wracked her. His heart tore at the sound; he'd never seen her so shattered. Still she clung to him, somehow soothing his churning guilt with her refusal to let go. Jim broadened his hold, engulfing her, trying to comfort her and not really knowing how. All he knew was that he had her. He had her, she was alive…

From what he could see the boy Whitey was dead, shot almost through the heart; she'd been holding the sprawled, still body in her lap, and the look on her face said the kid had breathed his last. Tinker's doing, most likely. Either the boy had refused to let Dulcey go, or Tinker had ideas other than those in the letter his outlaw brother Arn had written directing her release. One or the other had also killed Rosario, who was lying not far beyond in the room. Dulcey knew the truth, but he couldn't ask her – wouldn't – not yet.

Jim let his gaze rove further – the shack was a hovel, fallen in and filthy…isolated –

He tried to count up the nights – two, or three? Time had been rendered infinite for him, a collection of riding and searching in daylight and darkness, systematically scouring quadrants of the Outlet, sifting through stones and shadows, examining countless tracks and seeing Dulcey in each one. Telling himself that she would be all right, that Whitey hadn't hurt her or harmed her, that the boy, half-crazy with vengeance, hadn't left her for dead – or wishing she was-

Enough, he told himself. He had Dulcey and that was enough, for now.

"Come on," Jim said to her. "Time to go home…"

She was stiff-backed, but he got her shifted over to his other side to keep his arm free to reach his Colt, and then guided her forward. She quickly stumbled; her skirts promptly wrapped around his leg, caught on one knee, nearly tripped him. Jim carefully untangled them, a fist crammed into what seemed like a mile of deep fabric. Still she clung to him, hiding her face behind a fall of unkempt hair, wetting his shirt with tears he didn't even realize she'd shed.

She cringed as they stepped back out into the bright, hot sunlight, and let off a sound – it sounded like his name. Jim stopped to reposition his hold on her, surprised at how easily his arm reached all the way around her waist, how his hand spanned most of her trembling ribcage…how incredibly fragile she was tucked up against him. Then a wave of harsh thoughts splashed him as he saw her dirty arms, her stained dress…

Francis turned as they approached, one eye and ear cocked for trouble. Jim's gaze also swept the area, his own ears listening for what he might not see, actions honed with long practice. But all was in good order – his young deputy had done a lot of work in a short stack of time. Beau Tinker's body had already been bound to the saddle of a horse, his gunbelt removed and his face covered. Two other horses had been retrieved – Jim recognized one as the stocky palomino stolen from the Cimarron livery. Francis now stood covering their trail with his Winchester, waiting for his next orders.

"All quiet so far," he reported, his expression of relief turning grim at the sight of Dulcey swaying in Jim's embrace. "We'd best not tarry, though. Dulcey – she's…?"

She was upright, mostly, though she'd surely drop if he even loosened two fingers from her. Dirty and tired, but beyond that…? He hadn't see any blood on her, but hadn't looked for any either. Again the black thoughts swept him. Jim fixed a glare back onto the shack, demanding it to tell him what had happened here, what the boy Whitey had done…

"Hold that mare," he directed instead. "Dulcey…?"

He gathered up both her hands into one of his, hating the way his calloused palm scraped against her smooth skin. She'd been so quiet – too quiet. Overwhelmed, surely, in some kind of shock. He tenderly drew back her curtain of hair, tucked it behind her shoulder, careful to keep his touch light. He'd known women who'd been silenced by horrific violence, witnessed mere girls go lost in the mind from unspeakable crimes bestowed on them. Had even once helped pull one from the river where she'd jumped, weighted by rocks she'd tied about her waist…

No, he told himself. Not Dulcey, not her…

"Dulcey," he murmured, placing fingers on her chin to make her look at him, encouraged when she didn't flinch at his touch. But his heart clenched at the white face that stared back at him, at the hollow eyes spilling tears that made dirty tracks down her cheeks. She looked so – empty.

"Think you can ride?" Jim gently asked her. "We're heading back – straight to Cimarron."

Dulcey frowned at him for a long moment, the look in her blue eyes dark and uncomprehending. Then her gaze darted back to the shack. "Whitey…" she began. "We can't – he's…" She took a step that way but Jim caught her back. She stumbled again.

"We'll be bringing him along," Jim said reassuringly, ducking a little to redirect her attention back onto him. She blinked, seemed to focus a little. He could tell she was working on something by the way she caught her lower lip between her teeth, how her hand strayed through some long strands of hair. Yet he knew he couldn't rush her, even though he wanted to be far gone from this place. "Now, do you think you can ride?" His black gelding could easily carry them both, and would if she collapsed like he thought she might do, but manhandling her too much too soon could be worse…

He waited, holding her, watching her. She continued to frown, her gaze alternating between him and the shack. He was just about to prompt her again when she took an unsteady breath. Tangled emotion roiled across her pale features. She began to shake hard.

"No," she whimpered, sinking in his grasp. "No, no…"

"Dulcey…" Jim heard the emerging panic in his own voice and swallowed it back, hard and sour. Fear pummeled him – she was going to a place of blackness in her mind…

No – not Dulcey. She was strong. She hadn't run back to Providence, even after all the times when he placed danger outside her door by swinging the jail door shut on some hardened outlaw or wild drunk. Hadn't run after every time she'd seen death, once even in her own dining room. Hadn't run from the dust and dirt and harshness and bitterness of downtrodden settlers, out of work cowboys, bored soldiers. Hadn't run from the ruin of her father's business affairs, or the loss of each busted chair, broken window, smashed crockery. She picked it and herself up, kept going. Because she trusted him…

Trust – and he'd nearly failed her…

"Dulcey," he called, resisting the urge to shake her. Beyond him Francis was approaching, his young face pale with emerging panic.

"Jim! What…?"

Jim cupped her damp cheek, stroked it, found a glimmer in her gaze and locked onto it. "Dulcey – Biscuit…" The pet name slipped out before he could pull it back – she hated it when he called her that, but it always made him chuckle at her pretty irritation-

"My shoes," Dulcey suddenly blurted back at him; her look went back to the shack again. "I need my shoes…"

Too late! clamored the alarm inside him, but he shoved it back before it could work any farther into his brain. Instead he eased her down onto a jumble of rocks and knelt beside her, fumbled under the hem of her skirt…

Slowly he eased a small, stocking-covered foot into his palm and raised it to rest on his knee. The material was ripped and torn, the heel underneath scraped and red.

"Whitey – he took them…" Dulcey was saying breathlessly. "So I couldn't escape…"

Fury blew through him. You bug-eating little bastard – if you weren't already dead…

"I'll need them…" she faltered. "To ride…"

"Let me," Francis offered and hurried around the side of the palomino.

"Try the saddlebags," Jim pointed, then drew up her other foot; it was in similar condition. He tried not to let his hands shake as he ran his hands over her ankles, looking for swelling even as he knew the touch was just short of disrespect. "How's this? Does it hurt any?" He crammed his lips together to keep from rambling even as worry began to re-knot inside him – just what else had that puffed up, squawking little sonofabitch done to her…?

"It's – it's all right," Dulcey murmured to him as he finished his examination and sighed in relief – nothing overly swollen or broken-looking.

Francis re-appeared, one shoe in each hand. They got them on her, their larger fingers fumbling clumsily over the laces until she brushed their hands aside and leaned down to silently finish the job herself. Without waiting for anything else, Jim boosted her across the saddle of the palomino mare and guided her hands to the horn.

"I'll take her and Beau Tinker," he told Francis quietly, drawing up the mare's reins. "Get Whitey and the other one and catch up."

"Marshal," Francis nodded to Dulcey, his blue eyes edged with real fear. "Is she all right?"

"I don't know," Jim tersely replied.

He truly didn't.