"Love of My Life"
Yancy Sawyer grabbed Kitty by the hair and brutally jerked her head back. "You think you're too high and mighty for me, whore?"
She cried out, struggling against him, as she tried to wrench his fingers out of her tangled hair. "Let…me…go!" She viciously kicked at his shins and connected as he yelped, releasing her.
Dashing across the room in her corset and pantaloons, she grabbed the nearest thing she could find, a china vase on the dresser.
Yancy, way beyond liquored up, was a terrible mean drunk. He snarled, "You come 'ere! I'm gonna teach you a lesson!"
"Don't you come near me!" She held the vase aloft threateningly.
He ignored her warning and came after her, and Kitty hurled the vase at him as hard as she could. He ducked, and it hit the wall with a splintering crash.
"You little hellcat, now you're gonna pay…" Yancy backed Kitty into a corner, grabbing her by the throat, while she clawed at his face.
The door smashed open and Marshal Matt Dillon thundered, "Hold it right there, Sawyer!"
Kitty's face was turning red as Yancy refused to let go and continued trying to choke the life out of the Long Branch's newest girl. Matt Dillon strode across the room and grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck, jerked him off Kitty and backhanded him fiercely. When he stumbled back, Matt's eyes squinted murderously and he drew back his huge fist, smashing into Yancy's jaw only once before he dropped limply to the floor, knocked out cold.
Kitty held her throat and gasped for air, collapsing against the wall and beginning to slide down. Matt Dillon rushed to grab her before she fell. She was weak-kneed from fright and lack of oxygen, and Matt effortlessly scooped her up in his arms and set her on the bed, watching her worriedly while she caught her breath.
"I'm…" she stumbled, attempting to calm her nerves and slow her breathing, "I'm all right, Marshal."
"Are you sure?" he questioned, his voice rising anxiously.
"I'm sure." She looked at him and gave an uncertain smile. "Just a little shook up is all."
Matt suddenly registered Kitty's Russell's state of undress and grabbed her dressing gown from where it hung on the frame at the foot of the bed. He hastily wrapped it around her, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. Kitty's face flushed in response. She hadn't meant for their first meeting to be like this. She'd been at the Long Branch less than a week, and already she was causing trouble. And now she'd met Marshal Dillon for the first time in her underthings. Stars above.
Matt grabbed a straight-backed chair from against the wall and sat down in front of her, his face a mask of concern. Her stomach fluttered when he tentatively reached one hand toward the ugly red marks on her throat.
At that moment, a relatively slight man with a limp burst into the room crying, "Mr. Dillon, is everthing okay?"
The Marshal sighed. "Yeah, Chester, I think she's gonna be alright. I want you to haul Sawyer down and lock 'im up, and then go to Doc's and ask him to come up here and take a look at Miss Russell."
"You know my name?" she asked, privately pleased.
"Well, sure…" He looked at his hands in his lap. I make it my business to know what's going on in Dodge."
Matt averted his eyes as Kitty pulled her gown more tightly around her. Chester motioned for a cowboy out on the balcony to come help him drag Sawyer down the stairs. Chester called out, "I'll send Doc on his way purty quick, Miss."
"Oh, really, you don't have to. I'll be just fine…"
Marshal Dillon interrupted, "Miss Russell, do it for me, will ya'? It'll make me feel better if Doc checks you over."
Chester tipped his hat to her with one hand, dragging the unconscious Yancy Sawyer with the other, as Marshal Dillon cleared his throat nervously. "Miss Russell, I'm sorry that you've had such a bad experience, what with you bein' so new in town and all."
Kitty involuntarily reached out and touched his hand, crying, "Oh no, Marshal! I like Dodge just fine. Why, in the last place I worked, the law wouldn't have helped me at all." Her troubled blue eyes sought his and held them. "I sure appreciate your help. Lots of lawmen don't think girls like me are worth troubling themselves over…" Her voice trailed off and she realized she was still touching his hand. She swore her fingertips were tingling where they touched him, but she regretfully pulled away for propriety's sake.
Marshal Dillon suddenly realized he was still wearing his hat in the presence of a lady, and he hurriedly removed it. "I'm sorry, Miss, about everything." He nodded firmly. "You'll find things different around Dodge."
"My name is Kitty Russell. You can just call me Kitty." She gave him a warm smile. "Thank you again, Marshal."
"Uh…Matt." The Marshal flushed pink again as he stood. "Just call me Matt, Kitty. I'd like that."
"I'd like that, too," she breathed as she looked up at this tall, strong man who was so utterly kind to her, in spite of who she was. Funny, she didn't feel like just a whore when she was talking to him.
He walked to the door and put his hand on the knob, then on second thought turned to call out to her, "Kitty, I wish you'd steer clear of Yancy Sawyer from now on. Just for me, okay?"
"Okay, Matt. I'll be more careful next time."
"I'll see you around?"
"I hope so. See ya' later, Matt?"
"See ya' later, Kitty."
"Merry Christmas, Chester. Merry Christmas, Magnus. I hope to see you again tomorrow." Kitty's blue eyes danced as she spoke.
Magnus answered sincerely, "Oh, Miss Kitty, you kin be sure of it. Marshal Dillon, I hope we'll be a'seein' you, too."
Matt shook Magnus' hand and answered, "I don't see why not. 'Night, and Merry Christmas, Magnus…Chester…"
Kitty grasped the rough-hewn man's hand at the last moment and pulled him close, murmuring in his ear, "Thank you for saving my life tonight, Magnus."
Magnus ducked his head and gave a tiny smile. "Yer very welcome, Miss Kitty." Chester and Magnus doffed their hats and headed out into the cold evening, swirling snowflakes drifting in through the open door.
Matt Dillon was the last remaining patron left after the Christmas Eve dance. He'd stayed on at the Long Branch, patiently waiting as guests left one by one, to make sure Kitty was alright. It'd been an unsettling night for the saloon girl, with all the hateful accusations and threats hurled at her by Lucifer Jones. Matt only wished he'd been here to help protect her when the crazy old man pointed a gun at her. But Chester's brother Magnus had done a fine job all on his own, a pretty ingenious strategy, he thought, because he'd managed to disarm Lucifer without anyone getting hurt.
Kitty had bucked up after it was all over and carried on with the party, just like nothing was wrong. But Matt could tell she was still upset. He could see it in her eyes. He watched her shiver with the blast of cold air that had blown through the open door, and Matt removed his jacket, placing it around Kitty's bare shoulders. "You sure do look pretty tonight, Kitty."
"Oh, yeah," she said with an arched brow and downturned mouth. "Lucifer Jones said I was pretty, too, and that's why I needed to die."
"Aw, Kitty," Matt grimaced, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Lucifer's a crazy old coot. Don't pay him any mind."
Kitty crossed her arms and pulled Matt's jacket more tightly around her. She looked up at the ceiling and laughed mirthlessly. Her breath hitched in her chest as she blurted out, "Maybe a lot of people think the same way Lucifer Jones does."
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean." She looked down at the scarred wooden floor, refusing to meet his eyes. "A lot of people think I'm just a…"
"Listen to me, young lady." He placed a finger under her chin and drew her head up to face him. "I don't wanna hear any more of this talk, you hear me?"
He could see her eyes filling with tears, and it made his heart constrict in his chest. "Kitty Russell, you are…" Matt Dillon was not a man who was able to share his feelings easily. He struggled to find the words. "You're a fine woman. You are one of the most decent, caring…" He sighed. "…good people I know."
Kitty's eyes widened at Matt's admission. She took his big, calloused hand in hers. "Thank you, Matt." Her eyes shone happily.
"Matt, I know I shouldn't be letting that man upset me so. I'm sorry." Kitty took a deep breath and steadied herself. "Look up."
Matt peered up and saw a bundle of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. His face flushed pink all the way down to his collar, and his mouth dropped open. Kitty reached up to slide her arms around Matt's neck, pressing her body close to his, soaking up his warmth. She felt his intake of breath as she brushed her lips against his ear and whispered, "Thank you for always being there for me, Matt Dillon. Nobody's ever been so kind to me in my whole life."
Taking a step back, she slipped Matt's jacket off and handed it to him with one finger. He wordlessly watched her mount the stairs slowly, giving him one last backwards glance before she disappeared into her room. "See ya' later, Matt."
Matt looked longingly up at her and called, "See ya' later, Kitty."
Kitty sat hunched over the rolltop desk in the back room of the Long Branch, intently scratching figures in Bill Pence's books.
Bill trod quietly in and stood watching over her shoulder. "You know I'll pay you extra this week for all the figuring you been doin' for me, Kitty."
She jumped at the sound of his voice. She hadn't even realized Bill was standing behind her. "Thanks, Bill, I'll be lookin' forward to that extra cash." She chewed on her pencil as she examined a column of figures, then looked up at him. "Do you realize you're paying twenty percent more for your top shelf whiskey than you should be? There's a drummer from Tennessee who comes to Dodge every so often and he'll sell it to you for a whole lot less. You want me to talk to him?"
"Why, sure, Miss Kitty. That'd be just fine!" Bill pressed his lips into a thin line and pulled a chair up next to her. "You sure do have a head for business, young lady. You know that?"
"Trust me, you do. You've only been takin' care of my books a short while and already you've saved me a passel of money."
"Well, that's what you're payin' me for, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I am, but I sure could use your help around here some more."
"Bill, I already work here every…"
He put a hand on her arm. "Kitty, you're too smart for that. You're not like all the other girls..."
Kitty couldn't meet his eyes. She stared down at the pages of his financial ledger.
"You know what I mean! You need to do somethin' else. You're too good to be throwing your life away livin' like…" His voice quickly died out.
Kitty frowned at him. "Well, Bill, I don't have much of a choice of occupations, now, do I? I can't exactly march up to the bank and demand a paying job there. They don't hire women. Not many places do!"
"I know, Kitty, but I been thinkin'." He rubbed a hand over his mouth and chin. "You know, it's all I can do to keep this place runnin' by myself."
"Runnin' a saloon twenty-four hours a day keeps ya' pretty busy."
"You ain't kiddin'." Bill stood up and paced the small room.
"Well, what can I do to help?"
"How'd you like to be partners?"
Kitty's mouth dropped open.
"Fifty-fifty. I know there ain't hardly any women business owners in town, but I know just from watchin' ya' you could do it. I need more time for myself, Kitty, to start a family maybe. I feel like I live here at the Long Branch!"
"But, Bill, that's an awful lot of money I don't have."
"I bet you've got some money saved back already, Kitty. You've been doing a good business since you got here, and I imagine you could save the rest purty quick."
"Just think about it, Kitty. I don't know there's another person I'd trust as a partner. I haven't known you too awful long, but I know I can trust ya'. Don't say 'no' yet. Just think on it, okay?"
"Alright, Bill. I'll think about it."
Bill patted her on the shoulder and walked out the office door whistling optimistically. Kitty sat still for a very long time, chewing her pencil, her head fairly swimming with all the new notions and dreams Bill Pence had planted in her mind. Imagine me, she thought, a business owner…
Kitty drew her aunt's knitted shawl snugly around her shoulders in the early spring evening chill. She sat in a peeling porch swing in front of the ranch house bequeathed to her in death by Solomon V. Pierce, an uncle she didn't even realize she had until he was already gone. Kitty held in her hand her aunt Océane's worn leather journal, reading one of the last entries Océane ever made, because she had died soon after in childbirth.
I am carrying a girl. I can tell. Solomon laughs and claims he thinks our child is a boy, but I can feel her inside of me. My child is most certainly a girl. My greatest wish is that she never have to live through the hell that I have known. I want her to be able to live clean and decent, and not be compelled to sell her body to stay alive. No woman should have to do that. I want her to be able to make her own choices and decisions and not be forced into anything in this man's world. This will be the legacy that I hand down to my girl child.
Kitty shivered and looked up on the hill at her aunt's and uncle's graves, and sent a silent prayer of thanks to the heavens for her family and the gift they'd given her. It wasn't too late for her to live decent, she thought. Cole Yankton had started her out on that soul-crushing journey, but she didn't have to continue. With the money from the sale of the ranch, she would be able to purchase half-interest from Bill Pence in the Long Branch. She would be a business woman. She would make her own decisions. She would live her own life.
Matt Dillon opened the screen door and sidled over next to her on the swing, peeking back at the window to make sure Chester or Doc weren't spying on them. He slid an arm around Kitty's shoulders and brushed his lips against her temple. "What are you thinking about?" he murmured, and she could feel his warm breath on her skin. Gooseflesh rose on her whole body, and it sure wasn't from the cold.
"Oh, nothin', Cowboy." She smiled up at him. "Except, maybe…you think you might be able to sneak in my room again tonight?"
"I'll have to wait until Chester and Doc are both sawin' logs. It might take a while."
She raised a delicate brow at him. "Oh, you'll be worth the wait." She rose, clasping the leather journal to her bosom, and headed for the front door. "See ya' later, Matt…"
"See ya' later, Kitty…"