Yellow River

Gstales (heidi) not for profit, no rights to the characters other than the ones I've created.

Chapter One

It had been just over two years since Kitty Russell had moved away from Dodge City, Kansas. Will Stambridge had left on the stage one day and she had followed him on the next. The couple had planned it that way, so it would be less painful for Matt Dillon. For she knew it would break his heart to see her leave town with another man.

It had been hard on Dillon, although he would never have admitted it. She had tried to explain her feelings and the reasons for leaving, but they hadn't made any sense to the lawman who had some how convinced himself things were perfect the way they were.

She had said, "All I'm asking is for you to tell me to say `no' to Will Stambridge."

His reply had been a very stoic, "This is your decision. I have no ties on you, you are your own woman."

She had been hoping against hope he would tell her not to go, hoping that she mattered more to him than the damn badge. The realization that she didn't hardened her heart. Lifting her chin, she squared her shoulders in that defiant way she had. Still she hesitated, studying him for a moment longer. Finally admitting defeat she opened the door, "Thank you for all the good years, Matt." She said just before she walked out of his life.

He was left alone, with nothing - nothing to show for eighteen years of wearing a badge, and nothing to show for eighteen years of loving a woman. Standing he walked to the window, and watched her cross the street from behind the curtain's shadows. His eyes staring unblinkingly as she walked away from him. Each step she took became like a physical pain. A heavy burden took the place of his heart. His future dimmed without her in it.

It was a month or so later that the Long Branch was reopened under new management. It again took its rightful place as the goingest saloon in town. But, Matt Dillon stayed away. It was too hard for him to go there. It was too hard to face the ghosts of all of his memories. He did his drinking alone, in his office after he had made his final rounds. This had always been their time. Now, it was the time his heart felt most deserted. The whiskey never quite eased the pain, but the dulling made it bearable. In the dark, when the drink had done its work he would think of Kitty. He recalled all the times she had left before, and all the times she had come back. She would come back again. It was the thought of that reunion that gave him hope.

His friends worried about him. "I just wish there was something I could do fer him Doc." Festus said.

"I know how you feel Festus, but this is something he needs to work through on his own."

Newly O'Brien reminded of his own period of mourning nodded his head. "Doc's right Festus, there's nothing we can do to help the Marshal, except to be a friend."

Word came to them that Kitty and Stambridge had married and bought a ranch in Yellow River, Colorado. It was that final news that made Dillon ultimately accept the fact that she was gone from him for good. She belonged to someone else now. He decided he needed time alone. There had been some trouble near the Mexican border, and this provided an excuse to get away from Dodge. He stayed away longer than needed. There was nothing left to pull him back. He spent cold nights staring up at an endless sky thinking about his life and the decisions he had made along the way. When he returned to Dodge City, he had resigned himself to her loss.

Matt Dillon forced himself to resume a normal routine. The hardest part was going back to the Long Branch. Old habits die hard, and he never walked through those saloon doors without scanning the room forher presence. There were still ghosts to haunt him, but now he embraced them. He relished their closeness.

There was a pretty saloon girl by the name of Reba. The woman had always had designs on Dillon, even when Kitty was around. Now her flirting became bolder, and one cold fall night, after one whiskey too many, Dillon followed her up the stairs. In the dark, he was able to fool himself. He pictured Kitty's face and Kitty's body and when he climaxed he wanted to cry out her name. But he didn't.

In an effort to help him forget, his friends stopped mentioning Kitty's name to him, and it sometimes seemed as though she had never existed to anyone but him.

It was late in May, when the letter came from a Dr. Tucker in Yellow River, Colorado. It sat at the bottom of the stack of mail Festus had retrieved from the Post Office. Returning to his office from a breakfast with Doc at Delmonicos, Dillon poured himself a cup o fcoffee and tried to get down to business, ignoring the bickering going on between his twoold friends. The sun had long dried the last ofthe winter's snows, and the catfish were biting in Silver Creek. Festus and Adams were discussing the chances of getting away from Dodge for an afternoon of fishing and arguing about the best fishing hole.

Dillon picked up the pile on his desk and flipped through the mail, looking for some wanted posters he'd been expecting form Hayes. The return address on the last envelope caught his eye. Yellow River, Colorado it said. His heart beat a little harder and his lips turned dry. Ignoring the banter going on between Doc and Festus, Dillon picked up the envelope and sat down at his desk. With nervous fingers, he opened it. The script was unfamiliar but not the subject,

Dear Marshal Dillon,

I am writing this letter on behalf of Mrs. William Stambridge. There has been trouble, and she is in need of a friend. I believe you to be that friend.

Let me preface my concerns by explaining that this is a wild country without law and order. Men here take it upon themselves to make their own rules. The Stambridge land has become the object of a battle over water rights. Stambridge was prevailed upon to sell his land and when he refused, violence erupted. Mr. and Mrs. Stambridge were ambushed . Stambridge was mortally wounded. His wife is recovering physically from her injuries. She has remained firm in her resolve not to sell the land. I fear that she will come to greater harm. I am hoping you may be able to convince her to leave.


Wilhelm Tucker, MD

He had read the letter twice trying to absorb the meaning. Kitty needed him. She needed him. The banter between Festus and Doc stopped as they took noticed the look on Matt's face.

"What's wrong Matthew? You look like you done seen a ghost."

"What is it Matt?" Adams asked.

He handed the letter to the old physician; but didn't wait for him to finish reading before barking out orders, "Festus, you'll have to look afterthings for a while, I've got some business to attend to in Colorado." he swallowed and grimaced, "Tell Festus what it says, would you Doc?"

"We'll be coming with you!" Adams answered.

Dillon shook his head. "Not this time Doc." He grabbed his hat and left the office, unable to face the questions from his friends, knowing it was harder still to face the answers. His first instinct was to set out for Colorado immediately. Now that he knew she was in trouble no power on earth could keep him from her. Common sense warned him it would be wiser to wait for the morning West bound train.

He had an acute need to be alone. The feelings he'd worked so hard to suppress for the past two years suddenly were alive. Without a word to Hank at the stable he saddled up the buckskin and turned his head north toward Silver Creek. It was a clear stretch of road, and it was here that he dug his spurs into Bucks flanks, urging the horse to a hard gallop. He pressed his weight into the stirrups, and using his hat he slapped it hard against the horse's rump. The gelding's powerful legs propelled them at ever increasing speed. The wind burned Dillon's eyes and made tears form that blurred his vision.

By train, Yellow River was nearly a day's journey away. For a man of action like Matt Dillon it was certainly too long a period of time to ponder his past and the choices he'd made. He vaguely wondered what he would say to her and he practiced a number of different openings he might use. "It's been a long time." "You're looking good." "Folks back in Dodge have missed you." His words were inadequate, he knew, but he'd never known just how to express his deepest feeling to her. He was aman of action, the passion of his love making should have told her all she needed to know. A life lesson he'd learned at the hand of solitude and loneliness, a woman needed more than passionate nights to feel truly loved. A woman needed commitment and that was one thing he'd never been able to fully give.

He stood alone with carpet bag in hand scanning the town. Yellow River was located in the heart of Colorado cattle country. Nestled in theYellow River valley, it stood in the shadows of the rugged peaks of the Rockies. Like so many other cattle towns, it was raw and alive and reminded Dillon of Dodge in the early years. The tinny echo of piano music could be heard from the dance halls and saloons that lined the street near the depot. Cattle filled the stock yards nearby waiting to be shipped out. Cowboys rode roughshod down the street, "hoo-rahing and ya-hooing". But signs of change could be seen as well. A church steeple rose above the roof tops, and a school could be seen on the hill.

"Excuse me, Are you Matt Dillon?" Matt turned to the direction of the friendly voice. It belonged to a stocky middle-aged man wearing a threadbare brown suit.

"I'm Dillon." he replied.

"Good, I was hoping you'd be on this train, it was just a guess of course. I figured you'd have gotten the letter, and this would be the next train out of Dodge." He held out his hand to the lawman. "Forgive me for babbling. I'm Dr Wilhelm Tucker, although most folks here about call me Doctor Bill."

Matt took the hand giving it a firm shake, as the two men sized each other up.

"I'm sure you could do with some good hot food. I'd be pleased to have you join my wife and me for our noon meal. I'd like to explain the circumstances regarding Mrs. Stambridge and her property, as well as her medical condition." He pointed to a black buggy beside the train station.

The doctor's home was on the outskirts of the town, not far from the church and school. It was a frame house painted a barn red, and trimmed in white. Lace curtains decorated its windows. The smell of roasted chicken and apple pie welcomed Matt's senses as he stood on the porch while Doctor Bill opened the front door.

"Mama." He called to his wife, "we're here." Tucker turned to his visitor. "Mama always likes a little warning before I bring the guests in!" His smile was indulgent, as he opened the door wider and ushered his company in. Mrs. Tucker was short and round, with cheeks that were rosy from the heat of the kitchen. Her pleasant face welcomed Matt. "My goodness, I hope you're hungry, I've roasted a nice fat bird. Come on in boys, don't be shy now, Marshal."

Matt smiled in spite of himself. The doctor's wife reminded him of Ma Smalley, she was a born mother hen.

Mrs. Tucker took away the dessert plates and poured a little more coffee for the men, before retreating to her kitchen.

"Now then." the doctor began, "Let me explain to you about the problems at the Stambridge ranch." He reached for his pipe and carefully filled it. Matt waited, growing impatient with the Doctor's unhurried movements. Finally the pipe was filled and lit. Tucker continued. "Law doesn't have much power in this part of the country, you might say that money and land determine the law around here. That being the case, the chief law enforcer would be one Harland Scharpf. He owns the largest spread, calls it the Double Bar X, and his brand is on more cattle than in all of your State of Kansas, I'd wager. He's wanted to get his hands on Yellow River Ranch for as long as I've been around here. An old timer named Argus Gallagher was the original owner of the ranch. Scharpf's old man caused Gallagher a passel of grief. Harland came back to Colorado after his pa died, maybe eight, nine years ago,since then he made it his business to make life miserable for Gallagher. Last year Gallagher sold out to Stambridge at rock bottom price. The place needed a lot of work. Gallagher had built a big fancy house for his wife, but after she died, he didn't seem to care to keep it up. When he bought the place, Will knew he had his work cut out for him, but I don't think he realized what kind of trouble lay ahead.

"Dr Tucker, what makes that land so valuable to Scharpf?" Matt interrupted.

"Why, it's the Yellow River! It flows through the property. Its streams and tributaries are the life-blood of the small farmers and ranchers in the area. Scharpf's plan was to divert the river, shutting off the streams, so that the farmers would be forced to sellout to him. Stambridge refused to sell; in fact he set out to organize his neighbors in a fight against Scharpf and his wicked tactics. For a while it seemed that he was making headway. But then Scharpf decided to play dirty. He made threats, and carried most oft hem out, things like stolen cattle, barns set afire, and ranch hands being bought off. The thing is, no one can prove that it was Scharpf's men who ambushed the Stambridges that day. And even if they could prove it, there's no law to carry it out."

He ran a nervous tongue over his lips before asking, "How badly was Mrs. Stambridge hurt? How is she now?"

The doctor winced and twitched his head. "You know, she kept to herself when they moved here. I only saw her a few times before all of this. Mighty fine lady though, I'd say. She suffered a concussion from a head wound, looked to be just a flesh wound, nothing too serious. But the curious thing about it is she lost her memory. She doesn't remember anything about her past." He scratched his head, and took a puff on the pipe. "But she refuses to sell out to Scharpf, says it's all she has to tell her who she is, and it's all she has of her husband. If it was important enough for him to fight and die for, then she figures it's important enough for her to fight and die for."

Matt stood up, he stretched his spine, and pushed his hands in his front pockets. "How did you know that I was her friend?"

"About two months back she was taken with a bad fever. She was pretty sick, let me tell you. It was touch and go for about twenty-fourhours. When the fever had her, she talked some, and it was you that she talked about."

The doctor's eyes bore into Dillon's for a brief moment forcing the lawman to look away. Matt turned his back to the doctor. "Will she get her memory back?" He finally asked.

"It's hard to say. Seems to me that there are some things she doesn't want to remember. Those are the things that are keeping her from remembering it all. Of course there could be some physical damage that I can't diagnose. I've heard of these cases where the victim never does remember. Other times it just lasts for a short period of time. The thing is, from what I've read, you can't rush it. Otherwise you might cause more harm than good. You just have got to let the memory come back on its own."

Matt nodded his understanding. "I'd like to ride out to the Stambridge ranch and see her now."

"Fine, as long as you realize what's at stake Marshal Dillon."

"I realized, Doctor Bill, I realize."

By buggy, it was a ten-mile trip to the ranch on Yellow River. The slow pace of Tucker's mare was getting on Matt Dillon's nerves. He could walk faster than the elderly animal could trot. He stretched a leg outside of the vehicle, trying to ease a cramp caused by the tight boundaries of the doctor's two-wheeled gig. Without doubt he would have preferred to be on horseback, knowing he could cover the distance in a quarter the time. But, in truth, his agitation had little to do with his companion or conveyance but more with his need to be with Kitty again.

"I want you to keep in mind Mr. Dillon, folks with head injuries sometimes act and talk in a way they'd never have considered appropriate before the injury. I've found them to be more impulsive, more emotional. What they say and do doesn't seem to be tempered by the same reasoning as before they were hurt."

"You're saying Kitty won't recognize me, and I may not recognize her either."

"Oh, I don't reckon you'll have any trouble on that account, what I am saying is don't be surprised if she says or does something you might have expected her to think twice about before she was hurt."

They were halfway there when they saw two riders approaching from the opposite direction. Dillon felt Doc Bill's elbow in his ribs. "That's them," he whispered as the riders neared.

"Who?" Dillon asked.

He kept his voice low and Dillon had to lean down to hear his words, "Harland Scharpf, and that's his hatchet man riding beside him. His name is Elliott Hoppe. If I had to make a bet, I'd wager he was the one that killed Stambridge. You just let me do the talking here." The doctor advised.

Scharpf pulled his horse to a stop in front of the buggy and his sidekick did the same, "Is someone sick down the road Doctor?" He asked. The black gelding he rode was a thoroughbred; the tack was English. The gentleman was dressed like an eastern dude in a fine broadcloth suit with an embroidered pink silk vest underneath. He was tall and well built with classically handsome features. A waxed moustache curled over his upper lip. His voice reflected a Boston education. "Could it be the beautiful Mrs. Stambridge you're calling on? I just paid a visit to the dear good lady. Poor thing, itappears she still can't remember her past, or the tragic accident that took her husband's life. What a shame."

There was a hard edge to the doctor's voice, "I don't call what happened to her husband an accident and you'd be well advised to leave her be."

Scharpf offered a charming smile showing a flash of perfect teeth, "She's a lovely woman, beautiful, spirited, passionate, awoman like that needs a man, you know what I'm saying Doctor? She NEEDS a man." He turned to Dillon, as if just noticing him in thebuggy. "Who's your friend Doctor Tucker?"

Scharpf set Matt's jaw on edge. It took a good deal of Dillon's willpower not to jump out of the carriage, pull him off his horse and beat the living daylights out of him. "The name's … Smith, Matthew Smith," Dillon replied pinning an alias to his name, knowing even this far from Kansas there were some folks who might recognize the name Matt Dillon

In direct contrast to Harland Scharpf's immaculate appearance, Elliott Hoppe was dressed in black shirt and pants; his clothing caked by a layer of trail dust. His grizzled beard served proof he hadn't come in contact with a shave for at least a week. He fingered the colt 45 strapped around his waist, while narrowing his eyes at Dillon. It was a look the gunman had perfected, meant to intimidate and bully. Rarely had Hoppe experienced it being used back at him as Matt did now. Clearing his throat, he turned away from the stranger and back to the doctor, "Better learn to watch your tongue, this here is Scharpf country, just remember that, you too stranger." A threat was clearly implied.

Matt forced a smile to his face and answered innocently, "I'm just a cowhand looking for a little work."

Scharpf turned his horse's head, doffing his derby in the process, "Doctor, Mr. Smith, a pleasure I'm sure. I apologize for not being able to chat longer, but we must take our leave of you. We have pressing matters which require our immediate attention." With a tap of his riding crop to his horse's rump the pair rode off.

The trees grew thicker and the path they traveled felt cooler for the shade. "This is Stambridge land," the doctor said simply. The sound of rushing water could be heard up ahead as the road turned to follow the path of the river. "There she is, the Yellow River." Willow, aspen and birch trees lined the banks, giving glimpses to the magnificence of the clear blue running river. A patchwork ofwildflowers decorated the native grasses at the water's edge.

"I've been thinking Marshal Dillon, considering her sickness a few months back, her recent head injury, and the loss of her husband, it may be best if you don't tell Mrs. Stambridge too much of your shared past. She has enough to handle, it may be wise if she just believes you're a cowhand looking for work. Give her time to remember things on her own…"

The road turned away from the river and rich green pastures, filled with grazing cattle, replaced the aspen. In the distance an outcropping of buildings was visible. As they drew nearer, Dillon could make out the ranch house. It was a large two-storied white frame structure, with gabled peaks, a wraparound veranda, baywindows, and gingerbread trim. A belvedere with widow's walk, divided the upper floor and massive oak doors were centered between four windows on each side on the main level. The style was Queen Anne and Matt, who knew nothing about such things, couldn't help but think it was perfect for Kitty. Despite its elegant design it was badly in need of repair. Closer inspection revealed someone had started the process, for the porch showed signs of recent work and fresh paint.

Tucker pulled the gig to a stop in front of the house. Dillon's eager gaze swept the scene, looking for Kitty. His heart was pounding hard in his chest and the palms of his hands were was like a schoolboy in his impatience to see her. He followed thedoctor up the porch steps and waited as Tucker banged the large brassknocker. The door was answered several moments later by a small redhaired woman of early middle years. Dressed neatly in a blue calicodress covered by a white apron, her face was pretty and kind.

"Hello Molly." Tucker greeted.

"Good Day to you Dr. Bill." She replied with a decided Irish brogue. "I see you'd be bringing a friend with you too, come in, come in." She stepped back from the door allowing it to swing wide open. The entryway of the home featured a parquet floor laid in an intricate and painstaking design. The wood gleamed and the smell of lemon oil filled the hall. "Miss Kitty is in the parlor, and a wee bit upset is she, we just had a visit from that wretched man Scharpf. Him thinking he can turn on the charm and have his way with her." She led them to another set of double doors, which she opened and with a wave of her hand, she ushered them into the room.

"Mrs. Stambridge, tis the Doctor to see you." Kitty stood with her back to the door, leaning an arm across a mahogany fireplace mantle,staring at a photograph of Will Stambridge. Matt studied the thin black-gowned figure before him. Her hair was pulled back and secured at the nape of her neck by a large ebony clasp. He watched as she took a deep breath, leveled her shoulders and turned around. With an outstretched hand she walked toward her guests.

Time lost meaning as she moved closer to him - the missing part ofhis soul had been found. Her innate beauty took his breath. Gone was her saloon makeup. A fine dusting of freckles was visible across the bridge of her nose and cheeks. She'd always despised them before, viewing their presence as a flaw. He on the other hand had thought them her most endearing feature for they seemed to show a vulnerability, which she concealed from all but her closest friends. He was shocked by how thin she'd become. Her high cheekbones stood out prominently and there were purple shadows under her violet blue eyes. It seemed to take a certain amount of determination on her part to make them focus on matters at hand and an effort to maintain her poise. "Hello Dr. Bill, what brings you all the way out here?"

"My dear, I've brought a friend with me. This man is Matt Smith; he's a cowpoke from Kansas. I told him, you might be in the market for an extra ranch hand."

She raised her chin a bit. Offering him her hand she asked, "You're along way from home aren't you cowboy?" On her lips was the specter of a smile. "You should be talking to my foreman, Seamus does all the hiring around here, but since we are short-handed at the moment, I guess I can speak for him. Why don't you take your gear down to the bunkhouse? Feel free to stable your horse."

"About the horse, Ma'am, I'm afraid I don't have one." Dillon admitted. His hand was still holding hers, reluctant to release their connection.

Pulling her fingers free from his grip, she turned to the doctor with humor showing on her face. "Fine cowboy you bring to me Dr. Bill, he doesn't even have a horse. Well, I guess we can remedy that problem. Just talk to Seamus about that too."

"Miss Kitty, you should know that Mr. Smith is a fine hand with a gun. He'd be a good man to have on your side in a fight." At the doctor's words she turned to the cowboy for a closer look, she let her gaze travel up his body to rest on his eyes.

"Dr. Tucker told me about what happened to you and your husband. You have my sympathy." Matt said sincerely. Their eyes remained locked until she looked away.

"Thank you Mr. Smith." Her voice became determined. "I aim to see that justice is done. Will Stambridge was murdered. There is little doubt that Harland Scharpf is responsible for his death."

"We met up with Scharpf and his friend, on the way here." Tucker divulged.

"He's a G-damn son-of-a-bitch. I hate him … the f-g bastard."She blurted angrily.

Dillon blushed; it must have been due to such words coming from her pretty lips, because it wasn't like those words were new to him and he hadn't heard them spoken most every day of his life.

Immediately she was embarrassed by her speech, "Oh I'm sorry" she apologized. "I seem to have quite a repertoire of bad language. It makes me wonder about my past life."

"I think your description is probably pretty accurate." Matt returned smiling kindly.

"Yes, well, as I said, I am going to make him pay for what he did."

He spoke like the `badge' he was, "I don't think that would be wise Mrs. Stambridge. From all accounts, Scharpf is a dangerous man. You should let the law take care of things."

She snorted, with her hands on her hips, staring up into his face, her words spilled out, "Let me tell you something. I may not remember my past, but I do recall geography and it seems to me you'rea helluva long way from Kansas to be trying to call the shots in Colorado!" She took a deep breath and continued her words at a slower more precise pace; "There is no law in Yellow River except that which answers to Harland Scharpf. Now, this is the hand that has been dealt to me. Scharpf wants my land and the Yellow River, but he also wants me too, oh, I know the land is more valuable than I am, but still it does give me an ace in the hole. I'll let him play out his hand and we'll see how the cards fall."

Dillon shook his head and swallowed a chuckled, "Poker must be your game Mrs. Stambridge. If you don't mind I'll just stick around and back up your play"

She nodded in acquiescence "Suit yourself. Just so long you understand the rules Mr. Smith. This is my place, and I am the boss."

Matt grabbed his gear from the doctor's buggy and made his way downtoward the ranch's outbuildings. He spotted a man standing next to the corral struggling with what appeared to be a very active toddler in his arms.

"Mr. Mulgrew?" Matt called.

Mulgrew turned around, "I be Seamus Mulgrew." He was not a large man,but he built like a bull, all muscle. His face, like his voice was clearly Irish.

"I'm Matt Smith," the name stuck on his tongue, "I'm a friend of Dr. Tucker's. Mrs. Stambridge just hired me."

Mulgrew squinted his eyes against the sun and studied his newest ranch hand. "You being a friend of Doc Bill's makes you a friend to the rest of us, I'm a thinking. We're grateful for the help , there's work a plenty to be done here."

Matt couldn't help grinning as he noticed the toddler trying to escape from her father's grip.

"Yeah, I see you've got your work cut out for you."

Seamus returned the grin, and planted a kiss to the grape jelly stained cheek of the little red-haired baby in his arms, "Tis the truth, this little leprechaun is Katie. She should be up at the house with her ma. But, Molly's doing some baking, so I volunteered to look after the wee one for a bit." He repositioned the baby to one arm and pointed toward a small building. "You can stow your gear in the bunk house behind the barn, there's only one other hand left, so you've got your pick of the beds."

"I'll be needing a horse Mr. Mulgrew."

"We got plenty of those. You're a big man. Matthew? Tis it?. You'll be needin a big horse. How does that bay suit you?" He asked indicating a large gelding in the corral.

"He'd suit me just fine."

A young man in his early twenties stood at the barn door calling to the foreman, "Mr. Mulgrew, can you come up here and take a look at Mrs. Stambridge's mare?"

"I'll be right there Johnny." Mulgrew shouted in reply. To Matt he said, "Here be your first job, take wee Katie up to the house and hand her over to Miss Molly in the kitchen. Then come on back down and I'll show you around a bit."

"Ah. . . Mr. Mulgrew," Matt stuttered. " I don't know anything about babies."

"Lad, if you can handle a young calf than you can handle this one."Seamus assured him.

Before he could say another word the tyke had been deposited in his arms. She squirmed only for a moment, and then stopped to look into the face of the man holding her. She wrapped her chubby arms around his neck, and giggled at him. There was a strong odor about her of bread and butter; sun dried cotton and soggy diaper.

Mulgrew gave a chuckle and said. "It appears our Miss Katie is smitten." Before Matt could utter another word of protest, Seamus Mulgrew turned to run up to the barn.

The baby's giggle was infectious and Dillon couldn't help but smile at her. It was clear she had a friendly trusting nature as a child who grows up in a household of love will often have. "Let's find your mama," Matt said, eager to get rid of the kid before she further dirtied her pants.

"Mama, mamamama." The baby mimicked in a sweet singsong.

"You're a talker aren't you?" Matt said, as he carried her back to the house.

To prove his point, she proceeded to call his attention to all the areas of interest they met along the way, "Moo-moooo." she babbled as they ambled by the milk cow. "Wa-wa." she explained as they approached the pump. "Pret-teee." She said as they passed the roses blooming at the garden gate leading into the back yard.

There was a pleasant porch with swing and rocker attached to the rear of the house. It was here Matt stood with the baby perched on his arm peering through the screen door into the kitchen. Molly's humming of an Irish jig could be heard over the sounds of pots and pans and oven doors. He rapped loudly on the door.

"Come in." She looked up from the bread she was kneading. "Oh, tis you Mr. Smith, got saddled with the wee one already, did you?" She wiped her hands on her apron. " Here let me take her, tis time for her nap."

Molly held out her hands for the baby and Katie fell into them. "Whew! Goodness, Katie you've soaked through your nappies."

Matt's arm was wet where the little girl had been, Molly offered an apologetic smile, "Tis part and parcel of living at Yellow River Ranch Mr. Smith, I'm afraid our little one leaves her mark on everyone sooner or later." She nodded at a baking pan setting on its side on the cooling rack, "You be helping yourself to some of that nice fresh bread, I expect a big man like you needs plenty to keep him going."

"Thank you ma'am." Matt replied. He watched Molly and Katie go up the back stairs off the kitchen.

When they were gone he cut himself a piece of bread and began eating it. He stopped chewing when he heard the sound of Kitty's voice coming from beyond a swinging door, and realized the parlor must be the room on the other side. He moved closer to listen.

"Dr. Bill, I appreciate the fact you have brought this stranger to us. Lord knows we haven't been able to hang onto help since Scharpf scared off all our hands but Seamus and Johnny. However, I have to say there is something about him that just doesn't set right with me."

"My dear, all you need be concerned with right now is he's a good man who handles a gun well."

"From what I've been told the same could have been said about Will Stambridge, and look where it got him."

"Now, now, don't go thinking about that." Dr. Bill soothed, then in an effort to change the subject he asked. "How have the headaches been?"

"Well if you count the one I have right now, they have been pretty constant." It was said not for sympathy, but as a statement of fact.

"And the dizziness?" He questioned.

"About the same." She answered.

"It's all part of the concussion, the symptoms should lessen overtime. Now, Miss Kitty, I'm going to leave you some headache powders, and I want you to take them."

"They just make me sleepy. They give me bad dreams. I'd rather have the headache than the nightmares."

"I can understand that, but you need your rest. It's very important to your recovery." Dillon strained to hear more but it seemed that was the end of their conversation. The sound of footsteps faded toward the front of the house.

His hand rested on the door ready to push it open, but he resisted the urge remembering the doctor's advice. He stared at the wooden barrier as though to see through it. After two long lonely years he was this close to Kitty Russell, with only a swinging door separating them. It came to him as a sad acknowledgement - he had no right to open the door, at least not yet.

With her arm looped through Doc Bill's she walked him to the front door, "Take care, my dear," he said. "Please try to get some rest. I'll be stopping by later in the week."

Kitty offered her thanks and waved good-bye as he drove his buggy down the lane. She stood at the door a moment longer as if waiting for something to jog her memory, when nothing did she turned around to go back in her house. Vertigo rushed over her and she staggered to the stairs and clutched the mahogany newel post until the sensation passed. She pressed a hand over her eyes in an effort to relieve the pain, which throbbed behind them. Dr. Tucker was right about one thing, she admitted to herself, she was tired, so tired. With a sense of defeat, Kitty looked at the envelope of headache powders he had left with her. Maybe the nightmares wouldn't come if she took an afternoon nap. Even she had to smile at the childish logic of her reasoning.

Using the ornately carved banister for support she climbed the stairs and tread wearily down the hallway to her quarters. The masterbedroom was huge, dominated by a massive canopied bed. She walked into the room to stand at the center. Turning in a slow circle she scanned every inch of the space, desperately trying to elicit a flash of remembrance. Again she felt nothing - no warmth, no security, no feeling of coming to a safe haven. She wondered about that. Surely this room above all should hold fond memories.

She measured out the prescribed dosage of the headache powders and stirred it into a glass of water. It tasted foul and required an effort to drink. She turned to her dressing table and saw the picture of Will Stambridge staring back at her. She moved closer for a better look. There was a carafe of brandy sitting next to her husband's photograph. Perhaps a sip of that warm liquid would ease her pain, she thought. She poured herself a generous amount and took the glass and Will's picture to the chaise lounge. This was where she had slept for the past two weeks. For reasons she was unable to identify, Kitty couldn't bring herself to lie in the canopied bed.

She eased herself down and pulled a mohair afghan up to her chest, more for comfort than warmth. She took a drink from the glass letting the liquid burn a trail down her throat. After a time she felt the alcohol taking effect. Finally, she picked up the picture again and stared at the face of the man she had married, seeking a connection, but, like all times before, she saw and felt nothing.

This had been the way it was for the past two weeks. Her earliest recollection was waking up in that bed. An excruciating pain that made the slightest movement agony had consumed her head. She recalled Molly leaning close to her. "Hush now, darlin, just close your eyes and try to sleep." She had said other words after that, but they dissolved into gibberish, as the pain became her master.

It had been two full days later before the oblivious haze had finally lifted. A reality composed of unanswered questions made her wish for the sanctuary that unconsciousness had provided. She remembered nothing, and no one from the time before she had been injured. As hard as she searched for a trigger to release her memory, nothing did. Gradually she was learning to function in this alien world where she was so much the foreigner.

She took another drink of the brandy and closed her eyes, waiting forthe dull throb to go away and sleep to come. When it did, it brought with it a disturbing dream; she was running from room to room of her house looking for pictures of Will. She was desperate to remember him; growing more and more panicked. Every time she found his picture, the mysterious Mr. Smith replaced his image. She awoke in a cold sweat. She sat up, with the feeling of panic still in her. With a shaky hand, she reached for the rest of the brandy and finished it in one gulp, before getting up to pour herself more.

Kitty had been missed at the supper table that night by the new ranch hand. Molly Mulgrew served platters of steaming roast beef to the men as they talked about their day and the plans for the next. But,Molly noticed that Matt seemed too quiet. "Mr. Smith, is there something you'd be wanting?"

He shook his head, "No thank you ma'am everything is mighty good. I was just wondering about Mrs. Stambridge. Does she usually eat alone?"

A sad smile settled on Molly's pretty face. "She and Mr. Will used to eat all of their meals here with us, unless they was having company. T'was a jolly time, it was. Since Mr. Will died, she hardly eats at all, and never here in the kitchen." She passed the potatoes to her husband before turning back to Matt, "Dr. Bill gave her some medicine today, and she be sleeping now. Poor thing, she's not done much of that lately either."

Kitty awoke at first light. The stays from her corset were pinching her rib cage and she realized that she had slept the whole night in her clothing. The liquor induced sleep had left her groggy and with a bad taste in her mouth. She considered it an adequate tradeoff for the respite the alcohol had provided. Common sense warned her against making it a habit. She stripped out of the black dress and undergarments and using the cold water in the pitcher gave her self a quick sponge `bath'. She pulled a silk robe around her body,knotting the sash to hold it closed. Her hair was tangled and would require some patient combing to rid it of the rats nests. The songs of the morning birds drew her to the window. She had left it open all night so the room held a bit of a chill. As she began to pull the window shut, she happened to glance towards the well pump. He stood over the bucket there, stripped to the waist. His body was lean and muscular and just watching him stirred something inside of her. Like a mysterious power she couldn't comprehend, his eyes were pulled toward her direction, and he looked up to see her framed in the window. He smiled and lifted his hand in salute. She hastily stepped back to hide behind the curtains, when she looked again he was gone.