LISTEN to the MOCKING BIRD
WHO COULD BLAME MIS' SADIE FOR HAVING A MARRYING LOOK IN HER EYE THE NIGHT THE FIDDLER BECAME KING?
FRED E. ROSS
I STOPPED in the Widow’s yard and slapped my legs hard. When the major portion of road dust was beat out of my britches I stepped up on the porch and rapped on the door. I heard tripping noises inside the house, them coming closer to the door all the time. Then a soft voice called, "Who hails?”
"I’m Fiddler Yow, from down the road a piece,” I said. “I come seeking a favor of you. I need the loan of some wood-holding glue, in case you happen to have some.”
She unlatched the door and opened it wide. "Come in, Fiddler. Come in and sit.”
The light blinded me at first for she had a lamp that threw out a power of light. When I recovered my sight I looked around. Her front room was neat as a pin. And the Widow was mighty prjttied up to entertain „ raggedy man like me. I was glad I’d had the gumption to dust off myself before knocking.
The Widow was some younger than me, about twenty-five, I figured, and pretty as could be. Face as fresh and handsome as any flower, and a form that made me wonder why I’d decided to be a bachelor. I stood there and admired her.
“Take a chair, Fiddler,” she said.
I sat down and held my bundle in my lap. I squirmed around, for once in my life not knowing what to say, and I reckon she took pity on me. “What you got there, Fiddler?” she asked.
I held my bundle toward her and said, “I got some wild cherry, maple and spruce woods here that I’m fashioning into what I aims to be the best fiddle ever a bow was laid to. Only I ran out of glue. A man can’t take up a box and call it a fiddle. Got to be carefully carved by hand and then glued up tight. This here fiddle’ll be my fortune. All I need is a dab of glue to make a neat joint that
will hold. But I ain’t got no glue.
I was w’ondering if you had some?”
She smiled and said, “Why, yes,
Fiddler, I think Í can find enough glue to hold your fiddle. Make yourself at home while I rummage through the back room.”
She left the room, my eyes following every move she made. Hopping Jack had used mighty good taste in picking her, I judged. He’d been a cabinetmaker and I’d figured on him leaving her some wood-holding glue when he passed on. That was the only reason I’d called on the Widow. As a rule I shy from widows even more than I do from ordinary women. But this was different. I had to have that glue.
I laid my woods on the floor beside the table where the lamp was. On the table was a picture of the Widow and her deceased husband. It WEIS a right good picture of her but the likeness of “Hopping Jack” was nothing to speak of. He’d been sickly from birth and WEIS on his last legs when he fetched her down from an orphan asylum in Howell county to be his bride. He lasted about « year after that. Coughed himself to death. It ran through my mind that her being an orphan could have had a heap of beEiring on the case, her never having a chance to compsire men. After he died she stayed on at the place, since she didn’t have any living relations.
She came back, bearing something in her hand. “I found it, Fiddler!” She sounded mighty excited over a little pot of glue to lend to a fellow that wasn’t apt to pay it back.
“The reason I fetched my fiddle parts, Mrs. Morgan,” I said, “was to gauge how much glue I’ll need. And I brought some splinters to glue together and then try to bust the seam. A man can’t be too cEtreful
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when it comes to gluing up a fiddle.” "Carefulness is a mighty good thing to practice," she said. “I’m careful about who I let inside my house after dark. If I didn’t think you're a man of good character I'd never unlatched that door.”
"Thank you, Mrs. Morgan.’’ I said. “I do try to lead a good life.” I didn’t add that my idea of a good life was a good-time life. I was too busy admiring the Widow.
SHE HAD a pretty face, dark brown hair that one more dipping would have made black: and she had a sight of it coiled up on the nape of her neck. Her features were gentle, too, and she was of slight build, not a bit fat but yet enough meat in the right spots to make a man notice them places.
I admired her a spell, then turned to my fiddle. I fitted some odds and ends together while she watched. “You fond of fiddle music. Fiddler?”
“Reckon you could call it that, Mrs. Morgan. I like good music played byanybody and I'm especially partial to the music I bring out.”
“Are you a good fiddler?”
“Well,” I said, “I ain’t one to go about bragging on myself but I'm as good as they come in Pistol County. Was like that when I was a more lad of a boy-. I been considered the king bee of fiddling ever since I was baptizing age.” I decided against telling her that I skipped baptizing day at the river and never went back.
"Did you break your other fiddle?” she asked.
I frowned at that question. “Never had the good fortune to own a fiddle, Mrs. Morgan. When I was a little shaver I’d beg the loan of a fiddle. When the old fiddle players heard me rake the bow across the strings and bring out music you couldn’t sit still to, it got to be so easy to borrow a fiddle that I never got around to owning one. But now that I’m pushing thirty years the fiddle owners act sort of backward about letting me use their fiddles.” I could have told her that one night I borrowed Long Jim Rammer's fiddle, to go to Montgomery county and make music for a square dance, and before leaving home I slipped tw-o pints of com whiskey inside the fiddle case. Somehow or another the cork came out ! of one bottle and the whiskey took the varnish off Long Jim's fiddle. Made it look sort of mottled but I thought it had a better tone to it afterwards. Anyway, Long Jim spread word that I was a careless man with somebody else’s fiddle and it got so that I couldn’t get the loan of one anywhere.
“If you never owned a fiddle how did you learn to play one?”
“Oh, I just got the knack of making music. Some folks make money, others make a big name for themselves, still others make trouble. Me, I make
"It looks like you can make fiddles, too," she said.
“That's right. But it’s a tiresome task. I ain't got a great deal to showfor my time and trouble. Folks that claim I wouldn't strike a lick at a snake coiled to strike me ought to have seen me laboring on this fiddle. Took me a long time to even get the woods for it."
I spread my woods on the floor and said. “All that stuff grewin sight of my house. Only parts I bought was an ebony fingerboard, a set of strings and some fiddler's rosin. I even made a bow and strung it.”
Now that bow was strung with horse-
hair. I didn't have a horse, just a trotting mule named Rhoady, and her tail hairs weren't to my notion to set in a bow. So I slipped over to old man Blalock's pasture and stripped a handful of hairs from his claybank’s tail. That bow looked pretty as a picture when I finished with it.
“Seems to me you'd buy a fiddle rather than go to all that trouble,” the Widow said.
“ 'Twas more a labor of love,” I said. “This fiddle'll seem like a member of my family. I’ll be prouder of it than I would of any store-bought fiddle.”
She nodded. “I reckon I see how you feel, Fiddler. But didn’t you get mighty tired?”
“Tired and lonesome both. I got so hungryfor company that I near got in the habit of talking to myself. I’d talk to my tree dog, old Trailer, and answ-er for him. When I tended my mule I’d speak to her and answer my-self back. Same w-ay with me and mygame rooster, Longstreet. I sure got powerful lonesome.”
She looked down and said, “It ain’t good for a person to stay lonesome all the time. I got a notion of how you felt.”
“Why Mrs. Morgan!” I said. “Surely the young men ain't let a pretty girl like you grow lonely. If that's the case I don't know as I can say much for the young men of this settlement.”
“That’s the case.” she said. “Oh, I had ey-es made at me, all right enough, but ’twasn't the right ones made 'em. Just because I'm a widow ain’t no reason I’ll jump at the first pair of britches that comes along. And you needn't call me ‘Mrs. Morgan.’ Call me ‘Sadie.’ ”
“That’s a mighty pretty name. Mis’ Sadie,” I said.
We sat there, me tinkering with my woods and watching her out of the comer of one eye. She seemed to be in a study, frowning every so often and drawing her lips in tight. Put me in mind of a woman undecided whether to buy a piece of dress goods or not.
“You like this neighborhood. Mis’ Sadie?” I asked.
“Can’t say as I do. Fiddler, and can’t say as I don't. I’m trying to make up my mind whether to stayhere or go back to Howell County.”
“No sense in doing that. Mis' Sadie.
This'd be a powerful dull community with you not here.”
“You really feel that way, Fiddler?” I wasn’t paying her much mind, being busy with my glue job, so I said, “Why surely. 'Twould throw a plumb permanent shadow over this neck of the woods.”
She smiled then. “I’m proud to hear y-ou say that, Fiddler.”
“Oh, I been thinking that for a long time. Mis’ Sadie. Just never had a chance to tell you. I never was a person to knowingly speak out of turn.”
“La, Fiddler! You just don’t speak much at all. These are the first words I’ve had with you since the funeral.” Now I alw-ays had been loosetongued, and it tickled me that she thought I was careful with words. So I smoked and let her talk. The time slipped away right pertly and before I knewit it was high time I was leaving.
“I better be getting on. Mis’ Sadie, before I wear my welcome out,” I said.
She looked at the clock on the mantel and said, “Well, bless my soul, here ’tis half after eleven! I ain’t been up this late in no telling how long.” “I’ll leave my bundle of woods here, if it’s all right with you. No sense in me toting it up and down the big road.” “I’ll take good care of it, Fiddler,” she said.
“Then good night, Mis’ Sadie, and pleasant dreams.”
She held the door open to light me down the step«. “Good night, Fiddler. I’ll expect you tomorrow night.”
I IDLED around my place the next day, impatient for daylight to end. Finally the shadows got long and I made ready to visit the Widow. I spruced up some, shaving and putting on some socks. Then I set out down the road, w-alking in the side ditch to keep out of the dust.
The Wridow took me in the house and brought out the scraps I’d glued together the night before and had me try the joints. I pulled and twisted, tugged and jerked, and the seams held. Didn’t give a particle and was such a close fit that it took a sharp eye to see where the wood ended and the glue commenced. I was mightilypleased.
I took up my woods, petted them a little and set to work. A man can't rush a fiddle-making job so after gluing
a couple pieces together I quit fur the night and sat back and admired the Widow.
“Fiddler,” she said, “I hear tell that you’re the best all-around musician in these parts.”
I nodded and said, “I reckon it’s a fact, Mis’ Sadie.”
“You know anything about organ music?”
“Mis’ Sadie, I’m a ear and note musician both. I ain’t able to read big words but I can read all kinds of music. I can play a fiddle, a five-string banjo, a mandolin, a guitar, a mouth harp, a jew’s-harp, and an organ."
“Well, Fiddler, come in the parlor and play for me.”
She led the way into her parlor and I followed. It was a fine room, shut up tight so the daylight wouldn’t fade the furnishings. I pulled out the organ stool and spun it down a few turns so I could get my long legs under the keyboard and at the pedals. The piece Mis' Sadie wanted me to play was Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair. I propped the book open and pumped up some pressure. One glance showed that it was an easy tune. I moved into it gentle like, sort of in key with the words. When I got to the part about “many were the wild notes” I pulled out a couple of stops and let the wild notes pour. It ended up with me playing until nearly midnight.
When I started to leave she said, “Fiddler, I really enjoyed this night. I’m looking forward to tomorrow night, and I have an idea. Since you can’t read words too good I’ll read to you while you work. And since I can scarcely read music you can play for me when you finish your work. You think that a fair trade?”
“Anything I can trade for a moment with you, Mis’ Sadie, is a trade to my own advantage,” I said. “I treasure every moment with you more than I would silver or gold.”
It wa6 then, I reckon, that she marked me for her own. She moved up so close that we almost touched, raised her face and tilted it to one side a shade. She had a glow in her pretty eyes and her mouth was soft-looking. I didn’t mean to but I took her in my arms and kissed her. I held her tight and kissed her hard. It was a long kiss and all I could stand. I broke away and stumbled toward the steps. I never even said good night. I was almost home before I got my wits back. Then I was sick of the whole affair.
INSTEAD of going in to bed 1 sat on my front porch and smoked. It was a pretty night, hot and still, with a quick plug of breeze every now and then. I must have disturbed a mockingbird, for one started singing. He poured out a rigmarole of calls and notes that would have been sweet music ordinarily. But I was in a sour humor. “Sing on, you feathered fool." I said. “Rupture your craw if you're a mind to. Won’t ’suage my feelings the slightest.”
Old Trailer came out from under the house and lumbered up beside me. wagging his tail. “A fine watchdog you turn out to be, you old yard sleeper,” I said. “Sit at home taking it easy and let me get involved with i marrying widow.”
I sat there and brooded, smoking steady. “And there ain’t a danged thing I can do about it. You and me and Longstreet and Rhoady might as well make up our minds to shift the best we can for ourselves.”
But after a few more puffs I felt better. I patted old Trailer and said. “Don’t you worry, hound. I'll find us a way yet.”
I knew I couldn’t up and jilt the Widow. Such things can get a man
in trouble down in Pistol County. I’ve known men to be tarred and feathered for less. But I had a notion that I had about as much sense as the Widow, and a sight less principle.
The next night she met me at the steps and grabbed both my hands in hers. “Seemed like this day’d never pass. Fiddler.”
“I been on needles and pins today myself,” I said. “How'd my woods make out?”
She looked like I’d dashed a gourd of cold water in her face but she managed a smile. “I think they made
a permanent union. Fiddler. Come in and see for yourself.”
I shivered at her use of words but I went in. I checked my work and found it to be all I could ask for. It looked like it was carved from one piece, except for the difference in color of the woods. I set to work on the job I’d tasked myself with for the night. Mis’ Sadie got out her Bible and read a few passages pertaining to taking a wife and peopling the earth. Then she took up a book about old Greek and Roman folks. She sat in her little rocker and rocked while she read about
a fellow named Amphion. Seemed like he was a handy man with a stringed instrument called a lyre. In fact, he was such a good hand on his lyre that he once built a wall by making lyre music. The music was so sweet that the stones couldn't keep still and they up and moved into place in the wall of their own accord. Imagine a man building a stone wall that way! I had my doubts about the truth of that tale but I never let on to Mis’ Sadie how I felt. However, the story of that fellow sort of hung in my mind.
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Shortly after she finished her story 1 I finished work for the night and we went into the parlor. Mis' Sadie sat on the sofa and I sat beside her. I tried to hold her in my arms but she wouldn't let me. But I managed to hold her hand. Her fingers twined with mine but my conversation seemed to 1 lack a penetrating quality against her silence.
Finally I said, "Seems like that kiss last night was only a dream. Too good to be true, yet it was a real happening. Or was it?”
She sighed and said. "Yes, Fiddler, I let you kiss me last night. And I’ve j been worrying about it all day. I j reckon I went ahead when I ought to ! have held back.”
j The lamp light and her violet ! perfume made me a shade giddy¡ headed so instead of agreeing with j her I said, "What do you mean?”
She kept twisting her hands in mine and kept her eyes lowered. "Fiddler, a woman ain’t got no call to let a man kiss her unless there's an understanding between them.”
I knew she was leading me out on treacherous ground but I let her toll me on a ways against my better judgment. “Why, Mis’ Sadie, I thought we understood each other!”
She moved closer and turned her head away. She spoke mighty low and I had to strain toward her to make out what she said. "When a man comes a kissing of a widow he means he’s seeking to wed her, or else.” She sobbed and then breathed, “And I ain’t the ‘else' kind of a person.”
She spun around so quick that I couldn't dodge and the first thing I knew our lips were almost touching. Her mouth drew mine same as a lodestone draws metal. After that I was bound to promise her anything.
On my way home it came to me that I’d asked her her hand in matrimony. I remembered that she'd agreed, too. I worried some before I went to sleep, and a whole lot the next day.
It was like that until I finished my fiddle. Daytimes I’d worry about what a reckless fool I was at night: and nights I’d push them foolish fears aside and court the Widow. We didn't exactly set a date but she let out word that there would be a day when we’d get wedded.
Then one night I went down to the Widow’s and tested the last of the fiddle joints. I took the strings, put them on and drew them tight. I didn't j bring my bow because I wanted to be ; in my own house and all by myselt when I tested my new fiddle. In case j it didn’t play well I aimed to be the j only one that knew it. So I let her admire the fiddle and even let her heft it once to see how well balanced it was.
Then I said I had to get off home ! and put the bowto it. She tried to \ get me to go fetch the bow but I I wouldn't hear to that. I tried to explain but she didn't understand, for she acted a little skittish when I left.
I hurried home, lit my lantern and turned the wick almost to smoking point. After I rosined the bow and slipped the fiddle under my chin I knew I'd made a rare fiddle. I patted my i foot a couple of times to get a rhythm set and then laid the bow to the strings. The first bars of Ida Red sounded so good that I had to get up and stand.
I played it up high and then dropped down and played it in a lower key, like j expert fiddlers are supposed to. I ! switched to L'il Liza Jane and stepped ' the time up I had the feel this time for j sure and when I finished I up and cut ! a buckwing there on the bare floor.
I was plumb taken away with that fiddle. It was a thing of beauty, and
just to my notion as to weight. A man could tuck that fiddle under his chin and fiddle until his arms gave out from pulling the bow. I wouldn’t have loaned out my fiddle for u king’s ransom.
I took my fiddle to the front porch and sat down on the top step and fiddled softly, but all the time I was : thinking to one side of my mind. With that fiddle I ought to wrin the Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention at Center the next month. I’d never won it because I’d never had a fiddle to enter it with. That hundred-dollar prize would come in mighty handy. I'd always fiddled around and never put in a crop so I was always short of cash, no matter 1 the season. Longstreet kept me in pocket money during the cockfighting ' season, but that was a long ways off. I didn't have two coins to clink together. ¡ I played some burial hymns and worried. I racked my brain until away over in the morning, and toward daylight I saw one hope for me. A lot ¡ depended on my new fiddle but I had a sight of confidence in that instrument.
I went to bed feeling middling easy.
THE next morning I slapped a sack of straw on Rhoady as a padding between me and her hard back and rode her to Center, about five miles from my place. I rode her up to the hitching rack behind Dugan's Hardware and hitched her. Then I headed for the Chronicle's office.
The editor and owner of the Chronicle was a fellow named Hercules Hughey, and he was backing the OldTime Fiddlers’ Convention. He was a puny little fellow with muscles unable to do much except lift a drink to big big mouth. He was a good enough fellow. I reckon, except for his drinking. But he had some system to bis drinking. He refused to drink before noon. He was a bachelor and bragged that he had too much sense to ever get married.
I went in the office and found Herk checking the wall clock against the turnip he carried in his vest pocket. He went by the fastest one in the I morning when he was wanting a drink. He squeaked around in his swivel chair and said, "Hello. Fiddler. You wanting to pay up that subscription you been owing so long?”
"Nope. Herk. Even if that paper was to come out on time it wouldin't be worth the price you set on it. What ' I come here for is to enter that fiddling contest. I got my dollar entrance fee and I want you to put my name down.”
Herk reached out his hand and said. “Let me see your dollar."
I slipped a limp bill into his still limper hand and he pocketed both. "That makes an even thirty fiddlers that think they can beat old Bill Wilkerson out of his title."
"When I take up my bow you’d better have your ears cleaned out." I told him.
"I’ve heard that you got some musical talent. Fiddler, but I ain’t got any proof of it. Just hearsay, and a good editor never pays the slightest mind to hearsay, unless that’s all he’s got to go on. I wish you well but you got to convince them judges, not me. I’m after a houseful of spectators I and a gang of fiddlers. Ain’t got the slightest sentiment about who wins, loses or draws.”
I drummed my fingers on the shelf that rested on the partition between Herk’s office and the waiting room. "How about doing me a small favor, Herk”"
"I ain't got a drop that I could loan without drsaccommodating myself,” he said.
"It ain't that, Herk. This favor is
something I wouldn’t ask everybody
“What is it?” Herk asked.
“Well, it’s hard to put into words.
I sort of got an understanding with the Widow, Mis’ Sadie Morgan, to get wedded. But she’s a powerful sad woman. She’s that way by nature. If she’d enter into » joyous occasion it’d do her a power of good. Now I'm bí inging her to the fiddling contest and to the square dance afterwards. What I got in mind is that if I could get a man I trust to dance with her it might lift her spirits some.”
Herk jumped to his feet. “Deal me out right there, Fiddler! I ain’t got time nor patience with females. I might dance a set or two at the square dance if there happens to be a trained bear there that can skip. But not with no woman! That’s my final answer.”
I acted as if I hadn’t heard him. “Mis’ Sadie is cute as any play-pretty you ever saw, plump in the places that call for substance, mass of lovely hair and a face you can’t forget. If you see her acting interested in the dance I’d be mighty beholden to you if you’d play a set with her. Resides, she thinks mighty well of you. You seen her lately?”
Herk frowned at me. “Not since the funeral. Young woman, ain’t she?”
I nodded. “Some younger than me, and a pure simple maid. Pretty, like I said, and the best cook within thirty miles. Patient woman, too. Tolerates a man’s faults like she understands.”
Herk checked the time and said, “Ain’t no such woman ever drawed breath. You’re just moon-struck on that widow. But I might play a set with her. I reckon she’s light on her feet?”
“Same as a feather in a whirlwind,” I said. “Well off, too. Hopping Jack left her fixed for life.”
Herk stared at me like he was thinking hard. “Pleasing to the eye and well fixed, huh? How did a shiftless, cockfighting fiddler like you manage to turn her head?”
“Oh, I ain’t so shiftless, Herk. Me and Longstreet manage to win our share of the purse and I ain't been outhddled yet. I ain’t so bad-looking, neither.”
Herk straightened his stringy tie and said, “They’s other men your equal in looks. Fiddler, and when you drop that Longstreet against something besides a Dominecker-Leghorn cross you’ll be more than apt to pick up a dead bird. Not only that, but when you sit down in competition against Uncle Bill Wilkerson your bloodshot eyes may be pried open a fraction of an inch about that so-called fiddling talent you think you got.”
“ ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’ ” I quoted and turned to go. At the threshold I looked back. “Can I count on you to lift Mis’ Sadie’s spirits?”
He was leaning on his desk, looking like a beetle deciding whether to come out of his hole or not. “I ain’t making no rash promises. Fiddler. Got to see the Widow without her weeds first. Might ask her to skip, then again 1 might not. I just ain't saying.”
1WENT out and mounted Rhoady and left Center in a gallop. We made good time and got to Mis’ Sadie’s a little past noon. She met me at the porch and said, “Well, Fiddler, what brings you here this time of a day?” “Dropped by to invite you to go to the Old - Time Fiddlers’ Convention with me. Went down to Center and entered myself this morning. More than likely I’ll win it and I’d be proud to have you by my side when they award me the grand prize.”
She smiled and said, “I’d be tickled
to go along with you, Fiddler.”
I sighed, real loud, and said, “I was afraid you’d made other plans. This sure is a relief to me. I was afraid he’d beat me to the draw.”
She frowned and said, “What do you mean, Fiddler? Who are you talking about?”
“Why, that Herk Hughey, that’s who. Old dried-up rascal’s got a notion he can shine up to you. Been telling all over Center how pretty you are. Said he was a mind to claim you for his’n. I was tempted to flog him, only I was afraid.”
“You, afraid of little Herk Hughey?” I waved a hand to one side. “Nope, not afraid of him exactly, but you know he’s a joiner. Belongs to every organization in town except the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ladies’ Bible Class. He’s a man of importance and folks usually ask his opinion before undertaking anything that calls for foresight. All the women in Center fawn on him but I hear he don’t pay them the slightest mind. So it ain’t Herk that I fear. It’s the power he might have to sway easily influenced people. Could be that he’d drop an
unkind word here and there and undermine me with a lot of folks, including you. I couldn’t abide that, Mis’ Sadie.” She fluttered her hands and said, “La, Fiddler, you’re the one that does your own undermining.”
“I’ll show you a good time when Herk forks over a hundred of his old rusty dollars,” I said. “I wish that first prize was a thousand, so’s he might begin to miss it.”
"Is he backing the contest?” she
“Surely, surely. Herk’s behind that affair lock, stock and barrel. He’ll pick
up several hundred dollars profit that night but it won’t be more than a drop in the bucket to him. He’s got moneyin the bank that’s moldering and drawing a sound sis percent at the same time. I’m mighty lucky you seen fit not to listen to his sweet wiles and honey drippings. But I got to be going. I’ll pick you up the night of the Convention.’’
When I drove by for the Widow she was decked out in a pink dress that set her off well. She was perfumed with a cape jessamine odor, and the night being still and hot, an uncautious man might have spoken reckless words to her on account of that relaxing odor. But I talked about the contest.
WHEN we got to Center I led the Widow into the hall where the contest was to be held and got her a front row seat. Then I went backstage to tune up. There were about thirty fiddlers already there and they greeted me when I came in. “Never thought I’d live to see the day you owned a fiddle so’s y-ou could enter this affair,” one fellow called. “Uncle Bill heard you was entered so he practiced all dayyesterday, just in case your fiddle’ll play,” another said. Still another called. “I sure am surprised to see you with a fiddle that’s legally your’n. Or does it belong to a certain sod widow?” “It’s mine and it’ll play all right,’
I said. Then I rosined my bow and sat back and waited. It wasn’t long until Herk led us on the stage and seated us according to our names. I was the last one, being the only Y in the gang. Herk placed a chair in the very middle of the rostrum for each fiddler to sit m as he strove to win the prize. The hall was jam packed with folks come to hear good old hoedown music. Everybody was keyed up, musicians and spectators, too.
After we were seated Herk stepped to the front of the stage and cleared his throat. He was a good two thirds drunk and his usually sallow face had a flush to it. He was right handsome, in a way, standing up there in his scissors-tailed coat. The folks couldn’t see his bloodshot eyes on account of the flickering lantern light, and they were too far back to smell his breath. He cleared his throat again and said, “Friends, we are about to start our eighth annual Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention. We have thirty-tw-o men here to compete against our seven-time, and defending, champion. Uncle Bill Wilkerson.” The folks cheered and Uncle Bill, who was sitting beside me. got up and waved his fiddle, striking me a sharp blow on the ear as he did so. I reckon he feared me and would mightywell like to addle me.
Herk held up his hands for silence and when the cheering stopped he said, “Each man is allowed to playhis tune twice, unless he draws so much applause that it is by popular request that he be allowed to play more. And don’t forget the big square dance to be held right here in this hall as soon as the fiddling contest is over. Right now we start off with Pete Adams and his fiddle. The tune is Soldier's Joy. Let ’er roll. Pete!"
Pete was a fair fiddler but nothing to listen to twice. He got \ small round of claps when he finished, but no cheers. Then Bud Almond tried his hand with Cindy. It went on down the line like that. The fellows put out some good fiddling but nothing to make Uncle Bill nor me feel uneasy. Finally it got down to just the two of us. L'ncle Bill was to play, then me.
Herk got un to introduce Uncle Bill and while he was bragging on him I leaned over and whispered, "Listen to that praise and store it up in your heart, you old goat, for it’s the last
praise you’re apt to ex-er hear about your fiddling. Then go up and try to play. I ain’t had a good laugh since the last time I seen you tangled up with your bow.”
He glared at me and stalked up to take his seat. He put his fiddle under his chin, patted his foot and nodded his head in time. Then he sailed into Old Joe Clark. Uncle Bill was a prime fiddler and that night he was at his best. Before he finished folks all over the hall were patting their feet in time with him. When he finished a roar of applause burst out and overran the place. So he kept his seat and played his tune again.
He was finishing his sixth try at the piece when Herk motioned that he’d played long enough. Herk shook Uncle Bill's hand and congratulated him, figuring like nearly everybody else that Uncle Bill was still champion.
Herk introduced me then. “The next, and last contestant, is a fiddler known by all. In fact, his given name is Fiddler. I present Fiddler Yow, playing Listen To The Mocking-Bird. Play, Fiddler!”
1WENT to the front but I didn’t sit down. I faced the crowd and said, “I never was one to sit still when real fiddle music was in the air, so I’ll just stand to start with.”
I raised my fiddle and poised the bow, patting out my time with my right foot, and then I made the high strings sing. I went through it in the treble and hit a few bird calls that sounded like the genuine old mocker himself. By that time the crowd was spellbound. Then I switched to a lower key and did it again. Folks begun to clap, stomp, whistle and shout. I didn’t wait for Herk’s signal but went ahead and ran through it the third time. My fiddle was talking so sweet that half a dozen fellows stepped out in the aisle and danced a jig. One of the fellows whooped real loud while making his step.
When I finished Herk nex-er waited for the judges’ decision. He rushed to me and raised my hand same as if I was t prize fighter. “The newchampion fiddler,” he yelled. “Fiddler Yow! Give the new fiddling king a big cheer, folks!”
They cheered me for a fare-you-well.
I had my back patted, my hand shook, and my feet stepped on. Herk gave me a hundred dollars and I put it in my purse, put the purse in my pocket and fastened the pocket with a saffety pin. I felt mighty good.
After things quieted down Herk had the constable clear the hall of males. Then Herk set about selling them tickets to get back in for the square dance. In less than thirty minutes the hall was filled again. They cleared away a space for dancing, leaving a ring of chairs along the walls. The rostrum was crowded with chairs, too, for it was a good spot for the old folks and young’uns to watch the dancing from. The hall had a hardwood floor, which was good for dancing.
While the dancers were pairing off I picked my musicians, as all fiddling kings are allowed to do. I picked Big Thumb Lanning as my lead guitar player. He never used a pick on his guitar strings, just his thumb and fingers. I chose Tite Lee as my banjo player, him being hard to beat on that instrument. I picked Little Ed Honeycutt and his mandolin, for I knew he wouldn’t get too loud and try to steal the lead. I let Joe Lilly come in with his bass fiddle, feeling the need for some good bass slaps in my band. Last man I took in was Kize Palmer, a jug player. Kize doubled on the jew's-harp while catching his breath from blowing in the jug. It was a nice band.
We got seated and tuned up. I got a chair for the Widow and seated her right beside me on the front edge the rostrum. I’d noticed that she’d kept a close watch on Herk, and he kept eying her when he thought she wasn’t looking. All that was mighty
Leroy Biggers was calling the dance and he started out in fine style. The dancers had good music to skip to and Leroy led them through a nice set. Herk edged up close to the Widow I reached out my patting foot and tapped her across her tight shoes. She drew her feet back and I patted my foot under her chair and kicked her feet out in the open where I could get at them again. I patted them a hard lick and she drew them away up under her chair, smiling a little, hard smile all the time. Now when I’m fiddling I never keep my feet still so folks didn’t think it unusual when I kept patting my foot around like that. I knew was hurting the Widow’s corns but never spared her a single pang. looked like she was keeping time with the music, the way she was drawing her feet in and out. Her color got brighter, too, a real rosy pink.
When Herk saw her slick footwork and the pretty flush in her cheeks he came over and asked her to dance. She agreed quick enough and they paired off. That was when I really made my fiddle talk. I put so much feeling into the music that for a spell Leroy was so busy clapping and stomping that he forgot to call the figures. But the dancers didn’t seem to miss him. They danced on the best I ever saw. Herk and the Widow skipped like a pair colts. I never dreamed Herk had it him to carry on like that.
I was fiddling in earnest but I could still hear Leroy yelling every now and then. “Chase the rabbit, chase the squirrel, chase that pretty girl ’round the world . . . Big foot up, little foot down, swing that pretty girl "round and ’round . . . Next couple out . . . Swing her high, swing her low, turn her loose and on you go Right hands across
. . . Swing your own and on you go!”
I never in my life saw such a flurry of dancing. Even old Leeper Willis, ninety-odd years old, grabbed Miss Sukie Duke, an old maid way in her sixties, and made her skip down the hall and back with him. He put - few extra steps that looked pretty good. I knew' then that I was doing a real fiddling job for Leeper made out that he’d had a bellyful of women thirty years ago.
THERE was a short intermission after that dance but the Widow didn't return to her place beside me.
She let Herk lead her to a chair and they stayed there and talked, Herk leaning over the back of her chair. Leroy signaled that it was time to strike up the band again so we tore into Skip To My Lou. But Herk and the Widow didn't get up to dance. They didn’t seem to realize that there was anybody else in the place but the two of them. And about halfway through that dance I figured the time was ripe to call Herk’s hand.
I stopped fiddling and leaped to my feet. “I've had all I can stand,” I yelled, jumping from the rostrum to the dance floor. I went toward Herk and the Widow, taking long, slow strides, and when I got there I pointed a finger at him and bellowed, “So you try to steal my woman the instant I turn my back, eh? Me up there making music and you down here whispering in my love's ear. Ain't you got no respect for a betrothal?”
Since he was backed up against the 1 wall Herk stood his ground and said, “Any woman that gets betrothed to the likes of you needs counsel. That’s what I been giving her^ Good, plain, common-sense
counsel.” I turned to the Widow and said, “That right, Mis’ Sadie? He ain’t been trying to come between
us?” “There ain’t a blessed thing between me and you, Mr. Yow,” she said, i Mr. Hughey could upset. All you love is that fiddle, and you can take it and go! I’m able to choose my gentlemen friends and I feel that Mr. Hughey is a gentleman and a
friend.” “That’s right,” Herk said, “and I feel that this little lady needs a gentleman of my calibre to look after
her.” I think he meant to say, “look after her tonight,” but I didn’t let him finish. I turned to the crowd and bawled, “You all heard her give me the run-around for this dried-up rat, and you all heard him say that he thought he ought to look after and protect her, now didn’t you?” Several folks nodded and I went on. “Then you’ve seen a man jilted just when he felt secure for the first time in his
life. I doubt if I ever get over this. Same as if a knife was stabbed into my vitals. Same pain, just less blood this
way.” I picked up my fiddle, turned and stumbled away, trying not to go too fast. On my way out I heard a woman murmur, “I feel sorry for the
poor After 1 got outside 1 hid until the crowd left. The fit I’d flung broke up the dance and inside of thirty minutes everybody was gone but me. Then I hitched Rhoady to the buggy and headed for
home. I let her set her own pace while 1 fondled my fiddle and whistled. When we got to the Widow’s place I pulled Rhoady to a halt. There was a horse and buggy hitched in the yard, and a light in the parlor I knew Herk was in there. I wondered how he liked her perfume and the way her hair tickled a fellow’s face. In a way I sort of envied
him. Then I rapped Rhoady with the lines and she lit into a trot. I fell to thinking about mv new fiddle and the crown I’d won. I started whistling and patting my foot. The night looked mighty good to me, all warm and quiet. It was a night for a free man to
enjoy. I pulled Rhoady to a halt and let old Trailer get in the buggy, since he'd followed me to town and back and was bound to be tired. "Hound. " I said. “I knew all along that if that Greek could fiddle himself a wall out of loose rock I could fiddle me one down. I’m free as a jaybird tonight, no wall around me." Then I unlatched the fiddle case and fiddled all the way on home.