This story is read aloud at: https://youtu.be/bwCTypC3pVA
Synopsis: Sometimes a fresh start is coveted by lovesick baseball players.
“Guard the plate!” someone from the group of onlookers shouted.
Only moments before, Erwin—on third base—suspected that the next hit would be a bunt to first. It was the top of the ninth inning, two outs, full count on the batter, and Erwin’s run would mean a lot. No pressure to be a fast runner, for which Erwin had flair. Whether feeling pressured all of the time or running reckless some of the time, Erwin had talent for both.
Erwin was like many males in West Texas—young, thin, and eager. He actually lived near Coleman at an open coal-deposit mine. By train he got to San Angelo the previous day with his Brownwood baseball buddies. Most of his teammates were going back to Brownwood the next day, but Erwin wanted to stay in town for another day to visit his sister, Maggie. Erwin surprised Maggie when he took up mining for income. She was amazed when he started playing baseball for leisure. He’d been as haphazard as the wind for most of his life.
That’s because he was just an indecisive kind of guy. He and his sister had been orphaned in Minnesota in 1865 and, willy-nilly, had become part of a growing Texas. They’d been raised by their grandma in Austin, Texas. Both in their 20s now, they’d aged quickly when grandma died. That’s about the time that Erwin began shifting from job to job and starting to play baseball. Day to day, Erwin said to himself, I just want a fresh start.
But back to the present game, he was determined to break the tie for his team, especially since Claud was such a jerk.
Claud had beaned him on his second pitch for a walk. Claud was an aggressive pitcher, and it seemed like he had it in for Home-Run Erwin. But Erwin was prone to taking things personally. He’d made it to third base, and, by golly, he was gonna keep going even if he had to steal home plate.
“That was a perfect bunt!” said someone in the crowd at the crack of a bat.
So from third, he found the catcher blocking the plate. Erwin plowed into Pete and was the hero until the next batter punched a home run. Then, as hoped for, the Brownwood pitcher struck out the San Angeloans three times. The Brownwood guys won the game, and Erwin was especially happy to sneer at Claud and Pete. Many of the guys went to the nearby saloon to celebrate, but not Erwin.
After the game, Erwin went to Maggie’s hut for supper. She’d been widowed a year and was supporting her two kids by being a seamstress. She was nice most of the time, except when she scolded Erwin for being wishy-washy. He sent her most of his paycheck since his brother-in-law’s passing. Why wasn’t she appreciative? he thought.
Being at her home was really about chopping wood and making repairs. The children bothered him, since his patience was as sparse as a bird’s brain. Was I this bad when I was little? he wondered.
If he’d been a better man, he would have stayed at Maggie’s longer. But the incessant crying and yelling lured him to the train earlier than originally planned. As he walked down Chadbourne to the train station, he considered how he and Maggie had roughed it—yet had also been pampered by their grandma. She taught them to read and work hard. The working hard part had not planted in Erwin, though. He had been quite shiftless—until the mining job surfaced.
What kept him at the coal mines was the secure pay. Many people were changing from wood-burning to coal-burning in their houses—so coal was becoming very popular. Since Maggie was a widow, he had an incentive to stick with one good job. The coal-loading job was alright, but his boss was tip-top. The foreman understood how important baseball was to him and let him go into Brownwood occasionally for practices and games. His boss even encouraged Erwin to go to San Angelo to play, since he knew of Maggie’s husband’s demise.
Getting closer to the train station, he had a nagging thought. He’d given Maggie his last coin and was in a quandary as to how he would pay for his train ticket. I’ll just sneak into an empty cattle car, he thought, as he passed a hat shop.
“Say, are you going to the train station?” the owner of the store asked. She was holding a sizeable crate at her doorway.
“Yea, I’m on my way to Coleman County,” Erwin replied. “What do you need?”
“This package needs to go to Ballinger, and I’m busy to where I can’t walk it over to the train myself. I thought if you were going, being all strong and everything, that you could do it.”
Erwin noticed that she was pretty and possibly single. “Sure I can. Do you think I’m honest?”
She blushed, “I don’t know what a man would do with these lady’s hats—unless you plan to sell them yourself—but yes, I trust you.”
They made their introductions, and she gave him the box and its fare. Waving with gratitude, she then returned to her shop, where three customers were waiting.
Erwin carried the box. It would have been so much easier if he’d had a horse and wagon. Oh well, it’s just two more blocks. And by walking, he’d had the chance to meet a possibly eligible female.
I might be coming to San Angelo more often if she’s available, he thought to himself, as he neared the train.. He noticed the engineer was finishing his coffee as coal and water were being loaded. He’d never contributed a parcel to the freight part of the train. But without too much difficulty he secured his future girlfriend’s package for Ballinger. And then he found himself sorely tempted to sneak into the freight car—where the hats had gone—for a free ride.
But someone interrupted his thought.
“Hey, you! I’ve seen you at the coal mine. What are you doing in Angelo?” asked the man tending the firebox.
“I play baseball for the Brownwood team,” he answered.
“Are you going back today? I’m thinking you are just the man I need for a favor,” replied the fire keeper.
Erwin asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well, you’ve seen the new safety bicycles around, right? I have a crate in the freight car with an unassembled one. I need you to shovel coal into the firebox in my stead, so I can put the bike together for my ride home within Brownwood.”
Erwin replied, “How about I construct your bike for you instead? I shovel coal all day at my job. I’d rather not do it now!”
But the guy wouldn’t let up. “Look, I shovel about forty pounds per mile, and Ballinger is only thirty-six miles away. Just think of the baseball workout you would get! You do it, and I put together the bike. My engineer says it’s OK.”
“Look, I need a ride to Coleman County, but I just don’t want to do any shoveling. I can put that bike into shape for you, though.”
So it was decided that Erwin would get the bicycle done. He hopped into the boxcar with a few tools that the fireman had given him.
In that freight car, who do you think might have been sitting there but Claud and Pete?
“What are you guys doing here?” asked Erwin.
“We’re tired of mucking out the horse droppings at the stables in Angelo, so we’re leaving to look for other work,” barked Claud. “What are the odds of us sharing a boxcar, huh?”
Erwin saw the open crate with the bike parts and sighed. Now, not only would he have to figure out how to assemble it, but apparently, he would have an audience of jerks, while he was at it.
“Why aren’t y’all in the passenger car?” Erwin asked.
“Filled up, so we got a discount to travel in here. You must have gotten the discount, too,” said Pete.
“Yep, in a manner of speaking,” was Erwin’s reply.
The train began to inch its way to Miles, Rowena, and Ballinger, while Erwin explained his deal with the fireman and the bike. It was awkward using train tools too large for the intricate bolts. The vibrations didn’t help either. For a while, Pete held the bike steady, while Erwin examined the picture’s details. It turned out that Erwin and Pete shared a commonality. Both were catchers most of the time, so they talked while Erwin worked. They weren’t enemies as he’d felt during yesterday’s game.
“Fort Concho is an interesting place,” remarked Erwin.
“Yea. We like playing there because it’s not as dusty as some of the other places in town,” explained Pete. “We are getting to be a better team than we were in April. Gosh, we were horrible in the spring. All along, though, Claud is our greatest asset!”
“Well, practice a lot and play tough opponents, and y’all will get better and better,” said Erwin.
Later during the trip to Coleman County, Claud was snoozing while he leaned against a crate. His violin was by his side. You’d never have thought, from his peaceful sleep posture, that he was the one who had beaned Erwin the day before. Erwin’s left arm was still bruised and throbbing from that incident. And he hadn’t forgiven him of the bad pitch, either. Had he been thrown a good ball, he’d no doubt have hit a home run. But there Claud was, hat over eyes, snoring.
After a big bump in the track, the violin went sliding toward the open door. When Erwin grabbed it, he nearly dropped it as he heard the familiar rattlesnake caution noise.
“What the heck?” exclaimed Erwin.
“What are you doing with my fiddle?” asked the now-awake Claud.
Pete replied, “He just saved your fiddle for you, you fool. It had almost shattered into the ground!”
“Is there a rattlesnake in there? Heavens, I nearly wet my pants grabbing that,” said Erwin, as he quickly handed it to Claud.
“It’s just the rattle from a snake I killed in Irion County last May. You know what they say, it’s a good luck charm to keep other rattlers away,” he replied as he handled the fiddle.
Claud then continued to talk about ranching, politics, and women for the rest of the journey.
There was an unusual silence briefly while the train was slowing down in Ballinger. Erwin was on his knees, looking for the last nut to go on the bike. Nowhere to be seen, it had gone into the corner of the car during the bump. Unbeknownst to the three guys, the nut was directly next to a poisonous spider, which had hitched a ride with a crate.
“I am so frustrated because I know that nut is somewhere in this boxcar. I counted all of them before I got started, so it’s either still in here amongst these crates, or it fell through the door when I was catching the fiddle,” lamented Erwin.
“We’ll help look for it,” said Pete. And he lightly punched Claud in the shoulder. All three men were on hands and knees, moving crates around. Finally Claud saw the silver nut, but he also saw a spider the size of a large button. He wasn’t scared of rattlesnakes, but a spider sent him into panic. He moved away so quickly that he almost pushed the other guys out of the open door. The train hadn’t stopped yet, so everyone was a bit flustered and confused.
“I can’t be in the same car as that spider,” he said, as he pointed to the spider and the nut. He jumped out of the slowing train nearing the depot.
With laughing eyes, Pete stepped on the spider and retrieved the nut. Erwin finished the bike. The rest of the journey turned out to be easy. For that leg of the trip it was Pete, Erwin, and the fireman in the freight car.
Claud had talked the fireman into shoveling coal, since he was certain that the boxcar held the entire family of the brown recluse spiders.
As the train neared the mining camp, Erwin jumped off and walked a bit to his tent. I just want a fresh start, he thought. With that, his mind drifted to a certain girl at a hat shop. He’d been so nervous when they introduced themselves that he had forgotten her name—something with a “G?” He went to sleep thinking of her. He’d nickname her “Beauty” until her name came back to him.
What happened the next day was so ridiculous that the confrontation got the attention of the whole camp. Erwin woke up to hear a fiddle playing, and out of curiosity he followed the sound to—whom else—but Claud and Pete. Those two had gotten off the train near the camp and had probably walked parallel to Erwin in the brush in the dark. Even though there’d been a full moon, Erwin didn’t see them get to camp and ask the foreman for jobs. Thank goodness they would be on the picking crew instead of the shoveling crew—as Erwin was.
“What are you guys doing here?” Erwin shouted over the fiddle song.
“We told you that we didn’t want do stable work anymore. Coal doesn’t stink like manure does. We’re gonna give this a try. We’re even going to play baseball on your team, if they’ll have us,” Pete replied.
This is not good, thought Erwin. First of all, the team already has a catcher—me, and second of all, I don’t want to be the catcher when Claud is the pitcher. He knew he could work with cantankerous fellows—God knows there were several odd ducks already working at the mine. But my recreation time shouldn’t include that jerk, Claud, was his conclusion.
A week passed by slowly, as the miners did their jobs and got to know each other. Claud continued to be stern, crusty, and surly. Pete was OK. In fact after supper one night, Pete pulled Erwin aside and showed him a box of odds and ends for his little sister. There were blue and red feathers from local wild birds. Buttons, chains, and broken jewelry were in there, too. But the strangest items in the box were rattles from the snake with the same name.
“What are all of these pieces for?” asked Erwin.
Pete replied, “I collect these for Trudy, so she can sew them as decorations into ladies’ things. I’m showing you this because I’d be honored for you to come with me tomorrow during lunch to look for more stuff. I think I saw an albino turkey out in the brush, and I think Trudy would like some of its feathers.”
“Well, I’m good with that. It beats the boredom of camp for sure,” said Erwin.
“Great. We’ll make it a plan. And I saw your ball and glove in the train, so maybe we can practice a bit out here,” said Pete.
Erwin considered having Pete as a friend and liked it—so it was. They hunted for sewable, colorful nature objects and even killed a few rattlesnakes for the rattles. They played catch, and Pete began to coach Erwin on becoming a pitcher. They moved coal and ate meals with the crew and found that they had a lot in common during their time off.
Claud, on the other hand, was like some of the other peculiars in the camp, always moody. He could chatter your ear off about anything, and when you got tired of his talking, he’d play music loudly.
If Claud caught you for a minute, you would be trapped with him until the foreman let you go back to work. Erwin avoided Claud at all costs. There was just something about the guy that made them incompatible.
Then an unavoidable trip occurred. Only Claud, Pete, and Erwin went to Brownwood one day to get some horses reshod at the blacksmith shop. They timed the trip so that they were also in town for a game against the Brady team. The Brownwood team had accepted Claud and Pete a few weeks earlier at practice. During the game, Pete and Erwin switched off as catcher and right field. Claud and the original pitcher switched off, as well. One good thing about Claud was that he was a good pitcher. Brownwood beat Brady. Everybody got along for the game.
But that night, another type of game was played by a few members of the team. That game was straight poker, and it did not end well at all. The game was terrorized by Claud because he was prone to shorting the pot, slipping in concealed cards, or double dealing to himself. Every time he won the pot, the others would almost catch him in the act of cheating—but not quite! Arguments ensued with each showdown in which Claud won the pot. He knew how to cheat inconspicuously.
Back at camp one night, a poker game was assembling. If Claud was playing, Erwin would not. Gradually the other miners were catching on that when Claud played cards it was like tossing your money into a wishing well without getting your wish. To be as stupid as to play poker with Claud was to be as dumb as a doornail. But you couldn’t warn the new recruits fast enough. Newbies yearned for the excitement of saloons, which the mining camp didn’t have.
Anyway, the card game began with a new deck that the foreman bought in Brownwood. At least the cards weren’t marked, and there were no extra ones. Erwin and Pete were in a tent next to the card-game tent. They planned to laugh while eavesdropping on the rookies next door—getting their dose of fraud. But that’s where Erwin and Pete were wrong, about thirty minutes into the game.
“Poker is one hundred percent skill and fifty percent luck,” Claud’s voice boomed. He’d been drinking.
“I’m in,” says another. “I fold,” says yet another.
Boom went a gun as players ran out of the tent. Claud had put a hole in the card tent for no particular reason. He’d never done anything like that before as far as anyone knew. But the bullet had made its way into the tent next door—straight into and out Erwin’s left shoulder.
“What the heck!” exclaimed Erwin, as his right hand grabbed the bullet hole. Everyone was hunkering low until the foreman proved that Claud was no longer armed. It took a while for everyone to get over the excitement.
Because of this incident, no one was allowed to have any cards in the mining camp anymore. Claud had ruined it for everyone. It was something that would bother Erwin until the end of time.
Weeks passed, and things settled down some in the camp. The minor shoulder wound healed nicely, but playing baseball wasn’t happening for Erwin. He’d had a fresh start without wanting one.
And since he couldn’t shovel coal for a while, he became assistant cook—peeling potatoes and onions. He also went out into the brush looking for deer for stew. He tended to the horses and helped the foreman with anything that didn’t require a good left shoulder.
You don’t realize how much you need a shoulder until you’ve lost it, he thought. That blasted Claud! The foreman had to keep them separated. Claud would have been fired, but the boss loved the fiddling and so kept him on.
Being a bit on the mend, Erwin asked if he could go back to San Angelo to bring Maggie some money for the kids. He also thought his gunshot wound could earn him sympathy points with his Beauty. His wish was granted, and so he walked to the track, and the fireman of the train let him ride with the engineer to Ballinger.
Meanwhile in Ballinger, four boxcars of circus and carnival people and their equipment were being added to the train in route for Angelo. This was Erwin’s lucky day. He figured he could take Maggie and the two brats to the celebration and have a great time forgetting about Claud and the bullet. Maybe he’d see his Beauty there as a bonus!
Maggie and the kids were excited, as was the rest of the town. Two huge tents were set up, one for the circus and the other for the sideshows.
Going to the fair was like a breath of fresh air. Instead of dark coal smudges, there were bright, clean colors, noise, and spectacle. First the little family went to the sideshows, where they saw a bearded woman, a four-legged, two-armed boy, and a man with hooved hands and feet. There were also some jars. One held a two-headed snake, another a four-footed chicken. The last contained a mermaid.
The fair included some vendors selling tamales and ice cream. Ah! The smell made everyone hungry. The place was brimming with gasping, laughing, and eating. The marvelous tradition of circus and carnival was peppered with skill, danger, magic, and thrills. The good-natured crowd was a blessing for Erwin, who was used to Claud tension in Coleman County.
Everything was going so well that afternoon. Then it got even better with a brief glimpse of Beauty—out with some girls. The group of ladies was having fun just as the little family was. Erwin was not seen by Beauty, since there was so much going on, but he sure did set his eyes on her.
It occurred to him that Beauty might mistake his sister for a girlfriend, so he became standoffish to Maggie and the kids—in case she looked his way. He just couldn’t remember her name—“G” for Gwendolyn? Gigi? Grace? Oh, why couldn’t he remember?
It was time for the show to begin, so everyone walked into the big top. Erwin could see Beauty, but she could not see him. The first act was a unicycler who also juggled. The stilt walkers came next, as the contortionists were preparing for their act. The bed of nails seemed impossible to lie on, but the half-naked man showed how it could be done. This traveling circus had plenty of thrills.
The animals consisted of two monkeys, a Mexican black bear, and some cute dogs which could dance their way into your heart. All along the fun was getting more explosive. Soon the fire swallower entered the ring. Oohs and aahs continued. Clowns were a nuisance but were needed during the changing of acts.
By and by, the final act of plate spinning was about to start. Mr. Spinner told some clean plate jokes, as the audience helped him remember that he needed to rev up the spin on certain plates while he joked around. Mr. Spinner had six plates spinning on sticks on the table. He had them numbered.
“What’s the big difference between a plate and a bugger?” asked Mr. Spinner.
“One’s on top of the table, and the other is under the table,” he joked.
Everyone laughed at this and all of his jokes. The tension of reminding him to spin certain plates was hilarious.
Bang! There was a loud noise at the entrance of the tent, and all of the sudden Claud on a horse entered the big top.
Is this part of the act? People wondered.
“I’m going to shoot each of those dang plates. And then y’all are all going straight home.” Claud announced.
Then, sure as his word, he shot five of the six plates with accuracy a pitcher would have. When he was reloading, Erwin dove into the ring to guard plate six from Claud. Erwin saved the plate but got struck by a bullet in his left shoulder—again. The plate was reminiscent of his grandma’s set, and he just couldn’t let the pattern be destroyed.
Now the place was in chaos, as some bystanders apprehended Claud and confiscated his gun. But something magical happened while that was going on. Beauty was next to Erwin and had put his head in her lap. He was about to go into shock, when she said, “Do you remember me from the hat shop?”
He closed his eyes and let out, “Yes. But I don’t remember your name.”
“It’s Trudy, and I’m going to help you get through this. You look like you need a fresh start.”