GUNSMOKE

For The First Time

A fan fiction story - gstales

The characters do not belong me. I use them with no intent of profiting by my storytelling. Kindly excuse errors of grammar, spelling and Gunsmoke canon.

The herds were in. The raucous cacophony of Saturday night shook the floor boards and rattled the jars and bottles arranged neatly on the makeshift dressing table in a small upstairs room, at the Trails End Saloon. Cigar smoke and other more odious aromas wafted from the barroom below. Hoots, hollers, and gunshots echoed from the streets accompanied to the tinny strains of Buffalo Gal Won't You Come Out Tonight, rolling off a player piano.

In the room, a girl sat with elbows propped on the table, peering into the cracked mirror at a reflection she hardly recognized. She sighed and opened a jar of kohl and began to darken her brows and lashes, thus beginning the changes which would transform her into a saloon gal. She lifted the lid from the face powder and dusted away her freckles and then applied layers of rouge to her lips and cheeks until she achieved the appropriate look for her occupation.

The girl had arrived in Jubilee by stage that morning. She was flat broke and had taken the job at the Trails End Saloon by mid-afternoon. She'd been given miniscule quarters at the top of the stairs, with bed, washstand and the rickety table which now held the various tools of her trade. Thin canvas walls divided one room from the next. She could hear the grunts and moans as her fellow working girls entertained in adjacent 'cribs'.

She hardened her soul for what the night might hold. She was above all a pragmatist and prepared to do whatever she had to do to make money, for more than anything else she wanted out of this hell hole and was determined to prove fate a liar.

She stripped off the dusty traveling suit she'd worn for the last two days of her journey by stage coach and pulled on the gaudy red costume that was to be her uniform by night. The tight dress was cut low baring much of her shapely bosom, and the hem of the skirt so short that her knees were exposed. Twisting her long red hair she secured it atop her head. She stuck the quill of a plume into the upsweep. Cheap paste jewelry soon decorated her neck and ears. She glanced again in the mirror and studied the changes. Hard to tell she'd once been a seminary girl, but that was a lifetime ago. Her innocence was long lost, had been since she fourteen. She'd be twenty on her next birthday and she'd known more men than she could count. She stepped into the smelly misshaped slippers left behind by the last gal who'd worn the dress. Her feet were cramped and she knew that by the end of the night she'd have sore feet if she worked the bar. It was to be expected, for in her line of work, some body part would always feel bruised and abused by shifts end.

Transformation complete, Kitty Russell adjusted her spine and squared her shoulders. She fixed a smile on her lovely face and she left the room to begin again the arduous task of making her living.

Five weeks later the girl was back on a stagecoach headed East to the Mississippi River. She'd grown up in New Orleans, still had connections there and with a little luck she'd find a job dealing cards on a river boat, or playing hostess at a gambling club. She'd had enough of the West for it seemed misfortune had followed her each step of her journey to and from California. San Francisco especially had proven a mistake. She'd had a job dealing at the Gold Nugget, one of the town's finest gambling establishments. She had a gentleman friend, Manfred Poppet, the wealthy heir to a shipping fortune, who plied her with expensive trinkets. She'd built up a nice little nest egg of her own which she'd stashed away in her room at the Gold Nugget. She'd had enough money to start her own business if she was careful. She should have known she was ripe for the picking.

She pulled the shade down on her side of the stage coach as rain began to pelt the interior, the quarters were dark and damp and she was thankful her fellow travelers were not objectionable. For the past several days, thunder had rumbled in the sky and a steady rain had made progress difficult. Two separate times the stage had gotten stuck in the deep ruts in the road. They'd all had to get out and help push the vehicle free. As a result she was mud spattered and muscle sore.

The stage pulled into a dirty cow town that a fellow traveler identified as Dodge City. The driver explained the roads were just too muddy to continue they'd have to lay over in Dodge for a day or two. Passengers were advised to find their own sleeping accommodations. She stepped down from the coach and took in her surroundings. Saloons lined both sides of the street, Opening her reticule, she quickly counted her meager funds. She drew a shaky breath, no doubt she'd be able to find a place to sleep within the confines of one of the Dodge City's many saloons. Her stomach growled, she hadn't had anything more substantial than way station soup since yesterday. She made the decision to fortify herself before seeking temporary employment.

The traveling suit was well cut and made from expensive fabric, but with her wardrobe limited, the garment was suffering from over wear - the cuffs were frayed, the elbows thin and the lace edging the neckline was torn. Her thick red hair was plaited in a single braid down her back and her face was clean of paint. With her freckles exposed she looked even younger than her years. The girl slogged across the mucky street, adding fresh mud to the hem of her skirt and most likely ruining her only decent pair of shoes. The silk roses which adorned her bonnet drooped miserably because of the rain.

The eating establishment had a sign painted on the window which identified it as Delmonico's. She entered and a bald headed man in a dirty apron, directed her to a seat in the corner by the door.

"What can I get you young lady?", the waiter asked. She glanced at the menu looking for the cheapest thing that might fill the most empty space in her belly.

The waiter continued, "Got rabbit stew on special today, comes with all the biscuits you can eat."

She stifled a look of distaste, for the bill of fare certainly didn't sound at all appetizing but she figured it would have to do, the price was right. "Coffee too please, strong and hot."

"Right away." he promised and returned promptly with both entree and coffee.

As hungry as she was, the girl dug right in, finding the stew palatable and filling, she'd consumed half the plateful when she slowed down long enough to study the restaurant, she'd always been a people watcher, perhaps a skill earned from her expertise at dealing cards. At mid morning the restaurant wasn't crowded, but more than half of the tables were filled. A motley assortment of diners to be sure, farmers mostly she supposed with a few cowboys sprinkled in to add variety like salt to the stew.

To the back of the room working away at the largest stack of pancakes she'd ever seen was a tall lanky cowboy. He was handsome in that rugged sort of way that made one think of mountains and vast spaces of land and sky. He was young she realized, certainly not more than his twenties but there was an air of authority about him. Her heart quickened it's pace as she studied the clear cut details of his face. For without doubt he was more man than she'd ever seen before. Seated next to him was a grizzled older man, much smaller than the cowboy in a somewhat thread bare suit. He had shaggy eyebrows and a funny little moustache that trimmed his upper lip. The older man looked up and caught her gaze, he answered it with a smile and then nudged his companion. With quick eyes, the younger man looked up as his hand moved with equal speed to the six gun strapped at his side. He smiled when he saw the only threat was the pretty little red haired girl staring back at them.

The girl hastily lowered her blue eyes and set about the task of getting her money's worth out of Delmonico's Daily Special. To her surprise the cowboy finished off the huge stack of pancakes before she'd finished her plate of stew. He and his friend walked past her table and with a tip of his hat, he said "Ma'am." He nodded to the carpet bag at her feet.

"Welcome to Dodge, plan on staying long?"

She looked up at him through russet tipped lashes, her voice was throaty and just about the prettiest thing he'd ever heard, "Hello Cowboy. I'm just passing through."

2

The Long Branch was a palace compared to some of the other saloons she'd walked past. She pushed her way through the batwing doors, standing for a moment to survey the tavern. A white haired gentleman in bowtie, vest and sleeve garters was working behind the bar, He looked up from his task of drying beer glasses. "Can I help you miss?"

"I'm looking for whoever does the hiring here."

"That'd be Bill Pence, he owns the place, but … he don't hire kids."

Kitty smiled, "I'm not a kid, and I don't look like one either once I've got my war paint on." She stood a little straighter, so he could see she had the figure of a woman. The bartender's lips twitched at her not so subtle attempt to demonstrate her maturity.

"Got experience?" he asked.

"Plenty."

He set down the glass he was drying, "Bill's in the office working on his books. Gimme a minute, I'll see if he's free."

The bartender left her there for a moment while he knocked on and entered a door to the left of the bar, he emerged shortly thereafter. "You're in luck, Bill says to come on in. He'll talk to you."

What Kitty instinctively liked about the saloon was the simple fact it was clean. The drinking glasses were shiny and the bottles of liquor were lined up neatly against the wall behind the bar. Floors were swept and spittoons were emptied and she could even catch the faint aroma of pine soap. Still, she had no illusions of grandeur nor gentility. She'd met her share of bar owners, who felt it part of their right to audition the help to see if their performance was up to standard. Automatically, Kitty upped her stoic reserve, making certain sure the hard veneer which protected her heart was well and truly in place. She took a moment to put on the face of resolve, reminding herself again of her need for cold hard cash. She needn't have worried in this instance. The man identified as the saloon's owner gave her a smile and stood up from his desk when she entered the office.

"Name's Bill Pence, you can call me Bill." He had a pleasant middle-aged look and a kind smile.

"How do you do Bill. My name's Kitty Russell and I'm looking for a job. Looks like the stage I've been riding will be laid over in Dodge City for a few days. I'm running low on cash."

"Harry says you claim experience."

"Whatever you need doing, serve drinks, deal cards, muck the floors, I've done it all …" she left her verbal resume open ended giving him the opportunity to fill in the blanks with out her saying the words and admitting to all she would actually do for money.

He eyed her up and down, "You look all of fifteen, Miss Kitty."

She raised her chin a might, "I'll be twenty-five." she lied, but figured not really, God willing she'd live to see twenty-five.

He called her bluff with a chuckle, "When?"

She stared back at him with eyes far older than her years, "I just look young, I'm a good worker, I know my job. You won't be sorry you hired me."

He chuckled again, "Well then, guess I got me a new gal. You can start tonight. Got somethin' to wear? Go on upstairs, knock on #3. Tell Ruby, I just hired you and she should get you settled in, fix you up with whatever you need." Bill reached over his desk and stretched out his hand to shake hers. "Welcome to the Long Branch Miss Kitty."

Ruby was old, pushing thirty, Kitty guessed. But she was still pretty, with blond hair and blue eyes and soft curves. She had generous lips that even without face paint were full and red. She showed Kitty her room and then set about finding something for her to wear.

"I've worked for Bill for three years, he's a good boss, fair too, as long as you do your job." Ruby explained as they walked down the hallway side by side.

"What exactly is my job, Bill didn't say, told me you'd fill me in."

"You'll be a saloon gal Kitty, decorate the bar, smile nice at the farmers, sit on the cowboys laps, thought you said you came with experience?"

"I do Ruby, that's why I'm asking …" Kitty stood still.

Ruby stopped walking too and put a hand on Kitty's arm, "Well, you're talking about entertaining in the privacy of your room, is that right?" When Kitty didn't answer. Ruby continued. "Bill don't make none of us `entertain' if we don't wanna. There's the red light district for that. To work at the Long Branch, you gotta be something special. If'n a man wants your private attention, he's gonna pay considerable more for it than he'd pay in Red-light alley. Bill will make it worth your while, it's a 50/50 cut. But, like I said, it's up to you. You do your job on the bar floor, he'll have no complaints with you."

Ruby showed her a closet filled with dresses in assorted sizes, all of them clean and in good repair. Kitty found a couple that suited her taste. "Anything else you need Kitty, let me know. I'll be back in an hour to show you around the saloon and introduce you to some of our regular customers."

Alone in her room, she sat down on the bed, there was only a slight squeak to the springs. The sheets were clean and she could smell the bleach. There was a dresser with mirror, a rag rug on the floor and curtains at the window. After the last couple months this small room at the Long Branch was like a little piece of heaven.

The black dress she wore, had sequins sewn on, which caught the play of light. The cut was low and tight, but the hem longer, so that her knees were covered. She carefully applied her face paint and was pleased with the result. Bill Pence was too when she came down the steps with Ruby a short while later. The girl was a class act and he knew once word got around town about his new girl, business would be buzzing.

It didn't take long for Bill to see that Kitty was more than just good looks. She had a way of coaxing even the most stalwart of cowboys into drinking more than he'd planned. She had a way of touching a shoulder, or leaning over just far enough to give a man a good look at her bosom. She'd giggle and smile, touch and tease until she had `em eating out of her hand. "Yup." Bill smiled to himself. "The girl had experience, plenty of experience."

Though not willing to admit it to herself, Kitty had hoped the tall young cowboy from Delmonico's would show up that evening. She was standing next to Ruby at the bar waiting for Harry to fill a drink order when he did. He seemed even taller than before, framed as he was in the Long Branch doors. He scanned the barroom and then looked in her direction and smiled.

"How's it going Deputy?" Harry called out.

"Fine, how about a couple beers for me and Ruby?" With that he headed straight to Ruby, who met him halfway there nearly jumping into his arms. "Oh Matt!" she squealed as he wrapped powerful arms around her in an unrestrained bear hug. There lips met in a wet kiss and for a moment all else was ignored. "I was hoping you'd stop by tonight." He released her and she pulled him over to Kitty, "I want you to meet the new girl, she just started today.""

Kitty, this is Dodge City's Deputy, Matt Dillon."

"Matt, Kitty Russell."

He narrowed his eyes to study her, "Are you the kid from Delmonico's?"

She nodded and Ruby asked, "You've met already?"

"Not really, the Deputy saw my carpetbag in Delmonico's and welcomed me to town."

"Hey Ruby," A man at an eight top table hollered, "where are those drinks you promised?"

"I'll be right there Johnny darlin`."

Dillon wrapped an arm around Ruby's shoulder, "Harry's drawing a couple beers for us."

"Oh Matt, I'm sorry, Johnny and the boys are waiting for me. They're some of my best customers and they tip a whole lot better than you do. Kitty, you'll keep Matt company for me won't you?"

"Ummm", she motioned to the tray that Harry had just filled for her.

But, Ruby offered, "I'll take care of that, you sit with Matt, give him a little sugar, we wanna keep him coming back."

That was how Matt Dillon, the town deputy and Kitty Russell, the new saloon gal, ended up at the back table of the Long Branch sharing a couple of beers. "You look some different tonight from how you looked at Delmonico's" he drawled. His blue eyes searched hers for a heartbeat, before his face gave way to a smile.

That smile took her breath away, "I do?"

"Yeah … coulda sworn you were just a little girl … but here, in this getup … I can see you aren't ."

His eyes took up searching hers again. She ran her tongue over her lower lip in effort to control the crazy staccato of her heartbeat. There was a flush to her cheeks that had more to do with the way his eyes looked at her, and less to do with rouge. Her restless fingers toyed suggestively with the tassels that hung from the bodice of her gown, "Cowboy, I don't know if I was ever a little girl."

And then, he lowered his eyes and took a drink of his beer. The connection was broken. She felt poorer for the loss. She took a drink as well and then looked up through kohl darkened lashes, "So you're a lawman, here I thought you were just a lowly cowboy and turns out you're a big man with a badge.

He smiled, "Just a poor deputy Ma'am … most I do around here is break up the crowds and clear the way for Marshal Stryker."

"Really?"

"Uh huh … "

"Guess that gives you plenty of free time."

He gave her a boyish grin, "More'n I know what to do with."

"I think Ruby has some ideas for your free time."

His voice grew softer, teasing, "How `bout you?" Tiny crinkles fanned out from his blue eyes, "You got any ideas?"

Before she could answer, a tall young man pushed open the saloon doors, despite an obvious limp he hurried to their table, his face beaded with sweat, "Mr. Dillon, I been looking for ya, there's a fight down at the Bull's Head."

The Deputy jumped to his feet before she could blink an eye. "He grabbed his hat from the table, tipped it, then placed it on his head. "Nice chatting with you Miss Kitty, we'll have to do it again sometime."

The thin man with a limp grew impatient, "Mr. Dillon …" he whined.

"I'm coming Chester."

Ruby came up to Kitty a short while later, "Matt have to leave?" she asked.

"Uh huh, Saloon fight at the Bull's Head."

"I swear, he never sticks around long enough to finish a glass a beer, much less anything else he starts."

"Is Matt your man?"

Ruby snorted a laugh, "Matt belongs to no woman, he's what they call a range bull, free roam'n. Not that I'd let myself get hooked up with the likes of him, anyway?"

"Why's that?"

"He lives by the gun Kitty, any man that lives by the gun … well, he's bound to die by it, too."

3.

It was her feet that were sore, when she finally went to bed, near three o'clock the next morning. She had a pocket full of change, and Harry the bartender and Bill Pence had offered praise for a job well done. The sun was shining when she got up the next morning, she supposed if it continued to shine the stage would be pulling out the following day. She wasn't so sure she'd be on it though. She liked the Long Branch. Bill and Harry treated her with a certain amount of respect and Ruby had been helpful. What's more she had a roof over her head, a clean bed and all the hardboiled eggs she could stomach. Life could be a lot worse.

She got dressed and headed down to the bar. Bill was at the far end working on his ledger books, he looked frustrated. "Damn figures never come out the same twice."

She grabbed two cups of coffee and went to stand next to him. "I've got a pretty good head for figures, want me to take a look?"

He took a sip of the coffee she proffered, "You can give it a try. My partner always took care of the books." He slid the ledger over to her, and handed her his pencil.

"What happened to your partner?"

He took another drink of coffee, "I shot him."She stepped back to stare at him open mouthed. "You did?"

His face was deadpan. "I killed him. He was cheating me blind."

The pencil dropped from her fingers.

Bill continued, "It was a fair fight, the way I see it, that was more `n he deserved."

She caught the slightest twinkle to his eyes and decided he was funning her. "Well, I'll be careful not to make the same mistake."

She took the ledger and her coffee to the back table and began the process of working the numbers. It didn't take her long to balance the book and when she finished she returned to his side to explain what he'd done wrong. Bill looked at her with new respect, "Never met a gal yet with a head for figures. You think you might be interested in helping with the books on a permanent basis? I'll pay you extra."

"You think you can trust me? I wouldn't want to meet the same fate as your former partner."

"Miss Kitty, something tells me you ain't a cheater …"

"Not unless I have to be, guess it depends on what I've got to loose."~*~

With change in her pocket and the prospect of a steady income, the girl paid a visit to the General Store to stock up on a few supplies. She had frightfully few possessions, for she'd left San Francisco in a hurry, forced to leave behind a beautiful wardrobe, a nice collection of jewelry and the finest perfumes and cosmetics available. She glanced around the store, not much chance of replacing what she'd lost, at least not here and not for the 75 cents she figured she could spare. New underwear, a couple pair of fishnet stockings, and a bar of lavender soap was to be the extent of her purchases.

She left the store and glanced across the street at Delmonico's, she was hungry and already, not even a day into it, growing tired of hard boiled eggs. Still, if she was going to rebuild her savings she couldn't go spending her money as fast as she earned it. She turned ready to go back to the saloon when she heard a familiar voice, "Miss Russell, care to join us for lunch?"

She turned to see Matt Dillon and the same older gentleman she'd seen him with the previous day. "Miss Kitty, I'd like to present the finest physician in all of Kansas, Dr. Adams."

She held out her hand, "Dr. Adams."

The older man reached out and kissed her hand. "Dodge City shines with your beauty, Miss Russell."

"I think that's just the sun finally deciding to shine Dr. Adams, I'm afraid I don't have a thing to do with it.""You underestimate yourself, young lady." The doctor offered an arm as did the deputy and with the girl sandwiched in the middle, the three trooped to the diner.

The special of the day was venison stew and Kitty got the strong suspicion that stew played a major role in Delmonico's Special of the Day. Three plates were ordered as the trio set down to the business of getting to know one another.

"The deputy tells me you're new to Dodge, where do you call home Miss Kitty?

"I grew up in New Orleans, Dr. Adams."

"I was there during the occupation by the Union Army, beautiful city … hard hit by the war."

"Yes, my mother's father lost everything."

"What was your grandfather's business?" Matt asked.

"My who? Oh …" She smiled, "he wasn't a grandfather to me. He never acknowledged me. You see my mother married against his wishes. He all but disowned her, it was only after my father left that he saw fit to extend to her a small allowance. That stopped when mother died." Actually a lot of things stopped when her mother died, most significantly her childhood, she canted her head and gave the doctor a demure smile, "But to answer your question he was a planter, cotton, sugar and some tobacco, or so I've been told." She had said more than she'd meant to and now she quickly sought to avert the attention from herself.

"Tell me Dr. Adams, how does the finest physician in Kansas, end up in a place like Dodge City?"

"Well, I'll tell you young lady, it seemed as good a place as any, better than most, Lord knows business is good."

Matt winked at her, "No one can dig a bullet out as clean as Doc here."

"You oughta know."

"You've been gunshot?" She looked at him with shock.

"A time or two." he acknowledged, between bites of stew.

She narrowed her eyes, "I thought you said all you do is clear out crowds and make room for the Marshal to come through?"

Doc chuckled and swiped a hand across his scraggly little moustache. "Good heavens, that's about the size of it young lady. This boy is so lazy, Marshal Stryker can hardly get a days worth of work outa him."

"That's why I got shot in the first place, right Doc?"

She looked at both men and smiled, "I'm beginning to wonder if any one tells the truth in this town."

Matt put his head down and then glanced up, truth hidden somewhere behind his smile, "Not if we can help it Miss Kitty, not if we can help it."

She laughed back at him, knowing she fit right in with the rest of the town's liars.

She didn't see Dillon that night, although he saw her as she headed up the stairs with Jim Taylor following close behind. It hit him like a gut punch and left a sour taste in his mouth.

Ruby had been studying him. She approached from behind, "You jealous?" She accused.

He said nothing, just turned around and moved toward the bar. She went with him, "Buy us a drink Matt, and you can cry in your beer for her."

He nodded his head to Harry who drew the beers and slid them down the bar. Matt didn't speak until after he'd taken a good swallow, he backhanded the foam from his upper lip, "She's just a kid."

"She's not innocent, Matt … she's not some lily white damsel in distress, and you're not a knight in shining armor, just in case you didn't know."

"She doesn't belong in a place like this." He raised his beer glass to take another drink.

"Doesn't she?" Ruby stepped back and stared at the young deputy. "You're stuck on her!" She backslapped his arm, the action causing his beer to slosh over the sides of the glass and dribble down his shirt, "Mr. Free Range Bull is finally looking to come home to the barn."

"It's nothing like that, look Ruby, she just seems like a nice kid, down on her luck, I hate to see her …"

"Humpf, you never seemed to mind when I entertained the customers …"

He winced, "I mind Ruby, I mind."

"Doesn't stop you from availing yourself of my services."

He leaned with both elbows on the bar, "That's different, I … you and I … well, we're friends."

"Yeah … we're friends alright. That's all going to end mighty soon."

"Why's that?" he stood up right again.

"Johnny Dawson's gone and asked me to marry him and I'm gonna be a rancher's wife and I'll raise me a pack of little cowpokes."

Dillon threw back his head and laughed. "That I've gotta see!"

Mid morning the following day, Dillon appeared at the Long Branch. He was greeted by the sight of a still sleepy-eyed Kitty Russell coming down the stairs. She brightened when she saw him and gave him a wave, while pointing at the bar. He took her direction and met her there.

"Missed you last night, Cowboy." she said.

He was more surly than not, "It's Deputy." he reminded her. "I was here, I guess you were busy."

She wasn't put off by his mood, she teased him with a smile, "Strange I didn't see you, Deputy Dillon."

He didn't feel like pressing the matter, at least not now. The idea of her doing what she did still needed sorting out in his brain, besides her smile was hard to resist.

"You wanna buy me a beer?" she asked.

He looked her over, "You had anything to eat yet today?" She was thin he noted not for the first time. She was a fine figure of a woman but she needed a little meat on her bones.

Kitty grabbed a hard-boiled egg sitting in a bowl on the bar, cracked it, and began to quickly peel away at the shell. After which, she took a large bite and answered with her mouth full, "yes".

He laughed, he couldn't help it. The girl had a special power over him. "How 'bout I take you to Delmonico's … the special today is …"

"Don't tell me … stew …"

"Yup.' and they both laughed with eyes shining bright one into the other's.

She began tidying up the egg shell, pushing it together and then brushing it off the bar and into her hand, "I can't,"

"Why not?"

"Ruby's moving to the boarding house this afternoon. Her boyfriend doesn't want her sleeping at the Long Branch anymore. She asked me to help her. In fact I should be up there now, I just came down for a little breakfast." She grabbed another egg. "But thanks for the offer."

"Some other time then?" He moved his hand to touch hers. It was just the lightest and briefest of contact, but she felt the impact almost as a lightning strike that sent a current of energy throughout her body. She wondered if he felt it too.

She nodded and watched as he turned and walked out of the saloon.

Ma Smalley ran a nice boarding house. The room Ruby was renting wasn't much larger than her room at the Long Branch, but it had a nice view of the older lady's garden. The smell of flowers and green grass drifted through the open window, filtered through white muslin curtains.

Mrs. Smalley herself had a well scrubbed look to her, from her plain but pleasant face to the tidy arrangement of her salt and pepper hair. Her voice had a motherly tone, "gentlemen callers may be entertained in the front parlor between the hours of 5:30 and 7:00, `course, I realize you'll most likely be working during that time."

"Just till the end of the week Ma." Ruby volunteered. "Johnny and I are gonna get married on Saturday."

"Won't that be nice." Ma said, "Well, I'll leave you two girls to your work, nice to meet you, Miss Kitty."

It didn't take long before they had Ruby's room set up with her all too few personal belongings. "You've worked the bar for a lot of years, do you think you'll miss it?" Kitty asked as they closed the door and walked down the hall to the open staircase.

"Don't tell this to Bill or Harry and especially not to Johnny, but yeah, I will miss it. I'll miss some of the fellas, I'll miss the laughter and the good times … but there's an awful lot I won't miss."

She was stopped by Bill Pence, when they arrived back at the saloon. "Can, I talk to you a minute, Kitty?" She moved to the corner of the bar while Ruby continued up the stairs. "You'll be entertaining in your room tonight." He told her.

"What?" she asked.

"I said, you're going to be entertaining in your room tonight, that is if you want to." Bill repeated.

"Entertaining who?" Her features hardened.

Bill swallowed hard, "The Deputy, he paid for time with you from eight to midnight … in advance." He gave a nervous grin and made a weak attempt at humor, "musta got a raise."

"Matt Dillon?"

"Yup … guess he's planning on Marshal Stryker giving him the night off. I noticed you and him were getting friendly, I figured you wouldn't mind."

From early on Kitty Russell had learned to protect her heart. Men could abuse her body, but as long as that which defined who she really was remained intact, she could survive. Truth was, she'd left her heart unprotected where Matt Dillon had been concerned and this is what she got for her carelessness. She'd thought he was different, that the offer of friendship had been genuine with none of the usual strings attached. You'd think she'd learn, especially after Manfred Poppet and the San Francisco disaster. For the first time in months she had something working for her, and she wasn't going to let a cow town deputy get the better of her. The girl steeled herself and something hard reflected back to Bill from her blue eyes. "I'll be ready for him." she said.

4

Matt Dillon arrived at her room exactly at eight. He wore a clean white shirt with string tie and sported a fresh shave. He smelled of bay rum and lye soap. In his hand was a small worried bag of lemon drops. He'd heard somewhere it was a nice gesture to take sweets to a lady. He was nervous as he knocked on the door.

She opened it and he was relieved to see her fully dressed. That would make what he had planned somewhat easier.

"Cowboy." she greeted.

"Deputy." he corrected, giving his badge a tap. "G'evening, Miss Kitty." He tipped his hat.

"Well, come on in."

"Thank you, I brought you some lemon drops." He said, handing over the little bag.

He looked uncomfortable, but she felt no desire to put the big man at ease. "Look Miss Kitty …" he began. While at the same time, she said "See here …"

He laughed uneasily and offered, "You go first."

She did, "I was a little surprised..."

He interrupted, "It's not what it looks like."

"It's not?"

"No … see, I wanted to …. "

"Yes, you wanted to what?"

He cleared his throat, "Well, I didn't want to … you see … I thought maybe we could talk, private like…"

"Talk? That's a new way of putting it."

He swallowed, "This isn't working out the way I had planned."

Her neck tilted and her chin jutted out, "Oh?"

"I wanted you to know … you … don't have to earn a living this way … there are other things you could do."

"Let me get this straight … you're trying to keep me from …"

"Yeah … Look …"

She placed her hand to her hip, "Wait a minute, what makes you so sure I do what you think I do?"

He ran his tongue over his lips, trying to moisten them, the trouble was his tongue had suddenly gone dry too, "I saw you last night, you and Jim Taylor … you were going up the stairs together."

"I don't know what you think you saw. Not that it's any of your business, but I didn't entertain anyone in my room last night, you may have seen me coming up here for a little break."

"Oh."

She was picking up steam, "Listen, whether I entertain in my room or not is my business, not yours."

He took a step forward, "But … you don't have to. You don't have to live here at the saloon … you could live at Ma Smalling's Boarding house like Ruby. You could work for Mr Jonas at the General Store. I already talked to him, he said he's more than happy to give you a try."

"Well, maybe I wouldn't be more than happy to work for him!" She looked at Dillon and he conceded he'd faced gunfighters with a less intimidating glare. Her voice pitched an octave higher, "You big dumb cowboy, I don't think you have a grain of sense."

He tried a smile, "You shouldn't be in a place like this."

"What could you possibly know about what kind of place I should or shouldn't be in? Just who made you the keeper of my virtue?"

"I thought," he began.

"Well you thought wrong, now get out and do what ever it is that cowboys or deputies are supposed to do. Just leave me out of it!"

"But …"

"I said, GET OUT!" She aimed the bag of lemon drops at his head and had he not been young and agile, he would have gotten it right between the eyes. As it was the slamming door shielded him from the contact.

The bag split on impact and the candies fell to the floor. She heaved a great sigh, and stood there for a moment while her heart beat returned to normal, then she bent to the floor and retrieved a lemon drop, dusted it off and popped it in her mouth. She went and sat down on the edge of her bed, arms folded in her lap as a slow smile worked its way back to her features and the realization hit her. For the first time could remember, someone cared about Kitty Russell.

She got up from the bed and moved to the window thinking she might catch sight of him as he walked across the street to the Marshal's office. She saw his tall lean form as it passed beyond the Long Branch balcony and her mind began to work out a plan to make up with him. But, as she watched she heard a small explosion in the direction of the bank. Smoke billowed down the street. Loud voices shouted unintelligible words. Gunshots popped - popped and all of the sudden chaos took over. The air was hazy with cinder and ashes, but she kept her eyes locked on Matt. He was running toward the bank his gun out, taking aim, firing shots. Then, like Chinese New Years, the night was alight with the fireworks of gun muzzle flashes. She watched in horror as his shots were returned. In utter fear she saw a bullet hit its mark. Matt Dillon was propelled backward and slammed by impact to the unforgiving ground.

Kitty heard a scream and realized it was her own. Yet her feet stood frozen to the floor - her body anchored in place. It took all her strength to pull her eyes from his still form lying face down in the middle of the street and turn from the window.

Once the hold was broken she was out the door and down the stairs faster than she would have thought possible. The saloon gals and some of the Long Branch patrons were crouched low and hiding behind the bar. Harry called to her, "Kitty get back here, it's not safe out there, a stray shot could hit you." She took no heed of the bartender and rushed to the swinging doors.

Bill Pence shouted, "Kitty, get back here." She ignored his warning too and stared over the top of the batwings, her fingers gripping knuckle tight on the doors. As suddenly as the terror had started it was finished. For that moment the only action, the dancing of shadows, from gaslights swaying in the wind. The noise of gunfire replaced by eerie silence, save for the rhythmic bang of a loose shutter across the street. The girl watched the scene, as a stunned spectator. There were four men lying in the dirt and another head first in the horse trough. Each as still as death itself. Bill Pence left the security of the bar and gingerly crept out to grab her by the elbow. "Come on." he pulled.

"No." She replied tugging her arm away and pushing through the doors, while Pence stayed behind in the safety of the saloon.

She moved from the boardwalk and was nearly knocked over by Marshal Stryker marching purposefully down the street. He shifted the weight of a rifle held in the crook of his arm and glared angrily at her. "Get back in the saloon girly," he ordered, but she paid him no mind. He shoved past her as though she were of no greater consequence than a feral cat.

Over the dry goods store, Doc had emerged from his office, his slow old body suddenly moving spryly down the stairs and into the street as if he were twenty years younger. He carried his battered medical bag in hand like a counterweight. He moved quickly between the fallen, stopping at each body, kneeling, checking vital signs, and then calling out an order. "Get this one up to my office." or "Send this one to Percy Crump." The deputy was his last stop.

His demeanor altered. Some of his professional exterior washed away. His hands turned gentle, as those of a father to a son. Carefully, he rolled the young man to his back, while skilled fingers probed the bullet wound to Dillon's shoulder and the crease to his forehead. He picked up a limp wrist and felt for a pulse, taking longer to guarantee the heart was still beating in a somewhat regular cadence. Marshal Stryker stopped in front of the doctor. The lawman stood tall, his gravelly voice unmoved as he asked, "How's my deputy?"

"We need a stretcher."

Kitty had been inching her way closer, wanting to be near yet afraid someone would pull her away if she made her move to fast. Thinking, that if she was just there, if she just took her place, than they would have to see she had a right.

Stryker saw her, "I told you before girl, get back to the saloon where you belong."

Adams was kneeling on the ground now, applying pressure to the wound with the heels of his hands, but he looked up. With grit to his words he ordered, "Leave her be, Stryker." He turned to Kitty, his voice kinder, "Come here."

She moved forward falling to her knees at Matt's side. "No hysterics now." the old man warned. She nodded. "Take his hand, talk to him, keep talking to him, till they come with the stretcher."

For a heartbeat, she was caught by the sight of his blood. It had soiled the dirt where he'd fallen and was working its way up the hem of her short skirt. "Talk to him," Doc encouraged again.

She took his hand and the blood which covered his fingers covered hers. She bent over him - so she was whispering in his ear, her voice was halting, laden with regret, "C … Cowboy … de…deputy … oh Matt … I was wrong. I was so wrong. I'm … I'm not used to anyone caring about me … looking out for me. For the first time someone cared about me … you cared about me … please, please don't leave me now … I need you … I need you in my life … and … maybe you need me in yours … but you can`t go before we have a chance to find out."

Beside her she heard Doc curse, "Where the hell are they with that stretcher?" She pressed his bloody hand to her breast, "Oh Matt, you can't go … "

He moaned and turned painfully toward her voice. His eyes fluttered open and then fought to focus on her face, He opened his mouth to speak and his words came out slurred, like he'd had too much to drink. "Not … goin' no where … 'nless you keep toss'n lemon drops … at m'head …" His heavy eyes closed, but a smile lingered on his lips.