Author's Note: I'd like to thank everyone who has stuck with this story over the past week. I haven't had time to respond to every review and guest reviews I am unable to do so, but be assured I have read them all and much appreciate the many kind comments and messages I've gotten. This was a labor of love that I worked on over my holiday vacation, and it's very satisfying as a writer to know that people find your efforts meaningful and entertaining. Thanks for allowing me to share my little obsession with other Gunsmoke fans.


Chapter 16

Laura gratefully shook the hand of her rescuer when they were formally introduced, after Gil was in handcuffs at the police station and she had finally calmed enough to have a conversation. "So you are the famous Matt Dillon," she smiled, clearly recognizing the name if not the face. "My mother has always spoken very highly of you. I cannot thank you enough for what you did for me."

Matt still could not get over how much Laura was like Kitty, not only in appearance but in mannerisms. It was obvious from her tone that she knew of him as a friend of her mother's and nothing more.

"I'm just glad I was able to help," he offered, politely and sincerely. "Your mother and I—well, we go way back." He shot Kitty a glance, and she pleaded silently for discretion. This wasn't the time for revelations.

"Oh, I know," Laura replied eagerly. "I grew up on stories about Doc and Festus and Marshal Dillon, the fastest gun in the west. Mama says there was never a better lawman, or a better man. She made Dodge City sound so exciting, I used to wish we lived there."

Matt tenderly looked first at her, then at Kitty. "I would have liked that. Very much so."

They were kept at the police station for hours as Laura recounted what she knew about the illegal activities of Gil Cloyd and Roy Hanson. Gil had confessed to most of it and Laura reluctantly backed up his claims that he had tried to get the gun and stop Roy from hurting her before Matt had rushed in just in time. Gil had tried to apologize to both Russell women, but Laura could not look at him and Kitty had to be physically restrained. It would be a long time before either of them could consider that he had done anything admirable. Gil was now safely in jail waiting for an attorney, while the police had notified Frank Wiley of the scam being perpetrated at his business.

Matt had to give a statement about Roy's shooting, with Kitty, Laura, and Gil all corroborating his story. Kitty told Laura how Matt had tracked Gil down and gotten them to St. Louis so quickly. They had heard her screams from the streetcar stop and run as fast as ageing and injured legs could take them. Had they not, they would have been too late.

The Berlin Hotel was a block from the police station, and after they were finished with official business Matt suggested that they get rooms there. Laura was going to need time to rest and recover before a long train ride. The desk clerk handed them two room keys as requested and directed them to the elevator. Matt took his and Kitty's bags, and Kitty carried Laura's.

Their rooms were across the hall from each other, one for Matt and the other for Kitty and Laura. Matt fell into his bed and closed his eyes. He had been up since 4am and was dead tired, but sleep did not come easy. He had a thousand questions for Kitty and there had been no time for personal discussions. He was finally able to doze lightly for a couple of hours, until he heard a knock on the door.

"Matt, are you awake?" came Kitty's soft voice.

"Yes," he replied, rubbing his eyes and trying to look so. "The door's open."

She let herself in and sat next to him on the edge of the bed. They looked at each other in awkward silence before he finally spoke. "Why didn't you tell me the truth, Kitty? You had to know I would figure it out as soon as I saw her."

"Because I needed help from Matt Dillon the lawman, not Matt Dillon the father. You're the best there is, but you're also human, and knowing this was your daughter might have clouded your judgment. I couldn't take a chance that you might act out of emotion when her life was at stake."

She wouldn't say it, but he knew where that fear had originated. He had acted out of emotion once before, when Jude Bonner had done unspeakable things to her because of him. When he saw the abused, broken body of his lover lying on that table, he had taken off his badge and gone after Bonner with nothing but rage and revenge in his heart. He might be in prison or worse had he not somehow managed to come to his senses before he bashed the man's skull in. It was probably best that he hadn't known Laura's true identity, at least when he was asked to help find her. But what about the fifteen years before that?

Kitty could see the pain in his face, and the guilt was overwhelming her. She knew he deserved a full explanation.

"I wanted to tell you about her in the beginning Matt, you don't know how hard it was for me to keep this from you," she began. "Maybe I was wrong, I don't know, but I didn't do it to hurt you. I thought it was best for everyone—for you, for me, and for Laura. I honestly did. You have every right to hate me for this, but it's the truth. Please tell me you believe that."

"Hate you?" he said incredulously. "Kitty, I could never hate you. I'm just shocked, and I don't know what to think or how this happened. Can you understand how confusing this is for me?"

Kitty looked down. "Of course I can."

Matt's head was spinning, but he needed to know the whole truth. "When did you find out?"

"Shortly after I got to New Orleans. I knew I hadn't been feeling well, but I didn't suspect that, not at my age. When the morning sickness started and I was so late, I went to a doctor. I knew by then, but I still couldn't believe it when he confirmed that I was pregnant."

"Why didn't you tell me then? You know I would have done the right thing."

"I knew exactly that," Kitty agreed. "Except it wouldn't have been the right thing, and that's one reason I couldn't tell you. Matt, you admitted to me on the ride out to your house that deep down you weren't ready to be a husband, at least then you weren't. You were still married to that badge, and you didn't have any interest in marrying anyone else. You had also made it clear that you didn't want children. 'Lawmen have no business having families,' remember that? So what would our choices have been if I had told you I was having your baby? You could either leave the job that meant everything to you and end up resenting me and the baby for trapping you in a life you didn't choose, or you could keep the job and spend every waking minute worrying that Laura would be in danger because of it. I couldn't see anything good coming out of either of those options for any of us, so I did what I thought was best. I raised Laura on my own and never told anyone who her father was."

"Not even Doc?" he wondered.

"Not even Doc," she confirmed. "He knew I had a daughter, but I told him she was adopted, just like I told you. Not because I didn't trust him, but because I loved him. It would have been terribly unfair to him to be expected to keep a secret like that from you. I was afraid it would interfere with your friendship, and I knew you needed each other after I left.

Matt sighed. As much as he wished he had known, as much as he felt he had a right to know, everything she said made sense. Every single word.

"What about Laura?" he asked. "Didn't she ever wonder about her father?"

"Yes, of course. But how could I tell her that you didn't even know about her? She couldn't possibly have understood why I kept that from you, at least not when she was a child. I could have made up some story about her father living far away, but I was afraid she would wonder why you didn't want to see her. I had a father who abandoned me, and I didn't want her to think you had done that to us. I wanted her to respect Matt Dillon, even if she didn't know you were her father, because you deserved her respect. I was in a no-win situation. So I was purposefully vague, I said her father was someone I knew long ago but couldn't be in our lives anymore through no fault of his own, and asked her to accept that. I have felt guilty about it for a long time, I feel like I failed her in that area. But I honestly didn't know how else to handle it."

"I've missed so much time with her," he said regretfully.

"I know," she sympathized. "And I'm sorry about that. I truly am."

She had clearly suffered for this, and it made his heart ache. He took her hand and looked into her eyes. "We can't get that time back, but we can make sure we don't lose any more. The three of us can still be a family, Kitty."

She furrowed her brow. "What are you saying, Matt?"

"I'm saying that I love you and can't imaging spending another day of my life without you in it. That I have a daughter I don't even know, but I already love her too because I see you in her. That I want to be the husband and father that you and Laura deserve. I guess what I'm really saying is—Kitty, will you marry me?"

Tears welled up in her eyes. "But what about the distance? I love Dodge, but Laura needs to finish high school in New Orleans. After what she's been through I can't uproot her from her friends and her life there."

"We'll make it work," he promised. "I'll move to New Orleans until she graduates, and I'll keep the farm in Dodge. We'll retire there once she goes to college—if that's what you want."

Kitty was overwhelmed. "Are you sure, Matt? I mean, you're not exactly the city type."

"People change, Kitty," he said. "I wasn't the marrying type either, until you left and I realized that's exactly what I wanted. I love the farm, but some time in New Orleans sounds like just what I need. I could use a little adventure in my life."

"I'd show you some adventure, Cowboy," she said playfully.

"I do have one request," he added. "I would like for us to get married in Dodge, in front of our friends who loved and supported us all those years. And I bet Hannah would throw us one hell of a wedding reception."

Kitty smiled. "That sounds wonderful."

"So is that a yes?" he asked hopefully.

"Yes," she answered without hesitation. He gently took her face in his hands and gave her a soft, supple kiss. It still had the same, thrilling effect on her that it did over thirty years ago. She brushed a stray curl off of his beautifully lined forehead and smiled. "I have to go," she announced suddenly.

"What do you mean you have to go?" he asked indignantly.

"There's a girl across the hall who has no idea that her parents are about to get married," she explained. "It's time she knew everything—I need to tell her the whole story so she understands how we got here."

Matt cocked an eyebrow. "The whole story? We're more like an epic, Kitty. How will you even start?"

Kitty thought for a few seconds. "Well, I suppose it's always best to start at the beginning," she figured. "One day, a long time ago, a lonely young girl from New Orleans stepped off a stage and into a rain puddle…"

The End