Law Enforcement

    "Doc" Cox was the Wise County Game Warden. He was a hard-living, hard-pushing, self-centered kind of a fellow with a habit of bowling over anybody that got in his way. He had a lot more enemies than friends in Wise County, and it came as no particular surprise to anybody when he was killed.
     Doc had a warrant for the arrest of a man named Ted Carter, charging him with dynamiting fish near his home on Guests River. He went out one day in early July, 1931--possibly the Fourth of July--to arrest Carter, and he never came back. His body was found in a sitting position behind the steering wheel of his car. He had been shot to death, the bullets coming from a .32/.20 pistol.
    Ted Carter was later brought to trial for the murder, but came clear--primarily because it came to light that Doc Cox had been fooling with his (Carter's) wife.


    In 1931 the salary of the Wise County Game Warden was $90 per month. Out of that $90, he had to furnish his own car and pay his own expenses. If he was killed, he even had to furnish his own casket. There were certain "fringe benefits" however: the Game Warden could supplement his income by performing such miscellaneous duties as county deputy sheriff, process server, truant officer, and Notary Public. In this latter capacity, he became an important man in local politics--as the best-known "outside" contact of the many hundreds of isolated
back-country mountaineers in places like Bear Creek, the Glades, Johnson Flats, Pole Fence Gap, Gobbler's Knob, Thacker's Branch, Hoot-Owl Hollow, the Nettle Patch, Big Pickum, Little Pickum, Pick-Your-Britches, and Hell-For-Certain. Escorting the County Registrar of Voters into these backwoods communities, he could make it easy for people of his own political leanings to get registered--

and he could make it equally difficult for the opposition.

     Following the assassination of Doc Cox, seventy-four men took the Civil Service exam to determine his successor. Not one of them passed the exam.
    It was then that my friend Henry Gilmer, the bank president, and Roy Fuller, the supervising game warden, suggested that I apply for the job. Up to that time, I had been backing a friend named Lonzo Roberts in his bid. Due to my limited schooling, I had not even considered myself a candidate.
    With a little prodding from Gilmer and Fuller, though, I went into action. And once I set my mind on getting the job, it became an obsession with me. I had to have it.
    My kid sister, Etta, was going to high school at Norton and keeping house for me at the time. I told her to ask "Prof" Burton to send me all of Norton High School's books pertaining to county and state geography, fish and wildlife, and game laws. I shut myself up in the house and studied like hell for the next thirty days. The only times I left the house were to visit the privy. (As I have already pointed out, inside plumbing was a rarity, as well as a luxury, in those days.)
    When the second Civil Service exam was given, two men passed: Dave O'Neill and Patrick Hagan Spivey, a young man from Scott County who was named for my father's old and dear friend, Patrick Hagan.
    When Spivey and I were adjudged to be absolutely equal in our qualifications for the job, he suggested that we settle the tie by flipping a coin. Though I would
rather have settled it in a back room with the door barred, I finally agreed to the coin toss.

    Later, during my heyday as Wise County's "Bull of the Woods, " the story got around that when the coin was flipped I blocked Spivey's view of it, picked it up with my hand resting on the butt of my pistol, and said, "It's heads; I win." That's just another of those stories that have no foundation in fact. The coin toss was conducted in the presence of supervising Game Warden Roy Fuller, and I won it fair and square.
     But I can't say definitely what would have happened had it gone the other way. I wanted that job, more desperately than I had ever wanted anything in my life.


    I went to work as Wise County Game Warden in April, 1932.
    It wasn't as easy or as pleasant as I had anticipated. First of all, there was Doc Cox' reputation that I had to live down. Doc, as I hinted earlier, was quite a
rounder. He used the office of game warden as a base of power, and he was sometimes arrogant and brutal in the way he dealt with people.

     Other factors were involved, too. In hard times, even decent and normally law-abiding citizens are apt to have little respect for fish and game laws. And those, good buddy, were hard times. How many men will let their families go hungry, when there are fish in the streams and squirrels in the tree? The man charged with protecting that wildlife has a real job on his hands. A dangerous, thankless job. That was the situation I faced in 1932.
    And then there is a criminal element in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia (and, in fact, through all of the Southern Appalachians) that considers itself exempt from all game and conservation laws, in good times or bad. They'll kill a man quicker, and over less, than even the big city gangsters.
    Many a game warden, in order to stay alive, gives the hard-core mountain poachers a wide berth. He enforces the law in perhaps ninety percent of his county, but he stays to hell out of the other ten percent. Or he makes "deals" with the bad boys, and polices them on their own terms.
     When I took the oath of office, I decided to make the fish and game laws of Virginia apply to all citizens of Wise County on an equal basis whether they be personal friends or enemies, relatives or strangers, law-abiding people or the meanest and most disrespectful bastards on earth. Toward that end, I set about establishing myself as the best man in the county with my fists or with a gun. If I was issuing a citation and a man started handing me a line of crap, I was pretty apt to lay down my pistol and my badge and invite him to put up or shut up. And I practiced for hours every week with my Smith & Wesson triple lock .44 Special, until I became as quick and as accurate with it as any man in that part of the country.
    While mountain people don't care much for many of society's laws, they have always placed a lot of stock in The Law of the Gun. Just about everybody who lives in the mountains owns a gun and knows how to use it. It's a regular custom for the men of a community to get together on holidays and special occasions for a "shooting match"--shooting at stationary targets or at objects thrown in the air. Some of them, of course, get to be expert shots. Remember Sergeant Alvin York, the famous World War I hero? He was from our part of the country. It's quite possible that even today, some of the potentially best crapshooters in the world have never even heard of clay pigeons!
     I made a point to enter every one of those shooting contests I could get into. It wasn't long before word got around that the new game warden was the best pistol shot in that part of the country. And such a big pistol too. Why, that thing would blow a man's head off! I didn't do a thing in the world to discourage that kind of talk.
    One of the highlights of my career as a marksman came in a match at Guests River with Ted Carter, the man who had killed my predecessor, Doc  Cox. My first three shots were all bullseyes, on cans tossed into the air. Then someone set an empty shotgun shell on a fence post about twenty-five feet away. I whipped out my pistol, aimed, and fired. It was a perfect hit. The shell casing was untouched, but the cap was blown off! Ted Carter examined the casing, smiled, and put his gun away. The match was over.
    I'll be the first to admit that I had scored with a lucky shot. But it wasn't exactly an accident, either. It really represented luck, plus nerve and a hell of a lot of hard practice. Whatever it was, it sure didn't do my reputation as an expert pistolero any harm.


    The most important "fringe benefit"  of the county game warden job at the time I took over was full jurisdiction over dog laws. It was a source of extra income.
    Wise County had no dog pound in those days. It was my job to levy and collect license fees, give rabies shots, destroy unwanted animals, and otherwise enforce all laws pertaining to dogs. The licensing and vaccinating end of it was a time-consuming but very profitable business; I could sub-contract the work and still make a nice profit. But I've always loved dogs, and I hated to kill them.
It was just another of those things that had to be done--unthankful, unpleasant work. Somebody had to do it.

     Wise County operated on the "fee system" of law enforcement until the early 1940s. Officers received one dollar for each arrest, and $50 for each moonshine still uncovered. Justices of the peace were elected by the people. They got one dollar for each warrant issued. It was a system that invited fraud and political patronage--but that's the way things were done in Harry Byrd's Virginia.

     One of the more pleasant aspects of game law enforcement is the comradeship an officer finds among sportsmen. A game warden is essentially a public servant, and the building of good will and respect for the law through public relations is as much a part of his job as is the apprehension of lawbreakers.
    I tried to make myself always available, without fee, to attend meetings of sportsmen's clubs, Boy Scouts, or businessmen's organizations and to address them on any subject pertaining to conservation, game laws, wildlife study, handling and care of firearms, or just about anything else.
     I was able to pass on helpful bits of information to fishermen and hunters, things that would make them more likely to come home with something in the creel or knapsack--or other things that would underline the importance of sportsmanship and courtesy to their fellow man. A lot of hunters, for example, came back and told me that they had improved their shooting a hundred per cent by following this little suggestion I used to make: Stand an unloaded shotgun by the head of your bed, and practice using it for a few minutes each day. On a self-determined signal, grab up the shotgun and throw down on same object on the ceiling--then check the sights to see how accurately you have "aimed." Repeat a few thousand times, and eventually you'll be able to throw down on a target
and have it in your sights immediately.


     Though the mountains of Southwest Virginia were in ancient times (and are again today) a perfect home for deer, the species had practically disappeared from Wise and surrounding counties many years before I became Game Warden. Deer had been hunted and killed into virtual extinction in an area encompassing many hundreds of square miles.
     After a lot of hard talking and politicking, and with the aid of some state and private financing, I arranged in 1932 for the importation from Pisgie, North
Carolina, of fifty healthy young fawns. The first "positive" deer seen in that part of the state since Civil War days, the fawns were raised on P. Terpster's dairy

farm in Powell's Valley until they were old enough to be released into the wild.

     The biggest buck of the herd, called "Old Dick" jumped over a sixteen-foot fence in trying to escape from the farm, suffering a broken foreleg in the process. He was quickly recaptured and his leg splinted--but, being a cripple, he had to remain behind when his playmates were turned loose.
     Old Dick lived in captivity for so long he just couldn't adjust to the ways of a wild deer, when he finally was released. He took up first at Coeburn High School, then at Virginia City, where he became such a pest that people in the community wanted him taken elsewhere.
      I picked up the buck and took him into the mountains and turned him loose in the company of a herd of nice, fat young does over near Cracker's Neck, but he soon showed up in civilization again, bumming around Coeburn and Wise High Schools..
     One day a big, overgrown boy named Ed Parks got a gun and shot Old Dick. He probably figured the deed would make him a local hero, but it didn't quite work out that way. I arrested young Mr. Parks for killing the deer illegally, and he got the maximum sentence: a $100 fine and six months in jail. It was his own grandmother's testimony that convicted him.
     Parks was tried before Trial Justice "Uncle Tommy" Hamilton, who was born and raised in the mountains of Wise County, living a good part of his life in the Nettle Patch.


     The world of small town politics is something that is impossible, really, to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it. Perhaps this little story will give you some idea what it's like:
     In 1938 I helped a Norton woman cast an illegal vote by mail. It was a dumb, dishonest thing to do, but it was very much in accordance with the way we did things in those days. Without those kind of votes, we couldn't win an election.
     At the instigation of a militant old Republican named P.D. Bishop, who ran a used auto parts business in Norton, a warrant was issued charging me with fraud in election. It was an extremely serious charge, sure to cost me my job if proven in court. In fact, I wasn't at all sure that I could even stay out of prison, the way things were shaping up. The local Republicans knew I was a real vote-getter for the Democrats in that area, and they were all for pushing hell out of the thing.
    But then I got a lucky break. Deputy Sheriff Jim Collins came to me and told me that  Orb Cordor, who was at that time the postmaster at Norton and a local Republican party leader, had contracted to take delivery on two ten-gallon kegs of moonshine whiskey on the Post Office loading platform at 11 p.m. one night just before a big election. That information gave me the "wedge" I needed to free myself from that charge of voting Margaret Bishop illegally.
    I waited until just before the moonshine was due to be delivered before calling on Mr. Cordor. I didn't mince any words: I knew all about that illegal whiskey
transaction that was due to take place on U.S. Government property in just a few minutes, and I was ready to blow the whistle--but if Mr. Cordor would be kind enough to agree to use his influence to have the election fraud charges against me dropped, I'd keep quiet about the moonshine.

     It didn't take us long to reach what is commonly known as a political compromise. We chose to call it a "gentleman's agreement."
    Orb kept his promise, and I kept mine. And neither  of us was ruined.


      Electioneering in Southwest Virginia in my day, you got votes where you could find them.
     Take George and Lizzie Woliver, for example. They were both good Democrats, but Lizzie was illiterate as hell. That made it rough, because in the Commonwealth of Virginia, every voter must pass a literacy test---unless of course, the voter is blind. 
    Well, something seemed to go wrong with Lizzie Woliver's eyesight once each year--on election day. She'd show up at the polls wearing dark glasses, blind as a
bat, and some loyal party worker would have to lead her into the voting booth and help her to vote the straight Democrat ticket.

    Another voter, old "Pusher"' Rash, continued to vote for several years after he was too feeble and nearsighted to find his way around. We carried him bodily to the polls! Like I say: you got votes where you could find them.


     I'm not proud of some of the things I had a hand in while hustling votes for the Democratic party in Wise and neighboring counties. It was rotten business--but believe me, the other side was cutting corners, too. Sometimes, I think they even outdid us. But not often.
     People in rural areas were allowed to vote by mail--so you can guess what happened to many of their votes. In my capacity as as Notary Public, I chauffeured the Registrar of Voters, a lady named Rose Roberts, all over
the back country.

     Rose and I helped the mountain people mark their ballots and place them in sealed envelopes to which the Notary's seal was affixed. But we had a nasty habit of opening the envelopes, throwing out the "negative" ballots, and substituting "positive" ones. Sometimes we'd let a few Republican ballots go through untampered with, just so it wouldn't look so bad--and because everybody knew there were a good many loyal Republicans in the back country.
      I have no justification to offer for this action, other than to say that in my heart I knew that the policies of the Democratic party were the best ones for the people of my area in those days of starvation and need. And besides, I wanted to keep my job.

     Law enforcement is serious business--most of the time. But i t does have i ts lighter moments.
     I remember catching a school-age colored boy gigging fish near Coeburn. I took him to his home, where he lived with some old people--most likely his grandparents.
    The shriveled-up old lady called from inside the house when we walked up on the porch.
    "Honey, do you get some fish?"
    "Get some fish, nothin' ," the boy snorted. "The man done got me!

     Webb Willetts of Norton, president of the. Norton Coal Co., had peculiar problem. He was taking a party of friends, including Mrs. King of King's Department Store in Bristol, and Judge Carter of Scott County, on a fishing party into the mountains. His problem was that he had a gallon of good moonshine whiskey in the trunk of his car, but he was afraid to take a drink in the judge's

     The party had met me on the road on their way into the mountain, and Willetts had flagged me down for a quick conference.
     "Let me handle this, Webb," I said.
     Walking over to the other car, I engaged Judge Carter in conversation for a few minutes and then I got him off to one side and said, in a very confidential tone, "I don't know about you, Judge , but I feel pretty rough today, like maybe I'm coming down with a cold. I believe Webb keeps a little bottle in the trunk of his car sometimes, and if you don't mind, I think I'll ask him for a drink--strictly for medicinal purposes."
     "Why, that's a fine idea, Dave, " said the judge.  "I've always regarded whiskey as a wonderful medicine, and I think It'll just join you in a little drink, if Webb
has one."

     Judge Carter was a huge man, and chewed tobacco. I'll never forget the picture of him, holding his big cud of tobacco in one hand as he downed two table glasses of that whiskey, without batting an eye--strickly for medicinal purposes!


    One day in the late Thirties I was driving from Tacoma to Norton with deputy Ray Wells and my brother Tom when we came up behind a horse-drawn wagon. A young man about twenty years old, dressed in his "Sunday" clothes , was standing up in the wagon, running the horse and whipping it with a long, stiff pole. The horse had already gone lame. It was dead tired, bathed in foamy perspiration, wobbling and ready to drop in its traces.
     I stayed behind the wagon long enough to see what was going on, then swung around in front of it and stopped. Charging back to the wagon, I grabbed the pole out of the boy's hand.
     "Now we'll see how you like it on the other end of this goddam thing, " I told him.
    Whap! I laid the pole down across his shoulders, breaking it in two. And I proceeded to wear him out with what was left of his whip, breaking it with just about every lick, until it was worn down to a length of less than a foot.
     Traffic coming both ways had stopped, and people in their cars sat goggle-eyed.
      The boy cowered, stupid-looking and bewildered, all the time I was lamming him.
      "Boy, you don't know why I whupped you, do you ?" I said.
      He shook his head.
      "Well, I didn't figure you would. But you take what's left of this whip with you, and let it be a reminder to you that if I ever hear of you beating this horse again, I'll come back and take up where I left off."
      When we were back in the car again, Ray Wells said, "Dave, that man will kill you some day."
      "If anybody kills me for defending a poor, dumb animal against that kind of cruelty," I replied, "I'll consider it an honorable way to die"'
     And I still feel that way.


     A report came to me that a lady named Maggie Wagner of Pound, Virginia (referred to locally as the Pound) was keeping an unlicensed dog. 
     Squire Hubbard, Pound's Justice of the Peace, warned me in issuing the warrant that Maggie was a wicked woman. He suggested that I take along some help in going to investigate the report, and that we use extreme caution in
dealing with her. Thus forewarned, I had Ray Wells with me when I called on the Wagner woman.

      Neither Ray nor I knew Maggie Wagner, other than by reputation. When we arrived at her house, we found a boy skinning a squirrel (which, incidentally, was out of season) in her front yard. I called the boy over to the gate to question him.
      At that very moment, the front door of the house swung open and a big, fine-looking woman stepped out with a big pistol in her hand. Cursing violently, she threw down on us and squeezed the trigger--but the gun, fortunately, was unloaded.
     Wells and I ran up the steps, grabbed the woman, and slapped handcuffs on her.
      At that point, a large, raw-boned man with black hair and a three-day stubble of beard came out of the house. He made no move to interfere with our arrest of
the woman, so we left him behind when we took her off to jail.

      A few minutes later, as she was being booked, Maggie admitted guilt concerning the squirrel and her attempted assault on Ray and me. But both she and the boy insisted that the unlicensed dog at their house belonged to the
man, whom they further identified as a bad man who had killed two people.

      I went back to the house, where I found the "bad" man sitting on the front porch with his head down and a pistol laying across his lap. He made no move as I approached, and when I picked up his gun I saw that he was crying.
      The man explained that he had "lost his nerve." He said that he had armed himself because people had told him the first thing Dave O'Neill would do was kill his dog.
      I assured the man that I'd killed a lot of dogs, but never one without good reason.
      The man bought a license for his dog--and paid a fine for being late--and the case was closed.


     Just outside Norton, on the road to Wise, is a community called Stoney Lonesome. I went there one day, looking for a boy suspected of violating the state fishing laws.
     The boy's father met me on the porch, and we became engaged in conversation. The boy came to the door, saw me standing there in my uniform, and turned pale. He left the door and went back inside.
      The father and I talked a few more minutes, and then he called to the boy to come on out. The boy did not reply. The father called several more times, but the
boy still didn't answer.

      Finally, the father stepped into the house to investigate.. The boy was there, sprawled out on the floor--dead. He had suffered a fatal heart attack.


      An officer of the law can sometimes walk into an explosive situation without realizing it. That's another way of saying that he can get his head blown off without half trying.
      I recall the time several seasons back when a rabid dog was running loose at Burton's Ford, near the town of St. Paul. The dog was known to have bitten several other dogs in the neighborhood before it was killed by a local farmer--and those dogs, of course, had to be destroyed right away to prevent rabies from spreading.
      One of the dogs was owned by a mentally retarded nine-year-old boy whose family lived in a little farm house below the road, at the foot of a steep embankment.
       I was halfway down the embankment when the boy's mother cried out a warning.
      "Look out, Mr. O'Neill!  He'll shoot you!" she yelled, and I dove for cover.
      The boy was holed up in the barn with his dog and a shotgun. He had been told that I was coming to kill his dog, and he had decided to shoot me first.
     From my cover behind an old outbuilding, I began a long-range conversation with the boy. He wouldn't listen to his mother, but he listened to me. I explained
to him what rabies was, and why I had to take his dog. After a few minutes he walked out of the barn, crying a little bit, but without the shotgun. He turned the

dog over to me.

      I made that little boy a promise, and I kept it. On my next trip to Burton's Ford, I brought him a new puppy.

      Shortly after a big coal operator named Gibson moved to Norton, I received a tip that he and two men who worked for him were killing deer at night and bringing them out of the mountain in Gibson's car.
      That suited me just fine. Though I had never met Mr. Gibson personally, I knew a little something about him. And what I knew, I didn't like. John O'Neill had once been marked for death as a result of his union organizing activities in a Harlan County (Kentucky) coal camp where Gibson swung a lot of power. Fortunately, John got out of Kentucky with his family a few hours ahead of the "goon squad." But I didn't consider the matter closed--especially after Gibson moved to Norton and started poaching on the deer that I had worked so hard to bring back to that country.
      After several weeks of careful investigation and surveillance, I caught Mr. Gibson and his two companions with the goods. Sure that they had an illegally-killed deer in the trunk of Gibson's car as they came down off the High Knob, I pulled out behind them and sounded my siren. He led me on a high-speed chase down the mountain and when he finally did pull over, it was at a lonely spot on the road.
      Knowing I was dealing with bad actors, I was ready for anything as I approached them. All three sat in their car, not moving or speaking.
      Gibson was a huge, bull-necked man, weighing maybe 260 pounds. He sat behind the wheel, giving me the fisheye.
       "Gentlemen, I'd like to search the trunk of your car, if you don't mind," I said.
      With that, Gibson made a quick move with his right hand. But he hadn't moved the hand six inches before I rammed the muzzle of my .357 Magnum into his neck, just below his left ear.
      "Hold it right there!" I said. "One false move and I'll kill you."
      All the color drained from the big man's face, and his Adam's apple bobbed up and down.
      He made another slight motion, or maybe it was just a nervous quiver, with his hand--as, in that very split-second, I shoved the gun barrel deeper into his neck.
      "Don't move, I tell you!"  I shouted, right in his ear. "Don't move move a muscle, or I'll blow your goddam head off!" 
       He didn't move.
       "I---I was just reaching for the keys," he said.
        Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn't. It developed later that he did have a pistol in his coat pocket. He might have been going for it, before I changed his mind.
      The evidence was there, all right--a freshly-killed deer in the trunk of his car. I was able to get a conviction, with the maximum sentence, for the two hired

      But I couldn't get a warrant for Gibson, who was guilty as hell but insisted that he wasn't aware that the other two men had put a deer in his car. Judge Taylor, even with all the evidence laid out before him, backed away.
      Now , let's see you figure that one out.


      Sometimes game law enforcement is dull work, and sometimes it's exciting. Sometimes it's pleasant, and sometimes it's pretty grim.
      I was checking dog licenses in the Stonega coal camp in 1933. The Depression was really on. The mines were shut down, and just about everybody at Stonega was unemployed. Dog licenses were something that most people just couldn't afford.
       At one house in the Negro section of the camp, an unlicensed dog lay in the front yard. I climbed the steps to the high front porch and knocked on the door. A giant of a man, well over six feet and black as coal, swung the door open and looked down at me.
      "Mistuh," he said, "you ain't goin' kill my dog." He was standing full in the doorway, his shoulders almost touching the facing on either side, his right hand rest ing on a gun rack overhead. 
      Poking a cigarette into my mouth and offering him one, I said, "Partner, what on earth makes you think I came here to shoot your dog?"
        I pretended not to notice that the big black hand was now fondling the handle of a pistol in the gun rack. Under the pretense of fumbling for a match, I got my hand on my own pistol and before the big black man realized what had happened, I was aiming it at his bellybutton.
      Placing the man under arrest, I escorted him to the court of Judge Banks at Appalachia. The judge fined him $75 for attempted assault on an officer, $5 plus cost for the unlicensed dog, and gave him thirty days in jail, suspended.
       Just when I had begun to feel sorry for the old boy, he pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket so big that when he peeled off four twenties, it didn't even make a dent in it. I have no idea what he had done to get that kind of money in those days, but whatever it was, you can bet it wasn't honest!


      Most everyone, probably, is by now familiar with the tragic story of the American passenger pigeon--of how this species was once almost as numerous as the sparrow; and of how it was slaughtered into extinction. President Woodrow Wilson wrote that as a youth in the Ohio Valley, he once observed a migratory flight of passenger pigeons 250 miles wide, flying at sixty miles per hour, that took twelve hours to pass. Yet within forty years from that time, they were extinct.
       The "passengers" were not wiped out by famine or by disease or by four-footed predator. They were killed out, by people. My maternal grandmother, Clara Beverley Nickels, as a young girl witnessed and took part in the slaughter. I have heard her describe how everyone in her community (Tom's Creek, in Wise County) used to go out to where the pigeons were roosting in laurel groves, and club them down until their bodies covered the ground. They carried them away by the sackful--to eat, of course. The pigeons were slaughtered in similar fashion wherever they went, until eventually they just disappeared from the earth.


      Here is a similar story--but with a happier ending. It's the story of "The Slaughter of the Robins."
      At a place called Big Laurel, in Wise County, there was an old house that belonged to the local postmaster, James Taylor Adams, the author of a book called The History of Wise County. One spring day in the early Thirties, the Taylor place became the scene of the "slaughter."
       An unexpected turn in the weather and a huge, late snow interrupted the migratory flight of millions of northbound robins. "Grounded" by the elements, they chose the several acres of wild rhododendrons surrounding the Taylor
place in Big Laurel as their roosting place.

      It didn't take long for the word to get around. Soon thousands of Depression-bitten people, some of them interested only in "killing for sport"' but many of them actually starving, converged on Big Laurel from miles around to join in the slaughter. They killed the robins around the clock, with all manner of weapons, in a scene of carnage that must have been reminiscent of the passenger pigeon disaster.
       James Taylor Adams, on whose property (and over whose protests) much of the killing took place, wrote a letter to the Bristol Herald-Courier describing the scene and expressing his indignation. The Associated Press picked up the story, and "The Slaughter of the Robins" became a celebrated issue overnight.
       Almost immediately, I received a call from Richmond. The head of the Game Commission suggested that I go immediately to Big Laurel, bring the slaughter to a halt, and press charges against everyone involved.
      In the course of my investigation I interviewed, family by family, every resident in the area. I got them to "telling on" each other, and wound up issuing seventy-four summonses.
       My favorite judge, old "Tommy" Hamilton, really laid it on the violators--men, women, and children. He said, in language they could understand, "Now, you 'uns knowed you was  breakin' the law when you killed them robins..."
     All seventy-four were convicted. Men were fined $20, women $10, and children $2.50--much to the satisfaction of bird-watchers and conservationists the world over.
       Few, if any, of the fines were ever paid--simply because those people didn't have any money. "Uncle Tommy" knew they couldn't pay, and didn't expect them to. He just wanted to teach them--and poachers everywhere who might read the story--a good lesson!


      Deputy Sheriff Howard Johnson and I were looking for fish poachers on Powell's River early one evening when a call came over the radio that the post office at Pardee had been robbed. We were only a short distance from Kent Junction, where the only road out of Pardee joins U.S. Highway 23. We quickly threw up a roadblock there, and within minutes a late model Ford came roaring
down the road.

      The driver was a young, redheaded fellow. Seeing our roadblock, he veered out of the road, swung his car around, and headed for Norton. We gave chase, but the suspect had a good half-mile lead on us.
       Rounding a sharp curve a mile or two up the road, we saw the Ford parked alongside the road. Howard and I got out on foot and approached the car cautiously, knowing the fellow had probably run into the woods--but not
knowing how far. We knew he was armed and dangerous; people who rob post offices usually are. A shot rang out. Yes, he was there. And dangerous!

      We decided against going into the woods looking for the suspect before more help arrived. But by the time the reinforcements got there, darkness had set in. No search was made until the following morning, and by then the quarry had slipped away.
      Two or three days later, the suspect's sister talked him into giving himself up. He was an escapee from reform school, and a desperate young man. (He would have to be quite desperate, as well as quite stupid, to stage an armed robbery in a dead-end place like Pardee. There was only one road out, and in the age of radio-telephone communications, escape by automobile from such a place is well nigh impossible. Anyway, by bringing her brother in, the girl probably saved his life--and perhaps the lives of several other people, as well.)


     Information came to me one spring afternoon in the Forties that someone was fishing in the Norton Reservoir, the town's source of drinking water. With my assistant, Ray Wells, and town policeman Bill Willis, I hurried up the mountain to investigate.
     Approaching the reservoir on foot, we could make out the outline of five human forms in the twilight. But before we could close on them, one of th suspects opened fire.
     Fortunately, nobody was injured. I opened up with my big .357 Magnum, providing cover for Billa nd Ray as they began a flanking movement.
     Within minutes, three of our "desperadoes" surrendered. They turned out to be a fellow named Kohnny Wyreman and his two young sons. Just little fellows! From them, we learned the indentity of their two accomplices: Hubert Hensley and Leonard Starnes.
      It was poring down rain as we walked the mile back to our car. After dropping off Wyreman and his sons at their home, we hurried to a justice of the peace to get warrants for the other two men.
      We found Hubert Hensley at his home, still dressed in his rain-soaked long handle underwear. He said he hadn't been out of the house. As to the condition of his hair and long handles, he said he'd been "sweating."
      This story, too, has a moral: Don't shoot unless you're looking 'em right in the eye! If I'd shot one of those little Wyreman boys, I'd never, ever have forgiven myself.


      Prowling around the Big Cherry country one night, I happened upon the campfire of a big party of 'coon hunters who were whooping and hollering and having a big time. From their voices, before I ever reached their camp, I recognized then as a bunch of fellows I knew. Old Andrew Starnes, the moonshiner, was with them, and I knew from the way they were carrying on theyt they'd all had a drink or two of Drew's liquor.
     I walked right into the camp unnoticed, and the first thing that caught my eye was the hide of a squirrel that had just been skinned. Squirrels, of course, were out of season.
     After everybody had greeted me, I walked over to the pot in which the squirrel was being cooked. A silence fell over the group. I leaned over and  sniffed the meat, and then I looked right at old Drew, the cook.
     "What's this you're cooking?" I demanded.
      Drew glanced around at the others, then took it upon himself to answer for all of them.
      "It's a goddam house cat," he said. "A man's got to eat somethin!"

      One of my duties as State Conservation Officer in the early Fifties was to protect farmers against sheep-killing bears--not too unpleasant a job for an old bear hunter like me. It was like "punishing" ol' Brer Rabbit by throwing him into the briar patch, if you know what I mean.
      In the summer of 1951, I received an urgent call concerning a number of sheep kills in Smyth County, near Marion, Virginia. I loaded up four good dogs and two good buddies--"Hoss" Gillenwater and Andrew Starnes, both of them real hunters and experienced moonshiners--and set out for the Clinch Mountain farm of Crock Gwynn, where the bear had been helping himself to the farmer's sheep.
       Finding the spot where the bear had been crossing the fence into Gwynn's pasture, I went to a nearby log and loaded it up with honey, even pouring honey all over the ground around the log. Then I took Ross and Andrew off to Claytor Lake to fish for a couple of days, giving the bear time to find our bait.
      On the fourth day, we found evidence that the bear had discovered our bait--mauling the heavy log, and tearing up a patch of earth around it. Carefully, leaving as little human scent as possible, I loaded up the log with honey a second time. Then I set two bear traps nearby. A bear trap weighs about forty pounds and has fourteen-inch jaws, with sharp "'teeth." When it takes hold
of you, it won't let go. To each of my traps, I attached an eight-foot chain with a toggle on the other end--so that the bear could run a bit, giving my dogs (and their old master) the thrill of a chase through the mountain.

      A bear, mind you, is a very trap-wise animal. He may look a bit clumsy and not altogether smart, but he'll step over or around even the best-concealed trap just about every time--and steal your bait.
      Day after day, the big fellow eluded our traps. But finally, on the thirteenth morning, we found that he had stepped in one, then lugged it off into the tall
timber. The chase was on.

      We turned the dogs loose at the spot where the bait had been laid out, so there could be no mistaking what their quarry was. (Ranger and Blue, the two experienced dogs, would have known anyway; but Speedy and Queen, bless
their poor bones, were not so well experienced on bear--though both were already good coon dogs.)

      The trail was a hot one. The bear crossed ridge after ridge, with the dogs in pursuit. Finally, the toggle hung under a big root, too big for the bear to break,
and he was anchored there. He had to make his fight.

      When I arrived on the scene with Hoss and Andrew, the four dogs were "talking" to the bear at close range, staying just out of his reach. When a real, no-nonsense hunting dog is in that state of excitement, he goes in for the kill the instant he senses blood. For that reason, it is extremely important that the first shot be a good one. A wounded bear can kill a dozen powerful dogs in less time than it takes to tell about it, if they're going in where he can reach them. And they'll damn sure go in on him, if he's bleeding. I fired at the bear with my .22 Colt Woodsman, the bullet striking him slightly off-target but breaking his jaw on both sides. Before I could fire again, all four dogs swarmed into the bear and there ensued, for the next few minutes, the damnedest fight you ever saw.
       It was there that I learned first-hand how a bear goes about killing a dog. He picks him up with his front paws, much like a man would, and bites him almost in two. Then he throws him off to the side and picks up another dog. Had not that particular bear been fighting with a shattered jaw, he might have killed all four of my dogs. As it was, they all came out of the fight with nothing more than a lot of scratches and bruises--the two young ones far better dogs than they had been a few hours earlier.
      The fight ended when I stepped to within five or six feet of the bear and fired the finishing shot. 
       Sure enough, we discovered when the bear was dressed out that he had in his stomach the remains of a black sheep--one of Crock Gwynn's prize bucks.
As I mentioned earlier, that particular hunt took place in midsummer. I lost eighteen pounds before it was over--a good deal of it blood, to those damned Smyth County mosquitoes. In the story, I have named four of the best dogs I ever saw, and two of the best hunting companions that ever any man went into the woods with.

      They are all at rest now, in that land the Indians called the Happy Hunting Ground. God rest their souls.

Warden O'Neill displays bear trap, 1945


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