Page 38 of The Last Juror

Miss Callie insisted on attending the funeral of Lenny Fargarson. Sam and Esau objected strenuously, but, as always, once she made up her mind, then all conversations were over. I discussed this with Sheriff McNatt, who summed things up by saying, "She's a grown lady." He knew of no other jurors who planned to attend, but then it was difficult to monitor such things.

I also called Pastor Cooper to forewarn him. His response was, "She will be very welcome in our little church. But get here early."

With rare exceptions blacks and whites did not worship together in Ford County. They fervently believed in the same Lord, but chose very different styles of worshiping him. The majority of whites expected to be outside the church building at five past noon on Sunday, and seated for lunch by twelve-thirty. Blacks really didn't care what time the service broke up, or what time it began for that matter. On my church tour I visited twenty-seven black congregations and never saw a benediction before 1:30 - 3 P.M. was the norm. Several simply went all day, with a short break for lunch in the fellowship hall, then back to the sanctuary for another round.

Such zealotry would have killed a white Christian.

But funerals were very different. When Miss Callie, along with Sam and Esau, walked into the Maranatha Primitive Baptist Church, there were a few quick stares but nothing more. Had they walked in on a Sunday morning for regular worship, there would have been resentment.

We arrived forty-five minutes early, and the lovely little sanctuary was almost filled. I watched through the tall open windows as the cars kept coming. A loudspeaker had been hung from one of the ancient oaks, and a large crowd gathered around it after the building was full. The choir started with "The Old Rugged Cross," and the tears began flowing. Pastor Cooper's soothing message was a gentle warning for us not to question why bad things happen to good people. God is always in control, and though we are too small to understand His infinite wisdom and majesty, He will one day reveal Himself to us. Lenny was with Him now, and that was where Lenny longed to be.

They buried him behind the church, in an immaculate little cemetery inside a wrought-iron fence. Miss Callie clutched my hand and prayed fervently when the casket was lowered into the ground. A soloist sang "Amazing Grace," then Pastor Cooper thanked us for coming. There was punch and cookies in the fellowship hall behind the sanctuary, and most of the crowd hung around for a few minutes to visit, or to have one last word with Mr. and Mrs. Fargarson.

Sheriff McNatt caught my attention and nodded as if he wanted to talk. We walked to the front of the church where no one could hear us. He was in uniform with his standard toothpick in his mouth. "Any luck with Wilbanks?" he asked.

"No, just the one meeting," I said. "Harry Rex went back yesterday and got nowhere."

"I guess I'll talk to him," he said.

"You can, but you won't get anywhere."

The toothpick shifted from one side of his mouth to the other, in much the same way Harry Rex could slide his cigar over without missing a word. "We got nothin' else. We've combed the woods around the house, not a track or a trace of anything. You're not printin' this, are you?"

"No."

"There are a bunch of ol' loggin' trails deep in the woods around the Fargarson place. We've tiptoed everyone of 'em, found absolutely nothin'."

"So your only evidence is a single bullet."

"That and a dead body."

"Has anybody seen Danny Padgitt?"

"Not yet. I keep two cars up on 401, where it turns to go into the island. They can't see everything, but at least the Padgitts know we're there. There are a hundred ways off and on the island, but only the Padgitts know them all."

The Ruffins were slowly moving toward us, talking to one of the black deputies.

"She's probably the safest one," McNatt said.

"Is anybody safe?"

"We'll find out. He'll try again, Willie, you mark my word. I'm convinced of it."

"Me too."

* * *

Ned Ray Zook owned four thousand acres in the eastern part of the county. He farmed cotton and soybeans, and his operations were large enough to maintain sufficient profits. He was rumored to be one of the few remaining farmers who made good money from the soil. It was on his property, deep in a wooded area, in a converted cattle barn, that Harry Rex had taken me nine years earlier to watch my first and last cockfight.

Sometime during the early hours of June 14, a vandal entered Zook's vast equipment shed and partially drained the oil from the engines of two of his big tractors. The oil was collected in cans and hidden among the supplies, so when the operators arrived around 6 A.M. for the day's work there was no sign of foul play. One operator checked the oil as he was supposed to do, saw the shortage, thought it odd, said nothing, and added four quarts. The other operator had checked his the afternoon before, as was his habit. The second tractor ground to a sudden halt an hour later, as its engine locked up. Its operator hiked half a mile back to the shed and reported the breakdown to the farm manager.

Two hours later, a green-and-yellow service truck bounced along the field road and maneuvered itself close to the disabled tractor. Two servicemen slowly got out, inspected the hot sun and cloudless sky, then walked around the tractor for an initial look. They reluctantly opened up the panels of the service truck and began removing tools and wrenches. The sun baked them and they were soon sweating.

To make their day somewhat more pleasant, they turned on the radio in their truck and cranked up the volume. Merle Haggard could be heard wafting across the soybean field.

The music muffled the crack of a distant rifle shot. It hit Mo Teale directly in the upper back, ripped through his lungs, and tore a hole in his chest as it exited. Teale's partner, Red, said over and over that the only thing he heard was a fierce grunt just a second or two before Mo fell under the front axle. He thought at first that something from the tractor had snapped loose in a violent way and injured Mo. Red dragged him to the truck and raced away, much more concerned about his buddy than what might have injured him. At the equipment shed, the farm manager called an ambulance, but it was too late. Mo Teale died there, on the concrete floor of a small, dusty office. "Mr. John Deere" we'd called him during the trial. Middle of the front row, bad body language.

At the time of his death he was wearing the same type of bright yellow uniform shirt he'd worn every day of the trial. It made for an easy target.

I saw him at a distance, through the open door. Sheriff McNatt allowed us inside the shed with the now standard prohibition against taking photos. Wiley had left his cameras in his pickup.

Once again Wiley had been monitoring the police scanner when the report came across - "Got a shooting at Ned Ray Zook's farm!" Wiley was always near his scanner, and in those days he wasn't alone. Given the high state of anxiety in the county, every scanner was being listened to and every possible shooting was reason to hop in the pickup and go for a look.

McNatt soon asked us to leave. His men found the cans of oil that had been drained by the vandal, and they found a window that had been pried open for entry into the shed. They would dust for fingerprints and find none. They would look for footprints on the gravel flooring, and find none. They would scour the woods around the soybean field and find no sign of the killer. In the dirt beside the tractor they did find the 30.06 shell, and it was quickly matched with the one that killed Lenny Fargarson.

* * *

I hung around the Sheriff's office until well after dark. As expected it was a busy place, with deputies and constables loitering about, comparing stories, creating new details. The phones rang nonstop. And there was a new wrinkle. Random townsfolk, unable to control their curiosity, began stopping by and asking anyone who would listen if there was anything new.

There was not. McNatt barricaded himself in his office with his top boys and tried to decide what to do next. His priority was the protection of the surviving eight jurors. Three were already dead - Mr. Fred Bilroy (of pneumonia), and now Lenny Fargarson and Mo Teale. One juror had moved to Florida two years after the trial. At that moment, each of the eight had a patrol car parked very near their front doors.

I left and went to the office to work on the story about the murder of Mo Teale, but I was sidetracked by the lights at Harry Rex's. He was in his conference room, knee-deep in depositions and files and all sorts of lawyerly debris, the sight of which always gave me an instant headache. We grabbed two beers out of his small office refrigerator and went for a drive.

In a working-class section of town known as Coventry we drove along a narrow street and passed a house with cars parked like fallen dominoes in the front yard. "That's where Maxine Root lives," he said. "She was on the jury."

I vaguely remembered Mrs. Root. Her small red-brick house had no front porch to speak of, so her neighbors were scattered around the carport in folding lawn chairs. Rifles were visible. Every light in the house was on. A patrol car was parked by the mailbox, two deputies leaning on its hood, smoking cigarettes and watching us very closely as we drove by. Harry Rex stopped and said, "Evenin', Troy," to one of the deputies.

"Hey, Harry Rex," Troy said, taking a step toward us.

"Quite a party they got goin', huh?"

"It'd take a fool to start trouble around here."

"We're just passin' by," Harry Rex said.

"Better keep movin'," Troy said. "They got itchy fingers."

"Take care." We eased away and swung around behind the livestock barn north of town where a long shady lane dead-ended near the water tower. Halfway down, the street was lined on both sides with cars. "Who lives here?" I asked.

"Mr. Earl Youry. He sat on the back row, farthest from the spectators."

A crowd was huddled on the front porch. Some sat on the steps. Others were in lawn chairs out on the grass. Somewhere in that pack Mr. Earl Youry was hidden and very well protected by his friends and neighbors.

Miss Callie was no less defended. The street in front of her house was packed with cars and barely passable. Groups of men sat on the cars, some smoking, some holding rifles. Next door and across the street the porches and yards were filled with people. Half of Lowtown had gathered there to make sure she felt secure. There was a festival atmosphere, the feeling of a unique event.

With white faces, Harry Rex and I received closer scrutiny. We didn't stop until he could speak with the deputies, and once they approved our presence the pack relaxed. We parked and I walked to the house where Sam met me at the front steps. Harry Rex stayed behind, chatting with the deputies.

She was inside, in her bedroom, reading her Bible with a friend from church. Several deacons were on the porch with Sam and Esau, and they were anxious for details of the Teale murder. I filled them in with as much as I could tell, which wasn't much at all.

Around midnight, the crowd began to slowly break up. Sam and the deputies had organized a rotation of all-night sentries, armed guards on both the front and back porches. There was no shortage of volunteers. Miss Callie never dreamed her pleasant and God-fearing little home would become such an armed fortress, but under the circumstances she could not be disappointed.

We drove the anxious streets to the Hocutt House, where we found Buster asleep in his car in the driveway. We found some bourbon and sat on a front porch, swatting an occasional mosquito and trying to appreciate the situation.

"He's very patient," Harry Rex said. "Wait a few days when all these neighbors get tired of porch sittin', when everybody relaxes a little. The jurors can't live long locked inside their homes. He'll wait."

One chilling little fact that had not been released was a service call received by the tractor dealership a week earlier. At the Anderson farm south of town a tractor had been disabled under similar circumstances. Mo Teale, who was one of four chief mechanics, had not been sent to repair it. Someone else's yellow shirt had been watched through the scope of a hunting rifle.

"He's patient and meticulous," I agreed. Eleven days had passed between the two murders, and no clues had been left behind. If it was indeed Danny Padgitt, there was a stark contrast between his first murder - Rhoda Kassellaw - and his last two. He'd advanced from a brutal crime of passion to cold-blooded executions. Perhaps that's what nine years in prison had taught him. He'd had plenty of time to remember the faces of the twelve people who'd sent him away, and to plan his revenge.

"He's not finished," Harry Rex said.

One murder might be considered a random act. Two meant there was a pattern. The third would send a small army of cops and vigilantes onto Padgitt Island for an all-out war.

"He'll wait," Harry Rex said. "Probably for a long time."

"I'm thinking about selling the paper, Harry Rex," I said.

He took a long drink of bourbon, then said, "Why would you do that?"

"Money. This company in Georgia is making a serious offer."

"How much?"

"A lot. More than I ever dreamed of. I wouldn't work for a long time. Maybe never."

The idea of not working hit him hard. His daily routine was ten hours of nonstop chaos with some very emotional and high-strung divorce clients. He often worked nights, when the office was quiet and he could think. He made a comfortable living, but he certainly scraped for every penny. "How long have you had the paper?" he asked.

"Nine years."

"Kinda hard to imagine the paper without you."

"Maybe that's a reason to sell it. I don't want to be another Wilson Caudle."

"What will you do?"

"Take a break, travel, see the world, find a nice lady, marry her, get her pregnant, have some kids. This is a big house."

"So you wouldn't move away?"

"To where? This is home."

Another long sip, then, "I don't know. Let me sleep on it." With that, he walked off the porch and drove away.


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