A Time to Heal
(ATC for "Seven Hours to Dawn")
This story contains plot elements from the Season 11 episode of Gunsmoke entitled "Seven Hours to Dawn" written by Clyde Ware, original air date September 18, 1965. Directed by Vincent McEveety.
Chapter One: "Beating Heart"
Alive. Her heart thudded hard in her chest, in time to the word ceaselessly whirling in her mind, like a desperately prayerful chant: Alive. Alive. Alive. He's still alive.
She fought to keep control of her raw emotions as she buried her face in his warm neck, inhaling his familiar scent, desperately kissing his scratchy face, trembling arms clutching tightly, hands caressing and touching him again and yet again to prove to herself…is it really true?
How could this be? She had spent the last few hours in absolute hell, believing Matt Dillon was dead, shot down like an animal in the street by Mace Gore's men. Tortured by mental images of Matt's body growing ever colder, covered in blackening blood and riddled with bullet holes, blanketed by a shroud and lying alone, unseeing and unseen… The very thought of him over at Percy Crump's place… She'd finally taken the proffered dose of Doc's bitter medicine and sobbed herself quietly into oblivion.
The next thing she knew, she was awakened by gunshots from somewhere outside the window of her bedroom at Ma Smalley's. She'd stiffly dragged herself out of bed, still wearing her clothes from the night before, and splashed some cold water on her face, willing herself to face the torturous day that lay ahead. Her first day without Matt.
A few minutes later, Doc had knocked urgently at her door and wordlessly taken her by the arm back to the Long Branch. Back to Matt. Matt was alive. Alive.
Now, heedless of Doc waiting quietly across the saloon, she hastily brushed away a mutinous tear that slipped down her cheek and gently touched her lips to her lover's, once, twice, three times… Thrilling to the feel of his breath in her mouth, his taste on her lips, and that look in his weary eyes that spoke volumes from his heart. Although Matt Dillon had traditionally been a man of few words, Kitty Russell had always been able to interpret his glances fluently.
Coming to her senses at last, she quickly called to over her shoulder to Doc, "Help me get him upstairs…"
Doc shouted through the swinging doors where Festus was organizing the redistribution of the townspeople's belongings, "Festus, come back here and give us a hand!"
As she supported Matt, preventing his battered, exhausted body from falling out of the chair, Kitty quickly pressed her fingers over her mouth and choked back a sob. Matt Dillon was alive.
Festus blew out an enormous breath as he stepped back from Miss Kitty's bed where Matt Dillon now lay sprawled. "Pheww! Doc, I didn't know if we was gonna' make it er not!"
Doc took out a handkerchief and mopped his perspiring brow, looking down at the big man they'd barely managed to half-drag up the stairs to Kitty's room. Kitty was hurriedly unbuttoning the lawman's shirt and pulling off his boots.
The act of hauling himself up the cellar stairs earlier following a severe beating plus four bullet wounds and then having a shootout with the outlaw Mace Gore had pretty much done in Marshal Matt Dillon. He'd nearly been dead weight as Festus and Doc had struggled to get him up the Long Branch stairs to the second floor and into bed.
"You two gonna' help me out here or not?" Kitty was shooting them a stern look over her shoulder where she'd managed to get his pants unbuttoned but was at a standstill due to the fact that the big man was out cold.
"Oh!" Festus jumped to help. "Yes, ma'am, Miss Kitty. I sure am sorry. You jest step back and ol' Doc and me'll take care of this fer ya'."
The two men grunted as they shifted his lanky bulk while Kitty struggled to remove his bloodied garments, marked with telltale bullet holes that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Then she slowly pulled the covers over his bandaged body, the sight tying knots in her insides, and said in a quiet voice, "He's had a hard day. I'll clean him up tomorrow."
Doc took the lawman's pulse as Kitty busied herself putting Matt's boots under the edge of the bed and folding his clothing into a neat pile. Doc murmured, "Yes, what he needs now is a lot of rest, Kitty. And you're just the person to keep an eye on him and see that he gets it."
She didn't meet his eyes, but instead walked to the window and looked out onto the street, her posture stiff and straight.
Festus volunteered, "We'll let Matthew rest now, Miss Kitty. But we'll be back directly to check on 'im, alright?"
"And I'll…" Doc cleared his throat. "I'll change his bandages when he wakes up…"
Kitty didn't answer but continued staring silently out the window as Matt softly snored on her bed.
The familiar sound was comforting to her battered soul. Doc tugged Festus's sleeve toward the door.
Only when she heard the latch snick closed behind them did she turn again and look at the man lying so pale and still under her covers. Tears streamed silently down her face as she walked to the bedside and leaned over him, this man she had come so close to losing this time…whom she had actually believed she had lost forever. Leaning over, she carefully placed her ear over his broad chest so as not to disturb his healing slumber. She listened to the comforting sound of his big heart beating out the word again and again: alive.
To be continued…