A Gunsmoke Story
Festus Haggen pushed through the battered saloon doors, eyes squinted, glancing around the small, rough room until his gaze rested on the lone barkeeper playing solitaire on the counter. Ignoring the few patrons who watched him, he approached the bar, spurs jingling, a small cloud of dust puffing up from his trail-worn clothes. Leaning against the counter, he waited for a few seconds until the barkeeper raised his head, playing two more cards before he pushed away from his game and stepped closer, eyes flickering briefly to the U.S. Deputy Marshal’s badge.
Festus nodded wearily. “Howdy. How ‘bout a beer?”
“Sure. It’s ten cents.”
Ten cents! How could this
hole-in-the-wall-sorry-excuse-for-a-town charge more than a fine establishment
“Somethin’ wrong, Mister?”
Well, since the man asked. “Why, in Dodge we onliest pay five cents fer a beer.”
Unmoved, the man shrugged. “You ain’t in Dodge, are ya’?”
Since he was thirsty enough to drink ditch water, Festus fished out the required coins and tossed them on the counter, but he grumbled about it. “Whoever heerd a’ sich – “
The barkeeper handed over a foamy headed glass of beer. “So, you from Dodge, are ya’?”
“That’s a far piece from here. Whatcha doin’ in Jeddo?”
Jeddo? He had wondered if the place even had a name. What was he doing in Jeddo? He pressed back the worry that grew heavier and heavier each time he came and went through these places. He’d lost count of how many dead ends he’d run up against, of how many frustrations and disappointments he’d encountered. How could he go back to Dodge empty-handed? How could he face Miss Kitty when the best he could offer was the uncertainty that comes with not knowing?
But his face was carefully blank when took a swallow of watered-down beer and answered. “Lookin’ fer somethin’.”
The barkeeper smiled. “Most folks lookin’ fer somethin’ are really lookin’ fer someone.”
Festus supposed that even barkeepers in places like Jeddo had seen enough to know things like that, but he didn’t respond to that comment. Instead, he observed simply, “Seems like ya’ got yerseffs a quiet town.” More like comatose, Doc might say.
“Mostly,” the other man agreed. “‘Course, if you’d been here coupla days ago, you’d a got yer fill of excitement.”
“Thet a fact?”
“Had us a shootout, just like ya’ do in Dodge.”
“A shootout?” Festus felt his heart skip a beat.
Aware that he had gained the stranger’s interest, the
barkeeper let his chest swell as he told his tale. “Yep. Lawman come inta
town lookin’ fer Ouincey Nagle. Sed he wuz gonna
take him in fer shootin’ up
a freight office in
Swallowing hard, Festus set down his beer. “Lawman?” he asked, mouth suddenly dry. After all these weeks, was it possible?
“Big fella. I told him Quince was fast, fastest I ever seen, but he didn’t listen. ‘Bout that time ol’ Quince come in and before I knowed it they wuz drawed and done.”
Heart pounding now, Festus licked his lips, not sure he wanted to hear more. “Whut – whut happened?”
“Like we figgered, ol’ Quince plugged him good, kilt him. Shame, but I told him Quince was fast.”
The blood drained from his face as Festus rasped, “The lawman’s – dead?” Dear God.
“Deader’n my Aint Maisey,” the bartender confirmed.
The words rushed through his body and down his legs, weakening his knees. Fighting to keep his feet, the deputy took two deep breaths to steady himself and asked quietly, “Where – where’s the – the body?”
“Oh, he’s over in th’ churchyard. Him bein’ a lawman and all, we felt the Christian thing ta’ do wuz see him buried proper.” The barkeeper seemed proud of their charity. Digging into his vest pocket, he held out a badge. “This is his. Weren’t sure where ta’ send it.”
Staring at the familiar shining silver, Festus felt the tears burn his eyes as he held the metal in his hand, his fingers slowly closing around the words “U.S. Marshal.”
They stood in the small, unkempt cemetery, the wind blowing tumbleweeds past the crude crosses and marks, only some of which had rough, hand-carved lettering. Hat in hand, head bowed, Festus stared at the jagged piece of wood protruding from the ground at the head of the grave before him, grief stark on his craggy features, heart bleeding for his dear, dear friend.
“Oh, Matthew,” he groaned.
“I told ‘im.”
He turned abruptly to see the barkeeper shaking his head as he gazed down at the sad grave.
If he had been less stunned, Festus might have felt anger at that remark. As it was, he just managed to ask, “Did Matth – did the lawman hev ennythang on him? Enny personal items?”
A sheepish look crossed the other man’s face. “Well, he had three twenty-dollar gold pieces, a few ten-dollar pieces, and a watch. Didn’t figure he’d be needin’ them, so we – uh – we divided up the money – “
Festus’ head snapped around to glare at the barkeeper. What kind of men lived here, anyway?
Seeing his reaction, the barkeeper hurried to explain. “We didn’t know he wuz somebody – “
The grief of the moment, the frustration of helpless had built until it exploded. Festus snarled and grabbed the man’s shirtfront. “Somebody? Somebody! Listen ‘chere ya thickheaded, thievin’ no ‘count – “
Startled, the barkeeper pulled away. “Hey, now. I ain’t no thief. Didn’t take none a thet money. It was the others.” His voice softened a bit. “Look, I kin tell he was a friend of yours, and I’m sorry about that.” He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a long folded wallet and handed it to Festus. “He had this, too. I reckon they’re his papers. Has a picture in there of a pretty woman I figger’s his wife.” He shook his head sympathetically. “Shame.”
Shaken, Festus took the wallet and looked inside, already knowing he would find a photograph of Kitty Russell. As if a knife had sliced right through his heart, he closed his eyes, unable to look any more. After a moment, he closed the wallet and swung angrily toward the barkeeper.
“You had this chere wallet all along and didn’t send no wire er nothin’ ta let nobody know about him?”
The other man shrugged defensively. “Ain’t many folks ‘round here kin read. Nobody know’d what his name was.”
“Nobody in this chere town kin read?”
“Town ain’t that big, mister. We ain’t educated like you folks from the city.”
A chagrined flush colored the wizened cheeks. “Yeah, wael – “
His tone eagerly helpful, the bartender added, “Now, the Wider Miller can read and cipher and everything, but she lives more’n fifteen miles out. Don’t git inta town much. Hadn’t seen her in a couple of months, I suppose.”
What did it matter, anyway, now? All the energy drained down his body until Festus felt as if he would just melt into the hard dirt. His voice no more than a croak, he asked, “You got a telegraph office?”
“Used to. Ain’t nobody kin operate it no more. Closest operator’s ‘bout thirty miles.”
As much as he wanted to get out of the hell-hole, Festus knew his body needed sleep. Exhaustion and misery weighed him down. “How ‘bout a place fer th’ nite?”
“Ol’ Grady Buckhorn’ll bed ya down at his place. Next to th’ stables. Not fancy, but – “ He looked Festus up and down. “ – I don’t figure you much for fancy, anyway.”
Ignoring the insult, the deputy summoned a burst of anger toward the act that had taken the best man he had ever known. “Whut about th’ feller whut done this?”
“Quincey Neagle? Ain’t seen him since the’ shootin’. He’s a restless one. Comes and goes. He’ll come back through someday.” His eyes narrow at Festus. “I wouldn’t wait fer him unless you wanna join yer friend, here.”
Festus looked down at the grave again, grief anew on his face. “Jest show me th’ way ta’ Buckhorn’s place.”
“Shore. I think ol’ Grady’s got rid of most of them bedbugs by now.”
Festus shook his head, shooting the barkeeper a wary look as they walked away from Matt Dillon’s final resting place.
Morning dawned just about as hot as evening had ended. Festus planned to make the journey back to Dodge, one he knew would be longer and harder than any other he had made before. But at least he was determined before he abandoned this place to find out more about what happened, to get some leads on this Quincey Neagle so he could track him down to the last spot on earth and make him pay for killing Matthew.
The rhythmic clang of hammer on anvil told him that the town’s blacksmith was hard at work. Stepping inside the shop, he dragged off his hat and wiped his face as the sweltering heat blasted him. Even though he knew he must have been noticed, he saw that the smithy didn’t look up. When he asked who the undertaker was, the barkeeper had directed him here for some reason. Now he stood waiting for the burly man to stop long enough to talk with him.
After a moment, a deep voice asked, “Can I help you?”
Festus gritted his teeth at the painful answer. “I’m lookin’ fer th’ undertaker. Some feller over ta th’ saloon sent me chere, but – “
“That’s right. I’m the undertaker.”
Eyes widening in surprise, Festus exclaimed, “Yer th’ undertaker? I ain’t never seed no undertaker ‘at looked as healthy as you.” He was used to Percy Crump’s long, lean, and almost skeletal form, and every other undertaker he’d seen seemed to adopt the same appearance.
The big man looked up briefly, then bent back over his work. “Well, now you have. Name’s Pickens. Claude Pickens. You got somebody needs burying?”
Anguish ripped anew at Festus’ heart before he could stop it. “Naw. You done that fer me arreddy.”
This time, Pickens regarded him with more interest. “You mean the lawman?”
The lawman. “Kin ya tell me much about whut happened?”
After a moment’s consideration, Pickens laid down his hammer and stepped back. “It was pretty fast. Lawman said he had come for Quince. Quince said he wasn’t going. The lawman went for his gun, Quince outdrew him, and that was that.”
A frown crossed Festus’ face. Not that Matthew had never been outdrawn, but even then he usually was the better shot. “Did th’ – the lawman say ennythang before – well, wuz there enny last words?”
Pickens shook his head. “Quince’s bullet hit him square through the heart. Didn’t have time to blink, much less say anything. He was warned.”
That just couldn’t be. “And ya’ say the lawman drawed first?”
“That’s what I said. He must not have been a very good lawman judging from all the scars on his body. It appears like he got hit more than he hit.”
Teeth bared and almost snarling, Festus stepped close to the blacksmith. “Mister, if I wasn’t in a hurry, I’d take a bullwhip to ya fer sayin’ sich. That thar lawman yer a talkin’ about is the best lawman this chere country’s ever seen.”
Even though he had a good thirty pounds on Festus, the man flinched slightly. “Was.”
“He was the best lawman, maybe. Not anymore.” Then, as if he decided to switch from blacksmith to mortician, his voice softened. “Look, I’m sorry about your friend. I gave him a decent, Christian burial. I figured maybe you’d thank me for that.”
It took considerable effort for Festus to keep himself from throttling the man. “Yeah. Much obliged.” Glaring at Pickens once more, he slammed the battered hat back on his head and strode from the shop.
One hour and two beers later found him back in the sorry excuse for a saloon, propped wearily at the bar. Nobody in Jeddo seemed to know anything, except that Quincey Neagle had done for a tall lawman who was now buried in the churchyard. No one knew where Neagle had gone or when he might be back. And no one much seemed to care. A saloon girl leaned next to him, her heavy make-up and worn look telling of someone whose beauty days – if there had ever been any – were long passed.
“Like I said,” she continued in a
“Miss – uh – “
“I’m jest Betsy. That’s all.”
Despite the alcohol – or maybe with the assistance of the alcohol – Festus had conducted a sort of inquiry with the woman. Something just wasn’t right about this whole thing. Matthew wouldn’t draw first, for one thing, but if he had, he surely wouldn’t have been the one to die. It was becoming increasingly clear to him that perhaps his best friend had been the victim of an ambush. “Wael, Betsy, whut kin ya tell me ‘bout Quincey Neagle?”
Betsy rolled her dark eyes. “He don’t like ta pay. Thinks he’s pretty enough to git it fer free, but I told him – “
Betsy frowned in disappointment at having her story cut short, but sighed and nodded. “Arrite. That lawman come in here askin’ after Quince. He wuz a big, good-lookin’ feller, and I declared to him how I’d be rite partial to a beer, but he wuz set on Quince. No sooner’n Fred told him – “
She nodded toward the bar. “Fred – the barkeeper. Figured you knowed his name, much as ye’ve talked at him.”
“Wael, no sooner’n Fred told him he ain’t seen Quince, Quince come rite on in. They looked at each other fer a minute. Then the lawman told Quince he’d come ta’ take him in fer somethin’ – I don’t remember. They looked at each other fer another minute. Then they drawed, and next thing I knowed, that lawman was on th’ floor. Quince got ‘im rite through th’ heart.” She smiled wistfully. “Shame. I think I coulda got ta’ know that marshal rite well.”
A slight bit of dark humor nudged at Festus as he thought about what Miss Kitty might think of this woman’s designs on Matthew, but it vanished almost before it started. Teeth gritted, he mumbled, “Don’t you count on it.”
She heard him and scowled. “Wael, don’t matter none now, does it?”
It mattered. It surely did matter. “Where did Neagle go after th’ shootin’?”
“Don’t know. He comes
an’ goes as he pleases. Some folks say
he spends time with a Mulatto girl down near
Apparently forgiving him any insults, Betsy sidled up to him and gave him her best smile. “I won’t, but you kin come around enny time.”
Nodding, Festus quickly extricated himself from her grip and stepped to the bar where Fred seemed involved in another game of solitaire. After a moment, he glanced up at the deputy.
“Find ennything?” he asked without real interest.
“Not much,” Festus had to admit. One more thought occurred to him, even though he didn’t figure it was much help. “Whut about this Wider Miller ya’ talked on before?”
“Wider Miller? Oh, she ain’t bin in town fer a coupla months. She wouldn’t know nothin’. Her place is ‘bout fifteen miles north, if ya’ got a mind. Be a waste of time, though.”
Dead ends all around. “I don’t reckon it’d do much good at that.”
“You gonna stay in Jeddo long? Ol’ Quince might not be back for weeks or even months.”
“Naw, I’m headin’ back ta’ Dodge. Miz Kitty’s bin worried sick – “ He stopped suddenly, already haunted by the image of her lovely face contorted in grief when he told her. His voice was hoarse when he spoke again. “I – uh – I thank ya’ fer yer hep. An’ fer seein’ Matthew – the marshal – buried. I’ll be a comin’ back sometime later.” Eyes hardening, he said, “You see Quincey Neagle, you kin tell him Festus Haggen is a lookin’ fer him.”
Fred lifted a brow. “I’ll do it. Agin, I’m sorry ‘bout yer friend.”
Suddenly, all the air seemed to leave him, and Festus nodded sadly. Now he couldn’t even offer Miss Kitty the hope of uncertainty.
Doc wasn’t sure how long it took, but sometime in the first few years after she arrived in Dodge, if Matt was gone, telegrams started arriving, at first sent to Doc, but later directly to her.
“Trial ran over. STOP. Leaving Friday.”
“All is well. STOP. Be home tomorrow.”
Doc wasn’t foolish enough to think that he was the reason these telegrams started. He knew – they all knew – who that was. That’s why he worried. Matt had told Kitty two weeks, and two weeks – and more – had come and gone with no word.
He closed his eyes and listened,
imaging he could hear the steady clop of Buck’s hooves down
“Here,” he called. “I’m comin’.” Throwing open the door, he stared up at the grizzled deputy, noting in one glance the fatigue that tugged down those slumped shoulders. “Where in tarnation have you been? It’s been two weeks and – “ But he stopped suddenly at the devastation on Festus’ grimy face. Swallowing against the rising fear, he asked, “Did you – did you find Matt?”
Festus’ eyes held a misery that set Doc’s heart to pounding.
“Is he – is he okay?” Please, God, let him be okay.
Festus didn’t speak, but his silence was answer enough. Realization slammed into the doctor, and he clutched at the back of his chair to remain upright.
“Oh, no,” he groaned. “No, no, no. No, Festus. No – you – you can’t tell me that – “
Still not speaking, the deputy dug into a vest pocket and held out his hand, the sight of a familiar flash of metal punching Doc back as if he had been hit.
“It could – it could belong to – to someone else – to another marshal – “ he fumbled, even as he knew it didn’t.
Pulling out a scarred leather wallet, Festus handed it to
Hands shaking, Doc reached out and took it. “Oh, dear Lord. Dear Lord. Oh, Matt,” he whispered raggedly. “Oh, son.”
He lifted his eyes to lock gazes with Festus, his grief doubled as he shared it with the other man. His mind had told him for many years that this day would come, but his heart had always shielded him from those thoughts, shielded all of them from the agonizing reality. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. But it was. He held the proof in his trembling grasp.
Finally, swallowing and clearing his throat, he swiped a hand over his mouth and asked softly, “Where is he?”
Tears pooling in his eyes, Festus said, “Jeddo.”
Jeddo. Jeddo? Where the hell – “Never heard of it.”
Buried – oh, dear God.
Sharp grief swept over him, and Doc turned away, fighting for control. He could break down later – had no doubt that
he would – but Festus needed him now. Festus and – oh, God. “Have you – have you been to the
Festus shook his head. “Doc, I jes – I jes cain’t.”
The older man understood. It was the last thing he wanted to do. “We’ve got to – got to go over there.”
Agony roughed Festus’ voice. “How air we gonna tell her, Doc? How kin we tell her?”
“We won’t have to, Festus. She’ll see it on our faces.”
As many deaths as he’d witnessed through the years, as many tragic scenes as he’d been part of, Doc had never felt so helpless as he did there in Kitty’s room, watching as she sat in a chair by her fireplace, back stiff, eyes dull and staring ahead. She had not said two words since he and Festus broke the news a good thirty minutes before. All they could do was wait and be there for her. At the soft chime of the clock, she finally spoke, her voice quiet, almost as if she didn’t remember they were there.
“I need to talk to Percy Crump. Matt – Matt made arrangements long ago for – for – “
Working desperately to keep the tears from coursing down his cheeks, Doc stepped to a cabinet and withdrew a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. Returning to stand next to her, he poured a generous portion of the liquid into the glass and handed it to Kitty.
“Take a good gulp of that, honey.”
Kitty stared at the glass for a moment, then shook her head. “No. I need to – I need to be clear when I – “ Her voice caught as Doc watched her fight for control. “ – when I talk to Percy – “
“But Miz Kitty,” Festus said, “Matthew’s done – he’s done buried, Miz Kitty.”
“Buried?” she echoed. “No – I can’t – I can’t believe – Matt. I thought – I was afraid all those years and now – it’s just not – he’s buried?”
The deputy nodded, his own cheeks damp. “Is thar ennythang I kin do fer ya?”
With a weak smile, she shook her head, then, staring off again for a few seconds, she murmured, “You know, it’s ironic, really.”
Slipping his fingers over her wrist, Doc checked her pulse. She didn’t seem to notice. “What’s that, honey?”
“This is the first time I didn’t really worry when he left. He said he would be gone a couple of weeks, but it didn’t seem to be all that dangerous. I don’t even remember if I reminded him to be careful.” She turned to him, voice suddenly anxious. “Maybe if I had – maybe he wouldn’t be – “
Even though his own heart was breaking, Doc took both of her hands in his to comfort her. “Matt was always careful, Kitty. You know that. This time, he just – well, I don’t know what happened, but I know one thing. Matt Dillon loved you more than anything else in this world. And nothing – not even death – can take that away from you.”
She nodded, then fell silent again for a long moment before she turned abruptly toward the deputy. “Festus, are you – are you sure? Absolutely sure?”
His face lined with grief, Festus nodded slowly, pulling out Matt’s badge and wallet to hand to her. She stared at them a beat or two before she reached out to take them. Doc watched as she turned the badge over in her hand, a sob catching in her throat. As if the two intimate pieces of evidence were suddenly too much to bear, she collapsed to the floor, burying her head in her arms.
Bending down to wrap his arms around her heaving shoulders, he looked helplessly back up to Festus.
“Doc, whut kin we do?”
“Nothing, Festus. Nothing. Why don’t you go see about – about getting her something to eat?”
“She ain’t a-gonna – “
“Just do it,” he growled, then softened at the stricken look on his friend’s face. “Please.’
For once, his old sparring partner cooperated. “Arrite, Doc.” As he left, he looked back sadly at Kitty, his own heart clearly breaking. Doc knew how he felt.
It was a good ten minutes before her sobs finally slowed. Breath still catching, Kitty gasped, “What am I going to do, Doc? How am I going to live without him?“
“Shh. You will live, Kitty. You have to. For the rest of us. For yourself. And for Matt. Wouldn’t he want you to?”
She didn’t answer for a moment, then slowly pushed herself up from the floor, squared her shoulders, and wiped at swollen eyes. “You’re right, Doc. You’re right.” Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she set her jaw. “I have to go get him.”
“I have to go to – to – where did you say?”
“Jeddo, but – “
“To Jeddo and get him. I can’t leave him there, Doc. I have to bring him home.”
That declaration didn’t surprise him. “That’s a long trip, Kitty. I’ve already checked at the depot. This place is in the middle of nowhere. You’d have to take a train – several, actually – then a wagon across some rough ground.”
She sat completely upright now, her jaw hard. “Doesn’t matter. I’m going – and you can’t stop me, Doc.”
Eyes soft, Doc nodded. He wasn’t so foolish as to try. “All right. I’ll go with you. And I’m sure Festus will insist, as well. We’ll bring Matt back.”
With a strength he had seen in her many times before, Kitty took a deep breath, then rose, back straight, head high. “Thank you. I’ll be – all right now.”
How he wished that were true.
If Kitty Russell had been able to think about anything else except the
sodden grief suffocating her, she might have considered that they had traveled
more than halfway across
tongue at the two horses that pulled them, Festus said, “I wish somebody’d
build one railroad acrost this chere
state. As many times as we had ta’ change trains, it’s a wonder we didn’t end up in
Doc shook his head. “
“That’s whut I mean. We coulda bin plumb opp’site of whar we wuz a goin’.”
“South is not opposite of east. West is the opposite of east,” Doc argued.
Typically, Festus ignored him. “An’ they ain’t even got a train ta’ Jeddo. Had ta’ git off in Cahoots – “
“Had to git off thar and git this chere wagon – “
“Well, for Pete’s sake, we knew that when we started – “
“Stop it!” She had snapped out the words before she realized it was done, their usually amusing banter grating on her nerves until she couldn’t hold it in anymore. Voice still tight, she almost pleaded. “Doc, Festus, please – “
Both of the men stopped immediately, apologies on their
lips, chagrin on their faces as they rode for a while in silence. Kitty wished she could be more patient,
wanted to smile at them, to reassure them, but she could offer nothing except
her own quiet grief. Finally, they topped a small hill and saw the town of
She drew in a ragged breath, struggling to regain her composure as they approached this horrid place that had taken Matt from her. As they rode down the street – apparently the only one in town – a few folks glanced at them, interest showing only mildly in their drawn faces. The third building, one of the few not in disrepair, advertised itself as the blacksmith’s shop and undertaker’s office. Festus drew up the team and hopped down.
“You wait rite chere, Miz Kitty,” he told her, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll git th’ undert – uh, th’ blacksmith.”
He disappeared into the shed, leaving her alone with Doc on the buckboard seat. The older man took her hand in his and asked gently, “You okay?”
Kitty allowed herself a humorless laugh, an apology of sorts for her outburst. “Sure.”
“Why don’t you go wait at the saloon?” he suggested. “Festus and I can – “
He wanted to spare her, she knew, but she wouldn’t – couldn’t – let him. “No. No, I have to do this, too. Matt would – Matt would do it, if it were me.”
A sad smile curved Doc’s lips as he blinked and nodded. “Yeah.”
They sat without speaking further until Festus emerged from the shed with a burly, barrel-chested man following. He had told her the undertaker was also the blacksmith, but she had trouble picturing this rough character as a mortician. Still, he bowed politely as he approached her.
“I take it you are the wife of the dear departed?”
She shot a startled glance toward Festus, who simply nodded pointedly at her. Taking a deep breath, she answered, “Yes.”
“May I extend my deepest sympathies,” Pickens offered, his tone stilted, practiced.
Kitty knew her response was just as wooden. “Thank you.”
“If you will excuse me for a few minutes, I will make myself more presentable so we can visit the grave.”
“We kin meet ya’ thar,” Festus suggested.
“Suit yourself. I’ll be only a little while.”
When it was just the three of them again, Festus reached up to help her down from the wagon, his hands surprisingly gentle. Doc climbed down after her, accepting Festus’ help, as well. She saw the amazement in the deputy’s eyes at Doc’s cooperation and almost – almost – smiled, but the expression wouldn’t quite come.
Festus tilted his head slightly. “Th’ church is jest over yonder. Air ya’ ready, Miz Kitty?”
Gathering her courage, she nodded. “Yes.”
The wooden-framed church sat on a small rise just across the dirt street, the cemetery on a slight slope beyond it. As they approached, Kitty heard the lonely sound of the wind whistling across the headstones, most of which were crude and unmarked except for the cracks of time. She saw the disturbed soil that identified the newest grave and walked toward it as if she were in a trance, not even noticing that Festus and Doc lagged behind her, allowing her the moment with Matt alone. For a long time, she stared down at the plot of land, trying to feel closer to him, to sense his presence, but of course that was ridiculous, she knew. There was no presence any more. There was no Matt anymore.
Fresh tears spilled over her cheeks, devastation clouded her eyes. Despite her efforts not to lose control, the finality of the moment struck her with cruel clarity and she let out a shuddering sob. “Oh, Matt.”
Not even the close presence of her two friends could soften the pain that washed through her afresh at the sight of his grave. How could he be gone? How could he? Emptiness opened up at the center of her chest, emptiness she knew would ache to be filled for the rest of her life.
“If you would like, you may carve the departed’s name on the stone. There’s, uh, no one in town who can write.”
The gruff voice startled her, and she turned to see Claude Pickens standing solemnly next to her, looking only slightly more like a mortician in his ill-fitting ebony suit.
Clawing back her dignity, Kitty straightened and edged resolve into her tone. “That won’t be necessary. We will be taking him back with us.”
“My – husband,” she explained. “I would like for you to – disinter the – “ Her voice broke and she choked on the words before she regained control. “ – the body. We are taking him back to Dodge where he belongs.”
The undertaker frowned. “But – “
Kitty lifted the reticule that she wore on her arm and removed a generous bundle of greenbacks. “I will pay you well, of course.”
Immediately, Pickens’ face changed. “But, of course, ma’am. Let me gather a few men.”
Kitty watched, almost numb, as three men, sweating and dirty and a bit too scrawny for this kind of work, tugged at the ropes extended from the open grave. They were pulling up the coffin that held her man – her lover – her best friend – her life. It seemed so undignified. Festus took his place at one end to pull on the rope so the lifting was even. No use having it fall right back in the hole again. Kitty felt Doc take her hand in his, and she squeezed it in thanks, not taking her eyes from the oversized box. When it reached the surface, they heaved it up and struggled to load it onto the back of the buckboard.
Wiping sweat from his brow, even though he hadn’t actually done any of the work himself, Pickens nodded to her. “There you are, ma’am. I hope your trip back to Dodge is pleasant.”
Doc glared at the man. “Thanks,” he muttered sarcastically before turning to Kitty, his expression softening. “Are you ready? We might be able to make it to Chanute before night.”
But she shook her head, knowing her next move would startle her dear friends – and everyone else. “No.”
“What?” Doc asked.
“Not yet,” she said, then announced, “I want to see him.”
Alarm splattered across Festus’ face. “Miz Kitty, I ain’t sa’ sure thet’s a good idee.”
“I want to,” she insisted.
“Ma’am,” Pickens began carefully, “perhaps I should remind you that it’s been almost three weeks since the death. I gave your husband a proper burial, but – uh – since there was no one to pay, the body wasn’t prepared. It will not be a – pleasant sight.”
“I don’t care. I want to see him.” Of course, she didn’t really want to – at least not this way. She wanted to remember him strong and handsome and virile like he had been when he held her in his arms and loved her the night before he left. But she had to know, had to see for herself before she could let him go. It was not Doc’s place or Festus’. It was hers.
Pickens gave her one last look and shrugged, stepping to a pile of tools, then returning with something that looked like a crowbar. “Are you sure, ma’am?”
Bracing herself, she said, “I’m sure.”
Shaking his head, Pickens climbed onto the buckboard and shoved the crowbar under the coffin lid. “You may want to cover your noses,” he cautioned. “The odor – “
Doc, Kitty, and Festus watched, none of them following his suggestion. With a loud crack, the lid popped up. Pickens pushed it away, and it fell with a startling bang onto the bed of the buckboard. Unable to suppress a wince himself, he pulled out a handkerchief to cover his nose as he jumped down.
With shallow courtesy, he extended a hand to Kitty. “May I help you up, ma’am?”
She hesitated only a moment before she took a deep breath and nodded, holding out an elbow for him to help her onto the back of the wagon. Jaw clenched tight, she closed her eyes, then opened them and peered into the coffin at the corpse. Pickens’ warning had been rightly given. The gruesome sight was hard to stomach, but she forced herself, looking on the rotting features that had once been the face of a man. She lingered only briefly on the hair, then scanned the rest of the body, hands stiff and strange, crossed over the checked shirt, legs long and straight covered by dark pants and boots.
Realization dawned. With a gasp, she drew her hand to her mouth, felt fresh tears in her eyes.
“Oh,” she breathed. “Oh, my.”
She stared down at Doc and Festus, unable to talk. Instead, she smiled, a tremulous, amazed smile.
Confused, Doc frowned, and she figured he thought she might be going crazy. “Kitty?”
Finally, the words came, spurting out in such relief that she didn’t even know if she was making sense. “Oh, Doc, it – it isn’t – Doc, it’s not – “
The older man shuffled toward her, worry creasing his brow. “It’s not what?”
And then the words flowed easily, joyfully. “Matt! It’s not Matt! It’s not Matt. Oh, dear God, it’s not Matt.”
Uneasily, the undertaker advised, “Of course, you realize that death changes features. Why, many times I’ve seen a wife unable to recognize her husband because of those changes. And since there is quite a bit of decay already – “
But she knew for certain now and shook her head furiously. “I’m telling you, this is not Matt – my, uh, my husband.” Climbing down from the buckboard, she fell into Doc’s arms. “Oh Doc, it’s not Matt. It’s not Matt!”
“Are you sure, honey?” Doc asked carefully.
She nodded, tears flowing down her cheeks. Hesitantly, Doc shuffled to the wagon and reached a hand for Pickens to help him up. Festus followed right behind. She watched as they both winced and peered into the coffin, taking only a moment to come to the same conclusion.
“By golly,” Doc said, amazement brightening his pale eyes.
Perhaps it was elation that made it easier to climb down from the buckboard, but it was just a moment later that they joined in a hug, clinging to each other, the relief and joy at this discovery almost more than they could deal with. Kitty cried and laughed all at once. Pickens and the workers watched them, bemused. After a few more hugs, Festus suddenly straightened and cocked his head at the coffin.
“Wait a minute. Wait jest a dadblamed minute.”
Still smiling broadly, Doc asked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” the deputy clarified, “if this chere ain’t Matthew – “
“Then whar is he?”
The thought had already crossed Kitty’s mind, and her glee diminished –
but only slightly. Matt was alive. He had to be alive, now. And she would find him if she had to look
through every hell-hole in
Alice Miller struggled with the heavy water bucket, dragging it into the small two-room cabin, trying not to slosh half its contents onto the rough floor. Petey looked up as she entered and shook his head sadly. She lamented that in his short 10 years, the boy had seen how hard life could be, but there was little she could do about it. If only his pa hadn’t left –
She frowned. Thinking about "if only" had never put food on the table. Resting the bucket against the sink, she wiped her hands on her plain apron and pushed back a strand of honey-colored hair. At one time she might have thought herself pretty, but that was years ago, before Rudy had gone. There weren’t any men around Jeddo to get fixed up for anyway. Her gaze fell on the huge figure that lay diagonally on the cast iron bed a few feet away. At least there hadn’t been until Petey had rushed through the door almost four weeks earlier shouting about finding a dead giant.
And he had almost been right on both accounts, except that the man wasn’t quite a giant – just the biggest man she had ever seen – and he wasn’t quite dead – just awfully close. It had been no easy task to get his massive frame into the bed, but that proved to be the easy part. The hard part was keeping him alive.
She couldn’t help but wince as she examined his body, the purplish-yellow bruises marring the firm rib cage, angry welts slashing across the broad chest, her own make-shift bandages padding his left chest and shoulder. Even counting the severe injuries, he was an impressive physical specimen, his strength no doubt contributing to his continued survival. Any other man would have succumbed long ago. Perspiration shone on his skin, evidence of a fever finally broken. She studied his face, marked by gashes and bruises and a more-than-half-grown beard. Even bloodied and battered, he was a handsome man, strong featured, square jawed.
By necessity she had seen more of his body than she had of
any other man’s except her husband’s, and she could attest to its
strength. But she had also seen the
myriad scars that crossed it, wondered what sort of man he was, what kind of difficult
life he led that brought such abuse. Not
for the first time, she considered that he might be wanted by the law. A man didn’t get shot up that much without
reason. Maybe she and Petey should have just left him on the road. But
Still, there was something about his face that told her he was.
“Ma! Ma! He’s awake! He’s awake!”
She saw the stranger’s eyes open almost at the same time Petey yelled in excitement. The man immediately squinted against the pain and light. Sitting gingerly on the side of the bed, she reached out to rest a hand on his forehead, pleased to feel the coolness there.
She smiled in cautious relief. “Well, welcome back.”
He blinked and looked up at her. She saw confusion in his eyes, sky blue and
intense even through his haze. Without
speaking, he grimaced and tried to sit, but only the slightest move pushed him
back, gasping. Shaking her head,
“You just stay right there, Mister. It’s gonna be a good, long while before you’re ready to do more than just lie quietly.”
When he spoke, his voice was hoarse, but deep. “Where – “
“You’re at my farm, mine and Petey’s here.”
Grinning, Petey stepped closer so
the man could see him.
“Howdy, Mister,” he gushed. “Golly, you’re ‘bout the biggest man I ever seen!”
“Petey!” she scolded, but it wasn’t harsh. “I’m sorry, but he’s been talking about that ever since he found you.”
The man licked his lips weakly. “Found me?”
“Out by the road about a mile from here. As near as I can figure, you got yourself bushwhacked but good. Whoever did it sure didn’t mean for you to linger long enough to remember anything about it.”
A frown drew down his brow as he struggled to remember. “No, I – can’t – “
Knowing that the last thing he needed was to get agitated,
“Bullet – wounds?” he asked.
“Two in the chest and shoulder and one in the leg.” It had been a miracle that he lived.
“Which – leg?”
He closed his eyes and winced.
She had already noticed the ample evidence of previous injuries to that limb. This man had seen a good deal more than his fair share of physical pain. The question was – who caused it and why? “Yeah, I can see you’re no stranger to the lead.”
“’Fraid – not,” he acknowledged, then looked at her as if he comprehended what her comment implied about her acquaintance with his body. Clearing his throat uncomfortably, he said, “I’m – obliged for your help, Miss – “
“How – long?”
“Last Friday was three weeks.”
His eyes widened in alarm. “Three weeks!”
“Almost four now.”
He breathed out, almost a laugh, and smiled slighty. “I’m kinda – pleased – myself.”
She had thought him handsome before, but when he smiled, she had to catch her breath. Still, outlaws could be good looking, too. If he was wanted, maybe he was still too weak to do anything to them. She needed to know. Rudy’s hunting gun was still in the sewing room, and she figured she could get to it long before the injured man was able to rise. “You hunting somebody or being hunted? Not that it matters, unless you plan on giving me or Petey a problem. I know how to use a Greener pretty well.”
But the man shook his head weakly. “No – problem. I’m a – U.S. Marshal tracking a – man who shot up a – freight office. My badge is – on my shirt. Wallet’s – in my vest.”
Relief flooded her. “U.S. Marshal! Well, don’t that beat all? I had to cut up your shirt to get it off you, and it was already ripped up good as it was. I’m afraid it’s only fit for rags, now. I didn’t see a badge, though. No wallet, either.” Shrugging apologetically, she asked, “Marshal, huh? From where?”
He nodded, and she saw that his strength was already fading.
Last time she was in
“I’ve heard of a marshal from Dodge, name of Matt Dillon.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he verified.
“Wow!” Petey exclaimed, wide-eyed. “Marshal Matt Dillon! Wow!”
He grimaced again, but his eyes showed more embarrassment than pain.
“Oh, all good, although some of them I don’t really believe.”
Beside her, Petey stared down at the man they had tended the past three and a half weeks without having any idea whose life they had saved. “Wow! I shoulda knowed. I shoulda knowed Matt Dillon would be the biggest man in the world!”
The marshal gave the boy a half-smile. “Maybe not – the world, son.”
“I wanna be that big when I grow up,” he declared. “I bet nobody messes with you.”
Dillon glanced down ruefully at his battered body. “I’m
afraid you’d – lose that bet,” he noted, and
But Petey remained confident. “Not unless they cheated. I bet you’d a taken that bad guy for sure if you’d knowed he was comin’.”
Dillon tried to smile again, but his strength was
She added some sting to the command. “Go on.”
“Yes’m.” Reluctantly, Petey shuffled toward the door, a clear case of hero-worship in his eyes.
When he was gone, Dillon leaned his head back on the pillow. “Thank you again – for your help.”
She ignored his gratitude, mostly out of her own uneasiness over the way those blue eyes regarded her. They were kind and warm – and sensuous. And he didn’t even seem to realize it. “You feel like eating? Been a task just to get broth down you. You need something to build your strength.”
He looked as if he might be sick just from the suggestion. “Ah, no, ma’am. Not – yet.”
“I’ll fix something anyway, in case you change your mind.” He needed to eat, but it wouldn’t do any good to make him and just have it come right back up. Rising, she stepped toward the small kitchen area.
“Miss – Miller –“
“Not on you, but we found one a little piece away, figured it might be yours. Got your belt, too.”
“Thanks. And I – need to get a – wire – to someone.”
“Kitty Russell,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. “In – Dodge.”
The name he had called in his fevered delusions. The name she had wondered about night after
night as she soothed his burning brow, tried to still his tortured
thrashings. Even then, as she was drawn
closer and closer to this man,
His brow rose in question – almost in alarm, she thought.
“You asked for her,” she explained, hoping her voice remained neutral. “Through the fever.”
A shadow crossed his face, and she saw that he was wondering what else he might have said or done under the influence of a fever. “There a – telegraph office – around here?”
“Well, Iola’s got one, but it’s a fair piece off. There’s an office in Jeddo – that’s only about fifteen miles – but nobody around here knows how to operate it anymore. Last fellow left more than a year ago. I’m about the only person around here who can even read and write.”
“Can you – “
“I don’t know how to operate it,” she informed him quickly, with a twinge of guilt. Still, she reasoned, she really didn’t know anything about a telegraph machine. She couldn’t help him.
“I do. If you can – get me to – town.” He tried to push up, but grunted harshly and fell back, teeth bared in a fierce grimace.
She brushed his forehead soothingly. “I don’t think so. Not anytime soon.”
Despite the sweat that trailed down his ashen face, he protested. “But – “
Even if she had been eager to help him get to that machine, she knew that he was a long way from being able to get there himself. “No buts,” she ordered. “You’re in no condition even to think about getting out of that bed. Now, you just lie down and close your eyes again and go back to sleep. At least this time, it’ll be real rest and not the feverish kind.”
Reluctantly, he conceded her point, and before a full minute
had passed his chest rose and fell in the steady rhythm of sleep.
Sighing, she pushed from the bed, turning back to her
chores. What was Kitty Russell doing at
that moment? Was she pacing the floor,
worried sick? Or was she so used to him
being gone that she hadn’t even thought about it?
Feet aching, throat dry, lips parched, Kitty Russell sat in dejected weariness at one of the few tables in Jeddo’s lone, crude saloon. Despite the discovery at the cemetery, she found the elation of that moment dissolving in the face of continued failure. They had searched all through the town, questioned every scraggly drifter and washed out sodbuster and still found nothing. No one seemed to have seen anyone fitting Matt’s description – other than the now anonymous man lying in the still-unmarked grave. One glance at Festus and Doc let her know they nursed the same fatigue and disappointment. Behind the bar, Fred played a continuous game of solitaire, cheating on a regular basis, from what Kitty could see.
Determined as ever to find Matt, she nevertheless began to steel herself to face the creeping realization that the chances of finding him alive and well were slim to none. Surely, after this long he would have found a way to let her know he was okay – if he was okay. And if he was okay and had not contacted her – well, then that man was in a world of trouble. The thought of the little boy hurt expression that crossed his face when he knew she was mad at him brought a brief smile to her lips, and she decided that if God just let her find him alive, she wouldn’t make him suffer. At least not too long.
Taking a swig of lukewarm beer, Festus lamented, “I jest kaint figger on whar Matthew kin be. I done looked in ever cranny in this chere town, an’ thar ain’t hide ner hair of him.”
“And nobody around here seems to know anything more than what they’ve already told us,” Doc added.
Discouraged, Kitty clenched her jaw to keep more tears from her eyes. She had cried enough, and it hadn’t done a damn bit of good. Never did. “What do we do now, Doc?”
The older man clicked his tongue and rubbed a hand over his mouth. “I’m not sure.”
Frustration shook her. “What if he isn’t here, at all? What if he never was here? What if he’s a hundred miles away?”
“We have the badge and his wallet,” Doc reminded her. “They came from here.”
“They came off a man who happened to be here. Who’s to say he didn’t get them in
Placing a calming hand over hers, he reasoned, “Kitty, I can’t help but believe that this town is the key to finding Matt. I just can’t figure out exactly how that key fits into the lock.”
But fear insisted on torturing her. “He could still – “ She swallowed and looked at Doc, eyes bright. “He could still – be dead, Doc. What if that man killed Matt and took – “
“Now, we’re just not gonna think that way.”
“I don’t want to think that way, but let’s face it. He might be – well, we might never find him. This country’s too big, too much wilderness.” She dropped her head in her hands wearily.
She felt an awkward pat on her shoulder and looked to the side to see Festus’ sad face. “Now, Miz Kitty, ol’ Matthew could jest be hurt and a layin’ somewhars waitin’ fer us ta find him, ya’ see?”
“Oh, that’s just fine,” Doc huffed, running a hand over his mustache. “A great deal of help. Thank you for your insightful input.”
The craggy face screwed up in confusion and irritation. “Wael, I wuz jest tryin’ ta’ make Miz Kitty feel some better.”
“I’m sure she does. You’re a great comfort, you are.” But Doc’s anger was more from their own impotence than anything Festus had said, and they all knew it.
Sadly, but gently, Kitty touched the rough whiskers on the deputy’s cheek. “Thank you, Festus. I know what you meant.”
“You folks talked ta’ Willie Langley?” Fred had spoken without moving his eyes from his cards.
“Willie Langley?” Festus asked.
Still not even glancing up, the barkeeper added, “Lives ‘bout five miles out toward th’ Wider Miller’s place. Ain’t sayin’ he knows somethin’, ain’t sayin’ he don’t. Just askin’.”
Irritated, Doc spluttered, “Why didn’t you say something about him earlier?”
The bartender shrugged. “Ya’ didn’t ask.”
“If you ain’t th’ thick-headedest – “
“Nevermind, Festus.” Kitty
interrupted, rising with new energy.
“Doc, you think this
“Not gonna hurt to ask.” He paused and glanced at Fred. “Is it?”
“Ol’ Willie’s harmless. If ya’ catch him sober, he’ll be right friendly.”
They were already at the door when Festus asked, “Whichaway did ya’ say his place wuz?”
“Northeast. If ya’ git ta’ th’ Wider Miller’s, ya’ done gone too far.”
The promise of hope lifting her heart, Kitty said sincerely, “Thank you,” almost surprised when Fred actually looked up and smiled at her.
The long shadows of late afternoon stretched across the gentle hills as their wagon traveled down a rough road not much more than a trail. Kitty braced her legs against the jarring ride. Not too much farther past the place Fred’s directions indicated, they saw a dilapidated cabin, the front porch fallen in so much that it was almost flush with the ground, windows boarded up, chimney half tumbled down. It didn’t look promising. As they pulled up a few feet from it, two chickens fluttered and clucked in protest of their interruption.
Kitty eyed the place doubtfully. “Somebody lives here?”
“This chere is whar
“It’s not much,” Doc said. “But just because he has no pride in his abode, doesn’t mean he can’t help us. Let’s get down.”
They climbed down from the wagon, Festus helping Kitty and Doc refusing help. Cautiously, they walked toward the porch, stopping shot of stepping onto it.
Doc called out, “Hello the house!” No one answered.
“Ennyboddy ta’ home?” Festus added in his nasal twang.
Again, they received no response.
“Doesn’t look like he’s here,” Kitty said, feeling yet another disappointment weighing down on her.
Doc sniffed. “Maybe he came to his senses and moved out.”
Just as they turned to leave, the door opened with a loud squeak and a tattered, bearded man peeked out, his face wizened, his teeth long gone. He squinted suspiciously toward them.
“Who air ya’?”
All three turned back, Festus taking the lead to step forward, a friendly smile on his lips.
“Howdy. We’re a lookin’ fer Willie Langley.”
The eyes squinted even tighter together. “Whatcha want with ‘im?”
“Just to talk,” Doc interjected. “The barkeeper from Jeddo – uh – “
“Fred,” Festus supplied.
“Right, Fred. Fred said that Mister Langley might be able to provide us with some valuable information regarding a friend of ours.”
“Fred, huh?” The man seemed to think things over a minute. “You cud come in, but I ain’t got but one char.”
Quickly, Kitty assured him, “Oh, that’s all right. We’ll just stay out here.” Probably safer. Definitely cleaner.
The old man shrugged. “Suit yerseff.”
“You Willie Langley?” Festus asked.
He nodded. “Yup.”
“Mister Langley,” Doc explained, “we are looking for a friend of ours, and we were wondering if you might have seen him or maybe heard something about him.”
“Whut’s he look like?”
“Big feller – hard ta’ miss,” Festus said, lifting a hand way over his head. “Six and half feet tall or so. Mebbe had on a red-like shirt and tanny britches.”
“You’re sure?” Kitty pressed, frustration twisting her insides.
“Yes’m. Ain’t no livin’ thang bin by here in over a month.” He paused and shrugged. “Exceptin’ that thar horse whut wandered into th’ yard a few weeks ago.”
All three heads snapped up.
“Horse?” Festus asked.
Eagerly, Kitty followed. “What kind of horse?”
His words slammed into her, hope and fear and joy fighting for dominance. “Oh, my God.”
Doc stepped toward him. “Where is this horse, now?”
Hesitant at their reactions,
But Festus was already headed around the corner of the house, with Doc and Kitty following close on his heels.
“Hey!” the old man protested, shuffling behind them.
Just behind the house lay a small field with a tiny shed framed by two gnarled trees. And there, as calm and even-tempered as always, stood a huge buckskin munching easily on a few straws of hay. Kitty had no doubt at all about the animal’s identity as she approached him quickly but steadily.
“Oh, Buck!” she cried, placing her hand against the horse’s neck and smoothing the other down his side. He was so identifiable with Matt that she almost expected to see that tall frame step up into the stirrups and tip his hat in greeting to her.
Doc turned to
“I found ‘im, far and skwar – “ the old man complained, but Doc didn’t have time to listen.
“The saddle, man. Where is it?”
“We ain’t a sayin’ ya’ stole ‘im,” Festus said. “We jest wanna see it.”
Uncertainly, Festus said, “Wael – “
They were too close to argue now. Kitty interrupted the deputy. “No. No, we won’t take it. Now, please show it to us.”
“Cleaned it up some,”
His words drained the color from her face, and she had to grab the saddle horn for support. “Blood?” Doc slipped a hand under her elbow and squeezed.
“Good bit on th’ left side of th’ horn, then lower over th’
“Oh, Doc,” Kitty groaned, in spite of her desire not to believe it.
Doc shook his head. “Now, now, we don’t know – “
“This is Matt’s saddle. That’s Buck over there. What more evidence do you need? Oh, God!” Her breath came hard, and she made fists with her hands, trying not to lose control.
Grasping at straws, Doc tried to reason. “Well – remember what Festus said – Matt could be out there, hurt, but alive – alive and – and waiting for us – “
Festus slid a pointed look to Doc before turning to Kitty
and smiling encouragingly, but she had already seen the exchange. “‘At’s right, Miz Kitty. I done
told ya’ thet, remember?”
“‘Bout three weeks ago, I reckon. Mebbe a smidgen more.”
“I’ll buy him from you – and the saddle,” she offered the old man, having no intentions of leaving Buck or Matt’s saddle there. They might be the only things she had left of him. “How much?”
Surprise changed to avarice in the faded eyes. “Wael,” he wheedled, “he’s a rite fine piece o’ horse flesh. ‘An thet rig ain’t too shabby, neither.”
“How much?” she prodded, not caring if he asked five hundred dollars.
“Ten dollars?” Festus exclaimed, and she heard the insult for Buck in his voice. “Why thet horse is worth – “
“I’ll take it,” Kitty said quickly before Festus could spoil the trade.
“Hush!” Doc hissed, then lower so
Festus’ eyes widened in understanding as
“He’s all yer’s, ma’am. Pleasure doin’ bidness with ya’.”
“I’ll git ‘im saddled, Miz Kitty,” the deputy offered.
Kitty stroked Buck’s mane softly. “Thank you, Festus.”
The deal set, Doc looked at
Pleased with besting the foolish city folks,
“How far is her place?” Kitty wondered.
“Fancy duds. Aint’ nobody ‘round chere needs sech. More’n likely she ain’t home. Be dark afore ya’ get thar, anyhoo.”
Peering up at the fading sky, Doc said, “He’s right about that. Why don’t we head back to Jeddo, put Buck up in a real stable, and go visit the Widow Miller tomorrow?”
Torn between logic and her yearning to keep up the search, Kitty reluctantly acquiesced. “All right, Doc.”
“All reddy, Miz Kitty,” Festus said, leading the horse and smiling as it nuzzled Kitty gently. “Ol’ Buck seems happy ta’ see ya’.”
Running her hand down the horse’s neck, she ached as she saw again the bloodstains on the saddle and leaned against the animal. “I sure wish you could tell us where Matt is, boy.”
She heard Festus’ agreeing whisper from the other side of the horse. “Me, too, Miss Kitty. Me, too.”
“Don’t be shy about finishin’ that stew,” she told him, hoping she sounded casual. “There’s plenty more. And you need the strength.”
“I think that’s about all I can handle for now. It sure is good, though.” His voice was much stronger, its timbre deep and rich. It didn’t help her attempt at nonchalance.
She moved to stand next to him, frowning. “You didn’t eat much. Big man like you needs lots of nourishment. My husband was a big man, too, and he could put away – “ She stopped suddenly, her eyes watering before she turned away. She hadn’t intended to bring up Rudy.
After a pause, he asked quietly, “What happened to your husband?”
His eyes showed nothing but kindness and maybe a touch of understanding. She hadn’t spoken of Rudy in years, but suddenly found herself perched on the edge of the bed, sharing some of her pain with him. “He wasn’t ever much account, at least for makin’ a livin’, but I figure I loved him some, anyway. That was my mistake.” A light laugh lifted her voice. “Fancied himself a gunslinger for a while, but he wasn’t the best. I’ve had good practice doctoring on the likes of your wounds.”
“Is he – “
“Dead?” She laughed again, humorlessly. “Don’t know. Petey was just four when he left. Said he was going out to make his fortune, and he’d be back for us, but he never came back. Heard he got into bounty hunting. Haven’t seen him in years.”
His eyes widened in amazement. “You work this farm by yourself?”
“Heaven’s no. She
nodded toward the closed door. “That room back there is full of material and
sewing supplies. I’m a seamstress. Four or five times a year Petey
and I load the wagon and ride up to
“That’s a long way. Why don’t you just move to
She’d asked herself that more times that she could count.
“Don’t really know. This was my folks’
place. Maybe I’m sentimental, or maybe I
figger Rudy might come back one day. Kinda like being
out of the busy-ness, too.
He nodded, and she saw that he really did understand. Her sharp breath broke the moment and she took the chance to stand, to move away from the strong pull she felt sitting that close to him. When he lifted the bowl, she gave him a scowl to let him know she wasn’t satisfied with how little he had eaten, but she took it anyway and carried it to the kitchen.
The springs on the bed groaned, and she turned just in time to see him swing his legs over the side, careful to keep the covers over him. She smirked, already knowing exactly what lay under those covers, even if he didn’t want her to see – again.
Lips pressed tight against the pain, he asked, “Do you mind – bringing me my pants?”
The smirk disappeared. “Your pants?” Was he crazy? “You’re in no condition to – look at you! You lie back down. It’s still too soon – “
“It’s been almost a month,” he argued. “That’s plenty of – “
“It’s only been a few days since you woke up. Now, you tell that to those bullet holes when they bust back open on you. You’ve had some good healing, but you got a lot more to go.”
She saw the exasperation on his face, read the frustration. This was not a man used to inactivity. “I want to help. You and Petey have taken care of me too long. I can bring in the water, at least, or – “
Urging him back down onto the bed, she finished, “Or you can just lie there and get well. That’s the only help I want right now. You think I’ve worked this hard to keep you alive just to have you go and fall and bleed to death?”
Either her reasoning or his own pain won the argument, and he smiled a bit and pulled his long legs back under the covers. “I guess not,” he acknowledged with a tight grunt.
“I know not. Now, Petey’s been begging to hear some more of those stories about that Festus fellow and Doc Adams. I’d be obliged if you’d entertain him while I do some sewing.”
The twinkle in his eyes told her he saw through her ruse, but still he said, “Glad to be of help.”
For a moment, their eyes met,
brilliant blue and warm brown.
Damn it! “Hey!”
He winced, caught, but continued into the room, raised the bucket, which sloshed water, and placed it on the kitchen table, immediately bracing a hand against the flat surface for support.
“Just what do you think you’re doing, Mister?” she scolded.
Sheepishly, he turned and straightened. “I’m just helping a little. It wasn’t very heavy.”
Eying a small sprinkle of blood on his shoulder bandage, she huffed. “Not very heavy, huh? I work for weeks to keep you alive and here you try to undo all that work in five minutes.”
“Really,” he tried, “I’m fine – “
But he swayed suddenly, and she reached to help, wrapping her arm around his waist as her other hand moved to his chest in an effort to steady him. If he passed out, there was no way she could keep them both from crashing to the floor. His heart pounded beneath her palm. Looking up at him, she froze as their eyes met. Slowly, ignoring the disappearing whispers of caution, she lifted her face until her mouth was just below his.
Uncertainty clouded his strong features. “Uh – Alice – I – “
She rubbed his bare chest intimately, the feel of the hard planes beneath her touch sending thrills through her. “I know we can’t be together. I know you have a woman. I won’t take you away from her.” Sliding her arms higher around his neck, she arched on tiptoe, pleading, “I just want this moment. Please, Matt. Just this moment with you. It’s been so long. I need you so badly.”
Then her lips were on his, his beard rough on her skin, and it was as if fire burned through her body. She pressed against him, groaning as his unmistakable response pushed into her stomach. She wanted him, needed him desperately, ached deep inside her loins to feel him, certain from what she had seen taking care of his injuries that he would fill her, stretch her, satisfy her far better than her husband ever had – than any other man ever could.
“Alice!” he gasped, shattering the moment almost as soon it started, tearing away from her, his hands grasping her arms to push her back, his flushed expression both startled and regretful. In her agonized emptiness, she took some strange satisfaction in noting how ragged his breathing was even as he held her away from his body and shook his head, looking down at her sadly.
“Alice – no – I – I’m sorry, but – no – “
Despite the blatant evidence of his body’s involuntary reaction, his eyes told her the truth. She stared up at him, eyes wide, mouth open until the heated and eager anticipation that had surged through her body faded in bitter disappointment and embarrassment.
Oh, God! What had she done? Cheeks burning in humiliation, she spun away from him, shaking. For a moment, neither of them spoke; then she gathered enough of her wits to laugh regretfully.
“I hope Kitty Russell knows how damned lucky she is.”
“I’m sorry – “
Turning back, her face flushed, she noted ruefully, “You said that.”
The look on his face tore at her. Not pity, exactly, but close enough. It made her even sorrier. “
Well, there was no taking back what she had done, but she didn’t regret that kiss, and she was damned sure her body would never forget the sheer power and ecstasy that came with it.
Clearing her throat and squaring her shoulders, she declared, “No. It’s my fault. I just – you’re just – “ The sight of his torso, gleaming with perspiration, stole her words from her, and she smoothed her hair nervously, voice falling to a quick murmur. “I think maybe we need to get you a new shirt before I make a fool of myself again.”
Frowning, he looked down at his bare chest, then flushed with realization. “
“No, really,” she interrupted before he could continue, determined to move on. “I just – I’ll – I’ll need more material. Most of what I make is for women.”
He just stood there, and she saw that he didn’t know what to say. Neither did she – except for something completely off subject.
“It’s too far to go to
“I’ll go with you,” he offered, taking a limping step toward her.
Voice almost desperate, he said, “
“It probably doesn’t even work anymore. Be reasonable, Matt.”
He grunted. “There are some who would tell you I’m usually too reasonable.
“Kitty,” she surmised, unable to keep the bitterness from her voice.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have – “
She didn’t know if he interrupted to save her more embarrassment or just because he really was so desperate to get word to Dodge. “I need to let people know where I am and that I’m all right.”
He smiled kindly at her, and the regret in his eyes was almost her undoing. She reached into a basket next to the kitchen table and took out the bugger-red shirt and tan vest that had barely been hanging on him when she and Petey brought him in. “Hmm. Not much of these left. Been years since I had material to make a man’s shirt. Used to make Rudy’s all the time. He was partial to plaid, himself.” She looked sideways at Matt. “I’m thinking that’s not your style. Besides, I haven’t had that pattern in years.” Sighing, she held up the shirt again, dropping the vest back into the basket. “ Maybe I can salvage enough of this to make do for the trip.”
At his grateful nod, she turned toward the sewing room, but before she could take two steps, she heard a groan and spun back around in time to see him sway, grabbing onto a chair in an effort to remain standing. Without another thought, she dropped the shirt and rushed to him.
“Easy, now. Let’s get you back into bed.”
Fortunately, he was not too far away from it and, with her help, managed to make it there before he collapsed, his lips and eyes tight, his face drained white.
“Are you always this stubborn?” she scolded gruffly, trying to hide her fear for him.
He managed a weak smile that faded quickly. “Probably.”
Smiling and shaking her head at the same time, she said, “Look, I can go into town myself. Maybe you can give me instructions – “
“I’ll make it,” he assured her with anything but assurance in his voice.
Looking doubtful, she still considered it. “Well, I do know a shorter route taking a back trail. But it might pain you more – It’s kinda rough.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
Damn, but the man was – “Stubborn.”
A smile touched his lips at her
proclamation, but it lasted only a moment before his eyes closed and his head
fell back onto the pillow. He was still
very weak, and
She watched him for a long time, a bittersweet smile on her face, her breath quickening again at the searing memory of his hard body pressed into hers, his warm lips against hers. She wondered what might have happened if there had been no Kitty Russell, imagined what it would have been like to lie with him, entangled in those long, muscled legs and arms, to feel his hard body move against hers, to taste his kisses, to writhe beneath his bold caresses, to arch into his deep thrusts. The vivid images drew a moan from her, sent blood surging again until she knew she had to move away from him before she humiliated herself once more.
As she rose, she reached out to brush a lock of hair from his damp forehead, but before her trembling fingers grazed his skin, she stopped and pulled back, letting her hand drop to her side.
Yes, Matt Dillon was quite a man.
But he was not her man.
It was apparently too early in the morning for the few citizens of Jeddo to be up and moving, but the three Dodge visitors had risen early, eager to resume their mission. Festus stood next to the wagon that held Doc and Kitty, ready for the journey out to the Widow Miller’s place.
“You shore you’n Doc don’t need me ta’ go wi’ ya’, Miz Kitty?” he offered, more than a little uneasy with his two friends venturing out alone.
“We’re fine, Festus,” she assured him. “You go ahead and stay here and see if you can find out anything else. See if that barkeeper has anyone else he can think of that might know something.”
“But whut if ya’ find Matthew an’ – “ Quickly, he amended what he was about to say “– an’ he needs hep? Just th’ two of ya’ – “
Doc bristled a bit. “I might be able to manage a few crude medical procedures.”
“Aw, now, Doc, I didn’t mean thet. I wuz thankin’ if ya’ needed ta’ load ‘im up in th’ wagon – “
He regretted that statement, too, when he saw Miss Kitty blanch. “Thank you, Festus. If we find Matt, and he’s – he’s that badly hurt, I’ll come get you while Doc tends to him.”
Doubtfully, Festus shook his head. “You ain’t gonna wanna leave ‘im if’n – “
“We’ll get you, Festus,” she assured him, smiling at the truth in his observation. “Don’t worry.”
“Fiddle. I ain’t a-worried – “ But they all knew he was.
His tone softer this time, Doc cleared his throat and caught up the ribbons. “Well, from what that barkeeper and Langley said, I don’t figure we’re gonna find anything, but at least we’ll have eliminated another place to look. We’ll be back in a while.”
The wagon jerked forward, moving down the road they had already traveled unsuccessfully. Festus gave them a wave, then re-set his hat decisively, determined to scratch out more information from Fred, if possible.
Although his back was to the lone rider who entered town from the other end, Festus noticed him quickly enough when he turned toward the saloon. The man sat the dark horse like he was born to it, a flat hat pulled down low over his eyes, clothes dusty, double-holstered gun belt slung around his hips. Festus supposed a “shemale” might find the rider’s face kind of handsome underneath the scruffy beard and trail dirt. Slipping inside the bar, the deputy watched over the swinging doors as the horse plodded up to the saloon railing, and the man dismounted, wrapping the reins loosely over the post.
By the time the stranger stepped into the saloon, spurs chinking softly, Festus was propped at the bar under the pretense of watching Fred cheat at solitaire. “Thet thar black Jack’ll go on yer red Queen,” he told the barkeeper.
Irritated, Fred snapped, “I see it. Who’s playin’ this game, anyhow?”
“Jest heppin’ so’s ya’ didn’t hev ta’ cheat like ya’ did last time.”
He pulled back, insulted. “Cheat?”
Festus raised a calming hand, “Now, don’t go git yer hackles up. Ain’t nobody a-playin’ ya’, no how.”
The rider’s eyes met Fred’s, drawing a startled look from the bartender until he lowered his gaze uneasily and returned it to his cards. Ignoring Festus, the man stepped to the far end of the bar. “Gimme a beer,” he ordered.
Reacting immediately, Fred said, “Yes, sir. Comin’ up.”
Squinting, the deputy watched the exchange. When Fred moved back to his cards, Festus said, “Why in tarnation’ did ya’ jump right on that thar feller’s drank, when I kain’t git ya’ to refill my littlest glass ‘chere?”
Quietly, not looking back toward the rider,” Fred said, “He’s a paying customer.”
“Wael, I tol’ ya’ when Doc gits back, he’ll settle thangs with ya’.”
Uncharacteristically, the bartender glanced nervously back at the rider. “Just – nevermind. I’ll git you another.”
“Arrite, then,” Festus answered, voice pleased. “Thet’s better.”
But as Fred filled another glass, the deputy let his gaze slide toward the rider, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
The Widow Miller’s house was small, but neat and tidy on the outside. Kitty and Doc pulled up to it, seeing nothing but a few chickens wandering around.
“Looks quiet,” Doc noted.
“Yeah.” More discouragement.
The older man patted her on the leg. “Won’t hurt to knock.”
He climbed down stiffly from the wagon then lifted his hand to help Kitty. When they stepped onto the porch, she held her breath as Doc reached out and knocked firmly, but as they had expected, there was no answer. He waited a few moments, then knocked again with the same results.
Kitty sighed, heavy-hearted. They had wasted their time. “Well, let’s go, Doc.”
But as they turned to go, Doc looked down at the wood of the porch and frowned.” Wait a minute.”
Following his gaze, she asked, “What?”
He bent, with effort, to look more closely at something. “Well, this looks like – could be – “
More anxious now, she hurried him. “Could be what?”
“See those marks?” She looked down as he pointed at several rough parallel grooves in the wood. “Looks like spurs made them.”
“But lots of men wear spurs, Doc.”
“But not lots of widows.”
“You think – “
“Seems like maybe somebody wearing spurs was dragged across this porch not too long ago. See that the wood is lighter in those gouges? Hasn’t had time to weather like the top layer.”
“Can we – should we go in?” she asked, her heart thudding against her chest.
He swished a hand over his mustache, then pushed gently on the door, which opened slightly. “Hello?”
They stepped inside, their eyes adjusting to the darker
room. It was neat and clean, well-kept –
the opposite of
“Anybody home?” Kitty called. No one answered.
Doc walked over to the table and placed a hand around the
pot. “Doesn’t look like the Widow Miller is in
“What do you mean?”
“There’s stew in this pot, and it’s still warm. Somebody was here not too long ago.”
Once more hope tried to climb into Kitty’s chest, but she had been disappointed too many times to let it take a foothold. Stepping to the bed, she almost tripped over the basket, drawing down her gaze and pushing a gasp from her when she saw the contents.
“Doc!” she cried.
“What is it?”
But suddenly, she couldn’t answer. Instead, she reached into the basket, her fingers clutching around the familiar tan vest, her joy turning to pain as she saw the bloodstains. “Oh, Doc,” she whispered.
“Now, Kitty. This is not necessarily – I mean, this could be a good sign. This means Matt’s here, or has been here.”
“But, Doc, the blood – the holes at the chest and shoulder – “
“I know. I know, but – but Matt’s had worse.” But he didn’t sound or look very convinced himself.
“Where do you think he is?” He couldn’t be far, she reasoned, judging from the disturbing amount of blood that coated the vest. Logically, they should check outside, but she dreaded the possibility that they might find a freshly dug grave if they looked.
“I don’t know, Kitty, but I think maybe we should go back and get Festus.”
She hesitated, not wanting to leave when Matt might be nearby, but she knew that Festus might be able to track him. Finally, she nodded, and they walked back outside.
“Doc,” she said, “maybe we should – should look out back. There might be – “ But she couldn’t continue. Mercifully, her dear, old friend understood.
With an empathetic nod, he patted her hand. “I’ll check,” he offered. “You stay here.”
As he shuffled around the side of the house, she took a brief moment to gather herself in case – her jaw clenched hard against the horrible thought – in case –
The physician reappeared quickly, and the relief on his face brought at least a temporary reprieve. Knees weak, she smiled tearfully as he eased his arm around her waist and walked her to the wagon. Leaning against his arm, she cradled the ruined vest against her heart and cast a worried glance back at the cabin as he clicked the horses toward Jeddo.
The sun was high in the sky by the time they neared the town, glaring down, bleaching out their drawn, disappointed expressions. With a hard grunt, Doc snapped the reins more vigorously than usual.
She looked over at him, knowing that the dejected slope of his shoulders matched her own. The more she stared at the vest, the more she feared that their mission would end in bitter defeat. Tentatively, almost afraid of his answer, she asked quietly, “You really think Matt’s here somewhere?”
Her question seemed to jar him out of his malaise, and he straightened. “I think it’s an awful good chance, Kitty.”
“You think he’s – alive?” She was afraid now to hope too much.
He nodded firmly. “I have to think that, Kitty. And you do, too.” Then a reassuring smile touched his lips, obscuring the doubt. “We’ll find him, don’t you worry.”
Don’t you worry.
But that’s all she’d been doing for the past two months.
Pain shot through Matt Dillon’s body, pounding and throbbing
as if it were alive inside him.
Even though he didn’t consider himself a man who worried about things he couldn’t control, it stung him to think about what she must be going through not hearing from him, not knowing where he was. The fact that she’d had lots of practice through the years made it that much harder. He knew she didn’t think he realized that, but he did. If he could have done something about it, he would have – long ago. But that would mean giving up the badge – and that wasn’t something he was ready to do. At least not yet. One day –
He found his eyes closed against the pain and forced them open again, catching a generous glimpse of skin through the tattered shirt Alice had pieced back together for the trip. He was grateful to her – more than he could ever show – for what she had done, and regretted that he hurt her, but he had no other choice in that situation. None at all.
They reached a trickle of a stream, more rocks than water,
Voice strained, he managed, “It’s – okay.”
“Uh huh.” She nodded toward the gun belt that was slung around his hips. “You figure on needing that?”
A rueful smile curved his lips. “In my line – of work – you never know.”
“I guess that’s true enough,” she acknowledged.
“You know this – area well. Have you – always – lived here?”
“No. I started
off here, but figured there was more to life than being stuck on a farm in the
middle of nowhere. Ran
off north. I met Rudy in
He regarded her with more than a little admiration. “You’ve done well.”
The wagon jolted over a rough patch, jostling Matt hard, shards of pain slashing through him from knee to head. He couldn’t help the harsh grunt that escaped him, couldn’t keep the grimace from his face.
Her voice sharp with fear,
He turned slightly to attempt a look of assurance, but knew he didn’t quite manage it.
“I’m – fine,” he lied.
A sympathetic wince tightened her pretty face. “Jeddo’s just past that little rise. I’ll take you right to the telegraph office, then run over to Mister Pranton’s and get that material. Maybe you should lie down in the wagon bed on the way back.”
“I’ll be – all right,” he said again, no more convincing than the first time, and almost laughed when he heard her mutter, “Stubborn.” That he could not deny.
By the time they reached Jeddo, the patched remnants of Matt’s shirt were drenched in sweat, and his chest heaved as he sucked in ragged breaths. Maybe this had not been such a good idea, after all, he admitted, but knew he wouldn’t have changed his mind even if he had known the toll the trip would take on him.
The town wasn’t much more than a few sorry looking buildings creating a rough frame around a single dirt street. A wooden church rose in faded reverence on the left, with a small, one-story storefront just beyond it. The swinging sign proclaimed that it had once been the telegraph office.
But he’d be damned if he had put himself through all this not to give it even a shot. “Worth a – try, anyway.”
Her eyes could not conceal her worry. “I’m not so sure.”
Unable to muster the strength to dispel her concern, he
grabbed onto the wagon seat and did his best to ease his tortured body to the
ground without collapsing. It was a near
thing. When he straightened,
“This is ridiculous. You’re about to drop right now. Let’s go back to the house.”
Forcing himself not to bend double, he said, “You go – see about that material. I’ll – check on the telegraph.”
“Oh!” she snapped. “You are the most stubborn man – “
“You’ve mentioned that.”
Turning to Petey, she instructed, “Petey, you go with the Marshal,” then leaned down and added quietly, even though Matt still heard her, “And you come get me right away if something happens, do you understand?”
He nodded, young face serious. “Yes’m.”
When she stood back up, she looked at Matt cautiously. “ I’ll just run over to Mister Pranton’s for that material and be right back.”
He nodded, trying to concentrate past the pounding in his head.
Realizing he had not been very convincing, he made a vague attempt at a smile. “I’m all right. Go ahead.”
Even though he could see that she didn’t believe it for one minute, she sighed and reluctantly headed across the street to the sparse stretch of buildings.
There were only three steps up into the telegraph office, but Matt wasn’t too sure he could scale them. With labored moves, he managed to take two of them, then paused at the door, hands grasping the frame so hard that his knuckles turned while. After a moment, he lifted his left leg enough for the final push into the room, grateful that a splintery-looking chair was close enough for him to collapse into. Shoulders slumped, he gritted his teeth in an effort to stave off the blackness that encroached on his vision.
His young voice worried, Petey asked, “Are you all right, Marshal?”
Matt looked up, realized Petey was watching him, and drew himself upright as best he could. “I’m fine, Petey,” he flat out lied. “I just – need to sit here in this chair and – work this telegraph.”
“Can I ask you somethin’, Marshal?”
“Are you gonna stay with Ma and me? When you’re better, I mean.”
Matt winced, pressing his lips together. “Ah, Petey, I – uh – I can’t stay with you and your ma. I have a – well, a family of my own of sorts to go back to.”
“You mean a woman, dontcha? You got a woman back in Dodge. I wish Ma could be your woman. She’d like to, I can tell.”
“Petey – “
“Then you could be my pa. Ma says I had one, but he left, so you could be my pa. That’d be okay, wouldn’t it, Marshal?”
Clearing his throat and taking as deep as breath as he dared, Matt ruffled the boy’s hair fondly. “Your ma does pretty well by you, doesn’t she, Petey?”
“Sure,” he agreed, “but a fella needs a pa, dontcha think?”
Matt smiled at him, his eyes softening. Then he pulled back and leaned over the telegraph, blowing on it so that dust billowed from the unused machine. That proved to be a mistake, jerking a cough from him. Wincing, he pressed a hand against his chest to brace against the pain. After a moment, he turned to Petey.
“I’m gonna – need your help. Let’s see if we can get this thing – working, okay?”
Grinning at the importance of his contribution, the boy nodded. “Yes, sir!”
Blinking a couple of times to try to bring his vision into better focus, Matt bent over the machine and began checking the connections. For several minutes, he worked on it, frustration drawing down his brow, which was dotted with perspiration. The confounded copper wire that should wind around the post of the telegraph wouldn’t cooperate, and it was taking the last ounces of will power for him to keep trying it.
“Don’t look like it’s workin’, Marshal,” Petey observed unnecessarily from over his shoulder.
Matt’s voice was tight as he struggled with the mechanism. “Hasn’t been – tended in a while. Looks like – wasn’t soldered well in the – first place – “ He held the thumbscrew with one hand while the other tried again to work the wire around the stem. “Petey, can you hold this top part still? I’m gonna need two hands, I think, for this.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy reached over the steady the top of the thumbscrew.
As gently as he could, Matt worked the wire, adding a little more force after the first efforts didn’t work, but still with no success. “Can’t – get it to – stay. There’s no – lock nut, and this wire is – brittle – “
Suddenly, the brittle wire snapped, and Matt’s arm jerked up with the lack of resistance, sending pain stabbing through his shoulder and chest. He couldn’t suppress a rare bit of profanity, and muttered an apology to the boy. Sighing, he shook his head and wiped a shaking hand across his damp brow.
Petey frowned in concern. “Maybe you ought ta’ take a break. You ain’t lookin’ so good, and Ma’ll have my hide if I let anything happen to you.”
Matt tried to smile, but knew it was weak. “I think she’ll – have my hide, too, Petey.”
Grinning, the boy agreed, “Yes, sir, she will.”
“Maybe I’ll just – step outside for a little – air.” He pushed up unsteadily, not at all sure that he would even be able to stand.
Rushing to grab Matt’s arm, Petey said, “I’ll help you, Marshal.”
“No, I – “ But one look at the boy’s earnest expression changed his words. “Thanks.”
Beaming, Petey took hold of the marshal’s elbow and guided him to the door. Limping hard, he somehow managed to make it down the steps, holding onto the railing like a lifeline, Petey right beside him.
The rider still leaned casually at the bar, drinking his second beer with measured casualness. Festus let his eyes dart periodically over to watch the man, his instincts sending warning shivers up his spine. As Fred studiously continued his solitaire game, the door at the back of the room opened. Festus turned to see the saloon girl Betsy flash him an inviting smile, but it disappeared instantly when her eyes fell on the stranger. He saw her mouth open slightly, then watched as she lowered her gaze and sauntered back through the door. Immediately, the deputy’s attention shifted to the stranger, who took another pull from his beer, set it on the counter, and followed her, his cocky stride proclaiming an arrogance that Festus would have loved to wipe off his sinister face.
When the door closed again, he turned back to Fred, a question on his lips, but the bartender just shrugged and returned to his card game. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, Festus weighed several options, none of which made as much sense as simply waiting until the stranger re-emerged, so he bent back over the bar and helped himself to Fred’s unexpected generosity.
The bartender had just finished his fifth game when a muffled commotion from the back room drew their attention. Before either could move, the door burst open, and the stranger stormed out rubbing at fresh scratches streaking his left cheek. With a snarl, he grabbed up the beer he had
left on the counter, downed the rest of it, and stomped across the floor toward the outside door, his boots pounding loudly on the wood.
As the two men stared after him, Betsy stumbled through the back door, her hair disheveled and hanging from its pins, her bodice torn. Alarmed, Festus pushed off the bar and hurried to her.
“Missy, air ya’ arrite?” he asked.
“Damn him,” she exclaimed, face flushed around her bruised lips. “He don’t never think he has ta’ pay.”
Spinning to stare after the outside doors the stranger had just gone through, Festus then turned to look at Fred, his suspicions all but confirmed. “Wuz thet – “
Fred nodded silently.
“Why didn’t ya’ tell me? Festus snapped.
The bartender shrugged. “Didn’t ask.”
Without the time to strangle Fred, Festus darted after Quincey Neagle.
Although the day was warm, enough of a breeze blew down the lonely street to cool the sweat on his face. He fought to regain enough strength to go back into the office and try the connection again. He had to get word to Doc and Festus – and most especially to Kitty. Drawing in a fortifying breath, he raised his head just in time to see a man step from the saloon, the cocky walk and fancy outfit identifying him instantly.
Blinking, Matt whispered, “Neagle,” and motioned for the boy to move. “Get out of the way, Petey,” he ordered, voice firm now.
“But, Marshal – “
Putting sand into it, he snapped, “I said get back. Now!”
Unaccustomed to anything but
gentleness from the Marshal, Petey stared at him,
uncertain, but before Matt could physically move the boy, he saw
“Go to your mother, Petey,” he said evenly, nodding.
Thank goodness the boy obeyed, running toward Alice, who stared at him, open-mouthed, when she comprehended the scene in the street. Gathering Petey in her arms, she stepped back into the store threshold, eyes wide with fear. He regretted she would have to watch what could very well be his death, but he didn’t have much choice.
Raising his voice, he called out, “Quincey Neagle!”
Neagle stopped, looked up, and squinted toward Matt. “What do you want?”
“I’ve come to take you in, Neagle.”
The outlaw stepped a bit closer, his right hand hovering over his gun. He looked his opponent up and down. Matt was aware of the picture he made, swaying slightly, his ragged shirt hanging open, revealing the bandages beneath, his face pale under an unkempt beard.
Incredulity colored Neagle’s voice. “You what?”
“I’ve come to take you in. I’m a U.S. Marshal.”
A rough eyebrow rose. “Another one?”
Now it was Matt’s turn to be confused. “What do you mean?”
The smaller man laughed contemptuously. “I don’t know who you are, mister, but you look like yer arreddy half buried, and you think yer gonna take me in?”
Although his body still swayed, Matt’s voice was firm. “I am.”
“Mister, the best man in
Unmoved, Matt continued to watch him, eyes unmoving.
Irritated, Neagle continued, “I’m talkin’ about Matt Dillon. Marshal Matt Dillon.” He grinned. “Maybe you heard of him?”
Only a slight narrowing of Matt’s eyes betrayed any surprise at this declaration, too subtle for Neagle to notice. “Maybe,” Matt returned carefully.
“You think yer faster than Matt Dillon?” Neagle taunted.
“How come you think yer gonna take me, then?”
“Because you didn’t kill Matt Dillon.”
Taken aback for a moment, Neagle stared at him, then laughed. “Yer crazy, man. I kilt Dillon mor’n a month ago.” His eyes narrowed. “And now, I’m bout ta’ kill you.”
A wave of dizziness swept through Matt’s body and he swayed before managing to lock his knees to brace himself. “I’d just as soon take you in, Neagle, but it’s your dance.”
The outlaw shrugged. “It’s yer funeral, mister.”
“Last chance,” Matt warned.
“You won’t even clear leather.”
Knowing it was time, Matt pushed away from his support at the rail and squared up, seeing Neagle’s brief frown, reading his body language, anticipating his draw.
“Matthew!” a familiar voice called impossibly, but Matt didn’t have the strength to turn toward it.
The outlaw’s move was lightning fast, fire leaping from his pistol. The report of two shots echoed off the buildings and scattered away on the wind.
As the wagon topped the small rise at the edge of Jeddo, Kitty arched her back stiffly and let her gaze sweep the single street that lay before them. Instantly, her breath froze, her heart faltered. Blinking to make sure she was really seeing what she thought she was seeing, she clutched at Doc’s arm, fingers digging into the coarse material of his coat.
“Doc!” she gasped.
Her mind tried to caution her, in
case it wasn’t him, but the shouts from her heart drowned it out. Even with
that handsome face half covered by a rough, dark beard, she knew without a
doubt. There was no mistaking those wide shoulders, those long legs, that solid
stance. Ironic that after they had
chased wild geese all over
Thank God! Thank God! “Oh, Doc!” she cried.
But her rush of joyful relief collapsed almost instantly into sickening fear as she comprehended the bitterly familiar scene before her. And the terrible realization that she was about to lose him just as she found him again almost knocked her down. Doc had not even gotten the wagon completely stopped before she was leaping from it, picking her skirts up and breaking into a sprint, heedless of her petticoats flying wildly, of the danger, ignoring her friend’s hoarse warning. But she had only a moment to take in the stand off between Matt and the stranger before Festus’ cry broke the tension.
Impotently, she watched the gunman jerk slightly toward the deputy’s call, saw the quickness of the draw, heard the simultaneous shots. Horror tangled around her feet, tripping her and sending her sprawling to the ground, hands scraped raw by the sharp rocks.
Stomach twisting, she wrenched her head up, praying it would not be Matt, grateful at least to see both men still standing. They seemed frozen for one more beat; then, mercifully, the stranger’s legs buckled, and he toppled backwards into the dirt, the impact of his body propelling a cloud of dust into the air around him.
Looking back up, she saw that Matt stood by the rail, his gun level and smoking, his body slightly bent at the waist in the follow-through of his shot, eyes still fixed on his opponent. He hadn’t even noticed her.
A strangled voice rose from the prone body, uttering the last few words of life. “Matt – Dillon?” the man asked, sounding rather amazed.
“That’s right.” It was the first time she had heard his voice in two months, and the blessed sound ripped a sob from her throat.
“But – you’re dead,” the stranger protested.
A death rattle shook the man, and he lay still. Kitty held her breath as Matt continued to stand unsteadily for another few moments, apparently making sure the stranger was dead, then she watched as his tenuous hold on control faltered and his shoulders slumped. It took three tries to re-holster his gun. Finally, he reached out a trembling hand to grasp at the rail again.
Then fear and shock released her, and she scrambled to her feet, crying out his name, joy overwhelming any previous practice of dignity. “Matt! Oh my God! Matt!”
His head snapped up, and she saw the weak smile and mouthed words. “Kitty.”
Rushing the last few feet, she flung herself at him, arms around his waist, head against his chest, only vaguely aware of the grunt her impact made, even as he wrapped long arms around her and pulled her close, his lips in her hair.
Clinging to him, her heart so full of happiness and gratitude she thought they must be pouring out of her, Kitty cried, “I thought – I thought – Oh, Matt, I thought you were dead!”
“It’s all right, Kitty,” he soothed, stroking her back. “It’s all right.”
“It’s really you,” she sobbed happily. “It’s really you.”
Lifting her head, she raised her hand to caress his bruised cheek, to scrub at the unfamiliar beard, perching on tiptoe to kiss him desperately, her lips finding their home once more, her heart filled again. He returned the kiss, not in passion, but in love and security. Finally, she pulled back and stared at him, her happiness muted suddenly as she noticed the battered features and felt the trembling in his arms.
“Don’t take this wrong, Cowboy, but you look mighty rough.”
“You look – beautiful.” He smiled down at her, but the endearment lasted only a moment before it slid from his lips, the color draining from his face. She felt him sway in her arms.
“Uh – Kitty – I need to – “
“Matt?” But before she could do anything else, his knees buckled, and he fell back heavily against the rail, gasping as he slid to the ground. She followed along, clutching at him, trying in vain to break his fall.
“Doc!” she cried out, terrified that she could still lose him.
Somehow, Doc was by Matt’s side, and she couldn’t imagine how he had gotten from the wagon so quickly. “Let me see,” he ordered gently.
Horrified, she watched as fresh blood stained Matt’s shoulder and chest and more blood seeped onto his pants from his right thigh. Doc pushed the tattered shirt out of the way and lifted the chest bandage, frowning at what he saw.
“Matt?” he said. “Can you hear me?”
Those beautiful blue eyes she loved so much were closed, but he struggled to answer. “Doc – “
“Just lie still, here. You hit anywhere else?”
“ – fine – “ came the strained response.
The doctor grunted. “Oh, yeah, you’re just right as rain.”
“Matthew?” Festus asked, a bit breathless as he ran up to them.
Several people gathered around them, faces stunned as they looked from Matt to the body of the stranger, sprawled in an undignified heap in the dirt, but Kitty had eyes only for her man.
She barely noticed the woman and young boy who emerged from the crowd.
“Marshal?” the boy called. “Marshal Dillon?”
But Matt couldn’t answer. Kitty felt his body slide into unconsciousness, his head falling against her abdomen, his arm hanging limply across her thighs as she lovingly stroked the dark, sweaty curls that fell over his forehead. “Doc!”
Eyes wide, the boy stared down at them. “He ain’t dead, is he? Please say he ain’t dead!”
Doc looked up at the boy, his face tender, relieving both the boy and Kitty with his words. “He’s not dead, son. He’s just very weak, and he’s lost a lot of blood.”
After that, she only half listened to the conversation, concentrating her efforts on holding Matt, making him as comfortable as possible, even if he wasn’t consciously aware of it now.
A woman’s voice asked, “You’re – Doc?”
“Is he – is he going to be all right?”
The doctor looked back down. “I’m trying to find out.”
“I tried to talk him out of coming to town. He’s been awfully sick.”
“What happened to him?”
“Near as we can figure, he got himself bushwhacked. Whoever did it, shot him up then beat him for good measure. We were afraid he wouldn’t make it, but he surprised us. He’s a tough one.”
Festus agreed, “He is ‘at.” Kitty heard the pride in the deputy’s voice. She ached at the image of Matt lying bleeding and bruised – and alone – and brushed the back of her hand softly over his cheek, relishing the chance to touch him again, to ease his pain.
“I’m Alice Miller,” the woman added.
Kitty’s head whipped up, eyes wide. Far from being the shriveled up old lady that they had all envisioned, the Widow Miller was a woman in her prime, not fancy, but quite pretty in her own way. And Matt had spent the better part of a month with her. Unconscious. With her tending to his every need. Every need.
Despite her efforts to suppress it, a thumb of jealousy poked at her. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Matt. On the contrary, she trusted him implicitly. It was other women she didn’t trust.
“Yer th’ Widder Miller?” Festus asked, breaking into Kitty’s thoughts.
“Well, yes. Something wrong?”
The deputy blushed. “It jest thet – wael, yer awful purdy – an’ young – ta’ be a widder.”
Purdy an’ young, all right, Kitty agreed.
Amusement lightened Alice Miller’s voice. “Thank you. You must be Festus.”
“How did – “
“Matt’s been with you all this time?” Doc interrupted, voicing the question for Kitty.
“Petey found him out on the road about a month ago. Just came around for good a few days ago.”
Pushing himself stiffly to his feet, Doc declared, “We need to get him off the street. Is there somewhere – “
“Onliest place ‘roun’ chere is thet Buckhorn’s whar we bin’a stayin’,” Festus said, shaking his head. “Bad ennuf Miz Kitty had ta’ suffer it, but I ain’t figgerin’ Matthew needs ta’ have ta’ fight off bed bugs, too.”
Kitty winced. Festus was right. She had already told Doc and Festus she would rather spend the night out on the ground than go back to the vermin-infested room they shared. And she had planned to do just that very thing that night – before they had found Matt.
“You folks come back to my place,”
The woman turned toward her with an expression that Kitty thought looked like a strange mixture of admiration, empathy, and envy. “You must be Kitty Russell.”
Surprised, Kitty nodded.
“You’re not putting us out at all,”
Doc sucked in a hard breath and blew it back out. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”
“Wael why on earth not?” Festus asked.
“I don’t know if he could – “ The physician’s eyes tightened, and he looked up tentatively at Kitty. After a beat, he said softly, “Well, a rough ride wouldn’t do him any good, that’s for sure.”
“It was mighty hard on him on the way in,”
Kitty swallowed, fighting back a new wave of despair. “We have to do something, Doc.”
“What are you suggesting?” Doc wondered.
“We’ll pad the bottom of the wagon with them, soften the ride. We can get more cloth from Mister Pranton’s store. And if you take the main road, I can tell you where the ruts are worst, and we can ease around them.”
Kitty looked up at Doc hopefully. “You think it will work?”
He pondered it for a moment, then nodded. “It might. If we take it slow.”
“It will work,”
Eagerly, Petey added, “Yes’m, I sure would.”
Kitty glanced down at Matt, feeling the subtle tremors run through his big body, seeing the flush that brought new color to his ashen face, a worrisome sign of fever. He was alive – thank God – but how long would he stay alive if they didn’t get him settled down and tended to? Maybe if they took things slowly, like Doc said –
Resting a hand on his chest, she felt the rapid beating of
his heart, heard the ragged draw of his breathing. Whatever
Dawn was just beginning to nudge the night out of the way when Kitty’s eyes fluttered open, adjusting to the lightening gray that peeked through the windows of Alice Miller’s tiny house. For just a second, she frowned, unsure about where she was and what was going on. But memory quickly washed the frown away as she straightened her aching body in the chair that had served as her bed the night before. A low groan propelled her to her feet, and she leaned over the bed where Matt lay.
He hadn’t come to yet, and the fact that he had been out for
almost 36 hours bothered Doc, which bothered Kitty all the more. She hadn’t left his side except for
necessities, but sat holding his hand, wiping his face and chest and arms,
talking softly to him, encouraging him to fight the fever, to come back to them
– to her. He didn’t look much better
this morning, his color still gray, his breathing still shallow and slightly
labored. Doc had been right, the wagon
ride from Jeddo hadn’t done Matt any good, but he had
survived it, cushioned better than Kitty had thought he could be with
“Matt,” she whispered, careful not to wake Doc, who lay on a
bedroll by the fireplace. Festus had
bunked down outside with Petey as company while
But those blue eyes didn’t open, that fine mouth didn’t grin at her. She studied him for a moment, touched his brow, his lips, the beard that was shaggy now and realized that she had never seen Matt with a beard before, not a full one. He always preferred to be clean-shaven; when he returned from a long ride on the trail shaving was one of the first things he did – after seeing her. She considered how it altered his looks and decided that, even though he was still handsome and she liked it, she still wanted to run her lips over his freshly shaved jaw again.
“He’ll make it.”
The softly confident remark drew her attention, and she
turned her head to see
could say anything,
“I’m grateful for all you’ve done for him,” Kitty told her sincerely.
“You have a fine man.”
He’s a fine man. You’re very
Eyes shining, she glanced back up, studying the other woman, understanding It wasn’t hard to imagine her taking care of a wounded stranger. And it certainly wasn’t hard to imagine her being attracted to the handsome lawman she had saved. “Yes,” she agreed. “He is a fine man.”
“Matt – the Marshal told me about you. That’s why we were in town. Even as weak as he was, he insisted on wiring you to let you know he was all right.” She winced. “Well, all right is relative.”
Kitty looked down at the pale face and stroked gently
through his coarse beard, love swelling her heart, not having expected Matt
just to come right out and tell
“His right leg,” Kitty sighed, nodding toward the long limb, which was partially uncovered, revealing a fresh fat bandage just above the knee. “It gives him trouble.”
“I can see why,”
Kitty knew that all too well. “Thank you for easing his suffering.”
“You’ve already thanked me,”
“You love him.” The sudden realization leaped from her mouth before Kitty could stop it. “I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to say that – “
“Why didn’t you?” Not that she wanted her to, mind you.
“He already has someone who loves him.”
Kitty acknowledged that truth by holding
“He loves you, too, you know.”
She did, but it surprised her to hear the statement from
“How could I not know?”
Kitty wanted to ask, but held herself in check.
After a moment,
Maybe more than you realize. Kitty wasn’t sure what that meant, but it pleased her to hear it.
“Kitty?” A gruff call of her name drew her attention to where Doc was pushing himself off the floor, grunting in complaint.
She stepped over to help him, but he shrugged her off and shuffled to the edge of the bed, his fingers automatically moving to press against Matt’s wrist. “He wake up any last night?”
“I would have gotten you.”
The doctor shifted his gaze to the side. “I heard Alice Miller heading out a few minutes ago.”
His expression told her plainly he had heard their conversation. “Yeah.”
“She’s right, you know.”
Kitty lifted a brow.
“That overgrown civil servant loves you an awful lot, Kitty.”
She had known Doc long enough to admit, “I love him, too.”
“I know you do.” After a beat, he released Matt’s wrist and cleared his throat. “And he’s gonna be just fine, Kitty. I promise you that.”
“I want to believe you, Doc. I just – I – “ The sob choked her, even though she fought it. Tears clouded her eyes, shimmering before they spilled down her cheeks. “What if – “
“Now, don’t think like that, Kitty,” Doc admonished gently, sliding an arm around her waist. “We haven’t come all this way to find out Matt’s still alive just to lose him. He’s gonna make it. I promise.” He offered a hopeful chuckle. “Besides, the boy’s too ornery to die.”
“ – look who’s – calling who – ornery – “
The voice was weak and low and hoarse, but to Kitty it
sounded as rich and full as a baritone in a Wagnerian opera she had once
watched – and Matt had once slept through – in
“Watch – it – “ he joked, a smile just barely touching his lips.
“Oh, grow up. It’s not like I don’t know that you and Kitty – “ Doc’s words sputtered to a halt as he realized what he was saying. Grumbling something about grown people acting like kids, he leaned in, pressing a hand against Matt’s forehead, then cheek. “I think the fever’s gone, or almost there,” he said, satisfaction warming his tone.
A tired blink was about all Matt could muster for a moment, but he made a visible attempt to look Kitty in the eye, and even in his vulnerable condition, the impact took her breath. “I thought maybe – I dreamed – you were here.”
“I’m no dream, Cowboy,” she assured him.
But his smile widened a bit. “Now there’s – where you’re – wrong.”
“Well,” Doc announced abruptly, straightening and walking toward the door. “I’ll just get some air.” But he paused before he left and jerked his chin pointedly at both Kitty and Matt. “Mind yourselves. I mean it.”
She laughed. Looking at Matt, lying there barely able to open his eyes, she knew there was no danger that they would violate Doc’s orders. Still, there had been other times –
When the door shut, she sat gingerly on the bed, her arm going around him with care, her lips taking his with love and deep gratitude. Even as she pulled back, though, his chest was already rising and falling evenly, sleep overtaking him.
He fought it for another few moments. “I’m – sorry, Kitty,” he said. “I didn’t mean for – “
She placed her fingers over his mouth. “Shh. It’s okay. You just sleep now. I’ll be here.” And as his eyes closed again and his head relaxed against the pillow, peacefulness smoothing out the lines of his face, she murmured, “I’ll always be here.”
His shoulder pounded, his head throbbed, and his leg ached, but Matt Dillon decided he was in pretty good shape, considering. Propped up in the bed he had occupied for over a month, he shifted gingerly, trying not to wince under Kitty’s eagle eyes as the fresh bandages pulled. She sat beside him, his left hand clutched in both of hers, a position she had not relinquished much the past four days. For the time being, he was content to watch her, drinking in the richness of her hair, the brilliance of her eyes, the beauty of her spirit. And more than once he caught her watching him and read the love and gratitude on that lovely face. If they hadn’t had constant company he would have been able to return some of that love and gratitude a bit more demonstrably.
At the time, they had just about all the company possible,
with Festus and Doc sitting at the kitchen table while
“Fiddle,” his deputy claimed, “I knowed you waddn’t daid th’ whole time.”
Matt made only a half-hearted attempt to hide his smile. “Ya’ did?”
“Why shore. It’uz ol’ Doc whut had us all mopey an – “
“Me!” Doc exclaimed, “You were the one that came into town and – and – “ He stopped abruptly at the pained look on Kitty’s face. “And I’m sure glad we were wrong,” he finished seriously. “I sure am.”
He saw Kitty take a deep breath, tears glistening in her eyes. Matt squeezed her hand and rubbed his thumb along its back. She returned the caress, reaching up to brush across his beard. Matt had never liked beards, never had grown one before – on purpose, anyway. They itched, and they were hot. He would have already shaved it off, except that Kitty seemed to like touching it, and he had to admit he kind of liked her touching it. Still, he intended to get rid of the thing when they got back to Dodge. That was, if Kitty didn’t protest too much.
Cocking his head in agreement with Doc’s comment, Festus said, “I bin a wondrin’ ‘bout somethin’, though.”
With effort, Matt pulled his gaze away from Kitty. “What’s that?”
“How you know’d it wuz ol’ Neagle on thet street? Ya’ ain’t never met ‘im, hev ya’?”
“Nope. I recognized him from a wanted poster. He was decked out like he had just posed for it.”
Wiping her hands on a rag,
The deputy sniffed appreciatively. “Ma’am, thet shore smells rite tastey.”
“How’s he doing?” she asked.
“Matt? You did a good job, Mrs. Miller.”
Doc didn’t mind at all, though. “
“Three weeks?” Matt protested. “Doc – “
Brushing a hand through Matt’s hair lovingly, Kitty assured, “He’ll do it, Doc. I’ll make sure.” Matt acquiesced to her touch, but determined that it wouldn’t be more than another week before he’d push to head back to Dodge.
“One thang’s a-still botherin’ me, though, Matthew. We ain’t got no idée who thet thar feller in th’ box is.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Whoever he is probably knew who I was and jumped me so I wouldn’t get to Neagle first. There was a hefty reward on Quincey’s head. Sounds like this guy tried to pass himself off as me so Neagle would be more inclined to go with him.”
“Didn’t work too wael.”
“He wuz almost big enuff ta’ pass fer ya’, though.”
Intrigued, Matt sat up a little straighter, trying to ignore the discomfort that caused. They had not really discussed the man that had created more than a little heartache for his friends – for Kitty. “Yeah? What did he look like?”
Shuddering, Kitty said, “Not very pretty. Not anymore.”
He squeezed her hand again, wishing they were alone so he could take her in his arms.
“Fair-headed,” Doc remembered. “Main thing I remember was a silver belt buckle, sort of Mexican looking – and fancy spurs.”
“Sounds kind of like Rude Milton. I ran into him a few years back. Sometime-gunman,
sometime-bounty hunter. Not very good at either. More gruff than grit – “ His eyes widened at the realization that suddenly became
clear, and he looked toward
Hand at her throat, she breathed, “Oh, my God.”
“What is it?” Kitty asked.
“That man – that man – you think, you think it was – “
Matt turned back to the physician. “What kind of shirt was he wearing, Doc? You remember?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. It was sort of checkered, or plaid, maybe.”
“Doc,” Matt explained quietly, aware of the pain his words
would cause. “I’m pretty sure that fellow you saw was Rude Milton – and I also
think it was Rudy Miller.” Gently, he
asked, “Am I right,
She nodded slowly. “I think so. I think maybe so.”
For a moment, she kept staring, then she seemed to shake herself and rose again. “You’re sorry? My God, he tried – he almost killed you, Matt. I’m sorry.” Turning to Kitty, she repeated, “I’m so sorry.”
But the marshal wouldn’t have it. “You had nothing to do with that. You saved my life.”
“I just can’t believe – after all these years – oh, Rudy – “ She buried her face in her hands.
With just a glance at Matt, Kitty rose and placed her arms
around the distraught woman. “Come
on. Let’s go in the other room.”
Matt looked at Petey, saw the boy staring after his mother, confusion clouding those young eyes. “Festus,” he prodded.
Grunting as he pushed himself from the chair, Festus patted the boy’s back. “Come on, Petey, let’s us take our vittles outside an’ I’ll tell ya’ all about th’ time I beat thet ol’ sawbones outta three bottles of whiskey – “
It struck Matt as
fortunate – in this case anyway – that Petey probably
didn’t remember much, if anything, about his father; the death of a virtual
stranger would have little effect on a ten year old.
They gathered their plates and headed toward the front
door, leaving Doc to grumble ineffectively, with only Matt as his
audience. “That fellow that bushwhacked you and went after Neagle
Matt nodded. “I’m sorry for her. She’s a good woman.”
“That she is.” Doc paused, squinting his eyes a bit, then cocked an eyebrow at his friend. “Pretty, too.” His tone grew wheedling. “Might, uh, might make a man think twice about – things.”
Matt’s chin jerked up, unaccustomed anger at his old friend
heating his face. But he saw that the
physician’s expression was teasing – mostly.
Calming, he let his gaze trail to the closed sewing room door where
Kitty had taken
For a moment, Doc watched him. Then he smiled back. “No, might not,” he agreed. “Might not at all.”
The two men remained silent for a long moment before Matt shifted on the bed, wincing ruefully with the movement. Doc was by his side in an instant.
“I told you to take it easy – “
“How was it, Doc?” he asked seriously. “On Kitty, I mean.” But he really already knew.
The older man hesitated, then said, “Well, it was – she was – “ Shaking his head, he admitted, “It was hard, Matt. It was hard.”
“I wish I could’ve done something. I tried – “
“You did do something,” Doc told him.
Matt looked at him.
Matt nodded. So far, at least, he’d always managed that for Kitty. He wondered how long that would be enough.
The sewing room door opened, and Kitty emerged, closing it behind her. She smiled tiredly at the men as she sat on the edge of the bed. Matt placed his hand on her arm. “How is she?”
“She’ll be all right. She’s quite a survivor.”
Matt regarded her with a smile of admiration, Doc’s words still echoing in his head. “She’s not the only one. You okay?”
Coughing roughly, Doc stood and picked up his plate again. “Well, I guess I’ll join Festus and Petey. No telling what nonsense that scoundrel is putting into that poor child’s head.”
With a smile he shuffled out, leaving Matt and Kitty alone in the room for the first time. For a moment, they didn’t move. Then, carefully, Kitty leaned down and placed a long, warm kiss on Matt’s lips, which he returned, his right hand coming up to cup her face. When they finally pulled back, he saw tears in Kitty’s eyes and brushed gently at them.
“Kitty, it’s all right.”
“I thought I’d lost you. I was so afraid that – “
He pressed a finger over her lips to stop her, then replaced the finger with his mouth. The kiss was harder this time, more
passionate as he let his feelings show.
When they finally parted, they were both breathing heavily. Despite the
fact that he knew
She arched her neck, welcoming his caresses. He knew they should stop, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I can’t believe you’re really here,” she whispered. “I can’t believe you’re really here.”
Drawing her hand over his chest, he assured her, “I’m here, Kitty. I’m here.”
He leaned back as their lips met again with Kitty leaning over him. His arms pulled her tighter, oblivious to any pain from his injuries, so overwhelmed by her taste and her feel that his body was responding with eagerness, swelling against the thigh that she had draped over his left leg. He should stop, but he didn’t want to. It had been too long. Nothing would break their embrace.
Nothing except a pointed cough from the sewing room.
As Kitty jerked away from him, pressing a bit too hard
against his chest and forcing a grunt from him,
Smoothing her hair, Kitty tried to explain, “I – uh – we – “
“We were just – “
“And I don’t blame you one bit.”
A blush colored Kitty’s cheeks as she exchanged a mischievous
glance with Matt, who surprised himself by kissing her quickly again.
“I just came to thank you,”
Propping gingerly on an elbow, Matt asked, “Does this mean
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” She looked at them another moment, then drew in a deep breath. “Well, I don’t want to – keep you from – well, I’ll just be out there with everybody else – talking, and – things. We should be – a while – “
Despite Doc’s pronouncement that Matt would be confined to bed for another three weeks, it was only five days later that the Dodge party stood by their wagon, horses hitched and ready to head west. Reunited once more with his master, Buck stood complacently, tied on behind the wagon. Doc and Festus had already climbed up onto the seat and watched with relative patience while Matt and Kitty bid their goodbyes to Alice and Petey.
“Are you sure he’s strong enough to travel, Doc?”
The physician swiped a hand over his mustache. “Of course not. But when has my learned professional opinion ever mattered?”
Ignoring him, Matt smiled fondly at the woman who had
without question saved his life. “
“It was my pleasure, Marshal,” She lifted a smooth brow, and emphasized, “It really was.”
He saw Kitty’s own brow arch and shifted awkwardly on his bad leg, missing the smirk that crossed her lips a second later.
“I sure am gonna miss ya’, Marshal,” Petey chimed in, staring up at the tall lawman with adoration in his clear eyes.
“I’m gonna miss you, too, Petey,” Matt said sincerely.
“Would it be okay, ya’ think, if one day maybe I’d come and visit ya’?”
Smiling, Matt reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair. “It sure would.”
“If you ever have a son, he sure will be lucky.”
Matt flushed a bit and avoided Kitty’s look. Nodding toward
The boy grinned up at his mother. “Yeah.”
“Good luck in
“I’ll tell you something,” she said, “he saved my life, too.”
“How’s that?” Matt asked, surprised.
Taking a deep breath, and obviously fighting back tears, she said, “I had pretty much given up on men before you came. Didn’t think there were any good ones out there. Lord knows Rudy wasn’t.” Smiling through the tears, she looked up at him. “And then Matt Dillon drops into my life, and I find a man who is honorable, and noble, and brave, and tall, and handsome, and – “
Matt smiled back, casting another cautious glance toward Kitty.
“Well,” she continued, “I’m thinking that maybe, somewhere, there’s another man out there like you. Or close, anyway.”
She moved close to him and stretched up, one hand going around his neck, to pull him down to her so she could place a soft but quick kiss on his cheek. He thought about the other kiss she had given him, one not so chaste, and his cheeks colored guiltily at the memory of his body’s natural reaction.
“There’s someone out there, Alice. And he’s a fortunate man. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Her eyes glistened. “Thank you.” With a ragged breath, she hurried back inside.
When he turned back Kitty was looking up at him, her brow cocked sharply. He shrugged, then winced at the movement. “Kitty, I – I didn’t – “
“Never mind, Cowboy,” she reassured him, warmth and amusement in her tone. “I can’t say as I blame her.”
His own brow rose in surprise.
“You are tall, after all,” she teased.
He limped to the wagon to help Kitty into the back, then climbed in carefully behind her, his body complaining at the unaccustomed exertion. “Doc, I don’t think we can get back there fast enough.”
“We can the way Festus drives, but you won’t have a tooth left in your head. He’ll rattle them all out.”
“Aw, fiddle, ya’ ol’ scudder. If I let you handle these chere ribbons, we’d be Christmas a’getting’ home.”
As the horses jerked forward, Kitty fell against Matt, and he caught her, letting her stay nestled against his left side as they both propped up against the sideboards, waving back at Petey as he called goodbye.
“Home,” she breathed. “It sure will be good to get back.”
“Yes, it will, Kitty.”
“You know, it’s been a long, long time.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, “it will be good to see the town again and – “ But the look on her face as she gazed up at him, her slender hand lightly caressing his chest, stopped him. She wasn’t talking about seeing the town – or anybody else in it.
He smiled at her, letting the promise of passion make his voice husky. “It has been a long, long time,” he agreed. “Might take a long, long time to make up for it.”
Her eyes blazed with answered passion. “It might, huh?”
She snuggled closer to him. “If you’ve got the time, I’ve got the time, Cowboy.”
Matt looked down at her, his smile heated, his body surging. “Oh, I’ve got the time. I’ve got the time.”
With feigned astonishment, she exclaimed, “I never thought I’d hear you say that.”
He hesitated a moment, contemplating what he was about to say, then went ahead and said it, not exactly sure where it would lead, but knowing he wanted to say it anyway. “There may be lots of things you’ll hear me say from now on, Kitty, that I should have said long ago.”
Her face showed true astonishment now, but he stifled any questions she might have asked with his lips against hers, not even caring that Doc and Festus cast gleeful – and not very subtle – glances their way.
There were, indeed, lots of things he planned to say to her once they got back to Dodge – after they finished making up for the long, long time apart.
They were deep into a spirited celebration, orchestrated by
the citizens of Dodge to welcome back the man most considered to be the face –
and the heart – of
The trip hadn’t been easy, four days of rough stage and
train travel with Matt enduring it stoically but not fooling any of them, and
Doc muttering, “I told you so,” over every stifled grunt or grimace. As soon as the train pulled into Dodge, Kitty
had intended to whisk her stubborn marshal off to bed – strictly for rest, but
to the surprise of all of them, a huge crowd waited at the depot, hustling them
That had been over three hours ago, and although the crowd had thinned some, the party was still going full blast. As the evening wore on, Kitty cast quick, concerned glances toward the honoree, who, despite the smile on his face, looked like he was on his last reserves of energy. While the latest piano player Sam hired pounded out a lively tune that sounded like a confusion of “Camp Town Races” and “Oh, Susannah,” the celebrants danced and drank and slapped their resurrected hero on the back until Kitty saw the grimace tighten his lips and intervened.
“Okay, fellas,” she reminded, sliding between Matt and the well-wishers. Closer to him now, she could hear the slightly labored breathing, see the dots of perspiration. “How ya’ doing, Cowboy?” Her tone was light; her eyes were not.
When he managed only a nod, she stood decisively. As much as they both appreciated the affection the town was showing, it was time to call it a night. Most likely if Doc hadn’t been called away to set the broken leg of a drunk drover, he would have insisted on it even earlier.
Leaning in so that her lips were next to his ear, she whispered, “Give me a few minutes to lock up and we can go upstairs.” Even though everyone in Dodge knew how it was between their marshal and saloon owner, she and Matt still tried to be as discreet as possible.
Tonight, though, he surprised her. “Why don’t we just go on up now?”
“Let’s just go on up now.”
Just go on up now? While everyone was still there? While everyone could see him climb those stairs and know exactly whose room he was going to? And know exactly – well maybe not exactly – what he would be doing, and with whom?
“Matt?” she asked, suddenly worried that maybe he couldn’t wait until she ran everyone out. Maybe he was about to collapse right then.
But his smile was steady enough, even if his hands shook slightly and his eyes were dark and red-rimmed with fatigue. “I want to,” he said simply. “Maybe you could – help me?” Pushing up from the table, he stood and lifted his left arm in invitation for her to slide beneath it.
It was a blatant demonstration for anyone watching, and it stunned her. “Are you sure, Matt? It won’t take long to close up – “
“I’m sure. No need to break up the party.”
Heart pounding with joy and with love, she eased her body next to his, slipping her right arm around his waist and letting him guide them toward the stairs. The front stairs. They took them slowly. He grunted a couple of times as he pushed to make the climb. About halfway up, Kitty turned to give a final glance back, surprised to see that no one paid them a bit of attention. No one except Festus, who nodded and gave her a satisfied grin.
They were gritty from the small bits of soot that were common to rail riders, but Kitty could see Matt was too far gone to take the time for a nice, hot bath, as comforting as that might have been. He stumbled twice on the stairs, his face draining whiter with each misstep. No, bed was his first stop tonight. Leaning heavily against the doorframe as she opened up, he favored her with an exhausted smile when she eased an arm back around his waist to help him in.
“I’m all right, Kitty,” he assured her, but his tone didn’t convince either of them.
“Sure you are.” She
watched as he eased his long frame onto the bed, his hands reaching up to the
top button of his shirt. Unable to
resist, she brushed away his fingers and took on the task herself, her eyes
holding his in a connection of love that almost immediately flamed into
passion. Carefully, she slid the shirt over his shoulders, unable to keep from
wincing as she looked down at the raw scars that had finally started to heal,
The pressure of his lips intensified suddenly, and his mouth opened, his tongue searched. His arms tugged her into him so that her hands were trapped against his chest. Taking advantage, she flattened her palms against the hard planes and gave in to the kiss, noting absently how his beard scratched softly against her face, how the mustache tickled her nose. Then he leaned back, pulling her with him, and she didn’t notice anything else except her hunger for his touch.
“Matt,” she gasped, her mind scolding her for her weakness, her body urging her on. “We – we can’t – you can’t – “ But the swollen ridge that pressed urgently into her thighs told her that he could, he most definitely could.
“Kitty,” he groaned in between kisses, “it’s been so long.”
Long and hard, she thought wickedly, but didn’t say it.
She ached, a pulsing, delicious ache, one she had been afraid she might never have the chance to feel with him again. But there it was, just as intense as always, just as insistent, just as incredible. She ground against him harder, her tongue licking at his earlobe, her left hand tugging at the light spread of hair on his chest.
“Ki-tty – “ She felt him rock hard against her, could tell he was close, too close.
Her fingers worked to tug at the buttons of his pants, which was easier said than done with the material straining so powerfully against the fabric. After a moment of concerted effort, they gave, and she slipped inside to grip him through his long johns.
No time – and no need – for seduction. His fingers pulled at her clothing. Her hands tore at his trousers and underwear, shoving them just far enough past his hips to liberate his eager erection, which thrust out hungrily. He kissed his way down her body with the noble intention of leading her to climax first, but she shook her head and urged him back up, even as her body screamed for immediate completion.
“No, Matt. Together. Now.”
“Yes,” he groaned.
Moving over her, he positioned himself at her entrance, but she was still coherent enough to remember his wounds and urged him onto his back so that she straddled him, her fingers grasping the hot, throbbing shaft, guiding him inside. She was more than ready for him, her excitement making his path smooth and swift, despite their time apart and his daunting girth. As he filled her, the intense burst of sensation drew his name from her lips in a torturous gasp.
She writhed above him, her thighs clamped around his hips as he thrust inside her, grunting in rhythm with her gasps. She celebrated the amazing feel of him driving into her heat and pulling back out, over and over. Leaning down, she let her breasts press against his chest with each deep push. Her hips jerked, and her legs squeezed him, and she felt the first frantic convulsions of her inner muscles around his throbbing shaft.
“Matt!” she cried out. “Oh, yes!”
He pumped harder, reached a hand between them to add to her pleasure. She groaned, her head thrown back, her hands clutching his shoulders until his pained grunt reminded her of his injuries. Then, the burst of release hit her, rushed with shuddering power through her body. His movements accelerated, hotter, slicker, and she was still arching against him when she heard his cry and felt the first pulses shoot through his thick shaft to explode at her center. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. They were locked in place, muscles seizing with each violent spurt, concentrated on where he burned inside her, again and again until they both surrendered to the overwhelming sensations and collapsed, breath heaving, hearts racing.
A gray dawn peeked through the curtains of her bedroom as Kitty awoke slowly, focusing on the sensations that touched her: the warmth of Matt’s strong body beside her, the moistness between her legs, evidence of their passion. He groaned in his sleep, and she turned instantly at the sound, worried. “Matt?” But his forehead was cool when she laid a gentle hand on it.
Sitting cross-legged next to him, she let her eyes trace over his body, her own skin tingling at the memory of their frenzied coupling. Matt was usually a gentle, tender lover, but last night they had both been too impatient and too excited to take the time for tenderness. She winced a little at the twinge of soreness, but smiled because it was a wonderful soreness. His long body was sprawled on the bed, one arm over his head, the other across his stomach. The covers had twisted so that his right leg stretched exposed, the neat bandage Doc had wrapped around his hard thigh not so neat anymore. She studied his face, the strong planes still distinguishable even under the beard, his features softened in sleep, his mouth slightly open. She had watched him like this before – many times, in fact – and always imagined what he must have looked like as a boy, what his own son might look like. What their son might look like.
Pushing away the sharp pang that twisted in her chest, she shook her head, knowing better than to dwell on such a fruitless thought, berating herself for letting it take away from the moment. She had long ago accepted the way it was, the way it had to be. There was no need to start imagining something that would never happen.
Instead, she eased from the bed and pushed open the curtains, relieved that the overcast day was easy on her eyes. Rummaging through the contents of his saddlebags, she pulled out the appropriate accoutrements. Another groan, this one not as pain-filled, drew her attention back to the bed, and she found him watching her, blue eyes hooded from sleep, hair tousled, a half-grin on his lips.
Despite all the years of intimacy they had shared, she found herself blushing under his intense gaze. “Morning,” she greeted, placing the items on the table by the bed and leaning in to kiss him, but pulling back before the touch could escalate as rapidly as it had the night before. She had business to attend to first.
He grunted in disappointment, lifting his chin toward the table and its contents. “What’s that?”
“Your shaving kit. I thought you might want to see your face again.”
“I would have done that already, but I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to keep it or not,” he said, rubbing a hand over the thick beard. “You seemed to like it.”
“Oh, I do,” she allowed, letting her hand join his. “I surely do, but I like it naked, too.”
He paused, throwing her a mischievous look. “Are we still talking about my face?”
A heated smirk curved her lips. “Maybe.” Taking the lathered brush, she sat on the edge of the bed and leaned toward him.
With mild alarm, he asked, “Kitty, what are you – “
“I’m going to shave you.”
“I can – “
“I know you can, but it’s more fun this way.”
His wary expression revealed skepticism.
“Trust, me, Cowboy,” she breathed, kissing him so she could feel the beard against her one last time. “You’re gonna enjoy this.”
Using easy, circular strokes, she covered the left side of his face in the lather, then replaced the brush in the cup and reached for the straight razor.
“Uh, Kitty, are you sure – “
“Just hold still,” she instructed, raising the instrument. She had to take it slowly, knowing that the thickness of his beard would require frequent wipes of the blade. As the razor scraped down his jaw with steady, confident motions, he relaxed, his eyes gazing up at her with undisguised desire.
“Watch it, mister,” she cautioned. “You don’t want to distract me.” But the intimacy of the act as she stroked down his face had already sped up her heart rate.
“But you’re distracting me,” he accused.
She wasn’t sure what he meant until she followed his gaze downward and noticed the generous bulge that pushed at the sheet covering his lap. “You keep that up, and I won’t be responsible for what your face looks like when I’m done.”
He opened his mouth as if to shoot her a retort, but when she pinned him with a look and swung the razor a bit lower, he flinched and pulled the heavier quilt across his groin. “Yes, ma’am.”
With each subsequent graze across his skin, her body tingled. As she exposed more and more of the strong jaw, she began to doubt her ability to finish the job without rushing and inadvertently fulfilling his initial fears. Finally, as the last bit of hair was scoured from his neck, she laid down the razor and toweled off the remaining lather. He sat, grinning at her, even more handsome, just the hint of shadow where the beard had been, a reminder of its presence, should she desire to see it again.
“There,” she proclaimed, running a hand over the smooth skin.
“You happy now?” he asked.
“Wait.” She leaned forward, rubbing her cheek back and forth over the freshly shaved area, letting her lips brush his jaw, his neck. When she pulled back, he took a deep breath. “Okay, now I’m happy.”
“You could be happier,” he suggested.
“I could? How?”
She saw on his face that he wanted to show her, but suddenly, the boyish mischief disappeared into seriousness.
“Matt?” she prompted, the light banter gone.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he stood, pressing a hand against his shoulder for a moment before grabbing his trousers and tugging them on. Blowing out a hard breath, he said, “There’s something I need to – to talk to you about.”
A spark of fear flared in her. Every few years, usually after something happened that was life-threatening either to him, or – worse in his eyes – to her, he would get this idea that he was too much of a danger to her, that she would be better off leaving Dodge – or leaving him. Dear God, she prayed, please don’t let this be one of those times. Please don’t let him try to send her away with his misguided sense of honor and nobility.
Not trusting herself to say anything, she simply nodded tightly.
He didn’t seem to notice her sudden stiffness. “Being at
Kitty waited, confused. He seemed nervous – unsure of himself. And she had never seen Matt Dillon unsure of anything. She watched as those broad shoulders squared, as he turned to face her, and the vulnerability in his eyes stunned her. “Matt?”
“Kitty, I’m not sure how to – how to say exactly what I want to – what I’m trying to say – “
What the hell? “Just say it, Matt. This is me.”
A rueful chuckle shook his chest. “Yeah. That’s why – “ He swallowed hard, as if squaring himself for the draw. “It’s just that I got to thinking that, well that if it had been you missing – if I was the one standing over what I thought was your – grave – “ His voice broke on the last word, and he paused, clenching his jaw hard to gather himself.
Kitty stared, incredulous, tears blurring her vision.
“Well, I wouldn’t be much use to anybody if you – without you.” The declaration was tantamount to an emotional outburst from the stoic marshal.
“Oh, Matt,” she breathed, wanting to fall into his arms, but sensing that he had more to say and giving him the room.
“We’ve talked about what the badge means, I know. And you’ve been – you’ve been more patient with me than I ever had a right to expect.”
“You never led me on,” she allowed. “You made it clear – the way it was. The way it is.“ She barely suppressed the grimace as she thought of how she almost made the biggest mistake of her life with Ad Bellum.
Dragging in a deep breath, he nodded. “I know, but it was still a lot to ask. And I can’t tell you I’m giving it up, yet. There’s still too much need out there, too much pull in me.”
She knew that. She also knew that in some ways the pull would always be in him. “I wouldn’t ask you to – “
“But I will give it up, Kitty. I promise you that. And I was kind of hoping that maybe – maybe when I did you might – you might still be around.”
They had never really talked about what might happen after he hung up the badge, had skirted around the subject, leaving a hope that was alive, but hazy, indistinct. And now here he was, directly addressing the issue that he had steadfastly avoided for fifteen years.
“And if you were around, you might be interested in hitching on with a used up lawman, start up a ranch or something and – “ He flushed. “And have a baby or two with him.”
What? What? It wasn’t often that Kitty Russell found herself speechless, but words wouldn’t come. She watched his face fall from hopefulness to uncertainty.
After an awkward moment, he stammered, backtracking. “But if you don’t, I understand – “
Shaking herself free from the momentary shock, she flung her arms around him. “Oh, Matt, how can you think I don’t – of course, I want to – oh, Matt!”
He stroked her hair, holding her hard against him as her palms pressed into the long muscles on either side of his spine. “Kitty, I haven’t said it nearly enough, but – I love you. I love you very much.”
“I love you, Matt. I love you so very much,” she choked out,
He held her tightly for another long moment before he pulled back, his voice firmer now, more confident. “So, I was thinking that for starters maybe instead of using the back stairs to visit, I might just go up the front ones like I did last night – if that’s all right.”
The man was just full of surprises. Smiling, she said, “You can swing on the chandelier and hang over the banister if you want to, Cowboy.” Then she laughed at the image her words provoked.
“I’m not sure I’m quite ready for that.”
“We’ll work on it,” she promised. They stood in silence for
another few moments, the closeness between them prompting her to ask something
that had niggled at her curiosity since before they left
She twirled several hairs on his chest. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Well, Alice Miller is a pretty woman.”
“That’s not a question.”
“What do you want to know, Kitty?” he asked gently.
“She was smitten with you, you know.”
He smirked. “Smitten?”
“You know what I mean. I think she was in love with you, even though she denied it.”
His chin jerked up. “You talked to her about – “
“Oh, Matt, I’m not blind. Anyone could see the way she looked at you.” She licked her lips, her expression uneasy. She trusted Matt, but – “And she started to tell me something about – well, something that happened, something between you and her.”
“Kitty!” he protested, his hands reaching up to grasp her shoulders. “Nothing happened. How could you even think – “
She merely lifted a brow, remembering
He stepped back, wincing from physical pain or emotional, she couldn’t tell which. “Well, it wasn’t – she was – lonely, Kitty. I don’t think Rude – or Rudy – had treated her very well, and then here I came, and – “
“And you were – well, you were you.”
“A gentleman. Kind, compassionate. Not to mention very handsome and very tall,” she added with a pointed smile.
“Kitty, I promise you that nothing happened – “
“Nothing on your part, maybe.”
“She kissed me,” he admitted. “That was it. I was still pretty weak and she was helping me get back to the bed and it – it just happened. I stopped her – “
“After the kiss.”
“It was so fast, Kitty. I didn’t know what to do – “
Despite herself, she felt the flare of jealousy. “A pretty woman kissed you, and you didn’t know what to do? That’s not the Matt Dillon I know.”
“Kitty, I promise, I didn’t do anything – “
She knew that, of course, because she knew Matt. Reassured, she let a wicked impulse run through her. Pursing her lips, she took his hand and guided it to her breast, pressing her soft flesh into it. “You didn’t do this?” she asked huskily.
“No!” His hand jerked away as if it had actually been
Taking his other hand, she trailed it down her body to rest over her rounded buttocks. “Or this?”
Arching forward, she urged his reawakened erection against her stomach, her own voice breathy. “Or this?”
He groaned, arching up. “Ah – n-no.”
“What else didn’t you do?” she murmured, her blood pounding.
The fire in his eyes sent a flame straight to the pit of her belly and she knew that she trembled as he slowly caressed a shoulder, then a thigh, then behind a knee. “I didn’t do this.”
He bent, his lips nibbling at a nipple, gently at first, then harder. Electrical pulses shot from her breasts to her groin. “Or this,” he breathed.
Trailing his mouth down her belly, he knelt, slipping his tongue over the hard bundle of nerves between her legs, flicking once, then twice until she groaned, clutching at his head, pulling him against her, her legs shaking, threatening not to support her. “Or this.”
Finally, he pressed inside her, softly at first, then with increasing pressure that accelerated the already surging sensations. Throbbing nerves screamed for him to let her go over, but he toyed with her, tapping, brushing, blowing, then stopping just as she reached the edge. “Or – “
“Please!” she gasped, neck arched back, legs buckling.
Standing, he shed his trousers with one movement, then swept her up into his strong arms. She was too far gone to protest that he would damage his tender wounds. She felt the rumpled linens beneath her bare skin just before he crawled over her, pausing only long enough to tease her wet, swollen folds before slowly pushing in, deeper and deeper until she couldn’t take him any farther. The sensation raced along her ravaged nerves and launched her into a dizzy ascent that could only end in orgasmic fireworks. Still teasing her unmercifully, he pumped hard, then slowed and held back. Sweat glistened on both their faces as she arched against him. She tried to thrust up, to relieve the almost unbearable ache in her loins, but he wouldn’t let her. He placed his big hand on her stomach and smiled down at her, and she gritted her teeth, fighting for control. It wasn’t easy. Again and again she knew she could not hang on and gasped his name, begging for release, but he controlled her with his hands, his voice.
His name was torn from her throat as she reached the absolute limit of her endurance. As many years as they had been lovers, he knew that cry, and she knew he would hear the desperation in her voice. Sure enough, he pushed down hard, thrusting deep inside her and she cried out, trembling at the magnificent agony he had caused.
“Come with me, Kitty,” he coaxed, his own voice hoarse. “Come with me.”
She gritted her teeth and groaned, feeling him drive into her several more times before her tortured nerves realized they could let go. As the first wave of release washed over her, her breath caught and tears welled at her eyes. She bucked against him over and over, hands clawing at his hips, forcing her eyes open to watch his face contort with the torturous pleasure she was giving him.
His choked cry echoed in the room as he came, hard bursts inside her again and again, his arms shaking, his hips bucking until they both froze with the final, nearly unbearable spasms. As the amazing sensation began to fade, she felt the usual pang of disappointment that it had to end, but reminded herself that she had just gotten him back. They had lots to make up for. Treasuring the feel of him still inside her, Kitty kissed his neck softly before letting her head fall back onto the pillow. After a few more moments, he pushed up, hissing.
“I’m okay,” he assured her, but she saw him rub his thigh as he lay back and gathered her against his side.
“Matt?” she asked, suddenly feeling generous in her sated state.
His chest was already lifting in the deep steady rhythm that signaled his descent into slumber. “Hmm?”
He loved her. Whatever happened, she could never doubt that. “You don’t have to worry. I won’t hold you to that promise.”
For a moment he didn’t move, not even to breathe. She waited a beat. Then another. Finally, she heard him exhale, felt his lips brush against her forehead, his arms wrap around her possessively. Voice ragged with emotion, he said, “You’d better.”
New tears welled in her eyes at his simple, earnest assertion. Without another word, she laid an arm across his stomach, wondering if she might actually be glowing with the incredible joy she felt. In the swirling haze that preceded sleep, a dozen visions floated through her head: a disturbing vision of a lonely grave in Jeddo; a miraculous vision of a living, breathing Matt Dillon; a sensuous vision of passionate blue eyes, dark, curly hair, and hard, flexing muscles; and a final vision, the one she saw just before sleep claimed her – two children, laughing and twirling, with eyes that matched their father’s and hair that matched their mother’s. As consciousness faded, Kitty Russell smiled, her mind telling her that it was just a dream.
Her heart whispering that it was a hope.