Every few years or so, from the time we moved here (forty-four years ago, this past March), we have heard something terrifying down by the creek: the scream of a big cat. This was once “painter” country, as the old folks called panthers/cougars, and with small populations reported from further south, and with recent reports of sightings in the knobs down the road about fifteen miles, it’s not impossible that they have returned, in ones and twos, to their old range.
A friend from another blog asked me, in bewilderment, if I wasn’t mistaking the cry of a screech owl for a big cat. So happens I know the difference; Dad would be back to haunt me if I didn’t! 😉 In any case, though, the question reminded me of this story–
about a painter ghost.
In the community the old lady was known as Granny Stone. She claimed that her memories began the day she was born, but she also was a veritable storehouse for the memories of older generations. She could remember every story her parents, grandparents and other relatives and neighbors told her, and loved nothing better than telling them to her own children and grandchildren.
One of those stories began with a man who simply vanished one night.
He was a married man and father of seven, who could drink his fill of moonshine and then some and wasn’t very work-brickle. It was thought at first that he simply had ridden off–rather irresponsibly, on his only plow horse–and left his wife and family to escape his duties.
Then his horse showed up, winded, covered in foam, and terribly injured: long, deep, clawed places on its hindquarters caked in dried blood. The wounds were such that the horse was never fit to work again, and had to be put down.
A bear might have been the culprit, but then people began talking of hearing the shriek, like a woman screaming for her life, of a painter.
After the screams, they had found the remains of chickens and calves and other such animals; now, they were sure, the cat had taken a man.
So they organized a hunt. Painters are generally nocturnal hunters, and hide out during the day. It was in broad daylight that the trackers surprised the cat, a great black beast twelve feet long from nose to tail. They shot it to pieces and dragged it out into the woods to rot, then inspected its den. Amid the bones of chickens, calves, deer, hogs–whatever its prey–they found two complete human skeletons. The fresher of the two, they assumed, was the drunkard suspected of having deserted his family; the other was never identified. The two sets of remains were given Christian burial.
More than twenty years later, when Granny Stone was a girl, they had reason to remember the story of the drunkard and the painter.
By then, painters, thanks to hunting bounties and habitat loss, had been all but killed off in the area. So it caused a great sensation in the community when, one warm spring night, a man showed up in a lather of sweat and terror, telling of an encounter with a black painter.
He was a fiddler, and he had been playing at a dance that night. He had had a little ‘shine, but he wasn’t drunk. He and his horse were taking it slow and easy, enjoying the ride home in the fine warm moonlit weather, when he heard a scream.
So long had it been since the cry of a painter had been heard in the area that he was certain there was a woman in trouble, close by. He was about to dismount and run to her assistance when there were noises in the bushes.
Out into the moonlight stepped a giant black cat, eyes blazing killer green.
The horse took off at a dead run, and its rider held on desperately. The panther was close behind them, every now and then letting out another of those bloodcurdling screams.
After what seemed like hours, but could not have been more than a couple of minutes, the horse splashed into the shallows of a creek, and the man dared to look back. To his despair, the cat gave one last scream and bunched itself to jump the creek. He knew, once the cat was out front of them, that he for certain, and probably his horse, was done for.
The cat stretched out in an endless mighty bound. . .
and was gone. Its silhouette faded against the moonlight, in mid-leap.
Man and horse sat there awhile in silence, waiting for their hearts to beat again, and then rode on home.
The story of the ghostly painter comes from The Cold, Cold, Hand: More Stories of Ghosts and Haunts from the Appalachian Foothills (1997) by James V. Burchill, Linda J. Crider, and Peggy Kendrick.