A Gunsmoke Story
Chapter One: Luckily Met
It had been a long day. In fact, it had been a long week. The drovers had hit Dodge with their usual rambunctious, tear-em-up, shoot-em-up enthusiasm, then left with their guts full and their pockets empty, much to the delight of one particular redhead. Kitty Russell enjoyed the profits made during these times, but sometimes she wondered if it was really worth it. When the dust settled, she counted seventeen bullets holes in the ceiling and twelve in the floor that would have to be fixed before it rained, which according to Sam would be soon. She also took note of three tables and seven chairs that were now in desperate need of repair.
Feet aching and head swirling, she took a moment to lean back against the bar, her eyes resting on the lone remaining patron, a stranger sitting alone in the corner. She frowned slightly at the unusual sight he made, definitely not a drover. In fact, he didn't look as if he fit in Dodge at all. An hour or so before, she had served him a bottle of wine, amazed that he knew enough to ask for Amontillado and had been rather disappointed when all she could offer him was a simple sherry. The roughnecks of Dodge gave her little reason to keep a large stock of fine wines. Curious, and pleased that he looked and seemed rather civilized compared with the most recent clientele, she walked over to where he was sitting.
"That must be some book," she noted when he didn't look up at her approach.
The man jumped, startled by her appearance, and rose instantly to his feet. "Indeed, it is. Please, won't you sit down?" He gestured toward an empty chair.
"Sure, I could use a minute off my feet." The book in his hand was relatively large, and she could tell by the cover that it wasn't one of those dime novels
The man smiled broadly at her interest. "Poe. Have you ever read Poe?"
She shook her head. "No, I can't say that I have. What does he write? It is a him isn't it?"
"Yes, mostly short stories, but he did write some poetry, as well." Eagerly, he asked, "Would you like to hear some?"
"Well," she hedged, not really in the mood for poetry. "I don't really have much time. As you can see from the looks of this place, I've got a lot of cleaning up to do. Maybe later – "
"It can wait five minutes, can't it? That's all I ask." His tender voice, soft and cultured – so contrary to the crass, bellowing tones that had stampeded out of the
"Well, I don't suppose five minutes will break me."
"Good!" he declared, looking truly delighted. "Now, what shall I read for the lady of the house? Thumbing quickly through the pages, he stopped about halfway through. "Oh, I've got just the thing. It's called `Annabel Lee,' one of his best, I think. I hope you like it."
The stranger's baritone voice echoed gently through the
"It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea."
"That's a bit morbid, don't you think?" Kitty interrupted when he took a long breath.
The man faltered, his eyes suddenly uncertain. "Oh? Well, I don't think so. Would you like to hear something else?"
"I don't think so. I've got a lot of work to finish before I turn in for the night."
"Then let me finish this one. There's not much more."
"Well – "
He took that as acquiescence and continued. Kitty sighed, sitting back to endure the rest, her good nature not allowing her to be flat-out rude.
"The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea."
He finished with a flourish, his eyes gleaming with pleasure, lips curled in a satisfied smile.
Kitty winced. "Are all of his works that depressing?"
Smile fading, he assured her, "No, not at all. Perhaps I could interest you in something else of his."
"Thank you, anyway," she said quickly, pushing her tired body up from the table. "Maybe some other time."
Placing a hand against her aching back she trudged back to the bar, glad this night was over. The squeak of the batwing doors drew her attention. Matt Dillon had apparently finished his rounds and, as was his custom, made the
As usual, his presence sent a thrill through her, and she smiled warmly, unaware of the dark frown that creased the stranger's forehead. "Hello, Matt. Can I get you a beer?"
The big marshal pushed his Stetson back on his head and smiled, leaning against the bar next to her, almost touching her arm, but not quite. "Sounds good."
"Sam," she called, not taking her eyes from his intriguing blue ones, "bring the marshal a beer."
"So, how was your night?" Matt asked, his gaze skimming over the wreckage of the saloon. "It looks like things got a little rough in here after I left a few hours ago."
"Yeah, but nothing Sam and I couldn't handle. You know how they are. They've spent three weeks, or longer, on the trail and just needed a night to blow off some steam. It really wasn't as bad as it looks. We've got a few holes and a couple of pieces of furniture to repair. Which reminds me – Sam, make sure you let Clem know that we've got to fix those holes before it rains again."
"Yes ma'am." Sam set two beers down for them.
Matt took a moderate gulp of the cold liquid and shook his head. "Kitty, if you keep this up you'll be retired before you're forty."
"Yeah, right. And then what would I do?"
"Well, those dime store novels you and
Laughing, she nodded toward the corner. "All I can write are checks to pay these bills. But, speaking of reading, check out that fellow over there."
Matt turned slightly, his eyes taking in the stranger with quick, professional perusal. "What about him?"
"Doesn't he seem a little – out of place to you?"
"Dodge gets all kinds, Kitty."
"He's obviously not a drover."
"Doesn't appear to be. What does he have to do with reading, though?"
"Oh! Well, he just read a poem to me by some fellow named Poe. It was awful pretty, but kind of creepy, too."
"You heard of him?" she asked, surprise lacing her voice.
"I think so."
"Come on over and talk to him. See what you think." Kitty asked Sam for another beer and then led Matt over to where the stranger was sitting.
"Thought you might like a cold beer to replace the wine that I'm sure has gotten warm by now." She set the beer on the table in front of the stranger.
Casting a quick, but almost horrified glance at the glass, the man stood and bowed. "Thank you."
"Marshal Dillon, this is – I'm sorry, I don't think you ever told me your name."
"That's very unusual," Kitty noted.
"An old European family name, Madame."
Matt shifted his weight, hooking his thumbs in his gunbelt. "Are you enjoying your time in Dodge, Mister – Montressor?"
"Most certainly, Marshal. It's quite a town. Are all Thursday nights this invigorating?"
"Not all of them," Matt laughed, then added, "fortunately."
"I see. Well, it was a treat to be able to sit back and observe how the human animal behaves in such an atmosphere. Tell me, Marshal, are you a lover of the written word?"
The broad shoulders shrugged. "In my line of work, I mostly read the newspaper, telegrams, and wanted posters."
The stranger shifted slightly. "You've never heard of Poe, then? Edgar Allan Poe?"
"I know a little about him." Matt turned to Kitty. "Do you still need help with that door in your office? I thought I would fix before I turn in tonight."
"Yes, I almost forgot. Excuse us, Mister Montressor."
"Of course," he said, bowing again. "How much do I owe you for the wine and – beer?"
"It's on the house, a fair exchange for the beautiful reading."
"I thank you, Madame, but the charming company was more compensation than I could have ever hoped for."
When the two turned to leave, Kitty tried to ignore the eye roll Matt gave her as they walked toward the office, neither of them hearing the mumble of the stranger. "My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met."
As the door closed behind them, Kitty blew out a heavy breath. "Thanks for the save, Matt. You should have heard what that guy read to me. It was the most morbid, depressing thing. This girl was kidnapped from her lover, locked up in some kind of cave, and died. It was written by that – that Poe fellow. He must have been some kind of weird."
Bending to inspect the lower hinge of the door, Matt answered, "I remember reading something about him. He died before the war, and young, too. A mysterious-type death, as I recall. When I was younger, I read some of his work."
Her brow arched at his surprising acquaintance with Poe. "You did? Well, for a civil servant you sure know a lot about writers. I'll take my dime store romance novels over that kind of depressing reading any day of the week."
He glanced back and chuckled. "Kitty, did anyone ever tell you that you're a hopeless romantic?"
"Only those with whom I am hopelessly romantic." She let her fingers run up the long muscles of his back as he worked on the hinge.
Bowing a bit into her caress, he said, "Is that so? Well, I hope they know what they've gotten themselves into to."
She squeezed as tightly as she could, digging her thumbs and fingers deep into his left shoulder, nodding in satisfaction when he jerked up and rubbed the area.
"Kitty, that hurts."
"Now that you know how a hopeless romantic treats the object of her affection, you might not want to be that object."
He stood and turned to face her, his long, strong arms sliding around her waist and pulling her against him. "Miss Russell," he said, as he lowered his mouth to hers, "from what I've heard, a hopeless romantic can be awfully persuasive."
"She most definitely can be," she agreed, just before they were both deeply persuaded.
stranger reappeared at the
“You’ve been so kind to me these past several evenings, Miss Kitty. I would appreciate the opportunity to repay your hospitality.”
isn’t necessary. Just part of the warm welcome to Dodge and
Rising, he placed his hand on her forearm and squeezed a little. “Oh, I think it’s more than that. Perhaps you’ll accompany me to dinner and I can show you how much I appreciate your kindness. I’ve heard that this DelMonico’s offers a tempting fare.”
“Tempting fate, maybe.”
The joke was lost on him. “I’m afraid I must insist,” he said, his voice no louder, but his tone edgy.
looked at him, truly uneasy for the first time. “I really can’t. We’re very
busy and I have a lot to do tonight. There’s another trail herd due in town any
day. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
She tried to turn, but he didn’t relinquish the hold on her arm. “Miss Russell, I could – I could open up a world to you – a literary world of adventure and intrigue – and passion.”
sure you are wonderful company, but I really can’t get away tonight.”
His tone softened a bit, assuming a pacifying lilt. “Of course. How about breakfast, then?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, no longer trying to be courteous. This guy was really becoming a nuisance. “Now, I really must get back to the bar.” Any lingering interest she might have had with his unusual ways was obliterated as she jerked her arm from his grasp.
He stared at her as she walked away, his eyes suddenly hard, but he didn’t try to follow.
Stopping at the bar, she leaned close to Sam and told him she was going to her office and to let her know if either the man left or Matt came in. Sam nodded.
“My beautiful Annabel Lee,” the stranger quoted as she disappeared behind the door.
Half an hour later, she was finishing her work on the ledger when a knock on the door startled her.
“Come in,” she invited, wary that it might be her creepy poet, but smiling in relief as soon as she saw the familiar, tall figure whose wide shoulders practically blocked the light from the other room.
Matt Dillon returned her smile. “Sam said you wanted to see me.”
“I did, Matt. That Montressor fellow was in again tonight. Maybe you saw him. That’s every night this week. He’s starting to give me the willies. He wanted to take me to dinner, and when I declined, he didn’t take the rejection well at all.”
“I think I’ll see what I can find out about this guy. Did he say where he was from?”
don’t think so, but his accent sounds more east coast,
“All right. I’ll send out a few telegrams and see what turns up.” He paused and looked down at her, those sharp eyes softening. “Okay if I come back later for a nightcap?”
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t, Cowboy.”
He nodded once, the heat of promise on his face.
pushed through the doors of the
His muscles had not even completely relaxed when Barney barreled through the batwing doors waving an envelope.
“Well, for Heaven’s sake, Barney,” Doc scolded, “where’s the fire?”
“Marshal Dillon, got a reply to one of them wires you sent. Think you’d better look at this.”
Matt let the front legs of his chair return to the ground and took the paper Barney was waving about. “Where’s it from?”
“What does it say, Matt?” Doc asked.
The Marshal’s eyes scanned the contents quickly. “It’s about that Montressor fellow.” His jaw hardened. “Real name’s Barton. Colin Barton. The Pinkertons are after him.”
“Pinkertons!” Kitty exclaimed. “What for?”
Matt swallowed, his eyes rising slowly to meet her gaze. “Seems he’s supposed to be committed to an asylum back East.”
“An asylum? You mean an insane asylum?” Kitty’s voice shook suddenly.
Matt nodded. “He – uh – he supposedly found his wife and his best friend – well – he killed them both and buried them under his bedroom floor. They were discovered when the neighbors complained of the smell.”
“Oh my God!”
Doc spoke up. “Well Matt, you gotta find him.”
“He was here all afternoon and evening, nursing another bottle of sherry,” Kitty remembered, shaken. “But he left over an hour ago.”
The Marshal stood, towering over everyone. “Did he mention where he was staying?” When there was no response from the table, he continued, “I think I’ll take a trip over to Ma Smalley’s and then by the Dodge House.”
On his way out, Matt stopped at the bar and spoke briefly to Sam, who simply nodded as he continued drying shot glasses for the next day. This did not go unnoticed by Kitty.
As the Marshal exited through the batwing doors, Doc finished off his whiskey, made a date with Kitty for breakfast, and wished Sam goodnight. Finally, only Sam and his boss were left to lock up.
don’t we call it a night? We can finish this in the morning,” she offered,
glancing involuntarily toward the front doors as she made her way over to the
bar with the empty whiskey glasses.
“Just let those air dry Sam. Nobody’s
gonna notice a spot or two.”
Miss Kitty,” Sam agreed, reluctantly setting the towel on the bar. “I’ve got a case of empties to take down, but
I’ll wait until you’re upstairs to leave. I don’t like the sound of that stranger
being wanted like that. I’ll finish up down here.”
“Thanks, Sam.” Having already taken the cash box to the vault and locking the doors in the back, Kitty began to make her way over to the stairs.
“Would you like me to check the upstairs doors Miss Kitty?”
“I’ll do it Sam, but thank you anyway,” she assured him as she ascended the staircase, although her heart felt anything but sure.
entered her bedroom, she looked around cautiously, feeling a bit silly, but
wary nonetheless. Finding herself alone,
she closed and locked the door. Despite
her burning eyes, throbbing feet, and heavy limbs, she trudged over to her
dressing screen and noticed the three dresses she had laid out on the bed
earlier that needed to be hung out on the balcony to air. Although she ran the most popular saloon in
Dodge, or maybe even
Matt had built the small balcony last spring and had added what amounted to a fancy hat rack to hang her dresses on that would spin with the breeze. He knew she liked to hang them outside, but he also knew summertime didn’t often afford her such a luxury. Dust from the numerous trail herds, combined with the heat and humidity of the open prairie, made the balcony all the more practical. It was off the main street and hidden from view. The tall buildings on both sides of the alley created a nice shadow for most of the day. Only when the sun was directly overhead did the balcony get any sunshine at all. This helped prevent her dresses from fading. The wind meandered through the alley and created a nice breeze back there, even on the hottest days of summer.
kept it a well-guarded secret. Being the owner of the
Her eyes glanced toward the clock on the wall as she sat at her dressing table. She hoped Matt wouldn’t be too long. She yearned to feel the security of his solid embrace, the tender touch of his lips and fingers. But as she combed through her hair, the unnerving news about Montressor – or Barton – weighed on her mind, so much so that she almost didn’t get to her one hundred-stroke requisite. Pulling on her nightgown, she gathered the three dresses from the bed, and with the addition to the one she had just taken off, stepped out onto the balcony. Perhaps the cool night breeze would expedite the airing process tonight. Rain was coming and she didn’t know when she would get another chance to hang them out here. Reentering her room, she locked the door behind her and then waited anxiously on the bed for Matt to arrive. She needed the company, but she also looked forward to him paying her back for his earlier shoulder massage.
moon was briefly obliterated by the black and purple clouds that passed over
the bright orange orb. He shuddered as he pulled his coat tighter around
his neck. Never a man who took to superstition, he was embarrassed to
admit to himself he was more than a little spooked this late October
night. Of course, the disturbing
telegram about this Montressor fellow was enough to
spook anyone. Matt had made sure to tell
Sam to lock up good and tight before he left.
Unfortunately, checks at Ma Smalley’s and the Dodge House had proven
futile. No Colin Barton, nor any Montressor, was registered anywhere in town. Frustrated, he
made the last of his rounds as quickly as possible and was heading for his
usual ‘unofficial’ last stop, the back stairs of the
“Marshal, if you ever want to see the lovely Annabel again, you’ll do as instructed.”
Blood chilling at the smooth voice, he peered into the darkness of the alley, taking a few cautious steps toward the voice.
“Stay where you are,” it warned him. “Remove your firearm from its holster and discard it toward the back of the alley. Then, take off the gun belt and do the same with it.”
Matt obeyed, the threat of harm to Kitty dictating his moves. “Annabel? You mean – Kitty?”
“I much prefer Annabel. Now, lie face down with you head toward the street and place your hands behind your back.”
With effort, Matt knelt on his good knee, and then stretched out his long frame in the dust of the street, his mind racing, trying to figure out Barton’s plan. When he was on his belly in the shadows of the alley, hands swiftly began to bind his wrists together. He contemplated overpowering the man right then and there. Barton would be no match for him. But, uncertainty about Kitty’s safety was enough to make him surrender to his assailant. The rumble of thunder echoed in the distance. The storm brewing on the horizon paralleled the storm brewing in Matt Dillon. If they harmed one hair on her head –
“What do you want, Barton?” he asked, voice sure and calm, in spite of his predicament.
The smoothness sharpened. “It’s Montressor,” he insisted, surprised at the use of his real name.
“What do you want?” Matt repeated, not giving him the satisfaction of addressing him as ordered.
“You’ll discover that soon enough, Fortunato.”
Suddenly, Matt’s eyes narrowed in horrific understanding, his heart pounding.
“Ah!” Barton breathed, “So you have read Poe? Impressive I must say. I wouldn’t think a man in your line of work would find the works of Mr. Poe appeasing or gratifying.”
“You won’t get away with this, Barton.”
“It’s Montressor!” the man snapped, but that’s all Matt heard, because at that moment pain exploded in his head, and blackness engulfed him.
Kitty Russell woke to the sounds of a rain crow and the wind whistling through her window. Between the dog days of summer and the heat of the open prairie, the past few weeks had been almost unbearable and she had welcomed the past few days of cooler temperatures. She had left her window open last night to enjoy the crisp air and refreshing smell that always accompanied autumn. As she lay there, she could hear a rumble in the distance. A storm was blowing in and the streets of Dodge would probably be muddy messes by nightfall. Sam had mentioned last night that he could smell the coming rain, and when she stepped onto the boardwalk for some fresh air, she had smelled it too. Now, the rain crow that woke her this morning was also warning of wet days ahead. When she had first heard Sam talk about being able to actually smell the coming rain, she was sure he’d had one too many that day, and she certainly didn’t think a bird could forecast the weather. Over time, however, she had learned to trust both Sam’s nose and the rain crows. They were almost always right, and over the years she had learned to notice the changing smells in the air as well. Sam was a great teacher when it came to things of that nature.
Suddenly, disappointment settled over her as she realized that Matt had not come by last night, or if he had, she didn’t remember it. Perhaps he had come by and didn’t want to disturb her; he was funny that way. Lord knows he had been roused countless times in the middle of the night by someone who needed him. He had told her on more than one occasion that he would never wake her, especially if it had been a long day, and even when she insisted she wouldn’t mind.
As she lay there listening to the sounds of morning and the approaching storm, she remembered the dresses on the balcony. Groaning, she reluctantly left the warm confines of her bed to retrieve them. The cool planks of the balcony made her shiver when her warm feet met them for the first time. Before she could lift the garments from the balustrade, though, a hand clamped around her face and over her mouth. The hard end of a gun pushed insistently into her back, and a voice laced with sherry whispered in ear, “If you ever want to see that marshal friend of yours again, my dear, you’ll cooperate. Do you understand?”
Heart pounding, she forced herself to nod slowly. She had let her guard down and now it had cost her. Barton manhandled her down the stairs, never taking his hand away from her mouth nor the gun from her back. When they reached the bottom, he half-threw her up into a waiting wagon and warned her that any sound she made would be her last. As he snapped the reins, the horses headed out of the deserted alley and made their way quietly through the empty streets. Fighting back tears, she was determined he would not see her weak. Kitty looked back over her shoulder as the buckboard pulled away – and wondered where Matt was.
The day had faded to dusk and the rain was just beginning to fall by the time Kitty was hauled roughly from the wagon, her captor unconcerned when her nightgown caught on a nail and ripped. Before them stood a modest house, decay slanting it grotesquely so that it looked almost as if it had suffered a stroke. He tugged her up the few, jagged steps to the porch.
“What do you want from me?” she asked.
Instead of answering her, he pushed open the door, not even flinching at the mournful moan of neglected hinges. Cobwebs clung to the scarred wood like skeletal fingers. The heavy feeling of doom weighed down the thick air. In contrast, almost jauntily, he ushered her in, bowing like a gallant gentleman welcoming his lady. "I apologize for the disarray, Annabel."
“Annabel? What the – “
“But I trust you will find the accommodations further inside to be satisfactory.”
He could not have been talking about the room they were in, because it appeared as if the house had been vacant for some time. He kicked the rug that lay in front of the fireplace and a huge cloud of dust billowed up, dragging air from their lungs in harsh coughs. Kitty was surprised to see what looked like a trap door.
“I hope you like the dark. It’s so peaceful.” He smiled when he bent down to retrieve the handle. The door creaked as he pulled upwards, releasing a damp, musty odor; then he made an ushering sweep with his gun hand.
“I’m not going down there!” The sound of Kitty’s voice was not as forceful as she had hoped, but it was enough to rile her kidnapper enough that he dropped the door. It slammed shut with a loud thud and caused another cloud of dust to rise. The noise reverberated through the house and the walls wailed with the sudden movement.
“But you have to, don’t you see? How else can we be together, my dear Annabel?”
“Look, Mister,” Kitty spat, “I am not Annabel, and we will never be together.”
He grabbed Kitty’s left arm, jerked her up out of the chair, and pushed her over to the cellar door, which he lifted again. The damp odor from below only intensified.
“I wouldn’t want to have to push you. It’s a long way down and the fall might disfigure that lovely face.”
was mad, she realized, common sense urging her not to tempt him. As she
descended, the air thickened with mold and dampness, making it more difficult
to breathe. She counted twenty-three steps and decided she was about twenty
feet beneath the house, just about the same distance as the cellar in the
“I do hope you are comfortable here.” As he turned to leave, Kitty saw the pile of bricks and bucket of mortar in the corner of the room. Her stomach flip-flopped with the implication.
“You can’t leave me down here,” she pleaded. “I don’t have anything to eat or drink.”
“You won’t need anything,” he assured her. “Before long, you won’t need anything, at all.”
The door thudded shut, the lock engaging with an echoing clang. Falling against the door, she pounded on it furiously. “Let me out of here! Please!”
When there was no reply, she turned and faced her surroundings. Forcing calm, she stumbled over to the cot and collapsed, drawing up her knees, wrapping her arms around them, and leaning her smooth cheek on the cool wall. As the tears cascaded down her face, she could only pray that Matt would find her. Sleep was the last thing on her mind. As she contemplated her predicament, her thoughts centered on staying focused and not letting the fear that lay just beneath her usual brave façade surface in the presence of the madman who held her.
Dodge would know she was missing by now, both of them for that matter. She
wondered how the night was progressing at the
A loud boom
above her jerked her out of the nostalgic reverie and back to reality. The
smile disappeared when the realization of her situation hit her. She wasn’t at
Thunder rolled across the skies above her echoing the storm brewing inside her soul. Images flashed before her eyes much the way she imagined bolts of lightening were streaking across the sky tonight, illuminating the world below them. She closed her eyes to watch as the scenes play in her mind. If it ended tonight, in this room, it had been a good life. The last vision she had before sleep staked claim to her body was a pair of sky-blue eyes that regarded her with more love than she had even known in her life. As she drifted off, resolve fortified her. It would not end tonight. She would see those blue eyes again.
It was still dark when Matt’s thoughts coalesced once more into consciousness. A good thing, too, he figured. As much as his head pounded, much more light would have been unbearable. He blinked a couple of times, letting his eyes adjust enough to distinguish the dim surroundings, and found himself on his side, arms and ankles still bound. With a few grunts, he managed to push himself up to a sitting position on the dirt floor, his eyes snapping shut again at the renewed pain behind them. Just by the coolness of the air, he discerned that he was underground; a cellar, perhaps, or an icehouse.
“I would remain still if I were you.”
Squinting carefully, he let his eyes adjust to the dim light, making out a cot and a lamp. It didn’t appear as if the cot was anywhere near long enough for his expansive frame; he hoped he wouldn’t be here long enough to find out how well it slept.
“Where am I?” he rasped, immediately wishing he hadn’t. The screaming pain behind his eyes made its presence known once again.
“Now, now, Fortunato. Let us not rush things. I will supply you with information you need and you, in turn, will supply me with information I require.”
“What do you want, Barton?”
Fury distorted the face. “I told you, it’s Montressor.” Clenching his fists, visibly fighting for control, he continued, “First, perhaps I should inquire as to just how close you and my dear Annabel Lee are.”
Matt’s voice flattened. “None of your business.”
“Oh, but it is. It most certainly is. You see, my actions depend upon that information.”
The Marshal studied him closely, his eyes calculating. “We’re just friends,” he shared.
Barton clicked his tongue in disappointment. “That’s a lie. I’ve seen how you look at her. No, I’d say you’re much more than friends. I had hoped you would be honest with me, Fortunato. See, now I will have to keep her with me. I can’t abandon her to a prevaricator, now, can I?”
Matt didn’t answer right away. He simply stared at Barton with a coldness usually reserved for the hard-nosed criminals he encountered. “What have you done with her?” the Marshal ground out finally, his vision almost red with fury over what might have happened to Kitty, or what might happen to her in the near future. His blood began to boil, but he knew better than to tempt this madman.
Barton turned to leave but looked over his shoulder at his prisoner. “At least you don’t pretend to know Amontillado from Sherry.”
But before he received a response, the door slammed shut on his dungeon cell, leaving him on the ground, bound hand and ankle. Forcing calmness he didn’t feel, he began to replay the recent events in his head. He had to get to Kitty before this crazy man did something terrible. But at the moment, he was at a loss as to how he could do that. He didn’t even know where she was. The real storm had just begun; he could hear the rumble of thunder and the angry whipping of the wind above. And, more importantly, he could feel them shaking the very foundation of the house, knowing full well and with distinct certainty that if anything happened to Kitty, it would shake the very foundation of his soul.
Kitty awoke with a start to the sound of the cell door opening. Barton entered with a cloth-draped tray and her pussy-willow dress. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep, but the crick in her neck told her it was longer than a few minutes. The lamp was still burning. However she noticed that there couldn’t be more than a few hours worth of oil left in it.
“I’ve brought you some breakfast. I do hope you like it. And here’s something else for you to wear, and a lovely shroud it is.” The man set the tray on the table, laid the dress on the bed, and turned to leave.
Kitty shuddered. “What do you want from me?”
“Nothing from you, my dear. I just want you. And now I have you.”
“Look, if it’s money you want, I can give you ten thousand dollars in cash as soon as the bank opens tomorrow. Just don’t hurt him.”
“Him? You’re not worried about yourself?”
She glared at him.
After a moment, he sighed. “Well, you are more honest and cooperative than I have given you credit for, but you have misinterpreted my motives. May I ask you something?”
“Ask me something?” she repeated, incredulous. Here she was, his captive, and he was requesting?
He took her answer as permission. “Just how well do you and Fortunato know each other?”
A shadow of irritation crossed his face. “The Marshal,” he supplied sharply.
She answered automatically, their usual response to that question. “Matt and I are very good friends.”
Barton inhaled deeply. “Oh, Annabel, how will we ever be eternal lovers if you aren’t honest with me?”
“Lovers!” Kitty exclaimed. “You can go to hell, Mister, if you think that’s ever gonna happen!”
But he was not perturbed by her denial. “We will be --- together --- forever, my dear.”
“Go to hell!”
A frown drew down his brow. “I will ask you again, how well do you and Fortunato know each other?”
“Like I said, we’re just good friends.”
“Do you give all of your friends free drinks?” he challenged.
“Sometimes I do,” she retorted. “My friends and I barter a lot with each other. I give Louie shots for straightening up the storeroom. I give Festus beer for keeping my mare brushed and shod. I gave Matt a beer in exchange for fixing the door in my office. Remember?”
“And what does he fix in your room after closing time? How do you pay him for that?”
Kitty clenched her fist to keep from striking him for that comment. At the same time, his knowledge frightened her. He knew more than some of the people who had actually lived in Dodge for years. Somehow, she had to distract him, turn him from his goal – at least long enough for her to try to figure out what was really going on.
Pasting a smile on her lips and changing the subject, she asked, “Could you tell me what time it is?”
Barton cocked his head. “It’s a little after sunrise.”
“Do you know how long I’ll be down here?” she asked, putting on her best poker face and a bit of timidity into her voice. “The oil in the lamp here is getting kind of low and I’m a little scared of the dark.”
“Darkness is not to be feared, but rather embraced. It hides things that shouldn’t be in the open. It can hide things that are offensive.” With a nod toward the forgotten tray, he said, “Now, eat your breakfast before it’s too cold. I made everything especially for you, as you like it.”
The kind words did nothing to re-assure her.
As he paused at the door, he added, “I hope Fortunato is more cooperative the next time we meet.”
This last comment caught Kitty off-guard, and her blood pounded through her veins. “Matt?”
Matt was here, but what had Barton done to him? Suddenly not very hungry, she nevertheless removed the cloth and took note of the eggs, bacon, and toast on the tray, another shudder running through her. This madman obviously knew what she liked, a terrifying thought. How long had he been watching her? A gleam of silver caught her eye and she stared at her fork, an idea forming quickly. She had once seen what a fork could do, and it wasn’t very pretty. Sneaking it under the mattress of the cot, she fell back against the wall. Tugging the dress into her lap, she began to dabble with the sequins on it as her thoughts returned to Matt. He would find her. She knew he would.
But, from what Barton had said, she was afraid that Matt wasn’t in any position, or – Heaven forbid – condition to be searching.
Matt Dillon still sat on the floor, working in vain to ignore the throbbing in his head, when the door opened again. Barton entered, carrying a tray and set it on the floor next to him. He held a gun in his other hand, pointing it directly at the Marshal’s heart.
“I’m going to remove your hand shackles so you can eat, but if you try anything foolish, I will be forced to fire. Nothing too serious, of course, but it won’t be too comfortable. And, you won’t be much help for Annabel.”
“Don’t call her that,” Matt demanded.
Barton bent down and untied the marshal’s hands, putting the rope in his pocket. “Now, I hope you enjoy your breakfast. I believe it will be to your liking.”
“What have done with Kitty?” he ground out.
“Annabel is just fine,” he said, and his face softened suddenly, his voice mellowed as he quoted:
neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.”
Eyes narrowing, Matt asked, “What is that supposed to mean?”
But Barton merely smiled strangely and shook his head. His exit was just as silent. Sitting on the floor, Matt closed his eyes as thoughts of Kitty raced through his mind. Dear God, if this maniac had her, please make her be nearby, make her close enough so that he could save her. And he would, he vowed. He had to.
Chapter Four: For the Love of God, Montressor
The sound of movement on the other side of the door caught her attention once more. It had been hours since she’d had any contact with her captor. Snatching the fork from the mattress, she slid it up the right sleeve of the dress with the tines just above her wrist. The door opened and Barton appeared, carrying a meal tray. He leered when he saw her, which only repulsed her more.
“Enjoy your supper, my dear. It will be your last for this world,” he said, placing the tray on the cot. “Then, you will have no need of earthly sustenance.”
When he turned to leave she let the fork slip into her hand, took a moment to grasp it firmly, and lunged at him, thrusting the utensil hard into the vulnerable flesh of his neck. He howled in pain, clutching at the bloody wound. Kitty threw herself toward the door to get past him, but he grabbed her and slammed her backwards into the wall. Stars burst before her eyes as her head hit the unforgiving surface, nausea rushing to her throat. Her knees buckled and she crumbled to the ground.
Grabbing at his neck, the man cursed the blood that was now running down his back. “Annabel, how could you? You will pay for this! You and Fortunato! I was going to be merciful with you. Not like with her and, and – him. No, I fixed those two. Mister Poe and I did. And I was going to make it easy for you, but not now. Not now!” he screamed as he slammed the door shut.
vaguely heard the door lock as she lay, half-conscious against the wall. She had blown her chance. After a few
moments, she managed to struggle to her knees and climb onto the cot. The smell
of the food nauseated her, so she put the tray onto the floor and lay down
facing the wall, focusing on staying awake, determined not to die in terror,
desperately remembering the good times and all of people who had touched her
She awoke some time later to find herself tied to the cot and gagged. A noise to her right drew her attention toward the door. Her eyes widened in fright. Barton stood there by the bricks and mortar, a trowel in his hand, two layers of a wall already complete between them. Dear God, he really was going to do it. He was going to leave her here. He was going to entomb her here forever. She tried to scream, but it came out as a muffled groan, and she could only watch as he spread the mortar and then laid the bricks, row by row, humming as he went.
“’It was now midnight’,” Barton recited, becoming Montressor, himself, ”’and my task was drawing to a close’.” He paused for a moment, telling her, “This was to be Fortunato’s fate, you see. It fits so much better in the story for it to be him. I am irritated that you ruined that for me.”
“Story?” she tried to croak out around the gag.
He acted as if she had not spoken. “But I suppose I can use poison, or perhaps a pendulum. Pity there’s not a gorilla handy.”
What the hell was he talking about? “Please,” she mumbled, searching her groggy brain for an answer.
It occurred to her that his words meant Matt wasn’t dead, yet, but she didn’t know what she could do about that. She couldn’t think, couldn’t grab onto clarity. Perhaps that was best.
She turned her eyes toward the ceiling. She didn’t want to watch. She couldn’t. As she lay there, the wall grew higher; the flame in the lamp caught her attention as it struggled to breathe. When the flame went out, it would only be a matter of time before her air supply would be gone as well. Kitty knew she needed to concentrate on breathing very slowly with shallow breaths. The less oxygen she used, the longer she would stay alive. She contemplated struggling against her confines, but that would use more energy than she could afford.
“’I had completed the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth tier’,” he said, his voice reverent. “’I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in’.”
The wall was almost to the low ceiling, now. Barton peered over its narrow opening and spoke softly.
angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee’.”
This isn’t happening, she thought wildly. Surely, this isn’t happening.
“Can you say it?” he asked, his voice barely audible, now. “Can you say it for me? ‘For the love of God, Montressor.’ Can you say it?”
But she couldn’t. And she wouldn’t have, even if she could. She could have dignity at the end, at least.
As the last brick scraped into place, she heard his final comment. "In pace requiescat."
Then, her tomb was complete.
Alone, with the silence pounding in her ears, Kitty’s dissipating consciousness clung to one thought: Matt. She knew if it was at all possible, he was out there, searching for her, but was there enough time?
The flame, once bright and glowing, was now a dying ember.
He was her flame, and she was his oil. Together, they shone like a beacon in a storm.
The air grew thicker, harder to breathe.
He wouldn’t stop until her found her, dead or alive.
The bandana in her mouth was soaked with her saliva.
He would take her home, home to Dodge.
Her shoulders were cramping from their awkward angle.
He would make sure she got a proper burial.
It was so hard to breathe.
He would make sure Louie had money for food, a warm place to sleep, and whiskey when he needed it.
Her lungs were beginning to burn.
He would make sure Festus and Doc didn’t argue too much.
The heaviness in her chest was becoming unbearable.
would make sure Sam became owner of the
Her life, like the flame, was only a flicker now.
He would go on with his life. He would find new oil.
Without warning, darkness consumed the room; the flame was gone.
But, without oil, a flame can't burn.
Alone in the damp cellar, Matt listened for any sound of Barton’s return. It seemed as if the madman had been gone for hours. He rubbed his wrists, raw from where the shackles had cut into his flesh. He listened for any sound of his captor’s return. After an interminable time, he finally heard the lock disengage. Sitting on the cot with his feet together, the straps wound around his ankles, Matt prayed that the man wouldn’t notice their looseness. He had waited for an opening and couldn’t believe Barton had been so careless, as to leave him access to his ankle restraints.
Barton entered with another tray, the pistol drawn once again. Matt seethed at having to look down the barrel of his own gun. Carefully, Barton set the tray on the floor a few feet in front of Matt, whose mind flashed back to his encounter with Etta Stone. Kitty had saved his life. She had taken a huge chance leaving the tack room when she did, but she had done it and Matt was alive because of it. It was time for him to take a chance for her.
“Well, Fortunato,” Barton announced smugly, “Annabel is secure in her sepulcher.”
Matt’s stomach lurched. Dear God! No, she couldn’t be. Surely he would know if she were . . . if she were . . . gone.
“And now we must take care of you. I think poison, perhaps, although the pendulum is so much more dramatic, don’t you think?”
“What have done with her?” Matt growled.
Barton ignored the question and continued with his verbal montage. “’There stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.’”
He was in some sort of trance, talking not so much to Matt as to himself, and as much as Matt wanted to beat him to a bloody pulp, he had to find out about Kitty, to find out where she was. Hell, he didn’t even know exactly where he was. Time was wasting. Time may have already run out.
Kitty was buried somewhere. Barton had told him as much with his crazed quotes.
As the deranged man stood there, staring not so much at Matt as the tray of food, he once again began to spout, “’As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.’ And that’s just what I have done. I have disentangled Annabel. She’s free now. Don’t you see? She’s finally free.”
But Matt did not reply in words. Instead, he leapt from the cot, tackling Barton, both of them crashing to the ground. He straddled the madman and smashed a fist into his jaw, then grabbed the strap that had fallen from his ankles and wrapped it around the man’s neck, pulling him to his feet. As he stared down into the blank eyes of his captor, he saw no semblance of a rational body, but rather only the face of a demented soul.
”Where is she you son of a bitch?” he growled, eyes full of fury.
“Oh, Fortunato, you – disappoint me.” Barton murmured as he stared blankly ahead.
“Where the hell is she?” Matt yelled, his hands tightening the strap until the veins in Barton’s temples bulged.
But again, he calmly and methodically began to recite. “’There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell -- Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful -- they must sleep, or they will devour us -- they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.’ You can’t – help her – now,” he gasped. “She’s – free.”
“You bastard!” the Marshal snapped, his powerful backhand smashing the madman against the wall.
Barely conscious, Barton vowed, “You’ll never – find her – in time.” With that said, he sank to the floor.
Without another glance toward the crumpled body, Matt threw himself from the room and up the staircase, taking the steps two at a time. He pushed open the door and surfaced in what looked like a bedroom, yelling at the top of his lungs.
“Kitty? Kitty? Can you hear me? Where are you?”
The wind outside, in tandem with the cracks in the walls, whistled through the house.
There was no reply, but Matt knew she was here somewhere. He knew it. She had to be here. Lunging into the connecting rooms, he swore when he came up empty-handed each time. Again, desperately, he yelled her name, and again there was no response. She was buried. Barton had said so.
He lunged through the front door. The wind whipped unmercifully. Matt looked around for some sign of a freshly dug grave, but all he could see was open prairie.
He circled the house looking for anything that might be used as a grave or tomb. Nothing. But she was here, he kept telling himself. Somewhere. He knew it. And she was alive. She had to be.
Convinced that she was not outside, Matt ran back up the porch steps into the house. He stood stock-still in the middle of the center room. He had been a lawman long enough to trust his instincts. Think. Barton had mentioned the sepulcher.
She was here. She was nearby; he could feel it in his heart.
It was at that moment his eyes noticed the disturbance in the dust on the floor in front of the fireplace. Kicking away the rug that lay there, he found what looked like another cellar door. Sliding his fingers into the small pull, he jerked up on it, and was greeted by pitch black. A quick glance back revealed a lantern on the mantle, which he grabbed, then descended into the dark.
Carefully, so he wouldn’t miss a step and fall headlong into the silent ebony, he edged his way down, relieved when he finally reached the bottom.
Still, no reply. As he cast the light down the passageway, his heart almost stopped when he saw a large wall, the mortar still fresh. Her tomb? Oh, God, he silently pleaded. Please let her be there. And please let her be alive still. Please.
The mortar was still wet. It would take it hours, maybe even days for it to dry in such dampness. Because of that, there was no way of knowing how long the wall had been there, but he prayed it hadn’t been too long, prayed that Kitty was on the other side, waiting for him, prayed that it was not just another literary plot by Barton. Still, the feeling that he was in the right place held his heart and body steady.
He thrust his foot against the lower rows of bricks. They budged a little. Setting the lantern on the floor, he placed his hands on either side of the wall for more leverage and kicked the wall again. Several bricks gave way. Encouraged, he pounded at the wall with his feet. When he had enough of them loosened up, he used his massive hands to tear them away, blood smearing the bricks as the rough surface ripped his skin. Scooping up the lantern, he thrust it into the hole he had created, his heart leaping to his throat as the dim light revealed Kitty lying on a cot, each of her limbs tied to a corner. Violently, he kicked the bricks near the base of the wall out of his way and stumbled into the room, coughing as his lungs tried to take in the thin air.
Her face was pale, even for her, and her lips had turned a light shade of purple. His head swam and his throat began to constrict, the lack of oxygen threatening to overcome him before he could get her out of there. Fighting for breath himself now, Matt kneeled next to her, removing the gag from her mouth and working feverishly to untie the cotton strips.
“Kitty? Can you hear me?”
Sweet air from the outer passageway pushed into the stuffy room. Gathering her up into his arms, he climbed the stairs and staggered to the nearest bed. Laying her down as gently as he could, he began to loosen the orange scarf-like material attached at the top of the dress that was his favorite. And, although he was trying to be careful, blood from his hands smudged her ghost-like countenance. It was then that he heard it.
“Kitty? No! Please God, no!”
The rattle coming from deep within her body terrified him. He knew that sound too well. He had heard it countless times over the years in his line of work, mostly from those who were now lying on Boot Hill.
Doc referred to it as the death rattle.
He would not let her die this way.
He turned her head to one side and was horrified to see saliva oozing out the side of her mouth. Somewhere, a vague memory surfaced of Doc telling him that people in this condition often lost the ability to swallow, thus causing the excess saliva to accumulate in the back of the mouth and then down into the lungs. The rattle was made when they tried to breathe. Air seeped in and out through the mucous-like liquid. They literally drowned.
Forcing back the worry churning in his gut, he sat on the bed and gently pulled her up into his arms so that she wasn’t lying flat on her back, but cradled against his chest. He cupped her face with his left hand and ran the thumb over her damp cheek. Damn, more blood on her.
“Kitty? Come on, Honey, breathe for me.”
She hated it when he called her that.
Kitty could hear the voice, but she couldn’t respond. Her chest felt as if one of Quint Asper’s anvils pressed down on it. She tried to obey, but the harder she tried, the more it burned.
Again, the voice pleaded. “Come on Kitty. You gotta breathe.”
The rattle continued, in and out, shallow and short.
“Damn it, Kitty. Breathe!”
Why was this voice yelling at her, asking her to do something that hurt so much? Why didn’t it understand? Didn’t it know how much this – Matt?
“Come on Kitty. Don’t you dare die on me!”
Oh God, this hurts. Gotta breathe. It burns so much. Gotta breathe for Matt.
“That a girl,” the voice encouraged more gently, now. “Slow and easy. I know it hurts.”
The rattle began to lessen. She tried to cough, but that was a mistake. She couldn’t swallow, so what came up drooled out. Matt carefully wiped it away with his hand.
“Matt?” she rasped, braving a peek, her eyes opening wide at seeing fear on that fearless face. “Matt?”
“Right here, Honey. I’m right here.”
“It hurts so much, Matt. My throat’s – burning. Can’t – swallow.” The rattle was dissipating.
“I know, but just a little longer. Fight through it.”
“God, this – hurts like - hell!” She coughed again with this statement, which was a good sign, but painful indeed. Again, she tried to swallow, and, although it felt as if she were swallowing razor blades, she succeeded.
With his help, she managed to sit up, grateful to feel the pressure ease and the oxygen to flow more smoothly.
He eased her back against the headboard and stood.
“Matt!” she cried.
“Shh. I’m right here. I’m just going to get you some water.”
He hurried over to the dilapidated kitchen, noting the remnants of the meal Barton had prepared for them; he hoped he had fed her, too. He had no idea how long she’d been without water, but he knew he needed to get some into her. It would hard to swallow, but hopefully it would help wash the remaining fluid trapped in her throat on down. Barton didn’t disappoint him. There was a canteen on the table. He brought it over to her and sat back down, putting his arm around her shoulder and placing the canteen in front of her.
“Here, drink some of this. Maybe it will help with the burning.”
She clutched the canteen with both hands and slowly drank from it. It hurt going down, and made her cough several times, each time having to empty the vile contents in her mouth onto the dusty floor. When she had taken several swigs of it, she raised one hand to her throat, trying to massage the tight muscles, while the other hand intertwined with Matt’s, as she rested her head on his shoulder.
The wind had increased outside, pushing and pulling at the feeble house, its rafters moaning in a vain attempt to resist the powerful forces that threatened it. But Matt barely heard it; he was so focused on the woman before him, the woman who had returned to him from so close to death.
He could tell she was still having a difficult time of it. “How’s your breathing now?”
“It’s getting – better, but it just – burns so much. It is - so hard - to swallow.” Her voice was no more than a whisper, but the rattle was almost gone. “What about – Barton?” she asked.
“He’s in another cellar. Don’t worry about him. I’ll go back and – “
A terrible moan pierced the air suddenly, jerking up Matt’s head. Standing there, eyes wild, mouth curved in a sickly smile, Barton – no, Montressor – hovered at the top of the steps from the cellar in which Matt had left him. Lurching to his feet and shoving Kitty behind him, the Marshal swore at his mistake, at allowing his fear for her to override the need to finish the task. And now, the mad man held the gun again, its dark, foreboding barrel directed squarely at Matt’s chest.
His eyes widened as he gazed at Kitty’s weak form, a crazed expression twisting the previously handsome features. “’Oh, pity me,’” he groaned, “’miserable wretch that I am! – I dared not – I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb!’”
Reaching out, Matt stepped slowly toward him, inching toward the gun, toward the man who held it. “No, see, she’s alive. She’s all right.” He wasn’t sure that’s what Barton wanted to hear, but, Dear God, he was immensely grateful he could say it.
But Montressor wasn’t really listening to him or even to himself. He was lost in the world his crazed mind had created. Lifting his eyes to the creaking rafters, he cried, "’Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!’"
Kitty grabbed onto Matt’s vest and pulled herself upright. Montressor shrieked at the sight and shifted the gun to rest solely on her.
“No!” Matt yelled, stepping closer.
The echo of the shot was lost in a clap of thunder, but Matt didn’t need to hear it to know the bullet was fired. The dull thud and hard punch against his left shoulder was evidence enough. The impact shoved him back into Kitty, and they both fell on the bed. Even through the shock, he twisted his body so that he covered her, protected her from the second shot.
But it never came.
Suddenly, the house lurched on its foundation, shaking them violently. The rafters directly above Montressor screamed as they cracked, unable to withstand the angry elements that had finally beaten them down. Before anyone could move, they crashed toward the floor, slamming into the man beneath, snapping his head to the side, the sickening pop resounding through the room.
It was just the beginning of the end. The walls began to shudder and quake, great fissures opening for the wind. Not worrying about how badly he might be hit, Matt hauled Kitty up into his arms and raced toward the front door, leaping from the porch just as the structure finally succumbed to the ravages of time and nature and collapsed onto itself with a dreadful groan of shattering glass and snapping wood. When the moaning quieted, the structure lay in ruin, mere rubble left in its spot.
As the rain soaked them, Matt held Kitty in his arms and stared at the wreckage, contemplating the irony of what had just occurred. “Voice of a thousand waters,” he quoted, almost in awe.
“Wh – what?” Kitty asked, her voice weak and shaking.
“Nothing.” But he allowed himself a final look, murmuring, “In pace requiescat.”
Chapter Seven: In Your Place
Kitty stood about twenty feet from the ruins of the house while Matt untied the horse from the only tree left in the yard. Bound by strips from her petticoat, his left shoulder throbbed as he tugged the skittish animal to the wagon and hitched him up.
“Ready to go?” he asked Kitty, who had watched silently.
“Sure,” she croaked, then smiled ruefully. One thing was certain, she wouldn’t be singing any time soon.
“I should ask you that question,” she shot back.
Resisting a shrug, he assured her, “I’m fine. Just a flesh wound.”
Her brow lifted in doubt. “It’s more than a flesh wound, Matt, and you know it.”
“It’s really not that bad, Kitty,” he said, then changed the subject. “Dodge is going to be a sight for sore eyes.”
She shook her head, allowing the diversion. “Yeah.”
With his good arm, he helped her up into the wagon, then climbed in behind her.
A cloud of white dust still hovered over the ruins. In the moments after the collapse, eerily, the wind had quieted and the clouds had parted. Sitting in the front seat of the wagon, Kitty watched as the moon began its ascent into the night sky. Any other time, she would be ecstatic at the thought of a moonlight ride with Matt. She smiled at the irony.
“You sure you’re okay?” Matt asked as he climbed into the wagon, grimacing as his shoulder shifted. “Are you breathing easier, now?”
getting better. The water helped some. I can’t imagine anything looking better
to me than the inside of the
“Is that a fact?” Matt looked at her with questioning eyes.
She smiled tiredly. “That’s a fact, Cowboy.”
The familiar response drew a smile from him, as well. Yep, she was going to be just fine.
Kitty, somebody needs to remedy your idea of what looks good. The last time I
saw it, the
“Yeah, but if I know Sam, he’s gotten it back into shape already.”
“You’re probably right. He runs a tight ship doesn’t he?”
does. He makes me looks good. You know Matt, when I was lying there I thought
about how you would make sure he got the
He slid his right arm around her and pulled her close. They rode in silence for the next three or four miles, satisfied to be alive and relatively unharmed.
“Can’t we stop for a minute, Matt?” she asked abruptly.
“Nope! Doc needs to look at you.”
“And you,” she reminded, but her voice cracked as she added, “but I don’t want to go back to Dodge just yet.”
“Kitty, are you okay?” he asked immediately.
Pulling back on the reins, he slowed to a stop, watching in confusion as Kitty climbed in the back, sat down on the hay bed, and tugged on his shirt.
“What are you doing?”
“Let’s just lie here for a little while.”
He smiled ruefully. “Kitty, you’re in no condition to . . . and, even though I hate to admit it, I don’t think I could – “
“I don’t want to do that.” The tears were beginning to fall. “I just want you to hold me. Please, Matt. Please, just hold me.”
He saw the fear in her eyes and crawled over the seat as quickly as he could in his condition so that he could lie down beside Kitty. Wrapping his good arm around her, he placed his cheek on the top of her head, while she had her cheek over his heart. He had waited for it; knew it was coming. It had happened with Mannon and with Bonner. She didn’t wallow in pity, but she needed this time right now.
Ten minutes later, she looked up into his eyes.
After several more minutes, she spoke again. “Matt, what was it like when you were lying over at Percy Crump’s after Mace Gore – ” She couldn’t finish.
whispered, his lips brushing her hair, “let’s not talk about this now.”
“I want to. I need to know. Please Matt.”
need to, please.”
lifted in a heavy sigh before the protesting shoulder stopped him. “I don’t
remember anything about being at Percy’s.
First I was lying there in the street, not feeling too good – “ His smile was ironic.
“I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t move. Then, the next thing
I remember was waking up in the cellar of the
He had fought so hard in the street to tell her he wasn’t dead. He had tried.
“It was strange, Matt.”
“But you didn’t,” he said, his heart pounding anew with the thought of how close she had come.
“I almost did. I was close – so close. I thought about Doc and Festus and Louie – but I thought mostly about you.”
He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. He was fighting too hard to keep the moisture from his eyes as he listened to her recount her last moments of consciousness.
“Matt, do you ever think about, about – ”
Did he? Every day. It was the reason he didn’t let anyone get too close to him – well, almost anyone.
“Yeah, sometimes I do,” he admitted.
“Does it scare you?”
“Sometimes it does.”
“I was scared, but not for me. I was scared more for those I was leaving behind.”
“I know Kitty.” It was almost a whisper. “I know.”
She looked up at him and, for the first time, understood. She understood completely. They both did.
He was suddenly there with her, sitting in Doc’s office, waiting to see if the
man she loved more than anything else in the world would live or die –
again. He felt the terror in her heart each
time he stepped onto
And she knew. She was suddenly there with him, feeling the burden of the law, of protecting people who couldn’t protect themselves. She felt the rush of adrenaline when the gunfire began. She knew the yearning to have peace, to accept love, and she knew how it warred with that burden and that rush.
They lay like that for a long time. The storm had passed, and the clouds continued to clear, revealing a sky full of stars. He noticed that her breathing had improved dramatically. It was slower, deeper, and there was no sign of a rattle remaining.
“Matt, how many stars are there in the sky?”
“I don’t know. Thousands. Millions maybe. Why?”
“Just wondering. When we get back to Dodge – ”
“When we get back to Dodge, you’ve got a date with Doc. He needs to make sure you’re okay. Make sure there’s no damage to your lungs.”
“Well – “ She didn’t want to see Doc tonight. She didn’t want to see anyone tonight, but the blood that soaked through Matt’s make-shift bandage prodded her. She could ignore her own health, but not his.
“After we see Doc, can we do something?”
His brow lifted. “Like what?”
“Sit outside on the balcony and watch the night go by?”
“Sure,” he smiled. “But after Doc sees you.”
He nodded. “And me.”
Climbing back into the seat, they rode the rest of the way in silence. She again sat very close to him and leaned her head on his shoulder. She kept her hand over his heart, just to make sure it still beat for her.
Chapter Eight: She Walks in Beauty
Matt Dillon perched uncomfortably on Doc’s table as the physician finished wrapping his shoulder so tightly that the marshal couldn’t lift his arm.
“I don’t think it needed that much, Doc,” he protested. “It was really just a flesh – “
Matt pressed his lips together in silent frustration, but didn’t try to talk again. When Doc was in a mood, it was best just to acquiesce.
“It was not just a flesh wound. That bullet was still in there, and if you’d let it go any longer, you’d be lying in bed with a fever about now. As it is – “ His scowl softened. “As it is, because of the expertise of your talented surgeon, you’ll just need to rest for a few days before you go off in search of the next lunatic.”
“Let me just point out that the lunatic went in search of me; I didn’t go – “
“Oh, never mind.”
A tired smile lifting her lips, Kitty saw through the bluster of the doctor, recognizing how he masked the true concern he held for their big, stubborn lawman. He could fuss all he wanted; they both knew he set quite a store by Matt Dillon. Of course, he set quite a store by Kitty Russell, too.
“Let’s look at you, now,” he said, turning to her and running gentle fingers over her throat. “You hoarse still?”
“A bit,” she admitted, her tone blunt evidence.
“Uh huh.” Reaching into the desk drawer, he withdrew a bottle, half-full of amber liquid. Pouring a double-shot of the brandy into a glass, he handed it to her. “Here, drink this.” He watched as she obeyed. “Are you swallowing all right?”
She thought about it and answered truthfully. “Not too bad.”
After a brief examination, he stepped back and shook his head. “Well, you were lucky. Awful lucky. Just a few minutes longer, and – “ He stopped, looking back at Matt. “That Montressor fellow – “
“Barton,” Matt corrected, the edge in his voice easy to hear.
“That Barton fellow was really gonna – gonna wall her up?” Doc’s tone held a note of horror.
“He did wall me up!” Kitty shot back, the memory still raw. “He had this crazy idea that we could be together forever or something.”
Forcing back the fury that still burned inside him, Matt explained, “He kept quoting parts of stories and poems, all by Poe. ‘Annabel Lee’ and the sepulcher, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and the brick wall. Even the house falling in, although I don’t think he planned that one.”
“Strange,” Doc decided, clicking his tongue. “This whole thing is mighty strange.”
Matt clenched his teeth and slid off the table, only partially succeeding in masking the pain. “Are we okay to go, now, Doc?”
“Easy, now,” he admonished, reaching out to steady the Marshal. “Well, I guess you’re both gonna be all right – eventually.” The older man cleared his instruments from the table, then waved an accusing finger between them. “But I don’t want any – “ He colored.
With mischief in her blue eyes, Kitty asked, “Any what?”
“You know what,” Doc insisted, then turned to Matt for assistance. “You listening?”
But the lawman just widened his eyes innocently.
Grunting, the physician rubbed a hand over his mouth. “Oh, go ahead and do whatever you want. You never listen to your doctor, anyway.”
Matt pushed his right arm through his shirtsleeve but could only drape the left side over his bad shoulder. As he placed his hand at the small of Kitty’s back, he heard Doc’s mumbled parting comment.
“I’m glad you’re back.”
“We are, too, Curly,” Kitty answered, stopping to kiss him softly on the cheek. “We are, too.”
walked a bit gingerly down Doc’s stairs and across the alley to the back stairs
“What in the world?” she wondered.
“Looks like our secret isn’t as secret as we thought.”
“I guess not,” she agreed rather uneasily. “We’re going to have to be more careful.”
laughed. “Nah, when I dropped the wagon over at the livery, I stopped by the
“It looks like he thought of everything,” Kitty added, pointing to the brandy.
Sitting cross-legged beside her on the pallet, he lifted their fare from the basket. Their feast consisted of fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, biscuits, two mason jars of sweet tea, and two pieces of apple pie. They ate under the light of the moon. Although they didn’t speak much, neither noticed the silence; they were simply content with being in one another’s company.
“I’m stuffed,” Kitty declared after the last bite of pie had been consumed. “I didn’t know I was that hungry.” She was a little embarrassed at how much she had eaten. Although she had passed up the chicken because of her throat, she had almost matched Matt’s generous intake with the rest of the meal.
“Your throat must be feeling better.” He drained his tea jar and smiled at her.
“That shot of brandy in Doc’s office really did the trick. Not Napoleon, of course, but good enough. It’s still sore though. I may have to stick to soft foods for a few days. I don’t think I could have handled the chicken tonight.”
Kitty got up and made her way over the table.
“Well, I’ll see if I can find you some of that broth you bring me when I’m laid up in Doc’s office.” His sarcasm brought a smile to her face and drew a chuckle from him. He hated that stuff, and she knew it. She couldn’t count the trips she’d made up and down Doc’s stairs toting bowls of chicken or beef broth to him.
She poured two shots of her finest brandy, made her way back over to Matt and sat down. He took the glass from her and leaned back against the outside wall. After downing the shot, he caught her hand and tugged her gently against his right shoulder. She closed her eyes, secure in his embrace.
“You really okay?” he asked quietly after a moment.
The depth of the question touched her, and she made her answer sincere. “Yes.”
He remained silent, but the tight squeeze on her body was response enough. After another moment, to lighten the heavy load that lay between them, she said, “I don’t think I want to hear another poem ever again.”
“You don’t?” Something akin to disappointment clouded his voice, prompting her to turn slightly and study his expression. To her surprise, he did, indeed, look a little let down.
“Well, you mentioned a couple of days ago that you like romance, right?”
“So, I thought maybe I‘d – well – I have this book of – poems – “
“You have a book of poems?” she asked, incredulous.
He nodded, blushing.
“Where on earth did you get a book of poems?”
His smile became tender. “My mother left it to me.”
“But if you don’t want to hear one – “
“Oh, no, Cowboy,” she assured him quickly. “I most certainly do.” But she flinched a bit as she requested, “Just not Poe, though, okay?”
He winced himself. “No problem. I think maybe you’ll like this one better than ‘Annabel Lee.’” Easing her away from him just long enough to reach inside his pants pocket, he pulled out a small volume, bound in cracked, burgundy leather.
Turning carefully to a particular page, he began to read, his voice deep and rich.
"She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellow’d to that tender night
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.”
As she listened, she took special note of how his voice rose and fell with the meter of the poem. She stared at him, dumbfounded. In all the years they had been together, she had never seen this side of Matt Dillon before.
“One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.”
When he finished, he looked at her a little sheepishly, the boyish expression endearing.
“That was – that was beautiful, Matt.”
“You liked it?” he asked with a pleased smile.
“I did. Who wrote it?”
“Fellow named Byron.”
Lifting his arm so that she could slide under it again and rest her head against his chest, she asked, “Read me another one?”
As the words flowed from his lips once more, Kitty realized that under that rough exterior lay a true romantic, although he didn’t let it surface very often. Matt Dillon was not a man who let his guard down easily or quickly. He couldn’t afford to. In the past, she had been privy to some of his most private secrets, and now she had discovered one more. He would trust her to keep that their secret and theirs alone. And she would. Her big strong marshal really was a romantic.
As the evening air cooled, she pulled a blanket up over them, her hand slipping beneath it to rub against his bare chest.
“Remember what Doc said,” he admonished half-heartedly.
“You are one to talk, Mister.”
He grinned, giving in easily as she let her nails drag lightly down his stomach. “Well, I’ll blame you if he finds out.”
“He’ll know who started it.”
“He sure will,” he countered.
She smiled, fully willing to accept that blame. “Let’s sleep out here tonight, Matt. I don’t want to sleep inside, if that’s all right with you?”
“Fine by me. I’m used to sleeping outside. I’ve learned to like it, really.” He cleared his throat and added in a wheedling voice, “But it does make my back hurt sometimes. I might need someone to massage it before the night is through.”
Desire lowered her voice as she let her hand drop to his lap, relishing the feel of his strong response. “I think I can handle that.”
“Is that a fact?” he challenged hoarsely.
“That’s a fact, Cowboy.”
Smiling slyly, she moved her hand away from him, turned up the last sip of brandy in her snifter, and rose to her feet, stepping toward the doorway to her room.
Matt couldn’t keep a disappointed grunt from escaping. “Where are you going? I thought you wanted to sleep out here tonight?”
“I do, but not in these clothes.” She swept a hand across the tattered, soiled material. “I’m going to see if I can scrape some of this dirt off, and then I’m going to put on something a little more comfortable.”
His eyebrows lifted with interest. “Need some help?”
That was all the encouragement he needed. While she made her way into the bedroom, he stood stiffly and cleaned up the remains of their midnight meal, entering the bedroom to find her sitting at her dressing table in a simple robe brushing her hair and cursing every third or fourth stroke.
“Here, let me.” He took the brush from her.
“I can’t remember the last time my hair was tangled this badly,” she complained, but his patient hand continued with the long strokes until every last tangle was vanquished from her auburn locks.
“Thank you. Now let’s see if I can get some of this dirt off.” She walked over to the washbasin and scrubbed clean her face, neck, and hands with the cool soapy water. Next, she removed the robe to finish the task at hand while he watched appreciatively.
Finally turning from the bowl, she asked, “Can you get me a gown from the second drawer?”
Although he was reluctant to make any contribution to covering that lovely body, he said, “Sure, any particular one?”
“No. But since we’re going to be outside, I’ll need some covering for my arms and legs – might get chilly.”
He chose one of her favorites, a well-worn white cotton gown that was as soft as down feathers. Unable to help himself, he pulled the gown to his face and inhaled the lavender scent.
“Hey mister, don’t get that dirty,” she teased, “I have to sleep in that tonight.”
“Sleep?” he shot back.
Slapping playfully at his good arm, she took the gown from his hand and pointed to the washbasin. “Your turn.”
“Yes ma’am.” He opted to shuck his pants first, since they didn’t require as much movement to his injury. But when he attempted to tug the shirt off, he couldn’t stop the grimace that tightened his features.
“Need some help?” she asked as she reached up to lift the shirt from his hands. “Here, let me do it.”
Her heart was already pounding with anticipation as she soaped the washcloth and began to wash his face and neck. Being very careful around the wound, she moved to his shoulders and chest, then lower over his stomach. Her strokes grew slower, more sensuous as her touch turned into a caress. He groaned, and she watched with pleasure as his body responded. Smiling, she dropped the cloth back into the bowl and let her hand take over, pleased when his head fell back and he pressed into her grip.
That night, Kitty lay in the arms of her Cowboy, hair fanned out across his right shoulder and chest, hand resting intimately at his hips. She sighed in complete contentment, her body pressed against his, her thoughts reliving the intense loving they had just shared.
As difficult as it had been to stop the rapidly progressing passion in her room, she had managed, waiting impatiently as he struggled into a clean pair of pants from the extra clothes he kept at her place, before dragging him back out onto the moderately secluded balcony. His patience was just as thin. Almost immediately, she had found herself beneath him on the quilt, moaning at the touch of his lips traveling from her ear to her throat. He lingered over the soft swell between her breasts, his breath hot against her skin. Despite their rather precarious location, she felt the strong urge to make him go faster, to rip off her gown right then and lose herself as he filled her. Instead, she swallowed and concentrated on where he focused, feeling the nipple harden through the fabric under his wet touch.
“Beautiful,” he murmured.
She smiled and clutched at his curls. She loved to tousle them and make them look wild and boyish. Giving in a little to the wounded left shoulder, he moved back up to lie on his right side next to her, pressing so that her thigh was branded with the heat of his erection, even through the material of his trousers. She groaned at the burst of desire between her legs and arched her hips into his, grinding against the throbbing hardness, close to coming just from that.
They didn’t even think about going indoors. Instead, she became aware that he had lifted her gown and now caressed her most intimate area with bold but loving fingers. Her own trembling hands reached for him, unbuckling his belt and freeing the buttons of his pants. They didn’t dare undress completely, but the thrill of being together outside just above the public thoroughfares of Dodge was enough to take them past any hesitations. He lifted her right leg over his left hip and jutted forward so that he teased her yearning heat. Then he was moving against her and inside her, and she couldn’t hold back a moan with the sheer pleasure. Their hands ran over each other, their tongues tangled, their lips bruised. And when they finally climaxed, he had to cover her mouth with his to keep anyone who happened to be passing on the street below from hearing her cries.
As it was so often for them, they barely came down from one high before both were ready again. Now she lay against his right shoulder, fingers stroking him, feeling him harden once more at her touch. It made her feel good to know she could arouse him so quickly. He shifted so that he could see her face. She blushed at the heated desire in his eyes.
“Kitty,” he breathed, drawing her closer. “I was so afraid that you were – “ He stopped abruptly, and she searched his face with sudden concern, but he didn’t react, just continued. “You’re so alive. You make me feel so alive.” He pulsed hard against her hand, proving his words.
She didn’t know what to say, so she rose up to straddle him, to show him just how alive she was. She panted softly as his fingers brushed over where they joined, and she drew a moan from him when she leaned down and teased his nipple with her teeth.
He filled her body just as he filled her heart, and she couldn’t suppress another groan of ecstasy. As their thrusts grew once more toward orgasm, she whispered, “I love you.”
His eyes opened, and he smiled at her. Then, as the eruption overtook him, he grimaced in pleasure, thrusting up hard and bringing her with him, and she couldn’t focus on anything except the incredible moment with her incredible man.
As they came down once more, Kitty Russell issued up an offering of thanks that this time, once again, they had survived. Even more than survived – they had triumphed. She prayed that it wouldn’t be the last triumph for either of them.
And despite her desire to forget everything about “Annabel Lee,” she couldn’t help but remember one line that spoke to her. “And we loved with a love that was more than love.” At least that much of the poem she could relate to, because her love for Matt Dillon went so much deeper than just a word or even an entire poem.
And it always would.
The moon shone blood red over the silent ruins of the house, casting an evil glow on the shattered pile of mortar, bricks, and wood. In the distance a lone raven cawed with lonely persistence, its monotonous tone declaring the same message over and over. And beneath the call, a cultured voice could be heard.
“But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!);
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.”