For several years, folklorists Randy Russell and Janet Barnett have taught a course about Southern folklore at the North Carolina Center for Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Russell is also the author of several mysteries, including Edgar Award nominee Hot Wire.They live in Asheville, North Carolina.
"Alternately eerie, funny, tragic and sentimental . . . These tales will undoubtedly delight dog lovers and will not fail to charm even the most dour skeptics of supernatural phenomena." —Publishers Weekly
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Harlan County, Kentucky
At the end of World War II, Corbin Forrest went to work in the Star Company coal mine in southeastern Kentucky. He and his wife lived in company housing, and he walked to work each morning with his dog, an Airedale he named Mike in honor of a friend who had been killed in France during the big push that followed D-Day.
Mike could tell time. Because of this, and as something of a joke, Corbin hung his pocket watch on Mike's collar when he went to work and left the dog outside the mine entrance. He'd ask the other miners during his shift if they had seen his watch dog when they'd come into work that day. Corbin often bragged to the other workers in the No. 7 mine that he didn't need a watch anyway. It had been his father's pocket piece, or he would have sold it years ago.
Mike sat outside the mine but inside the company fence. He was tolerated by the foreman. He wasn't a particularly friendly dog to strangers, but he didn't really bother anyone. Besides, Mike was good for a dollar bet when there was an employee new to the No. 7.
Miners worked six days a week back then. And six days a week at 12:14, Mike would spring to his feet and run inside the No. 7. In a minute, he'd find Corbin and his crew breaking for lunch. He was always there when Corbin opened his pail. Mike waited patiently until his master was through eating. Then he was given half of Corbin's second sandwich as a reward. Corbin packed his lunchpail andhanded it to Mike. The Airedale carried it by the handle through the mine tunnels and back outside. There, he guarded it jealously until the shift ended. When Corbin emerged from the tunnel at shift's end, he unclipped his watch from Mike's collar, and the two of them walked home.
Two of the miners put up a makeshift shelter, just a few boards and a piece of corrugated tin, for Mike to wait under when it rained. Someone painted the dog's name on the tin, and Mike became the official mascot of Star Company's No. 7 mine.
Corbin could be a talkative fellow. He was tall and gangly and had an easy grin. Of course, once a miner's been at it for an hour or two, he can look like he has the biggest smile known to man. That's because his face is covered in black dust. When he smiles, the only thing you see are lots of teeth and the pink and red of his gums. A miner's smile shines like a flashbulb going off.
Unlike some of the other veterans in the mines, Corbin didn't have much to say about his experiences in the war. It was the one thing he'd found in life that was worse than working in a coal mine. He'd seen Dover. He'd seen France. And that was all he had to say about World War II.
The air-shaft watchman, at his post outside, saw Mike get up from his resting place and run to the mine entrance too early for lunch one day. It was long before anyone heard the rumbling.
"Must have set his watch wrong," the fan operator said to himself.
Inside the No. 7, at the end of a spur where Corbin was working, the crew stopped when they heard Mike's barking. It echoed through the mine. The Airedale was standing right behind them.
"Hey, Corbin, I think your watch broke. It's not 12:14 yet."
"What's up, boy?" Corbin asked the dog.
Mike stopped barking, rushed to his master, and whined. He reached for Corbin's hand. Corbin tried to pet him, but Mike put his mouth on his master's hand and pulled insistently, still whining. Corbin knew what Mike was doing. He knew it instantly.
"Get out!" he yelled to the crew. "Drop your tools and run!"
Miners don't kid around like that. Work in a coal mine is too dangerous for teasing miners' fears. There was no mistaking the urgency in Corbin's voice. Not a single crew member hesitated to do as he was told. Hollering to other workers along the way, the men ran out of the spur and up the long, ascending tunnel to the No. 7 entrance. The traincar operator soon joined them outside.
Forty-six miners stood in a group outside the mine entrance. Some had grabbed their lunchpails.
"What are we doing out here?" one of them asked.
"Corbin said to get the heck out, and we did."
Corbin didn't know how to explain it. Mike knew what was what. That was all he would have said, if he had said anything.
"The company will dock us all if we stand around out here much longer," the foreman said.
"Better wait a minute," Corbin said.
Corbin Forrest had made Mike's acquaintance on active duty in France. They were on the push after D-Day, backing the Germans to Paris and, they hoped, beyond. The Nazis were in retreat when Corbin was sent to an advance emergency landing ground for two United States air squadrons. The area was hot, receiving shells from the retreating German forces, who hoped to destroy the landing strip on their way out.
Corbin and one of his buddies, Robert Wright of New York City, pulled duty in the cookhouse, a quickly erected shanty open on one end, where meals were to be prepared for the air-support crews. Mike showed up, a rangy, skinny-looking, wire-haired dog. His legs were too long for his body, Corbin thought. The Airedale's dense fur was brown with black markings. Mike's nose was long, and his fur extended from the sides of his snout and from under his chin, giving him the distinct appearance of wearing a mustache and a goatee. His ears were small and V-shaped. They folded to the side. Mike looked somewhat elegant for a dog. He also looked hungry.
Corbin and Robert Wright fed the starving Airedale, and a fast friendship was instantly formed between men and dog.
"You think he speaks German or French?" Robert asked.
There was no way to know.
The cookhouse was one of only two structures at the landing area. The other was the latrine. A few tents had been pitched, but they generally held supplies. The soldiers, who had seen plenty of heavy fire, preferred to eat and sleep in foxholes and trenches dug for the purpose.
They were there two days when the first plane landed at the emergency strip. It had been damaged by German flak and was losing fuel. When it touched the weedy runway, it tumbled forward and burst into flames. The American soldiers were in a grim mood. Their only relief was petting the dog when they came to the cookhouse for heated rations.
Interested in a few moments' diversion, different soldiers tried different ways to lure Mike from his cookhouse post, hoping to engage the dog in a bit of play. One bounced a ball, tossed it, and yelled "Fetch!"
Mike sat down where he was.
"The dog don't speak English," Robert Wright said.
Another rubbed canned meat on a rag and tied it to a stick. Mike licked the rag when it was held under his nose but wouldn't budge an inch when the soldier took it away. The Airedale knew where the food was kept.
"Maybe if you had a French Poodle in a tutu, he'd go for that," Robert told the soldier.
Corbin laughed. He hadn't laughed in days.
After the plane came in, and even though it went up in flames, the Germans became more interested in destroying the landing area before they were forced by the oncoming American troops to abandon the region altogether. A long-range gun was set up two miles away, and shells came in at regular intervals, leaving a random pattern of smoking holes in the ground. The Germans seemed to be aiming at nothing in particular.
A couple shells came in close to the cookhouse at about eleven o'clock one morning. Corbin checked his watch.
"Just in case it happens," he told Robert, "I want to know what time it is when I die."
"They say you don't hear the one that gets you," Robert told him.
Maybe people don't.
Just then, Mike became restless. He walked around the large iron boilers in the cookhouse, then paced in and out. Finally, he sat down outside and howled. Like a wolf, he howled. Corbin didn't know an Airedale could do that.
"Must be he don't like what we're cooking," Robert said. "What did you put in the stew this time, Corbin?"
Mike stopped howling. He leapt to his feet and came quickly into the cookhouse and began threading himself between Robert's feet, walking between his legs.
"Get away, will you?"
The Airedale barked furiously at this rebuke. Corbin bent down to pet him, hoping it would calm the dog. As soon as Corbin put out his hand, Mike took it in his mouth and tugged at it, his teeth not quite breaking the skin. It was clear the dog wanted Corbin to come outside with him.
"Come on, Robert," Corbin said. "He's got something to show us, and he isn't going to wait."
"Maybe he's got a family of puppies in the woods he wants us to feed," Robert said. "What the heck, can't hurt this stew any if we burn it."
Mike let go of Corbin's hand, and they followed the dog. The Airedale was at full trot. He led the two soldiers to a shell hole about thirty yards from the cookhouse. In they went, the three of them. The soldiers sat down to keep out of the wind. Robert lit a cigarette. He handed it to Corbin, who took a drag and handed it back.
It was a nice-enough shell hole, but Robert had seen shell holes before. When the cigarette was out, he thought he would go. But Mike wouldn't let him.
When the soldier stood up, the dog became suddenly ferocious. The Airedale drew back his lips to show his teeth and growled. His eyes were on fire, it seemed to Robert. The soldier sat back down.
Mike stared up at the sky, then glanced at Corbin, shifting his eyebrows, then looked to the sky once more. He heard the whine of the artillery shell before the men did. The shrill incoming whine was immediately followed by a crashing sound and a loud blast. Dirt and small bits of debris rained down on the shell hole in which the men cowered in the company of the Airedale.
The shell had hit the cookhouse dead on. Corbin and Robert stared at each other in near disbelief. But they believed, all right. They sure did.
Mike showed no further interest in them. Scrabbling from the shell hole, the dog rushed to the wreckage of the cookhouse, where he greedily foraged all the food he could find. It was an outdoor barbecue, as far as Mike was concerned, and he was the only one invited.
"You know what I think?" Robert asked. "I think that dog snuck across the German lines and gave them the coordinates for the cookhouse, then came back here to wait for the feast."
Corbin thought differently. He thought he would do whatever it took to keep Mike. He managed, through bribery and begging, to have the dog transported to England, where Mike was quarantined. From there, the Airedale was shipped to Kentucky and eagerly adopted by Corbin's wife. She said it was the best letter home she'd ever received. The dog waited with her for the war to end and spent his time learning to understand American English.
* * *
"Nothing's happening today," the foreman of the No. 7 announced, turning away from the group of coal diggers. He walked back to the mine entrance.
That's when Mike attacked him. Corbin had never seen his dog knock down a man before, but that's what Mike did. The Airedale sprang after the foreman, got within a yard of him, and leapt as high as he could, landing fifty pounds of dog in the middle of the foreman's back. The foreman fell to the ground with Mike on top of him.
Once he regained his wind, the foreman tried to get up, ready no doubt to fire someone on the spot. Mike showed his teeth and growled fiercely. Some of the men laughed. Corbin's pocket watch dangled unscathed from the dog's collar. It ticked away the seconds.
That's when they heard the rumbling underground. There was a slate fall at the end of the spur Corbin's crew had been drilling. The roof fell. A cloud of black dust belched from the entrance to the No. 7. A funnel of dust rose from the air shaft.
The men stood silent, pondering their near misfortune, waiting to see if there would be a fire. There was none. Mike returned to Corbin's side and accepted a scratch on his head. Soon, it would be time for lunch.
The foreman got to his feet, knocked the dirt from his shirt with both hands, then strode boldly toward Corbin and Mike. He reached his hand to his back pants pocket as he walked. No one was sure what would happen next. The foreman fumbled a dollar bill from a worn wallet and held the bill out to Corbin.
"Buy that damn dog some hamburger on your way home tonight," he said.
The miners laughed. Their bigger-than-life smiles cleared the air.
"I'll do that," Corbin promised, accepting the money.
One of the miners who had grabbed his lunchpail from habit as he exited the mine walked to Mike's makeshift shelter with its roof of corrugated tin. He opened his metal pail, took out a sandwich, and hurriedly unwrapped it. He set the food down at the shelter. Mike was over there in a flash to have at it.
Other miners who'd carried their pails followed suit Those who hadn't done so returned to the mine when the all-clear was given and brought out portions of their lunch for Mike. The Airedale's stomach was so swollen he could barely manage the walk home with Corbin that evening.
* * *
The spur Corbin had been working became a central tunnel of the No. 7 over the years. Miners working the spur long after Corbin retired told new employees the reason there was an empty doghouse with a corrugated tin roof outside the Star Company mine. One of the minersno one knew which onerepainted Mike's name on the tin in fresh white paint after the letters had flaked and weathered over time.
Star Company's No. 7 proved such a successful mine that it operated around the clock in the ensuing years. After Corbin and Mike were both dead, the company continued to pull coal from that hole. Miners working the night shift kept an ear out for what became known as "the ghost clock of the No. 7." Of course, some people say all coal miners work the night shift, because it is always night underground.
A miner's shift is full of strange and sometimes frightening sounds. Knocks and creaks, groans and wails echo through the mine. Above a miner's head, there is sometimes a constant crackling sound as the topping settles after a day of blasting. It sounds like the roof is falling in.
Somewhere, a rock or a large chunk of coal loosens from a rib by its own force and drops with a tremendous thud heard throughout the mine. Deadly gases sometimes seep through crevices in the coal, creating an eerie, deadly hiss that is followed by a sound like the murmur of running water as more gas escapes.
The underground railway tracks contract and expand with changes in temperature and create a series of terrifying screeches, sudden pops, and prolonged groans. Water dripping in an isolated corner of a mine is magnified underground and can sound like the blows of a sledgehammer on solid stone.
It's no surprise that miners can be a little jumpy, even at sounds they can identify. Yet there is another, very different sound in the No. 7 mine. The sound is the ticking of a pocket watch. It moves through the mine as if carried by a ghost low to the ground.
When the ticking is heard, all work and conversation end. Where the ticking stops, an accident will occur. Unfailingly, the miners move away from the spot. Unfailingly, slate falls from the roof, or a fissure of rock fourteen times the size of a man slaps forward from a side wall and smashes to the mine floor. A coal car slips off its brakes, races backwards down the inclined railway tracks, and crashes into a wall of coal where moments before a miner was drilling.
After an accident, miners in the vicinity, miners who may have been hurt or killed if not for the warning, do not eat their lunch. Or if the accident occurs after lunch, they do not eat a noon meal the next shift. Instead, they unwrap their food and leave it in the makeshift doghouse outside the No. 7. They mean to keep that watch running. They have not forgotten Mike. And he has not forgotten them.
Excerpted from Ghost Dogs of the South by Randy Russell and Janet Barnett. Copyright © 2001 by Randy Russell and Janet Barnett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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