Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Bud and Dode and death in LeBeau

Started out as a trading post named after the man who decided, right then and there, to do some business, Antoine LeBeau, a Frenchman, like so many trappers and traders of his time. In 1875, he put up his business on the east side of the Missouri River, just across from the Cheyenne River Reservation, and started in trading furs, pots, pans, and whatever his customers, white and red, thought worth buying and selling. After statehood, the place was called, as you can imagine, LeBeau, South Dakota.

Just five years later, LeBeau had come into its own--sixty buildings and a population of some 250, which doesn't sound like much but back then was just about half a metropolis. White folks were streaming into the region. Things were booming. 

Then, for a time, when the railroad decided to push its line slightly south, and the cowboys who'd used LeBeau before, started moving their massive herds and taking all kinds of LeBeau business with them. Little town gasped for breath.

But when the railroads moved farther north (eventually, to cross the Missouri near Mobridge), Le Beau thrived again. Business returned, including Phil DuFran's saloon. 

If you think this is turning into another lawless Western, you better believe it is.

Now the cowboys who drove their cattle northward and eastward, many of them Texans, weren't Eagle Scouts. Hollywood made a ton of money on them early in the 20th century and created standard images that sometimes, at least, weren't a country mile off center. Full of dirt and dust and smelling up a storm, they could be hellions once they got released on a town. 

One of 'em, one of Murdo McKenzie's boys, Dode, lacked the requisite control his father had when it came to wild living. And you can't blame him, really. Driving cattle through the reservation "strip," as the railroad land was called, was no picnic. When finally they could get "them little dogies" on the train, they had reason to wash down whiskey and visit a few specially decorated bedrooms. 

Seems Dode McKenzie and Bud Stephens, who tended bar at Phil DuFran's saloon (I'm not making this up), had words some time in the past. Don't know what was said or done, but the feuding wasn't over, was nowhere near to being behind 'em. They weren't on speaking terms, to put it lightly. 

One day Stephens got warned that Dode McKenzie was coming into town, packing some mischief in his belt. You know the story. Bad blood.

Stephens was ready. Dode marched in the Phil DuFran's saloon, and the bartend let him have it right in the chest with the piece he was wielding. Twice. Dode staggered back out the door, fell down the steps to DuFran's saloon and spilled out into the dust of main street, where Bud Stephens, having stepped outside, blasted him again. And again. True story. Or at least, that's the way they tell it.

Don't know if LeBeau ever had a Boot Hill, but if they did and Dode's there, it was Bud Stephens who put him in the ground.

In March of 1910, in a nearby town where the only possible jurors were homesteaders, who, on principle, hated cowpokes, Bud Stephens went to trial for the murder of Dode McKenzie. Dodie's old man, Murdo, hired a hot shot lawyer, and Bud Stephens grabbed a kid out of Mobridge, barely old enough for sideburns. But the kid pulled it off and beat the fancy pants lawyer, so Bud Stephens walked away (as far as he could get from LeBeau, South Dakota). 

Now Murdo McKenzie, who'd lost a son, was hot as a branding iron. He made sure people knew that he would never, ever again run cattle from his vast, west river empire through the dad-gummed lousy streets of LeBeau, South Dakota.

So LeBeau died. It was that simple. End of story. No more cattle; no more business. Phil DuFran left town again, started salooning elsewhere, I suppose.

You can't go to LeBeau anymore, and it's too bad. The whole thing would make one heckuva tourist attraction, don't you think, a scraggly collection of unpainted frame shacks with false fronts down a dusty main street, a bar with swinging doors, here and there tumbleweed, some cowboy falling out into the street, all bloody, a bartender plugging him.

But these days, LeBeau, South Dakota, is a cowboy Atlantis. What's left of the trading post or the cow town or even the famous saloon might be nothing more than a few scattered foundations here and there, because all of that lies perfectly still under the sparkling waters of Lake Oahe. If you want to see anything at all of the old town, strap on scuba or wait for drought.

Maybe that's a good thing. There's lot of room out there on the prairie, lots of open space for an imagination to roam. Lots of tales to tell, LeBeau being just one of 'em.

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