Uncle Clabe And The Pant'er

By Bill Baker


    One bright and brisk Sunday morning, a long, long time ago, when he was a strapping young man in the blossom of his youth Uncle Claiborne Baumgardner set out walking.  With his rifle laid over his shoulder and two pints of whiskey joggling in the pockets of his coat, he strode along the old mountain trails with a sprightly step.  Over breakfast, his mother had tried to get him to go to church with her that fine Sunday morning.  But, he figured he could have a whole lot more fun at the all day chicken fight and card game that always took place on the last Sunday of every month, over at Lutt Presley's store in Piney Flats.

Uncle Clabe did have a good time.  He won a few dollars playing five-card stud and "tonk". He had a good eye for fighting cocks too. Picking more winners than losers, he managed to build up his pot putting several more dollars in his pockets that way.

But, the more he won, the happier he got.  The happier he got, the more he pulled on the pints.  The more he pulled on the pints, the drunker he got, until finally .... he saw that he was going to have to get somewhere and lay down.

Staggering off into the woods a short piece, he found an old sinkhole where a tree had blown over years earlier.  Being in the early fall of the year, the sinkhole was full of fresh dry leaves that had just fallen from the surrounding oaks.  It made a natural bed that looked almost as inviting as his mother's straw ticks back home.  Uncle Clabe dropped down into the sinkhole, pulled the leaves all around himself like a blanket, and fell into a deep, whiskey induced sleep ...

Like a camphored baby he slept, with the brisk fall air stirring the husking oak leaves overhead, and the sun beaming down warmly through the treetops in broken, wiggling patterns of light.

But, when Uncle Clabe finally did wake up, the sun was low on the horizon and, all of the chicken fighters and card players were gone.

     Uncle Clabe pulled himself to his feet and stretched.  He was quite surprised to find, that actually, he felt pretty darn good.  His head didn't even hurt much.  As a matter of fact, other than being a little thirsty for a good drink of cool water, he was more hungry than anything.  He reached down into his overalls pocket and took out the roll of money that he had won... smiling to himself as he counted his immorally begotten winnings.  Then he kicked around in the leaves until he found his rifle, and headed on back home.

    Taking his time, Uncle Clabe barked for squirrels every time the trail he took passed through a likely stand of timber.  With tightly pursed lips he blew into his cupped hands across a leaf of mountain laurel, and in but a short while he had "barked up" and bagged three fine, young, well-fleshed specimens.  To keep his hands free he carefully strung each squirrel through the back leg with a Spicewood stick, which he hung on his belt.  The thought of biscuits with squirrel dumplings made his mouth water.  He figured he would get his mother to fry two of the squirrels, and use the other one to make the dumplings on.

Soon though, the autumn sky turned charcoal gray.  Uncle Clabe hadn't traveled very much farther when the sun slipped below the western knobs with an almost sudden abruptness.  A restless breeze arose.  It rustled through the treetops, bringing down a tumbling, flittering shower of leaves.  With some few miles yet to go, Uncle Clabe buttoned his coat against the cool evening air and picked up the cadence and reach of his stride...

It soon became evident that he would not reach his home before nightfall.  It didn't really matter though ... for Uncle Clabe knew the mountain trails so well, he figured he could find his way in the dark if he had to.

On he traveled, straining his eyes to locate familiar landmarks along the trail in the faltering light... the big lightning struck chestnut snag, the twisted old black oak with the funny knot on its trunk, the out-cropping of rock which looked like the end of a huge anvil hanging out over the trail.

    When he struck the path that ran along the top of Glenn Ridge, Uncle Clabe knew that he was now only a couple of miles from his home.  But as he tramped along, a cold dank fog slowly swept in from the north.  Coming in low against the ground, the drifting fog hovered in the surrounding underbrush and shrouded the trail like a ghostly blanket.  Uncle Clabe could just barely see his way now.  He instinctively stayed upon the path though, knowing every little nuance, every little bend and rise and fall of the trail ... every rock and big root that might cause one to trip.

After going on for a short while in the dark and the fog Uncle Clabe thought he heard leaves rustling back along the trail behind him, but, he just blamed it on his imagination and all the mean whiskey that he'd drank that day.  He went a little bit farther on down the trail, then heard footsteps behind him ... he definitely heard footsteps not the plodding walk of a man though, but the slinking, four-legged gait of an animal.

Thinking that it was probably just somebody's lost hunting dog following along behind him, Uncle Clabe whistled to it, in a happy and genial sort of way ... the way a person whistles to a friendly old hound dog.  And the thing in the darkness answered back ... but with a hellish, soul-searing scream.

Uncle Clabe fired into the dark with his rifle and broke to run with a pant'er right on his heels.  Sharp claws ripped at the flapping legs of his overalls.  Using his rifle stock for a club he grasped it by the end of the barrel and desperately swung at the darkness, striking only the empty air behind him.  Stumbling, staving and falling, Uncle Clabe ran for his life at times losing the trail and galloping furiously through the straggly tangles of huckleberry bushes that grew along the ridge ... which caught at and ripped the legs of his overalls as he ran.

     Uncle Clabe was sure that his days upon Earth would soon be over.  His mind raced towards a certain and terrifying conclusion.  The pant'er would soon be on his back with its sharp claws.  It would soon be riding him down to the ground and sinking its wicked fangs into his neck and throat sinking them to the bone.  It would soon be drinking his blood and feasting on his flesh and organs.  He would never see his loving mother again.  And, where he was going, a drinking, gambling man... he wasn't going to see her in the next life either.  Silently, in the space of a heartbeat, he confessed his prideful spirit and sinful ways... and appealed to the Lord for a little help.  At that same moment, a thought flashed in his mind...

Uncle Clabe quickly slid one of the squirrels off of the Spicewood stick and tossed it behind him as he ran.  Sure enough, the pant'er stopped to eat the sacrificial squirrel, thus allowing him a chance to escape.  Never in his life did Uncle Clabe cover so much ground in so little time.  His feet seemed independent of his body and lighter than air.  He gave a mighty heave to leap across a large tree that had fallen and ripped the straddle of his overalls from knee to knee.  After running a little farther, a low hanging limb busted him square on the center of the forehead ... the darkness before his eyes exploding into fusillade of stars, knocking him flat on his back, but he bounced of f the ground and kept on running.

After going on another half mile or so Uncle Clabe heard the big cat come bounding down the trail behind him again, so, he threw another squirrel to it in the interest of staying alive.  With the legs of his overalls in tatters and the flesh of his legs ripped and bleeding, Uncle Clabe raced on while the pant'er stopped behind him once again to eat.

The Glenn Ridge trail crossed Gobblers Knob, a little round knoll that rose up quite prominent on the main ridge.  When Uncle Clabe struggled to the top of it, he was almost down to running on his hands and knees.  He stopped on top of the knob.  He had to, because his heart was pounding in his chest like a thrumming pheasant and his lungs were burning in agony with each heaving, tortured gasp for air.

Suddenly, the moon appeared from behind a cloak of death-gray clouds and its pale light swept across the landscape.  Through a parting in the hanging mists Uncle Clabe saw his cabin home in the valley below a lamp burning in the window and a slow rising smoke ascending from the rock chimney.  Never in all of his life had he seen a sight that looked so beautiful.

Then he heard it ... loping through the leaves, its padded feet thudding upon the ground.  The pant'er was coming up the trail again.

So Uncle Clabe threw his last squirrel down on the top of Gobblers Knob, stick and all, and headed off the nearly straight down mountain side as fast as his pounding heart and throbbing legs would take him scooting on the hind end of his overalls and tumbling head over heels a time or two.  Almost as soon as his boots hit the front porch of the Baumgardner cabin his mother flung the door open and Uncle Clabe dove inside.

Cloaked in her long white sleeping gown and holding a coal oil lamp, her gray hair let down past her waist, Mrs. Baumgardner stood looking down upon her sinful son.

There he lay, sprawled out on the cabin floor.  With a big knot on his forehead and his dirty overalls split out at the straddle and ripped nearly to shreds, with his legs streaming bright rivulets of blood from a couple dozen places, the boy was a pitiful sight.

"Prayed th' Lord'd deal with ye." his mother said, then turning and heading back to bed, she mumbled ... "Reckon He did."

After that, Uncle Claiborne Baumgardner quit gambling, going to chicken fights, and hunting on Sunday.  Instead, he started attending church, real regular.  And not only that, up until he passed on at the ripe old age of 92, other than taking a little snort now and then for medicinal purposes, he left the whiskey alone too.


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