Aunt Francis loved to tell the black panther stories and scare us when we were children.
THE PANTHERS OF SOUTHEAST MISSOURI
This story is about the panthers or mountain lions of Southeast Missouri, an area many people call the Bootheel District. Some might think that the title of this story is talking about a sports team but no, I'm talking about panthers with four paws and a tail, the kind of panther that emits a low pitched growl and sometimes a little snarl as they come closer to you. The folks in Southeast Missouri, around Stoddard County referred to them as panthers but the more accurate name would probably be mountain lion. In some parts of the country they are called cougars or pumas. They were light brown or tan in color when grown. I have heard that the panther's snarls could suddenly rise in pitch and volume to sound like a woman screaming, a sound that would send chills down your back and generate heartbeats that felt like tom toms beating within your chest. They are very sneaky and might suddenly appear in the shadows at any time during the darkness of a Southeastern Missouri night, when the gentle breezes cause the corn leaves to jostle against each other. The rustling of corn leaves is a sound that I know well and it is a sound that can provide cover for a multitude of sneaky movements of critters big and small.
I don't know where the panthers of Southeast Missouri came from. Maybe they were left there from the time when the area was a great wilderness and swamp or maybe they came into the area after a very large drainage project, called the Little River Drainage Project, began to carry the waters from the land. The panthers were large creatures but could hide behind even the smallest of trees and bushes and seemed to be nocturnal creatures, being seen and heard mostly at night as they prowled around, looking for food. A person who was headed for the outdoor toilet after dark could suddenly change their mind and do an about face upon catching a glimpse of some shadowy movements up ahead. Many of the sharecroppers and farm workers who lived in the area of rich farmlands, woods, swamps and sloughs that made up Southeast Missouri and the Bootheel area, had heard and caught sight of the elusive, sneaky, night prowlers. I have heard many stories of panther sightings by various individuals who had lived there for many years.
I was just a very young boy of about four or five years of age, during the mid 1930's, when I first began to hear about the panthers and it seemed that whenever a group of grown ups or older people got together in the evening, around the brightness of a coal oil lamp, the conversation at some point got around to talking about panthers. I don't remember any of the farm workers saying that they had gotten a clear view of the creatures because the panthers were always so sneaky and usually were somewhat hidden in the shadows, but sometimes made some low, frightening, growls and snarls that might suddenly become a scream. Hearing those stories sometimes made the hair stand up on my arms and the back of my neck. There wasn't much hair to be seen on my arms at that time but hearing those stories made me know that it was there. I don't remember my Mom or Dad ever saying that they had seen or heard the panthers but I recall my Dad laughing when some of the stories were told.
When I reached the ages of nine and ten years old, we lived on a farm, five miles east of Bernie, Stoddard County, Missouri. My Dad did not own the farm but he worked for the farmer who did. My Dad did not own a car, at this time, and whenever we wanted to go any place, we walked. During the late summer and early fall I sometimes walked into town, on a Saturday, by myself, in the mid afternoon hours and went to a movie. The movies on Saturday always included an episode of a serial that usually ran for several episodes. The dusty, gravel roads leading into town had become very familiar to me and I still remember walking by some of the houses along the way. I had to cross three large drainage ditches, about a mile apart, on the way into town and I was familiar with each bridge. I think the movie cost a nickel and afterwards, I could get a very good hamburger at a restaurant for a dime. I can still imagine the taste of those hamburgers because they were so good. It seems, in my mind that the owner of the restaurant was named Dude Bowman, but I could be mistaken. By the time the hamburger was finished, the sun had already dipped behind the horizon and it was beginning to get dark. The darkness didn't worry me because I knew the roads well and it usually took me about an hour to get home where my Mom and Dad would be reading something by the light of a coal oil lamp. Five miles in an hour is a very fast walk. I felt very safe starting out and had no fear of harm from any human beings. Our dog, Trigger, would come down the road to meet me as I got closer to the house. Starting toward home after enjoying a movie and a hamburger I was happy and felt good.
I remember a few times when I was nine or ten years old, walking home in the darkness at night, that I felt good when I started the five mile journey home but as I walked further down the dusty gravel road I began to think of some of the panther stories that I had heard from the older people as they had gathered around the coal oil lamp to talk and tell stories. I could hear the rustling of the corn leaves as the gentle breeze moved among them and caused them to rub together, making an assortment of various noises and sounds. My imagination would begin to associate creatures and animals with those sounds and I began to wonder if there was a panther over there in the corn field, following me. I could feel the hair on my arms and the back of my neck start to stand up and tingle as my heart began to beat just a little more firmly and my steps began to get a little faster. I was not a big kid but whenever we had foot races at Middle Smith School, where I was a student and Miss Pauline Murphy was my teacher, I could always hold my own with any of the bigger kids. My little legs and feet could move very well and I was in pretty good physical shape for a little kid. As the sounds of the creatures that were stalking me from the rows of the cornfield became more real in my imagination, I could picture in my mind the possibility that it was probably a panther over there watching me as I walked. I didn't really think there was a panther there but yet the possibility was playing across the movie screen of my imagination and my feet were moving a little faster. Soon I began to think that the panther was getting a little closer and then I knew what I should do..........RUN! I knew that I could run fast and didn't think a panther would have a chance of catching me as I moved to the center of the road and ordered my legs and feet into motion. I was really fast at a time like that and my feet could fly and I could move like the wind down that country road for hundreds of yards. By the time I was running out of breath, I knew that I had outran that panther and had left him in the dust. I felt good again and had to smile as I started to regain my breathing.
I remember one night in particular when some people had been talking and telling stories about hearing panthers and seeing strange lights in the distance. Now those strange lights might just be the subject of another story later on, but right now I am still dealing with, and trying to elude these panthers. The light from a coal oil lamp (kerosene) does not give a lot of light and any rooms or areas outside it's direct line of sight becomes quite dark and shadowy. I remember hearing a noise behind a door as I walked near a doorway of our house. It was a strange, scratching noise coupled with a couple of low grunting sounds. My heart quickened as I looked at that door and heard the noise again. The doors in that old house were built off the floor somewhat to allow for air circulation when the door was closed. I heard the scratching sounds coming from near the bottom of the door and I looked down. I saw something move and it looked like a panther tail or paw reaching out from the crack at the bottom of that door. I knew immediately what I should do. I stomped on that panther paw as hard as I could with my foot and then turned around to run. They caught me as I was about to exit the house and it was then that I learned that the panther paw that I saw reaching out from the crack under the door was my Dad's hand. I had stomped it pretty hard but he was laughing and gave me a big hug. I can still imagine seeing that panther paw sticking out from under the door and it brings a smile and a warm memory.
James Lloyd Clark