New Tale Around the Pot Belly Stove

Pot Belly Stove

The winter months were the most productive months in Smith’s General Store, where a new tale is concerned. There is just something magical about a pot belly stove that attracts folks in the winter. A group of men would sit around the stove, just loafing and listening to tales, with each one always trying to outdo the others by telling a better tale. Whenever a tale was was so good that no one could top it, the store would clear out. The tale you are about to read was definitely a store clearin’ tale.

It was around mid afternoon on a particularly cold, snowy Saturday and Dad had just thrown a couple of big lumps of coal in the pot belly stove, which was already cherry red. Clarence had been sitting quietly on the bench, smoking his pipe and listening to the other tales, and for some reason he reckoned it was time for him to get his tale in the mix. Actually Clarence had a reputation for telling tales and held the record for clearing the store. This particular story has stuck vividly in my mind all these years.

Having worked in most of the areas sawmills during his entire life, Clarence had been part of a rich environment where telling tales was a form of recreation. Sawmilling was, and still is, hard work, but especially in the early 1900's. The trees were felled by crosscut saws, skidded out of the woods with horses or mules, and carried to the mill mostly by teams of horses or occasionally by truck, if the mill owner was really successful. The mills were powered by steam, generated by burning the wood scraps and sawdust. It was hard work in difficult conditions, but it was honest work, that built character and inspired tales.


This is the Tale as Clarence Told It

It was late fall with cold nights and cool days. I was working for Jed Johnson at his mill up the right branch of Laurel Fork holler, which was about as far up the holler as you could stick a knife. For about four or five months we had been noticing an old she panther. She would come down off the mountain around 10:00 most every morning. She would just be out there looming around a couple of hundred yards or so from the mill. I reckon she could smell Bess’s cooking. [In those days, mill owners had camps where the mill hands could stay. Usually the mill owner’s wife would stay in camp and do the cooking, or he would hire a cook.]

I supposed the old panther must be hungry, so after lunch, I would walk out about two thirds the distance between us and toss some scraps towards her that were left over from Bess’s lunch . You know, that woman is one of the finest cooks I ever knew, her biscuits and squirrel gravy could win a blue ribbon at a fair anywhere! But gettin' back to my story, at first the ol’e panther would warily turn and trot off a few yards, but once Jed fired up the mill and we all were back working, I would see her sneak down and eat the scraps. This went on every danged day for several weeks. Each day, she and I would get a little easier feeling about one another, until I could throw scraps and occasionally she would catch them in mid air. She had become so brave that after we had shut down the mill for the day and were eatin’ supper inside, she would sneak down to lick the brine off the outside of the water barrel.

Now around Thanksgiving time, the snows had come and covered the mountains like grandma’s quilt covering a feather bed. We were all huddled up around the camp fire trying to keep warm and dry, and out there in the deep snow was that old panther standing out like a lump of coal in a basket full of wool. Somebody, I think it was Three Fingers Potts, said to me, "You’ve sure got friendly with that ole panther, I reckon if you were of the mind to, you could catch her."

I got to figurin’ on that, and couldn’t get it out of my head. I would lay at night listening to the hoot owls, and wonderin’ and studyin’ just how I could go about catchin’ that blasted panther. Finally, one day, Jed asked me to bust the ice in the water barrel and draw out a couple of buckets of water for Bess to use for supper. That’s when it hit me. I knew right then and there how I would catch that ole panther.

I kept an eye on that water barrel, waitin’ for it to be just about empty. When it was, I turned it on its side and let the rest of the water run out. Then I hunkered down and turned it upside down on top of me. I popped out the plug in the bung hole, which was exactly big enough where I could get my hand out just past my wrist. I waited inside the barrel for the old panther to make her evening trip down from the mountain to lick the outside of the barrel. Just before dark, she came. There I was cold as a pickle and crouched down inside that barrel try’in to be as still as water. I'd been waitin’ for just the right opportunity, and finally it was here.

A Tale of Tails

She had her backside turned towards me, just near enough to the opening to where I knew I had to snap into action. I poked my hand out through the bung hole, grabbed a hold of her tail and snatched it inside and, as quick as you can say Charlie Murphy, I tied it into a granny knot! Whew Wee, boys you ain’t never seen such a commotion! She let out a scream that could be heard into the next holler and tore off out of the camp and up the mountain like a herd of mad elephants. You could hear her bellerin’ and squawlin’ and the echo of that barrel bouncing off trees and rocks for miles. I swear I could hear that danged panther far into the night.

The men said they had never seen such a site, nor had they laughed so hard in all their born days! Well, as you might imagine, we didn’t see hide ner hair of that panther again. I sort of missed her, and nary a day went by that I didn’t still throw out some scraps just in case she came back around.

Now at this point in the story Clarence stopped talking as if the tale had ended. He just sat there methodically reloading his pipe. Finally someone asked him if he ever saw that panther again.

Bringing Up The Tale End

I’m glad you asked, he said as he struck a match to light his pipe. As the snow started melting, and the ramps were peaking up through the remaining snow on the northern slopes, you could smell spring in the air. The birds were flippin around and the squirrels were scampering back and forth playing and the sky was turning a deeper blue. We had just set down for lunch, when I heard a racket up on the mountain that was like nothing I had ever heard before. I shushed the men and told them to listen to see if they could hear it too. Sure enough a couple of them did. As the noise got louder and louder everyone was hearing it and to tell you the truth, we were all just a bit scared. It sounded like a team of horses running on a mile long wooden bridge, except there ain’t no horses up there and there ain’t no bridges up there neither!

All of a sudden, I got a glimpse or a flash of something moving just under the ridge where the sun had touched the mountain and it was headin' our way. We all got up and moved a little closer to the bunk house, ‘cause it weren’t no tellin’ what might be comin'. Jed went in and fetched his Winchester off the rack, just in case he needed it. Whatever it was, it was pretty danged big, and there was more than one. We lost sight for just a bit, and when they came back in sight, I be danged if it weren’t that old she panther and she was headin' straight for the camp! You won’t believe this, but she still had that water barrel on her tail, and right behind her was six cubs and danged if they didn’t all have nail kegs on their tails!

This tale cleared out the store!

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