My grandmother was a storyteller. She could tell me the same story a hundred times over and I’d still sit, listening, enthralled and spellbound, to the hundred and first. Our family comes from a very rural area of eastern Texas, and way back when it wasn’t too uncommon to encounter panthers in those parts.

Yep, I know… panthers. To be sure, “panther” is a colloquial word which folks use to refer to a broad range of large cat species, from standard cougars and mountain lions to jaguars and Jaguarundi. If people see a big cat in the south and they don’t know exactly what it is, it’s a “panther.”

Anywho, as the story goes, one very dark night out in the east Texas countryside, our uncle Sam was driving the family wagon back to the house. Whether he was coming home from cutting timber or conducting some other business in town, who knows? This was the early 1900s, which means in rural east Texas at the time, the roads were dirt paths for the most part and town was generally a considerable journey away.

Light pollution certainly wasn’t a thing people had even heard of back then, and a moonless night in the country turned the landscape into an impenetrable swamp of black ink; a total void of color and form, with seldom a twinkle of candlelight visible through the heavy tree and brush coverage. Yes, the countryside can indeed be a desolate, empty, and lonely place through which to wander.

Uncle Sam would have been riding aboard an old clapboard wagon with high sides, the kind people used to use to haul cotton from their family farm to the market for sale, and drawn by a team of two horses. Uncle Sam was a bachelor (as my grandmother always used to put it) and lived in a small building which had been built for him just behind the main house (and you guessed it – no bathroom or indoor plumbing). Below is a photo of that little shack which still stands behind the house to this day.

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Along the way uncle Sam has a single kerosene lantern hung from an iron hook which helps light the way for the wagon, which must find its way down the dirt path through dense forest and across gently rolling hills. Haphazard planks provide a shaky bridge for crossing the occasional stream (or “branch,” as they’re called in the area).

As the wagon meanders its way through the inky night toward home, the horses spook. Now well–trained, seasoned horses who are used to pulling a rickety cotton wagon along a familiar route on a dark but otherwise routine night don’t just spook for no reason. Those horses spooked because something was out there in the darkness along the way home.

As uncle Sam tried to regain control of the careening wagon and slow the horses, he thought he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, but it was hard to discern anything in that dark country night. Suddenly, something big and heavy slammed against the right side of the wagon with such force that the whole cart shifted and rocked on its frame, and uncle Sam switched from holding back on the reins to giving them a sharp crack, urging the horses into a full run.

They galloped almost all the way back to the house, with uncle Sam holding the reins in one hand and his buck knife in the other, bouncing back and forth on the wooden plank seat as the wagon jumped and jolted along the dirt road. Once home and having secured the horses, he related his tale to the astonishment of the family.

The story as it was related to me, concluded the following morning when, upon a daylight inspection, several deep claw marks were found in the wood planks on the right side of the wagon, right about at the front edge, near where uncle Sam sat in the driver’s seat…

Now, I realize I’m relating a story which emanates from a rural part of the country known for its tall tales and gregarious storytelling (“I once caught a fish this big”), and I am in no way attempting to assert the veracity of the tale. However, it is a tale which I heard told and retold time and again, one which was never altered in its telling, and one which my grandmother very clearly believed. As a result, I believe it, too.

So in honor of uncle Sam and his wagon journey back home that night, and in keeping with our country, farmhouse style, we wanted to feature a couple of items which remind us of uncle Sam and those long, dark, journeys home…