Watching every move about the campfire, studying each face lit up by the flickering flames, the fiddler Sam Plumbeck idly held onto his instrument, waiting for the proper moment. Time, he could feel, was pressing down on him; it had different parts that moved in different ways. The stars all the way to the horizon dip were many and miraculous, the horses silent for the most part even though a coyote cry filtered in now and then, and the darkness beyond wrapped them like a giant robe spread under those stars. He had ridden in, apparently aimlessly to all the trail hands, and joined up with them on their way back to their ranch, the promise of music being hailed by all the hands who had delivered the herd, were through with the drive. He alone, out of all these trail hands who had hit the jackpot, knew what was coming down on them. Nothing is supposed to be perfect or fair; at least this side of heaven, or the mass of a blue sky, or the dash of sunlight on a rainy day. And he, just a picker of strings, with not a coin of the gold in the lot having his name on it, could only wait it all out, hoping for the best and only seeing the worst coming up.
It had been that way for him since his wife Elsie had died and left him to tend their 8-year old daughter Alma.
And now Alma was gone, stolen from him a night earlier, right from their little cabin, in the middle of the night, and him bleary-eyed and hung over and not knowing until well after dawn that she was gone.
They had made themselves known a day later, riding up from right out of the cluster pinon pines, as if they were lost, to greet him in the yard. They rode two roans and a paint that looked out of place for a minute, and Plumbeck noted the animals seemed well cared for. Small signs gave bits of evidence he could trust as being the real thing. A long time ago he had learned that a man’s audience gave away as much as it took in, whether they knew it or not.
There were three of them, well-armed, with six shooters on both hips and rifles tucked into saddle leather, the stocks he saw scarred and showing long wear or use. Because they were strangers, he studied the three men quickly, putting away as much detail as he could; right off he swore he could pick two of them off skyline silhouettes, how they rode tall in the saddle like they owned the earth. He decided he didn’t like them, any of them, and wondered why else he had made such a quick decision.
It didn’t take long for him to discover why.
The slim fellow, in a Stetson fitting on his head like a giant mushroom, too big for the little stem of a man, did the talking, though the other two riders were bigger men, thicker in the chest, wider in the shoulders, meaner than each other, if that was possible. They all wore trail-dusted outfits, and a bit raggy at that, heavily-worked denim shirts and pants grained with the trail they rode, and each one with a dark red bandana looped at the neck. All three of them were soft riders, he said to himself, sat the saddle well, were at home there.
“Know your audience from the very first note,” his father had told him long ago, in advance of life alone, life in front of people, fiddlers holding sway in the family for generations.
The slim speaker’s voice came softly, almost diminutive, the words deliberate, as if he was a bank teller doing regular business with regular customers. “We know where your daughter is, Mister Plumbeck, with friends of ours. She’s okay, but to get her back, and safely at that, you have to do a few favors for us. It should be pretty easy work.” He stared at Plumbeck the way a teller stares at a little old man struggling to put a few dollars to account.
Plumbeck, quickly alert to other causes, said, “She’s not hurt is she? She’s all I have. What do you want?” He tried to remember Alma’s face; only small pieces of it came back, how her lips curled in an honest smile, how the dimple, like Elsie’s, came back before anything else and lasted longer. It was the dimple he was seeing now. He couldn’t remember if he had kissed her when he came in from town, or the Mexican woman who took care of her some nights. Sometimes he kissed her too, and now and then she’d kiss him back when Alma was asleep or when they were in the barn saddling her horse to go home.
“First off, you were pretty much out of it last night. We walked in and walked out with your daughter all wrapped up and warm. She’s with lady friends. A ways from here. You’d never find her. Neither would the sheriff, not a posse either if they mounted one for searching, which I doubt they’d do anyway. “
“What do you want of me?”
“You see the Double-Bar X boys in town the other night, after they delivered the herd?”
“I heard them more than I saw them.”
The slim talker said, “They worked off a whole lot of the trail in town, now they’re going to head back home with a passel of horses, and a whole lot of money that didn’t get put into the bank. The safe was blown up a few weeks ago, by some hombres not us. I don’t like big noise. We know their money’s in the chuck wagon and we aim to get it. But they won’t let us ride in on top of them in the daylight, and they’ll be twice on guard at night. With a week on the trail ahead of them, there’s time enough for trouble to set down on them.”
“Where’s that leave me?”
“They know you, every one of those boys. They liked your music in the saloon those two nights of resting up. Really liked it, how you pick at that thing like you’re a magician. Not often we hear the likes of it. Not that way, leastly. We could tell from all the way across the road. You had them boys really hooting it up. Brought the Texas right up out of their boots, them dancing like they did, half crazy with all the ladies of the premises, like there was a full moon shining down on them.” His eyes closed for the merest second. “Especially that one called Wilma who wears all that red stuff comes ashining back in the night when you least expect it.” His eyes went flickering and shining and sent off messages that Plumbeck knew from way back when he was the youngest fiddler in a Texas band, fourteen if he was a day and life opening like an open road across the wide prairie.
“How’s that go for me and my daughter?” He was hoping he could stay in some kind of control, not of them but of himself. He saw Elsie’s dimple and it sat like a warm pool or a small star on Alma’s face, grabbing all the attention he could muster, and there came the same secret smile that she could flash when nobody could see her but him, like it was a signal of times to come.
He began to add things up: there were two of them, the ladies in his life, but really, at this time, there were none of them. They were both gone. All he had left was the fiddle, and the mule, wherever he was chewing the cud now, and this suddenly diminished piece of property.
“You somehow get yourself attached to them, play them a few songs, warm them up and relax them. Can you do that? We got an extra horse here for you, in place of that old mule you ride. By the way, where’s your mule?”
“I fell off him last night and lost him. Just about got home.”
“You know the song She’s Just a Mountain Girl?’
“Yes, I do.”
“Let’s hear how you do it.” He sounded like a bank president more than a teller.
Plumbeck reached behind him and picked up the fiddle. In a swift and trained movement he swung into She’s Just a Mountain Girl as easy as plucking strings, all of them.
Mr. Smooth Talker turned to his riding pards. “Listen to how it sounds. That’s how we’ll know when to rush them, when he plays this song.” His head was moving smoothly, as if still in tune with the music, remembering another time, another girl shining in red. He turned to Plumbeck and said, “Play it again, Sam.”
Plumbeck, natural as they come with the strings in his hand, bounced through the song again. The way he played it, with all he could get from those thin wires, had the two big pokes bouncing in their saddles, nodding at the rhythm, accepting his delivery, maybe wishing it was Saturday night all over again. It was in their faces, but wasn’t that way with the little gent, the slow talker. He decided there was no music the second time around in the obvious leader of the pack, but only because the other two were so open, so transparent. The big cheese had to keep some secrets from the open mix.
“Let’s go talk in the cabin, if you will,” Mr. Smooth Talker said, as if he was putting the frosting on Plumbeck’s idea of him. “There are a few facts I want to make sure you understand.” He nodded at the other two, and said, “Keep your eyes open for any strangers. Make sure nobody has any idea of what we’re up to. There’s a sweet payday coming. We can count on that.” He waved the two big hombres away from the cabin. “Keep your eyes open. Never know who’s tracking us from back there.” He looked off toward the town a few miles away.
Plumbeck had hailed the trail boss from a distance, waving at him, yelling his name. “Hi-yo, Alec. It’s Plumbeck here. Heading back to Texas and I’d like to ride along. I brought my fiddle.”
Alec Winship said, “It’ll be a pleasure having good company, Sam. Boys’ll love it. They had a hard time coming up here. You sure had ‘em goin’ the other night. Really got them goin’. You do that every time out of the corral?” He looked at Plumbeck’s horse. “You been ridin’ hard to catch us? Don’t wear that animal out. Out here he’s your best friend. Even comes ahead of that there fiddle you’re totin’.”
“I didn’t want to be alone tonight, not out here,” Plumbeck said, putting a little doubt into his voice, shrugging his shoulders, appearing fearful of the open plains.
“Well, we all got company tonight, Sam, and plenty of vittles. Homer says he’s got bean soup and steak and his best biscuits for the night meal. How’s that sound?”
Plumbeck slapped his fiddle. “I got my vittles’ chit right here, all tuned up.” He shrugged his shoulders in a universal gesture, some decision left up to others, a yes or no in the movement as if he was asked a question that might not demand an answer. At the same time his eyes shifted across the grassy horizon, and then glanced east and west, north and south, the whole compass in two moves.
He was sly about it, thought he could be nauseous if he let himself go.
They rode after the chuck wagon setting up for the night less than a mile ahead of them just before a narrow pass in the hills. The two men had fifteen minutes of honest conversation while riding. The evening sun, beginning its descent, touched the tops of the hills in a fond farewell to another good day. No stars had shown up yet, but the moon pushed up its silver crescent in the eastern sky and gave off the promise the sun had set free that morning. Horses, driven together, snickered as if they too were having late conversations.
Six hands were setting up camp for the night stop, and odors had already begun to circulate from the chuck wagon. Beans and onion smells swirled smoothly in the air. A few other hands continued tying up ropes for a horse tether for the night. All of them, in turn, hailed Plumbeck with favored salutations. “Hey, fiddler, we wuz talkin’ about you all day, ‘cause that wuz some night we had for ourselves, that last one.” “Glad to have yore company, fiddlin’ man, and I see you brung the tools.” “Hey, that you, Sam? You look different sittin’ that animal ‘stead a strummin’. That thing you’re carryin’ there, does it get shook out of tune ridin’ side saddle like that?” “Hi-yo, Sam, you headin’ back to God’s country? Sure can make this trip short.”
To a man they were pleased to see him, perhaps a bit excited. Their jabbering said so, even the unintelligible parts of it, the distant remarks called out across the good grass, the asides tossed to one another at odd tasks: “oh, what that man can do with skinny wire,” or “We got a good time comin’ tonight even if them girls ain’t here.”All the while the food smells continued to swell and circulate in the late evening air. A coyote acknowledged the speed that aromas moved on the seemingly still air. The crescent moon continued its ride into the night sky, even the slice of it promising hence its full golden orb. Another coyote, from another direction, started a conversation about the infiltrating aromas. Man was again penetrating domains.
Plumbeck, hearing a distant sound that sounded like a trumpet call, spun about quickly, on guard, until he realized the sound was coming from Bugle Pass ahead of them. He’d been there before, the wind whistling in from the other side of the hills and hustling through a series of boulders set on the peak of the hill in the long past by the Indians. He didn’t know what tribe had erected the odd formations but believed they were musical in their nature. At another time, in another place, he’d think about Retreat being sounded behind a fort barricade.
Winship, eating from his tin plate across the campfire, was staring at him in somewhat of a lazy manner, smiling, enjoying his meal, fully at ease, the easy-riding crescent moon sailing across the ocean of the sky. The jug he had promised the crew sat untapped at his side, like a reward to be earned. He smiled again at Plumbeck and raised his hand when his plate was clean, as if he was the maestro out in front of an orchestra.
The single musical instrument in the campsite appeared from the slight flames touching the edge of the circle. The boss man’s signal had been sent. Pot and pan and tinny sounds stopped as Plumbeck stood up with the fiddle. A few notes escaped their long internment and fled across the wide grass, the slivered moon giving a hint of silver in its touch at grass. The distant coyotes, nuzzled in satisfaction, did not take note of the signal. Night began to move on.
The meal finished, tasks completed, a good number of men relaxed, some obviously still on night tasks with the animals or night riding, Plumbeck rose with the fiddle in one hand. It swung easily in that hand. Standing at the edge of flame light, he played a series of favorite songs for them. They were boisterous, but listened well, especially at refrains that rose up and fled across the grass, lifted up to the moon as if being freed forever.
The whole crew liked the first medley, Round Tree Willy and Moses Ward Goes Astray and The Girl from Calico, all of them fiddler favorites for as long as he could remember. Plumbeck had often thought that The Girl from Calico had been his father’s favorite and many times he had wondered if there was some secret behind that favoritism. He had come to accept, and even forgive, many of his father’s transgressions beyond the front porch back in Tennessee. Starkly he recalled when his younger sister died from a child-bearing incident resulting from an abusive salesman, his father angrily striding off with his rifle never to be seen again.
That disappearance shifted his mind again, recalled alertness from where it had gone. He heard a coyote from as far away as imagination would allow, perhaps in the depths of a canyon, then a whistling moan from Bugle Pass, and a wolf, loudest at the top of the food chain, taking vocal command of the once silent world.
Across the fire, almost prone on his night blanket, his gun belt flopped at the edge of the blanket as well as his rifle, Winship turned his head to listen to the same sounds Plumbeck had heard. He lifted the jug off the blanket and Plumbeck, at that movement, suddenly broke into She’s Just a Mountain Girl.
He was hardly into the song when five men, from the shadows like Indian ghosts raised from dark graves, broke into camp, their rifles leveled and ready to fire.
The Smooth Talker, his hat still too big for his frame, his body still slight out here in the darkness, but his voice decidedly harsher than Plumbeck could remember it, was yelling at them.
“Don’t reach for any guns. First man gets a gun in his hand gets dead in a hurry.” He swung his rifle around at the men at the campfire. “I mean it well, don’t grab an iron or you’re dead in a minute. We just want the gold in the wagon. We want every last piece of it. From where I stand I don’t think we can see any heroes. Whoever decides he wants to be a hero gets dead just that quicker.”
He looked at Winship, without a weapon in his hands, still flat on the blanket, his boots standing beside him like sentinels. “The rest of your crew sleeping under the wagon, Boss Man? Better get them out here under the same terms; they’re dead if they go for their weapons.”
Later, much later, Plumbeck remembered how cool Winship had been. That coolness was in his voice as he said, “They don’t need to go for their weapons, mister, ’cause they already have them and there’s four fully loaded rifles pointed at your midsections right about now. This I can tell you, four of you die in the first round, and one will live for a bare second until he gets rounds from all them rifles together. You think about that hero stuff. And put this in your pipe and smoke it … the gold’s not in the wagon ‘cause we buried it earlier out on the range, and one of the boys has gone off to get the sheriff. We knew you were coming. It’s that easy. The fiddler there, he’s no fool. If we find his daughter is the slightest dead, you guys get strung up on the nearest tree we find. Now what do you say to that?”
The loudest sound was from the darkness as rifle bolts slapped home.
The intruders dropped their weapons at the side of the fire, and Winship, all Texas coming up from his bare feet, jammed his revolver into the mouth of one of the two big men that Plumbeck had told him about. “Where’s the girl? I am only going to count to three.” He raised three fingers and dropped one immediately, as he counted, “One-two- ……”
“Wait,” the big guy mumbled, “she’s at the Kilgore place, the other side of town. She’s okay. Nobody touched her, I swear.”
He looked fearfully at the Smooth Talker, just as Plumbeck, with all his vented fury, remembering his sister, his wife Elsie long gone down the trail as well as his father, his daughter tossed into strange hands, smashed his fiddle down atop the head of the Smooth Talker.
Winship nodded at the coming silence, knowing what a fair swap was.