September 09, 1985 12:00 PM

They hated each other too much, taunted each other too often, carried too many guns for it to end any other way. Late on the morning of July 24, 1985, with the Florida heat rising, Mac Booth, 47, and Hayward Bryant, 49, faced off and shot each other dead.

They were a lot alike. They farmed, raised cattle, drove Ford pickup trucks and had a special fondness for lady friends and grandchildren. They both smiled when they were mad, too. When Mac started grinning after a few whiskeys, people drinking with him would run out the barroom door before Mac threw them through it. With Hayward, you couldn’t tell. He grinned when he was happy and he grinned when he wasn’t.

It seemed almost incidental that James MacDonald Booth was white and Hayward Bryant black. That wasn’t why they killed one another. Their need to do that transcended prejudice.

Their vendetta had seethed for five years and spread across three counties—Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades—beginning with a lawsuit over cattle and worsening into a series of violent acts, most of them directed against Mac, none of them proved to have been committed by Hayward. When it was over and both men were dead, relatives on both sides expressed relief as well as sadness; they feared that if one had survived, the feud would not have ended.

“If Mac had killed Hayward,” says Henry Dunning, 33, Hayward’s brother-in-law, “all of Hayward’s sons and probably me would have gone looking for him.” Connie Booth, 46, Mac’s first wife, thinks that if only Mac had died, “no doubt my son Mac Jr. would have been out taking over the situation.”

There was no reason for their deaths to have come on this particular day or in this particular place, in an alley alongside a convenience store in the tiny city of Clewiston (pop. 6,500). Mac lived in the city with his second wife, Faye, who says he was just starting to feel happy again, almost three years after dynamite wired to the starter of his truck blew off most of his right leg. Hayward made his home about 10 miles away, in a two-story, badly weathered house with bullet holes around the front door. The two men drove by each other all the time, on straight roads with cane fields on both sides and nothing to look at but each other. They could have stopped their trucks and finished it anywhere.

Clewiston is located alongside Lake Okeechobee in the upper Everglades, about 60 minutes due west of Palm Beach if you’re traveling by Mercedes, or 75 minutes by pickup if you’re heading the other way. Nearby communities include La Belle, which has a Swamp Cabbage Festival every February, and Belle Glade, which has the highest percentage of AIDS cases in the nation. Across the lake is Okeechobee County, which had four killings in five days last month. Clewiston, which bills itself as “America’s Sweetest Town,” is a quiet, peaceful place, residents say. Nothing really bad has happened there since the Hendry County sheriff was stabbed to death five years ago.

The city was 100 percent white until about five years ago. It’s still about 90 percent white, and an owner of the funeral home that handled services for Mac, Luther Davis of Akin-Davis, says he has “never had any call to do a black funeral.” Services for Hayward were handled by Miller Mortuary of Belle Glade. Attitudes in Hendry County haven’t changed that much since the 1940s, when the families of Mac Booth and Hayward Bryant migrated from Georgia.

The Booths came from Ware County near Waycross, the Bryants from just over the Florida border, above Tallahassee. Both families settled in Lake Harbor, which was then on the main highway but is today about a hundred yards south of four-lane Route 27. Lake Harbor once had grocery stores, filling stations, even a barber shop, but now it has a few hundred residents, acres of cane fields and not much else. Hayward lived and worked there and Mac grew up there.

Hayward was 10 and Mac 8 when they got to know one another. Mac’s father was a farm superintendent and Hayward’s father worked under him as a field foreman. Charles Booth is 76 now and feeling poorly, but he still speaks with a boom, and it is easy to imagine workers bending lower to their bean and cabbage picking under the lash of his hard voice. The Booths had a house and a yard, while the Bryants lived in tar-paper-covered barracks owned by the farm where they worked. A black woman who grew up in the same camp as Hayward remembers the rules imposed on them by their parents: no walking in white kids’ yards, no fighting with white kids. “If you fought a white kid, your parents would beat you real good if they found out,” she says. “They were afraid of losing their jobs or having to move. We young kids didn’t feel that way. By the time a white kid was 16 or 17, he thought we should be calling him ‘mister.’ By the time we got to be 16 or 17, we were finished with that.” Today this woman lives in the black community of Harlem, pop. 3,500, adjoining Clewiston. The homes in Harlem aren’t as neat and well-maintained as those in Clewiston, but they aren’t a whole lot worse.

Mac’s mother, Mary, 71, a gentle woman who cannot speak of her dead son without trembling, remembers the young boys playing together, although, she says, “they weren’t really good friends. Colored and white couldn’t be in those days.” While many people recall them fishing together or pulling each other in a wagon, the woman who grew up with Hayward remembers them fighting when no white folks were around. Mac was two years younger, but he grew to be the bigger man, 6’1″ and 210 pounds, and back then they were about the same size. She says she adored Hayward, even though he was bossy around other kids. She says Mac was “a little bully,” the kid in him wanting to play with other children, the white man in him wanting to show the black kids who was boss. “I’d see Mac come up to the road as if he wanted to play, but it would always end with him calling a name and he’d have to run. If he made it back to his yard, fine. If he stood there, he got a whipping from Hayward.”

Years later, says Connie Booth, when she was 14 and Mac 15, the two of them went to a canal in Lake Harbor to swim. It was one of their first dates, and Hayward was already there swimming. He and Mac had grown too old to socialize, and the boys argued over who would stay and who would leave. “They weren’t going to swim together, that’s for sure,” she says. Hayward left. “Mac was always big,” she says, proudly.

The serious trouble between Mac and Hayward started in 1980, and nobody figures it had much to do with color. In 1977 Hayward and his brother Richard started a partnership to raise cattle on leased land. Three years later Hayward filed a civil suit to prevent his brother from dissolving the partnership and taking away half the cattle. Hayward believed he had done most of the work, which Richard denies. Why Mac Booth got involved is not clear, but he had already adopted a protective and somewhat paternalistic attitude toward the older Richard, a gentle, old-fashioned man. Mac was Richard’s boss, precisely as Mac’s father had been the boss of Richard’s father decades earlier. Richard, 57, says Mac “was like a brother to me.” Of his real brother, he says, “He was fine until we got into business, then he quit talking to me. Some people get money hungry. That’s the only thing it could have been.”

A nonjury trial was set for Aug. 21, 1981, but that same day the lawyers settled the case. Richard would receive 40 percent of the 406 cows, calves and bulls. Hayward would get the other 60 percent and would have to pay off partnership debts of $17,000. Mac, who was prepared to testify for Richard, did not have to appear in court. The transcript of the final proceedings, in which Hayward agreed to the split, makes the discussions sound amiable. Perhaps they were, but Hayward quickly broke his word to the court, sold all but a few of the cattle, pocketed the money and could not be found. Says Richard, “He was sick with double pneumonia when he was a bitty baby and always got his way because we pitied him. He still wanted to have his way when he was grown up.”

The circuit judge said, “We’ll give him some free room and board until such time as he accounts for the cattle.” But Hayward wasn’t around, so his wife, Katie Lou, who was named on the partnership papers, was jailed for contempt. She was held briefly, then released when Hayward showed up with Richard’s share of the money.

Perhaps it was the humiliation of seeing his wife in jail that incited Hayward to begin the violence. Or perhaps he was responsible for none of the malicious acts against Mac, Richard and F & W Farms, where they both worked. Nothing was ever proved against Hayward, and Lt. Hugh Smith, head of the criminal investigation division of the Hendry County Sheriff’s Department, says that every time he investigated, “Bryant was vindicated or came out on top.”

Faye recalls Mac telling her that Hayward made threats as he was leaving the courthouse in 1981. At the time of the lawsuit, Mac was still married to Connie but seeing Faye too. Connie also remembers hearing about Hayward’s threats. Hannah Beardsley, an owner of Beardsley Farms, where Hayward worked, says that when he returned from the courthouse, he acted as though the dispute were settled. “He said he hoped it was but he wasn’t sure and he was going to be prepared.” He never explained what he meant by “be prepared.”

The court case was officially closed on Nov. 11, 1981, soon after Richard got $40,000 from Hayward. Two nights later somebody shoved gasoline-soaked rags into an old couch in Richard’s front yard, pushed the couch up against the house and set fire to it. One of Richard’s daughters, sleeping under an open window, smelled smoke and warned the family. No one was hurt and the house suffered only smoke discoloration. Hayward was questioned and released. His brother Richard says, “I figured it couldn’t be anybody else in this world.”

Two days after the fire, several of Mac’s cows died, foaming at the mouth, poisoned. Then a barn belonging to F & W Farms was set afire—Mac had his new boat and three saddles stored there. In January Hayward was arrested for rustling four head of cattle from Richard. After Hayward was placed in the back of the patrol car, Mac walked over and hit him in the face. Hazel, Hayward’s daughter, says Mac was wearing brass knuckles and when her father died, two and a half years later, he still had a “mark between his eyes.” Detective Steve Haller of the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office says it was an open-hand slap and Faye says Mac came home with a cut fist. Mac paid a fine, but Hayward was released when witnesses gave depositions inconsistent with earlier statements.

Other incidents followed—pasture fires, shots fired into F & W equipment—but the intensity of the attacks appeared to be lessening. Then on Dec. 1, 1982, at 6:56 a.m., Mac turned the key on his two-tone Ford pickup—a truck similar to the one he would die in—and dynamite exploded. He lost his right leg below the knee.

Hayward’s alibi was unbreakable, although embarrassing. He had spent the two nights before the bomb went off in the company of a woman in Belle Glade, 20 miles away. The Booth family offered a reward of $5,000 to anyone providing the sheriff’s office with information leading to an arrest. The reward was publicized across Florida—from Fort Myers to Palm Beach—but the department received not a single tip, not even a crank call. Evidence sent to FBI laboratories was inconclusive. No arrest was made.

After the bombing Mac was never the same. “He lived looking over his shoulder,” his mother says. Before the bombing he was a somewhat notorious local character, a whiskey drinker, a bar fighter, a man who took away his neighbor’s wife. Connie says, “Very few didn’t like him when he was sober and very few liked him when he was drunk.” Mac only rode stud horses, never geldings, could shoot accurately from the back of a horse and even into his forties could run down a calf in a pen. He boasted a perfect set of teeth, testimony to his fist-fighting skill.

After losing his leg he refused to wear a cowboy hat, convinced he was no longer worthy. When he sat home alone in the trailer, his artificial leg unstrapped, he kept a loaded shotgun beside the easy chair. “We were petrified,” Faye says. Mac donated $250 to the election campaign of the new sheriff, Earl Sermon Dyess Jr., who took office this past January, hoping Dyess would do more than the last sheriff to convict Hayward, or at least to end the troubles.

Dyess, whose father was the sheriff stabbed to death in 1980, blames his helplessness on “the famous elite nine in Washington”—the U.S. Supreme Court. He says law enforcement is so bogged down in technicalities nobody has a chance to solve crimes anymore. Equally at fault was the reluctance of the men to file formal complaints against each other; both apparently felt that could only make the situation worse. Don Smith, a Clewiston psychologist, says that “country folks tend to rely on themselves—they’re less likely to seek outside arbitration for their disputes.”

Mac’s retaliations against Hayward, or, more precisely, those deeds believed to have been committed by Mac, seem more like acts of frustration than viciousness. The bullet holes in Hayward’s house were probably put there by Mac, according to one of his closest friends. Hayward’s family tell stories of Mac shooting at them as they drove by, but given his skill with firearms, which Connie calls “astronomical,” it’s reasonable to believe that if he had wanted to hit someone, he wouldn’t have missed.

Most recently the two men had been insulting one another, posturing and taunting. Given the nature of their personalities, this could have been as deadly as any physical act. Sheriff Dyess believes the cause of the entire feud was “pride—people sometimes forget that your most prideful people in this country are your working men.”

Several members of Hayward’s family say that Mac would spit, make obscene gestures, point guns when their truck went by. Several members of Mac’s family tell how Hayward would stick his leg out the window of his truck and yell “peg leg” at Mac. Neither man’s family can believe the man they knew was capable of such offensive conduct.

“I never saw my father hurt no one,” says Hayward’s daughter Hazel, 25. Her brother David, 27, says, “He used to say to us, ‘You got to live in this world as brothers and sisters or perish as a fool.’ He wasn’t what you’d call easygoing, but everybody admired him. He was smart, could do anything and never had any bad feelings for anybody. He got along with everybody, regardless of color.” Hazel says this summer her father picked up a load of watermelons and gave them away to anyone in the neighborhood who wanted one. Both his son David and farm owner Hannah Beardsley say Hayward took roundabout routes to and from work to avoid passing in front of F & W Farms property, where Mac might be working. She says he was a reliable, hardworking and well-liked farm hand.

Yet Richard tells this story about his brother: He says they accidentally met inside the Corbin Farm & Ranch Supply in Clewiston two years ago. Hayward stared at him and said that he wanted to see Richard’s blood. Recalls Richard, “I said to him, ‘Cut yourself and you’ll see my blood because we’re brothers.’ He said he didn’t want to see it that way. He wanted to see it in the streets.” Slowly, Richard shakes his head in disbelief. “A man ain’t supposed to hate like that.”

If there is a simple explanation for the actions of both men, it is that both would react impulsively when feeling wronged. Connie says, “Mac was kind of an angry person. He had an inferiority complex for years. I used to tell him he cultivated it into a superiority complex.” Dunning, Hayward’s brother-in-law, says, “Hayward wasn’t really tough. He was the most easygoing fellow you ever met unless you did something to him to make him mad.”

Maybe the answer is even simpler. Says Jean Anderson, executive director of the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce: “They weren’t bad men, but they sure had a lot of guns and ammunition.”

On the morning of the final day, Hayward carried an M-1 carbine—a stolen gun—in his truck and a .25 caliber semiautomatic pistol in his pocket. Mac had a .380 semiautomatic pistol, a lever-action rifle, a .22 caliber rifle, a .22 caliber pistol he used to pepper ornery bulls and a semiautomatic shotgun. Says Sheriff Dyess, “Honest John Doe is not going to be arrested [in Hendry County] for having a gun on his seat or in his glove compartment.”

Hayward and his grandson Bo were fishing that morning. They drove home to cook some fish and grits, then headed for Clewiston. Hayward needed to buy more tackle for weekend fishing and some paneling so he could finish remodeling the bedroom. He was on vacation, not due back at the sugarcane farm until Monday.

Mac was in the F & W fields all morning. About 10 a.m. he started for home and lunch with Faye. He stopped at a pay phone along the highway to call a friend and ask the phone number of a fellow who sold sod. He was given the wrong number, but that turned out not to matter at all.

They met at the corner of Francisco Street and Route 27. Hayward was coming south from the lake. Mac was in the westbound lane of Route 27, waiting to make a left turn for the trailer park where he lived. At the traffic light, they had words. Hayward drove through the intersection and made a left turn into the alley beside the Clewiston Drugs and Cuban Market. He chambered a .30 caliber round in his WWII vintage carbine and told Bo to get out and run into the market. The boy ran around the front of the truck and was inside the store before any shots were fired. Hayward got out of the truck, walked around the front and stood beside the door on the passenger side. Mac made his left turn and followed Hayward into the alley, stopping his truck alongside Hayward’s, less than 10 feet away.

None of the witnesses is certain who fired first. Mac fired seven or eight times, emptying the clip of his .380 pistol; four of the bullets hit Hayward, one in the heart. Hayward had a clip of 30 bullets in his carbine, but it jammed after seven shots; four of them hit Mac, one in the aorta. Mac remained in his truck throughout the shoot-out, and the bullets had to pass through the door to hit him, which they did. “Ford Tough” is not bulletproof.

When the gunfire stopped, Bo ran out of the Cuban Market and tried to lift his grandfather. Hayward said to the 9-year-old boy, “Bo, you can’t pick me up.” Then he died.

Mac was already dead when the first cars from the sheriff’s office arrived, minutes later.

Lieutenant Smith says neither man could have known for sure that he had killed his enemy.

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