William J. Watkins, Jr. | A jury of his peers

Watkins-for-webGARLAND BREAZEALE heard the front door close as his secretary Nettie Lawrence left the office for the day. Just six months ago, Nettie had become Garland’s first full-time employee. During the previous five years of his law practice in Hampton Falls, Garland had done well to keep a part-time secretary busy. His work then consisted of drafting an occasional will or simple contract. Slowly, he picked up more business as the townspeople learned to trust his legal abilities. Now, Garland was even pulling in some clients who, just a few years ago, would have only hired a lawyer from Maxton, the county seat.

Sitting at his cherry writing desk, Garland drafted a conclusion to an appellate brief he had been retained to prepare.  His client was a former professor at the state agricultural college who had not fared well at trial with a suit for libel and slander. The old professor had been let go by the college because of “budget cuts,” but  the president—after a few libations and within earshot of a newspaperman—mentioned some irregular conduct with the provost’s daughter. The Maxton lawyer, who represented the professor at trial, failed to object when the college’s attorney argued “truth” as defense, yet had not called a witness with personal knowledge of any hanky-panky on the professor’s part. Hence, Garland was asking the appellate court to award the professor new trial.

Garland did not especially want to deal with the dirty laundry of the case and had quoted the professor an exorbitant fee meant to send the professor elsewhere. Without blinking the professor agreed to it and now Garland was stuck with the appeal.

Garland heard the front door open and slowly close. Nettie must have forgotten something, he thought. Feet shuffled on the wooden floor. Then there was silence.

“Garrrlanddd, you back there?” It was the voice of Herron Childress. Herron had one of the best farms in the Chauga Valley—130 acres just outside of town and off of Route 321. When his two boys came back from the war in late 1945, Herron turned the day-to-day operation of the farm over to them. Now, he was just a year shy of 65 and still capable of hard labor.  In fact, Herron took great pride that at harvest time he could still wield a corn knife with the best of them. He could shock corn from the early morning until about dinner time and still have the energy to complete the afternoon chores around the barn. Herron had not been sure how he would adjust to a more “advisory” role on the farm, but with arrival of grandchildren, he enjoyed the luxury of slowing down.

“Come on back, Herron.” Garland got up from his disk and walked around to greet his guest as he came through interior office door.

“I expected you’d still be here,” Herron smiled.

The two men shook hands and Garland directed him to one of the guest chairs sitting in front of the desk. Rather than return to his swivel chair behind the desk, Garland pulled up the other guest chair and had a seat.

“You got your garden ready for planting?” Herron asked.  “You know Good Friday will be here before we can turn around.”

“I’m a little behind this year. Besides, last spring that late frost got my tomato seedlings. I’m not rushing anything this year. With the length of the growing season there’s no need to. Or so I’m finally learning.”

“I dunno. With the cold we had in December and January, I expect a pretty mild spring. Good Friday should be a safe mark this year.”

Garland nodded his head. If anyone could predict the right time to plant, it would be Herron. The Childress family had been farming in the Chauga Valley for at least 100 years. While several farms around Herron’s suffered from exhausted soil and absentee owners, the Childress place was in the hands of family—a family that respected the soil and gave it rest and cover crops at regular intervals. The Childress boys continued in this tradition. To their credit, they listened to Herron and respected him.

The conversation turned to town politics as Garland queried whether Herron might throw his hat in the ring for the mayoral race.  “Lord knows the town could use a man like you.  With your boys running things at the farm, you might enjoy setting some things right around here.”

Herron rolled his eyes and grunted. “I’m doing well just tending to my own business. Politickin’ ain’t my way.”

Herron paused. “Maybe that’s why I’m in such a mess now.” He took his eyes off of Garland and seemed to study the paneled walls.

Garland sat back and scrutinized Herron’s demeanor. With those last words, Herron’s posture had changed.  Normally, Herron sat as he stood, tall and relaxed with his shoulders back. He never suffered from the “roundback” that Garland noticed was endemic among the world of the desk-bound. Herron slouched in the chair. His eyes betrayed a hurt—one that Garland did not pick up on when Herron first entered the room.

Herron reached into his coat pocket and handed Garland a tri-folded letter. The paper stock was a heavy parchment. As he unfolded it, the first thing Garland noticed was the embossed letterhead: Southern Railway Company. The letter was short:

Dear Mr. Childress:

We are disappointed that you have rejected our offer to purchase a 40 acre parcel abutting Highway 321. We believe that our offer of $375 per acre is fair and is actually well above the market value.

As you know, S.C. Code Ann. § 76:101 provides that “Any railroad may purchase and use real estate for a price to be agreed upon with the owners thereof and may acquire the same through the exercise of the power of eminent domain. The procedure to condemn property shall be exercised in the same manner as set forth in sections 76:704 to 76:724.”

Please let this communication serve as notice that we are beginning condemnation proceedings in the Court of Common Pleas.

Govern yourself accordingly.

s/ Isaac Stephen Wirt

General Counsel

“Why do they want the land? The tracks run well behind your property toward Maxton. This parcel is on the south side. That doesn’t make good sense.”

“It makes plenty of sense if you want to run a railcar repair yard that you expect will eventually become a receiving yard.”

“In Hampton Falls? Why, there aren’t enough trains that come this way justify a two-acre yard, much less forty.”

“Not according to experts they’ve hired out of Atlanta. The experts are predicting that post-war prosperity will continue for the foreseeable future. After all, Europe was almost blowed to bits in the bombin’ and fightin’. The eastern part of it won’t trade with none but the Soviets. Japan will be lucky to feed herself and make tin trinkets. Our star is rising, they say. Nary a nation can match us. Manufactories and mills are the future. And the Chauga Valley, they tell me, will be part of this future whether I like it or not. The two mills down 321 toward Oneida will multiply—there’ll be ten of them in less than 20 years. Based on research and projections, Hampton Falls will be a prime location for a large yard. Anyhow, that’s what they tell me.”

“Even if they have a crystal ball to see the future, that’s still a ways off. Things can also change. Why spend $15,000 now?  Especially when, with all due respect Herron, the last farm that sold along 321 went for, I think, about $275 per acre.”

“Garland, I can’t get in their heads and tell you. I suppose Southern is flush with cash from all the war-time contracts. They’re lookin’ for somethin’ to spend that money on and have taken a shine to part of my land. The magnanimous bastards have even offered to let me rent the 40 acres from them until they decide to break ground.”

“What do Mary and the boys think about all this?”

(Continued)

 

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2 Responses to William J. Watkins, Jr. | A jury of his peers

  1. Leslee November 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    That’s it…five pages! Is one of your links broken?

  2. Kurt November 14, 2014 at 3:29 am #

    Wonderful story! You are a great writer, sir.

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