A JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY IRISH & IRISH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
Summer 2020 / VOL. 20 ISSUE 3
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)
Charles (Cobb) Larson
Buffalo Boys is based on the true story of Charles (Cobb) Larson, the author's great-uncle, and his buddy, John (Doc) Hewitt. The two actually did jump a freight in 1900 to travel to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to see Col. William (Buffalo Bill) Cody, the master showman of the era whose Wild West show was fixture on the international entertainment. The fourteen-year-old boys were from Lawler, Iowa, about sixty miles west of the Mississippi River. In those days, only a railroad pontoon bridge connected the Wisconsin and Iowa sides of the river, with ferryboats carrying passengers. Creeping out of their house, they slept in a neighbor's hammock until the one o'clock train came through town.
Jumping on the freight, they were caught and tossed off, needing to catch a second train. Bribing a brakeman with a dollar, they managed to get to the banks of the Mississippi and make their way across in the dark. Eventually, they did see Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley and the other showfolk in a marvelous performance.
A bloody fight between showmen and locals broke out after the matinee, resulting in the state militia being alerted. Many of the details in Buffalo Boys are real, including the boys hiding in a boiler to escape the gunshots. The account is based on interviews with the real Cobb Larson and gleaned through other eyewitness accounts recorded in newspapers of the day. Related material was gleaned from the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and Cody Museum archives. Most of the characters in the book are based on authentic personalities from the Wild West show. Their names and job descriptions are found in the show's route books, those informative day-to-day accounts of its operations.
After seeing all they had come to see, an exhausted but happy Cobb and Doc bribed another trainman who allowed them to return by freight to Lawler. The real Cobb eventually traveled to the Dakotas where he worked on crews laying railroad track. He came back to his small hometown to raise and train horses and was the town constable for many years.
Cobb Larson was born in 1886 to Bridget O’Malley, an immigrant from Co. Mayo, who as a young girl became a linen maid at the Louis Dousman mansion in Prairie du Chien, Wis. (now a Wisconsin historical site). His father was Louis Larson of Bergen, Norway, who had a grocery store in Marquette, Iowa, across the Mississippi River from Prairie. In the summer before there were bridges across the river, Louis Larson would sail his boat, the Blue Bird, and ice skate across in the winter. Cobb Larson died in 1972.
The cemetery outside the solid red-brick walls of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was fiercely windblown, high on rocky knoll on Lawler’s south rim. The granite and marble gravestones overlooked rolling pastures with their few scattered cows and to cornfields ready for harvest. I glanced up into the gray, depressing autumn sky, where a turkey buzzard soared on the updrafts. Its wings wide and I knew its eyes were searching for something newly dead.
But that body in its oak casket was of no interest to the bird. Just to me. After circling three times, it soon drifted away to the west, seeking something it could actually eat.
Not paying any more attention heavenward, I hunched my shoulders, coat collar upturned as I stood at the edge of the grave pit. My friend, Doc Hewitt, was about to rest forever there. His new home would be colder than above ground. I burrowed my hands into my overcoat pockets. Mounds marking the earthly departures of Russells, Malloys, Maloneys, Finnegans and others of strong Celtic stock ranged along the hill east of the church. They had come to Iowa from far off Ireland to plant seeds and harvest corn, raise children, grow old, die and be buried out of Mount Carmel.
Pa and Ma were laid out not far from the frontage road where I always figured that their spirits could have a quick come and go if they wanted a change of scenery. My sisters, Ada and Zetha, and their husbands were there, too, plus a gaggle of uncles and aunts, cousins and loads of shirt tail whatnots. My brother Erving had also died years previously, out there in Michigan where he had been a union hell-raiser. So I was the only one left. My own family plot was in a far corner, on the highest part of the cemetery hill. Only a single tombstone was erected there, memorializing a woman I thought about often.
The wind felt doubly cold remembering.
The two gravediggers, brothers Pat and Tommy Dooley, waited patiently for the priest to finish his prayers. Among the thirty-five or so other mourners was my daughter Marcia, down from Minneapolis. She was thin, face pretty in the frame of wavy black hair. My son Rob was nearby, husky, tall, with a shock of yellow hair the same hue as mine from long ago. That had earned me the nickname “Cobb.” From corn, you know.
Father Michael Leary wrapped up the service, well practiced in ushering his flock into their afterlife.
Doctor John Hewitt touched all our lives
and will continue to live in our memories
and our thoughts. In all of his years of
delivering our babies, treating our
illnesses and patching us up after
accidents, he was a plainspoken, simple
man known affectionately as Doc. And
even though it’s difficult to let him go,
we trust in God’s grace, as Doc reaches
the end of his mortal journey and begins
a whole new adventure on this holy Day of Our
Risen Lord, October 10, 1954.
Leary blessed the casket with a sprinkling of holy water, continuing in everlasting Latin.
Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord, and
let perpetual light shine upon him. May
he rest in peace. Amen.
The priest took a bronze cross from atop the casket, handing it to Helen, Doc’s widow. She stood quietly, dabbing her teary eyes as the coffin descended. Afterwards, I stood off to one side near the street as the mourners dispersed, each pausing to hold her hand or touch Helen’s shoulder, muttering condolences before they climbed into their cars. The hearse had already driven off. As I waited my turn, from the corner of my eye, I noticed an older man step up to the still-open grave, coat collar also turned up against the chill. I barely made out a thin white scar running along the stubble on his left cheek. Before turning back to speak to Doc’s widow, I noticed the figure flicking a shiny silver dollar into the air, where the spinning caught the afternoon’s light. Disappearing, the coin made a dull thunk against the wooden casket. Doc always liked to be surrounded by good, sturdy oak. This one had caused us pallbearers to grunt with effort carrying Doc over to his final resting place.
I was curious, but then was my turn to speak to Helen.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. For our loss.”
“Thank you.” Helen tucked her lacy kerchief into her purse.
“Doc’s a hard fellow to forget. He’ll always be my buddy.”
“Folks are lucky that way.” Helen turned and looked sadly at the Dooley boys shoveling soil into the grave hole. It would soon be just another plot, marked by another tombstone, chiseled with another name.
“I know.” I looked at Helen.
She spoke again, the words slow and deliberate. “I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt he always remembered your days together. Just last Thanksgiving, the grandkids begged him to tell them about his big adventure again. He always started it the same way, “You’ll never believe what happened to me and Cobb. We were the best of pals ....”
Hearing this, I couldn’t help choking. I briefly turned away before replying.
“That went both ways for sure. He was the best pal I had when we were growing up. And beyond. Even when he thundered off to medical school, we stayed in touch, Was always glad he decided to return home.”
Doc Hewitt was my best man, delivered my son and daughter and stood by me when my wife died. All that was a long time ago.
Helen managed a smile and handed me a fresh tissue. “He was a pretty good husband, too. Here.”
Embarrassed, I hesitated taking it.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got plenty, been going through about a box an hour,” she said, patting me on the arm. “I hope you’ll stop by later. We’re having a few people over.”
“I’d like that.” The chill wind made me shiver slightly.
Saying goodbye to Helen, I took one last glance toward the grave, I walked slowly over to where Rob waited in his car, with Marcia in the front seat.
“Got any plans, Dad?”
“Just go home. Maybe head to Doc’s later.”
Marcia turned. “Why don’t you come over to the motel ‘til then. It’s only a few minutes drive to New Hampton. You don’t need to sit around in that old empty house of yours and you can come back when you feel up to it.”
Starting the car, Rob chimed in, “Great idea. You don’t want to start thinking about the past and getting all melancholy. We’ll have a beer together. I have a six-pack, or what’s left of it, in my room.”
“I think I’m ready for a little melancholy right about now.” My voice sounded reedy.
Marcia tried again, “Dad ...”
“Please. I’ll be fine. Just drop me off at the house.”
The light-green Plymouth four-door, Rob's pride after getting home from the Pacific war, edged away from cemetery exit and aimed for town.
As we headed down Chestnut Street, I again glimpsed a silent figure beyond a line of pines near the church. In the rear view mirror, I spotted the man walking over to Doc’s gave and removing his battered brown fedora. White hair ruffling in the wind. The last I saw of him as our car rolled off, he made the sign of the cross.
I didn’t see that turkey buzzard returning on the updrafts, soaring over the cemetery again before drifting off. Its great wings were outstretched, flapping slowly.
It didn’t take long to get home, where I knew there’d be silence. Getting out of the car, I caught myself grunting with the effort.
“I’ll call you both later,” I said to the kids, slowly ascending the steps to the porch. I unlocked the door and entered, hanging my coat in the hallway before heading down the hall to a guest bedroom. I stepped into a dark closet and pulled the light cord. Aided by the bright bulb, I poked around for a moment or two before emerging with a large cardboard box marked “Florsheim Shoes Kangaroo.“ Toting the cardboard container, I went into the kitchen, set the box on the table and grabbed a Schlitz beer from the fridge.
I sat down heavily. Gad, I must be getting old. Turning to the beer and rummaging through the box, I pulled out Pa’s framed portrait, smiling in a Spanish American War uniform, his forage hat at a rakish angle. I stared at the picture and then picked up the heavy metal orb of his Spanish Campaign Army Medal, with its fading blue and gold ribbon. Putting it down, I next ran my hand over a yellow-with-age program blaring, “Wild Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.” Below the headline was a graphic of the showman Buffalo Bill Cody and a location and date. “Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin - August 20, 1900.”
I reached back into the box and removed a tattered, sepia-toned photo of myself and Doc Hewitt. We were 12-year-olds, both grinning ear-to-ear. We were at the Lawler depot, posing in front of a Pullman sleeper coach and fronted by a handcart loaded with luggage. We gave a traveling photographer fifty cents each for our photos. That was about a day’s wages when we were helping carry folk’s bags from the depot to the Lawler House hotel. Doc was taller and skinnier than me. His ears were bigger, too. Looking back, I could see we were as dramatic as two Shakespearean actors.
I set the photo on the table, placing it carefully near the picture of Pa. The swig of beer was helpful. Put things into perspective. I guess I smiled a bit looking at the pictures. The lines that Helen had told me how Doc always started his stories went round and round inside my head.
“You’ll never believe what happened to me and Cobb. We were the best of pals...”
Damn my tears. “Damn.”
Col. William (Buffalo Bill) Cody
With this kind of action depicted on a Wild West show Poster, no wonder kids were eager to see such a show.