Laura Dean Bennett
I won’t say I believe ghost stories, but once upon a time, many of our ancestors did.
These hardy mountain folk survived a harsh life in the wilderness, when homesteading meant surviving hard conditions – malnutrition, accidents, unforgiving weather and the ever-present threat of Indian raids and attacks by wild animals.
Many a day would be spent working until one would nearly drop from exhaustion.
And many an evening would be spent huddling near a fireplace or a wood stove to fend off the dark and gloom of a long, dark night.
I envision living on the edge of the woods, as I do now, but with only a cabin door between me and the howling wind which can, even nowadays, sound for all the world like a pack of ravening wolves.
As the flickering shadows danced across the room, it must have been easy to imagine all manner of fearful specters.
Life was rough and it could, oftentimes, be very short.
No wonder the Appalachians seemed to generate so many ghost stories.
One story that my grandfather used to tell was about how the steep peak behind our farm used to be called Black Panther Mountain.
He liked to tell the story around this time of year.
Maybe because he knew that Halloween time was the scariest time to tell it.
He called it The Tale of the Panther’s Revenge.
And I never knew if it was real or not.
During the 18th and 19th century, there were often reports of sightings by hunters and naturalists of a big black cougar roaming parts of North America, known as the North American Black Panther or the Cherokee Cougar.
He said the Native Americans called it “the devil cat” and the early settlers called it the black panther.
The panther’s territory extended from the mountains of western Virginia into what is now West Virginia – throughout the Appalachians to the Smoky Mountains and west to Illinois and Michigan – and south to South Carolina and Alabama.
Of course, these days, the black panther is said to be extinct.
But is it?
There are still occasional reports of the sighting of a mountain lion, even here in Pocahontas County.
Sometime back before the Revolutionary War, there were three French trappers – let’s just call them Francois, Pierre and Jean Louis.
They had ventured from the banks of the Ohio River to try their luck in the wild mountains of western Virginia.
One snowy day while they were checking their traps, they came upon the tracks of a large cat, larger even than the tracks of the biggest bear they had ever seen.
Carefully, with their muskets and pistols at the ready, the trappers followed the tracks, farther and farther into the dark forest.
There were places where the rhododendron was so dense, they had to hack their way through with hatchets.
They followed the tracks – losing them and finding them again – for several miles.
They skirted a creek, where the light from the sky was all but blotted out by the canopy of giant sycamores, and still, they followed the unmistakably large tracks.
The Frenchmen finally came out onto a rocky outcropping that jutted over a dappled glade, and there, just below them, they spied a pair of panther cubs, rolling around on the ground, growling and wrestling with each other.
The cubs were magnificent.
About twice the size of full-grown beavers, the cubs were healthy and fat, with shiny black coats.
The men squatted down behind trees as their eyes searched for the big mother cat, who, they knew, would not be far away.
Pierre whispered that he had a plan.
Careful to keep their weapons handy, they quietly unpacked a heavy net and threw it down over the cats.
The men scrambled down the rocks, hastily covering up the captured cubs and the net with an oilcloth.
They gathered up the writhing sack and strapped it across the top of the pack on the back of one of their pack mules and headed down the mountainside.
Their plan was to get back to their camp, where they had several large bear traps.
They would stake out the cubs as bait for the mother.
To get close to the cubs, she would have to cross the perimeter of bear traps, hidden by a thick layer of leaves.
They finally arrived at their camp and proceeded with their plan.
Francois produced a large flask of whiskey with which the men fortified themselves against the oncoming night and what would surely be a risky encounter with an enraged mountain lion.
In whispers, they congratulated each other on their good fortune and their ingenious plan and opined as to how much the rare furs would bring back at the trading post.
The huge pelt of the female panther would surely be worth more than all the other furs they had collected since they left Ohio.
They planned not to sleep, but wait for the big cat to spring the trap, when they would fall on her with pistols and muskets at the ready.
From their net and oilcloth prison, the cries of the panther cubs echoed across the night.
Francois and Jean Louis sat by the fire with their backs against a giant tree trunk while Pierre sat watch with his musket loaded and primed from the low hanging branch of a nearby oak tree.
Perhaps they had dozed off for a moment or two, when Francois and Jean Louis were startled by a blood curdling sound like a woman’s scream.
The unearthly cry of the panther was followed by Pierre shouting, “Mon Dieu! C’est une panthe’re!
Before they even had time to aim their weapons, Francois and Jean Louis saw Pierre, covered in blood and dangling dead from the oak tree.
Just then, a black shadow flashed past as the panther leapt to rescue her cubs.
With a loud crack, the heavy jaws of the bear trap came down on her, pinning her tight.
The panther thrashed furiously, but was held fast, giving the men time to train their weapons on her head.
They dispatched her with two fatal shots.
Picking up heavy pieces of wood by the fire, Francois and Jean Louis uttered bloody oaths of rage as they clubbed the hapless cubs in their shroud.
Not a word passed between the men as the panthers were skinned and their carcasses hung from trees.
The men silently packed the body of Pierre on his mule, and the panther hides along with their heavy collection of furs on the other mule and kept a fitful watch until dawn.
As soon as it was light enough to travel, the men broke camp, heading toward the trading post and the company of other men.
They hadn’t gone far when they paused to water the mules in an icy stream.
So exhausted were they, that they decided to rest awhile before going on.
Just as they sank onto the trunk of a fallen tree, Jean Louis and Francois heard the bloodcurdling scream of a panther, seemingly not fifty paces from where they sat.
How could it be?
Was there now another panther stalking them?
As a light snow began to fall, and with all thoughts of rest now forsaken, the two grabbed up the mules and renewed their descent.
Before sunset, the men came, at last, to the mouth of a large cave, where they had taken shelter on their passage up the mountain.
They tethered the mules close by a cheerless fire and kept a nervous watch out into the snowy night.
Although he was bone tired, Jean Louis tried to fight the urge to sleep, afraid to wake to the snarling face of a great cat.
He awoke in a sweat to find the fire dying and Francois snoring, when suddenly, he heard the terrible scream of the panther again.
Could this be a dream?
If so, then Francois was having it, too, because he sat upright and grabbed his musket just as Jean Louis leapt to grab the reins of the mules, who were threatening to bolt.
As both men frantically powdered and primed their weapons, they heard the growls of the panther coming closer.
As if floating on air, there suddenly appeared before them the ghostly specter of three cats – a gigantic female black panther flanked by her two, sleek, fat cubs.
They each fired their muskets, but the panthers kept advancing. The mules were felled instantly by flashing claws and shining teeth.
And Jean Louis hardly had time to raise his knife hand before he saw Francois cut down in a bloody blur.
When he awoke, Jean Louis was surprised to find himself covered in blood, but alive – and alone.
There was no sign of Francois or the mules, or of there having been any bloody struggle at all at the mouth of the cave.
The snow covered ground was just as it had been the day before, with not even a single paw print or drag mark anywhere to be seen.
After searching the surrounding forest, Jean Louis found neither Francois’s body nor the bodies of the mules.
He did find one bloody trace of Francois – his left boot.
It took several weeks for him to make his way back to the trading post.
When Jean Louis arrived, he was bleeding and exhausted and his clothing was torn to shreds.
He was suffering from frostbite and was close to starvation.
He told a hysterical account of an evil black panther who killed Pierre and, after the trappers dispatched it, had come back to take revenge, killing his last remaining partner, Francois.
As soon as he was able to travel, Jean Louis led a small search party up onto the mountain to ostensibly recover the bodies of his friends.
But perhaps a more likely incentive was the recovery of the valuable pack of furs that had been lost that night at the cave.
Experienced woodsmen all, armed with their trusty muskets, the men set off in the spirit of adventure, but after not returning for several weeks, then months, their families sent a rescue party to find them.
No trace was ever discovered of the bodies of the French trappers, their mules or the heavy packs of furs.
Nor the second party.
It was as though they had all simply vanished.
A later search party did find the cave as described, and further up the mountain, the glade, just as Jean Louis had described them.
The searchers did report hearing the screams of a panther from far back up the mountain.
A few cabins were built up on that side of the mountain over the years by brave homesteaders, and the stories of hearing hair-raising screams of a panther from up on top the mountain persisted.
There were a few tales of sightings of a big black cat, and there was an occasional report of large paw prints across the glade where the panther and her cubs died at the hands of the French trappers.
As beautiful as it was, bad things always seemed to haunt that mountain, which folks had taken to calling Black Panther Mountain.
Crops failed, accidents happened, livestock disappeared.
Eventually, the few homesteaders left and the mountain reverted to its wild state.
It was a hundred years or more before there was a permanent settlement there.
Call it superstition or caution, but, even today, no one ventures far into the woods on the far side of that mountain.
And even people who don’t believe in ghosts will tell you that, at night, if the wind is blowing just right, it may carry the haunting sound of a vengeful panther screaming from somewhere on the top of Black Panther Mountain.