The Great Jackson Shootout
The Shootout in “Bloody Breathitt” County Kentucky
By Doc Rivera:
I was on L.D Wheeler’s Shows, playing the mountainous coal-mining country along the Big Sandy River in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia back in the 1970‘s.
Trying to scrape out a buck in towns like Hazard, Pineville and Matewan was no easy feat. Matewan was where the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s had perpetuated their infamous deadly feud for decades and the offspring of those families still lived there together observing an uneasy truce.
These were not “cream cheese” marks, these were tough, hard and suspicious hill people who viewed “outsiders“ with a jaundiced eye.
One of the most infamous towns in this part of eastern Kentucky was a forgotten little hamlet named Jackson.
Located in what was known as “Bloody Breathitt County“, the town and the people who lived in the surrounding area there had such a rancid reputation that their high school sports teams had to play all ‘away’ games because, in the past, if the Jackson team lost in a home game, the opposing teams buses had been burned and their players physically attacked.
Because of this black reputation, no carnival had played the town in years.
Although there were not many towns in that part of the country that hadn’t seen a show for years, we all knew that there was a good reason to stay away from this one. The trouble was, that of all the racket shows in the country, L.D. Wheeler was considered one of, if not the most, hardcore grift carnivals to ever hit the road. It was widely rumored that everyone on the show was some kind of desperado and even the women carried guns or knives and were proficient in their use. For the most part, the colorful stories about the show bordered on truth and many of the best ones have never been told. Of course, after a while, a shows reputation precedes it, especially in tight-knit, clannish areas of the country like Eastern Kentucky.
This makes it hard to book the show on any kind of dependable and profitable route and it got to the point where the only spots the show could set down in were spots that cost an arm and a leg in “fix dough” to the local law enforcement or ones that everybody in town stayed away from in droves. So when L.D came back to the lot one hot, dusty afternoon with a contract for the show to play Jackson in his hand, we all looked on it with a mixture of dread and optimism. We figured if we could get three or four days in without getting kicked over, or killed we might all get a real payday, which by now we all desperately needed.
The rules for the joints when it came to playing a mark were, as always, “hang em and gut em” which meant the fix was in, do whatever you were capable of, short of picking someone up by the ankles and shaking him upside down until his worldly good fell out. If we had to mix it up with the locals to get out of town, well, it was something we all were familiar with after playing a season in the hills and hollers of the Appalachians. We all felt confident. This was a tough, battle-hardened show with some of the meanest thieves and cutthroats in the business and the thought of playing a “red one” made the challenge worthwhile.
We set the show up in a wide, flat gully bordered by tall grass and woods at the bottom of the only highway leading into town. The two-lane road had originally been carved out of the mountainside decades before during the WPA projects of the 1930’s and ran parallel to its face making the show clearly visible for a couple of miles on the approach. We opened on Monday to a nice crowd that increased gradually as the week progressed. By Thursday we had all counted a little money without any hint of a problem and even the weatherman had cooperated by predicting a nice weekend. It seemed that the negative stories about the place had been highly exaggerated. That evening the crowd thinned out early and by nine o’clock we were sitting on the counters speculating about how long L.D. would keep the show open. With a few bucks in our pockets, all the gamblers were in a hurry to get to the G-Top where we knew the cards would be dealt and the dice would be rolling on the crap table well into the night.
At about ten P.M. a group of about half a dozen ragtag guys showed up talking loudly and acting up. We knew right away who they were and why they were here Every small town had the same collection of drunken misfits that had bullied everyone around the county since elementary school. They usually just blew off a lot of hot air, gave the show fixer a headache and faded away, but occasionally we had shown a few who wouldn’t have it any other way, why we had earned the reputation we had. One of the local cops that we had hired for “security” came up and confirmed what we already knew. “They’s a bad bunch when they‘s drinking” he informed us. “Best to just leave em be.”
We had no intention of giving them any satisfaction that evening. We all wanted to get what promised to be a fat weekend in and get out of there without any undue attention. Nobody in the games called them in to play and half the agents behind the counters told them they were closed for the evening or gave them some other phony excuse. By the time they made it to the back pin store, they were aggravated at not being able to start a problem with anyone. They challenged me and asked, ”What do you have to do to win here?”
I told them I didn’t know, that I was just watching the stand for the guy who ran it because he had to go to the bathroom. I said I wasn’t sure when he would be back. They went around the other three sides of the joint until they got to Johnny the gypsy.
Johnny was a just a kid in his early twenties. He had just broken into the joint earlier that season and didn’t have the seasoning the rest of us had. The ringleader of the group said something derogatory about Johnny being a “nigger” because of his dark skin tone and had Johnny just laughed it off or taken it with a grain of salt, this is as far as the story would have been written. In the next few seconds, fists started flying and “HEY RUBE” was being echoed down the midway.
These were tough, hard boys, and just drunk enough not to feel the punches we were throwing. As this was an even match there was little doubt that we were going to get our asses handed to us in a very short order. But on a midway, there’s no such thing as an ‘even match’. I grabbed the 2×3 wooden wind brace that held back the awning and was always kept unpinned for just such emergencies and swung it at the head of the nearest hillbilly. To my amazement, he dropped to one knee but didn’t go out. Not good for the home team, I told myself. By then the rest of the show and three deputies had arrived, nightsticks in hand and the scuffling stopped.
Through the crowd that had now formed around us, came L.D. himself wearing his trademark black leather coat. I swore under my breath. I knew we would all catch hell later for letting things get this far out of hand and I vowed to have a heart to heart with Johnny for being so foolish as to rise to the town clowns bait.
L.D walked up to the ringleader who was now sporting a split lip and announced for all to hear. “What’s going on here?”
The ringleader gave him the stink eye and said: “And just who the fuck are you?”
L. D. straightened his six foot plus posture and said with all the authority he could muster leaned in and said:“ I’m L.D. Wheeler and I own this Goddamn show!”The hillbilly showed a slight smile through his cracked lip, took a half step back, and said in his slow, corn pone drawl “Well, you just look like a fucking punk to me!” and with a lightning-fast right hand that would have made the great Joe Lewis proud, clocked L.D on the chin, dropping the man like a sack of stones.
That did it. We started hammering on these guys and they, sensing the odds had now turned against them, ran for the road and their vehicle.“Well be back, you sons of bitches” they hollered at us as they peeled away in their battered pickup truck. We, of course, hurled as many filthy and degrading insults at them and their mothers and sisters as we could think of and soon peace returned to the midway once more. But by now the midway was empty. What few patrons had been around earlier had beat a hasty retreat when the trouble started.L.D. more humiliated than hurt from being knocked down in front of the whole show, closed the midway for the night.
That night we discussed the whole thing in the G Top, embellishing the particulars to Joe Harris’s whores the more we drank. It was easy to spot the participants, they all had cuts, bruises and marked up faces. Everyone agreed that even in a region of the country that was known for tough, hard as nails coal miners these were no ordinary, run of the mill, collard eating hillbillies. I remarked to someone that the last time I ran across guys as tough as this was the cowboys in Montana.“You best keep an eye on this place tonight” was the advice of the local deputy as he threw down another Jim Beam ..(on the house, naturally.)
Although we didn’t sleep much, listening apprehensively at every vehicle that slowed down even slightly while passing along the road overhead, the night stayed quiet as a church mouse.
The next evening the show opened at 6 p.m. to a good crowd. By eight o’clock All the clerks had their heads down with players, the girl show was showing its first bally of the night, green money was being slapped down on the counters at the gambling games and the rides were running full loads. Life was good.
There I was in the process of explaining to my ‘customer’ that the black numbers on the clothespin he had just rung were not winners when I spotted the commotion at the head of the midway out of the corner of my eye.
The group from last night was back and they had brought some friends as reinforcements. From the looks of things, about fifteen or more. I noticed that some of them had makeshift clubs and baseball bats. Others had their hands shoved deep in their pockets…never a good sign.
They had assembled at the front game trailer where L.D.’s Son, “Little Larry” worked.
I knew “Little Larry” was just a kid, in his early twenties, and he could be rash and quick tempered at times. This was going to get real bad real quick. I chilled the mark I was playing and headed for the show’s office, straight across the midway from me, to alert L.D to the unfolding situation. I got only halfway there when the first shot rang out. There has always been controversy to this day as to who fired it but it was only the beginning of the fusillade of gunfire that followed. Obviously, the entire event had been carefully orchestrated earlier in the day. They had waited until dark to make their play and the hillside above the lot winked with the muzzle flashes of random gunfire as shots poured into the crowded midway. Small puffs of dust rose on the hard packed midway as the rounds rained down from the local snipers who were shooting randomly at everything and seemed oblivious to their innocent neighbors below. Women screamed and clutched at their children, looking for anything that might offer shelter. Panicked people scrambled in all directions as they tried to figure out the source of the shooting and run for their cars or whatever cover they could find. It was more like Beirut Lebanon than Jackson Kentucky at that moment.
After what seemed an eternity, but was actually less than a couple of minutes, L’D’s voice came over the loudspeaker with instructions to anyone to shut down the generator and turn off the lights. Some brave soul did as instructed and the midway plunged into eerie darkness, increasing the level of fear among the already terrified customers.
There was no doubt among any of us that this was a fight for our lives. We were at a clear disadvantage being on the low ground, with little cover and possessing only handguns and a couple of rifles and shotguns and limited ammunition. We had no idea how many there were and how long we could hold out against them. Suddenly the area by the house trailers erupted in flame. Someone had lobbed Molotov Cocktails into our living quarters area in an attempt to burn them down. They had been too far away to hit their mark and the bottles of gasoline had broken about a hundred feet from the nearest trailer. We knew the next ones might be on the money. By now our eyes had adjusted to the darkness as we lay prone along the edge of the highway. The summer night was still and no breeze ruffled the trees or brush along the hillside and we could pick out the shapes and shadows moving in the gloom. All of us were thinking the same thing. Anyone trying to come across that strip of asphalt was going to be long dead before he got to the other side.
“You OK?” a voice asked next to me in the dark. I recognized the silhouette of Joe Harris’s big bulk lying next to me.
“Yeah”, I said. “I’m OK so far but I don’t like the odds of eating breakfast if this goes too much farther.
“No shit” he returned.
Before I could say more, I was almost deafened by the muzzle blast of the old .20 gauge shotgun he unloaded in the direction of the fire bomber.
I heard someone scream in pain in the direction of his shot and we ducked down as bullets started hitting the ground around us.
I knew from experience that if the hillbillies got across the road where the trailers were parked and flanked us, we were done. It was the one weak spot, behind the darkened joint lineup that nobody was covering. I made my way quietly to an opening between two joints and stepped through. About a hundred feet of weeds and grass separated the back of the joints from the trailers. A small footpath had been worn down by people going back and forth throughout the week and I started down it keeping low as I moved. I got about thirty feet when shots rang out from the center of the grass. A bullet whizzed by my head like an angry hornet and I emptied the .38 special I had at the muzzle flash knowing the odds of hitting anything in the pitch dark with a small caliber pistol with a 2-inch barrel were almost next to none.
Perhaps the guy had never been shot at before. It certainly had given the shooter a moment of hesitation that I took advantage of to reload from the few spare bullets I had hastily shoved in my pocket. I was still having hearing problems in my right ear from Joe’s damn shotgun and as I was trying to put the rounds into the cylinder in the darkness without dropping any or getting shot in the process, I failed to notice the cop coming up quietly behind me. I turned and was barely able to recognize one of the deputies that had been on the lot all week standing with some crazy looking automatic rifle in his hands. I thought to myself that I was truly fucked now. If the guy in the weeds didn’t shoot me, this guy was going to arrest me for any one of a dozen felonies and my chances of staying alive in the local jail after this would be slim to none.
“Do you have any .45’s” he asked looking at the rounds in my hand.
“N-n-no” I stammered, realizing then that he had been a target of the gunfire himself and considered himself on our side. About then, the shooter in the grass must have worked his courage back up and fired another couple of rounds in our direction.
“I got it” the cop whispered and without another word emptied a full magazine on automatic into the brush where the shooter was hiding.
I don’t know if he hit the guy or not. I didn’t feel like exposing myself to verify the shot, but there was no more activity from the grassy area from then on.
“I called the State Police awhile ago,” he told me. “But their barracks are way over on the interstate, about fifteen miles away. It’ll take them a while to gather everybody up for this. Traveling over these roads at night, I’d say if we can hold out for about another thirty minutes we should be ok. tell everybody, you’ll want to make sure you get rid of the guns when you see em coming” he warned.
“Good luck and be careful”. and with that, he disappeared into the darkness.
For the next few minutes, I took an occasional shot at shadows that I imagined were evil hillbillies creeping stealthily through the gloom of the darkness like some corn fed Ninjas. I doubt there was even anybody there. I had learned from many night watches in Viet Nam that surging adrenalin can make everything in the darkness seem alive.
The next thing I saw was what seemed both the eeriest and most welcome sight I’d ever seen. For a solid mile along the curving mountain highway was a procession of blue flashing lights that lit up the darkness and reflected off the rocks and pine trees along the road. They seemed to stretch into the mountain itself. I counted twenty of them and then lost count. At the first sign of those pulsating beacons, the gunfire from above the road stopped and it was like no one had ever stepped foot up there.
The no-nonsense State cops in their starched and tailored uniforms were less than happy to have been called out to quell what one of them glibly described as “the gunfight at the carny corral” At first they wanted to seize all the property as evidence and lock up the whole show. It took some reasoning with a colonel from the barracks in London by L.D, and the local Sherriff to convince them that the only way to ensure that this situation didn’t repeat itself, was to get us all the hell out of there.
They grudgingly agreed to stand guard around the lot for four hours and let us tear down. We had the whole thing down and on the trucks in less than three. Even the flat joint guys helped put the rides in the trucks.
They brought in the dogs to look for weapons but only found one rusty single shot .22 rifle that a ballistics test confirmed, hadn’t been shot in years. Never the less, without anything to show for their efforts at finding the guns they knew had been used in the shootout, they filed charges against its owner to get themselves off the hook and show they had made an arrest in the investigation. The charges were later dismissed but it took some time and expensive legal maneuvering to make them go away. Without any witness or tangible evidence, they had no reason to charge any individual and we all lined up our equipment and they escorted us all out of town for about fifteen miles.
As for the guns…well, there is a mountain creek that used to flow about a quarter mile down from the lot in a thick wooded area. Probably still does. I would imagine that anyone stumbling across a pile of unidentifiable rusty junk buried deep in that old creek bed wouldn’t have any reason to inspect it too closely.
I had heard that the local hospital had an unusual rash of hunting accidents that following week. It seems that a couple of local boys got shot while deer hunting…even though nobody could explain the fact that it wasn’t deer season and the gunshot wounds were from pistol ammunition. I was told that one of those boys even had to have plastic surgery on his face from a nasty shotgun wound.
Looking back on all of it, with all those people, untrained in the use of firearms and blazing away in the dark, we were damn lucky we didn’t shoot ourselves or each other. It was utterly amazing that there weren’t wholesale local fatalities of men, women and children on the midway. As it was, the only real victim on the show was the Ferris Wheelman who took a clean, through and through round through his cheek. It never so much as chipped a single tooth in his mouth. I never played anywhere close to there again and I left L.D’s show shortly thereafter. I told my wife that if I’d wanted to make a living with a damn gun, I’d have taken up bank robbing. The pay was better and the hours were shorter. Most of those who were a part of this are gone now. Few of them died of old age. Show’s like this went the way of the dinosaur. Progress killed them. Hell, this part of the business was a throwback from the past even then. Most people in carnival business today will tell you, with tongue in cheek, that they are glad to see it gone. But most of them never really experienced it to any great degree either.
Me . . . well, all I’ll say is that life was certainly much more colorful back then.