Author's Note: Not to be confused with the movie of the same name. There is no Ralphie or Red Ryder BB gun in this story, only characters I love but did not create. The setting is Season 11 and refers to events from the episodes Seven Hours To Dawn and The Hostage, which for the purposes of this story happened shortly before Christmas.

A Christmas Story

Chapter 1

I'll be home for Christmas

Kitty Russell walked slowly toward her office with both hands full, trying not to spill anything. "Thanks Sam," she said appreciatively as her friend and barkeep opened the door for her.

She carefully set a saucer of milk on the floor before unfolding the napkin which contained chopped up bits of steak she had saved from dinner. She opened the outside door and whistled loudly before calling, "Here Whiskey!"

A few seconds later, a scruffy orange tabby ran inside and found his evening meal. She could almost set her clock by him, he came up at nearly the same time every day. She stroked his back as he happily chewed on a piece of steak.

Kitty had loved animals for as long as she could remember. Her childhood pets had included cats, dogs, rabbits, and once even a squirrel that she had found as a baby and raised to adulthood. The last thing her mother needed was a menagerie to feed, but her daughter was an only child with no father and she couldn't bear to make her part with any of her "friends." All grown up, Kitty Russell was still a sucker for a furry face.

As a result, the alley around The Long Branch was crawling with four-legged creatures that seemed to be spreading the word about her. But this one little feline had particularly captured her affection.

She had first laid eyes on him two months earlier, when he had somehow managed to slip unnoticed into her office and she found him napping next to a bottle of whiskey. She laughed out loud at the sight, his skinny body contorted in a way that only a cat could find comfortable, looking as if he might be sleeping off a drunk.

Her throaty laugh woke him up and he quickly cowered behind the bottle, unsure of this stranger. She slowly approached him, talking in a soft voice and holding her hand out for him to sniff. After rubbing his scent on her fingers, he began to purr and arch his back, extending her an invitation to pet him. She obliged and felt an instant connection—he was a survivor, independent yet wisely cautious, trusting and friendly when given good reason. Whiskey had been a fixture around The Long Branch ever since.

December 19

A snowstorm had hit Dodge City the previous night, and Kitty thought this looked like a good day to stay inside. She decided to drag the boxes of holiday decorations out of the cellar and determine what to put out for her annual Christmas party. It was time, she told herself, to find some holiday cheer.

A beautifully trimmed Christmas tree stood in the corner of The Long Branch, possibly the tallest and fullest one she had ever seen. Thad had found it and all her friends had pitched in with the decorating. She couldn't help but think of her mother every time she looked at it. No matter how lean the times, her mother had always made sure that they had a Christmas tree and that Kitty had at least one nice gift under it. Those gifts were among her most treasured possessions now—a porcelain doll, a small wooden rocking horse, a miniature tea set, all carefully packed and taken with her each time she had moved.

Her most memorable gift no longer existed, a musical snuff box that she had gotten when she was eight. She would never forget the first time she had turned the key and opened the lid. It played a Schumann piece her mother loved called Träumerei—or Dreaming—and was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard. As a child she had no concept of money, but she later wondered how her mother could have afforded such a gift. She had decided she probably didn't want to know. She just remembered how that song had comforted her after her mother died, and she was heartsick that the box had been stolen from her room when she worked at that first seedy saloon.

Kitty's tradition of throwing a Christmas bash had begun the year she moved to Dodge, while she was still one of the girls at The Long Branch instead of its owner. An outgoing person who loved a good party, she had decided to create the kind of big family holiday atmosphere that she he had never experienced growing up.

An old proverb claimed, "Blood is thicker than water." Kitty begged to differ. Her only close living relative was her father, though they definitely weren't close and she wasn't even sure about the living part. He had been mostly absent during her childhood, and when she briefly met him once as an adult she was suddenly grateful for that fact. She had not heard from him since, and she wasn't complaining.

Other than her mother, Kitty could not imagine being closer to any blood relation than she was to her chosen family in Dodge. She had been all alone in the world when she first arrived in town a dozen years ago, and now she knew what it must be like to have a real father, a brother, an uncle, a nephew. Thanks to that fateful decision to make Dodge City her home, she also knew what it was like to love a man more than life itself. Recently, she had learned what it might be like to lose him.

As usual, Kitty had most of her Christmas shopping done early. She picked up gifts throughout the year whenever she saw a good deal or something that reminded her of a friend. She also enjoyed a new convenience—mail order shopping. The Montgomery Ward Company put out a catalogue offering hundreds of items, conveniently delivered C.O.D. by Express. She was careful not to buy anything too extravagant, as not all of her friends could afford to do the same and she didn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. For some of the needier townspeople, she would make up baskets of food and small household necessities, beautifully decorated with holiday accessories, delivered under the guise of a "thank you" for some kindness she would vaguely remember from the previous year.

Already wrapped in her closet sat a new carving knife for Festus, a Mark Twain book Doc had mentioned wanting to read, and a gold pen for Sam to open in addition to his Christmas bonus. Thad was relatively new in town, but she had taken an instant liking to this shy, polite young man. She was ready to wrap the new blue wool scarf she had just bought for her tall, blonde friend.

The only present she lacked was Matt's. Shopping for him wasn't always easy. The man wore basically the same outfit every day and thought his one suit was more than sufficient for the few occasions he needed formal wear. He was a practical person and appreciated practical gifts, so she had long ago resigned herself to buying unromantic presents like shaving kits, winter gloves, and camping supplies.

She did manage to sneak in a gag gift occasionally for fun. Matt was a serious man and on the surface didn't seem the type who would appreciate them. But those who knew him well knew that nothing tickled Matt Dillon's funny bone like one of Kitty's gag gifts.

For instance, there was that set of coffee cups containing vials of stomach tonic back in the days when Chester was making the coffee. Matt had found that much funnier than Chester had. Then there was the set of fishing lures "guaranteed to work" after she had out-fished him by an embarrassing number during a rare leisurely day off. One birthday she had given him a fancy handkerchief which had sent him into fits of laughter, a private joke between them.

After the traumatic events of the past few months, they certainly could use a moment of levity like that again.

In theory, this should be a joyous holiday. Against tremendous odds, Matt had recently survived two terrifying, violent incidents which could have easily gone the other way. He was still recovering from the latest one, where he had taken quite a beating. While her relief at his safe return was indescribable, the whole experience had knocked the wind out of her sails and she couldn't seem to get herself back on course.

It wasn't that her feelings for Matt had changed; on the contrary, they were stronger than ever. But events like these forced her to face that she was in love with a man who didn't completely belong to her. He belonged to the town, and he would fight with his dying breath to protect it. She had known that from the beginning, so she couldn't fault him for it. But coming so close to that dying breath had affected her in ways she had never imagined. Maybe if she could get some sleep, she would get out of this funk and into the Christmas spirit.

She missed her mother so much at times like this.

TBC