I came by it honest, this business of writing up courthouse wars.
It was what was going on that summer – forty summers in the past — in the heat of cotton season.
They had disbarred the DA; the Sheriff's race was dirty, hateful; the Democrats were evenly split between the Dirty Thirty faction in the Legislature, Governor Preston Smith and his cronies in the insurance biz, and the conservative banker candidate for Governor, Dolph Briscoe.
The boss was a boozer from Chicago, Kansas City — points mid and west – an old time Hearst man with ties to liquor, guns, women — and cars, flashy, fast, long, low-slung cars.
All the stuff no well-rounded man of the world would think of leaving home without.
The war was carried out in the courtrooms, the council chambers, schools, hospitals and personnel offices – all the places where small town prairie dwellers meet, greet, and then haul off and kick the shins of the competition in a good-natured exercise of the American dream.
Second place is first loser, and the prize for that lackluster performance is a set of steak knives.
But the old Yankee knew a story when he saw one, and the idea was to sell newspapers.
Anybody accuses you of just trying to sell newspapers, you agree with them most heartily. Tell them 'Thank you, sir,' and urge them to write that down.”
He took a sip at that sour mash he drank, and added, “Offer to let them write it in your notebook.” Stashed the jug back in the bottom desk drawer.
Black Irishman grown old, the kind with two jet black eyebrows that looked like caterpillars crawling over thick, black hornrims, a red potato nose, and a full head of fluffy white hair.
Like most who hail from the west side or the neighborhoods Back of the Yards, he said he was from “Chi-caw-go” — not She-cah-go – Chi-caw-go.
Dude knew how to write a story, too. He put it this way.
This is a story newspaper. Hey, never let the facts get in the way of a good story, guy. It just isn't done that way around here.”
Black land covered with cotton that looked like someone spilled an even coat of popcorn across the landscape. Gaudy sunsets, moments somewhat sublime on foggy mornings when you catch a mama fox and her pups nosing their way out of the woods along the creek bottom or a hawk circling lazy and raptor-like in a sky so blue it hurts to look at it.
In the afternoons, the sun passed its meridian with a vengeance and began to bake the brick veneer of the old building; the only breath of air stirring was that of the old ceiling fans in their lackadaisical, slow turning.
And then Mr. Bob came in the door and called my name where I sat beating on a cast-iron manual typewriter, trying in hundred-plus degree heat to make subject, verb and modifier agree in tense and conjugation at a grimy old oak desk with the dust of nearly a hundred summers worked into its grain.
He knew me.
The High Sheriff, he was, the one who made Raymond Hamilton give up in the woods near Jack's Branch when Bonnie and Clyde came to break him out of his jail – back in the bad old days, when there was no money and people got a secret kick out of reading all about a bunch of badasses raiding the coffers of the ones who fixed their wagons and dried up the money.
Wore a spotless silver belly Stetson square on his silver head like a crown, its brim turned up all the way around like Mr. Sam, Truman or Johnson – or Big John Connally.
Wore a suit and never carried a gun. Said he didn't need one. Made his “boys” wear suits and keep their hog legs inside their jackets.
Think of the news pictures of Capt. Will Fritz or Chief Jessie Curry on November 22, 1963.
He held out his checkbook the way the old timers used to do it, said, “I need you to fill out my check for another year's subscription to the paper, Jimbo.”
Waited while I filled it out, then signed the check with a flourish while I wrote out a receipt.
I thanked him.
You didn't know Willie and I were next door neighbors for 40 years, did you?”
I knew that. Knew it well.
Willie. My grandfather — farmer, mechanic, merchant – drove a Lincoln limo with a V-12 in it, chewed cigars, played dixieland blues on clarinet. Squinted out of photos with a well-chewed cigar and a newspaper folded up and thrust into a side pocket of his jumper.
We never had a harsh word, me and Willie,” he said. “I think he'd want me to tell you what I'm fixin' to tell you, boy.”
I nodded, looked him right straight in the eye.
"You don't put your feet on higher ground – son – you're going to the pen…"
Held up his hand and arched his brows to stave off any remark – the one I would in no case have dared to make – and continued.
“Right or wrong, son. That's just the way it's done. You shook these people up, and they will have their innings.”
The expression brought back the crack of the bat, the moan of the crowd following the fly ball through the sky, the chatter of the infield, the hustle and pop of the ball socking into the pocket of a well-oiled glove.
Then he told me the strangest tale. The most electrifying and impromptu interview I have ever been given.
“You can't outdo the law, hoss. Just can't be done.”
Said he didn't want any of this printed until he was long gone and forgotten, but he wanted me to remember what he was going to say.
“This bird named Barrow? They caught him a'stealing cars in Waco when he was about 14. He wasn't big as a minute – never weighed much more than 135–40 pounds. Shoot, he wasn't much bigger than his girl, Bonnie.”
As the story developed, it became very apparent what the old time lawman was talking about. He was explaining what classification of prisoners in jails is all about, and how it is used as a weapon – for good or evil.
Like the classic Jim Thompson character in “The Getaway,” “It does something to you – in there – It does something to you,” said Carter “Doc” McCoy.
“They put him in a high power tank down there at Waco – on one of the floors where everybody had been in the pen before…It was hard times, Jimbo. Mighty hard times.” He let that sink in. “And he wasn't but 14 years old. Get it?”
So Clyde Barrow went back to Cement City and the West Dallas world of Singleton Avenue wrecking yards with a new moniker. They called him School Boy – from then on – in the underworld of cops and robbers.
“You know what those old boys did to him in that jail house, Jimbo. He never was right – after that. The girl was just for show, you hear me? They always traveled with another young man.”
Another meaningful silence.
“>When they killed Lloyd Bucher, I said I was fed up. I said he was going to have a seat in that electric chair, and I was going to be a witness.”
Then he told the story about the robbery and killing of the pawn broker, jeweler, and suspected fence who had a shop out in the country on the old Ft. Worth highway – Lloyd Bucher.
The Barrow gang always traveled as if they were string banding, playing at dances in houses and halls and blind pig beer joints. They had guitars and fiddles – Clyde had a saxophone.
They came in the middle of the night and told Mr. Bucher they needed guitar strings. He didn't believe them, but finally they persuaded him to let them in, according to his wife.
Something went wrong, once he got the safe open. Crouched down, going through the money and valuables stashed there, he may have struggled, or he may have gone for a hideout gun he kept in the safe.
It was the Barrow gang's first killing, before the deputy at Atoka, before the two highway patrol motorcycle officers near Grapevine – the first one, before any of the rest.
Mr. Bob Wilkerson, then Chief Deputy, had thrown down the gauntlet. Clyde Barrow and Raymond Hamilton would face execution.
He passed the word.
When School Boy heard it, he said there was no way he was going to just haul off and take a seat in Sparky. He would fight to the finish.
It was on.
By the time they were finished, it was Bonnie and Clyde 13 – nine of their victims were police officers – and The State of Texas 2.
Ex-Ranger Frank Hamer and a posse of Dallas deputies of Sheriff Smoot Schmid, the Harley-Davidson dealer in Big D, gunned them down with Browning Automatic Rifles at Arcadia, Louisiana, for the killing of the riding boss at Eastham Prison Farm the day they broke Hamilton out of that joint.
Mr. Bob finished his story this way.
"The night they executed old Hamilton, I had a word with him. I said, 'Son, have you got anything you want to tell me before it's too late?'"
“He said, 'The one who done this killing isn't here tonight.' That was all he would ever say. I asked him for that name, but he wouldn't give it up.”
Bob Wilkerson turned on his heel, put one well-polished wingtip ahead of the other, and walked away.
It was the last time we ever spoke to one another.