CHAPTER ONE


She never saw the fist coming. One minute she peered into his cold gray eyes with a look of spite and defiance; the next her feet left the dust- and grime-coated floorboards. She sailed backwards, head over heels, across the mouse-gnawed, sheetless mattress.

No pain, not really. At least not at the moment of impact. Just a cracking sound that might have been her jawbone fracturing, though Prilla doubted that to be the case. She'd been hit harder, by stronger men than Jack Timm.

More likely the sound came from the snap of lightning in her head and flashing blackness that told her she had probably lost consciousness for just an instant, maybe two.

Damn peculiar, she reckoned, the things a body grew conscious of in those split seconds following a blow. As if time slowed to let her reflect on sordid details she had pushed to the back of her mind just so she could get through another hour with yet another man, the third tonight: the taste of his sour saliva after he'd jammed his lips over hers, a taste that reminded her of cold bacon grease gone rancid. A taste that now mixed with the gunmetal flavor of her own blood from a gash inside her cheek. The stench of his sweat blended with horse leather--fine horse leather if she knew the Timms--and gin; the aroma of her own perfume, applied heavy enough to cover the stink of sin. Other things, in glimpses: red fleur de lis wallpaper flashing, buttery lantern light streaking, punctuated by sparkling variegated stars exploding across her vision after the blackness vanished.

She hit the floor hard, but couldn't have said it caused any pain. Likely being half-conscious saved her from further damage, though it snapped her senses clear, a favor for which Prilla didn't know whether to thank her Lord Almighty or curse the hell out of him.

She pushed herself up into a half-sitting, half-twisted position, sweeping the tight ringlets of her strawberry-blonde hair away from her face, then tenderly kneaded her jaw where his fist had struck. Now she felt pain, biting singing shards of it.

"Hell, you should have been nicer to me, Prilla." The words came with a sarcastic reprimand, then a laugh that said it didn't matter whether she had done what he asked of her, an act not fit for even a lowly beast. Jack Timm enjoyed hitting women, wallowed in the feeling of power it afforded him and that's what he fancied more than a whore's favors. Jack Timm lusted for control, craved it like a drunkard gulping at the last drops from an empty gin bottle. Perhaps all men did, but Jack Timm took the breed to the extreme.

"You keep the hell away from me!" She spat the words, along with a stream of blood, trembling voice betraying the terror twisting at her innards. She dragged the back of her hand across her mouth, wiping away a dribble of scarlet. Realizing her peek-a-boo blouse had ridden down, exposing her left breast, she jerked her top back up, somehow feeling filthier in that moment than twelve years of whoring in saloons across Colorada Territory had ever made her feel.

Something in the depraved way he stared at her told her he would not stop with a mere beating, that he would never stop until she gave him the awful thing he had come for. Nobody in Timmervale refused a Timm, especially not a woman who sold her pleasures for a dollar a turn.

Prilla struggled to get to her feet, her ragged skirt getting twisted up in her legs, almost sending her back to the floor. Her legs quaked, and her heart threatened to pound its way clear out of her chest.

Jack Timm ran a hand over his wavy brown hair, smoothing it, then tugged down his brocade vest. "You don't rightly expect I'll just let you walk on out of here and go back to business as usual, do you, Prilla?" The depraved look in his cold gray eyes strengthened. "'Less you've decided to accommodate me?"

"You go to hell!" She spat, blood and salvia, but it fell short of hitting him. Fury narrowed his eyes. He made a move to step around the bed, his intent clear. She lunged for the door, grabbing at the glass handle.

He moved faster than she expected. His arms vised around her belly, wrenching her away from the door. She twisted in his grip, unable to free herself. His leering face pressed closer to her, the sour bacon-fat odor of his breath assailing her nostrils.

"You're gonna do what I tell you, Prilla. You're gonna do it and you're gonna like it. Then we'll go back to how things was."

Terror galvanized her into struggling like a cornered wolverine. His grip tightened, fingers gouging into the small of her back, as he tried to pull her towards the bed. She pounded at him with her fists, screamed out, knowing full well it would not do a damn bit of good. Not in this saloon. Not in this town.

In desperation, she let herself go limp. He must have reckoned she intended to comply, because for just an instant his grip slackened and an oily smile slipped across his thin lips.

The smile vanished like Plains fog under a scalding brass sun. She hoisted her knee, planting it squarely in his southern parts. Shock flashed across his narrow face, then purple stained his cheeks and gagging sounds sputtered from his mouth.

She jerked free and half-lunged, half-stumbled towards the door. Grasping the knob, palms slick with sweat, she yanked the door open and plunged out into the hallway. Flickering kerosene wall lanterns might well have been Heavenly angels beckoning her into their arms.

A surging sense of relief washed through her. She'd escaped him, though she knew she would never again be welcome or safe in this no-good excuse for a town, but that didn't matter. All that mattered was she had gotten free without corrupting herself any more than years of selling her secrets already had.

Her elation was short-lived. She'd nearly reached the stairs leading to the saloon proper below when his hands grasped at her waist.

She tried to jerk away, only succeeded in twisting herself around to see his vile features profaned with hate, eyes glittering with the promise of revenge. Spittle flecked his lips. He was half-doubled, babbling noises like a branded calf, noises mixed with cussing and invective pledging she would damn well regret what she'd done.

In an effort to free herself, she pistoned out both arms and slammed her palms against his chest. The move snapped his hold and broke her free. He collapsed to his knees, still not fully recovered from her knee to his groin, but it mattered little, because momentum took her backwards a step too far. One moment her feet were on the edge of the stairway and the next they were kicking at empty air. Her arms came up in windmilling fashion and she twisted, but couldn't stop her plunge.

She hit three steps down and kept going. Repelling from the stair wall slowed her fall only a little. It wasn't a long flight, though she swore it sure as hell felt like it went on forever.

She came to rest at the bottom in a cloud of swirling sawdust. Hammering pain erupted from myriad points on her body, but miraculously she had failed to break her neck.

Around her patrons gaped and the tinkler piano went silent. Murmuring reached her ears. A sea of blurred faces swirled before her eyes. The faces focused and settled; she could see their vacant eyes and startled expressions. The other bargirls stared in shock.

"Help me, Clive..." The words came out strangled, barely coherent, as her gaze rose to meet the burly older man stepping from behind the polished bar flanking the right side of the room. His face pinched, looking somehow demonic in the sallow light playing within the Durham haze clouding the room.

She blinked and Clive was a good five feet closer. Had she blacked out for an instant again?

"Can't he'p you, Prilla." The older man shook his head. "You's just a whore. Plenty more 'round here to take your place. You shoulda treated Mr. Timm better." The man glanced up the stairs and she turned her head, an act that sent slivers of pain through her skull.

Jack Timm poised at the top of the stairs, one hand braced on the rail, the other pressed against the wall. The look on his face promised the pain she'd experienced from the fall was a mere prelude to what she would receive once he made it down.

He took the first step, boot landing with the crash of a Winchester shot.

Her heart jumped and adrenaline surged into her veins. She struggled to push herself to her feet, modestly clutching her top higher for no reason she could have explained.

"Clive, please..." Her gaze locked with the barkeep's, blue eyes pleading.

"Sorry, Prilla." A hint of sympathy in his tone, but no mercy. "You know I can't. Mr. Timm treats this town right good. Wouldn't be right to go against him."

"Bastard!" She hissed the words through gritted teeth. "You no-good lousy coward!" Anger helped dull the pain wracking her body and she was able to grip the side of a table to pull herself completely up. Her legs wobbled, threatening to spill her, but determination born of terror held her upright.

Jack Timm had taken another three steps down, the oily grin back on his face. He knew he had her; he knew he had her because he owned this town and everyone in it, and even if she made it out the door not a goddamned one of the folks in this hellhole would raise a hand to aid her.

She staggered for the batwings, stumbling into tables and rebounding, refusing to go down or give in. No one helped her, but no one stopped her, either. She reckoned she should be thankful for at least that much.

Cool night air splashed her face as she plunged outside. For the briefest of moments hope rose within her being. As quickly gone, replaced by the terror of hearing his bootsteps thundering across the barroom.

She forced herself into a clumsy trot, every inch of her body paining, jaw starting to swell and throb, heart thudding in her throat. Strangling pain gripped her chest, making her gasp. Fear propelled her onward, but it was no use; he would be on her in moments.

She stumbled off the boardwalk onto the dusty rutted street. She couldn't go on, couldn't breath. Panic sapped the rest of her strength and will. Cascading pain and debilitating terror. Too much. Too much. She couldn't force herself to take another step.

She went down, hands thrust out before her, and slammed into the hard ground. A gritty medley of dust and manure assailed her nostrils, choking her. Her face collided with the dirt and she was tempted to just stay down, pretend she was dead, like someone had once told her to do with bears, but knew that would never work. Her labored breath and the clamor of her heart would give her away, and Jack Timm was more vicious than any bear could think of being.

Townsfolk gathered, some from the saloon, others coming from buildings, curious as to the ruckus. Shouts from Jack Timm, growing louder, like encroaching thunderclaps. A ring of people formed around her, as she tried to gain her feet again, only to fall back to her hands and knees. Her head rose, gaze lifting to settle on the bony form of Timmervale's town marshal.

"Hel...help me, Pierson...please..." Her words barely carried to the man.

The marshal, a vulture of a man with a protruding Adam's apple, shook his head, peering at her with a look of sympathy he quickly hid, as his gaze flicked across the street to the approaching form of Jack Timm. "Prilla, what you gone and done?" Pity in his voice. Pity and the surety of St. Peter telling her the gates to Heaven were closed and nothing she could ever say would open them.

"Timm...he wanted..." She couldn't even say it.

"You shoulda given him whatever it was, Prilla. You know that. You know anything the Timms want in this town they get."

Tears glossed her eyes. "Help me...Pierson...I done you special favors..."

He gave a slow shake of his head. "Don't matter none now, Prilla. That's all in the past."

She let out a strangled cry and a thought flashed into her head: this was what it was like to die for her sins. With the Devil in the form of a man descending upon her to commit unspeakable acts upon the shreds of her soul, with the smell of dung and brimstone in her nostrils and the taste of blood and vinegar on her lips. This was how it was to die for her sins. Too late to repent and too late to expect mercy.

She collapsed onto a hip and gazed upon her devil, who stopped before her. The spectators, her demons in waiting, had parted to let him through.

"Help me, please..." she pleaded one last time to the folks gathered around, hand reaching out, palm up.

"This here's a God-fearin' community," said a woman wearing a yellow bonnet. "You're a blight on the good name of this town."

"This here's a Timm-fearin' community!" Prilla put all the spite into her voice she could muster, reckoning if she was going to Hell she was going kicking and screaming, damning the hypocrites of Timmervale to her last breath.

Jack Timm laughed, no humor in his tone. He squatted beside her, grabbing her chin between a thumb and forefinger, jerking her face towards him. She couldn't stop her lips from quivering.

"Nice speech, Prilla, darling, but the fine folks of Timmervale aren't listenin'. Fact, they aren't the only ones with listenin' problems, are they, now? You could have just done what I asked and made it so much easier on yourself."

"What you asked ain't human." She kept her voice defiant, determined to spite him to the last.

Oily grin, cold gray eyes mocking her. "Now, see, that's what I mean. You still ain't listenin'. I just gave you another chance and you couldn't keep your filthy whorin' mouth shut."

Jack Timm reached to his waist and drew a Bowie knife from the sheath at his belt. The blade caught the light from an outside hanging lantern and glinted cold stars across her face. Terror flooded her eyes and she tried to struggle but her strength was gone.

Switching his grip from her chin, he grabbed a handful of her strawberry-blonde hair and yanked her head up and back.

"Since your goddamn ears don't work I reckon you got no need of 'em."

She knew his intent then, saw it reflected from his eyes like the glaring blackness of twin skulls. He wasn't going to kill her; no, that would be too easy, too fast, too leached of pleasure for a man like Jack Timm. He was going to maim her, ruin her for the little she was worth and leave her bleeding in the street. Maybe she would die then, maybe later. It wouldn't matter because dying would be welcome after days of bleeding and festering wounds.

"I-I'll...tell..." she said, the sound strangled.

He yanked her head hard. "No, you won't..." His oily smile widened and eager expectation danced in his gaze. Cold steel pressed against the crevice between the top of her ear and her head. Just a chill, no real pain, not at first. Then searing splinters of it, shrieking through her senses. A scream tore from her lips. Warm liquid flowed down both sides of her ear, as he sawed into the soft flesh, slowly, ever so slowly, like a master butcher carving the thinnest strips of meat from a butchered steer.

Her scream turned into pitiful mews and a number of the less hardy onlookers, mostly womenfolk, turned away. A look of pure disgust turned Marshal Pierson's features and he whirled and bent double, losing whatever it was he'd eaten for supper.

Gleeful laughter came from Jack Timm.

A gunshot stopped the sound. So abrupt, so unexpected, so startling, the entire crowd appeared to come off the ground in a collective jolt. The knife at her ear jerked away, the hand holding it yanking back. The Bowie landed in the dirt a few feet away. Jack Timm grabbed his knifehand, blood trickling down his wrist. She clutched at her ear, her own blood running warm between her fingers.

The shock of the shot wearing off, the crowd's gaze focused on the source of the gunfire. Jack Timm's gaze jerked up as well, hate glittering in his cold gray eyes.

A peculiar numbness gripped her senses as her gaze settled on a man at the edge of the crowd, a man atop a big bay horse. In his hand, a Colt Peacemaker, white-gray smoke curling from its barrel, which was aimed dead center at Jack Timm's chest. A man whose face was handsome, yet battered by the elements, wearing a weather-beaten Stetson, blue bib shirt, bandanna and worn trousers with a Bowie resting in his bootsheath. Green eyes flicked to the marshal, but his gun stayed leveled on Timm. She reckoned if Timm made a move that would be the end of him. She prayed he would.

"Why didn't you stop this?" the rider asked Marshal Pierson, who wore the expression of a man just caught by his wife in a compromising position with another woman.

Pierson wiped a sleeve across his mouth. "She's a whore. Mr. Timm here's a respectable citizen."

The man uttered a scoffing sound, gaze returning to Jack Timm, whose hate boiled in his eyes. She noticed the wound on his hand was little more than a scratch and that disappointed her.

"Respectable citizens in this town normally go 'round cuttin' off folks' ears?" He asked it of no one in particular and obviously wasn't expecting an answer. With his free hand, he reached to his neck and pulled loose his bandanna. He tossed it down to her and she caught it before it hit the dirt. "Press this against your ear."

She complied, blood quickly soaking the fabric, though the flow wasn't copious.

"Who the goddamn hell are you?" Jack Timm asked through clenched teeth. He plainly wanted to kill the man on the horse, but obviously knew he wouldn't make it more than a few inches before a bullet found him.

"Name's John Ladigan." Little emotion punctuated the man's voice. The Peacemaker remained steady.

A look of--what? Recognition? Something. Something flashed across Jack Timm's face but vanished just as quickly. "You know who the hell you're dealin' with, stranger?" Timm's words quivered with suppressed rage. Crimson flooded his face.

"A Mr. Timm, I reckon." John Ladigan's tone held an edge of mockery. "Reckon you also figure you own this town. Given it's name, you likely do. Must be a blood relation to Solomon Timm, if I figure right. Heard he had a no-good son."

"Why, you--" Jack Timm made a move for his knife, but stopped in nearly the same movement.

"Go for you knife, Mr. Timm." Ladigan let something close to a smile drift over his lips. "I'll pass along my condolences to your father when I tell him how you treat your women."

Jack Timm glared, but made no further move towards his knife. Prilla wished the bastard hadn't left his gun belt hanging on the bedpost in the room above the saloon. Jack Timm was not normally a man to back down and had he been heeled he might have gone for his gun and got shot dead. She would have downright enjoyed that.

"You..." Ladigan ducked his chin towards her. "Get up."

She rose to her feet, legs shaking, holding the bandanna to her ear, the pain sharp and jabbing but tolerable. He beckoned her over and no one made a move to block her passage. She staggered against his bay, the scent of horse lather and leather Heaven sent.

He switched the Peacemaker to his left hand and, leaning over, reached down. Eyes remaining steady on Jack Timm, he grasped her arm and hoisted her up behind him in the saddle. She instinctively clutched at his waist with one hand while keeping the bandanna pressed to her ear with the other.

John Ladigan shifted his gaze to the marshal. "Where's the sawbones located?"

Pierson shifted feet, an uneasy expression tinting his face. Two other men in the crowd looked antsy suddenly, as if considering going for their guns. She knew they were employees of Timm, and her belly tightened with worry. What if both went for their weapons and killed her and the stranger?

"Ain't got one..." Pierson's voice broke slightly.

"Hell, you don't, you scrawny bastard!" She aimed all her spite at Pierson for not having the balls to stand up to Jack Timm.

"Tell me or I'll take off a piece of his ear with a bullet." Ladigan nudged the Peacemaker at Timm and Pierson looked ready to soil his britches.

"Tell him..." ordered Jack Timm in a low voice that threatened to get even later.

"Down the street, three blocks, take a left."

Ladigan offered a grim smile. "Much obliged." His gaze went back towards Timm, pausing at the two men at the edge of the crowd first. "You got any notion of trying to stop me or followin', you best think real hard on it. Same goes for your men. I ain't in a particularly good temper after coming on somethin' like this."

"Who the hell you think you are, Ladigan?" Timm stood from his squatting position, a measure of defiance coming over him.

"Just a concerned citizen..." He holstered his Peacemaker and gently heeled the bay into motion. She noticed he kept the corner of his gaze on Timm and the others, but no one made a move to stop them.


Ladigan is an April, 2005 release available from AmazonUK


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