Disclaimer: I don't own them. Whoever does gets a quite a lot more money because of them than I do... the lucky dog(s).

The Dumont Uprising

by Linda Bindner

“Marie,” Clive called to her the minute she entered the office, holding the letter in his hand and staring once more at the address to make certain he was delivering it to the proper person. He took his duties delivering the territorial mail very seriously. “This letter came to you on the stage this morning. I was going to give it to you at lunch today, but since you're already here...” He didn't finish, just held out the letter to her.

“Oh,” Marie said with a cock of her brows. “Thank you, Clive.” She took the letter, then sat down in the chair nearest his desk in order to read it in comfort. Jack wasn't ready to go to lunch yet, anyway.

“Hey Clive,” Jack said as he sauntered through the door leading to the back cells while Marie read. “You got any oil for the hinges back there? Mrs. Radway claims they're... howdy, Marie. You here already?” He glanced up and around, his gaze finally landing on the clock on the wall. “It's later than I thought it was.” When she didn't respond to him in any way, he turned back to her. “Marie?” That was when he noticed that all the blood had drained from Marie's face and she swayed in her chair. His right hand instantly shot out to help support her. “What happened?”

Marie let the letter fall slowly to her lap. “The Dumonts are coming here.”

Confused, Jack's eyes narrowed in thought. “Weren't they just here?”

Silently, Marie nodded. “Six months ago.”

Jack's eyes narrowed further. “What in tarnation are they doin' comin' back so soon?” Then inspiration struck him. “They comin' for the weddin?'”

Clive spoke up, “I thought you asked my father to be here for the wedding.”

Jack turned to Clive. “We got a telegram from his just last week; he said both your parents are comin.' We wouldn't want anybody else performin' the ceremony but him.”

Clive gave Jack a small smile. “I appreciate the gesture, Jack, but you didn't have to drag them out here on my account.”

Jack took on his offronted look. “Who says it's on your account? It just means that me an' Marie don't want anyone marryin' us but yer father. So he's comin,' this time with yer Ma.”

A muscle ticked in Clive's left cheek. “I wish you had mentioned this to me before, Jack.”

The look Jack now shot Clive's way simply oozed thunder. “We don't gotta pass anything by you first, Clive. We talked it over, an' me and Marie want him marryin' us. We asked him, an' he said yes. That's it.” He shrugged. “I'm surprised yer Ma's coming - never met her afore - but me and yer dad are kinda close. I like the idea of him takin' part in the weddin.'”

Clive backtracked now that Jack had had his say. “I don't mean that I mind him being here, Craddock. I just meant that telling me sooner would have given me more time to clean out my room.” He grinned. “Mother likes things to be spanking clean... or I'm the one who gets the spanking.”

Jack laughed, the thunder receding from his features. “I'd pay good money to see some woman spank the daylights outta you!” He turned to his fiancé. “Hey Marie, how much..?” He stopped talking when he noted that her face was still drained of all blood. He just thought her in-laws were coming, but her reaction boded something much worse. “What is it?”

Marie blinked, hardly daring to look at him. “It's Charles...”

Jack glanced at Bennett, then back again. “Yeah, I remember - you said that he's Jacques' father, right?” He couldn't imagine what her in-laws might have to do with anything.

“He... says... that since Jacques built... built the house... and I can't find Jacques' will proving that it's mine... and since I'm marrying out of the family... the house should really belong to him.”

What?” Jack was finally as concerned as Marie. “But that house is yours. It's where your practice is.”

She shook her head to say that it didn't matter, continuing in the same monotone. “They're coming here so he can prove his claim on the property. They'll be here...” She consulted the letter again. “On the 23rd.”

Clive jerked to look at his desk calendar. “That's tomorrow!”

Marie slowly nodded like she was sleepwalking. “This letter must have gotten lost. I have until their arrival to find Jacques' will. If I can't prove that I have a claim... then he claims the house for them as Jacques' next of kin.”

“But you were his wife!” Jack protested.

Marie shrugged. “According to Charles, that doesn't matter. I'm getting married again, and where's there's no will...” Her voice trailed off.

“That's ridiculous,” Clive instantly stated. “Canadian law doesn't work like that.”

“It has nothing to do with the law,” Marie fiercely stated. “I know Jacques wrote a will, but I wasn't exactly in my right mind after he died when I put it away for safe keeping. I don't remember where I put it.”

“Surely you have a lawyer,” Clive interjected. “One from Helena, perhaps? I'm sure you can ask to see his copy of the will.”

Clive acted like his suggestion would solve all her problems, but she just shook her head, still too dazed to do more. “My lawyer's office where he kept all his papers burned down two years ago - my copy of the will is the only copy left. And if I can't find it...” Once again, she didn't finish, her tone more final than her half finished sentence. “Charles claims the house is his... and he's willing to take this to court if I refuse.” Her troubled look deepened. “How can I do that to him? Jacques was his son... that house is all... he has left of him.”

“You mean, since you're gettin' married.” Marie's troubled expression now invaded Jack's eyes, too. “I already gave notice to Sally 'bout my own room,” he said, protesting again. “The weddin' day's my last day in it.”

Marie's eyes matched his. “If you have to give up your room at the Boarding House... and I don't see how I can deny his claim... then we have no place to live.”

* * *

“I'm sorry, Marshal,” Sally plaintively said for the third time. “I already rented your room. After I clean it, Diane and Zack are movin' in to get away from the saloon.”

Jack slapped his hat against his thigh, fully frustrated, but striving not to show it. “I understand, Sally. I just thought that since you an' Marie are such good friends an' all...”

Sally took on a helpless expression. “It's got nothin' to do with me bein' friends with Marie, you know that.” She took the hand not holding his hat in hers. “If it were up to me, I'd let you have it again, no questions asked. But it isn't just about what I want. I signed a contract,” she imparted through tightly clenched teeth. “I can't back out of it now. It would ruin my business.”

Jack once again slapped his thigh with his hat, raising dust from his pants. He heaved a heavy sigh. “Well, just thought I'd ask. Thanks fer yer time, Sally.” He turned to leave the living room of his previous home.

Sally leaned forwards, concern written all over her face. “Have you thought about turning the upstairs of the store into..?”

“A store ain't no fit place for docterin,'” he assured. “Can't say that I want ta live in a medical clinic, neither.” He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Don't worry - we'll think of somethin.'” With that, he was gone.

* * *

The next day's stage rumbled to a stop in the middle of the street. “Bordertown!” the stage driver called. “We'll change horses here... food's in the saloon - ya got a hour!” He swung down from his perch at the front and started unloading baggage from the roof with the stage guard's help.

Jack, Marie and Clive stood out of the muddy middle of the street, near the boardwalk in front of the stage office, preparing to meet Marie's current in-laws. “Remember,” Marie whispered, leaning into Jack's side. “According to the Dumonts, Jacques and I had a happy marriage, and I loved their son very much.”

Jack nodded. “I remember,” he assured just as Suzanne Dumont climbed from the coach.

Marie's face broke into a smile. “Suzanne! Welcome to Bordertown again!” She embraced the white haired woman. By then, Charles had descended to join his wife, and also got a hug from Marie.

Charles wasted no time. “By your behavior, I assume you found Jacques' will,” he said in his heavy French accent.

Marie chose to ignore his statement, turning to Jack instead. “You remember Marshal Jack Craddock? My fiancé. And Corporal Bennett.”

“Don't tell me you plan to marry him, too?” Charles gruffly inquired.

Clive offered his hand to Marie's father-in-law. “No, I'm the best man.”

Charles shook Clive's hand before shaking Jack's. “Then this is him.”

“Charles,” Suzanne gently chided, reaching for Jack's hand as well. “We certainly remember the Marshal... and the Corporal. With Marie's help, they saved our lives the last time we were here.”

“Mrs. Dumont,” Jack said with a smile, remembering at the last moment to take his gloves off before shaking both Charles then Suzanne's hands. “Welcome.”

“Well, was I right?” Charles wanted to know.

“'Bout what?”

Charles looked him over as if finding Jack wanting. “That you're the man who's steeling Marie away from us?”

Suzanne answered before Jack had the chance to even frame a polite reply. “Charles! We always knew it was just a matter of time before Marie married again.” She patted Marie's cheek. “And who could resist this beautiful face?”

Jack's smile was more genuine this time. “Not me, that's fer sure.”

Blushing, Marie caught the older woman's hand. “Unfortunately, I didn't receive your letter until yesterday; my house is already full with Clive's parents staying. I booked you a room at the saloon.” She gestured toward Zack's establishment. “I know it's not perfect, but it's the best...”

Charles cut her off. “I wish to stay at my house.”

Calmly Marie regarded him. “It isn't your house yet. And I'm sorry, but all my rooms are full. The saloon will have to suffice.”

Always the pacifier, Suzanne broke in. “I'm sure it will be fine, thank you, Marie.”

But Charles refused to be swayed. “The house belonged to my son, and as you see fit to leave...”

Exasperated, Marie reminded, “I'm getting married, not leaving.”

Headstrong, Charles ignored her. “The house belongs to me.”

Marie took a deep breath to steady herself, but Jack recognized the look in her eyes. “Mrs. Dumont,” he said, attempting to head off the explosion that he knew was building up steam. “Let me...” He had reached down to pick up the nearest case belonging to the aging couple when it happened.

Deceptively calm, Marie left his side to confront Charles on her own. “Jacques' house is mine. I thought you understood that. Why else would you have waited all these years to make a claim?”

Charles met her toe to toe. “Where there's no will, it reverts to his next of kin, not the woman who was once his wife, but prefers to marry elsewhere.”

Marie's smile was again deceptive. “We do not live under such ridiculous laws. Bordertown has it's own rules.”

Charles' eyes narrowed as he squinted against the sun to see her. “Are you saying that Bordertown is above the law?”

“No,” Jack broke in, feeling that as he was one of the law's representatives in Bordertown, he had to respond. “She's sayin' that...” But it was quickly obvious that neither party was paying any attention to him.

A hand on his arm stopped him as well. “Let them fight,” Suzanne advised. “Charles has forgotten that he has met his match in Marie.”

Jack placed his hat on his head. “I don't want anyone to get hurt.”

“Marie is not some delicate flower,” Suzanne artfully reminded him. “She will not get hurt.”

“Act'ully, I was thinkin' 'bout yer husband,” Jack solemnly told her.

It was a comment that made Suzanne choke back a laugh.

Marie was going on, commenting over their conversation. “The people of Bordertown know how hard it is for a woman to survive on her own after her husband dies.”

“What's that got to do with me?” Charles demanded to know. “This is about my son, not the people of this town!”

“Your son was proud to live in this town,” Marie reminded him. “Please don't dirty his good name by taking my house on my wedding day.”

“That's 'sully his name,'” Clive corrected.

Jack leaned toward his red-coated friend. “I don't think she cares, Clive.”

“Guess this isn't the time,” Clive remarked.

Marie went on again, unaware that anyone had even spoken to her, just as Jack had predicted. “That's what this is really all about, isn't it? You don't want me to marry again.”

“It stains Jacques' name!”

Marie blinked in amazement. “He's been dead for five years! There is no staining here. This only proves that life goes on! We must go on with it.”

“My son built that house,” Charles stubbornly retorted. “It is mine.”

“It's mine. You just can't admit it.”

“I will not have that interloper in my son's place!” The finger that pointed at Jack shook in anger.

Anger crept across Marie's face as well. “That 'interloper' is my fiancé!”

“He's an uneducated man!”

“Hang on there!” Jack's second interruption was no more heeded than his first.

Marie burst into angry speech, flinging her words at Charles in bouts of English mixed with French.

“Huh,” Jack grunted in amazement, listening to the semi-foreign exchange. “Somehow, I forgot she was French.”

Suzanne looked up at Jack, curiosity clear on her face. “I take it that you do not speak our language?”

It was Clive who answered. “Jack's more American than the United States is.”

Suddenly Suzanne laughed as Marie's diatribe continued, now completely in French. “Marie is much less polite when she knows you can't understand her.”

Clive laughed as well. “So you're saying that we shouldn't Saint her just yet.”

Suzanne shook her head as Jack studied Clive. “You sayin' you understand that... what she's sayin?'”

The Mountie replied, “Most of it.” He then regarded Jack, mischief glinting in his eye. “She seems to think highly of you, if not your hygiene.”

Jack brightened in spite of the slur on his more slovenly habits. “Oh yeah?”

Clive nodded. “Now that you've got reading down, you'll have to ask Marie to start giving you French lessons.”

“Maybe,” Jack said, wondering why he hadn't thought of French lessons before. Did he want to learn French? He'd never thought about it. Learning a foreign language had always seemed reserved for geeks like Bennett. The fact that he could speak flawless Spanish was beside the point. Spanish hardly seemed like a foreign language to Jack. It was more like coming home, just in a kind of Mexican code.

Clive laughed again. “Well, she certainly told him.”

“And by the looks of it, he don't like it,” Jack added.

They watched Charles grow red in the face, matched quickly by Marie, who broke into another slew of rapid French, answered by Charles.

Suzanne suddenly said, “This has nothing to do with the house, you know.”

Jack grinned, both at the image before him, and at what Suzanne had just said. “I figured as much.”

“It's about Marie getting married again, isn't it?” Clive's attention racketed from listening to Marie, to listening to Charles, to Marie again, to Charles.

Suzanne sighed. “Charles is afraid that if Marie marries again, we will lose our one link to Jacques. She will forget about us and move on.”

“I'll make sure she don't forget,” Jack promised. “She won't forget, anyway. Lucy needs a grandma, after all.”

Suzanne appeared elated at this prospect. “I will hold you to that.”

“How 'bout we move this into the saloon?” Jack next proposed. “It's warmer in there.” He peered down at Suzanne's white head. “Bet you would like to sit in a chair that ain't movin.'”

“Zack could show you to your room,” the Corporal suggested.

“I'd let you stay in my room, but I didn't have time to clean it,” Jack excused. “Maybe Sally can help me with it tomorrow, and I'll sleep in the office.” They climbed the stairs to the boardwalk, then headed for the saloon.

“I don't wish to put you out,” Suzanne said with a friendly pat on Jack's hand after taking his arm.

Jack guided her around several youngsters out of school for the lunch break running in a group down the walkway. “It's no trouble. I know that Marie thinks of you as her family, since her own parents are dead.”

Clive did a double-take. “I didn't know that.”

Jack felt ridiculously glad he knew something about Marie that Bennett didn't. “Yeah, well, that commune business sure did leave her with a whole new life, didn't it?”

“It was much like your Civil War,” Suzanne cagily commented.

“Wasn't nothin' civil about that war,” Jack replied, cagey himself. “I always wondered why they called it that. Us Southruns called it 'The War Between the States.' Thought that was more descriptive.”

“War is war.” Bennett sighed, and glanced back to Marie and her father-in-law still facing off in the middle of the street. “Looks like there's a Dumont war brewing in Bordertown.”

Suzanne abruptly stopped just outside the saloon. “Let's leave them to it. I didn't see the town the last time I was here. You boys must show me around.”

Jack grinned. “We'd be delighted to, Ma'am.”

“Speak for yourself, Craddock,” Clive retorted. To Suzanne, he said, “The delight is all mine.” With a grin that rivaled Jack's, he offered his arm to Suzanne opposite to Jack.

The snowy haired woman took it with her own smile lighting her face. “Lead the way, gentlemen.”

* * *

“Did you look in the attic?” Lucy inquired of Marie once they were alone again with Jack after supper.

“Of course I did,” Marie answered her.

“In Jack's room?”

“Jacques' room,” Marie automatically corrected.

“Jacques' room.”

Marie didn't know what she thought about Lucy knowing that she and Jacques had not shared a room, but wasn't willing to lie to the girl about it, either. If Lucy expected that she and Jack would not share a room, then she had quite an experience waiting for her.

“I looked everywhere. In his desk, his closet, his trunks in the attic, his papers at the bank... It's like his will never existed!”

“You're sure you saw it?” Jack asked for the hundredth time.

“Yes!” Marie huffed, exasperated with herself as much as with him. “If only I could prove that he gave this house to me! Then...”

Suddenly Jack leaned forward from his place on Marie's front room sofa. “Marie, this afternoon, Suzanne was telling me a few things about Charles.”

Marie stared at him in surprise. “You spent the afternoon with Suzanne?”

Jack shrugged. “What was she s'pposed to do? Watch you and him fight all day?”

Marie looked like he had kicked her whipped puppy. “You spent the day with my mother-in-law.”

“You spent the day with your father-in-law,” Jack pointed out. “Besides, I wasn't alone. Bennett was with me.”

“Clive too?!?” Marie looked like she was the one being kicked now.

“We had a nice time,” Jack soothed. “Bennett taught her to play chess.”

At that news, Marie laughed.

Conversely, Jack scowled. “What are you laughing at?”

“Suzanne was the female chess champion in Paris when she was young,” Marie explained.

Hearing that tidbit thrilled Jack. “Well I'll be. She was snowin' him the whole time!” He slapped his knee in enjoyment, laughing.

Suddenly Marie grew contrite. “I didn't mean for you to feel like you had to entertain my mother-in-law all day.”

“It was no problem,” Jack told her. “Even Joanna Radway behaved when we introduced Mrs. Dumont to her. She invited you both to a Temperance Meetin' tomorrow night.”

Marie winced. “I'm not sure the Temperance Society is quite the thing for Suzanne. She likes wine too much.”

Jack waved away Marie's protests. “Ms. Radway said it's just an excuse for a big gossip fest. Besides, they want to give you a goin' away party, kinda like a festival only for females.”

Marie seemed amused. “I'm not going away - I'm getting married!”

“You sure are!” Jack grinned, then grabbed her around the waist and pulled her to his lap, much to Lucy's delight and Marie's peels of laughter.

“JACK!”

“I got you where I want you, Marie!” He tickled her, and she shrieked a laugh.

It was when Lucy piled onto Jack's other leg that he deflated. “I yield!”

“You 'yield?'” Marie looked amused again. “Where did you learn a word like that?”

“Bennett taught me.”

“If it's so easy to stop you, then you're not so tough, Marshal.” Marie took his face in her hands and rubbed it with her nose.

Lucy giggled. “I love it when you do that.”

“So do I.” Jack couldn't suppress his grin.

So Marie did it again, then kissed them both on the cheek.

“Marie, teach me French,” Jack entreated. “Suzanne said you aren't very nice when you think I don't understand what yer sayin,' and I want to hear you cussin' in another language.”

Marie was shocked. “I wasn't cussing!”

Suddenly Jack grinned anew. “Clive, that old..! He said you was cussin,' and I said that you saved the cussin' fer me.”

“Only when you leave your boots in the middle of the room,” Marie coyly taunted.

“She hates that,” Lucy advised. “And if you don't want extra chores, always tell her where you're going.”

“Good advice,” Jack agreed. “I'll be moseyin' on home now, countin' the days till the weddin'.”

“Three days,” Marie instantly informed him. “Too many.”

Lucy smiled at them both, and told Jack, “Mrs. Duffield said that she'll never get her wedding dress made on time, and to stop eating so much or she won't fit in it when she's done.”

“That reminds me - Lucy, them cookies you sent over the other day was real good. You can try out your cookin' on me any time!”

“Jack!” Marie mock admonished. “If I'm going to teach you French, I'll have to teach you English grammar first.”

“Never did have much schoolin.'” Jack nonchalantly told them. “Guess this means I have a crush on the teacher.”

Lucy giggled again, then sniffed. “My bread is burning!” She rushed to the kitchen.

Marie shook her head in irony. “Perhaps we should get a stop watch for her when she bakes... she won't lose track of time that way.” She wryly regarded Jack. “That is, if you can stop giving away all your money long enough to buy her one.”

“What's money for 'cept to give away?”

“Jack Craddock.” Marie smiled down at him. “You are the most generous man alive.”

Jack groaned. “Please don't tell anybody, 'specially not Bennett.”

“Promise.” Then she kissed him.

“Are all your promises gonna be like that?” Jack asked.

“Promise.”

“And I promise you that if you do end up losin' this house, we'll think of somethin.' After all, you've got one mighty good head on your shoulders.”

“Your head's not so bad, either.”

Jack grinned. “I won't tell Clive you said that.”

Suddenly Marie was serious. “I want to take your last name, Jack.”

Jack's brow furrowed. “What? I thought we'd already talked 'bout this. You and Lucy...”

“Were going to change our names, yes. And it's not that I don't want to be linked to Lucy... but I think I like the sound of 'Marie Craddock' better than anything we can come up with.”

Jack shifted on the sofa. “But in my line of work...”

“That Bradley man thought he was using me against you,” Marie reminded. “It will happen again and again. Why pretend? I like belonging with you. Suzanne and I talked it over, and she wants me to take your name, too.”

“You talked? When did you do that?”

“At supper. Lucy is alright with it, Suzanne is alright with it, so I am... are you?”

Jack ruffled a hand through his hair. “Well, I think you're crazy to be wantin' me when...”

“I am crazy about you.” Marie snuggled closer to Jack on the sofa.

Jack wrapped his arms around her. “Not as crazy as I am about you.”

That's how Lucy found them five minutes later, sound asleep with their arms wrapped around each other, snuggled up on the sofa. She giggled, blew out the candles still burning, banked the fire, then left them alone, tiptoeing up the stairs to her bedroom to retire for the night.

As she readied for bed, she couldn't help but wonder where Marie had put that will. If Marie and the Marshal didn't find it, then her days in this bedroom were numbered.

Lucy gave a tired sigh as she wearily climbed into bed. Baking was hard work!

* * *

Jack's limbs felt stiff and sore when he woke up two hours later. He could feel every minute of that leap he'd taken off his horse that morning when he and Bennett had gone after that prisoner transfer runaway. It had taken them two days to find the man, but they had, and then Jack had tackled him off his horse in a flying leap that would have made a younger man hesitate. Jack should have taken the hint, but like always, he'd leapt before looking at what he was leaping into. As a result, they'd caught the man, but Jack was still paying for his behavior with the multitude of sore muscles he'd garnered when he and the outlaw had landed in a huge mud puddle lined with rocks.

The afternoon he'd spent dealing with Marie's mother-in-law hadn't been the quiet time he'd counted on, either. Suzanne Dumont was far more active than he'd expected of a seventy year old woman.

He groaned now without opening his eyes. His back hurt in a zillion places, and his ribs were so bad, it felt like someone was laying on them. Even breathing hurt! He was getting too old for this.

Something moved on top of him, and his sore muscles froze. Whatever it was felt soft, and big, like a large cat that was curled into his side. He kept expecting to hear it go 'meow' at any moment now, but instead, it only yawned, then burrowed back into his side like it belonged there. Oddly enough, it's fur smelled like Marie.

That made him smile, until he remembered that he didn't like cats. Confused, his eyes popped open, to be met by a penetrating blackness. The one candle he usually left burning must have gone out. He was just beginning to think that this might be another one of Bennett's practical jokes, when his eyes met a pile of something very fluffy. All thoughts of jokes flew from his mind.

Whatever-it-was shone so blond that it was almost white in the moonlight filtering through the lacy curtains covering the windows behind him. It stretched once, then settled more firmly at his side.

Wait a minute, Jack thought. I don't have lacy curtains over my windows.

So what was this?

His arms were curled comfortably around it, very familiar-like. Jack's confusion only intensified.

And then Wham! He remembered like he'd been hit on the head with a log meant for the stove. He was at Marie's. He had been stupid enough to pull Marie onto his lap. Lucy had joined her. He and Marie and Lucy had talked. Lucy had disappeared. Marie had said something about wanting to take his name. He had gently argued with her, she had gently argued back, they had relaxed without coming to any conclusions...

And that was when his memory of the evening grew sketchy. Had he gone home? Had she gone with him? Maybe he was still at Marie's. Maybe he had fallen asleep... and Marie had fallen with him.

She must have, since she was still here... with him. Another waft of hair aroma filtered to him - it sure smelled like Marie... Marie and freshly-baked bread. That meant he wasn't at home, since he never baked bread, and... and that was when things truly hit Jack.

It smelled like Marie because it was Marie. His heart was frozen along with his muscles now... frozen in gaping astonishment at the unfolding events.

Oh God - Marie was curled up next to him.

Oh God - She was curled into him like they were already married. Uh - they weren't, were they?

No, Jack remembered that much at least. The wedding was in three - no, two days. Marie's in-laws were here. Charles wanted the house... because of Jacques.

Not for the first time, Jack noted the similarities between their names. 'Jacques' was 'Jack' in French - wasn't it? He didn't know for sure. He'd have to ask Marie - though now that he thought about it, talking about her dead husband when she was curled into his side wasn't in the best of tastes.

Jack became even more hyper-aware that it was Marie curled against him. She was so content that she was purring (no wonder he'd thought she was a cat). His arms wrapped around her, pulling her closer than she already was. Her head rested in the crook where his shoulder met his chest, and she was half leaning on him, which accounted for the weight on his ribs, cutting into his breathing. His head had been resting on the very top of hers - that's why it seemed he was surrounded by something blond - her hair was right under his nose. And she had stretched... and stretched again, and...

Jack took a deep breath to stave off the rather erotic images of Marie that abruptly invaded his thoughts, but that just carried the smell of her deeper into his nose. Quick, think of stinking outlaws! The Canadian Criminal System! Joanna Radway! Anything!

But it was no good. The images of Marie persisted... and so did his response.

Damn, it was too soon for that! Only a few more days... and then it would be all legal-like! And as a lawman, Jack had a deep respect for what was legal and what wasn't.

Well... it wasn't like this was illegal.... not exactly... and she was an adult... and so was he...

On one level, it amazed Jack that he was even thinking like this. On another level, it amazed Jack that he hadn't thought of this before. He loved Marie - and had for a long time. He'd dreamt about Juanita before he married her... so why not dream about Marie?

He wasn't dreaming about her, though, he was definitely thinking about her... and what he wanted to do to her... and with her... and...

Then... Oh God... she was stretching again... and then she was awake... and then she was staring straight at him... and then, ah hell... he was kissing her like there was no tomorrow... and she was kissing him back, and his hands cradled each of her cheeks, and her arms tightened around him, and her lips were soft like rose petals, and his response was growing each time she made that delectable growl in the back of her throat, and... Oh God, she was so soft, and perfect, and unmarried...

At that unfortunate moment, sense came flooding back into him like a river. His sluggish body took another moment to catch up to his brain, but when it did, he drew back, focusing on her face once more.

Or at least, stopping was the idea. Astonishingly enough, Marie followed him to capture his lips a second time, unwilling to let him go so soon. He had time to take only one breath filled to the brim with the smell of Marie when she was kissing him once more. Her hot hands were stroking his back, kneading his sore muscles, rubbing his spine, delicate on his sides, his ribs... so delicate...

She pulled back to stare at him, her eyes shining in the moonlight, deep and dark, her look one of first amazement, then acceptance, then heedless affection, all there and gone in a flash. Her lids fluttered closed, lashes feathering his cheeks as she kissed him a third time, her lips soft again like roses... then like roses on horseback... then a stampede...

Then there was no use hiding from it any longer: he'd said that he wanted her the other day... nothing horrible had happened to keep them apart as his experience dictated that it would... and here she was, wanting him as much as he was wanting her... and it was the middle of the night... and they were alone... and getting married in three - no, two days...

Was he trying to talk himself into doing something that many would construe as less than honorable? Or was Marie doing the talking here, persuading him with hands, fingers, lips gone soft...

... and eyes gone dark with obvious desire. He'd seen that look a hundred times in Juanita's eyes, and knew what he was looking at. And for the first time since he'd woken, Jack considered giving in to his rampaging emotions.

But he refused to let himself do anything that Marie didn't obviously want as well. He respected her far too much to let his base emotions seduce either of them into doing something they didn't want. But her eyes said that she wanted this even if he didn't. The fact that he did as well was hugely convenient.

But convenience was only convenient if it was taken advantage of. Marie's hands moved enticingly all over him, kneading sore muscles as if she knew what he needed most. As the minutes ticked slowly by, Jack's muscles turned languid and soft. He wanted her touch, wanted her smell, his skin burning for another pass of her hands. Before he knew it, Jack had grown more than willing to be taken advantage of.

Marie paused once to assess the look in his eyes when her fingers moved purposely to the buttons on his shirt. He answered her silent query by kissing the fingers of her hand nearest his mouth. Her nimble fingers went back to work as he kissed her again, barely cupping her cheeks in his own gnarled hands. Clouds of blond hair floated over him to tickle his face even as his mustache tickled hers. Without consciously realizing what he was doing, his own fingers worked free the buttons parading down her back, and for the first time in a long time, he grew frustrated with the intricacies of women's clothing. For some reason that he no longer remembered, it was imperative that he feel her skin on his, her heart beating in time with his. He desperately wanted to connect with her on the most intimate level imaginable, now, before anything untoward happened and it was too late. Not that he expected something awful to happen to her, but he would never forgive himself if something did, he'd had the opportunity to become hers, and let that chance slip away.

Logical thought became superfluous as her hand slipped inside his woolen underclothing. Holy... It was a good thing he hadn't dreamed about her, because this was far better than anything he might have come up with! His shirt was already somehow gone, and his warming underclothes were following. Marie was more willing than even he might have imagined.

His throaty growl was the last conscious move he made for some time to come.

* * *

“Jack.”

Jack slept on.

The call came again, a little louder this time. “Jack.”

Jack groaned at the noise this time. Was someone calling him? Whoever it was was damned annoying - like a fly - or a mosquito. In answer, Jack just rolled away, presenting his back to the noise, and went on sleeping.

Whack! Something soft, like a pillow, crashed into the side of his head. In spite of its softness, Jack simply felt an explosion in his temple, and reacted instinctively.

He turned and rolled in one smooth motion, tackling the thing that was interrupting his sleep. The resulting shriek finally pulled him the rest of the way from slumber.

Wow, that was odd. A shriek, kinda like... a woman. And that's what was odd. Why would a woman be shrieking just because Jack was sleeping? Was this some kind of bizarre Sally Duffield wake up call?

Then Jack woke enough to take a look around. A pair of startled blue eyes stared right back at him. He had his gun drawn and pointed straight at... Marie.

“Marie!” Jack barked, just as startled as she was. “What in tarnation are you doing in my room?”

She breathed heavily, suspiciously eyeing the gun. “Can you... point that thing..?”

“Oh, sure,” Jack quickly said, uncocking it to put it in its holster, only to find his gun belt tucked under the couch and beside his pants. Which was odd. Jack's brow furrowed again - what was going on?

As if he'd asked his question aloud, or Marie was reading his mind, she told him as if this was an obvious fact, “You're at my house. I came in here to wake you for breakfast. I didn't expect to be met by a gun.”

Breakfast. “Oh.” And what was he doing at her house? Had he slept there? But this wasn't one of her bedrooms - was it?

Jack glanced again around her front room, finally noting the lacy curtains, the couch, blankets on the couch, two indentations on the cushions, two pillows...

He had not only slept at Marie's, he'd slept on her couch... and from the state of the cushions and the pillows, she had slept with him.

Then he remembered that oh, boy, had she ever slept with him!

“Do you always wake in this fashion?” Marie curiously asked, eyeing him, eyeing his holstered weapon, eyeing his obvious state of undress...

That's when it hit Jack - he wasn't wearing any pants. And he was in Marie's front room. And was that Lucy moving in the room above?

“I invited Charles and Suzanne for breakfast... would you care to join us?”

The formal invitation seemed slightly ridiculous after the events of the night before, but he followed her lead... sort of. “Uh, sure,” he hastily agreed. “Charles and Suzanne are coming here?” She nodded, then cocked her head, once again eyeing the place where his pants should be. Was that a look of enjoyment on her face?

Before Marie's obvious pleasure could run away with her, he hauled her up from the floor. “Guess I should put some pants on.” He looked at the couch. “And maybe it would be a good idea to...”

“... clean up in here,” they both said together, then laughed at their unified voices.

“I'm going to finish frying the bacon,” Marie then informed. “You clean up here... unless you want to fry bacon?”

Jack barked a laugh. “I don't drink... and I don't cook... but only because I can't.”

“Can't as in 'can't, or 'won't?”

“Can't” he told her. “I don't know how.” Then he gave a wicked grin. “But I can make coffee... lots of it.”

She grinned. “Then I will make the bacon... and you will make the coffee.”

Jack knew that many of the town's citizens would tease him by saying that Marie was already telling him what to do. But Jack didn't mind... in fact, he rather liked the idea of Marie telling him to make coffee. It kind of thrilled him that he was even at Marie's in the first place - making coffee was not a big deal after the night they'd shared. “I'll be happy to make coffee... after I put on some pants. Don't want your in-laws to learn too much about me.”

“We have to keep the mystery of Jack Craddock alive and well,” she coyly agreed.

Jack furrowed his brows at her. “Are you flirting?”

She didn't answer except to say, “Lucy will be down at any moment.” She again purposely eyed his legs, looking pleased the entire time, then coyly moved off.

Jack didn't want Lucy's education, as Bennett had put it, to start with him. He was dressed in record time.

* * *

“Marie, look what I found!” Lucy said an hour later, school books in one hand, some kind of delicate, faded paper in the other.

“I thought you were leaving for school?” Marie asked, rather than attend to what Lucy had said.

“I'm going,” Lucy replied. “But Grandma Dumont said that she had sent Jacques' favorite recipes to him, and he'd told her that he'd stored them in here, and when I looked for her raisin bread recipe... see what I found.” She held out the mysterious paper, the momentary center of attention of everyone in the room.

Charles looked sourly at Lucy, but he always looked sour, so Jack suspected that his expression had nothing to do with the young girl. Suzanne was still beaming at being called 'Grandma.' Marie was taking the paper from Lucy, and Jack was concentrating on his coffee, which he'd made too strong... not that it seemed to bother the foreign visitors. Maybe they habitually drank strong coffee?

Marie's shout of exclamation surprised Jack so much the he nearly dropped his coffee cup. “Lucy, you found the will!”

Jack instantly felt confused. “Huh?” Did she mean the will?

From the way her hands were shaking, Jack would bet his gun on it. A moment later, she read from the paper, “It says 'The last will of Jacques Dumont.' It's written in French.”

Would a French will be as legal as an English will? Jack didn't know. That was when Marie interrupted his thoughts once more. “'I leave to my wife, Marie Gateau Dumont, the house at 211 State Street, Pemmican, Canada, and all its furnishings, along with any and all of my medical equipment. May it serve her as well as it served me.'”

Charles and Suzanne sat still as statues on their seats in the dining room, looking too stunned to move. Marie stood with the paper still in hand, and Lucy gaped beside her. When anyone spoke, it was the girl who broke the silence. “You're name was Gateau?”

Marie's and Suzanne's eyes were suspiciously teary. Charles had all but turned to stone. Emotion upheaval was about to explode in the room, leaving Jack instantly uncomfortable. He hated emotion. He should leave, now, before things got too thick. He stood. “Come on Lucy - this isn't our business. Let's leave these three alone. I'll walk ya to school.”

Slowly Lucy seemed to wake. “Sure. I'll get my books.”

“Lucy? You already have your books.”

“Oh. Then I'm ready.” She still sounded stunned, but at least she was talking, and that was more than Marie was doing. So far, she'd done nothing other than stand there, as if rooted to the floor. Except that the tears in her eyes had started to leak onto her cheeks. Apparently she still cared about Jacques more than she let on.

Suzanne, also crying, was drawing closer to Marie, gently taking the piece of paper from her frozen fingers, when he and Lucy left. Crying women had always made his skin itch, and even a crying Marie made him feel like he had a rash. He wanted to comfort her, but he understood in a flash that he wasn't the person who could help her in this instance. For the first time, he was truly glad that her in-laws were there.

The minute Jack got out of the house, he breathed a huge sigh of relief - he'd successfully dodged the bullet of the weeping woman yet again!

* * *

By late that morning, Marie was awful cozy with Bennett, Lucy had volunteered to trade her room with her 'grandparents' so they could get some sleep without the noise of the saloon in their ears all night long, and Jack was wondering if he should play the jealous fiancée. He wouldn't even be jealous of Bennett now, except he knew that two years ago, he'd almost been the one to marry Marie.

Two days and counting to his own wedding with Marie, and he hadn't even spoken to his fiancée since that morning. It was a good thing that Jack wasn't the jealous type at all.

* * *

By supper time, Marie was still a no-show. She was surely busy doing her own things about town - if Jack only knew what those things were. But she had disappeared soon after the breakfast hour, and that one time that Jack had caught sight of her in conference with Bennett was still the only time he had seen her all day. He was the one to make sure Lucy got her lunch at the saloon, and was now embroiled in a French chess lesson with Suzanne. He was only having slightly more luck beating Suzanne than Bennett had the day before - and he knew what was he was doing.

Jack desperately tried one more time to remember the French word for 'castle,' recalling too late that this particular chess piece was in fact called a 'rook.' But wasn't a rook some kind of bird, like a crow? How in tarnation had it become a chess piece?

Confused, Jack admitted that the only thing he knew was that he wasn't the jealous type - no siree bob. Not him. Jealousy was for geeks like Bennett.

* * *

He finally admitted it - at least to himself - that by that evening when Marie still hadn't spoken to him, he was fast becoming the jealous type. At least she wasn't still cozy with Bennett - instead, she'd been cozy with that Gilbert fella for awhile, and now was cozy with Wendell MacWherter, leaving him and Lucy to fend for themselves... which was just not like Marie.

But Jack didn't have time to worry about that. He suddenly had a hungry young girl to contend with. “Come on - let's get supper at the saloon.” It didn't matter to him that he'd had lunch at the saloon. He often ate at the saloon for every meal. Some said that Zack's grill was his best friend.

The grin that Lucy displayed at the idea of where to have dinner warmed Jack's heart, but a corner of it was just a tiny bit worried that by now Marie had changed her mind about the wedding. Even though it seemed unlikely at this late date, and certainly not after what had transpired just the night before, Jack still couldn't help worrying about it, just a little.

Fortunately, it had been a routine day in Bordertown, castles and rooks notwithstanding. Of course, 'routine' was a matter of opinion.

* * *

The glow of a lantern heralded Marie's entrance into his office not long after he'd returned from supper. She was followed by Bennett, Lucy, Charles, and Suzanne, most of the key players in today's drama - whatever that drama was.

Jack would have offered to open the single jail cell in the office for more room, but that cell was currently occupied with an inebriated Artemus Boone, the town drunk. Due to that, the front office smelled a bit... ripe.

“If I'd known I was gonna have comp'ny, I'da stuck him in th' back,” Jack hastily explained, again taking note of Charles' sour expression, thinking at first that it was his speech that caused him such discomfort, then thought it was the odor. But after a moment's silent reflection, he recalled that Charles always looked sour, especially at him, and dismissed the observation.

Artemus was looking highly entertained, in spite of Charles' expression. “Hey, Doc, you got anythin' for this headache of mine?” Artemus asked the second Marie set the lantern on Bennett's desk. “My head's 'bout to split my guts, it hurts so bad.”

Marie sagely turned to him and said, “If you don't like your head hurting so much, then sober up, and stay away from grain alcohol in the future.”

Artemus' face fell in a comical swoop. “I was hopin' you brung me a drink... how 'bout it? Just one?”

“Artemus, stow it,” Jack exclaimed. “This's got nothin' ta do with you.” He thought to peer at his colleague, then at Marie, looking for confirmation. “Right?”

Bennett sighed in exasperation. “Jack, this has to do with your future - it might prove useful to pay attention.”

Jack looked taken aback. “I am payin' attention - I was tryin' ta shut Artemus up, wasn't I?”

Clive just sighed again, as if he was reluctantly dealing with a wayward child (a pose he often took with him, Jack noticed). He turned to Marie with a smile. “Ma'am,” he invited, and gestured her onward.

Marie took the invitation. “I've gathered you all here because I have an announcement that effects every one of you.”

Fear that Jack would never admit to shot through his heart. She hadn't said her prelude like it was something as momentous as backing out of their engagement, but he also refused to assume anything - his career enforcing the law had often showed him that assuming ultimately meant dying. “Listen Marie, I...”

She quietly turned to regard him, and the look of cold inquiry in her eyes stopped his voice as effectively as if he'd hit that proverbial wall again. He immediately stopped talking, then mimicked the gesture that Clive had just made. “It's your show - pardon me.”

To Jack's intense relief, Marie looked politely agreeable when he waved his arm in invitation. “Thank you,” was all she said before turning back to again take them all in with her gaze. As she paused, Jack noted that he was starting to sweat in spite of the coolness that had invaded the office when they'd entered.

“My announcement has to do with the house.”

Jack's brows lowered over his eyes as his confusion mounted. “But I thought finding that will proved the house was yours.”

Marie's gaze once again trained on him, and was much more volatile at this second interruption.

Jack didn't need any rebukes on her part to again say, “I'm as bad as Artemus. I'll shut up, now.” And he waved her on for the third time.

Not as polite this time, Marie simply dismissed him from her focus, taking them all in again.

Jack almost grimaced at her apparent dismissal of him, then decided at the last moment not to. A grimace might draw her attention once more, and he was quickly learning that when Marie appeared this determined about something, he shouldn't interrupt her. Along with not leaving his boots in the middle of the room, and telling her where he would be, he needed to remember this about the woman he'd chosen to marry. He recalled how it had been with Juanita: his life would go much smoother now if he just gave in gracefully and accepted that Marie, like Juanita, was the boss. Women always were. (He didn't think he would mention that to Joanna Radway just yet. She was bossy enough as it was.)

Marie continued, “Charles recently assumed the house belonged to him. I assumed the house belonged to me. When Lucy discovered Jacques' will in his medical journal, it cleared up many assumptions. He willed the house to me. But I was not pleased with this outcome.”

They all looked at each other, confused. Marie settled that confusion by stepping right into Charles' personal space. She took his hands before relating, “The idea came to me this morning. I acted on it immediately so I wouldn't have time to double guess myself.”

“'Second guess myself,'” Clive instantly corrected, but it was clear that Marie wasn't listening to him. Jack knowledgeably placed a hushing finger to his lips. Clive withdrew, and Marie went on.

“Jacques' accomplishments in this town mean a lot to you,” she noted, speaking to Charles now. “I don't want my second marriage to soil that for you.”

As Jack was again flooded with hidden relief that Marie still intended on having a second marriage, Clive just couldn't resist saying, “That's 'spoil.'” It was Suzanne who hushed him this time.

Subsequently uninterrupted, Marie informed them all, “I sold the house to Corporal Bennett today.”

Jack couldn't stop his outburst this time. “You what?”

“But where are we going to live?” It was Lucy who was asking the pertinent question rather than just reacting, as Jack was always tempted to do.

But he wasn't the only person reacting - Charles looked like she'd purposely rolled over his favorite horse. “You sold the house my son built?” He sounded shocked - shocked and hurt.

Not ignorant of his feelings, Marie soothed, “I'm not finished. I sold the house to the Corporal - after loaning him the money to buy it - after I sold my part in the store to Mr. Gilbert.”

“Gilbert!?” Jack wrinkled his nose as if the smell of Artemus' alcohol fumes had just doubled. Looking for something to do with his hands, he yanked his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. Energy spent, he then shoved his heat back on his head. “There's gonna be a lotta unhappy folks in this town,” he sadly predicted. “Most round here like you runnin' the store a sight better than they like dealin' with Gilbert.”

“Thank you, Jack,” Marie said, as if he'd just complimented her rather than told the plain truth. “I sold the store to Mr. Gilbert, and the house to Clive...” She raised her index finger, “... with one condition.”

Charles spoke, his voice so broken it sounded like it was being dragged across gravel. “What was your... your condition?”

Marie again soothed him by running her hand on his arm. “That he let Jack and Lucy and I live in the house for one year while we build another house... and Jacques' house then becomes the Jacques Dumont Medical Clinic.”

At this announcement, the hurt look clouding Charles' eyes lifted as his surprise grew. His face took on the glow of a man just given his heart's desire. “Mon Dieu!” he exclaimed, slipping into French in his surprise as he gripped Marie's hands in his own. “You would do that for him?”

“No,” Marie gently informed. “I would do that for you.”

“Mon Dieu!” Charles exclaimed once more. Jack sure wished he understood what the man was saying, but had to content himself with his following English apology. “You would do that after the way I have treated you?” He kissed Marie on both cheeks. “It is more than I deserve.”

“You are right,” Suzanne said then, swinging Marie's face around so that she too could kiss each cheek. (Jack figured that this cheek-kissing must be some kind of French custom he knew nothing about. If that was the case, then Marie could kiss his cheeks whenever she wanted!) Suzanne told Marie, “You are so good to us - thank you!” Then she hugged Marie tightly to her chest (Marie could do this to Jack too - he wouldn't mind!)

Lucy looked puzzled again. “Marie, what are you going to do without working in the store?”

Marie next turned to Lucy, then to Clive with a grin. “I will become the Jacques Dumont Medical Clinic's first full-time doctor.” Then she cast a furtive glance toward Jack. “With Jack's approval, of course.”

Jack wasn't fooled. This was a courtesy query. The idea that he wouldn't like it if Marie..! However, his own hug to Marie was a bit less platonic than Suzanne's had been. “Of course I don't mind! I'm just s'prised that you managed ta keep this a secret fer a whole day!” He thought that it wouldn't be a good idea to mention that he had been jealous of her time spent keeping that secret. This should be a lesson to you, Craddock, he ruefully told himself. Trust in Marie, always.

“I wasn't sure how you would react,” she told him, her relief sounding loud in her voice. It was ironic that just as he had been worrying about her all day, she had been worrying about him.

Lucy was the next one to throw her arms around Marie's and Jack's middles. “This is the best thing since this morning when Grandma Dumont told me about her raison bread recipe!”

Marie looked down. “Are you calling me some kind of bread?”

Lucy grinned. “Yep, you're all soft and gushy, just like bread dough.”

Jack advised, “I wouldn't mention that about town if I was you. Marie's got at least half the men scared to death of her.”

Even Clive laughed at that statement. “If only they knew.”

Jack patted Clive enthusiastically on the arm. “You now own the best lot in Bordertown!”

But Clive wasn't swept away just yet. “Remember - as of two days from now, I'm your landlord, Jack.”

Realizing just what Marie's recent decisions meant to him, Jack drew back a little. He couldn't imagine that By-the-book-Bennett would allow him to get away with nearly as much as Sally had allowed over the years. “Does this mean I have to keep things clean and picked up?”

“Yes,” Marie replied before Clive could even open his mouth. “A medical clinic is no place for your week old laundry!” She playfully poked Jack in the stomach. “You must pick up your things from now on.”

Lucy gave Jack the advice, “Remember - she hates it when you don't pick up your stuff.”

“Good advice,” Jack seriously told her as if she hadn't already told him the same thing just the night before.

Then Marie clapped her hands together. “Let's return to the house and have some cold chocolate to celebrate.”

“That's hot chocolate, Marie,” Clive said.

Before Jack had the chance to tell him that her eyes said she was joking, she'd turned to teasingly regard him. “Clive, I know.”

Bennett rolled his eyes. “Of course you do. Marie, you're already spending too much time with Jack.”

Jack's forehead wrinkled in irritation. “Hey!” He thought for a minute about what Clive had said. “There's an insult in there - I just gotta find it.” But they were moving towards the door as a group and weren't listening. He hurried after them, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Finally left alone, Artemis broke into a rain of tears and appreciatively wailed, “That was beautiful!” Wait till the others heard about the scene he had just witnessed! They'd be trading drinks to hear this story for weeks!

The End


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