The split rail gate gave out a crash that sounded like a clap of thunder as it slammed against the latch post.
“Dusty, all the horses have been rounded up after that horse thief tried to sell them off in Abilene .” The sun was touching the horizon as they both walked back into the bunkhouse, ready to eat some chow and get ready for a new day tomorrow.
“Now, go get in that bed, Boy. We both have a big day tomorrow.”
In the morning they were going to the river and set out some hooks. Listening to the Daddy read the pulp fiction western book had made the Boy tired and relaxed. His imagination followed every move Dusty had made chasing those horse thieves down and getting the herd of horses back to the ranch. It was time to hit the bunkhouse. Standing in front of the steel wood burning heater, one body side would get warm while the other side got cold. The secret was to turn slowly and evenly warm all sides. All toasty, it was a short run and jump across the unfinished wooden floor boards. Years of wear had rubbed the surface to a butter slick finish. The bed springs let out a creak and groan as the Boy came crashing down and scooted under the covers. The Daddy reached up and turned the switch that “cut out” the single hundred watt light bulb that hung at the end of a cloth braided electrical wire. The room went pitch black and then slowly the red glow of the coals, peeking through the damper holes in the front of the heater, radiated a warm orange glow throughout the “house” part of the log cabin.
“What are they gonna do with that horse thief?”
“Boy, get quiet and go to sleep. You ain’t gonna want to get up in the morning.”
I still believe one of the most relaxing sounds is the sound of fire burning. The crackling and the sudden flare of light as the wood opens up and falls into smaller chunks of embers. The metal wood stove was working its magic.
“Did you throw Tom any scraps out after supper?” Tom was an old three footed tom cat that stayed around the place. He had come up and half of his left leg was missing. The Daddy said that it looked as if he had got it caught in a pretty good sized trap and the trap either cut it off or the cat chewed it off in order to free himself from it.
“I thought I heard him squealing out in front of the porch.”
“Yep, but that ain’t Tom. I have been listening too and it ain’t Tom. It is too loud.”
It started as a deep rumble that sounded like rocks being rolled around in a hollow log, and as it continued, the sound changed into a high pitch screech that echoed across the creek branch and traveled on across the iron ore gravel road and up into The Mountain. The first volley was followed by a second, maybe louder, and then-quiet.
“Daddy, what is that racket?”
“I reckon it might be The Black Panther.”
For many years there had been stories about a black panther that roamed the river bottoms and back woods of the northern part of the country. No one had actually verified they had seen the animal. The stories were consistent in the fact there were a lot of “almost” sightings. Daytime seemed to quell the roaming of the panther. Nighttime was when it seems to emerge. One such story, a local resident was camping in the bottom and as he was coming back toward the camp from running his hooks, he heard something stalking him. As he hastened his pace so would the noise. Finally he took out in a dead run but could still hear the underbrush thrashing behind him even though he was gaining speed. He carried a two shot 32 caliber derringer pistol and he fired both barrels over his shoulder without turning to see his target. The noise stopped and when he got back to camp, it was quiet for the rest of the night. In the light of morning he retraced his trail and saw drops of blood in what he thought was the area where he fired the shots, but there was no animal.
“Will he get us?” The boy found little comfort in being inside the cabin. He had heard all the stories way before now.
“Naw, I don’t reckon. It probably smells those pork chop bones I threw out for Old Tom.”
Another blood curdling scream ripped through the night and the Daddy jumped up and flipped the switch that turned on the light for the front porch. The single shot shotgun was resting on two 16 penny nails driven into the wall over the front door. He reached and brought the gun down and took the grocery sack paper plug from the barrel. Dirt daubers can ruin a resting shotgun. A quick flick and a new shell was dropped into the chamber and the breach closed.
“Boy, light your lantern.”
A quick stroke of a kitchen match on the hot heater and the red coal oil lantern was lit.
“Now get behind me. I’m fixin’ to open the door and look outside.” For once the Boy didn’t argue.
“Hey.” The Daddy’s voice carried out into the darkness beyond the porch light. “Hen’ugh, whuoo, whuoo.”
Nothing, and then a low slight rumble.
“Get on outta hen’ugh, fore I load you up with this shotgun.” Quite again. The Boy holding tight to his position with white knuckles holding the wire bail of the coal oil lantern; a feeling of excitement in the place of fear. “Hand me you lantern, Boy.”
“What ya gonna do with it. You ain’t going out there and leave me in here, are you?”
“Naw, I’m gonna put it out on the edge of the porch. That panther won’t like the smell of coal oil burning so he will stay away. I reckon he is already gone back down in the creek bottom.” After lowering the wick and setting back the flame, he place the little red lantern at the front edge of the porch and put the four hundred and ten shotgun back over the door.
“Come here, Boy. Let me show you something.” Sunlight was streaming through the single window behind the wood stove. There was yet a smell of breakfast but morning was in full swing.
The area directly in front of the porch was a barren spot where rain washed sandy soil down from the hill and collected in a spot about twelve fee square. Right at the edge was a print, a big print. The soft and damp dirt had maintained its shape from the previous night when the animal was standing in front of the log cabin. The Daddy held his fingers outstretched with his hand hovering about the paw print. His hand could barely cover the print.
“He was a big’un. I reckon it was The Black Panther. I wish I could of got a good look at ‘em, he was a big ‘un.” The Boy could tell his Daddy was excited. “I’m gonna take this empty coffee-can and put over it so it will stay awhile until I can show folks what came to see us last night.” The old style coffee-can barely covered the track. Each time someone stopped by to see the track, everyone would start with the tales they had heard over the years. Many times the can was removed and replaced to preserve the event. Eventually the can went into the garbage heap. The print faded back into nature but the memory of the event is as fresh as the coffee that was new in that can.
“Daddy, how come you didn’t shoot that panther when you went on the front porch, that time?” The Boy now older than The Daddy of that night was running the scene through his mind.
“I was set to, if I needed to. I wasn’t going to let you be in danger, but it turned that out I didn’t have to shoot ‘em. You take something like that now, nobody heard tell that The Panther jumped on anybody. There were tales of coming close, maybe. Set your ground and hold it but if you ain’t pushed, let it be. If you’re pushed, make a good solid move. The Panther didn’t push. “
Does The Black Panther still roam the river bottoms and backwoods? Don’t ask me. Ask other folks, I know what they will tell you.