and the Gator King
by Dana Beehr
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3. 4
Well, Ambry was as poleaxed as a steer. She went runnin’ down to the docks and saw her broadhorn flatboat stuck in the mud; the captain was running up and down on the deck wailing about what was going to happen to all her livestock, and the rest of the deckhands were howling.
Ambry rubbed her eyes, half-suspecting she was still drunk, and said, “By Chira, they make some strong whiskey in this town, for I sure am seeing things! Where under heaven is the river?”
“It’s gone!” the captain raged. “Gone, I tell you! And how’m I s’posed to get this load of cattle downstream to the Delta now? I’m ruined, I tell you! Ruined!”
“Well, I’ve never seen such a thing!” Ambry proclaimed, putting her hands on her hips.
“Where’d the river go?” shouted the captain.
Ambry looked at the dryin’ river bed, and all the fish floppin’ around helpless and gaspin’, and her eyes narrowed, for she loved the river with all her heart. “I don’t rightly know, but I guarantee I’ll find out.”
She set out that very day, her violin strapped to her back. She traveled for miles through the swamp woods, askin’ everyone she met if they knew the whereabouts of the river. Mama Spider told her, no, she hadn’t heard anything, and then politely asked if Ambry would care to step into her parlor for a bite.
Old River Tree, which stands at the Great Snake Bend, couldn’t say anything one way or t’other but did complain that its roots were startin’ to dry out. She asked the wild geese, flyin’ over on their way to their warm winter homes down in the southlands, but geese are silly creatures and don’t care about anything that isn’t right in front of them.
Finally, when she was just about at her wits’ end, she was sitting under a cypress tree wondering what to do next when something caught her eye. It was a walking catfish, trundling along on its fins through the mud and carrying a bundle on its back.
“Pardon me, there, Missus Catfish,” Ambry said. “But where are you goin’?”
“Moving house,” the catfish called back, still trundling along. “Can’t stay here now the river’s all gone dry. Got to find somewhere else, if my poor little limbs can hold out. Blast that Gator King!” the fish ranted. “It was he who stole the river away!”
Ambry’s ears pricked up right away at that. “You say the Gator King took it?”
“Yes,” the catfish replied. “I heard some seagulls up from the Delta talkin’ about he just gulped the whole thing down one day. And now’s no river left for nobody.”
Well, when Ambry heard this, she allowed that she might go down there and pass a few words with the Gator King. “Be sure and give him a piece of your mind,” the catfish told her. “He should know just how much trouble he’s causing for everyone else.”
So Ambry Silverstrings headed downstream along the bottom of the dry river bed. She walked for many days and nights, and was still about ten or fifteen miles north of the place where the Great Serpent kissed the ocean when she came upon it: the entrance to a massive cave underneath what had been the Gator Falls. And in that cave, sitting on his stump throne as pleased as punch, it so happened was the biggest gator she’d ever seen.
Ambry sauntered into the mouth of the cave and said politely, “How do you do, Mister? I’m guessing you, sir, are the Gator King?”
Well, the King had been sittin’ there listening to all the wailing along the river — for sound flows downhill just like water, you know — just drinking that in and smiling till the top of his head just about fall off. He was more’n a mite startled to see Ambry now. He started up, then looked down at her and said, “Yes indeed I am, and who might you be, little two-legs?”
“Well, I’m Ambry Silverstrings, sir, perhaps you’ve heard of me? I happen to be none other than the finest riverboat fiddler along the whole Great Serpent River.” And she drew herself up and threw out her chest just like a strutting bantam rooster.
The Gator King thrashed his tail and said, “I do believe I have heard of you, Miss Silverstrings,” for none on the river but knew of her. His eyes narrowed. “What brings you all the way down here to find me, fiddle girl?”
“Well, sir, I regret I have come to speak with you on an unpleasant matter. If you’ve looked out your front door, I’m sure you’ve seen our beloved river has disappeared.”
“That is true, but what about it?” the Gator King demanded irritably, for the river was sloshing inside him and making him uncomfortable.
“Well, sir,” Ambry continued, “I heard that you might have had something to do with that.”
“Me?” the Gator King demanded, doing his best not to look like a dog caught sneaking eggs. “Me, steal the river? That’s preposterous! Where on earth did you get such a wild idea?”
“Never mind about that,” said Ambry. “I ask you again, sir: Have you any knowledge of the river and its whereabouts?”
“Why... Why, I most certainly do not!” the Gator King cried. “How could anyone even think that?! Why, I won’t let myself be slandered like this! As if I — I — could have drunk the whole river down, all by myself! When I find whoever told you...!”
Ambry looked at him peculiar and said, “Well, now, sir, I don’t recall ever sayin’ nothin’ about you drinkin’ the river down.”
The Gator King snapped his teeth, for he saw that she was on to him. He coughed and he growled and he hemmed and he hawed, but finally saw there wasn’t nothing for it. “Well, fine, then, I’ll own up to it. Yes. I did drink your whole river down, and I’m glad I did it. You humans needed a lesson. I’m king on this river, and my word used to be law, all the way from the Delta up to the Sawteeth! And then you humans come along—”
“I didn’t come along nowhere, I was born here,” said Ambry with a shrug.
“You humans come along,” the Gator King raved, “and you shoot and trap my people and make them into purses and shoes and belts! Just because we help ourselves to a cow or a mule every now and again! I won’t stand for it, I tell you! We gators are royalty, and for you to treat us like this is outrageous, you hear me?! Out-rag-eous!”
He went on in this vein for nigh onto quarter of an hour, and Ambry let him run on, not really following, just waiting for a chance to butt in.
Finally she said, “Well I don’t know about no purses or shoes, sir. Never owned a pair of shoes in my life, myself.” And she stuck out her skinny little bare foot, nigh onto black with the thick river mud. They used to say that mud was twice as thick as the blood of a rich man, and if you ate a pint o’ that mud a day, you’d never ail a thing in all your life.
“All I do know is, you’ve taken the river, and there’s a lot of folk hurtin’ on account of it’s gone. I love that river and I mean to have it back. So I’ll ask you politely now if you’d be willin’ to spit out the river and put it back to its rightful place.”
Well, the Gator King roared with laughter. “And just why should I? Maybe” — and here he grinned, showin’ all his teeth like gators do, for gators be smilin’ folk, no two ways about it — “why, maybe I’ll just eat you up instead! I do tend to get a mite peckish when I’ve been drinkin’. A little thing like you might not make a full meal, but for a tasty tidbit you’d just about do.”
He gaped his jaws before her, giving her a good look at all his teeth; but Ambry didn’t so much as blink. “Well, sir,” she said, “you can gobble me up if you want to, though I suspect you’ll find me a mite tough and stringy, but that certainly doesn’t seem very fair of you. I came to you to talk business like a reasonable person.”
“Is that so?” asked the Gator King. “Well, we have discussed business, and I’ve said I’m not interested, so there’s no point in talking any more.” And his jaws gaped even wider. Ambry felt a chill — most anybody would — but she put a lid on it.
“Perhaps I have a deal for you, Mister Gator,” she said, putting her hand to the leather pouch at her side. “What about we dice for it?”
“Dice for it, you say?” The Gator King stopped smilin’ and stared at Ambry in amazement.
“Sure,” said Ambry, grinning herself. “If I win, you give me the river back; and if you win, you get to gobble me up. I’ll even jump in the cauldron my own self. What do you say?”
Now, the Gator King knew that he shouldn’t listen to this bit of a girl. But the Gator King was riverfolk. And like all riverfolk, he couldn’t pass up a chance to dice. He growled and scraped his claws along the ground, but at last he said, “Well, now, I reckon I could see my way to throwin’ the dice with you. Just to pass the time as it were.”
“Well, now, that’s wonderful!” Ambry cried. She took her dice cup out of her pocket and got down and began to draw the dicing circle.
Copyright © 2014 by Dana Beehr