A pair of gaudy red shutters hung on spring hinges served in place of the customary bat-wing half doors in the entrance of the Trail's End Saloon. From the boardwalk, Joseph Carrigan peered across the shutter tops into the crowded room beyond. What passed for music blew out against his face like a foul wind: An untuned piano with tacks on its hammers was assaulting a dance tune while a drunken Mexican man with a battered and equally untuned guitar struggled to keep pace.
Joseph shook his head. Terrible, how the unsophisticates of the human race abused the divine gift of music. It was first cousin to blasphemy. But Liam would be drawn to such a place as this, so Joseph pushed through the swinging doors into the musical slaughterhouse. With any luck his brother would be there, and still sober enough to make it back to the hotel on his own.
The saloon reeked of cigar smoke, decomposing spittle in spittoons too long uncleaned, unwashed human bodies, and for some reason onions. Joseph looked around. No Liam.
He eyed the staircase leading up to the floor above. A drunk cowboy was heading up with a rumpled woman in a faded ruffled dress. He hoped Liam wasn't up there, where a man could pick up pestilences not even dreamed of when Adam's curse brought sickness and suffering to the world.
A man weighing at least three hundred pounds perched behind the bar on a stool that strained to hold together under his weight. He looked dull and bored as he wiped out glasses with the corner of his dirty canvas apron.
Joseph approached with a slight smile and a touch of his hat brim. "Good evening, sir. Might I ask a bit of help?"
"I ain't serving. Just wiping glasses."
"I'm not looking for a drink. Just information. I've got a brother, you see, named Liam, and I've lost track of him. He's somewhere in town, and I wondered if maybe you'd seen him in here."
"What kind of name is Liam?"
"Just a name."
"I don't like Irish."
"I've run across plenty of others who feel the same way."
"Are you Irish?"
"I was raised in Nashville, Tennessee." True, but evasive. Joseph had been raised in Nashville, but Ireland was the land of his birth.
"What's your brother look like?"
"Tall fellow, strong but lean. Dark hair, thick and slightly curly. Eyes blue. Firm chin. Clean-shaven at the moment. Fond of whiskey but only gets drunk when he's worried or angry or sad. He's probably drunk right now. He can have a temper when he's drunk, and gets loud."
"Don't know him. Or maybe I know a hundred men who could be him."
"He wears a gold chain around his neck with a little cross on it. Usually it's hidden beneath his shirt, but sometimes it falls out into view."
Heavy brows lowered disapprovingly. "A man who wears a necklace?"
"It was our mother's, God rest her. He wears it to remind himself of her."
"I ain't seen no man with no necklace."
"There's a gunpowder burn on the left side of his neck. It's been there since he was a boy, ingrained right in the flesh like it was ink. Shaped something like the state of Maine."
The man's blank stare made Joseph wonder if he had even heard of the state of Maine. "Ain't seen him," he said.
"Maybe he's upstairs."
"Ain't nobody like that gone up the stairs tonight."
"Thank you for your time." Joseph touched his hat again and headed for the door.
"Hey," the fat man said.
"Go look at Flossie's. He might be there."
"One street over. Building with a green door."
"Thank you, sir."
Flossie's was easy to find. The sign above the door billed it as a dance hall, but the females inside struck Joseph as the kind who were probably paid for more than dancing. Two of them approached him with smiles and batting eyes as soon as he'd cleared the door.
"Good evening, sir! Would you like to dance with me?"
"Ma'am, it would be an honor, but my corns are aching this afternoon and I'll have to forgo that pleasure. I'm here in hope of finding my brother."
"If he's as handsome as you, I can tell you he's not here," the second woman said, running her hand lovingly along the lapel of his coat. "Nothing so fine as yourself has come in today."
"He's not nearly so handsome as me," Joseph said. "He is taller, though, and lean...." He gave the same description he'd given the fat barman, including the powder mark on his neck.
"Oh...him," the woman said. "Yeah, I seen him."
"Where is he?"
"I don't know. He left after he got stabbed. And he danced a dance with me he hasn't paid for yet. You going to pay it for him?"
"Yeah. Gertie stabbed him."
"That's what I said. You got two bits on you to pay for that dance he owes me for?"
"Why did this Gertie stab my brother?"
"She was drunk."
"So she just stabs folks when she's drunk?"
"She didn't mean to do it. She was trying to stab Mary. Your brother stepped in the way to protect her. Quite a gentleman, but he still owes me for the dance."
"How bad hurt is he?"
"I don't know. He went home with Annie. She was going to patch him up."
"Who's Mary? And who's Annie?"
"Mary is one of our dancing girls. She come in with the gout and said she couldn't dance, so Gertie decided to stab her with her hairpin."
"This Gertie sounds like quite a creature. Now, who's Annie?"
"She's another dancing girl. She was dancing with your brother when Gertie started chasing Mary. He jumped in the way and got stabbed."
"Where does Annie live?"
"Upstairs from the feed store, with her husband. One street over, down a block to the south. But you better hurry."
"I seen Annie's husband heading that direction a few minutes ago. He don't like it when Annie has a man in her house."
"But he's only there for her to patch him up, you said."
"It won't matter to him. He'll never take the time to find out what is really going on."
Joseph touched his hat brim and headed for the door. "One street over, a block to the south, above the feed store. Right?"
"That's right. You can't miss seeing it. You going to pay for that dance?"
Joseph did pay, though even such a minuscule amount wasn't easy to part with just now. "Thank you," he said.
He conducted his search on the run and in fact missed seeing the feed store. No such establishment anywhere. Joseph began to panic. What if Liam got himself killed by some jealous husband, all for no good reason? And how could a jealous husband let his wife work in a dance hall, anyway?
Anger rose with the worry. What was Liam doing, spending money on dance hall girls when their situation was so tight? How much might he have drained today from their meager resources? If he'd played the wastrel, as he had sometimes in the past, Joseph would have his hide!
Why was it that Liam always made the most imprudent choices in any given situation? He'd been like that since he was little, and Joseph was tired of it. This time he'd not let it pass.
Maybe the feed store was farther down the street. He ran on, dodging around a woman who stepped out of a dress shop at just the wrong moment. He missed her but trod on her toes. He spun around to apologize, backing away from her as he did so, and collided blindly with a man coming out of a tobacco shop beside the dress store. The man went down and Joseph barely avoided doing so himself.
"What the devil, young man!" Joseph's victim declared. "Watch where you're going!"
Joseph rushed to help the man up. "I'm sorry, sir. My fault...I do apologize."
The frowning man pulled free of Joseph's grasp and dusted himself off. "Good thing for you you didn't crush my new cigars."
"I'm mighty sorry."
"Why are you going in such a reckless way down a public thoroughfare?"
"I'm trying to find my brother. I've heard he's hurt and was told he is being cared for somewhere on this street, in rooms above some feed store."
"The feed store? Oh, yes. Down yonder."
The man pointed. "That place."
"I don't see it."
"There! Right there! Don't you see?"
Just then a second-story window three buildings down, on the far side of the street, exploded outward under the force of the human form that burst through it and tumbled to the street in a jumble of flailing arms and legs, broken glass, splintered wood, and billowing dust.
"I'll be confounded!" the man with the cigars said. "Who the devil -- "
"Not the devil," Joseph said, "but close enough. It's my brother."
He loped across the street toward Liam's crumpled, glass-covered form.
Copyright © 2003 Cameron Judd