He ignored the call, just kept shoveling, thrusting the spade in deep, lifting and turning the soft shale aside. In-out-aside in-out-aside. It had to be done, had to be. He had to do it – for her.
Again – and again, digging harder, shoving aside the throb working past his knee, the tightening calf muscle. Wetness was starting to slide under the bandage, but he did not stop. Would not stop. In-out-aside in-out-aside…
"Jim." Mac's hand came onto his arm.
He shook it off. "I'm not done."
"It's getting dark." Mac, shovel in hand, gestured. "Storm's coming in fast."
He bent to the task again. "Did you ride to Two Eagles' camp?"
"Aye, they've been told to come back here and take what they want."
In-out-aside. He took a step to cover the grab of pain in his leg, adjusted his sweaty grip on the handle. Deeper…again… "Go on back then."
"I'll help you first. Francis can take them back."
It needed to be deep – deep enough so it wouldn't be disturbed. He wanted her to lay peaceably, quietly – undefiled. So young…too young. He'd stayed too long, should've known better than to let himself stray – and it'd killed her. She'd taken a bullet meant for him because she'd cared, because he'd let her care too much.
He thrust the spade in harder, lifted a mound of silt, flung it. "Go on, Mac," he said, his voice rough over the rawness lining his throat. He stumbled, caught himself. "Just go."
Mac's hand came on his arm again, steadied him for a moment. "I'm sorry, Jim."
He nodded, but didn't look up, just kept at it. The wind shifted and rose, cool and damp against his face. The clouds had already scudded in, dimming the daylight. Now the first raindrops slapped him, popped softly as they hit the torn earth.
He couldn't bring her back to Cimarron – wouldn't; she didn't belong there. This was her place. Here in the shale, by the scrub, a girl-child of a broken past with a way of gentleness and loyalty about her. A tiny wisp of a thing holding her own against the desolation. Such a strange, sweet girl, thinking he belonged to her. And why not – he'd lain in her bed while she tended him, gave her attention she'd never experienced. By the time he'd realized how she'd felt about him it'd been too late. The least he could do was see to it that she had a decent resting place. The least – because he could not take back the past.
The rain was falling steadily now, muddying the ground and sucking at his boots. He stumbled again; his bad leg buckled and he went down under the tear of pain, felt the hot run of blood. Angrily he hauled himself back up, using the shovel for support. A downpour broke over him, quickly plastered his shirtsleeves to his arms, worked in under his collar. He clawed at it but it was already sliding icily down his spine, gripping him with shivers. He gave up, let it work through him, accepted the pain and the cold, and the aching, bleeding wound – the punishment was just.
His glance fell onto the badge pinned to his vest, glinting dully in the gloom. The badge – symbol of his responsibility, of the man he was… and now an emblem of this heavy, burning torment. With a sudden snarl he tore at it, pulled it free until it lay cold and hard in his hand, the pin gouging deep into his palm, deeper; he wanted to crush it, obliterate it. Then he savagely tore it from the skin, lifted his arm to fling it—
"Oh, hell," he spilled out to the dirt, the hole he'd dug, to the rain soaking him. "Hell – and damn…dammit…dammit!"
He crammed it into his vest pocket, gripped the handle, shoved the spade back into the wet, clumping dirt, lifted, turned it aside, again…and again. In-out-aside in-out-aside…
"He's back," she heard Francis announce from his watch by the front way. He ducked back as a gust blew the rain over him, slammed the doors against it. "He's heading for the livery."
"Thank goodness," she murmured as her heart throbbed in relief. Francis had told her how it happened, how the girl Heller had put herself between the two men, let the bullet strike her so Jim wouldn't be harmed. How she'd gone, right there in his arms, so shockingly quick. How there'd been no words, nothing. Just…death.
MacGregor thought he might stay out the night – or longer. He's taking it hard, he'd told her. It's churning in him, deep down inside. Struck close to the heart this time…
Yes, she knew how he felt. He tried to make himself too perfect, steel his heart against his feelings, as much to protect himself as those who might care for him. And took it hard on the rare occasions when it worked in under the badge and assaulted the man behind. As the hours had worn on she'd tried to reach out to him through the wind-driven blackness come back come we're here for you… we need you – I need you…
She felt it rise within her again, stronger now that he had returned – the guilt and the remorse, the bitterness that nibbled through to his heart. The weight of the badge pinned onto him. She knew …
"Best not to bother him," MacGregor counseled them as he slid the bolt into place over the doors. "If you've left the coffee hot, Dulcey-lass, I'm sure he'll appreciate taking a cup."
He'd need more than that after all this time in the rain and darkness, cold and soaked with a wound that was barely healed. But he wouldn't abide any coddling. He'd sleep for a few hours and be fine. Except maybe not this time…
He hadn't wanted to let her go, that's why he was so late…she'd seen him in her mind, sitting by that desolate grave where he'd placed her, unable to walk away and yet unwilling to quell his grief. She knew how deeply he held things, oh, yes, she knew, felt it twisting in him even now. Knew his pain had to be endured in solitary silence – that was the only way a man as strong as he could bear it. It ripped at her, knowing how hard it was for him, made her own heart swell in grief for him.
"Coming, lass? Best to leave him along with his brood – he needs the time for it."
"Yes," she nodded; she knew, and still it tore at her. "I'll just check the coffee…" She slipped through the shadowy room and into the warmth of the darkened kitchen, lit a lamp. Hot coffee, yes, and some bread – he so loved a fresh loaf. Some preserves. Minor offerings, but if she left them out he'd know…
She set out a cup and plate, added utensils, her hands working easily while she listened for the sound of his office door. Coffee and bread, a warm bed – he needed these physical comforts, but also needed to know, too, that she cared, they all cared so much for him. That they accepted what his job required of him, would not turn from him when the badge came first, because they knew the man beneath.
A gust rattled the windows, hurled an onslaught of rain against the panes. His door, had she heard it? Where was he? Reluctantly she picked up the lamp to light her way back, began to fret anew – he should be here by now. Maybe she should check —
Something…she sensed a flicker of movement through the rain and the wind, a shadow working by the window—
She whirled, banged the lamp back down onto the tabletop, ran to the alley door, and pulled it open. A sweep of cold, wet blackness assaulted her…and then a dark form appeared, filling the doorway before her.
With a cry she took a soaked sleeve and towed him in, mud-spattered, limping, shivering. He rocked to a stop just inside, instant puddles forming at his feet. More water sluiced over the brim of his hat, peppering her with icy droplets. She pulled the rifle from his frigid hand, propped it safely in the corner, yanked the saddlebags from his shoulder; tore the hat from his head, stripped the sopping coat off him, cast them all aside. Thrust a chair before the stove and worked him into it, opened the firebox door – rosy heat flowed out. He sat stiffly, silent…numb.
Quickly she poured coffee, fitted his trembling fingers around the cup, went to her knees, unbuckled his spurs, drew off his dripping boots, her mind racing with both worry and relief it's all right you're here you're home… He flinched as she bumped his leg; she reached for it.
"You're bleeding," she softly declared to the blood staining her fingers.
He didn't reply. She looked up through the strained silence to him. His face in the stove's flickering light was haggard and lined, jaws above the taut, wet cheeks black with stubble, hair matted tight against his forehead, eyes rimmed red. And his gaze – dark and fathomless in the amber glow of the stove flames.
"Jim…" She touched his sleeve, trying to get through to him, to bring him back from the void into which he'd passed. "Jim…" it's all right now you're home it will be all right we'll take care of you… She took his hand; saw the gouge crossing the palm, the reddening bruise underneath, looked up to him again – her heart suddenly tripped with dread—
His badge was missing.
She reached over, traced the spot where it belonged, felt the tear where it'd been ripped away, knew…
She brought the wounded hand to her lips, kissed it, held it against her cheek, trying to warm it, make him feel what was in her heart for him. Though they kept it ever unspoken between them, it was there nonetheless and he needed it now. Still he did not move, barely breathed. Her arms slipped around him, worked under his vest, settled over the ragged thump of his heart, shielding him from the pain the badge had caused. It kept him from so many things, his badge; denied his heart so many times. She held on, trying to ease the ache she felt working inside him, the ringing heartbeat that would not match her own. If she held on long enough then it would be all right. He was here, he'd come back – to them – to her…She heard the wind rise outside, felt it shake the room as it howled with fury. Rain pelted the windows and rattled the door. She held him, defending him from the lure of its emptiness. Jim, Jim…don't let it take you away – from us – from me… What she did for you wasn't heedless…accept it please…please…don't refuse her in death, or yourself –
He shifted, put the coffee cup onto the table with a soft thud. Then his hand came onto her hair, slid down the strands, stole over her cheek; his touch was exquisitely cool upon her skin. Slowly he pulled her up to face him. "Dulcey…" he murmured. His eyes gave off a tormented glitter as they locked onto her. "Dulcey…"
Something seared the space between them, ignited the surrounding air. She caught her breath, found she could not exhale, or tear herself away from his penetrating stare —
He gripped her suddenly, hands curling tight about her shoulders, drawing her to him; her own had already worked past his damp collar and into the dark hair curling at the back of his neck, those inky strands, so unexpectedly soft under her touch…
His lips hard came onto hers, roamed hot and needy. She tasted his pain and his demands, asking her if the badge was still worth his effort, if he could ever expose his heart to gentleness without weakness following behind. If he could give to her what he held in so deep… Yes! she cried silently, yielding to him. Yes, you can, Jim. She showed you how…Trust yourself – trust me…
He broke off, made a sound, loosened his grip, averted his gaze. She went back down onto her knees, breathing back the blood-beat in her ears, realized there was no more wind, no more drumbeat of rain, just soft, quiet heat stealing over them, wrapping them together. She knew his mind was working, considering and debating what had happened today – and just now. And she knew could do no more, just hope that she'd given him what he'd sought…
She drew away from him and slowly straightened, retrieved his discarded coat and draped it over the back of a chair, placed his hat onto the tabletop. His coffee was cold and untouched. She poured it out, refilled the cup and edged it over to him, picked up the knife and sliced the bread, placed it on the plate—
He captured her hand, stilling her. His heavy brows drew together in a frown. "It can be dangerous," he began, "being around a lawman all the time." He slowly raised his head, looked at her, his eyes dark again.
"I know," she answered quietly, truthfully, waiting for the rest.
He reached into his vest pocket – she saw the badge appear in his grasp. Yes, you are a lawman, Jim. But not only that. Don't let it be a barrier – don't let it keep you from what you need…
He made a sound of frustration as the metal caught the flames and flashed. "It can get you hurt, or-"
"I'll take my chances," she told him squarely. She reached over, took the badge from him, gave him a moment to refuse. When he didn't, she pinned it back onto his vest, patted it into place.
He looked down at it. "You sure?"
She nodded. "I'm sure."
"Folks around here…well, they might talk…"
They already have. Living and working under one roof had fueled the gossip for months now. "Let them," she declared. "I've nothing to hide from."
He took her other hand. His gaze searched through her – she knew he was thinking of Heller, back in that grave that he'd dug. "Am I worth it?" he asked her.
"Oh, yes," she nodded again, blinking back the emotion threatening to spill out of her. Yes, yes…never question it, never doubt… "You are most definitely worth it, Jim Crown."