Story by Jay Seate
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
Under soft moonlight in a dusty village by a river, a place hardly fit for prairie chickens, Smiley Red and Katie fell in love. Little more than a row of adobe huts stood along the Rio Hondo, but it was the place where romance found nurture and blossomed into solemn oaths. Months later, a dime-novel writer who got wind of their story whimsically labeled them the Romeo and Juliet of the West.
Katie was a two-bit dancehall girl in a no-account town called Purgatory. Smiley Red was a gun-slinging saddle-tramp who moved from town to town. Until he walked into the Crystal Slipper Saloon, that is, and heard Katie 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 her song, he bought Katie 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.
Katie was equally attracted to the kid’s flaming red hair 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 Katie and didn’t like the idea of this upstart, redheaded interloper occupying his investment.
“Looky here, Bart. Some kid’s stealing your girl,” one of the cowpokes leaning on the bar goaded.
Smiley Red glanced toward the voice. His blue eyes turned steely. “Best tend to your own rat-killin’, feller.”
When his hand touched Katie’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. Some men held a lump in their jaw for 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.
Smiley Red 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 Katie here belongs to anyone, least of all an old fossil with skunk-grease in what’s left of his hair.”
Bart’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. He shifted his weight, 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.
Red 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?”
Katie 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,” Red 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,” Bart snarled.
“Then skin that smoke-wagon, old man.”
The room was as still as death, its customers knowing lives hung by a thread and the snap of a trigger. Then Bart slapped leather. His firearm sounded two deafening shots in Smiley Red’s direction. Bottles behind the bar exploded in a mist of alcohol. Katie 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 Red who’d managed to get off the first shot. A dark crimson circle appeared in the middle of Bart’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?” Red 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.
Katie ran to Red. “You better get out of town quick-like. Bart has plenty of friends who would as soon gun you down as look at you.”
“I ain’t afraid,” he told her. “I’ll go if you’ll come with me.”
“I know of a little place a day’s ride from here. You got a horse?”
“Then we’ll borrow one out front.” To the saloon’s patrons, he 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.”
Smiley Red and Katie backed out of the bar with Katie hanging onto one of his arms and his pistol gripped tightly in his hand. He helped her onto an absconded 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 Smiley Red, the outlaw.”
“Thought he got hisself hung a year ago?” another asked.
“That was him all right. Redheaded and 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 Bart 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 Purgatory’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.
— ♦♦♦ —
Smiley Red and Katie 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 a while anyhow.”
The ways of a woman never cease to startle and what Katie did next stunned Red 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 needing this dress, but it’s the nicest thing I ever had, and you might like to see me in it sometime. It came all the way from Paris.”
Under the clear sweep of daybreak, she shucked down to her birthday suit and made a bundle of her clothes. Smiley Red 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 Katie.
“You ought to strip down, too,” Katie 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 Red. Her high cheekbones made her look all the more like an Indian princess, tall and proud in the saddle. The breeze blew her dark hair about her shoulders. It had come loose during the ride and hung down her back, its length and luster nearly reaching the cleft of her round bottom.
Smiley Red pulled off his boots and breeches but kept his long johns on. Katie laughed at his modesty. 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 where Red witnessed a sight that made part of him twitch. When Katie dismounted, he saw the fissure between her legs that hid her special place. While an urge to dismount his horse and mount Katie gained momentum, she shimmied back into her pantaloons.
“I hope you have an extra pair of breeches and shirt for me. Sure would hate to wear this corset 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, Katie gave him his first kiss and not one he’d soon forget. It held the tantalizing promise of things to come.
They rode to the village where Smiley Red gave an Indian woman a silver dollar to let them stay in one of the adobe huts. During 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 Red 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.
Katie told Red 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 Bart, who owned pretty much everything in and around Purgatory. 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 Bart took a liking to her and gave her the one thing she cherished—the fancy dress.
“Why’d you take a shine to me?” Red 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. Their intimacies were attended by excited words 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.
Red knew Katie was no virgin, being a dancehall girl and all, but he didn’t concern himself with such trivialities and she didn’t mind the temporary accommodations, just glad to be rescued from a life of singing and selling herself. They had made love by the riverbank each night. Laying on horse blankets next to the river under God’s own heaven, nature’s critters made mating calls of their own harmonizing with Katie and Red’s moans and sighs.
She was delighted to teach techniques unknown to a kid who’d done more shooting with his pistol than with his pecker. He was more than thrilled to be taught all of the pleasures of the flesh. With her, it was so much more than an act of lust when they united like a hand inside a velvet glove. Katie had heard tell about Tarzan and Jane living in the jungles of Africa. She thought about how she and Red were like those two, except without bananas to eat.
“I’ll make you happy, Red,” Katie told him. “No need for any more killing.”
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—a oneness. They were like perfectly tuned instruments, each coaxing forth the most beautiful notes of love from one another.
Smiley Red knew he wasn’t nearly as handsome a man as Katie was a woman. His carrot-red hair and light complexion made him look even younger than his years. His pale limbs contrasted with Katie’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.
They never spoke about what happened in the Crystal Slipper, but Katie did say, “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.”
“Let me see that smile you’re named for,” Katie said on their fourth night at Greasy Bend.
“I will if you’ll sing one of your songs.”
“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.”
Katie scooted next to Red under a mesquite tree and sang of a childhood memory as he ran his hands over her soft, pliant flesh. Katie coaxed Red from his absurd long johns just as she had each night since they arrived. With hot, open-mouthed kisses against his gangly ears and unshaven jaw, she said, “Love me, please?”
With Katie, all of Red’s hostility drained away. She was the little songbird princess with the pretty voice who’d tamed him with pleasure and with understanding. On their last night at Greasy Bend, they carried each other over the edge of a sublime abyss. For good and all, they were in love and nothing was forbidden to the other. Under a slice of ivory moon, they made love for an hour before returning to their adobe hovel where they drifted off into a satisfied sleep in each other’s arms.
— ♦♦♦ —
The next morning, Smiley Red stepped out of the hovel to relieve himself. He was still thinking about the taste of Katie’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. It told him several riders were moving fast. He rousted Katie, still naked from their night of passion.
When the horsemen got near the Rio Hondo, she could make them out. “Them’s Bart’s bunch,” she cried. “They’ll kill you, Red.”
“Maybe I can talk to them. 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 to the river, Katie slipped into her breeches and grabbed Smiley Red’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.
The stark landscape stretched out ahead of Katie and Red with its deep ravines and fluted ridges carved by the wind. They lay straps to their mounts as 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 Smiley Red and Katie had a good head start. They could duck into any one of a multitude of arroyos and wait until it was safe to continue. They rode deep into a gully. Red dismounted feeling exhilarated until Katie had a difficult time dismounting.
“Let me give you a hand, darlin’,” he said. He caught her as she fell into his arms. When he laid her on the ground, he noticed the blood. His shirtsleeve was soaked with it. He turned Katie to one side and saw the ugly, black hole above her buttock. One of the men’s rifle bullets had found her beautiful body.
Red 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, Red. I’d rather die than you give yourself up to them.”
“Awright. 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 all of them.”
He managed to remove Katie’s shirt and force it against her wound. He removed his and secured it tightly around her hips. He placed one of the saddle blankets beneath her. “We’ll wait till dark then see if you can ride. We have to get you some water.”
“Please. Just lie next to me. 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 or the sound of men’s voices on the wind so she could have water and a chance. Although Katie was drained of much of her color, she still looked like a princess to Red with plenty of life yet to live. “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, Red.”
“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 previous night. “Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep little baby,” he sung off-key, but sweetly. 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. The raw landscape featured nothing but twists in the arroyo below the plateaus of sand and scrub-weed. Smiley Red 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 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. Katie 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 red hair lying across his forehead like his lover’s soft touch.
By late afternoon, Red thought he heard voices, but it was just 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 loco cowpoke daring the elements to whip them. He didn’t fear being caught by Apaches or Bart’s pals. He would rather be tortured and scalped than for Katie to be in such a state. But the thought of life without her companionship produced a new kind of thirst.
Red retrieved the dress which Katie 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. “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. He didn’t welcome the impending night. Men had been trying to repel the darkness since the invention of fire. Katie would be cold, but a fire might attract their pursuers. Over the sound of her shallow breath, he started to hum again through parched lips. A distant coyote poignantly howled a sad and lonely reverie. “You go and find you a gal,” Red 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 song of its own, harmonizing with Smiley Red’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 Katie’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.
— ♦♦♦ —
After two days searching the Badlands, the posse returned to Greasy Bend believing the couple might have doubled back. No one in the village came out to greet the riders until one of the men fired a pistol into the sky and threatened to shoot a dog. The woman who’d offered food to Red and Katie reluctantly faced the men on horseback.
“Did the boy and his woman come back this way?” the young leader asked. The woman didn’t speak but pointed toward the bend in the river behind the structures. The men rode to the spot. Two fresh mounds of earth rested beneath a large cottonwood tree.
The woman followed the men and finally spoke in broken English. “Red bring Kate back. Both shot. He put Kate in ground.” “You’re sayin’ they’re both dead and buried?” the kid younger than Smiley Red asked.
“Kate hurt bad. Red, not so bad. When Kate die, he give up and die next to her grave.”
The young man was skeptical until he saw Katie’s dancehall dress hanging from a tree limb. It danced in the breeze like a child’s kite. An ugly blotch of dried blood marred its backside.
“Red want her to wear dress,” the Indian woman continued. “But Kate say to let it fly over her grave like a guardian angel.”
“Whadda you think?” one of Bart’s wranglers asked the young kid.
“Katie wouldn’t go anywhere without that dress.”
“Red. He not hurt bad,” the woman added. “He die of a broken heart. We bury him.”
“Maybe we oughta dig ’em up. Just to be sure. They’s just an outlaw and a dancehall gal,” another man said.
“Maybe he didn’t care about that. My dad didn’t,” said the young man, Bart’s son. “Leave ’em be.”
“No disrespect to your dad. Leastwise this pecker-head won’t be shootin’ anybody else. He ain’t smilin’ now, that’s for sure.”
“Pecker-head or otherwise, I kinda envy the little gun-fighting sonofabitch, dyin’ next to someone as young and fair as Katie,” the young man said.
The men rode out of Greasy Bend and back to Purgatory with their lariats around their saddle-horns, denied the privilege of tossing one over a tree limb and hanging Smiley Red from it.
When the dime-novel writer’s story was read, sweethearts clung closer and fantasized that Smiley Red and Katie had somehow escaped to Mexico where they had oodles of children and a sweet life. Though the author left them in an embrace of death, he hinted that a person traveling through the Badlands could sometimes hear the lovers singing and loving 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?
But there was something the story’s author didn’t know. A few years later in a small Mexican village, a woman became renowned for serenading the children in the town square, including two of her own. The locals called her El Pajara que Canta—The Songbird. Her husband was an honest merchant. He was known in the village as El Pelirrojo—The Redhead. No one knew why the Gringos had come, but they seemed very devoted to their children and each other. And very happy to be alive.
— ♦♦♦ —
Trail of Lead and Gold. By Brandon Barrows, Art by Bradley K. McDevitt
This is a miner’s tale told from the point of view of a troubled young man, taken under the wing of the ol’ miner known as Old Walt. He discovers there’s no harder work and no truer friendship. When Old Walt is murdered, Mark Jacobs finds himself seeking justice.