Some stiff whiskies and a talk with Miss Kitty would set Chester straight and fill the hollow in his belly left by losing his girl to the tater grubber who owned the land near her folks' farm. The feller admired to court Miss Susan for marrying up. Her news hit Chester like a blow to the face. He couldn't shake his swimmy head clear, how hard he tried no matter.
He pushed through the batwings and stood just inside, looking about. Trail hands jammed the bar and played cards at every table, and not one of the women they sparked was Miss Kitty. Cowboys danced with the gals to the pianola music or drank on their feet near the tables on account of there was nowhere to sit and no room at the bar.
"Chester." Miss Kitty's voice but forevermore where was she? "Chester. Over here." She waved from a corner table. Chester wove his way through the crowd, taking care not to bump the drovers. A body couldn't tell who'd take a jostle friendly-like or shove or swing a punch.
"Miss Kitty." Chester tipped his hat. She was sipping coffee and playing patience with the cards.
"Sit down, Chester. What's wrong?"
"Oh nothin' much." He studied the tabletop and fiddled with the cards. "Miss Susan don't want me for her beau no more, is all."
"Oh Chester, no."
"Yeah. She's Jake Vance's girl now. They're gonna marry after courtin' a spell." Chester sighed. "Surely do need a whiskey 'bout now." He had a dollar, enough to get drunk on if Miss Kitty started him off with a free one.
"I'll buy you one," she said, just as Chester hoped she would. He thanked her, and Kitty called out the order to Sam. "Well Chester, Susan wanted to marry a farmer, right?"
"And you didn't want to be one. A farmer. Now you don't have to be," said Kitty.
"I woulda. For her."
"Maybe it's for the best. Think of what you escaped from. Busting sod the rest of your life," Kitty said.
Chester raised his soulful brown eyes to the bright blue ones looking warmly at him. Miss Kitty had the prettiest eyes in town. He felt a speck heartened even before his first swallow of rye.
He tossed back half the glass and coughed. "Reckon yer right, Miss Kitty. Tried my hand farmin' jest this springtime past an' it come ta nothin'. Got ma heart broke then, too. Harvest time now, same thing. Think I'd a learned." He gulped more whiskey.
Kitty patted his arm. "I gotta get back to work, Chester. Don't stand up. I'll have Sam bring you another drink. Beer this time?"
He wanted a second whiskey, which worried her. He preferred beer, drank whiskey only on occasion, and then not more than one. Unless he planned to get drunk.
"Leave the bottle if you would, Sam," he said when the barkeep refilled his glass. Sam gave him a probing look and plunked the bottle on the table. He knew Sam would tell Miss Kitty. She'd be too busy to scold Chester, hopeful. He topped his glass so it almost flowed over, drained and chased it with two more brimful glasses, and was sipping his fifth when Matt walked in. Feeling pleasantly muddled and warm to his bones, his head buzzing with a mild hum, Chester took no notice of the marshal.
Matt moved to Kitty at the end of the bar. He didn't think to thread his way round the trail hands swarming the saloon, as Chester had. Men made way for Matt wherever he went, and he cut a straight path with no hitch in his easy tread. "Kitty." The marshal touched his hat brim.
"Oh Matt, you're here. Take Chester home, will you? His girl left him for that farmer Jake Vance. Chester said they're gonna marry and he's drinking too much."
"Where is he?" said Matt.
"Corner table at the other end of the bar," said Kitty.
Chester was nodding off. He startled when the marshal called him, and blinked blearily up at Matt. "Mish-ter Dillon."
"Let's go, Chester," said Matt.
"Yessir. Where we gone?"
Limping unsteadily, Chester followed Matt out into the chill autumn air. A blanket of low-hanging clouds colored the afternoon gray. The Front Street boardwalk seemed to sway like a rowboat under Chester's boots as he hobbled behind Matt. Chester recollected a new song Miss Susan had played on the piano at a sociable, shortly before he lost her to the farmer. The song was by a schoolteacher feller name of Lyte. His drawl more pronounced than usual, Chester sang in quavering tones—
Row row row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily merrily merrily merrily
Life is but a dream.
The folks walking round him smiled and Mr. Dillon chuckled. Chester drew in a noisy breath and launched into the tune again, louder this time. He teetered on the edge of the boardwalk, and Mr. Dillon held him steady. "Ah warn't gone fall," he protested.
"You almost bumped that cowboy, and he looked a mean one," said Matt. "I have to ride to Fort Dodge and meet the Major General. Got no time for fightin'. Walk next to me on the buildings side here."
"Thet's like as if ah'm a lady," said Chester.
"If folks throw slop from the floors above, it'll hit you an' not me," said Chester. The brisk wind cleared his head a bit, and he walked with surer steps.
"Folks know not to throw slop. There's an ordinance in Dodge," Matt said.
He opened the jailhouse door and halted on the threshold. Mr. Dillon rarely took stock in the doorway unless somewhat out of the way was about, and Chester peered over his shoulder.
The town assayer stood in the office, aiming his gun at a tall, strongly built stranger wearing a gun belt with an empty holster. Another six-shooter was in the assayer's belt. Matt figured the gun belonged to the stranger. The marshal and Chester stepped inside, and Matt shut the door. "Pearson. What's going on?" Matt said to the assayer.
"This man snatched a money box the stage driver delivered to me personal. The thief. He must've seen Slim carrying the box and followed him into my establishment. He grabbed the box as Slim handed it to me and run off," said Pearson. "I want him jailed, Marshal. I'm bringing charges and I will testify against him."
"I returned the box straightaway, Marshal," said the stranger. "I ain't no thief, not a real one. I'm a drifter got no job nor one penny but I was raised up better'n that, and I give back every dollar direct to Pearson's hands on account of my conscience pummeled me to it. He counted the money, then pulled his gun and marched me here."
"He ruined my box. Shot the lock off," said Pearson.
"He returned the money, Pearson. There's no harm done," said Matt.
"He shocked me and destroyed my property. Giving the money back does not undo the truth that he stole it in the first place. You jail this man, Marshal. I'm within my rights by law and you know it," said Pearson.
Matt whooshed out a sigh. "What's your name, Mister," he said to the stranger.
"Unfortunately, Wicker, Pearson here is right. He can bring charges against you. You're under arrest for robbery. Take off your gun belt," said Matt.
Wicker took off the belt and gave it to Matt, who passed it to Chester. Still slightly foggy from the whiskey, Chester put the belt in a desk drawer as a powerful sleepiness gripped him, dragging his limbs.
Matt told the assayer to give Wicker's gun to Chester. "Lock him up, Chester," said the marshal. "I'll miss meeting the Major if I don't leave for Fort Dodge now. Be back in about four hours."
"Yessir." His fingers trembly on the butt, Chester leveled the gun at Wicker. The man's large frame blurred round the edges, and Chester blinked hard to clear his vision. Wicker watched him close. An inch or so taller than Chester, he had wider shoulders than Mr. Dillon and a muscled form.
Matt and Pearson went out, leaving Chester alone with Wicker. The jail cells were empty. The year was 1881, and after six years as marshal of Dodge City, Matt had gained a reputation. The town was no longer so wild when the trail drives came through at planting and harvest seasons, and with the new decade, an era of western lawlessness in its heyday circa 1865 when the war ended, was just starting to die down.
"Through the doorway thar." Chester waved the gun. "Front cell."
Wicker moved to the cell and Chester took the jail key from its peg. Wicker tried the cell door and eyed Chester with a cunning look. "It's unlocked," the man said.
"Gone in. Make yaself ta home." Chester smirked.
"Hah," said Wicker. His eyes twinkled over the cunning. He opened the cell door wide. "You go on in, Chester. I got things to do, like beat quick tracks outta Dodge before the marshal gets back. But first, hand my gun over like a good boy."
"You think yer smart, dontcha," Chester slurred.
"Nope. I'm in this fix now cuz I'm dumb. Be that as it may, I ain't about to get punished for being honest. Could've got clean away with that money if I wanted to," said Wicker.
"I cain't do nothin' 'bout that, Wicker. Judge'll let you off easy, maybe."
"You smell like a still. I sure don't need smarts to get the jump on you, Chester," Wicker said, grinning. Chester's eyes narrowed and he tightened his fingers on the gun butt, his heartbeat skipping.
"I won't hurt you none," said Wicker. "Just give me my gun and get in that cell."
"You git in thar 'fore I hit ya with this pistol," said Chester.
Wicker snaked out a long arm, wrenched the gun from Chester's grasp and stuck it in his belt. He took hold of Chester's shoulders, pulled him in the cell and pushed him on the bunk. As Chester sat stunned, his head awhirl from the liquor he'd downed, Wicker yanked the jail key from his fingers, stepped out of the cell, slammed the cell door and locked it and hung the key on the peg.
He retrieved his gun belt from the desk drawer, strapped the belt on and holstered his six-shooter. He filled the water dipper from the basin by the front door, carried it to the cell and set in on the floor inside the bars, and left the jailhouse.
Though Wicker wasn't bad, Chester was surprised that he cared not a whit for the escape and wished the man well. What baffled Chester yet more was his own indifference at failing to follow the marshal's order. Well, no matter. Mr. Dillon hadn't wanted Wicker jailed to begin with, and Chester was too tired for worriment.
Being locked in the cell didn't trouble him, either. It was quiet, fitting for a restful nap. He picked up the dipper of water that Wicker had set by the bars and drank half of it, put the dipper on the floor by the bunk, lay down and went to sleep.
Matt returned at nightfall. The office was dark, and he felt a stab of irritation. Chester had forgotten again to light the lamps, and there was no hot coffee or fire lit in the stove.
"That you, Mr. Dillon?" Wraith-like in the darkness, Chester's voice sounded soft and drowsy.
"Chester? What're you doin' in the cell. Where's Wicker?" Matt knew the answers, and concern for his friend at once overshadowed the grumpiness spurred by hunger and fatigue.
"Wicker got away," Chester said vaguely.
Matt lit the lamp. Hair tousled, Chester sat on the bunk drinking from the water dipper.
Matt unlocked the cell door. In no hurry to leave the cell, Chester yawned, stretched and leaned back against the wall, which annoyed Matt anew. "What happened?"
"Wicker wouldn't go in the cell. He tole me give 'im 'is gun 'n git in here, an' he grabbed it. His gun. Stuck it in 'is belt. He took holt on me an' pulled me in the cell here, pushed me on the bunk an' locked me in. Heard 'im take his gun belt out the drawer 'fore he left."
"Mm-hmm. You aim to sleep the night in the cell? Looks like ya settled in," said Matt.
"You want me to stay in here, do you, Mr. Dillon?"
"That's up to you, Chester. I'm gonna see if Kitty and Doc wanna get supper."
"Had nothin' ta eat locked up. Wicker give me some water, though."
"That was neighborly of him. You comin'?" said the marshal.
Chester jumped up, put on his hat and trailed Matt outside. His friend seemed not to give a thought for Wicker's escape, which puzzled Matt and vexed him, too, though he resolved not to let his displeasure show. He didn't care about Wicker escaping any more than Chester did. What bothered Matt was his partner not caring about letting Wicker escape. Though Chester had slept off the whiskey and his head was clear, he did not tell Matt he was sorry or doubt his ability to be a good lawman's assistant, which he'd normally do. Times Matt couldn't get a purchase on the workings in Chester's head, so best leave it be.
"You gonna track down Wicker, Mr. Dillon?"
"No. He returned the money. If Pearson asks, I'll just tell him Wicker escaped," said Matt. Hearing his own words pardoning Wicker cleared Chester of any fault for his nonchalance. Even concealed ill feeling toward a friend was wrong to Matt's way of thinking.
Chester didn't mention his lost love when Kitty and Doc joined him and Matt for dinner at Delmonico's. The farmer's daughter had attracted Chester's quick affections without capturing his heart, like most of the girls he courted. He chatted about Wicker, how big, strong and fast on his feet he was, how Chester let an unarmed feller escape rather than shoot him, and how Wicker had given him a dipper of water so he wouldn't perish of thirst before Mr. Dillon got back from Fort Dodge.
"You did right, Chester. I'd do the same," said Matt.
Doc and Kitty waited for the grin that habitually lit Chester's face at any approval from Matt, who took no notice and attended to his steak. Neither grinning or seeking the proof of Matt's favor in the marshal's eyes, Chester looked round the dining room for the waiter to come and pour more coffee so he could order dessert.
Kitty and Doc glanced curiously at each other. Kitty shrugged and Doc winked. "Difference is, Matt, you would've locked that Wicker in the cell if you had to thrash 'im to do it. He'd be penned up snug right now," said Doc. Chester buttered a roll, paying Doc no mind.
"I'm not sorry Wicker got away, Doc. I'm tired of talking about it," said Matt.
"Yeah, Doc. Whole thing weren't nothin' anyways. It's dull," said Chester.
"Nothin', is it. Wicker wasn't dull so long as you felt like talking about him, Chester. Matter of fact, you talked of nothing else since we sat down here," said Doc.
"Doc. Let's not bicker so we can enjoy dessert," said Kitty.
" 'Scuse me, Miss Kitty," said Chester. "I did feel like talkin' 'bout Wicker, Doc. I don't wanna talk about 'im no more. You jest said that thar 'bout Mr. Dillon 'n Wicker to plague me, an' I'm sick of you doin' that, Doc." Diners at nearby tables turned their heads as Chester raised his voice.
"I will say what I say to you, Chester," Doc retorted. "You don't have to sit around and listen."
"Oh, Doc," said Kitty. "Matt, walk me back to the Long Branch, would you? The way Doc and Chester are snapping at each other, I couldn't swallow dessert."
"Alright. Dinner is Doc's treat tonight," said Matt. He and Kitty pushed back their chairs and stood.
"Wait a minute. I never said that," said Doc.
"Then tell Chester to pay for it," said Kitty. "It'll give you two something else to argue about. That's what you want, isn't it, Doc?"
"No, it's not what I want. I want Chester to act like he usually does instead of sitting there staring at me like I'm a stranger."
Kitty lay her hands on Doc's shoulders. "Stop by for a beer when you quit quarreling," she said, and left the restaurant with Matt.
"Well, Chester?" said Doc.
"Aren't you gonna storm out of here with your feelings hurt?" said Doc.
"No matter what you say, Doc, my feelings ain't hurt. I want hot apple pie and coffee," said Chester.
"So do I," said Doc.
"Coming right up," said the waiter, clearing away the dinner plates. They hadn't seen him come to the table. He refilled their water glasses and went away.
"What's got into you, Chester," said Doc.
"My feelings would be hurt if you weren't my friend no more, Doc," said Chester, just for somewhat to say, though it was true. He had no idea what all had got into him, if anything.
"Oh pshaw. I'm always your friend. Maybe you need a change." Doc almost clapped a hand to his mouth. He'd blurted the words without knowing he thought them.
"A change? You mean like goin' fishin'?"
"Yes. Fishing. That's what I mean," said Doc. The waiter served their pie and coffee.
"Naw . . . you was talkin' 'bout another kinda change." Chester loaded his fork with steaming pie. "Like doin' somewhat else 'sides jailkeepin' 'n sech," he said around the mouthful.
"Chester, you do whatever you want. When you want. That is every man's right. I won't influence you," said Doc.
"Yeah. Ah'll think on it, Doc. Don't wanna be a lawman's assistant all my days."