Pistolero

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Pistolero

CHAPTER ONE

"Gaw-damn that no-good mash-nosed sonofabitch!"

Gerdy grunted and blistered the tepid air with a few choice curses, as she staggered along the boardwalk towards the boarding house at the far end of the wide main street. If there was one thing Gerdy felt piss proud of, it was her gawd-given ability to cuss with the best of 'em, from cattle-weary cowhands to cactus-mouthed hardcases alike. Little else in her miserable wasted life provided her pride or pleasure, but turning the dry New Mexico air blue was one of them.

"No gaw-damn right to treat me like that! He had no gaw-damn right! Christamighty! Sonofabitch!" Gerdy had more such curses balled up inside her belly and ready to spew but horseshoe taste souring her mouth suddenly preoccupied her. She spat a reddish stream through scarlet-smeared lips, saliva mixed with blood. She flicked her tongue over the puffy broken skin at the corner of her mouth, clenched her tobacco- and rot-stained teeth at the thought of how his raw knuckles had smashed the curses from her thoughts. As her head took to spinning from the generous gulps of popskull she'd spilled down her gullet before sneaking out of the saloon and up to his room, she stumbled, the world tilting. The darkened street rippled, only for an instant, but enough to raise nausea in her belly. Popskull and blood; gaw-damn, they just didn't mix. She righted herself at the cost of twisting an ankle. Another blue streak of curses singed the night.

Gerdy halted, feeling her belly swizzle and the notion crossed her mushy mind she might spill the popskull across the boardwalk if she wasn't more careful. She clamped her mouth shut, throat constricting as she fought an intense wave of nausea. Gaw-damn! She'd never took sick before from the swill Dinky served. She wondered briefly if it had more to do with the kick in the belly dillied out by that ghoul-faced hardcase, but the thought dissolved as her whiskey-soaked brain fumbled for the answer.

A minute trickled by as she let the sickness in her gut simmer, fade. She staggered a few weak steps, the folds of her dress tangling about her unsteady legs, paused beneath a lantern. The lantern threw swirls of vanilla light into the darkened street, creating marbled shadows. Its glow traced the contours of her face in sharp relief, highlighting dark semi-circles of kohl above lusterless eyes that had run with tears, streaking black across coral-daubed cheeks. A welt shown livid on one side of her face; a ripening bluish bruise swelled on the other. Too-red lipstick had been pounded into garish blotches around her mouth.

Christamighty, she looked like a gaw-damn clown! She'd make that bastard pay for that. She'd peel his gaw-damn rattle.

Gerdy stumbled onward, a breast flopping from her torn bodice. She giggled, a practiced, teasing sound, automatic now after years of relieving grime-coated, sweat- and-dung-stinking cowhands of their thirty-a-month. Gaw-damn, they were too all-fired drunk to realize ninety percent of the time they never even got inside her, only got their peckers 'tween her fleshy bucking thighs while she squeezed the juice right out of 'em. Another little trick she felt gaw-damn proud of.

Gerdy poked the errant bosom back into the tattered folds of her garment and plucked a silver dollar from a concealed pocket in her top. She considered flinging the piece in anger, thought better of it, and restored the coin to her pocket.

"Could ya believe it?" she muttered, face twisting with disgust. For a lousy gaw-damn silver dollar, she'd let that bastard beat the hell out of her and toss her out on her petticoats. Let him use her in a way few men ever had. She wondered what it was that had given him control over her, made her bend to his will, made her unable to pull off the normal tricks of the trade that worked like a greased holster with greenhorn cowboys. Hell, those young'ns were men bone-tired from a day's work, almost as eager to put their peckers up their horses' asses as real women. Cale Branton was different. He had a way to him, he did, an evil way that told her if she didn't take what he dished out she'd never walk away able to use what lay between her thighs again.

It was the first time in her life she could recall being so scared she had pissed as he entered her. Fact, it had made her all the more surprised when he tossed her out. After striking her repeatedly in as many soft places as he could find, tearing her bodice and prodding her breast until she mewed with pain, he had hoisted her skirt above her head and done things to her she had sworn she'd never let a man do. Then he had let her go. Demanded it in his devil-spawned tone. After the torment she had endured as he forced himself inside her, after the tears that had streamed down her face for the first time since a cowhand on her father's ranch had stolen her purity just before her twelfth birthday:

He had let her go.

In a way, she felt immense relief at that; in another, she coddled a perverse anger at the coward for not killing her. A real man would have punched her ticket. Gaw-damn, men like that were always cowards when you got right down to it, men who beat their whores. Gaw-damn pansies, every last one of 'em! Now, she'd have to live with the humiliation of facing the other doves at the Matanza, bruises glowing like lanterns on her face, on her soul.

She paused again, head doing a dance, settling. Across the street the lights of the Matanza Saloon bled out into the dusty street. Batwings grinned like a hungry devouring mouth that sucked in girls like her, girls young and soiled, and chewed them up, turning them into withered husks of human beings only good for being used and used and used. Nothing but old whores, no matter the age, dried out and no good by thirty. She'd never marry: that thought stung her, sobered her. Never be good enough for the fancy gents or ranchers that drifted in and out of her life. It galled her, gaw-dammit. It galled her that those ivory-faced virginal little rags would get the family men and she'd be stuck with the likes of Cale Branton. All because one man had invaded her girlhood and ripped it away. Funny the way fate pissed on some folks, wasn't it?

Well, what was, was, for her and for the rest of the whores, and gaw-damn she'd get a measure of pleasure drying out a few of those gents along the way.

From within the confines of the Matanza the sounds of rowdy laughter and bawdy giggles ululated into the night. The anemic tinkling of a honky tonk piano carried its notes over the gaiety. Gerdy spat contemptuously at the sound, knowing that waste barkeep, Dinky, had turned a fine piano into a tinkler by poking tacks into the felts. Atonal Dinky. Gaw-damn stupid piece of cowflop!

Gerdy debated crossing the street and getting back on the job; the night was still young and she could honey-fuggle a few cowhands before heading back to her room at the boarding house. After a moment of thought she decided against it, as her painted fingertips touched the bruises at the corner of her eye. She knew she had to stop by her room and get cleaned up first. Wriggle into another flesh-tight bodice and fix her smudged and streaked make-up, lay the warpaint on heavier over the blemished areas. That would provide her with some measure of dignity. After that she would return to the saloon.

When she did, the first order of business would be getting even with Lizzy for directing her to that maniac, Branton. Yessir, she'd get hers, that little whore. She'd pay for the indignities Gerdy had suffered tonight, and maybe a few more besides.

She spat again, tasting the gunmetal flavor of blood on her tongue. Her steps beat a syncopated rhythm as her high-laced shoes slapped on dusty planks.

A chill skittered down her back and she shivered, her breast popping from her bodice again. She muttered a curse at Branton for wrecking a perfectly good garment and shoved the tit back into her top.

Why had she shivered?

The question startled her for some reason she couldn't understand. The night was warm, the breeze pleasant on her paining face. Yet something unseen had gripped her, shaken her. Something dark, primal, buried.

Fear.

She felt vaguely frightened. Frightened of nothing. That made twice in the last hour fear had crawled from the black well of her mind. The first time Branton had caused it; but what was responsible now?

Ghosts?

The Injuns said the night was filled with ghosts around these parts, 'specially angry Apache spirits none-too-gaw-damn-happy with the way the white man was eating up their stomping grounds. Ghosts of Injuns. Ghosts of consumption-kilt settlers. Ghosts of murdered folks and ghosts of brought-down bandits.

Ghosts of little girls whose gifts had been stolen.

Gerdy paused and peered up and down the street, gaze blurry as it plucked at every shadow and dark corner. She felt something, that was for gaw-damn sure. Maybe not ghosts; maybe something a whole lot worse.

Someone following her?

Perhaps some slight sound alerted her to it, a rustle of clothing or the scuff of a bootheel. Or maybe it was just some sixth sense she'd acquired after years of out-running the gaw-damn Devil.

"Who's there?" she jabbed at the darkness, a slur lacing her words. "Who's gaw-damn there?"

The breeze answered.

"I know someone's there! You better come on out 'fore I scream!"

The ghost didn't seem to care. Muffled sounds of gaiety from the saloon drifted into her ears, but no answers from unseen stalkers.

Maybe she was imagining it. Maybe her whiskey-skewed senses were toying with her, taunting her with feelings and notions at the edges of her mind. Or maybe Cale Branton had scared her worse than she wanted to admit. Maybe.

Her fingers--gawd! they trembled. They hadn't trembled since the night she'd taken her first cowboy up to a room at the Matanza. But they did, now, quivered, quaked, as they fumbled for the Remington Over-and-Under .41 concealed in her bodice. Two shots. That's all she'd have if someone was doggin' her. Two shots and by gaw-damn she'd make sure one of them took his balls off for boogering her so.

Gerdy edged forward, forcing herself to control her fear-soaked legs. She felt on the verge of collapse, from popskull and fright, as though she'd just crumble to the boardwalk and tumble out into the street. Maybe she should let herself do just that. Then whoever followed her could come while she waited, clutching the Over-and-Under with eager fingers, until he hovered over her, her, the poor defenseless little thing. It wouldn't be the first man she'd shot 'twixt the eyes.

No. She'd keep going. Killin' someone that way might prove too risky in this town. What with that little pansy incitin' decent folk on the one hand and stickin' the other in the till, it might be the death of her if the killin' didn't reek of self-defense. If she had to die, it would be the way she had at twelve, by the hand of a man too rough for her to handle--not by getting her neck stretched.

A sound.

Scuffling. Like boots on planks. Gerdy whirled, balance deserting her as her senses jigged. She collapsed against the wall of a store, waiting for the surroundings to stop spinning.

"Who is it?" she blurted, a tremor taunting her voice. Her heart throbbed dully, lodging in her throat; she felt the heavy thumping of her pulse at her temples.

She gasped stammering breaths and her gaze raked the street. The thoroughfare appeared deserted, yet every shadow held menace, something lurking, waiting, whispering.

"Whaddo you want?" Her voice came out almost meek.

Nothing.

She stood frozen, the sound of her own fear a cacophony in her mind. Her fingers tightened around the Over-and-Under and she pushed herself away from the wall, staggering forward on unsteady legs.

An alley. A half-dozen feet in front of her. She would have to cross before it to get to the boarding house. The thought buzzed in her mind and a closed-in feeling began to crush her, the same feeling she suffered those six-odd years ago when the 'hand ripped away her purity. A final terror. A terror that whispered to her like dark devils, promising her that if she crossed before that darkened space she stood to lose more than her maidenhood and self-respect. That if she crossed, those devils would have their way with her, consume her.

A shudder, rattling her whole body, but she stepped forward despite her fear, clutching the derringer close and ready against her bosom.

You're bein' gaw-damn silly!

She had come this way every night for as many nights as she cared to recollect. Branton had seeded fear in her soul and now it was merely blossoming. That was all. Just left-over terror. Nothing real, nothing substantial. If she let that get the better of her, she'd be no good taking money from cowboys later tonight. They'd see the fear in her eyes like a disease and take advantage of her. She'd made up her mind long ago no man would ever do that to her again.

Forcing the terror down, Gerdy stepped off the boardwalk, hesitation staggering her gait. The darkness of the alley reached out for her, enwrapping her in cold silky folds that made her shudder again.

"Gerdy..."

She jolted, finger spasming, jerking a shot from the Over-and-Under that nearly blew off her left breast. The bullet gored a crevice across her chest and shoulder that leaked scarlet. A searing pain brought tears to her eyes.

"Oh, gaw-damn!" She felt peeled at her jumpiness and the stinging gash she'd have to cover with a dung plaster as soon as she reached her room. That would keep her out of work tonight, and gawd, if infection set in--

Wait! Gerdy suddenly recollected what had made her jump--the voice. Someone had whispered her name from the shadows of the alley. A vaguely familiar voice. She peered into the darkness, eyes narrowing. "Who's there?"

"Gerdy, come closer...I need...you..."

Now she recognized that voice that came like snakes sliding together. And with the one shot left in her derringer, she would take retribution for the beating she had suffered earlier.

Gerdy slid a foot into the alley, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. A form took vague shape in the shadows.

"You!" Gerdy jerked the derringer up and leveled it. "That beatin' hurt real bad. You'll pay for that--and this!" She jabbed a finger at the bloody furrow lancing her chest.

The form didn't answer and Gerdy's eyes narrowed with hate. As a wave of drunkenness washed across her brain, her hand wavered and the gun jittered. Her mind danced.

Only a moment, less, in fact, that her mind struggled for sobriety. But in that instant, a foot shot up, crashing into her hand, jarring the gun from her grip. The derringer flew into the street and Gerdy, off balance, made a turn for it.

An arm clamped around her throat, jerking her backwards into the enfolding darkness. She felt the other's warm body press against her back, then a pinching at her throat as something sharp bit into her flesh. A knife! A gaw-damn knife! A trickle of wetness dribbled along her throat to the hollow at her collarbone. Blood! Her blood, leaking from a pressure cut--the way it had seeped down the insides of her thighs the day the 'hand had killed her for the first time.

"Please..." Her lips and tongue felt horribly parched and her head reeled from the surety of her own death instead of from the popskull.

"You are all alike..." a voice rasped close to her ear, so close it made her shudder. A voice of death, inhuman in its coldness.

No! Gerdy wanted to protest, but she suddenly had no voice because cold steel sliced deep into her throat and cut it off. Blood gushed over her chest, soaking her bodice. Weakness flooded her legs.

The other let her fall and it seemed an infinite distance to the ground until dirt clogged her mouth, mixing with blood. She couldn't move, as if all will had drained out of her. Her fixed eyes stared into wavering darkness and she made gurgling noises, fighting for a scream that froze in her mind. In the dimming recesses of her consciousness, Gerdy heard laughter, echoing from black caverns, and she entertained the briefest of thoughts dark demons were coming to drag her away for the life she had led, lay claim to her soul for the Devil, whom she vowed she'd bleed dry the moment she met him.

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