It was a warm quiet evening in Ararat North Carolina and the fireflies had begun their timely rituals of lighting the cool night air. The sun was already showing shades of pink and purple as it sank beneath the frothy white clouds hugging the tree tops. I could hear the sounds far off of the Ararat river rolling past the bend, just out beyond the dirt road and the old tobacco field. It could have been the roar of the cicadas screeching in repetitive unison, but the river had its deep lowly sound and I could imagine it, even it wasn’t there. The thick poplar, oak and pine wooded forests crowded the mind as much as it did the land in Surry, growing like a tangled mess of honey suckle and blackberry and forming a barrier some 15 miles deep in places. My parents never let my sister and I wander far from the house in such a forbidden place.
Our German Shepard Hobo was a steadfast watch dog and companion and would quickly cut us off from our trots away from the edge of the yard. She would stand and wait until mom came to prod us along back to the front porch. But it was this evening that Hobo would behave oddly for the first time I could ever remember. She wasn’t in her usual watch dog form as she scurried quickly to a nearby English boxwood, tail between her legs and whimpering like a baby. My father stood staring off in the direction of the vacant tobacco field, some distance away, as if he’d seen a ghost.
“Amy, take David and go in side now!”, he stammered forcefully. He turned and disappeared inside only to reappear before we could reach the top step leading into the kitchen. Extended outward was grandpas old shotgun, flat against his thigh down low, as if he had been watching too many spaghetti westerns.
My older sister shoved her way inside and made a dash for the couch. I followed close on her heels. In one step she cleared the edge of the sofa, landed safely against the back while pulling the curtains to one side, and peered out the window. It was the one good window that gave us an unobstructed view of the action unfolding outside. I climbed up on the sofa and found a spot just under my sisters arm where I could fit my nose on the window sill. There I stood in awe of the scene before me. My father lay on the ground pointing his shotgun like a sharp shooter in the direction of the field. I could still hear Hobo in the boxwood below the window whining like a spoiled kid with his hand stuck in an empty cookie jar.
Just out beyond the old rusty tobacco stringer that set useless and fading at the edge of the big field, some 70 yards in the distance, a black slinky looming thing crawled slowly across the field unaware of the shot gun barrel now aimed in its general direction. It wasn’t that this thing, this black panther was in any real danger. Even if buck shot were laser guided and my father a champion marksman of sorts, this cat was simply too far away. The remarkable thing was its size and walk. It moved like royalty, as if it were the king of the forest, and its size defied anything science had to say about black cats in North America (they don’t exist). If anything, perhaps as the locals always stated, it was a ghost of sorts, a lost spirit.
I watched in awe as my father let loose one shotgun blast. The big cat stopped and looked in our direction but only for a brief moment. It slowly proceeded to walk majestically, as it had before, disappearing into the forest as if nothing had happened. It absolutely showed no fear.
I’ll never forget that day nor the stories I heard about this cat as a young boy. My mother would tell us those stories as we sat round the table in the evenings, our eyes as big as saucers. That was 1970 near the Ararat river in Ararat North Carolina, when my father got the only shot anyone could remember at that black panther everyone had been chasing since the early 1900’s. I don’t remember any stories or sightings spoken of the cat after that event. We moved away a year later and soon out of Surry county.
Most folks believe the big cats have moved on due to population growth. The proud majestic trees have long since been cut down and the forests cleared in some places. There still exists pockets of heavily wooded areas untouched by man but they to will soon one day fade away in Surry. I do hear of reports of big black cats further up in the mountain regions of Virginia that still lay claim to wild and untamed places. Perhaps it is there the majestic walk of the black panther, the king of the forest, still lives on.