THE SONGBIRD

By J. T. Seate



Songbird was a two-bit dancehall girl in a no-account town called Absalom. Wesley was a gun-slinging saddle-tramp who moved from town to town. Until he walked into the Summit Saloon, that is, and heard Songbird singing “I’m only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

Trail dust covered his boots and Mexican spurs. Sand fell from his breeches and mixed with the sawdust on the barroom floor as he moseyed to the bar. He pushed back his hat and the broad grin he was famous for carved his freckled face as he listened to the skylark. He thought her to be the finest piece of womanhood he’d ever laid his travel-weary eyes on.

After Songbird sang, he bought her a drink and asked her to share a table. She was a sprightly young woman with dark eyes framed by long, sooty lashes. Her raven hair was pinned up with a silver brooch as pretty as you please. She didn’t act like an ordinary dancehall whore. No attempt was made to seduce him or ask for drinks. He felt a sense of companionship with her right off.

Songbird was equally attracted to the kid’s youthful features and lonely blue eyes, but her company didn’t come without a price. There was another man in the saloon that had invested time and money in Songbird and didn’t like the idea of this upstart, interloper occupying his investment.

“Looky here, Bill. Some kid’s stealing your girl,” one of the cowpokes leaning on the bar goaded.

Wesley glanced toward the voice. His blue eyes turned steely. “Best tend to your own rat-killin’, feller.”

When his hand touched Songbird’s, another voice boomed across the barroom. “Before you wet your didy, I’ll thank you to unhand my paramour, unless you want your arm separated from the rest of you,” said a man who rose from a poker table, whiskey in his voice.

The piano music stopped. The clacking of dominoes came to a halt. A barmaid’s hand went to her throat. Even the tobacco chewing stopped and the spittoons fell silent. For a moment, there was a quiet not heard in the saloon since the last gunfight.

Wesley concentrated his attention on the man who’d spoken. His eyes became icy and a savage darkness flickered across his face. “Don’t look to me like Songbird belongs to anyone, least of all an old fossil with skunk-grease in what’s left of his hair.”

Bill’s eyes became narrow slits of anger. He was known to have a lightning-quick draw, drunk or sober. The heel of his hand rested on the butt of his pistol, the movement an obvious threat. The bartender, called Beaut because he was uglier than Sunday and twice as mean, backed away from the line of fire as did the barmaids and the customers. 

Wes smiled crookedly and calmly stood. He might have been no more than a kid, but he showed no fear of the man who’d challenged him. “You willin’ to die for a girl half your age?”

Songbird moved away with the rest, but said to the kid, “Don’t get yourself killed on account of me, Mister. I’m not worth it.”

“I think you are,” Wes said with his cockeyed smile. “If this fossil don’t like us having a drink, I guess he’s just gonna have to shoot me.”

“It’d be my pleasure,” Bill snarled.

“Then skin that smoke-wagon, old man.”

The room was as still as death, its customers knowing full well that lives hung by a thread and the snap of a trigger. Bill slapped leather. His firearm sounded two deafening shots in Wesley’s direction. Bottles behind the bar exploded. Songbird screamed. Patrons dived to the floor from fear of stray, hot lead. Time froze as if the scene were a daguerreotype with everyone caught in quicksand, unable to reverse the inevitable.

But it was Wes who’d managed to get off the first shot. A dark crimson circle appeared in the middle of Bill’s ruffled shirt as smoke rose from the guns’ bores. He mouthed soundless words as his gun-hand quivered. Then he collapsed across a card table with a thud.

“Anyone else feelin’ trigger-happy?” Wes asked solemnly.

No one replied. The men in the saloon appeared as mystified as if a wagonload of naked whores had sashayed into the place.

Songbird ran to Wesley. “You better get out of town quick-like. Bill has plenty of friends who would as soon gun you down as look at you.”

“I ain’t afraid,” he told her. “But I’ll go if you’ll come with me.”

“Where to?”

“I know of a little place a day’s ride from here. You got a horse?”

“No.”

“Then we’ll borrow one out front.” To the saloon’s patrons Wes said, “You best keep your hands clear of your hog-legs and your pig-stickers ‘til we get clear of town. I ain’t feelin’ the need to send anyone else to the devil, so don’t give me a reason.”

Wesley and Songbird backed out of the bar with Songbird hanging onto one of his arms and his pistol gripped tightly in his hand. He helped her onto an available horse, her fancy dress billowing around the saddle. They rode past the row of clapboard storefronts and set off toward the moonlit hills.

Inside the saloon, a cross-eyed drunk with a snoot full of whiskey stumbled toward the bar for another shot to calm his nerves. “Know who that was?” he said. “I’ll be danged if it wasn’t Wesley Carp, the outlaw.”

“Thought he got hisself hung a year ago?” another asked.

“That was him all right. Baby-faced with the grin of a crazed possum. He’s supposed to ’ave killed might near as many men as Billy the Kid did all them years back, or so I heard tell.”

A couple of the men went to see if Bill was alive or dead. When it was confirmed he’d breathed his last, his body was hauled down to the blacksmith’s, who also happened to be Absalom’s coffin maker. Within an hour, the Crystal Slipper was back to normal, minus a dancehall girl and a might-too-slow-on-the-draw card-player.

 

* * *

 

Wesley and Songbird rode like the wind until they were certain a posse hadn’t lit out in pursuit. Then they loped along until they reached the Rio Hondo. “Just across the river is Greasy Bend, the place I was tellin’ you about. It ain’t much to look at, but we’ll be safe there, for awhile anyhow.”

The ways of a woman never cease to startle and what Songbird did next stunned Wesley a might more than someone forcing him to draw his firearm. She got off her horse and began to undress. “The river’s up and I don’t want to get my clothes wet,” she told him. “Don’t suppose I’ll be needin’ this dress, but it’s the nicest thing I ever had and you might like to see me in again it sometime. It came all the way from Paris.”

Under the clear blue sweep of sky, she shucked down to her birthday suit and made a bundle of her clothes. Wesley didn’t care if the dress had been spun from the asses of a thousand silkworms in China, but he grinned crookedly while his eyes bulged at the sight of a buck-naked Songbird.

“You ought to strip down, too,” Songbird suggested. She had a fine young figure. She tied her clothes behind the saddle and remounted her horse, her bare flesh against leather. “Well, you coming with wet clothes or dry?” she asked Wesley.

The breeze blew her dark hair about her shoulders. Her high cheekbones made her look all the more like an Indian princess, tall and proud in the saddle. Her hair had come loose during the ride and hung down her back nearly to the cleft of her round bottom.

Wesley pulled off his boots and breeches but kept his long johns on. Songbird laughed at his modesty, but took notice of the bulge in his pinkish garment. She slapped the reins against her horse’s rump and headed for the river. The couple drove their mounts into the brown water until it flowed over their legs. He rode behind and admired the sight. She was comfortable in the saddle with clothes on or off.

They arrived safely on the far bank. Songbird shimmied back into her pantaloons. “I hope you have an extra pair of breeches and shirt for me. Sure would hate to wear this get-up permanent-like.”

“Sure I do, and I’ll fashion you some moccasins so’s you don’t have to wear them heels over at Greasy Bend.”

Before remounting, Songbird gave him his first kiss and not one he’d soon forget. It had the tantalizing promise of things to come.

They rode to the village where Wesley gave an Indian woman a silver dollar to let them stay in one of the adobe huts. For the next few days, he shot an occasional jackrabbit. The meat and the Indian woman’s tortillas and frijoles, along with a bottle of mescal which had cost Wesley another dollar, provided nourishment. Sometimes their stomachs rumbled, but they weren’t picayunish about the dinner fare because they were mostly hungry for each other.

By the second evening, Songbird told Wesley how she’d come to be at the saloon. Her widowed father had been killed by a drunken cowboy. He owed a large debt on his farm to Bill, who owned pretty much everything in and around Absalom. Being a saloon girl was the only way she’d been allowed to make good on her father’s liability. She’d gotten by with her singing and ‘prettying up the place,’ as the bartender told her. Then Bill took a liking to her and gave her the one thing she cherished – the fancy dress.

“Why’d you take a shine to me?” Wesley asked.

“There was something in your eyes. Something sad and lonely and redemptive.”

He didn’t know the meaning of that last word, but it didn’t matter. They were together. Their newfound camaraderie provided nourishment for their souls and their intimacies were attended by excited obscenities and peals of joyful laughter. The Indian woman and the half-dozen other residents of Greasy Bend found the renters’ unguarded moments of billing and cooing somewhat amusing. Their affections, it seemed, had slipped their brake.

Songbird didn’t mind the temporary accommodations, just glad to be rescued from a life of singing and selling herself. Wesley knew Songbird was no virgin, being a dancehall girl and all, but he didn’t concern himself with such trivialities. They had made love by the riverbank the first night and Songbird was happy to teach techniques unknown to a kid who’d done more shooting with his pistol than with his pecker.

Usually, they lay on the horse blankets next to the river under God’s own heaven while nature’s critters made mating calls of their own and harmonized with Songbird and Wesley’s moans and sighs. Songbird had heard tell about Tarzan and Jane living in the jungles of Africa. She thought about how she and Wes were like those two, except without bananas to eat.

“I’ll make you happy, Wes,” Songbird told him.

He was more than thrilled as she taught him about pleasure, so entranced that he sometimes had to remind himself to take a breath lest he smother during their passion. He hadn’t felt anything like this since a scorpion crawled up his trouser leg and he’d gone a little loco from the sting on his butt. He guessed this fever engulfing him was what those dime novels called love. He belonged in her arms. Together, they achieved a union beyond anything he’d imagined. They were like perfectly tuned instruments, each coaxing forth the most beautiful notes of love from one another. No need for killing anyone when she so blissfully satisfied his needs.

Lord but Songbird was something, all heat and smell and tenderness, too. Wesley knew he wasn’t nearly as handsome a man as Songbird was a woman. His pale limbs contrasted with Songbird’s part Indian, or Mexican blood. He figured the two of them were quite a sight when they were in a tangle of arms and legs, but he felt sure they were meant for each other. While they strolled along the bend in the river building sand castles in the air, he planned to change his ways. They could move south into Mexico where his past and his string of dead men would be forgiven, where they wouldn’t be bound to the wagon wheel of the past.

“Sing me a song,” Wesley said on their last night at Greasy Bend.

“Those are songs for the saloon. Too many bad memories.”

“Then sing something from before. Something from when you was growin’ up. I’ve always had a hankerin’ for someone to sing somethin’ just for me.”

Songbird scooted next to Wesley under a mesquite tree and sang a childhood memory as he ran his hands over her pliant flesh. “I don’t care what you’ve done before. You’re my man now and I’m your sweetheart, ain’t I?”

“Durn tootin’ you are. I like being with you even when we’re just laughin’. We’re compadres as well as lovers, I reckon.”

Under a slice of ivory moon, Wesley went into a sexual frenzy. Songbird returned his passions with voracious kisses and gyrating hips. For good and all, they were in love and nothing they could think of was forbidden to the other. And with whimpers of satisfaction, they carried each other over the edge of a sublime abyss.

With her, all his hostility drained away. She was the little songbird princess with the pretty voice and happy mouth who’d tamed him with pleasure and understanding. When they returned to their adobe hovel, they drifted off into a satisfied sleep in each other’s arms.

* * *

 

The next morning, Wesley stepped out of the hovel to relieve himself. He was still thinking about the taste of Songbird’s skin and the silken flow of her hair in his fingers when he saw a foreboding cloud of dust rising from a not-too-distant canyon. Several riders were moving fast. He rousted Songbird, still naked from their night of passion.

When the horsemen got near the Rio Hondo, she could make them out. “Them’s Bill’s bunch,” she cried. “They’ll kill you, Wes.”

“Maybe I can talk to ’em. Tell them how I had no choice.”

“They’ll talk you to the nearest tree’s what they’ll do. It’s time to run.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I’m staying with you. You saved me from the likes of them. And I love you.”

As the gang drew ever closer, Songbird slipped into her breeches and grabbed Wesley’s extra shirt without taking the time to find her moccasins. But she grabbed something more precious to her than footwear. She snatched her dancehall dress which was supposed to have come all the way from Paris. They ran to the horses he kept saddled in case of the need for a quick getaway.

As Songbird and Wesley lay straps to their mounts, the men drew their rifles. White puffs of smoke were visible in advance of the sound from the fuselage. The couple whipped their horses toward the Badlands, hell bent for leather, kicking up a cover of dust as their open shirts flapped in the breeze.

The group of men cursed and urged their horses into the muddy Rio Hondo, but Wesley and Songbird had a good head start. They rode deep into an arroyo to wait until it was safe to continue. Wesley dismounted feeling exhilarated until he saw Songbird leaning over her saddle horn.

“Let me give you a hand, darlin’.” He caught her as she fell into his arms. When he laid her on the ground, he saw the blood. His shirtsleeve was soaked with it. He turned Songbird to one side and saw the ugly, black hole above her buttock. One of the men’s bullets had found her beautiful body as they had ridden away.

Wesley worked himself into a state of panic. “This is all my fault. I’m gonna surrender to that bunch. They can do what they want with me, but they’ll get you back to town and to a sawbones.”

“No, Wes. I’d rather die than you give yourself up to them.”

“Then I’m gonna climb a bluff and pick them shit-heels off one by one. Then I can take you back.”

“No gunplay. You’d never get them all.”

He managed to remove Songbird’s shirt and force it against her wound. He removed his shirt and tied it around her waist as tightly as he could. He placed one of the saddle blankets beneath her upper body. “We’ll wait till dark then see if you can ride. We have to get you some water.”

“Please. Just lie next to me.”

Although Songbird was drained of much of her color, she still looked like a princess to Wesley with plenty of life yet to live.

“Lay your head on my shoulder and touch my breasts, the way you like to do.”

He obeyed almost hoping for the approach of horse’s hooves so she could have water and a chance. “You’re gonna be just fine, my little songbird.”

“It’s all right as long as I know you love me. It’s a fool who don’t love something, Wes.”

“I dang sure do. You’re my peach-blossom, that’s what,” he said, looking at her with a lopsided smile and fighting back tears.

“I’d rather die in love than be alive without it.”

“Don’t talk that way. You just need to rest awhile.” Even though he couldn’t carry a tune for spit, he softly recited a lullaby he remembered his mama singing before she pitched over in the henhouse one morning, deader than the frog-legs they’d had for dinner the night before. “Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep little baby,” he sung off-key. He wasn’t a praying man, but he invoked the deity at hand with both prayers and curses not to take another good woman’s life.

He lay next to her all day feeling like the Texans at the Alamo, stuck where he was. Their only company was a Gila which held a small prairie mouse in the vice-like grip of his jaws. The mouse squirmed silently. Death can sometimes be more silent than the wind, some prey as unresisting as a knot of driftwood.

Wesley gazed into the ferocious beast of a sky. The oppressive heat made it difficult to breathe, to move, to hope. The sun’s scorching rays burned through the wispy clouds like they were made of thin paper, boiling the blue from the heavens and pulling the fluids right out of him. He wasn’t afraid of dying, but he’d never had anyone else to worry over before. Songbird needed to be off this godforsaken desert-land which was bereft of any favor save a lazy breeze spinning a dust devil across the top of a bluff. It gently moved the hair lying across his forehead like his lover’s soft touch. But he had promised to stay next to her.

He observed the raw landscape around them – nothing but twists in the arroyo and on the plateaus, only sand and scrub-weed. He thought he could hear voices, but it could just as easily be the wind across the long emptiness. In the Badlands, one could hear anything from a siren’s whisper to the clip-clop of imaginary horses with their mounted ghost-riders traveling across the desert sage.

He began to laugh like a desert-loco cowpoke daring the elements to whip them. He didn’t thirst for water, nor did he fear being caught by Apaches or Bill’s pals. He would rather be tortured and scalped than for Songbird to be in such a state. But the thought of life without her companionship produced a new kind of thirst.

Wesley retrieved the dress which Songbird had crammed between the saddle-horn and herself during their hasty escape. He laid it over her and smoothed out the ruffles, the way she would have wanted. He reached beneath the dress and held her breast. “You rest now, my little skylark. I won’t leave you, not ever.”

As the long shadows crept across the arroyo from the bluffs, he remained at her side. At dusk, he thought about the impending night he didn’t welcome. Men had been trying to repel the darkness since the invention of fire. Songbird would be cold, but a fire might attract their pursuers.

Over the sound of Songbird’s shallow breath, he started to hum again. A distant coyote poignantly howled a sad and lonely reverie. “You go and find you a gal,” Wesley said to the mournful sound. “There’s nothin’ like havin’ your own gal.”

In the moonlight, the surrounding walls of the bluffs became alabaster ramparts surrounding their private kingdom. The night wind softly whispered a serenade of its own, harmonizing with Wesley’s attempt at a tune, turning it into a chorus of lost dreams. He ached with the need to embrace her in a show of undying and perfect love. He placed his hand between Songbird’s breasts to confirm a heartbeat as the veil of night covered the plains and enveloped the isolated couple.

And still he stayed with her, two lovers in a silent embrace.

 

* * *

 

The men heard the whinny of a thirsty horse. They approached the gully with drawn weapons and with care. One man dismounted and ran ahead, then waved the rest forward. There lay Songbird and Wesley, one beside the other. The man on foot still approached the gunslinger carefully thinking this might be some kind of trap. He fired his pistol near Wesley’s bare feet. There was no movement.

The man squatted next to the couple and poked them with the barrel of his gun. Then he pulled the dress away. “They’s both dead,” he said in a surprised voice.

The other men climbed off their mounts and approached the bodies. “We musta got ’em both,” one said.

“Too bad about Songbird. She was the best durned piece of ass in the territory. Still looks good, don’t she?”

The leader of the group was a young wrangler not much older than Wesley. He placed his boot against Wesley’s body and rolled him away from Songbird.

“Looks like Songbird bled out, but I don’t see a wound on Wesley,” said the kneeling man. “Couldn’t have died from thirst or exposure in just two days.”

“Hell no, he couldn’t,” the leader answered. “The dumb-ass died of a broken heart.”

Didn’t he know that every cowpoke this side of the Rockies had pulled his boots off next to her bed?”

“Maybe he didn’t care. My dad didn’t.”

“No disrespect to your dad intended. Leastwise this pecker-head won’t be shootin’ anybody else.”

“Pecker-head or otherwise, I kinda envy the little gun-fighting prick, dyin’ in the arms of someone as young and fair as Songbird,” said Bill’s son.

“What’ll we do with ’em? They’ll be mighty fragrant before another day passes.”

No praying over these two or glorifying Wesley with a burial in Absalom. Leave ’em to the buzzards. That’s the way it ought to be.”

The men took the extra horses and rode out of the arroyo, but not before Bill’s son pushed Wesley’s corpse back against Songbird and placed his dead hand on top of her exposed breast. He figured that was the last thing the varmints should be allowed to get to.

 

* * *

 

When the dime-novel writer picked up on the story, sweethearts clung closer and fantasized that Wesley and Songbird had somehow escaped to Mexico. Although the author left them in death’s embrace, he hinted that those traveling through the Badlands could sometimes hear the lovers singing from the rimrocks, but admitted it might only be the whispering sands or the desert wind. Or was it just a lonely coyote calling to his mate for a moment of companionship and relief from the harsh existence upon the barren land?




 
J. T. Seate is author of the popular Inspector Basham stories. Four previous Inspector Basham stories have been published online at omdb! — "Turn About" (November, 2012), "Letting Off Some Steam" (June, 2013), "The Case of the Open Grave" (October, 2013), and "Basham's Theory" (April, 2014). Three non-series stories have also been published here on omdb! — "Mask" (March, 2013), "Montezuma's Revenge" (January, 2013), and "The Constant Reader" (April, 2013).

The author's other publishing credits include six novels/novellas, a dozen one-author anthologies, and more than two hundred short stories and memoirs.

Recent publications can be found at www.melange-books.com and www.museituppublishing.com for those who like their tales intertwined with the paranormal. See it all at www.troyseateauthor.webs.com and on amazon.com. You may also wish to visit the author's blog.


Copyright 2014 J. T. Seate . All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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