The Last Juror - Page 9

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We ran another large photo on the front page. It was Wiley's shot of the bomb before the police dismantled it. The headline above it screamed:

Bomb Planted in Times Office

My story began with Piston and his unlikely discovery. It included every detail I could substantiate, and a few I could not. No comment from the chief of police, a few meaningless sentences from Sheriff Coley. It ended with a summary of the findings by the state crime lab, and a prediction that, if detonated, the bomb would have caused "massive" damage to the buildings on the south side of the square.

Wiley would not allow me to use a photo of his badly bruised face, though I pleaded desperately with him to do so. On the bottom half of the front page I ran the headline:

Times Photographer Assaulted at Home

Again, my story spared no detail, though Wiley insisted he be allowed to edit it.

In both stories, and with no effort at being subtle, I linked the crimes and implied rather strongly that little was being done by the authorities, especially Sheriff Coley, to prevent further intimidation. I never named the Padgitts. I didn't have to. Everyone in the county knew they were bullying me and my newspaper.

Spot had been too lazy for editorials. He'd written only one during my stint as an employee. A congressman from Oregon had filed some nutty bill that would somehow affect the cutting of redwood trees - more cutting or maybe less, it really wasn't clear. This had upset Spot. For two weeks he labored over an editorial and finally ran a two-thousand-word tirade. It was obvious to anyone with a high school education that he wrote with a pen in one hand and a dictionary in the other. The first paragraph was filled with more six-syllable words than anyone had ever seen and was virtually unreadable. Spot was shocked when there was no response from the community. He expected a flood of sympathetic letters. Few of his readers could have survived the flood from Webster's.

Finally, three weeks later, a hand-scrawled note was slid under the front door of the office. It read:

It was unsigned, but Spot ran it anyway. He was relieved that someone out there was paying attention. Baggy told me later that the note was written by one of his drinking buddies in the courthouse.

My editorial began, "A free and uninhibited press is crucial to sound democratic government." Without being windy or preachy, I went on for four paragraphs extolling the importance of an energetic and inquisitive newspaper, not only for the country but for every small community as well. I vowed that the Times would not be frightened away from reporting local crimes, whether they were rapes and murders or corrupt acts by public officials.

It was bold, gutsy, and downright brilliant. The townsfolk were on my side. It was, after all, the Times versus the Padgitts and their Sheriff. We were taking a mighty stand against bad people, and though they were dangerous they were evidently not intimidating me. I kept telling myself to act brave, and I really had no choice. What was my paper supposed to do ignore the Kassellaw murder? Take it easy on Danny Padgitt?

My staff was elated with the editorial. Margaret said it made her proud to work for the Times. Wiley, still nursing his wounds, was now carrying a gun and looking for a fight. "Give 'em hell, rookie," he said.

Only Baggy was skeptical. "You're gonna get yourself hurt," he said.

And Miss Callie once again described me as courageous. Lunch the following Thursday lasted for only two hours and included Esau. I actually began taking notes about her family. More important, she'd found only three errors in that week's edition.

* * *

I was alone in my office early Friday afternoon when someone made a noisy entrance downstairs, then came clamoring up. He shoved my door open without so much as a "Hello" and stuck both hands in his pants pockets. He looked vaguely familiar; we'd met somewhere around the square.

"You got one of these, boy?" he growled, yanking his right hand out and momentarily freezing my heart and lungs. He slid a shiny pistol across my desk as if it were a set of keys. It spun wildly for a few seconds before resting directly before me, the barrel mercifully pointing toward the windows.

He lunged across the desk, thrust out a massive hand, and said, "Harry Rex Vonner, a pleasure." I was too stunned to speak or move, but eventually honored him with an embarrassingly weak handshake. I was still watching the gun.

"It's a Smith and Wesson thirty-eight, six-shooter, damned fine firearm. You carry one?"

I shook my head no. The name alone sent chills to my feet.

Harry Rex kept a nasty black cigar tucked into the left side of his mouth. It gave the impression of having spent most of the day there, slowly disintegrating like a plug of chewing tobacco. No smoke because it wasn't lit. He dropped his massive body into a leather chair as if he might stay for a couple of hours.

"You a crazy sumbitch, you know that?" He didn't speak as much as he growled. Then I caught the name. He was a local lawyer, once described by Baggy as the meanest divorce attorney in the county. He had a large fleshy face with short hair that shot in all directions like windblown straw. His ancient khaki suit was wrinkled and stained and said to the world that Harry Rex didn't give a damn about anything.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" I asked, pointing at the gun.

"First you load it, I'll give you some bullets, then you stick it in your pocket and carry it with you everywhere you go, and when one of them Padgitt thugs jumps out from behind the bushes you blast him right between the eyes." To help convey his message, he moved his index finger through the air like a bullet and poked himself between the eyes.

"It's not loaded?"

"Hell no. Don't you know anything about guns?"

"Afraid not."

"Well, you'd better learn, boy, at the rate you're goin'."

"That bad, huh?"

"I did a divorce one time, ten years ago I guess, for a man whose young wife liked to sneak over to the brothel and make a few bucks. The guy worked offshore, stayed gone all the time, had no idea what she was up to. He finally found out. The Padgitts owned the whorehouse and one of them had taken a shine to the young lady." Somehow the cigar stayed in place, bobbing up and down with the narrative. "My client was heartbroken and he wanted blood. He got it. They caught him out one night and beat him senseless."

"They?"

"The Padgitts I'm sure, or some of their operatives."

"Operatives?"

"Yeah, they got all sorts of thugs who work for them. Leg breakers, bomb throwers, car stealers, hit men."

He allowed the "hit men" to hang in the air while he watched me flinch. He gave the impression of one who could tell stories forever without being unduly burdened by veracity. Harry Rex had a nasty grin and a twinkle in his eyes, and I strongly suspected some embellishment was under way.

"And of course they were never caught," I said.

"Padgitts never get caught."

"What happened to your client?"

"He spent a few months in the hospital. The brain damage was pretty severe. In and out of institutions, really sad. Broke his family. He drifted to the Gulf Coast where they elected him to the state senate."

I smiled and nodded at what I hoped was a lie, but I didn't pursue it. Without touching the cigar with his hands, he flicked his tongue somehow and cocked his head, and it slid to the right side of his mouth.

"You ever eat goat?" he asked.

"Say what?"

"Goat?"

"No. I didn't know it was edible."

"We're roastin' one this afternoon. The first Friday of each month I throw a goat party at my cabin in the woods. Some music, cold beer, fun and games, about fifty folks, all carefully selected by me, the cream of society. No doctors, no bankers, no country club assholes. A classy bunch. Why don't you stop by? I got a firin' range out behind the pond. I'll take the pistol and we'll figure out how to use the damned thing."

* * *

Harry Rex's ten-minute drive into the country took almost half an hour, and that was on the paved county road. When I crossed the "third creek past Heck's old Union 76 station," I left the asphalt and turned onto gravel. For a while it was a nice gravel road with mailboxes indicating some hope of civilization, but after three miles the mail route stopped and so did the gravel. When I saw a "rusted-out Massey Ferguson tractor with no tires," I turned left onto a dirt road. His crude map referred to it as a pig trail, though I had never seen one of those. After the pig trail disappeared into a dense forest, I gave serious thought to turning [email protected]

My Spitfire wasn't designed for the terrain. By the time I saw the roof of his cabin, I'd been driving for forty-five minutes.

There was a barbed-wire fence with an open metal gate, and I stopped there because the young man with the shotgun wanted me to. He kept it on his shoulder as he looked scornfully at my car. "What kind is it?" he grunted.

"Triumph Spitfire. It's British." I was smiling, trying not to offend him. Why did a goat party need armed security? He had the rustic look of someone who'd never seen a car made in another country.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Willie Traynor."

I think the "Willie" made him feel better, so he nodded at the gate. "Nice car," he said as I drove through.

The pickup trucks outnumbered the cars. Parking was haphazard in a field in front of the cabin. Merle Haggard was wailing from two speakers placed in the windows. One group of guests huddled over a pit where smoke was rising and the goat was roasting. Another group was tossing horseshoes beside the cabin. Three well-dressed ladies were on the porch, sipping something that was certainly not beer. Harry Rex appeared and greeted me warmly.

"Who's the boy with the shotgun?" I asked.

"Oh him. That's Duffy, my first wife's nephew."

"Why is he out there?" If the goat party included something illegal, I at least wanted some notice.

"Don't worry. Duffy ain't all there, and the gun ain't loaded. He's been guardin' nothin' for years."

I smiled as if this made perfect sense. He guided me to the pit where I saw my first goat, dead or alive. With the exception of head and hide, it appeared to be intact. I was introduced to the many chefs. With each name I got an occupation - a lawyer, a bail bondsman, a car dealer, a farmer. As I watched the goat spin slowly on a spit, I soon learned that there were many competing theories on how to properly barbecue one. Harry Rex handed me a beer and we moved on to the cabin, speaking to anyone we bumped into. A secretary, a "crooked real estate agent," the current wife of Harry Rex. Each seemed pleased to meet the new owner of the Times.

The cabin sat on the edge of a muddy pond, the kind snakes find attractive. A deck protruded over the water, and there we worked the crowd. Harry Rex took great delight in introducing me to his friends. "He's a good boy, not your typical Ivy League asshole," he said more than once. I didn't like to be referred to as a "boy," but then I was getting used to it.

I settled into a small group that included two ladies who looked as though they'd spent years in the local honky-tonks. Heavy eye makeup, teased hair, tight clothing, and they immediately took an interest in me. The conversation began with the bomb and the assault on Wiley Meek and the prevailing cloud of fear the Padgitts had spread over the county. I acted as if it was just another routine episode in my long and colorful career in journalism. They drilled me with questions and I did more talking than I wanted to.

Harry Rex rejoined us and handed me a suspicious-looking jar of clear liquid. "Sip it slowly," he said, much like a father.

"What is it?" I asked. I noticed that others were watching.

"Peach brandy."

"Why is it in a fruit jar?" I asked.

"That's the way they make it," he said.

"It's moonshine," one of the painted ladies said. The voice of experience.

Not often would these rural folks see an "Ivy Leaguer" take his first drink of moonshine, so the crowd drew closer. I was certain I had consumed more alcohol in the prior five years at Syracuse than anyone else present, so I threw caution to the wind. I lifted the jar, said, "Cheers," and took a very small sip. I smacked my lips, said, "Not bad." And tried to smile like a freshman at a fraternity party.

The burning began at the lips, the point of initial contact, and spread rapidly across the tongue and gums and by the time it hit the back of my throat I thought I was on fire. Everyone was watching. Harry Rex took a sip from his jar.

"Where does it come from?" I asked, as nonchalantly as possible, flames escaping through my teeth.

"Not far from here," someone said.

Scorched and numb, I took another sip, quite anxious for the crowd to ignore me for a while. Oddly enough, the third sip revealed a hint of peach flavoring, as if the taste buds had to be shocked before they could work. When it was apparent that I was not going to breathe fire, vomit, or scream, the conversation resumed. Harry Rex, ever anxious to speed along my education, thrust forward a plate of fried something. "Have one of these," he said.

"What is it?" I asked, suspicious.

Both of my painted ladies curled up their noses and turned away, as if the smell might make them ill. "Chitlins," one of them said.

"What's that?"

Harry Rex popped one in his mouth to prove they weren't poison, then shoved the plate closer to me. "Go ahead," he said, chomping away at this delicacy.

Folks were watching again, so I picked out the smallest piece and put it in my mouth. The texture was rubbery, the taste was acrid and foul. The smell had a barnyard essence. I chewed as hard as possible, choked it down, then followed with a gulp of moonshine. And for a few seconds I thought I might faint.

"Hog guts, boy," Harry Rex said, slapping me on the back. He threw another one in his large mouth and offered me the plate. "Where's the goat?" I managed to ask. Anything would be an improvement.

Whatever happened to beer and pizza? Why would these people eat and drink such disagreeable things?

Harry Rex walked away, the putrid smell of the chitlins following him like smoke. I placed the fruit jar on the railing, hoping it would tumble and disappear. I watched others pass around their moonshine, one jar usually good for an entire group. There was absolutely no concern over germs and such. No bacteria could've survived within three feet of the vile brew.

I excused myself from the deck, said I needed to find a restroom. Harry Rex emerged from the back door of the cabin holding two pistols and a box of ammo. "We'd better take a few shots before it gets dark," he said. "Follow me."

We stopped at the goat spit where a cowboy named Rafe joined us. "Rafe's my runner," Harry Rex said as the three of us headed for the woods.

"What's a runner?" I asked.

"Runs cases."

"I'm the ambulance chaser," Rafe said helpfully. "Although usually the ambulance is behind me."

I had so much to learn, though I was making some real progress. Chitlins and moonshine in one day were no small feat. We walked a hundred yards or so down an old field road, through some woods, then came to a clearing. Between two magnificent oaks Harry Rex had constructed a semicircle wall of hay bales twenty feet high. In the center was a white bedsheet, and in the middle of it was the crude outline of a man. An attacker. The enemy. The target.

Not surprisingly, Rafe whipped out his own handgun. Harry Rex was handling mine. "Here's the deal," he said, beginning the lesson. "This is a double action revolver with six cartridges. Press here and the cylinder pops out." Rafe reached over and deftly loaded six bullets, something he had obviously done many, many times. "Snap it back like this, and you're ready to fire."

We were about fifty feet from the target. I could still hear the music from the cabin. What would the other guests think when they heard gunfire? Nothing. It happened all the time.

Rafe took my handgun and faced the target. "For starters, spread your legs to shoulders' width, bend the knees slightly, use both hands like this, and squeeze the trigger with your right index finger." He demonstrated as he spoke, and, of course, everything looked easy. I was standing less than five feet away when the gun fired, and the sharp crack jolted my nerves. Why did it have to be so loud?

I had never heard live gunfire.

The second shot hit the target square in the chest, and the next four landed around the midsection. He turned to me, opened the cylinder, spun out the empty cartridges, and said, "Now you do it."

My hands were shaking as I took the gun. It was warm and the smell of gunpowder hung heavy around us. I managed to shove in the six cartridges and snap the cylinder shut without hurting anyone. I faced the target, lifted the gun with both hands, crouched like someone in a bad movie, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger. It felt and sounded like a small bomb of some sort.

"You gotta keep your eyes open, dammit," Harry Rex growled.

"What did I hit?"

"That hill beyond the oak trees."

"Try it again," Rafe said.

I tried to look down the gunsight but it was shaking too badly to be of any use. I squeezed the trigger again, this time with my eyes open, waiting to see where my bullet hit. I noticed no entry wound anywhere near the target.

"He missed the sheet," Rafe mumbled behind me.

"Fire again," Harry Rex said.

I did, and again couldn't see where the bullet landed. Rafe gently took my left arm and eased me forward another ten feet. "You're doin' fine," he said. "We got plenty of ammo."

I missed the hay on the fourth shot, and Harry Rex said, "I guess the Padgitts are safe after all."

"It's the moonshine," I said.

"It just takes practice," Rafe said, moving me forward yet again. My hands were sweating, my heart was galloping away, my ears were ringing.

On number five I hit the sheet, barely, in the top right-hand corner, at least six feet from the target. On number six I missed everything again and heard the bullet hit a branch up in one of the oaks.

"Nice shot," Harry Rex said. "You almost hit a squirrel."

"Shut up," I said.

"Relax," Rafe said. "You're too tense." He helped me reload, and this time he squeezed my hands around the gun. "Breathe deeply," he said over my shoulder. "Exhale right before you pull the trigger." He steadied the gun as I looked down the sight, and when it fired the target took a hit in the groin.

"Now we're in business," Harry Rex said.

Rafe released me, and, like a gunslinger at high noon, I unloaded the next five shots. All hit the sheet, one would've taken off the target's ear. Rafe approved and we loaded up again.

Harry Rex had a 9-millimeter Glock automatic from his vast collection, and as the sun slowly disappeared we took turns blasting away. He was good and had no trouble drilling ten straight shots into the upper torso from fifty feet. After four rounds, I began to relax and enjoy the sport of it. Rafe was an excellent teacher, and as I progressed he passed on tips here and there. "It just takes practice," he kept saying.

When we finished, Harry Rex said, "The gun's a gift. You can come out here anytime for target practice."

"Thanks," I said. I stuck the gun in my pocket like a real redneck. I was delighted that the ritual was over, that I had accomplished something that every other male in the county had experienced by his twelfth birthday. I didn't feel any safer. Any Padgitt who jumped from the bushes would have the advantage of surprise, and the benefit of years of target practice. I could almost envision myself grappling with my own gun in the darkness and finally unloading a bullet that would more likely hit me than any assailant.

As we were walking back through the woods, Harry Rex said from behind me, "That bleached blonde you met, Carleen."

"Yeah," I said, suddenly nervous.

"She likes you."

Carleen had lived at least forty very hard years. I could think of nothing to say.

"She's always good for a hop in the sack."

I doubted if Carleen had missed too many sacks in Ford County. "No thanks," I said. "I got a girl in Memphis."

"So?"

"Good call," Rafe said under his breath.

"A girl here, a girl there. What's the big difference?"

"I gotta deal for you, Harry Rex," I said. "If I need your help picking up women, I'll let you know."

"Just a roll in the hay," he mumbled.

I did not have a girl in Memphis, but I knew several. I'd rather make the drive than stoop to the likes of Carleen.

* * *

The goat had a distinctive taste; not good, but, after the chitlins, not nearly as bad as I had feared. It was tough and smothered in sticky barbeque sauce, which, I suspected, was applied in generous layers to counter the taste of the meat. I toyed with a slice of it and washed it down with beer. We were on the deck again with Loretta Lynn in the background. The moonshine had made the rounds for a while and some of the guests were dancing above the pond. Carleen had disappeared earlier with someone else, so I felt safe. Harry Rex sat nearby, telling everyone how effective I'd been shooting squirrels and rabbits. His talent for storytelling was remarkable.

I was an oddity but every effort was made to include me. Driving the dark roads home, I asked myself the same question I posed every day. What was I doing in Ford County, Mississippi?



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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