The shots rang out like automatic weapons fire on a battleground the bullets streaming through the dusk over the mountains here where miners and coal company security guards have substituted bunkers and bullets for the bargaining table.
Miners at the rear of the picket line crouched down behind pickup trucks for cover and a hot poker game at the edge of the woods broke up as both sides traded fire.
"Damn it," said a miner's voice, "we're cut off from our beer over there." No one took up the dare to crawl through the bullet-riddled darkness to get the beer.
At the mine site, 42-year-old security guard Stanley Moore ran from the mine office toward a bunker made of railroad ties and three-eights-inch sheet metal. According to other guards, he was struck in the right side of his chest by a high caliber bullet.
An hour and a half later an ambulance escorted by four state police cars rushed past the picket line to pick up the fifth victim of gunfire - four of them guards - since the shooting began in March.
"It was Stanley," said a miner after the shooting stopped. "He got it in the chest." Another miner added to mumurs of approval, "I hope it was dounle-aught buckshot and that it left a hole in his back as big as a bucket."
Moore was treated at a local hospital and released. A Kentucky State Police spokesman said late today that the investigation into Moore's shooting was continuing, but that no arrest had been made.
Two weeks earlier to the night, miner Ray Hamlin, 30, had been shot in the leg. Miners claimed the guards had slipped up to their picket line shack - a makeshift tarpaper building whose oak boards have been ripped by rifle fire - and opened fire on Hamlin State police have charged a guard with first-degree assault.
Neither side has a particularly compelling explanation why exactly they are shooting at each other, or what specific incident kicked off the almost nightly exchanges that have gone on for almost five months.
But the root cause clearly is the frustrations caused by the year-long struggle by the United Mine Workers to organize the Justus Mine owned by the Blue Diamond Coal Co. of Knoxville.
By a vote of 126 to 57 in March of 1976 the Justus Miners voted to join the UMW, thus bringing to a head issues that had been very important in the 1972 rank-and-file takeover of the union.
When the reformers headed by Arnold Miller took office, they vowed to reorganize the vast coal fields of eastern Kentucky which Miller claimed had been "deserted" by a corrupt union that signed "sweetheart" contracts with the operators and dumped the miners from union membership and benefits.
While the reformed union has organized a fraction of the eastern Kentucky miners, it's share of representation of the nation's coal producers has slipped from 72 per cent of total production in 1972 to 54 per cent today.
Coal miners and their families ralied in sizzlingheat today to hear union leaders pledge support and promise victory.
The temperature was in the 100-degree range asn an estimated 500 person - miners, families and union officials and sympathizers -gathered undera wooden shelter at a 4-H campground near here.The Crowd included person who according to a union official had traveled from Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois and Virginia.
In a day of activities geared to belstering morale and support of the miners and their families the union presented a $5,000 check to the miners. There was food brought by the families and bluegrass music Morale and enthusiasm appeared high.
Bargaining talks broke down in january, the union claims, when Blue Diamond refused to accept the terms of the union's national contract that provides for an elected safety committee that has a right to close the mine when miners deem it unsafe. Company officials refused comment on the specifics of the contract disagreement.
Miners say that safety conditions which they claim were never good deteriorated after Robert Gable, a prominent Kentucky Republican politician sold the family firm of Stearns Mining to Blue Diamond for a reported $9 million last year.
"That's horse manure," says Gable. "UMW picks onthe safety thing saying dirty old Blue Diamond, who killed 26 men at Scotia [a 1976 mine disaster], is doing the same thing at Justus. This is not an unsafe mine. I've been in it myself."
Gable said Blue Diamond "can't say this because of labor law complexities," but the reason talks broke down is that the union's demand for increased wages, a pension, and new safety standards would force the rpice of the coal far above the current market value for power-plant fuel.
However Federal Power Commission reports for 1976 show that much of the mine's one-half million tons a year production is being sold to the Georgia Power Co. for $28 a ton, which is a $6-a-ton profit considered good by most coal companies for longterm contracts.
Both sides say they see little prospect that talks will reopen soon. The company has threatened to hire a new workforce if the men do not return to work.
"There'd be bloodbath if they did that," says former McCreary County sheriff Joe Perry, who recently was appointed judge of the county. "The miners would let hell freeze over and skate on it before they would allow the company to open the mine with new men."
The shotgun-toting guards deny miners' claims that they have a machine gun mounted in a 60-foot-high elevator tower, although listeners point out that one side or the other is managing to put rounds into the air in a rapid, rhythmic fashion.
But there is no doubt they are dug in. "Look man," say a 26 year old guard who would only say his name was Lawson. "I've got a seventh-grade education. Where else could I earn $300 a week?"
"It's just like Vietnam," said the former truck driver, who admits to having been a Teamster, as he picked a chunk of lead - a pumpkin ball fired from a 12-gauge shotgun -from the wood over his head. "They hit and run, but we're here to stay."