Author's Note: The great Paul Savage is said to have written a script for Return to Dodge which was ultimately rejected in favor of the one that was filmed. Though the whereabouts of this script are unknown, descriptions of its plot have circulated among Gunsmoke fans and many feel it would have made a tremendously more satisfying movie. Inspired by the rumors of Mr. Savage's script, I decided to rewrite Return to Dodge using a similar plot line and create the reunion I would like to have seen. Inconsistencies in canon or other historical facts may occur for the sake of the story, so read at your own risk.
There appeared to be a problem posting this the first time, so I deleted and am reposting if anyone gets multiple notices.
The steady rain had slowed to a soft sprinkle by the time the stage pulled onto Front Street. It was almost dusk, but there was still enough light to read signs on the buildings that were crawling past the small window. She had left on a train the previous day and planned on arriving that way, but a track outage some thirty miles back had forced the passengers to either wait for repair or seek alternative transportation. She couldn't chance missing the most important appointment of her life, and it was sheer luck that a stage was available within close proximity. The extra three hours of travel was most unwelcome, but she had made it with a little time to spare. The driver tugged on the reins, and his lone passenger braced herself at the hard stop.
Kitty Russell took a cleansing breath before helping herself off the stage, stepping into a shallow puddle before realizing it was there. She couldn't help but smile as she remembered stepping into a similar puddle in that exact same spot a lifetime ago. That puddle had added to a dismal first impression of Dodge City, so much that the young newcomer had almost stepped right back on the stage and told the driver the take her to Anywhere Else, USA. Almost. But fate intervened and this ended up being home for nearly twenty years. She stepped out of the puddle this time without a second thought.
It looked remarkably similar to the town she had left, only some of the signs were different. The Lady Gay was now The Blue Peacock, the undertaker was apparently someone named Marcus Wilder, and Newly's gunsmith shop looked to be some kind of leather store. The cosmetics might be different, but it still felt like Front Street.
Reluctantly, Kitty turned toward the wooden staircase that she had climbed a thousand times in the prime of her life. The sign out front now read, "Robert Caldemeyer, Family Medicine." She had heard good things about Dr. Caldemeyer from the friends who still wrote to her from Dodge. The town was lucky to have him, she was told. Still, he wasn't Doc. Nobody was, or ever would be again. She would never forget the day the wire came from Festus telling her that Doc had died peacefully in his sleep. It shouldn't have been a shock, he was an older man with health problems even when she lived here. Still, one is never truly prepared for such news. He had written to her faithfully every month for the six years since she had moved, always full of interesting news and never complaining. He had kept her updated on everyone she knew in Dodge—at least everyone she wanted to hear about. When he missed that last month she knew in her heart that something was wrong. He was too ill to do anything those last few weeks and died with his closest friends by his side. It was a devastating loss, and she would have made the trip to his funeral had she been able. But circumstances in her life at the time were such that she had no choice but to stay home and grieve alone. Those emotions came flooding back at the sight of his office.
The stage driver dragged her large suitcase from the luggage rack and set it down next to her. "Where are you headed, Ma'am?" he asked helpfully. "Can I carry this somewhere for you?"
Kitty collected herself and glanced toward the city's best hotel. It was still in the same place with the same sign, a bit weathered but in good condition. "I'm staying at The Dodge House," she replied. "And thank you, some help would be appreciated." She had never been one who wanted any help, but age had a way of making sure you needed it.
The eager young man struggled slightly with Kitty's generous sized bag, trying to pretend it wasn't all that heavy and thankful that they didn't have far to go. It was Monday, and the after work saloon patrons were just beginning to assemble at the local establishments. Kitty purposely avoided looking at one establishment in particular as they worked their way around the pedestrians on the street and sidewalk, deciding that she needed a bit more time to prepare herself for that emotional ride. She focused her eyes straight ahead, hoping to make it to The Dodge House without any detours. She was within feet of the entrance, her driver-turned-porter close behind, when she heard her name in a familiar voice so loud that it startled her.
"Miss Kitty!" she heard again, coming from the front porch of the small café next door. His hair was totally gray and he had a slight paunch, but there was no mistaking the twang of Festus Haggen. "Well I'll be a monkey's uncle!" he exclaimed, slapping his knee with his hand in excitement as he hurried toward her. "I heard you was comin' to Dodge, but I told Newly here that until I seen you my own self I didn't reckon I'd believe it."
The gentleman standing next to him after a brisk walk to catch up tipped his Stetson and smiled. "It sure is good to see you again, Ma'am," he said politely. Kitty's mouth flew open in surprise. She would not have recognized Newly O'Brien if she had run him over, but she certainly recognized that sweet, gentle voice. He had grown a thick beard and moustache, salt and pepper in color, and looked nothing like the baby-faced friend she was so fond of her last few years in Dodge. Peeking out from his brown vest she could see something else that had changed about Newly O'Brien since she had seen him sixteen years ago—a badge that said "U.S. Marshal." She knew he was the marshal of Dodge now, but actually seeing that all-too-familiar piece of tin decorating a different chest hit her like a hard slap in the face. For nineteen years she had hoped, dreamed, begged for someone else to wear that badge and bear the burden it represented, to no avail.
What had finally convinced him to give it up? She wasn't sure she even wanted to know. It hadn't been her, so it didn't much matter.
Kitty put an arm around each of her old friends and drew them into her. She had wanted to freshen up before she saw anyone, but this felt good. The threesome stayed locked in a warm embrace for several seconds, and when Kitty finally let go she couldn't control the flow of happy tears. She had always missed them, but she didn't realize just how much until that moment.
Her helper stood patiently next to the large suitcase, trying not to intrude on a clearly intimate reunion. Kitty caught him out of the corner of her eye and suddenly remembered her manners. "I'm terribly sorry," she said, wiping her face. "This gentleman was kind enough to help me with my suitcase, and I shouldn't keep him any longer. Can we meet again later and catch up?"
"Well, 'course we can," proclaimed Festus. "How's about we all go over to The Long Branch tonight and have us a big ol' gittin' back together party? I'd be honored to buy you the first beer, Miss Kitty."
"I'd like that very much, Festus," she responded sincerely. "So I'll see you both there later, say around nine o'clock?"
Newly nodded. "I should be done with early rounds by then. I'm looking forward to it."
Kitty quickly kissed each man on the cheek, still almost in disbelief that they were standing right in front of her. "So am I."
She motioned toward the door, and the man lugged her suitcase to the front desk. "He'll carry it upstairs for me," she informed him, pointing to the hotel worker who got paid for such tasks. She got no argument, and the young man wished her a nice stay in town before starting back to his stage. "Hold on," she called out, digging into her purse. She pressed a large coin into his hand which made him very happy. "I've been pretty nervous about this trip, and your kindness has meant a lot. Thank you." He nodded and smiled as he left The Dodge House.
Kitty found her room to be adequately clean and comfortable. It wasn't quite the luxury that some of the hotels in New Orleans boasted, but it didn't need to be. She wasn't here on vacation, this was a trip of necessity. Just thinking about why she was here made her stomach hurt, so she tried not to. For now she would concentrate on changing her dress and fixing her face paint and hair, which looked a fright after being bounced around in a stage for several hours.
She carefully lifted a neatly folded cobalt blue dress from her suitcase and began smoothing out the wrinkles. She had spent hours at home trying on different dresses before she left, trying to decide which one was most appropriate for this particular evening. She owned dresses that were sensible and professional, sexy and flirtatious, conservative and matronly. What image did she want to project? On the surface, she tried to tell herself it didn't matter. This wasn't a beauty contest after all, it was serious business. The important thing was to get what she came for, and that had nothing to do with her appearance. But deep down, regardless of how shallow and ridiculous it sounded even in her own head, Kitty had but one first impression that she wanted to present after all this time—the one that got away. So she had settled on the blue dress, very flattering to her still desirable figure while also tasteful and elegant. Blue was always his favorite color on her.
Kitty slipped on the dress and easily pushed all the buttons through their loops. She had lost a bit of weight recently, no doubt from lack of appetite. Some women were stress eaters, Kitty was a stress dieter. She could barely eat when she was upset, and that had been most of the time lately. Standing in front of the dresser mirror, she clipped on a pair of sapphire earrings and twirled around for a once over. This dress looked good on her, if she did say so herself. That hair was going to be more of a challenge, though. She pulled out every pin and comb and let each lock fall past her shoulders. There was a time when those locks were as red as hot coals, but not anymore. She had started to gray in her mid-40's, but luckily gray didn't show on redheads the way it did on some others. Kitty was grateful that the gray just diluted out the color, giving her the overall appearance of a dark strawberry blonde instead of the deep red. That was fine with her—better than looking like Martha Washington.
She brushed through some tangles and began the meticulous reassembly of her bun. She had done it countless times and had it down to an art, but it took her longer than usual for some reason. Maybe it was nerves. She finished by creating her trademark curls, one on each side of her face. Her hair was thick and wavy, and she could create the effect by simply wrapping a small piece around her finger for a few seconds. Sufficiently satisfied with the result, she glanced at the clock and saw that she had exactly ten minutes to get to her…what should she call it? Not a date. No, definitely not a date. It was a meeting, one with incredibly high stakes.
She moved in close to the mirror to check her face. There wasn't time for a redo, she would have to settle for a fast powder job and a little lipstick. She backed up by a half a foot, having forgotten that she didn't have her glasses on and couldn't see that close up anymore. When her face came back into focus, she gently ran a finger under each eye. Would he notice those lines? They hadn't been there when she left. She almost laughed at the triviality of the thought, possibly the most minor of all that had changed since she last saw him.
Kitty steadied her nerves and quickly finished her touch ups. She had done everything she could—it was time to go.