A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Spring 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 2
Doc and I rarely went near Cootie's place, because Rufus Keefe stomped out on the porch and swore a blue streak whenever anyone came too close. Besides, Ma warned me about going down to what she said was “that side of the tracks.” The other guys' folks also told them to stay away from the Keefe place and the muck of the cattle pens. That sure made sense to Doc and me. We knew what the Keefes were all about.
“Mister Keefe is a rough fellow and you keep your distance from him,” Ma said, wagging a finger at me in that serious way she did when making a point. Louie agreed, giving us the hairy eyeball to make sure we knew they both meant business.
But there was something different about Cootie Keefe. He didn’t seem like such a rough cut as his roughneck brothers. Anyhow, we knew he was always hungry. He had a nervous look surrounding him, like he feared somebody would snatch away any food he had in front of him. He'd show up at Mount Carmel school with only a slab of cold, greasy whatever for his lunch. Guess he put it together himself out of whatever he and his pa had in their shack. Even if our gang offered to share a sandwich, Cootie shook his head and said, “No thanks.”
I suppose Jeb, to say nothing of his brother Mo, would have snapped up the grub, but he wasn’t in our grade and we never offered him a piece of pie or anything anyway.
Cootie was stubborn, I guess, or maybe just too proud to accept any offerings. But I could tell by his eyes, he could have if he’d let himself.
If something was missing from anyone's desk, they'd often blame it on the Keefes. I never saw them actually snatch anybody's stuff, but we were always cautious, suspicious of that clan. That was for good reason on the bigger Keefes, but it never seemed to me that Cootie was that sort.
You could always tell when Cootie was pounded on at home. He'd be so hurt and angry and mad that he'd sulk around or quickly got into fights with the rest of us. We kept out of his way when he was like that, although everyone agreed that Cootie sure had a tough life.
“Wouldn’t trade places with him for all the tea in China,” said Doc.
Our crowd agreed, glad that our lot in life was far easier. While Louie was strict and laid down the law, he was always fair. You knew where you stood, without the danger of getting whomped. Louie was never, ever, like Rufus Keefe. Doc's dad was pretty much all right, too.
'Course that didn't mean we always agreed with our parents nor liked whatever punishment they'd dish up if we got into trouble. Which I suppose was often enough. Louie never took a strap to me like some of the fathers. I'd have to groom the horses, go without dessert for a couple of days or something else grim like that, depending how bad he figured I was. At any rate, I survived. Doc’s big punishment was emptying the bedpans of his dad’s patients. Whew-ee, that was downright unpleasant. Doc was mostly on the straight and narrow.
Of course, the Keefe boys didn't stay away from Lawler for too long. They were so nasty they probably needed to raise their bad blood on a regular basis. The bunch did show their uglies again, like bent pennies, after probably scouting Lawler when Constable Flanagan wouldn't be around.
I was coming back from a good morning of fishing in Crane Creek when I spotted those desperadoes straggling along the railroad tracks near the cattle pens. The look of them spelled trouble. To see what they were up to, I slipped off the path that I usually took home. Going through the brush was a hard chore, especially with my pole and a line of fresh-caught bluegills and bullheads, some of which were still flopping. I moved along as carefully as I could, like Buffalo Bill tracking renegades. At least, Jeb and the others didn’t see me. Cootie wasn’t with them.
The bunch was headed toward town, leaving the stockyards beyond where a few mournful cows there looked like convicts locked away at the State Penitentiary in Anamosa. Once the Keefes were out of sight, I sneaked around back of their house and picked up cinders and rocks from the railroad bed. I don’t know why I began throwing rocks on the rusty tin roof. I guess I was just plain mad at them for all the mess they always caused and I wanted to do something, bad idea as it was.
Suddenly, Cootie's face popped up in an upstairs window. The stones banging on the roof probably sounded like a serious hail storm.
And double crap!
Ol’ Rufus Keefe busted through the front door and stumbled out on the rickety porch, cussing and waving his hands before grabbing the railing. He was stone drunk again and needed support. Despite being darn wobbly, Keefe was terrible riled because the stones most likely shook up a fierce hangover. Still yelling at nobody in particular, he then tripped and fell face down into the yard and didn't move.
Because I was hunkered behind a thick oak tree, down in a thicket of ragweed and black-eyed susans, I don't think Cootie spotted me. He looked really mad and scared at the same time. Suddenly, I felt bad, knowing I wasn't doing anything proper. I just hid lower. Which wasn't saying much for me. What would Pa or Ma think of what I did. Oh, boy. Them maybe looking over my shoulder gave me a giant case of the guilts.
Seeing Keefe laying there, I got really scared. Figured maybe I killed him. But he struggled to his feet and flopped backwards like a carp gasping for breath, humped over on the rickety bottom porch step.
Stuck where I was, I sneezed from the pollen and dust in the weeds. It was loud enough for Keefe to hear. Turning, he spied me with a wild look in his eyes and tried to stand.
“I see ya, I see ya, ya little brat. I’m gonna give you the thrashing of your life.” He picked up a long stick, pulled from a stack of kindling and firewood. At least that’s what I think he yelled, him not being clear in speech with the drink. Cootie was nowhere to be seen and I didn’t think he spotted me.
No way was I going to hang around with Keefe in that mood and the brothers most likely coming back soon. I got up and ran, leaving my fresh fish behind. Puffing hard, I kept running until I was home. I was out of breath by the time I made it there. No one was in the kitchen so I put my fishing pole in its proper rack in the back hallway and had a glass of milk to settle down. That was a close call, too close.
The next week was a lot quieter, especially with no sign of the Keefes. They probably had their fill of fun in Lawler for the time being and went off to terrorize someplace else.
Beyond Cootie's house and the cow yards, there were more pastures. They were also great fun for pretend prairies yet Doc and I really, really wanted to go to a real Wild West show to see the real action. Maybe we'd ride off and come back like a posse, wrapping up the Keefes with our lariats and running them out of town.
We felt Lawler was so small that Texas Jack or Dashing Charlie, much less Colonel William F. Cody, would never camp here. Doc and I agreed that we were too big for for our hometown. We needed to get away and make our mark. Especially when I think I felt my first whiskers growing. Doc laughed at that. Said he couldn't tell. I punched him hard in the shoulder. After pushing and shoving, we made up.
Yup, he and I were going places. We'd be famous. We'd show Jeb and his brothers not to mess with us. However, I wasn't the usual kind to wander away seeking wild adventure. Erving always laughed when I said I would head out and get away from Lawler. “Ahh, Cobb, you're too young and too little,” he'd razz me. In my mind, I said I'd show him, all right.
Besides. I didn't want Doc to go off on his own and do something stupid. He would have done just that, too. But when we learned from the newspapers that Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show were coming to our part of the world, it was enough to convince me that, dang right, it was time to move on out of Lawler. What better time to see a real live hero! For value added, we’d sure as heck get tips on how to fight off a bad bunch like the Keefes.
One of our best ideas about getting away had to do with trains. The most fun for us was watching them chug into town. Next to being a cowboy, I wanted to be a locomotive engineer because I could go places, all the while pulling the steam whistle cord.
By June, we realized we needed to get serious about money because Buffalo Bill was due in Prairie du Chien in mid-August. Without a passle of quarters to rub together, how else could we get to Prairie du Chien to see the Hero of the Plains without cash in our pockets? To earn more loot, Doc and I regularly ran down to the train station to help unload luggage. We didn't tell anyone why we were suddenly wanted to be so busy. Running off to the Wild West show was still our secret. Keeping it between us was part of the proceeding.
For our work, we'd collect nickel and dime tips from the drummers, smooth-talking salesmen with trunks and boxes filled with exotics. A few sold patent medicines and horse liniment. Hard to tell the difference between what folks drank to cure their ills and what they rubbed on their horses. These elixirs came in separate bottles, only with different colored labels. When he was alive, Pa never stocked that fakeness in the store. Didn't believe in them.
“Joost not right,” he proclaimed thickly, his Norwegian coming through. Louie was the same way. “No mess, no fuss,” I heard him say several times.
Doc and I got to know the regular salesmen, who were from New York or Philadelphia and had loads of stories to tell about their travels. Pa always met with them up front when they came to his store. If he wasn't there, they tried to smooth talk any girls in the store. Pa made sure he was on hand darn quick to put a stop to any shenanigans.
For another job on Saturdays, we started mucking out the stalls in the livery. Hauling that manure was a tough, stinky job. Boy, those horses crapped as much as Old Man Keefe's cattle. Then we weeded Mrs. Russell's vegetable garden when it needed it. With all those jobs, along with the rat killing, Doc and I eventually saved about seven dollars over several weeks, hiding the cash in my woodpile can.
Although lots of freight trains highballed fast through Lawler, passenger trains stopped twice a day. The first arrived precisely at seven o'clock in the morning. That was too early for Doc and me to go to the depot. You know, a fellow just has to stay curled up in bed and keep dreaming. The second train arrived about three in the afternoon.
On Saturdays and Sundays, there was only an afternoon train. But on summer Mondays, an extra excursion train arrived at one o'clock in the morning, plowing in from western Iowa. There was often a damp mist blanketing the marshlands around town at that time of night. Headlamp gleaming and whistle blowing, the train would bust out of that spooky fog like an avenging angel.
The passenger cars were packed with tired travelers. They were picnickers who had been at Lake Okoboji. Only forty years ago, there was a Sioux uprising out west there and a bunch of folks were killed. Pa was just a tad then but he remembered those days and said how everyone in Iowa and Minnesota was scared half to death.It was a lot quieter now, so folks enjoyed the fresh air, lake and woods on summer weekends. I doubted that Louie ever had such a memory.
The days were was crawling along and we felt like we weren't making much headway with our stash. Time was running out. The Wild West show was heading our way.
Yet one August morning started out as a typically sleepy day.
It didn't end like it usually did.
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)