BEGINNINGS

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

I.

I'm coming for you, Crown. I'm coming to kill you. You'll get it slow and hard, like you deserve. I'll shoot one arm, then a leg…stake you, stomp you. Beat at your bare feet, burn you, rip you open…

"G'day, Marshal."

"Mister Reeves…" Feed and grain owner…

"Good day, Marshal!"

"Ma'am." The doctor's wife…

"A fine day, Marshal!"

"A fine day, Mrs. Greene," U.S. Marshal Jim Crown agreed, touching the brim of his black hat in greeting even as he continued his stride down the busy boardwalk. Dressmaker, he reminded himself, widow – extra check on her store at night…

"Pay for it, or put it back," he advised, slowing to address three boys filling their pockets from the display of produce in front of the General Store. He waited, hands on hips, while the reluctant lads returned the items and Mason store owner came on with his broom. The trio quickly scattered and Crown waved and moved on.

"Will you be coming to the fire safety committee meeting tonight, Marshal?" asked Jack Kilgallen Cherokee Saloon owner.

"I'll be there," Crown assured him.

It would've been easier to ride his horse down to the depot, but he had to be both real and visible to these folks. They had to know that he was the law and was here to enforce it; would enforce it by the best method possible, gunshot or fist or anything in between. The Strip, the railroad and the five towns under his jurisdiction would not be plundered, burned, or made a haven for outlaws. Neither would the Cherokee Outlet be allowed settlement – that was his responsibility, too. Cimarron City, his current headquarters, had good potential for a future. It might not be ever fully tamed, but he'd do his best with it while he was here. That's what these people needed to understand. And so, just a few weeks into his re-assignment from Abilene to Indian Territory, he was walking, meeting, greeting, listening, and doing-

"Marshal, about the settlement…"

"My office at one o'clock, Mr. Kersey," Crown confirmed. "Bring Mr. Wheelwright with you. I should be all moved in by then."

Miss Dulcey Coopersmith, the new – and young – landlady of the Wayfarer's Inn, flew by in a stream of blue stripes and blonde hair. "Who's watching the stove?" Crown called after her hurrying form.

"Just bringing something to Mr. Hanscomb!" she called back in that arresting English accent of hers. Seth Hanscomb, livery owner, was currently laid up with a set of broken toes from a stray hoof.

"Those Davis boys busted my window again!" declared Ezra Jacobs mercantile.

Crown nodded but kept going. "I know."

The middle-aged Jacobs settled his considerable girth before Crown. "Well, what're you going to do about it?"

Crown pulled up to avoid bouncing off the man and jerked a thumb behind him. His new – and young – deputy Francis Wilde was herding the two misbegotten lawbreakers toward the freshly built jail now located with the walls of the Wayfarer's Inn. "Come on over and swear out a complaint anytime, Mr. Jacobs."

The portly Jacobs stared for a moment, and then grunted in accord. Crown gave him a little smile, stepped around, and started walking again.

He knew how to work a town and establish relationships with key leaders, had made Abilene successfully calm that way, and El Paso before that. The folks here in Cimarron weren't yet all that friendly, and the simmering tension between farmers and ranchers made them barely tolerable of each other. But he'd treat them the same, whether they rode a horse or walked behind it. There was Hardy the rancher and Kersey of the settlement, both needed to help keep the Strip calm. Doc Kihlgren had already offered to treat him when needed. He'd met Blynn the undertaker furniture and funerals to take the inevitable bodies off his hands. There was Hayward the banker, owner of the most lucrative – and infamously attractive – business in town. Seth was the livery owner to keep his horse at the ready, and Aaron was the blacksmith to keep the big gelding foot-healthy. Harvey down at the freight office would keep him apprised of all expected federal deliveries and doings. And Major Covington of Fort Supply – well, there was one to work on.

Folks didn't have to like him, just respect what he stood for. He had a rather hard nose for obedience in certain matters, though he could be lenient in others. And where there was no law he would make one – or several. It was all about balance, and reason…

Balance, Crown thought, moving to the edge of the walk, still tipping his hat and offering a smile, a handshake, a word of greeting. He wasn't going to jail a bunch of cowboys for getting too loud or breaking a glass, maybe even a chair. Or for throwing the first punch – unless it got handed back and started stirring things up. As for those Davis boys, they'd been warned not to bust Jacobs' window again. A night or two in jail might cure them of any further temptation. That, a nice little fine, and a few lost wages to pay for the window.

He didn't otherwise charge for licenses, didn't require any "extra" fees for gaming tables. Did not accept bribes of any kind from anyone. It was just easier that way. He wore the badge, had earned the right to wear it in many ways, and would defend it until it came off, voluntarily or not. More than his share of bullets, arrows and scars had been sent his way for it, but it had also honed his cautiousness, his observational skills, his experience and his patience. It got him to age thirty-five with nary a gray hair on his dark head, or extra pounds on his tall frame. Made him good with a gun and unafraid to use it. Or his fists, if there was a need.

Crown took an easy breath as he stepped off the walk. The reconstituted sanitation committee was working well, clearing the streets twice a day, raking and watering as necessary, and filing the troughs. The fire safety committee was regularly replenishing the fire barrels, and had established a schedule for drills. Shopkeepers had been encouraged to keep their front walks swept and their back alleys clear. Delivery traffic was held to a walk under a newly developed ordinance he'd posted on his second day, to which the girl Dulcey had approved with a grateful smile. Her father had been run down by a racing beer wagon only a few weeks before she'd arrived in Cimarron, and another young lad had been hurt by a freighter before Crown's head hit the pillow that first night on duty.

Nighttime security watches had been established with he and his two deputies, Wilde and the other owner of the Inn, Angus MacGregor, rotated between the three of them. Not that young Wilde or the boisterous MacGregor appreciated it but neither had argued, especially since Crown had not quashed young Wilde's licentious writing and photographs about the "legendary Doc Crown," nor sought to pursue the Scotsman's still mysterious jail sentence. Stealing, yes, but for what Crown wasn't quite sure. But he wasn't going to waste time on it. MacGregor was able enough with a gun, strong enough with a fist, and vociferous enough when those two didn't work. As for Francis, the boy had taken better to a Winchester than a sidearm, which suited Crown fine for now. Having a green kid with an unstable gun hand as a deputy had its advantages.

Crown crossed Main Street with a comfortable stride. It was moving day. His new jail had been completed last week, his office three days ago. He'd have moved in right then but for a trip to Shades Wells and then Beaver City to meet with the new sheriffs there on various matters. He'd needed the jail rebuilt and quickly, for MacGregor's whiskey-making still had all but destroyed the support structure of the existing sheriff's office shortly after his arrival. In return, Crown had requisitioned the wine cellar at the Wayfarer's Inn for a lockup. It was Dulcey who'd suggested knocking out a wall at the Inn to enlarge the surrounding space for his office. The job was made all the easier when MacGregor caused yet another blast from his unstable still, a smaller one this time, but one that had Crown forever banning the contraption from the town proper.

The new working arrangement was…unique, to say the least. The jail occupied a lower corner of the Inn, with the cells wrapping around one edge. His office ran along behind, but there was an inner door allowing him access to the Inn's main dining room and the stairway to the rooms above. The door was of the Dutch style where he could open the top half or close the whole thing. Gibson carpenter had been right happy to design something new. He also had a back door that allowed him access to the side street, and that let him jail prisoners easily. And with a room rented right upstairs he never had to leave the building if he didn't want to. Made it right easy to find a meal when he wanted, and Dulcey didn't seem to mind his wandering into the kitchen for a cup of coffee throughout the day – or evening.

Nice girl, Miss Dulcey Coopersmith, he thought to himself as he worked his way around the street traffic, completely sincere and hard-working – and naïve. How long she might stay before fleeing Cimarron was anyone's guess. Crown supposed it might only take one smashed up Saturday night inside the Wayfarer's – or a bloody shootout just beyond her door. He'd warned her how it was out here, in as plain words as he could find without being offensive. Cimarron wasn't quite tame enough for the likes of her, not yet. But he had to give her credit for her determination, even at the tender age of eighteen. She'd quickly converted the Wayfarer's from a saloon and boarding house to a restaurant and hostelry, ridding the place of any traces of indecency and replacing them with the more respectable tablecloths and flower vases. First to disappear, over MacGregor's protest, was the womanly painting erected over the bar – Crown wasn't quite sure where it'd ended up. And those upholstered sitting monstrosities had disappeared as well, but Francis reported seeing some of them over at Pony Jane's Saloon, where Crown figured they fit in nicely with the girls employed there.

Yes, Miss Dulcey had easily won over her new partner MacGregor, who treated her like a long lost niece. And Francis, when he wasn't nosing around for a story to write, kept her good company. Though the young reporter didn't seem to have much of an eye for her otherwise. That was too bad – she was easy enough on the eyes, and with her domestic talents she'd make a fine wife. She had a pretty smile that Crown found turned onto him a lot, maybe a little more than it should – or that he should allow. In spite of her youth she was a good listener, and her English lilt was nice on his ears. She made some wonderful meals, and if he wasn't riding so much he'd surely put on some weight with all that came from her kitchen.

And Dulcey was pretty…

The Inn was shaping up, Crown had to admit; he just wasn't sure how long it would stay so clean and fresh. Though he'd managed to settle Abilene, it had taken time, and a lot of heads – and chairs and windows – had been broken in the process. Faith, too. Some folks just didn't have the heart or the grit to see it through. And with settlers stacking up along the river waiting for the Outlet to open, cowboys unable to keep jobs against the canceled government leases, and the Army boys bored and hungry for action, Cimarron was a target for a lot of unrest. Not to mention the endless miles of the Outlet itself, ripe for hiding outlaws, rustlers, card cheats or any other sort of lawbreaker. When they got hungry or thirsty they'd rob off those who had provisions, make up their own dangerous brand of fun. Some knew Crown and his reputation – others didn't, and didn't care. Those were the ones he was sworn to bring in or bring down. The innocent ones were also under his protection, those like Miss Coopersmith. And with him jailing danger right inside her business space, and paying her rent on a room for his often bone-weary body, he felt a responsibility to watch over her more than most.

And she was pretty…

There was a freight wagon parked in front of the boarded up building that'd previously housed the sheriff's office. Crown had set MacGregor to work loading the remaining salvageable items from the former jail as a sort of penitence for blowing it apart. Luckily, most of the important furniture hadn't been harmed. The desk was scarred but intact, the filing cabinets off kilter but repairable. The gun rack had slipped to the floor, but was relatively unscathed. There was the matter of a new flag, however, since the blast had rendered a hole clean through the center of the fabled stripes. And a new chair for himself, one more to his liking, due in today from Kansas City.

The cots and blankets – those not shredded by the blast – had already been brought over to the cells. There'd been a few other items the former sheriff had left behind – a nice set of mounted horns that made Crown smile in remembrance of his trail days, an antlered hat rack, a map of the States. Dulcey had also offered some items from the converted dining room. Crown had chosen a few leather covered items – a long bench, a chaise, and an easy chair that comfortably fit his frame; an extra table or two for the alcove-

"Jim!"

A picture of President Lincoln bobbled out from the building doorway onto the walk, MacGregor's legs held below.

"What about this?" came Mac's voice from around the framed portrait, as if Abe himself was speaking with a Scottish burr.

"Well, what about it?" Jim asked, seeking a fresh cigar from his inner vest pocket. He dug up a match, scraped it to life on a wagon wheel, lit up and puffed contentedly. Yes, real nice day – nice – calm – day…

"Do you want it, man? It came off the wall in there."

"In more ways than one," Crown declared back with a little laugh as the man some years his senior lowered the frame to peer at him.

"You're a right funny man when you want to be, Jim Crown," MacGregor allowed with a flash of his light blue eyes, "even if you're laughing at my expense."

"You blew up the building, not me," Crown replied.

"And I'll thank you for not reminding me at every turn," Mac retorted a little peevishly. "Am I not moving your things for you? And keeping both eyes open over the night while you sleep sound in your bed?"

"Just raising your reputation in this town," Crown responded with a smile, flicking ash.

"And I suppose you'll next be telling me that toiling in the sun will make an honest man of me."

"Better than me finding out the real reason for you being jailed in the first place."

Mac could not quite cover his flinch. But he straightened quickly. "If we never speak of that again I'll be grateful."

Crown pointed to the wagon. "I need this done in an hour."

"And so it shall be, just to keep your good temper up," Mac promised with a smile. "Now, what do I do with this?" He hefted the frame again. "Stay or go?"

Crown considered. There'd been a few Presidents painted since Lincoln. Grover Cleveland had personally awarded him this appointment, Chester Arthur before that. He supposed he'd have to put an updated picture on his list of things to order, when he had the time – and money…For now, there was Lincoln. Well, if Old Abe had survived that blast, Crown supposed he could honor the man.

"I'll take it."

Mac promptly added it to the wagon, fitting into a narrow space at the side. "Oh, before I forget. Your witness will be arriving in time for the trial – Doctor Kihlgren said he could travel any time now. I spoke to the lad. The sheriff will escort him to the train."

Crown nodded, filing the information away. He'd need to secure the man a room, keep him safe in case the robber Conroy had any friends sneaking about town. The witness – he seemed like a fine young man, though something about him kept niggling Crown's brain, a feeling of familiarity that he couldn't quite grasp. He didn't know the man's name, certainly didn't know the face. But there was something-

Something caught the edge of his vision. He turned, hand sliding quickly and out of habit to the .44 strapped securely to his hip.

There she was, Miss Dulcey Coopersmith, returning from her errand, loose blonde hair trailing past her shoulders and crisp, blue striped dress adorning her slender frame. She looked like a freshly bloomed flower after a good prairie rain. Sweet and pretty, genuine – and innocent. As was his new custom whenever she was within sight, Crown scanned the area about her, looking for deviants that might be following, or gawkers leering a little too openly. She easily attracted them. If she'd only glance back now, she'd see that Jacobs the mercantile owner had stopped sweeping to watch her pass, three cowboys had repeatedly tipped their hats at her, and the newly arrived gambler had stood up from his lounge in front of the hotel to catch a look. Even Seth from had hopped up to the stable doorway to watch. Crown supposed he could forgive at least Seth; Dulcey had just been there.

He'd told her to be aware when she went out and screech like a horned devil if she was accosted but, as had been the case with her, she didn't seem to believe she could gain any sort of attention. Even as he watched her step up into the Inn, skirts sashaying, two of the three watching cowboys began to follow.

"Be right back," he told Mac, stepping away.

"Trouble?" called the Scot.

Crown eased off the loop securing his .44 to the holster. "Not yet." Just a word or two should do it – once they saw the badge they usually backed down. But he'd learned long ago not to trust the mere looks of a man.

He was right in the middle of the street when the first gunshot sprayed dirt across his boot

tips. The second wasn't far behind.

"Crown!" came the accompanying holler. "I'm going to kill you!"