A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Spring 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 2
The regular afternoon train had just arrived. Each afternoon every day all year long, it didn’t make any difference if the sun was out or if it was raining or snowing, that Milwaukee Road steam locomotive pulled its procession of steel-gray coaches into Lawler. Always at two-fifty-four o'clock, I listened for the oncoming whistle. The screech told me the train was grunting up the grade at the edge of town, coming over the ridge fronting the Burns' farm. My cousin, Jocko Burns, lived out there.
As always, I raced to the station to start unloading bags and boxes. But there was a surprise. Instead of stopping at the depot platform as usual, the locomotive had paused near the grain elevators just to the west. I couldn’t see the tail-end of the train because of the curve in the tracks. With a lot of clanking and banging, Engineer McIvery slammed the locomotive into reverse. Steam flooded out from under drive wheels as tall as me. Soot and smoke poured down from the engine's stack, as the locomotive pushed and grunted the passenger cars backwards along a rail siding. The racket was enough to deafen a hound pup.
The train clumsily stopped again and two brakemen walked carefully down the tracks, disappearing around the bend near the feed mill. I had never seen them do that before. In a few minutes, the train again moved forward and came to rest at the depot. I looked over the train's passengers, resting their elbows on the window sills of the Pullman coaches. Only a few seemed interested in what was going on in Lawler. They must have been really tired, I thought. I supposed they probably only wanted to get off the train and stretch their cramped legs.
“’Lo there, mister,” I waved up to one salesman.
The heavyset peddler winked back from beneath the rim of a black derby hat. A gold tooth in his mouth glittered. He'll be a big tipper, I figured, hoping that the man would get off the train with lots of sale goods that needed carrying. I looked around for Doc. It wasn't like him to be late. There was good money to be made today. Counting it already in my mind, I could feel Buffalo Bill getting closer.
I already had pulled over the red handcart kept alongside the window of the depot's telegraph office. Then I stood by the open door of the baggage car, ready to load whatever parcels should be hauled up the street to the Lawler House, our only hotel.
But before anybody came over to claim their gear, I heard Doc yelling. He thundered along the tracks, taking the curve by the elevators as fast as he could go.
“Look, Cobb! Come down here. You gotta see this!”
Doc had one of loudest voices at Our Lady of Mount Carmel school. He simply couldn't whisper, even behind the teacher's back. Sister Marian never needed to look around to know who was trying to pass secrets. Doc was always an easy catch.
With Doc shouting, every head at the depot turned to stare as he hightailed toward us. Cinders from the rough track bed crunched under those black boots he always wore. Those cloggers helped when we got into that fight with the Keefes, landing a few good ones on shins and backsides. Doc's flapping arms made him look like a crazed chicken.
“Must be something important to get Doc so riled,” grunted Mister Jensen, the depot manager who owned the cows we chased in the pasture. Sweat beaded his forehead as he wrestled with a lady’s steamer trunk. The bulky woman stood behind Mister Jensen, as a schooner under full sail with all her skirts and ribbons.
“This dang thing must be full of bricks,” the man grunted under his breath. I came over to help. Hauling the luggage to the Lawler House should be a fifty-cent job, I expected.
“Young man...” the large woman started to say, wiping her brow with a lacy handkerchief.
But Doc was definitely louder.
“What's up?” I yelled back.
My shout startled the woman, who took several steps backward and fluttered her damp kerchief.
“'S'cuse me, ma'am,” I said. She looked at me as if I was plumb crazy.
Jostling past her expanse of silk and taffeta, I jumped down from the station platform and ran off toward Doc. As we got closer to each other, I could see around the bend. A brightly painted coach had been shunted off to one side of the tracks. I had never seen anything quite like it. I had already forgotten the lady at the train station.
“Cobb, take a look!”
By now, Doc was jumping up and down. Pointing. Doing a two-step on the cinders.
The mysterious rail car was splashed with gaudy paintings of Stetson-hatted cowboys, feathered Indians and dust-kicking Rough Riders. The rainbow of action colors screamed louder than Doc ever could.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West
and Congress of Rough Riders of the World
ONE OF A KIND!
WATCH FOR IT!
ASK FOR IT!
Men in coveralls tumbled out from each end of the coach. Several buggies and freight wagons that I recognized had been hired from the livery stable and were already lined up next to the railroad tracks. Buckets, brushes, stacks of cardboard, rolls of paper and other mysterious bundles were being quickly loaded into the back of the wagons.
We raced toward the rail coach and arrived puffing, out of breath.
“Need help, mister?” we chorused.
The closest man wore a bright violet shirt blossomed with spatters of red and purple flowers. His baggy canvas pants had numerous pockets and were held up with blue suspenders. Without looking at us, he stuck a grimy thumb over his left shoulder, pointing out a bear-sized fella with a great tangle of red beard. His nose was sunburned, peeling, with the bumpy texture of one of Ma's giant cucumber pickles. He maneuvered a large, rectangular box off the train and on to a heavy freight wagon. The springs creaked when the load was finally settled in behind the driver's seat. A wide-brimmed straw hat was pulled low on the man's freckled forehead. Although it shadowed his face, it clearly offered little protection from the fierce summer sun.
Wheezing, he paused to wipe his steaming face with a blanket-sized bandana. He stared down at us.
I felt really small.
The man's massive head balanced above a high, cardboard shirt collar and seemed to be tied to his broad shoulders with a black string tie. Green garters tightly hugged huge biceps, keeping his shirt sleeves rolled up above meaty elbows. He reeked of tobacco and whiskey, with spreading sweat stains under his armpits and down his back. Sharp blue-green eyes peered out from under flaring eyebrows. He seemed to be about twelve feet tall.
“Ya boys know the town? Ya wanna earn a coupla dolla'?” His voice boomed, hands on his stained coveralls.
“Better believe it, mister,” I said, shifting my feet.
Doc nodded, eyes wide. His head almost bobbed off.
“Then you have ‘ta show us around this rube burg,” Old Whiskers growled, looking up and down the street fronting the depot. Not much to see actually, so he didn’t have to spend much time at it.
Rube burg? What was that?
“This town, boy. Rube town, hick town, hayseed city. Show us around this here place and help put up Buffalo Bill show posters. Lissen up. If ya around for a coupla days and do what I tell ya, ya'll each get two dolla'. You look big enough ta help ol' Wally Cosgrove.”
At that, my heart went boom, right through the top of my head.
Holy cow! This was going to be the best pay of the summer. I had already forgotten the lady's trunk waiting on the depot platform.
“But I gotta know what's yer names. For me, yup, I'm the one and only Cosgrove. Walter J. Call me Mistah Wally.”
Doc and I looked at each other out of the corner of our eyes. We didn't quite understand what the big man was saying.
It sounded like “Coshgrove Waltirshay Mistahwalleee.”
He talked around a monstrous plug of rough-cut tobacco, speaking as if singing in a bowl of mush. The chaw was in constant motion, moving from left cheek to right cheek as a starved squirrel savoring a mouthful of walnuts. A thin stream of brown spit trickled from the left corner of his mouth and into his frizzy beard.
“Sure 'nuff,” we stammered to Mister Wally.
“What's yer names?” he grunted again.
“I'm Cobb,” I said.
“I'm Doc,” said Doc.
“All right then, Cobb and Doc, so 'tis. Come on in. Let's get to it. Ya've just joined the damned best bill posting crew on the road. Yer now part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West,” he grunted out the side of his mouth, wiping his double chin with a dirty sleeve.
“Pick up them cans of goo and hop 'em aboard a buggy over there. Then you run fast and ask yer kinfolks if you can help out for today, ‘n tomorra and the next day. 'Cuz we're gonna cover this whole durn area like a wool blanket. If it's okaaay-dookay with them, ya belong ta me 'til we are done.
“Don't want to cause no problems. Get yerselves home to be sure. I ain't goin' round stealin' babies the likes o' you. But remember the dollas, fellas. I'm short a-cuppla men on this stand. This is yer lucky day. It is. Sure is. Now let's get goin'. The afternoon is almost done.”
Each word was cushioned by Mister Wally's mouthful of watery tobacco. For the most part, I just heard “Mush, mush, mush.”
But the message got through. It didn't take but a few minutes for us to scamper back to our homes and double-check with our mothers that we could spend time with the billboard crew. Since I lived just across the railroad tracks, I quickly found Ma who was outback hanging the wash.
It took a few minutes to convince her it was okay. But she added a couple of kickers. “Be sure that Louie knows.” And “be back for supper tonight. We’re having roast chicken.”
The latter I could agree with. I made my way back to the store in a bum mood. Why should Louie know? I pushed open the door and walked in to where Louie was piling boxes.
“Louie! Got me a job!”
“You sure do - washing the floor and watering the horses.”
“No, I mean a real job - working for Buffalo Bill’s poster crew.
Louis got quiet, appraising the situation.
I sputtered out, “Just for two days. They’re gonna pay us and everything.”
“I pay you.”
In my mind, I thought, “Ya, sure.” I was careful not to say that though.
“I know. But it’s not the same. This is show business.”
“They can be a rough crowd.” Something dark crossed his face.
“C’mon, Louie. You don’t ever want me doing anything fun.”
“That’s not true.” There was a pause.
“It’s just you got plenty of work to do around here.”
. Another pause.
“Okay. But you tell those showmen that I get first pick of posters they put up on Lawler. The bigger, the better. We can use the splash. And no more whining about doing the floors here. Now git.”
I beat Doc back to the side of Wild West coach, my permissions happily ringing in my ears. Doc got an okay, too.
The painted cowboys splashed alongside the train car were intent on roping steers and paid me no mind, eager as I was.
Ma's approval did take doin', however, before she had finally agreed.
“Don't get yourself kidnapped now by those circus people. We're having apple pie tonight,” she warned sternly, but with a hint of a smile.
That seemed a right fine incentive with me. I'd be sure to return safely, especially with her pie in mind. Even if Mister Wally and the others worked for the Wild West show, not a circus.
“Don't worry, Ma. I'll be with Doc.”
She rolled her eyes, knowing the potential for trouble.
“Be sure to say 'yessir' and 'no sir,’” she added for good measure as I bolted out the front door and hightailed it away. It didn’t take but a minute before I was back alongside the brightly colored railroad coach.
“Welcome aboard, boys,” said Mister Wally, when Doc and I stood in front of him, out of breath. He waved his hand toward the men still carrying rolls of paper from the rail car.
“That there's Martin Silvers, George Baldwin, Charlie Pratt and Louie Corrie. Over there is Bill, that other Charlie, Willie and...wha' the hell...the rest of ya introduce yerselves. We ain't got all day.”
At least that's what we thought Mister Wally said. The tobacco juice dribbling down his chin had grown more pronounced. From deep in his chest, Wally Cosgrove then hacked mightily. When it splatted, his wet plug raised a puff of dust a few feet away. I instinctively jumped back.
“Come on over here, kid. Take this,” one of the muscular workmen shouted. We grabbed whatever mysterious packages they tossed to us and packed it tightly in the wagon beds.
“You. Get over there,” Mister Wally pointed me toward a wagon, where paper, bucket and brushes were being carefully stowed. The lanky driver, built like a toothpick with a tomato for a head, grinned down at me.
Pointing a pudgy finger at my chest, Mister Wally shouted to the teamster, “Take care of this first-of-may, don’t want him pasted up on no barn wall with yer posters!”
I climbed up on the seat, as Mister Wally beckoned for Doc to scramble up on another wagon. My first words to my new partner were, “What’s a first-of-may, mister?”
“Circuses and exhibitions like Buffalo Bill's start out every year around the first of every May when the weather turns better,” he offered. “They always hired a lot of new workers, that's why they call yer that.” Well, I guess that made sense.
Hanging on tightly, we jounced off in a dusty cloud. On my perch, I felt like the Lord Gawd on the Second Coming as we ratted toward the south side of town. Doc was trundled off to the north.
Mister Wally and a couple of the other showfolk clucked to their teams and headed to the east and to the west. As I rattled along high on the freight wagon seat, I saw the Keefes standing in the shade of an elm tree in the park. Their mouths dropped as I rode past. It was great fun seeing them wonder what was going on. Big Jeb made like he was going to run after the wagon but I guess he changed his mind when Len flicked his whip over the horses' backs.
“Looks like a wild bunch,” offered the workman, glancing toward the clan.
I snorted. “Not so much,” I replied, feeling braver than I really should have.
My driver was thin as a split rail fence, with his Adam's apple galloping up and down in his neck whenever he talked. The knob was as large as the corks that I used as bobbers when fishing for bullheads in Crane Creek. The showman seemed nice enough, though.
“So, Ioway bo',” he said, keeping his eyes on the heaving brown rumps of the team, a matched set of highstepping bays straining into their harness. Gnarly, tobacco-stained fingers expertly held tightly to the worn leather reins.
“Ma name's Len. I'm up from Miss-ssippi. Never been in these here parts afore.” I noted that he dropped the middle part out of the “Mississippi.” Guess that was how folks talked down South.
“I'm Cobb,” I said, the words bouncing out of my mouth when the wagon wheels thumped into ruts in the road. Which was often.
“Cobb, is it? Funny sortta name for a sprout. Where'd you get that handle?” Len asked, clucking to the horses. They trotted smartly along. I needed to grip tightly to my seat while attempting to talk.
"Well,” I explained, “I'm actually Charles...Charles Edward Larson, My Pa was also Charles. Folks now call me Cobb, because I really like to eat corn on the cob and besides, I have blond hair. Guess the name stuck. Everybody around these parts has a nickname. I wouldn't know half the people in Lawler if they gave their Christian-given names.”
After that, I never heard anybody talk as much as Len did. As with Mister Wally, he was really hard to understand at first, with his Dixieland drawl. Every sentence was dragged out, as if my eardrums were being pulled through a sun-warmed honey vat. But I slowly got used to the Mississippian's way of speaking. Being a fast learner, in the few minutes that it took for the wagon to reach Main Street from the rail siding, I understood most of what the skinny man said. Even when Len wondered if there were any cowpunchers in the neighborhood.
“They have lots of cows around here but no cowboys like those with Buffalo Bill. At least none that I know of and I've been here all my life,” I answered. “But we do have cattle pens. Over there by the tracks,” I pointed beyond Cootie's rundown house at the far end of the street.
Len acted like he was impressed.
“How old ya, Cobb?” he then asked.
“Going on thirteen. I'll be that in a couple of weeks. I'm twelve now but I'm already thinking about getting older. I'm not a kid.”
Len laughed as we rumbled along. We headed first to Louie's store.
“Probably be a good idea to introduce myself since we'll be haulin' around together fer a few days,” Len suggested.
That sounded good to me. Didn’t want Len to get on my step-dad’s bad side right off.
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)