The Whistling Jack
This is a true story. I have never to this to anyone before now, for reasons that will be obvious after you read it. This story takes place over several time periods. I am 53 years old.
I grew up in a small community on the southern end of Walden’s Ridge in eastern Tennessee.
Walden’s Ridge is a wide flat plateau the spans most of Tennessee from south to north on the east side of the Sequatchie Valley. Growing up, I lived in a small community there, only a little over 200 people. We just called it the mountain. This community was surrounded on all sides by forest, bordering the Prentice Cooper Game Reserve.
As a kid, we would ride our bikes all over the trails and old dirt roads on that mountain. Hiking, hunting, and just exploring the woods were among the most popular of our hobbies. In 1976, at the age of 12, I had an old mini-bike, this took me even further into the woods.
There was this one old dirt track we discovered that begins my story. It was an old road. The 2 parallel ruts forming it could only have been formed by wagon wheels and deepened by the old Model T or it’s contemporary rivals. I rode through this old road one afternoon and as I exited the other end back into inhabited area, an old lady called to me from her front porch.
I knew this old lady’s name, but I will use no real names here, for the sake of anonymity.
This lady asked me, “Did you come all the way through that holler?”. “Yes, ma’am”, I replied. “Boy, You don’t ever go through there, ever. There is a reason they blocked that road.” Now she had me curious. I had to ask. “Why, ma’am?” “Set down, boy. I’m going to tell you a story. Whether you believe it or not ain’t my business, but if you ask around, other people can tell you”, she said.
This was the first time I heard about the whistling jack.
I always thought the name sounded silly, but you have to understand these were the same kind of people that called a species of quail a bobwhite because of it’s unique call or called a yellow perch a sunfish because of it’s bright yellow belly, just normal, no nonsense, country people It all makes a kind of sense when you learn about these things.
Her story—The old lady I was talking to had lived in that community all her life. Her family had lived there for generations, since shortly after Boone and Crockett had settled Tennessee. Her story took place in the early 1900s, before WWI.
In those days, people here still rode horses and carried guns. It was still a wild area.
This was long before the T.V.A. had brought electricity to these hills. There were 2 families. For the sake of the story, we will call them the Smiths and the Browns. Of course, these are not their true names.
The Smith family and the Brown family had small farms on opposite sides of the hollow. On Saturday a couple of times a month, the boys of the 2 families would get together at one farm or the other to play cards, drink some moonshine, home brew, home-made wine, and generally have some fun.
One fateful Saturday, The socializing went on to well past midnight. This was not something that ever happened, as they were normally the type to go to bed early and rise at dawn. Well it was around 1 a.m. when the Brown boys climbed on their horses and started down into the hollow on their way home. The trail they followed to the bottom of the hollow crossed the small creek at the bottom at a sand bar overlooked by a large boulder.
As they started to cross the creek this particular night, they heard a bird call from the top of the boulder. The seemingly innocent sound panicked the horses. All but one bolted across the creek and up the trail as fast as they could gallop.
All but one, the youngest brother was thrown from his horse as it reared and threw him in panic.
The one thing that may have saved his life was the fact that his lantern fell in the sand, it did not break or go out. Up the trail as his brothers got their mounts under control, they heard 6 rapid shots from a .45. They forced their horses back down to the creek.
When they arrived to the grisly scene before them. They saw their kid brother on his knees in the sand by the lantern, trying to load his gun, dropping some of the bullets because of the shaking of his hands. A few feet from him was his dead horse bleeding from it’s throat. “I shot it,” he said, “You know I never miss this close!”
It took them a while to get the story out of him. When he had been thrown from his horse, he looked up in time to see 2 red eyes on the top of the boulder. It whistled again as it jumped for his horse. It all happened so fast he barely had time to unload his revolver into it in a quick succession of shots before it was on his horse taking it to the ground.
It was big, it ran stooped over on 2 legs. It was dark shaggy and stank. The quick shots of the pistol were not enough to save the horse, but he knew he had hit it as it gave a hissing growl and ran off into the woods. They had heard enough.
Scared and wary, they loaded him onto one of the boys’ horse and rode home as fast as they could.
The next morning, just after dawn, all the boys and their father took their guns and went back down the trail to the creek with the intention of hunting this thing down, killing it and recovering the youngest son’s saddle and gear.
They were all experienced hunters and trackers. Despite this, when they got to the creek crossing, the horse was gone. All the gear, saddle, bridle, rifle pouch, everything that had been on the horse was gone as well. The sand had been brushed clean of tracks, like it had been swept with a pine branch. Even the blood was partially covered.
No tracks could be found and no trace of the horse or it’s gear except the blood mixed in the sand.
As she finished the story I was polite enough not to say I did not believe her, but she must have seen the skepticism on my face. She said, “Yeah, I never believed that story either till about 30 years ago” I looked at her questioningly and she continued. “I used to walk down the side of the holler to gather kindling for my stove. There was always so much kindling there. Nobody else would go down there, so nobody picked it up.
As time went on I had cleared all the fallen limbs from near here and would have to go deeper down in the hollow to get kindling.
One morning, I found a hug pile of limbs just below the rocks close to the bottom a little ways from the creek. I set my basket down and started breaking up sticks from the pile and filling my basket when I heard some kind of rustle under the pile.
I thought it was a rabbit or a fox under there. I took my ax and pulled the brush up a little so I could see under it.
There was a big hole under there and I saw two big red eyes looking up at me!” “I dropped the ax and left it and the basket and ran.
I ain’t stepped foot in that holler since then. My ax and basket are likely still there if that thing didn’t get ’em.””I am beggin’ you, don’t go down there no more, boy.”
Something about the way she gripped my arm when she said this, the look on her face made me believe her. I told her I would not go back down there.
I meant it. I rode the long way around the highway to get home.
13 years later, I was 25, after 4 years in the military and a brief, failed marriage. I was back on the mountain for a while. Depression soon had me roaming the woods again. When I wasn’t working, the woods brought me peace. There was one spot in particular. I had known since I was a kid.
Just a couple of hundred yards from the top of a line of sandstone cliffs along the bluff on the western side of the mountain, there was an old growth pine grove.
I don’t know if you have ever been in an old growth pine grove in the forest. The massive pine trees seem to radiate a peaceful, quiet feeling. The thick canopy they provide inhibits undergrowth.
So instead of crunchy dead leaves you will have a carpet of fallen pine needles that cushion and silence your steps. It is common to find lush beds of moss in these places too.
This place was several miles from that hollow I told about before, on the other side of the plateau. Foolishly, I had spent the afternoon, evening and well into the night hiking along the bottom of the cliffs. I had a small backpack, a little food, a couple of drinks, among other things and a couple of flashlights, in case I found a cave I wanted to look into. I also carried my old Winchester model ’97 12 gauge.
A good solid shotgun. It would hold 5 rounds in the magazine and 1 more in the chamber if you were that careless. I usually only kept the 5 in the mag loaded, myself. An impressive shotgun by any standard.
I should have known better than to be out there after dark. There were a lot of factors involved that got me there at that moment. Sometime around midnight, I had been sitting in a nice spot where I could see the lights from the valley miles away, having a few sips of bourbon.
Thinking about things, just enjoying the peace and quiet.
As I packed up my stuff to go home, I heard a bobwhite call a couple of hundred yards below me along the heavily wooded slope. It seemed perfectly normal for about 2 or 3 seconds then I froze in mid-movement. If it had been a whippoorwill, or any of the normal night birds, It would not have even fazed me.
But I knew that a bobwhite was a quail. Quail are not nocturnal birds. As if this was not puzzling enough, I heard another bobwhite answer from along the slope to the north at about my elevation. Then the first one called back from below me. It had moved closer….
I have never been one to scare easily, but this was too strange. I stuffed my last things in my back pack slung it across my shoulders and grabbed my gun and started up towards the cliffs.
There was a nice moon so I did not use a flashlight. I did not want a light to give away my position, but as I eased through the brush, trying to be as quiet as possible, I got some electrical tape out of one of my backpack pockets and began taping one of my flashlights to the tubular magazine under the barrel of my shotgun.
The calls of the strange bobwhites were still sounding from time to time. Always answering each other, always getting closer, no matter how quickly and quietly I moved.
Now, I was starting to get scared. I, who had always known my way around in the woods, always knew what the denizens of my woods would do, how they would react. I was out of my experience pool here.
This moment is when that story came back to me. That story that that strange old lady had told me 13 years ago. I began to believe I knew what was tracking me. And yes, I was being tracked. I could feel it.
With this realization, came a plan. I would not be hunted so easily. I knew where I was. Directly atop the cliffs above me is where the pine grove grew just about 500 ft from the cliff.
At the bottom of this cliff at this point there would be a deep crevice.
A crack formed over thousands of years of rain and ice forming in the massive layers of sandstone slowly spreading it. It formed an inverted v in the bottom of the cliff going back about 30 ft, along the left hand side as you entered it, the layered stone being pulled apart over time had made a ledge that rose from the rear of the crevice to an opening at the top just big enough for someone my size to squeeze through.
Once through. You would be on a ledge 30 ft or so up the cliff face. The overhanging layer of rock left just enough room to crawl along the ledge on your belly for about 40 to 50 feet then it opened up into a rock slide that you could climb to the top. This entire cliff was between 80 to 100 feet from bottom to top at this spot. I got there as quickly and quietly as I could manage,
This took maybe only 1 or 2 minutes, but under the circumstances, it seemed like time stretched on forever. By this time the “bobwhites’” were really close. I could hear their steps trying to mirror mine. Once in a while, I would stop and I would hear them take a step or 2 before they stopped too.
Then I was in the crevice.
I was soon on the ledge at the top of the crevice, I had to push my backpack and gun in front of me to get through the tight space. I was not taking time for stealth now, I was crawling and dragging, pushing my things to get to the rock slide.
As I got to the slide and began to climb, I re-slung my backpack and strapped my gun over my shoulder and went up on all fours. I could hear something shuffling around at the bottom of the cliff outside the crevice.
I did not know why they did not go in. but I did not ponder it. I climbed. At the top I ran to the grove. All the way to the middle of it. I leaned against one of the massive old pines at the middle of the grove and dropped my back pack, sat my gun down and took a bottle from my bag. I needed a drink.
Not a soft drink either. I took a swig of bourbon as I realized my hands were shaking and I was dribbling it everywhere.
Then I heard the footsteps…and a bobwhite. I have no idea to this day how they got to the top of the cliff that fast. The cliff stretched for over a half mile south and about a mile and a half to the north. It was a shear cliff face in both directions.
That tight crawl through the crevice was the only way up here. But there they came
I could now hear their steps clearly. Long steps. Longer than a man’s gait. They were coming. I dropped the bottle and grabbed my gun, switching on the light as I raised it.
I pumped a round into the chamber, and took another from my pocket and slid into the magazine to replace it.
They came closer and close, then they stopped at the edge of the grove, just deep enough in the brush to hide from my light. They were quiet, but I kept my light trained on the spot where I had heard the last sound…Why did they stop? They had run me down. Why did they not come?
I could see the light beam shaking slightly. Fear had filled my blood with adrenaline. My heart was thundering in my ears, then they moved.
I could hear the long steps. Moving, one going each way. They were circling me. Panicked, I swung my gun barrel with the light taped to it back and forth from one to the other waiting for a shot.
I had the shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot, but I did not think it would stop them. It was just all I had. They circled around all the way to the other side of the grove, away from the cliff and met up again. It was as if they were looking for a place where they could come at me unseen. My gun was pointing at the spot where I thought they were. I had had enough. I fired. Pumped the gun and fired again.
Then I heard a scream. Excuse me, but I almost pissed myself just then. I do not know if I can describe this to you adequately, It was not a scream of pain so much as an angry, hateful sound. It was a scream like a chimp makes on TV, except deeper and throatier.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Then I heard them crashing through the brush, away from me across the plateau deeper into the woods. They just left. After some length of time, I have no idea how long. It had been silent for a while. I could sense that they were gone. It occurred to me to check my watch. I did not do this at first because it would mean lowering my gun.
But eventually I had to know how long it would be till dawn.
When I looked at my watch it was 3 :18 a.m. Roughly 2 and a half hours till daylight. I stayed there, and waited. As soon as it was light enough that I could see well enough to not be ambushed I left there and ran home. I never went back to that place in the woods. In 28 years I have not set foot in the woods there.
I hike in the woods, camp and fish, but I have not hunted since then and I have never went in the woods in that place.
As a matter of fact about 2 months after that night, I moved way down in Alabama to a small industrial town and took a job. I stayed there for about 25 years till early 2015. In late 2014 a relative passed away and left us a place in the Sequatchie Valley near the mountain where I grew up. I can see the cliffs, just a few miles from my front porch. I would never go there.
I do not think that is quite the end of this story. The house I live in sits on the edge of a 32 acre wooded property in the middle of a small community at the foot of that mountain. It seems a lot of animals use this 32 acres as a way stop between the mountain forest and the woods along the Sequatchie river that runs down the middle of the valley. When we moved in, my daughter was already living here. She had a big old dog, named Buddy.
Buddy was a big tough dog. He had been known to take on a coyote more than once here to protect his turf. A week or so after I moved in I had become one of Buddy’s friends. He no longer barked or growled at me when I came home. He had gotten to know me.
Here is where it gets strange, sometimes at night he would get really excited, barking and howling enough to get me outside with my rifle. After the first time, I mounted a bright led light on my rifle.
I never saw anything except Buddy when I would go out there. He would bark looking at the woods, every so often glancing over his shoulder at me like checking that I was still there then back at the woods barking. I never saw anything and end up bringing him in and letting him sleep on the rug so I could get some sleep.
This went on for 3 weeks till one night when he started his warning barking routine, I went out and heard it.
My light would not penetrate far enough into the thick brush to see it, but I heard it! Long heavy steps going back into the woods away from us. I swear my blood ran cold.
I have not heard those footsteps again since that night. Buddy still had restless nights from time to time for the next couple of years, but I never again heard the footsteps in the brush.
Sadly, Buddy passed away this fall. It was nothing unnatural, he just succumbed to old age. We have a new dog for 2 weeks at the time I am writing this. His name is Teddy.
He is not as massive as Buddy was, although he is extremely smart for a dog and obeys well.
The odd thing is since he is new, I let him stay inside at night and do not let him out of the small fenced in back yard during the day unless one of us is with him. Sometimes at night he will growl and bark looking at the window or the door. When ever I get my rifle and get out there, there is nothing there. It kind of bothers. But maybe I am just worrying over nothing.
That is all I can tell you about this at this time. When Ted has gotten a little more acclimated to his new home, He and I are going to take my rifle and search these woods. It is only 32 acres. This is our place.
We will not be stalked or intimidated on our own ground. Rest assured though, I WILL NOT go up to those cliffs. I will let you know how this works out for us…I hope. In all honesty, at this point, I can not claim to have actually seen anything. I know what I heard and what I have experienced, But I have not SEEN anything.
Pass this along please and thanks for listening,