Men robbed and beat quiet Colm Tilden when he left Boston as a wealthy heir to journey West, so he learned to draw a gun faster than most and dead on target. Those who forced him to kill them trailed the bitter smoke of memory as he wandered the frontier through a dark span of years, until at age thirty-five he knew he must seize the ghosts in his wake and give them substance, or lose his reason. He molded their pain and fear, blood and corpses into words which formed tales of horror.
Tilden drifted to Dodge House, where he lived in comfort from the sale of his deceased father's iron foundry. The money would last him all his days and then some, even if he lived to a great age, though he doubted seeing another ten autumns before his body was buried. Doc had tended him through a cruel bout of grippe, and while Tilden fought for his life, a flock of his spirits escaped and took flight from his sickbed while the rest fell down a bottomless well, taking most of his scant vitality with them and leaving him a mere shadow.
Tilden sat alone at a Long Branch table one night, sipping rye and reading a book, which made him look strange; and as he wasn't built for fist fighting, Matt kept an eye on him. The marshal sat in the barroom with Chester, Doc and Kitty. "He's packing iron, reading in a saloon, sitting to himself like always. Might as well wear a sign, trouble in big letters," said Matt.
"Well, you just keep watching him, Matt, see no one does trouble him. He's still mending from the grippe. There wasn't any much to Tilden even before he come down with it," said Doc.
"He's totin' a gun so's no one beats 'im. Man cain't help bein' who he is," said Chester.
"Well of course he can't. He shouldn't have to. I don't know Tilden well, but he's a better man than a lot of these animals comin' in here. It wouldn't hurt them to crack a book once in a while," said Kitty.
"Half of 'em can't read," Matt said.
"Speak of trouble. Isn't that the fella was hounding Tilden for a gunfight before he got sick? Scruffy cowboy just come through the batwings," said Doc.
"That's him. Jett Rafferty. He's stoppin' next Tilden's table," said Chester.
Rafferty spoke, smirking, and Tilden looked up from his book, calmly meeting the flinty eyes in the squarish face with its dusting of whiskers. Tilden sat silently holding his book as Rafferty gestured and snapped his words with head thrusts, his smirk turning to scorn. Tilden sat three tables away from the marshal and his friends, and the boisterous crowd with the drovers in town at harvest time made hearing what Rafferty said futile. The cowboy took a few steps back, raised his wide jaw and planted his boots apart. Tilden shook his head and lowered his large dark eyes to his book. Rafferty smacked Tilden, swiped the book from his hand and leaned in close across the table.
"Matt," said Kitty.
"It's Tilden's fight, Kitty."
"He got no chance fightin' Rafferty. Lessen Tilden uses 'is gun," said Chester.
"Rafferty wants Tilden to draw on him. Tilden won't do it," said Matt.
"Matt, you let that man take a beating, he'll wind up back in my office bedridden again," said Doc.
"I won't let Rafferty hurt him bad, Doc."
Tilden stood up, and Rafferty overturned the table, slamming it into him. He fell on his back with the table on top of him. The noise in the saloon died away, the men and gals watching Tilden and the cowboy. And the marshal, to see what he would do.
Matt rose, moved to the two men and righted the table. Tilden lay stunned on the floor, and Matt reached out a hand and pulled him to his feet. "Go home to your hole, Rafferty," the marshal ordered.
"Fight's between him and me, Marshal," said Rafferty. "You got no right to interfere."
"Get movin' or I'll throw you in jail," said Matt. Rafferty barked an oath and stomped out into the night.
"Thank you, Marshal. You may have just saved my life." Tilden had a genteel voice.
"Chester, tell Sam to bring Tilden a couple of whiskies, would you?" said Kitty.
"Sure, Miss Kitty."
Kitty and Doc watched from their table as Tilden smoothed his straight yet unruly dark hair, put his hat on and rubbed the back of his neck. Matt picked up his book and handed it to him, and sat with him at the table. "You alright?" said the marshal.
"Yes. He shook me some is all. I am no fist-fighter even in my best health," said Tilden.
"What are you in Dodge for, Tilden," said Matt. "Rich man like you can live anywhere he wants."
"I don't know. Just as soon stop off here. I don't stay any place long. Dodge might give me inspiration for my horror story writing."
"That book a horror story?" Matt asked.
"It's called Knightshade. By Paul Favel."
Chester appeared at the table with a whiskey in each hand, and put both glasses in front of Tilden. "Miss Kitty says this here's on the house," said Chester.
"Thanks," said Tilden. He looked over at Kitty and tipped his hat, his mouth curving into the shade of a grin. Kitty smiled and nodded at him as Chester moved to sit with her and Doc.
"You have this one, Marshal," said Tilden. He slid one of the whiskies to Matt, and both men took a drink.
"Man who reads in a barroom is askin' for a fight," said Matt.
"That's not so in a lot of towns. Fellows in Dodge City saloons are stupid," said Tilden.
Matt grinned. "No argument there. You stay in town much longer, though, you could get yourself killed."
"Rafferty? I'm faster with a gun than he is; I can tell by looking at him. He mucks out at the stockyards. I figure you know I won't shoot him unless he draws on me. Even if he beats me. So you're right, Marshal. Rafferty could kill me with his fists," said Tilden.
"Tilden, I'll try to protect you, but I have all of Dodge to protect. I can't be your guard. Your best chance of staying alive is to leave town," said Matt.
"I won't run from Rafferty, Marshal. I won't run from any man."
Matt nodded. Though Tilden was a rich refined dude, bookish and quiet, the man was no coward. His round dark eyes, too large for his bony face, were at once intense and sad, haunted like the stories he wrote, yet not fearful or particularly emotional otherwise. He was calm, his sharp features not expressive in a smooth face the sickly hue of grayish sand.
Middling in height, Tilden was skinny with a light build, and his lack of fear impressed the marshal. Many men Matt met were afraid deep in their gut, though they usually tried to hide it. Such men generally could not be trusted, and except for Chester—a brave man who scared a bit easily, which trait in turn drove his courage—Matt chose men with little fear as friends, like Doc, and as friendly acquaintances, like Kitty's barkeep and her own devoted friend Sam, livery owner Moss Grimmick and the storekeeper Jonas, known to face down danger despite his nervous bearing.
"Moneyed mild-mannered gentleman like you doesn't fit in a cow town, Tilden," said Matt. "That's why you have no friends here."
Tilden's eyes glimmered hurt and he lowered them to conceal it, gazing into his whiskey glass. He had long lashes, which made him look bodily weaker even than he was. Matt felt a prick of guilt and a rush of impatience. He thought Tilden's wounded feelings proved his point.
"I mean I don't want you to lose your life. And you'd have it easier if you went back to Boston," said Matt.
"I have no one in Boston. I was close to my father, and when he died of pneumonia, I left there. The doctors back East said I'd live longer if I traveled West. They were thinking of my constitution. It doesn't occur to prosperous eastern doctors that one might get beaten to death. My mother died birthing me. I'm not of hardy stock." Tilden studied his whiskey and sloshed it, his words tumbling forth in a soft-spoken cascade, more than the whole of what Matt had heard from him since he came to Dodge.
He raised his penetrating dark eyes to look at Matt. "I like being around people, but I am uneasy talking with almost everyone," said Tilden. "I can only completely relax when I keep to myself. I see Doc as a friend, and now you, Marshal. You saved me from that cowboy hounding for a gunfight . . . at least you did tonight. Miss Kitty gave me free drinks sweetened by her lovely smile, and Chester served me the drinks. So I see you all as my friends."
"He needs a good woman," Kitty told Matt some four hours later, close to two o'clock in the morning. She and the marshal had made love in her Long Branch room and snuffed the lamp. Matt would rise from her bed at sunup and leave for the jailhouse. He rose early every morning, whether he slept soundly or not at all, and when he woke he started his day, dozing in a chair or on a bunk when he had time. Unless sick or wounded, though, Matt never lay abed once he wakened at daybreak.
"I can't think of any maiden ladies or widows in Dodge to suit Tilden. Not near his age. He's thirty-five, so he'd likely want a younger woman," said Kitty.
"He doesn't seem bashful around women to me," said Matt. "Seen him come up the stairs here with gals a few times."
"I'm not talking about that need, Matt. Those women are gals, not ladies. Most have good hearts and know how to act like ladies, but they're not fitting companions for a gentleman like Colm Tilden."
"Sounds like you're thinkin' on taking the job, Kitty. Man like Tilden, a lady friend would be more nurse than companion." Matt spoke lightly, as he tended to do when Kitty expressed interest in another man. He doubted she felt attracted to Tilden as a possible beau. The man was scrawny, almost demure, yet Matt had to admit he was not at all effeminate. While his sharp features were uniform, few would call him handsome.
Like all women in Matt's opinion, Kitty had the right to speak, act, think and feel as she wished. She did anyway, if Matt objected or not. Though he couldn't help feeling possessive and jealous, he prided himself on hiding it well. He wanted to rid his gut—his heart—of the feelings, which burned and twisted like sour stomach, and he considered them plain wrong beside. Matt was a scrupulous man. Kitty never bore blame in his eyes on account of his love for her, and even a hint of ill thought about her tainted that love.
He just wished she wouldn't talk of other men when he shared her bed. Matt knew Kitty loved him, yet unlike some lovers, her regard for him did not seclude her from anyone she befriended, man or woman. Kitty loved them all in different ways and embraced them unconditionally. If Chester or Doc showed up when Kitty and Matt dined out or went on a picnic, she was genuinely happy to see them. Just through being there, they made the occasion merrier to her.
Matt hoped she wouldn't welcome Colm Tilden under her wings. With the cowboy Rafferty hounding him for a gunfight, he made himself a burden by his very presence in Dodge. Tilden made Matt feel responsible to protect him from Rafferty's fists.
Kitty felt more than saw Matt's somber withdrawal, and she reached out to him in the darkened room. The touch of her small warm hand on his bare upper arm sent a pleasing hot tendril shooting through his body. "Matt, I don't want Colm Tilden as a suitor, even if he'd have me. I only want you that way. But he needs a woman friend. He seems . . . lost. I can be that friend."
Matt said, "It's not that, Kitty," which wasn't entirely true. A rebellious part of him resented her friendships with men—Doc, Chester and Sam excepted. "I'm afraid Rafferty will beat him to death if Tilden doesn't leave town. Rafferty's frustrated cause Tilden won't draw on him," said Matt.
"What's Rafferty's grudge against him, anyway," said Kitty.
"He heard of Tilden's reputation as a fast gun. Rafferty wants a feather in his hat so he can feel like an important man about Dodge instead of the dreg he is."
Kitty slid close to Matt, put her arms around him and rested on his chest, her silky red tresses spilling over his shoulders. "You always do your best," she said. "Tilden knows what could happen to him if he stays here."
Matt stroked her hair. "With you as his friend, he might wanna stay here permanent."
"Never hurts to have friends, Matt."
Kitty rose too late to ask Tilden to breakfast, so she decided to ask him to lunch, which worked out fine as he rose even later than she did. The excitement that lit his serious face at her invitation surprised her. An aristocratic sort, he was clean and well-dressed despite the fine soft hair that tousled like crow's feathers whenever he took off his hat, and Kitty had braced herself for a polite refusal.
Tilden offered her his arm as they walked to Delmonico's. She felt the hard ridge of his bone, and thought of Matt's much bigger muscular arms and Chester's strong sinewy ones. Tilden was about two inches taller than Doc and a sight thinner.
A cowboy slightly shorter than Chester and six or seven years younger than Tilden, wide-shouldered and trim, dusty and rumpled, leaned on the hitching rail outside Delmonico's. Kitty's heart startled and she halted, squeezing Tilden's arm without meaning to. "It's that Jett Rafferty," she said.
"You needn't worry about Rafferty, Miss Kitty. He doesn't scare me."
"Let's walk the other way before he sees you." Kitty tugged at his arm. Tilden resisted her pull, not answering.
She looked at him impatiently. His large dark eyes looked sad with disappointment. "Then we are not going to lunch?" he said.
"Rafferty's seen us," said Kitty, her heart knocking. She feared for Tilden, not herself. Rafferty was courteous to the Long Branch women, drinking with them and visiting their rooms like a lot of Kitty's patrons. He hadn't much to say to the gals, and when they chatted he merely caressed them like yapping pups, his surly eyes roving the barroom to see what the other men were up to. Now and then he'd frown at a gal, and flash a grin at her with a baring of his stained teeth, as though she spoke a language he didn't understand.
He stood blocking the boardwalk, facing Tilden and Kitty. "You best wait here, Miss Kitty," said Tilden. He let go of her arm and walked toward Rafferty.
Kitty saw no point in calling Tilden back. There was no sign of fear about him, and he wouldn't walk away from the cowboy, which would make him look a coward to Rafferty. Front Street bustled with trail hands, and Kitty followed a few yards behind Tilden to hear what the two men said to each other.
"You have somewhat to say to me, Rafferty?" said Tilden.
"Last night at the Long Branch was just a taste of what I'll do to you, you don't fight," said Rafferty. "Dillon's not around to save you this time."
"I am not running, but I'm no match for you. Won't be much of a fight," said Tilden.
"You know I mean a gunfight," said Rafferty.
"And I mean it when I say I won't draw first. You're the one hounding for a fight, Rafferty. Why don't you draw?"
"On account of I'll hang if I kill you."
"No. You won't hang," said Tilden.
"Because you'll be dead. I am faster than you. Much faster."
"No you ain't. I been target shootin' behind the depot," said Rafferty.
"You are an ignorant, thick-headed fool, Rafferty," Tilden dispassionately said in his soft-spoken voice. "Go back to the muck in the cattle pens where you belong."
Rafferty punched him. If the cowboy wasn't swift with a gun, he was with his fist. The blow hammered Tilden's jaw, his head snapped back and he fell, senseless before he hit the walk.
Kitty hurried to Tilden and bent down beside him. "You brute," she snapped at Rafferty.
"Miss Kitty." Rafferty looked proud of himself, pleased she'd seen him knock Tilden out with one punch. The cowboy tipped his hat, his flinty eyes looking randomly over Kitty's head. He seldom met a woman's gaze; it didn't occur to him to do so. He turned and swaggered away.