A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Spring 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 2
Doc and I sometimes completed each other's sentences, especially when we talked about horses, our favorite books and how much we usually didn't like our big brothers who were both fifteen, going on sixteen. Must be in the blood of older brothers that makes them ornery. Yet I suppose I should admit that Erving was usually okay, such as Christmas time when he gave me a present. Karl, Doc's older brother, was the same in Doc’s mind.
But mostly Erving was thumping on me or angling to get me to do his work at our family’s grocery store. That used to be C.A. Larson’s, for Charles Larson, but now it was L.A. Larson’s, for Louie Larson. The shop was across Main Street from Mister Munson's feed place.
Although they were most often a pain, I had to admit that Doc and I appreciated having Erving and Karl around when the Keefe brothers came to Lawler to cause trouble. There were six of them, with Jeb Keefe being the oldest and meanest and Cootie being the smallest. In between were Mo, Jack, Curley and Eustace, whose nickname was Possum. Cootie was a year younger than me, I think his real God given name was Henry.
The Keefes lived out by the stockyards east of town with Rufus, their pa who was usually on a drunken tear or just causing general mischief. Old Man Keefe was a snarler, never happy or even halfway pleasant whenever he came to Louie's store or wherever else you'd see him in town. When he did show up, Rufus Keefe most of his time in Murray’s tavern.
The whole bunch packed into a rundown house without a woman in sight. It was quite a mess, you could tell that without even getting up close. Smelled bad, too. Sure not like my home, where Ma ran a tight ship when it came to keep everything clean and tidy. All we kids knew Cootie's mother had died of the cough a few years back. He didn't have a grown woman in his life to take off the rough edges. Bad as it was, Rufus Keefe filled in that emptiness by being plain nasty, kicking dogs and probably worse. That crazy old man regularly howled at the moon from his front yard, yelling out on starlit nights like he was a wolf. Could hear that in town, scaring little kids and probably even some grownups. Keefe often kept roaring until Constable Flanagan locked him up for another overnight.
From wherever she was watching from her heavenly perch, Cootie’s ma was probably relieved not to be anywhere near those boys. They were such hell-raisers she probably didn’t want any more truck with them and was just as happy to be dead.
Keefe made a little money loading steers onto the railcars, those rattling old slat-side crates used to haul the cattle off to the Chicago packing plants. He was paid by butchering companies to ride along to Prairie du Chien, if someone was needed to supervise transfer of the animals to other trains running more to the east. That way, he could go on a drunken bender far from home. Sometimes, he'd show up days later, out of money and bleary-eyed. I can imagine that even the Keefe boys appreciated his time away, however.
The cattle pens always had the odor of fear and the stink of cow shite. There was a lot of mooing and bellowing when the pens were jammed. The cattle probably knew they were about to become somebody's slab of beefsteak. Boy, did they put up a fuss when the stock trains pulled into the siding. Could hear them lamenting all the way to Main Street.
Keefe wacked at them with his heavy cane, pushing the animals up a narrow ramp into the railcars. His boys helped herd the cattle and close the gates behind them so the steers couldn't back up or turn around and escape. Once they were inside the cars, Keefe slid the heavy doors shut and locked each one. Snorting and scared, the cattle stuck out their noses from between the slats in the cars. Their wet snouts dripped greenish-yellow pus something fierce and their eyes were true mournful. One afternoon, a monster Durham bull smashed through the fence scattering Keefes here and everywhere. The critter thundered off toward the ballpark about a block away where Erving and his team were playing guys from Little Turkey.
Jeez, everybody sure scattered when that thing came roaring up to first base and around second. Later, Erving said he wasn’t scared, just impressed with that bull making the rounds. Finally, Constable Flanagan got the animal corned near the Grand Army of the Republic Hall where creaky vets like Mister Munson hung out on steamy summer Friday nights. The constable put a bullet right between the bull’s eyes and it took a husky team from the livery station to haul it off to Waldscheim’s butcher shop. Nothing went to waste around Lawler. Folks talked about all that hoopla for weeks.
With all that stockyards manure around where they lived, the Keefes constantly had a perfume about them. Even in school. On warm days, it was hard to sit near them, not that anyone wanted to anyway.
More than once, Sister Marian, our teacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel grade school, had standing orders for Jeb, Cootie and the rest of the brothers outside to the pump to wash their faces and hands. She always had plenty of strong laundry soap for that purpose. It was heady stuff made from lye, yet the Keefes still always had that bit of cow about them. And their fingernails were always cracked and grimy black. No matter how hard they scrubbed.
One day near our grocery store, I spotted Cootie in his usual dirty, tattered clothes. He darted around a corner, looking nervously over his shoulder. From the same direction, but out of sight, I heard his father bellowing:
“Cootie! Get back here!“
Keefe blundered into sight, obviously roaring drunk. Weaving into the middle of Lawler’s dusty street, he kept shouting. Heads poked out of doorways to see what was going on.
“Don’t you run from me, boy! You ain't never leavin' me. I’ll find ya at the end of the earth ya ever try ta run off.” Rufus rook a few more steps, then stumbled and fell, crawling on his hands and knees.
“Help me up, you lil’ sumbitch.” Snot ran out of Keefe’s nose and he was dribbling spit. It was an awful sight.
Cootie looked back at the staggering man. I could tell he wasn’t sure what to do
“I said, help me!”
After a pause, Cootie slowly angled back to his father and helped him get back to his feet.
Once Rufus stood up, he smacked Cootie hard across the face.
“You best come right away next time I call.”
Seeing this, a passerby must have yelled out for Constable Flanagan, who came running down the street. He showed up as Rufus was about to whap Cootie again. The policeman collared Rufus and pulled him away.
He roared. “Another overnight in the drunk tank might improve your manners. I just might throw the key to Dakota this time and kick your sorry, ragged arse after it.”
As Flanagan hauled Rufus away, Cootie glared at the dozen folks who watched the whole show, me among them. Yet once the party was over, the mob scattered. Louie had stepped outside the grocery store as all this hullabaloo was going on. He once had tossed Jeb out that same front door when the roughneck tried to steal peanut brittle off the candy shelf. I might not have cared much for Louie, but at least he knew how to deal with that Keefe crowd. Louie’s great bald head glistened with sweat so he wiped it with his apron, handlebar mustache quivering. He spotted me over by the granite horse trough
“You washing the floors today, boy?
“Well, daydreaming won’t get it done. Get to work.”
Louie turned and went back into the grocery’s dim interior. I followed, not too happily because I’d rather be out with Doc. Ada and Zetha were chattering away inside. At seventeen, they waited on customers and put up goods in the storeroom when they weren't giving Ma a hand with household chores.
After that dustup in the street, nobody saw much of Rufus for weeks but Jeb and three or four of the older Keefe brothers still poked around. Mo and Jack were most often were trailing Jeb when there was trouble, and I always knew Curley and Possum were never far behind. They made ga-ga eyes at the girls in town. I suppose the Keefes figured they were tough mugs and tried to strut their stuff in front of ladies; not that ever got the time of day. Yet it was vexing whenever the Keefes rode along Main Street on their hardscrabble horses, like the gunslingers from our books. Except that some of the smaller Keefes, like Cootie, sat far back on the horses' haunches while a bigger one handled the reins. Being tucked in behind like that was actually kind of comical.
After their dad was locked up for a couple of days, the brothers were always doing “yes, sir” and “no, sir” in real polite talk when Constable Flanagan checked on them. But the gang lived just to give Doc and me grief. Guess they figured we were easy marks because we were so scrawny. Plus, I don't think they liked anybody, anyhow. Those boys were all just birthed on the wrong side of the pillow, I guess.
Jeb could lift full milk cans over a high fence, despite being about fifteen. I saw him do that at the creamery. He had a temper, too. I heard that he decked an older kid up in Protivin just for mean spite. Once Jeb caught me alone and backed me into a corner, putting his horse nose and onion breath right up to my face. He grabbed my shirtfront and cussed something fiercely. That was enough for me, Doc and I stayed quick on our feet, ready to get away as necessary. Whenever we'd see that bunch rolling down the street, we'd disappear. There were always too many of them to fight fair.
However, in April, they nabbed Doc and me in the open, grabbing us from ambush just as we came out of the livery. We had been checking out a couple of new horses stabled there and weren't paying attention like we should have.
We knew we were in trouble the minute we walked into the hot sunlight that afternoon. Jeb picked me up just as he did those milk cans, while the rest nabbed Doc. and began roughing him up. No matter how much I kicked, one of the younger brothers, Jack, I think, pulled down my suspenders, causing my trousers to fall to my ankles and show my long johns. With a heave-ho, Doc was chucked into the closest horse watering tank and Jeb was about to dump me in when our brothers Erving and Karl showed up. They were shouting like it was a Deadwood shoot-out.
What followed was a brawl, all right, not what the Keefes probably expected. Karl gave Possum a bloody nose and Erving landed several good punches on Mo and Jack Keefe. I tried to get in a few licks of my own, swinging and missing, before getting knocked down and stomped a bit. I think Cootie probably got in a few halfhearted swings for his side. Doc, fighting like an alley cat, was also got banged up during the tussle. The fight ended when a farmwife on errands called for Constable Flanagan to break up the battle. Spotting him, the mob jumped on their horses and hightailed back to their lair at the cattle pens.
“Cobb, you just gotta get more meat on your bones,” Erving said afterward, sucking on his bruised knuckles. “Those boys will be back and double angry. Karl and I might not be around to clean up the mess if they catch you again.”
I needed show Erving that I could take care of myself. As a result, Doc and I dreamed up loads of ways to get even with the Keefes. One of the best was sneaking up and then dunking the whole bunch in hot, sticky tar. I came up with the idea to cover them with chicken feathers and ride them back home tied atop a splintery fence rail. However, Doc pointed out a bump in that idea.
“How will you capture them?” That put an end to that.
And no matter how much I ate or tried to build my muscles by chopping extra firewood, not much seemed to bulk me up.
Other than Karl and Erving stepping in to help us during that stable fracas, much as we appreciated it, our brothers were more often a pain than not. Erving always wanted to be fishing instead of working at the store. We were supposed to take turns cleaning the place but I often traded with him, even when I would rather have been poking around with Doc. Louie said those deals were between us, just so the chores were done right and finished when they were supposed to.
Erving and I also had to tend to the big water trough, keeping it filled for the horses tied up in front of L.A. Larson's. Mostly it was me pumping the water. But looking back, I guess Erving did his share.
Our usual reward for working at the store was a chocolate cookie covered with wavy, white sugar frosting. Holy cow, those were sweet! We plucked them from atop the glass case at the front of the store. When I was little and Pa was still around, I had to stand on tiptoe in order to get my arm and hand into the cookie jars.
In those long ago, old days, Pa sometimes gave us a nickel whenever we had a big job clearing the mud and manure left from the farmers' boots. That was mostly in rainy weather or in the winter. But when cleaning, you didn't just sit there and wait like you did until rats showed themselves at the feed store. Cleaning. In and out of a place. Real fast. Louie never gave us any nickels, though.
“Times are too tough,” he said more than once. For me, that was another black mark against him.
Doc, of course, had work to do around his home, like piling firewood and bringing in garden vegetables. When we weren't doing that, we'd take an armful of our books and head toward the big willow near the creek. The wavy branches on that tree were like giant fans. Whenever a breeze stirred on a gummy, hot day, we'd be sitting in the shade where it was nice and cool.
“We gotta saddle up,” Doc said in his fake cowboy talk, a stalk of grass chomped between his teeth.
He leaned back against the gnarled tree trunk. “Git up and go out where the cattle roam. That's for me.“
“I'm ready,” I replied. Anything to get out of Lawler, both for the thrill of new adventure and away from the Keefes.
I was always up for anything that smacked of fun, anywhere beyond the confines of town. Sure, life was sweet at home, especially because Ma was a great cook. Yet heck, I wasn't getting any younger and the world was pretty much being discovered. Soon, it might be too late to hardly have a real adventure anywhere, much less see Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody in person. I didn't want to be a shopkeeper like Pa, much less one like Louie. It was a good living, I suppose. But hardly any thrills about it at all, at least that I could see. Nope, that wasn't a job for me. Besides, I figured that riding the range might give me those muscles I needed to fight off the Keefes next time they wanted a punch-down.
After reading, we pretended that the lumbering, crotchety Holstein milk cows out in that pasture were actually buffalo. Or sometimes, they'd be wild Texas longhorns. We were full of vinegar, as my real Pa used to say. We chased the cattle up and down the hills like cowboys in a roundup. But Mister Jensen, who owned the cows and was also the stationmaster at the train depot, really got mad when his herd was shaken up since they wouldn’t give milk for a couple of days afterwards. He didn't know it was us causing the ruckus, thank heavens. However, we mostly behaved and left the animals alone.
Every so often, a bunch of buddies from school came along with us to the creek. They all wanted to be cowboys or Indians. Sausage Waldscheim loved play acting as Yellow Hand. He was a war chief who had it out with Buffalo Bill in a big hand-to-hand fight, one that was written up in the newspapers so it must be true. Wiener Waldscheim was Sausage's brother. He always wanted to be Dashing Charlie, the Texas Whirlwind. That was one of Buffalo Bill's sidekicks in the old days. Our friends’ names were really Tomas and Hans Waldscheim, but nobody called them that because what kind of cowboy handles are “Tomas” and “Hans?”
They were also rather portly and couldn’t run all that fast.
“My boys are just big-boned,” according to their ma.
Mister Waldscheim was a butcher, from Germany, I believe. The nicknames “Sausage” and “Wiener” fit them perfectly.
Another chum, Billy Finnegan, always played the rough and tumble Johnny Behan, sheriff of Cochise County in the Arizona Territory. He was one more of the wild boys from the frontier. We had a great time running up and down the hills that made up the rolling pasture. We yelled and shouted to our heart’s content out there. Nobody bothered us.
Which was fine.
Naturally, dirt was involved after all that gunslinging and stagecoach holdups. I had to take a bath every Saturday night, even if I figured I wasn't that dirty. But it was a ritual we had to go through, getting ready for Sunday Mass, our church services at Mount Carmel.
Each week, Ma fired up the big kitchen stove. We'd collect about a dozen buckets of cold well water fresh from the kitchen pump. She'd heat the water in our old tea kettle and pour it steaming into a galvanized tub. When not used, the tub hung from a stout peg on the back hall wall. It was frosty out there in the winter when I had to go get the tub and bring it into the kitchen. A hot bath felt good after that.
Since he was older, Erving crawled in first to scrub up. He was lucky, getting to use the freshest water. I'd follow once he was done rubbing behind his ears, under his armpits and around his butt. By the time I got in there, the water was usually soap-scummy and tepid but I had to make do until Ma poured in more hot water. Erving and I hid behind a faded cloth folding screen so Ada and Zetha wouldn't see us splashing around or drying off. Not that they cared. We were just their younger brothers. They figured Erving and I were gross anyway. Told us that lots of times.
“Savages,” said Ada. Nuts to her, anyway.
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)