Matt Dillon sat near the front of the courtroom, his unforgiving stare fixed on the shackled man standing before him. The lawman's jaw was clenched and his hands knotted into white-knuckled fists in his lap. Pure hatred churned in his gut. Hot anger boiled within him and he thought once again he should've killed the outlaw when he had the chance.

Judge Brooker turned to the defendant, "Mr. Bonner, is there anything you would like to say in your defense before I send the jury out to decide your fate?"

The outlaw stood up and boldly declared. "I got somethin' I wanna say. I figure - I 'm a dead man, so I'm gonna tell you what I told the Marshal's woman - I'm a breed. Born of a Cheyenne woman your cavalry cut up and killed `fore I was able to do something about it. My old man switched sides by then, sort of set my style for me. Now, I killed folks for a living - but I ain't never killed no one that didn't need killing. The way I see it, that don't make me no better and no worse than the Badge. Dillon took my little brother and wired him for hanging. So I took his woman. I figured it would take a thousand like her to pay the debt you people owed me. Dillon made the deal - I just stood by it. Blood gets blood - that's the way the preacher calls it ... and to my way of thinking, the debt ain't paid. Virgil is dead - Dillon's woman is still alive." A slow evil smile spread over Bonner's face as he looked at Matt, "She may live to be a thousand - but she'll never forget what I done to her - and neither will Dillon!"

The jury was out less than an hour. The bailiff's voice rang out. "This court will come to order!"

Judge Brooker sat up, suddenly alert as the jurors filed in. He banged his gavel for effect and then asked, "Has the jury reached a verdict?"

"We have, your Honor," the foreman replied.

"The Defendant will rise," the Judge ordered. Matt watched Bonner stand unflinching as the jury, one by one proclaimed him guilty on numerous counts. "Jude Bonner, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers. I hereby sentence you to hang by the neck until dead. May God have mercy on your soul."

The sound in the courtroom amplified, some folks actually cheered. Two armed guards pulled the outlaw to his feet and began escorting the shackled prisoner from the courtroom. Jude pulled them to a stop in front of Matt Dillon. He made a kind of laughing sound before his upper lip curled and then he spat in Matt's face.

Hate gained control. In one swift motion Dillon lunged for Bonner, grabbing him by the throat. Had it not been for the armed guards and Matt's long time friend Sheriff Tom Lynott at his side - he would have ended Bonner's life right there and spared the State of Kansas the expense of an execution. The courtroom erupted in momentary chaos. Judge Brooker banged again on his gavel. "Order in the courtroom! Sheriff Lynott! Escort Marshal Dillon to my chambers at once!"

Lynott grabbed Matt's arm and pulled him out of the room. "Get ahold of yourself Pilgrim!" he cautioned. "This ain't gonna do Kitty no good, you acting like this!"

Brooker concurred entering his chambers minutes later. "Matt! That was a dang stupid thing to do - and if you ever do anything like that again in my courtroom, I'll have your badge," the Judge said sternly. "you hear me? Now sit down, I want to talk to you."

Dillon took a chair, his body still held rigid with hate.

The judge poured a couple glasses of sherry and handed one to Dillon and the other to Lynott. The former finished his drink in one gulp. Matt took a sip and then looked up at Brooker.

The old judge took a deep breath and then said. "I found Mrs. Brooker's journal - the one she kept for a year or so after ... well ... after she came back to me. The thought occurred to me that maybe it would be of some help to Miss Russell. I've sent it to her."

Before Matt could think of something to say there was a knock at the door and a messenger came in from the telegraph office. "Dillon?" he asked of Lynott who'd opened the door.

Tom pointed to Matt seated in front of the Judge's desk, The courier walked over and handed him an envelope, "Marshal Dillon? This here's for you."

The Judge and Lynott waited while Matt tore open the envelope and read the telegram. "It's from Doc Adams," he explained.

"More trouble, Matt?" The Judge asked.

Dillon's jaw set, "Yeah," he replied, "but I'm going to see about setting it right."

The train seemed to be traveling in slow motion as Matt's mind raced through the events since the night when Bonner came to Dodge, and took Kitty as his hostage. It was time for Matt Dillon to come to terms with what Kitty had gone through. Until he did he'd be of no help to her. No more acting, and no more pretending this had never happened. He'd come to understand, if he expected her to get over this - he was going to have to acknowledge the rape to Kitty and to himself.

The train pulled into Dodge sometime after one o'clock in the morning. The town was dark and quiet - the only illumination coming from the gas street lamps. As he walked down Front Street to his office he glanced in the direction of the Long Branch and Kitty's upstairs bedroom. The building was dark and he reckoned she was already in bed.

He entered his office, put down his bags and lit the lamp by the door. He guessed tomorrow would be soon enough to say what he needed to say to her. He opened the safe and took out the bottle of whiskey he kept there. Once again he saw the strong box sitting in the far corner. Feeling a need to close the space between them he reached for the box. Maybe, looking through it would help regain his perspective. He reached for both box and whiskey and sat down at his desk. He had just opened the lid when he heard footsteps on the boardwalk outside. He looked up to see Kitty standing in the doorway. "Hello Cowboy. Mind if I come in?" She asked.

"I thought you were already in bed," he answered, standing to walk towards her.

"No ... I was just sitting in my room waiting for a light to come on over here," she shut the door and closed the space between them. "Doc told me you were coming home today."

"Sounds like you've got something on your mind," he said. She was standing in front of him now, just inches away.

"I guess I just wanted to say I'm tired of being scared. I'm tired of being afraid to feel anything … seems like I keep running, but it's always there - I can't run away from it." She forced her voice to remain even, not giving in to the panic. She kept her eyes down, afraid to see what was written on his face.

He looked at her, knowing what she had been through and knew she was braver than anyone he had ever known. "Honey," he said softly, gently. "You can't out run your demons. You've got to stand firm and fight. But, you don't have to do it alone. I'll be right here beside you."

She turned to him then and let her forehead rest against his chest as his arms wrapped around her. He felt her shaking against him. "Wait ... there's more I need to say," she pulled away and turned her back to him. As she was facing his desk she absent-mindedly picked up the rusted badge lying in the box, she fingered it as she spoke, "I'm afraid you won't feel the same about me ... After what they did ... maybe I got what I deserved ... maybe ... if you knew ..." the words refused to come out right.

"Kitty. I was there with you that first night, do you remember? I took care of you, I saw what they did - and the nights after that when the fever had you. You cried out for them to leave you alone. You cried for me to come and save you - and I couldn't ... I heard what they did." He stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders. "If we let what happened come between us - Bonner's won! He's won because he's taken you away from me," Matt said tenderly.

She set the rusted badge back on the desk, but now she noticed the picture. It was the same as the one she had on her dressing table. She had never known what Matt had done with his. Now here it was and she reached for it, looking at their happy faces. She glanced back to the box. It was then that she saw the blue ribbon. Her hand trembled as she lifted it, her eyes wide and heart hammering. She turned to Matt with the ribbon clutched in her hand. "Oh Matt!" This time he pulled her into his arms and she clung to him and the blue ribbon. Hot tears began to flow and she didn't try to stop them. The truth and his love washed over her like a healing balm.

It was sometime later, when her tears were spent, that he took her by the shoulders again and looked deeply into her eyes. "It may not be tonight or next week, or next month. You'll know when you're ready ... but I want you wearing that ribbon again." He put a finger under her chin, "...and when I see that ribbon in your hair..." he swallowed hard, unable to finish but she understood and nodded, smiling through her tears.

Summer faded into fall and things gradually got back to normal in Dodge City. The nightmares slowly released their hold on Kitty Russell. There were still nights when Bonner tried to recapture her soul - but she was in control now. She would re-read Sarah's journal on those days when she felt she must surely be going crazy. Just knowing Sarah Brooker had felt what she had felt and survived gave Kitty the strength to continue.

The end of August marked the anniversary of their first meeting. The couple celebrated with a quiet dinner in Kitty's room. He had given her a special present - the old cameo that had been his mother's. He told her the story behind it, making her cherish it all the more. She still wasn't ready to give him the gift he had hoped for, but he understood. He knew the need to be patient and give her time. Still - he longed to hold her again and hear her whisper his name.

He wooed her. Remembering the words of Judge Brooker, he let her know in subtle romantic ways, heretofore alien to his nature, just how much he thought of her. Prairie flowers picked on a ride home were delivered to her doorstep with a smile. "I saw these flowers and I thought of you."

A note scrawled in his masculine hand and tucked in her bookwork or slipped in the pocket of her skirt or under her bedroom door, to be discovered later. "You are beautiful." or "You make me smile." or most powerful of all, "I love you."

It had long been his habit to stop by the saloon just before closing time to share a nightcap and the events of their day and sometimes her bed. But now, it was walks in the moonlight, when the rest of Dodge was asleep, with no other demand than the holding of hands and a kiss on the forehead.

In September Matt was called out of town on business. He was concerned about leaving for he remembered the last time he had left Kitty. But she was able to spend the week at the Roniger farm and had a wonderful time. Just working side by side with Bessie and helping tend to the homey chores brought a peace into her life. She was facing her demon, she was standing her ground - and she was winning. She and Matt spent as much time together as their busy lives would afford, just talking. As is sometimes the case, the tragedy, which had pulled them apart, was now bringing them closer together. Even though it was difficult for him to hear, he encouraged her to talk about the rape and her own insecurities about her past. He told her he was proud of her and how much she meant to him. He told her just how much he needed her.

And then it was one of those warm October days that come to you like a gift. Matt, Festus and Doc were sociably enjoying their morning coffee at the Long Branch. Kitty breezed downstairs and over to the table.

She was dressed for riding. "Thought it might be a good day for a picnic, Cowboy. Care to join me?" she invited pleasantly.

"Sounds good," he replied and smiled back. She looked wonderful, healthy again. Her figure had filled out and there was a glow to her skin and bright eyes. She had plaited her thick shiny hair into a long single braid.

"Good," she beamed, "I was hoping you'd say that. I just have to take care of something in my office. I'll be right back." She gave him a saucy grin and turned on her heel.

Matt had always enjoyed watching her coming and going - but this time he did a double take. A single, slightly faded, well-loved, blue ribbon, bounced from the bottom of her braid. He leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest and grinned. `Yup," he thought, it's a mighty good day for a picnic."

The End