XV.

A timid tapping came at his door.

"Come," Crown commanded, knowing exactly who it was and rushing to finish the sentence on the report he was working on, one of a stack already days late. There'd been no shortage of situations in the past week, from farmer squabbles to excited ranch hands to merchant complaints, not to mention the increasing reluctance of the Army to patrol the Outlet. Next week was reserved for talks – a lot of them – with Major Covington, Captain Bragg and the Army District Office; even Washington was going to hear from United States Marshal Jim Crown of Cimarron on this issue.

The door opened slowly, and Dulcey's blonde head came into his side vision.

"What is it?" he asked, still writing, holding back his chafe at the interruption. He'd spent a rare quiet afternoon working on these reports so that he could put them all into the eastbound mail pouch. He'd told MacGregor, Francis and Dulcey that short of the Wayfarer's burning down around them that he wasn't to be disturbed. Not that he fully expected to be obeyed – Cimarron was not short on excitement at any given hour of the day. But the afternoon had passed uneventfully, at least to his knowledge.

"Your supper is ready," Dulcey said to him, pushing the door wider. "If – if you're done…"

He peered out to the clock high on the far wall of the dining room, and the hands on the face marching toward six o'clock. "Looks like it's long past ready," he commented smartly.

Dulcey's face crumpled into apology. "I didn't want to bother you – your door was closed…"

His own words bit back into him – when had he told her that, a week ago? Two? "Maybe you can let me know when supper first hits the table," he suggested with a little smile. "That'd be worth the interruption."

"All right," she nodded.

He re-read his last sentence, added a few more words and then put his pencil down. She was still standing there, watching him. Which meant that something was going on inside that female mind of hers – which meant it probably involved him. "Something you need, Dulcey?"

"Well, Jim…" It still came out awkwardly over her tongue, though he liked it better than her calling him Marshal – or Mister Crown, which had been her new response when he irritated her.

Her hesitation made him turn the chair toward her. She brushed back a strand of hair, and he noticed the thin gold ring circling her little finger. It was the only jewelry he'd seen her wear. She'd look pretty with her hair all up and some shiny, dangling earrings in her ears, maybe a locket at her throat…and something fancier to wear than serviceable cotton. Then he quashed those thoughts – he didn't want to think of her as one of Pony Jane's girls. Not Dulcey. There was more substance to her than that. She should be something better than a servant. There were plenty of rancher's sons about; maybe she would catch an eye of one of them, as Mac had suggested. But that thought gave him a little jab.

"I'd like to go to the cemetery tomorrow," Dulcey began. "Mr. Gibson said the marker was ready. I – might you…? I asked Francis but he is busy and MacGregor…"

He stood and stepped over to her, glad that she'd remembered. "I'd be happy to take you." He lifted a finger to her cheek and the scrape fading there. It still put a knot in his gut whenever he saw it. "Hurt?" he asked, lightly touching it

She shook her head and glanced at his own scabbed bruise. "No, not really. Yours?"

"No," he returned. Except when he tried to shave. Or roll over in his bed.

She was still thinking on something – he knew it by the way she was biting her lip, and how her hand kept working at some strands of blonde hair. He waited quietly, gave her time to get it out. "I'm sorry," she said suddenly. "For not heeding your warnings to me." She quickly sat in the fat leather chair, looked lost in it. "I – I –it won't happen again. I'll be careful – I promise…"

And I'll be more watchful, he silently decided. She was young, and though earnest, she'd make mistakes. And he'd get upset with her – it seemed that their emerging friendship was going to have an element of argument to it. Well, that was all right. If it meant hurting her feelings to keep her safe, then so be it. He'd rather spare her the physical harm. And with her sunny nature he hoped he would be able to quickly insert himself back into her good graces when that did happen.

"You need to learn how to shoot a gun," he said to her now.

"Oh, no," Dulcey protested, straightening. "I really couldn't…"

"Yes."

"No, Jim," she shook her head, blue eyes full of dismay. "I – no…"

"Dulcey, you have to be able to protect yourself. Especially if you're going to head off alone."

"I won't. I'll stay here." She rose and edged toward the door.

Crown reached for her hand, settled his gaze onto her. "I can't always be here…"

"I know."

"You need to be able to protect yourself." Flowers and lace, he kept thinking. She is really all that – and goodness the likes of which I haven't seen…

She was shaking her head again. "I – I – no…"

"Shooting lessons," he told her.

"Ho, now, Marshal." Dulcey fumbled for the door latch. "That's just not necessary."

"It is," he corrected.

Her arms went akimbo, and irritation pinked up her cheeks. "How can you stand there and make decisions for me?"

Because you're too young, too trusting, too innocent – too pretty…

Because I want to help…

Crown gestured. "You've got an investment to protect," he pointed out. "If ever there's a fracas you could use some persuasion to stop it." And if anyone ever got into your room… He inclined his head toward the dining room. "Got a shotgun under the bar now. You should know how to use it."

She stood still, emotion making her stiff. But then she bent a little. "I'll consider it. "

He smiled broadly, glad that the conversation hadn't ended in an argument – at least this time. "Good. Oh, here." He reached back, scooped up the flower vase perched on his desk – again – and handed it over to her. She took it, a little piqued, but then something alit in her gaze and she gave him a little uppity smile. Crown held in his sigh. There was no lock to his connecting door – yet. He knew she'd be in here to sweep his floor and return that vase – she didn't seem too deterred by closed doors. But he let it go for now.

He walked with her back out to the empty dining room, scanned the area as always. The bar was filling up but the drinkers were all being friendly. Febrizio smiled and nodded at him. Francis hurried past, camera leveled on one shoulder.

"Where's the fire?" Crown called to him.

"Skipper Jones challenged Octavius Dinapoli to a bicycle race around the town," Francis said over his shoulder. "It's the first time the old captain's ever ridden on two wheels!" he rushed in a finish.

Crown shook his head. "Probably the last time, too," he said. "Be back for first watch!"

"I will!" Francis promised and disappeared.

"Evening, Marshal."

"Marshal…"

"Good evening, Marshal."

Crown nodded, slapped few backs as he passed by on his way to the front doors. He stepped out onto the board walk and surveyed the street in the incoming twilight, appreciated the quiet view. The street had been freshly raked clean and the traffic was thinning. Inviting yellow light glowed from the windows of the bars and gaming halls up and down the roadway, and a light breeze carried the sounds of music and happy chatter. The fire barrels were full, the water within shimmering with the last ebbing sunlight. Crown tilted his head up to the sky softening from blue to purple, noted a few early stars. The heat of the day was ebbing, the air was cooling. He rubbed at the stubble lining his jaw, and then dug for a cigar. Be a nice night for a bath, he thought, lighting up. Though he'd be sure to put a chair under the knob this time. A man deserved no less than complete privacy when stepping out of his drawers and into a tub.

He heard a step behind him and cast a quick glance back. "Almost serene," came MacGregor's distinct burr. He handed Crown a glass of whiskey. "From my own private batch. Tell me what you think – and be completely honest."

Crown nodded his thanks; they clinked and drank. Crown savored the taste that ran across his tongue, the burning glow as it traveled down his throat to belly, and let out a sigh of satisfaction that made the Scotsman laugh heartily.

"There's talk of putting on a dance social," Mac said. "To raise funds for the library."

Crown took another sip. "That'd be fine."

"Are you a dancing man, Jim Crown?"

"I can be persuaded – upon occasion," he replied with a grin.

"Aye, especially is a pretty young lass does the persuading, I'll wager."

Crown smiled into his glass. "That does help."

From down the street there came a collective whoop. Crown peered through the dusk to a crowd forming around the two bicycle riders. Dinapoli was an expert rider and twenty years younger than the former sea captain. Skipper Jones had to have been a quart shy of sober to make that bet. Though if he fell off the monstrous two-wheeled contraption, which was almost a solid bet, he probably wouldn't even hurt himself.

Crown let his gaze drift back. Cimarron was his town – and the land beyond. It was wild and raw, bloody and dirty – and hopeful. A new beginning. It wasn't going to be easy trying to tame it. One man could only do so much. He shifted, felt the weight borne by the badge pinned to his vest. It was a burden unlike any others, but one that he accepted. He wore it for the future of towns like Cimarron, for the people within, for the natives and the foreigners, too. All of them. He did not regret putting it on and taking up on the right side of the law. It wasn't ever going to provide wealth, or even an abundance of physical comforts, but it was long on personal satisfaction.

Sometimes it gave him friends, like a photo-hungry reporter, and a garrulous Scotsman…

And a pretty young landlady with an affinity for lace and flowers. Right now, that was all he needed.

Oh, and maybe that bath, too…

END