Rafferty pushed through the batwings and stood just inside a moment. A grin twisted his hard mouth, and his eyes widened and narrowed as he saw Tilden.
"The idiot thinks he has a rabbit in his sights," said Tilden. "In truth I am both lion and lamb."
"You're gonna have to shoot him, Colm," said Kitty.
As Rafferty swaggered to the table, Chester stood up and stepped close to Kitty. "Like I said out by the cottonwood tree that day, I'm through playing with you, Tilden," said the cowboy. He planted his boots apart, thrust his shoulders forward and went rigid.
Chester tried to guide Kitty to the bar. "Come on, Miss Kitty," he said when she balked.
A hush descended and the men and gals rushed to stand against the walls. The pianola thumped out Camptown Races, the tinny notes loud in the suddenly silent barroom.
"In the street. No one's getting hurt in this fight but you, Rafferty," Tilden ordered in his soft voice.
His markedly large dark eyes pierced the cowboy's vision. Like many men of scant intelligence, little book-learning and less wisdom, Rafferty was superstitious and distrusted educated men. He wondered if Tilden could see inside his head and read his thoughts. Though the autumn night was cold and a brisk wind blew through the barroom, Rafferty started sweating. He glanced at one of the glasses of rye on the table.
"Go ahead and take a drink, Jett," Tilden said almost warmly.
Rafferty picked up a glass, tossed back the whiskey and set the glass down. "Alright, let's do it," he said. He turned and walked into the night with none of his usual swagger, and Tilden followed him.
Kitty took hold of Chester's arm and moved with him to the batwings ahead of the crowd in the saloon. "Miss Kitty, you best stay inside, maybe," he said. She responded by holding tighter to his arm and stepping through the batwings with him onto the Front Street boardwalk. The men and women in the barroom spilled out behind and around them.
Tilden and Rafferty squared off in the street in the light from the outdoor lamps, the full moon and the sky crowded with stars. From a ways down the walk, Matt saw the two men facing each other and the silent throng outside the Long Branch. Though the men appeared as dark outlines to the marshal, he was fairly sure who they were.
Matt broke into a run. Not a fast runner, he knew the fight would play out before he reached the Long Branch, but hoped to get there in time to stop the one still standing from slipping away into the darkness, likely not to reemerge until sundown tomorrow night at the earliest. Matt wanted to ask questions when the gun barrels—and shed blood—were still hot.
When he talked of the fight later with Doc, Kitty and Chester, they wondered why Rafferty thought he could draw first on an innocent man and escape prison or the noose. "Rafferty figured to lie his way out of it," said Kitty. "He saw himself as that much. He'd claim witnesses couldn't see who drew first from the walkway in the dark, or something like that."
"Rafferty couldn't rein in his impatience any longer, way I see it," said Doc. "Cutting a notch in his six-shooter for outdrawing a fast gun like Tilden? Too big a prize to pass up. Rafferty wanted so to be a big man in Dodge, it drove him crazy enough to brush off any thought of trouble with the law."
"Tilden's hardly a gunman," said Matt. "He's just a lone wealthy gent who never sought trouble. He had to learn to shoot fast and straight. And kill to save himself from getting beaten to death. Rafferty must've targeted Tilden thinking he'd go down easy."
"Rafferty's a durn fool, is all," said Chester.
Bolstered by a double shot of fine whiskey and exhilarated by the rapt crowd, Rafferty did not falter that night. He grabbed for his gun, glorying in a swiftness that existed only in his head.
Tilden's slender form never even tensed. He drew and fired in smooth graceful motion, so rapidly the onlookers saw his hand and the gun merge in a blur.
The shot split the cold night on a smoky flare. Rafferty dropped his weapon having never clicked the hammer, clutching his gun hand while Tilden stood in place.
"Colm got 'im," said Chester. Holding onto his arm, Kitty pressed a hand over her racing heart. Tilden twice spun his gun and holstered it.
A man in the crowd whooped, kindling a blast of excited talk as Matt ran up. Chester limped into the street, picked up Rafferty's gun and put it in his own belt. The cowboy was shaking, his calloused, work-thickened hands covered in blood, which splattered on the ground. "Bullet ripped through my hand," he said to Chester.
"Doc'll sew you up. You shouldn't oughter forced Tilden ta fight, Rafferty," said Chester. Rafferty swore at him. "Twon't help you none gittin' riled at me. You got what's comin' to you for bein' a dunderhead. Yer lucky you ain't dead."
"Chester," said Matt. "Walk Rafferty to Doc's. Get his gun out of your belt and hold it on him. Guard him at Doc's 'til I get there."
Tilden moved to the marshal as Chester and Rafferty headed for Doc's. "With that hole I shot in Rafferty's hand, I thought it best not to distress him further by getting too close to him, Marshal," said Tilden.
"You folks go on back inside, now," Matt said to the spectators. "Buy yourself some drinks."
"I'd like Miss Kitty to hear what I have to say, if it's alright with you," Tilden said.
Matt nodded and pushed at his hat brim, looking at Kitty who stood watching the marshal and Tilden as the men and gals streamed around her through the batwings into the Long Branch. Kitty stepped off the walk into the street and approached them, lay her hand on Tilden's arm and smiled a little, her gem-clear blue eyes sparkling in the yellow light cast by the streetlamps and the silvery light of the moon and stars.
Tilden took her hand and pressed it between both of his, his narrow sand-colored face a shade paler than usual. "You are an angel from heaven, Miss Kitty."
"Not hardly, Colm," she answered with gentle warmth. Matt felt a hot twinge of jealousy and gulped it down so it wouldn't show on his face. It lay souring in his belly.
"Doc will find a hole dead center through the palm of Rafferty's gun hand, Marshal," said Tilden. "I could've shot the gun out of his hand without hitting him, but I think that wouldn't have stopped him. He'd be scared to call me out again, but he'd just target shoot some more while he looked for the next man with a reputation as a fast draw."
"Uh-huh. So you clipped Rafferty's wing," said Matt.
"Yes. I calculate his hand will mend sufficient to use, but he'll never chance another gunfight," said Tilden.
"Good work, Colm," said Matt. Tilden gravely nodded.
"Miss Kitty," he said, "I especially want you to know, the reason I killed those men before I came to Dodge, the ones who drew on me, rather than shooting the guns out of their hands which I could have. Easily. I'm a crack shot."
"Go on, Colm," Kitty encouraged.
"They were bad. The breed that bears a grudge against a stranger for no sensible reason. They craved my money or hated me, usually both. On account of . . . I am me. They might've got hold of other guns and not rested until they tracked me down. If I'd shot their hands like I shot Rafferty's, their wounds wouldn't stop them. They'd partner with like men to find and kill me. I could tell on sight, the men I had to kill were far more dangerous than Rafferty. Well maybe not every one of them, but I couldn't risk sparing their lives," said Tilden.
"Of course not. You were only defending yourself," said Kitty.
"Kitty's right. You shouldn't feel guilty about killing when you have to," said Matt.
"Do you, Marshal?" said Tilden.
"I try not to. I best get to Doc's. Need to talk to Rafferty."
"You gonna run him out of town, Matt?" said Kitty.
"I don't think so, Kitty. With his mule head he'd refuse to leave, and I don't want to threaten him with jail. Too many prisoners in the cells already, and Rafferty would just make trouble."
Matt went on to Doc's, and Kitty linked her arm through Tilden's. "Well, after all that, I need a break. I don't care how busy it is. I'll sit and have a drink with you if those cowpunchers tear the Long Branch down around our heads," she said. He grinned, and Kitty was surprised to see the gleam of his teeth in the first real smile she'd seen on his solemn face.
Rafferty lay chloroformed on the table when Matt arrived at Doc's. Doc was threading finishing stitches in the patient's hand with Chester assisting. "Can I talk to him tonight, Doc?" Matt asked.
"Don't see why not." Doc swathed Rafferty's hand in bandages while Chester held his arm up. "He'll be groggy, but he should wake up enough to talk, thirty minutes or so. I'll keep an eye on him here, rest of the night so he doesn't bleed too much."
"I'm not jailing Rafferty, Doc," said Matt. "Chester can spend the night here so you won't be alone with him. He's a rough one."
"No," said Doc. He spread a blanket over Rafferty as Chester helped to clean up after the operation. "He's wounded, shocked, and broken down some. He's no threat, Matt, and he won't be for a spell, maybe never. His hand is so mangled, it'll likely cause him pain for a long time to come. Too much pain to make a fist, much less use one. No need for Chester to guard him."
"You need me to stay up ta Doc's some more, Mr. Dillon?" said Chester.
"You can go, Chester."
"Night, Doc," said Chester.
"Goin' to bed already, are you?" said Doc. "It's not midnight yet."
"Naw. I ain't goin' to bed 'nother hour at the least," Chester said.
"Then why did you say goodnight?" said Doc.
"Huh?" Chester fiddled with his hat and glanced at Rafferty lying unconscious on the table.
His blue eyes warm, Doc gave Chester a small reassuring grin. "You did a good job helping me treat the cowboy, there, and I'd like to pay you a little something, Chester."
"You don't haveta do that, Doc."
"I know, but I want to, so humor me. Here, buy yourself a few drinks and play a hand of cards or two." Doc handed Chester a silver dollar.
"Wahl, by golly, Doc. Thank you."
"Goodnight, Chester. Just don't get into trouble with it," said Doc.
Chester beamed at Matt, who smiled back at him, put on his hat and left Doc's office. The marshal and Doc heard him humming as he descended the stairs.
Matt and Doc drank coffee and played checkers until Rafferty groaned from the table. "My hand hurts terrible," he said.
"It will for awhile," said Doc. "I'll give you morphine to ease your pain."
Matt pulled a chair close to the table where Rafferty lay. "You gonna jail me, Marshal?"
"No, I won't jail you, Rafferty. The punishment you got is harsher than gettin' locked up, and Tilden showed you mercy at that. He could've killed you and been within his rights. No more gunplay. Stay away from Tilden and don't trouble any other man in Dodge, or I'll lock you up 'til spring. Understand?" said Matt.
"Yeah. I'll never draw fast with my gun hand ruined. I got no reason now to challenge Tilden or any man," Rafferty said morosely.
"You have another chance at life, Rafferty," said Matt. "Why not find something decent to give it purpose."
"I ain't a marrying man. Got nothin' against women, but there's only the one use for 'em, way I see it," said the cowboy.
Matt met Doc's eyes, and Doc shook his head. His expression clearly told the marshal that Doc thought Rafferty incapable of making anything of himself. "Think on it, Rafferty," said Matt. "Maybe something will come to you."
"When the sun shines at eight o'clock at night in November," Doc murmured.
Matt slept the night at the marshal's office instead of his rooming house. With three men in one cell and four in the other, he felt easier not leaving Chester alone with them more than two or three hours at a stretch. A common ploy of prisoners was to ask to go out back, then try to bust out once the cell door was unlocked by a lone jailer.
Matt rose at daybreak after four hours or so of sleep, and quietly washed and shaved while Chester and the prisoners snored. When Chester woke, he would fetch the jailed men's breakfast and a big pot of coffee from Delmonico's.
The marshal had just finished combing his curling waves in place when Tilden came in the office. "Good morning, Marshal."
"Tilden. We got no coffee made or I'd offer you some."
"That's alright. I've had my breakfast," said Tilden.
Chester wakened, saw Tilden and scrambled out from under his blanket, raking his fingers through his hair. He wore his pants to bed when prisoners were in the jail, leaving his suspenders clipped on and dangling round his legs.
The marshal heard the men stirring behind the closed jail door. "What can I do for you?" Matt said to Tilden. Yawning, Chester took the basin out the side door to dump the water, rinse and refill the basin at the pump so he could wash and shave.
"Do you know if Rafferty is still at Doc's?" said Tilden.
"I expect so. Doc will tend to him before Rafferty leaves the office. He was in bad shape last night," said Matt.
"I am not pleased to hear that," Tilden said.
"Didn't think you were."
"Marshal, I'd like to help Rafferty if he'll accept my assistance. He won't be able to work a spell, and I can offer him a job when he can. I think he'll find it more rewarding than shoveling dung."
"That's generous of you, Tilden. Seeing as Rafferty tried to kill you," said Matt.
"I don't take it personal. He just targeted me for my reputation. He wanted to outdraw me so other fellows would stand aside and take notice of him," said Tilden.
Chester came in by the side door with a full basin of water, sloshing puddles on the floor. He took a bar of soap and a sponge and started splashing.
"What do you want me to do, Colm," said Matt.
"I'd like you to come with me to Doc's to see Rafferty. To give my talk an official tone, that sort of thing. Rafferty may be more amenable to my offer of help with you there," said Tilden.
"Alright. If you don't mind waiting while I give Chester a hand with the prisoners."
"I'll lend a hand myself," said Tilden.
Under Doc's ministrations, Rafferty looked cleaner than Matt had ever seen him. With his face shaved and his abundant light-brown hair washed and combed neatly in a tail, he actually looked handsome. He sat on Doc's recliner, his wounded hand in a sling.
When Tilden stepped through the doorway, Rafferty swore at him, though Matt detected no rancor in the curses. He figured Rafferty felt duty-bound to let Tilden know he hadn't broken the cowboy. "Morning to you, too, Rafferty," said Tilden. Rafferty cursed him again, breathing hard.
"Do you need to be here, Colm?" said Doc. "When he gets distressed, his heart pumps his blood faster, makes the wound bleed. I'm keeping him here at least another day and night as it is."
"I'm sorry," said Tilden. "I need a man to run a livery I bought today at sunup. The owner sold out and left Dodge on the early stage. I thought you might want the job when you mend, Rafferty. That day we fought by the cottonwood tree, you said my mare was pretty. You recollected her cream coloring, and wondered why I walked instead of riding." Rafferty stared vacantly at Tilden.
"You're fond of horses, right?" said Tilden. Rafferty nodded.
"You'll need money to live on until you can work with that hand I shot," said Tilden. "I figure you know a good deal when you hear one, so I opened an account in your name at the bank. The money's a loan. I'll take a little out of your wages each week until it's paid. You might decide to buy the stable from me when you've earned enough. I'll sell it to you at a bargain, since we will be business partners. So how about it, Rafferty?" Rafferty frowned and turned confounded eyes to Matt.
"You best accept while the job's open, Rafferty," said Matt.
"Wisest thing to do, Jett," said Doc.
Rafferty looked at Doc. "I don't get the drift of why he's doin' all this for me. I hounded and hit him and forced him to a gunfight. I might've killed him. I don't understand, Doc."
Doc patted his patient's shoulder. "Ask Colm why he's helping you. He's standing right here." Rafferty turned his eyes to Tilden. Like Tilden, Rafferty did not scare easily, but he looked scared now.
"You needn't be afraid of me, Rafferty. I won't hurt you," said Tilden. "Anymore. I'm rich, but I am trustworthy."
"I ain't afraid of no rich dude," Rafferty blurted.
"Then you will accept my offer? You see, I could have shot the gun out of your hand last night without hitting you at all. I purposefully shot a hole through your gun hand, so you'd never hound me or any other man to fight you again. That's why I want to help you now," said Tilden. "If you're not too frightened of me, that is."
"I said I ain't afraid of you. I'll take the job. The money in the bank, too."
Tilden grinned and held out his hand. Eyeing him warily, Rafferty grasped the thin fingers in his strong, whole left hand and gave Tilden's a hard shake.
Matt followed Tilden down Doc's stairs. Tilden wore a fine wool coat, the collar turned up against the cold autumn wind, and a costly hat. Though he no longer looked sickly, he was still rather bony. He moved with a cultured air. Tilden could take care of himself so long as he wore a gun, but he showed reluctance to use it even when he needed to. Not being a fearful man, he didn't seem to realize how frail he was. Maybe too frail for Dodge City.
Hands in his coat pockets, he walked quietly beside the marshal. "Where're you headed now, Colm," said Matt.
"To my room at Dodge House. I'll write what happened with me and Rafferty. It will be the length of a penny book," said Tilden.
"You usually write horror stories, don't you? That's not one. I know the ending," said Matt.
"Perhaps I will set aside horror for a spell. With Miss Kitty as my friend especially, and you, Marshal, and Chester and Doc neighborly to me, I barely feel the need to quench the ghosts of the men I killed by writing shocking tales," said Tilden.
He glanced up at Matt, his faintly sallow complexion reddening. "I suppose I oughtn't be ashamed to say I feel you are all looking out for me. A man shouldn't be too proud to admit he's grateful to have folks around who care a mite what becomes of him. Dodge is a rough place, but I am not alone here. Although solitude remains the only state where I can be at rest. I don't know that I am making sense," said Tilden.
"I think Kitty and Doc and Chester care more than a mite what becomes of you, Colm," Matt said. And I'll look out for you long as you're in Dodge."