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Hill Ditches & Dead Shot

Hill Ditches and Dead Shots

The Millers of Caldwell County, N.C.
This is a century-old photograph of the author's relations in North Carolina; contemporary family members disagree about who's who. The family had its share of the pious, the hardworking and the sober but also  produced a number of hellions, gunfighters and adventurous scholars.

A Virginian from the flatlands takes stock of his North Carolina mountain forebears.

             by Harry Henson


       I have been reading the Appalachian short stories of the late Manly Wade Wellman. I’m impressed by what an acute ear he had for mountain dialogue, his incisive descriptions of domed hills and rockbound rushing streams; his adept use of local folklore, the sinister witch men who have made bargains with a person of power best not named, drying up cows and lusting after the nubile young girls; and the Gardinels, carnivorous plants that  disguise themselves as houses so as to lure unwary travelers inside to be devoured..

       One thing Wellman neglected to mention is that those crystal clear creeks are full of snakes. Poisonous or not, they inhibit you from going for a swim on hot summer days.

       Or at least they did me.

       My mother's family is from that region of western North Carolina, an area called Buffalo Cove in Caldwell County. I used to spend a week or two down there most summers while growing up.

       The two families, my father's and mother's, represented starkly differing cultures.

        My father, from the Northern Neck of Virginia, spoke with horror of the single Christmas he spent with his in-laws.

       On Christmas day, he recounted, instead of engaging in frolic and seasonal cheer, all the men and boys employed themselves by shoveling and hauling dirt and gravel to fill the mudholes of the very long rutted lane leading to my grandparents' house.

       Afterward, the only refreshment he was offered was buttermilk.

        Contrary to familiar stereotypes of moonshining Mountaineers, the residents of Buffalo Cove were all strict teetotaling Baptists. The local country store, operated by Mr. Todd since the early 1920s, sold no beer. He did however, have those old-fashioned drink boxes with water inside that held cool glistening bottles of soft drinks like Cheerwine and Lemon Drop, available only in North Carolina.

       If you didn't have the price on you, fifteen cents, you could walk along the dirt road until you collected enough empty bottles from the ditches to turn in for the two-cent deposit on each.

       By the time I reached my mid-teens, sodas did not exactly quench my thirst.

       Still, it was always interesting to go down there. My grandfather had been dead since the early 1950s, but even up until the late 1990s he was still recollected as a legendary character, and once I was identified as “Rob Miller's grand boy,” as the mountain people put it, I gained status among the locals.

       For years he taught in the one-room school, and many of the now-ancient inhabitants had been his pupils. He was also a cabinetmaker, could put together radios, crafted violins, built houses, quoted Virgil and Cicero in Latin, farmed, grew watermelons that people remembered as the tastiest they had ever eaten, and read the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

       He also made coffins, and a couple of generations of Buffalo Cove residents are buried in them.

       Right from his teen years, he was a noted figure.

       His father was U.S. Marshal Julius Miller. One day in the mid-1890s, a man stole a horse from some town across the Tennessee line and fled with it into North Carolina. That made the crime a federal offense, and the marshal and his deputy pursued the thief through the night.

       Unluckily, the marshal caught up with the thief early the next morning.    I say unluckily, because in the exchange of shots, the thief shot more accurately.

       The deputy in the newspaper account says on hearing the gunfire he believed Miller had killed the horse thief, and upon arriving at the scene was astounded to find his chief on the ground.

       My great-grandfather's last words were, “Take my gun and go kill him,” but the deputy stayed with him and held his hand until he died.

       The United Sates government at that time having no benefit program for survivors, his widow could not support their three sons and had to send them to a Masonic orphanage in the eastern part of the state.

       After a few weeks of that, my grandfather, the oldest brother, ran away.

       The incident became a major news story.

       Front-page headlines in all the state's newspapers proclaimed “Miller Boy Runs Away” and described the steps taken by the orphanage officials to track him down, with alerts out to sheriffs and their own employees scouring the roads.

"Miller Boy Runs Away"
The author's grandfather, Robert Miller, the tallest boy on his mother's right in a last photograph before being sent to the orphanage. Robert made headlines across the state when he fled from his new custodians.

       My grandfather eluded them all and made his way back to Buffalo Cove, having at the age of fourteen walked nearly two hundred miles to make his escape.

       One of his uncles took him in, and evidently faced down the pursuers, because there he stayed.

       A few years later this uncle, by then the county sheriff, was also killed in a shootout.

       I can see why my grandfather chose to be an educator rather than a peace officer like his relations.

       The horse thief was never caught.

Harry Henson is a writer in Richmond County.

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