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Cimarron Strip: "The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Text

"The Death of A Legend"

Disclaimer:CIMARRON STRIP is the sole property of Stuart Whitman, Inc.
Christopher Knopf's original characters have been borrowed strictly for fun and not for fortune.

"The Death of A Legend"
By Ross

Chapter One

U.S. Marshal James Crown awoke with a start, blinked his blurred vision into focus, and then lay there, in the early morning light, holding his breath...trying to pin-point the exact cause for the sudden disruption of his much needed sleep.

But the gentle rustling of a lacy, white curtain, in a breeze from an open window across the room, and the quiet clattering of a wagon passing by in the street below, were the only sounds his straining ears could detect. Still, someone-or something-had disturbed his reveries.

His right hand started reaching, instinctively, for the holstered gun slung over the cornerpost at the head of his bed.

Then he heard it-a timid 'tap-tap-tapping' on his door.

The lawman let his arm drop back to his side. In fact, his entire body untensed and he drew one long, deep, relaxed breath-which he released with a grimace and a groan. Every muscle, every joint, every bone in his back and shoulders still ached with fatigue. One thing was certain. If just breathing was gonna cause that much discomfort, he was nowheres near ready to rise and shine.

Maybe if he just ignored it...his drooping eyelids closed.

But the timid 'tapping' continued.

So he cleared his throat and called out rather wearily, "Yes, Dulcey..."

"Jim?" a young lady's muffled voice called back from out in the hall, "I have something for you! I think it may be important! Are you decent?"

'It had better be important,' Crown told himself, 'real important...' As for her questioning his decency...well, it was much too early in the day for him to be making any snap moral judgments. "An' that's debatable..." he muttered to himself.

The Marshal drew another even longer, even deeper, even more relaxed breath-which escaped as an exasperated gasp. "Yeah...hold on," he informed the girl. "I'll get the door."

He stretched and moaned and yawned and groaned, and raised his eyelids, repeatedly, and finally won the battle to keep them raised. Then he rubbed a rough hand over his grimy, unshaven face and reluctantly informed the remaining members of his protesting body that-ready or not-it was time for them, too to rise an' shine. Well, to rise, anyways.

"Sorry to disturb you," the girl continued, as he slowly slid his legs over and off the bed. "I know you just got in a few hours ago."

His boots hit the floor and he very stiffly-and even more painfully-brought his five-foot-eleven-and-a-half inch, fully-clothed frame to its feet. "That's quite all right," he assured her. "If I were ta spend more than three or four hours in a horizontal position, my backside wouldn' know how ta handle it."

"Actually," Dulcey's muffled voice went on, "I wasn't quite sure if I should wake you or not. I mean, what seems important to me, may not seem important at all, to you."

Crown got a few remaining kinks out of his neck and back and then limped over to lift a solid-steel bar from two solid-steel brackets bolted to his doubly-thick door's solid-steel door posts. (A little something MacGregor had had installed to, as the Scotsman put it, "Prevent the Marshal from bein' mer-r-r-r-der-red in his sleep." )

The knob finally turned and the door finally swung open to reveal a young woman in her early twenties with straight, straw-colored, nearly waist-length hair-parted down the middle. The rest of the girl's features, while not stunningly beautiful, were very attractive, and she was definitely considered-by the patrons of the Wayfarer's Inn, and the rest of the male population of Cimarron, Crown included-to be a pretty little thing to look at, indeed!

Her soft-blue, deep-set, darting eyes finished their inspection of the Marshal and her slight smile turned quickly upside-down.

Far from being indecently exposed, she found the man to be completely clothed! The fact that he had obviously been sleeping that way was, to her, an indication of the extreme degree of his exhaustion. "I'm sorry, Jim. You must be terribly tired. I knew I should have let you sleep in. I knew it! It's just that, well, Fort Dawes is such an awfully long ways away and I was sort of counting on you being here tonight-for Francis' welcome home party. So I thought that if you were to get a real early start, you could still make it back in plenty of time for the party tonight."

Crown didn't comment. He just stood there in the doorway, giving the long-winded girl-and the bundle of freshly-laundered clothes in her arms-strange, confused glances. Surely she hadn't just woke him up from a sound sleep to give him his laundry and discuss the distance between them and Fort Dawes...or had she?

Dulcey noticed the looks-realized what he must be thinking-and brushed quickly past him and into the room.

She set her parcel down to pull a crumpled slip of paper from one of the lacy front pockets of her lacy, white apron. "This came for you late yesterday afternoon," she announced rather glumly and reluctantly handed the terribly-tired-looking man, who had turned around to face her again, his possibly important message. "I wish it hadn't come. I wish I could've let you sleep in."

Crown took the telegram and stood there smiling down at his concerned little mother hen.

But Dulcey didn't see his smile. She was too busy frowning down at the floor and fidgeting with the ivory-colored cameo pinned to the tall, lacy collar of her pretty, pink, gingham dress-all trimmed in delicate white lace.

'Everything about her is lacy', Crown thought to himself. 'She looks about as out a' place in Cimarron as a cactus would in Boston.' He gave the lacy little lady one last smile and then reluctantly turned his attention to the matter in hand.

'Attention: US Marshal, Cimarron.
Just thought you should know. Major Blakesly has determined that
the murder of John Two Rivers is not a military matter, after all.
Advise you come and claim your prisoner before Blakesly decides
to set him free.
Lieutenant Mark Anderson, Fort Dawes.'

"Not a Military matter!" Crown shouted, giving vent to the rage that was seething inside him. "John Two Rivers was a full-blooded Comanche!"

Since the U.S. Government refused to acknowledge Indians as U.S. citizens, Indians had no legal or cival rights. Any-and all-legal issues concerning Indians were strictly military matters! The civil courts held no jurisdiction in such cases. The civil authorities had no jurisdiction in such cases.

But Crown hadn't let that little legal technicality stop him from bringing in John's killer. Especially since the Army hadn't shown any great interest in doing so.

Especially since John Two Rivers was an old acquaintance...and good friend.

Now-it wasn't bad enough that the Major had rendered Crown no military assistance with the capture-no, now the jack-ass was about to release the cold-blooded murderer, claiming the Indian's death was not a military matter!

'Damn the Major for sellin' out!' Crown thought bitterly. 'An' damn 'Mister' Roger Mareck for doin' the buyin'!'

Roger Mareck-the very thought of the man was enough to cause the Marshal's jaw muscles to tighten, his head to ache, and his stomach to turn.

Mareck-and the horde a' hard cases that traveled with him-had descended upon Cimarron one bleak Tuesday afternoon a couple of weeks back. The affluent Easterner pulled into town-on his own private railroad car-and promptly proceeded to purchase people and property that had-previously-not been for sale.

By the time Crown got back from one of his routine rides around the circuit that evening, Mareck had already turned the top floor of the Cimarron Hotel into his own private residence. The bottom floor was now-of all things-a law office, complete with lawyers.

Thelen's Mercantile was transformed into a gambling hall-complete with black-jack dealers, resident card-sharps and ladies of the evening. Breyer & Son's Bootmakers & Saddlery had become a surveyor's office-complete with civil engineers.

Rumor had it that a ridiculous sum of money had been paid for these properties.

The 'Cimarron Land Development Company' was formed, literally, overnight. The very next day, it attempted to buy out businesses which were not for sale at any price-no matter how ridiculous.

Company employees then tried to convince these property-owner hold-outs to be reasonable, and to reconsider their company's very generous offers.

It was the method these employees employed-extortion and intimidation-that brought about Crown's first encounter with the man who insisted on being called 'Mister' Mareck.

Being a firm believer in the adage that 'A fish stinks from the head down', the Marshal was not looking forward to his meeting with the head of the 'Cimarron Land Development Company'.

Sure enough, true-to-form, Roger Mareck reeked...really reeked.

After reading some of the complaints that had been filed against his employees, Mareck tried to convince Crown that there was no need to investigate these absurd allegations. They were both reasonable men. Certainly they could come to some kind of an understanding.

Crown had everything he could do to keep from flooring Mareck right then and there. It really galled him that this man actually believed that he could just sail into Cimarron and put his brand on anything-or anybody-his greedy little heart desired.

The three over-grown goons that Mareck employed as his personal bodyguards may have been the determining factor as to why the Marshal chose to hit the man with a little cold, harsh reality, rather than his fists.

At any rate-and for whatever reason-the lawman rounded up the men directly responsible for all the threats and violence and threw them in his jail. Then he loaded them all onto the train and hauled them all over to Hardesty, where they-and their lawyers-appeared before the Territorial Judge.

Crown had more than enough eyewitnesses, sworn depositions and physical evidence to get a conviction. But-before he could present any of it-the Dishonorable' Theodore S. Rutgers dismissed all the charges against the defendants. They-and their lawyers-beat Crown back to Cimarron.

That brought about Crown's second encounter with Mareck. At which time, Mareck made a condescending little 'I tried to warn you' speech and apologized for stepping on the Marshal's toes. Mareck said that he realized that Crown was probably used to running things pretty much his own way. But that-because the Marshal seemed like a such a reasonable man-he shouldn't have too much trouble 'adjusting' to the coming 'changes'. In fact, Mareck was still quite confident that the two of them could come to 'some kind of an understanding'.

Crown overcame his absolute amazement at the man's galling arrogance and assured Mareck that there were going to have to be some 'adjustments' made all right. Then-bodyguards or no bodyguards-his right fist came to 'some kind of an understanding' with Mareck's left jaw.

The Marshal backed out of the ensuing scuffle behind the smoking barrel of his Colt, leaving at least two of Mareck's right-hand men temporarily left-handed, and the third in a his boss.

Crown tried to notify Washington about the situation which was rapidly developing in the Strip. But none of his wires or other forms of correspondence seemed to be reaching their destinations.

Either Mareck had bought off all the U.S. Mail handlers-and telegraph operators-in the entire Territory...or someone in Washington was running interference for him.

The lawman suspected a little of the first two-and a lot of the latter.

Cut off from Washington-and any hope of outside help-it appeared the peace officer would have to cope with Mareck and company on his own.

That was, up until a week and a half ago, when the editor of 'The Boston Globe' suddenly entered the picture and allowed the lone lawman to make another adjustment.

By summoning Francis Wilde-full-time Deputy U.S. Marshal and part-time free-lance reporter-to an important business meeting with him in Boston, the man provided Crown with a safe, alternate means of getting a message through to his superiors. His deputy would deliver his report in person, stopping off at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. on his way back from his meeting in Boston, Mass..

The chance for yet another adjustment came the day after Francis' departure, when Crown discovered that some of Mareck's civil engineers had strayed across the Cimarron River and were surveying choice property sites in the still 'off limits to whites' Indian Territory.

Normally, the Marshal would simply have rounded up the surveying party and brought them before Judge Rutgers. Normally, Rutgers would have dealt harshly with them-issuing stiff fines or jail sentences, or both-normally.

Crown adjusted to the change by taking the trespassers deeper into Indian Territory, stashing them all in an abandoned mine shaft in Adrian's Canyon, and leaving them there-under special guard-for safe-keeping.

The 'Cimarron Land Development Company', however, had a seemingly endless supply of civil engineers and surveying equipment. It wasn't long before they were back in business on the wrong side of the riverbank.

While half of Mareck's horde was off surveying-the other half went back to slapping the citizens of Cimarron around again-for their continued refusals to sell out.

It was clear to all concerned that 'Mister' Mareck's latest strategy was to DIVIDE the Marshal's attention AND-thereby-CONQUER the Strip.

When the homesteaders from the Settlement just south of town heard about Mareck's surveying parties, they went on the war path! Why was the Marshal shirking his responsibilities by allowing such unlawful activity?

When the Territory finally was thrown open to settlement by whites, the information these surveyors were busy gathering would allow Mareck's horde to make a beeline for the Government's Claims Office.

While Mareck's men were busy registering all the choice property sites, honest homesteaders-like themselves-would still be running around staking claims-claims that would be useless with 'Mister' Mareck already holding the deeds!

Crown then brought it to the homesteaders' attention that he was being kept plenty busy protecting the citizens of Cimarron from unlawful activity, and that it was the Army's responsibility to keep sooners-and surveyors-out of the Territory.

'Then, why was the Army shirking its responsibilities?' they demanded.

The Marshal told them that he was more than a little interested in getting the answer to that question, himself.

When Crown brought it to Major Blakesly's attention that it was the Army's responsibility to keep sooners and surveyors out of the Territory, the Major brought it to the Marshal's attention that, if such unlawful surveying were, in fact, being carried out, his patrols would have reported it.

Lieutenant Anderson had then brought it to both his C.O.'s and Crown's attention that, just that morning, John Two Rivers-and several other Indians residing in the Territory-had rode in and reported finding surveyor's stakes. Also-by the Major's own orders-no patrols had been allowed to leave the Fort for the past week.

After dismissing the Lieutenant, the Major dismissed the Marshal with the assurance that the matter would be checked into. It was no secret that the Major didn't care much for Crown.

It was also no secret that Crown held the same high regard for the Major...and his assurances. So the Marshal decided maybe he'd better check into the matter himself-on his way back to Cimarron.

When the Marshal rode out to John Two Rivers' place, he found plenty of surveyor's stakes all right. But they were no longer precisely staked in the ground. Someone had pulled them all up, broken them in two and placed them in neat little piles-to burn.

He found that someone lying face down in a shallow ravine not far from his home. John Two Rivers had been dragged to death behind a horse-a horse with a twisted left front shoe.

The Marshal tracked that horse back to Cimarron and found it tied out front of the former Cimarron Hotel...which brought about his third encounter with Mareck.

Crown barged in on Mareck, his bodyguards-and the horse's rider-unannounced, and another scuffle ensued...which brought about a three inch long crease in the lawman's left forearm.

While the Marshal was busy holding Mareck's bodyguards at bay, his fugitive escaped-out the back way.

Which brought about a five day manhunt. During which, Crown tracked his quarry-Clifford Earl Tanner-through some of the roughest terrain in the entire Territory.

The Marshal eventually caught up with the cold-blooded killer-and was in the process of spiriting him off to Adrian's Canyon-when an Army patrol intercepted them and relieved him of his prisoner. That was yesterday morning.

This morning, he was being greeted with the alarming news that the Army-or at least Mareck's branch of it-might be releasing his prisoner, period!

Hopefully, he would get to the Fort in time to prevent that miscarriage of justice from occurring.

Speakin' a' time...

Crown crossed back over to the chair beside his bed, to where he'd tossed the one article of clothing he'd somehow managed to shed-before his pillow hit his head. He dug a watch out of his vest pocket and flipped it open. It was too early in the day to be noon and too light out to be midnight, he quickly concluded, and realized he hadn't remembered to wind the thing in days.

He turned his attention from the non-ticking timepiece back to the bringer of such important, but bad, news and unclenched his gritted teeth just long enough to fire off a quick question, "What time is it?"

Dulcey seemed both relieved and worried by the Marshal's reaction to the telegram. She had obviously done the right thing by waking him...or had she? She noticed his dark-green eyes were narrowed into angry slits and his jaw was tightly clenched. He now appeared to be more infuriated than fatigued. "'s barely six. Why?"

But Crown's only reply to her inquiry was another quick question of his own. "Is Mac awake yet?"

" Do you want me to wake him for you?"

"No-o!" Crown stated emphatically. He'd left MacGregor in charge of things during his absence, and the town was still standing. Also, he hadn't found any reports of any deaths or serious injuries on his desk when he returned. Which meant that the Scotsman had been working hard-around the clock-for the past five days...which meant that his deputy was probably every bit as tired as-if not more tired than-he was...if that was at all humanly possible.

He finished winding and setting his watch and slipped it back in his vest pocket. "No," he repeated, pulling on his vest and strapping on his gun-belt. "Let him sleep."

He took his hat, his tie-and the fresh change of clothes she'd just brought him-from the top of his dresser and then quickly stepped out the door. "But you could wake Mr. Winsom," he informed her, his words and his boot heels echoing off down the hall, "an' have 'im send a reply off ta Fort Dawes for me," he added as the girl caught up with him at the head of the stairway.

"No-ow?" Dulcey wondered uncertainly, and skipped down the stairs two steps at a time in an attempt to keep up with the once again in motion Marshal.

"Yes! Right now! You were right. This is very important. The reply should read: Attention Major Blakesly Fort Dawes. Clifford Earl Tanner is wanted by the civil authorities in this Territory an' three other states. Will be arrivin' ta take custody of my prisoner this afternoon. Request military escort from Fort Dawes ta the depot in Hardesty. U.S. Marshal Cimarron.' You got that?" he stopped to inquire of the young lady tagging along at his heels.

Dulcey was following so closely that she nearly collided with the suddenly stationery figure standing before her. "Uh...yes. And where will you be? case there's a reply."

"I'm goin' ta go get cleaned up. If Mac wakes up, tell 'im I'll meet 'im back here for breakfast aroun' seven." Crown tossed his hat on his head, tipped it politely to the girl and turned to leave. "Oh, an'," he suddenly remembered something else and swung back around to face her again, "could you send someone over ta the livery an' have 'em ask Charley ta saddle me a fresh horse?"

But that wasn't the something else Dulcey had hoped he'd remembered. "Don't worry, Jim. I'll see to it personally. Your horse will be tied right outside by the time you get back," she assured him, trying hard to hide her extreme disappointment.

But Crown caught the disappointment in her voice and saw it on her rather forlorn-looking face. "Look, Dulcey, I'm sorry. You prob'ly have a lot a' other things ta take care a'. I kin-"

"-No!" Dulcey interrupted, sounding a bit horrified that he'd completely misread the reason for her disappointment. "No, I want to help out. Honestly! I don't mind. It's just that, well..."she hesitated. "It's like I said before. What seems important to me may not seem important at all to you..." She hesitated again-as though she were expecting him to make some sort of a reply.

" Excuse me, but..." the Marshal's face scrunched up a might and he squinted down at the glum-looking girl in complete confusion, "...did I miss a part a' this conversation?"

Dulcey's disappointment gave way to exasperation. "The party tonight! Remember? I told you how much I was counting on you being here tonight..." she paused again-as though she again expected him to make some sort of a reply.

So he forced himself to make one. "Well, then I'll jes' have ta see what I kin do ta oblige you," he stated diplomatically.

But the girl remained glum and he realized it was obviously not the reply she was looking for. So he forced himself to make another one. "I do think yore party is important. Believe me, no one is gonna be happier ta see Francis back here-safe an' sound-than me. An', if his trip back East was as successful as I hope it was, well...we're all gonna have a real cause for celebratin'. All except Mareck an' his crowd, that is..." he added icily, his voice trailing off.

Dulcey noticed the Marshal's eyes flashed with anger and his jaw was tightly-clenched again. "Then you are planning to be here tonight?" she inquired hopefully. "I have your word on it?" she added, giving him a rather pleading, desperate look.

Crown's angry expression softened some. 'So that's what this is all about!' She didn't just want a reply, she wanted a promise.

Well, the girl was right about one thing. It was an awfully long ways to Fort Dawes all right, and he had no idea what little surprises Mareck might have waiting in store for him along that long ways.

Dulcey knew he didn't give his word lightly. She knew he only made promises that he was sure-or, at least, pretty sure-that he could keep, and he wasn't the least bit sure about tonight.

He saw that his hesitating was causing her to look glummer than ever and quickly came up with a promise that he was one hundred percent sure he could keep. "I give you my word that I will do everything within my power ta make it back here in time for yore party tonight."

The girl looked thoughtful and then just a tad bit less glum.

"I'm sorry, Dulcey," the lawman apologized, "but that's the best I kin do...under the circumstances."

Dulcey looked even more thoughtful and then flashed the Marshal a smile. "Well, we'd better get a move on then," she stated almost cheerily. "It sounds like we both have a very busy day ahead of us," she added and handed Crown her apron.

Then she stepped out the front door of her Inn and headed off down the boardwalk in the direction of Mr. Winsom's-and the livery.

No doubt about it! She was going to have to have one of her little 'talks' with the Marshal's horse.

Crown stared after her, looking both amazed and amused. Why, the girl could change moods almost faster than he could draw. 'Was there anything more mystifyin' than a female?' He thought not.

He gave his mystified mind a quick shake, then tossed the apron onto a table and disappeared out the door himself-in the opposite direction.


Chapter Text

"The Death of A Legend"

Chapter Two

Dulcey peered through the corral rails at Marshal Crown's string of horses. "Charley?" she inquired of the well-muscled, mustached man who was busily pitching hay into their manger. "Which of these would you say is the Marshal's fastest horse?"

"His fastest? Uh, that'd hafta be Wisper," the man replied, pausing in his pitching only long enough to point his fork. "That lighter bay mare, there."

Dulcey eyed the mare carefully. "Are you absolutely certain?"

This time, Charley stopped in mid-pitch and turned in the girl's direction. "Missy, I'd be willin' ta wager-an' wager heavily-that Will-O'-The-Wisp ain't jes' the Marshal's fastest horse, but the fastest horse in the whole Strip! The entire Territory even!"

"Splendid!" Dulcey exclaimed. "Then, could you bring her out and saddle her? I have to go over and wake Mr. Winsom, but I'll be right ba-"

"-Whoa-oa, little lady!" Charley interrupted, planting his fork into the hay and leaning on its handle. "Did the Marshal say he wanted Wisper brought out an' saddled?"

"Yes. Well...actually...he didn't mention her specifically. He just said he wanted a fresh horse, and she looks plenty fresh to me."

Charley cocked his head at an odd angle and smiled wryly. "I' yah want yore guest a' honor ta make it back-from where ever it is he's goin'-in plenty a' time fer the little shindig yah got planned fer 'im tonight, right?"

Dulcey was momentarily too stunned for words. But only momentarily. "How do you know about it?" she demanded. "It's supposed to be a secret!"

Charley just rolled his eyes. "Lordy, Miss Dulcey, everybody knows about it! The Marshal'd prob'ly know about it, too, if'n he hadn' a' been out a' town fer the pas' five days, trackin' that Tanner feller. Tryin' ta keep a secret in Cimarron is like tryin' ta hide ice in an oven. Yah might be able ta keep it fer a while...but somethin's bound ta leak out...eventually."

Dulcey gave the philosophical livery owner a strange look. "Yes...well, then, you understand why it's so important for the Marshal to have his absolutely fastest horse. He has a lot of ground to cover today. He has to travel all the way to Fort Dawes and back by eight or nine o'clock tonight. Preferably eight. So, could you please get Wisper out and saddle her?"

"Oh, I reckon I could all right," Charley had to admit. "But I ain't a' goin' ta."

Dulcey's eyes widened and her brows arched up. "Why not?"

The liveryman's eyes gleamed with mischief as he again resumed his hay pitching. "Cuz it'd jes' be a waste a' time."

Dulcey took the bait. "Why?"

"Cuz the Marshal would never take Wisper all the way ta Fort Dawes, that's why."

The girl swallowed it-hook, line and sinker. "Why wouldn't he?"

"Cuz-like mos' Kentuck' bred horses-she's flightier than an ol' hoot owl. If'n he ever had ta git off'n her back, she'd prob'ly take off an' come racin' back here without 'im. I kin jes' see the Marshal now...stranded...twenty miles out in the middle a' nowheres...with no' no water...walkin' the soles right off'n 'is boots."

Dulcey quickly dismissed the grisly mental picture he'd just painted for her and drew in a deep breath before attempting to address him again. "Very well then, which horse would the Marshal take?"

Charley paused in his pitching again to thoughtfully stroke his chin. "Well, he usually takes Cutter-the darker bay."

Dulcey studied the horse with an intense scrutiny. "Is Cutter fast?"

"I'll say! Wisper's the only horse aroun' these parts that Cutter cain't beat."

"Fine!" Dulcey declared. "Then Cutter it is."

"'Fraid not," Charley informed her, trying his level best to keep a straight face. "The Marshal jes' rode in on him a few hours ago, so he ain't fresh."

Dulcey looked disappointed. "Well, what about that one?" she wondered, motioning to a big blue roan standing off by itself.

"That's Reckless Wonder," Charley continued, in an amazing display of self-control. "I reckon ol' Reckless is the best looker a' the bunch. Don' you?"

"Yes, she's very pretty," the girl half-heartedly agreed, barely giving the mare a second glance. "But is she fast, and is she fresh?"

"O-Oh, fast enuff an' fresh enuff, I reckon. But she's gotta have her shoes reset before she goes out agin, or she'll throw one fer sure." He glanced in the girl's direction, saw the expression she was wearing and quickly looked away.

"I guess that leaves him, then," Dulcey resignedly declared and pointed to a fresh, and relatively fast, looking brown gelding with three white stockings and a white blaze on its forehead. It would have to be him. He was the only horse left in the pen.

"Wha-at?" Charley stared at the girl in disbelief. "Ol' Dreamer? Shucks, no! Dreamer's lame...been lame goin' on two weeks now. Nothin' serious. Jes' a stone bruise, is all." This time, the look on the girl's face caused his wry smile to return and broaden into a grin. "Now, if'n you'll excuse me...I got work ta do. I hafta go saddle the Marshal a fresh horse." He planted his fork in the hay again and headed off to do just that.

"But..." Dulcey stared at the corral-and then at Charley's back-in confusion, "which one?"

"One that'll git the Marshal ta Fort Dawes an' back in time fer yore party tonight!" Charley called back over his shoulder, and then he disappeared into the main barn, chuckling delightedly.

By the time Dulcey got back from completing the unpleasant task of waking Mr. Winsom to dispatch the Marshal's telegram, an enormous coal-black horse was standing out front of Lundquist's Livery-all saddled and bridled and ready to go.

If homely were a term that could be used to describe a horse, this gelding was the homeliest horse she'd ever laid eyes on.

Charley came out of the main barn just then and joined in her inspection of the beast. "Granted, he ain't much ta look at," he conceded, almost as though he had been reading her mind. "But he's sure-footed, an' steady, an' seems sensible enough." He saw the girl's mouth starting to open. "An' what he lacks in speed, he more than makes up fer in stamina," he continued, answering the question that hadn't yet formed on her lips.

Dulcey was forced to smile.

Charley grinned, too as he realized that his good-natured teasing had finally paid off. The girl was obviously satisfied with his answer and no longer seemed bent on teaching him his business. "Oh, an' one more thing about this horse. He don' like ta be tied up, at all! It makes 'im sort a' crazy. So, when yah git ta wherever it is yer goin' with 'im-jes' drop the reins an' leave 'im. Yah don' hafta worry 'bout 'im wanderin' off," he added, accurately anticipating her next question as well. "He'll stay ground tied...jes' like he is now."

"Ground tied?" Dulcey looked skeptical. "And he's not going to run off and leave the Marshal stranded out in the middle of nowheres...walking the soles off of his boots?"

Charley threw his head back and laughed. "Ah-hah! Don' you worry none. Ol' Lancer, here, ain't like that fancy, flighty filly over there. No-o-o. Lancer, here, knows whose horse he is, don't yah, boy!"

The big black gelding snorted just then and tossed its head-as if on cue.

Charley grinned again and patted the animal on the shoulder. "I tell yah, Missy, it's unnatural the affection this animal has fer the Marshal! Unnatural-an' downright embarrassin'! Why, he actually follows the man around like a little puppy dog!"

Dulcey looked somewhat reassured and then thoughtful. "I don't understand. If Lancer belongs to the Marshal, then why wasn't he in the corral with the others?"

"Those animals-over there-are used for official government business, so he gets ta keep them at the government's expense. Lancer, here-an' another horse inside-are the Marshal's own personal property. So the money ta pay their feed bills comes out a' his own pocket. Now, go on! Take 'im, an' git! I'll never git my work done if'n I hafta stand around here jawin' with you all mornin'! Oh, an' when yah see the Marshal, tell 'im ta stop by an' see me before he leaves. Those special items he ordered are ready for 'im ta pick up. Think yah kin remember that?"

Dulcey smiled and nodded. "Will I see you tonight?"

"You betcha!" Charley vowed, his wry smile returning. "Been lookin' forward ta it fer days!" he teased and went chuckling off again.

Dulcey smiled again. The girl then grabbed the gelding's reins and started leading him off down the street-in the direction of her Inn.

The Marshal Crown that exited Lee Wong's combination tonsorial parlor, bathhouse and laundry-and headed off down the boardwalk with broad, brisk, confident strides-was not the same Marshal Crown that had entered it just a half-hour earlier.

It was amazing the effect that a little soap and water, a sharp razor, and a clean change of clothes could have on a man's appearance-and perspective. The spring was back in his step. The day was looking much brighter-a fact which had very little to do with the sun rising higher in the eastern sky.

The surface of the Marshal's solid silver hatband glistened. A week's worth of trail dust had been removed from his gambler's-style Stetson, revealing its true color-black. His hair, also truly black, worn on the long side-and usually in disarray-was squeaky clean and still a little damp, but combed and held in check by his hat. His rugged, tanned, handsome face was now grime-free and close-shaven.

His powder blue, well-tailored shirt was immaculate. Its sleeves, like its collar, were unbuttoned-the cuffs casually flipped back up on his wrists. A black, ribbon-like tie encircled his neck and came together under his collar in a large, limp, loose bow. The lawman's black leather vest had been cleaned and oiled, and the badge of his office-pinned high on its left front panel-had been polished.

His holster-slung low on his right hip-sported a well-balanced, bone-handled, nickel-plated Colt .45 Peace-Maker model, with an eight-inch barrel that made allowances for both speed and accuracy. The hammer-catch, which held his weapon in place while he was running or riding, was slipped off. The thin, leather lace-which kept his holster in place while he was drawing-was tied snugly about his right thigh.

His nearly black britches, skin-tight and Spanish-cut, were cleaned and pressed. Four solid silver conchos adorned each of his flared pant cuffs-woven into place with black leather lace. Why, the black leather of his boots had even been buffed to a high, glossy shine.

Yes-sir, thanks to a little elbow grease from Mr. Wong, the Marshal's whole appearance now seemed perfectly spit and polished. And, thanks to the medicinal properties of the herbs that Mrs. Wong had so thoughtfully added to his steaming, hot tub, Crown found that he was now feeling almost as good as he looked.

He reached the end of Mercantel Street and took a turn onto Main Street-the street on which the Wayfarer's Inn and his Office were located. A turn which brought about his fourth encounter with Roger Mareck.

Before Mareck and his three bodyguards could even bat their wide eyes, Crown's Colt had already cleared its holster, its hammer had been thumbed back, and its barrel had been passed back and forth over them-at the level of their mid-sections, several times.

Seeing that the Marshal was quite capable of keeping the four of them covered simultaneously, caused the startled men to freeze-and to remain frozen-in their tracks.

Mareck was the first one to recover his composure and find his voice. "Now, Marshal...I ask you...Is that any way to greet someone?" The rather blase tone of his question belied the cold, precisely calculated look in his sinister, dark eyes.

Crown met Mareck's gaze and matched it in intensity. "If that someone is you, it is," he casually replied.

Mareck was forced to smile. Well, actually, it was more of a condescending smirk than a smile. He stood there-in his precisely tailored suit-eyeing the Marshal up and down, from head to toe. "I must say...I'm somewhat surprised to see you up and about-and looking so dapper-this early in the day." He glanced knowingly at his three bodyguards and they exchanged smirks.

Mareck turned back to the peace officer and pretended to look thoughtful. "Let's see if I can guess what's gotten you out of bed...Well, it's too soon to be getting duded up for your party tonight, that's for sure..."he reasoned mockingly. Then he stiffened suddenly and snapped his fingers. "You must have some place to go! Is that it? Are you, by any chance, going somewhere?"

Crown knew full well that Mareck knew full well exactly where he was going and why he was going there. "I must say," the lawman said, parroting the smirking man's words perfectly, "that I'm surprised ta see you up an' about period, Mareck. Yes-sir, it amazes me that you kin move at all. What with all that extra weight you're carryin' around these days. What with a Territorial Judge in one pocket...and an Army Major in the other..." he added, motioning to Mareck's two front coat pockets with the barrel of his gun.

'Mister' Mareck's smirk vanished. His already intense gaze intensified. This time when he spoke, the tone of his voice matched the look in his cold, hard eyes. "It appears that I've misjudged you, Marshal. You're not a reasonable man, after all. You're a fool! One, foolish little man...standing alone...trying to stop a freight train. Have you ever seen what happens to a man when he steps in front of a moving train, Marshal? It's not a pretty sight!" he paused for effect. But the Marshal didn't seem to be effected in the least, so he continued. "But...a train can't run you over when you're on board it. So...what do you say? Why not forget all this foolishness and climb aboard? While there's still time..."he added very deliberately, finishing his unmistakable threat to the Marshal's continued existence.

In his ten years as a U.S. Marshal, Crown had come across dozens of men like Mareck-men who were so small that they felt obliged to step on other people to make themselves appear bigger. He had found every single one of them extremely arrogant and annoying, too. But the unmitigated gall of 'Mister' Roger Mareck topped them all! How could one pompous person be so unbelievably arrogant-and dense? He gave the arrogant man an 'Are you for rea-eal?' look before making his reply. "For the fourth time, I have no intentions a' boardin' yore 'train', Mareck! Truth is, my heart's dead set on derailin' it," he added, equally deliberately. "Have you ever seen a train wreck, Mareck?" he calmly inquired, continuing his unmistakable threat to Mareck's continued existence as a free man. "It's not a pretty sight!" he concluded, perfectly parroting the Easterner's own words, once again.

So...the battle lines were drawn.

By the time 'all this foolishness' was finally over, and the smoke finally cleared, either Mareck was gonna be behind bars...or the Marshal was gonna be dead. The two sworn enemies just continued to stand there, silently staring each other down.

"Ji-im?" a familiar voice broke the silence. Dulcey had spotted the Marshal's glistening, silver hatband from clear down on the other end of Main Street, and had come-practically running-to meet him, dragging his homely-but fresh-horse along with her.

Crown used the girl's sudden appearance as an excuse to make a dignified retreat from his close encounter of the 'Mareck' kind. He backed off the boardwalk as dignifiedly as possible, and carefully returned his gun to its holster-a cautious move designed to allow Mareck and his men either to draw on him...or to continue on their merry way.

The group gave the Marshal a few last 'if looks could kill, he'd be dead' glares, then they turned the corner and disappeared up the street he'd just come down.

"What was all that about?" Dulcey wondered, sounding more than a bit anxious and concerned.

Crown finally chanced a glance in the girl's direction. Sure enough, the concerned, anxious look on her pretty face matched the concern and anxiety he'd heard in her voice. "'Mister' Mareck an' I were jes' discussin' some a' the benefits..." the lawman looked back at the now empty boardwalk and forced a slight smile, "an' hazards a' train travel these days," he told her, somewhat truthfully. "Speakin' a' trains...I'm gonna ride on out an' check on the Settlement before mine pulls out," he announced, snatching the reins from her and tossing them back up onto his horse's withers. He raised his left stirrup up and laid it back across the seat of his saddle so he could check his cinch.

"But..." Dulcey seemed even more rattled by the Marshal's now imminent departure, "you haven't eaten yet!"

The lawman finished checking his cinch, replaced his left stirrup and then swung himself up into his saddle-all in one, smooth, uninterrupted motion. 'Havin' one Miss Dulcey Coopersmith for a friend is a lot like bein' married,' he realized to himself. "Thanks for bringin' my horse down for me. Have my breakfast ready by seven. I ought ta have me-an' my appetite-back by then," he finished and flashed his adopted wife a warm, winning smile. He tipped his hat to her for the second time that morning. Then he turned his horse in the direction of the Settlement and eased it into a trot.

Dulcey gazed glumly after the rapidly disappearing figure for a few moments and then stiffened. "Jim? Wait!" she shouted and ran off down the street after him, "Wait up, Jim!"

Crown reluctantly reined his horse in and waited patiently for the panting girl to reach his new position in the street.

"I forgot I had another message for you," Dulcey gasped breathlessly. "So, before I forget again...Charley wants you to stop by and see him before you leave," she gasped again. "Something about some special items you ordered being ready or something."

The Marshal nodded his acknowledgment of her latest message, then tipped his hat to her a third time and eased his horse back into a trot, thankful that not all of the girl's messages for him were gonna be bad news...or were they?

"Mornin', Charley!" Crown called out, riding up to the owner of Lundquist's Livery, and reining in his horse. "I hear yah got my special order filled."

"Mornin', Marshal!" Charley called back. "Yeah, they're ready all right. They're right here," he added, giving the pile of chains at his feet a quick kick. "But that ain't the real reason I wanted ta see yah. I jes' said that 'cause I didn' wanna worry the girl none." He stood there solemnly for a few moments hesitating to speak. The expression on his troubled face was just as solemn as it could get, and there was a solemn tone in his voice when he finally did speak again. "Roger Mareck's men have been ridin' out a' here two-by-two since before sun-up. An' they was-all of 'em-totin' Winchesters. So yah kin jes' forgit about goin' ta Fort Dawes today. 'Cuz-if'n you was ta go ridin' out a' here right now-you'd be committin' suicide, sure as heck!"

There was another brief silence, during which time Charley studied the still-mounted figure before him carefully. He seemed more than a little disappointed by the Marshal's reaction-or rather his lack of a reaction-to his comments. "Didn' yah hear me, Marshal? I sai-aid 'Mister' Mareck's got fourteen men out there-jes' a layin' fer yah! Jes' a waitin' fer yah ta 'ride within range a' their rifles'-so's they kin blow yah clean out a' yore saddle!"

This time, his comments produced at least a slight reaction, causing Crown first to stiffen and then to straighten in his seat. "He's brought in reinforcements?"

Charley nodded. "They rode in las' night on the train out a' Shades Wells," he glumly replied and then waited for some further reaction. But there was none forthcoming.

Crown just sat there-silently-in his saddle, wearing a foreboding frown, carefully thinking over the implications of Charley's latest facts and figures.

By gradually spiriting them off to Adrian's Canyon, the Marshal had succeeded in cutting the number of men in Mareck's horde from fifteen down to just five.

Now, by promising them tidy sums of money no doubt, Mareck had just succeeded in building his horde back up to nearly fifteen again-eighteen counting his bodyguards.

Successfully eluding five men would be one thing. Successfully eluding fourteen men would be another thing all together. Something like say, a miracle maybe? "Any other new faces in town these days?"

"Nope! Yore reinforcements ain't arrived yet. If'n they's gonna show up at all..."

Crown winced, finding the man's last remark painfully grim. "Thanks for the warnin', Charley. I'll take those items off yore hands now," he added, nodding to the pile of chains on the ground at the blacksmith's feet.

Charley's jaw dropped and he stared up at the Marshal, looking absolutely incredulous. "Yer not still thinkin' a' headin' out a' here?" he stated hopefully.

"I thought I'd ride on out an' check on the Settlement before my train leaves," the lawman calmly confided.

Charley just stood there for a few more moments, sadly shaking his head. Then he reluctantly stooped down and started passing the chains up to the Marshal, who started draping them carefully over the pommel of his saddle. "I sure hope yah know what yer doin', Marshal. 'Cuz, fer the life a' me, I sure cain't figure it-" he stopped suddenly and turned to Crown's horse. "You take care a' him now, yah hear? An' see ta it that 'e makes it back here," he solemnly added.

Crown suppressed a smile. He then took the last of the eight new sets of manacles from the man who had forged them and draped it over his saddle with the others. "Thanks again, Charley. I'll see yah later."

"I surely do hope so, Marshal," Charley replied. "I surely do hope so...or it ain't gonna be much of a party," he added under his breath.

But the Marshal caught the comment and gave him a strange look.

Charley crouched down and hurried off into the barn.

Crown sat there, contemplating the liveryman's rather curious comment-and behavior-over for a few moments. Alas, a few moments were all he could spare.

So, once again, he turned his mount in the direction of the Settlement just south of town, and, once again, he eased it into a trot-and concentrated his mental efforts on much more serious matters.

'You do realize, don't you,' he grimly reminded himself, 'that, when you leave here, you'll be facin' fourteen backshootin' bushwhackers!' He was finding it next to impossible to put the grisly mental picture-which Charley had so vividly just drawn for him-out of his mind.

Maybe he should have just stayed in bed today? Maybe he should just go back to bed?

Nah, he could never rest knowing John's killer was traipsin' around the Territory a free man.

Besides, he had a plan, and there was, after all, a bright side to all of this. With Mareck's men out of town for the day, MacGregor should have no problem keeping the lid on things there in Cimarron. So Crown had one less worry...and nine more worries! Perhaps there wasn't a bright side to all of this after all...

The peace officer passed the edge of town, came to a fork in the road, and took the left branch-the one that led down to the Cimarron River, and the Settlement along its east bank.

He decided he wasn't going to allow himself to concentrate on bushwhackers. His attention was to be fully devoted to the rest of his senses.

The air was cool, crisp and invigorating. There were birds singing in the groves of alders along the riverbank. The sound of the Cimarron, rushing ever onward to the southeast, was soothing, and there was the most breathtakingly beautiful red sky on the eastern horizon. Beautiful-and yet foreboding. Because a red sky on the morning horizon usually always meant rain later on in the day-which meant that he was going to get wet.

He put the bushwhackers and the rain out of his mind and concentrated on the natural beauty of the landscape.

The pink-tinged, sandy-textured topsoil seemed even pinker, enhanced by the soft, red glow of the sun on the horizon. The soil was naturally pinkish because the sandy earth mixed with the layers of red sandstone and shale just beneath its surface. There were some areas along the river where wind and water had completely eroded the pink topsoil, exposing the red sandstone and shale and creating a stark color contrast. This whole area of the Strip was one gently rolling, pink plain-mostly grass-covered-and dotted here and there with clumps of sagebrush and other low shrubs.

To the west of him-across the river-were the hills, rising one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet above the low plains. Hills capped by layers of gypsum-a semi-transparent mineral fifteen to twenty feet thick.. The Indians called the area 'Sha-wa-ka-sa-ne', or 'hills-of-fire', because the gypsum sparkled like glass in the sun and often made the mounds of earth appear as though they were burning.

Beyond these gypsum hills was the high plain country...millions of square acres of flat, open grasslands-free, open country for as far as the eye could see. Why, a man could ride for weeks and never see a single sign of civilization.

But, if 'Mister' Mareck's sudden appearance in Cimarron meant what the Marshal thought it meant, it wouldn't be long before the last untouched Indian Territory-the whole Cherokee Outlet and the entire Cimarron Strip-would be precisely parceled out. The grasslands would be plowed under and fenced off into neat little barbed-wire squares.

It tore at Crown's insides to think of it, so he quickly put that out of his mind, too and tried concentrating on the smells that were now wafting his way.

The lawman enjoyed riding out to check on the Settlement. One of the things that he enjoyed the most were the smells that always greeted him in the air...the thick, rich, warm smell of wood smoke...deliciously inviting smells of coffee brewing and sourdough biscuits being baked over open fires. They reminded the former cowboy of his trail days.

Crown all too quickly covered the mere two-mile distance between the Settlement and Cimarron. He rode right up to the Fitzsimmons family's camp-situated on the outskirts-and reined his horse in. "Mornin', Mrs. Fitzsimmons!"

A pleasant woman, in her late thirties, looked up from the campfire she was cooking over. "Good morning, Marshal!" she acknowledged as the lawman nodded and tipped his hat politely in her direction. "You're just in time for breakfast. Won't you step down and join us?"

"That's a mighty temptin' offer. But Dulcey's got my breakfast waitin' for me back in town. Thanks anyways. Is Danny around?"

"He's getting dressed. I'll fetch 'im. Dan-ny? The Marshal's here!" she called in the direction of their covered wagon.

The head of a fourteen-year-old boy poked itself out of the back canvas flap. An astonished look filled the lad's face. His head disappeared again and then reappeared a few moments later-followed by the half-dressed rest of him. "Mornin', Marshal!"

"Danny..." Crown acknowledged with a nod and a suppressed smile, as the boy came hopping up to him, pulling his boots on along the way. "How's my deputy doin' this mornin'?"

Danny gave his left boot one last stomp then straightened up and gave his blond head a quick flick to shake the hair out of his bright blue eyes. "U-Uh, fine! Just fine, sir! Clipper's doin' fine, too. He's the best horse in the whole world!" he proudly declared and motioned to a spotted gelding tethered to a tree at their camp's left boundary.

Crown had given the animal to the boy, saying that no deputy of his was gonna be without a good horse. In return, Danny would keep the Marshal up to date on all the latest happenings in the Settlement, keep tabs on all the new arrivals and report any trouble to the Marshal's Office-on the double!

"Do you want a full report?" his deputy wondered, whipping a small note pad out of his back pants' pocket.

"Actually," Crown replied, suppressing another smile, "I don' really have a whole lot a' time for reports, right now. Today's payday," he explained, flipping the lad a silver dollar, "I'll let yah know when it's report day."

Danny fingered the silver dollar and beamed a big grin up at his boss. "Yes-sir, Marshal Crown!"

"Danny, I'd like ta talk ta yore mother, here, a minute-in private..." the Marshal hinted.

Danny took the hint and stepped out of earshot of the grown-ups.

Crown turned his full attention back to the woman. "I spoke with yore husband earlier this mornin'. He wanted me ta tell yah that he misses you an' that he's doin' jes' fine. I'd be obliged if you could let the rest a' the wives know that their men miss them, and that they're all doin' jes' fine, too. Mr. Lewis an' Mr. Davies'll be comin' in for supplies this mornin'. I'd appreciate it if you could see ta it that they get these," he paused to flip four sets of the manacles off of his saddle. They dropped with a jingle into the dust on the ground at the woman's feet. "An' tell 'em I said ta be extra careful. Mareck's brought in more men. So they cain't be too careful."

"Thank you, Marshal. Yes, of course. Don't worry. I'll tell the ladies. And I'll make sure the men get these-and your message-before they leave. Any idea how much longer they'll be gone?"

Crown's face scrunched up a might and he heaved a heavy sigh of frustration. "I was hopin' ta see 'em make it back here sometime tonight. But it looks like Mareck's reinforcements are the only ones that have shown fa-ar," he added positively. "I should have some word for sure by tonight. I promise, I'll let you know the moment I hear anything."

"I'd appreciate that very much. Thank you again and," she gave the lawman a sort of a sad smile, "I don't think you could possibly be too careful yourself, Marshal."

Her truthful-and sincere-comment caused Crown to return her smile.

"See you tonight at the party!" she called as the man tipped his hat and turned his horse in her son's direction.

Crown glanced back and waved uncertainly. "Take care a' yore mother, boy," the Marshal ordered down as he rode up to where Danny stood, patting his spotted horse. "An' keep an eye on things around here for me while I'm gone. Remember, if there's any trouble, I want yah ta ride in an' report it ta Mr. MacGregor on the double! Yah hear?"

"Yes-sir, Marshal!"

The boy's eagerness to please-and the serious expression on his youthful face-caused Crown's smile to return. "You're a good deputy, Danny." 'An', come ta think of it,' he told himself, 'so's yore father.'

"Maybe I could give you my report at the party tonight?" the boy volunteered.

"Maybe," Crown agreed. "If I'm there."

"But..." the boy's face fell and his color went pale, "you've got ta be the-" he cut his comment short and pulled his horse's lead rope free. "Excuse me, Marshal. I got ta go water Clipper," he said and then quickly disappeared, dragging the horse off down the slope-in the direction of the river.

Crown sat there contemplating his deputy's rather curious comments-and behavior-over for a few moments. Maybe there was something more mystifyin' than a female after a fourteen-year-old boy with his first horse.

The Marshal gave his head another quick shake. Then he swung his horse in the direction of town and urged it into a nice, easy canter.


Chapter Text

"The Death of A Legend"

Chapter Three

When Crown rode up to the Wayfarer's Inn, he found MacGregor waiting for him outside. "Mornin', Mac!" he called, reining his horse in at the hitching rail in front of his adjoining office.

MacGregor just stood there, mute.

Crown stepped stiffly down, dropped the reins, and snatched the four remaining sets of manacles from the pommel of his saddle. He turned back to his haggard-looking, still-silent deputy and friend and forced a slight smile. "Kin I interest you in a pot a' coffee?"

"What's the matter with yah, man?" MacGregor demanded, looking and sounding absolutely furious with the Marshal. "Have yah taken complete leave a' yer senses?"

Crown found both his friend's response and his foul mood completely confusing. He glanced nervously in the direction of the Inn's front door. "Why? The coffee that ba-ad this mornin'?"

"Ah'm no' talking about coffee! Ah'm talking about tr-r-rains!" MacGregor corrected and noticed the Marshal seemed a bit surprised. "Aye! Ah hear-r-rd all about that tr-r-rain business this morning! And about the way you were taunting Mareck! Are yah daft, man? Yer already the man's prime candidate for a coffin! So, whatever were yah thinking? Aye! Ah dare say that's part a' yer problem! You have no' been thinking, least, no' too clearly! Ever since that Indian friend of yer's was kill't, you've been behaving like a man with a death wish! Barging into Mareck's fortress and taking on the whole lot of them single-handedly! Taking off after Tanner without a posse! Deliberately taunting the man! Ah just seems yer taking more chances now than yah need ta be!"

The Marshal was finding this little confrontation more than a little infuriating, himself. "O-Oh? Well, maybe if I'd taken more chances before, my Indian friend might still be alive!" he replied in bitter anger. He was bitterly angry with Mareck, with Tanner, with Mac...but mostly with himself-for failing his Indian friend.

There was a long, tense, solemn silence. MacGregor studied his boss carefully. He could see the mixed emotions in the man's tired eyes-bitterness, anger, frustration, sorrow. But, mostly he saw the sorrow. He gave the sorrowful figure standing in the street below him a deeply sympathetic look. "So that's it then," he reasoned softly. "That's what's behind it...guilt." He stepped down from the boardwalk to stand level with his guilt-ridden friend. "Then allow me ta point something out to you, yer honor...a fact which seems ta have temporarily escaped yer attention," he paused. "Sometimes a man does his best...but it just is no' good enough. Now, that does no' mean that it was no' his best," he paused again. "That just means that it was no' good enough."

There was another long silence as Crown stood there-staring thoughtfully down at the dirt street beneath his feet-contemplating his friend's angry rantings over. Mac's words sure rang true all right. He sure had lost sight of that fact-completely! And grief and guilt had been interfering with his good judgment lately. It's just that he was so-o tired...and sad...and confused. Had he really done his best?

MacGregor saw that the Marshal's look of bitter anger had been replaced by one of self-doubt. He gave his friend another deeply sympathetic look and gripped his slumped shoulder reassuringly. "Believe me, man, you did the best you could do. And no man can do better than his best. No' even you!" he added in a good-natured accusation. He felt the fury beginning to rage up inside him again and suddenly turned stern. "So, then, yah see! There's no point in yer killing yerself trying, is there?" he stated emphatically, and punctuated his statement even more by releasing the Marshal's shoulder with a not too gentle shove. "So, now, will yah stop being so bleeding hard on yerself and keep yer attention focused on the long line a' laddies out there who are bent on killing yerself for yah!" he paused again, his steely-blue eyes narrowing deviously. "And, while we're on the subject of yer possible-and now quite probable-ear-r-rly demise. There's an old Scottish proverb which yah put me in mind a'...'Any man who insists on hitting a hornet's nest with a stick is bound ta be stung! Sooner...or later'..." He stared down at the Marshal's injured left forearm, looking rather smug. "Tr-r-rue enough?"

"True enough," Crown acknowledged with a grateful smile. Then his own eyes narrowed a bit deviously. "Yah know, it's too bad nobody brought that ta Mareck's attention. I mean, before he picked up his stick and started swingin'," he added, looking rather smug, himself.

MacGregor's face filled with a look of disbelief and then total frustration. "A-Aye! Yer incorrigible! Yah know that!"

"So you keep tellin' me," Crown conceded, handing two sets of the manacles to his deputy with another grateful smile. He pulled out his office key, stepped around the rail and up onto the boardwalk. "I'm gonna have ta look that fifty dollar word a' yore's up some day," he teased, "and find out what it means."

"Ah'll save yah the trouble," MacGregor volunteered, following his boss up onto the boardwalk. "It means yer hopelessly stubborn and impossible ta reason with!"

"Oh," Crown muttered matter-of-factly. "Well, then, it mus' be the 'company' I keep," he reasoned, looking even more pleased with himself.

MacGregor's grumpy look vanished as he was forced to smile. "So yah keep telling me..."

The two haggard-looking lawmen exchanged grins.

Crown finished unlocking his office. "Come on," he invited, throwing the door open. "We both look like we could use a nice, strong pot a' coffee."

"Now that's the first tr-r-ruly sensible thing you've said all morning," MacGregor declared.


They entered the U.S. Marshal's Office and deposited the manacles onto a desk. The Marshal tossed his Stetson onto a hat rack. Then he, and his deputy, passed through the doorway that connected his office with the Wayfarer's Inn and stepped into Dulcey's coffeehouse-the 'Skillet and Skittles'. To their amazement, the whole place was deserted! They were the only customers in sight!

"I'm closed today because of the party here tonight," Dulcey explained, seeing the looks of confusion on the two men's faces. "And, if the eggs are cold, it's because you are five minutes late," she added, directing this explanation solely at the Marshal. "Now, sit down and start eating! Because if you don't hurry it up some, you're going to miss your train."

The two men had obligingly pulled out some chairs and were in the process of sitting down.

But at her mentioning of the word train, MacGregor had frozen in mid-sit. He stood there, bent over, statue-like, for a few moments, and then dropped the rest of the way into his seat with an ominous 'thunk'. He sat there, glaring menacingly across the table at the Marshal, who just sat there-mute. Mac could feel his recent, raging fury rapidly returning. "What tr-r-rain?" he demanded.

"The 7:45 train to Hardesty," Dulcey volunteered, setting the steaming tray down on the red-checkered tablecloth between them. She removed two steaming plates, two cups and a pot of steaming black coffee from the tray. "I have to take some pies out of the oven," she added, handing them their napkins and silverware. "Just call me if you need anything more. I'll bring you some fresh coffee in a bit." Then she and her tray disappeared-in the direction of her kitchen.

MacGregor studied his 'hopelessly stubborn and impossible to reason with' friend very carefully. There had to be a shred of sanity left in the man somewheres. The only question now was, could he find it? "Mareck brought in nine more men while you were gone."

"Yeah...I know," Crown calmly replied and calmly poured his fishing friend a nice hot cup of steaming black coffee.

"Mareck only allowed that telegram ta get through ta yah because he wants yah ta leave town-so his men can kill yah without any witnesses around."

"Yeah...I know," Crown calmly replied and calmly poured himself a nice hot cup of steaming black coffee.

"The moment yah left Hardesty for Fort Dawes yah'd be a dead man."

"Yeah...I know," Crown calmly and quietly replied for a third time.

The Marshal's incredibly calm responses helped calm MacGregor-considerably. "Well, what's all this talk about tr-r-rains then? The lass had me worried there for awhi-"

"-Oh," Crown interrupted-even more calmly and quietly, "I'm gonna be boardin' the train ta Hardesty at 7:45 all right. But I'm gonna be gettin' off'n it at 7:50. Then I'm gonna double back around an' intercept the next train ta Shades Wells. I'll have 'em drop me off at Gault's Spring. Then I'll sneak into Fort Dawes the back way an' collect my prisoner."

MacGregor could feel his fury rising rapidly again. "There's no point in yer killing yerself-and there's no point in yah getting yerself kill't, either! Wait 'til Francis gets here with some men ta back yah up. So what if they let that Tanner fella go. You tracked 'im down can track 'im down again!"

"I'm not so sure about that. There's ten million acres for Tanner ta lose himself in out there in that Outlet. An' he's real good at losin' himself. Maybe too good. If he'd a' gotten jes' a little bit more of a headstart on me, I'd a' never caught up with 'im the las' time."

"Well, what would have been so dreadfully awful about that?"

"I want the man responsible for John Two Rivers' death ta pay for what he did."

"And Ah'm telling yah that-if yah leave here ta go after Tanner-there's a very strong possibility that yah will no' be coming back again...ever! And Tanner is no' worth dying for!"

"Yeah...I know," Crown calmly replied for a fourth time. "It's Mareck I'm after."

"Mareck! Aye! Now there's a prize!" MacGregor shouted, his voice filled with sarcasm. "'Mister' Mareck will just say what he's been saying right along-that he had nothing ta do with yer friend's death-that Tanner was acting on his own."

"You've seen the way he runs his little operation. His men won't even inhale or exhale without 'Mister' Mareck's' permission. No, when Tanner killed John Two Rivers, he was actin' under Mareck's orders all right. An', when Tanner realizes he's gonna be standin' on a hair-trigger trap door with a noose around his neck, he'll talk. Yes-sir, he'll get real talkative. An' that's the real reason I got ta go after Tanner-I got ta get ta him before Mareck does."

"Even if yah can keep 'im alive long enough ta testify, Mareck will just deny everything. It'll be Mareck's word against Tanner's."

"Yeah, but Tanner's word is gonna be backed up by the ten other men I've got stashed away-for safe-keepin'."

"There! Yah see! Yah do no' need Tanner. Yah have all those other men ta testify against Mareck for yah."

"That's not good enough. I don' jes' want ta see Mareck tried for trespassin' an' extortion. I want ta see 'im convicted a' murder."

"Even if that means yah have ta ride out a' here and let 'im mer-r-rder yah ta do it?"

"Actually, that's not a part a' my plan."

"Speaking a' yer 'plan'...Ah did no' hear what happens ta yah after the part where yah sneak inta the Fort the back way and collect yer prisoner. Yah think Mareck's men are just gonna let yah sneak back out and cart 'im off somewheres? What's ta prevent 'em from turning the both of yah inta buzzard bait, the moment yah leave the Fort?"

Crown stared thoughtfully down into his coffee for a few moments before commenting. "They'll have ta catch us, first."

MacGregor looked extremely skeptical as to the soundness of the Marshal's plan-at least, that particular part of it. "Aye. Answer me this. If that Indian were no' a good friend a' yer's, would yah still be considering riding out of here?"

Crown stared across the table at his shrewd-looking deputy. "That's a real interestin' question, Mac," he was forced to admit. "I'll have ta think on that some."

"Well, I hope you can think while you're chewing," Dulcey advised, stepping back up to their table with a fresh, hot pot of coffee, "because your train is going to be leaving in less than thirty minutes now, and you haven't even touched your breakfast yet. Well, you may be able to get by for a while without sleep, but you can't go out there and expect to function without food, as well. So you simply must eat something before you go.

Now, I've already packed your saddlebags for you and filled your canteen. I didn't bother with your bedroll. You won't be needing it anyways, since you'll be coming back here tonight. Oh, and if you are going to be taking those heavy chain things with you, please don't pack them in on top of your pie. There are few things less appetizing looking then a piece of squooshed apple pie. Now, come on! Eat! Eat! Ea-Eat!" she urged, pushing the Marshal's now non-steaming plate towards his still non-chewing self.

The two lawmen turned to each other and exchanged mystified glances, but then obediently picked up their knives and forks and began eating.

"That's better. Now, you just keep eating and I'll get you some fresh coffee," she volunteered and disappeared in the direction of her kitchen again.

MacGregor stared down at the two pots of fresh coffee already setting on their table. "Must be pre-party jitters," he reasoned aloud. "Poor lass! She's been planning the thing for months! No-ow, Ah do no' think she's gonna last the night," he sadly summed up. .

Crown chewed and swallowed-and looked thoughtful. "For months, you say?"

His deputy chewed and swallowed-and nodded.

"Now, that's kind a' curious," Crown thoughtfully continued. "Considerin' that Francis has only been gone a week an' a half."

MacGregor practically choked on a piece of his ham. After a brief-but violent-coughing spell, the Scotsman cleared his throat nervously and forced an equally nervous smile. "Aye. That's what Ah meant. Ah meant it seems like months," he corrected. "You know me, Ah'm prone to a bit a' the exaggeration," he added, slouching down in his seat.

"Uh-huh..." Crown replied, sounding deeply skeptical. "People around these parts must be particularly desperate for entertainment. 'Cuz it sure don' seem ta take much ta put 'em inta a partyin' mood. Tell me, what's so special about this particular party, anyways? Seems everywhere I go, people are goin' out a' their way ta mention the party tanight. First Dulcey...then the Wongs...then Charley...Mrs. Fitzsimmons...Danny. Why, 'Mister' Mareck even mentioned it."

"Mentioned what?" Dulcey wondered, returning with a fresh, hot pot of coffee.

"What else!" Crown glumly replied. "Yore party tanight."

"Well, he didn't say that he was coming, did he? Because he's not welcome if he does. Besides, he hasn't been invited. At least, not by me he hasn't. You're not eating again," Dulcey suddenly realized with a frown. "Do I have to feed you?"

Crown stared at the frowning girl-and then at Mac-in disbelief.

MacGregor shrugged. "In the state she's in, anything's possible."

Crown swallowed nervously and then resumed eating with a vigor that far surpassed his diminished appetite.

Dulcey looked extremely pleased with herself. Then she set her coffeepot down beside the other two and headed back into her kitchen again.

The two men stared after her for a few moments-and then down at the three steaming pots on their table.

Mac turned his gaze back to the kitchen and looked thoughtful. "Yah do no' suppose she's gone ta fetch us some 'fresh' coffee, do yah?"

The Scotsman's question caused Crown first to smile...then to grin...and then to start laughing. His deputy joined him-and the sound of their soft, easy laughter filled the big, empty room.

"I'm counting on you," Dulcey declared and watched as the Marshal's horse eagerly began devouring the contents of the large wooden bowl in her outstretched hands. "I know it's an awfully long ways, but Charley says that you have plenty of stamina. So you should be able to get the Marshal back here in plenty of time."

Speaking of what Charley had said...

Dulcey decided the horse warranted a second look.

There must be something special about the beast if the Marshal was willing to keep it at his own, personal expense. After all, boarding a horse could be quite costly.

But-no matter how hard she stared-all she saw was homely staring back at her. She couldn't imagine the Marshal ever buying such an animal. Perhaps the gelding had been a gift? Yes, that had to be it! Lancer was obviously a gift horse.

Now, she couldn't imagine who would ever want to give the Marshal such an animal.

"I see it," Crown muttered beneath his breath, "but I don't believe it."

"Why?" MacGregor wondered, joining the Marshal at his office window. "What's she up to now?"

"She's standin' out there...talkin' ta my' feedin' it cake an' apple peelin's." Crown hesitated, looking thoughtful. "She mus' be tryin' ta bribe it inta gettin' me back here in time for her party tonight," he reasoned aloud.

"Aye, Ah reckon yer right," Mac agreed and seemed pleased that the Marshal seemed to be thinking quite clearly again. Perhaps too clearly, now.

Crown snatched his Stetson from the hat stand and tossed it back on his head. Then he grabbed his rain-gear, his saddlebags, his canteen and his rifle and headed on out the door.

"Leave her be, man!" MacGregor called after him. "The lass means no harm!"

"Go easy on that stuff," Crown advised, stepping up to the lass, "or you're gonna make 'im sick."

"Don't worry," Dulcey declared. "I'm not going to give him any more...until he gets back," she added, waving her bowl of horsey treats in front of the Marshal's mount's muzzle. "You want them? You know where to find them," she reminded the nickering nag.

Then she started backing towards the front door of her Inn, wearing a smile of deep satisfaction on her pretty face.

Crown's horse nickered again and took a step or two after the departing girl.

"Oh, great!" Crown stated, snatching up the dangling reins and pulling the animal to a stop. He turned to his deputy, not looking too pleased. "Yah see that? Dulcey's got my horse almost as distracted as she is!"

He slid his rifle into its leather scabbard on the side of his saddle and hooked his canteen strap over the horn. Then he tossed his saddlebags and his black canvas duster across the back of his seat and started strapping everything down, muttering out loud to himself. "Bribin' a man's horse. Kin you believe it? An' why is she so set on me bein' here tonight, anyways? If yah ask me, she ought ta be worryin' more about her guest-a'' whether or not he's gonna show up! Yah'd think so long as he shows up, that would be enough ta make her happy!"

"Now Ah know why 'Mister' Mareck keeps sayin' he's such a reasonable man," MacGregor muttered, not to himself, but to Crown's horse. "The Marshal, here, has an uncanny knack for answering his own questions."

Crown thought Mac's comments over for a few moments...and Mareck's...and Charley's...and Danny's...and kept coming to the same conclusion. He stiffened suddenly and stared at the Scotsman in disbelief-and dismay. "Are you sayin'...that party for me?"

"How long have we known each other?" Mac calmly inquired.

Crown stared at him in confusion. "I dunno. Mus' be goin' on five years. Why?"

"Aye. Five years," Mac agreed, "to the very day," he added hintingly.

A look of dawning understanding slowly came over the Marshal, followed by another look of total disbelief. "Yah mean ta tell me that Dulcey decided ta throw me a' spent months plannin' it...jes' because I been here for five years?"

MacGregor looked a bit squeamish. "Ah did no' mean ta tell yah. It just sort a' came out."

"Well, why didn' she ask me first, if I even wanted a party? I would a' told her what a lousy idea it was!"

MacGregor turned back to the Marshal's horse. "See what Ah mean?"

The animal tossed its head and snorted.

MacGregor smiled. "Aye. Ah see yah do-" he cut his comment short and a strange look came over him. "Oh no. It's contagious," he muttered. Then he drew himself up and faced his still-puzzled friend again. "If yah knew as much about marshaling as yah do about women, you would no' a' lasted a day here! Can't yah see, man? The lass loves yah!"

The Marshal's face fell and his already slumped shoulders sagged even more. "I thought I had that all straightened out."

MacGregor managed an impatient sigh. "She's no' in love with yah. She just loves yah. So, maybe she just figured that-after spending five long years holding the lid down on this pressure-cooker of a place-that maybe yah deserved a little thanks and recognition for all a' yer hard work.

Now, granted, her timing could have been a bit better maybe. But the date was set for this little shindig long before 'Mister' Mareck and his horde showed up-ta spoil things." He saw the Marshal looked deeply moved and deeply thoughtful, so he felt deeply justified in removing the surprise aspect of the evening. "Ah thought that if yah knew how important this particular party was...what it means ta the lass...that you'd be particularly careful out there...and maybe make an extra effort ta get back here in time."

"Thanks," Crown told him with another grateful smile. "But I already promised Dulcey that I'd do my best. An' no man kin do better than that, remember? Not even me-e," he added, his smile broadening into a grin.

'You'll make the lass happy by getting back in time for her party...and you'll make this old heart a' mine glad just by making it back-period,' Mac thought solemnly. Then he forced a smile. "Take care a' yerself, Jim Crown. Ah've grown a wee bit accustomed ta yah in the past five years. Besides, Ah dread the thought of having ta break in a new man."

"What a coincidence," Crown calmly came back. "Why, I was jest about ta say the very same thing ta you." The Marshal swung himself up onto his horse and then sat there, smiling smugly down at his very doubtful looking deputy.

"Incorrigible!" Mac fired up at him.

"It's the company I keep!" Crown shot back down.

The two of them exchanged grins again.

Dulcey came bursting back out onto the boardwalk. "You're still here? Do you realize that you now have less than five minutes to get down to that depot and get you and your horse loaded onto that train? I'd go down and see you off, but I have some more pies to take out of the oven. So please, be careful! And please, try to make it back as quickly as possible. Preferably by eight...but nine o'clock would even be all right. I suppose ten wouldn't even be too la-!"

"-Dulcey!" Crown interrupted, suppressing another grin. "If you don' say goodbye pretty quick, I'm gonna miss my train, remember?"

"Oh...yes...of course. Goodbye, Jim. Have a safe journey...and please hurry back!"

The Marshal glanced knowingly at MacGregor and then beamed a broad smile down at the distracted girl. "You promise ta save me a dance?"

"Yes! Of course!" she promised.

"Goo-ood! Then you jes' keep rememberin' my promise, 'cuz I have every intention of takin' you up on yores-jes' as soon as I git back!" Crown grinned again. Then he tipped his hat to the two of them and headed off down the street-in the direction of the depot...and his train.


Chapter Text

"The Death of A Legend"

Chapter Four

The constant 'clackety-clack...clackety-clack...clackety-clacking' of the steel wheels as they rolled along from rail, was having an almost hypnotic affect on the Marshal. That, coupled with the gentle, side-to-side rocking motion of the stock car he and his horse were riding in, was slowly lulling him to sleep.

He was sitting on a pile of straw in a far corner of the car, with his back resting up against the wall and his crossed arms resting comfortably upon his chest. One of his long legs was out-stretched. The other-bent at the knee-was serving as a temporary hat stand for his Stetson.

But the Marshal was nowhere near as relaxed as he appeared to be-as he should have been-considering that everything had gone exactly according to how he had planned far. The day was still quite young, however, and that is what had him feeling so uneasy-all the uncertainties that still loomed ahead.

Speaking of uncertainties...

Crown was glad his friend hadn't pressed him for further details concerning the 'escape from Fort Dawes alive' part of his 'plan'. Because there weren't any...exactly.

All the Marshal had was a potential escape plan.

Until he reached the Fort and presented the particulars to Lieutenant Anderson-and received the young officer's approval and cooperation-the peace officer couldn't be sure of pulling it off. And, if he couldn't pull it off? Well...being in his line of work, the Marshal never really had his heart set on dying of old age anyways. He'd just have to do the best that he could-under whatever circumstances presented themselves-and leave it at that.

Besides, the only certainty in life was that there were no certainties in life. 'Time an' unforeseen occurrences befall us all', he thought, suddenly recalling the Divinely inspired words of a much wiser man than he.

The fatigued philosopher's drooping eyelids dropped and he drifted off with Mac's words still echoing in his ears '...if that Indian were no' a good friend a' yers, would yah still be considering riding out a' here?...if that Indian were no' a good friend a' yers...if that Indian were no' a good friend a' yers...if that Indian were no' a good friend a' yers...'

As the train rolled along, the years rolled away...

For the umpteenth time in the two long hours it had taken the thirty-one reluctant little dogies to be driven a mere three miles distance from the main herd, the mottled old bull in the lead planted all four of his feet firmly in the pink-tinged earth of the ravine, and refused to take another step.

The thirty cows obediently trailing in its wake ground to a halt along with him.

The two young cowhands-whose misfortune it was to be hazing the obstinate creatures-gasped in exasperation and then turned to each other, wearing the most pained expressions on their sweat-streaked, dust-covered faces.

Dave-because he was riding at the head of the herd and so was closest to the stalled critter-stared distastefully down at the statue-like bull for a few moments, then 'whistled' and 'whooped' and slapped his chapped knee with the coil of his lariat.

The mottled monster remained motionless, however, obviously unimpressed by the young drover's display.

Dave managed another exasperated gasp and opened his mouth to hurl a fresh string of insults at the still un-animated animal. But, not being nasty by nature, the young man discovered his imagination for inventing insults had been completely exhausted. Incredibly, he was all cussed out. All that eventually departed from his rather parched lips was a rather half-hearted, "Hee-ya-ah!"

The bull just glared back at him in wide and wild-eyed defiance. Then it lowered its enormous head, gave it a savage shake and let loose a series of low, deep-throated 'bellows' which literally shook the ground and sent long streamers of saliva sailing from the tip of its long, lolling tongue.

Dave, on the other hand, was both impressed and distressed by the little dogie's display. The animal was, after all, over seven feet long and stood nearly six-foot at the shoulder. There was better than an eight-foot spread from the tip of one of the Longhorn's long horns to the tip of its other. No doubt about it, Dave was staring at a close to a ton a' trouble on the hoof!

The cowboy decided he was sick and tired of staring at it. So he reined his horse around and went riding up to his companion in the rear. "James, me boy...I think it's about time we traded places. Don't you? How 'bout you ridin' point for a while an' I ride drag?"

'James, me boy' just sat there, with his crossed forearms resting rather relaxedly on the horn of his saddle, looking like he was lost in thought. He was. He was thinking about Dave...and the little dogie.

Dave had been carryin' on a colorful, shouted, one-sided conversation with the cantankerous old bull all morning and was obviously in no mood now for a no answer.

The little dogie sounded really riled up and was obviously in no mood now to be herded along anywhere by anybody.

So then, James was thinking...Who would he rather 'lock horns' with under the circumstances? A mad Dave...or a mad bull?

His hesitating to reply caused Dave to sigh and continue, "I know you won the toss fair an' square. But I wouldn't even be here right now if it weren't for you! This whole detail was all yore doin'! Remember? 'Gee, Mr. Donnelly, why don' we give 'em some breedin' stock, too?'" he mimicked, in a 'goody-goody' fashion and glared disgustedly at his big-mouthed companion.

"I don't give the orders in this outfit," James calmly replied in his defense. "Remember?"

"No-o-o!" Dave shouted back. "You jes' make suggestions! Well, I got a real good one for you! In the future, do me a favor-an' keep yore 'suggestions' to yerself!"

The shouting clinched it. James concluded that he'd rather deal with a mad bull, than a mad Dave, any day! Jim was about to leave, but then turned back to his companion, looking confused. "I thought you said you liked the idea..."

"Oh, I did!" Dave admitted. "I did! But that was before I found out who was gonna be stuck babysittin' that big dumb bull over there!"

Jim suppressed a smile. "No wonder the ol' boy is all riled up. What with all the names you been callin' 'im, lately. If you want 'im ta respond proper, yah got ta be' address 'im by his rightful name."

Dave looked dubious. "Which is rightfully...?"

"David," Jim teased. "But I jes' call 'im 'Dave'...on account a' how he reminds me of another ornery ol' cuss I know," he added with a grin. Then he ducked as the bull's namesake grinned and whipped his hat at him.

Jim grinned again and went cantering cautiously up to assume the precarious 'point' position. "Ah, come on now, Dave!" he called out politely. "Yah got ta quit yore dallyin' there, Davey!" he continued, calmly working his way to within striking range of the rogue's razor-sharp horns. "We haven't got all day, Da-ave! Yah big dummy!" he concluded rather rudely.

Then he whacked the belligerent beast on the behind with the coil of his lariat and went galloping off up the ravine in the direction of the Indian village-with both 'Dave's', and the rest of the herd, in hot pursuit!

Needless to say, they made the remaining four miles in real good, if not record, time!

Jim went cantering right into one of the two large holding corrals on the outskirts of the Indian camp.

Dave-the big dumb bull-trotted obligingly in after him...followed by all thirty of his heaving, huffing herdmates.

Jim skirted quickly around the milling, 'mooing' cattle and went scooting right back out the entrance.

Dave, the drover, pulled the top bar of the gate across just as 'Dave', the bellowing bovine, was about to pursue his partner back out of the pen. He immediately dragged the middle pole across the portal as well, shutting Jim safely out and the bull safely in.

Jim gasped in relief then reined his lathered horse in and slipped to the ground beside his equally relieved looking partner.

The two of them slid the gate's bottom bar into place and then stood there hunched over, resting their hands on their chapped knees. Both boys remained silent, but only because they were breathing too hard at the moment to speak.

"You're crazy, yah know that!" Dave gasped at long last. "Startin' a stampede like that...with me on the ground...pickin' up my hat! You got ta be crazy! You could a' at least warned me!"

"I considered it," Jim gasped right back, in reply to his irritated companion's latest accusation. "But then I remembered yore suggestion. You know, the one where I'm s'posed ta keep my suggestions ta myself..." He grinned and ducked again as Dave grinned and took another playful swing at him with his hat.

"You're crazy!" Dave repeated for the third time in less than a minute. "In a brilliant sort a' way..." he added, his voice filled with admiration.

Jim flashed his friend a bashful smile and removed his hat, too. The two friends wiped the sweat and grime from their foreheads with the sleeves of their faded, dust-covered shirts, and turned to see what all the commotion was behind them.

The cattle were still milling about, because the old bull was still all riled up and still circling the corral at a pretty good clip-still searching for a way out.

"Why, a fella don't got ta be no genius," Jim casually observed, "ta figure out the ol' boy prefers chasin' ta bein' chased." His accurate comment caused the two young cowhands to exchange grins again.

Then their grins vanished, as they gradually became aware of yet another commotion going on all around them. The area of the holding corrals was rapidly becoming the center of a great deal of attention.

The two young men stood there, silently staring into the solemn faces of the half-starved people that were gathering in small groups around them...and the pen containing the cattle.

Jim thought about how the buffalo were free to roam wherever they wanted to. When grass got scarce, they just moved on to better grazing. Yet the Government had 'cooped up' these people and just left them there to starve. "It ain't right..." he muttered, his voice filled with anger and frustration. These people should be able to move on in search of food for themselves and their families, too. People should be as free to roam as the buffalo. "It just ain't right..." he sadly repeated and slapped his hat across his knee in an attempt to dispel some of the dust-and disgust!

Unlike Jim, Dave had never seen 'cooped up' Indians before. He found something hauntingly sad about the place...and the people.

The Comanche had been such a proud people-a nation of nomadic, skilled hunters and horsemen. Being forcibly 'cooped up' seemed to be taking an even greater toll on their spirit than it was on their emaciated bodies. Their current living conditions seemed more like dying conditions for them.

Dave could see that hauntingly sad look reflected even in the faces of the very young children. The Government hadn't just taken away these people's way of life...'coopin' 'em up' had crushed their spirit-took away their will to live, as well. "About what I said back there," Dave said, sounding as solemn as he looked. "You know, about you and yore suggestions..."

"Forget it," Jim suggested and slapped his sweat-stained hat back on his sweat-drenched head.

"That's not too likely," Dave continued, sounding even more somber. "Givin' 'em breedin' they kin start raisin' their own cattle an' havin' beef all year 'round...well, I jes' want yah ta know I still think it's a good idea. In fact, it's a damn fine idea! An' I'm right proud ta have played a small part in carryin' it out. Even if it did mean that I jes' had ta spend the most miserable mornin' a' my entire far."

Jim suppressed another smile. Then he glanced at the still empty corral and frowned. They seemed to have beaten the cattle for eatin'. "Come on! Mr. Donnelly said they'd have someone here who speaks English. We'd better go see if we kin find 'im. Someone's got ta explain ta 'em that these cattle are not for eatin'."

The two young cowhands started leading their horses off in the direction of the Indian village, questioning people along the way.

Did anyone around there speak any English? How about Spanish? Chiracowa Apache? Blackfoot? Kiowa? Cheyenne? Cherokee? Sioux? Crow? Paiute? Arapaho?

They questioned everyone within fifty yards of the holding pens.

But no one acknowledged that they spoke any English or Spanish or Chirakowa Apache etc., etc., etc..

So Dave gave up and turned back. "Don't you speak any Comanche, at all?" he inquired and glanced in his multi-lingual friend's direction.

But Jim was no longer beside him. 'Gentleman Jim' had stopped a ways back to admire-and assist-a beautiful young girl who was staggering up a steep slope from the river, carrying two very large, very heavy wooden buckets filled with water. "Not nearly as much as I'd like ta be able to at this moment, believe me," Jim admitted, stepping over to help the girl with her burden. "Ishtar-te-yo-ne-ke," he cordially declared and flashed her his warmest, winningest smile.

The girl halted dead in her tracks and looked almost fearful of him.

So the cowboy smiled again and extended his hand to her-palm up and open-in a sort of universal sign of friendship.

But the girl was having no part of it. Her large, dark eyes flashed with hatred and contempt and she pulled away from him with such suddenness that it sent water sloshing out of her buckets.

Jim stared after the rapidly disappearing beauty for a few moments, looking rather confused-and more than a little disappointed. "Must a' been somethin' I said..."

Dave stared after her, too, looking both amused and amazed. "What exactly did you say?"

"Good question..."

"Yeah, well...there was sure no mistakin' what she said."

Jim turned to his friend, looking puzzled-for the girl hadn't spoken.

Dave turned to his friend, looking smug. "I mean, I may not speak Comanche, but I got 'eyes'. First you said, 'Hello there, little lady. Kin I help you carry yore buckets?' An' then she said, 'Get lost, cowboy! Before I carve yore bleedin' heart out!'"

Jim winced at his partner's rather grim-yet seemingly accurate-'interpretation' of what had just transpired.

"Anways, that's the way it appeared ta me," Dave restated. "But then, I wasn't lookin' at her quite the way you were..." he added with a sly smile.

"Yeah..." Jim suppressed another smile and stood there, staring off into the distance. "An' I could a' looked at her all day..." he whispered, sounding rather wistful. He snapped back to reality, glanced over his friend's shoulder and stiffened, as he caught sight of an old man, with a feathered war lance, slipping between the rails of 'the' holding pen. "What does that darn fool think he's doin'?" he exclaimed in alarm. "He-ey, stop! You cain't go in there! Especially not on foot! Hey! Somebody stop 'im!"

Somebody had to stop the bull from killing the old man-or the old man from killing the bull!

The only problem was, Jim seemed to be the only 'somebody' aware of the problem, who was in a position to act at the moment. So he sprang up into his saddle and spurred his horse forward across the yard-toward the corral.

Every year at that time, trail bosses-driving large herds of cattle from ranches down in Texas up to the rail heads in Kansas-would bargain with the Indians for permission to take a 'short-cut' through Indian Territory. The advance delivery of an agreed upon number of cattle would usually seal the deal.

As was customary upon the arrival of their first 'crossing cattle'-as the Indians called them-the brave with the most seniority would spear a steer or two-or three-and the entire camp would feast and celebrate for several days.

But the brave old brave who entered the holding pen this delivery day-on foot-and armed only with a wooden war lance-was not aware of, or even expecting, the old bull's presence.

The young cowboy, racing toward the corral at break-neck speed, was aware of very little else. Jim actually considered, for a moment, reaching for his rifle. But then he weighed what was at stake and quickly reconsidered. There had to be another way...a way to save them both...from each other.

He reached the pen, spurred his horse again and went sailing right up and over the top rail.

The old man had, by this time, found himself suddenly face-to-face with nearly two thousand pounds of penned-up ferocity. Realizing that he was probably about to die, he chose to do so while attacking rather than retreating. The old man courageously charged his pawing opponent and hurled his spear forwards with all of his strength and skill. His aim was accurate and appeared to be right on target.

But, at the last moment, the old bull saw the feathers flying at him and leaped aside.

The old man's lance landed harmlessly in the dust. His only missile ended up missing the mottled old monster by a mile.

It was at this time that the bull, who carried two spears-permanently attached-and who was equally adept at aiming and hurling them forcefully through the air, made his charge.

Jim made a courageous charge of his own and tried to block the bull's path. Then, failing that, he hoped to distract it at least long enough to allow the old man time to escape.

But the old bull completely ignored the irritation racing around him on four fleet feet and continued to charge the slower moving of his two targets-the old man traveling on just two feet.

The gap was closing quickly.

Jim had no choice but to place his horse-and himself- directly across the bull's path again. This time, his actions did force the mottled monster to change its course.

The obstinate animal swerved to avoid the collision, but not before taking an aggravated swing at the source of its aggravation.

Then, before the critter could get itself turned around and back on track, Jim locked onto the old man's wrist and hauled him up behind him in his seat.

It didn't take too much effort. The old man was, after all, half-starved.

Inspired by the bull's spears and its rider's spurs, the horse went sailing back up over the top rail to safety-and to cheers of approval from the Indian audience.

Jim reined his overly inspired mount in and set the old man down on the ground at his friend's feet.

"Mas-ne-dan-tas!" the old brave announced to his fellow braves and waved his arm in the direction of his young rescuer.

"Mas-ne-dan-tas!" they repeated approvingly.

"They said," Dave deciphered, "that that was some fast thinkin', and a fancy bit a' ridin' you just did there! An' I agree!" he added, sounding every bit as impressed with his partner as he looked.

"I wasn't thinkin'..." Jim quietly corrected, "...or I prob'ly wouldn't a' done it..." He paused to gasp for breath.

Dave suddenly noticed that his partner appeared noticeably pale. He also glimpsed the front of the old man's shirt and saw that it was smeared with bright red blood.

"...An' the ridin' could a' been...just a tad bit...fancier!" Jim finished, falling forwards in his seat.

Dave quickly realized which of the two men the smeared blood belonged to. He caught his collapsing companion under the arms and carefully lowered him to the ground. Then he gently rolled his injured friend onto his left side so he could examine the source of all the smeared blood and determine the extent of the damages. He winced, finding a horrible, deep gash midway down the right side of Jim's back-where the bull's horns had hooked him.

To those watching, the whole bull business had been just a 'whir' and a 'blur' and was all over in just a matter of seconds. While everyone remembered seeing the old bull swing his enormous head in the young cowboy's direction, no one could recall actually seeing it make contact.

Jim hadn't seen it either, for that matter. But he had sure enough felt it! It had felt like a red-hot poker had been rammed very forcibly into his back. The force of the impact was so great that it had very nearly dislodged him from his saddle.

Dave fumbled with the knot on his scarf, slipped it from around his neck and quickly stashed it into the gaping, ghastly wound in an attempt to stem the steady crimson stream.

Jim jerked a little and winced in pain.

Dave winced again, too, and watched helplessly, as his bright blue bandana quickly became a bright red. "How yah doin', partner?" he inquired, keeping his voice incredibly calm-for his partner's sake.

"Not too bad..." Jim gasped, sounding equally incredibly calm-for the same exact reason. "How does it look?"

"Not too good," Dave honestly admitted. "I cain't stop the bleedin'." He fumbled with his belt buckle and then slid it from around his waist. "I'm gonna have ta leave yah here an' go for help. I'll fetch Mr. Donnelly an' ol' Dan. They'll know what ta do." He slipped his belt around Jim's mid-section, then pulled it up nice and snug and fastened it-so that it would keep constant pressure on the scarf and hence, the wound.

Jim gasped again and groaned involuntarily as the increased pressure increased his pain, considerably. He moaned again to keep from crying out and started moving around.

Dave gave his friend's arm a reassuring squeeze. "You jes' lie here-nice an' still like-an' I'll be back before yah know it!"

Jim was hurting too much to be able to speak now, so he acknowledged Dave with a slight nod and even a slighter smile. Then he shut his eyes and lay there grimacing and gasping and gritting his tightly clenched teeth.

Dave grimaced himself. Then he gave his friend's arm one last squeeze and reluctantly got to his feet. He snatched up his dangling reins, swung up onto his horse and went galloping off, in a pink-tinged cloud of dust.

Leaving Jim lying there all alone-and hurting. Well, not exactly all alone. But he sure enough was hurting! Jim hadn't hurt that ba-ad since the time when he was thirteen years old and had his horse shot out from under him! The stricken animal had landed on his left leg, snapping the bone in two-in two places!

He tossed his head and continued squirming about, trying to find a comfortable-no, no-o, Jim decided he'd be willing to settle for just a bearable position to lie in. But there was none forthcoming.

Someone's strong hands gripped his arms firmly-yet gently.

Jim snapped his eyes back open to check that someone out. The cowboy found himself completely surrounded by silent, solemn-looking Indians. The old man he had pulled from the pen was stooped beside him, trying to hold him still.

"Mas-ne-dan-tas!" the brave repeated, smiling approvingly. He gave his young rescuer's arm a reassuring squeeze and placed the cowboy's hat on his chest. Then, before Jim even realized what was happening, the old man had scooped him carefully up off the ground and was even more carefully carting him off somewheres.

The large circle of by-standers parted for them, then reformed into two semi-circles and followed silently and solemnly along.

For being so old-and so malnourished-the man displayed remarkable strength and stamina. The Indian hauled his hundred and forty pound burden effortlessly up to a teepee, in the very heart of the village, and ducked under the flap at its entrance. Once inside, the old brave placed his young rescuer gently down on a rather plush pile of buffalo robes.

"A-Ahhh!" Jim cried out involuntarily, as his badly injured back came into contact with a softer-yet still solid-surface again. The pain took his breath away.

The old man gave him a deeply sympathetic look and then quickly left.

Now Jim really was all alone! He was also really hurting, really bad. His breath returned in quick, short gasps. He lay there, with his eyes tightly shut and his jaw tightly clenched, grimacing and gasping...and moaning and groaning. Then, to distract himself from the pain-and to keep himself from squirming clean out of his skin-Jim opened his eyes back up and forced himself to take a long look around.

It was nearly noon now and bright sunlight was shining down at him through the gaping hole created by the poles poking through the top of the tent. The place was well furnished as Indian lodgings go.

The reason for the affluence soon became apparent. Hanging from the lodgepole almost directly over his head was the most resplendent feathered headdress Jim had ever seen, and he had seen a few-a few more than he had cared to, actually.

Judging by the vast assortment of armaments lying about and lining the walls, the teepee's occupant was not only a great Chief, but also a mighty warrior-a courageous and cunning man who had-no doubt-counted many a 'coup' in his day.

There were feathered spears of various lengths, and bows...some strung, some unstrung. Quivers filled with arrows bearing the markings of practically every Indian tribe Jim was aware of, and even a few he couldn't recognize.

There were and out of leather sheaths. and out of leather cases. and out of metal scabbards. There were stacks of brightly-colored, beautifully-woven blankets...rows of large, clay jars...some covered, some uncovered...several sealed sacks...and a large, leather-bound wooden trunk, resembling-more than anything-a treasure chest.

There were two other stacks of buffalo robes-one on either side of him. In the very center of the teepee's dirt floor, was a ring of medium-sized stones-the home's kitchen and the family's fireplace. The ground sloped noticeably away from around this point-a provision designed to keep the home fires burning even after the heaviest of downpours.

Jim finished his initial inspection then groaned involuntarily and shut his eyes tightly again. He was still impressed-but no longer distracted-by his surroundings. His eyes remained closed and didn't reopen until the tent flap rustled.

It was the old man again. "We-yo-wa-su-yen!" the Indian declared, pointing to a young, brawny brave who had accompanied him into the tent. "Mas-ne-dan-tas!" he added, motioning to the moaning man lying not very stilly on his borrowed bed of buffalo robes. The old man gave his young rescuer another deeply sympathetic look. Then he snatched up one of the rifles and made another rapid departure from the teepee.

The brawny young brave remained and sat down, cross-legged, on the dirt floor beside Jim's pile of buffalo robes. "Ishtar-te-yo-ne-ke, Mas-ne-dan-tas."

Jim smiled, through all his misery, he was forced to smile. He had remembered the correct way to say, 'Greetings friend, I mean you no harm,' in Comanche, after all. "Well...I understand the first part all right..." he revealed between gasped breaths. "But I don't have the vaguest notion...what...'Mas-ne-dan-tas' means."

"It means," the young brave told him, speaking in fluent, flawless English, "one who rides the wind or rides with the wind."

Jim was absolutely astounded. "You speak English!" he exclaimed, tensing with excitement. Then he stiffened and groaned as the sudden movement produced even more pain. "That old man...the one who just left here totin' a got ta go talk ta 'im...You got ta make 'im understand...the cattle in that pen out there...are not for eatin'...The cattle in that pen...are for breedin'...makin' more cattle."

The young brave's brows arched. "I am aware of the effects of breeding," he announced, suppressing a smile.

"Goo-ood..." Jim gasped, "then you are also aware...that without that ornery ol' bull out there...there won't BE any effects...So I'd be much obliged...if you'd go out' translate that that old man with the rifle...right away!...An' tell the rest a' yore people ta wait, too...There are more cattle comin'...plenty more!...In jes' a few more hours...they're gonna have more meat...than they kin a year!"

The young brave noticed the young cowboy's highly agitated state seemed to be aggravating his already serious physical condition. "All right! All right! Calm down. I will go tell them if you will just calm down and lie still."

Jim quickly calmed himself down and forced himself to lie perfectly still.

True to his word, the young brave got up and left.

Jim was feeling very much worse. He was extremely thirsty all of a sudden and he felt extremely cold.

It occurred to him, for the first time, that it just might be that he was...dyin'.

Being but a young man of barely twenty years, Jim hadn't given dyin' a whole lot of thought before. Strange, but he didn't seem to be as scared of the thought of dyin' as he was of the thought of bein' all alone when-and if-it should happen.

Well...he reckoned it wasn't how a man died, but how he lived that concerned the Almighty.

He had lived a good-albeit brief-life, and was not afraid to face his Maker. Jim figured that must be the reason 'only the good died young'-because they hadn't lived long enough yet to get themselves into any really serious trouble.

The tent flap rustled, announcing the return of the young brave.

Jim snapped his eyes open and shot him an anxious, questioning glance.

"Relax, Windrider," the Indian urged with a smile and sat down, cross-legged, beside him again. "My Chief has assured me that he will not shoot the bull. You see, he also understands the effects of breeding. In fact, he has promised that no harm will come to any of the cattle in that pen out there."

Jim stared up at the lodgepoles overhead and breathed a welcome-albeit painful-sigh of relief. Then he suddenly looked even more astonished. "Wait a minute...Are you sayin'...that old man I snatched out a' that pen this mornin'...the old guy with the a Comanche Chief?"

"Chief Pe-ro-ka-mas is not just a chief. He is the CHIEF Chief of our tribe."

"Well, now..." Jim muttered, staring thoughtfully back up at the lodgepoles overhead, "...don't that beat all!" He turned back to the young brave. "The name's Crown...James Crown," he said and extended his hand in friendship. The Indian reluctantly took it and shook it. "My friends call me Jim...What do yore you?"

"I go by the name of We-yo-wa-su-yen. But my wife just calls me John."

"What does it mean?"

"Beth says it means 'the Lord is gracious'-or something like that."

Jim shot him an 'oh brother' look and suppressed a weak smile himself. "I meant...the other one."

John smiled wryly. "It means 'two rivers', or 'a place where two rivers meet'." The young brave noticed the young cowboy seemed to be having a rather difficult time speaking and swallowing. "Would you like some water? I could bring you your canteen..." he volunteered and started to rise.

Jim stiffened again and latched onto the young brave's wrist. "No!" he gasped with a grimace, sounding a bit panick-stricken. "I mean...I'd appreciate it...if you could jes'...set here with me...for a while..." he added and noticed that things seemed to be growing dimmer by the second.

John noticed that Jim's soft-spoken words, like his watering eyes, were filled with an almost unbearable sadness. "I understand, Windrider," the young brave softly assured him. He placed his hand over the hand gripping his wrist and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "I will not leave you."

Jim's grip relaxed a bit, then his watering eyes closed. "Jim," he whispered with another weak smile. "Remember...friend?" He gasped and stiffened, and grimaced and groaned again. The pain was unbelievable and unbearable, and he finally-mercifully-passed right out.

John Two Rivers felt the young cowboy's hand go suddenly limp.

The rest of Jim's body quickly followed suit. Then his head rolled to one side and he was perfectly still, except-thank God-for the rather rapid, but steady, rising and falling of his chest.


Chapter Text

"The Death of A Legend"

Chapter Five

"A-Ahh!" Jim cried out in agony as he once again became all too aware of pain, and the pain quickly became unbearable. He gasped and stiffened as his whole body became wracked in sharp, searing, excruciating, breath-taking pain.

It felt like someone had just rammed a red-hot poker into his back again. He wasn't sure if he was awake or not. At any rate, he seemed to be reliving his worst nightmare. "Oh-ohhh!" he moaned when his breath finally returned. His eyes slowly opened and things finally focused.

He found himself lying on his left side with his shirt off.

John Two Rivers had a firm hold on his left wrist.

His friend, Dave Fisher, had a firm hold on his right.

His trail boss, Mr. Donnelly, was sitting on his legs and Old Dan-the Double D Outfit's chief cook, dentist, doctor, confessor and bottlewasher-was standing hunched over him with a frown on his face and a smoking fire-iron in his hands.

So Jim wasn't 'dreaming'! Somebody really had just rammed a red-hot poker into his back! The cowboy grimaced and gasped again as the sickeningly sweet smell of burning flesh suddenly filled his nostrils-his burning flesh! Things started spinning again. Even his stomach started to turn.

"Sorry, son," Old Dan said, "but I had ta cauterize it in order ta get the bleedin' stopped. That ol' boy sure did a job on you!" Old Dan spoke as he set about bandaging Jim up. "The good news is, it looks now like yer gonna make it. The bad news is, yer prob'ly gonna be wishin' yah hadn't a'...for the first couple a' days, anyways. But, when the pain starts gettin' so's where yah cain't stand it no more, you jes' take a couple a' swigs a' this here stuff, here..."

The cowboy completely ignored the bottle being held up in front of his face and aimed his groggy gaze up at the old man who was holding it there.

Old Dan saw the partly puzzled, partly panic-stricken look in his patient's drooping eyes. "Sorry son. But yer gonna have ta stay put for a while. If'n we was ta move yah-in the condition yer in right now-why we'd kill yah for sure!"

Jim grimaced and shut his eyes tightly, finding this latest bit of news every bit as painful-maybe even more painful-than his wound.

Someone gave his right arm a reassuring squeeze.

He forced his eyes back open and stared blurrily up at his trail boss. Somehow, he found the energy to speak-well, leastways, to whisper. "Sorry, Mr. Donnelly...but it looks like...I'm gonna be leavin' you...short-handed."

"Don't you worry none about that," his boss ordered down, his words equally soft-spoken. "You just take it real easy, Jim," he urged with a forced, but reassuring smile, "and you'll be back 'ridin' the wind' in no time. We got ta be gettin' back ta the herd now..." he added, his voiced filled with deep regret.

Jim forced a slight smile himself and gave his boss an understanding nod. Things were spinning worse than ever and beginning to grow dim again, so he let his drooping eyelids drop. He heard Mr. Donnelly's voice turn deadly serious.

"But I promise you, we'll be back. We'll swing by and pick you up on our way back from Dodge. Yah hear?"

Jim gave him another slight nod.

He gave Jim's arm another slight squeeze and then left.

Dave, who still had a firm hold on his right wrist, gave it a reassuring squeeze, too. "I brought yah another shirt. An' I'm leavin' yah my guitar. It'll help yah pass the time. An', as long as yah don't sing along while yer playin' it, they shouldn' have no call ta 'scalp' yah." He smiled, seeing his hurting friend was forced to smile. Then he turned sad and solemn again. "I hate to leave yah here like this, partner. But yore new friends, the Chief an' Mr. Two Rivers here, promise ta see ta it that yer takin' real good care a'. So you jes' lie here-nice an' still like-an' I'll be back before yah know it!" he vowed, repeating his promise of earlier in the day. "Okay, partner?" he inquired, gripping his partner's wrist one final time.

Jim smiled slightly and managed one last nod before gradually nodding off into unconsciousness again.

Somewheres off in the not too distant distance, he could hear voices.

Old Dan was telling John Two Rivers how and when and why the dressings on his wound should be changed.

But Jim wasn't paying him no mind. He didn't really care what was being said. Soon-mercifully-he no longer had a care in the world.

Unmercifully, that carefree state didn't last very long. Leastways, not nearly long enough.

Jim woke up-late the next day-in a whole lot of pain.

It didn't take long for him to reach the point Old Dan had referred to the previous evening-the 'point so's where he couldn't stand it no more'. "A-Ahh!" he cried out involuntarily and forced his tightly shut eyes open.

The seated figure of John Two Rivers was the first thing that came into focus. The young brave had a very concerned, very anxious look on his youthful face.

"You still here?" Crown managed to blurt out between clenched teeth and gasped breaths. " must have...somethin' better ta do...than ta jes' hang around here...keepin' some...poor, dumb!"

The young Indian bristled at the young cowboy's words and the angry tone in which they were delivered. But then he realized that the anger was not directed at him, personally. Jim Crown was understandably angry-and upset. He would be too, if he were to wake up and find himself lying in this 'poor, dumb cowboy's' position. "There are a lot of other things I could be doing," John Two Rivers had to admit, "but nothing least, not right at this moment. Besides, I gave you my word."

"Yeah? Well...I won't hold yah to it...You're free ta leave...any like."

"And I am free to stay as well."

"Look...I don' need no nursemaid...An' I don' need nobody settin' aroun' here...feelin' sorry for me...neither!"

"I have been asked to serve as your interpreter for the duration of your stay with us."

"An' I don' need no interpretin', either!...Believe me...there ain't nothin' I'm gonna have ta say...that's gonna be worth...translatin'!"

"Then I shall stay as your friend."

The young cowboy flashed the Indian a rather astonished, somewhat confused look.

"Believe me, Jim, you do need a 'friend'."

Jim's eyes moistened, causing all the pain and anger-and frustration-to vanish from them for the moment. "I'm sorry...I lashed out at that," the cowboy confessed, after a time. "I'm afraid...I don' handle...pain...very well."

John Two Rivers suddenly remembered something. He pulled a cork from a bottle he took from beside his pained companion, and held it up to his parched, tightly pursed lips. "Here...this will help you handle it."

Jim got a 'whiff' of whatever was in the bottle and his already watering eyes watered even more. The smell could best be described as that of a half-decayed carcass soakin' in kerosene. Yes...yes, that was it all right. He grimaced and gasped as his on target description caused his stomach to turn. Then he pulled away.

But John Two Rivers persisted. "If Windrider drinks, drink will kill pain."

"If Windrider drinks...drink will kill Windrider!" Jim corrected, pulling just as far away as he could from the awful odor.

John quickly stashed the cork back into the bottle and then reached for the unwilling drinker to stop him from thrashing about.

But Jim had already stopped thrashing about, himself. He blinked his blurred vision into focus and lay there motionless, staring disbelievingly up at the beautiful young girl who was kneeling at his feet. It was the same girl he had stopped to admire and assist. But what was she doin' there? He let his head drop back and then aimed a sort of dazed, amazed gaze up at his interpreter. "What is she doin' here?" he wondered again, this time aloud.

John Two Rivers looked a bit uneasy. "She is here because...because she belongs here."

Jim thought his friend's reply over for a few moments. His reply was just a reply. It certainly was no answer. "Why-y? This her tent?"

"This is Chief Pe-ro-ka-mas' tent."

"She his daughter?"

John shook his head no.

Jim looked absolutely astonished. "She his woman?"

Again John shook his head no. "She is...your woman."

This time, Jim was beyond being astounded. He stiffened and then groaned as the sudden movement produced even more intense, even more excruciating pain. "What do yah mean...MY woman?" he demanded when he was finally able to speak again.

"My Chief has already given you the use of his lodge-and all of his worldly goods. But he is anxious to do even more for you. That is why I have been asked to serve as your interpreter. And that is why-when someone mentioned to my Chief that you were seen admiring this girl-he decided to give her to you."

Jim stared up at his interpreter in utter disbelief. "I didn' pull that old man...out a' that pen...because he was a Chief! I did it jes' seemed like...the thing ta do at the time...So, I'll jes' settle for a simple 'thank you'...thank you! An' he kin keep his' his' his people!"

"Do not worry about my Chief. He is busy making the rounds, visiting his relatives. They consider it a great honor to have him stay with them. And, as for the girl...I suspect he did not give her to you purely out of gratitude for saving his life. I suspect he gave her to you simply to be rid of her. White buffalo hunters raped and tortured her-and her mother-and then left them both for dead. Her mother did die-mercifully. She lived...and now carries a white child. So, no one else around here will have her."

Jim gave the beautiful young girl-with the unbelievably tragic past-a deeply sympathetic look. "Poor thing..." He stared thoughtfully up at the lodgepoles overhead again. "No one's ever given me...a 'woman'...before...I ain't all that sure...I want one," he stopped and turned back to his translator. "What happens...if I don' accept...his 'gift'?"

"If you send her away now, it will be a sign to our people that she could not please you...that she failed you. And she will become an even greater outcast then she already is-the scum of the 'scum of the earth'."

Jim looked as horrified by the bleak prospect for the girl's future as he had been by her tragic past. "An' if I keep her?... After what those buffalo hunters did ta her?...Well, you kin see the way she looks at me...I's pretty she feels about whites...What's ta keep her...from takin' a' those knives over there...some dark' 'carvin' my bleedin' heart out'?"

Mr. Two Rivers looked thoughtful. "I cannot think of a single thing," he honestly confessed.

"Oh!" Jim looked miserably miserable. "Great!" he glumly stated, but then suddenly brightened. "Wait...I'm not all 'white' mother had some Apache in' my father was part Mexican...Maybe, if you were ta tell her second'd better not...The way my luck's been runnin' jes' might be...she hates Apaches an' Mexicans...even more...than she hates 'whites'."

John Two Rivers was amused to no end, and he had himself a good laugh.

Jim Crown grinned, through all his pain and misery, but then suddenly looked a bit nervous again. "What about you?...Does it make any difference ta you...that my mother had some Apache in' that my father was part Mexican?"

"None in the least, my friend. I'm afraid I hate 'whites' even more than she does."

Jim looked about as confused as anyone could possibly get.

"You see, the way I see it," John interpreted, "a man is a 'white' who is one on the inside. There are 'white' Indians. You have demonstrated a genuine concern for the welfare of both my Chief and my people, so you cannot possibly be a 'white', because 'whites' are concerned only with themselves."

Jim felt tremendously relieved and incredibly thirsty. "Mr. Two reckon I could trouble you...for some water?"

"Oh, I 'reckon' you could, all right," John replied, suppressing another smile. "But your woman is sitting over there, just waiting for something to do. She would probably welcome the chance to bring you some water."

The young cowboy studied the young girl carefully. "Oh...she probably would...all right..." he had to admit, between gasped breaths. "But I'd be too afraid...ta drink it."

Mr. Two Rivers enjoyed another good laugh.

Jim managed another grin, but then groaned involuntarily and made another feeble attempt to sit up.

John gripped his shoulders and forcibly held him down. It didn't take too much force. Jim was, after all, still extremely weak from loss of blood and lack of food. "You just lie still, Windrider, and I will bring you something to eat and drink."

The young cowboy gave him a 'much obliged' look.

The young brave got up and left.

Jim watched his 'friend' leave and then reluctantly turned his attention back to the beautiful young girl at his feet. Back to his-HIS woman?

The girl didn't do or say anything. She just sat there, staring silently back at him, with that pure, unadulterated, unmistakable, all out hatred in her eyes.

Jim swallowed hard and forced a nervous smile. "How-" he said, mustering up as much cheer as he could, which wasn't much, considering the circumstances.

Again the girl didn't do or say anything, but just sat there, staring silently back at him with that pure, unadulterated, unmistakable, all out hatred in her eyes.

"-dy," Jim glumly added. The girl's presence made him feel terribly uncomfortable. In fact, her presence was so discomforting that it just might serve to distract him from his other discomforts. But there was very little consolation there. The cowboy was glad for the presence of John Two Rivers, however. Especially now, when it appeared that he needed a 'bodyguard' almost as badly as he needed a 'friend'... maybe even more.

The lo-ong, loud, lonesome whistle of a train shattered the Marshal's all too realistic dream and sent him hurtling back, twenty years into the future. He jerked awake with a grimace and a groan and then gasped and carefully leaned forwards.

No wonder the pain in his dream had felt so real! It had been real! It was still real! One of the boards in the wall behind him had been pressing very painfully into his back-his back right rib cage to be exact.

The pain in his heart was real, too. For, in this point in time, all that remained of John Two Rivers...was a memory.

To his people, We-yo-wa-su-yen had been an outcast, because he had turned his back on tribal traditions and married a white missionary woman, who taught him to speak English and to partake in strange, white customs.

The U.S. Army and the Indian Bureau authorities referred to John simply as a 'crazy, renegade Comanche', because he refused to leave the land of his ancestors and live on a reservation-like all the rest of the 'good little Indians'. His rebelliousness was tolerated in the hopes that if he was ignored long enough he would simply 'go away'.

But to one federal authority, U.S. Marshal James Crown, the Indian was a close acquaintance-one of the closest acquaintances he had ever allowed himself to make. John was his friend-his equal. Crown thought of John Two Rivers as more of a 'rugged individualist' than a 'crazy, renegade Comanche' 'outcast'.

John was a kind and decent, law-abiding, highly principled man, who Crown felt highly privileged to call his friend-and John had been a good friend. John had just always somehow managed to be there for Crown whenever Crown needed him most.

Oh, if he could have only been there for John, when John had needed him most!

The Marshal's vision blurred and he suddenly found himself kneeling in a little gully, staring blurrily down at the battered, lifeless form of his friend.

He forced himself to overcome his initial shock and grief and reached out to gently roll the tortured man over onto his back.

He closed his watering eyes tightly and grimaced in anguish. John's body was still limp, still warm! It tore at Crown's insides to think that, if he could have just shown up a few minutes sooner, perhaps...?

Then he was leading John's battered, blanket-covered body home, draped across the bare back of his Indian pony.

John's wife and fifteen-year-old son met him out in the yard.

"I'm...sorry, Beth," he heard himself saying, "but he was already...gone...when I got there. There was nothing I could do...nothing anyone could do."

"Thank you for bringing him home, Jim," Beth told him stoically. But as John Two Rivers junior gently lowered his father's lifeless form to the ground, Beth fell upon her husband's blanket-covered body and went all to pieces. She lay sprawled there for some time, sobbing hysterically, completely overcome with grief.

Crown slipped to the ground and stepped up behind the weeping woman. He wanted her to know that he shared her grief, that he was grieving, too...only silently. So he reached down and placed a hand on her shaking shoulder.

She sat up and sniffled. "I'm sorry," she apologized in a somewhat shaky voice. "I have no right to be carrying on so."

"That's not true, Beth," Crown corrected, his soft-spoken voice a bit 'shaky' itself. "You have every right. Go on. Let it out."

"No," she continued between sniffles. "I'm not crying for John. If I were, they'd be tears of joy. You see, he's at peace now. At last he has his wish. He will never have to leave here now. Never! Now they will never be able to drive him from this land." She managed a brave, but brief smile, and then looked sadder and more grief-stricken than ever. "No, these tears are for me and for our son. I'm afraid we're going to miss him terribly." She placed her trembling hands on her husband's blanket-covered body again. "John was...special. But then, I don't have to tell you that..." her cracking voice gave way and she started crying again.

Crown took his 'special' friend's widow in his arms and tried to comfort her.

She rested her head on his shoulder and just stood there, crying softly.

At long last, she was all cried out.

Crown handed the distraught woman over to her son. "Kin the two a' you manage here without me? I want ta get started trackin' the men that did...this...before it gets any darker an' the trail gets any cold-"

"-Jim!" Beth interrupted, latching onto his right wrist. "Please! Promise me you won't do anything foolish!" she pleaded, sounding desperate. "Getting yourself killed isn't going to bring John back!"

Crown thought her comments over carefully before making his response. "The law requires that the men who for what they did. It's my job ta see to it that they do. An' they are gonna pay for this, Beth. That I kin promise you." He pulled his wrist free of her grasp and climbed back up onto his horse. He gave his friend's blanket-covered body one last, blurry, parting glance and went riding off in a pink-tinged cloud of dust.

Then the dust cleared as the Marshal blinked his damp eyes back into focus-and into the present again.

Crown drew in a deep breath and then released it as a long sigh of frustration. He had to stop dwelling on how his friend had died.

Besides being extremely depressing, dwelling on John's death was proving counter-productive.

It would be less self-destructive and much more productive if he were to dwell on how his friend had lived instead, and if he were to keep his attention focused on his promise to Beth-his promise of seeing to it that his friend's killers paid for what they did.

Mac was right. So his best hadn't been good enough. It was still his best, and if he could have been there for John, he would have been there for John. There wasn't anything in the world that Crown wouldn't do for John Two Rivers-including riding out into a possible ambush to avenge his death.

Which brought him back to Mac's interestin' question. Crown guessed he'd still be riding out. Even if John were a total stranger. He would still be riding out...because that was his job...because it was his duty to ride out. But, for anyone else, he would be riding out strictly as a U.S. Marshal. For John Two Rivers, he was also riding out as a friend.

The gradually slowing train finally jerked to a complete stop.

Crown heard the unmistakable sound of ropes sliding through pulleys and watched as the door to the stock car he and his horse were traveling in slowly fell away and became an unloading ramp.

"Gault's Spring!" one of the train's brakemen announced and peered cautiously inside. He shot the motionless figure propped up in the corner of the car a worried look. "Are you all right, Marshal?"

"Yeah..." Crown drew in another deep breath. Then he stashed his Stetson back on his head and started getting stiffly to his feet. "Yeah...Thanks, Bill. I'm fine...jes'," he replied rather unconvincingly.

The Marshal didn't like to lie, and so he wasn't very good at it.

The brakeman watched his two stow-aways disembark from the train. "You gonna want us to pick you back up on our return trip?" he inquired as the Marshal helped him get the combination loading ramp/door closed again. "We should be coming back through here sometime around eleven-thirty tonight."

"Thanks. But I got ta be back in Cimarron before then."

Bill brightened. "Sa-ay, that's right! Today's the twelfth! And tonight's your-" he cut himself short and cleared his throat. "So-o, I'll be seein' yah, Marshal!"

Crown couldn't help but smile, a sort of sad, half-hearted smile. "Yeah, Bill...Be seein' yah!" he said, and mounted his horse.

The train lurched and then began rolling again.

Crown turned his mount around once and tipped his hat to the wildly waving brakeman. Then he rode off in a due easterly direction, heading for the' God only knew what else.


Chapter Text

"The Death of A Legend"

Chapter Six

About the time the Marshal was getting off his train, three other men-three hundred miles to the northeast-were just getting on theirs. An independent journalist, a U.S. Senator and a young physician-all wearing three-piece suits-'all-aboarded' a twelve car, passenger/freight train leaving Kansas City, Missouri for Albuquerque, New Mexico-and thus embarked on the final leg of an extremely fatiguing four-day journey from Washington, D.C. to Cimarron, I.T..

"One night in a hotel. Just one night in a bed that doesn't move. Is that really so much to ask?" the young doctor complained, as he and his companions settled into their assigned seats.

"I told you," the young reporter who had taken the aisle seat told him, "I'm due back today. If you want to stay over here in Kansas City, go ahead. No one's stoppin' you. There'll be another southbound three or four days."

The young doctor-who had taken the window seat-momentarily forgot his fatigue. "You mean we're actually almost there? I'll get to sleep in a real bed tonight?"

"If this thing stays on schedule," the young reporter stated conditionally, "we should be pullin' into Cimarron sometime early this evening."

"Cimarron..." the young doctor whispered, his voice filled with wonder. "What's it like, Francis? I think it's time you told me a little something about the place. Don't you? And the people. I especially want to hear about the people!"

But Francis, who didn't feel like talking at the moment, failed to comply with a reply.

So the Senator, who had taken the seat in the center, slipped a paperback book from his coat pocket and passed it on to the young physician, like he was handing out a prescription. "Here. Read this. It's all in here."

The young doctor stared down at the book and its cover for a few moments before commenting. "Thanks, Senator. But I'm interested in facts not fiction. And in real people, not some dumb legend."

"Doctor Ellis, I assure you, this book is factual. It's all based on facts. And the characters in here are all real people. Why, even the 'dumb legend' is real. Though he isn't really all that dumb," the politician added, with a wink and a grin.

Since Francis still didn't appear to be in too talkative a mood, Doctor Ellis took the book, which he had first regarded so skeptically, and eagerly began reading it. But the fact that he accepted the reading material did not mean that he accepted the material he was reading as fact. It just meant that he was bored-really bored...out of his gourd!

Francis-who was staring in shocked silence at the statesman in the seat beside him-frowned and finally found his voice. "You mean, you actually bought a copy of that?" he declared in utter disbelief and obvious disapproval.

"No. I bought a couple a' dozen of 'em, actually," the Senator confessed unashamedly. "I was sort a' hopin' I could get you an' Jim ta autograph 'em for me," he continued, pulling another copy out of his other pocket. "I mean, since you slapped the publisher with that injunction and put the kibosh on any further sales an' distribution, that means these little beauties are now limited editions. Which makes them a real collector's item. And, autographed limited editions? Why, in no time at all, they'll be worth their weight in gold!"

Francis' frown deepened and he stared off down the aisle, looking lost in his thoughts. He was suddenly-rather vividly-recalling a conversation that he had had with Mac some three years back...

He had just stepped out of the Marshal's Office and up to the bar, where the Scotsman stood, polishing a long row of clouded whiskey glasses. "How am I ever gonna know what he thinks of my writing if I can't get him to read anything I've written?" Then, as proof of his problem, he produced an unopened newspaper and plopped it down on the counter between them.

MacGregor shot the sad-faced reporter standing before him a sympathetic glance and then gazed off across the room at the Marshal.

The lawman was sitting at his desk, busily writing away, apparently doing a little 'reporting' of his own at the moment.

"The fact that the man refuses to read what yah've written should tell yah all yah need to know about what he thinks of it," Mac reasoned and reluctantly returned to his polishing.

"But that doesn't make any sense, Mac. I mean, how can he possibly feel that way when he's never read any of my articles? Never even gave them so much as a glance?" the young reporter pondered, looking and sounding more perplexed and dejected than ever. "I dunno. Normally, the Marshal's a pretty fair man. But that doesn't sound very fair ta me!"

MacGregor studied his cleaning cloth carefully for a few moments before commenting further. "That's because yer viewing the matter strictly from a writer's standpoint. Try taking another look at it-from his perspective. If Jim were a doctor or a barrister, or a stage actor, or even a writer-like yerself-he'd probably welcome all the fame and notoriety yer articles have been stirring up for 'im. For men in those professions, fame can-and often does-lead to fortune. But Jim is a lawman, and lawmen like to keep a low profile. For all fame seems to lead to in their chosen profession, is a premature funeral! Usually theirs!"

At first, Francis scoffed at the Scotsman's statement, "That's ridiculous, Mac. Why that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" He paused suddenly, looking less certain of his skepticism. "How could you possibly come up with anything so preposterous?"

"Preposterous is it?" MacGregor rested his rag on the bar and his gaze upon the young skeptic. "Then suppose you tell me why it is that there are so few-if any-famous lawmen alive today..."

Francis appeared thoughtful and then at a loss for an explanation.

So Mac was forced to supply one for him. "Then Ah'll tell you why. It's because they've all been kill't off in the line of duty, or mer-r-rdered outright!"

The young reporter looked even more thoughtful. Then his face filled with a look of sheer horror as the terrible truth of the matter finally began to sink in.

"A-Aye..." MacGregor solemnly continued. "And, thanks to yer articles, our Marshal Crown is a rapidly developing quite a reputation-both for how well he outwits the outlaws, and how well he handles his gun. When word of our famous lawman/gunfighter gets out...why, every creeping criminal desiring to attain a degree of notoriety for 'imself...every pistol packing young punk looking to earn a fast reputation for being fast with a gun...every miserable rotten scoundrel of that sort will be out gunning for 'im! And when they find ' won't matter if he's unarmed at the time-or if his back is turned to them-they'll kill 'im! And then he'll be just another legendary ex-lawman, and they'll be famous. And they'll have the reputation they wanted, for making him such."

Francis' look of sheer horror was replaced by one of absolute dread...and then, extreme sadness. He slowly turned to stare at the seated figure of his friend-still working away at his desk, filling out reports. 'No wonder you never cared to read any of my articles about you,' he silently realized. 'No man wants to read his own obituary.' A look of sheer horror returned to the young writer's face, along with the even further realization that-every time he published one of his articles about the Marshal-it was like he was pounding another nail in his friend's coffin. "Why didn't he ever say anything to me about it?"

"But he did, lad!" MacGregor assured him, and handed the lad a freshly polished glass of freshly poured Scotch. "Many times and in many ways. Yah've just been too wrapped up in yer writing for any of what he's been saying to register with yah."

Francis numbly lifted his glass to his lips and then drained it dry in one long gulp, eager to experience the elixir's numbing effect on his now aching noggin. When he set his glass down hard on the bar, MacGregor obligingly poured him a refill. "I'm glad you finally made it register then, Mac," Francis admitted, when he got his breath back. "I just wish someone would've said something sooner," he added, his regret giving way to anger.

"Ah wanted to. Oh, how Ah wanted to! And, believe me, Ah would have. But the man made me promise never to broach the subject with you. However, since you brought the matter up yerself just now," Mac stated, in his defense, "my conscience has allowed me to comment freely."

But Mac's explanation only served to puzzle the young reporter all the more. "I don't get it, Mac. Why would he do a thing like that?"

"Because," the Scotsman paused to take another satisfying sip or two of his own drink, "you seemed to feel that he'd made you some sort of deal."

"Well, he did!" Francis adamantly declared and pointed to his newspaper. "I got a legend-him and he got a deputy-me." He tapped his Deputy Marshal's badge a few times for added emphasis and then drained his glass again.

MacGregor studied his own nearly drained glass thoughtfully. "My memory doesn't always serve me so well. But, for some reason or other, Ah seem to recall that conversation quite clearly. And, as Ah recollect it, the Marshal's exact words were, 'You want a legend? You're goin' ta be part of it! I want deputies!' And Ah never took him to mean those words the way you took him to mean them, at all. Ah believed at the time-and still do-that the Marshal was trying to prove a point, not strike up a bargain with yah!"

"S-so th-then," Francis slurred, snatching the bottle from the bar and pouring his own refill this time, "suppose you tell me what the point was...that he was tryin' ta prove."

MacGregor retrieved the bottle and refilled his glass as well. "Think on it laddie-long and hard-and I'm sure it will come to yah...eventually."

Francis downed his third drink, in as many minutes, and tried focusing his fuzzy vision on the man behind the bar-the man with all the answers. "I don't think I can think...any more...too clearly, Mac. So, if you would kindly point out the point, I would greatly appreciate it. Greatly...very much."

MacGregor swallowed his second glass of Scotch, then quickly poured and went to work emptying another. It wouldn't do for him to lag too far be 'out drunk' by his much younger drinking companion. "Ah think that he was trying to get us to see that sometimes ordinary men-such as ourselves-are forced to face extraordinary deal with events of monumental proportions...and to go up against seemingly insurmountable odds. And that, being cast up against such sizeable settings as these can cause ordinary men-such as we-to temporarily loom larger than life. But then, we are, after all, just ordinary men. And we draw on the same raw courage, inner strength and determination to cope with life's little every day nuisances that we use to overcome the truly overwhelming situa-"

"-Excuse me a minute, Mac. But," Francis had pulled his ever-present pad and pencil from his pocket to copy down what was being said, just in case he couldn't remember the conversation later on when he was sober. But it hadn't taken him more than just a few words to realize that he was in no condition to copy more than just a few words. Hence his present interruption, "is there some point to this point?"

MacGregor filled both their glasses again and then passed the impatient reporter his-along with an obvious glare of annoyance. "The point being simply this: Legends are created when ordinary men are confronted with extraordinary situations. And it's these sizeable settings, more than anything else, that causes some ordinary men to temporarily loom larger than life...and thus appear legendary." There followed a long silence as Mac first finished his point...and then his drink.

The fact that his philosophical friend must have finished making his point finally registered with Francis. The young reporter looked as thoughtful as a man in his current condition could, and then rather disappointed. "Oh well...I guess everyone's entitled to an opinion," he reasoned, waxing somewhat philosophical himself. He replaced his writing paraphernalia and started reaching for his drink again.

"Do no' tell me," MacGregor lamented, latching onto the lad's wrist, "that, after all that, yah still do no' get the point?"

" I think I got it all right," Francis assured him.

The Scotsman sighed in relief and released his grip.

The younger man pressed his drink to his lips and then tipped it and sipped it. "And I can sort a' see how it could sort a' apply ta you and I. But not in Jim's case, because Jim Crown is no 'ordinary' man. I'm tellin' yah, from the first moment I met 'im, an' saw 'im in action, I said to myself, I said, 'Francis, this is no 'ordinary' man you're lookin' at here. This here is the stuff that 'legends' are made of! And, after closely observing him for over two years now, I can still say-with even greater confidence-that there is absolutely nothin' 'ordinary' about Jim Crown. If the Marshal appears 'larger than life', it's because he is 'larger than life'. The man is equal to any event! And he's a match for any odds! I know a 'legend' when I see one, Mac. And, when I look at him," he glanced back over his shoulder and grinned, "believe me, I see one!"

MacGregor duly noted the degree of enthusiasm in the young writer's voice and suddenly felt a little nervous-no-o, extremely nervous. "A good reporter also knows a good story when he sees one," he cautiously commented. "So, tell me, when yah look at him now, do yah still see one?"

The Scotsman's sobering question caused Francis' facial expression to sober considerably. But it didn't seem to dampen his enthusiasm even one degree. "I have ta write it all down, Mac," the 'good reporter' replied, following a long solemn silence. "I have to. Don't yah see? What's happening here is special. It's the 'opportunity of a lifetime'-my lifetime. It's 'history in the making'. And I get to record it all. But, just because I intend to record it, don't mean I still intend to report it. It needs to be written down, but it don't need ta be published. Leastways, not yet it don't. Not during his lifetime, anyways." The Marshal's young friend flashed the now extremely relieved looking Scotsman a sheepish grin.

MacGregor returned his grin and raised his glass. "Aye, laddie!" he shouted, giving voice to a little enthusiasm of his own. "And Ah'll drink to that!"

Francis raised his glass as well.

The two of them were just about to 'clink and drink' when their boss suddenly appeared from out of nowhere...well, from out of his office actually.

The Marshal stepped up behind the bar and then stood there beside MacGregor, with his right hand clasped tightly in his left and his back turned. He flexed the writer's cramp from his fingers for a few moments and then tested their grip out on one of the emptier, and thus lighter, bottles on the shelf containing his own private stock. "I'd rather face a dozen desperadoes than one desk full a' paperwork, any day!"

When the Marshal turned around, his two delinquent, slightly drunk deputies could see that the man's work must indeed be dreary, for they had seldom seen their boss look so weary.

It was then that Francis remembered that he had the night duty in the jail that evening and Mac remembered that Dulcey was due down, at any moment, for her usual 'sparkle' inspection, and he hadn't even started on the beer mugs yet!

So, it was also then that their grins vanished and their faces filled with looks of gloom and impending doom.

"Well...go on! Don't stop on my account," Crown urged, noting how his sudden arrival had caused his two friends to freeze in mid-toast...and the Scotch to slosh over the rims of their glasses...and the grins to disappear from their faces. "I'm jest passin' throu-ough," he promised and reached across the bar to snatch up one of MacGregor's glistening shot glasses.

The two drunks slowly lowered their drinks and watched their boss' weary eyes widen as he flicked them from his slightly dazed looking deputies to the empty whiskey decanter and then back to his slightly dazed looking deputies again.

"Looks like 'glassware' ain't they only thing gettin' 'shined up' around here," Crown observed, noting how the two men seemed to emit a certain inebriated glow of their own. The Marshal suppressed a smile and then assumed his best lecture stance. "If I'd a known what you boys were up to out here," he sternly began, "I'd a helped you 'polish off' that bottle."

His deputies watched as their boss' stern gaze softened, and settled back down on the empty whiskey decanter.

Then the lawman looked up and flashed his friends the smile he'd been suppressing for so long.

The two men returned his smile.

The Peace Officer turned to leave-as promised.

Francis suddenly appeared frantic. "No, Jim! Wait!"

His boss obligingly ground to a halt. The Marshal turned back in his slightly alarmed sounding young deputy's direction and shot him a questioning glance.

"U-Uhh...we were just about to polish off another glass here, and...well, we'd like you ta join us," Francis invited, smiling warmly.

"Aye!" Mac joined in, seconding the invitation and the smile. "That we would!"

The Marshal accepted their gracious offer with a grateful nod. Then he strolled back up to them and set his glass down on the bar so he could have a hand free to pull the cork from his bottle. It was then that he remembered that his deputies had been about to drink a toast. "What are we drinkin' to?"

His two deputies glanced knowingly at each other and their grins returned. They watched their boss pour himself a nice stiff shot of brandy and waited patiently for their friend to pick up his glass again.

"As a matter of fact," Mac told him truthfully, "we were just about to your health!"

The Marshal looked rather pleasantly surprised and managed another grateful nod. "An' yores!" he proposed in return.

The three of them raised their glasses.

They had just finished 'clinking' and were about to start drinking-when somebody suddenly tapped Francis hard on the shoulder and demanded to see his 'Ticket, please!'

Francis abruptly returned to reality and began reaching for the ticket in his inside coat pocket.

"Never mind!" a familiar voice told him, amid soft chuckles.

Francis turned and looked up in that voice's direction. Sure enough! It was not the train's conductor who was standing there beside him in the aisle.

"I don't think they sell 'tickets' to wherever it is you've been for the last ten minutes," the impostor added. Senator Fisher grinned devilishly down at his fellow passenger and then quickly reassumed his seat.

"Where'd you come from?" Francis demanded.

The statesman's amused look returned. "I told yah I was goin' ta stretch my legs. I even asked if either of you's would care ta join me. But you's both were already long gone from here..." his words trailed off and he was forced to grin again, seeing that the doctor was still sitting there with his nose still buried in his book.

The young man had noticed neither his departure nor his recent return.

Senator Fisher turned back to his somber, solemn-faced fellow traveler and his grin vanished. "Yah know what yore problem is, Francis? You worry too much. Yah got ta learn ta lighten up! Jim was holdin' his own when yah left, wasn't he?"

"Yeah. But that was eleven days ago," Francis replied, sounding every bit as somber and solemn as he looked. "A lot can happen in eleven days."

A lot had happened in the past eleven days-nine of which he had spent traveling on trains-one of which he had spent taking care of business in Boston-and one of which he had spent in secret meetings in Washington. Yes, sir! The young reporter had a lot to report back to his boss.

Hopefully, the Marshal would still be alive to hear it all.



Chapter Text

"The Death of A Legend"

Chapter Seven

Speaking of hope...

Hoping to save his horse-and his already saddle-weary self-for the 'escape from the Fort alive' part of his 'plan', the Marshal took his time traversing the distance between Gault's Spring and the desolate army outpost to which he was headed.

So it was that it was nearly one that afternoon when Crown finally 'snuck into Fort Dawes the back way to collect his prisoner'.

He left stealth at the front gate and went barging brazenly into the Commanding Officer's quarters.

A young corporal leapt to his feet and attempted to block the very determined looking lawman's forward progress. "Ahh...Sir? You can't-"

"-As you were!" Crown advised, brushing the still somewhat stunned soldier aside and throwing the door to the Commanding Officer's office open.

Blakesley appeared, and what he appeared to be was at first startled...then stunned...and finally absolutely astounded.

The lawman entered the room and strolled right up to the Major's desk. "Don' bother!" he said as the senior officer shoved his chair back and started getting to his feet. "Jes' turn Tanner over ta me an' I'll turn right around an' high tail it on out a' here."

The Major closed his mouth-which was still agape-and averted his eyes-which were still filled with surprise-and settled obediently, though rather uneasily, back down in his seat...where he began to fidget something fearful. It was blatantly obvious that Blakesley was finding the Marshal's sudden appearance more than a little unsettling.

The Corporal shot his C.O. a concerned look. "Sir? Shall I call the guards?"

"You do that, Corporal," Crown suggested, his gruff voice filled with sarcasm. "An' have 'em bring me over my prisoner while you're at it."

The Corporal waited expectently for some command to be issued to the contrary, but his Commander just continued to just sit there...silently.

Crown glanced back over his shoulder and saw that the Corporal's concerned look had been turned into one of confusion. "Yah know, you people are actin' as though you weren't expectin' ta see me here this afternoon. What's the matter, Major?" the Marshal inquired, directing his gaze and his sarcasm back at the now sweating, still seated, still silent turncoat. "Didn't yah get my telegram...telling yah I was comin'?"

Blakesley was a long time answering. "I got it..." he mumbled finally and continued to completely avoid his interrogator's eyes.

"But you had no reason ta believe I'd ever really get here now, did you," Crown continued. "On account a' how you must a' also got a message from Mareck-sayin' I wasn't comin'."

The Major appeared suddenly to be sweating more profusely and fidgeting more fearfully than ever.

The Marshal's face filled with an expression that was equal measures of disgust and determination again. "I'll take Tanner off yore hands now. That is, if yah haven't already released 'im...or had 'im shot in the back while tryin' ta escape...or some other such nonsense," he finished, sounding every bit as disgusted and determined as he looked.

Blakesley cleared his throat and finally spoke up with at least some minor semblance of authority. "Corporal Downes!"

"Sir!" the young soldier acknowledged, snapping himself to attention.

"Have the Marshal's prisoner and the prisoner's horse brought here at once!"

"Yes, Sir!" Corporal Downes clicked his heels smartly together. Then he about-faced and disappeared from the doorway-at once!

"I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised ta find he's still here," Crown reasoned aloud. "After all, releasin' 'im with me makes more sense, don' it...makes it more convenient for yore friends out there...ta keep their targets tagether, I mean."

The Major's eyes remained averted, and his mouth remained mute.

The Marshal turned to leave, but then remembered something and turned back again. "I don' suppose there's any chance of you grantin' my request for a military escort back ta Hardesty?"

"That will be all, Marshal!" Blakesley warned, suddenly sending the voice he had been saving booming out into the room.

Crown gave the lousy traitor one last determined, disgusted glare. "You wish, Major..." he icily informed him. "You wi-ish..." he restated, repeating a rather unmistakable warning of his own. Then he turned and quickly took his leave of both the Commanding Officer and his quarters.

"Marshal!" Lieutenant Anderson greeted him as he stepped back out onto the wooden porch in front of the building.

"Ah, Lieutenant. I was jest about ta go lookin' for you," Crown confessed. Following a cautious look around, the lawman took the young officer by the arm and started escorting him out into the middle of the yard. "First..." he said when he was finally satisfied that they were out of everyone's earshot but their own, "I'd like ta thank you for gettin' me here in time. An' second, I'm afraid I'm gonna be needin' yore assistance once gettin' me-an' my prisoner-out a' here..alive," he added under his breath, and took another cautious look around.

The Lieutenant noticed the looks, and the nervous edge to the Marshal's lowered voice, and glanced rather anxiously around himself. "This 'trouble' you're anticipating...Is it going to be coming from inside or outside the Fort?"

"Both! Tanner's boss intercepted yore telegram. Now Mareck's expectin' his current employees-yore Major there included-ta make Tanner an ex-employee an' me an ex-Marshal."

The Lieutenant's youthful face filled with looks of shock, then anger, then worry, and-finally-curiosity. "Exactly how much trouble are you anticipating?"

"Besides the 'Major' source-in there, there may be as many as fourteen more 'minor' sources-out there," the Marshal replied, flicking his gaze from the C.O.'s front door to the Fort's front gate.

The Lieutenant looked even more shocked, and angered, and worried-and curious-than before. "How did you ever make it in here, in the first place?"

"I snuck in the back way."

The young officer looked duly impressed-and then more worried and anxious then ever. "Marshal, maybe the two of you should just stay here. I mean, if I were to help you, and you and your prisoner did, some how, manage to make it out of here alive, with the odds fifteen to two against you, I'm afraid you wouldn't get very far with him."

"I know. That's where you come in, Lieutenant. I need yore help in evadin' an' lowerin' those odds out there," Crown calmly explained and flicked his gaze to the open gate again.

"So-o, you want me and some other 'volunteers' to go AWOL and provide the two of you with an escort back to Hardesty. Is that it?"

"No-o, 'cuz then Mareck's Major'd prob'ly have you's all shot for desertion. An' I wouldn't want that on my conscience." Crown was forced to suppress a smile, seeing the young officer couldn't look any more baffled. Or could he? "When's yore next patrol due ta leave the Fort?"

"Any minute now. Why?"

"Lieutenant, I'd like yore permission for Tanner an' I ta tag along."

"Permission denied!" the Lieutenant replied. "Why, you'd probably be picked off before we even got a hundred yards from the front gate! And I wouldn't want that on my conscience."

The young officer's tactic of turning the tables on the Marshal forced the lawman to suppress another smile. "Lieutenant, if you'll jes' let me explai-"

"-No, Marshal!" the Lieutenant interrupted, sounding quite adamant. "I'm sorry, but I must advise you to just stay put-for now."

The Marshal managed a resigned sigh and then gazed up at the now partially overcast sky. "Looks like we might be in for a little rain later on this afternoon," he observed. "Might be a good idea ta issue yore men some rain gear, Lieutenant," he continued, passing on a little sound advice of his own. "Yes-sir, nothin' covers a man better...or provides more protection for 'im from the various...'elements'...than a good army raincoat. Come ta think of it," the lawman lowered his gaze back to the Lieutenant, "I don' suppose I could talk you inta loanin' me a couple of 'em?"

A grin gradually appeared on the young officer's face-along with a look of gradual comprehension. "Your request to ride out with the patrol is granted, Marshal! And, as for the raincoats, I'll requisition them personally. Along with two fresh mounts," he added, as Corporal Downes and two soldiers from the guard house came striding up with the Marshal's prisoner, and the prisoner's pokey-looking pinto, in tow.

"Make that one fresh mount," Crown requested, and finally released the smile he'd been suppressing earlier. "And thank you very much, Lieutenant. I owe you one...well, two, actually," he corrected.

"So-o...Who's counting?" the Lieutenant countered. The officer called his Sergeant over and presented him with a plan of action.

The Sergeant saluted and left to pass the orders on to his men.

"We'll be pulling out in fifteen minutes!" the Lieutenant tacked on and turned back to the Marshal to see if that met with his approval.

"The sooner the better!" Crown assured him.

Dulcey's party was due to begin in a little under seven hours and Crown was a little over eight hours of hard riding away. Eight was a conservative figure-one which allowed him only three hours to complete the detour to and through Adrian's Canyon-one which presumed he wouldn't run into any trouble at the river crossing.

Speaking of trouble...

'Mister' Roger Mareck drew the curtain back from the window of his second-story office and stared down at all the teams and buggies and buckboards that were already beginning to line up outside the Wayfarer's Inn-which was situated kind of kitty-cornered from his Land Development Company.

"My, my, my!" he mused to his three ever-present henchmen. "Would you look at all the hubbub going on down there! Why folks must be pouring into town from miles around! Just for the Marshal's party tonight-Cimarron's social event of the year!

Which, by the way, by some horrendous oversight, we never received an invitation to attend. But that's all right because, once they hear of their guest-of-honor's untimely demise in Hardesty this morning, they're sure to call the whole thing off anyways." Mareck glanced back over his shoulder to exchange smirks with his men again. "Yes?" he told whomever it was that suddenly rapped on his office door.

One of the lawyers from downstairs poked his head into the room. "Judge Rutgers is here to see you."

"Rutgers?" A frown appeared on Mareck's face and he let the curtain fall back into place. "What's he doing here? He's not due in Cimarron for another week yet!"

"Perhaps he decided to deliver the good news in person?" one of his bodyguards suggested.

"No wonder we haven't heard from him all day," another realized aloud. "He must have been on his way here from Hardesty."

"Send him up!" Mareck ordered, his frown transforming into an outright scowl.

The lawyer nodded and closed the door.

The portal reopened and Judge Rutgers appeared, sporting a real prize winning scowl of his own. The justiciary just stood there, looking too upset for words.

"I hope you're not waiting for me to clear the room," Mareck told the mute magistrate. "This is as private as it gets," he added, waving an arm in the direction of his three cohorts. "So-o..." Mareck continued, growing more and more impatient with each passing silent second, "Is Crown dead or isn't he?"

"I don't know!" Rutgers replied, sounding enraged.

"What do you mean, you don't know? Where is he?" Mareck demanded, sounding equally enraged.

"I have no idea where the Marshal is!" his judgeship shouted. "But I can tell you where he wasn't! He wasn't on that train when it pulled into Hardesty this morning! And I had my men covering every exit out of town-just as you ordered!"

Mareck looked stunned and then skeptical. "He had to be on that train! I saw him get on it myself!"

The judge just rolled his eyes.

Mareck gasped in exasperation. "Well, no matter!" he reasoned, trying to make the best of a potentially disastrous situation. "Even if he does make it to the Fort, he'll never leave there alive! My boys will see to that! And, once Crown is taken care of, things can proceed as planned."

Rutgers looked like he was about to laugh right out loud, but then reconsidered it. "That is exactly what I have been trying to tell you for the past two weeks now! I told you not to even bother coming to town until Crown was taken care of!"

"And I told you that we had less than a month!" Mareck countered. "You had your chance-and you failed! You said you would have Crown out of the way by the time I arrived- and you failed! I waited until I couldn't wait any longer. I had to get started before word of the Outlet's opening got out and about."

"Speaking of word getting out and about!" Rutgers shouted, suddenly recalling the real reason for his rage and his visit. "How could you have been such a complete and utter foo-ool? If you had to confront Crown again, whatever possessed you to pick Main Street, Cimarron, as the place to do it? Do you realize that half the town heard you threaten the Marshal's life? Half the town heard Crown say that he knows Blakesley and I are on your payroll! And right now that half is busy telling the other half-so that the whole town is out there talking about your little confrontation with the Marshal this morning!"

This time it was 'Mister' Mareck's turn to look too upset for words. "How dare you-?" the 'complete and utter fool' began only to be interrupted by more loud rapping noises. "What now?" he demanded, directing the full force of his displeasure on the poor unfortunate door rapper.

The door opened a crack. "This just came for you..." an intimidated individual timidly announced. An arm popped into the room and proffered a folded slip of paper.

One of Mareck's bodyguards grabbed the message.

The arm rapidly retreated and the door quickly closed.

Mareck took the telegram which was passed on to him and perused it. "Well, now I know where the Marshal is," he announced, and the beginnings of another smirk began to form and replace the scowl on his face. "And where he'll stay. Unless they decide to bring him back here for burial," he added, making another 'smirk exchange' with his trio of henchmen. "Crown's at the Fort and Blakesley just turned Tanner over to hi-"

"-Now that was really stupid!" Rutgers interrupted, his rage rising up again. "Killing that Indian! The Marshal and that Indian went way back!"

"Oh yeah?" Mareck shouted, his own eyes flashing with fury. "Then he'll be pleased to know that his 'Indian-loving friend' is on his way to join him in the 'happy hunting grounds'!"

His bodyguards grinned.

Mareck's gaze softened and he sauntered over to his liquor cabinet to pour himself and his companions some liquid refreshment. "Besides, that's all water under the bridge. From now on, it'll be clear sailing-" he stopped suddenly and turned to one of his men. "Gordy, tell that 'MacGregor' character I want to talk to his earliest convenience."

Gordy acknowledged his boss' order with another smirk and nod, before getting up and leaving the room.

Judge Rutgers stood there, sadly shaking his head. "That's the trouble with you, Mareck! You don't learn from your mistakes. So you keep making the same ones...over and over again."

Mareck counted to ten and then counted to ten again. "For example?" he inquired, struggling to maintain control of his temper and his voice.

"You keep underestimating the Marshal! I made that mistake once myself-when I hired those professional killers to do him in. Being a professional lawman, Crown spotted those men as professional killers the moment they hit town. He arrested the both of them and slapped them in a jail cell before they ever had a chance to do anything. They're now serving three consecutive life terms each in Levinsworth!

I don't intend to repeat that mistake, or to forget that little lesson. The Marshal won't rest now until he has us both-and Blakesley, too! So, I'm taking steps to get to him before he gets to me." The judge turned to go, but then decided to pass on one last bit of advice. "Oh..." he glanced back over his shoulder. "You might want to consider making a stand at the river. On the off chance that Crown gets away from the Fort as easily as he apparently got to it!" he snidely remarked and then quickly took his leave.

'Mister' Roger Mareck stared thoughtfully down at the drink in his hand. He no longer looked smug, and no one in the room felt much like smirking any more.

A normal afternoon patrol out of Fort Dawes consisted of a platoon of twelve soldiers: eleven enlisted men and one officer.

That afternoon's abnormal patrol consisted of eleven enlisted men, one officer, and two civilians. Though you'd never know by looking at it.

Thirteen members of the patrol were already mounted-all of them being clad in long, army-blue, canvas raincoats. So that every man in the yard looked exactly the same as the next man.

Well, maybe not every man.

The figure still on foot had silver conchos showing beneath the long hem of his U.S. Army issue raincoat.

"What's goin' on, Crown?" the Marshal's mounted prisoner demanded. "What's this...getup for?"

The Marshal had put his prisoner up on Lancer's back and was in the process of handcuffing Tanner's left wrist to the horn of his saddle. "For avoidin' the rain," the cuffs clicked closed, "an' evadin' the wrath of yore former employer."

Tanner managed an amused snort.

"Oh," Crown continued, giving the cuffs a yank to make sure they were locked, "You kin bet there's gonna be plenty a' both in store for the both of us out there."

His prisoner grunted skeptically.

Crown glared icily up at him. "This may come as quite a shock ta you, Tanner. But I'm not gonna be the only target out there. You're jest as much a target as I am, now. Mareck wants you jest as dead. He wants you silenced-permanently. Before you get the chance ta give yore testimony against him in court."

Tanner laughed outright, but a little nervously. "You're crazy, Crown!"

"Suit yerself. But if you shut up an' co-operate, I guarantee we're both gonna live a lot longer." The Marshal gave his prisoner one last incredibly cold stare. Then he snatched up Lancer's dangling reins and the reins of the horse the Lieutenant had obligingly borrowed him and swung his army-raincoated self up into his army-issue saddle-where his conchos disappeared.

Seeing that the thirteenth and fourteenth irregular members of his patrol were now both mounted, the Lieutenant turned to his troop of regulars. "All right, you men! Listen up!" he advised, keeping his shouted voice low. "Instead of our normal routine patrol this afternoon, we're going to be practicing an evasive military maneuver!"

The Marshal suppressed a smile.

The Lieutenant suppressed a smile too, as the looks of indifference on the faces of his men transformed into looks of eager anticipation.

Army life was pretty much routine. So any break in that routine was naturally welcomed.

"We'll be riding out at the canter in columns of two! Then-upon my order-the columns will pair off and split up...with each pair traveling in a different direction from that of the Marshal and his prisoner! I want each of us to put as much distance between us and this Fort as we possibly can in twenty minutes! We will then rendezvous back here to regroup in one hour!

Oh, and if fired upon, you have my permission to return fire!" The officer suppressed another smile, seeing his men nudging one another and grinning with excitement.

Though their orders stated that they were all on active duty while stationed at Fort Dawes, in reality, there were very few activities for them to engage in. The soldiers just slept a lot...and drilled a lot...and rode out on an occasional patrol. So any chance to see some actual active duty was naturally welcomed.

"Remember! Pairs stay together, and don't spare your horses! All right now, columns of two!" the officer ordered.

"Columns of two!" his Sergeant repeated, and the men obediently formed into two single file columns, with the Marshal and his prisoner smack dab in the middle of them.

The Lieutenant smiled approvingly, and then nodded to his second in command.

"Detail, forward ho-o!" the Sergeant Major shouted rather melodiously.

The Lieutenant spun his mount around, and began leading his troops out on their evasive military maneuver.

Fourteen pairs of eyes watched from ambush as fourteen raincoated figures suddenly came riding out of the Fort in formation.

The group cantered out a couple hundred yards from the front gate.

Suddenly, one of the two men in the lead yelled, "Company, disperse!"

Then, right before all twenty-eight of those very wide eyes, the company obediently dispersed-riding off in all different directions at once.

The beleaguered bushwhackers watched helplessly as the raincoated figures went racing away, two-by-two, at top speed.

"What do we do now?" one of the ambushers asked, as the soldiers rapidly began disappearing from view. "Andy swears he saw the Marshal ride in a little while ago! And I'd swear he's riding right back out, right now!"

"What can we do?" his closest comrade demanded. "We can't shoot them all! Why, we'd have every soldier in that Fort after us!" he added and slowly lowered his rifle.

"We'll just have to round up the rest of our boys and then split up and go after 'em!" a third bushwhacker suggested, slamming his rifle into its leather scabbard and vaulting into his saddle. "Come on!" he urged. "They're gettin' away from us!"

That they were. Yes, sir! That they were.

Being as 'distracted' as she was, Dulcey didn't pay the half dozen or so people, who had promised her they'd show up a few hours early to help get things ready, much attention.

They were all pretty busy carting tables and chairs around and trying to clear a dance floor.

Dulcey was pretty busy herself.

At the moment, she was standing on a chair in one of the Inn's large main entrance room's far corners, putting twists in a twenty-foot strip of festive yellow streamer paper.

The color was indeed festive, being unusually bright and incredibly cheery. Providing just the right touch for that night's festivities.

Dulcey had special-ordered the paper, along with various other equally festive party favors, months ago from some mail order company back East.

She gave the streamer a few last twirls to achieve just the right amount of curls and then took up the slack till it had just the right sag. Dulcey didn't notice the dilemma she had created for herself until she reached for a thumbtack to attach the streamer to the ceiling beam and found her apron pocket empty.

If she stepped down, the streamer would get all tangled up. But she had no intention of standing there, holding on to it all night, either.

What she needed was for someone to bring the tacks to her. "Walking Man!" the distracted girl declared, spotting the only someone in the room who didn't seem to be doing something already. "Would you bring me those thumbtacks over there, please?" she requested and pointed to a tiny tin canister on a tabletop clear across the room.

The tall, thin, silent, solemn-faced Indian-who had just stepped in off the street for a second to see what all was going on- suddenly found himself recruited into Miss Dulcey's service. He obediently fetched the tacks and obligingly held the opened metal box up to her.

"Thank you," Dulcey told him as she took a tack and pressed her last streamer into place. Then she quickly climbed down and strode over to the center of the room so she could admire her handiwork and experience the full festive effect.

Dozens and dozens of cheery yellow streamers were strung out from the ceiling beam in the center of the room, like spokes inside a wagon wheel, or-more fittingly-like golden beams of light radiating out from the sun.

Dulcey clasped her hands together and smiled approvingly. "Well, what do you think?" she asked the Indian, as he stepped silently up beside her.

Walking Man stared up at the cheery decorations on the ceiling...and then down at the gloomy faces on the small crowd of people busily bustling about. He wasn't sure what to think. Perhaps it would help if he knew what was going on. "What's all the 'ta-do' about?" he solemnly inquired. But then Walking Man was always solemn-and seldom sober.

Which was probably why 'the ice was still safe in the oven' as far as the old Indian was concerned.

Dulcey stared disbelievingly up at him and noticed that he was looking exceptionally solemn today-and also seemed surprisingly sober. "What does it look like?"

Walking Man's eyes made another careful reconnoiter of the room-and the crowd-and came up still confused. "By the looks of the place, I'd say a marryin'. By the looks of the people, I'd say a buryin'."

Dulcey recoiled some from the man and his responses. "Well, you're wrong!" she emphatically stated. "We are having a surprise party here tonight for the Marshal! And you can come, if you like. In fact, you can stay now, if you like. Though most people aren't planning to show up 'til around seven."

Walking Man looked more confused then ever. Last he'd heard the Marshal was still out of town, tracking John Two Rivers' killer down. 'Maybe that's where the surprise comes in?' the Indian silently reasoned. 'If the person the party's for shows up, he's surprised. And if he doesn't, everyone else is.' "I s'pose I could stick around for a while," he said he, suddenly curious as to just who would find the party a bigger surprise.

"Fine!" Dulcey declared with another warm smile. "Then either pull up a chair or pick up a chair and make yourself right at home."

The Indian handed her the thumbtacks then he picked up a chair and did just that.

If Dulcey hadn't been so distracted, she might have caught Walking Man's morbid, but accurate, comment-and she might have paid more attention to the people who were there in the room with her-and she might have realized that all the festive decorations in the world were not going to be able to do a thing to dispel the funeral parlor atmosphere which seemed to permeate the entire place-and which was reflected in the solemn, sullen faces of Marshal Jim Crown's very worried friends.

Speaking of worried friends...

There was another one sitting in the room right next door. Mac was suddenly feeling very worried indeed! For one of Mareck's three thugs had just waltzed into the office and extended an invitation for the Deputy Marshal to drop by for a friendly little drink and a little chat at his 'earliest convenience'.

'Why was Mareck suddenly so interested in dealing with the Marshal's Deputy? Could it mean that Mareck knew that the Marshal was no longer around to do business with?' The Scotsman quickly dismissed the dismal thought and glanced up from the desktop he had been nervously tapping, to shoot the waiting thug a menacing glare. "'Mister' Gordon, yah can go back and tell 'Mister' Mareck that 'Mister' MacGregor is no' interested!" Mac coolly declined.

"I'd reconsider if I were you," 'Mister' Gordon advised. "The man has some mighty smooth Scotch..."

"It's no' the man's whiskey, but the man's company that Ah could no' stomach!" Mac assured him. "And it will no' be convenient for 'Mister' MacGregor ta pay yer boss a visit until such a time as my boss informs me that Ah can arrest the blaggard when Ah do! Now, go on! Haul yer caboose out a' here, or you'll find yerself side-tracked into one of those jail cells back there!"

The bodyguard backed out of the office and disappeared off down the boardwalk.

Dulcey backed into the office, stood there a moment or two, and then turned around in slow motion.

Mac glanced up from the desktop he'd gone back to tapping and noticed the girl appeared to be in a sort of daze.

"The oddest thing just happened out there," the girl declared, sounding every bit as dazed as she looked.

"Oh?" Mac acknowledged.

Dulcey stared blankly down at the napkin-covered bowl in her hands and nodded. "Lenora Winsom just dropped this dessert off at the back door."

MacGregor managed an amused snort. "And what strikes you as being so 'peculiar' about that?" he wondered. "Can't the poor woman cook?"

"Well, I just naturally assumed it was for the party tonight. But she claims she brought it over just for you. She was very insistent that it be delivered to the Marshal's chief Deputy...immediately!" Dulcey added and very dutifully set the bowl down on the desk in front of the Marshal's chief Deputy.

Mac had stiffened and straightened up in his chair. "Where is Mrs. Winsom now?"

"That's the oddest part of all. She's still standing out there by the back door to my kitchen, waiting for me to come and tell her what you think of it. Oh, and she'd appreciate it if you could give her your opinion of it as quickly as possible. Now honestly, doesn't that strike you as being very strange? I mean, why didn't she just give it to you herself? Whatever that stuff is, I don't know as I'd eat any of it if I were you. After the strange way she's been behaving and all...well, who knows what she may have put in it!"

"Aye, lass!" Mac heartily agreed. He stood and started escorting the lass out of the office. "But Ah believe Ah'll take my chances with it anyway. After all, the woman has gone to a bit of a bother now, hasn't she."

"But-" Dulcey began as the Scotsman began to close the door on her.

"Don't you worry none, Dulcey girl. You just run along, and Ah'll let yah know when Ah'm ready ta render my opinion," he promised, prying her fingers out of the way and pushing the door shut.

The Marshal's chief deputy stepped back up to the desk and stared down at his dessert. "Who knows what she may have put in it, indeed!" Mac repeated, and began lifting the cloth-napkin cover from the bowl.

He was just about to find that out.


Chapter Text

"The Death of A Legend"

Chapter Eight

The Marshal tried every trick in the book, and some not even in the book, to confuse and thus lose anyone that might be on their trail.

On hard ground, which left no hoofprints, he would travel in the direction of Adrian's Canyon. Then, on softer ground, he would deliberately leave tracks, which headed off in the direction of Hardesty. If he couldn't lose them entirely, he was confident that this would at least slow them down, considerably.

It was while they were on one of these misleading legs of their flight from the Fort that they happened to come upon a small encampment.

The lawman led his prisoner cautiously up to the edge of a little clearing where a team of un-harnessed draft horses stood tethered to a tree by a canvas-covered wagon with a busted back right wheel.

Smoke curled lazily up from a small campfire, where a pot of coffee sat brewing and a kettle of something good smelling was boiling away.

A few freshly laundered articles of clothing were hanging on a line and flapping in the breeze, but there didn't seem to be a soul in sight. The place had all the signs of being suddenly-and quite inexplicably-abandoned.

Crown could feel the hairs on the nape of his neck beginning to bristle. "Hello in the camp!" he called out, his right hand reaching deftly inside his coat for the comforting feel of the handle of his Colt. "Hello! Is anybody home?" he called out again as amiably as he could and again received no response.

Suddenly, something moved in the brush behind them.

The Marshal drew his gun and whirled around in his seat, just in time to watch a little toddler come toddling out from behind some low bushes. Crown quickly pointed his pistol away from the child and carefully released its cocked hammer.

"Ah! Go on!" Tanner taunted, sounding disappointed. "You kin take 'im!"

The lawman ignored his laughing prisoner and looked cautiously around. He had never pulled a gun on anyone so incredibly young before. He had to admit it did make him feel just a tad bit foolish. He wondered who else had witnessed the embarrassing scene, from just out of sight.

He focused some of his divided attention back on the baby. "Well, hello there, young fellah!" he called out and fought the irresistible urge he had, to step down and pick the infant up, by reminding himself that a 'female grizzly' is never far from her 'cub', and is nothing to be tangled with.

But the baby acknowledged his genuinely friendly greeting with such a shy, sweet smile that Crown found himself smiling back and stepping down. "Where'd you come from, son?" he inquired, his eyes darting nervously about again. "Where are yore folks?"

The youngster responded by approaching his tall interrogator with uplifted arms.

The Marshal's borrowed horse viewed the odd little creature as a potential menace and started to shy away. "No! Stay back, son!" Crown urged, fearing the child may be trampled under foot.

But the brave little boy kept right on coming.

So the Marshal stepped forward and stooped down to take the infant up into the 'protective custody' of his arms.

"Hold it right there!" a woman's deep voice advised. "I swear, you lay one hand on him and I'll drop you right where you stand!"

Crown held it right there and snapped his undivided attention in the direction of the 'female grizzly's' voice, but there still wasn't a soul in sight. The toddler kept approaching, so he slowly straightened back up and started retreating. "Well, what happens if he should lay a hand on me?"

"Jamie? Jamie, come here!" the voice pleaded. "Come to mommy!"

Jamie stopped and turned in the direction of his still invisible mommy for a few moments, but then he turned back and continued to approach the very visible, very friendly, very tall stranger again.

"Jamie, no!" the voice begged, but to no avail.

Crown backed clear up to and into his horse, with the toddler tagging right along.

"Uh...uh," the baby begged with uplifted arms. When his plea went unheeded, he latched onto both of the lawman's legs and tried climbing up into the man's arms himself.

Crown cringed and held his breath.

"Jamie, no-o!" his mommy repeated her shouted order and then reluctantly stepped out from behind some bushes and into partial view. She stood there, statue-like, keeping the barrel of her Winchester trained on the tall dark stranger standing over her son. "Step away from him!" she ordered, sounding even more desperate.

Crown disobeyed the order. He had to! He couldn't help it. He couldn't step anywhere with Jamie wrapped around his legs the way he was.

"I sai-aid step away!" the she-grizzly growled, growing more agitated and aggravated with each motionless moment.

There wasn't a whole lot of the boy's mother visible, but Crown gave what was visible of her an annoyed glare of his own. "Believe me, I'd like ta oblige you, but yah see, yore boy here, is sort a' holdin' me hostage..."

There followed several more moments of tense silence...which Jamie finally broke by issuing another urgent, "Uh...uh," plea.

The Marshal sighed in surrender then he holstered his gun and gave in to the youngster's request to be picked up. "Well...hello there, Jamie!" he declared with a broad grin, and gently swooped the boy up off the ground. "Do me a big favor, will yah. Tell yore mommy over there ta relax. Tell 'er I jes' spent the better part a' my life upholdin' law an'' that she kin put down her rifle an' rest easy, 'cuz I ain't about ta start rapin' an' pillagin' no-ow."

But Jamie didn't say a word. He just sat there in the gentle man's arms, beaming with delight.

The stranger's gentle, genuinely friendly manner, along with his contagious grin and sarcastic comments, finally won over Jamie's mother. Since Jamie didn't usually take to strangers so readily, the woman decided to trust her young son's usually good judgment. Besides, she couldn't very well risk taking a shot with Jamie right in the way. "Sorry, Mister," the lady said, lowering her rifle and stepping into full view, "but I wasn' sure who you an' yore friend really were."

Tanner shot his 'friend' a sickening smirk and managed a snort of deep skepticism.

Both of which his 'friend' failed to notice. Crown's attention was fully focused on Jamie's mommy. When her face wasn't buried behind the butt of a rifle, she could be rather pleasant-looking...mighty pleasant to look at...maybe even downright beautiful! He stood there, sort of transfixed, as she approached.

Waves of thick raven-black hair spilled down around her proudly erect shoulders. Her dark, emerald-green eyes were large, deep and expressive. She had a flawless creamy complexion, which put him in mind of certain paintings that he used to admire while visiting various drinking establishments. Her soft full lips parted in such a way that her mouth seemed to form a permanent smile.

There was an air of confidence about her that was evident in the angle at which she set her pert little jaw. She was wearing a modestly designed, slate-blue dress which flattered her tall, slim, trim, yet richly-endowed figure nicely...very nicely, indeed! So nicely, that the Marshal found himself actually envying Jamie's 'daddy'.

Jamie's mommy stepped right up to the stranger. She gave the man an apologetic shrug, but then smiled rather un-apologetically up at him.

Their eyes met for the first time and Crown felt her beautiful dark orbs pierce clean through him.

The woman glanced at the stranger's 'friend' and her calm, casual expression vanished.

The lawman smiled approvingly as her pretty face once again clouded over with deep concern and alarm. "You got nothin' ta apologize for," he assured her. "You did the right thing. You were right ta be so cautious, 'cuz we ain't really who we appear ta be." He saw her eyes fill with fear. "That's ri-ight. We ain't' he ain't my 'friend'."

The woman looked even more fearful and shot her son a concerned, anxious glance.

"It's okay," Crown vowed and flashed the worried woman another slight smile of reassurance. He carefully rearranged the baby in his arms so that he could slide his borrowed army rain slicker clear of his badge. "I'm the U.S. Marshal out a' Cimarron," he paused to shoot Tanner a distasteful glance, "an' 'that' is my prisoner."

Tanner raised his free right hand to mockingly tip his hat. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance," he said slimily. The man gleamed lustfully down at the object of his lust and motioned in the Marshal's direction. "And, if'n he wasn't along-"

"-Shut up, Tanner!" Crown warned.

"Why, I was just gonna add," Tanner innocently added, "that it could have been an even much greater pleas-"

"-I said, shut up!"

Tanner ignored the order and licked his lips. "You see, unlike the Marshal here, I got no qualms at all about rapin' an' pillag-"

"-An' I got no qualms at all about gaggin' you, Tanner!" the peace officer reminded his very mouthy prisoner and promptly passed the baby back over to its mother.

"Hey...Mums the word," Tanner promised the now peeved-looking lawman.

The Marshal gave the cold-blooded killer an 'It had better be!' glare, and then turned back to the woman. "What are you people doin' out here anyways? In case you folks haven't heard, the Outlet ain't open yet ta settlers. Where's the boy's father?"

"My husband is...dead," the woman replied.

The Marshal looked shocked and then sympathetic and then thoughtful. "Well, you're not stuck out here all alone?" he inquired hopefully.

"Course not," the widow answered, much to Crown's relief. "I've got Jameson here, with me," she explained, giving her young son a warm smile and an affectionate squeeze.

The Marshal looked even more shocked, then deeply skeptical, and then rather irritated again.

The woman noticed his looks and began to appear a little irritated herself. "Jamie an' I have managed quite well-by ourselves-for over a year now!" she proudly informed the peace officer. "An' we made it all the way from Fort Brampton ta here without any help as well, thank you!" She lifted her chin even higher and turned to Tanner, looking terribly tough. "An', if'n he wasn't along," she continued, motioning in the Marshal's direction, "I'd a' blown you away before you even got within a hundred yards a' this camp! Yah see, I got no qualms at all about usin' this rifle!" she finished, sounding every bit as tough as she looked. She brandished the barrel of her gun in the outlaw's direction and then gave her pretty head a defiant shake.

The looks on the two men's faces showed that she had succeeded in putting both the lawman and his prisoner back in their places.

Crown quickly concluded that this female was definitely 'the' most mystifyin' one he'd run across in ages. He also concluded that Jamie's mommy warranted a second look. There was apparently a whole lot more to this very lovely lady than just looks. As if that wasn't already enough to warrant a second...third...and fourth glance, in itself. Why, Crown would've gladly looked at her all day!

The Marshal was thoughtfully silent for some time. He decided he'd better choose his words carefully before daring to comment again. This time, he was going to be addressing a very determined, very attractive, very independent, very charming, very tough, very-did I mention attractive?

The Marshal found himself staring at Jamie's mommy again. Much to his chagrin, he found himself being irresistibly lured by this very alluring lady. He felt somehow 'off-balance' with her. "Well, might I inquire as to where the two a' you were headed, before you got stuck here?" he wondered, finally forming his carefully chosen words into a question. "I am assumin', a' course," he added, even more carefully, "that the two a' you are 'stuck' here an' not jes' makin' camp for the night'..." Crown smiled as his overly-cautious comments forced the terribly tough looking lady to crack a smile. Which he found to be every bit as charming and disarming-and irresistible-as the rest of her.

"St. Louie'," she replied at long last, the carefree, easy tone returning to her deep, rich voice. "I have a sister there. We haven' seen each other in yea-" she cut herself short and then turned to stare glumly at their busted wagon. "We'd a' been there by now, if those darn spokes hadn' a' busted. We've had nothin' but trouble with that wheel the whole trip. I tried fixin' it myself, but-" Once again, she cut herself short and once again she turned to the lawman and flashed him her disarming smile. "Sorry. I don' mean ta ramble on. It's jes' that you're the first person we've talked to since leavin' Allison-" She stopped again, suddenly looking curious. "Is Cimarron close ta Dodge?"

Crown looked a bit confused and then rather curious himself. "Well, I guess that all depends..."

"On what?"

"On whether you consider close ta two hundred miles away close."

The woman's face filled with shock, then disbelief, and then gloom again. "Well, ain't that jes' great! Now we ain't jes' 'stuck' here. We're 'stuck' here an' we're nearly two hundred miles off course!" She suddenly looked even more curious. "Jes' where exactly is 'Cimarron', anyways? I mean, besides bein' close ta two hundred miles from Dodge."

Crown suppressed a smile and then glanced around and guess-timated. "About twenty-four miles from that direction," he added, glancing off over his left shoulder to the southeast. A stiff, warm, almost hot breeze hit him in the face and what he saw caused him to sober, considerably. All ominous indications on the southern horizon were that they were gonna be in for a considerable storm-and they were gonna be in for it very shortly!

The lady was annoyed by the Marshal's elusive answer. "Well, then where exactly is 'here'?"

Crown turned back to her, looking all business-like again. "'Here' is where we don't want ta stay, any longer than we have to," he answered, even more elusively. "Come on! We're goin' ta have ta hurry if we're gonna get yore wheel fixed before that storm hits."

The lady looked confused.

His prisoner just plain looked astounded. "You cain't be serious? Mareck's men must be hot on yore tail by now! Why, I'll bet they ain't more than twenty minutes behind us! An' you're actually fixin' ta take time out ta fix a stupid wheel? Why, that's gotta be the stupidest thing I ever heard of!"

"Wanna hear somethin' even more stupid, Tanner?" the Marshal invited, latching onto his laughing prisoner's shirt and jerking him roughly right out of his saddle. He stood the startled man up and swung him around. "You're gonna help me fix it!" he added and released the now silent slimeball, with a not too gentle shove.

"Unh-uh! No way, Crown! An' you cain't make me, neither!"

"Maybe not," the Marshal had to admit. "But it's gonna be real enjoyable tryin'. Go ahead," he continued, tossing Tanner the key to his handcuffs, "open 'em up!"

Tanner caught the key and then stood there looking like he was having second thoughts. "An' then what?"

"The-en, you an' I are gonna go over there an' fix that busted wagon wheel. Now, whether you 'choose' ta help me fix it-or have ta be persuaded ta help me fix it-makes no difference ta me. Because, one way or the other, the two of us are goin' ta fix it."

Tanner looked even more thoughtful.

The Marshal could almost see his prisoner's warped mind at work, and it appeared to be running rather roughly. Which was no surprise to Crown, since he strongly suspected all along that Tanner's 'gears' had to have some 'teeth' missing.

Speaking of gears with missing teeth...

Tanner had been waiting for a chance to get the jump on Crown for days now! But the Marshal was simply too good at his job, too much of a professional. Tanner didn't reckon he'd be given a second chance. So, if he was gonna make his move, he'd have to make it now, while the lawman was acting so downright stupid!

"Look," Jamie's mommy interrupted suddenly, "if he's right, an' there really are some men after you, then maybe you should jes' keep goin'."

"Oh, we're gonna keep goin', all right. An' so are you. So start packin' things up around he-"

"-No!" the woman interrupted, again. "You're goin' and we're stayin'. An' when yah get ta the next town, you kin send someone back here ta help us."

"Forget it!" Crown advised. "I cain't leave you here."

"Sure yah kin! Jes' git back up on yore horses an' ride on out the same way you jes' rode in."

"You cain't stay here."

"Why not? We've already stayed here two days. What's one more gonna hurt?"

"You see 'Prince Charmin' over there? Well, there are over a dozen more runnin' around out there jes' like 'im! An' all of 'em share his lack a' inhibitions about rapin' an' pillagin'! Now, I don't doubt yore ability ta handle a one-on-one, or maybe even a one-on-two situation. But I ain't about ta go ridin' off an' leavin' you here facin' any odds greater than that! An' I ain't about ta stand around here discussin' it no more, either! We've wasted too much time already!" The Marshal turned back to his prisoner. "So-o, what's it gonna be, Tanner?"

Tanner unlocked the cuff on his left wrist and freed himself from the Marshal's saddle. Then he tossed the lawman back his key and smiled that sleezy, slimy smile of his. "I say we'd better get busy, Marshal. If'n you expect ta have that wheel fixed before that storm hits," he casually replied, trying his level best to sell Crown on his decision to be co-operative.

But the Marshal wasn't buying any of it, and he gave his prisoner a look which said as much. "Have I told you lately, what a good friend a' mine the man you murdered was?"

Tanner suddenly looked extremely edgy as it dawned on him that that was the lawman's way of saying that he'd have no qualms at all about killing him, should he be stupid enough to try anything.

Satisfied that his prisoner had gotten the message, the Marshal slid his borrowed rain slicker off and draped it over the seat of his borrowed saddle.

"Wait!" the woman urged latching onto the lawman's arm as he turned to leave. "What happens if he jumps you?"

"Yah mean, when he jumps me," Crown corrected.

"All right, when he jumps you. What happens if he should overpower you?"

"Don't worry. That ain't too likely ta happen," he assured her and made another attempt to leave.

"Then," she continued, pulling him back again, "in the unlikely event that it should happen...?"

The Marshal managed a weary sigh and gave the woman a look which said, 'Gee, lady, thanks for the vote of confidence!' But then he removed his gun from its holster, flipped it around and handed it to the woman-butt first.

The woman remained unappeased. "Oh, that's jes' great! Now he's bound ta jump yah fer sure! An' there's bound ta be a fight! An' somebody's bound ta get hurt!"

Crown's expression suddenly brightened, considerably, as he realized she probably was right. "I sincerely do hope so!" he told her truthfully. "I sincerely do hope so..." he repeated to himself and tried to leave again.

But again she stopped and held him. "So what happens if he wins the fight?"

Crown drew another even deeper breath which he exhaled as another even wearier sigh. "There ain't much chance a' that happenin', either."

"Yeah? Well, he don' exactly look like the type who fights fair. So, on the slim chance that he does beat you...then what?"

The Marshal looked annoyed again and then thoughtful. "Did you really mean what you said a little while ago? About not havin' any qualms about usin' that rifle?"

The lady nodded uncertainly.

"Goo-ood! Cuz he really meant what he said a little while ago, too!" the lawman told her. Then he pulled his arm free and went walking off in the direction of the wagon.

"Oo-ooh!" the woman gasped exasperatedly and glanced helplessly up into the heavens. "Me-en!" She lowered her gaze back to her infant son's level and forced a resigned smile. "Jamie, promise mommy that you won't grow up ta be as proud an' as pigheaded as yore fellowmen," she pleaded softly. Then she shifted the baby's weight to her other hip and headed off to start breaking camp.

Speaking of breaking things...

Tanner had picked up a piece of one of the busted wheel's already broken spokes and was planning on breaking it even further-over the Marshal's head-just as soon as the lawman came within swinging range.

On his way over to the wagon, Crown had been taking note of some pretty dramatic changes taking place in the little clearing.

The daylight was rapidly getting dimmer, and the churning gray clouds overhead were rapidly growing darker. The wind was really beginning to pick up now, and the air temperature was dropping, like a rock. Yes-sir! They were gonna be in for quite a blow! Maybe even a twister!

It wouldn't be long, Crown realized solemnly to himself, before all hell was likely to break loose! He had no idea how 'prophetic' his silent thoughts would turn out to be. For he no sooner finished thinking them, when the sky lit up with a blindingly bright flash of lightning, closely followed by a positively eardrum-shattering clap of thunder.

The thunder followed a little too closely for the Marshal's comfort and reasonable standards of safety. So he was going to 'suggest' to Jamie's mommy that now might be a good time for her to get the baby out of the open clearing and under the protection of their canvas-covered wagon.

Tanner took advantage of the brewing storm's deafening distraction to start brewing up a little trouble of his own. The brief instant the lawman looked away, was 'when' his prisoner jumped him. Tanner sprang forward and hurled his makeshift weapon right towards the back of the Marshal's turned head.

Crown caught the sudden movement out of the corner of his eye and heard Jamie's mommy scream.

"Marshal! Look out!"

Heeding both warnings, the lawman instinctively drew back and turned his head aside. He felt the breeze and heard the sound of the spoke slicing the air less than a fraction of an inch from the right side of his face. Then, before Tanner could try it again, the Marshal jumped his prisoner.

The fight broke out just as 'all hell broke loose' in the clearing. More blindingly bright bolts of lightning began streaking overhead. Followed by more earth-shaking, eardrum-shattering clashes of crashing thunder.

The Marshal toppled Tanner over and both men fell to the ground-along with some enormously huge raindrops.

Jamie's mommy snatched the Marshal's raincoat from off of his saddle and draped it over her and the baby's heads. Then she scurried over to their 'mobile home' and stashed Jamie safely inside, placing him carefully down into a sort of makeshift playpen that she had rigged up for him.

By the time the woman got back to where the two men were grappling on the ground, the rain was falling much faster-splattering up dust in the clearing and dampening the hissing coals of their campfire. The wind had increased in its fury as well, whipping loose leaves and various other bits of debris past her face. She stood there in the driving wind and rain, looking totally disgusted.

Not fighting 'fair' was one thing. But the Marshal's prisoner seemed bent on fighting downright dirty! Kicking, gouging, head-butting and biting! Why, Tanner tried to take every 'cheap' shot-and deliver every 'low' blow-imaginable! Even a few unimaginable ones!

But, each time, the Marshal somehow managed to dodge them. The lawman was obviously no stranger to having his opponents play 'dirty little tricks' on him.

Jamie's mommy did have to admit, the Marshal did, indeed, appear to be winning the fight.

That is until he took a step back to avoid a savage blow from one of Tanner's flying feet, and tripped over the busted wagon wheel that was lying on the ground behind him.

Then, before Crown could regain firm footing and recapture his balance, Tanner retrieved his makeshift weapon and took another vicious, two-armed swing at the lawman's head.

The woman screamed another warning.

Once again, Tanner failed to connect with his intended target.

The spoke missed the Marshal's moving head-narrowly-and, instead, landed a real bone-bruising blow squarely to the Marshal's unprotected chest, striking him full force in the ribs, just below the level of his badge. The air exploded from the lawman's lungs in a loud, painful gasp. "Ahh-uhh!" He grimaced and grabbed for his rib cage with both arms as the pain doubled him up. The tremendous force with which the spoke impacted sent Tanner's already off-balance opponent reeling backwards until, at last, he lost his battle with gravity and went sprawling out onto the cold-and already incredibly damp-ground. The Marshal landed hard on his back and the fall knocked whatever little wind there was left out of him. He lay there, motionless for the moment, as raindrops pelted him in his rather pale, pain-stricken face. He was waiting for the initial shock to wear off so that his traumatized lungs could start functioning again-and his breath could return.

The dirty fighter stood over his stunned opponent wearing a sleezy, slimy smile on his bloody, muddy face-and wielding the spoke high over his head.

Just when it looked like Tanner was finally going to get to 'crown' Crown, Jamie's mommy brought the butt of her rifle down hard-and cracked the Marshal's assailant on the back of his head, instead. "I told yah I wasn't afraid ta use this rifle!" she reminded the criminal, as he collapsed in an unconcious heap at her feet. She flicked her gaze from the Marshal's fallen foe, to the still fallen Marshal. "An' I jes' knew he wasn't gonna fight fair!" she stated, sounding smug. Her beautiful green eyes gave the still motionless Marshal's battered-and still not breathing-body a concerned once over. "You okay?"

"What'd yah have ta...go an' do that...for?" was the first thing the lawman wanted to know, when he finally resumed breathing again.

"The man was jest about ta part yore hair with this spoke!" the woman reminded her irate interrogator and gave 'the' stick a quick kick. "What? Did yah think I was gonna jes' stand here an' watch him do it?"

"Did yah think I...was gonna jes' lay' let 'im do it?" the Marshal demanded right back. "I would a' rolled clea-ear..." The lawman grimaced and gasped again and rolled slowly onto his hands and knees. He knelt there in the mud for a few minutes, clutching his damaged rib cage and holding his breath.

"Yeah? Well, it would a' been awful hard for him ta miss such a slow movin' target!" Jamie's mommy reminded the 'no right to be so mad at her' man.

An involuntary 'groa-oan' escaped from the Marshal as he finally released his held breath and started hauling his stiff, sore, rain-soaked self up off the soggy ground of the clearing.

"You're hurt!" the woman exclaimed, a look of genuine concern returning to her pretty, half-hidden face.

"Yea-eah," Crown quietly replied. "I know." He gasped again, as the woman's sudden, unexpected touch took his breath away. The warmth from her hands penetrated the drenched sleeves of his shirt and sent a slight shiver through him, as it quickly radiated into the taut, chilled muscles of his arms. He looked up and saw that Jamie's mommy was now getting very wet. The woman had shed her raincoat canopy and set down his gun and her rifle to lend him both of her hands. He braced himself against her and used their support to climb carefully back up onto his feet. He stood there, hunched over and hurting, for a few moments. "Thanks," he muttered finally and carefully straightened up to find himself face-to-face, and practically nose-to-nose, with his lovely female assistant.

They both just stood there in the heavy downpour with their faces pressed closely together, holding onto each other's arms and staring silently into each other's eyes.

The Marshal seemed sort of hypnotized by the steady stream of raindrops, which struck the lovely lady's uplifted face. His eyes followed their path of descent as she blinked them from her they ran down her cheeks like they moistened her they dripped off the end of her they fell to her-. The lawman drew in as deep a breath as he dared and quickly averted his gaze. "Where's Jamie?" he wondered, letting her go to take a careful step back and a cautious look around.

"In the wagon," his mommy replied, reluctantly releasing her hold on the retreating Marshal.

"You best go see ta him," Crown urged. "He's prob'ly scared half ta death. Go on," he repeated, as the boy's mother hesitated to leave. "I'm fine. I'll be along in jest a bi-it," he added, stooping back down to carefully retrieve the discarded weapons and raincoat. He carefully straightened back up again, and carefully holstered his gun. He carefully shook the rain from his borrowed coat before carefully draping it about the woman's already completely drenched shoulders. The lawman gave the still stalled lady back her rifle along with a stern look and a gentle nudge in the general direction of her wagon. Then he headed off himself-in the general direction of his horses.

Jamie's mommy stayed in the clearing a few moments longer and watched as the Marshal made a slight detour to carefully retrieve his hat. She continued watching as he dumped the water out of it and then placed it back on his sopping wet head. The woman managed a slight smile. Then, satisfied that the Marshal could, indeed, manage to move without any further assistance from her, she finally headed for her wagon, making one slight detour herself, past their-by now completely drowned-campfire.

After carefully retrieving his Stetson, Crown carefully caught his borrowed horse and tied it to a tree. Then he dug out his key and removed the handcuffs from the horn of his saddle. Next, he snatched up Lancer's dangling reins and guided him into the protective cover of some tall, thick brush. He crossed back over to his prisoner, carefully latched onto his limp legs and even more carefully dragged him over to the front of the wagon, where he cuffed the still unconcious slime-brain to an unbroken wheel.

After that, he carefully dragged himself around to the back of the wagon-where he took the time to cautiously knock on the heavy-hinged, tied-up tailgate-before daring to enter the 'female grizzly's' den.

"Come on in!" the woman called out to him, over the sound of the wind and the rain.

Crown carefully climbed up over the tailgate and carefully crawled into the warm, cozy wagon, where he proceeded to carefully collapse. Crown lay there on his back, dripping water all over the floorboards beside the baby's playpen, staring blankly up at the canvas canopy over his head and breathing hard, because he was hardly breathing-because it hurt to breathe.

Jamie gave his not so tall now, barely recognizable buddy a strange stare and then glanced uncertainly at his mommy.

His mommy was staring down at the man on the floor, too, looking a little worried. The rain had succeeded in removing much of the mud from his clothes and some of the blood from the backs of his hands and the sides of his face. But still, he appeared to her to be in need of some further cleaning up. Perhaps even a little patching up and drying off. So she stooped down and started rummaging around in the large open trunk beside her bed. "What did yah do with yore prisoner?" she wondered.

The Marshal carefully righted himself, then carefully leaned back against the wagon's wallboards-in sort of a semi-sitting position-to carefully draw his legs up. He noticed the woman had changed her dress already and that she had her beautiful, long black hair half-dried as well. "Since he seems so fond a' spokes," he stashed his dropped Stetson onto one of his bent knees and then gazed up at his hostess, "I left 'im huggin' a few a' the ones on yore right front wheel." He smiled seeing the woman was forced to smile. The lawman's smile faded fast and he stared down at his muddy feet. "Look...about what you did for me out there...I didn' mean ta sound like such an ingrate. I guess I jes' wasn' thinkin'. Which is kind a' the way the whole week's been goin'," he added wearily.

The woman gave the weary gentleman an understanding look. She had spotted the fatigue in the lines of the lawman's face, and had seen it in the weary slump of his broad shoulders, the first moment she'd laid eyes on him. Which was one of the reasons why she had been so concerned about the possible outcome of the fight. "Looks ta me like there's been too much goin' an' not enough sleepin'."

"That sure is a fact!" Crown had to admit. "Still, that's no excuse. I should have said 'thank you'. So, 'thank you'...for savin' my scalp!" he added lightly and carefully ran the fingers of his bleeding right hand back through his dripping wet hair.

The lady shot him another understanding look. "You're welcome!" she assured him. She finished her rummaging, gathered her assorted treasures up from off the bed where she had tossed them and stepped over to where the lawman was half sitting up and half lying down. She dropped her bundle, and herself, down onto the floorboards beside him and then reached up for the steaming cup that was setting on the table behind her. "Here...drink this," she advised, passing the cup to the cold looking Marshal. "It ain't exactly hot. But it ain't all that cold yet, either."

Crown accepted her offering with a grateful nod. "Thanks," he told her and then looked kind of curious. "You got a name? Besides 'mommy'?"

The woman's face lit up with that charming, disarming and irresistible smile again. "Katelyn. Katelyn Edwards," she answered and then looked kind of curious herself. "What about you? You got a name? Besides 'Marshal'?"

"Jim Crown," the Marshal introduced and flashed the lady a rather charming and disarming and irresistible smile of his own, before passing the cup to his left hand so he could offer his right hand to Katelyn Edwards.

Katelyn took it and shook it and then kept it. She rested the lawman's right hand on her lap so she could have both of her hands free to examine, and then doctor, whatever damages there were. The Marshal had bruised his knuckles on his prisoner's jawbone, and scraped them on a few of Tanner's sharp teeth. Katelyn stared disgustedly down at the Peace Officer's badly damaged right appendage. "I knew he wasn't going to fight fair! I jes' knew it!" she repeated. "An' now, look at you! All cut up and half stove in!" She wiped the blood away and then started dabbing some sort of strong, stinging disinfectant onto the open wounds. "Well? Was it worth it? You got all that revenge out a' yore system now? I sure hope so! Cuz, ain't you never read what The Good Book says about takin' revenge? It sa-ays: 'Vengeance is mine', saith the Lord, 'I will repay'."

Crown's knuckles were smarting something awful and he had all he could do to keep from yanking his hand back. "Yeah...well, the Lord sometimes works in mysterious ways," was all he said-when he finally got his breath back again.

Katelyn was forced to smile. "So-o, you think a' yerself as an avengin' angel, do you?"

The Marshal drained the last of his still pretty warm, but not exactly hot coffee from his cup.

The woman snatched it back from him and then latched onto his left hand and laid it on her lap.

"No-o," Crown assured her, as she started torturing him again. "No. I'm no angel. I'm jest a simple minister a' justice. I guarantee yah, there's nothin' angelic about me."

"There's nothin' simple about you, either," Katelyn observed, rather casually. She quickly finished doctoring the lawman's left hand and started on his not so badly damaged face. "So, tell me, 'Marshal Jim Crown'," Katelyn calmly requested, "is there a Mrs. Marshal?" The woman suppressed a sly smile, seeing that her question seemed to have an even more profound effect on the lawman than did her powerful, pain-producing disinfectant.

The Marshal recovered quickly and suppressed a rather sly smile of his own. "Why do you want ta know that? So you can notify my next a' case I don't survive yore delicate efforts at doctorin'?" he teased.

Katelyn obviously enjoyed the teasing, and appreciated the sarcasm, for she laughed delightedly.

The sound of her light laughter caused Crown's contagious grin to reappear.

Jamie saw his mommy laughing and the Marshal grinning, so he clapped his chubby little hands together and squealed with delight, too.

Speaking of doctoring...

The Marshal suddenly noticed a medical bag sticking out of the bundle of stuff that Katelyn had stashed on the floor beside her.

"That belonged to my husband," she explained, following his gaze and catching the questioning look in his eyes. "For two glorious years, I was married to an army surgeon."

"Edwards..." the Marshal muttered to himself. Then an even stranger look came over him, "Fort Brampton..." he paused and shot Jamie's mommy another questioning glance. "Mrs. Jonathan Edwards?" he inquired rather nervously, and Katelyn nodded. The Marshal stared sadly down at his muddy boots again. "Captain Jonathan Edwards was yore husband?"

"Yes. Well, actually, it was Major Jonathan Edwards by the time I met him. He was attendin' a medical conference in St. Louie' an' was tourin' the hospital where I was workin'. Another army doctor, who happened ta be a mutual friend, introduced us an' we got ta talkin'.

It didn't take long before we discovered that we both had a great deal in common. I had dedicated my entire life ta bein' a good nurse an' he had dedicated his entire life to bein' a good doctor. An', since we had both centered our entire lives completely around our careers, there was no time left for family an' friends. So it wasn' too surprisin' ta find that we were also both a couple a' very lonely people.

Well, since I didn't wanna die a lonely old nurse. An' he didn't wanna die a lonely old doctor. An', since I had been wonderin' for some time what bein' a good wife and mother might be like. An' he had been wonderin' what bein' a good husband an' father might be like. We decided ta grow old tagether an' find out. So Jonathan extended his leave an' we were married-exactly one week ta the day from when we first met." Katelyn had been cleaning up the left side of the lawman's face as she talked.

She finished the first part of her story and that part of his face and then quickly turned her attention to his other cheek. "An' it was wonderful!" she continued. "While it lasted...Jonathan was a good husband, an' he would a' made a good father, too..." The woman allowed her soft-spoken words to trail off. She was silent for some time. She had obviously just stirred up some pretty powerful emotions-feelings that were a little too close to the heart to be easily shared, or expressed into words. "Jes' before Jamie was due ta be born, there was a bad outbreak a' hepatitis. Killed pert' near half the soldiers at the Fort. Jonathan contracted the disease from one a' the dyin' men he was doctorin'..." she paused again in her story to blink her moistening eyes and calm her trembling voice. "He never lived ta see his son..." the woman added, allowing her soft-spoken words to trail off again. She forced a smile and quickly changed the subject. "So, how did you happen to know my husband? Were you ever in the Army?"

Crown forced a smile himself and then raised his right hand in an oath. "I swear, I am not now-nor have I ever been-a soldier."

Katelyn looked more confused and curious than ever.

So he continued. "I scouted some for the Army back in the seventies. I stopped a few too many Cheyenne arrows once. Yore husband saved my life," he paused, finding it difficult to put what he was feeling at the moment into words as well. "It took some time for me ta fully recover. Durin' that time, Jonathan an' I became good friends." He stared blurry-eyed into her beautiful, blurring eyes. "I'm real sorry ta hear of yore loss. Yore husband was a good man," he finished quietly, and then quickly turned away to stare sadly down at his muddy boots again.

"Yeah..." Katelyn whispered and stared sadly off into space again herself. "I know."

This time, Crown decided it was his turn to try changing the subject. " that's sort a' an uncommon name, ain't it." 'For sort a' an uncommon woman', he thought to himself.

It worked. That enchanting smile returned to the lady's lovely face. "Actually, I was born Katherine Lynn Samuelson. My parents decided ta name me in honor a' my gran'mothers: Katherine Samuelson an' Lynn Evans. But that turned out ta be a big mistake. Cuz a fierce rivalry soon developed between the two women, as to which one of 'em would turn out ta be their little name sake's favorite granny.

Well, my mother liked ta call me Katie Lynn. But my father jes' called me Katie. However, in an attempt ta be diplomatic an' keep things as peaceable as possible, whenever Gran'mother Samuelson would come for one a' 'her' extended visits, they both agreed ta call me Kate. A-an', whenever Gran'mother Evans would come for one a' 'her' extended visits, they both agreed ta call me Lynn. An' all went well. Til the Christmas all four a' my gran'parents showed up on our doorstep, at the same time. Well, let me tell you! My parents were beside themselves! For two weeks they went around, 'Kate, Lynn, Lynn, Kate, Kate, Lynn.' Til finally, my gran'fathers started callin' me 'Katelyn'. The name stuck. An' I've been Katelyn ever since!" Katelyn finished her story and stared down at the Marshal, who was staring thoughtfully off into space, wearing a wry smile on his all cleaned up face. "What's so amusin'?"

The lawman returned to reality and turned to give her his smile and an explanation. "I was named after my grandfathers: James Crown an' Rolland Thatcher."

"So-o, what did yore parents end up callin' you when yore gran'fathers came by for a visit?" the woman wondered with a grin.

The Marshal's wry smile slowly vanished. "I don' know. They were killed in a raid by Mexican bandits when I was only four. My mother's folks were killed in the same raid. My father had lost his mother when he was twelve. An' I never got ta meet his father, my grandfather, 'til I was almost twenty. An' then he died shortly thereafter. He always called me 'James', or 'Son'..." the lawman's voice trailed off and his wry smiled returned. "My mother's younger brother, Wesley Thatcher, raised me 'til I was thirteen..." his smile did another disappearing act. "An' then, he died..." the lawman paused only a moment, then the smile returned to his face and he returned to his story. "Uncle Wes' used ta abbreviate everything! He had a tame raven named Black-Jack that he called B.J.. And he had a wild young nephew by the name of James Rolland that he jes' called J.R.. He named his horse Puddle-Jumper an' then called him P.J.. He even gave his rifle a name, Little Sally an' referred ta it as L.S.. Then, a' course, he was always sayin' things like: 'J.R., why don't you an' B.J. go on over ta P.J. an' fetch L.S. for yore U.W.?' We used ta make a sort of a game out of it. He'd invent some new initials an' then I'd try ta figure out what they stood for. He always used ta tease me an' tell me that J.R. stood for 'jack-rabbit'. I was thirteen years old before I finally found out that it really stood for James Rolland." The Marshal's smile broadened into a grin and he gave his still wet head a quick shake. "Good old Uncle Wes'..." he muttered to himself and then turned to look out the back of the wagon. The storm had finally passed over and the rolling thunder now sounded very distant. He stashed his still wet Stetson back on his still soaked head and then braced himself to start getting carefully up off the floor of the wagon.

"Where do yah think you're goin'?" Katelyn inquired, latching onto the lawman's wrist and holding him down. "I haven't looked at yore ribs, yet."

"Yea-eah..." Jim Crown mumbled, sounding rather relieved. "I kno-ow." He peeled her fingers from his arm and then quickly, but carefully, started taking his leave again. "Thanks for the' the...patch job."

"I found you a shirt!" Katelyn called after him and dangled the clean, dry garment invitingly out to the still completely soaked to the skin Marshal.

"Thanks!" he told her, peeling the canvas cover from his hat. "But I think I'll finish drip dryin'. You an' the boy be ready ta move out in ten minutes," he advised.

Katelyn watched as James Rolland Crown climbed carefully back over her wagon's tailgate...and then disappeared from view.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip "The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Nine

Katelyn really hustled and had their camp completely broke and their belongings all packed away in record time. Well within the time that was allotted. So it was just about ten minutes later when she jumped down with Jamie to go inform the Marshal that they were ready to pull out-as per his request.

The Marshal's prisoner was still out cold, and they found him still cuffed to the spokes of their right front wheel.

The Marshal had apparently solved the problem of how to fix their wagon's back right wheel, for they found him harnessing up their team of draft horses.

Katelyn had tried to fix the wheel herself. But she couldn't get the heavy jack to lift their heavy wagon high enough so that the hole in the center of her heavy spare wheel would line up with the axle. She saw that the Marshal's solution was a simple one. Instead of raising the wagon, he had lowered the ground. The Marshal had scraped the mud and dug the earth away from beneath the wheel until the hole in its center and the wagon's axle lined up. Then he had wriggled the wheel into proper position-with the aid of copious amounts of axle grease-and locked it in place. It must have been no easy task for him and his sore ribs to wrestle with that very heavy wheel all by himself. A strange look suddenly came over Katelyn. She gasped in utter exasperation again and went storming up to the 'man' harnessing their horses.

"I kin manage here," the man told her as he finished with one harness and carefully reached for another. "You an' Jamie get back in the wagon."

"Of all the prou-oud...pigheaded-" Katelyn exclaimed, sounding enraged. Then she stopped and stood there looking almost too flustered for words. "I don't believe you! Why did yah have ta waste all a' that time an' effort ta try an' get him ta help yah? Why did yah have ta put yerself through all a' that pain an' me through all a' that misery? When yah could a' jes' fixed it yerself in the first place?" she demanded, looking and sounding justifiably angry and upset.

Crown carefully heaved the incredibly heavy harness rigging in his arms up onto one of the incredibly tall horse's incredibly high backs. Then he carefully lowered his arms and carefully released his held breath so he could comment-carefully. "Why do you 'women' always have ta ask so darn many questions?" he calmly inquired, answering her good question with a rather good question of his own.

"Maybe it's because-unlike you 'me-en'-WE don't 'presume' ta HAVE ALL THE DARN ANSWERS!" Katelyn shouted, her dark eyes smoldering with defiance. Then, after swirling around, she and Jamie went storming off in a huff-and in the general direction of their covered wagon.

The Marshal pondered the red-hot lady's red-hot reply over carefully-with one slightly raised eyebrow. Whew! She was hot! Why he could almost see the trail of steam left behind in the woman's wake. Things seem to be heating up and getting more 'mystifyin'' by the moment around there.

Speaking of moments...

He didn't have one to lose. So he gave his mystified mind a quick shake and went back to work. Hadn't he told her he was no angel?

After he finished harnessing the horses, the Marshal hitched them up to the wagon.

Next, he uncuffed his still unconscious prisoner, carted him over to the back of the wagon, dumped him inside and climbed up to finish stowing him away.

Then he dragged both of his horses over to the back of the wagon and slipped their saddles and bridles off. Finally, after stowing his gear inside, he tied his borrowed horse to the wagon's tailgate and allowed Lancer to just roam free.

"What did yah do with yore prisoner this time?" Katelyn wondered, trying very hard to be civil to the 'proud' and 'pigheaded' man who carefully hauled himself up and carefully plopped himself down beside her and Jamie in the driver's seat of their wagon.

The Marshal set his rifle down and then just sat there for a few moments, one hand clutching the two sets of reins-the other clutching his damaged mid-section. "I left 'im tied an'' bound ta the brass headboard...of yore bed," he replied rather breathlessly.

"How could you?" the woman shouted, appearing appalled and sounding outraged at the very thought of the Marshal's grungy prisoner lying in her nice, clean bed.

"Believe me, I couldn't," Crown assured her. Then he carefully removed his gunbelt, his hat and his vest. The clothing was carefully pitched back through the canvas opening behind their seat. The gun was stashed behind his back, and the gunbelt was stowed down below at his feet.

Katelyn looked puzzled. She ducked her pretty head back into the wagon for a moment and then reappeared, looking even more puzzled. If Tanner wasn't lying in her bed, then he had to be lying under it.

"I had ta shove 'im out a' sight," the lawman continued, carefully releasing the wheel brake. "There's a very strong possibility that we might be in for some company-very shortly," he added, easing up on the reins to give the team an encouraging rap on their behinds.

The horses took his subtle hint and stepped out. The wagon followed, lurching slightly as the repaired rear wheel came up out of the hole he had dug for it.

"An', if anyone should happen ta come along," Crown continued, as the team plodded ahead under his careful guidance, "it might be best if they were ta find one, big, happy 'family' here..." he added hintingly.

But the woman didn't reply. Katelyn was busy. She was watching her horses. She wanted to see how they were going to react to their new driver. She was surprised to find the man could handle her team so well. The pair was high-strung and they both had hard mouths and minds of their own. So, what was it about this man's grip on their reins that made them suddenly so responsive? So ready, willing and eager to obey? She stared thoughtfully down at the scraped and bruised hands that were keeping such a firm, yet gentle hold on her horses.

"Okay?" the hands' owner inquired, firmly, yet gently, repeating his hint.

Katelyn finally took the hint and Jamie, and scooted over to sit arm-in-arm, hip-to-hip, and thigh-to-thigh with her 'hubby'. "Whatever you say, Dea-ear!" she replied, sounding incredibly insincere. She felt the Marshal's body go completely rigid. And, as his breathing stopped, so did her horses. She had everything she could do to keep from smiling.

Crown gradually recovered from his close encounter of the opposite sex kind. He got his breathing and the horses going again and then turned to his very obliging 'wife'. He found himself face-to-face, and practically nose-to-nose with the very attractive, very alluring, very lovely lady again. He studied the woman carefully and saw that she was obviously enjoying herself immensely. Yes-sir, Jamie's mommy seemed to take a tremendous amount of delight in tormenting him. So he had an important decision to make here: either he could make her day and allow her to make his life miserable, or he could turn the tables on her and pretend to find his present predicament immensely enjoyable as well. He decided he'd try his hand at tormenting Katelyn Edwards for a change. He pressed his hip up hard against hers, then carefully wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her even closer to him.

Not to be outdone, Katelyn snuggled cozily up in his embrace and nestled her head against his shoulder.

The Marshal's eyes narrowed a bit, and his face scrunched up a might. Then he drew in as deep a breath as he dared and forced his fingers to playfully caress a few soft and silky strands of her long and beautiful raven-black hair.

The woman tilted her head back to stare contentedly up at him.

He could feel her warm breath on his cheek. Jim Crown was finding it so intensely, immensely enjoyable to be holding Katelyn Edwards in his arms, that he didn't have to pretend even one teensy bit. There was some pretty powerful chemistry at work here, too, for he could feel his pulse and respirations quickening. He chanced a glance in Katelyn's direction and saw that a different look had replaced the look of amusement in those beautiful dark eyes of hers. He watched as her look of feigned contentment was suddenly replaced by one of fear and uncertainty, and then, gradually, by one of genuine longing. He could imagine those looks being reflected in his own eyes and quickly averted his gaze again.

It was then that he realized just how dangerous his decision to play along and try to beat the lady at her own game actually was. Still waters ran deep...and so did the feelings he was beginning to experience. Feelings which he'd been keeping buried...feelings which he had been denying himself for a long, lo-ong time. Perhaps too long a time. Then again, maybe not long enough. He was in no position at the moment to be making any personal commitments of any kind-to anybody. It wouldn't be right for him to start something he may not live long enough to finish. So, as vulnerable as the lovely lady looked-and as tempted as he indeed was-he heaved a heavy, painful sigh of frustration and started pulling a tight rein in on his rampaging emotions.

"So. There is a 'Mrs.' Marshal, then..." Katelyn Edwards glumly acknowledged, as Jim Crown backed down and began to pull away.

'Mr.' Marshal noticed the little lady sounded slightly embarrassed, and maybe even just the teensiest bit disappointed, and so he couldn't help but smile. "No-o," he reassured her. "An' there wouldn't be much of a future for anyone playin' that particular role right now, neither..." he added rather candidly, under his breath.

But Katelyn caught both of his comments, and was about to make a further comment herself, when she was interrupted by the sound of riders approaching. Before she knew it, the Marshal had the wagon stopped and had swapped the reins in his hands for his rifle. She drew Jamie up close to herself, and herself up closer to her 'man' and quickly threw herself back into her assigned part.

"Katelyn," Marshal Crown spoke quietly, looking and sounding all business-like again, "you an' Jamie get in the back an' stay down!"

Mrs. Edward's pert little jaw dropped, her mouth fell open and she stared up at her 'husband' in shock and disbelief.

"Go on..." Crown continued, catching sight of the mutinous glint which had begun to appear in his lovely 'wife's' smoldering eyes. "Do as you're told!" he ordered firmly-yet gently.

Katelyn had every intention of protesting-and protesting vehemently. But the genuine deep concern in her 'husband's' voice, and the pleading-almost desperate-look on his rugged, handsome face caused her to quickly reconsider...and to completely change her original course of action. She shot Jim Crown a deeply concerned look of her own, then gathered Jamie up in her arms and quickly scrambled up over the low back of their seat. She and the baby disappeared through the canvas opening and vanished from sight just as two of 'Mister' Mareck's gunmen rode into view.

"Afternoon!" 'Mr. Edwards' greeted the men cautiously. Well, the Marshal was sure he had never seen either of them before. Now, the question was-would they recognize him?

They showed no sign that they did. But then, they weren't looking at him. Both men had their full attention focused on the rifle barrel which he had trained on them...and which he kept slowly waving back and forth across them at about the level of their chests.

"What kin I do for you boys?"

They acknowledged his cautious greeting and question with nervous nods and nervous tips of their hats. "You, uh, travelin' alone, are yah?" the rider on the left wondered with a noticeably nervous edge to his voice.

"Got a family inside," 'Mr. Edwards' replied.

"You folks seen anyone else come through here lately?" the rider on the right wanted to know.

"Why-y?" 'Mr. Edwards' answered with another cautious question. "You two lose a couple a' friends a' yores?"

"Nah," the left rider assured him, "The two gents who left you those two tired horses back there weren't no friends a' ours! Or yores, neither-by the looks a' those bruises."

'Mr. Edwards' feigned relief and lowered his rifle barrel-a bit. "They rode in jes' before the storm hit. Wanted ta know if I'd be interested in doin' some horse tradin'. Said they wanted ta swap their 'spent' saddle horses for our 'fresh' ones. I told 'em I didn't think much a' the deal. But they had more...bargainin' power!" he added, raising his right hand to his face to rub his badly bruised and scraped knuckles over a deep bruise on his left cheek. "The rain's washed their tracks away. But they rode off in this direction," 'Mr. Edwards' added helpfully and motioned straight ahead to the east. "So I figure they mus' be headin' for Hardesty-same as us. An' I'm hopin' we'll get our horses back once we-" the Marshal was suddenly interrupted by a horrible commotion coming from the back of the wagon.

The commotion consisted of a combination of several different sounds being made simultaneously. It was the sound of garbled, incoherent speech-the sound of someone's bootheels kicking boards-and the sound of a brass bed being bounced up and down.

The two gunmen glanced nervously at each other and then at the back of the wagon.

"What's all that ruckus?" the rider on the right wondered, sounding every bit as nervous as he looked.

"There! There!" Katelyn shouted suddenly above the din. "Settle down now! Or, I swear, I'll wallop you a good one!" she threatened-er, promised.

And the racket ceased...for the moment, at least.

"Sorry for all the rumpas, gentlemen," Mrs. Edwards apologized as she and Jamie reappeared through the canvas opening and then plopped down on the front seat to sit arm-in-arm, hip-to-hip, and thigh-to-thigh with her 'husband' once again. "The older boy don't like bein' punished," she explained, smiling sweetly down at the two gunmen who were ogling lustfully up at her. "He was behavin' so badly earlier this afternoon, that my husband had ta give 'im a good lickin' an' put him ta bed. An' he's not allowed out agin 'til we stop for sup-" she was suddenly interrupted by a horrible commotion coming from the back of the wagon again.

"An' if he doesn't stop throwin' them temper tantrums back there," her 'husband' warned-in a voice that was both loud and clear enough for the 'older boy' to hear, "he's gonna get another good, solid beatin'!"

And-again-the racket ceased.

'Mr. Edwards' breathed a shallow sigh of relief and turned his attention to his insubordinate 'spouse'. "I thought I told you ta get in the back a' the wagon an' stay down!" he repeated, wrapping a protective arm around her and the baby. Then he gave the gunmen with their ogling stares some menacing glares.

"Don't worry, Mister. We understand. If I had a woman that looked like her, I'd wanna keep her all ta myself, too!" the rider on the right told him truthfully.

"Yeah!" the rider on the left joined in. "An' yah don't have ta worry 'bout those two men who took yore horses, neither. 'Cuz we aim ta see ta it that neither one of 'ems gonna be doin' any more shady horse dealin'-ever again!" he added, tapping the butt of his rifle in a rather unsubtle hint.

The two 'Prince Charmin' act-alikes exchanged sleezy, slimy smiles and mockingly tipped their hats. Then, after giving the lovely lady a few last lustful ogles-and her lucky husband a few last blatently envious looks-the gunmen turned and went galloping the direction of Hardesty.

The Marshal watched them ride off 'til they were almost out of sight, then he passed Katelyn his rifle and picked up his pistol to go check on his now conscious-and guilty of disorderly conduct-prisoner.

Crown carefully jerked the jerk out from under the bed just a bit and yanked the gag down, freeing his mouthy prisoner's mouth. "We-ell? Go on!" he urged sarcastically. "If you're that tired a' livin'...Call 'em back! Go on!" he repeated as Tanner's lips remained tightly pursed. "A few more seconds an' they'll be out a' earshot..."

His prisoner's pursed lips formed a frown and finally opened in an ugly snarl. "The great Marshal Crown!" he snarled, exhibiting some superlative sarcasm of his own. "Hidin' behind a lady's skirts!" Tanner's snarl slowly transformed back into that sleezy, slimy smile of his. "What wou-ould folks say?" he taunted.

"If they were any smarter than you, which wouldn't be too difficult," the great Marshal Crown replied as he replaced his prisoner's gag and double-checked the secureness of his bonds. "Prob'ly that 'A live dog is better off than a dead lion.' Now, if I have ta come back here again, I'm not gonna like it! An' I kin guarantee that you're gonna like it even less!" he promised icily and then carefully shoved his prisoner back out of sight.

"So-o, you are familiar with The Good Book, after all!" Katelyn said, as her 'husband' carefully dropped himself down onto the seat beside her and replaced his revolver so he could carefully retrieve the reins. "I heard you quotin' Scripture back there," she added, seeing Jim Crown looking somewhat confused.

"Oh. Yah mean that real thick book with all a' those real thin pages?" the Marshal teased. "Yeah, I've read it. Cover-ta-cover. Countless times," he confessed, as he re-released the wheel brake and got her temperamental team going again. "Yah see, it wasn't jest The Good Book," he continued, turning the two horses into an incredibly tight, perfectly executed half circle. "It was the only book I could lay my hands on for the first thirteen or so years a' my life. Somethin' wrong?" he wondered, seeing Katelyn Edwards looking somewhat confused herself.

"Yea-eah! I thought you said Cimarron was about twenty-four miles that-a-way?" the woman reminded him, pointing accurately to the southeast.

"It is!" Crown assured her and kept right on heading to the southwest.

"So then, why are we goin' this-a-way?" she wondered, looking and sounding even more confused.

"Because we're obviously not goin' ta Cimarron," the lawman elusively responded.

"Well, I think I kin 'guess' why we're not goin' ta Hardesty. But would yah mind tellin' me why we're not goin' ta Cimarron?"

"Because I cain't take Tanner there. An' the town ain't exactly the safest place for visitors right now, either," the Marshal explained, patiently putting up with the woman-and a-all of her many questions.

There were a few moments of blessed silence as Katelyn thought over the man's very vague replies. "So then, where are you takin' us?"

"To a place that is safe for visitors," the lawman answered-even more elusively.

The very independent minded, very determined, very lovely lady suddenly looked very annoyed. She was extremely annoyed. "Well, how far is it ta this safe place a' yores? 'Cuz we don't wanna go west! We wanna go east! We'll never get ta St. Louie' at this rate! First we're stranded. Then I find out we're two hundred miles off course. An' no-ow, you're forcin' us ta take this ridiculous detour!"

"The two a' you have already been sort a' detoured-for the past two days," Crown cut in when she stopped for air. "So...'What's one more gonna hurt?'" he wondered, using the woman's very own words. "Besides," he continued before she could, "the two a' you are never gonna make it all the way ta Missouri with this outfit," he began and was just about to explain why, when the very lovely lady just suddenly exploded.

"Jes' who do you think you are, anyways? 'Mr. Marshal Jim Crown'? An' how dare you tell us where we can or cannot go? An' what we can or cannot do? This is a free country! An' we'll go where we like! An' we'll do what we like! An' don't you forget it!" she strongly advised the 'ma-an'.

"Fi-ine!" 'Mr. Marshal Jim Crown' calmly and readily agreed. "I'll jes' forget what The Good Book says about takin' care a' widows an' orphans. An' you kin go wherever you like. An' you kin do whatever you like. An' you kin say whatever you like. But-when it comes ta bein' 'proud' an' 'pigheaded'-we men cain't hold a candle ta you women! An' don't you forget that!" he strongly advised the 'woman'.

There was another stretch of blessed silence as 'widow' Edwards contemplated the 'jes' tryin' ta be a good Christian's' comments over...carefully. As much as she hated to admit it, the 'man' was right. They were both proud and pigheaded! But the 'man' wasn't too proud and pigheaded to admit when he was wrong. And neither was she. She just dreaded having to do it out loud, is all. "Okay...I'm sorry," she quickly and quietly stated. "So what makes you think we're not goin' ta make it?" she begrudgingly inquired.

"Nothin'!" the man told her. "Because I don't think that. I'm sure the two a' you are gonna make it-jes' fi-ine! It jes' won't be with this outfit. I took a look at yore other wheels. The rims are completely shot on all of 'em. The metal's either rusted or worn completely away. An' the wood's rotted clear through. Most a' yore spokes are rotten, too. A lot of 'em already have cracks in 'em. It's amazin' you made it this far with 'em before one finally busted. An' if, by some further miracle, we somehow manage ta make it even further an' actually get ta where we're goin' without losin' any more...we kin throw a couple a' spare wheels off a couple a' my wagons in the back a' yore wagon. Then I'll have one a' my deputies take the two a' you inta Hardesty in the mornin'. He'll see ta it that you get a fair price for yore outfit. Course, the wagon won't bring much. But yore team, here'll fetch top dollar. The two a' you kin use some a' that money ta buy either a stagecoach ticket ta Dodge-or a train ticket ta St. Louie'-or wherever yah like!" he finished, suddenly recalling what the little lady had strongly advised him not to forget. He smiled as, once again, his careful comments caused the little lady to smile. But her smile faded fast, way too fast as far as Crown was concerned.

"Where will you be in the mornin'?" Katelyn inquired.

"Hopefully, I'll be restin' peacefully, but not my bed...back in Cimarron," the lawman answered, sounding very hopeful and looking very weary. If it weren't for his uncanny knack of being able to nap while sitting up on a horse's back, he wouldn't a' had more than three hours of sleep for the last six days-all totaled. No wonder he felt like he was walking around in his sleep! He practically was!

And he wasn't the only one who had noticed that fatiguing fact. "I was jes' gonna go an' put Jamie down for a nap," Katelyn confessed. "But, if you wanna go back an' lie down with him for a while, you're more than welcome to. In fact, you'd sort a' be doin' me a big favor," she added as the exhausted man turned to her with a look in his tired, dreamy, dark eyes which said, 'Oh-oh, if only I could! But I jest cain't accept yore incredibly generous, too wonderful to be true offer'. "Yah see, since you took it upon yerself ta stash that stinkin' prisoner a' yores under my bed, I kin barely breathe for the smell back there! So, if you kin stand it, I'd apprecite it. 'Cuz there's no way I'm gonna leave Jamie back there all alone. An' if you make me go back there, I swear, that smell is gonna make me sick!"

The terribly tired looking lawman turned to her again. Only this time, the look in his eyes told her, 'Well, since you put it that way'. "See that ridge over there ta the right?" the Marshal wondered, motioning with his head in the general direction referred to in his inquiry.

Katelyn glanced in said direction, spotted said ridge, and nodded.

"Well, you jes' keep followin' along that ridge an' it'll take you practic'ly all the way ta where we're goin'."

"Great!" Katelyn declared, sounding rather relieved. "Then I'm bound ta stay on course...this time." She smiled as her comment caused Jim Crown to smile.

"You were never off course, Katelyn," the smiling, deeply appreciative sounding, deeply grateful looking lawman calmly informed her. "You were jes' given the wrong course ta begin with. Whoever it was that told you ta keep headin' due east an' inta the risin' sun-simply forgot that the sun sets jest a little bit ta the south on the horizon, this time a' year."

There was another long comfortable silence as they sat there smiling and staring into each others eyes again.

"Go on then! Take Jamie," the smiling, deeply appreciative sounding, deeply grateful looking little lady calmly requested. "I kin manage jes' fine up here. An', if somethin' or someone should come along that I cain't handle, I know how ta git yore attention," she added, motioning to the loaded rifle resting on the seat beside her.

The Marshal stuck his Colt carefully back in its holster and draped his gunbelt carefully over his right shoulder. Then he turned to Katelyn and swapped his two sets of reins for her one sleeping infant. He rested the limp little child carefully upon his left shoulder.

The boy's mommy marveled that all the sudden movement hadn't somehow managed to wake her young son up. Either the baby was incredibly tired, or the man handling him was incredibly gentle-or maybe it was a combination of both.

Jamie's mommy and the Marshal exchanged smiles one last time-along with a few final looks of undying gratitude.

Crown carefully crawled over the back of their seat and carefully carted his precious cargo over to his makeshift playpen, where he carefully set the baby down and covered it with a small quilt blanket.

If the air was, indeed, 'raunchy' in the back of the wagon, the Marshal wasn't aware of it. In fact, it wasn't too long at all before he was no longer aware of anything. Jim Crown was fast asleep-before either he, or his head ever hit Mrs. Edwards' bed.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip "The Death Of A Legend"

Chapter Ten

Fact is, neither the Marshal-nor his head-ever came anywheres even close to hitting Mrs. Edwards' bed.

Recalling the little lady's previously expressed feelings on the matter, Crown couldn't bring himself to drop his slightly soiled, still slightly damp carcass down upon her lovely, clean bedspread. So he carefully collapsed back down onto the floor and carefully sprawled out beside the baby's bed instead-and used a folded arm as a pillow for his head.

The lawman stayed right where he laid for the next four hours, enjoying the deep, dreamless sleep that comes with complete physical exhaustion.

But the enjoyment ceased the moment the Marshal moved a muscle. You see, he'd left his gunbelt slung over his right shoulder. So that, when he stirred in his sleep, he rolled over onto his holster and its hard, bulky contents-his gun-dug into his very tender, very badly bruised ribs. All of which resulted in a rather painfully rude awakening for him.

Crown grimaced and groaned and carefully raised his rib cage up off'n his revolver. He glanced rather groggily around and discovered that a real pillow had been placed under his head. The bedspread he couldn't drop himself down onto had been dropped down onto him. Jamie had been changed and the Marshal found his little buddy wide awake, sitting up and staring out at him through the slats of his playpen.

"You awake back there?" Katelyn called out, having heard the groan.

"Sort a'..." came back the groaner's rather groggy reply.

The woman was forced to smile. "Goo-ood! 'Cuz we're about ta run out a' 'ridge' up here..."

"I should a' never stopped movin'..." the lawman lamented-several involuntary groans and gasps later. "Then I wouldn' a' had ta git started agai-ain!" he finished with a final gasp.

"It appears ta me, where you made yore biggest mistake was in takin' on that Tanner fellah in the first place!" the irate 'woman' informed the moaning 'man'.

"My biggest mistake was gettin' out a' bed this mornin'," Crown corrected. "My next biggest was takin' a step back without first takin' a look behind," he added, as he and Jamie appeared in the canvas opening.

Katelyn saw that the Marshal had strapped his gunbelt back on, and was, once again, wearing his black hat and vest.

He stood there in the opening for a few moments, cradling the baby carefully in his arms and welcoming the fresh air into his lungs. "There's nothin' like the air after a rain..." the man muttered out loud to himself.

Katelyn's smile returned and she glanced back in his direction in time to watch him draw in another deeply satisfying-though apparently painful-breath of the invigoratingly refreshing air into his lungs. He was going to enjoy it-even if it killed him. "Did you pass out? Or was it yore intention ta spend the last twelve miles bangin' those bruised ribs a' yores against those hard boards back there?" the woman wondered.

"I was so-o ti-ired, you could a' dragged me in the dirt behind the' I doubt I would a' noticed," Crown truthfully told her. "Thanks! For the' the' the sleep!" he continued, climbing carefully back up into the seat beside her and flashing her an appreciative smile. "An' now, you'd better take yore boy back. You cain't see 'em, but there are bull's eyes drawn all up an' down the front, back an' sides a' me-e."

Katelyn shot the target in the seat beside her an anxious glance and then quickly traded with him.

Crown got a good grip on the reins and then transferred them into one hand so he could pull out a smoke.

"Uhhhg!" Katelyn gasped as the man stuck the cigar in his mouth and started reaching for a match. "How can anyone who has such an obvious appreciation for fresh air-like yerself-even consider foulin' it up with the revolting and obnoxious odors that those smolderin' things produce?" she inquired, suddenly sounding irate again.

The man pondered the woman's good question over for a few moments and then, failing to come up with a good answer, he struck up his amazingly dry match and passed along a little reminder. "I told yah I was no angel."

"Yeah...well, for the baby's sake-an' mine-please don't light it? 'Cuz, with you foulin' the air up here, an' yore 'friend' foulin' the air back there, that means that Jamie an' I would have ta git down an' WALK all the way ta wherever it is that you're takin' us!"

The Marshal pretended to ponder her request over. "It ain't too far no-ow..."he teased, but then obligingly extinguished his match without igniting his smoke.

Katelyn breathed an audible sigh of relief. But her relief was short-lived. "Plea-ease?" she continued, as another even more revolting and obnoxious notion suddenly occurred to her. "Promise me you won't chew it, either? 'Cuz Jamie'll see you spittin' an' then he'll start spittin' an' that'd make me even sicker than the smell!"

The Marshal heaved a shallow sigh of surrender and returned the cigar to the inside pocket of his vest.

The woman exhaled another sigh of relief and they rode on in blessed silence for a few moments, before Katelyn felt obliged to comment further. " I ain't exactly an angel, myself," she confessed. "I mean, we all pick up some bad habits over the years. Fortunately, only a few of us pick up dirty an' disgustin' ones-like smokin' an' chewin' tobacco!"

The smoker's eyes narrowed a bit, but he didn't say a word. He was feeling relaxed and well-rested and in too good a mood to allow anyone or anything to spoil it. So he kept his mouth shut and his narrowed eyes straight ahead.

"I'll bet you picked that up from yore Uncle Wes'," the woman figured. "Why, I'll bet you could roll yore own cigarettes by the time you were thirteen!"

"Twelve," Jim Crown corrected.

"Yah know," Katelyn Edwards continued, suppressing a sly smile, "I asked my father once why he smoked tobacco. He said he didn' rightly know why. But he reckoned it was 'cuz it helped him ta think clearer. So I asked him how that worked-exactly. He told me that, when a man has a lot on his mind, he takes out a 'smoke' or a 'chew' an' it helps him ta clear his head. 'Course, bein' fairly young at the time, I figured he meant that yah could jes' light up a cigar an' 'smoke' the thoughts right out a' yore head...jes' sort a' snort 'em right out through yore nostrils! Or, yah could take a big chew an' spit 'em right out a' yore mouth with a big slew a' tobacco jui-"

"-Loo-ook," the lawman interrupted, his handsome face taking on a rather pained expression, "could we change the subject here?" The Marshal may be no angel, but chewing was a habit even he found dirty an' disgusting.

A sly smile escaped from Katelyn's tightly pursed lips, but then suddenly vanished. "Tanner's not worth dyin' for!" she determined and shot the target in the seat beside her another anxious glance, as she obligingly changed the subject. "Even if they were ta hang 'im forty times over-it'd still be a real lousy trade!"

Crown stopped the wagon on a little rise and turned to the very concerned-very anxious-looking lady in the seat beside him. Their eyes met again, and he gave her a look which said that he deeply appreciated-though didn't quite know what to make of-her comments. The woman gave him a look which caused his pulse and respirations to quicken-again. Gawd, but it was pleasurable gazin' at her...mighty pleasurable-he gasped in frustration and averted his gaze again, before it could get too pleasurable.

Katelyn breathed a silent sigh of frustration herself. Instead of pulling her into his arms and kissing her, Jim Crown was-once again-backing off and pulling a tight rein in on his emotions.

"If you promise never ta tell anyone where you were," the Marshal told her, "I kin tell you where you are..."

Katelyn forced a slight smile. "Tell away!" she encouraged, trying very hard to seem and sound cheerful.

"We're comin' up on Adrian's Canyon," Crown explained, and started down the other side of the little rise he had stopped on. "An' inside, is Adrian's Mine. Both places were named after an old prospector-who's supposedly buried on the floor a' the canyon in front a' the mine's entrance. Claim jumpers killed the old man, an' a mysterious cave-in killed the claim jumpers. Now, superstition has it that the old prospector's spirit still haunts the canyon. It's said, no one evil will ever be allowed ta leave the canyon-alive-once they've entered it." He stopped the wagon at the foot of the rise and turned to Mrs. Edwards. "You worried?" he wondered as they sat there in front of a large opening in the enormous rock walls that marked the entrance to Adrian's Canyon.

"Not a bit!" Katelyn assured him with a smile. "You?"

"I'm not 'superstitious'," the lawman informed her.

"Would you be worried if you were?" Katelyn countered, looking curious and quite pleased with herself.

"I've already been in an' out a' here a couple a' dozen times," the Marshal informed her. "Which is why I'm not 'superstitious'..." he explained with a smile, "...anymore," he added, his smile broadening into a rather roguish grin.

That last light remark-along with the thought of how worried the man who had claimed he was no angel must have felt his first time into the canyon-caused Katelyn to grin, too...and then, to start laughing.

Crown kept right on grinning, and Katelyn continued laughing, as they continued on into the canyon, following a narrow passageway which ran between the enormous rock walls.

Katelyn watched as the Marshal carefully waved his silver-banded hat, exchanging some sort of special signal with the half dozen or so hat-waving, rifle-toting lookouts that were positioned on top of the forty-foot high rock walls all along the route.

The passageway gradually opened up into a small canyon that was completely surrounded on all sides by those forty-foot high rock walls. Horses were tethered to some wagons on the far end of the canyon, where a camp had been set up in front of the entrance to an old mine shaft. There were several more men sitting around the camp's cooking fire. Two of them got to their feet and started heading towards them as they came riding up.

"When you said you were takin' us some place safe, you weren't jes' joshin', were you!" Katelyn commented, looking duly impressed with the Marshal's seemingly impregnable fortress.

Crown didn't reply. The lady's comment was more of a statement of fact than a question, anyway.

"Well!" one of the two slightly-amazed looking mustached men declared as Crown brought the wagon to a stop and carefully applied the wheelbrake. "We sure didn't expect to see you back here so soon!"

"Yeah!" the younger of the two men agreed with a grin. "Yah just left here this mornin'!"

"I didn' expect ta see me back here so soon, either," Crown assured them both. "Believe me! But, Mareck was gonna have Blakesley release Tanner. He had a welcomin' committee waitin' for Tanner outside the Fort. So I snuck in an' we snuck out. You'll find 'im stashed under the bed in the back of the wagon," he paused, seeing his two deputies staring at his stunning traveling companion, looking even more amazed. "Rowan Houston...Patrick Fitzsimmons...Katelyn an' Jamie Edwards," the Marshal introduced.

"Ma-am," the two men replied simultaneously and simultaneously tipped their hats.

"Gentlemen," Katelyn acknowledged, giving the gentlemen a nod-and that charming, disarming smile of hers.

"Mareck's brought in nine more men," Crown continued, snatching up his rifle and climbing stiffly and carefully down to stand before his deputies.

"So we heard," Rowan Houston solemnly acknowledged. "Lewis and Davies got back about an hour ago with the supplies-and the manacles-and yore message," he added even more solemnly. "Ji-im," Rowan's face and voice suddenly filled with genuine concern for his friend, "you wouldn't, by any chance, be considerin' headin' back into Cimarron tonight...for any 'particular' reason...would you? Then I wish you would reconsider!" Rowan urged as the look on his friend's slightly-battered face said that he indeed would. "There ain't no party that important!"

"Excuse us a minute," the Marshal told Katelyn. "Hank! Emett!" he called out to two of the four men still sitting around the fire. "There's a prisoner inside! Take 'im inta the mine an' chain 'im ta the tracks with the others!"

"Yes, sir, Marshal!"

"Sure thing!" the two men called back.

The Marshal ushered his two closest deputies off across the floor of the canyon a ways and held a huddled conference with them, out of Katelyn's-or anybody else's-earshot.

Katelyn introduced herself to Hank and Emmet and the two gentlemen eagerly offered to help her and the baby step down from the wagon. She watched Crown's deputies haul Tanner out.

Then they carted the kicking criminal off across the canyon floor and disappeared with him into the seemingly deep, dark mine shaft.

"It's all settled!" the Marshal declared as he came stepping back up to her. "Mr. Fitzsimmons has agreed ta take you an' Jamie inta Hardesty in the mornin' an' then see ta it that yah get a fair price for yore outfit."

Katelyn ignored the message and just stood there, staring point-blank at the bearer of it. "Take us with you!" she softly urged.

The Marshal was deeply touched by-though he didn't know quite what to make of-the woman's quiet request. "As much as I'd enjoy the pleasure a' yore company...I cain't," came back his equally quiet reply.

"Why cain't you?" Katelyn demanded, as the lawman stepped up to the back of her wagon and set his rifle down to start carefully removing his gear.

"Two reasons," he explained, as he began carefully saddling and bridling the big, black horse that had been roaming freely along behind them for the past fourteen miles or so. "I promised a friend that I'd do my best ta make it back ta Cimarron tanight...preferably by eight o'clock...although nine would even be all right...and ten wouldn't even be too late. Which means, I got less than three hours ta cover more than fifteen miles. An' there's no way I kin take the two a' you along an' still make it back in time." He finished carefully saddling and bridling his horse and then carefully stashed his rifle back into its leather scabbord. Next, he carefully snatched up the dangling reins and tossed them back up onto the gelding's withers. Finally he turned carefully back around and forced himself to face her again. "The other reason I cain't take the two a' you along is the one I already gave you. Cimarron ain't a safe place for visitors right now."

"From what I kin gather, it ain't a real safe place for Marshals right at the moment, either!" Katelyn reminded him. "Rowan's right! Stay here tanight! Plea-ease? There'll be other parties..."

Again the Marshal was deeply touched by the woman's genuine deep concern for his welfare. "I expect there will be," he had to agree. "But I doubt there'll ever be another one held in my honor. Besides, I gave my word."

"Would this friend you gave your word to happen ta be a lady friend?" Katelyn cautiously inquired.

Crown was forced to smile. "The friend happens ta be a young lady, but she ain't a 'lady friend'. I don' happen ta have any 'lady friends' the moment," he added in an attempt to put a halt to her current line of questioning.

It worked.

"Well, if you won't take us with you-an', since I can't talk you inta stayin' here tanight-then at least let me bind up those bruised ribs for you before yah leave. I guarantee it'll make the ride back a lot easier on' you. Trust me," she continued as the Marshal's eyes narrowed a bit and his face scrunched up a might. "I know what I'm talkin' about. I'm a nurse. Remember? I promise I won't hurt you...this time," she added, as he continued to hesitate. "Yah see, I'm no longer upset with you. I've jes' come ta accept the fact that you're proud an' pigheaded. An', since I've come ta terms with that, you're bein' so stubborn and actin' so stupid don' bother me so much no more," she confessed, her beautiful dark eyes sparkling with amusement at the proud and pigheaded, stubborn and stupid-acting man's look of absolute amazement. "Come on!" she urged, latching onto the lawman's wrist and suppressing a sly smile. "It'll save yah three hours-an' fifteen miles-a' misery," she reminded the still not moving man.

Jim finally-rather reluctantly-allowed himself to be towed up to the back of his tormentor's wagon.

"Go on up and take yore shirt off. I'll be along jes' as soon as I kin find a lap for Jamie ta sit on." She saw that her patient was starting to have second thoughts. "You looked at my wheels. So it's only fair that I get ta look at yore ribs," she reasoned nonsensically and gave him an encouraging nudge, along with another one of her charming and disarming smiles.

The combination of the nonsense and the nudge-and the smile-clinched it. Crown threw caution to the wind and climbed carefully up into the back of the wagon.

By the time Katelyn arrived, her patient had his shirt off and was sitting on the edge of her bed, giving his injured mid-section a careful, up-close, albeit upside-down, inspection of his own.

There was a deep-purple imprint of a wagon wheel spoke running across the entire width of his chest.

"Looks like yah got yerself quite a contusion there, Mr. Crown," the nurse duly noted.

'Mr. Crown' snapped his head up in the nurse's direction, saw her staring back in his direction and suddenly felt extremely awkward. He would have felt uncomfortable sitting there with her staring at him fully clothed. Now, here she was, standing not two feet in front of him, staring down at him half-naked!

Katelyn found the man's modesty both amusing and refreshing. "Mr. Crown, I've been a nurse for over twenty years now. An', during that time, I saw a whole lot more men with their shirts off than I ever did with their shirts on," she declared, duly noting his nervousness and desiring to put him at ease.

It worked.

The Marshal heaved a shallow sigh of relief and gradually relaxed...some.

"How long have you had this?" the woman wondered, latching onto the lawman's hand and pulling his injured left forearm right up in front of his face.

Crown drew his head back 'til his eyes uncrossed and gave the rather ghastly-looking, three-inch gash in his left wrist a quick glance. "I dunno...five or six days...I guess," he stated disinterestedly and rather reluctantly raised his gaze. "Look, I know it was real stupid of me not ta have it sown up," he continued, seeing his nurse glaring accusingly down at him and looking real upset with him again, "but there wasn't time! An'-even if there had been time-there was no doctor. Now, I been tryin' ta keep it clean an' I been tryin' ta keep it covered. So, kin we jes' git on with it here? 'Cuz' the ride's long an' time's short," he added, finishing his little reminders. He was hoping the upset looking lady would remember that she'd promised to be gentler with him-this time-and that he was in a real big hurry to get back to town tonight.

She did.

Katelyn's harsh look softened and she reluctantly released her hold on his left hand. "Well, you should take the time an' have it looked at when yah git back ta Cimarron. You do have a doctor in Cimarron, don't you?" she sarcastically stated and then turned her back to start rummaging around in her trunk again.

"We didn't when I left this mornin', " Crown confessed. "But there might be one there by the time I git back tonight. Should be one there...if Francis is there. He left for Boston ten days ago an' I told 'im not ta bother comin' back 'til he found us one."

Katelyn quickly sifted through the stack of sheets and linens and came up with just the right bandages for binding up bruised ribs. She set her bandaging materials down on the bed beside her patient and then began her careful-and thorough-examination of the Marshal's damaged mid-section. "Sorry," she said as her trained fingers expertly explored several exceptionally tender areas of his bruised rib cage-and the pain produced by her delicate touch literally took the lawman's breath away. "Did that hurt?" she innocently inquired.

The still breathless Marshal shot his nervy nurse a 'Ha! Ha! Very funny!' look, but refrained from any kind of vocal comment. For he strongly suspected that-even without the bruised ribs-her 'touch' would have had that affect on him.

As the nurse's trained fingers took note of the damages Tanner had caused, her trained eyes took in the vast multitude of other scars which were scattered about the target's torso.

There, permanently etched in flesh, was the recorded evidence of Jim Crown's reckless youth-along with the more recent, lasting reminders of the dangers inherent in leading the life of a frontier lawman. Marshalin' had apparently been extremely hazardous to his health. Judging by the size and position of some of his scars, Jim Crown had had his share of close calls.

Yes, sir! It appeared to her that it was only by some miracle-or a series of miracles-that the man was even still alive!

Maybe the Marshal really was an avengin' angel, after all?

She had always heard that the Lord takes care of his own.

And, wasn't it an 'act of God' that had saved him that afternoon? If that storm hadn't a' hit when it did-and the rain hadn't a' washed away their tracks-he would have been forced to shoot it out with those two gunmen. And, wasn't it by some further miracle that they had managed to arrive without losing another wheel or two along the way? A-And, considering how hard they had been smacked, wasn't it also a miracle that not a one of his rib bones was cracked?

The nurse sighed in relief and finally reported on her findings. "We-ell, nothin's busted. But yore ribs are very badly bruised. So they're bound ta be very sore for the next few weeks."

The Marshal had been sitting there, grimacing and gasping-and silently enduring-his nurse's excruciating examination. Then, as the painful pokin' and proddin' finally came to a completion, he managed a gasp of profound relief. He gasped again-this time, in total exasperation. "Yea-eah, I know!" he stated in a voice that was just shy of a shout. "An' I could a' told yah that-if yah'd a' bothered askin'! You were jes' s'posed ta look! No one said anything about touchin'!"

Katelyn could hear the pain in the Marshal's raised voice and she could see it in his rugged handsome face-and it was there in his dreamy, dark eyes. It was then that she realized just how accustomed she had grown to hearing that voice and seeing that face-and staring into those eyes. She suddenly felt a rather sharp twinge herself. Only hers was a different kind of pain. "Ta those of us in the medical profession, touchin' an' lookin' go hand-in-hand," she calmly explained and quickly set about her bandaging. "If yah don't check for broken bones before yah go bindin' up somebody's ribs, it's possible yah could puncture a lung-or lacerate a liver or somethin'. So, yah see, touchin' is a necessary-though sometimes nasty-part a' proper, standard medical procedure."

"So is askin' questions," her patient reminded her. "It don' hurt ta ask questions. If Doc Kihlgren would a' took a look at my ribs, the fers' thing he would a' done is ask me if anything felt like it was busted. I would a' told him no-an' he would a' wrapped 'em up an' sent me on my way."

"Even if I had asked you if anything felt like it was busted, I still would a' had ta check 'em out for myself. It ain't that I don' trust you. It's jes' that I tend ta trust my touch a whole lot more. These fingers a' mine have examined so many men's rib cages that I've sort a' developed a feel for when somethin' ain't quite right."

"Yeah...well, these ribs a' mine have been whomped on...tromped' stomped on so many times, that I've sort a' developed a feel for when somethin' ain't quite right, too. Once you've busted a rib, you're made instantly aware a' the fact that somethin' is terribly wrong. An' it's a feelin' yah ain't likely ta ever forget. Believe me, compared ta busted ribs, bruised ribs are just a little tickle."

"Take a fairly deep breath an' hold it for me, if you will, please," his nurse requested.

If Crown didn't know better, he might have taken the request as a hint for him to shut up. But he'd had his ribs wrapped plenty of times before. And the idea is to wrap them so tight so as to keep movement-and thus pain-to a minimum. But not so tight so as the person can't breathe.

"I've never been whomped on, tromped on, o-or stomped on," Katelyn confessed as her patient obligingly drew in as deep a breath as he dared-and then held it for her. She secured the broad strip of bandage snugly and properly in place and started winding the wide strip of linen tightly around the Marshal's damaged mid-section. She worked fast and efficiently.

It appeared to Crown as though binding somebody else's ribs was the most natural thing in the world for her to be doing.

It was.

"I guess that's cause we 'women' tend ta be more careful. We tend ta take a lot better care of ourselves. We don't abuse our bodies the way you 'men' do. Okay, you kin breathe now."

Crown carefully released his held breath. "You make it sound like we go around deliberately tryin' ta get hurt."

"If that's the way it sounds ta you men, it's 'cuz that's the way it seems ta us women," Katelyn countered and continued her expert wrapping.

"Yeah? Well, if you women tend ta get hurt a whole lot less, it's prob'ly becuz' there's a whole lot less a' you ta keep out a' the way a' things," Crown reasoned irrationally. He smiled as his nonsensical comment caused his nurse to crack a smile. "An', yah know why those fingers a' yores have examined so many of us men's rib cages, don't yah," he continued, keeping an almost perfectly straight face.

"'Cuz bigger ribs make for a bigger target?" Katelyn teased, following the lawman's line of illogic.

"That's part a' the reason all right," the Marshal lightly admitted. "But mostly it's becuz' ribs happen ta be a real weak spot with us men."

The woman's smile widened some. "Is that a fact?"

"It i-is," Crown assured her. "An' it seems it's always been that way with we men. Our ribs have been a constant source a' pain an' grief for us men-clear down through the ages."

"Oh really?"

"Uh-huh. Startin' with the very first man," the lawman continued. "Ain't you never read what The Good Book says about Adam-an' all the trouble he had with one a' his ribs?" he added, as the woman paused to shoot him a questioning glance.

"There's nothin' like a good ribbing," Katelyn confessed, as her smile broadened into a grin.

Jim Crown's eyes narrowed a bit and his face scrunched up a might. But then he exchanged grins with his very witty, very pretty, very lovely opponent.

The nurse finished wrapping her patient's ribs up and then stood there, hesitating to send him on his way. "For someone who claims ta be no angel, you sure seem ta like referrin' ta The Good Book," she observed, as the Marshal stood up and turned his back on her to start getting dressed. "I suppose that comes from readin' it all those times. I imagine you must pert' near have it memorized, by no-ow...chapter an' verse," she added, continuing her small talk.

"My Uncle Wes' used it ta teach me how ta read-an' how ta write-an' how ta live. He said that jail cells were jes' full a' folks who could quote Scripture-chapter an' verse. So he never could see no point in tryin' ta memorize any of it. He said he figured that I'd prob'ly be better off if he was ta teach me ta try livin' by it, instead." Crown finished getting dressed and turned back around to find himself face-to-face, and practically nose-to-nose, with the lovely lady again. "So there, yah see-he taught me a whole lot more than jes' how ta roll my own cigarettes," he finished with a slight smile.

Katelyn smiled.

The two of them stood there-in the rather close quarters-staring rather dreamily into each others eyes again.

Then-while the lawman still looked in the mood to be kissed-the lady wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pulled herself up on to the tip of her toes and tenderly kissed him-right smack dab on his smile! She felt the Marshal's body go completely rigid-again-and his breathing stopped. But she didn't.

And, since she was sort a' holding him hostage, Jim gradually untensed and just sort a' came to accept the terms of his captivity.

His captor drew back-finally-and opened her eyes to study Jim Crown's reaction to her rather impulsive action.

Her captive's eyes slowly opened and he stared silently down at her, looking pleasantly surprised.

"I'm not usually so...forward," Katelyn confessed, looking and sounding just a wee bit embarrassed. "But we were sort a' married there for a while this afternoon, weren't we?"

"Yes..." her sort a' 'husband' agreed-when he finally got his breath back. "I guess you could say we sort a' were."

"An' it's perfectly proper for a woman ta kiss her 'husband' goodbye, ain't it?"

"Oh..." her 'husband' replied, speaking almost in a whisper, "perfectly...very proper," he added uneasily and noticed it was getting rather warm there in the back of the wagon-uncomfortably warm-all of a sudden.

"So then, what's wrong?" Katelyn wondered, sensing his unease and spotting his discomfort.

"Nothin'," the lawman lied. "It's jes' that it felt more like 'hello'...than 'goodbye' all," he added, his voice growing softer still-until it trailed off completely.

Katelyn smiled that charming, disarming, irresistible smile of hers. "We-ell. Maybe we should try it again. I'd hate ta think I sent you on yore way with the wrong kiss..." She closed her eyes and pulled herself up to plant one on him a second time.

The Marshal 'dropped the reins' and took her gently into his arms. He forgot all about 'commitments' and what was 'proper and right' in his 'head', for the moment, and went with what felt right for the 'rest' of him. After all, he was no angel. And he was no fool, either. Or was he? Their lips met-and he could feel all those years of suppressed passion suddenly being triggered off inside him. There was absolutely nothing he could do about it now, either-even if he had wanted to-which he didn't. To try an' cancel those feelings out now would be about as futile as trying to summon a bullet back once it had been fired off an' left the barrel of his gun.

When Katelyn pulled herself up to playfully plant one on her patient again, she was pleasantly surprised to feel him pulling her up gently into his powerful arms and kissing her back. Wow! Did he ever kiss her back! She was totally unprepared for such-passion! Jonathan had never kissed her like that. She'd never been kissed like that before in her entire life! If she had been, she was sure she'd remember it. 'Like yore first busted rib,' she silently mused. 'It's a feelin' you ain't likely ta ever forget.' But his kiss-while so incredibly passionate-was also delivered with a rather surprising degree of tenderness. It's a good thing, too! Or he'd a' bruised her lips for sure! The combination of such controlled passion-mixed with such extreme tenderness-inspired the lady to give as she got.

So that, by the time their kiss finally-reluctantly-ended, they were both left breathless.

"I see what yah mean," Katelyn gasped, being the first one to recover. "That was definitely 'hello'...most definitely!" she repeated, still sounding rather breathless. She cocked her pretty head at a rather coy angle and gleamed rather mischievously up at the man who was holding her so firmly-yet so gently-in his arms. "Dare we try it-again?" she teased.

The look in the lawman's dreamy, dark eyes told her that he'd like nothin' better. But the frustrated look on his rugged, handsome face told her that he didn't dare. "I think we'd better jes' shake hands an' say 'adios'," the Marshal reluctantly suggested and reluctantly released his hold on the woman. "'Cuz, if I stay here even one minute longer," he continued, reaching around behind him to reluctantly retrieve his hat from off the bed, "I'm gonna end up breakin' a promise to a friend." He turned back and found Katelyn holding her hand out to him. He took it and shook it.

"I understand," she softly assured him and managed a brave smile. "Adios, Jim Crown. It's been a real...pleasure."

The Marshal stood there, holding onto the very lovely lady's hand and staring dreamily into those beautiful, dark eyes of hers. "Adios, Katelyn Edwards. Thank you for...everything. It's been a real...memorable...afternoon," he assured her with a wry smile. "I hope you an' Jamie have a safe an' successful journey-to wherever," he cautiously added on to his wish and smiled again as his careful comment caused Katelyn to crack one, last smile. The Marshal stood there for a few more moments, making a mental picture of Jamie's very lovely mommy and her very enchanting smile. "Take care, Katelyn," he whispered and reluctantly released her hand.

She gave his hand a final squeeze and then reluctantly let him go.

Jim tossed his hat back on, tipped it to her a final time and then quickly took his leave, as the mental picture he'd been making suddenly became a complete blur.

Jamie saw the Marshal climbing down from their wagon and started climbing down off of Mr. Fitzsimmons' lap.

"Well, Jamie," Crown declared with a sad smile as the baby toddled over to him and demanded to be picked up again. "I guess this leaves you the 'man' a' the family," he continued, swooping the infant gently up off the ground. "So take real good care a' yore mommy for me," he requested. He gave the child a tender squeeze and placed him safely down inside the wagon-with his mother.

Jamie stood there, staring up at the tailgate for a few moments. Then he dropped down on his heavily padded butt and began to pout.

Katelyn saw that the boy was apparently upset by his tall buddy's sudden disappearance and stepped quickly over to comfort him. "There...there," she soothed, as she took the toddler into her arms and began gently rocking him. "I understand," she assured her young son. "Mommy doesn't want him ta leave, either." She gazed blurrily out the back of her wagon.

The Marshal was standing beside his horse, speaking with Mr. Houston.

"Jim, if I can't talk yah into stayin', then at least let me go with you," Rowan anxiously requested.

"You'll be more help ta me here," Jim assured his frantic friend.

Rowan frowned.

The Marshal finished checking his cinch, replaced his left stirrup and then swung himself up into his saddle-all in one, smooth, uninterrupted motion. "Besides," Crown continued, swinging his eager to leave horse around, "if you were ta tag along-an' I was ta ride into an ambush-that means we'd both get 'dusted'. An' a fine lot a' good you'd do me dead!" The lawman swung his horse around again. "An'-on top a' all that-I promised Stacey that I wouldn' let anything happen ta you. Jes' imagine how disappointed she and Davey would be ta find I'd gone back on my word!" he teased and turned his horse in another tight circle.

Katelyn saw that the Marshal's good-natured teasing had finally succeeded in transforming Mr. Houston's frown into a smile.

"Go on then!" Rowan harshly advised, still pretending to be upset. "And don't go getting yerself 'dusted'! Just imagine how disappointed all those people back in Cimarron are gonna be if YOU don't show up tonight!" he teased right back.

The two old friends traded grins.

"Hold down the Fort, Mr. Houston!" the Marshal ordered down to his main man. "An', hopefully, I'll see yous all again...sometime tomorrow afternoon."

Rowan nodded.

The Marshal waved goodbye to him-and to the rest of his men-and then finally let his anxious to leave horse have its head.

"Vaya con Dios, Marshal!" Katelyn called out after him as he went riding off. She had this sinking feeling that the only way that the self-proclaimed 'target' was ever going to make it back, was if 'God' were to 'go with' him.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Eleven

The Marshal let Lancer pick his own pace. And, since the horse had just been given better than a four hour breather and was feeling both fresh and frisky, it happened to pick a relatively fast one. The animal had but one thing on its mind-and that was to get back to town where it knew there were goodies to be gotten.

Lancer's rider couldn't seem to get Jamie's mommy-or their kiss-off of his mind., that wasn't quite true. He could. He simply chose not to. Those purely pleasurable thoughts had placed-and kept in place-a smile on his face for the past two miles now. No easy task, considering he was cantering through some pretty rough country with some pretty sore ribs.

But, thanks to his nurse's kind efforts at rib wrapping, all the painful jarring and jostling that he was presently experiencing was being kept tolerable. And, because the pain of the fast pace was tolerable, he was bound to make it back in plenty of time to be 'surprised'.

Why, thanks to the four hour breather Katelyn had so thoughtfully given him, he might even be able to muster up enough energy to dance the dance that Dulcey had promised to save for him.

Yes, sir! Thanks to the lovely lady, the only real discomfort the lawman was feeling right now was in his arms. Along with the kiss Katelyn had planted on him, a yearning had been planted in him-a yearning for the feel of her in his arms-a yearning so powerful that his arms actually ached for the opportunity to embrace her again...and again...and again.

No doubt about it, he had allowed the woman to stir up some pretty powerful feelings inside him. And, while he hadn't unbridled those fired up passions completely, he had set them free to run loose for a while.

The resulting experience was absolutely incredible-and so incredibly wonderful, that he had ev-e-ry intention of experiencing that experience again...and again...and again.

In fact, he had already determined that, should he manage-somehow-to survive the sticky situation in which he found himself, he would have to look the little lady up in St. Louis.

Then, if it was all right with her (and he suspected it might be, since she had made the first move) the two of them could pick their relationship up right about where they had left off.

Yes, that would be a good place to begin again-a great place to begin again-THE greatest!

The Marshal looked up into the cloudless sky overhead and suddenly started praying for rain. 'Cuz' he sure could a' used another nice cold shower right about then.

Oh well, the river was less than a mile away-and the crossing he'd chosen was real deep.

But then, so were most of the others-what few others there were.

It seems the Lord had allowed the Cimarron to pick its own pace, too. Since its bed had such a long, sharp, continuous descent to it, the river happened to pick a relatively fast one. Because the fast-paced stream coursed through deep, rock gorges and high mounds of shifting prairie sand dunes, the banks tended to be very steep and quite treacherous.

Getting down into the river presented no problem at all. You could just let gravity plunge you into the Cimarron most anywhere along its two hundred and fifty mile route through the Territory.

The trick was, getting back out again on either side.

Through the deep gorges, the Cimarron was banked on both sides by sheer cliffs of jagged, red rock. The river flowed so fast, and cut such a deep channel through the dunes that its banks were nothing more than high mounds of loose and shifting sands, themselves-much too steep to climb in most places, and too soft and crumbly to allow for a firm hand or foothold in others.

So it was that the Marshal had very few crossing sites to choose from in the first place. Why, there were fewer than a dozen within a fifty mile stretch-running twenty-five miles upstream and twenty-five miles downstream-in point of fact.

Crown knew that Mareck's men knew that he would have to cross the Cimarron somewheres. So he picked a place to cross that he was sure the 'outsider', Mareck, and his 'imported guns' wouldn't know about-McClain's Crossing. (Of course, the Marshal had no way of knowing about-and so he hadn't figured on-Judge Rutgers dealing himself into the game by hiring a bunch of local boys to bushwhack him.)

With its thoughts still concentrated solely on cake and apple peelings, Crown's horse continued stepping out at a nice, steady, brisk pace. So that they reached McClain's Crossing in no time at all.

The gelding never even hesitated a bit before plunging into the cool, swift current.

A strong swimmer, it emerged from the stream almost directly across from where it had entered. Then it scrambled quickly up the slippery bank with water dripping off its legs and underbelly in thick, ticklish torrents.

The Marshal braced himself as the horse shook violently beneath him, trying to shed as much of the irritation as possible before continuing.

Crown had removed his rifle from its case to keep it high and dry during the deep, and thus drenching, crossing. He was just about to replace it when he felt his horse's muscles suddenly tense beneath him.

Lancer chomped the bit in his mouth once or twice, then tossed his head with a nervous snort and refused to take another step.

The lawman realized in an instant the significance of the animal's odd behavior and was turning to take immediate evasive action-when he heard the loud report of a rifle.


In that same instant, a small chunk of lead-traveling at an incredibly high velocity-entered his chest, spun him around and sent him sailing out of his saddle with all of the force of a mule kick!

He landed hard, on his right shoulder, and would have cried out in pain-if the first impact hadn't already knocked all the wind out of him! His poor, twice traumatized lungs were once again screaming silently for him to send them some air-any air! But, on account of where and how hard he'd been hit, Crown felt quite certain that this time, he'd breathed his last, for sure!

Because of being exposed to the cold river water during the crossing, the lower half of the lawman's body was already sort a' numb.

Now, in response to the tremendous shock it had just received, the upper half of his body was becoming sort a' numb, too. Since his lungs still weren't functioning, his still-circulating blood was ceasing to supply oxygen to his brain. Crown could feel himself slipping...down...down...down into the dark depths of unconsciousness.

Then, just before he blacked-out completely, his breath returned-in first one grueling gasp...and then another...and another.

A good question came to the Marshal's mind as his head cleared. Why was he still alive? When, by all rights, he shouldn't be breathin'! As agonizing an ordeal as breathing had now become for him, he was beginning to regret the fact that his lungs had resumed functioning again. That chunk of lead that somebody had just left in his chest felt like it was on fire! He had to fight the overwhelming urge that he had to reach for it.

The lawman decided that he'd better lie there-completely motionless-for the time being, 'til he could determine the extent of his injuries...and piece together what must have happened.

Near as Crown could figure, he must have been in the process of turning when the bullet impacted, so that the angle of its entry had been changed. Instead of ramming into him from front to back, his turning had caused his assassin's missile to hit him from right to left. Which meant that, instead of penetrating his chest directly and being driven deep into one or more of his vital organs, the bullet must have struck him sideways and then stopped-when it became embedded in his rib cage.

Yes, that would certainly explain why breathing had become such an all-out ordeal for him, all right. And why a couple of those badly bruised ribs of his now felt broken...along with his right shoulder.

He took a chance and made an attempt to move his right arm-ever so slightly. The pain was intense, but tolerable. He was surprised to find that he'd managed to hold onto his rifle when he fell. The weapon was right there in his right hand and ready for action.

It was a good thing, too! For he was sure that it was only a matter of time before his would-be assassin, or assassins, would be climbing down from the ridge of rocks about two hundred yards away, where he-or they-had lay, waiting in ambush for him.

Would he be as ready for action as his rifle?

He'd better be!

If only one bushwhacker came down to inspect and ensure his dead carcass, the lawman was only in serious trouble.

Two bushwhackers meant twice as much trouble and made the outcome a real toss-up.

More than two-and he was going to be a really DEAD, dead man!

He heard the sound of bootheels scraping against rock and was gradually able to make out voices.

"I thought we was gonna hold our fire 'til he was well within range?"

"You saw how his horse spooked! He weren't gonna git no closer! Besides, what are you gripin' about anyways? I got 'im, didn' I?"

The Marshal recognized those voices. He ought to. He'd heard them often enough.

They belonged to a couple of local hooligans, the Hampton brothers: Lucas-and his younger brother, Judd.

Judging by the conversation, it was Lucas who had shot him.

Well, that explained why he was still alive! He'd just been shot by Lucas Hampton!

Lucas and Judd Hampton were a couple of the most half-witted, hardened criminals Crown had ever come across! Why, the combined brain power of both boys wouldn't generate enough smarts for an intelligent toadie!

Crown continued to just lay there-completely motionless-playing possum, and continued to listen, with no little interest, as their continuing conversation answered any remaining 'who's, hows, whys, and wherefores' he may have had.

"Yea-eah," Judd, the least unintelligent of the two, continued. "Yah got 'im! But what if yah didn't git him good enuff? What if yah jes' winged 'im? Walkin' up on a wounded lawman is like walkin' up on a wounded grizzly! Let's jes' take the money we already got, Lucas and git!"

"There ain't no way I'm gittin' 'til I got what we come here for! You heard the Judge, Judd! If we don't collect his badge, we don't collect the rest a' our money!"

"Forget about the Judge-and the money, Lucas! Seven hundred dollars is worth killin' for-but it ain't worth bein' killed for!"

"I'll tell yah what, Judd...seein' as how you're so all fired fretful that Crown's corpse is gonna jump up and git us...why don't you shoo that big, ugly, black horse out a' the way there...and I'll perforate 'im a few more times! Just for you!" Lucas razzed his kid brother.

Because he wasn't sure which parts of his already perforated person were still operational-and to what degree they could be depended upon to operate properly-the Marshal waited until the two men were almost right on top of him before rolling quickly and carefully onto his left side-and ramming a cartridge into the firing chamber of his rifle. Much to his relief, all of him moved-though certain parts only did so under extreme duress. He grimaced and gasped as the pain in his right side and shoulder took his breath away.

The sound of his gun being cocked had caused his bushwhackers to freeze right in their tracks and they stood there-not ten feet from him-looking like they were both holding their breath, too. They were. The Hampton boys were staring down at the suddenly come back to life corpse, in shocked silence.

"You should a' listened...ta yore baby brother," Crown told Lucas through tightly-clenched teeth and waved the unsteady barrel of his Winchester slowly and deliberately back and forth, covering first one brother...and then the other. "An' the procedure is: guns down...hands up! Not hands down...guns up! In the boys have had a real problem...keepin' such the proper order."

It seemed Lucas Hampton still had the same old problem, because his right hand dropped down to draw his gun up.

The Marshal suspected all along that one, or both, of them would still be plagued with the misdirection problem. So he wasn't surprised when his finger had to squeeze his rifle's trigger.

There was another extremely loud, "Ker-po-ow!"

Closely followed by a sharp cry of pain. Lucas Hampton's hand went flying off the handle of his gun, and the weapon fell to the ground. The outlaw released the rifle in his left hand so he could use it to make a frantic grab for his now bleeding, and apparently badly damaged, right fist.

Speaking of misdirected things...

The Marshal, whose original intention had been to knock the gun out of Lucas Hampton's hand, ended up knocking Lucas Hampton's hand off of his gun. "Now what you...made me go and do," Crown declared, sounding somewhat disappointed. Oh well, considering how shaky he felt, it was pretty remarkable that his shot had connected with anything at all. Then, before baby brother could even blink his wide eyes, Crown's Colt had replaced the rifle in his own right hand. "I always figured you...for bein' smarter...than yore brother," he confessed to Judd. "You ain't fixin'...ta prove me wrong, now...are you?"

Judd let the rifle drop from his hands. Then, moving very slowly, and using just the very tips of his fingers, he tossed down his side arm. He'd been taught the proper procedure, all right, and it suddenly all came back to him.

As well it ought! Considering the number of times Crown had already taken the two of them into custody!

Speaking of taking the two of them into custody...

Now that Crown had them, what was he going to do with them?

The Marshal carefully released the hammer of his Colt. He was so weak from shock that he could barely keep his head up off the ground. The weakness in his muscles caused them to shake so-that it now took both of his hands to hold his gun up and keep it steady.

The lawman looked the area over and spotted an enormous deadfall laying just off to the left of him.

The fallen giant rested about four inches above the ground and formed a sort of natural bench. The exposed root system stuck out ten to fifteen feet in all directions and an even more impressive array of equally long branches adorned its crown. Between the weathered, sun-bleached, bark-less roots and branches was a twenty foot section of weathered, sun-bleached, bark-less trunk, measuring more than four feet in diameter.

Decades ago, the tree had fallen down onto the same enormous slab of sandstone and shale that he had just fallen down onto.

So, if he were to chain his two prisoners to it, there was no way they were gonna dig-saw-or slide themselves free.

"Have a seat, boys," the Marshal suggested and motioned toward the tree with his gun, "an' I'll be right with you-ou..." he promised with a grimace and a gasp, and noticed that the numbness seemed all too rapidly to be wearing off. The deep, searing pain in his side seemed to be growing in its agonizing intensity.

The Hampton boys obligingly stepped over to the deadfall.

Crown waited until they had seated themselves down before attempting to pick himself up.

The Marshal dreaded moving. He knew it wasn't gonna be fun. He had already discovered that it hurt ba-ad even when he held his breath and wasn't moving in any way.

Shallow breaths were mildly excruciating.

While the pain of drawing a deep breath usually generated a gasp-which produced a pain so profound that it made him grit his teeth and grimace.

Yes, sir! Getting up was gonna be no picnic for him!

He held his breath and forced himself to roll the rest of the way onto his stomach. The lawman groaned and gasped as his breath was taken away from him for the umpteenth time that day.

Crown had always prided himself in having a tremendously high tolerance level for pain. But there was a limit to how much even he could be expected to endure. He grimly realized that he seemed to be rapidly reaching it, for he had just come incredibly close to blacking right out.

Between grimacing and gasping and gritting his tightly-clenched teeth, the Marshal somehow managed to make it back up onto his hands and knees.

As the Hampton brothers had sank down onto their assigned seating, their spirits had sank along with them. Now, as they watched the apparently seriously wounded lawman trying to rise, their spirits rose with him.

Crown's face was quite pain-stricken...his complexion seemed deathly pale...beads of perspiration were forming on his forehead. The Marshal seemed to be having a problem keeping his eyes focused. He also seemed to be having a great deal of difficulty catching his breath.

No doubt about it! Things were definitely beginning to look up! The two bushwhacking brothers shot each other hopeful glances.

Crown knew that time was running out for him. He had to move quickly-before he stopped moving completely! He retrieved his hat and his rifle and then tried summoning his horse over to him. "La-ance..." he gasped, as he finally realized he was breathing way too hard to whistle.

The animal alertly picked its head up from the greenery it was grazing, and gave its fallen rider a glance.

"Come here, Son..." the Marshal requested.

And the horse readily obeyed.

"Whoa-oah...Steady now," the lawman gently urged and started pulling himself up.

Of course, it wasn't accomplished in the one, smooth, uninterrupted motion he was accustomed to, but Crown did-somehow-manage to replace his rifle and regain his seat.

He'd just come pretty close to passing out again and it was taking him a rather long time to recover.

Lancer was real anxious to leave again, so he had to keep turning the antsy animal in tight circles, which was making him even dizzier and more lightheaded than suddenly being vertical again was already making him feel.

Finally, the horse got as dizzy as its rider and stood stalk still.

The Marshal wrapped the reins around the horn of his saddle a few times and then reached back and under the flap of one of his saddlebags. "Here!" he said, pulling out one of those 'heavy chain things' he was carrying and tossing it to his prisoners. "I want you ta wrap this...around that tree," he continued, as the thing landed with a 'jingle' and a 'clink' at the two men's feet.

"An' then what?" Lucas nervously inquired.

"One a time boys," the Marshal replied and motioned with his gun for them to get on with the first step.

"You cain't jes' ride off an' leave us here like this!" Judd declared, suddenly seeing where the first step was leading to.

Crown stared down the barrel of his Colt and gave the bushwhacker a look which said, 'Oh yes I ca-an!'

Judd reluctantly wrapped the chain around the tree.

"Well, what about my ha-and?" his older brother pouted and held up his bandanna-wrapped boo-boo.

The lawman shot Lucas a look which said, 'Save yore breath, mister! You're appealin' ta the wrong source for sympathy, he-ere!'

"Well, what about food an' water?" baby brother anxiously asked. "It may be days before someone comes through here again."

"Judd's right!" Lucas chimed in. "You cain't jes' go ridin' off and leavin' us here like this!"

"Look at it this way..." the Marshal suggested. "It's a whole lot better...than the way you boys...were gonna go ridin'' leavin' me-e!"

"Yeah," Judd had to agree. "But you're a Marshal! An' Marshal's ain't supposed ta go ridin' off an leavin' people ta rot!"

"Jes' cuz' a man wears a badge...don' mean he wears' a halo," the man with the badge reminded the outlaws. "Besides...Marshals are s'posed ta administer'...right now...I cain't think of anyone...who deserves ta rot...any more...than the two a' you!"

The 'two of them' glanced nervously at one another.

"Relax," Crown continued. "As temptin' I may find the this moment...I have no intentions...a' jes' 'leavin' yous here ta rot'...One a' my deputy's...will be out ta collect yous...eventually."

"How will they know we're out here?" Judd wondered.

"Yeah!" Lucas chimed in again. "Who's gonna tell 'em where ta look for us? It sure won't be you-ou! You ain't never gonna make it back ta Cimarron, in yore condition!"

"Yeah!" Judd agreed. "The way you're hurtin'? Why, you won't even make it one mi-ile!"

Crown thumbed the hammer back on his gun and motioned for them to get on with steps two and three.

Judd reluctantly locked one end of the manacle onto his left wrist and then locked the other end onto his brother's.

"Now...I suggest that the two a' you...start prayin'," the Marshal suggested, carefully releasing the hammer and replacing his Colt. "An' I suggest you pray...real hard...that I do...make it back...Cuz'...if I don't make two don't make it...An', just doesn't get...any 'juster' than that!" the simple minister a' justice softly assured them. Then he swung his horse around and went riding off.

"Whoa-oa-oah...oh-ohh-ohhh!" Crown pleaded, pulling the reins in on his cantering horse. "Easy, Son..." he added, tugging the still trotting animal to a complete halt. "You're gonna have ta...slow down some...or we're gonna be partin' company again...real soon."

After being tugged to a halt a few more times, Lancer finally learned that-unless he proceeded at a walk-they weren't going to proceed at all.

So the horse proceeded to walk, plodding steadily along at a slower-and hence less painful-pace.

Because Katelyn was right about him being a stubborn man-and because he wasn't about to let those two dimwits who had 'dusted' him determine the distance at which he would drop-the Marshal made it a good two miles.

In fact, it was closer to three miles when he finally reached the very limit of his body's limits.

The fire had spread from that small chunk of lead so that his entire right side now felt like it was being continuously seared with a dozen red-hot branding irons.

And the bullet kept right on burning.

He could feel it biting into his ribs with each jarring step.

The pain was both unbelievable and unbearable.

The lawman didn't want to stop at three miles, but his body didn't leave him much choice. Either he was going to get off...or fall off his horse.

So he reined the animal in and decided he'd try to dismount.

The Marshal eased himself half out of his saddle-and then just sort of slid the rest of the way to the ground.

The pain that was racking his body had sapped so much of his strength that his legs could no longer support his weight.

Which meant that, when his bootheels hit, he immediately dropped to his knees.

Crown clutched at his right side and crawled over to lean back up against a low, sandy bank which ran alongside of the trail he'd been traveling down.

The sun was setting, so shadows were long and the air was cooling rapidly.

But the sand still held the heat of the day.

Crown appreciated its penetrating warmth, for the bottom half of him was still cold and completely drenched from the deep river crossing.

Because the constant lurching had ceased, the pain-while still excruciating-lessened considerably.

The lawman pulled his legs up and his hat down over his face-and finally allowed the overwhelming pain and exhaustion which he felt to overwhelm him.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Twelve

The sun was setting back in Cimarron, too, where the 8:15 southbound was pulling into the depot right on schedule-for a refreshing change.

The Senator credited Francis Wilde, and not the railroad, for this amazing accomplishment. For he felt certain that the only reason they were on time was because the restless reporter in the seat beside him had been silently willing the train to run faster.

The young journalist emitted so much restless energy, in fact, that, while they were still a considerable distance from their destination, the statesman had turned to the young doctor and commented that 'Nothing could stop them from reaching Cimarron now! Because, even if the engine were to break down, Francis could-and probably would-just get out and push them the rest of the way into town!'

Speaking of Francis...

The reporter had left his assigned seat long before the train pulled into town.

He was, at that very moment, standing on the exit step of the disembarking platform at the front of the car, gripping the railing, waiting anxiously and looking eagerly, to catch some glimpse of his friends.

Francis' face fell, and his heart sank, also.

For the first glimpse he got was that of his fellow deputy, standing alone on the depot platform, with a shotgun in his hand and a side arm on his hip.

Cimarron must still be under siege, or the Scotsman wouldn't be packing a pistol. Normally, MacGregor had no use for handguns.

Well, Mac wasn't really standing alone...exactly. There were other familiar faces on the platform with him.

It's just that the two other faces Francis had missed the most, still seemed to be missing.

He looked all up and down the track and the platform.

However, both Dulcey, and his boss, were nowhere to be seen.

The Marshal's young friend suddenly found himself being overwhelmed by a feeling of sickening dread.

So anxious was he to learn of the absent lawman's fate, that he stepped off the train even before it stopped moving. The momentum catapulted him onto the platform and sent him careening down it-sideways!

Mac came forward, caught his out-of-control friend by the arms, and kept him from crashing-headlong-into the crowd. "Well, if it is no' our roving reporter!" the Scotsman teased. "How good of you ta drop in on us like this. In fact, Ah kin no' begin ta tell yah how good it is ta have yah back! Welcome home, laddie!"

"Where's Jim?" Francis demanded, his voice giving vent to some of the anxiety he was experiencing.

But the Scotsman remained silent.

Francis gripped Mac's arms and asked with his eyes what his suddenly tight throat couldn't seem to put into words. He studied his fellow deputy's cool, blue eyes carefully. If the Marshal was dead, they weren't telling. But then, they weren't exactly telling him that he wasn't dead, either. "Ma-ac?" the reporter pleaded.

"What do yah say we go on over ta the Inn," Mac calmly suggested. "Where we can continue this conversation indoors..." he added, hintingly. "There's a bottle o' vintage waiting for us back at the office...ta celebrate yer safe retur-"

"-No-o! Wait!" the reporter requested, as Mac took him by the arm and started ushering him towards the steps of the platform. "I brought some men back with me."

Mac seemed surprised. "Men? What me-en?"

"Well, one of 'em is a doctor, and the other one is-" Francis suddenly recalled that no one was supposed to know that he had been to Washington, "-an old friend a' Jim's...from back East," he finished rather vaguely. "There they are now!" he exclaimed, motioning to two men who had just stepped down from the train.

"So this is Cimarron!" the younger of the two men declared, taking a careful look around. "Darned, if it doesn't look exactly the way you described it in your book!" he continued, turning to the reporter and speaking with a strong eastern accent.

"I told yah," Francis told the somewhat surprised-and duly impressed-looking doctor, "it ain't 'my' book!"

"An' I told yah it was all factual, now didn' I!" the older man reminded his younger companion, speaking with a very definite Texas dra-awl.

"Welcome to Cimarron, gentlemen!" Mac declared as the gentlemen came stepping up to them. "And, may yer stay here be an indefinite one, doctor!" he added and extended an open hand to the older of the two men.

"I'm the doctor," the younger man corrected, taking and shaking the Deputy's profferred palm. "He's-"

"-An old friend a' Jim's from back East!" Francis suddenly interrupted.

"You mus' be Mac'!" the Senator realized, giving the Scotsman's hand a hearty shake. He nudged the doctor and said, "He's described the people here jes' as accurately as the place. Why, I'd a known you anywhere!" he continued, turning back to flash 'Mac' a warm smile. "Hi-i! I'm-"

"-An old friend a' Jim's from back East!" Francis interrupted once again. "Now, come on!" he urged.

"But...what about our other bags?" Doctor Ellis wondered, holding up the baggage claim checks for the rest of his luggage.

Francis snatched them from him, along with the checks protruding from the Senator's lapel pocket, and passed them on to the porter, along with his own. "Carl, here, will see to it that our luggage gets over to the Inn. Won't you, Carl."

"Sure thing, Francis!" Carl vowed.

"Good! Now, come on! Let's go!" Francis urged once again.

The four of them left the platform and headed off down the street, in the direction of the Wayfarer's.

"All right! We're indoors!" Francis exclaimed upon entering the Marshal's Office. "Now, where's Ji-im? And how come I don't see any sign of the help the Justice Department promised they'd have here-at least five days ago already?" he added, directing his last inquiry-and an accusing glare-at the Marshal's old friend from back East.

"Francis!" Dulcey joyfully exclaimed, stepping into the office and up to the extremely anxious looking young reporter, to give him a warm embrace. "Oh, it's so good to see you! I'm so glad you could make it back for tonight! Oh...And I hope you'll forgive me for not being there to greet you at the depot. But, since I am the official hostess for this evening, I felt it my duty to stay here and personally greet our guests, instead. Oh, welcome home! Did you miss us? How was your trip? Did you bring me back anything? Oh, never mind! There'll be time for all that later! Come on! You, and your friends, come and join the party!"

The party! Thank God for the party! If the party was still on, that meant that the Marshal was still alive!

Francis went from looking completely overwhelmed with anxiety to looking extremely relieved.

But his relief was to be short-lived.

"You're just in time, you know!" Dulcey continued. "In fact, the party hasn't even really gotten started yet. But, now that you're here, things are bound to pick up. You can serve as our guest-of-honor 'til the real one gets back. Your safe return will give us all a real cause for celebration. I'm counting on you to help me keep the party going until Jim gets back. It's such a long way to Fort Dawes. There's no telling when he'll make it back here."

Francis went from looking extremely relieved to incredibly anxious again. "That's a great idea, Dulcey. But I have an even better one. If you're looking for an 'honorary' guest-of-honor, and a real 'cause for celebration', why don't you take Cimarron's new Doctor out there and introduce him to everybody? I'm tellin' yah, Doctor Ellis, here, is your man!" he assured her and shoved the young doctor at her.

Dulcey appeared pleasantly surprised and extended her hand to the young man. "Welcome to Cimarron, Doctor Ellis! I'm-"

"-Miss Dulcey Coopersmith," the young physician finished for her. He took the girl's hand and graciously bowed down, to kiss the back of it. "Yes...I know. I feel I've known you forever! Francis described you so perfectly! Then again, perhaps not 'perfectly'. Why, you're even prettier than the very 'pretty' picture he painted of you!"

Dulcey, who had been going to say that she was very pleased to meet the handsome young man, looked extremely skeptical. "Why, thank you, doctor. There's nothing like a large dose of flattery, to make a girl feel better," she announced, her voice filled with sarcasm.

Doctor Ellis appeared slightly hurt. "The word 'flattery' has such an unsavory flavor to it. To me, 'flattery' infers to an insincerity of one's complements. And, believe me, Miss Coopersmith, I truly do believe that you truly are a very 'pretty' young lady!"

Dulcey appeared slightly embarrassed. "Yes...well," she blushed, "in that case, Doctor Ellis, I truly do thank you!"

"You're truly welcome, Miss Coopersmith! Jarrod Michael Ellis-at your service!" he exclaimed and eagerly offered the pretty girl his arm. "And, please, call me Jarrod."

"Dulcey," Miss Coopersmith corrected, giving the young doctor a pretty smile in exchange for his arm. "Will you be staying here, at the Inn?"

"I hope I'm staying here! Since here is where my luggage is being sent."

"Fine!" Dulcey declared, sounding genuinely delighted by the prospect. "Then we'll find you a room. I think Number 15 is empty."

"Number 15?" the perspective new boarder inquired a bit nervously. "Was there ever really a 'Mr. Tipton' and was he really 'murdered' in that room?"

Dulcey's pretty face clouded over and she turned to Francis to give him a glare of disgust. "Honestly!" she exclaimed, giving vent to some of that disgust. "And what other stories has our resident writer been regaling you with?"

Francis looked extremely apologetic.

The reporter looked so pitiful and so remorseful that the girl found her anger giving way. "Yes...well, Jarrod, I believe you'll find that our Mr. Wilde's imagination lives up to his name!" she teased. Dulcey took Mr. Wilde's arm and started towing him out of the office, along with the town's new doctor.

"U-Uhh..." Francis stammered, and applied his brakes. "Why don't the two of you run along, for now," he suggested.

"Aye!" Mac seconded. "We've a wee bit o' business ta attend to here."

Dulcey seemed satisfied with the Scotsman's vague excuse. She released the young reporter's arm, but kept the young doctor's. "Come on! I'll introduce you to the rest of the town!" she offered. "Everyone will be so thrilled that you're here! I can hardly believe it's already been a month since Doctor Kilghren received word of his sister's illness and left us..."

The Marshal's deputies watched Dulcey drag the doctor from the room.

Mac followed them to the door and then quickly closed it.

The Senator stepped over to the Marshal's desk and picked up the bottle of Scotch that was setting there. "Is this for drinkin'? Or is this just a decoration?"

MacGregor started to hand the man a glass, but then paused to shoot his fellow deputy a questioning glance.

"It's all right," Francis assured his cautious comrade. "He's a United States Senator."

"From the great state a' Texas!" the Senator boasted rather loudly and proudly.

Mac looked unimpressed and passed the glass to the politician. Then he picked the napkin-covered bowl up from the desk and passed it on to Francis.

"No thanks. I'm not hungry," the reporter told him. "Now, will you please tell me what's been goin' on around here?"

Mac sighed in surrender. He set the bowl back down and removed both the container's cloth-napkin cover and its contents-a small, round, metal canister.

The two men in the room with him watched, wide-eyed, as he wiped a few remaining traces of whipping cream from the box and then removed its metal lid. Inside the canister were two seperate stacks of telegrams.

Francis' face lit up. "Mr. Winsom finally came through for us!"

Mac nodded. "These are the messages Mareck got," he explained, passing one of the stacks to the Senator. "And these are the messages he did no' get," he added, handing the remaining stack to the rather intrigued looking reporter.

The Scotsman waited, silently, while the two men read through their respective stacks.

He continued waiting while they traded telegrams and then continued reading. He saw that the Senator seemed shocked and watched as Francis' face suddenly filled with sadness.

"That's a shame about John Two Rivers," the sad-faced reporter said. "I only met the man a couple a' times. But I liked him right off!"

"He was a real likable sort..." the Senator sadly added.

"Jim must a' took it pretty hard," Francis continued. "I know the two of 'em seemed real...close."

The Senator nodded solemnly, in agreement.

Francis finished reading and then drew in an incredibly deep breath, which he released as an incredibly long sigh of fatigue and frustration. "Well, looks like Jim was right about Mareck havin' me followed, and about Mareck havin' a man high up in the Justice Department."

"Yes," the Senator agreed. "And it shouldn't be too difficult to find out who that man is. Now that we have this!" he added, holding one of 'Mister' Mareck's never received messages up and waving it through the air like a victory banner.

Francis stared thoughtfully down at the floor. "He was right about everything else, too-including Mr. Winsom," he added, turning his attention back to his handful of telegrams. "Jim knew all along that Mr. Winsom didn't want ta work for Mareck. He said Mr. Winsom would come time."

"Aye..." Mac admitted. "Ah only hope-for Jim's sake-that it was 'in time'!"

"Accordin' ta these, he made it in an' out a' the Fort jes' fi-ine!" the Senator reminded the Marshal's two still very worried looking deputies.

"It's no' the Fort that concerns me, Senator," Mac informed the politician. "It's the river. According ta these," he continued, grabbing a couple of the telegrams, "Mareck's men have every conceivable crossing covered!"

"So-o?" the Senator said, cooly and calmly pouring and passing each of them a drink. "Then Jim will jes' pick an inconceivable one! You'll see. He'll make it! He always does!" he added rather casually and just as casually sipped his Scotch.

The Marshal's deputies glanced uncertainly at each other and hesitated to drink.

So the Senator proceeded to raise his glass and propose a toast. "To Jim Crown...and an inconceivable crossing!"

The Marshal's worried-looking friends managed then to 'clink' and drink.

But the statesman could tell that their hearts weren't really in it.

Speaking of peoples' hearts not really being into things...

Dulcey's party would have been a huge success, if it weren't for one thing. There were no 'party-ers'! The party itself was perfect, in every detail. It was the people who were a total flop!

There was live, cheery music. That is, until the musicians were shot dead by a dozen or so of the dirtiest looks imaginable! After a revue like that, the fiddlers no longer felt much like fiddling around.

There was a very spacious dance floor. But no one felt much like dancing.

There was enough food to feed everyone for a week! But no one felt much like eating.

And it was so...quiet-too quiet!

It seemed the town was more concerned about its Marshal at the moment than it was about 'dancing' and 'eating' and 'making polite conversation'.

Dulcey spent the entire evening making excuses for the Marshal's inexcusable absence, reminding everyone, including herself, that Fort Dawes was, after all, a long ways away.

But her 'reminders' only succeeded in depressing everyone even further! Along with the Inn's new grandfather clock, for each somber 'gong' served as a grim reminder that their guest-of-honor still wasn't back yet.

Even the presence of the town's new physician did little-or nothing-to lighten the 'gloom and doom' atmosphere in the room.

"I'll say this much," the young doctor observed upon popping back into the Marshal's Office for a moment to announce that he was retiring to his room for the remainder of the evening, "you frontier folk really know how to throw a party!" he insincerely stated, and then added the following in Francis' ear, "I've been to wakes that were more fun than this!"

"Yeah..." Francis muttered glumly. "And that's just what everyone's afraid this here 'party' might turn out ta be...the Marshal's 'wake'."

Then, ten o'clock came and it was time for the 'presentation ceremony'.

Mr. Rawls, who was a member of the town's council and the closest thing Cimarron had to a mayor, approached Dulcey and made the following suggestion. "Look, Miss Coopersmith, considering the circumstances. Perhaps we should just skip this part and hold the ceremony later on...when the Marshal gets back."

"Nonsense!" Miss Coopersmith doggedly replied, snatching the festively wrapped package from the man and turning to her gradually diminishing in number group of guests. "May I have your attention, everyone?" she requested, and the gloomy group granted her request. "First, on behalf of Marshal Jim Crown, I'd like to thank you all for coming this evening. Second," she continued, setting the package down on the nearest table to rip the ribbons and wrapping paper from it, "also on the Marshal's behalf, I gratefully accept this gift of appreciation, in recognition of services rendered for the past five years," she paused to lift the lid from the now bare box.

All eyes watched as the girl pulled out a small, white, plaster pigeon and turned it upside down.

"The inscription reads simply: 'To our friend and Marshal, Jim Crown. From the people of Cimarron. Thank you for keeping the peace for the past five years'," she stopped reading, turned the bird right side up again and then set it back down on the table for everyone to admire. "As you can see, it is a paperweight of pure alabaster," Dulcey continued, seeing her guests gazing at the 'object d'art' in confusion. "Appropriately carved in the form of a dove. Which is, as everyone knows, the internationally recognized symbol of peace. And, so, the committee felt that this paperweight, in the form of a dove, would make the perfect gift for a Peace Officer..." she patiently explained.

The girl was rewarded for her efforts, as her audience's blank looks gradually gave way to nods of comprehension. Eventually, they even quietly applauded their approval of both the purchase and the presentation.

Dulcey thanked the folks one, final time and then fled to the boardwalk, just outside the Inn, to stare off down the dark, deserted street-for the umpteenth time-that disasterous evening!

So, Jim was a little late.

All right, he was very late.

He could still make it.

After all, he had promised her that he would make it back in time for the party.

All right, he had promised her that he would do everything within his power to make it back in time for her party.

And Jim Crown always kept his word.



Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Thirteen

Oh-Oh, the pain...the pain...the pai-ain! It was so intensely profound that Jim Crown began grimacing and gasping and writhing around.

But there was no escaping it. Despite all his twisting and turning, the pain just kept right on burning and burning.

"Oh-Oh-ohhh..." he moaned aloud and started tossing his sweaty head from side to side.

"Will you please hold still!" a very familiar voice ordered. "Please! You must lie still!"

The hurting man halted all motion, for the moment, and snapped his tightly shut eyes open.

A very familiar, smiling figure appeared, kneeling at his side.

"That's better," John Two Rivers told him and pressed a wooden ladle up to his parched, tightly-pursed lips. "Go on," the Indian urged. "Drink! It is the water you wanted."

The young cowboy shot the young brave kneeling beside him a grateful look and obligingly sipped some of the liquid from the ladle. Then, no longer distracted by his friend's sudden appearance-or his seemingly unquenchable thirst-all of Jim's attention involuntarily returned to the persistent and profound pain that was racking his body.

John gasped in exasperation as Jim started squirming around again. The Indian set the bowl of beef broth in his hands down and straddled the writhing Windrider. "How am I supposed to feed you, if you will not lie still?" John wondered, as he pinned his incredibly weak patient's hands down at his sides and then held them there with his knees.

His now pinned, and still extremely pained, patient protested, using up what little strength he had left in him, in the struggle.

"I am sorry to have to do this to you, my friend," the brave assured Jim as he reached for the bottle Ol' Dan had left behind. "But you leave me no choice. I must feed you. You must eat. You must regain your strength!" he explained. With that, he pulled the cork from the bottle and pinched his suddenly stiff, and absolutely astounded, friend's nostrils shut.

In the end, the cowboy had to breathe. Which meant he had to open his mouth.

When he did, Mr. Two Rivers shoved the bottle into it and poured a quarter of its putrid contents down his choking patient's throat. The Indian clamped a hand over Jim Crown's hatch and kept it there until the cowboy finished swallowing every last disgusting drop of Ol' Dan's 'elixir'.

Several grimaces, 'gasps' and shudders later, Jim began to feel the effects of his prescribed pain remedy. One of the major effects was that he suddenly felt very little else. Soon he felt nothing-at all. Everything was sort of numb, including his noggin.

"Here," John un-straddled his now completely calm, perfectly peaceful patient and picked the wooden bowl back up, "take some of get rid of the taste."

Ah yes! The ta-aste! Jim's nose had been quite accurate about that. The stuff tasted like a half-decayed carcass had been soaking in it all right. But the cowboy no longer cared. Jim just stared rather dazedly up at his Indian friend as tidal waves of drowsiness began to sweep over him. He got two or three swallows of the beef broth down him before one of those waves finally swamped him...and swept him clean away.

John's heart skipped a beat as the cowboy's body suddenly went completely limp. 'If Windrider drinks, drink will kill Windrider!' Jim Crown's words echoed for a moment through the Indian's troubled mind.

But then the seemingly dead cowboy drew an incredibly deep breath in and exhaled it as a long sigh of complete and utter contentment.

The brave breathed a rather long sigh himself-of relief! So, his patient wasn't dead, after all. He was merely sleeping. And that was good! Because the young cowboy needed rest as badly as he needed food-maybe even more! John studied his friend's pale face carefully. It presented such a...deathlike appearance. The Indian gave the bottle a nervous glance. It bore no labels. So he had no clue as to what it contained.

What it contained was Ol' Dan's 'elixir'-a potent pain remedy which consisted mainly of laudanum-a solution of opium in alcohol. To which, the wily old codger had added his own, 'secret'-and smelly-ingredient. The opium already gave the laudanum a very bitter taste. But to further discourage people who were not suffering, from consuming any of his precious supply of pain-killer, Ol' Dan threw in an unhealthy dose of stinkweed squeezin's. Stinkweed squeezin's rendered the already bitter concoction so repulsive that only someone truly in dire straits would ever-willingly-swallow any of it.

Speaking of swallowing the stuff...

One swig was enough to cause an average adult to feel quite intoxicated and was quite capable of keeping even the antsiest person peacefully sedated for several hours.

Two swigs would deaden a person's faculties and senses to such a degree that their foot could be on fire and they would be completely unaware of it.

Three swigs could induce such a deep and profound sleep that a person might be 'totally out of it' for days!

Downing a quarter of a bottle was enough to-well, such an 'overdose' very often proved fatal!

During the course of the next five days, Jim Crown lay in a coma, just about as close to death as anyone could possibly get, and still live to tell about it.

More than once during that time, John Two Rivers felt convinced that he had, indeed, killed his new-found friend. Only to find that Windrider's respirations had just slowed to such an extreme-and dangerous-degree, that his breathing had become practically imperceptible.

On top of everything else, lying in the same position for so long-coupled with a complete lack of any movement-had allowed the opening to the infected wound in the cowboy's back to heal over. So that, even though the Indian faithfully changed the dressing every day, just as Ol' Dan had directed, instead of draining out, the poisons remained sealed inside Jim's body...and quickly spread throughout the rest of his system.

Finally, on the afternoon of the fifth day, Mr. Two Rivers' patient 'moaned' softly and then, ever so slowly, opened his eyes. The dense fog, which had so totally enveloped his senses for so long, gradually cleared. He stared up at the lodge poles over his head in confusion for a few moments and then turned his groggy gaze in the Indian's direction. Jim Crown seemed more than a little relieved to find his 'friend' still sitting, cross-legged, at his side. The cowboy was so weak from lack of food and so dehydrated from lack of water that he could'nt even wet his own lips.

"At last!" John Two Rivers told him, looking and sounding tremendously relieved. "Windrider has returned to the land of the living! Welcome back!" he added with a smile and held a dipper full of fresh, cold water up to his feverish friend.

Jim's parched lips formed a slight smile as well and then parted, to allow a few long swallows of the cool, refreshing liquid to be poured down his incredibly dry-y throat. "How...How lo-ong?" the cowboy wondered, in a cracked, hoarse whisper.

"Five days," the Indian solemnly replied. "Yes. I fear I came very close to killing you, my friend," he regrettably added, seeing Jim Crown's incredulous look.

The cowboy looked even more incredulous and then quickly changed the subject. "Sa-ay...Mr. Two wouldn' happen ta have...any more a' that...broth...lyin' around...would you?"

John seemed rather relieved to find his recently returned friend so forgiving, and rather pleased that his patient's appetite seemed to have returned along with him. "I shall bring you some shortly," he vowed. "But first, you must have some more water."

Jim readily took another long, refreshing drink from the dipper. The ladle was pressed to his lips a third time and again he downed every last drop.

Only it wasn't to be the last drop. For John held the dipper up to his severely dehydrated friend's frowning mouth a fourth time and forced him to swallow every bit of its cool contents as well.

Jim even managed to somehow down a fifth dipper full of water. But then, halfway through a sixth, he shivered and turned his hot, dizzy head to one side. The cowboy 'gasped' and his weary eyes widened, as the remainder of the ice cold H20 was spilled down the front of his neck. Jim shivered and shot the Indian leaning over him a look of extreme annoyance.

John dropped the empty dipper back into the bucket beside him and started getting to his feet. "I think I'll go see about that broth now," he muttered, suppressing a smile.

Jim managed a slight smile himself. "Take your time!" he called out after his departing friend. With his stomach now full of water, there was no room left for food. The cowboy forgot all about food and lay there with his attention focused on an odd-looking wooden-framed contraption covered with half-inch-wide strips of leather lattice. He hadn't noticed the thing before because the young brave's body had been blocking it from his very limited view. He continued to stare thoughtfully at the odd-looking object, until Mr. Two Rivers returned. "Is that...for me?" he asked as the Indian knelt once again at his side.

John followed his friend's gaze and nodded, reluctantly.

Jim's very drawn and deathly-pale looking face lit up. "Did you...make it?"

The Indian gave him another reluctant nod.

He gave the Indian a grateful grin. "Then...on behalf a'' my backside...thank you very much...for yore very"

"I see you have figured out what it is for," John realized, rather glumly.

"It's for...proppin' a person's he kin'' see...what all is goin' on...around 'im," Jim acknowledged with another grin, and an obvious look of keen anticipation.

John Two Rivers saw his patient's look and suddenly looked a little nervous.

"That is...what it's for...ain't it?"

John managed another reluctant nod.

Jim looked relieved, then somewhat confused. "Well...what's the matter?...Is there some...problem?"

The Indian stared glumly down at his gift. "The problem is, I came uncomfortably close to killing you once already, my friend. And I have no intention of possibly doing it again. I was going to wait until you were much stronger, and not quite so sick, before giving this to you."

"I'm strong enough now," Jim assured him. "An' it's my eyes...that are so sick an' tired...a' starin' those stupid lodge poles...all the time!"

Mr. Two Rivers remained unconvinced. "Your friends wouldn't move you. They were afraid it would kill you."

"Yeah...Well...a week probably would a'!" his patient freely admitted. "But...since insides have had...a chance ta's my backside...that's killin' me...So please...let me sit up?...I got ta sit up!...Even if it kills me!" the cowboy added, looking and sounding equally solemn.

John looked rather pensive for a few long, anxious moments. Then his troubled face brightened with a sympathetic smile and he surrendered. "As you wish, Windrider. But, if anything happens to you now, remember-this time-it was your idea," he teased in an attempt to dispel the morbid mood of the moment.

It worked. The grin returned to Jim's gravely ill face. "Don' worry...I'll remember," he promised.

The Indian vanished from the tent again and then returned a few moments later with some reinforcements in tow. John gave the two braves standing at his side some orders in Comanche and then passed on a few more orders to his patient-in plain English. "You lie perfectly still and let them do all the lifting."

Now, there were two orders the cowboy couldn't've disobeyed-even if he'd a' wanted to. Jim was too weak to even move a muscle, and too dizzy to even raise his head up off of his buffalo robe bed.

The two braves lifted him-buffalo robes and all.

The 'person propper-upper' was placed under him, and he-and his bed-were gently lowered down onto it. The relatively simple, and completely painless, procedure was all over within seconds.

Jim, who suddenly found himself sitting up somewhat, couldn't seem to stop smiling. "Thanks," he told the two braves as they stood and turned to leave. "How do you say..thank Comanche?" he inquired of his interpreter, as the two braves failed to respond.

John suppressed another smile. "Sho`-dohn-tay."

"Sho`-dohn-tay!" the cowboy shouted, just as the two men were about to disappear.

They turned back for a moment, looking somewhat surprised, and gave the young cowboy two solemn nods-before quietly departing.

"I'm afraid my people do not have much use for manners," John explained, seeing his friend staring at the tent flap in confusion.

The cowboy glanced around the entire tent and then turned back to him, looking even more confused.

"'Crown's woman' has gone to gather more firewood," the Indian informed him.

Jim breathed a long, relaxed sigh and then flashed his handy friend a warm, relaxed smile. "Sho`-dohn-tay again...We`-yo-wa-su`-yen...I really makin' this...for me."

John smiled. "Ho-ee`-ee-tuk nas-ish` su-er`-jen...Mas-ne-dan`-tas," he told him truthfully. Then accompanied his statement with a translation. "You are most welcome, my friend...Windrider," he said and then held a bowl of steaming-hot broth up to his friend's mouth. "Now, shut up and eat!"

Jim's parched lips formed a grin again and then parted to allow a few long swallows of the hot, tasty broth to be poured down his hatch. "She got...a name?" he wondered. "Besides 'Crown's woman'...I mean."

John was planning to remain silent and thus discourage any further conversation or questions. But it quickly became apparent that his patient wasn't going to 'eat' if he wasn't going to 'answer'. So the Indian sighed in surrender and begrudgingly replied. "Ko-ree-ray`-ohn."

Jim smiled approvingly. "That sounds...almost as she looks...What does it mea-?"

"-'Little fawn hiding in the shadows'," John impatiently replied. "Now, finish eating!"

Jim's smile broadened. "Oh yeah...that's pretty...all' it fits her...too...Although...when she's around me...she looks more like a...'she-wolf'...hidin' in the shadows...When she comes back...will you tell her...she has a real"

"No!" John answered adamantly. "I am a married man," he reminded his now perplexed looking patient. "If you want her to hear things like that, you will have to tell them to her yourself," he teased.

"Some 'translator' turned out...ta be," the cowboy teased right back.

"Oh, I'll translate it for you, all right. The Comanche version is: 'Ko-ree-ray`-ohn shu`-cu-mar."

"Ko-ree-ray`ohn...shu`-cu-mar," Jim copied in a weak whisper.

John frowned, seeing that his friend now appeared to be either too tired-or too ill-to finish eating.

"Ko-ree-ray`-ohn...shu`-cu-mar," Jim Crown's drooping eyelids closed. "Koree-ray`-ohn...shu`-cu-mar," he repeated over and over again. Until, at last, he fell asleep.

The young cowboy dozed the rest of the day away and awoke, later that evening, feeling slightly delirious-and a whole lot sicker.

It was dark outside-and would have been dark inside, too-if it weren't for the fire blazing brightly in the center of the tent.

"I see my...woman...made it back...with the wood," Jim told Mr. Two Rivers.

"Shhhhh!" Mr. Two Rivers told him and placed a fresh, cool compress on his feverish friend's burning forehead. "Try not to talk," John whispered back. "You must save your strength."

"How kin you people...jes' sit there like that?...Hour... after hour...after hour," the cowboy inquired, staring first at John-and then at the girl kneeling at his knees-in absolute amazement. "I would would have a tendency...ta cut off...the circulation...ta yore legs...Ah-ah...ain't that somethin'...the way the light from the fire...flickers...on her hair...Yah may be jes'...the fever...playin' tricks on me...but she sure seems...ta be sittin'...a lot"

John gave the girl a disgusted glare. "She draws comfort from your pain. She draws strength from your weakness. She draws courage from your fear. And so, she draws 'closer' now," he bitterly explained.

Jim turned back in his bitter friend's direction. "That's a right touchin'...interpretation...a' the situation here...John Two Rivers...Not very comfortin'...but right touchin'...You seem ta have...a real way with wor-" the cowboy was suddenly cut off, by a loud, sharp cry.

The cry sounded very close, and sort of like a cross between a Comanche 'war whoop'...and a woman in labor.

Seconds later, a ghostly apparition appeared inside the tent. It stood there, motionless for a moment, looming ominously over him, silhouetted against the fire...onto which it had tossed some powdery substance...which made the flames flare up brilliantly and lit the whole area inside of the tent up, momentarily, bright as day. Then it let loose with another loud, sharp cry and began darting quickly about.

Jim had been partially blinded by the flash of light. So he was only able to catch a brief glimpse of the ghoulishly grotesque 'thing'.

The shadowy figure was incredibly fast-moving, fierce-looking, and foul-smelling-and seemed to be completely covered with a combination of both fur and feathers. Its horned head was huge-and hideous to look at. It hopped about on one leg for a time, 'howling' like a hurting hound dog. After that, it whirled around a while longer, 'screaming' like a wounded banshee. Then it stopped and shook a curiously-shaped, ornately-carved stick in the young cowboy's face a few times...before it finally vanished-with a flourish and a flair-back out through the tent flap...and into the darkness, from whence it had come.

Or had it?

"There is no need for you to be alarmed, Windrider," John assured his rather alarmed looking patient. "That was just 'Grey Dog'...again," he added, looking and sounding completely bored by the whole proceeding.

Jim looked and felt somewhat relieved. " it, too?"

"Yes. And I have seen it more than once," John announced, looking and sounding even more unimpressed. "Grey Dog has been coming in here and screaming at you like that every night for the past five nights! And each night he screams a little louder. I think I shall have to have a talk with him tomorrow. He is beginning to get on my nerves."

Jim looked amused and then worried. "You bes' be careful what you say...He seems...ta be a real...excitable...sort...What was all that...screamin' about...anyways?"

"Grey Dog is a healer...the most powerful 'medicine man' in the village. Because of this, Chief Pe-ro`-ka-mas` asked him to try to awaken Windrider from the sleep of death."

"So-o...what did...Mr. Grey Dog...have ta say?"

"He said that your coming here was good medicine for our people," John replied, keeping his answer short and sweet.

A little too short, as far as Jim Crown was concerned. "Bu-ut...?" the cowboy filled in, encouraging a continuance of the 'translation'.

"But that it has proved to be very bad medicine for you," his interpreter reluctantly continued.

"Truer words...were never spoken!" the slightly delirious cowboy declared, amid soft laughter. "Although...come ta think of it...the medicine was very good, was jes' the taste...that proved very bad," he lightly added, and the sound of his soft laughter continued. The highly amused man looked thoughtful for a few moments and then gradually fell as silent as his friend. "Somethin' tells me...that there's still somethin'...that you ain't 'translatin'' here...Mr. Two Rivers," he quickly and quietly realized.

John frowned and forced himself to finish 'interpreting' the rest of Grey Dog's screamings. " that you are...dying here...that this place continues to hold very bad medicine for you. And that, if you do not leave this place, will surely...die."

Windrider's slightly glazed eyes widened for a moment and then sparkled with amusement. "Well...don't jes' sit there!...Go get me my horse!"

The Indian's eyes narrowed and his frown deepened. "I only hope that my Chief takes Grey Dog as seriously as you do. Because you are too sick to travel. You must not be moved!"

"Surely one place...ta 'surely die' surely as another," the somewhat delirious cowboy quipped, somewhat philosophically.

"Perhaps," John admitted, following a long, solemn silence. "But Windrider will not die! I will not let them kill you!"

Jim gave his 'bodyguard' a grateful smile and then turned his attention to the tent's entrance as the rawhide flaps rustled and two familiar figures appeared.

It was Chief Pe-ro`-ka-mas`...and his main medicine man.

"Ah-ish`-nay! Com-pah-ee-ay`-ho! San`-te-ba! Ruk-ee-ohn`-ay! Meh`-rah!" Grey Dog screamed rather excitedly, and then prodded the young cowboy in the ribs with his 'spirit' stick, for added emphasis.

"Tell yore Chief...that I understand," Jim Crown requested, when he finally recovered. "And...that I will leave here...immediately...If someone' me up on my horse..." he added conditionally.

"No-o!" John Two Rivers shouted angrily. "You must not be moved!" The Indian suddenly looked thoughtful. "Is Windrider so sick with fever that he no longer cares about dying?" he inquired, sounding rather sad and terribly disappointed.

The cowboy's tired eyes glistened, as the light from the fire was reflected in his tears. "Windrider does care...that he's dyin'," he softly assured his upset friend. "He jes' don' care where...Besides," he added lightly, "I got enuff the moment...without makin'...the most powerful medicine the entire village...mad at me."

Mr. Two Rivers' eyes moistened and he managed a sad smile. "Perhaps you are right, Windrider. Grey Dog would grant you no peace if you were to stay," he glumly realized, and then, reluctantly, passed his patient's reply onto his Chief.

The old brave looked both pleased and relieved to hear the young cowboy's reply.

The Chief's main medicine man managed a smile of deep satisfaction as well. Then the two of them quickly took their leave.

"Chief Pe-ro`-ka-mas` has gone to make the necessary arrangements for your 'immediate' departure from this place," the remaining Indian informed the now confused looking cowboy.

The cowboy looked even more confused and somewhat amused again. "What...necessary arrangements?...Jes' strap me ta my' give my'whack'!" he suggested with a wry grin.

Mr. Two Rivers managed another sad smile. "Windrider will be leaving this place. But 'we' will not be leaving Windrider. We will continue to care for you, my friend. At this very moment, another place is being prepared for you somewhere out there-just beyond the boundaries of this camp. The new place must be chosen very carefully. To make certain that it holds only good medicine for you, Grey Dog will-no doubt-pick it out personally."

Windrider was deeply touched by the continued concern that was being shown for his welfare. "Yeah...But why go through...all that bother?" he teased, in an attempt to erase some of the sadness from his friend's smile. "When my so much easier...I'm tellin' yah...jes' one..good... 'whack'' I'm go-one!"

His light comments only succeeded in turning John's smile even sadder. "Believe me, it is no bother. The Comanche value courage very highly. So we consider it an honor to care for you."

The cowboy was even more deeply moved and he had to really struggle now to keep from slipping into a real melancholy mood. "Yeah? Well...I consider even greater be cared for by you," he softly assured his sad friend-and then quickly turned away. Jim could no longer bare the sight of his companion's 'sadder than sad' smile. The sight that now greeted him, gave him such a start that it very nearly put a stop to his already weakened heart!

The girl-his woman-was now kneeling right there beside him! Right there at the level of his shoulder!

Jim tensed and then made a rather feeble-and futile-attempt to pull further away from her. 'She draws comfort from your pain. She draws strength from your weakness. She draws courage from your fear. And so, she draws closer now...' his interpreter's words echoed, through his feverish brain. He gradually untensed, as he suddenly remembered something else. "Ko-ree-ray`-ohn...shu`-ku-mar," he whispered softly.

The girl recoiled from his words and the already intense look of 'blind hatred' burned even brighter in her smouldering, dark eyes.

Jim Crown's tired eyes filled with tears and his sad face filled with pain and anguish. "Damn the men...that put yore eyes!" he angrily cried out. He swallowed hard and tried blinking his blurring vision clear. But it was blurring faster than he could blink. So he gave up trying and just lay there, crying. "If you could draw joy...from my sorrow...Crown's woman...would be the happiest the whole world...'cuz I very...very sorry...for what those men who kill the buffalo did...ta you an' yore mother...I'm sorry they killed her," he continued, as the tears continued to stream silently down both sides of his anguished face. "But...mostly...I'm sorry...that they had ta kill...the little fawn...hidin' in the shadows..." He let his soft-spoken words trail off. His watering eyes closed, but then quickly reopened as something else suddenly occurred to him. "Will you draw life...from my death?...'Cuz...if my dyin'...will bring the...'little fawn'... back ta life...then I won't mind dyin'...quite so much," he finished rather deliriously. Then he shut his watering eyes tightly and began tossing his feverish and aching head from side-to-side.

"You will not die, Jim Crown!" the young brave shouted and gripped the young cowboy's right wrist reassuringly.

Jim Crown's hot and dizzy head was pounding painfully-and at least two beats faster than his heart-which wasn't pounding quite right. He seemed to be growing weaker and weaker now, with each passing second. "Hold on ta that thought...John Two Rivers," he told the Indian on his left, before turning back to the Indian on his right-and forcing his tired, still damp eyes back open. "You are free now...You belong ta nobody...but yourself...So you kin...come an' you like...because...Ko-ree-ray` free," he repeated. Then he grimaced and groaned, as the loud, painful throbbing in his head proceeded to block out any further thoughts. Until he finally-mercifully-completely 'blacked out'.

John watched helplessly as his friend's feverish head suddenly rolled to one side and he was still again.

Again the cowboy's pale face bore that death-like 'pallor'.

The brave glanced up at the girl and saw that she now seemed perfectly calm and contented again, as she knelt there, quietly, keeping her death-bed vigil. "Get out!" Jim Crown's friend suddenly shouted, in Comanche. "You are no longer Crown's woman! You are not nearly good enough for him! Jim Crown is white only on the outside! Inside, in here-n his heart-he is Indian! Jim Crown is a good, kind, brave and gentle man! Any girl who got to know him-as I have come to know him-would be proud to be called his woman!" John stopped shouting and stared sadly down at his dying friend. "He...knows...that he is...dying," he continued, translating Jim Crown's touching comments into Comanche. "He is very sorry for what those whites did, to you and your mother. He wants only for you to be happy again. He hopes that his death will somehow 'settle the score' for you. So that the 'she-wolf' can stop 'hating'...and the 'little fawn' can start 'living' again. He has given you your freedom. It is his wish that you no longer stay with him against your will. I will explain the situation to our Chief. We will be leaving here, shortly. You will not have to come with us." John gave the girl one last disgusted glare. Then he got stiffly to his feet and stepped outside for a moment-to check on the progress of those 'necessary arrangements' that were being made.

The girl watched him leave and then turned her attention back to the dying young white. She no longer looked, or felt, so complacent.

We-yo-wa-su`-yen's words had deeply disturbed her.

It had been so long since she had felt anything inside her but hate, that she wasn't quite sure just how his words had affected her.

One moment, she was feeling anger...the next, relief...the next, happiness...the next, compassion...the next, doubt...the next, sadness...and, lastly-mostly-confusion!

She was so confused now, she didn't know what to think...or what she should do.

She stared down at the dying young white man looking completely confused.

She wanted to see him dead! Didn't she?

Of course she did!

But that was before We-yo-wa-su`-yen's 'disturbing' words were spoken.

What did she want no-ow?

She was no longer certain.

She reached slowly out and tenderly traced the path of a drying tear down the right side of the cowboy's burning cheek.

The 'words' may well have been 'lies'. But the 'tears'...they were real enough-and they had been shed in her behalf! This cowboy, Crown-this 'rider of the wind'-had felt her hurt even more strongly than his own.

Perhaps, at one time, she, too, would have been capable of showing such compassion...perhaps.

But that was long ago! Six 'moons' ago, to be exact. Since that dreadful day, she had allowed herself to feel only hatred...for the 'white' seed that had been planted inside her...and for all other 'whites', as well! A burning hatred so intense that it totally consumed her! As she continued to stare down at the dying 'white' before her, it blazed back up in her smouldering, dark eyes.

But then, We-yo-wa-su`-yen's 'disturbing' words came echoing back to disturb her, again.

'Jim Crown is not a 'white'. Inside-in his heart-he is Indian. He is good and kind and brave and gentle.' She should be proud to be called his woman.

The girl's cold, hard, hate-filled eyes softened, as the look of uncertainty returned to them.

What should she do?

Thanks to the kind and compassionate young cowboy, she was now free to decide.

But she wasn't given a whole lot of time to make her decision for Chief Pe-ro-ka`-mas re-entered the tent just then, scooped the unconscious cowboy carefully up off his buffalo robe bed and carried him effortlessly off out into the night.

The girl decided to follow a discreet distance.

All the jostling about-coupled with the sudden, drastic change in air temperature-revived least, to some degree. His gaze remained rather groggy and he was still quite delirious. "That ain' horse," he observed as he was carried up to a magnificent white stallion that was being all decked out in feathers and painted up for battle. "Is it?" he wondered as We-yo-wa-su`-yen suddenly appeared there before him, in the darkness.

"My Chief has given you his most prized possession-his war pony," Mr. Two Rivers replied, as he helped his Chief place the critically ill cowboy carefully down onto the blanket litter resting on the ground behind this-his latest gift. "It is the wish of my Chief that Windrider should live a long, full life. He believes his war pony carries very powerful medicine. And that you will be able to draw strength from the stallion as it carries you safely along on your journey to a...better place."

The cowboy completely ignored his interpreter's rather eloquent explanation and came forth with the following comment, "But...I already got...a horse."

Which caused his eloquent friend to exhale a sigh of surrender. "Yes. And now you also possess a powerful war pony. Please, do not worry about my Chief. He has many other ponies. Besides, since there are no more 'wars', he no longer has any need for a 'war pony'."

Grey Dog came dancing along just then, rattling his beads and chanting those excited incantations of his.

The cowboy could just barely see the silhouette of the medicine man's buffalo skull headdress against the quarter-moon sky. But he could sure feel the pain in his chest as the impatient-unpredictable-Grey Dog proceeded to prod him a few more times in the ribs with his spirit stick. "All right!...All right!...I'm goin'! I'm goin'!" the cowboy assured him, when he recovered.

But the painful poking continued.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Fourteen

"I'm...goin'...I'm...goin'!" Jim Crown moaned and groaned repeatedly, and tossed his hat-covered head slowly from side-to-side.

"Wake up, Windrider!" John Two Rivers urgently urged him. "Quickly! You must leave this place-or you will die!"

The moaning man let out another long, involuntary groan and obediently opened his eyes. He stared up into pitch blackness for a moment or two and came to the conclusion that, either he had gone completely blind...or there was something covering his face. He groaned again and started reaching for whatever that something was.

A sharp cry escaped from his parched, tightly-pursed lips as a white-hot pain suddenly shot through his right arm and shoulder. At the same time, another even whiter, even hotter pain exploded in his chest. He would have cried out again, but his breath had already been taken away by then. His pain was slow to lessen, and his breath was slow to return.

To make already miserable matters even worse, Grey Dog had gone back to beating him with his stick.

"I'm...goin'!" he gasped breathlessly. "Please," he pleaded, "jes' leave!" Something bumped him up along side of his head and his hat fell from off of his grimacing face. He squinted blurrily up into the now not so pitch blackness.

Something large and ominous-looking was looming over him all right! Only it wasn't a 'Grey Dog', but a 'black horse'! And it wasn't 'hitting him with a stick'. It was 'nuzzling him with its muzzle' and 'nudging him with its hard head'!

A strange look gradually replaced the grimace on the Marshal's face, as something-besides pain-finally registered in his confused and tired brain. Things like where he he came to be there...what had happened to him.

What had 'happened' to him?

Oh, yeah. He was on his way back to town, when he suddenly stopped a bullet.

Then the bullet had stopped him.

No wonder the smell of damp earth was so strong! He was lying there-all sprawled out on it!

The still, night air was crisp and cool. Lying out in it, for so long, had caused his limbs to stiffen up some.

Fact is, he had no feeling at all in his hands and legs. The numbing cold had completely paralyzed his already weakened muscles. The rest of him was pretty cold, too. So incredibly cold that it seemed to add a whole new meaning to the term, 'chilled to the bone'.

The fact that he couldn't seem to move didn't seem to bother him though, because-at the moment-he had no intentions whatsoever of 'moving'!

By just barely breathing, and by keeping all other movements to an absolute minimum as well, the Marshal found that he could at least 'keep a handle' on the horrendous hurt being caused by that chunk of lead that had been lodged in his chest.

That is, until the horse rammed its hard head right into his right rib cage.

A scream exploded from the lawman's tightly-pursed lips, as once again that white-hot pain exploded in his chest! He grimaced and gasped and involuntarily grabbed at his injured right side, with his left hand. No doubt about it, he'd definitely lost some ribs, all right! For, in addition to the already intense agony of bullet grating against bone, there was that unforgettable, unmistakable, unbearable, unbelievably agonizing sensation of broken bone end grating against broken bone end. A groan now escaped him with each shallow exhalation, and, with each inhalation, he winced.

The hand that was still being involuntarily held over the hole in his injured right side was beginning to register some sensation again. The first message that it sent to the Marshal's brain told him that the area over and around the wound was warm. The next message told him that it also seemed wet. He pulled his hand away just enough to form a fist and then rubbed his half-frozen fingers across his palm. It was wet all right. His hand was smeared with blood. He placed his bloodied appendage back over the hole Lucas Hampton had put in him. It was then that he discovered just how small the damp area actually was. Why, it was only about the size of his open palm.

Of course! Katelyn's bandages must be keeping pressure on his wound. Katelyn's bandages had, quite probably, kept him from bleeding to death. Katelyn...the memory of her caused a slight smile to play for a moment on the Marshal's pursed lips. Oh-if only his horse hadn't been so set on getting back to Cimarron-he might have been able to make it back to the canyon.

But he hadn't even tried heading back in that direction. He knew it would've been totally useless. Lancer would have fought him every inch of the way...and Crown was in no condition to do battle.

Speaking of doing battle...and fighting with Lancer...

Crown was in no condition to take another jolt, like the one he'd just received, either.

So he snapped his eyes open and glanced around him in the darkness. His scream had apparently caused the horse to bolt. But he was finally able to discern the enemy's new position.

His attacker was now standing about ten yards off to the left of him, and was busy attacking some short shrubbery.

He watched while the animal innocently nibbled away and saw that the sinister, dark form was, in fact, eating its way back over to him! "You keep away from me, yah hear!" the Marshal shouted. rather painfully.

At the sound of its rider's voice, the animal stopped chewing and alertly picked its head up.

"Yea-eah! You-ou!" the lawman gasped breathlessly. "Yah big, ugly, black...bunch quitter!" he annoyedly added and then ended his verbal counter-attack with a grimace and a gasped groan. He was obviously not in any shape to be shouting, either.

For all the good it did him, he would have been better off if he'd've saved his breath, because he could hear his attacker just keep right on approaching in the dark. The next thing he knew, the animal was nuzzling the left side of his face with its warm, soft muzzle. "Go on!" the Marshal shouted, shoving the horse's head away."I said ta git!"

The animal obviously remained unconvinced, for it didn't 'go' or 'git'. Instead, it nickered encouragingly for its no longer motionless rider to keep moving and 'git' himself up off'n the ground. When the nicker failed, the horse gave the man another encouraging nudge with its head.

The already incredibly hurting lawman let out another anguished cry as the animal's hard, bony head slammed into his left side, this time!

It took the grimacing, gasping, moaning, groaning man quite a while to recover from this latest attack enough to retaliate. "Go...on!" the Marshal angrily ordered, through tightly-clenched teeth, and took an angry swing at the object of his anger.

The horse simply raised its head up out of swinging range and stood its ground.

The lawman gasped in frustration and then started tossing his head back and forth between gasped groans. "Why cain't you jes'...go' leave me be?" he demanded in a rather hollow, deeply hurting tone, which had all the ring of an unconditional surrender to it.

Lancer was apparently taking no prisoners, for he proceeded to ram his head into the man's ribs with so much force that, this time, it rolled his rider completely over!

Another scream escaped from the Marshal as his already intense agony suddenly increased-ten-fold! As the non-breathing lawman lay there, with his pain-stricken face partially buried in the sand, he could feel his attacker now nuzzling him in the back, obviously preparing for another attack!

That did it! Crown could feel his 'agony' gradually giving way to 'anger'. If the animal was going to insist on a 'fight to the death', he was just going to have to oblige it!

The next thing Lancer knew, his rider was on his knees, with his gun in his hands, and the gun's barrel was aimed point-blank-at him. The animal didn't seem too concerned.

But then, it wasn't the first time that the man had pointed his gun at him...

Lancer had originally belonged to an old man that the Marshal had found-dead-along the trail...about six or seven months back.

The old man appeared to haved died in his sleep and had apparently been dead, for several days.

The Marshal shoo-ed the vultures off and then buried what was left of the poor fellow.

But the buzzards kept circling overhead.

So the Marshal decided to check out the area surrounding the old man's campsight.

He didn't have to venture very far to find the reason for the vultures' continued presence.

The old man had left his horse tied to a tree-just the other side of a little rise.

The horse was down. It hung from the tree to which it was still tied, by its haltered head. The animal wasn't dead. Though, by all rights, it should've been. The horse had gone a long time without food or water...too long a time. The animal was in a real bad way.

In fact, it appeared to the man to be in its final 'death throes'.

The look in the animal's eyes said it all. They spoke of a gentle, willing nature...of blind trust...of a quiet acceptance of its fate...and of unspeakable suffering.

It tore at the Marshal's heart to see the animal in such a bad way, and he was going to put a quick and merciful end to its misery. But as he pulled out his pistol and started to draw a careful bead down its barrel, the look in the horse's eyes suddenly changed.

A fire burned in them, now! A 'spark' of life blazed up brightly and spoke to the man of an indomitable spirit, and a defiance of death.

Crown watched, in amazement, as the completely prone animal suddenly heaved itself up somewhat, and then gave him a look which seemed to say, 'Hey! I ain't been hangin' around here-all this time-jes' so's you could come along an' put a bullet in my brain! So, don't jes' stand there-pointing that thing at me! Untie me from this tree and then help me up!'

The Marshal's head told him to go ahead and pull the trigger. His heart-and the look in those big, trusting, brown eyes-told him that the animal deserved-had earned-one, last chance at life.

The lawman went with the majority and decided to give it that chance.

It was a decision he hoped neither he, or the horse, would ever come to regret.

Following days of constant straining and struggling, the horse had only succeeded in tugging the knots too tight now to ever be untied. So the Marshal had to saw through the thick rope-that was fastened to the animal's halter and tied about its neck-with a rather dull pocket knife.

The horse lay perfectly quiet and waited patiently for the man to complete his task.

Finally, the rope fell free of the animal's neck and, because the man had unbuckled its halter, the animal's head fell free of the tree. The horse just lay there for a while. Then it grunted and attempted to heave itself up again.

It didn't make it very far.

The Marshal's heart sank as the animal sank back down onto its side with a groan. 'Maybe a little water would make gettin' up a little easier?' The man turned around and started heading for his saddle, and the canteen that was slung over its horn.

The horse lifted its head and nickered, as if to call him back.

"Relax, Son!" the man advised him. "I ain't leavin' yah. I'm jes' goin' over here ta git yah some water..."

The Marshal returned, as promised, and poured the entire contents of his canteen into his Stetson. Then he stooped down and offered the water to the horse.

But the animal refused his offering.

"Come on! Drink up!" the man ordered. "I didn' go gettin' my hat all wet for nothin'!"

After shoving the water up to the horse's muzzle a few more times, the Marshal eventually did coax it to drink.

In fact, once it realized what the man had to offer, it drained the hat dry and then nickered for more.

So the Marshal retrieved the old man's canteen and gave the horse his water as well. "Sorry, Son," the man said as the animal finished its second hatful and then nickered again, "that was the last of it. But, if you'd care ta get up, I kin show you where there's a whole river full a' this stuff. Where you kin drink ta yore heart's content!"

Once again the animal neglected to take the man up on his very tempting offer.

The Marshal slapped his water-soaked hat back on his sweat-soaked head and got stiffly to his feet. So, the spirit was willing, but the body was weak. 'Maybe if it had a little somethin' ta eat?'

The lawman gathered every piece of edible vegatation within a hundred square yards of the tree and deposited it within the horse's easy reach.

Then he sprawled out in the shade beneath the tree and pulled his hat down over his face, to take a well-deserved 'siesta'.

The Marshal had no idea how long he'd been asleep-before something woke him up. His right hand cleared the gun from his holster while his left hand cleared the hat from his eyes.

There, standing directly over him, was the biggest, blackest, homeliest 'something' he had ever seen! "Well, what do yah know!" he said, shoving his hat back even further up on his forehead and smiling broadly. His smile vanished and he rolled to his right as the towering, tottering giant took a staggering step forward, and then very nearly toppled over on him!

The Marshal scrambled to his feet and stepped quickly out of harm's way.

But 'harm' seemed to have it in its head that it was going to follow him.

"Whoah! Easy, Son!" the man urged as the animal took a few staggering steps in his direction and then very nearly did a nose dive into the ground again.

Getting the horse back on its feet had been one thing.

Keeping it on its feet was gonna be another thing-all together!

The Marshal looked around and suddenly realized where he was. He was standing about a mile from the north end of the Old Rimrock Trail. Which meant that he was only about five miles away from Old Grimey's place.

If anything could be done to keep the horse on its feet, 'Mr. Mordecai Grimes' would be the man who could do it!

"Stay put!" the Marshal told the poor, staggering, pathetic-looking creature. "I'll be right back!" he added, snatching up his horse's reins and vaulting into the saddle.

The big, black horse watched helplessly as the man rode off and then disappeared in a cloud of dust. The animal nickered and then started to follow after him. It made it close to a hundred yards before its weak, wobbly legs collapsed clear out from under it.

True to his word, the lawman returned.

The Marshal had no problem getting back to the horse. The circling vultures pinpointed the animal's exact location for him.

Grimey climbed stiffly down from his supply wagon and then circled the poor, completely prone, apparently dying, obviously suffering critter a few times, as well. The old horse trader didn't say a word. He didn't have to.

The Marshal could tell, by the look on his face, precisely what he was thinking.

Grimey was thinking that 'The Marshal must a' been a' standin' out in the sun without his hat on for too long, or somethin'!'

As Crown stood there, staring down at the horse-lying there all sprawled out and looking so pitiful like-the Marshal started thinking that maybe he had!

"We-ell...?" the lawman wondered, following another full minute of complete silence on the part of his 'expert'.

"Oh-Oh, I reckon I could do somethin' for 'im, all right," Grimey told him. "But it ain't so much a question a' what could be done as it is a question a' what should be done. The animal's in a real bad way. Looks like he's seen more'n his share a' sufferin', already. It appears ta me, that the kindest thing would be ta put 'im down."

"Agreed!" the Marshal told him.

"Well, then why'd yah haul me all the way out here? You got a gun!" Grimey reminded him. "An' I believe you know how ta use it!" he added, his growing annoyance giving way to sarcasm.

The Marshal sighed and then stepped up to the horse's head. "Watch," he simply said. Then he pulled out his gun and pointed it at the prone, pathetic creature.

Grimey did watch, in amazement, as the animal suddenly heaved itself up onto its stomach...and then lunged itself back up onto its unsteady legs.

So-o, they were both ready to kill it.

It just wasn't ready to be killed.

Grimey turned to the lawman and smiled, an understanding smile. "I'll do what I kin for 'im, Marshal!" he vowed.

As promised, Grimey proceeded to do what he could, and Old Grimey could work wonders with horses!

Why, some hot mash here...a poultice there...and two days of devoted doctorin' later-the horse was alive and well and resting quietly, and quite comfortably, on a bed of straw, in a corral back at Grimey's place.

Crown still smiled whenever he recalled the conversation he and the old horse trader had had concerning which of them was to be the horse's 'legal' custodian.

Grimey approached the Marsha, who was busy saddling his 'other' horse. "You headin' back ta Cimarron, are yah?"

"Eh-yeah. I make it a point ta show my face there every few days. That way, people kin see that I'm still alive, an' I kin see that the town's still standin'."

"Well, what do you intend ta do about yore horse?"

"My horse? That animal don't belong ta me!"

"Well, he don't belong ta me, neither!"

"Well, don't look at me! I don't wan' 'im!"

"Well, I don' wan' 'im, neither! Now you're the Marshal so-legally-the animal is yore responsibility."

"An' jes' how do yah figure that?"

"Well, ain't the law s'posed ta see ta it that a person's property gits ta 'is 'next a kin' when 'e dies?"

"An' jes' how do yah figure the law is s'posed ta do that when the person didn' have any 'identification' on 'im?"

"I dunno. That's yore problem. I figured things this far. Now, it's up ta you ta figure out what yer gonna do with 'im."

"Okay. I figured it out. The 'law' has jes' decided that the horse should go ta you."

"An' jes' what am I s'posed ta do with 'im?"

"You make a livin' tradin' horses, don't you?"


"So-o...Sell 'im!"

"There ain't nobody that'd be willin' ta pay good money for that poor critter an' you know it!"

"Well, then do like I jes' did-give 'im away."

"There ain't nobody that'd take 'im! Besides, I cain't start givin' horses away! It'd be bad fer business. Now, since you 'found' 'im, I'd say that makes 'im yore horse."

"Yeah. But he wouldn' even be alive right now if it weren't for you. You 'saved' 'im! An' I'd say that makes 'im more yore horse. Besides, I got ta get back ta town. An', as you kin plainly see, that poor animal is in no condition ta travel."

"Fine! Then I'll jes' board 'im for yah 'til yah kin git over this way again. An', at fifty cents a day, I reckon I'll be seein' yah again-real soon. The way I see it," Grimey reminded the Marshal, "it's finders keepers!"

"Yeah...Well, I'm the law," the lawman reminded him as he mounted. "An' the way I see it, possession is still nine-tenths a' the law!" he added, reminding the old horse trader who's corral the animal was resting in. The Marshal smiled victoriously. Then he tipped his hat to the man and started riding off.

But Grimey wasn't the only one watching the lawman leave.

The horse in question suddenly leapt to its feet and went racing around the corral. Since it couldn't find an opening, it went sailing effortlessly up over the top rail-which was a good six feet off the ground-and quickly began closing the gap between it and the man who had freed it from the tree.

Hearing the sound of pounding hooves approaching, the Marshal glanced back over his shoulder and groaned.

Grimey grinned, seeing that the horse was now in the Marshal's 'possession'. "An' I learned, a long time ago, that a person should never argue with the law!" he victoriously proclaimed. The grinning man turned back towards his shack and enjoyed a good, long, hearty laugh-at the law's expense.

The 'law' turned back towards town, with his big, black, homely horse tagging along behind him, and silently reminded himself that, one a' these days, he was gonna have ta learn ta stop listenin' to his heart!'

Fortunately for the horse, that day hadn't come yet.

The Marshal still couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger.

The lawman gasped in surrender, as agony quickly took the place of his anger. "So-o, you're gettin' even with me, huh!" he said and slowly let his arms drop. "I didn' give up on you...So you ain't givin' up on me...Is that it?"

The horse nickered and then nuzzled the lawman's now hanging head with its muzzle.

Crown gasped again. Only this time, it was more in exasperation than in pain. The Marshal knew what Mr. Lundquist knew. Lancer would never leave him alone.

The animal wasn't going to leave him alone, neither! The horse would just keep right on trying, and trying to get its rider to get up off'n the ground.

There would be no end to his increased agony.


Crown stared cooly down at the glistening barrel of the weapon in his hands for a moment, and actually contemplated giving up on himself. The lawman squinted as the pain suddenly clouded his vision.

The pain! The pain! The pai-ain! It was unbearable!

One thing was certain, the Marshal may have been worse hurt. But he had never hurt worse in his entire life!

Jim had grown so weary of feeling nothing but pain, that all he longed to feel now was nothing...nothing at all!

"There's no point in yer killin' yerself!"

He heard Mac's words and raised his head up to look around. The pain seemed to be clouding his mind as well, for he seemed to be 'hearin' things'.

"Yah have no' been thinkin', lately!" his friend continued. "At least, no' too clearly!" Mac annoyedly added.

The Marshal was forced to smile, as he realized the 'voice' he was 'hearing' was coming from inside his own head.

For some reason or other, his pain-racked brain was suddenly recalling bits and pieces of the conversation he had had with Mac that morning.

"Keep yer attention focused on the long line a' laddies out there, who are bent on killin' yerself for yah'!" Mac went on to advise him.

A strange look came over the lawman as the reason for recalling his friend's 'words of wisdom' suddenly became apparent. He'd done it again! First, he had allowed emotional pain to interfere with his clear thinking.

Now, here he was again! Letting physical pain interfere with his thinking abilitity, this time.

For the moment, pain seemed to be the only thing that his tired, slightly-boggled brain was capable of registering.

Jim was just going to have to force it to think of something else. He smiled again, as the mental image that he had made of 'Jamie's mommy' was the first thing that came to his mind. His smile slowly broadened, as a plan gradually began to form-and to push its way past the ever present pain that was trying to regain complete control of his brain.

He had promised Dulcey that he would do 'everything within his power' to make it back.

He had used every ounce of his strength just to make it this far. But he had not done 'everything within his power' to make it back. Because it was still within his power to use his head!

He'd've been back by now, if only he had relied more heavily on brain power!

His Indian friend was right. He had to leave this place-right away!

He slipped his gun back into its holster.

He wouldn't be using it.

His other friend was right, too.

There was no 'point' in him killing himself.

Not when he could ride into Cimarron and have Mareck's 'horde' of bush-whacking back-shooters do it for him!

The Marshal hated to kill anything. He had such a high regard for the sanctity of life, in fact, that he even hated having to kill animals for food.

Besides, he had never killed anyone in 'cold blood' before. He had serious doubts about 'himself' being the first. After all, when it came time for him to face his Maker, Crown intended to do so with a clear conscience. He didn't reckon he could stand before the Almighty's throne, come Judgment Day, and claim to have taken his own life in self-defense.

At least, not with a straight face he couldn't.

No, if he was going to die, his death was going to have to be on some 'other laddy's' conscience. And, if he wasn't gonna die...

Well, there was always the chance that Francis had made it back, and had brought a doctor along with him-who could dig the bullet out for him.

Either way, his suffering would soon be over.

Getting back to Cimarron presented no real problem.

Lancer would see to it that he got back, all right.

The real problem would be getting up on-and then staying up on-Lancer's back.

The Marshal's freshly thought out alternative plan for escaping his pain included several possible solutions to that particular problem, as well.

Crown clutched at his injured side with his injured arm and then used his remaining limbs to crawl right under his horse.

The lawman moved slowly and carefully. Slowly because his muscles were still extremely weak and shaky, and carefully because the crawling movement caused his already extremely hurting right side to 'smart'-considerably!

He pushed his pain aside and pulled his crumpled tie out of his front vest pocket. It was hard work, but-somehow-he managed to reach up and loop one end of the tie through his right stirrup. He looped the other end through his left stirrup. Then he brought both ends together and tied his stirrups loosely together with a tight knot.

After resting a spell, the Marshal crawled back out and slapped his Stetson back on his head.

Crown just knelt there, swaying slightly and squinting up through the darkness at his goal.

The horse stood at just under seventeen hands.

But, with the shape he was in, it might just as well have stood at a hundred!

The seat of his saddle seemed a thousand miles away!

Oh well. He'd either read, or heard it said, that 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'.

The lawman knelt there a while longer, trying to muster up enough courage to take that first-bound to be incredibly excruciating-step.

Jim realized that the usually completely effortless task of mounting his horse was now gonna take more effort than his badly weakened body had to expend.

That's where brain power was gonna come in.

The concentrated power of the human mind was awesome!

If Crown could concentrate hard enough, he knew he could literally 'think' himself up onto the horse's back. After all, hadn't the adrenalin rush of his anger just brought him to his knees?

Since he couldn't seem to get his right arm to raise itself up to, or past, shoulder level, he used his left hand to place his right hand high up on his saddle's rigging. His left hand snatched up a dangling rein and then latched on to whatever it could. The lawman held his breath and slowly started hauling himself up off the ground, concentrating real hard on completing the task he'd just undertaken-at all costs.

"Remember?" he suddenly heard Dulcey say. "I told you how much I was counting on you being here tonight?"

The Marshal hurt bad-real bad! But the thought of letting Dulcey down hurt him even worse. By concentrating on keeping his promise to her, he managed-somehow-to make it to his feet. However, he still couldn't seem to get his knees to lock. So he just hung there for a while...resting...clinging to his saddle's rigging and leaning up against his horse-for support.

Now was gonna come the 'tricky' part.

The lawman got a firm hold on the horn of his saddle and started hoisting himself up into his seat.

"Ah thought that if you knew how important this particular party was-what it means ta the lass-that you'd be particularly careful out there and maybe make an extra effort ta get back here in time," he heard the Scotsman say.

Crown knew that, if he didn't make it back, Mareck would probably go after Mac.

By concentrating on that grim fact, along with grimacing and grinding his teeth, the lawman was somehow able to lift his leg and guide his left boot into his left stirrup. But the soles of his boots were damp from the evening dew and so-his foot slipped.

Again a scream issued forth from the Marshal, as his boot hit the ground-hard-and painfully reminded him of how his leg bone was connected to his hip bone...which was connected to his back bone...which was connected to his rib or more of which were no longer connected. The agony of the 'end result' was unreal, and the jarring impact 'jarred' his breath away.

The lawman lost his concentration for the moment and felt his grip begin to slip.

"Have you ever seen what happens to a man when he steps in front of a moving train, Marshal?" he heard Mareck ask.

Jim's determination, to keep Mac out of the path of Mareck's 'train', gave him the strength to hold on long enough to regain his breath and his composure...and his concentration.

Crown put forth that 'extra effort' Mac had asked him to, and was 'particularly careful' as he planted his foot in the stirrup, this time.

He made a rather feeble attempt to pull himself up. The attempt was feeble because his terribly tired arms were suddenly protesting the constant strain he had been placing upon them.

The Marshal felt his pain growing more and more intense and himself growing more and more light-headed.

His 'outer' strength was now completely exhausted.

He would have to rely solely on 'inner' strength from this point on.

But it was getting harder and harder for him to concentrate.

So Jim filled his mind with thoughts of 'Jamie's mommy'. Crown found that it was real easy for him to think of her. Yes, sir! Concentrating on Katelyn required no real effort-whatsoever.

The Marshal made it the remainder of the way by reminding his aching arms of how much worse they would hurt if they could never hold Katelyn in them again-ever. He then told them to pretend that 'Jamie's mommy' was, at that very moment, sitting up top-side...waiting for him.

Even with all that additional concentrated motivation, it still took the lawman a ridiculously long time to complete the climb.

Dragging his damaged mid-section across his saddle had caused him to double up in agony.

He stayed there, draped over the neck of his horse, until he could 'rest up' a bit.

His mission was only half accomplished.

Now was going to come the trickiest part of all.

Crown was going to have to 'fix things' so that he wouldn't fall out of his saddle.

He couldn't fall out of his saddle!

Lancer seemed to sense that. Either that, or he had a real good memory and really hated getting dizzy. For the animal hadn't moved a muscle for the past ten minutes. The horse just continued to stand there-absolutely stalk still!

The Marshal appreciated the animal's cooperation and he gave it a grateful pat on the neck, before slowly straightening himself up in his seat.

Moving hurt. But then, so did lying there with his saddle horn jabbing him in the stomach.

Crown reached carefully behind him and fumbled with his saddle straps with numb fingers. Eventually, he was able to get his black, canvas duster off the back of his saddle and onto himself.

Next, he shakily raised his canteen to his lips and took a couple of long, lo-ong swallows.

A little rest...a little warmth...a little water-and Crown was ready to continue.

The Marshal had only one rein in his hand. So he had to retrieve the other one from high up on the horse's neck. He ran both of them back through the hole in the pommel of his saddle, before tying them together in a knot. Then he looped the tied reins up over his saddle horn.

He fumbled back around in his saddlebags for a while until his hand found what it was looking for-his handcuffs. Crown cuffed his own left wrist to the horn of his saddle. Then he shoved his feet into his stirrups as far as they would go. The lawman reached behind him one last time and wound his right hand up in the two-foot long tie strap that dangled from the back of his saddle's seat.

The lawman glanced down. The ground now seemed a thousand miles away. Jim smiled, as he suddenly realized that the Scotsman was wrong. There were times when-with a little help from his friends-a man could do better than his best!

"Okay, Lance..." the Marshal whispered. "Take us home, Son."

The animal lunged forward.

The lawman slumped forward.

Lancer kept right on trudging towards home-completely unaware that his passenger had passed out from the pain of that first jarring step.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Fifteen

It was nigh on to midnight when Crown's horse finally reached its destination-the hitching rail in front of the Wayfarer's Inn.

Dulcey had been watching out for the animal all evening. She had been hoping to see the four-footed beast four hours sooner. She had been willing it to appear two hours earlier-while the party was winding down...but still in progress.

The horse had been hoping to see her, too. The animal was also anticipating a little something else. So when it spied the girl's blonde head peering over the swinging doors to the Inn, it let out a loud snort and then started nickering softly, as if to say, ' I am! We made it back!, where's the rest of the reward you promised me?'

Dulcey pulled her shawl up snugly about her bare shoulders and pushed her way onto the boardwalk. "You're too late!" she chastised the nickering nag. "The party's over!" All those months of careful planning...and organizing...and preparing-had all gone for naught!

The Marshal was aware of the fact that they had stopped moving. He just wasn't sure why. Until he heard the girl's familiar voice. The sound of that voice had the same effect on him as a nice, stiff shot of Mac's best Scotch whiskey! Well, a similar effect, anyway.

Jim drew in as deep a breath as he dared and slowly pulled his hanging head up. He forced his eyes open and squinted his dim, fuzzy vision into focus.

Lancer hadn't failed him.

It was Main Street, Cimarron they were standing on all right!

What a relief, to be sitting there, basking in the soft glow of light coming from inside the Inn.

Jim's ears hadn't failed him, either. It was Dulcey's voice he'd heard. She was standing right there in front of him, on the boardwalk. He wanted to drop to the ground, pick the girl up and swirl her around a few times. But he was too weak...and it would've hurt too much. He wanted to tell her how glad-and relieved-he was to see her standing there. But his horse was making too much noise.

Lancer was still snorting...and nickering softly...and trying to nudge the still empty-handed girl with his head.

"Oh, all right!" Dulcey grumpily conceded, patting the fussing animal on its cool, dry chest. "But you certainly don't deserve any more. Not only did you not get him back here in time for the party, you didn't even work up a sweat trying!"

Realizing that her last comment was directed more at him than at his horse, Crown cleared his throat and forced a quiet comment of his own. "He saved my life this afternoon..." he paused. "That ought ta be worth...a couple a' crumbs." He paused again as though speaking was an arduous task, which required resting between short sentences.

It was! And it did!

'An' ta think,' Jim thought, 'I gave up a quiet evenin', sittin' around a cozy campfire...holdin' hands with the 'Mrs.'... jes' ta try ta be here for you!'

Women! Not only was there no figurin' 'em, but there was apparently no pleasin' 'em, either!

"Francis...make it back...safely?"

Dulcey was planning on remaining too upset with the Marshal to even acknowledge his presence. But the content of his comment, and the strange 'edge' to his soft-spoken words, put her on edge, and she found herself nodding up at him. "He and Mac are waiting up for you in your office-with a surprise visitor. "

Again Crown hesitated before speaking. "Could you ask them...ta step out here a minute...please?"

Dulcey felt even more on edge and gave the still mounted Marshal a confused, worried look. "Yes. Of course. Right away," she vowed and then disappeared inside...only to reappear just moments later-with the requested gentlemen in tow.

"Jim!" Francis Wilde declared, beaming a broad smile up at his boss. "Man! I don't know how you knew. But you were right! You were right! You were absolutely right-about everything!"

Since Dulcey had ordered the Inn's porch light extinguished, the Marshal was sitting mostly in shadow. So his three friends couldn't see the pain-stricken expression on his pallid face, or the slight smile which appeared to be playing on his tightly-pursed lips. "Francis..." he acknowledged, rather weakly. "You're sure a sight...for sore eyes," he added, even more weakly. What his voice lacked in vim and volume it more than made up for in genuine feeling. The Marshal was genuinely happy to see his young friend again, and genuinely relieved to see that he appeared to be both safe and sound.

It's just that the ever present-excruciating-pain in his chest was also genuine. The lawman was simply hurting too much at the moment to adequately express his joy.

Speaking of the ever present pain...

Crown didn't think it was possible, but he suddenly seemed to be hurting even worse. Things in general seemed to be spinning now, and his already dim vision seemed to be growing even dimmer. His slight smile had long since vanished. "There'll be time...for a full report...later!" He gasped, as the pain took his breath away. "But...for now..." by keeping his eyes tightly closed and his jaw tightly clenched, Crown discovered that he could squeeze a few words into the gaps between gasps, "could me down from here?" He gasped again and tried, unsuccessfully, to shake away some of the dizziness. "An' then see to it...that my horse is...taken care a'."

"What's the matter with yah, man?" MacGregor demanded of the Marshal for the second time that day. Only this time, his delivery was anxious and upset rather than angry and upset.

Then the 'gasping' stopped. The Marshal's already drooping head dropped. The rest of the man's body suddenly went completely limp, too, and he pitched forwards in his seat with an involuntary 'groa-oan'.

Which caused his already tense 'trio' of friends to stiffen.

Dulcey managed a startled cry, "Jim!" and took a step or two in his direction.

Jim's two deputies beat her to him. Mac and Francis reached up to catch the slumping figure and keep him from falling clean out of his saddle.

Only he wasn't falling.

"What's wrong, Jim?" Mac demanded, sounding even more anxious and upset. "Why do you no' answer me, mon? Have yah been hit?"

The semi-conscious man's only answer was another involuntary 'groan'.

Mac shot the very concerned, anxious-looking Dulcey a deeply-concerned, anxious look of his own. "Quick, lass! Fetch the doctor!"

His abrupt order snapped the frozen, frightened female into action. Dulcey turned and fled in the Inn's direction.

Since the doctor couldn't very well examine the Marshal in his present position, the two 'somebodies' very carefully, and even more gently, started easing him down off of his horse.

Which caused the semi-conscious man to cry out in agony. The Marshal seemed to be 'stuck' to his saddle.

MacGregor soon discovered why.

His boss was 'stuck' to his saddle! His right wrist was strapped to the back of it. His left wrist was handcuffed to the front, and his feet were both locked in the stirrups.

Mac fumbled in the man's vest pocket, found the key to the cuffs and quickly freed Jim's left wrist, while Francis freed his right. They both freed his feet and then once again they attempted to gently and carefully lower the lawman to the ground.

But they apparently weren't gentle or careful enough, for their boss let out another sharp cry of absolute agony and then started gasping and groaning involuntarily, as the agonizing pain caught his attention and caused him to come around again.

"What's wrong, Jim?" Mac repeated. "Where are yah hit?"

The gasping Marshal grimaced and gradually pulled his groggy head up. He tried shaking some of the cobwebs out again, but still couldn't get them to budge-not one bit! He still couldn't get his knees to lock, either. So he just hung there between his two deputies, while they supported all his weight. "Not out here..." he gasped. "Inside!"

His supporters obeyed and unquestioningly started carting him off in the direction of the Inn.

"No!" Crown gasped again. "Not upstairs...The my office!" he added, quietly requesting a course change.

Once again his supporters quickly and unquestioningly obeyed. They stepped around the left side of the hitching rail and half-carried, and half-dragged their boss up onto the boardwalk.

MacGregor managed somehow to get the door open and the three lawmen disappeared into the Marshal's Office.

They no sooner got through the door when Mac posed his question yet once more. "Now, will yah kindly tell us where yah've been hit?"

"Stung!" Crown corrected with yet another gasp. "I got a couple a' Rutger's hornets...I left 'em huggin' a MacClain's Cross-" he stopped speaking, as his supporters suddenly stopped moving. The blurry image of his old friend, Dave-now U.S. Senator David-Fisher, floated past him...with a smile on his face...and a drink in his hand. At first, the Marshal thought he must be hallucinating.

But, when the figure floated past him again and yelled, "Surprise!" Mac spoke to it.

"Excuse us, Senator!" Mac tried to word his request politely, but his voice was filled with annoyance and growning impatience. "But Ah believe the man's had enough 'surprises' for one night! So will yah please step aside so's we can set 'im down?"

Now, unless he and Mac were having the same hallucination, that meant that Dave Fisher was genuinely standing there!

When he floated past Crown for a third time, he was wearing a look of genuine concern on his face.

What on earth was Dave doing there? The Marshal intended to ask him the next time around. But, by the time the room completed a fourth revolution, his friend's figure had completely vanished.

His supporters continued half-carrying, half-dragging him through his office and into the little alcove between his office and the jail.

His deputies reached the requested destination and turned their boss carefully around. Then the two of them stood there, hesitating to lower their 'moaning' cargo down onto the cot, for fear of causing him even more discomfort than he was already quite obviously experiencing.

Crown grasped the situation and gasped. "Jes' help me get my coat' I'll take it... from there!"

Francis steadied the swaying Marshal while MacGregor obligingly removed his long, black, canvas duster.

As soon as their boss' bloodied left hand cleared its coat sleeve, he slipped it back inside his right vest panel.

His two former supporters saw the blood and shot each other grave, worried glances.

Clutching his mid-section with both arms, Crown carefully eased himself back down onto the cot. Then, accompanied by a few more involuntary groans, and grimaces and gasps, he carefully assumed a sort of half-sitting up, half-lying down position. Jim reached up and removed his hat, so he could let his head rest back up against the wall.

His deputies just stood there and watched wordlessly, as their boss carefully drew his right leg up and then placed the hat on his bent knee.

"Ma-ac..." he gasped, "I want you ta ride first' fetch those two 'hornets'...that I was tellin' you about!"

"Aye!" Mac acknowledged.

"Francis...I'd like a full' you kin begin...with the whereabouts...a' those 'reinforcements'...that I writ-"

"-There'll be time for a full report later," Francis reminded him, using the lawman's very own words. "You just lie there and rest for now. Dulcey's gone up ta fetch the doctor. I ran yore ad in all the major papers," he quickly continued, seeing that he had succeeded in changing the subject and that the Marshal understandably seemed extremely interested in the latest topic. "And I think I found us a good one. His name is Jarrod Michael Ellis. He's originally from Boston. But he just got back from Paris, France-where he spent the past four years completing his internship under the distinguished French scientist, Monsieur Louis Pasteur-" Francis stopped talking as the door between the jail and the little alcove suddenly flew open.

The Marshal stiffened and drew his gun on the door. Then he quickly untensed. It was only Dulcey, and it was a good thing it was only Dulcey. Because, while Jim had somehow managed to get his gun cleared from its holster, his draw had been slow-much too slow.

The girl ignored Jim's gun and hurried into the room. "Here he is! What on earth did you bring him in here for?" she demanded of his deputies.

They gave the girl about as much attention as she had given the Marshal's gun.

Then, wasn't only Dulcey. The girl had been closely accompanied by a handsome young man, who Crown had never seen before. Closely accompanied, that is, until the young man caught sight of the pistol being pointed at him.

"Uh-Uhh..." the young man stammered, staring rather nervously down the gun's barrel, at the man who was aiming it at him. "Do you mind if I come in?"

The lawman answered by carefully lowering his gun and, even more carefully, releasing its cocked hammer. The weapon had grown too heavy for him to hold it up any longer, anyways.

"How is he?" Dulcey quietly inquired of MacGregor.

Mac shrugged. "Maybe you should ask him. He won't answer me."

But Dulcey didn't dare ask Jim. After the cruel way she had just treated him? Why, she couldn't even bring herself to look at him.

"Marshal Jim Crown," Francis introduced, "Doctor Jarrod Michael Ellis."

Crown stared up at the young doctor-still frozen in the doorway-and then at his equally young deputy, in disbelief.

Francis saw the look and sort of shrugged. " told me not ta come back here without a doctor," he reminded his boss. "And I was in a real big hurry ta get back here."

The young doctor continued to eye the Marshal's gun, as he cautiously continued his approach. "Do you greet everyone like that?" he sarcastically inquired.

"Everyone who comes barging in here without knocking!" MacGregor answered, in the Marshal's defense.

The young doctor nodded thoughtfully and then set his medical bag down. "Marshal..." he acknowledged, offering the semi-prone lawman a nervous smile and an outstretched hand. It was then that the physician noticed that both of the Marshal's hands were already busy.

He was still holding onto his gun-a very large gun-with one, and clutching at his mid-section with the other.

The half-dressed doctor snatched his hand back and began rolling up his shirt sleeves. "So-o, tell me...where does it hurt exactly?"

The Marshal shot his young deputy another highly skeptical glance, but then obligingly gasped a reply. "The right side a' my' my right shoulder!"

"I see..." the young doctor said, stooping to pull a pair of scissors from his satchel. "And just how exactly did you come about these injuries of yours?" Normally, Jarrod would have noticed the neat, little, round hole in his patient's black, leather vest-just to the right of the area his hand was clutching at-normally. But he had just spent four days on a train...and it was going on one in the morning...and-being in the country less than a week-his body was still functioning on European time. So he was suffering from a terminal case of ocean-liner lag.

Now, how observant could he-could anyone-be expected to be, under such circumstances?

Crown suddenly recalled Charley's morbid prediction and suppressed a morbid smile. "I got blown...clean out a' my saddle."

"I see..." Doctor Jarrod said and 'shoo-ed' the Marshal's deputies out of his way so he could begin his careful cutting. "And how long ago did this unfortunate accident of yours occur?"

The lawman suppressed a slight smile. "I don' you kin call...gettin' hit with a 'accident'...exactly."

His doctor stopped cutting the shirt away from his right shoulder and stared at him, looking rather astonished. "Then you did say that you were 'blown' and not 'thrown' from your horse?"

Crown suppressed another smile and nodded.

His young doctor looked relieved. "I thought I had heard you correctly!" he said and then shock filled his youthful face. "Good God! You've got a bullet in you!"

"Yea-eah...I know," the Marshal casually replied, suppressing yet another smile. "I wasn' close enough...for 'im ta hit me with it...any other way!" he gasped and finally flashed the amusing young physician the smile he'd been suppressing.

Mac found the young doctor more inept than amusing and he managed a disgusted grunt. "Ah'm no' a doctor, but Ah at least knew that much! Now, what do yah say yah stop yer dickerin' and start yer doctorin!"

The Scotsman's abrupt order snapped the still frozen with astonishment young doctor back into action. Jarrod had never had to dig a bullet out of anyone before. But he was certainly willing to 'wing' it.

"Have you ever dug...a bullet out a' anybody...before?" his patient calmly inquired.

"No-o. No. I can't say as I have," the young doctor told him truthfully. "But then, I hear that there's a first time for everything!" he confidently added, though not over-confidently.

Crown gave the philosophical young physician another slight smile. "You'll do."

Jarrod returned Jim's smile and then turned to the only female in the room. "I need you to start some water boiling. Then bring me a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a few sheets of your cleanest, most freshly-laundered linen. Oh, and some warm, soapy water. Lots and lots of it!" he stipulated.

Dulcey nodded and hurried off to fill the doctor's order, glad for an excuse, any excuse, to leave the room.

Doctor Jarrod stared down at the lawman's scraped and bloodied right shoulder. "Were you hit with this 'Winchester' more than once?"

" where the bullet hit me!" Crown explained, clutching at his damaged right rib cage. "An' where I...hit the ground!" he added, motioning with his head in the direction of his badly bruised, and quite possibly broken, right shoulder.

"I see..." his doctor solemnly acknowledged. "And how long ago did all of this 'hitting' happen?" he wondered, giving the Marshal's injured arm a careful, thorough examination.

"Is that information really relevant to the removal of the bullet?" Mac impatiently pondered.

His patient looked thoughtful. "What it?"

"Around twelve," Francis volunteered.

"A little over...five hours...ago!" Crown gasped, in both disbelief and pain.

The young physician frowned. "So, the germs got a five hour head start on us..." he muttered dismally to himself and then finally announced the results of all his pulling...probing...and prodding. "Your shoulder is very badly bruised. But I don't believe it's broken. I suspect a torn rotator cuff, or a pinched nerve or torn ligament, to be causing the severely restricted motion in your arm. We'll be able to assess the damages better in a day or two, once the swelling's gone down some."

One other result of all the pulling, probing and prodding was that he had caused his already extremely pained patient a whole lot more discomfort.

The doctor's frown deepened as the 'gasping' Marshal grimaced and 'groaned' and suddenly began to move around.

"Ma-ac?" the lawman gasped and licked his very dry lips. "I could sure use...a drink!"

"Aye!" MacGregor acknowledged. "Ah'll fetch yah a bottle o' my best!" he promised and then quickly left the room.

The thirsty man's doctor frowned disapprovingly and gripped his pained-wracked patient's left shoulder firmly. "I think a shot of morphine would do you more good, right now."

The Marshal gasped skeptically. The young man had obviously never sampled Mac's Scotch!

Speaking of Mac...

The Scotsman returned as quickly, and as quietly, as he had left. "Here is the alcohol you ordered," he declared, handing the doctor a bottle of rubbing alcohol. "And here is the alcohol you ordered," he added, passing an open whiskey decanter to his thirsty boss.

"He can't have that!" Doctor Ellis exclaimed, latching onto MacGregor's wrist and preventing him from administering his pain-killer.

"And why is that...exactly?" Mac irritatedly inquired.

"Because alcohol and morphine are both very powerful drugs, and they should never be administered together," the doctor answered, sounding rather annoyed that he had to explain himself.

The Marshal stared at the Scotch, and then gave the kid doctor a certain look. It was the sort a' look a she-bear might give to someone who's just come between her-and one of her cubs!

"Trust me, Marshal!" the kid requested and pushed the bottle of Scotch away from his pained patient. "Believe me, I know what I'm doing," he said and proceeded to pull out an itty-bitty bottle of something or other.

Which Crown could only assume must be 'morphine'.

MacGregor managed another disgusted snort. "Why, there isn't enough stuff in there ta make a 'gnat' tipsy!"

"You don't drink this stuff," the doctor said, as he continued rummaging around in his satchel.

The Marshal and his Chief Deputy glanced at each other with raised eyebrows.

"You inject it into a vein-through a hollow needle," the young medical man added. The kid opened a small, black, leather case and removed a small, glass, cyndrical-shaped device, which had a plunger on one end...and an incredibly long, sharp needle on the other.

The Marshal and his Chief Deputy exchanged glances again, and their already raised brows arched even higher.

Crown turned his undivided attention back to the young doctor. "You ain't pokin' me...with that thing...My hide's been...perforated...enuff...for one evenin'!" he gasped and then gave his dizzy head a quick shake. He was feeling more and more lightheaded. He must be losing more and more blood. He pulled his hand out from beneath his right vest panel for a moment and squinted down at it. His left palm was completely covered with fresh, bright-red blood. He gasped again and quickly stashed his hand back inside his vest.

Doctor Ellis completely ignored his patient and just continued on about his business. After sterilizing the hypodermic syringe with the rubbing alcohol, he proceeded to siphon a rather precise amount of the morphine up into it. The doctor dabbed some more rubbing alcohol onto a wad of cotton and turned back toward the Marshal. "This may sting a little bi-"

"-I told you!" the lawman gasped. "I been 'stung' enuff...for one night!" Crown gasped again and then winced in pain.

His doctor remained unconvinced, and, while the Marshal's eyes were closed for a couple of seconds, the imaginative young man palmed the syringe in his right hand and then gave his protesting patient's left arm a reassuring slug. "Of course, it can also be administered intra-muscularly," he announced, depressing the plunger with his thumb-and injecting the contents of the syringe deep into the muscle of the Marshal's upper arm. "It just takes a lot longer for it to work its way into the bloodstream, is all." He pulled the needle out and placed the syringe back in its black, leather case.

The 'stung' lawman's pain-filled, squinting eyes blazed wide with anger and betrayal, and he was about to tell the sneaky, insubordinate young man what he could go do with his needle.

When Dulcey suddenly came barging back into the room, with a bundle of freshly-laundered linen-and a whole bucket of warm, soapy water. "The water is boiling, Jarrod," the girl announced a bit breathlessly. "Do you want me to bring it to you?"

"No," Jarrod replied. He pulled a variety of surgical instruments from his satchel and passed them to the girl. "I want you to drop these into it and then let them boil for at least fifteen minutes."

Dulcey handed her parcels on to the Marshal's deputies. Then she took the tools and hurried off again, glad for another excuse to leave the room.

"We'll need to pull this cot away from the wall," Doctor Ellis informed the two vertical men in the alcove. "And we'll be needing some more light in here..." he hinted to the Senator, who was standing there, in the doorway to the Marshal's Office, blocking the light.

The statesman took the hint and headed off to find some more lamps.

MacGregor had been watching his boss carefully. The man's already serious condition was slowly, but steadily, deteriorating. As was the limits of his own patience. "How can yah think about rearrangin' the furniture at a time like this?" he declared, venting his growing impatience in the young doctor's direction. "Can't yah see? The mon needs yer help! Instead o' cooking yer instruments, you should be using 'em ta dig that bullet out!"

"If you really want to help speed things up," Doctor Ellis told the impatient, irate Scotsman, "you could go up to room 15 and bring down the green chest that's setting on the floor at the foot of my bed-buried beneath about four feet of other baggage."

'Oh-Oh great!' Mac thought. 'Now he wants to start unpacking!' It was hopeless! MacGregor turned his frown on his fellow deputy and then gave the 'doctor recruiter' a look which told him that, perhaps he had been in too big of a rush to leave Boston. The Scotsman gasped in utter exasperation. But then obediently left to fetch the chest, as per the young doctor's request.

"Now," the doctor stated, turning himself-and his full attention-back in his patient's direction, "I think it's time we took a little look..."

The Marshal, who was feeling less pained and more intoxicated with each passing second, stared rather dazedly up at his doctor and slowly pulled his hand away from his chest wound.

With the aid of Francis, the young physician was able to remove the lawman's leather vest, with only a minimum of discomfort caused. Jarrod then, quickly and carefully, began cutting away the remainder of his patient's bloodied, light blue shirt.

Crown kept his groggy gaze fixed upon the young physician's face. He was anxious to see what his doctor's reaction was gonna be to his nurse's bandages. The Marshal smiled, as the young man stopped cutting, right in mid-snip, and gave his patient a rather perplexed stare.

The good doctor was about to ask the Marshal who had done such a good job of wrapping his wound up for him, when he suddenly spotted the bullet hole in the bandages. He turned back to his patient, looking even more perplexed, and quickly re-worded his question. "What's under these bandages? Besides a bullet?"

"Jes' some bruised ribs..." the Marshal assured him. "I had a little run in...with a busted wheel the day."

The doctor gave him a sort of strange stare and then reluctantly went back to work. "Nasty!" he muttered as the Marshal's sleeve fell away, exposing the rather 'nasty' looking three-inch gash in the lawman's left forearm. "Very nasty, indeed! We're going to have to do something with that, too..." he reminded himself, before reluctantly continuing his cutting. It took a while, but he eventually made it through the layers upon layers of blood-soaked bandages. The young doctor had been well disciplined in always presenting, and maintaining, a cool, calm, completely unemotional demeanor while working on his patients. Still, a startled 'gasp' escaped from him as the Marshal's damaged mid-section suddenly became very visible.

Doctor Jarrod Michael Ellis took in the extent of these damages for a few moments and then stared rather incredulously up at his patient. "A little 'run-in' with a spoke?" he practically shouted, struggling to regain control of his crumbling composure. "It looks more like you were run over-with the whole wagon!"

"It sort a' felt that way...for a while..." Crown calmly conceded with another slight smile.

The Marshal's doctor exchanged grave glances with the Marshal's deputy and then reluctantly resumed his little look. "How did you happen to run into this spoke?" the doctor asked in an attempt to distract his patient from the pain of his probing.

"It happened," the grimacing lawman gasped in reply, "because I happened...ta run into a fella...who doesn't...fight fai-air!" he finished with a flinch and a wince.

The young doctor finished his examination and then sat there, on the edge of the cot, looking even graver and solemner-and even more incredulous.

No wonder his patient seemed to be experiencing so much pain! He was!

Upon penetrating the Marshal's chest, the bullet had blasted its way between two of the man's already badly-bruised ribs. It had then bull-dozed itself sideways and become tightly lodged between two others.

The young doctor could hardly imagine how excruciating even one, shallow breath would be-much less all that gasping!

Any little movement would cause that little chunk of lead to grate against the lawman's probably cracked, and quite possibly even broken in two, rib bones.

Doctor Ellis drew a deep breath and gave his pained patient an understanding and deeply sympathetic look. "How's the pain?"

"Better..." his patient replied, giving the person responsible for that fact a grateful glance. "But I would appreciate it...if you would quit...pokin' me."

His doctor managed a sad smile. "Sorry, but it looks like I'm going to have to cut you open. The bullet is sitting just off to the left of the entry hole. It's lodged in there pretty tightly, between your fifth and sixth ribs."

"You can bet that the man is already aware of that fact, Doctor!" Mac angrily stated, upon his return. "Ah'm sure he's been painfully aware o' that fact every step of the way-for the past twelve miles! And, now that we all know that he has a bullet lodged in 'im, we'd all be much obliged if you would kindly dislodge it for 'im! If you would, please?"

Doctor Ellis ignored the deputy's sarcastic comments and stared up at his patient in utter disbelief. "You mean that you actually rode twelve your condition?"

"I had to..." Crown told him. "It was too far...for a man in my condition...ta walk."

His doctor managed another sad smile. Then his smile slowly vanished as something gradually dawned on him. "It is true, isn't it!" he exclaimed, vocalizing his sudden realization. "Every word in that book about you is true!" he added and stared up at his patient, looking rather in awe.

Francis shot the 'awed' young man a warning glance and shook his head no.

But the young man's rather odd comments and slightly awed look had already caught his boss' attention.

"What words?...In what book?" Crown nervously inquired.

Again the young doctor ignored Francis' frantic signals for him to stop. "The book the Senator gave me to read on the train," Doctor Ellis explained, slipping a paperback book from his satchel. "This book," he added and held the thing up in front of his pained patient's pained face.

Francis snatched the book away before his boss had a chance to read its title. "Uh-Uhh...I don't think the Marshal is really feeling up to this, right now."

"Somethin' tells me," Crown acknowledged even more nervously, "the Marshal is never...gonna be...feelin' up ta this...So let's have it," he requested. The Marshal released the hold he had on his Colt to take a hold of the book Francis-very unwillingly-offered him.

The young deputy gave the young doctor a disgusted glare.

The young doctor gave the young deputy an apologetic shrug.

Crown turned the book right side up and then squinted rather groggily down at its cover. " 'Taming The Territory'..." he read aloud. "'The Legend of Marshal 'Doc' Crown?' " he dazedly continued. He turned to Francis, wearing a look that was a mixture of shock, and disbelief-and anger., the Marshal was outraged, and what he had just read was outrageous! Totally outrageous!

Francis quickly raised his right hand in an oath. "Jim, I swear I didn't have anything ta do with the printing of that book! I was just as surprised as you were when I first saw it, too! Honest!"

'Doc' Crown looked deeply skeptical and went back to his reading. "An eyewitness the Globe's Western Correspondent...Francis L. Wilde...of the Life and Times...of Marshal 'Doc' Crown...heroic lawman?...of the Cimarron Stri-ip?" Jim had to stop reading again. It was making him sick. Francis was right, he wasn't feeling up to this, right now. He was also right. There would never be a time when he would be feeling up to it!

"Mr. Hanley put all those articles I wrote about you, years ago, together an' had 'em published-without my 'knowledge' or 'consent'! I swear that's the truth, Jim! I-I could never-would never do anything like this to you! Leastways, not now! Not after what Mac told me-" he stopped talking suddenly and shot the Scotsman an 'Oops! Sorry about that little slip!' look.

'Doc' Crown studied both of his deputies for a few moments and then smiled, just the slightest of smiles. "I believe you, Francis..." he assured the troubled young man. Then he stared solemnly, and sadly, back down at the book in his hand.

"But I only sold the newspaper rights ta my stories," Francis continued, in an attempt to cheer his very depressed boss back up. "So, before I left Boston, I managed ta put a stop to the book's sales an' distribution. That makes that quite a 'collector's item' you're holdin', there," he added, with a weak smile. "That's a 'first' and a 'last' edition!"

'Do-oc' suddenly looked curious, and a little uncomfortable, again. "Jes' how many a' these...first an' last editions...are there...already in circulation?"

Francis looked even more uncomfortable than his boss and swallowed nervously before finally forcing a reply. "Seventy-five..." he quietly replied, "...thousand," he added under his breath, and then stood there, dreading to witness Doc's reaction to that figure.

Crown cringed and then groaned in mental anguish. "Seventy-five thousand copies?" he shouted, and then groaned again, because it hurt him to shout.

Francis cringed, too. "Yeah. Yah see, these books only sell for a 'dime'. So, in order for the publishers ta make any real money over the printing costs, they have ta sell a real large volu-" the writer stopped his enthusiastic explanation, realizing too late that he had only succeeded in depressing 'Doc' even more.

Actually, it was the Marshal's medication that was depressing him more than anything else, at the moment. The morphine had finally worked its way into the lawman's bloodstream, depressing not only his pain, but his breathing and clear thought processes, as well.

All eyes in the room suddenly riveted on the Marshal, as his weary eyes suddenly closed.

Crown released one, final, incredibly long, 'mournful' moan-and then his head rolled limply to one side.

Doctor Ellis briefly examined his now peacefully sleeping patient before getting up to open, and then quickly rifle through, the green chest that MacGregor had so obligingly brought him. "Okay, lay him down and then slide the cot away from the wall, if you will..." he requested of the Marshal's two-more worried than ever looking-friends. "And, while I'm getting dressed, you can get him undressed," he added, grabbing some folded white garments and brown paper packages from the open chest. Since the room he was in was so cramped for space, Jarrod took the bucket of warm, soapy water and the articles of clothing, stepped out into the jail...and used one of its two empty cells to change and scrub up.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Sixteen

Crown suddenly felt himself being picked up and flattened out. He gasped and then quickly drew his right leg back up. "Leave it..." he requested of whoever it was that went to straighten it again. "Leave it..." he repeated, feeling someone's fingers fumbling with the buckle of his gunbelt. "Leave 'em..." he told whoever it was that was tugging on his boots.

"Now what do yah figure yah need yer boots for?" Mac wondered, obeying, but not unquestioningly. "Yah can no' even stand up! And Ah reckon yah will no' be going anywheres for some time, in yer present condition. So yah might as well get comfortable!"

Oh, how the Marshal wanted to get comfortable! He wanted desperately to drift off into a deep, exhausted sleep. But the distant pain, and his sense of duty, wouldn't permit it. "There are no...reinforcements coming...are there..." Jim whispered, sounding incredibly weak and just a tad bit dejected.

His deputies shot each other a couple of grave, solemn glances, and just stood there silently, neither of them knowing quite what to say.

Their boss forced one of his eyes back open and then shot each of them half of an annoyed glare.

The Marshal's Chief Deputy sighed in surrender and then reluctantly replied. "According to the telegrams that Mr. Winsom gave us, your reinforcements will no' be arriving for a few days. It seems they've been sent to Cimarron, New Mexico, and no' by mistake, either! We have proof that they were purposely delayed-" Mac stopped talking and stared down at his boss' completely motionless body and emotionless face. The Scotsman wasn't sure if Crown had heard him or if he had gone back to sleep.

"Mr.' his family...will definitely danger now," the lawman realized aloud, but just barely.

"Aye," Mac solemnly agreed. "Ah told 'im that we'd do everything possible to provide him, and his family, with protection. But that they should be packed and ready ta leave town at a moment's notice."

"That...moment...has just arrived," the Marshal announced. "Mac...I want you ta take 'em out of town...immediately...If yah leave should be able ta reach...MacClain's Crossin'' pick up my dawn...Then you kin take the whole...'kit an' kaboodle'...ta the' stay there with 'em...'til yah hear from me...that it's safe-"

"-But, Ji-im!" MacGregor began, but then abruptly stopped, as his groggy boss snapped one eye back open and gave his Chief Deputy half of an incredibly stern stare. Again the Scotsman sighed in surrender and again he unquestioningly obeyed his boss. Well, actually, he had a great deal of things that he wanted to ask the Marshal at the moment. He just didn't put any of them into words.

Doctor Jarrod Michael Ellis came backing into the room just then, carrying a sterile towel full of freshly-scalded, still-steaming surgical instruments in his freshly-scrubbed, rubbed-red hands. His head was covered with some odd type of tied cap. His face was hidden behind a matching mask. In fact, the only part of his anatomy that wasn't covered in bright, white cloth-besides his hands-were his eyes. As the young doctor turned back around and spotted his patient still half-clothed, they narrowed into angry slits. "Why isn't he undressed, yet?" he demanded, speaking up from behind his cloth mask.

The Marshal's deputies overcame their initial shock at seeing the oddly dressed up doc' and shot each other strange, confused glances.

"What are yah fixing ta do?" Mac sarcastically inquired. "Remove a bullet...or rob a bank?"

Francis had to really struggle to keep from grinning at his colleague's highly amusing questions. "The Marshal wants things left the way they are...for now," he explained to the still angry, and now also annoyed, looking young physician.

The young doctor suddenly looked even more annoyed. Only this time, he was annoyed with himself. "I knew I should've given him a bigger dose," he muttered to himself, beneath his mask. He set his instruments down and 'shoo-ed' the Marshal's deputies out of his way-again. "Give me some room!" he said and continued to 'shoo' the two clear out the door and into the Marshal's Office. "I need some room to work in here," he repeated, hinting that he expected the two of them to stay out, for now. "Thank you," Doctor Ellis told the Senator as he came hurrying into the alcove, brandishing a brightly lit oil lamp in each of his hands. "Just set them down on top of that cabinet there...and then you can leave," he added, tossing out another, even blunter, hint.

"Sure thing, Doc'. How's he do-?" The Marshal's 'old friend from back East' caught his first glimpse of the Marshal's badly bruised and bloodied mid-section and stopped talking and walking.

"He's doing just fine," the doc' assured the Senator, before 'shoo-ing' him out of his way, as well. "And he will be doing even better once I get that bullet out of him. No, no, no Dulcey!" he exclaimed, turning around in time to catch a brief glimpse of the girl's blonde head, as it quickly disappeared from the other doorway. "I want you to stay!"

"I' what I help you," Dulcey promised, as she reluctantly reappeared and stepped, even more reluctantly, back into the room. "Do you want me to start ripping these into bandages?" she wondered, picking her parcel of freshly-laundered linen back up.

Doctor Ellis was in the process of refilling his hypodermic syringe with another dose of morphine. "I already have all the bandages I'm going to need," he answered, without so much as giving the girl a glance.

Dulcey stared at the doctor and then down at the bundle of linen in her hands, looking confused. "Well...then what are these for?"

"I'm going to use those to create a sterile field," the physician stated rather matter-of-factly and then turned to give his patient another injection. "If you really want to help, come here and hold on to his left hand for me."

The girl put down her parcel and then dutifully picked up the lawman's limp left hand.

Crown opened his eyes a crack to check out whoever it was that had just taken hold of his hand. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be Dulcey. The girl was sitting right there beside him on the cot, gripping his bloodied left hand hard in both of her's. The Marshal smiled faintly up at her and then gave her hands an even fainter squeeze back.

Dulcey stared down at the man, whom she had presumed to be unconscious, for a moment, looking quite startled. But then the girl quickly averted her gaze.

The lawman's faint smile faded fast, as he glumly realized the girl must still be mad at him for missing her party. He grimaced in frustration and then shut his eyes, tightly. "I know...I didn' make it time...But...I did...keep... my promise."

Again Dulcey didn't respond. The girl was presently too choked up to be able to speak.

Crown read the continuing silence as a sign that the young lady still remained angry an' upset with him. So he gave the girl's hand another, faint squeeze, and then started to apologize. "I'm...sorry, Dulcey...I wish things...would a' worked out...differently...I really do-o!" he winced as something suddenly stung his left wrist. Instinctively, he tried pulling his arm up to him.

But the girl held onto his hand tighter than ever.

The Marshal snapped his eyes back open and shot both Dulcey and the...masked? young medicine man looks of extreme annoyance-and betrayal.

"Sweet dreams, Marshal," Doctor Ellis softly wished, as he slowly depressed the plunger...injecting the morphine directly into a vein in the lawman's left forearm, this time.

A feeling of tremendous relief came over Crown, as that fire that was still burning in some remote area of his chest was finally, completely extinguished. The Marshal felt terrific-for about three seconds. Then his mind stopped registering, not only pain, but everything else, as well! As the lights gradually went out in the lawman's brain, the muscles gradually went limp in the lawman's body.

Jarrod completed his latest injection and then smiled, in satisfaction, as the Marshal's right leg began to unbend at the knee and slowly straighten itself out.

His patient's head fell to one side and he was perfectly still once more. Except of course, for the rather rythmic rising and falling of his badly damaged chest.

Speaking of which...

The doctor put down his hypo' and quickly went back to work-first, cleaning the wound and then, creating a sterile field.

As Dulcey felt her friend's hand go completely limp and lifeless, she snapped her pretty, blonde head up to shoot her friend's doctor a blurry look of high anxiety.

"Relax," the doctor gently urged, upon seeing the look. "Your legend is still alive. I just had to put him to sleep. So I could operate. What about you?" he asked his sniffling, teary-eyed, suddenly tremendously relieved, looking assistant. "Are you all right?"

Dulcey caught the concern in the young man's voice and managed to smile bitterly between sniffles. "Yes. Thank you," her bitter smile vanished. "It's just that it hurts to see a friend hurting...and know that you are the cause of it," she regrettably added, and fresh tears began to moisten her soft, blue eyes.

Her friend's doctor snapped his head up in the girl's direction and gave her a confused, questioning glance.

"Oh, I wasn't talking about the bullet!" Dulcey assured him.

"I was just going to say," Jarrod said, sounding relieved, "I don't know who did shoot him, but I do know that it wasn't you!" he continued while he worked.

"No. I didn't need to use a bullet," Dulcey continued, staring sadly down at her friend's now peaceful, and totally impassive, looking face. "Sometimes, you can hurt someone even worse...with just...words," she finished, her soft, shaking voice trailing off into a whisper.

Jarrod snapped his head up in the girl's direction again, just long enough to shoot her another concerned questioning glance.

"Before he left this morning," the sniffling girl explained, continuing to speak quite softly, "I made him promise to come back here tonight, in time for the party. You see, he has this thing about keeping his word. Once he's given his word to someone about something, he does his very best to keep it. Jim always does his best. Only tonight, I doubted him. I actually came right out and accused him of not even trying to make it back here in time. And after he had just practically killed himself trying to keep his promise!" The girl's shaking voice cracked finally and her soft spoken words gave way to sobs. She buried her face in the backs of her hands, which were still clasped tightly over the Marshal's. "Oh, Jim! I'm so sorry I doubted you!" she informed her sleeping friend, between sobs.

The good doctor glanced up again and gave his softly-sobbing assistant a deeply sympathetic look, which quickly transformed into one of complete confusion. "'re not mad at him?"

This time the girl shot him a questioning glance.

"I sort of got the impression that he sort of has the impression that you're mad at him," Jarrod continued, working as he spoke.

"Well, I'm not!" Dulcey adamantly declared.

"Yes, I know. But I think you sort of gave him the impression that you were. You see, when a woman refuses to talk to a man, he just naturally figures she must be mad at him. And when she refuses to even look at him? Well, he figures she must be furious-Da-amn!"the young doctor exclaimed, interrupting himself rather abruptly. "Pardon my French, but the bullet's become so deeply embedded in the bone, that I can't even get it to budge! And I'm afraid that, if I use any more force, I'm gonna end up breaking another one of his ribs!" he further explained, sounding extremely frustrated.

"Are yah saying, yah can no' do it?" MacGregor demanded, suddenly appearing in the office's doorway.

"I'm saying that I can no' do it this way," the frustrated, but imaginative, young physician informed the anxious-looking and alarmed-sounding deputy. There were several long seconds of thoughtful silence. Then the doctor's dark, blue eyes lit up. "Dulcey, could you come over here...on this side? I need your help again."

Again Dulcey dutifully did as the young doctor requested.

"Sit down," Jarrod told the girl as she stepped up beside him. "No! Not there," he continued as she began taking a seat beside the motionless Marshal. "Here," he requested, motioning to the center of the sleeping lawman's solar plexus.

Dulcey stared disbelievingly down at the Marshal's doctor...and then at the Marshal's stomach...and then at the Marshal's doctor again. "You can't be serious!" she hopefully inquired. But the determined look in the doctor's deep blue eyes told her that he could be and that he indeed was-deadly serious.

"Theoretically," Jarrod continued, as the girl continued to just stand there, staring at him in utter disbelief, "your weight, evenly distributed across the bottom of his rib cage, should cause his ribs to bend a bit. I'm hoping you will be able to get them to spread just enough to allow me to get the bullet out," he added in an attempt to make his request sound less unreasonable.

Dulcey thought the doctor's theory over carefully for a few moments. It seemed sound enough. But not sound enough to keep her from feeling terribly silly, as she slowly turned around, and then rather daintily sat down-smack dab in the middle of the Marshal's sheet-covered stomach.

"Scoot up just a bit. A bit more. That's it!" the doctor declared, successfully directing his assistant's bottom into place. "Do you sing?"

Again Dulcey gave her friend's doctor a strange stare. "Some," she nervously replied. "But only when I'm working. And only if I know there's no one around to hear me," she tacked on, conditionally.

"There was this pretty, little French nurse, Charlene, who always used to sing in the Surgery," Jarrod recalled, speaking as he worked. "Her singing seemed to ease the tension in the room-especially during the more delicate operations. Couldn't you make like you were dusting him off, or something...and sing? Please? For me? For him? For the both of us?" he finished and finally succeeded in coaxing a reply.

"I'll...try-y," Dulcey reluctantly vowed. "But it won't be in French."

"English is fine," Jarrod assured the girl, with a grateful glance.

His assistant smiled rather shyly and nervously cleared her throat.

"'Oh what would it ta-ake for one little kiss?' asked the Stranger of the Lady. 'This locket of go-old for one little kiss...' said the Stranger to the Lady.

'Not for all of the gold on the north coast of Spain-would I put my heart in danger. But one little ki-iss I gladly would give-for the hand of a tall, dark stranger.'

'And what would it take for one tiny kiss more?' asked the Stranger of the Lady. 'This radiant pearl for one tiny kiss more...' said the Stranger to the Lady.

'Not for all of the pearls in the Great China Sea-would I put my heart in danger. But one tiny kiss mo-ore I gladly would give-for the arms of a tall, dark stranger.'

'Tell me, what would it ta-ake to wi-in your love?' asked the Stranger of the Lady. 'I'd give all I posse-ess to wi-in your love...' said the Stranger to the Lady.

'Not for go-old or pea-earls or all you possess-would I put my heart in danger. But all of my lo-ove I gladly would give-for the heart of a tall, dark stranger. Yes, all of my lo-ove I gladly would give-for the heart of a tall, dark stra-anger.'"

The doctor glanced up, as the girl finished singing, with a rather triumphant look in his eyes. "'And what would it ta-ake to hear one more verse?' asked the Stranger of the Lady. 'This small chunk of lea-ead-for just one more verse,' said the Stranger to the Lady." Jarrod held up the bullet, which was now locked between his forceps, instead of between the lawman's fifth and sixth ribs.

"Dea-eal!" Dulcey declared, beaming a broad grin in the young doctor's direction. "But I hope you don't mind waiting. It may take me a while to dream up another one."

Speaking of dreaming...

When he heard Dulcey suddenly break into song, Mac had stepped back over to the doorway to the alcove. He just stood Dulcey just sat there...on the Marshal's stomach...singing away. He had to be dreaming!

Then the young doctor burst into song and held up the bullet!

Either the Scotsman was dreaming, or Francis' young physician practiced some of the most peculiar medical procedures known to science! MacGregor didn't dare ask what was going on in the room. He wasn't all that sure he really wanted to know.

"Thank you for your song...and your assistance," Jarrod sincerely said.

Dulcey gave the young man another warm smile and started carefully easing herself up off the Marshal's stomach. "Yes. We-ell, I did say that I would do what I could to help. Though, never in my wildest dreams, did I imagine that would include doing what I just did!"

"Speaking of what you just did..." Doctor Ellis spoke, as he neatly stitched up the incision he had just made in the Marshal's chest, "That was a very lovely song. I can't remember ever hearing it before. What's it called?"

"I don't know," Dulcey confessed. "I guess I never really thought of giving it a name. How about, 'The Stranger and the Lady'?"

Jarrod stopped in mid-stitch and stared disbelievingly up at her. "You wrote that song?"

Dulcey nodded. "I've written dozens of them."

"That's incredible!"

"Not really. You see, the Wayfarer's is a very big place to have to keep up. And besides the Inn, there's the Coffee house. And, while my hands are kept busy cooking and cleaning, I needed something to help me keep my mind occupied. So I started making up songs!"

"Have you ever had any of them published?"

"Heavens no! I've never even put any of them down on paper. I only do it to help pass the time-purely for my own entertainment."

"That's a shame. Because, if the others are as good as the one I just heard, well...besides Innkeeper and Restaurateur, you could have yourself another career-as a 'Song Writer'. And I'm not just saying that to flatter you, either!" Jarrod assured the girl with another sincere glance. "Are they all love songs?"

Again Dulcey nodded. "I'm afraid I'm a hopeless romantic. My songs are always about love...and they always have a happy ending."

"I'm a bit of a hopeless romantic, myself..." Jarrod confessed, smiling behind his mask. "So-o...tell me, young 'Lady', is the Marshal, here, your 'Stranger'?"

The girl's tired eyes widened a bit and she could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks. "That's a very personal question, Doctor Ellis."

"Yes. Well, I like to take a very personal interest in my patients," Doctor Ellis innocently explained to the pretty, blushing, blonde young lady. "So, how about it? Do I get a very personal answer?"

"No-o..." Dulcey finally replied, following a few moments of thoughtful silence. "At least, not since I discovered that I could never be his 'Lady'," she added rather regrettably. "There he was, this handsome, heroic figure...and there I was, this hopeless, young romantic. It was inevitable. I fell helplessly, head-over-heels in love with Marshal Jim Crown-the first moment I met him!" She paused and smiled a bitter sweet smile down at the handsome, heroic figure. "It took me nearly a year, but I finally came face-to-face with reality. And what I realized, finally, was that not only was Jim Crown not 'romantically' interested in me-but he had absolutely no romantic interests, whatsoever! The Marshal was already totally committed-body, mind and soul-to his job. He had absolutely nothing left to offer anyone...except his friendship," she softly summed up, and her bitter sweet smile turned even more bitter.

"Then the two of you are just good friends?" the good doctor cautiously inquired.

"Actually, we're much more than that! Since neither one of us have any family left of our own, we've sort of adopted each other. I'm sort of the kid sister and mother he never had. And he's sort of the father and big brother I never had. So, you see, we're more than just good friends. We're family...sort of."

Jarrod exhaled a silent sigh of relief and glanced up again. "What about Francis?" he inquired even more cautiously.

Dulcey smiled wryly down at the doctor. "Is Francis also a patient of yours?"

This time, it was the young doctor's turn to blush, though it was concealed behind his mask.

Dulcey's smile broadened, as the young man peaked bashfully up at her and then managed an innocent shrug. "If Jim is my big brother, then I guess you could say that Francis is my twin brother, and MacGregor...well, I guess MacGregor would be my favorite uncle. They're both dear friends. We're-all four of us-the dearest of friends!" she finished speaking, but kept right on smiling.

"Then your 'Stranger' hasn't come along, yet?" Doctor Ellis asked, sounding more hopeful than cautious this time.

Dulcey's wry smile returned. "He may have come and gone already. I've been much too busy to even notice. It's been a real struggle these past five years. But now, we're beginning to make a real go of it. The Wayfarer's has finally been transformed from a house of ill repute into one of the most popular places to stay, in all of Cimarron! Granted, the Wayfarer's may not be the most luxurious hotel in town. But we do have a certain atmosphere here that none of the other places seem to have."

"I'll bet they don't have a U. S. Marshal's Office or a Jail in their lobbies, either!" Jarrod lightly concluded.

"I guess that does have a tendency to keep things rather interesting around here at times," Dulcey had to admit. "But having Jim here has also helped add a degree of respectability to the place. So I guess you could say it's been both good and bad for business...but mostly good."

"How is he?" Dulcey's 'favorite uncle' asked, suddenly appearing in the alcove's open doorway.

"He's doing just fine," the young doctor assured him. "I removed the bullet and cleaned all the debris out of the wound. It seems to be draining nicely." He paused in his bandaging and glanced up in the Scotsman's direction. "Was this older injury on his wrist, here, a bullet wound, too?"

The Marshal's chief deputy nodded.

"I thought so. I found pieces of his shirt deeply embedded in it. The foreign matter was causing the wound to fester. Now that it's out, it should heal quickly. As soon as I get it bandaged, I'll be finished with him."

Mac stared down at his boss' barely bandaged chest in confusion. "Are yah no' going ta wrap his ribs?"

"Why?" the young doctor wondered back. "He isn't going anywhere in his condition. Besides, it'll be easier to change the dressings this way."

The Scotsman's steely-blue eyes narrowed into menacing slits. "If you are no' going to wrap the man's ribs, then Ah guess Ah'll have to do it before Ah go!" he threatened and he took a step or two into the room to back up his threat.

"Okay! Okay! You win! I'll wrap them!" the young doctor crankily conceded. "But he shouldn't be moved!"

"Aye," Mac solemnly agreed. "He shouldn't be. But he may have ta be."

Doctor Ellis thought over the implications of the Marshal's Chief Deputy's solemn statement for a moment and then his weary eyes widened in shock. "You mean...whoever shot him...may try it...again?"

Mac heard the shock in the young lad's voice and he saw the horror on the young lass' face. He exhaled a deep sigh of frustration. "The Marshal captured those two blaggards. But Ah happen ta know that there are a dozen or so other rifles out there-containing bullets with his name on them. So Ah'd appreciate yer doin' what yah can ta provide those hired assassins with a moving target."

Jarrod gradually overcame his initial shock. "Yes. Of course. I'll do what I can." He stared down at his peacefully sleeping patient and experienced a whole new wave of shock. "A dozen or so?" He glanced in his still somewhat horrified assistant's direction. "It's a miracle he made it back here, at all."

Dulcey focused all of her attention back on her unconscious friend and family member. "Yes. It is. A real...miracle," she sadly agreed, suddenly feeling even more ashamed, and fresh tears began to stain her cheeks.

The Marshal's doctor gave the girl a deeply sympathetic glance and then obediently set about wrapping the lawman's ribs.

Speaking of rapping...

"Who is it?" Judge Rutger's nervously inquired, of whomever it was that was 'rapping' on his hotel room door at nearly one in the morning.

"It's me!" a man's muffled voice answered, from out in the hall.

The magistrate recognized that muffled voice and exhaled an audible sigh of relief. Then he closed the book in his lap, got stiffly to his feet, and crossed the room. He unlocked the door and allowed the visitor with the muffled voice to enter. "What's the latest word?"

"The Marshal's back!" the now not so muffled voice replied.

"He can't be!" his judgeship shouted, and quickly closed the door. "Between Mareck and I, we had every crossing covered!"

"Yeah? Well, I was just over in the Cherokee, sittin' on three of a kind, when that crazy Injun', Walkin' Man, comes in and announces that he's buyin' drinks for the whole house. Then he slams a shiny-new five-dollar gold piece down on the bar for everybody to see. When the bartender asks 'im where he got all that money, he says he got it for takin' care of the Marshal's horse!"

"Did you actually see Crown?"

"No, but-"

"-Then, did it ever occur to you," Rutger's interrupted, "that the Marshal's horse may have come back without the Marshal?"

"The barkeep asked the Injun' about the Marshal," the judge's informant informed him. "He said Crown rode in about an hour ago."

"How did he get past Spencer and Endry?" the judge demanded in utter disbelief. "They were covering the road on both ends of town!"

"Yes, sir. They were," his informant had to admit. "Until they saw everyone leaving town after the party. When the Marshal never showed up for his own party, they figured he wasn't ever gonna show. They figured the boys must've got 'im at the river. So they came back into town. They've been sittin' over in the Cherokee, since about eleven-thirty."

The magistrate groaned in mental anguish and stood there, looking-for all the world-like he was suddenly coming down with a migraine.

The informant saw his boss' look and attempted to alleviate some of his misery. "I don't think the boys at the river missed him entirely. The Injun' claims Crown had to be helped down from his horse. He said they had to practic'ly carry him into his office."

But the judge drew very little comfort from the crazy Injun's claims. "The man has more lives than a cat!" he muttered under his breath and stood there for a few moments, squeezing the bridge of his nose. "I want you to go give Mareck the good news," he ordered, suddenly proving once again the accuracy of the adage 'Misery loves company'.

The informant frowned. "Yes, sir!" he reluctantly replied and then left the room, looking every bit as miserable as his boss.

"Here...Drink this," Doctor Ellis prescribed, and handed Dulcey a glass of something that closely resembled, and could very well have been, water. "It'll help you get some sleep."

"I don't want to sleep!" Jim Crown's adopted mother and kid sister softly replied. "I just want to sit here with him," she announced, sounding very determined.

Jarrod, who had removed his sterile surgical garb, gave the girl cradling the 'legend's' limp left hand in her lap a deeply concerned look. "I gave him a double dose of morphine. He'll probably sleep 'til, and possibly even clear through, noon. When he finally does wake up, he's going to be needing some nursing. Now, how are you ever going to take care of him, if you make yourself sick?" He pressed the glass into the girl's right hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

Dulcey looked thoughtful. Then, finding it impossible to argue with the good doctor's sound logic, she glanced up and gave him a grateful smile. "You'll stay with him?"

Jarrod returned her smile and nodded. "I'll be just a few feet away, in one of those rooms usually reserved for 'special' guests..." he added, and glanced distastefully in the direction of the jail.

The girl managed another slight smile and then obediently drained the glass-dry.

"Francis?" Jarrod called to the young writer, who was sitting in a chair in the middle of the Marshal's Office-with a loaded shotgun lying across his lap. "Will you take Dulcey upstairs and see to it that she makes it to her room all right?"

"I've got first watch!" the Marshal's young deputy replied. "Ask the Senator!"

Dulcey cocked her head at an odd angle and stood there, looking completely confused. "The Senator?" she parroted. "What Senator?"

"Forget I said that!" Francis quickly requested. "No one's s'posed ta know he's here!"

"No one's supposed to know who is here?" Dulcey demanded.

"Senator Fisher," Doctor Ellis answered, "from Washington."

"From Texas!" Senator Fisher corrected, as he came into the little alcove and offered the girl his arm. "From Texas!" he repeated and started escorting the pretty girl out the door. "David Samuel Fisher-at yore service, little lady. An' don't think a' me as a Senator. Jes' think a' me as an old friend a' Jim's. Wake me when it's time for my watch!" he called back over his shoulder, and then he and Dulcey disappeared up the stairs.

Doctor Ellis gave his peacefully sleeping patient one last, thorough examination, before retiring to his...jail cell.

"Charley Adams is covering the front door from the roof of Reagel's Store," MacGregor informed his fellow deputy. "Charley Lundquist is covering the side door from the roof across the alley. And Carl Benjamin is watching the back door from his bedroom window. Three shots, fired in quick succession, will bring a dozen others running-with rifles ready!"

"Right!" Francis acknowledged. He gave his very troubled looking fellow deputy, and friend, a concerned look of his own. "You gonna be all right, Mac?"

"Aye..." the Scotsman glumly muttered, as he gathered his gun, his coat, his canteen and his saddlebags from off the Marshal's desk. "Ah just don't fancy havin' ta leave 'im-at a time like this!"

"Now yah know how I felt for the past eleven days!" Francis declared, sounding every bit as glum.

"Aye..." MacGregor readily agreed. "Take care!" he called back over his shoulder as he left the office, "Of yerself...and him!" he ordered, as he passed through the little alcove.

"You, too!" Francis called after his departing friend.

MacGregor stepped into the jail and saw the strange, young doctor staring rather distastefully down at the cot in his cell.

"Oh well," he overheard the young man say, as he sprawled out across the cot and heaved a heavy sigh of complete exhaustion, "at least it's not moving."

"Aye!" Mac informed him, sounding somewhat annoyed. "And it's not likely to, either! Jim Crown runs a clean constabulary!" The deputy then stepped out the side of the building and into the alley, locking the door behind him as he left.

Jarrod looked puzzled for a moment, but then realized that MacGregor must of been referring to an absence of bed bugs. Cimarron's new doctor fell asleep...with a smile on his face.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Seventeen

U.S. Marshal James Crown awoke in a fog at around four in the morning, feeling the rather urgent need to relieve himself.

He shook his dizzy, drugged head and then ran his incredibly foggy, groggy gaze around the little room.

Someone had set a couple of oil lamps on top of his filing cabinet and one of them had been left burning. Its wick had been turned down low so that it cast a soft, warm glow all about the alcove.

The lawman found the lamp's dim light easy on his tired eyes. He also found himself to be alone in the room-with no bedpan in sight.

So he drew a deep breath, braced himself, and attempted to rise. An exasperated gasp escaped from him as his head and shoulders seemed to be the only parts of his anatomy that he could get clear of the cot. Crown gasped again and then stared down at his chest. No wonder he couldn't sit up! His mid-section had been so heavily bandaged that it made bending currently impossible. His ribs had been wrapped so extensively in fact, that it felt like he had been placed in a complete body cast!

The immobilized Marshal smiled, seeing that his left forearm was also wrapped, from elbow to wrist, in a neat, bright, white cloth case. No doubt about it, Francis' young physician had definitely gotten a bit carried away with his bandaging.

Oh well, at least his boots were still on his feet.

The lawman was also relieved to find that his gun had been returned to its holster and that his gunbelt was still strapped to his hips. He seemed ready to roll.

So that's exactly what he did. Crown braced himself again and then rolled carefully, off of the cot and onto the floor.

He came down hard on his hands and knees and, normally, such a rough landing would've really hurt.

But the young doctor had drugged the Marshal's brain as heavily as he had bandaged the Marshal's body, so that it wasn't registering much of anything at the moment-including pain.

The only sensation Jim was aware of in fact, besides the one which had originally awakened him, was that of feeling slightly drunk. The lawman pulled his woozy hanging head up and then cracked another smile.

There, sitting up in a chair in the middle of his office, and sleeping soundly-with a loaded shotgun lying across his lap-was his old friend, Dave Fisher. The tired Texan had 'do not disturb' written all over him.

So Crown turned quietly around and then floated off on all fours to use the facilities in one of the cells in his jail.

By bracing himself up against the solid steel bars, the Marshal somehow managed to haul himself up off the floor. He was incredibly dizzy. But at least his knees were locking again. So that his legs didn't give out on him-entirely. As the lawman turned to leave the cell, one of his unsteady legs gave way and he went down on one knee. He knelt there for a moment, staring out through the bars, against which he had caught himself. What he saw this time caused him to grin outright.

There, lying on the neighboring cot in his jail-face up and fully clothed-was Doctor Jarrod Michael Ellis. The young physician appeared to be sleeping. He also appeared to be smiling up at the ceiling of his cell.

Crown's grin broadened and he managed a couple of amused gasps as he carefully hauled himself back up on to his feet.

The Marshal staggered back into the little alcove, where he floated over to, and then went crashing right in to, his filing cabinet.

The lawman caught his balance and shook his light head to get his bearings back. Then he slid the top drawer open and pulled out a crisp, clean, white shirt.

Crown kept an entire change of clothes stashed away inside that drawer.

He told Dulcey that he kept them there so that he could always appear presentable before the public.

In actuality, he kept them there so that he could sneak in and change and, thus, keep the girl from going into complete hysterics every time he came back either beat up, or shot up, or torn up, with a little blood visible somewhere.

Because, as soon as Dulcey saw red, she'd start screamin'.

No siree, the girl just could not stand the sight of blood!

(True, Dulcey did not particularly care for the sight of blood. But what sent her into complete hysterics was the fact that it very often proved to be the Marshal's own blood that he, and his clothes, would come back all bathed in!)

Anyways, Crown's clean stash a' clothes idea seemed to work out jes' fine, for he hadn't heard the girl scream even once in the past two years, and there had been plenty of times he'd ridden in with a little red on him somewhere.

Too many times...too much red.

The Marshal drew in as deep a breath as his bandages would allow and then released it as an incredibly weary sigh. He was getting too old for all this foolishness.

The tired, old, slightly intoxicated feeling lawman took his clean, white shirt and started stumbling off in the direction of the Inn's kitchen-to go get cleaned up.

The Marshal was a mess.

But the Inn's kitchen was an even bigger one!

So, after bathing all of his unbandaged surfaces, Crown went to work on the kitchen.

Evident remains of Dulcey's party for him seemed to be stacked and scattered and spilled and spattered everywhere!

Why, there wasn't a flat surface in the room that didn't contain at least some degree of the debris.

His detached brain handled the mindless, menial chores he'd set about jes' fine, however.

Speaking of his detached brain...

It seemed the kid doctor was right about morphine being a very powerful drug. For, no matter how hard the lawman shook his swimming head, it remained awash in a foggy, groggy sea, through which it-and everything else-seemed to just float along, in sort of slow motion.

Crown only hoped that, when his head finally did clear again, the young doctor's very powerful drug wasn't gonna leave him with a very powerful hangover.

Three hours, and practically two pots of industrial strength coffee later, (Caffeine could be a pretty powerful drug, too!) found the Marshal's head feeling a little clearer...and the Inn's kitchen looking a whole lot cleaner.

Dulcey's original destination, after descending the stairs at around seven that morning, was the little room between the Marshal's Office and the Jail. But, upon hearing some strange noises, she quickly changed her course to her kitchen.

It sounded to her as though someone were messing around in her kitchen!

The girl tiptoed over to the open doorway and peered cautiously inside.

One quick glance around the room was all it took for her to realize just how wrong she was! (Either she was wrong-or she was dreaming!)

'Someone' had most definitely been unmessing around in her kitchen, for the counters had been cleared...the dishes had been done...the kettles had been scrubbed...the floor had been swept...the woodbox had been filled-why, the kindling had even been chopped, and there was a fire already going in her cookstove!

The girl's look of surprise turned into one of disbelief and then absolute astonishment, as she spotted the only 'someone' in the room.

The apron belonged to the Inn's bartender, Fabriccio. But the wry smile belonged to the man whose stomach she had just been sitting on-and whose chest Jarrod had just dug a bullet out of!

She had fully expected to find that particular 'someone' lying, unconscious, on the cot in the little alcove.

Instead, there he was, standing in front of her cookstove, holding a cup in one hand and a pot of steaming coffee in his other.

"Care for some coffee?" Crown casually inquired and offered the now completely flabbergasted looking female the cup.

Dulcey appeared even more astounded.

The lawman looked even more innocent. "You ain't the only one around here who likes ta surprise their friends," the man reminded his rather devious adopted kid sister, with yet another rather wry smile. But, instead of being pleased by his surprise, the Marshal saw that the girl seemed to be somewhat upset. Fact is, it appeared to him that the young lady looked downright mortified!

Dulcey was downright mortified! "What on earth do you think you're doing?" she declared and stared rather disbelievingly down at her kitchen table. Not only had her recently bullet-ridden big brother been killing himself cleaning all morning, but he had fixed her breakfast for her, as well!

The cringing lawman glanced up as the girl finished shouting at him and saw that she was staring down at the steaming plate filled with a 'not yore usual assortment' of breakfast foods. "I, uhh...was gonna go rustle us up some eggs. But there was so much food left over from las' night that, seemed a shame ta waste any of it," the 'not yore usual cook' quietly explained, in his defense.

"I'm not talking about tha-at!" Dulcey exclaimed, stepping into the room and waving one arm in the direction of the food. "I'm talking about thi-is!" she exclaimed, waving both arms about her entire kitchen. "Why, I doubt that you should even be out of bed, let alone doing all...thi-is!" she annoyedly added, and waved her arms about the renovated room again.

Crown placed the coffee pot back down on the stove and the cup back down on the table. Then he crossed quickly over to his concerned little mother hen and took both of the girl's hands in his. "Why-y, after all the trouble you went through ta make that mess...jes' for me...the very least I could do was ta clean it up!" He flashed her yet another wry smile, and continued. "Besides, it's like I told yah before. If I were ta spend more than three or four hours in a horizontal position, my backside really wouldn't know how ta handle it."

Dulcey didn't see his smile.

The lawman still couldn't seem to get her to look at him. Jim heaved a heavy sigh of frustration and then frowned down at the floor. "I'm sorry, Biscuit..." he apologized, in a whisper. "I wish there was some way that I could make it up to-"

"-Stop, Jim!" Dulcey suddenly pleaded. "Please. Just. Stop."

Crown 'just stopped' and snapped his hanging head up.

The girl heaved a rather heavy sigh of frustration herself and then finally forced herself to face him. "I'm the one who should be apologizing, here. I should have, and would have, apoligized last night. I had just gotten up the courage to face you, and was about to beg your forgiveness, when Jarrod just suddenly put you to sleep! I am so sorry, Jim! Honestly! I don't know what came over me! I guess I just got so involved with all the arrangements for that stupid party, that I completely lost sight of why I was arranging it for you in the first place! I was doing it because, for the past five years, you've proven-time and time again-to be a dear and trusted friend who always does his best! Who always keeps his promises..." Dulcey's trembling voice trailed off and tears started falling. "I really don't know how I did it. But-somehow-I managed to forget all that for a few moments last night. Will you please forgive me?"

The lawman looked tremendously relieved and then, deeply touched.

So that's what it was! The girl wasn't still mad at him, after all! Dulcey had simply been feeling too 'ashamed' to face him.

"There's no need for you ta go apologizin', either," Crown quietly reassured the crying girl, carefully taking her into his arms to comfort her. "Believe me, I understand-perfectly! I haven't exactly been thinkin' too clearly myself these days. I know first-hand how easily a person's mind kin be distracted. An', when it comes ta forgettin' things, why, I could write an entire book on that particular subject! Speakin' a' forgettin' things..." he paused to pull back a bit and then gently picked her still-pouting chin up. "Now that we're back ta bein' the best a' the best a' friends again, what da yah say we do what best friends do best...and we'll both forgive an' forget."

Dulcey smiled a teary, weak smile up at him and nodded. "Thank you so much for your wonderful surprise!" she said, giving her dear and trusted friend a big, but incredibly careful, hug. "It really was very thoughtful of you!"

"Yes. It was. Wasn't it," the Marshal immodestly admitted, returning the smile and the hug. "Mus' be the company I keep!" he rationalized.

Dulcey pulled back a bit and grinned gratefully up at him.

He flashed her still another wry smile and then took both of her hands back into his again. "Now that all that's out of the way. How about you, young lady? Did you remember ta save me that dance?"

The girl's grin broadened and she gave him another nod.

"Fine! Then I hope you saved me a nice slow one. 'Cuz I don' know as I exactly feel quite up ta the 'Virginia Reel', jes' now!" the lawman truthfully teased, taking his borrowed apron off and tossing it onto the table.

"The very slowest!" Dulcey softly assured him, as he took her back into his arms.

The pair went dancing-slowly and carefully-around the kitchen...and out the door.

"The place sure looks perty!" Crown commented as the duo drifted into the Inn's dining room and he got his first glimpse of Dulcey's elaborate decorations. "It must a' been some party! I hope everyone realizes how much I really do appreciate all the time an' effort that was expended in my behalf," he solemnly added, as they waltzed on past row after row of festively decorated tables, and beneath the now sagging, but still very festive looking, streamers.

"Without you, there was no party!" the girl replied, sounding equally solemn. "And everyone hopes that you realize how much we really do appreciate all the time and effort that you have expended in our behalf. Now, let's just forget about that stupid party!" she suddenly suggested. "After all, there are other ways for people to show their appreciation..." she teased. The girl's eyes sparkled deviously and her broad grin returned.

The lawman smiled a bit uncertainly and regarded the rather devious-looking, still-grinning girl with one slightly raised eyebrow.

The couple swirled silently out of the Inn and into the Marshal's Office.

As they drifted past his desk, Crown spotted a small, white statue sitting smack dab in the middle of his ink blotter.

The statue was that of a bird-a pigeon, by the looks of it. "Other ways..." the Marshal muttered, and his other eyebrow joined its arched mate. "Like that plaster pigeon on my desk?" he inquired, and carefully steered clear of the sleeping Senator-and his loaded shotgun.

Dulcey's shoulders sagged a bit and her grin gave way to a look of obvious disappointment. "In the first place, it isn't plaster. It's pure alabaster! In the second place, it isn't a pigeon. It's a dove!"

"Oka-ay. I'll buy that," Crown conceded as they exited his office and entered the little alcove.

"Did that 'alabaster dove' on my desk have anything ta do with whatever never happened last night?" Crown inquired, as they continued on through the alcove and then landed in his jail.

They stepped into and then went sasheying silently around the unoccupied cell.

Dulcey eyed the occupant of the cell next to their's for a few moments before shooting her dance partner a 'You know very well that it did!' look. "The committee," she began as her mouth began again to form a grin, and her grin again began to broaden, "of which I was chairperson, felt that the internationally recognized symbol of peace-hand-carved in pure alabaster-would make a perfect paperweight for a Peace Officer...such as yourself."

The Marshal's by now completely-cleared, quick mind quickly came up with some incredibly 'witty' comments that could have been made just then. But, "Oh-Oh..." was all the Peace Officer actually said.

"Would you like to hear the inscription?" the 'committee chairperson' excitedly asked, as the two of them 'escaped' from their cell and went drifting back into the dining room.

Crown was a bit confused by the question, for he hadn't noticed any inscription. He smiled and nodded to the girl-who seemed to be bursting at the seams to share it with him.

"It sa-ays: 'To our friend and Marshal, Jim Crown. From the people of Cimarron. Thank you for keeping the peace for the past five years'."

'Marshal' Jim Crown was deeply touched by the 'people of Cimarron's' rather touching 'inscription'. He found it so 'moving' in fact, that-for a split second-he actually stopped moving.

Dulcey, who was 'in tune' with her dance partner's step, noticed the sudden break in his stride and shot him an anxious glance. "Are you all right?"

"I'm...fine," the lawman assured the worried young woman in his arms. "I jes' ain't accustomed ta bein' 'appreciated'. It's gonna take me a while ta git used ta the feelin'. Not too long awhile, though," the appreciated person admitted with yet another wry smile. "Cuz it's a good feelin'!" His smile caused yet another grin to appear on the girl's pretty face.

The happy couple went ambling off...down along the bar...once around the trellises...and then back into the Marshal's Office again.

Francis had watched the pair go gliding gracefully, and silently, by from his position on the bottom stair landing. They had been completely oblivious of him.

The two of them were obviously off in their own little world, dancing to music only they could hear.

Francis' smile had broadened as he watched the couple continue to waltz-clean out of sight!

Just as the dance duo disappeared through the doorway, Doctor Jarrod Michael Ellis came scurrying out of the little alcove. He skidded into the dining room, spotted Francis, and then rather alarmedly reported that his patient seemed to be missing!

"Yeah? Well, I wouldn't worry too much about it if I were you," Francis stated, and calmly finished descending the stairs. "I'm sure he's waltzin' around here...somewhere."

Jarrod watched, in awe, as Marshal Crown and Miss Coopersmith came waltzing back into the dining room just then-almost as if on cue! The young doctor turned back to the young reporter, looking both amazed and amused.

Francis shrugged and his smug smile slowly broadened into a smug grin.

Jarrod shot him an 'oh brother' look before zeroing his full attention back in on his A.W.O.L. patient. "What are you doing 'waltzing' around here, when you should be in bed?" the doctor angrily demanded.

With the magic of the moment momentarily dispelled, the dance pair ground to a halt and reluctantly turned their attention in the very disturbing, and obviously very disturbed, young doctor's direction.

Dulcey thought the good doctor's good question over carefully. "Well, it has to be better for him than chopping wood!" she rationalized, in her dance partner's defense.

"Oh, it is!" the Marshal agreed. "Much, much better!"

Jarrod just stared silently back at the both of them, looking completely bewildered. Then, before the couple could go 'waltzin' off' again, the doctor quickly cut in. Instead of grabbing the pretty girl's arm, Jarrod latched onto his errant patient's and then started ushering the 'legendary' lawman off across the dance floor, in the direction of the alcove-and his vacated cot. "If you had to find something to occupy your time, couldn't you have picked something a little less strenuous? You go 'waltzin' around here' like that, and you're liable to rip out your sutures!" the young doctor declared, still sounding rather incensed.

The Marshal ground to a halt in the doorway between Dulcey's dining room and his jail, and shot the young man tugging on his sore right arm a look that was both a combination of annoyance and confusion.

"Sutures," Jarrod explained. "Those little, tiny snippets of surgical thread that I used to close the incision in your chest back up with! Remember? Earlier this morning? I told you that I was going to have to cut you open so that I could carve that bullet out of your busted rib cage?" He paused, to allow his bitterly sarcastic 'Marshal memory jogging' comments to sink in. "That means that you now have two fresh holes in you! One-where the bullet went in...and one-where the bullet came out! So, now, why don't you just get yourself back into bed-before they both start bleeding again!"

Crown completely ignored his doctor's advice. Instead, he just continued to stand there-for a full minute, giving the crusty kid doctor a look so cold that it could've frozen ice!

Francis and Dulcey saw the look, glanced at each other, and cringed. They'd both been on the receiving end of just such a look before. The pair had found the chilling experience to be far from pleasant.

Doctor Jarrod Michael Ellis completely ignored his patient's penetratingly cold stare, however, and just stood there in the doorway, looking completely at ease.

At last, the lawman's cold, hard look softened. Jim exhaled a silent sigh of surrender and motioned, with his left arm, in the general direction of his office. "Step inside for a minute, Doctor," he requested, looking and sounding incredibly calm himself. "We need ta have a"

Again Francis and Dulcey glanced at one another-and cringed.

The young physician remained completely unimpressed. "You mean...just the two of us?" he taunted. "Doc' to Doc'?"

The Marshal suppressed a smile and motioned with his head in the direction of his office.

The young doctor casually strolled through the little alcove and entered the 'Legend's' lair.

"In my office in one minute, Francis!" Crown told his still cringing deputy.

"Right, Jim!" Francis acknowledged.

"As for you, young lady..." the lawman sternly began, directing his full attention back in Dulcey's direction, "I do believe your breakfast is gettin' cold..." he finished, and flashed the girl one final wry grin. He turned and started heading for his office, himself, closing the door to the little alcove behind him.

Once more, the Marshal's two young friends glanced at each other-and cringed.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Eighteen

While Doc' Crown lingered behind in the alcove, Doc' Ellis had himself a little look around.

As in every other Federal Office that Jarrod had ever visited, there was an American flag and a Presidential portrait on prominent and permanent display. As per standard government regulations.

That the Marshal was not a real stickler for standard government regulations was apparent in that 'Old Glory' was kept all but hidden behind his office door, and the President being prominently portrayed and permanently displayed in the large, wooden-framed picture on the wall above his bookcase? Why, it was none other than old 'Honest Abe', himself!

'Highly unorthodox behavior, indeed!' the unorthodox young doctor mused with a smile. 'Bordering on bureaucratic mutiny! Why, the bigwigs back in Washington would be positively aghast!'

No siree! The non-conformist Marshal's non-standard execution of strict government standards would not be tolerated for one moment in any of the Federal Offices back East!

But-way out here? In the West? In this incredibly desolate little corner of the even more incredibly isolated Indian Territory?

Well, it wasn't likely that anyone from the Inspector General's Office would ever bother coming way out here just to bother him with regulations.

So the lawman could remain relatively unregulated.

The very thought of all that marvelous desolation-and all the marvelous prospects all that isolation held out for him-caused Jarrod's smile to broaden. The doctor was hoping that no one would be bothering him way out here, either. In fact, it was that hope that had brought him way out here. Surely here, he would find the freedom to practice his new, and non-conformist, brand of medicine-in peace!

The daydreaming doctor stiffened and his thoughts rapidly returned to reality as the Senator let out a low moan and then shifted suddenly in his seat.

Jarrod swallowed nervously and shot the heavily armed, and now precariously leaning, legislator an extremely anxious stare.

But then the still soundly sleeping statesman stopped his stirring and started snoring.

The smile returned to the young physician's handsome, and now very relieved looking, face.

Since Doc' Crown was still rummaging around in the alcove, Doc' Ellis continued his careful inspection of the 'legend's' lair.

There were some original, and truly spectacular, oil paintings by some artist named 'Remington' scattered around the room, along with dozens of framed photographs-all dated and signed by one 'Francis L. Wilde'.

The paintings depicted both the beauty and hardship of life way out here. There were stampeding cattle, and very authentic-looking cowboys astride wide-eyed horses with bared teeth and flared nostrils, whose movements had been captured so realistically by the artist, that Jarrod half expected them to go galloping-clear off the canvas!

In stark contrast, there was the intense solitude and serenity of a lonely brave and his Indian pony, perched high atop a barren ridge, overlooking a herd of peacefully-grazing bison.

Finally, the physician's favorite: two wolves traversing a harsh, frozen landscape beneath a bleak, winter sky with a boundless horizon.

Jarrod could actually taste the freshness of that frigid air and feel the freeness of that wild pair as they roamed the wide-open rangelands. The doctor drew a deep, relaxed breath in and then returned once again to reality.

Or was it? Oddly enough, Francis' photographs were not of gunfights, or of notorious outlaws being taken into custody-or of anything of a 'legendary' nature.

The photos were of fishing trips and friends and 'family outings', and various other purely peaceable social gatherings.

Jarrod found it odd that the young reporter's camera hadn't managed to capture the same 'legend' that his pen had.

Or had it? Yes! Of course! It must have!

Doc' Crown must simply prefer not to have the fact that he is a 'legend' prominently displayed up on his office walls, is all!

Speaking of prominent displays...

A positively huge and apparently up-to-date map of the United States, and its Territories, took up the entire wall behind the Marshal's desk.

Looming over that humungous map, was an equally huge set of Longhorn horns. It defied the young doctor's imagination to come up with a 'little dogie' large enough to have ever sported such sizable spears between its ears.

Cows weren't the only critters that seemed to grow bigger way out here in the West, either.

There was an enormous rack of deer antlers bolted to the bottom of a diamond-shaped mirror above the washbasin. Jarrod had noticed two other equally impressive racks on a wall in the alcove and another just outside the alcove on a wall just opposite the jail.

The physician found the rest of the room's furnishings to be more functional than fancy.

A rich, walnut gun rack was mounted high up on the wall, just to the left of the office's front door.

In the corner, just to the right of the street entrance, was a tall, oak table which held: one white-enameled pitcher, one white-enameled wash basin, one comb, one brush, two folded hand towels, and all of the Marshal's shaving accessories.

Between that table and a long row of bookshelves, was a large, frosted-but curtain free-window.

Just below that window, was a black, leather-covered, cushioned oak bench, which was bathed in bright, morning sunlight and seemed to beckon visitors to be seated in warmth and comfort.

All five of the shelves in the solid-oak bookcase beside the bench were filled to absolute capacity with a wide variety of reading material, ranging all the way from law books to popular works of fiction.

Jarrod recognized a few of their authors and was intrigued by a few of their titles.

Perhaps the Marshal could be persuaded to loan him a few of his books? The young doctor's nose had been buried for so long in books of a purely medical nature that he'd all but forgotten the pleasure he used to get out of reading a really good tale of mystery or adventure.

Between the bookcase and the entrance to the alcove was a small, white-enameled, pot-bellied stove. 'Just the thing for keeping the Marshal's coffee warm,' Jarrod reasoned. 'Or for removing the chill from the room on cloudy mornings.'

Bright, reddish-orange curtains hung on either side of the alcove's entrance. They matched the other curtains in the office-perfectly! When drawn, they provided a sort of barrier between the alcove and the rest of the room.

On the opposite side of the entrance, across from the little stove, stood a tall, wooden hat rack, onto which, someone had tossed the Senator's and the Marshal's Stetsons.

Judging by the drag marks across the office's uncarpeted, wooden floor, the Senator's deeply-cushioned, black, leather-covered armchair/bed belonged in the bare space between the hat rack and the fully opened doorway to the Inn.

The heavy, wooden portal was divided into two separate halves, which hung and swung on two separate hinges. Which meant that the door's top half could remain open, while its bottom half remained closed. A rather handy feature, which provided the Marshal with a degree of privacy and, at the same time, allowed him to keep an eye on things happening in the Inn-more specifically, the Inn's barroom.

As already noted, there was a standard, bearing an American flag, positioned directly behind that open door. Resting beside it, on the floor in front of the wall map, was the largest and so most conspicuous piece of furniture in the entire office-the Marshal's dark, deeply-polished, mahogany desk.

Resting on the top of that desk, were the following items: one still-lit reading lamp; two wire-mesh trays piled high with paperwork; one small, round, reddish-orange, metal canister which, judging by the tell-tale tobacco odors in the room, must contain cigars; one pen; one inkwell; one open, and half-empty box of .45 caliber cartridges; one completely out of place looking small, white bird (A plaster pigeon by the looks of it.) which Jarrod judged, by its size and composition, to be a paperweight...of some odd sort; and another out of place looking object-a towel-covered bowl...containing who knew what!

Behind the desk, a tall-backed, leather-covered, padded armchair was positioned so that, when the Marshal sat in it, his back would be to the wall. Judging by the spring mechanisms beneath its seat, and the wheeled coasters beneath its base, the thing swiveled, rocked and rolled.

On the floor beside the desk, was a tall, wooden wastebasket.

In the corner, behind the wastebasket, were more filing cabinets.

Two of the little alcove's corners were also filled with filing cabinets.

Six panes of glass, each frosted and ornately decorated around the edges with lots of frilly scroll work, filled most of the wall space between the filing cabinets and the gun rack. 'Federal Marshal's Office' had been painted across the bottom of the top two panes, and was barely visible behind the partially rolled-down, bright-orange blind.

The physician finally concluded his inspection, and then quickly concluded the following, as well: first, concerning the 'legend' himself-the lawman must have a mutinous streak in him somewhere. While it appeared that he preferred practical over pretty, it also appeared that he had an eye for art. A pretty good eye for some pretty great art! He also seemed to be very well read and equally well organized. Jim Crown must also have plenty of confidence-in both himself and his abilities. Because he didn't need to rely on pictures of his past accomplishments for proof of his own worth; and second-concerning the 'legend's' lair. Jarrod had found the whole room to be just like that sunny bench in front of the window-a warm and inviting place.

Yes, sir! The Marshal's entire office had a real comfortable feel to it.

Speaking of the Marshal...

Doc' Crown finally came out of the little alcove.

Doc' Ellis directed his full attention toward the 'legend' and then waited, with growing impatience, for him to speak.

It had taken Jarrod a little under thirty seconds to complete his little look. So that now left only a little over thirty seconds for their little talk.

But the Marshal remained silent.

As the lawman stepped wordlessly past him, the doctor could clearly see what he had been up to in the alcove.

The 'legend' had apparently been rounding out his wardrobe and rifling through his files, for he was carrying a black tie and vest in his left hand, and some folders full of important-looking papers in his right. The folders were tossed onto his desk. The clothing was draped over the back of his chair, and the door between the Inn and his office was closed.

Doc' Ellis watched, with growing annoyance and even greater impatience, as Doc' Crown silently backtracked over to the center of his office and then stooped stiffly down to defuse the 'Texas time bomb' that was still sitting there, asleep in his chair-and loaded for bear!

Jarrod continued watching as the Marshal reached out, very slowly, with both hands and, very carefully, got a very firm grip on the loaded gun that was lying across the snoring louder than ever man's lap. Then, even more carefully, he began pulling...slowly and steadily.

The next thing Jarrod knew, the lawman was straightening carefully back up with the gun in his hands.

The 'legend' had managed, somehow, to gently ease the weapon away from the Senator-without awakening him!

"Can't you even stand still for thirty seconds?" the annoyed doctor wondered, as the Marshal started heading off again-in the direction of his gun rack, this time.

"If yah don't stop movin', yah don' have ta git started again!" Crown replied rather matter-of-factly. Then, just as he started to return the still-loaded shotgun to its rightful place in his half-empty rack, the Marshal did indeed STOP moving-and breathing.

Jarrod stiffened as his patient suddenly gasped in pain and then froze-right in mid-reach. "Before you do any more damage to that shoulder," the doctor warned, his words filled with bitter sarcasm, "let's get that right arm of yours in a sling! Where it belongs!" he added, very deliberately.

His pained patient recovered quickly and proceeded to replace the weapon left-handedly. "There's nothin' wrong with my arm," Crown calmly corrected and started to cross back over to his desk, "or with any a' the rest a' me, either, for that matter."

"That's your medication talking, Doc'!" the physician stated, stepping in front of his patient and blocking his path. "I'm sure you'll change your tune once the morphine wears off."

Crown ground to a halt and glared at the sudden obstruction. "An' maybe you'll change yours," he reasoned, remaining incredibly calm, "when I tell you that it already has."

Jarrod stared silently back at his patient, first in utter disbelief...then in complete confusion.

"Yes, sir! I feel jes' fine!" Doc' Crown continued. "In fact, as far as you, or anyone else, are concerned, I've never felt better! You're lookin' at the very picture of health here, Doctor. An' anyone makin' any comments to the contrary is gonna be bound an' gagged an' tossed into one of those empty cells back there-for thirty days!" he added, equally deliberately. "Is that understood?"

There was a long silence as Jarrod thought the 'legend's' no uncertain terms over very carefully. "Whatever you say, Doc'!" he finally replied, the bitter sarcasm returning to his voice. "But why all the play-acting? What do you hope to prove? Besides that you have an incredibly high threshold for pain, that is!" he added, a bit angrily.

Doc' just stood there for a few moments, silently debating whether or not he should answer the good doctor's good questions. There wasn't really the time. But then, as his doctor, maybe the kid deserved some answers? "You ever played any cards?"

"Some," the kid conceded, looking even more curious and confused. "Why?"

"You familiar with the game of poker?"

"I guess you could say I've played my share," Jarrod patiently replied. "Yes."

"Then you know the importance of bluffin'!" the 'legend' stated and started side-stepping his questioner.

But the kid still wasn't satisfied. "Yeah, well," he continued, latching onto the lawman's left arm and pulling him to a stop again, "according to your Mr. MacGregor, the deck is stacked against you! The way the odds are now, you can't possibly win!"

The Marshal flinched as the kid's fingers dug into his sore left arm. His muscles were reminding him that a very long, sharp needle had just recently been jabbed into them. "Be that as it may," the lawman stated rather coolly, his jaw muscles tightening and his eyes narrowing into angry slits. He glared down at the hand that was gripping his arm and was rewarded as his glare caused that hand to release its grip. "A man has ta play the hand he's dealt!" Crown added, calmly completing his comment.

But the kid remained unconvinced. "But why?" he demanded, displaying some anger of his own. "Why don't you just declare a misdeal...and fold?"

"I can't afford ta fold!" the 'legend' informed him, his voice rising in volume again. "The...stakes are...too high," he finished, rather solemnly.

Jarrod exhaled a long sigh of frustration. "'re just going to ante up and pray you can bluff well enough to pull out a win here. Is that it?"

"Win, lose or draw," the 'legend' reminded him, "a man has to play the hand he's dealt!"

Jarrod thought the Marshal's somber reminder over for a few seconds and then slowly arched one eyebrow. "Maybe so!" he said, reaching for his right coat pocket. "But, then again, a man could have an ace or two up his sleeve..." he hinted, pulling out the black, leather case containing his hypodermic syringe-and the needle.

Doc' Crown arched both of his brows. Then his dark eyes narrowed, once again, into very angry slits. "I got enuff problems right now, without havin' some cocky, 'kid' doctor from back East, sneakin' around here, pokin' me with his powerful, pain killin' sleepin' potions! There's a mad dog lose out there! An', right now, I'm the only one standin' between him-an' the people a' this town! An' that's why it's real important for me ta stay standin'! So I'll make you a little deal here," Doc' drew his pistol out and pointed it up at the ceiling in front of the young physician's face. "You don't shoot me with that thing..." he motioned to the hypo' in the 'kid's' hands, "' I won't shoot you with this thing!" he added, motioning to the gun in his own hand. "Dea-eal?" the lawman hopefully inquired, giving the 'kid' a look as cold as the glistening steel of his gun's incredibly long barrel.

Jarrod contemplated that barrel and the 'legend's' little proposal over for a few discomforting seconds. "Dea-eal," he begrudgingly replied. But then the cocky, 'kid' doctor from back East quickly cocked one eyebrow again. "Oh, Doc'? I, uh...think you should know. Last night, before I went to bed, I, uh...took all the bullets out of your gun," he finished, looking and sounding rather pleased with himself.

"I know!" Doc' replied, without so much as batting an eye. "An' I think you should know, that I put 'em all back-first thing this mornin'...'Kid'!"

"I'm not a ki-id!" the young doctor declared, suddenly looking and sounding tremendously displeased.

The man who was not a doctor suppressed a smile and then replaced his .45 so he could have his right hand free to seal a third, and final, deal. "I tell yah what. You don't call me Doc'' I won' call you 'Kid'..."

Jarrod smiled and reached for the hand being offered him. "Deal!...Marshal." Not surprisingly, it turned out to be the firmest, most confident handshake the young doctor had ever experienced.

"Fine!" the Marshal exclaimed, matching his doctor's smile, and sudden enthusiasm. "Welcome ta Cimarron, Jarrod Michael Ellis!" he declared, sounding very sincere, and even somewhat relieved. He released his vise-like grip and strolled over to his desk. "These are the keys to your place," he announced, sliding the top drawer open and pulling out a key ring full of keys. "I'll have Dulcey take you over there. I'm sure she'll be glad ta help you get settled in," he added, tossing the doctor the keys-with his left hand.

"Fine!" the young man exclaimed, looking and sounding positively delighted by the very idea.

The Marshal suppressed another smile. "Good! Then do me a favor on your way out, Doctor, an' tell Francis it's time for his full report."

"Bu-ut...aren't you even going to check to make sure that I have all the proper credentials, etc., etc.?" Jarrod inquired, looking a bit confused and sounding more than a little disappointed.

The Marshal looked a bit confused himself and then somewhat amused. "I don' think that's really necessary, do you? I mean, I wouldn't be standin' here right now, if you weren't a doctor-an' a darn good one, at that! But...if it'll make you feel any better. Come back here in about a half hour with yore diploma or degree-or whatever it is that constitutes the 'proper credentials' etc., etc.. An' I promise I'll have a look."

"But-" the doctor began again.

"-The order a' business around here is: full reports first; job interviews later. Ask Francis ta bring along some hot water, will you."

Jarrod sighed in surrender, then reluctantly nodded and turned to go.

Crown glanced down at the alabaster dove and then up at the back of his young doctor. "Oh, an', Do-oc'?"

Jarrod stopped and glanced back over his shoulder.

"Thanks!" the lawman told him. "I appreciate everything you never did for me las' night," he added, with a slight smile.

The young doctor returned his smile and gave the 'legend' a wink, and another nod, before finally leaving the office.

Crown extinguished his desk lamp and then picked up his new paperweight to closely examine it for any signs of an inscription.

Dulcey's dove was definitely a pigeon, all right. Doves' tail feathers are long and tapered. This impostor's tail feathers were fan-shaped and short. The bird had a stick stuck in its beak in such a fashion that it looked like it was smoking a cigarette. (An alabaster olive branch, no doubt.) While its alabaster feet were both solidly embedded in an alabaster base, its wings were spread-frozen in flight.

Since there were plenty of hand-carved feathers, but still no words visible, the Marshal turned the thing upside down.

The lawman stared thoughtfully down at the bottom of the base, and his slight smile slowly broadened.

Granted, what he had there in his hands would probably never be considered a priceless work of art. Still, he would never part with it! No! Not for all the money in the world!

Crown set his gift back down on the desk and then snatched up a handful of cartridges, with which he began to load his empty gun.

Yes, the legendary lawman, who couldn't lie worth a darn, was very adept at bluffing!

It wasn't until his pistol had cleared its holster, and he discerned a noticeable difference in the weapon's weight, that he realized his bullets were missing.

After a while, you sort a' develop a 'feel' for such things.

Jarrod stopped in the open doorway to Dulcey's kitchen, and stared disbelievingly at the back of the girl wrapped in Francis' arms.

Actually, it would have been more accurate to say that Francis' was wrapped in the girl's arms.

Either way, the sight was upsetting. For Jarrod had hopes of finding himself in that particular position some day.

"Oh-Oh, thank you, Francis!" Dulcey was telling her dear friend.

Francis pulled back and peered sheepishly out from behind the shock of brown hair that perpetually hung over, and often times in, his eyes. " like 'em?" he hopefully inquired. "I didn't have time ta wrap 'em up all fancy for you," he apologized.

"The scarves are lovely!" Dulcey declared, whipping the three layers of colorful silk from around her neck and waving them in her thoughtful friend's rather bashful face. "And the perfume is positively divine!" she continued, giving her bare right wrist a slight whiff, and the gift giver a grateful smile. "Even without fancy wrappings. You know, you really do have impeccable taste...for a ma-an," she teased, and finally succeeded in coaxing a grin in return.

Jarrod heaved a silent sigh of relief and finally stepped into the kitchen.

As the doctor entered the room, his nose could detect the delicate fragrance of lavender, mixed in with the already sweet smell of wood smoke.

At the sound of someone approaching, the two dearest of friends stiffened and turned in his direction.

" seemed to have survived your little 'talk', all right. So, now, how about some breakfast?" Dulcey invited.

Jarrod reluctantly tore his gaze away from the grinning girl. "His Majesty will see you now," he informed the grinning young reporter. "Oh...and you're supposed to bring some hot water in with you when you go," he dutifully added.

Francis snatched up a towel, with which he latched onto the handle of one of the two steaming kettles on the stove. "I don't know what this is for," he glumly stated. "I figured I was in enuff hot water, already!" he lightly quipped.

The three young folks glanced at each other and grinned.

But then Francis' grin gradually gave way to a nervous smile...and his smile to a look of mild anxiety. He stared distastefully down at the hot water in his hands for a few seconds and then quickly took his leave.

Jarrod stared silently off into space for a few more seconds before commenting further. "Your living legend in there is-"

"-Positively infuriating!" Dulcey interrupted. "Incredibly annoying. Unbelievably aggravating. And absolutely impossible!" she eagerly volunteered.

"Yea-eah! That, too!" the physician conceded, directing his full attention back to the on-target female, in time to catch her very lovely, and rather wry, smile. "They're all alike, you know," Jarrod calmly observed.

The girl set her gifts down and began preparing another plate of the not your usual assortment of breakfast foods. "Men, in general, you mean?" she innocently inquired.

Jarrod flashed the female an annoyed glare and stepped up to the stove. "I mean 'living legends'. 'Living legends' are all alike."

Dulcey looked extremely skeptical. "Indeed!"

Jarrod shot the skeptic another annoyed glare and then snatched up the cup that was resting on the table behind him. "Indeed indeed! I ought to know. I just spent the past four years working with one in Paris. Believe me, Louis Pasteur is the spitting image of your Jim Crown. Pompous! Pampered! Overbearing! Egotistical! Domineering! Dictatori-"

"-Indeed!" Dulcey repeated, looking and sounding even more skeptical. "Well, your 'Louis Pasteur' doesn't sound anything like our 'Jim Crown'! And, once you get to know Jim a little better, you're going to see just how wrong you are about him! I'm sure you'll find that he's one of a kind, our Marshal Crown. And I wouldn't drink that, if I were you," Dulcey added, seeing that the opinionated young medical practitioner had poured himself a cup of coffee and was in the process of raising it to his lips.

Jarrod shot the girl a questioning glance and then stared down at the cup in his hand in confusion.

"You see," Dulcey obligingly continued, "Jim made the coffee this morning. And I'm afraid the Marshal's coffee is as much of a 'legend' around these parts as he is. It has the rather dubious distinction of being the strongest coffee in the entire Strip! Which means, it doesn't become drinkable until its been diluted by, at least, three to one," the girl finished explaining and held out her hand.

Jarrod passed his cup to her and then watched as Dulcey poured the coffee back into the pot and then proceeded to perform the proper dilution to it. The doctor studied the pretty, young lady for a few more seconds and then stared around him at the amazing transformation that had taken place in her kitchen. "That sedative was supposed to guarantee you'd get some rest!" he muttered, sounding dejected.

"I did! It worked wonderfully! I slept soundly-up until about twenty minutes ago. When I awoke, feeling all rested and refreshed and raring to go! Thanks to you!" Dulcey added, giving the sedative dispenser a grateful smile.

Jarrod looked even more confused and then somewhat amused. "Wait. Don't tell me," he sarcastically stated. "A bunch of little elves came in and did all this while you slept. Right?"

"Actually, it was just one, fairly large, very thoughtful elf. Who does a very good job of getting rid of messes. But a lousy job of making coffee!" she finished lightly and passed the surgeon back his refilled cup of the Marshal's diluted, and so now quite drinkable, brew.

A strange look suddenly came over Jarrod as the girl's words, 'Well, it has to be better for him than chopping wood!' finally took on some meaning. "How on earth-?" he began, but then stopped and stared thoughtfully down into his diluted coffee. 'It must have been a bad batch...' he silently reasoned, in reference to his 'morphine'. For, instead of being out cold, his patient had been up cleaning kitchens half the night! "I don't get it..." the young doctor muttered aloud, and looked even more dejected.

"Enjoy your breakfast! If you'd like anything more, I should be back in just a few minu-"

"-Wait!" Jarrod exclaimed and looked up to find Dulcey heading out the back door, with her shawl draped about her shoulders and a large wooden bowl in her hands.

"Can't!" the girl called back to him. "I'm afraid I'm already dreadfully late, as it is!"

The thought of someone, other than himself, sharing in the lovely young lady's company cancelled out any chance he may have had for an enjoyable breakfast. So the doctor set his cup down on the counter and flew out the door after her.

"Hope you don't mind my tagging along!" he breathlessly announced, as he, at last, caught up with, and then tried to keep up with, the rapidly moving girl. "There's just nothing like a brisk walk before breakfast! Especially when it's with a beautiful girl!" he blurted out rather boldly. But then looked more dejected than ever, as the briskly walking beautiful girl just kept right on going and never even broke her stride.

Dulcey managed a thoughtful, 'Indeed!' and then chanced a sideways glance in the young doctor's direction. It deeply disturbed her to see the young man looking so deeply dejected. But she seemed to be caught in a dilemma.

She needed to respond in a way that would neither encourage nor discourage the young doctor's attentions.

Because, at the moment, all of her attention needed to remain focused on keeping the dear friends she already had.

Her older brother had just come incredibly close to being killed! And, according to MacGregor, the Marshal was apparently still in very grave danger!

Of course, Dulcey had no way of knowing for sure, but she was willing to bet, that those 'dozen or so other rifles out there' all belonged to one positively loathsome man by the name of Roger Mareck.

"I don't mind one bit!" she finally answered. "But I'm afraid you'll find me poor company this morning. It's just that I'm still terribly worried about Jim."

Jarrod looked relieved. Then, seeing where the two of them had the chance to share some common ground, he jumped on it. "I know what you mean. I'm a little worried about him, myself."

His little 'consolation' had alarming results.

Dulcey stopped, dead in her tracks, and then stood there, looking extremely alarmed. "Why-y? Tell me! What's wrong? What is it? Has he started bleeding again?"

The girl had stopped so suddenly that Jarrod found he had to back-track a ways before he could address her. "No-o! Goodness no! The Marshal's fine...jes' fi-ine! If you don't believe me, jes' ask him!" he sarcastically added.

The girl's alarm gave way to confusion.

Jarrod stared dreamily into those soft, blue eyes of hers for quite a long quiet while before he finally continued speaking. "I don't know if it's the medication I gave him or what. But your living legend doesn't seem to be thinking too clearly this morning. Do you know, that he actually believes that all he has to do to make everything all right-is to just pretend that everything's all right? Well, everything is not 'all right'! In fact, it's far from it! Why he's-" the doctor paused, as visions of jail cells suddenly came to mind, "hopelessly out-numbered! And, even if he wasn't hopelessly out-numbered, he's certainly in no condition right now to try out-gunning anyone!"

Dulcey thought her dearest of friend's doctor's comments over carefully, before commenting. "Yes. Well, you don't have to worry about that. Because I'm sure he has no intentions of out-gunning anyone. Out-smarting them, is more Jim's style." With that, the girl set off down the boardwalk at her unusually brisk pace, once again.

So that, once again, Jarrod had to just about jog to keep up with her. "I hope whoever it is you're in such a hurry to meet this morning, doesn't object to my tagging along like this."

Dulcey suppressed another wry smile. "I shouldn't think he'd mind at all!" she teased right back. "As long as you don't try to stick your face in his bowl." Then she stepped down from the sidewalk and started heading off across the open yard, in the direction of Lundquist's Livery.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Nineteen

Since Crown couldn't bend over far enough to use his mirror-or raise his right arm up to the level of his face-his willing young deputy became his unwilling young barber.

So it was, that Francis ended up giving his boss a close shave-along with his full report. "You wanna hear it from the beginning? Or shall I skip right ta Washington?"

The Marshal sat stiffly up in his chair with his feet propped up on his desk and his one-day's growth of beard buried beneath a thick layer of foamy white lather. "The beginnin' will be fine," Crown answered, staring nervously up at the glistening blue blade of the straight-edged razor in his young friend's trembling hand.

"Okay. Then, let yore head drop back and close your eyes," the reporter turned barber requested.

Instead, the lawman's eyes widened and he sat up even more stiffly.

"Look," Francis calmly continued, "I can't do it with you watchin' me! You're making me too nervous! So, if you really expect me to go through with this, you're gonna have ta close yore eyes," he impatiently repeated, and proceeded to push his rebellious boss carefully back down in his chair.

Somehow, the Marshal managed to crack a smile through all that shaving cream.

"That's better," Francis said, as the lawman settled uneasily back down in his seat, and his head obediently dropped back-and his eyelids obligingly dropped down. "Now, hold still. An' try ta relax!" he urged, as an afterthought.

"I will if you will..." the Marshal muttered, cracking yet another smile.

Francis grinned and then took his boss up on his challenge, before beginning his rather tricky task. "Well, like I said las' night...As things turned out, you were absolutely right about everything! Including about Mareck havin' me followed. An', just like you predicted, the guy stopped tailin' me the moment I boarded that train for Boston-instead of Washington.

Once I got ta Boston, I placed that ad you gave me in all the major papers.

Then I went to that meeting with Mr. Hanley. That's when I found out what he'd done. When I asked him why he had done it, he said he'd heard the Outlet was gonna be openin' soon. An', like everybody else, he wanted ta cash in on all the free publicity that was bound to be stirred up. He said he jes' naturally assumed I'd approve of the idea, an' that he wanted ta surprise me. He figured I'd be real pleased to see that my articles had been made into a book." Francis wiped the blade of the razor in his right hand clean, on the towel draped over the back of his boss' chair.

Crown had everything he could do to keep his eyes and his mouth shut.

His barber seemed to sense that fact and quickly changed the subject. "Oh, an' you were right about Mareck's money, too. I talked ta several different bankers an' they all said exactly the same thing. Roger Mareck receives his financial backing from an East Coast business cartel, 'Goldman-Hunt-Reimer an' Associates'.

I did some more checkin' an' found out that Felix Reimer, an' several of the associates, were located right there, in Boston. So I contacted Mr. Reimer. Of course, he denied any knowledge of Mareck's illegal activities. He claimed he never even knew Mareck, personally. He said that the man had been hired, sight unseen, solely on the merits of his reputation. It seems their firm was looking for some new ways to diversify an' double its investments. An' they heard that Roger Mareck had a knack for turnin' low risk real estate ventures into highly profitable returns. I sort a' got the impression that, as long as their stockholders were happy, nobody really cared what 'methods' Mareck might 'venture' ta use," Francis bitterly added. He paused again to wipe the razor's blade off on the towel. "Anyways, the moment they heard there was gonna be a Justice Department investigation into the whole affair, Goldman-Hunt-Reimer an' Associates disassociated themselves from 'Mister' Roger Mareck, an'-immediately-withdrew all their financial support of the man. Mr. Reimer called it: 'Cutting their losses'.

After that, I spoke ta my lawyer-again-an' he told me that the Court had granted my injunction. So I handed Mr. Hanley the 'writ' an' took off for Washington," Francis finished, rather quickly.

His boss' eyes would've snapped open, if he hadn't placed his left hand over them. Crown would've sat up in his seat, if he hadn't pushed his head back. And the lawman surely would've said something, if he hadn't held the razor to his throat.

The Marshal took the 'hints' and let the matter slide-for the moment, at least.

"Any questions on Boston?" the razor-toting young ex-reporter for the Boston Globe inquired. "If not, we kin move on ta Washing-" he stopped speaking, as the lawman suddenly latched onto his right wrist and then held the hand with the razor in it away from his throat, "-ton..." he stubbornly finished.

"How'd you ever manage ta get all a' that accomplished in jes' one day?" Crown wondered, in absolute amazement.

"Yah know those new-fangled communication devices you been readin' about in the papers? Well, Mr. Hanley had one of 'em installed in his office, an' he let me use it. I tell yah, Jim-the 'telephone' is the greatest invention since the telegraph! I was able ta talk ta people who were scattered all over the city-without ever once leaving the newspaper build-"

"-What about Doctor Jarrod Michael Ellis?" Crown interrupted, again, and finally released the reporter's wrist. "Where, exactly, does he fit in?"

"He doesn't. 'Exactly'. Yah see, he showed up later on that evenin'...on the train down-somewheres between Boston an' Washington," he added and uncovered the lawman's eyes.

But his boss apparently did not see. For his closed eyes remained scrunched up in confusion.

So Francis went a bit further with his explanation. "We'd run into each other earlier-back at the train station, in Boston. I had just bought this incredible new camera. Wait 'til yah see it, Jim! It's one a' those new Kodak's! Remember? I showed yah the advertisement in my photo journal. I tell yah, this camera is incredible! It completely revolutionizes photography! The Kodak is, without a doubt, Mr. Eastman's greatest invention-since his dry-coated glass plate! I mean, picture this: no more chemicals, no more flash powder! An', instead of heavy tintypes or fragile glass plates, the 'Kodak' uses a photo-sensitive coated roll a' paper! Would you believe, you kin fit a hundred pictures on a single roll a' this new, paper film? An' talk about light-weight! You kin carry this camera around all day! An' it's small, too! I bet it's only about one-sixth the size a' my old camera! Why, it practic'ly fits in the palm a' yore hand! So, yah kin take it practic'ly everywhe-"

"-Francis..." his fascinated, but even more anxious to get back to business, boss finally interrupted.

The enthusiastic young photographer looked confused, but then gradually realized how completely carried away he'd gotten from both his full report-and his close shave. "Oh...yea-eah," he mumbled, looking and sounding a tad bit embarrassed, and quickly returned to both of his tasks. "Like I was sayin'. We were jes' sittin' around the depot, waitin' for our trains. An', well, we got ta talkin'. An' I told 'im about my new camera. An' he told me about this new-fangled' piece a' medical equipment he'd jes' brought back from France. I think he called it a 'micro-scope'. Anyways, he claims that you kin see things with this 'micro-scope' device that no one has ever seen before! Things normally not visible to the human eye-" he caught himself, this time. Before he could get too carried away. "Anyways, when I discovered that I was talkin' to a doctor, I figured it couldn't hurt ta show 'im yore ad. So I pointed it out to him in the paper, an' then gave 'im my best Cimarron sales pitch.

But, it turned out that he was on his way ta New York. Seems there was a position already waiting for him, at one a' the largest an' most prestigious hospitals in the entire city.

Right about then, they announced that his train was ready ta pull out. So we said our good-byes an' parted company.

The next thing I know, he's sittin' in the seat next ta mine, an' he's on his way ta Washington with me! He said he'd thought yore ad over. An', the more he thought about it, the more he realized that this was exactly the position he'd been lookin' for-all along! So he traded in his ticket, an' transferred his luggage, an'-voila`! Here he is!" A final stroke of the razor, and Francis' job as a barber was completed. And without so much as even the slightest nick! "An' there you are!" he added, finishing both his sentence and his shaving-with a bit of a flair.

The Marshal's eyes slowly opened and he shot his flamboyant young friend a strange stare. "Thanks!" he said. "I think..." he added, suppressing a slight smile. Crown slowly lowered his feet to the floor and then sat carefully-and stiffly-back up in his seat. He used the towel that had been draped about his neck to pat the rest of his face dry. Then he stared down at the now damp cloth in disbelief. Left-over shaving cream was all that it contained! There were no traces of any blood on it-anywheres! Somehow, he'd just managed to survive another close shave. He glanced back up at his barber, looking duly impressed.

"You're welcome!" Francis smugly acknowledged, and handed his now duly impressed looking boss back his razor. "I think..." he added, suppressing a smile of his own.

The Marshal gave his amusing, and multi-talented, young friend a wry grin and a grateful nod.

The smug smile Francis had been suppressing escaped from him and he bent his head forwards in an elaborate bow.

Crown tossed the towel, and the razor, down on his desk, with an amused gasp, and then flipped open the top folder that was sitting there in front of him.

An official looking form appeared.

As it did so, the Marshal's amused look vanished.

Francis watched, as his friend's freshly-shaved face suddenly filled with a look of unbearable sadness. The deputy stared down at the document on the desk and then at his friend in complete confusion.

It was just a simple 'Application To File For A Homestead' form.

They'd both seen dozens of them before.

So then, why did this particular piece of paper seem to be having such an adverse affect on his boss?

Francis bent his head forwards again and then cocked it so that he could take a closer look at the culprit in question. The deputy stared down at the application in amazement.

All of the form's blank spaces were filled in-with the Marshal's handwriting!

An even closer inspection of the first few lines revealed the answer to his question. His boss had filed the application in behalf of...John Two Rivers.

Actually, since Indians couldn't file an application for a homestead, the lawman had listed the Comanche's white wife, Beth, as the form's official applicant.

And not all of the form's spaces were filled in. One was still blank.

"So...when's the big date?" Crown bitterly inquired, and began reaching for his pen.

Francis stiffened as his friend suddenly stiffened, and then gasped in pain.

His hurting boss sat there, holding his breath and gritting his teeth...waiting for the agonizing pain in his right side and shoulder to subside.

Seeing as how the Marshal's right arm remained frozen, right in mid-reach, Francis dutifully picked up the pen...dipped it into the inkwell...and then handed it to his friend-along with a broad smile of approval. "September 16th," he replied, his soft-spoken voice reflecting the admiration he had for his boss.

The lawman gave his young deputy an appreciative smile, and then filled the appropriate space in with the appropriate date-September 16, 1893. The Marshal had made a duplicate of the document and he carefully filled the date in on it, as well.

There! Now the property John was buried on was legally Beth's. John would never have to leave his land now...and Beth would never have to leave her husband.

Jim Crown 'gasped' again, this time, in complete exasperation.

If only he had had that missing bit of information six days sooner...his friend might still be alive! The exasperated lawman 'gasped' a third time, in frustration. If he was gonna do himself, or anyone else, any good, he needed to keep all of his thoughts focused on the present-and the clear and immediate dangers which it contained. So he took a slip of paper and a pencil from the center drawer of his desk and began making a list-a list of probable ways to eliminate those clear and present dangers.

Francis suddenly felt very alone.

Oh, the Marshal's body was still there in the room, all right. But the Marshal's mind now seemed miles away.

Though the deputy doubted seriously that he could reach him, he attempted to draw the lawman's attention back to his not quite full 'full report'. "I got ta meet yore boss..."

No reaction.

"Got ta sit right across from 'im in the Oval Office, while he read yore report..."

Still no reaction.

"Even got ta shake his hand-twice!"

"That's nice..." the still inattentive Marshal muttered and kept right on writing away.

"Don't yah wanna hear how things went in Washington?" the disappointed deputy finally wondered, following another long bout of silence.

"I know how things went in Washington," Crown bitterly replied, and didn't even bother to look up from his growing list. "My reinforcements never arrived. Remember?"

"Yeah. An' I can't understand that, either. I gave Mr. Phillips an' Mr. Gerard an' Mr. Thompkins each a copy a' yore report-jes' like you said. An' all three of 'em promised they'd send you some help-right away! I was assured that help would be here-six days ago, already!"

"I was sure it'd arrive by then, too-or I would a' never took off after Tanner," the Marshal finished his sentence-and his list-at the same time. Then he took one of the telegrams from one of the two stacks of telegrams on his desk and stared solemnly down at it. "We're bein' railroaded here, Francis. An' the engineer comes from way up the line!" he solemnly announced, and finally looked up. "So...Did yah get ta take his picture? Or was yore new camera too revolutionary for 'im?" he teased, and tossed the telegram back onto his desk. "My 'boss'. Remember?" the lawman explained, seeing that the young reporter looked completely perplexed. "I got ta meet Mr. Arthur, once. In fact, he swore me in. An' I met Mr. Cleveland, too. It was durin' his first term. When I got...'called' ta Washington," the Marshal gave the sleeping Senator an annoyed glare, "for this assignment. Mr. Cleveland jes' swore at me. Never did get ta meet Mr. Harrison, though. Never even seen so much as a picture a' him. You did get one a' Mr. Cleveland, didn't you?"

"Four!" Francis excitedly replied, but then looked glum again. "Only, it may be a while before I kin show 'em to you. Yah see, I have ta take seventy-six more pictures, before I kin get those four developed."

"That's...revolutionary, all right!" Crown conceded, not sounding too sincere. He gave his photographer friend the list he'd just made, and the smile he'd been suppressing. "I kin wait. Besides, it ain't likely that a second term has changed his looks any."

Francis returned the smile, but kept the list. "I s'pose you want me ta get started on this right away..." he muttered, looking the lawman's very lo-ong list over.

"That's right. By the time the sun sets this evenin', I want everyone in the Strip ta know about the Outlet's openin'."

The Marshal's young deputy glanced up and stared at his daring boss in disbelief. "'s supposed ta be a secret. We're supposed ta keep it to ourselves."

"An' so we will!" Crown vowed. "We'll show Congress that we kin keep a secret, here in Cimarron, jes' as well as they kin-in Washington! An' we won't tell a single soul-outside a' the Strip," he added conditionally.

Everybody else seemed to know about it already, anyways.

Francis' look of disbelief gave way to a grin. He gave the list in his hands a second glance, and his grin gave way to a look of absolute horror.

The list's creator read the look. "You don't have ta put together a whole newspaper," he reassured the young reporter, accurately pinpointing the cause for his horrified expression. "Jes' give me a front page an' a headline: 'Outlet Openin' September 16th!'-or some such thing. As for the story...Well, I'll leave that up ta you." He flipped open another folder, grabbed a handful of papers and passed them on to his star reporter. "Here. You kin use my report. In fact, you kin print it word-for-word, if yah like."

Then again, maybe the Marshal wasn't so accurate, after all.

It wasn't what he wanted his deputy to do, so much as where he wanted him to do it, that Francis had found so horrifying. "Why should I go clear over ta Hardesty?" he demanded. "When we kin print the thing right here-in Cimarron?"

"It's too dangerous here. Mareck might get wind of it an' try ta stop the presses."

"How will he ever get wind of it? There'll only be the three of us that knows what's goin' on." The irate reporter glanced uncertainly at the sleeping Senator. "Four, at the most."

But his boss didn't look the least bit convinced.

So Francis decided it was time to change his tactics. "Look, we been together over five years now. An', during all that time as yore Deputy, I never once disobeyed yore orders! Well, not deliberately, anyways. But I ain't leavin' this time! I left here once, already-because you ordered me ta go! An' it was the worst eleven days a' my life! I'm not leavin' here again! Call it the reporter in me. But I simply cannot stand not knowin' what's goin' on!"

Crown considered his very determined young deputy's rebellious comments over carefully. The lawman was in no mood for a major confrontation, or even a minor one, for that matter. So he surrendered-unconditionally. "All right, Francis. Since you feel that strongly about it. You kin print it right here-in Cimarron. But you're gonna have ta keep both eyes open! An', if you should happen ta see any run-away trains bearin' down on you...We-ell, you jes' be sure an' step out a' the way!" he concluded, tacking on a condition or two, after all.

'Speakin' a' stayin' out a' the path of movin' trains...' Francis silently parroted. "And what are yore plans for the day?"

Crown could tell by the tone of his question that Francis had found out about his little run-in with Roger Mareck. Was there anybody in town who hadn't heard about it? "Because a' the lack a' reinforcements, on the law's side, there's been a major change a' plans. I could slap Mareck behind bars. But, since I don't have the man-power ta keep 'im there, I guess I'll jes' have ta settle for runnin' 'im out a' town-on a rail! So-o, after I examine Doctor Ellis' 'credentials'' register Beth's application over at the Land' make my usual mornin' rounds, I plan ta head on over ta the depot. Where I'm gonna-personally-see to it that Mareck's private car is moved back onto the track! Then I'm gonna arrange ta have it hooked onto the first train that comes through!"

Speaking of being railroaded...

Francis went from feeling rather relieved to feeling rather anxious again. "An' you figure Roger Mareck is jes' gonna climb aboard?"

"Why not!" the Marshal calmly replied. "After all, the man has no reason ta stay. He came here to acquire property. An' now, thanks ta you, he no longer has anything to acquire it with. He does have a very good reason ta leave, however. An' it goes by the name a' Clifford Ea-Earl Tanner."

Thanks to the lawman's calm, rational, reasonable remarks, Francis no longer felt so ill at ease about leaving his boss on his own for the day. "All I kin say is good riddance! An' I sure hope you're right..." he added, under his breath.

But Crown caught the comment and gave his concerned young deputy-and friend-a confident nod and a wink. "If he wants ta live, he's got ta leave! An', right about now, those attorney's a' his are probably advisin' him accordingly. It's either the steps a' that train, or the steps a' the gallows!" he confidently predicted. "Speakin' a' leavin'...You'd better get goin'! I'll bring you over somethin' ta eat-later on," he added and passed the young reporter the folder containing his own full report.

"Right, Jim!" his deputy dutifully acknowledged and turned to go.

Speaking of eating...

"Oh, an', by the way," Crown called after him, "you'd better call in the home guard. I imagine they mus' be in the mood for some home cookin', by now. Not ta mention sleep."

Francis halted and then stood there, looking both surprised and curious. He slowly turned his head back around.

His boss saw the looks and turned his gaze in the direction of his half-emptied gun rack.

Francis followed his gaze and then turned back again, to give the very astute lawman a grin and a nod.

"Be careful out there!" Crown advised, as his young friend finished fumbling with the key in his hands, and unlocked his office.

"I will if you will!" the still-grinning deputy called back over his shoulder, and then disappeared out the door.

The Marshal managed an amused gasp. Mistake! His grin gave way to a grimace and he 'gasped' again, this time, in pain.

The morphine had definitely worn off-most definitely!

The lawman was beginning to have mixed feelings about getting his feelings back.

As Francis exited his office in one direction, Jarrod entered it from another. "Hope I'm not late," he stated and handed the now fully recovered lawman his credentials, etc., etc.. "I was over in the Livery-with Dulcey," he explained, a bit breathlessly and began picking bits of hay and straw from his hair and clothing.

The Marshal's dark eyes widened and then sparkled with amusement.

Jarrod glanced up, read the look in the lawman's eyes and realized his words may be have been slightly misconstrued. "We were feeding your horse," he continued, expounding on his explanation. "Then, before I knew it, she had me feeding and watering a few dozen more! You see, the liveryman was nowhere around."

The more the young man tried to explain things, the harder it became for Crown to suppress his smile. "Why don't you jes'' have a seat," he finally suggested.

The flustered young physician sighed in relief and took a seat on that bench in front of the window. He was right! It was both warm and comfortable.

The Marshal, who was still finding it difficult to keep a serious expression on his face, carefully cleared his throat and then began looking the young man's papers over-as promised.

"So, how did you ever come to own a Saddlebred?" Jarrod inquired, just for something to say.

"If you're referrin' ta 'Lancer', I found 'im along the trail," the lawman replied, just to be polite.

"I wasn't expecting to see any Saddlebreds in these parts," Jarrod continued, following another long period of complete silence. "Come to think of it, they're pretty rare everywhere. The breed's only been around for about twenty years, you know."

"No-o...I didn' know," the Marshal politely replied, and never once lifted his eyes up from the papers he was examining.

"Is Lancer three or five gaited?"

"Probably. I've noticed he has a sort a' peculiar way a' goin'..."

There was another long, uncomfortable-at least, for Jarrod-silence.

At last the lawman set the doctor's documents down.

Jarrod watched and waited expectantly for him to begin his job interview.

The Marshal glanced up in the young doctor's direction, looking duly impressed.

No wonder the kid was so cocky! Not only had he completed medical school, but he had graduated at the top of his class! Why-y, the kid had enough 'degrees', 'diplomas', and 'certificates of academic achievement' to cover an entire wall! Francis was right. He'd found them a good one, all right. Maybe too good.

"Congratulations, Doctor! You certainly do have all the proper credentials, etc., etc.'. I am now more than fully satisfied that you are more than fully qualified to practice medicine. So the job's still yores," he announced, with a smile. The Marshal then watched, in confusion, as the young man's look of keen anticipation suddenly turned to one of extreme disappointment.

"There you go, again!" the doctor declared, sounding somewhat miffed.

The peace officer looked somewhat puzzled.

"How can you possibly conduct an interview, without asking questions?" Jarrod continued, sounding even more miffed.

The Marshal, who was becoming a bit miffed himself, gave the young man seated across the room from him an annoyed glare and slowly started getting to his feet. "All right. If questions mean that much to you, I suppose I kin come up with a few," he figured, announcing his decision to humor the kid. Crown finished the slow, painful process of standing and then stood there at his desk, using it for support. "Was last night the first night you ever spent behind bars?"

Jarrod stared disbelievingly back at his questioner for a few moments, before forcing a reply. "Last night was both the first and the last night," he vowed, getting a kink out of his back. "Your 'constabulary' may be clean, but it is definitely not comfortable."

The Marshal was forced to smile. "So...What'd yah learn about medicine, over there in Paris, that they couldn't a' taught you right here, in the States? Besides how ta say 'Stick out yore tongue' in French, that is..." the lawman teased.

This time, it was the young doctor's turn to smile. "European schools of medicine are far superior to those here, in America."

"You figure that makes you far superior?"

The job applicant considered the question and his questioner over carefully, before commenting. "In some areas...yes!"

The Marshal smiled again and then stepped stiffly out from behind his desk to stand, even more stiffly, behind his chair.

Jarrod watched, as the lawman carefully lifted his black, leather vest up from off the back of his chair and then waited, as he slowly began sliding the new garment on.

Well, the vest may not have been 'new', exactly. But it was definitely different. For its right front panel had no 'bullet holes' in it, nor any 'dried blood' on it.

The physician spotted the U.S. Marshal's badge, pinned high on its left front panel, and realized the lawman must have made the transfer earlier, in the little alcove.

"What are you doin' here?" Crown suddenly inquired, sounding extremely cautious.

Jarrod caught the tone of the lawman's latest inquiry and realized that his interview was rapidly turning into an interrogation. "I, uh...don't think I understand the question, Marshal."

"I think you do, Doctor," Crown calmly corrected and calmly flipped the collar up on his shirt.

"The advertisement said that Cimarron desperately needed a doctor," the doctor calmly replied,"and the fully-furnished home and well-equipped office sounded li-"

"-I know what the ad said," the lawman interrupted, and carefully looped his long, black tie about his neck. "I wrote it. I also know that you had a far superior position waiting for you back East. What I don't know, is what made you suddenly decide ta leave all that, ta come runnin' way out here-in the middle a' nowhere," he admitted, and finally finished forming the tie into a large, limp, loose bow.

"What makes yah think I came runnin'?" the young doctor demanded, sounding defensive.

The Marshal smiled at the young Easterner's attempt to duplicate his Texas drawl. "I've been a lawman for so long now, that I kin spot whether or not a man is on the run, the first moment I meet 'im," he calmly and correctly stated. "An', when I first met you, you had all the appearances a' bein' a man on the run," Crown calmly continued and calmly flipped his collar back down. "Don' worry, Doctor," he added, seeing the young man was becoming even more defensive. "You came ta the right place. Yah see, this whole town is 'on the run'. It seems everyone in Cimarron is either runnin' towards...or runnin' away-from somethin'." He studied the now less ill-at-ease looking young man carefully for a few moments, and then quickly rephrased his last question. "So, tell me, Doctor. Which direction are you headed in?"

Jarrod sat there in stunned silence for a few moments, admiring the Federal Marshal's fine, freshly-shaved, 'spit and polished' appearance-and insight.

The 'legend' looked like he was all set to go out and face the world.

But then, appearances could be deceiving.

Not so, in the young doctor's case, however.

The lawman was right on target with his initial assessment of him. "I don't know..." the physician thoughtfully muttered. "A little of both. I guess. You see, I came out here, hoping to find open spaces and open minds. All I want is to be left alone. To be able to practice my medicine in peace. I mean, I figured there had to be some place out here where people wouldn't care about me using new techniques. Or complain about me 'cookin' my instr-r-ruments!'," he angrily added.

The Marshal smiled at the young man's attempt to mimic MacGregor's brogue. But then he quickly turned solemn, and serious, again. "Soun's ta me like you're takin' things too personal, Doc. Fearin' the unknown...bein' afraid a' sudden changes. Well, that's jes' human nature. When people fight change, they ain't bein' malicious. They're jes' bein' human. Now, if you can't bring yourself ta deal with that...then maybe you should consider becomin' a vet."

Jarrod was stunned into silence, once again. Stunned by the accuracy, and annoyed by the callousness, of Doc' Crown's comments.

Or was he annoyed by the accuracy and stunned by the callousness?

Either way, Jarrod was too miffed-and too amazed-at the moment, to speak.

Seeing as how the kid already appeared to be preoccupied with his thoughts, Crown decided that 'now' might be a good time to share some more 'food for thought' with him. "One other thing, Doc'. If you want people ta trust you, you got ta give 'em some time. Trust ain't somethin' that develops overnight. The fully-furnished home an' well-equipped office become yores autamatic'ly. They go with the job. But trust? Well, that's somethin' you're gonna have ta earn-on yore own.

The folks here-abouts are basically good, open-minded people. You jes' give 'em half a chance, an' you'll see. You won't be disappointed." The Marshal stared down at the gift that the good, open-minded people of Cimarron had given him, and smiled to himself. He was speaking with the voice of experience. For he had experienced a hell of a lot these past five years!

Jarrod continued mulling things over for a few more miffed moments.

Then, a look of dawning understanding gradually came over the young doctor. As a student of medicine, the young man had kept all of his attention focused on human bodies.

While, as a student of human nature, the Marshal had been focusing his attention on human beings.

They were both 'experts', in their chosen areas.

The lawman didn't seem to resent him. On the contrary! Doc' Crown openly admired, and genuinely appreciated his 'medical' expertise.

So then, why should he resent the Marshal? Why should he find the lawman's uncanny ability, to read a person like they were an open book, so unbelievably aggravating?

Jim Crown was a lot like Louis Pasteur.

Jarrod had found the Marshal's French counterpart to be unbelievably aggravating, as well.

Still, no one had taught him more about 'medicine'.

Perhaps he could learn a little something from this American 'legend', as well-about 'people'.

After all, Jarrod already learned a little something from this living legend-about himself! "I'll, uh...try to keep that in mind," he promised, at long last, and flashed his instructor in human behavior a genuinely appreciative smile. "Francis tells me that you and Doctor Kilghren were good friends. I hope that we can become good friends, too."

The Marshal carefully collected the doctor's documents up from his desk and then crossed stiffly over to the window bench. "I'm sure we can!" he confidently stated, and returned the young man's smile-along with all of his very proper papers.

Jarrod's smile broadened. "So-o...What brings you to Cimarron, Marshal?"

The 'legend's' smile broadened as well. "Me-e? Why, I'm here because a certain silver-tongued Senator from San Antone conned me in ta comin' here!" he truthfully declared, and gave the no longer snoring legislator another annoyed glare.

The Senator's eyes suddenly popped open and he sat rather stiffly up in his chair. "Ah, now...Really, James. Conned has such an evil connotation to it. Don't yah think?"

But 'James' didn't comment. He just stepped stiffly over to his hat rack and carefully lifted his left hand up to retrieve his Stetson.

Sensing that his 'partner' was about to depart, and that he was about to be left behind, the statesman shot up out of his armchair/bed and then stepped in front of Jim-to block his path.

"You're right!" Crown finally conceded, as he finally came face-to-face with his 'old friend from back East'. "Lied is much better!" Then, with one, lightning-fast blow from his left fist, the Marshal proceeded to deck the silver-tongued Senator from San Antone.

The young doctor was so stunned by what he'd just witnessed, that it took him a while to react. He stared disbelievingly down at the decked legislator and then shifted his amazed gaze to the now hunched over, and obviously hurting, legend. Jarrod decided that his initial reaction had better be in the doubled-up lawman's direction. He tossed his papers down onto the bench and then crossed quickly over to his collapsed patient-to keep him from collapsing further.

But the Marshal waved him away.

So the doctor turned around, to lend the decked law man his assistance, instead. "Are you all right, Senator?" he anxiously inquired, dropping to one knee.

Dave nodded and then lifted his slightly shook head up off the floor, to give it a few more shakes. Next, he tried to slide his jaw from side-to-side. His jaw was sore. But it seemed to function okay. So he formed and audible answer. "Yeah, Doc'. I'm all right," he assured the deeply-worried looking young man. "But I ain't so sure about him," he solemnly added, and shot the still doubled-over decker a deeply worried look of his own.

Which Jim Crown did not see. For both of his eyes were still tightly shut.

Jarrod gave his grimacing, gasping, still collapsed patient another concerned glance as well. "There's nothing wrong with the Marshal," he announced, his words oozing with bitter sarcasm. "Why, can't you tell? He feels 'jes' fi-ine'!" The doctor finished his insincere statements and then offered to help his decked patient back up onto his feet.

But the Senator waved him away. Dave decided he'd better stay down. Because, if he were to get up, Jim would just hit him, again. And he didn't think his still doubled-up partner could withstand another blow.

The first sight 'James' saw, when his eyes finally did reopen, was that of his lyin' friend lyin' there on the floor-right in front of him.

The expression on Fisher's handsome, familiar face was a mixture of deep concern, extreme remorse-and devilish mischief.

No, sir! Dave hadn't changed a bit!

The Senator propped himself up on his elbows and then extended his left hand out to his partner, palm up and open, in the universal sign for friendship.

But the Marshal, who was still clutching his chest with both arms, completely ignored it. Crown wasn't feeling very 'friendly', at the moment. He still had five years worth of animosity bottled up inside of him, and it was gonna take more than a couple of minutes-and one, weak, left-handed blow-to get it all out of his system! "You lied ta me!" Jim shouted, when he finally recovered from the blow.

"I never did!" the silver-tongued Senator contested. "I jes' neglected ta tell you everything."

"The worst kind a' lie!" Crown bitterly declared, when he finally recovered from the shouting. "The half truth! 'A couple a' weeks', you said. 'A month at the most.' Do you have any idea what the past five years have been like around here?"

Dave noticed that his partner's voice was rising in volume again and that his dark eyes now flashed with anger. No, sir! He couldn't recall ever seeing his partner look any angrier. But, one of the many things that Dave Fisher liked about Jim Crown, was the man's remarkable sense of humor.

James always had a tendency to look on the lighter side of life. In the past, Jim's sense of humor had seen them through more than one tight spot.

Hopefully, he hadn't lost it.

The Senator stopped cringing and started to slide something out of his coat pocket. "Yes," he definitively declared. "As a matter of fact, I believe I do." There, in his right hand, was his own, personal copy of Francis' 'legendary' book: 'Taming The Territory'. Dave stared sheepishly up at the 'legend', who was now looking both furious and amused, and smiled, uncertainly.

The amused look would win out. Jim's sense of humor would get the best of him.

But, just to be on the safe side... "I, uh...suppose now is not a good time to ask you to sign this for me..." Dave realized-aloud, making one of the greatest understatements of the century. He gazed up at his partner, who was looking more furious and more amused than ever, with an almost child-like innocence-and chanced another, almost angelic smile.

Who knows?

Maybe it was Jim's sense of humor.

Or, maybe it was the sight of his incorrigible friend smiling innocently up at him?

It may even have been Katelyn's sermon on not seeking vengeance.

At any rate, and for whatever reason or reasons, Jim Crown pulled the cork on all that bottled up anger of his...and just let it evaporate. He never was any good at harboring animosity, anyways.

Dave watched, in joyous wonder, as the anger gradually diminished, and then completely disappeared, from his partner's eyes.

No, sir! Jim hadn't changed a bit!

A fact for which the decked lawmaker, repeatedly, thanked God!

Dave shot his friend a hopeful glance and then held his left hand out-again.

This time, the vertical lawman locked onto it. "All right," Jim Crown reluctantly conceded. "But I still owe you one!" he conditionally tacked on, and gave his sore right shoulder a quick glance.

Dave Fisher thought his partner's terms over carefully. He had been hoping for an unconditional surrender. "All right," he reluctantly agreed. "But only one," he stipulated, and gave his sore right jaw a quick rub.

Even one right, from a healthy Jim Crown, was one right too many.

Doctor Ellis exhaled an audible sigh of relief, as the Marshal carefully braced himself and then, even more carefully, began pulling his 'old friend from back East' back up onto his feet.

Surely this helpful gesture signified that the two men had reconciled their differences. That they had decided to come to terms with one another instead of to blows.

Then again...

Jarrod waited, expectantly, for another friendly sign of some sort to appear.

But the two 'old friends' just stood there, for a full sixty, silent seconds, with their left hands locked onto each other's wrists...and their gazes locked onto each others eyes.

Speaking of eyes...

The 'legend's' eyes suddenly scrunched up a might and his head assumed a slight angle. "What are you doin' here?" he demanded, sounding completely perplexed.

"You know how easily we politicians make, an' break, promises. So I decided to personally deliver this deliverance to you. Just in case the Justice Department failed to come through-which it did!"

Crown watched as the deliverer replaced his pocket book and then produced a document protected by a fancy, folded, brown leather case. "That better not be another one of those Presidential Directives you're so keen on!" he warned and whipped his hand back. "The last one you handed me, nearly got me killed! The thing turned out ta be totally worthless! Not even worth the price of the paper it was written on!"

Dave glanced rather nervously down at the document in his hand and then suddenly turned defensive. "But this gives the Army complete control of the Strip, and you-ou complete control of the Army."

The Marshal stared across at the Senator, looking tremendously disappointed, and then down at the document, looking totally disgusted. He tensed, as a horrifying thought suddenly occurred to him. "Oh. That's jes' great! That's jes' what Mareck an' his mob need! Presidential approval! With 'Martial Law' declared, Mareck could ride rough-shod all over me an' the Strip!"

It was the Senator's turn to appear completely perplexed. "I don't understa-"

"-The only troops left, in this part a' the Territory, are stationed at Fort Dawes," the Marshal interrupted, the anger returning to his voice. "Major Phillip Blakesley has complete control a' Fort Dawes. An' Mister Roger Mareck has complete control a' Major Blakesley."

The lawman's words slowly sank in, and took all the wind out of the Senator's sails. Dave gazed glumly down at the document that was supposed to have guaranteed his friend's deliverance. "I knew he'd bought himself a' I suspected he had someone high up in the Justice Department. But I never figured he'd ever gain control of the United States Army!"

"Yeah. Imagine that," the Marshal insincerely invited. "An' without a 'Presidential Directive', too. Then again," he continued, as something suddenly occurred to him, "whose picture do you suppose was on all those thousand dollar bills?" he bitterly inquired, and began side-stepping the now even more somber looking Senator.

Dave took two steps back, and one to the side, and successfully blocked Jim's path-again. "You got a gun I could borrow?"

To avoid a painful collision, Crown had to come to a complete and bone-jarringly abrupt halt, once again. He grimaced and gasped and then gazed up at his 'old friend from back East', in disbelief. "You bes' stick ta makin' laws," he solemnly suggested, "an' leave their enforcin' ta me!"

"Who said anything about enforcin' anything?" the silver-tongued Senator innocently inquired. "Yah see, I had ta leave my aide back in Washington, ta tie up some loose legal ends for me. An', well, Jordan ain't jes' my aide. Normally, he also assumes the role of my personal bodyguard. Oh, I got me one a' those little pea-shooters. An' it may be big enuff ta impress the folks back East. But out here, in order ta act as a real deterrent, a man's hardware has ta be more...visible. An' that's why I need ta borrow a bigger gun. Purely for protection, a' course. I promise I'll give it back. Jes' as soon as Jordan gits here..."

But Crown remained unconvinced. "The only one you need 'protection' from is yourself!"

Dave looked somewhat amused, but remained undaunted. "I could jes' go out an' buy me one," he threatened.

"An' I could jes' slap you behind bars," the Marshal countered, matching the Senator's threat with one of his own.

This time, Dave looked highly daunted, indeed! "You cain't jes' kidnap a United States Senator!"

"No," the United States Marshal calmly agreed. "But I could place one under 'protective custody'...if I had to," he warned, without so much as batting an eye.

His now totally-flustered friend's completely-exasperated gasp gradually gave way to a long sigh of surrender. "All right. So...what a' yah say we negotiate. You don't interfere with' I won't interfere with you."

"Unh-uh. No good," his partner informed him. "You're already interferin'-jes' by bein' here. No. What I want from you, is yore word that you won't do, or say, anything, while you're here, that might make Maggie a widow."

Dave pondered his partner's proposal over carefully. Either way, on either side of the bars, he wasn't going to be able to lift so much as a finger to help out his friend. At least, not while he was there-in Cimarron. He glanced down at the 'Presidential Directive' again. Maybe it wasn't totally worthless, after all. Maybe the Major didn't have as complete control over Fort Dawes as the Marshal thought. Dave stowed the documents safely out of sight and then focused all of his attention back on his friend. "You have my word," he vowed. "I promise that-while I'm here, in Cimarron-I won't do or say anything that might make Maggie a widow," he further vowed, repeating his partner's proposal almost word for word. "Now will you loan me a gun?"

Crown considered his friend's request over carefully. "You're bein' awful obligin'," he cautiously realized and strolled casually over to his corner filing cabinet. Jim pulled the cabinet's top drawer open and then proceeded to grant his follower's request. "There wouldn't be somethin' you're neglectin' ta tell me...Now, would there?" he prompted, sounding even more suspicious. The lawman handed his awful obligin friend a holstered gun-identical to the one that was strapped to his own right hip.

Dave gave his obligin' friend a grateful look, and was just about to open his mouth-when the office's front door suddenly flew open, and saved him from having to answer.

Speaking of the gun that was strapped to the Marshal's right hip...

At the first sound of someone's hand on the doorknob, Crown's gun had cleared its holster and its hammer had been thumbed back. By the time the knob turned, the lawman had turned towards the door. So that, when the portal finally swung open, the person it revealed found the gun's glistening barrel aimed directly at him.

Jarrod's jaw dropped and his breathing stopped.

The stocky, gray-haired man, who had froze in the open doorway, stared beyond the gun's barrel to the person responsible for pointing it at him. "Come on, Crown. You're not gonna shoot me just because I'm a little late," he lightly quipped.

The young doctor watched, as recognition and then relief filled the fast gun's face.

Wow! Was Doc' Crown ever fast! Why, the legend's draw had been nothing more than a blur!

"No, Charley. I'm not gonna shoot you," the Marshal assured the gentleman in the doorway, and quickly lowered his aim, suppressing a slight smile all the while.

Charley feigned tremendous relief, and then stepped the rest of the way into the office, closing the door behind him as he did. "Francis said somethin' about you wantin' ta see me?"

Crown eased the hammer back down on his gun and then slipped it back into its holster. "Yeah, Charley. I did," he muttered dejectedly, and watched as the person whose presence had been requested proceeded to return one of the rifles to its rightful place, in his now less empty-looking gun rack. Jim also saw Charley giving the two strangers in the room some deeply suspicious stares, and realized some introductions might be in order. "Dave Fisher...Doctor Ellis...Charley Adams."

The three men nodded to each other and exchanged forced smiles.

Charley turned his tired eyes back in Crown's direction and stood there looking tremendously curious.

"I wanted you ta run an errand for me. But it'll have ta wait. Right now, I want you ta go grab yourself some breakfast, an' a few hours a' shut-eye. An' then meet me back here, aroun' noon."

"Right!" Charley acknowledged and started to leave. A strange look came over him and he turned back to pass that look on to his seemingly perfectly healthy friend. "You be real careful now, Crown," he sternly advised. "I'd hate ta have ta find myself a new fishin' partner," he teased. Then he flashed his old fishin' partner a genuinely warm smile and started heading off-in the direction of Miss Dulcey's kitchen.

"I appreciate yore concern!" Crown insincerely called after him.

"Any time!" Charley's voice came back, from the little alcove.

The Marshal managed an amused gasp, and then stood there, gritting his teeth, to keep from grimacing.

Jarrod caught sight of the lawman's tightly clenched jaw and decided to try, one last time, to get him to listen to reason. "Couldn't you just sit there, quietly, at your desk? Sure," he added, seeing Crown's completely disinterested look. "You could catch up on some of your paperwork or something."

The lawman glanced disinterestedly down at the two heaps of unopened envelopes on his desk and then shot his helpful young physician a 'Thanks! But no thanks!' look. "I cain't keep my mind on that stuff even when I'm not bein' constantly reminded a' how many times I breathe-each an' every minute!" The Marshal smiled, seeing that his comments had caused his overly concerned kid doctor to crack a smile.

The kid's smile quickly faded and his handsome face filled with a look of even greater concern.

The Marshal's own smile turned into a frustrated frown. He gathered the remaining folder up from his desk, stashed it under his left arm and then turned to leave.

Jarrod didn't follow him. Instead, the doctor beat him to the door.

Dave had the gunbelt he'd just been given strapped on and was also waiting for Jim at the front door-with hat in hand.

"There's no need ta form a posse!" he told the two men, who obviously intended to tag along. "I'm jes' gonna run a few errands an' then make my usual mornin' rounds."

But his calm reassurances left the two men undeterred.

"Why don't you go cure some sick people or somethin'," Crown ordered more than asked the young doctor. "Or, better yet...Why don't you go bother Dulcey? I should think you'd prefer her company ta mine."

"Oh, I do!" Jarrod assured him. "Believe me. I do!"

"Good! Then go find her and tell her I said ta take you on over ta yore place, an' show you around."

Jarrod gave the pompous, pampered, overbearing, egotistical, domineering, dictorial 'living legend', with the long barreled, very large, reloaded gun, a defiant glare-before backing down and heading off, in the direction of the Inn's kitchen.

The Marshal suppressed a slight smile of satisfaction and then directed his no-nonsense, and in the mood for no excuses, gaze at his 'old friend from back East'.

"Now, James...You know how much I love a good high stakes poker game. You know I wouldn't miss this for the world! So you jes' go on about yore business. An' I'll jes' follow along, at a nice, safe distance, an' watch you 'open up the bidding'." Dave flung the office's front door open.

Jim shot his shadow an 'Oh, brother' look and then headed out the door and off across the boardwalk.

The Marshal's stride, while maybe not as broad or as brisk as the previous morning's, was still every bit as confident.

Dave waited until the lawman was half-way to the Land Office before daring to leave the Inn.

He had a long wait.

According to the signs, Jim's destination was the grey-sided building just across the street from his office.

Dave's long wait resulted from folks stopping Jim, every few feet, to tell him how glad they were to have him safely back-and to shake his right hand.

Two of the town's Fathers, a Mr. Wisler and a Mr. Andrews, met with their Marshal-smack dab in the middle of Main Street-along with a Mr. George Rawlings who, it turns out, was the closest thing Cimarron had to a mayor. The three men thanked the Marshal, and shook his hand, and told him how relieved they were to have him back-safe and sound. Well, maybe not 'safe', exactly-but sound. Well, maybe not 'sound'... exactly.

"We'd heard you'd been hurt," Dave heard Mr. Wisler nervously announce, from his position in the open doorway.

"What? Thi-is?" he heard his old friend reply.

Dave watched, in appreciative silence, as Jim unbuttoned the cuff of his left sleeve and then folded it back up a few times to reveal his nicely, neatly, brightly, whitely bandaged wrist.

"It's jes' a little scratch," the lawman lied-er, bluffed. "Why, the bullet barely grazed me."

Dave couldn't tell if the three men actually believed Jim, or if they were just kind enough not to 'call' his bluff.

Mr. Rawlings mumbled something to the Marshal, that the Senator's straining ears couldn't detect, which left the lawman momentarily stunned.

Finally, Crown recovered and mumbled a reply.

The four friends exchanged smiles, and handshakes, and then went their separate ways.

Dave had no idea what the four of them had been discussing. But he figured it had to have been something pleasant.

Because, when Jim finally made it up on the opposite boardwalk, he glanced back in the three men's direction and smiled again. By the time he turned his head back around, more folks-er, friends had appeared in his path.

They, too, wanted to welcome their Marshal back-and shake his hand.

"It's a shame you ain't runnin' for office, James," Dave whispered. "You'd make a heck of a politician!" The politician readjusted his borrowed gun belt and gave his borrowed pistol's chamber a quick check, to make sure that it was loaded. Then he pulled the brim of his hat down low across his forehead and left to back up-er, follow his partner.

Not everybody was pleased to see the Marshal up and about, that morning.

'Mister' Roger Mareck cursed aloud and quickly turned his head away from the window he'd been staring out. "I thought you said he had to be 'helped down' from his horse and 'practically carried' into his office!" the man screamed, and aimed his somewhat dumb-stuck expression in the general direction of his bodyguards.

The three muscle men glanced uncertainly at each other and then sat forwards in their seats.

"We said, that's what the Judge's man said that crazy Injun said in the saloon last night," one of them calmly corrected, in their defense.

"Yeah? Well, I just saw him standing down there in the middle of the street,in broad daylight,and he looked pretty damn healthy to me-e! What?" their bitter boss wondered, as he withdrew from the window and let the curtain fall back into place. "Am I completely surrounded by incompetence?"

The trio remained silent.

So Mareck turned to two of the eight attorneys he had working for him, and posed his question again. "Huh? What do you gentlemen think?"

His lawyers were not willing to render an opinion, either. But they eagerly offered some sound legal advice.

"Fortunately, only four of the property transactions have actually been finalized," the taller of the two attorneys announced.

"And you are under no 'legal' obligation to close any of the subsequent deals," the shorter joined in.

"Which means, you will be able to cut your losses," the taller continued.

"Considerably!" the shorter summed up.

Mareck looked even more dumb-struck. "Are you two suggesting that I leave town?"

"Not just town," the taller attorney told him. "We feel the time has come for you to seriously consider leaving the country."

"Yes," the shorter continued. "In fact, since the United States has signed 'extradition' treaties with the Canadian and Mexican governments, you may have to leave the entire continent."

"You could visit Europe," the taller invited.

"Or South America," the shorter suggested, seeing their boss' look of complete and utter disdain.

Mareck remained defiant. "One man is not going to run me out of this town! Or this country! Or anywhere else-for that matter!"

"Perhaps not," the taller attorney conceded. "But, sooner or later, reinforcements will arrive."

"Yes," the attorney's shorter associate agreed. "And when they do, you will be facing Federal prosecution."

The taller lawyer nodded his solemn concurrence. "The Government frowns on people murdering its Marshals."

"The Government frowns on murder-period," the shorter said, by way of reminder. "You'd be trusting that Tanner fellow with your life."

Mister Roger Mareck looked even more disgusted. "Do you have any idea how much time and money I have invested in this little operation here?"

"Two months," the taller attorney replied.

"And thirty six thousand, seven hundred ninety-five dollars and forty-seven cents," the shorter summed up. "But, surely your life must be worth more to you than that!"

There was a tense silence in the room.

Interrupted only by a timid 'tap' on the door.

One of the muscle men got up and answered it.

It turned out to be another messenger of doom.

Mr. Gordon concluded a whispered conference with the visitor, and then turned to pass the message along. "Mead says that telegraph operator and his family are...missing. He says they must've took off some time during the night. He, that the telegraph equipment is also missing," he finished and then waited, along with his four fellow employees, to witness their boss' reaction to that!

Roger Mareck's eyes burned with rage, and his face seethed with contempt. He glared around the room at five of the 'incompetents' with which he had 'completely surrounded' himself, and then gasped in utter exasperation. "Can't anybody do anything right around here?" he bitterly blasted.

Still, no one cared-or dared-to render an opinion.

Once again, a 'tap' interrupted the room's tense silence.

Mr. Gordon opened the door and held another whispered conference with yet another messenger-of even greater doom. All eyes riveted on him as he slowly turned back around. Gordy nervously cleared his throat and reluctantly conveyed the conference. "The Marshal's down at the depot. He's ordered the Station Manager to move your car back onto the tracks. Porter and Jarvis want to know what you want them to do about it..."

Mister Roger Mareck grimaced, in even greater exasperation, and shut his eyes tightly, to block the 'incompetents' from his view. For a long time, he said nothing. Then he sighed in surrender and simply said, "Nothing."


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Twenty

It took the Marshal an unusual length of time to complete his usual morning rounds.

At least, it sure seemed that way-to the Senator. According to his watch, it was nearly eleven before the lawman finally made it back to his office.

Partly to blame for the delay, were all the well wishers who kept lining up along the way.

It was also partly due to their pace.

Jim had taken his own sweet time.

Dave had followed him...every careful, deliberate step of the way. "Jes' like old times! Hey, James?" the Senator said with a smile and continued to follow his 'old' friend, clear into his office.

"Now, that's a scary thought," James came back with a scowl and very nearly slammed the door on him.

"What a' yah mean?" Dave demanded, as he dodged the door. "We had some great times tagether-you an' me!"

Crown tossed Beth's copy of the completely completed, all nice and legally filed, homestead application form down onto his desk. He shot his old friend another 'Oh, brother' look, before heading off again.

"I thought I sent you over ta yore place," Crown stated, stepping through the alcove and up to the young man who was seated on one of the four baggage trunks, which were currently occupying the only open space in his jail.

"You did. And I did go over there. And Dulcey did show me around-every square inch of the place!" the doctor calmly replied and chose to remain seated.

"So what are you doin' back here?" the lawman inquired, his voice filled with growing annoyance.

Jarrod glared back at the lawman, looking somewhat annoyed himself. "I don't know about you, but I can only look at a house for so long," he patiently pointed out, to the apparently out of sorts peace officer. "I came back here to get my things," he added and pointed to the four large trunks, and five smaller crates, which were piled up at his feet.

The obviously 'out of sorts' peace officer was apparently satisfied with his reply. For he proceeded on through the jail and into the Inn.

Jarrod gave the Senator a 'What's eating him?' glance.

"Don't pay 'im no mind," Dave said, upon seeing the look. "He tends ta get a little 'surly' when he's sore."

"Then he must be really sore!" the doctor rationalized.

"You'd be sore, too-if you had ta 'shake hands' with the entire town." Dave paused to ponder his comment over. "Actually, Jim only 'shook hands' with half the town," he corrected. "The other half was busy 'slappin' 'im on the back'."

"Ou-Ouch!" the Marshal's doctor declared with a wince. "I'll bet that must a' felt jes' fi-ine!"

"You should a' been with Custer-at the Little Big Horn!" Jim Crown told his 'old friend' with the big mouth.

The two startled men turned their attention to the doorway, within which Crown stood, holding a cup of steaming coffee in his hand.

"You could a' talked the Sioux inta surrenderin'!" he added and gave the silver-tongued Senator a highly annoyed glare.

So, what started out as a death wish ended up as only an insult.

Dave breathed a silent sigh of relief and then flashed his partner a smug smile. "I knew yah didn't mean it," he half-truthfully declared and turned back in the young doctor's direction. "We're like brothers," he explained, solely for his benefit.

"Yeah," Jim sarcastically agreed. "He's Cain, an' I'm Abel," he added, also for the young doctor's benefit.

"That's not so!" Dave adamantly declared.

"Oh? Not so? Then why have you been tryin' so hard ta kill me-for the past ten years?"

Dave completely ignored his partner's completely ridiculous accusation and directed his attention back to the now alarmed-looking young doctor. "The man's been Marshalin' his whole life. I figured he might as well be gettin' paid for it. Right? So, ten years ago, I talked 'im inta pinnin' on that badge."

"You tricked me inta takin' this job!" Crown quickly corrected. "Jes' like you tricked me inta comin' here! Well, I'm tired a' yore little 'tricks'! An' I'm tired a' listenin' ta you two talk! Fact is, I'm jes' tired-period! I want ta spend a nice, quiet afternoon-ALONE-at my desk, with no disturbances-whatsoever! So, will you kindly get yore things OUT a' my jail? An' then keep yourselves OUT a' my sight. Please..." The Marshal completed his polite orders and began taking his leave of them.

Something suddenly occurred to Jim and he stopped in the alcove's open doorway to glare menacingly back at the two now somewhat amazed looking men. "Anybody who sets foot in this office, with the exception a' Charley Adams, is gonna find him-or her-self starin' out at the world from between bars. Is that understood? Goo-ood!" the lawman exclaimed before his even more amazed looking audience could even answer.

The two now completely flabbergasted looking men flinched as the door to the alcove suddenly slammed shut in their faces.

"Yes, siree," Jarrod softly declared. "He must be awful sore!"

Dave paid his pained partner no mind. "All that walkin' caused me ta work up a sizable appetite. I'm gonna go grab me a bite ta eat. What about you? Kin I buy you some lunch?"

"I appreciate the offer, Senator. But I think I'll just stay put, for now. Dulcey went off a little while ago, to see about hiring a wagon. And I've been anxiously awaiting her return. Now, more anxiously than ever!" he added, giving the closed door to the alcove an annoyed glare.

"Suit yerself," the Senator suggested with a slight smile. "Say...Do me a favor. Will you? If it looks like somethin' interestin' is about ta happen around here, let me know, huh? I'll be at the little diner jes' down the street, gnawin' on a big, thick, juicy steak."

Jarrod nodded his acknowledgment of the legislator's reasonable request and returned his slight smile.

The Senator turned to leave, but then stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. "Don' worry, Doctor. In jes' a few more hours, everything'll be jes' fi-ine!" Dave winked and smiled again-and then disappeared out the door to the alley.

Jarrod stared rather dubiously after him. The young doctor had found the Senator's rather cryptic comments to be more confusing than reassuring, and he sat there, wearing a worried frown.

There was somebody in town who hadn't heard about the Marshal's little run-in with Roger Mareck.

That is, of course, until that certain somebody had a little run-in, herself-with the biggest gossip in all of Cimarron, Samantha Pringle.

The door to the alley suddenly flew open and Dulcey came barging in to the jail with such reckless abandon that she crashed headlong into Jarrod, and very nearly dislodged him from his trunk.

"Whoa-oah! Are you okay?" he inquired as he caught the girl in his arms and kept her from falling.

"Where's Jim?" Dulcey asked back rather breathlessly. Her answer to his question was totally dependent on his answer to hers.

Jarrod locked his big, blue eyes on to the little lady's and saw that hers were once again filled with the deepest concern for her dearest of friends. "He's in his office. Why?" he wondered, with a twinge of jealousy, "Is something 'interesting' about to happen around here?"

The girl glanced gratefully up at the ceiling and exhaled an audible prayer of thanks. "Something dreadful is about to happen!" she declared. Her still deeply troubled gaze returned to his level, and her labored breath returned nearer to normal. "Come on!" she urged, pulling herself free from his embrace. "There may still be time!"

Jarrod glumly loosened his hold on the girl. But then his sagging morale was lifted as the little lady took a firm hold on his hand and started hauling him off-in the direction of her kitchen.

As they reached their destination, Dulcey pulled the doctor to an abrupt halt and then took an even tighter hold, this time, on both of his hands. "Roger Mareck is leaving town!" she anxiously announced to her captive audience.

Her captive audience just stood there, looking confused. Apparently, she wasn't the only somebody who hadn't heard about he and the Marshal's little run-in.

"Is he the one who hired all those men to kill the Marshal?" he inquired at last.

The girl nodded, solemnly.

Jarrod looked even more at a loss. "Well, then...what's so dreadful about that?"

Dulcey stared incredulously up at the incredibly dumb doctor. "Don't you see? It's all over town! Jim's bound to get wind of it!"

The young man obviously didn't see. For he repeated his initial question, rephrasing it just a bit. "And what would be so 'dreadful' about that?"

"I told you!" the girl told him, her voice filled with growing impatience. "The Marshal is a man of his word! And I just learned that Jim has his heart set on stopping Mareck! So, if you're right about his medicine, and about him not thinking too clearly. Well...if Jim does find out about it, something dreadful will happen, all right! So you see, we simply must think of a way to stop him!"

"To stop who?"


"From doing what?"

"Stepping in front of Roger Mareck's moving train-for starters!"

The now completely confused young man tried, for several unsuccessful seconds, to collect his jumbled thoughts. "So, you don't want to stop Mareck from leaving town...and you don't want the Marshal trying to stop him, either."

"Ri-ight!" Dulcey declared, sounding relieved to see that the kid doctor had finally caught on. "Will you help me think of something? Please? I don't have the faintest idea where Francis is. And there's simply no time left to go looking for him."

Jarrod caught the tone of desperation in Dulcey's voice and saw the pleading look in her beautiful blue eyes. So, he was her second choice. Still, a choice, none-the-less. Certainly there was something to be said for that. "Of course, I'll help you!" he said, giving the girl a warm smile and her hands a reassuring squeeze. "And so will Senator Fisher. The three of us can stand at the doors and turn everybody away from his office."

"I already thought of doing that," Dulcey glumly declared. "It won't work. It'll keep people from going in. But it won't stop Jim from going out. And, if he goes out-even for just a little while...Well, I told you...the whole town's talking about it."

Jarrod looked glum, also. But then suddenly brightened. The solution was so simple he'd nearly overlooked it! "He couldn't hear anything...if he were asleep," he hinted, deviously.

"True," Dulcey agreed. "But I don't think we can count on him 'taking a nap', right now."

"True," the doctor agreed. "We would have to...put him to sleep. Just for a couple of hours," he added, seeing Dulcey's look of dawning understanding turning into one of uncertainty. "Sure! By the time he woke up, Roger Mareck would be long gone!" he finished with a flair, and finally succeeded in convincing the girl.

"Yes. I suppose his backside could handle that," Dulcey reasoned out loud to herself. Then she stared back up at her co-conspirator, looking curious. "Putting him to sleep is a fine plan. But how do you propose to go about it? You're not going to break something over his head, are you?" she hopefully inquired. "Because I couldn't possibly be a party to that!"

Jarrod couldn't believe the girl could possibly accuse him of anything so...crude. The doctor shot Dulcey his look of disbelief and then started dragging her off-in the direction of the jail.

"That sedative I gave you last night was just a mild one," Jarrod said, and released Dulcey's hands, so he could start rummaging through his things. "I have something in here, that is a hundred times more powerful," he explained, in a whisper.

Dulcey waited, while the doctor searched through the crate containing his pharmaceuticals.

Jarrod examined the labels of dozens of bottles before he finally found the drug he'd been looking for. "Just pour a little of this in his coffee," he continued in a whisper, "and all of his troubles, your troubles and our troubles will be over. For a few hours, anyways," he finished and held the little glass container up almost reverently.

Dulcey looked even more horrified by this proposal than she did by her head bashing idea. "Oh. No. I couldn't," she assured him, also in a whisper. "I'd be much too nervous. And he'd sense that something was up. No-o, I would never get away with it." She gazed glumly at the bottle's contents for a few moments before shooting her co-conspirator a confused stare. "Why can't you do it? After all, it was your idea."

Suddenly, it was Jarrod's turn to look horrified. "Oh-Oh no! Not me-e! Just because I spent the night in that cell doesn't mean I want to spend the day in there, as well! No-o, I say we wait for the Senator to get back from lunch. He could probably pull it off, all right."

"There isn't time, I tell you. While we're waiting for Mr. Fisher to finish eating, Jim could step outside and hear all about how Roger Mareck is leaving town at two o'clock."

Jarrod shifted his gaze from the girl to the door...and back to the girl again. "But, if I go in there, he's going to lock me up. You said it yourself, the Marshal is a man of his word. And his orders are: No one goes in there but Charley Adams," he stopped, looking thoughtful.

"Forget it!" Dulcey advised. "Charley's not due back here, for nearly a whole nother hour, yet."

The doctor sighed in defeat and reluctantly rose to his feet. "You promise, if I fail, that you'll come visit me-in jail?" he pleaded. His whispered voice so tender, that it was almost inaudible. Jarrod smiled, as his melodramatic request caused the lovely young lady to smile.

"I'll visit you faithfully," Dulcey vowed. "Three times a day-at the very least. The Marshal pays me to feed his prisoners..." she explained.

This time, the two of them exchanged grins.

Jarrod glanced at the door to the alcove again, and his grin gradually faded. "Wish me luck," he muttered, making one last whispered request.

Which Dulcey readily granted. "Good luck!" she wished. Then, on impulse, she pulled herself up and planted a kiss on the handsome young man's left cheek.

Things were suddenly beginning to look up for Jarrod. Why, here the day wasn't even half over and, not only had he gotten to hold the lovely young lady in his arms, but he'd also just been kissed by her!

Dulcey retreated out the opposite doorway-in the direction of her kitchen.

Jarrod lingered there in the jail for a while, reliving the magic of the moment. As he turned and took hold of the door's knob, the thought of her kiss still filled his mind, and the light, lavender fragrance of her perfume still filled his nostrils. The doctor heaved a long sigh of satisfaction. Then he palmed his powerful sleeping potion and pulled the heavy portal open.

Things suddenly turned very bleak again for Jarrod.

Things suddenly turned very bleak, indeed!

At the moment, thoughts of a kiss were also on the Marshal's mind. Crown had no choice. It was either his and Katelyn's kiss...or his breathing.

The only drawback to using their goodbye kiss for a distraction was, that it caused both of his arms to ache.

The terribly tired lawman paused in his slow, deliberate pacing, to stare longingly at the cot in the little alcove. He was deliberating whether or not he should dare to lie down, when he saw, more than heard, the knob move on the door between the alcove and his jail. Crown tensed and drew on the door.

That is why things were looking so bleak for Jarrod.

Once again, the young doctor found himself looking down the legend's gun barrel. It was an incredibly unnerving experience. One Jarrod knew he would never get used to. The physician forced his gaze away from the gun and stared up at the person who was pointing it at him.

Surprisingly, the Marshal seemed more disappointed than angry or upset with him.

Realizing that he'd just been headed off at the pass, the doctor decided to retreat and try again, using a different approach. "Uh-Uh...Dulcey just wanted me to tell you that your lunch will be ready in about an hour," he exclaimed, in one long breath-and then quickly closed the door.

The lawman stared at the door in disbelief and slowly began holstering his gun. Just as his left hand started reaching for his throbbing right shoulder, the door between the bar and his office flew open. As the young doctor reappeared, so did Jim's drawn gun.

Jarrod stared at the Marshal in amazement. Despite whatever else may be ailing him, his patient did have incredible reflexes! The physician forced his uneasy gaze away from the gun, again, and quickly glanced around the room. "I, uh...hate to bother you again. But this is important."

The coffee cup was setting right there on the edge of the desk, not four feet from him.

"You see, I've been thinking about what the Senator said. You know, about carrying around some personal protection..." he continued, as he came into the room and then started side-stepping over to the desk. "So I've decided to buy a gun. And...well, with you being a 'legendary gunfighter' and all, I figured you could probably give me a few pointers," he concluded and then made a pretense of examining his patient's plaster pigeon. Before he could pour any of his powerful sleeping potion into the coffee cup, the Marshal pressed the barrel of his gun into his chest and then started backing him away from the desk.

"As a matter a' fact, I do have a few," Crown conceded and then proceeded to press his prisoner back out the door and into the bar.

"Unless you're fully prepared ta use it, never even pick one up in the first place," Crown continued, backing the young man through the bar and into the dining area. "And, if you should ever decide ta shoot, remember that speed ain't as important as accuracy. So, if you're gonna practice anything, practice aimin', first. You can always work on your draw, later." Jim backed Jarrod clear through the dining area and into the jail.

"An', finally, unless you kin shoot real straight, you're gonna end up killin' someone or bein' killed!"

The keys were hanging on a peg on the wall beside the door to the alcove.

The lawman latched onto them with his left hand and then pressed his prisoner right into a cell. " think about that for a while," he ordered, stepping back out and pulling the cell door shut. "I want you ta do a whole lot a' thinkin' about that," he continued and left-handedly locked the door. "'Cuz, if a man don't use what he's carryin' on his shoulders, it don't matter what he's carryin' on his hip. He's more than likely gonna die-real young! An', unless someone is dyin'...Don't you dare open this door, young lady!" he added, for Dulcey's benefit.

The girl appeared in the doorway to the dining area and reluctantly nodded her acknowledgment of his order.

Crown saw her nodding and seemed satisfied, because he tossed the keys back onto their peg and turned to go. Then he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder at all the young doctor's 'things' which were still occupying the only open space in his jail. "Get rid a' this stuff! Will you?"

"Yes, Jim! Right away!" Dulcey vowed.

"An' don't bother fixin' me any lunch. I'm not hungry."

The girl nodded again and, this time, Jim did leave.

The Marshal marched back into the little alcove and quickly closed the door.

Dulcey turned to her co-conspirator and shot the gloomy-looking prisoner a questioning glance.

Jarrod just continued to gaze glumly out through the bars of his cell. "Sorry," he muttered, dejectedly. "I tried-twice! And nearly succeeded-the second time."

"We should've used a decoy," Dulcey muttered, sounding equally dejected. "While you kept him distracted at this door, I could've slipped in through the other and doctored his drink. I thought of it in the kitchen just now," she explained, seeing the imprisoned physician's highly irritated look.

"Maybe we could still do it that wa-" Jarrod stopped and stiffened as the girl suddenly stiffened and stared off in the direction of her kitchen.

"Someone's here!" Dulcey declared. "It might be Francis!" she added excitedly and exited the jail.

The girl returned to the jail a few moments later, with the Marshal's fishing partner in tow.

"Gee, Miss Dulcey. I didn't think you'd mind. You told me at breakfast ta come back for lunch," the man stated in his defense.

"I don't mind one bit, Charley," Dulcey assured him in a whispered voice. "You can have all the lunch you like. Right after you've heard what we have to say," she added, conditionally.

Charley sighed in relief and stared longingly, first at the chicken leg in his left hand...then at the date nut bar in his right. "Go ahead," he told the girl. "I kin eat and listen at the same time."

So he could, and so he did.

"Roger Mareck is leaving town," Dulcey announced.

"That's wonderful!" Charley declared with a broad grin. "That's not wonderful..." he corrected, seeing the two young folks' frowns.

"No it isn't," the girl agreed. "Because Jim is bound to hear of it, and I just know he'll try to stop him. He has his heart set on stopping him. And you know how Jim is!"

"Yea-eah..." Charley conceded, sucking on a piece of chicken that was stuck in his teeth. "So...what does all a' this got ta do with me?" he nervously inquired.

"We're trying to keep Jim from getting himself killed. But we need your help," Dulcey replied and gave the Marshal's fishing partner her pleading, desperate look.

Charley suddenly felt even more uncomfortable. "Just what did you two have in mind?"

"It's simple," Jarrod assured him. "All you have to do, is pour a little of this into his coffee."

Charley regarded the bottle, which Doctor Ellis had produced from out of nowhere, rather fearfully. He was almost afraid to ask what it contained-almost. "What's in it? Some kind a' medicine?"

"It's a powerful sedative," Dulcey explained. "We figured we'd put him to sleep until Mareck leaves."

"Yeah," Jarrod chimed in. "We can either put the Marshal to sleep for four or five hours...or wait for Mareck's men to put him to sleep forever."

Dulcey appeared horrified by the young doctor's morbid statement.

Charley found their whole plan horrifying. "You'd better leave me out a' this," he exclaimed. "You'd better leave the Marshal be, too. The man's not stupid. I'm sure he knows what he's doin'."

"I wish I were," Dulcey sadly stated, now sounding on the very verge of tears. "All I really do know, is that Jim is in no condition right now to try stopping any trains."

Charley turned from the Marshal's young lady friend to the Marshal's young doctor.

Jarrod nodded his solemn agreement. "He's got two bullet holes in his chest...some badly bruised and busted ribs...and 'something' is very wrong with his right shoulder."

Charley looked more horrified than ever, and like he'd just lost his appetite.

"And he wasn't in that great a shape even before he got shot," the doctor added,even more solemnly. "He looks like he hasn't slept in a week. I know, for a fact, that he didn't sleep last night."

"Yes," Dulcey glumly conceded. "And now, the Doctor's afraid that he may not be thinking clearly."

"He told me himself, that the pain was interfering with his concentration," Jarrod announced, with yet another nod, and offered their now completely stunned audience another opportunity to help them, by passing the bottle to him through the bars of his cell.

Charley gradually regained his composure and reluctantly accepted the young doctor's offering. "I ain't sayin' I'm gonna do it, mind you. Let's jes' say I'm...considerin' it."

"Fair enough," Jarrod stated, reaching through the bars to give their latest co-conspirator's arm an appreciative pat.

"Oh, thank you, Charley!" Dulcey declared, suddenly appearing all smiles again. She bent forwards and planted a kiss on the grey-haired gentleman's right cheek.

Charley blushed and brushed the kiss away with the back of his hand. "No-ow...there's no call for that! I ain't done nothin'-ye-et. An' I ain't said that I would do it-neither."

"We know, Charley," Dulcey assured him. "You're only considering it."

Jarrod nodded his concurrence.

Charley appeared pleased that the two knew exactly where he stood. Then he stared at the young doctor in confusion, as it finally dawned on him exactly where Jarrod stood. "What'd yah do to get yourself locked up?"

Jarrod shrugged. "I just went in there and asked if he could give me a few pointers about buying a gun," he replied-half truthfully.

"Na-ahh!" Charley replied, in disbelief. "There had to be some other reason. Crown would never arrest anybody just for tha-at!"

"There was one other reason," the young doctor had to admit. "I wasn't you."

Charley's smug look turned to one of disbelief and then confusion again. He handed Dulcey his untouched date nut bar, and his half-chewed chicken leg. The powerful sedative was put in his front pant's pocket. Then he stepped around the crates and trunks and up to the alcove's closed door, where he wiped the grease and crumbs off on the sleeves of his coat, before knocking-very loudly. Charley glanced back at the two young folks and waited for an invitation to come in. The memory of what had happened the last time he'd entered the office was apparently still fresh in his mind.

"Is that you, Charley?" the Marshal's muffled voice cautiously inquired.

"Yeah, Crown! It's me!" Charley assured him.

"Well, come on in!" the lawman urged, following a long silence.

Charley opened the door part ways. "You're not gonna arrest me...just because I'm a little early. Are you?" he called through the crack.

There was another briefer bout of silence.

"No-o, Charley," came back the Marshal's bemused reply. "I'm not gonna arrest you."

Charley exhaled an audible sigh of relief. Then he slipped through the crack and closed the door.

"Hey! Wait a minute!" Jarrod panicked as the pretty young miss started to disappear, as well. "You can't just run off and leave me here like this!"

The girl halted and aimed a questioning glance back over her shoulder.

"I'm...hungry," he explained rather pitifully.

But Dulcey didn't pay the prisoner's pitiful excuse much attention. "Here..." she passed the food from her hands to his. "That will have to hold you until I get back. I've got to go round up a wagon and 'get rid of this stuff'," she added, reminding the young man of the mess he had left in the middle of the Marshal's jail.

While the young doctor's attention was directed at that mess, Dulcey vanished out into the alley.

The door closed, leaving Jarrod standing there...all alone in the jail...staring glumly out at the world...from between bars.


Chapter Text

"Cimarron Strip: The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Twenty-One

There is a special camaraderie that exists between fishin' partners.

Charley reckoned that this unusual relationship resulted from spending endless early morning hours together on the bank of a river, drowning worms and dodging mosquitoes.

There was something about gazing into the water's reflection that caused a man to reflect on life.

Sitting there, on a remote riverbank-enveloped by the beauty and solitude of the Great Outdoors-a man tended to bare his soul.

On the other hand, the incredibly relaxed atmosphere lended itself to some incredibly light-hearted observations.

As a result, the range of conversation constantly rotated from profoundly philosophical to just plain funny.

Because neither of them knows which direction the conversation pendulum might be heading in next, fishin' partners never seem to take one another too seriously.

That's the way it was with him and Crown, and, while it was true that the two never caught a lot of fish, they sure had an awful lot of fun!

When Charley entered the Federal Marshal's Office, he found his fishin' partner pacing, slowly and deliberately, back and forth in front of his desk.

"Have a seat!" Crown invited, motioning with his head in the direction of a chair.

Charley studied the 'locked in perpetual motion' Marshal carefully for a few moments.

There was a sort of distracted look in the lawman's slightly drooping eyes and a certain tightness in the lines of his freshly-shaved face. That his fishin' partner was in pain was also apparent by the way he clutched at his rib cage with his folded left arm. Jim's right arm was held stiff and straight, and close to his side.

"You're the one who should sit down, Crown," Mr. Adams casually observed, successfully concealing his growing alarm.

"If yah don't stop movin', yah don't have ta git started again," Crown countered, without breaking stride.

"If yah don't sit down, you're gonna fall down," came back Charley. He stepped in front of the moving man and stopped him in mid-pace. The Marshal's eyes met his and Charley could clearly see all the discomfort, fatigue and frustration that was reflected in them.

"I'm fine," the lawman nonchalantly announced, seeing the growing concern that was reflected in his friend's eyes.

Charley just stared back at him, looking deeply skeptical. "That's why you are never gonna amount ta more than an average angler, Crown. Truly great fishermen are born liars. And you can't lie worth a darn!"

For a few fleeting moments, amusement replaced the misery in the Marshal's tired eyes. But then he blinked them into stern, determined slits. "There ain't nothin' wrong with me, that a few hours a' sleep won't fix."

'That kin be arranged...' Charley thought to himself.

"All right," the lawman surrendered, seeing that his friend remained unconvinced, "we'll both have a seat." Crown turned carefully around and stepped carefully up behind his desk, where he even more carefully collapsed, down onto his chair.

Charley sank back into the Senator's vacated armchair/bed and then motioned with his head in the direction of the jail. "I, uh...couldn't help but notice, that you've arrested the town's new Doctor. What's the charge?" he lightly inquired. "Operatin' without a license?"

The Marshal's eyes sparkled with amusement once again. He thought of all the trunks and crates that were cluttering up his jail. "Obstructin' justice." And of how the kid had kept bothering him in spite of being warned not to. "And disturbin' the peace," the lawman replied, equally lightly.

But Charley felt more alarmed than amused. " long are you gonna keep 'im locked up?"

Jim managed a one shouldered shrug. "That depends entirely on him, an' on how fast he learns his lessons. Enough about him. What about you? You feel up ta takin' a little ride this afternoon?"

Charley thought his fishin' partner's responses over for a few moments before making his response. "That depends entirely on' on how far you're expectin' me ta go."

The Marshal stared sadly and solemnly down at the folder on his desk. "I'd like yah ta ride out ta John Two Rivers'' deliver this deed for me," he added, picking the paper up and passing it, left-handedly, across his desk. "It may be of some comfort ta Beth an' the boy, ta know that their land is now legally theirs. An' that they won' have ta leave..." he let his sad, soft-spoken words trail off.

"Why, of course!" Charley sat forwards in his seat and accepted both his assignment and the folder. "I'd be glad ta give this to her!"

The Marshal gave him a look of undying gratitude. "Tell her I have John's murderer in custody. An' that I'll let her know when he stands trial..." again, the lawman let his words trail off.

Once again, Charley nodded his willingness to be of assistance. "I'll take care of it. Don't you worry about a thing. You jes' go on upstairs an' get some sleep."

"Maybe later," the Marshal told him. "I still have some unfinished business ta take care a'."

Charley suddenly felt even more alarmed. He'd been watching Roger Mareck's men ride in all morning. "You'd be better off if you were ta go ta bed, now-an' leave that business unfinished."

Crown completely ignored his friend's timely warning. "Roger Mareck is about ta be taught a lesson. He's about ta learn that he can't escape the long arm a' the law."

"An' you intend ta teach 'im that lesson," Charley glumly realized. 'Even if it's the last thing you do,' he added, even more glumly-to himself.

Crown nodded confidently. "One way, or the other, Roger Mareck will be held accountable for his...crimes," he firmly stated.

The telegrams he'd asked Francis to send off for him would see to that!

That clinched it! Charley gulped in disbelief and quickly came to a decision concerning the powerful sedative that he was carrying in his pocket. He saw the Marshal staring sadly off into space, and decided to make his move.

"Help yourself," the Marshal said, snapping back to reality in time to find Charley standing beside his desk. "I wasn' gonna drink it anyways. It's a little too watered down, for my taste."

Charley overcame his dismay at being caught reaching for the cup, just in time to be even more dismayed. If Crown had no intentions of drinking his coffee, then how-? Charley's right eyebrow arched, as a thought suddenly occurred to him. "I don't care much for weak coffee, myself. But I sure am dry! What a' yah say, I buy us both a couple a' beers before I go? You look like you could use a drink," he tacked on, as Crown hesitated to take him up on his tempting offer.

"All right," Crown finally conceded. "But, since you're already doin' me a favor," he flashed his friend a smile and then flipped him a quarter, "I'm buyin'."

Charley returned his smile, but kept the coin. He had never turned down a free drink in his life, and he was not about to start now-especially not now!

Mr. Adams exited the office and stepped through the Inn. He set the two bits down on the bar and snatched up two tall glasses. Then, after dispensing the foaming contents of one of Fabriccio's freshly-tapped kegs into them, he placed them down on the ledge behind the bar and pulled out the little bottle of powerful sedative. He added a little of its clear, seemingly odorless-and hopefully tasteless-contents to the glass on the right, and then quickly stashed it back out of sight. To insure that there would be no mix up, Charley took several long swallows from the left glass before daring to make his delivery.

"Here's ta long life!" Charley said as he re-entered the office and passed his fishin' partner the fully-loaded mug of beer-which he accepted with his left hand.

Crown nodded his approval of the toast and started to down his doctored brew. But then he stopped...smacked his lips...and shot his drinking companion a strange look. "This stuff taste all right ta you?"

"It's a little flat. But, other than that..." Considering the circumstances, Charley's reply was incredibly cool and calm. But then, Charley was a truly great 'fisherman'.

The Marshal assumed that he must be imagining things, and quickly polished off the rest of his drink. He slammed his empty mug down hard on his desk and managed another smile-of satisfaction. "If you expect ta make it back here before dark, you'd better get a move on," he advised, as his supposedly thirsty companion failed to finish his beer.

Charley completely ignored the lawman's advice, and just kept right on standing there, staring rather uneasily down at him.

Crown completely ignored Charley's strange stare and pulled his watch from his vest pocket, to stare down at it. "We'd both better get a move on," he added, observing the time.

Charley tensed. "Where do you got ta move on to?"

"I promised Francis I'd bring 'im over somethin' ta eat," Crown calmly replied, as he replaced his watch. Then he braced himself and carefully began raising himself up out of his seat.

"No-o!" Charley panicked, as he envisioned his now powerfully sedated fishin' partner passing out-right in the middle of Main Street! "Let me do that. Where's he at?" he wondered, latching onto the lawman's right wrist and jerking him back down.

The Marshal grimaced and gasped, as the sudden stop jarred his shoulder. "Thanks," he gulped, when he finally got his breath back. "But I kin manage it, myself. Besides, you already got an errand ta run. Remember?"

"Yeah..." his terribly apologetic looking companion glumly realized. "Right..." he reluctantly released his hold on the lawman. 'I'll jes' have ta tag along, at a discreet distance, an' try ta catch yah...when you finally keel over,' Charley realized-solely to himself.

The Marshal made another attempt to rise and, this time, no attempt was made to stop him. "Have a safe trip!" he called out, as he headed over to his hat rack. "An' I'll see yah when yah get back!" Crown flashed his worried looking friend a warm smile and tossed his Stetson on his head. After tipping it slightly, he turned and went out the back way. Apparently, the lawman didn't want to risk being followed.

Charley guzzled down the remainder of the beer in his glass and delayed his departure from the office. If he was going to successfully pursue his fishin' partner, he would need to be very discreet, indeed!

Unfortunately, Charley was just a little bit too discreet. It took him five minutes to catch up to Crown.

By then, the Marshal was already heading back to his office.

That is, until Judge Rutger's stepped out of the little diner that was just down the street-and blocked Crown's path.

Charley, who was beginning to have serious doubts about the sedative's supposed powers, squeezed himself into a doorway, two buildings down, and listened-along with the rest of the townsfolk in the vicinity-to what the two men had to say to each other.

"What's the matter, Judge?" Crown innocently inquired. "You're lookin' at me like I was a ghost...or somethin'."

"Maybe you are," the judge replied, rather matter-of-factly. "That would certainly explain a lot of things." The man tried to side-step the Marshal.

This time, Crown blocked his path.

The judge tried to step aside, again.

But again, the Marshal stopped him.

"You are a hard man to get rid of, Crown!" his honor icily admitted.

"You ought ta know," Crown came back-equally icily. "You've been tryin' long enough. Why, you've been payin' people ta take potshots at me, for the pas' two months. I was wonderin' what I had done ta become so unpopular. An' here, you were jes' tryin' ta clear the way for 'Mister' Mareck. You mus' be wonderin' what you're gonna run out a' assassins? I figure you mus' be runnin' real low on both. Because I'm still here. I keep comin' back-ta haunt you." The Marshal paused in his taunting. to stare at the judge in total disbelief. "You actually went...from Colby an' Reimes...ta the Hampton brothers? Ain't that what they call goin' from the sublime...ta the ridiculous?" he continued to taunt his adversary, and finally succeeded in coaxing a response.

"I never thought one had to be a genius to be an assassin. After all, how much smarts does it take to squeeze a trigger?"

"I dunno," Crown confessed. "But I'm livin' proof that it mus' take at least a little more than you reckoned on. Right, Rutgers? An' yah know, I'll bet that it takes even less smarts ta send a corrupt Judge ta jail, for acceptin' bribes, an' attempted murder. No-o. I don' expect it'll take all that much. Why, with a little coachin', I imagine even the Hampton brothers should be able ta figure out which hand ta' which hand ta place on the Bible. Yah see, they seem ta feel that seven hundred dollars is worth killin' for. But it ain't worth bein' killed for. Yes, sir. I kin hardly wait ta see you in court again-yore 'Honor'." The perforated, and powerfully sedated?, peace officer paused again-apparently for effect. "Money an' assassins ain't the only things you're about ta run out a', Rutgers! Yore boss' train leaves at two! If you got any smarts left, at all-you'll be on it!"

Speaking of being effected...

Charley was so alarmed to learn that Crown had learned of Mareck's leaving, that he nearly fell out of the doorway!

There was a long, ominous silence...followed by the sound of boot heels, echoing off down the boardwalk.

Charley chanced a glance and discovered, to his dismay, that-with the exception of one extremely flustered-looking, exceedingly-corrupt court official-the sidewalk was now empty. Charley left his hideout and hurried off after his fishin' partner.

Charley managed to catch up to Crown before he reached his office.

The Marshal had stopped out in front of the Inn and was just sort of standing there, in the middle of Main Street, staring off into space again.

'Uh-oh! This must be it!' Charley thought and began creeping up behind the man, so that he'd be there to catch him-when he finally keeled over.

Crown was recalling a conversation, which had been held in that exact spot, earlier that morning...

"It took Miss Dulcey's party last night for us to realize just how beholdin' this whole town is to you, Marshal."

"George is right. We all owe you a debt of gratitude."

"And we want you to know that we are ready, willing and perfectly able to begin paying that debt back."

"With interest!"

"That's right! So please, feel free to deputize as many men as you need."

"We held an emergency town meeting this morning. And every man present agreed, that if it came to a showdown...well, you won't be facing this Mareck fella alone."

"That's right! We're behind you, Marshal! One hundred percent!"

"Thank you, gentlemen. A-An' thank the rest a' the men, too. But I don't believe it'll come ta that. Because Roger Mareck's gonna be leavin' town very short-"

The Marshal dropped, and spun as he drew. As Crown came around, he was so close to his target, that he rammed the tip of his Colt right into the pit of the man's tummy!

It was Charley's turn to grimace and gasp. Charley watched, as first recognition and then relief-and finally, rage filled the lawman's slightly squinting eyes.

"What's the matter with you, Charley?" the Marshal shouted, angrily. "You know better than ta come creepin' up on a man carryin' a gun! Ma-an! You came this close ta gittin' yore bellybutton blown off! An' how do yah think that would a' made me feel?"

"Not nearly as bad as it would a' made me feel," his pale, and still quite visibly shaken, fishin' partner confessed, seeing how closely together his friend's thumb and index finger were pressed.

The equally pale, also quite visibly shaken, Marshal heaved a long heavy sigh, that ended in an exasperated gasp, and carefully holstered his gun. "You mus' be a whole lot tired-er than you look. You kin forget about runnin' that errand for me. You'd better go back ta bed, instead. Before yah step out in front of the noon stage an' get yourself trampled ta death, or somethin'."

"I'm fi-ine. Honest! I'm not the least bit tired," Charley told him, truthfully. Then he cocked his head and stared up at the powerfully sedated Marshal, looking both confused-and curious. "Are you?...The least bit 'tired'?"

It was a rather odd question, which Crown did not feel obligated to answer. But, upon seeing his friend's extremely anxious stare, he decided to do so, anyways.

Charley waited expectantly while his fishin' partner apparently took inventory.

Crown's shoulder was still killing him. But he no longer cared. His thoughts no longer seemed to be focused on his breathing. Hell, his thoughts no longer seemed to be focused, period!

The combination of the alcohol in the beer and the alkaloid in the sedative was creating pandemonium with the Marshal's usually crystal clear thought processes. That was because the areas of the brain, that were being most affected by this dangerous drug duo, were the areas that regulated one's sound judgment and determined one's inhibitions.

In short, the Marshal's brain was rapidly losing its ability to distinguish the deadly difference between rational and irrational thoughts, and appropriate or inappropriate behavior.

Unfortunately, the lawman was unaware of all this. Crown could tell that he had a slight headache. But, aside from that..."I'm fi-ine," Charley's fishin' partner was finally forced to conclude. "In fact, this is the best I've felt-all mornin'!" That said, Jim spun on his heels and started striding briskly off, in the direction of his office. The Marshal hadn't found Charley's frown, or the look of obvious disappointment on his face, the least bit peculiar.

Which struck Charley as being a bit peculiar. He stiffened and started off after him. "Hey! Wait up, Crown! Hold the door!"

Crown did.

They both entered the office...and they both took a seat.

Charley watched, in wonder, as the Marshal flopped himself down onto his chair and then just sort of sat there, drumming his fingers on his desk and staring blankly off into space.

The lawman was lost in his 'wild' thoughts. 'What if Mareck has enough ill-gotten capital gains of his own ta bankroll this operation, himself? What if it doesn't matter that his investors have pulled out an' his bank drafts are no good? Maybe I should have Francis send another telegram...' Jim silently and solemnly realized. He slid the center drawer of his desk open and started to pull out a piece of paper. One of his spare badges slid into view and another, even wilder, thought suddenly occurred to him. There might be a way to get Mareck to disclose his personal finances. After all, there was more than one way to make the man pay for his crimes. Crown snatched the badge up out of the drawer. Then he picked himself up out of his chair and started heading for the door.

"Where yah goin'?" Charley anxiously asked, leaping to his feet.

"Fishin'!" the Marshal called back over his shoulder, and then disappeared out into the street. He was about to turn a rash idea into a rash action.

Maybe he hadn't used enough of the stuff? O-or maybe the stuff was no good? "I should a' known better than ta trust that kid Doctor!" Charley glumly realized, giving voice to his growing consternation. He gasped in complete and utter exasperation and then took off after his friend again. Only this time, he would cast discretion to the wind and stay right on Crown's heels-come hell or high water!

"Where yah goin'?" the Senator wondered, as his partner brushed passed him on the boardwalk.

His partner did not bother to respond.

"Where's he goin'?" Dave repeated, pulling Charley to a stop.

"Fishin'!" Charley sarcastically announced. "You're welcome ta come along..." he hinted, seeing that the man carried a gun and, judging by how low it hung on his hip, that he obviously knew how to use one.

The Marshal's two fishin' partners followed the lawman-over to the former Cimarron Hotel...through the lobby full of lawyers...up two flights of stairs...down a long hallway...and clear into the third room on the right.

Four startled men started getting to their feet. But then they saw who their uninvited visitor was-and froze.

"Relax, gentlemen!" Crown advised the four, still half-seated figures. "I'm here ta discuss some important business."

"You got no business, here, Crown!" one of the gentlemen snidely replied, as he and the other three sank uneasily back down in their seats. "Important-or otherwise!"

"Shut up, Gordy!" 'Mister' Mareck ordered. "I'd like to hear what the nice lawman has to say," he added, his words oozing with insincerity.

The four relaxed gentlemen glanced at each other-and grinned.

Charley didn't know quite what to make of things. But his sweating palms were proof enough that the situation was fa-ar from amusing.

Ever since they had entered the building, Dave had been getting the distinct impression that something was about to happen that might make Maggie a widow. But then, if that were the case, his partner would never have allowed him to tag along. After all, the promise was Jim's idea in the first place. The Senator swallowed hard and stood there, hoping that he wouldn't be forced now, to break it.

"This 'badge' is up for sale," Crown announced, to everyone's astonishment-and disbelief. Jim glanced down at his vest, at the piece of tin that was pinned to his chest. "Care ta make an offer?" he calmly inquired, and calmly glanced back up.

Roger Mareck remained so stunned that it was some time before he could speak again. "You're joking!" he insisted, his voice still filled with disbelief. Then again, the streets weren't exactly crawling with government reinforcements...and the Justice Department had, in fact, hung the Marshal out to dry! Maybe the lawman had had a change of heart?

"It's been recently brought ta my attention, that Rutgers is offerin' a sizeable reward for this thing. Now, I figure that, if there's any money ta be collected for my 'badge', I may as well be the one doin' the collectin'."

That sounded reasonable enough-to Roger Mareck. "Did you have a certain 'figure' in mi-?"

"-Mister Mareck, don't-" Gordy began.

But was quickly silenced by another shouted order to, "-Shut up!"

Crown suddenly looked curious. "What did you pay for Blakesley's command?"

"Ten thousand," Mareck obligingly informed him.

"An' Rutgers' gavel?"

"That cost me another ten thousand," Mareck begrudgingly confessed.

"That bein' the case, I figure this 'badge' ought ta be worth at least twenty..."

The condescending smirk returned to Roger Mareck's face. "Consider it sold!" he told the lawman-who he had both loathed and admired. He got carefully up off of the sofa he was sitting on and crossed quickly over to his desk.

The Marshal took a step back so he could keep all four men covered.

Mareck saw the move and his smirk broadened. "I would've given you thirty for it-two weeks ago," he informed the lawman.

"Two weeks ago-it wasn't for sale," the lawman reminded him, right back.

Mareck's smirk vanished for a few moments, but then reappeared and broadened into an outright grin. He pulled the top drawer of his desk open and carefully removed a large cash box from it. The box wasn't locked. For he simply flipped its lid up and emptied it of its entire contents.

All eyes in the room watched as the man counted out twenty thousand dollars in crisp, new, one hundred dollar bills. The rather meager amount of what money remained was placed back into the box.

"I'm glad you finally came to your senses," Mareck admitted and shoved the twenty thousand dollars towards the lawman.

"Why," Crown said, side-stepping over to the desk and undoing the bottom two buttons of his shirt. He stashed the sizable sum safely out of sight and then buttoned his shirt back up. "You said it yourself. I'm a reasonable man. An' only a fool would turn down twenty thousand dollars-for a two-bit piece a' tin," he reasoned calmly, unpinning the badge and placing it down on the desk. "Besides," he continued, calmly pulling another one out of his vest pocket and-even more calmly-pinning it on, "the Government gave me a few 'extras' when I signed on. I still have a few left. So, should you ever decide you wanna buy another jes' let me know."

Mareck and his cronies were anything but calm!

In fact, Roger Mareck looked like he was about to lose all control.

He and his henchmen exchanged grim glances.

"Unh-uh-uh!" Crown said, seeing Mareck eye-balling his bodyguards the order to kill him. "I wouldn't, if I were you! Unless, a' course, you boys have been practicin', an' have gotten a whole lot faster-since the las' time you tried it..." Jim directed some of his attention away from the three seething men and back to their boss again. "For the fifth, an' final, time, Mareck...I ain't interested in boardin' yore trai-ain! But you, an' yore boys, here, had better be! Because, if you're not on that train, when it pulls out a' here at two a' clock...I'm gonna kill you!"

Dave had been enjoying the whole terrifying experience immensely-up 'til then! Something in Jim Crown's voice told him that, this time, his poker playin' partner wasn't 'bluffing'! The Senator was finding that little revelation truly terrifying-indeed! He was about to make a comment to that effect, when Jim motioned with his head that it was now time for he and Charley to leave. Dave didn't debate the issue. As far as he was concerned, it was past time for them to leave! He and Charley backed out of the opened doorway and then waited there for Jim to join them.

The Marshal backed carefully out of the room, closing the door as he did so. "Jes' like old times. Huh," he told Dave, with a devilish gleam in his dark green eyes-and a wry grin on his handsome face. Then he turned and took off down the hall like a shot!

His two fishin' partners were hot on his heels!

"If and when I do step on to that train," Mareck shouted out through the door, "it'll be over your dead body!"

By the sounds of it, he wasn't 'bluffing', either.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Twenty-Two

"Jarrod!" Dulcey exclaimed, as she came hurrying back into the jail.

The alarmed young man jumped to his feet and then stepped quickly up to the bars of his cell, to greet the all excited young lady.

"I have the most wonderful news!" the girl gasped, a bit breathlessly. "I just came from the depot and...according to Carl...the Marshal knows that Roger Mareck is leaving!"

Jarrod's alarmed look turned to one of amazement...and then to one of complete confusion. Hadn't that same wonderful news just been dreadful?-just a few minutes ago?

"And apparently," the grinning girl cheerily concluded, "doesn't care!"

Jarrod's confusion instantly gave way to annoyance. "Are you saying...that I just got myself locked up...trying to keep him from finding out about...something he already knew about?"

Dulcey looked extremely apologetic and reluctantly nodded. "Carl claims that Jim knew that Mareck was leaving town even before Mareck did. I'm terribly sorry!" she continued, seeing the young man's annoyance giving rise to anger. "I'll make it up to you...somehow! I promise!" she vowed and flashed a broad, bashful smile up at the Marshal's still-frowning prisoner.

Jarrod saw the smile and simmered down...some. How could he-how could anyone-stay mad at someone who could smile like that? "Well, what about the wagon? Were you finally able to find one?"

"There must be a dozen wagons in town right now. And all of them are loaded. And none of the men I talked to intend to unload them until after lunch. However, I did finally manage to convince Carl to come and move your things. Actually, I had to bribe him. It took an entire apple pie!"

"Great! So...where is he?"

"He's coming right over...just as soon as he finishes eating," Dulcey sheepishly added.

"Great!" Jarrod repeated, this time sounding sarcastic. "That means the Marshal will probably come back, see my stuff still sitting there, get real mad, and then, because he is real mad, he'll most likely make me stay in here all afternoo-"

"-Jim's left?" the girl interrupted, suddenly looking a bit anxious again.

"Twice!" Jarrod told her, suddenly feeling a bit jealous again. The girl was obviously more interested in 'Jim' than him.

"Where'd he go?"

"I don't know."

"Is Charley with him?"

"The first time, they left separately and used the back way. The last time, they left together and went out the front."

"I wonder what he's up to..."

"Dulcey, you know that I was jailed unjustly-"

"-Please don't," the pretty girl pleaded, as her attention was forcibly re-focused.

"Please don't what?" Jarrod innocently inquired.

"Please don't ask me to let you out," Dulcey answered. "Because you know I can't."

"That's right! And that's why I'm not going to ask you to let me out. Just give me the keys...and I'll let myself out."

Dulcey stared dubiously up at the young doctor. "You're not allowed out unless someone is dying. Remember?"

"But...someone is dying! Right here before your very eyes! It happens to be me! And what I'm dying from is boredom!"

"Well, then...I'll just have to bring you a book," Dulcey determined, looking slightly amused, but more skeptical than ever.

"I'd rather you'd bring me the keys, instead," the young doctor said and gave the girl a pleading, desperate look of his own. What worked for the goose just might work for the gander. "Please?" he begged and batted his big, sad eyes. "Bring me the keys. Why, if you were to give them to me right now, I might even be able to move my stuff and make it back into my cell before the Marshal gets back! Then, when he finds his jail all cleared out and hears that I'm not getting a gun, after all, he'll be in such a good mood, he's bound to let me go."

Dulcey stared into the handsome young man's incredibly blue eyes and battled with her uncertainty. How could she-how could anyone-say no to those big, sad, incredibly blue eyes? Besides, what he'd just said made sense. Not only that, hadn't he just gotten himself into trouble helping her? It was only fair that she should now return the favor. "Come to think of it, he did ask me to get rid of this stuff. And I'm quite certain he never meant for me to move these heavy trunks on my own. So, since you do seem to be the only help available at the moment..." She side-stepped over to the wall and nonchalantly lifted the key ring down from its hook. "This makes us even again," she announced.

Jarrod nodded.

So Dulcey handed him the keys. Then, while he was busy letting himself out, she let herself in to the Marshal's Office and had herself a little look around.

The Marshal was gone, all right.

But his coffee was still sitting there. Ev-er-y single drop, by the looks of it.

Dulcey saw that there were also two empty beer mugs sitting on the desk.

What had been Charley's final consideration concerning the sedative?

Aside from sampling, the girl had no way of knowing. She grabbed the glasses and picked up the cup and headed off to pour its unknown contents safely down her drain.

"I'll be right with you, Jarrod," she told the young man who was now busy tugging on a trunk.

Jarrod grunted an acknowledgment and glanced up in time to watch the girl turn towards the kitchen. She had just come out of the alcove carrying a full cup of coffee and-two empty beer mugs? The young doctor tensed and glanced up again-with the words, 'uh oh' written all over his face. "Wait a minute," he beckoned.

The girl obligingly brought herself to a halt and turned back in the doctor's direction.

"Where did you find those?" he anxiously inquired.

"They were on Jim's desk," Dulcey replied, staring at the young man who was pointing to the glasses in her right hand, in confusion, "with his coffee. Why?" she wondered, making an anxious inquiry of her own.

Upon hearing her reply, the words 'UH OH!' reappeared on Jarrod's face. Only this time they were written in capital letters! "He wouldn't put the sedative in the beer..." he confidently stated. But then concluded with a not so confident, "Would he?"

"Why?" Dulcey wondered, looking even more confused. "What possible difference would that make?"

"Mixing alcohol with any opiate is dangerous. But a combination of these two drugs would be particularly dangerous! It would produce a chemical quotient equivalent to-" Seeing Dulcey's look of confusion deepening, the young doctor quickly translated his scientific explanation into layman's terms. "The combination could turn your living legend into a raving lunatic! Real quick!"

The pretty girl's face filled with fear and her jaw dropped open in horror.

"Hey..." Jarrod soothingly said, stepping around the trunks and up to the now greatly distressed looking damsel. "I didn't mean to frighten you." He gripped the girl's arms and gave them a reassuring squeeze. "Why, Charley probably never even considered putting the sedative in his beer." While his words were saying one thing, his face was still saying another.

"Yes. Well," Dulcey told the young man upon whose handsome face traces of 'uh oh' were still clearly visible, "if it is as dangerous as you say, shouldn't we go and find out for sure? Just as quickly as possible..." she added, as the young physician failed to heed her first hint and release her.

Jarrod-who had gotten lost while gazing into the lovely young lady's eyes-returned to reality and then stood there, pondering over the pretty girl's proposal. Either he could stay there alone, lugging heavy trunks out into the alley...or he could go traipsing all over town with Dulcey, in search of a possibly drugged-and so slightly deranged-legend. "You're right!" Jarrod eagerly agreed, snatching the cup and glasses from Dulcey and setting them down on a trunk so he could take her hand. "Let's go! There's not a moment to lose!" He would take advantage of any excuse to be with her. In fact, he decided he didn't need an excuse to be with her-he so thoroughly enjoyed the little lady's company.

The two didn't have to go very far to find the Marshal-or to wait very long to witness some truly bizarre behavior.

They'd barely stepped one foot into the alcove, when the office's front door flew open and Jim Crown came casually striding in. The lawman's unexpected arrival caused the startled pair to split up. They pressed themselves up on either side of the doorway between the alcove and the office and peered out at the peace officer from behind a pair of bright-orange curtains.

The couple continued watching as Crown continued striding-clean up to his corner filing cabinet-where he proceeded to pull a spare set of saddlebags out of its second drawer.

The two turned to one another and blinked in disbelief as the Marshal unbuttoned his shirt and then began to stash a considerable sum of cold, hard cash into one of the bags' two pockets.

Dulcey suddenly had a rather horrifying thought. The thought was so horrifying, in fact, that she had to press her fingers over her lips to keep from gasping out loud. 'Had the Marshal drank the drugged beer and then went off and robbed the bank?' She turned back in time to see Jim place some important looking papers in the bags' other pocket.

"Here," Jim said as Charley Adams came backing in off the boardwalk. "Since you ain't the least bit tired...take this and get goin'."

Charley turned around and caught the saddlebags-which had been tossed at him-in self-defense. That the Marshal's friend was more than a little upset was quite visibly obvious. "You're the one who'd better get goin', Crown!" Charley shouted sharply back. That he was also quite angry was being made verbally apparent. "'Cuz-in about two minutes-Mareck's gonna be sendin' a dozen men in here ta tear this place apart! And when they find you, they're gonna fill you full a' lead!"

The two young folks turned to each other again and exchanged horrified glances.

Once again Dulcey was forced to press her fingers to her lips.

"You mean ta say, that I been swingin' at hornets' nests again?" Crown casually inquired.

A bit too casually, as far as the young couple was concerned.

"Swingin' at 'em?" Charley shouted in utter disbelief. "SWINGIN' at 'em? Why, you been knockin' 'em on the ground an' stompin' up an' down on 'em!"

The Senator came backing into the office just then-with his gun drawn. Dave threw the door closed. Then he turned quickly around and fell back against it, to breathe one, long, loud sigh of relief.

The Marshal's old friend finally looked up and the pair in hiding saw that the expression on his face made for an exact match of Charley's.

"What on earth has gotten into you, James?" Dave wondered, sounding completely bewildered.

'James' just leaned casually back up against his desk to even more casually fold his arms across his chest.

They were looking at a classic example of 'genius' gone 'haywire'.

"Have you been drinkin'?" Dave cautiously inquired, and shot his strangely behaving old buddy a strange stare.

But, again, 'James' remained silent. Crown apparently found the Senator's question too insulting to even answer.

So Dulcey answered for him. "He's drugged!" she declared, stepping out of hiding and up to the Marshal.

"I had one beer," the lawman stated, in his defense.

"I didn't say you were 'drunk'," Dulcey assured him. "I said you were drugged."

It took several seconds for the girl's words to sink in. But then a look of dawning understanding came over the drugged man-closely followed by one of anger and betrayal. "No-ow I'm gonna shoot you, Charley!" he announced, aiming his gaze in the direction of his now cowering fishin' partner.

"Don't shoot me-e!" Charley pleaded as the enraged lawman straightened up and started heading towards him. "It wasn't my idea!"

"That beer you brought me-what did you put in it?" Crown inquired, curious as to just what on earth had gotten into him.

"I dunno! But it wasn't supposed ta have this sort of effect on you," Charley assured him and kept right on backing away.

"Oh-Oh? What sort of 'effect' was it s'posed ta have on me, Charley?" Crown sarcastically inquired, and kept right on coming.

"It was jes' supposed ta put you ta sleep, is all."

"Oh! It's gonna 'put me ta sleep', all right...permanently!"

"Not if we hurry," the Senator interjected, stepping between the Marshal and Mr. Adams. "Come on, James! We got ta get you out a' here!"

"I ain't goin' nowheres!" the lawman adamantly declared.

Dave either ignored, or didn't believe Jim, because he latched onto his partner's left arm and started dragging him off.

"I told you," Crown told him-all the while applying his brakes, "I ain't go-"

"-But," the Senator quickly cut in, "you heard what Mr. Adams said! Mareck's gonna be sendin' a dozen of his boys in here-any second now! Don't that mean anything ta you?"

"Yea-eah!" Crown casually replied. "It means that I won't have ta wait 'til after two ta kill 'im!"

The lawman's friends glanced helplessly, and hopelessly, at one another.

'It's useless ta try an' reason with him!' Dave told himself. Jim didn't have so much as even one 'rational' thought in his whole entire head, and time was running out! The Senator looked over the Marshal's sore right shoulder and watched, with widening eyes, as the young doctor came creeping out of the little alcove. Dave's eyes widened even further when he saw that he was carrying that long-needled, glass, cylindrical device of his. Hadn't Jim been drugged enough for one day? 'Then again,' the Senator silently realized, 'it sure beats breakin' somethin' over his head.' He continued watching, as Dulcey and the doctor conversed-using only eye contact.

The two were obviously in cahoots with each other and they apparently had a plan. Why else would the girl have remained so silent for so long?

The Marshal's back remained towards the boy.

All they needed now was a 'distraction' of some sort.

Just as Jarrod was about to signal Dulcey to make her move, the office's front door opened and one-seemingly made-to-order-'Marshal Distractor' appeared.

"I guess I should a' knocked," the lovely, tall, shapely lady with long, black hair and dark, green eyes said, upon seeing that three pistols were now pointed at her. The woman wore a lovely, rose-colored dress with a tall, white, lacy collar...and she wore it very well!

"Katelyn!" Crown called out, somewhat reverently, and quickly replaced his Colt. The lawman and the lady were obviously old acquaintances. The Marshal made no attempt whatsoever to conceal the joy he felt at seeing her again. Her sudden appearance in the room caused his whole appearance to brighten-considerably!

Katelyn gave the walkin' wounded a quick, worried once over. The lawman was apparently still in one fairly sound piece. So she allowed herself to lighten up a bit, and even managed to greet him with a genuinely warm smile. "Hello...again."

Crown found the sight of her smile and the sound of her voice irresistible. But then, he had no resistance at the moment. No restraints existed now. Jim was a slave to his emotions. Whatever he felt like saying-he said, and whatever he felt like doing-he did. Just then, he felt like holding her. So he crossed over to Katelyn and took her into his arms.

All eyes in the room widened as the Marshal's eyes closed, and he proceeded to kiss this 'Katelyn' lady most passionately-on the lips! Such public displays of unbridled passion were uncommon-even among married couples. So his audience naturally considered his extremely inappropriate behavior quite shocking!

The object of the Marshal's amorous advances was currently beside herself-with joy! The lady didn't seem to mind being pulled gently up into the lawman's powerful arms to be tenderly kissed by him-one little bit! Katelyn finally recovered from their most passionate kiss and found, to her amazement, that she was the only one in the room who had. "It's all right," she assured their shocked audience. "Yah see, we were sort a' married...for a while." Her announcement only succeeded in shocking their audience even more. A fact which Katelyn found to be even more amusing. But then she saw that Jim Crown still seemed sort of dazed and disoriented, and her amused look vanished. Something, other than their kiss, must be affecting him.

The Marshal was growing woozier and woozier with each passing second. "Katelyn?" he softly whispered. Then his dark, green eyes glazed right over...and he passed right out!

Katelyn gasped, as Jim Crown just suddenly collapsed in her arms. The woman gasped again and stood there, holding on to all one hundred and fifty-six pounds of him-for dear life!

"Finally!" Mr. Adams annoyedly exclaimed, and directed his annoyance at the sedative's dispenser. "You told me this stuff would jes' put 'im ta sleep!" he shouted, pulling the supposedly powerful sedative bottle from his pants' pocket and pitching it to the floor at the kid doctor's feet. "Yah never said anything about it makin' 'im act crazy!"

"I told you to put it in his coffee," the young doctor stated in his defense. "How was I to know that you weren't going to follow my orders?"

"There'll be plenty a' time for talkin' later," Dave Fisher told the two argumentative men, as he took the lawman from the lady and laid him gently down onto the floor in front of the door. "Right now, we got ta get Jim out a' here! Mareck says he ain't leavin' now unless it's over Jim's dead body! An' I really believe he really means it!"

"We can't wait around for Carl to finish eating," Jarrod realized, returning to more urgent matters. "We need a wagon right no-ow!"

"I got a borrowed buckboard you kin borrow!" the lady eagerly informed him. "I'm sure Mr. Fitzsimmons wouldn't mind. He an' the Marshal are good friends."

Dulcey hoped there would be plenty of time for talkin' later, because there were a million questions she wanted to ask this mystery woman...who seemed to know the Marshal, and his friends, so well.

"Where is it?" Jarrod wondered.

"Right out front," the woman answered.

"Okay. Bring it around to this side door over here and then wait for us there in the alley!" the doctor ordered.

The lady readily obeyed.

"What are those for?" Jarrod wondered, as the Senator placed a pair of leg irons upon the lawman's chest, and then began lifting his limp legs up off the floor.

"We're placin' the Marshal in protective custody," Dave explained as the young doctor picked Jim up under the arms and they began carefully carting him off. "Those are ta guarantee that we keep him in custody. We can't afford ta take any more chances, or make any more mistakes. With a lot a' sleep, an' a little luck, Jim'll prob'ly come through all a' this with jes' a bad headache. But the next mistake we make, could cost him his life!" Dave added, completing his somber prediction.

The three co-conspirators exchanged somber glances. The Senator was right, all three of them were equally to blame for the current state of Jim Crown's rather deadly affairs.

Why, Dave even considered himself to be partly responsible. He should've never left his partner's side-not even for one second!

"What are yah gonna do with him once yah've got 'im in the wagon?" Charley wondered, as the little entourage reached the door to the alley and came to a halt.

Being a newcomer to Cimarron, Dave turned to Dulcey, who had opened and so was now holding the door for them. "How 'bout it? Is there someplace where we kin hide 'im?"

"An' Mareck an' his men won't find 'im?" Charley continued, adding onto the Senator's good question.

"I know the perfect place!" Jarrod replied, before Dulcey had the chance to. "Dulcey just showed it to me this morning," he continued, as they continued heading out the door. "Dulcey, you'd better find Francis. He should probably be informed of all of this."

"I'll find 'im!" Dave volunteered. "I know where he is," he explained, seeing the puzzled look on the pretty girl's face.

They carried their unconscious cargo cautiously out into the alley. Katelyn seemed to be the only one in sight, so they placed Jim Crown carefully down in the back of her 'borrowed' borrowed wagon.

"We should probably cover 'im," Dave said, as he stood there, staring down at his very visible and very vulnerable friend.

"Come on!" Jarrod invited. "We can pack my trunks in around him and then cover him with the crates."

So they could-and so they did.

"All right," Jarrod said, climbing up into the seat beside the lady, "move out. And please, be careful! Those crates contain some very valuable, extremely delicate medical equipment, and I don't want to drop any of them."

Katelyn turned to the dictatorial young man, who she could only assume must be Cimarron's new doctor, and gave him an annoyed glare. "I don't want ta 'drop' any of 'em, either," she assured the self-centered kid. "They could land on the Marshal an' crack a couple more of his ribs!"

Dulcey smiled and stepped up to the marvelous mystery woman. She couldn't've said it any better, herself. "Will you be staying with him?"

"I'd like to. If it's all right with you? Yah see, I'm a nurse, by profession."

'And you're in love with him,' Dulcey silently realized, seeing the look that was there in the woman's eyes. She knew that look because she had seen it in her own eyes. She had been in love with the Marshal once, herself. A long time ago. Dear God! What had she done? Instead of saving her big brother's life, she'd just come this close to getting him killed! Jim was forever asking her not to interfere. Why didn't she ever seem to listen? Why did she always have to learn the hard way? And why did Jim always seem have to be the one who ended up paying the price for her stupidity? She meant well. She always meant well. "Take good care of him for me," Dulcey said and passed the lady a sort of sad smile-along with the Marshal's hat.

"I will," Katelyn promised, returning the smile, but keeping the hat. With that, she drove carefully off.

Dulcey watched the wagon until it disappeared from view.

"I'd better get goin', too," Charley Adams glumly announced. "I promised Jim I'd deliver this for 'im," he added, motioning to the Marshal's spare saddlebags.

Dulcey turned to the man. "That's the first time I've ever heard you call him anything but 'Crown'," she realized, looking and sounding somewhat surprised.

Charley appeared somewhat embarrassed. "Tell Crown I ain't hangin' around 'im no more. It's too hard on an old man's heart," he explained, rather grumpily.

'It could be awfully hard on a young girl's heart, too...' Dulcey sadly realized, to herself. Then, to Charley, she said, "Does that mean I won't be fixing you any more free breakfasts?"

Charley considered the consequences of he and his fishin' partner parting ways for a few moments before making his reply. "Tell Crown I forgive 'im-this time. Not hangin' around 'im would be even harder on this old man's stomach," he explained, rather lightly, and he and the girl exchanged grins.

"Be careful, Charley!" Dulcey called out as the old man turned to leave.

Charley nodded and then disappeared.

The Senator seemed to have disappeared as well.

That left the young lady standing all alone in the alley-with her rather bittersweet thoughts.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Twenty-Three

Doctor Ellis stepped down from Katelyn's borrowed buckboard and up to the back door of Doctor Kilghren's. Using the key the Marshal had given him that morning, he opened the lock and then threw wide the door- before quickly backtracking to the wagon.

Katelyn had stepped down, too, and was standing at the back of the buckboard, with the Marshal's hat in her hands and an anxious, worried look on her lovely face.

The doctor set his medical bag down on top of the manacles on the Marshal's chest and then grabbed the completely motionless man under the arms.

"Whose house is this?" the woman wondered as the young man carefully started tugging on her precious cargo.

"The town Doctor's."

"Then it's yores."

"For now, anyway. It goes with the job."

As the Marshal slid past her, Katelyn stashed the hat in her hands onto the back of his hanging head. Then she latched onto the lawman's legs and the two of them lugged their patient's completely limp body up onto the back porch...through the doctor's offices...up the stairs...down a long hallway...and into the...linen closet at the end of the hall?

Katelyn stared in disbelief as the young doctor proceeded to set his end of their patient down on the floor, about three feet in front of the thing's door. "You're right," she admitted, her voice oozing sarcasm. "No one will 'ever' think ta look for 'im in there."

The doctor ignored the nurse's sarcastic comments, and turned his back on her as well, so that he could pull the closet's door open. Actually, he pulled open more than just the door. The whole thing seemed to be on hinges.

Katelyn watched in amazement as the entire linen closet swung away from the wall to reveal a hidden entryway to a hidden room. She continued to watch from the hallway as the doctor went inside.

"It seems that I've inherited one of the oldest houses in Cimarron," Jarrod said, as he set about striking matches and lighting oil lamps. "According to Dulcey, the original occupant's wife was terrified of Indians. The man was a stagecoach driver and, since he had to leave his young, terrified bride alone a lot, he built her this little room, so that she could hide from the Indians-should they ever have decided to attack the town...which they never did. There were a lot of renegades and outlaws, however," he added, stepping back into the hall and stooping to pick his patient back up. "So the room has come in quite handy from time-to-time over the years. Dulcey claims that she and Mrs. Kilghren hid in here once. When the Vardeman's were in town-gunning for the Marshal. Someone, it seems, is always 'gunning' for the Marshal."

"It goes with the job," Katelyn sadly pointed out.

They stepped into the 'quite handy' hidden room.

The woman stared around her in wide-eyed wonder.

Though space was limited, it was also well-utilized and well-furnished. Everything was centered around a small cook stove, which had to be situated so that its smoke stack could tie into the home's main chimney.

There was a well-stocked bookshelf and a pantry containing a wide variety of various canned goods. There were jars of water on the shelves-along with extra jugs of lamp oil.

One of the room's far corners contained a small table-with chairs. An unmade double bed occupied the other. Why, there was even a dresser.

The room also contained an incredibly large supply of wood-ample fuel for both heating and cooking.

While the hidden room had, of necessity, no windows, the freshness of the air proved that it was well-ventilated. The warm glow of the room's four oil lamps provided the finishing touch to an already comfortable, homey atmosphere.

"Get his gun belt."

Katelyn frowned, as the sound of the young doctor's sharp order broke the spell.

They set their, by now, heavy burden down on the unmade bed.

Katelyn unfastened the leather tie around the Marshal's right thigh before obediently unbuckling and removing his gun belt.

The doctor undid the cloth tie around the Marshal's neck before unbuttoning and opening his shirt to examine the bandages over the bullet holes, for any signs of excessive bleeding. "Good," he commended Katelyn, "Now, his boots."

The nurse hesitated an instant or two, but then she set the gun belt down and obligingly began tugging on the Marshal's left boot.

"Have you known the 'living legend' long?" Doctor Ellis wondered, rummaging through the medical bag lying at the 'legend's' side. Personally, he didn't care. But he figured Dulcey would probably be curious as to her answer.

The boot came off in Katelyn's hands. "Long enuff ta know that he's not gonna like any a' this," she replied and dropped the boot onto the floor at the foot of the bed, to start tugging on the remaining one. The right boot came off and she dropped it beside its mate on the floor.

The doctor pulled the stethoscope he had finally found and just finished using, from his ears and stashed it back into his medical bag. He tossed the satchel onto the dresser beside the bed and then picked the leg irons up from the bed beside his patient. "Yes. Well, I've known him long enough to know that this is the only way we're going to keep him a 'living' legend," he solemnly said and proceeded to fasten the 'legendary lawman's' right ankle securely to one of the solid brass corner posts at the foot of the bed.

Katelyn stared down at the rather daring young doctor in disbelief. "Jes' how lo-ong are you plannin' ta keep 'im here?"

The Marshal's hat had slid down over his face. The doctor took it and tossed it onto the dresser as well. "'Til either he-or the odds against him-get a whole lot better. Slide his vest off for me, will you?" he added, latching onto the unconscious man's shirt collar and sitting him up slightly. "Careful with his right shoulder there..." he advised.

The nurse was.

The doctor just as carefully lowered their patient back down onto the bed. "Mrs. Kilgren left some linens behind. But we're going to be needing some blankets," Jarrod realized aloud. "I'll have to try to remember to bring some over from the Inn."

Katelyn took the hint, handed the vest to the doctor and left to fetch a few sheets of the left behind linens.

Jarrod dug a key from one of the vest's front pockets and deposited it into his right coat pocket. He slid the tie from around the Marshal's neck and tossed it, and the vest, onto the dresser. Then he placed the back of his hand on his patient's forehead and frowned.

Katelyn returned just then with the linens, spotted the doctor's frown and quickly dropped her bundles onto the bed. "What is it?" she inquired, rushing to the Marshal's side and shooting the frowning young man standing over him an extremely anxious stare.

"Nothing really," the doctor assured the very concerned woman. "He just feels a little warm, is all. The germs got a five hour head start on me."

Katelyn breathed an audible sigh of relief and then studied the motionless, manacled Marshal for a few moments. "If you think he's warm now, wait 'til he wakes up an' sees what we've done to 'im."

"For him!" Jarrod corrected. "What we've done for him. Remember that, Nurse-?"

"-Edwards," Katelyn filled in.

"Remember that, Nurse Edwards. And don't you worry. When he starts to come around, just let me know, and I'll take the heat. I can handle it. You see, 'living legends' don't intimidate me. I just spent the last four years working with one in France. They're all alike, pompous, pampered, overbearing, egotistical, domineering, dicta-"

"-You actually got to work with Louis Pasteur?" Katelyn exclaimed, as the young doctor's words finally registered with her.

Jarrod nodded. "And he was hell to work with! Until I learned how to handle him," he added, rather smugly. "The same method'll work on the Marshal, here."

"An' what 'method' would that be, Doctor-?" Katelyn inquired, looking highly amused and equally skeptical.

"-Ellis," Jarrod answered. "It's easy! You just have to act as pompous and pampered, and overbearing and egotistical, and domineering and dictatorial as they do. And you'll get along jes' fi-ine!"

Katelyn looked even more amused-and skeptical.

"It works!" Jarrod assured her. "Stick around long enough, and you'll see. They're all alike."

Katelyn watched as the young man snatched up the Marshal's gun belt and then carefully slid the lawman's Colt from its holster.

Jarrod added the belt to the growing number of articles on the dresser. Then he sat down at the table and began monkeying with the Marshal's gun.

By the time the doctor had removed the Colt's six .45 caliber cartridges, not only had the nurse fetched a bowl of water, but she had placed a cool, damp cloth on his patient's burning forehead...and she had the Marshal's bed half-made as well.

Jarrod looked duly impressed.

Nurse Edwards was obviously very efficient.

The doctor shot the efficient nurse his deeply impressed look.

Which she pretended not to notice.

"Hold it!" Jarrod requested, just as the woman was about to cover the 'legend' with a nice, clean, crisp, white sheet.

Katelyn did as she was told, and placed herself on hold.

The doctor placed the empty Colt in Doc' Crown's gun hand and then closed the 'legend's' limp fingers around about its bone handle. "I'm just trying to make things as comfortable as possible for him," he explained, seeing the nurse staring at him like he'd just lost his mind or something. "Considering the circumstances..." he added rather guiltily and gave his patient's leg iron a quick glance.

Katelyn stared rather dubiously down at the young doctor's idea of a pacifier for an imprisoned peace officer. "Yah know, when he wakes up...he jes' might decide ta throw that at you," she warned and flashed the young physician a wry smile.

"That I could probably duck. It's lead I don't want him throwing at me. You see, I sort of reneged on a deal that we sort of had. So, lose these bullets," he paused to pass the lady the ammunition. "And his gun belt. I'm going to go find someone to help me unload the wagon." With that, the doctor walked out and closed the...closet.

It was a full, peaceful fifteen minutes before Doctor Ellis came back...and began barking out orders again. "You'd better go lose that horse and wagon of yours. If you leave that rig sitting out there any longer, someone may get suspicious."

Katelyn gave the disturbing young man an angry glare. "If you're that worried about it, then I suggest that you take the horse and wagon on over ta the livery. Because I have no intentions a' leavin' here."

Jarrod shot the mutinous woman an 'How dare you, a mere nurse, disobey the orders of a doctor?' look. But he didn't verbally debate the issue. The tone of the lady's voice told him that it would have been totally pointless to do so. "Very well then, Nurse. I was going to change the patient's dressings. But now I suppose they'll just have to keep until I get back..."

Katelyn stared at the impudent kid doctor in utter disbelief again. It was quite possible that she had forgotten more about medicine than this young upstart physician currently 'thought' he knew. "I'll have you know, that I was changin' patient's dressings while you were still in diapers, Doctor!"

Jarrod seemed surprised. Not because the woman had more medical experience than him, but because she didn't look that old. "I'll be back to check on him in a few hours," he informed the still-frowning female. Then he exchanged the fresh dressings and bandages in his hands for his medical bag, and humbly took his leave. He knew when he wasn't needed, and he knew when and where he was.

'Honey, I'm ho-ome!' Jarrod silently shouted out, as he came stepping through the Inn's back door and into his 'honey's' empty kitchen.

Dulcey instantly appeared in the room's opposite doorway. A look of tremendous relief came over the girl as she recognized her guest, and she went rushing up to greet him. "Oh, Jarrod!" she joyfully exclaimed. "I'm so glad you're here! How's Jim?" she wondered, gripping the doctor's arms and giving them a slight squeeze.

Why, it was almost as if she had heard him, and her arm squeezing came awful close to a hug...and Dulcey did mention his name first, this time.

"I'm glad to see you, too!" he told her truthfully. He set his medical bag down on the table so he could give her an 'almost a hug' back. "And your Marshal is doing jes' fi-ine! I left him in the very capable hands of Nurse Katelyn Edwards. They must've been 'sort of married' in the same manner that you and he are 'sort of related'," he reasoned.

"Yes..." Dulcey thoughtfully muttered. That sounded reasonable to her. "Come!" she invited. "Sit down. You haven't eaten a thing all day. You must be starving!" she realized. "I'm going to fix you a delicious lunch. And I don't want you to leave here, again, until you've finished eating every last bit of it!" she insisted.

"I promise. I'll eat every bite," he promised. "But only if you'll join me..."

"All right," Dulcey conceded. That also sounded reasonable to her. The girl flashed her guest a warm smile and then quickly set about fixing them both a delicious lunch.

'Oh! Great!' Jarrod joyfully thought. 'Our first date!' "Is there something that I can do to help?" he wondered, before taking a seat.

"You can assist me best by doing what I did to assist you last night," Dulcey informed him with an amused gleam in her eyes.

Jarrod took the hint and sat down, choosing a chair that provided him with the best possible observation advantages. "Let me know when I'm supposed to burst into song..." he lightly requested.

Dulcey looked even more amused. She glanced back over her shoulder and shot the doctor a 'Don't hold your breath!' look.

"Ah-Ahhh," Jarrod said when he saw the look. "And I spent all that time in jail rehearsing, too."

The two of them exchanged grins.

"You sure you don't want to hear it?" the young man wondered, as the young lady returned to her lunch fixing.

"Hear what?"

"What I've been rehearsing."

"What have you been 'rehearsing'?"

"I've come up with another verse for your song. You know, the one about 'The Stranger and the Lady'. It ties in right after the part where she tells him that he could win her love if he gave her his heart. And it goes: 'Then would you ta-ake my heart if I gave it to you?' asked the Stranger of the Lady. 'I promise my hea-eart will always be true,' said the Stranger to the Lady." The young man paused and studied the back of the young lady, who seemed to be frozen in mid-fix, carefully. He was waiting for her to critique his little composition.

But a full sixty seconds passed and still the girl kept silent.

"Is something wrong?" Jarrod anxiously inquired. "I-I hope you don't mind me messing with your song. It's just that I was bored...and didn't have anything better to do."

"'How could I tru-ust a hea-eart so easily won?' asked the Lady of the Stranger. 'It could be another's before day is done,' said the Lady to the Stranger." Dulcey allowed her voice to trail off and herself to turn around. She was extremely anxious to witness the young doctor's reaction to her little composition.

Jarrod was experiencing mixed reactions. He was amazed, over-whelmed and impressed beyond belief-all at the same time! "Boy! You really are good at this 'song writing' business, a-aren't you!"

"Like I said," Dulcey said, turning her back to hide her smug smile, "I get an awful lot of practice."

"And the 'Lady' puts forth a very good question," the physician was forced to admit. "I can see where this 'Stranger' will have to do an awful lot of thinking to come up with an answer to that one," he glumly realized.

Dulcey's hidden, smug smile broadened into a hidden, smug grin.

"So-o...has Francis found out about what happened, yet?" Jarrod suddenly wondered, sounding anxious to change the subject.

The new topic of conversation caused the girl's smug grin to vanish. Why did he have to bring up what had happened? She had been enjoying a nice, pleasant, guilt-free visit up 'til then. She glanced at her aggravating guest and gave him a glum, reluctant nod. "I've never seen him more furious. I was afraid he was going to fling something at me..." she confessed, even more glumly.

"Where is he now?" Jarrod inquired, anxious as to his furious friend's fate.

"He's gone off to drag Mr. Ruckle's out of retirement. It seems that Jim had several telegrams that he wanted him to send for him."

"What about the Senator?" the doctor asked, sounding equally anxious. "What's he up to?"

"He and Francis held a secret conference in Jim's office. And, between the two of them, they came up with what they called 'an absolutely brilliant idea'. That was about fifteen minutes ago. And I haven't seen hide-nor-hair of him, since-" She stopped suddenly and spun around to stare off in the direction of some very loud gunfire! She and Jarrod exchanged some very grave glances, before racing out of the room to investigate the sound's source.

They pair reached the boardwalk in front of the Inn and stood there, in stunned silence, listening to the gunshots, which were still coming from a spot just down the street from them.

Dulcey watched in wide-eyed amazement as the mounted gunman finished shooting out the final panes of glass, in the former Cimarron Hotel's front windows, and then went galloping off down Main Street, leaving a large cloud of dust...and a lot of people with their mouths agape. Dulcey was one of them. She had recognized that gunman.

Everyone recognized him!

There was no mistaking the Marshal's very distinctive wardrobe-.

An even stranger look came over Dulcey as something suddenly dawned on her-the gunman's true identity. She stood there for a few seconds, staring off down the street and smiling to herself.

Senator Fisher and Francis were absolutely right! Their idea was absolutely brilliant! Absolutely!

The girl glanced in Jarrod's direction and found that he, too, seemed to be grinning, inwardly.

"He sits a horse rather well, don't you think?" the young man observed rather lightly. "I mean-for a Senator."

"Oh-Oh, absolutely!" Dulcey heartily agreed. "And his shooting's not bad, either-for a Senator..."

The two onlookers exchanged grins.

"Do you think there's any chance that they'll catch up to him?" Jarrod wondered as they watched a group of about a dozen angry gunmen go riding off in the same direction the 'not the original' original gunman had gone galloping off in.

"None whatsoever!" the girl confidently came back. She had recognized the gunman's mount, as well. "He happens to be riding the fastest horse in the Strip! Maybe even the whole entire Territory!"

Jarrod was relieved to hear her answer. He drew his broad shoulders back and waved an arm in the Inn's direction. "Shall we go in? I know the Innkeeper, personally. And, from what I hear, she's a pretty fair cook-for a songwriter."

The pair exchanged grins again.

Then the couple locked arms and Jarrod escorted Dulcey back into the Inn-where they enjoyed a truly delicious lunch...and each other's company-for the rest of, what turned out to be, a wonderful afternoon.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Twenty-Four

It took Francis forever to finish the Marshal's little list of things for him to do.

It wasn't so much that his boss had asked him to do so much. No, it was mainly because the last item on the list was the sending off of several telegrams.

Now, since Mac had taken the town's telegraph operator off into the Outlet with him, that meant that Francis had to-literally-drag Old Man Ruckles out of retirement.

Because the first item on his boss' list had been the confiscating of all telegraph equipment, the two of them were able to tap into the lines, a safe distance from Cimarron, and send off the following urgent dispatches.

One wire went to the Justice Department's Kansas City Office.


Another telegram went to each of Jim Crown's hand-picked, government-approved and appointed town Marshals: Joe Bravo-over in Hardesty; Pete Keplinger-up in Shades Wells; Bob Iverson-down in Beaver City; and Walt Greer-way over in Guyaman.

The last wire they sent went way and the heck off to San Francisco!

The Marshal had kept his messages very brief.

Still, it took the old man forever to finish. No doubt the reason why Mr. Ruckles had been retired.

Why, in about the same amount of time it had taken he and Mr. Ruckles to send off seven measly little telegrams, he and Mr. Harold had put together, cranked out and sent off nearly a thousand single page newspapers! Several hundred copies of which were shipped out on the noon, north-bound stage, and several hundred copies of which went off with the two o'clock south-bound train. The remaining 'Strip Opening' pamphlets had been divided up and distributed to the folks in town and the three surrounding Settlements.

So, with one thing and another finally taken care of, the reporter headed out to rendezvous with the Senator.

It was nearly three-thirty before Francis' buckboard finally rolled into the little clearing where he and Dave Fisher had agreed to meet.

"What kept you?" the concealed Congressman casually called out.

The unseen Senator's sudden inquiry startled the understandably on edge U.S. Deputy Marshal and he drew in the direction of the questioner.

The person who had posed the question appeared, stepping out from the thick cover of brush he'd been hiding behind.

The voice was Dave Fisher's. The clothes were Jim Crown's.

It seemed odd to see someone else's body in his boss' black slacks, hat and vest. "Business," Francis confided and quickly holstered his gun. "You been here long?" he wondered, climbing down to meet the Marshal impersonator who came limping up to him with a tall, red horse in tow.

"Jes' long enuff ta cool down this mare," Dave Fisher confessed, shaking some of the stiffness from his long legs. "You were right! Jim's got himself one fast animal, here!"

"Then I take it things went accordin' ta plan?"

"We rode circles around 'em!" the Marshal impersonator replied with a grin and a nod. "We made enough tracks out there ta keep Mareck's men busy, an' dizzy, for days! I tell yah, this horse has got speed I never even tapped into! We'd a' prob'ly been here hours ago, if I'd a' really asked 'er ta run-" He stopped suddenly and looked around. "-Speakin' a' horses an' plans...Where's the horse I'm s'posed ta ride back on?"

"I been thinkin'..." the young deputy declared rather matter-of-factly. "What's the fastest way ta get rid of Roger Mareck? Short a' killin' 'im..." he added, seeing the Senator's gaze settling upon his pistol.

"There ain't no other way!" Dave adamantly declared. "I told yah, he ain't leavin' town now, 'til he gets what he wants."

"Then we'll jes' have ta give the man what he wants," Francis calmly rationalized, on his way over to the back of the wagon.

Dave was dumbstruck. He found Francis' statement totally irrational. So he wrapped the fast animal's reins around one of the wagon's wheels a few times and went stomping over to tell him so. "But, what he wants is ta see Jim...dead!"

"Precisely!" Francis' rather smugly replied. He gave the canvas tarp in the back of his buckboard a sharp tug.

A naked, headless corpse appeared.

Actually, upon further-but certainly not any closer-inspection, Dave discovered that the naked, headless 'corpse' was really a very life-er, dead-like, undressed, decapitated clothes' dummy! "What on earth are you doin' with that?"

"That's not a that," Francis corrected. "That's a who. Whose name happens ta be Mannequin. But everyone jes' calls 'im Manny, for short," he added, climbing gingerly up into the back of the wagon. "Manny, here, was a professional model," the reporter continued, passing the Senator a complete change of clothes, "until some kids kidnapped 'im from Greyson's Mercantile one dark an' dreary night. Well, as you might expect, one prank led ta another an', somehow, Jim ended up blowin' Manny's head clean off!"

The Senator stopped undressing and stared incredulously up at the Marshal's young deputy.

"It's a long, outrageous story," Francis said, seeing the look. "Remind me ta tell yah about it some day...when we have the time," he tacked on, rather tactfully.

The Senator took the hint and went back to changing.

As each article of the Marshal's clothing was handed to him, Francis promptly placed them on the dummy. "Anyways," the reporter went back to his storytelling, "that unfortunate incident tragically ended Manny's modeling career. Unfortunately, it didn't put an end to the pranks. The kids in town kept right on borrowin' 'im, an' usin' 'im ta play some particularly cruel practical jokes on people. An', since Mr. Greyson refused ta get rid of 'im, the Marshal was forced ta confiscate 'im. Manny, here, has been hidin' out in the Inn's attic ever since. Dulcey's been after us, for two years now, ta get rid of her unwanted 'guest'," he confessed and gave the last black boot, which he had conveniently brought along, one hopefully last tug.

The Senator watched the young man's mischievous smile turn to one of satisfaction as the stubborn thing finally fell into place.

There! With the exception of the Marshal's black hat and vest, the dummy was now completely dressed.

Dave stared up at both the deputy and the dummy, looking duly impressed. Francis had figured out a way to give Dulcey what she wanted, and Mareck what he wanted-all at the same time! "Yah know somethin', you been hangin' around Jim Crown so long, you're actually beginnin' ta think like 'im."

Francis apparently took the man's comment as the highest of compliments, for his satisfied smile broadened into a satisfied grin. "Here! Catch!" he advised, tossing Dave Fisher a blood-soaked, burlap bag.

But Dave, who had decided he wasn't touching the unsavory-looking sack, stepped aside and let the bag-and its bloody contents-drop into the dust at his feet. There was blood all over it! Worse yet, there was definitely something dead in it! "What on earth is tha-at?" Dave demanded, "An' please, don't say that's a 'who'! " he earnestly implored.

Francis' grin broadened and he gave the rather pale looking politician an 'oh brother!' look. "I had ta shoot a jack rabbit on the way here."

Dave stared up at him in disbelief. "You 'had' ta shoot it? What? Yah mean like in 'self-defense'?"

Francis found the Senator's light-hearted comments highly entertaining and he had everything he could do to keep from laughing. "No. We needed a head, remember? Manny here lost his years ago!"

Dave decided it was a case of 'justifiable bunnycide'...or was it? "I always pictured Jim as more of a rock badger..." he teased, staring thoughtfully down at the sanguinary sack.

"Yeah? Well, I didn't run inta any rock badgers on the way here," the reporter reminded him with another roll of his eyes.

"Funny, but it don't look like a bunny..."

"You wouldn't be recognizable, either," the deputy declared, jumping down from the wagon with a shovel in each of his hands, "if someone turned you inside out an' then rolled you up into a ball!" He passed the now disgusted looking Dave one of his shovels so he'd have a hand free to pick up the sack. "Come on! We got us a grave ta dig..."

The Senator glanced distastefully down at the round point, then up at the bossy deputy's back. Grave digging was a little out of his line.

"Don't worry!" the reporter called back, as if reading his mind. "You'll develop a real 'feel' for it...after the first four or five feet!" he truthfully tacked on.

Dave grinned and followed the sound of Francis' evil chuckle over to a nice, peaceful, shady spot where the earth wasn't packed very hard.

Francis placed the burlap bag down and then traced a huge rectangle with the tip of his shovel. "Dig in!" he invited, ramming his grave digging instrument into the ground with the sole of his boot.

Dave rolled up his sleeves-and reluctantly dug in.

"Kin I ask you somethin'?" Francis wondered as the two of them began sending shovelful after shovelful of the soft, slightly damp, pink-tinged soil sailing through the air.

"Go ahead," the Senator said.

"How did you an' the Marshal ever become friends?"

"It's a lo-ong, outrageous story," Dave declared with a smile, and kept right on shoveling. "Why, we'd be diggin' clear down ta China if I was ta go inta that! But I will tell yah how he came ta be a Marshal..." he added, seeing how disappointed the young deputy was with his 'no answer' answer.

Francis' look of eager anticipation returned. The writer knew everything about Jim Crown-for the last five years-and little or nothing about the man prior to that. Hence, any and all information concerning the legend's 'background' was definitely appreciated-and most certainly welcomed.

"It was ten years ago-almost to the very day. President Arthur was passin' through Texas on his way to a meetin' with the President of Mexico. I had jes' been re-elected ta the House a' Representatives-on account a' my campaign promise ta rid the state of corruption. An', since a lot a' the corruption came from local law officials, I was able ta talk President Arthur into appointin' four Federal Marshals ta help me take care a' the problem. That left me with another problem-findin' enough qualified men ta fill these new positions. Jim Crown was the first man who came ta mind. After I left for law school, the two of us sort a' lost touch. But I was able ta keep track of 'im on account a' how, as a personal favor ta my Father, Jim was workin' for my older brother, Daniel-who was Commandin' Officer at Fort McKinley. But, when I contacted Dan, he said that Jim had had his fill a' scoutin' for the Army an' had gone back inta ranchin'. So I made some further contacts an' finally found out that he had settled down in Duran, where he was real busy-raisin' hell an' horses," the Senator stopped his storytelling to exchange grins with the Marshal's young friend.

The two men mopped the sweat from their brows and then resumed shoveling.

"I knew that none a' the men I wanted were gonna 'volunteer' for the job. But I really needed their assistance! So, in desperation, I turned ta some slightly underhanded recruitin' methods," Dave confessed, returning to his narrative. "That's how President Arthur an' I happened ta be sittin' in the 'Broken Arrow Saloon' in El Paso, on the same day that Jim Crown was due ta deliver a herd a' horses to an 'anonymous' buyer..." the Senator smiled thoughtfully as memories came flooding back. As he told his little tale, he found himself reliving every moment, remembering every little detail-all the smells, and sights, and sounds...

The 'Broken Arrow' wasn't the only saloon in El Paso, but-of all the cowboy watering holes in town-it happened to be 'the' closest one to the corrals. So Congressman Fisher had chosen it as the place where he, and the President of the United States, would wait for Jim Crown to appear.

Dave was seated across from the country's Commander-in-Chief, in a smelly booth in the noisy bar's darkest corner, completely surrounded by Secret Service men. The booth smelt of spilt beer and stale tobacco. The noise was a raucous mixture of people's shouted voices and an out-of-tune piano. The beer was flat and warm. The whiskey was watered down. The air reeked of unbathed bodies and cigar smoke-all in all, it was a typical Western waterin' hole. The two politicians had spent the past several hours playing cards with two of the six Presidential bodyguards.

The President was a pretty good poker player, but he was becoming bored and his patience was wearing thin. He'd had about all of the 'rustic atmosphere' that he could possibly stand, for one afternoon. "David," the distinguished gentlemen said, sounding even wearier than he looked, "are you positively certain that he's coming?"

"Yes, Sir!" David reassured him. "If he says he'll be here, he'll be here! When Jim Crown gives his word you kin rest assur-" he stopped in mid-sentence and pulled the brim of his hat down low in an attempt to hide his face. "Here they come now."

Three dust-covered, saddle-weary cowboys stepped in off the street and started heading for the bar, to place their orders.

The same hired thug that had accosted the President and his party approached them. "You boys new in town?" he gruffly inquired.

The boys nodded.

"You plannin' on stayin' long?"

"Nope," one of the boys replied. "We'll be leavin' first thing in the mornin'."

"El Paso is a real wide-open town. Strangers here are sometimes beaten an' robbed..." the hired thug icily insinuated.

The boys were real quick to catch on. The three of them glanced knowingly at each other and began digging out their money.

"How much is it gonna take ta guarantee our safety?" the group's spokesman irritatedly wondered.

"A dollar a day," the hired thug-who, coincidentally, happened to be wearing a deputy sheriff's badge-informed them.

The boys glanced at each other again, looking stunned.

Their spokesman cleared his throat and turned back to stare at the thief in disbelief. "But that's a whole day's wages!"

"Hell! That's extortion!" his closest companion angrily chimed in.

"Easy!" the third member of their trio urged. "We're already bein' robbed, an' I don't fancy bein' beaten. So let's jes' pay up, an' then go get good an' drunk!"

"Was that a dollar a piece? Or for all three of us?" the group's spokesman sarcastically inquired, as a cooler head prevailed.

The thug was not amused and he glared icily back at them as they each, in turn, flipped him a silver dollar.

"Which one is he?" the President wondered, as the trio turned and started heading towards the bar.

"Those three are his friends," Dave informed him. "Jim should be along any minute now. He's probably still seein' to the horses."

"Speaking of the horses," the country's Commander-in-Chief continued, his interest suddenly sparked, "how much did the Army end up paying for these animals?"

"The agreement was that, if they could guarantee delivery of sixty head of horses to El Paso within twelve days, they would be guaranteed payment of one hundred dollars per head."

"For that price, they'd better at least be broke."

"They couldn't really guarantee that, Sir, given such short notice. But I'd be willin' ta bet that, when you get out ta that corral, you're gonna find sixty head a' the finest broke-ta-saddle horses in all a' Texas!"

"You're on!" the country's Senior Executive exclaimed, slapping a twenty dollar gold piece down on the table.

Dave Fisher fished a matching sum from the front pocket of his suit and tossed his half of the wager down onto the table. "This isn't really a fair bet, Sir. Yah see, I know Jim Crown!"

"And I know human nature," the President countered. "Men will only work as hard as they have to."

"What's takin' him so long?" one of Jim Crown's friends suddenly shouted. "What's he doin'? Kissin' every one a' them nags goodnight?"

"That'd take 'im forever. Las' time I saw 'im, he wasn' movin' so fast."

"You'd be draggin', too, if you jes' busted five dozen broncs in a dozen days."

"Nights," his comrade corrected. "Remember? He was too busy drivin' 'em days."

Upon hearing this, the President turned to Dave, looking-not disappointed-but duly impressed.

Dave looked relieved that he hadn't been disappointed, also. It had been nearly ten years and, sometimes, men change.

"Yeah...well," the group's spokesman continued, "he ain't gettin' no sympathy from me. He wouldn' a' had ta break none a' them broncs. The man was perfectly willin' ta pay for 'em unbroke."

"You heard 'im. He couldn' take no hundred dollars for no unbroke horse. Why, it jes' wouldn' be right."

"Speakin' a' things not bein' right...What da yah reckon'll happen when he meets up with the Deputy over there?"

"I dunno. But we're about ta find out," the cooler headed of the three said, motioning to the lone figure who had just stepped through the swinging doors and into the saloon.

"That's him, Mr. President!" Dave proudly pointed out. "That's Jim Crown!"

The President eyed the honest, hard-working, handsome young cowhand approvingly. He looked like a man who could take care of himself. He radiated confidence-and yet he didn't seem cocky.

Jim Crown also appeared to be an extremely cautious young man, for he didn't take another step until he had finished surveying every square inch of the dimly-lit, smoke-filled saloon. "Save it!" the cowboy advised the approaching thug. "I've already been preached that sermon an' been passed the plate!" he added, his witty words seething with equal measures of contempt and disgust.

The 'sermon preacher' wisely withdrew from him.

"I got us some rooms across the street," Jim Crown informed his three friends when he finally rejoined them at the bar.

"Hey, barkeep! Another beer, for our friend, here."

The barkeep nodded and promptly set a fresh, foaming mug down in front of their friend. Then he watched in amusement as all three of his customer's companions proceeded to pay for it. The barkeep looked at a loss as to whose money he should accept.

Jim Crown promptly settled the dispute by plunking a nickel of his own down on the bar.

All five of them exchanged amused glances.

Then the barkeep calmly went about his business, leaving all four of their nickels just a settin' there.

Jim gave his companions-and the barkeep-a grateful nod and then drained his glass dry. The beer was both warm and flat, but the cowboy didn't much care. He'd eaten a lot a' dust since leaving Duran and anything wet would help ta settle it.

"Anybody seen our buyer?" Jim Crown wondered, setting the empty mug down on the bar to take another cautious look around.


"Well, I think I know who he's 'buyin'' for..." the cautious cowboy confessed.

"Who?" all three of his companions wondered, at once.

"The Army!...What?" Jim Crown continued, seeing the looks of extreme skepticism on his friends' faces. "You think it's just a coincidence that those boys-in-blue are camped down by the corrals?"

The three men looked thoughtful, and then a bit confused.

"If that guy was a buyer for the Army, why didn' he jes' say so?"

"An even better question is, why did he want ta buy horses that were four hundred miles away," Jim Crown cautiously inquired, "when there mus' be hundreds of 'em for sale right around here?"

"That's an easy one ta answer," his cool-headed comrade commented lightly. "The man must a' heard about the reputation that we have for sellin' fine horses at fair prices. An' so he felt that it was worth his while ta go out a' his way ta deal with us," he added, for the benefit of his unsympathetic companions.

The man's light comments caused Jim Crown to crack another smile, and the two complainers in their little group to look thoughtful.

They hadn't looked at it that way.

"Speakin' a' the Army," Jim Crown continued, "Captain Fletcher gave me his word that they'd keep a close eye on the herd. So I'm goin' ta bed. Right after I've had me a' a' a shave. Though, not necessarily in that order."

"Try the bottle first," one of the two hot-heads teased, "an' you won't need the bath or the shave." His highly amusing advice caused everyone within earshot to grin. "I'm gonna get me a bottle," he continued, amidst the sound of soft chuckling, "an', with a little luck, a lovely young lady ta go along with it," he added, as one of the drinking establishment's three skimpily-clad barmaids scurried past them, carrying a tray full of whiskey glasses.

"Try bathin' first," Jim Crown suggested with a wry smile, "an' you won'' have ta rely so heavily on luck."

Pandemonium practically broke out in the place, as the cowboy's witty comeback caused the entire room to erupt with laughter.

Jim's wry smile gradually widened to a grin. The bronc-bustin', beat-on-his-feet cowboy pointed out a particular brand of painkiller.

The still broadly grinning barkeep passed him the bottle.

He paid for it and turned to go. "Oh," Jim Crown stopped and stared back at his still chuckling chums, looking deadly serious, "bein' as how this is such a wide-open town an' all, it might be a good idea if one a' you's was ta stay sober. It jes' might keep the three a' you's from bein' murdered in yore sleep." He shot the paid assassin, with the badge pinned on his chest, an angry, accusing glare. When he glanced back in the grinning group's direction, he saw that the boys back at the bar were now not even so much as smiling. His three fun-filled and fun-loving friends had apparently found his latest piece of advice to be not only sound, but also quite sobering. Jim gave the now glum-looking group an apologetic shrug. The cowboy flashed his very forgiving friends one last wry smile and then he and his bottle stepped back out into the street.

"David," the President enthusiastically exclaimed as the saloon's swinging doors stuttered to a standstill, "you've out-done yourself this time. You've obviously saved the best for last."

"Yes, Sir-ee!" David agreed, looking pleased that he had so apparently pleased the 'Marshal Appointer'. "Mister President," he respectfully added.

"Come on, Congressman," Mr. Arthur invited. "I want you to introduce me to this Jim Crown."

"But," Dave began as the President began getting to his feet, "couldn't it wait until morning? He'll be rested then, an' in a much better mood."

The President considered the Congressman's earnest plea, and the rational explanation for it, over for a few seconds. "Sorry," he said, looking extremely sympathetic, "but waiting until your prospective Marshal's were in a better mood to be recruited has already wreaked havoc with my schedule."

The Congressman considered the President's earnest apology, and the rational explanation for it, over for a few seconds and then adjusted his tactics accordingly. "What if you were ta jes' sign all the necessary dotted lines? Couldn' a Federal Judge or somebody swear him in at some future date?"

"I have to deal with corruption, too, David," the President reminded him, "and that is why I never appoint any man to any office without first meeting with, and then approving of, him personally. I put a lot of stock in the way a man shakes my hand and looks me in the eye. I will rearrange my plans to suit you, but I will not change my policies," the nation's Premier Policy-Maker concluded, very deliberately.

"Could'n you at least wait until after he's had his bath?" Dave pleaded, now looking almost desperate. "He gets a might surly when he's sore. He'll be feelin' a whole lot better after he's soaked in a hot tub for a while, an' downed about half a' that bottle."

"According to Major VanCleef, who is in charge of my military escort, these little detours of yours have already cost us two full days of travel. And now, Mr. VanPelton, who is in charge of diplomatic affairs, has informed me that-unless I want to keep the Mexican Ambassador waiting for me in Salinas all morning, and be a day late for my meeting with President Juarez-I simply must be across the river and in Mexico before dark," Mr. Arthur informed Mr. Fisher and finished getting stiffly to his feet. They had been sitting there a long time...too long a time.

Congressman Fisher sighed in surrender and reluctantly got to his feet.

Then, all eight of the fancy-dressed Easterners left the 'Broken Arrow'-en masse.

While the President was reviewing 'some a' the finest horseflesh in all a' Texas', Jim Crown was getting a shave.

By the time the Chief Executive's little entourage reached the hotel, the cowboy had his bath all drawn, and paid for, and was about to start undressing.

"Mr. Nichols, Congressman Fisher and I are going into the restaurant for a cup of coffee," the President informed his head of security. "Send a couple of your men up to Jim Crown's room and have them...ask him to join us."

"Yes, Mister President," Mr. Nichols acknowledged with a slight smile and a nod. "Mr. Braames! Mr. Hanover! Get that cowboy down here! On the double!"

"Only two?" Dave said as the requested detail was promptly dispatched. "Sir, you'd better send at least four. Two'll never take 'im, if he gets limbered up." It wasn't that Dave was eager to have his old friend beaten up. No, he was hoping, rather, that going a few rounds with 'Arthur's Gorillas' would make the horse-rancher more...receptive to recruitment.

All six Secret Service men turned to the man who had such a poor opinion of them, and their abilities, and gave him icy, insulted looks-along with some angry, annoyed glares.

"You boys don' know Jim Crown," Dave said, upon seeing the looks. "You don' know what he's capable a' doin', when he's feelin' a might surly. Why, I'd rather get between a she-grizzly an' her cub, than between Jim an' a nice, hot tub."

The President and his bodyguards exchanged thoughtful glances. "Very well, Mr. Kingsley and Mr. Foster will accompany you," their Commander-in-Chief commanded.

The two special envoys and their requested reinforcements readily, though unhappily, obeyed.

Mr. Arthur, and his two remaining bodyguards, disappeared into the hotel's adjoining restaurant.

Mr. Fisher lingered behind, in the lobby.

After procuring Jim Crown's room number from the hotel's clerk, the group proceeded up the stairs...and down an open the last door on the left.

"Who is it?" the room's occupant called out rather irritatedly, in response to the sudden-and loud-rapping on his door.

"Norbert Foster!" the door rapper obligingly replied.

"What do you want?" Jim Crown wondered, as the door knocker's name failed to ring any bells.

"I would like you to accompany me to the dining room, sir!" Norbert Foster politely called back through the still-closed door.

"Why?" the cautious cowboy inquired, following a few tense moments of silence.

"My boss wants to talk to you, sir!"

"Yeah? Well, I jes' paid yore Mr. Hawkes for the privilege a' bein' left alone for twenty-four hours! An' I still got twenty-three hours a' 'privacy' comin' ta me! So go away an' leave me be! I'm tryin' ta take a bath in here, an' this water ain' gettin' any warmer!" he hinted, his growing annoyance giving way to anger.

Norbert Foster was growing angrier as well. "I don't work for Sheriff Hawkes!"

"Who do you work for?"

"I am not at liberty to say!" Norbert Foster yelled back. "Now, will you please accompany me downstairs? My boss would like to speak with you-immediately!"

"Look, I jes' paid pert' near another day's wages ta have this water heated an' hauled up here! An' I ain' gonna go gallivantin' off an' lettin' it get cold! Yah might say that I am not at liberty ta leave-jes' yet!" the cowboy concluded, using the annoying man's own vernacular.

"Sir, if you don't come with me-right this moment-I will be forced to come in and get you!"

"I should be down in about an hour," the room's occupant informed him, trying a calmer approach. "Tell yore boss that, if he wants ta speak ta me before then, he's more than welcome ta come up here. That is, a' course, unless he's a she. In which case, the two of us would have ta talk through the door-like we been doin' for the past five minutes!" he added rather irritatedly.

"Sir, if you don't open this door-I'm going to have to break it down!"

"Sir, if you try breakin' down that door-I'm goin' ta have ta shoot you!"

There followed an incredibly long, tense silence.

Finally, realizing that he had reached an impasse, Mr. Foster stepped aside and motioned for Mr. Kingsley to take his place in front of the door.

Mr. Kingsley thought the situation over for a few seconds and then banged loudly on the door.

"What no-ow?"

"My name is Kingsley, Mr. Crown. You don't know me. I work for the man who bought your horses. I have a bank draft for you here-for six thousand dollars..." he added enticingly and smiled, seeing that his friends were forced to grin.

"Fi-ine!" Jim Crown declared, sounding surprisingly disinterested. "You'll find my friends in the saloon across the street. Give them the money. They'll write you out a bill a' sale and then make you up a receipt!"

Mr. Kingsley's smile quickly turned into a frown. He stood there, looking stunned by the speed at which he'd just been shot down.

Recalling that they had been dispatched to bring the cowboy down 'on the double', the two remaining Secret Service men elbowed their associate out of the way and then threw their shoulders into the door. Their combined weight caused the thing to cave in.

There was a loud 'BWHOOMP!' Closely followed by the sound of splintering wood.

Jim Crown watched-with slightly raised eyebrows-as his door disintegrated and four big, brawny-looking boys-sporting fancy suits and frowns-came spilling into his room. The cowboy recognized them as some of the dandy dressers from over in the saloon.

"Sorry, sir," Mr. Hanover apologized, seeing the cowboy eyeing his destroyed door, "but we had no other choice."

"Yeah yah did!" came back the highly annoyed cowboy's bitter reply. "Yah could a' tried turnin' the knob! It wasn' locked!"

The two human battering rams glanced at each other-and then at the unlocked door they'd just demolished-with arched brows of their own.

"All right, tough guy!" Norbert Foster bellered, stomping off across the carpeted floor and up to the room's ornery occupant. "Let's go!" he gruffly ordered and motioned with his head in the direction of the 'opened' doorway.

But the cowboy, who was sitting on the edge of his bed with a half-drained bottle of red-eye in his left hand and a boot-heel in his right, stubbornly refused to budge.

"Move it, Mister!" Norbert Foster gruffly advised, glaring menacingly down at the otherwise unarmed tough guy.

Jim Crown lowered his crossed left leg and angrily stomped his half-off boot back on. "You don' hear too well, do you!" he declared, equally gruffly, making more a statement of fact than an inquiry.

"Neither do you, Mister!" Norbert Foster very smartly observed. "I sai-aid, let's go!"

The cowboy calmly raised the bottle to his lips and again refused to obey.

So Mr. Foster latched onto Jim Crown's right arm and started jerking him roughly to his feet. "Ah-ahhh!" the bodyguard gasped in agony, as the cowboy kicked him in the shins. He gasped again and began reaching, involuntarily, for his aching right leg.

The cowboy brought the bottle in his raised left hand down hard, breaking it over the back of his thick-skulled assailant's bent head. 'One down,' thought Jim Crown, as Norbert Foster slumped to the room's carpeted floor. 'an' one ta go!' he added, with reference to himself. Three of the four ruffians remained standing, and-judging by the unfriendly looks on their faces-the cowboy was gonna be in for a lot of punishment...if he remained with them in the room.

Anticipating that there may be trouble, the cautious young cowhand had deliberately taken a room overlooking the street...a room with a window that-when opened-would allow him to climb out on to the hotel's balcony, and escape.

Anticipating that their quarry would try to escape, Mr. Hanover positioned himself in front of the open window.

While Mr. Braames used his bulk to block the 'opened' door.

Anticipating that the now trapped cowboy would try going for his Colt, Mr. Kingsley snatched the holstered gun up from off the foot of the bed and handed it to Mr. Hanover, who, in turn, whipped the weapon out the window.

Jim Crown eyed his assailant's associates with growing respect. Apparently, they were as brainy as they were brawny. "What would you say, if I were ta tell you, that I would be willing to 'accompany' you now?" the cowboy asked the genius who was now approaching him with a vengeful gleam in his eyes.

"Sorry, sir," Mr. Kingsley politely replied. "I didn't quite catch that. You see," the brute squad's biggest member-and best boxer-added with an innocent grin, "I don't hear too well."

"I sort a' figured you'd say that," the cowboy glumly confessed, as he cautiously began backing away. 'A warm bath wouldn' a' been so bad,' he glumly reminded himself. At least it would've been a step up from the cold creeks he'd been bathing in for the past two weeks. He'd been saying that he was dying for a nice hot bath, for the last five days. But he had no idea how prophetic his words would turn out to be. "Who are you people?" Jim Crown asked the thugs in the three-piece suits, suddenly curious as to his killers' identities.

"Sorry, but we are not at liberty to answer that," Mr. Kingsley apologized, and kept right on approaching.

"I'll say this much for you," the cowboy conceded and kept right on backing, "you boys are the politest bunch a' cut-throats I ever come across." As he backed past his room's blocked doorway, Mr. Braames gave him a shove and he went flying forwards-off balance-right into the path, and within reach of, the approaching Mr. Kingsley, who led with a vicious left jab. But Jim Crown anticipated the man's move and turned his head aside so that the potential K.O. blow glanced harmlessly off the right side of his jaw. The big man followed with an even deadlier right cross, which the cautious cowboy also ducked. Then it was the little guy's turn. Well, littler guy's, anyways. (The two hundred and ten pound Secret Service man stood at six foot four. The hundred and forty-eight pound cowboy stood at five foot eleven and a half.) The littler guy let loose with a whole series of powerful punches-which were strategically designed to cut his opponent down to size. But the big man's jaw proved to be hard as nails, and the rest of him didn't cut very easily, either. About all Jim Crown did by delivering his blows, was to wear himself out.

Now, you would think that any man who was capable of covering four hundred and some odd miles and busting five dozen broncs in a dozen days-er, nights, would have no problem busting one 'dandy dresser' down to size, right?

Wro-ong! It was precisely because he had performed the former that he was now experiencing so much difficulty with the latter.

If the cowboy was experiencing an overwhelming sense of fatigue, his opponent was experiencing an overwhelming sense of frustration. Blake Kingsley was a highly trained, professional jaw-breaker who went by the Marquis of Queensbury Rules. He figured the cowboy would be knocked down and out within the first few moments of the fight. But the battle had been raging for some time now, and the little tough guy was still on his feet. The big, burly boxer had failed-as yet-to get a single one of his, usually devastating, punches to connect with anything. The Secret Service man was somewhat devastated to discover just how amazingly agile and unbelievably strong, for a man of his stature, his elusive little opponent actually was.

Jim Crown was a rough an' tumble, Indian wrestlin', bar-room-brawlin' graduate of the 'School of Anything Goes'. The cowboy hadn't really been hit-as yet-but his well-muscled, well-disciplined, and very dangerous, opponent was relentless in his pursuit. The big man's pile-driving fists were constantly flying at his face. And, either the big goon's delivery was speeding up, or the cowboy's reflexes were slowing down. Because there were more and more near misses. Unfortunately for Jim-it was him. All that constant ducking and dodging he'd been doing had begun to take its toll, and it was all just a matter of time, now.

Speaking of time...

Mr. Hanover had again recalled that their orders had been to deliver the cowboy 'on the double'! Not being one who liked to disappoint his boss, he took it upon himself to speed up the inevitable. As Mr. Kingsley's moving target moved within range of him, he stuck out his foot and tripped him up.

The ducking and dodging cowboy lost his balance and went falling backwards, this time. An involuntary, "Oo-oomph!" exploded from him as he landed very hard on his back, on the carpeted floor.

The exasperated boxer leaped upon his fallen prey and began pummeling him with his fists.

Dave Fisher, who had been watching from the 'opened' doorway the whole while, winced and looked away. He couldn't bear to see his friend being beaten-especially when he knew that it was he who was responsible for the beating.

It wasn't bad enough that he'd just had the wind knocked out of him, now it felt like the whole front of his face was being caved in! Suddenly, Jim Crown was tasting blood. He tried to roll away from the punches, but his opponent's superior weight kept him pinned to the floor. Being whomped on by the gargantuan goon was like getting run over by a herd of galloping horses-with very hard, sharp, heavy hooves. Well, Mr. Kingsley may have been brawnier, but Jim Crown was brainier and he came up with a plan to keep himself from bein' completely pulverized inta the carpetin'. All at once, the cowboy went completely limp, feigning unconsciousness. (He didn't have to 'feign' very hard, either, for he practically was unconscious.)

The Secret Service man stopped, in mid-punch, as his opponent's head suddenly fell to one side, and he lay there, perfectly still. Feeling perfectly satisfied, the big, burly boxer exhaled a victorious grunt and got quickly to his feet. He stood there for a few moments, triumphantly straddling the cowboy's still body. Then he stooped down to pick his pulverized opponent up by his shirt collar, and pull him to his feet.

Instead, the suddenly come back-to-life cowboy latched onto the lapels of the dandy-dresser's suit and slammed the sole of his raised right boot into the bent over boxer's belly. Then, using his extended right leg for leverage, Jim Crown sent his two hundred and ten pound opponent sailing through the air.

All eyes in the room-and doorway-watched as the Secret Service man went flying over the cowboy's head...and crashing into the room's dresser.

Jim Crown tilted his head back to see where the well-muscled missile had crash-landed, and whether or not it was going to come crashing back at him. It wasn't. At least, not for the moment. For, at the moment, his opponent was lying in a huge, motionless heap on the carpeted floor in front of his dresser. Mr. Kingsley had cracked the back of his head against the corner of said dresser and had been, for the moment, at least, rendered unconscious. 'Two down,' thought Jim Crown. 'An' four to go?' He stared rather dazedly up at the mob that was now standing over him, for a few anxious, disheartening seconds. 'I mus' be seein' double,' he finally realized.

"C'mon, cowboy," one of the four urged, in a gentle, good-natured fashion. Jim Crown had bested their best, in a relatively fair fight. While they were understandably disappointed at the outcome, they harbored no animosity towards the winner. Quite the contrary, the resourceful young cowboy had won-not only the fight-but their respect, as well. "Let's go. Get up."

But again, the cowboy didn't budge. It wasn't that he wouldn't move. No, this time, he just couldn't move. Jim Crown, who had been real close to complete exhaustion even before the fighting broke out, simply did not have the strength to stand. Heck, he couldn't even muster up enough energy to pick his aching head up off the floor.

Apparently, their best had gotten the better of Jim Crown, too, the two remaining Secret Service men realized, as the still out-of-breath cowboy just continued to lie there...gasping in pain and frustration.

So Arthur's two remaining Gorillas pulled Jim Crown to his feet and then half-dragged and half-carried him...out the door...along the hallway...down the stairs...through the lobby...into the dining room...and over to the President's table. The pair propped their limp cargo up between them and then stood there, jointly supporting his weight.

"Mr. Crown, Sir!" Mr. Hanover said, presenting the requested presence.

The President set his coffee cup down and stood up to shake Mr. Crown's hand.

Mr. Braames unwrapped the cowboy's right arm from around his neck and offered it to his boss.

The President made a quick head count of his bodyguards and came up two short. "Congratulations, Mr. Crown. It would appear that you have single-handedly wiped out one third of my Secret Service detail. No small feat, when you consider that they are considered to be some of the best hand-to-hand combatants in the entire Country, " he proudly pointed out, and took the hand that was proffered to him.

The barely conscious cowboy stared up at the distinguished-looking gentleman who was standing before him-through barely open eyes-and barely managed to return the man's firm, confident handshake. (Not exactly the kind of greeting you could put a lot of 'stock' in.)

"I think we can proceed with the ceremony now, Mister President," Dave Fisher, who had followed his friend into the dining room said. "He appears ta be plenty receptive..."

"Receptive?" the country's Senior Executive shouted. "Why, the man's practically unconscious!"

Jim Crown had turned his head in the direction of the familiar sounding voice. "Da-ave?" he muttered in disbelief. The cowboy's eyes widened in recognition, as he spotted his old friend standing there. "Dave!" he breathlessly exclaimed, and took a step or two in his friend's direction.

"Easy, James!" Dave urged, catching the collapsing cowboy under the arms and gently lowering him to the floor.

James ran the tip of his tongue across a cut on the corner of his mouth and winced.

The President's personal secretary entered the dining room and strode up to his boss to whisper something important in his ear.

Mr. Arthur nodded his acknowledgment of the message and aimed an annoyed glare in the young Congressman's direction. "I've just been informed that the last ferry of the evening is being held up on my account."

"Sir, we kin still pull it off," Dave assured the upset President. "Mr. VanPelton could see ta the paperwork, while you swear him in."

The President glanced from the comatose cowboy to the Congressman, and then back to the comatose cowboy. "This is highly unorthodox," he confessed, succumbing to the Congressman's persuasive powers. (He wasn't changing his policy. He was just bending it...slightly.)

"Thank you, Sir!" Dave declared in all earnest and gave the Commander-in-Chief a big, cheesy grin. "You won't regret this!"

The President glanced up from his table-and the papers he was signing-and smiled approvingly down at his most recently 'appointed' Marshal. "Hopefully, neither will he."

"James? Ja-ames! Listen ta me!" Jim Crown's old friend ordered sharply. "Raise yore right arm...Yore right arm," Dave repeated, suppressing a smile all the while.

James slowly lowered his left arm and then obligingly began, even more slowly, to raise his right arm. Apparently too slowly to suit his order-shouting old friend. For Dave grabbed onto his wrist and pulled his right arm up over his head. "Oh-o-o-ohhh!" Jim groaned and his face contorted into a grimace. A Bible was placed on James' still heaving chest. Dave held his 'practically unconscious' partner's left hand down on it, and President Chester A. Arthur promptly proceeded to 'swear him in'.

"Do you, James..."

"Rolland," Dave eagerly volunteered.

"...Rolland Crown swear to uphold, protect and defend the Articles of the Constitution-" the President heard his personal secretary's impatient sigh and condensed the oath-considerably. "To faithfully enforce the laws of the land and to impartially perform, to the best of your abilities, the duties of the Office of a United States Marshal?"

'James Rolland Crown' made no attempt to answer. It was doubtful whether the cowboy had even heard the question.

"Say 'I do'!" Dave urged, as the country's Chief Executive exhaled an impatient sigh of his own.

Still, the perfectly still cowboy said nothing.

So the Congressman gave him a few rough shakes. "Say 'I do', Ja-ames!" Dave ordered again and then watched as his shaking achieved the desired results.

His half-out-of-it friend's eyes half-opened and he obligingly half-whispered. "I do...Ja-ames."

"Congratulations, Marshal Crown!" President Arthur said, giving the newly appointed lawman's limp right hand another warm, hearty shake. "And good luck with your new job. I have a...feeling you'll be needing it," he solemnly predicted, and ceremoniously pinned the new Marshal's badge of office to his still heaving chest.

Jim Crown made a courageous attempt to pick his head up off the floor, but couldn't quite manage it.

All eyes in the room watched as the cowboy's half-closed eyes crossed and he finally passed out-completely.

Dave slid his hand beneath Jim's falling head and kept it from banging on the floorboards. "Kin you gentlemen give me a hand?" he asked the two surviving Secret Service men. "We should probably put the Marshal here to bed."

"Give the Congressman a hand with the Marshal," the President ordered, seeing his bodyguards' reluctance to move. "And bring down Mr. Foster and Mr. Kingsley while your at it," he added, suppressing a smile.

The two men speedily obeyed.

"Thank you, Sir!" Dave repeated, and extended his hand to Mr. Arthur.

"Thank you, David!" the President replied, giving the young Congressman's hand a hearty shake. "And, if you should happen to come across any more 'Jim Crown's', let me know. The Justice Department is in desperate need of men like him."

"Yes, Sir."

"Goodbye, David. I'll see you back in Washington."

"So long, Sir. Have a swift, safe and successful journey."

Senator David Fisher snapped back to reality to pose what he, and his aching arms and back, thought was a real good question. "Don' you think this is deep enuff?" he asked, directing the young deputy's attention to the fact that the hole that they were now standing in was practically over their heads.

"It wouldn't do for anyone ta get too close a look at the body," the deputy replied, "so keep digging."

Dave gave the slave-driving deputy an annoyed glare, but then sighed in surrender and went back to the back-breaking task.

"Was that really how Jim came to be a Marshal?" Francis, the eternal skeptic, wanted to know.

"Nope," Dave told him truthfully. "That was how he came ta be 'sworn in'. I haven' got ta the part where he became a Marshal...yet," he added, with a broad grin.

The reporter returned his grin.

The Senator returned to his reminiscing. "Marshal Jim Crown slept 'til nearly noon the next' then he woke up an' went back ta bein' a cowboy..." the story-teller stated rather glumly.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Twenty-Five

Congressman Dave Fisher carefully finished pouring the scaulding hot contents of the heavy wooden bucket in his hands into the cowboy's finally refilled and reheated bath tub. Dave figured it was the least he could do, considering what he'd just put poor Jim through.

Slo-o-owly, Jim Crown surfaced from the depths of his exhaustion and unconsciousness. He lay there for a while with his eyes closed, listening to the sound of-water sloshing? He drew a deep breath in and his heavy head and eyelids up and than squinted off in the disturbing sound's direction. It was sloshing water that he'd heard. And it was Dave Fisher that he'd seen sometime-when was it anyways? Yesterday afternoon? Or last night? For some reason, the cowboy couldn't seem to remember. In fact, he wasn't even sure what day it was. The only thing he was sure of, was that he'd been in a doozie of a fight. For his knuckles had been bruised, his teeth had been loosened, his ribs had been tenderized and-say. That's probably why he was having problems with his memory. No doubt, his brains had also been scrambled. "What...happened?" he groggily inquired, in the hope that his friend might be able to shed some light on the fight.

Dave was glad to see that his really out-of-it friend had finally regained consciousness. " are alive, after all. I was beginnin' ta have my doubts. I've never known you ta sleep pas' seven," he stated truthfully and the recollection prompted him to smile fondly down at the normally early riser.

The cowboy flashed the best friend he'd ever had a sore smile and then let his aching head drop back onto the bed. "I ain' so sure I was sleepin'," he realized, with a grimace and a moan. "Looks more ta me like I must a' passed out..." he muttered, in reference to his fully-clothed self.

Dave Fisher flashed his sore friend a sad smile and suddenly regretted ever getting his easy-goin' buddy involved in any of this 'corruption' business. For seven years the two of them had been inseparable. He and James were more than friends. They were partners. And no cause-no matter how worthy it was-was worth risking the loss of their friendship over. He should a' never got Jim down there-like he did. He sure should a' never got Jim beat up-so bad. An', most of all, he should a' never ever got Jim sworn in as a U.S. Marshal-without his knowledge or consent. No, Dave jes' should a' never done none a' that. But he had. And now he was regrettin' it-sort a'.

Jim stared thoughtfully off into space for a while and then his head popped back up. "Are we in El Paso?" he wanted to know.

The Congressman managed another, even sadder smile and nodded.

The cowboy looked even more curious. "Well, I know what I'm doin' here. But what on earth are you doin' here? I mean, shouldn' you be in Washin'ton, or somethin'?"

"Like you, I'm here on business. President Arthur agreed to appoint some Federal Marshals, ta help me combat corruption at the local law level. As I'm sure you must a' noticed when yah hit town, at this moment, we have a serious problem with that in this state. So I've been busy recruitin' men for the President, ta help him fill these four, new-desperately needed-government posts."

Jim thought the politician's reply over carefully. How did Dave know that he was down there on business? That's when he noticed that somebody had hung a blanket over his room's doorway. The curious sight jogged his memory and, suddenly, it all came back to him. Then, just as abruptly, everything else sort a' slid inta place. Their anonymous buyer in El Paso? Congressman Dave Fisher. Those terribly polite tough guys who were not at liberty to say who their boss was? Secret Service men. And that distinguished-looking gentleman in the hotel dining room who kept shaking his hand? The President of the United States. The President of the United Sta-ates? 'Na-ah.' Jim Crown's sore jaw dropped. His dark green eyes widened and he promptly propped himself up on his elbows to stare down at his chest. Sure enuff! Right there, pinned to the left front pocket of his shirt, was a bran' new, shiny Marshal's badge! So it wasn' all just a real ba-ad dream! He really had just been recruited! Jim swallowed hard and then stared silently up at his old friend, wearing an 'How could you?' look on his bruised and battered face.

The Congressman caught the look, and cringed. He had never seen Jim Crown look more hurt or confused than he did just then. But then, the cowboy had never been betrayed by his best friend before, either. It was then that Dave knew that he would never be able to forgive himself for what he had just done to Jim, or to forget that...look on Jim's face, for as long as he lived. "I'm...sorry," he sincerely said. "It seemed like a good the time. I really needed yore help," he continued as the cowboy's 'How could you?' look turned to one of even greater confusion. "An' I couldn' think a' any other way ta get you down here."

"Did it ever occur ta you ta ask?" Jim Crown asked, his confusion giving way to anger.

"Yeah. Look, James...will yah give me a chance ta explain?" Dave pleaded, as James got to his feet and strapped on his gun-which someone had retrieved from the hotel's balcony. "I fixed you a nice, hot bath," he pointed out, as James pulled on his worn leather vest and then plunked his black hat on his head. "You could set an' soak for awhile, an' I could try ta explain," he suggested, as James unpinned his badge and then plunked it down on the dresser. "I'll keep that for you," Dave vowed. "In case you should ever happen ta change your mind."

"That's mighty comfortin', Congressman," Jim Crown sarcastically stated. "Should I ever get tired a' livin', it's nice ta know that there's a job waitin' for me somewheres." The cowboy tossed his saddle bags over his left shoulder, snatched up his rifle and quickly took his leave.

"I really am sorry, James!" the Congressman restated. He snatched up the badge, brushed the blanket aside and followed his former friend out into the hall. He found Jim Crown surrounded by his current friends.

"Everything all right?" one of them wanted to know. "We heard shoutin'."

"Yeah, you okay?" another inquired. "The whiskey was too watered down ta get drunk on, so when you didn' show for breakfast, we figured maybe you'd been 'murdered in yore sleep'."

"Looks like yah came close to it!" the third surmised upon seeing the condition that Jim Crown was currently in. "If'n I was you, I believe I'd ask the Sheriff for a refund," he added, with reference to their friend having obviously been beaten.

Their comments caused a slight smile to play upon the slightly murdered cowboy's bruised lips. But one glance at the Congressman was all it took to make his slightly amused appearance turn stern.

"You met our buyer, yet?" one of his friend's wondered.

"He may a' bought 'em," another conceded, "but the Army paid for 'em," he continued, carefully removing a bankdraft from the inside pocket of his brown leather vest and waving it triumphantly in front of Jim Crown's face.

All four of the very capable cowboys exchanged victorious grins.

Dave Fisher frowned. It was apparent that the four of them had big plans for that money-their money...their hard-earned money.

The cowboy who had been so cool-headed over in the saloon watched as another glance in their buyer's direction caused Jim Crown's grin to disappear. "You know that fellah?" he asked his suddenly stern-faced friend.

"I thought I did," Jim whispered sadly and flashed his best friend turned betrayer one final, deeply hurt look.

The Congressman caught Jim Crown's quiet comment and saw the look-and cringed again. It hurt him to hear how badly he had hurt his friend.

The three equally concerned cowboys exchanged solemn glances and then two threw their arms around their sad companion's shoulders and started ushering him off down the hallway. "C'mon!" one invited, as they started down the stairs. "We got the horses right outside an'-as soon as we eat-we'll be ready ta ride."

"You boys go on," Jim invited, as they reached the lobby. "Enjoy yore-" he paused to shoot a quick glance at the clock, "-lunch. I'll be back in a little while."

"Where yah goin'?"

"Yeah! You mus' be hungry. Yah missed breakfast."

"Maybe he knows somethin' about the food arroun' here that we don't?" the third cowboy lightly reasoned and forced another smile out of their very somber amigo.

"There's nothin' wrong with the food," their amigo assured them. "It's this town I'm havin' trouble stomachin'. I'm goin' on down ta the river...ta wash up," he added, the sadness returning to his face and voice.

The three cowboys watched their depressed partner step out onto the street. It sounded to them like Jim Crown wanted-er, needed to be alone for a little while. They continued to watch, while their friend strapped his gear to the back of his saddle.

Finally, the young cowboy mounted and turned his horse in the direction of the river.

The trio sighed and turned in the direction of the dining room. Jim had taken their appetites with him when he left. But they decided to go through the motions of eating anyways-just to pass the time.

Dave didn't have any appetite left either-not for food or for recruiting his friends. He plunked Jim's badge into his coat pocket and himself down onto an over-stuffed sofa in the lobby. He would make one last-ditch desperate effort to attain Jim Crown's forgiveness and salvage what, if anything, remained of their friendship. Dave's hopes were not high for either of his efforts succeeding. The cowboy was sore, real sore. And, rightfully so. The Congressman realized that he should just be grateful that El Paso wasn't the site of a political assassination. 'Cuz Jim Crown had every right to kill him.

The cowboy took his time washin' up.

To combat the mounting tension, the Congressman took to pacing up and down the boardwalk in front of the hotel. The politician stopped in mid-pace and peered off down the street.

Jim Crown was coming back from the river-and his little 'think'. The cowboy was about to go riding out of El Paso-and Dave Fisher's life-for good!

The Congressman closed his eyes tightly and breathed a fervent, silent prayer-for Divine intervention.

Now, some non-believer might say that what happened next was purely coincidental. But, of all the times for Sheriff Hawkes' deputies to pick on some poor stranger in town, they picked then. This poor timing on their part was-Dave Fisher firmly believed-purely and Divinely providential. That is, occuring by the benevolent guidance of God.

Because of its close proximity to the border, (the town was built on the banks of the Rio Grande) and due to the fact that its original builders were all Mexican, the Spanish influence was everywhere in El Paso. From its single-story adobe-bricked dwellings, to its citizens and their dress. Why, on the street Jim Crown was coming down alone, cantina's out-numbered saloons nearly three to one.

Speaking of out-numbered saloons...

The cowboy pulled his mount up as another cowboy came sailing out of the 'Silver Spur' and landed hard, on his bloodied face, in the dust at his horse's feet.

Four of Sheriff Hawkes' five deputies spilled out of the saloon and into the street, elbowing one another and laughing.

The bloodied and beaten out-of-breath cowboy locked his groggy gaze onto one of the horse's eight legs and followed it clear up to its riders. He was breathing too hard to speak, but the look on his bruised and bloodied face said it all. What it said was, 'Either give me a hand here-or get the hell out of my way!'

Jim Crown accurately read the look and, obligingly, did both. "Leave 'im be!" he advised, positioning he and his horse between the badly beaten cowboy and the approaching thugs.

The deputy-thugs glared irritatedly up at the rider responsible for interrupting their 'fun and games'. "Get that animal out of our way!" one of them ordered.

Jim recognized the thug as the bully from the 'Broken Arrow' the night before. He also recognized the odds...four to one. Yes, those odds were uncomfortably familiar to him. The mounted cowboy glanced in the beaten cowboy's direction and saw that the badly-injured fellow was now trying-though not very successfully-to crawl away from his attackers. Crown also saw that the sudden commotion was beginning to attract a crowd...and that no one in that sizeable crowd seemed willing to lend the poor, incapacitated cowboy a hand.

"I said move it, Mister!" the thug angrily repeated.

Jim Crown took another, longer, closer look around him. All he saw were bartenders, barflies, shopkeepers, old men, women and children, and a few ordinary, unarmed ranch hands. At that particular moment in El Paso, the only guys good with a gun appeared to be the bad guys! Well, that wasn't entirely true. For, at least for the moment, he was still sitting there. And, as all who really knew him were quick to testify, Jim Crown was exceptionally good with a gun. "Here," the cowboy said, tossing a silver dollar at the loud-mouthed thug. "I jes' bought 'im twenty-four hours a' tranquility."

The thug caught the coin in self-defense and then shouted back over his shoulder. "Hey, Sheriff? You'd better get out here!"

Two heads appeared above the Silver Spurs' swinging doors.

"Take care of it, Jack," the place's proprietor annoyedly ordered.

'Jack' nodded and stepped out across the boardwalk and into the street to stand face-to face with 'its' horse. The deputy showed his boss the silver dollar. "Keep out of this, 'cowboy'!" Sheriff Hawkes warned, shooting the mounted cowboy an angry glare.

Jim Crown winced at the derogatory way in which the word 'cowboy' had been spoken.

"Or I'll personally see to it that you get some of the same!" Mr. Hawkes added, pocketing the silver coin.

The mounted cowboy reviewed the odds and came to a decision concerning the poor fellow who was down there, writhing in the dirt. All eyes watched as the 'Good Samaritan' jerked his horse's head around and went galloping off up the street.

The Sheriff and his men exchanged amused glances and then turned their undivided attention back to the crawling cowboy.

Jim Crown reined his horse in in front of the hotel and was out of the saddle before the animal even stopped running. He entered the lobby and took a quick look around.

Dave Fisher, who had ducked back inside when he saw Jim coming, watched as his angry friend's searching gaze settled upon him.

The cowboy strode over to where the Congressman was hiding and held out his left hand.

The politician pulled something from his coat pocket and placed it in his friend's open palm.

"Damn you!" Jim Crown exclaimed and sent his clenched right fist into the left side of the Congressman's smug jaw.

The blow sent Dave crashing back onto the carpeted floor-clear across the room! The dazed man shook some of the cobwebs out of his spinning head and looked up in time to see Marshal Crown pin his badge back on!

"Hey, Jim! What's with the badge?" the cowboy's cool-headed friend inquired, as the U.S. Marshal? turned to go.

"Stay here!" his friend with the badge advised. "I'll be right back...maybe," he morbidly added, as an afterthought.

But his friends did not stay there. All four of them followed him out of the hotel...and off across the boardwalk...and up to his horse.

"Stay here!" the man with the badge practically begged as he vaulted back up onto his horse and then went racing down the same street he'd just raced up.

Mr. Hawkes and his men halted their resumed ill treatment of the stranger in the street, to investigate the sound of galloping hooves. Several of the men glanced at each other with arched brows as they recognized the rapidly approaching rider as the same 'Good Samaritan' they'd thought they'd just sent packing.

The cowboy pulled his horse to an abrupt halt and pointed his drawn pistol at the Sheriff. "All right, EVERYBODY...DROP YORE GUNS!" he shouted menacingly.

The Sheriff stared up at the nutsy, gutsy 'cowboy' in total disbelief. "Just what do you think you're doing?" he demanded, rather haughtily.

"Why-y, as you-an' any other fool-can plainly see," the cowboy calmly answered, "I'm placin' you-an' yore boys, here-under arrest...Ja-ack."

Mr. Hawkes winced at the disrespectful way in which his first name had been used, and the derogatory way in which it had been spoken. "By whose authority?" the man with the most authority in town wanted to know.

The cowboy slipped his feet from his stirrups and then slid slowly to the ground, keeping his eyes-and his aim-on Mr. Hawkes, all the while. "President Chester A. Arthur's," he answered, motioning to his Federal Marshal's badge. "An' Colonel Samuel P. Colt's," he added, motioning to his cocked gun.

"On what charges?" Mr. Hawkes wondered, as he couldn't dispute the cowboy's authority.

Jim Crown stepped up to Sheriff Hawkes and pressed the barrel of his pistol into the man's paunch-very forcefully. "Well, Ja-ack...How about extortion? An' aggravated assault...An' impersonatin' a peace officer," he replied, latching onto the Sheriff's badge with his free hand and ripping it-pocket and all-clean off of the sadistic, slimy-brained, back-shootin', bushwhacker's shirt. "An' that's jes' for starters." The two 'lawmen' exchanged 'if looks could kill' glares. The unimpressed Marshal pulled the Sheriff's gun from its holster and tossed it to the unarmed-and practically unconscious-object of the gang's brutality. "Now, either yore boys drop their guns...or I drop you."

Mr. Hawkes eyed the cowboy's gun-and its cocked hammer-for a few moments. "Drop 'em!" he shouted, unsure as he was as to whether the cowboy was just bluffing.

Four guns dropped into the dust.

"Take off the badges, too," the cowboy told the unarmed thugs. "I s'pose I could try shootin' 'em off..." he reasoned, as the 'boys' failed to comply. The badges were off in an instant. "All right! Let's go! I'm sure you 'gentlemen' know the way ta the jail.." At least, Jim hoped they did, because he didn't have a clue.

They had barely taken two steps when the cowboy suddenly spun and fired-one shot-in the direction of the alley between the Silver Spur Saloon and Dawson's Saddlery.

There was an anguished cry and then a fifth deputy-thug came stumbling out into the street, clutching at his right shoulder.

The Marshal motioned for the wounded man to join their little march to the jail-which he did. Jim smiled, seeing that several of the town's people had now come to the stranger's assistance. "You bes' go see a doctor," he said, seeing that the young man was still unable to stand. "An', when he's through with you...send 'im on over ta the jail."

The young man managed a slight nod and then his bloodied lips parted. "Thanks," he gasped. "Marshal."

The two cowboys exchanged sore smiles.

"You'll never get away with this, cowboy!" Mr. Hawkes confidently predicted.

"I jes' did, Ja-ack," the Marshal reminded him and then started herding his prisoners off in, what he hoped was, the right direction.

It was.

When the Marshal reached his desired destination, he found Dave Fisher and his friends there, waiting for him.

"Cover 'em," Jim Crown requested.

His three companions covered the prisoners, while the cautious cowboy collected all their boots, gunbelts, belts, hats, scarves, knives, money and keys.

The Marshal deposited all their paraphernalia onto a desk in the jail's outer office, before opening and emptying its two cells. He didn't reckon anybody these yahoos had locked up deserved to be. Finally, he divided his prisoners into two groups and deposited them equally into their tiny prisons.

Only after locking-and double-checking-the cell doors, did Jim Crown allow himself to relax-some. The whole arrest, from start to finish, had barely taken him ten minutes. Yet it felt, to him, like it had taken ten years off'n his life. His still-pounding heart was proof that no man-in his right mind-would ever want to do what he'd just done-for a living. So, being of sound mind, Jim Crown handed over the keys-and his badge-to Congressman Fisher, and began heading for the front door-and freedom.

"Sheriff Hawkes an' his boys are jes' the tip a' the iceberg," Dave called after him. "This whole southwest corner a' Texas is crawlin' with corrupt lawmen. An' the men with the money, who sit back an' pull their strings."

The cowboy halted.

The Congressman quickly continued. "The reason I didn' bother askin' you for yore help is...Well, after hearing what happened up in Wyomin'...How you got hurt-an' half the Fifth got wiped out-I figured you'd had yore fill a' workin' for the gover'ment. But I knew that, if I could jes' get President Arthur ta talk with you, he jes' might get yah ta change yore mind."

"How?" the cowboy inquired, whirling back around to face Dave Fisher. "By havin' his bodyguards work me over?"

"That was yore doin'. Remember? You could a' went along peaceably."

"An' I would a' went along 'peaceably'. After I had my bath."

"The President couldn' wait for you ta bathe. He had ta be across the border, an' in Mexico, before dark."

"Why? He rob the Treasury, or somethin'?"

"He had ta get to a meetin' with President Juarez."

Jim Crown thought the Congressman's reasonably reasonable explanations over for a few moments before commenting. "Even if I was interested-which I ain't-I don'' know the fers' thing about Marshalin'. I jes' had ta make up some charges ta arrest those men."

"You don' need four years a' law school," Dave Fisher assured his friend. "You've got all you'll ever need right up here," he continued, tapping his right temple. "An' in here," he added, tapping his chest. "An' down there," he threw in, motioning to the cowboy's Colt. "I've never known anyone with a clearer-or stronger-sense a' what's right an' what's wrong than you, my friend. So don' try ta tell me that you're jes' a 'poor, dumb cowboy'."

"Well, I am! The only thing I really know, for sure, about the law is that me an' it don' always see eye-ta-eye."

"You don' have ta always see eye-ta-eye with it. Jes' perform yore duties, ta the best a' yore abilities-like you swore you would," Dave added, just under his breath. "An' you'll do jes' fine."

But Jim Crown had caught the Congressman's quiet comment. "I got no recollection a' swearin' any such thing," he reminded the under-handed Marshal recruitor, his dark eyes narrowing into menacing slits.

Dave met Jim's angry glare, and pretty nearly surpassed it. "All I ever heard-the whole time we were growin' up-was, 'It ain't right. It ain't right. It jes' ain't right.' Till I was plumb sick a' hearin' it! You been Marshalin' yore whole life, James! The only difference is that no-ow you'll be gettin' paid for it!"

Ever since Dave had mentioned 'the men with the money who sit back an' pull their strings', Jim Crown had been unable to get that man in the doorway of the Silver Spur Saloon out of his mind. That man was one of the men who 'pulled' Sheriff Hawkes' 'strings'. And it wasn't right that he should go unpunished.

"So...what 'a yah say?" Dave cautiously inquired, seeing his friend's angry expression had turned to one of thoughtfulness. "You kin spare a couple a' weeks ta help out an old friend. Cain't you?"

The cowboy drew a deep breath in and released it as a sigh of surrender. "I always said, with yore powers a' persuasion, that you belonged in politics," he told his old friend, the politician-before turning to his other three friends. "You boys head on back ta Duran. I'll be along in a couple a' weeks. If anything...happens ta me down here, well, you three kin divide my share a' the ranch amongst yerselves. That goes for my share a' the money, too," he concluded with a sad smile.

"I'm stayin'!" his cool-headed companion emphatically stated. "You'll be needin' somebody ta guard yore back," he calmly explained, seeing Jim Crown's completely perplexed-and slightly vexed-look. "I don' care how good you are with a gun. All the fancy shootin' skills in the world ain't gonna save you from gettin' 'back-shot' by some slime-brain-like the one that was lurkin' in that alley this afternoon."

"I spotted 'im. Didn' I?" Jim reminded him.

"Yeah. But he'd already started squeezin' the trigger," he reminded Jim right back. "Anyways, it don't matter how careful or cautious you are-yah got ta sleep sometime. Don't yah? An', when yah do, I'll be watchin' ta see that no one murders you!. It's all settled," the cowboy's companion declared, sounding even more determined. "Why, the only way I'd even consider leavin' you here on yore own, would be if'n you was ta grow an extra set a' eyes-right there-in the back a' yore head," he teased, motioning to an imaginary spot beneath the brim of his friend's black hat.

"Thanks, Drew," Jim Crown said, giving his caring companion a warm smile-and an even warmer handshake. "We'll watch each others backs."

"An' that they did!" the storytelling Senator summed up, with a warm smile of his own. "An' two weeks turned inta two years."

The two weary grave diggers finished their grim task and tossed their shovels up out of the deep hole they'd just dug.

"I know Jim got reassigned ta Abilene," Francis announced a bit breathlessly, and stooped to give the legislator a leg up. "But whatever became of his friend, Drew?"

"Drew Garrett ended up marryin' a pretty little Spanish girl, an' settlin' down," Dave said, scrambling up out of their pit. "Last I heard, he was still 'married', an' still the 'Town Marshal' of El Paso," he concluded, and bent down to pull the young reporter up by the wrists.

"How did Hawkes ever get away from Jim?" Francis asked, on the way over to the wagon.

"Mr. Hawkes' bosses busted their ex-sheriff an' his deputies out a' jail one night," Dave replied, stepping up to the back of the buckboard to give Francis a hand with the...body. "Hawkes hired a little boy ta lure the Marshal into a back alley. The bunch of 'em got the jump on Jim, an' busted 'im up pretty bad. I believe their intentions were ta beat 'im ta death. An', by the time Drew arrived with reinforcements an' rescued 'im, Jim darn near was dead." Dave glanced up and saw that Francis' face was filled with horror. "It took 'im more than a month ta mend," the Senator solemnly continued, latching onto their stiff-legged 'cadaver' and sliding him to his black-booted feet. "Jim spent the time over in the 'Broken Arrow', recuperatin'-an' readin' law books. An' that is when Marshal Jim Crown became a lawman," he finished, with a flair.

Francis flashed the lawman's flamboyant old friend an 'oh brother' look. "Give me Jim's gun," he requested.

The Senator passed him the Marshal's spare pistol.

The deputy turned their rigid companion to one side and then drew a careful bead down the gun's long, nickel-plated barrel.

The Senator watched, in disbelief, as the deputy proceeded to blast the mannequin's already headless body once-squarely in the chest.

Francis saw the legislator's astonished look and held up his boss' black, leather vest-the one with the bullet hole in it, and the dried blood on it. "Better hand over his holster, too..." he added, and a duly-impressed looking Dave did. The deputy stuck the Marshal's gun into it and then laid it and the vest down beside the black, silver-banded hat in the back of the buckboard.

Dave continued watching, as the young man took a small, red bottle from the front pocket of his discarded coat and pulled the cork from it.

"Red ink," Francis explained, carefully applying the bottle's bright red contents to the front of the Marshal's already ruined white shirt. "Compliments of Mr. Harold."

The Senator stared down at the 'bleeding' bullet wound, which Francis had so realistically recreated in Manny's chest, and then slowly shook his head. "You've thought of everything. Haven't you."

"I hope so," Jim Crown's very capable deputy solemnly replied, and gave the empty ink bottle a quick toss into the bushes. "C'mon! Let's get Manny, here, planted. There's still plenty ta do back in town," he added, latching onto one of the dummy's rigid legs.

The Senator grabbed the ex-model around his immovable waist and the two-er, three of them started heading off.

"About three years back, Jim had another run-in with Jack," Francis informed Dave, on the way over to the grave. "Mr. Hawkes sent a hired assassin here ta finish what they came close ta doin' in that back alley in El Paso."

"Yeah. I know," Dave informed the deputy. "After yore articles stopped appearin' in the papers, I took ta readin' Jim's reports-which, by the way, weren't nearly as entertainin'," he assured the young writer, with a grin.

Francis returned the grin and then dropped himself down into their deep pit once again. "Pass me the...body."

Dave did.

The deputy carefully positioned the dummy in his final resting place. "Hand me his head."

The Senator reluctantly lowered the bloody burlap bag into the grave.

Francis grabbed the sack and set it down between Manny's broad, stiff-as-a-board shoulders.

"I got a little worried when you stopped writin'," the Congressman confessed. "So I wired 'im. 'James. Have'nt read about you in the papers lately. Got ta thinkin' you might be dead. Are you? Dave.'" The Senator paused to pull the reporter back out of their pit. "He wired back, 'No. Though you cain't always tell by lookin' at me,'" Dave finished, and stared down at, what was supposed to be, his friend's dead body, wearing a sadder than sad smile. When he looked up again, he found Francis holding a shovel out to him. The Senator's incredibly weary, already slumped shoulders slumped even more. Reluctantly, he took the tool and the two grave fillers began pitching the pink-tinged soil back into the hole. Something suddenly occurred to the Senator and his head snapped up, "Who gets ta dig the body back up?"

"Don't worry," the deputy reassuringly replied. "I'll find someone ta help you."

Dave Fisher exhaled a weary sigh...and then resumed shoveling.

"Here," Jarrod said, all-at-once appearing in the hide-a-way's suddenly opened door, late that same afternoon. "How's our legend doing?" he inquired, stepping into the cozy little lamp-lit room and handing the legend's startled nurse a stack of warm blankets.

Katelyn flashed the young doctor a look which said that she was annoyed that he hadn't knocked before entering. "He's still out cold, I'm afraid. Why do you keep callin' him a legend?" she wondered, as the annoying young man stooped to examine their peacefully sleeping patient.

"Rather than trying to explain it to you, why don't I just have you-" Jarrod paused to pull a paperback book from his opened medical bag, "-read why, for yourself." He gave the lady the book-along with a rather wry smile. "If you should need me for anything," he straightened up and started heading for the exit, "I'll be downstairs-unpacking." The doctor stepped back out the door and disappeared.

Katelyn studied the paperback book's cover for a few moments and then stared down at Marshal Doc' Crown? in amazement. The woman settled into a chair beside the bed, took the legend's limp, left hand back into hers and then opened the book to the first chapter.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death Of A Legend"

Chapter Twenty-Six

U.S. Marshal James Crown came out of his drug-induced coma s-l-o-w-l-y...and by degrees-one discomforting degree at a time.

Katelyn was still seated at the lawman's side, holding his limp left hand tightly in hers.

Suddenly his grip tightened.

His nurse tensed.

Her pained patient let out a loud, involuntary groan and tried again to clench his fist.

The woman winced in pain as well and tried to slide her hand free. But she couldn't get it to budge. It was like her fingers were caught up in a vise.

The Marshal moaned softly. Then he gasped and mercifully began relaxing his grip.

Katelyn gasped, too, in relief and quickly slid her squished appendage from his grasp.

Her patient groaned again.

She glanced up and saw that he was now determined to clench his jaw.

Crown clamped his teeth tightly together and began tossing his hot, hurting head from side to side-gasping all the while.

Sensing that the heat was about to rise in the room, the nurse closed her book and then hurried off to fetch the legend's doctor and self-proclaimed handler.

Jim Crown took his time coming to. For, to regain consciousness meant to regain pain.

His head felt like there was a blacksmith inside of it, trying to hammer his way out through the top of his skull. His chest felt like it had just been kicked in by a mule, and his shoulder-his right shoulder felt like that mule was still standing there, right on top of him-with all four of its feet!

The lawman let out another, long, pitiful moan and tried to pry his tightly shut eyes open. His first few atttempts failed. But then he finally, reluctantly, fully regained consciousness. "Oh-ohhh...oh-ohhhh... Oh-oh-ohhhhh..." he groaned. His left hand started reaching for his chest, but then changed course for his shoulder and finally ended up on his throbbing forehead.

His skin felt sort of strange...all cold and clammy li-. Something gradually occurred to the groggy lawman. He latched onto and then began lifting the cool, damp cloth that had been placed across his brow and over his eyes.

A cozy little lamp lit room appeared. But no mules.

The Marshal found himself to be lying, fully clothed, under a stack of blankets on a double bed in one of the cozy little room's corners-with his gun in his hand?

He flipped the covers off the upper half of his body and slowly drew his right hand up. Correction, with his empty gun in his hand! He wasn't completely clothed, either. His boots were missing, as well as his bullets.

He was about to start looking for the way out, when a section of the room's wall just up and opened.

Instinctively, he drew on the sudden movement and tried drawing his right leg up as well.

Another mistake!

Crown cried out in agony as the limb remained locked in place, apparently leg-ironed to the foot of the bed!

Jerking his leg produced a bone-jarring jolt to his ribs-which, in turn, produced a pain so severe that it took his breath away.

The pain gradually subsided. His eyes gradually reopened...and his breath gradually returned. "Don' worry," he told the lovely lady who was staring uneasily down at the barrel of the gun-which was pointed directly at her, "it ain't loaded." Then, seeing as how the woman now seemed surprised, he obligingly added, "After a sort a' develop a 'feel'...for such things." Now, Mrs. Edwards owed him an explanation-or two. "What're you doin' here? Better yet, what am I doin' here? An' whose 'idea' was this?" he demanded, giving his ankle chain a tug.

Doctor Jarrod Michael Ellis saw his patient flinch in pain, and winced as well. The time had come for him to 'take the heat'. So he stepped out from behind Nurse Edwards and reluctantly began raising his hand.

Crown watched as the cowering kid doctor uneasily claimed responsibility. "Where's the key?" he cooly inquired, seeing that his vest was off.

But both his nurse and his doctor remained silent.

"Let me rephrase that: Give me the key!" The shouting Marshal grimaced and gasped in pain, "No-ow!" he added less loudly but even more firmly.

"Sorry," Jarrod said, "but we can't do that. Not just yet, anyways," his handler added, sounding very determined. "You've been hit with bullets before," the cocky kid continued, seeing his patient's anger giving way to confusion. "I know. I can tell by the scars. So I don't have to tell you how sick it can make you-too sick to deal with anybody...or anything!"

The lawman looked slightly distressed, but not the least bit impressed. "Yeah. Well...when-an' if-that time comes, I'll be the one who decides who or what I can or cannot deal with! Now, give me the key!"

"You're not a doctor!" Jarrod reminded him. "What makes you think you're qualified to make such medical decisions? If you knew the least bit about medicine, you'd realize that you are in no condition right now to leave that bed!"

"An' you're not a lawman!" Crown countered. "If you were you'd realize that I'm the only one 'qualified' ta stand up ta Mareck! So, now, may I please have the's I kin 'stand up'?"

But the young doctor remained firm. "The only thing that concerns me right now is the health and welfare of my patient. And I'm convinced that you'll stay a lot 'healthier' if you stay right where you are!"

"The only thing that concerns me right now is the health an' welfare a' the people a' this town! An' they'll all stay a lot 'healthier' if you give me the key!" The Marshal gasped in exasperation as his captor shook his head 'no'. That clinched it! The lawman had reached the limits of his patience. "Do you know what the penalty is for interferin' with a United States Marshal?"

Jarrod looked thoughtful. "Nope! But I imagine it's probably a lot like the penalty a United States Marshal gets for interfering with his doctor," he announced, tapping the 'legend's' leg-iron. "And I can live with that. And, more importantly, so can you! I intend to do everything within my power to keep you a living 'legend'!" he determinedly added. He tapped the chain on his patient's ankle one last time and turned to go.

The doctor's departure caused the 'legend' to panic. "Well, jes' how lo-ong do you intend ta keep me livin' here?"

Jarrod stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. "That depends entirely on you, Marshal. On how sick you get and how soon you recover," he paused to pull out his pocket watch. "It's been almost a full day. The germs had a five hour headstart.. So, if the wound's going to infect, we'll know soon."

"An' if it doesn''ll let me go?" the 'legend' hopefully inquired. "You've seen me in action," he added, seeing the physician pondering his situation over. "I kin take care a' myself!"

"Oh-oh, you were fast all right..." Jarrod had to admit. "And speed is nice. But a certain lawman, who is an absolute 'living legend' with a gun, once told me that, when it comes to gun battles, accuracy is even better! And, speaking of accuracy, you weren't quite 'accurate' this morning were you, Marshal. I mean, when you said that there was a mad dog loose out there. There isn't just one now is there. There's a whole pack of 'em out there! Still, in a fair contest, I don't believe there's a one of them that could match your speed. But, since it's not too likely that they're going to just obligingly line up and let you take them on one at a time that brings us back to the even greater importance of accuracy. Doesn't it. When the time comes that you can point that gun at the ceiling there, and then draw an accurate bead down its barrel, then, and only then, will I consider 'letting you go out there' not quite so much as 'complicity to commit murder'."

Crown had no choice but to comply with his very determined doctor's terms. So he raised the gun up to eye level with both of his arms and drew an accurate bead down its barrel.

The cocky kid doctor was momentaraly crushed. "I meant with one arm," he added, the smile and smugness returning to his face.

The 'legend' tossed the Colt into his left hand, raised it up to the ceiling and drew an accurate bead down its barrel.

His captor rolled his eyes. "I meant with your right arm."

The Marshal hesitated a moment or two before tossing the weapon back into his right hand. Three quarters of the way up, his badly injured shoulder gave out. His arm froze up and he stifled a shout of sheer agony.

"That wasn't too bad," Jarrod told him, "for your first attempt. You jes' go right on practicin'...and let me know when you're ready to try it again," he taunted and then turned to go.

"Do-oc'?" Crown regained his breath and his composure and called him back. "You talk about 'complicity ta commit murder'. Well, how fair a fight do yah figure it'll be when they find me here...chained up like this...with an empty gun?"

The Doc' turned back and smiled again. "But that's the beauty of it. Nobody is even looking for you. As far as everyone-but a handful of your closest friends-is concerned, you rode out of town earlier this afternoon and didn't say where you were going or when you'd be back. Now, none of your friends intends to tell anyone where you are. And we did such a good job of stashing you safely away, that I'll bet you don't even know where you are right now."

Crown glanced around the unfamiliar room again. "Doc' Kilghrens?" he guessed, and accurately, too by the crushed look on the cocky kid's face. "I only gave you one set a' keys. Remember? The other one, you stole! An', in the off chance that that pack a' mad dogs somehow manages ta sniff me out...?"

"I hid your key. She hid your gun belt. You can use one of your bullets to shoot this lock off. There'll be a fast horse tied up behind the shed out back. It'll be all saddled and bridled and ready to make tracks," Jarrod promised his still upset patient. Then to Katelyn he said, "He's all yours, Nurse. If you need me for anything more, I'll be right downstairs, unpacking."

The nurse nodded and the doctor disappeared back out that hole in the wall.

"Where are my boots?" Jim Crown demanded, venting some of the fury and frustration that he was still feeling in the Nurse's direction.

"On the floor at the foot of the bed," Katelyn stated defensively. "Why?"

The Marshal completely ignored her question and came back with another one of his own. "Where's Jamie?"

"I left 'im with Mr. Fitzsimmons and his wife, Helen-a wonderful woman. She has such a 'way' with children. But then, surely you must know her. After all, she is yore 'deputy's' mommy," Katelyn teased, in an attempt to get Danny's boss in a little bit better mood.

"What are you doin' here?" Jim Crown inquired again, the bitter tone remaining in his voice. "You were in such an all-fired rush for Jamie ta meet his Auntie, I figured the two a' you would be half ways ta Sain' Louie by now."

Realizing that her first attempt had failed, miserably, Katelyn tried again to lighten the angry lawman's mood. "I heard you needed nursin'," she replied rather sweetly. "An' I'm a Nurse. So-o..."

"An' jes' how did you 'hear' I needed nursin'?" Crown cautiously inquired.

"We, uh...ran inta one a' yore other deputies at the river crossin' this mornin'."

"Now, that would a' been kind a' difficult. Considerin' you were s'posed ta be headed towards Hardesty. An' Mac would a' been comin' from Cimarron. An' the two a' you wouldn' a' been usin' the same crossin'. Unless, a' course, one a' you had changed 'her' mind!"

"So what if I did!" Katelyn stated, the sweetness now gone from her voice. "This is a free country. Remember? I got a right ta change my mind!"

"A 'right'? A 'ri-ight'? With you women, it seems more like an obligation! An', of all the times for you ta be exercisin' yore 'rights', why no-ow? I tole you it wasn' safe for the two a' you here, in Cimarron!"

Katelyn wanted to shout 'That didn't stop you from comin' here!', but she didn't. This wasn't just a 'living legend' that she was dealing with here. No-o, this was the man she had somehow managed to fall in love with.

"Lady," Jim Crown continued, "you couldn' a' picked a poorer time ta pay this town a visit!" He turned back to the woman, looking both confused and curious. "What happened, anyways? I thought you were real anxious ta see yore sister again."

"I was," she softly assured him. "Still am." The nurse picked the damp cloth up from off the bed and dropped it into the bowl beside her on the dresser. "I guess there must a' been someone else...that I wanted ta see again...even more," she rather candidly confessed, and picked the lawman's left hand back up. It felt so good to be hearing that distinctive voice...and seeing that familiar face...and staring into those dreamy, dark eyes of his again. "After you left us yesterday," Katelyn calmly continued, carefully taking a seat beside her somewhat perplexed looking patient, "I got ta thinkin'. An' I suddenly realized that I had forgotten ta give you my sister's address. An' well, St. Louie' is an awful big place. An' it occurred ta me that, should it have ever occurred ta you to...Well, it might a' taken you forever ta find us there! An' I didn' want ta have ta wait that long ta see you again. I couldn't wait that long ta see you again. we are," she finished in a whisper.

Jim Crown stared wonderingly up at the woman that he had fallen in love with. Then he blinked his blurring vision clear and finally forced a quiet comment of his own. "Katelyn...what I tole you before...about there not bein' much of a future with me-"

"-So, forget the future!" the little lady interrupted, and flashed him a smile. "I'm willin' ta settle for 'now'...right 'no-ow'!"

"Right 'no-ow' you're talkin' to a target! Remember? I got bull's-eyes drawn all up an' down the front, back an' sides a' me! "

"I realize that. But it doesn' matter."

"It matters ta me-e!" the man she loved sadly said and directing his blurred vision toward the dresser...and his vest. "Wearin' that badge has made me a lot a' enemies, Katelyn-sworn enemies! Some are dead...some are behind bars...some have prob'ly forgotten by now 'what' they'd sworn they'd do ta me. But some-" the lawman stopped and looked even sadder. "We-ell...let's jes' say that Roger Mareck ain' the only man out there, who'd like ta see me dead." His sad eyes turned back in the lovely lady's direction. "Right 'now', I'm livin' on borrowed time,' nobody but me is gonna be payin' the interest."

"Begged, stolen or borrowed-I don' care where the time comes from! Jes' so long as we spend every second of it tagether!"

Jim Crown aimed his anguished gaze up at the ceiling-to which he might as well be talking-and gasped twice, once in complete exasperation, and then again-in pain. "Weren' you listenin'? It's too dangerous! There's no future in hangin' around a man who has ta keep crashin' headlong into his past!"

The little lady looked more than a little exasperated herself. "Weren' you listenin'? I told yah, it don' matter if there wouldn' be much of a 'future' for a 'Mrs.' Marshal. Because I'm not askin' for no 'long term' commitments here! Remember? I'm willin' ta settle for 'now'. However long, or short, a time that may turn out ta be. Yah see, I've learned that it ain't the amount a' time, but how you choose ta spend it, that really counts! Jonathan an' I managed ta cram a whole, glorious lifetime inta jes' two short years."

The Marshal kept his blurry vision focused up at the ceiling, and suddenly looked even sadder still. "I can't even promise you two short da-ays."

"I know," the woman assured him, her own eyes watering, her whispered words sounding a bit shaky. "An' it still doesn' matter. I'll still take quality over quantity, any day!" she declared with a sad smile and gave the lawman's hand a firm squeeze.

The Marshal heard the determination in the lady's voice and felt the firmness in her grip, and finally realized something. "You really mean that," he declared, locking his dark green eyes onto hers.

The woman's smile widened and she whispered, "Yes...I really do!"

The lawman managed a sad smile as well, and gripped her hand tightly in return. "Then hold me, Katelyn Edwards. 'Cuz I really need someone ta hold me right now."

"Then I'll hold you, Jim Crown," Katelyn vowed, carefully taking the man she loved up into her arms. "An' we'll hold on ta each other...for jes' as lo-ong as we can!"

The Marshal wrapped his arms around the woman and pulled her close to him-a little too close, as far as his ribs were concerned, and yet not nearly close enough. So he clamped his teeth tightly together and held her even closer. Crown found this close encounter of the Katelyn kind completely overwhelming! In fact, holding her made his insides feel so goo-ood that he soon forgot about his aching outsides. "You're right, yah know..." he told the woman softly, following a long comfortable silence. "Sain' Louie is a big place. An' it kin be an even bigger place, when you're lookin' for someone. An' it prob'ly would a' taken me quite awhile ta find the two a' you. But I would've found you!" he vowed.

Katelyn's eyes opened and she pulled back so she could aim her amazed gaze at him. "You would've?"

"Oh-oh yea-eah..." Jim Crown assured her, and gazed longingly into the little lady's lovely dark eyes. "An' I think you should know how much I appreciate all the time an' trouble you saved me, by comin' here like you did," he continued, pulling her gently back into his arms.

"I di-id?" Katelyn managed to whisper before he kissed her. There was that same gentleness and controlled passion that she had found so appealing before. But, while the man's manner may not have changed, there was a definite and drastic difference in his temperature. "Doctor Ellis was right!" she declared, cutting their kiss short. "You do feel 'warm'! Real 'warm'!" she added rather alarmedly.

"Yea-eah..." the man was forced to admit. "I've noticed you sort a' have that effect on me." He flashed her a wry smile and pulled her back into his arms, to kiss her again.

But again she cut it short. "You're burnin' up!" she announced, pulling back to study her patient's face for any further indication of illness or pain. "Are you sure you're feelin' up ta this?"

The Marshal stared back up at her, looking tremendously disappointed. "Do I look dead ta you?"

The woman smiled and shook her pretty head no.

The lawman's wry smile returned. "Well, then there's yore answer." He took her back into his arms and tenderly kissed her.

This time, she kissed him...and kissed him...and kissed him...and kissed him.

"You were right about somethin' else, too," Jim Crown commented when the two of them finally came up for air. "You're never gonna get ta Sain' Louie at this rate."

Katelyn obviously found his comment highly amusing, for she fell down onto the bed beside him and then lay there, laughing.

The lawman loved the sound of her laughter and he lay there, praying that there would be many, many more opportunities for him to hear it. But, if right 'now' was to be all the time that they would have together, then they would make the most of every single moment of it! The Marshal propped himself up on his left elbow and then leaned over to do just that.

"You're hurting!" Katelyn anxiously realized, right in mid-giggle, as the pain took her patient's breath away. "An' don' say that I have that effect on you!" she warned.

"All right," Crown conceded with a grimace and a gasp. "But you do." He smiled, as the lovely lady was forced to smile.

"You ever heard of a woman's intuition?" Katelyn wondered.

The lawman thought the woman's question over for a moment and then nodded.

"Do you believe in it?"

"Why not?" Jim replied, with a one-shouldered shrug. "Durin' the entire forty years a' my existence, women have never ceased ta amaze me," he told the even more amused looking 'woman' truthfully, and tenderly began taking her back into his aching arms.

"From the first moment we met," the lady continued, locking her arms about the lawman's broad shoulders, "I jes' knew that you were gonna turn out ta be someone that I was never gonna want ta say 'goodbye' to. That's why I couldn't a' kissed you 'goodbye'-no matter how many times we would a' tried!"

"I know what yah mean," the lawman confessed, staring lustfully down at the very lovely lady who was now all locked up in his arms. "When I fers' saw you, I broke a commandment or two, mysel-" his lips stopped moving as they met with her's.

'Wo-ow!' Katelyn thought, as once again the gentle man's manner inspired her to give as she got.

In no time at all, the two of them had fanned the flames of passion into a full-scale bonfire!

"Whoa-oah!" the woman requested a bit breathlessly.

Her equally breathless, passionate partner put a stop to his amorous advances and then withdrew from the woman jes' far enough away to enable him to look down at her.

The Marshal's eyes reopened and the lady tensed. That same look was in them that was there when they closed. "You may not look dead," she said, trying hard not to look or sound too terribly nervous, "but you don'' exactly look like you're feelin' up ta 'that' jes' yet, either! Besides, what if the doctor was to walk in on us?"

Crown felt the tension in the lady's body more than he saw it in her face or heard it in her voice. "Relax. You got nothin' ta worry about. Remember? I said I wasn' about ta start rapin' and pilligin' now, an' I meant it."

The gentleman's calm reassurances put her somewhat at ease. "Sorry. I guess I must a' misread that 'look' in yore eyes."

"You didn' misread a thing," Crown continued to assure her, that 'look' returning to his dreamy, dark eyes.

The tension returned to the little lady's lovely body. " jes' said-"

"-I sai-aid," the gentleman interrupted, "that I would never do anything like that. I didn't say the thought never crossed my mind...a couple a' dozen times," he confessed unashamedly, and that wry smile of his reappeared.

The woman untensed some and then managed a rather wry smile of her own. "'Any man who looks at a woman, so as to have a passion for her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart," she reminded the man-who had already just confessed to 'coveting his neighbor's wife'.

Jim's smile broadened and he managed another, one-shouldered shrug. "It's like I been tellin' yah all along," he reminded her. "I'm no angel!" The amused look vanished from his eyes and once again they became filled with equal measures of 'love' and 'lust'.

The little lady's smile faded and she found herself returning his 'looks'. "Yeah...well," Katelyn tensed as that old bonfire began blazing back up again-hotter than ever! "I'm only human, myself," she confessed and began drawing back from their embrace. "So's I bes' keep my distance. I don' have no 'broken bones' or 'chains' stoppin' me-e."

The lawman caught the lady and kept her there-firmly, yet gently, locked in his arms. "Neither do I-I..." he assured her very deliberately.

Then Katelyn watched, somewhat in awe, as the man she loved winked...and then released her.

Crown planted a kiss on the pretty lady's forehead and then carefully eased himself back down onto the bed, leaving his left arm draped about her shoulders. "Now shu-ush!" the Marshal ordered sharply. "You don' look too lively, yoreself. So we should at least try ta get some shut eye," he added and aimed that wry smile of his up at the ceiling.

"Good old Uncle Wes'' The Good Book," Katelyn Edwards whispered beneath her breath. Then she snuggled cozily up beside the bossy 'legend' and obligingly shut her eyes.

If Jim Crown had caught the woman's quiet comments, he would've noticed how tremendously relieved-and extremely disappointed-the little lady sounded.

The couple's bonfire eventually became dying embers and they did, somehow, manage to drift off...eventually.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death Of A Legend"

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Senator David Fisher entered the Federal Marshal's Office just before dark with a fully-briefed Doctor Ellis, and found 'Mister' Roger Mareck sitting at Jim's desk, sipping a drink.

Dave fought the urge to go for the gun that Francis had found for him and, fortunately, won the battle.

It was fortunate because Mareck's ever-present personal bodyguards already had he and the good doctor covered.

Besides, both of his hands were already full. The Senator was carrying Jim Crown's personal effects.

Dulcey, who'd been sitting stiffly up in the armchair, which was still situated in the center of the room, stiffened even more and started getting to her feet. "Jarrod!" she acknowledged rather relievedly.

The young doctor overcame his alarm at finding the frightened little lady in the company of such unsavory looking, armed-and obviously dangerous-gentlemen, and took a step or two in Dulcey's direction.

Mr. Gordon-and his gun's barrel-came between them and blocked the couple's embrace.

Jarrod flashed the cruel fellow an angry glare. "What's the meaning of this?" he demanded, ditching the lines he'd been rehearsing and improvising a new 'script'. (Francis' lines had been jes' fine but a man has ta play the hand he's dealt!) "What are you men doing here?"

"What are you men doing here?" the man seated behind the Marshal's desk demanded, tossing the angry young man's question right back at him. "And what are you doing with those things?" he added, spotting the Marshal's belongings.

"When the Marshal's horse came back without the Marshal," the solemn, sad-faced Senator soberly replied, "Miss Coopersmith became worried. After all, the animal was all lathered up an' there was dried blood on the saddle. So she asked the two a' us ta go lookin' for 'im."

Miss Coopersmith caught on quickly and did a little improvising of her own. "Those are Jim's things!" she exclaimed and allowed her questioning eyes to dart from the young doctor's to the Senator's...and then back to the young doctor's.

"I'm...sorry, Miss Dulcey," an equally sad Jarrod said, sounding equally sober. "The Marshal's...dead."

Miss Dulcey drew in a sudden breath of shock and disbelief and then feigned a dead faint.

At least, Jarrod hoped the completely overcome actress was feigning. He stepped out to catch the collapsing Miss Coopersmith and, this time, the cruel fellow with the gun made no attempt to stop him. The doctor caught Dulcey under the arms and carefully lowered her back down onto the armchair.

The Marshal's arch enemy looked somewhat shocked himself. But then his expression gradually grew skeptical. "You found Crown?"

Dave nodded, solemnly. "In a little clearin'...about four miles, or so, South a' town."

"And you're certain that he's dead?" Mareck asked, remaining deeply skeptical.

"I'm a Doctor!" Jarrod bitterly pointed out, not bothering to look up from his 'fainted dead away' patient. "I examined him! Believe me, they don't come any 'deader'! Someone put a bullet hole in the center of his chest!"

"Yeah," the equally bitter sounding Senator chimed in. "An' then, whoever it was that shot 'im, finished the job, by blowin' his head clean off-with a shotgun!"

Roger Mareck stared up at the two men looking like he found their grim and gorey report too good to be true. "What did you do with him?"

Jarrod glanced up from the pretty-still pretending to be 'passed out'-girl to shoot their questioner another irritated glare. "What do you think we did with him?" he sarcastically inquired. "What do people normally do with dead bodies? We buried him!"

"Where?" Roger Mareck demanded, the skepticism returning to his face and voice.

"Right where we found him!" the young doctor replied. "Getting hit in the face with a double-barreled shotgun-at close range-does not make for a very pretty sight! We didn't want anyone else-especially the girl, here-to see the Marshal's body, mutilated the way it was," he morbidly explained.

Mister Mareck exchanged skeptical glances with his hired goons and then aimed an icy glare at Dave. "Where's the grave?"

"In a little clearin' about four miles, or so, South a' town!" Dave replied, sounding annoyed that he had to repeat himself.

"You'll have to do better than that!"

"That's the best I kin do!" Mr. Fisher informed him. "I jes' got inta town las' night! I don' know the lay a' the land around here!"

"Then you'll just have to take Mr. Nyman out there and show him where the Marshal's grave is!" Roger Mareck angrily informed him.

"Why-y?" Jarrod asked, sounding every bit as angry.

"Because if you don't, there are going to be three more dead bodies around here!" Mareck explained, sounding completely enraged.

Dave and the young doctor exchanged anxious glances. "You s'pose the two a' us could find that clearin' again? It's gettin' awful dark out there..."

"I certainly hope that we can!" Jarrod answered, looking and sounding genuinely concerned.

Dave deposited the 'dead' lawman's 'effects' down on the desk and then turned to Mr. Nyman. "Well, c'mon! What're we waitin' for? There's a fresh grave ta be found!"

Mareck examined the Marshal's black, leather vest carefully.

There was dried blood on it and a bullet hole in it, all right. But had no badge pinned to it.

"Where's his badge?" he wondered.

"It was missin' when we found 'im," Dave told him. "We figured the murderer must a' took it, so's he could collect the bounty," he added, the bitterness returning to his voice.

"Where's my money?" Mareck demanded as a search of the Marshal's saddlebags came up shy of his twenty thousand dollars.

The Senator stared down at the recently unwrapped napkin on Jim's desk and made a face. 'Eeee-yuk!' (Dulcey was right! There were few things less appetizing looking than a piece of squooshed apple pie!) "Jim had it with him when he left town," the queazy-stomached Senator said. "Find the Marshal's murderer-an' you'll find yore money."

Mareck's look went from thoughtful. "Denny, tell the Judge I want to see him! No-ow!"

Denny nodded and obediently disappeared out the door.

"Ain' you gonna try ta wake her?" Dave asked, as the doctor left the little lady and started heading for the exit as well.

"She's had a terrible shock," replied the young doc'. "Sleep's the best thing for her right now. So I believe I'll let her be."

"Make sure you take some shovels and lanterns along, Luther!" Roger Mareck reminded Mr. Nyman. "I want you to make good and sure, Crown's good and dead!"

Luther nodded a bit uncertainly and then ushered the two secretly delighted 'grave-digger-uppers' out of the Office-at gunpoint.

"Francis!" George Rawlings exclaimed as the young deputy appeared in the store room of Carl Benjamin's shop. "Where-in heaven's name-have you been? And where is the Marshal?"

Francis glanced around the room at the solemn group that was assembled there. Besides Mr. Rawlings and Carl Benjamin, of course, there was Mr. Herald and Mr. Wisler and Mr. Andrews, and Charley Lundquist-all men who could be trusted...hopefully. "The Marshal's dead," he informed them, "for all intents an' purposes..." he added hintingly, and watched their shocked, horrified expressions turn to looks of confusion, followed-finally-by those of dawning understanding. "How'd it go?"

"Huh?" the closest thing Cimarron had to a Mayor muttered, sounding like he was still stunned by the young man's stunning announcement. "Oh-oh right. It went just fine. Everything of value has been shipped out of town, just like you wanted. Including most of the women and children."

"You sure this is gonna work?" Mr. Andrews asked.

"Certainly!" the Marshal's young deputy assured him. "It always worked when Jim did it. Didn' it?"

Mr. Andrews and the remaining skeptics in the room were forced to nod.

"That's right!" Charley Lundquist chimed in rather cheerily. "If we do everything the way the Marshal would do it-if'n he was here-it's bound ta work out!"

Once again, the solemn men were forced to nod. All eyes in the room suddenly refocused on Francis.

"So-o, Deputy," George Rawlings said with a smile, "what do we do now?"

"That depends entirely on Mareck an' his bunch," the deputy declared. "They got the next move. With Jim 'dead' an' nothin' left in town worth stealin'-hopefully they'll all decide ta up an' leave."

"And if they decide to up and stay?" Mr. Wisler nervously wondered.

"Then we'll jes' have ta pick up where the Marshal left off," Francis reasoned. "We kin take our time an' pick Mareck's men off one by one until there are none."

The somber group nodded the young deputy's plan of action approvingly.

"Now that that's settled," the Marshal's deputy said, sounding tremendously relieved and terribly tired, "let's all get some sleep. An' we'll meet back here tomorrow mornin', after the train leaves. Hopefully, with Roger Mareck and his bunch on board," he added under his breath.

Yet again, the group nodded in agreement.

Francis turned to go, but then suddenly remembered something. "Don't forget!" he called back over his shoulder. "For all intents an' purposes-"

"-We know," Mr. Andrews assured him. "The Marshal is dead."

This time, the deputy nodded. Then he walked out the door and disappeared without a trace.

Realizing that it wasn't safe for him to return to the Inn, Francis went off to find a place where he could 'lie low' for a while.

'Mister' Roger Mareck looked up from the fresh drink he'd just poured himself and watched as the requested Judge Rutgers appeared before him. He also took note of the two hired guns who had closely accompanied 'His Honor' into the Marshal's Office. "I wanted to see you!" Mareck reminded Rutgers. "Alone!"

The Judge glanced at the sleeping girl for a moment and then glared distrustfully down at the pompous little man seated behind the Marshal's desk. "I don't go anywhere alone, anymore!" he stated for the record, and continued to stare disbelievingly down at the foolish little fellow behind the desk. He knew Roger Mareck to be an arrogant man. But he couldn't believe that he'd actually had the audacity to take over the Marshal's Office!

"I take it you haven't heard the latest word," Mareck said, seeing the look of disbelief on the Judge's face. "The Marshal's been murdered," Mareck obligingly continued as that look turned to one of curiousity, "and my money is missing," he angrily added, "along with the Marshal's badge!" he slyly concluded. He casually sipped his drink and watched as complete confusion took the place of the shocked expression on the reward offerer's face.

"I don't believe it!" Rutgers declared, the look of disbelief returning, along with his ability to speak.

Roger Mareck whipped the Marshal's bloodied black vest at him, and continued to nonchalantly nurse his drink.

'His Honor' caught the article of Crown's clothing and closely examined it. The badge-less vest did indeed appear to have a bullet hole in it and dried blood on it. "I still don't believe it!" the Judge declared, dismissing the evidence as circumstantial. "If Crown is dead...and if one of my boys had killed him...they would've turned in his badge by now and claimed their bounty money," he confidently stated.

"Not necessarily," Mareck said, sounding equally as confident. "Not if they had already claimed twenty thousand dollars of my money!" he shouted, the rage returning to his voice.

Confusion returned to Rutger's face. "Crown left town... carrying twenty grand on him? And he took it from you?" he asked, sounding even more amazed.

Roger Mareck and his henchman exchanged embarrassed glances. Then he gave the amazed question asker a reluctant nod. "In return for this," he explained, pulling a highly polished 'two-bit piece a' tin' from his coat pocket and plunking it down on the desk.

Judge Rutgers exchanged broad grins with his bodyguards. Truth was, the three highly amused men had everything they could do to keep from laughing outright! Which would've enraged Roger Mareck even more. Their grins were outrageous and enraging enough, as is!

"I want you to find out which one of your men has my money!" Mareck ordered, a trace of embarrassment lingering in his loud voice. "I want it back!"

"And I want to see a body!" the dubious Judge demanded right back. "How do you know this isn't all just some 'trick' to get you to leave town?"

"One of my men is looking into that possibility right now," Mareck icily informed him. "In the meantime, I want you to look into the little matter of my missing money," he impatiently repeated.

Rutgers didn't argue with the aggravatingly arrogant fool behind the desk. If one or more of his men had killed Crown and taken his badge-and Mareck's money-the Judge could think of twenty thousand reasons why he or they would never admit to the murder. "I'll have Spencer and Endry, here, ask around," he lied. "And, when your man gets back, I'd appreciate it if you would let me know what he found."

Mister Mareck managed another reluctant nod.

Judge Rutgers shot the sleeping girl, and then the arrogant fool, a final glance, and quickly took his leave.

Roger Mareck picked the half-emptied bottle up off the dead Marshal's desk and promptly replenished his drink. The peace officer's passing prompted a toast!

Heck, Crown's death called for a full-scale celebration!

"To the Marshal's murder!" Mareck proposed and passed his bodyguards the bottle. "He won't go stepping in front of any more trains!" he predicted, with a satisfied smirk, and drained his glass, brimming with brandy, dry again...and again...and again.

Mr. Gordon and Mr. Bowlen glanced uncertainly at each other.

If their celebrating boss wasn't careful, he just might drink himself under the dead Marshal's desk!

Speaking of the dead Marshal...

Jim Crown couldn't keep his eyes shut.

Almost immediately upon drifting off, the extreme discomfort from his hurting head, aching arms and incredibly sore backside caused him to come drifting right back again.

He wanted to leave-not just consciously, but physically.

The lawman had been locked in his own leg irons, handcuffs and jail cells before...more times than he cared to recall. So he kept a spare key in a special compartment in the inside wall of his right boot, for just such embarrassing occasions.

With all those hornets he'd stirred up buzzin' around town, he figured it was just a matter of time before somebody got stung. He had intended to slip out while his nurse was asleep, and then go see about settling those hornets down some. Trouble was, he couldn't see how he could slip his aching arm out from under the woman without waking her.

To top off the Marshal's misery, his bullet-ridden, badly-bruised and busted ribcage had begun paining him so, that it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to draw a deep breath. That little twinge he felt with every little inhalation had turned into a sharp, stabbing sensation which made him 'wince' with each shallow breath.

He finally gasped in frustration and then forced himself to take in a complete lungful of air-which the lawman's lungs promptly expelled with one unbelievably agonizingly painful, and loud, cough. The pain produced by the cough was so sharp and so severe that Crown couldn't help but cry out, and reach for his burning chest with both of his arms.

Katelyn wasn't sure if it was the 'cough' or the 'cry' or the 'sudden commotion' which had awakened her. But she woke up wringing wet-with the Marshal's sweat!

Here he was-burning up!

And there she was-lying down. "Oh-oh," the nurse moaned regrettably and crawled quickly out of bed, to place the cool, damp cloth back on the feverish lawman's burning brow.

"Sorry," her equally soggy, groggy patient gasped, upon releasing his held breath. "I didn' mean...ta wake you."

"You should a' woke me sooner," Katelyn chastised. "I'm s'posed ta be carin' for you."

Crown, who was still clutching his chest and clenching his jaw, forced himself to relax...some. "You let me rest...when I was tired," he reminded the worried-sounding woman. Then he smiled and slowly opened his tightly shut eyes. "I was jes'...returnin'...the favor," he explained, and locked his groggy gaze upon his gorgeous nurse. "I don' suppose it's...unbearably...'hot' here."

His nurse smiled sympathetically down at him. "Sorry, but it's actually quite comfortably cool," she glumly confessed and replaced the cool cloth on his forehead with an even colder compress.

The lawman gasped in frustration and then grimaced in pain.

Seeing her patient's pain, and sensing his frustration, Katelyn reached out and placed a hand on his left shoulder, to give it a reassuring squeeze. "Everything'll be all right. Why, in a few hours the fever will have run its course and you'll be jes' fine!"

Crown cocked one eyebrow and gazed up at his nurse, looking highly skeptical.

The woman gave him another deeply sympathetic smile and shrugged.

His own smile returned. "In case...I haven't said it...before," he gasped a bit breathlessly, "you're beautiful."

Katelyn's smile broadened as well. "An' you're delirious."

"Perhaps..." the Marshal admitted. " a few hours...I'll be jes' fine...and you'll still be...beautiful."

Katelyn flashed her admirer another warm smile. It was then that she noticed her patient was still clutching at his chest. "You're hurtin'!" she anxiously exclaimed.

"Some," her pained patient rather breathlessly replied. "Even in the...depths of delirium...I kin still reco' I see it," he confidently stated, and kept his blurry vision locked on the 'beauty' who was bent over him.

"Yore breathin's too shallow," his nurse announced, completely ignoring his rantings. "Yore lungs are fillin' with fluids. I'll fetch the doctor an' we'll sit you up an' maybe even unwrap yore ribs. That should help...some."

Her patient completely ignored her rantings and just continued to stare up at her. " in love...with a...beautiful...lady!" Jim Crown rather deliriously determined.

The beautiful lady pressed a finger over his smile. "Shu-ush!" she ordered sharply. "Lie still. I'll be right back."

The lawman's feverish face filled with disappointment, as the vision of loveliness suddenly left him. However, he made no attempt to leave himself. Even in the depths of his delirium, he possessed enough sense to realize that a man who couldn't even hardly breathe had no business being out of bed.

True to her word, the woman was right back. "Doctor Ellis wasn't downstairs," she gloomily announced and placed several items down on the dresser. "Which means we'll have ta do this without 'im," she added, even more gravely, and took a seat on the bed beside her patient. "We should a' had you sittin' up some right along," she glumly realized. Then she leaned over and pulled the man that she loved up into her arms and into a sitting position-with a minimum of discomfort.

Almost immediately, the lawman's labored breathing began to ease. He held onto his lovely nurse and rested his spinning head upon the little lady's soft shoulder.

Katelyn latched onto the scissors lying on top of the dresser and carefully began cutting the bandages from the Marshal's midsection.

The tightly wrapped dressings fell away, freeing the man to breathe deeply. Which he naturally did. Which he immediately regretted! For, almost as immediately, he began coughing-and hurting! No-o, it hurt him just to breathe. Coughing was killing him!

"C'mon!" Katelyn urged. "Take some nice, deep breaths!"

That was easy for her to say. She didn't have no sharp, searing pains shootin' through her chest! The entire upper half of the lawman's body was wracked in excruciating pain. He kept coughing...and groaning-all involuntarily.

Katelyn Edwards kept her arms locked around her coughing, groaning patient and did her level best to comfort him. "I know...I know, my darling," she soothingly reassured him. "But we can't have you dying of pneumonia, now can we."

Something in the woman's soft-spoken words told Jim Crown that he was dead wrong. The woman did have sharp, searin' pains shootin' through her chest. Love wasn't the only strong feeling the two of them shared.

"Here," his nurse said, sensing that neither of them could stand the pain produced by the coughing anymore, "take some a' this..."

Her extremely trusting, and pained, patient unhesitatingly took a sip of the potion which she had pressed to his tightly pursed lips.

"Accordin' ta Jonathan's medical journals, this stuff is s'posed ta 'quiet the cough control centers of your brain'," Katelyn quoted uncertainly.

Crown glanced skeptically up at her between coughs.

She shrugged and then held the cough syrup up to her patient's mouth one more time. "Trouble is," she continued, as the man took another sip, "I have absolutely no idea what the proper dosage is-" she stopped, as her patient stopped in mid-sip and shot her a look of disbelief. "Don' worry. When the coughin' stops, we'll know we got the right dosage," the woman reasoned with a wry smile.

The grimacing, still coughing, Marshal smiled uncertainly, and took another tentative sip from the bottle being shoved into his mouth. "Will you get a...message...ta my friends for me?" Crown quietly requested, between coughs.

His nurse nodded.

"Tell' Dulcey...I said ta 'lie low'...until Mareck leaves," he paused to cough. The pain was so profound it brought tears to their eyes. "You got that?" the delirious, and now drugged, man gasped.

Again his nurse nodded.

Her acknowledgement put the lawman somewhat at ease. "Speakin' a' 'lyin' low'..." Crown continued in a whisper. "If you're gonna live with a're gonna have ta learn ta duck...An'...when I tell you ta," the incredibly drowsy, no longer coughing, man's words trailed off. His half-open eyes closed and his head dropped back down onto his nurse's soft shoulder.

The woman set the bottle back on the dresser and began gently rocking her unconscious patient. Apparently, cough centers were not the only areas of the brain that codeine quieted. "Ah, harmonious pipe, how I envy they thy bliss," Katelyn softly crooned. "When pressed to Steven's lips, with a gentle kiss. And when his tender hands, 'round thee fold in a soft embrace, I listen and approve these melting tones, which soothe my soul, soothe my soul to love. Alive with passions from his breath that flow, yield your music when he's pleased to blow. Thus at once the charming minstrel rare...delights with sounds, an enchanting tone, with sweet songs fill the air. Go happy pipe and ever mindful be to court my handsome troubadour for me. Tell him of all I feel. Repeat my love at each melting touch. Since to him my loyalty assign, take thou care to tune his heart, tune his heart to mine..." ***


Author's Note:*** "Harmonious Pipe" a Celtic Love Song. Lyrics by Wayne Nelson. Based on a 17th century Scottish poem by John Clerk.)

Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death Of A Legend"

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Things sure seemed to be changing fast now for Jim Crown.

One moment he was freezing-the next he was frying.

One second he seemed to be moving-the next he seemed to be stationery again.

One moment he was feeling incredibly weak-the next incredibly weaker.

So it went, as the Comanche's special guest spent the remainder of his eighth evening with them, drifting in and out of consciousness.

The blurry image of a quarter moon overhead, the crackling sounds of a campfire somewhere close by, and the comforting feel of someone clutching his left hand, were the only constants the critically ill cowboy was aware of...besides his painfully throbbing head, aching body, queasy stomach and perpetually parched throat, that is.

Speaking of which...

The cowboy swallowed hard and then tried drawing his very heavy eyelids up.

John Two Rivers tensed as Jim Crown came around, for what the Indian figured could be, one final time. For, despite he and Grey Dog's best efforts, his feverish friend just kept right on slipping away. John gripped the young cowboy's hot hand hard and willed him to live.

Jim's blinking, blurry eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light of his strange, new surroundings, and he stared disbelievingly out at a truly spectacular vista! The blanket litter he'd been placed upon had been leaned up against a tall, rock wall and the angle at which he was lying allowed him to gaze upon some glorious scenery!

Directly below him, down a steep, stone-strewn, sandy slope, the Cimarron serenely snaked its way along.

He felt a cool, damp cloth on his forehead and turned to the person who had put it there. "I...gotta hand it...ta ol' Grey Dog," he whispered with a faint smile, "I...couldn't'...a'...picked...a...better...'better place'...myself." He glanced around again, feeling positively exhilarated by the breathtaking beauty that surrounded him.

But then, he probably would have been pleased with any view other than 'lodgepoles'.

Right smack dab in front of him, where the horizon met with the river's opposite bank, the cowboy could just barely make out a soft, pink glow that was, apparently, the first hint of an approaching dawn. "It appears...we got us...some front row a sunrise," he commented a bit further, but then had to stop. He couldn't believe the tremendous effort it now took just to talk. What little energy he'd had had been quickly drained from him, with just the simple exertion of speech. It suddenly dawned on Jim that, at the rate things were now going, he probably wasn't gonna be around to watch the show.

John watched helplessly as his friend's look of eager anticipation, and his faint smile, slowly began to fade. Once again, he could see their fire's light being reflected in the cowboy's glistening, damp eyes.

"Watch the sun come up for me...Wayo...wasuyen," Jim Crown quietly requested and swallowed hard, again.

"We will watch the sun rise together, Windrider," the Indian assured him. His voice was equally soft-and had an equally hard time swallowing.

The cowboy turned back in the young brave's direction and shot him a 'hold that thought' glance. "Thanks...for bein' Two Rivers," Jim told him with another even fainter smile. "You've been"

"I am proud to have been...and always shall be your friend, Jim Crown," John vowed, and gave his forever friend's feverish hand a reassuring squeeze.

Jim shot his good friend a grateful glance and even somehow found the strength to give the Indian's cool hand a weak squeeze back. But then his grip gradually relaxed, his drooping eyes closed, and his burning body went completely limp again.

The young brave gasped in frustration, as the young cowboy lapsed back into unconsciousness for the umpteenth, and possibly last, time. The Indian stared blurrily down at his dying white friend for awhile and then gasped again, this time in complete exasperation.

Dawn would find the two friends still together all right. But only one of them would be watching the sun rise.

The brave left Jim's side only once, in fact, and that was only briefly.

In order to keep their campfire, and the now shivering uncontrollably cowboy, alive, John had to leave him to find wood. The Indian couldn't understand how anyone who felt so hot could possibly be so cold.

It was a good thing the brave's absence was brief because, when he returned from his forced firewood gathering expedition, he found Crown's ex-woman creeping up on the still unconscious cowboy-with a knife in her hands!

John crept quickly up behind the girl and then dropped his armload of wood so he could wrestle the weapon away from her. "The she-wolf should not be so impatient!" he shouted a bit breathlessly. "He will be dead soon enough!" he added, his angry voice filled with bitter sarcasm.

"No-o!" the girl shrieked, her trembling voice filled with genuine concern. "I have not come here to take his life-but to save it!"

John glanced from the girl to the knife to the girl, looking extremely skeptical.

The girl saw the look and struggled to pull her wrists free. "Please! You must believe me! We must act quickly! As you have said, there is little time left!"

John suddenly noticed the tone of deep concern in the girl's voice. Ah, yes...but was it genuine? He decided he'd better drag her over to the dying embers of their campfire and find out, before letting her go.

Sure enough! That look of blind hatred was now gone from her smoldering, dark eyes. There, reflected in the dim light of their dying fire, and the rapidly breaking dawn, was a look that not only matched, but maybe even exceeded the concern he'd already heard in the girl's voice.

John drew a deep breath and gradually released his hold on Koree-Ray-ohn's wrists.

The girl drew a deep breath as well. Then she straightened up and held out her hand.

The brave glanced from the knife in his hand to his dying friend and back to the knife in his hand. He had no other choice but to trust her. So he sighed and reluctantly gave the girl back her weapon.

Koree-Ray-ohn breathed a silent sigh of relief herself and then stepped quickly up to the dying young white.

John watched nervously, as the girl dropped to her knees and then carefully rolled the unconscious cowboy onto his side. He continued watching, even more nervously, as she pulled Jim Crown's shirt up out of the way and then uncovered his closed-up wound.

The girl hesitated for only an instant before plunging the blade of her knife deeply into the young white's back.

John overcame his shock and horror just in time to be even more shocked and even more horrified as the girl gave the knife that was now deeply embedded in his friend's back a sharp twist.

The brave was about one instant away from tackling the cowboy's assassin when he finally realized the girl wasn't killing Jim after all, but merely creating an opening that would allow the festering wound to drain freely.

"His flesh is on fire!" the woman stated, finally pulling the knife free. "We must get him down to the river! Quickly!" she urged. The girl got up and started walking off.

By 'we', John assumed the girl meant 'he', and so 'he' carefully picked the unconscious cowboy up in his powerful arms and started carting him off down the steep, sandy, stone-strewn slope. The footing was treacherous, but the girl stayed at his side and steadied them.

When they reached the bottom of the bank, Koree-Ray-ohn waded out into the river up to her knees and then turned back in John's direction.

John watched, in stunned silence, as the girl suddenly sat down in the icy stream and then braced herself against its strong current.

"Bring him to me!" she ordered, sounding impatient.

John stared disbelievingly down at the girl.

She wasn't going to stab his friend to death. No-o, she was going to drown him!

"Hurry!" Koree-Ray-ohn called up to the man holding the cowboy in his arms. "You must bring him to me! No-ow!" she added a bit breathlessly, her shouted voice cracking from the cold.

The brave drew another deep breath and then obediently stepped down into the stream-the icy stream. John gasped as the cold took his breath away, "Are you s-sure about this?" he cautiously inquired, and carefully waded out into the river to the spot where the girl was sitting.

"If we do not bring the fever down, he will be dead before the day breaks!" Koree-Ray-ohn replied, even more impatiently, and held her arms up to the brawny brave standing over her.

John glanced up at the horizon. That soft, pink glow was now a brilliant splash of bright orange. Time was indeed running out for his feverish friend. The Indian sighed again and began carefully lowering the cowboy's burning body down into the icy water.

Koree-Ray-ohn locked both arms about the young white's chest and kept his face 'above' the surface.

So the unconscious cowboy just sort a' floated there in her arms, with the Cimarron's strong, cooling currents constantly flowing over, and all around, him.

John braced his feet in the stream's sandy bed and then held on to the girl who was holding on to his friend-for dear life.

It was well after daybreak before the girl finally shouted, "It is enough!"

Which called an end to their chilly torture.

Jim Crown was unconscious, and John was only submerged up to his knees, so the two of them hadn't suffered too terribly. But the Indian had no idea how the girl, who had been sitting in the cool current up to her neck the entire time, had managed to survive the icy ordeal.

"T-T-Take him!" she ordered tersely. "I cannot m-m-move!" Her limbs had been exposed to the cold for so long that her muscles were now too numb to respond.

So the brave carted the cooled down considerably cowboy out of the river and then laid him on the bank, so he could go back for the girl. John didn't like the looks of either of them.

Their lips were very blue. They were breathing kind of funny and both of them were now shivering uncontrollably.

John carried them both back up the bank and then went to work building a blazing campfire.

Koree-Ray-ohn went to work creating a little heat of her own. She crawled stiffly under the buffalo robe blanket that Jim Crown was now buried beneath and embraced the cowboy's trembling body with her's. "Bring me s-s-some shan-ta-say m-m-moss!" she bossily ordered, "a lot of it! And some ara-quay root! As m-m-much as you can f-f-find!"

The young brave balked at the woman's commands.

"Please!" she pleaded. "If you want your friend to l-l-live, you m-m-must do as I s-s-say!"

Of course John wanted his friend to live! But where was he going to find 'shan-ta-say moss' and 'ara-quay root' around there? He wasn't. The Indian sighed resignedly, and placed another dry branch on his now roaring fire before getting slowly and stiffly to his still half-frozen feet. "Windrider had better be alive when I get back," he warned and started walking wearily over to where their horses were tethered.

Koree-Ray-ohn did not know why the requested moss and roots worked to heal wounds and strengthen sick bodies. She just knew that they did. So she made a poultice out of the damp moss and placed it over the wound in the young cowboy's back.

Then she made a paste out of the ara-quay root and smeared it all over the young cowboy's body.

The drying moss drew the infection out of the wound, while the molds it contained kept it from infecting further.

The root paste contained simple, basic proteins which were readily absorbed through the skin, and supplied critical nourishment to one who was otherwise too ill to eat.

So, not only was Windrider 'alive' when Wayo-wa-suyen returned from his foraging later that same afternoon, but the cowboy was also 'alive', and doing incredibly well, two long, extremely anxious afternoons later.

John Two Rivers was seated at Jim Crown's side-sound asleep.

The brave had just about wore himself out searching for the elusive ara-quay root. He was certain they'd just exhausted the area's entire ara-quay root supply. However, if it meant that they might save Jim Crown's life, then he figured it was well worth all the effort.

The unconscious cowboy's ex-woman suddenly let out a shriek of delight and then announced to Windrider's startled awake friend that the fever had finally broken.

John exhaled a long sigh of relief, which quickly turned into a yawn. The brave then watched, in absolute amazement, as the girl proceeded to take the still critically ill young cowboy up into her arms and start rocking him back and forth.

"Com-pa-ay-oh-ne-ey-ey-ey," she chanted, thanking the Great Spirit for sparing the young white's life. "Tu-lu-ray-me-ee-ee-shee-bar," she continued, urging the young man in her arms to draw strength from his surroundings. The rocks, the wind, the sun, the river-all held healing powers...if he would just tap into them.

John wasn't sure if Jim had just tapped into his surroundings, or if it was all that 'rocking and chanting' that was causing the cowboy to come around. At any rate, his no longer feverish friend let out a long, pitiful moan and then tried, and kept on trying, to lift his eyelids.

Jim finally managed to get his eyes to stay open.

But John could tell, by the blank look in them, that while the man's team did indeed appear to be harnessed, there was still no driver in the man's 'buggy'.

Jim Crown gradually came completely around and very nearly suffered a coronary! For the first thing he realized, when the connections between his brain and his body were finally re-established, was that he was lying in the clutches of that beautiful Comanche girl! The one who had such a passionate hatred for 'whites'-for him! The terrified cowboy stiffened and then made a rather pitiful attempt to pull himself free.

But the girl's arms tightened their hold on him. "Daku-mahn-nah!" his captoress pleaded and tried her best to keep the still critically ill cowboy from moving around. "Pley-ee-ah-kowh!...Tee-say!"

"She says," Jim Crown heard John Two Rivers say, "'to stop wriggling around! You are not well enough to be wriggling around...yet!"

But Jim, who didn't have the strength to struggle anyways, had already stopped wriggling around. In fact, at the sound of Koree-Ray-ohn's voice, the cowboy had frozen-completely. It was the first time he'd ever heard his ex-woman speak, and he instantly liked what he heard. Yes sir, the very pretty girl, with the very pretty name, had a very pleasant sounding voi-. The terrified expression slowly left Jim Crown's gravely ill face, and the cowboy just laid there...peacefully...looking sort a' puzzled. The 'tone' he'd just heard in the girl's voice, and the message contained in her interpreted words, just didn't add up to the 'look' he was so used to seeing in her eyes. He shot the brave seated beside him his confused look and then finally summoned the courage to chance another glance in the girl's direction. Sure enough! Instead of a 'she-wolf', Jim now found a 'little fawn' staring down at him, with a deeply concerned look in her wide, dark eyes. The cowboy's vision blurred as tears started stinging at his own drooping, dark eyes. "I-I..." he began, but then his whispered voice broke. So he blinked a few new tears of joy from his eyes, swallowed hard and then began again. "I never thought...I'd ever live...ta see...that...'look'...gone...from yore eyes..." he finished finally and flashed the 'little fawn' a faint smile. Jim waited patiently for his Indian interpreter to pass his quiet comments along, but John Two Rivers remained silent. The cowboy turned back in the brave's direction and found his friend glaring angrily across at the girl, who was still cradling him in her arms.

"You very nearly didn't!" John icily stated.

Jim slowly reached out and placed a hand on his angry friend's arm. "But I did," he reminded Wayo-wa-suyen, with another faint smile.

"She was just going to sit there and let you die!" John reminded Windrider and gave the girl another angry, annoyed, disgusted glare.

"But she didn't," Windrider reminded him and somehow mustered the strength to give Wayo-wa-suyen's wrist a weak squeeze.

John thought both of his very forgiving friend's reminders over for a few more silent moments before politely translating the young white's words into Comanche.

However, Koree-Ray-ohn had already gotten the 'gist' of Jim Crown's whispered comments. The girl was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and regret. She, too, felt like shedding a few tears just then. But she didn't dare let the cowboy catch her crying, for she knew the kind and compassionate young man would share her pain...and he had suffered enough pain already...more than enough! She struggled desperately to regain her crumbling composure and finally succeeded in assuming an almost carefree pose. "Ee-ee-tek!" she ordered rather sternly and motioned for the brave to bring her a bowl of 'something or other' from over by their fire.

"She says," John Two Rivers translated with a grin, "'to shut up and eat!'"

Jim's weak smile widened and he obligingly did as he was told.

Koree-Ray-ohn kept the cowboy cradled securely in her arms and forced two bowls full of an interesting tasting herbal broth down his hatch. Then she reluctantly released her hold on the man and began concocting another even more potent, and even less palatable, root remedy for him. She paused in her preparations to shoot her still perfectly still patient a concerned glance.

The young white was just lying there quietly...watching her work.

The girl looked a little bashful and suddenly felt a bit embarrassed. She smiled shyly, and Jim returned her smile. She turned her attention back to her recipe.

Jim turned his attention back to his translator. "Thanks."

"Don't thank me," John advised his still smiling, and very grateful sounding, friend. "It was she who saved you."

"Yeah...well...if she did...then it must a' been becuz...a' somethin' ta her," Jim Crown calmly rationalized.

"I only repeated what you said," the Indian assured him, equally calmly.

" had ta a' been...the wa-ay...that you said it," the cowboy continued to rationalize. "'Cuz I jes'...woke up ta...a whole 'nother woman...thanks ta you," he repeated, interpreting the real reason for his undying gratitude. "I tole you yah had a real...wa-ay with words now...didn' I," he added, his smile widening into a grin.

The brave looked a bit bashful, and embarrassed, and annoyed, and-at least for the moment-at a complete loss for 'words'.

Koree came crawling back over to them just then, with another bowl of 'something or other' in her hands and conveniently supplied exactly the right words for him. "Ah-rah-ee-ay-ho! Ee-ee-tek!" she requested, the sterness returning to her very pleasant voice.

"I know...I know," Jim informed his now smiling interpreter. "Shut' eat...Right?"

The brave's smile broadened and he nodded.

The girl managed another shy smile as well.

Jim's weak smile widened into a grin again and again he did as he was told. Well, for one mouthful, anyways. The young white's gravely-ill face filled with a grimace and he quickly turned his head aside.

Before the cowboy could spit any of the bowl's bitter contents back out, the brave seated beside him managed to clamp another hand over his mouth. "Swallow!" John ordered down to him.

Jim shot him up a look which said, 'You mus' be out a' yore mind!' and then shook his head slowly from side to side.

Koree glared down at the suddenly uncooperative cowboy and let loose with a rather long-winded diatribe.

Which John Two Rivers mercifully condensed into, " She says that if you do not drink this-you will die!"

Jim gave them both a look which said that, at the moment, he preferred 'death' to 'swallowing'.

Seeing as how he had such a way with words and all, Wayo-wa-suyen tried to talk his friend into taking his medicine. "Of course, the choice is yours. But you would make everyone much happier if you would choose to live. Especially Grey Dog. Imagine how disappointed he would be if you were to die here...of all places."

Jim's drooping eyes got an amused glint in them, but he still couldn't bring himself to swallow. Talk about yore bad medicine! Why, compared ta this stuff, Ole Dan's elixir tasted downright yummy!

"Plea-ease?" the brave, who was not above begging, pleaded. "If you do not drink this, that means that I will be forced to go and find more ara-quay root for you...and I have grown so...weary...of looking for ara-quay root, these days," he added rather pitifully.

Jim, who didn't seem to mind the thought of disappointin' ol' Grey Dog one bit, apparently drew the line at inconveniencin' a friend. Because he shot the young brave a look of surrender and finally permitted the pretty girl's unpalatable potable to pass down his parched throat. Surprisingly enough, it stayed down.

So the Indian, at last, unclamped his hand.

"Uh-uhhhhgh!" the cowboy commented, when he finally stopped shuddering.

Koree completely ignored her patient's opinion of her cooking and pressed the bowl of bitters back up to his now pouting lips.

The young white moaned in protest and then quickly switched his gaze from her to his interpreter again. "How do you say...'Will you hold my nose for me?' Comanche?" he rather irritatedly inquired.

John Two Rivers grinned and obligingly pinched his friend's nostrils shut.

Jim Crown closed his watering eyes and obligingly re-opened his definitely not watering mouth. He decided he might be able to withstand the ordeal better if he was to keep his mind focused on something else-something positive. But the only positive aspect about his being slowly poisoned, was that the beautiful young girl had taken him back up into her arms to do it. The cowboy felt very...comfortable, lying there in her arms.

It was a good thing that he did, too. Because that is where he spent the better part of the remainder of his time with the Comanche-locked in the lovely young lady's arms.

And that is where his partner found him-nine days later.

Luther Nyman didn't care much for his current assignment. Truth is, in the clearing where the two men claimed to have found and buried the murdered Marshal's mutilated body, was the last place on earth that Luther Nyman wanted to be. Yet, there he the dark...standing beside some dumb, unbelievably deep grave...with a loaded gun in his right hand and a lit lantern in his left.

The lantern was attracting all sorts of flying insects, at which the flustered fellow continuously swatted and swung.

Besides being bug-bitten and incredibly cold...and tired...and hungry, the bodyguard was also terribly on edge. Every little movement of the light caused eerie shadows to leap about. In among all those eerie dancing shadows, Luther Nyman started seeing 'things'. The darting light and his tired eyes were playing tricks on him. "C'mon! C'mon! Will yah!" he urged, giving voice to his unease and discomfort.

Doctor Jarrod Micheal Ellis wasn't exactly enjoying himself, either! The tired young man paused in mid-pitch to glare angrily up out of the grave. "If you want this dirt to fly any faster, then I suggest you get down here and fling it yourself! I'm a doctor-not a grave digger! My hands have never held a shovel in them before today! Their skills are limited to scapels! And much more delicate work!"

"Believe me," Dave Fisher declared, sounding angry as well, "if we'd a' known we were gonna have ta dig up the Marshal's remains, we would a' placed 'em in a lot shallower grave!"

What they said made sense...sort of.

So, Luther shut up.

Seeing as how Mr. Nyman had stopped his nagging, the two peeved dirt-pitchers resumed their shoveling.

"Wait a minute!" Doctor Ellis exclaimed less than a minute later. "I just hit something..."

"What?" Dave wondered.

"I don't know," Jarrod answered uneasily. "But it didn't feel like dirt."

"Let's use our hands from here on," the Senator suggested, setting his shovel aside. "The man's body has been mutilated enough!"

Actually, they didn't want Mr. Nyman to hear their shovels clunking on their corpse's very hard, thick skin.

"Pass us a light, will you!" the doctor requested. "So we can see what we're doing down here!"

Actually, they wanted the light so that 'Mr. Nyman' could see what they were doing down there.

Luther obligingly lowered his lantern into the hole.

The already loosened soil was easily shoved aside, and in practically no time a...body began to appear.

The two men continued clawing away at the soft earth which had entombed the 'Marshal' until, at long last, they had the decapitated cadaver completely uncovered. Last to be unearthed was a badly stained burlap bag.

"Empty the sack!" the bodyguard ordered, displaying no emotion what-so-ever on his rough-featured face, or in his loud, gruff voice. It didn't bother Luther Nyman in the least to view the lawman's badly mutilated body. There was no love loss between he and the murdered Marshal. After being disarmed, almost literally, by a bullet from Crown's Colt, his gun hand had hurt him something fierce, for one solid week!

The two men down in the grave glanced gravely down at the sack, which had been buried between the headless lawman's shoulders.

"What's inside there?" Jarrod nervously wondered, speaking beneath his breath.

"An inside-out hare," the Senator whispered back and reluctantly picked up the sack. "Here," he said, handing the bag up to the bodyguard, "I'm afraid we don't have the stomach for it."

Luther took the lantern from the doctor and the sack from the Senator and had himself a little look-see. But, what with the dancing light, and the leaping shadows, and the biting bugs, and all that dried blood and all, Luther couldn't clearly identify the face that he was looking at. Truth is, he couldn't even tell if it was, in fact, a face that he was looking at. One thing he was sure of though, the young doctor was right.

Whatever was in the bottom of that bag, was not a pretty sight to behold. "Lift his left leg up!" the bodyguard ordered, passing the bag and the lantern back down into the ridiculously deep pit.

The two men exchanged grave glances again.

"The Marshal's legs won't move," Jarrod calmly announced. "The man's been dead for several hours. I'm certain rigor mortis has set in by now."

"Riga-what?" Luther wondered.

"Rigor mortis," the physician impatiently repeated. "It's a naturally occurring condition in which all of the muscles in a dead body become completely rigid."

"They don't call dead men stiffs for nothin', yah know," Dave added by way of a reminder.

"Well then pull his pant cuff up out of the dirt and hold the light up to it!" the flustered fellow bellowed. "I wanna see if it has those silver do-dads on it-like the Marshal always wore..."

The doctor did as he was told and, low and behold, there on the dead man's flared black pant cuff, were four shiny silver conchos...just like the ones the Marshal always wore.

The two men in the grave glanced up to witness Mr. Nyman's reaction to the do-dad discovery.

But the gun-toting, gullible goon was gone.

The two men in the grave exchanged victorious grins and exhaled audible sighs of relief.

Never having seen an inside-out hare before, Jarrod opened the bloodstained bag lying at his feet and then shedded some light on its contents. "You know," he said upon glimpsing the disgusting glob of rolled-up rabbit guts, "when I was a second year medical student, I dissected something that looked a lot like that."

Dave gave the unbelievably morbid-minded young man a disgusted glare, and then the two of them helped one another up out of the hole.

"I think it went rather well," Jarrod said, once the two of them were topside. "Don't you?"

"I'll let yah know," the pooped politician promised, "when we're through!" he added, tossing the optimistic young man a shovel.

The doctor caught the tool, in self defense, and then stared glumly down into the grave. The hole really was ridiculously deep, and he found the thought of having to refill it, horrifying. Every muscle in the entire upper half of his body ached with fatigue. Jarrod drew in a breath as deep as that hole and began shoveling the dirt he'd just dug out of it back in to it.

The thought of Miss Coopersmith in the company of those no-good men back at the Marshal's Office was even more horrifying! The exhausted young doctor's desire to be speedily reunited with Dulcey infused new strength into his aching arms and shoulders.

While the 'Stranger's' body was busy shoveling, his brain was busy formulating just the right reply to give to the little 'Lady'.

Speaking of the little 'Lady'...

As the door to Jim's office opened, so did Dulcey's closed eyelids-but just a crack.

It was the missing bodyguard. The man had returned-alone. No doubt to file his report.

The little 'Lady' was extremely apprehensive about that report.

"We-ell?" the positively loathsome man who was seated behind Jim's desk impatiently demanded.

"It was all there, Mister Mareck," the bodyguard told his boss. "Just like they said. The little clearing...the fresh grave...the body. The man's head had been blown off and there was a bullet hole in the center of his chest...just like they said. It was all there."

Dulcey had to close her eyes to keep them from widening in surprise.

"Yes, yes, but was it the Marshal?" Roger Mareck wanted-needed to know for a certainty.

"Yes, Sir!" the bodyguard answered in the affirmative.

And the girl's eyes nearly flew open again.

"I believe it was."

"You believe?" his boss bellered. "You mean, you couldn't positively identify the body?"

"The man had a face full a' buckshot!" the grave robber stated in his defense. "But he was wearing a white shirt-like the Marshal's. And he had on a pair a' those black, Mexican-looking pants. You know, the ones with all those fancy, silver do-dads sewn on the outsides of the cuffs. And I just checked at the livery. The Marshal's horse did come racing back to town without him. And there was a lot of dried blood on his saddle."

There followed, a period of complete silence.

Finally, a relieved sigh came from the vicinity of the dead lawman's desk. "Where are those two men, now?"

"Back at that clearing," the bodyguard replied, "reburying the Marshal's remains," he added, breaking into a broad grin.

"The train out of Shades Wells should be here in about ten minutes," Mr. Gordon told 'Mister' Mareck, as the tipsy man started getting to his unsteady feet, "if you want to leave town tonight," he conditionally tacked on.

"I'm not leaving without my twenty thousand dollars!" Mareck reminded his anxious-to-leave henchman. "I don't care if I have to take it out of this miserable little hole-in-the-wall's hide!" the man vowed, his menacing voice seething with vengeance.

There was the sound of shoes shuffling towards the exit.

The door to the street was opened and shut.

Then complete silence returned to the Marshal's Office once again.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death Of A Legend"

Chapter Twenty-Nine

"How is he?" Doctor Ellis asked, as he and the Senator entered the little hide-away later that evening.

"Still burnin' up," Nurse Edwards solemnly replied. "But he's breathin' a lot easier. Where have you been? An' what on earth have you been doin'?" she tacked on, seeing that the young doctor, and the older gentleman accompanying him, were completely covered with dirt.

"Believe me," Jarrod said, dropping his medical bag and his exhausted self down onto the bed beside their propped up, peacefully sleeping patient, "you don't want to know!" The physician opened the satchel lying at his side and quickly snatched up his stethoscope. "He was having some difficulty breathing?"

"There was some congestion," Katelyn confessed. "But I believe we caught it in time. I think he coughed most of it up."

"You're right," the young doctor concurred, following a full minute of intense listening. "His lungs are relatively clear," he confirmed and gave the legend's very capable nurse another very impressed look.

Which the modest woman again pretended not to notice.

"How did you know to give him that?" Jarrod wondered, noticing the drug bottle on the dresser.

"I was married to a doctor," Katelyn replied. "I used to read all his medical journals. Still do, in fact. I found the article on codeine particularly interestin'," she added rather matter-of-factly.

So, Jarrod realized-finally-Katelyn Edwards wasn't just another 'pretty face', but a highly skilled professional. "I'm going over to the Inn," he announced. "I have another patient I want to look in on. I probably won't be back until sometime tomorrow morning. I'm confident that you can handle things around here." He and the very capable nurse exchanged warm smiles.

"Will you give the Marshal's friends a message for him?" Katelyn wondered.

The doctor nodded.

"Tell Francis an' Dulcey that the Marshal said ta 'lie low' until Mareck leaves town."

The doctor gave her another nod. Then he got stiffly to his feet, gathered his medical bag back up and turned to go. "You coming, Senator?" he asked, glancing back over his shoulder.

"I'll be along in a little while," Dave Fisher informed him and just kept standing there...staring solemnly down at his sleeping friend.

Jarrod left him there, and went off to get changed and cleaned up. It wouldn't do for Dulcey to see him in his current, decrepit condition.

Katelyn studied the silent, solemn, 'staring' stranger for a few seconds and then cocked her pretty head to one side. "You're a Senator?" she said, sounding somewhat amazed..

"From the great state a' Texas!" the stranger exclaimed. Then he tipped his hat to the pretty lady and quickly introduced himself. "David Samuel Fisher, at yore service, ma-am!" he gallantly declared.

"Katelyn Edwards," the lady informed him and extended her hand.

Dave took it and shook it. His partner seemed ta have a knack for attractin' pretty ladies. "You, uh, known Jim long?"

Katelyn pulled her hand free and turned to stare down at the peacefully sleeping lawman. "Two days...goin' on a lifetime," she quietly confessed. "How 'bout you?"

"A lifetime...goin' on two days," Dave said, sounding sort a'...sad.

Katelyn turned to the lawman's life-long friend and cocked her head again. "Was he ever married?"

The Senator's eyebrows shot up in response to the lady's sudden, and surprising, question, "No. No-o. Jim never married. He had himself a good woman once. But he never did marry."

"Her name wouldn' happen ta a' been 'Corie Ann', would it?"

Dave Fisher's eyebrows shot up even higher. "Close enuff. He told you about her?"

"Sort a'. He's been half out a' his mind with fever. I heard 'im call her name out several times."

Dave watched as the woman wiped the perspiration from his feverish friend's forehead. "Jim saved an old Indian Chief's life once. But got hurt pretty bad doin' it. So he had ta spend some time in a Comanche village...recuperatin'. It wasn' too far from here-jes' across the river a ways, in fact. Anyways, it seems the old Chief wanted ta thank Jim for savin' his life. So he gave Koree to 'im. At first, the girl hated Jim-with a passion! But Jim's charm an' 'is personality must a' won Koree over. 'Cuz, by the time I got back there, the two of 'em had fallen hopelessly in love..."

Once again, the story-telling Senator found himself swamped with memories-some pleasant...some not so pleasant.

Dave Fisher came riding up to Jim Crown's camp along the Cimarron, bright and early, on the twentieth morning of his forced absence from his injured friend's side, and breathed a long, welcome sigh of relief.

For his partner appeared to be both alive and well. It was sort a' hard to tell just how well Jim actually was, though. Since he was still lying in a completely prone position. Well, not completely prone.

A pretty girl had Jim propped up just a bit in her arms.

Shock filled Dave's face as he recognized just who his friend's nurse was. She was the same girl who had shot daggers at Jim with her eyes. The same one who looked as though she would've liked ta carve his bleedin' heart out. The cowboy shot his prone partner a look of due admiration. He'd always claimed that Jim Crown could charm the rattles off a snake.

At the sound of his approach, the couple glanced up.

Jim looked as happy to see Dave as Dave had been to see him. "You sure didn' waste any time gettin' back!" Crown declared with a grin.

"I only stayed in town long enough ta down one drink," Dave admitted, as he slipped to the ground. "Mister Donnelly herded us all over ta the Long Branch, an' we all downed one drink-ta yore health!" he added and beamed a broad grin back at his now apparently healthy companion.

Jim's grin broadened as well. "Amazin' ain't it," he commented, motioning to his all mended self, "the effect that one drink kin have on a man!" he lightly added, and the two friends grinned again. But then something suddenly occurred to Jim that caused his grin to fade. "Yah should a' stayed in Dodge for a few days. You could a' had a little' a few more drinks."

"Ain't no fun drinkin' alone," Dave truthfully replied, and stooped down to his suddenly sad partner's side. "Besides, I promised yah I'd be right back. Remember?"

"Yeah..." Jim muttered. "I remember," he admitted, and proudly proffered his right hand to his partner.

"Man!" Dave declared as he proudly locked onto it, "I thought for sure you were a gonner. I figured I was gonna come racin' back here an' find you dead. Don' you ever do this ta me again! Yah hear?" he warned, his gruff voice a mixture of rage and relief.

Jim gave his partner a strange stare and nodded uncertainly.

Dave looked even more relieved. "Good! Now, James-me-boy, what a' yah say we forget all about this bull fightin' business an' jes' get on back ta punchin' cows."

James-me-boy's face broke into another broad grin and, this time, he managed a very definite nod.

Dave grinned and then glanced up at his partner's pretty nurse.

The girl's face seemed full of apprehension.

"Say, aren' you gonna introduce me ta yore lady friend here?" Fisher teased, and tried flashing Jim's lady friend a reassuring smile.

"Koree-Ray-ohn...Dave Fisher. Dave...Koree," Jim obligingly complied. "It means 'Little Fawn Hidin' in the Shadows'," he explained and finally released the vice-like grip he'd been keeping on his partner's hand.

"A pleasure, mam," Dave confessed, raising his released hand to tip his hat to the pretty girl. "You got a real pretty name," he added and tried flashing her another warm, reassuring smile.

Koree acknowledged his greeting with a polite, but still very apprehensive nod.

"I guess this means you will be leaving us soon," John Two Rivers suddenly spoke up, with just a hint of sadness in his voice.

Both cowboys and the girl glanced up at him, looking rather startled.

Obviously, no one had heard his approach.

"You were right about your rifle, Windrider," John continued. "It does pull a bit to the left," he paused to toss two jack rabbits down beside their camp's cooking fire, "or we would be having antelope, instead. It was a clean miss," he confessed and flashed the completely prone cowboy a wry smile.

Jim returned the Indian's smile and then turned back to his white friend. "How soon will we be leavin'?" he wondered, with just a hint of sadness in his voice.

Dave tipped his hat back up on his head a ways and then looked thoughtful. "Mr. Donnelly said he'd be along as soon as he found a buyer for the herd. Maybe tomorrow...the next day at the latest," he stopped talking to give his recently recuperated partner a concerned once over. "You gonna be able ta sit a horse?"

Jim looked equally thoughtful. "I guess we'll find out soon enough."

"Ee-eeshay mo-oh-ketay shana-sey durahn," Koree-Ray-ohn helpfully suggested, accurately getting the 'gist' of things again.

Dave turned to Jim, looking confused.

Jim gave the girl a startled glance and then turned to his interpreter.

John Two Rivers rested his borrowed rifle, and then himself, back up against the rock wall that ran along their camp's West boundary, and then sat there, grinning. Finally, the Indian figured he'd held his impatient patient in suspense long enough, and came forth with his translation. "She says that you will be able to sit a horse. Because she will be sitting right behind you."

It took a few moments for the girl's translated message to register with Jim. But when it finally did, he reacted quickly. "Unh-uh! No way! I gave her her freedom!" He shot his interpreter an accusing glare. "Didn' you tell her?"

"I did!" the brave vowed.

"Well, then maybe you'd better tell her again!" Jim strongly urged.

John, who was having everything he could do to keep a straight face, nodded and readily complied with the young white's wishes. That is, at least he tried.

The girl completely ignored both the cowboy and the brave and made another briefer statement of her own. One that wouldn't need any translating. "Crown's wo-man!" she declared, sounding very determined.

Dave, who had been taking it all in with a suppressed grin and highly arched brows, arched his brows even higher and then turned to his partner' to witness his reaction to this latest development.

Jim just laid there, staring up at the beautiful girl, in whose arms he'd grown so accustomed to lying for nearly two whole weeks now, looking sort of sad.

It obviously wasn't the reaction Dave had been expecting to witness. Because he suddenly looked sort of shocked. He watched in stunned silence as his partner suddenly reached up and then began tenderly caressing the right side of the girl's face with the back of his left hand.

"Tell her that I am honored that she should feel this way," Jim requested, his words as tender as his caress. "But that she is not Crown's woman!" he stated, sounding even more determined. "It ain't right for any person ta ever own another person! A person is not a piece a' property, ta be bought...or sold...or given away ta someone!"

Koree listened patiently to John's interpretation. But then her dark eyes flashed with renewed determination and she gave her pretty head an angry shake. "Crown's wo-man!" she proudly repeated.

"You are not my-y woman! You are Koree-Ray-ohn! You are yore own person! An' you are free ta do whatever you wish!"

The girl replied so rapidly that she interrupted his interpreter's interpretation.

John cleared his throat and stared down at Windrider, with a highly amused look on his face. "In that case, she says that she wishes to be with you. She will not mind if you do not care for her. She will care for you."

"Not care for her. Not care for her?" Jim Crown numbly repeated. "I think I've fallen' in love with her!" he added, to everyone's surprise-including his own.

No doubt about it! It most definitely was not the reaction that Dave had been expecting. For the still stooping young cowboy was completely stunned off'n his feet. He fell back onto his butt and then sat there on the rock ledge beside his surprising partner, giving him a 'You mus' be crazy!' stare.

Which Jim did not notice. All of his attention was now fully focused on Koree.

Dave gave the lovely young lady who had her arms locked around his friend another glance. The girl was a real beauty, all right! Why it made his eyes feel good jes' gazin' at her. He sat there for a few moments, imagining how wonderful it must make a man feel ta find himself wrapped in the young woman's arms. Maybe his partner' wasn't so crazy after all, Dave realized, smiling to himself.

John Two Rivers didn't say a word. He figured his friend was fully capable of interpreting his own feelings.

Judging by the look in Jim Crown's eyes, the cowboy wouldn't be needing 'Comanche' to get his message across.

In fact, as everyone would accidentally discover the following afternoon, Jim Crown was never gonna need 'Comanche' to communicate with his 'woman', ever again.

A dozen of the Double D's finest hands came riding up and joined Dave just in time to catch the tail end of a rather lengthy and elaborate send off for the Indian's very honored, and still very much alive, guest.

The Comanche's guest-of-honor was sitting cross-legged on the ground between a young brave and, judging by all the eagle feathers, their chief Chief.

Seated on the ground, in circled rows right behind them, was the rest of the village's Indian population.

Considering the seating arrangements, the cowboys decided to remain mounted. So, they sat there silently in their saddles and watched while the Comanche's main medicine man, and a few of his apprentices, put on a pretty good show.

When the show was over, Grey Dog stepped up to their seemingly fully recovered companion, to shout out one last incantation and give Jim a final prod with his spirit stick.

"Grey Dog has approached the spirits in your behalf," Mr. Two Rivers translated, as he helped the hunched over cowboy straighten back up. "He says that they said that, while your life will always be wrought with very grave danger, you will not die a violent death. So you needn't ever worry again...about being gored to death by a bull," John finished, with a roll of his eyes.

"Sho-don-tay," Jim Crown told the mean medicine man, when he finally recovered enough to be able to speak. "I'm sure I'll sleep a lot easier knowin' that."

Chief Pero-ka-mas unclipped a rawhide necklace from around his neck and placed it around Windrider's.

"My Chief believes that the source of the eagle's power is in his talons," John Two Rivers translated. "Keep this with you always...and no harm will ever come to you."

The cowboy glanced down at the powerful eagle claw charm that would, supposedly, keep him from harm, and then gave his very generous host a warm, grateful grin. "Sho-don-tay. Mahrah-ee-ay-ho...ay-fey-nahtu..lurey-me-i-shi-bar. An' for all a' yore other gifts, too," he tacked on in English and turned to gaze directly at his 'Little Fawn'.

"He sa-ays," Dave interpreted, for the sake of Jim's non-Indian audience, "thank you very much, oh great and mighty Chief of the Comanche, for savin' my life. But especially for givin' me that incredibly beautiful girl over there," he added, with a grin.

His fellow cowboys were astounded.

"I didn't know you spoke Comanche," Mr. Donnelly declared.

"I don't," Dave confessed. "I been listenin' ta him rehearse that speech all mornin'."

"You sayin' the old Chief actually gave Jim a gi-irl?" another cowboy disbelievingly inquired.

"Not jes' any old girl," Dave corrected. "Little Fawn is possibly the prettiest girl you'll ever lay eyes on."

Jim Crown released his hold on the old Chief's wrist. Then he took hold of a young girl's hand and turned her around.

As his friends laid their eyes upon 'Little Fawn' for the very first time, they all had to agree. The girl was a real looker, all right!

"Woo-wee!" one of the cowboys shouted. "What do I gotta do, ta get me one like that?"

"Forget it," another chimed in. "Dave's right. I doubt if you'll ever find another one like her."

Jim Crown bid John Two Rivers goodbye-again, and thanked him-once more, for bein' such a good friend to him.

Wayo-wa-suyen thanked Windrider for giving him his rifle.

Jim shrugged and said that he had to get himself a new one, anyways. He just never seemed to get the knack of firin' his old one the way John had.

The Indian wished both Jim Crown and his woman every happiness and then told the odd couple, in Comanche, that he hoped everything would work out as well for them, as it had for him and Beth.

"Alla Veremos," Koree suddenly spoke up-in Spanish.

'Time will tell,' Jim Crown mentally translated and stared at his woman, looking astonished. "You speak Spanish?" he exclaimed. "¿Habla español?" he repeated, seeing the girl's confusion.

"Si," the girl promptly acknowledged, with a slight nod.

Her man looked deliriously happy...and then somewhat annoyed. "¿Porqué me no se dice?" he demanded, desiring to know why she hadn't told him so sooner.

"¿Porqué me no pregunta?" Koree demanded right back, wondering why he hadn't asked her sooner.

Dave and Mr. Donnelly glanced at each other with arched eyebrows.

It was amazing, the speed at which the two of them could speak Spanish! They, and the rest a' the boys, all agreed that the ride home was gonna be rea-eal interestin'-not ta mention, entertainin'.

Following a fast and furious full five minutes of fluent, non-stop Spanish, the now able to freely communicate couple finally shut up, and ended their rapid exchange of words with warm smiles and an even warmer embrace.

Jim Crown's companions exchanged cat-calls and grins. Then, as the cowboy escorted the pretty girl up to the group, they-being the gentlemen that they sometimes were-promptly whipped off their hats.

The group's sudden movement, though certainly not threatening, frightened the little lady, and she immediately sought shelter, behind her man's back.

The group exchanged amazed and amused glances, once again.

"She's a might skittish, ain't she," one of the men lightly remarked.

"Yeah. Well," Jim Crown pulled the pretty girl, who was still clinging to him, into his arms to reassure and comfort her, "you might be a might skittish, too...if five big, bad-smellin', white buffalo hunters had raped an' tortured' murdered yore mother."

The suddenly solemn, sad and deeply sympathetic looking group exchanged thoughtful glances this time, and no one said another word about Crown's woman bein' shy.

From that moment on, the white men moved real slowly around the beautiful girl and obligingly, and understandingly, gave her a wide berth.

Koree quickly felt completely at ease among her man's very kind, and very considerate, companions.

"What's the matter with you?" Dave Fisher asked his rather glum looking partner, on the afternoon of their second day back at the Double D. "For a fellah who's gettin' hitched tomorrow, you don' appear ta me ta be too happy about it."

Jim Crown's frustrated fingers tapped the top corral rail upon which he was seated. "I left Koree with Maria, when I went out ta check on that piece a' property yore father's givin' us for a weddin' present," the soon-to-be groom reluctantly and rather grumpily replied.

"Yeah," Dave acknowledged, climbing up onto the rail beside his friend. "So?"

"Maria speaks Spanish," Jim reminded him.

"Maria's half-Mexican. She's s'posed ta speak Spanish," he reminded Jim right back. "So?"

"So-o, the two of 'em must a' spent the entire mornin' talkin' about white man's weddin' customs."

"Yeah," Dave nonchalantly acknowledged. "So?"

"So, now she wants a weddin' dress."

"Yeah," Dave repeated, remaining confused. "So, buy her one."

Jim pounded the rail with his fist and gasped in frustration. "But she only wants the dress because she thinks it'll please me. I told her I'd be pleased with her no matter what she wore ta our weddin'. I told her it ain't what you wear, but who you are that makes you beautiful. An' that it ain't what's on the outside that counts, but what's on the inside. I told her she don' have ta change a thing, ta please me. But she won't listen."

There was a rather long silence.

Finally, Dave turned to his frustrated friend and placed a supportive hand on his slumped shoulder. "Maybe it's knowin' that she don' have ta do it that makes her want ta do it?" he suggested. "Yah know what I'd do if I were you? I'd ride in ta town right' buy her that dress."

Jim thought his very helpful friend's seemingly sound advice over for a few moments. "Yore father told Koree where we went this mornin'' now she wants ta see where we're gonna live."

"No problem," Dave assured his partner. "I kin take Koree out ta yore' you kin meet us out there on yore way back from town-with the dress."

"You could palaver a jaguar inta partin' with his spots," Jim Crown determined.

"So-o..." Dave continued, ignoring his partner's grateful grin and accurate comment, "she only wants the dress ta please' you're only buyin' the thing ta please her. I tell yah what, James," he rested his elbow upon Jim Crown's shoulder, "if the two a' you kin jes' keep that up, I guarantee you're gonna get along jes' fi-ine."

The now slightly blushing, and understandably on edge, bachelor brushed his buddy's elbow off of him and began climbing down from the corral rail. "Make sure yah take Maria with you," the cowboy strongly advised, as he went striding off in the direction of his horse.

"What?" Dave Fisher found his friend's shouted suggestion somewhat confusing. "Is it me, or my Spanish, that you don' trust?"

"Yore Spanish!" the cowboy called back, clasping onto his saddle and climbing aboard. "If I didn' trust you, believe me, you wouldn' be takin' my bride-ta-be for no buggy ride!" James logically concluded. Then, with a grin and a gallop, the groom-ta-be was gone.

Dave grinned and headed off to start hitching up the buggy.

The next time Dave saw Jim, the cowboy had so many brown paper packages tied up with strings strung from his saddle that there was hardly no room for him!

There was only one building, to speak of, on Jim Crown's spread. That was an old line shack in which the Double D's boys sometimes bivouacked when they were workin' in that neck of the DD's woods.

Jim pulled his pony up in front of the line shack's little porch, upon which his partner was seated, and began passing parcels down to him. "The girls inside?"

Dave, who was apparently too dumbstruck to speak, blinked his eyes in disbelief and nodded.

His partner parted with over half of his packages before attempting to dismount. Having failed in his first attempt, his friend began fumbling with the bundles which were fastened to the back half of his saddle. "I got ta thinkin'," Jim said, seeing the strange stare his half-buried buddy was shooting up at him, "an'...well...if a woman only has one dress, what's she s'posed ta wear when it's in the wash? An' then, a' course, there's petti-coats an'...other...personal...'things'," the blushing cowboy's voice died right about then-of embarrassment.

Fisher suppressed a grin and shot his friend an' 'A' course!' look. "That was good thinkin', James," he commended. "Personally, I would'n know about such...'thi-ings'," he added innocently, but then, his grin escaped. Dave ducked, as his teasing prompted James to whip one of his packages at him. The young man's grin took a direct hit. However, instead of disappearing, it broadened.

"Neither do I," James declared, jumping from his horse onto his porch. "Which is why I had Mrs. Teale pick 'em out," he explained and whacked his now chuckling companion over the head with the package in his right hand.

Instead of stopping, his partner proceeded to laugh all the harder.

Jim grinned and whacked Dave again-for good measure.

The sounds of boot heels contacting boards and Dave's laughter at last succeeded in drawing the ladies over to the door.

The rusty-hinged portal opened and, as Koree appeared, Dave saw his partner's face light up.

The girl was also aglow at the sight of her man and she rushed into the cowboy's open arms.

Jim dropped his packages, picked the pretty little lady up off the porch and swirled her gracefully around a few times, before carefully setting her back down.

Sixteen year old Maria stared disbelievingly down at the pile of packages, beneath which Dave was half-buried. "I figured you'd gone off to find her a wedding dress," she glumly confessed, in English, mistaking the abundant supply of brown bundles for common household provisions.

"He did," Dave assured Mr. Donnelly's youngest daughter. "But then he got ta thinkin'," he tacked on and watched the now delighted girl's expression return to one of deep depression.

Jim shot his heartless friend an 'oh brother' glance and then put poor Maria out of her misery. "I brought back every pretty dress I could find," he assured the upset girl-also speaking in plain English. Then he turned back to his beautiful bride and spoke softly to her, in Spanish."Yore people are my people, an' my people are yore people. Right?"

The fair young maiden (Koree had only seen seventeen summers, herself.) thought the handsome young man's statement over for a few moments and nodded.

"So then," the cowboy continued on in Spanish, "when we are among the Comanche, we will abide by their customs. An', when we are among whites, we will live accordin' ta their ways."

Once again, the girl looked thoughtful and, once again, she nodded her approval.

"Good!" Jim exclaimed and seemed extremely relieved that all that was settled. "Now, about that weddin' dress custom you're so keen on. Did Maria, here, happen ta mention that it is customary among my-our people for the woman ta decide on the dress that she will wear ta her weddin'?" By the glances the two girls exchanged, Jim judged that Maria did not. "Well it is," he assured them both. "Only, on account a' how we're kind a' sort a' runnin' short on time, I took the liberty this afternoon a' lookin' at every dress, in every shop in town, an pickin' out the prettiest ones for you. So, now, all you got ta do is ta try 'em on, an' then pick out the one you want ta get married in," the helpful young fellah finished, with a wry, shy smile.

Dave watched in amazement, as the weddin' couple continued to converse with one another-using only eye contact.

Maria looked more than a little amazed herself. "Y-You mean," she stammered, "that all these...are for Koree?"

"Well, no," Jim Crown corrected, calmly stooping to retrieve the brown bundles lying at his feet. "These two are for you. It seems it's also customary for the maid-a'-honor ta choose which dress she's gonna wear ta the weddin',too," the cowboy explained, seeing the look of complete confusion on the pretty senorita's face. "I'm su'prised you didn' know that," he teased. "What with you bein' such a weddin' expert an' all," he added, giving the girl an annoyed glare-along with another even wryer smile.

Maria boldly beamed a broad smile back at the benevolent bachelor and, following a brief bear hug, snatched the packages from him. "Oh, thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"

Jim winced and whipped his hands free, as the sudden tug on the strings nearly sliced his fingers off. "You're welcome. You're welcome. You're welcome," he assured the girl and then watched as she gathered up his woman, and the rest of the bundles, and then disappeared back inside. The cowboy shot his uncovered comrade a quick glance and then stared at the closed door in astonishment. "How did she latch on ta all those with only ten fingers?"

Dave noticed his friend sounded as astounded as he looked. "Women kin be real 'handy' ta have around," he philosophically surmised. "Sometimes." He stared up at his generous friend, feigning a look of bitter disappointment. "I send yah ta town for one measly little dress, an' what da you do? You practic'ly buy out the stores. You keep this up, James, an' you'll have Koree spoiled rotten. An', not only that, you'll be in debt so deep that you'll have ta quit cowboyin' an' go git yoreself a real job."

The two 'cowboys' exchanged grins.

Then Dave ducked, as James took another playful swipe at him with his hat. "Oh, an' speakin' a' takin' liberties..." the groom-to-be's best friend continued, straightening himself back up into a sitting position on the porch. "Since we were headin' this way in a buggy, an' bein' as how you had everything all packed up an' ready ta go, I brought you out yore things," he paused and pointed to his partner's belongings, resting on the floor in the rear of the buggy.

James, who had been staring blankly down at the brand on the side of his saddle, glanced over. "Thanks!" he politely acknowledged and flashed his thoughtful friend a grateful, though somewhat forced, smile.

"Eh," Dave continued, giving his shoulder a shrug. "I believe it's customary for the best man ta be as helpful as pos-" he halted his lighthearted comment to shoot his troubled partner a concerned glance. "Somethin' botherin' you, James?"

James, who had gone back to staring at the brand on his saddle, glanced over again and gave the astute Dave another grateful, and still somewhat forced, smile. "Some one's more like it," he solemnly corrected, and returned his troubled gaze to the emblem that had been emblazoned on his stirrup leathers. "I ran inta a fellah in town today, who said he once worked for a spread that used a brand jes' like this. He asked me all sorts a' questions. Mostly about how I come ta own this saddle."

"Did yah tell him it was yore father's?"

"I didn' tell him anything," Thomas Crown's boy adamantly replied. "I didn' like the looks of 'im. He didn' look ta me like he'd ever done a day's work in his life," he explained, and then added, "Least ways, not an honest one's."

"You sayin' the fellah was an outlaw?" his incredulous partner pondered.

"The man lied an' asked me an awful lot a' questions that left me with an awful bad feelin'," the cowboy came back. "Which leads me ta believe that he may make his livin' on the wrong side a' the law. Yes." Jim Crown concluded and turned his troubled gaze towards town.

Dave looked even more alarmed. "Well, yah didn' go gettin' 'im mad at yah?"

"No. We parted on friendly enuff terms," the cowboy quietly assured him and kept right on staring, troubled like, off in a easterly direction. "I jes' can't seem ta shake this ba-ad feelin'..."

"Why a' course you can't," Dave matter-of-factly agreed, and hauled himself up onto his feet. "That's 'cuz it's also customary for the groom ta come down with a bad case a' jitters, jes' before his weddin'. So, yah see, it's perfectly natural for you ta be feelin' a little nervous along about now, James," he reassured the glum-looking groom. He grinned, as his light-hearted comments caused Jim Crown to take his eyes off of town-and his mind off of his troubles...for the moment anyways. "C'mon!" Dave urged, latching onto his partner's left arm and pulling him from the porch. "I hauled 'em all the way out here, so, now, the least you kin do is ta help me lug 'em inside."

Dave proceeded to drag the now grateful-looking, grinning groom clear over to the back of the buggy. "What da yah got in here?" he wondered, as the two of them latched onto and then began lifting a small trunk. "Bricks?"

"This is where I keep my rock collection," his partner replied, keeping a perfectly straight face.

Dave grinned and started snickering. He'd known Jim Crown for over seven years. Which was a long time- a long enough time for him to know, for a certainty, that the cowboy didn't have any 'rock collection'.

They reached the porch and were just about to start up the steps, when the door suddenly swung open and the girls reappeared.

Actually, being bedecked as they were, in their gorgeous new gowns, the two men weren't sure if the apparitions up on the porch were 'girls'...or 'goddesses'! For the moment, the two gentlemen's opinions leaned towards the latter.

Maria's dress was a beautiful, bright, turquoise blue. Which happened to compliment her honey-colored skin and long, wavy black locks perfectly!

Koree's dress also fit her to perfection-both in style and in color! The blushing, soon-to-be bride had on an off-white, empire-waisted, full-length gown entirely overlaid with the sheerest, and most intricately fashioned, white lace imaginable. Slender strands of satin ribbon had been woven into the lace so that the dress' tall collar, along with the cuffs of its long sleeves and the bottom of it's soft, billowing skirt, were all encircled with alternating bands of the loveliest shades of lavender and pastel pink.

There was no doubt about it! With the exception of the person wearing it, Dave decided that that dress was the prettiest 'thing' he had ever seen! He turned to the garment's purchaser, looking duly impressed. "Do you think I could maybe talk Maggie into lettin' you pick out her dress?" he teased.

"Kin I tell Maggie you said that?" Jim Crown innocently inquired, never once taking his eyes off the copper-skinned beauty with the waist-length, raven-black hair.

"Don't you dare!" his suddenly panic-stricken partner pleaded-er, threatened, and nudged his now wryly smiling friend with the trunk, for added emphasis.

The bump knocked the cowboy off balance and caused him to lose his footing on the porch's bottom step.

The two girls gasped as the two boys, and the trunk, took a tumble into the dust beneath Jim's horse. They then shrieked as both young men were nearly trampled under the shying animal's flying feet.

The startled pony backed off a ways and stood there, snorting his disgust and pawing his displeasure.

The fancy-dressed females flew down the stairs and were at the cowboys' sides even before the dust had settled.

Both gentlemen were quite obviously unhurt because, when they opened their eyes and looked at each other, they commenced laughing.

Their continued laughter proved to be infectious.

For the frightened, flustered females' frowns slowly faded until, at last, they,too, began to laugh...and laugh...and laugh.

"Is that the one?" Jim wondered, when the laughter at last died down.

Koree glanced down at her gown and then gave her man a smile and a nod.

The cowboy propped himself up on his elbows and smiled approvingly back at her. "I was kind a' partial ta that particular dress, myself," he quietly confessed and kept right on smiling approvingly.

Dave noticed that that particular knowledge brought a tremendous amount of delight to Crown's woman. It seemed to him that the couple's sole purpose in life was to bring each other happiness. It also seemed to him that the two of them were off to a real good start. He waited for his partner to pick himself up off the ground and then hopefully held out his hand.

The cowboy shot him an 'oh brother' look, but then latched on to it and pulled him to his feet.

Dave then returned the favor by helping his friend 'whack' the dust off'n his back.

James might have considered the gesture a friendly one, if only Dave hadn't 'whacked' him quite so hard. There followed a brief, but heated, hat fight. Which was, when the dust finally settled, finally settled in a draw.

Seeing as how all that hat whacking had completely cleaned off his clothes, Jim proceeded to draw his disbelieving and unbelievably beautiful bride-to-be up into his arms. "I love you, Koree..." he whispered softly. Then he shut his eyes and held her close.

Dave managed a wry smile of satisfaction. Between he and Koree, the two of them should be able to keep the understandably on edge bachelor busy-and distracted-for the remainder of the day.

Speaking of being distracted...

Dave was completely unaware of the 'bad case a' nerves' that was currently creeping up behind him, and he remained oblivious.

That is, until the creep brought the raised rifle butt in his hands down hard on the back of the young cowboy's head.

But, by then, it was too late.

Senator Fisher snapped back to reality and instinctively reached for the back of his head. His recollection had been so real that he could almost feel a 'welt' beginning to rise. Dave shot his unconscious friend a concerned glance and then decided, right then and there, that he wasn't going to just stand around and wait. There was something that he could do to help Jim Crown, and he was determined to do it-before it was too late.

"Whatever became of the girl?" Katelyn wondered, following a long pause in the Senator's narrative.

But the story's teller did not answer.

So Nurse Edwards turned in Dave's direction...the politician was nowhere in sight!

The Senator had slipped silently out of the little room.

The lady turned back to the peacefully sleeping lawman, looking more curious than ever. Perhaps 'Taming the Territory' might tell her? She pulled the borrowed book from the pocket of her dress, flipped it open to page forty-three and recommenced her reading.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death Of A Legend"

Chapter Thirty

Being the good hostess that she was, Dulcey had provided the party attenders, who lived furthest away, with free overnight lodging.

However, because the party had ended so early, the majority of the girl's guests had headed back home that very evening.

On account of how they all had various other obligations to attend to, the few who had stayed on had packed up and gone, even before dawn.

She had only had two paying customers, and the last one of them had left late that afternoon.

Now, being the good innkeeper that she was, Dulcey insisted on refurbishing every one of the rooms that had been used, with fresh linens.

Being the gentlemen that he was, Jarrod had insisted on helping her.

So the thoughtful young fellow followed the young maid quietly along, from room to room, stripping mattresses and pillows.

"What's wrong?" the female finally wondered, unable to withstand a single second more of the insufferable silence.

"Nothing," Jarrod replied-er, lied. "Why?"

"You're being uncharacteristically quiet this evening," the pretty miss explained. "And that nothing must be really something, because it's been troubling you all day."

The young man kept his head down to hide the look of astonishment that he was sure must be on his face. "Nothings wrong," he reassured her. "Honest!" he added. But then his seared conscience caused him to tack on a more truthful comment. "At least, not 'exactly'..."

"When things are not 'exactly' wrong, they're usually not 'exactly' right, either," the girl wisely surmised. "So," she said softly, pausing in mid-tuck. "What 'exactly' is it that has been bothering you? Perhaps I can help," she offered sincerely and flashed the troubled fellow a shy, sweet smile.

Jarrod glanced up just then, saw the girl's smile and surrendered to it. "I've been here for over twenty-four hours now," he said and took a seat on the blanket-less bed. "And, during that entire time, not one single soul has come to me for help. I know the Marshal said that trust isn't something that develops overnight. And I can see where someone might hesitate to have me perform major surgery on them. But I haven't even been called upon to lance a boil. There must be at least several hundred people living here-abou-"

"-Several thousand," Dulcey cut in, taking a seat directly across from the troubled young doctor. "Counting the Settlements."

"That makes matters even worse," Jarrod glumly declared. "With several thousand people around, there's got to be at least one of them who's in need of a doctor."

"I'm sure you're right," the girl agreed. "I know Doctor Kilghren was kept awfully busy."

"Well then, where are all my patients?" Jarrod demanded. "Where is this 'desperate need for a doctor' that the Marshal wrote about in his ad? I sure haven't seen any sign of it."

"My guess is, that folks are more concerned about Jim's health at the moment-than they are their own. So," Miss Coopersmith confidently continued, "they aren't coming to you because they're afraid that they might draw you away from doctoring him."

"That's ridiculous!" the snubbed doctor decreed. "Nobody even knows he's been hurt."

"Oh-oh, they know all right. Believe me."

"How do you know they know?"

"Because, as Mr. Lundquist so very aptly put it, 'Trying to keep a secret in Cimarron is like trying to hide ice in an oven. You may be able to keep it for a little while, but, sooner or later, something is bound to leak out'.'"

They sat there in silence for awhile, as Jarrod lulled Mr. Lundquist's quaint little saying over...and over. "You really think that that may be the reason?"

"That has to be it," the girl assured him. "It's the only one that makes any sense."

There was another brief bout of silence.

Then, apparently satisfied, the young fellow gave the girl seated across from him a grateful smile. "Thanks...for your help."

"Thanks...for your help," Dulcey quickly countered, copying both the gentleman's comment and his smile.

Their smiles broadened into duplicate grins. Then the two of them got to their feet and went back to making the bed.

Jarrod felt genuinely happy now. Now nothing really was troubling least, not at that 'exact' moment...

When Dave Fisher arrived at the Wayfarer's Inn, he found Miss Dulcey and the young doctor sitting side-by-side on the bench in front of the window in Jim's office, holding onto each other's hands and staring silently, and solemnly, off into space.

"So, tell me," the Congressman requested. "Has Roger Mareck left town yet?"

Jarrod glanced glumly up, as the older gentleman joined them in the room. "According to Dulcey, the man's not leaving now, unless he gets his twenty thousand dollars back."

"Then," Dave declared, failing to find that a problem, "by all means, let's give the man back his money."

"We can't give the man back his money," Dulcey glumly announced. "Because Jim gave Mareck's money to Charley Adams, and he hauled it off into the Outlet this afternoon."

"Well," the Senator said, finding that a problem all right, but, not necessarily an insurmountable one, "there mus' be some way for us ta raise the money. We'll go door-ta-door askin' for donations, if we have to," he vowed.

But the glum-looking girl looked even glummer.

"According to Francis," the doctor began, sounding every bit as glum as the girl looked, "the bulk of the bank's cash was placed into several strong boxes and put on the noon stage. Everything else of any value was hauled on over to Hardesty on the two o'clock train. There's no way we can raise twenty thousand dollars in this town. Right now, we couldn't even come up with a hundred dollars," he glumly concluded.

It was Dave's turn to look disheartened. "Where is Francis, anyways?"

"You just missed him. Since Mareck won't be leaving, he's gone off to see about 'evenin' the odds some'," the young doctor answered, ending with a direct quote.

Dave didn't like the sounds of that. "Didn' he get Jim's message?"

"He got it," Jarrod assured the upset-looking Senator. "I told the both of them what Katelyn said. And they both chose to completely disregard the Marshal's message," he added, giving the obstinate girl seated beside him an angry glare.

"Well, what am I supposed to do?" Dulcey exasperatedly exclaimed. "This is the only home I have. There's no place else for me to go."

"Speakin' a' places ta go..." the Senator suddenly interjected. "Is Mr. Adams back yet?"

"He's in the kitchen," the pretty girl poutingly replied, "enjoying a belated supper."

"I'm afraid his supper's gonna have ta be even later," Dave determined. "'Cuz the two a' us are leavin' right now-for Fort Dawes."

The curious couple got quickly to their feet and followed the determined lawmaker into the kitchen.

The Senator stepped up to the kitchen table and stared down at the Inn's lone diner, looking tremendously disappointed.

Charley saw the look and swallowed, so that he could say something in his defense. "The Marshal asked me ta deliver somethin' for 'im. So, I delivered it. He never said nothin' about bringing anything back."

"Forget Mareck's money. I've got something that's as good as gold," Dave promised, patting the 'Presidential Directive' that was in his pocket. "C'mon!" he urged, taking the Marshal's messenger by the elbow and coaxing him up out of his chair. "You got one more delivery ta make for the Marshal," he solemnly announced and began escorting the elderly gentleman over to the exit.

"Wha-at? Are you crazy?" the now even more annoyed Mr. Adams wanted to know. "I jes' got back!"

"You are gonna 'deliver' me-ta Fort Dawes," Dave revealed. "So's I kin 'deliver' this ta Blakesly's second-in-command," he continued, whipping out the leather-cased document and flipping it open. "You heard Mareck this afternoon. He said that the Major accepted ten thousand dollars from him in return for his services. Now, our sworn testimony should provide the next Senior Officer in Charge with enough evidence ta toss the turn-coat into the guardhouse. The second this new man assumes command, I'll issue him this 'Presidential Directive'. The sooner Martial Law goes inta effect, the sooner the soldiers'll be able ta come ridin' in here ta rid us a' Roger Mareck an' his men," he concluded, waving the case's official-looking contents in the still somewhat confused looking gentleman's face.

"Bu-ut," Charley stammered, as the man replaced his 'good as gold' document, "I haven't slept in two days!"

Dave ignored the statement and used his now free hand to unbolt the Inn's back door.

"Have a heart, will yah?" Charley pleaded, as he was dragged out into the back alley. "I haven't had anything ta eat since breakfast!"

"All right," Dave Fisher, who was suddenly feeling a little famished himself, finally conceded. "I'm gonna go find us two fresh horses," he informed his starving guide. "Be ready ta leave, by the time I get back. What you haven't finished eatin' by then, you'll jes' have ta toss in a sack, an' eat on the way there."

Charley glumly acknowledged the pushy politician's proposal and quickly re-entered the Inn's kitchen. "Who is that crazy fellah, anyways?" he irritatedly asked, and returned to both his seat and his interrupted supper.

"Who? Him?" Jarrod jokingly inquired. "Why, everybody knows hi-im. Sure. He's...'an old friend a' Jim's from back east'."

Assuming that the kid doctor must be a bit crazy himself, Charley turned his questioning gaze to the girl, in the hope that her reply might prove to be a little more enlightening.

"That 'crazy fellah' happens to be a United States Senator," Dulcey dutifully informed him. "His name is David Samuel Fisher. He is 'an old friend of Jim's'," she conceded, "But," the wry smile she'd been suppressing escaped in the crazy kid doctor's direction, "he happens to be from Texas."

The young man simply smiled back and gave his shoulders an innocent shrug.

"Well, now, that explains everything," Charley stated, his words oozing with sarcasm.

The young folks were forced to grin.

"You can stay at my place," Jarrod suddenly realized, his face and voice filled with joyous relief. "Go on up and pack a few things and I'll walk you over there-right now."

The pretty girl's mouth went from a grin to agape. "I can't possib-"

"-Sure you can!" the doctor assured her, interrupting the prude right in mid-protest. "You can stay upstairs-with Katelyn. It'll be perfectly proper. And it'll give the two of you a chance to get to know one another better..." he tantalizingly tacked on.

The girl released her held breath as a long sigh of surrender. Since the foxy physician had already overcome her only real objection, surrendering seemed like the sensible thing to the moment. "But what abou-?"

"-Don't worry. I'll have Francis send over some trustworthy soul to play the role of temporary Innkeeper," the doctor promised and gave the procrastinating girl a playful push towards the door.

The young lady didn't like being pushed, or being ordered around, by anybody. But then, Jarrod wasn't just anybody. Besides, when push came to shove, it was actually more of a good-natured 'nudge' than anything. She also supposed that one might consider the young doctor's order as more of a helpful suggestion. "Where will you sleep?" the single girl nervously wondered.

Jarrod stared at the pretty miss in disbelief. The lady was more worried about losing her 'reputation' than her life! The baffled young man drew in a deep breath and expelled it with one loud, exasperated gasp. "On the floo-oor, if I have to! Now hurry up!"

The independent young lady shot the bossy young fellow the most incredibly intense, and icy, glare imaginable. But then she obediently turned and started striding aloofly off in the direction of the stairs.

Charley watched as the kid doctor's sad eyes followed the infuriated, and infuriating, female across the Inn's dining room, and then continued following her until she was completely out of sight. "Miss Dulcey mus' be takin' quite a shine ta you," he realized rather dryly and flashed the miserable-looking young man a wry smile.

Jarrod gave the grey-haired gentleman an 'are you for rea-eal?' look, and stood there wondering how anyone could mistake fury for 'fondness'.

"She used ta use that look exclusively on the Marshal..." Mr. Adams slyly added, by way of an explanation.

The now 'enlightened' young fellah looked even more flabbergasted.

"Wha-at?" Roger Mareck inquired, his slurred voice filled with annoyance. Someone had approached the plush easy chair, into which he had collapsed-fully clothed-and was tapping him on the arm.

Mr. Gordon waited until his inebriated boss had raised his half-closed, bloodshot eyes from his half-empty shot glass, and re-riveted them upon him, before bothering to reply. "Some of the boys are here to see you, sir."

"We-ell?" the perturbed, disturbed drunk demanded. "What do they want?"

The bodyguard looked at a complete loss and gave his broad shoulders a shrug. "All's they'll say is, that they got to see you-right away. And they don't look too happy," he added, expounding on matters a bit.

There followed a brief silence, during which time his boss calmly finished his drink. "All right. Send 'em up!" Mareck ordered sharply. "But first, go get Luther and Denny. I want you boys in case there's trouble."

Gordy nodded and then vanished from the room.

Then, before his boss could even get another drink poured, Mr. Gordon reappeared, along with Mr. Nyman and Mr. Bowlen-and some of the boys.

Gordy was right. They didn't look very happy.

The unhappiest looking one of the bunch promptly stepped forward.

A bit too promptly perhaps, because two of Mareck's three bodyguards proceeded to pull out their pistols and block his path.

"Mister Mareck," the unhappy man began, but then backed off a bit with his hat in his hand, "are you tryin' ta pull a fast one on us?"

Mister Mareck finished refilling the shot glass in his hand and then gazed up at the enraged gunman in confusion. "A fast one?"

"Yeah. You know-a double-cross."

Mareck's grip suddenly tightened on the shot glass and his own, now fully-opened eyes flashed with rage. "If I were you, Shag, and I wanted to be around to watch the sun rise tomorrow, I wouldn't be so careless with my accusations!"

But 'Shag', who prided himself on the fact that he did not frighten easily, flared his nostrils and narrowed his eyes-and continued on, undaunted. "Polk said that you said that the Marshal was dead! He told us you said that we could take the town! That all you wanted out of it was twenty thousand!"

"That is correct," Mareck confirmed, his voice condescending.

"The hell it is!" Shag shouted, his voice filled with fury. "Every safe an' cash register in Cimarron has already been cleaned out! There ain't nothin' left in this town worth takin'! An', if Crown's dead, then who's pickin' our boys off? Polk an'' Geofreys an' Acelinger didn't jes' drop out a' sight by themselves! Somebody had ta nab 'em!"

"Shag's right, Mister Mareck!" one of the gunman's three equally upset associates gloomily agreed. "'An' whoever it is, is still out there!"

Being as how their boss was under the influence and all, no one was particularly surprised by the long period of silence that followed. The infuriated foursome simply figured that it was taking a while for their shocking words to register with Roger Mareck's inebriated brain.

"Sounds to me like you boys may be thinking of heading out," the supposed double-crosser with the supposedly dulled brain remarked at last, keeping his strained voice calm and low.

"You better believe we're headin' out!" Shag shouted.

"It sure beats hangin' around this nothin' town waitin' ta be 'picked off' by some phantom Marshal!" the gunman behind him bitterly tacked on.

"Yea-eah!" a third riled gunman cried, tossing his two cents in, in his pals' support.

The fourth furious fellah simply nodded.

"What leads you boys to believe that the Marshal may be behind these 'so-called' disappearances?" Roger Mareck wanted-er, needed to know.

"Because people don't jes' up an' vanish inta thin air!" Shag bellered.

"An' because that's what he was doin' before he took off after Tanner!" the-so-far-silent gunman ruefully remarked. "Pickin' us off! One-by-one!"

Roger Mareck took a soothing sip from the glass in his hand and then swallowed, somewhat nervously. "Yes. Well, there's no need to leave and there's no need to worry. Because the Marshal is dead! It's true, I tell you!" he angrily insisted, as the looks of deep skepticism failed to flee from the four furious fellows frowning faces. "Luther, here, saw the body with his own eyes!"

Speaking of eyes...

Luther watched as every last one of them in the room suddenly riveted upon him. Mr. Nyman, who was still recovering from his little grave robbing escapade, scratched an insect bite on the side of his neck and dutifully nodded.

But the belligerent bunch wasn't budging.

"Dead or alive! It don't make no difference!" Shag announced. "Either way, we're still leavin'!"

"Marshal's are like mosquitas," the gunman behind him reminded everyone in the room. "You kill one of 'em, an ten more show up for the funeral."

There was another long, solemn silence, and no one even so much as smiled at the gunman's very grim humor. Apparently, they had found his sobering statement more accurate than amusing.

"So, jes' as soon as you pay us off, we'll be partin' company," the group's angry leader declared, and his three equally unhappy underlings nodded their concurrence.

Roger Mareck thought the situation over for a few moments and then nonchalantly lifted his drink to his lips. "I'm broke," he spoke into his shot glass.

"What?" Shag exclaimed, his voice a mixture of absolute horror and disbelief. The man, who didn't frighten easily, found the very idea that he had traveled some six hundred miles and spent some four weeks terrorizing the residents of some hole-in-the-wall town-all for nothing-very frightening, indeed! Why-y, it was unthinkable! "Mister, you got an even worse sense a' humor than Morley, here! Money don' jes' vanish inta thin air, neither!" the gunman, who'd gone beyond the bounds of anger, decreed with an unamused, unnerving even, edge to his once again shouting voice.

Once again, his companions nodded their agreement.

"I handed the last of my 'cash on hand' over to..someone...this afternoon. And I haven't gotten it back-yet," their broke boss calmly went on, without even bothering to look up from his drink. "And, as for the town's treasure," their partially plastered employer aimed his dazed, but defiant, gaze up at the disbelieving-and about to fly off the handle-group and gave them that condescending, smirky smile of his, "I-I didn't take it!"

But the 'boys' didn't buy it.

"Well then, who the hell did?" the very bad humored Morley demanded.

"Crown," came back a rather sharp reply, in a cool, crisp voice from somewhere's clear across the room. That voice's owner then watched with inward amusement as the four fat heads and the four hot heads turned, in perfect unison, towards him and the open door-through which he and his bodyguards had entered, without bothering to knock. "Go on, Calvin," Judge Rutgers urged and motioned for the man he had towed into the room with him, to get on with it. "Tell them what you just told me."

"Well," Calvin Bryse, a.k.a. 'the judge's informant', drew a deep breath in and his sagging head and shoulders up. "He's done this sort a' thing before. At least a half a' dozen times, since I been here. Whenever he suspects there might be more trouble than he an' his deputies kin handle, instead a' leavin' the people an' property unprotected, the Marshal arranges ta have the people an' property leave. Some a' the men send their families out to the Settlement. An' the businesses generally co-operate, by shippin' all their cash an' other valuable merchandise off ta one a' the other towns. Exactly which one, depends on the direction the train-or the stage-happens ta be headed in, at the time. Mos' folks find the Marshal's plan a major inconvenience, an' frequently accuse 'im a' bein' overly cautious. Still, everybody most always goes along with it. After all," the snitch summarized with a smile, "it's like the Marshal says: 'They can't harm those who ain't here. An' they can't take what's already been took'."

The four angry gunmen thought the Marshal's theory over for a few moments and found, much to their dismay, that it was, indeed, flawless.

Roger Mareck remained more interested in the Marshal's murder than in his motto. "That 'plan' doesn't prove anything! Crown could have put it into effect before he was killed. And, about those deputies of his, they are probably the ones behind these latest disappearances," he insisted.

The gunmen thought their boss' comments over for a few moments and then turned their angry gazes back in Bryse's direction.

"Where are Crown's deputies, anyhow?" their leader demanded. "We ain' seen hide nor hair a' either one of 'em all day!"

"The both a' them disappeared," Rutger's rat replied. "Even before their boss did. But," he paused to pull a folded sheet of paper from his coat pocket. He fumbled with the thing until he finally had it open, and then handed it to one of the bodyguards, who promptly passed the crumpled pamphlet along to his boss, "I think I've discovered what at least one of 'em's been up to."

The pamphlet turned out to be more of a single-paged newspaper actually, and the headline it bore had an extremely sobering effect on both Roger Mareck and his bodyguards.

"People been secretly passin' those things all over town," Calvin informatively continued. "It took me all afternoon ta git my hands on one."

Mareck stared down at the 'Outlet Opening' headline in utter disbelief. After glancing, and grimacing, over the first few paragraphs, he crinkled the already crumpled piece of parchment into a tight and tiny little wad and then pitched the 'complete pack of lies' clear across the room.

Eight sets of narrowed, angry eyes followed the paper missile's path of trajectory and then widened, as they witnessed its return.

After bouncing off the wall, the little paper ball fell to the floor and went rolling clean back across the carpeting...and right up to Roger Mareck's feet.

The frustrated flinger cursed under his breath and then booted the bad news under a table and out of his sight.

But,once again, the obstinate object came rolling back up to him.

Mr. Gordon finally placed the persistent wad of paper into an ashtray and then he took out a match and torched it.

"The jig is up," the Judge said as the blaze began dying down.

The Marshal had made good and sure that the news had gotten 'out and about'.

Speaking of the Marshal, and news getting out and about...

"Go on," the Judge urged his eyes and ears, "tell them what else you told me."

Again all eyes and ears in the room riveted upon Rutger's rat.

"Well," began the snitch, his right eye squinting with a nervous twitch, "las' night, when the Marshal didn't make it back in time for his party, folks got ta figurin' he was dead. You should a' seen the way they was behavin'. I tell yah, I never seen so many long faces in this town. An' now, word on the street is that Crown has been killed."

"So-o?" Mareck interrupted, impatient for the informer to make his point.

"So-o," Bryse obligingly summarized, "folks may be sayin' that the Marshal's dead, all right. But they sure ain't actin' like it. Why, I ain' seen nobody shed so much as one single tear."

"Perhaps people are still in shock," Gordy speculated, upon realizing what the rat was getting at.

"Crown is dead!" Roger Mareck re-insisted. "Just ask Luther, here! He saw the body!"

Judge Rutgers turned his skeptical gaze upon the bodyguard in question, to pose one, very good question. "About that 'body' that you 'supposedly' saw...are you certain that it was the Marshal's?"

Mr. Nyman squared his shoulders and took a defensive stance. "Reasonably certain. Yes," he confidently stated.

But Rutgers remained skeptical. "Let me guess," the Judge said, his voice filled with sarcasm, "the 'body' was disfigured somehow. Right?"

Luther didn't answer. He didn't have to. The look of surprise on his face said it all.

Rutger's turned back to Roger Mareck and shot him an 'I rest my case' look.

Mister Mareck sat there for a few moments, weighing and reweighing the evidence...half of which seemingly proved that Crown was dead...and half of which seemingly implied he may still be alive.

Both halves seemed to balance out.

So then, was the Marshal dead? Or wasn't he?

Actually, when it came right down to it, the evidence, for either case, was completely circumstantial.

Was it the Marshal's body that was buried out there?

Mareck had to be one hundred percent sure-before he could get on that train in the morning. After all, he, too, was a man of his word.

"Forget about the Marshal!" Shag shouted, putting an end to the long period of silence. "What are you gonna do about the money you owe us?"

Their soon-to-be ex-boss got stiffly to his unsteady feet and stumbled over to his desk. "Where are you boys headed? I'll write you up a bank draft for whatever town you're going to, and you can cash it when you get there. Sorry," he continued, seeing his ex-employees staring at him with great-the greatest of displeasure, "but, unless the Judge, here, has managed to retrieve my twenty thousand dollars," he paused to shoot his retriever a questioning glance.

Rutgers rolled his eyes before shaking his head-in the negative.

Mareck turned back to the thug named Shag and shrugged. "A bank draft is the best I can do for you boys."

"Take it-or leave it!" Gordy icily advised.

The four hired guns eyed their ex-boss' bodyguards up for several tense seconds and then turned to face each other.

"Denver!" Shag announced, following a quick and quiet consultation with his traveling companions.

"The Denver branch of the Western Reserve," Mareck confirmed, filling in the last empty blank on the bank draft he had found. After blotting the excess ink off of his ex-employees paycheck, he passed the slip of paper to Mr. Gordon-along with the following order. "Pay the quitters off Gordy, and then get them out of my sight!" he aloofly added.

The 'quitters' stiffened and started to step forwards.

But again, their arrogant ex-boss' bodyguards moved in to block their path.

There followed several more incredibly tense moments.

The fuming foursome eyed their opponents up again, and again decided that the insult, like the pay issue, wasn't worth fighting-and hence maybe even dying-over.

Shag snatched the bank draft from the bodyguard's extended hand and headed for the exit. His three companions quickly followed suit, saving Mareck's men from having to escort them out.

"Crown...alive," Mareck muttered on his way back over to his bottle. "You'd like that, wouldn't you, 'Your Honor'," he continued, telling more than asking his uninvited-and unwelcome-guest. "Yes, sir. You'd like that just fine. Because then you could use him to get to those 'witnesses' he's got stashed away. Who were they, did you say?" he inquired of Mr. Bowlen.

"The Hampton Brothers, I believe," the bodyguard politely replied.

"Yes. Of course. How could I have been so foolish as to forget? Why, on account of the Judge's little confrontation with Crown this afternoon, I don't believe you could find a single soul in town who hasn't heard about how his 'Honor', here, hired the 'Hampton Brothers' to bushwack the Marshal for, what was it? Seven hundred dollars?" Mareck paused in his taunting to exchange smirks with his men, and to raise his refilled glass in a mock toast to the 'much wiser than he' magistrate. "Well you can kiss your political career goodbye, Rutgers. Because, once those two 'jail birds' finish 'singing' in Federal Court, the only 'office' you'll be 'running for' is head of some prison work detail. Because they will sing," the pompous, and plastered, fool predicted, "Loud and long!"

"I wouldn't bet on it," the Judge jeered and watched in disgust, as the already obviously drunk man downed the contents of his glass in a single gulp. "And I wouldn't be so smug, if I were you. What? Do you think Tanner won't talk?"

"Let him. I don't care if he talks his heart out. Because I'll be somewhere in South America, or Europe, by then. You'd better run, too, Rutgers. Because you'll never silence those two 'songbirds' now. Not when the only one who could lead you to them is dead and buried."

"I wouldn't bet on that, either," Rutgers reminded him, "if I were you."

"Luther," the drunk paused to pour himself yet another drink, "the Judge and his 'friends' are leaving now. Perhaps you could show them the way out..."

Mr. Nyman nodded and started ushering his 'Honor' from the room.

"No-o! Not you two!" Mareck reprimanded as Luther's fellow bodyguards began to follow their associate out. "I have something else in mind for the two of you."

If Rutgers was right, and the Marshal wasn't dead, then he certainly would be, by morning.

What 'Mister' Mareck had planned would-most assuredly-see to that!


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death Of A Legend"

Chapter Thirty-One

Jarrod had every right to be exhausted. His biological clock still hadn't completely recovered from his overseas voyage...or his non-stop, extremely fatiguing, cross-country train ride. Then, of course, there was that little earth moving excursion that he and the Senator had engaged in earlier in the evening. Not to mention, his and Miss Coopersmith's bed making marathon.

So the doctor wondered how he could possibly be generating so much nervous energy? He also worried about where it was all coming from. The pacing, perplexed physician paused in the middle of his dozenth or so trip across the Inn's dining room floor, to pull out his pocket watch. It was well after eleven. The young man decided he'd give the girl one more minute. After which, he would go up and drag her down!

Speaking of the delaying Dulcey...

The foot-dragging female suddenly stepped through the curtained doorway to the hall above and gracefully began descending the stairs.

Jarrod noticed that the girl had changed-literally.

Dulcey was now dressed entirely in black-from the black boots on her petite little feet, to the black veil covering her pretty little face.

The little lady looked so different, in fact, that if it hadn't been for the beautiful blonde hair, which spilled out from beneath her black bonnet, Jarrod wouldn't have recognized her at all.

"This is what one wears when one is in mourning," the girl explained, seeing the gentleman gazing up at her, and her get-up, in complete confusion. "When one supposedly loses one's dearest friend, one must supposedly dress the part."

The doctor's look of disappointment turned to one of approval and he extended his right arm to the clever Miss Coopersmith. "Indeed!" he jointly concurred, with a warm, appreciative smile.

Dulcey took the young man's arm and returned his smile. "I'm all set. Just let me pack some saddle bags for the Senator," she slyly slipped in, as they headed towards the back door-and her kitchen.

"Forget it!" the physician advised with a frown.

"But they have a long journey ahead of them!" the little lady in black blurted back. "We can't just send them off without something to eat."

"They left five minutes ago," Jarrod informed the insistent innkeeper. "And you can stop worrying about the Senator's stomach. Mr. Adams took along enough food to feed an army."

But Dulcey was determined she was going to feed somebody. "Well...then what about Nurse Edwards and your patient? Why, the two of them must be starving!"

"You don't have to haul any more food over to my place," Jarrod reminded the stubborn little restauranteur. "We carted a whole kitchen full of it over there this morning. Remember? There's no room left on, or in, my cupboards. Besides, Mrs. Edwards is perfectly capable of taking care of both herself and our pa-"

"She's married?" Dulcey exclaimed and stopped dead in her tracks.

Jarrod nodded. "At least, she was at one a Doctor," he added, and nudged the no-longer-moving girl back into motion.

"I wonder what became of him," the woman in black mumbled, once more applying her brakes.

This time, it was the young doctor who stopped dead in his tracks. "I have no idea. You'll have to ask Katelyn. If we ever make it over to my place, that is!" he tacked on, giving vent to his growing annoyance with the foot-dragging Miss Dulcey.

The girl flipped the veil up from off of her face and flashed her escort a look which told him she did not appreciate him using that particular tone of voice on her.

The flustered young fellow's countenance fell and he exhaled a long sigh of frustration. "I'm sorry," he soothingly assured his pretty, upset companion. "It's just that...I care about you. That dearest friend of yours is no dummy, you know. The fact that he's worried about your safety has me worried. And you should be, too! Instead, it seems you're concerned with everyone's welfare but your own! Your life may be in danger! Yet, you insist on dilly-dallying! So, if I seem a little on else do you expect me to feel?" he demanded, the anger and annoyance returning to his voice.

Dulcey didn't answer. She was still in a state of shock.

That the doctor liked her was certainly no secret. She had sensed that immediately-the instant they had been introduced. But that he cared for her? Well...that was a real revelation! Surely it was just infatuation! After all, how strong a feeling could you develop for somebody in just one day?

The answer came as an even greater shock, as the girl suddenly recalled her first encounter with Marshal Jim Crown. So, Jarrod did have feelings for her. Now, the question was-how did she feel towards him?

"I don't want to lose you," the caring young doctor continued, his countenance and his voice softening again. He reached out, tenderly took a hold of her arms and drew her closer to him. " 'My hand...and my arms...and my heart are now yours. It is I who am in danger. Should you now not give me the chance to prove true...the word of a tall, dark Stranger. All I ask is for time...and the chance to prove true...the word of a ta-all dark Stranger...' " The 'Stranger's' half-spoken/half-sung words trailed off and he stood there for a few silent moments, staring dreamily down at the 'Lady'.

The 'Lady' stared up at the 'Stranger' in absolute amazement. She was amazed because he had managed to come up with a reply so soon...and because it had been given so...wonderfully...and because it wasn't just a 'reply'. Why, if she understood the poetic young man's words properly-which she felt she did-his 'reply' was tantamount to a proposal...of marriage! She felt herself being drawn closer...and closer...and then, suddenly, Jarrod was kissing her! Dulcey was surprised to find that she did have 'feelings' for him. Even more surprising was how strong those feelings for him turned out to be. For she suddenly found herself kissing him back. It was warm...and wonderful...and over all too soon. "Enough dilly-dallying," Dulcey determined, putting an abrupt end to their embrace. "It's getting awfully late." That said, she latched onto the doctor's left arm and began dragging him towards the door.

A look of extreme disappointment filled the 'Stranger's' handsome face. But then that look gradually gave way to a grin. Doctor Ellis latched onto his medical bag and then allowed himself to be playfully towed away.

The couple left the Inn and started strolling briskly off down one of Cimarron's dark back streets.

As the pair approached a particularly black stretch of boardwalk, they drew even closer to one another and reluctantly slowed their pace.

"Uhhh!" Dulcey gasped, as several dark forms suddenly stepped out of the shadows and stood before them-blocking their path.

"What are you trying to do?" the young doctor demanded, and immediately placed himself between who, or what, ever it was that was out there and the startled girl. "Scare us half to death?"

"What are you doing out here?" one of the unseen intruders demanded right back. "It's almost midnight. It's dangerous to be walking about after dark," he continued, as he and his companions began closing in on the couple.

"Who are you?" Jarrod wanted to know. "What do you want?"

However, the approaching black forms apparently didn't want to answer.

The doctor was about to wrap an arm around the girl's waist and make a run for it, when two of the three dark forms in his face jumped him. He managed to swing his medical bag at them before it was pulled from his hand. His assailants then managed to pin both of his arms behind his back. About all Jarrod had time to do was to 'gasp'-twice! Once in pain, as his arms were wrenched into an unnatural, and extremely uncomfortable, position...and once in frustration. He was frustrated at how quickly, and easily, he'd just been overpowered. Seeing as how resisting only served to help separate his arms from their sockets, the young doctor stopped struggling and aimed a defiant glare up at the thug who had latched onto Dulcey. "Look! You're welcome to what money I have! Just-please-leave her be!"

But their assailants completely ignored his plea. "Tell the Marshal, that if he ever expects to see the girl agai-"

"-Tell the Marshal?" Jarrod shouted, interrupting the unseen ultimatum giver. "What do you mean, 'tell the Marshal'? The man's dead! What am I supposed to do, for crying out loud, conduct a seance?"

"Tell the Marshal-" the goon began again, only to be interrupted-again.

"-I told you!" Jarrod told him. "Marshal Crown is dead! If your boss wants to get 'in touch' with him, he'll have to find someone else! I'm a doctor-not some 'gypsy fortuneteller'!"

"That's too bad," Mr. Gordon determined. "Because my boss is only giving the Marshal 'til dawn! If Crown isn't in his office-alone and unarmed-by then..." Gordy paused, for dramatic effect. "I promise you...the girl, here, won't live past sun-up!"

Jarrod's blood ran cold and his body went completely rigid.

The 'girl' let out a 'shriek' of absolute 'horror' and then her body went completely limp.

The goon tightened his grip around Dulcey's waist, which allowed the frightened 'fainting' female to double over.

For a few fleeting moments in the dark, the couple's heads came close together. As they did, Dulcey blurted out-in a barely audible whisper, "They're bluffing! Not one word of this to Jim or, I swear, I'll never speak to you again!"

"Oh-oh," Mr. Gordon added as an afterthought, "and tell him to make sure he has Mister Mareck's money with him!" Then he and his 'collapsed captive' were gone.

What was the young doctor to do? He had no reason to doubt the pretty little lady's threat-er, promise. But then, he had no reason to doubt the bodyguard's threat-er promise, either!

Jarrod's captors waited a full five minutes before finally relinquishing their strangle holds on him.

"Run along now," the big lug on his left suggested. "And deliver Mister Mareck's message to the Marshal."

"Like a good little boy," the third thug taunted and tossed the doctor back his medical bag.

Jarrod wanted to lambaste the both of them with it. Only, he couldn't make his recently twisted and tortured limbs move. So he just stood there, helplessly, and watched as the disgusting duo drifted off into the darkness, chuckling all the while.

What was he going to do? If he didn't deliver the message, and the bodyguard wasn't bluffing, come dawn, Dulcey would be dead-and so would he! The moment the Marshal found out that he had failed to give him Mareck's message!

Jarrod seemed to be trapped in a 'no win' situation. Because, whether or not he did as Dulcey wished, it was beginning to look like their budding relationship would soon be over. Because, either way, Dulcey was never going to speak to him again.

The flustered physician stood there for a full five more minutes, pacing up and down the planks and racking his brain. The young doctor was desperate. He had to make the right decision. Then, suddenly, Jarrod knew what he had to do. He had to find Francis. Yes sir, and he had to find him fast! After all, dawn was only four or five hours away.

Doctor Ellis spent nearly two of those precious few hours trying to find his friend.

But his search for Francis proved futile.

The young deputy was nowhere's to be found.

So Jarrod left word around that he was looking for him and then went on home-to his place.

Katelyn just about had kittens! She had been in the process of wiping the perspiration from her patient's impassive face when-without any warning what-so-ever-a portion of the wall came flying in at her and an anxious looking Doctor Ellis appeared. The rattled nurse retrieved her cool, damp cloth from across the bed, folded it a few times and then tenderly placed it down on the Marshal's fevered brow. "If yer not goin' ta knock," the irate woman informed the frantic-looking young fellow standing at her side, "couldn' you at least stomp yore feet, or somethin'?"

"How is he?" the obviously somewhat shaken young doctor demanded a bit breathlessly. "Has he been awake at all?"

"No," the now worried nurse told him. "Why-y? What are you doin' back here, anyways? Ain' you s'posed ta be spendin' the evenin' elsewhere?"

"I had to come back," the young doctor declared and began nudging the nosey nurse out of his way. "And he has to wake up. I have something terribly important to tell hi-"

"-Tell him anything you like," Katelyn invited, planting herself between the pushy young physician and her peacefully sleeping patient. "Jes' don't touch 'im."

"You don't understand," the doctor declared. "I have to wake him! It's a matter of life and death!"

"All right," Katelyn conceded, after considering the even more anxious young man's rather urgent decree over for a few moments, "you kin wake 'im. But don't shake 'im."

Doctor Ellis sighed in surrender and agreed to heed her warning. He had to. If he didn't abide by her terms, he'd never get within waking range. So he obligingly stepped back a bit.

The nurse obligingly stepped aside.

"Marshal? Marshal, wake up!" Jarrod pleaded.

The Marshal didn't move.

"You've got to wake up! I've got to talk to you!"

But, again, the lawman didn't budge. Either he didn't believe-or couldn't hear-his doctor.

Suspecting the latter, the frustrated physician picked his medical bag up from the foot of the bed, where he had dropped it, and began fumbling around for his smelling salts. Having found what he was after, Doctor Ellis set the bag back down and carefully took a seat on the bed beside his, as yet, unresponsive patient. "Marshal Crown!" the physician shouted, pulling the stopper from the little bottle in his left hand and waving it under the lawman's nose. "Can you hear me, Marshal?"

The Marshal's impassive face suddenly scrunched up a might and he responded by trying to pull his head away.

"Marshal, wake up!" the young doctor ordered, and proceeded to administer another dose of the vial's vile contents.

Again the unconscious, and still uncooperative, Marshal's only response was to make a face and then pull away from the bottle's unbelievably pungent and obnoxious odor.

Doctor Ellis gasped in exasperation and then tried for a third time to rouse his apparently comatose patient. "Mareck's got Dulcey! You've got til dawn to turn yourself in! If you don't show," the now nearly in tears young man hesitated an instant or two, apparently choking on the words which were yet to come, "he's kill her," the young doctor's voice diminished in volume, as those dreadful words fell on deaf ears. "Plea-ease, Marshal! You've got to hear me!" Jarrod pleaded, pulling himself back together again.

But again there came no answer.

Well, Jim Crown may not have heard a single word, but Katelyn sure did, and she had found each and every one of them positively horrifying! What could the doctor possibly hope to accomplish there?

The Marshal was obviously in no condition to deal with any of this!

"I can't find Francis anywhere!" Jarrod literally cried out, as if in answer to her. "And I don't know what to do!"

"The Marshal, an' this 'Francis' fellow, can't be the only men in this town," the woman said, by way of a reminder.

"True," the young physician was forced to concede. "Trouble is, the others don't know what to do, either-" he stopped talking suddenly and watched with eager anticipation as a fourth whiff of the bottle's contents finally caught Jim Crown's attention.

The Marshal's eyes opened for a few fleeting seconds, but failed to focus.

Jarrod began blurting Mister Mareck's message out again, but then stopped. Judging by the blank look he'd just seen in the lawman's eyes, nothing was going to register with him, anyways.

The Marshal's team may have finally been 'harnessed'. But there was still no driver in the man's 'buggy'.

The doctor shoved the stopper back into the bottle of smelling salts and started getting to his feet. "Have you had a chance to change that dressing on his arm?"

Realizing that the solemn young doctor's words were now directed at her, the extremely nervous nurse dutifully nodded.

"How does the wound look?"

"Uhh-uhh...there's no further sign of infection, if that's what yah mean," the woman readily replied. "In fact, it's already started ta heal," she added and noted that the young doctor seemed genuinely pleased.

"What about his stitches? They still intact?"

Again the Marshal's nurse nodded.

"How about that hole in his chest?"

"No excessive bleedin'," Katelyn answered competently. "It appears ta be drainin' nicely."

"Good," the young doctor determined. Then, satisfied as to the stableness of his patient's condition, he stowed the bottle away, picked his black leather bag back up and turned to leave.

"Where are you goin'?" the woman wondered.

"To find the Marshal's Deputy," Jarrod solemnly replied.

"An' if Francis can't be found, what then?" the woman further wondered.

Jarrod caught the nervous edge in the nurse's voice and realized the woman must be fearful for the Marshal's life.

So, the two of them had something in common.

Doctor Ellis was feeling equally fearful for Miss Dulcey's life. "Then, the rest of us will spend the next three hours trying to think of something. There has to be some way to get the girl out of this mess without putting him in danger," the good doctor determined-and then disappeared.

Katelyn latched onto the lawman's limp left hand and then stood there staring blankly back at the wall, behind which Jarrod had just vanished. "Well, then I sure hope some one thinks of it!" the woman fervently whispered and carefully took a seat on the bed beside their still unresponsive patient.

Speaking of Jim Crown...

The young cowboy was in love-for the very first time in his life! He knew he had to be head-over-heels in love, because he was getting hitched up in the morning...and the thought didn't terrify him. On the contrary, standing there as he was-with his girl's arms wrapped tightly around him-Jim Crown figured he had ta be the luckiest man alive! "I think that's just about the most perfect place to put a house that I ever did see," he said in Spanish and raised his head up from Koree-Ray-Ohn's shoulder to point out a particularly pretty spot up on a little hill overlooking the creek that flowed through their property-the property Dave Fisher's father was giving them for a wedding present.

Koree studied the spot for a few moments and then turned back to the cowboy, looking both pleased and perplexed. "But, we already have a house," she pointed out.

"No," the cowboy corrected. "What we have now, is a broken down line shack, with a roof that leaks like a sieve when it rains. I'm going to build us a real house, Koree. One with a good roof...and lots of rooms for kids and puppy dogs to ramble around in."

The happy couple exchanged grins and then embraced again, a long, loving embrace, that ended with a dull 'thud'. was more of a 'thwa-ack'.

Koree gasped at the sound and pulled back.

Jim heard Maria scream and spun around in time to see his partner collapse in an unconscious heap on the ground. He took a step or two in his injured friend's direction. However, the rifle, whose butt had just been brought down on the back of Dave's head, now had its barrel pointed squarely at his chest.

The rifle's bearer waved him back.

"Don't move, cowboy!" someone behind him warned in a strange, yet vaguely familiar, voice.

It was that outlaw type from town, and he had three other equally outlaw-looking types with him.

Jim obligingly froze. There was little else he could do, seeing as how they had the three of them covered. Another gun barrel was shoved into the small of his back and somebody pulled the pistol from his holster. "How did you's get here?"

"Well, now...funny you should ask," the stranger he'd met back in town sarcastically stated, as he stepped around to face him. "Since you went ta such great lengths ta make sure that you weren't followed, we had ta go ta some pretty great lengths ourselves ta get here. Seems that nice store-keep lady finally remembered you sayin' somethin' about how you was goin' out ta yore place. Then, a course, we jes' had ta go on over an' convince that little old man at the Land Office that it was in his best interest ta tell us jes' where, exactly, yore place was, Mister...Jim Crown, is it?"

"So what if it is?" Jim Crown wanted to know. "What possible difference would that make? I've never done anything ta any a' you. I ain't never even seen any of you's-before today."

The stranger nodded to the man who was holding Koree at gun point.

The gunman held the weapon in his hand up to the girl's right temple and then thumbed back it's hammer.

The cowboy caught his breath and his racing heart just about stopped.

"I'll do all the askin' here," the stranger icily informed him. "An' you'll do all the answerin'. You got that straight?"

"Yes," the now completely panic-stricken young cowboy assured all four of the very nasty-looking fellows. "Yes. I got that straight. An' you got my name straight. It's Jim Crown."

The stranger and his companions exchanged excited glances. "An' jes' how, Mister Jim Crown, did you manage ta come by that there saddle?" the thug wondered, waving his arm in the direction of Jim's horse.

"I've had it since I was four," the cowboy answered. "It belonged to my father-Thomas Crown."

The outlaws appeared even more excited by this latest revelation.

"An' can you prove you are who you 'say' you are?"

The cowboy hesitated.

The gunman who had his pistol pointed at Koree's head tightened his finger on the weapon's trigger a bit.

Jim stepped wordlessly over to the dropped trunk and then carefully stooped down to open it. He rummaged around in his things for a few moments before finally producing the required proof.

"What is it, Santi?" the gunman holding Maria inquired.

Santi took the family Bible that had been passed up to him and then silently perused it.

There was a lose page in the front of the book and upon it someone had recorded the cowboy's birth and his family's history. The Bible was engraved with the name of Jim's father, and the tears on the edge of the lose page perfectly matched those protruding from the book's binding. It was pretty good proof. But apparently not good enough.

"Anything else?"

Jim exhaled an impatient sigh and returned to rummaging in his trunk. The cowboy sighed again, in relief, this time, as his hand came up with what he had been seeking-a gold chain bearing a gold medallion.

His interrogator took the object and then stood there, studying it.

The medallion was solid gold and there were two crowns emblazened across the front and back of it. Two Crowns! The name of Thomas Crown's spread!

Santi passed a sinister smile around to his friends and then motioned for them to take Jim Crown along.

The cowboy didn't demand to know what was going on. Nor did he struggle as he was thrown onto his horse. Jim never even moved a muscle as his wrists were bound to his saddle's horn-very snugly. He didn't protest because there was still a gun pointed at Koree's head.

"What about his girlfriend, here?" the gunman wondered as he watched his trio of friends mount their horses. "She's a real beauty! Ain' she? What da yah say, we bring her along?" he suggested and stared lustfully at the beautiful girl standing before him.

The cowboy caught his breath again and quickly glanced around.

Instead of five, big, bad smellin' buffalo hunters, it was four, awful, foul smellin' outlaws! And each one had eyes, and 'ideas', for the girl-his girl!

"NO-O! Plea-ease!" Jim pleaded. "She's gonna have a baby! Leave her be! She'll jes' slow us down!"

Santi considered the cowboy's plea over for a few moments and then motioned for the remaining member of their grisly group to get on his horse. "The kid's right. She'll slow us down. Either way!" he shouted to his protesting companions. "She'll just slow us down! Now, c'mon! We got us a 'family reunion' to attend!"

"Stay with Dave and Maria, Koree!" Jim ordered in Spanish, as Santi started hauling he and his horse off-to who knew where. "They'll take care of you for me, 'til I get back! I'll be back as soon as I can! Koree? I love you!" he shouted back over his shoulder-and the sound of galloping hooves.

After they had gone what Santi considered a safe distance from San Antone', the group pulled their galloping horses up, to give them a breather.

"Where are you takin' me?" their worried sounding captive wanted to know.

"Ta meet yore grandfather," one of the outlaws obligingly answered.

"Yore rich grandfather," another chimed in, with a gold-toothed grin.

"Yore very rich grandfather," still another added.

The cowboy's face filled with shock. Jim Crown knew nothing about his father's father. His Uncle Wes' had never spoken of the man, so he'd just naturally assumed that he was...'dead'. "Well, how much further do we got ta go?" the cowboy wondered, sounding even more worried.

"You ever heard of 'La Hacienda de Dos Coronas'?" Santi wondered back.

The cowboy shook his head no.

So Santi continued. "It's a pretty big spread, down in the southwest corner of Texas. Belongs to an old English fellah-by the name a' James Crown."

James Crown's face filled with shock once again. 'The Two Crowns Ranch,' he mentally translated.

Of course! That would explain both the 'brand' on his father's saddle and the 'design' on the medallion!

But why had his Uncle Wes' always avoided that particular part of Texas? Why didn't his Uncle ever tell him that he had a grandfather-who was still alive? What was it about this 'other' James Crown that had made Wesley Thatcher want to keep all knowledge of him from Jim?

It sure seemed odd, and it sure felt odd, to think that there was actually another James Crown walking around somewhere-somewhere down in the southwest corner a' Texas, to be exa-act.

But...that was too far! That was way too far! Why, that was hundreds of miles away! Which meant that he would miss his own wedding!

The cowboy's face filled with even greater shock and he began working feverishly to free his wrists. It wasn't that he didn't like the 'family reunion' they had planned for him. It was just that-more than anything else in the world-Jim Crown wanted to marry Koree in the morning.

"Sit tight, son!" Santi advised their now squirming captive.

But the cowboy couldn't 'sit tight'! The sun was setting! He had to get back! He was getting married in the morning, and-right then-that was the only thing that really mattered to him.

Seeing as how their prisoner completely ignored his advice, the outlaw leaned over and whacked the boy up alongside of the head with the butt of his pistol.

The cowboy winced, as a sharp, searing pain shot through his right temple.

There was a brilliant explosion of light-closely followed by an enveloping darkness. James Crown the II sank forwards in his saddle and then hung there over the neck of his horse. "Koree?" the young man moaned in a whisper.

Then, suddenly, the sun set...and, for a little while at least, nothing mattered to Jim anymore.

Speaking of anymore...

There was no gun pointed at Koree's head anymore.

So Jim Crown didn't have to co-operate with his captors-er, kidnappers anymore.

In fact, for the next eleven days of nearly continuous travel, Jim Crown proved to be the most uncooperative captive Carlos Santi and his associates had ever come across.

The cowboy tried every conceivable way to free himself from the four outlaws-and the kid was capable of conceiving some pretty ingenious methods of escape!

So that-short of killing him-the four men were forced to use whatever brutal methods they could think of to prevent them from parting company.

But, getting back to the woman he loved-as quickly as possible-and marryin' her, was, once again, the only thing tht Jim Crown really cared about.


Chapter Text

Cimarron Strip: "The Death of a Legend"

Chapter Thirty-Two

Speaking of nearly continuous travel...

"He-ey! Why are we turn-?" Dave Fisher paused, right in mid-question, for, as he pulled his horse up alongside of Mr. Adams', the answer became quite apparent.

His terribly tired traveling companion had just nodded off-again.

"He-ey! Wake up!" the Senator urged and gave his so-called guide a not so gentle nudge. "You keep fallin' asleep like this, an' you'll get us lost for sure!"

"I warned yah," the groggy gentleman reminded his grumpy companion. "Before we even started, I said: 'I ain' slept in two days.' It ain't my fault I cain't keep my eyes open," he tacked on, following an unforgiving silence. "It ain't my fault."

"You're right," the Senator glumly conceded. "It's my fault. I'm the one who 'smooth-talked' Jim inta comin' here. His quick draw-an' even quicker thinkin'-kept him alive the first five years. So I figured he could handle this, too. He said he was tired a' Marshalin' an' wanted ta call it quits. But I wouldn' listen. No-o, I had ta go an trick 'im inta takin' this assignment here, in the Strip. I got Jim inta this jam. An' I'm gonna do everything I possibly kin ta get 'im out of it-alive," Dave added, his voice an equal mixture of guilt, exasperation, and anger.

"It ain't all yore fault," Mr. Adams announced, following another brief bout of silence. "I mean, Mareck would prob'ly be gone by now, an' we prob'ly wouldn't even be here, if I hadn' a' 'drugged' his beer. An'," the old man added, "if it's any consolation to you, Miss Dulcey once told me that Jim once told her that-when it came to his job-Jim had no regrets."

The Senator acknowledged the man's statement with a slight, unseen smile, which didn't last. It wasn't any 'consolation' to him. If anything, Charley's words only made the Marshal's 'old friend from back East' feel that much worse. "How much further is it?" Dave wondered, as his guide began heading off into the darkness once again.

"I figure we're about four or five miles southeast a' Gault's Spring," Mr. Adams answered, as he carefully corrected their errant course. "The Fort's another fifteen miles or so due east from there."

If the Senator had any complaints about the remaining distance, he didn't voice them.

In fact, no one said anything for several miles.

"Sa-ay," Charley said at last, as the light from a quarter moon, and the lack of loud sounds, threatened to lull him right on back to sleep, "why is it you always call the Marshal 'James' to his' yet it's jes' plain old 'Jim' when he ain' around?"

"It's a lo-ong story," the saddle sore Senator wearily replied. He was feeling bone tired-i.e., too weary to even talk.

"That's okay, 'cuz we got a lo-ong ride ahead a' us. An' if yer expecting the both a' us ta stay awake," Mr. Adams hinted, "one a' us had better start talkin'."

The Senator managed another unseen smile, of sorts, and then-begrudgingly-began talkin'. "I first met Jim Crown on my thirteenth birthday. He was the best birthday present I ever got! I mean, what more could any boy ask for, than for someone his own age ta get inta trouble with?" the story teller teased and, as they rode along, the years rolled back...

Suddenly, Dave Fisher found himself standing in the open doorway of his family's ranch house, peering out from behind his mother's billowing skirt, at a rather curious sight.

A young man, whose face was unfamiliar to him, was approaching on horseback. The fellah wore a black, felt hat, like that of a cowboy, pulled low across his eyes, in response to the angle of blindingly bright rays from a late afternoon sun. The rest of the gentleman's garb was of buckskin. If it weren't for the way he packed his pistol-slung low on his hip like a gunslinger-the boy might have mistaken their visitor for a 'mountain man' or maybe even an 'army scout'. What made the stranger really stand out though-and the whole sight seem so peculiar-was that there happened to be a big, black bird perched upon his left shoulder. The fellah also had another horse in tow, and to it was attached a blanket travoise of some sort.

Dave judged the make-shift stretcher's load to be a light one, on account a' how the poles didn't leave much of a rut as they were dragged through the dust of the ranch yard.

"Daniel," his mother called out, keeping her shouted voice low, "go fetch yore father!"

The boy's older brother nodded his acknowledgment of their mother's anxious order and then disappeared out the back door.

Dave frowned. 'Daniel' was always being sent off on exciting errands. While 'he' got to sit in the house and hide.

"Davey!" Mrs. Fisher's frantic voice boomed, as she pulled the front door shut and then barred it. "Fetch me that rifle!"

"Dav-id," the boy corrected, but then eagerly obeyed-practically running to his father's gun rack. He then walked carefully back over to his mother and proudly proffered the requested weapon to her.

The woman shot her eager to please, very careful and youngest offspring an appreciative glance, before stepping over to one of the ranch house's open front windows.

Dav-id followed her, on all fours, and then raised his head up to the level of the window's ledge to have himself another little look-see.

There stood the stranger! Him and his raven-not two feet from their front porch!

"Hallo in the house!"

David heard the man call out an amiable greeting, as his head was shoved back down.

Well, the fellah's occupation might still be a mystery to him, but his distinctive dra-awl was definitely that of a fellow Texan's.

"Who are you?" his mother cautiously called back. "What do you want?"

"The name's Thatcher, Ma-am. Wes' Thatcher," came back the good-mannered young Texan's po-lite reply, "An' what I want, is a doctor. You folks happen ta have one here 'bouts?"

"Whe-ere...are we...Uncle Wes'?" someone suddenly wondered, in a much weaker voice-that of a boy's-and, by the sound of it, another fellow Texan's.

"I have absolutely no idea, J.R.," the boy's uncle sadly replied, but then promptly perked up. "Hopefully, we're someplace close to a place that has a doctor."

Neither David, or his mother, liked the sound of the boy's voice. They sensed that something had to be very wrong with him, for his whispered words had come in little breathless clumps.

The woman's mothering instincts immediately clicked in-over-riding any fear she may have had initially. The situation no longer presented any danger, anyway. At least, not to her and her family.

David watched approvingly, as his courageous mom set her rifle down and then unbarred the door.

"What's wrong with the boy?" the woman anxiously inquired, as she came scurrying out of the house and onto the porch.

"Ahhh-ahhhh!" the kid on the travoise cried, as the horse that was hauling him shied.

"Whoa-oah, B.B.," the boy's uncle commanded, giving the lead in his left hand a hard yank.

"Sorry, Mister," David's mom apologized as she and her son carefully retraced their steps a ways. "We didn't mean ta scare yore horse."

"No need ta apologize, Ma-am," Mister Thatcher assured the woman, as his right hand reached for and then removed his hat. "T'aint yore fault ole' 'Bear Bait' was born without brains." The friendly, and forgiving, young fellow flashed them both a warm smile. Then he slapped his hat back on his head and turned around in his seat. "J.R.? You all right back there?"

"Yea-eah," his nephew gasped back-not too convincingly.

"Hang on, boy," Mister Thatcher gently urged and then turned back around to face the ranch folks again. "Please, Ma-am," he pleaded, a sudden sense of urgency in his voice, "if you could jes' point us in the right direction? I got ta find the kid a doctor."

"He sick?" the woman wanted to know, her own sense of urgency heightened.

"No, Ma-am. It's his leg-" Mister Thatcher stopped talking, at the sound of approaching riders.

A group of about ten rifle-toting cowboys came cantering into the ranch yard.

Wes' gripped the lead in his left hand and turned in their direction.

There followed several anxious seconds, as J.R.'s uncle and David's dad silently assessed one another.

"Dan," Mrs. Fisher finally spoke up, "this is Mister Thatcher. He's lookin' for a doctor. Seems there's somethin' wrong with his nephew's leg..."

Dan Fisher thought his wife's comments over for a few more tense moments before finally acknowledging his acceptance of the stranger, and his story, with a slight smile and nod.

"Mister Thatcher-" Mrs. Fisher began.

"-Wes'," J.R.'s uncle corrected. "Ma-am..."

"Very well, Wes'," the very obliging woman repeated, "this is my husband, Dan Fisher. That there's our oldest son, Daniel," she continued, motioning to the sixteen-year-old mounted beside the boss man. "This is our youngest boy, Davey."

"Dav-id," their youngest piped up, looking and sounding slightly peeved.

"Dav-id," the boy's pa blurted, sounding equally peeved, "don't interrupt yore mother."

"Yes, sir," David sheepishly replied and shot his ma a look which said that he was really repentant-even though he really wasn't.

"My name's Angela," Mrs. Fisher finished and flashed their good-natured guest a genuinely warm smile. But then her gaze shifted back to the make-shift stretcher and her deeply concerned look returned. "About the boy's leg. Is it busted?"

"Appears ta be, Ma-am," Wes solemnly stated. "In about two or three places," he added even more solemnly and then watched as Angela inhaled a gasp of sheer horror.

"How'd it happen?" the woman wondered, as she and her husband, and the rest of the men in his little group, exchanged grim glances.

"We, uh, came across some Comancheros a ways back," J.R's Uncle Wes' began.

David noted that this latest little announcement caused the grown-ups in his little audience to exchange even grimmer glances.

"B.B. here, was packin' our gear. An' when the shootin' started, he snapped his lead an' proceeded ta stampede. Well, we were pinned down an' jest about out a' bullets, when my nephew, here, got the brainy notion ta ride out an' retrieve our extra rifles an' ammunition. He made it out all right. But, when he tried ta make it back ta me, they shot his horse out from under 'im. Dropped the animal right in its tracks. Ended up landin' with one a' his legs pinned underneath it," Wes' Thatcher went on to explain and swung his head in J.R.'s direction. "The kid dug his-self free-somehow-an' then crawled the last hundred yards or so, draggin' two buffalo guns, four boxes a' spare cartridges-an' the worst busted leg I ever laid eyes on," the boy's uncle quickly and quietly concluded.

The grown-ups glanced at one another again...and then down at the kid-er, young man, lying motionless on the make-shift stretcher.

David, who had been completely dumb-struck upon hearing of J.R.'s heroic deeds, couldn't wait to see this courageous kid for himself. But he would have to wait. On account a' how his mother was still holding him prisoner up on the porch.

"Da-an," a still somewhat shocked Angela Fisher said, when she got her voice back again, "you'd bes' send someone for the doctor. If the boy's leg is broke bad, it won' do for Wes' ta go draggin' 'im all the way inta town."

"Daniel! Go fetch the doctor!" Dan Fisher ordered. "Gaspar! Reed! Give Wes' an' I a hand with the boy, here. He'll be more comfortable inside," the ranch owner reasoned and motioned for the boy's uncle to make himself at home. "Davey! Take a hold a' them horses! The rest a' you boys kin get back ta work!"

The dismissed men turned their mounts around and began heading for the main gate.

The remaining two dismounted.

Daniel flashed his baby brother a smug smile. Then he, too, swung his horse around and lit off out of the yard after the doctor.

'Davey', whose patience had just about run out, suddenly felt extremely frustrated. Not only had he just been delegated another boring, trivial task. But his father had forgot their little agreement and had addressed him, yet again, as little 'Davey'. And after he'd just spent the better part of a week convincing them all that he should, henceforth, be called David. Which, the birthday boy believed, sounded so much more...mature.

"Beat it, B.J.," Wes' Thatcher softly requested.

David watched, in amazement, as the raven suddenly launched itself from the man's shoulder, sailed lazily across the yard and then came to roost again on the top rail of their closest corral.

"Appreciate yore hospitality," Mister Thatcher stated and stepped stiffly down from his saddle. "We're much obliged ta you folks. Much obliged," he repeated and handed his reins, and the pack horse's lead rope, over to the young-and obviously not very thrilled to have been volunteered to be-wrangler.

'What're you thankin' me for?' 'Davey' wondered, solely to himself. 'I ain't done nothin' for you's. An', by the looks a' things, I won't never get a chance to, neither.' Frustrated even further, by this latest bitter realization, the birthday boy 'whacked' at his boots with the ends of the reins-and spooked the antsy pack animal-again!

"Ahhh-ahhh!" J.R. screamed, as-once again-the jittery jughead jumped and jerked his stretcher, increasing his already unbearable agony, by at least ten-fold!

David heard the boy's cry and cringed, knowing it was his careless action that had caused the poor kid's pain.

"Davey!" Dan Fisher shouted sharply. "I thought I told you ta hold on ta that horse!"

'Davey' cringed again, as his apparently very unhappy pa's sharp words hit him with about the same force as a sharp slap in the face.

"Reed! See ta those horses!" his father ordered, the anger evident in his voice.

Reed nodded and carefully stepped up to relieve little 'Davey' of his duties.

"It ain't...yore son's fault...Si-ir," the boy with the badly busted leg remarked in a whisper, when he finally recovered. "We'd a' put...a that animal's brain by now...Only...he ain't got one," the kid finished lightly and-somehow-managed an amused 'gasp'.

The boss man smiled and turned back in his innocent? son's direction. "David, run on down ta the Cook Shack an' fetch Old Dan for me! Oh, an' ask 'im ta bring a bottle a' laudenum along with him! Yah think you kin handle that?"

"Yes, pa!" David readily replied and appeared extremely grateful to have been given a chance to redeem himself.

"Good!" his no longer angry father exclaimed. "Then go!"

"That's not a bad idea, Dan," David heard his mother say, as he quickly and carefully took his leave. "Deadenin' the pain before movin' 'im."

David completed his mission a' mercy and returned at a trot, dragging Old Dan in tow. He stood beside his father and stared disbelievingly down at the boy with the busted leg.

Why, J.R. was no older then he was! The hero's handsome, youthful face was deeply tanned and filled with pain. His hair was raven black, and nearly shoulder length. Still, it looked clean-combed even! His clothes, while dust-covered, did not appear dirty. His dark eyes were tear-filled and appeared unfocused.

David couldn't distinguish their exact color because the kid kept opening and closing them, as he drifted alternately in and out of consciousness.

The pant leg below the boy's left knee had been completely cut away, to allow his busted, black-and-blue and badly swollen limb to be splinted.

One look was all it took for the old cook to come to a conclusion. "Unh-uh. No, sir. Ain' no way I'm touchin' that!" Old Dan diagnosed. "I set plenty a' broken bones before. But that leg, there, is rea-eal ba-ad! You bes' send for the doctor."

"Already did," his boss assured him. "Kin you at least do somethin' for the pain? It'll be...awhile before Doc Lieberg gets here. An' we wanna move 'im inside-where he'll be safer," Dan Fisher added, giving the brainless beast a' burden an evil eye.

"I got some laudenum left," the cook glumly confessed. "But I don' know how much good it'll do 'im. Someone's been takin' the stuff, for one ache or another, an' then waterin' it down, so's I wouldn' notice. An' I didn', neither. 'Til jes' now-when I need it. Lookee, here!" he bellered and held the doctored bottle up to the sun. "See how light it looks? Normally, yah cain' see through it. Man! This really burns my biscuits!"

" what yah kin for 'im," his boss suggested. "An', in the future, we'll jes' have ta keep that stuff under lock an' key."

"That won' be necessary," the cook calmly said, stooping to administer the 'diluted' laudenum. "I know of a sure-fire way ta fix 'em," he added, rather evilly.

"What does it taste like?" David inquired, as he stooped down beside Old Dan.

"Watered-down...whiskey," the boy with the busted leg gasped, between glugs.

The grown-ups turned to one another, looking somewhat amused.

David was once again dumb-struck.

How on earth would J.R. know what 'whiskey' tasted like? 'Watered-down' or not? Why-y, he was just a boy! Like him!

Well...not exactly like him.

J.R. apparently got to lead an 'exciting' existence.

While he, on the other hand, led a very 'dull' one.

"What does it feel like ta be a hero?" David wondered wistfully.

It was J.R.'s turn to be dumb-struck. How on earth would he know what it felt like to be a 'hero'? He was just a kid. The boy shot his questioner an 'Are you askin' me?' look. Which, following a nod to the affirmative, gradually turned to one of thoughtfulness. "Well..." the boy with the badly busted leg answered at long last, between several more long swallows of watered-down laudenum, "it hell."

The grown-ups exchanged amused glances again. A few of them even grinned outright.

J.R. managed another amused gasp. "Beggin'...yore pardon...Ma-am."

David watched, in wide-eyed wonder, as the very well-mannered, lucky young man took one last swallow-and then passed out cold.

"All right. You kin move 'im now," Old Dan said, as he straightened stiffly to his feet. "But be careful. What I got down 'im, was mostly water." There then followed some mumbled expletives, for which the old fellow did not apologize.

The unconscious kid was carried carefully into the main ranch house and placed gently down on little Davey's bed.

David didn't mind, however. For he had sudden hopes of bein' able to sleep out in the bunkhouse, with the rest a' the boys.

Though, knowing his mother as he did, he was more apt to end up on a cot in the parlor.

Speaking of his mother...

Angela Fisher devoted herself entirely to taking care of J.R. and seeing to it that he was as comfortable as a boy with a badly busted leg and watered-down painkiller could possibly be. The poor woman was kept so busy, she completely forgot about both dinner and Dave's birthday.

But, again, her youngest boy didn't seem to mind one bit. David simply ate half the cake she had baked for him for supper and then followed his pa and J.R.'s uncle all around the ranch-just enjoying their company and listening to them talk.

That little episode with the Comancheros was recounted. Only this time, in much greater-and even more interesting-detail.

The tall, young Texan-with the big, black raven perched once more upon his shoulder-proved to be quite the talker, and his and J.R.'s past proved to be equally as exciting and interesting to hear about.

To replace the animal that had been shot out from under him, Wes' Thatcher bought his nephew the best horse that his money could buy. Being as how he had a surprisingly large sum of twenty dollar gold pieces in his pocket, he was able to purchase the finest piece of horseflesh on the entire ranch.

David had been told, from birth, not to make pets out of the cattle or to get too attached to any of the horses.

The DD was a working ranch and not some retirement home for critters-his father would say-and the sole object of having the livestock was to sell it at a profit, hopefully, and to thus make a living, comfortably.

Yessiree! The idea of 'sell for profit' had been drummed into little Davey's skull-right from the cradle.

Still, David found this particular sale surprising. The ranch boy stared in stunned silence, as Wes' Thatcher wrote up the bill of sale. He continued watching, in wide-eyed wonder, as his father made his 'mark' upon it. "Wo-ow!" David found himself exclaiming, speaking what was on his mind. "Wo-ow!" he repeated as J.R.'s uncle proceeded to place ten of the twenty dollar gold pieces into his father's open palm. David wanted to say something adult-like, like 'Gee, Pa, I guess you really meant it when you said everything has it's price.' But 'Wo-ow!' seemed to be all that his still dazed and amazed mind could come up with. So he swallowed hard and said it again. "Wo-ow!"

The grown-ups exchanged handshakes-and grins.

The dumb-struck kid ducked as his pa placed a hand upon his head and tried to tussle his hair-the way that he always did, back when David was just a 'kid'.

Their tour and transaction completed, the two men headed back to the house to check on J.R.'s condition, and down about a pot and a half of hot, black coffee, in the ranch house kitchen.

By the time Daniel finally arrived with the doctor, it was way after dark.

It was nearing midnight, when the physician was finally ready to leave.

Dave knew. On account of how he held the pocket watch his pa had given him earlier that day up to the lamp light coming from the hall-just outside the parlor, into which-despite all his pleas-he had been placed for the duration.

"The bone was already beginning to knit," he heard Doc Lieberg say. "I had to re-break the leg in order to set it properly."

"Wo-ow! I'll betcha that must a' hurt like hell!" the eaves-dropping Dave naughtily realized, as he lay there, grimacing in the dark.

"Will his leg be all right?" Wes' Thatcher wanted to know.

"He's not going to lose it, if that's what you mean," Doc' Lieberg assured him. But then cautiously added, "As for how well the leg's busted up ba-ad. I did the best I could do, under the circumstances. Only time will tell, if my 'best' was good enough."

Speaking of time...

J.R.'s uncle apparently had it as his next priority. For the very next question he posed was, "How soon will the boy be fit for travel?"

"You're not thinking of pulling out tonight, are you?" Doc' Lieberg teased. "The plaster hasn't even hardened."

There was a brief silence as Wes' Thatcher waited for a straighter answer.

"If he were my nephew," the good doctor finally commented, "I wouldn't move him for at least a month. However, the leg may be strengthened enough to handle some stress within a week or two. I would not recommend moving him any time before then," the physician professionally advised. Then, to his mother, he said, "I'll be back out to check on him sometime tomorrow. Keep him quiet 'til then. A spoonful of this-every few hours or so-should do the trick."

"You're welcome ta spend the night," Dave's father invited.

"Thanks, but my wife is expecting me back tonight, and she'll worry herself sick if I don't show up."

"Thanks for everything you've done, Doctor," Wes' Thatcher told him. "J.R. an' I are indebted ta you. Speakin' a' which...what do we owe you for yore services?"

"There's no need to settle up now," Doc' Lieberg replied. "I'll be checking on him from time to time. I'll see to it that you get a bill before you leave." With that last, light reassurance, the doctor left.

The door closed, and the conversation took an even more interesting turn.

"Here," he heard Wes' say, apparently to his father, because it was his pa who responded.

"What's this for?"

"A month's room an' board for the boy," Wes' replied.

"But," Dave's pa continued, "there's gotta be better'n three hundred dollars here."

"Whatever's left over after board an' doctor bills," Wes' suggested, "you's kin keep for yerselves...or give it ta the kid. I don' care-"

"-I was hopin' you'd be agreeable ta workin' for yore room an' board," Dave's pa interrupted. "We're right in the middle a' round-up here, an' real short-handed."

"Thanks for the job offer, Mr. Fisher," Wes' replied. "If I finish with my 'round-up' within the next few days, I'll be back ta help yah with yore's."

"You're leavin'?" his mom practically shouted, sounding somewhat shocked.

"I hate ta keep imposin' on you people like this. An', if it weren't for what the Doc' jes' said," Wes' added, "me an' J.R. would be lightin' outta here tonight-tagether! The two a' us have been doggin' these desperadoes for nearly nine years, now-on both sides a' the border-an' through about ten different Territories. In a month, their trail's gonna be too cold for even me ta pick it up again."

"You're not bounty hunters?" Angela Fisher suddenly exclaimed, sounding even more shocked-horrified even.

"No-o, Ma-am!" Wes' quickly assured her.

"Those men murdered their entire family, Angela," Dave's pa explained, in the young man's defense. "Wes' here, vowed, on his folk's graves, that their killers would be brought ta justice."

"Soun's ta me like a real good job for the Rangers," the little lady logically declared.

"Yah might say J.R. an' me picked up where the law left off. Seems the Rangers are obliged ta stop at the Texas border. Besides, the Rangers claim they're too busy with rustlers right now, ta be botherin' themselves with a bunch a' old, broken-down bandits."

"How big a bunch?" the woman wondered. "An' how 'broken-down'?"

"There were fifteen when we firs' began followin' 'em," Wes' informed her. "Now, what with one thing an' another, an' with us whittlin' away at 'em over the years, I do believe that number's been dropped down ta around four. I ain' exactly sure how many they lost in this latest skirmish. Might a' been as many as seven-or as few as five. Guess I'll find out for sure, when I pick up their trai-"

"-They killed most a yore family," Angela interrupted in a further attempt to reason with the young fellow, "an' you killed most a' them. Cain't you jes' leave it at that? Soun's like you're the only 'family' that boy in there has left."

"That reminds me," Wes' said. "If I ain' back in a month, will you see ta it that he gets these?"

David wanted desperately to see what 'these' were. But he didn't dare leave his cot ta go look. Becoming thirteen, his ma had already reminded him, did not make him too old-or too big-to be 'whooped' on, and he had already been told-twice-to 'Go ta bed!'

"Well," Dave heard his mother say, with a sigh, "they managed ta shoot the boy's horse out from under him. So I reckon they cain't be so 'broke down' that their 'feeble little fingers' cain't still 'squeeze a trigger'. So you bes' be careful. Yah hear?"

"Thanks, Ma-am," Wes' told her. "I intend ta be. Say goodbye ta J.R. for me. Tell 'im I said ta stay put 'til I come for him."

"I will," Dave's mom promised. "So long, Wes' Thatcher. Take care out there."

"So long," Wes' said. "An' thanks, again, for all yore hospitality."

There was a brief silence.

'Prob'ly for hand shakin',' Dave reckoned.

The door opened and closed.

"I wish there was somethin' we could do, Dan," his mom wistfully declared.

"I know," his pa acknowledged. "But I jes' cain't spare the men right now. Heck, if we weren't right in the middle a' round-up, I'd prob'ly ride off with him myself!. Those men are killers, Angie. I know how you feel about what he's doin'. But it needs doin'. If 'somebody' had done it sooner-say ten years ago-Wes' an' J.R.'s folks'd prob'ly still be here."

"What he's doin' won't bring 'em back," Dave's ma reminded his pa.

"No," his pa quietly admitted. "But it might save some other family from havin' ta go through what the two a' them did."

Dave's ma either couldn't, or wouldn't, argue with that line of reasoning.

Once again, it was real quiet, for a real long time.

He heard his father's heavy footsteps in the hall.

The lamp's light was extinguished and the parlor suddenly grew very, very dark.

The sound of his mother's softer footsteps could be heard further off down the hall. She apparently planned to spend the entire evening tending to their new boarder's needs.

Still, David didn't mind in the least. He was too busy planning how he and J.R. were gonna be spending the coming month.

Of course, the boy might not be too much fun-to begin with.

But that was bound to change. Once J.R. got so's where he could move around some.

In the meantime, he'd come up with lots of quiet things the two of them could do together. 'Like whittlin', an' talkin' an'...' David dozed off, right about then.

But the boy was still dreamin' a' things for them ta do, when he was awakened by a loud 'bump', or 'thump', closely followed by a sharp cry-of pain.

It was the same sound he'd caused J.R. ta make, when he spooked the pack horse and jerked his leg-only more muffled, this time.

David threw back his blankets, fumbled around his unfamiliar surroundings for a match-found one-struck it and, after nearly knocking the glass chimney onto the floor, succeeded in getting one of the lamps in the parlor lit. He picked it up and used it to explore the hallway, for the source of those disturbing sounds he'd heard.

Sure enough! It was J.R. who had cried out, all right.

By the looks a' things, the boy had been hobbling down the hall in the dark and banged his busted leg into the lampstand. J.R.'s eyes were half-closed, partly from squinting in the lamp's sudden bright glare, an' partly from wincing in pain.

Even in the lamp's soft glow, David could see that his face looked very pale-white, almost.

"Quick!" the kid who was about to pass out from pain pleaded in a whisper. "Give me a hand!"

"What're you doin' up?" Dave wondered, also speaking in a whisper, as J.R.'s desperate plea spurred him to action. "You're not s'posed ta be out a' bed!" he said, latching onto the kid's left hand and draping his left arm about his neck. "I heard the Doctor talkin, an'-accordin' ta him-you ain' even s'posed ta move for an entire week yet," he chastised the A.W.O.L. boy with the badly busted limb.

Using the lamp in his right hand to guide their way, David carried his crippled companion into the parlor and then carefully placed him down on the edge of his cot and the lamp back down on its stand.

J.R. remained silent for a long, quiet while.

Dave saw why his companion wasn't speaking.

The boy was holding his breath to keep from crying out-in agony.

"You jes' lie down, right here," Dave suggested, his face and voice filled with sympathy for the poor, suffering soul, "an' I'll go get you yore medici-"

"-No-o!" J.R. gasped, making another whispered plea. "That stuff...makes me...sleepy," he calmly explained and tried his darnedest to assume a more composed appearance.

Dave took a quick peak at his new pocket watch and then turned back to his still hurting house guest. "It's nearly three o'clock in the mornin', J.R.. Yer s'posed ta be sleepy," he added, with a roll of his own tired eyes.

"My Uncle's gone after those men," J.R. solemnly announced, in a voice just above a whisper. "An' I'm goin' after him."

David stared down at the kid on the cot in total disbelief. "In a week or two-maybe."

"A 'week or two' will be too late," Wes' Thatcher's nephew informed him.

"But, what about yore bum leg, J.R?" David wondered. "If you cain't even stand up, you sure ain't never gonna be able ta set a horse."

"Maybe," J.R. acknowledged, keeping his voice low, so's not to wake anyone else. "Won' know for sure 'til I try. An' I got ta try! Plea-ease, David? Let me try!"

David could see the determination-an' downright devotion-in the invalid's dark eyes, and he could hear it in his pleading, surprisingly deep voice. The 'kid' part of his heart went out to J.R.. But it was the 'grown-up' part that won out. "Yore Uncle said ta stay put 'til he comes for you!"

"If I stay put," J.R. interjected, "he won' be comin' for me! 'Cuz he'll be dead! They'll kill him! They're prob'ly layin' for 'im, right now-right back at the same place that they ambushed us the first time! I got ta go tanight, David!" their anxious ta leave house guest restated, sounding more determined than ever. "I got ta try an' stop 'im," he added and attempted to rise from the cot.

David caught him under the arms-just as the kid caught his breath and began falling face first towards the floor. "An' jes' how do you intend ta do that," his rescuer inquired, his voice an equal mixture a' sympathy an' sarcasm, "when you cain' even make it ta the door, there?" he added, and eased the boy with the still badly busted leg carefully back down onto the cot.

"Now that yah mention it..." J.R. said, when he had recovered enough to speak. "Since yer already wide awake, anyways, would you mind givin' me a hand? Normally, I'd never even suggest such a thing. On account a' how it could get you in big trouble with yore folks. But these are what Uncle Wes' would call 'extenuatin' circumstances', here. An' I could sure use yore help."

Bein' as how it was about three in the mornin', Dave's brain was workin' overtime, an' so it weren't really functionin' all that well. He had been feverishly tryin' ta figure out a way to make J.R. stay, when, suddenly, the opportunity presented itself for he an' the boy ta cram an entire month's worth a' 'mayhem an' mischief' inta one-bound ta be excitin'-though brief, action-packed, adult excursion! "I'll help you-on one condition," he found himself saying. "I get ta go with!"

It was J.R.'s turn to stare up at him in total disbelief. "Ain' no way yer goin' with!"

"Why-y?" David demanded, a bit too loudly.

"'Cuz," their panic-stricken guest replied, in a shouted whisper, and motioned for the loud-mouthed kid to pipe down, "yore folks have been real kind ta me. An' kidnappin' their youngest son, an' maybe even gettin' 'im kill't, ain' my idea a' how you repay people for their hospitality."

"Maybe not," David admitted. "But these are 'extenuatin' circumstances', here'. Remember?"

There was a long silence.

David stood there, looking devious and smug-very, very smug.

J.R. sat there, looking like he was seeing his host for the very first time.

In the lamp's soft glow, Dave almost thought he caught just the teeniest glint of amusement in the black-mailed boy's angry dark eyes.

"All right..." the cripple reluctantly conceded. "But at least leave 'em a note. So's they won't be wonderin' where yer at."

"Maybe you should write the note," a delighted-looking Dave decided. "I wouldn' know what ta say. 'Sides, yer the one who, supposedly, knows where we're goin'."

"You got a pencil an' some paper?" J.R. glumly wondered, his whispered voice filled with the sound a' surrender.

Dave dashed over to his father's roll-top desk and jerked one of it's many drawers open. "While yer busy writin' the note," he determined, retracing his steps and passing his partner the note pad and pencil he'd just procurred for him, "I'll be saddlin' us up some horses, an' scroungin' us up somethin' ta eat."

Then, before the boy with the badly busted leg could even begin to protest, David disappeared out the parlor door.

"Are you crazy?" J.R. practically shouted, as he caught sight of one of the two horses Dave had saddled up for them. "Yer s'posed ta help me find my Uncle-not help me get hung!"

"What're you talkin' about?" Dave innocently inquired, as he finished half-carrying the kid up to his horse.

"This is yore father's horse," his burden icily indicated.

Even in the dark, there was no mistaking the pitch-black beast's perfect-and beautiful-form.

"No it ain't," David honestly assured him.

"This is the same animal I saw yore father sittin' on, when we arrived here yesterday afternoon," the unconvinced kid quickly pointed out.

"My father sits on a lot a' animals around here," David calmly acknowledged and began easing the boy with the busted leg up onto his saddle.

And it was J.R.'s saddle. There were two crowns emblazened on its stirrup leathers, J.R.'s bedroll was strapped to the back of it and his Winchester was shoved into its rifle boot.

It was no easy task getting the complaining cripple-and his heavy cast-up into its seat. "That don'...necessarily...mean anything," Dave finished, a bit breathlessly.

Both boys were breathing hard. One from exertion and the other from excrutiating pain.

"I'm tellin' yah," Dave told the still highly skeptical-worried about being hung as a horse thief-boy, "this is not my father's horse. Trust me," he tacked on, when even this latest sincere reassurance seemed to fail. However, David could sense that his new found partner-an' soon ta be friend-did not trust him, an' prob'ly would not trust 'im, for even so much as the time a' day. David was also hoping that that would soon change. "Rambler rides double," the ranch boy announced, passing his partner the animal's reins. "So, if yah start feelin' like yer about ta pass out, let me know, an' I'll ride with you a ways. Otherwise, yah might fall off-"

"-David," J.R. said softly, in an attempt to get the boy who was too busy talking and walking's attention, without waking everyone else in the house up.

"-an' break yore other leg-" David droned on and on and started tightening his cinch.

"-Da-vid!" J.R. repeated, turning the volume up just a bit.

But, again, the boy on the ground completely ignored him. "-or an arm," the kid calmly continued, "or yore-"

"-Davey!" the boy with the badly busted left leg gasped, in profound pain, and was relieved to find that this 'annoying' comment had finally succeeded in capturing David's attention.

"The name's David Samuel Fisher!" David Samuel Fisher angrily snapped, stepping back up to the boy on the tall, black horse. "An' don't you ever forget it again!"

"Don' worry...I won't," J.R. promised. Then the overwhelming pain he was experiencing completely overwhelmed him-and he pitched forwards in his seat.

David saw him passing out and grabbed him, just in time to save him from sailing-head first-out of his saddle. "-neck," he announced, to his now unconscious companion, stubbornly completing the comment he had been making earlier.

The reason for J.R.'s rather rude interruptions suddenly became apparent. The boy had said 'Davey' in a last ditch, desperate attempt ta get his attention.

"I don' mind ridin' double if you don't," the repentant ranch boy said, scrambling up into the seat behind his resourceful partner and pryin' the reins from his hands. He wrapped an arm around J.R.'s waist and straightened him back up in his saddle. Then, on account a' how his horse was carryin' most a' their supplies, David reached down with his other arm and snatched up its dangling reins, as well.

The boy sat there for a few moments, in the dark, drinking in all the excitement. Dave had been imagining moments like this for a long, lo-ong time. Now, here he was, actually experiencing them. He found himself grinning with the grand realization that the actual experience truly was every bit as exileratin' as he had imagined it would be.

Never once did Dave so much as even consider callin' it quits.

The sensible thing would a' been ta carry his collapsed companion inta the house and go back ta bed.

But, of all the feelings David Samuel Fisher was currently experiencing, sensibleness didn't seem ta be one of 'em. He was about ta head out in search a' great adventure!

Heck, the boy was so bored, he'd a' settled for any adventure, at all-great or small-an' nothin' was gonna stop 'im, now.

Well...maybe one thing would.

Dave had no idea in which direction he should head out in.

But then he borrowed some a' J.R.'s resourcefulness. Dave turned Rambler around, an' went ridin' off, in the same direction the DD's visitors had rode in from.