A forest panther screams, gives me raised hackles and goose bumps race up my arms. Few seconds, one of our mules starts braying and there is a familiar sound of a mule kicking at wood planks in our barn. My boy is quick to jump out of bed, before I can jump he pushes me back down on our bed, "Girl, you stay right there, don't you leave our bed, you hear me?" He takes off in a hurry for our hallway, I am right on his heels. In our hallway, my boy collides with grandpa coming out of our grandparents' bedroom. There is commotion, grandpa flips on his flashlight, tells my boy, "Come on, son." They run, I run right along behind although I know my boy will be mad when sees me.
We trot through grandma's kitchen, cut through our well house and go out a side door. No surprise, grandma is already out there standing in darkness. She tells grandpa, "Turn off your light so we can see." He does, shadows and night surround us. We silently stand while peering all around. Not thinking, I lay a hand on my boy's back, I'm a little afraid. He yelps a bit, jumps, spins around jabbing me with an elbow right in my tummy, almost knocks the air out me. "I done told you to stay in bed!" He is mad, "I'm going to give you good talking to, girl." Makes me mad, I'm thirteen, I'm a full grown woman, sass him, "I couldn't sleep so I came out for some fresh air," I pause, "not a yelling." Grandma bark whispers at us, "Billyray, Taha, you two be quiet."
Minute or two grandma alerts us, "Over there out on the route by our mailbox." We look and look, then I see a too dark shadow moving along. Grandma says, "She is heading across the route into the pine trees."
Grandpa turns on his big flashlight, shines over there but she is already gone. He sweeps his light along just above ground in a half circle, we know to watch for glimmering yellowish eyes. He shines his lights in some trees by our house, aims his flashlight towards our farmhouse roof, "Ain't no other panthers around. Boy, come with me, let's check on our mules." They start walking away, grandpa turns and shines his light on me, blinds me, "Girl, you stay right here with your grandma. Don't you leave her side." I always obey my grandparents, "Yes, sir."
Moving over to grandma, I wrap an arm around her waist and squeeze, her long flannel nightshirt feels good on side of my face. Grandpa wears a nightshirt just like hers. My boy and me don't wear anything to bed, we are each others nightshirts. "Grandma, you shouldn't come out here alone when momma panther comes around, she is liable to grab you and eat you." She laughs, "Hell, girl, I would grab her tail, spin her round and round over my head then sling momma panther clean over the moon!" We both enjoy laughing, and we do keep our eyes on night out there, open and looking for a moving shadow.
She is a momma panther with cubs somewhere. My boy and me are out mule plowing by the lake backside of our farm. Our mule, Belle, becomes agitated and brays a bit, we look around, this boy I love points and tells me, "Over there." Billy buries his plow blade and hollers "Whoa". Anchoring our plow will keep Belle from running.
We walk over to field edge near blackberry brambles where something is laying on ground. Turns out to be a half eaten deer, belly is gone, a leg is missing, chunks of meat are ripped out here and there. My boy squats, I squat next to him. "Look here, girl, these long cuts on the deer's flank is where the panther first grabbed hold. These cuts on back is momma panther pulling herself up onto this deer." I look, he points and traces deep slicing cuts on this deer. "Here under neck is where the panther got a good hold and these holes in the deer's neck are from the panther chomping down with her teeth and choking this poor deer to death." We look for a time, he tells me about how a panther stalks prey then leaps on a back and clings then finally chokes an animal to death or crushes a skull.
"Look around the belly here," he points to smaller short claw cuts, "those are from cubs feeding on the deer's soft belly. I would say two, maybe three cubs." I glance around, "Billy, there are big paw prints up there by the deer's neck and lots of smaller paw prints here by the belly." He looks and nods, "We need to go, momma panther is out there somewhere watching us. She might think we're going to take her food and get after us." We hurry back to Belle and return to plowing, he is working our plow with me walking along behind busting dirt clods with my bare feet.
Not far from the dead deer, my boy hollers "Haw!" and gets Belle turned and heading back to far field side. Way over there by fence line he yells "Gee!" and we plow back towards the dead deer. Halfway or so back to the dead deer side, I look, search, look more, the deer is gone. Finally I realize why then run to my cowboy, grab his arm, "The deer is gone!" He doesn't look for the deer, he is quick to get his plow up out of ground, hollers "Haw!" at Belle, she turns, my boy snaps his reins, "Get! Get!" then tells me, "We have to get away from here right now. You watch over a shoulder for momma panther." Scares me to no end. We hurry along with our plow skidding along top of dirt and me looking over a shoulder while clinging to back of my boy's overalls. Couple acres over he stops Belle near fence line and blackberry brambles, "Girl, let's get some berries for Belle and ourselves, I need to relax a bit."
Grandpa and my boy come walking back from our barn, they are flapping their jaws and grandpa is waving his flashlight this way and that way. Grandma asks, "Well?" Grandpa clicks off his flashlight and tells us our mules are fine, "Belle was stomping her hooves, Kitt kicked a couple of boards out of her stall gate. We didn't find any paw prints in the barn." Grandma adds, "Momma panther was probably prowling around looking for a stupid hen nesting on ground."
Our kitchen light turns on, we have to shield our eyes to look over. Grandpa sounds worried, "Dorcas is up and about. She's going to be wet-hen mad." We watch, sure enough, Dorcas comes to a window, gets her face up close and is looking around. She can't see us, she is standing in there under bright light, we are standing in darkness, she can't see past the window pane. Dorcas is not a real bright woman. Grandma says, "I'll smooth talk her, keep her calm, maybe she won't get too mad about our waking her up." I look up at our waning moon, "About two in the morning, Dorcas is going to be right cranky."
We walk back towards our farm house while looking all around for a dark telltale shadow waiting to pounce on us. We walk and whisper, Billyray talks at grandpa, "You remember that deer Taha and me came across down by the lake?" Grandpa quietly says, "I sure do, son, hope momma panther doesn't get one of us like that deer." We walk and keep our eyes peeled and our ears listening for the slightest sound of a twig snapping. Grandpa tells us to stop, we do, makes me nervous, makes me look all around and listen closer, "You hear something, grandpa?" He whispers at me, "Nope, don't hear a thing." We start heading for our house again, I look, Dorcas is still trying to look out her window, has her hands cupped over her eyes like she is scouting.
About halfway to our house, grandpa stops, tell us, "Hold on." Billyray slides an arm around my shoulders then pulls me close, "You stay right by my side." Grandma steps to grandpa, close enough to rub on his nightshirt. She asks, "You see something? You hear momma panther?" Grandpa is quiet for a bit, "No, I just don't want to go in the house. I'd rather fight off the panther than go in there and have Dorcas get after me." My boy and me laugh, grandma hits at her husband, "You ornery old cuss, get your butt in the house!"
Dorcas is sister to grandma. She lives in Arkansas not far from our farm, she has an old Fifties Chevy sedan. Dorcas drives over and stays a few days now and then. She is a religious woman, spends most of her time praying or at church. She keeps a Bible and a crucifix in her handbag. Dorcas preaches the gospel at us a lot. When visiting, she makes us say a prayer before breakfast, have to say a prayer before noontime dinner and in evening, she has us hold hands and recite a long prayer before enjoying supper. My cowboy and me bow our heads and just mumble, I don't think Dorcas knows we mumble she is so headstrong fervent about her praying. She says God talks to her. I think the old bat is crazy.
She tells us to call her "Aunt Dorcas" to show proper respect for an elder. I tell her she is our great-aunt Dorcas. She tells me, "I am your aunt on equal footing with my sister, your grandmother. God chose me to help raise you and He expects you to call me 'Aunt Dorcas' to show respect for me." I am certain the woman is crazy in the head.
Grandpa leads, grandma follows him into our house. My boy and me wait for grandma to reach top of our well house steps and walk into her kitchen before we bound up those steps. At top before we step in, I hear Dorcas talking to our grandparents, "Where in God's name have you been and what are you doing walking around wearing only nightshirts?"
Billy and I walk into our kitchen, I look, Dorcas is wearing a cotton dress, flats and lipstick, looks she brushed her hair and she is wearing jewelry like she is fixing to go to church. Grandma starts to explain, "A panther came around out there somewhere," Dorcas looks at my boy and me, gasps, covers her mouth with a hand then turns her head aside so she can't see us. Grandma and grandpa look at us, grandpa rolls his eyes up like he is looking to heaven, shakes his head knowing trouble is coming. My boy and me forget we are buckass naked.