A Gunsmoke Story
By Amanda (MAHC)
Chapter Twenty-one: This Moment
Rating: PG-17 (Teen ++)
Disclaimer: The original GS characters aren’t mine, of course, but I created Sam. (Well, Matt and Kitty created him in my story.)
Despite her occasional tendency to burn a short fuse, Kitty Dillon rarely found herself truly angry with her even-tempered husband. Irritated, maybe; frustrated, certainly; worried, frequently, intrigued, always. But not often out and out angry. When she did get mad, though, it was usually a memorable scene. Of course, it was also usually a scene that was played out just between the two of them.
Somewhere beneath the red haze of anger, Kitty knew that the last thing her very private man wanted was to have a heated discussion with his wife right in front of everyone, but, at the moment, emotion overrode subtlety.
Stung that half of Dodge was witnessing her embarrassment over not being included in the unexpected and monumental decision, she couldn’t keep from lashing out. “No? What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“Kitty – “
“You changed the plan?”
He shot an uneasy glance toward the suddenly silent crowd. “Kitty – “
“You – you turned him down?”
Taking a deep breath, he squared up, rearing back a bit to his full height. “Yeah.”
Logic tried to pull her back, to excuse herself and him to a more private area. But logic failed. “Without talking with me?”
Hands planted firmly on her hips, she shot daggers from her eyes right through him, mildly satisfied to see her bold, intrepid lawman flinch just a bit. How dare he? How dare he make that decision without her?
Infuriatingly calm, he stood before her with the same courage that faced down the worst outlaws and quietly acknowledged, “I did.”
“I did.” Still calm.
He did. Damn him, he did.
After all that talk and all that assurance to him that she was with him no matter what, he had gone and thrown it all away. How dare he simply discard all the sacrifices she had made for his happiness. How dare he be the one to give up –
Oh God. Realization washed over her and doused the flame of anger. Horrified, she let her gaze falter and looked down, not focusing on anything. Was that why she was so angry? Had she really felt that way? Had she resented his sacrifice? All these years, had she taken some strange pride in being the one who gave up something for their relationship?
She stared back up at him, still stunned by her own awareness.
She saw him
squint with a hint of uncertainty when he couldn’t read her sudden change in
expression. Then, using her silence as
an opportunity, he grasped her by the shoulders and said softly, “That’s what I
was going to tell you, Kitty, before we – “
Finding her voice again, although this time with less volume, she tried to protest. “No, Matt – ”
“Yes,” he insisted. “I’ll get that ranch we talked about. Buy some horses.”
“You don’t have to – “
His fingers touched her lips to stop her. “No, I don’t have to.” Smiling softly, he finished, “But I want to.”
And there it was. The decision. The one that he made all by himself. The one that shocked her. The one that infuriated her. The one that she now realized delighted her.
It was not really a question, but he answered anyway. “We’re not going.”
“We’re staying here in Dodge?” Another non-question.
“We’re staying here.”
Despite her assurance to him that she was perfectly fine leaving the town that had been home for over 20 years, her heart swelled at the realization that they weren’t leaving after all. With a cry, she leaped into his arms, forcing him to stagger back a step to steady them.
“Oh, Matt!” Her kiss was full of delight and gratitude and love – and passion. She had intended for it to be quick, but once their lips touched she couldn’t stop.
And suddenly, neither could he. The kiss grew deeper, hotter, and for a moment, she forgot about everything – and everyone – except the very masculine body against her. Until she felt him tense, his hands coming up to tug at the strong-hold she had around his neck.
“Uh, Kitty – “ he mumbled against her mouth.
But she only wanted to hold him, to show him how much it meant to her. They would stay in Dodge with all their friends. Those friends who thought so much of them that they had come to their house and offered –
Abruptly, she stopped in mid-kiss and cut her eyes to the side to look at those very friends who now stood there gaping at them, their eyes wide with astonishment. For the long-time citizens, many of whom had been satisfying their curiosity for twenty years with just a nibble of affection between the discreet lovers, this was a veritable feast.
Letting her lips separate from his finally, she glanced up at her husband’s reddened cheeks. Wincing, she loosened her grip so that he could lower her to the floor.
“Well,” she breathed, smoothing out her skirt, a touch of color that needed no rouge in her own cheeks.
Matt cleared his throat and looked back at them, his head down so that his eyes peered almost like a little boy from under his brow. He tried to tug a bit of dignity around him, but as soon as he glanced her way, she saw that his gaze was still heated, still full of love and promise.
For several seconds, no one spoke. They just basked in the completely unexpected – and precious – moment. Finally, the Attorney General echoed Matt’s throat-clearing and said, “Uh, Marshal, before you buy those horses, I’d appreciate it if you’d hear me out on something.”
Reluctantly dragging his eyes away from her, Matt shook his head and bit tentatively at his lower lip. “General, you have my answer. I’m sorry you’ve come for nothing – “
it’s not for nothing. There’s another
reason why I’m here,”
turned to stare at the only Edsel in the room,
presumably the only Edsel in
“I’ll be darned,” Matt muttered, equally surprised.
to her wire,
Matt winced. “General, I think I can explain – “
Kitty slid her hand through the crook of Matt’s arm. She saw his cheeks burning with the uncomfortable compliment, but he didn’t protest. After all, it was the Attorney General.
“Thing is, the President and I don’t want to let you go, either.”
Matt’s eyes narrow, a certain danger sign.
“General, I told you, I won’t – “ He stopped abruptly, the furrow between his eyebrows deepening. “What?”
“I said,” the Attorney General answered, a smile curving his thick lips, “I’ll just have to accept the town’s offer.”
Her heart pumping in cautious anticipation, Kitty clutched tighter onto Matt’s arm. “You’ll – what?”
Garland, an enthusiastic orator, hesitated a moment for effect, looked around the room, then grinned and announced, “It is my pleasure to declare to you that the War Department graciously accepts the generous offer by the city of Dodge to erect a U.S. Marshal’s training facility here.” His head inclined toward Matt and he added, “That is, if Marshal Dillon will re-consider accepting the position as director.”
A wave of excitement swept the crowd, but they kept their voices, realizing that the final say rested with the tall lawman, who at the moment could only stare at the Attorney General. Kitty found herself in a similar fix.
here to force you into something you don’t want to do,”
Kitty exchanged an incredulous glance with her husband. “General Garland,” she asked again, her heart not quite believing what her brain was saying, “you’re telling us that you are willing to move the whole thing – “
“I’m willing and the President is willing. We’d be fools to let our best man go if there was some way to keep him.” His hand grasped Matt’s forearm with a firm squeeze. “You’ve given the service almost thirty years of your life, Matt. And you don’t have to tell me how many times you’ve come close to giving your life itself.”
Nobody had to tell Kitty that.
this is the least the Service can do in return.”
That familiarity brought a smile to her lips. The Attorney General couldn’t be more than ten years older than Matt. Still, the grin that broke out on her Cowboy’s face reminded her of the handsome, rawboned, young marshal who had captured her attention – and her heart – so many years before.
Kitty’s hand tightened around his arm and she leaned hard against him.
“So, what about it, Matt?”
Around the room it seemed as if no one breathed. The crowd watched, afraid to move in case they missed any moment of this extraordinary scene, waiting for their marshal to make a decision that would affect not only his life but the lives of every person in Dodge – perhaps even the entire country.
Kitty looked at the smooth silver medallion that had been her nemesis for so many years. She hated it – and yet it was so much a part of her life that she had come to accept it and even take pride in it from time to time. Matt Dillon without the badge? She tried to picture it, had yearned so long to see that very sight. Was this the time?
Looking into his beautiful sky-blue eyes, seeing the surprising touch of vulnerability shimmer there, she knew the answer. Her hand lifted to touch his cheek in as gentle and assuring touch as she could make it. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way, Cowboy.”
gratitude, love, and promise flashed across his rugged face before he managed
to rein back his emotions. She saw him
swallow hard before he nodded, moving her hand to his lips and brushing the
fingertips in a kiss. Straightening and
squaring his shoulders, he turned back to
erupted into cheers so loud that Kitty wouldn’t have been surprised if they
were heard all the way back to the
merriment continued for several minutes.
Even Sam joined in, clapping and squealing with innocent delight,
completely oblivious to the motivation but happy to be part of it. When the excitement finally ebbed, Matt stood
before these people who had been so much a part of his existence – despite his
general philosophy of independence – for so many years. He hesitated, and Kitty realized with a fond
pang, that it was not for effect like
“I’m not sure exactly what to say, except – thank you. And that Kitty and I are – overwhelmed by your generosity.” He shrugged slightly and added, “Of course, I, uh, I still can’t accept the reward money – “
A murmur of protest rose from the group, but he held up his hand to stifle it. “It was in the line of duty, and you understand I can’t – I just can’t accept it.”
“What about the money from the town, Marshal?” Dobie asked, his expression almost hurt. “Surely you can accept that.”
He sighed and opened his mouth, but before he could politely refuse them again, Hannah added, “We’ll put it in a trust for the children.”
Kitty allowed herself to take in the expressions of those watching and was shocked to read eagerness, almost pleading, on their faces. She realized then that it meant much more to their friends to give the money than it did for them to receive it. It was, for the citizens of Dodge, a way to feel as if they were paying back something that was impossible to pay back. Exchanging glances with her husband, she saw the reluctant understanding in his eyes.
Without words, they agreed. Matt slid his arm around her waist and nodded for her to answer. “We’d be honored,” she told them warmly.
Pleased smiles broke out across the room.
Matt said. Then the normally reticent
lawman surprised them all and added, “I want you to know that it has been – my
honor – to serve
Her heart swelled for him. She knew what those few, poignant words meant coming from him. The others seemed to know, too. A keen silence fell over the room. No one spoke for a long moment, the impact of his statement affecting them.
Finally, with a sniff, Kitty raised her head. “This calls for a celebration. Napoleon brandy for everyone!”
“Liquor?” Mrs. Pry asked in a scandalized tone.
“Liquor,” Kitty repeated firmly.
“Well,” the old woman allowed, “since it is a celebration – “
The hoorah echoed through the house as Kitty gave her husband a quick, but thorough, kiss and headed toward the liquor cabinet.
Surrounded by several of their friends, she watched as Matt looked down at the very surprising town busybody. “Mrs. Pry,” he began, “I don’t know what to say – “
The old woman waved her hand. “Pshaw. You just make sure when those offspring of yours come sneaking around windows they don’t run off with my pies.”
Kitty flinched and frowned until Mrs. Pry continued, almost smiling. “They’d better come on in and have a piece with their Aunt Edsel.”
With a curt nod, she marched past a speechless Matt to get in line for Kitty’s brandy, the rest of the town staring after her, equally shocked.
Finally, Doc cleared his throat and ran a hand over his mustache. “You live long enough, you’ll see just about everything.”
Amid the accompanying laughter, the Attorney General extended his hand. “Well, Marshal. Good doing business with you.”
“You, too, General.” Matt shook his hand. “I’m obliged to you – and the President.”
Kitty smiled graciously. “General, I’m afraid he’s the one keeping all the rest of us in line.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed. “I can believe that.”
She watched with amusement as Matt tried not to squirm under the blatant admiration.
Unsuccessfully trying to hold back the grimace, Matt attempted to wave off the concern. “Oh, he just winged – “ he began, but catching a glimpse of Doc’s scowl, he smiled weakly and amended, “It’s not too bad.”
As the rest of the celebrants did their cheerful best to deplete the Dillons of their liquor stock, Kitty tugged gently at her husband’s sleeve, steering him to a relatively empty corner of the room.
Looking up at him, allowing her hand to rest intimately against his chest, she mused, “Is it really true, Matt? Did this really happen?”
He smiled down at her. “Why wouldn’t you think so?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it seems too go to be true. All my life I’ve thought about this moment, told myself it was going to come, but I’m not sure I actually really believed it would.”
His smiled faded, the years of guilt clouding his joy, and she regretted saying anything. But she couldn’t help the wonder that lifted her heart.
“Listen, Matt. Whatever’s happened in the past, let’s leave it there.”
Disregarding the people that still surrounded them, he slid his arms around her waist. “Kitty, our past has made us what we are. We can’t leave it. But we can move on from it. I never thought much about ‘this moment,’ as you call it.” A shadow darkened his eyes. “That’s because I never figured I’d live long enough to have something like this,” he admitted.
The blunt statement clutched at her heart. “Matt Dillon, don’t say such a thing.”
“It’s true, Kitty. The life of the average lawman is only – “
“Oh, now, you’re forgetting something very important.”
He frowned. “What?”
“You, Marshal Dillon, are not the average lawman.”
“Maybe,” he conceded, and it was as close as she’d ever heard him come to acknowledging that he really was rather extraordinary. “When you were gone – “
Her fingers went to his lips to stop him from bringing up that painful time, but he smiled and shook his head.
“When you were gone, it felt as if my heart was haunted. You had been there so many years and then all I had left was a ghost. I knew then that if I found you again, if I had the real Kitty back in my heart – and if I could convince her to take me back into her heart – I’d never let go of it again.”
Tears burned her eyes, welling over and down her cheeks. She managed to whisper her love for him before he pulled her to him and cradled her in those long, strong arms of his. Finally, the crowd disappeared and only the two of them remained. Finally, they found themselves wrapped around each other, sharing the love and passion and pleasures that had bound them for half their lives. And finally, Kitty Russell Dillon began to think this moment really was real.
She jerked awake with the sudden movement beside her, her eyes adjusting to the dim light so that she could see the perspiration on Matt’s skin, hear his gasps, feel the trembling of his body. Please, not again, she prayed,
“Matt?” she called to him gently, ready to sooth and comfort, willing to chase away the nightmares.
With visible effort, he turned onto his side, smiled shakily into her worried blue eyes and lifted a hand to brush away the rich, red curls that fell across her face. “I’m sorry – I woke you,” he gasped, still trying to catch his breath.
She blinked, rousing herself enough to prop on one hand and peer at his sweaty face. “You okay, Cowboy?”
Her face softened in compassion. “Another nightmare?”
Sure. “It’s okay, Matt. I heard you – cry out. I understand.”
“Really, it wasn’t – “
“Come here.” Her arms wrapped around him, drawing his head to lie carefully on her breasts, stroking through the haphazard waves of his hair.
“I’m all right, Kitty,” he assured her.
“Can I ask you something, Matt?”
He laughed ironically. “When have you ever needed permission to ask me anything?”
But she was
serious. Continuing partly to distract
him and partly to satisfy her own curiosity, she said, “You asked me about the
job before. You didn’t give
“So when you changed your mind, why didn’t you ask me about it again?” She tried to keep the hurt from her tone. That was water under the bridge, now.
Leaning over so that his lips brushed hers tenderly, he said, “Because you would have tried to talk me out of it. And you probably would have succeeded. You can be very persuasive, Mrs. Dillon,” he told her, his long fingers stroking over a smooth breast.
She sucked in a quick breath at the sensation.
“This was the right thing to do, Kitty. For you – “ He moved his hand to her stomach. “For all of us.”
“It’ll be strange.”
“Not worrying every minute whether or not you’re coming home all shot up – or not at all.”
“You think maybe you can get used to it?”
She smiled up at him. “I think maybe I can. Now, let me give you something better to dream about,” she murmured, sliding her hands up his chest.
Kitty,” he said, suddenly hoarse, “I really didn’t have a nightmare.”
Stubborn man. “Matt, I saw you – I heard you. You were dreaming – ”
“Oh, I was dreaming, all right,” he acknowledged. “But it wasn’t a nightmare.”
He shook his head and grinned at her, drawing her hand to his groin, to rest over the most blatant physical evidence that remained of his dream.
As her fingers wrapped around the thick, silken heat, she felt a deliciously familiar warmth rush to her center. “Oh,” she breathed, relieved and aroused at once. “That must have been some dream.”
“Oh, yeah,” he groaned.
Without even thinking, she stretched out on top of him,
fitting their hips together so that they were touching as intimately as
possible without being joined. His hands
traced up the backs of her thighs, his head bent so that his lips could take in
a nipple and suck luxuriously.
He stopped immediately, looking up at her with a question on his lips, but before he could ask, she smiled weakly and explained, “They’re a little sore.”
A look of almost unbearable tenderness touched his eyes and he nodded, rolling her to the side and leaning forward to kiss her stomach softly before he dragged his tongue back up to circle in gentle caresses around the nipple again. This time, sparks of desire shot through her breast and pulsed between her legs. His hand slipped down, his touch inflaming her.
“Oh, God! That’s – that’s –“ She couldn’t actually pull the words to her lips.
The exquisite feeling stopped. She looked down in distress, desperate for him to keep going. But his eyes had grown smoky, clouded, and she saw the need in them. His hands slid over the swell of her hips, pressed her into him but it wasn’t enough. They both wanted more. They both needed more. Now.
His mouth claimed hers and without breaking the kiss he shifted, twisting so he was above her, lowering his hips to hers. They were both way past ready. But he slid against her once, then held still.
She looked up in protest. Please don’t stop! Please don’t!
“The baby?” he whispered, his voice hoarse, his eyes moist.
A shiver tingled through her. “It’s fine,” she assured him. “We won’t hurt her.”
“Are you sure – “
She smiled as she lifted her pelvis to rub against him. “I’m sure. Please, Matt. I need you.”
“You’ll never know how much I need you,” he said tightly, and she knew he meant more than just the urgent physical need of the moment. Bracing on his hands, he nudged her legs farther apart with one knee.
She expected a hard plunge, a deep thrust, but he kept control, easing into her slowly, careful not to be too rough, not to take a chance. She smiled at his thoughtfulness, at his ability to hold back. He withdrew, then pushed in again, leaning forward to suck on her earlobe, to kiss the tip of her nose, to tug her lower lip between his teeth. Then he pulled back with aching luxury, drawing out of her body just to the edge. He held there until she couldn’t bear the teasing and tugged him toward her with her legs. Even then he waited one more beat before he sank inside her again. Her groan carried across the room. And it continued like that, easy and gentle, much slower than she would have believed possible as excited as they both were.
Occasionally he paused and drew in a shuddering breath, bending down to kiss her, to trace the contours of her face with his lips. And sometimes she stopped him, when she felt herself approaching the edge, made him wait until she had subdued her body’s urgency. She wasn’t sure exactly when the luxuriously slow slides accelerated, but after a very long time, she felt him swing into a faster rhythm, dropping onto his elbows, and she allowed her body to follow his lead as the sensations began climbing over each other with increasing power until they were both carried past any real control. Mouth open in a silent gasp, she teetered for a long moment on the pinnacle, unable to go over, but unwilling to go back, until her straining, screaming muscles erupted in delicious spasms around him, the focus of pleasure at her center bursting and shooting ecstasy through her. As the explosion peaked, she found her voice and could not suppress a cry.
At her release, his body tensed, a low, tortured groan rising from deep within his chest as she arched against him. Her name burst from his throat just as the hard pulses burst into her. Sweat trickled down his face as he thrust again and again, trying not to push too hard, but no longer able to control his body’s fierce instinct to be buried deep inside her. For a moment she thought it would never stop, and that was fine by her. But eventually, the intensity faded. Somehow, he remained braced on his elbows, rocking gently back and forth. Raising a trembling hand, she brushed back the waves scattered over his brow, pushed through the hair at his temple, trailed a finger around his ear, then pulled his head down so she could kiss him as they continued to move together in the soothing aftershocks, his body caressing hers with gentle motions.
Finally, he slowly withdrew and rolled back with a reluctant, but satisfied moan. As she felt him slide from her body, she sighed, not wanting to lose the exquisite feel of him inside her.
Lying back, he drew her against him, her fiery hair falling across his shoulder like a silk fan. She heard the thunder of his heart, felt the dampness of his skin, the hard rise and fall of his broad chest as his lungs worked to regain normal breathing. And she knew he heard and felt the same from her.
“Matt?” she murmured. Even her mouth was exhausted.
He wasn’t in any better shape. “Hmm?”
“I love you.”
A lazy smile curved his lips. “I love you, too.”
“That was – “ What could she say? Intense? Incredible? Exquisite? Explosive? Yes, all of those things. But she fell into Matt’s habit of understatement and just said, “ – nice.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
Stretching, she snuggled up against his side. “I can’t believe Sam is still asleep.”
She laughed. “I think we were just lucky this time. I’m not sure how lucky we’ll be with two of them. She might not cooperate quite so well.”
“She,” he confirmed.
The fear that always rested just beneath the all-too-thin surface of confidence nudged its way out. She had planned not to say anything, not to voice her maternal worries, but after the powerful release, her control had grown lax. “What if – what if something goes wrong? What is she’s not – “
“Now, Kitty – “
“I mean, like you told Doc, I am forty-two – “
“You’re admitting to it?” he teased.
He shifted so that his hand rested on her hip, fingers tickling chill bumps onto her skin. “Kitty, everything’s going to be fine. You’re healthy and strong. Doc said so. There’s no reason to think it won’t be all right.” But she saw the tinge of worry in his eyes, even as he reassured her.
“Of course,” she agreed, lowering her gaze so that he didn’t see the same expression mirrored on her face. “Just fine.”
But as she snuggled deeper in his embrace, she remembered her comment to him just that afternoon. Maybe it seems too good to be true.
It would be cruel, she reflected silently, secure in the
safety of his strong body, after all they had been through, for God to deny
them this happiness. Those months in
No, she had to believe that neither of their hearts would be haunted anymore. She had to believe that this was that moment she had dreamed of, yearned for. This was their time. And she was determined not to let go of it – or of him – ever again. Whatever fate brought them from this moment on, they would meet it together.
And after 20 years, that was more than enough.
Chapter 22: End of the Journey
Spoilers: “Aunt Thede;” “Mad Dog;” “Hard Luck Henry;” “Hostage!”
Disclaimer: The original GS characters aren’t mine, of course, but I created Sam, et al., (with a little help from Matt and Kitty).
Galen Adams rubbed his fingers roughly over his eyes in a vain effort to wipe the moisture from them. He blinked, his gaze returning to the poignant scene before him, to the strapping, veteran lawman, head of the U.S. Marshal’s Training Program, and the biggest, bravest, strongest man he’d ever known, who was at that moment on the floor by his wife’s beside, shedding rare tears over the small body that lay cradled in his grasp.
The doctor reflected that he had seen Matt Dillon in just about every condition imaginable throughout the years: tense, relaxed, angry, happy, worried, satisfied, irritated, pleased, robust, near-death. But even counting the anguish of that horrible day almost two years before when Matt returned to discover that Kitty had left, Doc wasn’t sure he had ever seen the big man completely overcome by emotion as he was now, collapsed at her side, holding that tiny baby in his huge hands.
Despite the public’s perception of Matt Dillon “the legend,” Doc knew that he was not the stoic, hard-jawed stereotype lawman whose hide was too thick to be pierced. On the contrary, Matt Dillon, the all-too-human man, was quite capable of deep emotions. Normally, he held those emotions tightly in check, at least around everyone except his very closest friends, and even then only rarely did he let them loose. Now, though, the circumstances that seized them all had ripped through the marshal’s iron grip of control and literally brought the stalwart lawman to his knees.
Doc let his gaze shift from the overwhelmed father to the pale and very still mother, and finally to the infant. He reflected that he had just about seen it all in his years as a frontier doctor. But nothing had affected him more than his relationships with his close friends in Dodge, and in particular Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell. What a journey they had all had. He likened it to a stage coach plundering cross-country over mountains, through rivers, across the prairie, sometimes easy, sometimes impossible, all times interesting. In the past hours, with an aching heart, he had wondered if this was the end of the journey for them, if this would be where they stopped. Surely not. He had prayed that it wasn’t.
He had prayed fervently that it wasn’t the end.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.
Kitty had gone through the pregnancy with impressive ease, despite their worries, and it looked as though she would be late with the delivery. Two weeks before her projected time, she hadn’t exhibited even the slightest evidence that the baby was ready to be born. Tired and irritable, she had complained that the child was certainly taking its time.
As they waited, work progressed toward the training facility. Ground had been broken, and Matt was scheduled to take a group of prospective trainers – experienced marshals and deputies – on a four-day trail ride to evaluate their abilities and select his staff. As the time drew nearer, however, the marshal became increasingly reluctant.
“I just don’t think I should be away that long,” he confided to Doc the night before he was to head out. “What if Kitty – “
Regret clouded those blue eyes gray, dropping the mask that usually protected the marshal’s emotions. “It’s just that, well, I wasn’t there for her when Sam was born.”
Doc wanted to mention that that certainly hadn’t been Matt’s choice, but he didn’t say anything.
“I’m not going to let her down this time. Are you sure it’s not going to be this week?’
The doctor had to smile at the complete reversal of the past twenty years, when the job had come first. Now he could see evidence that the ubiquitous badge had finally been usurped.
Gently, he reassured the worried husband. “She’s not even effaced, yet, much less dilated.”
The casual use of the terminology brought an embarrassed wince to the big man’s face. “Yeah, well, still – “
“Don’t you worry about me, Cowboy,” Kitty had added as she came back into the room from rocking Sam to sleep. “There’s no way I’m gonna have this baby without you.”
Slipping the mask back on, Matt slid an arm around her thickened waist. “She might have other plans,” he teased, picking up their running joke. They had a bet over whether the baby would be a boy or a girl. Doc didn’t know what the winner got. Judging from the flashing heat in their eyes, he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know.
“Well, if you’re not here, he’ll just have to wait.”
The banter ended with a quick kiss that Doc knew would have been much more involved he had not been present. But the continued intensity of their gazes told him he would be well-advised to excuse himself to the guest room with relative haste and leave the lovers to themselves for the rest of the evening.
The next morning, Matt had ridden off, reluctance clear on his face, acquiescing only with prodding from Doc’s firm assurances and Kitty’s confident smile. Although he had chuckled at the marshal then, Doc found no humor at all in the situation that confronted him three days later.
A physician’s day started early and ended late – if it ever ended at all. He had barely made it back to town after setting Little Tommy Roniger’s arm before he was stitching together a deep but simple gash in Nathan Burke’s thumb, the result of an accident whose additional casualty included a new mirror previously destined for the Lady Gay. The freight clerk had moaned and groaned more than his fair share before Doc got tired and told him to shut up or he would rip the thread right back out. His patient had been significantly more subdued after that.
He had just grabbed his hat in hopes that he could make it to Delmonicos for an early lunch before the next crisis when the distinctive jingles on his steps alerted him to his new visitor. Before he could utter his usual biting remark that would lead into a morning of sharp, but affectionate, banter between the two, Festus’ urgent tone told him that something was wrong.
Despite his rational core urging calm, his heart kicked against his chest. “What?” he called out, stepping to open the door.
The alarm on the scraggly face told him everything before Festus even opened his mouth.
“Kitty?” the doctor guessed immediately.
“She’s done gone an’ – wael, th’ baby’s done gone an’ – it’s comin’. An’ Matthew ain’t chere, Doc, an – “
“Hold on, Festus,” he soothed smoothly, years of calming worried fathers – or fathers’ friends – under his belt. “I’ll get my bag and go back with you. She’s not alone, is she?”
“Naw. Miz Hannah wuz a visitin’, brung Miz Kitty an’ Sam some vittles. I jes rid by ta’ check on ‘er, like I told Matthew I would – “
“Okay. Well, Hannah’s with her, so that’s good. You listen to me. Kitty’s gonna be just fine.”
“But Matthew ain’t chere – “
“I know. I know. Let’s just go check on Kitty, then I’ll let you know if you need to go get Matt. It’s early for her. Could be she’s not really in labor, yet. Sometimes there are false signs – “
“It shore didn’t sound false,” the deputy assured him.
Doc stopped and looked at him, running a hand over his mouth. “What do you mean?”
“Miz Kitty wuz groanin’ somp’m fierce, Doc. I ain’t never heerd no sheemale sound like that afore.”
“An’ thrashing around in th’ bed. I’m tellin’ ya’ she’s in a bad way, Doc.“
A chill tingled through the doctor’s blood, settling in his bones. With more urgency, he gathered his instruments. “You get my buggy, will you, Festus?”
“Waitin’ fer ye’ downstairs. I run by th’ stable and got Moss ta’ bring it round.”
“Oh, well, good.” Forcing a smile, he patted his distraught friend on the back. “Now, don’t worry, Festus. I’m going to go take care of Kitty, and you head out and bring Matt back. And don’t tell him about – well, just don’t tell him anything’s wrong,” he admonished. “It might not be, after all.”
deputy spun on a boot heel and pounded down the steps,
Hannah met him at the door of the Dillon house; her eyes, which normally twinkled pleasantly, now shone dark and worried. Fear jolted through him at what that might mean.
“Kitty?” he asked.
“She’s sufferin’. That baby oughta be comin’, but – I think somethin’s wrong, Doc.”
Without another word, he shuffled through the house as quickly as he could. Looking small, Kitty lay in the middle of the big bed, custom made to fit Matt’s long frame. Her face was washed white. Even her fiery hair had dulled, doused by sweat and pain. Doc bit back a cry of despair. He had seen too many women look like that, had witnessed too many tragedies of childbirth in which the child died, or the mother died – or both.
“Hey there, darlin’,” he greeted, smiling at her with as much confidence as he could muster.
Her eyes flickered to him, and she worked bravely to return the smile, even though she didn’t quite make it. “Doc,” she managed weakly.
“You and that baby snuck up on me. Shoulda known Kitty Russell wasn’t gonna be predictable.”
Only his imagination could see any humor reflected in her clouded eyes. “Matt?”
“He’ll be along directly,” he assured her. “Festus went to fetch him.”
“He wanted – he wanted so much to be here – “
“He will be. Don’t you worry. Just rest there, and – “
Without warning, she arched in the bed, her mouth open in a silent cry, her hands wrapping around the iron rungs of the headboard. Pushing his professional responsibility past his fatherly concern, Doc tugged out his watch and timed the contraction.
“How far apart?’ he asked Hannah, glancing up.
The older woman grimaced. “Ten minutes or so.”
“And you haven’t seen any sign of the baby?”
After what seemed like an eternity the contraction released Kitty, and she fell back limply, sweat trailing down her face. “Sam? Where’s Sam?” she asked weakly.
Hannah peered over the bed. “Don’t you worry none about that boy. Bess Roniger’s got ‘im. With the passel of young un’s of hers, he’s got more attention now than he knows what ta’ do with.”
“Matt?” the fragile voice asked again.
“He – he didn’t want to go,” she murmured, her head moving weakly from side to side. “I – told him – I said it would be – fine – he didn’t want to go – “
“It’s going to be fine, Kitty,” he comforted, guilt sweeping over him at his own part in convincing the marshal he should leave.
“He didn’t get to see – Sam born – his – son – my – fault – I shouldn’t have – left – “
“Now, Kitty, that’s water under the bridge. You don’t need to be thinking about that anymore.”
“Doc?” she asked again, so softly he had to bend down to hear her.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“Doc, this – this doesn’t – feel right. Something’s – wrong, isn’t it? I told Matt I was – afraid that – “
“Hush now. Everything’s fine.”
Amazingly, she seemed to gain strength, raising her hand to clutch her fingers in his shirt front. “No, no. I can – tell. Listen, Doc, if – something happens – “
“No, Kitty, don’t talk like – “
“Please. Let me – say this.”
He didn’t want to hear it, but he couldn’t deny her. “Okay. Go ahead.”
“If something – happens, Matt’s gonna – it’s gonna be – hard on him. He might not – let it show. You know how – he is.”
Doc thought back to the evening two years before that Matt had returned from the trail and found out about Kitty’s leaving, pictured those dazed, miserable, drunken eyes. Oh, it would show. Dear God, it would show. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if Kitty – No, he refused to consider it.
“Promise – me?”
Dear God. “Promise you what, dear?”
“You’ll be – his friend. You’ll look – out for him.”
He swallowed and smiled at her kindly. “You know I will. I always have been.”
“Yes,” she breathed, her strength fading, her arm falling back to the bed. “To – both of us.”
It took all of his professional training not to break down right then, but he managed, knowing that keeping his own sanity might be Kitty’s only chance. “Now, you just lie back and rest so we can get that baby here.”
Her response was simply to close her eyes. As tenderly as he could, Doc shifted her on the bed, whispering soothing words as he felt for the baby. When his fingers brushed over the area where the child’s head shoulder have been, his heart almost stopped.
His eyes lifted and met Hannah’s, confirming the woman’s fear that something was, indeed, wrong.
It was almost evening when he heard the hard pounding of Buck’s hooves, the sound reaching him long before he looked out the window to see the lawman leap from the horse and stride toward the house, his long legs eating up the remaining few yards to the door. Festus was nowhere to be seen. Doc could tell by the glistening coat and hard snorts of the buckskin that the marshal had ridden at a full gallop all the way back home. Matt’s appearance backed that up, his shirt and vest dark with sweat, his hat and trousers white with dust, his jaw and chin rough with grit and a three-day-old growth of beard.
With a crash, the door flew open and familiar, wide shoulders blocked the outside view. Doc took a deep breath. He had been mulling over what he could say, how he could be gentle with news that wasn’t gentle. Not gentle at all.
One glance into those haunted blue eyes, though, told him Matt had already come to that conclusion on his own. Damn Festus and his big mouth. Broad chest heaving, he filled the doorway, every line of his body aching for answers – and reassurance. Reassurance Galen Adams wasn’t sure he could give.
“Kitty?” the lawman asked simply, his voice cracking.
Doc tried not to flinch, fought to maintain a professional air, but it was impossible. He could do it with others, with acquaintances or strangers. But not with this man. Not with Matt.
His hesitation jerked a sharp gasp from Matt’s throat. “Doc?” he snapped, teeth gritted.
“Let’s sit down for a minute.”
But the huge frame refused to move. “I don’t want to sit down. Where is she?” He twisted toward the bedroom.
“Matt – “The doctor grabbed a hard forearm, trying to make his grip more supportive than restrictive. Not that he could have stopped him if the big man had put any effort into getting away. “She’s – she’s having trouble, son.”
The marshal swayed suddenly, his face draining white beneath the grime of the trail. “Trouble?” Dillon managed, those eyes so pained that Doc felt it, as if someone had punched him right in the gut.
“Sit,” he instructed again, then added, “please.”
Pressing his lips tight, Matt tugged off his hat and perched on the edge of a kitchen chair, looking as if he would bolt for the bedroom at the tiniest sound from beyond. “Tell me,” he ordered, voice rough.
“The baby is turned. What we call breech. Coming out rear end first. It makes things more difficult. Harder labor. And sometimes the baby doesn’t come into the birth canal like it should.”
“What does – what does that mean? I mean, what will happen?”
God, he wished he knew. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe not knowing still allowed for hope. “Well, it could mean nothing. Sometimes the baby just comes on fine.”
“Other times, there – there are problems.”
“Will the baby – make it?”
“I hope so.”
Dillon’s teeth gritted as he braced for the next question. “Will Kitty?”
“I’m going to do my best to see that she does.” He had never meant anything more in his life.
Matt dropped his head into his hands for a moment; then he looked back up. “Doc,” he choked out, “if it’s between the baby and Kitty – “
The doctor patted him on the arm. “I know.” And he did. As much as Matt wanted that baby, and as much as they both knew Kitty wanted that baby, neither man was willing to sacrifice her life for the child’s. It was a hard call, but one he could make, if necessary.
The next question came out as barely a whisper, an almost timid request so incongruous with the usual authority of his deep voice. “Can I see her?”
Doc knew he would want to, and he couldn’t refuse him, even though it would be a shock. Kitty had fought all day, and it showed. “Sure.”
As they walked into the bedroom, Matt swallowed so hard Doc heard it. Hannah stepped back as the tall lawman moved in and stood over the bed, looking down at the worn figure twisted in the covers. Before he could say anything, Kitty moaned, then cried out, and it was as if the sound pieced right through the big man’s heart. Doc saw him jerk, watched the sheer misery on his face as he dropped to his knees and gathered her hand in his.
“Kitty,” he said, hovering near her face and brushing a damp lock of her from her brow. “It’s Matt, honey.”
“Matt?” The question was weak, but held an energy that Doc hadn’t heard before.
“Yes. I’m here. You just hang on.”
Ducking his head, Doc stepped to the door, intending to ease quietly from the room for a few minutes.
“Oh, Matt. I’m so tired. I can’t – “
“Yes, you can. You can, Kitty. You have to,” the marshal whispered raggedly, engulfing Kitty’s clammy hand in his own. “I need you, Kitty. I need you.”
Pausing with his hand on the knob, he let his eyes scan over this tall, broad man, now hunched over in the chair, face wiped clean of anything except pain. He saw the slump of shoulders that were usually wide and square, the red-rim of eyes that rarely revealed any vulnerability, the open fear on a face that almost always masked any hint of anxiety. It was not despair, not yet. He had hoped never to see such on Matt Dillon’s face again as he had two years before. It was not despair. But it was close. His wife lay, struggling through a labor that could kill her baby – and her. He had lost her once, and mercifully had found her again. Doc prayed that he didn’t have to lose her a second – and final – time.
Moving back to stand next to the suffering husband, he let his hand drop onto the hard shoulder. “Matt?”
Without looking up, Dillon answered, his voice heavy with pain and exhaustion, “It doesn’t look good, does it, Doc?”
just don’t think that way,”
“She was afraid – she thought something like this might happen.”
“All expectant mothers worry.”
“I told her it would be fine. And then I went off and – “
“Nothing would have been any different if you had been here, Matt.”
“Maybe I could have – “
“Could have what? The child still would have been breech. Hannah was here when she went into labor. Nothing would have been any different.”
But the younger man didn’t seem to hear him. “I can’t – I can’t lose her again,” he whispered.
in that rough voice twisted in
He had made this journey with them. He had suffered right along with this man during those horrible months without Kitty. He had watched with joy the reunion of two people meant for each other. He had rejoiced in the blessing of a child – and then the prospect of another. He had celebrated with the knowledge that this family would remain close. Surely he wasn’t about to be forced to grieve with a devastated widower. Surely, all the joys weren’t for nothing. Surely this wasn’t how the journey would end.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been on his knees when Hannah’s frantic call broke into his prayers. “Doc!”
Struggling to rise, he hurried back into the bedroom, heart racing.
As he entered, his eyes met Matt’s, and his heart broke when he saw something on that man’s face he had never seen before – had never thought he would see. Wordlessly, Matt Dillon was begging. He was begging him to do something, to save the life of his wife – and, if possible, his child.
And he didn’t know if he could.
But now it was over, and he could only watch, tears streaming with the release of emotions he had held in check so that that could do his professional duty. He watched as Matt sat, open-mouthed and stunned, next to the bed. He watched as the marshal held that little body in his hands. He watched as a tear slid, unaccustomed, down a rugged cheek, leaving a clean trail through the grime that still smudged the rest of his face. He watched as Festus and Hannah stood in the doorway, their eyes glued to the poignant scene before them.
Doc didn’t figure any of them had even seen Matt Dillon cry before, not even through the worst of pain from his many years of many injuries, but now he supposed the strong man had good reason.
Somewhere, a rooster crowed, bringing in a new day. Nature’s light dimmed the glow of the oil maps and candles that had guided the physician’s efforts through the night. In the growing brightness, he could see the haggard lines that creased the marshal’s handsome face more deeply than they had four days before.
Matt sat on the floor, the child held out before him. Doc glanced back at Festus, who had arrived a few hours after Matt, and Hannah, saw the deep emotion of the moment reflected in their expressions. He wanted to say something, to break the hard silence, but that wasn’t his privilege. That privilege rested with someone else.
Finally, slowly, the big man lifted his chin and turned toward them, his blue eyes bright. They stared at him for several beats, breaths held, until he seemed to give himself a mental shake. As he held their gazes, his mouth slowly spread into an incredible, broad, awe-struck grin.
“By golly,” he breathed, voice filled with uncommon amazement. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she, Doc?”
As if on cue, the baby squirmed and opened her matching blue eyes, regarding them all with studied nonchalance. Like her father, Doc thought absently. He smiled, his heart nearly bursting for all of them. In truth, the baby looked much like most newborns: rather red and wrinkled. But all things being equal, he had to agree. She was, indeed, beautiful.
“You talking about the baby or Kitty?” he teased, immensely grateful he could joke.
The new father’s eyes rested on his daughter adoringly before shifting to regard his wife with equal, but different, adoration. “Both,” he declared confidently.
A weak snort answered. “Oh, I’m sure I’m just ravishing right about now,” Kitty mumbled, exhaustion weighing down her tone.
Doc watched as Matt leaned over carefully and kissed her, his lips lingering gently for a few moments before he pulled back. “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, Kathleen Dillon,” he told her, his voice cracking slightly under the strain of emotion he had endured.
Tears pooled in Kitty’s eyes, and Festus cleared his throat with a mixture of delight and embarrassment. Doc didn’t figure the deputy had ever heard such intimacy from the hard-boiled lawman. Still, the grin that split those scraggly whiskers was contagious. Both he and Hannah found themselves joining in.
“Watcha gonna name ‘er, Miz Kitty?” Festus asked.
Kitty smiled tiredly. “Ask Matt. He’s the one who said she’d be a girl.” Her eyes sparked with as much passion as she could muster under the circumstances. “I guess you won the bet, Cowboy,” she said, and Doc could hear the private, and rather suggestive, message in her voice.
He cackled as Matt’s ears reddened, but the marshal replied gamely, “I’ll be collecting on that bet, Red.” But as he glanced at Doc’s quick frown he added, “In a few weeks, anyway.”
Hannah’s gleeful whoop succeeded in making the big man’s cheeks flush to match his ears.
“Wael,” Festus interjected in a surprisingly timely manner, “ya’d better name that pretty little gal afore I name her m’seff.”
A spark of mischief lit behind the doctor’s eyes. “Hey, now,” he suggested, rubbing at his mustache. “Festus may have something there.”
“What do you mean?” Matt asked warily.
“Well, how about we name her after one of Festus’ aunts?”
“One of his aunts?” the marshal echoed, voice rising.
“Sure, sure,” Doc continued, trying his best not to smile too widely. “I mean, the Haggens are known for their – creative – monikers, aren’t they, Festus?”
“Moni – Whut?”
“Monikers. Names. Their creative names.”
“Oh. Wael,” the deputy acknowledged, “thet’s true ennuff. An’ I knowd Ain’t Thede’d be plumb tickled if – “
“Aunt Thede?” Kitty asked. “Isn’t her full name Theodore?”
“And, let’s see,” Doc continued, “there’s also Aunt George. But why stop at his aunts? Why not include the rest of his family? There’s his Uncle Maud, and his cousin Feeder – that’d be nice and – “
“An’ thar’s my cousin Harper,” Festus interrupted, “an’ May Blossom’s a cousin, too. ‘Member she married ol’ Feeder – “
Nodding enthusiastically, Doc volunteered, “I think I’m partial to Feeder, myself. Say, that’d be fine. Miss Feeder Dillon.”
He swung a peek over toward Matt, but it took only a second to determine that the marshal was not amused. He had that dangerous look that sent even the orneriest outlaws scrambling for cover. Kitty, however, managed to see the humor.
“Well, I think maybe we ought to include more than just Festus. How about we use Curly, too?” she suggested, and Doc beamed.
“Oh, you people are a bunch of cards,” Matt finally growled, but the doctor figured they all saw the hint of a smile at his lips.
It was Hannah who brought them back to seriousness. “Well,” she asked, hands on her hips, attention directly on Matt, “what about it, papa? Whatcha gonna name that sweet little girl?”
Matt let his smile relax from one of amusement to one of deep satisfaction and gratitude and stared intently at the child, who now looked back at him with the same expression. Doc could see that the bond between father and daughter had already been locked as solid as fisherman’s knot. “I don’t know,” he mumbled, glancing quickly up at Kitty. “I was thinking maybe – maybe Kathleen would be nice.”
Kitty grunted and frowned. “Oh, Matt, you don’t want to burden her with that – “
“Kathleen is a beautiful name,” he said firmly, then let his voice soften. “The most beautiful name I know.”
That ended that, as tears once again flowed down Kitty’s face. Her voice thick, she agreed, “All right. Kathleen. But we’ll need another name, too.”
Doc narrowed his eyes as her expression became guarded, tentative, and intriguing. He couldn’t imagine what she was about to suggest.
So softly that he had to strain to hear, she whispered, “What about – Maria?”
snapped up so quickly that it startled the rest of them. Without moving an inch, Doc waited with
long-suffering curiosity for the revelation of that particular name – a name
that had provoked such a reaction from the normally un-reactionary
marshal. A name whose utterance gave
them a sudden, unexpected, and rare glimpse into the childhood of a man who
most of the country imagined had come into the world as a six foot, seven inch,
A name Doc recognized from long ago as the one Matt had once told him was his mother’s name. Maria.
emotions swept across those expressive features: regret and gratitude, pain and
pleasure, anger and happiness. It was a
fascinating vision. Although he knew
Matt had been orphaned early in life, Doc had never really known exactly what
happened to the lawman’s parents. The
very private man had always been tight-lipped about his youth, except to admit
to more than his fair share of hell-raising before he decided to settle down on
the right side of the law.
Now, though, as Kitty said the name, Doc watched the memories flash across the grown Matthew’s face, images of a childhood long forgotten or firmly suppressed. Kitty knew. Doc wasn’t sure exactly what she knew, but she knew something about what Maria Dillon had meant to a little boy with dark curls. She knew enough to evoke this extraordinary moment.
Jaw muscles working furiously to contain the rush of raw feeling that threatened to overpower his already taxed emotions, the big man sucked in a tight breath and nodded without looking up at any of them. “Maria,” he choked out.
“Maria,” Kitty echoed softly, reaching out to run her fingers through the hair that was still just as curly, although not quite as dark. “Kathleen Maria Dillon.”
Apparently not trusting himself to speak, Matt just nodded again and stared at the child.
Catching Festus’ and Hannah’s watery gazes, Doc pushed down the lump in his own throat long enough to jerk his chin toward the door, and the three friends stepped back to allow the couple their moment.
Just before they left, though, Matt’s soft call stopped him. “Doc?”
He looked back at the family, at the grateful father who was holding on to control by his fingernails, at the exhausted mother who was glowing through her dishevelment, at the miraculously healthy child who was eagerly taking in the new revelations of her world.
The marshal eased the baby back into Kitty’s arms and paused a moment to watch as the infant instinctively rooted at her mother’s breast. Then he stood, took a breath, and opened his mouth. But almost immediately he shut it again, clenching his jaw tight. In those blue eyes, Doc saw all the words his friend – his son – couldn’t manage to say. Saw all the shared years. Saw all the moments of pain and all the moments of joy. Saw all the doubts, all the worries, all the defeats, all the victories. Those eyes said more than paragraphs could convey.
Finally, Matt thrust out his hand, took a deep breath, and ground out two, simple words that summed up the moment – and the years. “Thank you.”
By golly, this was a grand end to the long journey. A grand end.
And then Kathleen Maria Dillon cooed, and he realized as he watched the new life that he had been wrong all along. This wasn’t the end of the journey at all.
This was just the beginning.
Epilogue: So Full
Spoilers: None to worry about
Rating: PG-13 (Teen)
Disclaimer: The original GS characters aren’t mine, of course, but I created Sam and Mia (with some help from Matt and Kitty).
Matt Dillon snapped out an expletive at the sharp pain that jabbed his back as he lowered himself onto the bedroll. Wincing, he glanced around sheepishly, but there was no one else to hear him, except for the prairie dogs and coyotes, who remained politely discreet. Settling back and folding his arms behind his head, he gazed up into the night sky, at the stars sprayed generously across the heavens. It was almost peaceful enough to help him ignore the hard ground beneath his bedroll – but not quite. He had nearly forgotten how unforgiving the prairie floor could be, agitating every scar from every bullet he had ever taken.
The veteran lawman considered that he was most probably getting soft, not being on the trail nearly as frequently nowadays. In fact, this particular outing was the first time he had slept away from his comfortable bed – and bed partner – in at least six months. Not that his joints and muscles, victims of years of abuse, had been complaining about the respite. Now that they were taxed again, they objected more fervently than usual. With the rest of his group already headed to their respective homes, he could indulge again in a grunt or groan – or occasional bit of profanity.
As he lay watching the twinkling display, a familiar sight as comforting as an old friend, he found his thoughts returning to another night three years earlier, a night he had lain almost in this very spot, a night he had thought would change his life. And it certainly had, but not at all the way he planned.
Early hardships had taught the young Matthew Dillon that to succeed – indeed, to survive – he must become a man who needed nothing and no one, a man who would forever be alone. Oh, he had friends, buddies, but he never let himself get close to any of them. The wild bunch he rode with as a very young man was just as likely to die from a bullet as he was. And when he turned to the law, he understood there were no guarantees that when he woke each day he would live to see another sunrise. That philosophy had served him well. No strings to be tangled in, no relationships to worry about, no chains to bind – except those of iron that bound him to the badge.
of “marshal” protected him – and others – from the pain of closeness to a man
whose days were undoubtedly numbered.
Through the years, though, as he realized that humans did need some
connection with their fellow humans, he had reluctantly allowed a few chinks in
that armor: Doc,
But he hadn’t anticipated the chink – more like the crevasse – that had chiseled her way through that armor until his treasured protection split wide open, baring him completely to her. Suddenly, uncomfortably, and marvelously, Matt Dillon wasn’t alone anymore. The lessons of childhood reached deep, though, and for years he fought against real acknowledgment of that chink, pushed back his heart’s urges in order to protect himself – and her – from what he knew was inevitable. He was a lawman. He made that clear to her. He would probably not live to see his 30th birthday. She accepted it. Then the birthday came and went, and he kept on going – they kept on going. And somehow, he made the 40th birthday, and he kept on going – they kept on going.
There were times he thought it was over – both for him and for them – but they kept going. Even after the dark days three years before –
The thoughts drifted from his head and spread to his gut, churning and roiling until he cursed again and forced them away with the amazing visions of what had come from that awful time. Fate had a weird way of twisting a man’s delusion of control. He could never have imagined that night that we would be lying there again, about to head home – not to a musty jail house, or even to Kitty’s boudoir, but to a home, his home, filled with his children and his wife. Amazingly, he would be turning 50 in a couple of days. And he kept on going – they kept on going.
He shifted under the coarse blanket, grimacing and grunting with the sharp jolt of pain. Usually, his leg won the prize for bothering him the most, but tonight his back decided to claim the title. Chuckling, even past the ache, he decided he would have to get over that fast, since both Sam and Mia would expect piggy-back rides when he returned. A smile lifted his lips automatically as he thought of his children and the unconditional love that waited for him at home. How very fortunate he and Kitty were. Both the children were healthy and happy. During his latest visit, Doc had sworn that they would be ten feet tall if they kept growing like they were. Sam’s big eyes had widened as he exclaimed, “That’s almost as big as Papa!” Just past her first birthday, Mia had simply stared up at her towering father and considered the possibility.
The grimace spread into a broad smile. Sam was a constant joy – and a constant challenge. Curious, boisterous, and smart, the little boy kept his parents on their toes. Although just as intelligent and curious as her older sibling, Kathleen Maria Dillon was quiet and observant. Kitty said she was like her father, but Matt saw her in the child, as well.
She had acquired the nickname “Mia” within 24 hours of her birth, compliments of her big brother. As soon as Bess Roninger delivered Sam back home, he bounded in to visit his little sister, asking if she could go outside and play Indians with him. To his great disappointment, he had discovered the baby was not much in the way of entertainment, but at his parents’ prompting, he had made an effort to welcome her. When the twenty-month old had attempted to get his mouth around the name “Maria,” though, “Mia” emerged. Matt had grinned and looked over the boy’s rust-colored curls at his wife, both of them knowing instantly that the little girl was forever christened.
At the thought of Kitty again, he let himself wonder what she was doing that night, imagined her waiting for him, clothed only in the shadows, opening her arms to draw him close, running her fingers over his aches, kissing his scars and rubbing away the tightness of his muscles. As usual when he pictured her, his body responded, the material of his trousers tightening pleasantly. He might be turning 50, but just the thought of his fiery, beautiful redhead could still make him rock hard.
He was almost there. Tomorrow night he would be home in his soft bed with his beautiful woman, and he’d leave the unforgiving prairie ground to the dogs and coyotes.
It was well past dark when he and Buck finally turned onto the road that passed by the Dillon house. Despite his determination to get home that night, exhaustion argued with him just to stop and bed down under the stars again, but the alluring vision of his bed – with Kitty waiting for him in it – kept him moving. Besides, he had promised her he’d be home tonight, and she had promised him –
He grinned to himself. He definitely didn’t want to miss out on what she had promised him.
It wouldn’t be long now, anyway. He ran a hand over the rough stubble of his jaw and briefly contemplated stopping by Silver Creek and freshening up, but he couldn’t wait. Almost two weeks away had made him eager and impatient. Maybe she’d like to watch him shave later –
Only a few hundred yards separated them, now. It almost seemed as if even the stand of trees that shielded them from the road parted for him in welcome. Yes sir, it would be good to be home –
It was said among many of the outlaws he had bested that Matt Dillon had a sixth sense about him, an intuition that gave him an edge over other men. The lawman himself might not have believed in a sixth sense, but he had experienced enough “feelings” in his career to know not to ignore it. He just hadn’t expected it at that particular time. Despite the heat of the evening, a sudden chill rushed over him, raising the hair at the back of his neck. Tugging at Buck’s reins, he squinted into the darkness toward the house, his heart suddenly thudding against his chest. With a cock of his head, he listened for any sound, any sign of danger. Something was different. Something –
The soft whinny of a horse floated back to him, nothing unusual by itself. He had several horses in the corral. But for some reason –
Another horse answered the first one. Then another. Cautiously, he urged Buck forward, still straining to see into the moonless night. Behind him, an owl hooted, and he started, frowning at himself. After a few minutes, he came around the slight curve that revealed the frame structure. Jerking back on the reins again, he pulled Buck to a halt, his frown deepening at the sight before him. Lamps glowed inside, illuminating people, some sitting, some standing. Outside, several rigs – quite a few, in fact – were hitched around the yard. That explained the horses. As he eased his own horse forward again, he recognized Doc’s buggy, and his heart pounded even harder. Beside it was Hannah’s carriage, and next to that the Roniger’s wagon.
His throat went dry. The only reason for such a gathering was sickness, or – Heaven forbid – death. Fear churned in his stomach, so strong it almost made him sick. Sweat beaded on his upper lip as he dug his spurs into Buck’s sides, breaking the horse into a quick trot to complete the distance to the house. Without even tying up the animal, he threw himself off the mount, so focused on what terrible scene he might encounter he was oblivious to the pain in his knee.
Steeling himself, he strode onto the porch and grasped the doorknob, closing his eyes for a moment to gather up that last bit of strength to stand firm against what awaited him. Then, he turned his hand and took one long step inside, ready for the worst.
The tableau before him froze, almost like one of those Currier and Ives Christmas lithographs Doc had given them last year, each subject in various positions across the room. His quick eyes took in Hannah and Edsel Pry to his right, glasses in their hands. Doc lounged in the oversized rocking chair by the fireplace, surrounded by Mr. Bodkin, Newly, and Mr. Dobie, their expressions animated. Festus seemed to be holding court in the midst of a group of children, who had turned from him and now stared, open-mouthed toward the door. Other citizens of Dodge looked at him, their faces taut, as if he had caught them by surprise. Finally, he saw Kitty standing a few feet away, her blue eyes wide.
It took only a few seconds for the scene to thaw. More like it shattered with the eruption of squeals from somewhere within Festus’ audience, and two whirlwinds suddenly swirled up his legs and into his waiting arms.
“Papa! Papa’s home! Papa’s home!”
The shock of their greeting, and the obvious lack of any grand demise of anyone in the room, broke through his fear. Catching up his clamoring children, hugging them tightly; then, tucking one in the crook of each arm, he looked back up toward his wife, bemused.
“Kitty, what the he– “ Abruptly, he caught himself. He wasn’t alone on the prairie anymore. “What on earth is going on?”
She glanced around at the crowd, all them grinning widely over witnessing the big, strong lawman’s paternal display, and shrugged. Lifting the glass in her right hand, she smiled and said, “Happy Birthday, Cowboy.”
That night he lay again, watching the stars strewn across the velvet black heavens, but this time it was through window panes, and instead of a coarse blanket for cover, he was draped with something much warmer – and softer. Still trying to catch his breath after his powerful release, he lifted a hand and brushed through her red tresses as they spread out over his chest. They hadn’t moved since they had reached the exquisite peak of their pleasure several minutes before. Kitty lay on top of him, their bodies still connected in the most intimate of embraces.
“How’d you like your birthday present?” she murmured, too spent to lift her head.
She had given him a new hat and coat, as well as dress pants, claiming that his new position warranted that he keep his “good” clothes in shape. It was no secret, either, that she liked him in the gray jacket. She liked him a lot. He was happy to oblige her.
“The coat’s very nice, Kitty,” he allowed, letting his hand slip lower down her back. “I’ll be quite the dude in it.”
Her chuckle shook them both slightly. “You’ll never be a ‘dude,’ Matt Dillon,” she declared as she dragged her arms up and crossed them on his chest, lifting her head to look down at him. “But I wasn’t talking about the coat.”
Ah. Raising his other hand and embracing her fully, he grinned. “Oh, that present.” He shrugged easily and offered, “Not bad.”
With feigned indignation, she pushed away, and he was instantly sorry he had teased her as their bodies separated. “Not bad? Maybe you think someone else could do better – “
Tugging her back down, he kissed her thoroughly, moving his mouth on hers until they both had to break away to breathe. “There’s no one better,” he told her, his voice deep with sincerity.
The smirk he loved – and sometimes feared – made her look rather impish. “How would you know?” she challenged.
Oops. “There couldn’t be. You, Kathleen Dillon, are the most incredible woman in the world.”
“Yeah, nice try.”
His lips slid down her neck. “Nice enough?”
She groaned and arched back. “Oh, yeah.”
“Kitty,” he whispered, a sudden need overwhelming him. “You are so beautiful. And Sam and Mia are – “ He wasn’t sure there were words to describe how he felt about his children. “I’m so sorry it took me all those years to see – “
Slender fingers pressed gently against his lips, stopping him. Her eyes shimmered as a tremulous smile lifted her mouth. “Shh. We’ve gone there already, Cowboy. If it weren’t for all those years, we might not have these years. No regrets, right? Didn’t you tell Newly that once?”
He nodded, wondering how she knew what he’d said to Newly.
“Face it, Matt Dillon. I love you. I’ve loved you since that first rainy day in Dodge, and I’ll love you to the last. Count on it.”
God, how he did.
Clutching her to him, he buried his face against her neck, fighting the hot tears that threatened his clinging hold on his emotions. Finally, with a shuddering breath, he allowed himself to loosen his grip, feeling her lips in his hair, her hands on his back. They held each other tenderly, having no need to talk.
Finally, he placed a soft kiss on the swell of her breast and cleared his throat, leaning back against the pillows. “Thanks for the massage, by the way,” he offered, lightening the mood. “I’m not sure I could have done what we just did without you loosening up my muscles.”
An amused grunt answered him. “You could have. You just might not have been able to do it twice.”
Despite his relative lack of ego, he allowed himself a proud growl. “Damn right.”
Kitty laughed fondly and looked down at him, her eyes snapping. “Third time’s the charm,” she challenged boldly.
Already his knee had begun to throb again, and his back issued more than just a twinge. But she had challenged him. “Maybe if you give me another massage,” he proposed, “I’ll be up for it.”
Wickedly, she reached down between them, drawing a gasp from him. “Oh, I don’t think another massage will be necessary,” she said, squeezing firmly, “but never let it be said that Kitty Russell – “
“That Kitty Dillon wasn’t accommodating.”
And she proceeded to be very accommodating, indeed.
But as their passions re-ignited, before he gave up all conscious thought, he couldn’t help looking at her once more, his heart almost bursting with the emotions he never really would completely let loose, and considered how much different this homecoming was compared to that gut-wrenching return three years before when he had strolled into the Long Branch and found out she was gone. A man who had always lived in the present and taken things as they came, he rarely contemplated the “what-ifs.” But sometimes he considered what might have happened if Kitty hadn’t left, or if he hadn’t gone after her, or if he hadn’t found her when he did go after her. Where would he be tonight? Would he be lying on a hard cot in a musty jail? Would he be lying, alone, out on the prairie? Or would he be lying eternally up on Boot Hill?
The sensation of her hot flesh taking him deep inside thrust the philosophical thoughts to the back of his mind. They didn’t matter, anyway. God had been merciful to him once again. Kitty had been merciful. Instead of the jail or the prairie – or Boot Hill – he was lying in a soft, warm bed, making love to a beautiful, vibrant woman, their two happy, healthy children sleeping just a few feet away.
Breaking the vow ingrained from childhood, Matt Dillon had stopped being alone. And his heart, which was once so haunted, was peaceful and calm.
And so very, very full.
“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 laugh, eyes that dance.
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.
Time rolls on trying in vain to cure me.
You are gone but you remain to lure me.
You’re there in the dark and I call,
You’re there but you’re not there at all.
Oh, what will I do without you, without you.
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