Return to No Illusions

Cut Loose Your Wolf!

From Chapter 9

In front of the sprawling cluster of saloons and brothels along Front Street, I swung down and tied my bronc to a hitching rail. Several horses stood there, oblivious to the tin-panny music that blared from a music box inside a beer hall across the street. The second place I entered was as much a dive as the first; a passel of smelly hard cases held cards and drank rye around battered wooden tables in a smoke-filled room. 

“What’chu lookin’ for, Injun?” bellowed a broad-shoulder husky man with a shock of bright red hair hanging over glazed eyes. “Don’t reckon it be whiskey.”

The others cut up laughing. I wasn’t. But rather, anger was rising up inside me. The fire in my eyes showed it. Purposely, I turned my attention on the cross-eyed saloonkeeper. “I’m huntin’ a man, goes by Borski. You know of him?”

Before the bartender could open his mouth Red carefully laid down his cards, glaring up at me through bloodshot eyes. “He come in here alright, askin’ for some half-breed. Mebbe to the tune of one lookin’ like you.”

“You tell him the Llano Kid’s in town.”

A gambler dealing poker at the next table looked up sharply upon hearing the handle and shifted himself nervously in the chair, careful to leave his palms flat on the table. Red glanced back around to me. 

“Said he’s wantin’ to return a favor of some sort.”

My eyes surveyed the room as I spoke. 

“Tell Borski I’ll be waitin’ for him … to cut loose his wolf!”

An audible gulp was heard as I stepped through the doors. On the boardwalk I paused to roll a smoke and contemplate my next move. I needed to learn what happened to my bowie knife; I needed to know whose hands did it end up in before Morris was killed. Then there was the question of who was more dangerous; Borski or that two-bit crooked deputy bent on seeing me hang? 

Some fellas loafing on a bench and wooden chairs outside the saloon were deep in conversation about the train line connecting Seattle with the cities back East. A late spring snow had been heavy and crews were busy digging out the tracks through the Rocky Mountains. This news meant nothing to me … except for the fact it would delay Sheriff Hadley’s return!

Little else could be learned of Borski or the lost bowie until I got along to the third saloon. A heavy wood sign identifying the joint as The Saw Blade hung over the front window. Pushing through the batwing doors, I observed a small space for dancing, and several tables set up for gambling. The saloon had a large oak bar along the side wall that extended to the back of the room. A cool cross-draught blew from a side door and out through another. A big old upright piano occupied a corner where somebody was hunched on the plank floor, wiping it down and tinkering with a tool beneath the keys.

I stepped up to the bar and glanced at the bartender who dutifully straddled his polishing towel over one arm and started to pour me a shot of whiskey. “Water, please.” He threw me a puzzled look and obliged me as I leaned against the polished oak, glancing across to the piano. The bartender took notice of my interest and said something about the pianist being somewhat new to town. 

“Can’t keep a decent musician around more‘n a week or two,” he lamented. “Quiet in here on a Monday afternoon … but the place gets to jumpin’ after supper. Too much so for a good performer to stay on.”

“Reckon so … unless he’s got some fight in him.” I said, recalling my friend Joe whom I’d met down in Prescott. My eyes swept over the numerous scrapes and burrs and gouges in the furnishings. Several bullet holes in the walls and ceiling still needed patching. “Ever hear of a fellow going by Borski?” I asked casually. The bartender thought for a moment but couldn’t recall anybody by that name. “All sorts come in here, under all sorts of aliases,” he grunted. 

That’s when I switched my tact: “Too bad about ole Morris,” I proclaimed, shaking my bowed head for effect. “Fella never bothered nobody … ‘cept maybe when he was drinking.”

“Which was pert-near all the time!” the bartender retorted. “Man could put rye away like a camel. Folks claim he got stabbed whilst sleeping it off.” The bartender gave the empty room a quick glance over, lowering his voice. “Some say it was some Inju… I mean Indian, ‘bout your age. But I doubt it. I hear the guy who done it probably mistook Morris Berret for that big shot gambler who come to town and commenced to cleaning ever’ body’s clock.” He turned to wash out his rag in a bucket behind the bar. “Fellas comin’ in here say a big lumberjack come to town with a load of cash money to play! A real sourpuss. He come in here pushin’ my patrons around a couple times. Now, what’d ya say that fella’s name was?  Bor—”

“Borski!” The deep voice boomed out the name in a raspy manner. And when I turned to see who was speaking, a large muscular black man in overalls and a wide grin across his face come at me!

“Now if it ain’t The Llano Kid!

I shot out a hand to shake his but he’d already sidestepped around and embraced me with one of his bear hugs.

Piano Joe!” I almost shouted it, turning to the bartender who was amused by our little reunion. “This here’s your man! If anyone can keep order in a saloon and stay at the keys, it’s Joe!”

The bartender was looking past me at Joe now, his eyes a-twinkling like midnight stars. “Kinda figured we found us the right man,” he chortled. “Mister Remy come in here just this morning and starts a-poking at them ivories. B’fore long he’s playin’ that new-fangled music folks is all keyed up about! Says one of them outfits down the street would’ve kept him on but their piano got busted up in a late-night brawl after he’d knocked off for the night. So I told Joe he can start here tonight.” The bartender glanced at the piano in the corner “Agreed on the condition I permit him to break the guy’s neck who lays a hand on that thing.”

“That’s Joe for you,” I laughed.

The bartender stepped around the bar and lowered his voice. “So, I tell Joe to have at it and I’d just look the other way. Pretend not to see nothin’ whilst he and my regulars drag the monkey out by his ears.”

Joe and me, we pulled up a chair at a crooked table and traded stories of our times from Prescott to Frisco, and all the crazy things we did together along the docks. After a bit I looked into his dark steady eyes. “Joe, tell me what you know about Borski.” 

He shrugged. “I’ve heard enough to know he’s poison mean; the sort of weasel to stab a man in the back. But he’s also a blow hard always looking for center stage. Hard to say if he’d kill in cold blood. He’s more of the sort to pick through the spoils after someone else’s battle. Heard him braggin’ just the other night about taking watches and wallets and knives off dead Indians; same stuff they’d taken during their own raids. Said he’d found him one of them hard-to-find 1841 jobs off a dead Nez Perce fighter. Sounded like a finely crafted blade. Llano, you know Borski don’t have any intention of ever returning that stuff.”

I thought about what he’d said for a few minutes. Could that be my pa’s blade he was speaking of? I couldn’t say for sure, but the year it was made sounded right for pa to have acquire it. I held off on saying anything. Joe listened intently as I told him about what happened with Borski picking on Kirby, and then me whipping him in a fair match, followed by him calling me out for a shooting at that camp down in Oregon. Briefly, I filled Joe in on what had happened here in town … and the bit about me being a suspect to the stabbing after I’d confronted Morris with his paws all over Julia. And Joe, he put right serious thinking into it for a long minute, as if he was piecing a puzzle together in his mind.

“Morris? Yeah, I knew him,” Joe nodded. “A jolly drinkin’ man, happily singing along to Sweet Betsy from Pike in his own slobbering gibberish, standing next to me at the piano, down to Ace’s Beer Hall. That was just two days after I come to town. Nice place for a beer and a steak sandwich till a couple of ornery cusses come in feudin’ then shot it out and busted up the place. Either way, Morris was no gambler. Never had an extra dime to blow on a poker game. 

Joe’s eyes leveled with mine. “No, I suspect it was that city slicker out of Frisco he was after. Big time gambler come to town back in March. Set up shop over at Jack’s Palace. Fancy gambling joint where the big boys play for high stakes. I’d wager a bet on him being the intended target … on account of Borski being a sorehead and one of his patsies to lose his wages at the table, along with several others who got took badly by that Jones fella. Sid Jones was his name. Had him a shack near the flats not far from where Morris was stabbed. A hole card, sort of speak, so the strong men in town couldn’t find him if he was ever suspected of cheatin’ at the table. At least that’s what I hear workin’ at the keys. You hear a lot of shit whilst playing a piano in a saloon.”