Haunted Heart

A Gunsmoke Story


By Amanda (MAHC)


Chapter Six: A Bottle of Bourbon and Two Full Glasses


POV: Hannah

Spoilers: “The Bullet;” “Hostage!;” “Hidalgo;” “The Disciple;”

Rating: PG (Teen)

Disclaimer: Not my characters.




Leaning against the open swinging doors of the Long Branch, Hannah watched the citizens of Dodge disperse, satisfied that their marshal was back, but uneasy that he had returned in questionable health.  Doc stayed inside the jail for another few minutes, reappeared just as Festus came back from Percy Crump’s.  She studied them as the made their way down the boardwalk, deep in conversation, furrowed brows telegraphing the topic of their discussion.  It was the first time she’d really seen Matt Dillon anything but in complete control, but she supposed there was only so much even the strongest will could take before it collapsed against the overwhelming power of too much pain and too much exhaustion and too much disappointment.


Doc had left the jail too soon to have tended to any serious wounds, so the marshal must not have been badly injured, even though he looked mighty rough.  She remembered the clues Kitty had suggested to indicate if his back and leg were bothering him.  This time, though, what she had seen provided considerably more evidence than pressed lips and a tight jaw.


As her gaze followed the marshal’s two best friends, she considered what she had learned of Matt Dillon in the seven months she had been in Dodge.  First impressions weren’t always the most accurate, she knew, but in this case, very little had occurred to change her opinion about the lawman.  Past the obvious physical attributes – and there were plenty – he possessed the courtesy of a gentleman, the honesty of a preacher, the courage of a soldier, the wisdom of a judge, and the skills of a gunslinger.   Not for the first time, she wondered why Kitty had really left, wondered if her own suspicions were anywhere close to being true.  If they were, by now –


Sighing, she eased the doors closed and stepped back down onto the floor of the saloon, her eyes just catching the quick turn of Floyd’s head.  He had been watching her as she watched Doc and Festus. 


Making a sudden decision, she tossed a nod toward an empty table – it was early enough that most tables were empty – and said, “Bring a bottle of rye, Floyd, and join me.”


If that request surprised him, he didn’t show it.  In fact, it almost seemed as if he had expected the invitation.  In a moment, they were both seated and enjoying the first sip of the liquor.  Hannah noted that Floyd waited for her to start the dialogue.


After a moment’s consideration to give her brain a chance to change its mind, Hannah leaned back in the chair and studied the glass in front of her.  “You’ve been around Dodge for a while, haven’t you, Floyd?”


He nodded.  “I have.  Not with the Long Branch the whole time, though.  I just became head barkeep after Sam died.”


“But you’ve been in town?” she confirmed.




“Did everybody – well, did many people know about – about the marshal and Kitty?”


Floyd snorted a laugh.  “’Bout all of Kansas, I suppose.  It was the worst kept secret in Dodge, anyway.”


“If everybody knew, then why – “


“I always figured the marshal was tryin’ to protect Miss Kitty.  Didn’t want her to be used by any of his enemies – and he has plenty just waitin’ to get their revenge on him.  Sometimes just for roustin’ ‘em out of a saloon.  But mostly for sending ‘em to prison.   It’s a sure bet he don’t sit with his back to the door.”


What a burden to carry, she thought sadly.  How tormented you could become, knowing at any time, at any place, someone might be waiting to kill you.  But he didn’t seem tormented.  Grimacing, she amended in her mind that he didn’t seem tormented by the possibility of dying.   There was, however, definitely torment from a different source.


“So everyone knew, did they?  How?”


“What do ya’ mean?”


“I mean how’d everyone know?  Kitty said – I mean, I heard they were discreet.”


Again, Floyd chuckled.  “Well, I suppose that’s a relative term.  They were careful, I guess.  Especially in public.”


She wondered how much he knew about them when they weren’t in public.


Ya’ can’t hide somethin’ that’s all over ya’, though.”  At her lifted brow, he continued.  “The way they looked at each other, the way she would lay her hand on his arm, the way –  He shrugged.  “’Course, in my position, I may have seen a little more than most people.”


The sudden pink to his cheeks let her know he had seen quite a bit more.  “In the past few years, they haven’t been exactly subtle.  When he took that bullet in the back and Doc loaded him up on the train to Denver, she wouldn’t even hear of stayin’ behind.  And not even Doc would try to talk her out of it.”


Hannah’s eyes widened.  “Bullet in the back?”


“’Bout three years ago.  Almost paralyzed him.  Doc got it out.  That’s all I know, but I figure there was more to it than that.  He tries not to let on, but you can see it still bothers him from time to time.  Anyway, he was laid up for a few weeks; then he up and went down into Mexico chasing some bandito.  Came back all shot up again.”


“He’s had a few injuries, has he?”  Of course, Kitty had already indicated that.


This time it was Floyd’s eyes that grew wide.  “Oh, Miss Hannah, I don’t suppose even Ol’ Doc’s kept count of how many bullets he’s dug outta the marshal.”


Well, that certainly explained the lawman’s pain.  After hearing from Kitty and now Floyd about the abuse Dillon’s big body had endured, she wondered how the man was even walking at all.


By this time, Floyd had warmed to his subject and continued, his eyes looking over her shoulder and into the past.  “’Course, after Jude Bonner, nobody had any doubts about him and Miss Kitty.”


“Jude Bonner?’  She’d never heard of him, but the ominous tone of his voice told her his tale would not be pretty.


The barkeeper’s face changed, and she was shocked to see black hate darken those normally pleasant features as he launched into a terrible, heartbreaking story.  Tears welled in her eyes when he told about what had happened to “the marshal’s woman,” and she remembered Kitty’s simple statement to her:  “Things have – happened – to me because of who and what he is.  Bad things.”   As the horrors of the event unfolded, she decided that Kitty had quite a command of understatement.


Hannah could not keep the horror from her face as Floyd related the details of the ordeal, of the scene there on Front Street when Bonner dumped Kitty in front of the town and shot her down.  


“Dear Lord,” she whispered, nausea boiling in her throat.


Floyd’s eyes were still seeing past her, still reliving that evening.  “When the marshal got back, he didn’t say a word, just ran up Doc’s stairs.  He stayed with her all night.  We didn’t know if she was dead or alive.  Next mornin’, he stepped out onto the landing at the top of the stairs.  Miss Hannah, I ain’t never seen such a look on anybody’s face as I seen on his.”


She could not begin to imagine.


“If Jude Bonner had been standing there, I don’t doubt the marshal would have torn him to pieces with his bare hands.”


“What’d he do?”  Obviously, since Matt Dillon wasn’t serving a life sentence for murder in the state prison, he didn’t kill Bonner – at least not in cold blood.


“Well, he stood there a minute, long enough for most of us ta’ see he wasn’t wearin’ his badge any more.”


She tried to picture Matt Dillon without that piece of metal on his chest, had trouble doing it.  The symbolism of his taking it off was not lost on her.  “He went after him,” she realized.


“He did.  He went after him not as the marshal, but as – as a man.”  Floyd opened his eyes wider to emphasize his approval of Dillon’s actions.


Maybe he did kill him, Hannah re-assessed. 


“He rode out by himself, but Festus and Newly – then the most of the town – rode out after him.  Sam told a few of us ta’ stay at the saloon in case any of Bonner’s gang tried to come back around.”


“Did he – did he catch him?”  She wasn’t sure if she wanted him to or not.


“He caught him.  Sam said when they reached them he and Bonner had ‘bout near beat each other ta’ death, and the marshal was fixinta’ smash in that bastard’s skull with a big old rock.”


“And?” Hannah prodded, enthralled despite herself, halfway hoping Dillon had performed the execution right there.


Floyd sighed.  “Festus stopped him.  Sam reckoned it was a near thing.”


With a disturbing pang of disappointment, she asked, “What about Kitty?”


The blackness had lightened in his face and he almost smiled.  “She’s a strong woman.” Hannah heard the admiration in his tone.  “Somehow, she recovered.”  Shaking his head, he added, “I don’t figure the marshal let her get more’n ten feet away from him or Sam for months.  Drove her crazy.”  But he quickly grew serious again.  “You could see it shook him pretty good – and there ain’t too much that can shake Matt Dillon.”


“What he had always feared,” she mused.


“Yes, ma’am.  I reckon it was.”


“And yet, after all that – now she’s left.  I don’t understand.”


“You and me both.”   His eyes grew sad.  “Seems like they’d already been through the worst.”


Her thoughts drifted again to Kitty’s fears, to her supposed reasons for leaving.  “The marshal’s arm – how bad was it?”


“Bad enough.  From what Doc said, he couldn’t use it at all right after the shooting.”


“It seems fine now.”


A dubious brow lifted.  “I suppose.  Don’t guess he’s had to outdraw anyone recently.  At least not in town.”


“You figure someone will come gunning for him?” she asked.


Shrugging, Floyd said, “They always do.”


“Can he take them?”


“Before, maybe, but – “


Hannah nodded in understanding.  “Before his arm was hurt.”


But Floyd shook his head.  “Before Miss Kitty left.”


Keeping her voice low so that only he could hear, she said, “He loved her very much.”


The bartender nodded, his gaze drifting toward the doors as if he could see across to the jail.  “He still does.”


The stark statement struck her with its simplicity.  “He still does.” 


Well, that did it.  She had made a promise to Kitty six months ago, a promise she had questioned as soon as she had laid eyes on Matt Dillon, a promise she now knew she could no longer keep.


With a deep breath and click of her tongue, Hannah pushed up from the table and walked behind the bar.  “Thanks for the talk, Floyd.”


His eyes followed her movement, brow questioning.  “Sure.”


Reaching under the counter, she pulled out the very best bottle of bourbon they sold, gathered two shot glasses in her other hand and marched toward the doors.  “If I land out in the middle of Front Street in a couple of minutes, drag me back in here, will ya’?” she threw out as she stepped into the daylight, not waiting to hear Floyd’s response.


A couple of folks watched her curiously as she crossed the street.  She ignored them.

Pausing just briefly at the door, she took a breath and eased it open, not sure what she might find, ready to back out if necessary, but a little too nervous to speculate about what might constitute “necessary.”  Although she had never been inside the jailhouse, she’d peeked in the windows before, out of simple curiosity, and she recalled that there was single iron bed to the left.  The condition he was in when stumbled through that door, she didn’t expect to find him anywhere else.


Sure enough, as her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, she saw the long, solid frame sprawled out on the mattress, legs stretching all the way to the edge and a little past, one arm flung out over the side.  Quietly, she closed the door and set the bottle and glasses on the table between the marshal and her.  Then, she stepped closer to study him for a moment.


Since it was not his practice to frequent the Long Branch socially anymore, she had seen him this close only on the occasions when he was breaking up fights.  Looking at him now, she saw that he had aged in the past six months, the lines of his face etched more deeply, the touch of gray in his hair now overtaking the brown, the world-weariness that he occasionally allowed to show now invading almost every move he made.


She figured he had literally collapsed onto the bed, not bothering to clean up at all from the trail.  He hadn’t even taken the time to remove his gun belt.  A three-days’ growth of beard shadowed his jaw, dust and grime smudged his forehead.  There was a cut just below his left eye and a couple of raw scrapes reddening his cheek.  The knuckles of the hand that rested on his stomach were torn and bloody.  Slim Gallagher had apparently not gone down without a fight. 


Even though she had never had children of her own, Hannah felt the unaccustomed motherly urge to brush his hair back and whisper soothing words, trying to comfort him in some way, to provide a balm for the pain.  Instead, she remained still, watching him.  After a few minutes, her perusal was interrupted by a groan.  Sweat beaded on his upper lip and forehead, his brow came down and his head turned one way, then the other. 


“No – “ he mumbled, legs moving slightly.


Unsure whether to wake him or not, Hannah watched as his agitation deepened, listened as his groans grew louder.  He grew more restless, arms pushing through the air, as if he were fighting someone.  When he started to thrash, she began to worry that he would injure himself. 


Then, in an agonized voice, he cried out, “Kitty!  No!  Let her go – God, please, no!”


Spurred into action, the saloon owner reached out to him, touched his shoulder to shake him from the nightmare, to rescue him from the distress he was in. 


That was a mistake.


With reflexes so fast she wasn’t sure she had even seen them, his hand jerked the gun from the holster, and she found herself staring down the end of a Colt, its barrel black and cold and terrifying.


“Marshal!” she yelled, heart pounding harder and louder than she could ever remember.


He half-sat, his eyes wild, his mouth open, his breath coming fast.  She tried to look at the trigger to see if he was about to pull it, but her gaze remained locked down that long, deadly tunnel.


“Marshal,” she tried again, her voice cracking. 


His chest heaved, his eyes bore into hers, his teeth gritted.  Dear God, he was going to kill her.


Somehow, finding her voice once more, she said softly, “Matt.”


For a long moment, the gun stayed trained directly on her heart, but finally, slowly, those blue eyes focused on her face.  The steady hand that held the weapon began to tremble, a move that spread to the rest of his arm.  He dropped the gun and fell back onto the bed, groaning either in emotional or physical pain – she wasn’t sure which.


“Oh God,” she heard him gasp as his head hit the pillow.


When she was pretty sure she was not going to faint or throw up, she pulled up a chair and sat, her own hands none too steady.  “Marshal?” she asked quietly, gently.


Throwing an arm over his eyes, he mumbled, “Go away.”


Putting on a much braver front that she could actually back up, she ignored him and said, “I, uh, I brought you a present.”


For a moment, he ignored her right back, but after another minute, his arm lifted and he opened one eye.  In answer to his unspoken question, she nodded toward the bottle.  The amber liquid sat invitingly on the table, but he only groaned again and shook his head.


“No thanks.”


Her thoughts brought back the image of him walking across Front Street from Doc’s office the day after he had found out from her that Kitty had left, and she wondered if he’d sworn off the stuff after that.  Certainly, she had never seen him drinking at the Long Branch.  Of course, he’d only ventured into the Long Branch to break up fights and drag away ugly drunks.


“I figured you might could use a drink,” she told him, forcing the casual tone.


“Go away,” he repeated, the words a little more precise this time.


“It’s my best bourbon,” she added pointedly, wondering if he would catch on.


After a couple of beats, the arm came down slowly, and he pulled his body up onto his elbows, his gaze searching her face.  “What?”




Their eyes met, and in that connection, she saw sudden comprehension, watched as the emotion flooded him, as his cheeks flushed and his eyes glistened.  She saw him take a breath, swallow, and take another breath. 


When he had regained control, he began, in a weary voice, “I’m not gonna discuss – “


“Oh, I’m not here to talk about anything,” she assured him, having to glance away from his doubtful squint.  “I just figured I’d drop by and be neighborly and show my appreciation for yahelpin’ me out with the rowdies at my place.”


My place.  Damn.  She bit her tongue at those last two words when he flinched. 


“That’s my job,” he told her, voice flat.


“Well, there’s doin’ your job and there’s doin’ your job.  I ain’t never seen a lawman that does his job like you.”  She raised her eyebrows to emphasize how much she meant the words.


Sitting up completely now, and swinging his legs to the floor, he dropped his head and ran a hand through his hair.  Scooting the chair closer to the table, Hannah grasped the bottle and opened it.


“Look, Hannah, I appreciate it, but – “


“Kitty Russell loves you.”  Well, she had meant to bring that up with a little more finesse.


His head jerked up, anger firing from those eyes.  “Damn it, I told you I’m not gonna discuss – “


“Who’s discussin’?  I’m just talkin’.” 


He stared at her, nonplussed.  Before he could respond, she continued, “You’re a fool, Matt Dillon.”


That point didn’t help his mood.  He stood suddenly, and she bit back a gasp as the impact of just how tall he was hit her.  But the pain that apparently swept over him claimed some of that anger.  His teeth clacked together in a hard grimace as he reached behind to brace his back. 


“I’ve – been – told that before,” he grunted past the discomfort.


“Well, I’m just sayin’ that that woman loves you with all her heart.”


Maybe it was the pain, maybe it was the exhaustion, but she thought she saw cracks in the shield he had erected.  Instead of throwing her out into the street, he just muttered, “Not anymore.”


Not one to waste an opening, no matter how narrow, Hannah, quickly opened the bottle and poured a generous amount of bourbon into each glass.  “Sit.  You look like you need to.”


Indeed, he swayed precariously.  To her surprise, he followed orders, his body falling heavily into the offered chair.


“Listen, Marshal, this is not really any of my business – “


“You’re damn right, it’s not,” he snapped.


Now that she’d jumped in after him, Hannah was damned if she would let him drown.  “But that woman is desperately in love with you and you’ve got to find her.  Especially now that – “ She stumbled to a halt, unwilling to tell him something she didn’t know for certain herself.


His eyes narrowed.  “Now that what?”


Damn.  Not ready or willing to share with him her speculations, she played her trump card and said boldly, “I know about Jude Bonner.”


He stood again, this time so hard and fast that his thighs caught the table and almost upended it.  She had never seen such fury in any human being’s eyes before, and she wondered if this were the face Floyd and the others had seen when Dillon stood at the top of those stairs, determined to find Jude Bonner and kill him.  Unable to keep from shrinking back, she held her breath.


Hatred clashed with pain, twisting the handsome features.  Never say that name again,” he spit out between clenched teeth.  Never.”


Later, as she replayed out the scene in her mind, she realized she must have been crazy even to remain in there, much less keep pushing at the furious man.  Nevertheless, that’s just what she had done.


“I heard you went after him,” she pressed, convinced, even in the face of his anger, that he wouldn’t hurt her.


He turned away, his hands clenching into fists.  Well, she was pretty sure he wouldn’t hurt her, anyway.  “I said – “


“You left your badge and went after him because you were Kitty’s man, not because you were the marshal.  You wanted to kill him.”


The fists shook as he stood there, and she watched the motion spread to his entire body, saw those broad shoulders quake violently.


“You wanted to kill him,” she repeated, somehow needing to know.


The big body shuddered, and the fuse she had lit finally reached power and exploded.  Spinning around, he slammed his hands down on the table, leaned his weight on them and stared at her, his face only inches from hers. 


“Yes!  Damn it, yes!” he snarled.  “I wanted to kill him.  I wanted to kill that son of a bitch for what he had done!  I wanted to beat the hell out of him until I smashed him into the pile of worthless shit that he was!  I wanted to tear him limb from limb for what Kitty – “


He choked on her name, his eyes widening in horror at the realization of what he had just done, of what he had just said, and who he had said it to.  Stumbling back, he fell hard against the brick wall of the jail office, chest heaving, eyes closed. 


Stunned, Hannah could only watch, mouth open, blood surging, heart pounding.  Dear God, what had she done?


They remained where they were for at least five whole minutes, Hannah sitting at the table, the marshal slumped against the wall.  Neither of them moved, neither said a word.  Only the steady ticking of the clock gave any indication that time moved on.


Finally, her voice barely audible, Hannah said, “You were ready to give up the law for vengeance.  Why couldn’t you give it up for love?”


He didn’t answer right away, didn’t even give evidence that he had heard her.  But after a few seconds, he slipped his right hand into the front pocket of his pants.  When he removed it, he held a small bag, blue velvet and elegant.  With a quick flick of his wrist, he tossed it onto the table in front of her.  His eyes lifted to stare out toward the jail windows.


Slowly, almost reverently, Hannah let her fingers inch toward the bag, tugging open the strings that secured the top and emptying the contents.  A gold band rolled onto the wood, taking her breath with both its simple, delicate beauty and with its obvious intent.  Holding it carefully, she raised her gaze to look at him, understanding too much now.


“You could,” she realized in a whisper.  “You could give it up for love.  You were going to after that last trip.”


He didn’t answer.  Didn’t have to.  Oh, Lord, what irony.


“You have to find her,” Hannah urged, suddenly desperate that Kitty know, that she understand what she had done.  “You have to tell her.”


His head dropped and he groaned, sinking back onto the bed, forearms resting on his thighs.  “It’s too late,” he mumbled, his anger spent, leaving only exhaustion and despair in its place.  “She’s gone.”


“You have to look for her.”


His chest jerked in something that might have been a humorless laughed.  “What do ya’ think I’ve been doin’ for six months?”  One hand lifted, tugging through his hair.  “I’ve looked – I’ve looked in Topeka, Lawrence, Kansas City, Saint Joseph, Saint Louis.  I’ve sent telegrams to Springfield, Nashville, Philadelphia, Boston, even New York – nothing.”


She hesitated only a moment on her next words.  “She didn’t tell me straight out, but –– but I think she was going home.”  She paused, waiting for him to jump at her revelation, the city’s name on her lips.


But he only shook his head and looked down at his hands.  New Orleans was the first place I checked.”


Well, of course.  She wondered why on earth she hadn’t realized he would know immediately that she might go there.  But if he’d checked already, and hadn’t found anything –


“I sent a telegram to the chief of police six months ago.”  His voice fell off as he added, “And five months ago, and four months – “


“Nothing?” Hannah asked, confused.  She had been positive Kitty was there.”


He shook his head again.  “No Kitty Russell.  No Kathleen Russell.  I had him check all records, even – “ He swallowed.  “— even death certificates.”


Resisting the urge to place her hand on a wide shoulder, she peeled back the layers of memory, searching for any clue she could give him, any key to unlock the door that barred him from her.  A new idea crept in, one she at first dismissed, then slowly considered.


“What if – “ she began, then stopped, uncertain.


He continued to stare down for a few moments.  Then, as if he had just heard her, he raised his eyes.  “What if what?”


The glimmer of hope he allowed to touch the blue gaze was almost painful.  Hannah felt the weight of importance on what she might suggest.


“What if – she used another name?”


He pressed his lips together for a moment before he responded.  “I’ve tried that, but it could be anything,” he murmured, weariness creeping into his tone.  She wished suddenly she hadn’t said anything.  “I’ve used names of some of the girls who’ve worked for her, names of folks from Dodge.  And, of course, her own name – her ‘maiden’ name, so to speak – “


Abruptly, his body jerked straighter on the bed, and he lifted his eyes to her.  “No – “


“Marshal?” she asked, alarm and excitement quickening her pulse.


“She might have used – but would she want – even though she – “


Hannah couldn’t decide if his stumbling words were encouraging or not.  He’d been through a lot, after all.  Maybe he needed to lie down again.  But before she could suggest it, he pushed up from the bed, letting the grimace show freely, too focused on his thoughts to worry about it. 


“Thank you, Hannah,” he said, rising to his full height, energy firming his moves in a way she hadn’t seen in months.  And he hadn’t even had a drop of bourbon.


She frowned up, her neck craning to look at him.  “What for?”


The smile that curved his lips was genuine.  It was the first time she’d seen it, and she couldn’t get over how beautiful it was.  “For trusting me.”


Any doubts she might have harbored dissolved.  “So you’re goin’ to New Orleans,” she surmised.


“I have another telegram to send first, but, yeah, I’m goin’ to New Orleans.”


“What about the War Department?” she reminded, knowing that in the past he had dutifully waited until he had an assignment before going out.


The eyes that look back at her burned with purpose.  She had a feeling she was looking into the eyes of the real Matt Dillon.  “To hell with the War Department.”


Open-mouthed, she could only watch as he stuffed his boots back on and buckled his gun belt with the smooth dexterity of an expert.  But she had to catch her breath at the way he strode – strode – to the door, the renewed focus overriding the old pain.  Every move he made spoke of strength.  As he lifted his hat from the hook, she rose from her chair and laid a hand on his arm, turning him back to her.


“Marshal,” she began, then took a breath, wondering if she should do it, if she should share her suspicions with him, suspicions that had nagged her for half a year.  But again, she wasn’t sure, couldn’t tell him for certain.  What if she was wrong?


After a beat, she smiled at him and finished, “Be careful.”


He hesitated, eyes narrowing, but she kept quiet, just nodding in reassurance.  Finally, he returned the nod and was gone, leaving Hannah to her own thoughts, a bottle of bourbon and two full glasses her only companions. 


If her suspicions were true, he’d find out soon enough.



Chapter Seven: Strand of Steel


POV: Kitty

Spoilers: “There Was Never a Horse;” “The Badge;” “The Disciple”

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: Matt and Kitty are not my characters, although I did create a few new ones for this story.






The cards slid from her fingers with long-practiced dexterity, quick and smooth.  If she had any reason to cheat, she could have done it without a single person in the room being any the wiser.  But she was dealing straight tonight – and only for a couple of hours, she had promised herself.  Already, she was feeling the need – both physically and emotionally – to get home, or at least to get to the Creole townhouse that Ira owned on Dauphine Street.  It was still hard to think of it as home.


Of course, she would not even have considered stepping onto the New Orleans Lady so soon, except that they were in a bind what with Michel Rousseau coming down with The Grippe on their busiest night.  Ira had tried to talk her out of it, had assured her they could make do without their main dealer, but this was her investment, too, and, besides, it was only two hours.  But her body kept telling her those two hours were already up.


Even though the House had won most of the hands, her table seemed to draw the biggest crowds, mostly of men of varied ages who took more interest in the dealer than in the game.  Accustomed to male attention for most of her life, she barely gave the hovering gents a nod, having no desire to entice.


“Everything all right, Kitty?”


The quiet voice drew her gaze up to find Ira Pennington’s soft brown eyes frowning down at her, concern playing in them.  His raven hair was slicked back in the style of a gentleman, his matching mustache smartly waxed.  She smiled fondly at him, forever grateful for his kindness toward her.  “Sure.”


“Not too tired?”


“I’m okay.”


He leaned down, his shoulder brushing hers.  “I’ll call for a carriage.  You shouldn’t have come tonight.”


“I’m fine, really,” she insisted, but her words sounded thin.  At Ira’s raised brow, she capitulated.  “All right.  I’ll call it an evening after this next hand.”


His smile told her he would make sure she followed through, but he didn’t need to worry.  Neither her body nor her heart would let her stay long.


The riverboat had been hers and Ira’s for three months, and had proven itself profitable.  In the beginning, when she was still able to move about easily, she had been a familiar – and popular – presence, traveling up the Mississippi to Natchez and back.  Later, she decided to forego the cruises and visit only on the nights they kept the Lady in port.  This was the first time she had been out in six weeks, and while it felt good to escape the house for a while, her heart longed to be back with the only piece of Matt Dillon she had left.


She sighed, forcing back the melancholy that invaded her with each reminder of him.  It had been over half a year, almost eight months in fact, since she had left Dodge, but the pain was just as sharp, just as intense as it had been that first day.  A strand of steel tied her to Dodge, un-severable, even though she had tried desperately to cut the link.  That part of her life lay behind her, but the remnants clung like beggar lice.


Despite her efforts not to let it, her mind wrapped around those last memories, that last time.  She thought frequently of her talk with Hannah, telling the new saloon owner about wondering every time she and Matt were together if it would be the last time.  Now there had been a last time, and she couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop feeling him around her, against her, inside.  She ached with the pleasure and pain of that memory, clutching at it, treasuring each caress, each kiss, each movement of his long, hard body against hers.  She wondered if he remembered, too, wondered if he thought of her often – or not at all.  Or if the hurt she had seen on his face that morning had suffocated the love he had once breathed.


As the months crept by and Ira left her alone long enough to let her thoughts wander, they always flew to Matt, no matter how hard she tried to distract herself.  In the most torturous moments, she wondered if he had found someone else, wondered if his new woman rubbed his back at night, if she gave him bourbon to dull the ache, if she shivered when he ran his long fingers up the insides of her thighs, if she cried out when he touched her center, if she wrapped her legs around his waist when he sank deep inside her.  The agonizing visions tormented her night after night as she lay torn between sleeplessness and restless nightmares.


During the day, she thought saw him on street corners or stepping out of carriages, but closer looks revealed that the man was too short, too thin, too fat, too – too not Matt, and after her brain cleared, she wondered what had ever made her think it could be him in the first place.


Ira had been good to her, more than good, and she felt a little guilty that she hadn’t been completely honest with him.  But what would it matter?  She hadn’t been honest with Matt, either.  Occasionally, she wondered why she hadn’t told him.  It might have made a difference.  Then, she reminded herself that she hadn’t wanted it to make a difference, didn’t want him to stay out of obligation.  And of course, there was the danger.  It was bad enough that even as his woman she had been used to get at him.  How much worse would it be for him to carry the weight of a wife – and more?  What she had told Hannah was true: If something happened to a child of theirs because of who he was, he would never forgive himself.  The rest was true, too:  Maybe she wouldn’t forgive him, either.


Matt Dillon was a man driven to uphold the law, to do what was right, regardless of the cost to himself.  She had realized that finally, had understood a few weeks too late that the day she had dreamed of all those years – the day he turned in his badge – would never come.  He would live and die a lawman, and while she could deal with him living as a lawman, it was that dying part she couldn’t face anymore.


A thought tickled her mind, one she entertained way too often.  What if he were dead already?  She had left partly for the very reason that she couldn’t continue to live with the terror that he would be shot down right before her eyes, or brought back into town in the back of a wagon, long, lean body stiff with rigor mortis.  She had told herself she wouldn’t worry about that anymore, that it didn’t matter.  But it did.  Would she open a newspaper one day and read that some tinhorn’s lucky bullet had finally taken out the great Marshal Dillon?  Would Doc send a telegram?  Then she remembered that she hadn’t told Doc where she’d be.  In fact, she had taken pains not to be easily traced.  It occurred to her from time to time to wonder if anyone had tried to find her.  It was ironic that she chose the one name she had waited years for, but had never been offered.  Ironic that she’d be safest in New Orleans with the name that would have made her the most vulnerable in Dodge.


Anger flooded her chest anew with the haunting thoughts.  Damn him!  Damn Matt Dillon for what he had done to her.  Damn him for burrowing into her heart and not having the decency to climb out when she told him to.  Damn him for his loyalty and dedication to that damn badge.  And damn him for leaving her with a reminder so precious that she would never be able to forget him.


“Two pair!  Aces and eights!”


Driven suddenly from her thoughts, she looked up at the gambler to her left.  His dark eyes held her, challenged her to beat his hand.  Glancing down, she spread out her cards.  A seven of clubs marred the attempted straight.  She had nothing.


“Dead man’s hand wins,” she said, nodding toward him.


“Thanks, Red,” he leered, his teeth showing white under a rakish mustache.  “But I ain’t no dead man, and I’ll prove it to ya’.”


Although her expression didn’t falter, she felt a twinge of irritation at the name.  Only outlaws and no-a-counts called her Red.  Although there was the rare occasion when Matt – 


“How ‘bout you an’ me cuttinoutta here someplace more private?”


The smile still curving her lips, she returned, “Sorry, mister.  I’m kinda busy right now.”


“When ya’ get off?”


With you? she thought.  Never.  “I said I’m sorry, mister.”


His easy grin collapsed into a pout.  “Come on, Red.  It’ll be quick.”


“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” she shot back.


He flushed, and dark rage swept over his face.  Kitty winced as he grabbed her wrist and squeezed.  “Stop it,” she ground out, her natural brass not intimidated by the physical show of strength.


“I’ll stop it when I’m good and ready.  No riverboat whore’s gonna insult Elliott Randolph and get away – “


But he didn’t finish.  Kitty felt his hand squeeze tighter and looked down as another hand closed on top of it, a hand that covered the gambler’s and folded all the way around it.  A strong, long-fingered hand that was very, very familiar.  With a cry, Randolph broke his grip as his entire body was jerked away from her.   She looked up to see him hurl across the room and land with a crash, splintering a gambling table ten feet away.  Trembling with relief and anticipation, she looked up to thank her unexpected savior – and froze.


“Oh my God.”


“No, Kitty,” came the answer.  “It’s just me.”


He stood there, as tall and handsome as ever in his dark dress pants and gray jacket, hat in the hand opposite the one that had just sent her aggressor flying.  The sheer physical impact of his presence hit her like a fierce Kansas wind, and she had to lock her knees in place to remain upright.  The blue eyes fixed on her, looking her up and down in that old way of measuring her that took her breath. 


“You okay?”


She could only nod, still rooted in place, her brain sifting through a dozen responses but not managing to hang onto one.  The memory that had haunted her for eight months now returned, hitting her with the full force of the pain and fear and anger of those last moments they had spent together.






She opened her eyes to slits until she realized it was still dark outside.  He had lit a far lamp, turning the flame low so it gave only enough light in the room to keep him from stumbling into the furniture.  Lying still, she watched as he slipped on his shirt then tucked it into his pants.  His final move was to slide the right-draw gun belt around his waist, and she thought grudgingly that it seemed to greet him like an old friend.  They had been so focused on other things the night before that she had not noticed it was his old belt.  The sight pushed her heartbeat faster.  Surely he wasn’t still going out.  Surely after last night he would wait. 


She had almost pleaded with him, had appealed to common sense.  His arm wasn’t back to normal yet.  She didn’t know if it ever would be, but she didn’t tell him that.  Surely, though, he knew.  Surely, he realized the limitations of that serious injury.  Surely he could tell the difference after the sweat and pain he had put himself through the past six months trying to rehabilitate it.


But he had cheated, had countered her argument with the most powerful weapon he had: his body.  Her protests dissolved beneath his lips; her reasoning disintegrated with his caress; her fears retreated at the sight of his hard body eager for her.  She cursed herself for being weak, for letting her passions take control, but she couldn’t stop the inevitable from happening.


But now, in the hour before dawn, she realized nothing had changed.


“Matt?” she asked, voice tight.


He turned.  “Hey.”  Smiling, he sat gently on the bed next to her and brushed a lock of hair from her forehead.  “Go back to sleep.”


“What are you doing?”


He chuckled.  “It’s morning, Kitty.  I’m heading out.  I’ll see you in a week or so.”


She sat suddenly, completely unconcerned about the sheet falling from her bare breasts.  His eyes lowered involuntarily to take in the sight.


“What do you mean, you’re heading out?”  She used the tone that he knew all too well, and it was about the only thing that could have shifted his attention.




“You’re still going?”


“Kitty, you know I’m still going.  Why would you think – “


“After – after last night?”  Nausea churned in her stomach, and even though she had gotten used to that the past few weeks, this time it was for a different reason.


A frown drew his brow down.  “Kitty, I’m not sure what you mean.  Last night – well, I think you could tell how much I enjoyed last night, but what does it have to do with me leaving – or not leaving?”


“I told you I didn’t want you to go.  I – I practically begged you, made a fool of myself to get you to stay.  Don’t you remember?”


Comprehension flowed over his face.  Sighing, he stood.  “Kitty, I have to go.”


Knowing him well enough to realize he meant it, she quickly suggested, “Take Festus with you.”


“I need him here.”  He reached out to caress her arm.  “I’ll be okay.”


A fury whipped up by fear swept over her, and she jerked away from him.  “You’ll be okay?  Matt, how can you say that?  How many times have you NOT been okay?  How many times have I seen you ride back into town – or more likely seen Buck bring you back into town – barely hanging onto the saddle?   Do you know how many?”


“Kitty – “


“And now – you know that arm’s not back to normal, but there you go, big Marshal Dillon.  Nobody can take you, is that what you think?”


“You know what they say, Kitty.  There was never a horse – “


Not caring if anyone beyond the walls of her bedroom heard, she yelled, “Oh, don’t give me that rubbish!  We’re not talking about a horse!  We’re talking about a man.  About you!  You don’t think they can take you?  Well, they can!  They can gun you down, rip their bullets right through that stubborn heart of yours and then where will you be?”  Rage enflamed her eyes so that they practically shot their own bullets at him.  “Where will I be?  Where will – “ She stopped just in time, not wanting, even in her anger, to hold him that way.  “Damn you, Matt Dillon.  When are you going to learn?  When are you going to realize you’ve used up your chances?”


“Kitty – “


Her emotions almost in a frenzy, now, she lost herself in the anger and fear and exhaustion of twenty years of watching him leave, of knowing he might not return, of writhing in the anguish those nightmares brought.  Unleashed, the passions exploded at him.


“No!  You just go!  Just go, but don’t expect me to welcome you back.  Kitty Russell isn’t just going to wait around for you to stagger back in half torn up – or not at all.  Get the hell out of here!”


Expression battered, he made a final to attempt to reach out to her, but she pulled away.  Lips pressed tight, he shoved his hat onto his head and opened the door.  “I’ll see you later, Kitty,” he said, but in that moment, she knew those would be the last words she would hear from Matt Dillon.






And now he stood before her, and her heart shuddered under the combined assault of joy and fury, of relief and resentment.  The familiar scent of soap and leather wrapped around her and tugged her toward him.  She found her voice finally, making it as even as she could.  “Matt.”


Taking a breath, he straightened, hat still in hand, and stepped forward, bringing him within inches of Kitty.  She felt her pulse jump, heard her heart pound, and she wondered if he was going to touch her, or even kiss her – wondered if she could resist him if he did.  But he didn’t make either attempt, just stood there before her.


“You look good, Kitty,” he said simply, but she knew him well enough to read more in his eyes.


She didn’t answer, her eyes doing their own looking from years of habit, seeing each new scar, every additional scrape.  He had lost weight, she saw.  His shirt hung looser, his pants a little longer.  His face, though still handsome, seemed drawn, the long lines deeper, heavier.  Looking up, she noted that his hair was just as beautiful, just as thick and wavy, but more gray had encroached into the rich brown.  And it had only been eight months since she left.


“How – how did you find me?”


“I’m a lawman.”


As if she had to be reminded.  She let that irritation lend her strength to overcome the urge to throw herself at him right then.  “No, I mean, how did you figure out I was in New Orleans?”


He almost smiled.  “Where else would you be?”


“But I – my name – “


Eyes widening, he flushed a little.  “Yeah, that took me a while,” he admitted, looking embarrassed at his uncharacteristic lack of deduction.  “Now that I think on it, though, I guess I should have figured it out a long time ago.”


Before she could respond, a movement to her left caught their attention, and she turned just as Ira stepped in next to her, sliding a protective arm around her shoulders.  “Is this man bothering you, Kitty?” he asked, voice dangerously courteous.


“No,” she assured him quickly.  “No.  This is – “ Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to do the introductions.  “Ira Pennington, this is – Matt Dillon.”


Ira’s eyes narrowed first at the marshal, then at her.  “Matt – Dillon?” he repeated, as if he hadn’t heard her right.


“Marshal Dillon,” she said, her eyes pleading with Ira not to say anything.


After a moment, the smaller man nodded and let his arm drop to Kitty’s waist.  “Marshal.  Is there anything I can help you with?”


Looking back at Matt, she saw the shadow cross his face, watched him glance between her and Ira, perceived his comprehension of the situation – and winced at the flicker of pain.  Absently, his right hand eased into his coat pocket and moved as if he were going to take out something, but when he pulled the hand back, it was empty. Tossing his hat a little, he cleared his throat and looked down.  When he looked back up, he inclined his head slightly toward Ira.


“No, I was – just in town on business, and decided to – pay my respects to – an old friend,” he said.


She felt her heart break all over again, and barely kept herself from stumbling into his arms and telling him everything, begging him to stay.  But she knew she had to remain strong, had to fight every impulse in order to stand there and let him go.  Nothing had changed.  She would not let him take her back to Dodge just to wait for him to die or to wait for some outlaws bent on revenge to come after his woman – or worse.  It was better for both of them this way. 


At least that’s what she kept trying to tell herself.  But it had been a lot easier when he was a thousand miles away.


“It – it was good to see you again, Matt,” she managed.  “I’m sorry you can’t stay longer.”  It took a hard swallow to say the rest.  “Have – have a safe trip back to Dodge.”


He flinched as if she had slapped him, and she had to bite her lip to keep the tears from flowing.  His expressive eyes bore into hers, as if reading her, digging deep into her soul.  Finally, with a heavy breath, he tugged his hat back onto his head and nodded to her, emotions just as tight as his lips. 


“My apologies if I – caused trouble,” he said, voice rigid.  “Goodbye.”


He turned, wide shoulders towering above every other man in the room, and walked toward the door.  Ira tightened his grip on her, and maybe that was the only thing that kept her from tearing away and running after the big lawman.


“Kitty,” he asked tentatively, “is he – “


She could only nod, not trusting her voice.  She watched as the tall body moved farther and farther away from her, out of her life again just as quickly as he had come back in.  If she could survive these few moments, if she could live through the fresh rip in her heart, she might have a chance.  He was almost at the door, almost out of sight.  She had almost made it.  He was almost gone.


He was almost gone!  Involuntarily, her feet stumbled forward, pulled by that steel strand that cut right through her resolve.  Confused, Ira hung onto her.


“Matt!” she called, unable to stop herself.


He froze for a moment, then turned, face guarded but expectant.


Before she could reach him, though, Elliott Randolph stepped between them, having somehow managed to drag himself to his feet, blood streaming from his nose, shoulders hunched menacingly.


“All right, mister,” he rumbled, “you think you’re a big man, do ya?  Let’s see what you can do in a fair fight.”


Even past her roiling emotions, Kitty almost laughed, almost felt sorry for Randolph – almost.  The shorter man rounded on Matt in attack stance, circling.  The marshal squared, hands hanging at his sides, and waited at the door.


“Stay back, Kitty,” Matt warned, eyes locked on Randolph.


“I don’t know who you think you are,” the gambler jeered, “but you’re gonna stay away from my woman.”


“Now see here – “ Ira began.


Matt’s brow rose.  “Seemed to me like ‘your woman’ was more interested in you stayin’ away from her,” he observed calmly.

That was enough to provoke the gambler, and he lunged at the Dodge City marshal, whose sudden, powerful backhand caught him hard and laid open his cheek with a spray of blood.  Stumbling back, Randolph gritted his teeth and spit red, running full force, head down, toward Matt.  Dillon took the impact still on his feet and drove the furious man back to the floor with a crushing right hook that smashed into the side of Randolph’s head.  The gambler lay still.


Straightening and pushing his hat back, Matt looked at her, his gaze cautious, questioning.  “Kitty – “


Before he could finish, a flash of metal reflected off the cut glass chandeliers. 


“Matt!” she cried.


Spinning, the marshal drew and fired, but the knife was already in the air.  It sank into his left shoulder at the same time Randolph’s body contorted from the bullet that tore through his heart.   The gambler crashed into a chair before he ended up lifeless on the floor.  Somewhere, the bizarre thought passed through her brain that Randolph’s hand really had been the Dead Man’s Hand.


But she thrust that from her head when she looked back up at Matt.  Face contorting in pain, he clutched at the protruding knife handle and staggered back.  A red stain had already begun to soak the material of his coat as he dropped to his knees.


“Matt!” Kitty screamed, tearing away from Ira and falling beside the big man as he collapsed completely.  Gently, she laid her hands on either side of his face.  “Matt?”


“I’m – okay, Kitty,” he grunted, eyes squeezed shut against the pain.


“The hell you are.”


Someone called for a doctor – she thought it was Ira – and she hoped that some physician had seen fit to gamble tonight.  Matt’s hand came up toward the wound, his body trying to find the source of pain and stop it.  She caught his fingers in hers to keep him from doing more damage.


“Take it easy, Cowboy,” she soothed, the endearment coming without effort.  An uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu crept through her veins; this was a much too familiar scene.


At her voice, his eyes opened, their beautiful blue clouded gray.  “Kitty,” he murmured.


She couldn’t help it.  As much as she had tried to forget him, as much as she had promised herself Matt Dillon was out of her life, she couldn’t stop the swell of love that filled her breast.  Leaning over, she kissed him softly on the cheek and ran a hand through his hair.  It’s gonna be okay, Matt,” she said.  “I’m here.  I’m here.”


A slight smile, barely a twitch of his lips, responded to her assurances before unconsciousness claimed him.  Kitty sat beside him, tears streaming down her face, hands brushing through his hair.  When a doctor arrived, she stayed close enough to hold Matt’s hand.  Even if he couldn’t feel it, she could.  Ira returned, bent over her and looked at her curiously.  She could only shake her head, not having answers for him – for any of them. 


Matt Dillon had found her, had come for her once more.  And here she was again, sitting beside him, watching him bleed while a doctor tried to patch him up.  Damn it!  Damn him!  And damn him again – because in that moment, she knew she couldn’t send him away – but she couldn’t go back to the life she had before.


So she sat there, holding his hand and praying that there was some answer out there, even she if didn’t know what it was yet.



Chapter Eight:  Other Things to Consider


POV: Matt

Spoilers: “Hostage!;” “The Disciple”

Rating: PG (Teen)

Disclaimer: The main characters are not mine, although I did create a few guest stars along the way.






Matt Dillon opened his eyes to the soft glow thrown by a low-burning oil lamp.  The shadows cast on the walls of the room played gently against gilt-framed portraits on one side and a large wardrobe on the other.  He lay still for a moment, too many years of similar experiences cautioning him to gather quick information about his situation before acting.  A deep burn in his left shoulder, a persistent buzz in his head, and a general stiff ache down his body gave immediate signals that he had once again survived some unpleasant incident.


Without moving too much, he glanced down to discover that he lay on a large canopied bed, covers drawn to his waist, bare-chested except for a tightly bound bandage around the throbbing shoulder.  Had he been shot?  He couldn’t wipe the fuzziness from his brain enough to retrieve clear memories.  Frowning, he pushed hard past the physical pain in an effort to figure out what his last conscious thoughts were.




The name, the vision, the touch swept over him as if she were actually in the room.  Not shot – stabbed, he remembered, then.  By some low-life gambler who had tried to take advantage of her.  He cursed himself for dropping his guard, for letting himself think only a couple of hard punches could have dispensed the man so easily.  He was lucky to have escaped with only a shoulder wound.


A creak from the door cut into his replay of events, and he tried to push up to greet whoever was entering the room, his heart beating a little faster in anticipation that it might be Kitty.  But it wasn’t Kitty.  Not even close.   A dark man, medium height and mustached, stepped in quietly, his eyes peering at Matt.  When he saw the patient was awake, he relaxed a bit and walked in more boldly.


“Ah, Marshal.  I’m glad to see you are feeling better.”  The voice was laced with a rich drawl, not the mixed heavy Cajun of so many New Orleans residents, but a lighter, more genteel style. 


“Evening,” Matt greeted.  Then, as he remembered the name, added, “Mister Pennington.”


The man waved a hand casually.  “Oh, call me Ira.  You gave us quite a scare for a while there.  I was beginning to wonder if you were going to wake up at all.”


Matt frowned, deciding that, first of all, he was not going to call this guy Ira, and second, he couldn’t have been out that long.  It had been evening when he stepped on board The New Orleans Lady looking for Kitty.  A quick glance at the window told him it was still evening.  “What – what time is it?”


Ira pulled a gleaming gold pocket watch from his waistcoat.  “Getting close to midnight now.”


Midnight.  That was only a few hours.  He’d been out much longer than that many times before.  Grimacing, he did his best to push up using his right arm, experiencing only mild success.


“Here, now,” Ira cautioned, coming around to help.  “Careful.  The doctor said you needed to rest as much as possible.  You’ve had quite a hard time of it.”


Again, Dillon frowned.  These New Orleans folks must not have much sand to them if they thought a couple of hours sleep after being stabbed was a hard time.  “I’m fine,” he assured the other man, not liking how weak his voice sounded.


“Well, you do look better than you did a few days ago.”


“Yeah, well –   Days?  Swallowing, Matt asked quietly, “How long have I been out?”


Ira pursed his lips and lifted his eyes, as if counting.  “Let’s see, you were stabbed Friday.  Today’s Monday.  That makes three days now.”


Three days?  “Just from a knife wound?” Matt scoffed.


“Well, Marshal, there are some who would consider being stabbed with a knife a relatively significant thing, but the way Kitty talks about you, it doesn’t surprise me that you’re not one of them.”


At the mention of her name, Dillon’s thoughts abandoned how long he’d been out.  There were more important issues here.  “Where is Kitty?” he asked.


Pennington’s eyes shifted away so that he was no longer looking at the marshal.  “She – uh – she’s busy right now.  But I’ll tell her you’re awake.”


Busy?  Matt let his gaze trail to the half-open door, as if he might catch a glimpse of her passing by.  Busy.  Of course.  He should have known, should have realized.  She didn’t want to see him.  She hadn’t asked him to come, had she?  And now he had interrupted the life she had just begun.  A life without him.  A life without the uncertainties and dangers he had brought her for the past twenty years.  At least until he showed up, and then she was thrust right back into gunplay and knives.


He nodded at Ira and watched him for a moment, trying to size up this man Kitty had chosen.  Pennington was more cultured, Matt figured, or at least more accustomed to the luxuries of life, more in a position to give Kitty comfort and nice things.  He wondered uneasily if he could give her love, wondered if he already had.


“This is your house?” the marshal guessed.


Ira nodded.  “Yes.”




The man shrugged easily.  “I have been fortunate enough in life to be able to afford some of the finer things.”


Abruptly, Matt decided he had to get out of there.  He couldn’t stay in a house that belonged to Kitty’s new lover, couldn’t bear the thought of what might occur within that house between them, couldn’t stand the mental images of her in another man’s arms.  Throwing the covers back, he swung his long legs over the side of the bed and sat, grunting against the various attacks of pain throughout his body.


“Hey, there!” Ira protested, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder.


Matt fought the impulse to knock the hand away.  “I have to go,” he said, voice strained with the effort.  “I’m obliged for your help.”


Pennington looked confused.  “But you’re in no shape even to be sitting.  The doctor said – “


“I’m sure the doctor’s a fine man, but I need to be getting back to Dodge.” 


“Kitty was right.  You are stubborn,” he noted, hurrying back out of the room.


Matt scowled, displeased that Kitty had shared anything about him with this man.  Taking a bracing breath, he pushed to his feet, nodding in satisfaction when he stayed there.  But his success was short-lived.  In only a few seconds, cold sweat broke out over his skin, blood drained from his face, and his legs softened to jelly.  Fighting to keep his eyes focused, he squinted about the room in search of his clothes, black spots dancing in front of his vision, leading him down a dark tunnel.  Disgusted with his body’s betrayal, it occurred to him too late that perhaps he needed to sit, but even scrounging up that much energy suddenly seemed like too much effort.




He turned at the familiar cry, jerking suddenly, too suddenly, and lost his balance, falling sideways onto his left side.  He thought he hit the edge of the bed, but wasn’t sure.  Pain burst through the injured shoulder, exploding in fireballs that raced to his head, engulfing his consciousness in a conflagration of agony.  Then he felt nothing.






When he came to again, he was back in the same bed, covers in place, lamp still glowing.  Glancing down at his shoulder, he noted with a grimace that fresh bandages swathed it, even thicker and more binding than before.  Another sensation nudged its way into his awareness, a soft, warm touch at his hand.  Raising his eyes, he saw Kitty sitting by his side, her eyes darkened in concern.


“Hey, Cowboy,” she greeted quietly.


There was a time when he had loved to hear her call him that.  A time when he had wrapped his heart around those words and burrowed into the security of them.  A time when those words inevitably led to the sweetest and most passionate loving he had ever known.  But that time had passed.  He couldn’t hear those words now, couldn’t re-live their past, knowing they didn’t mean the same anymore. 


“Where am I?” he asked, still trying to blink his way back to alertness.


“You’re at Ira’s house in the French Quarter,” Kitty answered, her hand brushing soft and cool against his forehead.


Oh yeah.  Ira’s house.


The knife that had torn his shoulder twisted a little more, but the pain was in his heart now.  Ira.  Scenes from the riverboat flashed in his mind:  the way the man held Kitty; the protective threat in his eyes.  It was what he had feared, of course, and he had only himself to blame.  He looked back up at her, his breath catching, as it always did, at her beauty. 


“How’re ya’ feeling?” she asked.


He nodded, a move that meant absolutely nothing.  Looking into those deep blue eyes, he considered how easy it would be to draw her to him, to feel her tender skin against him, to crush her beautiful breasts to his chest, to join their bodies once more and show her just how much he needed her – if she’d have him.  But he couldn’t.  She had made her choice and he wouldn’t stand in the way of her happiness.  He’d done that for far too long.  If she had found peace in New Orleans, he couldn’t take that from her, even if it meant losing himself for good.  His entire life had been about sacrifice.  He’d sacrificed for complete strangers.  How could he not do it for Kitty?  Gritting his teeth, he tried to pull his body up from the bed, only managing a few inches before the burn of his shoulder slammed him back down.


“Whoa, there,” she scolded, her hands on his chest.  “Where do ya’ think you’re goin’?”


“I need – I have to get back to Dodge,” he said, even though he wanted to do anything but that.


“Dodge?  You’re not going anywhere, mister.  Not for a while anyway.”


“Kitty,” he complained, hoping she’d understand, “it’s just a knife wound.  Not like I haven’t had anything like that before.”


Just a knife wound?  I swear, Matt, if you could hear yourself.  Anyway, it’s not just a knife wound.  The doctor said you are also suffering from exhaustion and a whole collection of half-healed injuries.  Your knee was so swollen we almost couldn’t get your pants off.  Just what on earth have you been doing since I’ve been gone?”


Falling apart, he wanted to say.  Falling apart.


“Kitty,” he argued, trying not to sound desperate, but needing to get out before he really did fall apart right there in front of her.  “I can’t – I can’t stay here.”  He couldn’t watch them, couldn’t bear to see her with someone else, knowing another man was touching her, loving her –


“Why not?  Ira has plenty of room, and he doesn’t mind.”


Sure he doesn’t, Matt thought.  “No, Kitty,” he pushed, head spinning with the effort.  “I need to – “ 


Her voice suddenly took on a sharp tone, the anger bleeding through.  “So you’ll just leave again, huh?  Just like before, even when I’m asking you to stay?”


Confusion and memory battered him, but they were merely the vanguard of a surge of anger of his own.  Was she really accusing him of leaving her?  Was she putting this whole thing on him?  Suddenly, months of fear and depression and frustration – and loneliness – surged to the surface.  Unable to press them back down, he dragged himself up, despite the agony that smashed through his body, and faced her, eyes blazing. 


“What do you mean, I’ll leave?” he snapped.  I’m not the one who walked out, Kitty.  I’m not the one who vanished without a word, without a trace.  I’m not the one who abandoned twenty years of – of commitment – of – of love.  I’m not the one who left just when – ”


His arms were shaking now, barely holding him up, but he refused to give in to them.  He hadn’t planned to confront her at all, had determined that if she had chosen this life, who was he to interfere.  But if she wanted this argument now, she would have it. 


“You just left, Kitty.  You left!  No explanation.  No note.  Nothing.  I didn’t know if you were dead or alive.  I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again.”  Or hear you laugh again, or look into your eyes again, or make love to you again.  “I haven’t stopped looking for you since that day – or least after I got over the hangover from drinking myself into oblivion in Doc’s office that night.”


She flinched, but he couldn’t feel any sympathy.  “I’ve seen you in every town I’ve been to, shopping in every dress store, stepping off each stage coach, dealing in every saloon.”  His energy was gone, now, draining him of the anger and the hurt.  Dropping back down onto the bed, he had only the breath to ask, “Why?”


Her own eyes had grown wide, and she stared back at him in shock.  Instead of exploding at him as he had anticipated, though, she let her gaze drop to study her hands.  “Matt,” she said softly, almost so low that he couldn’t hear her.  “I know – I know I owe you an explanation.”


His heart pounded, torn between yearning and dreading to hear her reasons for leaving.


Suddenly, she stood, as if she couldn’t bear being too close to him.  Nausea churned in his stomach.  Looking out the darkened window, she said, “I couldn’t stay any longer.  I couldn’t – I couldn’t stand waiting to see if you were coming back or not coming back.  I couldn’t risk having my heart torn out by a telegram telling me you were dead – or by watching you die right in front of me.”


He had known that for twenty years, had seen the burdens his job placed on her.  Dear God, he knew, and he had finally done something about it.  But he had done something too late.  Not sure what to say, he remained silent, letting her continue.


“When I was – your woman – I know you worried about me.  I know that’s why you thought we could never be together as man and wife.  You felt it would place me in too much danger.  And you felt you couldn’t do your job as well if you had to worry about a family.”


He wanted to protest her theory, wanted to tell her she was wrong.  But he couldn’t.  She had hit right on every reason he had for not claiming her as his wife years ago.


“After Bonner, I thought maybe – “


The knife twisted again in his heart, just like it did every time he heard that name.  “Kitty – “


But she shook her head, still staring out the window.  “No.  Bonner wasn’t your fault, even though I know you’ll never believe that.  It just happened, and we survived it, and it’s over.”


It’ll never be over, he thought.


“But I thought maybe since it happened when I was just your woman, you’d figured it wouldn’t make any difference if I was your wife.”


His eyes closed against the realization and the guilt.  He had told himself the same thing when it happened, had almost broken down then and asked her to marry him, but he convinced himself Bonner was a fluke.  The dog soldier hadn’t known about Kitty until he got into town.  He would never have known if she hadn’t sacrificed herself to save the others.  Matt had been proud of her – as proud of her as he had been furious with her for doing it.


“And then when your arm was hurt,” she continued quietly, “I hurt for you, I knew you were fighting to regain not just your arm, but who you were.  Still, I thought maybe this was it.  This was when you would see it might be time to try something different.  Something that didn’t put you in harm’s way every minute of every day.  But you did what you always do.  You didn’t give in, you fought and you won – and I was proud of you for it, but – “


Turning toward him, she allowed her tears to fall.  “I begged you not to leave.  That last night, I begged you.”


He knew, had replayed those last moments in his mind hundreds of times, had mulled over “what ifs” until he couldn’t remember where he was or what he was doing.  He wanted to tell her he had understood, had made his decision that trip out there on the trail lying under the stars dreaming of her.  But it was too late.


“And now – “ she started, her breath catching.  “Now, there are – other things to consider.”


Pennington, he realized.  She meant Ira Pennington.  Whatever relationship they had, it obviously meant a great deal to her.  Anger gone, he sighed and drew a breath, knowing what he had to do.


“That’s why I’m going, Kitty.  I’d never want to make you unhappy, even though I’ve been doing it for twenty years – “


The tears trailed down her cheeks.  “You haven’t made me unhappy, Matt.  The past twenty years have been the happiest of my life.”


The ache in his chest grew.  She couldn’t make it easier for him, could she?


“Kitty, I couldn’t have been who I was for the past twenty years without you.  I don’t know if you can realize how much you’ve meant in my life.  But I’ve asked too much of you, more than you can give now.  I see that.  In New Orleans, you don’t have to worry about someone coming into town to kill me or to take you to get to me.  You have – “ He swallowed, gathering the courage to continue.  “You have – Ira to take care of you with beautiful, fancy things that I’ll never be able to give you.  You have someone to – ”  He let his words fall off as he looked up at her and saw the confusion on her lovely features.


“Ira?” she said, frowning.  “What does he have to do with it?”


Damn it.  Couldn’t she just let him be gallant and get the hell out of there?  “I understand, Kitty,” he said, even though he really didn’t understand, or at least didn’t want to understand.  “You and Ira – “


“Me and Ira?”  Her mouth dropped, and she stared at him for a long beat.  Then something amazing happened.  She laughed, a hearty Kitty Russell laugh that rolled from her throat.  He almost smiled just to hear the sound he had missed for almost a year.


“Kitty?” he asked, suddenly uncertain.


She continued, gasping for deep breaths until she finally caught one and managed to speak again.  “Matthew Dillon!” she declared, and he couldn’t help the glow he felt when she said his name.  “You are the most incredibly dense and lovely man.”


“I am?”


“Me and Ira?”


It was dawning on him that perhaps he had misjudged Kitty’s connection with the man, and he allowed his emotions to creep toward a hopeful reassessment.


“You remember me talking about my cousin Charlotte?” she asked.


He nodded, even though he really didn’t remember it at all.


“Ira’s her husband.  I’ve been staying here with them since I got into town.  They’ve been awful good to me, especially since – ”  She stopped suddenly.


He caught her wrist, confusion and relief kicking at him.  “Kitty, I thought – “


“I can see that.”  Gentleness touched her voice just as her hand touched his face.  “No, Matt.  I’m not with Ira.”


The deluge of emotions drenched him, flowed over him until he feared he would lose complete control of himself.  Clenching his jaw and catching a hard breath, he fought to keep the sensation from overwhelming him, squeezed his eyes shut to block out the embarrassing well of tears.


“Matt?” she asked, alarmed.  “Are you okay?  Should I send for the doctor again?”


“No,” he gasped, then forced the calm into his voice.  “No.  I’m all right.”  Dear God, he was more than all right. 


“Matt,” she whispered, her fingers brushing over his lips.  “I love you.  I’ve loved you for twenty years and I’ll never stop loving you.”


He stared at her, unable to respond.


“But I can’t go back to Dodge.  I can’t go back to waiting for you to die.  And I can’t put the burden on you to protect me and – “ 


She smiled sadly, leaning down to kiss the lips her fingers had just caressed and it was the sweetest nectar he had ever sipped.  She tried to pull back, but he opened his mouth to her, drinking from her like a man who had been in the desert for weeks without water.  He wanted to drown in her, would die a happy man if he could.  Her lips responded, parting for him, giving to him and taking from him eagerly, frantically.


Suddenly, she broke away, and they both groaned at the loss of contact.  “Matt,” she gasped, “I have to tell you something.”


No, he didn’t want to know anything except that she loved him and that somehow they would make this work.  He wanted her lips again, wanted her body next to his, wanted her love.


But she continued anyway.  “What I told you was true, about leaving Dodge.  The reasons I gave you.  But there’s something else.  Someone else that’s more important than any of those other reasons.”


His heart sank anew in his chest.  Someone else?  But she had said that she and Ira weren’t together.  How could she kiss him like that if  


“His name is Sam,” she said, and the softness and love that filled her eyes told him all he needed to know.


“Sam?” he choked out, soul aching.


“Sam,” she confirmed.  “Would you like to meet him?”


Meet him?  God, no.  He needed to get out of there.  This was a nightmare, surely she knew that.  “Kitty – “


She pushed up from the bed before he could move.  “I’ll be right back.”


As soon as she disappeared, he forced his feet to the floor and stood, grateful that his body seemed to fulfill that demand a little better than before.  His pants lay folded neatly in a chair he hadn’t noticed earlier, and he struggled to pull them on using mainly his right hand.  Desperate to leave before she could get back, he was still fumbling with the buttons when she returned, not seeming at all surprised to see him standing.


Grimacing, he braced for yet another blow, another unbearable twist of the knife.  But to his surprise, no man hovered behind her, no suitor glared at him from over her shoulder.  Instead, she carried something, a small bundle of soft blue blankets that, on closer inspection, seemed to be squirming.  And she fairly glowed as she looked down at the material.


Letting her gaze rise to his, she took an unsteady breath and held the bundle out carefully toward him.  “Matt,” she said softly, “I want you to meet Matthew Samuel Dillon.”






His brain slowed as if he had molasses inside his head.  Looking down, he saw that she had pushed some of the blanket away to reveal a round-cheeked little face, long-fingered hands curling and uncurling at the tiny mouth, familiar blue eyes peering up at him.


It was a baby.  Dear God, it was a baby.  It was –


He looked up at her suddenly, comprehension slamming into him.


“Your son,” she confirmed.


His breath stopped completely, and he wasn’t too sure his heart didn’t, too.  His son?


His son.


His son.


Dear God.



Chapter Nine: Twenty Years, But No Buckshot


POV: Kitty

Spoilers: “Tap Day for Kitty;” “Bad Lady from Brookline;” “The Badge;” “Disciple”

Rating: Teen (PG)

Disclaimer: Not my characters (except the obvious one – although I guess Matt and Kitty take the most credit for him)






Daylight had begun to pry through the heavy drapes of the guest room at the house on Dauphine Street, thin shafts of illumination throwing bright streaks across the rumpled bedclothes.   Kitty squirmed in the straight-backed chair and drew a deep breath, extending arms and legs in a ginger stretch.  She had sneaked back into Matt’s room just before dawn, having seen to her son’s needs – their son, she corrected herself.   Her eyes fell on the man whose long frame took up most of the bed before her, and she couldn’t resist reaching out and running her fingers over the rough stubble of his jaw, through the untamed waves of his hair.  He needed a trim – more like a full cut, actually.  The long curls flipped around his ears and hung over his forehead, not as dark as when she had first run her hands through them twenty years before, but still just as thick.


She hadn’t tried to fool herself, hadn’t pretended that she was over him.  She knew well enough that would never happen – not after eight months or eight years or eighty years.  The moment she laid eyes on that big, tall, handsome lawman, her heart had been completely, hopelessly, and eternally entangled with his.  Now, twenty years later, she was no less caught.  On the contrary, Matt Dillon had sunk so deep inside her and wrapped himself so solidly around her heart that not even death could pry him loose.  And, she thought ruefully, the Grim Reaper had certainly tried to often enough.


As was her habit, she let her gaze scan his body, taking note of the new marks, of the small scar just below his eye, the larger one across his ribs, and another over the knuckles of his left hand.  Each had been added since she had last seen him.  As usual, she wondered what had left them, wondered how much pain their creations had caused, wondered if her presence might have made them hurt just a little less.  If she had been there, maybe she could have helped him, soothed the discomfort – or at least distracted him for a while.  But she hadn’t been there.  He had earned those scars alone.




She looked up at the sound of the soft drawl to see her cousin Charlotte peek into the room.  Smiling tiredly, Kitty lifted her chin to welcome the other woman.  Although they held a direct blood relation through grandparents, the two women couldn’t have been more different in appearance.  While Kitty had inherited the fair skin and fiery hair of her mother’s family, Charlotte favored the dark Creole of her father’s side, her raven curls piled up in a tight mass on top of her head.  And while Charlotte had been content to fall into the expected second-class status of most women of her day, Kitty had balked at being dependent on anyone except herself.  Still, the two had formed a bond in childhood that had been reborn in the months since Kitty returned to New Orleans.


Charlotte stepped across the threshold.  “You must be exhausted,” she observed.  “Why don’t you let me sit with him for a while?”


Kitty couldn’t deny the fatigue that pressed down on each muscle, but there was no way she would leave him.  Not now.  Not after they’d had to call the doctor again.  And certainly not after the way Matt had reacted to Sam.  “I’m okay,” she told her cousin.


The other woman shook her head.  “Sure.”


“Sam still asleep?” Kitty asked, changing the focus.


It worked.  Charlotte gave her a soft smile.  “Like a baby.  He sure is beautiful, Kitty.”


“He is, isn’t he?”


“I always figured you’d have handsome children, but now that I’ve seen his daddy, I can tell Sam gets it from both sides.”


Well, she couldn’t refute that.


“Is he going to be all right?” Charlotte asked, glancing pointedly toward the bed.


Kitty sighed, wishing she really knew.  The doctor said his wounds would mend.  But there were more than just physical recoveries to consider now.  “I think so, if I can just keep him in bed for a little while.”


Her cousin colored.  “Seems like you already did that.”


Kitty raised a brow in surprised acknowledgement of that truth.  Charlotte usually was too timid to make such suggestive statements. 


“If you’ll pardon my asking, Kitty,” she continued, “but, my goodness, how on earth could you have walked away from that?”  Her head nodded toward the sleeping man, and Kitty saw the appreciative twinkle in her dark eyes.


Sighing, Kitty looked at him, trying to imagine him from someone else’s view, to look at him as if she hadn’t known him intimately for two decades.  He was still the biggest man she had ever seen – and the best looking.  His assets were plentiful:  firm hips, long legs – the muscles bold and hard from years of riding; broad chest, wide shoulders, trim waist, strong arms; thick, curly hair, handsome face.  There was no doubt that, physically, he was the most impressive man she had ever seen.


But there was so much more to Matt Dillon: his deep sense of right and wrong; his genuine concern for his fellow humans; his value of honesty and fair play; his kindness and gentleness; and in the most intimate of situations, his tenderness and selflessness.


But it was the damn unwavering devotion to duty that had finally defeated her.  She couldn’t compete with it.  Instead of sharing all those complex thoughts with Charlotte, however, she just shrugged.  “Damned if I know.”


Her cousin cocked her head dubiously, but didn’t debate the response.  Instead, she asked another question.  “What did he say when you told him about – Sam?”


Kitty’s eyes darkened, the guilty memory weighing on her.  She had expected him to be shocked, certainly; angry, probably.  What she got, though, was something much more complex.


She didn’t answer Charlotte, but her cousin seemed to sense the uneasiness.  Offering an understanding smile, she observed, “He must love you very much, Kitty, to come all this way after all this time.”


“Yeah,” Kitty whispered, her eyes lingering on his lips, which were slightly open.  He had always looked younger and a tad vulnerable like that.  She resisted the urge to crawl in next to him and hold him close.  When she dragged her gaze away, she saw Charlotte’s sympathetic eyes on her.


“Are you glad he came?” she asked quietly.


Glad?  She was ecstatic.  She was thrilled.  She was terrified.


When she didn’t answer again, Charlotte prodded, “What are you going to do, Kitty?”


It was a question she had asked herself for the past four days.  What, indeed?  Maybe that depended on what Matt did.  As she watched the steady rise and fall of his chest, her thoughts returned to those moments after she had dropped her bombshell on him. 






Kitty Russell had seen every expression that Matt Dillon’s handsome face could make – or at least she thought she had until she watched him stand immobile, staring at the infant squirming in her extended arms.   Although many people saw the formidable U.S. marshal as stoic and impenetrable, in her presence, those expressive features had revealed a myriad of emotions: honest delight, heated desire, furious anger, hard determination, subtle amusement.  But she didn’t think that, until this moment, she had ever observed flat-out, speechless astonishment.


The illogical notion occurred to her to place a hand on his chest and see if he was still breathing.  Of course, he wasn’t alone.  Her own breath came tentatively, as well.  Still, he had paled visibly, and she could count it as reasonably sure that blood loss wasn’t the only cause.  For a moment, she was afraid he would pass out right there on the floor and re-open the shoulder wound the doctor had just finished closing back up after he had lost his balance and fallen only a couple of hours before.  But so far he had managed to hang on, his blue eyes locking on the matching blue eyes of the child – his child, she had just announced.


Moments before, when they had kissed for the first time in months, she had wanted nothing more than to lose herself in him, to shout for joy at the heat and passion of his lips on hers, at the anticipation of feeling his hard body again.  It had taken all her strength to pull away and not throw herself on him, bandaged shoulder and all.  But it wouldn’t have been fair to either of them.  Even if he had been physically able to block out the pain of his injury and absorb the pleasure of her body – and he had certainly managed that numerous times in the past – there was something he needed to know, deserved to know, before he risked his heart – and hers – again.


Slowly, his gaze rose from the baby, and what she saw on his face then was even worse than the hurt she had seen on it their last night together.




Unable to suppress the tears that sprang to her eyes, she let him look, allowed him the moment of silent condemnation.  Even though she knew she’d had to leave Dodge, she could not deny him the right to place the secret of this squirming bundle of guilt on her shoulders.  Not that he was aware he was doing it – in fact, she wasn’t sure he was aware of anything except the shock of the child before him.


Silence stretched between them, broken only by the soft mewling of their baby.  Finally, his eyes closed, and he swayed, catching a hand on the bed post to steady himself.


“Matt?”  Alarmed, Kitty noted the darkening stain on the bandage and shifted Sam to the crook of her arm before she grasped Matt’s elbow.  “You need to sit.”


He shook his head and straightened, as if to prove he wasn’t mere moments away from collapse.  “No.  I just – I – “  His features melted into that look that had always held the capability to tear right through her heart, that look that appeared as though he carried the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. 


“Matt?” she asked again quietly, shaken by the depth of his pain.


The lines of his face tightened, and he drew in a ragged breath.  “My God, Kitty.”


Those three words cut her deeper than any drawn-out tirade ever could.  She reached out to him.  “Matt – “


But he pulled back, barely staying on his feet.  “Kitty?” he asked, face wiped clean of any mask, soul bared completely to her to reveal the wound that cut him much deeper than any solid knife could.  “You didn’t tell me?  You didn’t –   He looked down at the baby again, his voice falling to a whisper.  My son?


She nodded, heartsick with the realization that her actions that had been done to spare him the pain of having to protect and worry about a woman and child had instead caused more injury and grief.  “Get back in bed, Matt,” she admonished as gently as possible, concerned about the sudden paleness of his cheeks.  “I’ll get Ira – “


“You didn’t tell me,” he murmured once more, the words falling from his lips as his body fell back against the heavy wardrobe, his head slamming hard into the wood.


She screamed his name, then Ira’s, startling Sam, whose own cries joined in the chaos.   Ira’s rapid footsteps hammered down the hall, followed quickly by softer ones.  He and Charlotte darted into the room, and before Kitty could really register what had happened, her cousin held the baby, and Ira was struggling to haul Matt’s solid frame off the floor.  Kitty helped as best she could, and they managed to drag the tall lawman back onto the bed.  Ira had then summoned the doctor again, who wasn’t too pleased about being roused from his bed – for the second time – in one night.  But he determined that there had been no further damage done and had left, pacified by the wad of greenbacks Ira pressed into his palm.






Fresh guilt washed over her with the memory.  She figured she knew Matt Dillon better than anyone else.  Twenty years of intimacy, twenty years of confidences, twenty years of shared looks and private smiles.  Still, even after all that time – even with her – she had never felt he ever completely let go of the tight grip he held on his deepest feelings.  Oh, he had whispered beautiful words to her as he held her close and brought her body the most exquisite pleasures.  He told her secrets about his childhood and about some of his experiences on the trail.  He had joked with her, let his guard down when they were alone.  And she knew that no one else had ever heard – or would ever hear – those things.  Still, there had remained a piece of Matt Dillon buried so deep that no one had ever seen it. 


Until she pried it loose.  It didn’t matter that she felt it was for his own good.  It didn’t matter that she figured the truth would cause him more grief.  It didn’t matter.  When she saw the devastation in his eyes as he realized she had kept Sam from him, it didn’t matter.   At that point, he had not – or maybe could not – press down his emotions.  She saw him turned inside out.


“You didn’t tell me – “


This man who usually chose to play his feelings so close to the vest had spilled his emotions all over the table for her to see. 


A low groan drew her from her memory of the previous night’s activities, and she stood, leaning over him, vaguely taking note that Charlotte had left.  Matt shifted his long body under the covers, the muscles of his torso flexing with the movement.  Slowly, his eyes squinted open, blinking slightly against the light.  She watched as he took in his surroundings, his quick mind evaluating his situation, even past what must be a formidable headache.  He turned his gaze toward her, surprise, pleasure, and uncertainty touching his features.


“Kitty?” he rasped, his right hand coming up to press against the back of his head.  Even over her wariness about his reaction, she couldn’t help noticing how his bicep bulged as he probed the sore spot.


“Hello, Matt,” she greeted, voice tight.  “How do you feel?”


“Head – hurts,” he muttered, his fingers probing the area she knew was swollen from his fall.


“Well, don’t even think about gettin’ up.  I don’t think Ira has enough money to drag that doctor back out here for a third time.”


His eyes focused quickly.  “Third – what happened?”


“You had a showdown with the armoire, there.  It won.”  Cautiously, she asked, “Do you remember – “


Swallowing, he looked up at her.  “I’m not sure.  Brain’s kinda swimmy – to quote Festus.”


She felt a sad pang at the mention of the deputy she hadn’t seen in almost a year.


Clearing his throat weakly, Matt frowned.  “Did the doctor give me any laudanum?  I had the craziest dream.”


She stiffened.  “Dream?”


A painful smile crossed his lips.  “Yeah.  Believe it or not, you were – well, we had a – “ Abrupt realization swept over his face, draining it of what little color had returned while he slept.  Dropping his hand, he stared up at her, mouth open.  “Kitty – it – it wasn’t a dream, was it?”


Gently, she shook her head and rested her palm against his cheek.  “No, Cowboy.  It wasn’t a dream.”


Eyes wide, he held her gaze in wonder.  “You really – we have – “


If the stakes hadn’t been quite so high, she might have found the entire conversation amusing.  As it was, she was barely breathing, waiting to see what he would say, how he would react.


Finally, he swallowed again and asked, “A son?”


“A son,” she confirmed quietly.


He looked away for a moment and frowned in thought, then looked back at her.  “Samuel?”




Now his eyes narrowed, and silence fell between them.  As the seconds ticked off, she heard and felt her heartbeat pound louder and faster, bit back the churning nausea in her stomach.  He could yell at her.  Or not talk at all.  Or – worst of all – leave.


Finally, he took a breath and looked at her, his eyes clear and calm.  “Sam’s – a good name,” he decided, jutting his chin to the side and biting at his lower lip.


Relief flooded her, raced through her legs with such force that she almost sank to the floor beside him.  “Would you like to hold him?” she offered tentatively.


His jaw muscles clenched, the muscles working hard, as his eyes locked with hers, and she saw uncertainty and hope mingling.  “Hold him?”


“Hold him,” she repeated lightly, then teased, “You know, in your arms?”


She watched his throat constrict as he swallowed once and nodded.


Almost shaking, she nodded back.  “You wait here,” she instructed, forcing herself not to run toward the door.  “Don’t you go anywhere, you hear me?”


The smile, however slight, that curved his mouth thrilled her.  “Yes, ma’am,” he replied obediently.


Sam protested being awakened from his nap, and normally she would have balked at the very thought, but she didn’t think twice about it this time.  Instead, she scooped up the infant, pressing a kiss against his soft forehead, and hurried back to Matt’s room, barely able to contain her joy at the anticipated union of father and son.


When she returned, she saw that he had swung his legs over the side of the bed, keeping the sheet across his lap, a welcome glow of pink coloring his cheeks – whether from the small exertion or from the embarrassment of discovering he wore no clothes at all, Kitty couldn’t tell.


He started to stand when she entered, but she shooed him back down.  “Hold out your arms.”


When he did as he was told, she placed the child into his father’s large hands.  Sam wasn’t a small baby.  He had weighed close to eight pounds at birth, and that was coming two weeks early.  He would be tall, too, she could tell, his little body already stretching long when he threw his arms and legs out in the occasional fit of pique.  Still, Matt’s hands cradled him easily, as if he were designed to fit in their grasp.


The soft blanket fell back from his head, revealing gentle swirls of reddish-brown hair.  His blue eyes opened and he peered up into the face of the man who had helped create him.  With effort, Kitty tore her gaze away from her son and plastered it on his father.


The big lawman stared down at the child, a slow, amazed smile spreading over his face.  “By golly, Kitty,” he breathed, awe in his eyes.  “By golly.”


Thank God.  Thank God.


“The doctor says he’s healthy,” she said, fighting to keep her voice even, to prevent the burgeoning tears from cascading down her cheeks.


“He’s a mighty fine looking boy,” he said, not shifting his gaze even one inch from the child.


Her heart swelled with love and pride for both of her men.  “Like his daddy,” she observed, leaning forward.


Matt looked up just as she bent down, just in time for her lips to brush his.   But the idyllic scene lasted only a few seconds.  When she pulled back, pain had touched his eyes again.  “Why didn’t you tell me, Kitty?” he whispered.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”


He deserved to know, but she wasn’t sure she had an answer.  “What would you have done, Matt?” she returned instead.  “What would you have done when all of Dodge discovered that the marshal’s woman was pregnant with his child?”


“Nothing would have changed, Kitty,” he promised in earnest.


A scowl darkened her face.  She knew what he meant, but it wasn’t the right answer.  “That’s what I was afraid of.”


A frown wrinkled his forehead.  “No, I meant – I meant I wouldn’t have – “ Suddenly, his shoulders slumped, and he stared down at his son.  “I would have been there.  You didn’t need to do this alone.”


“I know you would have been there, Matt,” she told him quietly.  She had never doubted it.  That was not the reason she left.


“Then why – why didn’t you want me to know?”


Sucking in a fortifying breath, she admitted, “I was afraid that every time you looked at me or at Sam, you’d resent us.  I was afraid that you’d be too worried about us to keep your edge.  I was afraid that one day another Bonner would come around, looking for you or me and finding something even better – your son.  I was afraid that if something happened to Sam, you’d never forgive yourself.”  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  “And I was afraid I’d never forgive you, either.”


He winced and lifted his chin, face gaunt, realization of the truth of her words hitting him.  “I see.” 


And she saw immediately that he did see.  Maybe he saw too well.


“Do you want me to leave, Kitty?” he asked quietly, and she knew without a doubt that if she said yes he would walk out of there and never question her – even if it ripped him apart.  She also knew that if he left, she would be shredded along with him.


“No.”  She said it so softly that he hadn’t heard.




Her jaw working, she took one more fortifying breath and answered louder, “No.  I don’t.”


She heard him let out a shuddering breath, but when she looked back at him, his face was composed.


“Kitty, I know you said you wouldn’t return to Dodge.”


There was a “but” in there, she could tell.  Couldn’t return – “


“But – “


There it was.


Suddenly, he held Sam out to her.  “Take him for a minute?”


Confused, she held their son close to her and watched as his father braced against the bed post and stood, disregarding the fact that the sheet fell completely from him and left him totally bare to her gaze.  Despite herself, she let her eyes take in the delicious sight of his long, hard muscles.  He had always been solid, but the months since she had left had seen him grow leaner, and she felt a pang of guilt that she had been the cause.  Gingerly, he lifted his trousers from where she had folded them neatly on a chair and stepped into them, buttoning the front panel before he lifted his head to look at her again.


“A man ought to be wearing pants to do what I want to do,” he explained.


She wanted to tease him, to tell him what he usually wanted to do didn’t require pants, at all.  But the intensity in his eyes stopped the joke before it started. 


She sighed, her heart aching with the decision she had to make.   He loved her.  And he didn’t resent Sam.  And somehow he had forgiven her for leaving, for not telling her about his son.  But what he was about to ask her to do – well, she didn’t know if she could give it to him.


“Matt,” she said, voice shaking, “you know I – I can’t go back to Dodge.  Nothing’s changed.  There’s still the fear, there’s still the danger.”  With the reminders of why she left, her arguments grew stronger.  “You’ll still be out on the trail.  You’ll still be the target for every two-bit gunman – I can’t just go back to being the marshal’s woman.  There’s Sam, now, and – and how would you do your job and worry about a woman and a child – “


“Kitty,” he interrupted, placing his hands on her shoulders.  “I told you twenty years ago how it had to be.  You knew I was a lawman, and you knew what that meant.  You knew there were choices I didn’t have because of that.  You were free to go whenever you wanted.”


If this was his idea of trying to talk her into going back with him –


“Twenty years, Kitty.  Don’t you think I knew all that time what you wanted, what I couldn’t give you?”


She had wondered if he really did know what she wanted.


“Kitty, I can’t be something or someone I’m not.  You ought to know me well enough to realize that.  And for more than twenty years, I was a lawman.”


Well, damn it, she sure as hell knew that.  She knew it all too well.


“But when you left, I realized – I realized – “ He swallowed, and she heard his voice catch, felt his hands convulse on her shoulders.  Softly, he said, “I told you once that I needed you, Kitty, do you remember?”


How could she forget?  Those words had brought her back from the depths of hopelessness and despair as she lay on Doc’s table, beaten and abused by Jude Bonner, wishing she were dead.  But those few words from the man who loved her pulled her back, gave her something to live for. 


She nodded, unable to speak.


“Well, I still need you, Kitty.”  To her shock, his eyes glistened with tears.  Dropping his grip suddenly, he turned away from her, his broad back hunched against some inner pain.




But he shook his head, and she watched those wide shoulders shake slightly.  “You asked me what I’d been doing since you left.  Do you really want to know?”


Did she?  She wasn’t sure anymore.  It suddenly seemed too terrible to contemplate.  But she heard herself whisper, “Yes.”


“Falling apart, Kitty.”  Now his voice broke completely, and he barely choked out the words.  “I’ve been falling apart.”


She stared at his back, stunned.  This was Matt Dillon – invulnerable, invincible.  Matt Dillon.  Falling apart?  What had she done?


Quickly, but carefully, she laid Sam in the center of the bed, creating a barrier out of the two pillows.  Then, touching Matt’s arm lightly, she pulled him around to face her, forcing herself not to gasp at the flow of tears down his cheeks.


His face was open and raw, something she had never seen before, someone she had never seen before, not completely.  And even past her pain of seeing him like this, she felt a flood of love and protectiveness.  She had told Molly McConnell those many years ago that Matt Dillon was a man with no strings on him, but that he was more hers than anybody else’s.  She had waited twenty years, but now she realized that he was hers.  He was hers completely and unquestionably.


“Oh, Matt,” she whispered, falling into his arms and burying her face against his bare chest.  “Oh, Matt.”


He caught her to him fiercely, as if he were terrified she would vanish outside his grip.  His chest heaved with the battle to control the sobs he refused to release.  His voice shook as he confessed again, “I need you, Kitty.  I need you so much.”


He needed her.  And she needed him.  In that moment, she couldn’t deny him anything.  Not herself, not his son, not his town.


She held him, whispered to him, soothed him, just as he had done for her so many times before.  When their trembling finally faded, he lifted his hands to her face and drew her off his chest.  Their eyes met, blue on blue, soul on soul.  He lowered his mouth to hers, taking her lips tenderly at first, then with an urgency that escaped his control.  Her arms tightened around his back, her mouth opened to him, her breasts pushed against his ribs.  Some nagging reminder deep within her brain told her to stop, noted that the doctor had not yet released her for such activity.  But the overwhelming sensation of being in his arms, tasting his lips on hers, feeling his hard excitement growing against her, swept her away.


All logical thought vanished.  She wondered if he would take her there on the floor, or if he would just lift her up against the wall while she wrapped her legs around his waist.   It didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered except his body on hers – and, soon, his body in hers.


She groaned as his tongue trailed down her neck and his hands slid up her sides to let the heavy weight of her breasts rest in his large palms.  Her milk let down, a natural sensation that didn’t distinguish between the causes of stimulation.  She wondered if he could tell.


Just when she knew they were passing the point of no return, just when she reached for the straining buttons of his trousers, he tore his mouth away from her and stood there, gasping and sweating.


“Matt?” she groaned, wanting nothing more than for him to take her.


He shook his head, gritting his teeth and fighting for breath.  “We can’t – not with the baby there – Kitty, I shouldn’t have – I’m – I’m sorry.”


Her own breath still heaving, she pressed her fingers pressed against his lips.  He was right, of course.  Damn it.  “No.  Please don’t apologize.”


“I just – it’s been so long, and I haven’t – “


“I know,” she assured him.  “I haven’t either.”


As she watched, he steeled himself and straightened, those broad shoulders squaring.  When he spoke again, his voice was firm, controlled.  “Kitty, listen, for twenty years – longer, really – you’ve been your own woman, right?  I’ve never told you what to do, even when you wanted me to, maybe.


She nodded, knowing he referred to her short-lived and confused romance with Will Stambridge.


“But – but I have to tell you something now.  I should have done it a long time ago.”


Her heart leaped, pounding in her chest as she stared at him.


He took her hands into his, almost swallowing them.  “I love you, Kitty.  I love you and I don’t want to be without you.  I need you to come back to Dodge with me.”


He had finally asked, after all these years.  He had actually asked her to come back.  Even when she had run off to Ballard, and he had followed her under the pretense of an official law investigation, he hadn’t come right out and said he wanted her to come back to Dodge.  Now, he had asked, now, when she had finally summoned the courage to break away and survive without the dust of Front Street, now, when she was determined not to re-open that chapter of her life.




Sighing, she fought for the right words.  She desperately loved Matthew Dillon, but she couldn’t go back to the life they’d had.  Not now.  Too much had changed.


“Matt – “ she tried.


But he stopped her, shaking his head.  “Let me finish – please.”


She nodded, nonplussed.


“I need you to come back.  I need you to come back because you still love me.  You said so, yesterday – or last week – or whenever it was I got stabbed.”


Well, she couldn’t deny that.


“And because Sam needs a father.”


“But what will people say – “


“And because I don’t give a damn what people say.”  He shoved his hands inside his front pants pockets, withdrawing a rich blue velvet bag with his right, kneeling before her as he dumped its contents into his palm




“Matt, what on earth are you doing?”


She let her gaze drop from his face to see what he held.  To her astonishment, in his palm lay a small, golden band, its surface sparkling with diamonds.  Her heart skipped a beat, her ears thudded with the uneven pounding, her eyes widened in disbelief.  He knelt there, his soul bared to her, his face offering her everything she had ever wanted.


“Matter of fact, they’ll probably just say it’s about time that idiot marshal came to his senses and married Kitty Russell.”






Married?  Did he say married?  She stared down at him in disbelief, but there he was, kneeling – and on his bad leg, too.


Twenty years.  She had teased Matt once, long ago, after their curious encounter with Nip Cullers, that it had taken his housekeeper Nettie twenty years and a little buckshot to snag him.    Little could she have known then that her own vigil would be twenty years, as well.  At least Matt had avoided the buckshot.


Before she could formulate an answer, even before she knew what her answer would be, he took in another heavy breath and blew it out.  “Kitty, I need you to come back because of one more thing.” 

In that moment, he opened his other hand, and she saw it, so bold, so symbolic, so damned familiar, lying there in his huge palm.


But it couldn’t be.  It simply couldn’t be.


Somehow, she tore her gaze away long enough to look at him again, and she was struck by the conflict of fear, sadness, hope, and anticipation in his eyes.  


After twenty years.  It didn’t seem possible.


Slowly, unbelievingly, she reached down and lifted the shining piece of metal with her fingers.


“Am I too late, Kitty?” he asked in a whisper.


She stared at the badge, then at him, and wondered. 


“Am I too late?”



Chapter Ten: Back in Them


POV: Doc

Spoilers: “Disciple”

Rating: PG (Teen)

Disclaimer: These characters (except Sam) are not mine.







It was just after noon, but the Long Branch already played host to a fair number of patrons, some of them regulars, others of them drifters or cowboys enjoying a few days rest before their outfits headed back out into the harsh and unforgiving prairie.   Doc Adams sat at his usual table, close to the back, observing the variety of interactions among those present, wondering, speculating, and chuckling.   He wondered what Nathan Burke was supposed to be doing instead of losing his money at a poker table.  He speculated about the two scraggly buffalo hunters who had already consumed more than the respectable amount of whiskey before they even entered the saloon.  And he chuckled sadly at the ubiquitous sight of Louis Pheeters strolling through the swinging doors, declaring to Floyd that he needed just one little drink to tide him over until Hank paid him for working the stables.


All of those sights flittered across his vision, none lingering with any importance.  But there was one man who caught his attention and held it.  A seasoned character, his eyes hard, his cheeks mottled with pock marks.  If his face wasn’t on one of the wanted posters in Matt’s office, it probably should have been.  He sat at the one poker table that showed any action, hat pulled down over his forehead, ignoring the same half-full glass of rye he had started with an hour before.  The doctor considered himself a fair judge of character and decided this fellow bore watching.  He bore watching closely.


A sudden jingle of spurs drew his attention from the assorted group.  Before he even looked up, he knew he would see Festus Haggen ambling toward him.  Sure enough, the deputy marshal had already pushed past the batwing doors and was making his way through the room.


“Howdy, Doc,” he greeted, eyes lighting on the physician’s glass of beer.  “You tekkin’ a little break, air ya?”


“That I am, Festus.  Why don’t you join me?”


The scruffy beard parted in a smile.  Wael, I mite jes’ do that,” he declared, already sitting.  “You – uh – ya finished drinkin’, air ya?”


Doc brushed a hand over his jaw.  “Finished?  Oh, Heaven’s no.  Just started.  Why don’t you get one and – “


“That’s mighty gen’rus of ya, Doc,” he said, before Adams could contradict him.  Of course, he had known all along what the deputy’s plan was.  “Floyd!” he called toward the bar.  “Doc here’s a buyin’ me a beer.”


Floyd smiled knowingly and shoved a new glass under the tap, setting it on the counter for Festus to pick up.  When he plopped back into the chair, he grinned and took a big gulp.  Doc shook his head.


Whut time is it getting’ ta be?” the deputy asked.


Adams withdrew his pocket watch, even though he didn’t need to.  He knew exactly what time it was, had checked only a few minutes before.  “Twelve-forty-seven,” he said.


“An’ that train gits in ‘bout four, don’t it?”


“Well, it’s supposed to be in at three, but I’ve never known it to be much on time.”


Naw,” Festus agreed.  “I ain’t neither.”


They sat quietly for a few moments as Doc pondered the reason behind Festus’ interest in the train’s arrival.   Leaning back in his chair, he tugged the crumpled telegram from his vest pocket, scanning the sparse words for at least the tenth time since it had arrived the day before.




Almost a month.  Matt had been gone almost a month without a word, and now he had sent just one thrifty, cryptic message.  Of course, that one thrifty, cryptic message had been read or heard about by almost the entire town in the few hours since it had arrived.  Even though the telegram was directed at him, Doc couldn’t berate Barney for spreading the news.  For seven months, Dodge had watched Matt Dillon struggle with himself – and with the loss they all knew he had suffered, and most of the citizens had suffered with him.  Then he had left again, and although the town remained in the dark, Doc knew he had headed to New Orleans, a bit of information confided to him by Hannah.  Every day since then, Doc had lifted a prayer that Kitty was there, and that she wouldn’t shut out the man who loved her so deeply he had come close to falling completely apart without her.


But the telegram gave no indication that Matt had even found her, and if he had, that he was bringing her back.  As usual, when the lawman went off, Adams wondered what condition he’d return in.  More than likely, there would be a new bullet wound or another broken bone, or at the very least an assortment of bruises and abrasions.  Years of experience had prepared the Dodge physician for just about anything.


Unfortunately, the one thing he feared the most for Matt was the one thing he had no remedy for:  a broken heart.


“Golly Bill,” Festus breathed.


Adams’ musings scattered.  “What?”


The deputy was squinting toward the poker table, his eyes locked on the very man Doc had noticed before.  “You know who that thar is, Doc?”


He didn’t, but he was already afraid to find out.  “Who?”


“That thar is Ben McClagg.”


“Ben McClagg?” The name didn’t ring a bell.  “Who’s that?”


“He’s jes’ about th’ fastest feller I ever seen with a gun.  Purty near as fast as Matthew before –   Festus broke off, letting his gaze drop.


Doc felt his heart pound.  “Why do you reckon he’s here in Dodge?” he asked, already sick with the knowledge of what the answer would be.


“I reckon I know,” Festus muttered.  “I reckon we all know.”


Before either of them could decide what to do – if there was anything to do – the doors swung open again to admit a slender young man who didn’t look to be a minute over twenty.  He strode purposefully into the saloon, his hips strapped with a low-slung gun belt, his eyes hungry.  Doc swore under his breath.  There was no mistaking this one, either.  Another gunman.


“Festus?” he warned.


“I seed ‘im.”  The deputy had eased his hand over his own pistol, watching.


“Whiskey,” the boy ordered, leaning casually on the bar.  When Floyd produced it, he downed it in a single gulp and turned to face the room.  “Anybody here Ben McClagg?” he asked, not wasting a minute.


McClagg froze, cards in his hand.  “Who’s askin’?” he said after a moment, not looking up.


“Coy Brennan.”


“Never heered of ‘im,” McClagg declared.


“He’s heard of you, though,” the boy returned.


The veteran gunman gently laid his cards on the green felt and turned his head to look at the youth.  “Boy, why don’t you jest git you some milk and go back to yor mama before you git hurt.”


Doc expected Brennan to explode in youthful fury and die right there, but the young man surprised them all, barely registering the insult.  “No, sir,” he returned.  “I come for what’s owed me and mine.”


“I told ya, boy, I don’t know ya,” McClagg insisted.  “What could ya want from me?”


“My pa.”


The older man rose carefully.  Yer pa?  I don’t know no Brennan.”


“His name weren’t Brennan,” the kid said.  “It was Poole.  Henry Poole.”


Doc watched the name slam into McClagg’s memory and pry open his jaw.  The gunman sucked in a breath, held it, then relaxed, his cloak of cool back in place.


“Boy, yer pa an’ me parted company years ago.  It ain’t none of yer business.”


“You parted his company by puttin’ a bullet in him.”


“He tried ta’ put one in me.  Seemed fair.”


“I hear yer fast,” Brennan observed.


McClagg narrowed his eyes.  “I’m alive.”


“So far.”


In that moment, Doc saw the older man’s finger twitch and figured this foolish kid was only seconds away from the end of his short life.  He shot a glance at Festus, wondering what the deputy was going to do, how he would stop the inevitable killing.


“Hang on, thar – ” Haggen began, but it was too late. 


McClagg drew, his gun blurring from the holster in a motion of lightning.  Doc couldn’t recall having seen such speed before – at least in the past year.  The kid didn’t stand a chance.  Double retorts sounded in the room, so close they almost blended into one.  When they could think again, the two gunmen stood, facing each other.  Doc watched to see when the boy would crumble to the floor, pitying a life taken.


But Brennan didn’t budge.  Instead, face frozen in disbelief, Ben McClagg slowly slid to the ground, eyes fixed, a blossom of crimson soaking through his vest.  The entire room stared, stunned.


Nodding once, Coy Brennan spun his Colt casually around his finger before dropping it back into the holster and turning toward the bar again.  “It was self-defense, you all saw.”


“I ain’t never seen anybody so fast!” Burke declared into the following silence.  “I mean, ‘cept Marshal Dillon, but that was before he was – “


“Burke!” Doc yelled.


The freight clerk jerked, but it didn’t matter.  Coy Brennan turned back, eyes narrowing.  “Marshal Dillon?  Would that be Matt Dillon?”


Burke shook his head.  You been livin’ in Africa?  Of course, it’s Matt Dillon.”


Calmly, Brennan said, “They used to say he wuz mighty fast.”


No one answered.


“Thing is, I heard he met up with a little misfortune ‘bout a year ago.  Took out his gun arm.  Ain’t so fast no more.”


Festus stepped over McClagg’s body so he stood between Burke and the kid.  “You jes’ don’t worry ‘bout what you heered,” he warned.  “Matthew Dillon is still th’ best gun around, an’ you’d best be rememberin’ it.”


“That so?  Well, then, where can I find the Marshal?” Brennan asked, ignoring the deputy.


“He’s not in town,” Doc piped up hastily.  At least not for another three hours.


The kid clicked his tongue.  “Too bad,” he smiled, turning back toward the bar once again.


The room waited in silence for at least a minute before Festus finally motioned toward Burke and two other patrons.  “You boys git this’un over ta’ Percy’s.”


As they labored under their burden, Doc eyed the slim back of the gunslinger.  For the past year, on and off, Dodge had seen a few men come and go, but no one had up and challenged Matt right out, maybe too uncertain about the validity of the rumors they heard.  Or maybe just taking a look at the huge marshal dissuaded them fast enough.  But Coy Brennan looked just about rash enough and just about foolish enough to follow through.  In previous years, Doc would have felt for the young man, almost certain of his fate.  But now –


Now he decided he wouldn’t mind if that train was late this time.  He wouldn’t mind at all.






It figured, of course, that the train was almost on time for once, a fact that caught several citizens by surprise and had them sprinting toward the station so they didn’t miss the glimpse of their marshal.  Doc stood between Hannah and Festus, his gaze occasionally scanning the crowd for a glimpse of Brennan, but the brash gunslinger hadn’t appeared so far.  Most of the time, though, his eyes squinted anxiously toward the rear of the passenger car, heart racing away in double time as he contemplated what condition Matt would be in.  Smoke billowed from between the train and the tracks, white puffs that halfway masked the first few passengers disembarking.  An old man made his way painfully down the steps, one hand clasping the rail, the other holding a cane.  Following him, a group of young ladies, looking as if they might be seeking employment in an establishment like the Long Branch, their eyes too old and too worldly to match their bodies.  The conductor strolled along the side of the train, supervising the unloading of baggage.  After another interminable few moments, Doc saw him.


He emerged from the back door of the car, tall body bent slightly under the overhang, hat tugged low over his eyes so that Doc couldn’t see his expression.  It was a little surprising to see that he wore his dark pants and dress coat, but then he usually chose that outfit when he traveled by train.  The physician’s practiced eye watched for any sign of injury or pain, took particular notice of the slight limp when the marshal walked the few feet to the steps.  Not bad, though – certainly better than it had been when he left.  He had not returned unscathed, however.  No one there could miss the white sling that cradled his left arm.


Doc shook his head.


Dillon paused on the platform for a moment, letting his eyes survey his town in a long-established habit.  After a moment, his broad chest heaved a sigh and he took the steps at an even pace, stopping when he reached the ground.  Doc’s heart sank as he realized the man was alone, and he felt unbidden anger at Kitty Russell flood him.  He had held out hope to that very moment that she would come back, knowing that If she had seen Matt, if she had watched him barely hold himself together – and sometimes not hold himself together – she wouldn’t have turned him back.


But now, he had come home – alone.  Now, what would he do?  What would any of them do?


He felt Hannah’s eyes on him and turned to her, seeing his sadness mirrored there.  They had encouraged him to go after her, to risk himself again – and now they would have to deal with the consequences.  It was the least they could do for him.  Adams closed his eyes, his heart heavy and aching for the man who was the closest thing he had to a son.  But he owed Matt too much to wallow in his own grief.  Forcing his eyes open again, he prepared to do his best to lend what strength his could to his friend.


Instead of plodding heavily toward them, however, bent under his burden, broken by this catastrophe, the marshal turned again and extended his right arm up toward the steps.  Doc frowned, confused for a moment before his heart skipped a beat as his brain grabbed onto the glimmer of hope that action caused.  At first nothing happened, no one stepped forward to take the offered hand.  Then, a miracle occurred, clothed in a familiar flash of color that appeared from the shadows of the platform. 


Tears sprang to his eyes when he saw her, as slender and as beautiful as ever, clad in a fashionable pale green and black travel suit, matching hat perched saucily on her brilliant hair. 


She was back.  Kitty Russell was back, and suddenly beauty and fire and spirit returned to Dodge. 


Because Miss Kitty was back.


“Thank you,” he breathed to the Almighty, his words completely heartfelt, the tears trailing down his cheeks.  “Thank you.”


And just like that, the world was right again.  Just like that, the worries and concerns and over eight months of misery vanished.  The crowd that had gathered at the station broke out into a cacophony of exclamations at the sight, the rumble of voices growing so that he had to raise his own volume to be heard.


Shaking his head, he turned to Hannah, whose grin matched his own.  “By golly,” he declared.


Yessiree,” she returned.


Adams ran a hand over his mustache and laughed aloud, figuring things just couldn’t get any better.  He turned to slap Festus on the back, but stopped at the shocked expression of the craggy face.  Before he could ask about the deputy’s unexpected reaction, he heard a collective gasp from the crowd, followed by abrupt silence.


“What in tarnation“ Festus began.


Doc let his gaze snap back to the returning couple and saw immediately what had caused the reaction.  Kitty had moved to the edge of the platform, the sunlight bringing her out of the shadows and revealing a small bundle of blue that she now handed carefully down to Matt so she could descend the steps.


The doctor’s eyes widened until he felt the sting of the ubiquitous dust of the street in them.  Why, that bundle appeared to be – that is, it seemed as if –


Doggone it – if it didn’t look like big, strapping U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon was cradling a little bitty baby in the crook of his gun arm.


A baby?


A baby.


By golly.  A baby!


In that moment, it all made sense.  It took only a few seconds for the entire situation to snap into place in the doctor’s mind.  Kitty’s increased anxiety about Matt’s leaving, her insistence on going before he returned, and her determination not to let them know where she would be.


A baby.


He would have paid good money to have been a fly on the wall when Matt found out – or maybe it was just as well he hadn’t been.  My goodness, that had to have been a shock.  He had no doubt the big man knew nothing at all about a –


A baby!


The town stood frozen, staring at the small family.  Kitty’s face was tight, her teeth tugging at her bottom lip, revealing her anxiety.  Matt stood close to her, body slightly in front, as if he were shielding her from the speculation, from the judgment.  His own lips pressed together in that look that dared the foolish soul to cross him.


But he needn’t have worried.  After they recovered from the shock of realizing that, not only had the marshal brought Kitty back to Dodge, but he seemed to have acquired an addition, they practically rushed the three, cries of welcome and congratulations tumbling over each other.


It took Doc, Festus, and Hannah considerable effort to push their way through the group and up to the stunned couple.  Kitty looked floored as the women of the town who had cut their eyes at her in disdain before embraced her and welcomed her home.   The men settled for patting Dillon on the shoulder, since both hands were otherwise occupied.  Finally, the physician found himself standing in front of the two people he had known for so many years, had seen through so much.


Kitty stared at him for a moment before throwing her arms around him and kissing him soundly on the cheek.  “Oh, Curly!” she cried.  “I missed you so much!”


Unable to suppress his swell of tears, he allowed the display, wiping at his nose and shaking his head.  Festus gave him a moment’s rescue when he stepped in, wrapping his arms around Kitty and lifting her in an unabashed demonstration of hill country joy.


“Hey, now,” Matt protested gamely, doing absolutely nothing to stop the display.


Doc turned to the big man, marveling at the difference in him.  His blue eyes twinkled, bright and full again.  His face was smoother, the lines not as deep.  He even seemed taller, although Doc couldn’t figure out how that might have happened.  That defeated, world-weary weight that had worn him down the past months had lifted, replaced by a freshly overhauled ease that was close enough to the old Matt to make no difference.


“Matt,” he greeted, eyes relaying the pleasure he couldn’t express verbally.  “You okay?”


The marshal returned the look, nodding and smiling in understanding.  “Yeah.”  Simple as it was, the response conveyed a much more complex message.


The doctor’s gaze fell to the squirming child swallowed up in the crook of Matt’s arm.  “I don’t – I’m not sure what to say here – “ he started.


Matt chuckled, and Adams had to grin at the trace of shock that still lingered on the lawman’s face.  “Believe me, Doc, I know what you mean.”


Leaning over to take the child from his father, Kitty handed him to the doctor.  “I know what you can say.  You can say hello to Matthew Samuel Dillon, Doc.”


The announcement created an explosion of exclamations through the crowd as those closest to the train spread the news to those farthest away.


It was almost impossible to realize what had happened, almost impossible to comprehend that he was standing there holding Matt Dillon’s and Kitty Russell’s child.  He never thought it would happen.  The baby opened his eyes to look up at this new human being, and Doc saw the perfect mixture of his parents in him.  Sky blue eyes, fair skin, soft curls of red-brown hair, long, slender fingers.  


“My goodness,” he breathed.  “My goodness.”


“Let me see th’ little feller,” Festus insisted, pushing his way closer.


“Don’t crowd, Festus,” Doc admonished.  “You’ll scare him to death with that scraggly face of yours.”


“I’ll hev you know, I got me a way with younguns.”


“Helps to be on the same mental level,” Doc muttered.


Moving in to counter the argument, Hannah smiled.  “He sure is a fine lookin’ boy, Marshal.”


Matt’s only answer was a broad grin.


Festus had focused on a series of goos and gaas to entertain the infant.  For his part, Sam seemed to contemplate these strange people and find them lacking.  His little face screwed up for a moment before he let out a bellow that didn’t need translating even for the people in the back of the crowd.


“See?  Here, Kitty,” Doc offered hastily, holding the baby out, “I think you need to take him back.”


“He’s hungry,” she confided softly.  “Can we use your office?”


“What?  Oh, sure.”  He rested a hand at her elbow.  “Sure.  Come on.”


“I’ll get the bags and meet you up there, Kitty,” Matt said, then shocked the entire town by leaning down and kissing her, right there in broad daylight, right there at the train station – and right there on the lips.


Doc shook his head, his amazement complete – almost.


The shock only continued.  Smiling at Matt, Kitty reached her left hand up to give his cheek a brief caress.  In that moment, something flashed, caught by the sun.  Her hand lingered only a moment at his face, but it was long enough for all of them to see the sparkle of the ring that graced her third finger, left hand. 


Doc’s jaw dropped at the sight of the familiar band, the band he had removed from the pocket of a drunk, despairing U.S. marshal over half a year ago; the band that signified twenty years of a woman’s love and patience – the band that he’d never really thought he’d see on her finger.


But there it was.


“Doc,” Hannah gasped, “is that – “


“It sure is,” he affirmed in satisfaction.  “It sure is.  Mrs. Dillon?” he asked, loud enough to be heard over the noise.


Kitty turned and smiled radiantly.


“Yippee!” Festus crowed, flinging his hat into the air.


If news of their arrival had traveled fast, this revelation spread through the crowd like a prairie fire.  The murmurs grew to outright declarations, which blossomed into yells, which finally erupted into cheers and wild applause.  The marshal looked astounded at the ovation, staring at the hundreds of his fellow citizens who had packed the station to welcome him home.  Not usually prone to blatant displays, Doc Adams nevertheless found himself joining the celebration with his own hoots.


There was absolutely no doubt what the headlines of the Dodge paper would be the next day.


Over the noise of the crowd, Festus leaned in and yelled in his ear.  “Did ya see ‘em, Doc?”


Doc stopped cheering long enough to ask, “What?”


“Matthew’s eyes,” the deputy clarified, as if the physician were dense.


“What’s wrong with his eyes?”


“Why, nairy a thang, Doc.”


“Festus, what are you – “


Cain’t ya see?  She’s back in ‘em!”


“Back in – “`


“Miss Kitty,” Festus repeated, grinning.  “She’s back in ‘em, Doc.  She’s back in his eyes.”


His heart swelled with that statement.  Sometimes ol’ Festus could hit on something.  Almost overcome, he peered up at the towering form that stood, tall and broad, right arm snug around Kitty’s waist, grin wide and open.  They were looking at Matt Dillon, a man whose clear blue eyes were once again filled with warmth, and with humor, and with love – and with her.


Nope, he didn’t figure it could get any better.  Bursting with pride for Matt and Kitty, he let his eyes watch the crowd, enjoying the unconditional acceptance the town seemed to be giving them, the universal show of pure delight over the surprise. 


But then he realized he was wrong.  Not everyone showed delight.  In the distance, leaning casually against a porch post, a slender, young man watched.  Doc knew if he were closer, he would recognize hungry eyes and a low-slung holster – and a disturbingly fast hand.







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