Archive for August 7th, 2009

The Fourth Notch: A Tale of Moonshiners and a Revenue Officer

August 7, 2009

When I first ran across this story, I was searching for news articles about the murder of Marshal William D. Kellett, and seeing his name mentioned, I figured this would be a news article of some sort.  It turns out that is is probably more of a dime-novel type story, printed in the paper.


A “Close Call” for a Smoky Hole Victim.

About the middle of last December Deputy United States Marshal Kellett was murdered by moonshiners in the mountains of North Georgia. An account of his killing, published in a New York newspaper, said that another notch was cut in the big poplar that guards the entrance to Sleepy Cove, the retreat of the outlaws, making five in all, each significant of the death, at the hands of the illicit whisky makers, of a revenue officer. Now, I was until recently a revenue officer, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that no one is better acquainted with Sleepy Cove and that big poplar than myself. I knew well three of the poor fellows whose epitaphs stand gaping there, silent but awful warning, to all who disturb the lawless men of that lonely cove; the fifth notch is for Kellett, but for whom the fourth was cut seems still to be a mystery to the surrounding neighborhood. Moonshiners seldom make mistakes in their matters of murder, but in this instance I think they have lost their reckoning. That fourth notch was cut for me. I saw it done, with death staring me in the face. It is possible that the outlaws still believe my bones are bleaching on the damp ground in Smoky Hole.

When notch number three was cut there was a great stir in North Georgia. Country people were wild with excitement. Revenue men riding through the mountains had a sort of itching in the back, and were inclined often to turn in the saddle. We laid the murder of W—– at the door of the notorious Cap Hawkins, the daring leader of a fearless band of outlaws in the Cohutta mountains, and as soon as possible we were on his trail with a good pack of bloodhounds. The scent was cold, and when we had penetrated some eight miles into the range the dogs became disheartened. After circling round us time and again in search of the trail they gave it up, and we were forced to retreat without having accomplished any thing.

It was dusk when we got out of the deep woods, and we began to look about for a place to stay for the night. A log cabin of two rooms was not inviting, but the old crone who came to the door said that she could provide for one of the party, and that the others might find accommodations at another cabin a mile down the road. In some way it was arranged that I should stay at her house, and join the party next morning. She made me as comfortable as possible. For supper I had pure corn bread and molasses, with a great tin cup of something hot called coffee. While I ate she smoked a clay pipe, sitting in the chimney corner with her legs crossed and her foot swinging incessantly. When she spoke to me, which she did oftener than I liked, I could not help feeling that she was trying to pump me. She wanted to know entirely too much about the moonshiners and the revenue men, and before I had finished my meal she made me look upon her with suspicion. Once or twice I alluded to her family, for I thought it strange that she should live alone, and even went so far as to inquire about her husband, and ask when he would be at home. She replied evasively, and all I learned was that her old man and three grown boys were up on the mountain tending crops. It did not require much exercise of my imagination to determine what kind of crops they were tending. In thinking of them my hand went instinctively to my trusty revolver, and the touch of the cold steel braced me up. I wondered how the men were getting on down at the other cabin, and if they could hear a pistol shot that far off.

When the old woman had shown me to my room she returned to her chimney corner and her pipe and her foot swinging. My bed was an old-fashioned one, with ropes for springs and bear skins for mattress and cover. I didn’t undress, but crawled just as I was between the skins, and lying on my back, thought I should not do much sleeping. When my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness and wandered aimlessly over the open ceiling, I saw something about the size of the bed hanging directly over me. It seemed to swing slowly back and forth. I stood up and touched it, examined it as minutely as possible, and again lay down. It was nothing but three or four bed quilts stretched across two boards supported at the ends by short ropes. IF it grew colder in the night I would reach up to them for more cover.

I intended to stay awake, but must have been nearly asleep when a creaking noise aroused me. The next moment it was repeated, and the quilts above me descended rapidly. IT flashed upon me that I was in a trap. Drawing my weapon, I attempted to spring out of bed, determined to sell my life dearly, but as I straightened up the quilts covered me, and before I could throw them off strong hands were at the corners. It seemed as if a ton weight had fallen upon me and doubled me up. My head was bent so close upon my breast that I thought my neck would break. My breath came short and fast.

With a frantic struggle I cocked my pistol and placing the muzzle close against the quilt I pulled the trigger. I fired at random, trusting that fate might guide the ball into the heart or head of some one of my cowardly assailants. The concussion was awful in that narrow space. The smoke filled my eyes, nose and ears; the shot rang through my brain; I felt that my last hour had come. My God, how I suffered! I remember a derisive laugh that seemed to come from another world, then something heavy struck me on the head. When I recovered consciousness I was lying on my back in a jolting wagon, with my hands and feet securely bound. The pale blue of the sky above me and the hazy outlines of the treetops reaching overhead told me that day was breaking.

“Wal, Kurnel, air ye come roun’ all right?” said a deep voice at my head. Raising my eyes, I saw leaning over me the grizzly face of the outlaw, Cap Hawkins. He broke into a wild laugh at my look of astonishment.

“Didn’t spect ter see me this mornin’, did ye, Kurnel?” he said, tauntingly. “Whar air yer dogs? — ha! ha! — an’ yer horses? — he! he! — an’ yer haw! haw! ho! — an’ yer repytation? Aw, Lordy! Say, Kurnel, whar air ye a-takin’ me this mronin’? Air ye a-goin’ ter lock old Cap Hawkins up agin?”

His laughter echoed through the woods and sounded fiendish as it came back from the mountain side. I knew Cap Hawkins well. Lawless as he was, there was in his composition a certain wild chivalry peculiar to these men of the mountains. Brave as a lion, he had an unbounded admiration for courage in others, cunning as a fox, he respected a man who could out do him in craftiness. Knowing this, I determined to assume a bold air and affect a supreme indifference to my fate, whatever that was to be.

“O, Cap, dry up,” I began, winking slyly at him. “Don’t firghten the revenue men; they’ll be after you again.”

Again he roared as if he would split his sides over the joke. He was immensely tickled.

“Say your prayers, Cap,” I continued, “It’ll be a long time before you see daylight again.”

“Whut air ye adrivin’ at, Kurnel?” he asked, seriously, casting his eyes about him. My shot had missed, but I kept firing.

“Well, you see, Hawkins, now that I’ve got you in my power I’m going to put you out of the way for good. You come along with me to the Cove. There’s a warm hole in the side of the mountain in which you can spend winter, board and lodging free. Come, brace up, Cap; when you see how comfortable it is in there you’ll want to lease the place for life.”

The outlaw made no response to my random talk, nor did he laugh as before. Something seemed to worry him, for he fidgeted about, scratched his uncombed head and ran his bony fingers through his grizzled, tangled beard.

“Look a-hyar, Kurnel,” said the moonshiner, leaning close to me and boring into me with his black eyes “air ye ever been thar?”

“There? Where, Cap?”

“That thar hole ye air a-goin’ on about.”

“Why, of course, don’t I know every hole and crag in the Cohuttas?”

“Then that settles it, I ‘lowed ye war jokin” Waw Patsy, waw Suck, wawp.”

He reined up his horses and stopped the wagon. Taking up an axe he landed it to some person on the ground and said a few words which I did not understand. I tried to raise myself to look out, but fell back helpless, full of sharp, shooting pains. My joins refused to bend, my neck creaked when I tried to turn my head, and the struggle of the night came back to me like a horrible apparition. At the first sound of the axe Cap Hawkins put his arm under my back and forced me to sit upright.

“Cobe air a-cuttin’ yer tombstone, Kurnel, an’ I ‘lowed ye’d like ter git a last look.”

To the right of the wagon stood a giant poplar lifting its shaggy top three hundred feet above the road. In its trunk were three gaping wounds, and a moonshiner in broad hat and big boots was cutting a fourth. Two ill-looking men stood near, their guns in their hands.

“Kurnel,” continued my guard, “do ye want ter write yer epertaph?” The men laughed at their chief. “Them other three Revies didn’t git nary chance ter write theirn. Boys, air any o’ye got a pencil?”

Too well I knew the meaning of that notch from which the sappy chips were flying. My heart quivered as the axe ate its way into the soft wood. My face must have reflected my thought, for the outlaw, giving me a gentle push, sent me on my back.

“Lay down, Kurnel, an’ don’t git so allfired skeered,” he said. “That air mighty comf’table hole up in the hills — board an’ lodgin’ free.” And quoting my own words, he fairly made the welin ring with his coarse laughter.

“Surely you don’t intend to murder me, Cap?”

“That air jest about it, I reckon, Kurnel. Ye air cross the dead line, an’ yer epertaph air done been writ.”

Before I could say more his three companions climbed into the wagon beside me. Clucking to his horses he drove on at a trot through the pass, and as the sun rose over the mountain we entered the precincts of Sleepy Cove. It must have been after ten o’clock, yet into that lonesome spot the sun was just beginning to pour his rays.

By two p.m. he would disappear behind the jagged cliff that formed the western boundary of the retreat, and the long twilight would set in with its spectral shadows chasing each other in the dark wood. Often had I heard the country folk talk with bated breath of the horrors of Sleepy Cove. Goblins, they said, dwelt in the mountain caves, coming forth at dusk to frolic with the fearless moonshiners, and dancing at midnight upon the slippery crags. Ghouls, armed wit the bones of murdered men, kept nightly vigil at the narrow pass, and if any human being approached from the outside they gathered around the giant poplar and beat upon the bark till the frightened man disappeared in the direction whence he came. No man but the moonshiners had ever been known to come from Sleepy Cove alive, consequently one ever voluntarily entered that wild, uncanny place.

These thoughts were passing through my mind when suddenly the wagon stopped, and the four men threw themselves into attitudes of attention, grasping their guns and casting furtive glances at each other. Straining my ear I thought I heard the faint yelp of a hound. Captain Hawkins lashed his horses into a gallop, and we sped on for half a mile, stopping again in the shadow of a cliff. At their leader’s order two of the men lifted me out of the wagon, and half dragged me to a spot where the earth formed a kind of bench against the rock wall. Placing me on the ground they began prying at boulder which gradually yielded to their hand sticks, rolled over on its side, exposing a hole in the cliff. Into this they dragged me for some twenty feet, and tossed me on a bed of leaves. Then one of the men brought in some food, and another water, and another wood. I turned to the outlaw leader and asked how long he intended to keep me prisoner. He laughed at the question, but made no reply. Going to the cave’s mouth he peered steadily out, listened awhile, and came back to me. There was an ominous glitter in his eyes. It looked like murder. My God! Was he going to bury me alive? I begged him to shoot me, cut my throat, hang me, anything but leave me there to starve. But he paid no attention to my appeals.

“Et ye air ‘live when I get back, Kurnel, ef I git back,” he said, “why, me an’ the boys mought put a leetle lead in your carcass. Ye may hev camp’ny ‘fore night, enyhows. The Revies air after us hotter n demnition blazes. They air done cross the dead line. Hyar the moosic, Kurnel?”

“I hope they’ll give you all you deserve, you cold-blooded murderer,” I said, wishing that I could throttle the villain.

“Now, Kurnel, don’t get out o’ sorts. It air mighty comfortable in hyer — board an’ login’ free. Boys, air ye ready? Them hounds air pickin’ us up. Light the fire, Cobe. Kurnel, hyer air a knife ter cut yer loose arter we leave ye. Don’t git skeered o’ the ghosts, an’ ‘member ye air mighty comf’table, mighty comf’table — board an’ lodgin’ free; and yer epertaph air down on the big poplar. Good-bye, Kurnel.”

The outlaws were already placing the bowlder in position, and when Cap Hawkins had squeezed his way out the rock was rolled into the opening. With a crunching sound it settled into place, and I was a prisoner in Smoky Hole. I listened for the baying of the hounds, hoping that they had tracked me to the cave, but not a sound penetrated the door of my prison. The fire burned briskly, and Smoky Hole glowed in the light of the blazing pine-knots. It was the work of a few minutes to cuts my bonds with the knife the outlaw had given me, and then I took an inventory of the contents of the cavern.

The place had evidently been fitted up for the illicit manufacture of “mountain dew” and “tanglefoot” and “red rye,” for there were the worn-out copper still, the worm, the mash-tub, jugs and flasks and other apparatus of the moonshiner. The cave was about the size of a railroad box car, except that the roof was higher and more arched. I jabbed my knite into every square foot of the walls. They were of solid rock. In a vain, mad effort to roll the bowlder from the entrance, I drew the blood from my shoulder. It was all of no use. Unless help came to me from without my doom was sealed. A dull, heavy feeling came over me and I sat down near the fire. The confined air was getting close. Suddenly, on looking up, I was appalled at the discovery of a new danger. The roof of the cavern was no longer visible. The dense black smoke of he pitch pine, unable to escape, was banked above me like an ominous cloud, ever growing denser and blacker and descending steadily, remorselessly upon me like a veritable shadow of death.

Already the asphyxiating gases were causing my brain to whirl. I crawled to the fire and stamped upon the blazing knots until every spark was extinguished, but they continued to send up their stifling smoke. I could feel it ascending, hot and pitiless. Falling flat upon the ground I saturated my coat sleeve with the water the outlaw had left me, and placing it against my mouth secured a few full breaths of strained gas. But they gave me little respite. The high p—–ce of the atmosphere —– my —- swell almost to bursting, my hands and feet were benumbed, and I was soon unable to move a muscle. Then I longed for death.

Suddenly there was a loud explosion, followed by a falling of loose earth and rock and a rush of air. A faint ray of light appeared in the corner of the cavern over the still, growing broader and stronger as the smoke cleared away. With life and strength renewed, I made my way to the opening, where I drank in the fresh air with a swelling heart and a lighter conscience than I had ever hoped to possess. The explosion had torn away some rough masonry with which the moonshiners had stopped up a fissure in the rock. It never occurred to me in my investigation of the cave that there ought to be some way of exit for the smoke of the still. But everything was plain enough now. I had found the chimney, and it was my determination to use it to advantage. In a moment, forgetful of pains and bruises, I was climbing for freedom. It was a tight squeeze now and then, but I made rapid progress, and felt so good over my prospects of escape that I wanted to shout. But prudence restrained me.

Soon the rocky sides of the chimney gave place to wood, and the opening changed from flat to round. Still I climbed on, my spirits rising with my ascent. My progress was made comparatively easy by the imitation of Brer Rabbit’s methods of climbing a stump hollow — that is, by bracing my back against one side of the chimney and my feet and hands against the other. But the opening grew tighter and tighter, like an inverted funnel, and still the top seemed a long way off. I must have climbed some thirty feet in all, when I stopped to rest, propping my foot against a knot-like projection, which, suddenly breaking off, left a hole through which the daylight streamed. Then, for the first time, it flashed upon me that I was in a hollow tree. A glance through the knot-hole proved this to be the case, for there was the ground ten feet below me — the bench of earth I had noticed when the outlaws were making ready for my incarceration.

Escape now seemed certain. The wall of my prison was only two inches thick, and though the wood was dry and hard from age and exposure to smoke and heat, my knife was soon at work enlarging the knot-hole. As this faced the Cove, I could keep a lookout for the moonshiners and stop cutting at the first suspicious noise. Night soon set in, and with the darkness there came peculiar sounds from cliff and woodland. But I paused not to think of ghoul or goblin. It would have taken something far more terrible than ghostly warning to check the steady going of my knife in the weary hours that followed the sunset, for I hope to turn my back on Sleepy Cove ere the dawn of another day. But when the sun rose my task seemed not nearly done. The knife was dulled and my strength had slowly ebbed away.

The baying of a hound reached me. It was repeated, and in a moment the thrilling music of the pack waked again and again the sleeping echoes of Sleepy Cove. Nearer and nearer it came, until a dozen fine bloodhounds burst through the underbrush and dashed up to the bowlder at the entrance to Smoky Hole. Then opening again, they sped away on the cold trail of the moonshiners.

“Dan, here Dan, down, sir!” I shouted to the leader with all my might. The obedient brute, reconising my voice, dropped to the ground. I called him to me, and soon the entire pack was barking playfully at the roots of my novel prison, rejoicing, no doubt, at having treed their master. Hearing a well known signal in the woods, I answered it, and one by one five of my friends crept cautiously up to the cave, carbines in hand. When I spoke to them from my porthole, there was a broad smile on every face. An axe was procured, and, while four of the men guarded against surprise, the fifth cut a window in my jail, though which I crawled, having been a prisoner for nearly twenty-four hours.

When we reached the big poplar that guards the pass to Sleepy Cove, I fastened in the fourth notch a piece of paper bearing these words:

“Cap Hawkins, beware!” The Colonel is on your trail! Go, look for his bones in Smoky Hole!”

Cleveland Leader.

Decatur Daily Republican (Decatur, Illinois) Feb 4, 1887