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Black Ankle Fiddler
George Booker could not, by any stretch, be considered a good, God-fearing man. He was never with a woman he didn’t cheat on, always carried weighted dice, he killed two men in fits of rage, and had broke clean from the law without punishment on every transgression against man and God. No, George Booker was not a good man and is not a sympathetic character. That said, he did not belong in the Black Ankle hoosegow convicted and sentenced for the cold-blooded murder of Augie Geisler.
Some would say and many would agree that if you cheat, lie, steal, and kill, eventually lady justice will catch up to you and it doesn’t rightly matter if you were guilty of the crime for which you were convicted or not. You are, as a matter of count, a guilty man.
George Booker was not of that mindset. He was madder than a plucked hen when the sheriff brought him in for the murder of Augie Geiser and fit to be tied when the jury came back with a guilty verdict in under ten minutes.
“Your honor,” Booker’s lawyer had decried, “it is unreasonable, and should be unconstitutional, to send a jury into deliberation at 11:50 in the morning.” The lawyer raised his open hand to the heavens and continued, “Any man would be tempted to convict Lord God Almighty His Own Self, just to get to his brisket with potato salad and sweet tea lunch.”
The lawyer’s pleadings fell on deaf ears, perhaps because the judge was full of brisket, potato salad, and sweet tea and ready for an afternoon siesta.
But, no matter, as already stated, George Booker was a guilty man and whether he had killed Augie Geisler or not, he had committed other crimes worthy of the hanging he was facing the next morning. And so sat George Booker in one of only two cells in the Black Ankle jailhouse. Black Ankle in 1932, like the rest of Texas, and most of the country, was a segregated community, but being a small, unincorporated town of only 83 souls, and without even a proper courthouse and only a tiny jail, the best they could do was keep George Booker in one cell and their other prisoner, a tramp, but a white tramp, who had been fined for panhandling and being unable to pay his fine, thrown in the stoney lonesome, in the other.
So, there they sat with no one to talk to but each other. “I hear tell you’re going to swing tomorrow,” said the tramp.
George shook his head. “I ought not, but it appears so.”
“There is a fiddle on yonder bench,” the tramp pointed to a fiddle case sitting on a bench along the front wall, next to a tattered brown coat. “Is it your fiddle?”
“It is,” said George, “but if you’re angling for it, I doubt they’ll give it to the likes of you after I’m gone.”
“Oh, no, I have my own. I was merely asking if you were a fellow fiddle player.”
“I am,” George paused as he looked at the fiddle. “Or I was.”
“Are you any good?”
“I like to think I’m fair.”
“Would you like to be better?”
“I don’t reckon I have much time or inclination to practice.”
“No need for practice.”
“What are you saying?”
“I can make you better,” said the tramp. He got up from his cot and moved to the bars separating himself and George Booker and sat on the floor. “I can make you much better.”
“And what good would that do me?”
“Well, it could save you from a hanging.” The tramp looked deep into George Booker’s brown eyes and smiled a mischievous smile.
“I don’t see how?”
“What if you played so sweet, so beautifully, what if you pulled from your bow music so divine that the sheriff could not bring himself to hang you tomorrow, George Booker.”
The silence hung in the air thicker than the East Texas humidity. “I would say that when you was a baby your momma must have dropped you on your head.”
The tramp laughed.
George Booker furrowed his brow, “How come you know my name and I don’t know yours?”
The tramp showed a mouth full of teeth, “Because you, George Booker, are a notorious murderer, and I am a lowly panhandler.” George just stared at the tramp and tilted his head. “My name is Puken Nøkken.” The tramp extended his hand through the bars. George stood from his bunk, walk to the bars, knelt, and shook Puken Nøkken’s hand.
“I expect you are the last person I will ever make acquaintance, Pooken Nookin.”
Puken laughed at George’s mangling of his Norwegian name. “That may well be true.”
“And just how did you, the one person who could save my life, come to be in Black Ankle, Mr. Nookin.”
Puken lost the twinkle in his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest. “I have been traveling ever since I lost my last wife. A new wife would do me good, but it is hard to find a woman suited for the strange life I lead. I have traveled just about everywhere and met just about everyone. I guess it was just time for us to meet, George Booker.” Puken raised his head and met George’s gaze, “but I tell you the truth. I can stop your hanging tomorrow. I can make you play so sweetly that everyone who hears your music will dance and dance and forget about hanging you.”
George Booker cocked his head, stroked his chin with his right hand, and considered Puken’s words carefully. He did not put much stock in the tramp’s offer, but he also had no time for deep thinking, and most assuredly had nothing to lose.
Sheriff Joe Dale walked through the door, went to his desk, and took a seat. George thought a minute before deciding to play the only hand he had. “Sheriff Dale?”
“What do you want, Booker.”
“I believe it is customary for the condemned to get a last request.”
“Not so much in Black Ankle,” the sheriff replied. “I have talked to the widow Nieder and she has agreed to cook you a T-bone steak, fried potatoes, collards and I’ll bring you a beer, one beer, for your last meal.” The sheriff leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “All at the county’s expense, that is the best I can do.”
“I would gladly save the county the money for that fine meal and settle for pintos, cornbread, and water if you would entertain my wish.”
“Lordy, Booker, you are lucky I didn’t let the mob string you up and be done with it a month ago.”
“I am appreciative of that, Sheriff Dale, and have said so. But this is important to me, and wouldn’t be no trouble to you at all.”
The sheriff sighed. “Fine, Booker, tell me your last wish. I ain’t going to grant it, but if it makes you feel better.”
“I am a mighty fine fiddle player and playing gives me great pleasure.” George looks to Puken, who closes his eyes and nods. “I know there is a big dance in honor of Ned and Freda Snyder’s fiftieth anniversary over at the Wild Hive Dance Hall, and I would surely like to play my fiddle for the whole town.” George paused, half expecting the sheriff to cut him off right then and there. The sheriff said nothing. George continued, “Show them I’m sorry for what I done and that there are no hard feelings.”
The sheriff mused a moment. He had tried like the dickens to get Eck Robertson to come play the shindig at the Wild Hive but put plainly, Eck wanted too much money. He had settled for Stuff Smith, but Stuff came through Black Ankle early and often and being as how Ned and Freda were his in-laws, the sheriff had wanted something to make the dance memorable. Maybe this could be it. “So, you really know how to work that bow?”
“Yes, sir, I do. Everybody likes dancing to my jig.”
“Do they now.” The sheriff leaned forward in his chair. “There will be no drinking for you.”
“And you won’t cause any trouble.”
“Every man in town will be there and they will all be armed. You wouldn’t get ten feet out the door.”
“And beans and cornbread will do for your supper.”
“It is my favorite anyway. Reminds me of my momma’s cooking.”
The Wild Hive Dance Hall looked like it was a natural part of the Sabine forest, and truth is, the lumber was hewn from some of the first timber dropped in that thick dark woodland. The windows cut into the clapboard siding were opened out and the yellow/gold light from the oil lamps escaped and diffused into the darkness. Electricity had yet to make it this deep into the forest.
Cars, trucks, horses, and a few buggies were lined up orderly on three sides of the dance hall. People ambled in and out. A half dozen or so children holding watermelon slices chased each other around the back. The boys spit seeds at the girls. Keren, the smallest and youngest of the children bore the brunt of the attack. She ran inside screaming for her mama. Her hair, partially matted to her cheek was sticky, tangled, and full of seeds.
Sheriff Dale pulled up to the Wild Hive with Booker handcuffed in the back seat. He always felt out of place when not in uniform, a hazard of wearing the same clothes day in and day out. He felt more a fish out of water wearing a suit, but there was no way he could avoid the coat and tie. Usually, he told Abigail, his wife, he needed to wear his uniform in case he got a call, but this was her parent's anniversary dance, he was wearing the suit come hell or high water.
Sheriff Dale walked George Booker into the Wild Hive Dance Hall, exchanging pleasantries with folks as they passed. No one acknowledged George, but people whispered when they were to the sheriff’s back. George awkwardly held the fiddle in his cuffed hands.
Stepping up on the stage, Sheriff Dale turned and took the handcuffs off George. “You stay right here on this stage,” the sheriff wagged his right index finger in front of George’s nose. “I will get you a stool to sit on until it is time to play.” George nodded. “You study your boots real good. Look no one in the eye.” George nodded but said nothing.
The sheriff stepped off the stage. George turned catty-corner to the folks ambling around the hall and stared at his boots. In mere moments the sheriff returned to the foot of the stage and handed George a three-legged stool. George took the stool, placed it in the center of the stage, laid the fiddle case on the stool, opened it, removed the fiddle, closed the case and placed it on the floor. “Pardon, Sheriff Dale?” The sheriff turned and looked up to George. “May I tune up the fiddle now so I will be ready when it is time?”
“Yes, but be quick and be quiet. You will start after supper.”
George turned and began to quietly tune. He was surprised to find the instrument perfect and ready to play. He felt an urge deep in his bones to break into an improvisation. The melody did not spring into George’s mind, it was simply there, fully formed and urging to get out. His fear of the sheriff was greater and he tugged the fiddle from under his chin. Behind him, the entire hall stopped in anticipation while he played the few notes needed to tune. A splattering of applause broke out for him merely playing the scale.
The food was served and consumed in hurried fashion as everyone was ready to dance. In thirty minutes the tables cleared, dishes washed, and packed away. Abigail told the sheriff they were ready to start the music. Sheriff Dale walked to the stage, George looked up and the sheriff nodded. “You best play good.”
George Booker filled his lungs with the humid East Texas air, tinged with the smell of black dirt and peach cobbler, and began to play the strange music swirling in his soul.
George played and everyone danced. Everyone. Not a soul stood or sat. Keren, the youngest, danced with her grandpa, the oldest at ninety-two. Her hair now clean of watermelon juice and seeds swirled and waved around her like her childish giggles as her grandpa spun her clockwise around the floor.
And George played.
He played for an hour, then two, then three. Never taking a break.
The eighty-three souls of Black Ankle danced and laughed without stopping. All paired up save the widow Nieder, who twirled and two-stepped all by her lonesome. It may have been the best three hours any town ever had.
Four. Five. Six hours passed with no break for fiddler or dancers. Keren’s grandpa was beyond tired, but his step was light and his eyes shone with joy.
Until they didn’t. Slowly he began to realize, like some of the other dancers, that it wasn’t so much that he wanted to dance as it was that he could not stop.
The sun came up and the sun went down. Still, they danced. Still, George played.
Blisters began to form on the dancers’ feet. George’s fingers split and dripped blood down his forearm.
And George played.
And the dancers danced.
All except Keren’s grandpa, who had a heart attack and died, mid-twirl of his little baby girl. Keren could not let go, her arm locked around her grandpa, she drug him around and around.
After a month of song and dance and death, the Wild Hive Dance Hall smelled of urine, feces, rotting flesh, rotting food and fear. Everyone older than sixty had died. Those that had paired with younger dancers, like Keren and her grandpa, were drug around the floor. The older deceased couples lay where the last one fell and were danced over and around.
And George played.
And the dancers danced.
After five years the coyotes lost their fear and would jump through the windows and feast on the newly dead. The forest vines began to encroach through the windows and doors. Blood, fresh and dried, smeared across the floor as the dancers’ feet became bloody stumps. Keren, now twelve, found it somewhat easier to carry her grandpa now that she was bigger and her grandpa now was bone.
It was winter solstice thirteen years after the dance begun when George exhaled his humid, peach cobbler smelling breath and died. Though his fingers had flayed well past their second knuckle, his jig was still lively and jaunty right to the last note.
Only Keren remained on the dance floor. She stopped dancing but kept moving. She did not know or remember how to stand still. The moonlight streamed through the windows. A new melody drifted in on the moonbeams and pricked her ears. It was softer music. Music not meant for dancing. Music meant for traveling.
Keren took a serpentine route to the door, avoiding the bodies and remnants of bodies on her way out. Puken Nøkken waited outside. He played until Keren stood right in front of him. He stopped playing. Put his fiddle in its case. Wrapped her naked body in a cloak and together they walked to the Sabine River.
Today you won’t find Black Ankle, Texas, on any map but late in the night you can hear the notes from George Booker’s fiddle still echoing through the moss-wrapped loblolly pine and sweetgum trees, deep in the Sabine Forest. The imprint of the music and manic laughter of eighty-two of the eighty-three souls of Black Ankle are as part of the weald as the humidity.
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