The Texas Trail was along Front Street, down by the Longhorn and the Oasis, kitty-corner to the Allafraganza. I’ve always liked saloons. There’s something very comfortable there. You always know what you’re going to get there - booze, cards, and girls. I suppose as a peace officer I should have liked them less. All three led to the same thing. Trouble. But I wasn’t always a marshal. And my idea of fun is the same as any man’s. So I went to the saloons and watched and enjoyed the atmosphere. I drank sometimes, and every once in awhile I played a hand of cards in a friendly game, but that was as far as it went.
In the few months since I’d come back to Dodge I’d made it my habit to eat with Big Kate, the Texas Trail’s owner, once every couple of weeks. It’s nice to have feminine company, and Kate was enough older than me that there wasn’t much for folks to speculate about. Other nights, though, I sat in the bar and watched the tables and listened to the sounds and tried not to stare at the girl Kitty, who worked downstairs. She was a fine-looking girl, with dark-red hair and a sassy smile. She must’ve been a couple years younger than me, though not more than a couple, but there was a look in her eye that told me she’d seen more of life than I had.
Sam Noonan was at the bar when I came in. “Evenin’, Marshal,” he said. “Heard you had you some trouble.”
“Yeah, Sam,” I said. “I did.” He didn’t ask anything more, and I was grateful. Noonan was a good bartender – just the right amount of gab. I ordered my food and asked for something to be run over to Chester. Sam poured me a beer and I took it to a corner table.
Things were just getting lively, though they’d quieted down some since I came in. There were even a few cowboys at the bar, looking around like they planned to rob the place. Maybe they did, until they saw me. It was the time of year that troubles a lawman most – the cattle were starting to come in from Texas and New Mexico. That meant cowboys, and drinking, and fights, and killings. Rustling, too, probably. Sipping my beer, I thought about the town. They’d be watching to see how I handled things. The six months or so here had been a good sojourn, and now I had to make good. I worked for the government, there was no chance of me losing my job. But if I wanted to be accepted here, I had to handle the next few weeks just right. If I could just keep my temper.
“You look like you just lost your dog, Marshal.”
I looked up. Kitty was standing over me, with a steak on a plate. She half-smiled down at me.
“My dog, Miss Kitty?”
“A man looks sadder over losing his dog, I’ve noticed, than over his wife.”
I laughed and stood. “I suppose he does at that.”
She set the plate down in front of me. “You’re not married, right?”
“No, Miss Kitty.” She knew I wasn’t.
“So I figure it has to be your dog. Or maybe you lost a bet.”
My smile went away slowly. “I had to shoot a man.”
Her smile went away, too. “I know, Marshal.”
We stood there for a moment, looking at each other. There was just something about the girl – though we hadn’t passed more than a dozen words in a row since I’d come to Dodge, I felt like she – she understood me. Or understood something. There was a connection, that’s all I know.
I gestured to an empty seat across from me. “Would you care to sit, Miss Kitty?”
Her smile came back. “Don’t mind if I do, Marshal.”
“Call me Matt.”
“Only if you drop this Miss Kitty stuff. It drives me crazy. Plain Kitty does well enough between friends.”
I laughed. “It’s a deal, Kitty.” I held out her chair for her and she sat. I went back to my seat and started in on my steak.
“This is real good,” I said, just to be saying something.
“Made it myself,” said Kitty.
“I didn’t know you cooked, Kitty,” I said.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Matt,” said Kitty.
“That’s the truth,” I said.
“I heard you got a kid over at the jail,” she said.
“Runaway,” I said.
“Any idea where he came from?”
“No word yet. I’m hoping to hear something before the week’s out. I’d hate to send him to one of those foundling homes.”
“How old is he, Matt?”
“Eleven or twelve. Hard to say for sure, but he acts like a real kid.”
“You like kids, Matt?” asked Kitty.
I put down my fork and wiped my lips. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
She nodded and smiled. It wasn’t the smile one of the bar-girls gives a mark. It was real, and it was for me. At least, I liked to think it was. The connection between us was strong, but comfortable. Not a lot had to be said about it, but we were both working at it anyway.
“Would you like another beer, Matt?” she asked.
She got up and ducked behind the bar and pulled the beer herself. She brought it back and sat down again opposite me. “Big Kate likes you,” she said. “Your beer is free.”
“But not the whiskey,” I said.
“No,” said Kitty with a smile. “Not unless she’s drinkin’ it with you.”
“Her whiskey’s better’n what they serve down here, anyway,” I said.
Across the room a couple of cowboys started getting a little rowdy. I could tell they had money burning a hole in their pockets. I’d have to find someone to look after the kid tonight – maybe Shiloh over at the Dodge House would take him. In another few hours I was gonna need Chester. Come midnight these cowboys’d be looking to tear the town apart.
But I didn’t want to be looking at cowboys. I wanted to look at Kitty. I turned back to her as I sipped my beer.
“Cowboys are in town,” I said.
“From the Drag-R herd, they said,” Kitty told me.
I nodded. I was probably staring, but she didn’t seem to mind. And I wasn’t feeling embarrassed about it for some reason. She wasn’t as pretty as, say, Francie, but there was more life in her than in a hundred town ladies.
Thinking of Francie, I said, “Say, Kitty. Couple days back, Clay Richards was in here, having a drink. Did you talk to him any?”
“Some,” said Kitty. “Seemed like he was celebrating somethin’.”
“Did he say what?”
“No, not that I recall. Why?”
“I’m trying to figure why he robbed that bank – or tried to, anyway. Was he having money-trouble?”
“His tab was paid up here, far as I know,” said Kitty. “Why’n’t you ask his wife?”
“Francie’s a little out of sorts right now. She needs some time to cool down.”
“Sure,” said Kitty. “But I know what you mean. Clay was happy as a lark the other night. The next day he goes and shoots two people. It doesn’t figure.”
“No,” I said, “it doesn’t figure.”
I sat there thinking about Clay, and the cashier, and the Chinaman. And that got me to thinking about Ziegler and Adam. Four hundred dollars. A missing gun. Nothing fit. None of it.
“Wow,” said Kitty.
I blinked at her. “What?”
“I’m glad I didn’t break any law,” she said.
I smiled at her. “What do you mean?”
“I just saw you at work, and it’s not something I’d want to be on the other end of. You’d be a bad man to be up against – so to speak.”
I flushed. “I’m sorry, Miss Kitty…”
“Matt,” she said, laying a hand on mine. “It’s Kitty.”
It was like being in a lightning storm, having her touch my hand. All my senses were alert and my heart was beating faster.
“No worries, Matt.”