I have been chased by a ghost dog, I have done sprained my ankle and lost my wart poultice. I am not bad, considering.” — Lee Smith, Oral History
Sumter National Forest occupies most of northeastern Union County, South Carolina. Before it was a national forest, it was plain old rural upland: thorny fields and scrub woods inhabited by deer, rabbits, and the occasional bear and copperhead. There were two largish farms, Rose Hill and Goshen Hill (they weren’t grand enough to be called plantations), and a scattering of smaller ones owned by Jeters, Maybins, Vaughans, and a few others. A section of the Old Buncombe Road, now ragged blacktop, still runs through the forest from northwest to southeast, and there were once little one-store settlements along it — Cross Keys, Santuc, Maybinton— and the dirt service roads nearby. There was, and still is, Ebenezer Church and its ancient graveyard.
It’s important that you know the geography, which is little changed, and where there are places so forested and desolate that it is nearly dark there at noon on a sunny day. According to legend, a five-mile stretch of Old Buncombe Road, from Ebenezer Cemetery to Goshen Hill, is haunted by a huge white dog who pursues but never actually catches travelers. He is known as the Hound of Goshen, and as the story goes he belonged to a travelling peddler who was accused of stealing, given a perfunctory trial, hanged near the church, and buried near the cemetery. The dog is said to have died of starvation protecting the grave of his master and later began roaming the road, stalking the members of the lynching party and, in the process, scaring the bejeezus out of anyone who ran across it.
I am ashamed to say I knew nothing of any of this until I was in college and picked up a copy of Bruce and Nancy Roberts’ Ghosts of the Carolinas. One of the stories in that excellent collection was titled, “The Hound of Goshen.” When I saw all of its references to the country of my fathers, I bought the book, brought it home, and asked my father if he had ever heard the tale. It was on a summer evening, and we were sitting on the side porch of our house in Spartanburg in the dark green twilight, with the lightning bugs blinking and the crickets and the katydids competing with each other.
Now I should point out that, to paraphrase what Dickens said about Scrooge, my father had as little of what might be called imagination about him as any man in South Carolina. He was a football legend and a war hero, but he was no storyteller. Or so I thought.[quote float=”center”]He lit one of the Luckies that would eventually kill him and leaned back in a wicker chair. “Well now,” he began.[/quote]And this is what he said:
“You know our old place was down from Santuc, right around the corner from that old Ebenezer church. I reckon I was eleven, twelve years old, and I had a pony and one of my chores in the evening was to go down the big lower pasture, where it backed up to the road just a ways from the cemetery, and herd the cows on up to the barn. Now this one time, I was doing that and I saw a cow was missing. This was in the fall of the year and the sun was about set. I didn’t like being down there with it getting dark, but your grandmother woulda skint me if I left a cow out, so I rode on down to where our fence bordered the road and started looking at the bobwire fence we had down there.
“I heard it before I saw it, something behind me running fast along the road. I turned and the biggest, meanest-looking dog I ever saw was running straight at us. There was nothing between him and us but that bobwire fence. The dog didn’t bark, howl, make a sound except his feet running, running. And his eyes …”
It was full dark on the side porch now and the crickets and katydids seemed to have fallen silent. The Old Man dragged on his Lucky; its tip glowed briefly. In the same low, matter-of-fact voice, he said:
“I was scared to death, and the pony – well, he bucked and threw me slam into that bobwire fence and took off. When I picked myself up the dog was gone. Just gone. But I took off running and didn’t stop till I was at the house. I was hollering at the top of my lungs. I musta scared Mama ‘cause she didn’t say a word about me having lost a cow and my horse both. I’d been so scared I hadn’t even noticed I was cut pretty bad from the bobwire. She cleaned me up and bandaged me. I slept with the light on in my room that night.
“The horse and the cow came home by themselves in the morning. We had a telephone by then and Mama called everybody in the neighborhood, but nobody owned a big white dog. But she did tell me it was okay if I wanted to start bringing the cows up earlier in the afternoon. I don’t know if she believed I’d seen what I said I had, but she knew I believed it.”
The Old Man got up and flicked the light switch, banishing the shadows and filling the porch with the light of reason. Then he pulled up his shirt. On his right side, extending from his armpit to the middle of his ribcage, were clusters of small white scars, evenly spaced about four inches apart.
“That’s from where the pony threw me into the bobwire,” he said. “I know what I saw.”
Ghost of A. Chance haunts the editorial offices of Capital at Play on moonless nights and is said to be looking for a lost paycheck. In daylight he bears a resemblance to Roger McCredie.