I nodded. It wasn't that I considered myself a better hunter than the others. Oh, I could bag my limit of a dozen quail on the wing with 12 shots any day of the week. But, that wasn't unusual for a boy raised in the Cumberland River Valley. Still, I did have one advantage. "I'm taking Moses," I said confidently.
Moses was one-quarter bloodhound, one-quarter coon dog and one-half undetermined origin. In the six years since I'd picked him from a ragged, eight-pup litter whelped one rainy afternoon behind the grade-school boiler plant, he'd been devoted to me. Together we explored the pleasures life offers the young: lazing away hot summer days in our favorite swimming hole near the north bend of the Cumberland, bass fishing in the backwater bar ditches along dusty country lanes, roaming the deep Kentucky woods in search of ripe persimmons and wild sweet pawpaws, possum hunting through the long winter nights. Moses' reputation for treeing possums was formidable. If there was one foraging within five miles, Moses could sniff him out. A dog that capable just had to be able to flush one ornery bobcat into the open where I could draw a good bead on him.
I took my 20-gauge shotgun from the closet and selected four shells with No. 5 shot. In the kitchen I shoved a can of pork and beans into my pocket and whistled for Moses.
The walk to the quarry took slightly more than an hour. By sundown we were settled in a comfortable niche at the base of the cliff. I opened the can of pork and beans with my hunting knife, scooped half onto a flat rock for Moses and ate the rest. Then, with Moses curled up at my feet, we settled back to await darkness—and Old Screamer.
Something brushed my cheek. I awoke with a start, surprised that I'd dozed off. A light wind had come up, and a nearby scrub oak swayed in the breeze, its branches lightly touching my face. The night was partly cloudy but moonlit, and the cloudless portions of the sky were ablaze with stars. A chorus of crickets serenaded the evening, their song echoing across the quarry. Overhead, a feeding bat folded its wings and dived headlong toward a cloud of swarming gnats. Just then, an angry growl reached my ears. Moses! I jumped to my feet and turned to face the cliff. A narrow trail, illuminated by moonlight, wound tortuously up the sheer face. A shower of pebbles bounced down the cliff and fell around me. I thought: Moses is up there! He's stalking something. I checked the safety on my gun. Then I sensed a presence nearby. I turned to see Moses behind me. He wasn't on the trail. He hadn't dislodged the pebbles!
Suddenly the night sounds ceased. At that second, a horrible shriek, not unlike a person crying out in agony, shattered the eerie silence. Old Screamer! With a gutteral bark Moses leapt past me and bounded up the steep trail. Sweat stung my eyes and my fingers grew slippery on the gun stock. For the first time I wondered if I'd bitten off more than I could chew.
From atop the cliff came another wild screech. Then Moses' bark, high-pitched and rapid now, signaled that he had located his prey. Gun poised, I waited for the telltale change in Moses' tone that would alert me that the prey had been flushed. But the rapid barking continued unabated. This could only mean one thing—Old Screamer was holding his ground. Then, ominously, the barking abruptly changed to a series of frightened yelps.
All at once the night was frigid. I remembered Pepper. But he was an inexperienced dog. Moses is a veteran hunter, I told myself. Moses yelped again. Belatedly, I realized that this was not the time to debate Moses' qualifications. I rushed toward the cliff, got a footing on the trail and began to scramble upward. "Hold on, Moses!" I yelled. "I'm coming!"
At that moment the moon disappeared behind a cloud.
The now darkened trail was littered with loose stones. Barely able to see, I groped ahead gingerly. Halfway up, I stepped too close to the edge. The soft shoulder gave way and I fell headlong onto the rocky path with a jarring thud. The gun slammed down in front of me and almost teetered into the void. I grabbed the gun with my right hand, at the same time clutching a trailside bush with my left. It kept me from tumbling down the cliff. For a long moment I lay there dazed, breathing heavily. Then, still sprawled flat on my stomach, I glanced up—and my blood turned to ice water. Ten feet up the trail, dimly visible in the moonlight, Old Screamer was stalking me, his satanic eyes ablaze with fury.