That winter, Brandon made contact by telephone with John Dingess, a Connecticut resident who proved to be one of our best sources on the 1889 feud. John was born on the Smokehouse Fork of Harts Creek in 1918. A grandson to Henderson Dingess, he moved away from West Virginia after serving his country in World War II.
John said Henderson Dingess met his wife Sallie while boarding with her father Joseph Adams on Harts Creek. Henderson didn’t care much for his in-laws (he said they were “hoggish”), particularly his brother-in-law Ben Adams. Ben lived over the mountain from Henderson on main Harts Creek where he operated a small store. He and Henderson feuded “for years.” At some point, Henderson’s oldest son Charlie Dingess got into a racket with Ben over a yoke of cattle and “almost killed him in a fight” at Cole Branch.
The feud between Henderson’s family and Ben Adams reached a new level of tension when Ben refused to pay the sixteen-cents-per-log fee required by Al Brumfield to pass logs through his boom at the mouth of Harts Creek. Brumfield “was more of a businessman” than a feudist but “got into it” with Adams at his saloon near the boom. In the scrape, Ben pulled out his pistol and shot Al, who was spared from harm only because of a button on his clothes. Al subsequently fetched a gun and chased Ben up the creek — a very humiliating thing as there was probably a whole gang of people to witness his flight.
Ben soon gathered up a party of men with plans to force his timber out of Harts Creek under the cover of darkness. Before he could put his plan into action, though, the Dingesses caught wind of it and warned the Brumfields who promptly armed themselves with .38 Winchesters and .44 Winchesters and gathered in ambush on the hill at Panther Branch near the mouth of Harts.
Ben, anticipating trouble, put his wife, the former Victoria Dingess, at the front of his gang in the hopes that it might discourage her cousins from shooting at him as they came down the creek. It was a bad idea: the Brumfields and Dingesses shot “her dress full of holes.”
This was particularly horrible since she was probably pregnant at the time.
The next day, she came to her uncle Henderson’s to show him what his boys had done to her dress but he never punished them.
At that point, Ben was probably hell-bent on revenge and arranged for Milt Haley and Green McCoy, who John called two “professional gunmen,” to “bump Al off.”
John was sure of Ben’s role in the events of 1889.
“Ben Adams, my father’s uncle, he gave them a .38 Winchester apiece and a side of bacon to kill Al Brumfield,” he said.
Milt and Green caught Al one Sunday as he made his way back down Harts Creek after visiting with Henderson Dingess. He rode alone, while Hollena rode with her younger brother, Dave Dingess. As they neared Thompson Branch, Milt and Green fired down the hill at them from their position at the “Hot Rock.” Al was shot in the elbow, which knocked him from his horse and broke his arm, while Hollena was shot in the face. Al somehow managed to make it over a mountain back to Henderson Dingess’, while Hollena was left to crawl half a mile down to Chapman Dingess’ at Thompson Branch for help.
Upon learning of the ambush, Harvey Dingess (John’s father) hitched up a sled to one of his father’s yokes of cattle and fetched Hollena, who remained at Henderson’s until she recovered.
Immediately after the shootings, there was a lot of gossip about who’d been behind the whole affair. John said there was some talk that Long John Adams had been involved “but the Dingess and Brumfield people never believed it.” Everyone seemed to focus in on Milt and Green, who’d recently disappeared into Kentucky (where McCoy was from).
“They used to, if you committed a crime in West Virginia, would run away to Kentucky,” John said. “In the hill part of Kentucky there on the Tug River.”
Brumfield put up a $500 reward and it wasn’t long until a man rode up to Henderson Dingess’ claiming to have caught Milt and Green in Kentucky. He was sent to Brumfield’s home near the mouth of Harts where he found Al out back shoeing an ox steed. They talked for a while, then Brumfield told him, “You put them across the Tug River and when I identify them you’ll get your money.”