“That old man has got to be stopped,” Said Cap.
“He’s right you know, let’s go ahead and finish it,” agreed Jim Vance.
“Maybe we should put the old bastard out of his misery,” said Devil Anse.
The three men gathered at the home of Anderson Hatfield. It was a frosty, clear New Year’s Day in 1888. The twelve-month term was seven hours young, born of fresh hope and full of possibilities. Icicles fashioned slender, white stalactites that tapered on the windows of the cabin. A thin layer of new fallen snow blanketed the landscape. Nearby, a pack of wolves cried out a howling daybreak song.
The trio of kinsmen gathered inside the warm kitchen enjoying the comfort of the inviting fireplace. They sipped their fresh brewed coffee and hungrily waited for the hot breakfast that Levicy was cooking for them. The solid, round-faced woman gripped the handle of a cast iron skillet with her chubby hands. She flipped nine eggs over, quickly moving to another pan, where sizzling strips of bacon fried to a crispy brown. Moments later, the obliging Misses Hatfield presented each of the men with a heaping plate of food including steaming grits and buttermilk biscuits.
Uncle Jim ate his food with the speed of a voracious animal. “What about this Cline, him writing to the Governor and all?” He asked, exposing a mouth full of food.
“I don’t know if he’ll keep going if Old Ranel is gone. His notions go down deep as his pockets. I reckon he’s proven that he can most likely be bought off,” Devil Anse replied with disdain.
Cap fashioned an egg sandwich with one of his mammoth biscuits. “Daddy, I think you might just be forgetting one thing. What about that crazy son of bitch Frank Phillips?”
Devil Anse dipped his doughy biscuit into liquid egg yolk, sopping up what remained on his plate. “Yes son, he’s crazy like a fox and from what I’ve seen, meaner than hell. But I think he’ll do what Cline tells him to do.”
Vance stood up and stretched, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his torn flannel shirt. He looked over at his cousin seeking culmination. “That all brings us back to the same fork in the road. Last summer, when I found a gopher in my vegetable garden, I put a siphon hose down the hole and flushed that old boy out. When he popped up with his long yellow teeth, I smashed him with a hoe. You see where I’m heading?”
“Its time we flush ourselves a gopher,” Devil Anse replied.
“When?” Cap quickly inquired.
His father did not answer him and instead walked over to the pine wood rack, which held his rifles. Uncle Jim smacked his nephew on his meaty back and began cackling. “Boy, when your daddy grabs his guns, folks better be fixing to dig some holes.”
The Hatfield’s held to the notion that there was no time like the present to rid themselves of their old foe. Devil Anse asked Johnse to ride along with Tom Chambers for the purpose of recruiting volunteers for a raiding party. Since Frank Phillips had made his recent incursions into West Virginia, Hatfield supporters had begun to dwindle. Chambers had been present day the McCoy brothers died. He had stood by his friends even though it was becoming increasingly dangerous to do so.
As the two men rode out from his father’s cabin, cold, foggy mist spouted from the nostrils of their saddle horses. “Let’s go get ourselves a Cottontop,” Johnse instructed. He referred to Ellison mounts, the slow-witted, illegitimate son of the late Ellison Hatfield. Devil Anse wanted him for the raid because he was obedient, mean and proficient with a long rifle. He had the nickname because of his head of unusually fine, prematurely white hair.
Mounts was in the process of mending the roof of his cabin, when Johnse and Tom rode up to his porch. “What the hell you doing boy, it’s Sunday. You should be taking life easy on the Lord’s day,” Johnse jokingly advised.
The big man looked down at his cousin with dull green eyes, which gave no indication of a contemplative being. “I didn’t know, and I ain’t much for religion,” he replied apologetically.
Johnse smiled at his cousin’s explanation. “I was just funning you. You know I ain’t much of the church going sort either.”
Cottontop carefully climbed down the half-broken, makeshift ladder alongside of his dilapidated cabin. He tucked his ragged blue shirt in and adjusted his belt. “Where are you boys going, you ain’t going hunting are you?”
Tom Chambers nodded no. “Nope, but we are off to kill us a varmint.”
Ellison gave a puzzled look. “What manner of beast are you after cousin?”
“This critter is the two-legged kind. He’s the kind of snake that helped put your daddy in his grave. I thought you might want to come along. I know you’re a damn good man and we could use your help.”
The usually deadpan Ellison slapped his leg, howling like a stray dog. “God dang, you boys wait here, I’ll get my Springfield.” He took less than a minute to retrieve his breechloader and his bedroll. He saddled his gray mare, eager to accompany the two other men back to the Hatfield home. There, Devil Anse, along with his sons Elliott, Cap and Robert E. Lee mounted up and readied to join them.
The seven-man group proceeded on to Floyd Hatfield’s home. Though almost ten years had passed, his disputed ownership of a wild pig had put a spark to what became a long string of hostilities. The riders cantered their horses for another mile down the road, where Charlie Gillespie and Doc Ellis joined them. Cap had visited their homes earlier that morning. He had easily recruited them as members of the raiding party. The still enlarging band quietly rode a half-mile down to Thacker creek, finally stopping at the home of Jim Vance. There, all of the men dismounted to conduct a meeting.
Devil Anse looked at every man who circled around Vance’s front porch. “I want you all to listen to my cousin Jim, because he’s got something important so say.”
All eyes in the band focused on the other old veteran.
“I think you all know what we’re doing standing out here, freezing our asses off. We got to finish things with Old Ranel, once and for all. We got to burn him out; and his seed if need be. In your guts, you all know that I’m right. With this Kentucky lawman breathing down our necks, we’re running out of time.”
Pausing for a moment, Vance slowly looked each man in the eye. “When was the last time any of us had a peaceful night’s rest? For my part, I can’t remember a night, when I wasn’t rousted by the cracking of a twig or gotten jumpy from the sound of an owl. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m tired of sleeping with my gun under my pillow and wearing my boots to bed.”
Uncle Jim’s words struck a chord with all the men. They also had grown weary of resting with one eye open. They too were getting tired of traveling in groups. These men all feared that they would be the next one apprehended by Frank Phillips and his posse.
After patiently letting his kinsman do the talking, Devil Anse suddenly spoke up. “If any of you boys haven’t got a taste for what’s going happen today, I’ll understand.”
Tom Chambers looked thoughtfully over at his friend. “We got into this pretty near the start and we ain’t going to quit now; not before the job’s finished.” The other men all stood in a silent accord with this sentiment.
At noon, the eleven Logan Regulators mounted their horses, directing them towards Pike County. Not since the Civil War, had Devil Anse and Jim Vance departed on a mission with such purpose. Most of the band had been there when the McCoy brothers died. By their reckoning, this final raid seemed the only way to abate the conflict between the Hatfields and McCoys.
As the riders approached the edge of Logan County, Devil Anse became violently ill. The aggregate of men stood silently watching as he vomited. Appearing ghostly, he weakly looked up. “I can’t make it today, I want to, but I can’t. I’m sorry but I’m going back home.”
Devil Anse looked over at his four sons. “You pay attention to what Uncle Jim tells you to do, you hear. He’ll get the job done.” He was barely able to put his foot into the stirrup of his horse, climbing slowly back into his saddle.
Jim Vance was now in command of the impending raid against Randolph McCoy and his family. Devil Anse had the utmost confidence in his cousin’s keen ability handle disagreeable situations. The wiry killer was one of the founding members of the Logan County Regulators. During the Civil War, they had rid the territory of unwanted men before and with extreme precision.
The raiders crossed the shallow waters of the Tug River, going by way of Poundmill Run. As they quietly passed Jerry Hatfield’s place, several of the men somberly reflected upon the Election Day stabbing of Ellison. The memory that lingered there reaffirmed in their minds, the purpose of this day. After stopping to eat dinner, they reached Randolph McCoy’s cabin shortly before ten o’clock in the evening.
A few hundred yards from the house, Johnse, Cap and Jim Vance tied up their horses and covered their faces with masks. The seven others did not bother to hide their identity, following quickly behind in a single-file line. The men were alert, feeling a sense of excitement, as they approached their objective.
The sky was overcast with dark clouds, which entirely obscured the half moon. It had not snowed all day but a thin layer of frost remained on the ground. Johnse and Cap carried coal oil lanterns, which helped to navigate the underbrush. A peaceful calm infused the chilly nocturnal air, with no one to disturb it except the crickets and the occasional cry of a nighthawk.
The McCoy’s home stood quietly atop a heavily wooded hill. It was a large place by mountain standards, with a two-story house next to a one story back house. The two buildings joined together by a rectangular covered passageway. Next to the house was a small barn, which housed the family livestock.
Jim Vance’s plan was to impose a siege. The men would surround the cabin and force it's inhabitants to surrender. He was sure that they would comply, in light of superior Hatfield strength. When the McCoys exited their home, Vance and the others would shoot down Old Ranel without blinking. if a few other family members got in the way or happened to catch a stray shot, that would be acceptable.
Vance stopped about ten yards from the cabin. He placed his index finger to his mouth, to quiet the noisy footsteps of his nephew. “Jesus Elliot, why don’t you blow reveille so they know we’re coming,” he said sarcastically. He motioned all the regulators to form a circle around him. “Now boys, old man McCoy and his wife are the last living witnesses to the Election Day business. We finish them off tonight and they’ll be no one else to make any trouble.”
Seven souls in the McCoy home slept comfortably in their warm beds, unaware that the Hatfield raiders had surrounded them. They hovered outside with thoughts as dark as the looming snow clouds. Poised for attack, the marauders were like a plague of locust descending on a wheat field. Vance instructed the ten men to group into firing positions around the cabin.
“Cap, you and Cottontop go cover the kitchen. Johnse, you and me will go round to cover the throughway to the main house. Tom, Charley, Floyd and Doc will watch the front door of this shithole,” Vance told the others. The four men ran towards the main entrance and paired off, covering the entire front periphery of the McCoy sanctuary.
Elliot anxiously asked “What about me Uncle Jim?”
Vance thought about where he could put his young nephew. “You and Bobbie Lee cover the door from the small house to the throughway,” he instructed.
As Elliott and his brother began to walk away, Vance whistled at them. “Don’t do anything stupid and don’t fire off your guns until I give the signal.”
Vance gave one last look around the perimeter of the cabin to make sure all of his men had taken up their designated spots. After he decided there was no escape, he ended the tranquil evening serenity with his booming voice. “Randolph McCoy, you get on out here now.
You and your kin are prisoners of war.” The angry faced killer removed a silver watch from his front pocket and checked the time. “You got five minutes to come out or we’ll burn you down.”
Randolph lingered in a state of half sleep until Vance’s shrill threats began to permeate his unconscious thoughts. When he realized he was not dreaming, he rose up from his bed and shook his sleeping wife. “Woman, you get the girls together and stay out of harm’s way.” He instructed the confused Sarah.
Outside, Vance continued to holler his threats. “You hear me McCoy? Get on out here or we’ll light you up like a cracker box.”
The shouting awakened Calvin McCoy, who warned his sisters to stay hidden. He reached under his bed, grabbed his Winchester, rounded up a handful of shells and climbed the stairs of the main house. Carefully poking his head out the upstairs window, he could not see anyone.
Randolph remained on the first floor of his house, arming himself with his Remington. Hovering down, he hastily pushed a chest in front of the main door. This was the attack that he had dreaded for months. However, even the old man never thought the Hatfields would assault a house full of women at night. Nevertheless, the old man would not surrender his family or his home without a fight.
Uncle Jim anxiously glanced at his watch again. “You got two minutes to surrender, or else we’re coming in,” he bellowed.
Johnse, though not a coward, did not have much of a stomach for fighting. He began to get jumpy when he thought he saw something move by the upstairs window. He nervously aimed his rifle and accidentally squeezed off a round. After that, all hell broke loose when the other raiders started firing.
A tempest of bullets blew through the doors and windows of the McCoy home. The shots shattered several dishes, which hung on a mantelpiece above the downstairs fireplace. Without a spare weapon between them, the defenseless McCoy woman cowered behind the beds in the main house.
The two McCoy men furiously answered the Hatfield gunfire. Johnse was the first casualty of the battle when Calvin’s bullet nicked him in the leg. He ducked behind the barn, pulled up his pant leg and discovered that the wound was bleeding profusely. Remembering the trick his father had taught him years earlier; Johnse tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and applied a tourniquet.
An exasperated Vance checked the perimeter, watching his men rapid-firing into to the cabin. “Stop shooting, stop shooting goddamn it! Don’t any of you idiot’s fire until I tell you to.” The men outside held their fire while Vance began to talk again. “All right, you had a fair chance and now I aiming to warm you up.” Suddenly he bolted over to the side of the McCoy home.
Uncle Jim quickly searched the area, looking for something he could use to get a blaze going. His keen eyes gravitated to a pile of cotton lying in a wooden crate. He quickly struck a match to it. Grabbing a large piece of fire lit cotton; he stuffed in a floorboard at the base of the house. He took another piece and wedged it into a deep crack that was in the front door. “Yahoo!” he cried out, running for cover behind a tree.
Tom Chambers observed Vance lighting the fires and began to do the same. “Why should you get all the fun,” he hollered. He picked up fallen branch from a dead tree and wrapped a rag around it. Retrieving Cap’s lantern, the firebug poured some coal oil on it, creating a torch. He gleefully jaunted over to a big pile of logs stacked by the rear door of the house. Stumbling briefly, Chambers managed to advance onto the roof.
Randolph heard footsteps overhead, pointed his shotgun up towards the sound and fired. The blast exploded through the roof, knocking up shingles and creating an enormous dust cloud. The debris blinded Chambers as he simultaneously experienced a throbbing agony on his right hand. As the smoke cleared, Tom focused his eyes on the reason for his pain. He lifted his hand in terrifying disbelief, observing that three digits were missing. The horrified man let out a banshee wail, fell off the roof and plunged onto the ground. Running for the woods, shaking his hand and howling like a coyote, he was not seen until hours later.
The McCoys also had their share of troubles. Although Chambers had failed to light a fire, the blaze Vance initiated was rapidly spreading through their home. Calvin placed his rifle out the second floor window and began rapid firing. The regulators returned his fire in spades, who all began to shoot without orders from Vance.
“Get some water on that blaze,” Randolph shouted.
His three oldest daughters had remained crouched in the main house; but now the smoke was beginning to choke them. Josephine threw open the front door, in an attempt to chuck water on the spreading inferno. The stalwart young woman was immediately repelled by Jim Vance’s Winchester fire.
“If they’re coming out, shoot the women,” Uncle Jim yelled to Cap and Cottontop.
Josephine, Alifair and Adelaide, used up all the available water. After that, Josephine tossed a pail of buttermilk from inside the cabin. In spite of their desperate efforts, the fire continued to spread.
Alifair’s frustration gave way to anger. She stepped just outside the flaming front door, shouting at the attackers, “I know your voices Cap and Johnse Hatfield. You’re nothing but yellow livered trash.”
Cap became infuriated at her insult but did not have the stones to fire upon her. “Cottontop, Shoot her, shoot her!” He shrieked.
“No!” cried Johnse Hatfield. In an attempt to to stop him, he raised his arm towards the muzzle of Ellison’s Springfield.
Impervious, Mounts blasted away with deadly accuracy. As bullet penetrated her heart, Alifair never knew what hit her. She stood for a second and then fell forward.
Johnse reached his hands up to his head, frightfully yanking his long hair back. “Cottontop, What have you done?”
Josephine sensed that something terrible had happened. She popped her head outside the cabin and called out for her younger sister. “Alifair, are you all right?” Glancing briefly, she had enough time to see her sister lying sideways on the cold ground.
“Josephine, Alifair, what’s happening down there?” Sarah inquired.
“Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, they’ve killed her, they’ve killed Alifair,” Josephine wailed hysterically. As soon as she heard her daughter’s words, Misses McCoy rushed outside to aid her little girl.
With a rifle in hand, Jim Vance abruptly bounded towards her. “Get back in or I’ll kill you where you stand.”
Sarah ignored his words and knelt down over her dead child. She looked up at Vance brimming with defiance. “Then you’ll have to kill me, because you ain’t keeping me from my baby.”
Jim Vance had no shred of compassion for Sarah or her daughter. His heart was now filled with violence, as if he were at back Missionary Ridge or Cold Harbor. He pivoted his rifle butt around, striking Sarah with a solid thrust to the rib cage. The savage blow knocked the wind out of her, throwing her back away from Alifair. In spite of her terrible pain, she propped herself up on her hands, crawling in the direction of her murdered daughter. “Please, let me tend to my little girl. Oh please, can’t you see she’s dying?”
As he sat watching Vance’s cruelty, Johnse held his throbbing leg and nervously rocked back and forth. He could no longer bear to witness Sarah’s pleading. Running to where she sat, he started to shake her. “Goddamn it, will you please shut up. Just shut up.” His actions caused the poor woman to become hysterical. He attempted to cover her mouth, then pulled out his revolver. Tugging on her silver hair, he clubbed the back of her head with the butt end of his pistol. Sarah fell unconscious on the ground, lying by Alifair’s side.
Flames entirely engulfed both stories of the McCoy home. Calvin, who was suffering from smoke inhalation, came running downstairs. He stooped down behind the old chest where his father was taking cover. “Daddy, we’re finished in here. You and the girls got a slim chance if I create a diversion.”
Randolph shook his head. “I don’t like it. I say we all stick together.”
“That ain’t going work Daddy. My mind’s made up. I’m heading for the corn shed and draw their fire. When I do, you light out for the woods to go for help,” he instructed.
Randolph smiled at his son, noticing a tear welling up in his left eye.
“I love you daddy,” Calvin told his father. The old man looked at him for a time without saying anything. After taking a moment to gain his courage, he shook his father’s hand, grabbed his rifle and dashed outside. The agile young man discharged his Winchester in rapid succession, running backwards, away from the house. Halfway between the cabin and the corn shed Ellison Mounts stood in his path.
Calvin McCoy stopped ten feet in front of Cottontop and cocked the lever on his repeating rifle. He fired twice, hitting the burly man in the shoulder and thigh. Ellison yelped like a hound when the second bullet tore into him. McCoy dry fired his rifle, which was now out of ammunition. He tossed it on the ground, reaching down for the knife he wore at his side. With a running jump, he plunged the long, narrow blade deep into his adversary’s burly shoulder. Ellison again squealed with ear splitting pain.
Cottontop was now on the offensive. He reached up with his giant hand to block the next deadly thrust of Calvin’s blade. In a rage, he snapped the bone in his attacker’s wrist. Calvin heard the sound of his arm breaking, turning his face white with pain. He was now a helpless rag doll in Ellison’s grip. Mounts quickly brought both hands up to the younger man’s head; one holding Calvin's chin, one wrapping around the back of his skull. In a quick motion, he broke the smaller man’s neck.
Calvin’s sacrificing diversion gave his father and sisters ample time to escape. As his son fought Cottontop, Randolph ran as fast as he could, retreating to the cover of the dark forest. Something inside told him his son was dead. This flooded his eyes with salty tears. As he ran further away from the house, he could see the flames rise above the tall oak trees. It was bright yellow-orange in color, as if the sun was rising in the middle of the night. The old man’s thoughts turned to his wife and daughters whom he had left behind. Josephine, Adelaide and Fanny McCoy had managed to escape the inferno, hiding just a few yards from the cabin.
When the house began to collapse, Jim Vance realized that Randolph had somehow escaped. He threw his arms up in the air and began to scold his followers. “You dumb bastards, you let him get away.”
Ellison Mounts covered his shoulder wound with a piece of torn cloth. He panted and asked, “How you know the old man still ain’t inside?”
Vance raised his voice. “Because you dumb bastard, he ain’t stupid as you are. He wouldn’t stay in there and burn up. He got away.” He now turned to Cap and Johnse. What did we come here for?” He repeated himself slowly “What, did we come here for. We came here to get the old man.”
Uncle Jim quickly recovered his composure, giving instructions to his nephews. “Cap Set fire to the barn and will make for the river straight away.” He looked over at Johnse and Ellison who stood with heads lowered. “Come on children, get your mounts. God help us, we’re going home.”
The dejected raiders retrieved their horses and began their retreat back home. Vance was still upset over the outcome of the assault. “You had to fire your gun you damn fool. I told you to wait for the signal, didn’t I?” He said looking over at Johnse.
Johnse in turn, began to scold his cousin Ellison. “Why did you have to go and shoot the girl for?”
Cap yelled at his brother. “Because I told him to you jackass; we should have killed them all. Now that old man’s never going to rest until we’re all in the ground.” He glared at Johnse like wanted to shoot him. Neither man spoke another word for the remainder of the trip. The raid supposed to end the conflict would now undoubtedly exacerbate it.
Randolph McCoy had eluded his attackers by hiding out in a neighbor’s pigpen. When he was sure it was safe, the cold, mud-
covered man ran back to see the ruins of his burned up home. Though suffering from a case of shock, he had survived an attack meant to kill him. The old man had mournfully agonized after his three sons died. Nevertheless, there was nothing that could have prepared him for what his eyes saw upon his return home.
“Sweet Lord Jesus,” said Randolph, when he located the body of his son Calvin. He was lying with his twisted head looking up at the evening sky. His face possessed an expression of lifeless terror that his father would never forget. After staring a minute at his murdered son, Randolph took a few weak steps and fell to his knees. He stood up and continued on until he came to where the front porch used to be. Smoke and embers continued to flicker on the rubble of the house he had built with his own hands.
In back of the pile of debris, he found his three daughters cold, hunched over and sobbing. They had built a small fire, doing their best to comfort their severely wounded mother. Randolph kneeled down to caress his wife’s battered face. Jim Vance had smashed her ribs and Johnse cracked her skull. The dazed woman focused on her husband and was barely able to form the word, “why?”
Randolph rubbed his fingers on his aching temples and spoke softly. “It’s my fault. I brought this wrath down upon my family and God forgive me for it.”
The furious gunfire, accompanied by the nighttime blaze, had not gone unnoticed by Old Ranel’s neighbors. They quickly gathered to give aid to the terrified McCoy family. A couple of men picked up Sarah and carefully loaded her into a wagon. They transported her along with the three surviving daughters, to the house of James McCoy. Randolph stayed behind at the wreckage of his home.
The old man’s despair was still not complete. He slowly walked over to where his daughter Alifair was lying. He sobbed uncontrollably when he looked at her lifeless face. Her long, curly blonde hair stuck to the icy, hard ground.
Randolph pried his dead child up off the freezing soil, cradling her in his lap. His thoughts drifted off for a minute. He remembered a beautiful, delicate child running into his arms and hugging him. She had just had awakened from a terrible nightmare. Her father assured his little on he would always be there to protect her. In his anguish, he cried out into the night. “Oh my baby, my child, what have I done, what have I done?” Like a pale apparition, Randolph sat there on the ground exhausted and beaten, crying until his tears became drops of crystal.