The Last Juror - Page 25

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One frigid day late in January, shots rang out somewhere around the square. I was sitting at my desk, peacefully typing a story about Mr. Lamar Farlowe and his recent reunion in Chicago with his battalion of Army paratroopers, when a bullet shattered a windowpane less than twenty feet from my head. A slow news week thus came to a sudden end.

My bullet was either the second or the third in a fairly rapid sequence. I hit the floor with all sorts of thoughts - Where was my pistol? Were the Padgitts assaulting the town? Were Trooper Durant and his boys after me? On my hands and knees I scrambled to my briefcase as shots continued to crack through the air; they sounded like they were coming from across the street, but in the horror of the moment I really couldn't tell. They sounded much louder after one hit my office.

I emptied the briefcase and then remembered the pistol was either in my car or my apartment. I was unarmed and felt like such a weakling for not being able to defend myself. Harry Rex and Rafe had trained me better.

I was scared to the point of not being able to move. Then I remembered Bigmouth Bass was in his office downstairs, and like most real men in Clanton he had an arsenal close by. There were handguns in his desk and he kept two hunting rifles on the wall, just in case he got the urge to run out and kill a deer during lunch. Anyone trying to get me would encounter stiff resistance by my staff. I hoped so anyway.

There was a pause in the assault, then shouts of panic and chaos on the streets. It was almost 2 P.M., normally a busy time downtown. I crawled under my desk like I'd been taught in tornado warning drills. From somewhere below I heard Bigmouth yell, "Stay in your offices!" I could almost see him down there, grabbing a 30.06 and a box of shells, ducking into a doorway in great anticipation. I couldn't imagine a worse place for some nut to start shooting. There were thousands of guns within arm's reach around the Clanton square. Every pickup had two rifles in the window rack and a shotgun under the seat. These people couldn't wait to use their guns!

It wouldn't be long before the locals returned fire. That's when the war would really get ugly.

Then the shots resumed. They weren't getting any closer, I decided as I tried to breathe normally under the desk and analyze things. As the seconds slowly ticked by I realized that the assault was not aimed at me. I just happened to own a nearby window. Sirens approached, then more shots, more shouting. What in the world!

A phone rang downstairs and someone grabbed it quickly.

"Willie! You okay!" Bigmouth yelled from the bottom of the steps.

"Yeah!"

"There's a sniper on top of the courthouse!"

"Great!"

"Stay low!"

"Don't worry!"

I relaxed a little and emerged just enough to grab my phone. I called Wiley Meek at home, but he was already headed our way. Then I crawled across the floor to one of the French doors and opened it. Evidently this caught the attention of our sniper. He shattered a pane four feet above me and the glass fell like heavy rain. I dropped to my stomach and stopped breathing for what seemed like an hour. The gunfire was relentless. Whoever he was he was certainly perturbed about something.

Eight shots, each sounding much louder now that I was outside. A fifteen-second pause as he reloaded, then eight more. I heard glass shatter, bullets ricochet off bricks, bullets split through wooden posts. Somewhere in the midst of the barrage, the voices became silent.

When I could move again, I gently pulled one of the rocking chairs over on its side, then crawled behind it. The porch had a wrought-iron railing around it, and with that and the chair in front of me, I was concealed and protected. I'm not sure why I felt compelled to move closer to the sniper, but I was twenty-four years old and owned the newspaper and knew that I would write a lengthy story about this dramatic episode. I needed details.

When I finally peeked through the chair and the railing, I saw the sniper. The courthouse had an oddly flattened dome, on top of which was a small cupola with four open windows. He'd made his nest there, and when I first saw him he was peeking just above the sill of one of the windows. He appeared to have a black face with white hair, and this sent more chills through my body. We were dealing with a world-class psycho.

He was reloading, and when he was ready he rose slightly and began shooting completely at random. He appeared to be shirtless, which, given the situation, seemed even stranger since it was around thirty degrees with a chance of light snow later in the afternoon. I was freezing and I was wearing a rather handsome wool suit from Mitlo's.

His chest was white with black stripes, sort of like a zebra. It was a white man who'd painted himself partially black.

All traffic was gone. The city police had blocked the streets and cops were darting about, squatting low and hiding behind their cars. In the store windows an occasional face popped out for a quick scan, then disappeared. The shooting stopped and the sniper ducked low and disappeared for a while. Three county deputies dashed along a sidewalk and into the courthouse. Long minutes passed.

Wiley Meek bounded up the steps of my office and was soon beside me. He was breathing so hard I thought he'd sprinted from his house out in the country. "He hit us!" he whispered, as if the sniper could hear. He was examining the broken glass.

"Twice," I said, nodding up at the broken panes.

"Where is he?" he asked as he moved a camera with a long-range lens into position.

"The cupola," I said, pointing. "Be careful. He hit that door when I opened it."

"Have you seen him?"

"Male, white, with black highlights."

"Oh, one of those."

"Keep your head down."

We stayed huddled and crouched for several minutes. More cops scurried about, going nowhere in particular and giving the distinct impression that they were thrilled to be there but had little idea what to do.

"Anybody hurt?" Wiley asked, suddenly anxious that maybe he'd missed some blood.

"How am I supposed to know?"

Then more shots, very quick and startling. We peeked and saw him from the shoulders up, blazing away. Wiley focused and began taking pictures through the long-range lens.

Baggy and the boys were in the Bar Room on the third floor, not directly under the cupola, but not far from it. In fact, they were probably the closest humans to the sniper when he began his target practice. After the shooting resumed for the ninth or tenth time, they evidently became even more frightened and, convinced they were about to be slaughtered, decided they had to take matters into their own hands. Somehow they managed to pry open the intractable window of their little hideaway. We watched as an electrical cord was thrown out and fell almost to the ground, forty feet below. Baggy's right leg appeared next as he flung it over the brick sill and wiggled his portly body through the opening. Not surprisingly, Baggy had insisted on going first.

"Oh my God," Wiley said, somewhat gleefully, and raised his camera. "They're drunk as skunks."

Clutching the electrical cord with all the grit he could muster, Baggy sprung free from the window and began his descent to safety. His strategy was not apparent. He appeared to give no slack on the cord, his hands frozen to it just above his head. Evidently there was plenty of cord left in the Bar Room, and his cohorts were supposed to ease him down.

As his hands rose higher above his head, his pants became shorter. Soon they were just below his knees, leaving a long gap of pale white skin before his black socks bunched around his ankles. Baggy wasn't concerned about appearances - before, during, or after the sniper incident.

The shooting stopped, and for a while Baggy just hung there, slowly twisting against the building, about three feet below the window. Major could be seen inside, clinging fiercely to the cord. He had only one leg though, and I worried that it would quickly give out. Behind him I could see two figures, probably Wobble Tackett and Chick Elliot, the usual poker gang.

Wiley began laughing, a low suppressed laugh that shook his entire body.

With each lull in the shooting, the town took a breath, peeked around, and hoped it was over. And each new round scared us more than the last.

Two shots rang out. Baggy lurched as if he'd been hit - though in reality there was no possible way the sniper could even see him, and the suddenness evidently put too much pressure on Major's leg. It collapsed, the cord sprang free, and Baggy screamed as he dropped like a cinder block into a row of thick boxwoods that had been planted by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The boxwoods absorbed the load, and, much like a trampoline, recoiled and sent Baggy to the sidewalk, where he landed like a melon and became the only casualty of the entire episode.

I heard laughter in the distance.

Without a trace of mercy, Wiley recorded the entire spectacle. The photos would be furtively passed around Clanton for years to come.

For a long time Baggy didn't move. "Leave the sumbitch out there," I heard a cop yell below us.

"You can't hurt a drunk," Wiley said as he caught his breath.

Eventually, Baggy rose to all fours. Slowly and painfully, he crawled, like a dog hit by a truck, into the boxwoods that had saved his life, and there he rode out the storm.

A police car had been parked three doors down from the Tea Shoppe. The sniper fired a burst at it, and when the gas tank exploded we forgot about Baggy. The crisis stepped up to the next level as thick smoke poured out from under the car, then we saw flames. The sniper found this sporting, and for a few minutes he hit nothing but cars. I was certain my Spitfire would be irresistible, but perhaps it was too small.

He lost his nerve, though, when fire was eventually returned. Two of Sheriff Coley's men stationed themselves on roofs, and when they unloaded on the cupola the sniper ducked low and was out of business.

"I got him!" one of the deputies shouted down to Sheriff Coley.

We waited for twenty minutes; all was quiet. Baggy's old wing tips and black socks could be seen from under the boxwoods, but the rest was hidden. Occasionally, Major, glass in hand, would look down and yell something at Baggy, who could have been dying for all we knew.

More cops sprinted into the courthouse. We relaxed and sat in the rockers, but we did not take our eyes off the cupola. Bigmouth, Margaret, and Hardy joined us on the balcony. They had watched Baggy's descent from the front window downstairs. Only Margaret was concerned about his injuries.

The police car burned until the fire department eventually showed up and doused it. The doors of the courthouse opened and some of the county employees came out and began smoking furiously. Two deputies managed to retrieve Baggy from the boxwoods. He was barely able to walk, and was obviously in great pain. They placed him in a patrol car and took him away.

Then we saw a deputy in the cupola, and the town was safe again. The five of us hurried over to the courthouse, along with the rest of downtown Clanton.

The third floor was sealed off. Court was not in session, so Sheriff Coley directed us to the courtroom, where he promised a quick briefing. As we were walking into the courtroom, I saw Major, Chick Elliot, and Wobble Tackett being escorted down the hall by a deputy. They were obviously drunk and laughing so hard they had trouble staying on their feet. Wiley went downstairs to sniff around. A body was about to be removed from the courthouse, and he wanted a shot of the sniper. The white hair, black face, painted stripes - there were a lot of questions.

* * *

The deputy sharpshooters had evidently missed. The sniper was identified as Hank Hooten, the local lawyer who had assisted Ernie Gaddis in the prosecution of Danny Padgitt. He was in custody and unharmed.

When Sheriff Coley announced this in the courtroom, we were shocked and bewildered. Our nerves were pretty raw anyway, but this was too much to believe. "Mr. Hooten was found in the small stairwell that leads up to the cupola," Coley was saying, but I was too stunned to take notes. "He did not resist arrest and is now in custody."

"What was he wearing?" someone asked.

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Absolutely nothing. He had what appeared to be black shoe polish on his face and chest, but other than that he was as naked as a newborn."

"What type of weapons?" I asked.

"We found two high-powered rifles, that's all I can say right now."

"Did he say anything?"

"Not a word."

Wiley said they wrapped Hank in some sheets and shoved him in the backseat of a patrol car. He shot some photos but was not optimistic. "There were a dozen cops around him," he said.

We drove to the hospital to check on Baggy. His wife worked the night shift in the emergency room. Someone had called her, woke her up, summoned her to the hospital, and when we met her she was in a foul mood. "Just a broken arm," she said, obviously disappointed that it was not more serious. "Some scrapes and bruises. What'd the fool do?"

I looked at Wiley and Wiley looked at me.

"Was he drunk?" she asked. Baggy was always drunk.

"Don't know," I said. "He fell out of a window at the courthouse."

"Oh, brother. He was drunk."

I gave a quick version of Baggy's escape and tried to make it sound as if he'd done something heroic in the midst of all that gunfire.

"The third floor?" she asked.

"Yes."

"So he was playing poker, drinking whiskey, and he jumped out of a third-floor window."

"Basically, yes," Wiley said, unable to stop himself.

"Not exactly," I said, but she was already walking away.

Baggy was snoring when we finally got back to his room. The medications had mixed with the whiskey and he appeared comatose. "He will wish he could sleep forever," Wiley whispered.

And he was right. The legend of Bouncin' Baggy was told countless times in the years that followed. Wobble Tackett would swear that Chick Elliot let go of the cord first, and Chick would argue that Major's good leg buckled first and caused a chain reaction. The town quickly believed that, whoever let go first, the three idiots Baggy left behind in the Bar Room had intentionally dropped him into the boxwoods.

* * *

Two days later, Hank Hooten was sent to the state mental hospital at Whitfield, where he would remain for several years. He was initially indicted for trying to kill half of Clanton, but with time the charges were dropped. He allegedly told Ernie Gaddis that he was not shooting at anyone in particular, didn't want to harm anyone, but was just upset because the town had failed to send Danny Padgitt to his death.

Word eventually drifted back to Clanton that he had been diagnosed as severely schizophrenic. "Slap-ass crazy," was the conclusion on the streets.

Never in the history of Ford County had a person lost his mind in such a spectacular fashion.



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