By Sean Houlihan
Robert stepped out the back door and into the cool morning air. “Ready to run, boy?” he called. Buck bounded through the doggy door and into the backyard. The sliver of moon still hanging in the morning sky cast a dim light over the tall grass. Buck led the way down the path and out onto the old rail trail. Robert jumped up and down to get his blood flowing. He checked his watch.
5:45 a.m. Time to run.
After a rainy weekend, the night had been a calm one. The dry leaves hanging high in the oak and maple trees on either side of the trail were silent. Buck led the way, tail wagging, as he zigzagged back and forth in front of Robert. As they approached the lights from the apartment complex, Robert watched as Buck jumped to avoid a muddy spot that stretched across the trail. Looking down, Robert was careful to stride over it, too. When they reached the road, Robert checked his watch.
6 a.m. They were running at a good pace. They turned back toward home.
Buck had his nose up in the air as he let out a whine. The dog had stopped dead in his tracks. “What’s bothering you, boy?” asked Robert as he approached. Buck was sniffing nervously. The sky had lightened with the rising sun, and Robert could see clearly what had gotten Buck’s attention. In the middle of the muddy spot on the trail was a fresh print. A paw print that was as large as Robert’s hand. Something had been following them. Robert looked around. All he saw were a few of the windows lit up at the apartment complex; families were getting ready for the day ahead. Carved pumpkins and decorations were now visible on doorsteps, ready for the trick-or-treaters that would be out in the evening. Robert took a big step over the mud. Buck followed timidly behind him the rest of the way home.
Robert was bothered the whole day thinking about the paw print. Buck was a big dog, and Robert had never known him to be afraid of anything. Whatever made that print had stalked the two them in the early morning hours. It was Halloween. What would keep that beast from going after the nearby children that would be trick-or-treating that evening? Robert turned to his computer and searched, ‘predators of Mississippi.’ The first article that popped up was titled: “Five Scariest Things in the Mississippi Woods.” Robert clicked it and scanned down the page. Snakes? Nope. Wild pigs? Nope. Black bears? Hmmm, the track he’d seen was big, but not that big. And weren’t black bears just berry eaters?
Robert continued to scroll down the page. When he read the next heading he could feel the hairs on his arms stand on end:
Clear cutting and hunting are believed to have wiped out the panther population in Mississippi more than 100 years ago, but fear of the big cats remains. Sightings have been reported in recent years, but no physical evidence has been found…
Robert had the sinking feeling that there was a panther in the woods by the old rail trail. If they wanted physical evidence of panthers, then he was going to go get it.
Robert called out to Buck as he arrived home, “Hey buddy, how’s your day been?” A feeble whimper was the only reply. The dog was still in the corner of the garage. It didn’t look like he’d moved since morning. Robert knelt down and scratched Buck behind the ears with both hands. “Alright old pal, I’m going to go figure out what’s got you so worried.”
With flashlight in hand, Robert headed down the trail. It would be dark soon, but that wasn’t going to stop him from trying to get a picture of the panther track. As soon as he got on the trail, Robert felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He had the feeling that he was being watched. “I should have made Buck come with me,” he whispered to himself.
The sky was darkening as Robert approached the spot where he’d seen the paw print. He flipped on his flashlight and scanned the ground. The print was still there. Suddenly Robert heard a rustling sound in the brush in front of him. He felt tingles shoot up his spine. His mouth was instantly dry and cottony. He rasped, “Who’s there?”
The light from his flashlight glinted on a pair of shining eyes emerging from the woods. On to the trail stepped a small deer. It paused for a moment and then continued on its way. Relief swept over Robert. If there was a deer out tonight, the beast must have moved on. As Robert turned toward home, he stopped and looked over at the apartment complex. Flickers of candlelight from carved pumpkins were visible on several front steps. A group of ghosts and ghouls crossed the street clutching bags of candy. Robert smiled.
“Hey Buck, come on out!” called Robert as he approached the garage. “Any trick-or-treaters come by?” There was no response. “Buck?” Robert swung open the garage door and looked inside. Glinting back at him was a pair of big yellow eyes – cat’s eyes.