He was mad at himself for going against his instincts and not taking the situation more seriously

The Same Bright Star

Author's Note: This was written as a challenge story in Gunsmokeobsession requesting an MM in "Marry Me" (original air date December 23, 1961) but it also contains an ATC.

All characters are copyright to CBS, I'm just borrowing them.

"Somewhere out there

Someone's saying a prayer

That we'll find one another

in that big somewhere out there.

"And even though I know

how very far apart we are

it helps to think we might be wishing

on the same bright star.

"And when the night wind starts

to sing a lonesome lullaby

it helps to think we're sleeping

underneath the same big sky.

"Somewhere out there

if love can see us through

then we'll be together

somewhere out there"

"Somewhere Out There" sung by Linda Rhonstadt

He was mad at himself for going against his instincts and not taking the situation more seriously. Doc and Kitty had both teased Matt about needing to defend the redhead from the reedy looking hill lad who had tried to take her out of the Long Branch yesterday until he'd silenced the doubts which nagged at him and good naturedly submitted to their ribbing. Well, he sure had to take this seriously now.

Kitty was gone.

Matt, sleeping in for once, had been awakened by someone pounding on the door to the marshal's office. He'd yanked on his boots, grabbed his gun and then suddenly swung the door inward. Sam Noonan, Kitty's bartender, tumbled into the room. "What's the matter, Sam?"

The bartender's gnarled face twisted into a grimace of worry. "It's Miss Kitty, Marshal. I think something happened to her."

"What makes you say that?" Matt asked sharply as a surge of adrenaline cleared the last vestiges of sleepiness from his head.

"Well, it's after noon and she hasn't come down yet. No one's seen her."

Matt, considering what he'd been told, pulled at his curls. While it was certainly true that Kitty wasn't known for getting an early start on the day, she generally did put in an appearance at the bar long before the midday meal. His lawman's mind was already running possible scenarios, none of them benevolent. Damn the Law and damn this badge. I've told her before that getting involved with me had risks. Logic overrode that destructive line of thought as he remembered a few of Kitty's choice words on the matter: Not everything that happens to me is because of you, Marshal Dillon! In spite of that, he had to admit that Sam had a point. "All right. Sam, you go back to the Long Branch. I'll get Chester and Doc and we'll see if anyone has seen her around town."

After an extensive search, none of them could find any hint of her.

They congregated at the Long Branch, which was obviously suffering from its mistress' absence. The chairs hadn't yet been pulled down off the tables and the bar hadn't even been set up. As Chester called for him, Matt came stomping down the stairs. For an unguarded moment, worry and anger played across his face. Then the lawman's neutral mask was back in place as he tersely informed them, "Her room was locked from the inside. I had to break the door down and it looks like quite a scuffle took place." I should have taken the incident with the hill man seriously, even if Chester was exaggerating when he told me about it.

Doc Adams' skeptical expression told Matt he didn't think much of the lawman's detective work. "You thinking someone could have kidnapped her?"

He ignored the sarcasm in the old physician's voice and asked, "Doc, do you know of any hill people who might have moved in recently?"

Chester was the first to put the pieces together. "Mr. Dillon, you -- you mean that feller who come for her the other day come back to git 'er, do you?"

Matt, his expression now of stubborn resolve, shoved his big hands into his vest pockets. Leave it to Chester to know what I'm getting at. "Well, I don't know what else to think."

"Well," Chester demanded impatiently, "what are we going to do?"

In a brittle, cold voice which none of them had ever heard the marshal use, unless Miss Kitty's safety was involved, he said, "We're going to search every inch of that prairie until we find her." With a curt movement of his hand, he gestured for Chester to accompany him. "We'll see you later."

"Now, just hold it a moment," Doc protested. "That's a lot of territory to cover, Matt. Shouldn't you look around town a little more, see if you can't find out where Kitty might have been taken if she's been taken?"

The marshal stopped short at the batwing doors. He cast a backward glance at Doc and said, "There's nothing more to be done here. I don't care how long it takes, how many miles I have to ride. I'm not coming back to Dodge without Kitty." His voice softened just a bit and his shoulders slumped. My fault. "I've got to find her. You understand?"

Doc Adams gave Matt a fatherly pat. "I think I do," he said. "Good luck, son."

Matt drove himself and Chester hard across the prairie so that they could cover as many miles as possible. Even when night began to fall and the horses began to falter he refused to stop. Chester's bald faced chestnut gelding stumbled, then lifted his head, blowing lather. Chester felt compelled to say something to the marshal, if only for the poor beast's sake. "Mr. Dillon, don't you think we oughter to make camp for the night?"

The thought had clearly never entered the marshal's head. He seemed oblivious to everything except finding Kitty. Buck had slowed to a walk without a command to do so. Impatiently, Matt hauled up on the reins, pulling the animal short. "There's a moon tonight, Chester. We can still do a lot of looking." He dug his spurs into Buck's flanks and urged the animal back into a trot.

"Sorry, ole boy," Chester mumbled to his tired mount and slapped the reins against the animal's neck in order to get the animal running again.

They'd ridden until the moon set, covering perhaps ten more miles. Matt might have chanced riding on in the dark but he had to acknowledge that both horses were played out. As he loosened the cinch and began taking the saddle off Buck, Matt realized for the first time just how hard he'd ridden the poor buckskin. The animal stood splay footed with sides heaving, flecks of foam streaking through the trail dust on his sweat matted hide. Buck snorted gratefully when all his tack was removed and even mustered the strength to nuzzle the marshal's vest pockets.

Matt felt ashamed as he fumbled in his pockets for the pieces of dried apple the animal was seeking. He felt a pang as he did so because they'd been Kitty's idea. She always made certain that Matt had some when he was out on the trail because Buck loved them so. Whenever she could, Kitty would meet Matt at the stable, give Buck a pat on his thick neck, and say, for the horse's ears only, "You take care of him and bring him back safe, okay?" Then she'd hand Matt the package of dried apples with the admonishment, "You make sure Buck gets these. He does a lot for you, you know."

I failed to make sure she was safe and now…. I failed them both. There was just no excusing the current condition of his horse, or the way he'd dismissed the threat to Kitty when he'd been told about it. Sighing, he tethered Buck for the night and began arranging his bedroll.

Chester had had the foresight to gather tinder and fuel for a campfire. He had a small cheery blaze and coffee going by the time Matt got Buck rubbed down, fed, and watered. Matt stretched out, using his saddle as a support for his back, and accepted the cup of coffee Chester handed him. "Thanks, Chester. How's your horse?"

"Oh, don't you worry, Mr. Dillon. He'll do. I got him rubbed down and gave him some water. I'm just sorry we couldn't keep up, is all." He paused as he added a log to the fire and studied the marshal intently. "You want I should fix you somethin' to eat, Mr. Dillon?" Chester asked gently as he rummaged through the saddlebags. After their arduous ride and in consideration of the late hour, beans from the can would have to do.

"No, he responded as he finished the last of his coffee. "Go ahead and fix yourself something if you're hungry." The marshal smiled wryly, knowing his assistant never refused an opportunity to eat. "I'm gonna try to get some sleep. We'll need an early start tomorrow."

Sleep, however, was a long time coming. Somewhere a coyote howled and another answered. The fire burned low, the coals glaring sullenly back at him. Matt lay against his saddle and looked up into the broad black expanse of the prairie sky. Stars glittered coldly between scudding clouds. Matt had never before felt lonely out on the prairie because he knew Kitty would be waiting for him when he returned. Not knowing where she was, or if she was well, cut him to the core. He hoped, wherever she was, that Kitty at least had a roof over her head, a place to sleep, and something to eat. He prayed that whoever had her was treating her decently, hadn't harmed her. Matt focused on a single bright star, designated it hers, and imagined it forging a connection between them. Maybe she can see the same star. As he finally drifted off to into an edgy sleep, he could almost swear he heard Kitty's sultry voice whispering to him, calling his name.

Kitty wasn't asleep either. She lay on the narrow cot underneath the window, fully dressed, with one arm flung across her forehead while her fingers nervously twitched over one another. The Cathcarts hadn't posted a guard and the window hadn't been tightly secured after her last frantic attempt at escape. Through the ample gap along the top of the shutters, Kitty could see a single star shining brightly in the cool prairie night. Given her situation, she supposed she ought to feel bereft or abandoned. There was so much of the prairie in which to hide, more than one determined man on horseback could possibly cover -- even one of unwavering tenacity. Yet Kitty knew with an unshakable certainty that Matt was out there somewhere, looking for her, and that he wouldn't stop until he found her. I'm waiting for you, cowboy. I know you're out there…somewhere. "Matt," she whimpered softly, "Oh, Matt, I miss you!" Her eyes fastened again on the star, which sparkled more vividly than any other in that sliver of sky. Maybe he can see it too.

She could feel the irresistible pull of the bond they shared. It settled around her like a comforting cloak, warming and giving her the courage to try once more to escape. Matt stands a better chance of finding me out on the open prairie. Kitty sat up carefully, gathered her skirts, and crept from her bed past the sleeping Cathcarts. She didn't dare breathe until she made it out the front door of the cabin and down the rickety steps. As soon as her feet touched solid ground, Kitty ran blindly in the direction of the star, consumed with an intense feeling that it would guide her in the right direction. The strong, rapid beat of her heart pounded in her ears as she glanced back in search of Sweet Billy or his pa. Consequentially, she didn't see the pit until the ground gave way beneath her. Kitty tumbled to the bottom of the pitch black shaft then struggled to get her bearings. Within the disc of sky above she glimpsed her star, the only spark of brightness left. Working to gain a grip on what had happened, Kitty screamed. "Matt! Matt, help me! Oh, Matt, where are you?"

Matt bolted upright, hand grabbing instinctively for his gun. Beside him, Chester rolled over and brought the rifle into firing position. "What is it, Mr. Dillon?"

"Get the horses, Chester, and let's get moving. Kitty's in trouble. We've got to get to her!"

Chester looked around, searching for anything which could have alarmed the marshal this way. In the predawn darkness, he saw nothing he could identify as a threat. "M-Mr. Dillon, how do you know Miss Kitty's in trouble? I don't see anything…"

The look on the marshal's face put a stop to any further questions or conversation. His eyes were still on that star. "I just know. Now get the horses so we can ride out of here."

They rode hard again over terrain which grew steadily more wearisome for the horses but this time Matt periodically let the horses catch their wind.

It was finally full light, but there was a gloomy cast to the day. Cresting a rise, they both spotted a plume of smoke and followed it down. A small cabin with crude corral fencing had been built on the one place where the ground flattened out. Doc's buggy was parked beside the fence and they could see him tending a burning pile of what looked like clothes and other belongings. Matt pulled Buck down into a walk and he and Chester rode in for a closer look.

As Doc filled them in on the details of the now deceased tenant's contagious condition, Matt's mind began working over bits of information and putting them together. He and Chester had talked to a cowboy along the trail .He'd told them of mountain folk living east of the general direction in which they were heading. Doc had mentioned that his former patient had been to see a widow woman living out that way and that her place was the first one they would likely encounter. Doc's concern was that she might also have contracted cholera; Matt, on the other hand had a strong hunch, driven by nothing more than instinct, which told him that somehow these folks might be connected. It was worth a look anyway…he'd search every shanty and shack in those hills if it would lead him to Kitty. "All right, Doc," he said. "We'll help you finish here and then ride on together."

An old wagon road led east through tall grass over the steep, craggy terrain. About twelve miles on, it widened out into a badly tended farm yard in which a few scruffy looking chickens pecked around in the dirt. The cabin was old but had been well built. Doc got down out of the buggy, motioning for Matt and Chester to stay back, stepped up onto the porch, and knocked. A weak and wavering voice responded, "Come in and make yerself at home. I cain't get up but I do find company pleasuresome."

The interior of the cabin was poorly furnished but well kept. Someone had recently brought in wood, swept the floors, and at least made an effort to keep the place tidy. The one thing of value, a big brass bed, was pushed against the wall. In it rested a frail, elderly woman whom Doc presumed was the widow Aikins. He stopped short, did a double take, and then fumbled for his spectacles. No, his eyes weren't deceiving him; someone had beaten her. "Who did this to you?" Doc Adams asked, examining with quick but gentle hands the ugly bruises blossoming on the old woman's torso and across her back.

"Oh," Mrs. Aikins responded cheerfully, "don't you worry none about those. I'll be fine now; the Cathcart boy did me up proper!" She smiled, revealing toothless gums. "Anybody with a lick of sense knows it's the only way you kin git rid o' the cholera pains. Ain't much of a doc, is ya, young feller, if'n ya didn't know that."

After Doc had ascertained the elderly woman hadn't been harmed by the beating and that she was recovering from the cholera, he dared to ask a few questions. "So, tell me about these Cathcarts."

"Oh, they's good folk, Doc! One or t'other o' them boys is allus o'er here doin' for me and sometimes their old Paw comes when they cain't." She cackled and touched Doc's sleeve, acting as though she were about to let him in on a really juicy secret. "Orkey's got hisself a woman now, a right fine one from the city. A redhead's what they say. Right fine. 'Course, they's havin' ta tame her down some. Hear she's right feisty, but Orkey swear she the one for wifin'."

Kitty! "Does he now?" Doc said casually, raising a bushy eyebrow. "I don't suppose you'd tell me how to get there so I could pay my respects?"

"It ain't far," said Mrs. Aikins, waving a bony hand toward the east. "Jest foller the wagon path and it'll take ya to their cabin."

"Did you find out anything?" the marshal barked as soon as he saw Doc emerging onto the porch of the widow's cabin. It was all the big man could do not to burst through the door and drag Doc out. What had taken him so long? "Did she know who has Kitty?" His face was set in a dangerous expression and the fingers of his gun hand twitched above the holster.

"Easy, Matt," Doc told him, cautiously touching his sleeve. The marshal relaxed his stance and the old physician repeated the instructions that the widow had given him. "Now don't go in there all het up with your guns blazing," he cautioned, swiping nervously at his mustache. "I just…well, I get the impression that this might be more of a misunderstanding -- a clash of cultures, if you will -- than the actions of someone meaning to do harm. You're the law," Doc emphasized. "Don't let your personal feelings get in the way of that, hear?"

"I hear you," retorted Matt, squaring his shoulders, "but I'm tired of all this talk!" Without further word, he turned Buck's head up the wagon trail and nudged the buckskin into a brisk trot.

"Well, forevermore," Chester muttered as he encouraged his mount to follow at a more sedate pace, "what's got into him? I never seen Mr. Dillon quite like this afore."

"He's just anxious to get Kitty back safely," Doc temporized as he navigated his buggy over the rutted road. "The marshal will do what's right when the time comes." His answer seemed to satisfy Chester but the old physician wasn't at all convinced. If Matt finds her hurt or harmed in any way, there's going to be hell to pay.

When they could see the cabin through the trees, Matt signaled for them to dismount and had Chester tether the horses and buggy out of sight a little further back from the road. "You stay back here," he hissed at Doc and then, motioning for Chester to follow, crept toward the edge of the clearing.

He could plainly see the shanty but did not see anyone out and about. As Matt was about to move up for closer observation, the soft swishing of dry grass and the snapping of twigs distracted him. Chester hadn't moved; in spite of his handicap, he had long ago learned how to get around without making noise when the situation required it. No, it could only be Doc.

"I thought I told you to stay back with the horses," Matt whispered angrily.

"Well why didn't you jist wear a bell around your neck?" Chester said. "You move like a bull caught in a bramble bush. It's a wonder they ain't heard us comin' and come out and shot us."

"I'm here to make certain you don't do something stupid, Matt," Doc insisted. "Remember what I said."

Matt sighed and suddenly wished he had neither of his friends along. He couldn't look after them all and rescue Kitty. "Stop pestering me, Doc," he said. "I just want to get this over with." He started to move forward but Chester caught him by the sleeve.

"Mr. Dillon, you ain't gonna just walk right up there, are you? From what I know about mountain folk, they're liable to blow a hole clean through you."

"Well, now, that ain't quite right," Doc interjected, trying to diffuse the situation. "Mrs. Aiken said they were downright neighborly."

"I'm going," Matt declared through gritted teeth, hoping it would end the debate. The longer they waited out here, the higher the chance that something could happen to Kitty or that her captors would move her somewhere else. He told the other two what he wanted them to do and then, keeping himself covered by the brush, headed directly for the shanty.

Just as they both spotted the younger Cathcart boy apparently asleep on the porch, it was Chester who walked into the camouflaged pit trap. He gave a yelp of surprise as he went down at the same time as Matt saw Sweet Billy scrabbling for his rifle. The situation might have gotten nasty if both parties hadn't been so surprised. Matt was able to dart forward and take the rifle from the boy while Doc went to get a flustered Chester out of the hole.

"You got a woman in there?" Matt asked tersely, in no mood to be polite.

"That there woman belongs to my brother Orkey," Sweet Billy responded sullenly.

"Kitty Russell from Dodge City?" the marshal asked, his fists clenching. He yearned to simply beat the information out of the boy so he could get Kitty and take her away from here but knew such actions would be well beyond the law. Instead he raised his voice and called her name. "Kitty? Kitty!"

The door to the shanty opened and Kitty came running down the stairs. Her hair, no longer elaborately coifed, had come down. It hung in long shimmering strands down her back. She stopped short when she saw Matt in the yard and her blue eyes widened. The hesitation lasted only a few seconds and then she ran to him, throwing herself into his arms. "Oh, Matt," she murmured, clinging to him tightly, "I'm so glad you're here!"

"Are you all right?" Matt asked softly, his voice rough with emotion.

Kitty nodded but didn't get the chance to reply because Sweet Billy interrupted. "Does Orkey know you're out here in the air?"

An expression of disbelief and sorrow shadowed her face. "He sent me out here," Kitty replied quietly, distracted. "He wants you all to please be quiet."

"Kitty," said Matt, holding her at arm's length so he could get a better look at her, "are you sure you're all right?" He couldn't understand her preoccupation with the Cathcarts' wishes nor the sad expression on her face. Just looking at her was breaking his heart.

"Yes. Yes, I'm fine, Matt," she responded in the same distracted tone. It gave the lawman no such assurances.

He tried a different approach. "Well, who are all these people?"

"Not now," Kitty said tiredly. "Matt, I'll just have to tell you about it later." Seeing Doc come up the path she extended her hands to him and squeezed his warmly. "Doc, their pa's got cholera."

The physician's worry could not be disguised as he looked from Kitty to Matt and then back at the shanty. They've both been exposed. Mentally, he shrugged. Nothing to be done about it now. I'll just have to wait and see. Doc headed toward the shanty but Sweet Billy blocked his way. "Now see here, young man…" the squeak of the door hinge broke the tableau.

Orkey's slumped shoulders and slow movements -- like one in a dream -- told the story. Their pa had passed away. Doc fought the momentary tide of fury and self recrimination he always felt when he lost a patient. It was meant to be. I can still help Matt and Kitty if it should come to that. "Let's give them a bit of privacy, shall we?" Doc suggested as he herded Matt, Chester, and Kitty away from the two grieving brothers.

"The old man's dead?" Matt asked. Doc nodded and Kitty leaned against the marshal. He put an arm around her and pulled her closer to him, not caring who saw. These are my friends. They ought to know how I feel about her by now.

Kitty looked up and stepped out of the marshal's arms when Orkey approached their little group. Her eyes were warm with compassion. "I'm awful sorry about your pa, Orkey," she said softly.

"I know you are, Miss Kitty," the boy replied. Swallowing hard, Orkey continued, "I'm gonna ask you to favor me."

"Oh, now, Orkey, just because --" Kitty backpedaled, not wanting to hurt the boy's feelings and uncertain just how she could convince him to let her be. Beyond her, Matt looked on in confusion with his hand half way to his gun. He didn't know if she needed defending but he was ready to do it.

Orkey held up a hand, silencing her half formed protests. His next words shocked as much as gratified her. "I'm gonna ask you to release me, Miss Kitty."

She didn't understand at first; so much had happened in such a short time that Kitty couldn't process it all. An odd sense of disappointment warred with other feelings she couldn't name; Kitty hadn't actually wanted to marry Orkey but for some reason the absolution still hurt. Numbly she shook his hand and then retreated back to Matt's side, though not into his arms, looking on as Orkey returned to his brother. "They're good people, kind and gentle," she murmured, throat tightening. A profound sense of loss settled over her, smothering her. Her voice caught in a sob as she said, "A woman could do a lot worse than wifing with an Orkey Cathcart."

The big man stood awkwardly behind her, trying to make sense out of what Kitty had said. Just what she meant by that last remark, he didn't know. She knows I love her and she knows why I can't marry her. That ought to be enough. But it wasn't and somehow they both knew it. Matt had the acute feeling that he'd cheated her of something and wished that, whatever it was, he could make up for it. Seeing her like this, sad and vulnerable, just about broke him. "Well," she sighed, looking up at him, "I…I guess you'd better take me home."

As they walked away from the brothers and their sadness, they could both feel a distance between them. Orkey had looked with a purpose; he came and he chose. He had wanted her for wifing. Though she hated to admit it, there had been a certain peace out there in the back woods with the Cathcarts. They were so loving toward one another and -- in their own way -- with her. Kitty had found their kindness in caring for the widow Aikens touching. Though they knew she had cholera, the men didn't abandon her. None of them were a Matt Dillon, but they were still good decent men, quite unlike the usual population of the Long Branch Saloon with whom Kitty spent most of her time.

Matt could feel the heat of her body next to his and yet she hadn't taken his arm or leaned into him. Although he had, against all odds, finally found her he felt as if she was disappointed in him. His heart ached with confusion and frustration. What did she mean, she could do worse than marrying an Orkey Cathcart? Had she started to fall for this...boy? A surge of fear swept over Matt as he cast a sidelong glance at his beloved.

He did the only thing he could; he put his arms around her and gently guided her back to where they'd left the horses. Doc and Chester, wanting to give the two their privacy, maintained a discreet distance. The big buckskin, hearing them approach, lifted his head and whickered a greeting. As soon as Kitty was close enough, he thrust his muzzle into her skirts and enthusiastically nuzzled her. A ghost of a smile which didn't light her eyes played across Kitty's face as she patted Buck's neck. "Hello, old boy." Turning to Matt and frowning, she said, "He's been ridden hard."

Almost afraid to look at her, Matt examined the dusty toes of his boots. "I know."

Kitty was suddenly aware of the dark circles beneath Matt's eyes and the strain that was evident in the way he held his body. He had pushed Buck hard and fast in search of her, just as she knew in her heart that he would. Yet now he stood looking as forlorn and confused as a little boy. It was almost as if he was uncertain whether or not his place remained beside her. Kitty bit at her lip as she realized that although she could have been anywhere in the world, somehow her cowboy had pinpointed her within that great expanse beneath the stars. She understood then that an official recognition of their relationship in the form of marriage would never matter as much as what the two of them actually had together. That he would risk ruining the horse he highly valued, to get to her… "Got any of those dried apples left, Cowboy? Buck sure looks like he could use some."

Matt's expression brightened at her use of the old endearment. He rifled through his vest pockets. "I might have a few left. Here," he said, putting the partially empty packet into the palm of her hand. He watched Kitty feeding Buck morsels, murmuring words he couldn't hear into the big buckskin's ears and tidying the forelock which always hung so persistently in Buck's eyes, and simply reveled in her presence. She was alive, she was safe, and she was his again. He'd stay with her a few nights when they got back to Dodge, brush out that hair for her, and then show her what he couldn't here. Matt wanted no doubt left in Kitty's mind what she meant to him.

A slight movement, something out of sync, caught Matt's attention: Kitty, her face pale, clutching Buck's bridle as she reeled against the big horse. She would have fallen if Buck had not pulled his neck up to accommodate the slack. Matt darted forward as Kitty wilted against him and swept her up into his arms. "Doc! Doc, get over here now!"

"Matt," Kitty murmured, "don't make such a fuss. I'm kinda tired, is all. Please, just take me home."

"You hush up, young lady," Doc chided gruffly. "No one's going anywhere until I take a look at you."

"I'm fine, Doc," Kitty protested with a trace of her usual asperity but he ignored her. A tense silence ensued while the crotchety old physician took her pulse and felt for fever. Kitty's eyes were closed, her breathing slow and regular. Her hand, twined through Matt's curls, suddenly fell away. Matt's heart leaped in his chest as her head rolled back against his shoulder.

"Is it…?" Matt asked anxiously. To have found her only to lose her again….

"What? Goodness me, no!" exclaimed Doc, sounding surprised and annoyed. "Why, I think she's just plumb wore out. A decent night's rest and a good supper ought to put things right." A more troubling possibility entered Doc's mind, but Matt was already distressed enough.

Feeling relieved, Matt nodded. "I'll put her in your buggy, Doc, and we'll get out of here." It didn't work out that way. Kitty stirred enough to protest being removed from Matt's arms. "She's been through enough," Doc finally conceded. "Can Buck carry her?"

"He'll do," replied Matt. He bent his head low and whispered to her, "Kitty, you're gonna have to go with Chester for a moment, then he'll hand you up to me." Placing her in Chester's waiting arms, Matt vaulted into the saddle. Chester lifted her up, he accepted her gently, and settled her against him. "Don't worry, Kitty," Matt said as he wrapped his strong arms around her and took the reins from the pommel of the saddle, "I'm not going to let anything else happen to you."

"I know you won't," Kitty responded drowsily, leaning back and resting her head on his shoulder.

The group set a slow pace back to Dodge in order to make the journey easier on Kitty and to let the horses regain some of their strength. Matt, aware only of Kitty and mind numbed by the ordeal, replayed the events of the past days over and over in his mind. Eventually he became aware of someone pulling up on Buck's reins. "Leave me be," he snapped. "I gotta get Kitty home."

"Mr. Dillon. Mr. Dillon." It was Chester's voice, anxious and trying to impart something the marshal needed to understand. Chester pulled on Buck's reins again. "Mr. Dillon, you kin let go. We're back in Dodge, right here in front of the Long Branch."

"Huh? Oh." Matt grinned sheepishly. He shifted in the saddle so as not to disturb the sleeping Kitty and looked around. "Why, I guess we are, Chester."

"Hand her down to Chester," commanded Doc after he'd gotten out of his buggy and tied the horse to the hitching rail. Reluctantly, Matt surrendered Kitty and then dismounted. He was stiff and sore; his bad knee gave a twinge and he stumbled back against Buck's side. The buckskin turned his head in his master's direction and, seeing that Matt was all right, seemed to regard the lawman with a reproachful gaze.

"I got her," said Matt, taking Kitty back into his arms. He'd missed her so much while she'd been gone that he never wanted to let her go. "I'll take her up to her rooms."

"You do that," said Doc, swiping at his mustache and pulling the crumpled black hat down over his iron grey curls, "and while you're at it, get some rest yourself. I'll be up to check on the two of you sometime tomorrow."

The three men exchanged glances. After all that had occurred, there was no reason for any of them to pretend. Neither Doc nor Chester expected the Marshal to leave Miss Kitty's side any time soon.

"Chester, take care of the horses for me, would you?"

"You bet, Mr. Dillon. I'll get 'em stabled and fed." Chester's voice and expression softened. "Good night, Miss Kitty. I'm awful glad you're back where you belong."

Matt smiled at his assistant, the first real smile he'd given since Kitty had disappeared. "I'll be sure to tell her that, Chester. See you tomorrow."

"You need to rest up too, Mr. Dillon," Chester said as he began to lead Buck and his gelding toward the stables. "I'll take care of things for ya."

"I know you will. Good night, Chester, and thanks."

Long ago, Kitty had gifted Matt with a key to her rooms on a slender blue silk ribbon. Matt carried her up the back stairs and then balanced her in the crook of one arm while he fished in his pockets for the key. As he entered her rooms, Kitty relaxed completely and nuzzled into his neck, uttering a small purr of contentment. Matt fought to master the first stirrings of arousal, knowing Kitty was likely too tired to engage in their usual bedroom activities. Instead, he laid her gently upon the large brass bed and removed her shoes.

Matt didn't feel it would be prudent for him to do anything about her clothing so he left it alone. Her hair though…. Even dead tired, Kitty wouldn't want to leave it like that. After some fumbling around, he located the silver backed brush she liked to use and awkwardly began combing out the leaves, twigs, and straw from the copper tresses. It poured like silk through his fingers, filled him with a longing so sharp it almost hurt. Time enough for that tomorrow. A radiant, serene smile graced her face.

Quietly Matt pulled off his boots, tucking them under his side of the bed. The gun belt and holster went next, followed by the vest and his shirt. That was enough…for now. With a deep, tired sigh, he lay down and pulled her into the safety of his arms.

She spoke so quietly, he wasn't certain he'd heard her. "There's our star," she whispered sleepily.

"Oh?" Matt whispered back, curious. His eyes were drawn to the open window, where the same bright star that he'd used to focus his thoughts of Kitty out on the prairie watched over them.

"When I was imprisoned in the shanty, that star was visible through the shutters. I held onto it and thought about maybe you being able to see it too."

Matt chuckled, burying his face in her hair and breathing deeply her scent. She spooned against him and reveled in the feel of his strong muscular arms around her. He planted gentle kisses along her neck. "I knew you needed me, Kitty. You already know how much I need you…don't you?"

"I could feel you in my heart, Matt. I don't know how, but... Oh, Matt, I know you probably think it's silly of me, thinking that I could somehow reach you through a star."

"Kit, there's nothing silly about it. I felt you through that same star. That same star helped bring you back to me; I followed it to find you."

Matt was tired of words. He turned Kitty and pulled her against his chest as their lips met in a long, hungry kiss. When they reluctantly separated, they were once more in complete harmony with one another.

The star, its work accomplished, set on the horizon and winked out leaving the lovers sleeping in one another's arms.