Haunted Heart

A Gunsmoke Story

By Amanda (MAHC)

"In the night though we're apart,

There's a ghost of you within my haunted heart.

Ghost of you, my lost romance,

Lips that laughed, eyes that danced.

Haunted heart won't let me be,

Dreams repeat a sweet but lonely song to me.

Dreams are dust, it's you who must belong to me,

And thrill my haunted heart.

Be still, my haunted heart."

"Haunted Heart"

1948

Lyrics: Howard Dietz

Music: Arthur Schwartz

Chapter One: By Tomorrow Night

POV: Matt

Spoilers: "The Badge;" "The Disciple"

Rating: PG-13 (Teen)

Disclaimer: I did not create these characters, but I love to play with them (especially Matt).

Author's Notes: This story takes place after "The Disciple," using some of the storyline created by the writers of the show. I have, however, ignored most of Season 20 (as most of us have anyway) and created my own storyline.

XXXX

Matt Dillon rarely swore. It wasn't that he had anything against it; he just wasn't inclined to express himself that way very often. In his circle of friends, Doc was the most likely to grumble a few expletives, and Kitty had spit out more than one "damn" or "hell," usually toward him. Festus mostly made up words that only he and his hill country relatives would recognize as profane. Tonight, though, the thrifty conversationalist marshal ground out a colorful series that all of them would have admired.

Of course, no one was there to verify. And that was why he indulged himself.

The night had gotten well underway by the time he and Buck stumbled across a serviceable stand of trees, their gnarled roots crawling over the ground like arthritic fingers. Still, it was the best place for bedding down he'd come across in several hours. After dragging the saddle from the weary horse and making sure he was watered, he laid out his bedroll.

Humidity hung heavy in the air, pressing down on his lungs and sucking the strength from his body. In weather like this, he felt the reminder of every bullet, each knife, and even a fist or two from the previous 20 years. Running a hand roughly through the thick waves of graying brown hair, he decided that he was getting old. Funny, but that was something he figured he'd never have to deal with. The lifestyle he led, the job he held – he hadn't thought he'd ever see 40, much less be looking toward 50.

His leg bothered him the most. At least out on the trail he could give in to the ache, groan and grimace as much as he wanted, limp as heavily as he felt like limping. No one would wonder if he was spent. No one would speculate if there might be a chance now to take the "un-takeable" Marshal Dillon.

He flexed his right hand experimentally. It had become habit over the past few months, a daily test of the progress he had made after the disastrous injury to his right forearm – his gun arm. The pain was still there, he noted, irritated that it remained, but encouraged that it seemed to diminish bit by bit. Either that or he was just growing tolerant of it. Not as if he hadn't lived with pain before.

Shaking his head, he kneeled gingerly, taking care not to put too much weight on the right leg before he let his body drop onto the bedroll. There were times he felt like heading the opposite direction of his adopted town, going up into the hills again, living off the land. It had its appeals. At least the responsibilities of the world might lessen, although he figured he'd never be completely shed of them.

And then there was another reason he didn't take off. As they usually did when he was alone on the trail, his thoughts turned to Kitty. He wondered what she was doing that night, imagined her sliding out of her fancy dress and slipping into a sheer gown. If he had been there, she would have drawn him to her and run her fingers over his aches, kissed scars and rubbed away the tightness of his muscles. With the vision, he felt his body responding, closed his eyes with the familiar sensation of arousal. He chuckled. Maybe he wasn't that old yet.

But his chuckle died out as he remembered that he hadn't left under the best of circumstances. The fury in her blue eyes had followed him throughout the long prairie ride and down into South Texas. She hadn't wanted him to leave, had argued that his arm wasn't strong enough, that he still was too vulnerable. He had assured her he would be fine. In fact, he had strapped on his old, comfortable right-side holster again, confident enough in the skill he had fought so hard to regain for the past six months. He winced, though, at the memory of her anger. But he was almost home now, and he was returning to her unscathed – if she didn't count the raw streak that damn stage robber's bullet had burned across his ribs. Of course, his own bullet had landed between the man's eyes, so the exchange had definitely come out in his favor.

Now, he was ready to do what it took to make those eyes light with joy instead of anger – both physical joy and emotional joy. By tomorrow night this time, he would be in her arms, caressed by her fingers and her lips instead of the heavy prairie air. By tomorrow night, he would have told her. He smiled in anticipation of her reaction and drifted off under the stars, dreaming of her touch.

XXXX

"Mmm, smell that air, Matt."

As he entered town, the marshal drew in a deep breath, and did, indeed, smell the air, and let the memory of her voice float across his mind. It had been four years before, when she left him after he took that bullet from the would-be freight office robbers, and he had been terrified she really meant it. He had even gone to Ballard after her, eventually deciding he couldn't force her to return. But she had. And as they stood outside the jail, she had commented on the smell.

"Somethin' different?" he had asked, barely able to contain himself over her return.

"Umm hmm," she had answered confidently. "Dodge City."

He had wanted to catch her up into his arms and twirl her around and kiss her – and more – right there on the street, but he had managed to control himself until they escaped behind the closed door of her room. Barely. After that, he had not worried about control, at least for the rest of a very passionate night.

The memory brought a smile to his lips. He ran a hand over the rough stubble of his jaw and briefly contemplated freshening up before he saw her, but he couldn't wait. Almost a month away from her had made him eager and impatient. Besides, there were times she liked him unshaven and just off the trail. He hoped this was one of those times.

Buck headed toward the Long Branch, and Matt had to smile at the evidence of his predictability. He knew that if he tugged the reigns just to the right, the horse would take the hint and track to the jail. But he didn't. Instead, he let the big buckskin clop up to the rail, as he had done many, many times before. As Matt dismounted, he forced back a grunt, trying to ignore the flash of pain in his back and leg. He was in town, now. Even though he couldn't completely mask the limp, he could grit his teeth and lessen it.

Glancing down his long body, he took a moment to knock the top layer of dust off the front of his shirt and pants before he stepped up onto the boardwalk. Only a few more seconds, now, he thought, steeling himself not to let the physical force of being with her again cause any embarrassment.

It was midday, and the saloon catered to a decent crowd, most of whom nodded to him as he entered. A few did double takes when they realized who he was. He didn't blame them. He'd been gone quite a while this time. Still, the strange expressions on their faces nagged at the back of his brain.

"Marshal."

He immediately released those irritating thoughts and nodded across the bar at Floyd, giving him a tired, but courteous smile. "Kitty in her office?" he asked quietly, not too concerned about being casual. Floyd knew the score as well as Sam had.

But instead of his usual smile and head tilt, the older man swallowed and let his eyes dart nervously toward the office door. Matt followed the gaze, not sure what he was looking for, except that he wanted to see Kitty breeze out and greet him. Then, someone did come out, but it sure as hell wasn't Kitty. A solid woman, with a pleasant face that, nevertheless, brokered no nonsense, walked up behind the bar.

Floyd stepped back and nodded toward Matt. "This is Marshal Dillon," he said.

The woman's eyes widened slightly, but she covered the reaction quickly and extended a hand. "Well, Matt Dillon." She looked him up and down boldly. "Everything I've heard and more."

He wasn't sure what to make of that, so he just took her hand briefly. "Ma'am."

"Don't 'ma'am' me. I'm Hannah."

He used the moment to assess her, wondering if Kitty had hired another bartender. But this woman didn't look like a barkeep. She looked like – he gritted his teeth with the suspicion – like an owner.

"Where's Kitty?" he asked, too impatient to bother with further pleasantries.

Hannah's pleasant expression faltered a bit, and she hooked a thumb toward the hallway. "Uh, why don't ya' come on back to my office, Marshal – "

My office?

But he didn't budge. Squaring up so he stood his full, dominating height, he repeated, "Where's Kitty?"

Floyd looked at Hannah, who sighed and shook her head. "Well, Marshal," she said, her eyes softening, and he realized with horror that the softness was sympathy. "Kitty's gone."

TBC