The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The White Horse Ghosts

By Grace Cash © 1990

Issue: June, 1990

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

It was spring, and time to go to the county seat. Grandma's family needed new summer clothes to wear to Union Church, up the road from the unpainted farmhouse. She would buy whole bolts of percale and lawn for dresses and blouses, and sheeting to make sheets and pillowcases and long drawers for Grandpa and the boys and shifts for herself and the girls. The blouses would be lace trimmed to wear with long black skirts on Sunday, and special occasions. Also on this day Grandpa would trade for fertilizer and seed for the garden and fields to replenish the seed supply he had saved from last year's harvest.

They left before sunup, driving from the barnyard into the dirt road which would connect with an unpaved highway later on. Lizzie and the younger children stood on the porch to wave at them. Grandma was satisfied that Lizzie, her eldest daughter, would take as good care of the house and children as she did. They left in high spirits, the mules clop-clopping steadily along, marking off the fifteen mile journey. When they got to town Grandpa drove on to the hitching ground, and secured the mules to a post. He went with her to the square, and stopped at the department store, where they sold cloth and shoes and cotton stockings and men's socks - everything for the family. Grandpa left her there, to go his own way, to see to his purchases. She was a careful buyer, stretching each dollar to its utmost, and she managed to save a handful of Buffalo nickels and coppers. She went to the toy counter and bought gifts for the younger children and white ribbon-bows for her older daughters to wear in their hair.

Grandpa got his trading done ahead of Grandma, and he went to the long rows of stores where he found her, finished with trading. They went to a sidewalk cafe for a bowl of soup and black coffee - five cents a cup and fifteen cents a bowl - and the favorite of farmers when they came to town. Even if darkness fell on their return journey, Grandpa wasn't afraid of the dark - nor much of anything else. That's the way Grandma figured it then, having no warning of what lay ahead of her. They wouldn't be back in town to trade, not till fall, and they dawdled around, walking up and down the street, admiring the way town folks dressed and looked, but feeling themselves a bit superior, remembering the richness of their red-land farm, thriving with cattle and flocks of chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and guineas.

After a while they started home. The sun had set, but Grandpa took his time getting out of town, and back on the road. After they drove ten miles, there at the junction of the main highway and Union Road, Grandpa got sick. Grandma told him to stop the mules, and she helped him get over the riding seat into the floorboard of the wagon. She spread a quilt for him to lay down, and covered him with a red woolen blanket, woven with her own hands. She had spun the yarn at her spinning wheel, from wool sheared from sheep on the farm. She bathed Grandpa's face in cold water and from her store of home remedies, she made him as comfortable as possible.

Then she took her place on the riding seat. She was a barnyard farmer, and she managed well her house and children, but she kept her distance from mules and horses. Now this dreadful task loomed over her. She was afraid she couldn't keep the wagon in the narrow road. It was a dark night, she could hardly see the coach whip held tightly in her hand, and she was worried about Grandpa. There was no moon and no stars to guide Grandma, no warning light of a curve here, a hill there, a bridge down past the Clinchem District Courthouse where Grandpa voted on election days - but not Grandma. Farm women in those days would have been scorned if they had even hinted the United States government wasn't acting right, not allowing women to vote. She was a house tender, a barnyard-mistress of flocks and overseer of the farmhouse, kept scrubbed with lye soap bubbling in big buckets of scalding water; walls and floors, but she wasn't a wagon driver.

On the little Union Road she passed a scattering of farmhouses, and she knew the people who lived in them, having seen them at Union Baptist Church. They would help her, but they had blown out their oil lamps, and gone to bed. The darkness was bearing down heavy, and the only sound that rose above the ghostly silence was that of a hoot owl, hidden inside the roadside brambles. The owl called mournfully, "Who-o? Who-o?" and belly-crawling creatures slithered through the winter-rotted leaves along the bumpy country road, flanked on both sides with thick-branched oak, pine, popular, sweetgum and spruce.

She drove on, trying to keep the wagon wheels in the deep groves cut by wagons and buggies during the past winter. Then quickly, like a sliver of lightning, two white horses stepped out unbridled from the roadside thicket, and stationed themselves directly in front of the mules. Now it appeared that Grandma was driving a team of four. She was afraid the white horses would frighten the mules, and cause them to run away, and she lashed them with her long riding whip. The strong, narrow leather cut through them like a knife blade, and came out on the other side. They kept straight ahead, never flinching, not losing a step. Again she lashed their rumps and sides with the coach whip, which knifed its way through their bodies as before. The black mules followed their leaders in precise form, heads down, tails shaking, perfectly satisfied.

There seemed nothing else for Grandma to do to save herself and her sick patient but to keep using the whip. She would have lashed at the white horses again... and again... but the black mules brayed. Believing now they were on the verge of running away, she loosened the rains, and let the white horses lead the mules where ever they would. Hope of seeing Lizzie and the children again no longer strengthened her, and she felt too weak to battle with the strange white horses.

After what seemed an eternity, the white horses led the mules into the driveway at the farmhouse where Lizzie had kept the oil lamp lighted on the pot-bellied dresser. Grandma jumped from the riding seat, intending to pet the white horses, to rub their manes and snuggle up to them, nose-to-nose, as she had seen Grandpa do, to show how much she loved them for bringing her and Grandpa home safely. But the white horses disappeared with the swiftness of lightning into the thicket below the barn lot, leading to the creek and she never saw them again.

Author's Note.. Even today - after more than a hundred years - Grandma's family talk in low, whispered voices about the white-horse ghosts. But there are those in our household who believe the white horses were angels in disguise, sent to help Grandma drive the black mules home that dark night.