A Listening

Chapter One: The nightmare

She was drowning.

No matter how she struggled, her fingers could find no purchase on the slick metal that seemed to surround her, and her legs felt trapped within clinging fabric. Looking frantically up towards the light, the surface of the water seemed impossibly far away. Her lungs were bursting, and as she finally gave in to the throbbing need for air, she opened her mouth…and woke up, gasping.

"Kitty, Honey, what is it?! What's wrong?! KITTY! WAKE UP, now!"

Matt had his strong arms snugly around her, restraining her flailing ones. His heart ached at the look of sheer terror on her face, and the unseeing panic in her wide, blue eyes. Finally, she took in a ragged breath, and relaxed to the point of limpness in his protective arms.

"I…I'm…all right, now…Matt." she said in a soft voice. "I'm so sorry. I can't understand why this keeps on happening." Tears now slowly ran down her cheeks.

"Ah, please don't cry, Sweetheart. You know I can't take that." he whispered in her right ear as he gently touched the wetness on her soft, lovely face.

She nodded and leaned back further against his strong, bare chest. Carefully turning her chin towards him with his large, rough, right hand, he gave her a tender kiss.

"Kitty, this is the fourth time this week that you have had this nightmare. I'm not buying the 'Oh, it must have been the catfish stew at Delmonico's,' or the 'I was reading a scary book this afternoon,' excuses. You really need to see Doc."

As Kitty opened her mouth to protest, Matt kissed her again, this time more firmly, and both of their mouths opened to meet.

"Matt…now that isn't fair! And what in the world can Doc, or ANY doctor, do? How can he get inside of my head?!"

Looking at the handsome face of her cowboy, dark curls scattered across his furrowed forehead as if trying to imagine their beloved old friend trying to crawl inside of her head, made her cough out a laugh.

"All right, all right! I'll go see him tomorrow!" she giggled, "But right now I think I need a big reward, first!"

As she ran her slender, soft hands over his chest, feeling the scars of his many past wounds, he gave a low laugh, as he pulled her closer and underneath him.

Chapter Two: A visit to the doctor

"Kitty, why in land's sake didn't you come see me sooner about this?! EIGHT nightmares in two weeks, and the same one each time, is simply too much for anyone to bear! " Doc sputtered, pulling off his small, wire-framed spectacles with his left hand, keeping his right firmly around her left forearm as she sat on his examination table.

Doc Adams had been a doctor for thirty five years now, and always did his very best with every patient, whether it be a timid, young pregnant woman, or a cursing, drunken, shot-up cowboy. But Kitty Russell WAS an exception for him, and her pains were his.

"Oh, Doc," she smiled a blue-eyed look at him full of love, for she cared about him like a father. "I would have, but what can anyone do about dreams?" As she raised her slim shoulders in a shrug, Doc could see beneath her smile that she was worried and exhausted.

Helping her down from the examination table, Doc wiped his right hand over his mustached-adorned lower face as he thought.

"Honey, these are not DREAMS…they're NIGHTMARES!...and recurrent!" I can't find anything physically wrong, thank goodness, but I want to study up on this. Doc turned to his glass-shelved cabinet against the wall, picked up four small packets, and turned back to Kitty. "Here…I want you to take one of these powders every night to help you sleep…you look exhausted! Come back to see me in five days, or sooner if this nightmare keeps happening."

Kitty took the packets, put them in her reticule, and gave Doc a wavering smile. "Thanks, Doc. You know how I hate to take medicine, but I am a little tired." Her skillfully applied makeup successfully hid the faint purple shadows under her eyes, but Doc's eagle eyes caught the slight unsteadiness of her hands.

As she opened the door to leave, Doc called out to her. "Kitty, wait just a moment! I want you to take this notebook and write down what you do every day. Don't forget to include exactly what you eat and drink, too."

"A DIARY, Doc?" she asked skeptically. "Well, if you say so…but do I have to write down EVERYTHING?" She was now grinning widely at the red-faced old man.

"Harrumph!" Doc ran a hand through his curly salt and pepper hair, as rumpled looking as his clothing.

Kitty put her hand on Doc's face, softly kissed him, and left his office, smiling all the way down the fourteen steps to the street.

Chapter Three: The Notebook

Kitty did as Doc said, and took the sleeping powder for three nights in a row. She was pleased that the nightmare did not recur those nights, but didn't like the groggy state she was left in each morning. And she hated being too sound asleep to feel Matt's arms around her, or to respond to the warmth of his body against hers. Although he missed being intimate, Matt was truly pleased to see how peaceful she looked, like a beautiful china doll with a mass of red curls on the pillow.

On the morning of the fourth day since Kitty had been up to Doc's office, she decided to not take the fourth dose that night. After all, the nightmare seemed to be gone, and she would be dutifully seeing Doc the next afternoon, as promised.

She had also been writing in the notebook that Doc had given her. At first it was an awkward chore, and consisted of short phrases such as, "Got up," "Ate two hardboiled eggs at work," "Talked with Chester outside the general store." By the third day, she was surprised to realize that she actually looked forward to putting down her thoughts, as well as activities. Despite her teasing of Doc, she refrained from too much personal detail concerning her and Matt, but was now locking up her diary in the center drawer of her desk in her office at the Long Branch. She had mentioned Doc's diary assignment to Matt, but he wisely had only nodded, and would patiently wait until and if she ever showed it to him. They shared their hearts, and that was enough for him.

Matt and Kitty were eating breakfast at Delmonico's on that fourth day, Kitty daintily reaching over and taking small bits of bacon from his plate, when a wide-eyed Chester came hurrying in.

"Mr. Dillon! Oh, mornin', Miss Kitty, excuse me, Miss Kitty," he hurriedly said as he touched the brim of his shabby black hat. "Ya gotta come right away, Mr. Dillon. Jocko Blaine is tearing up the Lady Gay and threatening to kill the dealer there!"

Matt looked at Kitty with apologetic eyes. "Sorry, Kitty."

"I just wish one time you could finish an entire meal with me!' she sighed.

"Well, I guess we'll have to make a law against crimes during meal times!"

They smiled as he got up, picked up his large Stetson, tossed a coin on the table, and strode out with Chester.

Unfortunately, Jocko Blaine had already drunkenly shot and wounded the dealer and was riding madly out of town as Matt and Chester arrived.

"Chester, go get our horses from Moss! I'll meet you outside the office with rifles and supplies."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Dillon!" Chester ran down the street with his uniquely effective gait, swinging wide his straight right leg as he hopped forward on his left.

As Matt strode towards the office, he saw Kitty heading back to the Long Branch.

"Kitty, Jocko Blaine wounded the dealer and took off. Chester and I are heading out in a few minutes, so I probably won't see you until tomorrow." He quickly looked around and squeezed her right arm.

"See you later, Matt. Be careful!" were her spoken words, but her large sky-blue eyes spoke volumes more, looking deep into his smiling, pale blue eyes.

When Kitty finally dragged herself up to her room after a particularly rowdy night in the Long Branch, she was certain the fourth packet of the sleeping powder would not be needed. Exhausted, but always missing Matt's presence, she undressed and wore the faded blue shirt she had appropriated from him to bed.

Around three AM, the nightmare recurred with a vengeance, and without Matt there to bring her out of it and comfort her, it seemed unending. This time when the dream reached its apex, and her mouth opened to airless water, Kitty struggled so hard, rolling and thrashing in a tangle of covers, that she crashed to the floor, and mercifully awoke. Dazed and perspiring, she lay there for a minute, trying to slow down her ragged breathing.

It was too late to take the sleeping powder, and Kitty was afraid to close her eyes again, so she got dressed in a simple light blue, cotton frock, tied her damp hair back with a blue ribbon, picked up her keys and went downstairs to her office. Lighting the lamp on her desk, she unlocked the middle drawer and pulled out her diary. She spent an hour writing down her thoughts and fears and frustrations about her nightmare, and felt somewhat better doing so.

When head bartender Sam Noonan unlocked three hours later to finish last night's cleaning, he found Kitty in a fitful sleep in her office, slumped forward with her arms and head on the desk. The lamp was out and empty, and a pen and notebook lay on the floor at her feet.

"Miss Kitty, Miss Kitty," Sam said in a deep, soft voice as he gently put his large right hand on her right shoulder. Rather than awaken, her restlessness seemed to intensify, until she suddenly sat bolt upright with thrashing arms and wide-open, but unseeing eyes. Seeing the woman he admired and loved so much in such obvious distress, Sam knelt down and wrapped his big, strong arms tightly around her.

"Miss Kitty, you have to wake up now! MISS KITTY!" Sam slowly increased the pressure of his arms, drawing her tightly against his massive chest.

"Oh….Sam?!" Kitty finally awakened, and looked confusedly into Sam's gentle, deep brown eyes with the drooping lids. "Wha…where..how..?" She looked around and then remembered.

Relieved that Kitty seemed fully awake, Sam embarrassedly pulled his arms away and stood up.

"Are you all right now, Miss Kitty?" Sam looked at her still pale face and damp red curls with concern.

"Yes, thank you, Sam. I sure could use some of your coffee, if you don't mind." Her smile was warm but to Sam, her eyes still looked haunted. Sam made it his business to always look out for Kitty, keeping a close eye on her at work in the saloon full of noisy and often brazen men, and he could read her face in an instant from across the room.

"Right away, Miss Kitty," he smiled, and left her to gather herself together. Neither would ever mention what had occurred, being close enough friends to not have to.

Kitty sighed, picked up her notebook and pen, and was actually glad to be seeing Doc as a patient later in the afternoon.

Chapter Four: The Gypsy

Kitty still sat in her office, slowly drinking the coffee that Sam had brought. She knew Doc would see her at any time, but did not want to alarm him by showing up earlier than her three o'clock appointment, so she needed some way to occupy her time until then. She still felt too out of sorts for office work or being around other people. Suddenly she knew what to do…a good, long horseback ride always made her feel glad to be alive and refreshed.

Hurrying up to her room, she didn't want to take the time to put on one of her lovely riding outfits, so quickly changed her dress for a pair of snug fitting jeans, a tailored, high-neck, long-sleeved white blouse, and her brown riding boots.

Coming down the front stairs, she called to Sam, "I'm going for a long ride, Sam! Be back in a couple of hours." She smiled at her loyal friend and employee, and he waved back.

"That's just fine, Miss Kitty! Take care!"

He watched her worriedly as she darted out through the swinging doors.

When Kitty reached the stable, she called out for the owner.

"Moss! Moss!"

A thin old man with a kind face under his ragged hat, stood up from where he had been mucking out a stall, and seeing the beautiful young woman, early morning light in her red hair, smiled and waved a hand.

"I'm over here, Miss Kitty! Want me to saddle Magnolia for you?" Putting down the pitchfork, he shambled over.

"Please, Moss. We girls need some fresh air and exercise this fine morning! Thought we'd head out west towards that small grove of oak trees.

Moss nodded, but was a little troubled at the drawn look on her lovely face, not quite hidden by her smile. "Are you going out along, if you don't mind me asking?"

When she nodded, Moss got Kitty's saddle and walked over to the glossy chestnut mare in a stall facing the left side wall, mulling things over in his mind as he hefted the saddle onto the horse and adjusted the cinch.

"Well, I don't mean to meddle, but you be careful, Miss Kitty. Had a young cowboy bring his horse in the other day, and he was telling me about running across two mighty strange-looking men over that way. Said they beckoned him over, but he didn't like the looks of them, so kept riding."

"I'll be fine, Moss, but you are dear to worry." She smiled at his blush of discomfort. "I have always been able to take care of myself, you know."

Moss nodded, still uneasy, and boosted Kitty up into the saddle. She turned her head back towards the old man, smiled and waved as she clicked for Magnolia to start on their way. Moss walked out into the dirt street and looked after her, red hair still glinting in the sunlight.

As Kitty astride Magnolia left Dodge behind, her mood lifted as they flew over the open grassy slopes, wind streaming through her hair, becoming one with the effortlessness of her horse's movement. In the distant horizon she spotted her destination, an unlikely grove of stately, heavily-leafed, oak trees. Above her, two elegant hawks dipped and soared through the cerulean blue sky, and Kitty laughed aloud for that moment of gracefulness. Slowing down as they neared the grove, horse and rider took in deep breaths of the sweet late May air. In the center of the grove stood the tallest tree, with multiple thick, leafy branches spreading cool shade below. Kitty dismounted, walked over to the massive tree trunk, and sat down, leaning back against the bumpy bark. "Maggie," neck bowed to the young tufts of grass, contentedly grazed nearby. Kitty closed her tired eyes and slept dreamlessly for ten minutes. She awoke slowly, gazing around at the peaceful setting and the sounds of cicadas and her horse chewing grass.

As she stood and stretched, she sensed movement and spun around to her right, searching the dappled shade. At the very far edge of the grove sat an old wooden enclosed wagon with faded traces of red, yellow, and green paint. A tired old horse stood sleeping in the traces, right rear foot held up just above the grass, tail periodically swishing at the buzzing flies. Kitty cautiously and curiously crept over, thinking "That looks like a Gypsy caravan, like the ones that passed through town last year…but what would just ONE wagon be doing way out here?"

She reached the back of the caravan, and was trying to decipher the faded letters on the door when it suddenly swung open. A striking older woman stepped out and her ink black eyes stared intently back at Kitty's startled,blue ones. A red bandana covered the top of her thick grey-black curls. Her face was not pretty but arresting with high cheekbones and olive skin, and she wore large gold hoop earrings and multiple gold bracelets on her strong arms. Wearing a short sleeved, scoop neck dark blue top with a deep red, long skirt and black slippers, she came down the three steps towards Kitty with no hesitation. Kitty stood perfectly still as the woman came closer, stopped a foot in front of her, still staring deeply into her eyes. Not easily intimidated, Kitty forced herself to hold the stare of the dark eyes, having to look up a little at this tall and intriguing Gypsy woman.

"Good morning. I've been out riding and my horse and I stopped over there to rest for a while," Kitty pointed to her right where Magnolia contentedly stood. "I didn't realize that anyone else was here. I'm Kitty Russell, from Dodge."

The Gypsy continued to stare, as if trying to see into Kitty's soul. Then she blinked and gave a small smile.

"I know. I am Nadina, and I have been waiting for you. Come!" She turned around in a swirl of color, and went back up the three steps, stopping at the doorway. Turning her head back towards Kitty, she commanded, "COME!" as she beckoned with her right hand, bangles clanging.

"She 'knows'?!" Kitty gaped at the imposing woman, shrugged her shoulders, and followed her into the caravan, but leaving the small door open behind her.

The interior of the caravan was roomier than it looked from the outside, containing a small bed against the front wall, a large, rounded-top trunk against the left wall underneath clothing items hanging from pegs, and cooking utensils and bags and baskets of flour, potatoes and onions on a narrow shelf against the right wall. In the center was a small round table with two wooden stools. The Gypsy woman sat on the stool facing the door, and pointed to the other stool for Kitty to sit on.

"Um…I, er..don't really think I can visit right now," Kitty said in a bright voice. "I have an appointment in town soon, and it's a fairly long ride back."

Nadina stared into Kitty's eyes as she reached out a long, strong arm, firmly gripped Kitty's right wrist and pulled her towards the stool. "There is nothing to fear. I MUST tell you things, and you must listen…close your eyes and listen!" Kitty's upper legs bumped into the edge of the table and she obediently sat down on the stool beside her.

"Well, maybe if it doesn't take too long…" Kitty closed her eyes and felt strangely compelled to listen to this odd woman.

Sliding her hand down to Kitty's right hand, Nadina now reached over and gripped Kitty's left hand, too. The Gypsy closed her eyes, sat silently for a moment, and then began to talk in a low, intense voice.

"The nightmare is a remembering returning to you to warn you. I see a very small girl, maybe two or three, large blue eyes and short red curls. She is wearing a too-big, faded green dress and is barefoot. Her mother is very pretty, but wears much paint and jewelry, and tight, sparkling dresses. She works nights and leaves the small girl with a tired old washer woman until morning. Early one hot morning, the mother is late picking up the small girl and the washer woman is too busy with her work to pay attention to her.

As the low voice drew Kitty in, she began to see images in her head, and she remembered. Tears filled her closed eyes and spilled down her cheeks as she saw the curious small girl wandering around in the enclosed back yard full of large deep, galvanized wash tubs full of either soapy water or clear rinse water. Piles of dirty clothing were on the ground beside the sorting table. The harried washer woman would irritably push the hungry little girl away whenever she toddled over for attention.

'Kathleen! Now you go and play and stop bothering me! Your mama will be here soon…she'd better be! I 've got to get these clothes separated, washed, rinsed, and hung to dry before that rain hits," she snapped while looking over at the grey clouds off to the south. "I've a mind to charge that mama of yours double if she ain't here soon," she grumbled. But the blue-eyed girl had already wandered away, intrigued by a large orange and black butterfly.

Little Kathleen followed the pretty butterfly with intense concentration. When it alit on the rim of one of the large tubs full of rinse water, the small child ran over and tried to reach it, jumping as high as her little legs could, but the tub was taller than her head. Already a strong-minded child, she tugged and pulled on a nearby small, empty crate, managing to drag it over to the side of the tall tub. Crawling up on the crate, Kathleen's body was now at waist level with the rim, but the butterfly quickly darted away. As the red-haired little girl reached out for it, she lost her balance and fell head first into the tub of cool, deep water.

Kitty gripped the Gypsy's woman's hands with bone-crushing strength now, and a moan escaped her lips as the remembering rolled on behind her tightly closed eyelids.

She was drowning. The little girl tried to grab the sides of the tub, but the smooth metal was too slick. The sky above the water looked so far away as the big hand-me-down dress wrapped around her flailing legs, pulling her struggling body even deeper. A moment before the small child's mouth opened in an involuntary gasp, two long white arms speared into the water, grabbed Kathleen's and yanked her out and into her mother's chest.

"Oh, Kathleen! How many times have I told you to stay away from Martha's washtubs?!" The lovely woman with green-blue eyes and night-time makeup swatted the dripping, crying child firmly on her bottom, then hugged her tightly and sobbed. "Oh, Kit-Kat, Mama's so sorry…you scared the life out of me, Darlin.'"

Kitty's wet blue eyes snapped open as she gasped and released her death-grip on Nadina's hands. "How..how did you do that?" she asked in a weak voice as she stared at the old Gypsy's emotionless face.

"That is of no matter to you. You must remember. You must LEARN!" Nadina stood up and made a shooing motion at Kitty before turning her back and standing silently facing the front wall of the caravan.

Seeing that the Gypsy was finished with her, Kitty turned and started for the door. Suddenly Nadina whirled around, reached out her right arm and grabbed the back of Kitty's white shirt.

"WAIT!" The old woman turned Kitty around and gripped her jaw with her left hand. "You MUST take what the tall man leaves! Your very life depends on it! Take what the tall man leaves!" The Gypsy collapsed onto the stool Kitty had been sitting on, and sat looking at Kitty with unreadable dark eyes.

"What..what does that even MEAN?" Kitty asked, but the Gypsy still seemed in a trance. The mysterious phrase stuck in Kitty's mind as she slowly went down the steps and walked back over to now-dozing Magnolia. As she neared her mare, Kitty suddenly thought that she should have paid the old Gypsy something for her time. Reaching into her jeans, all she found was a dollar coin. She had never before carried any money on a horseback ride and never had any in her jeans.

"Must be meant to be Nadina's," she mused as she turned to retrace her way to the old caravan. Staring at where it should be, Kitty saw nothing but a shady place in the pristine grass under a towering oak tree, and a large orange and black butterfly gracefully hovering in the still air.

Chapter Five: Doc

Kitty got back to town with just enough time to clean up and change her clothes before her appointment with Doc. She had replayed her encounter with the Gypsy woman over and over on her ride back, but still could make no sense of it.

"Doc will never believe it!" she smiled to herself. "But at least now I know where that nightmare comes from, and hopefully it won't come back."

She had made up her mind to not tell Doc or anyone else about the rather crazy "Take what the tall man leaves!" admonition. The "tall man" must refer to Matt, but beyond that she was without a clue.

A little before 3 PM, Kitty walked up the stairway to Doc's office, her diary in hand. She had changed out of her jeans into a long black skirt and a close-fitting, long-sleeved, lacey white blouse with a deep, flattering open neck. Her glossy red hair was in loose curls caught up high at the back of her head, and her artfully-applied makeup accented the blueness of her eyes, and the curve of her cheekbones. She would be heading back to the Long Branch soon to help Sam get set for the busy night.

As soon as she came in, Doc could see how much more relaxed and happier she looked. The sparkle was back in those sky-blue eyes he so loved, and her body had lost the strained tenseness of the past few weeks.

"Hello, Doc! How has your day been? Magnolia and I went on such a long, wonderful ride this morning! We stopped at that oak grove west of town, you know the one I mean, and met a fascinating old Gypsy woman there, Nadina, and she told me all about my nightmare, and somehow made me remember about me almost drowning as a child, and then she just disappeared-the whole wagon and horse!-and I really think the nightmare won't come back, now that I understand it!" She stopped to take a breath, and stood there smiling at the dumbfounded look on dear Doc's craggy face.

"Whoa there, Kitty! Here, come on and sit down," he gestured towards the black leather settee under the window, "and let's go over this a little slower." Kitty sat down as Doc dragged over his wooden desk chair and sat facing her.

"Now what's all this about a Gypsy woman interpreting your dream? We'll talk later about the advisability of you riding out that far all alone."

Kitty now slowly related all that had happened, and what she had remembered about almost drowning as a small child. "But, Doc…HOW did she do that? When our hands were gripping each other so tightly, I SAW myself as a child in old Martha's backyard with my eyes closed. It was like I was there, with all of the smells and sounds, too." Her eyes were wide and a small crease was between her shapely eyebrows as she looked at the man she knew to be the wisest, and most educated, man she had ever known.

The slight old man in the baggy pants, white shirt, and raggedy black vest, ran his right hand quickly over his mustache and lower face, and looked down in thought. "Well…I'll tell you Kitty," and Doc's faded grey-blue eyes met hers. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," he softly recited.

"Doc…?" Kitty looked at him questioningly. Doc's words were confusing but somehow the young woman felt their meaning.

"Shakespeare, Kitty, Shakespeare. Hamlet, actually." Doc now pulled his large, old silver watch from his right vest pocket, and carefully consulted it.

"Kitty, I have to head out to the Sullivans' soon. Is there anything I can do for you? You seem to be fine now, but if you have any more problems with that nightmare, you let me know right away."

"Thanks, Doc, but I do feel perfectly fine now." They both stood up, and Kitty gave Doc a quick hug. Heading for the door, she suddenly stopped and turned back, handing Doc her notebook. "As soon as I got back from my ride I wrote down everything I could remember. Maybe my writing will explain things better than my talking. But I want this back! I really like putting down my thoughts. Just don't laugh at me, please." Her face was slightly flushed and she fiddled with one lacey cuff on her blouse.

"Of course not, Honey! Some of the wisest people write down their thoughts, and I feel privileged that you entrust yours with me."

Chapter Six: Reunited

When Kitty was halfway down the steps from Doc's office to the street, Matt, Chester, and their prisoner, Jocko Blaine, came into view, their mud-caked horses looking as tired and dirty as they did.

"Hi, Matt…Chester! Welcome back!" Kitty waved and hurried down the rest of the stairs and out into the street. She was eager to be snuggled up against him in the big, brass bed later that night, and to share her story about the Gypsy afterwards.

Hearing her voice, Matt straightened up in the saddle where he felt he had been slouched forever. His tiredness always lifted at the sight of his beautiful red-haired woman greeting him. He stopped his horse, and Chester, leading the bound prisoner on his horse, stopped beside the Marshal.

"Hello, Kitty, you sure look pretty" he said in a low voice as he smiled at her and their eyes met. She had come up to the side of his big buckskin horse and put her hand on the saddle, almost imperceptibly touching the handsome lawman's right leg.

"Hello, Miss Kitty! It sure is good to git back. We had a mighty rough time catching this 'un!" Chester nodded his head in Jocko's direction, sitting glumly on the horse behind him, handcuffs on, and roped to the saddle.

"Hello, Chester," Kitty said warmly, smiling at the slim young man who would ride through hellfire for the Marshal.

Smiling her special smile just for him up at Matt, Kitty said, "You two be sure to stop in for a drink as soon as you can…you must be awfully dry."

Chester grinned at the beautiful young woman he so admired, but whose heart he knew belonged to the Marshal. "That sounds mighty good, Miss Kitty! My mouth feels like someone planted a whole field of cotton in there!"

"See you later, Matt" Kitty said, as Matt nodded his head and slowly rode off towards the jail, Chester and Blaine following.

Matt and Chester locked up and fed their prisoner, and cleaned themselves up. Chester had already taken the three tired, dirty, and hungry horses down to the stables for old Moss to take care of. As the Marshal and his assistant walked over to the Long Branch, Chester was softly singing the "Big Eyes" song and absentmindedly whittling. Looking over at his friend, Matt grinned fondly.

Kitty beckoned the two men to join her at the back table by the stairs. It was still too early for Doc to have finished his rounds, but he would undoubtedly shuffle in that evening. She looked over at Sam and he brought over three mugs of cold, foamy beer. Even with his stiff right leg, Chester was the first to reach the table, pull out a chair and sit down. He gratefully downed his mug, looked up with sparkling brown eyes, and let out a sigh of pleasure. Matt had just sat down next to Kitty.

"My, that just hit the spot, Miss Kitty! Oh, excuse me, Miss Kitty! Red-faced, he quickly stood up, touched the brim of his well-worn black hat, took it off and sat down, putting his hat, whittling stick and knife on the table. "I was so dry I plumb forgot my manners around a lady," he said sheepishly.

Kitty gave him a warm smile, and put her slim left hand over his large hands clasped around the empty mug. "Don't you worry about a thing, Honey." Chester grinned and cleared his throat.

"Wal, I think I 'll just go on over to the bar and say howdy to some of the fellows!" Scraping back his chair, and nodding at Kitty again, he limped over towards two cowboys at the far end of the bar near the swinging doors.

Sipping his beer, Matt inched his chair a little closer to Kitty's. "Kitty, what's happened to you?" he asked in a low voice. "Is that nightmare totally gone? You sure look happier and less stressed than when I left, even after taking those sleeping powders Doc gave you."

"I feel so much better, Matt! Got some sleep to catch up on, as you do too, by the way you look. Come on up after your rounds tonight, and I'll tell you all about it…after a while." She gave him that look that made him forget his exhaustion, and remember the warm tingling sensation where she had touched his leg earlier.

He put his big right hand on her shoulder, gently squeezed, and stood up. "Think I'll head over to the office and catch some sleep so I won't be too tired for…your story," he smiled. Walking over to Chester who was sipping a second beer, Matt told Chester to keep an eye on things while he got some rest. Immediately, Chester put down his mug, straightened up and left the Long Branch with the Marshal, telling him he would keep a close watch on the prisoner while Matt slept. Chester would rest later, his dedication to the Marshal taking precedent.

Later that evening, Matt started on his nightly rounds, leaving Chester sleeping on a bunk in the office. It was close to midnight when he got to the Long Branch, having left it to last. Kitty was standing at the far end of the bar, near the door to her office, chatting with her big head bartender, Sam. Sam was a craggy-faced bear of a man, but he was always dressed in a dapper style, with high-collar, pin striped shirts under tastefully patterned vests, and accented with a black string tie and arm gaiters. He was as loyal to and fond of Kitty as he was large. When he saw Matt walk back in, he informed Kitty that he would close the place up alone tonight. He knew she needed Matt more than ever tonight after the morning's event in her office.

"Thank you, Sam," Kitty touched his forearm and then met Matt's eyes, gave a slight nod, and headed up to her room above the bar.

After scanning the room, Matt slowly sauntered towards the back door, went out, and climbed the back stairs towards Kitty's room. Recognizing her man's boot steps, Kitty called out "Come on in, Matt." She had already quickly undressed, and was wearing only Matt's old, faded blue shirt, totally unbuttoned.

Opening the door, Matt was met by Kitty's arms wrapping around his waist as she looked up at his startled face. "Welcome home, Cowboy! I've sure been missing you."

Picking her up in his big arms, he carried her over to the bed, kissing her as he walked. "Hmm, hmm, that shirt sure looks a lot better on you than on me." Undressing quickly, he bent down over Kitty, sat her up, and removed the oversized shirt. " But you look even better to me this way" he said in a low voice as he gently pushed her back and began kissing her eyelids, lips, generous breasts, and small, rounded belly. She entwined her fingers in his unruly dark curls in pleasure.

An hour later, as they lay contentedly wrapped in each other's arms, each drifting off to sleep, Kitty suddenly flinched awake. "Matt! I haven't told you what happened with the Gypsy woman!"

"Huh!? What 'Gypsy woman? What are you talking about?" Now fully awake, Matt turned enough so that he could look into her excited face.

He listened attentively to her story about how the Gypsy Nadina had somehow enabled Kitty to see herself almost drowning as a child. "Well, Sweetheart, I don't know anything about things like that, but you do seem like your old self now, so anything that helps you is more than fine with me. But you've got no sense in riding that far out of town alone!"

"Oh…you sound just like Doc, now! You both know darn well that I…"

"'Can take of myself!' Matt finished with a grin at her indignant face. He tickled her a little, and they both began to laugh.

"But Matt, I almost forgot to tell you what she said to me, and that I can't figure out. She told me in a loud, firm voice to 'Remember,' 'Learn from it,' and then the oddest thing, 'Take what the tall man leaves.' She said my life might depend on it," Kitty ended in a thoughtful tone.

"Well…THIS tall man sure ain't gonna leave anything!" Matt growled as he pulled her even closer and began deeply kissing her inviting lips.

Chapter Seven: The Ride

Matt had to leave Kitty's room for his office early the next morning, around 5:30 AM. He needed to fill out the paperwork on his current prisoner, Jocko Blaine, and wanted it on the first stage of the day.

"Kitty…Kitty," Mat gently shook her shoulder, "I've got to go now, but how about meeting me at Delmonico's around nine for a late breakfast?" He kissed her cheek as she mumbled something, and walked out as quietly as he could.

As Kitty drifted back to sleep, the nightmare returned, but this time it was more of a "remembering" than frightening. She was sad to see the little girl she had been, going through such a traumatic experience. She sighed and decided to get up. Sitting on the side of the bed, thinking what a long time it was until nine, it suddenly occurred to her that this would be the perfect time for a ride out in the country before the day heated up.

Going over to her closet, Kitty pulled out her favorite side-saddle riding outfit; a long, heavy, navy blue skirt, a matching navy blue, snug-fitting, buttoned jacket with a flare at the waist, and a high-collared, frilly white blouse with an attached wide white bow tie. A smart navy blue, peaked hat with a long, light blue sash around the crown, topped it all off. The color and fit accentuated Kitty's lovely coloring and figure, and she still smiled thinking of the look on Matt's face when he had first seen her in it. He and Chester had been lazing in chairs outside of his office when she had come proudly marching across the street towards them. Both men had immediately stood up and watched her approach with appreciative smiles. Matt's in particular had an intense, sparkling-eyed look that had almost made her blush.

When she was fully dressed and satisfied with her reflection in the full length mirror, she picked up her riding crop and headed downstairs to the empty saloon. Clicking down the steps in her black riding boots, she noticed something laying on the wooden floor close to the stairs, and shining in the early sunlight. Curious, Kitty bent down and picked up an open knife. Thinking for a moment, she realized that it must be Chester's whittling knife that he had put on the table last night before going over to the bar. It must have gotten knocked to the floor, kicked towards the stairs, and missed when Sam swept up. Not wanting it to get lost, nor to take the time to immediately return it, Kitty closed it and put it deep into the right pocket of her long skirt.

Moss Grimmick wasn't out in the stable area yet, so the eager young woman found her side-saddle and managed to heft it onto Magnolia by herself. Putting the bridle on, and getting up onto her saddle, she and Magnolia headed out into the still-cool May day.

"Maggie, my sweet girl, why don't we head out to the oak grove again? I'd sure like to find Nadina again and ask her to explain what she said." Kitty urged her mare forward and reveled in the feel of the wind in her face and of Maggie's strong muscles as they flew across the plain.

The two men had stopped in the oak grove to camp overnight, per their usual routine, when traveling between their cabin twenty miles further north, and their foraging routes in the surrounding twenty mile area. The leader, Cracker Morton, was a burly, bearded man in a torn red plaid shirt, and jeans so filthy they could stand up on their own, if he had ever taken them off. His face was round with a pug nose and beady dark eyes with a permanent look of meanness in them. His partner and brother, Rafe, was younger, and just as mean from a life of stealing and cheating, and drunkenness. Rafe, lean and pinch-faced, was no cleaner in appearance, wearing a tattered red undershirt with baggy, one-strap overalls. The men had left their dirt farm existence in Texas six months ago, and drifted around the country with a beat up wagon and team they had stolen to carry whatever they needed, find, and steal. So far, they had not murdered anyone, but had come close with merciless beatings of any protesting victims of their thievery.

Finishing up their breakfast of coffee and bacon, they were talking over where to go next to get more liquor, and whatever else they could find, when Rafe squinted towards the east.

"Hey, Cracker, ya see what I see?" he said, pointing a greasy finger.

Cracker looked up and peered at the horizon, finally detecting a far off horse and rider approaching from the direction of Dodge.

"Sure do, brother, sure do. Maybe we don't have to go anywhere today to get what we need." He had now been able to see the full skirt and the side-saddle position of the rider. "Come ON, Rafe, get that fire out and move the wagon and team behind some trees." While his younger brother obediently got to work, Cracker was busy loading two shotguns, just in case.

Kitty was admiring the summer sky, dazzling blue with a few puffy, white clouds, hoping to see the two hawks again. Nearing the grove, she thought she detected a fine trail of smoke drifting up from the ground, but then it disappeared.

Slowing her horse down to a walk, Kitty tried to remember where the Gypsy's horse and caravan had been. "Maggie, I know we stopped in our usual spot, under that biggest tree in the center there, and then I know that caravan was somewhere to the left, there."

Halting her horse under the largest oak, Kitty was so intently scanning the area where the caravan was, that she never heard the two men sneaking up on her from the other side.

"NOW!" Cracker yelled, and he darted around the back of Magnolia, roughly grabbed Kitty's skirt and legs and pulled her to the ground. She landed with a thump, knocking the air from her lungs, and causing her head to hit the ground. Rafe had tried to grab the horse's reins, but Magnolia reared, kicked, pulled free and took off at a gallop for Moss' stables in Dodge.

"Gol darn it, Raff! We coulda got some money for that fancy saddle and horse!"

"I couldn't help it, Cracker. That's some mean horse!" Rafe looked down at Kitty, sprawled on her left side, unmoving. "She dead? Mighty pretty woman, brother."

Cracker kicked her in her stomach, and she groaned. "Guess not. Be a waste if she were, huh, Raff?!" The two men looked at other and snickered.

"Can I go first, for once, Cracker, huh?" The filthy lanky man knelt down and was pulling Kitty's hat away from her tousled red hair.

"LATER, Rafe, LATER! Right now, we gotta get out of here. That horse of hers is heading for home, and a woman like this one will be missed by people. Bring the wagon closer." Rafe led the team from behind the nearby trees.

Kitty moaned and started to stir. Cracker pulled two pieces of rough rope from the clutter in their wagon.

"Rafe, tie her ankles. I'll do her wrists. Make it tight, now!" The big man effortlessly flipped Kitty over, yanked her wrists towards him and tightly wound a rope around them, while Rafe eyed his brother before running a dirty hand up and down Kitty's right leg before binding her ankles.

Kitty opened her eyes, blinking a few times, and panicked when she saw the leering men standing over her as she struggled to get up.

'Who…who are you two? What happened?" Trying to sit up, she realized that her wrists and ankles were bound. The left side of her head ached terribly, but she was unaware of the blood clotted in her hair.

Eyes flashing fire at the two dirty men who looked like some of the louts in the Long Branch who tried to bother her, Kitty's initial fear was now replaced by anger and outrage.

"You two untie me, IMMEDIATELY! This joke has gone far enough!" She figured she must have somehow been thrown by Magnolia, hit her head, and for some reason, these two grubby men had tied her up.

"Whoa there, Missy! This ain't no joke," Cracker laughed, " and you ain't gonna be laughing when we get through with you." Bending down, he grabbed her jaw roughly and tried to kiss her full lips, as she tried to jerk away,

Slapping her face hard, while Rafe laughed, Croaker picked up a stunned Kitty over his shoulder like a sack of grain and tossed her into the back of the junk-filled wagon. Turning to his brother, he backhanded him to the ground.

"Come on, stupid! We gotta get out of here. She'll be in a much more cooperative mood after twenty miles in the back of that wagon!" Cracker climbed up into the high front seat and picked up the reins as Rafe sullenly got up, rubbing his jaw, and climbed up beside his brother.

Chapter Eight: The Wagon Ride

The junk-filled wagon rattled along, jarring Kitty painfully with every rut and rock it rolled over on the makeshift trail. She was fully awake now, head still throbbing, wrists rubbing raw against the tight, rough rope. At least her riding boots protected her ankles from the rope. Looking around her, she saw empty coal oil cans, broken apple crates, empty whiskey bottles, and dirty blankets. And that was only the first layer of her limited view. Quietly rolling onto her right side, and straining her neck to see further up behind her head, she desperately searched for anything she could use to try to saw through the rope binding her wrists, which were now starting to lose feeling. Sighing in resignation, she laid her aching head down, and as the wagon hit a particularly large rock, the pile of detritus shifted, and Kitty saw a faint glint of sunlight on metal.

"You awake back there, woman?" Cracker had turned his head around and was squinting down at her. Kitty closed her eyes and let her head loll with the wagon's motion.

"Want me to go back and check, Cracker?" Rafe hopefully asked. "Bet I could wake her up right good!"

"You want some more of this?" The larger man put his hairy right fist in his brother's face. "I TOLD you we're gonna WAIT!"

Rafe slunk down silently in his seat, mumbling under his breath.

After waiting another five minutes, Kitty opened her eyes and started wriggling slowly and quietly towards the shiny object she had spied. Another deep rut jostled the wagon load, and a shiny, dented metal can with the jagged lid attached, rolled over and bumped into Kitty's head.

"Thank you, God", she gasped, and then managed to use her head and right shoulder and arm enough to work the can down towards her bound wrists. Turned on her right side still, legs bent, she wedged the can between her stomach and the rope, and sawed at the rope with the sharp, jagged lid.

The rope finally parted, and Kitty dared a look up at the backs of her two captors. They were slumped forward, the bulky driver soundlessly staring straight ahead, and the lanky man beside him tunelessly humming. They were now rattling across a rickety, loose board, wooden bridge that was twenty feet above a deep and narrow river.

As Kitty slowly brought her ankles up within reach, and reached down with the can lid, Rafe looked back to admire the figure of the lovely red-haired woman.

"Hey!" Hurdling from the high seat into the wagon bed, Rafe grabbed towards the can in the woman's hands. Frantically, Kitty rolled to her knees and unsteadily stood up, brandishing the sharp can.

"You want this? HERE!" Kitty slashed at the dirty, pinched-in face, slashing it down his right cheek.

Screaming in pain and surprise, Rafe swung his left fist at Kitty as hard as he could, striking her right face and propelling her over the side of the jolting wagon. Cracker was trying to control the startled team, and managed to rein them in on the far side of the rickety wooden bridge.

"What happened back there?! Where is she?! What did you DO?!" Cracker's round face was beet red with rage as he glared back at his brother.

"Who cares?! Look what that #^*%$ woman did to my FACE!" Rafe shrieked, holding a grubby red bandana against his bleeding cheek.

"Where's the woman, you hog's head?!" Cracker was scanning the wagon and the bridge boards.

"She..she fell and went into the river." Rafe whined, his desire for her suddenly gone.

Walking back along the bridge, and looking over the side into the still, deep water, Cracker did not even see a ripple. Huffing in disgust, he turned and walked back to rejoin his pathetic brother, mumbling to himself that they should have at least taken those fancy rings she was wearing before leaving the oak grove. Cracker climbed back onto the high seat in front, clucked at the team, and the wagon continued on its bumpy way.

Chapter Nine: Remembering

Kitty plunged into the deep river head first, the shock of the cold water helping to revive her as she continued to sink towards the bottom. Fully awake, she turned her body upright and wind-milled her arms in a frantic attempt to reach the surface. Even though a good swimmer, Kitty was being defeated by her tightly bound ankles, and the heavy weight of her waterlogged riding skirt, now wrapping itself around her still-bound legs. Desperation enabled her to reach the surface just long enough to stick her face up and suck in a breath of air before sinking down again below the surface.

She was drowning. She was reliving her nightmare. There was nothing to grasp, and no one to help her this time. As her oxygen-deprived brain started to give up, Kitty looked up through the clear, blue water and saw the faraway sky, the same pale blue as her Cowboy's sparking eyes.

"NO! I never give up! I've got too much to go back to!" Renewing her struggling, her strength starting to wane, Kitty heard a firm voice in her head: "REMEMBER! LEARN!" A picture formed in her mind of a small red-haired girl struggling in water, fighting her too-big, faded green dress wrapping around her legs.

"THE SKIRT!" Kitty ripped at the buttons of her riding skirt as fast as she could. She wriggled free of it and was about to drop it when once again she heard the voice, seeming to scream now: "TAKE WHAT THE TALL MAN LEAVES!"

Pulling Chester's whittling knife from the skirt pocket, she let the skirt drift free, opened the knife and cut through the rope binding her ankles. With her lungs bursting, she flutter kicked to the surface.

Chapter Ten: Found

Early that morning, Moss had pondered whether he should mention to the Marshal that Miss Kitty's horse and side-saddle were missing. A man who abhorred gossip and loose talk of any kind, he decided to keep quiet unless asked.

Matt had waited patiently outside of Delmonico's until 9:15, then thought he'd go inside and get a table for them. At 9:25, Doc was passing by, looked in, and walked over to Matt's table, carrying his ever-present, battered doctor's bag in his left hand.

"Well, Marshal, looks like you're keeping banker's hours, having such a late breakfast!" The old man in the rumpled suit shuffled over, pulled out a chair and sat down, taking off his ancient black hat and putting it on the chair next to him.

"I tell ya, Doc, I've been up for hours doing paperwork, and now I'm darn hungry! Kitty was supposed to meet me here a half hour ago. I was just thinking about going over to the Long Branch to check on her. Figure she overslept, what with how tired she's been lately."

The two old friends both knew about Kitty's nightmare problem, and didn't want to discuss it in public.

"Come on, Matt, I'll go with you." Doc had Kitty's notebook inside his bag and needed to return it to her.

Both men put on their hats, and scraped back their chairs as Chester's wide-eyed face came into view at the open door.

"MR. DILLON! MR. DILLON!" Chester hurried in, rapidly swinging his straight right leg, face flushed with his news.

"Take a breath, Chester. What is it?" Matt said in his usual calm, deep voice.

"I saw Sam over at the Long Branch, and he was worried about Miss Kitty not coming down yet this morning, and she wasn't up in her room, and then I went with him down to the stables, looking for her, ya know, and Moss said that her horse and side-saddle were gone!" Chester took in a deep, ragged breath, staring at Matt expectantly.

Before Matt and Doc could respond, the old stable man came hurrying in.

"Marshal! Miss Kitty's Magnolia just trotted into the stables…alone."

Matt snatched up his Stetson and rapidly strode out the door and towards his office, with Chester loping along beside him and Moss and Doc scurrying along behind.

"Chester! Get our horses saddled and I'll meet you at the stables. Doc, maybe you'd better come too."

"I sure plan on it!" Doc barked, worry knotting his stomach.

Matt grabbed two loaded rifles, canteens, bedrolls, and saddle bags before heading towards the stables, frowning and determined to bring Kitty home. The thought of living without her scorched his heart.

The three men gathered at Moss', Matt and Chester on their horses, Doc on the front seat of a wagon…just in case.

"Where in the world do we start lookin', Mr. Dillon? Sam's been askin' around everywhere and nobody has seen her today at all!" Chester's voice always went higher and had more of a twang when upset, and the thought of Miss Kitty lying out in the prairie alone and hurt had almost unraveled him.

Matt and Doc's eyes met. "The oak grove!" they said in unison, and with equal dread.

They headed west towards the grove, Matt and Chester at as fast of a gallop as possible, and Doc bringing up the rear in a bone-rattling pace for a horse and wagon. Matt's big buckskin got there first, with Chester's roan a few lengths behind. Doc in his wagon was still back on the horizon.

"Chester! You go that way, pointing left, and I'll go this way", pointing right, "before we follow those wagon tracks ahead. This isn't a large grove and we don't want to go riding off without making sure she isn't here."

"Yes, Sir, Mr. Dillon," and the loyal assistant walked his horse slowly while he intently studied the ground.

Matt had already started his search when Doc's wagon rattled into the grove. Spotting the fresh-looking wagon racks straight ahead, he understood what Matt and Chester were doing, and decided to get down and rest his wagon-battered bones until the men returned.

Walking around aimlessly, studying the peaceful surroundings, and trying to still his own impatience, Doc glanced up at the branches of the grove's largest, central tree. Fluttering from a low branch was a woman's navy blue peaked hat, caught by the long, sky blue ribbon trailing from the crown.

"MATT!, CHESTER!" The small old man had a surprisingly loud voice, as Chester already knew, and his hollering brought his two friends galloping back.

Seeing Doc silently pointing up at the hat, Matt immediately spurred his horse straight ahead, up the path of the wagon tracks, Chester following closely behind. Doc scurried over to the wagon, climbed up, and urged his horse to follow.

When they reached the wooden plank bridge over the deep river, Matt signaled for Chester and Doc to hold up.

"Before we go any further, I'm going to head up along the river bank this way", pointing right, "Chester, you go the other way, and Doc, you stay right here."

Chester's dark, soulful eyes always showed everything he felt, and now they reflected the painful fear he saw in the eyes of the man he admired and respected more than any other.

As Matt turned to go, Chester called out, "Mr. Dillon!" The Marshal turned his head back towards Chester with an impatient look.

"Mr. Dillon, we're gonna find her!" he said in a determined voice.

Matt nodded and trotted off down the riverbank.

Chester slowed his horse to a walk, as he carefully scanned the vegetation along the riverbank. Unsure how far the Marshal wanted him to go, he looked up at the sun and figured he should head back. Turning his horse around, he spotted a glimpse of white at the river's edge along the near side of a large tree root. Riding closer, he saw the white collar and tie of her blouse, the soaked red hair, and the partially submerged body, left arm stretched out, hanging onto the root, right arm lying on the bank, fist clenched. Halting his horse with a sharp tug on the reins, Chester got off and hop-ran over.

"Oh, my heavens! Miss Kitty…" he gasped, bending down on his left knee, right leg out straight. As he tentatively reached out a hand to touch her pale face, her eyes opened and met his.

"Chester," she tried to smile, "I have your knife," and opening her right hand, his open whittling knife fell out onto the wet grass as she fainted.

Chester carefully pulled her out of the water, and carried her up the riverbank to dry ground. He laid her gently on the ground, using his hat as a pillow, and got his bedroll off of his horse. Opening it , he wrapped it around her, then cradled the unconscious young woman in his arms as he sat on the ground.

"MR. DILLON! MR. DILLON! DOC! DOC!" he hollered at the top of his voice.

Hearing him, Doc used the rifle he had in the wagon to fire off two shots, and the Marshal rapidly galloped into sight. Seeing Doc standing up on the wagon seat and pointing in Chester's direction, Matt kept galloping until he saw Chester and Kitty. Skidding his horse to a halt at a sharp pull of the reins, Matt leapt down and raced over, overjoyed but still fearful.

"She's alive, Mr. Dillon. The poor little thing looks plumb worn out, and almost drown, and before I pulled her out of the water she give me back my whittling knife that I thought I'd lost!"

Matt knelt down, gently touching the bruises on her left cheek and jaw, unshed tears in his eyes. She opened her tired eyes, looked up into eyes the color of the Spring sky, and weakly smiled.

"Kitty, honey, are you all right?" he asked tenderly.

"I am now, Cowboy." she whispered.

Chester looked down as the Marshal cleared his throat and took Kitty from Chester's arms into his own, stood up and started walking back towards Doc. Chester followed behind, leading the two horses.

Doc was impatiently waiting, hopping up and down with anxiety. Seeing Matt carrying Kitty, with Chester following, leading the horses, he leaped down from his lookout atop the wagon seat, and hurried towards his cherished friends.

"Matt! Is she.."

"She's alive, Doc, but pretty worn out." He looked down at her lovely face, ready to tear the throats out of whoever did this to her.

Matt carefully laid her in the back of the wagon that Doc had prepared with a thick layer of blankets and pillows.

"Chester saved her, Doc," Matt added. " He's a good man to have around."

Turning beet red, but enormously pleased with the Marshal's praise, Chester looked down and kicked at the dirt of the trail.

"Oh, Mr. Dillon, I jest come across her. You know I'd do anything for Miss Kitty."

"All right, you two! I need to get these wet clothes off of this young lady and check her for injuries. You two go away somewhere for a while!" Doc wanted to get her back to his office as soon as possible, not liking how pale Kitty looked, and once again she had closed her weary eyes.

"Sure thing, Doc. Come on, Chester, we need to water these poor horses, anyway. " The two tall men led their mounts away and further down the river bank.

Doc found nothing broken, and no sign of internal injuries. The only physical damage appeared to be the series of bruises on her face, a mean bump and gash on the left side of her head, what appeared to be rope abrasions around both wrists, and severe exhaustion. Her shivering had stopped once she was dry and warm. Otherwise, she seemed strangely calm, and even at peace. He knew she would explain later.

When Matt and Chester cautiously returned after Doc beckoned them over, he gave the men the good news about Kitty.

"She'll be just fine after some rest and nourishment. I'm taking her back right now, whether you two keep following that wagon trail or not. And, no, I didn't ask her what happened or who did this. That's not important right now." When he finished, Doc squinted up at Matt.

"You're right, Doc. We're going into town with you and Kitty."

Matt got into the wagon beside Kitty, pulling her up against his chest, and wrapping his strong arms around her. Chester rode along behind, leading the Marshal's buckskin horse.

Doc drove the wagon at a slow and easy pace, trying not to jostle his precious cargo. Kitty had dozed off again, warm and safe in her Cowboy's arms. Chester was softly singing his favorite "Big Eyes" song.

As the wagon passed under the largest, central oak in the grove, Kitty eye's opened and she looked up to see a cloud of large orange and black butterflies ascending into the clear blue sky.