The Bee Tree
A Necessary Killing
Thousand Sticks Newspaper
Middlesboro, KY. June 28, 1911 Edition
We walked up the path by Stephens Branch, a creek that meandered out of the Tennessee side of the mountains. It was very hot and muggy, and the woods were very thick. I was wet with sweat, as the woods were always hot this time of year. We were on the Kentucky side of the creek, where I lived, but my dad lived over the creek in Claiborne County, TN. I walked the path up Yellow Creek and across Baptist Gap to get to his place, about 5 miles away.
I loved the woods, how they smelled and how they gave shade. Birds and small animals were everywhere. I could hear the song birds and sparrows chirping. Wild flowers grew profusely, and ginseng and bitterroot were plentiful. We harvested them for medicine to use for stomach problems, and to help us sleep when we had insomnia. I walked those woods and hunted in them, every day, since I had been a boy. That was about to change for me, and very shortly, to my great regret.
William Rains was my dad’s name. Everyone called him Bill, of course. He had been a school teacher until he got too old to teach. He had also fought for the USA in the civil war. He had killed a man in a fight when he was young, and had served one night in jail before being reprieved by the Governor. His grandfather had been Judge John Turner, and I am sure old Judge Turner had a hand in the reprieval. * See: History of Bell County, KY, by Fuson, 1939.
In fact, it was more than an over-night ride to the capitol to see the governor, so I think Judge Turner probably had some reprievals and pardons in his desk that had already been signed. According to the Knox County, KY, 1858 court case, William Rains and his cousin William Davis were convicted on Friday, and locked up in the county jail. On Saturday morning next, they were brought back into court, and “being reprieved by the governor,” were released.
Dad had found a bee tree that was full of honey, and he wanted to collect the honey and honey-comb. It took two people to do the job, one to hold a burning stick up to the beehive, for the smoke to make the bees settle down, and one man to collect the honey before the smoke blew away. You had to be quick and efficient to keep from being stung too many times. Dad was good at getting the honey and not getting stung.
Both of us had thick gloves and long sleeved shirts on to protect our arms and hands. I was very hot and sweaty, but my dad didn’t seem to be hot. “Maybe old people don’t feel the heat like younger folks do,” I thought. Dad was seventy seven years old. I carried a shotgun in case we saw a snake, since these woods were full of diamondbacks and copperheads. The shotgun was getting heavy and sweaty on my arm.
“Well, son, the bee tree is just around the bend of the creek there, where the big rock sticks up there,” dad said. “Thank the Lord,” I said to dad. “I am burning up in this long sleeved shirt, dad.” He just looked at me and said nothing. Dad was carrying the sticks to burn, and the big jug to put the honey in, and looked “cool as a cucumber” as the old saying goes. He never got excited, or heated up about things, anyway.
Dad knew aught about bees, and how to harvest their honey, so I knew we would have a good amount to carry home. Dad had kept bee hives for years, but had none now. I had just bought my wife a new wood cook stove that would also burn coal, and she would make some good biscuits to go with the honey. I had loved honey all my life.
We walked down by the creek and up the path to a heavy growth of trees, and dad pointed to a thick growth of trees and said “it is right in that thicket of trees.” I could already hear the bees buzzing as they brought back nectar and left for more. It seemed I could already smell the honey, and my mouth started to water in anticipation of the sweet taste. My wife and children would like it, too. Heck, everyone likes honey.
We forced our way through the brambles to the tree, and just as we were almost there I saw a man standing there looking at the bee tree. He turned as we came through the woods and looked us over in a very suspicious way.
“What are you men doing here?” he asked. “We are here to collect the honey from this bee tree,” my dad said. “Well, you might as well leave, because this is my honey. I found this tree this morning, and I intend to have the honey from it,” he said. This man was older than me, but not as old as my dad. He had brown hair and a big mustache, and he looked like all the farmers around the area. I noticed his eyes were brown, and his mustache was grey. He wasn’t a young man, but not too old.
“I found this tree yesterday, mister, and it is our honey, not yours,” dad said. “We came to collect the honey, and we have all the supplies to do the job. Now if you want some, we will share it with you. You aren’t getting it all, though,” dad said.
“Get the hell out of here, old man, and take the other fellow with you, before you get hurt,” the man said, in a very nasty tone of voice. I could see, now that he was turned toward us, that he had a gun in his belt. It was a big revolver, and his hand was very close to it. He looked like he may have been drinking, since his face was red. I was too far away to smell his breath, so I don’t know if he had been drinking. Maybe he was just mad, and that made his face red, who knows?
“Let’s go dad, it isn’t worth a fight for some honey,” I told my dad. “Hell, son, I am not letting this fool take my honey. I found it and I am going to get it,” he said. I tried to sidle around my dad so I could see the man better, but dad kept getting in my way. I brought my shotgun down to my side, and made sure I didn’t point it at the man. No need to rile him any further than he already was, I thought.
Dad started to the tree with the fire sticks to climb up to where he could light them. Suddenly the man pulled his pistol and shot at my dad. BLAM. It scared the hell out of me. What the hell? I don’t know if he fired to just scare dad, but he missed him.
Dad jumped behind the tree, and the man pointed his gun at dad again and took aim. That is when I shot him in the head with my shotgun. Brains and blood exploded from his head, and there was no question but that he was dead. “My Lord, what have I done?” I thought to myself. At least I had kept him from shooting my father.
“Is he dead, son?” My dad asked. “He sure is, dad. I am sorry I had to shoot him, but he was aiming at you for a second shot. He would have killed you for sure.” My hands were shaking, and I felt sick to my stomach. I tried not to puke. The dead man was sprawled on the ground, in a pool of blood, his gun still by his hand.
What was I going to do about this killing? Should I try to hide the body, or report it as a killing in self defense? Would the sheriff believe me, or would he arrest me? Either way there would be problems. Maybe I should just let him lie here until someone found him. His family would come looking for him eventually, I thought.
“Well, let’s get this honey and go home. We can throw him in the creek and nobody will find him for a while,” dad said. “We can’t do that, because we don’t know if he told someone he was coming here to get the honey, and where the tree is. They will come searching for him, and if we hide his body they will say we murdered him,” I said.
Dad was going up the tree with the sticks, and motioned me to bring the jars for the honey. I couldn’t keep from looking at the dead man. I brought the jars to the tree and climbed up to where dad was as he lit the smoke sticks. “Don’t worry, Press, you killed him in self defense, so nothing will come of it,” dad said to me.
“Dad, this is the second man I have killed. I already served a year for the murder they charged me with in 1906. What makes you think they will believe I killed this man just in self defense?” Dad said “because that is the truth.”
I had been convicted, along with several of my Rains and Turner cousins for being a shooter in the Turner-Howard feud. I was kin to both sides, but more so to the Turner family. My wife was a Turner. My mother and grandmother were Turners, so I naturally took the Turner side in the feud.
General Turner, my cousin, had stayed in prison for three years, but I got out after one year. My father in law, old Jack Turner, had been killed on the streets of Middlesboro, literally perforated with bullets. Not to say he didn’t deserve to be shot, for he did, but he was still my father in law.
I thought I was sort of avenging his death, at the time I shot those Howard men. It cost me some time in prison, but maybe it was worth it. I often wonder if it had been. I had paid a terrible price for getting involved, but the Turners were my kin, so what choice did I have? My wife expected me to support her family in the feud, and they were really my family, too, since my mother and grandmother had both been Turners.
I sure as heck didn’t want to go back to Eddyville prison. That place was terrible, and the prisoners were the scum of the earth. The guards would shoot you if you just looked like you were thinking of attacking one of them, or thinking about escaping.
I had worked on a field gang that was let out to farmers, hoeing corn and helping with the planting and harvest for the whole year I was there. It was going back at evening that was so bad, chained up in a row of men, because all you had to look forward to was a cold and drafty cell for the night. And bad dreams, more often than not.
I picked up the honey container, and took a last look at the dead man. His pistol was lying beside his hand, where he had let go of it when he fell. I would leave things just as they were until the sheriff got up here to see for himself. He would surely see the man had a gun and had fired it. We set off toward dad’s house to divide the honey.
John Williams watched from the trees where he had been hiding as the men walked away, and walked over to where the dead man lay. He heard everything that was said, and when the shooting started he had kept perfectly still. They might shoot him, too, if they saw him. He made sure they were out of sight before moving, and then moved slowly toward the dead man.
He looked down at the man on the ground, lying in a pool of blood and brains. “That man sure is dead. Looks like that fellow shot his brains out,” he thought. The gun was right by his hand, but the hand wasn’t touching it. It was a beautiful gun, to him. “I want that gun, and he doesn’t need it anymore,” he thought. “If I get that gun I will be able to learn to shoot just like Jesse James, and maybe be a bank robber,” he thought.
He reached down and carefully nudged the gun away from the dead man’s hand with a stick. He didn’t want to touch a dead man if he could avoid it. Who would? If you touched a dead person they could come back and haunt you. Everyone knew that. He picked up the gun once it was far enough away from the dead man’s hand, and looked at it. “You are my gun now, and I will keep you forever,” he whispered.
He left for home, three miles on the other side of the mountain, up across Baptist Gap. His new gun was in his belt, and he took it out ever so often to look at it. He would hide it in the barn when he got home. He felt like the luckiest boy in the whole world, and he wouldn’t tell anyone he had it. “I can sneak out and shoot it whenever I want,” he thought. “I just have to make sure I get far enough away from home, to shoot it.”
The next day I got up early, and dressed in clean overalls and a white shirt. I hadn’t slept well at all, for thinking about the killing. I knew my dad would be here soon, to go to the sheriff’s office with me. I drank a cup of coffee and talked to Cordy while I waited. My oldest boy had my horse saddled and tied at the porch. “Dad, Uncle John is here,” my son Billy hollered from the yard.
I looked out and saw my brother John, sitting his horse in the yard, by himself. “I wonder where papa is,” I thought to myself. I set my coffee cup down and went outside, telling Cordy I would be back as soon as I could. I kissed her goodbye and got my hat down from the peg. Cordy wasn’t worried I would be arrested, since I had told her what had happened had been self defense. “Be careful what you say, Press,” she said.
“Where is papa, John? Why isn’t he with you?” I asked my brother. “Papa doesn’t feel too well today, Press, so he asked me to come in his place. I know everything that happened, so it will be alright. Papa told me the whole story, and I will repeat it to the sheriff,” John said.
“Well, John, we will see what the sheriff has to say,” I said. This development worried me. Papa was a good talker, and could explain anything, but John wasn’t very good at talking about much of anything. In fact, you usually had to drag things out of him in a conversation. He didn’t usually have an opinion about anything.
We mounted up and started to Middlesboro to see the sheriff, and an hours ride got us to town. Middlesboro was a boom town, growing with money invested by the Englishmen who owned The American Association. They were in Kentucky for one reason only, to get the coal that was in the mountains. They were being very successful at it, too. Bars were on every street, along with gambling houses and houses of prostitution. Every night had at least one and sometimes several killings. I loved that town.
We pulled up in front of the sheriff’s office and hitched our horses, and went inside. A deputy, Jim Turner, was sitting in a chair smoking a pipe. “Hello, Press, and hello to you, John. How are you boys doing? Why are you here, just to visit, or are you on business? Either way it is good to see you,” Jim said. Jim was our first cousin. He was a tall, rangy, slow spoken man with a reputation as a hard man in a fight.
“Jim, I had to kill a man yesterday afternoon, up on the creek. He tried to shoot my father, and I shot him with my shotgun. His body is still there, I guess. It was in defense of my dad.” Jim looked at me and moved his hat to the back of his head and scratched his head. He didn’t look too happy with the news. He wiped his face with his handkerchief, which was already wringing wet from wiping off sweat.
“That man you killed wouldn’t be Sam Bryant, would it, Press? His wife came over last evening and said she and her son had gone looking for Sam, when he didn’t come home, and found his body. She says someone robbed and murdered him,” Jim said. “She said he had no weapon, and when the sheriff went out to look at the body, he found no weapon of any kind.”
“That is wrong, Jim. He had a pistol, and when we left it was still laying by his hand. That pistol will show it had been fired once, at my dad. We got into an argument over a bee tree dad found, and the man tried to run us off.
Dad even offered to share the honey with him, but he would have it all. When dad started toward the bee tree, he shot at him. Dad jumped behind the tree and the man aimed at him again. That is when I shot him. Hell, Jim, why would I come in if I had murdered him? That would make no sense at all,” I said. Jim scratched his head again and said “let us wait until the sheriff gets here, and you can tell him your story.”
John and I sat down on the sidewalk and waited. In about 30 minutes the sheriff rode up. He got down and hitched his horse. “You fellows waiting for me?” He said. “Yes sir, we are. I am the man who shot that Bryant man yesterday, and I am here to tell you my story about it,” I said to him. He spat tobacco juice into the street as he watched me, and then said “come on in the office, then.”
We went in and I told him my story, leaving out nothing. He listened until I finished and wrote down a few things in a notebook. Then he looked at me and said, “We have a problem, Press. I have already been up there and seen the body, and had the coroner bring it to town in his wagon. I found no gun with his body. We will have to go to Pineville to see the judge and find out what he wants done.”
I was flabbergasted. What had happened to the man’s pistol, that we had left laying by his hand? How could it just disappear into thin air? We went outside and mounted up and the sheriff led the way toward Pineville. Jim Turner trailed behind us, and he was now carrying a large shotgun.
I had no intention of trying to get away, and Jim’s presence assured I wouldn’t try to escape. Cousin or not, Jim Turner was a serious lawman who took his duty to heart. I knew he would shoot me if I tried to escape. My brother rode beside me, and would look sideways at me every now and then, to see how I was holding up.
“The judge will understand, Press, so don’t look so worried,” John said. That was easy for him to say, since he wasn’t the one who shot the man. I said nothing. Just kept riding toward Pineville, which was 2 hours away.
The judge heard us out, and then said he would put my case before the grand jury. I was allowed to go free until the grand jury returned its indictment against me. They indicted me for murder, and when I was tried the trail lasted two days. I testified about what had happened, but since no gun was found with Sam Bryant, the jury did not believe my story. They found me guilty and sentenced me to two years in Eddyville prison.
I never ate any darned honey again, and just to smell it made me sick.