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Songbird by Em

As the stage pulled to a bumpy stop in Salinas, it swayed as the passengers stiffly disembarked.

Scott and Johnny Lancer were the last to get out, and they waited while the guard tossed down luggage and handed them their saddlebags and gun belts.

Johnny strapped on his gun belt, checked his gun, then seated it a couple times in the holster. “Where to?” he asked his brother, as he looked up and down the busy street.

“I’ll check with the station keeper and see what he recommends. Scott came back out of the stage office and pointed down the street. “Let’s check out the Abbot House.”

The two Lancers checked in and went upstairs. “Well, it’s not the Fairmont, but it looks clean.” Scott remarked

Johnny looked at the two neatly made beds and the colorful spreads and nodded. Throwing his saddlebags on the bed nearest the window, he said, “This will do for the night just fine. I’m hungry. Let’s eat.”

“Good idea.” Scott moved the curtain away and opened the window slightly. The view was of the street, still busy in the early evening.

They made their way across the street after waiting for a slow moving wagon pulled by a couple of mules.

“Let’s go to there.” Johnny pointed and headed for the cantina a few doors down, not waiting for his brother’s agreement.

Grinning and shaking his head, Scott followed Johnny through the swinging doors.

“Buenos noches senors. Siéntate.” A smiling lady motioned them to a corner table. She proceeded to tell them what was on the menu. Johnny ordered tamales and beans and a beer.

“The same for me, gracias,” Scott smiled and asked for it be not as spicy.

“Of course senor.”

She was back shortly with their beers, a bowl of salsa and some hot tortillas. Taking a sip of his beer, Johnny turned his attention back to Scott. “I sure hope Murdoch likes the stock we bought for him.”

“What’s not to like? They are all prime beef. They’ll cross well with our bulls.”

“Yeah, but we went over what he told us to spend. Something tells me he’ll have something to say about that.”

Scott took a swallow of his beer. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. When he sees the stock, he’ll be convinced.”

“But in the meantime, we’ll have to listen to him complain for a couple of weeks.”

Before Scott could acknowledge that, their meal arrived. “Dig in” Johnny said as he rolled up a tortilla and dipped it in the salsa. He took his first bite of the tamale and leaned back, closing his eyes as he savored the taste.

Scott looked at him with amusement and said, “Do you two want to be alone?”

“I don’t get food like this unless Elena invites me over to supper.” Elena’s cooking reminded him of home. The first time he went over for dinner, he mentioned that her pozole reminded him of the way his mother made it. Elena told him when his mother first came to Lancer, she was very young and she shared some of her recipes with the young senora. Whenever Cipriano invited him to dinner, he always readily accepted knowing a good home cooked meal was in store for him.

Shaking his head, he put thoughts of his mother back where she belonged. With a start, he realized Scott had been talking about the news that the Pacific Railroad was going to be running through Salinas by the end of the year.

“There’s going to be lots of changes for this community.” Scott remarked.

The railroad wasn’t a big interest to Johnny, but he had learned to sit quietly and nod at appropriate intervals when Murdoch and Scott were debating the merits. Scott was all for progress as soon as possible, Murdoch tended to be more cautious. As the railroad was near and dear to Scott, Johnny made an effort to pay attention.

Finishing their meal, Scott paid and they walked down the boardwalk and crossed the street, pausing to look in the windows of the mostly closed shops. By unspoken agreement, they were heading to the saloon at the end of the street.

Johnny carefully looked around from the swinging doors before entering the crowded saloon. Scott, used to his brother’s caution, and understanding why, waited for him to proceed. Most of the customers were the usual ranch hands to be expected on a Friday night. There was the usual laugher, and they looked like they were intent on enjoying their night, and spending a good bit of their weekly wages.

Johnny ordered a whisky for Scott and a tequila for himself, and a couple of beers. Downing the shot in one gulp, Johnny took his beer to a table off to the side.

Following his brother, Scott looked around and gestured with his beer mug toward the stage. “There must be some kind of entertainment.” They sat a while looking at the crowd and listening to the piano player playing in the background

Taking note of two ranch hands leaving the poker game, Johnny stood up. “Hey Scott, I’m feeling lucky.”

Scott rolled his eyes but picked up his beer and followed Johnny to the table.

“Sit down gents.” The sandy haired man said as he shuffled the cards. “We’re playing a friendly game of seven card stud. We’re from the Rocking J. They call me Gus. These are Frank, Jose, and Bill.”

“Howdy. I’m Johnny Lancer and this is my brother Scott.”

“ Lancer?” Bill took a sip of his beer and asked, ‘Down near Morro Coyo?“

“That’s right.” Scott replied.

“Big spread. Well run from what I heard.” Bill took another sip of his beer and wiped the foam off his mustache. “I heard there was some trouble there last year.”

“Yeah, there was, but we took care of it.” Johnny said as he pushed his hat so it hung by the stampede strings on his back. He slid out a chair with his foot and slumped down as Scott took a seat. Johnny tossed in two bits. “Deal ‘em up.”

They played for an hour. Both brothers winning and losing a little. The stakes were low and it was a relaxing way to pass the time. They listened to the four ranch hands as they told about an upcoming drive and the news that a new school marm was coming to town.

“Last hand for now boys.” Gus said as he dealt.

“Why? It’s still early.” Johnny asked.

“We don’t wanna be playin’ when Miss Rosa sings.”

20 minutes later the cowhands had quieted down and turned their chairs toward the stage. Scott looked at Johnny and shrugged as they both turned their chairs so they could see the stage.

The curtain slowly opened to reveal a lovely young woman singing quietly in compliment with the piano. By the second stanza, her voice grew in volume. She was a tiny lady, however her voice was clear and strong. She was dressed in a dusty rose frock, slightly low cut so the men could see the tops of her breasts rising and falling as she sang.

She captivated the room. The lights from the chandlers picked up red highlights in her dark black hair. Her ruby lips sang of love, hope, heartache and happiness.

When she finished for the night, she said, “Gracias senors. I am very appreciative of your kind attention and look forward to seeing you next time.” At that the room erupted with cheers, and the entranced ranch hands began tossing coins on the stage.

Rosa bowed twice, blew kisses to the men, and exited the stage. As the curtain closed, Johnny could see a young boy scurry across the stage picking up the coins.

He sat back down and felt pole axed. Memories crashed down around him and he had to shake his head to bring himself back to the present.

He looked up as Scott shook his shoulder. “I said, are you all right Johnny? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Shaking his head again, he said, “Let’s go.”

They said their good nights to the Rocking J ranch hands and headed back to the Abbot House.

Scott kept glancing at his brother, but other than a grim look, he seemed alright. “You want to tell me what went on back there? Did you know that girl?”

“Nothing’s wrong Scott. I don’t know her, but I knew someone like her once.”

Scott relaxed and said “I’ve known a few Songbirds as well.”

“Songbirds, huh? Do tell.” There was a mischievous gleam in Johnny’s eyes, and while Scott relished it, he knew better than to go down that road. Johnny had an uncomfortable habit of bringing up Scott’s indiscretions at the most in opportune moments.

Ignoring the opening, Scott hung his jacket over the back of the chair. “It’s late. Let’s go to bed. Tomorrow we’ll be back at Lancer, and will likely be getting our ears blistered.”

Johnny woke early and turned over to see that Scott was still asleep. Their stage didn’t leave for several hours so he let him sleep. Johnny stretched and rolled out of bed. He was washed, shaved and dressed in minutes. Another glance assured him  his brother was still asleep, so carrying his boots, he quietly closed the door.

The town was just waking up as Johnny wandered down the street. The shop keeps were sweeping the boardwalks in front of their stores. He stepped around a boy vigorously sweeping the walk, and his attention elsewhere, he slammed into someone who was coming around the corner.

They both began to apologize. As Johnny helped the young lady to her feet, he realized it was Rosa from the saloon.

“Are you all right?”

“Si senor. It was my fault, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“I was at the saloon last night. You sing real well.” Johnny said, as he helped her with a package that she dropped. “I’m Johnny Lancer”

“Nice to meet you Johnny Lancer. I’m Rosalinda Garcia.”

Before either could respond further, they were both hit by a little boy careening around the corner. Rosa helped him up and scolded him in Spanish for being careless. Johnny couldn’t help but grin at the telling off she was giving him.

“Si Mama. Lo siento.” He looked up to see if he was forgiven and then frowned at Johnny.

“It seems all I am doing this morning is apologizing. This is Ramon, my son.”

Johnny bent down and held out his hand. “Good to meet you Ramon.:”

“Ramon, this is Senor Lancer.”

Ramon shook Johnny’s hand.

“Let’s try that again. When you shake a man’s hand, you look them in the eye, and take a good grip. Like this. Now you try it.”

The boy tried again and was rewarded by a smile from Johnny. “Good to meet you Ramon.”

“Good to meet you senor Lancer.” The boy replied.

‘This is a smart one.’ Johnny thought. He smiled at Rosalinda and realized he didn’t want to let her go without getting to know her better.

“I was just on my way to get some breakfast. Would you two care to join me?”

Before she could answer, Ramon said, “We were just on our way to the cafe.”

Once breakfast was over, Ramon left to go play with some friends he saw passing by the window. “Come home before lunch and stay out of trouble.” Rosa called as her son ran out the door, dodging patrons as they were coming in.

With a grin and a shake of her head, she took a sip of her coffee. “What brings you to Salinas, Johnny?”

“My brother and I are coming back from a cattle buying trip. We own a ranch south of here with our father.”

“Do you like being a rancher?”

“It’s the best, hardest job I’ve ever had. Long hours, sometimes back breaking work, but I wouldn’t trade it for any other life. What about you?”

“My husband was a saddle maker. He loved his work and I would help him with braiding cinches and horsehair macetes. We worked well together.” She was silent for a minute while she stirred a half spoon of sugar into her coffee. “He died two years ago. I tried to go on with the business, but I couldn’t make a living so I started singing in saloons.” She peeked up at Johnny to gauge his reaction.

Seeing no sign of distaste or judgement, she added, “I started singing in saloons on Friday and Saturday nights. I split the take with the saloon owner. I’ve been here almost a year. Salinas is a good town. The sheriff keeps the town in line, Ramon can go to school, and I make enough from the local ranch hands to get by. A few days a week, I help the seamstress in the dress shop. The people are good for the most part. Some of the women don’t approve of me, but I don’t let them bother me. It’s a good life.” She stopped and looked down. “Lo siento. I did not mean to monopolize the conversation.”

“No need to apologize. I’ve enjoyed myself.” Johnny looked at her intently. “If you ever need anything. Anything at all. Contact me. Lancer Ranch near Morro Coyo. I’ll come and help however I can.”

She looked at Johnny in startlement. “I barely know you. I couldn’t impose.”

Johnny leaned down and pulled a pouch out of his boot and handed it to her.

“I didn’t get a chance to toss any money on the stage last night.”

She hefted the bag. “I can’t. This is too much.”

“Consider it a down payment. If I lived closer I would be here every Friday and Saturday night just to hear you sing.”

“It’s still too generous Johnny. Why?”

He hesitated and tapped a finger on the table a couple of times and sighed. “Because, I was the boy collecting the money off the stage for my mother.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve got to catch my stage, but if you need anything, anytime. Get hold of me. I mean it.”

He got up, fished in his pocket and tossed a couple of coins on the table and walked out to the street. He squinted into the sun and adjusted his hat as he watched his brother walk over to him carrying their saddle bags.

Handing one to Johnny, he asked, “Where have you been? Our stage is leaving in about 15 minutes.”

“Just takin’ care of some old business.” Johnny hefted his saddle bags and walked in the direction of the stage depot.

Scott caught up to him and snagged his sleeve. “Johnny is everything all right?”

“Sure Scott. Never been better. When we get home maybe Elena will invite us to dinner and after, I’ll tell you about my songbird.”



October 2022


Author Note- I hope this isn’t too sappy. It’s been many years since I’ve written anything, and I hopefully didn’t stray too far from the characters. This concept popped into my head triggered by a stranger telling me he grew up in Juneau, Alaska, peeking under the swinging doors of the Red Dog Saloon to get a glimpse of his mother who frequented the establishment almost every night.


Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email EM directly.

30 thoughts on “Songbird by Em

  1. Em,

    A lovely story, one that made us realize that Johnny had some pleasant memories of his mother. Nicely done!


  2. Great to read something new from you, Em, I’ve always enjoyed your writing! This wasn’t too sappy at all, it had just the right amount of sentimentality about it and your characterisations were great. It must have been a cathartic experience for Johnny to meet Rosa and her son and to be able to help them as he did. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks Sam! It’s been a long time. I have neither little one percolating, only time will tell if I can give it birth. Thanks for the note. I appreciate it. Em


  3. Most definitely not sappy. It’s a nice peek into a part of how Johnny’s character was formed.


    1. Thanks so much Helen. I have an idea for another short story, but nothing written yet. I’m glad you like this one! Em


  4. Such a sweet story! I’m so pleased to read something from you again. Lovely. I hope your will write more now that you’re on a roll…


    1. Hi Chris. I’m glad you liked it. Thank you for commenting. I have something else kicking around. No structure yet, just an idea.


  5. What a great story, I’m glad I got to read something of yours again.
    Touching and sweet enough to be moved, without being cloying.
    Thanks for writing it.
    Hope to read a new story soon.


    1. I’m so pleased you liked it Silvia. I’ve got another short one kicking around so who knows. I appreciate you reading and commenting. Em


  6. A Very enjoyable read, very much in character. The series never covered anything about Johnny’s mother after the “High Riders.”


    1. Thank you so much for reading. The series left a big gap for our imaginations to fill that’s for sure. I hope you have an enjoyable Thanksgiving. Thanks for commenting. I appreciate it.


  7. I really love this memorable story. Memories of Maria seem to hit Johnny all at once-this one is especially poignant. Thank you for sharing it with us.


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