Mr. Dillon ate just one bite of the flapjacks Chester fried with sowbelly for breakfast. The marshal pushed his plate away and joshed about using the flapjacks for cleaning rags. Chester said he didn't like cooking nohow, and were his wages higher than forty-five cents a day, he'd eat all his meals at restaurants.
"I pay you twenty cents more than when you hired on," said Matt. "You bunk here at the office, and the money for your food comes out of the till."
"I done hired on six years ago, Mr. Dillon," said Chester. "Forty-five cent is a poor man's wage. Pay down to the cattle pens is a dollar a day."
The marshal felt a rush of heat between his temples. Whatever troubled his friend, it was wearing on Matt. "Chester, I never asked you to cook, even when we have prisoners. We get their dinner from Delmonico's, and they can eat jerky and cold canned beans for breakfast and lunch. If you don't want to cook, don't cook."
Matt strapped on his gun belt, put on his hat and went out. Ordinarily, Chester would rush after him protesting that cooking was no bother, ask where he was going and if he needed help, but today Chester just did not feel like walking about town with Mr. Dillon. Chester felt like a different man, or more like, the same man seeing things a different way.
He cleaned the breakfast things, poured another cup of coffee and sat at the table with a book about the states and territories that Miss Kitty gave him for his thirty-seventh birthday in June. The book had tintype prints and color paintings on every glossy page, not too much history and only a few words Chester didn't understand.
He was absorbed in poring over pictures of California when the door opened. The visitor was the assayer, Evan Pearson. "Chester. Where's Marshal Dillon."
"Mr. Dillon went out. Dunno whereabouts."
"Well, when will he be back?" said Pearson.
"Dunno. He's in town somewheres, you wanna look for 'im."
"I do not want to look for him. I want you to look for him," said Pearson.
"When is the marshal taking Wicker to court. I'm going to testify that he took my money box from the stage driver and destroyed it." Pearson looked at the closed door to the jail cells.
Chester rested his palms on the opened book. "Wicker give you back yer money."
"Did I say he didn't give it back? I am testifying against him regardless. Now go find Marshal Dillon while I wait here," Pearson ordered.
"You wanna talk to Mr. Dillon, Pearson, you look for him."
"You got some gizzard addressing me like that, boy," said Pearson.
Chester bookmarked his page and rose from his chair. He was taller than Pearson by some four inches, and the assayer had a middling build. Pearson took a quick step back.
"Thought so. Pearson," said Chester.
"Alright easy, smart mouth. I'll speak to Wicker. Maybe he knows when his court date is," said Pearson.
"Go 'head 'n talk to 'im," said Chester.
Pearson opened the door to the cells, then slammed it and turned back to Chester. "How dare you make sport of me. You knew Wicker wasn't in there. Where is he?"
"Wicker weren't never in the cell. He escaped."
"Escaped. You idiot. Is Dillon tracking him down?"
"Wahl, Mr. Dillon's on an errand here in town, so I reckon not. Wicker's long gone. You might as well go back to your ass-saying, Pearson."
"You need a chop in the mouth, you know that, Chester?" said Pearson. "Put you in your place."
"You ain't the one to do it, so git on outta here," said Chester.
Pearson reddened and stomped out, slamming the door so the windowpanes rattled. Chester moved to the window, watching him stalk away. There were too many like him in Dodge, throwing orders about on account of they owned a business and a pile of money. Even more men in town had nothing and did hard dirty work all day, but too many of them were small-minded and vicious. Though Dodge grew every year, it remained a dusty cow town, only bigger, and the plains roundabout were settling up fast with homesteading farmers and ranchers. It all made a body feel like moving on West.
When Chester told Matt about Pearson's visit, the marshal grinned all through the telling and laughed a time or two. "Good work, Chester. I think you discouraged Pearson from coming here again unless he has good reason."
Matt sat at the table, opened Chester's book to the marked page and looked at the pictures of California. Chester poured two cups of coffee and joined Matt. "You ever been to California, Mr. Dillon?"
"Sure. Not for awhile, though."
"I never been. Think I wanna see them tall red trees first," said Chester.
"You'll get there if you really want to, Chester."
"Onliest thing stoppin' me's bein' poor."
"Now, don't start that again," said Matt.
To Chester's surprise, being poor didn't stop him on account of he was in California that same day. Not in the red tree forest, but at the seashore by Monterey. The sun shone in a bright, solid blue sky, unlike the leaden autumn sky over Dodge. The sea matched the sky, with water so peaceful the ripples barely frothed in the sand at the shoreline.
Not a soul was in sight, though there were a lot of gulls around. Chester found the absence of people restful after the bustle of Dodge.
The sea was drawing him in, so strongly he had no choice but to take a swim. He didn't swim that well, but he wasn't scared. He'd go in a short ways and swim back to the sand.
He waded in the water fully dressed to his boots, which did not weigh him down at all. Though he swam with no effort whatever, he knew he must turn back before he went too far.
He stopped in the water, dog paddling to stay afloat. He couldn't tread proper without sinking on account of his leg. And there was a woman not five yards ahead of him, facing him and treading easily like he never would be able to. She was milky white with bare shoulders, the tops of her breasts showing above the surface. He sucked in a breath and plunged his head under to look at her body. He expected the sting of sea salt in his eyes, but felt none. She was naked, her form womanly.
Chester surfaced to look at her some more. Her long hair rippled around her on the mild current. She was young with big sea-blue eyes staring at him, a beautiful face and full red mouth.
She turned of a sudden with a splash and swam away from him. He looked at her round white bottom a second, then swam fast to overtake her. He swam what seemed a long spell, then stopped and dog paddled again to look for her.
She was gone. Chester looked around. The woman had vanished. He hoped she hadn't drowned. He knew he couldn't help her if she had. He was not strong enough to save her.
He turned to swim back to shore, and saw only seawater meeting the sky. He turned all the way round and turned again, gasping as his heart pounded. He'd swum too far! He started sinking and splashed wildly, hollering for help.
"Chester." Mr. Dillon was close to, but Chester couldn't see him. The ripples closed over Chester's head and he thrashed about as the salty water filled his mouth and nose. Strange how he hadn't tasted the salt 'til now. "Chester." Mr. Dillon took hold of his shoulders to pull him out of the water.
Chester gripped Matt's arms, opened his mouth wide and gasped noisily as he lay on his bunk. Matt shook him hard and his eyes opened. "Alright, Chester?"
"Oh, my goodness," Chester said faintly. He clapped his hands to his head, mussed his hair and rubbed his eyes. From the feeble gray light in the marshal's office, he figured the time to be three o'clock or thereabouts. He'd slept through lunch.
"You were dreaming," said Matt.
Chester sat up on his cot, slid his feet in their boots to the floor and leaned back against the wall. "It weren't all bad," he said. " 'Twas right nice 'til I most drowned."
"Drowned," said Matt. "Where'd you go?"
"Seashore near Monterey in California. The real place is even finer than the picture. Never seed sech bright colors all ma days. Would've hurt my eyes, only everthin' thar's too pretty for that."
"Well good to hear you enjoyed your trip and made it home alive," said Matt.
"Thanks to you, Mr. Dillon. You rescued me jest in time."
Matt grinned and patted his friend's shoulder. "This calls for a shot of whiskey to celebrate your return." He took the bottle from the desk drawer, filled two coffee cups halfway, handed one to Chester and pulled a chair close to the bunk.
Chester took a long swallow. The whiskey burned through his chest and belly and eased the clench in his gut. His head felt airy and warmth rushed through his body to his fingers and toes. He took another drink. "I hope you can spare me when I move on, Mr. Dillon. Wouldn't wanna leave you in a lurch."
"Settin' down roots in Monterey, are ya?" said Matt.
"Don't think I'm the kinda body to set down roots. That's a l'il like bein' locked in a cell. I'll start with the land of big red trees maybe, and journey my way through California. Don't know 'bout Monterey, though. Ain't no people thar."
"There are a lot of people in Monterey, Chester," said Matt. "It's a settled city, like your book says."
"Oh. Well maybe I was somewheres else in that dream."
"You were right here," said Matt.
"Yeah . . . . " Chester sighed. "Wahl anyways, Mr. Dillon, Dodge cain't hold me too much longer. Now I know where I'm headed."
"You have my blessing whenever you're ready to leave. And if you want to come back to Dodge, your job will be here for you long as I am," said Matt. "Now how about an early dinner? You missed lunch swimmin' in the ocean, and I missed breakfast."
"No wonder. I couldn't eat them flapjacks I cooked, either," said Chester.
He and the marshal put on their jackets and hats and headed for Delmonico's. The clouds had darkened and the sharp scents of earth, rain fixing to fall and a damp cutting chill blew on the wind. Chester turned up his jacket collar and put his hands in his pockets, hunched his shoulders and sang as he walked.
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word
And the sky is not clouded all day.