This is our seventh entry in the 2022 Short Story Challenge, started by A Virginia Writer’s Diary . This year the challenge is all about folklore, and the original post can be found here. We are a little behind, but will catch up to have twelve by the end of the year. We have kept our stories to Appalachian folklore with lots of our own twists added in. My husband Doug and I are writing them together, and we write together under the name Bonnie Douglas. This story is called A Helping Hand and was inspired by the recent search and rescue teams in Eastern Kentucky as well as the Trailblazers who first forged a way through the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Thanks as always to amazing author Gail Meath for her editing help.
A HELPING HAND
by Bonnie Douglas
The rain had finally stopped, and for the most part, the flood waters had receded. Although the flooding rains had abated, the mess and misery would take a lot longer to disappear.
“Well Dooley, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” I admonished my mud-covered, happily wagging bloodhound. This part of the mountains had been deluged by rain, causing flooding, mudslides, washed-out roads, devastated homesites, and everything else you could think of. So many had disappeared that search teams were struggling to keep up with the demand. It wasn’t the first time Dooley and I were out hunting for lost people. Dooley was practically a celebrity among the search dog crews, his nose leading him into many places that you’d never think a human could get into–let alone a bloodhound with his wrinkled hide and long flapping ears. I was just the human holding onto his lead and struggling to keep up with his mile-eating stride through whatever obstacles popped up in our path.
When Dooley followed his nose, everything else was secondary. This time it had brought us sliding down a muddy hillside and into a narrow crevice, just deep and slippery enough that there was no way we were getting out without help. I’d lost all my gear in the pell-mell slide off the edge of the trail, and in my hurry to get out on the search I hadn’t even signed in on the registry. No one would even know I was missing for far longer than I felt comfortable thinking about.
“Dooley boy, we’re in trouble for certain. If you have any ideas, now is the time. I’d love to hear them.” Dooley looked up at me mournfully, gave himself a shake, and plopped down in a heap on the muddy bottom of the crevice.
“Well I take it that means you have no plan,” I muttered to myself since Dooley was now snoring softly.
“I sure picked the wrong time to get in a hurry, and definitely the wrong time to fall off the trail.”
The modern world had barely touched this whole region. Get far enough off the paved roads and you’d never know that it wasn’t still the pioneer days. This trail was part of the Wilderness Road that had been cut through the hills by Daniel Boone and a group of trailblazers. Eventually, it opened up the whole region to settlement, and over 300,000 folks had passed through heading west and onward to what was then the frontier. So many tales of adventure were associated with Daniel Boone that it had always piqued my interest. The story went that not far from where I was now stuck, Boone himself had hidden under the flowing curtain of a waterfall, escaping a band of Indians intent on capturing him. “I sure could use a crew of trailblazers right about now,” I thought to myself, peering up into the narrow gap we’d slithered through.
Leaning back against the rocky wall, I made myself as comfortable as I could and huddled into my windbreaker. I could feel the events of the day catching up to me. Following Dooley’s lead, I closed my eyes.
“Just for a minute,” I told myself, and drifted off to a restless sleep.
Trying to sleep standing up in a cold, wet hole in the ground is not a choice I’d recommend to anyone. Jerking awake to something tickling your face I would recommend even less. Every muscle in my neck and shoulders screamed in protest when I tried to throw what I was sure was a snake away from my head.
A low chuckle reached my ears and the light of a guttering lantern cast shadows all around the narrow opening encasing my dog and me. “Tis naught but my line, young man. If you’ve a mind, I believe we might be able to get you and your hound back up where you belong.”
Craning my neck back and trying to get a view of my savior against the low glare of the lantern, I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I repeated as I scrabbled to get a grip on the slippery line dangling in front of me.
“How did you find me? No one should even know I’m missing yet.” I asked the shadow above me.
“Plenty of time for questions and answers once we haul you and your hound up out of that hole,” the shadowy figure replied. “I think we ought to bring your dog up first, unless you think he can tie a knot on his own.”
“Probably a good idea. Dooley is talented but knot tying is not one of his strengths,” I said, almost chuckling with happiness at the thought of getting out of this hole.
“Up Dooley!” I said, and Dooley raised himself up from the bottom of the hole and managed to lift his rangy frame upright enough that I could get a couple of loops of the rope around him and tied off to his harness. As I tied it off, I got a little better look at the rope in the light cast by the lantern now sitting on the edge of the hole. It didn’t look like any rope I was familiar with. It was more like braided leather than the fancy woven nylon used for climbing or lifting.
“Up ye come, hound,” said the shadowy figure. Watching Dooley slowly rise into the air and then scrabbling for purchase with his front paws at the lip of the hole, I quickly put the rope out of my mind.
“Good boy, Dooley!” I called up to the top and I saw Dooley stick his head in to look down at me and give a quick snuffle around the edge.
“I’ll be up in a minute, Dooley!”
“Your turn, lad,” said the shadowy figure. “Tie yourself off and do what you can to climb up. You’re a mite heavier than your trusty hound,” he chuckled.
The braided line tumbled down on top of me, and in the flickering lantern light, I fashioned a quick loop around my waist. With a tug, I called up “Ready when you are!”
“Brace yourself, lad. Up ye come,” the shadowy figure called. I immediately started to rise with no assistance from me. The braided line dug into my waist, and dirt showered down on my face. Rising above the edge of the hole, I clutched at the dirt and pulled myself up further, collapsing onto my back with a huge sigh of relief.
Pushing myself up onto my hands and knees, I looked around for the man who had rescued us. “What the…..” I muttered as my eyes darted around the surrounding area, finding nothing and no one in sight.
Standing up, I caught sight of what could only be the lantern flickering briefly in the woods like a will o’ the wisp, and then it too disappeared completely. Grabbing the woven line, I coiled it up quickly, stuffed it into a cargo pocket, and called Dooley to heel. Trotting towards the spot the lantern light had disappeared on the trail ahead, I called out “Hey! Mister! I want to thank you! Please! Wait up!” Dooley and I both trotted along the trail through the quickly brightening woods. As the sun rose higher, I realized we had been trapped for a long time. I guess I had slept longer than I thought. Reaching a bend in the trail, I could see no one ahead of me.
“Dooley, Search!” I said, as my star search hound snuffled dutifully around the trail. Very quickly, Dooley plopped down with a soft whine and looked up at me, tail wagging and swiping the trail clean.
“What? Nothing? You and your super sniffer nose didn’t pick up any scent at all from where someone must have walked just seconds ago?”
Shaking my head in disbelief, I called Dooley to heel again.
“Well I’m sure we’ll catch up to him at the search tent, he probably just hurried off to report that he found us.”
With that Dooley and I jogged off down the trail back to the search tent as quickly as our stiff, tired legs could take us. As we slowly covered the few miles of winding trail between us and the search tent, I pondered our situation. Lost in the wilderness, with no realistic chance of ever being found and then an even more unlikely rescuer simply disappears after ensuring our safety.
Mind reeling with equal parts exhaustion and exhilaration I stumbled into the clearing. The search headquarters tent was milling with people bustling around, busy organizing workers and search teams.
Scanning the small crowd of teams and workers, I saw no one that stood out as I expected. I began to head towards the main tent as voice called out “Ed Jenkins! Glad you and your celebrity hound could make it!”
Turning, I saw Edith Holden, the chief organizer, waving me over. “Ed, I know you and Dooley have been hard at work for the last little while but we really need that super sniffer out there on the hunt. These floods have really got a lot of folks in trouble!”
Drawing nearer, I saw Edith’s face light up with concern. “Ed you look like you’ve been pulled through a knothole by your tail! What in the world happened to you?”
Confused, I drew up to a stop “What do you mean? Didn’t he tell you that he found us and rescued us earlier?” I asked.
“Ed, no one has been in here this morning telling us anything. Why don’t you sit down and tell me what’s going on and we’ll see what we can figure out,” Edith said. She pulled a folding chair out and pointed me to another.
Almost collapsing into the chair with Dooley curled up at my feet, I launched into the whole story. I began with our rush to the search and the near deadly fall into a narrow crevice, and ended with our late-night rescue and the disappearance of our rescuer. As I finished my story and leaned back in the chair, I remembered the coiled-up braided leather rope our rescuer had left behind. Pulling it out of my pocket, I put it on the table in front of me.
Edith’s face went from concerned to smiling in an instant when she spotted the braided leather. “Ed, don’t tell me you’ve never heard the story of the trailblazer, especially after all the time you’ve spent out here on the trails,” Edith said, reaching out for the coiled-up leather.
Picking up the rope, she continued. “There have been stories about the missing trailblazer helping folks since Daniel Boone and his crew finished the Wilderness Road. At the very end of the road they had to take shelter in a block fort when they were attacked by an Indian war band before they managed to escape under the shelter of a storm. During the escape one of the crew got washed away downriver and was never found. Ever since then there have been stories of a mysterious rescuer helping folks all along the trail. The rescuer always leaves behind a braided leather rope like this one.” Edith explained. “I believe that was your rescuer–the missing trailblazer.”
Unable to help myself, I burst out laughing. “Edith! That’s ridiculous!” I laugh, scoffing. “You can’t expect me to believe that some ghost came and pulled me and Dooley up out of a hole in the middle of nowhere just because of this silly piece of leather.”
“Believe it, or not Ed. It’s your choice, but as far as I can tell there’s no other explanation for it,” Edith said, sitting back in her chair and smiling. “Sooner or later you’ll see, or you won’t. Now take your cord and your super sniffer dog and go home and rest up.”
Gathering up the cord and nudging Dooley awake, I called back over my shoulder as I left the tent. “Thanks for the story Edith, but I’ll just chalk it up to someone who didn’t need thanks. We’ll see you tomorrow to help find whoever is still missing.” And with that, I walked back to my truck and loaded Dooley up into his shotgun position. I climbed into the driver’s side, pitching the braided cord over my shoulder into the backseat limbo.
A few weeks later, after the rush of flood search and rescue had finally abated, I decided it was time to clean up and organize the truck and our search gear. Scrabbling around in the area behind the seats, I came across the coiled-up leather rope, and chuckling, tucked it into my pocket again.
At the end of the day Dooley and I had an appointment for a demonstration at the Wilderness Road museum so I loaded him and his gear up and headed out a little early. I was hoping to check out the museum before we began our demonstration of Dooley’s super sniffing nose. It had been a long time since I had the chance to look around the museum, but I had always been intrigued by the bravery and sheer willpower it took to settle the area we called home. As I toured the exhibits, with Dooley decked out in his search team harness, I came across an old display case tucked into the corner near the back. It held a dented lantern and a dried-up, cracked, and braided leather rope. The placard detailed a number of rescues and recounted the same tale that Edith had told me. Looking down at Dooley, I just smiled and said to him “C’mon boy, even you don’t believe that story now, do you?”
Dooley sat, and with a quiet woof, pawed the base of the display case, wagging his tail.
Once again we began a story that took a different turn as we began writing. The recent rains and flooding in the mountain towns and villages of Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia brought many stories of search, rescue, and missing persons. I’ve always been intrigued with the thought of the effort involved in settling this area, especially as we travel distances in hours that would have taken days, weeks, and months in times not really that long past.
Stories of mysterious strangers helping others abound. Growing up in the 1970s we had songs about “Phantom 309,” and even PeeWee Herman had a helping hand from a mysterious stranger in one of his movies. Tales abound of unnamed angels showing up at the nick of time for people in need. Researching the Wilderness Road is an extremely interesting aspect of our local history that helped us decide to move the story from the GSMNP to the Tennessee/Virginia/Kentucky area.
Our Dooley was half yellow Lab, half Bulldog, and sweet as can be. He was part of our life for 15 years until he passed away. We miss him so much.
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