Devil Dog

by Len Bailey


“Oh, poor Taffy.”

The little girl knelt on her back porch in a back hollow in the back of the world. She cried and cried as only brokenhearted little girls can. Enough teardrops to fill a coal bucket. Her dog, no bigger than a bread box, was tied to the stoop post. He whined. He drooped his head, for his body was covered with red sores and scabs except for a few patches of hair on his hind quarters and on the very tips of his ears. He twitched. He trembled. He looked up with eyes so forlorn that she cried all over again.

“What’re you crying for, Corky Sue?” came a voice. “You never seen the mange before?”

The little girl spun around. There stood a tall man dressed in a soldier’s uniform. His chest had medals and colorful ribbons.

“Lawton?” cried Corky Sue. She clapped and went to hug him, but Taffy bared his teeth—the only thing left to identify the pitiful creature as a dog.

“Stop it right now.” She jerked on his leash. “Don’t you remember Lawton? For shame.”

“Oh, he don’t mean no harm.” Lawton smiled pleasantly. All of his smiles were pleasant. All the girls in Bent Branch Hollow and the upper coal camp were in love with him, or had been when he went away to war. “I’d be fractious too if I was bald and covered with sores and such.”

“Didn’t know you were back from Germany,” said Corky Sue excitedly. “Did you bring me back some chocolate? I see it all the time in them moving picture shows, soldiers giving chocolate to children. Could you teach me German? I like German. It sounds like you’re cussing but getting away with it. What do those swords on your patch mean? Oh, have you been down the hollow to see Janet Lou, yet? She’ll just die. Are you home to stay, Lawton? What’d your mother say when you showed up?”

He put his head back and laughed. But Taffy had not yet fallen in with the jocular mood. He growled deep in his throat.

“I reckon my surprise homecoming backfired on me.” Lawton plopped himself down on a chair next to the ringer washing machine. He fished in his pocket for his cigarettes and lit up. The smoke trailed out over the back yard. “I stepped off the bus just now. Walked all the way up the hollow toting my gunny sack, and wouldn’t you know it, no one’s at home. Nossir. Serves me right, doesn’t it? But I need to stay hid away until I surprise mama proper-like.”

He craned his neck and peered down five back yards to his own. Large white sheets billowed from his mother’s clothesline like sails in the stiff April breeze. If the coal train was to chug by, those sheets would turn a dingy gray. He settled back and the chair creaked like an old man’s bones. He drew on his cigarette, squinting through the smoke at Taffy, who continued to regard him with hostility.

“I didn’t know you smoke, Lawton.”

“Swore I never would, Corky Sue, really I did. Saw what it did to my daddy. But the army changes a fellow in ways he don’t figure on.”

“Well, I can’t hardly believe it’s you, Lawton.”

“Can’t hardly believe you recognize me in this uniform with all these stripes down my arm,” he replied. “You were only five years old when I shipped off.”

She stared him up and down. His medals glowed in the shade. Her blue eyes met his brown ones and he smiled kindly.

“Careful of your dog, Corky Sue. Strange things can happen between beast and man.”

“Well, I’m awful tired to the point of exhaustion, to tell you the agonizing truth. I’ve been weeping with a lot of burdensome lamentation, crying the tears of Job, ’cause of Taffy, here. My daddy says he’ll die soon. Mama won’t feed him no more. Says I’m a witch for keeping such a devil dog.”

“She’s just kidding with you. Taffy sure looks like a devil dog, though. Like I said, he hasn’t got nothing but the mange. Real bad case of it, though.”

“I thought he was dying last night. I was expecting myself to plan a funeral.”

“Dying? From rabies or fever maybe. But not mange, usually. But your daddy’s right about one thing. Taffy’s not long for this world if he gets much worse.”

Parts of Taffy’s hide had broken into open sores. He brought up a hind foot and scratched one of the few places on his head that still had hair.

“I can’t stop him from doing that,” Corky Sue said.

“I’d be inclined to help him if he didn’t hate me so much.”

“Can you help us, Lawton? Would you?”

He sat forward in the chair and looked her right in the eye. “You got to go somewhere scary. You gotta take Taffy up to Hell’s Hollow.”

“Where’s that?”

“Pigpen Hollow, same thing. And once you get there, you got to do something terrible.”

She looked out over her back yard, across the alley, to the mountain that towered behind her house. She shivered. “I can’t, Lawton. I’m not allowed up to that Pigpen Hollow. Daddy would whip me good for it. It’s an evil place. A place of particular distress. Jeremiah Banks went up there and got himself lost once.”

“It’s a bad place for sure. But there’s no other way to save that pitiful creature of yours. He’s got but a few hanks of hair left on him.”

“Corky Sue?” A voice called from inside the house.

“It’s mama!” she squealed.

Lawton jumped up in a flash. He tiptoed over and pressed himself against the back of the house. A woman in an apron came to the screen door.

“Corky Sue, who you talking to out there?”

The little girl just shrugged and shot a sideways glance at Lawton, who grinned back.

“I hope it ain’t that old dog of yours, honey. He’s as good as dead—hate to hurt your feelings so. Becky and Roger’s heading down to the schoolhouse. Go on, now, and play with your friends.”

“Taffy’s my whole world, mama. I hate Becky Jo. She’s a tattle-teller, and Roger’s a little pecker.”

“I’ll wash your mouth out with soap, young lady, and we’ll see how you sass me. I know you’re upset about Taffy, and I am too, such a sweet dog before his sickness. But wipe off your long face or folks will think you got the mange, too. Go on now, and get.”

“Yes’m.”

Corky Sue relaxed and winked at Lawton, a signal the coast was clear. The soldier leaned against the washing machine. He took another puff on his cigarette.

She asked, “Why’s it called Hell’s Hollow?”

He traced the corner of his mouth with his thumb. “Flames and smoke, is all, Corky Sue, and real bad smells. Hotter’n Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. But it’s Taffy’s only chance—I ain’t kidding you.”

“I’m not going up there, Lawton. I’m not brave like you.”

The soldier craned his neck to peer over at his back yard again—no sign of anyone at home. He snapped a look at his fancy army watch and knelt in front of her. “Look here, Corky Sue, I’ll take you there myself. If your daddy finds out, you just tell him Sergeant Lawton Hunt escorted you the whole way. How’s that?”

“You’d do that for Taffy? Really, would you?”

“But you’ve got be real brave when the time comes. Just like a soldier.”

“What for?”

He looked at her with solemn eyes. “You’ll see when we get there. C’mon.”

Lawton led the way across the back yard. Past the squawking chickens, past the onion garden, Corky Sue following with Taffy on a leash. She glanced over her shoulder. No sign of her mama. They followed the alley for a while and then turned into a grove of trees and up a footpath leading into the woods between the hills.

“Not a lot of folks know this trail.” Lawton stopped to catch his breath. “Lordy. I gotta quit these cigarettes.”

“A secret path?”

Lawton chuckled good-naturedly. He fished out another Lucky Strike and lit up again. “Cherokees used it years and years ago.” He breathed in and sighed, “Oh, the things you forget when you’re gone from home too long.”

Corky Sue shivered, but climbing the mountainside heated them up real quickly. They came to a rickety old bridge spanning a stream. Taffy quieted down and became a little perky. Maybe the coolness of the woods soothed his itchy hide.

Up ahead a neighboring mountain brought its slope down to bar their way, but Lawton knew a hidden passageway used by Confederates to give Union soldiers the slip during the Civil War. “And we gotta watch out for snakes,” he cautioned.

Corky Sue kicked at last year’s leaves as they walked. “Lawton, why’d you ever go off to the war?”

“Wanted to get outta these mountains for a spell. Wanted to see the world. And I’m too tall to be a motorman in the mines like my daddy. If it was me driving that tram in the mining shaft, my helmet might graze those electric wires. Fry me like a piece of bacon.”

They hardly made a sound as they wound through the trees and picked their way down a flight of old wooden railroad ties laid down like stairs, slippery with creeping plants and moss. At the bottom, Lawton led the way through a bend in the trees and out onto a dirt road, then past rows of pigpens with slumbering pigs lying in their own stench, dreaming contentedly of hog heaven.

The little girl scrunched up her nose again. “It sure stinks back here.”

“Be glad it’s not summertime.” Lawton wiped his brow with his sleeve. “I guess there’s other things you don’t miss while you’re gone.”

Corky Sue snickered. “You look kind of funny, Lawton, standing out here in the middle of Pigpen Hollow all dressed up in that fancy uniform with your ribbons and such. Real funny.”

The hollow grew narrower and narrower, and Lawton said, “Makes a soul feel pressed in, don’t it? Why, it’s so dark up the head of this hollow they’ve got to pipe in the daylight.”

The joke fell flat. They looked up the sheer sides of the surrounding mountains hemming them in. The land grew quiet and watchful.

Above the gloom appeared a massive head with a sagging jaw of sharp teeth supported by a long thin neck, like something prehistoric. Corky Sue drew in her breath sharply. About the monster’s feet coiled immense snakes, frozen in time.

“That’s just an old steam shovel, Corky,” Lawton said tenderly. The snakes turned out to be rusty old rails from the mines, bent into fantastic shapes. Nearby, a crumbling brick structure had succumbed to thickets of ivy, sweet everlasting, and rhododendron blossoms. Two large spotted porkers looked up from furrowing, grunting heavily, their shoulder hairs bristling.

“I don’t want to go any further, Lawton,” Corky Sue said.

“Got to, if you want to save that dog of yours.”

Close by, a large garbage can flickered with yellow fire. Sparks hovered and danced like restless souls tied unwillingly to this earth, and then danced upward, released to wing their way to heaven.

Lawton pointed up the path with the fingers holding his cigarette. “Up yonder is where it gets real bad, the track where the trolley motor dumps off its load of bone. Bone is slate, Corky Sue, leftover ore. Coal Company’s been dumping it down the mountainside for years. After a while it’ll catch fire and burn for months. Looks like Hades back here. Hell’s Hollow. The coal tar boils out of the slate—creosote, they call it. Time was it got so bad it seeped down and polluted the creek which flows on down to the coal camp. Folks complained about the bad water so the Company built a dam to keep the creosote back.”

They came to stand on the edge of the small dam. There lay a foul lake of water covered with a thick film of black, oily liquid—creosote—grimly reflecting the strip of blue sky overhead. Taffy whimpered pitifully and brushed against Corky Sue.

“Good,” said Lawton simply. Carefully he ground out his cigarette butt so as not to ignite the standing pool of noxious, malodorous coal tar. “They haven’t burned it off.”

His face became serious, his jaw muscles working.

“What’s war like, Lawton?” asked Corky Sue in a small voice.

“You’re just like Janet Lou. Real good at guessing my thoughts. Sometime I’ll tell you, hon. Just not now. I will say, though, some parts of Italy looked just like this, all barren and dead and burned to hell.”

“I thought you were in Germany.”

“I ended up fighting in Italy. Mussolini’s friends with Hitler, you know. I saw a lot of bad things. Lots of bombing and burning and shooting and hunkering down in the hills. But like I said, Corky Sue, that’s a story for later on when you’re older.”

“So, you going to marry Janet Lou?”

Lawton laughed. “You sure got a wheelbarrow full of questions.” He crossed his arms and said, “A long time before I shipped out, I knew I was going to marry her. In fact, I hid a secret treasure for her.”

“A treasure? Really?”

“But if I tell you where it is, you got to swear not to tell anybody.”

“Don’t say it out loud.” She motioned to the little dog. “Taffy can’t keep a secret.”

“Raise your right hand, Corky Sue, and swear.”

She stood straight as a ladder and raised a small white hand. “I swear I won’t tell nobody nothing never about your treasure, Lawton.”

He leaned down and whispered in her ear. Taffy whined and sniffed. “Now that’s our special secret, Corky Sue.”

“It sure is.”

He looked Taffy right in the eye. The dog growled again.

“Here’s the terrible thing you got to do, Corky Sue, that I warned you about if you want to save this here dog of yours.” He lit a cigarette and flicked the match the other direction from the dam. Under his breath he said, “You got to pick up Taffy and throw him into that creosote.”

Her mouth gaped wide. “I darn well will not.” She wrinkled up her face and pointed up at him. “And you can go ahead and tell my daddy I was here in this bad place if you want to, and you can tell him I said a swear like I just did. But I’m not never doing no such thing to Taffy.”

“I said you’d have to be awful brave when the time came.” He breathed out some lazy smoke and then shrugged. “Well alright then, let’s get on back home. Just remember, you had your chance. Taffy had his chance.”

“But throwing him in there will kill him. Or he’ll drown.”

“Naw, he won’t. But he’ll sure sound like he’s dying.” Lawton studied her. “I’d never tell you to do something that wasn’t good, especially with your precious dog. But I’ll tell you this for a certain fact: if you don’t throw Taffy in there, he’ll die real soon.”

Taffy shuffled closer to her. She grimaced to feel his bare skin against her leg.

“Will you help me, Lawton?”

He shook his head and exhaled smoke out his nostrils. “I will not. Some things a person’s got to do for herself.”

She bit her lip. She reached down and picked up Taffy. Ever so gently she unhooked his collar. Taffy seemed to sense something was wrong and he began to bark and struggle in her arms. Truth be told, as seasoned and as tough Sergeant Lawton Hunt was, he nearly wept to see Corky Sue with tears streaming down her face toss her beloved dog out into that pool of vile, odorous, viscous liquid.

With a splash the dog vanished below the surface only to reappear, howling and whimpering, whining, grunting, yelping, yapping, and growling—enough pitiful noise to make anyone shudder. Corky Sue cried out in tragic grief to see that sloppy, greasy dog swimming back toward them.

Taffy reached shore and shot away like a tar-covered comet—if a comet can be said to howl and yammer. He fled down the hollow around the pigpens and clean out of sight.

“Now look what you done.” Corky Sue whimpered and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. She leveled a finger at him. “Just look what you done.”

“He’ll be alright.”

They made their way back down the hollow and then back along the path between the mountains, Corky Sue crying over her empty leash. They didn’t talk. Once or twice she thought she caught sight of Taffy scampering through the shadows, a fierce little monster with sharp, gnashing teeth and bulging eyes.

In no time they found themselves in Corky Sue’s back yard and walked around to the front of her house.

“Well, look’ee yonder.” Lawton pointed as a car pulled up in front of his house. A man got out wearing an army uniform. “It’s Charlie Fergus, the fellow who recruited me. Ol’ Charlie Fergus, still wearing his army pistol. How’d he know I was back?”

They both waved and Charlie waved back, and opened the front gate leading to Lawton’s house.

Lawton knelt down in front of her. “You were brave today, Corky Sue. You did real good with Taffy. The U.S. Army would be proud to enlist you. I got to go down to my house now, but I’ll see you and Taffy later.”

Corky Sue watched Lawton run away, his army boots pounding the dirt road. He jumped over his front gate and flew up the front porch stairs after Charlie Fergus. From inside the house, Mrs. Hunt let out a high-pitched cry of surprise.

Lawton was finally home.

Over the next few days Corky Sue surveyed her back yard from her upstairs bedroom window. She’d catch a glimpse of Taffy now and then, or so she thought. Her little nerves were on the brink of shattering. She would lie in bed at night and toss. Where was Taffy sleeping? What was he eating? Maybe some bear or panther would eat him—Taffy couldn’t defend himself. She thought she heard him one night, but his bark had changed into something she didn’t recognize. Her thoughts drifted to Hell’s Hollow. She liked Lawton. He had a way of putting a body at ease. She hoped everything he’d said was true but part of her thought she’d never see Taffy again. At least, not the Taffy she knew.

One day her mother poked her head into her bedroom. She was wearing her nice dress and earrings even though it wasn’t Sunday. “Corky Sue, I told you to get away from the window and get yourself dressed. Stop looking for that beast of yours. I’ve laid out your polka-dot dress you look so nice in and your Sunday shoes. Your father’s waiting on us. I’m not going to tell you again.”

“Yes’m.”

Mrs. Hunt, Lawton’s mother, was having a bunch of folks over to her house, Corky Sue figured, because of her son coming home from the war and all. Janet Lou would be there, and as Corky Sue wiggled into her best dress, she felt a twinge of jealousy. Sure, Janet Lou was a grown woman and she herself was just a little girl, but Lawton had a real charming way about him. Everybody loved him. Corky Sue loved him. She practiced a sweet smile in the mirror. Lawton had told her his secret, and only her.

Corky Sue’s daddy was in a suit, which he hardly never was, and her mother looked awfully dressed up with her white gloves and her best purse. They walked down the road to Lawton’s house. The front porch was crowded with folks from all over Bent Branch Hollow and Breggen Coal Camp.

“Where’s Lawton?” Corky Sue was watching for the handsome soldier.

Her mother leaned down and said in her ear, “You just behave yourself, young lady, and don’t ask such foolish questions.” Corky Sue didn’t think it was foolish. Lawton needed reminding their trip to Hell’s Hollow was a secret.

Mr. Varney nodded at her. Corky didn’t much like him. His eyes always closed when he smiled. She’d never seen him so scrubbed up before and wearing a suit. He wasn’t a churchgoer, not with that filthy mouth of his, nor half these other coal miners.

She followed her mama through the crowded porch into the living room. There were no balloons or punch or cookies or fiddle playing or dancing. These folks looked none too happy, neither.

Something caught her eye. A big picture of Lawton hung on the wall with a black wreath around it and draped with black ribbon, and two American flags crossed at the bottom. Mrs. Hunt sat nearby blowing her nose with a tissue. Mr. Charlie Fergus and all sorts of women huddled around her. A cold shock went over Corky Sue. Below the picture was printed these words:


SGT. LAWTON P. HUNT
1923-1945
U.S. 10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION
KILLED IN ACTION


“Mamma, what—?”

“Hush, honey. This is a memorial service for Lawton. You remember him, Janet Lou’s man? You stay here whilst we pay our respects. Don’t you go wandering off. You can go play with Amanda and Cecil but don’t get that dress dirty. Do you hear me?”

But Corky Sue did wander off. Her head swam. Lawton dead? Killed in action? Here in Kentucky? Nothing made any sense.

She made her way through a forest of tall people, trees that politely moved out of her way as she searched for an out-of-the-way place, somewhere empty to match her empty feelings. She came upon a quiet bedroom. A young, pretty woman sat alone on the edge of a four-poster bed. She looked as lost as her heart.

“Hello Janet Lou,” Corky Sue said quietly.

Janet Lou nodded. She looked dull. The bedroom walls were decorated with army posters and airplanes. The bedspread was dark blue. This must be Lawton’s bedroom.

Corky Sue put her hand on Janet Lou’s knee. “Where did Lawton go?”

“He’s not here.” Janet Lou sniffled. “He’s never going be here again. He’s gone, that’s all. I loved him so, but he’s gone.”

“But he loves you. Where would he go without you?”

“I thought he loved me. But his letters sounded different. I wondered, truly I did.” Janet Lou studied her tissue and then applied it to the corner of her eye. But the more Corky Sue comforted her, the more her tears flowed. “I thought maybe Lawton found himself some pretty foreign girl and wasn’t ever coming back, or he’d bring back a foreign girl, like in the story books, and I’d die of embarrassment and of a wearisome broken heart. But maybe it’s true that war can make a man vexatious. I guess he did love me after all.”

“There’s no girl prettier than you,” said Corky Sue.

“Thank you, hon.” Janet Lou ran her hand over his bed’s coverlet. “Yes, I know he loved me with a true heart, the way he’d caress my hair and my cheek. The way our fingers would touch as we walked along, and we’d hold hands for hours.”

“He was so nice to me and Taffy just last week,” said Corky Sue.

“Enough of that foolishness.” A woman’s voice came from the doorway. It was Mrs. Hunt, Lawton’s mother, being helped along by Charlie Fergus. “He was killed in action, child. Killed in the war.”

“What war, ma’am?”

Mrs. Hunt’s voice wavered. “That’s enough, Corky Sue. Lawton’s gone. That’s all.”

“He was doing fine just a few days ago over at our house. He helped me with Taffy. That’s my dog.”

Mrs. Hunt wiped at her nose with a tissue. “None of your silly stories, young lady. Not now.”

“But he was down at my house,” persisted Corky Sue. “Charlie Fergus—we saw you about four days back going up to Lawton’s house—”

“With the telegram from the army,” said Charlie sadly, “stating that poor Lawton was killed.”

“But you waved at us.”

He frowned and scratched his head. “I waved at you, Corky Sue. I sure didn’t see nobody else.”

“But I heard you shout, Mrs. Hunt,” declared Corky Sue. “Surely I did. When Lawton ran through your front door you yelped.”

“I cried out when I read the telegram from the War Office. Please leave me be. I’ve always thought you were a sweet little girl, but this is mean of you, Corky Sue.”

“But Lawton had just taken me over to Hell’s—” she bit her lip.

“I can’t abide you right now, child.” Mrs. Hunt’s voice had risen to the point that folks in the kitchen had fallen quiet.

“What’s going on in here?” Corky Sue’s mother and father appeared in the doorway.

“Corky Sue’s just a little confused,” said Janet Lou, sympathetically. “Aren’t you?”

“Causing trouble’s more like it,” Corky Sue’s father replied. “You come on out of there right now, young lady. You’re in some real trouble.”

Mrs. Hunt broke down crying again, burying her face in her hands. “You’re a wicked little girl.”

Janet Lou, her own eyes red on the edges from crying, patted the little girl on the shoulder. “She didn’t mean no harm. A child’s troubled heart can think up some strange stories.”

“Straight up lying is what I call it,” Charlie Fergus said.

“But Lawton was here. On Tuesday. He took me to Pigpen Hollow—Hell’s Hollow—and we threw Taffy into the creosote up by the dam. Lawton said that’d cure Taffy’s mange. I’m not making it up.”

“That’s enough, young lady.” Her mother’s voice sounded as dark and thick as molasses. Her father’s eyes smoldered, and he worked his gnarled fingers. Corky Sue and her daddy were normally real close, but she’d clearly transgressed some terrible law in the far-off world of adult doings.

“Now, just a minute,” said Janet Lou, looking into the little girl’s frank, honest eyes. “How would she know to do such a thing with Taffy?”

Corky’s mother stepped in and took her daughter by the hand. “Listen to me, young lady. We’re going on home right now, and when I’m done with you, you won’t be able to sit down for a week. You apologize to Mrs. Hunt, here. These folks are black with grieving and have lost their precious Lawton over in Germany. They don’t need you—”

“Lawton wasn’t in Germany,” declared Corky Sue. “He was in Italy.”

Mrs. Hunt looked up from her tissue. Her hand came to rest over the pocket where she kept the Western Union telegram. Her voice was barely a whisper. “Now, how would you know my Lawton was in Italy, child?”

“He told me.”

Mrs. Hunt sat down on the bed next to Janet Lou. She stared at Corky Sue who looked unblinkingly back at her.

“What else did he say, my Lawton?”

“He said he loved Janet Lou, and he loved her forever and ever, even before he left for the war.”

Mrs. Hunt put her arm around Janet Lou, who burst into soft sobbing.

“And Lawton,” Corky Sue said, looking at the room of adults, “he told me a secret.”

Corky Sue’s father muttered something to her mother, and she went to guide her daughter out of the room. But Mrs. Hunt reached out and grasped the child’s hand.

“Did he now? My Lawton told you a secret, Corky Sue? You wouldn’t be playing a terrible trick on me, would you, child? I must tell you truthfully, my heart is broken.”

“Lawton said he was going to ask Janet Lou to marry him.”

“That ain’t hardly no secret.” Charlie Fergus snickered.

Corky Sue stood back. She gripped the knob atop the bed’s footboard post. It wouldn’t budge.

“Whatever are you doing, child?” asked Mrs. Hunt.

The little girl walked around the foot of the bed and twisted the other knob. It wouldn’t budge either. She climbed up the far side of the bed onto the pillow and reached up to the headboard post. Everyone watched. To their amazement the knob twisted off. She fished into the cavity with her little fingers and grabbed hold of something. She replaced the knob carefully and scrambled down. She came around to Janet Lou.

Everyone craned their necks. Corky Sue opened her hand. There lay a dazzling, sparkling diamond engagement ring.

***

Bent Branch Hollow baked in the haze of an August sun. Limp birches and willows, too hot or weary to move, shadowed a creek which had slowed to a trickle. Dragonflies hovered and darted over what pools of murky water remained in the streambed while water moccasins sunned themselves on the sandstone rocks, oblivious to the swarms of hopping sand flies and to the orchestrated rise and fall of a million cicadas’ steady, rhythmic song.

From her front porch, Corky Sue shielded her eyes. Down the frying-pan-hot dirt road came a bouncing, fluttering ball of black fur. It scampered up to the front gate and barked excitedly.

“Come here Taffy.” But Taffy didn’t come. Corky Sue sprang off her porch swing. The little dog panted in the heat and looked back the way he’d run. Down the road stood a tall soldier, the sun blazing off of his ribbons and patches and medals.

Taffy tore back down the road. He reached the soldier and began to dance on his hind legs. The soldier laughed. Then he went to walk away.

Corky Sue bounded down the porch stairs, out the gate, and fled down the road. Her feet didn’t even touch the ground. She felt like she was in a dream, running toward heaven.

“Lawton!” she called. “Lawton!”

He turned back. She stopped, gasping in front of him. He smiled that lazy, good-natured smile, and readjusted the green gunny sack slung over his shoulder.

“I’m headed on home now, Corky Sue,” he said, “into the arms of Jesus.”

“Why didn’t you fly straight through heaven’s gates when you were killed in the war?”

“A soul lingers back sometimes, hon. I wanted to wander these hills some before I go. I’ll miss this old hollow. But I stopped by this one last time, like I promised I would, to make sure everything’s alright with your dog.” He glanced down at the happy, panting creature. “Got to go through a little hell, ain’t we, Taffy, before we can taste anything of heaven?”

Taffy stuck out his little red tongue and shook the dust out of his thick, black hair, and peered up at him with bright eyes. Lawton looked at the little girl. He brought up his hand in a slow, deliberate salute.

“You’re my favorite soldier, Corky Sue.”

Lawton’s medals and ribbons wavered in her tear-filled eyes. She saluted back with a trembling hand. She found it awful hard to swallow with what felt like a lump of coal lodged in her throat.

And that was the last Corky Sue ever saw of Sergeant Lawton P. Hunt. He walked away down the hollow into the shimmering waves of the hot summer day.

Corky Sue found she was standing directly in front of Lawton’s house. Out on the front porch stood Mrs. Hunt with tears streaming down her cheeks. Her hands were clasped to her chest.

And she was smiling.



The author was born in Huntington, West Virginia, and his early childhood spent in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, coal country. He received a BA in History from Trinity College in Deerfield, IL. He is the son of Don V. Bailey of Hardy, Kentucky (Pike County), who is the son of Clarence Bailey of mostly Cherokee blood, a true blue, tried and true, genuine deep-under-the-mountain coal miner. Len Bailey is published by Harper Collins and Tor Books/Macmillan.


“Devil Dog” by Len Bailey. Copyright © 2021 by Len Bailey. 


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Comments

  1. Loved this story! Kept me hooked from beginning till the end.

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  2. We accidentally deleted the following comment from Andrew G while attempting to approve it. Sorry about that! "I agree. Great story! Also, I love the way the author effortlessly and so vividly immerses us into the setting and the time period!"

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