and the Gator King
by Dana Beehr
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3. 4
Well now, it seems like everyone along the Great Serpent River has their favorite story about Ambry Silverstrings. Some love Turtle Dan and the Three-Turtle Bridge, while others say that Timber Moll making the Sawteeth Mountains because she didn’t want to get her feet wet is their favorite. But probably one of the best-loved is the one about Ambry Silverstrings and the Alligator King.
Ambry Silverstrings was a riverboat fiddler, and fiddlers were important in the days before wheelboats. Back then, wasn’t nothing moved on the river ’cept by current, wind or human or animal power; and wasn’t a riverboat out there but had its fiddler.
The fiddler set the pace when a boat’s crew was poling the boat along around snags or sandbars or shoals; when they’d reached the Delta and were hauling the boat back up to the headwaters, the fiddler would help them keep time.
It was said a good fiddler could lighten the boat by half; the very best of them could just about carry the boat along with their music, and the boat crew could sit there with their feet up watchin’ the shore slide by. And the best of the best, everyone agreed, was Ambry Silverstrings.
Ambry didn’t look like much: a little scrap of a girl with bright sparkling eyes and ragged brown hair tied back with a broken fiddle string. No one was right sure where she came from. This-one might say she had been born in the middle of a raging storm, that she’d jumped out of her mamma’s belly, snatched up the fiddle her papa always kept in the corner, and played that storm to rest right then and there; that-one swore she’d simply stepped off the riverbottom one day, fiddle in one hand, bow in the other.
She was fiddling her own tunes by the time she was a month old, and when she was a year, she had won every fiddle competition up and down the whole river. And I know it’s true because I asked her myself and she told me so.
That little girl didn’t look like much, but nobody could outswim her, outdrink her, outfight her or outdice her; and surely no one could outplay her. She would fiddle for any kind of boat: flatboats, keelboats, river rafts, just to keep floatin’ along. Yes, sir, she’d hitch a ride on any boat as would have her, and all the boats would have her, for everyone knew how good a fiddler she was.
Nobody loved anything on earth — not drink, not dancing, not dice, not men — more than Ambry loved the river and her fiddle. So it stands to reason that it would’ve been her to rescue the river from the Alligator King.
This was before the Empire of the Center had gripped the river in its greedy fists. Most of the river was still wild then, not like now when it’s been dammed and sluiced and locked within an inch of its life. And as wild as the river was, the creatures that lived on it were wilder.
There were mosquitoes the size of hawks that would snatch a baby right out of a crib if Mama and Papa didn’t look sharp; snakes fifty miles long that traveled faster than the river flowed, and if you could catch one, you could ride it from the Sawteeth to the Delta all in a single afternoon.
There were bears the size of mountains — that’s what Mama Bear Mountain is, you know; one of those mountain bears laid down to sleep one day and pulled up a blanket of dirt over herself so as to keep warm. ’Twas so long ago most people don’t remember she’s a bear at all anymore, and aren’t folks going to be surprised when she wakes up again in a century or two, all refreshed and in the mood for a bit of breakfast.
But of all the river creatures, none was more vicious than the river gators. Long as a man and twice as ornery, with teeth the length of your finger, the gators had seen themselves as kings and queens of the river in the days before people had come. But when men and women started movin’ in, that began to change.
First came the voyageurs hunting furs, pushin’ their boats with their piles of pelts and skins. They shot and trapped their way down the whole length of the river without even a by-your-leave, taking animals that the gators saw as their own, shipping the furs back to the Empire, and not paying so much as a leg or a thigh in tribute.
Next came the freighter pilots, with their rafts and their broadhorn flatboats taking up the whole river as they shipped their freight down to the Delta. And the lumber crews, riding rafts of logs, filling the river so thick that you could hold a country dance right there and not a single dainty or dandy would get their feet wet.
But worst of all were the gator trappers.
You see, the gators prided themselves on the beauty of their skins. They used to spend hours each day polishing themselves with river stones, so that their skins blazed bright and pretty; during courting season they came out of the water and lay on the banks, sunning their gorgeous skins, showin’ off how beautiful they were.
Well, the Empress and her Court got wind of these beautiful gators’ skins and wanted ’em. So the gator hunters came, pourin’ out of the Center, shakin’ out their nets, and plyin’ the river up and down with keelboats and oars and chunks of ox meat, and when a gator snapped at the bait, clubbing them on the head with an oar as quick as you please.
Now the gators were ruled by the Gator King, who lived beneath Gator Falls in the Delta. The Gator King and his wife were the oldest and wisest gators, thirty feet long if they were an inch, with jaws so wide they could swallow a man whole, and hides so tough that a grown lumberjack could swing his largest axe at them and it’d bounce right off.
It was said the Gator King and Queen had been born when the Great Serpent River first touched the ocean; it dumped its first load of silt there just like shrugging a pack from its back, and the two great gators crawled out of it.
“I tell you, it’s not to be borne!” the Gator King cried, sitting on his stump throne under the roots of the cypress trees. “Gators are the lords of the river, not these foolish two-legs who come from the Center and think they own everything. It’s against the natural order of things! We’re the hunters, not the ones to be hunted! And our skins, our beautiful, beautiful skins!”
“Well, of course the humans would want our skins,” said the Gator Queen, sharpening her long claws on a clamshell. “Our skins are beautiful, and their own are so dull and ugly. At least the humans can recognize real beauty when they see it!”
“Well, yes, that is true,” said the King. “But they haven’t the right, I tell you! Why, we’re nobility! There have been gators on this river long before humans were ever here, and ’tisn’t right that they steal our skins for belts and purses and shoes and such. I’ll tell you, it’s not to be borne, and by the ridges on my back, I won’t bear it!” And he snapped his jaws and scraped his claws and thrashed his tail so much that it kicked up silt for ten miles upstream.
“What will you do, dear?” the Gator Queen asked.
“I’ll tell you what,” the Gator King replied. “I’ll show those humans whose realm this really is! We have a right to this river and the humans don’t. If they can’t share it, then they won’t have it!”
So the King Gator went out to the mouth of the river, lay down in the mud, and opened his jaws. He opened ’em so wide that they stretched from one riverbank to t’other, and he just began drinking and drinking and drinking until he’d gulped the whole thing right down just as a thirsty voyager might a pint of ale. When he was done, the riverbed with its rocks and snags and trees and sunk boats and sandbars and shipwrecks lay dry and gleaming from the Delta clear up to the Sawteeth.
“That’ll show those humans,” King Gator chuckled. “See what they think now!” And, well-satisfied, he waddled off to bed.
Well, about that time, Ambry Silverstrings was holed up in the Lantern Tavern in Snake Bend, dicin’ and drinkin’ and fiddling, and she’d had so much to drink that day that she wandered off to bed herself. She was still snoring when the sun rose the next day, and men and women opened their shutters and stepped outside to find that the river was all gone, and all the keelboats and flatboats and rafts and barges and lumber floats lay on the bottom, stuck in the mud of the Great Serpent River, which was already dryin’ to brick-hard.
A huge hue and cry went up from just about everyone the entire length of the Great Serpent, so loud that it shook the sun in the sky. People were bewailin’ to doomsday, and all that racket drifted in to Ambry’s window and managed to wake her up. So she sat up, blinkin’, and looked for her fiddle; she slung the case over her shoulder, and went out to see what all the noise was.
“What’s goin’ on?” she asked the first townsman she could find.
“Why, the river!” he cried. “Oh, it’s awful! The river’s gone!” And he pointed where the empty river bottom lay, with all the boats sittin’ dry in the sunshine.
Copyright © 2014 by Dana Beehr