I had this
idea for a story after watching the episode “
A Gunsmoke Story
by MAHC (Amanda)
“Imperfection is the greatness of man.”
Chapter One: Not This Day
“Matt Gets It;” “Seven Hours to Dawn;” “The Badge;” “The Bullet;” “
Disclaimer: I didn’t create these characters. Shoot.
Russell tried not to be too obvious as she stood outside the doors of the
Sometimes he rode in at a brisk trot, horse and rider strong and eager to be back home. Sometimes he entered town slowly, cautiously, body braced for what dangers he might encounter. Sometimes, he and Buck plodded in, slouched and weary from the long trail. And sometimes – the worst times – Buck brought him in, slumped and bleeding and barely hanging onto the saddle horn. In fact, on more than one occasion, the caring hands of Festus and Newly and various other Dodge citizens had caught him as he slid from his mount, his body finally relinquishing its grip on consciousness when it sensed he was among friends.
Kitty’s heart squeezed tight, her throat closed with the final vision and the possibility of his returning in a similar condition this time – if he returned at all. She lived in dread of that day, knowing just how likely it was. He had beaten too many odds throughout the years not to be pushing his luck. Of course, luck had little to do with Matt Dillon. He beat the odds because he was good – the best, they said – and Kitty knew it was true. Still, even the best weren’t perfect. And imperfection allowed for mistakes.
His body was covered with evidence of years of mistakes. She knew them well, each mar on his skin from a bullet or knife or pistol handle or any number of make-shift weapons some outlaw had enlisted in an attempt to destroy Marshal Matt Dillon.
His left shoulder and chest seemed to have taken the brunt of the injuries, crossed and crisscrossed with the scars of enemies for the past 17 years. On their last night together before he set out on the long journey to track the murdering bandito called Mando into Mexico, she had lain by his side, her body still buzzing from his touch, from their passion, and trailed her fingers over those marks, remembering each one she had seen made and wondering about those that were created when she wasn’t present.
She lay with her head against his shoulder, her hair draped over his arm, her finger drawing slow circles across his chest. He was leaving in the morning, and as usual her heart arched, wondering if this would be the last time – the one she remembered in lonely years to come when she reflected on their final moments together. Almost involuntarily, her hand reached for the scars he had collected through the years, proof that he was still with her despite the efforts of so many.
caressed that first one, faded to the point that it was almost invisible, put
there by Dan Grat so many years ago when they were
both young and raw. Sighing, she
wondered what would have happened if she had known, if some gypsy’s crystal
ball had revealed how many more times she would witness such a scene. Would she have stayed or would she have run
back to New
she moved her hand to the worst of the four scars Mace Gore’s men had left him
with, sprawled out there on
An involuntary groan bubbled up in her throat at the sudden, nauseating sensation, and he shifted to look down at her.
Matt didn’t know – not really – even though he had seen and felt her immense relief when it was all over and he slumped in that chair, hurting and exhausted, but alive. She hid the terror that had gripped her ever since that night, every time he stepped into harm’s way.
His left arm tightened under her head, the muscles flexing as he moved to pull her closer. “You okay?” he asked, but his voice revealed that he knew the answer already.
“Sure.” They both heard the lie.
Letting out a deep breath, he kissed her temple gently. “Kitty, I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
A few weeks. A lifetime – she hoped not literally. “Sure.”
Sliding across his chest, she placed her hand on that one scar, almost over his heart, that came closest to tearing him from her, the one that had dragged her from Dodge and from him in a futile attempt to escape the nightmares, until she realized that she couldn’t get Matt Dillon out of her heart, no matter how far she ran.
“I’ll be as fast as I can,” he soothed, but they both knew that was an empty promise out on the trail.
The evening was quickly dissolving into a quagmire of depressing realities – not the way she wanted to leave him, or for him to leave her. With effort, she roused enough strength to break the solemnity of the moment and threw him a sensuous smile.
“Cowboy, you can be fast on the trail, but there are some things that just need to be done nice and slow.”
As anticipated, her ploy worked. Desire flamed in his eyes, and he fell into the game willingly, running his long fingers down her back and over her hip. “I can do slow, too,” he reminded, voice low.
Warm arousal flooded her as she kissed the scar. “Yes, you surely can.”
With a pleased grunt, he twisted to bring their bodies more in line, but another grunt followed right behind, this one not pleased at all.
“I’m fine,” he insisted, but his tight voice betrayed him even as he let his lips nuzzle her neck.
She arched back and let him play – it was certainly no hardship on her – then ran her hand around his side to brush the newest scar, the one that had almost left him unable to do what they had already done twice that evening, and – from the feel of things – were about to do again. The one that had almost robbed him of his ability even to walk. Almost.
His hand caught hers and drew it back. “Kitty,” he insisted, “I said I’m fine.”
The back wound pained him still, she could tell, even though Doc had managed not to cripple him when he removed it on that damn gold train only a few weeks before. It was all too clear in the winces when he stood, the grimaces when he sat, and the groans at night when he turned restlessly in his sleep. He still fought the effects of that significant injury, and here he was about to head off again.
“Don’t you believe me?” he challenged, but his voice, deep and seductive, also held a hint of pleading. He needed her to let it go, needed her to give him this night.
For a moment, she contemplated whether she should push the fact that he wasn’t fully recovered or allow him the bit of transparent subterfuge. Those eyes, soft and boyish, met hers. What would it matter now, anyway? He was going, whether she protested or not. Besides, the promise of pleasure that he also held there was just as persuasive.
“Guess you’ll have to prove it to me,” she said, meeting the challenge.
The heat of his gaze burned her cheeks. “Guess I will.”
And he drew her to him to do just that. As they moved together with growing intensity, she forgot about Dan Grat, and Mace Gore, and Amos Potter, and all the other inadequate competition, and focused on memorizing every inch of his hard body in case – in case.
Her hands found each mark and she told herself that they merely counted off each victory over death. One day, Kitty admitted in her stronger moments, there would be no victory, but not this day.
Not this day.
opening her eyes to
glance down the street revealed nothing more than the usual bustle of the
town. No big man on a big horse appeared
between the buildings. Sighing again,
she turned to step back into the
She looked up at the familiar voice to see Doc Adams smiling tentatively before her. “Morning, Curly,” she greeted, forcing a tease in spite of the fear and dread eating at her.
“Morning? Well, for you maybe. ‘Bout lunchtime for us working fellows, though.”
“I can’t help it if you chose the wrong profession,” she countered, her eyes showing gratitude for the distraction.
“Yeah, well, I’d like to see you set Moss Grimmick’s leg next time that ornery mule of Festus’ pins him up against the stall.”
She gave him a pointed look.
“Oh,” he remembered, “come to think of it, you did when I was out at the Hobson’s place.” But his eyes twinkled. “’Course it was a good thing he got hurt after , or he’d have been out of luck.”
She swatted at his arm fondly. “Real funny, Curly.”
The levity vanished too quickly, though, as they both considered each other for a quiet moment, before he touched her arm and asked, “Anything?”
Smile fading, she shook her head.
“Well, you know Matt,” he reasoned, unaware that the very mention of the name twisted her heart as if it were in a vise. “He’s been gone for long periods before. He’s always come back.
So far, she thought. “Yeah.”
why don’t we go inside and I’ll buy you a drink? I have it on good authority that the owner of
this establishment serves the best liquor this side of
“Well, I don’t see how I can turn down such an offer.”
final look toward the south end of town, she took the physician’s arm and
stepped back through the swinging doors.
But, even though her body was inside, her mind and
heart remained somewhere out there past the outskirts of
Because Kitty Russell had to believe that this was not the day when there would be no victory. Not this day.
Please, God, not this day.
Chapter Two: She is Worried, Yes?
Matt Dillon slumped over the dark mane of his horse, eyes hooded and red, cheeks flushed, throat parched, desperately rationing what little strength he had left to staying in the saddle, counting on Buck to keep going, to stay the course.
The sun beat down on him; his hat, tugged low over his eyes, protected him as best it could from the harsh rays. Around him, the sparse desert scrubs had given way to thicker patches of grassland. Not that it mattered. He had long since lost the ability or interest to distinguish details. Days melted together with the heat. His world had narrowed to his horse and the earth below his hooves, because each step the big dun took brought him closer to the end, closer to home, closer to Dodge.
Closer to her.
He was a
good four days out of
all urged him – particularly Lucero – to stay longer, to give his body more
time to heal. They had, no doubt, saved
his life, and he was definitely obliged to them, but
weakness came upon him after he was well into
He calculated his chances of returning to their home and decided he had just as good a shot of making it to Dodge, so he plodded on, bracing his left hand against the flaring pain, rationing his store of water against the time his body couldn’t function without it.
Five more days to Dodge if he didn’t fall off the pace, if the weather cooperated, if highwaymen stayed away. Five days.
But the odds were not good.
ignoring his wounds and the abundant dangers of the trail, he had realized two
days before that he was being tailed.
One of Mando’s men, perhaps, although he
hadn’t seen any of them who seemed to have enough mettle or energy to follow
And then he remembered nothing until he woke three days later, according to Agustin, back in the humble home of the old man and his grandchildren, Lucero’s beautiful face, somehow softer and gentler, looking down at him as she ran a cool cloth over his brow.
“So you have decided to return to us,” the young woman said, smiling. Behind her, Lucho grinned in delight.
He blinked away the haze and tried to answer, tried to make his mouth work, but couldn’t quite manage the task.
“Do not talk, Law,” she instructed, but her tone remained kind. “You are still very weak. Lucho has been worried.” Her eyes told him Lucho wasn’t the only one.
She held a cup to his lips and he sipped at the water, enjoying its cool path down his throat. Thus fortified, he made a more successful attempt to speak.
Broader smiles rewarded his effort. “I told you he would be all right!” the young boy called. “Marshal, you will be all right.”
“I’ll be – fine, Lucho,” he breathed, grimacing as his right side throbbed with the movement.
“You will be,” Agustin agreed, stepping into his sight from behind Lucero. “But not for a while, yet.”
He couldn’t argue with that as the darkness closed in on him once more, and their smiles disappeared from his sight.
When he woke again, Lucero still sat by him, wiping his forehead. “Good morning, Law,” she greeted, pulling the cloth away. “How do you feel?”
In truth, his head pounded, his chest and stomach throbbed, and he swallowed to keep from being sick right there in front of her. “Fine.”
She narrowed her eyes in doubt. “You still have a fever, but it’s lower, I think. You were foolish to go after Mando when you were so sick still.”
“Maybe.” Of course, he could have done nothing else.
“Thank you, though.”
“You have been a lawman for many years,” she observed, peeling back the blanket and lifting a bandage from one of the wounds.
“Your body tells of many injuries.”
He cleared his throat and wondered just how many tales she had seen on his body. “A few.”
Lucero smiled. “More than a few. Are you that good or that bad?”
A tight chuckle was his response.
She worked in silence for a few minutes, cleaning and re-bandaging, her gentle hands careful enough to cause only a few flinches from him. But when she pulled the blanket back over his chest, Matt was more than a little relieved to lower his guard.
“Who is Kitty?” she asked, voice casual but eyes sharp.
Okay, guard back up.
He glanced at her as she handed him a warm tortilla and waited with a cup of water. Swallowing, he gave her a crooked smile. “Why?”
But Lucero was certainly not naïve. “You called her name, called for her while you were sick.”
Dropping his eyes uncomfortably, he started to shrug, but thought better of it when his ribs protested. “She’s a woman I know back in Dodge.”
“You know her well, I would say.”
His cheeks flushed, and he hoped the fever covered the increase in color. But he didn’t refute the observation. Instead, he nodded. “I do.”
“She loves you.”
He lifted his chin in question. “How do you know?”
She raised her brow, taking the rest of the tortilla from him and lifting the water cup so he could drink. “She has stayed with you a long time, no?” Lucero asked.
After he swallowed, he nodded to her. What did it matter if she knew? “She has.”
“She is not your wife?”
“But there is no other?”
Lucero considered his responses for a moment, then said, “She must be some woman.”
He didn’t have to think about that. “She is.”
“You love her?”
He didn’t have to think about that, either, but considered reminding her that she had told him his personal question about Mando and her was none of his business. Instead, he pressed his lips together for a moment before finally looking her in the eye. “I do.”
“It is good to love someone,” Lucero observed, her dark eyes sad, and he resisted the urge to touch her face, not with any romantic intent, but to comfort – and perhaps to offer his thanks for all she had sacrificed for him.
She stood, breaking the moment. “So we must make you well to return to her. She is worried, yes?”
She is worried, yes?
She is worried, yes.
The words echoed in his skull and he pried open his eyes to break the sound. He squinted up into the sun, wincing at the memory that had nothing to do with any physical discomfort, but had everything to do with the guilt of knowing he had, once again, caused Kitty pain. A few weeks, he had told her as she lay in his arms that last night. A few weeks, but they both realized it could be much longer – or forever.
In a rare moment of lucidity, he pondered again why the hell he had thought Mando would just roll over when he came for him. Overconfidence, maybe? After all, there were outlaws who did just that. Pride, perhaps? No, not that. He had long ago lost the ego of invincibility of a cocky young marshal. No, this had simply been a mistake, an underestimate of the bandit.
It didn’t matter anyway. What was done was done.
She is worried, yes?
was almost there. Surely Dodge had to be
near. How long had he ridden? He couldn’t remember, didn’t recognize the
flatlands that passed by slowly. But
they were flat at least, that meant something.
At least that was what he told himself.
Buck stumbled slightly over a patch of rocks, not much, but enough to jar his rider. It was as if someone had slid a knife down his chest and into his gut. Instinctively, he pulled back on the reins to stop the horse, to give himself a moment – or more than a moment – to fight through the pain, but Buck ignored him as if he knew they could not afford to lose any time. Gritting his teeth against the nausea that pressed against his throat, he tried to force his breathing to slow, to regain control, but the world swirled in front of him and he felt his body falling forward, being sucked into a vortex of colors and sounds and strange sensations. Somewhere deep in his brain he chided himself for the weakness, but it wasn’t enough to stop the inevitable slide into the depths.
“Hang on, Cowboy.”
“Kitty?” he mumbled, grasping vainly for enough energy to lift his head, to open his eyes, to look at her.
“Don’t do it.”
“Don’t you do it, Matt Dillon. Don’t leave me. Don’t you dare leave me.”
Desperately, he tried to reach out to her, to feel her arms around him, to see her face, her eyes, but it was harder now, heavier.
Her cry cut its way through his fractured thoughts, solidified at the center of his brain and torn him loose from the whirlwind. Suddenly, he felt the hard leather of the saddle beneath his thighs, heard the clopping of Buck’s hooves on the ground, tasted the bitterness of salt and blood and fatigue in his mouth. Suddenly, his eyes were open, and he was staring at a sea of grass with only a tree buoy or two breaking the monotony.
But not far, though. Surely not far.
“Don’t you dare leave me.”
Kitty knew the risks as well as he did, knew the odds would catch up with him one day, knew he couldn’t promise her he would return.
Not that any of that mattered a damn bit.
He had already disappointed her too much. He had to make it back to Dodge. She would never forgive him if he didn’t.
With a shaking hand, he managed to pry the top off his canteen and pour the last of its contents down his throat, clutching at the brief revival of his senses. With a soft click, he urged Buck into a trot, holding onto his wounds as best he could, focused on the path ahead, focused on home, focused on Dodge.
Focused on her.
Chapter Three: Law
“He was not ready. He should not have gone.”
“And how were you to keep him here?”
Sleeves pushed up above her elbows, arms deep in the basin of water, hands clenched around the blood-stained sheets, Lucero stopped scrubbing and looked up at her grandfather. He was right, of course. She could not have kept the gringo lawman there, not even if she had tried to use the talents that had made her Mando’s woman. He had other responsibilities, other – interests.
With a sigh, she shoved the sheets back down into the dark liquid and continued washing. “He was not ready,” she repeated needlessly. They all knew it.
“He will be all right,” Lucho said confidently. “He is a strong man, a great man.”
She smiled fondly at her brother’s blatant hero worship, and didn’t blame him a bit. She, too, had seen the big man’s strength, his greatness – and even more important, his goodness. None of them could even have imagined anyone could free them from Mando’s cruel control before Matt Dillon came into their lives. But now they lived as their own people, ruled their own lives.
The young boy’s face fell slightly as he fingered the shining badge on his chest. “I wish he could have stayed, though. We needed him here.”
Agustin ruffled his grandson’s hair. “Such a great man is needed many places, Lucho. Do you not think there are those who want him back where he came from?”
“I know. But I will miss him, Grandfather.”
“I, too,” the old man admitted.
Their words brought heaviness to Lucero’s heart. They would not be the only ones to miss the big man. She wondered if he would remember her in years to come, wondered if she could claim – if only in her own mind – some part in his future triumphs. Shaking her head at her own foolishness, she wrung out the rough fabric, satisfied to see that the stains from his blood had not been completed removed. It was strange, she knew, but it gave her some piece of him still.
Of course, she knew he truly belonged somewhere else – to someone else.
She had never heard of such a name before, not for a human, and wondered if it had some significance or if it were simply a name. Whatever the origin, it was certainly a name that meant a great deal to him. He had groaned it over and over in his delirium as she wiped the fevered sweat from his face and chest. He had whispered it in his sleep even after the fever fell and he rested more calmly. And he had said it quite clearly yesterday evening as he packed his saddlebag in preparation for his morning departure. She wasn’t sure who he was talking to – his horse was the only creature near him to listen – but she had heard the name often enough to recognize it.
What kind of woman could command such feelings from such a man? And he was a man. Quite a man. She had suspected that early on, but after what she had witnessed in that town square, she knew for certain.
Not quite able to believe her eyes, Lucero braced on the balcony overlooking the square where Mando’s body lay crumpled and still in the dirt. He had killed him. The gringo lawman – weak, injured, clinging to his horse – had killed Mando. It was not possible.
Yet, there it was, right in front of them. She watched as one of Mando’s men stumbled over to their dead leader. He rolled the body over, stared at it for a moment, then turned to look at the big man, who was by that time hanging on with both hands to the saddle horn, his legs bent, his head against the leather. A chill ran through her as she realized what was about to happen. The bandito growled and dropped his hand to the holster. Lucero did not hesitate.
“Law!” she called.
As Dillon’s head came up, his right hand swung down, and his gun was firing as it cleared the belt. Mando’s man froze, his pistol not even completely out of its sheath. He teetered for a few seconds as the town watched, then crashed back onto the ground only inches away from his equally dead leader.
The remaining men of Mando’s broken regime did not need further incentive to disperse, most of them rather quickly, as the townspeople gathered around the two bodies, felled by two shots that had simultaneously broken the chains of control.
But Lucero wasn’t watching them anymore. She had moved her gaze to the lawman and gasped as he lost his grip both on the horse and on consciousness and collapsed onto the ground. Scrambling downstairs as quickly as she could, she raced across the square, praying that he still breathed, that he had not sacrificed himself for them.
Taking his head in her lap, she felt for a pulse, leaned in to hear his heartbeat, swallowing in relief when both were there still. With shaking fingers, she opened his shirt to assess the damage to the injuries Agustin had tried to mend, frowning when she saw that the bandages were soaked in fresh blood.
“Portadillo!” she called to the old blacksmith who stood watching. “I need your wagon.”
At first she thought he would refuse. She had been, after all, Mando’s woman, had a connection with the cruelties he had wrought through the years. But the old man simply nodded and disappeared into his building, reappearing a few minutes later with his two sons, who pulled out a sturdy cart and somehow managed to haul the big marshal into it.
By the time they reached Agustin’s house, she had exhausted every prayer she had ever learned as a child. They must have worked, though, because he still breathed, despite the disturbing amount of blood that pooled beneath him.
But he was with friends, now, in caring hands, and she could do nothing else except believe he would survive.
The fever lasted three days and threw him in and out of some level of consciousness the entire time. They took turns sitting up with him, afraid to leave him in case he needed more laudanum for the pain or quinine and alcohol for the infection. Even little Lucho cared for him, perhaps with even more dedication than the rest of them.
Lucero learned his face well during those long hours, studied the strong, handsome angles, tried to see into his soul and discover what kind of man would risk his life for people he barely knew. She also wondered what kind of life he had back where he came from.
It could not have been easy, she realized, as she tried to relieve his fever by bathing him with cool rags. The two scars he had gained from Mando’s men were merely the latest additions to a body well accustomed to such marks. She had never seen so many wounds before and wondered how he had survived them all: his chest, his shoulders, his side and back, even his legs. But the harsh imperfections could not disguise the fitness and strength of his form, and she found herself blushing – she, Mando’s woman – as she ministered to him.
On the evening of the second day, as she dozed fitfully in a chair by his bed, she heard his moans and immediately shook off the light sleep, bending over him. The words were hard to distinguish, but he seemed to be fighting someone, struggling for something. She tried to rouse him with a gentle hand, but he only struggled harder, his arms reaching for something or someone.
“No!” The cry echoed through the room, drawing Agustin and Lucho from their beds.
“What is it?” the old man asked, guiding the boy away.
“He is dreaming.”
“Stop! Don’t hurt her!” He thrashed now, unaware that he was only tearing open the wounds again. “Kitty!”
Lucero put one hand against his cheek, rested the other on his chest. “Shh. I am here, Law. Stop moving.”
But he groaned, calling out again. “Kitty!”
Agustin looked at her. “Tell him you are her.”
“This Kitty. Tell him you are her. Maybe it will calm him down.”
“Law,” she soothed.
“She would not call him that,” the old man observed. “If she is who I think she must be, she would most likely call him by his name.”
Lucero grunted as she tried vainly to keep him from hurting himself further. Firming her grip on his rough jaw, she said, “Matt.”
He groaned again, but his arms stilled.
“Matt,” she repeated, then tried more. “It’s – Kitty.” She didn’t figure she sounded much like this Kitty, but maybe he wouldn’t notice in his delirious state.
“Kitty,” he whispered, reaching up.
Catching his hand, she placed it back on his chest, but allowed her fingers to entwine with his. “Yes,” she told him. “I am here. Go back to sleep.”
“Kitty.” His body relaxed, his breathing grew even again.
Gently removing her hand from his, she went about fixing the bandages, wondering who this Kitty was and what hold she had on the big lawman. Whatever it was, it was strong.
Lucero threw out the dirty water from the basin and turned it up to catch any rare rain that might fall, knowing it was foolish, but figuring it would do no harm, regardless. Agustin stepped out into the heat from the cooler house. She was still getting used to the kindness that had replaced the accusations on his lined features. It was good to be home, good to be accepted again.
“You really think he will be all right?” she asked him, knowing that Lucho was off tending to the goats and not around to hear the real answer.
“I can only hope,” the old man answered. “It is a long journey he will make.”
“He is weak, still. Not as much as before, but some still.”
“Yes. But he had to go.”
She knew that. It didn’t make things easier. “I wish he had someone with him, in case – “
“And who would go, Lucero?” Agustin questioned softly. “You?”
She flushed, knowing he saw through her. “I could have – helped him,” she argued, but it sounded weak even to her ears.
“And what of his – Kitty? Did you not hear how he spoke her name?”
Of course she had heard, had asked him about her when he was able to talk again. Kitty was his woman, not like she had been Mando’s woman. Not at all like that. She had seen the tenderness in his eyes when he acknowledged his love for her, had heard the emotion in his voice – even in the throes of fever – when he said her name.
She wondered what it would be like to love a man like that and to be loved by him. But experience told her there were very few men like that in the world. She counted herself lucky to have met this one. She wished –
Even knowing she could never hold such a place with him, she still wished he had not gone out alone, not yet. “There are many dangers out there,” she told Agustin, forcing her voice to sound casual. “I would feel better if he had a companion, that is all.”
That was not all, of course, but it didn’t matter now. “Until the next time,” she had said to him in farewell as he took her hand that morning. But she did not really fool herself into thinking there would be a next time.
Her grandfather allowed her the ruse and simply shrugged. “Well, I am too old, and Lucho is too young to go with him. He will be fine. You have seen his strength.”
She nodded. Agustin was right, he was strong. But even strong men needed help sometimes. Letting her gaze search the horizon, she hoped that he remained strong, that he made it back home, back to the other people who needed him.
And despite the conflicted emotions the wish brought, she also hoped he made it back to Kitty.
Chapter Four: He Was That Someone
“Seven Hours to Dawn;” “The Bullet;” “
“Here, now, Miz Kitty, let me be a-gittin’ that fer ya.” Festus Haggen clanged down the boardwalk to relieve Kitty Russell of her armful of packages.
“Thanks, Festus,” she answered, her smile pleasant enough, but far from genuine. “You don’t have to – “
golly Bill, ain’t no
trouble,” he assured her, stomping along beside her toward the
When she didn’t continue the conversation, he said, “You bin a’shoppin’ have ya?”
Silence met his question. “Miz Kitty?”
Startled, she turned to him. “What?”
“I sez, you bin a’shoppin?”
She placed a hand on his arm in apology. “Oh, I’m sorry, Festus. I was – thinking.”
He didn’t doubt that a bit.
“Yes, I’ve been shopping. Sometimes it – is a good distraction.”
It hurt him something fierce to see the pain in those beautiful eyes, but he knew nothing he could do would change it. Only one man could take that pain away – and he was also the one, however unintentionally, causing it.
“Why doncha join Doc n’ me at Delmonicos fer dinner?” he offered gallantly. Maybe he’d even buy her meal for her. Well, or at least get Doc to buy it.
But she smiled that sad smile again and shook her head. “I don’t think so, but thanks just the same.”
“Well, if ya change yer mind – “ he started, but she cut him off, turning at the doors of
“Here we are. I can take them now.” She reached out to shift the packages from his arms to hers.
“I kin take ‘em upstairs fer ya – “
Again, she brushed away his chivalry. “I have them, Festus. Thank you anyway.”
Then she was gone, the doors swinging shut behind her. He watched as she navigated the stairs, never once looking back. With a sigh, the deputy shook his head and set his step toward the jail. He’d make some coffee, just the kind Matthew liked –
The thought twisted in his brain like a toady frog on the end of a gig. The jail would be deserted, unless Newly happened to drop by. It was amazing how empty the place could be without that big lawman stretched out across the bunk or pushed back behind the desk, or standing to fill the entire space from floor to ceiling.
wanted to go with Matthew to track down that low-life Mando
and his gang, but the big marshal insisted he was needed in Dodge. Festus had even resorted to making the
ill-advised suggestion that Dillon wasn’t in top shape yet and might not be
able to finish the job. After all, it
had been only a few weeks since they had carried him by
stretcher onto that gold train bound for
The back wound still suffered him, Festus knew. He had seen the way he pushed up gingerly from his desk, or the way his face tightened when he took that first step after he stood. And the limp, which he had only occasionally given into before, had now become a consistent component of his gait.
No, Festus knew Matt Dillon was in no shape to go off after a band of outlaws, but his efforts to dissuade him had drawn only a sharp glare and sour responses.
“I’m jest a
sayin’, Matthew, that ther Mando and his bunch’ll be so fer down in
“Maybe,” came the curt answer.
But Festus was not rebuffed. “Well,” he continued, his voice wheedling, “doncha think it won’t matter if’n ya wait a few days?”
Those blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why?”
A lesser man would have stopped. Festus bulled on. “Well, jest ta make sure ya got whatcha need – “
“I have everything I need, Festus,” he assured him brusquely, lifting his hat from the peg and tugging it low over his eyes.
Even though the marshal seemed a bit more rested that morning – and Festus had a pretty good idea where he had done that resting the night before – he still wore that expression, especially behind the eyes, of a man whose existence had just been sorely tested and who had clawed his way out of the hole only recently. The vision fortified Festus for more tenacity.
“Maybe ya orda wait fer another reason,” he ventured, already bracing for the indignant protest.
“For what reason?”
It was now or never, he figured, and took a quick breath. “Matthew, it’s only bin a few weeks since Doc dug that thar bullet outta yer back. Doncha think – “
Stubborn fell over the broad shoulders like a blanket. “I’m fine, Festus,” he snapped.
Although Festus had expected no different an answer, he allowed the frustration at his own failure to tweak his temper. In a rare show of irritation toward the man he admired more than anyone else in the world, the deputy threw up his hands and growled, “Why shore. I kin see that. That’s why ya’ve bin hitchin’ round ‘cher like a ninety year old shemale granny.”
The marshal’s mouth set hard, his lips pressed together. Festus hastily continued before Dillon could stop him. “How long ya think ya kin set yer horse afore that back pains ya so much ya kaint rightly even hang onto him?”
“Festus – “
“I see’d ya scrunch yer face every time ya git up. It’s hurtin’ ya good, and even though I ain’t wantin’ ya to tell ol’ Doc I agree with him, ya orda stick ta what he told ya ‘bout tryin’ ta take it easy fer a while.”
He squinted hopefully at the marshal, but Matthew merely worked his jaw a minute, then sighed and hauled his pack onto a shoulder.
“I’ll be back in a few weeks. Take care of – things – while I’m gone.”
Shaking his head, Festus followed him onto the boardwalk and watched as he threw the pack behind his saddle. The big man didn’t even grimace when he mounted the horse, but Festus knew it took a concentrated effort not to. Dillon clicked Buck back into the street, then hesitated and turned to Festus. The deputy saw the realization on his face, the understanding and acceptance of how this trip could end. It twisted in his gut.
“If I don’t – “ Dillon began.
Festus flinched. “Now, no need ta go talkin’ like that, Matthew. You’ll be back. Besides, ya don’t wanna go jinxin’ yerself.”
Finally, the marshal allowed a vague smile to curve his lips. “Take care of her,” he said simply, his meaning clear, tearing at the deputy’s heart, then swung Buck around and headed south out of town.
watched him until he disappeared then stared a little longer at the empty
street. It was early yet, not many folks
stirring. He wondered if Dodge would
notice that their marshal was gone, wondered if the very atmosphere in town
would change. Maybe
not today. Maybe
not tomorrow. But he knew one
thing: if Matt Dillon didn’t come back,
And none of those who counted Matt Dillon as friend – or more – would either.
As he clanged down the boardwalk toward Dodge’s only decent restaurant, Festus couldn’t stop thinking about Miss Kitty and the melancholy expression he had seen in her eyes. He had always known Matthew Dillon and Kitty Russell belonged together. Even from his earliest days in Dodge, he had observed their affection for each other. And, although they remained careful about revealing too much publicly, he had been privy to enough clues to know that affection was only a surface reflection of their true, deep love: a quick caress of a shoulder, a hand on a back, a brush of an arm, an exchanged glance.
those subtle moments were rare. Only
one, that he recalled, allowed him a bold demonstration of that love, with
Kitty falling all over the big marshal, her arms around his neck, her lips
against his cheek and jaw. The amazing
part was that he permitted it, returned it, even, with his head on her breast,
his lips brushing hers – right there in the middle of the
That couldn’t be right. Festus had leaned down, placed his ear against that broad chest himself, and pulled back, heartsick, when he realized Doc was right. His swirling thoughts could not comprehend that the man who stood so tall, who represented such strength and authority and power was left like a two-bit tinhorn in the middle of the street. But as terrible as it was to see Matthew just lying there, it was ten times worse looking at Miss Kitty. He never wanted again to see what he saw in her eyes that night: pain, emptiness, despair, and a void so deep he swore they could all lose themselves in it.
If Matthew were to be – if he didn’t come back from the dead this time, Festus wasn’t sure Kitty could go through those emotions again and not shut completely down. And if that happened, he would have lost two of the three most important people in his life.
As he stepped through the entrance to Delmonico’s, he noted that the third was sitting at a corner table.
“Well,” Doc said, looking up, “I figured about suppertime you’d come wanderin’ in.”
Grateful for the distraction from his bothersome thoughts, he spluttered cooperatively. “Oh, ya ol’ goat. I wuz jest gonna come ta tell I wuz buyin’ this afternoon, but never you mind now.”
“You’re buying?” the physician exclaimed incredulously.
“I wuz, but now – “
“Charlatan,” Doc accused. “You never intended – “
“I did intend – wait thar a minute. You’d you call me?”
“Charlatan,” he repeated, adding a hand flourish. “Fake, fraud, pretender.”
Festus drew up. “Fake? Why you ol’ – “ He paused and scrunched up his right eye. “Jest fer that ain’t a gonna tell ya ‘bout Miz Kitty.”
The physician, as predicted, rose and reached out a hand to stop him. “Whoa, now I didn’t say I didn’t want – that is – well, what about Kitty?”
Festus shook his head in doubt, knowing he now held the upper hand. “Don’t know as I feel like sharin’ now, seeing as how ya’d rather not eat with me – “
“Oh for goodness sake, sit down and order.”
“Well, if ya insist.” Festus suppressed the smirk that pushed at his mouth.
More serious now, the deputy sank into a chair and let out a generous sigh. “I’m worried ‘bout her, Doc. She ain’t hersef no more. The light’s jest – well, jest about faded right outta her eyes.”
“Well, I jest don’t understand. Matthew’s bin gone before – “
“Not like this. Not this long – and not without some word.”
Festus looked past the doctor, not wanting to see the truth in his eyes. “Doc, do ya think – “
“No. No, ‘course not. Matt’s okay. He’s – “ But he faltered and sat back heavily. “Festus, I don’t know. This time, I just don’t know.”
Not wanting to voice his greatest fear, but needing to address what was becoming more and more possible, he asked, “What’ll we do if’n he’s – if’n he don’t come back?”
“I don’t know,” Doc admitted softly.
“What’ll Miz Kitty do?”
“She’ll – she’ll do what she has to do, Festus, just like everybody.”
That was what scared him – what she had to do. “I shore don’t wanna find out.”
They sat for a minute, their thoughts private. Frustration built in the deputy, roiling in his gut and pushing through his limbs until he knew he couldn’t just sit there any more. Without a word, he slapped his hand down on the table with a fierce wham, drawing startled glances from the other patrons.
“I’m a’goin’ after him, Doc,” he decided.
“I’m a’goin’ after Matthew.” He almost smiled, satisfied at the first feeling of usefulness he’d had in weeks.
But the doctor didn’t seem quite so certain. “Well, I never heard anything so – you can’t – “
“Shore I kin. And I’m gonna.”
“You don’t even know where he went,” Doc protested.
“I knowd he headed south to
“Festus – “ Doc caught his arm as he stood.
“Doc, “ he said, hoping he could convey how powerful his need was. “I gotta do this – fer Matthew, fer Miz Kitty, fer Dodge.”
He felt the doctor’s hand relax its grip, then fall from his arm. The gray head nodded in acquiescence. Someone had to do something. They couldn’t just wait there forever until some strange lawman rode into town and told them Matt Dillon was dead. Or even worse, keep waiting and never know what had happened, wondering every day if he was coming back.
Someone had to do something. And Festus Haggen had decided he was that someone.
Chapter Five: Hard Man to Catch
“Seven Hours to Dawn;” “The Badge;” “The Bullet;” “
His water was long gone, but Matt Dillon didn’t notice, couldn’t calculate his odds, wasn’t able to manage much level of thought beyond simply existing. He vacillated between bouts of fiery pain that coursed through his body and periods of almost total numbness when he could barely feel himself on the saddle.
What little bit of logical thought that was left to him kept pestering, telling him that this was the end, that he simply couldn’t keep going, that it was foolish even to try. But an equally persistent voice of passion challenged him, told him he could make it, reminded him of what he would lose if he didn’t.
If he gave up, if he just let his body surrender to the persuasive forces of pain and something far past exhaustion, he would lose her. And he couldn’t let that happen. So he drew all of his waning strength to that end, to that focus. Instead of the desolate flat land before him, he tried to see her beautiful face. Instead of the rough saddle under him, he tried to feel her soft body. Instead of the sweat and dirt, he tried to smell her heady perfume.
“Kitty,” he whispered, almost overcome as his world transformed, as he was enveloped by the sight, feel, and smell of her.
“Keep going, Cowboy,” she urged. “Keep going. I’m waiting for you.”
And he knew she was. She always was. No, he couldn’t lose Kitty. Whatever it took, he couldn’t lose her.
So, somehow, he plodded on – or at least hung onto Buck, who plodded on. But their pace had slowed, stretching out whatever distance remained between them and Dodge, using up precious time. And he began to wonder if it may be too late for even Kitty to save him.
It could have been hours or only minutes later when he heard them. Even in the near-delirious state he swam in and out of, Matt Dillon had spent enough years on the trail to recognize the sound of hoof beats from a good distance. He usually could make quite accurate predictions as to how many horses and how fast before any visual confirmation. This, time, though, through the hazy consciousness he fought to maintain, he counted himself lucky he heard them at all.
More than one, he thought. And they were traveling at a gallop, apparently no longer concerned about stealth. He figured whoever it was had watched their prey deteriorate to the point he would be of no trouble to them at all, an easy target who probably couldn’t even find the butt of his pistol, much less draw with any speed. Blinking twice in a futile attempt to clear his vision, he contemplated his options:
Make a run for it? They’d drill him before he could spur Buck on.
Try to draw and shoot it out? In his condition, he would be lucky to get the horse turned around before he was dead.
Turn and negotiate? Risky – as if the other choices weren’t.
Surrender? They’d probably kill him anyway.
None of those choices appealed to him particularly. Surely there was another way. He just wished his brain could find it, could push past the thickness that filled his head and find coherent thought.
If he turned, acknowledged that he was aware of their presence, they might shoot him right then, not giving him the chance to make a stand. It would probably be the smart thing for them to do, if not very gallant. Maybe he should wait until they called him. Maybe they weren’t following him after all. Maybe he was simply a stranger to them –
It took only a gentle tightening of the reins for Buck to stop obediently. Matt grimaced with the jerk to his body and swallowed in an effort to regain some clarity. There was no choice now; he had to turn. Leaning slightly to the left, he urged the horse around to face the man – or men – who had shadowed him tenaciously for over a week. With a darkly humorous thought, he figured maybe they had earned the right to kill him, they certainly had been patient.
His eyes tightened when he saw them, even through the fuzziness. Not one. Not two. Five of Mando’s gang had apparently followed him, bent on avenging their leader’s death. Even at his best, Matt Dillon would have been sorely tested to take down five men. At the moment, he didn’t stand a chance.
He opened his mouth to speak and found that he couldn’t, so he settled for the best stare he had.
“We have come for you, gringo,” one said unnecessarily. “You killed Mando.”
He continued to stare.
“The people have sent us to avenge him.”
He doubted that.
“They have no leader now. You have left them helpless.”
He tried to lick his lips, to get enough moisture in his mouth to speak, but it was a fruitless effort. Didn’t matter, anyway, they were going to kill him.
His head snapped up at the voice, unbelieving, confused. But there in front of him, astride one of the horses, sat Lucero, very beautiful and very angry. His eyes squinted to see her, to try to make sense out of her being there.
“You left me, Law!” she yelled. “You killed Mando, then left me alone! I was someone with Mando. Now I’m nothing!”
No, he tried to argue. You weren’t someone. You are now. But he couldn’t make a sound more articulate than a garbled groan.
“You left me alone!” she cried, but as he tried to focus in on the wavering form, something changed; her hair transformed from straight, dark tresses to bouncy curls of fiery red that were very, very familiar.
“Kitty?” he tried to say with no success.
“I told you not to leave me!” The olive skin lightened to alabaster.
His head pounded as he fought to comprehend. The Mexican woman had disappeared, and in her place stood a furious, trembling Kitty Russell, her eyes accusing, her tone on edge with disappointment.
“I can’t do this anymore, Matt,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t keep waiting for you to come back.” Her hand came up, holding a pistol pointed at his chest. “I can’t keep living not knowing if you’re alive or dead.”
Stunned, he tried to reach out to her, to talk to her, to ask her what the hell she was doing, but he couldn’t speak, couldn’t move.
“I can’t wait for you anymore. I have to put you out of my misery. I have to.”
He heard the gun cock, saw her finger squeeze the trigger, and still his feverish brain could not make sense of what was happening.
“Kitty?” he finally managed to croak, but she didn’t budge.
He wanted to tell her that he was sorry, that he knew it wasn’t fair to ask her to wait for him, but that the thought of her was what brought him back alive so many times. He wanted to tell her those moments spent in her arms were the only times he truly felt at peace. He wanted to tell her he would give it all up if it meant keeping her with him. He wanted to tell her he loved her.
But he couldn’t.
“Matt?” she asked, giving him a final chance.
His mouth opened to say all those things, but the words turned to sand in his throat.
With an infinitely sad expression, she leveled the gun again. The others drew their guns, as well, all aimed directly at him. Knowing it was useless, he could do nothing else but let his hand drop to the holster at his hip. But he couldn’t shoot Kitty. Dear God, how could he shoot Kitty?
His fingers relaxed around the handle, intent on letting go, but the others had seen his move. With Kitty leading the way, they opened up with ferocity. He had time only to look into her eyes, to see the anger and loathing burn their blue depths to red. Fire exploded in front of him, tearing through his body and blasting him off Buck.
He didn’t even feel it when he hit the ground.
Matt Dillon wasn’t sure why he wasn’t dead. He should be dead. He had just been riddled with at least five bullets, all at short range. Hard to survive that. Of course, he did consider that he might actually be dead and just not know it. Still, the ground seemed quite substantial under his body, and the coolness of the air spread real chill bumps across his skin and allowed a bit more clarity to part the fog in his brain.
Cautiously, he peeled open one eye and looked around. It was dark, which explained the cooler temperature, and he seemed to be quite alone, no vigilantes from Mando hovering over him, no scorned Mexican woman waiting to punish him – and no fed-up Kitty pointing a gun at him.
She hadn’t shot him after all. With clearer thoughts, he allowed himself a humorless grunt at the hallucination. Of course Kitty hadn’t shot him. His hands came up to run across his chest and stomach, drawing a grimace as he touched the burning, infected wounds. But that was all he found, just the old wounds. No one had shot him – not recently, anyway.
Sighing hard, he grimaced when the movement triggered a wave of nausea and pain. The half-healed back injury reminded him of its presence again, throbbing in time with his heartbeat, but he grabbed onto that pain, that beat, that proof of life, figuring that he must have finally lost consciousness and fallen off Buck. Even as much as he hurt, it was certainly preferable to death, but not the most ideal situation since he wasn’t at all sure that he could drag himself back on the big horse who waited patiently a few feet away.
So he decided maybe he would just lie there for a while, give Buck a rest, and ponder his predicament – and it was, indeed, a predicament. He wondered what the good folks in Dodge would think if they could see him now.
in that town – indeed, across
No, he thought, that wasn’t entirely true. There was at least one thing pleasant associated with those scars: the particular attention Kitty gave them when they were alone. If he closed his eyes, he could feel her fingers sliding over the marks, some fresh and tender, others old and barely noticeable. But she knew each one intimately. In those times, he let her touch, explore, knowing she re-lived each moment that created the scar. He could also, if he let himself, but usually it was much more enjoyable just to lie back and relish the feel of her soft hands healing him with warmth and love. He had never stopped her searches, but sometimes the pain in her eyes during those moments brought a quick tightness to his throat, and he had to turn her in his arms and distract her from the task. She was usually willing to be distracted, too, thank goodness.
That last night before he headed out after Mando, she had lain in his arms, her hand moving over the scars again, tracing them, remembering.
As usual, she had started with the oldest one and worked her way across his body to the newest one. After a minute, with her hand resting on one of the marks Mace Gore’s men had provided him, he heard her groan softly.
still picture her face, tear-streaked and devastated when she entered the
But it was certainly nothing compared to the pain he knew she had felt ever since, pain that she couldn’t hide every time he faced danger. She didn’t think he saw it, but he did.
In an effort to comfort, he pulled her closer. “You okay?” he asked, already knowing that she wasn’t.
With a sigh, he brushed his lips against her temple. “Kitty, I’ll be back in a few weeks.” He hoped.
Her hand moved to the scar so near his heart, the one that estranged them when she last decided she couldn’t take it anymore, the one that reminded him daily of how close he came to losing her.
“I’ll be as fast as I can,” he soothed, but it was an empty promise.
To his relief, her tense expression melted into seduction.
“Cowboy, you can be fast on the trail, but there are some things that just need to be done nice and slow.”
Grateful, he let the desire flare in his eyes as well as other parts of his body. “I can do slow, too,” he reminded in the same tone she had used.
“Yes, you surely can,” she agreed, kissing the scar.
With a pleased grunt, he twisted to bring their bodies more in line, but an awkward turn shot pain through his back and he couldn’t stop the second, harsher grunt.
Damn. “I’m fine,” he insisted, trying to buzz her neck in distraction.
For a while, she allowed his diversion, but when her hand slid around to his back and ran over the sensitive scar that came far too close to leaving him helpless, he caught it.
“Kitty,” he insisted, “I said I’m fine.”
“Don’t you believe me?” he challenged, warming his voice with seduction and promise, but unable to mask the plea that also tinted it. He wanted this night to be good and fun, with no burdens, no worries. Those would come soon enough.
He watched her contemplate the choices, tried to tell her with his eyes what he wanted – what he needed. Finally, she smiled.
“Guess you’ll have to prove it to me,” she challenged back.
Thank you. Thank you. “Guess I will.”
And he did, concentrated every ounce of desire he had for her, which overwhelmed him each time they were together. He moved to make this night one she couldn’t forget, in case it became their last. And she seemed to want to do the same, pressing her hands over each scar again, then moving to areas that bore no scars except for the marks of passion her mouth and fingers left.
He rocked their bodies together in a bold rhythm that built and built, obliterating any thoughts but those of yearning and desire. When they finally lay exhausted in each other’s arms, he tried not to think too much about what lay ahead, tried only to live in the moment, to remember the feel of her skin and the smell of her hair and the taste of her lips. It would fortify him through the drought from her.
The sound of hooves clopping over rocks and dirt drew him abruptly out of the pleasant memory that had brought a twitch to his body even in his battered condition. He shifted, grimacing at even that much movement, and wondered if this was another hallucination, if his ravaged brain simply could no longer distinguish reality from illusion. This time, he heard only one rider, coming more slowly than before, looking. For him?
Perhaps the darkness would hide him, protect him since he couldn’t protect himself. But one glance around told him it was a full moon – big and round and almost as illuminating as the sun. The sounds slowed as they neared, and then stopped altogether. Boots crunched on the ground and Matt dragged in enough strength to look up.
He found himself staring at a silhouette backed by the bright white of the moon. The figure was slight, but the shadow of a wide sombrero distorted the shape of his head. So, they had caught up with him after all. He knew, of course, that he was helpless. His entire body burned with pain and fever. He couldn’t even turn his head away, couldn’t lift a hand in greeting or supplication.
lawman, he had always accepted that violent death was a very real and likely
possibility. After that acceptance, he
had thought little about it, knowing it only caused useless worry, and could
produce too much caution on his part to do his job. Still, occasionally he had pondered ways he
might meet his end. Shot down in the
He wondered how Kitty would take it. She’d be awful mad at him; that was certain. The thought almost made him smile, if he’d had enough strength to move even one muscle. This was why he never felt as if he could settle down, never wanted to burden her with the weight of a husband and a family. What could he promise her except that she would wait for days or weeks at a time for him to return, never knowing for sure that he was? Or maybe that she was almost certain to see him gunned down right before her eyes one day – or even worse, be gunned down herself in his name.
And maybe that was really what scared him – losing her because of what he did, because of who he was. He had made a reputation of being a strong man, virtually indestructible. But if Kitty died because of him, he was certain his own destruction would follow quickly.
His final thoughts weighed heavy with guilt. What if they dumped his body in some ravine? He would most likely never be found. That would be worse for Kitty, not knowing, waiting and wondering. Of course, his assassin could just leave him there. He knew with certainty he would be dead by morning with no effort at all on anyone else’s part.
But the man hadn’t trailed him for over a week just to let him die on his own. No, he figured there were plans for him, and they didn’t promise to be pleasant. The boots stepped closer, the sombrero dipped as its owner took a closer look. Matt heard a rough grunt.
“Gringo Lawman,” said a voice thick with accent, “you are a hard man to catch.”
He squinted, tried to see the face, to identify his killer for some strange self-satisfaction, but the night and his own condition obscured the sight. His hand twitched with instinct toward his holster, sought the familiar handle of his pistol, but his fingers brushed only empty leather. The fall must have knocked it loose.
This was it, then. Not at all how he figured he would go. Disappointing.
“I’m sorry, Kitty,” he breathed to the woman who waited for him miles away – who would never have to wait for him again. “I’m sorry.”
Chapter Six: Stay in the Buggy
“Seven Hours to Dawn;” “The Bullet;” “
Galen Adams sipped absently at his beer, letting the ponderous thoughts that
had chipped away at his confidence sink even deeper into his brain. It was early for the
At least he had persuaded Kitty to join him, although her usually bright company was muted by worry and fear – and by a foreboding sense that they should all be grieving. With a physician’s eye, he noted the tired lines that broke the smooth planes of her face, saw the dark circles under her eyes, ached at the pain behind her pseudo-pleasant expression.
Matt had been gone over a month, and while that was not unprecedented, he had never been away so long without some contact – with Kitty, at least. A month of tracking a Mexican outlaw alone over the border where he certainly would find no friends of a U.S. Marshal. A month of his friends wondering what had happened. A month of watching the edges of Dodge for that big buckskin to trot back in. A month of creating all sorts of dire scenarios about his fate.
A month was a long time, and Doc was no longer able to ignore the ominous sensation that he might need to brace himself and address the possibility that Matt Dillon wasn’t coming back. It was bad enough to think it himself, but the more withdrawn she became, the more he felt he needed to broach the subject with Kitty, as well.
But it took all morning and the better part of two glasses of beer to stuff him with enough fortitude to do it. He glanced up from his beer, took a breath, downed another gulp, took another breath.
“Kitty,” he said, tentatively. “Have you been – have thought what you might do if – “
He faltered, realizing she had not heard him, was staring off in the general direction of the swinging doors.
“Kitty?” he prodded.
Still no response. Gingerly, he placed a hand on her arm, jerking it back when she jumped. “I’m sorry,” he said.
She smiled in apology, and the sadness in her eyes twisted his heart. This would be harder than he thought.
“Kitty,” he began again, “it’s been – it’s been over a month.”
The sadness hardened. “Doc – “she warned.
But he persisted. “Don’t you think you need to consider that Matt – “
“Don’t,” she said again, voice sharp.
“I know you don’t want to think about it, but – “
Her hands pushed up from the table, and she stared down at him, eyes snapping with anger and fear and pain. “Don’t,” she repeated with even more force. Then her lips began to tremble and she didn’t quite catch the sob that pushed at her throat. The next word came out in a whisper. “Please.”
Facing reality was important, but he was damned if he would deliberately cause her pain in the face of a direct plea. With a nod and swish of his mustache, he sighed, sat back, watching her bowed head, and gave some time to considering what Kitty would do, what the town would do, for that matter if –
had been a U.S. Marshal for 18 years, serving Dodge and
After a while, those bullet wounds had to get old, those long trail rides tedious and not nearly as rewarding. But Doc wondered if that key to happiness would still be hanging around when Matt finally came to his senses. He hoped so. Looking at Kitty then, he ached for her, wished he could reassure her, could tell her Matt surely would be trotting into town any minute.
But he couldn’t, of course. And so he just sat with her, offering what silent comfort he could for as long as she needed it.
The doors to the saloon parted, and a man walked in, eyes glancing about the room, searching. After a brief hesitation, he stepped to the bar.
“May I help you?” Sam asked with his usual customer courtesy.
The man pushed his hat back a bit, revealing a thatch of dark hair, and leaned on the counter. “I’m lookin’ for Deputy Haggen,” he said.
Doc straightened in his chair and took more focused notice of the man. He was stocky, average height, several days’ growth of beard shadowing a face that fell just short of handsome. But the most significant characteristic about him was the flash of silver at his chest.
“Festus isn’t here right now,” Sam told him carefully. “Newly O’Brien’s our other deputy. He’s more than likely at his shop.”
“Obliged,” the man said, nodding once and turning.
“Excuse me,” Doc interrupted, rising. “I’m Doctor Adams. Can I help you?”
The man let out a quick breath. “Not anymore, Doc.”
his brow and extended a hand. “Seth McMannis. I’m a
Doc frowned, taking the hand, a heavy feeling settling in his gut. “What do you mean?”
“Run across a fella out on the plains – in bad shape. I tried to tend him, but he was too far gone. Didn’t get anything out of him except the word ‘Dodge.’ Figured he may be from here.” He paused, then added more softly, “He’s wearin’ a U.S. Marshal’s badge.”
That heavy feeling began to churn. “Where – where is he?” Oh God.
“Over the back of my horse. Big fella. Didn’t make for an easy ride, I can tell ya that. Heard you folks were missin’ your marshal. I thought maybe – well – “
Kitty still stood, face bone white, eyes wide. Doc placed a hand on her arm, as much to steady himself as to help her. Swallowing so he wouldn’t be sick, he whispered, “Show us.”
They moved together to the doors. Doc lifted a quick, but sincere prayer before he stepped onto the boardwalk. A crowd had already gathered around the ranger’s bay, curious about the long, blanketed body over its flanks. The only things visible were the boots and a touch of pants legs. Both were beige, and too familiar.
He felt Kitty’s fingernails digging into the flesh of one hand. With the other trembling one, he reached out to lift the wool off the dead man’s head. Death had already begun to ravage the body, but it had not yet obscured the features so much that he couldn’t recognize Matt Dillon.
Or not recognize him.
Oh God. Oh God.
relief that he had to take a step back,
She leaned her head on his shoulder, and he patted her gently. It wasn’t him. Thank God, it wasn’t him.
McMannis smiled slightly. “Well, glad to hear that, except I’m not sure who this poor fella is – or was. You got an undertaker?”
“Just down the street,” Doc supplied.
“I’ll leave him here, then. Don’t really need his company on my way back. I hope you find your marshal.”
ranger walked his horse toward Percy Crump’s place, Doc escorted a shaking
Kitty back into the
It had been not quite a day since Seth McMannis deposited his corpse with them, just over two days since Festus had headed out to find Matt, hopefully not in the same condition as the other lawman. Dodge had settled into an uneasy routine. It seemed as if any rider brought the entire town out of houses and stores to look until they saw it wasn’t the man they waited for. The stage was met by unprecedented crowds, baffling its emerging passengers.
Everyone watched. Almost everyone, anyway.
that passed with no sign of Matt, Doc worried about Kitty. She had virtually confined herself to the
With difficulty, he pushed back the well of grief that bubbled too close to the surface these days. Chances of ever seeing Matt again – alive or dead – had dwindled to almost none. As painful as it was to accept, he knew it was absolutely essential to Kitty’s well being to do so.
Settling himself next to her in the salon, he tried a smile, even though he didn’t expect a response. “Kitty,” he greeted quietly.
She met his gaze, then let her eyes shift back to the door.
“Buy you breakfast?” he asked hopefully. She hadn’t eaten a decent meal in two weeks.
“It’ll be lunch later,” he teased, pleased to see a small smile in return.
“Maybe lunch, then,” she amended, then turned her full attention to him so certainly that it startled him. “I’ve been thinking,” she began, “about what you said.”
“What I said?”
“The other day, about – about facing the fact that Matt – “ She swallowed. “That Matt may be – may not be coming back.”
His heart ached for her, for all of them, and he placed a hand over hers and nodded.
probably go back to
He only nodded again. What else could he say?
“He’s why I stayed.”
“Matt. He’s why I stayed here. Did I ever tell you that?”
He smiled, not surprised. “No.”
“When I got off that stage seventeen years ago, I had every intention of eating as fast as I could, stepping right back onto that coach, and getting the hell out of Dodge.”
“What happened?” he wanted to know, curious as always about any rarely revealed personal tidbit between the two very private people.
“I saw Matt,” she said simply. “My God, he was big, and handsome, and – and I decided maybe I’d give Dodge a try for a few days.”
“Seventeen years later – “
“Yeah. So you see, if Matt’s not here – well, I’ll be going back home.”
He understood, but the loss of both Matt and Kitty would be life altering, for all of Dodge, he imagined. Certainly for him.
She touched his cheek. “I’ll sure miss ya, Curly. You’ve been a good friend to me, and to – to Matt.” Her eyes glistened. “I just can’t believe he’s gone. Even after all these years of knowing it could happen. Even after thinking it did with Mace Gore – “
Doc flinched, still sensitive after all these years about letting her think Matt was dead, even if it was to save his life. He knew she had forgiven him, but that still didn’t mute the guilt.
And now she was leaving. And Matt was dead. And things would never be the same again.
call shot through the doors of the
As quickly as he could, he hustled through the saloon doors to see the freight manager sprinting across the street toward them, stopping so suddenly that Kitty barreled into him from behind.
“Miss Kitty!” Burke added in surprise as he stumbled to a stop before them.
“What in tarnation is it, Burke?”
Festus! I met him coming back into town
as I was headed out to deliver a new Singer machine to Mrs. Purdy out on the
Doc felt the blood rushing into his face. “Burke!” he growled. “What about Festus?”
“Oh. Well, like I said I ran into him comin’ in and he said you need to come quick.”
Not Festus, too. Please, not him, too. “Is he hurt?” Doc asked.
“Well, no, I don’t think so – “
Burke pondered a moment, then shrugged. “I guess it’s ‘cause the marshal’s in pretty bad shape. I think – “
The doctor grabbed Burke’s arms hard, barely resisting the urge to shake him. “The marshal! You mean Matt’s with him?”
“Yeah. Didn’t I say that?”
“No, you did not.” His heart pounded. It was Matt. It was Matt! “Burke, why the hell didn’t you – “
Beside him, Kitty pulled away to grab Burke’s arm, almost jerking it out of socket. “Matt?” she prompted urgently.
Rubbing his shoulder, Burke said, “Festus and a Mexican are bringin’ him in.”
“Bringing him in?” Doc glanced at Kitty and saw her jaw clench as she fought for some semblance of calm. “What the Sam Hill are you doin’ here, Burke?” he demanded. “Why aren’t you helping him?”
“Festus send me on ahead to tell ya. Said he needed ya right quick.”
He turned to tell Kitty to wait for him, but she had sprinted out into the street, skirts flying, before anyone could say another word. The only thing he could do was to follow her as fast as he was able.
“Where are they?” he called back at Burke, his pulse racing.
field manager only pointed. At that
moment, three horses appeared at the end of
Buck clopped slowly, as if he knew his companion needed a smooth, easy pace. The big man astride him was bent low over the mane, chest almost touching the horn, his right hand holding the reins loosely, his left hand pressed over his right side. Festus and whoever was with him held their hands out tentatively, as if anticipating his imminent fall.
But he was alive. Alive!
The citizens of Dodge froze, all eyes on the man they had been waiting for. Unconcerned about the spectacle she might make, Kitty ran toward him, her hands reaching out, touching his left leg. With obvious effort, he slowly turned clouded blue eyes to her. Doc drew up next to them, his fingers automatically moving to the marshal’s arm. It wasn’t hard to feel the fever on his skin, see it in his cheeks.
“Kitty.” Matt managed to rasp, the relief evident in his voice even through the pain and exhaustion.
“Hey, Cowboy,” she choked back, tears trailing down her cheeks as she clutched at his thigh.
His hand moved from his side to cover hers, and Doc sucked in a sharp breath when he saw the blood drip from it. “Kitty,” he said again, but it was more of a moan this time.
“Matt!” He wasn’t sure if he or Kitty yelled the name, maybe both.
Instantly, at least ten hands thrust out to catch the marshal’s shoulders and waist as they did their best to lower him onto the ground. Festus leaped off Ruth and grabbed Buck’s reins to keep him from accidentally tromping on his vulnerable master.
“Easy, now,” Doc directed. “Move back.”
Matt’s face was scorched with sunburn, his lips cracked and bleeding. Dust and dirt clung to his thick hair, and sweat stained his clothes. But those weren’t the most ominous sights. It didn’t take a trained eye to see the darkened bloodstains that soaked his chest and abdomen, the violent rips in his vest and shirt.
“Doc,” Festus said, voice thick with emotion and exhaustion, “is he gonna be aright?”
Kitty knelt at his shoulder, and Doc tried not to flinch as he ripped open the stained shirt and bared the marshal from neck to belt. Two angry red tears, swollen and bleeding, marred his chest and abdomen. Two more bullets. Two more mistakes.
“Somebody’s doctored him some already,” Doc noted, running his hands over the wounds and drawing a groan from the marshal. “Dug the bullets out. He’d started to heal, but looks like the trip home aggravated them.”
“Agustin took care of him, but he was still too weak to travel. I told him that.”
He jerked at the unexpected voice that came from Festus’ companion and found himself gazing into a pair of black – and beautiful – eyes. With a small smile, the Mexican swept off the sombrero, releasing a mane of dark hair.
“By golly,” Doc breathed, as he looked at the woman.
He didn’t know how he had missed it before, except that the wide hat and oversized poncho hid her assets well. He wasn’t sure who she was or what connection she had with Matt – maybe he didn’t want to know. That thought drew a twinge of shame to him. Matt wouldn’t –
“Doc?” Kitty’s urgent prompt reminded him she was there.
Filing away that curiosity for later, he turned back to the marshal, whose breathing had grown labored and shallow. He wished he could tell her Matt would be fine, wished he could pat her hand and reassure her that their stubborn marshal would be on his feet in no time. But he couldn’t tell her anything, didn’t know anything, except that Matt Dillon was again seriously injured, and was again barely hanging onto life.
One glance at Festus told him the deputy had exhausted his strength just getting Matt back to Dodge. Gesturing toward Burke, Sam Noonan, and a couple of other townspeople, he ordered, “Get him upstairs.”
“Gently,” Festus cautioned, then whispered, “Stay in the buggy, Matthew.”
“Doc?” Kitty asked again, anguish ravaging her features.
He sighed. “I don’t know, Kitty. I just don’t – if we can get the infection under control he stands a chance.”
Stands a chance. It was the best he could offer her.
It took six
men to haul the tall lawman up the stairs into
No, he told himself. Stop and just focus on the present, on saving his life now. Again.
As the others stood around, fretting and worried and unsure what to do, he pushed Matt’s shirt off his shoulders and assessed the damage. Under closer inspection, the angry red areas looked even worse, and he heard Kitty moan next to him. But he couldn’t spare any attention to comfort her.
Gritting his teeth, he used his scalpel to open up the infection, wincing as the vile fluids seeped out. Matt jerked beneath his hands and hissed, throwing his head back with the pain.
“Burke, you and Sam come over here and hold him,” he ordered, pleased to see that they followed immediately, each man taking a side and bracing against the marshal’s broad shoulders.
Even though the injured man probably didn’t hear him, he found himself murmuring soothing assurances. “Just hang on, Matt,” he said. “You’re gonna make it.” He sincerely hoped he was uttering the truth. “I know this hurts.” That certainly was the truth.
They threw their bodies against the marshal, but Matt bucked again and groaned at the rough treatment. Feeling as if he were trying to break a bronco, Doc decided to call in reinforcements.
Shaken and pale, she slipped up next to him and caught the marshal’s large hand in her own. “Matt,” she whispered. “Matt. It’s me. It’s Kitty.”
Amazingly, the big lawman calmed, the writhing slowed. She ran a hand over his tousled hair and bent close to his ear. “I’m here, Cowboy. I’m here. I love you.”
Doc wondered if anyone else had heard that endearment, and was grateful he had. Matt stilled beneath his hands and groaned her name. With his sleeve, Doc swiped at the perspiration that ran down his face, aching for Matt while at the same time angry with him. What the hell had he thought he was doing, going after that damned Mexican by himself like that? Why the hell was every outlaw his responsibility? And who the hell let him come back in such bad shape?
But the questions were rhetorical, at least the first two. Doc knew very well what had led Matt down that trail, and what had brought him back.
It took almost an hour, but with Kitty’s help, the wounds were finally cleaned and freshly bandaged, and the doctor took a deep breath, praying that it was enough, hoping that it wasn’t too late.
Now that the immediate needs were met, he cut the marshal’s filthy clothes away, letting Sam tug the pants off and wondering if Kitty’s right hand man might have done that before for an exhausted lawman who had climbed the back stairs late one evening and collapsed inside her door. But, of course, the bartender had never even whispered a word of his almost-certain knowledge of Matt’s and Kitty’s private times together. Doc wouldn’t expect him to start now.
With clean washcloths, he and Kitty did their best to wipe the grime and blood from Matt’s body before he pulled a sheet up over his waist and called himself done, at least for the moment.
“Doc, will he – ” she asked, unable to finish the question.
He blinked and tried to smile, although his heart wasn’t in it. “I – I hope so, Kitty.”
“You hope so?” she asked, stricken, her hand clutching Matt’s tighter. “You hope so?”
He yearned to guarantee it, but he just couldn’t. “I hope so,” he affirmed.
Sighing, she sank into the chair next to the table, leaning over to place a tender kiss on the marshal’s cracked lips. “Stay in the buggy, Cowboy,” she urged, echoing Festus. “Stay in the buggy.”
With embarrassed coughs, the other men excused themselves and
left the office to join the vigil that had begun on
All he could do now was wait. It was all any of them could do.
Chapter Seven: You Are His Woman
Russell hurried through her last check of the
It required a double take, but Kitty recognized the man who walked through the doors and stepped to the bar. Only a few days before, he had scared her nearly to death by bringing in the body of a lawman, they thought was Matt Dillon. She didn’t hold it against him, though. After all, he was only trying to be kind, bringing the marshal’s body back home. Only, it hadn’t been Matt, thank goodness.
“Well, Mister McMannis,” she greeted, closing the ledger and easing around the counter toward him.
The Texas Ranger turned, pushing his hat back. “Ma’am,” he said politely but blankly, and she realized he did not remember her; they had not been officially introduced on that dreadful day.
“Kitty Russell,” she said, extending a hand, feeling gratitude toward this man who had gone to so much trouble for a man he didn’t even know.
He took it and touched the brim of his hat, eyes lighting. “Kitty Russell? The Kitty Russell who owns this fine establishment?”
“One and the same.”
“A pleasure, ma’am.” Then he cocked his head and said, “I’ve heard about you and – well, if it wouldn’t be too forward, I’ll say Matt Dillon’s a lucky son of a b – gun.”
her hand away, frowning. It had been too
forward, and she wasn’t sure why. It was
not like she hadn’t skillfully deflected much worse remarks over the
years. “I thought you were headed back
If she had offended him, he didn’t show it. “I was. I was. Heard the marshal came back, though. That’s good news.” His smile seemed genuine enough. “I wanted to talk with him a minute, if I could.”
Her frown deepened. “The marshal is recovering,” Kitty told him. “I doubt Doc’ll let him have any visitors for a while yet.” She didn’t bother to say that Matt still wrestled with a high fever and had yet to show much sign of coming to consciousness.
“Sorry to hear that. I wanted to see if he had been able to take care of them Mexicans he went after.” McMannis threw back the shot of whiskey Sam had set in front of him, then stepped away. “You say he’s at the doctor’s?”
Kitty smiled carefully. “I don’t believe I said.”
guess you did.” With another tug at his
hat, he said, “Well, glad he’s back.
Pleasure, Miss Russell.” Nodding
at Sam, he pressed through the swinging doors and walked out onto
looked his way for a minute, then shook her head,
pushing away the sensation of unease.
She had no reason to feel so.
Nothing was unusual about one lawman helping another. She wondered vaguely how he knew about Matt
and her. Not that it was a secret. As subtle as they had been over the years,
they had never denied their relationship, and all of Dodge – and most of
She glanced at the clock. Festus had spelled her so she could get a quick bath and check in with Sam. Those things done, she was more than anxious to return to Matt’s bedside, to hold his hand, to brush through his hair – anything that might provide comfort and bring him back to them. To her.
The ranger was forgotten as soon as she walked into Doc’s office and saw again the long frame of the lawman – of her lawman.
“Miz Kitty,” Festus rose immediately and greeted her in his own ineffective rendition of a whisper.
It didn’t matter much, unfortunately, how loud he was. Matt still lay, unconscious, in the bed where earlier that day half a dozen men had carried him after Doc had pronounced him sufficiently stable to move from the examining table. He gave no indication that he was disturbed at all by the deputy’s voice. His holster and gun lay coiled on the bedside table. She wondered if it was simply a coincidence that they rested there, or if someone had decided he needed the comfort of them when he woke. Some comfort they gave her. She tried not to scowl at them.
“Festus,” she returned, closing the door behind her. “Thanks for giving me a break.”
“Twernt much of one,” he noted with a frown. “Ye’ve hardly bin gone a hour.”
“It was long enough.” Too long. A toss of her head asked silently how the marshal was.
Festus glanced back at the bed. “He’s a mite restless,” he said, his squinted eyes dark with concern.
“Yes’m. Mebbe the least little bit better, but not so much as ye’d notice right off.” The disappointment must have shown on her face, because he added quickly, “But his color’s a comin’ back, dontcha think? Not sa peaked lookin’, if ya ast me.”
Kitty managed a smile of appreciation for his efforts at optimism, but one glance told her Matt looked no better now than when she had left. His face, already red from the harsh exposure to the sun, was flushed more by the fever. The part of his chest that wasn’t bound in bandages glistened with sweat.
“If’n you wuz ta need more time, Miz Kitty, I’d more more’n happy ta set up with Matthew a whilst longer.”
“Thank you, Festus,” she acknowledged. “I’m fine.”
Settling in the chair by the bed, she lifted Matt’s hand in hers, caressed along the back, tracing the bold veins, stroking the long fingers. She had always loved his hands. Even as the years took his face from a young man’s smooth beauty to a mature man’s rugged handsomeness, his hands remained the same. And she often marveled at how hands that had been tough enough to haul in violent outlaws and break up raucous barroom brawls could be tender enough to bring her such exquisite pleasure as she had experienced in his arms. She yearned to feel those hands again, to sigh under his touch, to give him pleasure, as well. Before she realized it, she had leaned in to brush a kiss across his lips and cup his whiskered jaw in her hand.
A shuffle and nervous cough behind her reminded her that Festus was still there. “I spose I’ll jest see how Buck’s fairin’,” he decided. “Matthew’ll have my hide if’n I don’t see ta his horse whilst he’s ailin’.”
“Was Buck in bad shape?” she asked, not looking back, but moving to grasp his hand again. She had become rather fond of the animal that had shown his loyalty to Matt as many times as he had brought him back home.
“Pure tuckered out mostly, and in need of a few good swallers of water. Matthew musta parted with a right good portion of his own supply fer that horse or he wouldn’t a made it.”
“Matt wouldn’t have made it without Buck,” Kitty confirmed.
“No’m. I’d have ta agree with ye, thar. Buck and Lucero.”
This time, she did turn, frowning. “Who?”
“Lucero. That Mexican woman what hepped me bring in Matthew.”
“Oh.” Kitty’s eyes widened, a vague memory of the slight Mexican who rode in with Festus. A woman? “She helped you bring him in?”
“She did. I come up on ‘em ‘bout sunup. Matthew wuz in a bad way, I have ta say. The worstest lookin’ I ever seed him, and you know I seen him in some sitcheeashuns – “
“Festus – “
“Well, she’uz bent over him, and at first I couldn’t tell she’uz a shemale. I thought this here bandito had done kilt
him. I pulled my pistol, but then she
turned right around and I seed she weren’t no bandito. Peers she follered ol’ Matthew right straight from
“She ran off banditos?” Kitty asked, incredulous. What kind of woman was this? A rugged trail woman, hardened from years of rough living? She tried to picture her, but remembered only the sombrero and hand-sewn poncho.
“I wuz jest as doubtful as you, Miz Kitty, but it’s the flat out fact. Said she kilt one and pinned Matthew’s badge on him so’s the others would think he wuz dead and go on back home.”
“How did Matt meet her?” Kitty wondered. “Why did she help him?”
“I ain’t got no answer to neither of them questions, Miz Kitty,” Festus admitted, “but I figure it don’t much matter none. Matthew’s alive ‘cause of her.”
“Well,” she decided, “I’d like to meet her sometime, thank her for – “
“So, you are Kitty.”
Kitty Russell’s head jerked back toward the door to Doc’s bedroom. The woman who stood before her was certainly no rugged trail woman hardened from years of rough living. Without the shapeless poncho and wide sombrero to mask her feminine features, Kitty found herself staring at a young, dark beauty. Despite her trust in Matt, and despite the fact that this woman had almost certainly saved his life, she couldn’t quell the ugly burn of jealousy that flamed in her chest. This woman protected Matt? This woman killed a bandito?
“I’m Kitty Russell,” she clarified smoothly, regaining her composure as she rose. “And you are – “ She already knew, of course.
“I am Lucero,” the woman provided, unable to keep her focus completely on Kitty. Her eyes dropped to the figure on the bed.
“Lucero. Festus told me about you. How you helped Matt. I’m grateful.” Her words were sincere, but she could not mute the sharp warning in her tone.
Festus shifted awkwardly, his gaze flashing between the two women, for once comprehending the situation. “Well,” he stammered, “I orta, uh, see ‘bout, uh – Newly might shore nuff need hep at – “ He turned suddenly and said, “I’ll see ya, Miz Kitty,” and was halfway down the stairs before the door closed behind him.
Kitty allowed his hasty exit to bring a slight smile of amusement to her lips before she turned back to the visitor, letting her gaze take in the slim figure and lovely eyes. She wondered if Matt had found her pretty. “Doc says he’s about the same.”
“He is strong,” Lucero observed.
Kitty nodded, itching to know what had transpired between the two, what had brought the obvious look of attachment into those dark eyes.
The Mexican stood another few moments, then stepped closer. “May I sit with you?”
“Of course,” Kitty said with less enthusiasm than she intended. She indicated a vacant chair, then sat again herself.
“He was so gravely wounded, I was afraid – “ She broke off, and to Kitty’s surprise, tears pooled in her eyes.
“Thank you for saving him.” That she could offer more sincerely.
Lucero continued to look at Matt, as if verifying for herself that he still breathed. “He saved our village. He saved my family. He saved – me. He could have left, could have saved himself, but he didn’t.”
“What happened?” Kitty asked, unable to stop herself. She yearned to know, to re-live whatever he had been through. This woman had experienced something with Matt that she hadn’t, and even if it was bad, she couldn’t suppress a certain feeling of envy over not having been there, too. On a nobler scale, she also felt that if she could share the pain with him, perhaps she could give him the strength and comfort to endure and overcome it.
“Mando shot him and left him for dead,” Lucero began, and Kitty flinched at hearing it put so bluntly.
“After my grandfather and brother found him, Lucho – that’s my brother – came to me for medicine. He was very brave. It was a dangerous thing to do.”
“I was Mando’s woman,” she admitted.
“Oh.” Kitty digested that bit of information, confused as to why his enemy’s woman would consent to help Matt.
“After he had recovered some, we thought he would return home, but he did not. He sought Mando out, rode right into him and his men. He confronted Mando in front of the entire town, in front of Mando’s men.” A shadow passed over her eyes. “He was so weak, he could not stand by himself. He had to hold onto his horse’s saddle.” Chin lifted, she met Kitty’s gaze proudly, as if Matt’s actions somehow reflected on her. “But he stood taller than any of them ever had.”
Awed, Kitty could only listen, wanting to hear what had happened, needing to know. “You were there?”
“I saw it. I saw him kill Mando.”
“But you were Mando’s woman.”
“Mando was – a bad man.”
“The marshal was weak, after he killed Mando. He stayed with us a few days. Grandfather and I tried to tell him he should stay longer, but he was stubborn.”
smiled. It hadn’t taken Lucero long to
find that out. “So you followed him, to
make sure he got back to Dodge?” she surmised.
“You followed him all the way from
“At first, I thought only to take him to the border, but he was riding hard and I could not catch him. After three days, I saw that other riders were following him more closely than I and I knew they were probably Mando’s men. I could not let them get him, not after what he did for me and for my family.”
“Festus said you – you killed one?” It was hard to believe.
“I did. He was careless, did not see me. I shot him. Law – the marshal – had given Lucho his badge.”
Kitty smiled. That sounded like Matt.
“I brought it with me, for protection, perhaps. I pinned the badge on the man I shot. Maybe the others following would think it was the man they sought and go back.”
“A Texas Ranger brought in a body a couple of days ago,” Kitty said, connecting the two. “He wore a marshal’s badge – “
“It could be the man,” Lucero agreed. “I did not have time to bury him.”
Well, that mystery was solved, Kitty thought, a bit amazed at how things fit together. “I thank you for taking care of him,” she repeated, meaning every word despite the ache her story had caused.
She understood Lucero’s attachment now. If she and Matt had gone through such an experience together, it wouldn’t be unusual for a bond to form. She wondered how far the bond went. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Matt, but she knew in times of duress, people sometimes did things or acted in ways contrary to their characters. Still, she had never known Matt to be anything but constant – sometimes infuriatingly so.
After a long moment, Lucero smiled, her expression a mixture of understanding and envy. “You are his woman.”
Kitty Russell had heard that term for many years, had even answered to it on occasion, but coming from this person whose connection with Matt was so strong, she found her defenses rising.
“What do you mean?” she asked, managing to keep her tone even.
But Lucero was not fooled, merely placed a hand on her arm knowingly and continued smiling. “You are his woman,” she repeated. “Be good to him. He is a man.”
Kitty heard the deeper levels of meaning in that last sentence, saw the emotion in those dark eyes, read the feelings of a woman who could not have what she wanted, but tried to do the right thing, nevertheless. “You love him,” she realized with a jolt.
Lucero did not speak, but her eyes acknowledged that truth.
“How do you know I am his woman?” Kitty wondered, reluctantly acknowledging a feeling for Lucero she had not had before. Pity, perhaps, but no longer jealousy.
“You are his woman,” she repeated confidently. “I would know even if he had not told me.”
Stunned, Kitty asked, “Matt told you about me?” Not that it couldn’t happen, but she knew how close-mouthed he was, even with their friends in Dodge, who knew just about everything, despite their discretion.
“He called for you when he was in the fever. Over and over, he cried out your name. I could tell what you were – what you are to him. I told him – I told him I was you, to calm him. I hope you do not mind. It helped.”
Swallowing to keep the emotions from overwhelming her completely, Kitty brushed hot tears from her eyes and turned back to look at the sunburned face of Matt Dillon – of her man.
“You have stayed with him a long time. You love him.”
Kitty nodded. “Very much,” she acknowledged.
“He loves you.”
Smiling, Kitty looked back at Lucero. “He told you that, as well?”
She nodded. “He loves you very much.”
Kitty felt the catch in her throat, turned away so she didn’t lose control. Fatigue and emotion swept through her, and she could not stop the trembling that suddenly claimed her body.
Placing a hand on her arm, Lucero said, “You have not slept. Go home. Become strong for him. I will stay here if you like.” Her voice softened in promise. “You do not need to worry.”
Their eyes met, dark to light, and an understanding passed between two women who cared for a man, two women who had suffered for a man, two women who loved a man, but who both knew that only one would receive that love back.
“I won’t worry,” Kitty said, at peace now. “Thank you, Lucero. For everything.”
She would take the time to rest, to make herself strong again for him. Any suspicions she harbored about Lucero had vanished. She was leaving her man in good, non-threatening hands.
Still, as she rose to leave the vigil to the other woman, she tugged the bedcovers up just a bit higher over Matt’s bare chest.
gunshots brought Kitty out of sleep, and she fought to shake off the confusion
of unconsciousness. No one else seemed
to notice, but the sound drew her out of the
“Kitty! Help me!”
He needed her. She had to go to him, to help him. A shadow brushed by her, smoke from a gun still curling around him, but she couldn’t stop to see how it was, had to get to Matt. Stepping into the dark room, she had to wait a moment before her eyes adjusted, but when they did, she couldn’t suppress the scream that ripped through her throat.
Matt Dillon lay on the floor, broad chest torn with bullet holes, blood pooling beneath him, blue eyes staring and vacant, long, strong body limp and useless. He still held the gun, that damned gun, in his hand, but she knew he would never fire it again. Laughter echoed from the stairs, a voice she should know, but couldn’t latch onto. A flash of silver passed her wavering vision. She reached out to the body, grabbed the collar of his ruined shirt in both hands and shook him.
“Don’t you leave me, Matt Dillon! Don’t you dare leave me!”
But it was too late. She had known before she even mounted the steps. One final mistake. And it was hers. Somehow it was hers. She should have known. She should have suspected. Now it was too late. Marshal Dillon lay dead on the floor of Doc Adams’ office, and it was her fault.
Her fault. Her scream grew to a wail.
And the wail woke her.
Kitty Russell shot up in bed, throat raw from the screams that had been wrenched from her. Heart thudding inside her chest, breath coming in gasps, arms trembling, she blinked twice, took in the familiar surroundings of her bedroom, and collapsed in sobs of relief.
A dream. Oh, thank God, a dream.
She looked toward the window. The slanted orange rays of the sun indicated that dusk was beginning to settle over the town. Her catnap had turned into a long sleep – and a terrible dream, but only a dream.
A dream. Thank God.
Thrusting away the horrid vision that her brain had conjured, she tried to calm herself by replacing it with current reality. She had left Lucero with Matt, intending only to catch a little nap. She wondered how he was, wondered if he was still groaning under the fever, if he was still grimacing with each restless movement, wondered if Lucero was taking as good care of him as she would be.
Flinging off the covers, she slipped back into her dress and made a perfunctory stab at smoothing her hair, not particularly concerned that it didn’t look as coiffed as usual. Doc would understand.
Pausing in the hallway, she took a breath, still steadying her body. A dream, she reminded herself. Just a dream.
Evening was beginning downstairs in the bar, and the usual bustle of cowboys and drifters had whipped up a right lively din. That was probably why no one had heard her scream, thank goodness. Sam caught her eye as she descended the stairs, his craggy, but friendly features giving silent assurance that all was well. Just as she reached the swinging doors, Doc Adams stepped inside, taking her elbow and guiding her to a back table.
“Doc?” she asked, alarm in her voice.
But he shook his head. “No trouble, Kitty. Matt’s fine. In fact, I think the fever’s dropped a bit. That Lucero’s quite a nurse.” He smirked.
Relief at the good report overrode irritation at his attempt to needle her. Barely. “Well, her nursing had better be limited to strictly medical techniques,” she decided.
Doc snorted and swiped a hand over his mustache. “I’m gonna leave that one alone.”
“You’re a wise man, Curly.”
“Anyway, I wanted to talk with you a minute before you went over to see Matt.”
Relief churned into anxiety at the pit of her stomach. “I thought you said he was better.”
“He is. He is. It’s just that he’s gonna have to take it easy for quite a while, Kitty. Between these injuries and that back wound, well, you know as well as I do that Matt’s body has taken a lot of abuse over close to twenty years of marshalling.”
Who would know the toll taken on his body better than his doctor and his lover? She took a breath, mentally running her hands again over each scar, just like she did their last night together. “Yeah,” she agreed, waiting.
“Well, he just can’t keep doin’ it, Kitty. Matt’s strong and big, but – but I just don’t want to see him grow old before his time.”
She chuckled humorlessly, hearing again the stifled groans as he pushed himself from bed each morning, seeing the masked grimaces when he turned too hard on his right leg. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know, Doc. You know Matt, though. Not much you or I can do about it.”
“Maybe. But someone’s gotta
convince him to take it easy. At least for a while, until these latest injuries heal completely. And I don’t mean when he thinks they’re healed. If
he’d listened to me all these years and let his body mend like it should,
instead of jumping out of bed before I could even finish sewing him up, he
wouldn’t be limping around like
She smiled at the mention of their old friend, long gone from Dodge, but still fond in their memories. “I’ll do my best, Doc, but I don’t think – “
listen. I’ve booked two tickets on the
“Not before?” she asked, surprised.
He leaned in, cocking his head. “Kitty, I’d be surprised if he’s even in any shape to get out of bed at all for at least two weeks. After that, you’ll just have to think of a way to keep him there another week.”
“Doc!” she protested, blushing just a bit.
“What? Oh!” he spluttered. “I didn’t mean – well, by golly, Kitty.”
Then she smiled wickedly. “I’ll do my best, Doc.”
Now it was his turn to blush. “Well, if the man’s got the strength, I guess more power to him.”
Kitty grinned outright, then let her expression drop into more serious lines. “I’m in, Doc. You know I’ll do whatever you think is best for Matt.”
“Atta girl,” he said, patting her hand.
tinkled out a bawdy tune, and Kitty took just a moment to let the normal sounds
“Say,” Doc said, breaking her reverie, “that Texas Ranger was up at my place earlier today. I told him, of course, Matt couldn’t talk to him. Seemed mighty anxious to check on him, though. I guess lawman sort of stick together.”
“McMannis?” she asked, stiffening. “He was in your office?”
Doc frowned. “Well, yeah. Seemed concerned about him.”
“Did he mention he had talked with me?”
“No. Not that I recall. Why?”
She sighed, not sure why she couldn’t shake the feeling of unease about the ranger. “No reason. I just – I just don’t know about him.”
“Seemed okay to me. He was heading out tonight anyway. Said he’d done what he needed to do, or least he would have before he left.”
“He said he would have before he left?”
“Doc,” she asked, a disturbing idea forming in her head, “did you tell him what Matt had been doing?”
“What do you mean?”
tell him Matt was in
The physician wiped at his mustache and thought. “Well, I don’t know. Don’t recall that I did. Why?”
The shadowy figure of her dream snapped into focus, clear and distinct, and she bit out an oath at the realization. She jumped from her seat, upsetting the chair so that it crashed back onto the floor. Even in the raucousness of the room, a few patrons looked at her curiously. Sam was around the bar within a few seconds.
“Miss Kitty?” he asked, worry in his voice.
“Kitty?” Doc asked, rising himself.
“We have to get over there,” she snapped, grabbing Doc’s hand and tugging him toward the door. “Before it’s too late!” Fear raced through her, igniting adrenaline.
“What are you – “
he could finish, the explosion of gunfire propelled all of them through the
swinging doors and onto the boardwalk that ran in front of the
“Oh God! Oh, please, God!” she prayed with all sincerity as she sprinted down the planks toward Doc’s office, knowing that’s where the shots had come from, knowing what she would see when they arrived.
And sick with the knowledge that Matt Dillon would already be dead.
Chapter Eight: He is a Man
“The Bullet;” “
of gunfire was certainly not alien to the ears of
– there had been at least three – propelled the citizens of the town, already
edgy from the long wait for the lawman, out of their doors. By the time Kitty Russell reached the corner
“Please, don’t let it be him. Please!”
As she fell against the rail beside the prone form, she saw that the hair was too dark, the frame much too short. With a rush of relief she found herself staring down at the dead face of Texas Ranger Seth McMannis.
“Oh, thank you,” she lifted up toward the darkening sky, not even guilty at the lack of regret over the lawman’s death. She could feel bad for him later, if it was warranted. It wouldn’t make him any more or any less dead. Still, the relief was fleeting. If this wasn’t Matt –
Her gaze flickered up again almost immediately to the door, which stood wide open. With dread surging in her stomach, she hitched up her skirts and stepped over the body, taking the rest of the stairs two at a time.
“Kitty!” Doc yelled in warning, but she ignored him.
In the seconds it took to reach the top, she had played out the scene, knew what she would see in the room. It was her dream again, and she was too late, just as she had been in the dream. Matt would be there, sprawled on the floor, blood spreading beneath him, those beautiful blue eyes staring and vacant, that strong body limp and useless, that deep, rich voice silenced forever.
A scream tore at her throat, and she fought to keep it inside her. He could not be dead; she wouldn’t let him, refused to allow it. Clawing at the rail to keep her feet, she vaulted onto the landing, her momentum throwing her against the frame as she took in the sight before her.
Her nightmare came to life. Blood pooled on the floor, beneath a limp body. She let her gaze lock onto the blue eyes as her breath came in gasps and her heart hammered against her chest.
Blue eyes. But they weren’t staring and vacant. In fact, even though they shone gray with pain, they were alert – well, maybe not alert, but focused enough to look back at her. She blinked to clear her mind, to take in the scene with better comprehension. It wasn’t her nightmare, not exactly. Instead of Matt Dillon crumpled on the floor, Lucero lay, blood splattering her blouse. But her eyes were not wide and glassy; they were not even open.
Kitty tried to do the right thing, to worry about the woman, but she couldn’t keep herself from centering on the man who hovered in the doorway to Doc’s bedroom, smoking gun still grasped in one hand, the other hand clutching a blanket to his waist. Sweat trickled down his bare chest and into the stained bandages; unkempt hair fell wildly over his forehead; a half-grown beard scrubbed at his jaw.
He was the most beautiful sight she could imagine.
Even as she watched, Matt began to sink slowly to his knees. She lunged toward him, catching his shoulders just as he collapsed against her, pulling the fallen blanket back up to cover his naked body from the gawking crowd that had begun to gather on the landing. He shuddered and moaned her name, too weak to fight when she cradled his head against her breast.
“Oh, Matt,” she breathed in fear, in gratitude, in relief. Working hard to keep the panic from her tone, she asked, “What happened?”
It took several gasps before he could take in enough oxygen to answer. Even then, his voice was strained. “Lucero – is she – dead?”
Shuffling as quickly as he could into the room, Doc dropped to one knee beside the woman. “She’s alive. Took it high enough, I think.” He looked over his shoulder and called to Festus and Newly, who gaped in the doorway. “You two get over here and get her on the table.”
As the men lifted the woman gently, Kitty stroked Matt’s face and prodded again, “What happened?”
“Mc – Mannis,” he grunted, his left hand sliding to brace his abdomen. “Tried to – kill me. Lucero stepped in – front before – “
“McMannis?” Kitty said, her suspicions confirmed.
Settling his burden on the table, Newly looked back at them. “But he was looking for you, Marshal, to help you. He’s a Texas Ranger.”
Blue eyes looked up, dull with pain and confusion. “Seth – McMannis? No – not – Ranger – hired gun.”
“Hired gun?” Doc asked, as he kneeled by Kitty and reached to check Matt’s injuries. “Are you hit again?”
Matt shook his head gingerly, immediately grimacing at the unwise movement.
“McMannis was a hired gun?” Kitty echoed, struggling to keep his increasingly heavy body from toppling them over.
Lucero groaned from the table, and Doc pushed up from the floor, grunting. Her voice, weak and thin, answered Kitty’s question. “Mando’s men – hired him – to – follow – I did not realize – “
“There now,” Doc admonished gently. “No talking. You can tell them later. I’ve got to get that bullet out of your shoulder.”
Scratching at his beard, Festus reminded, “But Doc said that McMannis feller done come in with a body. Sez he thought it’uz Matthew.”
“The man Lucero shot,” Kitty realized, remembering the woman’s story.
The deputy lifted both eyebrows. “Shore. If’n McMannis wuz a-tryin’ ta kill Matthew, he musta brawt him back ter make shore he got tha right man.”
“And when Doc saw it wasn’t Matt, he had to keep looking,” Kitty added, brushing her fingers through the marshal’s tousled hair.
“Kitty,” Matt managed through gritted teeth, “I’m – sorry – was gone – longer than – thought – “
She looked down at him, surprised. He had never apologized before for being gone, had always expected her to accept that as part of his job. Blinking away hot tears, she soothed, “That’s all right, Cowboy,” even though it hadn’t really been all right at all. “You’re back now, and – “ But before she could finish, his head lolled forward, and his body sagged heavily against her, knocking them both to the floor. “Doc!”
away from Lucero only for a moment,
Kitty worked to keep the blanket over his hips as they struggled with him through the doorway and to the bed. No need to provide any curious onlookers with a view that was meant only for her – even as nice a view as it was. Perhaps especially as nice a view as it was.
“There’re some scissors on my desk. Check the wounds for me, Kitty,” Doc instructed over his shoulder. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” As she picked up the scissors, she heard him mutter, “Don’t know how he even stood, much less fired a gun good enough to hit anybody. Damned fool.”
One look at the fresh blood that seeped through the bandages was enough information, but Kitty dutifully slid the scissors under the cloth and cut it away from the damp flesh. Matt moaned as his body instinctively pulled back from the pain.
“Shh, Cowboy,” she whispered. “I’m right here. Stay still, okay? I need you to be still.”
He didn’t acknowledge verbally, but the fact that he didn’t move any more under her hands indicated he heard. Or maybe just her touch was enough to control him. Either way, it enabled her to remove the ruined material and get a good look at the injuries.
She grimaced and ran a soft finger around the reddened, bleeding tissue. The ragged holes looked raw and angry still, but the fluids oozing from them were no longer mixed with the rancid infection. Just blood, now. And that was definitely a good sign. Maybe Doc could close them up soon and Matt could begin to regain his strength.
She looked back up, having forgotten Festus still stood on the opposite side of the bed. Offering a reassuring smile, she said, “He’s okay. Better, maybe.”
An answering smile appeared in the deputy’s beard. “Well, now that’s a right good thang ta hear. Right good. I knowd ol’ Matthew’d make it. ‘Specially with you a nursin’ him, Miz Kitty.”
Surprised at Festus’ blatant acknowledgment of her influence over Matt, she fumbled a minute with the bandages, drawing a grunt from her patient when she brushed over one of the wounds. “Oh. Well, thank you, Festus,” she finally said, deciding to accept the compliment with the attitude in which it was given.
“I wouldna give ya two cents fer him even a gittin’ outta bed, but, golly Bill, he plugged McMannis good. He shore is somethin’.” She heard the admiration in the deputy’s tone.
“He’s something, all right,” she agreed, her heart embracing more than just the surface meaning of that comment.
The familiar scuffing of the doctor’s shoes drew their attention to him. “Well?” he asked abruptly, but Kitty knew it was only concern that prompted the gruffness.
“He’s all right, I think. Of course, you’d know better.” She stood to give him access to the bed.
After a few obligatory grunts and teeth clicks, he straightened. “Not bad. I think I can close ‘em up now. Infection seems to be gone.”
Kitty ran a trembling hand across her brow, the adrenaline of the past moments leaving her in a whoosh. “How’s Lucero?” she asked, bracing on the back of the chair for support, truly concerned about the woman who had now saved Matt for the third time.
Gathering up his instruments, Doc said absently, “Oh, she’ll be okay. Weak for a few days, but she’s gonna be fine.”
Kitty’s gaze shifted to the outer room, and she stepped through the door to stand by the examining table. Lucero lay quietly, her dark skin paler, her smooth cheeks a bit sunken, her left shoulder swathed in bandages. But her chest rose steadily.
Unsure if she was awake, Kitty brushed her arm, smiling when those dark eyes opened. “Doc says you’ll be fine,” she offered, in case the preoccupied physician hadn’t already told her.
Lucero blinked and gave a slight nod.
“I guess I owe you again.”
A frown and head shake answered her.
“I do. You saved him once more. McMannis surely would have killed him.”
“Law – killed – the other. I – just gave him – chance – “
But Kitty knew better. “Well,” she allowed, squeezing the arm, “I’m grateful.”
“Not just – for you,” Lucero admitted.
Kitty smiled. “I know.”
“I will – go home.”
you’re ready,” she insisted. “I’ll fix
you up a place at the
Their eyes met again, and the same understanding passed between them again. Two women who cared for a man. Two women who had suffered for a man. Two women who loved a man. Two women who realized that only one would receive that love back.
And yet, Lucero had been strong enough, and unselfish enough, to risk her life again so that the man she loved could be with another woman. Kitty wondered if she would have been so noble. Not that she wouldn’t willingly sacrifice herself for Matt, but to see him with someone else –
She shuddered and cloaked herself in the assurance that it would never be a decision she had to make. Lucero’s revelations about Matt calling for her had wrapped firmly around her heart and bonded her to the big lawman with an eternal resin that nothing could dissolve. Even when – or if, she correctly with optimism – that day arrived when there was no victory, she would always be Matt Dillon’s woman. And that was enough.
It seemed as if all of Dodge had turned out to see them off on the train, much to the chagrin of their tall marshal. The town had breathed a collective sigh of relief when word got around that Matt Dillon would recover – again. Kitty tried not to smirk at his bashful grin, or the way he ducked his head at each greeting from the well-wishers, but she enjoyed the rare aw-shucks attitude, so different from his usual controlled, stoic image.
And she enjoyed seeing him freer of pain than he had been in several months. The enforced rest, two weeks in Doc’s care and a week in her own, had gone far in restoring his strength and his appetite. In fact, that last week, when he was confined to her room, he had tried to demonstrate just how much of an appetite he had. It took all the will power she possessed to follow Doc’s orders, regardless of what he had said earlier in jest, and relegate her impatient patient to careful hugs and platonic cuddling. But the week was over, and she had made no promises to Doc about limiting any activities on their vacation.
On cue, the physician stepped toward them, his skilled eyes taking in Matt’s appearance in a single, thorough glance. “Well, it took a whole town to get you to take a vacation.”
Matt just smiled.
Doc leaned in and gave Kitty a kiss. “Make him take it easy,” he ordered, but softened it with a wink.
“I’ll do my best,” she said, echoing what she had promised earlier.
With a cock of his head, he sidled up closer to Matt and said, “Marshal, remember what I told you.” And then he shambled back through crowd.
She looked after him fondly, then turned back to smile up at the man beside her. To her surprise, Kitty saw his cheeks flame crimson. Intrigued, she leaned forward. “What was that he told you?”
Teeth tugging at his lower lip, Matt said, “I’ll tell you later.”
Even more intrigued, she made a mental note to ask him again as soon as they got on the train.
“Matthew, you an’ Miz Kitty have yoreselves a good ol’ time, now,” Festus said, clanging up to them and shaking Matt’s hand vigorously. Kitty watched for any sign that the motion hurt him, but saw only a grin.
“Thanks, Festus,” Matt returned. “And I thank you again for coming after me – “
“Aw shucks,” the deputy interrupted, waving away the gratitude. “You’d a done the same fer me.”
That was true enough. In fact, he had done the same before.
“I’m jest proud everthang’s worked itseff out. Miz Kitty wuz sa worried about ya, I wuz a feard she’uz jest gonna shrivel up – “
“Festus,” she warned, catching the shadow that passed across the marshal’s face. “Like you said, everything’s worked itself out.”
“Well, I reckon so. Don’t you worry, none, Matthew, Dodge’ll be settin’ here jest a waitin’ fer ya. Newly n’ me’ll take good care of thangs.”
“I know you will, Festus,” Matt agreed, pushing back the gray dress coat he wore and hooking his thumbs in his gun belt, a concession she had made, knowing he wouldn’t feel completely dressed without it.
With a wink, the deputy stomped off in the same general direction Doc had gone. Kitty was just about to suggest they board when a slight figure emerged from the pack.
“Lucero,” she greeted, taking the woman’s hand in true pleasure.
“Kitty. Marshal.” Her eyes rested briefly on his face before returning to look at Kitty. “I came to wish you a good trip, and to thank you for your generosity.” She let her hand flow down the fashionable new dress she wore.
“Well, you had to wear something,” Kitty reasoned, “besides that old hat and poncho. Didn’t she, Matt?”
He cleared his throat and nodded. “Yeah.”
“Besides, it was the least I could do.”
“You have been kind to me. I do not forget kindness.”
This time Matt spoke. “I’ll always be obliged to you and your family, Lucero. I can never repay – “
“There is no repaying freedom, Law,” she said boldly, her tone accepting no contradiction. “You gave that to me and to so many others. How can I equal that?”
“With his life,” Kitty replied softly, and felt Matt’s gaze on her.
“Goodbye, Law,” Lucero said, starting to turn away.
Kitty glanced toward Matt, watched as he pulled something from his pocket, recognized it all too well.
He thumbed the silver badge for a moment, then pressed it into Lucero’s palm. “I believe this belongs to Lucho.”
She hesitated, then smiled and took it. “He will keep it for you, Law, until you return.”
Her gaze met Kitty’s, and the established understanding passed between them. With a gracious nod, Matt Dillon’s woman granted her permission, and Lucero rose on tiptoe, her lips meeting the startled marshal’s. Kitty saw him pull back on impulse, then relax and return the kiss gently. She smiled, secure enough in her man to allow Lucero this moment.
But only a moment.
When the caress lingered a bit too long for her comfort, Kitty coughed pointedly. Lucero pulled back, letting her gaze take in the handsome face one more time. Cheeks flushed again, Matt cleared his throat and threw a sheepish glance toward Kitty.
“Goodbye,” Lucero told them both. Reaching out to squeeze Kitty’s hand, she reminded, “Take care of him. He is a man.”
As the woman disappeared into the crowd, Kitty slipped her arm through Matt’s and strode proudly with him toward the train. He was, indeed, a man. That was something no one had to tell her.
Epilogue: The Years Do Not Wait for Us
“The Jailer;” “The Badge;” “The Bullet;” “
“The years do not wait for us.”
Matt Dillon lay still as he felt Kitty’s hand slide gently over the latest additions to his collection of scars. She had earned the right, after all. He knew that each mar to his skin was an equal scar on her heart. The least he could do was to let her touch, to let her connect somehow with the physical trauma that caused her own emotional pain.
sickening illusion that had swamped him on the trail, the vision of Kitty
pointing a gun at him, accusing him, killing him, had haunted his dreams since
he had awakened in Doc’s bedroom almost a month before. In the two days they had been in
Even now, they lay entwined in the soft covers of the ornate bed, his body sinking into the contented afterglow of slow, tender lovemaking. It would be very easy to drift off with the warmth of her smooth flesh pressed against him, but the contrasting tension of Kitty’s muscles told him she had other ideas. Propping her head on one hand, she looked down at him.
“Matt?” she asked, and he stiffened warily at the dripping coyness in her voice.
She twirled the hair on his chest, a literal demonstration of twisting him around her little finger. He knew he was doomed. “What was it Doc told you?”
“What do you mean?” he returned, attempting innocence, but it sounded weak even to his ears.
She eyed him sharply. “You know very well, Matt Dillon, what I mean. What was it Doc was talking about at the station? You said you would tell me when we got on the train.”
“I said I would tell you later,” he clarified, rather boldly, considering his situation.
She switched tactics, pouting a bit. “I thought you would tell me then.”
“Well, I tell ya, you didn’t ask.” He knew he was pushing it.
“Whose fault was that, Mister?” she wanted to know, tugging hard enough on the curls to draw a yelp from him. “You distracted me.”
“I thought you’d like it,” he protested honestly.
“I know very well that Doc didn’t fork over the extra money for passage on one of those new sleeper cars,” she said, almost accusingly, but just as quickly her tone softened with a smile. “But I’m awfully glad you did, Cowboy.”
He had hoped she would be. When the railroad boasted of luxurious, roomy accommodations, they obviously had not had a six foot, seven inch, 240-pound marshal in mind. Still, cramped as he had been in the narrow bed, he was cramped in there with her. Of course, it sure beat the last time he had ridden that route – lying with a bullet in his back in the baggage car.
“You haven’t answered me,” she reminded, letting her hand drift lower, down his abdomen and over the flesh that had already begun responding to her again.
He groaned, helpfully arching into her touch. “Uh – Kitty, when you do that, I can’t even remember my own name, much less something Doc told me three weeks ago.”
“Okay,” she agreed, “I’ll stop,” and pulled away.
He groaned again, this time in disappointment. “I didn’t mean you had to – “
“Apparently, I do, to get my answer.”
“That’s blackmail, Miss Russell,” he accused.
“It is, indeed, Marshal Dillon,” she agreed.
“You seem you have me between a rock and a hard place – ”
She smirked, shifting so that she lay between his legs. “I think that’s my line, Mister.”
Even past the levity, her persistence showed him that maybe it was time. He thought back to that day, to the revelations that had occurred in Doc’s office, revelations about her, but even more about himself. And he wondered just how much he should tell her.
His sudden silence drew her head up, her eyes intense, curious. Remembering what he had told Doc about those eyes, he drew a breath and began.
dragged himself back onto the soft mattress, grimacing against the pain his
attempt had caused. He hadn’t believed
Doc earlier when he said it wasn’t yet time to try
such a move. Still, the discomfort
subsided after a minute, and he began to think about giving it another shot –
he just hadn’t gotten his legs under him good before – but Doc’s whistle on the
stairs quickly changed his mind. No need
to aggravate the physician, who was already irritated with his restless
patient. Instead, he decided to switch
tactics. Maybe if he cooperated, did
everything the doctor said, it would shock
“Morning, Matt,” the older man called, then did a double take.
The marshal put on his best innocent face. “What?”
The innocent expression grew a bit strained. “What would make you think that?”
Frowning suspiciously, Doc turned to look at him, eyes peering closely. “Hmm. I have no idea. You have certainly never given me any cause over the past eighteen years to mistrust you when it came to following my medical advice!”
was what he needed. “Kitty tells me ya booked us on the train to
He saw the doctor’s spine straighten as if preparing for battle. “I certainly did, and I don’t want to hear any protests about it. You need the rest, and Kitty needs the break, and I’m not gonna sit here and watch you – “
“Sounds like a good idea.”
“ – destroy yourself by trying to get back to work before – “ His words stumbled to a halt. “What?”
“I said it sounds like a good idea,” Matt repeated patiently, suddenly feeling much more comfortable. “I appreciate it.”
“Well, sure, I’m glad to – what did you say?”
Shrugging slightly so he didn’t move too much, he said, “I’m taking ya up on your offer.”
“You are?” Doc could not have sounded more surprised if Festus had just announced he was serving high tea to the Queen.
The physician stared for a minute, scrubbed at his mustache, and stared some more, before he nodded. “Well, all right, then.”
Matt nodded, struggling to keep a straight face. He wished Kitty had been there to see the exchange. But it wasn’t hard to grow serious when he thought about what Doc had said. Kitty did need the break, he knew. The guilt of what his absence and yet another injury had done to her dug at him, pestered him, until he couldn’t shake the sick feeling in his gut. It frustrated him on two levels. First – and certainly most important – that he had caused her pain again. But second, that he couldn’t think about anything else. That was dangerous, what he had feared from the moment he knew he had fallen for the fiery redhead all those years ago. His job was first, he had told her; it had to be for him to be an effective lawman. No one tying him down, no one causing second thoughts, stealing his attention from what was potentially a life-threatening daily duty.
Doc must have seen the darkness fall over his face, because he dragged a chair over to the bed and sat. After a moment of thought, he said, “She’d do anything for you, you know that.”
No need to ask who “she” was. “Yeah,” Matt acknowledged.
A few years back, Doc had broached the subject of his relationship with Kitty, the time she had left town after he’d been shot yet again. When he couldn’t talk Matt into asking Kitty to stay, the physician had flat out told him he was a fool, and Matt had not denied it.
He had been truly afraid that was it; she wouldn’t be coming back. And he knew he had no right to ask her to, although he yearned to tell her not to go. But he couldn’t stand it, riding down to Ballard on the pretense of being on official marshalling business. She hadn’t been fooled. He still could feel the pounding of his heart when he heard her greeting the night she came back.
“Hello, Cowboy.” The memory brought a smile to his lips, brushing away the darkness.
“Well,” Doc said, “that’s better.”
“That smile instead of the scowl you wore a minute ago. I’m not gonna ask you what caused it.”
“But I am gonna ask you what you’re gonna do.”
“Do about what?”
“I think you know.”
Damn. “Doc, I hate to say it’s none of your business – “
Bracing himself for the onslaught, Matt could only hope the tornado didn’t suck him up in its vortex.
The doctor stood suddenly, almost menacingly, over the bed and pointed an accusing finger. “Listen to me, Marshal. Who do you think stayed around here and talked to her, tried to get her to eat, to go on with life, every day you were gone? Who do you think held her when McMannis came riding into town with a body we all thought was you draped over his saddle? Who do you think sat up with her when the nightmares got too bad and she woke up screaming for you?”
God. He stared at the doctor, stomach
heaving, throat constricting.
“I’m sorry, Matt,” he said, sitting again. “I never meant – Kitty’ll have my hide for telling you those things.”
“No,” he managed hoarsely, swallowing. “No, I’m – glad you did.” He turned his face toward the window, unable to look straight at the other man. The guilt crushed him.
The marshal nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He knew that, of course. She loved him unconditionally, even knowing what he could never offer her, even knowing it meant facing his death on a daily basis. She loved him.
“I know you have to do your job, Matt.” His tone had mellowed to a more conciliatory pitch. “But can’t you give her a little more time when you are around?”
“Kitty knows how it is, how it has to be,” he said, voice low. “She’s never made me choose between my job and her.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “And I do.”
“I do spend time with her,” he said, stung that Doc would suggest otherwise.
“Well, I know, some, but – “
“Every night,” he admitted, knowing if it were anyone but Doc, he wouldn’t be saying a word. “When I’m in Dodge, I spend every night with her, in her room, and we – ” He flushed, wondering why he was explaining himself.
If that was a revelation to the physician, he gave no sign. “It takes more than being good in bed to satisfy a woman’s needs,” Doc said, his voice level and completely unselfconscious.
Jaw dropping, the marshal croaked out, “What?”
“You and Kitty seem to, well, she seems to be a lot more chipper in the mornings after you’ve – when you’re in town.”
Matt felt the heat in his cheeks. Apparently, he had been rather naïve to think Doc wasn’t aware of the depth of their relationship.
But the physician appeared oblivious to his patient’s discomfort. “Physical pleasure, no matter how intense, is fleeting. She’s gonna need more than that from you for the long haul.”
He started to ask how long the long haul was. After all, he and Kitty had already been together seventeen years. But he decided maybe discretion was the better part of valor at the moment.
do not wait for us,’”
I heard from a Chinaman who was working on the railroad a few years back. Matt, you’re a good lawman. Hell, you’re the best lawman in
“She will,” he almost said, until an image flashed through his mind. An image of a redheaded beauty telling him she couldn’t do it anymore. An image of a gun in those lovely hands that had once shown him such pleasure. An image of a fiery blast directed right at him.
“Is being a marshal all you want?” Doc continued. “Is that enough? Is lying with Kitty, using her to satisfy your physical needs enough?”
He felt the blood rush to his face. “I don’t use Kitty to satisfy my physical needs!” he ground out, fighting for control. Surely, Doc didn’t think –
Emotions churned inside him, boiled to the surface. Maybe it was the fatigue; maybe it was the pain; maybe it was the guilt. The wall he had carefully constructed over the years of holding in, of controlling his feelings, cracked like a surging river through a broken dam, and he turned to the doctor, pulling himself up in the bed, feeding on the pain of his body to ignite his words.
“How can you – you don’t know. It isn’t like that. When we’re – together, it’s more than just – sex. It’s – “ He wasn’t sure he could describe what it felt like being with Kitty, not just the pleasure, but the warmth, and the contentment, and the completeness. “It’s – well – it isn’t like that at all.”
He was shaking now, shaking with both physical and emotional pain, shaking with the memory of how tender and how passionate she was. The sensations were so strong that he almost forgot someone else was there.
“Sometimes I can’t breathe when she touches me. When she looks at me and I see right down into her soul, I can’t breathe.”
He closed his eyes and dragged in a ragged breath, as if the mere thought had tried to rob him of that ability.
“I love her. My God, I love her so much, and now I can’t even think about anything else except what I’ve done to her, how I hurt her. How can I go to her and expect her to – I can’t think about anything else.” Opening his eyes again, he saw Doc’s stunned face, and out of sheer uncontrolled frustration, made him the target of his powerful confession. “Do you understand?” he asked, voice rising almost to a shout. “I can’t think about anything else! I can’t think about anything else!”
Chest heaving, he choked back a sob on the last word, horrified at himself. The great Matt Dillon, strong, invincible, undaunted, brought low by his own imperfections, his own insecurities, his own guilt. Not completely able to believe what he had just done, he collapsed onto the bed and flung an arm over his eyes, desperate to be anywhere else but there.
The room remained silent for a long moment until Doc Adams, his voice eerily quiet, said, “I know it’s not like that, Matt. I know you love Kitty. I was there when you went crazy after you found out she headed out to that gold mine on her own. I was there when you followed her to Ballard. I was there when you brought her back from Etta Stone. You wouldn’t let her out of your sight for a week. I was there. I saw.”
The marshal felt a gentle hand rest on his shoulder. “I’m just saying, son, it doesn’t matter whether or not you admit it, you’ve already chosen.”
Son. It did not escape Matt, even in the turmoil, that Doc had used that term. He knew that the physician considered him almost more that way than a friend. And the older man felt toward Kitty like a daughter, despite the years of teasing marriage proposals. Somehow, it made things even harder. How many more people could he disappoint?
But the doctor’s voice was kind. “Just remember what I told you,” he reminded, stepping away as if the last few surreal minutes had never happened.
Matt didn’t respond, couldn’t respond, wasn’t sure which thing he was supposed to remember, except that Doc still thought he was a fool, and he still couldn’t deny it. As he lay there with his tortured, confused thoughts, his brain fighting to make sense of things, he wondered if it was enough. And if he decided it wasn’t, wondered if it was even possible to have enough.
Kitty’s hands were still, no longer running across his scars, or even dancing playfully over his groin. He hadn’t told her everything, had been careful not to mention that Doc had talked about her nightmares, had left out the intensity of his tirade against the physician, more from embarrassment than anything else. But he had told her enough.
After a very long moment, she took a heavy breath and turned so that her head rested against his stomach. “What did you decide?” she asked hesitantly, as if she was afraid to hear his answer.
He had planned to do this later in the week, closer to time for them to return to Dodge, giving him a chance to think through just how he would say it. But maybe fate had forced his hand. Fate, and a certain pushy country doctor.
Pulling her up his body so that they were face to face, he held her gaze steadily, working harder to summon up his courage than he ever had when facing outlaws. “I decided it’s not enough. I decided I don’t think it’s possible to have enough.”
“Oh.” He saw the light fade, watched the hurt flicker.
“But I’m gonna do my best to get there.”
He sat up now, brought her with him so their knees touched. “Doc was right. I’ve already chosen, Kitty. I chose a long time ago. When I was out there on the trail, when I didn’t think I could go any farther, you were the one who keep me going.”
“But I wasn’t there – “
“You were. You were right there with me. I saw you. When I closed my eyes, when I dreamed, I saw you. When I was in Agustin’s house, you took my hand, you made the pain go away.” He watched the tears slide down her cheeks and reached to brush them away.
“That was Lucero,” she told him, and he thought he heard just a twinge of jealousy in her voice.
“No. It was you.”
“Matt, what are you – “
“Kitty, you’ve been my woman for seventeen years now. Do you think you would mind being my wife?”
He almost wished they had been at one of those photograph parlors so he could preserve her expression, bring it out and look at it whenever he wanted. Shock, joy, amazement, love. Terrible, deep love. And again he felt his chest and throat tighten, his breath leave him, as he looked past those beautiful blue eyes and into her soul.
“Oh, Matt,” she whispered. “I – I – Matt, are you sure?”
With no small effort, he forced air into his lungs and nodded. “I told you, I chose a long time ago. I was just too much of a fool to realize it.”
She stared at him another beat, then threw herself forward, arms around his neck, lips on his, breasts against his chest. They fell back onto the bed, their passion instantly ignited. He could tell this would be no slow-burning, gentle lovemaking. Her body writhed on top of his, her pelvis ground into his. A groan escaped him as he tried to slow her, but she only moved more frantically. Surrendering to the inevitable, he let his body go, turning them so that he hovered over her, pushing at her entrance.
“Yes,” she breathed, clutching at his hips to pull him in.
With her permission – or rather her order – he thrust deep and hard, carrying them both up toward the headboard. Kitty’s cry was one of agonized pleasure. He recognized it because he echoed hers with one of his own. Her legs wrapped around his waist, her hips rose to meet each surge as he withdrew, pulling back almost to the edge, then plunged back in, harder and deeper. Slick with sweat, they slid together, building faster and faster toward the ultimate ecstasy. He bit his lip to hang on, not entirely sure he could make it, tasted blood in his mouth. His entire world centered on her, deep inside her, and he felt the deliciously painful tightness tug between his legs.
Desperately, he tried to distract his overwhelmed body, closed his eyes and conjured up visions of toothless old Miz Harper and her equally homely eighteen children. It helped some, and he felt the imminent release ease just a bit. Still, once he opened his eyes again and saw Kitty’s face, mouth open and eyes wide with the pleasure he was giving her, he couldn’t stop the rush.
“Kitty – “he warned hoarsely, but it was too late.
His body surged forward, carrying him as far as she could take him, and his muscles froze with the head-to-toe contractions that shot his seed deep inside her, hard pulses over and over. He felt her own body answer, squeeze him again and again in uneven spasms as she bucked beneath him. He couldn’t keep from crying out, and hoped that no one out in the hallway thought they might need help.
When his muscles finally released him, he began to rock again, more gently this time, in and out, his motions tender, soothing. Eventually, he felt her own pulses fade, and she melted back onto the pillows, arms and legs flung out in total and complete fulfillment. He smiled at the sight, remembering what Doc had said.
“It takes more than being good in bed to satisfy a woman’s needs.”
He knew, of course, that was true, but he couldn’t deny the stroke of pride at the knowledge that she looked pretty damned satisfied right then. Carefully, he withdrew and lay beside her, drawing her against him, smoothing her hair, kissing her shoulder.
When she spoke, her voice almost purred. “You didn’t propose just so I’d let you have your way with me, did you?”
“What if I did?” he wondered.
She stretched luxuriously. “Works for me.”
As his brain began to clear, he realized something. “Hey, wait a minute. You never gave me an answer.”
“To my proposal.”
“You don’t think what we just did was an answer?”
“Maybe I need more.”
Her shoulders shook in a chuckle. “More than that? I don’t think I can do more than that. At least not for a while yet.”
“Kitty,” he said, losing the tease from his tone. He wanted to hear her say it, needed to hear her say it.
She looked up at him, a curious, long-suffering smile on her lips. “No.”
His breath caught, his heart skipped a beat. No? “Wh – what?”
“My answer,” she explained calmly. “No.”
He sat up and ran a hand through his hair, not knowing what to say, not expecting this at all. She might as well have punched him in the stomach. “Kitty, I thought, I mean – “
“You thought what, Cowboy?” she asked.
“I thought you wanted – “
Her smile contradicted what he thought she had just told him. “You asked me if I would mind being your wife. The answer is no. I wouldn’t mind it a bit.” She leaned in and kissed him with such tenderness that he ached. When she pulled back, her eyes shone with mischief.
Once his heart started beating again, he put on his best frown and said, “You are an evil woman Kathleen Russell, playing with a man’s heart.”
“Is that what I played with?” she asked slyly. “I thought it was something else.”
He sighed and lay back down, pulling her with him. “There’s a justice of the peace a few blocks down from the hotel,” he told her. At least he had been out enough to find that.
She lifted up again. “Here?”
“Why not?” Then it occurred to him. “Or maybe you want to wait until we get back to Dodge.”
But she shook her head. “Cowboy, you might start thinking on it, and I don’t want to take that chance.”
He laughed. “We can go see him tomorrow.”
Kitty snuggled against him, and he felt her legs grow heavy over his own. “I bet Doc’ll be surprised,” she murmured sleepily.
Matt smiled and stroked his fingers through her hair. “I wouldn’t count on it, Kitty. I wouldn’t count on it.”
The years do not wait for us, Doc had said. But Matt Dillon didn’t care now. In fact, he didn’t want them to. Not anymore.
Her hands found the scars again, touched each one, beginning with that first one, almost faded completely, tracing each imperfection lovingly, ending with the latest two, still pink and tender. There would be more. They both knew that, but as long as she was there to count them, he wouldn’t mind as much.
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