At the fork in the road leading to the big Bethlehem and Carbon Fuel mines, between the old company store and a small church with a neon "Jesus Saves" sign, a small brown dog scratched fleas as three young miners tossed a football under a warm midday sun.

Where convoys of rail cars and tracks once rumbled by carrying coal dug by about 2,000 miners at the end of Cabin Creek hollow 30 miles from Charleston, there was only silence.

"The sound of a union dying," said a miner's widow who claims 11 kinfolk as members of the United Mine Workers, a once mighty union that now is crumbling around her and her family.

Despair, tinged with recriminations, anger and disgust, is as thick as the morning fog that shrouds the coal-rich mountain along Cabin Creck - the home of embattled UMW President Arnold Miller and the hut of the wild, cat strikes that have brought the union to its knees at the very moment that boom times await coal as the centerpiece of the nation's energy policy.

It has provoked violence - gunshots in the night at the Leewood fork last Wednesday as angry dissidents fired from the woods at neighbors who were trying to return to work - that is reminiscent of the coal wars ot the 1930s. But there is a difference.

"It's not a fight with the coal operators," said Ray Gayton, president of Cabin Creek's UMW Local 2903 as he and other local union leaders tried to organize that night's ill-fated return to work. "It's jealousy with the union that's tearing us apart."

Said Cecil Robert, vice president of Charleston-based District 17 of the UMW: "Our second greatest enemy is ourselves." Said one of the young miners who was tossing the football: "The union's all we got and it's going flat."

The wildcat strikes that have idled nearly half the UMW's 175,000 working members over the past two months - and continue to keep about 30,000 miners off their jobs despite a back-to-work order from UWM leaders last Monday - were traggered by a cutback in medical benefits.

The cuts were ordered in mid-June when benefits funds, cepleted by work stoppages and other problems, threatened to run out.

But in interview after interview along Cabin Creek this week, miners indicated a deeper cause: a smoldering rage at forces beyond their control, including a paralyzed, faction-torn union leadership, and industry that is captilizing on the union's weaknesses, a government that seems indeferent to the miners' problems and a society that calls them hillbillies and forgets that they do some of its most dangerous and vital work.

Consquently many of them, especially impatient younger miners, continue to strike for restoration of their health benefits, thereby inviting more cuts, including a possible suspension of pension. It is a vicious cycle that UMW leaders appear powerless to break.

"No, I don't believe in strikes," said Raymond Burgess, a retired miner leaning on a came as he sipped beer at Vatella's Lunch, one of many watering spots along Cabin Creek. "But if they take away my pension after 37 years in the mines. I'll strike, all right. I'll tear up the whole hollow."

There is also the fear that the UMW, once the tightly disciplined army led by the fearsome John L. Lewis into countless successful encounters with other unions, the coal industry and even the White House, is becoming an irrelevent shadow of its former self.

UMW members mine about half the nation's coal, down from about 70 per cent a decade ago. The union accounts for less then 30 per cent of production in the rapidly expanding western coal-fields, according to Coal Patrol, an independent journal published by young refugees from the union's internal wars.

Other unions like the Teamsters are raiding their jurisdiction, and organizing has come to a virtual standstill. Many of the union's organizers are serving as bodyguards to Miller, who says his life is in constant danger.

The only notable result of the strike - a union's ultimate weapon - is financial hardship to its members, who, along Cabin Creek at least, are borrowing money for down payments on food stamps and putting off surgery because it is no longer free.

Although coal-consuming utility companies express concern about a protacted work stoppage and predictions of a fullfledged nationwide strike when the union's current contract expires Dec. 6, the National Coal Association says the wildcats have made little dent in the nation's three-month stockpile. Moreover, the Bureau of Mines reported this week that coal production is 3.6 per cent higher so far this year than last.

Even some of the staunchest strike advocates concede the illogic of the situation. But they say they must register their protest and have no weapon other than the withholding of their work.

"Course they [the operators] are sitting on their stockpiles and laughing at us," said a young miner passing time with a friend at the Leewood fork. "Yeah, but what have we got to lose - they've already taken our card away," said his buddy. His reference was to free health service, which has symbolic as well as practical significance to the 800,000 VMW beneficiaries.

Loss of this legacy of the Lewis days is a double-barreled financial hardship to an out-of-work miner: no money coming in to pay medical costs, when he is now responsible for as much as $500 worth annually, including the first $250 for hospitalization.

At the Cabin Creek Health Association Clinic, a sleek wood-and-glass building that stands in stark contrast to its time-worn Appalacian surroundings, office manager Margaret Light told about a woman with a lump in her breast who wouldn't go for a cancer test because of the cost. And about a man who had a heart attack and refused hospital, presumably because she didn't have $250.

The clinic has cut its staff hours and has "lost" 30 per cent of its 750 patients since it had to start charging for services when its $25,000 monthly UWM subsidy was cut off last month. But, unlike some of the 50 other Appalachian coalfield clinics, it plans to stay open somehow, says Light determinedly.

Sitting in the waiting room. Patricia Baldwin, wife of a miner who's been out of work since June 24, fretted over where she'll get $250 plus $140 in doctor's fees, for the birth of her child in October. "The card, she says, "it's ail a coal miner has." She thinks the whole union should be out on strike, although she concedes that "they've already been out so long and it hasn't accomplished anything."

Down the road at Vatella's Lunch a young couple stopped by to discuss food stamp problems with William C. Clune, president of Local 6572. They were trying to borrow the $114 they needed to by $202 in food for the coming month."A lot of people are just doing without," the young woman said.

Miller continues to be at the center of the turmoil. A black lung victim first elected on a "Miners for Democracy" reform tide five years ago, Miller is accused of absentee and arbitrary leadership, although his defenders say he is scapegoat for those who are out to strip the union of its democratic reforms. He was narrowly re-elected in a three-way race in June, but petitions for his ouster are circulating and one of his rivals has challenged the election before the Labor Department.

"Autonomy (with in the union) is the greatest thing we have," said District 17's Cecil Roberts. "But we have no discipline. 'Democracy's fine, but we all have to contribute and put the union before personal gain, and I don't see this happening."

Said one of the young miners at Leewood fork. "A man gets mad even thinking about it."