Page 37 of The Last Juror

The single shot that killed Lenny Fargarson was fired from a 30.06 hunting rifle. The killer could have been as far as two hundred yards away from the front porch where Lenny died. Thick woods began just beyond the wide lawn around the house, and there was a good chance whoever pulled the trigger had climbed a tree and had a perfectly concealed view of poor Lenny.

No one heard the shot. Lenny was sitting on the porch, in his wheelchair, reading one of the many books he borrowed each week from the Clanton library. His father was delivering mail. His mother was shopping at Bargain City. In all likelihood, Lenny felt no pain and died instantly. The bullet entered the right side of his head, just over the jaw, and created a massive exit wound above his left ear.

When his mother found him, he'd been dead for some time. She somehow managed to control herself and refrain from touching his body or the scene. Blood was all over the porch, even dripping onto the front steps.

Wiley heard the report on his police scanner. He called me with the chilling announcement, "It has begun. Fargarson, the crippled boy, is dead."

Wiley swung by the office, I jumped in his pickup, and we were off to the crime scene. Neither of us said a word, but we were thinking the same thing.

Lenny was still on the porch. The shot had knocked him out of his wheelchair and he lay on his side, with his face toward the house. Sheriff McNatt asked us not to take photos, and we readily complied. The paper would not have used them anyway.

Friends and relatives were flocking over, and they were directed by the deputies to a side door. McNatt used his men to shield the body on the front porch. I backed away and tried to take in that horrible scene - cops hovering over Lenny while those who loved him tried to get a glimpse of him as they hurried inside to console his parents.

When the body was finally loaded onto a gurney and placed in an ambulance, Sheriff McNatt came over and leaned on the pickup next to me.

"Are you thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" he said.

"Yep."

"Can you find me a list of the jurors?"

Though we had never printed the names of the jurors, I had the information in an old file. "Sure," I said.

"How long will it take you?" he asked.

"Give me an hour. What's your plan?"

"We gotta notify those folks."

As we were leaving, the deputies were beginning to comb the thick woods around the Fargarson home.

* * *

I took the list to the Sheriff's office, and we looked over it together. In 1977, I had written the obituary for juror number five, Mr. Fred Bilroy, a retired forest ranger who died suddenly of pneumonia. As far as I knew, the other ten were still alive.

McNatt gave the list to three of his deputies. They dispersed to deliver news that no one wanted to hear. I volunteered to tell Callie Ruffin.

She was on the porch watching Esau and Sam wage war over a game of checkers. They were delighted to see me, but the mood quickly changed. "I have some disturbing news, Miss Callie," I said somberly. They waited.

"Lenny Fargarson, that crippled boy on the jury with you, was murdered this afternoon."

She covered her mouth and fell into her rocker. Sam steadied her, then patted her shoulder. I gave a brief description of what happened.

"He was such a good Christian boy," Miss Callie said. "We prayed together before we began deliberating." She wasn't crying, but she was on the verge. Esau went to fetch her a blood pressure pill. He and Sam sat beside her rocker while I sat in the swing. We were all bunched together on the small porch, and for a long time little was said. Miss Callie lapsed into a long, brooding spell.

It was a warm spring night, under a half-moon, and Lowtown was busy with kids on bikes, neighbors talking across fences, a rowdy basketball game under way down the street. A gang of ten-year-olds became infatuated with my Spitfire, and Sam finally ran them off. It was only the second time I had been there after dark. "Is it like this every night?" I finally asked.

"Yes, when the weather's nice," Sam said, anxious to talk. "It was a wonderful place to grow up. Everybody knows everybody. When I was nine years old I broke a car windshield with a baseball. I turned tail and ran, ran straight home, and when I got here Momma was waiting on the front porch. She knew all about it. I had to walk back to the scene of the crime, confess, and promise to make full restitution."

"And you did," Esau said.

"Took me six months to work and save a hundred and twenty bucks."

Miss Callie almost smiled at the memory, but she was too preoccupied with Lenny Fargarson. Though she hadn't seen him in nine years, she had fond memories of him. His death truly saddened her, but it was also terrifying.

Esau fixed sweet tea with lemon, and when he returned from the inside of the house he quietly slid a double-barrel shotgun behind the rocker, within his reach but out of her sight.

As the hours passed, the foot traffic thinned and the neighbors withdrew. I decided that if Miss Callie stayed at home she would be a very difficult target. There were houses next door and across the street. There were no hills or towers or vacant lots within sight.

I didn't mention this, but I'm sure Sam and Esau were having the same thoughts. When she was ready for bed, I said my good nights and drove back to the jail. It was crawling with deputies, and had the carnival-like atmosphere that only a good murder could bring. I couldn't help but flash back nine years to the night Danny Padgitt was arrested and hauled in with blood on his shirt.

Only two of the jurors had not been found. Both had moved, and Sheriff McNatt was trying to track them down. He asked about Miss Callie and I said she was safe. I did not tell him Sam was home.

He closed the door to his office and said he had a favor to ask. "Tomorrow, can you go talk to Lucien Wilbanks?"

"Why me?"

"Well, I could, but, personally, I can't stand the bastard, and he feels the same way about me."

"Everybody hates Lucien," I said.

"Except..."

"Except... Harry Rex?"

"Harry Rex. What if you and Harry Rex go talk to Lucien? See if he will act as go-between to the Padgitts. I mean, at some point I gotta talk to Danny, right?"

"I guess. You're the Sheriff."

'Just have a chat with Lucien Wilbanks, that's all. Feel him out. If it goes well, then maybe I'll talk to him. It's different if the Sheriff goes bargin' in at first."

"I'd rather be lashed with a bullwhip," I said, and I wasn't joking.

"But you'll do it?"

"I'll sleep on it."

* * *

Harry Rex wasn't too thrilled with the idea either. Why should both of us get involved? We kicked it around over an early breakfast at the coffee shop, an unusual meal for us but then we didn't want to miss the first tidal wave of downtown gossip. Not surprisingly, the place was packed with anxious experts who were repeating all sorts of details and theories about the Fargarson murder. We listened more than we talked, and left around eight-thirty.

Two doors down from the coffee shop was the Wilbanks Building. As we walked by, I said, "Let's do it."

Pre-Lucien, the Wilbanks family had been a cornerstone of Clan-ton society, commerce, and law. In the golden years of the last century, they owned land and banks, and all of the men in the family had studied law, some at real Ivy League schools. But they had been in decline for many years. Lucien was the last male Wilbanks of any consequence, and there was an excellent chance he was about to be disbarred.

Ethel Twitty, the longtime secretary, greeted us rudely, almost sneering at Harry Rex, who mumbled to me under his breath, "Meanest bitch in town." I think she heard him. It was obvious they had been catfighting for many years. Her boss was in. What did we want?

"We want to see Lucien," Harry Rex said. "Why else would we be here?" She rang him up as we waited. "I don't have all day!" Harry Rex snapped at her at one point.

"Go ahead," she said, more to get rid of us than anything else. We climbed the steps. Lucien's office was huge, at least thirty feet wide and long with ten-foot ceilings and a row of French doors overlooking the square. It was on the north side, directly across from the Times, with the courthouse in between. Thankfully, I couldn't see Lucien's balcony from my porch.

He greeted us indifferently, as if we had interrupted a long serious meditation. Though it was early, his cluttered desk gave the impression of a man who'd worked all night. He had long grayish hair that ran down his neck, and an unfashionable goatee, and the tired red eyes of a serious drinker. "What's the occasion?" he asked, very slowly. We glared at each other, both conveying as much contempt as possible.

"Had a murder yesterday, Lucien," Harry Rex said. "Lenny Fargarson, that crippled boy on the jury."

"I'm assuming this is off the record," he said in my direction.

"It is," I said. "Completely. Sheriff McNatt asked me to stop by and say hello. I invited Harry Rex."

"So we're just socializing?"

"Maybe. Just having a little gossip about the murder," I said.

"I got the details," he said.

"Have you talked to Danny Padgitt lately?" Harry Rex asked.

"Not since he was paroled."

"Is he in the county?"

"He's in the state, I'm not sure exactly where. If he crosses the state line without permission he violates the conditions of his parole."

Why couldn't they parole him to, say, Wyoming? It seemed odd that he would be required to stay close to where he committed his crimes. Get rid of him!

"Sheriff McNatt would like to talk to him," I said.

"Oh does he? Why should that concern you and me? Tell the Sheriff to go talk to him."

"It's not that simple, Lucien, and you know it," Harry Rex said.

"Does the Sheriff have any proof against my client? Any evidence? Ever hear of probable cause, Harry Rex? You can't just round up the usual suspects, you know? Takes a little more than that."

"There was a direct threat against the jurors," I said.

"Nine years ago."

"It was still a threat, and we all remember it. Now, two weeks after he's paroled, one of his jurors is dead."

"That's not enough, fellas. Show me more and I might consult with my client. Right now there's nothing but naked speculation. Plenty of it, but this town's always good for a flood of gossip."

"You don't know where he is, do you, Lucien?" Harry Rex said.

"I assume he's on the island, with the rest of them." He used the word "them" as if they were a bunch of rats.

"What happens if another juror gets shot?" Harry Rex pressed on.

Lucien dropped a legal pad on his desk and rested there on his elbows. "What am I supposed to do, Harry Rex? Call the boy up, say 'Hey, Danny, I'm sure you're not killin' your jurors, but, if by chance you are, then, hey, be a good boy and stop it.' You think he'll listen to me? This wouldn't have happened if the idiot had followed my advice. I insisted that he not take the stand in his own defense. He's an idiot, okay, Harry Rex! You're a lawyer, God knows you've had idiot clients. You can't do a damned thing to control them."

"What happens if another juror gets shot?" Harry Rex repeated.

"Then I guess another juror will die."

I jumped to my feet and headed for the door. "You're a sick bastard," I said.

"Not a word of this in print," he snarled behind me.

"Go to hell," I yelled as I slammed his door.

* * *

Late in the afternoon Mr. Magargel called from the funeral home and asked if I could hustle over. Mr. and Mrs. Fargarson were there, picking out a casket and making the final arrangements. As I had done many times, I met them in Parlor C, the smallest viewing room. It was seldom used.

Pastor J. B. Cooper of the Maranatha Primitive Baptist Church was with them, and he was a saint. They leaned on him for every decision.

At least twice a year, I met with a family after the tragic death of a loved one. It was almost always a car wreck or some gruesome farm injury, something unexpected. The surviving members were too shocked to think clearly, too wounded to make decisions. The strong ones simply sleepwalked through the ordeal. The weak ones were often too numb to do anything but cry. Mrs. Fargarson was the stronger of the two, but the horror of finding her son with half his head blown off had reduced her to a shuddering ghost. Mr. Fargarson just stared at the floor.

Pastor Cooper gently extracted the basics, many of which he already knew. Since his spinal injury fifteen years earlier, Lenny had dreamed of going to heaven, of having his body restored, of walking every day hand in hand with his Savior. We worked on some language to this effect, and Mrs. Fargarson was deeply appreciative. She handed me a photo, one of Lenny sitting by a pond with a fishing pole. I promised to put it on the front page.

As always with grieving parents, they thanked me profusely and insisted on hugging me tightly as I tried to leave. Mourners cling to people like that, especially at the funeral home.

I stopped by Pepe's and bought an array of Mexican carryout, then drove to Lowtown, where I found Sam playing basketball, Miss Callie asleep inside, and Esau guarding the house with his shotgun. Eventually, we ate on the porch, though she only nibbled at the foreign food. She wasn't hungry. Esau said she'd eaten little during the day.

I brought my backgammon board and taught Sam the game. Esau preferred checkers. Miss Callie was certain any activity that involved the rolling of dice was patently sinful, but she wasn't up to a lecture. We sat for hours, deep into the night, and watched the rituals of Lowtown. School had just turned out for the summer, the days were longer and hotter.

Buster, my part-time pit bull, drove by every half hour. He would slow in front of the Ruffins, I'd wave as if things were fine, he'd ease away and return to the driveway of the Hocutt House. A patrol car parked two doors down from the Ruffin house and sat for a long time. Sheriff McNatt had hired three black deputies, and two of them had been assigned to keep an eye on the home.

Others were watching as well. After Miss Callie went to bed, Esau pointed across to the street to the darkened screened porch where the Braxtons lived. "Tully's over there," he said. "Watchin' everythin'."

"He told me he'd stay up all night," Sam said. Lowtown would be a dangerous place to start a gunfight.

I left after eleven, crossed the tracks, and drove the empty streets of Clanton. The town pulsed with tension, with anticipation, because whatever had been started was far from over.


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