and the Gator King
by Dana Beehr
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3. 4
Now, Ambry was no mean dicer; she won more than she lost. But when she did lose, she lost big — usually on account of there bein’ some of that old serpent water involved. “Serpent water” was what they called intoxicatin’ spirits brewed on the river. It was supposedly the cure for every ailment under the sun and could be used to strip paint off’n a flatboat or to tan mule hide. Ambry had a very special set of dice that she brought out only when she needed to win.
These dice were carved from the knuckle bones of Old Hind Leg, the eldest son of the great Mother Bear herself. Old Hind Leg had terrorized the upper stretch of the Great Serpent River for nigh onto a hundred years, and might’ve done so forever had not Ambry’s friend Whirlwind Sally up and shot that critter one fine autumn day.
Whirlwind Sally had carved the bear’s bones into dice and given them to Ambry as a gift. Some said there was magic in these dice, but I’ll tell you there was nothin’ so fancy; they were loaded, plain and simple.
Now, she took ’em out of her pocket, rattled them in her cup, and said, “Sixes?”
The Gator King took out his own dice, carved from the teeth of foolish trappers who had stumbled on his den in times past, and shook his own dice cup, made from a trapper’s skull.
“Seven rounds of sixes,” the Gator King agreed.
On a three count, they both rolled. They lifted their cups together, and surprising or not, Ambry had the highest roll.
The Gator King snorted angrily, but Ambry commiserated, “Well, better luck next time.”
“Roll again, Miss Silverstrings,” the Gator King growled. And the two of them scooped up the dice in their cups, shook them, and threw. When they lifted their cups again, once more Ambry had the higher roll.
“How could you have outrolled me twice?” the Gator King demanded, scraping the floor with his long claws.
“Well, there’s always next time,” Ambry said again, smilin’. “Another throw?”
“Again,” the Gator King growled.
Well, they rolled again, and when the Gator King saw once more that Ambry was the winner, he looked at her with narrow yellow eyes. Ambry didn’t think nothin’ of it, but simply gestured for him to pick up the dice. “One more round,” she said.
“One more,” the Gator King agreed.
They rolled one last time, and again Ambry had the highest score — four sixes this time, and a five and a four. The Gator King’s eyes narrowed still further.
“I believe that is four throws out of seven, which makes me the winner of our little contest,” said Ambry, with more than a trace of smugness. “So, now, as per the terms of our agreement, you owe me one river.”
The Gator King said, “One moment, Miss Silverstrings.”
“Now, sir, if you plan on backslidin’—”
“I want to see your dice.”
Ambry frowned, feelin’ a mite uneasy. “Now, why would you want to do that?”
The Gator King glowered at her from under his eye ridges. “Just to make sure that this little game was fair.”
Uh-oh, Ambry said to herself. You’re in for it now, girl. She figured the only way was to outface him, so she drew herself up to her full height and huffed, “Mister Gator King, sir, are you doubtin’ my veracity? Because I assure you, sir, if you are offerin’ me such an insult, I don’t take no words like that off’n nobody, and if you think that—”
“Yes, I am doubtin’ your veracity, Miss Silverstrings,” sneered the Gator King. “You were bettin’ your life, and I never saw no man or woman born wouldn’t do everythin’ to stack the odds in their favor when their life was on the line. You’ll let me see those dice, now.”
And so sayin’, he made a grab for them real quick and snatched them right outta Ambry’s hands. He held ’em up, turned ’em this way and that, and then flung them back down at her feet and roared, “These dice are fixed!”
Well, his wrath was somethin’ to behold. Like most people, the Gator King hated bein’ cheated worse than anything, and he howled and raged and roared near loud enough to bring the whole hollow down on top of his head. Ambry tried this and that to persuade the Gator King it weren’t so, but he was in such a state that she saw it weren’t no use.
At last she said, “All right, sir, I do admit that I was usin’ fixed dice. My mama always said own up to it when you done somethin’ wrong, and I guess you caught me good. By the terms of our agreement you have every right to eat me now. But afore you do, I just have to say that I feel so dog-awful about cheatin’ the way I did — I don’t know what I was thinkin! I just feel so bad that I want to do somethin’ for you first, if you’ll let me.”
“And what somethin’ would that be?” the Gator King demanded.
Ambry took her fiddle from her back. “You know, Mister Gator King, sir, that I am the best fiddler on the entire river. Many’s the time I’ve played to a standstill those who have challenged me. Never beaten in a fiddle contest; that’s me.”
The Gator King thrashed his tail impatiently and said, “What do you mean by this?”
“Sir, I would like to do you the gift of playin’ some of my best songs for you before you eat me. Sort of as an extry way of makin’ it up to you, ’bout my cheatin’ and all. Consider it my final concert, or swan song, if you will.”
The Gator King considered that. He had heard the stories about Ambry’s fiddlin’: her playin’ the sun down outta the sky, and fiddlin’ the rainclouds away, and liftin’ boats over the sandbars, and all the other stories. And he got to thinkin’ ’bout how he’d never actually heard her play hisself, and wouldn’t that be a fine thing to boast of — how he could say he’d heard the last performance she ever gave. So at last he snapped his teeth together and said, “All right. I agree. Play that fine fiddle for me, Miss Silverstrings, and let’s hear what you’ve got.”
Well, Ambry just lit right up and smiled. She raised her fiddle to her chin, set the bow to the strings, and began to play.
Now there have been many great fiddlers, and each land likes to brag on their own, but riverfolk know that the riverboat fiddlers of the Great Serpent River are the best in all creation. There’ve been more great riverboat fiddlers than a duck’s got feathers: Orange Sal, Jon the Jumping Man, Red-Haired Reba, Cloudy Bill, who fiddled the Thunderbird off’n her nest, and there was Ramblin’ Jack who vowed to fiddle in all the river towns of the Great Serpent River in one year — poor fellow dropped down dead from exhaustion before the year was half out.
But there never was, nor never will be, a better fiddler than Ambry Silverstrings. The performance she gave that day — in the Gator King’s den, fiddlin’ for her life, with the wet walls and the water drippin’ — might not have been her best ever; most folk agree that her best was when she outfiddled the Devil; and, after that, the time she fiddled down the sun herself; but it was certainly one of her better ones all the same. And a middlin’-rate performance from Ambry Silverstrings is better than a top-class performance from anyone else, any time, anywhere.
She started out sprightly, with rip-roaring jigs and reel tunes, playing as she’d play on the riverboat when they were slidin’ along like a dream and folk wanted to dance. She played so quick that her fingers blurred on the strings, and the Gator King hardly knew what was goin’ on before he was tappin’ his toes and beatin’ his tail in time.
She played faster and faster, and by and by he couldn’t sit still any longer and jumped up from his log throne, and started to dance to Ambry’s tune. He danced and stomped all over that ol’ river cave. He whirled and spun and roared, and beat his tail against the walls and shouted in time.
Well, the trees on the bank heard the music from the cave below, and their roots hanging down along the cave walls began to dance too. And their branches up above swayed to Ambry’s music, rocking and reeling, so that the trees looked like they were in a downright windstorm.
“That’s some fine fiddlin’, girl!” the Gator King roared.
Ambry just smiled and kept on playin’, and the Gator King kept dancin’, until finally he was swaying on his feet from exhaustion. “I declare, I’m beat — I couldn’t dance another step for all the gold in Fort Aureas!” he admitted, breathing hard. “What else can you play, Miss Silverstrings?” Already his mood was less sullen, for her song had nudged him into a downright good humor.
“Well, I’m glad you liked my music,” Ambry said. “I will admit, I haven’t played half the reels I know. But if you are getting tired of reels, then I know plenty of other songs, for as I always say, if there’s a song I don’t know, I just haven’t heard it yet.” She seemed to think for a minute. “Here, how about something funny? For what most folk love next to dancing is to laugh.”
So she set her bow to her strings and played a series of comic ballads, about Henry Mountain and his wife the She-Polecat of Polecat Hill; she played Riverboat Bess and Walkin’ Pete, and she played, “When Johnny Climbed to the Sky.” The trees began to laugh where before they had been dancing, their branches and trunks all trembling like it was the Great Shakes come again.
The Gator King was howling and rolling on the floor before too long, and wiping tears away from his eyes, pounding his tail against the walls of his little earthen cave so that the whole thing started to shake as if the roof was fit to come down on top of them. He cried, “I do declare, Miss Silverstrings, you are the funniest fiddler up an’ down the entire river!”
“Well, I thank you, sir,” Ambry Silverstrings said politely. “I appreciate such high praise for my fiddlin’. I can play more if you want—”
“No, no more!” cried the Gator King, who was still half-laughing and brushing the tears out of his eyes. “I swear, if I laugh any more I’m goin’ to die! Somethin’ else! Play somethin’ else, Miss Silverstrings, and I’ll listen.”
Copyright © 2014 by Dana Beehr