Posted for PattiHeathen:
Zeke Clayton was hungry… and there was more than meat and potatoes on his menu…
The slimy weasel of a man was roaming the fairgrounds itching for trouble and he knew it would be easy to find without even trying at all. His patience had been filed down to the bone and he needed a more pleasurable distraction to occupy his attention – anything to get him away from the uppities and mucky-mucks of the good town of Placerville who’d been ordering him around all morning. He’d tolerated them because McGowan had told him to and it was all part of the plan… but he didn’t have to like it.
He’d mocked them all behind their backs, muttering inaudible slurs and warnings of retribution, all the while pretending to the submissive servant to their every need. After a minute too many of taking orders from men who wouldn’t know the head of a horse from its hind end, Clayton had suddenly walked away from the corrals at the far corner of the fairgrounds without saying a word. McGowan be damned… there was only so much a man could take.
Now Clayton roved the bustling fairgrounds like a ravenous wolf on the prowl, his yellow eyes hungrily scanning the perimeter for an innocent victim who might fall prey to his oily charms. He paused to lean against a small wooden cart and licked his lips when he caught sight of a pretty blonde strolling across the field with a large wicker basket tucked protectively under her arm. The willowy dove was headed toward a long cloth-covered table where several other women were carefully arranging a variety of delicacies for the baking contest to be held later that weekend. Beads of saliva began to ooze through a gap in Zeke’s half open mouth and he slurped it away with his tongue before emitting a low growl of insatiable desire.
Dessert before lunch is always better…
Clayton smiled and pushed off the cart with every intention of intercepting the slender young woman before she reached her destination but his designs were unexpectedly interrupted.
“Been lookin’ fer ya, Zeke!” a twittery voice declared, pricking the insides of Clayton’s ears with its annoyance. “How come ya ain’t at the corral?”
Zeke squared his jaw and bristled a bit before turning to swat away the buzzing fly that was disturbing his game.
“I got tired of mucking out stalls,” the ranch hand groused. “Thought I’d jest get a little air for a minute or two.”
Sam pursed his lips and gave his partner a weakly disapproving look and peered over both shoulders as if expecting to discover that someone had been dogging him.
“Don’t think you oughta be out here, Zeke.” Fisher tugged on a thick cord strung through the brim of his hat, allowing it to slide off his head and lasso his neck. “You heard what the boss said – we ain’t supposed to cause any trouble.”
With a grunt of frustration, Zeke rolled his eyes and stabbed his knife into an apple on the cart beside him.
“And I ain’t causin’ any… I’m jest here havin’ me a little fun is all. No harm in that.”
The ranch hand took a cavernous bite out of the fruit and sneered, allowing the sticky juices to leak out of the corners of his mouth and down the side of his mottled chin.
“You know what yer trouble is, Sammy boy? Yer wound tighter than the butt hole on a gnat. Ya gotta let loose now n’ agin… let out some steam… have some fun.”
Sam sucked in his breath and did his best show Clayton he wasn’t as big of a patsy as the man believed, but was hard-pressed to hide the truth that he was a nervous twitch and clearly more intimidated by McGowan’s influence than his nonchalant co-worker.
“You n’ me’s got different notions of fun, Zeke,” he countered with a scowl. “An’ mine don’t mean gettin’ the boss riled up. You wanna stay then go on an’ stay… It’s yer own funeral. I’m headin’ back to the ranch.”
The anxious cowpoke scanned the perimeter again for any sign of the owner of the Triple Spur and plopped his hat back on his head.
“But you’d better think on ridin’ in soon… the boss wants us to load up the rest of them cows we’re bringin’ in fer auction an’ I can’t do it on my own.”
Zeke yanked the remains of the apple off his knife and carelessly discarded it over his shoulder.
“We already brought down three or four yesterday,” he complained, returning his attention to the pretty young thing that was only a few yards away from him. “That oughta be enough ta throw folks off our scent. Don’t see the point…”
“There ain’t no need to either, Zeke. Jest so long as we end up rich, I don’t give a hoot n’ holler if McGowan makes us bring in the whole damn herd.”
“Jest don’t see the point…”
It suddenly seemed obvious to Sam that the man he was talking to was focused on something else and barely paying attention to what had been said. He followed Zeke’s line of sight until he determined the ranch hand was ogling the comely niece of the man McGowan had hired to run the livery in town.
“Whatcha doin’, Zeke?” he challenged, gripping Clayton’s arm and forcing him to take notice. “You crazy or sumthin’? That’s the Bartle girl yer gawkin’ at!”
Zeke swiped the bottom of his chin with the back of his sleeve and whistled low and long.
“That there is no girl, Sammy boy… that there’s a mighty fine woman and I aim to do more than gawk at ‘er.”
“Her uncle runs the livery for McGowan an’ them two nosey kids the Modoc scared over in the barn are her brothers.”
“I ain’t interested in her uncle OR her brothers.”
“Mr. McGowan said not ta give folks reason ta pay us no mind, Zeke. Can’t see nuthin’ more noticin’ than you botherin’ Annie Bartle.”
“I ain’t gonna bother her,” Clayton insisted with a sneer. “I just aim ta say howdy.”
Sam grabbed Zeke by the arm and gave him a firm warning. “The boss ain’t gonna like it iffen ya do sumthin’ to mess with our setup at the livery.”
“Go on back to the ranch if ya ain’t got the stomach fer this, Sam. I ain’t worried about McGowan. The man ain’t here and what he don’t know won’t hurt ‘im.”
Clayton shrugged off his companion’s hold on his arm and gave him a patronizing pat on the side of the face. With a sleazy smirk, he tugged off his battered Stetson and slicked back his hair before readjusting the hat on his head and sauntering toward his prey. All Sam could do was stand there and watch Zeke approach the pretty blonde he was sure would burn him if touched.
“How do, pretty lady?”
Clayton slipped up beside Anne and half-slurred his greeting, all the while oozing his oily charm over her. When the young woman ignored him and continued her march across the fairgrounds, the cowpoke quickly side-stepped in front of her, effectively cutting her off before she could escape his undesirable advances.
“I said, ‘How do’,” he repeated, emphasizing his greeting with a trace of haughtiness in the words. “When a fella says ‘How do’ to a woman, it ain’t polite fer her not ta give ‘im a kindness in return.”
Anne stopped dead in her tracks and pulled the basket closer to her side as if hoping that it might somehow provide a barrier between her and the offensive man blocking her path. She swallowed the growing lump of fear lodged in her throat and forced a small smile to her lips as a gesture of good faith.
“Good mornin’,” she replied, inwardly cringing at the syrupy sound of her voice trying to appease the weasel in front of her.
Zeke parted his lips into a slimy grin of satisfaction and rocked back on his heels.
“That’s more like it – I knowed I’d hear some honey when you opened them rosy, red lips of yorn… and I betcha they taste like it, too.”
Anne hitched her breath and did her best not to tremble when the vile creature slithered closer toward her and whispered his words within inches of her ear. The strong odor of whiskey permeated his oversized coat and she instantly recoiled when the too familiar stench triggered the return of memories which had been rotting in the copse of a dead man she’d left in her past.
The Reverend Zebediah Crane…
Anne saw her zealot uncle’s blotchy face glaring down at her from the haze wafting off the sun and she slammed her eyes closed when the vision seemed too painfully real. She could feel the heat of the demon’s stale breath on her skin as he hurled Biblical scripture at her, spitting his words of retribution in a drunken tirade.
By the time she sensed the heated breath of her loathsome uncle huffing down the back of her neck, it was too late to escape.
Crane glowered and pulled her snug against his chest.
"Do you dare defy me, Jezebel?” He pushed his face close and she reeled from his stench. “After all I have given you and your worthless brothers, you disobey and consort with the Devil?”
With an unearthly growl, Crane gruffly twisted Anne’s arm and began to drag her toward the shack.
“I will not tolerate such disobedience in my house!” The zealot raged. “You shall learn repentance!”
For three years she and her brothers had endured that insufferable presence in their lives… for three years they’d been obedient and submissive to its every demand until the Barkley brothers had finally set them free.
Anne heard the sound of a rifle shot explode in her ear and felt the body of her Uncle suddenly lurch backwards, dragging her toward the ground with a violent jerk…
…For a horrific moment she lay stunned where she'd fallen, the side of her face resting against the edge of her Uncle's chest, her body half-wedged beneath the crook of his arm…
…Shivering uncontrollably in the wake of a terrorizing nightmare, she scuffed her feet into the dirt and shuffled several feet backwards on her hands, all the while keeping her eyes transfixed on the graying pallor of her Uncle's face…
Crane was dead… she’d heard the life leave her tyrannical uncle’s body the moment a gunshot had blown a hole in his chest.
Crane was dead… and the repulsive being in front of her would not force her to live through that kind of fear again.
“Whatcha got there?” Clayton wondered, lifting the lid of Anne’s basket and attempting to sneak a peek inside. “Sure smells good.”
Anne swatted away his hand and protectively cradled her hamper against her body.
“Let me pass,” she demanded, keeping her voice low and as calm as possible.
Clayton sneered and inched a bit closer.
“You ain’t askin’ very nice… a fella might be inclined to oblige iffen he gets asked nice-like.”
Not daring to make eye contact lest she allow the ranch hand to find the smallest hint of fear lying within them, Anne averted her gaze and bit the inside of her lip for courage.
“Please… let me pass.”
“Well, now… that’s real nice… real nice indeed.”
Zeke shifted his weight away from Anne a bit as if to comply with her request, but quickly reclaimed his ground the moment she attempted to move and snagged her basket from her grasp. With a greedy sneer he flipped back the lid and dropped his head close enough to smell the cinnamon apple of her pie.
“Lordy, but don’t that smell good ‘nuff to eat!” he exclaimed, shooting Anne a taunting grin. “You bake this yerself?”
“It’s for the fair,” she replied with the slightest of tremors in her voice. “But you can have it if you’ll just let me be on my way.”
“Well, now… that’s jest fine… but what if I don’t wanna do that, missy? What if I wanna have my pie an’ eat it, too?”
Clayton’s brows disappeared into the wrinkles of his wide forehead and he laughed a bit before gently setting the basket down behind him.
“What if I aim to stay right here and make you talk with me a while…?”
Without dignifying his uninvited proposal with a reply, Anne abruptly turned sideways and began to hurry in a direction that was angled away from him. Her attempt to evade his advances was thwarted when Clayton bolted after her and blocked her path once more.
“Now where ya goin’, missy?” he demanded, spreading his arms into a wide arc in front of her so he could catch her if she tried to dodge him again. “I was only wantin’ to talk to ya fer a little while. Ain’t no need to run off like that.”
“And I asked you nicely, Mister – “
“Clayton… the name’s Zeke Clayton.”
Anne tugged in a mouthful of air and held onto it for several moments before speaking again.
“I asked you nicely, Mister Clayton, to let me pass…”
“Don’t see no harm in spendin’ a little time. At least you could do is tell me yer name. I told ya mine.”
Clayton waited for a response but Anne stiffened and looked away, tugging her shawl close around her shoulders as she did so. Her actions only managed to antagonize Zeke.
“What’s the matter with you anyway? Cat got yer tongue?”
The ranch hand scrubbed his grungy face and squinted a jaundiced eye in her direction.
“I knows it anyway,” he proclaimed with a jagged smile. “It’s Bartle… Annie Bartle. Ol’ man McGowan’s got yer uncle workin’ fer ‘im in the livery.”
Anne felt the pin-prick of tears beginning to sting the corners of her eyes but she drove them back and finally looked at her tormenter with an icy glare.
“What do you want from me?”
“I told ya… I jest wanna talk fer a while…” Zeke grew bolder and slid closer until he was able to reach out and touch one of her blonde tresses with his grimy fingers. “And… iffen ya was to feel inclined to do more… why then… I jest might feel generous enuff to oblige ya.”
“I assure you, Mister Clayton,” Anne seethed between clenched teeth. “I will NOT be so inclined.”
Zeke scowled and narrowed his eyes into an unforgiving glare.
“Now why’s that, Miss Annie? You think yer better than me or sumthin’?”
The heat of the monster’s breath scalded Anne’s cheek and she knew it wouldn’t be long before she would lose her composure.
“No… I just want to be left alone. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Zeke sniggered and circled around her like a vulture salivating over its next meal. “That’s all…?”
He unexpectedly grabbed her arms and leaned in to brush her lips with his.
“Well that ain’t enuff fer me, Miss Annie… not nearly…”
Anne’s scream was quickly smothered when Clayton crushed his mouth against hers and stole an unrequited kiss. She writhed in his grasp and held her breath until he finally pulled away to look at her with smug satisfaction. Instinctively, she swung her hand and slapped him hard on the face. Zeke recoiled and staggered back a step, affording Anne a brief opportunity for escape. She turned to flee across the meadow but her adversary was not distracted for long and he quickly seized her by the arm before she could evade him.
“No, ya don’t, girlie!” he growled, angrily tugging Anne toward him. “I ain’t through with you yet!”
For a brief second Clayton glowered at her, infuriated by the fact that such an insignificant wench would have the brass to strike him. His anger soon ignited a lusty desire and he wound her hair through his fingers before yanking her closer and demanding another, deeper kiss. Anne beat the back of his shoulders with her fists but that only managed to fuel his excitement and he squeezed his grip tighter around her rib cage until she could barely breathe.
Suddenly, there were voices screaming behind her – words of fear and demand growing louder with each pulse of her heart pounding in her ears – but she didn’t recognize their source. The crushing vice holding her fast unexpectedly released and she staggered into someone’s arms as the world began to spin at a terrifying speed.
“I’ve got you, Annie…”
A comforting whisper tried to pull her back but she’d gone too far already and a soft sigh of release escaped her lips before she crumpled into the blackness.