A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Spring 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 2
Doc was smart as a Chinese firecracker. He knew a lot about all sorts of things. Even claimed he knew how to fix broken legs and take care of snakebite. Not that he ever had to do much of that around Lawler because his father, a real doctor, took care of such business. But I suppose he could have.
More than a year or so back, I choked down a tin whistle. Simply snorted and it was inside. One of my sisters, Ada, I think, ran to Doc's house and got his dad, who came right over. He grabbed my feet, held me upside down and gave me a kick with the side of his foot between my shoulders. Out came the whistle, I kid you not. Ouch. It was rough, but it worked. After that cure, you can believe that I never swallowed another whistle.
Doc and I did most everything together. We got mad at each other sometimes but never took long to make up. We loved swimming and fishing for carp in Crane Creek, where the summer water ran thick as molasses over a broken dam. To get to the creek and the raspberry patches on the far banks, we had to run through the pasture. The one across the dirt road from my house. The grass was up to our waists where the cows hadn't grazed. It was alive with grasshoppers and spiders. In deep summer, the pasture smelled fertile and heavy with its mix of earth and wild flowers.
Out in the field, you had to be careful not to fall in the fresh cow pies. that hid under the compass grass and black-eyed susans. I took a tumble once and my shirt was smeared with the cattle manure. I had to race home to change. You can bet Ma wasn’t pleased when she saw me. Smelled me coming, Ma said.
When we weren't down at the creek, there were always baseball games in the town park, although that wasn’t my favorite. I preferred exploring the heavy timber west of town. Rumor was that Indians used to camp out there, we were always looking for arrowheads and stuff. Never saw any sign of Buffalo Bill Cody either, but we looked, knowing that he was also an Iowa boy like us. He ran off to ride for the Pony Express when he was barely older than we were. I hoped that he might have come through our town one day and maybe dropped something. Anyway, it never hurt to look.
I lived on the northeast edge of Lawler. Doc was down a couple of blocks, closer to the bandshell in the town square. That was near the train depot where Pa, Dicky Simmons, Jack Murphy and a couple of husky Czech farm boys from over Protivin way had boarded the train on the way to Des Moines when the Spanish war broke out. The town band played a bunch of John Philip Sousa marches. I think they did “Stars and Stripes Forever” at least three times. Miss Lindberg from the Lutheran church sang “Brave Dewey and His Men.” But Doc and I thought she was awful off-key.
Yet Pa was all het up to enlist, being patriotic and wanting to free to the Cubans from Spain, or some such reason that I never fully understood. Never did figure it out, either. Yet for a time, that’s all he talked about at home, especially after reading the paper. When our Yankee battleship, the Maine, blew up in Havana harbor, men from all over the country rushed to join the army. Pa and the other fellas were mustered into the ranks down in Des Moines and I never saw him again.
Ma was pretty broke up when she got the bad news from a government telegraph saying Pa died of fever. When they shipped him back home in a piney box, they added a right fine Spanish American War campaign medal that she kept in a drawer in her bedroom, along with a photo of him in uniform. Sometimes, we’d look at those together and she sniffed a bit and I could see her tears. I didn’t cry in front of her. She didn’t need that.
“He just wanted to go so bad,” she said. “He was always trying to help people.” I believed that Ma was also trying to understand.
I really missed Pa and his stories. He hailed from Norway and still had his accent, coming alone to America as a little fella. Once he told me that he was even younger than me at the time. His parents had died of some terrible sickness in Bergen, his hometown, and there was no one wanting to look out for him. An uncle paid for Pa’s ticket, said his goodbyes and set Louie off to sail across the ocean by himself. Landing in New York, he wandered around a bit under the care of a Norsk charity or some such kind of orphanage his uncle had set him into. Folks there said were plenty of Norsks out West, like farmers and others looking for strong kids to help them out. The charity put Pa on a train and he headed out to the prairie. After a bit of growing, he worked on a steamboat for passage up the Missouri River and made a poke finding gold out beyond the Badlands.
Then Pa decided enough was enough and meandered back to Iowa, which was a far cry from anywhere even then. He got a job on a farm and later opened a store in Marquette, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Pa talked about how he used to hear wolves out in the timber in those days and meet the stray Sac or Fox hunter wandering through the neighborhood in all their feathers and beads, even if all the other Indians had long moved away. He courted the right fine Bridget O’Malley, judging from her pictures. That’s Ma, all right. In the summer, he took his sailboat, the Bluebird over the river to spoon a bit, I suppose. In the winter, he ice skated across. Only a Norwegian would do that, I figured.
But it sounded like the real world to me, not cleaning stables like Doc and I did for loose changes. I wanted to run off and be like Pa and have some ripsnorting grand times before I needed to settle down. Maybe in his heart, that’s why Pa joined the army.
As for Louie, I wasn’t sure about him. Having a pack of kids probably made Ma want another man around the house. When he showed up in town carrying Pa’s remaining Army gear, I suppose he fit the bill. Was well dressed and didn’t drool at their wedding up the hill at Mount Carmel church. I gave him at least two positives among the unknowns. My twin sisters, Ida and Zetha, and our brother Erving didn’t seem to care much one way or the other about Louie but I sure did. The girls were too young when Pa pulled up stakes and Erving was already looking to move on himself.
When we learned that Ma was remarrying, she sat me on a stump near the backyard woodpile and hunkered down herself. She knew I was pissed. “Cobb, I know you and Pa were really close. That’s the way it should be. But I need help here at the store. Louie was your father’s best friend and he always said that man should take care of us, best he can. Remember those letters. That’s why he’s here. He’s kind, gracious and loving. You’ll grow to like him, too,” Ma promised. I wasn’t so sure.
Even Erving came out on Louie’s side, as if he really knew what was going on. “Cobb, Pa’s dead and gone. You can’t do anything about it. Louie ain’t half bad if you give him a chance,” my brother said some months after the wedding. I was filling up the big watering trough outside the store and sure wasn’t interested in hearing his prattle.
Erving wanted me to wash the floor of the store, too. That was supposed to be his job.
“Louie might not like that,” I replied, but Erving butted in.
“The old man won’t mind as long as it gets done. So, what do you say? I wanna go fishing.“
I waited him out.
“I’ll give you three marbles.”
“And a fish hook?" I was in the bargaining mood.
“Yeah, okay. And a fish hook.”
I grinned. “Deal.”
“Great. Thanks, Cobb.” After handing over my winnings, Erving hightailed it out of there and I finished up in the store. Don’t know if Louie ever figured it was me. Who cared, anyhow?
Now I had a new fish hook, it didn’t long for Doc nor me to get out to what we called “the frontier.” Took only a couple of minutes, actually, when we ran down to our favorite bullhead hole in Crane Creek. Lawler was that small, getting too tight for the likes of us adventurer types. Main Street wasn't even paved. Thick mud and sloppy wet horse shite when it rained. Thicker dust and dry horse shite when it wasn't.
Now what kind of town is that, I ask you.
Buffalo Boys: a Tale of Adventure, Chapters 1-6
By: Martin Hintz, with Stephen Hintz and Dan Borengasser
(Based on the Film Script, Buffalo Boys)