The Weigh of Love

Gunsmoke Fan-fiction

GStales

Fluff, written for fun. No money gained for the telling of this tale. It is not a history lesson, not a Gunsmoke canon lesson, not a lesson in nutrition.

THEY HAD A DIFFERENCE of opinion as to when this all actually started. Dillon firmly held to the belief that it was on her birthday. Kitty however, after giving the matter a little quiet thought felt it had all started during the warm spell in early April. Warm, actually was an understatement. The sun beat down on Dodge City with the intensity of a midsummer's day.

Taking a rare night off, she had spent the previous evening devouring the pages of the latest Godey's Lady's Book. Kitty Russell loved clothes, and took great delight in imagining herself in the newest fashions from Paris depicted on the pages of her favorite magazine. One page in particular had caught her eye; each dress was prettier than the next. Unable to make up her mind, she had promised herself at least one of those gowns for the summer season. She went to sleep that night with visions of sateen and polished cotton dancing in her dreams.

The next morning, she had looked through her considerable wardrobe, for she seldom threw anything out, trying to find something weather appropriate to wear. The temperature called for lighter attire than the flannels and woollies she'd worn all winter.

An hour later her room was strewn with clothing. Floor, chairs, bed all had some manner of dress or undergarment tossed either haphazard or in disgust. Nothing fit. She studied her reflection in the mirror; it was hard to ignore the toll the passing of years had taken. Her skin was no longer as young and firm as it used to be, tiny lines fanned the corners of her eyes and her lean, limber body was a thing of the past.

She stuck her tongue out at the wrinkles which she could do nothing about. Her eyes traveled down the length of her reflection, taking in her over generous proportions. In complete disgust she declared, "Kitty Russell! You're fat."

This was a day and age when plump was acceptable, plump was encouraged, men all agreed that a plump woman was a happy woman. Young women ate copious amounts of food to attain the ideal hour glass shape. Kitty had achieved that goal and surpassed it. Fat was not acceptable, especially with the new figure flaunting fashions. In her eyes fat equaled the end of her youth, and the ever attractive red head was not prepared to say adieu.

Now, it should be clarified at this point, Kitty Russell was not really obese. It was just the gentle rounding of middle age had settled in and taken root, and even the most severe of corsets wasn't going to bring back her perfect hour glass shape.

With new found self control firmly in place, she resolved to restrict her eating until she was again the perfect size. She sweated through the next few days in her winter attire until cooler springtime temperatures returned. To begin with, her determination was unyielding, but gradually it waned. Oh, she would wake up in the morning saying, "Today is the day." However, good food was hard to resist and never before in her life had she needed to. By the end of the day, her resolution had faded and she was left with no other choice but to start over.

The coming and going of her cycle didn't help any; her cranky mood during that time of the month was only alleviated by a heavy dose of sweets. Over the years she'd developed a special fondness for the chocolate cake served at Delmonicos. Matt Dillon, who knew the phases of her month as well as he knew the stages of the moon, made a point of treating her with this confection twice a day, until the `visitor' departed.

Dillon had no problem with Kitty Russell's shape, and delighted in the extra poundage. A big man with a hearty appetite, he appreciated the same in her. "Kitty, you're a beautiful woman, every year you grow more beautiful. And as long as you don't grow so beautiful that I can't reach my arms around you . . ." The man had a smile which melted away her insecurities (if not her fat) and he blessed her with it, as he put into action his words.

Kitty had always been a woman endowed with strong self-confidence, but middle age had hit her hard. The truth of Matt's words sunk in and she decided to be content with her figure and her age, reminding herself that she was beautiful, she was loved and she was successful. In truth she was rich and could well afford a complete new wardrobe, one that perfectly fit her splendid proportions.

With her Lady's Book tucked under her arm, Kitty paid a visit to her seamstress, Miss Mary Helgemoe. She would need the new dresses for summer, and especially for the Fourth of July Sociable. As Mary studied the gowns, Kitty pointed out the dresses on the page that had especially caught her eye.

"This would be perfect for the Sociable, don't you agree Mary?"

Always resourceful with needle and design, Mary had enthusiastically agreed. "This will be work of art Miss Kitty!" she thought for a moment than said with a wide smile, "I have just the fabric." She left the room to return moments later with an armful of soft shiny sateen, in a rich shade of periwinkle blue. "I've been saving this for something really special."

She held the fabric to Kitty's figure and sighed, "Perfect." The two spent an hour looking over the design. Using the back of one dress and the front of another, Mary skillfully redid the sketch. She added a slight alteration in the bodice which, she said kindly "might prove more flattering to your robust figure, Miss Kitty." The remark though not intended to hurt, had nevertheless caused a slight crack in Kitty's newly reinstated armor of self confidence.

An astute business woman herself, Mary noticed the slight deflation of Kitty's excitement. "I promise you, Miss Kitty, this will be masterpiece!"

The small crack had widened later that afternoon, when Kitty overheard one of her customers at the Long Branch Saloon, remarking to another on the annual July picnic. With a nudge to his friend, and an eye in Kitty's direction, Ollie Kulke, had remarked. "Why she has put on a fair amount of flesh, that's for sure, but I'd pay my last copper for a taste of her tarts."

Turning her back quickly so no one could watch the crimson flush creep down her face, Kitty cringed at the thought of the Box Lunch Picnic. Now if truth be told, she could have put an end to this barbaric tradition years ago. As a prominent member of the Dodge City Chamber of Commerce she'd had the power, but it hadn't mattered years ago, and this event was one of the Chamber's biggest fund raisers, with the proceeds going to the Dodge City Community Schools.

Like most box lunch picnics the Fourth of July Box Lunch Sociable had the gentlemen pick a fancy boxed lunch from an assortment on a grandly draped table. When the selection had been made, the woman who had prepared the lunch would report to a stand at the head of the picnic area where Doc Adams would weigh the woman and then publicly announce her weight. With the reasoning, the stouter the cook- the better the food, the gentleman would pay a penny for each pound of the woman's mass. She had cost Matt Dillon a pretty penny in the last few years as her weight had steadily increased.

She knew she was way over last year's weight just by the fit of her clothing. Thinking there was some truth to the old adage, forewarned is forearmed, Kitty decided to find out just how much weight she had gained. The General Store had a scale that was used by most of Dodge City's residents. The problem was finding a way to step on the scale without drawing undue attention.

It was middle afternoon when she approached the mercantile, only a few patrons browsed Mr. Lathrop's store. Kitty spent time looking through fabrics, shoes and farming equipment until she'd worked her way to the scales. After taking a quick glance around the room to make sure no one was looking, she hopped on the weighing machine. Holding her breath, she watched as the needle moved at a dizzying rate. Like a metronome it teetered back and forth before finally settling on number. The amount staggered her. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible. Why she was nearly as heavy as Bessie. In total shock she stepped from the scale, taking notice of no one or nothing from that point on, as she hastily left the store.

In a state of acute depression Kitty Russell retreated to her personal quarters. She accepted no visitors as she tried to work through her problem. Even Matt Dillon was denied entry, she had no wish to expose her ample girth to Dillon's astute perusal.

She decided she'd have no alternative but to take an extended trip out of town, one that would last two months or more. It was the only way out, if she was to maintain some semblance of pride. Not only for her sake, but Matt's as well. She could only imagine the good natured ribbing he would take for having to pay a premium price for a box lunch.

When Sam stopped by her room to check on her that evening, she slipped him a note under the door. "Please book passage on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe for a round trip ticket to St. Louis, departing a week from Wednesday."

She felt ever so much better after having made that decision. She would miss the picnic. Definitely, she would miss Matt. They had always had a good time at the event, but this was for the best, and she would generously make up the amount her absence would cause.

She slept well that night, and was whistling when she grabbed her early morning coffee from Sam the next morning. While studying a plate of caramel rolls sitting on the bar she asked, "Did you make the arrangements for me Sam?"

"Yes Miss Kitty," he replied, handing her the tickets from his vest pocket.

Breathing a happy sigh, she selected the gooiest of the sweet rolls, and placed it on top of her coffee cup, and balanced it atop her ledgers. "I'll be in my office Sam. I'll get the books in order for you, before I leave town."

She set her ledger books on the desk and then her coffee and sweet roll, it was when she pulled out her chair that she saw the white envelope on the floor. This was odd, she thought for it hadn't been there the night before. Picking it up, she examined it. She didn't recognize the handwriting. It had an odd childlike appearance as though someone was purposefully trying to disguise their identity, but there was no mistaking her name, "Kitty" written in the bold print. Feeling strangely apprehensive, she ripped open the envelope.

I know what you weigh and if you leave town before the sociable,

I will make sure all of Dodge City knows.

For I am,

One who knows

Kitty's face turned ashen, the letter shook in her fingers. Without grace she sat down, while uttering the unladylike words, "sonovabitch."

For the moment, her appetite had completely deserted her. The book work, and sweet roll were left untouched as she racked her brain, trying to figure out who this despicable character was, and why they would want to embarrass her in such an open way. She tried to list her enemies, but found there were few who disliked her enough to publicly embarrass her. The one name that topped her list was Susan Barts. Years ago, Susan had, had a crush on Matt Dillon. She had tried using considerable charm, physical attributes and her father's ranch to steal Matt's heart away from Kitty, but had failed miserably. Since that time, she had used every opportunity to belittle Kitty, her profession and her relationship with the lawman.

Near noon, Sam appeared at her office door with her lunch tray from Delmonicos. It contained her favorite special of the day, chicken and dumplings, with apple pie for dessert. Having skipped breakfast that day, she was hungry and so depressed, she started eating. It wasn't until she was half way through her meal she realized she was only adding to her problem.

She fought the urge to hurl the remaining food at the wall in a fit of rage, instead she slowly covered the plate with her napkin and offered, "Rest in peace," as a final benediction. It was small as diet success stories go, but she marked it as the beginning.

Needing to work out a plan, she decided her first stop should be to the office of Dr. Adams, if anyone knew the best way to lose weight it would be a physician she reasoned.

"Come in," he called from inside his office, where he sat at his desk reading a recent medical journal. Smiling, she made an effort to look lighthearted and untroubled as she entered.

"Got a minute?" she asked.

He squinted over the lenses of his gold rimmed spectacles, "For you, I've got as many minutes as you want. What's the matter, you're not sick, are you?"

"No, no," she answered a bit too quickly.

"Well you look healthy enough that's for sure." He noticed an unidentified look pass over her face, and became concerned. "Come on over and sit down, I'll get us a cup of coffee."

She settled herself in the consulting chair next to his desk and accepted the cup of coffee. He watched her take a drink before he eased his elderly body to his battered desk chair. Sensing there was a medical reason for this visit, he set his tone of voice to reflect his profession, "Now, what seems to be the problem?"

"I have this friend Doc," she began, "and it seems over the past few years she's put on a little weight."

Adams took off his glasses to study her, "Well, Kitty, I would tell this ahh `friend' that it is only natural as we age, to gain a little weight. Especially if your friend is a woman, It's the body's way of ensuring that a female has a little extra protection, in the case of childbearing or sickness. "

"But Doc, what if this `protection' has gotten out of hand, is there a surefire way to lose weight?"

Adams smiled and patted her arm in his best bedside manner, "the only three things I know that really work, eat less, especially sweets, drink plenty of water and exercise more."

He made it sound so simple, "Eat less, drink water and exercise …" she repeated.

"Yes, you should . . . I mean your friend should get up early and go for a good brisk morning constitutional, drink lots of water, it's good for the system, keeps it clean and purified, and of course practice abstinence."

Kitty sat up straight, her mouth dropped open, "Abstinence? Abstinence Doc! How does that? I mean. . ." She felt a flush coming to her face. "What are you talking about?"

The old man hid his grin behind a moustache swipe, "Abstinence means self-control Kitty, there is an old saying, the best exercise is pushing yourself away from the table. Your, um, friend should practice self control. I think she will find if she follows my prescription she will be see results. Above all," he counseled, "she should use common sense. I for one find nothing wrong with a women of substance."

Standing, Kitty offered her thanks in the form of a weak smile, "I'll tell her to give it a try."

Adams set his glasses back on his nose. He had a pretty good idea who the `friend' was, but his mischievous spirit made him ask anyway, "Who is this friend?"

She was half tempted to confess, but didn't want to risk being teased about a problem he might find trivial, so instead she said rather quickly and without much thought, "Bessie Roniger."

"Oh well, in that case, forget everything I said."

"Why?" Kitty asked.

Adams frowned and tugged an ear, he usually respected patient confidentiality but this was a special instance. Kitty and Bessie were good friends, and if she didn't know already she would soon find out. "Bessie is expecting!"

The news of her friend's pregnancy didn't come as a great surprise. For a good deal of the time Kitty had known Bessie, she had been in a state of expectation. Will Roniger was a wonderful and loving husband, and the two made ideal parents. A home filled with fourteen children certainly could make room for one more. At the thought of the Roniger's happy home, Kitty felt a vague sense of something missing in her own life. The feeling reminded her of an itch she couldn't quite scratch. With a smile pasted in place, Kitty again thanked Adams for the advice and left his office.

For the next week Kitty followed a careful diet, severely limiting her intake of food and avoiding sweets completely. She woke early every day and took a long walk around the outskirts of Dodge and carried a glass of water with her wherever she went. She was hungry, crabby and continually using the convenience room. People began to avoid her, incase they were to become objects of her ill-humor. Festus, having been scolded for a series of minor offenses had remarked to Sam, "Miss Kitty is touchier than a lovesick porkypine." But, by the end of the week she noticed a slight difference in the fit of her gowns, and the contours of her face.

She made a visit to her dressmaker, Mary Helgemoe to see how the new wardrobe was coming along. Several dresses were nearly complete, but the gown for the Fourth of July, with its more complicated design still needed work. It took Kitty's breath away as Mary held it for her to examine. "Oh, Mary, it is the most beautiful gown I've ever seen."

Mary nodded in agreement, "It is, isn't it. But I want it to be perfect and I can't seem to get the bodice right, Kitty, why don't you try it on, and I'll see if I can figure out what's wrong."

While in the fitting room two women from Dodge came in the shop. By their voices Kitty recognized them as Susan Barts, and her friend Jennifer Dunn. Not an eavesdropper by nature, Kitty couldn't help but listen to their conversation.

"I need the recipe for your cabbage soup Jenny." Susan began, "I've just got to lose some weight before the picnic. I'd simply die if I weigh more than Bessie Roniger . . . " There was twitter between the two ladies, "or Miss Kitty, why she is getting downright fat. Now, I know from personal experience, Matt has always been partial to a woman with a delicate build. I can't imagine what he sees in her, other than the obvious."

"Aha!" Kitty thought, "It was Susan who wrote the note!" She resisted the urge to burst through the door and punch Susan in the nose, instead, she pressed her ear against the wall to better hear the conversation.

Jenny giggled at the remark. "Susan! I'm shocked! Well I don't think you need to worry about getting that large. Personally I think your figure is wonderful, not too slender, how do the men put it . . . A little meat on your bones. But if you'd like the recipe, I'll gladly give it to you. It is powerful I must warn you. You shouldn't plan on social engagements while you are taking the soup. I was taking the soup for one week and I lost three inches around my waist. Today, I am cinched to a mere 20 inches! Dudley will be pleased when it comes time for the box lunches. He is so thrifty with his money, don't you know." She paused for a minute, "It really is very simple. Have you got something to write this down with?" she asked.

Susan eagerly replied, "I'm sure I have a lead pencil here in my reticule."

Kitty didn't waste time; she hurriedly fumbled through her own handbag looking for paper and pencil. Finding it just in time as Jennifer started listing the ingredients.

"These are the ingredients, beef stock, five medium carrots cut and peeled, three medium celery stalks, sliced, three large onions, three large cloves of garlic minced, six skinned tomatoes, one large head cabbage, two medium parsnips, and a handful of fresh spinach. You just cook it all together until its soup. Whenever you are feeling hungry, you consume a bowl of soup. You can eat as much as you want, and the inches just fall off."

Kitty scribbled away, writing the ingredients in a hurried script. She'd pay a visit to Mr. Lathrop's as soon as she was finished with the dressmaker, and purchase the supplies for this miracle cure.

The strong aroma of boiling cabbage, onions, spinach and garlic greeted the patrons of the Long Branch the next day. More than one of her regular clientele left in disgust, opting instead for the Bull's Head and the customary odor of stale sweat and ripe cow dung.

Kitty had her first bowl of soup that night. It was filling. But certain aspects of the soup remained with her. The garlic hung on her breath, and the cabbage gave her gas. Dillon considered it lucky he'd been called out of town on the second day of the soup regime. The one evening in her company had been less than ideal. In the middle of the night, he'd found it necessary to open the window to bring a little fresh air into the room. She apologized for her active digestive system, but reminded him of the frequent times she'd had to put up with his excessive flatulence.

Deciding she could endure anything that insured her success she spent the next few days eating cabbage soup. After the first day, she hardly noticed the taste of garlic on her breath. However, the gas was a different matter; she was attacked by frequent bouts of stomach rumbles.

The negative aspects of the soup were beginning to depress her social life; she could maintain a conversation for only a few minutes before her companion would find an excuse to quickly exit her company. Even her close friends began to avoid her, and she was beginning to feel hurt by their abandonment. Still, the success of the soup couldn't be argued, as the inches seemed to be melting away.

She might have stayed on the Cabbage Soup Diet until the dreaded Sociable arrived had it not been for an unexpected mishap at the Roniger farm.

She had been sitting at a Long Branch table in Doc's company slurping down her soup. "Are you sure you don't want a bowl Doc?" she'd offered. "It's very tasty."

Adams put up a hand, declining, "I think I'll pass Kitty."

There was a commotion at the front of the saloon which caused both physician and hostess to look up. The saloon doors banged open. "Where's Doc? We need Doc Adams." Will Roniger called.

Adams hurriedly sashayed around saloon tables in his effort to reach the distraught farmer. "Good heavens! Will, what's wrong?"

It was hard to tell if the moisture on Roniger's face was tears or sweat or maybe both, "It's Bessie, she fell, she's hurting real bad Doc . . . you gotta come."

"I'll get my bag. You see to my buggy." The old man ordered as he started toward the door.

"Wait for me Doc!" Kitty declared, "I'm coming with you."

It took Kitty less than five minutes to throw a few items in a carpetbag and meet Adams at the front of his office. Will Roniger helped Kitty into the buggy, then left riding out ahead of them at break neck speed, eager to be back to his wife's side.

The clip-clop of the horse and the rattle of the buggy was the only noise they made. Doc and Kitty sat in quiet, each trying hard not to imagine the worst, but knowing anything was possible. It came clearly to Kitty, how precious life, how fragile a thing, it was meant to be loved and appreciated and not wished away for want of a different figure or better wardrobe. These were truths she'd long been aware of, but for the past few weeks had forgotten.

There was a hushed stillness, completely unnatural to the Roniger place as the buggy pulled into the farmyard. Sixteen year old Annie, the eldest of the Roniger girls greeted them. There was worry on her pretty face, but she tried to hide it in the form of well-learned lessons of etiquette.

With a dainty curtsy, she said, "Miss Kitty, we are delighted to have the unexpected pleasure of your company."

Breaching good manners, Kitty pulled the young girl into her arms. "How's your mother Annie?"

Bursting into tears, the girl sobbed, "Oh Miss Kitty, I think she's going to lose the baby."

The rest of Bessie's children were gathered on the front porch. The older ones hanging onto the smaller ones, their faces somber and wide eyed. They opened a path for Doc and Kitty as they made their way to the house. Little three-year-old Elsie secure in the arms of her big brother Willie, reached her hands out to Kitty as she passed. Stopping for a moment, Kitty patted the little girl's head. "We'll play later Elsie; you can show me your new dolly. But right now, I want to see how your mama is feeling."

Bess lay on her bed garbed in a white cotton gown, with the blankets pulled to her chin. Her face was waxen with tiny beads of perspiration dotting its countenance. Her eyes were red and a trail of tears had left its mark. She said nothing but her frightened gaze when it linked with Kitty's spoke volumes. Will moved to the far side of the bed and sat close to his wife. Using a damp cloth, he wiped the sweat from her forehead.

"Oh Bess . . . " Kitty mouthed with silent words. Stepping back, she made room for Doc to do his exam.

Bessie remained quiet as Doc poked and prodded, only a moan escaped when the examination became too painful. The whole room held its breath when Doc placed his stethoscope to her abdomen. Time stood still, until a smile came to his face. He looked up at Bess. "He's still fighting. Now you fight too."

She nodded, and Will Roniger said, "Just tell us what we've got to do Doc."

Opening up a packet of powders he dispensed the contents in a glass of water and handed it to Bess to drink "Mrs. Roniger, I want you to remain in bed for at least two weeks, maybe longer." Turning to Will and Kitty he added, "She is to do absolutely nothing. We've got to give her body a chance to heal."

Bess made a move to sit up, but was pressed back to the pillows by her loving husband, still she protested, "I'll do nothing of the kind Doctor Adams. I have a large family that needs me. "

Kitty moved closer to the bed, "Bess, I'm staying." Carefully, she sat down next to her friend, as Will and Doc quietly left the room. "Annie and I can keep this house running until you're back to your old self. The important thing is you and that baby."

"Kitty, I can't ask you to do that!" Bess worried. "You have your own responsibilities."

Taking Bess's work worn hand and holding it within her own finely manicured fingers, Kitty said, "Bess, you're not asking, I'm telling. Now you just rest, and in a little bit, I'll bring you some good broth to keep your strength up."

She sat with her for a little longer until Bess's eyes closed. Kissing her friend's cheek, she rose, pulled the shades and quietly left the room. Bess was already snoring softly the result of the Doc's sleeping powders.

In the front room, the physician was having a serious discussion with Will. ". . . a broken rib, and internal bruising. It's important she remain as free from stress as possible. She needs rest, absolute and complete."

"Don't you worry Doc; I'll see she gets what she needs." Will vowed.

Kitty joined the conversation, resting a sisterly hand on Will's arm, "We'll both see to it."

From that point on, Kitty was kept busy. She had no time to worry about her weight, growing older, or dressing in the latest fashion. She had Bessie's home and family to tend to.

Taking control of the kitchen, she made a stew for dinner that first night. The proportions seemed overly generous, and she was worried she had made too much and the leftovers would go to waste. Annie had warned her it wouldn't be enough, but Kitty hadn't listened. When the serving bowl was passed around the table, it proved hardly enough for first helpings. Will was too polite to complain, but Kitty couldn't miss the looks exchanged by the older boys and their father. Luckily there was plenty of bread and butter to make up for the lack of a main dish.

As they washed dishes that night, Kitty admitted to Annie, "I should have listened to you. But it looked like we had enough food to feed a small army."

"That's all right, Miss Kitty, I expect you have a lot to learn about taking care of a family."

Two of the children were still in diapers with a third, in the early stages of potty training. Diapers were washed every morning. A line stretched across the yard with freshly laundered nappies flapping in the breeze. Annie sympathized with Kitty as she helped take the dry diapers off the line. "Just be glad it isn't winter Miss Kitty."

Kitty's hands were already chapped and red, and she couldn't help but silently agree.

It seemed to Kitty she always had at least one child in her arms and another clinging to her skirt. She learned moving fast was not possible, and many times forward progress was completely halted by a tiny finger with a sliver in it, or some other wound of body or heart.

One day Annie's beau, Charles came by to return a plow horse his Pa had borrowed. He'd spent most of his time talking with Will and the older Roniger boys, barely noticing Annie's presence. When he left, the teenager had been reduced to tears. "Oh Miss Kitty, I thought he loved me. " She sobbed.

Kitty gathered Annie into her arms and patted her shoulder until the crying had stopped. "Sweetie, it's time you learned the difference between men and women."

Annie pulled back and frowned, "Miss Kitty, Ma and me had this talk a while back."

"That's not the difference I'm talking about." Doing her best to hide a smile, she led the girl to the front porch where the two sat down on the swing. "You see, a man can love you with all his heart and soul and still forget you exist from time to time. But, we women,once we give our heart to a man, we become a part of him. We feel his pain and sadness, and take happiness in his joy. When he's not near us, it feels like we aren't whole until he's back again. Now, that doesn't mean that we're right and they're wrong, it doesn't mean oneis better than the other, just different."

Annie gave Kitty's words consideration and then agreed, "It's like that with ma and pa." Then she smiled, as a light came to her eyes and asked, "Is it that way with you and the Marshal?"

Kitty laughed in return, "That, young lady, is none of your business."

Giggling the young girl said, "I thought so. Thanks Miss Kitty, I feel much better."

After the fiasco of the first night, Kitty realized her most important task was feeding the Ronigers. It seemed her day started and finished in the kitchen. Four loaves of bread were baked each morning, and a cake twice a week.

The varieties of berries in season were harvested on a regular basis, and several mornings were spent preparing strawberry preserves, to be eaten in the cold winter months. On this, Kitty followed the direction of Bessie's daughters who were well schooled in the kitchen arts. Though early in the season, the family garden yielded an abundance of produce. Daily weeding and hoeing was required to keep the vegetables growing. Kitty took her turn at the garden detail. Even wearing a bonnet, she sprouted freckles on her face and hands.

She slept each night in the girl's room on Elsie's undersized cot, while the little girl curled up in the larger bed with her sisters. It wouldn't have mattered if she'd been sent to bed in the barn, for each night she was so exhausted, that sleep came with the pillow. Many a night she dreamed of the gown Miss Helgemoe was making for her, the masterpiece, and Susan Bart's reaction to it. Though she could never remember the entire dream in the morning, vague images of Susan face down in a mud puddle came to mind.

By the end of the first week, Kitty was gaining confidence. There had been no major mishaps. The Ronigers were fed and clean, and as Bessie noted, "That's good enough."

Her confidence was short lived, for catastrophe lay just around the corner. It started that morning as Kitty was cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast. Ann and Mary were tending to the little ones, and Emma was busy hanging the wash. Only Elsie was left at the table. The toddler was toying with her food, moving it from side to side on the plate. "What's wrong Elsie, don't you like eggs today?"

"It hewts, Miss Kitty. Here." She said pointing to her throat. Frowning Kitty set down her dish rag and walked over to Elsie. She placed her hand on the little girl's forehead. "You do feel warm. I think maybe a day in bed will make you feel better." She put Elsie to bed and applied cold compresses to her throat. By the end of the day the triplets were feverish too and complaining of itchy bites on their tummies. When Doc paid a house call the following day, he made a diagnosis of the chicken pox. "Bed rest," he advised, "and forced fluids, calamine lotion and oatmeal baths for the itch."

Like dominoes the rest of the family fell one by one, victims to the same sore throat, fever and itchy pox. Kitty stayed healthy, although at times she wished she was not, just for the excuse of a moment's rest. It was up the stairs with warm tea for the girls, back down the stairs to fetch the triplets' wooded toy soldiers, back up the stairs with clean laundry to change the sheets or perspiration soaked night gowns. She coaxed sick toddlers to eat and rocked fevered babies trying to soothe their discomfort.

"I had chicken pox as a little girl, I remember how awful they were. Dangerous too, I had a friend who died from them." Bessie fretted.

Kitty did her best to keep Bessie calm. "There's nothing you could do, that I'm not doing Bessie." Plumping Bessie's pillow, she placed it carefully behind her. "Besides, haven't you always said it would be good for me to walk in your shoes for a while?"

Bessie thought for a bit, before responding, "I think what I said Kitty, was I would like to walk in your shoes. I've always thought a day being a beautiful, independent business woman would be a welcomed change."

Matt Dillon stopped by to see her frequently, but she rarely had time to do more than sit for a few minutes to share a cup of coffee. She confessed to him. "I don't know how Bessie does it!"

"Kitty, I suspect it's all what you're used to." Kitty made a move to get them more coffee, but he motioned her to stay in her place. Her hair was bedraggled, and her clothing soiled from baby spit-up and cooking grease. The dark eyelashes had disappeared, as had face paint and French perfume. Beauty has many faces he thought, as he said, "This one's on me."

By the end of the second week, the chicken pox had been reduced to itchy scabs, and the children were feeling better. The challenge now turned to keeping them quiet when they felt well enough to play. "We don't want any secondary infections, Kitty." Doc Adams warned. "It's important to keep them in bed until they are completely well."

With that in mind, Kitty played games of checkers with the boys, dressed dolls with the little girls, and shared the pages of her Godey's Ladies Book with Annie, Mary, and Susie. She felt near exhaustion but Bessie's family had survived the chicken pox. She glowed under Doc's praise. "You did a wonderful job Kitty, I'm proud of you."

As a reward for her hard work, Matt stopped by to bring her a slice of Delmonico's chocolate cake. "Doc said it's been pretty rough out here, I thought a piece of your favorite cake might make you feel better."

She sat at the kitchen table ready to enjoy the treat, but the faces of the triplets as they looked from her to the cake took the enjoyment from the anticipation. "Want some cake?" she asked. The trio, with eyebrows raised, bobbed their heads in unison. Getting up from the table, she took three plates from the cupboard, and evenly divided the three layer cake between the little boys.

"Guess I should have brought more." Matt apologized as they watched the triplets attack the cake with enthusiasm. Chocolate soon rimmed their mouths and clung to their fingers.

"It was the thought Matt, and the boys need the sweets more than I do. Maybe I'd better make a chocolate cake for this crew. With everyone healthy again I have a little extra time on my hands."

Dillon laughed out loud. "Kitty if you don't watch out, you're going to get used to this country life. You won't know what to do, when you get back to Dodge, with your fancy dresses and store-bought food."

"Oh Matt, that reminds me. Please stop by Miss Helgemoe's and pick up my new dresses. It'll give me something to look forward to, knowing they'll be waiting for me."

With a boyish grin, Dillon moved behind her and wrapped his long arms around her waist, as he whispered in her ear. "Oh Miss Kitty, I think you have more to look forward to than a few fancy new dresses."

It wasn't until the last week in June that Doc allowed Bessie out of bed. "Just for a few hours a day to start with."

Bessie would sit at the table and shuck peas, while Kitty peeled the potatoes or browned the meat for dinner, and the two ladies would chat and giggle like school girls. Sometimes they would stop in mid conversation when one of the children would appear, causing Bessie's offspring to roll their eyes, at the antics of the adults.

One afternoon, their conversation centered on weight. Kitty had gone into careful detail, giving Bessie the recipe for cabbage soup and expounding on its benefits.

Bessie had listened patiently before responding. "I've never been what you'd call a slender woman Kitty." Bessie admitted reaching for another sugar cookie. "I've never felt the need." She patted her ever expanding middle, "It appears Will is more than happy with me, and that, my friend, is all that matters."

Kitty nodded, hesitated and then she too reached for another sugar cookie. On the morning of July third, Doc declared Bessie well. "Just don't overdue." He warned. To celebrate, Kitty and the girls prepared a special meal.

"Miss Kitty you've become a pretty fair farm cook." Will complimented that night as he helped himself to seconds of her fried chicken and mashed potatoes. A large three layer chocolate cake stood on the kitchen counter waiting to be served for dessert.

"I don't know how we can ever thank you." Bess added sincerely.

"Bess the only thanks I need is in knowing you're better, and that little baby is healthy." Kitty took a good long look at each of the family members seated at the Roniger dinner table, "and you know, I wouldn't have missed this experience for the world."

Matt came by the next morning to bring her home. She hugged each Roniger. When it came time to embrace little Elsie, the child turned shy and hid behind Bessie's skirts. Kitty smiled. "That's all right Elsie; you don't have to hug if you don't want to." She took the arm Matt offered and walked toward the buggy. She was almost there when Elsie found her courage. She ran to Kitty and tackled her legs, catching her off balance and almost bringing Kitty to the ground. "Why Elsie, did you decide you wanted a good-bye hug afterall?" The little girl answered with a nod. Kitty smiled and picked her up. Elsie wrapped her arms around Kitty's neck, "Thank you Elsie, that is the very bestest hug of all." Elsie hugged tighter, not letting go, "I wuv you Miss Kitty." Bessie moved forward and pried the chubby little hands from Kitty's neck, adding her own sentiment as she did, "we all do Kitty."

The entire family stood on the front lawn calling their goodbye's as the buggy pulled away. Kitty waited until the last of the children's chorus had faded, before leaning back against the seat and closing her eyes.

"Tired?" Matt asked.

"A little," she admitted. "You know a saloon full of cowboys is going to seem mighty tame after three weeks at the Roniger's." The gentle rock of the buggy soon lulled her to sleep. She awoke with her head against Matt Dillon's arm as they entered the outskirts of Dodge City.

Even on the edge of town, Dodge was dressed for celebration and that's when it hit her. This was the Fourth of July and the sociable was going on. If she didn't make an appearance whoever had written that evil note, might very well start spreading ugly truths about her.

There had always been a certain glamour to her appearance. She had long been aware she was the Long Branch Saloon's best advertisement. People expected Kitty Russell to have a certain flair to her dress which often bordered on flamboyant. Looking as she did, there was no way she wanted to make a public entrance into town. The skirt and blouse she wore had seen too many wash days to be considered fashionable. Her hair was pinned back in a simple bun, her face bare of paint, and the damn freckles on her cheeks and nose stood out like a sore thumb. "Take the back alley Matt." she ordered.

Things were working out very well, she thought, her time helping Bessie had provided her with a perfect excuse not to have a box lunch ready for the picnic. No box lunch, no public embarrassment. She'd have a beautiful new gown to wear and be able to make a grand entrance certain to be noticed by everyone. Susan Barts would be pea green with jealously. Kitty Russell felt almost giddy at the prospect.

He pulled the buggy to a halt behind the Long Branch, tied the mare to the back hitching post, and helped Kitty from the carriage. "I'll get cleaned up, put on my new gown and I'll meet you over at the picnic grounds. We'll have to forget about the Box Lunch picnic, but maybe I can put together a few sandwiches for us to eat."

"Ahh Kitty, I was meaning to tell you . . ." The brave lawman hesitated.

"Tell me what?"

"About those new dresses . . . "

"What about them?" She frowned; a worried look crossed her face. "What about them Matt?"

"Well, you know how the Henschel boys get themselves into trouble every year around the Fourth, pulling some prank?"

"What did they do, and what does this have to do with my new summer wardrobe and my beautiful new dress?"

"They stuck a skunk in the dress shop."

"THEY WHAT? Oh no! When did that happen?"

"Two nights ago."

"TWO nights ago, But Matt, I asked you to get my dresses a week ago?"

"Well you know Kitty I have more important job responsibilities than seeing to your new dresses."

She looked at him and the anger left her face, replaced by despair, "Oh my beautiful dress." she mourned. "What am I going to do? What am I going to do?"

"Kitty this is just foolishness, you have closets filled with dresses. What about the one you wore last year or the one with the big orange bow? I like that one."

"Oh Matt, don't you understand? Look at me, why do you think I had Miss Helgemoe make all those new clothes? Nothing fits, at least none of my summer dresses. That's why I've been wearing skirts and blouses. Now, I'm sure to be the laughing stock of the town especially when . . . "

"When what? Kitty what are you talking about?" Bending his knees so he was even with her face, he smiled at her. "Kitty?" he cajoled. But she didn't smile back, in fact tears had welled in her eyes and were overflowing down her cheeks. Kitty's tears were rare, and their occurrence always flustered the tall cowboy. It took him a moment of indecision before he knew what to do.

"Come on you!" he said, taking her by the hand and pulling her up the stairs. He opened the door and pushed her through before following after. For want of a hanky she sniffed loudly, he handed her a clean bandana from his pocket and gently nudged her down the hall until they were at her bedroom door. He reached over the door, walking his fingers over the frame until he found the key. Opening the door he waited for her to move through, when she didn't, he gave her another nudge.

Once inside the room he said, "Kitty I don't understand all this."

"Oh you wouldn't because you're a - a man." She turned her back to him valiantly trying to regain her composure. Oh, she was aware she was behaving badly and forgetting the life lessons learned at the Ronigers. But for this moment, the only thing that mattered was the beautiful gown and a certain measure of revenge leveled in the direction of Miss Susan Barts.

Matt stood helplessly watching her, afraid to say anything for fear it would come out wrong, but knowing it was up to him to set things right. Dillon was a man of action and finally he took some. "Come with me, and I'll show you what I do understand."

He grabbed her hand in his and led her to the large mirror that hung on her bedroom wall. He stood behind her, his head rested above hers as he looked in the mirror, she kept her head down avoiding the reflection. "Kitty, " he whispered. "look, I want you to see what I see when I look at you."

She shook her head no, but looked up anyway. Summoning her courage she faced her insecurities at advancing middle-age. A keen hate had developed directed at the Kitty she'd become and she longed to see the girl she once was. Dillon was not a mind reader, especially where the thoughts of a lady were involved, but some gift of intuition came to him and he understood.

"Do you remember that young artist fella?" Matt asked. "He came to town a few years ago."

"Remington?" She asked.

"Yeah, that was his name. He showed us his drawing book. There was that one of a herd of Indian ponies; they looked like they were racing to the sun. It was all lines, nothing fancy, but you could tell it was going to be something special. Then he showed us the finished painting. He called it his masterpiece." A softness came to Matt Dillon's face and he had to swallow before he could continue. "When I first saw you, you were like that drawing, fine lines, but incomplete. Over the years the picture took shape and color. Kitty Russell you are like that painting - a masterpiece."

She bit her lip to keep from crying again. This time her tears were fueled by love and not self pity or vanity. Turning into his arms, she accepted the solace his embrace offered. Dillon smiled to himself and thanked his lucky stars, he'd said the right thing. Breathing a happy sigh he hugged her tighter.

She stayed in his arms for a good while, restoring her faith and confidence once again. Finally she pushed back. Laughing at herself she said, "This work of art still has the problem of nothing to wear. And if I don't show up at that picnic, you're going to have to go through that masterpiece speech all over again."

He scowled at her, while giving her figure careful regard. "You sure look like you'd fit into that dress with the orange bow, Kitty I think you've lost weight, why don't you try it on?"

"You think so?" She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Go away for a half hour. I'll see what I can do."

With a salute, he left saying, "I'll stop at Delmonico's and see what I can find to fill your picnic basket."

She cleaned up quickly, and pulled her hair into a simple but elegant do. Weeks of gardening had given her face a healthy glow and she required only scant makeup to cover the freckles. She wiggled into her corset and laced it as tightly as she could. Holding her breath, she stepped into the dress with the orange bow. It slipped past her hips without a tug. She slid her arms into the sleeves, and was surprised to find they were no longer tight, but the real test was in the buttons.

He heard the sound of her laughter from the back door, great lusty peals of jubilant laughter as though coming from one who had won a great victory. He didn't bother to knock but opened the door. She was standing in front of the mirror, and he could tell the dress had never fit better. She swung around to face him. He dropped the picnic hamper and held open his arms as she ran to him.

He received her kiss with a hearty return. When they broke apart again, he held her at arms length to admire her form. "By golly Kitty, you look just fine."

"Just fine?" she teased. "A half hour ago I was a masterpiece."

"Come on you . . . we've got a sociable to go to." He took her hand in his and they walked down the hall.

"Yeah." she agreed. "And I have a little unfinished business that needs tending."

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.

Patting her handbag, she smiled, "Just that I'm going to make Susan Barts eat her words."

Dillon stopped in his tracks pulling Kitty to a stop too. As a lawman of long standing he'd developed a sort of instinct warning him of impending disaster. Today his senses had been forced to work overtime. No sooner had one crisis been averted before another loomed menacingly on the horizon. Matt Dillon had visions of a cat fight forming in his head. Using a voice he reserved primarily for official law keeping purposes he commanded, "Hold it right there! Kitty, what are you talking about?"

She lifted her chin in defiance of his tone. "Susan sent me a nasty note, and I'm going to shove it down her throat."

A knot formed in the pit of Dillon's stomach. "Let me see the note?" He ordered.

She winced, mentally kicking herself for even mentioning Susan. He held out his hand and she knew she had no choice. She fumbled for a moment with the handbag's drawstring, before opening it and pulling out the envelope.

The pit in his stomach grew in size and weight, and he felt his ears grow red as he took the paper from her. "Kitty, Susan didn't write this.'

With pure puzzlement on her face she asked, "How do you know?"

"Because," he took a deep breath, "I wrote it."

"YOU!' You wrote this!" She literally staggered backward at his confession. He grabbed her shoulders to steady her.

"But, why?" she asked.

Dillon eyed his boots guiltily before answering. "I saw Bessie Roniger the day before, she said you'd been at the General Store standing on the scale and she'd come over to tell you something, and you had completely ignored her. She was worried about you and asked me if I knew what was wrong. I had a pretty good idea, and when Bess mentioned what your weight was . . . I knew for sure."

Kitty was doubly hurt, "Bessie told you how much I weigh?"

"Only because it didn't seem like a lot to her, me either for that matter."

She couldn't believe any of this, "But why Matt, why did you write that hateful note to me?"

"I came to see you that night and you wouldn't even let me in. I saw Sam later and he told me you were planning on going out of town, and wouldn't be back until after the first week of July. I put two and two together and came up with a lonely fourth. I didn't want to spend the day without you. I didn't want to spend anytime without you. But you were so obsessed with this weight thing, and no matter how many times I told you, you were beautiful you never seemed to listen. This seemed like the only way to keep you from running away - I wrote it with my left hand so you couldn't tell it was my handwriting."

It was Kitty's turn to study his dusty old boots, which she did for so long he was afraid she was planning how to stuff the note down HIS throat. "I was going to run away, I hadn't thought of it exactly like that before."

"It looked that way to me." He answered hopefully.

She scowled, "Still, that was a mean thing to do Dillon."

"It kept you here didn't it?" She didn't answer. "Kitty, I'm sorry. Look, this might be hard for you to understand." He was fumbling for words. "Ever since your birthday you've been acting just a little bit crazy. When I heard you were leaving town, I was afraid you might never come back. " He cleared his throat and ran a tongue over his lips, stalling for time, "When you're not here, well it seems like, umm, well like I'm not all here either."

Her head was down again, but this time so he couldn't see the hint of a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. She was remembering her words of advice to young Annie about the differences between men and women. Silently she reflected, `maybe there isn't as much difference as I thought.'

Aloud she said, as she took his elbow with her daintily gloved hand, "Maybe there is hope for us Dillon, you do seem to be learning - - not nearly as fast as I'd like, but you are making progress."

With eyes of love, he watched her, seeking and finding her forgiveness. He was well aware she would make him pay for the note, but it would be a sweet punishment he was sure, and one he would be glad to take like a man.

The end.