"A Conversation"

a "Gunsmoke" story by MarMar1

January 2006

Disclaimer: "Gunsmoke" is not mine and I seek no profit from this story. I write simply to ease the ache left by serious mistakes made following "Gunsmoke's" nineteenth season. A faceless conglomerate, Viacom, I think, has claim on ownership of this treasure.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I rarely, if ever, watch season 20 episodes. I have detested "Return To Dodge" since seeing the premier broadcast. Still, they hover out there and we are left with so many unanswered questions and unfulfilled longings. Some of the questions are: why was Kitty gone during the last season; why did Kitty leave Dodge; why did Matt and Kitty split and go separate ways after they had survived so much together, why were they apart after Matt took off the badge, and how could this have led to "Return To Dodge"? Remember Hannah's conversation with Kitty indicates it was Kitty's choice to not marry/stay with Matt. This story is one possible scenario to answer those questions.

WARNING – WARNING – WARNING: This is not a happily ever after story. It presumes that life in Dodge continued through season 20 as it did in the episodes, that Kitty was not there during that time, and that "Return To Dodge" is part of the story.

DO NOT READ THIS STORY: If you do not like stories without happy endings, do not read this story.

"A CONVERSATION"

by MarMar1

"I'm sorry, Doc. I can't."

He had asked Kitty if she would allow him to escort her to the spring picnic on Saturday. Knowing Matt wouldn't return from Pueblo before next week, he had been happily anticipating sharing the sumptuous fruits of Kitty's infrequent kitchen labors. He figured, over the last nineteen years, he must have escorted Kitty to such social events at least as often as the tall marshal. In fact, he was always proud to recall that he had actually escorted the lovely young newcomer on an afternoon walk and to a town dance before his young friend had ever found the courage to approach her beyond sharing drinks and small talk at the Long Branch. Now Doc found he could not contain the scratch of irritation, layered over the formless sense of disquiet he had been feeling lately.

"Well, why in thunder not?" Doc demanded, a bit more strenuously than he had intended.

"I won't be here."

Doc did not quite register the drape of sadness in her voice.

"Won't be here? Why not? What is it with everyone?" He banged his cup into its saucer. "Newly's off in Garden City; Festus is playing Papa Bear out at Abelia's, waiting for that mare to foal; Matt's out doing… whatever it is he's always out doing; even ol' Jonas is off visiting his sister; now you. By golly, why am I not surprised? Next thing I know, I'll be seeing Hank, Ma Smally, and John Bodkin riding a rig out of town. Just leave me the keys; I'll be right here keeping Dodge City safe while everyone else is traipsing all over creation." Doc stopped his tirade, suddenly aware of sounding like a petulant child. Hoping that his friend's sense of humor would lighten the mood, he offered a sheepish look. "Where to, St.Louis?"

"A little farther," came Kitty's quiet response.

With no chuckle and teasing comment, Doc finally caught the tenor of his companion's voice and mood. He looked closely at her as the words settled in his mind.

"Farther?" He expressed his surprise. He hadn't even been aware that Kitty was planning a trip. His sense of unease stretched out its paw. Abruptly, his focus turned away from himself as he really looked at Kitty, watching as she sat with her head bowed over the coffee cup enclosed in her elegant hands. He was suddenly very sure he did not want to be having this conversation.

Her blue eyes ensnared his, "I'm leaving."

Doc could no longer miss the sadness in her voice, reflected in her eyes, and he could not look away as his mind tried to make sense of it all.

"I'm leaving Dodge." Kitty held his gaze another moment before she lowered her head once more, her hands continuing to worry with the familiar cup.

Without mercy, understanding crashed into his thoughts. The shipping crates he had seen, Kitty's flurry of business activity, the shadow of tension he had been feeling, all came together to form a picture he did not want to see.

"No." What he had intended to say was 'why' or 'for how long', but he knew the answers to those questions without asking them. He knew that somehow the answer to 'why' had to do with Matt and that the answer to 'how long' would be unbearable to hear. He sat silent, feeling sucker punched.

"Thursday; the morning stage." Kitty answered one of his unspoken questions as she rose and made her way behind the bar. Doc could only watch as she returned, placing a bottle of brandy next to the coffee tray. He was having trouble finding one coherent thought and snatching it from the whirlwind in his mind. Why? Could he stop her? What had Matt done? This was wrong. What would Matt say? What would Matt do? What would any of them do? Where would she go?

Not yet able to voice any of his thoughts, Doc simply reached for the brandy, removed the cork and poured generously into his coffee. He tasted the coffee, then recklessly drank down a few belts. Only late morning, he thought, not sure he even wanted to see noon. Carefully placing the cup back into its mooring, Doc scrubbed at his mustache. He knew he had to say something, but what? His eyes scanned around the saloon before looking across at Kitty. He saw she was watching him, waiting. Doc had seen that look; it was her poker face and he wondered what it was she hid behind it.

"That seems awful fast. Can't you wait a few more days?" He knew he was just stalling, but had been too much a coward to voice his other questions. "Surely you aren't going off without seeing Festus!" Doc grasped at straws. "He'll be unbearable to be around if you do. He'll be mighty upset." Doc said this with some small hope, knowing that Kitty held Festus very dear and she knew that his opinion of her was just shy of worship.

"No, Doc, I have to go now." She spoke with a firm tenderness and her eyes softened to a forlorn pleading, drawing Doc helplessly in. It dawned on him that her urgency to go was because Festus, Newly, and Matt were gone and he was surprised by the uncharacteristic selfishness of the action. He knew firsthand the power of her determination. He would have to proceed carefully.

Refilling his cup from the pot of hot coffee, Doc recalled when Matt had given the china set to Kitty on, well, a few days after, her birthday several years earlier. Doc, Festus, Sam, and Kitty had been having their usual morning cup when Matt had carried in the large box and placed it gently in front of Kitty. Doc still remembered wondering who Matt had found to wrap the gift for him, doubting the marshal had talent in that direction.

Doc remembered that Kitty had been surprised by the gift. Something she had said made Doc wonder if Matt had already given her a birthday gift and he wondered what that private gift might have been. Matt had explained, justifying to the group, that the china set was to replace the ugly, dented metal pot currently holding the coffee, since the damage to it had occurred two months earlier when Kitty had used it to clobber a troublemaker ready to shoot Matt in the back. Doc realized Matt must have ordered the new set immediately after the incident. They had joked all around about retiring the 'coffee deputy'. Kitty had been delighted with the coffee set, declaring, "Oh, Matt, It's just perfect!" while setting the new pot next to the old and wiping out the cups before pouring new servings of coffee for each of them . Try as he might, Doc had been unable to glean any information about the earlier gift Matt had given.

"You aren't taking the coffee service?" Doc inquired, gesturing with a slight lift of his cup and saucer.

Kitty's gaze was steady; Doc watched for some reaction.

"I still have some last minute things to ship." She said, before lifting her own cup to her lips.

Doc found her reply disturbingly incomplete. She wasn't going to make this easy. Unwilling to give in, he pushed ahead more directly.

"Kitty, the Pueblo trip was urgent." Doc remembered times past when she had run out of patience for the demands of Matt's job and the sacrifices it required of her. "He couldn't possibly get back before Monday."

"More likely Tuesday or Wednesday. He'll swing north and check up on the stage relay stations on his way back." She seemed to gaze off at nothing, over the tops of the swinging doors, as she spoke. "It doesn't matter."

Feeling even more unsure, his tension tightening, Doc continued, "Festus and Newly, too, but you won't even wait for Matt to get back?" He knew he sounded a little harsh, giving vent to some of his own distress, and he knew he was trespassing on private territory. He didn't fail to notice the reaction this time, the quick flash in her eyes. Was it pain, anger? He held his breath, waiting to find out.

She took another swallow of coffee before she answered. Doc was surprised by the evenness of her tone.

"He knows, Doc."

It was impossible to keep the surprise from his face.

"Matt and I have said our goodbyes." Quiet, firm, sad.

"Oh, Kitty." Doc's own voice was heavy with regret. "I'm…I'm sorry." He didn't have words to contain and express his own feelings. He leaned a bit forward, reaching out to place his strong hand on her forearm.

They sat a few minutes, each a prisoner of somber thoughts. Slowly to the surface of Doc's simmering thoughts rose a memory. He played it over in his mind again before speaking. He wanted to hope.

"I thought, maybe, Matt was actually considering retiring, taking off that badge." Was that a small nod he saw? "Something he said several weeks ago…" He released her arm, tried to look relaxed.

At the time, Doc had wondered about Matt's words. It had been an off hand sort of comment, but had sounded sincere. Doc had been hopeful, but reluctant to pry. "I thought he meant soon." He simply could not leave it as it was.

Kitty closed her eyes, as if to focus on something only she could see, something within her. When their eyes met again and she replied, Doc once more heard and saw the mixture of sorrow and resolve.

"Within the year."

Doc struggled to make sense of her words. The universe seemed to split in two. Matt would soon turn in his badge, yet here Kitty was declaring she was leaving Dodge, that she and Matt were parting ways. This hard reality was far from anything he had ever imagined and his mind failed to see the sense of it.

He had known Kitty to lose patience with Matt; he had known her to believe herself unable to bear the strain of the danger he faced as a U.S. Marshal. He had seen her heart so shredded that he had wondered how she lived with it and how she would survive more; but survive she had and, from all that Doc could see or surmise, she and Matt had thrived in each other's care. Only once, many years ago, had he seen her really give up. Well, she had tried to, he thought, and Matt had let her go, fooling his heart just as she had tried to fool her own. Doc still could feel his anger at Matt and how difficult he had found it to keep from hounding his younger friend about his colossal mistake. But, these storms had been weathered. Time and again Doc had seen the proof that the connection between his two dear friends, that their love for one another, was stronger than the adversities and obstacles, was greater than both their strong-willed personalities. And that together they were stronger, better, than they were apart.

For over nineteen years he had been witness to this connection. He had seen the instant attraction, so strong he could feel the air snap around them. He had watched as they played with that attraction, dancing around it as they discovered a mutual trust and respect. He had been witness to the heat as that great attraction ignited their respect and trust into a flame hotter than any forge had ever known. A flame which he was certain still flashed hot as it steadily burned without consuming.

Oh, there had been concessions, Doc knew; every relationship demanded concessions. He also surmised the difference inherent in most of those concessions. Matt's had been made to his job, his calling, while most of Kitty's concessions had been made to Matt. Still, they had endured. They had known happiness, joy, contentment. Doc had been comfortable and sure in this belief.

Now, re-examining what he knew, what he saw and heard, Doc struggled to find his error. The more he dissected, as much as anyone on the outside could, the relationship between the strong, dedicated marshal and the beautiful, incomparable woman, the more convinced he was that they were meant to be together the way a hand was meant to have fingers.

Yet, here Kitty sat, telling him that he was about to witness an amputation. Rather, that the severing had already occurred and he was just now seeing the clean up. He could make no sense of it. The only major points of contention he had ever known between them were issues over Matt's job and Kitty had confirmed the approaching end of this situation. It was as if, having successfully treated the gangrene, the doctor still removed the fingers from the hand. He could imagine no reason or benefit.

She must have seen his confusion as he sat trying to shape this information info some understandable form.

Adding a splash of brandy to her own coffee, Kitty spoke softly. "Have you any idea what Matt plans to do when he takes off that badge?" Her words were gentle, not accusatory.

"Well, now, I 'spose there are any number of things he might do to keep busy." Doc realized he actually had no idea. He knew in his own imagination what he could see Matt doing. He could recall numerous talks, over the years, about dreams and possibilities, but none of them recent and he knew that dreams were often just that: dreams. One thing, though, he had always assumed he could count on. Never once had he imagined Matt's future without Kitty. Too many times he had contemplated Kitty's future without Matt. It had been an all too obvious possibility; one which had come all too close more than once. Kitty had scared them a few times, but only twice had Doc really been concerned, and neither was something he had reason to believe might recur.

Unwilling to discuss those possibilities, Kitty supplied the information. With another swallow of her coffee, she spoke. "You know how Matt loves the wild, Doc." Seeing his affirmative nod, she continued. "The prairie, the rivers, especially the mountains."

Doc nodded, recalling his first experience in the wild with Matt. For different reasons, he and Matt had each been out in Colorado. Matt had talked him into a fishing trip, an expedition, the goal being river trout. It had been Doc's first real look at Matt without the badge. "Don't mention those mountains," Doc said, relaxing at the recollection. "I still remember how Matt loves the mountains. Like a great wild bear, wandering in his territory." Doc could still picture it in his mind, Matt wrapped in rich furs, tramping out of the woods, his arms loaded with fuel for their fire. He also remembered the incredible flavor of the tender trout and the ease of Matt's laughter as he shed the mantel of responsibility pressed on him by the badge he wore.

"Are you telling me that Matt intends going off into the mountains?" Doc was incredulous at the thought of Matt turning away from everything, everyone, he knew.

"What do you suppose will be the general reaction when Matt turns in that badge?" Kitty asked quietly. "Not among his friends, the town, but outside of Dodge."

Doc stopped, thinking about what she had said, before answering. "I suppose there will be a lot of curiosity. Some folks might be shaken, some sad, some just wonderin' why."

Nodding, Kitty continued in her Socratic mode. "And what is always Matt's chief concern about people's reactions to him?"

"Matt couldn't care less how folks react to him!" Doc was trying not to let his irritation take control. "The only thing he cares about..." He stopped as realization dawned. He looked at Kitty and she nodded, nudging him to finish the thought. "The only thing he cares about is how it affects those around him."

"He figures, when word gets 'round, the temptation will be too much. Every two-bit slinger will be itching for a chance at him. Not to mention the stupid kids wanting to make a name," the disgust was clear in her voice. "He says they'll figure if he retires, it means he's old, he's slow. They'll figure they can beat him now and they'll want to take him on while everyone still knows his name."

"Dang fools!" Doc expressed his opinion of those looking for fast glory at someone else's expense.

"Idiot bastards, I'd call them," Kitty didn't even try to keep the venom out of her words, breaking her poker facade. "It doesn't matter what you think of them, we both know he's right." They shared a look as she continued, "You may not agree with Matt's choice of how to deal with it, but you know he's right." The despair in her voice died into resignation. This was a battle she had fought, and lost, for too many years.

Doc leaned back in his chair, mulling over Kitty's words. She was right; he didn't like Matt's plan for dealing with the probability of regular challenges from snot nosed kids and not good enough gunfighters. Matt was right; they would come. But men had always come for Matt, or caught him up in the middle of their selfish dealings. The danger was nothing new. What was new was Matt's ability to ride away from it. He would no longer have to stay and shoulder the responsibility of keeping Dodge City and the surrounding territories safe. He could remove himself, taking the danger with him. Doc knew the years had taken their toll on the marshal. More than once he had tried to walk away from the badge and the darkness that attended it, only to be pulled back by the chains of his calling. How many more years had he worn the badge after admitting that he had hated the job from the day he had taken it? Doc had wondered before how long the man within the marshal would be able to continue under the strain of the badge's demands.

"So, Matt's heading to the mountains," Doc's voice was flat. "I gather from what you say that you are heading east. You aren't going with him." His quiet voice could not soften the bite of his words. He did not miss the flash of anguish that swept across his companion's face, confirming his suspicions. She would not be going with Matt; he had not asked her. As always, Matt was prepared to give his all to protect those he loved and, in the process, he would sacrifice Kitty and his own desires. Doc felt the need to break something. Surely Matt wouldn't just disappear.

Following Doc's thoughts, Kitty said "He'll likely make it into town, somewhere, a few times a year or so." She had replenished her coffee cup, topping it off with a shot of brandy. Taking a slow swallow, she continued, "I can't stay." Kitty looked directly into Doc's face and he felt himself getting lost in the moist blue depths of her eyes. He could see what their conversation was costing her and understood why she had to leave while the others were out of town. The nature of the connection, the relationship, he and Kitty had always shared meant she did not need to voice all the details for him to understand. Yet, even this must be cutting to the core of her soul. If she and Matt had indeed said their goodbyes, then he knew that she had already been to hell and back, or maybe she was still there. His doctor's mind had noted her recent weight loss, lack of appetite. He knew there was no barrier of healing over her wounds. Doc could not imagine her surviving more explanations and goodbyes. He mentally damned Matt for being gone, knowing that, had he been in town, Doc would have been unable to hold his seat. He would have hunted the big man down and forced him, with his fists if necessary, to listen to reason. He was incredulous that his friend did not see the magnitude of his error.

"I'm going back to New Orleans," Kitty offered. "I still know a few people there. I have a good business opportunity." Doc had the sense she was trying to reassure him, as if his emotional state were the chief concern.

Doc nodded absently, "You're going home." He was still unwilling to give up, unable to accept this as inevitable. He looked across at his friend, this woman of delicate iron, his daughter, and his heart ached. He longed to be able to wrap her in his arms; to gently stroke her mane of shining hair and reassure her that her world had not ended, that all would work out. He prayed to receive the same reassurance. He did not want to be in a world with Matt playing lone bear on the mountain and Kitty spending her days amassing wealth and success to fill her time. It never even crossed his mind that either would share their lives with someone else. The connection between them was just too strong.

Thinking of Matt off in the wild, Doc offered, "Kitty, animals can be tamed." His hope was small. He tilted his head and gave a characteristic swipe of his mustache, wishing he could encourage her more.

She closed her eyes, steadied her breathing, then gazed off at nothing for a moment before answering. "Sure ... some." sadness surrounded her eyes as she turned toward Doc. "Those wild horses, for instance," her lips hinted at a smile as they each recalled how thrilled Doc had been, years ago, telling the story of being witness farther west to the stampede of a wild herd. He had struggled to voice his awe, describing their beauty, grace, and power. He had been known to tease her impishly, saying that her energy and single-minded drive at times were surpassed in power only by that of the stampede. Seeing her ride out of town, her flow of hair caught in the wind, he would say he was hard pressed to tell where her horse stopped and she began.

Kitty continued quietly, "The right man, if he knows what he's doing, if he takes his time, can bridle the wild horse." Her voice expressed a wistfulness. "He can bridle that horse and together they can go places neither would ever go alone."

Doc nodded, knowing this to be true. He had seen horses the Indians had tamed; he had seen a cowboy saddle break a wild one, trying different saddles, until the horse's will and the cowboy's desire had molded into a partnership; he had seen a tall, solitary man do the same right here in Dodge. His heart ached at the prospect of that partnership being dissolved. Kitty's hand reached out to caress the lovely coffee pot, now sitting cool on the table.

"But, you know, Doc," Kitty continued, her tone bleak, "even if you get that bear to eat out of your hand, share the warmth of your fire, you had better be willing to let him go when he's ready." Doc watched as she softly traced her fingertip along the delicate design on the side of the coffee pot. Her soulful eyes looked up at him, despair pouring forth.

"If you try to hold him, it's a sure thing at least one of you won't survive."

Doc remembered the caged grizzly brought through Dodge many years earlier. It had not fought the bars around it, had not threatened the man who fed it, the man who had kept the creature since it was not quite full grown, but Doc recalled that the great beast had done little more than lie on its side, barely turning its head when someone passed near. They had discussed it over drinks at the Long Branch, each contributing to the conclusion that the animal's life seemed a worse fate than death.

"New Orleans is a wonderful town, Doc." Kitty tried to lighten her voice, leaning back into her chair to break the emotional tension. "Why don't you come with me?"

Doc only half heard the words; he was still working to find some other answer.

"I'll get a nice little house in The Quarter," Kitty continued. "You could set up your practice and have a nice room right on the ground floor; stop the nonsense of climbing those old stairs."

Doc knew how she worried about him, up and down the outdoor stairs, especially in the dark. Truth be told, it was getting tougher and tougher every winter and he had heard all the stories about New Orleans. The offer was tempting.

"It's such an awful long way, Kitty. I know New Orleans is your home, but, it's so far... you've never..." Doc was already feeling adrift, loosing hope of any compromise.

"I'm not running, Doc." She tried to sooth and explain, but gave no ground. Her next words declared the truth. "Anyone who wants to, will be able to find me." Her eyes now held his in a granite stare. Their devotion and understanding were deep, few words were necessary. Doc knew she was right. Staying here in Dodge, alone, yet surrounded by the years, while her great bear roamed the wilds, would be her own fate worse than death, her own cage. The change and distraction of New Orleans offered her a chance and Doc's love for her drove him to accept that.

"I'm going back to New Orleans, Doc," he heard the small catch in her smooth, rich voice, "but I don't think I will ever be home again."

Doc's soul splintered, knowing that the truth she spoke was truth for them all.