The Panther Hunt

The Texas Story Project.

Though it’s been almost sixty years ago, it seems like only yesterday when I recollect the big panther hunt. As a teenage boy, I and three friends had gone hunting for the “wild panther” that was known to positively, absolutely, and without a doubt, lurk over in the East Fork bottom.

Now nobody that I know of had actually laid eyes on the panther, but some folks who lived around Winningkoff and Lucas claimed they’d heard it screaming down in the river bottoms. Sounded just like a woman, they said. There were reports that the panther had ripped off the window screens and clawed up the door at Taylor’s grocery store in Winningkoff. It was rumored that the panther was huge because of the size of the claw marks left high up on the door.

The East Fork of the Trinity River was wild and beautiful and some of the biggest yellow catfish I’d ever seen were fished out of it. Their dried heads hung on barbwire fences from Lowry’s Crossing to Lucas. The East Fork of the Trinity was also a place where mysterious things were said to happen. Will-o'-the-wisps had been seen on many a night. Reports of “balls of fire” floating just above the ground over in the bottom came in regularly.

East of Winningkoff and Lucas, the river bottom was a muddy tangle of trees, vines and undergrowth. A place where a vehicle could easily sink up to the hubs. Old timers told stories of pole cats, possums, coons, and dogs that had caught the “hydraphobee” over in East Fork bottom. It was said that at night, the “mad” creatures lay in wait to ambush folks walking the roads in Collin County.  East Fork bottom, with a huge “panther” and “mad” pole cats, was not a place you’d want to be stranded in at night.

One night, Lloyd Sykes was able to get the family's 1939 Chevrolet four-door sedan out to joy ride around Allen– maybe go road huntin’ for rabbits. Lloyd, Paul Henry Knight, Billy Stratton and I came up with the idea that this was as good a night as any to rid East Fork bottom of the panther.

We headed out towards Winningkoff. The '39 Chevy was carrying four boys with a full complement of long guns in various working order. Paul Henry and I were riding the front fenders with shotguns in case we scared up a rabbit on the way to Winningkoff. At Winningkoff, the white rock road turned into a black dirt road just past Taylor’s store. A half mile down the hill and past the last mailbox, the road turned into a rutted, overgrown trail. As we bumped down the ruts to the river bottom, the trees that hung over it began to form a tunnel. We couldn’t see the night sky and the Chevy’s headlights played tricks with the shadows. As the thicket closed in around us, Lloyd inched the car down the trail to a spot where it looked like we might  “high center,” and stopped. This looked like as good a spot as any to kill a panther. At any rate, it was as far as we were going.

I’ve never seen dark as dark as it was when Lloyd turned off the headlights. Enthusiasm for ridding East Fork bottom of the panther waned sharply as we shined the feeble beams from flashlights into the thick underbrush. We could hear each other breathing and we talked in whispers as we walked along the ruts. The sound of unknown things scurrying through the brush was heard and trash left by fishermen took on ominous shapes in the weak beam of our flashlights.

After walking no more than 30 yards, it was collectively decided to end our search for the panther. Why should we kill a panther that had done us no harm, we reasoned.

As we piled into the secure confines of the Chevy, it dawned on us that there was no place to turn the car around. We’d have to back out of the river bottom. With a single red taillight and weak battery flashlights for illumination, Lloyd began backing the car up the trail. Twenty yards up the trail, the Chevy slid out of the ruts and the rear wheels began to spin. Lloyd threw the car into low gear and stomped the accelerator. The rear wheels spun forward and dug themselves a hole. Lloyd tried to rock the car by going from first gear to reverse and back to first. It was no use. We were stuck. Paul Henry, Billy, and I got out and tried to push the Chevy forward. The wheels just spun. Then we tried to push it backwards.

Then we heard it. 

It started out as a loud, clear low moan and then the pitch rose sharply. Sounded like a woman screaming. It came from just past the thicket that lined the trail.

With super-human strength, four teenage boys lifted a 1939 Chevy back into the ruts, jumped into it, and sped backwards at a high rate of speed out of the river bottom all the way to Winningkoff. There wasn’t much conversation as we headed back to Allen. There was no doubt that East Fork bottom harbored a panther. We’d seen it. Well, we’d almost seen it. But we did hear it scream at us from just a few feet away.

In time, the panther hunt faded from memory until a bright sunny day when I heard it scream again. My future bride and I were picnickin’ in East Fork bottom near where Lloyd, Paul Henry, Billy, and I had hunted for the panther. Listening closely–in the light of day–this time the panther's scream didn’t sound like a woman screaming. It sounded more like moooooo…

Ken Byler is a well-known Collin County storyteller who writes a weekly column for the Allen American.

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