Festus’ Secret

By Pat

 

“What’s wrong?” marshal Matt Dillon asked of his bewhiskered deputy as Festus reined his mule, Ruth, to a halt and dismounted.

 

“Wal, Matthew, looks like ol’ Ruth here has a pretty good gash in her forelaig from that bramble patch we come through back yonder.”  Festus had squatted down in front of the animal’s leg and was surveying the torn flesh.  “Looks like she may need to rest a spell.”  He patted the mule affectionately on the flank, removed his dirty, misshapen hat, and wiped his arm across his forehead.

 

“Seems like that hard luck spell your cousin Henry cast on you is still in full force, Festus,” Matt answered with a chuckle.  Matt and the citizens of Dodge had had a field day watching Festus become the victim of one ridiculous mishap after another from the time his cousin Henry Haggen had set foot in Dodge City, seemingly adding credence to the Haggen belief that he was the bearer of “hard luck”.

 

“Puh!  You got that right!”  Festus replaced his hat and reached for his canteen.  “If I never see that ornery ol’ scudder or any of his half-brained brothers again, it’ll be too soon, Matthew.”  He took a long swallow of water and replaced the canteen to its rightful place on his saddle horn.

 

“Matthew, I know you cain’t be awaitin’ here fer me an’ ol’ Ruth to be ready for movin’ on, so why don’t you just go on ahaid into Dodge and I’ll see ya directly.  See if I can find me a farmhouse round where I can let ol’ Ruth get a good night’s rest an’ maybe get holt of some ointment to put on that thar cut.”

 

“Alright, Festus,” Matt conceded.  “I saw a farmhouse about a half mile back.”

 

“I wouldn’t go back thar if’n it was the last place on earth!  That’s whar them hairbrained cuzins a mine stopped to get some vittles when ol’ Henry membered he hadn’t brung any.  They didn’t find it out ‘til later when ol’ Jefferson Dooley tolt em, but thet ornery little young’n filt his pockets plumb full with thet confedrite gold afore they got outa thar.  He’d have everythin’ I own outa my saddle bags and the shirt offn my back too fore I could blink an eyeball.  No sireeee.   I’ll take my chances up yonder a ways.”

 

“Okay.  Whatever you think.  I suppose I better get headed on, then.  See you in a day or so, and be careful.”

 

“I’ll doer, Matthew.”

 

Festus allowed the mule to graze a moment longer while he watched his good friend Matthew disappear across the prairie.  He gathered the mule’s reins in his hands and began leading him down the trail.  “C’mon, Ruth,” he cajoled.  “I know that laig don’t feel none too good, but we’ll find us a place here directly where you ken get some rest.”  He commenced to sing to the mule, his voice carrying clear and strong on the afternoon breeze.

 

He had traveled about a half mile when he spied a small farmhouse in the distance.  Moving steadily toward his destination, he saw fields thick with rich, healthy looking crops and noticed a few chickens roaming around the barnyard.  “See, Ruth.  Look at that barn.  If’n these folks are half as friendly as their place looks to be, you’ll be restin’ on some soft hay in no time.”

 

Festus passed under a tall apple tree, paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, and became instantly alert when he heard the unmistakable sound of a shell being shoved into the chamber of a rifle.  Dropping the reins of the mule, he concealed his right hand with the animal’s body as he drew his gun, wheeling to see who was behind him.  Confused to find no one there, his eyes traveled warily upward to the branches of the tree just as a voice called out sharply.

 

“Who are ya, mister.  State yer business and be quick ‘bout it.”  Festus’ eyes widened in shock as he looked up to see a grown woman sitting in the tree, feet dangling from a low branch, a long cotton dress billowing around her ankles in the soft breeze that had begun to blow.  Cradled in her lap was the rifle.  Her hands rested on it in a way that conveyed it could be put into action at a moment’s notice if the need arose.

 

Festus replaced his gun in its holster and scrunched his eyeballs at the woman.  “Now looka here, you don’t need to be so unfriendly like, ma’am.  Name’s Festus Haggen.  I come by to see if’n I could rest my mule for a spell.  He’s got him a gashed up laig and needin’ some rest.”

 

She let out a laugh as she leapt out of the tree in one fluid movement and landed in front of Festus, causing him as much surprise as the discovery of her presence in the tree.  “Festus.  What a funny name.”

 

“No funnier’n others I’ve heard, I don’t reckon,” Festus answered defensively.  “I’ve had it all my life.  Guess I’ve growed pretty used to it by now.”

 

She approached him, green eyes widening as they rested on the badge on his chest.  “Didn’t know you wuz a lawman.  You a sheriff?”  She moved closer as though to make out the wording on the tin badge.

 

“Deputy United States Marshal,” Festus declared proudly.  “From Dodge City.”

 

“My, you are a ways away.  What ya doin’ clear over here in this county?  You been chasin’ outlaws?”  Her face lit up with a look of wondrous admiration.

 

“Wal, not exactly,” Festus admitted reluctantly.  “Ya see, I kinda got into a sitiation with some harebrained relatives a mine over this here stolen gold that was found.  They sent fer me to kinda hep em out.”

 

Her face fell in disappointment.  “Oh.  Well, Dep’ty Festus, my name be January Morgansfeld.”  She pushed a lock of chestnut hair out of her face and held out her hand.

 

“January?”  Festus shook her hand.  “And you laughed at my name.  Don’t reckon as how I know too many she-males named January.”

 

“No.  I don’t reckon ya do.  It’s a right purty name, tho, doncha think?  My pa give me thet name day I was born, he did.”

 

“Wal, yeah,” Festus conceded.  “I reckon it is at that.  You live here with yer pa, do ya?”

 

“Did ‘til bout a week ago.  He up and died on me.”  A flicker of sadness crossed her features.  “His heart broke down on him, I spose.  I went on down to the crick yonder to git some water one evenin’, and when I come back, pa was alayin’ on the floor and he warn’t breathin’.  He had his hand over his heart,” she covered her own heart with her hand, “and I reckon it had ben painin’ him some, mebbe.”

 

“I’m awful sorry to hear that, Miss January,” Festus sympathized.  “There warn’t no doc around, I guess.”

 

“Well, I studied on thet a while.  I coulda rode to Mullinville and fetched the doc to come and look at pa, but the way I figgered it, why go all the way over thar and git the doc to come here and charge me ten cents to tell me my pa was daid when I already knowed he was daid.  ‘Sides, he coulda been spendin’ his time atakin’ care of some sick folk that might be gonna die if’n he warn’t thar with ‘em.  Ya get my meanin’, do ya?”

 

“Wal, I guess that’d be ‘bout right,” Festus answered, amazed at the spirit this woman possessed.  “The buryin’ been took care of and all?”

 

“Oh, yes.  I tended to thet myself.  Buried pa up thar on the hill next to ma.  Well, Dep’ty Festus, I got a stew in the pot over yonder in the house.  Ya might as well come on in and getcha some now thet I know you’re friendly like.  Thar’s water for yer mule at the well,” she gestured to the stone well a few feet away, “and then ya can settle him down in the barn if’n you’ve a mind.”

 

“Much obliged, Miss January.  I’ll be in directly.”  He headed off toward the well, leading Ruth behind him.

 

Festus tended to Ruth and sang a little ditty as he ambled up to the house.  Knocking on the door, he removed his hat as he stepped inside.

 

“Come on over here and pull ya up a chair,” January invited.  ‘Vittles is hot and jest a waitin’ ta be et.  May as well get to it.”

 

“Yes’m.”  Festus filled his plate with a healthy helping of the savory smelling stew.  Taking a biscuit, he dipped it in the rich gravy and mumbled his appreciation of the good food.

 

“Didya git yer mule all settled down like?” January asked.

 

“Sure did.  Hope ya don’t mind, but I found some healin’ ointment and used it on that laig.”

 

January waved her hand at Festus.  “Thet be what it’s thar for, Dep’ty.”

 

They continued to eat in silence until Festus had cleaned his plate and January motioned for him to help himself to seconds.

 

“Me and my man and my ma and pa come out here ‘bout four years ago from Kaintucky.  My man, he died of the fever fore we ever did git here.  Then, ma, she up and died ‘bout a year ago, I guess it’d be now.  I think she jest died a the lonelies.  She never did like it here much, like me and pa.  Always said it was too much land for a body to live on.  Kinda like she was allus lost or somethin’.”

 

January sighed as she gathered the dirty supper dishes and carried them over to the sink for washing.  Festus was quick to pick up his own and deposit them on the counter.  “Kin I hep ya any, Miss January,” he asked, feeling slightly ill at ease after hearing the woman’s revelation of her misfortunes.

 

“Oh, goodness, no.  Ya kin keep me company whilst I git these dishes done up, tho, Dep’ty Festus.  Why don’t ya tell me the story bout you and thet stolen gold?”  She pulled an apron off a nail in the wooden wall, tied it around her waist, then proceeded to secure her hair back with a ribbon she pulled out of the apron pocket.

 

Festus chuckled and shook his head as he took a seat back at the table.  “Wal, it all started the day my cuzin Henry come to Dodge alookin’ fer me.  He tolt me him and his brothers had a problem needed solvin’ and---,” he hesitated.  “I don’t wanna be braggin’ none, but they aluz considered me the smart one a the Haggens.  So they commenced to figurin’ I could hep ‘em with this here problem, dontcha see?”

 

January nodded her head as she eagerly listened to what Festus had to say.  “I reckon thet’d be bout right, you bein’ a dep’ty United States Marshal and all.”

 

“Wal, turned out this here was a showin’ problem and not a tellin’ problem, so they brung me clean over here to Pratt County.  Seems them boys, Henry and Homer and Harper and Heathcliffe, they’d managed to find this big ol’ box full o’ confedrite gold.  The problem was, they needed someone to figger out how they was gonna divide that thar gold, ya see.  The onliest thang they didn’t tell me was that them Dooleys, they’d come along and found out ‘bout it and was wantin’ to steal it away from my cuzins, see.  Only they didn’t know it was gold ‘til that young’n at that farmhouse yonder managed to fill his pockets with it and ol’ Jefferson Dooley, he collared the boy and made him tell what it was he’d stolt out’n the wagon.”

 

January, about finished with the dishes, found herself becoming confused by Festus storytelling and decided to hurry things along a bit with some questions of her own.  “So whar’s all the gold at now, Dep’ty?”

 

“Wal, I never did have no intentions of lettin’ that gold get divided up twixt the Haggens or them Dooleys either.  I knowed it was my job to bring it to Dodge City and let Matthew decide what wuz to be did with it, dontcha see?”

 

“Who’s Matthew?”

 

“Why, he’s the United States Marshal in Dodge City.  Marshal Matthew Dillon.  I know he’d know what wuz to be did with that gold.”

 

“So how is it you’re still here?”

 

“Wal, there was a little misunderstandin’ with the law and I ended up in jail up thar to Mullinville.  Them knothead cuzins a mine dun went to work and broke me outa jail, pulled the back plumb off’n that jailhouse.”

 

January threw back her head and laughed as she grabbed for a towel to dry her hands.

 

“Matthew heared bout it and come on up this way to see if’n he could clear thangs up for me.”

 

“So, what happened to the gold?” January asked again, her green eyes sparkling with impatience to hear the end of the story.

 

“Wal, it ended up gettin’ sucked down into a bog out yonder.  Don’t reckon anyone will ever git to it now.”

 

“Don’t make that much never mind, I don’t reckon,” January commented as she took a chair at the table.  “Gold don’t do no good ceptin’ fer allowin’ the buyin’ of a whole bunch a stuff a body could jest as well do without.”

 

Festus smiled.  “Reckon you’re right thar, Miss.”

 

“Got a room right yonder,” January pointed out.  “You’re welcome to sleep thar if’n you’ve a mind.”

 

Festus hesitated.  “Reckon I’d be jest as comfortable in the barn.  Don’t wanna be puttin’ ya out none.”

 

January shrugged, her chestnut hair reflecting the soft glow of the lamp with the slight movement of her shoulders.  “Much obliged for yer hospitality, though.”

 

“Breakfast be at sunup, Dep’ty Festus,” she replied.  “I got lots to be tendin’ to tomorra.”

 

**********

 

Festus and January sat side by side in the farm wagon with an easy amiability as they made their way to Dodge City.  “Hope Mr. Blevins can git me a right good price fer the farm, Dep’ty Festus,” she reflected.  The few items she had wanted to keep, mainly clothing, were neatly packed in two large boxes in the back of the wagon.

 

“You should do plumb fine, Miss January.  It’s been wal kept, that’s plain to see.”

 

“Pa worked hard on the place, no denyin’ thet.  I know I couldn’t keep it up all alone.  ‘Sides, It’d be kinda hard living’ there ‘thout pa or ma around.  I’m ‘fraid I’d get a purty bad case a the lonelies.  Thanks for goin’ all the way to Mullinville with me.  Ya didn’t have to do thet, ya know.”

 

“Ah, fiddle, I didn’t mind takin’ a ride over thar with ya.

 

“Them lawyer fellars and land sellin’ folks, they tend to pay more heed to a man than they do a woman.”

 

“Reckon they allus figger a man has more of a head for bizness and such,” Festus remarked.  “’Cept Miz Kitty.  She’s a fine biznesswoman.  You’ll like it in Dodge, meetin’Miss Kitty and Doc and Matthew.  Why they’s the best friends a body could ever have.”

 

“I ain’t never lived in no big town afore.  Not so sure as how I’ll like it, but I be willin’ ta give it a try.”

 

January made the long and dusty trip a sheer delight with her observations of the simple things surrounding them that Festus usually took for granted.  “Jest look at thet ol’ prairie dog a scootin’ across thet meadow.”  “Oh, Dep’ty Festus, hear them geese ahonkin’ for all the world like they’re leadin’ a parade right acrost the sky.”  “Look et the way them clouds is all piled up on top a each other, just like a tower buildin’ itself clean up to heaven.”  Festus noticed the way her hair sparkled in the sunlight and how the soft curls dancing across her forehead added an extra attractiveness to her already pretty face.  Her form was appealing to a man, and the hillbilly deputy was not above noticing the graceful curves that filled out her cotton dress.  He shook off the funny little twinge that seemed to make his heart beat just a little faster when she turned those green eyes on him in a smile that could take the rain out of a thundercloud.

 

“You cain’t read, can ya, Dep’ty Festus” January stated matter of factly out of the blue.

 

Festus reddened slightly.  “Ah, fiddle, taint that atall, Miss January.  Like I tolt you when you handed me that thar paper, I jest didn’t have my glasses handy, dontcha see.”

 

Festus had tried desperately to cover up his illiteracy when January had handed him a document yesterday morning, explaining to him that it was her father’s will.

 

“I---.”  Suddenly he stopped in mid-sentence.  He knew he couldn’t tell a lie as she turned her trusting gaze toward him, expecting nothing less than the truth.  He swallowed, looked away, then met her emerald eyes.  “No, I caint,” he confessed.  “I jest never did get round ta getting’ me much schoolin’ when I was a young’n,” he hurried to explain.

 

“Ain’t no need to be feelin’ shame ‘bout it, Festus.  My pa and ma couldn’t read none neither.  The onliest way I learnt is cuz my man taught me after I married up with him.”

 

Acutely aware that January had addressed him for the first time without benefit of the title “dep’ty” in front of his name, Festus felt a slight tremor of pleasure make its way up his spine.

 

The setting sun robbed the May sky of its warmth, painting the wispy clouds a soft pink as they fingered their way into the pale blue of the horizon.  January hugged her wrap closer to her body to ward off the sudden chill that permeated the air.  She became quiet, as though putting all of her energy into keeping warm as she moved almost imperceptibly closer to him.  Soon, her breaths became slow and even while strands of silken hair blew against his cheek as the soft, sleeping figure of January Morgansfeld nestled against his shoulder.  Her closeness gave Festus a cozy feeling inside, the kind of feeling he got when he caught Miss Kitty giving his dear friend Matthew one of her special, affectionate looks.

 

**********

Kitty Russell heard the familiar jangle of Festus Haggen’s spurs before his frame appeared at the batwing doors of the Long Branch Saloon.  “Well,” she greeted him with a big smile.  “Welcome home, stranger.”

 

Matt Dillon sat beside the attractive redhead, his long fingers curled around the handle of a mug half full of beer.

 

“You take some time off to go fishing, did you, Festus?” Matt asked, his smile betraying the fact that he was more relieved to see his deputy safe than upset that he was two days later than expected.

 

“Wal, not exactly, Matthew.  Ya see, I met up with this here looksome shemale who kinda----.”

 

Festus was unable to complete the sentence before Matt started choking on the swallow of beer he had just taken.  Kitty tried to cover up Matt’s obvious poor manners by addressing Festus with a subject that always interested him.

 

“Sure looks like you could use a beer, Festus,” she offered.

 

Festus attention, which had been directed at Matt, was suddenly diverted in Kitty’s direction.  “Wal, yes’m, I could at that.  Let me see here.”  He began fishing around in his shirt pocket with all good intentions of producing a coin all three of them knew wasn’t there.

 

“Uh, that’s okay, Festus.  This one is on me.”  Kitty saved Festus the trouble of having to make an excuse for coming up empty handed.  “Sam,” she called.  “Bring Festus a beer, please.”

 

The bartender complied with a big smile for Festus as he placed the beer in front of the deputy.  “Good to see you back, Festus.  We were getting just a bit worried.”

 

“Wal, as I started to say,” Festus gave Matt a sidelong glance before continuing,  “I found this here farmhouse right past where you left me at, Matthew.  Nice place, it was, fields agreenin’ up real nice and chickens plump enuf for Sunday vittles.  Real looksome shemale lives thar, name a January Morgansfeld.”

 

“January?” Kitty and Matt both stated at the same time.

 

“It’s a purty name, onct ya get used to it,” Festus defended.

 

“It does have sort of a ring to it,” Matt admitted, eying Kitty with a secret grin.

 

“She dun lost her pa jest a few days afore I got thar, the last kin she had in these parts.”

 

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Kitty sympathized.

 

“She decided she couldn’t keep the place up all by herself, dontcha see, so she and I went in to Mullinville and got some legal doins’ took care of, and wal, she come on into Dodge with me.”

 

Matt managed to take another swallow of beer without mishap, but his eyes widened to twice their normal size at this announcement from Festus.

 

“Where is she, Festus,” Kitty asked, as though she expected him to say she was hiding behind his chair.

 

“Oh, I dun got her all set up over thar with Ma Smalley, Miz Kitty.  She was gonna freshen up a bit and then head on over here.  I tolt her all bout you and Matthew and ol’ Doc.  She’s awantin’ to meet ya all.”

 

No sooner had Festus completed the statement than a middle-aged woman with chestnut hair pulled back with a pale yellow bow that matched her dress appeared at the batwing doors.  Soft curls framed a gentle face dominated by emerald green eyes that sought someone familiar with the uncertainty of not knowing if she would find him there.  Kitty took note of the stranger, offered her an encouraging smile, and motioned to Festus.  “Looks like this may be your lady friend now.”

 

Festus turned and almost toppled his chair in his haste to vacate it and reach the door where January stood.  “Good evenin’, Miz January,” he greeted her eagerly.  Offering his arm, she took it and smiled up at Festus.

 

Kitty exchanged a brief look with Matt that warned him to be on his best behavior.  Matt responded with a reassuring nod.

 

“Miz Kitty, Matthew, this here is Miz January.”

 

Matt stood to acknowledge the lady’s presence and Kitty reached out warmly and caught her hand in her own.  “Pleasure to meet you, January.”

 

“Pleasure, ma’am,” Matt echoed, tipping his hat as he sat back down.

 

Festus pulled a chair out for January.  “It’s so nice ta be meetin’ ya.  Dep’ty Festus has told me so much bout ya.”

 

“He was just telling us a little bit about you,” Kitty stated.  “Oh, would you like a beer?”

 

“Would I be imposin’ any if I asked for a cup a coffee, Miz Kitty?” January replied uncertainly.

 

“Always have coffee,” she answered.  “Sam, bring the lady a cup of coffee, please.”

 

The four chatted together for quite a while, Kitty and Matt having taken an instant liking to the straightforward and amicable January.  She told them of her trip west four years ago, of the hopes and dreams that never materialized when her husband was taken by the fever during their arduous journey.  “We’d already been married up ten years.  Still, it was powerful hard alosin’ him thataway.  Guess if we know’d how things was gonna be fore we set bout doin’ ‘em, we might jest never set out to do nothin’.  I sppose thet’s why the good Lord don’t let us know haid a time, like.”

 

Matt and Kitty smiled at each other when the couple decided to depart as Festus casually put his arm around January’s waist to escort her out the door of the Long Branch and down the street.

 

**********

 

“Miz Kitty.  Gotta see ya first thang.”  Festus entered the Long Branch and skittered into a chair, peering behind him and out the door like a child trying to avoid the schoolmaster’s whip.

 

“What’s wrong, Festus?” she asked, concern reflecting in her big blue eyes.

 

“It’s Doc, Miz Kitty.  Ya seen im this mornin’?”

 

“No.  I don’t expect to for a while either.  He went out to the Bailey farm last night, said he’d probably be there most of today.  Said he needed to do some minor surgery of some kind on Mr. Bailey, a growth on his arm I think he said.”

 

Festus looked visibly relieved.  “That’s good news.  Gives me a chanct to jaw with ya.  I need hep, Miz Kitty.  And you’re the onliest one ken give it to me.”

 

Kitty raised her eyebrows in surprise.  “My, I didn’t know I was so important.”

 

“Wal, ya blamed sure are.  Now I want Doc to meet Miz January, but you know how he is, with his jawing and a hurrahin’ and pokin’ fun at me all the time.  I don’t want Miz January to be gettin’ the wrong impression a me, don’tcha see?”

 

Kitty kept a straight face so Festus would know she saw the seriousness of the situation.  “Well, how about I have a little talk with him when he gets back to town, Festus.  Will that make you feel better?”

 

“Gollybill, Miz Kitty, that sure would.  If anybody has any influencin’ with that ornery old scudder, it’s you.  Thanks, Miz Kitty.  I need to be agettin’ cleaned up now.  I’ll see ya later.”  He uttered the last as he was exiting out the batwing doors.

 

Festus declaration that he was going to get cleaned up turned out to be a major understatement.  The next time Kitty saw him, she stared in shocked surprise.  She and Matt were just entering Delmonico’s restaurant for a leisurely evening meal when she spotted him in the corner.  The whiskers that usually adorned Festus face were gone and his hair was combed back, barely brushing his collar.  The most striking thing about him, however, was the suit he wore, a pair of tailored black pants with a matching dinner jacket over a white shirt and black tie.  His boots were polished bright enough to mirror a reflection.  Across the table from him sat January, her slim hands encircled in Festus much larger ones.

 

Matt gestured toward the corner.  “There’s Festus.  Shall we join him and January?”  He started to direct her across the room.

 

Kitty jerked Matt’s arm so hard he felt physical pain and responded accordingly with a low moan.  Kitty’s eyes were on fire with indignation as she stared into his.  “What’s the matter with you, Matt,” she hissed.  “Are you so insensitive you can’t see that there’s only one person in Festus’ whole world right now?  They would welcome an interruption about as much as the preacher competing against a brass band in the street on a Sunday morning!”

 

Matt colored as he realized his mistake.  “I guess you’re right at that,” he grumbled as he steered her to a table on the opposite side of the room from where Festus and his companion were seated.

 

“You don’t suppose there’s anything serious between those two?” Matt asked innocently after they had placed their order.

 

“Oh, no, of course not,” Kitty answered.  “People only gaze into each other’s eyes that way for the benefit of other people.  A guy like Festus, he dresses like that every now and again just for the sheer fun of it, you know?”

 

“Alright, alright,” Matt answered, knowing he was being mocked.  “I guess I just never thought of Festus as being – well-,” he touched his hand to his hat, then reached for his glass of water, “romantically inclined.”

 

Kitty shrugged.  “Maybe the right woman never came along before.  You may just find yourself minus a deputy before you know it.”

 

“Now let’s not jump to conclusions.”  Matt scowled at the thought.

 

January and Festus were leaving the restaurant.  They walked across the room, totally oblivious to the presence of the couple who were observing their every move.  January’s arm was firmly tucked into Festus elbow, her green eyes shining like diamonds in the moonlight.  “That was delightful, Festus,” they heard her say as they passed by.

 

“The pleasure was all mine,” came Festus reply as they exited onto the street.

 

Matt smiled.  “Don’t hardly seem like Festus without those spurs jangling.”

 

“He sure is a changed man.  It’s amazing what a woman can do for a man.”  She met his eyes and her face lit up at Matt’s reply.

 

“You’ll get no argument about that from me.”

 

“We might better finish our meal and get back to the Long Branch, Matt.”  Kitty wore a worried look on her face.  “Doc’s liable to be there, and if Festus and January stop by, well---.”

 

Matt nodded agreement.  “Could make it kind of rough on old Festus, couldn’t it.  All depends on the mood Doc’s in.”

 

“I had a talk with him when he came into town this afternoon, but you know how stubborn Doc is.  You can’t tell him how to behave, no matter what the circumstances.”

 

Kitty and Matt hurried through the rest of their dinner, both of them feeling the slightest bit uneasy about what might lay in store for Festus and January if they encountered the acerbic Doc Adams.

 

They need not have worried.  It was a good hour later when Doc entered the Long Branch saloon.  He made his way to the table where Matt and Kitty and Festus and January sat, engaged in light-hearted conversation.  He smiled as he heard the chuckles that escaped from the midst of the group.  “Can anyone join this party, or do you have to have a special invitation?” he asked, reaching for his ear with one hand as he pulled a chair out from the table with the other.

 

“Golly bill, Doc, whar ya been?” Festus asked.

 

“Working.  That’s where I’ve been.  And trying to get a little rest after a hard day of labor,” he snapped.  “And just what are you doing all dressed up like the president’s coming to town?”  Suddenly, as his gaze fell on January, sitting next to Festus, his face broke into a smile.  “Say, who’s this fine lady?”

 

“Wal, Doc, that’s what I been a tryin’ to tell ya,” Festus responded eagerly.  “This here is Miz January Morgansfeld, and I been a tellin’ her how you’s one a my bestest friends and she’s been awantin’ to meet ya, Doc.  January, this here’s Doc Adams.  He does all the doctorin’ for this here whole territory pritnear.”  Festus motioned with his hands in a grand gesture to demonstrate a wide area.

 

Doc stood up and took January’s hand in his.  “Well, Miss, it surely is a pleasure to meet you.  I’ve been hearing stirrings since I got back about a new lovely lady in town.  Now I can see why Festus is dressed the way he is.  If I were in the company of someone so lovely, I would be too.”  January blushed at Doc’s effusive compliment and Festus “ah, fiddle,” brought smiles to the faces of Kitty and Matt.

 

“Now, Miss Kitty, here, she’s been the loveliest lady in town for so long that, well, it’s good to see a little competition.”  He winked at January.  She looked at Kitty and they both laughed.  Kitty visibly relaxed as Doc turned on the charm and welcomed January into their little group of friends as openly as Kitty and Matt had.

 

**********

 

Festus never spoke to Matt on any personal level about January, but the marshal made it a point to see that the deputy had one day off without question every week.  Festus and January were often seen on that special day headed out of town early in the morning in a rented buggy, and they usually did not return until the moon was sitting high in the sky.  No one questioned where they went on their private excursions.  Many speculated on what happened between them, but no one ventured to ask.  Sometimes, Festus deposited a string of fish at Doc’s door, and one time, he beseeched Kitty to fix a fish dinner for the five of them.  Kitty gladly obliged and the evening turned out to be one of laughter and joke telling for all.

 

Kitty was shocked when January came to her asking for a job.  “Oh, not as one of your fancy ladies that entertains the cowboys,” she explained shyly.  “I could never be any good at thet.  I cain’t even stand the taste a whiskey,” she laughed.  “But I can do right good at sewin’.”  She produced a dress that took Kitty’s breath away.

 

“You did this?” Kitty asked in astonishment, admiring the intricate stitching on the ornate dress.

 

“My ma learned me how to sew when I was just a young’n.  I thought as how with yer girls allus wearin’ such pretty dresses, mebbe you could use a hand in keepin’ ‘em dressed in new outfits.”

 

Kitty was happy to have an extra hand available to keep the girls properly attired, knowing that Ann Madison was often overwhelmed with seamstress work.  January worked on her sewing by day, spending many afternoons in the upstairs rooms at the Long Branch, fitting the girls for their new clothing.  Kitty’s girls all liked January, laughed with her, joked with her, listened to her words of wisdom, offered her some of their own, used her as a shoulder to cry on when the occasion warranted.  Her appeal stemmed from the fact that she seemed ageless, having retained many of the qualities of youth despite the tragedies she had experienced since moving to the west.

 

Her evenings were spent with Festus.  They enjoyed leisurely walks through the quiet town and sometimes were content to sit and visit in front of Ma Smalley’s boarding house.  Other evenings were spent in the company of their good friends, Kitty and Matt and Doc, Festus spinning some wild tale while he enjoyed his beer as January listened with appreciative smiles and occasional laughter and sipped a cup of coffee.  Doc had become much more comfortable around the new member of their friendship circle and therefore didn’t spare Festus one moment of the teasing that delighted him no end.  January joined in the fun, somehow subtly defending Festus in such a way as to preserve his pride without dampening the spirit of the lively group.  Kitty and Matt looked on, often exchanging glances with each other, trying to read in January and Festus countenance just exactly what was going on between the two, but both came away feeling bewildered.

 

**********

 

It was one of those quietly idyllic evenings, that time of night in the Long Branch when the main swell of activity had settled down.  A couple of cowboys leaned leisurely against the bar, exchanging pleasantries with Sam as he cleaned up and restocked.  An occasional grunt of disgust could be heard from a corner table amid the throwing down of cards and the clink of coins as a poker game continued its progress.  Suddenly, gunshots and the angry shouts of men from down the street shattered the peace, which had reigned over Dodge City for nearly six weeks.

 

Matt and Festus jumped up and ran for the batwings almost simultaneously in an attempt to make sense of what was happening.

 

“The bank!” Cad Mulhaney hollered as he saw the two lawmen exiting the Long Branch.  “They just come out that back winder and run down the alley, marshal.  They had a sackful of money with ‘em, I’d swear to it!”

 

Matt turned in time to see two horsemen disappearing around the corner at a gallop.

 

“One of ‘em took a shot at me when he seen me.  I tried to stop ‘em, marshal, but I don’t think I hit either one of ‘em.”

 

“You hurt at all, Cad,” Matt asked the excited man.

 

“No, marshal, I’m fine.”

 

“Festus.”  Matt turned to his deputy who was already making his way down the street and toward the livery stable.

 

“I’ll get the horses, Matthew.”  Five minutes later, Matt met his deputy in front of his office where he hastily tied bedrolls behind the saddles of his horse Buck and Festus’ mule Ruth.  They left town at a canter, waving a good-bye to Kitty, January, and Doc who stood at the door of the Long Branch watching their rapid departure.

 

**

 

Kitty sat at a table at the Long Branch near the door, sipping a cup of coffee and chatting with Doc as she prepared her paperwork for the morning bank deposit.  “Well, Kitty, I need to be heading on out to Jed Bailey’s place this morning.  I need to check that arm and be sure it’s coming along the way it should be.”

 

“Alright, Doc,” she answered without looking up.  “Come on by when you get back to town.  I’ll buy you a drink.”

 

Doc glanced at the door in time to see January as she entered.  “Looks like I timed that just right.  Here’s some delightful company to replace this old sour puss.”

 

Kitty glanced up and smiled with pleasure as January came over and took the seat Doc had vacated.  “Bye, Doc,” she smiled at him.

 

“I’ll bet you could use some coffee,” Kitty offered.

 

She nodded her head.  “Sounds fine.”  Kitty filled a cup and set it down in front of January, then picked up her pen to put the finishing touches on the bank deposit slip.  “Mary Lou is tickled about that green dress you’re making for her.  She told me she’s wanted a dress that color all her life.  She couldn’t believe it when she saw the material at Jonas’ store.”

 

Kitty looked up when January didn’t answer.  “The last thing on your mind is that dress right now, I’d say.”

 

January was staring off into space, her coffee untouched.  “What?” she asked with a start, realizing Kitty had been speaking to her.

 

“What’s on your mind?  Something’s bothering you.”

 

“Oh, I reckon I’m a mite lonely, Kitty.  Festus and the marshal been gone fer two whole days.  I’ve gone an’ let myself go to missin’ ‘im, I ‘spect.”

 

“I know the feeling,” she sympathized.  “Believe me.”

 

“Ya reckon they’ll be back later today, mebbe?”

 

“I doubt it.  It all depends on how long it takes them to catch up with those bank robbers.  Could be another day, could be a week.  Then, if Matt or Festus should be---.”  She decided against completing the thought, seeing the worried look that clouded January’s face.

 

“How do you go ‘bout reckonin’ with it, Kitty.  I mean, me and Festus, we’re just good friends, but you and the marshal, well, he bein’ yer man an’ all.”

 

Kitty sighed, took a sip of coffee, and slowly lowered the cup to the table.  “I’ve said good-bye to Matt a hundred times,” she reflected, “and it doesn’t get any easier.  Every hour he’s gone seems like a month.  My heart’s in my mouth each time a stranger comes in for fear he’s got bad news.  I can’t hardly breathe until I see that big cowboy ride back into town.  When he’s hurt, a part of me kind of dies until I know he’s going to recover, then I start wondering about next time.”  She sighed again, a heavy sigh that carried the memories of a lot of years.

 

“I reckoned it’d be ‘bout like that fer ya.  Me and Festus, folks been wonderin’ ‘bout us, have they?”

 

Kitty smiled, pulled out of her despondency by January’s innocent question.  “Oh, you might say there’s been some speculation.”

 

“Truth is, Festus and I have a secret.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“You good at keepin’ secrets, are ya, Kitty?  Ya gotta promise not to tell Festus I tolt ya.”

 

January’s green eyes met Kitty’s blue ones, seeking the trust a child would look for in a best friend.  “Your secret is safe with me, I swear it.”  Kitty lifted her hand as though taking the oath in a courtroom.

 

“Ya know all them trips we been takin’ outa town.  First time we left town, we was alookin’ fer a nice quiet place where no one was like to come along and be disturbin’ us like, ya see.  We found what we wuz alookin’ fer, alright.  Little place ‘bout two miles from here where the river kinda runs over these here rocks, makes music for the birds ta sing to.  Thar’s some trees protects us from the sun by day and the grass be so soft an’ green.  A body can take his shoes off an’ lie back and relax and watch the clouds all day if’n he’s a mind.  That is, if’n he don’t have better thangs ta do like me an’ Festus, thet is.  It’s so secret like, we don’t have no worries bout’ someone findin’ us when we’re doin’ somethin’ personal.”

 

Kitty covered January’s hand with her own to hide her embarrassment at the other woman’s anticipated account of their activities.  “You don’t have to tell me everything that goes on between you, you know.”

 

“Fact is, I been teachin’ Festus how to read.”

 

Kitty drew back her hand and covered her mouth with it as her eyes widened in shock.  She couldn’t have been more surprised if January had told her straight out what Kitty had thought the conversation was leading up to in the first place.

 

“You what?  How did you ever manage that?”

 

January laughed.  “He tolt me how you and the marshal and even Doc had tried to get him to learn.  He even give me thet line ‘bout how he didn’t know folks what wrote the readin’ wrote the readin’ right.  Well, I found an argument for thet.  Tolt him it be a sin if’n he don’t believe what was writ’ in the Good Book, so we been reain’ out’n it.”

 

“Well, for heaven’s sake.  I must say, you’ve accomplished more with him than any of us ever could.”

 

“Don’t ya be atellin’ ‘im ya know, now, Kitty.  He kin be funny, Festus kin, and he don’t want nobody aknowin’ right away.”

 

**********

 

Three more long days dragged by before Festus and Matt finally returned to town, one prisoner in tow and a dead body slung over the back of Matt’s horse.

 

“Prisoner’s name is Hank Beal,” Matt informed the curious group gathered at the Long Branch for a much needed beer.  “He’s only a drifter that got hooked into this deal.  I don’t think Judge Brooker will give him too stiff a sentence, maybe a year or two in jail since the money was recovered and no one was hurt.”

 

“He give up soon’s we caught up with ‘em,” Festus explained.  “They sure give us the slip right off.  They was the slipperdiest outlaws Matthew and me dun tracked in a long time, ain’t that right, Matthew?”

 

“They had us on the trail long enough,” Matt agreed.  “Probably the reason Jack Stone got away with so many bank robberies.  No one ever stuck with trailing him long enough to catch him before.”

 

“Jack Stone!”  Doc exclaimed.  “Why, he’s one of the most notorious bank robbers in the northern territory.  What was he doing clear down here?”

 

“Don’t know, Doc, but it was a mistake.  Turned out to be the last one he’ll ever make.”

 

“Wal, I’m glad ya both be back safe.”  January reached over and took Festus hand in hers.  “it gets lonely for womenfolk when menfolk ain’t around.”

 

“I take exception to that.”  Doc gestured vehemently with his beer.

 

“Oh, now, Doc, you know we always appreciate your company and your attention,” Kitty soothed.  “It’s just that, well, you’ve been so busy, we haven’t hardly seen you all week.”

 

Doc pulled on his ear and rubbed his hand across his mustache.  “Well, I suppose that’s true,” he conceded.

 

Nathan Burke appeared at the batwing doors, peered inside, then entered the Long Branch and strode directly toward Matt.  He removed the deputy badge from his shirt and handed it to him.  “Town was real quiet while you and Festus were gone, marshal.”

 

“That’s good news, Burke.  Thanks for looking after things for me.”

 

“Heard you got Jack Stone.  Quite a feather in your cap, marshal.  The law’s been after him for months, I’ve heard.”

 

“Well, I think he operated in areas where there wasn’t much law.  He was a slick one, though.”

 

Burke continued to hover, waiting for an invitation to sit down that was not offered by any of the close-knit group sitting at the table.  “You going to go to the bar and order a beer, or are you just going to stand around staring at us all night?” Doc asked irritably.

 

“Oh, I suppose I could, Doc.  I just came in to return the marshal his badge.”

 

“You already did that,” Doc reminded him as he swiped his mustache.

 

“Well, I know, Doc.  Oh, I almost forgot.  I have something here for Miss January.”

 

January looked at him in surprise.  “For me?”

 

“If you have something for the lady, Burke, give it to her,” Doc ordered gruffly.

 

Burke fished in his shirt pocket, pulled out a piece of paper, and handed it to January.  “Telegram for you, Miss.  All the way from St. Louis.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Burke.”

 

“I suppose you know every word it says, too,” Doc snapped.

 

“No, I don’t, Doc,” Burke protested.  “Barney took it down.  I told him I’d bring it over here for him and see if Miss January was here with Festus.  Think I’ll just go on over and get that beer.”  He backed away, keeping one eye on Doc as though he feared the physician might strike at him like a rattlesnake.

 

Matt, Kitty, Doc, and Festus attempted light conversation, then fell into an uneasy silence as January read the paper in her hands.  Her fingers shook as she read the words, folded the paper, and looked up, a vacant stare clouding her eyes.

 

“Bad news, is it?” Festus asked, breaking the silence.

 

She didn’t answer immediately.  Rather, she took a deep breath, glanced up at Kitty, and turned to Festus.  “I b’lieve I’m ready to be headin’ fer home now, Festus.”

 

“Yes’m,” he replied, jumping up hurriedly, betraying the tension he was feeling.  January waved and mumbled good-bye in response to the farewell comments of the threesome who were left.

 

Festus held January’s hand as they made their way down the street and across to Ma Smalley’s boarding house.  She sat down on the step and motioned him to take a seat beside her.  Slowly, she lifted her hand to his face and touched his cheek.  “Festus,” she began, then looked away.

 

Festus caught her chin in the palm of his hand and turned her to face him.  “January, tell me.  What is it?”  His eyes searched the serious lines that had chased away all the sunshine in her usually bright smile.

 

“It’s my Aunt Clare in St. Louis. She be ailin’.  She needs me to go to her fer a spell.  I gotta go, Festus.  She’s my ma’s only sister.  We be owin’ her a lot.  She hepped us onct when we was needin’ it real bad, my ma and pa and me.”  She buried her face in her hands and shook her head from side to side.  “I gotta go.”

 

Festus put his arm around her shoulders and drew her close to him.  “I reckon ya do.  Kin needin’ kin, that’s a mighty powerful thang.”

 

January uncovered her face and wiped a tear from her eye with the back of her hand.  “Reckon I’ll buy me a ticket in the mornin’ fer thet noon stage goes east.  It be a long trip.  Best git to it.”

 

Festus patted her shoulder.  “I reckon it ain’t gonna be no easier asayin’ good-bye tomorra than any other day.”

 

She leaned her head against his chest and let the tears she had been holding in check soak into his shirt.  “Don’t seem thet long ago I tolt you if’n we could see how thangs was gonna turn out, we might never do nuthin’.”

 

Festus nodded.  “I remember.  But ya know what.  Even tho’ I’ll be missin’ ya terrible, I wouldn’t trade this time we’ve had together fer nuthin’ in this whole world.  Never quite knowed no shemale like you afore.”

 

“Ya found me when I was havin’ some hard times, ya did.  Brung me ta yer town, made me welcome.  You and yer friends took me into yer hearts, made me feel like I belonged somewhars.  Made me feel like I had a home, even tho’ I didn’t have no more kina my own round abouts.  I”ll not be soon forgettin’, Festus.”

 

“Dodge’ll always be here, January.  So will we, most likely.”

 

She smiled.  “I’ll be rememberin’ thet, I will.”

 

*********

 

January and Festus held hands like high school sweethearts saying good-bye for the summer as they stood at the stage depot, sharing their last few moments together.

 

“Dun bought somethin’ fer ya, thought it might hep ya remember me.”  Self-consciously, he pulled a small box out of his pocket and placed it in January’s hand.

 

She stared at it for a long moment, then met his eyes as she blinked back tears from her own.

 

“Well, ya might as well go to work an’ open it.  See if ya like it leastways.”

 

She smiled through her tears and lifted the lid off the small box.  Inside sat a pin of gold adorned with five small green stones.  “Oh, Festus,” was all she could say as she choked up.

 

“Mr. Jonas tells me that be real gold.  Kinda reminded me of the value of us bein’ friends, ya know, precious as gold.  Them green stones, they match the green a yer eyes.  They’s five of ‘em, jest like there was allus five of us at the Long Branch, you and me and Miss Kitty and Matthew and ol’ Doc.”

 

January threw her arms around Festus neck, oblivious to any activity going on around them in the street.  She pressed her lips to his cheek and he caught her hands in his and brought them to his lips.

 

“Oh, I almost forgot myself.”  She reached into a pocket of her bag and brought out a small item.  “I didn’t pay cash money for this, got it from the preacher over yonder at the church, but I know it’ll have meanin’ fer ya.”  She pressed the item into his hands.  “It oughta fit right in yer pocket, so’s ya can allus carry it around.”

 

Festus looked down at his hands.  There sat a book, bound in black with red edging to the pages, the gold letters “The Book of Psalms” embossed into the leather.  Festus swallowed hard as he caressed the lettering with his fingers.

 

“There be some right purty words in them Psalms alright.  Don’t reckon I’d aknowed ‘bout any of ‘em if it warn’t fer you.”

 

The stage came rushing in amid a cloud of dust and the noise of horses’ hooves pounding the hard-packed street.

 

“Reckon you’ll ever tell ‘em?” January asked.

 

“Tell who what?” he asked as he handed her bags to the driver to be stored on top of the coach.

 

“Tell Doc an’ the marshal an’ Miss Kitty thet ya ken read.”

 

He smiled.  “I think not.  Mebbe Miss Kitty one a these days.  She ken keep secrets purty good.”  January’s eyes sparkled as she smiled with the knowledge that she was able to attest to that fact.

 

It was that smile and the many that had gone before that remained etched in Festus memory long after the dust settled behind the departing stage.  Smiles and a pair of green eyes that sparkled and danced like the rays of the setting sun on a rippling river.

 

***********

 

“I’m worried about him, Kitty.”  Matt leaned over the bar, beer in hand, his forehead furrowed with lines of concern.

 

“He needs time, Matt.  Give him a few more days.  He’ll come around.”

 

“You know, I was sure he’d at least let me read that letter January sent him from St Louis.  I know he’d rather die than ask Doc to read it.  Unless he’s asked you?”  His eyes seemed to light up with a sudden understanding.

 

“No.  He hasn’t asked me.  What did he say when you gave it to him?”

 

“Well, he opened it, kind of scanned it, and then folded it back up and put it in his pocket.  When I offered to read it, he said something about being happy to know his name was at the top and hers at the bottom.  That was it.”

 

“I don’t think you have much to worry about.  I have a feeling Festus knows a lot more about what was in that letter than you give him credit for.”

 

Both turned toward the door as the unmistakable jangle of a certain pair of spurs mixed with the voices of Festus and Doc.

 

“So yer a tellin’ me I should buy me a lota land case January comes back to Dodge, Doc, but ya ain’t tolt me yet what ta do with a lota land if’n she don’t.  Now, a little land, mebbe I could see that, ya see.”

 

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes,” Doc answered as he tugged at his ear.  “Let me buy you a beer so you’ll hush up for a minute.  A man can’t even think with you jabbering all the time.”

 

“Now, Doc, just a blamed minute---.”

 

Matt, who had turned to the door at the sound of the familiar bantering between the two old friends turned back to Kitty with a relieved look on his face.  “How do you know?”  he asked quietly.

 

“Know what?”

 

“That Festus knows what was in the letter?”

 

Kitty smiled.  “A girl can’t be expected to reveal all her secrets.  Now, cowboy, drink your beer.”

 

*****END*****

 

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