The Valley of the Shadow of Death complete

Title: The Valley of the Shadow of Death
Category: TV Shows » Gunsmoke
Author: murphycat
Language: English, Rating: Rated: T
Genre: Western/Drama
Published: 08-24-13, Updated: 11-25-13
Chapters: 18, Words: 29,995

Chapter 1: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The diffused light through the one window in the bedroom in Doctor Adams' office was not bright enough to sew or read by, but it was bright enough to cause the pain in Kitty Russell's head to throb anew. She had hoped yesterday that the pain would be gone by today, but it was not to be. It had been nearly two weeks since she had suffered abuse at the hands of the notorious outlaw Jude Bonner.

Doc Adams said she had suffered from a terrible concussion, which, ironically, Kitty thought hurt worse than the gunshot she had suffered. The bullet had lodged in the flesh in her side, but since Bonner had taken a fairly good aim at her, she was lucky to be alive. It was painful, but not fatal.

Kitty closed her eyes tightly against the memories of those awful two days with Bonner and his "Dog Soldiers." She didn't want to remember—God knows. She didn't want to remember how she had wanted to die from her mistreatment, from both pain and humiliation. Kathleen Russell was a proud woman; more than just her body had been hurt at the murderer's hands. Her only consolation was that Jude Bonner and his gang had been caught by Marshal Matt Dillon and his posse within a day and half of her release. She sincerely hoped that Bonner was suffering in jail until his hanging. There was a lot of satisfaction in that thought.

She pushed herself up from the squeaky mattress and attempted to swing her legs over the side. Damn! She felt the stitches pull in her side and the world started to whirl drunkenly. After a long sickening moment, Kitty's head cleared. Using the rickety iron headboard, the redhead steadied herself enough so that she could push herself to her feet. She was getting cabin fever—bad. Kitty was used to company, loud and raucous. The Long Branch, her saloon, was a busy and popular place, and sort of an unofficial meeting place for Dodge City, Kansas. All the news and rumors seemed to come through there first. She was now out of the loop and lonesome for talk. She decided that she'd had enough "bed rest," no matter what Doc said.

United States Marshal Matt Dillon made his way down the dusty boards that passed for sidewalks in Dodge. Nodding politely to the ladies that he met and murmuring greetings to the men, he was still preoccupied with Kitty's injuries and Jude Bonner's assault on her. He was also still shaken by his own rage and his willingness to give up his badge of nearly twenty years; the badge that had resulted in her kidnapping and pain.

Matt Dillon, all 6'7" of him, was not a man who surrendered control over his emotions easily and rarely did he not allow the law to control his actions. He had come perilously close to murdering Bonner, and however justified, the incident had rattled him much more than he would ever admit.

Ten days earlier, Bonner's younger brother, Virgil, had been hanged for murder after being brought to justice by Matt Dillon. Jude Bonner had come to Dodge City before the hanging hoping to take someone close to Dillon for leverage in getting his brother released before the execution could take place. Bonner found that the marshal had no wife and children so he settled for Kitty Russell, Matt's 'woman." Bonner had chosen well. But the hanging of Virgil Bonner was out of Matt Dillon's hands, and Jude's little brother had swung from the hand end of a short rope. Bonner had beaten and abused Kitty, rode into town with her, dumping her in front of the Long Branch, from where he had originally taken her.

Bonner, a self-described "breed," half Cheyenne and half white, then pulled out his gun and shot Kitty as she limped pitifully toward the door of the saloon. He then snapped a lance in half, and told the townspeople to tell Marshal Dillon that he was now "satisfied."

Matt, after riding back to Dodge, had found Kitty hanging herself, by a thread to her own life. He had run up the stairs to Doc's office and found her lying on a table, and the sight of her sent a pain to his gut that took his breath away. Bruised, battered, and bleeding, she lay with her long beautiful red hair dirty. Her normally perfect up-do was all in disarray and pieces of it looked to have been torn out and were clinging in the tangled mass that was left. Crimson marked the ugly bruise or burn, he couldn't tell, that she had on her left cheek. Her lower lip looked to have been bitten and was swollen from a harsh slap.

Doc hastily told Matt her condition, but then added, "She doesn't want to live, Matt. They've broken her spirit." And those were the words that rendered his soul in two and burned like coals in his stomach when he had finally caught Bonner. Matt had sunk to a chair by her side, and taking Kitty's hand, had held on tightly, tell her that he needed her. He had sat for hours, silently willing her to live. He couldn't have left her; his life depended on her surviving.

Early the next morning, Doc had told Matt that he thought she had a "fair" chance, and Marshal Matt Dillon had taken off his badge to hunt down Jude Bonner, with a terrible vengeance in his heart.

After finding Bonner, Matt had challenged the outlaw to a fight, man to man. Violent and raw emotion like Dillon had never known were raging inside him, and when he finally had Bonner pinned, with a large stone over the bastard's head, Matt had wanted to shatter it like an empty whiskey bottle. Only when his friend and deputy, Festus Hagan, had yelled out had Matt come to his senses, but his heart had screamed out for justice for Kitty.

Even now, as Matt strode down the street, he balled up his fists unconsciously, willing them to crush the life from Bonner and his entire ruthless bunch.

Crossing the threshold into the telegraph office, the lawman hoped that word had come about the date of Bonner's hanging. He wanted to be there. As a general rule, he hated hangings, but this was one he wanted to witness.

The young telegraph operator that Barney was training turned as soon as Matt walked into the office and smiled at him with a mouth full of wide-gapped teeth.

"Howdy, Marshal," he said, turning back to pick up a slip of paper where he had written a message. He handed it through the window to Matt. "That telegram you was expecting come from Hays City. Looks like the hangin' is to be a week from today. Reckon you'll be goin, huh?"

"Planning on it," Matt muttered, not looking up from the paper he was reading. Not saying anything else, he turned to walk out the door when the young man spoke again.

"I reckon Miss Russell will want to go with you?"

Matt turned back. The clerk shrivel led into his boots when he saw the look on the marshal's face. Unaware of his effect on the man, Matt said nothing and headed back out into the dusty heat of Front Street.

Chapter 2: Kitty moves to the Long Branch

Kitty was fully dressed, except for her shoes, when Doc's bedroom door suddenly swung open. Stepping back, she gasped with surprise, clutching her sore side.

Smiling and a little breathless, Kitty exclaimed, "Matt! You nearly scared me to death! I thought you were Doc. And since when did you quit knocking?"

"You're supposed to be resting," he said, "I was just goin' to poke my head in to check on you. I figured you'd be asleep." Matt grinned, "I can see I was mistaken, and when Doc finds out that you're out of bed and headed out somewhere, he is going to be as mad as a wet hen," Matt said smiling down at her.

"Yeah, well, he's not, and I'm going stir crazy up here with no one to talk to for most of the day," she shot back. "So help me get my shoes on before he does get back."

"Yes, ma'am." Matt bent down and gathered up Kitty's shoes. "Here sit down on the bed and let me help you. Though if you can't bend down to get your shoes, it might be sign that you still need some rest," he added wryly.

"I don't plan to bend over all day," she said tartly. "I can sit in the Long Branch as easily as I can sit up here. Please, Matt, don't you give me a hard time." She looked down, suddenly tired.

Matt knelt down in front of her. "I'm not trying to give you a hard time, Kitty; I'm just worried about you. I want you healed up and fussing at me for skipping picnics again." His blue eyes looked at her softly and she melted, like she always had.

"I know," she said quietly. "But, I have to get out of here. All I do is lie here and relive everything over and over," she said, shaking her head slightly and closing her eyes tightly. "You don't know...," Kitty choked off the words.

Matt placed his large hands over hers. "It's okay. It's over and you won't have to worry about him much longer. He'll be gone, for good," he said firmly. "So let's get you up and get you down to the townsfolk, ma'am." With that, he took her foot in his hand, slid the shoe on, then the next. "You ready."

Kitty lifted her head and smiled, looking more like her old self but paler. Small traces of bruises and scrapes remained on her face. "Let's go, Cowboy."

Sam, the bartender, was the first to see them when they pushed open the doors to theLong Branch. "Miss Kitty!"

The room suddenly erupted into cheers and calls when Matt and Kitty stepped down into the saloon.

Out of the crowd came a rough, aggravated voice, "What in thunder do you think you are doing!" Doc yelled. "You should be in bed!"

Although still weak from being hurt and bedridden for so many days, Kitty Russell managed to rally a response, "Doc, I will rest a lot better in my own bed. Besides, here at least I can have some company. I was gettin' plumb lonesome stuck up there in your office. And I can sleep better without hearing about the saddle sores of every cowboy comin' into your office." She smiled, showing another little glimmer of the "old Kitty."

Doc Adams wiped his hand across his mouth and chin. "Dang it, I don't know why I hang a medical degree in my office; my patients just end up doing what they want anyway. Might as well be a ...well, I don't know. But you will rest, not be working or straining yourself in any way is that clear." Doc stuck his chin out at her, not willing to listen to one word of argument.

Matt spoke first, "Doc, I will see to it personally that she does not do anything to hurt herself. Is that good enough?"

Kitty looked up at him and smiled, grateful for his help in persuading Doc to let her stay.

"Do I have a choice? Dagnabit, I will be watching you like hawk to see that you are taking care of yourself, young lady. At the first sign of trouble or weakness, you are going right back up to my office where I can keep an eye on you—if I have to hog-tie you," Doc soften his look and his voice as he finished his threat.

"Doc, I don't have the energy to argue. In fact, it feels so good to be home, I'm going upstairs right now to lie down in my own bed. That old bed of yours is like sleeping on three boards and a bag of corn cobs."

Festus said, "Miss Kitty, it shore is good to see you up and about."

She paused, "It's good to be seen, Festus. Thank you."

Kitty started over to the stairs which led upstairs to her personal rooms about the saloon. She looked up dismayed. Doc's stairs had been bad enough but Matt had been there to help her. Now, these stairs looked a mite more daunting.

Taking deep breath, she started to put one foot on the first step up, but Matt, sensing her worry, stepped forward and taking her arm, said, "I'll go with you; I have something to talk to you about anyway."

They slowly made their way up the stairs and down the hall to Kitty's room. Doc Adams tugged on his ear, closely observing Kitty's movements.

When they entered her rooms, Matt said, "Hold on a minute, Kitty," and he stepped forward to turn down the quilts on her bed.

Kitty made her way over to the bed and sat down on the edge, taking a deep breath of relief, weak from lack of exercise.

"I suppose now you want me to help you take your shoes off," Matt grinned, the lines around the sides of his mouth deepening.

"If it's not too much trouble, Marshal."

Matt again knelt down in front of her and gently pulled off her shoes and placed them over a little ways from the bed.

Kitty lay back on her pillows and let out a sign of relief, "Oh that feels better." Then looking back up, "What did you want to talk to me about, Matt, or was that just a way to help me without Doc knowing how weak I was?"

Matt sat down on the edge of the bed beside her. "No, I do need to tell you something, Kitty. Jude Bonner is scheduled to hang in a week, in Hays." He watched her face closely to gauge her reaction.

Kitty closed her eyes and took another deep breath. "Well, that is something isn't it? Why did it take so long?" She added, "I can't say I'll cry myself to sleep over it. Will you be going?"

"Probably," Matt replied. "Kitty, that is one hanging that I would like to witness." He placed his big left hand on the right side of her face softly. "He could never pay enough for what he's done. As for why it's taken so long, you've got to remember each of the "Dog Soldiers" had a trial and then they were hanged, too. I guess they were saving the worst for last."

Matt gently pulled a strand of hair off the side of her face, and she reached up and covered his hand with hers.

"Will you please understand that this wasn't your fault? You can't stop doing your job or anticipate what every maniac in Kansas is going to do," she said in softly frustrated voice.

Matt leaned over, closer to her. "Kitty, we haven't talked about it, and I figured when you were ready you would, but..." he hesitated, unsure as to whether to continue or not.

Kitty reached up and pulled him to her and murmured in his ear, "One day, but not today.

Right now, just hold me and I'll forget all about Bonner and that damned badge."

When Matt made is way back down the stairs a little while later, Doc motioned for him to come over to the table where he now sat alone. Festus having gone to check on a missing hog from where it was penned up behind Ma Smalley's.

"How is she?" Doc asked. "I'll go up directly, after she has had time to change and get settled in her bed."

"I don't know, Doc," Matt said, "You might want to wait a little bit; she was asleep when I left. Looked like she could use the rest."

"She hasn't been sleeping all that well. Kitty is a strong woman and this has hurt her—bad. She's going to need you to help her, and not just physically."

"I know that, Doc, and I plan to," Matt replied. "I just told her that Jude Bonner is to be hanged in a week. She took it pretty well, I guess. Didn't say too much."

"I'm taking it pretty well, myself," Doc said, raising his beer glass in a toast to Bonner's demise. "Are you going?"

"Planning on it. Depends on Kitty's condition."

"I'm sure she'll be feeling better. She's healing up well. Her feeling better physically will help improve how she feels mentally; you know that."

"Well, if I don't make it up to Hays, I hear through the grapevine that there will be a lot of others who will make it. Jude Bonner and his gang made a load of enemies in their time. Be a lot of kinsfolk and friends of his victims, plus the usual crowd. Should be a real show."

"I heard the governor will be there. Too good an opportunity to pass up for a little stumpin', I reckon, "Doc said tartly.

"You know how politicians are, always looking for votes, even at a hanging. Helps the public see him connected with justice, law, and order," Matt smiled slightly, "Even if he didn't catch him, try him, or convict him."

Festus came barreling back through the doors, scowling. "That dang hog weren't stole. They got me all heated up and sweaty when that ornery hog was jest crawled up under the shed to get outa the heat. Don't sound too bad to my ownself," he said, wiping the sweat from his neck and forehead.

Doc grimaced, "It smells like you did. What have you got on your clothes?"

"Well, Doc, I had to get down to look under the shed, and it ain't the cleanest place in the world, where a hog lives," Festus grumbled.

Doc got up scowling at Festus, "I can't stand the smell. If you plan to eat with me later, you better smell more like man than a pig or I'll be eatin' alone!" He stomped out the door.

"You'd think he'd been raised in a palacial or somethin', way he takes on," Festus growled.

Matt got to his feet, sort of hung his head and looked under his hat brim at Festus, "I got to agree with him this time, Festus. You're kinda rank." At this, he turned and hurried out the doors of the Long Branch.

************************************************** ******************X

Kitty awoke at sundown and realized that she had slept most of the day away. She gingerly moved herself and found to her surprise that she did feel better. Her head hurt less, and she felt less achy all over. "See, Doc," she thought to herself, "Getting to my own bed did help after all." The best part of her sleep had been that she was dreamless, for which she was very grateful.

There was a soft tap at the door. "Come in," she called out.

Doc Adams appeared carrying a tray of food, and she realized she was ravenous.

"Gosh, Doc, you're just what the doctor ordered," she smiled at him.

"Well, I knew you'd wake up hungry after sleeping most of the day, and I decided to kill two birds with one stone. Feed you and check up on you." Doc set the tray down on a table beside the bed. "You look better. Could be coming back here might have been good for you after all."

"It's big of you to admit it, Doc," Kitty teased.

"Let's don't push it until I check you out here. Can you sit up?" he asked.

Kitty roused herself into a sitting position on the side of the bed.

"Head still dizzy," he asked, checking her eyes and peering at her intently.

"Not as bad, no," she answered. "Actually, it isn't pounding like it was earlier. Seems to have eased off some."

"It's about time. I was starting to get a little worried." Doc Adams took off his wire spectacles and wiped his face. "Can you roll over to your side and let me check the bandage?" He peeled back the covering over the wound on her side.

Kitty could smell some type of medicine that he was dabbing over it and then felt him change the bandage.

"Miss Russell, I must say you are very lucky that you have such a fine physician. This wound is healing up very nicely. You should be up and around in no time a' tall," he said.

"Good. I'm tired of playing the invalid. How about I get dressed and we sit downstairs for a while? It sounds quiet enough."

It was a Monday night, usually a slow night, as most men left early to prepare for the next day's labor, if they came in at all from the farms or ranches.

"Well, I disagreed with you about moving over here," Doc said, "But I can see it did have some healing effect. Why not? I'll wait outside while you get dressed and I'll help you down the stairs."

"Sounds good to me," Kitty replied, smiling at him.

Chapter 3: Jude

Jude Bonner had a lot of problems. Not the least of which was the guard who took great pleasure in knocking him on his backside every chance that he got. Bonner's guard, Jebb Harris, at the Hays jail, in Kansas, had known a man killed by the Bonner gang while they were robbing a freight office down near Garden City. So he didn't have a lot of sympathy for the convicted murderer waiting to be hanged.

Bonner picked himself up for the third time that day after Harris had tripped him while returning from a trip to the outhouse. After Bonner fell, Harris had taken his booted foot and kicked him in the ribcage one or twice to release some of his pent-up rage and contempt.

"Aw, Bonner," Harris mimicked in a falsely sweet voice, "Are you hurt, friend. That's terrible. Walking can be so dangerous." Harris added in a harder harsher tone, "In the wrong place, you murderin' animal."

"Git up, you scum." Harris bent down and roughly jerked Bonner to his feet. Bonner's manacles rattled and banged as he got up. His feet and hands cuffed, Bonner awkwardly rose up on his haunches then raised himself to his full height. Unable to spread his legs or arms to balance himself didn't seem to matter, Bonner rose up as easily as a panther springs from a rock to the ground, and he looked at Harris through his cold, indolent brown eyes.

"You know, I killed men like you for sport. Did the world a favor, cleaned up the trash" Bonner said.

His words had reached their target and Harris took the butt of his rifle and punched Bonner hard in the gut.

"How's that for weak, you half-breed cur?" Harris harshly muttered.

Another guard came around the side of the jail, "Come on, Harris. Where you been? Thought the breed had slit yer throat."

"Not likely," Harris replied, prodding Bonner with his rifle butt. "Go on, Bonner. Back to your cage. Ye only got a few more days to live, better enjoy the comforts of this fine establishment whilst you can."

Bonner entered his cell nine feet by nine feet. It was airless, no breeze stirred through the one window. No voices called out, either to Bonner or to guards or a world not listening.

He lay down on his bunk, smelled old sweat on the dirty bundle that passed for a mattress. His body hurt more than he'd let on. Damn the guard, damn the state of Kansas, and damn Marshall Matt Dillon.

It was not Jude Bonner's way to reflect on his life, wondering where he had gone wrong, and wishing he had taken a different path. No, Bonner's mind was filled with images and sounds of people who had betrayed him and caused suffering for him and his. He held those hurts and pains close to him like a lover. They gave him strength and the rage gave him an insane energy that shone in his eyes when he let someone look full into them. His personal 'injustices' fueled the pain and anguish he had also inflicted on innocents.

All this had started because of Virgil. "Damn you, brother," Bonner thought angrily, but he knew his weakness when it came to his little brother, and he would do all of it over again, even if it meant getting caught again. He had been Virg's protector since the boy was eight years old, and old habits do have a way of dying off hard.

Fear held no sway over Jude Bonner. The thought of hanging was just another injustice in a life filled with slights by the white people and their government, from the killing of his mother and her people to his own impending death. He only had one thought that pained him; that he hadn't killed Kitty Russell and caused Dillon the heartbreak and loss that he had meant to. That hadn't turned out like he intended at all!

The red-haired woman was tough. Tough to break. But break he had. He would have done more, was ready to do more in front of all the Dog Soldiers; he was ready to take the Marshal's woman. But something had happened. The woman had refused to give, raised her head, mouth bleeding, and looked at him. She knew she was going to lose, but still something in her eyes, the way she had still refused to fold...That's when something in him had snapped. He had slapped and kicked and punched, even dragged her by her hair; the anger and rage inside him fueled by that that look as much as knowing that Virgil was dead.

Ahhhh! Bonner punched out into the air, clenching his eyes and jumped to his feet. He had to finish it. She was mocking him now, that look in her eyes...No by God, he should have finished it!

Now here he was, soon to be hanged, and the Marshal was with someone who had no right to still be alive. If he had caused the heartache he had intended for Dillon or taken the life of the Marshall himself, then, Bonner thought, he could die with no regrets at all, but as it stood now, the only loser was himself. Somehow, he thought, some way, that Marshall and his woman would still pay.

Chapter 4: Hays

Hays was a bustling little town. There was never a shortage of citizens and visitors because a hanging was a macabre sporting event combined with public justice. Little old ladies and delicate flowers together attended, and, afterwards, they felt as if they had served a civic duty by witnessing the come-uppance of a terrible sinner against society. Jude Bonner, in the eyes of almost everyone in Kansas, certainly deserved the punishment that he was about to get.

Bonner and his "Dog Soldiers" had terrorized the countryside for years, thieving and murdering, scaring the hound out of good honest folk. Bonner had a mythology about him; half Cheyenne and half white, he was raised Indian til the age of 14 when he witnessed the killing of his mother and her people by the United States Army. Bonner knew the Cheyenne way, both good and bad, and of white society, he knew enough to understand the way things functioned and this helped him to inflict the most destruction and carnage. In this regard, he was blessed by the devil.

Moving among the throngs of people in Hays was one man who preferred that Bonner not hang. Not to spare Bonner the punishment, but so as he could kill him himself, slow and painfully. Jacob Davis had had a sister and brother-in-law killed by Bonner and his Dog Soldiers. Running from a posse one snowy night, Bonner and his men had stumbled onto the prairie homestead of the newlyweds, near Great Bend, Kansas. Taking sanctuary there and stealing what little they had was not enough for Bonner's gang. They had all taken turns at his sister after shooting his brother-in-law in the gut to die slowly, watching the assault.

A day later when the weather cleared, Davis had made it to his sister's farm to find her in a terrible condition, hanging onto a wisp of life. Louisa had told him a little of what happened, nothing for the most part that Davis hadn't figured out himself, but the brutality of their attack would never leave him. He would see his sister for the rest of his life, lying in her own blood. She had dragged her wedding dress off the bed to try to cover herself. No, Jacob Davis would never get the smell of the scene out of his nose and the sight of that bloody white dress out of his mind.

Jacob had been watching the jail, the deputies at shift change, foodstuffs delivered. He had the outside routine fairly memorized, but that didn't help him much. There wasn't an opportunity to get inside or to get Bonner outside without getting himself killed. Not that Jacob cared much. Louisa was all he had. Both their parents had died from influenza and it had just been the two of them since he was 17; now at 24, and no ties to any other family, Jacob wanted to kill the man who had so brutalized his sister during what should have been the happiest time of her life. He didn't care if he had to die to do it.

Following two of the deputies one night after they left the jail was an impulse really; he really didn't expect anything to come of it. But when they entered a saloon for the second night in a row, an idea had come to him. Not a full blown plan, but a seed of something that he wanted to let take on a life of its own.

Following them inside, Jacob watched as the two took a table near the back wall and ordered a round of beers from one of the saloon girls. Making his way through the crowd, Jacob ordered a beer from the bar-keep and walked back near their table. Pretending to look around for a seat, which wasn't hard to do since the place was packed, Jacob asked if he could sit down. And the rest, as they say, is history. For the price of several rounds, Jacob began to get all the information that he needed to get at Jude Bonner.

Chapter 5: Escape!

Jacob Davis had fallen in with the two sheriff's deputies, and the trio had become fast friends. Jacob was very loose with his drinking money and seemed to be of a similar mind when it came to how criminals should be treated, and the Hays deputies were quick to share information and tall tales concerning their prisoner while trying to impress their new drinking buddy.

For two nights over more beers and whiskey shots than he could count, Jacob and the deputies poured over ways they would like to see Bonner suffer. Davis still had not told the two how he came to be so interested in their prisoner; he wanted to get close to Jude Bonner, and if he seemed too anxious, the deputies might suspect something, and then he'd never get close to his target.

Two nights after Jacob and the deputies had closed down Fancy's, a local saloon; they decided to invite him into the jail. Sheriff Ray Yates had long gone home to eat with the Missus and to sleep at least one night at home before the hanging. Ralph Greene, the elder of the two deputies, was anxious to show Jacob how subdued the prisoner had become after being sentenced to hang.

"Hey! Bonner! Git up! Wake up, you stinkin', murderin' redskin!" Greene took his pistol and raked the barrel across the cell bars, making a loud clanging sound. Bonner did not move or acknowledge he heard anything. "Git up, I said!" Again, there was no movement from the prisoner.

"He's so dang broke in that he don't even want to move, Jake. He knows he's gonna swing from rope in less than two days. Injun boy, here, he don't want to waste no energy on us palefaces; he's a gittin' ready for the great huntin' grounds," Wade Crowder commented, his voice more than a little slurred by strong drink.

Jacob couldn't take his eyes off Bonner. He wasn't listening to the inane banter of the deputies; all he could do was stare at the man responsible for his sister's suffering and death.

Jacob thought that he sure didn't look like much: long black hair, greasy from unwashing, black eyes staring straight up from a hard face. He could never have loved anyone, Jacob thought, he has no idea what it feels like to lose someone so dear to you. Jacob clenched and unclenched his hands repeatedly, not taking his eyes off of the Indian lying prone in the cell.

"Jake? Jake, ya hear me? Let's step out here to the office and have us another little drink. I got us a bottle of that Tennessee barrel whiskey with that money you give me. Come on, boys," Crowder gave him a small shove to get his attention and to get him moving.

The unexpected shove released Jacob from his trancelike observation, the rage and hurt that had festered inside him abruptly reached an uncontrollable level. Jacob shoved Crowder back against the empty cell directly behind him with such force that Crowder, who was already tipsy, lost his balance and struck the back of his head smartly on one of the bars of the cell and slid to the floor, unconscious.

The incident happened so fast that Deputy Greene had little time to react either. Greene initially misread the situation and thought that the shy little fellow had some backbone for not taking Crowder's guff. But such was not the case. Before he understood what was happening, Jacob had pulled out a revolver from under his coat.

"Hey, now, boy, let's not be hasty. I unnnerstand that Crowder can be a mite irritatin' but you and me, well, we ain't got no beef. Have we?" Green asked him, getting sober right quick.

"Take off you gun belt and drop it, straight down. Move into the cell. Now!" Jacob raised his voice and pointed his gun higher, at the deputy's chest. "Move, I said!" Jacob's eyes were wild now and burned with a fierce intensity. The deputy moved toward the cell, but suddenly whirled back to try to take Jacob's gun. Without a thought, Jacob cracked the deputy hard on the skull and sent him reeling into the cell onto the cot.

Slamming the door on the second unconscious guard, Jacob now turned his attention to Jude Bonner who was definitely paying attention now. Bonner had risen to his feet and was waiting for his own opportunity from this stranger who might be here to help him escape.

"Get away from the door," Jacob commanded. Bonner did as he was told. Jacob took the keys that had belonged to the still Crowder and unlocked the cell door. "Come on," he motioned Bonner out with the point of his pistol, taking care not to get too close to the prisoner.

Jude Bonner had no idea what was happening, but it couldn't be all bad if it got him the hell out of that cell. He'd bide his time and take his chance when it came his way.

Forcing Bonner outside, Jacob indicated where he should walk, while carefully staying out of reach. They walked in the shadows behind buildings and through alleys avoiding anyone who could raise an alarm. At this hour of the morning, there would be almost no one on the street anyway.

On the outskirts of town there was an old way station shack, built years before when Hays was literally a wide spot in the road. "Git on in there," Jacob pointed with the gun, indicating that Bonner should go inside.

Bonner entered. It was dark as pitch inside. A strong hand shoved him down on the floor causing him to scrape his chin since he couldn't break his fall quickly enough. A lamp soon illuminated the room, turning black into buttery light.

"Git on the chair," Jacob pointed the gun at him. Bonner knew that whatever the reason that this sodbuster had broken him out, this was going to be his best opportunity to escape.

"Who are you?" Jude Bonner asked him. "Why'd you set me free?"

"Oh, believe me, Mr. Bonner, you're not free. You're far from free. I have every intention of killing you, slowly, and letting you feel the pain that was only small part of what my little sister felt. You filthy, stinkin' animal!" Jacob choked up on the last words. Bonner, for his part, didn't have any idea what the man was going on about; Bonner had killed so many people that most had become nothing but a blur to him.

Noting the blank expression on Jude Bonner's face, Jacob was incredulous and enraged even further. "You don't even remember what I am talking about do you? You don't even remember her?"

"Look, why'n you tell me what the hell you're talkin' about. Maybe we can come to some kind of an understanding, friend," Jude said flatly.

"Friend? Don't ever call me your 'friend'. You murdered my sister-after you and those animals you ran with treated her worse than any..." Jacob sputtered, unwilling to say the word, "whore." He continued, becoming more incoherent and emotional.

"Great Bend. Over a year ago."

Bonner continued to stare at him in that unblinking, unemotional way.

Jacob was pushed beyond reason by the murderer's bland expression and unfeeling eyes. He ran at Bonner and struck out in a blind rage, and that was the opening that Bonner was waiting for.

Easily deflecting Jacob's first swing, Bonner gut punched the young farmer twice before he realized what was happening. As soon as Jacob fell to the dirt floor, Bonner kicked him two or three times with all the power he could muster. Jacob clutched at his abdomen, and then with his head uncovered, Bonner booted him full in the face twice more, finally stomping on the side of his head, directly atop the young man's ear.

Jacob was still aware enough to know what he had done, freed his sister's killer unintentionally, and what consciousness he had remaining threw him into despair.

Bonner knelt down beside him in the dirt, "You know, boy, you done me a favor, so I'm gonna repay the favor. I'm gonna kill you easy, you know, to show my appreciation like." Bonner knew a gunshot would be unwise, if he hoped to have any kind of head start. He looked around the shack and spotted a knot of rusty barbed wire.

Stretching it around Jacob's neck from behind, he brought it to a close on the front, cutting deeply into the skin. Ignoring the pricks in his own hands, Bonner twisted it as tightly as he could. Blood seeped out around the little x's that the wire cut into Jacob's throat. Releasing the body of the young man, Jude Bonner wiped the traces of blood onto his pants and picked up the pistol. Jamming it into the waistband of his pants, he knelt back down to check the dead man's pockets. An old sepia photograph of a young girl, twenty-three dollars, and a room key were all he found.

Pocketing his spoils, Jude stood up and took his first breath of free air in a while. New blood raced through his veins. He had been given a second chance. A second chance to finally finish what had started in Dodge City, Kansas.

Chapter 6: What now?

With Jude Bonner now on the loose, Matt was in a hellava quandary. His first impulse, of course, was to go after Bonner himself. But he knew Bonner would expect that. And Matt's hunting would leave Kitty alone. Alone if Bonner returned. Alone and unprotected. That was never going to happen. Not again. And Matt sure couldn't take Kitty along on a manhunt with a posse. She wasn't physically able for one thing. She was a woman for the second thing.

Since hearing the news, she had put on a great poker face, refusing to allow the news to visibly affect her. This might have worked with anyone who didn't know her well, but not with Matt, Festus, and Doc. When they ate supper together in the Long Branch earlier that night, Kitty was unusually quiet, ignoring Doc and Festus' best attempts to entertain her. Matt had asked Festus earlier to do the rounds. He wanted to stay with Kitty for a while.

After Doc and Festus had gone, they had walked upstairs to her rooms together. Out of deference to her recuperation, Sam had suggested they close the Long Branch at midnight all week. Normally, Kitty would not have agreed, but with Doc being so vocal about her resting, and Matt looking at her like she was going to melt, she quietly acquiesced.

Upstairs she took off the jacket that went over her dress. Matt moved to the brandy decanter that she kept on the table in the sitting area part of her rooms. He poured them both a drink, but before he could hand her the glass, Kitty broke the silence.

"He'll be coming for us won't he?" Kitty swallowed before going on. "He won't run like any normal outlaw would—for Mexico or some outlying territory. He's like an animal, running on instinct. And he'll be coming." These last words caught in her throat as she started to cry. She sat down on the velvet covered settee as if the words exhausted her.

Matt Dillon moved to her. Sitting down beside her, he placed his arm around her. In his deep voice, he said softly, but firmly, "Kitty, it doesn't matter where he goes; he'll be caught—probably killed." Neither of them had mentioned Bonner by name. "Either way, he will never hurt you again."

"I'll see to that," he thought angrily to himself. Matt pulled her against him. She lay heavily, too pained to cry.

"Come on," he said gently. "You've had a bad shock today, and you're still recuperating." Matt got up, pulling her gently to her feet. "I'm going to tell Festus I'll be staying her for the night. You get ready for bed, and drink this brandy," he said, handing her the snifter. "I'll be back probably before you hit the sheets, lady." He picked up his hat and started out the door.

Matt turned back before he went out, watching her as she started to undo her dress's many buttons. It was a routine that was both domestic and familiar and caused a catch in his throat, witnessing how delicate was this normally fiery woman.

"I won't be far away until he's caught, you know that," he said.

"I know, Matt," she said, pausing to look up at him, trying to smile. "I know. Thanks."

"Don't mention it ma'am," he smiled back at her, for some reason making her remember back many years before when he first charmed her with that same grin.

"I'll be right back." He smiled again and closed the door firmly behind him.

That was two hours ago. Matt watched Kitty sleep; he couldn't. Occasionally she would turn over, mumbling nothing he could understand, and she would reach for him. He made sure that she knew he was there. He spoke to her softly, held her tightly, and in a few minutes, she seemed to fall back into a deep slumber.

There was a burn in Matt Dillon's gut that refused to go away. It only intensified tonight as he watched Kitty toss and turn, lost in a nightmare, in a place where he couldn't defend her any more than he had against Bonner. The hate and vengeance that had consumed him the day he tried to kill Jude Bonner was still there, but now contained in a more cold and controlled manner.

Matt had turned over many plans in his mind as to how to best deal with Bonner and keep Kitty safe at the same time. If he left her, no one could stay with her constantly; she'd never allow it and, if she did, it wouldn't be possible. Sitting like a duck waiting for someone to strike was nerve wracking and it was damn near impossible to do. If someone was determined to kill you, there were many ways to do it without having to get close to your victim. But Bonner would want to be close; he would want to see first-hand the grief and pain he caused.

Matt couldn't imagine the damage it could cause Kitty waiting in Dodge for Bonner to return, with or without him. She was fragile already, slow to return to her old self. This Kitty was hurt, not up to fighting yet. No. Waiting in Dodge was out.

What about sending Kitty away while he hunted for Bonner? He'd be leaving her; something he swore he would never do until Bonner was either captured again or dead. It would also leave her vulnerable. If Bonner were to intercept her, find out somehow...Matt couldn't finish the thought. He had to find a way to bring Bonner to him, on his turf, but not Dodge where he had weaknesses besides Kitty. He was tied to a whole town.

He didn't have long to make a decision, either; Hays was around a hundred miles from Dodge City. How fast Bonner could get there, of course, depended on a lot of variables, mainly how many lawmen and posse's were on his tail and in his way and how long his horse could hold up under the pace.

Matt would take Kitty from Dodge. If Jude Bonner came after them before he could be killed or captured, Matt could face him on familiar ground, an area that Bonner was probably not. He couldn't wait for Bonner to strike. God knew how long that could take and how many people might die. When or if the bastard showed up, Matt Dillon would be waiting to finally stop the murdering outlaw for good.

Chapter 7: Leaving Dodge

Festus opened the door to the U.S. Marshal's Office to find Matt Dillon sitting at his desk finishing up some paperwork before he left Dodge City. He looked a little more rested today, Festus thought. He had slept soundly the night before, resting better than he had in a long time it seemed.

Festus said, "Matthew, I have everything that you asked for all ready to go. I checked and you'll have two tickets ready fer you and Miss Kitty."

"Thanks, Festus, I'll go over and tell Kitty what time to be ready to leave." Matt shoved the papers that he was working on into his desk drawer and dropped the pencil onto the desk top. "How 'bout we grab us a beer, too?"

"That's sounds pure t delightful, Matthew," Festus said, always ready for a beer, especially if someone else was buying.

"I thought you'd agree," Matt said, grabbing his hat and following Festus out the door.

The air in Dodge was dust filled this morning. Rain had been absent for a while now, and the dust was coating everything in town. The drought covered the west half of Kansas all the way up through the lowlands of Colorado. Cattlemen and ranchers were feeling the pinch.

"Matthew, if'n we don't get us some rain, I reckon we're just goin' up and blow away like an old driedy-up tumbleweed," Festus commented.

"I reckon you may be right; it has been a spell of dry weather, we've had. I've never seen some of these creeks so low," Matt countered.

They walked diagonally across Front Street to the Long Branch. "Sam, two beers," Festus called out as they entered. It was closing in on midday and there were only a few patrons in the saloon. Kitty was not in sight.

Sam came over with two beers that he sat down on the green tabletop in front of them. "Enjoy yourselves. Holler if you need anything else, gents."

Doc Adams trailed in behind them and came over to sit down. "Hot enough," was all he said.

Festus knew of the spat between Matthew and Doc about their leaving town, but Doc shore seemed to have calmed down a little.

"Howdy, Doc. Have a beer your ownself; it's mighty deluctable," he said taking a deep swallow, then letting loose a big sigh of satisfaction.

" 'Deluctable'-that's not even a word. Where do you come up with these things, Festus?

Honestly, I think there must be a whole separate vocabulary for Haggens; one the rest of us aren't privy to," Doc gripped. Then a little smile slipped out to Matt to show he was ready to make peace.

"Well, Doc, nice to see you," Matt said, lifting his beer in a semi salute.

"I thought I'd come out and see the happy couple off on their upcoming trip," Doc quipped. "You never know, heck, they may come back off of a honeymoon," he said as he winked at Festus.

"Now, Doc, let's not get carried away," Matt was squirming a little. "You know that this is mostly business. There won't be much time for anything, period. We'll be on the move quite a bit."

Festus joined in, "I hate to say, Matthew, but the old scudder's right. Many a time a innocent little trip has turnt into a long term union a twixt a man and a woman."

Doctor Adams was getting ready with another zinger when Mr. Burke from the freight office came barreling through the doors. "Marshall Dillon, have you heard? Jude Bonner's been spotted in La Crosse! They're saying he killed a girl there!"

"What in thunder are you blabbering about Burke?" Doc asked gruffly. "More of your tall tales, I expect."

"No tall tales, Doc," Burke said, offended. "Barney over at the telegraph office says the wires have been burning up. They're sayin' Bonner was spotted up there trying to steal a horse and some other stuff, and somebody musta recognized him because to get away, well, they're saying he took a girl hostage to cover his getaway. They found her later—her throat was cut from ear to ear. No sign of Bonner, though," Burke finished up, breathless.

"First of all, Burke, who is 'they,' " Matt asked a little irritated. He looked around again for Kitty; this was the last thing she needed to hear.

" 'They' is the Sheriff's Office, in La Crosse, and they're sending a wire to every lawman within a hundred and fifty miles, to keep a lookout for Bonner," Burke said. "He did get away with the horse."

Pushing back his chair to leave, Matt said firmly, "Don't say anything to Kitty about this yet," and left pushing through the doors like a man with a demon behind him.

"You know what that means don't you," Festus said slowly, looking at Doc and Burke, "It means Bonner is headed this way just as sure as a catfish lays on the bottom of a muddy creek, and he's just a little over a day's ride away! If Matthew and Miss Kitty wait til tomorrow to git on the train, it might be too late. Bonner could already be here."

Marshall Matt Dillon walked straight over to the train depot from the Long Branch. Checking with the clerk, he found that a train left that very afternoon at 2:00 pm. Right now, it was 12:30. He reserved two tickets and canceled the ones for the next day.

LaCrosse, Kansas, was just a wide spot in the road, but that wide spot was a little over 85 miles from Dodge, and according to reports, Jude Bonner had allegedly left there last night. The bastard sure wasn't letting any grass grow under his feet, Matt thought disgustedly, and if there was any doubt before that he was headed to Dodge, that had all been erased.

Matt quickly crossed back over to the Long Branch. Doc and Festus were already gone, in fact, there weren't many customers at all. Probably too dang hot, he thought. It must already be close to a hundred degrees and even the promise of a cold beer couldn't lure some people out unless they had to be.

Barely acknowledging Sam, Matt's long legs made quick work of the stairs up to Kitty's room. Tapping sharply on the door, he called her name, "Kitty."

The door swung inward. Kitty immediately noticed the sweat running down the side of Matt's face, "What in the world are you doing running around in this heat? Come on in, I'm...," she didn't get to finish her sentence.

Matt reached out and took her by the shoulders, "Jude Bonner has been in LaCrosse. I don't need to tell you what that means." She nodded, eyes widening. "I've changed the train tickets; can you be ready to leave in about an hour?" he asked, locking his blue eyes onto hers and holding there.

"I'm almost ready to go now." Kitty turned indicating her valise sitting open on the bed. "I'll throw a few more things in, and whatever I forget, I'll just buy somewhere along the way." She smiled at him to relieve the tension. "Feels like we're eloping," she teased gently.

Matt was too preoccupied to answer. "I'll be here to pick you up in an hour. Don't go anywhere alone." He looked at her hard. "I mean it, Kitty."

She took a deep breath, nodding, pursing her lips together.

Without saying another word, Matt turned and was gone.

At 1:55 pm, Doc, Festus, and Newly stood alongside Kitty and Matt as they prepared to board. The heat blowing from around the train only added to the misery of the oppressively hot air.

"Doc, I'll see you before you know it," Kitty said, putting on a strong face. "In fact, I may even bring you back a new medical book, if I can find one."

Doctor Adams didn't answer right away. He rubbed the whiskers on his chin, and looked at her through rapidly blinking eyes, "You just get back here. Period!"

"Festus, you take care of things; you know how to reach me," Mat said, patting Festus on the shoulder.

"No problemo, Matthew, you just watch your ownself and Miss Kitty. Don't you fret none about nothin'. Now go on and git on yer train afore you miss it. Newly's here to help me iff'n I need help," Festus said.

"That's right, Marshall. You and Miss Kitty, you just be careful," Newly added.

"Thanks, boys," Matt turned and taking Kitty's arm they started up the steps, but Kitty stopped and looked back.

Three of the best men in the world, in her opinion, stood there with worry and care etched on their faces. She would not risk these men's lives for anything, especially not for the worthless

likes of Jude Bonner. She gave them one of her trademark wide open smiles, and then she and Marshall Matt Dillon boarded the Pacific Railway to Denver, Colorado.

As the last train cars faded from sight, the three friends turned away from the platform.

"How about a beer, gentlemen," Newly asked, trying to pick up the mood a little.

"Naw, Newly, I've got to do some checking around to do fer a while. I'll catch up with you later." Festus said and turned to go back down the street to the Marshal's office.

"How about you, Doc," Newly tried again.

"Maybe later," Doc said. He suddenly seemed older and more tired than Newly had seen him in a long time. He watched the doctor as he shuffled down toward his office. With a deep sigh, Newly O'Brien turned and headed to his own office, feeling as down as Doc looked.

Chapter 8: Indifferent evil

Jude Bonner hadn't planned to kill the farm girl. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not that it bothered him much. Horses and women were to be discarded when no longer useful. Bonner had subscribed to that idea all his adult life. So when the horse he had stolen in Hayes was done for, he had decided to check out a small farm that he happened to run across to look for a replacement.

The girl was out early, to milk the cow he guessed; she had come from the barn carrying a small pail. She had seen him, but before she could scream and alert anyone inside the house, Bonner had pulled out the knife that he had taken from the man at the Hayes jail and hidden. Jerking the little blonde backwards by the hair, he had slit her throat before she could utter a sound. Then dropping her like an empty sack, Bonner jumped on the horse, bareback, and was gone.

He had learned well from his white father who had abandoned Jude's mother, only to lead the U. S. Calvary back later to slaughter her and her people. That probably would have included Jude and Virgil, too, if Jude hadn't wanted to go hunting that morning with Virg tagging along.

The boys had hidden and watched while their father hung back as soldiers rode through the peaceful Cheyenne village destroying every living thing they could find. His father didn't even ride through after it was over to see if his own sons were alive or dead, or even there, but instead, he turned and rode away with the boys in blue, proud defenders of the United States of America from Indian women and children.

After the last of the riders had gone, the boys ran back to the village. Every person that had been there when they had gone was either dead or dying. Moving through the burning tepees and bodies, they finally found their mother, Bright Star, dead.

Still young and pretty, she looked like she was sleeping if you covered up the slash that disemboweled her. She looked almost serene, her fingers laced together as if holding in her intestines. The blood and gore that had leaked between her fingers looked black and thick. The smell was nauseating.

The boys wrapped their mother in a blanket and placing her on a makeshift travois, then they dragged her down to the riverbank. Although it was nearly dark, Jude and Virgil, who was only eight years old, cleaned her up using river water and pieces of her dress.

Taking the blanket, Jude wrapped her tightly, taking care to free her hair. They lay her beside them and slept on the riverbank til dawn.

At daybreak, the boys built a pyre using refuse from the camp, and carrying their mother, they lay her on it and set it ablaze.

They watched until the fire was gone, leaving nothing but ashes. Jude picked up a handful, and placed them into a little drawstring bag. Taking the crying Virgil along, Jude hunted and finally found an Indian pony up a little canyon nearby. Jude picked up Virg to put him on the horse, but not before wiping the dirty tear streaks from underneath his dark eyes. Together, the Bonner boys rode out of the ruins of their home.

He had learned everything he needed to know about killing from the white man. His inventiveness with it he attributed to his Cheyenne blood, never understanding that the Cheyenne were a peaceful people. Jude was so filled with hate and vengeance that there was no room for any other emotion.

Bonner knew he was over a day's ride to Dodge City. A few more hours and Dillon and the redhead would be right in his grasp. This time he wouldn't fail in what he set out to do. His eyes fairly burned with intensity and his ache for revenge was almost arousing, though he wouldn't have understood why. Just a little time, that's all he needed.

So far he had managed to outrun anybody that might be behind him, but he knew that the law and, especially, Dillon knew where he was headed.

Hell, that's what made it fun, he thought. They must be gettin' pretty nervous about now. By this time tomorrow, that lawman's heart would either be broken or stilled. Better in that order. He would kill the woman and then kill the Marshal; he wanted Dillon to watch her die, feeling every pain that she felt, every humiliation.

Bonner had already decided that if caught, he'd rather die by the gun than by the noose, so he really didn't have a damn thing to lose by running dangerously and hard. Bonner knew this was his one chance to get Dillon and he wasn't about to lose it.

X************************************************* *****************X

Matt and Kitty had lots of room to themselves if they wanted it. The train was nowhere near full. Most people knew that train travel in the hot summer was something to be avoided if at all possible. The hot Kansas sun beat down unmercifully on the dark colored train cars.

They sat in seats across from each other, mostly from the heat. Over the years, they had developed a long time habit of wanting to sit together, touching lightly, but right now they were both just quiet and separate, thinking very different thoughts.

The entire town, excluding Doc Adams, Festus and Newly, had been caught off guard when Matt disappeared, taking Kitty and leaving Dodge. This time other lawmen, big time guns, were after Jude Bonner, as well, and Dillon had one person that he would not let down—again.

Matt had bundled Kitty up the night that Bonner had escaped and without a word to anyone but their closest friends, they changed trains at a lonely outpost where few ever frequented.

Matt had removed his badge and had taken a rare leave of absence. The governor was not pleased but he understood and helped put the gears swiftly into motion.

Another marshal would be in Dodge by tomorrow afternoon to help Festus and Newly. His town was taken care of and the citizens were ready for who was coming. Jude would not find the sheep he had before.

Kitty had removed her hat and the light jacket that covered the blouse she wore and lay them down on the empty seat next to her. She looked at Matt; he was looking out the window, a thousand miles away. Kitty wanted to say something, but there was nothing to say at this point. She knew they were going to Denver, and that was enough. Lord, just two weeks ago, she would have wanted to know every detail. Now, the idea just tired her.

Kitty felt better physically, and that did help, but she didn't feel like challenging anything or anyone. Whatever Matt said was fine. She was just leaning on him, following along, and that should have bothered her, but right now it didn't. She just wanted away from Dodge, Jude Bonner, everything.

She felt dirty, even though she knew it wasn't her fault, what had happened. Doc had sensed how she felt somehow and tried to talk to her, but she shut him out. She wasn't ready. She didn't know if she would ever be ready to talk about it. She knew Matt wanted to know what happened and share her pain, wanted her to be able to get over it, blamed himself. Kitty was afraid if she let the hurt out, he would be hurt more thinking that he caused it. All she could say were platitudes, putting him off, not trusting herself to speak of it without going to pieces.

As if sensing that he was on her mind, Matt Dillon turned to look at her. She smiled slightly, as if embarrassed at being caught watching him. Her behavior these days wasn't what it used to be. She seemed more breakable. Kitty's face was a little shiny from sweat, and he watched a little rivulet of perspiration travel down the side of her neck, across her chest and down into her cleavage. Matt stopped that thought instantly. All he could think about since it happened was her being hurt. Right after her injuries, when they were lift threatening, all he could think of was her survival. Now that she was healthier, Matt didn't know what to do to help her over the other injuries, the ones inside. It wasn't his way, or any man's, he thought, to push into a woman's thoughts. Not unless he was wanting real trouble. But in this case, he felt Kitty was keeping all that hurt and anger inside, and it couldn't be good for her.

The only times he had touched her since it had happened had been in Doc's office and then holding her briefly in her room, when she asked him to. Matt was hesitant to touch her, didn't know how she'd feel about it. He wanted to gather her up in his arms, but was afraid of being too overwhelming. He had seen women hurt by men before and the reactions were always different. He had always been able to read Kitty and talk to her in any situation, but now, she was so closed off. Matt wasn't sure what to do to help her, but he knew he placed her life above his own.

Kitty had always told him that he had saved her life by giving her someone to live for, a man noble and full of integrity. In truth, Kitty had saved his life. There was something beyond the letter of the law. A flesh and blood woman full of love, patience, and independence sat across from him representing all he held dear.

Chapter 9

Denver

It was after midnight when the train pulled into Denver station. Kitty Russell and Marshall Matt Dillon were tired from sitting for so long and ready to exit the car when it finally pulled to a stop at the depot. Denver still hadn't shut its doors by any means and was bustling with activity. Kitty suggested a hotel for the night and, after collecting what few bags they had with them, he didn't have any trouble finding and hiring a small carriage to take them there.

They had been in Denver, Colorado, a couple of times before. Once they had been there with Doc, Newly, and Festus when Matt had been shot in the back. Doc Adams had brought Dillon to see a specialist, and that trip had obviously ended successfully. Marshall Dillon had every intention of seeing this trip end as well as that one had.

At the front desk, Matt Dillon addressed the concierge, "We need a room please."

The tall, skinny man behind the large desk at checked his register. "Yes. One with a tub bath, alright? Sign here, please." Motioning to a lad of about fourteen years old, the desk clerk told the boy the room numbers, handed Matt the key, and hurriedly turned to deal with other late customers who had come in behind them.

Their room was on the third floor of the hotel, and by the time they reached the second landing, Kitty was struggling. Unused to heavy physical activity, she was soon out of breath and could feel a pull in the side where she had been shot.

"Wait up, here a minute," Matt said to the teenager. "Kitty, are you all right" he asked solicitously.

"Fine," she panted, just give me second. She was clutching her side where there was a dull ache. Her pale skin was flushed from exertion. "I can make it if we don't go quite so fast. Too bad this place doesn't have one of those newfangled contraptions that takes people to upper floors without their having to climb the stairs."

Beginning again and going at a much slower pace, the trio finally reached the third floor. Worn out, Kitty went on ahead into their room. Matt Dillon, standing outside the door, looked down at the boy. "What's your name, son?" he asked, as he tipped the youngster.

"Tim McCoy," the boy answered. "I've been working here for almost a year now," he said proudly.

"I could use some help if you want to earn a little extra money, Tim," Matt stated.

"I could always use that, sir," Tim said eagerly. "What do you need? I'll be happy to go get you a bottle or something for the lady."

"Thanks, Tim. Where's the most reasonable and honest place to get some horses?"

Squinting his eyes as he thought for minute, Tim answered, "That'd be Miz Brown's. She's knowed for bein' honest and havin' dependable horses and mules." Tim attested to the truth of his statement by nodding his head vigorously. "I'll be here in the mornin' if you want me to take you over there, mister."

Matt smiled at the boy's eagerness, "I'd appreciate that. See you in the morning then, and let's keep this between us."

"Yes, sir, no problem. Good night, sir, to you and the lady." Tim hurried back down the stairs to the front desk.

Matt entered his room slowly; he could hear Kitty bustling around in the tub room. After he placed his small bag down on the bed and taking hers with him, Matt knocked softly on the door separating the two rooms.

"Come in," Kitty called. Matt opened the door, slowly, as Kitty was testing the water in the tub bath. Her eyes reflected the exhaustion she felt in every muscle of her body.

"You know I could get used to this indoor water closet business," she smiled tiredly.

Matt eyed the tub, "I have your bags. Anything you need?" he asked. "Back washed, for instance?" he asked. His eyes had a faint mischievous glint, although he already knew the answer to his question.

"I think I can manage, Cowboy, but I'll call you if I need anything else," she smiled back. "I'm pretty beat. I'll be out as soon as I get some of this dirt and grime off and then you can, too."

"Uh, is that hint? Am I that high smelling?"

Kitty just widened her blue eyes innocently and made an exaggerated expression with her mouth.

"I'll be waiting," he said.

The scream pierced into his heart like a sharp Bowie knife. Matt Dillon reached for his Colt .45 from the night stand. No one there; it was one of Kitty's worst nightmares. She was screaming wildly and fighting in her sleep against a devil that had no tangible substance.

"Kitty! Kitty, wake up!" Matt grabbed her arms, and she awoke with a sob.

"Matt! Oh, Matt. It was him. It was Bonner. Oh, God!" she cried out into his shoulder.

Within a few minutes there was a fierce pounding on the door to her room. "Ma'am, is everything all right? Ma'am!"

Matt lay Kitty gently back down onto the bed. She curled on her side, crying. He got up and opened the door. The night clerk from earlier looked more irritated than concerned. "Sir, is everything all right? We have other guests, you know." The skinny clerk's mouth was pinched tightly, "I assume all is well?" Matt doubted that the clerk cared if "all was well, just as long as his other guests weren't complaining.

"Everything is fine," Matt answered him in a brusque, brook-no-fools voice. "Thank you for your concern." And he closed the door, unwilling to answer more of the man's questions.

Crossing back to the bed, Matt sat down beside Kitty on the bed and brushed the hair back from her face. Pieces of red hair lay matted against her cheeks where tears had caused the hair to stick. He got up and walked around to the other side of the bed. Crawling in beside her, Matt wrapped his arms around her. Kitty turned to face him, molding to his chest.

"Don't let him back in tonight, please," she asked. "Not tonight."

Matt didn't need to ask who the "he" was and pulled her in even tighter. Soon, her breathing was regular again. Matt lay awake for at least an hour after she fell asleep. Nothing but horrible thoughts raced through his mind. Although he knew Bonner had done the hurting, Matt Dillon blamed himself for putting her in danger. He told himself years ago that he would never marry to prevent this type of hurt to someone he loved. It had happened anyway, so what good had it done to keep her at arm's length, marriage-wise, he wondered.

Loving anyone in his line of work was dangerous, and he surely had learned that the innocent were usually the ones to suffer the most. When things were safer, he could explain, again, how things were with him being a lawman. Maybe they should stay apart for her sake. It was surely the safest thing to do for her, he thought. It would hurt them both, but it was for the best.

While trying to convince himself of the rightness of this course of action, Matt breathed in the scent of her, felt her softness against him, and slept like a log for the rest of the night.

When Kitty awoke the next morning, she immediately felt something was off center. Matt. She rolled over; he was probably already out and gone. Clutching the pillow next to her, Kitty breathed in the smell on the cloth cover and remembered how protected that she had felt during the night, the reassurance of his rescuing her from her fight with the devils in the darkness. Her dream came back in bits and pieces of images and emotions. Now it was daylight, though, and the smell of the pillow comforted her. Her sleep had been so broken for the last weeks that Kitty never felt she had really rested when she woke up.

Rolling back over, she called his name, "Matt." No movement in the water closet and no responding voice was her answer; he had gone out.

Still tired, Kitty closed her eyes to lie there a little longer. Pulling the well-worn quilt back up around her shoulders, she snuggled down into the pillow with Matt's smell, and in minutes, she had fallen back asleep.

By 10:00 am, Matt, with Tim's help, had two horses and a mule loaded down with supplies. Mrs. Brown was as hard as nails when it came to driving a bargain, but she was honest and fair, as Tim had promised.

Matt left the horses and mule as near to the front of the hotel as possible. Leaving young master Tim to keep an eye on their provisions, he went upstairs to fetch Kitty.

Kitty was packed and ready to go. Matt helped her with her bags. She was dressed in a dark green traveling skirt and plain white blouse. No fancy hat or curls for adornment today, instead her long luxurious red hair was up in a simple French twist. Kitty held a wide-brimmed straw hat with a green ribbon for keeping the sun off her head. Where she had managed to find that, Matt couldn't fathom. One of the nearby shops. Shopping. It made him shudder. He had to admit that she did look beautiful, and that made him smile.

When she stepped outside, Kitty noticed the sun was shining and the air was fresh. Trouble seemed very far away. Feeling more rested for the first time in recent memory, she was in pretty good spirits.

"Good-bye, Tim, and thanks for all your help, son," Matt said to the young man after he had helped Kitty onto her horse. "I think that these animals are some of the best I've seen. They should do fine." Matt reached to shake his hand.

"You're welcome, mister. I'll see you when you get back," Tim called as they drove away. The young man watched them as they drove out of sight down the busy street.

The streets were busy with traffic, human, animal and wheeled. It was a neat piece of work navigating through all the activity. Once out of town, however, it was more peaceful and the surrounding countryside was lovely.

"How long do you think it will take us to get to the cabin," Kitty asked. She had tied the green ribbon under her chin to hold on the straw bonnet, and the breeze was blowing the loose ends over her shoulders. Her blue eyes looked alert and clear and Matt felt his heart lighten at how much better she looked than when they had left Dodge City.

"Kitty, I don't rightly know. I've never been there, but I've got pretty good directions and a trusty navigator" he smiled at her, "so I don't think we'll have much trouble finding it. Now how long it will take is another story," Matt said.

"Well, just remember, Cowboy, this behind isn't used to long horseback rides so we might have to make some rest stops along the way," she said, smiling up at him.

By noon, Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell were well out of the influence of Denver's city life and passed fewer and fewer people and wagons as they traveled higher, getting closer to the mountains. They stopped briefly to water and rest the animals and eat a small meal themselves, then continued on.

By dusk, Matt decided they'd best make camp. He had been on the lookout for a likely spot for a several miles, and soon, he located what he had been searching for. "This looks like a pretty good place to spend the night," he stated and turned his horse and led the mule into a small grove of trees, then turned them down a small hill near a creek.

He pulled to a stop, stepped down and went around to help Kitty down. Her side was pretty much healed up, but he didn't want to take any chances on pulling or tugging at the wound. Once she was on the ground, Kitty stretched and began to work the kinks out of her lower back.

"I had forgotten just how damn hard it is to ride that long," she said, grimacing. "And, boy, am I glad to stop for a while." She smiled at him, "Remember the offer you made me last night for a back wash? How about a back rub instead?"

"My pleasure, but let's make camp first," he said, smiling back and looking a little stiff in the back himself, "So we can build a fire and get some coffee going."

"Amen," Kitty said, already walking around to one of the mule's pack to remove the necessary items. Matt began to gather wood for the night's fire. Their campsite would be hard to make out from the road, even after dark. Although it was almost impossible for anyone to be following them already, he didn't rule out anything.

In a short time, they had their coffee to enjoy with their cold chicken and bread. "Not bad considering the circumstances," Matt commented, as he finished the last of the chicken.

"Thank you, I am in the hospitality business," Kitty said wryly. "Though, I think I am going to miss that soft Denver bed tonight." She began to undo a bedroll from where Matt had left them earlier near the fire.

"Now if you were Festus, I would tease you about being 'soft'. Maybe you should sleep out on the prairie more. Spend more time sleeping out under the stars," he teased.

Sitting down on the still folded bedroll, she gave him a little come hither smile, "Is that an offer, Cowboy?"

"It may be. Maybe when we get back to Dodge, we'll have to see about taking more time to do that," he said, turning more serious now. "Something, I should have done before now, taking you away more often." His handsome face looked gentle and almost hurt in the soft light, as he remembered that he had thought of sending her away. Could he?

"I'd like that, too," she said, softly, looking at him across the firelight. They were silent, looking at each other. Years of special times and special times missed lay bare before them. Kitty spoke first, "Right now, let's make these as comfortable as possible," patting the bedroll.

Matt rose to help her, taking the corners of the covers and spreading them out.

"Anybody traveling along the road might be attracted by the fire, so I thought we'd dampen it down for the night. No sense inviting strangers," he said.

With their bed made, Kitty sat down on the blankets and began to undo her hair, while Matt checked their rides one last time for the night. She ran her fingers through the thick waves and placed the pins carefully on a flat stone nearby. Placing her shoes next to her, she lay down and stretched out on her side, tired to the bone. But it was a good tired. She was too tired to think too much.

Matt walked back into the circle of firelight and started to bank down the fire. Glancing around into the darkness one last time, Matt sat down next to Kitty on their makeshift bed. He removed his boots, and placed his gun belt above his head, well within reach if needed. Turning to her, he placed his hand on the back of her shoulder and gently rubbed the muscle there. "Kitty," he whispered. She was already asleep.

Sighing, Matt rolled back over onto his back and closed his eyes, but the thoughts running through his mind were like a stampede, even though his body was fairly worn out.

Kitty. Festus and Dodge. Bonner. It didn't help that he listened to every sound the wind made or to every broken branch that an animal snapped in the darkness. Years of experience in bringing prisoners back alone finally took over, and he slept lightly, still alert to any possible threat of danger.

By the third morning, Matt felt they were finally getting close to where they were headed, at least as he could best recollect the directions when a shout off to his right suddenly startled him.

"Matt Dillon! You there!" A man was perched on a rock outcropping above them, holding a rifle in his hands. Dillon instinctively reached for his gun.

"It's about time, you old fat law dog!" the man jumped down and began coming toward them. Matt slid the gun back into his holster and pulled to a stop. He jumped down and looped the reins back over the saddle horn.

"Frank. Good to see you," Matt exclaimed, clasping his old friend's arm. Upon releasing Dillon, Reardon walked to Kitty's side.

"Good to see you again, Kitty. You're looking fine," he said, taking off his hat.

"Well, I had just about given up on ever seeing you again. How have you been Frank?" Kitty asked warmly.

"Hale and hearty. Let me get my horse and you can follow me up to the old cabin." Turning once again to Dillon, he said, "Damn, man, it's good to see you." Scrambling back up the hill into the woods, he soon reappeared leading his horse down to where they were waiting.

X************************************************* *************************X

"It isn't much; nobody's lived here in quite a spell," Frank Reardon said. He opened the door to the old cabin that he had once shared with his wife, Maria, and walked inside. Matt and Kitty followed.

Reardon was right; the cabin wasn't much. A large room with remnants of furniture scattered about. The one attractive feature was a fireplace made from river rocks that took up almost one side of the cabin itself.

"It's still solid and nothing lives in here, leastways that I know of," Reardon made this last comment a little hesitantly. He bent down to pick up a chair that lay on its side. "The roof's good and the creek's close by."

"It'll do just fine, Frank. I appreciate the help," Matt said. He stole a look at Kitty to judge her reaction, but she was keeping any observations to herself.

"Let me help you carry in some of your supplies, Matt." Reardon turned to go back out the door, leaving the two of them alone.

Kitty turned to Matt before he could speak. "It will be fine. We're not going to be here that long and I'm sure with some straightening up...Go on, help Frank," she touched his chest lightly, pushing him out the door.

"Yes, Ma'am." Matt turned and went back out to where Reardon was already unloading supplies.

Frank set a box down on ground and reached up for another to stack on top of it. He eyed his old friend curiously.

"Matt, I know this is beautiful country and all, but it isn't exactly a prime vacation spot for taking a beautiful town woman. You going to tell me the real reason you was in such an all fired hurry to get up here—and with Kitty to boot. The message you sent just said something about needing to get out of Dodge for a while. I know there's more to it than that. I know you, Matt Dillon," Reardon finished, and he looked Dillon in the eyes waiting for an answer.

Matt paused when he pulled the last of the stuff from the mule and he rested against the warm beast. "There's a man on our trail. He'll show up here eventually, I expect, unless he's killed before he gets a chance. A murderer of the worst kind, name of Jude Bonner. He's already hurt Kitty—bad. He won't be satisfied tile he gets one, or, probably, both of us. If you want to take off, I'll understand and I won't hold it against you, Frank."

Frank looked down at the dirt that lay beneath his boots for a minute or so before he spoke again. "I buried Maria in this here ground because of men like this Bonner who liked to hurt women. My beautiful, sweet Maria never had a mean bone in her body nor ever said a mean word to anybody, and yet she was murdered. Maybe not outright, but same as. I know Kitty Russell. She's a good woman, Matt, and she loves you something' fierce. And, though, you'd never say it, you adore that woman."

Frank looked back up at Matt with moist eyes. "When I was dying inside after losing Maria, both of you stood by me and kept me from killing', both myself and others. I'm with you all the way, Matt; you know it already or you wouldn't have come."

XXXX_XXX

Right before sundown, Frank Reardon took off up and across the mountain behind them to his new cabin. Before he left, he told Matt and Kitty if they needed him to fire off a few rounds in close succession. He'd hear and come a running'. Matt assured him that he thought they'd be safe for the night, and then he sent Reardon on his way with much thanks.

Matt had built a good fire to warm up the cabin and help drive out the damp, and, after only a few dozen sweeps of an old broom that Reardon had found, the room finally cleaned up pretty well. A table and a couple of chairs were salvageable, along with a bed made from strong pine logs and strips of hide that were amazingly intact.

Kitty took great care in having Matt inspect every inch of it for any type of insect or other vermin that might have decided the bed looked pretty good to them, too. He assured her at least three times that it was vermin free before she would even attempt to put the bedclothes on it.

After getting ready for bed herself, she again peeked under the covers suspiciously for any lurking creatures and shook out the blankets that she had put to together for pillows one last time. Matt watched her with an amused expression on his face, which he kept hidden behind his hand for a while. "Kitty, for Pete's sake, you want me to get in first and check it out?" he asked.

"No!" She hesitated and using her most coy expression added, "Would you, please?" She laughed out loud.

Rolling his eyes slightly, but smiling openly, he flipped the covers back, crawled in, and lay back with an audible sigh. "Feels fine, much better than the hard ground. Give it try?"

Suddenly he grabbed his leg and yelled out, "What the….!"

Kitty didn't know whether to run to him or away from whatever was in that bed. Her blue eyes were huge. As she approached the bed, Matt threw the covers back and yelled, "Gotcha!"

His red headed lady narrowed her eyes and yelled, "Oh, you! Fine, I'll just sleep out here, on the hearth."

Matt elevated his eyebrows at her and looked in mock horror around the cabin.

She laughed, "Scoot over."

Kitty turned to trim the wick in the oil lamp, clad in a white cotton gown. Surreptitiously she checked the door out of the corner of her eye; it was barred by a thick wooden beam.

"Let me over," she said as she gracefully moved in behind him. She lay down next

to him, molding herself to his body.

"This was your plan all along wasn't it?" Matt teased. "I can understand that, a tall good-looking man like me..."

"Oh, you are unbelievable!" She made as if to turn away from him in mock disgust,

but he stopped her.

"Whoa, now," he pulled her close. She relented and lay soft and pliable against him.

"Good night, Matt," she whispered. "Thank you for bringing me here."

He turned on his side to face her and she snuggled into his big chest with his arms

wrapped around her. Her pale skin soft under his rough hands.

"Good night, Kitty," he whispered back into her hair, and with Reardon's reassurances echoing in his head, he found sleep much easier.

Before daybreak, Matt Dillon awoke. Rolling over gently away from Kitty, he eased out of bed, found his clothes, and started up a fire to warm the leftover coffee from the evening before. He sat down on the hearth and pulled on his boots while waiting for the coffee to heat.

Kitty rolled over in the bed and looked at him sleepily, "Where are you going so early, Cowboy?" Her hair was tousled and with no makeup on, she looked younger and more vulnerable. Freckles peppered across her nose and chest from the sunshine.

Matt thought that he would much rather crawl back in with her than meet Reardon this morning.

"I thought I'd go hunting this morning and show Frank a trick or two. You up for a morning trip?" he asked, already knowing the answer. Kitty considered this time of the morning the middle of the night.

"Wake me up when you bring home your trophy," she said, pulling the covers up higher.

"I will." Matt looked back at her for a minute before he shut the door behind him.

Two minutes later, Kitty got up to bar the door before she could go back to sleep.

"Take the shot, Matt," Frank whispered fiercely. The two men were lying atop an outcropping watching a herd of deer down below. Matt squeezed off a shot, and below them, a large buck fell. The herd scattered.

"Good shootin! Let's go git 'im," Frank grabbed his rifle and jumped down off the rock, followed by Dillon. "Damn, that's a beauty!"

"Thanks," Matt bent down to start butchering the animal. It was way too large to haul intact back on the mule. "This ought to keep us fed for a while. Hopefully, longer than we'll be here."

"Well, now, I kindly take offense to that. You don't like my company, Matt," Frank asked, helping him with his cutting up of the buck.

"You know better than that. I just don't want to put Kitty through the waiting any longer than she has to be. This has been awful hard on her," Matt took a minute to wipe the perspiration from his forehead with his shirt sleeve.

"Not just on her. You, too?" Frank peered at him intently.

"I guess you deserve to know what to expect, since you're backin' my play here."

Frank Reardon said nothing. He wiped his knife on the grass to clear some of the gore from it.

"Kitty was hurt because I brought in the brother of a murderer. Hell, he was a murderer, too, but the brother took it hard when he was hanged. He took her to make me pay, to make me feel the loss that he felt, or so he claimed. And for revenge, of course." Matt went back to his cutting, continuing his story, not looking at Frank.

"Now he's escaped and looking to finish what he started, like I told you before. I couldn't let Kitty wait for him to come to Dodge. But I knew he'd come no matter where we were. So...here we are, waiting anyway, but at least he won't be familiar with the land or know about you. I'm hoping that will give me an advantage," Matt finished.

Frank looked at his friend, thinking that was he was leaving out must be worse than awful. "I think we should set a few traps to alert us when he gets near here. I have a few friends scattered about; we won't get 'em involved," he answered when Matt started to interrupt, "We'll just have them git word to us. I know you don't hold with settin' up on a man, Matt, but this scum don't deserve any fair call out, and you recognize him for the mad dog that he is, too, cause it ain't in your nature to go to ground. You can't afford to take any more chances—not with Kitty here.

Matt stopped his dressing out of the deer and moved away to sit down for a few minutes. "All right. That's a good idea, and I appreciate the help, Frank."

"No need, Matt," Frank grinned at Matt, "Let's git this done and git back to that woman of you'rn. I hadn't had a woman's cooking in a long time, nor a woman's company. I'm kinda anxious to hear some of yours and Kitty's stories about Dodge."

They packed the meat on the mule and mounted up to go. Starting back across the ridge towards Reardon's old cabin, Frank led the way and Matt followed, leading the mule. Halfway up the ridge, there was a sudden crack from above.

Matt looked up. "Frank, move!" Not waiting around to question why, Frank kicked his gelding, spurring it on up the trail, with Matt hurrying closely behind him.

They stopped at the crest of the hill and looked back. A slide of rocks had rained down on the spot where they had been.

"Damn, Matt, that was close!" Frank exclaimed, still a little breathless.

"Too damn close," Matt replied, looking up above where the rock slide had begun.

"You see something?" Frank asked.

"No." He hesitated before speaking. "I just don't believe in coincidences like that."

"Couldn't be your man Bonner already, could it?"

"I don't see how," Matt continued to study the hillside. Still, something didn't feel right. "Let's get this meat back."

Chapter 10: Waiting

It had been almost a week since Matt and Kitty had left Dodge. There had been no sign of Jude Bonner and the general population wondered if he had decided to head to Mexico after all.

Everyone except Doc Adams, Festus, and Newly. Even the marshal sent to fill in for Matt was beginning to have his doubts, but he was assigned to Dodge until the Governor of Kansas told him otherwise, so he stayed.

It was another dry, dusty night and Festus had made arrangements to meet Doc at the Long Branch for a beer around nine that evening. The Arkansan was headed there when he heard glass breaking around the back of Jonas' General Store. Glancing around, there weren't many people visible, but Festus senses went on alert.

Turning back and easing through the fence between Doc's office above the store and the Long Branch, he was unusually quiet for someone who wore the incredible spurs that he did. Festus cocked his .45 and eased around to the back of the mercantile. A mangy cat sat atop a barrel outside the door eating what appeared in the dark to be an egg broken into a chipped cup. The deputy marshal eased back on the trigger and took a relieved breath. Maybe that devil Bonner had indeed headed to Mexico. Personally, Festus hoped he hadn't; he'd just soon deal with him now so that Matthew and Miss Kitty wouldn't have any more problems with him.

Shaking his head at the cat for spooking him, he turned to head over to the saloon and Doc. He saw nothing when the long knife plunged into his right side, piercing the flesh from back to front.

Pain brought the deputy to his knees and when he opened his eyes, Jude Bonner was kneeling in front of him with a leer on his face.

"Deputy Whiskers."

"Bonner. You piece of-."

"Now, Whiskers, I don't think you got time to be getting into windy discussions; that there is a hellava lot of blood running out."

Festus did not take his eyes from the man in front of him, neither did he display any fear.

"Tell me, Whiskers, I've looked and asked and they ain't here. Where's the redhead and Dillon?"

"I ain't ah gonna tell you-his speech was cut off as Bonner twisted the knife into the flesh in which it was buried. At that point Festus did cry out and fell forward into the dirt, unconscious but alive.

Bonner smiled, satisfied, worked the blade out, and wiped it on the deputy's pants to clean the blood off then he took a lantern full of kerosene and lit it.

Walking down to the opposite end of the store, he smashed it against the shed, instantly setting it afire.

Moving quickly, he walked behind the Long Branch and when he came out the other side, the alley was empty.

It wasn't long before someone spotted the flames. Men came pouring from the Long Branch, soon they found Festus, and the brave men of the Dodge City Fire Brigade had it under control within a couple of hours.

Bonner watched the lawman being taken up to the doc's office. And waited.

M&KXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXM&K

After supper, Frank Reardon left Matt and Kitty alone to return to his cabin high on the ridge overlooking the river. They were stuffed with good food and Kitty was feeling more secure than she had in weeks. She was actually enjoying being up here away from Dodge for a while. It was rough going and there were none of the conveniences that she was used to, like her tub bath, but there was compensation. Like uninterrupted time with Matt. There were no drunks, gunfighters, long jury trials or unexpected visitors. In short, it was just what she needed to recuperate and get back to her old fighting strength.

Matt hadn't seen her look this relaxed in a while. He watched while she cleaned up from supper; her eyes had almost lost the hunted look and the tension lines in her face were far fewer.

He realized that she looked as beautiful as he had ever seen her.

It was hard to picture Kitty away from The Long Branch, the two of them together were legendary, but seeing her here was pleasant and not a little unnerving. He wondered if he might actually get used to the two of them being here away from Dodge. Matt had thought of taking his badge off permanently a few times, but he could never really picture the two of them tucked away on some farm or mountain—until now. "Would it really be possible to outrun all the outlaws and gunfighters who might come after them?" he asked himself, then the specter of the promise he had made to himself about keeping her safe and what that would take made his chest ache.

Kitty finished her cleaning and turned her attentions to Matt. "How about a breath of fresh air before we turn in?" she asked him.

"Sounds good to me," Matt answered, holding open the door for her to go through first.

The evening was clear with stars abundantly visible throughout the night sky. The smell of pine and the sound of the creek came untainted upon their senses as they settled outside on the bench that Reardon had once carved so lovingly for his now dead wife. The temperature had dropped with the setting sun and Kitty shivered.

"Here," Matt said placing his long arm around her shoulders and pulling her up tightly against him.

"Hmm," was her only response as she snuggled in for his body warmth. They sat for perhaps twenty minutes before either of them spoke again, enjoying a companionable silence. Kitty placed her hand on his chest and rubbed the worn cotton of his shirt. The material was soft under her fingers; the color hard to distinguish in the dark evening. Matt's familiar smell came to her, and she suddenly decided that it had been long enough to be without his attentions. Reaching up with her hand, Kitty turned his face toward hers and kissed him softly, then forcefully, leaving no doubt as to her intentions.

Surprised, Matt gently kissed back. She took him by the hand and led him into the cabin. He latched the door closed behind them and they crossed to the old bed. He waited for her to make the next move to make sure she was ready and to let him know how just how far she really wanted to take this. He didn't have to wait long.

Kitty began unbuttoning the front of the dress she had on. When she got below the waistline, she let it slip to the floor. Matt reached out and took the straps from her chemise and peeled them off her shoulders and kissed softly down into her cleavage.

Groaning, she began to help him take off his own clothes, and in a minute, the two were on the bed. Kitty's hair fell into a fiery cascade as Matt pulled her on top of him. The firelight cast just enough light to see into each other's eyes, and they both realized the importance of what they were about to do. He didn't want their first time together after the kidnapping to be anything reminiscent of her horrible ordeal. And it wasn't.

His rough hands were gentle as he brushed them through her hair, parting his fingers to allow the silky strands to run through his hands. Softly and slowly he pulled her to his side, her blue eyes were gleaming as she looked into his face. With so many men in the world what she had ever done, she wondered, to ever deserve this gentle giant of a man.

He kissed his forehead, her eyes, and her cheeks. Continuing with her hair, which felt like red golden silk, Matt brushed it back from her face then gathering it up, he held it to his nose and inhaled the fragrance. Sitting up, he took Kitty's hands, white with freckles, soft, and kissed the palm, then held it to his roughly bearded cheek.

"Kathleen Russell, I don't think I could tell you enough if I told you for the rest of my life that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever had the pleasure to behold. If I held with such things, things I've read about goddesses and such, I would believe you to be one. You have made my life," He lost his voice for a second as he watched tears trickle from Kitty's eyes. "When I said I couldn't live without you, I meant it. But in all the years I've known you, you've never pushed me to say what I was always so afraid to say because to say it makes it real. If I make it real, then I can lose it, lose you. I have been a fool, for all these years, a fool to think I could protect you by not declaring for you openly. The life you have lived just to be with me must have been….." Matt had to stop, to gather himself.

Pulling her close, he whispered, "Kathleen Russell, I love you with my life, my soul, and I would have given my life to spare you that awful day."

Kitty moved first, finding his lips with hers. God, she had missed him, his touch, their being together. Before their passion could override her senses, she pulled back from his and holding his face in her hands, she smiled at him, love, desire, and spirit filling her once again.

"Cowboy, you don't talk much, but when you do, you sure make it count."

A time later, they lay together spent. The room was lit from what was left of the logs in the fireplace. Matt eased up to reach outside the door for more wood to build up the fire for the night's duration. Sensing movement behind him, Matt turned. Kitty was sitting up on the bed. She had her back against the log walls, and her knees were pulled up to her chest; her eyes were closed.

He arranged the logs carefully on the burning embers so the warmth would last until morning. He turned around to find she still hadn't changed her position. Matt walked over to the bed, picked up the quilt and wrapped it around her, tucking it in behind her shoulders.

"You catch cold or a fever and Doc will have me drawn and quartered, you know that don't you?" Matt said softly. He still got no response. He moved back and sat down on the stone hearth. Feeling that maybe they had allowed things to go too far too soon, he started to speak, but Kitty stopped him.

"I need to tell you what happened," she whispered.

"But you don't have to, Kitty; you know that," he said softly, unsure from where this desire to talk had sprung suddenly.

She didn't look up, but began to speak quietly. "The rider that Bonner had sent out came back with the news. Told him what happened...that Virgil had been hanged. He came at me, dragged me out of the tent."

Kitty paused; it was as if she was describing someone else's experience. "He threw me down in the center of the Dog Soldiers. Slapped me down. I knew what was coming next. How a man thinks if he takes another's woman that it shames her man, makes him less of a man somehow." She closed her eyes tightly, forcing herself to go forward with her story.

"And it destroys part of the man who loves her," Matt thought, "just like it destroys part of the woman."

"He was crazy-like an animal. He grabbed me, pulled me by my hair. I was," she swallowed before going on, "in the middle of them. They pulled and tugged at my hair, my clothes, me." Kitty had to stop for a minute; tears began to course down her face.

"I was a piñata in their sick game. They pushed and shoved and groped, until Bonner had had enough. He hit me on the side of head. I couldn't see straight; everything was swimmy and blurry. I think I may have been crying or cussing—I don't remember exactly. He shoved me onto my back, there in the middle of the Dog Soldiers on the ground, pushed up my skirt while they cheered and made lewd comments about them being on Matt Dillon's trail now." Kitty stopped talking. Her head was hanging down, her hands rubbing over and over in her lap.

Matt wanted to take her hands. He couldn't. He simply could not move. My God, it was like watching it happen in front of him.

"He pushed up my skirt, ripped off my….undergarments. I tried to get up, but one of them kicked me in the side; that's probably what broke my ribs."

Shaking and pausing for another deep breath, she continued, nonetheless, "I couldn't tell which side was up and or down for a few minutes. He dropped his pants. The others help me down, open for him. I kept fighting. He...pushed me back down, under him, he touched me but... he couldn't do it. He just...couldn't do it."

Kitty looked up at Matt. Her eyes looked glazed in the low firelight. "I wanted to laugh. I wanted to laugh at the big man who wasn't man...who wasn't able to take...," she stopped.

Matt stared at her, incredulous, suddenly comprehending why Bonner hated her so badly. He turned away, unable to meet her eyes, feeling that this was his fault. He had caused this by not being able to cut her loose years ago. He stooped to pick up his pants and pulled them on. He then opened the door and stood there, allowing the cool of the evening to flow inside so he could breathe. The pain in the room was beginning to drown him.

"Everything just got quiet. I remember thinking that now that they would all rape me. I guess he didn't want to be shamed in front of his own men because," she took a big breath here, "he beat the living hell out of me instead. He allowed them to…touch me, toy and hurt me, but not…until he was tired of it or he thought I couldn't stand anymore and still ride to Dodge, and you know the rest of the story." Tears were coming slower now. Kitty felt strangely calm, almost numb.

She watched Matt's back, sorry that she had told him at all now. Kitty wanted him to say or do something, but he just stood there, his breath shallow and irregular.

He suddenly felt like he was smothering; he had to get outside. Grabbing his shirt, Matt picked up the water bucket and said, "I'll be back," and walked out into the darkness of the evening.

Kitty lay back on the bed, too emotionally drained to even cry.

Matt walked to creek and knelt down to fill the bucket. He felt his supper begin to come back up. Leaning over, he vomited up everything in his stomach and then continued to dry heave for a time afterwards. He had wanted to know, he told himself, to understand what Kitty was going through, had gone through, but now he understood clearly what men before him had endured, men whom he had instructed with moral certainty to let the law handle their problems and their hurts, the pain done to the women they loved. The LAW would be fair. The LAW would give them justice. The LAW would take away the pain and hurt and fear. Restore what had been lost. He had not been in their shoes til now. Now he knew their pain. Now he knew the LAW did not cover the losses and make everything right. His belief in the LAW had blinded him sometimes to others' pain. Now he understood their anger and anguish.

His initial gut reaction had been right; he should have smashed the son of a bitch's head. Sometimes the law just didn't cover the hurts.

A short while later, after filling the water bucket, he walked back up to the cabin. The door was still unlatched, as he had left it, but the lamp was turned as low as it could be without being extinguished. Matt set the water down on the floor inside the door and turned to the bed.

"Kitty," Matt softly spoke her name, if she was asleep, he didn't want to wake her.

He trimmed the lamp wick so that there was light to see by. Kitty lay curled in a semi-fetal position with her face to the wall. Matt sat down on the hearth and pulled off his boots. He rose and picked up the bottle of whiskey that the three had shared during dinner and he poured himself a glass. Sitting down on the hearth again, he watched the flames, but all he could see was Kitty in the midst of the Dog Soldiers.

Matt shook his head as though he could shake the ugliness of those terrible images out into the fire. But that was never going to happen; nothing would ever get those pictures out of his mind.

Kitty stirred in her sleep, and he set the glass down on the table as he moved to the bed.

"Matt?"

"I'm here, Kitty. It's all right." He sat down beside her. "It's all right, now.

"Are you feeling better now?" she asked.

"I will be." Matt swallowed. All thought of his previous ideas of pushing her away to protect her were gone, the idea that if he didn't marry her she would be safe, the idea that as long as she wasn't a "widow" he was doing the right thing.

"Kitty, when we get back...I'm... I'm going to make things right with us. I just want you to know that."

"Don't. No more promises." She was only half awake. "Not anymore."

That hurt him as much as anything. Had she lost faith in his promises? She knew he'd never give up his badge, but she still stayed with him. What did that say for her, he wondered; what did it say about him?

Chapter 11: Together

**This one might be a tad more "romantic" than the others, so...consider that. :)

Festus was sleeping. Laudanum would have him out for several hours, which was a good thing as far as Doc Adams was concerned. The knife wound probably would not kill Festus, if infection could be kept at bay, but the pain would be terrible.

Doc was finishing up his notes when Newly came up the steps to check on Festus' condition.

The light was dim, and Doc looked to Newly, as if he could keel over asleep right on his desk.

Knocking lightly, but not receiving a nod from the older man, Newly eased the door open and softly said his name.

Doc Adams raised his head sharply. "I'm sorry, Newly, I didn't hear you. Any news on Bonner?"

"No sir," Newly O'Brian removed his white Stetson. "If Festus hadn't come around, we might have never known it was him."

Doc ran his hand tiredly over his whiskery face. "At least we know he didn't get any information out of Festus, so he still doesn't know where Matt and Kitty are."

"Not at the moment, no. Doc, do you really think that he thought Festus would tell him?"

Doc Adams shook his head, "No, I don't. And it makes no sense for him to show his hand like this. Maybe he's hoping one of us will go to warn Matt and Kitty, then he could follow."

Newly twisted his lips as if he was thinking. "Maybe we should do that."

"What?!" Doc Adams exclaimed. "Are you out of your mind? You'd lead him right to Denver."

"I don't mean to head to Denver, Doc, but head south, and take him on a wild goose chase."

For the first time that night, the old man smiled, "That's a stellar idea, deputy. Stellar. And I'd get on that if I were you."

Newly smiled as he headed out the door.

Neither of them heard Bonner in the next room. So he wouldn't have to kill the old man, too, this was just as good, just like he'd planned. Denver.

Bonner's smile was cold as a snake's belly and his eyes just as warm. He slipped out the back and back into the Long Branch. Upstairs, he made himself comfortable in Kitty's rooms, where he had been sleeping for the past several days. The rooms were locked, and he had whiskey. An added bonus was that he fingered through her private things, looked at her jewelry, smelled her perfumes and dresses. When he lay down, he could not just smell her but a man on the bed.

Bonner smiled. He reached down to touch himself, imagining taking her while Dillon watched, helpless while the redhead screamed. He almost laughed aloud. Good times ahead.

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After their first night together had broken the tension between them, there was a palpable kind of freedom in the cabin. Although there had been no word from Festus or Dodge, Matt didn't let his guard down, but Kitty was definitely feeling better the more time passed.

Matt sat outside skinning a squirrel and a plucking a grouse that he had killed that morning. Kitty had taken to the domestic chores seamlessly. She had earlier taken what few belongings they had and washed them in the creek, always taking care with the bed when she remade it. Matt smiled. As fearless as Kitty could be he found it amusing that the same woman he had seen defend herself with nothing but her sharp tongue was petrified by spiders and such.

He was surprised that he hadn't known that about her. They had been "together" a long time, but he was seeing an entirely new side of her.

Matt was glad to see that she had enjoyed making the acquaintance of Frank Reardon's love interest. A young woman of mixed heritage with long dark hair and dark eyes, a little reminiscent of Maria, but neither of them remarked on the resemblance.

They had meet a few of the people scattered about the mountain, and they were scattered, but Frank Reardon was careful to conceal Matt's identity and yet introduce him as a friend who was to be welcomed into their far flung community.

Matt had finished with the animals and hung the pelts up to dry. Heading into the house, he found a large pot that Kitty had filled with water earlier and dropped the squirrel into it. She had already added wild onions and other mountain spices which Becca, Frank's woman, had helped her collect. Hanging it over the fire, he built up the coals to begin supper.

Hearing footsteps he turned to find Kitty carrying in the laundry that she had picked up drying outside.

He found the change in her nothing less than stunning. Her hair was no longer coiffed and curled, but was tied into a long braid at the back or up in a simple bun, as it was today. No make-up adorned that beautiful pale skin and her blue eyes were striking, the vitality and life in them undeniable. Freckles had started to spread along her chest and shoulders and had spread along her nose. If Matt hadn't known her age, he would have guessed much younger.

The smile she gave him was one of simple love, pure and unadulterated. The fear was not visible now, just joy at seeing him here with her.

Matt, however, had grown a rough beard, more than tinged with a tad of gray and his hair had grown out from under his hat when we wore it.

Taking the clothes from her, he placed them on the table, and she stopped to look up at him, out of breath from her climb up from the rocky creek.

The big man brushed a few errant strands of spun red-gold from her face, and taking her chin gently in his hand, he brushed his lips across hers. The fire in his groin grew. He found he liked having her all to himself and loving her any time he wanted. And right now—he wanted.

Reaching around to grab her off her feet, he dropped her unceremoniously on their bed. Taking off his shirt, boots, then finally his pants, he climbed in beside her.

"I'm a little overdressed, Cowboy, and, uh, don't you think you should shut the door?" She laughed.

"I intend to remedy the first problem, and as to the second, this is our home. We will do as we please, woman." Matt gave her the most unusual and beguiling smile, she'd ever gotten from him.

In no time flat, they were both undressed, and Matt was taking gently what he thought was his.

He entered her slowly, but easily, since she was more than ready for him. He cupped her full breasts in his large hands and devoured them like a man who has discovered water in the desert.

Wrapping her legs around him and pulling him in tight, his size filled her up completely, and she thought she was lost the moment he entered her, but his kisses on the side of her neck and chest were driving her mad with desire.

Abruptly, he pulled back and stared into her flushed face, lips full and her breath coming in gasps.

Still inside her, but grinding slowly, he licked his way across her breasts and up to her ears, into her hair. "Whose woman are you, Kitty Russell?" Matt's voice was husky and full of need.

"Yours, Matt Dillon. Always. Yours."

"Show me," he said, in a voice that came from deep in his soul.

So, she did.

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***Short chapter, but I needed me some M/K "love time." LOL!

Chapter 12: How I love you

Kitty awoke the next morning in the arms of a bear. She smiled; Matt was wrapped around her, arms and legs. His body heat was welcomed; the fire had died down during the night and the temperature had dropped as well. For the first time since they'd arrived, she could see her breath in the air when she tested the temperature in the room.

Wiggling around to face him, she lay her head on his muscular arm and scooted into his chest as tightly as possible. Neither of them had redressed after last night's lovemaking and she loved to feel his skin bare against hers.

At the Long Branch, they were rarely allowed the luxury of lying abed. Due to 'propriety', Matt always tried to leave before dawn unless it was not known that he was back in town yet. The harsh Kansas weather could sometimes be an ally. Terrible rainstorms and wind. Kitty enjoyed the winter, as bitter as it was, because unless it was someone or something terribly drastic, Matt was able to stay later. They would build up the fire and lie in bed and talk and talk.

It took Dodge longer to wake up and no one was in a hurry to head out into the windy, bitter cold and snow, not even for a beer, except for maybe Louie or other hard drinkers, and Sam would handle them at the door, like Sam ran interference with everything he could, without her knowing, to protect her. Sam loved Kitty in way that was difficult for even him to understand. She had given him a job, a home, a life where someone depended on him. In his heart, she was sister, daughter, saint; it was just hard to explain.

If Matt was needed, Festus knew where to find him. Festus didn't care for sleeping in the cells, so Matt's bed would be empty, and he didn't mind what Matt and Miss Kitty did with their time alone. He kept his own business; in Festus' mind, he considered them already as good as married.

Kitty's hands moved as if of their own accord, down his arms feeling the corded muscles there; across his shoulders where the indentations of bullets removed had left scars which would fade little. Her gentle fingers moved down over his hip closest to her, tight and hard. She couldn't help squeezing it somewhat, appreciating the firmness.

Meanwhile her breasts were moving across his chest with its golden red, now mixed with gray, hair. She ran her fingers through the tight curls. Even after all these years Kitty still felt his maleness move her, idly wondering if they had married, if that sexual need for him would have waned. But they had not, so she would never know.

Kitty Russell would without hesitation take a bullet, a knife, do whatever she must to save the life of the man in her bed. Her man. Not her husband, but the closest to one she had ever had—would ever have.

She felt her throat constrict and hot tears ran out of the corners of her eyes. How could he still want her? Why did he ever want her? This mountain of a man could have had any decent woman he wanted. The irony of what she had thought struck her. Was that it? A 'decent' woman wouldn't have been his woman for all these years without marriage. And marriage was not in the cards for Matthew Dillon. The pain in her heart almost took her breath away. No! Matt loved her. He had taken her away to keep her safe. He had taken his badge off only a few times and twice it had been for her. By God, that said something! These insecurities and doubts had assailed her since Bonner had taken her.

She knew he loved her and she adored him, but she would never watch Jude Bonner kill him, no matter what she had to do to stop him.

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Kitty set the bread down on the table and turned back for eggs that she had gotten from Becca the day before without noticing that Matt lay on his side watching her.

His sky blue eyes were intense. His body relaxed. How long could he watch until she noticed? Honestly, Matt thought he could watch her all day and not be tired of looking at her. She was perfect to him.

The first time they made love, he had thought she was everything physically a woman should be. Her laughing eyes, lovely skin, and unclothed, Matt found her to be little more than a slip of a thing. She probably didn't weigh ninety pounds soaking wet. It wasn't just her beauty that had captured him; Kitty Russell was the real deal. Brains, beauty, and more courage than he had seen some men exhibit in battle. He understood why she had done what she did to save the lives of the men Bonner had dragged into the Long Branch that night, not so long ago. Kitty Russell didn't run. She had sacrificed herself to save their lives. He respected that but he was also angry, deep down.

Never would he express this to her, but he wished she had been afraid. He was angry about the very thing he admired and loved about her. Matt knew it didn't make sense, but it was there. For once, he wished she had cut and run. Her strength was earned and ran deep in her Southern roots. She had been in New Orleans when it was captured by the Union Army.

Kitty hadn't told him much about it, but he had heard the stories. War brought out either the best or the worst in a man; it was like being drunk-a man's natural inclinations rose to the surface. She had survived, just a girl. Then striking out on her own and finally making her way to Dodge. That took guts.

That was a long time ago and a lot of history behind them. Together they had weathered things that most people would never have to experience. How many times had she seen him hurt, shot, knifed? Now he was on the other side of the fence, and he didn't care for it worth a damn.

He wouldn't hurt any less, if they were married, if she had died. It didn't lessen the pain of her being hurt by Bonner. Damn, was he that dense, he asked himself? Had he denied Kitty—and himself—a home and a family and all those years together, when if you truly loved someone, you hurt and it mangled your guts, married or not.

"Good morning, Cowboy." Her sexy voice broke his reverie. She sat down beside him and brushed an errant curl out of his eyes. "You are gettin' to be a real mountain man. If I don't cut that hair, you're goin' look like an Old Testament prophet pretty soon."

He watched her luscious mouth turn up on one side and her bright blue eyes captured his own.

"Well, ma'am, I'll be glad to let you cut anything you want."

"Anything?" she asked, giving him a wicked smile and raising an eyebrow.

Grabbing her by the shoulders, he pulled her over him back into the bed and kissed her until she pulled away to get her breath.

He smiled at her, eyes twinkling, "Almost anything."

Matt wrapped her in his arms, and they lay laughing and playing on the bed. Neither noticed the horses nickering outside.

Chapter 13: Worrying

Kitty was awakened by the sound of a slamming door. Rolling over, she felt the damp air that had come inside with Matt. He dropped an armload of logs on the hearth to build up the fire that had not been allowed to die since they'd been here. This was by far the coldest morning they'd experienced.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," Matt said, turning his head to smile at her.

"Oh, no! Is that snow on your coat?" Kitty asked, in horror.

"What's wrong? You act like you've never seen it before. I'd think by now, you'd be used to it, living in Dodge."

"Living in Dodge is one thing; being up here, in the mountains, in a snowstorm, is another altogether. I've heard the stories of being snowed in up here for months at a time." She shivered.

Matt finished arranging the logs and poured a cup of coffee for the woman on the bed which he then handed to her. Then he pulled a chair over toward the fireplace and hung his coat on the back towards the fire.

"Well, I don't know about you, but I slept like a log last night," the big man said, leaning his elbows on his knees, his ruggedly handsome face relaxed.

"So did I, Cowboy, and good coffee by the way," she raised the cup in appreciation. "Now tell me that we're not going to turn out like the 'Donner Party,' and I'll enjoy it more," the redhead said with a wry expression.

"Naw, this is just an early snow. I doubt it will amount to much, but before it gets any worse, I am going to check some traps that Frank and I set. And….we may have a few trout in a basket I left down at the bend in the river."

Kitty smiled, "Fresh fish instead of meat would be a nice change."

Matt leaned over to kiss her on the lips, and she met him willingly. Almost, too willing.

The marshal pushed her back, "Whoa. If we keep this up, we're not going to have fish or anything else, Mrs. Donner."

"I can take a hint; hit the trail, Cowboy, but I will be waiting," she said, suggestively.

Matt hurriedly put on his hat and grabbed his coat. Wiggling his eyebrows at her as he opened the door, rifle in hand, he said, "Good! I'll be counting on it."

Her loud, happy laughter followed him into the cold air and snow outside.

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It was growing dark, as it has a tendency to do here in the mountains, especially as the days grew shorter towards the end of the year. Kitty wasn't worried; Matt could take care of himself, but the temperature was dropping and the wind was getting worse, as it pushed and whipped around the log cabin.

She had been playing solitaire for the better part of the last two hours, bored to tears. A sudden banging against the cabin door almost made her drop the cards in her hand.

Before she could move, Kitty heard Frank Reardon call out to her.

Hurriedly, she jumped up and unlatched the door, "Frank, what in the world? Why are you out in this awful mess? Come in here, and warm up!"

Kitty pulled him over to the fire, where he stood shivering. As soon as he could get the words out, Frank said, "Where was Matt going today?"

She stuttered over her words, "Why? What's going on?" Her eyes were wide with fear. "Tell me, Frank."

"Matt's horse turned up on the trail up from the river. A neighbor recognized it as my friend's horse and brought it to me. Buck was still saddled and Matt's rifle was still in its scabbard."

Kitty turned around, grabbing the chair by the back, "Oh, my God!"

Frank took hold of her by the shoulders and turned her around. "Now listen, Kitty, there was no blood on the horse, the saddle, nothing, so don't go jumping the gun. Matt is probably fine. Something could have spooked the horse. So where did he go?"

"He was going to check some traps and then to the river for some fish, he said," she grabbed her friend's arm. "Please, Frank!"

"Kitty, I'm on my way and I'll be back as soon as I can—with Matt. Now stop worrying."

"Thank you!"

"No thanks, necessary, you know that." With those parting words, he shut the door with a bang.

Kitty slid the bolt into place and backed up into a chair. "Please, God, no," she kept repeating over and over in her mind, as she held her head in her hands, eyes tightly shut.

Chapter 14: A wolf in the fold

Matt was mad as hell at Buck. He had been walking the better part of an hour, alternating between cursing the animal in his mind and worrying about Kitty thinking the worst.

He slipped on the muddy incline and grabbed at a piece of brush to stop his slide back down the hill that he had just climbed. Finally getting to a level place, he sat underneath the low hanging branch of a pine tree, leaning up against it to rest a few minutes.

The big man was exhausted. Not only was he walking back uphill in near darkness, he was also carrying the two animals which he'd pulled from his traps and the six trout he'd caught. When his horse spooked, the sack holding the animals had fallen, and so he'd thrown the fish in with them.

Matt still couldn't figure out what the hell had happened. Buck was as steady a horse as he'd ever had. It took a lot to scare him, but, no matter what, instinct was a powerful thing. Horses are prey animals and their first instinct is to flee, and unfortunately, he thought, his horse had picked a hellava time.

Taking his hat off to shake the snow off, he rose and grabbed his sack, and headed on back up the mountain.

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Frank Reardon knew the place where Matt and he had placed the traps and where Matt had placed his fish basket. It was still a good hour's ride and getting darker, colder and slicker all the time with the ground turning to mud. Much longer and he wouldn't be able to see anything and would have to rely solely on his horse to pick their way down the trail.

As he pulled up near the head of the trail which led to the switchback down the mountain, Frank saw something that troubled him. The ground seemed to be torn up, so he dismounted and took a closer look.

Another horse's tracks seemed to dance in a circle. Damn! He was farther away from Kitty if he turned back now, than he would be if he kept going to where he thought Matt had headed.

Kitty was locked inside the house with a weapon. Matt could be hurt and freezing and these tracks could mean nothing.

Quickly, he spurred his horse, pulling Matt's mount behind him as fast as he dared down the trail.

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Kitty couldn't eat anything. Her stomach was protesting but she was sure it wouldn't stay down. A thousand thoughts raced through her mind, endless horrible possibilities and reasonable explanations. The one thing that didn't make sense was that if it was in Matt's power, he would have been back by now. And Buck? How did he lose Buck?

Jude Bonner? Accident? God, she was driving herself crazy. She poured herself a shot of whiskey and sat down on a chair facing the fireplace. It was still cold in here, no matter how much wood she kept on the fire. Pulling her shawl tighter, Kitty threw back the drink, feeling its heat spread out in her chest.

She wished she dared light more lamps, but with a snowstorm coming, they should conserve what oil they had, so the only light was from the fireplace. Normally, this would have been enough because the pair would be together, but tonight, the wind and anxiety combined to make her jumpy and fretful.

Maybe it was a bad idea coming here. In New Orleans, some of the women she knew would have called coming here 'bad juju.' Maria had died here due to the actions of violent men, and now she was here alone, scared and in a snowstorm just like Frank's pregnant wife had been the night she died.

Kitty jumped when the wind howled especially hard and whistled through the cracks in the old cabin like a banshee's wails. All the superstitions from her Southern childhood and the tales of such wails being a harbinger of death almost brought her nerves to the breaking point. Bad juju, indeed. And now here she was alone with her man gone, like Maria had been.

A strong banging on the door almost stopped her heart, a then a muffled voice called out, "Kitty, let me in. Matt's hurt."

Throwing back the bolt, Kitty opened the door. A slap connected hard with the side of her head knocking her backwards into the table and onto the floor.

Before she could even clear her vision, she heard it. The devil's voice. The banshee had warned her.

"Good to see you again, Red."

Bonner slammed the door behind him. Casually, he shrugged off a furry coat and threw it onto the table.

Kitty could see a knife on his belt, but no firearm was readily visible.

He started to walk towards her, but she backed up on her hands, finally reached the wall and stood up.

"Surprised to see me, I'll wager." Bonner pulled up a chair at the table, spun it around and sat with his legs apart around the back. He reached for the whiskey bottle and poured himself a drink. He smiled as it went down, watching her.

"Sit down," he ordered and kicked out a chair out in her direction.

Kitty had still not uttered a word. Her face was ashen and lead filled her stomach.

"I said to sit down!" He practically screamed the words at her.

Slowly she made her way to the chair, making no effort to scoot it closer to the table.

"Ain't you even gonna ask how I been? How I found you and that law dog?" He took a swallow of whiskey straight from the bottle. "You knew I'd come back for you, didn't 'cha, Red? You knew that you and me had to settle up."

The entire time he talked he kept that same insolent wicked smile on his face, while the fire made the color of his skin look ruddier and his hair blacker.

Suddenly, Bonner slapped the table. "Answer me!"

Kitty tried to swallow, her mouth dry. "Yes."

"Yes, whut? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Yes, I knew you'd come," Kitty said, her voice stronger, looking at him with cold, unwavering eyes. "And one of us would have to die. I am just glad Matt isn't here. You are the most evil man I've ever met and never hoped to meet again, but I knew you'd try again. A man like you can't face what happened between us. Oh, no, I meant what didn't happen."

Bonner's neck and face flushed with fury. "You're trying to make me kill you, ain't you? Afore your marshal, the avenging hero returns. You don't think he can stop me?" He laughed, roughly. "A lot of faith you have in your hero."

"Oh, I have faith in Matt, but I don't want him tainted by your stench."

Bonner's nostrils flared in anger, but he didn't move.

"I gotta admit, Red, under other circumstances, you and me….well, I like your spirit, your fire, your gumption to die for what you love. Now knowing that, you ought to understand why I had to do what I had to do to try to free my brother. At the time, it tweren't nothing personal." He twirled the bottle watching the amber liquid reflected in the light, "But now it is—personal."

"Personal!" Kitty's eyes flashed and her cheeks flushed with fury. "No one forced you and your brother to become butchers and rapists. No, you chose that! You chose to become the lowest scum on Earth, attacking women and even children."

Before she could react, he was reaching across the table, grabbing her by the material of her dress around her neck.

"I became what I was taught by the white man, a murderer of women and children. Lady, you don't know shit!"

Suddenly he released her and sat back down in the chair.

Kitty rubbed her neck, realizing she'd hit a nerve with him.

Taking another swallow, and without looking at her, he said, low, "You and me, lady, we're gonna wait a little while to see if that man of yours shows up to the party." He shrugged and then looked at her and smiled, making Kitty shiver. "If he doesn't, I guess we'll just git the party started without him."

Chapter 15: A discussion with the devil

Kitty Russell was surprised that the beating of her heart was not visible through her dress and chest because it was pounding so violently. The fear was causing a buzzing sound in her ears and she recognized she needed to calm down and slow her breathing. The side of her face still hurt where Bonner had struck her, but she'd be damned before she'd let him know that.

Right now, anger was her friend, not fear. Yes, the son-of-a-bitch was here, her nightmare come to life, but he was alone, not backed up by his filthy 'Dog Soldiers.' It was bad, but the odds were definitely more in her favor.

She needed to keep him talking, distracted. That she had spent a lifetime doing to gain an advantage in her line of work; it was second nature and self-preservation. She knew she was physically no match for him and both her and Matt's only chance was to throw him off his game somehow.

It wouldn't be easy. Bonner was a man obsessed. Blind to everything but killing them both, but not before Matt arrived. He wanted to them to see each other suffer. Maybe that was his weakness, she thought. He wouldn't want Matt dead right away if he could help it; Bonner needed him alive for true satisfaction. She involuntarily shivered at the thought.

Kitty could not allow Matt to come through that door without warning.

For the past half hour, she had sat staring into the fire and listening to the wind batter the little house as if it were a ship in a storm. The tall red-haired woman listened for any sound of hooves or footsteps, anything that would indicate someone was coming.

Meanwhile, Jude Bonner sat facing the door, knife on the table, drinking what was left of the whiskey in the bottle, but not drunk. She still had seen no evidence of a gun, but that didn't mean he didn't have one on him. He was eerily calm.

Outwardly, so was Kitty.

Finally, she looked across into the dark depths of Bonner's eyes.

"Why?" Her voice was not soft, a tad commanding, her chin raised.

"Why what?" His eyes were bottomless, his tone bored.

"Why are you like this? Who was the white man you say taught you to butcher women and children?"

He didn't move, but his eyes narrowed a bit, like a cat's as he contemplated his response or, perhaps, why she was asking.

"Why do you want to know? I done tole you; there ain't no good part a' me, lady. Trying to talk to me ain't gonna work."

"After what you've done and are planning to do, I think I have a right to ask. I think that's fair, but you probably don't understand that word."

She leaned forward to throw another stick of wood onto the fire and saw him flinch from the corner of her eye, ready to come at her.

Pretending that she didn't notice, Kitty placed the wood in the flames and stirred it with the poker, trying not to let him see how her hands were trembling. She leaned the poker against the wood, placing it back closer to her than it had been.

"My daddy."

Surprised that he had bothered to answer, she turned to look at him, "Your daddy? Your daddy taught you to kill?"

"He was a scout for the proud and honorable U-nited States army, the cavalry. Me and Virgil, my brother, the one your marshal had hung, watched him bring them to my mother's camp. Killed ever-body but us."

Kitty's eyes widened. Being witness to that was horrible, especially to a child, but she hardened her heart; it did not excuse the things he and his brother had done.

"I'm sorry."

"I don't need your god-damned pity and your fake sorry's. You ain't a damn bit sorry. The only thing you're sorry about is that he didn't get us, too."

Her bright blue eyes were hard when she answered him, "No, I am sorry that any child—even you and your brother-would have to watch something like that but considering what you've done and what you're tryin' to do, you're right about the last part." She snapped off the end of her response, her eyes flashing now with anger.

Surprisingly, Bonner laughed. "Well, lady, at least you're honest about it. That's more than I can say for most people."

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Matt Dillon stepped behind a pine when he heard horses coming down the mountain. It was too dark to see who it was but when the rider passed, he recognized his horse being led behind.

Taking out his Colt, he called, "Frank?!"

The rider whirled, "Matt? Is that you?"

Replacing his gun, Matt stepped out of the trees, "By God, am I glad to see you."

"Yea, well, I'm glad I found you, too, and we need to hurry. I found some tracks up at the head of the trail. Looked like somebody lost—or mebbe lookin' for something or somebody, if you know what I mean."

Instead of answering, the big man threw his leg over Buck's back, and while heading back up the mountain he remembered the bag still in his hand and threw it to the side of the trail.

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Before they reached the clearing where the cabin was both men dismounted and tied their horses out of sight.

Quietly, taking separate sides, they made their way toward the house. Unless there was someone watching, they didn't have to worry about anyone hearing them approach, thanks to the fierce wind, but the blowing, heavier snow made visibility more difficult for them as well.

As he drew closer, Matt heard the sounds of more than one horse moving inside the little shelter where his and Kitty's horses were kept. There was another horse there, all right, still saddled and damp from sweat when he touched its flank. He checked around for anything left on the horse, rifle, bags, but there was nothing there but a smelly blanket rolled at the back of the seat.

By now, Frank Reardon had scouted the other side.

"No sign of anyone else?"

"No," Frank answered. "Reckon, that's your man," he asked, referring to the horse.

Matt's expression was grim, "I reckon it is."

Chapter 16: Reckoning

"For a man on the run, you don't seem too nervous considering the marshal could be here any time now," Kitty said.

Bonner spoke confidently, "Oh, I think it will take your man a little longer to get here than you think."

"Why," Kitty demanded. "What have you done?"

"Don't fret; he's still alive. I didn't want to kill him before the big show."

Bonner got up slowly and began to look around the room, while Kitty watched nervously.

There was one door and one window. The window had shutters on the inside, but the latch was flimsy and almost rotten. The door was solid. Bonner did take the time to lock it, sliding the bar home. Nothing but a mule was moving that door.

Bonner made his way to Kitty. She held her breath, waiting. He began to touch her hair, feeling its silky texture between his fingers.

"Stop." Kitty shook her head in an attempt to shake off his fingers.

His hand moved so quickly that she didn't even see it coming. Bonner wrapped his right hand around her throat and continued to fiddle with her hair, now taking the pins out, and it fell down around her shoulders.

Kitty again tried to move away, but Bonner tightened his grip around her neck until she couldn't breathe.

"Don't. I will turn loose. You don't move. Yes?"

Kitty nodded her head.

"Good."

She shivered as if a snake was slithering across her skin. Disgust made her nauseous, but she forced herself to be still and wait for an opening of any kind.

"Stand up." He kicked the chair. "Now."

She stood, her back to him, his height.

The outlaw began to run his hands along her shoulders, moving her hair to one side. "Turn around, Red."

She turned. Her eyes like blue diamonds, hard and full of hate and unmistakable disgust.

"You act like you're some kind of school marm. Woman, you're a saloon gal, I'd think you was used to lots a men's hands on ya."

He laughed low and guttural. "Maybe you just open them long legs for the law, but you, fergit, I've seen what's in between 'em. It may be special to him, but to me, 'hit looks like ever other woman I ever seen. Grief at Virgil's dying was all that kept me from making you know what a real man felt like."

Bonner's fetid breath was now in her face as he had moved close in, smelling her neck like an animal.

Abruptly, he shoved her toward the bed, and she fell, her upper body and arms breaking her fall against it. Without wasting time, she reached under the quilts for the gun which Matt had left for her.

As she struggled to move away, Bonner saw the weapon and tackled her, forcing her to the floor.

"You whore! Give me that!"

A thunderous beating at the door broke his concentration. Kitty scooted back against the wall, the gun cocked and pointing at Bonner.

"Move. Please. Just one step," she said.

Again, the pounding on the door, and Matt's voice, "Open up, Bonner! There's no way out."

Bonner's dark eyes fairly danced.

"Dillon, it's about damn time. I was gittin' ready to start without 'cha."

"Open, the door! If you touch her, I'm gonna kill you this time, make no mistake, Bonner."

"Alright, Dillon, you're right. I'm comin' out."

Heading for the door, Bonner whirled and jumped astride Kitty wrestling with her for the gun, meanwhile, the pounding on the door grew more frantic and intense.

Kitty fought and scratched until finally, Bonner hit her on the chin and the pain caused her to drop the weapon, which he grabbed and turned toward the door, firing the weapon, emptying it. The beating on the wood stopped.

Bonner tilted his head back and laughed and howled with delight.

Kitty lay still, knowing what the quiet might mean. She could feel the blood trickling from the corner from her mouth where her lip was busted from Bonner's fist but made no move to wipe it away. There was no need to give away that she was conscious.

"Marshal?!" Bonner yelled. "You still alive? I hope so, 'cause I shore wont you to hear whut's gittin' ready to happen."

The crazed man inched towards the door, "Crawl closer if you can, Dillon. I want you to be shore to hear ever grunt and scream." He laughed, high and maniacal.

Throwing down the empty gun, he turned back to the woman on the floor.

Kitty heard him approach and rolled to her back and used both feet to kick him, with every bit of strength she had remaining, right into his mid-section.

With a loud oomph, Bonner flew backwards into the table, knocking it over, but he got up quickly, and the knife was in his hand.

"You done messed up, Red."

"Oh, what, are you going to kill me twice now?" she asked sarcastically.

The dark man ran at her and she turned to his right trying to put anything between them when she saw the poker. Scooping it up with one hand, she was a sight. Her red hair flying wild, blood streaming from her mouth and her eyes were wild with fear and fury.

"Come on, you son-of-a-bitch," she screamed. "Come on!"

Before either one could move, there was a crash and Marshal Matt Dillon came through the small window, feet first, rolling quickly to his belly, gun out.

Bonner and Kitty were both shocked, but he recovered faster than she did and grabbed her, placing the knife right up against her throat.

"What now, Big Man?" Jude Bonner taunted Matt Dillon as he held the knife against Kitty's soft throat. "You just can't seem to hang on to your woman, can ya? I do think the lady is developing an attachment to me."

Bonner took his tongue and licked the side of Kitty's face. "Um. Just as good as the last time, Dillon."

Kitty looked like she could vomit.

Matt clenched the big gun in his hand even tighter; he hadn't twitched it an inch lower than Bonner's head. His mind was clear; his emotions seemed numb. There was no way in hell that Bonner was walking out of here alive this time.

"All I have to do is cut her throat and I win." Bonner smiled like a man who knew he held all the tickets, even if the last one did take him on a ride to hell at the hands of the man in the room with him.

To emphasize his point, Bonner pressed the knife further into Kitty's throat. Her eyes were huge and fear filled, but so far she hadn't made a sound.

The killer continued, "I could slit open her right here, bleedin out like a dying hog; how I'd like to see what would happen to your innards then, Law Dog."

Matt didn't answer him. In fact, Bonner was disturbed by the lack of emotion on Dillon's face. Why wasn't he begging? It wouldn't help, but Bonner wanted it, needed to hear it to satisfy his lust for sadistic pleasure.

"Ask me." Jude yelled at him. "Beg me to let her go, to fight you instead, go ahead. That's your big plan, ain't it? Like I told your woman here, Hell, ain't you figured out by now, Dillon. This is my nature." Again he smiled at Matt, and his eyes were like death, cold and dark.

Still Matt said nothing, never moving his eyes or his hand.

Bonner threw his head back and laughed like a crazy man. "Whoo, I sure do like this Dillon. You jest gonna stand there til one of us falls down, huh. I started out on this hunt ready to die. You ready?"

He gestured with his head toward Kitty, "You think she's ready?"

Bonner suddenly moved the hand that was holding tightly to Kitty's waist to her breast. "Damn, she don't feel like she's ready yet."

He was taunting Matt, trying to push him into rash action. He bent his head toward Kitty's hair, "She still smells sweet. You know, she was sweet, Dillon. She was ready, too. And willing to please. Why there wouldn't nothin that this here little lady wouldn't do for me. She tell you about that?"

Instead of the reaction he expected, Bonner was shocked to see Matt Dillon smile. "That's funny, from what I hear, you couldn't get the job done, Bonner. Seems like she was too much woman for you."

Bonner's demented smile immediately disappeared. "Your whore lied, Dillon."

"I don't think so, Bonner. I think you were scared of being with a real woman, not some scared girl that you'd beat up."

Matt's smile grew wider, "We laugh at you; you know that? We laugh at the great Cheyenne warrior, Jude Bonner. I laugh at you, Bonner, right before I take MY woman."

Feeling his control of the situation slipping away, he pulled the knife tighter into Kitty's throat.

Bonner screamed out, "Throw the gun away! Now! Or I swear, I'll gut her right here, old man!"

Matt threw his revolver to the side, starting to get to his feet.

Bonner shoved Kitty hard, away from him. She fell against the rock fireplace and held on to keep from falling.

From his vantage point above Matt, Bonner jumped down on top of him, knocking him flat on his back. The madman never lost momentum. Taking a long swipe with the knife, Bonner brought it down in a wide arc, but Matt rolled at the last minute and the knife hit only dirt. Managing to throw Bonner off, Matt rose and jumped backwards out of range of Bonner's blade.

"Come on, big man. A Cheyenne knows a lot of ways to make a man die slow. You can even watch me while I take your woman—again." Bonner continued to taunt the older man, with short thrusts toward Matt's midsection.

He suddenly lunged forward, cutting Matt on the right forearm. Blood flecked onto Matt's shirt. Bonner lunged again, this time cutting Matt on the left upper arm.

The next time Bonner jumped at him, Matt jumped toward him as well. The knife wielding attacker wasn't expecting an offensive move.

Matt held his adversary's arms, and taking his leg, Matt threw it behind Bonner's legs, tripping him onto his back. He fell on top of him, holding the hand in which Bonner held the knife, high above his head.

A sudden sickening pain struck Matt. Bonner had brought his knee up to punch him between the legs. Feeling sick, Matt momentarily lost the strength in his grip, and Bonner pushed him off and quickly jumped to his feet.

Enjoying the pain he'd inflicted, Bonner again threw back his head and yelled a victory cry.

Matt rose to his knees, slowly, with Bonner circling like a wolf around his wounded prey.

"Law Dog, I ain't never enjoyed nothin' like I'm enjoyin' this."

And with those words, Bonner leaped into the air with both feet kicking Matt Dillon in the sternum.

Matt felt the air whoosh from his lungs and he flew backwards. He felt his head smack the stacked wood with a sickening thud, and the world momentarily turned dark in front of his eyes. His head swam crazily.

In a split second, Jude Bonner was on top of him, knife at the ready.

"No! Bonner! No!" Kitty's scream rang out.

Bonner had forgotten all about her. He turned his head to look at her.

Kitty was standing a few feet away holding the marshal's pistol right at his eye level. "Get off of him!"

The revolver was shaking in her hands, but there was no doubt in her steely eyes that she would kill him.

Faster than her eye could follow, Bonner jumped from Matt, leaping toward her and the pistol. The large knife flew from his hand, as she fired, but in the flurry of movement, the shot went wild.

Kitty scrambled to get away, still clutching the pistol. Jude Bonner was coming after her, on his hands and knees, grabbing at her feet and legs. Kitty was kicking and fighting for all she was worth.

"Bonner!" Matt Dillon's voice boomed out, and Kitty's attacker whirled around.

Dillon, on his knees, threw the knife that Bonner had dropped.

It hit dead center in Bonner's throat, where he buried up to the hilt.

Bonner groped blindly, attempting to get his hands around the handle.

Falling backwards, with blood gushing from the wound in his neck, Bonner's eyes rolled wildly and he tried to form words but no sound would come forth. Blood trickled from the side of his mouth. His head turned slightly toward Kitty Russell, his eyes still open. Within a matter of seconds, Bonner never moved again.

Chapter 17: Peace in the Valley

Kitty and Matt looked at each other, but for a minute neither could move.

It was finally over.

Matt got unsteadily to his feet and crossed the room to Kitty. He reached down and pulled her up into his arms, completely enveloping her. She was really too stunned to move or make a sound.

The lawman pulled back a bit and said, "We need to tend to Frank."

Taking her by the hand, he unbarred the door and Frank Reardon was leaning up again the side of the cabin, his arm resting on Maria's bench, a bullet wound in his right shoulder.

"Frank!" Kitty dropped to her knees.

"I'll be alright when it's tended." Her old friend touched her mouth gently where the blood was now clotted. "You okay; he didn't hurt you bad, did he?"

Kitty managed a smile, "No, he didn't. Let's get you inside."

Matt pulled him to his feet and sat him in front of the fire. Untended, it had begun to die down, so he tossed a few logs onto it. He then took off for water for Kitty to boil in order to remove the bullet.

She pulled his shirt apart at the tear where the bullet had entered. Pleased to see that the heavy door had probably slowed the bullet considerably, the wound was not very deep, but she was sure it was painful.

"Our plan didn't exactly work out like we thought," Frank said, with a laugh.

Kitty sat down opposite him, "What was the plan exactly?" She cocked an expectant eyebrow.

"We figured Bonner was only expected Matt, so I was the diversion after he yelled. I wasn't counting on not being far enough out of the way." He grimaced. "Bad luck, I reckon—or a ricochet. Matt was going to use me at the door to get Bonner's attention so as he could get across the roof, then swing in, kicking open the window. If he'd tried to get in headfirst, as big as the old man has gotten, he'd been pegged right off."

Kitty smiled, "Well, town living does do that to a man." Her joking was put aside when Matt returned with the water.

"I'm going to leave you to tend to Frank, and I am going to get that out of here." He looked toward the body of Bonner.

"Deal." Kitty said.

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Becca and her father had come down the mountain after hearing the gunfire and taken Frank back up to his cabin. The wound should heal up nicely, if kept clean and with proper remedies from Becca.

Frank and she almost insisted that Kitty and Matt accompany them back and not to stay in the old cabin. Matt let Kitty decide. She said, thanks, but no, they were fine.

After they left, Matt brought in more water and tried to rid the floor of most of the blood from Bonner. Kitty sat with her back to the room while he did it. What he couldn't remove from the floor, he dragged an old rug over to cover.

Tacking the shutters back over the broken window wasn't going to keep the cold out completely, but it would do for now.

When he finished, he pulled a chair up beside the woman staring into the fire.

"Would you like something to drink? I know you probably haven't eaten, either, " Matt said, quietly. He reached out his hand and covered hers.

"Some water would be nice. Thank you," Kitty said, not taking her eyes from the flames.

Matt brought her the water and some jerky that they had stored.

"Here, now, turn around," he said, handing her the water.

With unsteady hands, she took the glass and drank it all. He handed her the jerky and she ate it without thinking.

Getting up again, Matt took a clean cloth left from where she had been working on Frank and soaked it in the lukewarm water.

Taking it back, he softly began to wipe away the dirt and blood from her face. She quietly acquiesced. Her lip was going to be sore for a while, but, he thought, it could have been so much worse.

"You know, I would have come in sooner if Frank hadn't been shot. That kinda slowed me down a bit, and I sure didn't—" Kitty gently put a finger on his lips.

"You came in time. We're okay." She smiled weakly. "We're gonna be fine."

Suddenly, she exclaimed, "Matt! Your arms!"

The cuts from Bonner's knife were clotted and partially frozen from in and out in the cold. She cleaned them, and bandaged them tightly.

"Tomorrow, we'll have to get something to put on those to stop an infection. Whiskey, if nothing else."

She suddenly took a deep breath and looked at him. They were both battered and bruised. But alive. And together. Kitty felt hot tears, not accompanied by sobs but mostly exhaustion and relief.

Matt gathered her up, and after helping her get ready for bed, he barred the door, checked the fire one last time, and slipped in beside her.

As soon as he lay down, Kitty allowed him to take her in his arms. Taking a deep breath, he whispered, "Are you sure you don't want to go to Frank's cabin? You may sleep better."

"The window was open," she said, with calm assurance.

"What does that have to do with—"

"An opening so, the soul, or whatever it was he had, left. Old superstition."

"Really?" Matt looked at her, amazed. "That's it."

"Yep. How do you think I could sleep in The Long Branch with all the people who have been shot in there?" She let out a little huff, as if she couldn't believe he didn't understand.

"Uh, well, I guess, I never really thought about it until now, honestly."

"The most important thing is that he will never hurt anyone ever again. Never," Kitty whispered, her warm breath brushing his neck.

Pulling her even closer, he spoke, his voice a low growl, "The most important thing is that he will never hurt you again."

As hot tears came, Kitty buried her face in his neck, his smell so familiar and comforting.

"Let's go to sleep, honey."

She nodded her head without speaking.

It was their first night of peace in a long time-and they slept like it.

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Chapter 18: He leadeth me

Kitty stretched her arms above her head and just luxuriated in the soft bed. She and Matt had been back in Denver for two days, and today, they were headed back to Dodge on a late morning train.

She wasn't surprised that Matt was gone already. He had told her that he wanted to find young Master McCoy, to thank him for helping them find the things they needed when getting ready to head for the mountains and Frank's place.

Matt's bag, singular, was already packed. Kitty's were, too, for the most part. Her lover didn't know that she had bought him several things that she had hidden away, along with new books for Doc, new boots for Festus, and new coats for Newly and Sam.

She was bathed, powdered and hair curled by the time Matt returned and their things were ready to go. A bellboy had accompanied Matt upstairs to gather their bags and take them to the station.

Matt smiled and held out his arm for Kitty as they went down the stairs, headed finally for home.

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"We have at least an hour before we have to be at the train station," Matt said, "Let's take a peek in here; I've heard the artwork in the windows is beautiful."

Kitty looked perplexed. "A church? Since when have you been interested in stained glass windows?"

"I came by earlier when I was doing some window shopping and the light was just perfect off the glass. I just wanted you to see it, but…if you want to do something else…."

Squeezing his arm, she said, "Cowboy, you rarely ask to do anything, always content to go where I want to go. We're goin'."

Matt held the door, a shy smile on his face as he entered the church behind her.

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The train pulled into Dodge, cool air instead of warm now.

At the station, their friends were waiting for them. Kitty jumped off and grabbed Doc so fiercely that she knocked the breath from him.

"By golly, I have to say, young lady, that you look more beautiful than you did ten years ago," Doc said, kissing her on the cheek.

"Thank you, Curly. I feel better." Turning to Festus, she threw her arms around him, as well.

"Miz Kitty, it shore is a sight for sore eyes, seein' you two back finally."

He turned to Matt Dillon, "I gotta say, Matthew, that fill-in marshal wouldn't nothing to brag on. I am glad to see you'uns back, and I was mighty relieved to hear ole Bonner was dead fer good."

Matt grabbed his arm by his elbow, "Let's get this stuff up to Kitty's rooms and I'll be over to the office. We'll catch up then."

"Let's git 'er done, Matthew."

The two were loaded down with bags and Kitty followed behind with Doc.

"It sure is good to be home, Doc. Did you miss me?"

"Not at all. I tell you, been so quiet around here, well, I, well, it's been like having a vacation of my own."

Stopping suddenly, he grabbed her arm, "I've missed you something terrible, and…," he stopped and wiped a hand along his whiskers, "By gosh, I'm glad you're both back."

Kitty's laugh could be heard all across Front Street.

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Frank Reardon had told Matt the day after Bonner was killed that he had taken care of the body early, before he and Kitty had awoken. And he did, sort of.

Frank loaded the body on the back of a mule and headed far up into the mountains.

He could smell where he was going before he arrived. The air was damper and he could hear water gushing over large stones. In this portion of the mountains it was one of the few large springs.

Getting down, he pulled Bonner's body off the mule and dragged it to the ground. Taking five sharp stakes, he pulled the body to a patch of ground where he could complete his task.

He stretched Bonner's corpse out. Taking his stakes, he stretched the body out in an X pattern, making sure it was firmly attached to the ground. Taking the last large pike, Frank hammered it through the mid-section of the body.

Satisfied, he stood back, looking at his handiwork.

It was getting dark and animals would be here soon. Taking one last look, he headed back down the trail, leaving Bonner's body; personally, he hoped he was burning in hell at the moment.

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The night of their arrival, Kitty, Matt, and their friends gathered in the Long Branch for a drink and catch-up on the latest gossip.

Matt pushed back his chair, but Festus stopped him.

"Matthew, if you want, I'd be glad to go with ye to do your rounds tonight."

"Festus, I'd appreciate that."

Sam and Newly both said it was time to hit the sack and wasted no time in leaving.

As the doors behind them closed, Marshal Matt Dillon leaned down and kissed Kitty on the forehead.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," he said.

"I'll be waitin'." She smiled up at him, blue eyes bright.

Festus was still trying to pick up his jaw, until Matt prodded him along.

"Let's go, Festus, I don't intend to spend the entire night out here."

"Uh, no, sirree bob, we, uh, need to git goin'."

He stole one more look at of the corner of his eye at the marshal as they left closing the doors behind them.

Doc shook his head. "Is there something you want to tell me?"

Kitty took a gold chain out of the neck of her shirt, attached to it was a ring with a sapphire set in the gold.

"Nope. Not anything that I'd mind you knowing anyway. We're still deciding on how or if to tell everyone else—in our own time."

Doc smiled and took her hand in his, "Well, all I can say is congratulations, and it's about damn time."

The beautiful redhead smiled at him and spoke softly, "Doc, when we left Dodge, I truly believed I had hit a bottom so low and so painful that I would rather be dead. A part of me didn't expect to come back."

She drew a deep breath, "But, something wonderful blossomed from that dark place I was in, a place so full of hurt and pain, I didn't think I'd live through it."

Watching the golden ring dance in the lamplight, Kitty said, "I guess I had my faith renewed, in Matt and me."

She looked at Doc, with eyes bright with happy, unshed tears, "Now, I just want us to have our place by the still water."

Placing his hand over hers, Doc said, "So do I, Kitty, so do I."