In honor of Derby Day, I decided a story about a horse would be in order. I’ve never run across one about a ghostly racehorse (more’s the pity) but this one, from Unicoi County in my beloved East Tennessee, is a favorite. I first read it in Randy Russell and Janet Barnett’s collection of ghost tales and legends The Granny Curse (1999).
Holland Higgins was an early settler of Unicoi County, an Irishman with ancestral love of the land and of horses in his blood. Higgins had a favorite horse: a whitish-grayish stallion, the color of ashes with a dark mane and tail, whom he called Cloud. The two were inseparable; if you saw Higgins, he was invariably on Cloud’s broad back, riding around his acreage, passing the time of day with neighbors, and trotting home, man and horse tired but content, at day’s end.
On Big Bald Mountain, not far from Higgins’ home, there lived a hermit in a jerry-built shack. The hermit’s name was David Greer, but he was known far and near as Hog (which we pronounce Hawg) because of his exceptionally poor personal hygiene and the filthy state of his living quarters. He had come to the area as a paid cattle herder, and stayed on, much to his neighbors’ disgust. Nobody much liked the hermit, who became infamous for his drinking habits and violent temper.
Hog Greer, despite his nastiness and surliness, was a man who appreciated a fine horse. He tried to buy Cloud, always without success. After Holland Higgins refused, one last time, to sell the horse to him, Greer resorted to murder. One day in late November of 1824, he ambushed Higgins as he and Cloud rode by, knocking Higgins to the ground and shooting him through the heart as he lay.
Cloud ran off home before Greer could catch his reins, arriving riderless and covered in foam. One of Holland Higgins’s sons caught him, and Cloud led him to Higgins’ dead body. The son, shocked and grieving, laid his father’s body across the saddle, and for the last time, Cloud bore his beloved master home.
The neighbors knew of Hog Greer’s obsessive desire to own Cloud, and blamed him for Higgins’ murder. Greer prudently retreated to his shack on Big Bald Mountain and stayed there.
Cloud, meantime, deprived of his dearest friend, had gone flat mad. He refused to eat or drink, and paced his stall.
On the night of Holland Higgins’ wake, Cloud kicked his stall down and ran.
Later, the family and neighbors would learn that he ran all the way to Hog Greer’s filthy shack. He kicked down the door, knocked down the post in the middle of the floor that held up Greer’s loft bedroom, and, when Greer fell out, almost trampled him to death. Greer managed to get his gun and fire one shot, but missed. In desperation, he grabbed a log out of the fireplace, and swung it like a club. Cloud, startled by an explosion of ash and embers, backed away, and Greer, badly burned about hands, forearms and face by his makeshift weapon, managed to escape. Before daylight, he left for other parts.
Cloud returned home. He wouldn’t remain in his stall; he roamed the countryside, often pausing by the little cemetery where Higgins rested. He never ate or drank; he merely roamed. Lost without Higgins, he died, broken in heart and body, before Christmas.
But Cloud was not dead in spirit.
For the past two centuries, there have been reports of a ghostly horse who roams the area of Holland Higgins’ farmstead. Sometimes, he’s seen, galloping madly along the route he took home that late November day in 1824 when Higgins was killed; other times, he has actually entered homes–including, for many years, the cabin, disinfected and occupied by others after Hog Greer’s precipitate departure,–where, later tenants reported, the door Cloud kicked in would open on its own, and a ghostly horse would thunder through. Sometimes, they would hear the sound of a horse’s hooves in the fireplace, and embers, soot and ashes would fly through the room.
In Unicoi County, they think Cloud is still looking for Hog Greer, determined to kill him.
Cloud never found him. Greer was shot to death during an argument with a blacksmith in the spring of 1834.
I found the illustration of a ghost horse on the Internet; it was done in 2004 by Danielle Fekete. I hope she doesn’t mind me using it; it reminded me of this story the first time I saw it.