Dry Route to Dodge
A Gunsmoke Story
by MAHC (Amanda)
Chapter One: Hard to Miss
Spoilers: None, yet
Disclaimer: I did not create these characters, but I love them.
felt helpless, and that was a new and uncomfortable sensation for him. Arguably the tallest man in
But not now. Not here. Not in this place. Here, he was lost, out of control – helpless – and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one damn bit.
She groaned, turning her head restlessly, upsetting the cloth that lay over her brow so that it slid off onto the meager excuse for a bed. He caught the wet rag before it reached the dirt floor, noting that the coolness had been sucked from it by the heat of her body. Her smooth cheeks, normally creamy white, were flushed rose with fever, the brilliant red of her hair dulled by sweat.
Kitty Russell was sick, terribly sick, and there wasn’t a thing Matt Dillon could do about it.
A thin shadow passed over the bed, lingered by his shoulder. He didn’t bother to look up.
“Yer wife shore is ailin’.”
He also didn’t contradict the observer – on either assumption. Instead, he nodded, keeping his eyes on the pale figure on the bed.
cross over to the
Ignoring the searing pain that grabbed his leg, Matt rose suddenly, pushing his long frame up so that he almost brushed the rough-hewn timbers of the ceiling. “Thanks anyway,” he snapped, not caring if it was rude. Kitty was desperately ill, possibly dying. He had no time for diplomacy.
Not for the first time he wondered if maybe they should have trudged across the rough land to the Wet Stage Line and tried to catch the next coach back to Larned, risked the jolts and jostles that might snuff out her life even sooner. Would that have been better than wasting away in this miserable hole of dirt and dust?
“Couple of hours to the Larned stage, Mister Russell,” another voice announced, but Matt he didn’t respond, not remembering who they thought he was. “It’s a good three miles over there, if yer goin’. Mister Russell?”
Blinking, he turned to see the gaunt face of Skinner, the stage stop master, looking up at him curiously.
They both let their gazes fall to the bed. “No. She’s not strong enough. It could – make her worse.” Kill her, he couldn’t say.
“Don’t look like she could git much worse,” the man noted, peering into her pinched features.
Red flashed before Matt’s eyes, and before he could stop himself, fatigue, frustration, and fear overwhelmed him, and he grabbed the man’s shirt front and jerked him to his boot toes. “She not going to die!” he declared, voice low and dangerous.
Pale eyes widened, and Skinner trembled in his desperate grasp. “No. No, ‘course not. She’s – she’s gonna be fine – “
Vision clearing, Matt let the terrified man drop, disgusted both with the fool and with himself. She was NOT going to die, he vowed. Not while he was there to keep her alive. He had to keep her alive. If he didn’t, there was no reason for him to live, either. He had never told anyone that, not even Kitty, but he acknowledged the fact in the face of its reality.
His leg ached constantly now, throbbing with each minute muscle flinch, ligaments and tendons that had endured years of abuse finally protesting this latest assault. He wasn’t sure just how far he had carried her – certainly no less than five miles. They were about twenty miles out of Larned when the front axel had broken straight in two, cracking the hitch and propelling the stage over onto its side. The horses, freed from their burden, headed off, still bound together as a team, across the scattered sagebrush.
Except for a few scrapes and bruises, everyone but the driver had survived the crash, but they were stranded, high and dry. Very dry.
Stretching out the limb, he eased back down into the chair beside Kitty and studied her face, so familiar to him, so beautiful. A raw wound threatened to open in his gut at the thought of never seeing that face again.
He dragged his gaze away from her long enough for a quick check of the tiny room, one of only two that made up the stagecoach stop station. Its temporary population included – besides Kitty and him – Skinner, and two passengers, one of which was about to set out across the dust-dry earth to gamble his chances on the northbound stage.
The other elected to stay. Unfortunately.
The sun had established itself as the dominant presence in the sky by the time Deke Crocker stepped back into the shack. Matt heard his boots thump through the dirt.
“Dust over yonder. Must be the Larned stage.”
merely nodded. It couldn’t do him any
good. The next stage running the
“How’s Miz Russell?” he asked politely, but his tone contained no true compassion.
Matt glanced up sharply, wondering how he knew her name.
expression, Crocker shrugged. “The
manifest. Wayne and Kitty Russell. You boarded in
second look, he explained, “I like to know who I travel with. You, ah, you in business in
He was fishing – with a big pole, Matt knew. “No. My – wife’s – father was sick. Died, as a matter of fact.”
Those dark eyes lowered respectfully. “Sorry. And now she’s got what he had?”
Marshal Matt Dillon scanned the man for just a moment, not too long, not too obviously. He knew Deke Crocker. Didn’t want to. Didn’t have time to. But he did. Hard to miss a man whose face stared out at you from at least three of the wanted posters currently pinned to the board in the jailhouse at Dodge.
Horse thief. Bank robber. Murderer. Hard to miss.
“Listen Russell, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re fairly stranded here until they realize that stage is overdue and send another for us.”
Matt narrowed his eyes. “I’ve noticed.”
“Well, I figure we’re pretty near sittin’ ducks for the Indians – or the animals.”
“You’re wearin’ a gun,” he pointed out. “Can you use it?”
If it weren’t for their dire situation, Matt might have smiled ironically. Instead, he allowed a casual shrug. “Most men can use a gun. The question is – how well.”
Crocker raised a brow in acknowledgement. “Fair enough, then. All right – how well?”
They sized each other up for a beat. Crocker blinked first. “Hope we don’t have to find out.”
Ignoring him, Matt turned back to Kitty. With just a half-glance toward the other man, he unbuttoned her dress from neck to cleavage and pressed a fresh, cool cloth against the hot skin.
To his credit, Crocker stepped back outside. Matt wondered what the outlaw would do when he found out who Wayne Russell really was. Eventually, the marshal would have to go after the wanted man. Eventually. But not now. Now, he had to stay with Kitty, had to keep her cool – had to keep her alive.
A low moan drew him back to focus on her. Her dry lips moved wordlessly. After a moment, she opened her eyes, just to slits, and saw him. At first, he wasn’t sure she was even coherent, but the harsh lines of pain softened and a smile almost touched her mouth.
“Matt,” she whispered, tone thick with love.
Relief swept over him, filling his heart. He caught her hand in his and before he thought, he had leaned in and kissed her gently, just a quick brush of his lips to hers. She was back. She was alive.
“Matt?” This time the name wasn’t said with affection. This time it was uttered with suspicion and a touch of incredulity.
The marshal spun around and caught his breath at the heaviness of comprehension. There in the doorway, eyes narrowed and hand on gun, stood Deke Crocker.
Deke Crocker. Horse thief. Bank robber. Murderer. Hard to Miss.
Chapter Two: Goodbye
Russell sat by the plain, starched bed in the
But the hurt of that time had faded, especially as she sat watching the life quietly shrink from his body.
For a moment, his eyes opened, and she saw surprise and gratitude in their fading light. “Kathleen?” The cultured voice of her childhood was faint, but clear.
She had long ago dropped the accent that reminded her of pretentiousness and class prejudice, but now the sound brought a strangely warm flow of nostalgia for home. “Yes,” she answered. “It’s Kathleen.”
“You came.” Relief, disbelief.
“You’re still – beautiful,” he said. “Like your mother.”
She didn’t want the compliment, didn’t want to hear about the woman he had abandoned so many years ago, didn’t want to feel anything for him except resentment – or pity. But the regret that swam in his eyes, the plea that called from his face tugged at her, cutting through decades of bitterness and anger.
“Don’t try to talk,” she urged, not sure she wanted to give up all of those old feelings.
But he didn’t listen. “I wanted to tell you – “ he rasped, straining forward, barely able to lift his head from the pillow, his cheeks flaming with fever, hair dripping with sweat.
“Shh. It’s all right. Just lie back.”
But he shook his head. “Kathleen – Kitty – I want you to know – I know I wasn’t much of a father – “
Despite the poignancy of his deathbed confession, she couldn’t suppress a jolt of anger. She wanted to tell him he sure as hell wasn’t, but what good would it do now?
“But all these years – what you’ve done – who you’ve become – “
Her head came up, waiting warily.
“I’m trying to say – I’m – proud of you, Kathleen.”
“What?” The certainly wasn’t what she had expected, and she couldn’t help but pull back from him.
He closed his eyes again, but kept talking. “I’ve got a little – money – “
“I don’t need money – “
“I know, but I want – you to have it. And I’ve got two – tickets back to Dodge.”
“For us. I thought when I got better, I’d take you – home, but now – Well, I thought maybe that constable of yours might come – “
So he remembered Matt. Well, not likely he would forget. “He was out of town when I got the doctor’s telegram,” she explained, illogically not wanting him to think any less of Matt for not being there with her.
“So you and he are still – “
She smiled. What did it matter what she confessed to him now? “Yeah.”
“No.” She braced for a pious reprimand, a comment about appearances, about proprieties.
He opened his eyes once more to look at her face. “He loves you?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“He takes care of you?”
She wanted to tell him she took care of herself, but instead she smiled. “Yeah.”
Finally, he took a rattling breath and said, “Good.”
burned her eyes at the unexpected response.
Perhaps there was some good in Wayne Russell after all, even if it only
surfaced at the end. And it was the end,
she could tell. In the five days since
she had arrived in
La Grippe, he had called it. At least that how it started out. But now the old man’s lungs were heavy with fluid, and he was drowning inside. Pneumonia. And nothing they seemed to try worked. Only a matter of time, they said.
So she sat and stared at the gray walls of the small room, sat and waited for her father to die, sat and felt very much alone. Not for the first time, Kitty wished she had waited for Matt, for his strong presence to soothe her and bolster her – and comfort her. Of course, she knew she couldn’t have. Wayne Russell was dying, and waiting for Matt would only have kept her from these last moments.
“Kathleen?” It was barely a whisper.
“I’m here,” she assured him, grasping his hand, frail and dry, in hers.
But he said no more, only sank into the bed as the final breath wheezed from his ruined lungs. Kitty stared into the slack face of death, something she had done too many times before. She couldn’t cry for him, but she could mourn, if only for what might have been.
She didn’t know how long she sat there, but the gas lights had been lit by the time the doctor stepped into the room, his eyes shifting quickly from the bed to her, then back. His fingers sought the old man’s wrist, waited. Waited longer. With a sigh, he turned to Kitty.
“Is there anyone we should contact?”
A sad smile curved her mouth. “No. Just me.”
The doctor’s face was tight, exposing his relative inexperience with the death of those he was supposed to save. “Can I do anything for you, Miss Russell?” he offered as consolation.
She almost laughed ironically. “You know a good undertaker?”
He flinched, then nodded.
There was nothing lonelier, Kitty reflected, than a funeral with no mourners. She stood alone among the headstones. The priest, a concession to her father’s long-abandoned Catholic upbringing, had delivered last rites, proclaimed appropriate words, and left to tend to more pressing needs.
But Wayne Russell was buried, and read over, and now his daughter could put the lingering ghosts of her past behind her – if she chose. Lifting her head against the growing breeze, she steeled herself for the long journey back to Dodge.
“Goodbye,” she murmured, maybe more for herself than for him.
With a final glance at the gaping grave that waited to be filled in by the rough laborers lingering impatiently a few hundred feet away, she turned to walk toward the gate.
And saw him.
There was no mistaking that towering frame, broad and solid and strong. He wore his gray coat and the dark dress trousers that made his legs seem to stretch even taller. He stood, watching her, hat in hand, thick hair tousled and whipped by the wind.
Suddenly, Kitty’s world came together again. Suddenly, everything was all right. Suddenly, the trip home didn’t seem nearly so long.
That familiar, endearing smile broke the solemn lines of his handsome face, and she sighed as the burden shifted from her shoulders to his.
Chapter Three: Some Way to Pass the Time
and Festus Haggen flinched in tandem as the marshal
slammed his hands down onto his desk, but Matt Dillon didn’t feel a bit of
remorse. What the hell were they
thinking letting Kitty go all the way to
though, his anger came from guilt, guilt over not being there, guilt over once
again letting his job get in the way of her needs. But since he couldn’t yell at the federal
judge over in
“Well, it ain’t as if me n’ Doc pushed her onto that thar train, Matthew,” Festus was explaining with his usual gesticulations. “You know if’n thar’s somethin’ Miz Kitty has a mind ta do, she’s a gonna do it.”
True enough, but he wasn’t in the mood to acknowledge his deputy’s insight. “Why didn’t one of you go with her?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
Doc responded this time, scratching at his head and grimacing. “We offered, Matt. I told her I’d look at him myself, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Said it was something she just had to do herself. You know how she is.”
He did, indeed. She was strong, and fiery, and independent. And he loved her for it. But sometimes she was just so stubborn –
He had only
been back from
The worn, but pleasant, face of Sam Noonan smiled at him when he leaned against the bar. “Welcome back, Marshal,” he said, wiping out a shot glass. “You look like a man who could use a little thirst-quenching.”
In more ways than one, Matt thought. “That I could,” he agreed, pushing his hat back from his forehead. Then, too anxious to be subtle, he asked, “Is Kitty around?”
The lined face fell a bit, as Sam set a mug of beer in front of the tall lawman. “Oh, Marshal, I thought you knew.”
Matt’s heart twisted and tightened against the ominous words he might hear next, but the bartender only said, “She took off for a few days. Said she needed a little break. Don’t guess I blame her. Been mighty busy lately.”
Willing his heart rate to slow back to normal, Matt nodded as calmly as he could. “I see.”
He took a
gulp of beer, set it back on the bar, and headed straight out the doors, both
relieved and irritated at once. It
wasn’t unusual for Kitty to take trips by herself. Many times business took her to
have to look very far in his pursuit of answers. Festus and Doc, engaged in a competition of
checkers at the jail, had provided all the information he needed. A telegram had arrived two days after he left
Standing before Doc and Festus, he tried to dampen the anger and worry that ate away at him. With a push away from his desk, he rested his hands on his belt and took a breath, giving up on assigning blame, since it wouldn’t do any good anyway.
“When did she leave?” he sighed.
“She took the train outta here four days ago,” Festus said.
“Four days? And you haven’t heard from her?”
“Nairy a word.”
“And it didn’t occur to you to send her a wire and make sure she got there?”
The two other men eyed each other nervously. Pressing his lips together, Matt gritted his teeth, jerked his hat off the hook with more force than necessary, and slung open the jailhouse door. “I’m taking the next train,” he informed them. “Festus, get Newly up here to help you.”
“I’ll do ‘er, Matthew,” the deputy called after him.
But he didn’t hang around to hear, already striding from the office and down the dusty boardwalk.
He hadn’t known how she would react, hadn’t really thought that far ahead. He just knew he needed to be with her, needed to offer what he could in the way of support and comfort after her ordeal. The last time she had seen her father, he had weaseled and cajoled his way back into her life, only to show his true colors as a con artist and sneak. It had taken every ounce of control Matt had not to throw him physically onto that stage and run him out of town.
If Kitty was walking back into such a mess, she might need him again. And he was damned if he wasn’t going to be there for her.
He had gotten there too late, had found out from the hospital that Wayne Russell was dead, but it didn’t take much investigation to locate the mortician who had taken care of the body, and Fate must have played a part in depositing him outside the cemetery gates as the funeral ended.
The graveyard was large, evidence of a thriving city, and it took him a minute to locate her. But as soon as he saw the familiar, trim figure, he knew he had done the right thing. Alone, the most forlorn sight he thought he had ever seen, she stood by the fresh grave, gazing down. He wanted to go to her, to wrap her in his arms, but something kept him back. Something told him she needed this moment. So he waited.
She turned and stopped when she saw him. He smiled in encouragement – and just because he couldn’t help but smile at seeing her again, even under the circumstances. Any qualms he might have had about her reaction vanished with her first words.
He opened his arms and she was in them, her hands clutching at his coat, her face buried against his chest. She wasn’t crying, but the emotion poured out just as powerfully. He held her tight, whispered soothing endearments into her hair, patted her back. Finally, she drew back and looked up at him, her brows coming down in a frown.
“Matthew Dillon, what on earth are you doing here?” she scolded, hands bracing on her hips.
A bit off balance, he asked, only half in jest, “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
Now the frown lightened and she moved one hand to lay it on his arm. “I didn’t say that, Cowboy. I just wondered why you came.”
Well, he had
thought that was fairly obvious, but he humored her, knowing it was in his best
interest to do so. “I was just passing
by on my way to
“Yeah. Well, as long as you’re here – “
“Kitty,” he interrupted softly, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Are you all right?”
With a sad smile, she nodded. “Yeah. It was – a goodbye. I needed to have it. And so did he.”
“I’m sorry he’s dead.”
“Yeah.” Then she turned her face up to his. “Let’s walk.”
As she took his arm and guided him onto the newly-laid sidewalk, he placed his hat back on his head and kept silent, letting her pace the discussion. After several minutes of companionable quiet, she said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
“How long will you stay?”
“Depends on your plans. Are you going to stay here a while or do you want to go back to Dodge?” Either way, his plans were to stick by her. “I can go by the train station for tickets – “
“Taken care of. He had already gotten stage tickets – two of them.”
“One for me and one for him, when he thought he’d be – “ She shrugged. “Anyway, we might as well not let them go to waste.”
It would be a longer trip, he knew, but maybe just a good excuse to spend more time with her before the duties of his office encroached again on them. “All right. When do we leave?”
“I’ve exchanged them for the early stage tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? I guess that means we’ll have to find some way to pass the time tonight,” he noted with the smile that he reserved for her alone.
Her eyes regarded him thoughtfully, and she sidled closer, sliding her arm around his waist. “Guess it does,” she returned in that husky voice that promised – and delivered – so much.
Later, they lay in the hotel bed, her hair fanned out across his damp chest, his fingers trailing absently up and down her back, their breathing still heavy from the intensity of their passion. As he sank into the deep rest his body sought after such powerful physical and emotional release, Matt smiled in anticipation of their journey home.
With Kitty by his side, he knew it would be memorable.
Chapter Four: One More Day
Kitty Russell gave a sidelong glance at the man seated next to her and made sure he was gazing out the stage window, at least long enough for her to be subtle about sliding a finger inside her dress collar and letting in a little air. Not for the first time did she second-guess her decision to use the stage tickets her father had purchased before his death. The train would have been faster – and certainly more comfortable. Still, it gave her a few more days with Matt, just the two of them, and as rare as that was, it was something she absolutely could not pass up.
But her relief from the heat was ephemeral. She shifted uncomfortably, feeling the deep ache in every joint of her body, wondering what she had done to be so sore. Of course, she had sat for days at the hospital, and now she was fighting to keep her seat in a jolting stagecoach. Surely that explained the stiffness.
The coach hit a particularly rough patch of road and tossed them all up, then back down several inches. She landed almost sideways against Matt, unable to stifle a groan as her back and shoulders throbbed.
Wrapping an arm around her waist, he steadied her. “Kitty?” The pain was almost worth the concern on his face – almost.
“I’m okay,” she lied, pushing back into her place, but keeping a hand on his arm in reassurance.
“You sure?” he prodded softly, using the intensity of his blue eyes to assess her honesty. “You look a little pale to me.”
Dropping her gaze before he saw the truth, she covered with her usual humor. “Well, what a compliment. You sure know how to sweet talk a lady, Mister.”
But he wouldn’t be diverted. “Kitty?”
Forcing the strength into her voice, she patted his arm. “Really. It’s just all this jerking around has me a little dizzy. I’ll be fine when we stop for the night.” She watched him consider her for a moment, then gave him a warm smile and leaned up to whisper in his ear. “I’ll be more than fine later tonight, if my plans work out.”
Bingo. Raising an eyebrow, he regarded her with a familiar heated look. “Plans?” he asked hopefully.
Plans. She hoped she was up to following through
with those plans. At the moment, what
she figured she wanted most was a big swallow of water and a soft
mattress. Matt would understand. Besides, they had made good use of that fancy
hotel bed back in
“Yer lookin’ a mite peaked, ma’am, if ya don’t mind me sayin’.”
Kitty lifted her eyes to watch the man seated across from them. Rail-thin and not even as tall as she was, he reminded her of one of the shallow-chested teenage boys that would hang out at the barn dances back in Dodge, hoping to catch a reel with a proper – or maybe not so proper – young lady.
She felt Matt tense beside her, but he remained quiet, knowing she liked to fight her own battles, at least at the beginning. “Well, I do mind, but thanks for the concern.”
He flushed. “Didn’t mean no insult, ma’am. Just noticin’.”
Next to him sat an older couple, years of marriage clearly visible on both their faces. The man had watched the exchange with minimal interested, but the woman smiled knowingly, her pale eyes moving from her to Matt then back. “How far?” she asked.
smiled back politely, not really feeling like talking. “
The older woman’s smile widened. “No, I mean how far along are you?”
suddenly shifted beside her and cleared his throat. Confused, she looked at him and was even more
confused by the blush that reddened his cheeks.
Matt Dillon never blushed. Then a
memory from that night in
“How far along – “ Kitty echoed.
“You’re not showing, yet, of course, but I can tell from the paleness. “
Then she realized, and almost laughed out loud before she considered how the well-meaning woman would take it. “Oh, I’m not – that is, it’s not what you think.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, dear,” she assured Kitty. “A natural thing. A blessing from God.”
“But – “
“You’re bashful, I can see.”
Matt coughed abruptly, then grunted when Kitty dug her knuckles into his ribs.
She was losing her patience with the old lady, even if her intentions were good. “Look, it’s really none of your – “
“No need to worry about anything,” she continued, not reading Kitty’s warning. “I can see you have a loving husband, there.” She turned to Matt for support. “You’re thrilled, aren’t you?” she asked him, her pointed look making it clear that he’d better be.
“Delirious,” Matt said confidently, scooting a tad to the left to avoid another rib gouging.
Determining that it was a losing battle, Kitty sighed and nodded. “Okay. You’re absolutely right. We’re very happy.”
“Of course you are. Is this your first?”
“Our first?” She pondered the question for a second or two, then decided, “No, not the first. I think this is number eight, or is it nine, dear?” she asked Matt, who stared at her blankly.
But he recovered with admirable alacrity and pursed his lips in contemplation. “It’s ten,” he announced proudly after a moment. “You forgot about Aloysius.”
“That’s right,” Kitty nodded, fighting for her best poker face. “I always miss him.” She turned to the woman, who now sat bug-eyed and silent by her chuckling husband. “I appreciate the advice. Do you have any more for me?’” she asked sweetly.
slight shake of the head, the other woman retreated a bit into her seat, most
likely wondering who on earth would volunteer to keep such a passel of brats
while their parents vacationed in
Under the guise of a gesture of support, Matt leaned over so that his lips were at her ear. “If we’re supposed to have ten kids, don’t you think we ought to get started on that?”
For a moment, she felt a thrill that he might actually be suggesting – but the teasing in his eyes was clear, and only that. Suppressing the disappointment she knew she shouldn’t have had in the first place, she slid him a sly look and returned, “I think we’ve shocked Mrs. Busybody enough for one afternoon, don’t you?”
“Council Grove!” yelled the stage driver over the pounding of hooves.
“Thank God,” Kitty breathed, a little louder than she had intended, judging from the frown on her traveling companion’s face.
“Tired?” Matt asked, the smile not quite wide enough to mask his concern.
Swallowing carefully, she fought against the rawness in her throat and admitted, “A little.”
close to her ear so no one else would hear, he promised, “We’ll stop in
And she would have liked nothing better than to lie in his arms after they had exhausted themselves in heated lovemaking, but the throbbing in her head, paired with her sore throat, didn’t make that scenario very likely. Matt would be disappointed. Hell, she would be disappointed. Still, it would be some relief just to get off that teeth-rattling contraption for a few hours.
As the stage rumbled to a halt, the older couple gathered themselves stiffly and bent to descend the steps. At least, Kitty sighed, that damned woman wouldn’t be gawking at her for the next 200 miles.
Just as they reached the door, she turned back to Kitty and offered gently, “Good luck with the little one.” But the look she shot Matt was a blatant warning. “You know,” she advised him wisely, “sometimes a little self-control is called for.”
Kitty couldn’t suppress the laughter, even though the reaction scratched at her throat.
With that expression of little-boy innocence, Matt said, “What?”
“Let’s get out of this thing for a few minutes,” she suggested, re-directing his attention.
He nodded, and unfolded his long frame as best he could in the tight confines. When he had stepped onto the dirt street of Council Grove, he turned and offered his hand to her. It surprised her to realize that she had to hang onto to it harder than usual, and she blinked her eyes quickly to push back the spots that suddenly popped in and out in front of her.
Lifting her gaze to see if he had noticed, she saw to her relief, that his head was turned to the right, eyes intently focused on something – or someone – down the street. Her slight stumble brought his attention back as his other arm came up to brace her.
“I’m all right.” Another lie. “Just slipped. Been cramped up in there for so long.”
“Tell me about it,” he agreed, shifting his weight to his left leg and his attention back to whatever had interested him a few blocks down.
“What is it?” She knew her man well. His curiosity was peaked.
Chewing on his lower lip as he did when he was contemplating something that didn’t quite seem right, he said, “Not sure. Thought I saw someone – “
Damn. Usually Matt’s “someones” ended up being murderers, crooked lawmen, or former girlfriends, none of whom Kitty had any interest in meeting.
She followed his gaze down the boardwalk past the usual milling crowds of a busy cow town, all the way to the stark figure dressed in dark shirt and pants and standing alone lighting a cigar. Didn’t look like a lawman, crooked or not, nor certainly a former lover. That meant murderer. And that meant trouble.
“Who is it?” she asked him.
“Maybe no one. Maybe – “ But he knew; she saw it in his eyes.
The coughing woke her, a dry, rough sound that cut through her sleep. Irritated, she wondered who on earth was making that noise, but when she opened her eyes, Matt’s worried face hovered in front of hers, his large hands firm around her shoulders. Oh.
“You okay?” he asked quietly, arm around her waist in either comfort or protection, she wasn’t sure which.
This time, she couldn’t deny the aches the wracked her body. God, she felt awful. Pounding head, throbbing throat, chills and cough. The same symptoms her father had before he became too ill to move. What she had feared for the past two days had apparently come to pass. And they were still a long way from Dodge.
“I – I don’t feel too well, Matt,” she admitted, placing a hand on his chest and leaning against him.
look too well,” he agreed, grimacing in anticipation of her response. But she was too tired and too weak to pretend
offense. “We’re almost to
ask him what he’d do if she couldn’t. Instead,
she just nodded and closed her eyes, letting the comfort of his hard, strong
body protect her as she drifted off again.
A nice rest in
One more day.
She could make it.
Chapter Five: Too Many Answers
Spoilers: “Gold Mine”
Galen Adams sat at their usual table in the
But what really made it lonely was not the absence of many, but the absence of one.
On a slow
day, he might have found himself involved in the comfortable company of a
beautiful saloon owner, an imposing
With no broken arms or birthings to attend, he let his thoughts drift back several days. My goodness, but Matt had been furious, about as furious as the doctor had ever seen him. About as furious as he had been another time when Kitty headed off on her own to check out that confounded gold mine she inherited.
He had been in much the same predicament then, out of town and unable to talk her out of going – or at least try. This time, however, nothing stood in the way upon his return. The doctor knew Matt wouldn’t be able just to wait around for Kitty to come back. He just hoped when he saw him again, that the big lawman would be cooled down a bit. It wasn’t as if he and Festus had forced her to go alone. In fact, Doc had done his best to insinuate himself into that trip, but Kathleen Russell was as headstrong as they came.
Still, he doubted she would be disappointed to see Matt appear. Doc smiled to himself and swiped a hand over his bushy mustache at the thought of the couple. And, yes, they were, indeed, a couple, he knew. Well, by golly, he wasn’t the only one, either. For years the citizens of Dodge had watched closely to catch glimpses of affection: exchanged glances, subtle touches, careful innuendos.
Whatever proprieties anyone might suggest they had broken – and no one did much anymore – there could be no argument that they loved each other very much. Like many townspeople, Doc had witnessed moments of closeness between the two. As the town doctor, though, as well as their friend, he was pretty certain that he had been privy to the more intimate moments that came when Matt lay on that examining table, bleeding, and Kitty stood by, soothing, encouraging, comforting. Or sometimes, even rarer times, when Kitty was the one on the table and Matt’s guard was down, his mask off, his blue eyes naked with fear and pain and love.
He particularly savored the memory of one stolen moment that neither Matt nor Kitty knew he had seen. It happened late one spring evening about two years before. He had been coaxing his horse and buggy wearily back into town after spending the better part of two days at the Pelgrin’s place out toward Cimarron. Norma Pelgrin’s twins had been born and had died, and he had nearly lost the mother in the process. Too early, too little. Aching for the grieving parents, and for the children who never even had a chance at life, he finally headed home, heavy-hearted and despairing of his lack of skills.
Even Dodge slept sometimes, and he was so late that the town had gone to bed with only prairie dogs and coyotes scuffling around outside. With one weary foot on the bottom stair to his office, he let his gaze survey the quiet buildings, considering the rare sounds of a slumbering citizenry. A sudden movement caught his eye, and he peered into the darkness that enveloped the space just past the jail.
The forms were unmistakable, the slender female and the tall male, walking, arms around each other toward the side door. He smiled, willing his mind to override the horrible memories of Norma’s struggles with the scene before him. But serendipity wasn’t finished. Amazingly, the couple paused at the entrance, glancing to see if anyone was around. Apparently satisfied, the tall man bent, his arms going around her waist, pulling her to him, lifting her so that their lips met. She clutched at his shoulders, throwing herself into the embrace. Transfixed, Doc stared at them. He didn’t think he had ever actually seen them kiss before, and it was a beautiful and satisfying sight. He waited for them to realize where they were, to separate and go on their way, but instead they continued, falling against the side wall of the jail, her legs coming up around his thighs, his hat tumbling unnoticed to the ground, their bodies moving against each other in a dance that had obviously been choreographed years before.
“Dear God,” Doc thought with a conflicting battle of horror and glee, “they’re not going to stop. They’re going to – “
But as he tried to decide whether he should turn away or just enjoy the show, the lawman bent to swing her up into his arms, pulled open the door, and strode purposefully inside. Doc had no doubts about how the rest of their evening progressed, and counted himself fortunate to have been allowed – however unknowingly – that moment of insight. Or voyeurism, he admitted with a blush.
the memory, Doc let his thoughts return to present. No, he didn’t figure Kitty would be
disappointed at all when Matt showed up in
The calm of the bar was shattered by the clanging of spurs and the twanging of vocal chords. He looked up in time to see Festus Haggen push through the swinging doors, waving what looked to be a telegram in the air.
“Festus!” he scolded, sitting up straighter. “What on earth – “
“It’s from Matthew!” he announced. “A tel-ee-gram.”
Before he thought, the doctor said, “Well, don’t just stand there. What does it say?”
The enthusiasm faded a bit, and the deputy’s hands began searching around in shirt and vest pockets. “Well, let’s see here. I don’t rightly know whar I put them spec-ticles. They wuz jes rat chere, don’t cha know.”
Doc let him fumble for a minute with the transparent ruse, then snatched the telegram from his fingers and slid it open. “They’ll be back before you get to it,” he grumbled.
Pulling the brief message out, he read:
“FATHER DEAD STOP RETURNING STAGECOACH STOP ARRIVE WEDNESDAY PM STOP MATT”
“Well?” Festus asked, peering over his shoulder as if he actually could read the words.
Doc didn’t bother jerking it away. “Kitty’s father died.”
The grizzled face fell. “Ain’t that a shame. An’ him a wantin’ ta see her, too.”
“At least Matt got there to be with her.” Thank God. “Says they’re taking the stage back.”
stage? Well, why not the train from
“That’s all it says, Festus. They’re returning by stagecoach and they’ll be back Wednesday night.”
He hooked a thumb into his vest. “Well, I’m shor glad Matthew went.”
“Didn’t I just say that?”
“Fiddle faddle. Jest ‘cause yor glad don’t mean I kain’t be neither.”
Pete’s sake,” Doc sputtered, flummoxed, as usual, by the deputy’s unique
logic. “All of
“I’m jest sayin’ ye ain’t the onliest one what’s a wishin’ good tidings fer Matthew and Miss Kitty is all.”
The earnestness in Festus’ voice dampened the doctor’s enjoyment of the argument, and he sighed in defeat. “Yeah,” he said, as close as he would come to acknowledging his agreement.
The deputy sighed and plopped down in one of the empty chairs. “Doc?”
“What is it Festus?”
“Ain’t today Wednesday?”
He paused and blinked a time or two. “By golly, it is. I’ve been a day behind all week. You say that telegram just came?”
Ducking his head, the deputy shrugged. “Well, I don’t guess I said that in particular.”
“What? You mean you’ve had that telegram – “
“Well, I wuz busy yesterdee, Doc, and I mightn’t have forgot it.”
“What time is it, Doc?”
“What time is it?”
Now he had tried to teach Festus to tell time for the past three years without success, and usually took strange delight in berating him when he asked yet again. This time, however, he merely looked at his watch. “It’s .”
“What time’s the stage usually git in?”
“Oh, about .”
turned to look at each other with sudden comprehension, then jerked to their
feet and hurried as quickly as they could onto
“Ya reckon they’ve already bin?” Festus wondered aloud.
“Of course not. We would have heard – well, of course not. They’re just late, that’s all. Stages are late all the time.”
“That’s a fact,” the deputy agreed.
“No need to worry.”
A tense moment of silence passed between them as they pretended to believe each other. Finally, though, they could no longer suppress their unease.
“What coulda happened?” Festus wondered.
Doc grimaced. That question had way too many answers.
Chapter Six: Time to Shield
Marshal Matt Dillon had never held much fondness for stages. Could be because it seemed like every time he got on one, something bad happened: bandits attacked, bridges washed out, coaches crashed. Given his druthers, he would saddle up Buck and ride for days on end before he chose to trust his existence to the vulnerable – and uncomfortable – accommodations of the Santa Fe Line.
Still, he couldn’t very well haul Kitty up behind him on the big dun – and even if he could, her multitude of trunks still presented a problem. He should have insisted on the train. At least they would already be in Dodge. But Kitty seemed pleased to provide the stage tickets, and it had promised more time with her.
As he looked down at her now, though, he kicked himself for not listening to his instincts. Although her skin was white and clammy, he felt the fever radiating from her, and realized entirely too late that she was sick. Very sick.
So intent on simply being there to comfort her when he arrived in Kansas City, he hadn’t asked too many questions about her father’s fatal illness, but now he wished he had. Did she have the same thing? Would she end up –
Clenching his teeth, he refused to consider that. She would be fine, just needed to get home and in her own bed. Groaning, she moved against him restlessly, drawing the eyes of the other two passengers.
“She looks worse, Mister,” the thin man observed. “Reckon she’ll make it ta Dodge?”
Damn right, she will, Matt wanted to say, but instead he just nodded.
“Mighty sorry she’s ill,” the other man offered, as if he needed to pull his weight in sympathy.
Matt acknowledged him with a thrust of his chin, then pulled Kitty into his arms more securely. At the same time, he kept his peripheral vision on the man in black, gauging his intent, his actions. Able to inspect him more closely in the stagecoach, the marshal had confirmed his instincts from Council Grove. The man was wanted. But they were well out of Larned, at least twenty miles, almost halfway to Dodge, and Kitty was sick. Any arrest could wait until they reached Dodge. His main job now was to keep Kitty from getting worse before they got to Doc –
With only a second’s warning of screeching wheels, he found himself thrown up into the stage roof, then back against the side, his brain trying to take in the chaos that had exploded around him. Through the coach windows, the world tumbled by, at first right side up, then sideways, then upside down. Wood cracked and splintered, chains clanged together, horses bellowed in confusion and fear.
He heard his own hoarse cry, as if it came from someone else, and reached out his hands to grab for her. With another lurch, the coach landed on its side, slamming his right knee into the doorframe. Fire burst up his leg and he fought to keep conscious, intent on what was happening with Kitty, on keeping her safe. Just as his fingers found her wrist, a sudden, sharp pain against the side of his head wiped out any other conscious thought, and he swirled down into darkness.
Somewhere deep in his brain, he tried to stop the steady beating of a very irritating drum. It pounded again and again in rhythm with his heart. And all he wanted to do was sleep.
“Mister? Can ye hear me?”
Just a few more minutes, he thought. Just a little while longer. He’d cuddle up to Kitty and wake in a leisurely manner, letting the fresh sunlight streaming through her windows bring them to consciousness.
Just cuddle up to –
“I think he’s comin’ around.”
“Looks that way.”
Matt blinked against the glare of the sun, then squinted, his muddled brain trying to take in the situation. He lay sprawled on the baked earth, a few yards away from a very battered, very unusable stagecoach, no horses in sight. Above him, the faces of the skinny man and the outlaw, peered on more in curiosity than concern.
But only one thought leaped to his mind. “Kitty?”
The outlaw nodded to his left. “Got her in the shade of the wreck. Thought she might do better there.”
He sat up abruptly, waiting out the dizziness.
“You hit yer head. Got a nice gash right above yer ear. Don’t look too bad, but it bled mighty fierce.”
Reaching up a hand to assess his injury, he pulled it back and noted that it did seem to be covered in a fair amount of blood. Not that it was unusual for him. Categorizing the wound as insignificant, he pushed off the hot ground, intent on striding over to Kitty, but found himself right back on his rear, his right leg shooting fiery pain that started in his knee and spread toward both hip and ankle.
“’Peers ya hurt yer leg, too,” the thin man noted superfluously.
“Really?” he muttered. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first injury that leg had seen. Gritting his teeth, he reached up toward the two men. “Give me – a hand.”
Two arms extended, and he grabbed both, levering himself up on his left leg and gingerly testing the other. If he was careful, he could place minimal pressure on that limb and at least hobble enough to endure the pain for the few seconds it took his other leg to regain his weight. Somehow, he managed to make his way to Kitty’s side without landing on his face.
She lay mostly on the ground; the two men had pulled a carpetbag from the wreckage and used it to pillow her head. The thoughtfulness surprised Matt, but he didn’t take much time to evaluate it. Her breath came in shallow, struggling gasps, broken occasionally by weak coughing spells. At least she seemed to have escaped major injury from the crash – externally, anyway. He prayed that there was no internal damage.
Grimacing, he knelt on his good leg and tenderly brushed a few stray locks of hair from her face, white beneath the smudges of dirt. “Kitty?”
His only answer was a fluttering of eyelids and a soft moan.
“Kitty?” he tried again, this time cupping his large hand against her cheek and shaking gently.
Another moan left her lips, but this time it was accompanied by a word, spoken so softly he almost missed it. “Matt.”
Glancing around quickly, he determined that no one else had heard her. Obviously, the outlaw didn’t know who he was. He’d just as soon keep it that way for a while.
“I’m here,” he assured her quietly, letting his fingers caress her jaw. “I’m here.”
“Tired,” she managed, then her head lolled against his hand and she lost consciousness again.
Matt fought back the despair that threatened to overwhelm him. Now was not the time to surrender to the emotions of a lover. Now was the time to shield himself and her with the strength of a lawman. He willed that mantle to drape over him, to bolster the weakness of his worry and plow through to do what was necessary – just like he always did. He just needed an opportunity, even a small one.
“Kin you walk?”
He turned and squinted up to look at the thin man who stood above him. If it would save Kitty, he could walk to Garden City. “What’d you have in mind?” he wondered.
“There’s a stage stop ‘bout five miles on down from here. Hard walkin’, but it’s the closest thang to help we got. Skinner runs it. He’ll have some vittles n’ water. And a bed fer her.”
All right. There it was.
“What’s your name, Mister?” Matt asked him.
The marshal considered their options. It didn’t take long. “Well, Dooley, doesn’t look like we have much choice.”
Leaning against a cracked wheel, the man whose face was too familiar to Matt lifted his chin toward the small group. “Gonna be tough to get her there.”
“I’ll manage,” he snapped, eyes darkening.
Glancing quickly between the Matt and the man in black, Dooley bent down next to Kitty. “I’ll help you pick her up,” he offered.
Matt nodded gratefully, knowing Higgins was way too small to carry her himself. Bracing as much of his weight as he could on his left leg, he slid his arms under the slender figure, waiting until Dooley had done the same on the other side, and pushed up. For a moment, his vision swam with the pain that stabbed through his knee, but he gulped back a groan and stood until he was relatively sure he wouldn’t go back down.
“Ya got her?” Dooley asked warily.
The big marshal could only nod, not able to spare any energy from his fight to stay conscious. Kitty’s head lay against his shoulder, and he looked at her face, letting the need to save her feed his strength. After a minute or so, he took a step, forcing the leg to move, fighting the agony that surged through his body. Then, he took another, and another, and soon the small band of survivors made their way slowly down the stage line amid the swirling dust and baking heat of the prairie desert.
Chapter Seven: One More Step
POV: Angus Skinner,
Skinner led a life of solitude ninety percent of the time. But the ten percent left over filled his days
with enough adventure to make him yearn for the lonelier times. In the two years he had run the Dry Route
Stop between Larned and
edging toward dark when he checked the old timepiece that had been his father’s
sole possession after he left the bluegrasses of
Gaunt, and looking much older than his years, Angus figured life was as good as you made it. And he contented himself with long hours of quiet punctuated by moments of excitement and surprise. He glanced again at the watch and frowned. The stage from Larned was overdue by a good two hours. Another glance toward the stove brought some mutterings about the efforts he had taken to cook for folks who weren’t showing up. What was the point of having a schedule if it wasn’t going to be kept?
With a grunt, he allowed himself a final glare out toward the rough prairie desert, one more chance for the stage to show and redeem itself. Practice had given him the skill of picking up the stage’s dust while it was still two miles out, and now he peered hard up the line, wondering if he really saw something or if the heat had gotten to him.
Yes. Definitely something. But not a stage, not enough dust.
After a few more minutes, he was able to discern movement, uneven and sporadic, but movement, nevertheless. Men. On foot. Not a good sign.
Either they were drifters – or bandits, even – or something dire had happened to the stage. Tucking the watch back into his pocket, Skinner pulled his hat over his eyes and grabbed the old Henry rifle from its customary position by the stove. No telling what he faced, and he hadn’t survived in that desolate place without using his head and some cartridges a time or two.
He waited outside the building, rifle cocked and ready – if necessary. But the closer the group drew to him, the easier he felt. These men, even if they were bandits, would be in no shape to cause him trouble. In fact, he wondered if they would make it at all. There were three, he could tell after a while, one of them so tall he stretched over the heads of the others by a good foot and a half. He carried something that looked like blankets, or curtains maybe, even though that didn’t make sense.
No, Skinner saw suddenly, not curtains. A dress. A woman’s dress, and – doggone if the woman wasn’t still in it.
The man struggled, stumbling along and limping so badly that it didn’t look as if he could take one more step. But he did somehow – again and again. His companions walked with him, their gaits straighter but just as slow. When they drew within a few hundred yards, Skinner decided to take the risk and headed out to meet them, certain now that they had been on the stage.
As he moved, he saw the fatigue and pain twisting the big man’s features, watched his boots fight for purchase on the uneven ground. He wondered why the others didn’t help, tried to use his experience to assess who they were and what had occurred among them. But at that moment, the man’s endurance gave out, and his long legs buckled beneath him. Skinner was close enough to sprint forward, dropping the rifle and spreading his arms in an attempt to catch the woman as her rescuer succumbed to whatever ills had befallen him and fell onto his knees, a harsh cry ripped from him when he hit the hard earth.
Skinner’s arms reached for her head and shoulders, even though he knew he couldn’t shield her completely, but to his surprise, another set of arms joined his and took her legs, cushioning her fall as they pulled her away from the collapsing man. She groaned, but didn’t open her eyes. Skinner saw that she was sick, felt her heat even over the temperature around them.
The big man lay, face down, in the dirt, his shirt – which had probably once been white, but was now caked in dust and grime – plastered to his broad shoulders. His dark pants were in much the same state, but Skinner thought he saw the tell-tale stickiness of blood on the right leg.
“Git her in the house,” he ordered the other two men.
The one who had helped catch her nodded and looked toward the remaining man, dark clothes grey with the trail. He looked on, eyes hard. Skinner had seen eyes like that before, and he didn’t like them. But after a moment, the man moved to take the woman on one side, and they lifted her and headed toward the shelter.
Skinner turned his attention toward the man who had sacrificed so much to carry her to safety. “Hey, Mister.”
The man groaned and tried to push up on his elbows. Skinner placed a hand on his back, felt the knot of muscles straining.
“Stay still thar a minute,” he advised.
“Kitty,” the man rasped, ignoring the caution.
“She’s in th’ house. We got ‘er. Ya jest lie still now.”
But the man’s eyes opened, light blue and intelligent – and determined. “No. Got to help her – “
“Mister, you ain’t gonna hep nobody the condition yer in. Now what’s yer name?”
“Kitty – “ he groaned again.
sighed and tugged a little at the man’s shoulder, enough to push him partially
over. Papers peeked out of his shirt
pocket – stage tickets, Skinner recognized instantly. He slid them out and opened them: passage for Wayne and Kitty Russell. Origin –
Well, that explained why he had been so adamant about carrying her. His wife. Unfortunately, Skinner feared the odds were that one or the other of them would be widowed before dawn.
Letting his gaze scan down the long body, he considered how he might get the man inside. Certainly not by himself. The fellow was a good six and a half feet tall – maybe more.
“Hey! In the house!”
The thin man who had helped earlier stuck his head outside.
“Hep me git this ‘un in thar. I’ll need both of ya.”
After a moment, during which Skinner thought he could hear some minor arguing going on, both men emerged and approached him.
“He’s a big un,” Skinner told them unnecessarily. “Won’t be easy. What’re yer names?”
“Dooley Higgins,” the skinny one supplied.
The man in black leveled his gaze, considered the question, and said finally, “Smith.”
Skinner nodded. He’d met many “Smiths” at the stop.
Smith took the big man’s shoulders, leaving the legs to Higgins and Skinner. Even then, they struggled with their load, dropping him once before they got to the stage shelter.
“Sorry,” Skinner muttered at the man’s tortured moan.
After they had wrestled him through the door, they all sank to the floor and worked on catching their breath. “What – happened?” Skinner managed to ask between gasps.
Higgins coughed a couple of times, then volunteered the story, relaying how the axel on the stage had broken, cracking the hitch, flipping the coach, and separating from the team. The woman had been thrown clear – which actually turned out to be fortunate for her. The man had been battered around pretty badly. The driver was dead, left back at the site of the accident for a later burial. Without any other choices, they had set out toward the stage stop, positive that the big man would not make it even a mile with his burden. But he had surprised the hell out of them. And – there they were.
“He gonna make it?” Higgins wondered.
“Maybe.” Skinner glanced over to where the man lay on the floor next to the bed his wife was in.
“What about her?” Smith asked, his eyes disturbingly interested in the woman’s still form.
Skinner shrugged. “Don’t know. She got a fever fer shore. May be too late fer her.””
“He shore weren’t gonna leave her behind,” Higgins said, shaking his head. “I still don’t know how he done it. We figured him fer dead three miles back, but he jest kept movin’.”
Breathing normally again, Skinner pried himself off the floor and moved to the stove. “I’ll git some vittles fer ya. Kin one of ya give them some water? They could probably use it.”
“They ain’t the only ones,” Smith noted.
He’d keep an eye on that one, Skinner decided. A good eye.
It took the better part of two hours, but Skinner managed to coax some stew into the man before he lost consciousness again. The woman refused all but a little water. He had just begun dozing off when a low groan drew him back. Amazingly, the man had pushed up onto his elbows and now was trying to sit upright. In the dim light of the lantern, Skinner could barely see his expression, but he heard the urgency in his voice with no problem at all.
“Next to ya.” He watched as the man jerked around to his left and tried to stand, only to fall back with a heavy groan.
“Yer leg’s in pretty bad shape. I’d advise ya stay sittin’.”
Without acknowledging, Wayne Russell curved one big hand around the bedpost and pulled himself to sit on the mattress next to his wife.
“She’s mighty sick,” Skinner said, figuring he wasn’t telling the man anything he didn’t already know. “I give her some water, but she wouldn’t take no food.”
“I’m obliged,” Russell answered absently, not taking his eyes off her.
“Them others told me ‘bout the stage wreck. I reckon they’ll miss ya at Dodge and be sendin’ out a search party come mornin’.”
The man didn’t answer. Skinner took the time to study him, to evaluate what manner of man this was who had trekked five miles, injured and weak and laden with the physical and emotional burden of a sick wife. His frame was broad and tall – the biggest man Skinner had ever seen – and he had seen many men. But he was no brute, that was sure. In those eyes burned strength and steel – but when he looked at her, they softened with tenderness and worry. There was an air about him, a confidence, a ring of authority. Skinner didn’t know who Wayne Russell was, or what he did, but he was somebody. That was certain.
“You got a rag or a washcloth?” Russell asked suddenly.
Skinner nodded. “Shore.”
“Bring me one, please, and a basin of water, as cold as you can get it.”
The stage stop manager took only a minute to bring the requested items, and watched as the man dipped the rag in the water – not cold, really, but cool enough to make a difference. He wiped her face gently, whispering to her words that Skinner tried to hear, but couldn’t. He wondered if the effort was worth it, wondered if the woman would make it, even with her husband’s loving ministrations.
Looking at her, he shook his head sadly. A beauty, for sure, even in sickness. It’d be a shame for her to die, a pure shame.
He just hoped whoever was waiting for them in Dodge had the sense to realize they needed help.
Chapter Eight: The Question Is – How Well
POV: Deke Crocker
Spoilers: None, yet
The temporary reprieve the night had brought them retreated quickly with the coming of dawn, leaving the weary survivors of the late-Larned stage sticky with dry sweat and grime. Angus Skinner’s meager water supply had been rationed further to try to provide some relief for the dying woman. Deke Crocker didn’t know why they bothered. She’d be gone by .
Lifting his hat and wiping his forehead, he studied the two figures in the corner for at least the tenth time since they had arrived at the pitiful excuse for a stage stop at dusk the day before. Wayne and Kitty Russell, the stage manifest had noted. Husband and wife obviously. He could have told that without the confirmation.
In his line of work, Crocker didn’t leave much to chance. He watched people. It was a hobby that had more than once saved his life. So he watched people. He had been watching the couple since he boarded the stage at Council Grove. The way they sat close to each other, touching even when they didn’t mean to. The way the woman looked up into the man’s face, the way her eyes sparkled when he spoke. The intensity of his gaze, the way he shielded her with his body. Even before they knew she was sick, he had been attentive.
Crocker’s mind noted these things, but not with the pleasure of a fond observer, or with the amusement of a voyeur. He noted them with the slyness of a manipulator. This woman was Russell’s weakness, and while Crocker didn’t know if that bit of information would ever become valuable, in his line of work it didn’t hurt to hang onto it for a while.
Russell was an enigma. His physical stature was imposing, to say the least. His shoulders and back spoke of daily activity, tough and demanding. As the coach had jolted along the trail, his legs braced against the floorboard, muscles tightening to keep his balance. Those were the legs of a horseman. But he didn’t talk much about a business. He didn’t talk much about an investment. He didn’t talk much at all.
There was something about him, though. Something that Crocker didn’t like. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. The name didn’t ring a bell. Wayne Russell. Sounded more like a banker than anything else. But this one was no banker. That was one thing Crocker would bet on.
He stepped back into the shack, seeing Russell’s head cock his way just a bit as he heard his approach. The man was accustomed to paying attention to details.
“Dust over yonder,” Crocker said. “Must be the Larned stage.” He wondered if that fool Higgins had made it in time – or at all.
The man nodded absently.
“How’s Miz Russell?” he asked, attempting to convey concern, but really just trying to get a better read on him. Russell interested him – or bothered him.
The big man
glanced up sharply, obviously on edge.
Crocker logged that reaction and shrugged. “The manifest. Wayne and Kitty Russell. You boarded in
troubled glare from the man. Crocker
narrowed his eyes. “I like to know who I
travel with. You, ah, you in business in
Those broad shoulders relaxed a bit. “No. My – wife’s – father was sick. Died, as a matter of fact.”
Was that a hesitation? But she was his wife; anyone could see that. “Sorry. And now she’s got what he had?”
Deke Crocker was so much of an observer that he recognized when he became the observed. Oh, the man was smooth, but Crocker didn’t miss the hard assessment those blue eyes gave him. Most people wouldn’t have suspected a thing, but Crocker had seen that look before, usually from behind the barrel of a lawman’s Colt.
Jaw tightening, he braced himself and prodded, “Listen Russell, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re fairly stranded here until they realize that stage is overdue and send another for us.”
“Well, I figure we’re pretty near sittin’ ducks for the Indians – or the animals.”
“You’re wearin’ a gun,” he pointed out. “Can you use it?”
Somehow, he got the feeling he might find out sooner or later. Russell shrugged casually – too casually. “Most men can use a gun. The question is – how well.”
Damn. Crocker pressed down the hammering in his chest, fought to maintain the calm on his face. Fortunately, the man didn’t look at him, couldn’t see the sudden panic in his eyes. This man wasn’t what he seemed. Not at all. Whatever Wayne Russell was, he was no city slicker. “Fair enough, then. All right – how well?”
He could take him, Crocker figured. The man was injured, worried, exhausted from their ordeal across the prairie and a night of tending to his wife. Yeah, he could take him. But it would be at a time of his choosing, and not before.
“Hope we don’t have to find out,” he commented finally.
Russell regarded him for a moment, then turned back to the woman, unbuttoning her dress from neck to cleavage and pressing a fresh, cool cloth against the hot skin. It was an extremely intimate move, and even Crocker had to look down in deference to their privacy. Maybe he was wrong, maybe this man really was what he seemed. Suddenly unsure of himself, the outlaw stepped back outside, both to spare them embarrassment, and to give himself time to think things through.
The sun beat down on the hard earth. If Higgins made it to the Wet Route, he’d be on that stage by now, headed back to Larned to bring help, help that might or might not be what Deke Crocker needed. If the Larned sheriff happened to be the one to rescue them –
he wasn’t going to fair much better with the law in
In the house, a low moan drew his attention back to the woman. She was pretty; he could see that even through the dust of the trail and sweat of the fever. And Russell was certainly devoted to her. Maybe that was his key. Maybe –
The name was whispered, but loud enough to reach the door. Crocker froze when he heard it. “Matt.”
Squaring up with the bed, he stared at the man’s wide shoulders, took in the gun belt at his hips, eyed the smooth, well-used handle. Why the hell hadn’t he noticed it before? What had he let his brain assume –
Then it all came together and he dropped his hand to his gun and uttered the name in disbelief of his own idiocy. “Matt?”
The big man spun around. Crocker knew with heart-pounding certainty who he was. Knew his destiny had met him there in the middle of desolation.
“Matt who?” he prodded, unnecessarily. He knew.
Their eyes met, blue against black, and for a moment neither moved. In the few seconds Crocker had to run ideas through his brain, he remembered a drawing he had seen of Matt Dillon once in Harper’s Weekly. It was an idealistic rendition that showed the arch-typical hero, square jaw, hard eyes. But the man’s face before him was more pliable, more expressive, more human than the stone mask of the illustration.
And more human meant more vulnerable.
These thoughts pulsed through his mind in the space of an eye blink. That was all the time he had, but that was all the time he needed. His hand, already on his gun, jerked the weapon up, finger squeezing the trigger just after it cleared the holster. He smiled as the gun fired, satisfied that his shot was true, that he could actually hear the slug tear through flesh and muscle and bone.
“Matt!” The woman’s agonized cry punctuated the moment, crowned his triumph with perfect timing.
He turned to her, standing over the big man whose body now lay sprawled on the floor, and drew aim toward that pretty face. A shame to destroy such beauty, he thought fleetingly before the gun fired again.
Chapter Nine: Into the Depths
The echo of his name, at first so lovingly said, didn’t hold the same sentiment. In fact, it held a much more ominous emotion.
He spun around, grimacing at the fresh wave of pain and dizziness that movement caused. He swallowed, and noticed the rawness of his throat, the shallowness of his breath. Not now. Not now. The reality of the situation pounded inside his chest.
Crocker was going to draw. Matt knew it. He had looked into the eyes of too many gunmen over the years not to recognize it for a certainty.
They stared at each other for a long moment, neither man moving. The marshal’s world narrowed to those dark eyes, reading his intent, seeing the hand hover without even shifting his gaze. Between heartbeats, he evaluated the odds. He was tired and hurting and most probably now sick. Crocker was fresh and healthy – and already standing and squared, his hand resting on his gun. Not very good at all.
But it didn’t matter a bit, because Crocker was going to draw. Matt knew it.
Time slowed as it always did in such moments. No one breathed. No one blinked. Then, something barely flickered behind the outlaw’s eyes, almost indiscernible, but it triggered an instinctive reflex in the marshal, and his brain clicked into automatic. Without conscious thought, his arm swung around, palm sliding over the butt of his pistol as his fingers found their familiar places on the metal. The gun was up and firing, as much a natural part of him as his own flesh.
The action twisted him around as he half stood, pain exploding in his leg and sizzling through his entire body. With a groan, he crashed back onto the rough floor of the station, head slamming against the bed frame, darkness sweeping across his vision so that he never saw the fire burst from Crocker’s gun at the same instant.
He tried to fight it, but he was drowning under the sea of pain, struggling vainly to breathe, sinking farther and farther into the abyss. Before long he would be too deep, too far down, to kick free, pulled into the depths forever. Conscious thought faded with the enticing sensation of floating peacefully to the bottom.
The word shattered his calm, drilled through to the small part of his brain that still tried to fight.
He grabbed onto that small part, empowered it with sheer force of will, kicked upward, swam with heavy arms toward the surface. Kitty needed him. Kitty needed him. He had to help her, had to save her. He was almost there, could see the shimmer of the surface just above him. Finally, gulping, he broke through and pried open his eyes, almost surprised to find that he wasn’t dripping wet. He came to some level of consciousness just in time to see Crocker step over him and level the gun right at her.
“Kitty!” His scream tore through the air along with the bullet.
He groaned, grabbing at the bed and dragging his body up from the floor. Teeth gritted against the agony, he threw his shoulders and chest over her.
Crocker still stood, his hard eyes watching them, and Matt’s muddled brain could only instruct him to stare back. He should do something, shouldn’t he? But somewhere deep inside, he told himself he already had.
The outlaw’s gaze faltered just a bit, falling from the couple on the bed to his own body, and Matt saw those eyes widen as they watched the crimson stain soak his chest and stomach until the entire front of his shirt glistened with his own blood. As Crocker lifted his gaze again to stare in astonishment at the weary, injured man who had just killed him, the gun fell from his fingers and clattered on the floor.
“Dillon,” the marshal ground out in answer to the gunman’s earlier question. “Matt Dillon.”
Crocker’s eyes unfocused and glazed over as the life drained out through the two holes Matt Dillon had opened in the outlaw’s body. Arms spread, eyes wide, but unseeing, he crashed back onto the floor just as Angus Skinner skidded to a halt against the door frame, thin chest heaving.
“What the hell – “ he began, his gaze jerking from the dead man to Matt then back again. After a moment of assessment, he pursed his lips and regarded the marshal with a gleam of admiration. “You arright?”
Dropping his own gun, Matt fell back against the bed and took a breath, then another. His head pounded, his cheeks burned, fresh blood trailed down the side of his head where he had knocked it against the bedpost, his leg raged from hip to ankle, and he couldn’t seem to bring his eyes completely into focus.
“Sure,” he managed thickly, trying to pull his legs under him to stand. A man ought to stand at a time like that, ought to be able to take his own weight.
He made it to one knee before the whole world splintered around him and he swirled back into the depths that had tried to claim him earlier, too weak to fight the current any longer.
Slowly, the darkness retreated from the persistent nagging of his own consciousness. He became aware of low murmurs and shuffling footsteps just past his grasp. It was a familiar sensation, one he had experienced too many times through the years. The first order of business was to evaluate his own condition, to see what his next course of action might be. He concentrated on any pain that might alert him to weaknesses he would have to overcome in order to fight, if necessary.
A muffled throbbing in his head could be ignored, a swimming dizziness possibly pushed past. He moved lower, not even bothering with the aches of shoulders and back. Those came with the territory. Everything seemed to be manageable until he made the mistake of trying to move his legs. The blast of fire that raced through the right limb at his slight shift took his breath, and he couldn’t suppress the involuntary gasp that accompanied it. Damn. If he had to move quickly, to defend himself or anyone else, that could prove to be a formidable deterrent.
Trying to pull memories to the surface to determine exactly why he was in such shape, he suddenly had a flash of clarity. The thoughts flew by in a matter of seconds.
The trip to
The stage wreck.
The trek to the stage stop.
“Kitty!” He tried to shout it, but the name came out only as a groan to his ears. Still, it must have been loud enough to draw attention, because someone stepped to him, touched his shoulder.
“Sorry, Matt. It’s just me.” The familiar gruff voice spread over him like a balm.
With effort, the marshal dragged open his eyes, peering into the face that hovered over him. It was a kindly face, and one that smiled down on him now as it had many times before.
“Doc?” he whispered. Candlelight threw flickering shadows against the gray walls of the stage stop station, creating an eerie backdrop for the physician’s head. So it was night. He must have been out several hours.
“Kitty?” he asked insistently. Surely Doc realized Kitty was sick. Surely, if he were there with them he had tended to her. Was she all right? Had Doc gotten there in time?
“Hey, Cowboy.” That smooth tone played over his ears, and he sighed, relieved beyond his own ability to control the tears that burned his eyes.
The doctor stepped back to make room for her as she perched on the side of the narrow bed and rested her hand on Matt’s chest. He stared at her, not completely comprehending what had taken place. The last time he saw her, she was terribly ill, barely able to talk, lying helpless on the bed he now occupied. And Crocker was –
“Where’s Crocker?” Matt wanted to know.
“Crocker?” Doc raised a brow.
“The man – “
“Dead,” Kitty said softly, her own eyes shimmering as she looked at him.
Right. Vague pictures of the outlaw sprawled on the floor floated into his mind.
Doc understood. “Skinner said his name was Smith, or at least that’s what he went by. You knew him?”
Matt nodded, closing his eyes with the fatigue and persisting dizziness. “Deke Crocker. Wanted in four states.”
“Well, not any more,” the doctor informed him. “Festus and Skinner buried him.”
He opened his eyes again. “Are you – all right?” he asked Kitty, covering her hand with his own against his chest. Her hair was a little more tamed now, her face cleaned of the grime of the trail, and she didn’t seem sick at all.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “You, on the other hand – don’t take this wrong, but you look like hell, Matt.”
“You look beautiful,” he whispered, and he meant it.
She smiled. “Sure.”
“You’re really all right?” It seemed much too fast. Surely she couldn’t have recovered in one afternoon.
“Much better. Doc says you’d make a fine physician.”
Waving a hand dismissively at the praise, he started to sit, only to discover himself flat on his back again, two sets of hands against his chest.
“Whoa, there,” Doc was scolding. “You’re a while from gettin’ up, yet. That’s leg’s in bad shape, Matt. Plus, you’ve had a pretty rough time since I got here two days ago.”
The marshal stared at him, confused. “Two days?”
Kitty emphasized. “You’ve been sick,
Matt. Your fever just broke this
afternoon.” She blushed. “Apparently, I gave you the flu. I guess maybe we should have skipped that
softened in memory. He wasn’t sorry
about that night in
Reluctantly, the marshal pulled his gaze from Kitty’s. “Festus?”
Shrugging, the doctor said, “He and that fellow Skinner have struck up a bit of an acquaintance. Must have something do to with their similar bathing habits. They took off about toward the stage wreck. Planned to bury the driver.”
Matt looked at Kitty again, disentangled his hand from hers and reached up to push a lock of hair back from her face. From the corner of his eye, he saw the doctor step out the door into the night, his retreat not subtle at all.
“You’re really all right?” he prodded again.
Her answer was to lean forward and kiss him, not too passionately, since he was far from strong himself, but with enough emphasis to dispel any concerns he had about her health. In fact, when she drew back, he found it a bit hard to catch his breath.
“Point – made,” he gasped.
She laughed that genuine laugh that he loved. “It’d better be.”
“How long ya think Doc’ll be out there?” he wondered, raising his eyebrows, and sliding his hand down to rest at her side, his thumb barely brushing the swell of her breast.
“Not long enough for you,” she returned, moving his hand. “Not that I’m not tempted, Cowboy, but I’m not sure you’re quite up to it, yet.”
He started to tell her he could get up to it, but she shifted a bit and jarred his leg, and his body convinced him maybe he was seriously overestimating his current abilities. In consolation, he let her wipe his face and torso with a cool rag, realizing as she did that he was bare-chested. If Doc had to tend to his leg, he would have had to –
He lifted the covers and peered down, blushing.
“Your clothes are hanging out back,” Kitty explained casually, continuing her ministrations. “Doc had to cut off your pants your leg was so swollen. I mended them as best I could. They’ll get you back to Dodge.”
The blush deepened. It wasn’t so much that Kitty saw him – nothing he had was a mystery to her anymore – but that Doc and Festus had been there when she –
Then her hand rubbed across his chest, and he decided it didn’t really matter. She was here and alive and well. And Crocker was dead.
He let his eyes close, concentrated on her soft touch and calm voice as she talked about nothing and caressed him back down into the waters that no longer swirled or tried to tug him into their treacherous depths. This time he floated serenely, gentle waves rocking him back and forth and soothing his battered body. This time, he willingly let himself sink into the comfort of her arms.
And this time he didn’t even try to fight his way back.
Early Afternoon, Tuesday
Kitty watched him carefully, noting that he still limped a bit as he walked toward the end of the train to retrieve their luggage, but she was smiling when he turned back to her, an all-too-rare carefree grin on his own face. Doc had told her he might always favor that leg even after the substantial damage to it had healed. He hadn’t told her what she knew anyway: that Matt had almost ruined the limb by dragging himself and her across the rough terrain to the stage station. She tried not to feel guilty, tried not to bear some responsibility about the choice. After all, she’d been out of it and not able to protest – as if that would have done any good at all. No, she knew him well enough to realize that he could have done no differently, regardless of her ability to argue about it.
Still, it was impossible to rid herself of the heavy burden when she saw his eyes tighten at an awkward step, or his teeth grit with a sudden turn.
“You ready to check into the hotel?” he asked, hoisting one of the carpetbags over his shoulder.
Pursing her lips, she pretended to consider his question. “Well, I guess so. Not much else to do in this little town.”
“I dunno,” he countered, the gleam bright in his blue eyes. “Last time I was here, I had quite an eventful evening.”
“Maybe we could – do what you did then,” she suggested, fighting the blush that crept to her cheeks with the memory of just what he had done that night three months before.
The gleam burned brighter. “Maybe we could.”
“Buy a girl dinner first?”
He smiled, and his expression told her dessert would be the highlight of the meal.
it’s not Delmonico’s,” he reasoned, “but I hear
“I’m rather partial to steaks.”
“Hope they have big ones,” she said, then leveled her gaze directly at him. “I like big ones.”
Unshaken, he met her look evenly. “I’ve noticed that, too.”
Kitty caught her breath at the heat in his eyes. If she wasn’t careful, the folks at the depot would have a rather intimate scene to remember from their trips. Ruefully, she stepped back from him and reminded, “You mentioned something about a steak?”
“I thought that’s what we were talking about.” Oh, he was evil.
“Yeah.” Get out of this one before you embarrass yourself, Kitty, she scolded. Save it for later. Still, she couldn’t resist one final effort to best him. “Well, I’m famished.” Her eyes smoldered beneath thick lashes. “I think I could just devour one of those big ones whole.”
To her satisfaction, he flushed, and she thought she even heard a low groan before he stooped to pick up another bag, positioning it strategically in front of him as he passed a curious porter. Kitty didn’t try too hard to suppress her smile.
Late Afternoon, Tuesday
Festus Haggen propped his boots on the rail outside the jailhouse
“I might have known.”
He peered down the boardwalk and frowned at Doc Adams as he shuffled up to the jail. “Ya might’ve knowed what, ya ol’ scudder?” He was falling right into the doctor’s trap, but he knew it, counted on it, in fact.
“I might have known you would be hitched up here, oblivious to the responsibilities of a constable to his constituents.”
“Well, I ain’t a hitched up to nothin’ and I shore hadn’t obliberated no constant whatever it wuz you’us a sayin’.” At least he didn’t think he had.
The doctor sank carefully into the empty chair beside him. “Shouldn’t you be out patrolling or something, keeping our fair city safe?”
“Shouldn’t you be a fixin’ somebody’s broke leg or deliverin’ a young’un?”
Scrubbing a hand over his mustache, Doc grunted. “Already done and finished,” he announced. “It’s a boy.”
“Well, then I bin done round about on my patrollin’, too, see. So’s we’re both due a settin’ spell is the way I reckon it.”
“That’s the way you reckon it, is it?”
“That’s the way I reckon it.”
The doctor shook his head, but didn’t reply, and the two of them sat watching the citizens of Dodge come and go with their usual business. Festus let his gaze shift to his companion now and again, just to see if he needed to be on guard for another round of banter, but the older man remained silent. Finally, the deputy decided it might be time to stir things up a bit, seeing as how nothing much was going on in town to entertain them.
“Oh, I plumb near fergot.”
“This here telee-gram ‘at come a whilst ago.”
“Telegram!” As expected, the doctor bristled, dropping his feet from the rail and turning to Festus. “Well, I’ll bet it’s from Matt. And you’ve been sittin’ on it all afternoon, having no idea what’s in it. They could need help. They could – “
“Jest hold onto yer cowbells, thar now, Doc. Ain’t from Matthew a’tall.”
“Well, then, who’s it from?”
“It’s from Miz Kitty.”
The doctor stared at him and ran his hand over his face. “Kitty?”
After a moment, he sighed in defeat. “Well, give it to me so we can see what it says.”
“I done knowed what it sez arreddy.”
“How could you know – “
“I got my ways.”
“Festus – “ It was warning enough to tell the deputy to give a tad.
Peering up into the sky, he quoted from memory what Sam had read to him earlier. “Arrived Kansas City STOP All’s well STOP Don’t wait up STOP Kitty.”
The doctor smiled slightly and grumbled something Festus couldn’t hear.
“Doc, what d’yer reckon she a meant by ‘don’t wait up.’?”
He turned. “Well, she meant – you mean you don’t know?”
He shook his head and sighed. “Some people are just thick-headed, that’s all.” He pushed up and balanced himself before turning back down the boardwalk.
Festus wasn’t sure what Miss Kitty meant, but he could agree with the doctor’s opinion. His spurs clanked as he stood and followed the older man. “Ya know, that’s a absaloot fact. Jest t’other day, ol’ Jeremiah Weaver wuz down to the stables an’ he wuz a tryin’ to back his mule right into one of them stalls. I told him he wuzn’t gonna git nowheres a’tall, but he wuz as hardheaded – “
stepped out into the street to cross over to the
Dry Route Stage Stop
between Larned and
Angus Skinner watched as dust from the Larned stage cleared and his time of solitude returned. After a check of his father’s watch, he nodded in satisfaction that he had helped keep them on schedule. They would arrive in Dodge only a few minutes late, and that was just about the same as being slap on time.
As it had for the past three months, any thoughts of Dodge brought the big marshal to mind. Skinner still thought of him as Wayne Russell, even though he knew now who the man really was. That revelation had answered more than a few questions – the main one being how he had downed a gunfighter even when he was feverish and unable to stand on his own.
But Matt Dillon remained an enigma in Skinner’s mind, the image of the strong, stoic lawman strangely incongruous with the tender deference he showed to his wife. Of course, now the stage manager knew she wasn’t really his wife, was actually the owner of the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge. Didn’t matter, though. After considering it, Skinner stuck with his original impression of the two. Anybody who watched them for more than a few minutes could see that the only thing that stood between them and matrimony was the “pronouncing.”
He had learned another thing during those few days. If he was ever in a fight, he’d sure want to be on Marshal Dillon’s side and not against him. The man was formidable, that was certain. He thought back to that day when he had been outside looking toward the horizon to see if any help was on its way to them. The shots startled him, and he had raced back to the station, falling against the door and squinting into the darker room, heart throbbing in anticipation of what he might see. The big man lay on the floor and Smith stood over him. To his horror, he first thought Smith had killed both Russell and his wife, and he was damning himself for leaving them alone, already having suspicions about the man in black. But then the gunman tumbled backwards and lay out flat on the floor, stone dead. Skinner remembered the shock that bloomed into admiration as he stared at Russell.
Events clipped by after that. Russell – or Dillon – collapsed, having to contend with The Grippe on top of his other considerable ailments. Fortunately, the doctor and deputy from Dodge arrived within an hour. Skinner and Festus Haggen, who seemed to be a good sort, buried Smith – or Deke Crocker, as Skinner later found out. Miss Russell was able to get up and about by the next morning, and the marshal regained enough strength by the end of the week to return to Dodge.
All in all, it had been quite the experience, one he would most certainly share with any and all who would listen as they paused at the Dry Route Stop between Larned and Dodge. As he allowed his gaze to track the setting sun toward the west, he glanced again at the timepiece, pondering what might have happened if Charlie Skinner had made it to his destination all those years ago.
One thing, he knew for certain, he would never have met Matt Dillon, and just for that reason – if none other – he was a might glad things had turned out as they did.
Matt Dillon had always thought Kitty Russell was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and nothing had happened through the years to change his mind. He knew he didn’t tell her often enough, or eloquently enough, but he tried to show her with a look or with a touch.
It was the touching he was best at, he thought, as he let his longs fingers trail down her side and glide over the swell of her hip. At least, her enthusiastic responses seemed to indicate he held some talent in that area. Of course, she ought to know when it came to talent. His body had never felt such sensations as she brought to it, and he sometimes wondered at the height of their passion, if he would survive the experience. But if he didn’t, he figured it was a much better way to go than from a gunman’s bullet.
He shifted a bit, his jaw tightening against the stab of pain in his leg. Kitty looked up at him, questioning silently, but he just smiled back. Doc had told him it might always bother him. Not that chronic pain was something he hadn’t already lived with for several years, a result of more injuries than he could count. But he knew Kitty felt somewhat responsible for this latest addition, since it was her sickness that prompted him to stagger across five miles carrying her both weight and his on an already-torn up knee. He didn’t want her to hold that guilt. He would have done it ten times over if it meant saving her life – and it did.
“Hey,” she whispered, running sharp fingernails lightly down his chest. “You here with me or somewhere else?”
Flattening his hand over her smooth buttocks, he leaned in and brushed his lips against hers. “No where else but here, Red,” he assured her.
“I was beginning to think I had lost your attention.” Her fingers left his chest to rub lightly against the stiff knee, still a little swollen. “Maybe you were distracted.”
With something between a grimace and a smile, he caught her hand and drew it away from his leg. “You’re my only distraction,” he said, kissing her again.
She accepted his caress, but when he pulled back, he saw that his strategy had been a bit short of successful.
“It still hurts,” she observed, not a question.
“Doc said –”
“Forget what Doc said,” he murmured, pressing his lips to her throat.
Giving in to a delicious moan, she arched her neck to give him better access, but didn’t let go of the subject. “You have to take care of it. It’s still not completely – “
“Kitty.” Sighing, he withdrew, his sober tone dropping his voice a register.
She looked at him expectantly.
“It’s not your fault.”
Her expression let him know he had hit a nerve. Dropping her gaze, she sniffed humorlessly. “Yeah.”
His palm cupped her jaw, fingers sliding up into her silken hair, nudging her face back up to look at him. “Kitty, let this go.”
But she shook her head. “Matt, this isn’t just another scrape. Don’t you understand this is something you’ll have to live with for – for the rest of your life? If you hadn’t carried me – ”
Matt Dillon wasn’t normally a man of eloquence, but the next words spilled directly from his heart before his brain even had a chance to consider them. “If I hadn’t carried you, you would be dead. Don’t you think I’d live with ten times the pain before I’d live without you?”
He had surprised them both. She froze, eyes widening, tears pooling, then falling, as she stared, unable to say anything. He felt his throat close, his chest tighten at the double bombardment of her emotion and his own feelings. His heartbeat pounded in his ears; he lay on his side, waiting for her to speak, to move. Finally, her fingers lifted to his cheek and brushed gently, and it was only then that he felt the moisture on his own face, realized she wasn’t the only one crying.
He also realized they had passed the time when words were sufficient to express what they felt. Slowly, he slid an arm around her waist and tugged her closer, letting his mouth close over hers in a kiss that began with tenderness, but almost immediately exploded into a conflagration that left them both panting when they finally let go. Their eyes held, blue fires burning together, souls communicating wordlessly.
Matt ached for her with his heart as well as his body. Any physical pain forgotten under the strength of his desire, he eased her onto her back and knelt over her, using his mouth and his tongue and his hands – and his other talents – to bring her writhing to the edge again and again.
And she gave as much pleasure as she received, hands caressing, rubbing, squeezing, so that he finally had to stop her before it was too late. He had no idea how long they spent in such pleasure before she groaned his name and clutched at his shoulders to coax him up her body so that he was poised, hard and eager, at her entrance.
“Kitty?” he asked, even though he knew she was ready.
Her answer was to wrap her legs around his hips and tug. Hesitating only long enough to brace his arms so that his weight wasn’t on her, he pushed forward slowly, closing his eyes as her heat surrounded him.
“Matt,” she breathed, and he opened his eyes again to lock onto hers as their bodies moved together with increasing intensity, years of intimacy guiding their motions. He held out long past the time he thought he could, waiting for her, drawing her with him until she cried out, arching against him, dragging her nails down his back. Finally free to let go, he thrust harder, pouring out passion and love over and over in powerful bursts before the strength drained from his muscles, and he couldn’t hold himself up any longer.
When the world waved back into focus, he was aware of soft hands pushing gently at his shoulders. “Matt – “
“Oh.” Somehow, he managed to withdraw and roll to the side, one arm over his head, the other hanging off the bed. “Sorry.”
“Umm.” Kitty snuggled up to him, one hand resting on his chest, one leg draped over his thighs. “There’s absolutely nothing to be sorry about,” she purred.
He smiled. Purring was good. “Did you enjoy dessert?” he asked after a few minutes.
She moved her hand down his stomach, playing with the trail of hair that led even lower. “Um hmm.”
“Interested in seconds?” he offered, despite the fact that his knee was reminding him of its presence again.
A deep laugh bubbled in her throat. “If you don’t think I’d be too greedy.”
“I like greedy women,” he told her, grunting when her hand slid south.
Something popped into his mind, something from his long-ago schooling. “Love is blind, and greed insatiable.”
Kitty propped on an elbow and looked at him, surprised or amused, he couldn’t tell. After a moment of scrutiny, she breathed a laugh and burrowed back against his shoulder. “I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not.”
Maybe he should have left out the part about love being blind. But he certainly considered the insatiable part a positive attribute.
“So, you are a poet now?” she continued, not giving him a chance to get into more trouble.
He chuckled. “Nah. Just something I read.”
“Umm. Tall, handsome, brave – and literate. What else could a woman want?”
Reaching over, he pulled her on top of him and pressed their hips together to show her just what else a woman could want. She wasn’t the only one who was greedy.
Late Evening, Tuesday
But he found his mind wandering, and eventually gave up on the journal. Kitty’s telegram, although brief out of necessity, nevertheless conveyed the joy she felt at being away with Matt. The doctor shook his head as he thought about those two. Through the years, he had tried to mind his own business – well, mostly – but, by golly, couldn’t they see they were meant to be together?
Of course, Kitty wasn’t the one he should be pestering, but Matt was almost impossible to get to. Usually, at any hint of meddling, he just stuck his thumbs in his gun belt, reared back so that he stood at his full height, and clammed up.
Doc shuffled over to his bed, sinking down on it and envisioning all the times either Matt or Kitty had lain in that same spot, ill or wounded, close to dying. He wondered what would happen if the day came – when the day came – that one or the other didn’t survive. And what would they have then? What would Kitty have when they finally had to take Matt over to Percy Crump’s for good?
No name. No home. No family.
“Damn fool,” he muttered, lying back against the pillows. “Matt Dillon, you’re a damn fool.”
But as he lay there, memories of the years brought him different visions: visions of two people laughing together at their “usual” table in the Long Branch; visions of two people riding a buckboard to a private picnic by the river, shoulders touching, eyes smiling; visions of two people walking hand-in-hand up darkened back stairs, unaware that one nosy and affectionate old friend was watching; visions of countless times two people couldn’t keep from telegraphing their feelings, even though an entire town was watching.
Then he chuckled, the sound unexpected to his ears, as he realized something. There he was, alone and grumpy and worried about two people who were at the moment probably not thinking about anything except – well, they probably weren’t thinking at all. Maybe he was the fool, instead.
Kitty were in
At least for now.
“Love is blind, and greed insatiable.”