“Boomer” Winfrey

Varmint County Correspondent

Varmint County folks pursued an age-old tradition earlier this month, swapping rumors as the deadline approached for candidates to file for the upcoming primary elections.  

Everyone already was aware of the pending “Battle of the Bandits” for the office of Sheriff, as Stephanie Bandit Potts filed her petition early to run for the office against her husband Hiram Potts.

When asked how he felt about having to run against his own wife, Sheriff Potts simply replied, “Beats sleeping in my jail for the next six months.”

Hiram, you might recall, was caught having a dalliance with one of the local divorcées. His wife could choose to kick him out of the house, leave him or run against him. Being the spunky daughter of former Sheriff Smoky T Bandit, she chose the path that would inflict the most pain on her husband.

But the real excitement hereabouts as the filing deadline grew near did not concern the sheriff’s race, or any of the dozens of people rumored to be running for county commission, school board or constable. Instead the rumors were flying about the office of Criminal Court Judge for the Thirteenth District, which includes Varmint County, neighboring Burr County and parts of McAdoo County. That seat on the bench is currently occupied, as it has been for the past thirty-two years, by Lower Primroy’s own Hobert “Hard Time” Harwell.

The rumors started back in February when, at one of Doc Filstrup’s weekly poker games, Hard Time told his companions he was considering retirement.

“Boys, I’m the only current office holder sitting in on this game, where all the really important decisions concerning Varmint County politics and government are made. Being in office and beholden to the voters kind’a cramps my style. You guys get to make decisions, tell the squires and other officials how to vote and never have to answer to the public,” Hard Time observed.

“Besides,” he added, “I really would like to have the luxury of going fishing in the middle of the week or sleeping late after one of these poker nights. Might be time I joined the retired officials’ club.”

Around the table there was only stunned silence. Nobody, from former County Judge Colonel Hugh Ray Jass to former Sheriff Smoky to former Mayor Doc Filstrup, could picture Hard Time anywhere but on the bench in his flowing robe, Colt .45 strapped to his side, dispensing justice to Varmint County’s various ne’er-do-wells.

“Well, who would run to take your place, Hobert? None of the lawyers around here command the respect or instill the fear in criminals that you do.” Colonel Hugh observed.

“Oh, District Attorney General Habeas C. Conklin would do a decent job. I can think of a few others practicing over in Burrville that would probably run for the office if I retire,” Hard Time replied. “Anyway, it’s a thought.”

The “thought” soon became fodder for the Varmint County Grapevine, the only news source in the county that rivals the local newspaper that I work for, the Varmint County War Whoop & Exterminator. The Grapevine is twice as fast and one-tenth as accurate, but that doesn’t slow down the rumors from spreading.

Criminals, as one can imagine, began to celebrate. “Hard Time” Harwell was a power to be feared in these parts if one ran counter to the law. He got the nickname a few decades back, when the debate over the death penalty began to heat up around the country.

A reporter for the big city television station asked Judge Harwell how he felt about capital punishment, since he often presided over trials where a jury could possibly recommend a penalty of death.

“Personally, I’m not fond of handing out death penalties on cold-blooded murderers or rapists. That’s letting them off too easy. People opposing the death penalty have obviously never served time in our state’s prison system,” the Judge observed. “I’d rather sentence them to thirty years hard time. Then when they die, they might find salvation because they’ve already spent their time in Hell.” 

That comment made the news and made “Hard Time” Harwell an instant celebrity among the state’s jurists. He became known for handing out harsh jail terms on the real hard cases, while sometimes showing leniency on those who exhibited a possibility of redemption.

Hard Time’s “no mercy” reputation was further enhanced when folks discovered how he spent his vacation time – volunteering to serve as a judicial witness for various executions around the country, usually in Texas or Florida where such penalties were commonly meted out.

“It’s not as heartless as it seems,” Hard Time once confided to Doc Filstrup. “The state pays my travel expenses and two or three nights’ lodging and meals. Then I’ve got the rest of my vacation time to go deep-sea fishing while the Missus shops ’til she drops. I probably wouldn’t do it if the executions were held in some place without a decent lake to fish in, say Nebraska or New Jersey.”

At any rate, Hard Time’s reputation as a judge who is “hard but fair” has meant that he ran unopposed in all but two of his bids for re-election. In his first race for the office back in 1982, he already had developed a reputation as a hard-working Assistant District Attorney and won the judge’s seat in a close four-man race. In the only other election in which he was opposed, Hard Time crushed a personal injury lawyer from Burrville, Tommy “Triple Damages” Tubman, winning with over 80 percent of the vote.

His reputation as a judge is rivaled only by his reputation as an outdoorsman and a lover of tall tales. When not on the bench, Hard Time holds court in his law office, where local wags gather around an ancient pot-bellied stove to spin yarns and tell stories, pausing on occasion to expel tobacco juice into a brass spittoon on the floor.

 Decorating the wall are the mounts of his numerous hunting trophies, ranging from a moose head and a Rocky Mountain goat to a local Bobcat he caught raiding his chicken coop. Adding to this surreal scene is another mount on the wall, a plaster cast of convicted murderer and multiple sex offender “Gomer” Hutchins, who Hard Time had sentenced to life at hard labor.

“Life,” in Gomer’s case, lasted only three weeks. The uncle of one of his teen-aged victims was also serving time at the state pen, put there by Hard Time for armed robbery.    

My most recent experience with Hard Time’s judicial decorum came a few years back when I joined the poker pals, along with Elijah “Big Poison” Haig, on a deep-sea fishing expedition out of Panama City.

The State of Florida had recently placed 30-inch size limits on grouper, red snapper and most other popular saltwater game fish, as the growing population of tourists and retirees was quickly depleting the population of these tasty denizens of the deep, threatening a billion dollar tourist industry.

The captain of our charter boat was a stickler for the new size limits, insisting on taking out a ruler and measuring every fish that our party reeled in. One after another, Captain Quid, as we took to calling him, declared the catch too small to keep.

“That grouper is, uh, only twenty-nine and a half inches. You gotta throw it back,” the Captain would proclaim, quickly unhooking the hapless fish and tossing it overboard.

Of course none of the fish that were being “spared” survived. All were hooked and reeled up quickly from deep water on the bottom and all suffered from the “bends.” When the fish were tossed over the side, they floated, stunned, on the surface just long enough for the school of dolphins that were swimming around the boat to flash in and grab a quick meal.

It seemed like every nice fish that anyone hooked measured out at twenty-nine or twenty-nine and a half inches. That is still nearly two and a half feet long, weighing anywhere from five to ten pounds of prize seafood. Finally, Elijah Haig had seen enough. Elijah hooked a nice red snapper that he fought for fifteen minutes and looked for sure like a keeper, but here came Captain Quid with his measuring stick.

“Uh, only twenty-nine and three-quarter inches. Got to throw him back,” the Captain proclaimed.

Elijah simply squinted at the captain through half-closed eyes, then grabbed the fish by the head and tail and gave a hard yank with his calloused, muscular hands, cracking the snapper’s backbone like a twig.

“Measure it again,” the old man ordered.

“Uh, thirty-three inches,” the Captain said as he held the rubbery fish out to measure it, “But you cheated. This fish was undersized when it was alive.”

“Judge, can we get a ruling on this?” Doc Filstrup quickly chimed in.

“Let me see those state fishing regulations,” Hard Time told Captain Quid, reading the pamphlet over quickly before proclaiming, “The law does not specify whether the size limit applies to live fish or dead fish. I rule that this fish is within the legal size limits and can be kept.”

“Besides,” the Judge whispered to the hapless captain, “If you don’t let Elijah keep that one, the next thing he snaps will be your neck.” 

And so the fishing trip ended on a happy note. Every time someone would reel in a nice fish of debatable legality, they would pass it first to Elijah Haig for stretching before Captain Quid measured it and proclaimed it “a keeper.”

Well, to make a long story short, Hard Time came to the poker game the night before the filing deadline and put everyone’s mind to rest.

“I’m running again, gentlemen. I have my petition right here and would be honored if you would all sign it.” 

“What changed your mind, Judge? I thought you were looking forward to retirement.” Sheriff Smoky asked.

“I was, until I heard that Lawyer Philbert McSwine has filed a petition to run for my seat. I can’t do that to the poor folks of Varmint County, and a chance to beat the stuffing out of Philbert is just too good to pass up!”