Dry Route to Dodge

A Gunsmoke Story

by MAHC (Amanda)

Chapter One: Hard to Miss

POV: Matt

Spoilers: None, yet

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: I did not create these characters, but I love them.

Matt Dillon felt helpless, and that was a new and uncomfortable sensation for him. Arguably the tallest man in Kansas, he was also broad, and strong, and brave, and determined, and smart. And usually in command of any situation in which he found himself – if not immediately, then soon after it began. Uncounted outlaws had discovered that fact a bullet too late.

But not now. Not here. Not in this place. Here, he was lost, out of control – helpless – and he didn't like it. He didn't like it one damn bit.

She groaned, turning her head restlessly, upsetting the cloth that lay over her brow so that it slid off onto the meager excuse for a bed. He caught the wet rag before it reached the dirt floor, noting that the coolness had been sucked from it by the heat of her body. Her smooth cheeks, normally creamy white, were flushed rose with fever, the brilliant red of her hair dulled by sweat.

Kitty Russell was sick, terribly sick, and there wasn't a thing Matt Dillon could do about it.

Helpless.

A thin shadow passed over the bed, lingered by his shoulder. He didn't bother to look up.

"Yer wife shore is ailin'."

He also didn't contradict the observer – on either assumption. Instead, he nodded, keeping his eyes on the pale figure on the bed.

"I'm gonna cross over to the Wet Route and take the northbound stage to Larned," the man said, running a hand through his thinning hair. "When I git there, I'll send a doctor, but – " He stopped. It was unnecessary to complete the thought. A doctor from Larned would arrive much too late to help. By the time he got back she would be better – or dead.

Ignoring the searing pain that grabbed his leg, Matt rose suddenly, pushing his long frame up so that he almost brushed the rough-hewn timbers of the ceiling. "Thanks anyway," he snapped, not caring if it was rude. Kitty was desperately ill, possibly dying. He had no time for diplomacy.

Not for the first time he wondered if maybe they should have trudged across the rough land to the Wet Stage Line and tried to catch the next coach back to Larned, risked the jolts and jostles that might snuff out her life even sooner. Would that have been better than wasting away in this miserable hole of dirt and dust?

"Couple of hours to the Larned stage, Mister Russell," another voice announced, but Matt he didn't respond, not remembering who they thought he was. "It's a good three miles over there, if yer goin'. Mister Russell?"

Blinking, he turned to see the gaunt face of Skinner, the stage stop master, looking up at him curiously.

"What?"

"The Wet Route stage. It should be passin' in a couple of hours. You plannin' – "

They both let their gazes fall to the bed. "No. She's not strong enough. It could – make her worse." Kill her, he couldn't say.

"Don't look like she could git much worse," the man noted, peering into her pinched features.

Red flashed before Matt's eyes, and before he could stop himself, fatigue, frustration, and fear overwhelmed him, and he grabbed the man's shirt front and jerked him to his boot toes. "She not going to die!" he declared, voice low and dangerous.

Pale eyes widened, and Skinner trembled in his desperate grasp. "No. No, 'course not. She's – she's gonna be fine – "

Vision clearing, Matt let the terrified man drop, disgusted both with the fool and with himself. She was NOT going to die, he vowed. Not while he was there to keep her alive. He had to keep her alive. If he didn't, there was no reason for him to live, either. He had never told anyone that, not even Kitty, but he acknowledged the fact in the face of its reality.

His leg ached constantly now, throbbing with each minute muscle flinch, ligaments and tendons that had endured years of abuse finally protesting this latest assault. He wasn't sure just how far he had carried her – certainly no less than five miles. They were about twenty miles out of Larned when the front axel had broken straight in two, cracking the hitch and propelling the stage over onto its side. The horses, freed from their burden, headed off, still bound together as a team, across the scattered sagebrush.

Except for a few scrapes and bruises, everyone but the driver had survived the crash, but they were stranded, high and dry. Very dry.

Stretching out the limb, he eased back down into the chair beside Kitty and studied her face, so familiar to him, so beautiful. A raw wound threatened to open in his gut at the thought of never seeing that face again.

He dragged his gaze away from her long enough for a quick check of the tiny room, one of only two that made up the stagecoach stop station. Its temporary population included – besides Kitty and him – Skinner, and two passengers, one of which was about to set out across the dust-dry earth to gamble his chances on the northbound stage.

The other elected to stay. Unfortunately.

XXXX

The sun had established itself as the dominant presence in the sky by the time Deke Crocker stepped back into the shack. Matt heard his boots thump through the dirt.

"Dust over yonder. Must be the Larned stage."

The marshal merely nodded. It couldn't do him any good. The next stage running the Dry Route to Dodge wouldn't go through for another twelve hours or so. A lifetime, he feared.

"How's Miz Russell?" he asked politely, but his tone contained no true compassion.

Matt glanced up sharply, wondering how he knew her name.

Reading his expression, Crocker shrugged. "The manifest. Wayne and Kitty Russell. You boarded in Kansas City." He smiled. "Besides, Ol' Skinner called you by name earlier." He pointed to Kitty. "And it don't take a educated man to see she belongs to you."

At Matt's second look, he explained, "I like to know who I travel with. You, ah, you in business in Kansas City?"

He was fishing – with a big pole, Matt knew. "No. My – wife's – father was sick. Died, as a matter of fact."

Those dark eyes lowered respectfully. "Sorry. And now she's got what he had?"

"Apparently."

"Tough luck."

Marshal Matt Dillon scanned the man for just a moment, not too long, not too obviously. He knew Deke Crocker. Didn't want to. Didn't have time to. But he did. Hard to miss a man whose face stared out at you from at least three of the wanted posters currently pinned to the board in the jailhouse at Dodge.

Horse thief. Bank robber. Murderer. Hard to miss.

"Listen Russell, I don't know if you've noticed, but we're fairly stranded here until they realize that stage is overdue and send another for us."

Matt narrowed his eyes. "I've noticed."

"Well, I figure we're pretty near sittin' ducks for the Indians – or the animals."

"Maybe."

"You're wearin' a gun," he pointed out. "Can you use it?"

If it weren't for their dire situation, Matt might have smiled ironically. Instead, he allowed a casual shrug. "Most men can use a gun. The question is – how well."

Crocker raised a brow in acknowledgement. "Fair enough, then. All right – how well?"

"Well enough."

They sized each other up for a beat. Crocker blinked first. "Hope we don't have to find out."

Ignoring him, Matt turned back to Kitty. With just a half-glance toward the other man, he unbuttoned her dress from neck to cleavage and pressed a fresh, cool cloth against the hot skin.

To his credit, Crocker stepped back outside. Matt wondered what the outlaw would do when he found out who Wayne Russell really was. Eventually, the marshal would have to go after the wanted man. Eventually. But not now. Now, he had to stay with Kitty, had to keep her cool – had to keep her alive.

A low moan drew him back to focus on her. Her dry lips moved wordlessly. After a moment, she opened her eyes, just to slits, and saw him. At first, he wasn't sure she was even coherent, but the harsh lines of pain softened and a smile almost touched her mouth.

"Matt," she whispered, tone thick with love.

Relief swept over him, filling his heart. He caught her hand in his and before he thought, he had leaned in and kissed her gently, just a quick brush of his lips to hers. She was back. She was alive.

"Matt?" This time the name wasn't said with affection. This time it was uttered with suspicion and a touch of incredulity.

The marshal spun around and caught his breath at the heaviness of comprehension. There in the doorway, eyes narrowed and hand on gun, stood Deke Crocker.

Deke Crocker. Horse thief. Bank robber. Murderer. Hard to Miss.

"Matt who?"