The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Helpful Ghost

By Ninevah J. Willis © 1985

Issue: January, 1985

The Laurel Fork section of Carroll County, Virginia was settled by an interesting type of people. A hardy stock of folk who brought with them a host of ghostly beings and superstitions inherited from their Scotch-Irish ancestors. To them these supernatural beings were as real, or more so, than their far-away neighbor on the next farm. This story was told to me by my grandfather, an intelligent, prosperous farmer, who (though, not professing belief) could not quite bring himself to disbelieve for, as he said, "It happened."

It was one of those dark, humid nights. It had been raining but tonight was one of those quiet-to-quiet nights with fog so thick that it seemed one could scarcely breathe. It was especially gloomy at the Dalton home for their youngest child lay dying - dying unless a certain herb could be found from which a tea could be brewed that would break the fever. There was no doctor available to this backwoods section, so they had to rely on a knowledge of herbs and potions in times of illness. They had used the last of the supply on hand and more must be had at once if the child were to live.

The herb grew in a nearby swamp. The father lit his old battered kerosene lantern and stepped out into a dripping, sodden atmosphere, the underbrush murmuring with the sounds of millions of insects aroused by the dampness and closeness of the night. The dense fog made a halo of light around the lantern but father Dalton soon discovered that the light was of no help for its feeble rays would not penetrate the thick fog. He extinguished the light hurriedly and set out by blind reckoning in the general direction of the swamp; not once thinking of how he would find the herb even if he did reach the swamp. So urgent was the need of his baby that anything was worth trying.

As he began to pick his way cautiously along the little footpath he realized that he was not alone. His mind raced back through the years to great-grandfather Dalton who had been killed in a fight at Quaker Ford, many years ago. The murderer was so enraged that he cut off his head and hastily buried him in the mud and slime at Quaker Ford. When a searching party came too near the spot he slipped back at night; took the body and carried it on his back to this very swamp, leaving the head behind.

Now, Father Dalton certainly didn't want anyone to interrupt his search for the precious herb so he quickened his pace. It was still there. He slowed down - so did the presence. He could now feel it breathing down his shirt collar. He strained his eyes in the darkness but could see nothing. Presently a light began to glow. As it waxed brighter it began to take the form of the headless grandfather.

Beads of perspiration stood out on the father's brow as the apparition began to beckon to him. He wiped his blurred eyes and glanced again - it was still there, beckoning as if it expected to be obeyed. Father's feet became very light and little prickles played tag up and down his spine. His mind raced quickly back to the bedside of his favorite child, lying so white on the pillow, with the feeble little smile that couldn't hold out much longer; and to his wife, Mary, who stood wringing her hands in agony beside the still form - counting the moments until his return. He dared not run so it seemed there was nothing to do except to follow the compelling, beckoning headless figure.

The path at his feet became visible as if it were broad daylight, but if he raised his eyes he stared into sticky, enveloping, consuming. darkness. As he stared the brightness began to move, slowly at first and then faster until it seemed that father would become exhausted trying to keep up with it, as it guided him through the fields, across fences, along the familiar little footpath and around mud holes until at last father spied the precious herb growing in the middle of the swamp. He began a frenzied digging in his haste to get some before the light moved on.

As soon as a sufficient amount had been gathered the light began to move again. Father followed as if in a trance and soon found himself at his own front door. The headless figure rose swiftly, floated silently over the rooftop and vanished into the swamp. The father rushed into the house, gasping for breath, in time to save his baby son.

The family still tells the story of the night father went for the herb making the trip faster than one could, had it been day and his shoes were not the least bit muddy even though he had gone to the middle of the swamp and back again.

This story remains one of the many unsolved mysteries of this section credited to the supernatural; and for which there is no plausible explanation. It just happened. The sick baby is now more than 90 years old and is himself a grandfather.

(The story is true. I can't vouch for the ghost.)