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Book review: '23 Shots' puts spin on 1894 W.Va. gunfight

By James E. Casto

"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.

And so on Saturday, Jan. 24, 1894, Hall and two other Virginia lawmen burst through the post office door, guns already cocked and ready for action. Calvin Fleming fires the first shot and the two outlaws and three lawmen quickly exchange fire.

A total of 23 shots ring out. When the gun smoke clears, Calvin lay dead, with three bullets in him. One of the Virginia lawmen is fatally wounded; he would die nine days later. Henan, Hall and the other Virginia lawman are wounded. Amazingly, although a dozen other people were crowded into the post office when the gunfire erupted, none of them are hit.

History records that a Webster County grand jury indicted Henan for murder in the post office shooting, but he was acquitted. He then was taken back to Virginia and put on trial for the Mullins murders. Again he was acquitted. Later, he and his wife would move to West Virginia, where he ultimately became a policeman in Richwood. Truth, it seems, is indeed stranger than fiction.

Samples believes the shootout at the Boggs post office was the equal of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., but "it never got any mention in the national news media. Perhaps it was because it occurred in a very isolated area and happened before the big timber and coal boom hit Webster County."

Be that as it may, Samples' slim paperback novel does an excellent job of bringing to life this all but forgotten piece of bloody West Virginia history.

"23 Shots" is available at bookstores throughout West Virginia, or by phone or online from the West Virginia Book Co. at 304-342-1848 or www.wvbookco.com.

Retired Huntington newspaper editor James E. Casto frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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