"You're a dead man, you hear me? A dead man, Marshal!"
"Can't help but hear," Francis Wilde morosely commented to his boss, U. S. Marshal Jim Crown. "She sure is a noisy thing."
"Dead, Lawman," shrilled the girl, wriggling furiously in the saddle to which she had been tied. "How'd you like that? Del's gonna come for me. He's going to kill you for taking me." She made an angry sound, whipped her head back and forth to free her face of the dark, snarly strands of hair. "I'm carrying Del Larson's child, Lawman. He's gonna come for me and kill you – he'll burn your eyeballs, rip out your guts, he'll…"
"He's going to have to get here first to make good on any of those threats," Crown tossed back over his shoulder to the woman. Hell, she was a mere girl. Perhaps twenty, not much more. And completely full with child, so big that he'd been afraid of handling her too roughly – until she clubbed him hard behind one ear and he'd dropped fast onto his backside along the muddy, soak-churned grass. Smarting at both ends, he'd still managed to snag one skinny wrist and wrestle her down. From there he'd had to battle tiny fists and sharp nails and bruises to his shins as he waited for Francis to get over his gape and bring on some manacles. Then he'd cast her astride the mare and lashed her securely; now he wished he'd added a gag. But he did have some morals, even if she was stretching the limits of the meaning of woman. She was wanted, along with her man Del Larson for bank robbery. That gave him the right to bring her in and keep her from escaping – and himself safe in the process – by whatever means necessary. And bringing her in might just lure that bank robber Larson right into his arms.
Crown shrugged himself, trying to ease the cling of his damp and muddied shirt. The chase into the Outlet had been dry, but they'd encountered a fierce rainstorm coming out of the mountains that had dogged them for two full days. The result was wet feet, wet clothing, slow travel and growing frustration. The mildness of the spring day had barely been felt until an hour before, when the sun had finally broken through the scudding clouds. As he dried so also did the grit he wore and it itched, especially in places he didn't want to acknowledge. Days without shaving or washing made him feel worse. He shifted painfully in the dampened saddle; his hip was going to have a bruise, along with the fleshy area right behind it, too. A bath – that was the first order of business when he got back.
"He'll get here," the girl screeched again. "He's probably watching right now, probably has his sights trained right on you, ready to send a bullet right through that bony head of yourn."
Well, his bony head was already rightly hurting, along with his ears from all her spouting. Never would the buildings of Cimarron be so welcome. All he wanted was to put her into a cell, send for the doc, and then collapse into a warm tub. And soak for hours. Even a fresh meal and one of his favored cigars could wait. He wanted a bath – badly.
"I'm surprised you aren't going to ask her for her story," Crown teasingly chided Francis, easing his black gelding around a washout in the roadway. The horse pulled at the bit, detecting the scent of home on the wind that now blew in their faces. "Outlaw's woman on the run and with a baby on the way…"
"I did ask her," replied the part-time deputy and reporter. "But I can't print what she told me."
"She doesn't have much by way of manners," Crown agreed with the best chuckle he could muster, and it was more of a grimace at that.
"There," Francis pointed. "Cimarron – home at last."
The town buildings rose up sturdy and solid from the plain before them, the merchant businesses, the saloons and gaming halls. Crown could make out the depot and train station, the feed and grain store, Lauk's empty land building – though news out of Congress might change that, especially with the recent land run down in No Man's Land.
Home – that's what Cimarron felt like now, the raw progress ebbing into livelihoods and futures and respectability. There was the stately yellow hotel with its fresh white trim – and the Wayfarer's Inn, cozy and inviting. Even his horse whickered in recognition and tugged again on the bit, ready for the comfort of a clean stall and regular feed.
Leftover rain puddles were quivering in the street, first dark and then shiny bright as the afternoon sun worked through the sailing clouds. Aside from the usual assortment of horses, foot traffic and other vehicles, it looked quiet. MacGregor had been left in charge to keep the peace and to nurse his wounded arm, the result of last week's shootout between here and Hardesty by a band of out of work cowboys taking their boredom out on some farmers. Crown hoped there'd be little more for the circuit judge when he arrived in two weeks, aside from this devilish female prisoner. Quiet would be real nice. He'd get a bath, in his own room. Whatever was on his desk would wait. Lord, yes, a bath. Cimarron City's woes would wait for Jim Crown's meager indulgence. Though he owed Charley Ives a week of fishing days. And he owed Dulcey, too…
Dulcey Coopersmith – his landlady, meal-maker and washer-woman; his reminder that youth could be fresh and young and enthusiastic. And that a flower could bloom even under the roughest conditions. With Dulcey around he was prompted to mind his manners, like wiping his boots before coming into her dining room, and not smoking his cigars in her presence. And it led his heart to other feelings, some long-rusty, others new and a little frightening – about her. Dulcey…
Somewhere in the swampy parts of his thickened, weary brain there trawled a fragment of thought – something he'd told himself to remember about Dulcey, an important something…
"Lawman, I ain't going in your jail! You hear me? Don't you lay another hand on me…"
The screech bit into the last vestiges of his patience that begged to be converted into impatience. Crown swung stiffly down, cursed under his breath at the pain that chattered up his leg and into his bad hip. He was thoroughly sick of his dirty wet clothes, the scruff on his face, the coffee he'd made that even he had to admit was beginning to taste too strong. He was tired of riding and of this noisy woman. He wanted a bath.
He stripped the handcuffs off the girl, tried to tamp his feelings down and work up some sympathy for her obvious condition. But then her foot came toward his head and he barely had enough time to jerk out of the way. He pulled her none too lightly from the saddle, his hands sweaty with the anger heating the length of him; strong-armed her through his office door where Francis, knowing that the stone-faced look he wore meant a minute away from complete rage, took over.
His side vision caught a blur of blonde hair by the connecting door – Dulcey…
He gratefully accepted the cup of coffee she held out to him. How did she know that he so desperately needed it? He got one hot swallow down but didn't even get to enjoy the taste, for the girl prisoner had splayed her grip on the doorway and held fast.
"I'm not gonna move – you can't make me," she said smugly to Francis, who was hard-pressed to know exactly where to put his hands on her, and surely loathe to pull a gun on her.
"Well, I can," Crown announced, now having none such misgivings. He banged the cup down on his desk, causing it to slosh over. Dulcey quickly made a grab for it and avoid ruining the papers she'd stacked on his desktop. "You're going in a cell and you're gonna stay there." In one stride he'd plucked the cell keys off the wall peg and reached her side. He firmly peeled one set of fingers off the doorway, clamped a hand around a slender elbow and nudged her hip with his knee.
"Jim!" he heard Dulcey's horrified gasp behind him. "Don't – she's…"
"Don't tell me don't!" he snarled, restrained fury finally spilling over. "You haven't been in her lousy company for two whole days!"
Francis grasped her wrist and together they wrestled her down the short corridor and into a cell, pulled their heads back just in time to avoid being raked by her dirty nails. She heaped a surprising collection of epithets onto them, then raised a foot to stomp. Crown got his shin up and nudged hard. She tripped, but their grips kept her from falling.
"Let go!" Crown commanded to his deputy and they released her. He swiftly slammed the door on her, this swollen angry gamine, this hell-fired she cat on two small feet. "Find the doc for her," he ordered Francis with a strong measure of satisfaction – or was it relief? – and locked the door. "And put up some blankets or sheets to give her some privacy." He glanced about with dismay – the other cells were half-full with three soldiers in one, and a nervous looking man in another. All of them stared, open-mouthed. "Give me a report," he barked to his approaching Chief Deputy Angus MacGregor, "straight and quick."
"Drunkenness and card cheating," the older Scotsman told him in a pleasant burr, indicating first the soldiers and then the single man. He adjusted the sling encasing his arm, smiled a little knowingly. "The details are on your desk. It hasn't been exactly quiet while you've been out on your man hunt – or would that be a woman hunt, Jim Crown?"
Crown nodded to the cell holding the girl. "I expect the man half to come along presently," he stated, handing the keys over and limping back into his office.
A gleam came into Mac's light blue gaze as he followed. "Ah, the lure," he guessed with delight. "So you've a plan, have you?"
"You can't leave me in here!" the girl howled. "You let me out. You tell them to stop staring at me. You tell them…"
"The Inn is closed until further notice," Crown told Dulcey, snatching the cup from her hand. He rammed another swallow down his throat but it didn't help quell any of the heat thrumming through him. This was not the place for the public while a woman was having a child. And she was going to stay in that cell, baby on the way or not. Even Dulcey's emerging glare of dismay Again, Jim? wasn't going to change his mind.
"Very well, Marshal Crown," Dulcey clipped in that too familiar rigid tone of unhappiness and disagreement that made her accent all the more pronounced. "Now, you should know…"
"Dulcey." Crown painfully straightened to his full height to address her. "I've got me a backside of wounded pride. I could use a little understanding just now…And a little less yammering – if you please," he added, seeing a more offended look cross her face. He limped over to the alcove, poured water into the basin, soaked one end of a towel and pressed it against the still-throbbing space behind his right ear.
"What happened?" Dulcey gasped upon seeing the blood appear on the cloth, her pique instantly fading. "Here, let me…"
"It's all right – I've been hit harder," he said, brushing her hands aside, for he did appreciate her concern; it was just that he wasn't feeling particularly friendly at the moment. And wouldn't until he was clean. What he wanted was a bath above anything else. He reached for the container holding his cigars – empty. And there was no package on his desk. "Didn't the train come in?" he growled out.
"Some sort of trouble up the line," Mac told him.
No cigars – dammit. Crown limped to his double door. "Now, is there anything that absolutely needs my attention at this minute?" he announced to the two of them. "Because if there isn't, then I'm gonna get me a bath and – what?" he asked impatiently, seeking Dulcey's pretty little mouth work to form words over his own. It niggled at him again – something that he was supposed to remember about Dulcey…
"The Senator…" she started.
"What about him?" Senator Preston Plumb of Kansas, sponsor of his appointment to Cimarron and a good friend. He was due to make a visit – Crown did remember that much. Was it today? Though Plumb might be a senator he was also a friend; he'd no doubt gladly cool his heels with a good glass or two of whiskey, then take a clean bed and talk about all the Congress doings in the morning. Congress had opened the Unassigned Lands and now they were eyeing the Outlet – it wasn't small talk but heady discussion. Crown wanted to send him back with a good report to both the Secretary of Interior and the President.
Dulcey drew a telegram from her apron pocket and thrust it at him with apology in her eyes. "He won't be here at four o'clock."
"Well, that's just fine by me." Crown took the paper from her. "Gives me plenty of time—"
"He'll be here at two," Dulcey interrupted quickly.
"What?" Crown swung a look to the clock out on the dining room wall. Less than an hour. "What in tarnation!" he thundered to the telegram. Barely enough time, but if he filled only half the tub…he handed her the cooling coffee cup and got moving.
"Where are you going?" she demanded. "Have you even eaten…?"
"No time." He kept going, placed his boots onto the stairs. "I'm taking a bath-"
"A bath – no!" she cried with such panic that he paused, one foot hovering above the riser. "Jim, wait…please…" She raced across the floor toward him.
"Dulcey, I only have time for a half a bath but I'm going to take it." He took another step, stripped off his vest. "And I'll ask you not to interrupt me, all right? Get some blankets for Francis to hang. And get the girl cleaned up." He worked at his gun belt, one hand plucking loose the thong holding the holster to his thigh, the other tugging the strap out of the loop at his waist.
"Dulcey, do as I say," he directed, reaching the top landing. "And feed the Senator when he gets in – that'll give me a little more time."
"Jim!" There was an open plead in her voice – what had her so riled? "Jim, I need – there's…your tub…"
Yes, his tub, ordered all the way from Kansas City and crowded into one corner of his room. He still had to lug water from the Inn's bathing room but it was worth the privacy; he'd had too many other untimely and nearly uncompromising interruptions when using the more public one. And Jim Crown liked a peaceable time in the bath – they all knew it.
"It can wait," Crown insisted, trying to keep total admonishment out of his voice, breathing better now that he was far away from that girl downstairs and closer to satisfying the desire that'd been taunting him for two days. A bath – a tub full of warm, clean water, a thick cake of soap, a fresh towel and his razor at hand…
"Jim…There's – if you let me – I left…"
He couldn't wait– it was beckoning him like a lover. Crown left Dulcey's voice in the hallway, opened the door to his room, The tub greeted him, smooth and sturdy, welcoming. He dropped his things on the bed, smiled at it – wait, what…?
There was something in his tub —
"Jim – please, oh, no…"
There in the tub, his tub. A wrinkled, soggy collection peeping out from a frothy edge of bubbles – he squinted at it— lace…
Soaking in his tub-
"What – is – this?" he bellowed.
"It's my washing," Dulcey said in a tiny voice, fresh spots of pink embarrassment rising on her cheeks.
"Dulcey…!" Crown exploded, his aches, his soggy and smelly clothes, the grit and the gnawing in his belly rolling back on him.
"It's been raining for two days," she quickly tried to explain. "I held off as long as I could and when the weather didn't turn I thought…I needed some place for my-"
"Get it out," he ground out. Her washing in his tub. No one, no one used his tub. Under no circumstances… "Get it out and put it somewhere else – now!"
She plunged her hands into the water, began to squeeze the material, wrung it hard. "Just please – just a few minutes and I promise I'll be…" the words tumbled out even as she scooped up more, dripping.
His tub…and the time. Crown danced behind her, trying not to strip off his shirt in front of her but desperate to begin, settled for yanking off a boot instead. She was splashing and wringing, now dropping the sopping things onto a towel – his towel – and rolling it up, her face splotchy red and white.
"Dulcey…" he threatened, hands on his shirt buttons.
"I'm almost done!" she cried back, and gathered up the towel.
He wrenched his shirttail out of his waistband, heard a pounding of boots on the stairs, realized
the door was still open and hopped over to slam it shut—
Randy Morgan jumped through the doorway. "Marshal!" he gasped, out of breath, his skinny frame sweaty and disheveled, one cheek dripping blood. "Lazy M boys – fight – Cherokee Saloon – bad…" Even as he grabbed for the doorframe to steady himself the first shots came – one was a shotgun blast.
Crown couldn't stop the word from tumbling out over his lips even as he was reaching for his loose boot. He grabbed his gunbelt and ran behind the staggering Morgan, met Mac in the hallway. His feet were in the street when a thought jolted his memory – and stabbed him with utter guilt—
It was Dulcey's birthday.