1881 The Match: A Short Story

Written by Pam Backlund

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Audio of story here.

July 1881

Fate brings people together at a San Angela sporting event.

“Heads, you cook supper.  Tails, I cook.  Happy the day will be when I have a wife to cook for us.” said Conrad as he threw a nickel in the air.  Aaron, Conrad’s brother rolled his eyes.

The two were gathering bison bones in Tom Green County, Texas.  The buffalo had laid there to rest since their massacre in the 1870’s.  The prairie was dotted with the white remains that provided income for Conrad and Aaron.

They were bone collectors who loaded the relics into their ox-driven wagons. Eventually they made their way to the new town of Abilene, Texas.  From there the bones traveled by train to factories and were converted to fertilizer, buttons, handles and china.

With one flip of the nickel, the cook was determined.  Conrad NEVER did ‘best two out of three.’

“I’ll cook us that rattlesnake we came upon this morning.  But now, I’m going to scout out a new area of buffalo ghosts,” said Aaron.

Conrad took a swig of his whiskey with the complacency of a “just fed” homeless cat.  His own welfare and income were far more important than Aaron’s eerie feelings about the dying breed.

Conrad was the one who acquired the wagons for the business, but it was ironically Aaron who did most of the grunt work.  Sometimes Conrad worked very hard.  Sometimes, not so much…

But they had both worked solidly that day, accumulating four and a half tons.  Occasionally the bones were so abundant in one spot that they wouldn’t have to move the wagon while gathering  half a ton. 

Other times, of course, one of them would scout an area of decade-old-kills and venture back to the grazing oxen with word of where to move next.  Conrad always chose the next direction in which to go, with the flip of a coin which proved useful half the time.

Aaron’s opinion of where an ensuing pile could be found though was based on studying the landscape and ‘thinking like a mob of scared bison’. 

Needless to say, many times the partners didn’t agree on how to run their business.

Meanwhile, in San Angela, two young barmaids were readying for another day of selling drinks, talking and singing to men.  They were at a pub located on the east edge of Veck Avenue. 

The pretty sisters (Julie and Magdalene) were NOT ladies of the evening.  In San Angela, those establishments could be found on Concho Avenue, not Veck Avenue.  Their pub was managed by Miss Prissy who had an hourglass figure where the sand stretched out at the bottom.  All three ladies were looked down upon by more traditional women of Fort Concho and Ben Ficklin, but that didn’t seem to matter much to the men who sought their company. 

Those men were required to treat the women nicely; mistreatment could result in being banned from the pub, ostracized from the community, or even killed.  Conrad was on the verge of being banned from the pub for being raunchy sometimes.  It was a homey kind of pub.

The bar was actually one of the few inter-racial institutions in town.  It catered to the Black soldiers of Fort Concho across the river, to Hispanic freighters and to Anglos.  It was a place to get news, a meal, and debate the latest ideas.  It embraced the buying and selling of goods, borrowing and lending, as well as games of a wide variety, including cards and dice.  And the drinking helped create a feeling of belonging to the frontier town.

At the pub, it was early afternoon and Magdalene was wiping down the tables. Julie was fidgeting as she anticipated beer being delivered from the nearby town of Ben Ficklin.  She was to oversee the unloading of eight kegs.  The brewery charged the pub $3.50 for each keg and then the pub charged ten cents per mug.  Julie was beside herself waiting for the order for that week.  She read her dime novel, off and on.  She wasn’t much of a multitasker.

“I hate this job.  I wish I could find a good man to take me away from here,” shouted Julie to anyone in hearing distance.  A lot of good beer-drinking men patronized the pub, including Aaron, but none of them met her high standards.  Julie could be rather theatrical.

When Conrad woke up the next morning, he exaggerated the hangover he felt.  As usual when he imbibed in too much whiskey, he’d regret it the next morning.   He flipped his nickel to determine if he was to drink coffee or whiskey.  The flip chose coffee.

Aaron had made coffee and was about to go looking for more cow chips to fuel the fire for bacon.

“This has got to be the worst coffee you’ve ever made,” commented Conrad as he winced at the bitterness.  “But within a month, we’ll have a woman with us to keep my taste buds and stomach satisfied.”

Aaron doubted that.  His meeting someone with the same mindset would be rare.

“You know I’m right!  A frontier woman like the ones that show up in our dime novels, would be a great asset to the team,” barked Conrad.

Aaron remarked, “I think the dime novels are exaggerated, Conrad.”

Conrad shouted, “Well we need a woman and that’s that.”

The men continued to talk about politics, religion and how to save the world.  Aaron was mostly a listener as Conrad held center stage.  At the rate he was going, Conrad would have a sunburned tongue by the time they got to San Angela on Saturday. 

After breakfast, they went back to work.  At one pile of sun-bleached bones that morning was an eight inch diameter wasp nest.  Aaron got stung a few times but didn’t make a big deal about it.  Conrad got stung once and regressed to being a baby for half the day.

Walk, pick up, walk, load, walk, pickup, walk load. They needed eight tons per wagon for the trip to Abilene. Time carried on without their enthusiasm.

Inevitably discussions would center on the weather while they were near each other at the wagon.  It was a hot July in West Texas.  In the late afternoon, storms arose with little warning. They didn’t have a tent.  They just slept under their two wagons or out amongst the stars at night. They took cover under their slickers if it rained during the day.  The bone business had begun to boom and they were competitive.  They worked rain or shine…at least Aaron did!

“You know,” said Conrad, “If I get married soon, I’ll probably have to buy a tent or a covered wagon for her.  Chances are she won’t want to sleep like we do, you know?”

Aaron replied, “You don’t even have a girlfriend and you’re wondering about that?”

Conrad said, “I don’t have a girlfriend because I’m debating about whether to get a ‘good girl’ or a ‘bad girl’.  ‘Bad girls’ aren’t good, but ‘good girls’ aren’t much fun.  I might toss my coin on that dilemma later.”

As they made their way to San Angela, they had filled their wagons to the brim. Therefore, they had some time to be alone, each on one of the wagons in transit. 

Conrad was thinking about getting the $6 per ton of bones in Abilene.

Aaron was thinking about getting a wife, but thought it better that she stay in San Angela…nice and safe whilst he and Conrad traveled.  He dare not mention any of this to his brother as Conrad was very opinionated and domineering.

At the pub, Miss Prissy had arranged a civilized boxing match for Saturday night.  Even though she was older than God knows, she still knew how to run a bar.

It was the morning of the event and there was much to be done by Miss Prissy, Julie and Magdalene.  Spittoons had to be dumped and cleaned.  A thick stew needed to be prepared and glassware required washing and drying.

Magdalene had an allergy-spawned headache, but still managed to pull her weight with the chores. Julie on the other hand was reading her dime novel and complaining.

“My new shoes have given me six big blisters.  I don’t think I can work tonight,” said Julie.

“Maybe you can tend the bar tonight.  That way you won’t have to do so much walking,” replied Miss Prissy.  “Remember to serve diluted tea to Magdalene and me if the gentlemen order us a whiskey.  The ‘tea’ glass should be in my left hand so I don’t get confused.  But be sure to charge the guy for whiskey, though.”

“Yes ma’am,” hailed Julie.  Suddenly she shouted, “Oh my goodness, my left shoe has dog poo on it!  I thought I smelled something!  Blisters and dog poo…this is going to be a rotten day.”

Julie continued belly-aching about all kinds of drama.  She mentioned that Fort Concho officer’s wives had it in for her because they are ‘spider-web-fragile’ and had as many ‘snotty attitudes’ as fish have bones.

“Did you hear what I said?” yelled Julie to Magdalene.

“If you must know, I’m ignoring you because I have a headache,” retorted Magdalene.

“Maybe you have a headache because your halo is on too tight,” snapped Julie.  “You just don’t get it, I’m trying to get an unmarried officer to court me, but the wives of the married officers think I’m dirt.  They sully me with their high and mighty gossip.  They whitewash themselves by blackening me,” she continued.  “I hate them!”  She paused, then continued, “But I want to be friends with them,” she cried with a whimper in her voice.

Just then a smelly man, whose only exercise was hiccupping, walked into the pub and ordered a drink.  Miss Prissy obliged.  Then the man stood near Julie and read over her shoulder.  Miss Prissy left the bar to check on the stew.  Magdalene was still sweeping and mopping.

Julie was annoyed, to say the least.

“Are you girls good or bad?” asked the stranger.

“If you want to bed someone, you are in the wrong place,” answered the girls simultaneously.  They’d repeated that line hundreds of times.

“Oh, so you claim to be good girls, eh?  Good girls are just bad girls who haven’t been caught yet,” he countered.

He slurped down the drink, put the glass on the bar and then in a blaze, went behind the bar and grabbed a full flask.  The pub was being robbed of some top shelf whiskey!

He hightailed out the door and was on his way down Concho Avenue where and when coincidentally, Conrad and Aaron were coming out of the general store. 

Hastily, Conrad flipped his nickel to see who of the two was going to chase and tackle the obvious thief.  The loser of the toss took that bad boy down and returned the flask to Miss Prissy who’d been involved (belatedly) in the pursuit herself. 

After gawking, the rubberneckers of the town resumed their readying for another week on the frontier.  There was a boxing match that night. The challenge was like icing on the cake, for a Saturday.

Conrad and Aaron both were excited about the boxing match.  They’d already found a spot near the makeshift boxing ring made of four chairs and rope.  The fight arena was outside by a lone mesquite tree next to the pub.  Miss Prissy moved everything outside because she expected a bigger crowd than her small pub could accommodate.

Conrad was enjoying a whiskey on his straight undiluted road to ruin, while Aaron treasured the beer from Mr. Wolter’s Ben Ficklin brewery.  Aaron hadn’t had a beer since the last time he’d visited a pub.  He couldn’t just take a keg with him on his bone wagon!

Conrad eyed both Magdalene and Miss Prissy who were waiting on, and singing to the gathered customers.  “Both of those waitresses look stout enough to be bone picker wives,” he said to Aaron.

Aaron wasn’t paying attention to Conrad, as the fight was about to begin.  Instantly bookies materialized out of nowhere and were taking bets.

Joe and his nemesis Jack were the two fighters.  The spoon clanged on the pot and the round began.  The contenders danced and punched with the anger of untamed coyotes.  The people clawed their way to a better view.  Some stood on tip toes.  “Who would go down and when?” they thought. 

The fight was in the third round when Joe hit multiple jabs, and Jack countered with a strong right cross.  Joe was down for the count.  The crowd roared. Joe was as un-moving as a tombstone.  The ref was counting…eight, nine…when Joe did a kick up move and was back on his feet.  Half the onlookers were delighted.  The other half groaned.

Just at that exact time a shrilling shriek from a smoking, nearby barn–pierced the air and made the spectators change their priorities.  In a town of closely built, wooden structures, no one could ignore a fire. 

Every capable person attempted to save the barn and San Angela.  Aaron chose to help release the animals and save the inside equipment.  Conrad flipped a coin and was fated to join the bucket brigade near the source of the fire.  Miss Prissy had stayed at the pub to protect the beverages from looters.

Amazingly, Julie, and not so amazingly, Magdalene, were in the brigade.  One was in front of Conrad and the other was behind him.  The buckets of water were quickly passed from person to person in a chain of human concern.  But through diligence they had the fire out relatively fast. 

When the flames were extinguished and everyone was safe, the question of “Should the boxing match resume?” came about.  Well both Joe and Jack had been in the bucket brigade, working as if best friends.  They were tired; as their adrenalin had been depleted.  There would be no bare knuckle champ that night, because of the fire. 

So the bookies returned the bets. Then everyone celebrated the saved barn and shared fellowship…instead of a match.

Conrad and Aaron were sitting at a table, both with beers in hand.  Conrad was smiling big.  He had fallen in love with both Julie and Magdalene.

So he flipped a coin to reveal who he should pursue.  When it landed…for the first time in his life…he said, “I’m going to flip for the best two out of three.” 

Aaron laughed.

Then Conrad did something he had never done before.  He tossed the coin two more time.

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