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Hunting the PantherCamp Life in Florida; A Handbook for Sportsmen and Settlers.
To the average Florida tourist, who sails luxuriously up the St. John's, or stays idling at the hotel, the idea that there are predatory animals in the State rarely occurs. It is only to the camper-out that the privilege of making their acquaintance is vouchsafed. If he is in a place sufficiently remote from civilization he favored with a sight at the animal mentioned above. It is more than likely that he will be with its moaning cry, or see its signs about his den. The panther is so rarely seen, however, that it is regarded as mythical by many men professing to be hunters. It has been my rare good fortune to meet with, be in at the death of one, and soon after the demise of several others. There is a vast difference existing between this panther, tiger, or puma, and the wild-cat, or lynx. The latter animal, and another, the catamount, occur in Florida, but are not half the size of the panther. The latter has been found measuring nine feet from tip to tip. I have seen one measuring eight feet four inches, and have the skin of one measuring eight feet good. In color the panther is a yellowish-brown, darker on the back, growing to a yellowish-white on the belly. It has great strength, and no pack of dogs can successfully attack one. It frequents the swamps and hammocks during the day, and seeks its prey by night. Old hunters say it remains concealed in the large trees, ready to drop upon unwary travelers. Its tracks may be frequently seen in the Woods back of Indian river, or interior. I have been told that an animal larger than this, spotted and striped—in fact the regular tiger—was seen near New Smyrna, but this is the only related instance, and not likely to prove correct. This animal is more generally known by the name of tiger than any other, and as such is spoken of with dread by the "crackers." The only panther I ever had a hand in killing was a goodly sized one near Hope Sound. I was camped at St. Sebastian Creek, and having with me the prince of boatmen, Jim R., lacked not in either fish or game. But duck and fish were not enough to satisfy, even in the abundance provided there by a lavish nature, and I cast about for some new diversion.
It was at this period that Jim suggested we should go down the river and secure the skeleton of a manatee we had discovered a month previous. It was just the thing, and we were soon sailing down river with a fair wind. It was about fifty miles, and we camped that night a dozen miles from our destination. When we awoke next morning we discovered that our whole stock of pork was missing. Further search revealed the tracks of a panther, and, connecting the circumstances, we were at no loss to account for the absence of the pork. The most aggravating circumstance was, that the theft had been committed while we had a dog in the camp, whose sole purpose was to guard our property. It was useless to follow up the trail, as it was soon lost, and we left camp and entered the Narrows, beneath the shade of India rubber and palm. The manatee we were in search of had been discovered in a decomposed state, so, as it was securely lodged in a bend of the channel, we had left it to the tender mercies of a coroner's jury of vultures, intending to return for it later. Now we had returned, and making our boat fast over the spot where we supposed the ivory lay, we proceeded to business. As the only method of getting it was by diving, and the water swarmed with the ugliest alligators ever seen by mortal man, there was no rivalry between Jim and myself—in fact, Jim desired to give me precedence; he was perfectly willing I should take the lead in the way of diving, and developed a new feature in his disposition. Around our camp fire he always manifested a disposition to secure a front seat when the pork and flapjacks came along, but now a change had come over him, and my impetuous Jim seemed inclined to resign the role of leader, and be content with that of follower. But I was not at all desirous of securing glory at his expense, and so he went overboard first and I followed. The water was about neck deep, and rather cold. Our mode of operation was to wade about, feeling the mud beneath us with our feet for the ivory. Occasionally we would assume the position of ducks feeding in shallow water, groping about the mud, with our hands. With our heads under water we might have reminded a disinterested spectator—though there was not another white man in a radius of a dozen miles—of the ostrich who thought so long as his head was covered his extremities were secure. But we didn't think so, for we were constantly thinking of our unprotected parts, and we often wondered whether the saying that an alligator wouldn't bite a White man were true.
It was upon coming up from such a position as I have described that I heard a low growl from our dog, a huge old Mastiff, whom we had left aboard the boat. Following the direction of his fixed and eager gaze, I saw, as soon as the water had cleared from my eyes, a huge, cat-like animal stealthily moving among the mangroves on shore. I remember getting a glimpse of a burning pair of eyes, and then I imitated the ostrich before alluded to, and stuck my head under water and started for the boat. Jim had seen the animal at about the same time and although I started first for the boat, he had reached it first being much nearer.
Snatching my double-barreled breech-loader, and slipping in a couple of buckshot cartridges, he jumped into his breeches and then jumped ashore, and was far on the trail of panther and dog before I had equipped myself for the race. Putting on pants and moccasins, I took a large bowie knife, the only available weapon, and insanely followed on the trail. It was long and circuitous, but I finally found them—Jim and the dog—a mile or so from the boat. I knew from the silence of the dog, some time before I reached them, that the panther was treed, and did not need Jim's information to that effect. It was in a small hammock of an acre or so that they had brought him to bay and, after closely reconnoitering we concluded he would be likely to stay till dark, and that it would be best for one of us to return and get some more ammunition and the rest of our clothes. Accordingly, I remained guarding the hammock until Jim returned with the necessary articles. Taking courage, from a small stock we had by us in a small bottle, we proceeded to make a thorough and systematic search for the panther.
The hammock was in the pine woods, and was just such a one as is common in the Florida Pine barrens—a collection of oaks and other deciduous trees, with an abundance of vines and undergrowth.
We proceeded but slowly, for neither of us cared to meet the animal without an introduction, and it was late in the afternoon when we approaced the centre of the clump toward which we had been steadily working. We had held the dog back all this time, for fear he would cause the beast to take refuge in another hammock, but but no sooner had we reached this central clump of old oaks and tangled briers, than he dashed madly forward and wildly clawed at the bark of a huge old oak some forty yards away. A panther in a tree is a troublesome thing to see, especially after the sun has dipped below the horizon; and again, the color of a panther so assimilates with that of the rough brown bark that it takes a sharp eye to detect one, even when you know he is there.
Guided by Jim's finger, I saw two fiery eyes gleaming from over a large limb, close to the trunk of the tree. Ugh! how they pierced me. They seemed to burn me through and through. Following down I soon saw the animal's tail, nervously working from side to side. His body was hidden behind the tree.
"There" said Jim, "you take the gun and shoot just below his eyes. If you do that you'll likely hit him in the throat."
"No, Jim, I think you can do this business best; you see I am not much in the panther line, anyhow."
"No, you be hanged! You can shoot better'n I can with that gun, and besides, you can hit him as he jumps, for you're good on the wing, you know. I'll stand ready to stick him when he falls, old boy, an' I'll fix him if you don't."
So saying, he handed me the gun and took the bowie. I always had thought I should like to kill a panther, and had often pictured to myself a panther in my clutches, with my left hand hold of his tongue and my right in the act of plunging a knife into his throat. But now the supreme moment had arrived I was actually shaking with fear, or something akin, and refusing the high honor of killing one. But I knew that, as Jim had said, it was best that I should start the panther up and leave to him the coup de grace. Settling myself to this, I tried, by a desperate effort, to quiet my nerves. Securing a position behind the trunk of a palmetto, I rested the gun against it and sighted just below those blazing orbs. It was an eventful moment. It was to fire or not to fire—to leave the panther unprovoked, or arouse a terrible destructive power that nothing but death would allay. My hand yet trembled, and I let the barrels fall; but, with a powerful effort, I held the sight upon the panther's throat again and fired. With the report came a howl of anguish and a rushing noise as the huge animal launched himself into the air. There were no shaking limbs now, but with nerves and muscles tense, I held my gun upon him, and stopped him midway his leap, as it were. I have shot birds when their flight was so swift that their wings seemed a misty film but never, it seemed to me, had I such speed and velocity to overcome before.
He fell nearly at my feet and the dog, was upon him ere he had hardly touched the ground. The growling, snarling, and snapping that ensued, was horrible beyond description, but it struck no terror to the heart of my guide, for, watching his opportunity, he rushed in and plunged the long bowie almost to the hilt in the panther's side. Groaning and gasping for breath, the animal tottered, fell upon his side and yielded at last, overcome by superior numbers. We skinned him that night by the light of a fire of light wood. The skull, with two broken fangs, a paw and the claws, are in my cabinet now, and they are ready to vouch for this story, even as the man was willing to show the pen he wrote the letter with. My first shot had broken two of his fangs, and the second had broken a fore-leg, besides wounding him internally.
The panther is a cowardly animal, and will not attack man. This refers to the Southern panther-but instances are well authenticated where it has followed women and children, evidently with murder in its heart. Indeed, I remember now an incident related by a settler, of a negro child being devoured by a panther, but cannot recall the locality of the occurrence. They are fond of hogs, however, and will often risk considerable to capture a good porker—a rarity, by the way, in Florida. The day before my arrival at the Kissimmee river a panther came up to a settler's cabin in broad daylight, and carried of a full-grown sow, the mother of a large family, before the eyes of the settler's wife and children. The next day dogs were gathered, and a hunt instituted that resulted in the death of the panther, a huge eight-footer.
Near Fort Drum, in the interior of Florida, panthers have been very troublesome of late years, and are often killed there. That they will kill dogs, I have the testimony of an old guide and hunter, who described to me an "accident" happening to his dog upon the very place where We then camped. He said he was camped there, had his mosquito bar pitched, and had gone to sleep. Something, he knew not what, awoke him, just in time to see a dark body leap over his bar and pounce upon the dog. There was a short struggle, and then the worthy guide was minus a good dog. He didn't take part in the fight, but was a quiet, if not disinterested, spectator. Sometimes they will manifest the utmost contempt for man, and will seem to take delight in keeping him in suspense. An old "live-oaker" told me that he came upon two panthers in a narrow trail, and that they walked ahead of him to the shore of the river, where one of them sat down and refused to move. Upon his companion throwing a "chunk of light wood," at it, it merely started a little, and snarled in a way that convinced the two live-oakers that it "wasn't goin' to stan'no nonsense." They left him there. Another live-oaker, a chopper, was engaged in squaring a fallen tree, when a full-grown panther came up and quietly carried away his dinner, which lay upon the other end of the log. This act, though very gracefully and daintily done, so alarmed the man that he dropped his axe and ran into camp, a mile or more. But the panther devoured his dinner.
Excerpt from "Camp Life in Florida; A Handbook for Sportsmen and Settlers." Chapter 15. Compiled by Charles Hallock, published by Forest and Stream Publishing Company. American News Company, Agents. 1876.
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