Matt glanced up at the door just long enough to see who it was, then went back to whatever it was he was writing.
Doc crossed the few steps to the stove and picked up the coffee pot. It was light, but still enough sloshed in the bottom to let him know there was maybe a cup left before he'd run into grounds and egg shells and whatever else Chester had put in there this time.
He reached for one of the empty cups on the table.
"Some of the boards in front of the Lady Gay have come loose," he said. He shuffled across the room to the table and pulled out a chair. "Of course those ones aren't nearly as bad as the ones in front of the Texas Trail. There's at least six of them rotted right through."
"Uh huh." Matt didn't bother looking up.
"Why I nearly put my foot right through them walking over here."
"The Texas Trail isn't between your office and here, Doc."
"I didn't say I was coming from my office."
Matt looked up, but didn't say anything.
"Touch of ague out at the Simpson place."
"Kind of late in the year for ague, isn't it?"
"Last I checked, fevers don't consult a calendar."
Matt grunted a bit, then went back to his writing.
Doc took a sip of the coffee. It wasn't bad today. Maybe it was fresh. Or as close to fresh as Chester ever bothered to make it. There was a newspaper on the table, but it was two weeks old. Doc had already read it at least twice over.
"So what are you going to do about those rotten boards?" he asked.
Matt looked up again. "Why should I do anything?"
"Why they're a public hazard. Someone's going to break a leg. Isn't your job to protect the safety of the inhabitants of this fine community?"
"Sounds more like it's a public health issue. That's your job, isn't it? Besides, it seems to me that a broken leg or two would be be in your best business interest." Matt put down his pencil and sat back in his chair. He stretched out his legs.
"That's mighty cynical of you to say, Matt. You're besmirching my reputation."
"I'm just stating facts. Your reputation is all yours."
Doc snorted and picked up the paper, hiding his own smile behind the pages that told about an election already a month old and 500 miles to the east. Giving Matt a reason to ease up on his worries was always a good thing. Keeping Matt healthy was only partly about stitching up bullet wounds and fussing over bruises and broken bones. Matt needed an excuse sometimes to relax, to spend a night over checkers or to be shooed out to spend the night with Kitty - some way to distract him from everything that he seemed to think could go wrong.
Doc had seen what happened when Matt thought he could make the world right all by himself, the chances he took all too often. And the anger that could rise so fast when things went wrong, the way his face and his eyes went hard even before he reached for his gun. Anyone who saw that look and didn't stop were fools. Doc had treated enough men who'd run across that version of Matt, and most of them had deserved what they got.
Doc put the paper back down. "Who are you writing to anyway? Think Washington's going to raise your pay if you ask them enough times?"
"I'd be glad if they sent me my back pay, never mind a raise." Matt got up and poured a little more coffee into his mug, then fished out part of an eggshell and tossed it aside.
"I'm sending a letter to the town sheriff back in Virginia where this Greerson's seems to have come from - or at least the place where his folks were married, according to his Bible. I'm hoping he'll know what happened to the rest of the family."
"I thought you said you were going to stop looking back when the captain out at Fort Dodge said he couldn't help you."
"So what changed your ..." Doc put his coffee down. "Kitty put you up to this, didn't she? She keeps pestering you. I know how she is."
"It's not Kitty," Matt said, then shrugged. "Not completely. I just keep thinking."
Matt took a drink of his coffee. He leaned forward with one hand up against the window frame and stared out through the glass.
"About?" Doc asked.
"Doc, how many men have you seen die without a name to bury them with, or without any family to tell? How many widows and mothers have you seen looking for someone and never know if they should mourn? Not just on the prairie, but everywhere. On the river or back east even?"
First dead man Doc had seen was a man who'd drowned in the river from somewhere upstream. No one ever knew anything about him or where he'd come from.
During the war, before battle, he'd seen men sew their names and home towns inside their uniforms, leave a final letter tucked inside a pocket just in case. He'd found those same notes when the men came into the field hospitals, broken and bloody and already dying, the names and letters soaked with their own blood. He'd tell the orderly to set the names aside and make sure they stayed with the men, but he knew most went missing somewhere along the way.
In the prison camp, privates and corporals would seek him out - not because he had any way to help them, but because they knew that he wouldn't be there long. Officers and doctors were among the first to be swapped in any prisoner exchange. They were considered too valuable for either side to ignore. The other men knew they'd never go home until the fighting stopped. The only people who cared about them were back home, somewhere.
"Billy Washington," the first man to find Doc had told him. "My Ma is in Portland, Maine."
"James Nichols. Dayton Ohio."
"Michael Thompson. Twenty-second Mass. Tell my wife to name the baby after my father."
There were maybe twenty of them that he could name still, but Doc was ashamed of all the names he'd forgotten. The places. The families. He hoped to God that someone got word out about them.
Sometimes, when he'd been drinking bad whiskey, he'd dream about them. He'd see every face, see their lips move, but could never hear what they said, their names still lost to him. Nights like that, sometimes it would help to get out, walk through the quiet town. Sometimes the only thing that helped was more whiskey.
"That um," Doc's voice sounded strained to his ears and he cleared his throat. "That Bible just mention one town where his folks came from?"
"A couple of them. There's mention of people in Georgia too."
"Seems to me I recall a couple of people I knew from medical school were setting up practices down that way," Doc said. "Maybe I could write them too."
When Doc looked up at him, Matt had that satisfied look he always had when he won a game of checkers.
"Of course it won't do no good," Doc warned. "But if it'll make Kitty happy, I suppose I could ..."
Yeah," Matt said, "if it'll make Kitty happy."