and the Soldiers
by Dana Beehr
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Since you’ve asked, I do know a few stories. One of my all-time favorites is an old one, about Ambry and the soldiers.
Have you heard of Ambry Silverstrings, the Demon Fiddler? Thought you might have. Some say Ambry came into existence along with the Great Serpent River Herself, the moment the River first touched the Ocean, shruggin’ the mud from her back like a voyageur shrugs a pack from her shoulders. ’Twas then Ambry simply stepped off the bottom as neat as you please, though some of that river mud did hold on to her feet.
Ambry herself told me it was true. She told me with a wink over whiskey and dice in the tavern of Six-Fingered Mike and, well, if Ambry said it, that’s good enough for me, and should be good enough for any man or woman in shoe leather.
Ambry weren’t just a compellin’ truth teller; she was called the Demon Fiddler on account o’ she was the best riverboat fiddler you could ever find up and down the River, or even within three days’ walk from the river bank. This were back in the old days before steamboats and paddle-wheelers and the Iron Horse, when nothin’ moved on the river faster than wind and current could take it.
And didn’t things move! Why, the entire river was just abustle with flatboats, keelboats, kayaks, canoes, river rafts, and log rafts, all so thick ’twas said a lad or lass could stroll from the Sawteeth Mountains down to the Mouth without dippin’ a toe in the water or gettin’ without reach of hearin’ a fiddle.
Each of the big boats had its fiddler to make the work go lighter and the journey faster. ’Twas said a good fiddler could cut near a month off the journey with their song. And ’twas well known there wasn’t any fiddler better than Ambry Silverstrings, all five feet three inches of her on a tall day.
Ambry didn’t look like much: a scruffy, dirty slip of a girl, always barefoot, in a ragged shirt too big for her and tied at the waist with a hank of rope, with mud-brown hair in two pigtails. But woe betide anyone, man, woman, or creature, who underestimated her. She could outdrink, outfight, outdance and outdice any man or woman on the river; and when she played her fiddle, why the world sat up and took notice. Every boat wanted her as a fiddler; and, as for her, she’d take anythin’ that floated. All she wanted was just to keep ridin’ the river, forever and forever.
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Now, Ambry was ridin’ a flatboat with a load of wheat bound for the docks at the River’s Mouth. The flatboat had tied up for the night at Fallen Tree, one of the largest towns along the upper River. If you’ve ever been to Fallen Tree, you know that there’s more than enough trouble for those determined to find it, and Ambry was determined, all right. She’d been cooped up on the boat for nigh onto five days and was more than ready to find a drink and some pleasant company.
As soon as the boat tied up at the dock, Ambry made straight for her favorite saloon: Two Bucks. She was well-known in all saloons up and down the river and could drink for free in most of ’em, long’s she played a little tune first.
The saloon keepers were more’n willin’ to pour for Ambry, seein’ as how her fiddle music brought new customers in and kept the old ones drinkin’. So Ambry played and diced and drank and kissed a local lad or two, played and diced and drank some more until she ended up spendin’ the night passed out drunk, dead to the world.
Wasn’t the first time and wasn’t the last. When she woke up the next mornin’, the sun in her eyes and the saloon keeper sweepin’ around her, she didn’t take on any surprise, just checked to see that her fiddle, first, and her coin, second, were in place. And then she picked herself up and, weavin’ a little and holdin’ her head, she wandered down to the docks to board her flatboat, the Mother’s Comfort, a name given in jest, for more’n a few boards weren’t held together with nails or twine.
“Well, I declare!” cried Ambry upon reachin’ the docks. “She’s gone!” And so she was. The crew — all of ’em probably only a little less drunk than Ambry herself — had gotten up the mornin’ and pushed off without seein’ that Ambry wasn’t aboard. ’Course, it woulda been easy to miss her, seein’ as how she were only five foot three inches... on a tall day.
Ambry’d had this happen to her more’n a few times, like everyone else who rode the river back then. After pickin’ her jaw up off the ground, Ambry scratched her head, and set off to see what she could do.
The next port down river where the Mother’s Comfort would be like to stop was Stonewater. It was a day’s journey by boat and four or five times that walkin’. Ambry knew she’d never be able to catch up to her boat that way. Instead, she went ’round the docks, lookin’ for a keelboat to take her and she might be waitin’ for her boat at the next stop.
She asked This-one, That-one and T’other-one, but nobody could take her on. Some of the keelboats had just got in and weren’t plannin’ to go out for a couple days yet. Others were headed upstream, polin’ agin the current; and backbreakin’ work that was, movin’ an inch at a time. More’n a few o’ them asked Ambry to come along, for ’twas known she could carry the boat along almost on her lonesome.
But Ambry said no. She allowed as how she always liked to finish a thing once she started. She went up and down the docks all mornin’, and finally come noon, she threw her hands up, sat down and said, “Well, I don’t know what to do! Seems like there isn’t anyone on this river as can give me a lift!”
She was just about ready to go back to the saloon and get herself blind, stinkin’ drunk, when her eye fell on a keelboat all by itself at the end of the dock. ’Tweren’t much to look at; ’twas ridin’ low in the water and, as she got closer, she could see its sides were warped and weathered, with gaps between the planks plugged with rope strands doused in tar, paint chippin’ away, and leakin’ like a rusty sieve. But she’d seen worse, and she was in need of a ride.
“Like my mama always said, beggars can’t be choosers,” Ambry said to herself, and went down to the boat.
“Sir?” she called out. “Sir? Hello, sir?”
’Twas a man on the boat, you see, sittin’ with his back turned toward her, a fishin’ pole in one hand and a big straw hat tipped over his face.
“Sir? I’m in an awful fix and I’d like to catch a ride with you, if you could see your way to doin’ that. Sir?”
The man paid her no mind, and Ambry was just about to give up and go on when at last he turned around.
He was as skinny as a beanpole: he had a long, hollow, bony face with a lantern jaw and a corncob pipe stuck between his teeth. His eyes were in shadow under the brim of his huge straw hat and he sucked on that corn-cob pipe like a three-day drunk with a bottle of whiskey.
“Hey!” Ambry said. “My name is Ambry Silverstrings. What’s your’n?”
The man didn’t say nothin’, just stared at her over the pipe. Ambry was a bit taken aback, but she just said to herself, “Well, he’s not the talkative type. Some folks are like that,” and she went on.
“I’m with the Mother’s Comfort, flatboat goin’ down river to the Mouth. But she pulled out o’ the dock this mornin’ and I missed her! Next place she’ll put in is Stonewater, but I can’t catch up to her by walkin’. Your keelboat could do it, if you’d be so kind to take me. Will you?”
The man shifted his pipe and said nothin’ again. Ambry was near to losin’ her temper now. “What’s the matter with you? Ain’t you sociable?”
The man stood there watchin’ her, the smoke rings risin’ from his pipe like the prayers of orphans. Ambry was gettin’ more and more ornery and, though she wouldn’t have admitted it, a little afraid. There was somethin’ peculiar in the way that thin man stood there, watchin’ and waitin’. She found herself half-hopin’ he’d turn her down. “Mayhaps,” she said to herself, “he’ll say he’s goin’ t’other way, and don’t I hope he would!”
But the man finally nodded. Without no further ado, he stood up, laid his fishin’ pole in the bottom of his keelboat, stepped in, and gestured to Ambry.
By now Ambry was startin’ to feel the slightest bit of unease, but she had asked for the ride, and ’twould look yellow-bellied of her to back out. Besides, she’d been all along the docks and hadn’t seen even one other boat to take her. So she went to take her seat. The man untied the boat, grabbed a pole, and pushed it out from the bank. The current pulled at it, and the craft began to head downriver.
That boat didn’t look like much, but it was fast. Ambry watched the bank slidin’ by, and by-and-by she started to relax. They would easily make it to Stonewater by nightfall, and as the Mother’s Comfort would tie up there overnight, there’d be plenty of time for her to catch up to it.
With that set, Ambry felt in fine fettle. “So, mister,” she said, leanin’ back against the stern, “it’s a hot day and I’m feelin’ mighty thirsty. It’d be right friendly if you’d happen to have a jug of snake liquor or corn whiskey and feel like sharin’.”
The man never even looked around, just stood with his back to her and didn’t say nothin’.
Well! Ambry thought to herself, somewhat surprised. That ain’t very neighborly, no sir! Maybe he don’t carry no snake liquor, though I’ve never seen riverfolk that didn’t! But she shrugged it off, even though deep down, she thought it were a major breach of etiquette.
“Hey, mister, I didn’t catch your name,” she said again.
The man still said nothin’.
“Where ya from, if you don’t mind my askin’? You look like a river man and sure handle the boat like one.” He did too, polin’ along as if he’d been born to it.
“Where ya headed?” she asked. “Down to Stonewater? The Mouth? Don’t look like your boat is carryin’ anything.” And all at once it struck her as peculiar that there weren’t no cargo but a five-foot three-inch girl (on a tall day). Ambry tried this and that but never got no response. She thought about offerin’ to fiddle a bit, but he prob’ly wouldn’t answer that either, clammed up as he was. Eventually she went back to silence, while the man steered the boat and the riverbanks slipped by.
It had been a long mornin’, wanderin’ up and down the docks, and the boat glided so smooth and gentle that Ambry felt just like a baby rocked safe in her mother’s arms, for that was what the river was to Ambry, y’see. By and by, Ambry found herself driftin’ off to dreamland, and she never stirred till she felt a jolt and heard the boat crunch under her.
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Copyright © 2015 by Dana Beehr