Life and times of Clifton Branham, part 4

Jadon Gibson

“My Nan belonged to the church,” Clifton Branham wrote in his memoirs the weeks leading up to his hanging in Wise County, Va., in September 1903. “If I had been as good a man as she was a woman, I would have stayed out of trouble and been a lot better off.

“I took up making moonshine along with two other men. One of them is dead now and the other lives on the south side of Cumberland Mountain. We did good for a while but the revenue officers starting getting after us. They became so pesky we decided to move to the head of the Kentucky River. They would have to go to a lotta trouble to find us there.”

The moonshiners new location was in a remote area but after some delays they were able to make as much of the illegal liquor as they were before.

“Our still was near Mark Venter’s place and we often went to his house where we danced. We’d play the guitar, fiddle and banjer,” Clifton recalled. “We thought we were having the time of our lives.”

Bad times were lurking around the corner for Clifton however.

“Our lives were full of excitement,” he continued. “Clell Adams married a step-daughter of Mr. Venters but then Clell was killed by a friend of mine by the name of Rant Smallwood. I had known Rant when I went to school. He told me he got a hundred dollars and a .38 Smith and Wesson pistol for killing Clell Adams. We still got along alright until he wanted to kill Franciscie who was another friend of mine.

“I knew that Rant was wrong in getting involved in these killings. Another friend told me he thought Rant was getting dangerous. He didn’t have to tell me that as I knew it myself. This other friend told me it would be a good thing if someone got rid of Rant.”

Clifton was young and easily led to do the bidding of others.

“I decided to kill him myself,” he admitted in his writings. “I went to Mark Venter’s house to get a gun. A woman asked me what I was doing with the gun and after I told her she took the gun away from me.

“I took my Spencer rifle and .44 caliber cap and ball Remington instead and went looking for Rant.I left the still and took to the woods to Blaze Branch where I stayed the night with Wes Sowards. The next morning I took the brush again, going to the mouth of Dorton where I found Rant working on a church house.”

Clifton waited for a good opportunity to ambush Rant.

“Finally there was a Fleming boy who came to me,” he wrote. “He said he had been hiding from the law. I told him to have Rant come to me but when he told him, Rant said no and said for me to come to him. I went with him and ended up spending the night. I went squirrel hunting twice with Rant the next day and looked for a good opportunity to waylay him. He was suspicious of me and I never got a good chance.

They slept in the same bed and Rant told him that he dreamed of a large snake that had gotten on him and he had to fight to get it off.

“I knew I was that snake,” Clifton penned.

Later that day they decided to go and see Wes Sowards’ daughters. Before leaving Clifton cleaned and oiled his gun with Rant watching him the whole time.

“On the way to see the girls I would lag behind,” he wrote. “But Rant would say, ‘walk up here beside me Clifton because I believe you want to shoot me.’ I answered that he was a fool to think that, but he was right about me. I did aim to shoot him.”

After supper the Sowards went to bed leaving the two of us in the kitchen, talking with their two girls. At about 8 or 9 o’clock I started to leave and walked around the house. I saw a small hole cut through the house and I could see Rant sitting in a chair, leaning back against the wall. I put the muzzle of my gun through the hole and pulled the trigger.

Clifton heard a commotion inside and peered through the hole. Rant Smallwood had stood up but he was staggering about, bleeding, stumbling. He fell against the wall before falling to the kitchen floor.

“Clifton Branham has kilt me,” Rant stammered. “I knew he was up to it. He’s done and kilt me.”

Clifton knew he had best be on the move. It wouldn’t be well for him to stay put. Copyright 2018 Jadon Gibson

Editor’s note: Clifton Branham goes into hiding but is soon in trouble again in Jadon Gibson’s next issue From the Mountains. His stories are both historical and nostalgic in nature and and can be read regularly at Don’t miss a single posting. He is a freelance writer from Harrogate, Tenn.

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