1887 Breaking the Bank: A Short Story

Written by: Pam Backlund  

Illustrated and read aloud at: https://youtu.be/hmrXO4n8z5k

Setting:  San Angelo Texas in 1887.

When in a hole, Buster usually thought of coffee. He’d been digging holes for a living and he always thought about the coffee he’d soon drink. While down under, he dug and dug, inhaling dirt as he went. 

Sometimes he’d come upon a huge boulder that quieted his progress. So he’d blast it to pieces with precision.  But mostly he used a pick, shovel and bucket to reckon with mother earth while he waited for another pot of black liquid Joe.

No doubt, Buster loved coffee.

He’d had been raised on substitute coffee made from roasted-dandelion-root.  Upon leaving his childhood home, he found out about real coffee beans and would never go back to the root tea. 

He might be a simple earth mover; however his buying real coffee beans wouldn’t break the bank. 

By trade, Buster dug wells and anything else underground.

He was now excavating a basement below Miss Mollie’s Saloon.  Miss Mollie was adamant about having a “storm cellar” as she was sick with worry. 

You see, San Angelo (her home) was just recovering from a tornado that stripped the cupola off the courthouse and created havoc throughout the town of several thousand.

So there was Buster beneath the saloon, with a bucket needing to be raised.

“Hurry up,” shouted Buster to his partner Gus (who was on the first floor receiving the bucketed rubble.)

“I’m working as fast as I can!” Gus replied.  Buster was so revved up on coffee that Gus couldn’t move quickly enough. 

Patience was a virtue that really neither man embraced. 

They both had their own agendas. 

“You two quit fussing; it’s almost time to open the saloon.”  Miss Mollie yelled from the kitchen.

She’d been making a fourth pot of coffee as the commotion and dust came visiting.  She’d just about had it with the invasion of the two working men at her place.  The inconvenience of the digging however would be worth it in the end she knew.

“Gentlemen, come here and get some coffee.  That’s enough clamor for the day,” she said.

She then asked her daily question.  “Are y’all almost done with the basement?”

The men scowled as this woman was unrealistic about their speed.  She only wanted them to dig from 7am to 2pm.  Ha, about the time they were making progress, she desired them to quit for the day.  They drank their coffee and left.

And so it was, Buster and Gus would shift from their basement job at Miss Mollie’s to their other job next door at a bank-yet-to be.  

Though they liked looking at the pretty waitresses at their ‘Miss Mollie job’, they enjoyed the fresh air at their basement bank job better. 

You see:  the “Security Bank” had land next to Miss Mollies and decided to have a basement, as well.  But the bank hadn’t been built yet. So it was so much easier to hollow out a hole in the ground there than Miss Mollie’s basement hole.

Buster reflected on Miss Mollie while drilling into rock at the bank’s basement.  If he didn’t know better, Miss Mollie might have a little crush on him.  And for most men that would be such a compliment as Miss Mollie could have any man in town that she wanted. 

But Buster had sworn off women because of a hard breakup three years prior.  He’d not been with a woman for that time, and he wasn’t going to start now.

Miss Mollie was a beautiful woman…always dressed in red.  Many men visited the saloon for social reasons.  Buster was not one of them.

“I’m more comfortable at the General Store drinking coffee.” Buster told Gus once.

“I’m saving my money so I don’t have to dig holes anymore.  I want to be a freighter…out in the open air with mules and a wagon.”

Gus remarked, “But you don’t have mules and a wagon.”

Buster replied, “I will when I finish these two basements!  Shortly I’ll have enough to buy all that I need for my new occupation.  Soon I won’t be digging root cellars and dugout homes anymore.  Just wait and see, Gus.”

Well that was how it would be.  Buster had been frugal with his money for years and was about to see the rewards of being so economical.  But it should be mentioned that Buster could be unreasonably stingy.

Here is an example of the extent Buster would go to save money for his dream.  One day, he noticed that his coffee grinder wasn’t working because the bolt’s nut had loosened and gotten lost. 

You would think he could just go to the General Store and get another nut for the grinder.  Or maybe he could just buy a new grinder…seeing as they do eventually wear out.  But this is what Buster did instead.

When Miss Mollie wasn’t in the kitchen one morning, he took her coffee grinder and quickly brought it to his shack.  In his mind, he thought he had borrowed temporarily.  Now, why would he do that? 

He was making about $40 per month with expenses of $10 per month.  So he was saving $30 per month for the wagon and mules.  You’d think he could spare a couple of dollars for a new grinder; since coffee was a big staple of his diet!

Well when Miss Mollie realized that her grinder was gone, she first accused anyone in hearing distance.  When no one fessed up, Miss Mollie reported the theft to the local newspaper…the San Angelo Standard Times. Without success in getting it back, she then went to the store and bought another one.

Buster on the other hand had two grinders…one working and the other missing its bolt’s nut.  He planned to return her grinder when he found the lost nut.

Buster made his delicious coffee with Miss Mollie’s grinder and no one was the wiser (not even Gus).  Because if you have a secret, it is only a stays a secret if you tell absolutely no one. 

Well, the two basements were progressing…the bank’s was actually finished before Miss Mollie’s because of the ease of its construction.  At that point the bank’s building was going up quite nicely when Miss Mollie’s basement hit a snag. 

Well it wasn’t a snag as much as a big conglomerate boulder.  (There were several on River Avenue where the two establishments existed.)  They say that when you’re overconfident and rushed, you have an accident. 

And that’s exactly what happened to Buster.

Buster was just days from finishing the basement.  Therefore he was days from beginning his dream job. He’d already had his eyes on buying mules and a wagon from the nearby livery stable. 

So when Buster went to the store to get gunpowder and cannon fuse for the blowout, you could say that he kind of over did it. He’d had 8 cups of coffee that morning and wasn’t up to making serious decisions.  He used poor judgment in the amount of gunpowder he would use on the boulder.

The boom was louder than any that had been heard in the prior months.  The cracking went all the way through the very large boulder.  Buildings trembled as if there’d been an earthquake.  People on the street scrambled to their homes.

Well to make a long story short, the fragmented boulder was gradually removed by Gus.  And eventually, Miss Mollie realized that they should keep digging in the direction of the vacated boulder.  Why?

Because doing so would make a tunnel that would connect the bank basement to her basement.  She talked to a bigwig of the bank, and they settled on having a tunnel between the buildings. 

Bank customers could use the tunnel to inconspicuously enter Miss Mollie’s was the idea.  Only some gentlemen were in the know about the tunnel, and most of the townspeople never realized it was there.

Now why didn’t Buster dig the tunnel?

Because he left town with his pay and belongings.  He’d been embarrassed that he’d stolen the grinder and had frightened the town.  Buster bought mules and a wagon in Ballinger and became a freighter. 

But he also did something important before he left.

You see, the explosion shook Buster’s shack a few blocks away.  When he went home after the distressing shockwave, there in plain sight was the missing nut.   So Buster fixed his coffee grinder and anonymously returned Miss Mollie’s to her kitchen.

Miss Mollie was surprised to see it when she came downstairs that morning.

And guess what!  Later, with Buster gone, Miss Mollie and Gus fell in love. 

Gus worked at the bank next door and Miss Mollie’s Saloon business thrived so well, she could easily afford fifty coffee grinders. 

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