For 20 years we wondered what Matt was thinking, This ATC is an attempt to elucidate the inner workings of the Marshal's mind beginning in the final moments of the TV episode "Mannon," Season 14, Episode 17 written by Ronald Bishop, directed by Robert Butler, original air date 20 January 1969. Some dialogue is directly quoted or paraphrased.

Recovering from Evil

I especially thank LilyJack for her encouragement, invaluable suggestions, and editorial input. Without her assistance, this story would not exist and would definitely not be posted.

Facing Evil

Chapter 1

He rode into town, noted men silently clustered outside the Long Branch, considered if there were odds on the probability of his demise. Impossible to miss was the unnatural quiet as the soft clip clop of Buck's feet echoed eerily in the silent night. Even that stopped as he pulled on the reins.

Louie stepped out of the shadows to greet him, "You're alone, Marshal?"

"That's right, Louie."

"Oh, that ain't so good, Marshal. That ain't so very good."

"That Mannon's here, Marshal. He's something fast. Nothin's ever been that's quite like him."

"I know," Matt responded, Louie's concerns confirming Newly's warning that he'd never seen anyone faster, that Mannon could kill him certain. He accepted it; Mannon might kill him tonight, a truth that did nothing to change his chosen path. "I want you to go down to the Long Branch and tell him to meet me in the street."

A visibly distraught Louie tried to resist, "No, Marshal."

"You go on," the stalwart Marshal insisted.

"I ain't had too much, Marshal. I could get me a rifle and climb a roof…"

Matt appreciated the offer. The badge made it his job, but it was good to know there were people who cared. But, if he died tonight… it would be his way. "Louie, I thank ya, but you go on now," he softly insisted.

Louie looked up into the impassive face of the man he so respected, shook his head in defeat and shuffled down the street to carry out the Marshal's request.

Matt stabled Buck, then stepped back on Front Street, waited resolutely, arms relaxed at his side, bearing confident, heart beating wildly, badge shimmering softly in the lights of Dodge, his town. Marshal's demeanor firmly in place, he watched as men cleared the streets moving themselves and their horses a safe distance away. Then watched Mannon exit the Long Branch followed by Kitty, then Doc and an entourage of the curious, but his focus quickly locked on the love of his life. The serenity of her gaze calmed him; he felt love, confidence…pulled strength from her and wondered if she knew. Death was his constant and accepted companion, but, by God, he would miss her if he failed. Quickly both of their gazes shifted to Mannon, seemingly in accord. Mannon's attention focused oddly on Kitty, not him. That murderer and Kitty's gazes were locked, one on the other, an intense, silent conversation that excluded him, flashing between them. He swallowed - she would tell him later…if he lived.

Mannon's attention shifted back to him and he ordered, "Get out of town, Mannon."

Matt watched as Mannon's eyes again shifted to Kitty, before focusing back on him. "Comes the time I won't," the confident reply as Mannon's gaze again shifted to connect with Kitty.

"Your time's now," the required response.

Mannon shifted his focus to the Marshal again, then drew, and fired. Agonizing heat burned through the lawman's shoulder, down his chest. He fell hard in the dust, his gun still holstered. For a moment, there was nothing - no movement, no sound, no light. Was he dead? Then came the pain and Kitty's eyes now on him as he lay in the dust. He raised his head, met her gaze, saw her fear. Mannon, now seeming a gnat for her to ignore, strutted to her, counted his coup, swaggered away. But her gaze never wavered, locked on the fallen Marshal, willing him to live, to rise.

The lawman shifted his gaze to the gunslinger, garnered his strength and shouted, "Mannon!"

Mannon spun to face him as both pulled their guns. This time, Mannon fell.

So often, he wasn't the fastest, but still, he had survived and Kitty was waiting for him. He reflected, Mannon was fast and accurate, faster than him, he had seen. But Mannon had failed, failed to deliver a killing shot, and then failed to confirm his kill, a novice's mistake. He wondered why, but satisfied himself with being alive.

He struggled to sit, Doc rushing to help. The sights and sounds of Dodge returned, his senses restored, but his eyes sought only Kitty, saw her relief as he rose from the dust. Why didn't she come to him, he wondered? Instead, her gaze shifted from him, focused on Mannon, still, in the street. She moved towards the gunman. Looked over his fallen form and spoke a seeming benediction. More questions, surely she would tell him everything, later.

Alive was the word that coursed through his mind as he struggled to his feet. Against all the odds, he had survived. Then he stumbled, near fell, faintly heard Doc shouting, "You fellows there, get him up to my office."

He wanted to say, "I'm fine, I'll walk myself," but strong arms grabbed him, hustling him up the steep wooden steps. The pain in his chest exacerbated by every jostle. It took over his body and sapped his strength. The iron tang of his blood filled the air. He felt the warm wet slickness soaking his chest, his arm, dripping from fingertips, thanked his fortunes it was his left shoulder and not the right. He gritted his teeth and clung to consciousness as they laid him carefully on the familiar old leather of Doc's table. He opened his eyes, searching. Finding only Doc, he struggled to speak, "Where is she?"

"Now just lay back, Matt, you're losing a lot of blood," was Doc's distracted response. "I've got to get that bullet out."

He felt Doc cutting his shirt. He tried again, pulling himself up from the leather, more forcefully, "Where's Kitty?" He felt driven to see her before he surrendered to the darkness from which there might be no release. "Please, Doc, I need to see her."

He felt Doc gently pushing him down, exhorting him to be still, then turning away. He heard the door open and Doc shout, "Burke, see if you can get Kitty up here. I'm going to need her help." Then he turned back to Matt. "Try to relax, son. I need to get ready. You did your job; now let me do mine."

Matt lay back, setting his jaw, battling the pain. It was excruciating, surely the worst he had ever felt. But some corner of his brain acknowledged every time he had been shot, the pain was surely the worst. He breathed shallowly, carefully, owning the pain. He and pain were old friends and he knew the trick was to own it and use it and not let it win. Just a few more minutes and Kitty would come. His thinking was muddled, but he had a terrible feeling that things weren't right. He needed to see her.

At last he heard the rattle of the opening door and the rustle of fabric as she came to his side. He listened as Doc's query of, "What took you so…" trailed off.

He smelled his favorite perfume, heard the familiar, "Oh, Matt," and turned to meet her eyes. She wiped his brow, cupped his cheek, her fingers cool and comforting.

He grasped her arm in his bloodied hand and pulled her closer, sought to capture her eyes.

Her eyes looked past him, avoiding his gaze. What was she hiding?

He struggled to speak, "Kitty, are you sure you're ok? He continued insistently although his voice was weak and thready, "There was something… the way Mannon looked at you. What happened?"

She smiled gently at him. "Hush cowboy, everything's just fine. I was just scared to see you standing out on Front Street, calling out a gunman who, according to Festus, was faster than a snake's tongue, greased and tied to a bolt of lightning."

She deftly slipped from his grasp, moved to his head. The smell of ether assaulted his senses and Doc told him to start counting. Then the world and the pain slowly dissolved, and darkness descended. The last thing he heard was Doc saying, "Kitty, you're an amazing woman - first that charade with Mannon and now this. You saved him, you know."

At Doc's words, Matt's eyes popped open and he tried to rise. What the hell did Doc mean? Too late to ask. His world faded to black.

They told him later that the wound had been bad and the surgery extensive. There was a lot of damage, blood, fever. That bullet had hit his scapula according to Doc and bounced around. Lucky for him, Doc was 'a mighty fine physician.' He had heard that a time or two and had to admit, he owed Doc his life several times over. And that was about all he knew. They never gave him any details of his near death journeys and he was glad of it and never asked more.

When he finally came around, Kitty was at his side, her head near his arm, snoring softly. He stirred and she woke, scrambled quickly to her feet. She still wore the bright yellow blouse, a cheerful choice for what might have been his burying day and clear evidence she'd never left his side through whatever had transpired while he had slept. On a visceral level he wanted her there, but his rational mind despised himself for putting her through sleepless nights, pain and worry.

"Water," he croaked.

She hurried to comply.

He rasped, "How long?"

"Three days, but for the last 24 hours, you've been in and out, she replied," as she returned to his side. "How are you feeling? Doc left some laudanum, in case you woke up and needed it."

He consciously inventoried his body. "I'm OK, Kitty, and I hate that stuff. "

She could tell by the rigid way he held himself and the tightening of his eyes that he wasn't being entirely truthful. "Have it your way," was all that she offered.

He grimaced at the gory print of his hand still staining her sleeve as she helped him take a few sips of water. "I'm sorry, I guess I ruined your blouse. I was a little out of my head." Then his eyes tracked up to her face. Exhaustion was plain in her eyes, but more than that, he saw bruises and a jagged cut over her brow. Her face paint near gone - the damage was plain.

She saw the sudden change in his demeanor, the sudden intake of his breath, his eyes moving from her brow, to her cheek, to her neck, and then seeking her eyes. She realized he was seeing the damage her face paint no longer obscured. She damned her mistake, knew she wasn't ready for this, but he was insistent.

"What happened? Who did this to you? Was it Mannon? Why?" The questions came from his gut like bullets and he wondered, how had he missed this that night?

She cast through her mind for a convincing lie. She planned to tell him everything, but not yet, not here, not now. Everything was too raw; she wasn't ready. It needed to be later, somewhere private. A partial truth might work. "I tried to buy him off, Matt. I offered to sell the Long Branch and give him the money to leave town… leave town…before he killed someone." She had almost said, leave town before Matt came back. She quickly finished, "He didn't take the offer very well."

She watched as Matt's countenance hardened. And she was still hiding the worst of it. She knew the truth would hurt - one more burden for him to carry, one more crime against her person for which he would take responsibility. She wanted to spare him, spare herself, but knew she would have to tell him eventually. A truth like that, kept from him, was a lie that would fester. But not now, not when he was just back from the shadows of death. She loved this man of hers, but wished he could accept that everything bad that happened, especially to her, but for that matter, anywhere in the state of Kansas and its surrounding territories, was not his damn fault.

His plaintive voice snapped her from her reverie, "Kitty, why would you do that? You worked your whole life for the Long Branch. It's your home, your security, your future."

She gave him a sardonic smile, "Yeah, I know that, Matt, but you weren't here, and Mannon wasn't like any man I ever met." She thought to herself, and I was afraid that he was the one who would kill you. Her gaze was intense, pleading with him to understand that it had been important. "I had to do something, Matt. I just had to."

Matt was undeterred, too upset to see the need in her eyes, "Kitty, I don't care what you thought about Mannon; it was my job. This town is my responsibility and I can take care of myself. And when, if, the day comes that I can't, I need to know that you have the security the Long Branch provides. " He loved this woman so much. Why couldn't she understand that her safety was far more important to him than even his life? He had long since made peace with death, but not with losing her. Without her, he would be a shell, a hollowed out vessel, a man without emotion, or love, or fear. This was the front he showed the world, but it wasn't the man Kitty knew, the man she helped him be, a man who had the love of a good woman. A man who applied his stubborn streak not only to his job, but also to making sure he made it home…to her.

Kitty took a deep breath, paused, looking him up and down before sarcastically retorting, "Sure, Matt, you can take real good care of yourself." She wanted to tell him compared to his life, the Long Branch meant nothing to her, but, despite her fury, she managed to hold her tongue. She wasn't yet ready to tell him that she had done it for him.

Her sarcastic response pulled him from his maudlin reflections. He took a really deep breath, trying to rein in his emotions. He loved her, but she was hiding something from him. Pain, anger, and worry combined to keep him from thinking clearly and pushed him to say more than he should, "There's more, isn't there, Kitty? You're hiding something from me. I saw you and Mannon out on Front Street. I'm planning to kill em and he's playing some staring game with you."

He stopped abruptly, didn't add that he had needed her, and she had gone to Mannon. He knew that was petulant and self-centered. He didn't know what he was thinking, knew he was confused. He wasn't jealous of Mannon. He didn't think Kitty somehow cared for the gunman, but there was something between her and that killer and Kitty was keeping it from him. He wasn't proud of himself that he couldn't seem to just trust Kitty to tell him in her own time.

He sighed; a man couldn't control what he thought. But for dang sure, he should be able to control his words and actions. Too late for that now. He had carelessly thrown those words out there - 'you're hiding something from me …you and Mannon … some staring game with you….'

Matt prided himself on being the man he aspired to be, the man his long-gone father wanted him to be. He often fell short, but even when he failed to be that man, he tried to act like that man. He didn't seem to be doing a very good job of being, or even acting like that man right now. Maybe this conversation really should wait till he was feeling better, he belatedly thought. Usually I'm smart enough to just keep my mouth shut.

Kitty stared at him, hurt visible in her eyes. She was raw with the pain and terror of recent events; all she could think was that he didn't trust her. Did he think she invited Mannon into their bed? Finally, not to be baited, Kitty deftly deflected his question. "Matt, there are a lot of things about Mannon you need to know and I plan to tell you all of them, but right now, I am going to go over to the Long Branch and get out of this filthy…" she paused, shivered involuntary at the bloody hand print … "blouse and then to Delmonico's and get you some dinner."

He reached for her, needing the comfort, wanting to offer her comfort, but she kept her distance, ignored him and continued, "I know you haven't had anything to eat for at least three days, maybe longer. I'll get something for Doc and me as well. He should be back any minute." And with that, she gave him a tight smile, and avoiding his reach, headed out the door.

Matt consciously relaxed the tension that he realized had crept into his body. He berated himself for his stupidity. Mannon had hit her and choked her and instead of comfort, Matt had demanded explanations. He had behaved like an ass, but he was afraid for her, wanted to comfort, but all he managed to do was hurt her. She was hurt and she was angry…with him. He started to reach for the water glass on the nearby table, but changed his mind when what felt like a lightning bolt slashed down from his shoulder to the tips of his fingers. He resolved to lie still.

His mind cast back over his arrival in town, the gunfight, the worrisome connection he saw between Mannon and Kitty, the pain, Kitty telling him she was fine. He remembered looking for evidence that there was something wrong and there had been none. Gradually the fog lifted and he was remembering more details. There was Doc's unfinished query when she first came in the door. He had registered it, but not understood it that night. His thinking at that point hadn't been very clear, but now he realized, Doc was going to ask her what took her so long, but then he didn't finish his question because he knew the answer. Even more puzzling were Doc's comments just as he was drifting off. He was sure he hadn't dreamed them or imagined them. The rattle of the door opening interrupted his thoughts. Doc was back.

To be continued-