The story is read aloud at: https://youtu.be/_vvMqOsQP6w
Synopsis: Fate brings diverse people together on an ironic night.
“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 1870s. 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-drawn 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 near-extinct 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 of the time.
Aaron’s opinion of where an ensuing pile could be found 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 and talking-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. 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 the more traditional women of Fort Concho and the nearby town of Ben Ficklin. But that didn’t seem to matter much to the men who sought their company.
Customers 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. He was raunchy sometimes.
The bar was one of the few interracial 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.
It was early afternoon at the pub, and Magdalene was wiping down the tables. Julie was fidgeting, as she anticipated beer being delivered from 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 that week’s order. 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 the next morning, he exaggerated the hangover he felt. As usual when he imbibed too much whiskey, he regretted 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 the coffee and was about to go looking for more cow chips to fuel the fire, for frying 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. Conrad meeting someone of his same mindset would be rare.
“You know I’m right! A frontier woman—like the ones that show up in our dime novels—she would be a great asset to our 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 since Conrad held center stage. Conrad, at the rate he was going, would have a sunburned tongue by the time they got to San Angela on Saturday. Talk is cheap.
After breakfast, they went back to work. At one pile of sun-bleached bones, a huge eight inch wasp nest, resided. Aaron got stung a few times but didn’t make a big deal of it. Conrad got stung once and regressed to being a crybaby 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.
While they were near each other at the wagon, inevitably discussions would center on the weather. It was a hot July in West Texas. In the late afternoon, storms arose with little warning. They didn’t have a tent. They 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 in the rough, like we do.”
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 filled their wagons to the brim. Therefore, they had some time to be alone while in transit—each on one of the wagons.
Conrad was thinking about getting the six dollars per ton of bones in Abilene.
Aaron was thinking about getting a wife. But he thought it better that she stay in San Angela, nice and safe whilst he and Conrad traveled. He dared 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,” she said to Miss Prissy.
“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,” Julie replied. Suddenly she shouted, “Oh my goodness, my left shoe has dog poo on it! I thought I smelled something! Blisters and dog dung—this is going to be a rotten day.”
Julie continued bellyaching about all kinds of drama. She mentioned that Fort Concho officers’ wives had it in for her because they were 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, and then continued, with a whimper in her voice, “But I want to be friends with them.”
Just then a smelly man, whose only exercise was hiccupping, walked into the pub and ordered a drink. Miss Prissy obliged, then left the bar to check on the stew. Magdalene was still sweeping and mopping. The man then stood near Julie and read over her shoulder.
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 top-shelf whiskey!
He hightailed out the door and was on his way down Concho Avenue, where Conrad and Aaron were coming out of a 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, which was like icing on the cake, for a Saturday.
Conrad and Aaron were excited about the boxing match, too. 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. Aaron treasured his 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 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 began 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 coyotes. The people clawed their way to a better view—some stood on tiptoe.
The fight was in the third round when Joe landed multiple jabs, and Jack countered with a strong right cross. Joe was down for the count. The crowd roared. Joe was as still as a tombstone. The referee was counting… eight, nine… when Joe kicked-up and was back on his feet. Half the onlookers were delighted; the other half groaned.
Just at that moment, a shrill shriek pierced the air, and the spectators changed their priorities—smoke was pouring from a nearby barn. 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 equipment inside. Conrad had flipped a coin and was fated to join the bucket brigade near the source of the fire. Miss Prissy 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. Through diligence, they had the fire out relatively fast.
When the flames were extinguished, and everyone was safe, the town wondered if they should resume the boxing match. Both Joe and Jack had been in the bucket brigade, working as best friends. They were tired—depleted of adrenaline.
There would be no bare-knuckle champ that night because of the fire.
So the bookies returned the bets, and everyone celebrated having saved the barn. They shared fellowship instead of a match.
Later, Conrad and Aaron were sitting at a table with beers in hand. Conrad was smiling big—he had fallen in love with both Julie and Magdalene.
He then flipped a coin to reveal who he should pursue. When it landed, Conrad said, “This doesn’t look good.”
Conrad then did something else he had never done before—he tossed the coin two more times.