This story picks up immediately after SAFE AT LAST. This story will circle back to END OF AN ERA, where the storyline began, and is the completion of the storyline.
Circle of Letters
Matt Dillon strode quickly down Front Street as the sounds of the train carrying Kitty disappeared. Festus was all but running in his attempt to keep up with him. Festus had two unasked questions. One was who was Sid Porter and why did he want to kill Matthew? He didn't get his answer until the marshal stopped twenty feet from Porter and shouted, "Porter, you lowlife scum, I see they let you out of prison. What are you doing back in Dodge?"
"Me and Dan are here to kill you for putting us in prison, and when you're lying in the street bleeding in the dirt, we're gonna go get your woman. I heard she's a purty thang with long red hair." Porter snickered and spit tobacco juice on the street.
Matt looked to his right and saw Dan Kirk slouching against a horse rail. "So," Matt thought, "it's going to be two against one." Matt looked back at Porter in disgust, "Big talk from a man who's no better than what I scrape off my boots after walking through a cow pen."
Festus eased to the side of Matt, the sound of his spurs announcing his presence.
Matt saw Festus out of the corner of his eye, "Festus, stay back, they're mine."
"But, Matthew, there's two of 'em."
"Stay back, dammit."
Festus hesitated but then stepped up on the boardwalk.
Matt was seething with anger. He was tired, he was hurting but most of all, he wanted this over. Suddenly, Porter drew his pistol, and Matt drew a half a second later hitting him square in the chest. As Porter hit the ground, Matt turned and fired at Kirk, who fell, never having gotten off a shot. Kirk dropped his gun but managed to scramble up, blood streaming from his leg as he mounted his horse and rode hell for leather out of town. Newly came running out of his shop. "Marshal, you'll need help going after him. Let me go with you."
Matt nodded at Newly. "Fine. Get our horses and make it fast!"
Festus ran up to Matt, "You want me to go with you?"
"No, you stay and watch over the town. And get him off the street." He walked past Porter's body as he hurried to the stables. Within minutes Matt and Newly were in pursuit of Dan Kirk.
Matt and Newly rode wearily into Dodge later that evening. The street was dusty, and as their horses plodded down the street, a small cloud of dust followed them. Newly held the reins of a third horse which carried the body of Dan Kirk. As the sun had lowered itself into the west, Matt and Newly had found Kirk sitting under a tree, his life's blood trickling out of him. Before he had bled to death, Kirk laughingly told them that he wasn't the last man coming for vengeance, and then he took his last breath.
Festus met Matt and Newly as they rode up to the stables. "See you got him, Matthew. You want me to take him down to Percy's to join his friend?"
Matt nodded, weariness written on his face as he slowly dismounted. "Newly, can you see to my horse?'
"Sure thing, Marshal." Newly answered, watching with concern as Matt walked stiffly into the jailhouse.
Festus looked at Newly, "Ol' Matthew looks plumb tuckered out."
"He's in a lot of pain. Not that he'd admit it."
"Something else, Newly. Miss Kitty is gone! She's done went and sold the Long Branch. It's the talk of the town. Doc 's madder than an old wet hen and is a wanting to talk to Matthew about it. He can't get nothing out of the new owner, and he figures Matthew knows why she left without saying nary a word."
Newly looked at Festus in surprise, "That's hard to believe! Although, now that I think about it, I got the feeling something else was going on with him today. He sure was tightlipped out on the trail." Newly sighed with fatigue, "Well, I better get these horses tended to before it's too dark."
Festus took the third horse's reins, "I'll get this feller down to Percy's. How about you meet me at the Long Branch later for a drink, and you can see the lay of the land."
"I wouldn't miss it. See you in a bit."
Matt had managed to pull his boots off and was in the process of lying down on the cot in the jail when Doc burst into the room. He was waving a piece of paper in his hand. "You want to tell me what this is all about?"
Matt sat up, not without difficulty. "What?"
"I walked into the Long Branch this morning to get my cup of coffee, and there's a woman sitting there who I've never seen. She introduces herself and says she's the new owner. And, on top of that, she hands me a letter from Kitty." Doc was livid, "I open up this letter, and it's says she's left Dodge after having sold the Long Branch. Now, are you going to tell me what's going on?"
"Doc, I can't tell you anymore than that."
"What?! What do you mean you can't tell me anymore than that?" Doc's face reddened.
"All I can tell you is that she's all right."
"You mean to tell me that you let her leave? After all these years? And after all you two have been through? I can't believe it! There's got to be more!" Doc slammed his hand down on the table.
"Doc, I'm really tired. Can we talk about this another time?"
Doc, anger still simmering, looked closely at Matt. His years of reading people's faces stopped his angry diatribe as he saw the pain in Matt's eyes. He knew how much Matt loved Kitty. "All right, all right. But," he shook his finger at Matt, "this conversation isn't over." With that, he left, slamming the door behind him.
Festus met Doc on the boardwalk outside the jail. "Doc, did Matthew tell you what's going on with Miss Kitty? Why would she just up and leave like that? You reckon it has something to do with that fight they had awhile back?"
"I don't know, Festus. But, I do know one thing. Matt's unhappy about it. But you know how closemouthed he can be. We'll find out in good time. Don't plague him with questions."
"But, Doc, . . . . . "
"Festus, we're just going to have to wait until he's ready to talk to us."
Inside the jailhouse, and on the uncomfortable cot, an exhausted Matt eventually fell into a restless sleep. Around dawn, he woke suddenly from a dream that he'd had more than once of Jude Bonner, laughing his evil laugh at Kitty as she testified during his trial. But Kitty was safe now, safe at last, from all his enemies.
Five weeks passed. October had arrived, and the first hint of fall was in the air. Doc was still unable to get any information out of Matt, who had become even quieter and even less talkative than he was prone to be. No one had heard from Kitty. Matt continued with his duties as his friends watched him try to hide his sadness and most of all, the physical pain he was in. As luck would have it, the first letter from Kitty arrived while Matt was out of town. Matt walked into the jailhouse, having been on the trail of cattle rustlers, covered in dust and tired of being in the saddle. Seeing a stack of mail, he went to his desk and eagerly searched through it in hopes of finding a letter from Kitty. In the middle of the stack lay a rose scented envelope with a New Orleans return address on it. He opened it and a tintype of Kitty fell out.
I'm sorry it's taken me so long to write you. I arrived in New Orleans safe and sound. The trip was uneventful but tiring. There were many times that I almost got off the train on my way here. I hated leaving you, and I still wish you had come with me.
I am staying with my friend, Eva Dubois and her husband, Raoul in the Garden District. Their address is on the envelope. Please write me soon. I know you aren't much of a letter writer but I need to know you are all right.
I have been offered a job. Raoul's brother, Henri, owns a restaurant in the French Quarter and has offered me a job as a hostess. I have decided to accept the job. It will keep me occupied and perhaps I won't worry so much about you if I stay busy.
I hope you like my picture. I walked past a photographer's shop the second day I was here and had this done on the spur of the moment. I don't want you don't forget me in case some woman comes along trying to get your attention.
I need to get this in the mail today so I must stop. Write soon.
With love and affection,
Matt looked at the date on the envelope. It had taken two weeks for the letter to get to Dodge from New Orleans. He admired the picture as he held it, and even though he knew she was teasing him, he wondered how Kitty thought anyone could forget her.
Matt dug around in his desk and found paper and envelope. He sat for a few minutes as he gathered his thoughts and began writing.
I was very relieved to get your letter and to know you arrived safely.
Your picture will stay in my pocket. How could you think I would forget you? Just don't let one of those fancy dressed dudes in New Orleans cause you to forget me.
Doc is pretty upset and would like to hear from you. Please write him as soon as you can. The new owner of the Long Branch seems to be settling in pretty good but everyone is sure missing you.
Two of the men on the warden's list showed up. They are now residents of Boot Hill.
I am doing fine but I miss you. The cot in the jail isn't comfortable at all, and I sure do miss my backrubs. I decided to rent a room at Ma Smalley's for a while. The bed there isn't as comfortable as yours but it sure beats the cot in the jail.
Please write me again soon.
Weeks passed. Doc had finally gotten a letter from Kitty telling him she was doing fine but giving no explanation for her departure. Doc felt somewhat better after having heard from her, and at that point, he stopped questioning Matt about Kitty.
It was late one November evening when Matt came riding back into town after having spent the entire day settling a dispute over the sale of a horse between two farmers. As his habit from long years standing, he glanced up at Kitty's window to see if the light was on. Buck even stopped at the rails in front of the Long Branch. Matt patted Buck ruefully thinking how nice it would be to have Kitty waiting for him after his long day in the saddle. He sighed and headed Buck towards the stables. After putting the horse in his stall, Matt walked into the jailhouse to find Festus playing checkers with Doc.
Festus looked up, "Hey, Matthew. I see you got back."
"Yup. Anything go on while I was out?
Doc pointed at his desk. "You got a telegram over there."
Matt sat heavily down in his chair and found the telegram amongst the various papers on his desk.
Eddie Rill dead of pneumonia.
"Hmmph." Under his breath, he said, "Three down, four to go."
Doc eyed him curiously. "Bad news?"
"No, good news, for a change." Matt looked at Festus. "Have you done rounds tonight?"
"No, Matthew. I was gonna finish beating ol' Doc here at checkers and then do 'em."
"I'll do them. I need to walk after being on my horse for most of the day."
"Thanks, Matthew. Once I get Doc beat, I'm climbing on that cot. I spent the entire day breaking up fights between them two Windsor brothers. They wuz a fighting in every saloon they walked into. Them two need a good switching."
Matt and Doc laughed at his comment. The Windsor brothers were well known for coming to town a few times a year and spending most of their time fighting each other.
Matt watched the two finish their game as he drank the last cup of coffee in the pot.
Doc, beaten at last, remarked, "I must be getting senile to let you beat me, Festus."
Festus snorted, "Well, you said it, not me."
"Doc, I'll walk out with you. Just in case you forgot the way," Matt added.
Doc stood up. "I've been insulted enough by the both of you for one evening. Another game tomorrow night, Festus?"
"Shore thang, and I'll whup you agin."
Doc shuffled out the door with Matt following behind him. Doc wished Matt a good night as he started his rounds. Festus, true to his word, had the lights out before Matt reached the end of the block. He continued his walk, stopped in the Long Branch and accepted the offer of a beer by Hannah. Matt had come to like her even though he had, at times, caught himself looking for Kitty to walk out of her room. After he finished his beer, he walked outside and had gotten a few steps when he heard the sound of footsteps. A cowpoke ran up to him, "Marshal, the Windsor brothers are at it again in the Oasis." When Matt entered the Oasis, he saw that the place was a shambles. Matt grabbed Tom and Jim Windsor by their collars and shook them hard. Neither men were very big and were easily intimidated by the marshal. After a tongue-lashing and making them pay for damages, he threw them out the door with orders to leave town. As Matt walked out of the Oasis to make sure the brothers were leaving, he heard a shot coming from the direction of the jail.
Matt broke into a run towards the sound of the shot. He found Festus standing at the jailhouse door bent over holding his leg with his left hand and his gun in his right. "Matthew, some man come in and stabbed me whilst I was asleep. I managed to fight him off, and when the man got a look at me, he tolt me, "you ain't Dillon and then run out. I got a shot at him as he ran out the door but I don't think I hit him. More's the pity."
"Get up to Doc's, Festus."
"But, Matthew . . . . "
"Do it!" Festus nodded and limped towards Doc's office.
Newly ran out of his shop strapping on his gun as Matt scanned the streets looking for the man.
"Marshal, what's going on?"
"Someone stabbed Festus in the jailhouse thinking it was me. "
"Is Festus all right?"
"He's on his way to Doc's."
"Can I help you?"
"Watch my back while we scout around. Whoever it was will probably be hiding to get the drop on us. Be careful."
Matt and Newly searched most of the town but found no trace of the culprit. Matt realized there was one place they had missed. "Newly, let's look in the basement of the Long Branch. He could have gotten in there from the back." The two crept slowly and quietly into the basement from the back way. As their eyes adjusted to the dark, both saw movement at the same time. Hidden behind a barrel of whiskey, a man rose from a crouch as Matt yelled at him to come out. Suddenly the man stepped out, his gun blazing. The bullet found its mark on Matt, and he went down. Newly, who had taken cover behind a barrel, shot the man. Matt staggered up, blood streaming from a graze to his neck. Matt eased over to the dead man as he put a handkerchief to his neck. "Elam Bailey. That's four." Newly looked curiously at Matt wondering what the number four meant. Deciding not to ask, he helped Matt out of the basement, and they headed to Doc's. When they walked into Doc's office, they found Doc stitching up the cut on Festus' leg. Festus looked up, "Matthew, shore am glad to see you two. I heard shooting. Guess you got him."
Newly looked at Doc, "We got him, Festus. Got another patient for you, Doc."
"Newly, how bad is it?" Doc asked, without looking up, his concentration on stitching up Festus' leg.
Matt said, "I'm all right, Doc."
"Newly, is that correct?"
"Yeah, Doc, it's not bad. Just needs cleaning and bandaging."
"Why don't you get started for me? You know where my supplies are."
Newly nodded and began to gather the items he needed, "Sure thing, Doc. Festus, how's that leg?"
"Oh, Newly, it's fitter'n a fiddle now that Doc has stitched it up, just a little sore but a shot of Miss Hannah's whiskey will help." Festus looked nervously at Matt. The mystery of the Long Branch's previous owner's departure was still a touchy subject.
The door opened, and Hannah walked in. "Marshal, there's a dead man in my basement."
"I know. I'll take care of him in a little while."
"I knew you would but there's nothing like being awoken by a gunfight in your saloon this late at night. Hope you are all right."
"I'm fine. Sorry for all the trouble."
"No trouble. I'm going to put a better lock on that door tomorrow. Festus, you look a little peaked. Come by tomorrow for a beer."
"Shore thang, Miss Hannah."
She walked out. Doc said, "Hmmph, here I am doing all the work, and you get the free beer."
Festus grinned. "Well, Doc, I'll stab you and stitch you up if'n you like so you can get a free beer."
"Consarn it, you get out of here."
With that, Festus limped out leaving Doc fuming.
Doc looked over Newly's bandaging of Matt's neck and pronounced it as being as good a job as he would have done. Newly and Matt returned to the Long Branch basement and removed the body of Elam Bailey. Boot Hill had another resident.
As mid-December approached, Matt took comfort in that he was rid of at least four men who meant him harm.
After Kitty's first letter had arrived, Matt had gotten into the habit of sending Festus to pick up the mail twice daily. Festus thought it strange but he did it anyway. Fifteen days before Christmas, Matt received his second letter from Kitty.
Sorry it's taken me so long to write you again. The job at the restaurant keeps me busier than I thought it would.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Dr. Chapman in the restaurant this week with a group of interns. He said to tell everyone hello. One of them, Eli Roberts, expressed an interest in moving to Kansas after he graduates. I've asked Dr. Chapman to write a letter of introduction for Eli. Perhaps Doc will consider hiring him as an assistant.
Christmas will be here soon, and I am dreading spending it without you. The restaurant will be open that day so perhaps it will be so busy that I won't spend my time thinking of all the Christmases we spent together with our friends. I am sending your Christmas gift. I hope you like it.
Oh, Matt. Won't you please retire and come to New Orleans? I worry about you so, and I miss you.
Please write me soon.
With all my love,
Festus returned to the office with a package. "Matthew, Burke's helper just gave me this here package. Looks like it come a long way."
"Thanks." Matt looked at the package and saw the New Orleans address on it. He waited until Festus left before opening the box. Inside he found another note from Kitty saying 'I hope you like these pralines.' He took one out and bit into it. Kitty had told him about pralines but he'd never had one. He finished it off in two more bites, savoring the flavor. Matt noticed another smaller package alongside the pralines. Inside the package was the fanciest and best-made pocketknife he'd ever seen. Kitty always managed to buy him the perfect gift. After eating one more praline, he carefully closed the box of candy and put it away before getting out his paper and pen to write back to her.
Got your letter and package on the same day. I have already eaten two of the pralines. The knife is the best that I've ever seen and much appreciated. Thank you.
I will miss you at Christmas, too. Bess and Will Roniger have asked me to eat with them on Christmas. I'm not sure if I will but it is something to think about.
Two more of the men on the warden's list are dead. Thought you'd want to know.
I am sending this letter with a package. It is something I picked up for you a while back when I was traveling down in New Mexico.
I miss you.
Finishing the letter, he got up, opened his safe and pulled out a box. Inside was a silver hair comb with turquoise stones set in it. Matt carefully boxed it with the letter as he thought about his finding the comb in an shop while traveling through New Mexico months before Kitty left. He had been struck by the beauty of the piece and knew it would be lovely in Kitty's red hair. Satisfied that it was boxed up safely, he strolled down to the post office.
Christmas came and went. Matt spent the day with the Roniger's even though his heart wasn't in it. He made sure he brought gifts for everyone. Knowing the children's love of hard candy, he had bought three bags of different candies. For Will, he brought a pouch of tobacco, and for Bess, a small bottle of cologne that Kitty favored. The meal was a success but he missed Kitty.
New Year's Eve arrived. Instead of starting the New Year in Kitty's arms as he usually did, Matt spent the evening walking the streets keeping all the rowdies in line. As soon as the streets were empty of revelers, he'd gone to his room and did something he hadn't done since he was young. He drank himself to sleep.
A snowstorm hit Kansas as January marched on but the weather did not stop crime from being committed. Mort Davis and Johnny Phillips, both on the warden's list, had been released from prison. Within days of their release, they robbed the Dodge City Bank. As the two ran from the bank, they did their best to shoot Matt Dillon before riding out of town. Matt and Festus rode after them, losing them several times but finally catching up with them after three weeks on the trail. Once the men were captured and the money recovered, Matt transported Davis and Phillips to Hays for trial. Matt knew neither of them would ever see life outside of the prison again. This left one man, George Brandon, on the warden's list who had not shown up in Dodge.
It was now the end of February, and he had just returned from Hays when he received his next letter from Kitty.
I know it's been a while since I wrote. I was so busy at work during the holidays, and then I came down with the influenza. I've been really sick but am well now.
Thank you for the lovely hair comb. Every time I wear it I receive many compliments on it.
There is not much else to tell. Have you thought anymore about retiring? I meant what I said about not coming back until you retire. I worry about you so much knowing that your injuries make it difficult for you at times. And, I'm afraid someone may kill you before you retire.
March is coming up. This will be the first year that I have not gone with you to the cemetery to the gravesite. Please go. I will be thinking about you on that day.
I miss you.
With all my love,
March 2nd arrived. It was a chilly but clear day as Matt saddled his horse and rode out of town. Doc watched sadly as Matt rode out alone for the first time to the cemetery.
Matt got to Marie's gravesite and sat on a bench he had placed there years ago. He sat for an hour or two so lost in thought that he didn't hear Bess Roniger walk up behind him. When Bess sat beside him, she didn't say anything. Finally, he looked at her, "Bess, I've been a fool. And, I'm tired, and I'm worn out."
She looked at him fondly as she patted his shoulder, "You've never been a fool, just awfully stubborn. And you need rest, and you miss Kitty."
"I sent her away to keep her safe. Kitty begged me to retire and go with her but I wouldn't give up my job. I've put my job ahead of her time after time. Now it's time for me to write and tell her I'll retire if she'll come back to me."
"Well, now, that's the sensible man I know you are. Why don't you come up to the house for dinner? From the looks of you, I don't think you've eaten a proper meal or slept a good night's sleep since she left."
He stood up, "I appreciate the offer but I think I'll head on back. Got a letter to write."
"All right. When Kitty gets back, you two come see us."
"Sure will. See you later." Matt climbed on his horse, waved to Bess and headed to Dodge.
On his ride back to town, Matt mentally wrote and rewrote the letter to Kitty. By the time he walked into his office, he knew what he wanted to write to her.
I spent most of the day at the cemetery. It was very quiet, and I could think clearly. I want you to come back to Dodge. You were right. It's time for me to retire. I just hope you still want me.
As soon as I know you are returning, I will submit my letter of retirement effective on the day of your arrival. Please come back. I miss you.
Matt was sealing the envelope when his door opened. A young man stood there. He was vaguely familiar to Matt. Suddenly, Matt realized who he was – George Brandon. Matt stood and put his hand on his gun before realizing that the man was unarmed.
"Marshal, I see you remember who I am."
Matt nodded warily. "What do you want?"
"I've come to talk to you. I want you to know that I mean you no harm. The warden talked to me before I left prison. He told me that you would be looking for me as I'd threatened to hurt you once I got out. I want you to know that it was all talk. Prison is an awful place, and I had to act tough. I was 19 when I went to prison. Now, I'm 26 going on 27. I've wasted all those years in prison. Made my mama cry and my Pa age 20 years because of my behavior. I swore to myself I'd come out and make something of myself and stay out of trouble. So, I thought I'd stop by and tell you this. Got my folks outside. We're going to Oregon. Got a brother there. I aim to stay out of trouble and lead a good life. I just wanted you to know."
Matt was surprised at the young man's statement. "I'm glad to hear it." Matt walked over and shook his hand, "I wish you and your folks the best."
"Thanks, Marshal. I best be going or my folks will worry."
"I'll walk out with you."
The two walked out together. Matt saw the wagon down the street, and he waved at Brandon's parents as the wagon pulled out.
Matt went back to retrieve his letter to Kitty. He still had concerns over her safety and decided that, since Kitty wanted to travel, they could, after her return, travel for some time enabling him to keep her safe.
Kitty was overjoyed when she received Matt's letter. Hurrying to the train station, she bought her ticket. It would be two weeks before the train was scheduled to go through Dodge plus the trip would take one week. There would be just enough time to send a reply to Matt.
How can you think I wouldn't come back to you? I have spent the last few months waiting for this letter. I have missed you so, and I've missed all my friends in Dodge. I'm sure we can work things out as long as you are retiring. We can face anything that comes our way if we are together. I have checked the train schedule, and the train to Dodge leaves in two weeks. With that, I should arrive on Tuesday, the 23. Please be at the station waiting on me.
Eva and Raoul will be sorry to see me go. They have invited us to stay with them any time we travel to New Orleans. I would love to show you the city.
Kitty realized she had filled the page so she turned it over and added more.
The nights here have been so lonely. I wake up thinking I'm at the Long Branch, and I lie there listening for your footsteps coming up the backstairs. Then I realize where I am. I miss you slipping in beside me after you've finished your rounds and waking me up as you take me in your arms. I even miss your snoring.
I'll be there soon.
Kitty met the mailman as he walked up the steps of the Dubois' home and handed him her letter to Matt. She turned and ran up the stairs to her bedroom. Once there, she began pulling her trunks out of the closets and began to pack. She could barely wait to return to Dodge. And, she thought, "I'll be there in time for the Ford County Sociable. And, Matt Dillon wasn't going to miss taking her to that one. " She smiled and resumed packing.