The girl fell onto the front steps, white as a sheet and breathing hard, her sides pumping frantically. “Where is it?” she choked. “That big black dog—”
The old woman had never stopped her rocking, even when the girl had run shrieking like an owl out of the woods. “He’s gone,” she said soothingly. “Where was you, anyhow? Up to Cedar Cliff?”
The girl nodded.
“Ah. Then you seen the Devil Dog. Don’t worry. He don’t never come down no furrer’n th’ edge of the woods, an’ he ain’t a-lookin’ fer you.”
“How do you know?” The girl was beginning to breathe easier, and the panic was leaving her wide blue eyes.
“Cause, honey, he’s a-lookin’ fer me. Well, he won’t have much longer t’ look. I’m old. Soon enough I’ll be gone to hell, an’ he’ll go with me.”
The girl swallowed hard. “Aunt Annie, what are you talking about? You’re not going to hell.”
“Oh, but I am, for a deed I done—or helped do, anyway—when I was younger even than you air.”
And for a long while the old woman was silent. Her great-niece sat there watching her, her smooth brow suddenly marked by a vertical line of worry. “Aunt Annie,” she said eventually, “what did you do?”
Annie said, matter-of-factly, “I helped kill three men an’ bury ‘em up on Cedar Cliff. They was five of us done it. Five of us who never repented of what we done, an’ five dogs to lead us to hell. Me an’ him, we’re the last ‘uns.”
She rocked for a few minutes, and then she said, “Hit was right along t’ord th’ end of the War, you know, an’ they’s a lot of women right along in hyere what was widders. Young widders with children. Some of ‘em had husbands in them Yankee prisons, captured an’ sent off, most of ‘em to die an’ what few come home jes’ broken men. But that uz later.
“They’s all these Yankee sojers around, an’ there was three of ‘em that uz the meanest white men that ever stepped foot on the ground. They made life hell for the young widders ’round. My mama was one of ‘em. They stole thangs, they kilt livestock, they burnt barns, an’—more than one of the young widders an’ their daughters—they forced therselves on ‘em.
“They come t’ our house one night, an’ one of ‘em—he’d been drankin’ some—made me dance with him. I reckon maybe I just barely escaped bein’ misused. The day after that, Mama an’ some of the other widders got together an’ they made a plan. They was a-gonna get rid of them sojers, one way or nother.
“Now the sojers didn’ know, but they’s five of us—Mama, an’ me, an’ three others—what had guns. With the menfolk gone we’d learned to hunt, an’ clean game, an’ we had guns and knives hid back. An’ we knowed that, right at that time, them three sojers was a-campin’ up on Cedar Cliff.
“We got our guns an’ all t’gether, an’ us five clumb up to Cedar Cliff one night when they’s just enough moon to see by. We found ‘em a-sleepin’ on the ground outside of their tent; hit was a warm night an’ they was all lined up there. An’ we kilt ‘em. Shot ‘em all dead while they slept.”
The girl listened, saucer-eyed and scarcely seeming to breathe, but Annie rocked awhile before she continued her story.
“Well, then we wadn’ shore what to do, but we decided we’d all go home an’ hide the guns an’ come back with shovels an’ bury ‘em. We’d all hang fer murder if them bodies was found. So we run home, hid the guns, come back with shovels. Hit’s hard work, fer the ground up thar is s’ pore an’ rocky hit’uz hard to dig out a place big enough fer a grave. To make matters worse, one of the widders went a little crazy. Afore we could stop her, she went at one o’ them dead bodies with a knife an’ cut ‘im up bad, an’ then she spit on ‘im.
“We managed to keep her from tearing into the other ‘uns, cause daylight was comin’ an’ we had to get ‘em buried. We throwed ‘em in, an’ kivvered ‘em up—an’ then–we seen them dogs.
“The widder what done th’ cuttin’ seen ’em first, and she kinely screamed, an’ then the rest of us seen ’em. We knowed right away they wadn’ right. They’s bigger than real dogs, black as coal, had red, red eyes, an’ they didn’ bark. They never made a sound, ‘ceptin’ t’ growl when we stepped t’ord that grave. An’ then we knowed they uz hounds from hell, come up to guard that grave an’ never let us fergit what we done that night.
“There was five of ‘em. An’ a few years later, one of the widders died, an’ then there was four. An’ so on an’ so on. That’s been more’n sixty year ago now, an’ there ain’t but one of us left what killed them Yankees. An’ when I go, ‘at last dog will go with me. He’ll walk into hell right ‘longside o’ me, cause after what I done, there ain’t no gittin’ into heaven.”
The old woman didn’t sound afraid, or worried, at that prospect. She just rocked on, as if she had long ago made her peace with her fate.
She had been a girl of twelve when she, her mother, and three other women had killed three men and buried them atop Cedar Cliff. She lived to be nearly eighty. Throughout her long life, others told the same story as her niece: of being chased off Cedar Cliff by a gigantic, black, red-eyed hound that vanished once the offender ran away.
Once she was dead, there were no more reports of the hound.
He must have gone with her.
(This story is adapted from one told by Randy Russell and Janet Barnett in their 2001 book GHOST DOGS OF THE SOUTH. They collected it in the mountains of North Carolina.)