...Absolutely spellbinding...an incredible storyteller!...writing is just superb!...descriptions are so vivid, so graphic...I felt like I was right there feeling the things the characters felt...
Charla Gatz Johnston, author
Annie O'Dell wasn't having a particularly good night and she knew for certain it wouldn't get a damn sight better if Pruitt caught her in this condition. Staggering, she nearly tripped over something non-existent on the sawdust-covered saloon floor. Her head danced and the Durham-clouded room two-stepped before her vision. The reek of rotgut and smoke, cheap perfume too-heavily applied and sweat clawed at her senses. Her belly somersaulting, she struggled to keep from bringing up her last meal. What the devil good would she be to any fella if her cherry bodice was a-stink with her own innards?
Not that she was much damn good anyway. Pruitt called her the ugliest whore in the county. Popular opinion and too many mornings staring into a small silver mirror--the only gift she'd ever received and kept from her departed ma, may her soul burn in ever-lasting Hell--agreed.
Cowboys from local ranches, passing-through tinhorns and a gaggle of Miller Pass's vow-breaking husbands crammed the tables in Pruitt's saloon. Whoops howled from players slapping down winning hands, un-Christian words spat from losers' mouths, a few punctuated with threats aimed at cheating opponents. Any possible violence, however, met with quick stifling from Jack Pruitt. The saloon owner perched behind the bar, dark eyes surveying the crowd, mostly focusing on his girls. His hand remained only inches away from a shotgun beneath the counter at any given time or the Bowie sheathed at his waist.
Annie cast him a glance once her head stopped two-stepping, skin crawling as his gaze pinned her, promising that if she didn't bring in more money tonight she'd be in for another whupping. Her belly swirled again with the notion; she still had bruises from the last encounter.
The piano player began pounding away at keys, no ear for tune or finesse with musical phrasing. The sound jangled her nerves, making her head want to whirl again. Goddammit, she had to lay off the laudanum, least this early in the evening. But she couldn't stop herself, could she? The more Jack beat her the more she wanted--needed--to drown the pain and forget the fact that even as a whore she was an utter failure. "No damn good for anything", her ma used to say. It had taken only twenty-two years for Annie to figure out the bitch was right.
Damn her. Damn Jack. Damn Miller's Pass. No way out, not for her, not for any of the girls in this place. Least not till the Good Lord came calling. Judas Priest, what was she thinking? Lord wanted nothing to do with her or her kind. Elsewise she wouldn't be beggin' for two bits every night from filthy, dung-stinking cowboys. Even that new marshal hadn't improved Miller's Pass any. He'd been here a week and what had he done? Nothing for her kind, that was for damn sure.
Annie spat, a reflexive gesture, one she couldn't stop in time. Her spittle landed on a cowboy's shirt sleeve and he glared up at her. His face, beard-peppered and looking for all the world like a chicken had danced over it, twisted into a scowl.
"Christamighty, missy, you best tell me you didn't just spit on me!" He jumped out of his seat. The cowboy next to him, a slight man with watery eyes, placed a hand on his forearm.
"Now, Billy, ain't the first time a lady's spat on you, is it?" A cocky smile filtered onto the second cowboy's face, the man too drunk to realize his co-worker wasn't finding the incident half as funny as he did.
Billy snapped a short punch that mangled the smaller cowboy's nose. The injured man jumped back in his seat and grabbed his bloodied nose, wheezing. "Goddamn, Billy, I was just funnin' ya!"
Billy glared at the man, wiped the blood from his knuckles on his trousers. "You best keep your goddamn mouth shut, Drew, 'fore I add your teeth to the list of things broken on your face." His gaze jumped back to Annie, who was praying the man had taken out his wrath on his partner and would let her alone.
"'Sides," Billy said, "this ain't no lady. This here is Miller's Pass's ugliest goddamn whore. How much you get for a turn, you homely mule?"
The words cut. They shouldn't have. She should have been used to it and she'd been called far worse. She wanted to claw his eyes out, screech at him that men didn't goddamn care so much about looks when their peckers was doin' the talking. But she couldn't. If she did Jack would beat her even harder.
"P-please..." Her words trickled out, barely more than a whisper. "Please, don't..."
Billy's face tightened with a sadistic look she'd only witnessed on two men, Jack and the man her ma said was her father, a no-good owlhoot who only came 'round when he needed his bell rung and couldn't find no one else to do it.
Billy grabbed her suddenly, jerking her close. One hand groped at her rump, the other snatched a fistful of her mousy hair and yanked her head back. His gaze swept over her thin lips and too large nose, sallow skin and the deep dark pockets beneath her watery, bloodshot eyes. "Galldamn, but you sure are uglier close up, ain't ya? Not even worth two bits. Hell, skinny little ass on you like that, I wouldn't even take it free."
Her lips quivered, but anger boiled in her veins and she suddenly drew closer to him, forcing her mouth an inch from his. He grinned, thinking she was trying to use her sex to persuade him to go easy on her, but the moment she felt his grip slacken she sank her teeth into his bottom lip.
He bellowed and shoved her away, hand going to his gashed lip. "Goddamn whore, she done bit my lip clean off!"
Annie spat again, this time a mix of saliva, blood and a piece of his flesh. She glared, heart pounding, sweat trickling between her bosoms.
"Stay the hell away from me, you no-good sheep-poker. Just stay the hell away from me!" She spewed the words with as much venom as she could muster, then a sobering chill washed through her innards at the thought of what Jack was going to do to her for treating one of his customers this way.
Billy's eyes widened, a blaze of anger sweeping over them. "You goddamn mattress warmer, I'm--"
His words ended in a choked squawk. Her gaze focused behind the cowboy, then clouded with fear. She hadn't seen Pruitt step from behind the bar and thread his way through the tables. A burly man, fully capable of bending a horseshoe bare-handed, he moved quick for a fella his size and no one in town dared get on his bad side. Billy had forgotten the house rules, and no matter what Jack would do to her for her transgression, no one damaged his merchandise, except him.
In one fluid move Jack had grabbed Billy's wrist, which had come up in a fist intended for Annie's face, with one hand and plucked the Bowie from his belt with the other. A brittle snap sounded. Billy let out a bleat like a branded calf. His wrist bones had buckled under Jack's crushing grip. The barkeep's knifehand swept up, jamming the blade to Billy's throat. The edge penetrated a fraction, drawing a trickle of blood. Billy's eyes darted, sweat trickling from his brow, mouth clamping shut.
"I told you we got rules in this place." Jack's voice came through clenched teeth. "Don't touch the ladies 'less you intend paying for 'em and don't fight in my bar."
Billy murmured something unintelligible.
"Don't think I heard you..." Jack withdrew the knife a hair.
"S-sorry, Jack, didn't mean nothin' by it. Was just funnin', that's all."
"You get your fun some other way, you sonofabitch, or next time I'll send your head home by its ownself."
Billy tried to nod, but couldn't move much against the blade. "S-sure, Jack. Sure thing."
Jack released him, flinging him towards the door. Billy glanced back at Annie, eyes promising something, but avoided looking at the 'keep. He staggered towards the batwings. His partner, still clutching his broken nose, slid his chair back and darted for the door.
The barroom had gone dead silent the moment Jack grabbed Billy. Things returned to normal with a few murmurs building into loud voices, then to its regular cacophony a moment later.
Jack's gaze settled on Annie, as he sheathed the knife. "You get the hell upstairs and sober up, you stupid waste. I catch you on that laudanum again this early and you'll wish to goddamn hell you'd swallowed enough to take you to your Maker, hear me?"
She nodded, trembling now, lips quivering. She wiped a hand across her mouth, swiping away Billy's blood. "Y-yes, Jack. I won't do it no more, I promise."
"I'll deal with you later for what just happened. Don't think you're gettin' off easy."
A bolt of terror sizzled through her and she almost lost her balance. She had all she could do to nod, then stagger towards the stairway at the back of the room. She fell against the banister, gripping it so she wouldn't collapse, nails gouging into the pitted wood. She stared up into the darkness, then back towards the barroom proper, seeing Jack watching her, as he headed back behind the bar. His eyes narrowed and she quickly looked away.
Straightening, she half-pulled herself, half-stumbled up the stairs. The clamor of the barroom dwindled behind her, wavering in and out. For a moment she wasn't entirely sure she hadn't started to lose consciousness. She reckoned only her deathgrip on the banister kept her from tumbling back down the stairs.
As if in a trance, she reached the top and stared into the darkness of the hallway.
A buzz of something rippled through her belly, not fear exactly, but something close. Why was the hallway dark? They always left two wall lanterns turned low so they could see when they led men up here to the rooms where they plied their trade. Yet the hallway was black as coal.
A niggling voice deep in Annie O'Dell's mind told her she should turn around and take her chances with Jack in the bar, instead of going forward into the darkness to her room. She assured herself it was simply the laudanum wearing off. Nothing more. She'd walked this hallway a hundred times and nothing was any different tonight, except for the lanterns being extinguished.
"You're not a little 'un afeared of the dark, are you, Annie?" she chided herself, not sure whether she had spoken the words or merely voiced them in her mind. A moment later, Annie O'Dell took a step into the darkness for not the first time in her life.
She reached out, palms flat, finding a wall. Her vision began to adjust to the darkness, allowing her to pick out dim outlines of walls and doors.
With each step her heart thudded a beat faster for no reason she could figure. A feeling came with it, one that settled like serpents slithering over one another in the pit of her stomach.
"Christ..." she whispered, hands now trembling. It was the laudanum wearing off, she told herself, half-believing it. Another swig and she'd be good as new.
But Jack would kill her if she didn't lay off that stuff.
No, she couldn't face another night of rejection without it, she couldn't face the looks and taunts, the hurt.
Christamighty, that's the ugliest damn little girl I ever seen!
Her father had said that on her seventh birthday. Right before her mother stuck a knife between his slats. The words had burned into her mind for all time, because even though her mother had made him pay for it Annie knew he was right. She saw it frozen in her mother's eyes every time she looked at her. Annie O'Dell, the gal with the face demons chuckled at and Angels never looked upon.
"You ain't ugly," her ma had said, a half-moment before the trapdoor shuddered open and her neck snapped for the crime of murder.
But even then her eyes said different.
A scuffing sound tore Annie from her dark memories and she gasped. The slithering snake feeling swelled from her belly to invade her entire body. She stared into the darkness, frozen. A dim outline met her startled gaze, a deeper blackness against the gloom. A figure, a man.
She caught a scream just before it escaped her lips, swallowed it. A match flared, its glare stinging in its suddenness, hurting her eyes. Squinting, she caught a glimpse of a face before the flame died, and some of her fear trickled away. But not all of it.
"Christ, you damn near scared half my life off me!" Her voice jittered; she fought to control it.
The man said nothing, simply tossed the burnt-out match to the threadbare carpet. His fingers dug into a pocket of his trousers; a moment later she heard a dull plink ring out just in front of her high-laced boots. She knelt, feeling for what she knew was a coin, finding it. Straightening, she held the coin up before her eyes, certain it was gold. Greed overwhelmed any remaining apprehension.
"Double eagle." The man's voice came low, muffled.
"Why you talkin' funny?" She peered into the darkness, having a hard time distinguishing his form.
"How would it look if we were overheard?" He took a step forward, towards a door, a door that led to her room.
"No fella's ever paid me this much." A note of incredulity and doubt laced her tone.
"Perhaps they didn't need you for as long I wish." Something in his voice should have warned her, brought back the fear. Perhaps in some distant part of her numbed mind it did. But greed and a perverted sense of gratitude overruled any qualms she might have heeded.
She stumbled forward as he shoved open her door and let out a giggle that matched the tone of her features. She'd never had a pretty laugh, the way the other girls did. It sounded more like that mule Billy had called her. But for now she didn't care. For once in her life Annie O'Dell was going to be a queen for the night, and she would never tell that bastard of a barkeep just how much she'd earned to play the part.
He closed the door behind her as she stepped past him. Staggering to her nightstand, she located a lucifer and fired the lantern.
"Turn it low." The man kept back in the shadows by the door. "I don't require much light."
She glanced back at him, shrugged, turned the flame lower, then replaced the chimney. For a moment she didn't turn. She merely stared at the small hand mirror on the stand. Picking it up, she gazed at its silver filigree, now as tarnished as she. Her gaze drifted to her reflected features, but this time a soft smile touched her lips, instead of one of disgust. This time she was something, worth a double eagle like the high-class gals in Dodge or some such place. This time Annie O'Dell was traveling Hansom.
The feeling lasted but an instant.
"W-what?" she whispered, belly plunging.
A glint had flashed across the mirror. Before she realized what caused it, he grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her head back; her gaze swept across the darkened ceiling. The mirror dropped from her hand, clinking on the floor. The man stepped forward, forcing her back against his chest, a bootheel coming down atop the mirror, shattering the glass.
Pain. Only an instant, but deep, burning. Then warm liquid that seemed almost to freeze as it flowed from a deep gash across her throat down her bosom. She gurgled something, the sound lost as darkness swarmed in from the corners of her mind.
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