Published on Thursday, May 17, 2012
By Al Carty
People moved aside as the men swaggered by. They were freshly-scrubbed and wore clean clothes; their boots were newly blackened. The quiet voices that announced their arrival said, to one another, "Here's that Bozely bunch again," or, "that blamed Bozely outfit is here. Keep your ax-handle ready!" It was easier to use the farmer's name that employed them. Some of the individual names were known, but to speak them would be to acknowledge acquaintance.
Several blocks away Billy finished tacking a poster to a fence and moved up the alley toward the main street. He was a big man, but regarded by most of the citizens as a big boy. He wore overalls that were too small for him, and a cap that was too large. His oval face was molded in a constant smile, and his blue eyes glistened; he looked always as though something wonderful awaited him around the next corner.
Nothing wonderful awaited Billy. He had been orphaned early, and an elderly aunt cared for him until the day he ran across the main street with candy money for the grocer. The boy's thoughts were focused on the sweet morsels, and only looked in that direction. The driver of the stagecoach was giving his full attention to controlling the six horses in front of him. He was at the end of the street before he heard people shouting for him to stop.
For Billy there had been weeks of pain and more weeks and months of convalescence, and his physical recovery had been a remarkable thing. He eventually walked as straight as any other child in town. But the large bluish scars on his head were reminders to all who saw him that his size and strength would have to compensate for the mental capacity he would never achieve. The shock to his aunt brought on a stroke from which she would not recover. Now he was totally alone, and set even further apart from his peers. He had become the ward of the town and made his way by the hundred odd jobs and errands people gave him.
He continued along the alley with the posters under his arm, when he heard the raucous laughter. As he climbed the sidewalk the Bozely crew descended on him, slapping his back and poking his sides. Billy was a head taller than any of them. He smiled his foolish smile and his blue eyes sparkled as his good nature and innocence supplied entertainment for the farm-hands.
"Whatcha got, Billy?" said one, pulling the posters from him. "Well, it's a feller with a fiddle! Looky, Buster!"
Buster was the elder hand, and for him was reserved the right of final approval on all amusements.
"He's a real dude, ain't he? Look at them clothes! This here dude your pal, Billy?"
"Naw," said Billy, smiling down on him. "But I met him yesterday, and he shook my hand!" Billy was eminently proud of this recognition; someone had given him a handshake. " He's got a dog, too, and he let me pet him! He calls him..."
"What's the matter with this dude, Buster?" said the one with the posters. "Looks kinda cross-eyed!"
"He can't see nothin'," said Billy.
"Whatcha mean, Billy?"
"Sheriff said the fiddler's blind."
"Huh!" said Buster. "Well!" His eyes narrowed, and the corners of his mouth contracted in a smile. He scratched under his hairy chin and tried to put his arm around Billy's shoulders, but it was an awkward reach, so he punched the shoulder of one of his comrades. Billy kept a step away from the men, for the reek of whiskey was unpleasant to him.
"Say, boys," said Buster, "I bet we can have us some fun. When is this dude goin' to be here?"
"Tonight," said Billy. "Just tonight. Over to the church hall tonight at eight o'clock. He give me a ticket!"
"What we goin' to do, Buster?" cried the men.
"Let's ride 'im on a rail!" said one.
"Naw, let's throw 'im in with the hogs!"
Buster raised his hands to calm them. "Boys," he said, "slick back your hair and button your shirts. This here's goin' to be somethin' different! Tonight we're goin' to church! And what are they a'callin' it? A concert!"
That night the wind was warm, and the sky was a great black bowl of stars, seeming ready to spill the sparkles about the horizons. The pines on the hill above the town rustled as the breeze wafted the scent of their needles down the quiet streets. Billy breathed in the rich night air and looked at the stars while he stood at the door of the church. Buster had posted him at the door to turn away anyone who might come to the performance. His orders were to tell them that the fiddler was ill. Billy wondered at this, but would do as he was told, for he valued the attention the men paid him.
Sometimes the Bozely men had done mean things to him, but he had always forgiven them. After all, the children he had known were now men, and men only made him work. For Billy, friendship was a dear thing and for reasons he could not understand, friends were hard for him to find. A few old women and the parson of the church would speak to him, and the blind man with the fiddle.
The door behind him opened and closed, but no one came out, so Billy opened it and looked inside. On the slightly raised platform that served for a stage sat the fiddler, an old man, facing the front of the church. On the floor at his side lay a black dog of large breed. His head was large and misshapen. His snout was scarred and twisted slightly so a few large stained teeth showed. Occasionally the blunt tip of a red tongue flicked up to lick his muzzle.
Down one aisle clattered two of the men. When they reached the front row of seats they sat down noisily, took off their boots, got up, and tiptoed back to the rear of the hall. In the opposite aisle the other men repeated what they had done, first opening and closing the door, then shuffling and clomping down the aisle and, barefoot, tiptoeing back. They kept up their parade until Buster decided they had done the walking and sitting of a fair-sized audience. Then they sat down and applauded and stomped their feet. Billy closed the door and returned to his post.
The man on the stage sat facing them and did not move. Buster stood up and walked to the edge of the platform.
"O.K., mister, these folks are ready to listen to your fiddle, now!"
The old man sat in the gloom of the lamp-lighted hall and poised his bow. When he began to play, the hall filled with the strained, gutteral harmony of the strings. Music of this quality was foreign to this audience, but they listened for that reason, looking at the old man, their mouths open. The melody had begun on a dark, mellow theme and progressed through a series of lighter shades until it attained a tone of brightness, lingering in the passages, the racing notes weaving a fluttering, dancing webwork of sound. The fiddler stopped abruptly and laid the violin across his lap.
"That's all," he said. The men in the audience looked at each other, and Buster jumped to his feet.
"What do you mean, that's all? Git on to playin'!" The fiddler sat still and spoke quietly.
"That's all I'm doing for free. You go on out and tell my paying audience they can come in, now." While Buster stomped down to confront the old man, the black dog opened his eyes. They were big and brown and the whites were blood-shot. He raised his grotesque head and his big red tongue stuck out of his twisted snout.
"Listen, old man," shouted Buster, "I ain't talkin' to you no more! Just git that fiddle movin!" The other Bozely men moved from their seats toward the fiddler.
Outside, Billy was hoping the fiddler would play more. The few passages he had heard from the violin entranced him, and he had listened with his head leaning to the side. It was soothing and magical, and now he waited for more. But instead he heard chairs scraping on the floor and men shouting. There was a rumbling sound and the windows of the little church hall rattled and shook. He heard men trying to cry out, a choking scream, strange snuffling snorts, but the sounds were cut short.
The sheriff walked across the street to Billy, and other townspeople were beginning to gather.
"What happened, Billy?" said the sheriff.
"I don't know, Sheriff. They was music for a little while, and then some shoutin' and carryin' on but I ain't heard nothin' for a minute." The sheriff climbed the steps and entered the hall. Billy and a few townspeople followed him inside. The stench in the room made nostrils flare; it was a warm smell, warm and acrid, as the smell left after lightning strikes. Several people opened windows to clear the air. As they walked about they noticed spots on the floor, blood and bits of flesh and sprigs of hair. The old fiddler sat on his chair with the violin across his knees. The black dog's eyes were closed, but he worked his tongue across his paws and in between his toes. His distorted head moved in unison with his tongue, up and down.
"What happened in here, mister?" asked the sheriff. The old man looked toward the ceiling, shaking his head.
"Evil, sheriff. Evil was here in this room, but it's gone now." The man's attitude was that of total contentment, and satisfaction.
"Where are the Bozely's? They didn't come out the front door."
"Was that their name? Bozely?"
"They work for Bozely Ranch. Where did they go, mister?" The fiddler looked in the direction of the sheriff and spoke quietly.
"Goodness and Evil can't be in the same place together, Sheriff. Evil was here and then Goodness took over. Evil can be in a place, or Goodness can be in a place, but when both of 'em are together, then Evil just naturally has to go away. Goodness always wins, Sheriff. When Goodness has a chance, he always wins."
A deputy had come in and the sheriff had him check the back door and windows, but everything was closed securely. The people cleaning the floor and straightening the chairs had finished their chores. More townsfolk had entered the hall until it was nearly full. The sheriff spoke with the fiddler again.
"Mister, do you feel up to playing for these folks?" The old man smiled and began to tune the violin. He put the instrument under his chin while he plucked the strings.
"That's why we're here, Sheriff. We go where people need the peace and harmony that we provide." The sheriff looked closely at the man.
"We?" he asked. The fiddler smiled again, and nodded.
"Peace and harmony." People found their seats and began to settle in.
The sheriff left the hall and walked out into the warm night He lit his pipe and looked overhead into the deep and twinkling sky. Billy stood beside him and listened to the violin.
"Strange old man, Billy. Just him and his dog, going where people need peace and harmony." Billy smiled and looked at the sky.
"He's goin' to let me take his dog for a walk tomorrow. Clear down to the river."
"That's nice, Billy. Just you and the dog." Billy nodded.
"Yessir, Sheriff. Just me and Goodness." The lawman looked at Billy for a long time.
The warm scent of the mountains filled the night air. The town was settling for the night, and the sheriff made his rounds and checked the doors. From the furthest end of town he heard the melancholy note of a violin playing a worn and familiar melody. The music poured from the open windows and over the town and beyond, to the dark and sleeping prairie.
Al Carty writes from the high plains of New Mexico, and has had stories and poems published online and in print. In March, 2011 his first novel, a western, came out in paperback and as an ebook, published by Writers Amuse Me Publishing.