MY HUNT FOR OLD SCREAMER WAS A SERIOUS CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY

December 06, 1982

Old Screamer made his first appearance one balmy midnight in the spring of 1940. For years the abandoned quarry three miles south of the Western Kentucky town of Eddyville (pop. 2,407) had been a favored parking spot for lovers. On this particular night, two cars sat on the gravel bed at the base of the 35-foot-high limestone cliff that rose above the horseshoe-shaped quarry on three sides. From one car radio wafted a strain of soft music. Suddenly, from the crest of the cliff, a blood-chilling scream pierced the night. In unison two car engines roared to life. Gander Galusha and his date heard something heavy land on the roof of their Chevrolet convertible. Then came a ripping sound. The startled couple looked up through a gaping hole to see a snarling animal clawing madly through the canvas top. Gander threw the car in gear, pressed the accelerator to the floor and spun the car around on the gravel. The maneuver flung the animal from the roof. Gander didn't stop to see what it was. Nor did the couple in the other car, who were already well away.

The next day the incident was the talk of the town. "Bobcat," said one of the wizened oldtimers who occupied the benches on the courthouse lawn. "Big one, from the sound of things. Came up from the bottoms, I figure, during the spring floods. I've seen 'em claw up folks mighty bad. Someone best get him out of there, 'fore he does some real harm."

Someone tried, then someone else—men with shotguns and rifles, trappers. Every hunter in the county, it seemed, took a stab at it but to no avail. The midnight screams continued.

One Saturday, Sam Litchfield drove into town and hurried into the drugstore. In the bed of his pickup truck his young English setter, Pepper, lay injured, his back and chest a mass of wounds. When Sam emerged from the store, he began doctoring his dog. Sam had been training Pepper on a covey of quail that nested in the field behind the old quarry, he explained to onlookers. Suddenly, the inexperienced dog broke discipline and ran up the back side of the quarry. Then came a loud commotion on the top of the cliff—"fierce snarling and growling." Pepper began to yelp in pain. By the time Sam reached the base of the cliff, Pepper had limped back down and collapsed. As Sam lifted Pepper and ran to his truck, he heard a scream from the cliff. "Mean and threatening, like the varmint was warning me to stay away or else," Sam said.

No one had any doubts about what Pepper had encountered. After that, the quarry was abandoned once again. Old Screamer, as he was now known by one and all, had laid claim to a domain.

And that's how matters stood late that summer when, one afternoon soon after my 14th birthday, I announced to my father that I was going after Old Screamer. My father was a tolerant man who advocated independence in his children. But on this occasion he lowered his paper and eyed me askance. "Oh? When?"

"Tonight."

"I see." His tone was not encouraging. "A lot of good men have tried already."

"I know."

"I suppose you have a different plan, then?"

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.

There was no time to shoulder the gun. Still clinging to the bush with one hand, I pressed the safety off with the other, grasped the trigger, shoved the gun straight ahead of me on the ground and fired point-blank. With a throaty cry, Old Screamer spun in his tracks and ran back up the cliff. The recoil from the shot wrested the gun from my grip. It flew backward into the darkness and clanged onto the rocks below.

The situation had gotten very out of hand. If my shot had gone wild, I thought, or if Old Screamer was merely wounded, he could return meaner than ever. Moses surely had escaped down the back side by the time Old Screamer came after me. I could think of no good reason to stick around. I backed rapidly down the trail on my hands and knees. At the bottom I jumped to my feet and walked quickly toward the road. Just as I reached the highway I heard something behind me. Old Screamer! With a will of their own my feet began to pound the asphalt in cadence with my pounding heart. I glanced over my shoulder. Whatever was back there was gaining. With superhuman effort I quickened my pace. A shadowy figure pulled up alongside me, and then sped past. Moses! It wasn't Old Screamer who was chasing me after all. Greatly relieved, I started to slow down. Then I thought: Maybe something's chasing Moses. I decided to keep running.

By the time we reached the town limits I'd passed Moses once and he'd passed me yet again. We ran the last quarter-mile neck and neck. Without stopping, Moses darted straight for his usual haven under the back porch. I went to my room and crawled into bed. I lay there breathing hard, my brain feverishly replaying the night's events. Had I, perhaps, bagged Old Screamer after all? Could it be that his carcass was lying up there in the rocks for me to find and lash to a pole and carry back to town in triumph? The thought quickened my pulse even more. I'd check the quarry tomorrow.

Next morning I awoke late. My father was sitting on the rear steps, his wide back to the door. He heard me step out onto the porch. "Good hunt?" he asked without turning around.

"You bet," I boasted. Omitting the embarrassing details, I told him about the perilous confrontation on the trail and how I'd managed, with considerable boldness and skill, to get off a close-range shot. "I think I got him, all right."

"Your gun's not in the closet."

"Uh...no, you see, I fell and dropped it. I'm going back to get it today."

"I see."

There was a metallic clink from somewhere near my father's feet. Curious, I stepped forward. I was surprised to see Moses on his haunches between my father's legs. My father was running his fingers over Moses' head and body. At one point his fingers stopped and probed. He picked up a pair of tweezers, extracted what he'd found and dropped it into a pan on the steps. I looked into the pan. It held a half-dozen No. 5 shotgun pellets. My stomach flip-flopped. Suddenly it was all clear. It wasn't Old Screamer I'd met on the trail last night. It was Moses. I'd shot my own dog!

Without a word I went back to my bed and pulled the covers over my head. I stayed there most of the day.

Late that afternoon my father drove me to the quarry, where I recovered my gun. Sheepishly, I looked up at the cliff and wondered if Old Screamer was watching. I soon learned that he wasn't.

Two days later Sam Litchfield drove into town blasting away on his horn. I ran to join the crowd that quickly gathered in front of Gresham's grocery store, where Sam parked his truck. In the bed of the truck, dead as a doornail, was the largest, most ferocious looking bobcat anyone there had ever seen. Gazing down on that unmoving but still frightening form, I knew that Old Screamer had screamed his last.

"I went hunting for him," Sam explained. "To even the score for Pepper. But I didn't kill him. Found him up on the cliff, neck broken clean as a whistle. There's some powerful jaw marks on his neck. Looks like he finally tangled with one dog he couldn't handle."

It must have been Moses. Now I knew why he was wandering back down the trail that night. He'd finished the job he'd climbed that cliff to do.

Moses' wounds were superficial and healed quickly. For two weeks he avoided me completely. But in time he forgave me and our friendship renewed itself. For the remainder of his long life he would accompany me on my visits to the old swimming hole, tag along when I fished the bar ditches and roam the woods at my side in search of his favorite persimmons and paw-paws. But after that ill-fated night of Old Screamer, he never went hunting with me again.

ILLUSTRATIONBILL PARKS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)