Death of a Sheriff

The Death of a Sheriff

By Elton Camp

            Boulivar County, Georgia at mid-Twentieth Century, was as near an ideal place to be sheriff as could be found anywhere in the Deep South.  The climate was mild, there were no large cities, and the terrain had a pleasing mixture of scenic mountains and lush valleys.  The winters were mild and brief and the summers seldom extremely hot, although they could be uncomfortably muggy.  The dam at Grunsey impounded a large lake with some of the best bass fishing in the Nation.  Serious crimes were few and often years apart.  Law enforcement, for the most part, dealt with domestic spats, robberies, and automobile accidents.  Since there was little else of substance to debate, candidates for the office recommended themselves to the voters mainly in terms of how they’d deal with the one, overriding local issue.     

            “Elect me and I’ll put the bootleggers out of business,” each office seeker solemnly promised.  Everyone knew it wouldn’t happen.  Ever since the area was settled, liquor had been made and sold in the mountains and valleys.  So it would be as long as the county remained legally “dry.”   

            The position was, however, a popular one.  It sounded righteous and fit with prevailing religious teachings that were honored more in theory than in practice.  A significant portion of the people enjoyed an occasional strong drink and didn’t like having to go all the way to Atlanta to get it.  A few used the “Devil’s brew’ on a regular basis.  A bootlegger was an important, even if slightly disreputable, member of most every community.  The occupation was also important for an economic reason.  It required no formal education since the necessary technical training was supplied free-of-charge, often by the bootlegger’s family.  Accordingly, it allowed men who otherwise might have been on public relief to be self-supporting. 

            “I couldn’t make a livin’ except fer th’ good church folks,” smirked Curtis who had worked at nothing else since he married.  He not only sold “white lightning,” but also manufactured it with a small still deep in the woods behind his house on Brewster Mountain.  His cost of operation was modest and when he made a dollar, he kept a dollar, except for the monthly amount he paid for necessary insurance.  The provider of the essential protection personally picked up the premium at Curtis’ house near the end of each month. 

            Not paying federal and state income taxes somewhat troubled the patriotic man.  “I relly don’t so much min’ payin’ taxes,” he told his wife, “but how kin I put hit down thet I made so much sellin’ whiskey?” 

            Preachers felt it their duty to rail against the trade at least a few times each year.  Never could they allow it be said that they winked at wrongdoing. Their tirades were directed at the failure of law enforcement, not at reformation of the individual bootleggers, many of who sat in their congregations.  Likewise exempt from criticism were members of the flock who were the customers, without whom the illicit trade would falter.  To attack the sheriff was far safer.  Nothing must lessen the weekly take when the contribution plate was passed.

            “Hit’s a plumb disgrace th’ way whiskey is sold ’round hear,” argued the good Reverend Jackson of the Crossroad Pentecostal Church in the Pine Grove community.  “Th’ election fer sheriff is comin’ up soon ’n’ hits th’ duty o’ every God fearing Christian to vote fer a man who’ll clean out thet den o’ crooks.”

            Five men stood for election that year, all of them declaring that they’d never touched alcohol, except possibly as foolish young men.  They had now seen the light and would make certain that the law was fully enforced.

            “If you elect me,” promised Aldos Hasty, “I’ll see to it that there’s not a single bootlegger in operation in the county inside of a year.  You can take that to the bank.”  The other candidates made similar promises, so little of substance recommended one over the other for him to be selected as the top lawman of the county.  The choice was based on popularity and how well each man played the political game. 

            The attraction to the position wasn’t that it paid extremely well or that it provided excellent benefits.  It didn’t.  The office carried little prestige; its occupant was usually an object of private scorn among all but the most ill informed of the citizenry.  What it did offer was the opportunity for graft.  It was so lucrative that after a single term, the sheriff could amass enough money to live comfortably for years to come.  If he was sufficiently cunning, he might even be elected to a second term. 

            “Aldos, I wish you wouldn’t make promises you know you don’t intend to keep,”  plead his wife, a sincerely religious person.  “You’ll do just like Sheriff Richards if you get picked.  I’ll be ashamed to show my face at church.”

            “You tend to your church going and let me make us a living,” he snapped.  “What I do’s no concern of yours.  If I play my cards right, I’ve got a good chance of getting’ in.  Don’t you say nothing to mess it up.”

            Aldos knew what it took to win an election.  Over the months of the campaign, he did exactly what the public expected.  He, and volunteers who anticipated becoming his deputies, tacked hundreds of cardboard signs to poles and trees, all reading the same: “Elect Aldos Hasty Sheriff, Subject to action of the Democratic Primary.”  The Democratic nomination was tantamount to election since the Republican Party, outside of Wilson County, had been inoperative in Georgia since the end of Reconstruction. 

            “I ain’t sure all them signs make a speck of difference,” he observed to a supporter, “but it’s been done that way so long that everybody’s afraid to risk not putting ‘em out.”

            At the least, the posters kept the candidate’s name before the public.  They also provided fodder for claims that his unethical opponent had been seen taking them down and replacing them with his own.  There was never proof of the assertions, but merely to make such charges tended to discredit the other office seeker.  The more honorable men running for sheriff refused to make false charges like that and as a result found their stock falling with the public.  “Throwing mud” was widely condemned, but it continued because it worked. 

            Also required of a candidate was that he stand outside the courthouse to hand out cards bearing his name, the name of his wife, and a list of their children.  He also provided a brief list of church and community memberships.  If it all were true, Boulivar County surely had a surplus of Sunday School teachers and deacons.  Only rarely did he include any reference to training or experience that qualified him for the office.  The cards were more likely to be accepted and retained if a list of the county numbers as they occurred on car tags was on the back. 

            “I’d appreciate your support,” each man said as he offered his card, but provided no real reason to think he’d be any better than his opponents.

            It was also vital to go directly to the people at their homes.  Candidates and their supporters called on as many houses as possible to hand the owner a card and ask for his support in the coming election.  A goodly number would vote for a man only if he’d done that.  It made them feel important.  If nobody was at home, the callers left cards on the door.  Empty houses came to have quite a collection.  Country stores provided a board where the cards could be attached. 

            “I’ve been bit by dogs five times already,” complained Sheriff Richards who was seeking reelection, “and the campaign ain’t half over.”

            Most of the candidates took out political advertisements in the Mountain Times and the Belkton Free Press, but they were generally innocuous.  If a man wanted to attack his competitors, a verbal smear campaign orchestrated by supporters, was far preferable.  What was whispered could be denied, but written charges might have to be proven.   

            “Let it be found out that Lee Roberts is an infidel,” Sheriff Richards whispered to one of his deputies.  The handsome, friendly young man appeared to be a leading contender for the office.  “But don’t say it came from me and make sure you say just that you heard it.  You can’t say for certain that it’s true.  Make that plain.” 

            The seed of the untruth was planted, sprouted, and quickly spread.  The slander grew with each telling so that old ladies began to cry and hide their Bibles when they contemplated the prospect of Roberts becoming sheriff.  Although an honorable man, he was ruined by outright lies and innuendo and soon dropped out of the race in disgust.

            “Let the rest of them fight over it,” he told his wife and children, “Enough of a thing’s a dog’s bate.”

            Dozens of political rallies were held throughout the county every election year.  Almost every community that had a schoolhouse scheduled one at some point during the campaign.  Large numbers of people flocked to the gatherings.  Not only was it a chance to meet the candidates and hear them speak, but also it was a social occasion.  Participation by local politicians was mandatory if they expected to get votes in the area. 

            The parking lot was crowded an hour before the rally was to begin.  Plates of food were sold, either to raise money for the Democratic Party, or for some worthy community cause.  When most had finished eating, donated cakes were auctioned.  Most bids came from the candidates themselves.  A bidding war might erupt between contenders for the same office and result in an exorbitant price.  The audience egged them on as if the one who emerged victorious would be more likely to get their votes.  The winning bidder, after the applause died down, often donated the cake to a member of the audience, or even to his competitor in an attempt to embarrass him.  The rallies were a considerable expense to the candidates, but they didn’t dare fail to enter into the spirit of the occasion.  Losing candidates often took months to pay their debts.  Running for office was a risky business. 

                Entire families came to the rallies, but the children, after eating, didn’t remain in the crowded, smoky room where the cake auction was held and speeches made.  They scattered to the rest of the building or to the grounds, and formed groups according to age.  It was an evening of play for the younger ones and an opportunity to court for the teenagers. 

                “Whar’s your brother?” a mother demanded of her younger son.  “I ain’t seen him for a while. I told him to stay in th’ building.”

                The younger boy denied any knowledge of his sibling’s whereabouts, but a guilty glance toward the parking lot behind the school told her all she needed to know.  Only a couple of minutes passed before she jerked open the back door of the family’s gray 1949 Ford. 

                “What are you two doing in there?” she stormed.  Her son and a teenage girl sat up and quickly slid to opposite sides of the seat. 

                The girl adjusted her disheveled blouse and the boy fantically buttoned his shirt.  Denials were useless.  The two, with guilty looks, trudged behind the mother toward the schoolhouse.  “You should have been more careful, Roscoe,” shouted one of his pals from a distance.  The mocking words brought a chorus of laughs from the other teenagers who were scattered about in the parking lot. 

                “I’m ashamed of you both,” the mother reproached.  “Stay inside the school house and know that I’ll be checking to see that you do.  Sally Mae, I ought to tell your maw about this, but since Roscoe is so uncommonly fond of you, I won’t if you behave yourself.”

                It became time for the speeches to begin.  “All right, you can talk, since it’s on behalf of the Governor, for five minutes,” the director of the rally at Pleasant Hill School informed the candidate’s representative who made a last-minute plea to be included, “but keep it to that.  We don’t much cotton to people not appearing in person.” 

                Such requests were usually tolerated since it was understandable that a statewide candidate couldn’t make all the rallies, but if a local politician attempted to send a surrogate, the man, although allowed on the stage, often was either hooted down or ignored.  It was considered an insult. 

            “If he don’t ker enough fer our votes to com’ ask fer ’em hisself, he don’t deserve t’ be elected,” a grizzled farmer remarked when a substitute for a candidate for Probate Judge walked to the stage. 

            Most quietly listened to the substitute, although scattered cries of “Set down,” and “That’s ’nough” came from the audience after a couple of minutes.  The man exited the stage to scattered, weak applause. 

            Aldos’s turn came.  He mounted the stage, rested his arms on the podium, looked around to make eye contact with as many as possible, and proceeded to liven up the audience with an outrageous racist joke.  It was safe to do that, since as far as anybody knew, only one black man in Boulivar County was a registered voter.  The young driver of the ice cream delivery truck was intelligent and well liked.  Even more important, he told white people what they wanted to hear.  Nobody seemed to object to him voting. 

            “I’ll enforce the laws the same for everybody,” Aldos asserted.  “When you need me, I’ll be right there.”  He continued to explain that he was already compiling a list of the known bootleggers in the county.  “Their days are numbered when I go into office,” he claimed.  He received enthusiastic applause as he left the stage.

            Sheriff Richards, unable to run on his dismal record, confined himself to additional jokes and good-natured jabs at his opponents.  “You all know me.  I’ll sure appreciate your vote on election day,” he concluded.  The applause was about the same as given to Aldos.

            On the day of the election, open campaigning ceased.  Votes had to be counted by hand, so results from the dozens of polling places trickled in slowly to the courthouse where the candidates had gathered along with a considerable crowd.  It was after midnight before the final tally showed a run-off between the incumbent and Aldos.  With four being in the race, neither man had received a majority, although Aldos led by a slim margin. 

            The voter turnout for the deciding election, several weeks later, was much lighter.  Both men had used the intervening time to influence as many people as possible.  Every vote was important in such a situation. 

            “I was the leader,” Aldos told a group of men playing dominoes in a country store, “but it won’t mean a thing unless those who want me go to the polls.” 

            All knew that the outcome was likely to be decided by a small number of votes, so the candidates weren’t above outright bribery.  The practice carried, however, a significant risk.  Some sold their vote to both sides.  An honest voter, some quipped, is one who, when bought, stays bought. 

            In those days, voter rolls weren’t updated on any regular basis and so contained numerous names of deceased persons.  The inconvenience of being dead didn’t necessarily prevent them from participating in the political process.  With the tacit approval of bribed poll watchers, others assumed their names and cast votes in their behalf.  A few polling places had total turnout of their registered voters, or perhaps even a few more. 

            “Everybody living and dead at Gray Point voted for me,” quipped a defeated candidate for circuit clerk a few years earlier.  “But I lost just the same.”  His opponent had been even more unscrupulous and determined. 

            Counting the votes provided additional opportunities for fraud.  Paper ballots were enumerated by hand.  “What’cha gonna do about it, long as I count the votes,” reportedly said Boss Tweed.  To a lesser extent, a similar situation prevailed in Boulivar County. 

            “So, that’s 135 votes for Hasty and 75 for Richards,” said Otto Timms, the poll worker keeping the tally.  He had “inadvertently” switched the totals. 

            Aldos became sheriff by a margin of 132 votes out of a total of 2,321 cast.  Magnanimous in victory, he issued a statement in which he lavishly praised his opponent, the former sheriff.  He added, “With the help of God, I will carry out the duties of the high office you’ve given me to the best of my ability.”

            As soon as he assumed the position, he went to work.  There was much to be done and it had to be accomplished quickly and with an air of authority.  After he accepted, “with regret,” the forced resignations of the ex-sheriff’s deputies, he named a group of his key supports to the positions. 

            “I’m not keeping on a single one of you bastards that supported Richards,” he informed a middle-aged deputy who made an appeal to retain his position.  “If you got sickness in your family, that’s not my problem. Get out of my office.” 

            For a cash payment and with a knowing wink, Richards supplied his successor a list of the bootleggers and the monthly payment made by each.  It was essential information to provide continuity, maintain income, and keep down complaints. 

            “These boys are getting off way too light,” Aldos remarked to Josh, his head deputy, who was also his first cousin.  “I’ll wait a while before I do it, but the cost is going up.”  The deputy smiled in satisfaction since it would mean an increase in his percentage share. 

            A few month later, Aldos and Josh turned their black Chevrolet cruiser off the county road and onto a narrow gravel lane marked with a hand-painted sign that read “Worms for Sale.”  Hearing the crunch of gravel under their tires, Lige, dressed in bib overalls, met them on the front porch. 

            “Day or so early, aint you, Sheriff,” he commented as he handed the man a small roll of bills.  Aldos handed the payment to his accomplice who counted it and then placed it into a leather billfold that he pulled from his back pocket. 

            After a few minutes of chitchat about the weather, the officer got to point:  the change he intended to make.  “Lige, you know the cost of everything’s going up lately.  I hate to do it, but I’ll be needing a five dollar increase in your contribution starting next month.”

            The man frowned.  “Sheriff Richards was always content with whut I was payin.’  I can’t see no reason you should ask more.”

            The matter wasn’t up for debate.  “It’s for you to decide, Lige, but we’re under considerable pressure from some of the church folks to make arrests.  What with your three children, I’d sure hate to see you having to go off.”  The threat had the desired effect, there and at the homes of Aldos’s other clients.  They bowed to reality and agreed to the increase. 

            There was only one exception:  Eulas Kirkland.  The short, wiry man was feisty and not one to be pushed around.  “Hell no, I won’t give no more an’ I ain’t even gonna continue what y’u been gittin,’” he replied angrily.  “Y’u kin do what y’u please wif yore threats, but I warn y’u not to set yore foot on my proppity ’ ever ’gain.”

            Aldos couldn’t let the challenge to his authority go unanswered.  Others might learn about it and his livelihood be ruined.  The next Saturday evening, around six o’clock, he returned along with a second cruiser filled with armed deputies.  Eulas was concluding a transaction with one of his regular customers when the cars turned off the highway, roared up his driveway, and skidded to stops.  Doors flew open.  The deputies got out and stood behind their leader. 

            “It’s th’ damn sheriff.  I’m getting out of here,” the whiskey buyer said in a panic.  He threw his car into gear and slung gravels as he sped down the long driveway.

            “You scart off one o’ my best customers,” Kirkland said angrily.  “I warned y’u not t’ show yore face here ’gain.”  The man darted from the porch into his house.  “I’ll larn y’u a lesson y’u won’t fergit.”  Seconds later, he reappeared, brandishing a long rifle.  “Git out of here and never come back,” the man ordered as he leveled the gun at Aldos, his finger on the trigger. 

            “Let him have it, boys,” the sheriff ordered his deputies. 

            Shots ran out.  The bootlegger was seriously wounded, but managed to return fire.  Aldos cried out, dropped to the ground, and groaned as a rapidly expanding pool of blood appeared.  The deputies bounded behind their cars for protection as they returned fire.  Hit again, Kirkland staggered, dropped his rifle, and crumpled to the ground several feet from the mortally wounded sheriff. 

            Kirkland’s teenage son stepped from the house to the porch, a rifle in his hands.  “You bastards shot my paw,” he screamed.

            A deputy rose from behind a cruiser.  “Put down that gun, boy, or you’ll get the same thing he did.  Drop it now!”

            Rather than obeying, the furious youth knocked him backward with a blast to the center of his chest.  The gunfight was over within minutes.  Two men lay dead and a sixteen-year-old boy sat in the back seat of the sheriff’s car, handcuffs securing his arms behind his back.  Tears ran down his face as he sobbed uncontrollably. 

            The next day, the group got their fifteen minutes of fame.  Headlines around the state read:  Sheriff killed in shoutout.  The accompanying story gave no hint as to the actual circumstances that led to the killings.  Local people weren’t fooled.  They knew. 

            At the trial, the Kirkland youth was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to the maximum security Georgia State Prison near Reidsville for thirty years.  His life destroyed, he emerged a hardened, middle-aged criminal. 

            Shortly after the trial, the foreman of the jury commented to a group at the courthouse, “We sort of hated to convict that boy, but his old man wasn’t around to punish.  Somebody had to go off for it.  We can’t let that kind of thing be taking place around here.  We’re God-fearing, law-abiding folks.”  The listeners nodded in agreement. 

            “There never were no good t’ come from anybody sellin’ whiskey,” one of them said.  “It’s the work and drink o’ th’ Devil.  Y’all done th’ right thing t’ find him guilty. Thar’s nothin’ in this world worse than a bootlegger.”

           


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Synopsis
Corrupt politics, hypocrisy, and violence in the Deep South during the mid 20th Century.
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