It was almost closing time and most of Dodge City had already shuttered their doors against a blossoming spring storm but the Long Branch's lights remained on as wind tossed sand, small pieces of debris, and pelts of freezing rain past the popular saloon, turning Front Street into a howling tunnel and shaking all doors into a persistent uneasy rattle.
Only the table in the far corner remained occupied as Kitty went about the business of cleaning up alone after sending Sam home early in hopes that he could beat the worst of the weather. Casting an eye towards the four men who were still pulling on their drinks around a murmured conversation, she turned forlorn thoughts towards the man she loved, wishing that he was with her now.
But Matt was out in the storm, having left town that morning with Chester in search of two runaway teenagers suspected of trying to elope when their parents forbid their marriage on grounds that they were too young. She could only hope her friends had found a safe place to shelter.
Stupid selfish kids, she thought, squeezing the rag in her hand until her knuckles turned white. Even if conditions were perfect, doing something like that was liable to get a person killed and this was tornado weather!
Glancing at the clock then back at her patrons, she sized the four men up with a cool gaze and disquieted heart, wishing they'd just get up and leave on their own instead of waiting for her to ask. Their obvious leader had greasy black hair that spilled out from under his filthy cowboy hat in disheveled knots and a mangy salt and pepper beard that spread across his fat head in ratty hunks. His bullish body was clothed with things more fit for a pig squalor than a human being and he had more scars on face and body than she wished to count.
The younger boys were different. They were scruffy and weary-looking from long hard traveling but looked fairly clean-cut and had minded their manners when she'd served them early in the evening. Figuring they were some sort of hired crew, she pitied them for having crossed paths with such a boss.
Biting the inside of her cheek, she finally made the decision to ask them to leave. After all, she wasn't afraid, she reminded herself. Matt's presence, even when he wasn't physically in town, loomed over all of Dodge City and his personal relationship with her gave her confidence that she could handle anything.
"Well," she said, coming up to the table, "the weather looks pretty rough tonight. You guys oughta head out while you can."
"Thank you, ma'am," the sandy-blond young man touched his hat as he and his contemporaries automatically began to rise, "It was a mighty fine meal tonight. Best we've had in awhile."
"I'll say!" the dark-brown hair man added, "It was right good, ma'am."
"Reminded me of home, ma'am!" the third's face glowed, touching the cowboy hat set over his auburn curls.
"Well, thank you." Kitty smiled tensely as her eyes moved to the older man.
"What do you boys think you're doing?" he sneered from his seat, "Letting a woman tell you what to do?" He laughed harshly, "Why, I've never heard of such a thing!"
"Aww, now, Mr. Sikes." the blond protested, "Let's get out of here so this lady can close up." He nodded at the door, "I'd sure hate to have her out in that."
"Sit down!" Sikes snapped, glaring at each one in turn, "We're not finished with our business yet." "Go on," his tone was dark and icy as he gestured at the chairs, "Arliss. Jesse. John. Go on and sit down, boys."
Kitty left her blood go cold at his tone, but her steel quickly boiled too, "It's closing time." she repeated firmly, "You all need to clear out of here."
"I said, we're not finished with our business." Sikes retorted, rising slowly to his feet, deliberately revealing his gun as he pushed his coat back and he settled his big gnarled hands on his hips.
"Please, Mr. Sikes...," the blond instinctively stepped in front of Kitty as the others moved to project her flanks, "Lets just—"
Before she could think three shots rang out in the howling wind. It was only after the three bodies collapsed into her, slopping blood all the way down her dress and splashing the floor that sound escaped Kitty's throat.
"You—" she gasped, flying backwards with horrified eyes; she grabbed a chair for self-defense as the bodies hit the floor with a thud.
"Shut up!" Sikes snapped, springing forward; he snatched the chair out of her hands and tossed it into the wall then shoved her backwards all the way to the bar. The squishing sound of her blood-soaked skirts and the filthy feeling of them sticking to her legs as she stumbled backwards made her want to gag.
"When I tell someone to do something, they do it or they suffer the consequences." he growled, shoving her roughly against the counter a few times for emphasis.
"Now, what to do with you?" he continued, sneering as he stared into her ashen face, "I don't like dealing with witnesses."
Knowing there were no good options available, Kitty couldn't quite keep herself from trembling as he pulled up a chair and, with a shark-like grin, forced her to sit down.
"I don't like dealing with witnesses," he repeated, leaving a greasy smear on her cheekbone as he caressed it with a dirty thumb, "but I do enjoy a nice obedient woman."
Kitty's blood boiled again; she'd sooner be killed than have this man. "Keep your hands off me, you filthy swine!" she hissed, knocking his hand away with a fiery look.
To her disappointment there was no fatal shot; he only laughed. "That's cute." his tone was amused, "Real cute." He laughed again as he jerked her arms behind the chair and tired her wrists with a rusty wire from his deep coat pockets, "In fact, I kinda like it."
"Those were good boys you made me shoot." he said, surprising her by stepping back to survey the carnage as she struggled to free herself, "That was Arliss Mann." he pointed at the blond then the dark-haired man, "He was Jesse Williams."
"We called that one Curls," he nodded at the auburn-haired body, seeming not to notice the tears in her eyes as the wire tore ragged lines into her flesh, "His name was John Mason."
Snorting laughter, he suddenly looked like he'd just made up an ingenious joke, "Their families each rented a little piece of land from me down in Texas but they were getting a little behind in their payments so I offered the boys a job helping me move some cattle out to California." He shrugged benignly, "I pay them, they pay me back, their families get to stay in their homes." Then he frowned, "Of course, now that the boys are dead, they can't pay my rent so..."
"Why, you dirty rotten cheater!" Kitty surged with indigent adrenaline, withering furiously despite the stinging slices in her wrists, "You were gonna kill them all along!"
"So what if I was?" he mocked.
"You know, I hear there's a pretty rough Marshal here in Dodge City." he continued, walking back to her, "It's a lucky thing this storm blew in because nobody heard those gunshots. I bet that Marshal is sleeping in his bed right now—nice and comfy."
Glaring fiery daggers, Kitty again longed for Matt to come strolling in for a late night date. He'd been in the habit of doing that lately and the fact that he wouldn't tonight made her want to cry even harder than her injuries did.
"You know the Marshal, don't ya?" Sikes read her expression as he bent close to her face; his reeking breath and cracked yellow teeth made her nausea and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep alert, "Are you gonna tell him what I did tonight?" He brushed a lock of red hair off her cheek and grinned in her face, "I wouldn't tell him if I were you. Like I said, people do what I say or they suffer the consequences."
"I'm camping just west of town for a few more days while I finish my business here so I can find out real easy if he knows." he went on, pushing his face even closer, "I'll come back here if you tell him. Then when I get done with you, I'll shoot him in the back."
Kitty thought her ribs might break as her heart rammed against them and biting the inside of her cheek only worked for so long against the suffocating stench around her. In her growing delirium, she didn't realize that Sikes had pulled his gun until it slammed into the side of her head. The force of the blow spun the chair around and she crashed into the counter before hitting the floor with the chair still tied above her.
Sighing deeply, Sikes stood over her for a moment. Then he pushed through the doors and walked out into the storm, satisfied that he'd accommodate the young man's request to not let the lady face the elements.