Trail herds thundered past Dodge City's hind end to the stockyards, shrouding the town in prairie dust under a big and shining full moon, and the vast midnight sky teemed with stars to light the drovers' way. Pianola music filled the crisp autumn air in a ceaseless din, mingling with raucous voices and drunken laughter. Aside from the scant respite when a slumberous hush engulfed Dodge for roughly two hours before daybreak, a hodgepodge of folks swarmed the streets on foot and horseback, in wagons and buggies, sunup to nightfall to sunup.
With his easy deliberate gait, Marshal Dillon trod the boardwalks amid unending labor and revelry, socializing, sparkin' and curious wandering, or simply resting out-of-doors on chairs and benches lining the walks, and swings behind the hotels and rooming houses. Matt walked his rounds at harvest season with the town busy and boisterous, not minded to stay awake and wait until four o'clock in the morning when the bustle died down and the windows went dark.
As his vigilant blue eyes scoped the plains beyond Dodge from the back street, he saw a tall lean man running unsteadily through the grass and looking over his shoulder. Matt halted. The fellow raced toward him, though Dillon could tell the man didn't see him. The man was making a guttural sound that oddly pricked Matt's heart. He rushed right by, his gaze sweeping blindly past the marshal. "Councilman Dankworth," Matt said.
The man stopped his headlong flight and whirled to face Matt as cattle bellowing and the rumble of hooves signaled a herd approaching from the east, headed for the corrals. Dankworth jerked his head around to look at the cattle and turned back again to Matt, his eyes wide and wild, and Matt realized what the desperate throaty noise was. Seeing the marshal had stunned the man into cutting off his weeping.
Then Dankworth, at thirty-eight years old the town's wealthiest, most influential councilman, ran straight into the path of the herd. Dillon ran after him, grabbed and pulled him to safety on the boardwalk. "Councilman, what happened?" Matt kept firm hold of the man's shoulders.
"I wanted to kill myself, Marshal," Dankworth gasped. "Just now."
"He murdered Carol. I found her body yonder on the prairie," said Dankworth, his voice hoarse and shaking. The crazed look had faded from his eyes, which appeared stricken and at the same time icy blue in the silvery light from the moon and stars. Matt had never looked so closely at the councilman before. A chilling hardness overlay the grief in the depths of his eyes, a look the lawman had seen many times. Taken aback, Matt let go of Dankworth's shoulders.
"Carol Wren? She's been murdered?" said the marshal.
Dankworth nodded. His mouth tightened and his handsome features quivered, his lean face taut. "You said he killed her. Who," said Matt.
"I saw Chester hurrying away from where she lay on the ground. Then I saw her."
"Chester didn't kill her, Dankworth," Matt said sternly, his eyes boring into the councilman's. "Where is she?"
"I'll show you. It had to be Chester, Marshal," said Dankworth as he led Matt through the grass. "Carol fell in love with me and she wanted nothing more to do with him. So he either lured or dragged her out on the prairie and killed her."
Matt knew Carol loved Chester and he did not feel the same about her, despite her beauty and good temper. The twenty-one-year-old Long Branch gal was a lady of the night whose whole head and heart cleaved to men who attracted her, usually several at once. Her passions left no room in her life for anything else. Chester was fond of the girl and befriended her without going sweet on her.
Carol stayed in a room on the saloon's second floor, and Matt had seen Chester go up and down the stairs with her, and walk in and out of Carol's room in her company. Kitty said Chester never paid the girl, and Carol always did the asking.
The arrangement pleased Kitty, who saw nothing troubling or out of the way in it. "Carol's a sweet girl," she said. "She keeps Chester from getting lonely. And even though he doesn't love her, he needs a woman and she's crazy for him."
Chester and Kitty told Matt that Carol had no feelings for Councilman Dankworth, and he hounded her to quit her job and move to Dodge House as his kept woman and his alone. Stokely Dankworth was married. He paid Carol generously for her services and bought her costly gifts.
"Carol didn't love you, Dankworth," said Matt as he followed the councilman over the moonlit prairie. "You kill her?"
The councilman startled, pivoted on his boot heel and glared at the marshal. "How dare you. I loved her passionately." Dankworth's eyes watered and a rivulet spilled over each of his cheeks. "Chester did it, I tell you. He was insanely jealous because Carol was starting to love me."
Dillon stared him down, and Dankworth turned and walked on. Matt saw the girl's body before they reached her. Her skin, creamy and flawless in life, glowed bluish-white in the moonlight. She lay on her back, her head twisted to the side and resting in the grass, abundant waving hair the color of ripe corn tangled and loosened from its pins and combs. Matt saw from the position of her head that her neck was broken, and someone had straightened her bare arms and legs, neatened her barroom dress and likely closed her eyes after death. However Carol came to be there, she'd gone out without a wrap, though the night was brisk.
A stranger to the young woman would have left her body the way she died. Matt figured she knew the man who killed her, and felt in his gut that man stood next to him, staring raptly at her lifeless body. But the marshal had no proof. "Go home, Dankworth," he said.
"What about Carol?"
"Doc will examine her body," said Matt.
"Why? She's dead."
"She was murdered, Councilman. Doc will determine what happened to her, help me find out why she was killed and who did it."
"I told you who did it and why. Are you going to arrest Chester?"
"No. I'd arrest you if I had any evidence you killed her."
"You don't. No one saw—" Dankworth choked off midsentence. "I mean . . . no one saw me kill her since it wasn't me. It was Chester, and you had best jail him if you want to keep wearing that badge, Dillon. I have close associations with Attorney General Williams' office in Washington. If you refuse to do your job on account of Chester's your friend and assistant, I'll report this myself."
"You'll report nothing, Dankworth."
"You can't stop me."
"Maybe not. But if you write headquarters claiming Chester had anything to do with this girl's murder, I'll beat you near to death. I'll catch you alone like you caught Carol, and there'll be no one around to see or hear it," said Matt.
Dankworth paled. "You wouldn't dare."
"I mean it, Councilman. Go home before I bust your hide now."
"Don't you talk that way to me. You're nothing but a common brute, Dillon."
Having said what needed saying, the marshal ignored the insult. If the councilman's words held some little truth, no matter. Matt would say—or do—what he had to, to protect Chester. Dankworth could go home to his wife or drink himself comatose in a saloon. Matt was done with him for the night. The marshal picked up Carol's body and carried her toward Doc's.
He walked a few yards and turned on impulse, looking back to where he'd left the councilman. Dankworth lay sprawled on his belly in the grass where Carol died. His wailing drifted to Matt's ears on the cold night wind.
Doc locked the front door of his office every night before going to bed, and Matt's shouting on the landing outside rousted him from a sound sleep. He pulled his pants on over his nightshirt, lit the lamp and opened the door.
"It's Carol Wren, Doc. She was murdered."
"You know who did it?" Doc asked as Matt lay Carol's body on the table. Doc used that table for autopsies, examinations and surgeries, as well as a sickbed for patients. He cleaned the table with lye soap and hot water after each use, and only officials, dandies and highborn ladies complained about being checked and tended on a table where they heard the dead had lain, at times as long as a night and day together.
"Don't know for sure, but I think it was Stokely Dankworth," said Matt.
"Dankworth. The councilman?"
"He says he saw Chester running from the spot where he found Carol's body. Dankworth blames him for her murder," said Matt.
Doc paused in his examination of the body to frown up at Matt. "If Dankworth says that, he's a durn liar. I don't care if he is a rich highfalutin councilman. If Chester saw Carol or anyone lying dead, he'd of found you or come to me by now. He had nothing to do with this girl's murder. You know that, don't you?"
"Of course I do, Doc. I'm worried Dankworth might spread the lie around town that Chester killed Carol. He said he'd report it to the attorney general's office if I don't jail Chester."
"Well, you're not gonna jail him, are you?" Doc snapped. "You can't let Dankworth write that report, Matt!"
"Take it easy, Doc. I hope I scared him out of writing it."
"How d'you scare him."
"Threatened to beat 'im within an inch of his life," said Matt.
"You should've shot him dead. If Dankworth does send a report to Washington and the attorney general's office believes him, they'll order that Chester stand trial for Carol's murder. We can't let that happen, Matt. I'll travel with Chester to Canada myself if I have to, and shoot any man who tries to stop us, lawman or no."
"I won't let them put Chester on trial, Doc. They'd only have Dankworth's false testimony to make a case against him, and Dankworth can't testify if he's dead," said Matt.
"You gonna kill 'im?" said Doc.
"I'll rile him into drawing on me if I have to," Matt said. "He's no fast gun."
"Well, I hope you do, Matt, and not just for Chester. Dankworth took this poor girl forcibly before he broke her neck. There are marks on her lower body made by a man's fist, and her undergarment is ripped to shreds."
"I don't want to kill Dankworth. I'd rather arrest him if I can find any evidence he murdered Carol. I think he did it in a fit of rage and he's sorry, Doc. He was weeping. Threw himself keening in the dirt where her body was. But killing him is better than banishing Chester to Canada or Mexico as a fugitive from justice the rest of his life."
"Course it is," Doc agreed. "And in case Dankworth won't take the bait and rile up enough to draw on you, it's gotta be Canada for Chester. He doesn't speak Spanish."
"Shouldn't be too hard to learn," said Matt.
"Would be for Chester. He'd only get in trouble in Mexico. Can you imagine it?" Doc shook his head as he washed his hands in the basin.
"I'm tryin' not to," said Matt.
"What're you gonna do now, Matt?"
"Get a few hours sleep and tell Chester and Kitty about Carol's death when they wake up. I'll have the undertaker send his wagon and I'll talk to Sylvia Dankworth. Could be her husband told her something that could incriminate him."
Matt spent the early morning hours before daybreak at the marshal's office. Men wrapped in bedrolls on the floor crowded the jail cells. Matt opened the door to the jail and looked at them. A scruffy lot with three bandits and a gun for hire in their midst, they looked helpless in slumber, their snoring a chorus filling the jail.
Matt closed the door and looked at Chester under a blanket on his bunk. A sound sleeper, he hadn't stirred at the marshal's arrival. A short time from now, Matt would face the hard duty of telling Chester his friend Carol Wren was murdered. Though he hadn't loved the girl, Chester was compassionate and cared deeply for all his friends. And he was tendersome.
Matt spread a bedroll on the office floor, lay down with his boots on, crossed his legs and linked his fingers behind his head. The faint strains of Red River Valley wafted through the cracked-open windows, the mournful notes letting listeners know a musician and not the pianola played the song. Matt was tired yet not sleepy. Wide awake, he doubted if he'd sleep at all before sunup. He'd rest his body about three hours anyway.
He waited until Chester washed up and shaved, and helped his assistant tend the prisoners. Chester's eyes were shadowed and he drooped, needing coffee. Before eating and drinking, Matt and Chester always fed the prisoners and gave them coffee.
Chester fixed another pot for himself and the marshal and sat at the table, yawning over his cup. "Sure is wearyin', tendin' them men. Iffen I don't eat soon, ah'll slither to the floor 'n melt 'way in a puddle," he grumbled.
"We need to talk before we eat, Chester," said Matt. "Then you can have breakfast while I see Kitty."
"What did I do wrong, now," Chester sighed.
"Nothing. You're workin' hard. I haven't taken you to task for anything in a spell that I recollect," said Matt.
"No, you ain't done that, Mr. Dillon." Chester heaved another sigh at the thought. He hated being taken to task.
As the prisoners were still eating their breakfast, Matt left the jail door open to the morning light shining through the office windows, and told Chester to sit outside with him. Someone had pilfered the chairs in front of the office, so the marshal and his friend sat on the edge of the boardwalk.
Matt looked straight ahead at the Front Street traffic, smelling the fresh piquant odor of ubiquitous harvest-time prairie dust and tasting the grit that somehow made its way onto his tongue. "Carol Wren was murdered last night," he said.
He heard a sharp hitch of breath from Chester, but didn't look at him. "Murdered," he said.
Matt waited for him to say more, but Chester said nothing. Though Dillon did not believe for an instant that his friend was in any way involved in Carol's murder, the marshal needed to know if Chester had either seen her body or witnessed her death, and kept it to himself for some inexplicable reason of his own. Matt cared for Chester like a brother, but didn't fully understand him. Times the marshal couldn't get a purchase on what went on in Chester's head to prompt him to talk and act in odd ways.
Matt patiently waited, watching the horses and wagons and buggies. He'd learned as a lawman that an effective way of getting information was to relate the significant incident in a case and follow it up with silence, which compelled most people to reveal what they knew, even if unintentionally. What Matt forgot as a friend was Chester's tendency not to lead out in such things of import, unless while helping or protecting another.
Matt heard Chester crying, and looked at him as he pulled a bandanna from his pocket and dabbed his eyes. His tears touched Matt in a soft place which he kept swathed undisturbed. Two women passing by with shopping baskets hesitated, giving Chester a sympathetic look and Matt a questioning glance. The marshal looked up at them from his seat on the boardwalk and touched his hat brim with a slight reassuring grin. The women nodded, smiling a little in return, and walked on.
Matt patted Chester's shoulder and waited some more. Chester blew his nose, balled up the bandanna and put it back in his pocket, let out a quiet sigh and gazed at the Front Street activity as the marshal had a moment ago. Matt realized his friend might sit not moving or speaking for hours. Chester had suffered a shock.
Matt thought of Doc without at once knowing why. "I think Stokely Dankworth did it," said the marshal. "I saw him running from the place on the prairie where Carol died."
"He done it alright," said Chester. "Never quit plaguing poor Carol to be jest his own woman scarce two hours together. An' Dankworth got forceful with her. She tole me he slapped her and yanked her roun' whilst they . . . you know, in her room. I threatened 'im so's he'd leave her be, but he dint pay me no mind.
"Carol said she was gone tell Dankworth she wanted no more part of 'im. She said the money 'n fancy gifts he give for room visits wasn't worth 'is houndin' her crazy like he done. What'd he do to her, Mr. Dillon? To make her die." Chester's brown eyes filled again as he asked the question.
"He broke her neck after he attacked— was with her by force," said Matt.
"Oh heavens." Chester swiped at his eyes and sniffled, and Matt patted him again. "Carol was such a pretty, sweet l'il gal. An' she loved me. Dun know why she loved me, but she did. I mighta loved her back, too, if not for her job an' the way she made my chest feel tight so's I could scarce draw a deep breath . . . . Twern't in a good way, onliest thing. She made me feel smothery like, poor girl. She had no affections for Dankworth, though, 'cept thinkin' 'im handsome, so he dint feel none a that roun' her. He wanted her for his own like mad."
"Chester, Dankworth claims he saw you running from Carol's body," said Matt.
"He says I did it, did he?" said Chester.
"Yes. He says Carol fell in love with him and lost her feelings for you, and you were jealous," said Matt.
"I done tole you how 'twas, Mr. Dillon. You b'lieve me or Dankworth?"
"Then you knew nothing about Carol's death until just now when I told you?"
His round eyes moist, red-rimmed and fused with intense feeling, Chester met Matt's searching gaze. "Yes, sir. I knew nothin' 'bout her death 'til jest now."
"I believe you," said Matt. "You alright to breakfast alone at Delmonico's?"
Matt handed his friend a quarter and stood up, Chester following suit. "You ain't et, neither," said Chester.
"I'll eat later," said Matt. "I need to tell Kitty about Carol's murder, and talk to Sylvia Dankworth."
"Mr. Dillon? Dankworth's an important councilman. A moneyed man 'n sech. He gonna make trouble accusing me?"
"He might try, Chester. Don't worry. I won't let him make trouble for you."
"How you aim to stop him?" said Chester.
"Any way I have to."