Disclaimer: as always, this is offered for my own satisfaction, the only profit being feedback from any readers who are so inclined. "Gunsmoke" and all parts of that property belong to Viacom and I intend no infringement on their rights

This is a "Gunsmoke" MM/After The Credits sequel to "Whelan's Men" (first aired Feb. 1973), with reference to "Hostage" (first aired Dec. 1972). I presume a few more months between these stories, however. "Quiet Day In Dodge" (first aired Jan 1973) and others offer backstory. Several other episodes provided inspiration as well.

TREASURED by MarMar (started Jan 2005 completed March 2009)

Matt's head pounded, from stress and the lack of sleep or perhaps from the powdered medicine Doc had forced on him, he wasn't sure. He just knew that the throbbing in his head matched the throbbing in his left arm. Doc had cleaned and treated the gunshot wound in Matt's arm, but he knew from experience it would hurt and be stiff for a week or two.

The lack of sleep was due to riding all night to get back to town. His trip to Abilene to deliver a prisoner had taken longer than Matt had expected, what with the weather, a lame horse that had to be coddled on the trail, and the Abilene sheriff being out of town when Matt finally did get the prisoner there. All in all, Matt had been anxious to get back to Dodge; back to the comfort of familiar surroundings, food that hadn't been hanging in a bag from his saddle for days, and an actual pillow instead of a saddle under his head at night. That and the desire to see a certain redhead had been the impetus driving him to push Buck hard on the trail home, forgoing the temptation to stop and rest, pausing only long enough to eat a cold trail meal, needing the energy for the hard ride. Now, here he sat in the Long Branch, in the aftermath of something he didn't yet fully understand, Doc fussing over him, his head pounding, his arm throbbing, and Kitty telling him she had been mixed up in some high stakes poker game with Dan Whelan and his gang. On top of all that, he had caught her red handed breaking her promise to him not to "deal" at the Long Branch. His jaw clinched just a little.

Why was it sometimes life just seemed to work everything against him? All he had wanted was to get home to some peace and quiet and warmth. He had pushed hard to get here and had walked into nothing but chaos. Now, Kitty was telling him she was too tired to even talk to him about what had been going on in the town. Briefly Matt wondered if that was really just a dig at him. He worried that Kitty had not completely forgiven him for falling asleep in the middle of their evening a couple of weeks ago, or for the picnic he had missed. Then he had been called to transport Jake Higgins down to Abilene for trial. He and Kitty had found little time to be together in recent weeks and Matt knew it was entirely due to his job.

Since the events of several months ago, Matt had begged off every out of town duty he possibly could and when his job forced him to be away, he had shaved every possible minute off the time he was gone. At first, the regional office had requested nothing extra of him and he had been able to send Festus or Newly out when local duty required attention to something more than a few hours ride from Dodge. Matt suspected the governor had made some well placed suggestions on the subject, knowing that Matt was quite capable of proclaiming himself unfit for any duty at all if he felt the need. Matt himself had told the governor he would and he had meant it.

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Kitty's recovery would be long and slow, Doc had told him, once he was sure she would survive. Matt remembered the evening she had first regained complete consciousness, a full three days after he had returned from his own quest to kill Jude Bonner. Festus and Newly had pulled him back from the brink of that chasm just before he had thrown himself over the edge and he would always be profoundly grateful for their actions. It shook him to his core, still, when he allowed himself awareness of how close it had been. Upon returning to Dodge, Matt had left the official duties in their hands, fearing he would do it all again, given the chance, and knowing he had a greater duty elsewhere.

He had met the deputies in the street and taken their report, surrounded by the men who had ridden out with them. Then, telling his friends to do what had to be done, he had turned away and silently climbed the stairs to Doc's office. There, for three days, Matt had sat beside the woman of his heart. He had held her hand, caressed her hair, gently touched his fingers to the one area on her face left relatively unmarred by the abuse she had suffered at the hands of the Dog Soldiers. He had talked to her, he had prayed, and more than once he had felt the tears burn tracks on his own face. He had ached to lie beside her and enfold her in his embrace. For three days he had spared only few precious moments from her side to attend to his own personal needs.

She had awakened, looking clearly into his eyes for the first time. He hadn't spoken the first minute, waiting, reveling in the restored connection. Then he had told her what she needed to hear.

"Kitty, you're at Doc's and he's taking care of you. It's over. You're going to be okay. I love you, Kitty." She continued to stare into his eyes, pleading. "I'm here, Kitty. It's okay now." Her eyes moved down to the empty front of his shirt and back up to his eyes, questioning and fear in her gaze. He understood. His had not reclaimed his badge from the table under Doc's window. "They are all in custody, Kitty. Every last one. It's over." He was safe; he had not crossed the line. He felt her gentle squeeze on his hand and saw her expression relax a bit. As she closed her eyes again, Matt saw the first tear escape and glide across the swollen bruises on her cheek.

Ten minutes later, Doc had returned, entering his back room to check on them. Hearing their voices and feeling Doc's touch on her wrist, Kitty had opened her eyes and spoken.

"Doc?"

"Well, now Kitty. That's fine, just fine" He continued to examine her, looking into her pupils, listening to her chest. "Kitty, I need to touch you. It may hurt and if it does, more than a bruise hurt, I want you to tell me." Doc had looked into her eyes as he spoke, making sure she was listening and had understood him. "Are you ready?" Doc asked before proceeding.

She had held his steady gaze for a minute, then with the hint of a nod she said, "Ready." Her voice was rough and weak.

"Now, tell me if the pressure increases the pain and, if it does, how." Doc instructed.

Kitty had pressed her eyes closed and with a small nod had turned her face away.

Matt continued to hold her hand as Doc worked from the opposite side of the bed. He watched as Doc poked and pressed along her sides, across her middle. Twice Kitty's hand had flinched in his as she had let out a gasp, followed by a moan while Doc probed the area that had elicited her response. Finally, Doc stopped the torture. Matt was touched by the tender way Doc put his hand to the side of her head as he spoke to her.

"Kitty?" Doc waited for her to look at him.

"Kitty, this was alright. It'll take some time, but I think you're going to be just fine, just fine." Matt noted that Kitty looked at Doc, accepting his words with no emotion evident on her face.

"I want you to just rest now." Doc was saying. "I'm going to take Matt with me for a few minutes and he'll bring back some water and a bit of broth for you. Do you think you can drink down some broth for me?" Asking her to do it for him was an intentional ploy on Doc's part. Matt knew that Kitty would do anything Doc asked, if she could.

Kitty had silently nodded yes and with a final touch of his fingertips to her hair, Doc had said, "Just rest now," and motioned for Matt to follow him into the outer room.

***

Following Doc to the outer room, Matt had kept his voice low, "Doc?" He could hear the pleading in his own voice, the stress and fatigue taking over from the relief of seeing Kitty regain consciousness.

"It's all right, Matt" Doc was quick to reassure him, absently waving his hand in the big man's direction to forestall his worry "I meant what I told Kitty. I believe she will recover just fine, physically, with time." Doc moved over to the small stove and with his back to the marshal began dipping up some broth into a cup.

"But?" Matt stood straight, as if in preparation for a physical attack. He had begun to tame his worry, but the hesitation he sensed from Doc caused it to rear up, threatening to charge out of control.

Slowly, Doc walked to his desk and set the cup down before turning back to Matt.

"Matt," he watched as Doc rubbed his hand across the bush of a mustache and in front of his mouth, almost as if trying to block the words he had to say.

"Matt, the wounds that we can see, the ones I can touch, I recognize those and I can treat them. I know how to help them heal. But, Matt, the things she suffered, well, they weren't just physical. They were mental, and emotional. Those wounds, those wounds are harder to diagnose and as for treating them," Doc shook his head and eyes heavy with concern searched Matt's face as once more he swiped a palm across his upper lip. "Matt, we just can't know, really, what to expect."

Matt had listened as Doc had tried to delicately, but firmly, warn him of what might be in store for Kitty, and by extension, for Matt, for all of them close to her. He had heard: there was no way to know the effects, no way to predict her reactions, expect a rough period of highs and lows, Kitty would need his understanding in ways Matt had never known before.

Matt had found it difficult to stay focused on Doc's voice, his own mind conjuring images of what Kitty must have experienced at the hands of Bonner and his men. Matt had felt the killing grip of hate grab hold of his chest as it had when he first had seen Bonner on the trail. Knowing its power for destruction, knowing that his drive to kill Bonner with his bare hands would give release to his own anger, but do nothing for the woman who needed him now in a way she never had before, Matt had turned his back to Doc. He had anchored his hands onto Doc's medical cabinet and, gripping it with such force that he caused it to shake, Matt had battled with his rage, willing himself to regain control. He still heard Doc behind him, knew he was concerned.

Finally, Matt had been able to bridle his fury and rein it in. He had expelled a gust of breath and turned back to Doc. Running his hand back through his hair he spoke.

"Doc?"

Doc had seen the tension ease out of Matt's xpression, his shoulders. "It won't be easy, Matt. She has a long way to go and she'll need help."

"Doc, you know I'll do anything. Tell me ..."

"I can't." Doc interrupted. "I can't tell you to do this or offer that. We just need to be there, be ready to step in when we see she needs us." Matt nodded. "And she will need us, Matt. Physically...and emotionally. And she may not be able to tell us what she needs. I just...I don't know. We just have to wait and follow her lead."

Matt had looked straight at Doc for a moment before saying,

"Whatever she needs, Doc. Whatever it is, I'll be here"

Doc had stared straight at Matt, stared into him, before nodding his head and turning his attention back to the broth.

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"Hey!" Doc's probing of the wound in his arm jolted Matt back to the present.

"Matt," Doc ignored the complaint, "I'm gonna need to have you come on up to the office. That arm's in need of a few stitches." Doc began to gather his things, preparing to return to his office.

Once more aware of his surroundings, Matt silently watched as Doc packed up his old black bag, mentally balking at having to follow the older man outside and upstairs to allow him to stitch up the wound. All Matt really wanted was to sleep. That, and the chance to have time alone with Kitty, time to assure himself that she was all right, time to get answers to the persistent questions spinning in his head, making it pound even more.

Kitty was over at the bar talking quietly with Sam. Matt thought he heard her tell Sam to just lock up and go get some sleep. They wouldn't worry about business today. He looked out past the half-doors and noted that the day was well into morning. They had all been up all night and they all needed rest, but Kitty had said she was too tired to even talk. As much as anything, this concerned Matt. For all the years between them, forever it seemed to Matt, he could count on one hand the times Kitty had not willingly put aside her own needs, finding the time for them to be together when he had returned to Dodge, making the time for them to talk, to touch, to reconnect. Those niggling questions about her true motivation returned unbidden to his thoughts. Was there more to her reluctance now?

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Doc had been right, of course. Especially those first weeks after she was strong enough for Doc to release her from his constant care, Kitty had been unpredictable. She was often quiet and withdrawn, even on the public floor of the Long Branch. Yet other times, seemingly unaffected, Kitty had been quick to put off blatant overtures or concern. Even in private there had been less than Matt had expected; far less. The times she alluded to the ordeal were infrequent. Though she had sought comfort in his embrace more than a few times, allowing herself to openly weep, to express some layer of her own anger and pain, Matt had never seen evidence of the depth of devastation he had expected. Though they had not resumed their former level of intimacies, sharing no more than a gentle kiss at times, she had fairly quickly welcomed him back into her bed, accepting the tenderness and security of sleeping in his arms, grateful he was there when the nightmares came. Only twice had he truly witnessed her rage, a few times he had listened as she railed against the memories, had watched as she allowed the emotions release against some unresisting inanimate object. It still happened occasionally, even this many months later.

Yet still, he had the feeling there was more, that she kept something from him. Rarely had Matt felt this with Kitty; in all their years together they had no secrets.

They had both learned when to give the other time, but always even the darkest parts of their lives had been shared, eventually. Matt tried to convince himself it was just a question of time. There had never been anything between them that compared to this. Maybe he was expecting too much, too soon.

Maybe.

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The familiar jangle of spurs announced the arrival of Festus to the Long Branch. His customary "Howdy, Matthew!" caused Matt's head to pound more still. Replying with a simple "Festus," Matt had set his right elbow on the table, propped his head on his hand, and closed his eyes. Festus took the hint and jangled on past Doc's triage station.

"Howdy, Sam; Miss Kitty." Matt heard Festus call. "It was shore a night, weren't it?"

"Sure was," Sam agreed.

"A long night," Kitty's voice was heavy with fatigue.

"Well, Miss Kitty, I reckon you had just 'bout the longest ol' night of any one of us." Festus nodded.

Matt found himself actively listening to the conversation taking place, hoping Doc would delay their exit for just a moment.

"Well, the longest or not, it's over now and I for one am going to get some sleep before I fall over."

"Miss Kitty," Festus said, stopping her as she started to move away from the long, well seasoned bar. "We done got collected together all the things that ol' raggedy bunch was grabbing up. I was thinkin' you might like ta come on out and take a look see at it. You know, see ifin you can't pick out which of those fancy doodads is yourn, 'fore we start tryin' to figure which goes where, don't ya see?"

"Oh, Festus, thank you, but you just go on ahead. I don't think there's much chance anyone will try to claim what isn't theirs after what we've all just been through. Besides, there wasn't anything that was all that special to me. I'll take a look later. Right now, I am going upstairs to get comfortable and get some sleep."

With that, Kitty had indeed walked across the room and up the Long Branch stairs calling over her shoulder, "You all just clear on out now, so Sam can lock up and get some sleep himself."

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Dodge had been quiet throughout the day. Matt had indeed slept away the rest of the morning as had many in Dodge. He had spent most of the afternoon clearing up work that had accumulated while he was away. Most of the town had been slow coming to life; even the Long Branch had not opened for business before dark. Once it did open, though, business had been brisk, everyone wanting to hear about what had transpired during the hours when all but Sam and Miss Kitty had been holding their breaths, waiting for Dan Whelan's gang to leave town. Rumor had spread that Whelan had come to Dodge to take revenge on Marshal Dillon, to kill him. Everyone wanted to tell what they knew and hear what others were telling.

Sam, ever careful of Miss Kitty's privacy, had carefully followed her request to share no particulars of the betting she had conducted with Whelan. He knew it would have thrilled many to hear the details; shoot, it still made him chuckle and shake his head in amazement when he thought about it. But he agreed there were some who might have twisted the information to their own interpretation. Everyone knew the basics, knew that Marshal Dillon had prevailed, that he had killed Dan Whelan, and everyone's belongings had been returned. The rest was mere conjecture, fed by the consumption of celebratory drinks and the fact that Miss Kitty did had not descended to the public floor of the saloon until rather late in the evening.

Sam had smiled, seeing Matt Dillon at the half doors, stopping to survey the setting before entering the saloon. Sam knew the marshal did this as a precaution, a saloon being a rather volatile place, but he had also realized years ago that Marshal Dillon used the opportunity to pinpoint the whereabouts of the saloon's beautiful owner. Having done so, the marshal would step through the doors able to walk directly to her side while casually looking over the other inhabitants of the room.

This time, however, the woman of interest had not been in the room. Marshal Dillon had watched the room as he walked to the bar near Sam's position. He had greeted Sam and asked of Kitty's whereabouts. Sam had offered him a beer while telling him that Miss Kitty had not been downstairs as yet. Matt had accepted the beer, thanking Sam for the information.

"Sam, seems I owe you another thanks as well." Dillon said.

The bartender's face showed mild confusion as he asked, "Now, what would that be for, Marshal?"

"Well, Sam, I know last night was pretty tense and I know you were right here with Kitty thorough it all. I thank you for that."

"Now, you know I wouldn't 'ave been anywhere else."

"I know that, Sam, and I want you to know I appreciate it. Means a lot to me."

"I'll tell ya, Marshal, I had 'bout the best seat in the house last night. Miss Kitty sure is something else." Sam offered, unaware of just how in the dark Matt Dillon was about the true nature of the events.

"Oh? How's that?" Matt asked with forced calm, his interest immediately piqued.

"Well, just thinkin' back on it now, it seems pretty clear to me that Miss Kitty was working that bunch long before she even had any indication she might be able to get a seat at the table with them. She's 'bout as smooth as any player I've ever seen or heard of."

"That so?" Matt asked easily, careful not to spook Sam from his reverie.

"Oh, sure. She spotted the workings of the bunch before I even had their names straight." Sam smiled. "Stirred them up just a cool as you please."

Sam chuckled remembering. Matt stayed quiet sipping his beer, waiting for him to go on.

"Why, even when she was sitting at that table with Whelan," Sam had nodded toward a table across the room, "well, I was over here behind the bar, but I could make out most of what they said. When he told her he was here to kill you I know my face must have told all I thought about that, but when I looked at Miss Kitty, I swear you would have thought he had told her his plans were no more than to finish his drink and then go get some supper." Sam had chuckled again. "I don't know how she does it."

Matt had been trying to formulate some response to Sam's comments when Sam's attention was pulled away by the boisterous arrival of Festus. Matt was quietly contemplating what Sam had said, trying to work out what had transpired in the Long Branch last night, when Festus plopped a good sized box onto the bar.

'Evenin', Sam. Warm enough for ya, is it?" he asked, wiping his neckerchief across his brow before looking up hopefully at the barkeep.

"It's warm, all right." Sam replied noncommittally, waiting to see how Festus would play it out.

"Miss Kitty around, is she, Sam?" Festus asked as he looked out across the saloon and did not find her within sight.

"No, Festus. Miss Kitty hasn't come down from her rooms just yet this evening."

"Ah, well, she hadn't a come over ta see 'bout her sparklty doodads an' I just figured I'd save her the trouble, don't ya see? So I just brought on over what was still left that nobody done had the time to claim. Now, I knowd I've saw her wear some o' these spangledy, sparklty things, and I'm guessing she's got her some cash coming back, but she'd ought to not wait afore getting her claim on 'em. Why, I'd hate to see Miss Kitty loose any a her things."

Festus continued on with Sam, but what Matt had overheard turned his thoughts back down a trail he was not prepared to travel.

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He remembered his head had been pounding, his arm ached, Doc was making a fuss, and Matt was confused about just what had been happening in his town while he had been gone. He had mentally kicked himself for not getting back sooner. If he had not stopped to eat, if he had ridden Buck just a little harder, he could have been back in time to face Whelan and his gang when they first hit Dodge. He had sat there in the Long Branch, trying to understand what was going on. Even Kitty had been uncharacteristically quiet in response to his queries.

He was angry with himself for being absent once again when Kitty's safety was jeopardized. He wondered if perhaps she was upset with him for that. He had tried hard to limit his time away since, well, since then. Like a nervous horse on a busy street, his mind always shied from directly naming that devastation, those men. Even now, his thoughts merely hinting at it was enough to make him shake with rage.

Matt sometimes wondered if life would ever be normal again; he wondered just what normal was. At times things seemed to be just as they had realized he now thought of life in terms of before and after. Now, Matt thought about the hesitancy that still rested just beneath the surface between himself and Kitty. It wasn't that she said or did anything differently, but Matt felt the absence of the deep connection they had shared for years. He began to wonder if he had been doing something, behaving differently with her. The only difference he could see being that he was perhaps more attentive and more protective. Could that be a negative change, he wondered?

Then, while sitting there allowing Doc to minister to the wound in his arm, Matt had listened to the exchange between Festus and Kitty. Festus had wanted Kitty to go through the items gathered up by Whelan's men; to reclaim her things before the whole town had a chance to pick through it. What was it she had said? Matt tried to remember, knowing it had bothered him at the time, just as he was bothered now with Festus making a display about Kitty getting her things back.

Then it hit him; he remembered her words. "There wasn't anything that was all that special to me." It was like a solid punch to his midsection. Kitty was not concerned about getting her things back. Whelan's gang had taken everything she had and Kitty didn't care. "There wasn't anything that was all that special." She had said. Nothing all that special! That was what bothered him so. There were at least a few pieces Kitty kept in her jewelry drawer which had been gifts from him. They had certainly been special to her at one time, or so she had always led him to believe.

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Their dinner had been late, well past dark, but Delmonico's had stayed open. The Long Branch was not the only place doing "Cattle Drive" business in the wake of the previous night's invasion. The boardwalk was constantly blocked by small groups who stopped to reprise the events as they knew them, passing along little details collected from earlier conversations. More than once Matt had heard in passing "You got him, Marshal" and "Good thing you got back in time!"

Newly and the posse had been unable to find any viable tracks a day later and figured the gang had ridden in twenty separate directions. Bulletins had been sent to the nearest towns, but the citizens of Dodge seemed content in the knowledge that the leader, Dan Whelan, was dead.

Kitty Russell had descended the stairs to the saloon floor as deep twilight slipped over the town. As patrons noticed, they stopped their conversations to watch. Here was the woman who had spent the night in the Long Branch with the marauders; who had been there when the marshal had brought Dan Whelan down. They had heard vague rumors of shootings, high stakes poker, and bluffs. They were all too willing to let their imaginations suggest the rest. It added nicely to the cache of lore held by Dodge City old timers.

Noting the change in the crowd, the marshal turned to canvass the situation, cutting his scan of the room short as he caught the movement on the stairs. As accustomed as the tall man was to seeing her, the sight still made the muscles around his eyes tighten. She was the picture of elegance as she glided down the steps, her fingers barely gracing the rail with their touch. As always, Matt was careful to keep his appreciation from taking over his face. The swell of his chest was another matter. He never tired of seeing the appreciation on the faces of other men and the amazing way she had of making them each feel important (or small as a bug, if need be).

Matt continued to watch as she easily worked the room, a smile here, a touch on a shoulder, a comment, a laugh. The gazes followed her along her meandering path before turning back to a drink, a poker hand, a pretty girl sitting at the table. No attempts to misplace a hand or snag a forward hug, the crowd was still infused with a little euphoria and awe. And it was a hometown crowd. And the marshal was at the bar.

The sound of her laughter preceded her to where Matt, Festus, and Sam stood. She joined them at the well polished bar, her eyes capturing and holding Matt's for a moment before she turned to look at Festus. Though her back was toward him, she stood close, almost intimately close, her hand brushing his arm as she situated herself between the men. Something was different. Matt had detected it before she had reached the bottom step. As her presence washed over him he realized what it was. For the first time in months, here beside him stood Kitty Russell, as he had known her for so many years. The realization created such a confusion in his mind that he missed the beginning of the exchange between her and his deputy.

"Well, let me see," She was saying to Festus, indicating he should slide the box sitting atop the bar so that she could look inside. "Sam, I think maybe Festus could use a beer; he's had to carry this all the way back over here for me." She turned back to Festus and delighted him with her smile. Sam's own smile hid behind his mustache as he placed the cold mug in front of the one man who probably received more free drinks at the Long Branch than did the marshal.

Festus reached for the beer, his own expression at once pleased and bashful, "Why thank ya, Miss Kitty. I don't mind tellin' ya I shore could use a drop to wet my whistle." And he lifted the mug and proceeded to drain it clear without a breath.

Plopping the empty mug onto the bar, he wiped his sleeve across mouth, shook out his head, and said "Yes, sir, that shore do hit the spot."

Throwing a wink over her shoulder to Matt, she inclined her head and silently indicated to Sam that he should refill the mug.

"What about the cash, Festus?" she asked as she began looking through the crate.

Matt watched as she removed two necklaces and some earrings from what remained in the collection. She continued to sort, setting off into her store several more pieces. As she slipped a familiar ring onto her finger, he realized for the first time that she had been wearing no rings, no necklace. Just as the night before her attire had been devoid of jewelry. At the time his practiced eye had noted the absence of rings and particularly that special piece she always wore at the neck of the shirtwaist she had been wearing. He had been surprised by the earrings. The same earrings she wore again now.

"Well, Burke and me, see, we tuk us a list from everone what sed they was due back some cash money. Then, we turnt the list and ever last piece of money over ta Mr Botkin at the bank. Him and ol' Jonas has been a goin' over it and dividin' out what amount goes where. That a way, folks'll be sure ta' get back what they got commin', don't ya see?"

"Sam," she caught the bartender's attention, "hand me that clean towel there." She pointed to the glass rack behind him. Taking the towel from the gentle man, she laid it out and placed the reclaimed items on top. Matt noted more rings than would fit on her hands at one time, numerous sets of earrings, necklaces, a bracelet or two. What he did not find in the collection was the broach that had been missing from Kitty's collar last night. His mother's broach.

Kitty was still talking with Festus. "So, did it come out? Is the money all there?"

"Now, Miss Kitty, that thar is kind of a funny thang," Festus took a swallow of his second beer. " It seems like a little bit o' that cash money's got lost." Another swallow. "Now, I ain't a sayin' that nobody tuk any, but theys…"

"Oh, Festus, I'm sure some of those jackals pocketed some of it while their "friends" weren't looking. I sure saw that Hobey slip a few of my pieces into his pocket before they got started on the poker." A small cameo and another ring joined the pile. "Did Mr. Botkin say how much was missing?" She gently pushed the crate aside, her search complete.

"Well, he said he reckons near on to two hundred dollars. Matthew just tolt 'em ta commence to figuring how much to take off'n what goes to everbody, said each one would lose a part of what they had took, sos to be fair." He shook his head. "I know that shore is gonna hurt some folks. Even five dollars goes a long way." He finished his beer with a satisfied smile. "Is you done, Miss Kitty?" Festus indicated the crate. "Ya git all your own sparklty doodads, did ya?"

"All that were there" She knew there were things she would never see again. She had been resigned to that from the start. "Thanks for bringing it to me." One freshly bejeweled hand rested on the deputy's arm. "Before you take care of the rest, Festus, I want you to stop at the bank. Tell Mr. Botkin to subtract what's missing from the amount I reported. You're right; five dollars can go a long way." She forestalled his objections with a light squeeze of her hand. "Now, I hadn't made a deposit in a few days, there should be enough. It'll be alright, I have what's important."

"All right, ifn you're shore" he turned a squinted eye in her direction, taking measure of her determination. "Guess I better be gittin' the rest of this took care of. I thank you for the beer, Miss Kitty." Festus lifted up the crate, now somewhat less burdened with cargo.

"You come on back for another, Festus, once you get all those things returned to their owners."

"Yes'm, I'll see you later." Kitty watched as Festus jangled out onto the boardwalk.

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Matt barely remembered what he had eaten for dinner. His sense of equilibrium was still aslant. He would not have been able to put into words just what it was, but she was different. Rather, she was the same. For the first time since 'that time' Kitty had seemed entirely herself; almost as if there had never been any change. She and Doc and Newly had quietly filled him in on most of what had taken place in his town during his absence. He was pretty sure he understood at least the basics of it all.

Walking down Front Street, though, he was hard pressed to trust what his senses were telling him. His heart, his body, seemed to ease with the comfort of Kitty's presence, but still the little nagging questions persisted.

Too tired to talk or to spend time with him.

Unconcerned about her lost items; things he had thought she held dear.

Was there more going on? Was this some new stage in dealing with the events of months past. Was it all a calculated front to cover pain, anger?

Was she angry with him, hurt, that once again he had not been able to protect her? Did she just no longer care?

The questions taunted him even as he studied her, trying to fathom the woman who had fascinated him for years.

As their little group neared the doors of the Long Branch, Matt reluctantly turned his thoughts toward work. He had some papers and rounds. It was much too late for early rounds, but he couldn't put it off. Long years of experience had taught him the wisdom of prevention.

Doc stopped suddenly, causing the others to stop in a tight bunch while, just in their path, two local farmers, brothers, staggered wildly out through the saloon doors. Each tipped his hat with sloppy courtesy to Miss Kitty before careening down the boardwalk. Though the hour was later and the Long Branch was still packed, the crowd had started to mellow with the night.

"Anyone for a little after dinner libation?" Kitty offered, looking at each of her dinner companions.

Doc Adams didn't disappoint. "Well, now, Kitty, I think I'll just take you up on that. I could use a good night's sleep and I always sleep better after sharing a little glass with you." Removing his hat, he bestowed on his friend a most gentlemanly smile which only hinted at something more.

"Oh, you..." She smiled in return, giving his arm a playful swat.

As they moved to the door, Matt held back. Kitty turned to catch his eye.

"Rounds?" Her eyebrow lifted with the single word.

"Yeah,..."

If he seemed about to say more, Kitty forestalled it with a familiar invitation. "Well, I'll save a little nightcap for you, if you get a chance to stop back later." After holding his gaze a second more Kitty was swept past the swinging doors and into the flow of her domain.

Matt simply stood and watched, reminding himself to breathe, trying to clear his head. That simple, familiar invitation was one they had shared for years, an invitation which held the promise of much more than a quiet drink after hours. It was an invitation and manner of delivery which he had not heard for months. Not since...

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The warmth of the low fire matched the warmth from the dark amber drink, but Matt's focus was not on either. His gaze was lost in the dancing flames while the soft sounds from the adjoining room held his attention.

His rounds have gone without incident. Though the town had risen late that morning, the general mood was easy and folks were not inclined to extend their odd hours into another day.

Matt had assured himself that Dodge City was tucked in for the night, then returned to his office as his mind played out thoughts of Kitty's earlier invitation. He was standing on the boardwalk when Newly joined him moments later, offering to sit a late watch on the town. He suggested that Matt might still need to catch up on his rest.

Keeping his smile and his thoughts to himself, the marshal has simply nodded his thanks. His sometimes deputy still had an air of the east about him, but he was quietly observant. As Newly had stepped into the office, Matt had set his long stride toward the alley and the dark stairs, his eyes on the light in Kitty's window.

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"Pour a drink and get comfortable," she had called to him from the washroom. Matt had shed his gunbelt and now sat, contemplating the changes and his feelings of anxiety.

"You're back early," Kitty said as she glided into the room and over to her dressing table. Matt watched as she stood, running the tortoiseshell brush through her long, shiny hair. She was beautiful. The beauty of her youth had grown, wrapped now in a depth and grace which filled the space around her with her presence. His chest ached as he watched her, longing to take her in his arms and know that she was his, the way he had before.

At the thought of "before", his strong fingers griped the glass. He knocked back what was left of his drink, then released the glass onto the table to stop himself from smashing it into the fireplace. With his elbows on his knees, Matt leaned forward, running his hands over his face, through his hair, back to his face, He made a conscious effort to breathe evenly.

"Matt?" Her voice was closer, but the touch of her hand on his shoulder surprised him. He accepted the fresh drink she held out to him and watched her perch on the chair next to the settee.

"Did something happen?"

The concern in her voice and her eyes shook him. 'Did something happen?' It made him want to yell out. 'Yes! Yes, something happened! He took you! They took you! I didn't stop them! I couldn't keep them from hurting you, nearly killing you! Again last night, I wasn't here when they came! Did something happen? I don't know! Tell me what happened! Tell me...'

Matt blinked. "No, nothing." She was asking about his rounds, about Dodge, about him. He took a draw on the drink, welcoming the fire as it slid down inside him, welcoming the momentary distraction.

"I know you're upset, Matt" her voice was warm and even. She put up a hand to forestall his response. "I thought you understood. I know it was a risk, but it was a risk that paid off, and it was the only shot we had." She held his gaze; she was not pushing and she was not yielding. She was simply stating a fact. For the first time in years he looked at Kitty and he was un-sure.

"You know what happened," she continued. "You've hear it from everyone. There wasn't much more, some talk and the poker. I am sorry you are upset about it, but that doesn't change it and I would do it again. " Her voice was still warm, but it was also definite.

She's talking about the dealing, Matt realized. She thinks I'm angry about her dealing. Yes, he had heard all over town about the events of the previous night. He had heard more from Sam, more about the action in the Long Branch. Angry? Yes, he was angry. He was angry with himself for his inability to protect her. He was angry that no matter how hard or how long he tried there would always be spoilers, willing to deal out hurt to get what they wanted. He was angry that Kitty had been put in the situation of having to deal, with cards, with men who had no business near civilization. He thought of Sam's account of the events that transpired and all he could think or feel was awe for the amazing woman who was Kitty Russell. If only he could tell her; if only...

Kitty rose and slowly walked closer to the fire. Matt's attention focused on her as she stood watching the flames. He knew her well' he knew he would be wise to be still and listen. He prayed through the noise in his head, he prayed they would survive what he expected to come.

"Matt, try to understand. Nothing stays the same; things happen to us, people change. I used to know who I was, who we were."

Matt heard her words, the small catch in her voice, and his own throat tightened.

Kitty continued, "It's been so hard. These past few months I've had to work so hard to not lose myself completely. Sometimes it felt as if every part of me was fighting to keep from being torn apart. I couldn't concentrate, I could barely breathe. It was so hard to feel any connection to the world around me... to my life."

Her voice had remained quiet, but Matt heard the sadness and despair and it burned his heart. Slowly, Kitty turned toward him.

"I'm not blaming you, Matt. The only strength I've had came from you. Doc, Sam, Festus, all have been so good to me, but sometimes even that has been hard. I know you all wonder what to do, what to say or not say. I could see that, I knew it, but I couldn't connect to it. It's as if everyone and everything around me were real, but I was just a reflection in a mirror and I couldn't reach out... and no one could reach me. I could see life, I just couldn't feel it."

Matt could hear her efforts at control. He tried to imagine the feelings she described while he struggled again with his rage.

"I don't want to hurt you, Matt. I know it's been hard for you, too." Her voice was low, sincere. She stood holding onto the back of the chair. "So many times you were all that held me here; all that provided any tie to connect me to the rest of life." Her eyes pleaded for understanding. She lowered her eyes and took a slow, deep breath, then she released her hold on the chair and stepped over to the window where she stood staring into the dark.

"I was so lost. Like a drink that's been spilled on the bar – no definite edges, no form, no longer a drink, just a mess no one wants that needs to be wiped away."

Her words tore at Matt; it clawed at him to think of Kitty feeling so hurt and lost, unwanted. He longed to go to her, to press her to him, to assure her that she was wanted, she was loved. He knew, though, that she would not welcome him now. Whatever came, he would not create a barrier in her way.

The air in the room was heavy with silence and emotion. After moments of eternity Kitty turned, the skirt of her dressing gown swirled, and she moved a few steps toward the sitting area. Matt straightened back into his seat, watched and waited, struggling to appear calm.

She spoke directly to him. "Matt, I don't expect you to understand, not completely. I'm not sure that I fully understand. I just know how I feel." A small sardonic smile flitted across her lips.

"When they rode into town we saw, heard, what they were doing. It just seemed inevitable, as if I should have expected it. I knew we couldn't fight it. Just one more piece of me, my life, lost." She looked at her hands, thinking. "I don't think I really even cared." She looked away. "It frightens me now to know that."

Matt continued to wait and listen, his own emotions tightly reined. His face twitched when Kitty swept a tear from her own face.

"I knew they would come. I simply came upstairs, dumped things into the big jewelry box, and carted it down to the bar. I added the money from the till and waited." She stepped a little closer now.

"Dan Whelan came into the Long Branch, had a few drinks. I figured I'd see if he'd talk. I don't know why."

Matt felt a small spark; he knew why. He knew why. He knew that somewhere deep inside Kitty, his Kitty, survived and she had never been one to sit out of a fight.

"I asked him what he wanted, why he had come to Dodge. He told me flat out that he had come to kill you." Her eyes held his gaze as she spoke.

"I can't explain it and I don't care. It was as if I had been standing in the dark and someone stuck a match. It was just that fast. I'm sure it must have shown on my face. Before I could blink, everything was different, Iwas different.

She had begun to pace a little and Matt could feel an intensity coming from her, something he had not felt since before he had nearly lost her.

As Kitty spoke her eyes captured his and held them. "Actually, I wasn't different. I was the same. I was myself. I felt like me again." She resumed her movements as she continues.

"I didn't know how or what, but I knew we had to watch for any opportunity to turn the tables on Whelan and his gang. Matt, I was just lucky they decided to camp in the Long Branch. Almost as soon as they settled in I knew there was a chance. It required a lot of luck and good timing, but I knew I had to try. I couldn't really plan it all in detail, too much depended on luck, but I was ready to play it out the way it came. And I did, Matt. It wasn't all just luck; I had to use every bit of experience and skill I've had over the years – handling men, handling cards, handling nerves, everything. Not until his whole gang rode out was I sure it would work, but Matt, oh, Matt, it did!"

Kitty moved to once more sit in front of him, her eyes sparkling with a life Matt had almost become accustomed to not seeing any more. That and the light flush of color in her face and the energy coming from her made him dizzy with relief and joy. For the first time in months he was looking at his Kitty.

"Do you see, Matt? Do you understand? I was strong enough, I had the ability, the knowledge, to turn the game on them. Not just the card game, but the game they were playing with all of us. I was able to even the situation so no one would have to face down that gang, so that you would not have to face a man who had been sitting and waiting and planning, sure of the outcome" Kitty reached out and took one of Matt's great hands between her own skilled, more delicate hands. "Matt, I'm not lost anymore. I'm here and I'm strong and I'm happy. For the first time since Jude Bonner and his men brought me back to Dodge and dumped me in the street, I know that I'm alive. Everything they tried to take from me, I have back. I've won."

Matt did understand. He couldn't really understand the how or why, but he clearly understood the result. He could see it and feel it. Though a few tears sparkled down her cheeks, Matt saw the joy behind them and the knot in his chest loosened. His own joy surged as he stood, gently tugging at their joined hands. Kitty easily rose and melted into him, letting his powerful arms enfold her as her own arms slipped around his back, her palms pressing flat across his muscles. Each felt the beat of the other's heart and the love which had bound them together for years now bound them ever deeper, ever stronger.

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Matt's heart knew a lever of peace that had eluded him for months; every part of him felt an ease he had not hoped to have again. Yet, the small voice in his head reminded him: there was nothing lost that she cared much about; she was too tired to find time for him. How did this fit with all she had just told him, all they had shared. Was this re-connection just temporary? Had they moved so far forward only to move back again? Sitting up on the edge of the bed, Matt tried to keep his movements slow and even as he rubbed his hands over his face, then through his hair. Without shaking his head he tried to dislodge the doubts and questions.

He felt the deep mattress move just before he felt her warmth behind him. His emotions warred within.

"Matt, what is it?"

He squeezed his eyes closed, knowing from her voice that he would not avoid the question, not knowing if he was strong enough to discuss it.

Kitty had curled her legs under her and sat just behind him at his right. Her hands were now in her lap. She wasn't pushing, but she was waiting for him to respond.

When he didn't speak, she stopped waiting.

"Whatever it is on your mind, I need to know." She was calm, but Matt detected just a hint of need in her voice. It was not the vulnerability which had often been evident in recent months, it was a need, a request for completion. So much like the need he could hear those times when she questioned Doc about the latest injury to her marshal. She needed to know just what they had to deal with so that she could do whatever was needed. This was a need Matt understood.

"Matt, ever since you got back you've had something on your mind." The corners of his mouth twitched, acknowledging the fact that he never could hide anything from her.

"You've been quiet – even for you," she quirked an eyebrow and looked pointedly at him when he glanced over at her. "You've been watching me and..." she hesitated, "and waiting..." again she paused, "the way you did the first weeks after...after I came back." Her voice had dropped to just more than a whisper, but her eyes continued to seach him for an answer.

"Please, Matt, please..." she didn't have to say more. He heard, felt her need and could not bear to push it to vulnerability. Without looking over to her, he answered.

"Kitty, you could have lost so much. You did lose probably more than anyone else." He struggled to keep the anguish out of his voice.

"Oh, but Matt, I really got back so much more than I lost!" Kitty insisted as she leaned toward him, trying to convey her acceptance of the trade.

"Yeah," He half-heartedly answered. "but I didn't know, and you said..." he stopped, not ever wanting to give voice to his doubts.

Her hand settled on his forearm which rested on his thigh, his hands clenched in front of him. Matt took a deep breath. "You didn't have time for me after Whelan was out of the way, didn't even wait for Doc to finish with me." He knew there was too much emotion in his voice, but he couldn't stop it.

Kitty's voice washed over him. "Oh, Matt. I was just so tired..."

"You told Festus you weren't worried about your things, that you didn't care much about anything that was lost," he looked at her, "You were wearing that outfit, the gray, blue...with the vest and the blouse with the collar..." He stopped, he was never good at descriptions of her clothing, but of course she knew what she had been wearing. She had even used it to hide her poker 'indiscretions'. He was glad she'd had it on rather than one of her more typical evening hour dresses, but..."There was no jewelry, no pin, but you told Festus..."

"Wait." Her hand pressed gently on his arm before she uncurled and slipped off of the bed. Silently he did as requested. He waited and watched as Kitty walked to her wardrobe, her light nightgown brushing across the tops of her bare feet.

Quietly, efficiently, she opened the mirrored doors, pushed aside the gowns, and stooped to remove the numerous pairs of shoes. At length she reached in with both hands and followed with her shoulders as she leaned forward on her knees. . Matt heard a small scraping noise, then watched as she withdrew herself from the wardrobe, bringing with her the bottom board. After setting it aside, she reached in once more and brought out a square, flat, wooden box.

Matt appreciated her silhouette and her grace as she arose, the box in her hands, and returned to where he sat. Waiting only for him to be prepared, she gently laid the box across his lap.

The box was large enough to cover and extend past his thighs on each side and was a few inches deep. Matt steadied it with his left hand as he moved the fingers of his right hand over the smooth surface. Though not particularly pretty, the box was sturdy, if not exactly square.

"Do you remember it?" Kitty stood in front of Matt where he still sat on the bed.

"Of course," though he wasn't sure when he had last seen it. A small smile toyed with his lips. "He was so proud the day he brought it to you." They were both quiet, lost for a moment in memories. Thad Ferrin, now grown and so far away, had brought new adventures to their lives, new depth to thier relationship. "His whole face was a big grin when he presented it to you; he had worked so hard on it."

Matt's long fingers played over the odd angel, the slit where the top did not sit quit right on the base. His eyes and his voice shone with love and admiration as he continued. "And you were perfect." Matt now looked up at her. "Your expression, your words, all told Thad how wonderful, how beautiful his creation was. A treasure box, he called it. He floated for weeks on your praise." Their eyes danced together as they each remembered.

After a moment, Kitty moved to sit next to Matt, close on the soft bed. Her hand delicately touched the box as she spoke. "You should open it."

Matt gazed into her eyes, then down at the box where her fingers had been. He quietly lifted the hinged top to expose the contents of the box.

He did not know what he had expected, if anything, but what he saw overwhelmed him.

There, on the dark velvet lining rested some of Kitty's finer pieces of jewelry. A pearl ring and matching necklace that had belonged to Kitty's mother, a few of the more expensive pieces, and nestled among them, the broach that had once been his mother's. Kitty had cried when he had given it to her and had always told him how she cherished it. The power of her declarations washed over him now.

Matt drew in a deep, unsteady breath. There, in the center of the collection, was one more. A piece he had given her more recently than any of the others. They had never spoken of it; in fact, Matt had never really known where it was or that she had it. Still, he had given it to her just the same. There in the center lay his U.S. Marshal's badge. He didn't need to ask, he knew it was the one he had taken from his shirt and dropped onto Doc's table just before going out after Jude Bonner, intent on killing him. He had given no thought to it when he returned, his focus had been on Kitty. Later, when he did, he never asked Doc for it. He had simply ordered a new badge from the regional office.

His great, strong hand reached into the box, his fingertip running over the face of the badge as he remembered. He made no attempt to stop the heavy tear which spilled down onto the shiny star and shield.

Kitty's warm hands cleared the way, then gently closed the odd fitting lid. She kept a hand on the box, another on Matt's arm.

"It is a treasure box," her voice was low and firm with certainty. "and these are my dearest treasures." Her hand lifted up to the side of his face, her touch asked him to turn to look at her. As their eyes met, she continued, "but, Matt, I would give them all if it meant saving you. This" she now placed her hand on his chest, over his heart, still holding his gaze, "you are my greatest treasure. Nothing else matters without you."

He knew the truth of her words, knew that she meant the same to him and that even with all the hurts and challenges, the connection between them was deep, true, and eternal.

END (well, there is not end to eternity, is there?)