Page 27 of Ford County

Coz; had advice for lots of things in Belize. When he realized he was getting little from his drinking buddy, he said, "You're smart. Don't talk too much around here. You got a lot of Yanks running from something."

Later, in the hammock, Mack rocked with the breeze, gazed at the ocean, listened to the surf, sipped a rum and soda, and asked himself if he was really running. There were no warrants, court orders, or creditors chasing him. At least none that he knew of. Nor did he expect any. He could go home tomorrow if he chose, but that thought was distasteful. Home was gone. Home was something he had just escaped. The shock of leaving weighed heavy, but the rum certainly helped.

Mack spent the first week either in the hammock or by the pool, carefully soaking up the sun before hustling back to the porch for a reprieve. When he wasn't napping, tanning, or loi' tering at the bar, he took long walks by the water. A companion would be nice, he said to himself. He chatted with the tourists at the small hotels and fishing lodges, and he finally got lucky with a pleasant young lady from Detroit. At times he was bored, but being bored in Belize was far better than being bored in Clanton.

On March 25, Mack awoke from a bad dream. For some awful reason he remembered the date because a new term of chancery court began on that day in Clanton, and under usual circumstances Mack would be at the docket call in the main courtroom. There, along with twenty other lawyers, he would answer when his name was called and inform the judge that Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So were present and ready to get their divorce. He had at least three on the docket for that day. Sadly, he could still re-member their names. It was nothing but an assembly line, and Mack was a low-paid and very replaceable worker.

Lying naked under thin sheets, he closed his eyes. He inhaled and sniffed the musty oak and leather smell of the old courtroom. He heard the voices of the other lawyers as they bickered importantly over the last-minute details. He saw the judge in his faded black robe sitting low in a massive chair waiting impatiently for papers to sign to dissolve yet another marriage made in heaven.

Then he opened his eyes, and as he watched the slow silent spin of the ceiling fan, and listened to the early-morning sounds of the ocean, Mack Stafford was suddenly and thoroughly consumed with the joys of freedom. He quickly pulled on some gym shorts and ran down the beach to a pier that jutted two hundred feet into the water. Sprinting, he raced along the pier and never slowed as it came to an end. Mack was laughing as he launched himself through the air and landed in a mighty splash. The sauna-like water pushed him to the top, and he started swimming.


Clanton's most ambitious hustler was a tractor dealer named Bobby Carl Leach. From a large gravel sales lot on the high' way north of town, Bobby Carl built an empire that, at one time or another, included a backhoe and dozer service, a fleet of pulp' wood trucks, two all-you-can-eat catfish cabins, a motel, some raw timberland upon which the sheriff found marijuana in cultivation, and a collection of real estate that primarily comprised empty buildings scattered around Clanton. Most of them eventually burned. Arson followed Bobby Carl, as did litigation. He was no stranger to lawsuits; indeed, he loved to brag about all the lawyers he kept busy. With a colorful history of shady deals, divorces, IRS audits, fraudulent insurance claims, and near indictments, Bobby Carl was a small industry unto himself, at least to the local bar association. And though he was always in the vicinity of trouble, he had never been seriously prosecuted. Over time, his ability to elude the law added to his reputation, and most of Clanton enjoyed repeating and embellishing stories about Bobby Carl's dealings.

His car of choice was a Cadillac DeVille, always maroon and new and spotless. He traded every twelve months for the latest model. No one else dared drive the same car. He once bought a Rolls-Royce, the only one within two hundred miles, but kept it less than a year. When he realized such an exotic vehicle had lit' tie impact on the locals, he got rid of it. They had no idea where it was made and how much it cost. None of the mechanics in town would touch it; not that it mattered because they couldn't find parts for it anyway.

He wore cowboy boots with dangerously pointed toes, starched white shirts, and dark three-piece suits, the pockets of which were always stuffed with cash. And every outfit was adorned with an astonishing collection of gold - thick watches, bulky neck chains, bracelets, belt buckles, collar pins, tie bars. Bobby Carl gathered gold the way some women hoard shoes. There was gold trim in his cars, office, briefcases, knives, portrait frames, even his plumbing fixtures. He liked diamonds too. The IRS could not keep track of such portable wealth, and the black market was a natural shopping place for Bobby Carl.

Gaudy as he was in public, he was fanatical about his private life. He lived quietly in a weird contemporary home deep in the hills east of Clanton, and the fact that so few people had ever seen his place fueled rumors that it was used for all sorts of illegal and immoral activities. There was some truth to these rumors. A man of his status quite naturally attracted "women of the looser variety, and Bobby Carl loved the ladies. He married several of them, always to his regret. He enjoyed booze, but never to excess. There were wild friends and rowdy parties, but Bobby Carl Leach never missed an hour of work because of a hangover. Money was much too important.

At 5:00 every morning, including Sundays, his maroon DeVille made a quick loop around the Ford County Courthouse in downtown Clanton. The stores and offices were always empty and dark, and this pleased him greatly. Let 'em sleep. The bankers and lawyers and real estate agents and merchants -who told stories about him while they envied his money were never at work at 5:00 in the morning. He relished the darkness and tranquility, the absence of competition at that hour. After his daily victory lap, he sped away to his office, which was on the site of his tractor sales lot and was, without question, the largest in the county. It covered the second floor of an old redbrick building built before Pearl Harbor, and from behind its darkly tinted windows Bobby Carl could keep an eye on his tractors while also watching the highway traffic.

Alone and content at that early hour, he began each day with a pot of strong coffee, which he drained as he read his newspapers. He subscribed to every daily he could get - Memphis, Jackson, Tupelo - and the weeklies from the surrounding counties. Reading and gulping coffee with a vengeance, he combed the papers not for the news but for the opportunities. Buildings for sale, farmland, foreclosures, factories coming and going, auctions, bankruptcies, liquidations, requests for bids, bank mergers, upcoming public works. The walls of his office were covered with plats of land and aerial photos of towns and counties. The local land rolls were in his computer. He knew who was behind on their property taxes, and for how long and how much, and he gathered and stored this information in the predawn hours while everyone else was asleep.

His greatest weakness, far ahead of women and whiskey, was gambling. He had a long and ugly history with Las Vegas and poker clubs and sports bookies. He routinely dropped serious cash at the dog track in West Memphis and once nearly bankrupted himself on a cruise ship to Bermuda. And when casino gambling arrived, quite unexpectedly, in Mississippi, his empire began taking on worrisome levels of debt. Only one local bank would deal with him anyway, and when he tapped out there to cover his losses at the craps tables, he was forced to hock some gold in Memphis to meet his payroll. Then a building burned. He bullied the insurance company into a settlement, and his cash crisis abated, for the moment.