A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Summer 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 3
Gotta have patience when killing rats.
I was in a perfect spot.
Just like Buffalo Bill Cody hunting buffalo. He was the best buffalo hunter in the West.
My mind wandered, out to the plains. I hunkered in low so the buffalo wouldn’t see me and downwind where they couldn’t smell that I was there. Got close with a single-shot Springfield. Boom!
Same with a rat. I knew this. After lots of practice.
The afternoon sun streamed through a dusty window high over my head. The soft light smudged the air, as a narrow beam reached across the scarred floorboards of the warehouse and crawled up the sacks of grain. Dead quiet, I perched on a tower of fifty-pound bags of chicken feed.
Here, in the rear of Mister Munson's feed store, I was invisible. I liked that.
As I watched, a rat looking as big as a horse poked its head from a crack in the far wall. The shadows were thickest there, I could barely make out its wiggling whiskers. The critter was nervous. Any good hunter could tell that. Nose in the air. Sniff, sniff, sniffing like rats always do when they aren't too sure. Like buffalo about to be spooked. Sharp teeth clicking, it edged another inch or so out of the hole, so most of the ugly gray body was exposed.
The rat still didn't see me even as I slowly pulled back on my slingshot. He was at a good angle. Above and to the right. I let go of the tightly stretched band, giving it a lot of power when snapped.
The chunk of sharp limestone hit the rat square in the forehead. It was a perfect rock, sharp and not too heavy, picked up in the quarry near the Little Turkey River. A real killing stone. I always carried a small bag of them everywhere, just in case.
With one last loud, surprised squeal, the rat snapped back. Dead.
“Got 'em,” I whispered. Buffalo Bill couldn't have done better.
Jumping down from the feed bags, I walked over and picked up the rat’s limp body by the tail, thick blood already dripping from its nose. I tossed the trophy into my burlap sack where it flopped atop two other dead rodents.
It was shaping up to be a good day for Lawler's best rat hunter.
Yet I never could get used to the cry a rat made when hit. Always gave me shivers, no matter how many times I killed one. But good riddance.
Extra good because Mister Munson paid a nickel for every dead rat I showed him. Like Buffalo Bill bringing in fresh meat for the railroad workers. I just collected my money and forgot what death sounded like.
Despite the rats, I liked the dim, dry interior of the feed store, with its heavy fragrance of millet, hay and oats. It was quiet there and I could think, with no one bothering me as I waited. My slingshot ready.
To be honest, sometimes when rat killing was slow, I drift off as I said. Kinda daydream, you could call it.
Maybe I’d be riding through Kansas high grass country near Fort Wallace. Of course, Buffalo Bill would be alongside. With rifles ready, we’d charge into the buffalo herds, other times without using a saddle or bridle.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Never missing with a shot, either!
Then, back to reality in the feed store, rat killing could start in earnest. I still pretended they were buffalo. You bet.
The name “A.A. Munson” was painted with faded lettering on a wooden sign hanging above the store's entrance. Old Man Munson's ramped office overflowed with invoices, boxes of canceled checks, orders for grain, stacks of faded, yellowing newspapers and outdated feed company fliers. I often rummaged through his out-of-date farm magazines, picking up tips about hens and all kinds of other animals. Did you know a good flock could lay three thousand eggs in a hundred and twenty days? I was impressed.
Mister Munson had been a sergeant in the Civil War, joining the 38th Iowa Infantry. He had plenty of stories from those days, some of them nasty grim. Mister Munson learned to cuss really well back then. Ma said to cover my ears when he let loose on some subject or another, usually on politics and President McKinley. Mister Munson also spat his tobacco juice whenever he felt like it. His aim was darn good, though, hacking his wet chaw into a dented brass bowl kept near the front door. Cha-pong!
Do you know what I was saving my rat stash for and whatever other money I earned at odd jobs around town?
For a lucky ticket to actually see the flesh-and-blood Buffalo Bill.
And a real, life wild west show with Indians, cowboys, stagecoach holdups, lots of target shooting. Best of all, “Sure Shot” Annie Oakley, the best looking gal in the West, was gonna be there, too.
I read in the Dubuque Daily Herald that Cody was to set up his hippodrome and tents in Prairie du Chien come August. Excursion trains from all over were being arranged to get folks across the Mississippi River from Iowa where I lived over to Wisconsin. Lawler, my hometown, was a good two hours or more west of the river. Maybe seventy miles by train. To me, when I learned that Buffalo Bill was coming, that seemed more like a million miles away. No matter that when I was a lot younger, like a baby, I guess, we Larsons visited Ma's Irish kin, the O’Malleys. That bunch lived in Prairie before moving over to Milwaukee near Lake Michigan. But I hardly remembered those days.
I knew Prairie du Chien because Ma lived there when she first came from Ireland as a girl and became a linen maid for Louie Dousman. He was a French-Canadian fur trader back in the day and had a big, fancy house. Lots of new Irish worked there, Ma said.
“Prairie du Chien is French for 'Field of the Dogs,'” she once told me. “According to the stories I heard, prairie dogs were everywhere, popping in and out of their holes on the plains along the river bluffs. Explorers named the place after the wee creatures,” she had explained, with a trace of long-ago Ireland still in her voice.
But Mister Henson at the Lawler train station claimed that the town's name came about because of an Indian chief named Little Dog who lived there a hundred years ago.
Who is to say? I always figured history is funny. You are never sure what to believe. The next person might explain it different.
Yep, there was no question about it. I had to get to Prairie to see my hero. After Pa, Buffalo Bill Cody was it, even though the showman hadn't hunted buffalo for years. He called himself highfalutin' Colonel William F. Cody these days ‘cuz that name probably sounded better when managing his Buffalo Bill Wild West show. Watching it would be adventure blowout I would have given my right arm and left leg to visit. It was like a circus. But even better. The Colonel hired riders from a bunch of countries and showcased herds of roughneck horses, honest-to-gosh buffalo and long-horned steers. There were loads of Sioux. Real ones. A few years back, even Sitting Bull was with Buffalo Bill. Just think of that! Plus acrobats from China. No fooling. Hot dang! There wasn’t half that much fun on any day in Lawler.
You can believe that I was dying to get to Prairie du Chien by hook or crook. Maybe get some shooting tips from Cody himself so whenever I got my own rifle I’d know what was what. But Louie, my step- pa, said I had to wait though, 'til I was thirteen to get a gun. That was in little more than a year. It sure took a long time to grow up around Lawler and I could hardly wait. I was already thinking about sporting a mustache. A big one.
Besides, I already knew a lot about Buffalo Bill. My favorite author, Ned Buntline, wrote rip-roaring stories about all the fellows who tamed the West. I probably read Buntline's Buffalo Bill: King of Border Men and Will Cody, the Pony Express Rider a thousand times. Like gobbling apple pie, I devoured everything else I could find about gunfighters, Indians and the frontier. The best was when marshals rescued the rancher's daughter. Anyway, you couldn't beat a good stampede either. Especially if a wagon train was in the way and in right fine danger until the hero turned away the runaway herd at the last minute. Sitting up in my bedroom with those books, I saw myself doing that lots of times. Even when my older brother Erving just laughed. He was more into baseball than buffalo hunting. Only nail biters he liked were when the bases were loaded, score was even in the last inning and him at bat down at the ballpark hard by Crane Creek.
That wasn’t for me. You can bet a bunch times that I always wanted to head West. Would you believe that It was already 1900 and time was wasting? Not a lot of open range left that hadn't been cut up by barbed wire and sodbuster farms. I wanted to get in some hard riding and fighting off bandits before it was too late.
I figured taking in the Buffalo Bill show was the best way to learn if that was the life for me. Besides, I wanted to see if Annie Oakley was as good a shooter as the papers claimed. At the barbershop once, I saw her picture in the Police Gazette. The newspaper was tossed on a chair next to the Daily Herald and a torn-up copy of the Illustrated Sporting News. The bachelor farmers agreed Annie was a looker, showing her ankles. “A real filly,” they said and nudged each other.
I wasn't supposed to be reading the Gazette because it was supposed to be only for grownups. It had boxing reports, crime news and racy details about all sorts of things in life that adults figured weren't for kids. But the rag sheet was just flopped there on a chair, next to where I was waiting to get my hair cut. So I picked it up. Nobody paid me any mind as I thumbed through the pages. Which, by the way, were pink paper. Glancing over the stories, I thought to myself, “Golly, so that's what sin is all about.”
I was realistic, though. The rate I was going that summer, I knew it was gonna take a bushel of dead rats and bigger pile of cash before I could afford a Wild West ticket. Much less riding a train to Prairie.
But I knew I was as good with my slingshot as Buffalo Bill was in his best hunting days. Or at least as good as Mister Munson and his tobacco wad. So maybe there was hope. My best friend, Doc Hewitt, was just as deadly with a slingshot. You might say we had a competition going. Like Buffalo Bill and his hunting buddy, ol’ Billy Comstock, back in their young years in Kansas. That was Doc and me, all right.
Some days in the feed store, Doc and I set up a rat-clearing crossfire. That was fine with Mister Munson.
“You boys are better than a pair of tomcats,” he told us once after a good day of killing.
“Buffalo Bill can shoot a hundred buffalo a day. You're lucky to get five rats,” Doc challenged me one week early that June. I almost punched him right in the nose.
But I showed him. I went out and hit four more of the little squealers, one right after the other.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
Mister Munson's bounty money went into my can, the one I hid in the woodpile out back of our house. Doc admitted he was impressed with my shooting, it was just as well that I hadn't slugged him out.
Since his dad was Lawler's only doctor, Doc was naturally just called Doc, although his full name was John Thomas Francis McNamara Hewitt, Junior. My real name was Charles A. Larson but everyone called me Cobb. Mostly because I loved to eat freshly sweet corn-on-cob and had blond hair. My step-dad was Louis Albert Larson, who ran the grocery store in town. Everyone called him Louie. I didn’t think much of him because he always wanted me to do more work there. Besides, he never could take the place of my real dad, the first Charlie Larson. I was named after him.
Louie Larson arrived on the doorstep one day around a year-plus ago, taking up with Ma not long after we learned that Pa died during the ‘98 war in Cuba. He was Pa’s friend in the Army and Pa actually mentioned him in a few letters back home.
Ma showed us his last letter before she tied his letters with a red ribbon and tucked them in her top dresser drawer, the one with the lavender cachets. The note came when he was training in Tampa. That’s in Florida, where the soldiers were before steaming out to the war.
"We’re having a grand time here. Learning drills and all that. Saw Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and General Miles the other day when Louie and I were out and about around the Tampa Bay Hotel. Getting sunburned, but fun nonetheless. We’re all ready to get into the fray. Bunch of colored soldiers quartered next to us, plus a gang from Louisiana and some from New Jersey. Miss you all so much and you kids take care of your Ma. I told Louie a lot about you. Would you believe that he’s a Larson, too? Family from near Bergen, just like mine! Amazing that. Have to go now. Almost chow time. Love and hugs. Your dutiful husband, Charlie Larson.
I was hoping Pa would have mentioned spotting Colonel Cody, because he was also heading down to Cuba to fight with Roosevelt and his cavalry. The newspaper called that crowd the “Rough Riders” and they now rode in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
Louie told us once there half dozen other Larsons in their unit. But to me, that didn’t give him truck to come into town, marry Ma and claim he ran our place. But he did anyway. Larson or not. I just to face it. He claimed Pa told him to look after us if anything happened to him. Ma, Erving, Ada and Zetha swallowed that hook, line and sinker. Not much I could do. I was outvoted and had to live with it. For a time, anyway.
You can be dang sure, Louie Larson showing up made it certain I was ready to hightail it out of Lawler when I got older. Right then, I was on the short side, while Doc was taller and skinny. Yet Ma claimed I grew an inch a week. Doc was tough as a keg of nails and never let anyone get anything over on him. Regarding my stepdad, he told me to just suck it up.
“Someday, we’ll both be outta here, Cobb. No need to hang around a two-bit town like this,” he’d say. “Not much you can do about Louie Larson right now. He’s not such a bad sort. In fact, I kinda like him. Besides he and Ma are really tight, even though she still talks about Pa ever so often. Louie doesn’t seem to mind. After all, they were pals.”
I think Louie tried to be okay toward me but it seemed a chore for him, at least in my mind. Late one evening, when the stars were pinpricks of cool light, he sat me down on our front porch. “Let me tell you, boy, that yer Pa was one of the damned sight bravest men I ever met. We were camped at Las Guasimas next to some troopers from the Tenth Cavalry, when the fevers hit ‘em.” Louie leaned forward in his chair, looking me in the eye.
“It was after we had a helluva fight down there in the jungle. Dirty little place, with those Mauser bullets flicking the leaves off the trees like it was a cold autumn wind. Vultures and the land-crabs everywhere, ready to chaw up any man who got himself shot down and couldn’t get up. The Tenth were all black men, tough fellows all of ‘em. But some of our boys, damn fools as they were, didn’t want to help ‘em when they got sick, just ‘cuz of their color. But yer Pa up and went into the sick bay and started looking after those men. Bringing ‘em water and changing bandages. He didn’t have to do that. Nope, not all. But he shamed a couple of us who followed, although we were scared as could be. That fever was nothing nobody in their right mind wanted to be around. He simply said, ‘I don’t care what color these men are. We went up that ridge line together and put those Spaniards in their place. I’m going. Come if you want.’ And, so, off he went, cool as a cucumber.”
Louie turned up at the darkened sky and was silent for a minute. “Well, that’s about it, Cobb. Yer Pa got terrible sick and so did a young fella from Arizona who had come with us, plus a bunch of the 10th. They were all dead in a couple of days. Sweat, puke, blood, shite. Gawd, it was awful. Worse than the bullets. Never saw anything like it since and never want to again. Looking at those bodies laid out, that coulda been any one of us. But before Charlie died, he pulled me over and had me promise to get back to Lawler and look after his family. We were such buddies, I never thought twice about it. It just seemed the thing to do. So here I am, whether you want me here or not. Your Pa is gone. I’m not aiming to take his place, but it’s a fact. One you gotta live with. Now get yourself off to bed. We got work to do tomorrow.”
I was quiet heading up the stairs and it took a long time to fall asleep that night. Why couldn’t it have Louie who died. Not my Pa.
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)