This story is for my best friend of over 30 years, T-Bone, because she loves Matt and Kitty and all things Gunsmoke. Love you, sweetheart!
The sky pulled up from the road and seemed to soar overhead suddenly when the buggy came out of the shelter of the cottonwood trees. It was unseasonably warm, as though the autumn had forgotten it wasn't summer any longer. Dodge City was only a mile or so back behind, but if you looked behind you, you wouldn't be able to see the edge of town any more.
Kitty slapped the reins gently and the horse turned off the dusty road and picked her way through the scribble of brush that grew near the path. The path led to a grassy meadow with some shade trees and down to the edge of a lazy little stream. It was a private place where Kitty could just get away from the hustle and bustle of Dodge City and enjoy a bit of solitude.
With the horse unharnessed and set to browse on her picket line, Kitty spread an old patchwork quilt at the edge of the meadow, in the shade of an ancient cottonwood. The basket from DelMonaco's sat on the quilt, waiting for her to catch her breath. She had put the stone jar of ale in the creek to cool and now sat with a brown paper package on her lap. Doc Adams had pressed it into her hands this morning.
Kitty had risen early in the morning with a restlessness she found annoying, but not entirely unexpected. She had never been one to let grass grow under her feet, but today it was more urgent – as though she could run away from her self-imposed duty. But that duty, the one where she took good long stock of herself and where her life was headed, seemed to loom larger and more unpleasant with each year.
After getting dressed and doing all the morning rituals, Kitty walked slowly down the stairs to the main room of the Long Branch. The bar itself was clean, as were the tables, chairs, and floor. But in spite of all the glasses gleaming in their places, the bottles lined up on their shelves, the whole place had a musty, sour smell to it. She had to get out of there. Maybe a short walk down to the Marshall's Office for a cup of coffee would be nice.
Pushing open the door, it was unfortunately no surprise to Kitty to find Matt gone. She sighed to herself. Festus must have been there early because she could smell the coffee. Might as well get a cup, she thought. As Kitty stepped around the desk to get a cup off the shelf, the door swung open. Doc Adams gave the room a quick sweep with his eyes, but seemed unsurprised to find Kitty there instead of Matt and Festus.
"Hello, Curly," Kitty said, already reaching for another cup as she added, "Cup of coffee?"
A smile gathered in the wrinkles of his ancient mouth and his eyes sparkled behind the little wire-framed glasses perched on his nose.
"Now, that wouldn't come amiss this morning, Kitty," he said.
They sat down and sipped the strong brew, the conversation slow to start as each was preoccupied with their morning thoughts. They began with the weather and worked their way up.
"Any idea where Matt is this morning?" Kitty tried to slip this in casually, but Doc knew her far too well. Just the same, he was a good friend and didn't let on that he noticed her eyes narrowing, as though she was waiting for something to fall on her, or that she cringed a bit and her hands were balled into fists.
I saw Festus leave town on Ruth just behind Matt. They called out that they were headed to Jewel City.
"Oh." Kitty sighed, but was unwilling to burden her friend with her uneasy feeling today. The weight of the years she had spent in Dodge in this very same room, waiting for the man she loved to return was on her mind this morning. After an awkward pause, Kitty took up the reins of the conversation, determined to lighten the mood.
"I was just turning an idea over in my mind. If we had never come to Dodge, where do you think we'd be today?"
Doc took a large swallow of the coffee while he composed the answer. He wasn't the type of man to waste his time on such idle thoughts, so it took a good while for him to cobble together an answer. Kitty waited patiently, pleating the fabric of her skirt with her fingers, then brushing it smooth again over her thigh.
"You know before I studied to be a doctor, I worked for the Hudson Bay Trapping Company."
Kitty's coffee went up the back of her nose, causing an unladylike snort. "Awk!" She giggled. "I cannot picture you, traipsing through the Canadian snow with a beaver pelt over your shoulder and a huge fuzzy beard to keep your face warm."
Doc was happy to see her smile.
"Well, even I was young once you know," he replied with an exaggerated look of dignity forced upon his face while his hands tugged down the points of his vest. "Hmpf." Kitty dissolved in giggles.
"Where would you be?" he scanned her face, and her look softened a bit, probably only discernible to someone that had known her and loved her as long as he had.
" I grew up in N'Orleans."
He already knew that. Her voice had taken on a slight accent, just barley heard, when she spoke about her childhood in the south. He decided not to tease her about it today, but filed it for later use. He nodded to her to continue and buried his nose in the coffee cup.
"I got off the stage in an ugly little town with dusty streets, just to stretch my legs and break the journey with a bite to eat. Sitting across the room was the biggest man I had ever seen, eating the biggest breakfast I had ever seen. But you know the rest of that story," She ducked her head to hide the shy smile that always came across her face when she thought of Matt.
Doc nodded again. He had heard the story before – of Kitty's decision to stay in Dodge and of her courage and determination year after year; in finally buying the Long Branch against all odds. He was as proud of her as if she was his own daughter.
Kitty's gaze was distant. What she didn't mention was that later that month, she had seen Matt wiping his sweating brow with a bandana – and the thought that occurred to her to grab the very bandana and wring it out to make soup. She blushed at the memory, but Doc didn't seem to notice.
"Did you know where I was headed when I got off the stage?" she asked, and Doc shook his head. "I might have actually kept on going, but I was so short of funds. I was headed to San Francisco. I wanted to run as far away from N'Orleans as I could go…maybe marry a sailor."
Her voice trailed away, her eyes no longer focused on the man sitting across from her. As if to herself, she murmured, "If I married a sailor, my life probably wouldn't be much different. I've heard many people say that a sailor's mistress is the sea…"
Doc felt a sadness come over him and he brushed a non-existent tear from his eye. Kitty shook her head and turned back to Doc.
"I have patients to see this morning, so I had better get back to my own office," he fumbled to find something else to say. "You remember to wear those new reading glasses, now." And before she could react, he pressed the brown paper package into her hands and left.
Kitty had decided on a picnic lunch for two from DelMonacos, just in case Matt had come home in time to actually read the note she left for him; and if he took time from his busy day to want to meet her out here.
As a distraction from her thoughts, Kitty picked up the brown paper package and untied the twine holding it together. Inside was a red leather book with gold letters: Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper. She recalled Doc's parting words, reminding her of the infirmities of her age and was irritated for a moment. But only for that instant because her next thought was her dear friend had remembered what today was, and she smiled a warm smile. Not everyone remembered her birthday.
The bottle of ale was in the creek and Kitty laid out the plates of stuffed eggs, fried chicken, fresh plums, and gingerbread, covering each with a damask napkin to keep it from visiting insects. She sat back against the fallen log and looked up to see a sparrow on a branch of the cottonwood. It flares its tail feathers suddenly, like a deck of cards she thought, when her horse nickered. Another horse answered.
At first irritated that her privacy had been interrupted, her scowl turned to a sparkle-eyed smile when the previously unwelcome guest pushed the brush away and walked up to the quilt.
"So, you found my note, Cowboy?"
"It was the most welcome offer I've had all week, Kitty, thank you for the invitation." Matt grinned at her. "What can I do to help?"
"Just step over to the creek and bring along those stone jars of ale and we can begin the feast!"
There was a quiet but comfortable silence as Matt and Kitty set about eating the delicious food, washing it down with the cool ale. A gentle banter ensued when Matt chided Kitty for pulling up the corner of her dress to wipe her wet hands on the edge of her petticoat.
"But, Matt, they weren't greasy, just damp from the grass!", as she reached over and swatted his hat off his head.
"Hey, now…hey. None of that!" he laughed as he started to lean over to retrieve his hat –but quick as a rattler, he reached out a long arm and to pull Kitty closer to him. They wrestled a bit, Kitty pretending to struggle away as Matt tried to gather her in closer. Of course, that was just where she wanted to be, but a tiny, rebellious voice in her head asked: Why should I make it easy for him?
Despite her wearing a dress, Kitty jumped to her feet, taking a few steps away from Matt. Much to her surprise, he also struggled to his feet and she took off toward the creek. Just as he caught up to her, she leaned over the bank and swiped a big splash of cold water at her playmate, soaking his shirt. He stopped dead still and gasped.
"Oh, so that's how you want to play that game, is it?" while a devilish look came over his usually serious face.
A vision of him tossing her into the fast running cold water and the subsequent climb out of said cold water made her think.
"Ah, well..no, I don't think so.." she murmured.
Matt reached out one large hand toward her and she hesitantly allowed him to haul her back up the bank. They walked slowly back to the quilt, Both were a bit breathless after the antics – though perhaps more from their thoughts of what may have happened when they came out of the creek sopping wet and alone together than from any actual exercise. They settled back on the old quilt, Matt leaning against the fallen log, the hat now tilted down his face a bit to shade it from the afternoon sun. Kitty sat next to him, reclining on her side and leaning on her elbow.
"Where did you and Festus go this morning before breakfast?" she asked, more to just hear his voice than because of any actual curiosity concerning his sworn duties. He began his tale, and while so distracted she slipped the book from Doc under the edge of the damask napkin in the basket. She didn't want to rub Matt's nose in her gift in case he hadn't remembered what today was. Then she glanced up to be sure his eyes were not on her and slid her reading glasses into her pocket. He knew she wore glasses, but she was still sensitive of the blatant reminder of her advancing years. Especially today.
As for Dillon, he was just hitting his stride, explaining the ride to the small homestead outside Jewel Citythat he had been keeping tabs on, going into details of the warrant, the ensuing arguments, the maneuvering and posturing, calculating and actions he had to call into play this morning.
Having heard all of this before (did it ever change?), Kitty was distracted from the story. She began to collect her thoughts, shaking them into order as though she were settling a deck of cards, ready for dealing.
The sun was throwing splashes of sun on Matt's skin, like pennies into water, and his voice was like gravel thrown on black velvet. She loved the way he would save back his laughter, keeping it close and then unwrapping it to toss it out at just the right moment.
Kitty heard what Matt was saying, but his words seemed to go winging over her head like so many passing geese – observed but insignificant. She made a renewed effort to pay attention, to make some small sound of acknowledgement so he knew she appreciated the tale.
"…Festus was in the scrub, out of site but watching the back door when I dismounted and walked across the porch….." Matt droned on, moving his hands in illustration of the knocking on the door.
Maybe it was the whole reminiscing about days gone by with her old friend this morning, but Kitty was thinking about when she had first known Matt, her cowboy, all those years ago. A phrase was going through her mind, a cliché really, that the lawman was one tall drink of water. He was well over six and a half feet, but Kitty had always thought of him as the right size, with other men being built in 9/10ths scale compared to Matt.
Matt was finishing his story. "You know, Kitty, it's funny to me that people tend to call you 'lucky' when in fact you've only acted more sensibly than they have," he looked over at her with a question in his eye.
"I'd say you had the right of it there, Matt, people make their own luck," Hmpf. Wasn't she proof of that?
The conversation gradually came around to tales of their youth – of Matt's wrangling on the 3-Bar Ranch where he worked before joining the army. Then how his path led toward becoming a lawman when he helped to clean up Laredo back in his Texas days.
"When I came to Dodge the first time, I never intended to stay, " he said, echoing her thoughts. "It was a drab little place, anchored on the edge of the windy plains. There were these shanties and a few storefronts, thrown across the tough prairie sod like so many stray cows." He sat with his hands in his lap, like two napping cats.
Kitty looked at him. "But, you came to think of it as your home, didn't you?" she saw him nod in reply.
"I wasn't sure I could stay here, Matt, not when I first came. There was that night at the Long Branch: I didn't own it yet, I was just there late one night, cleaning before heading up to my bed. I was behind the bar when two drifters jimmied the lock and came in, looking for what they could steal," Kitty said, turning her back so Matt couldn't see the tears that might come into her eyes.
Matt leaned forward and began rubbing the back of her neck, just in the place where worry always sat, making itself at home.
"I was frightened, just a young girl alone, and I had never even so much as fired a pistol. But I took down Sam's rifle he kept primed back of the bar. It took a lot of strength to lift that rifle, but I could feel when it hit its balance point. That stock in my hands felt like a living thing to me, Matt, and I knew I could take care of myself."
Kitty turned to look at Matt and his eyes met hers. They didn't need any more words between them for him to understand what she was telling him. And to Matt's credit, he did not look away. Many men might hang their heads in shame at what she had just implied, but Matt Dillon was no coward. He knew the woman here in front of him wasn't either.
Between two other people..or even between these two a few years ago, this would have been an awkward moment. But Kitty and Matt knew each other too well –and the moment passed. Kitty picked up Matt's hand and looked at the back of it where there was a deep scratch.
"Battle wound from your morning adventure?" she asked, hoping to lighten the mood.
"Ah….something like that.." he said as he brushed away her question, trying to come up with another subject. "I've sure had my fair share of 'battle wounds', haven't I?" The conversation stalled as each gathered their thoughts for a new topic.
"You know, Matt, I never think of scars as ugly."
Hmmm,,he thought…..That's a good thing…
"Doc once told me that scars don't form on a dying man. Scars are saying 'I SURVIVED".
They poked at the conversation for a while, like two kids poking at a dead raccoon in the woods. The sun had moved across the warm afternoon sky. Matt and Kitty walked down to the creek again and stopped at a pool. Matt picked up a few flattish stones and skipped them across the fire-blue water. He looks just like a young boy with that proud grin on his face, Kitty thought. She leaned against an aspen tree, idly wishing she had known him as a child, before the grit of time and experience had rubbed off all the rough edges. A child is like a shadow of a tree, just and outline of that tree, really, but taking the texture from the ground it falls on.
"We better get back to Dodge," Kitty finally said with reluctance in her voice. It was so rare for her to have an entire afternoon with the man she loved, but she knew he was anxious to return to the town.
Matt was a man of few words, but that didn't mean he was unaware of Kitty's feelings about having him to herself for the afternoon. He could see how hard it had been for her to be the one to suggest their return. He took her gift and gave it back to her:
"Why don't we pack up. Then I can tie my horse to the back of the buggy and drive us back to town together?" He was rewarded with her beautiful smile and sparkling blue eyes.
On the road back to Dodge, Matt's hand lay on Kitty's. It tightened, but his eyes were still focused somewhere past the valley, over the white clouds, and she felt her rings pressed into her flesh. Ahead of them, they could just see the first few lights of Dodge, as though they were stars that had been caught in the folds of the tapestry of land.
Matt slowed the mare, then stopped her altogether in the road, still a fair distance from town. He didn't speak a word, didn't need to, really, he just took Kitty in his arms and kissed her.
As he clucked to the mare to resume the ride, they were both quiet in their own thoughts. How surprised they both would be if they knew how close those thought actually were. Matt knew himself pretty well, and tonight his thoughts were less sentimental than Kitty's romantic ones. He almost voiced them, but thought better of it –after all, how could he explain to her that perhaps it was more important to marry the right life than the right person?
Perhaps Matt should have given Kitty more credit because she had come to the same conclusion quite some time ago. This had turned out to be one of the best birthdays she could remember – even if Matt hadn't remembered. She leaned her head on Matt's shoulder and his warm arm gathered her in closer. She wondered where she was when she first knew that contentment and independence braided together gave her peace.
Their love linked them together like the warp and weft of a woven cloth. The pattern of the weave would sometime loosen with doubt, absence, and regret – but days like this, spent together would once more tighten the weave to become the fabric of their lives.
The buggy and horses put to bed, the basket returned to DelMonacos, Matt walked along Front Street beside Kitty.
"Wait just a minute, I have something to attend to at the office."
Kitty sighed. It had been such a wonderful day. She had a hard time keeping her foot from tapping.
Matt was back in less than a minute, a small furry ball in his huge hands and a shy, apologetic grin on his face. He reached his hands towards her and she brought her hands up. He laid the tiny bundle in her hands. Startled, the fuzzy ball turned into tiny needles, scratching in panic.
"Oh! So that's how you scratched your hand this morning!" Kitty accused. She snuggled the black, gold, and white furball close to her heart and the kitten closed its green eyes and purred.
"Marshall Dillon!" a call from down the street near the freight office.
"It's okay, Matt. You go ahead, I can walk home just fine." She smiled up into his face and held the kitten close to her. "Thank you for a wonderful day, Cowboy."
He leaned close to her ear. "Happy Birthday, Princess.. " he whispered.
"Marshall Dillon, come quick!"
Kitty walked back to the Long Branch, his words still pulled soft around her shoulders like a shawl to keep her warm. She smiled.
Behind her, on the public street, Matt looked at her with private eyes.