A Gunsmoke Story
By Amanda (MAHC)
“In the night though we’re apart,
There’s a ghost of you within my haunted heart.
Ghost of you, my lost romance,
Lips that laughed, eyes that danced.
Haunted heart won’t let me be,
Dreams repeat a sweet but lonely song to me.
Dreams are dust, it’s you who must belong to me,
And thrill my haunted heart.
Be still, my haunted heart.”
Lyrics: Howard Dietz
Music: Arthur Schwartz
Chapter One: By Tomorrow Night
Spoilers: “The Badge;” “The Disciple”
Rating: PG-13 (Teen)
Disclaimer: I did not create these characters, but I love to play with them (especially Matt).
Author’s Notes: This story takes place after “The Disciple,” using some of the storyline created by the writers of the show. I have, however, ignored most of Season 20 (as most of us have anyway) and created my own storyline.
Matt Dillon rarely swore. It wasn’t that he had anything against it; he just wasn’t inclined to express himself that way very often. In his circle of friends, Doc was the most likely to grumble a few expletives, and Kitty had spit out more than one “damn” or “hell,” usually toward him. Festus mostly made up words that only he and his hill country relatives would recognize as profane. Tonight, though, the thrifty conversationalist marshal ground out a colorful series that all of them would have admired.
Of course, no one was there to verify. And that was why he indulged himself.
The night had gotten well underway by the time he and Buck stumbled across a serviceable stand of trees, their gnarled roots crawling over the ground like arthritic fingers. Still, it was the best place for bedding down he’d come across in several hours. After dragging the saddle from the weary horse and making sure he was watered, he laid out his bedroll.
Humidity hung heavy in the air, pressing down on his lungs and sucking the strength from his body. In weather like this, he felt the reminder of every bullet, each knife, and even a fist or two from the previous 20 years. Running a hand roughly through the thick waves of graying brown hair, he decided that he was getting old. Funny, but that was something he figured he’d never have to deal with. The lifestyle he led, the job he held – he hadn’t thought he’d ever see 40, much less be looking toward 50.
His leg bothered him the most. At least out on the trail he could give in to the ache, groan and grimace as much as he wanted, limp as heavily as he felt like limping. No one would wonder if he was spent. No one would speculate if there might be a chance now to take the “un-takeable” Marshal Dillon.
He flexed his right hand experimentally. It had become habit over the past few months, a daily test of the progress he had made after the disastrous injury to his right forearm – his gun arm. The pain was still there, he noted, irritated that it remained, but encouraged that it seemed to diminish bit by bit. Either that or he was just growing tolerant of it. Not as if he hadn’t lived with pain before.
Shaking his head, he kneeled gingerly, taking care not to put too much weight on the right leg before he let his body drop onto the bedroll. There were times he felt like heading the opposite direction of his adopted town, going up into the hills again, living off the land. It had its appeals. At least the responsibilities of the world might lessen, although he figured he’d never be completely shed of them.
And then there was another reason he didn’t take off. As they usually did when he was alone on the trail, his thoughts turned to Kitty. He wondered what she was doing that night, imagined her sliding out of her fancy dress and slipping into a sheer gown. If he had been there, she would have drawn him to her and run her fingers over his aches, kissed scars and rubbed away the tightness of his muscles. With the vision, he felt his body responding, closed his eyes with the familiar sensation of arousal. He chuckled. Maybe he wasn’t that old yet.
chuckle died out as he remembered that he hadn’t left under the best of
circumstances. The fury in her blue eyes
had followed him throughout the long prairie ride and down into
Now, he was ready to do what it took to make those eyes light with joy instead of anger – both physical joy and emotional joy. By tomorrow night this time, he would be in her arms, caressed by her fingers and her lips instead of the heavy prairie air. By tomorrow night, he would have told her. He smiled in anticipation of her reaction and drifted off under the stars, dreaming of her touch.
“Mmm, smell that air, Matt.”
As he entered town, the marshal drew in a deep breath, and did, indeed, smell the air, and let the memory of her voice float across his mind. It had been four years before, when she left him after he took that bullet from the would-be freight office robbers, and he had been terrified she really meant it. He had even gone to Ballard after her, eventually deciding he couldn’t force her to return. But she had. And as they stood outside the jail, she had commented on the smell.
“Somethin’ different?” he had asked, barely able to contain himself over her return.
“Umm hmm,” she had answered confidently. “
He had wanted to catch her up into his arms and twirl her around and kiss her – and more – right there on the street, but he had managed to control himself until they escaped behind the closed door of her room. Barely. After that, he had not worried about control, at least for the rest of a very passionate night.
The memory brought a smile to his lips. He ran a hand over the rough stubble of his jaw and briefly contemplated freshening up before he saw her, but he couldn’t wait. Almost a month away from her had made him eager and impatient. Besides, there were times she liked him unshaven and just off the trail. He hoped this was one of those times.
Glancing down his long body, he took a moment to knock the top layer of dust off the front of his shirt and pants before he stepped up onto the boardwalk. Only a few more seconds, now, he thought, steeling himself not to let the physical force of being with her again cause any embarrassment.
It was midday, and the saloon catered to a decent crowd, most of whom nodded to him as he entered. A few did double takes when they realized who he was. He didn’t blame them. He’d been gone quite a while this time. Still, the strange expressions on their faces nagged at the back of his brain.
He immediately released those irritating thoughts and nodded across the bar at Floyd, giving him a tired, but courteous smile. “Kitty in her office?” he asked quietly, not too concerned about being casual. Floyd knew the score as well as Sam had.
But instead of his usual smile and head tilt, the older man swallowed and let his eyes dart nervously toward the office door. Matt followed the gaze, not sure what he was looking for, except that he wanted to see Kitty breeze out and greet him. Then, someone did come out, but it sure as hell wasn’t Kitty. A solid woman, with a pleasant face that, nevertheless, brokered no nonsense, walked up behind the bar.
Floyd stepped back and nodded toward Matt. “This is Marshal Dillon,” he said.
The woman’s eyes widened slightly, but she covered the reaction quickly and extended a hand. “Well, Matt Dillon.” She looked him up and down boldly. “Everything I’ve heard and more.”
He wasn’t sure what to make of that, so he just took her hand briefly. “Ma’am.”
“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me. I’m Hannah.”
He used the moment to assess her, wondering if Kitty had hired another bartender. But this woman didn’t look like a barkeep. She looked like – he gritted his teeth with the suspicion – like an owner.
“Where’s Kitty?” he asked, too impatient to bother with further pleasantries.
Hannah’s pleasant expression faltered a bit, and she hooked a thumb toward the hallway. “Uh, why don’t ya’ come on back to my office, Marshal – “
But he didn’t budge. Squaring up so he stood his full, dominating height, he repeated, “Where’s Kitty?”
Floyd looked at Hannah, who sighed and shook her head. “Well, Marshal,” she said, her eyes softening, and he realized with horror that the softness was sympathy. “Kitty’s gone.”
Chapter Two: He Needed
Spoilers: “Hostage!;” “The Disciple”
Rating: PG-13 (Teen)
Disclaimer: I did not create these characters, but I love to play with them (especially Matt).
The door to Galen Adams’ office flew open, slamming back on its hinges with the force behind it, but the noise didn’t startle the doctor, nor did he have to look up to see who was there. He had recognized the heavy footfalls as soon as they hit his stairs, had heard the same distinctive gait for the past twenty years. The pace had changed some in recent times, was not quite as even as it used to be, but it remained individual to the man. This time, though, he had gained the top of the stairs more quickly than usual, and Doc determined he had taken the steps two – or maybe even three – at a time.
breath, he turned toward the door, bracing himself for what was coming. The brightness of the outside created a
silhouette of his visitor, but there was no mistaking the massive frame of Matt
Dillon. The marshal stood in the
doorway, head almost touching the top of the threshold, shoulders filling the
space across. Doc could hear his
breathing coming hard and fast after what must have been a sprint from either
He had once told Matt Dillon that he had the best poker face he’d ever seen. And that was true when the stalwart marshal faced deadly gunslingers on the street. But his strong features could also melt into the most expressive face Doc had ever seen – especially when Kitty Russell was involved.
Now, as his vision adjusted to the light, and he let his gaze trail up past the unshaven jaw to those blue eyes, he saw fear and fury flash from them, only to be followed by pain so visible he felt almost as if someone had punched him in the stomach.
Matt continued to stand, unmoving, in the doorway. Finally, he drew in a calmer breath and asked, “Where is she?”
It was the question Doc had dreaded for three weeks, the moment he had already lived out in too many restless nightmares. “Sit down, Matt,” he said quietly, knowing just as well that his friend wouldn’t obey.
He was right, of course. “Where – is – she?” the marshal repeated, each word emphasized precisely and impatiently.
It was the truth, although he saw immediately from the sudden dark scowl that Matt didn’t believe him– or maybe he couldn’t believe him. The marshal broke his stance then, took two long strides into the room, stopping only inches away from the doctor.
My God, he’s tall,
“Where is she?” he ground out again, voice too close to falling completely apart to sound like Matt Dillon.
his head and fumbled toward the desk, opening a flask of whiskey and pouring a
generous portion into a shot glass.
Without a word, he handed it to Matt.
The marshal looked past it, staring still at the doctor, but
“Doc?” he asked, voice hoarse, losing some of its demand. Then his long body seemed to fold, and he collapsed into a chair, slumping in fatigue and pain. Tugging the hat from his head, he ran a hand through his unruly hair and, in a whisper, almost pleaded, “Galen?”
Dillon took it without protest and drank it just as quickly as he had the first one. Doc decided he could use one, as well, and took his own good slug.
“When?” Matt managed after the third whiskey. His eyes had taken on a haunted look, their brilliant blue dull and unfocused.
In all the years he had known Matt Dillon, Doc had never seen him drunk – not really drunk. The conscientious lawman never let himself lose control. In his line of work, it was simply too dangerous. Plus, it was completely out of character. Now, though, the physician was seriously considering prescribing both of them a bottle of the hard stuff and a night of dreamless sleep.
“Three weeks ago,” he heard himself answer, and the memory of that day came back with gut-wrenching clarity.
“Kitty, don’t do it now,” he had pleaded, watching her buckle the strap on the last of her trunks. “Wait until he comes back. Give him that much, at least.”
Matt had been gone less than a week when she sent for Doc to come to her room, and he had arrived to find her packed up and ready to leave Dodge. Stunned, he tried everything he knew to convince her to stay – for Matt, for himself, for the town. But she had shaken her head, the sadness in her eyes almost unbearable.
“I can’t, Doc,” she had sighed heavily. “I just can’t do it anymore, and if I wait, if I see him again, I won’t be able to go – and I have to go.”
Desperate to find some way to reach her, he caught her arm gently. “Why?”
When she looked at him, he saw something he hadn’t seen since Jude Bonner. Surrender. She was giving up.
“Kitty, after all these years?” he asked. No need to pretend he didn’t know about them. “After everything you’ve both been through – after what you have been to each other? Why now?”
She turned away, facing the window, her arms wrapping around her waist as if to protect herself from the pain of her own words. “I asked him not to go. Not yet. He’s not – his arm’s not – “
“He’ll be okay. You know Matt. Somehow, he always finds a way to survive.” The words rang true, but hollow.
But she just shook her head. “I just can’t do it anymore. Not now that – not now. I can’t wait for someone to send a telegram telling me that that beautiful body is lying on some undertaker’s slab in El Paso, or Topeka, or Pueblo, or – or – I just can’t do it anymore. Not now – especially not now – “
She hitched in a breath, barely keeping her composure. He reached for her, but she waved him off.
“I thought – “ he began, then faltered.
She lifted her chin. “You thought what?”
“I thought you loved him.”
She whirled on him, fury in her eyes. “How can you say that to me? After all these years, how can you – I love him. Dear God, I love him so much. And it hurts so much when – “ Swallowing, she admitted, “I get sick every time he rides out. Did you know that? Every single time.”
known, and marveled that she could have kept it from him for almost 20
years. Dropping his outstretched arms,
he asked quietly, “What about the
it.” A simple declaration, but it did
more than anything else to convince him she really meant it. Besides Matt, the
Feeling as if he might be sick himself, he asked, “Where will you go?”
A shrug lifted her shoulders. “I can’t say.”
“You can’t say or you won’t say?”
Her mouth turned up slightly. “I’m not sure. Maybe both.”
But she cut him off. “No. I can’t bear to watch him ride off, knowing it might be the last time I see him alive.” Her voice quavered and threatened to break. “I can’t take the pain that rips right through me every time some damn gunfighter struts into town to kill Matt Dillon.”
The honesty of those last words choked her and the tears that had already welled suddenly burst out in heavy sobs. Doc stepped toward her to hug her to him, to comfort her, but she jerked away, anger clashing with fear.
Her command stunned him. “What?”
“Get out,” she repeated, and even though her voice remained low, it held a warning of desperation. “Please.”
Heart sick, he reached for the door knob, stopping when she whispered, “I’ll – I’ll come see you before – before I leave.”
looking back, he nodded and, moist-eyed, not caring who stared at him, shuffled
Two hours later, after kissing his cheek and hugging him hard, she slipped onto the afternoon stage. It was the last time any of them had seen her.
Sometime during the retelling, Matt had leaned forward, his arms braced on his thighs, his eyes staring at the empty whiskey glass clutched in his hand. Doc waited for him to speak, but the silence continued.
Finally, unable to stand it any longer, the physician cleared his throat and asked, “How’s that arm doin’?”
told Kitty, but he’d been just as concerned about the wound as she had. Six months of agonizing work on Matt’s part
had brought it back much faster than
hadn’t answered him, still stared at the glass.
Then Dillon did raise his head, and Doc caught his breath. The confident, unwavering gaze, the sure eyes, the stoic expression had all been replaced by something he had never seen from Matt Dillon – something he never dreamed he’d see: despair.
Without a word, the marshal reached for the flask and knocked back three more long swallows. He was a big man, and it took more alcohol than most men could handle to affect him. But the doctor saw the slight glaze of his eyes and knew it was time to step in.
“Why don’t you lie down for a while, Matt? You look beat.” That was, of course, an understatement.
“No.” The voice growled out from an even deeper register than usual, rough with the effort to form even that one word. After a heavy breath, he managed a complete sentence – almost. “I can’t, I have to – “
“Not tonight,” Doc insisted, seeing how close the lawman was to collapse. As gently as possible, he said, “It’s been almost a month, Matt. You can start tomorrow, after you get a good night’s sleep.”
He expected more protest, and was both alarmed and relieved when he didn’t get it. After a few moments, Matt looked at him – or toward him anyway – and pushed slowly to his feet. When he swayed, Doc slid an arm around his waist to steady him, drawing back when the marshal hissed abruptly.
lawman didn’t answer. Instead, he pushed
Taking advantage of the rare situation, Doc started to unbutton the dusty shirt to see what might have caused the marshal’s obvious pain. Even before he finished, he spied the rip in the material and blood stains. As soon as he bared the broad chest, Doc ran a gentle finger around the wicked gash that sliced upward across the ribs of his left side, almost five inches long. A bullet had done that, and he was damn lucky it hadn’t hit an inch over. It probably should have taken a few stitches when it was fresh, but Doc contented himself with spreading a thick salve over the partially healed flesh. Matt grimaced at the sting, but didn’t come around.
After bandaging the area to keep the salve in place, Doc rolled up the shirtsleeve and bent to examine the older injury, the arm that Dillon had nearly lost. Except for a rugged scar, the place appeared to be in remarkably good shape. The muscle tone was good, firm, not quite back to normal but better than he would have ever thought it could be again. Still, even gentle pressure brought a wince to the marshal’s face.
“Sorry, Matt,” he muttered, easing the arm back onto the bed. With no small effort, he tugged off Dillon’s pants and boots, figuring he could at least get them cleaned of the trail dirt while the marshal slept. Throwing a blanket over the long legs, the doctor fell back, exhausted, in a chair and contemplated what would happen next.
Marshal Dillon, the icon, was a loner who needed nothing and no one. But Doc knew that Matt Dillon, the man, was very different. He needed. He needed friendship; he needed challenges; he needed happiness.
But mainly, he needed Kitty Russell.
Doc closed his eyes, his thoughts flying back to those agonizing hours when Kitty hovered between life and death after Jude Bonner had gotten through with her. As Matt knelt by her side, her delicate hand cradled in his huge ones, Doc had heard his roughened voice admit it.
“I need you, Kitty. I need you.”
Unable to deal with the renewed realization, he forced his eyes open and pushed up from the chair to gather the marshal’s clothes. Better to be doing something than to wallow uselessly in a problem he couldn’t resolve right then. He dragged Dillon’s pants off the end of the bed, but stopped when he saw something fall from a pocket. Frowning, he bent to pick up a small, deep blue, velvet pouch. That certainly didn’t look like something Matt usually carried around with him. Curiosity prompted him to spread open the top and peer inside, but he didn’t see anything, so he carefully turned it upside down and let the contents empty into his hand.
His mouth dropped open, and he stood there, stunned, as he stared at the shining gold band that lay in his palm. It was delicate, with inlaid diamonds, not too gaudy, but not skimpy, either. And there was no doubt in his mind about the intended recipient.
Heart aching anew, he felt moisture fill his eyes as he gazed down at the sleeping figure, watched the bare chest rise and fall, and pondered how a grown man who had seen so much, who had been so strong, could look so innocent and vulnerable.
“I’m so sorry, son,” he whispered, turning the ring over in his hand. “I’m so sorry.”
“I need you, Kitty.”
Matt Dillon needed. And now what was he going to do?
Chapter Three: He’s a Lawman
Spoilers: “The Badge;” “The Disciple”
Rating: PG-13 (Teen)
Disclaimer: I did not create these characters, but I love to play with them (especially Matt).
The sun had
nearly burned off the cool of the morning when Hannah pushed open one of the
she bought the
Now Hannah could compare that larger-than-life persona with the very real man she had met the day before. And reality was a bit different from myth. From the embellishments of the journalists who wrote about the wildness of the West, she had expected a man who lived such a rough life to look more like a grizzled buffalo hunter, burly and unkempt. After meeting Kitty Russell, though, she couldn’t quite reconcile that vision with someone the beautiful saloon owner would keep company with. His arrival had confirmed her second guess. In that first moment of introduction, as she let her gaze travel up his tall body, she had been more than pleasantly surprised to find herself scanning over long legs, firm waist, strong chest, broad shoulders, and a pair of expressive sky-blue eyes. Hannah had never set much store on appearances, but she’d have been lying if she didn’t admit that Matt Dillon was a fine looking man. This was certainly no buffalo hunter.
As far as him being fearless and intrepid, she had no doubt he was when facing thieves and murderers, but when facing the hard news she had to give him, he couldn’t hide the terror behind those intense eyes. The sight of such a powerful man emotionally pole-axed was something she’d never forget.
“Kitty’s gone,” she had told him, even though it made her heart ache to do it.
She didn’t think she could have stunned him more if she had slugged him between the eyes with the butt of the rifle Floyd kept under the bar. Weeks on the trail had left him with a deep tan, but suddenly he paled beneath it, and his jaw slackened in shock. If she hadn’t already known what his relationship had been with Kitty Russell, she would have realized it then.
It wasn’t long, though, before she got a glimpse of the strength of the man. Lowering his head, he dragged the mantle of marshal back around his shoulders, waited a beat longer as it settled in place it, then looked back up, face as composed as a professional gambler’s. Taking a breath, he pressed his hands against the counter, leaning forward.
“Where’d she go?” he asked, voice even, steady.
But no amount of self-control could hide the pain in his eyes, which pleaded and demanded at once. Although she had never been short on nerve, Hannah had to swallow twice before answering him. Even then, it took every skill she possessed from years of card playing to hold onto her bluff.
“I don’t know.”
She thought she saw panic flicker across his face, but it disappeared almost as soon as it appeared. Dillon’s brow drew down, and he leaned in closer. “Where?”
Hannah could only shake her head, too full of guilt and regret over what this man was suffering to say the words again. For a moment, he looked as if he were about to be sick. But just as quickly, the shoulders straightened, and the head came back up, and the eyes hardened. Jaw tight, he stepped back from the bar and nodded.
“If you hear anything, I would appreciate – “
“I’ll let you know,” she finished.
He held her gaze another few moments, then, out of habit, tugged courteously at the brim of his hat and walked out. As the doors swung on their hinges, she turned back to Floyd and found him watching her, his expression a mixture of sympathy and curiosity.
The morning streets of Dodge waved back into focus as the memory faded. Sighing, she was just about to step back inside the saloon when she noticed the very man she had been thinking about cross from Doc’s office to the jail, his long stride thrown slightly off by a noticeable limp. It made sense that after twenty years of marshalling, he would have acquired enough injuries to account for any number of physical discomforts. She noted that his hat was pulled low over his eyes, and he kept his head down as he walked. If she had to guess, she’d lay odds he was nursing a hangover. He didn’t seem much like the drinking type, but she figured after yesterday he certainly had reason.
Her eyes followed his path until he disappeared into the jail, ducking slightly as he walked through the door. She could certainly understand what had drawn Kitty Russell to him, but she still wasn’t completely sure what had pulled her away. Oh, Kitty had told her the story, had explained why she had to go, but Hannah still felt there must be more to it, more to the destruction of a relationship that had weathered so many years before. He loved her, she had seen that in his eyes, had watched him react as if she had slapped him in the face when she told him Kitty was gone.
Shaking her head, she stopped at the bar to pour herself a small shot of whiskey, then walked back to her office and sat at the very table she and Kitty had used over three weeks earlier.
It had been
a quick transaction, no dickering. Kitty
was ready to sell, Hannah offered a generous price, and they completed the
agreement in one day, sealing the deal with a handshake, evidence of their
intrusion into what was a male-dominated world of business. Hannah had to admire what Kitty had
Sitting in the back office, sharing coffee and completing the paperwork, it hadn’t taken long for Hannah to run right into that reason.
“Things get rowdy in th’ evenin’s?” she had asked, already knowing Dodge’s reputation.
Kitty smiled and sighed. “Sometimes. Nothing I’m sure you can’t handle.”
“But if it gets out of hand,” Hannah wanted to know, “can I count on the law to help me out?”
A shadow crossed the younger woman’s face, and Hannah wondered suddenly if she should hold up on signing the final bill of sale. If she didn’t get support from the authorities –
But Kitty took a breath and assured her, “You won’t have any problem with Ma – with the marshal.”
“Marshal Dillon. I’ve heard about him. He as good as they say he is?”
This time, the eyes unfocused and looked past Hannah, thoughts obviously no longer in the present. Her face changed from sad and tense to soft and tender. Intrigued at what had brought about that transformation, Hannah remained silent until the trance broke, and Kitty blinked.
With a private smile, she answered quietly, “Yes. He is.”
Hannah wasn’t sure they were still talking about keeping the peace. Brow lifting, she studied the other woman closely, suddenly understanding what – or who – the deeper reason was. “Does he know you’re leaving?” she asked bluntly.
Taken by surprise, Kitty couldn’t wipe her face clean fast enough to make any pretense at not understanding the question. After a moment, she let her gaze drop, took a sip of coffee, swallowed, and shook her head. “No.”
“Well,” Hannah told her, placing a large hand on Kitty’s smaller one, “it’s none of my business, but if you don’t mind me sayin’ – seems like you’re right partial to him.”
Not looking up, she admitted, “I love him.”
“I can see that,” the older woman said. Then, speculating, added, “Did he beat you?” Hannah had never experienced it herself, but she’d seen her share of women who loved so blindly that they couldn’t see the wrong in it. Sometimes powerful men felt the need to demonstrate that power over the weak.
But the incredulity on Kitty’s face answered the question before she even spoke. “What?”
Already knowing she had guessed very wrong, Hannah tried to clarify. “Well, I asked if he beat you, but – ”
“No. Certainly not,” Kitty said, her voice hardening in defense of the marshal. “Matt would never – why, he’s the kindest, gentlest – “ She stopped, astonished at the thought. “No!”
“I’m sorry. I sure can see I was wrong about that.” And she did see. Kitty looked as if she were about to slap her.
“Damn right,” Kitty snapped.
Maybe there was another reason, then. Gently, Hannah suggested, “You love him, and he doesn’t feel the same way, is that it?”
Kitty glared at her. “I believe you’ve already admitted this is none of your business,” she snapped.
Shrugging, Hannah agreed. “I have, but that doesn’t mean I ain’t interested.”
Unexpectedly, Kitty’s scowl lifted to a laugh. “Well, that’s not it either. He loves me. He loves me very much.” Her expression grew serious again. “That’s – that’s part of the problem.”
Brow drawn, Hannah cocked her head. “He loves you? Honey, I sure don’t see how that’s a problem – “
“He’s a lawman,” she said, almost spitting out the words. “For twenty years, he’s been a lawman. I knew how it had to be, and it was okay. I just thought that one day – well, one day he’d stop being a lawman and then – “
from the table, Kitty stepped to the roll top desk by the wall and fingered
some knick-knacks scattered across it.
“For twenty years I’ve watched him go after men – and a few women – and
I’ve watched them come after him. Not
one of them came who didn’t intend to kill him.
I’ve waited, my heart aching, while he tracked murderers all by himself
She started to pace, as if the memories were too unsettling to let her stand still. “I’ve watched Doc dig so many bullets out of him that even I’ve lost count – and I used to know where every mark on his body came from.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “They’re just too many now – “
When she fell silent, Hannah asked, “Twenty years?”
“That’s a long time. And you’re leaving now?”
Her earrings jangled as she nodded. “He took a shot gun blast a few months ago. Almost bled to death. I thought he’d lose the arm for sure.”
“His gun arm?”
“Yeah. Doc figured he’d never even be able to use it again, much less shoot like he had before.”
“He was good?” Hannah had heard he was, of course.
“He was the best,” Kitty said with certainty.
“I take it he did use it again.”
“I thought maybe after that he’d decide it was finally time to turn in the badge. I thought, maybe we could – we could really be together.”
“He didn’t,” Hannah guessed.
“He didn’t. He went off for a while, to think things over. I wasn’t sure he was coming back then, but he did. And things were good for a while. He worked hard to get his gun arm back in shape. Worked real hard. And he did it, too. He’s almost as good as he was before.”
Kitty turned, and the fear on her face told the story. “Almost. I’ve just been waiting for someone to discover that he’s a half second slower, that he’s an inch less accurate. They’ll come into town like pilgrims to the Holy Grail, to be the man who killed Matt Dillon.”
Hannah stood and moved to stand next to Kitty, resting a hand on her shoulder. “And you don’t want to be here when that happens.”
“No. But – but It’s not just that.”
The older woman waited without speaking.
“Through the years, things have – happened – to me because of who and what he is. Bad things. And it’s torn him up. He blames himself.”
She stepped back from the desk, but didn’t turn around. Hannah let her hand drop.
“That’s why we’ve never – well, how much harder would it be to protect a wife and child? He would be distracted, tied down and unable to do his job like he needed. And what if he couldn’t protect us? What if something happened to me or to – a child? He would never be able to forgive himself.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “And maybe I couldn’t forgive him either.”
Hannah waited a moment, let the weight of what this woman must be feeling settle around them. Finally, she asked, “Where will you go?”
The moment broken, Kitty lifted her head and wiped at moist eyes. “I’m not sure. Home, maybe.”
“Dodge isn’t home?”
“I used to
think so. No,
“When are you going to tell him?”
A sigh lifted her shoulders. “I’m not. He’s gone now, tracking some outlaw again. If he comes – when he comes back, he won’t have to worry about me anymore. And I – “
I won’t have to worry about him, Hannah finished silently for her. “You don’t think he’ll look for ya’?”
“He might.” Her expression said he would. “Hannah, I need – I need you to promise something.”
She knew it was coming, didn’t want to commit to what was about to be asked of her, but this woman needed someone to trust, so she nodded.
“I won’t tell you for sure, so you can’t lie to him.”
“I’d lie if you wanted me to.”
smiled and embraced her successor to the
Hannah squinted dubiously. “If you say so.”
Kitty took a breath, let it out, then took another and spoke again. “Could you do one more thing for me?”
“Sure.” How much worse could it be than lying to a
“Sometimes, he has trouble – sleeping at night.” She didn’t seem to care that she had revealed an intimate detail about their relationship. “His leg,” she explained. “Or his back. Or both. Old injuries.”
Hannah watched her face tighten in empathy with her lover – or former lover.
“Matt’s not much of a drinker, but sometimes, when it’s really bad and he can’t sleep, I’ll pour him a shot – or two – of straight bourbon. It helps a little.”
The older woman frowned. “I’m not sure what you want me to do.”
hand on Hannah’s arm, Kitty turned to her, eyes tortured. “If he comes in the
Hannah shook her head, heart breaking for this woman and for the man who had no idea she was about to leave. “Are you sure you want to do this? We can tear up these papers right now – “
“No,” Kitty said quickly, too quickly, as if trying to outrun the doubts that chased her. “I have to do this. Now, will you promise me?”
She felt the tears touch her eyes, and she hadn’t cried in years. “Sure, honey. And he’ll never know why.”
shared their own toast of fine brandy after that. Then, she had signed the last paper and been
part of ending an era in
the empty shot glass around in circles on the back office table, Hannah
wondered if she would have even made an offer on the saloon if she had known
the real reason for the sale. She
couldn’t help but believe that Kitty had made a huge mistake. But then again, that wasn’t her for her to
decide. She just prayed the marshal
would give the
Because, it was very obvious that, even if Matt Dillon didn’t feel like he could show any weakness, he sure as hell had revealed at least one.
Chapter Four: East
Spoilers: “The Disciple”
Rating: PG (Teen)
Disclaimer: I did not create these characters – unfortunately.
Somewhere deep in Matt Dillon’s brain, tiny miners drove pickaxes with disturbing regularity, over and over, sharp stabs behind his eyes, at the base of his skull, through his temples. Struggling up through the dark tunnel, he searched for the light, for his escape from the torture, but when he finally managed to gain the surface and open his eyes, the brilliant flash of pain shoved him back down.
A familiar voice grounded him, and he focused on it, braving another peek – a very small one. Doc stood over him, face blurring but discernable.
“Try some of this.”
Squinting against the glare, the marshal let his gaze scan around him, identifying the all-too familiar surroundings of Doc’s office. Grimacing, he looked toward the extended hand and the glass of brown liquid held there. “What is – “ The words shifted like gravel in his throat.
“Hair of the dog,” the doctor explained.
Matt blinked, wondering why he felt like a team of mules had trampled him. Maybe he had been shot. That was certainly not outside the realm of reality. The miners began their digging again, and he considered the fact that he had been hit over the head, maybe pistol whipped by some outlaw. But the sensation that rumbled through his body didn’t quite fit either of those scenarios. A long-forgotten recollection filtered through his muddled thoughts, and he groaned in realization.
Drunk? Son of a – of all the stupid things. He hadn’t consumed enough liquor to pass out in over twenty years, and now he remembered one of the reasons why. What the hell had prompted him to –
Then it came to him, hit him with all the raw power and pain of that first moment. His body rebelled both at the burn of memory and the boil of alcohol.
“Doc – “ he moaned.
The physician had apparently been around long enough to recognize the sound and hurriedly scooped up a basin, holding it as the alcohol and the pain came back up in wretched waves of nausea. When he fell back onto the bed, sweating and clammy, Matt mumbled an apology to his old friend.
But Doc shook his head and set the basin aside. “I suppose I ought to tell you I’m sorry for giving you the whiskey in the first place.”
Matt let out a sharp breath, almost a laugh. “That’s kind like the gunsmith tellin’ the outlaw he’s sorry he sold him the gun that got him killed.”
Doc chuckled. “Good to hear a little humor from you.”
But the lighter mood vanished abruptly as Matt swung his long legs over the side of the bed and tried to sit. His side burned with the movement; as he looked down to see what was wrong, he noticed for the first time that he wore no pants and his shirt hung completely open. He tugged the sheet over his lap, even though Doc knew his body better than anyone, except perhaps –
His chest suddenly ached; he closed his eyes against the dizziness that physical pain, exhaustion, and emotional sickness brought on. Kitty was gone. Dear God, Kitty was gone.
He felt a touch at his wrist and opened his eyes to see Doc hovering near him, his professional fingers taking note of the pulse of his patient. Gritting his teeth against all the forms of torture that assailed him, Matt looked at his friend.
“You really don’t know?” he asked quietly, already knowing the answer. Doc would have told him if he had any idea where Kitty was. He didn’t doubt that.
The gray head shook sadly. “I don’t, Matt. She – she left on the east-bound stage, if that helps any.”
East. A lot of land lay east. “You mentioned something about the hair of the dog?” he reminded, knowing he would need a whole dog to help him drag his stiff body out of bed and down to the jail.
The physician smiled and handed him the glass again, watching as the marshal choked down half of it and somehow managed not to throw it back up. “Why don’t you rest here a little longer, Matt? I’m sure that side of yours is smarting pretty good right now.”
His hand dropped to his ribs, another memory returning. It was, indeed, smarting, but he wouldn’t give Doc the satisfaction of hearing him admit it. “I’m okay. Thanks for seeing to it. My clothes around?”
Shaking his head at what Matt figured was his stubbornness, the doctor handed him a neatly folded pair of pants and underwear bottoms. “Couldn’t get the shirt off without hurting you, I figured.”
“Thanks, Doc,” he replied, reaching for them. Then, he sucked in a quick breath of memory and froze. The pants had been cleaned, and in the pocket – Heart pumping harder, he struggled to sound as calm as possible, desperately hoping that Doc hadn’t looked, didn’t know. “I, uh, I had a bag in one of the pockets – “
The physician rubbed a hand over his mustache. “Oh, yeah. Blue or some such, fell out when I picked up your pants. I put it over there on the table.” He gestured to the nightstand, and Matt looked where he pointed.
The velvet bag rested on the wood, strings drawn tight like he had left them, apparently undisturbed. Turning back to Doc, he studied his face, trying to read any comprehension, or – heaven forbid – any pity in those blue eyes. But the physician just shrugged and placed the pants in the lawman’s hands.
“I can see you’re not gonna take my advice – as usual. Just be careful. That wound’s still susceptible to infection, you know.”
Matt nodded and tugged on the rest of his clothing and boots, wondering how much Doc really knew and how much he just suspected. Not that it mattered anymore. Not that anything mattered quite as much anymore.
“I need to
see about Buck,” he said, more guilt pouring through him as he remembered he
had left the horse tied up outside the
“Oh, I had Moss come get him last night,” Doc told him.
With an attempt at a smile – one he didn’t think he quite succeeded in – he scooped up the elegant bag, trying not to feel the small ring inside, and shoved it in his pocket. “Thanks, Doc. Thanks for – “
The older man nodded and blinked. “Sure.”
from Doc’s office to the street jarred him in all the places that hurt, his
legs, his back, his ribs – and now his head and stomach. The vile concoction that was intended to
sooth had offered only minimal relief.
He supposed it was more than he had a right to expect. The morning sun glared down, its blinding
rays adding their own torture. He tugged
the hat down low over his eyes in an attempt to mute the effect on his pounding
head, and he paced himself as normally as he could across
He needed time to think, to sort everything out. Kitty’s timing, as usual, was perfect. He let his hand slip into his pocket and finger the bag, almost laughing at the irony. But Matt Dillon was not one to wallow in self-pity. Then, the miners struck again, and he winced, reflecting that maybe he did wallow for a while.
Logic told him that, at the moment, he couldn’t do anything about the headache; he couldn’t do anything about Kitty; but he could at least take care of the mound of paperwork that surely awaited him after a month on the trail. That small action would allow him at least some semblance of control. He issued up a thank you that it was still early enough for only a few citizens to venture out. That cut down on the need for putting on a civil face, which was just about the last thing he felt like doing.
Ducking inside the jailhouse door, he was met by the strong odor of Festus’ coffee. Over the years, he had become accustomed to the deputy’s stout brew, had even grown to like it – almost. But even tolerance was too much to expect this morning, and he swallowed, fighting back the unpleasant sensation the smell had produced.
“Well, if you ain’t a sight fer sore eyes!” Festus pushed himself off the desk where he had been propped, the genuineness of his smile the first real welcome Matt had received since his return.
“Festus,” he answered, hoping he managed somehow to mask both the emotional and physical turmoil he was in. Still, there was nothing he could do about the half-grown beard that scratched at his jaw and the haggard lines that creased a little more deeply into his face than they had yesterday.
Peering closely, the deputy offered, “Kin I gitcha a cuppa coffee?”
Barely resisting the urge to dash out back and heave out what little was left in his stomach, Matt grunted a “no thanks,” hung his hat on the peg by the door, and did the same with his gun belt on the other hanger. Pressing his lips together against the aches, he let his body drop into the desk chair.
“You feelin’ arright this mornin’?,” Festus asked, his frown clear evidence that he already knew the answer. “You wont me ta’ git ya’ some vittles from Delmonicos?”
“No,” he snapped, more abruptly than he had intended. Trying to soften the impact, he added, “Maybe later. I need to catch up on some of this.” His hand swept over the pile of paper. He purposely avoided asking Festus what had been happening in his absence.
“Ain’t nothin’ that in particular. Leastwise, nothin’ that needs tendin’ to before lunch.”
Matt started to nod, but cut the movement short with the warning of pain from the back of his head. He stretched out his leg in an effort to relieve the throbbing there, but hissed as his boot kicked something hard beneath the desk and sent a jarring flash through the knee.
“What the – “
“Oh,” Festus said, his voice falling. “That come fer ya’ right after – “ He stopped, unable to meet Matt’s eyes . “Well, right after – ”
But Matt had heard what he couldn’t say. Right after Kitty left. Jaw tight, he pushed up from the desk and walked around to the front, dragging out a small – and all too familiar – trunk. “Who brought it?”
He heard Festus swallow hard. After a moment, the deputy said quietly, “Floyd.”
Floyd. Then it came from – from the
“This chere’s tha’ key.” Festus handed the small piece of metal to Matt, who took it between his forefinger and thumb. Bracing himself with a deep breath, he knelt on his good leg, released the straps, and eased the key into the lock, wishing he were alone for this moment.
When it clicked, he lifted the top slowly, letting his eyes fall on what he knew was there – but what he wished with all his heart wouldn’t be. Sure enough, he looked down on a pile of neatly folded clothes. On the top lay three shirts, one rarely-worn light blue one, one white dress shirt, and a faded red work shirt. Just beneath them were a pair of dark dress pants and a newly-mended pair of tan pants. Under it all stretched his gray dress coat. He knew if he checked he’d find his best string tie in the breast pocket.
Another kick in the stomach. He fought not to double over from the impact, wrestled with that moment of breathlessness and nausea. But a man could get over a kick in the stomach. This kick he wasn’t so sure he could overcome quite so easily.
“Matthew?” The concern in Festus’ voice cut through his pain, and he glanced up, realizing that he gripped the table so hard his knuckles were white. Taking two breaths to steady himself, he rose, ignoring the ache in his knee. It seemed insignificant to the new pain that had settled in his chest.
“Lock that back up and have it sent to the Dodge House, will ya’, Festus?” he asked, jerking his gun belt back off the hook and striding toward to door.
“The Dodge House? But – “
“The Dodge House,” he repeated, letting his voice send a warning not to ask again.
Festus took the hint. “Sure. I’ll do ‘er, Matthew. You don’t worry ‘bout ennything.”
He closed the door behind him, willing his legs to move, to take the steps he needed to take. Somehow, they obeyed, and only a couple of minutes later, he walked into the lobby of Dodge’s best hotel, his saddlebag thrown over his shoulder.
Mr. Dobie himself stood at the front desk and offered him a friendly smile. “Well, Marshal,” he greeted. “Welcome back. Didn’t know you were – “
“I need a room.” It was rude, he knew, but he needed to be alone, needed to deal with the emotions that drove through him, that threatened to rip away the layer of solid, reasonable lawman he had carefully protected for so many years.
Dobie stopped, momentarily nonplussed. Then he nodded and reached back to the keys as Matt lifted the pen by the register.
“Oh, you don’t have to sign in, Marshal,” Dobie protested.
But Matt had already written his name in bold script. “There’s a trunk comin’ over later. You can send it up.”
“Certainly. Uh – is number nine all right?” he asked, peering up in obvious expectation of a response.
“Fine.” He didn’t care, as long as it was ready right then. “I’ll need some water and soap sent up.”
Dobie’s voice fell. Matt had disappointed him somehow, but he didn’t have the time to worry about it. “I’ll have someone bring them up. May I ask – how long you’ll be using the room?”
The marshal took the key Dobie handed him. “Put me on the monthly rate,” he told him, ignoring the surprise in the manager’s eyes.
Only on a rare occasion had he stayed at the Dodge House. If he wasn’t bunking at the jail, Matt’s nights had usually been spent in Kitty’s room. Even though he certainly hadn’t advertised it, he figured everyone probably knew that by now. Some years ago, he had taken to leaving a change of clothes with her, kept clean and fresh away from the dust of the jail. He supposed he’d have to find another place. For now, the Dodge House would do.
Climbing the stairs, he pretended not to see Dobie’s curious gaze follow him up, decided he wouldn’t worry about the hotel manager spreading the news that the marshal had taken a room. He didn’t have the energy to spend on it. As he opened the door, though, he realized why Dobie had been so solicitous and eager for his response. Number nine was one of the Dodge House’s biggest rooms. Generous. Well, he’d have to thank him later. Tossing his hat on the bed, he dug through his saddlebags, pulling out his shaving kit and laying the razor and brush on the tall dresser. His vest followed. Then he stripped off his shirt and let it drop onto the vest. The bandage across his ribs pulled, and he took further note of Doc’s handiwork, almost smiling.
Someone knocked at the door, and he stepped to answer it, but all he found were the basin of water, a square of soap and a stack of towels. Grunting against the pain in his back when he bent, he lifted the basin and placed it on top of the marble top of the dresser. The towels and soap didn’t demand quite so much effort.
Standing before the mirror, he found that, as usual, he had to bend his knees a bit and tilt the frame to see. With practiced motions, he lathered the cream, spreading it across his chin and jaw, and scraped the razor carefully across his skin. It would take more than one time as heavy as his beard had gotten, but it was a normal act, one he had been doing since he was fifteen. Somehow, now, it seemed painful. With a shudder he suddenly realized why. Something –- someone – was missing.
Kitty. When he had stayed the night with her, and hung around long enough in the morning for her to awaken, as well, she would perch on the end of the bed and watch him shave. Once he had asked her why, and she said it was the most inherently masculine thing a man could do. He had laughed and disagreed, promptly demonstrating to her what he thought the most masculine thing as man could do was. Afterward, as they lay entwined on her bed, she had stroked his chest and agreed with him. Abruptly, he wondered if she had found someone else to watch shave, or to –
The razor slipped, nicking his chin and drawing a well of blood to mix pink with the white lather. He pressed a towel to the cut and stared at his reflection in the mirror. Twenty years. Twenty years he had known – and loved – Kitty Russell. In the early days they were both just kids, brash and eager and full of possibilities. As they matured, their relationship grew into mutual respect and understanding – and love. He knew what Kitty really wanted, knew what she had waited for, had hoped for. And he had every intention of giving it to her – one day.
It figured that the day he decided to give her what she wanted would be the day she decided she couldn’t wait any longer. Unexpectedly, the burn of anger began deep inside him, building until he felt it pushing at him, demanding release. All of his life he had fought to keep his temper even, to regulate his reactions, to control his situations. It was probably the reason he was still around.
But the memories that he had fought back all morning bubbled up with the anger, shattering his attempt to keep them bottled. With a fierce growl, he swept a hand across the dresser top, sending the contents crashing to the floor. In the next second, he heard another crash and felt a sharp pain in his left hand. Breath heaving, he swayed against the unaccustomed fury that gripped him, closing his eyes to drag together the remnants of his control. When he opened them again, he stared at the mirror before him, its splintered shards of glass reflecting bizarre images of his own face. Stunned, he looked down at his left hand and watched, as if he were someone else, as the blood streamed over it from his sliced knuckles.
He exhaled heavily and let his shoulders slump. The moment had passed. The anger had been swallowed up by pain and regret. Cursing softly, he wrapped one of the towels around the wounds and leaned against the end of the bed, watching as the white cloth soaked red. How many stupid things could he do in one day?
But with the release of anger came the ability to think more clearly. East, Doc had said. She had taken the east-bound stage.
Jaw setting, he ignored the throbbing of his hand, the dripping of the towel, and jerked open his saddlebag again to pull out a clean shirt. It took some fumbling, but he managed to slide into without too much trouble. After another round of one-handed attempts, his gun belt was buckled and his hat was on his head. It took him only a few more seconds to stomp down the stairs and stride past a bewildered Mr. Dobie.
Bursting into the jail, he caught Festus in mid-sip, the coffee cup poised at his lips. “Can you get Buck saddled for me?”
A grin split the deputy’s face, and he set the cup down quickly. “Now, I kin shorely do that fer ya’, Matthew,” he declared, hopping off the desk. His eyes fell to the bloody towel still wrapping the marshal’s hand. “What in tarnation – “
“It’s nothing,” Matt said, waving off any concern. “I’m gonna get Doc to look at it while you’re at Moss Grimmick’s.”
“Whar ya’ goin’?” he asked, squinting up hopefully.
Matt turned to him, held his gaze with eyes that were no longer pained and weary, but hard and determined. He drew a breath and lifted his chin. “East.”
Chapter Five: The Eyes of Dodge
Spoilers: “Mannon;” “Exodus 21:22;” “The Disciple”
Rating: PG (Teen)
Disclaimer: Not my characters. Shoot.
Deputy U. S. Marshal Festus Haggen stomped out of Delmonicos, belly puffed out happily to accommodate the steak and eggs, bacon, biscuits and coffee he had consumed at breakfast. Of course, he had turned down the side of toast. No need to fill up since he was acting marshal while Matthew was gone. As had become habit, his eyes sought out the railing outside the jail, hoping to see the big buckskin tied up there once again, but Ruth remained the lonely occupant. Clicking his tongue in disappointment, he continued his jingling walk.
He had only gone a few steps when he heard the familiar voice greet him. Turning, he nodded to Doc Adams and waited for the older man to catch up with him. “Mornin’, Doc. I wuz jest finishin’ a tad of breakfast. Peers you slept too late ta’ join me.”
Doc grunted and continued walking. “I’ll have you know I ate breakfast two hours ago, after I cured Mrs. Cuthbert’s headache and set Billy Blayton’s broken leg. It’s civil servants like you that lounge in bed ‘till noon and have all that time on their hands.”
“Time on their hands!” Festus spluttered. “Why you ol’ scudder, at least I mek a honest livin’. Not like some folks what give out sugar pills an’ tell poor ol’ ailin’ folks ta’ take two an’ call him in th’ mornin’, then charge ‘em two whole dollers fer tellin’ ‘em they wuz sick, which they arreddy knowd ennyway – “
up at him and squinted. “Honest
living! Well, if Matt ever let the War
Department know how you really spent their time, they’d be garnishing your
wages all the way back to
“Nobody ain’t gonna gobbledeegook my wages,” he mumbled, but the mention of Matthew’s name took a little of the pleasure out of his verbal scuffling with Doc, and he let his face fall into serious lines. “You, uh, you ain’t heerd from him, have ya’?”
The physician sobered, as well, and shook his head. “Not a word. I’m assuming from your question you haven’t either?”
For another few breaths, both men stared at each other, their fears and hopes mingling silently between them. Fears that fought fiercely at too many horrible possibilities, and hopes that snatched vainly at too few. Festus couldn’t help gazing again toward the jail. Buck still wasn’t there. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever be there again.
Matthew had been gone almost four weeks this time, longer than he had been gone any of the previous six journeys. “East,” he had declared to Festus that day almost half a year ago, and headed out with new hope in his eyes, determined and confident. The deputy had watched as he cinched up the saddle girth around Buck and took a final look at his trail pack, completely confident in the marshal’s ability. But there was a lot of east on the other side of Dodge, and even as long as Matt Dillon had been tracking, it was hard to start from nothing.
Nobody said it out loud, but all of Dodge knew what – or who – he was looking for. And not one of them would have begrudged him the liberty of taking the personal time, but his own unbreakable sense of duty and responsibility demanded that he never left without having a professional mission as well.
Over the past six months, the marshal had personally assumed every assignment the Department of War sent him that pointed him in the direction of the sunrise. He could have passed off those duties to Festus or Newly; he had that authority and had done so in the past, but he didn’t even suggest it anymore. No one asked why. No one had to.
he returned, they sensed the addition of one more layer of lawman, one more
coat on the mask he had worn since he had returned from that first search,
exhausted, battered – and alone. He
never shared what he had found. No one
had to ask what he hadn’t found. After a few hours’ rest, he had stepped back
after that first trip, he was off chasing another fugitive headed toward
And now he
was gone again, four weeks into tracking Ed Boulder, a three-time murderer who
escaped from prison in
continued down the boardwalk, the deputy allowed a small burp to escape, which
Doc acknowledged with a shake of his head.
When they reached the jail,
They relaxed in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the normal comings and goings of the citizens of Dodge. Finally, Doc stirred a bit and cleared his throat.
“Been a while this time.”
A sudden hope flared in the deputy’s chest, hope that he hadn’t considered until Doc’s observation. He stopped whittling and looked up. “Ya’ don’t s’pose ‘at means he’s a found her, do ya’?”
The older man swished a hand over his mustache and shook his head. “I don’t know, Festus. I hope – I hope if he’s supposed to find her, he does.”
“What’s ‘at s’pose ta’ mean?”
“Well, she left, didn’t she?”
“Wael, o’course she left,” Festus agreed impatiently. “Ain’t that whut got us in this chere mess in th’ first place?”
what if she doesn’t want him to find her?
There are lots of places to go where people can just disappear.
He sighed. “I ain’t never thot of it atta way. Her not wantin’ ta’ be found, that is.”
“I just hope Matt doesn’t have an even harder time if he does find her.”
Again, Festus frowned. “What do ya’ mean by that?”
“It’s been half a year. He’s been on the trail almost half that time and hasn’t found anything, yet. And Matt always finds his man.”
“’Ceptin’ this time he’s a’lookin’ fer a woman,” Festus noted, not realizing the depth of his statement.
“I jest kaint figger why she done it.”
Doc tugged at his ear and sighed. “Lots of reasons, I suppose, Festus. She’s been – “ He looked up, as if deciding if he should be frank or not. After a moment, he nodded. “She’s been with Matt a long time. I think maybe she kept thinkin’ one day he’d get tired of being marshal. Tired of coming back all shot up and half dead.” His chest rumbled in a low chuckle. “Can’t imagine why.”
“Aw, Doc, you knowd he don’t git no pleasure from – “
not. Course not. Matt’s a rare breed, Festus. I’ve never known any man like him. He has the physical ability and skills to be
the biggest, meanest, and probably best outlaw this side of – well both sides of the
Festus frowned. “Ol’ Matthew’d never – “
“I didn’t say he would. I just said he could. But instead, he’s the most honest and just and fair man I’ve ever known. And we both know there are only a handful of men who have ever handled a gun better. At least until – “
The deputy winced in acknowledgement of the doctor’s insinuation. “He’s still good, Doc. He worked that arm back almost ta’ where it wuz.” Festus had watched Matthew practice for hours on end until the arm was swollen and aching, and then he’d still go at it more until he was satisfied.
“Almost,” Doc echoed. “I just don’t know. If he has to face another Mannon or a Frank Reardon – I just don’t know.” His pale blue eyes looked out over the street, as if remembering something. “I think maybe that Kitty didn’t know, either. I think maybe that’s why – “
Bristling, Festus protested, “Miz Kitty wouldn’t leave him fer that, Doc. Not jus’ ‘cause he ain’t as fast as he wuz.”
“No, not because of that, but because of what might happen as a result. How long do you think it’ll take before someone figures it out? Before some young, fresh wannabe gunslinger comes riding in lookin’ to be the man who kills the great Matt Dillon?” His head fell, and he examined his hands absently. “I don’t think she could wait for that. I don’t think she could bear – “
He looked up, then stopped abruptly, eyes locking on something down the street. Festus followed his gaze and felt a grin and a grimace compete on his lips. A very familiar form had rounded the corner, a tall man on a big horse, one hand on the reins, the other leading a second horse, burdened with a body draped across its saddle. Dillon swayed slightly, his shoulders slumped, his head down. Along the street and on the boardwalk, people stopped whatever they were doing and let their eyes follow the lead horse and rider.
The eyes of Dodge had always followed Matt Dillon. The obvious reason was because he was a physically imposing man, tall, broad, handsome – hard to ignore. The way he carried himself spoke of self-confidence tempered with humility and a bit of nonchalance. But also, by watching Matt Dillon, there was a fairly good chance a person might see a little excitement: the break up of a brawl, the rousting of rowdy cowboys, or – best of all – a shootout in the street. Yes, there were quite a number of benefits to watching Marshal Dillon.
For the past six months, though, the reasons had changed. Only those folks new to Dodge were unaware of Kitty Russell, and they were quickly enlightened by the other citizens. Now, some of the eyes that followed the lawman watched in curiosity; others watched in sympathy; and more than a few – women anyway – watched in blatant invitation. He ignored them all.
And they began to realize that although Matt Dillon, the marshal, remained with them, Matt Dillon, the man, had disappeared somewhere out on the prairie.
He still acted like the marshal; he still was the marshal. Nothing had changed in the execution of his duties. Dodge could still count on him – and his deputies – for protection. He remained polite and pleasant to the citizens, automatically nodding and touching the brim of his hat for the ladies, but the easy smile and warm eyes that had greeted them for twenty years had given way to tightly pressed lips and a troubled brow.
Things had changed, but that just made them want to watch him more.
Now they watched with concern as he coaxed the familiar buckskin past them, the gazes of both man and mount angled toward the ground.
Doc was off the boardwalk first, hurrying in his own shuffling way out into the street and toward them. Only a step behind, Festus caught and passed the older man, coming up on Buck’s left side. He winced at the pain and fatigue etched on the lawman’s face, at the clenched jaw and tight eyes.
The marshal glanced over at them.
“You okay?” Doc asked, even though they could all see the answer.
“Yeah,” Dillon responded, voice strained. Doubting the truth of that, Festus eyed him closely, but could see no obvious injury.
looking as worn out as his rider, plodded up to the rail outside the jail, no
longer hesitating when he passed the
“Who’s that, Matthew?” Festus asked, cocking his head toward the dead man.
“Slim Gallagher,” Dillon answered without looking back.
He lifted an eyebrow in surprised. “He ain’t th’ feller ya’ went out after.”
“No.” If they expected more of an explanation, they were disappointed.
“What about Ed Boulder?” Festus prodded.
“Left him outside
No one in the growing crowd could have missed the audible grunt that accompanied the move. Festus watched as the marshal stood next to his mount for a moment, hands on the horn as if Buck were the only thing keeping him on his feet.
Alarmed, the deputy forced himself not to reach out to the man, knowing Matthew wouldn’t like that at all. Instead, he threw a casual tone into his voice and suggested, “I’ll tek ol’ Buck ta’ Moss’s fer ya’, too, so’s ya’ kin git ta’ them posters whut come in while you wuz gone.” Silently, he willed the marshal to accept the offer.
Dillon shot a glare his way. Festus prepared to fight the protest, but their eyes met, and Matthew read his friend’s intent. Straightening stiffly, the exhausted man nodded. “Thanks,” he mumbled, pushing away from the horse and taking a step toward the jail.
– and almost collapsing in the street.
They all watched in shock as his right leg buckled under him, pitching him toward the ground. Instinctively, he threw out a hand to grab the rail, barely keeping his body from sprawling into the dust. Festus lunged for him, now unconcerned about Dillon’s desire not to show weakness. Too dadburned late for that. But the big man waved him away, gritted his teeth, re-set his grip on the rail, and heaved himself back to his feet.
“Matt?” Doc ignored the refusal of help, catching the lawman’s elbow anyway.
“I’m fine,” he ground out.
Dillon didn’t answer, but threw Doc a scalding glare, hauled himself up onto the boardwalk and limped heavily through the door that a helpful bystander opened for him. There was no masking his pain this time. Festus looked again to see any sign of a wound, any blood on the grimy tan pants, but he still saw nothing.
“Don’t you worry ‘bout Buck,” he called after the marshal just as the door closed behind Doc and Dillon. “I’ll tek good care of him.”
receiving a response, and not necessarily expecting one, he turned to grasp the
tired horse’s reins. Just beyond,
another set of eyes watched. Leaning
against an open door at the
Festus wondered briefly at that. After all, the marshal had made it a point to avoid the saloon unless absolutely necessary. As far as the deputy knew, he and Hannah had only a passing acquaintance. But the new owner – he supposed she wasn’t that new anymore – seemed unusually concerned about the marshal.
He didn’t suppose that the Matthew and Hannah – but then he clicked his tongue and chuckled at the absurdity of that notion. No, she must just be worried about him like any other citizen would be, and he appreciated her for it.
When Slim Gallagher had been duly delivered to Percy Crump’s, and the outlaw’s horse left back at Moss Grimmick’s, Festus headed back toward the jail, anxious to check on Matthew. Just as he reached the boardwalk, Doc shuffled out, pulling the door closed behind him. His face was drawn, his blue eyes sad and worried.
“How is he?” Festus asked, bracing for the answer.
The physician ran a hand over his mustache and motioned the deputy on down the boardwalk and away from the pane-less windows. “Well, he’s exhausted mainly.”
“He ain’t hurt agin?” He surely had seemed hurt, even though the deputy never saw any obvious injury.
“Nothin’ new, anyway,” Doc said. “His back and leg are pretty bad. More than he’ll let on, I’m certain. A long ride – and who knows what kind of fight that Gallagher put up.”
“Not ennuf of one,” Festus observed. “But he’ll be arrite?”
“Physically, if he’ll let himself rest a while.”
“What ain’t you sayin’, Doc?”
Festus had to agree. When Matthew was in town, he spent more time in the jailhouse than he did in his room at the Dodge House – and what little sleep he was getting had been on that old cot, not the more comfortable mattress in Mr. Dobie’s establishment.
“Doc,” he asked, hating himself for even considering the possibility, “what if’n he never finds her?”
After a deep breath, the doctor replied, “I don’t know, Festus. His body’s just about given out, but it’s his eyes I’m worried about.”
A new worry shot through the deputy. “What’s wrong with his eyes?”
“Oh, I don’t mean his vision. I mean his hope. When I looked at him in there – well, his eyes were – they were – “ He took in a breath that caught in his throat before he could clear it. After a few seconds, he finished quietly, “Kitty’s not in those eyes anymore.”
His own eyes watering, Festus laid a hand on the shorter man’s shoulder. “He’s jus’ tired, Doc,” he suggested, then added hopefully, “doncha think?”
But Doc didn’t answer.
They stood together for a few minutes, wondering if it were even possible to put Kitty back in those eyes – and fearing what would happen if it weren’t.