Unsettling memories needled Kitty's mind as she eased into a chair at the Long Branch; watching the wind whip down Front Street and listening to distant thunder rolling across the prairie didn't do her any favors but she did her best to focus on the man sitting across from her.
Their plan had come off with remarkable smoothness. Sikes seemed to have disappeared in the late evening hours and one of the saloon girls had brought over a beautiful dress for Kitty to wear. Then Doc had given his cautious permission for her to be up and about and the little foursome slipped over to the saloon together. Best of all, her loyal patrons had agreed to clear out early so the Marshal would have an empty room to work in.
"Things are going well." Matt raised his glass to her, his eyes twinkling with love as lightning flashed somewhere over the endless prairie, "Like I said, you're always fit for courtin' Kitty Russell."
"How ya doin' Kit?"
"Better than I would be if I had to stay at Doc's or hidden away upstairs." she answered, taking a sip of beer to numb her throbbing head. "The weather doesn't do much for me."
"Well, at least I'm where I should be tonight."
"I just hope Sikes shows up," she answered, "Matt, I've started wondering if he was just talking when he said he was gonna shoot you. He could've done it all day but he didn't."
"No, I don't think so." the Marshal shook his head, having seen too much over the years to believe that; his expression turned remorseful as he unavoidably stared at the twin lumps on her head, "I'm sorry for dragging you into all this. I know Doc gave his permission and all, but maybe I could have—"
"Better I'm here than anywhere else." she shook her head, "Matt, I'd go crazy if I was anywhere else."
"That wouldn't be helpful in your condition." He offered her a quick grin.
"No, it wouldn't." she returned a slight smile, "Doc told me to take it easy."
"And you'd better."
She looked down at the table then back into his eyes with a flash of determination, "I do wanna see Sikes caught—or dead, whichever it is."
"Preferably dead." he answered, his jaw working back and forth.
"I-I just don't want to see you dead." She gave him a pointed look.
"Well, I'll do my best to avoid that." He grinned again.
Suddenly, a tremendous flash of lightning exploded on the street. It was blinding and the simultaneous thunder shook every building in town from roof to foundation. In the moments it took for everyone to gather themselves and let their eyes adjust a dark shadow appeared in the doorway.
"He's here!" Chester's voice rang out as Matt leapt to his feet, gun in hand. The deputy and bartender drew as well.
Kitty remained rooted in her seat, forcibly reminding herself over and over that her friends were excellent shots as visions of her attack flashed through her mind. She didn't turn around; it was enough to remember Sikes face, his breath, his voice. She knew she'd faint if she laid eyes on him again.
What saved them was the fact that the flash had also blinded the outlaw. By the time he could see straight again, he had three guns pointed at his head and chest.
"I'm not armed." he quickly raised both hands, swearing under his breath as he rapidly changed plans, "You can't shoot me."
"You're armed." Matt retorted, his blood running hot at the sight of the murderer, "We just drew first."
"A technicality." Sikes shrugged, taking a step forward, "You can't shoot me for simply walking into the room."
"Take another step and you're dead." Matt growled.
"I've heard about you." Sikes taunted calmly, "Matt Dillon, the righteous Marshal of Dodge City. You won't shoot me now."
"You're a murderer," Marshal Dillon's tone was dangerous, "and you hurt Kitty. You meant to kill her. I'm sure of that. I'll shoot ya."
"I haven't drawn." Sikes countered, "I'm standing still. I've done everything you asked." He shrugged, directing his next comment at Kitty, "I didn't care if you lived or died. You make no difference to me."
"Well, mister, if you ain't just the lousiest piece of work—" Chester's face flamed, his trigger finger almost quivering with anger.
"Don't tempt us, Sikes." the Marshal snarled, "You keep talking like that and you'll be on Boot Hill tonight."
"Isn't that what you want?"
"Take his gun, Chester," Matt gave the order without taking his eyes off the gunman.
"If he takes my gun," the outlaw's tone turned menacing for the first time, "it'll be your girlfriend who's gonna be buried on your Boot Hill tonight."
Chester hesitated, "Mr. Dillon?"
"You'll be dead before you can draw." Matt's temperature soared again at the verbal threat against Kitty; he couldn't risk looking at her but it made him furious that she had to listen to this scumbag; she'd been through too much already, "Take his gun, Chester."
"You sure you want to risk finding out?" Sikes asked the deputy, without turning his head, "You wanna be responsible for getting the Marshal's girl killed?"
"Shut up and keep your hands in the air." Matt snapped, "It's your only shot at continuing life."
"Seems to me like it's the quickest way to get a rope around my neck." the gunman countered, licking the side of his mouth as he stared at Kitty's back.
Matt's eyes narrowed, reading his thoughts. He knew he was well within his rights to shoot this guy. But, at the same time, he wanted to take him alive. He wanted to see Sikes hauled in front of a judge then strung up in a tree and gasping for breath with a rope around his neck.
"You're a coward." he growled, holding the outlaw's attention as his gimpy deputy began inching forward, "Kitty told me what you did to those boys. You shot 'em for simply trying protecting her. And you could've killed her too. Doesn't get any worse than that."
"Why'd you hang around here anyways, Mister?" Chester also tried to distract Sikes as he moved closer, "If I'd done what you did, I'd have hightailed it outta Dodge just as fast as I could ride."
"That's because you're a coward." Sikes retorted without taking his eyes off Matt; "A lame coward."
"Alright." he continued, feeling more than seeing the deputy's hand reach for his holster, "I'll give it to ya. There's no need to take it."
Chester hesitated and Sikes sprang, knocking the deputy backwards and sending his gun sprawling across the hardwood floor.
Unfortunately, Kitty couldn't sit still though that; as Chester yelled and crashed to the floor every awful vision she'd imagined flashed through her mind. Lurching to her feet with a squeal of surprise, she forced the horrified Marshal to fire wide.
"Kitty, get down!" he shouted, stunned by visions of what might have been as Sam's shot rang through the dining room; the bartender was the only one with a shot and he didn't hesitate to take it.
Both Kitty and Sikes fell back as the report echoed through the room and Matt knocked over a couple chairs to reach her as Doc rushed into the room.
"She's alright!" he yelled, sweeping her into his arms for a teary nuzzle, "Thank God, she's alright."
"He's still alive." Doc muttered, shooting daggers as the outlaw gasped for air on the floor.
Matt resettled Kitty into her chair and dashed forward with his heart still pounding and his mind still reeling. He gave Sam a grateful nod, "Thanks."
"I just wished I'd been here to do it last night, Marshal." the bartender scowled at Sikes.
"Say, Doc..." Matt asked cautiously, "C-can you save him?"
"Save him?" his three companions looked horrified, "Matt, why in the world…?"
"I wanna see him hung." the Marshal spat darkly, "After all that, I wanna see him choking in a tree." He spun around to catch Kitty's eyes, "I could've shot her just now!" Then, suddenly, he wiped back around and fired his gun.
"W-what was that for, Mr. Dillon?" Chester asked, wide-eyed, "I thought you just said-"
"He was about shoot to Doc." Matt nodded at Sikes outstretched hand still clenched around his gun. Scowling ruthlessly, he added, "I heard his gun scrape the floor." He holstered his gun, snorting, "So much for hanging."
"Is-is it over, Matt?" Kitty's voice quivered, her mind spinning with nightmares that she'd be seeing for a long time.
Marshal Dillon crossed the floor to her in two big strides; he gathered her into his arms and wet her neck with the tears in his eyes, "Yeah, honey, it'a over. We're safe. I-I'm sorry you had to see all that."
"Just take me upstairs, will ya?"
Matt nodded at the other men, "Chester, Sam, I'm sorry but you're gonna have to take care of that body."
Doc snorted, "No, you're not."