Page 42 of The Last Juror

Nineteen seventy-nine was a year for local elections in Mississippi, my third as a registered voter. It was much quieter than the first two. The Sheriff's race was uncontested, something that was unheard of. There had been a rumor that the Padgitts had bought a new candidate, but after the parole debacle they backed off. Senator Theo Morton drew an opponent who brought me an ad that screamed the question - Why Did Senator Morton Get Danny Padgitt Paroled? Cash! That's why! As much as I wanted to run the ad, I had neither the time nor the energy for a libel suit.

There was a constable's race out in Beat Four with thirteen candidates, but other than that the races were fairly lethargic. The county was fixated on the murders of Fargarson and Teale, and, more important, on who might be next. Sheriff McNatt and the investigators from the state police and state crime lab had exhausted every possible clue and lead. All we could do was wait.

As July Fourth approached, there was a noticeable lack of excitement about the annual celebration. Though almost everyone felt safe, there was a dark cloud hanging over the county. Oddly, rumors persisted that something bad would happen when we all gathered around the courthouse on the Fourth. Rumors, though, had never been born with such creativity, nor spread as rapidly, as in the month of June.

* * *

On June 25, in a fancy law office in Tupelo, I signed a pile of documents that transferred ownership of the Times to a media company owned in part by Mr. Ray Noble of Atlanta. Mr. Noble handed me a check for $1.5 million, and I quickly, and somewhat anxiously, walked it down the street, where my newest friend, Stu Holland, was waiting in his rather spacious office in the Merchants Bank. News of such a deposit in Clanton would leak overnight, so I buried the money with Stu, then drove home.

It was the longest one-hour drive of my life. It was exhilarating because I had cashed in at the market's peak. I had squeezed top dollar out of a well-heeled and honorable buyer who planned to make few changes to my newspaper. Adventure was calling me, and I now had the means to answer.

And it was a sad drive because I was giving up such a large and rewarding part of my life. The paper and I had grown and matured together; me as an adult, it as a prosperous entity. It had become what any small-town paper should be - a lively observer of current events, a recorder of history, an occasional commentator on politics and social issues. As for me, I was a young man who had blindly and doggedly built something from scratch. I suppose I should've felt my age, but all I wanted to do was find a beach. Then a girl.

When I returned to Clanton, I walked into Margaret's office, closed the door, and told her about the sale. She burst into tears, and before long my eyes were moist as well. Her fierce loyalty had always amazed me, and though she, like Miss Callie, worried way too much about my soul, she had grown to love me nonetheless. I explained that the new owners were wonderful people, planned no drastic changes, and had approved her new five-year contract at an increased salary. This made her cry even more.

Hardy did not cry. By then he had been printing the Times for almost thirty years. He was moody, cantankerous, drank too much like most pressmen, and if the new owners didn't like him then he'd simply quit and go fishing. He did appreciate the new contract though.

As did Davey Bigmouth Bass. He was shocked at the news, but rallied nicely at the idea of earning more money.

Baggy was on vacation somewhere out West, with his brother, not his wife. Mr. Ray Noble had been reluctant to agree to another five years' of Baggy's sluggish reporting, and I could not, in good conscience, make him a part of the deal. Baggy was on his own.

We had five other employees, and I personally broke the news to each of them. It took all of one afternoon, and when if it was finally over I was drained. I met Harry Rex in the back room at Pepe's and we celebrated with margaritas.

I was anxious to leave town and go somewhere, but it would be impossible until the killings stopped.

* * *

For most of June, the Ruffin professors scrambled back and forth to Clanton. They juggled assignments and vacations, trying their best to make sure at least two or three of them were always with Miss Callie. Sam seldom left the house. He stayed in Lowtown to protect his mother, but also to keep his own profile low. Trooper Durant was still around, though he was married again and his two renegade sons had left the area.

Sam spent hours on the porch, reading voraciously, playing checkers with Esau or whoever stopped by to help guard things for a while. He played backgammon with me until he figured out the strategy, then he insisted that we bet a dollar per game. Before long I owed him $50. Such blatant gambling was a deadly secret on Miss Callie's porch.

A hasty reunion was put together for the week before July Fourth. Because my house had five empty bedrooms and a woeful lack of human activity, I insisted that it be filled with Ruffins. The family had grown considerably since I first met them in 1970. All but Sam were married, and there were twenty-one grandchildren. The total came to thirty-five Ruffins, not counting Sam, Callie, and Esau, and thirty-four made it to Clanton. Leon's wife had a sick father in Chicago.

Of the thirty-four, twenty-three moved into the Hocutt House for a few days. They drifted in from different parts of the country, mostly up North, coming in shifts at all hours of the day, with each new arrival greeted with great ceremony. When Carlota and her husband and two small children arrived at 3 A.M. from Los Angeles, every light in the house came on and Bobby's wife, Bonnie, began cooking pancakes.

Bonnie took over my kitchen, and three times a day I was sent to the grocery store with a list of things she urgently needed. I bought ice cream by the ton and the kids soon learned I would fetch it for them at any hour of the day.

Since my porches were long and wide and seldom used, the Ruffins gravitated toward them. Sam brought Miss Callie and Esau over late in the afternoons for serious visiting. She was desperate to get out of Low-town. Her warm little house had become a prison.

At various times, I heard her children talk with great concern about their mother. The obvious threat of somehow getting shot was discussed less than her health. Over the years she had managed to lose somewhere around eighty pounds, depending on whose version you heard. Now it was back, and her blood pressure had the doctors concerned. The stress was taking its toll. Esau said she slept fitfully, something she blamed on medications. She was not as spry, didn't smile as much, and had noticeably less energy.

It was all blamed on the "Padgitt mess." As soon as he got caught and the killings stopped, then Miss Callie would bounce back.

That was the optimistic view, the one generally shared by most of her children.

On July 2, a Monday, Bonnie and company prepared a light lunch of salads and pizzas. All available Ruffins were there, and we ate on a side porch under slow-moving and practically useless wicker fans. There was a slight breeze, however, and with the temperature in the nineties we were able to enjoy a long lazy meal.

I had yet to find the right moment to tell Miss Callie that I was leaving the paper. I knew she would be shocked, and very disappointed. But I could think of no reason why we couldn't continue our Thursday lunches. It might even be more fun counting the typos and mistakes made by someone else.

In nine years we had missed only seven, all due to illness or dental work.

The lazy postmeal chatter suddenly came to a halt. There were sirens in the distance, somewhere across town.

* * *

The box was twelve inches square, five inches deep, white in color with red and blue stars and stripes. It was gift package from the Bolan Pecan Farm in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, sent to Mrs. Maxine Root by her sister in Concord, California. An Independence Day gift of real American pecans. It came by mail, delivered by the postman around noon, placed in the mailbox of Maxine Root, then hauled inside, past the lone sentry sitting under a tree in the front yard, and into the kitchen where Maxine first saw it.

It had been almost a month since Sheriff McNatt had quizzed her about her vote on the jury. She had reluctantly admitted that she had not been in favor of the death penalty for Danny Padgitt, and she recalled that the two men who stuck with her were Lenny Fargarson and Mo Teale. Since they were now dead, McNatt had delivered the grave news that she might be the next victim.

For years after the trial, Maxine had wrestled with the verdict. The town was bitter over it and she felt the hostility. Thankfully, the jurors kept their vows of silence, and she and Lenny and Mo avoided any additional abuse. With the soothing passage of time, she had been able to distance herself from the aftermath.

Now the world knew how she'd voted. Now a crazy man was stalking her. She was on leave from her job as a bookkeeper. Her nerves were shot; she couldn't sleep; she was sick of hiding in her own home; sick of a yard full of neighbors gathering every night as if it was time for a social event; sick of ducking under every window. She was taking so many different pills that they were all counteracting each other to the point that nothing worked.

She saw the box of pecans and started crying. Someone out there loved her. Her precious sister Jane was thinking about her. Oh how she'd love to be in California with Jane at that very moment.

Maxine started to open the package, then had a thought. She went to the phone and dialed Jane's number. They had not talked in a week.

Jane was at work, thrilled to hear from her. They chatted about this and that, then about the horrible situation in Clanton. "You're a dear to send the pecans," Maxine said.

"What pecans?" Jane asked.

A pause. "The gift box from Bolan Pecans down in Hazelhurst. A big one, three pounds."

Another pause. "Not me, sis. Must've been someone else."

Maxine hung up moments later and examined the box. A sticker on the front said - A Gift from Jane Parham. Of course she knew of no other Jane Parhams.

Very gently, she picked it up. It seemed a bit heavy for a three-pound tin of pecans.

Travis, the part-time deputy, happened by the house. He was accompanied by one Teddy Ray, a pimple-faced boy with an oversized uniform and a service revolver that he had never fired. Maxine hustled them into the kitchen where the red, white, and blue box sat benignly on the counter. The lone sentry was also tagging along, and for a long minute or so the four of them just stared at the package. Maxine recounted verbatim her conversation with Jane.

With great hesitation, Travis picked up the box and shook it slightly. "Seems a might heavy for pecans," he observed. He looked at Teddy Ray, who'd already gone pale, and at the neighbor with a rifle, who seemed ready to duck at anything.

"You think it's a bomb?" the neighbor asked.

"Oh my God," Maxine mumbled and appeared ready to collapse.

"Could be," Travis said, then gawked down in horror at what he was holding.

"Get it outside," Maxine said.

"Shouldn't we call the Sheriff?" Teddy Ray managed to ask.

"I guess so," Travis said.

"What if it's got a timer or something?" asked the neighbor.

Travis hesitated for a moment, then with the voice of absolutely no experience, said, "I know what to do."

They stepped through the kitchen door onto a narrow porch that ran the length of the rear of the house. Travis carefully placed the box at the very edge, three feet or so above the ground. When he removed his.44 Magnum, Maxine said, "What are you doing?"

"We're gonna see if it's a bomb," Travis said. Teddy Ray and the neighbor scurried off the porch and took up a safe position in the grass about fifty feet away.

"You're gonna shoot my pecans?" Maxine asked.

"You got a better idea?" Travis snapped back.

"I guess not."

With most of his body inside the kitchen, Travis leaned out through the screen door with his thick right arm, and his rather large head, and took aim. Maxine was right behind him, crouching low and peeking around his waist.

The first shot missed the porch entirely, though it took the breath out of Maxine. Teddy Ray shouted, "Nice shot," and he and the neighbor had a quick laugh.

Travis aimed and fired again.

The explosion ripped the porch completely from the house, tore a gaping hole in the back wall behind the kitchen, and sprayed shrapnel for a hundred yards. It shattered windows, peeled up planks, and it wounded the four observers. Teddy Ray and the neighbor both took bits of metal in their chests and legs. Travis's right arm and his firing hand were mangled. Maxine was hit twice in the head - one piece of glass ripped off the lobe of her right ear, and a small nail penetrated her right jaw.

For a moment, they were all unconscious, knocked silly by three pounds of plastic explosives packed with nails, glass, and ball bearings.

* * *

As the sirens continued to wail across town, I went to the phone and called Wiley Meek. He was just about to call me. "They tried to blow up Maxine Root," he said.

I told the Ruffins there'd been an accident and left them on the porch. When I got near the subdivision where the Roots lived, the main roads were blocked and traffic was being turned away. I hustled over to the hospital and found a young doctor I knew. He said that there were four injured, none of whom appeared to be in grave danger.

* * *

Judge Omar Noose was holding court in Clanton that afternoon. In fact, he later said that he heard the explosion. Rufus Buckley and Sheriff McNatt met with him for over an hour in chambers, and what they discussed was never revealed. As we waited in the courtroom, Harry Rex and most of the other lawyers loitering there were certain that they were debating how to handle an arrest warrant for Danny Padgitt when there was so little proof that he'd done anything wrong.

But something had to be done. Someone had to be arrested. The Sheriff had a population to protect; he had to take action, even if it wasn't entirely proper.

We got a report that Travis and Teddy Ray had been transported to one of the hospitals in Memphis for surgery. Maxine and her neighbor were under the knife at that very moment. Again, it was the opinion of the doctors that no life was in jeopardy. Travis might lose his right arm, though.

How many people in Ford County knew how to make package bombs? Who had access to explosives? Who had motive? As we argued these questions in the courtroom, they were evidently being argued back in chambers as well. Noose, Buckley, and McNatt were all elected officials. The good people of Ford County needed their protection. Since Danny Padgitt was the only conceivable suspect, Judge Noose finally issued a warrant for his arrest.

Lucien was notified, and he took the news without objection. At that moment, not even Padgitt's lawyer could argue with the strategy of bringing him in for processing. He could always be released later.

A few minutes after 5 P.M., a convoy of police cars blew out of Clan-ton and headed for Padgitt Island. Harry Rex now owned a police scanner (there were quite a few new ones in town) and we sat in his office, sipping beer, listening to it squawk with unchecked fury. It had to be the most exciting arrest in the history of our county, and many of us wanted to be there. Would the Padgitts block the road and thwart the arrest? Would there be gunfire? A small war?

From the chatter, we were able to follow most of what was happening. At Highway 42, McNatt and his men were met by ten "units" of the state highway patrol. We assumed a "unit" meant nothing more than a car, but it sounded far more serious. They proceeded to Highway 401, turned onto the county road that led to the island, and at the bridge where everyone expected some dramatic showdown, there sat Danny Padgitt in the car with his lawyer.

The voices on the scanner were quick and anxious:

"He's with his lawyer!"

"Wilbanks?"

"Yep."

"Let's shoot both of them."

"They're gettin' out of the car."

"Wilbanks is holdin' up his hands. Smart-ass!"

"It's Danny Padgitt, all right. Hands held high."

"I'd like to knock that smile off his face."

"They got the cuffs on him."

"Dammit!" Harry Rex yelled across his desk. "I wanted some gunfire. Just like in the old days."

* * *

We were at the jail an hour later when the parade of red and blue lights came swarming in. Sheriff McNatt had wisely placed Padgitt in the patrol car of a state trooper; otherwise his deputies might have roughed him up during the ride. Two of their colleagues were in surgery in Memphis, and feelings were pretty raw.

A mob had gathered outside the jail. Padgitt was jeered and cursed as he was rushed inside, then the Sheriff angrily told the hotheads to go home.

Seeing him in handcuffs brought a great sense of relief. And the news that he was in custody was like a balm for the entire county. The heavy cloud had been lifted. Clanton came to life that night.

When I returned to the Hocutt House after dark, the Ruffin clan was in a festive mood. Miss Callie was as relaxed as I'd seen her in a long time. We sat on the porch for a long time, telling stories, laughing, listening to Aretha Franklin and the Temptations, even listening to an occasional burst of fireworks.


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