The Trail to Dodge
Not for profit
The season deepened and the temperatures soared. There was nothing unusual about it; this was summer on the high dessert. The sun beat down on the Yellow River Valley aided by a cloudless sky - blue and clear. Rain was an infrequent visitor and the grazing land baked yellow and brown from heat and drought. Life for most ranchers centered on one thing - survival. Keeping the place going from one day to the next, little money, and few hands, meant everyone worked every waking hour.
They had no time to contemplate the future. It was the present that was on all of their minds. Kitty had forsaken her stylish dresses and elaborate hair dos, for more practical wear. Work pants and work shirts made up her daily wardrobe. Her glorious red hair more often than not was pulled back in a single braid to hang down her back and out of the way. Like the land around her, Kitty's body was changing too. She was lean and strong, and her hands rough and calloused.
A week after Matt Dillon's proposal Harland Scharpf had come to call. It had seemed to be their day for visitors. Doc Bill had stopped by that morning. Pleased with Kitty's progress, he had declared her nearly well.
Molly had just rung the noon dinner bell, when Scharpf's buggy turned down the lane. He was dressed for courting in a worsted shadow checked suit of the latest cut. His finest surrey was packed with a picnic hamper and champagne. Kitty met him in front of the house as he pulled up with the buggy. He couldn't conceal his shock at seeing the beautiful Mrs. Stambridge in her soiled work clothes.
"Mr. Scharpf" she said while pulling off her dirty gloves, "what brings you out here?"
"Why Madam, I thought it might be a fine day for a picnic." Despite her unconventional appearance she was still a woman to stir a man's blood, and Scharpf's mind was already speculating on a conquest.
Her head raised almost imperceptibly, her shoulders squared and her eyes narrowed. "Mr. Scharpf, I have work to do here, unlike the Double Bar X, we are short of help. Seems someone scared off all my hands." A second glance told Scharpf there was something in her look, that hadn't been evident the last time he'd seen her.
"Yes, that is unfortunate," he cleared his throat and continued, "but a lady such as yourself, should not feel compelled to lower herself by performing common labor. It grieves my heart to see you attired so."
"Pretty hard to clean out a barn or work in the vegetable garden wearing corsets and petticoats." She replied bluntly.
"My dear," he said, carefully smoothing his moustache with one finely manicured finger, "I beseech you, run up and change into one of your becoming frocks, and join me for a picnic. I have a plan I'd like to discuss with you. I am confident I shall solve all of your problems and you may live in the manner befitting a true lady."
Matt was bent over at the pump, cleaning up for Molly's noon meal. A glare crossed his face as he straightened his spine. He was close enough to hear bits and pieces of their conversation. Drying his hands on the rag that hung nearby, he started walking toward Scharpf and Kitty.
With a smile not nearly as sweet as he remembered, Kitty told him, "Mr. Scharpf, I thank you for your invitation, but I must decline. You see it wouldn't be proper for an engaged woman to go off alone with a handsome bachelor such as yourself."
"Engaged? I don't understand." He was shocked.
She turned in the direction of Dillon, her raised eyebrow told Matt all he needed to know. He quickened his pace and was at her sidewith in a few forceful strides.
"Surely you don't mean this . . . this cowpoke." He was clearly baffled. "Madam, this man is an itinerant, what can he offer? He has nothing. I urge you to reconsider." His brow furrowed. "Your head - obviously you have not fully recovered from your unfortunate injury."
"On the contrary, Mr. Scharpf I haven't thought this clearly in months. I thank you for your invitation, but unless you want to talk business I suggest you get off my property."
"You'll live to regret your decision." he threatened. His handsome face turned ugly. He jumped into his buggy and slapped his horse with the whip, causing the animal to lurch forward, another crack ofthe whip set the wheels spinning as the animal broke into a run, dust flew in their wake as the buggy bounded down the lane.
Standing behind her Matt placed his hands on her shoulders. She looked up into his face, letting her body sag somewhat against the support of his. "I guess I could have handled that better."
He squeezed her shoulders, "I don't know that you could have, come on, Molly's got food on the table."
The following day, Elliott Hoppe dressed in clean clothes, hairslicked with bay rum tonic and sporting a fresh shave appeared at the Stambridge door. In his hands he carried a bouquet of flowers and a box of fancy chocolates. Attached to the candy was a note scrawled in Harlan Scharpf's flamboyant handwriting.
Hoppe thrust both flowers and box at Molly when she answered his knock. "This here's fer Mrs. Stambridge, see that she gets `em. I'll be waitin' fer her answer." He turned and sat down on the wicker rocker sitting on the porch.
Molly stood still for a moment too surprised to move. Kitty had been working on the ranch books when she had heard the door. She left her desk to investigate. "Who was that Molly?" she asked.
Molly's surprised eyes peered at her from behind the flowers. "Twas Scharpf's man Hoppe. He brought this for you, he's waiting for your reply."
Kitty took the flowers and tossed them on the hall chair. She looked at the chocolates disdainfully. "I don't know anyone who would want these." She turned to go back to her bookwork.
"Miss Kitty, I'm thinking you'd best be reading the note." Molly said nervously.
"There is nothing he can say that would be of any interest to me." But, she gave the envelope a second look.
"Maybe you don't be minding Hoppe out there, but I do. Please read what he has to say, and write out an answer, so we can be rid of that scallywag."
Kitty acquiesced with a sigh and took the envelope and opened it Molly's benefit she read it out loud.
My Dear Mrs. Stambridge,
You have been through a terrible shock in losing your beloved husband. The struggle to keep your ranch running has obviously exacerbated your already delicate mental condition. I beg you to reconsider your decision. I fear that in my attempt to be solicitous of your bereavement I have failed to make my position clear. I am asking for your hand in marriage.
I have always felt that along with your great beauty and charm, you have a fine mind for business. I ask you to consider the dynasty you and I could build. With your property and mine we would rule the Yellow River Valley and soon all of Colorado.
I shall eagerly await your response.
I remain your humble servant,
She felt the urge to spit as an unpleasant taste came to her mouth; she tore the note in two and threw it to the floor, grinding it beneath the heel of her boot. There was hate in her voice as she turned to Molly. "He killed Will. He killed my husband and nearly destroyed me."
She marched to her desk and took out a piece of paper and wrote. "I'd sooner rot in hell than spend a single minute as Mrs. Scharpf. You'll never get your hands on Yellow River or on me."
She shoved the paper in an envelope and handed it to Molly. "Here, give this to Hoppe." There was such anger and hate inside of her that it felt like a huge weight pulling her down. Her body shook with its burden.
However, as the day progressed she began to regret the recklessness of her actions. She had always taken pride in her ability to remain calm in the face of adversity. She was a gambler who knew the odds, and played her cards accordingly. The skills she had honed throughout her life had warned her to control her anger and let Scharpf believe she was still vulnerable to his charm. This time, with the stakes higher than ever before she had given away her hand.
The day seemed interminably long as she waited for Matt's return. He and Johnny had left that morning to repair the fencing on the North range. With a parting hug he had promised to be home by night. The first stars had appeared in the sky when she saw Matt's shadowy figure leading his horse to the corral. She ran from the back porch to his waiting arms. Wasting no time on hellos, she pulled his head to meet hers until their lips connected. It was an impassioned kiss that took Dillon off balance by its intensity. He finally pulled away, his hands gripping her arms, to study her face in the twilight.
"What happened?" he asked tenderly, intuitively knowing she was inturmoil.
She inhaled deeply and then explained the day's events in a rush of words. Dillon chuckled at her, "Well I guess he knows where he stands now."
"Oh Matt, this is serious! Why couldn't I just have played along? Who knows what he will do now. He's capable of anything."
"Could be this is all for the best." He smiled at her, coaxing a smile from her in return. When it didn't come, he wrapped her in his arms. "This is all going to work out, Kitty. We've waited too long to be together for it not to."
Kitty rubbed her forehead, massaging an ache that had been growing steadily throughout the evening. She had been staring at the books all night; her eyes were showing the effect of the strain. A payment was due to the Yellow River bank, and she didn't know where the money was coming from. She looked again at the notice that had been sent from the bank. It stated she had not made last month's mortgage payment and this month's was already past due.
According to her records she had noted the payment was to be made on the day she and Will were ambushed. That meant that whoever killed Will had also made off with the loan payment. She wished again that she could remember those last moments with Will. She had been thinking a lot about him lately. Little bits of memory surfaced each day. She was beginning to realize their marriage had not been all bad. They had come to an understanding and were working toward building a life together.
"Been a long day, time for bed Kitty." Matt's voice startled her. "Didn't mean to make you jump." He said with a smile.
She turned to see him framed by the study doorway. What startled her more than his unexpected voice was his appearance. The weeks at Yellow River had washed away years of carrying a load too heavy for one man to bear. He looked almost young again as though in giving up duty and the badge he had been reborn. "Come give me a kiss goodnight." He requested.
She left the desk to walk into his arms, looking up into his face she asked teasingly, "Is that all you're looking for Cowboy?"
A smile was his answer while his hands took liberties with her lowerback, pulling her body flush with his; she was supple in his arms. He lowered his head ready to kiss her when the kitchen door slammed, heralding the arrival of Seamus coming in for the night. They abruptly pulled away from each other.
Kitty hastily tucked her shirt back into place. Matt shook his headregretfully, his breath coming hard. "I think it's time to set a wedding date, don't you?"
Discretion had always been a part of their relationship, no more so than now. "I won't share your bed again, until we're man andwife." Matt had vowed. "I don't want Seamus and Molly thinking you any less a lady." It had been a hard promise for Dillon to keep.
Her pulse was galloping, but she smiled back at him countering, "Have you sent that telegram to Dodge City yet?"
He had no doubts about his decision to resign his position as US Marshal. It had been more a matter of taking time from the demands of the ranch. By mutual agreement they had decided that first Matt would resign his job, and then they would make arrangements for their wedding.
"Does tomorrow morning sound soon enough?" Matt asked.
Her smile brightened, she cocked her head slightly, "Sounds perfect, I need to stop at the bank, we can go to town together."
"It's a date." He promised, he let his eyes travel up and down her body, smiled and gave a rueful shake of his head. "Sleep well Miss Kitty."
Matt Dillon spent a lot of time staring at the bunkhouse ceiling. He knew the effects of the moon and the star shine on the shadows of the rafters. He knew where the shingle had blown off causing him a glimpse to the early morning sunshine and dampening his brow on those rare rainy nights. He knew of the spider that so carefully crafted her web, day in and day out, only to have it destroyed every time the door was opened. He was frankly sick of that ceiling. He let fancy have its way and thought about what it might be like staring at the ceiling in Kitty's bedroom but frankly those thoughts did nothing to soothe his mind to sleep.
His bunk creaked with his every movement, and the mattress was lumpy. He lay on his back with his hands clasped behind his let his head and let his mind drift, affording himself this one luxury in another wise Spartan environment. He thought of the changes that had occurred in his life since coming to Yellow River.
He had returned to the bunk house last night to compose a simple message for the telegram he would send. He wrote a formal resignation letter to the Secretary of War, and finally a detailed letter to Newly with instructions that it be shared with Doc and Festus. He briefly described the situation at Yellow River. He told them that he and Kitty planned to marry in the near future, but there were some problems that would need to be resolved first. One thing that he couldn't tell them, not in a letter anyway was about Katie. They would have to wait to learn about the little girl. At the thought of his daughter he sighed, it still took him by surprise. In his wildest imaginings he had never expected fatherhood to affect him like it had. His whole outlook on life had changed. He had a family who needed and depended on him now.
He thought of Kitty. She had made peace with herself and with him in the last few weeks. Neither one of them was about to hold anything in the past against the other. They had survived their time apart, and the knowledge of those lonely months served to bind their love more completely. It was thoughts of love that stirred his body beyond the ability to sleep. He looked at Johnny. The kid never had trouble sleeping; of course Dillon reminded himself, Johnny had spent the previous night in Yellow River with Ruby. Matt sighed, they had wanted to get an early start to town. No sense lying around in bed, he thought, it only made him more restless. He had to cool down his thoughts and his body too. Grabbing his clean clothes and shaving supplies he headed down to the river, for a quick cold swim.
Looking out her window that morning she had seen him returning from the river. The sight of his courting jacket greeted her like an oldfriend. The blue of his shirt caused her breath to catch. She had Katie in her arms, and she pointed to him. "Look Katie, there's Daddy."
"Bow-bo, Bow-bo." Katie cried bouncing excitedly in her arms.
"Oh Katie, can't you say Dad-dy?" Kitty cajoled.
"Bow-bo." She repeated. "Bow-bo."
"Hmmmm" Kitty said, as she watched Matt. She took her time, studying the detail of his form. "Bow-bo looks mighty good this morning."
She took extra care with her looks that morning as well. She twisted her hair in an elaborate figure eight, allowing curls to escape to frame her face. The dress she chose was a periwinkle blue, the tight fitting bodice showed off to perfection the exquisiteness of her figure, while the color added an extra measure of depth to her own blue eyes.
The stained glass window cast ribbons of color to play across the walls and dance across her gown as she stood on the second floor landing. Matt admired her from the bottom of the stairs as she made her descent. She was holding Katie's hand as the toddler took the steps. He knew Kitty was unaware of his presence, giving her full concentration to the efforts of their child. The thought crossed hismind that it was like watching royalty, his queen and his princess.
"Good Morning Ladies." He greeted.
"Oh Matt! I didn't know you were there." She was surprised, but not startled. Letting go of the baby's hand she said, "Katie, say `good morning Daddy'."
Katie held her arms up, her face smiling. "Bow-bo."
Matt Dillon had found it mighty hard to look at Katie without smiling, the sight of her made him happy. But a small furrow etched his brow, "Kitty, there is no way we can introduce her to Doc and Festus until she stops calling me Bow-bo. Doc would never let me live that one down." Katie reached up and grabbed his face between her soft baby hands. "Bow-bo." She said.
Katie was left in the kitchen eating her breakfast with the Mulgrews and Johnny. "We should be back by late afternoon." Kitty told Molly as she dropped a quick kiss on Katie's head.
"Come on Mama." Matt said as he snatched her hand and hurried her out of the room.
"Don't wait supper for us." Matt advised over his shoulder, just as the kitchen door swung shut.
Holding the front door open for her, Matt said with a flourish, "Kitty Russell, your carriage awaits." There was something about the way he said her name that cut to her heart. Not Kitty Stambridge, but Kitty Russell. He took her hand to assist her into the buggy, but didn't let go. He said her name again. "Kitty Russell." As if in saying her name as such, he was wiping out all of the pain of their time apart. The message was clear, this is the way we were, as we should have been, as we are again.
Yellow River was full of activity that morning, especially the General Store and Mercantile. Several farm wagons were packed up and looked like they were ready to move out. "What's going on?" Matt asked one farmer as he loaded his wagon with supplies. The man shook his head in defeat. "Time to be moving on, can't fight that Scharpf no more."
They tied up the buggy in front of the telegraph office. "Want to come in with me?" He asked.
She smiled and took the hand he offered. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss this for anything."
The agent looked over his glasses as the striking pair entered his office. He'd been told to be on the lookout for this Smith character and Mrs. Stambridge.
"Good morning." Matt said as he handed the message to the telegraph agent. "Send this to Deputy Marshal Newly O'Brien, Dodge City, Kansas."The agent read the note aloud. "Effective immediately. Resigning my position. Letter to follow. MD."
Kitty was beaming, but she couldn't help but wonder what was going through Matt's mind. "This is what you want to do, isn't it?" she whispered.
His verbal answer wasn't needed for she saw it in his eyes. Paying the man, they left, linked arm and arm.
The telegraph agent looked at the message again and then at the couple leaving his office - a telegraph for a US Marshal office in Dodge City, Kansas. He puzzled over the message, his mind working the angles. It could be Mr. Scharpf might be interested in knowing this. He might pay well for this little bit of information.
It was such a pleasant sunny day Matt and Kitty decided to walk the short distance to the bank. As they walked she said, "Well, I hope things at the bank go as well." She hadn't discussed the money situation with Matt, hoping she would be able to solve it on her own.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
"I'm behind on payments." She admitted. "I'm sure Will and I had the money when we were ambushed. Obviously, the money never made it to the bank. I don't know where I'm going to come up with enough cash to cover it. "
"You never told me money was a problem?"
"We used most of Will's savings during our time in Denver. We had to take out a large mortgage to get the ranch. Hannah still owes me four thousand on the Long Branch, but she pays in monthly installments."Kitty sighed. " Everything would be fine if we could ship our cattle to market. Scharpf controls the railroad. He's made sure that we can't afford his price. Will had figured we could wait him out"
"How much do we need?" He asked.
"Five hundred dollars, will bring me up to date on the payments." She said.
He took her hand, "We'll have the money transferred from my account in Dodge."
She stopped walking to stare at him. "You have money?" She asked.
He chuckled at the amazement in her voice. "Well what have I had to spend it on in the last two years?"
"You'd do that?" Her voice was incredulous.
"Kitty, I figure we're in this together, I thought you did too."
She tightened the hold on his hand in answer. The bank was busy, so crowded that they couldn't make their way to a teller. An angry voice at the front of the line caught Matt's attention. He recognized it as Burt Krause.
"He can't do that to us." Krause shouted. "I can't come up with that kind of money."
"He can and he has, not only to you, but to half the ranchers in the county." Responded the voice of an equally irate bank clerk. Krause pushed his way through the crowd. He stopped when he saw Matt. "So you heard?" He shook his head disdainfully. "There's no fighting and no winning against Scharpf." His shoulders suddenly sagged and he turned to leave the building without another word.
"Burt." Matt called after him, but he didn't stop.
"Now what was that all about?" Kitty asked.
"I don't know but I'm afraid we're going to find out in a mighty big hurry."
The office of Wallace P. Pennington, Bank President was small. The room was dominated by a large mahogany desk, leaving little room forthe two chairs placed in front of it and even less space for the longlegs of Matt Dillon.
Pennington was a short man of ample girth. He had the pompous manner of one who had gained a position of authority with little effort on his own part. He was dressed in a fine broadcloth suit, which appeared a size too small. The buttons on his vest strained against the pull of his every breath. "The facts are simple." He explained. "Mr. Scharpf has bought up the mortgages on a number of properties, yours included Mrs. Stambridge. He has given you ninety days to fulfill your obligation completely or the property becomes his."
"I have a contract, you can't back out on that." Kitty argued.
"Mrs. Stambridge, you had a contract. It was broken when you failed to make last month's payment. We here at the Yellow River Bank have an obligation to our stockholders. I had no choice but to sell the mortgages to the highest bidder."
"How much money are we talking Mr. Pennington?" Matt asked.
"Ten thousand dollars." Pennington replied.
Kitty shook her head back in forth. "We can't come up with that kind of money."
"I suggest you have a talk with Mr. Scharpf about that. He has been making financial arrangements with some of the other ranchers."
Matt stood and reached for Kitty's elbow to help her up. "Thanks for your time Pennington." He said as he guided Kitty from the room.
Kitty raised her hand to shield her eyes from the bright sunlight. "Burt was right, he's won."
"How many head were you figuring to ship to market?" Matt asked.
She shook her head, "I'm not sure, maybe eight hundred to a thousand."
"They'd bring close to forty dollars a head in Dodge." Matt continued.
"Yeah, I guess they would, but Matt, we can't afford to ship them."
"There are other ways to get cattle to market, or have you forgotten what made Dodge City famous?"
A smile slipped past her frown, "Of course not, but Matt, we'd need men for that, with experience on a cattle drive. In this heat, across the prairie . . . even if we could get the men, we've only ninety days to do it in. It's five hundred miles to Dodge City."
He nodded in agreement. "Then we'd better get started. Let's stopby Doc Bill's."
"It ain't no use. I figure we ought just sell out to Scharpf now, he won't give us much, but at least it might be a stake to get started again somewhere else." Slim Manley looked around the room at his neighbors and was pleased to see that his observation was met with support.
Lou Oestreich stood up. "I guess I reckoned that we could all stand together and fight, like Matt said, maybe we'd have a chance. But hell, he done bought up the mortgages on half the ranches in the county, mine included. Burt and I don't mind a fight, but we ain't stupid neither, I guess we know when we're licked."
The front parlor of the Stambridge home was filled with twenty neighbors who were asked to come that night to discuss the fate of their properties.
Burt Krause took Lou's place. He directed his remarks at Kitty. "Beggin your pardon Ma'am, but you know he's gonna get Yellow River Ranch, word's out that if'n you can't come up with payment in full in ninety days this property is his. Now how are you gonna do that? Only way I know would be to get the cattle to market. Scharpf controls the railroad, ain't no way we can ship our cattle not at their price and make a profit."
Kitty looked past Burt, across the room to where Matt was standing. He hadn't said a word since the meeting had started. He was biding his time, waiting to see if anyone else was going to make the suggestion.
Seamus turned to face Burt; "He'll not be getting his hands on Yellow River, not while there is a breath left in my body."
`What if?" Matt began, making his way to the front of theroom. "What if we drove the cattle to market ourselves?"
Slim Manley shook his head, "Why ya needs drovers for men."
Burt Krause concurred, "Besides, if you step off your property,Scharpf's gonna take it over, there wouldn't be nothing left to come home to."
Ignoring the negative remarks, Matt continued. "We could get a good price for our cattle in Dodge City. With luck, we could make the trip in seventy days. We'd need time to get the herds in order. Get them road branded." He looked up at Seamus. "How many you figure we'd have."
Mulgrew rubbed his chin in thought, "We got maybe one thousand head at Yellow River. Burt and Lou, you got maybe five hundred? I'd guess you could add another fifteen hundred to that once everyone joined in."
Ignoring the pessimistic grumbles in the background Matt continued, "How many men would it take to move a herd that size?"
Seamus ran his hand through his hair, as his mind worked the numbers, "I'm thinking we couldn't do it with less than ten, with experienced drovers you'd figure one man fer every four hundred head."
Matt looked around the room. He could see a spark of hope growing. "Mighty rough trail to Dodge." Said Fred Roth, an older rancher as he puffed on a pipe.
"It's not nearly as rough as the trail to Denver would be." Doc Bill replied.
"We'd hafta keep this quiet, so Scharpf or Hoppe don't get wind of it." Roth said.
Kitty caught Matt's eye and winked. Each man suddenly believed in the possibility of driving his cattle to market. The room was alive with their excitement.
Slim chuckled and some of the worry lines disappeared from his face. "Now how the hell, beggin' your pardon again, Mrs. Stambridge, how are we gonna keep three thousand head of cattle quiet."
"I heard me lot's a tales about Dodge City, they call it the Gomorrah of the Plaines, they got them some fancy saloons and sporting palaces, like no where else on earth. Might almost be worth the trouble to get to see a place like that before I die." Fred Roth declared. His son Harry looked at him with a shocked expression. "Pa." he whispered. "What would Ma say if'n she heard you talking like that?"
"Well, she ain't a gonna know, lessin you're gonna tell her." Fred said with a twinkle in his eyes.