THE Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, headquartered in the downstairs section of the courthouse at Hamlin, had at its disposal three deputies and two district justices of the peace to investigate the attack on Al and Hollene Brumfield. Initially, the task fell upon Justice Elias Vance, a 28-year-old farmer in Harts Creek District. Originally from Kiah’s Creek, a thickly-settled backcountry region near the Wayne County line, Vance lately lived with his second wife (his father’s first cousin), a step-daughter, and their two children at her late husband’s West Fork farm. Although a young man, he was regarded as a thorough investigator and a fair judge by most persons in the district. As justice, he was responsible for investigating and deciding minor cases at the district level. A serious crime such as the attack on the Brumfields required that he only gather evidence and submit it to the county circuit clerk, who would then turn it over to the prosecuting attorney.
On Monday, Vance rode up Harts Creek to the home of Henderson Dingess. His goal: to gather firsthand accounts of the shooting from Al and Hollene Brumfield, who were there under doctor’s care. Charlie Dingess greeted him near the mouth of Smoke House Fork and escorted him the short distance to his father’s cabin. Henderson Dingess met them in the yard.
“Sorry it took me so long to get up here, Mr. Dingess,” Elias said. “I come up as soon as I could.”
“We understand, Elias,” Henderson said. He pushed his hat back a little and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “It ain’t safe to ride this creek no more.”
It was true. Violence was getting worse on the creek. Timber, people said, was the cause of most of it. The logging business, lately intensified, had stirred people against one another, aggravated old animosities… Timber bosses, motivated by greed and profit, frequently argued among one another – occasionally shot at one another. (The past year had been particularly bad due to a slump in the local timber industry.) Most of the trouble, of course, occurred among the laborers. These wood hicks – rowdy, boisterous, prone to drink – were often single young men who had migrated to the community from the mountain counties of eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. Many of them operated under fake names to hide a criminal past. A few months earlier, one local man, John Vance, had been shot during a drunken melee at Warren. Not long afterwards, John Lackey, a migrant timber man, had also been shot at Warren.
“So how bad is it?” Elias asked, almost afraid to say the words.
“It ain’t good,” Henderson said. “Hollene got shot in the jaw, right here.”
The old fellow put his finger up to his face to mark the spot.
“My boy Dave, his hand got shot up,” he said.
Vance looked down, shaking his head.
“How about Al?” he asked.
“Al’s arm is broke,” Henderson said.
There was an awkward pause. Henderson and the justice were not that well acquainted.
“You all had any more trouble since yesterday?” Elias asked.
“No sir,” Henderson said. “I got my boys stationed out there watchin’ over us now. They’ll keep us safe.”
Charlie stood nearby, rifle in hand, quietly watching the hills.
“So how is Hollene?” Elias asked.
“She ain’t doin’ no good,” Henderson said. “Suffered somethin’ awful last night. Doctor’s been with her all mornin’, he has. Doc Hudgins. He says she might live yet, but for us not to get our hopes up too high.”
“I hate to hear that,” Elias said. “People thinks a lot of Hollene.”
The justice was in unfamiliar territory. A woman shot from ambush? Who would do such a thing? Heaven forbid, if it came out, whoever did would be lynched. The whole community would take revenge on anyone who would shoot a woman.
“I reckon the biggest part of it’s in the Lord’s hands now,” Henderson said. “Sallie’s been tendin’ to her all night and prayin’ over her.”
“That’s good,” Elias said. “That won’t hurt none.”
Henderson said nothing. The old gentleman looked tired.
“So you got any idea who did this?” Elias finally asked.
“We got our suspicions,” Henderson said. “But we can’t say for sure.”
“So Hollene didn’t say who it was?” Vance asked.
“Oh no,” Henderson said. “She’s been so poor we can’t ask her nothin’.”
Elias thought it over.
“You reckon it was bandits?” he asked.
“Don’t think so,” Henderson said.
About then, Al Brumfield stepped through the door onto the porch.
“Hello Elias,” he said.
“Hello Al,” the justice said. “Awful sorry to be here on account of such poor circumstances.”
Brumfield was quiet. He wasn’t sure about Elias. The justice had won office the previous year in a close election and was on good terms with Cain Adkins – his father’s enemy.
“You holdin’ up all right?” Elias asked.
“Fair enough,” Al said. “Good as can be expected.”
“I’m awful sorry this happened,” Elias said. “I aim to do all I can to make it right.”
”Well, I hope so,” Al said.
”Can you tell me exactly what happened?” Elias asked.
“I’ll tell you what I can,” Al said.
With that, Henderson went away to find Harve and Dave, eyewitnesses to the crime. Al, meanwhile, gave Vance his account of the ambush.
A little later, Harve and Dave provided Vance with a statement. They said they had seen little: two men crouched among the Hot Rock, the glint of a rifle in the sunlight… Dave said he moved toward Hollene just before the shots started, instinctively raised his hand to shield her, and was struck in the hand. Almost immediately, he and Harve fled back up the creek, still on horseback. They saw no one well enough to make an identification.
At least two men. Probably four shots. No real witnesses.
Elias asked if it would be possible to see Hollene. He knew her chances of speaking were slim. If she could somehow just utter a name…
Al reluctantly led the justice to his wife’s bedside. Hollene lay amidst blankets with her head bandaged; there was a lot of blood on everything. Doc Hudgins sat nearby in a chair, while old Sallie Dingess stood by the window, worried for her second oldest daughter. For a moment, Elias stared down at Hollene, who slept from medication, fatigue, and pain. Poor woman. Poor people. How could he ask her anything? He was almost afraid to breathe. Satisfied that there was no way of garnering any information from Mrs. Brumfield, he made his way back out to the porch with Al.
“This is awful,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. I feel so bad for ever one of you.”
“Just do your best to find out who did this to us,” Al said.
Before leaving, the justice spoke once more with Henderson Dingess.
“I’m goin’ down to the Hot Rock,” he said. “Look things over. Talk to people. I’ll gather ever thing up I can and get it to the prosecutor at Hamlin.”
Henderson shook his head in affirmation.
“You know, I been here a long time, I have,” he said. “I come here almost forty year ago. Why, me and Sallie got married up there at her old man’s place and we settled here and started us a family. And all these years we ain’t bothered nobody. All I want is to live out my days in peace. But here lately it seems like people is hell-bent on wipin’ me out.”
“Well, I give you my word Mr. Dingess, I’m goin’ to do ever thing in my power to catch whoever it was did this,” Elias said.
Henderson looked squarely at the young man.
“I trust you will,” he said. “And for their sake, I hope you catch ‘em before we do,” he said.