. . . They quieted again, as if Silas were playing a song for them, not just plucking forlorn, all but matching pairs of notes. To them he would appear to still be tuning his instrument. He turned the pegs so little now that he might not be moving them at all, only directing turn-filled thought to each peg as he touched it. Silas attended to the droning notes but heard behind them the cowboys of his mind, the crowd out there in Midnight Rodeo. It was a rich, swelling audience noise. A collection of human voices contained all frequencies; but it was altogether too smooth for Silas to think of it as noise, exactly. At times a voice rose above others. It was always a shout or a weirdly deliberate laugh, a “haw, haw” or some similar utterance, pronounced clearly. He heard the drawl of the laugh and it further convinced him that the cowboys would pursue him forever. “Easy crowd. Drunk as always I bet,” Chuck said. He was stoned: Silas heard it in the flat nasality of his voice.
The man who had handed them their hats reentered the room. “Go,” he said.
Only as they walked out did Silas realize what a stupid name he had chosen for the piece. They stood smiling under the stage lighting, and a wave of applause rose and subsided. He could only see the front row clearly, and it did contain at least three cowboys. He couldn’t see if any had goatees. Hatfield began to play. His number would be the third, which meant two song beginnings from now. Spring would step away from the microphone. He would take her place and sing “Ride That Horse to the Sea.”
Trouble began toward the end of the first song. Not only did Donna begin to play a touch too loudly; she played faster as well, which forced him to pick up speed. He did not know if Chuck or Spring noticed, or even Donna herself. He might be the only one who realized they were playing the songs at a tempo other than the one they had agreed on. Besides adding to his anxiety, this angered Silas. They gave each song a particular tempo for good reasons.
It was time for him to take over singing. A great distance lay between him and the band with its mandolin, drums, and bass. Spring moved to the side, relinquishing the brightest of the light, leaving that burning circle open to Silas. She had always claimed Midnight Rodeo’s stage lighting was hotter, more intense, than the lights of the other bars and band halls.
Hazy air intervened between Spring and Silas. She gave an achingly sweet grin to the audience, then looked to her mandolin. Spring was denying him, studying her fingers and frets. It was denial whether she meant it that way or not. Yet, she wore the purple dress tonight, his favorite on her. Only in this becalmed moment did Silas realize she had worn it just for him, for the milestone occurring this very moment of his life. She was waiting for his cue. Awareness tumbled over him that the whole hall was waiting for his next motion.
He nodded back to Chuck. Chuck tapped his sticks against each other and began rolling out the beat. When the right tap arrived, Silas began, falling in with Chuck without thinking, and the girls were there too, making perfect time. The guitar felt as right as it ever did, as close to in-tune as could be; ever on the verge of creeping out of its tight, important pattern; the thing with the ghostly divisions, the little separations that no one else could feel at all.
The only horse he had ever ridden was named Gypsy, a fact he had loved at the time. Singing was an impossibility: Silas saw himself working his lips like mad with no music coming out. He prayed that tonight would not be the worst thing he did in his entire life.
He was at least playing well, but despite this he came to feel that he’d lost control over his hands. It was not because of any nudging by Donna this time that he increased the tempo. Something vertiginous happened in his brain and in the band hall, and the guitar intro rushed from him in a numb chaos.
After the intro, he repeated a bar, even played it a third time without singing. His hands kept moving but his vocal cords were paralyzed, so he played another repetition of what he had just played. Someone toward the back of the hall laughed. The band repeated chords with him. They grew angrier as they waited for his words.
In the weeks leading up to his first performance as frontman, Silas had practiced the new song tirelessly, experimenting with countless variations on the main melody and structure. Now that was the sound that fell from his fingers and frets, his magnetic strings. He could not pry language from his chest. The eyes of Donna, Chuck, and Spring were on his back.
Chuck did a frilly run on the high hat, then doubled up on the snare for a bar. Silas turned to glare, angered by this flourish for perfectly solid reasons that were too deep for him to understand about himself. Chuck’s head bounced in time as it ever did during their gigs, his dreadlocks swaying and jerking, his mouth forming its customary muted vowels. The drumming calmed, receding into the weave of their music, and thus Silas's fury went unnoticed.
Spring was strumming frantically, following Silas's variations and runs, his thoughtless improvisations. Her anger was not in her expression, exactly. It might have been in her eyes: rage burning there like old poetry might say “rage in her eyes.” She hung on desperately, Silas could see. She got the overall idea, which was to repeat the same chords, just fancy and different. But she could not know where to go next, or how to slow down. Silas had left her stranded. He had stranded himself. . . .