Note: This story was inspired by a line at the end of "The Man Who Would Be Marshal" where Major Egan asks, "You ever been to California, Marshal?" Matt replies, "Not for some time." I got to wondering when he had been there and under what circumstances. And, I borrowed Ben Stack from the Season 10 episode "Honey Pot" to help me find out.
A Place to Call Home, Part 1
Kitty propped her elbows on the green felt, leaned her chin on her clasped hands and smiled at her companions. Across the expanse of beer mugs, shot glasses and a half-empty whiskey bottle, Ben Stack smiled back. If it weren't for the seductive blonde leaning over his shoulder and whispering into his ear, he would have taken more than a little interest in the gorgeous redhead, but he had been smitten by the blonde hours earlier.
Stack traced an index finger slowly down her arm. "You go ahead and serve those drinks, Honey. I'm in good hands with the marshal here, and we'll go for a walk after you get off work."
Honey Dare patted his shoulder and sashayed away to pick up four mugs of beer for the cowboys playing poker in the far corner of the saloon.
Stack turned to Dillon, "Just like the old days, hunh, Matt? Smoky bar, good whiskey, pretty girls...yeah, those were the days."
Matt glanced uneasily at the redhead seated close beside him. "Uh, Ben, could you maybe not..."
"Oh, no, you don't," Kitty shot back, slapping playfully at the coarse sleeve of his shirt. "I've been waiting a lot of years to meet someone willing to tell me the truth about that alleged wild youth of yours. You're not going to spoil this for me." She smiled at the new man in town. "Go on Ben. Matt tells me you two rode together for five years down in Arizona Territory. 'A little cowboy-ing, a little hell-raising' was the way he put it."
Ben looked across the table at his old friend, took a long swallow of whiskey and grinned at Kitty. "Yeah, we rode together—among other things. Got in trouble together, too, but I could always count on the big guy here to get us out of it." As Stack began to spin yarns of ranching and riding and barroom brawls in the Arizona desert, Matt pulled his hat low on his forehead and leaned back in his chair, lost in even older, and very different, memories of his own.
He walked along the waterfront with the slightly rolling gait of one who had not set foot on land in a long time. Which, in fact, was true. His unit had been on the move when word reached them that General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, and within weeks the men were mustered out. After an achingly long and wretched three years, he was finally free to trade in his ragged blue uniform for his Stetson and badge and return to the land and the law he loved.
But after several days on the long ride west, he found himself unable to travel another mile across the burnt and ransacked earth that still echoed with the moans of the dying, still reeked with the odor of the dead. He made camp for the night, and by morning he had made a decision. He had no family, no ties of either a personal or professional nature that demanded his immediate return to…well, to any place in particular.
While by no means a drifter, he was restless and curious by nature, and he had already lived numerous places and worked a variety of jobs in his young life—from the dingy little border towns of his native Texas to the sprawling, wind-swept plains of Kansas and Missouri. One more job and one more place wouldn't make any difference. Dousing the campfire and swallowing down the last dregs of chicory-laced coffee, he climbed into the saddle, glanced at the early morning sky, and kicked Julius, the government-issued black gelding cavalrymen were allowed to keep "in partial remuneration for services to the Union," into a trot.
With the battlefields of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Kennesaw Mountain behind him, geographically, at least, he worked his way to Mobile, the nearest port city, and offered his services to the first ship's captain he found in the harbor. The older man, who had spent the war years slipping through the Yankee blockade of southern seaports, shielded his eyes from the sun and squinted up—and up-at the tall, lanky young man whose own blue eyes were old beyond his years. "So you need work, hunh? Not escapin' from anywhere are you, son?" he asked quietly.
The younger man responded with a shy smile. "Only from my memories, sir." He held out a massive hand. "Name's Matt Dillon."
"You ever been to sea before?"
"No matter," the captain interrupted and tilted his head upward again. "Can you read and write?"
"You'll do then, but you're gonna have to remember to keep your head down. Low ceilings below deck." This time the captain was the first to extend his hand. "Danner's the name, Calvin Danner. Let me tell you what I need while you still have time to change your mind."
Dillon listened intently as Captain Danner explained the job. The Lottie Lou was a privately financed cargo tramp bound for the port of Chagres in Panama, but the cargo itself was destined for San Francisco. It would be Dillon, along with one other crew member, who would accompany the goods on the entire route from Florida's gulf coast to the California port, a hazardous and exhausting trip of approximately four and a half months and 5,400 miles through the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the jungles of Panama and, finally, up the west coast of Mexico and the United States to the city of San Francisco.
"First leg's generally easy enough," Danner commented and continued to explain. Once in Chagres, the cargo would be off-loaded, and both it and the men would travel by pack mule until they reached the railway. Men and cargo would then continue by rail across the narrow strip of land known as the Isthmus of Panama until they reached Panama City on the opposite coast. "And this is the most dangerous part. Whole damned route runs through jungles and swamps filled with mosquitoes big as your head. We've lost more'n one to malaria and the fevers, to say nothin' of attacks and robberies by the natives."
"If you make it across, you'll likely have to set a while," he continued, referring to the fact that both cargo and men would have to wait for the west coast transport, the Pacific Star, to make port in Panama City, where the cargo again would be loaded aboard ship and continue its way up the Pacific coast and into the turbulent waters of San Francisco Bay. "But, barrin' any bad storms, you'll be home free. I'll give you an advance on your pay now, and the rest'll be waitin' for you on the other end. A lot of m'boys decide to stay out there, but if you want, you're welcome to come back east the same way. You think you're up to it? It's not too late to say no."
"I'll do it," Dillon responded. A few minutes later the papers were signed, and he tucked a card bearing an address in San Francisco where he would pick up the remainder of his pay into his pocket. With one last handshake, the former ranch hand, drover, cow puncher, lawman and army corporal found himself, at the age of twenty-five, officially embarking on yet another career—that of able-bodied seaman. He leaned back on his heels and tilted his head upward, his eyes following the line of the mast all the way to the very top. He took a deep breath. He wasn't a stranger to dangerous jobs, and the destination didn't matter—Cuba, the South Seas, the Orient, the Pacific. He didn't care, so long as it was a place free from gut-gnawing hunger and dysentery, scorched and barren earth, bloodied fields and the stench of death.
And he found he wasn't alone. On the ships, on the train, and in every waterfront bar, he met other men like himself. Whether they had worn the tattered blue wool of the union soldier or the threadbare gray broadcloth and butternut homespun of the rebel forces, all were seeking solace, seeking meaning, seeking work, seeking an unblemished place to call home.
After months at sea, stretching his legs on something that didn't lift and roll beneath him felt good, and, after locating the address printed on the stained card he had carefully guarded every leg of the journey, he collected his wages, verified that he could, indeed, return east via the same route if he so chose, and set out to take a look around. The swirling fog and mist made the night feel cold and damp, and he walked faster, pulling the collar of his dark blue pea coat closer around his neck. On first impression, he found the city by the bay an exotic and untamed place, still resonating with the spirit of the Forty-niners and the gold rush—vibrant, unscarred by war, and full of hope for the future.
He walked for probably an hour before rumblings in his stomach reminded him that he hadn't eaten since breakfast. He wished he had thought to ask Gunnar, the crewman who had made the journey with him and a veteran of several crossings, about a restaurant with filling food and cheap prices, but the big Swede had walked with him the few blocks to the Seaman's Rooming House, introduced him to Bertha Ganzer, the landlady, dropped his bag and hurried off, mumbling shyly that his girl was waiting.
Almost hidden among the warehouses and bars that populated the streets surrounding the docks, he saw a small storefront building, the window of which was covered with strange characters he assumed to be the Chinese language. And taped to the corner nearest the door was a small sign penciled in crooked capitals: FOOD GOOD. A heavy sea spray coated the outside of the window and condensation formed on the inside, making it difficult to see into the crowded room. But he peered through the glass and was able to discern a throng of men, most of whom were wearing coats similar to his own, the traditional garb of a seaman.
Curious and hungry, he pushed through the door and immediately felt heat emanating from the steam pots on the far side of the room. His broad shoulders cut a path through the crowd and he worked his way to a table with two men and a vacant chair. "All right if I sit down?"
The older man nodded his consent while his companion inexpertly juggled rice, meat, and vegetables between two sticks that appeared to be made of bone or ivory. He glanced at the menu—a schoolroom slate propped against the wall, but when a young Chinese boy came to take his order, he simply pointed to the rice and meat dish and said, "Make mine the same."
"New to Chinese food, are ye?" the older man questioned.
He grinned. "As a matter of fact, I am."
"It's not bad, and you get a lot of it for four bits—includes all the tea you can drink and all the steamed dumplings you can eat. Name's Quinn—Malachy Quinn, and my half-starved friend here is Ben Stack."
He nodded. "Matt Dillon. So, what are we eating, Stack?"
The other man, who appeared to be about his own age, stopped eating long enough to swallow down some tea and reply. "They call it pepper steak. It's good, and they'll give you a fork if you ask."
"You're new to the waterfront, ain't ya?" Quinn questioned. "How long you been in town?"
"Couple hours." Dillon wrapped a huge hand around the diminutive tea cup and took a healthy swallow of the hot liquid. "How'd you know?"
"Well, for one thing you don't smell like fish and brine." Quinn helped himself to a steamed dumpling from the dish in the center of the table, took a large bite, and continued. "You lookin' for work?"
Matt considered the question as a heaping plate of rice, steak and green peppers was placed in front of him. He noted that the waiter had considerately brought a fork as well as the unwieldy chopsticks, and he smiled his thanks. "Maybe. You have something in mind?" he answered as he tucked a frayed napkin under his chin and dug into his food.
"Wharfie." At Dillon's puzzled look, the older man explained. "Longshoreman. I always need big, strong men to load and unload cargo."
"I'll think about it," he replied and returned to the plate in front of him. Dillon's natural reticence, coupled with a caution born of his tenure as lawman, made him a less than chatty dinner partner, but it mattered not, as the gregarious Quinn kept up a steady stream of conversation whether his companions responded or not. From Malachy Quinn's ramblings, he discerned that the banty little man was an Irish immigrant who had arrived in San Francisco twenty years earlier as deckhand on a small freighter. Since then, he had risen to one of the most respected positions on the waterfront, operations manager for cargo ships entering and leaving the port.
Ben Stack, according to Quinn, hailed from the east—Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to be specific. He was a salesman turned cowboy turned gambler, drifting from coast to coast, enjoying life and working only when necessary. He and Malachy Quinn had become friends quite by accident a year earlier when they faced each other over a disputed hand at a poker table in a Montgomery Street gambling palace.
His plate scraped clean, Dillon threw a coin on the table and stood to leave. "I'd best be moving along. Thanks for the company and conversation, gentlemen." He turned to Quinn. "If I decide to take that job, where can I find you?"
"Right here most nights. Daytime you can find me at m'office—foot of Post Street—red brick building, sign says "OPERATIONS."
Stack stood with him. "You want to take in a bit of the city's night life? The Irishman here always declines, says he's too old for that sort of thing, but what about it, Dillon? There's a new show at the Hippodrome, about three blocks over."
"Why not?" he replied, and by the end of the evening, a friendship had formed.
The sound of Kitty's laughter jolted Matt back to the present, and he focused his attention on Ben's latest tale of their years in Arizona. "...signed on to do some scouting for the army, heading down to Ft. Huachuca, but along the way we found a baby—couldn't have been more than a couple months old. No one else around—no wagon, no horse, nothing—just a very tiny, very hungry little girl. Needless to say, we couldn't accommodate her much in the way of food, but we did our best—fed her water by wetting the corner of a bandana and letting her suck on it. Smashed up a bean or two and mixed it with water 'til it was mostly liquid. We'd dip our fingertip in it and let her suck it down that way. Gave her little drops of sugar water the same way. One morning we came across a mule deer with her fawn, and Matt here decided to milk her. Said if it was good for her baby, it was good for our baby, too. We tried ropin' them and taking them with us, but the fawn couldn't keep up and kept wandering off, so we milked the mamma again, and turned 'em loose. I tell you, Kitty, we just might be the first scouting party ever to cross the desert with a whiskey flask full of deer milk."
Ben took a long swallow of beer and continued. "We took turns holding her when we were in the saddle, and when we made camp for the night, we'd empty one of the saddle bags, lay it on the ground, wrap her up and stuff her in there—kind of papoose style. It was slow traveling with Callie—that's what we named her—stopping every couple hours to feed or change her—or to wash her clothes. We cut our long johns into diapers and tied 'em on her, but they…well, let's just say they didn't last forever. It took us about twelve days to cross that desert and find civilization, but we made it. And, if I do say so myself, we handed a pretty healthy and happy baby over to the company doctor at Ft. Huachuca."
Kitty shook her head. "That's amazing. You two playing nursemaid—I'd have paid good money to see that." She grinned. "Do you have any idea what happened to her?"
"Some of the officers at the fort had their wives with them. The doctor and the first lieutenant both assured us she wouldn't be wanting for a loving family."
Matt pushed his hat back on his head and stood. "Well, this has been very…uh…entertaining, but I need to make my rounds. Ben, you want to walk along with me or you gonna stay here and keep on stretching the truth for Kitty?"
"Actually, I promised the lovely Honey I'd go for a walk with her when she finishes work, so guess I'll just wait here 'til she's ready."
"I'll see you tomorrow, then." Matt touched two fingers to the brim of his hat. "I'll see you later, Kitty."