A Christmas Story

Chapter 4

Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams

Matt stopped by The Long Branch after dinner, dutifully bringing a napkin full of leftovers that he had collected at Delmonico's. Much of it was his, as he had only picked at his meal. Kitty thanked him and he smiled as he watched her tear it into cat-sized pieces which she put onto a plate. She opened the back door and shivered as a gust of wind blew flurries into the room. "Here Whiskey!" she called.

She didn't see him, so she peeked around the corner and looked in the box with the blanket she had put out for him when the weather had turned cold. She would let him stay in the office more, but he didn't like to be cooped up for very long and was usually ready to roam after a couple of hours at most.

The box was empty. It wasn't like him to miss dinner, but she was later than usual and thought maybe he had tried his luck elsewhere. She whistled one more time, scanning the alley for a good minute before deciding that she couldn't stand in the cold any longer. She set the plate down outside, knowing that either Whiskey or one of the other alley dwellers would eventually find it.

Matt had some work to take care of and still had rounds, so he left shortly after dropping off the leftovers. He returned at bedtime as promised.

Kitty was exhausted and Matt was still sore from his injuries, so sleeping together meant just that. They changed into their pajamas and Kitty clasped her hands around his neck, reaching up on her tiptoes to give him a short goodnight kiss. As she started to pull away, he put his hands on her hips and drew her back into him.

"Oh come on, you can do better than that," he chided good-naturedly.

She smiled wearily. "I'm sorry Matt, I'm just really tired."

He hugged her until she almost couldn't breathe. "I know you are," he said softly. She squeezed back, relishing the affection in his embrace. He leaned down and gave her a slow, tender kiss.

"Let's get some sleep," he said, and they crawled into bed.

Kitty turned over on her side while Matt lay on his back, unable to turn off his thoughts. His conversation with Doc—or rather, Doc's soliloquy—had been weighing on him all evening.

Have you even talked to her about it? Asked her how she feels?

Matt dealt with adversity the way he dealt with everything else in life—with deep thought and deliberate action, but few words. Doc knew him too well and was right that he had talked very little with her about the events of the past three months. In his mind it happened, it was over, and talking wasn't going to change anything.

Except it clearly was not over for Kitty, a fact that became painfully obvious every time she cried out in the night.

She has put up with an awful lot, Matt, and she doesn't ask for much. He could hear Doc's prickly tone in his head.

Matt had always felt that he and Kitty complemented each other perfectly—her social, adventurous personality drew out his fun side, while his calm, thoughtful nature gave her a sense of security. They had never tried to change each other, lovingly accepting their differences most of the time. It's why they had worked so well for ten years. But as he lay in bed, he wondered if she was doing more than her share of the accepting.

Matt turned over and Kitty was asleep. He scooted up next to her so that her back was against his chest, wrapping his arm around her waist until he finally drifted off.

The preacher was reading Psalm 23 to the crowd gathered around the freshly dug grave. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures…" Doc was standing next to her, his arm around her shoulder. She was wearing her black dress and clutching something tightly in her hand. She slowly scanned the crowd and saw practically the whole town. What was everyone doing there? The preacher finished his reading and a group of men picked up a casket and lowered it into the ground. The crowd walked away, revealing a tombstone behind the hole. There was a name on it: Matthew Dillon. She turned to Doc with a look of total confusion. He had tears in his eyes. "Doc, why is Matt's name on that tombstone?" she asked, bewildered. "Honey, he's gone," Doc said. "I'm so sorry." She could feel her heart beating in her chest and instinctively squeezed her hands tighter and tighter, until she felt a piercing pain. She opened up her right hand and saw a piece of metal, covered in blood. It said, "U.S. Marshal." She screamed.

Kitty awoke late that morning, alone. She'd had another bad night, finally settling into a deep sleep sometime before dawn. Matt had quietly slipped out early, careful not to disturb her while she was finally getting some rest.

December 22

Business was slow this close to the holidays. Kitty busied herself with paperwork and making lists of everything she needed to see about before the big party. She also finally finished up the last of her Christmas shopping. She hadn't seen Matt all day—he had left her a note that morning saying he had some errands to run and would be back as soon as he could.

It was almost closing time when he made his way to The Long Branch. Sam was cleaning up and Kitty sat alone at a table in the back. She smiled as he walked over and took the chair next to her, but it was a sad smile and her eyes looked misty.

"What's wrong?" he asked, putting one of his large hands over her petite one. She shook her head dismissively and said, "Nothing important."

"It's important if it's bothering you," he replied. "Please tell me."

Kitty sighed. "Whiskey didn't show up again tonight," she said. "This isn't like him. I've been hearing coyotes at night, and I can't help but feel like he's not coming back."

As soon as she said it out loud she burst into tears, embarrassed at her uncharacteristic display of emotion. Matt put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently. "I'm sorry," he said sympathetically.

"I feel so stupid," she sobbed. "It's a cat—and not even my cat really, just a stray I've been feeding. Why am I so upset?" Matt reached up and wiped a tear from each of her sapphire eyes.

"You're very fond of him, Honey," he said gently. "It's perfectly natural to be upset, but it's only been a couple of days. You know how cats are. He might turn up."

Kitty didn't cry often, especially in front of Matt, and it made his insides ache. He couldn't help but wonder how much worse Doc must have seen.