"23 Shots." By Mack Samples. Quarrier Press. 112 pages. $9.95.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mack Samples is best known as a talented West Virginia musician (and Vandalia Award winner). But Samples is also a prolific author who's published a number of books, both fiction and nonfiction. His latest combines a bit of both. In "23 Shots," Samples takes a real 1894 gunfight in Webster County and puts his own imaginative spin on it.
The story actually starts two years earlier, in 1892, at the Pound Gap of Pine Mountain on the Virginia/Kentucky border. There, Ira Mullins, a local moonshiner, and his family were ambushed by three men: Doc M.B. Taylor, known as the "Red Fox," and two brothers, Henan and Calvin Fleming. The ambush killed five of the seven people in the Mullins party and is remembered in local history as the "Pound Gap Massacre."
The three killers escaped. Eventually, Taylor hid out at his son's house in Norton, Va. His son convinced him he could escape to Florida by train. Taylor boarded an empty boxcar en route to Bluefield, where he hoped to hop another freight. Unfortunately for him, the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency somehow learned of his plans, arrested him and returned him to Virginia for trial. He was convicted and hanged.
The Fleming brothers were more successful at eluding capture. But ultimately they decided to flee to West Virginia, where they had family living in the tiny Webster County mountain community of Boggs. Samples, exercising a bit of poetic license, offers an imaginary passage in which Henan Fleming tells his wife what he's decided to do. He admits he "ain't got the slightest notion where the hell Boggs is" but figures the law will never find them there.
Samples renders a richly detailed account of the two brothers' arduous trip to Webster County, first by train, then by horseback and ultimately by foot. Arriving at Boggs, they find work at a sawmill and seem to be blending in to the rural community.
But Henan underestimates the zeal of Big Ed Hall, who's determined to bring the brothers in for the Mullins murders. Two years after the killings, Hall gets word that the two men are living at Boggs and so sets out for West Virginia. Arriving, he gets word that the Flemings, like the loggers and others living in the area, generally visit the local post office on Saturday mornings to get their mail and trade gossip.