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The "Wild Bunch"

Jack Fowler

I think most of us of a certain age went through this phase as kids growing up. We had the western movies, and TV series as inspiration, and it was just a normal part of childhood. Most

of us grew out of it, some later than others, some *much* later than others, and some today are just spoken of quietly, and sadly by the women-folk in their families. I went through the normal phase at a normal age, and then was re-infected in my mid-twenties by a rowdy band of young men the likes of which I had never met before, and am unlikely to meet ever again.

I met Bill Powell when we both worked at the GM plant in Arlington, TX. Our work stations were close, and we had exchanged pleasantries, but our friendship was forged out of the trouble we had to deal with by refusing to join the UAW. He had worked there much longer than I, and had dealt with the unpleasantness all before. When I refused to join, and the trouble started, he came around to lend a hand. I learned years later that he, and I had been the only two workers in the entire plant to refuse membership that anyone could remember. We began to run together, and one Friday close to quitting time, he walked up, and said "let's go to Graham." I asked why on earth would we do that at 11:00 PM, and he said "To do some shootin', and play cowboys, of course!" Hey, I was 24, single, and it was 1971. Hardly anything was considered a bad idea.

Bill had met Charlie Graham in college. Charlie had since moved home to Graham, to help his Dad in the cattle business, and open a whiskey store out near Possum Kingdom Lake. He and Robert Youngblood had been friends since childhood, and Robert had returned to Graham after a hitch in the army, and a tour of Viet Nam. There were some regular additions to us four who always came, and went, but we formed the core of this particular "Wild Bunch".

After finishing our shift, and going home to pack, Bill and I set out for Graham around 11:30. We took the back roads out of Mineral Wells, and as soon as we cleared the last lights of town, we stopped, and unlimbered all the guns, holsters, belts, ammo, and other gear. From now until Sunday evening, we were "bad hombres" out in bad hombre territory. We didn't shoot up the road, or do other stupid stuff. None of us were raised that way. Even then, we practiced a modicum of gun safety, and responsibility. It was just the height of "cool" to be cruising along in relative wilderness in the middle of the night with all of our treasures laid out in our laps, and on the seat. We all packed pistols back home, of course, but in the era long before CCL, we had to be careful, and well hidden. So far, this going to Graham idea was a great one.

Charlie closed the whiskey store at Midnight. He had a small living quarters built into the back, and retired there to do the day's accounting, and crack a jug of sour mash to wind down from the long day. His store was 30 mi. east of Graham, and we pulled in around 12:30, and parked around the side. As we were climbing out of the car, the side door banged open, and out stepped Charlie. He fired two rounds in the air one handed from an old sawed-off Remington mod. 11, and bellowed: "Stand fast varmints! I dunno who y'are, but it's after closin', and yer fixin' to eat a passle of buckshot!". I dove back into the car to await further developments. Bill bellowed back: "Belay that scattergun you crazy little *@$%#, it's Powell!" 

"I knew that." said Charlie. "I was just testin' ya!" I kind of eased back out of the car, and stood behind the door as Bill, and Charlie exchanged a warm handshake. Charlie looked over, and gestured toward me with the shotgun. "What's wrong with him?" Bill ignored the question, and called me over for an introduction. Charlie greeted me with a firm handshake, and a hearty "howdy pard!" That was my introduction to the one-of-a-kind Charles M. Graham.

We retired into the brightly lit quarters, and found chairs. Charlie reached into an old bank bag, pulled out two rounds of buckshot, and stuffed them into the old shotgun before placing it back on a wall rack by the door. As he pulled up a chair, and offered the jug around, I surveyed the place. The walls were covered with western memorabilia of every description. A hat rack contained several well beaten Stetsons, a sombrero, and three, or four pistol belts, with the butts of unknown sixguns poking from the holsters. After a sip, and some small talk, Bill, and I went out and gathered our guns, and brought them in, and scattered them out on the old single bed. We all did a good bit of trading, even back then, and by each trip to Graham, we all had new wares to show off. Charlie rummaged around in drawers, closets, and gun belts, and added his stuff to the pile. An hour or so of spirited horse-trading ensued, and I was in my element. Charlie, and I hit it off like bread, and butter, and by the time we shut the place down, and headed for Graham, we were old buddies.

Robert Youngblood probably had a report card in his past where a teacher had written in the comment section: "doesn't play well with the other children". He was a 25 year old class A curmudgeon. His recent tour as a grunt in Viet Nam hadn't improved his outlook on life. He was a born-and-raised product of West Texas, and all that that entails. Pure cowboy, but well read, smart as a whip, and loyal to a fault with those who earned his friendship. He had taken a job running Casburn's all-night gas station, mainly to keep from having to sleep.

Now Graham hardly needed an all-night gas station, but Bill Casburn had practically raised Robert from a pup, and knew the combination of a much needed income, and the solitude of a night shift was tailor-made for Robert. He could trust him unflinchingly, and the place probably did enough post beer-joint business to pay Robert's wages. As we rolled into the driveway in a cloud of dust, and dinging bells, he stepped to the door with a sawed-off 97 Winchester propped on his hip, and a scowl that any western movie bad guy would kill for. He didn't move until the engines stopped, and the dust quit billowing, and began to hang in the hot, still air. His greeting was heart-warming. "Now just what in the hell is all this shit!?"

I made a mental note about short shotguns being real popular with this bunch, and climbed out for another introduction, counting on Powell to keep me alive. Robert was a dead ringer for John Russell, the star of numerous western movies, and a TV series, or two. Square jawed, with a ruddy, weathered countenance, he could pass for 26, or 46 on any given day. He was Charlie's opposite in personality. Taciturn, and moody, he was not unpleasant, but still quite a shift from Charlie's back-slapping ebullience. Again we took chairs in the classic old Mom&Pop gas station, and broke out the jug, and the arsenal. Robert eagerly "cooned" each gun as it came around, but he was not a trader. To this day, he still owns the first gun he ever bought, and all the others in between. If true love happened to break out, we had to let him have it on credit, paid out over several years. He was choosey, and knew his limitations, so it didn't happen often. My demeanor was actually closer to Robert's, and Bill was a natural salesman with a friendly, outgoing manner, so we kind of split evenly, with two back-slappers, and two scowlers. 

We passed a couple of pleasant hours in the middle of the night, perhaps for our years prematurely aware of the values of good friends, good places, good guns, and good times. The reverie was broken only by the occasional customer, which unleashed a flood of profanity from Robert, highly indignant that some fool would interrupt his evening for something as silly as gas from a gas station. 

We left the station, and headed out to Charlie's place on the edge of town. It was 5:30, or so, and Bill, and Charlie agreed that we had better get some quick shut-eye, because Robert finished his shift at 7:30. At the time, I had no idea what this implied, but that would end soon enough. We piled up on couches, floors, etc. It had been a long day, to say the least, and I had met a couple of very interesting characters. We seldom drank to drunkenness, even back then, but I had no trouble dozing off. I slept the sleep of the innocent, brief as it was, having not a clue as to what was in store in less than two hours.

Blam! blam! blam! (gunfire?) "Get outa them racks you lazy sunsabitches! Yer burnin' good daylight!" My still-asleep mind raced to catch up...Crash! Bang! the door swept open, and a kicked chair crashed over followed by the unmistakable "RICK-RACK" of a pump shotgun chambering a round. I suppose there's worse ways to die, I mused, in the tangled sensory confusion my brain was trying to make some sense of. Much louder now.."Up and attem, girls! Ya gonna sleep all day!?" Oh God, please don't fire the shotgun in the house...

Now in stereo, from the other end of the house: "Shaddap ya crazy %#&*!! Do ya think you can make a little more racket!?" Oh God don't ask him that..he has the shotgun! I peeked over the old blanket I was under to see John Russell, backlit by a blazing sun coming through the door, shotgun again on the hip, surveying the scene with that scowl. I waited for someone to yell "cut!" but was instead greeted by the visage of one Charlie Graham, clad only in baggy drawers, and a gun belt, padding up the hall waving a 7 1/2" Ruger Blackhawk, and muttering a string of profanities. "Put that %#* shotgun down, and Shaddap!! What the hell do you think yer doin' bustin' in here like that!?" He punctuated all this with the barrel of the Blackhawk, of course. Robert whooped with delight, and asked: "You girls hungry?" He leaned the shotgun against the wall, and in a flurry of clanging pots, and pans, set about whipping up his famous "Breakfast Mulligan", which is a story unto itself for another time. I sat up, feeling like road kill, and was greeted with a cheerful "morning pard!" from Charlie, who was now seated at the big kitchen table with the Ruger in front of him. "Are ya'll done?" I asked rather peevishly."Done with what?" came the cheerfull reply. "get y'ass up, boy! we got powder to burn!".

I learned over the years that this Saturday morning ritual was repeated with infinite variations and had great fun playing my own part(s) for various uninitiated guests. Knowing their terror from that first morning's personal experience just made it all the more fun. We three, who had had "plenty of sleep" according to Robert, got up, got dressed, and gathered around the table for black coffee that would float a nail, and plates of steaming Mulligan. I suppose it was really something to be that young, tough as leather, and immortal. With 2 hours sleep over a snoot full of sour mash, and a "breakfast" that would probably be illegal today, we were gassed up, and ready to go, good as new. I say I suppose, because at the time that's just how it was, and we had no idea how quickly it would pass.

Dishes were cleared, and smokes were lit. After a bit of patter, Robert went out to his car, Charlie retired to the bedroom, and Bill rummaged in his gun bag. In no time, six, or seven Uberti replicas of Colt cap n' ball revolvers were laying on the table. They represented most of the Colt models Uberti copied, and were in various stages of condition, from well used, to near new. Most Ubertis at the time sold for under a hundred bucks, and littered the pawn shops for $35 on up to $75 for a good 1860 Army copy in .44 cal. I had been along when Bill had traded for a couple, but it was clear that these boys had a use for them. A couple of powder flasks appeared, along with a few cap tins, and loading began in earnest.

A wad of toilet paper from a half-roll went in in place of a lead ball, and I joined in the loading. I soon noticed that Bill was done loading, and was glaring at Robert. When he caught Robert's eye, he got all squinty, and declared in a low voice: "Yew arn't not to have done my daughter thataway you mangey $%&#$!!" Robert waited half a beat, and bolted for the door with Bill hot on his heels. Charlie, and I crowded to the door to watch as Robert sprinted out onto the weeded, dusty yard. Bill stood in the doorway, and bellowed: "Halt! you $@%!" "Stand and deliver!!" He punctuated this with a shot in the air. With amazing grace, and speed, Robert whirled around in mid-stride, and fired two shots at Bill, but it was too late.

Bill fired twice, and Robert reacted beautifully to both shots. His pistol went flying, and he jerked around, and collapsed in a dust cloud of flying arms, and legs. Charlie bounded from the porch, screaming "my brother! you kilt my brother, you %#&**!!" When he reached Robert's "body", he whirled and fired on Bill, still in the doorway. Bill flinched, doubled over, and began to fall back into the house, but let go his last two rounds as he fell. Charlie howled as he sprang up straight, flung his pistol in the air, and collapsed in a dusty heap next to Robert. I stood there somewhat dumbfounded, but very impressed as I eyed the three bodies. Inspired, I declared: "You boys caint shoot no better than that, you oughter be daid!" In a flash, Charlie, and Robert sprang up, found their pistols, and emptied them in my direction. I did a dandy dramatic stagger off the porch, and collapsed in a dusty heap, letting off a round, or two in the dirt as I fell.

This is how it went for most of the day. Robert had a trunk full of hats, vests, etc. and costuming became part of the show. Old hammer-double shotguns were produced, and loaded with Robert's hastily crafted blanks. Other friends showed up, and joined in. Scripts were agreed to on the spot, and acted out. We shot each other off the roof. We used Charlie's old tractor as a "horse", and shot each other off of it, careful to always clear the wheels, of course. People came, and went, took breaks, made sandwiches, etc.

By late afternoon, we were exhausted, and filthy. There are old pictures around, taken during these shoots, and we hardly recognize ourselves. Between the black powder, and the dirt, we looked like dust covered coal miners. We took turns cleaning up, and attending to myriad cuts, scrapes, and scratches. By evening, we were ready to roll again.

Robert left to clean up at home, and get ready for work. We lounged around until dark, and took off for town. The Dairy Queen was next to Casburn's station, and was a natural hang out. We gathered food, and went over to sit with Robert at the station, keeping an eye on the comely lasses that came and went. Friends would show up, talk a bit, and roar off to make another round. We drifted from the station to the DQ, and back, flirting with the counter help, and trying to mooch free food. Around 11:00, we left Robert in charge, and went out to the drive-in movie. These were gone, even by 1971, but Graham still had one, run by the same friendly couple for years, and well attended by the locals. We rolled past the closed ticket booth, and parked beside the concession stand/projection booth. Charlie went around to the booth to take the old projector man his weekly delivery of a quart of something, and came back around. We all went into the food area, and said howdys all around.

 Sometimes we watched the last of the movie, sometimes we just chatted with the folks until closing. Charlie, Bill, and I then went back to Charlie's place, passed the jug with whoever showed up, and relaxed, and swapped lies until early morning. Even at that age, the last two days had taken their toll, and we were beat. We all bedded down for some real sleep, at least four, or five hours. We all knew that you-know-who would repeat his charming alarm ritual promptly at 7:30 in the morning.

Sure enough, Sunday morning was a repeat of Saturday. This time, however, Robert was taken aback by Bill, and I joining in in the spirited response, complete with the waving of pistols, and grumbled profanities. More Mulligan, and black coffee.

Today was live ammo day. Buddies Hardware sold Alcan 12 ga. shotshells for $1.98 a box of 25. We drove down there and bought 10 boxes each. As for centerfire, none of us reloaded, but seemed to trade into odd boxes of ammo at different times, and there was always enough for at least a little shooting of whatever pistols we had. The morning, however, was shotguns! Robert, Bill, and I each had a 97. Charlie had his Remington auto, and an old Stevens 520 pump. Assorted single, and double guns were scattered about Charlie's house. Few had barrels longer than 18". We shot up everything that Charlie approved as a target, and a few things he didn't. We lined up four abreast, and marched on an old tree, all of us firing from the hip as fast as we could.

We created scenarios with dialog, and acted them out. As the shells ran low, or the guns became too hot to use, we would retire to the kitchen table, and load the Ubertis, this time with ball. Robert had an old Hawes Western Marshall in .45 Colt, and a S&W mod. 28 6".(he still has them both) Charlie had a pair of Ballister Molina .45 autos. I had a re-blued S&W mod.24 in .44 spec. and a Colt Govt. Model .45. Bill had a Colt New Service 1917, and two Astra 9mm autos. By the time we broke for lunch, they had all seen service.

During a leisurely lunch of burgers, or sandwiches, Charlie always appointed himself to go out, and gather the hundreds of empty shotshells scattered around the yard, and line them up in groups, circles, lines, or whatever came to him. By the time we were ready to resume, the yard resembled a dream shooting gallery, with lines of empty shotshells everywhere. We used up the rest of our pistol ammo, and then broke out our mixed collection of .22 rifles. The afternoon was spent dreaming up ways to slay these lines of "enemy troops". Mass attacks, sniper fire, occasional artillery hits with leftover shotgun shells, and finally daring bets on the few left standing, or those knocked far away, and laying on their sides. In a few hours, the carnage was complete, and there wasn't a live round in the house, except for the "ready" pieces. We sat around the living room, for a bit, and then it was time to go. Bill, and I packed everything away, hidden for city driving, and said our adios to these two characters.

As we motored back to Arlington, we were exhausted. We were again filthy, and had guns, clothes, and bodies to clean before we could turn in at our respective homes. As the sun set behind us over the wild mesquite pastures of near west Texas, he finally turned, and asked me what I thought of the weekend. I paused a bit, and slyly asked: "When we goin' back?" He laughed, and said "next week?"

We did go back, week in, and week out, for many years. Bill, Charlie, and Robert became lifelong friends. Time passed, and things changed like they always do. Women made their mark on all of us, and we grew into men with men's responsibilities. For many years, we adjusted our "Wild Bunch" weekends to accommodate the changes, and they became social events for wives, kids, and a few siblings that came of age, and joined in. 

By the end of the decade, however, it was done. We were in our thirties, and could no longer stay up all night, and fall off roofs, and tractors all day, especially with clucking women around reminding us of our age. I think "Breakfast Mulligan" was eventually banned as a hazardous substance by the EPA. Yes, it was "childish", yes it was macho role plating, but it had it's practical aspects as well. It was good practice. Blanks, or not, we all became reflexive "gunmen", learning to act, and react in stressful situations. It also forged an attitude in all of us, and only so much of that attitude was bluff, and bluster. The shooting, and the dying may have passed with our twenties, but not the nerve, and the grit. There were good points, and bad points, but above all else, it was great fun.

Charlie died suddenly in 1986 of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. He was the "glue" of the Wild Bunch, and much of it died with him. Robert still lives with his family in Graham and is the unofficial group historian, holding the photos, and remembering the details. Bill, and I have gone on to have other adventures, separately, and together. He lives in a suburb of Ft. Worth, and I in the boonies of far north Texas. The three of us stay in regular contact, and are still only a few hours apart. When we occasionally get together, it takes little prompting for Bill to go all squinty eyed at Robert, and mutter lowly: "Yew art'not done thataway wif my daughter!!"

Write to Jack