My momma and I have been on a long journey together. It started when I was born and ended here on the road to Dodge. My name is Mercedes Wiltse. How ironic that momma died on my birthday. I was born seventeen years ago today in New Orleans to Melanie Stevens or so I thought. Yet, seventeen years later, just before she died she reminded me of her friend. That reminder would change everything I had ever believed.
Momma at one time was a beautiful blonde, green eyed lady. The years had sure changed all of that. She looked old beyond her thirty-six years. Her hair was dingy and the sparkle was gone from her eyes. I on the other hand had red hair and blue eyes. I had always thought that I took after my real daddy. Momma didn't tell me much about him. Said he was some man she met at Pan's. Momma had told me a lot about Panacea Sikes and how she and her best friend, Kitty Russell, had worked for her in New Orleans many years ago. She told me how beautiful Kitty was both on the inside and out. She said that Kitty had moved away from New Orleans a few months after I was born. Momma would look at me with such a far off look in her eyes whenever she would talk about Kitty.
Momma met Carl Wiltse when he came into Pan's to play cards. He spent several nights' playing cards and luck seemed to be with him. He told momma that she brought him his luck, so he swept her away, married her, and took us all out west. He even gave me his name. After many stops along the way, we settled in Abilene, Texas. Papa spent his time in the gamblin' houses and would sometimes leave us for months at a time as he followed what he called his job.
We lived there for several years until he got into some kind of trouble. All I know is, he came home after being gone for months, packed up the bare essentials, and took us away in the middle of the night. That was a couple of months ago and we have been traveling north ever since. As we traveled, momma got really sick.
Momma hadn't been well for a while before we ever left Abilene. With papa, gambling every penny he got, momma had to find work at whatever she could do so we could survive. She mostly worked in saloons. She never told me exactly what she did, but was very adamant that I never enter a saloon. As I got older it wasn't hard to figure out her job. Men would stop by at all hours to see momma, but she would always send them on their way. She would tell them to see her at work and quit coming to her house. I loved momma and blamed papa for what she had to do to make sure I had food and clothes. I found out later that had papa not stopped momma from staying in contact with Kitty Russell that our lives would have been much better.
As we traveled, momma kept getting worse and I knew she needed a doctor. We had heard there was one in Dodge City. We were about ten miles outside of Dodge when things became grave with momma. We knew she couldn't go any farther so papa left us with the wagon and took the horse on into Dodge. Shortly after he left, momma called me to her and said she had something she needed to tell me.
"Mercedes, you need to listen to me, sweetheart. Do you remember me telling you about a friend of mine, Kitty Russell? The last I had heard she was living in Dodge City."
Momma was so weak and struggled to talk, but I could tell what she was trying to tell me was very important. I could see it in her beautiful green eyes. Momma had changed so much. The years with papa were hard on her. But the one thing that hadn't changed was the look in her eyes that told so much more than words could.
"Momma, you need to rest. As soon as papa comes back with the doctor, things will be better."
I could tell from the look in her eyes that she didn't believe papa would come back. She knew how he was when he got near a saloon or gambling house. He would lose all reason, get himself in a game, and forget about everything else. I knew she was probably right.
"Baby, I don't want you to wait. It is very important that you go on into Dodge and see Kitty if she still lives there. Tell her your name and that Melanie Stevens sent you. She will know what to do. She has information that will be vital to you."
Momma started to tell me what was so important, but then she started rambling there at the end. I guess if I was going to learn what the two shared, I was going to have to go ask this Kitty Russell myself.
I loved my momma more than words can say. I was heartbroken when I realized she was gone. I wanted to cry, yet tears wouldn't come. I didn't know what I was going to do. Leaving was the only realistic thing to do, but it was going to be hard. Knowing papa probably wouldn't be back, I decided to do as momma asked and head to Dodge.
I looked around at all the items we had brought along on this trip. I found a rucksack and started putting what clothes I felt I would need in it. I saw momma's wooden treasure box. She always kept it in her trunk. I had seen her take it out once in a while and just hold it. I knew it was special to her and held some of her important items. Just a few of which were her costume jewelry, a lock of my baby hair, and some ribbons. Other than that I didn't know what else it possessed. I had never really gotten to look in the box. Momma always kept it private only taking out her jewelry when she worked. Otherwise she kept it locked. I wasn't sure where the key was. I picked up the wooden box to put it in the sack, but just as I was lifting it slipped from my hands and landed upside down on momma's clothes in the trunk. Taped to the bottom side was the key. I wanted so to open it, but knew I wouldn't with momma lying there. After collecting all that I needed, I placed the rucksack up on the seat in the front of the wagon. I looked at momma one more time, caressing her cheek with my hand.
"Good-bye, Momma. I love you."
Then I pulled the quilt up over her face and crawled out of the back of the wagon. Going around to the front, I climbed up and grabbed the sack and headed toward what I hoped was Dodge City.
The walk seemed to take forever. It was so lonely on the prairie and I had no idea what I would face when I got to Dodge. I had no money. Papa had taken it all when he left for town. Would I find him when I reached Dodge or had he even gone there when he left us? There were so many questions and so few answers.
It became dark, but I kept trudging on. It sure was scary out here alone. I thought about finding a nice soft grassy area and sleeping till morning, but I was afraid of wild animals so I kept going. I finally reached the edge of Dodge and the first thing I saw was a stable. The door was ajar with light filtering out. It looked so inviting and I was tired so I slipped through the door. I didn't see anyone, so I found an empty stall back in a corner, crawled in it, and immediately fell asleep. What I didn't know was someone saw me.
I don't know how long I slept, but all of a sudden someone was shaking me.
"Miss, wake up. You shouldn't be here sleeping. It's not safe."
I opened my eyes to the biggest man I had ever seen. He had the bluest eyes. Had I been older, I think I would have fallen in love right then.
"I'm sorry." I stammered. "I was just so sleepy and this looked so inviting."
"You need to go to someplace safer like the hotel."
"I don't have any money."
It was then that I saw the badge on his chest. I was sure that he would put me in jail for trespassing.
"Get up and come with me. I think we can work something out and get you a room."
I couldn't believe it when Louie came and told me there was a young girl sleeping at Moss' stable. Why would a girl be there and by herself? But sure enough, when I got there he was right. She was maybe 16 or 17 and very tiny. She had the prettiest blue eyes and red hair. At that moment, I decided to take her to Kitty. I knew she would be closing down the Long Branch and would want to help.
I helped the girl to her feet, she grabbed a sack, and we left heading toward the main part of town.
"Why are you out here all alone?"
"My momma, papa, and I were traveling to Dodge. Momma got real sick, so this morning papa headed to Dodge for a doctor. Shortly after he left, Momma died. I didn't know what to do so I covered her up and started walking to Dodge myself. It was such a long walk. I guess when I saw the inviting light from the stable; I was just too tired to go any farther."
"What is your name, miss?"
I had seen Doc earlier at the Long Branch and he hadn't said anything about a strange man coming to town for help. I wandered if the girl was being honest with me, but I knew it would have to wait until morning to find out. She had come up from the south, so in the morning I would head that way with Festus and see what I found.
Kitty was going to be surprised with this young girl, but I knew she would have no objection to helping. After talking with Mercedes for just a short time, it seemed as if I had known her forever. She seemed so familiar, but I couldn't figure out why.
Just as we came up the boardwalk to the Long Branch, Kitty stepped out.
"Well, marshal, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company at this time of night." She said with a twinkle in her eye.
"Kitty, this young lady is Mercedes Wiltse. She needs of a place to sleep. Would you be so accommodating?"
She looked at the girl and then at me with a funny look in her eyes. It was as if she just noticed the girl and that she was looking at a ghost.
Coming out of the moment, she said, "Sure, Matt."
At that instant, I glanced at the girl. She had the same look in her eyes that Kitty had. How strange.
Things were quiet as we went into the saloon and up the stairs to Kitty's suite. Kitty opened the door leading to bedroom next to her rooms.
"I hope this will be alright. You can put your things here on the dresser and there is water and a towel on the washstand. Do you need anything else?"
"No, this is very nice of you. I appreciate all you and the marshal are doing."
"Well, just rest and sleep as late as you want. I will be next door if you need anything and we can talk in the morning."
"Okay, thanks again."
Kitty and I left her and went back downstairs. Sam was just finishing up and was locking the front doors to the saloon.
"Thanks, Sam. We will finish. I'll see you in the morning."
"Okay, Miss Kitty. Goodnight, marshal."
After Sam left, Kitty brought over a bottle and two glasses and we sat at our table in the back of the room.
"Matt, where in the world did you find that girl?"
"Louie found her asleep in a stall down at Moss' stable and came running to get me. I was just finishing up rounds and was close by."
"Do you know anything about her?"
"She told me her momma died outside of town this morning. That her papa had left earlier to come to Dodge for a doctor and that when he didn't come back she started walking."
"Oh Matt, that's awful. She must be so alone."
"Hopefully tomorrow we can get some more details."
"Are you staying tonight, cowboy?"
Taking Kitty's hand, I pull her to her feet and into my embrace.
"I was planning to Red, unless you have objections."
With that, I kissed her lightly on the lips. Taking her hand, we started up the stairs.
Long after our passion was sated, I lay wondering about the girl next door. It was as if somehow I knew her and was trying to figure out how. Come morning, I planned to ride out to the girl's wagon and take care of things for her. I finally fell asleep holding my redheaded lady close to my side.
I woke up with a start, not knowing where I was. I looked around the room. It was pretty with soft blue walls, white eyelet curtains at the window, a dresser, and a soft flowered chair filled the room. The bed had a beautiful patchwork quilt of different shades of blue framed with white and soft white sheets which I was lying on. It took me a minute to remember the biggest man I had ever seen and the most beautiful redheaded lady I could ever imagine. It was if I had awakened in a dream.
The sunlight was steaming in the window and I was just about to get up when a soft knock came through the door. Then the door opened and in walked the beautiful lady.
"Did I wake you?"
"No, I just woke up. I really am sorry that I intruded on you last night, but the marshal insisted that it would be alright. I know he told me your name, but I am sorry I don't remember."
"My name is Kitty Russell. Matt told me your name is Mercedes Wiltse. That is such a lovely name."
As she said her name, all else left my thoughts. I couldn't believe it. This was the lady momma told me about. What a coincidence that she would be one of the first people I would meet.
All of a sudden, I realized she was speaking to me. Shaking myself back to the present, I caught her saying something about eating.
"I beg your pardon. I must have been woolgathering. What did you say?"
"I asked if you would like some breakfast. I know it is late morning, but I don't usually eat until now and thought we could have breakfast together. That way we can get to know one another."
"I would love too. If you would give me a minute to wash up and dress, I will be right down."
"Good! I am looking forward to learning all about you."
As I dressed, I wondered how to go about telling Miss Russell about momma. I speculated about how she would feel and what she would tell me about the information she shared with my mother.
Preparing myself for this meeting, I quickly made the bed and looked around the room once again. I spotted my rucksack and went to pick it up. I took out momma's wooden treasure box and opened it. As I was looking through it, I saw a picture at the bottom I had missed earlier. It was a picture of momma with Miss Russell. Kitty was holding a baby looking at it so lovingly. I wondered if I was that baby. I slipped the picture in the pocket of my dress and closed the box sitting it on the dresser. Then I headed out the door.
I woke sometime before dawn. I was snuggled into my cowboy's arms. It was always nice to wake up with him beside me. I cuddled closer and thought about the girl next door. She seemed so familiar to me, but couldn't figure out why. She brought back memories I had long buried. She reminded me of myself just before I left Pan's place in New Orleans. It was a time I wanted to forget. Yet yesterday's date always brought those memories back. Thoughts of Cole Yankton came to mind. How I wanted to forget that man, but I couldn't. We were held together by more than memories. Something Cole himself never knew. After his death here in Dodge, I told Matt everything about him and our time together in New Orleans. There wasn't anything that I hadn't shared with Matt and despite it all he still loved me. Little did I realize that my past had come to Dodge.
"What's wrong sweetheart?"
"Just thinking, Matt."
"It's the girl isn't it?"
"Yes, she reminds me of myself at that age. There is just something about her that I can't put my finger on. I guess when we go to breakfast later, I will find out more."
I shivered and Matt pulled me closer. Running his hand down my arm, he leaned over and kissed me. Slowly at first, but then the passion for both of us began to build. All else was forgotten.
Afterwards, I must have fallen back to sleep because when I woke next, Matt was gone. The sweet memories of our love filled me beyond measure. I got out of bed and started getting ready to meet the day with all that it entailed.
After waking Mercedes, I headed down stairs to talk with Sam. He reminded me of the whiskey drummer coming so I went to the office to get the order ready. When I brought it back, I told him I would probably be busy most of the day, but hoped to be around to help this evening.
I sat down at the table in the back going over the books waiting for the girl to come down. Matt had left a message with Sam that he was riding out to the girl's wagon and hoped to be back to take us both to breakfast around 10. It was almost that now. Just as I heard movement at the top of the stairs, my big cowboy came through the swinging doors.
I left Kitty's room just after dawn. She was sleeping and I was sure after our active night and early morning, she would stay that way for a while. I needed to do rounds and then planned to head out to the girl's wagon. I found Festus in the office after rounds. We walked down to Moss' and headed out of town. I explained to him about the young lady and how her momma had passed away.
We found the wagon just as she had told me. After burying her mother, Festus and I decided to take the wagon back to town. That way if there was anything Mercedes wanted, it would be easy for her to get. We also planned to try and find her father if possible.
Once we were back in town, we left the wagon and the animals at the stable.
"Festus, I would like for you to check out all the saloons asking about a man named Carl Wiltse. According to Mercedes, he is a gambler, medium height with dark hair and a mustache. I want to know anything you find out. If you find him, I want to talk with him."
"Kay, Matthew. Will do."
I headed to the Long Branch to take my lady and the young girl to breakfast. When I reached the batwing doors, I stopped checking to see if Mr. Wiltse was among the early patrons. Not seeing him, I did find Kitty sitting at the back table doing the books. As I prepared to enter, I saw the young lady coming down the stairs. Oh, how she looked like a youthful Kitty. All of a sudden, I wondered could this be the one.
As I headed down the stairs, I saw the marshal coming in the doors. Then I saw Kitty sitting at the table in the back. I wondered what I would find out during our breakfast. So much had already changed with my papa disappearing and my momma dying. Yet, I had a feeling more was to come.
"Good morning, Miss Wiltse. I hope you rested well last night."
"Thank you, marshal. I slept better than I have for months. Thank you too, Miss Russell."
"Please call us Matt and Kitty." The redhead said.
"Come on ladies, let's go eat. I'm starved."
Kitty laughed, "You're always starved mister."
They seemed so happy and comfortable together. I couldn't help but feel the same with them.
After the marshal had seated us at a table in Delmonico's, the waiter came and took our order. I couldn't believe all that Matt ordered. He was eating in one meal, more than I had eaten in a month. Our conversation while we ate was light. They asked about my travels and I told some of the interesting things that I had seen along the way. I steered away from any talk of my momma and papa. I wanted that conversation to take place in a more private setting. I had a feeling that it would be an emotional discussion. I was apprehensive about the chat, but also wanted some answers to the picture I carried in my pocket and what my momma and Miss Kitty shared.
After our meal, Matt walked us back to the Long Branch.
"Kitty, I need to go check on some things at the office. I will see you both later."
"Okay, Matt. I am sure we will be around. How about having supper in my room around 7?"
"Sounds fine with me, Kitty. I will look forward to it. You two enjoy your day."
"Mercedes, let's go up to my room where we can talk, if that's okay with you."
"Kitty, I really need to try and find my father. He left me out there with momma and didn't come back. I have to find out why."
"I think that's what Matt was going to do. He said something earlier about having Festus look for your papa. If I know Matt, he has gone to do some checking of his own. Let's wait and see what he finds out."
Following Kitty, we made our way up to her room. As we entered, I tensed up yet relaxed just as quickly. Her room was beautiful. Red wallpaper with gold damask, large brass bed, settee, and two large arm chairs at the window. There was also a beautiful fireplace for the winter months. For some reason, I felt so at home. I noticed on the mantle a picture of Kitty and Matt. I walked over and picked it up for a closer look.
"We had that taken on a trip to St. Louis several years ago."
"How long have you and Matt been together?"
"Almost sixteen years."
"You must love him very much."
"Yes, I do. He is everything to me."
The next thing I would say would take Kitty's breath away. I knew it would, but I needed some answers and decided it was time I got them.
"Miss Russell, my momma told me she knew you from New Orleans. I also have a picture of the two of you together."
I failed to mention that the picture also included a baby. With that, Kitty dropped into one of the chairs with her head down and in shock. At that moment I realized she knew exactly what I was talking about and that I was about to find a significant revelation.
Without seeing the picture or hearing a name, I knew my daughter stood before me. Seventeen years ago I had given birth to Cole Yankton's baby. He had left me going off to California six months before her birth. It wasn't until after he left that it became apparent to me that I was pregnant. The only ones to know were Pan and Melanie.
"Your mother's name was Melanie Stevens."
"What did your mother tell you about me?"
"She told me you both worked for Panacea Sikes and that you were best friends."
"Did she tell you anything else?"
"No. She started to just before she died. She said you shared a secret and was going to tell me, but the end came too soon for that. She did manage to tell me that at one time you lived in Dodge and that I should come to you for answers to my questions."
"Mercedes, do you have any idea what I am about to tell you?"
Just before she spoke, she handed me a picture. The picture was one taken just before I left New Orleans. I was holding my daughter. The love in my eyes for my child was so pronounced no one would believe I wasn't the mother.
"You are my mother aren't you?"
"Yes, sweetheart, I am."
"Why did you leave me then? Why go off and leave me? I can see the love in your eyes in the picture. It is a love that doesn't just run off and leave a child."
"I have regretted that decision for the last seventeen years. At the time, I felt it was the best thing for you. I couldn't and didn't want to spend the rest of my life dealing cards. Not at Pan's or anywhere else, yet I didn't know what I was going to do. You were six months old when I left. I knew you would be safe with Melanie and Pan, safer than you would be with me on the road traveling and trying to find a place for the two of us. So I left you with the intention of sending for you as soon as I got settled."
"Then why didn't you send for me."
"It took me longer than I thought it would to find a place and settle down. I was headed for San Francisco. I was going to get a respectable job, place to live, and then send Melanie the money to bring you to me."
"So why was I still with Melanie? You told me you and the marshal had been together for almost sixteen years. That tells me you never made it to San Francisco."
"You're right I didn't. It took me almost three months to get here working along the way. When I got off the stage here, I met Matt and knew I would go no farther. As soon as I started working at the Long Branch serving drinks, dealing cards, and doing the books for Bill, I sent Melanie some money to bring you to me. The job wasn't the respectable one I wanted, but I couldn't stand to be without you any longer."
"Yet you were, why?"
"Mercedes, a few weeks after I sent Melanie the letter and the money to bring you to me, I got a letter from Pan. She told me that Melanie had left with a gambler. No one knew his name or where they had gone. She had taken you with her. I had no way of searching for you because there were no clues to follow. It was as if you all had fallen off the face of the earth."
By now, we were both crying. I took her into my arms holding her the way I did when she was a baby. We were both drained, emotionally and physically, from what I had revealed to her. I had left her and lost her within the first year of her life. Something I would regret for the rest of mine. Here was my beautiful daughter and I had missed so much by leaving her behind.
We were both exhausted. I encouraged Mercedes to lie down on my bed. I lay down beside her and we both fell asleep. When Matt came for supper, he found us sound asleep side by side with my arm around my daughter.
I awoke as Matt was closing the door.
"Hey Cowboy. Supper is going to be a little late."
I sat up on the side of the bed trying not to wake my daughter. As I looked into Matt's eyes, I could tell he knew who she was.
"Does she know?"
"Yes, we had a long discussion about everything. She knows why I left and that before I could make plans for her to come to me, they all disappeared. I think she believes me. I hope anyway."
I stood up and Matt took me into his arms. Putting my head on his chest, I sobbed for what I had lost and what I had found. Matt had always been my strength on the nights the memories became unbearable. I needed that strength now more than ever.
Over the next several days, Mercedes and I spent quality time together. Getting to know one another and talking about the years we were apart. So much of what I heard broke my heart. To think of what Melanie had to do to survive and what Carl had forced her to do. Thankfully, Mercedes wasn't subjected to that. Finally my daughter got the nerve to ask me about her father. I knew this was coming, but I had deliberately waited for her to bring it up because I would have rather have forgotten about it. Matt had always said if we ever found her that she would be his daughter. I think over time, I just accepted it to be that way. Yet, I knew better, so when Mercedes asked I told her the truth.
"Who was my real father?"
"His name was Cole Yankton. I met him when I worked at Pan's in New Orleans. I was young, not quite sixteen. He was my first love. The first man I ever knew. He swept me off my feet and made me feel so special. Our relationship didn't last long until he decided to go off to California. He didn't ask me to go, just said he would send for me when he got settled. I never heard from him again, until years later when he showed up in Dodge."
"Where is he now?"
"He died a long time ago."
I decided unless she asked I wasn't going to tell her the details. Thankfully she didn't ask.
Matt hadn't been able to track down Carl Wiltse. No one had seen or heard from him. Either he had been in town in disguise or he had never come into Dodge that day.
About a week after Mercedes came to Dodge, Matt took us on a picnic to Spring Creek. It was a lovely day and we had the most fun. It was just like we had always been a family. Matt and Mercedes had grown close in the short time she had been here. Thankfully, he hadn't been called out of town and we were all able to spend quite a bit of time together. Mercedes would even spend time at the jail talking with Matt as he did paper work and they would play checkers sometimes too.
The evening we came back to Dodge from our picnic, Festus came by the Long Branch to tell us that a man was at the Lady Gay fitting the description of Carl Wiltse. He had been drinking heavily and asking questions about a blonde headed woman and her daughter. He had also lost quite a bit of money gambling and was in a bad temper. Kept saying someone stole his wagon and made off with his wife and daughter.
Matt got up to leave telling us to stay put. He headed to the Lady Gay to check out this man.
Little did we know that our lives would change again that evening and not for the better.
Mercedes was sitting at our table talking with Doc when this man came in. She saw him and let out a small gasp.
"What's the matter honey?"
"Doc, that's my father."
They both watched as he walked to the bar and bought a bottle of whiskey. He then joined a table of men playing cards. He didn't notice Mercedes which was a blessing. I had gone upstairs to change after our picnic and was just coming down when I saw him join the card game.
"Mercedes, why don't you go on up to your room."
I figured it would be best if he didn't see her, but she seemed frozen to her seat. I decided maybe she would be alright, so I let it drop. Later, I wished I had insisted she go upstairs. I watched as the men played several hands. Carl was drinking heavily and losing as well. I also noticed he was palming cards and had one up his sleeve. The decision I made next will haunt me for the rest of my life. The men were between hands and I casually walked over to the table next to Carl.
"Anything I can get you boys?"
"Sure Red, how about another bottle." Carl said.
Just before I walked away to get the bottle, I reached down and pulled the card from his sleeve. I think the move surprised me as much as it did him. Carl jumped up from his seat.
As he went for his gun, I saw two things happen. Matt coming through the batwing doors and Mercedes jumping between me and Carl before Doc could stop her. The next thing I know, shots are fired. Mercedes and Carl are both lying on the floor.
"Noooo…!" I scream and drop to the floor next to my daughter taking her head into my lap. Doc was already down there with her.
"Doc do something."
Mercedes looked up at me. Blood appeared at the corner of her mouth and ran down her face. I wiped it away and leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.
"Darling, momma loves you. Oh, Mercedes, why did you do it?"
Coughing, Mercedes said, "Momma I couldn't let you die. I love you momma."
Beseechingly, I look at Doc to do something. I felt Matt's hands on my shoulders. Doc just shakes his head. I look back at my daughter. Just before her eyes closed she looked at Matt.
"Take care of my momma. I love you both."
I cradled her head in my lap and sobbed till there were no more tears. Sam and Festus had cleared the Long Branch and taken Carl's body away. Finally, Matt pulled me away and took me in his arms.
"No, Matt, no. I can't leave her. She needs me."
"Honey, she's gone. I am going to take you to your room."
I beat his chest begging him not to take me away from her, but finally just gave in a put my head on his chest. He carried me upstairs to my room sitting down on the settee and holding me the rest of the night.
The next several days were a blur. With Matt's help, we made funeral arrangements and laid my daughter to rest at the cemetery on the edge of town. Only our closest friends were in attendance. They were the only ones who were aware that Mercedes was more than just a friend's daughter.
Matt stayed with me every night holding me and comforting me. Listening to all my pain and regrets. Eventually, I came to accept what had happened and the sacrifice my daughter made for me. I became thankful for the little time we had been given together.