Page 3 of The Last Juror

The Big Brown River drops nonchalantly south from Tennessee and runs as straight as a hand-dug channel for thirty miles through the center of Tyler County, Mississippi. Two miles above the Ford County line it begins twisting and looping, and by the time it leaves Tyler County it looks like a scared snake, curling desperately and going nowhere. Its water is thick and heavy, muddy and slow, shallow in most places. The Big Brown is not known for its beauty. Sand, silt, and gravel bars line its innumerable bends and curves. A hundred sloughs and creeks feed it with an inexhaustible supply of slow-moving water.

Its journey through Ford County is brief. It dips and forms a wide circle around two thousand acres in the northeasternmost corner of the county, then leaves and heads back toward Tennessee. The circle is almost perfect and an island is almost formed, but at the last moment the Big Brown turns away from itself and leaves a narrow strip of land between its banks.

The circle is known as Padgitt Island, a deep, dense woodland covered in pine, gum, elm, oak, and a myriad of swamps and bayous and sloughs, some connected but most isolated. Little of the rich soil had ever been cleared. Nothing was harvested on the island except timber and lots of corn for illegal whiskey. And marijuana, but that was a later story.

On the thin strip of land between the banks of the Big Brown a paved road entered and left, came and went, always with someone watching. The road was built long ago by the county, but very few taxpayers ever dared to use it.

The entire island had been in the Padgitt family since Reconstruction, when Rudolph Padgitt, a carpetbagger from the North, arrived a bit late after the War and found all the prime land taken. He searched in vain, found nothing attractive, then somehow stumbled upon the snake-infested island. On the map, it looked promising. He put together a band of newly freed slaves and, with guns and machetes, fought his way onto the island. No one else wanted it.

Rudolph married a local whore and began cutting timber. Since timber was in great demand after the War, he became prosperous. The local proved to be quite fertile and soon there was a horde of little Padgitts on the island. One of his ex-slaves had learned the art of distillery. Rudolph became a corn farmer who neither ate nor sold his crop, but instead used it to produce what was soon known as one of the finest whiskeys in the Deep South.

For thirty years Rudolph made moonshine until he died of cirrhosis in 1902. By then an entire clan of Padgitts inhabited the island, and were quite proficient at milling timber and producing illegal whiskey. Scattered about the island were half a dozen distilleries, all well protected and concealed, all operating with state-of-the-art machinery.

The Padgitts were famous for their whiskey, though fame was not something they sought. They were secretive and clannish, fiercely private and deathly afraid that someone might infiltrate their little kingdom and disrupt their considerable profits. They said they were loggers, and it was well known that they produced timber and were prosperous at it. The Padgitt Lumber Company was very visible on the main highway near the river. They claimed to be legitimate people, taxpayers and such, with their children in the public schools.

During the 1920s and 1930s, when alcohol was illegal and the nation was thirsty, Padgitt whiskey could not be distilled fast enough. It was shipped in oak barrels across the Big Brown and hauled by trucks up North, as far away as Chicago. The patriarch, president, and director of production and marketing was a tight-fisted old warrior named Clovis Padgitt, eldest son of Rudolph and the local. Clovis had been taught at an early age that the best profits were those from which no taxes were extracted. That was lesson number one. Number two preached the marvelous message of dealing strictly in cash. Clovis was a hard-nosed cash and no-taxes man, and the Padgitts were rumored to have more money than the Mississippi state treasury.

In 1938, three revenue agents sneaked across the Big Brown in a rented flatboat in search of the source of Old Padgitt. Their covert invasion of the island was flawed in many ways, the obvious being the original idea itself. But for some reason they chose midnight as their hour to cross the river. They were dismembered and buried in deep graves.

In 1943, a strange event occurred in Ford County - an honest man was elected Sheriff. Or High Sheriff, as he is commonly known. His name was Koonce Lantrip, and he wasn't really that honest but certainly sounded good on the stump. He vowed to end corruption, to clean up county government, to put the bootleggers and moonshiners, even the Padgitts, out of business. It made for a nice speech and Lantrip won by eight votes.

His supporters waited and waited, and, finally, six months after taking office he organized his deputies and crossed the Big Brown on the only bridge, an ancient wooden structure that had been built by the county in 1915 at the insistence of Clovis. The Padgitts sometimes used it in the springtime when the river was high. No one else was allowed to cross it.

Two of the deputies were shot in the head, and Lantrip's body was never found. It was carefully laid to rest on the banks of a swamp by three Padgitt Negroes. Buford, the eldest son of Clovis, supervised the burial.

The massacre was hot news in Mississippi for weeks, and the Governor threatened to send in the National Guard. But the Second War was raging, and D-Day soon captured the attention of the country. There wasn't much left of the National Guard anyway, and those who were able to light had little interest in attacking Padgitt Island. The beaches of Normandy would be more inviting.

With the noble experiment of an honest Sheriff behind them, the good people of Ford County elected one from the old school. His name was Mackey Don Coley and his father had been the High Sheriff back in the twenties when Clovis was in charge of Padgitt Island. Clovis and the senior Coley had been rather close, and it was widely known that the Sheriff was a rich man because Old Padgitt was allowed to move so freely out of the county. When Mackey Don announced his candidacy, Buford sent him $50,000 in cash. Mackey Don won in a landslide. His opponent claimed to be honest.

There was a widely held but unprofessed belief in Mississippi that a good Sheriff must be a little crooked to ensure law and order. Whiskey, whoring, and gambling were simply facts of life, and a good Sheriff must be knowledgeable in these affairs to properly regulate them and protect the Christians. Those vices could not be eliminated, so the High Sheriff must be able to coordinate them and synchronize the orderly flow of sin. For his coordinating efforts, he was to be paid a little extra from the purveyors of such wickedness. He expected it. Most of the voters expected it. No honest man could live on such a humble salary. No honest man could move quietly through the shadows of the underworld.

For the better part of a hundred years following the Civil War, the Padgitts owned the Sheriffs of Ford County. They bought them outright with sacks of cash. Mackey Don Coley received a hundred thousand a year (it was rumored), and during election years he got whatever he needed. And they were generous with other politicians. They quietly bought and kept influence. They asked little; they just wanted to be left alone on their island.

After the Second War, the demand for moonshine began a steady decline. Since generations of Padgitts had been schooled to operate outside the law, Buford and the family began to diversify into other forms of illicit commerce. Selling only timber was dull, and subject to too many market factors, and, most important, did not generate the piles of cash the family expected. They ran guns, stole cars, counterfeited, bought and burned buildings to collect insurance. For twenty years they operated a highly successful brothel on the county line, until it mysteriously burned in 1966.

They were creative and energetic people, always scheming and searching for opportunity, always waiting for someone to rob. There were rumors, quite significant at times, that the Padgitts were members of the Dixie Mafia, a loose-knit gang of redneck thieves who ran rampant through the Deep South in the sixties. These rumors were never verified and were in fact discounted by many because the Padgitts were simply too secretive to share their business with anyone. Nonetheless, the rumors persisted for years, and the Padgitts were the source of endless gossip in the cafes and coffee shops around the square in Clanton. They were never considered local heroes, but certainly legends.

In 1967, a younger Padgitt fled to Canada to avoid the draft. He drifted to California where he tried marijuana and realized he had a taste for it. After a few months as a peacenik, he got homesick and sneaked back to Padgitt Island. He brought with him four pounds of pot, which he shared with all his cousins, and they, too, were quite taken with it. He explained that the rest of the country, and primarily California, was toking like crazy. As usual, Mississippi was at least five years behind the trend.

The stuff could be grown cheaply, then hauled to the cities where there was demand. His father, Gill Padgitt, grandson of Clovis, saw the opportunity, and soon many of the old cornfields were converted to cannabis. A two-thousand-foot strip of land was cleared for a runway and the Padgitts bought themselves an airplane. Within a year there were daily flights to the outskirts of Memphis and Atlanta, where the Padgitts had established their network. To their delight and with their help, marijuana finally became popular in the Deep South.

The moonshining slowed considerably. The brothel was gone. The Padgitts had contacts in Miami and Mexico and the cash was coming in by the truckloads. For years, no one in Ford County had a hint that the Padgitts were trafficking in drugs. And they never got caught. No Padgitt was ever indicted for a drug-related offense.

In fact, not a single Padgitt had ever been arrested. A hundred years of moonshining, stealing, gunrunning, gambling, counterfeiting, whoring, bribing, even killing, and eventually drug manufacturing, and not a single arrest. They were smart people, careful, deliberate, patient with their schemes.

Then Danny Padgitt, Gill's youngest son, was arrested for the rape and murder of Rhoda Kassellaw.

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