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    Lydia Peelle

    31. Phantom Pain

    By Lydia Peelle

    Something’s out there. Something has shown up in the woods of Highland City. Dave Hardy was the first to see it, the opening weekend of bow season, up in his grandfather’s tree stand on the hill behind Walmart. Afterwards he bushwhacked hell-bent down to the parking lot, and, gasping for breath, tried to tell the story to anyone who would listen. The story changed with the telling, and after a while, Dave Hardy himself didn’t know what to believe: See that old pine tree over there? It was close to me as that tree. As close as that blue Honda over there. As close as you to me.

    Panther. Painter. Puma. Cougar. Mountain lion. Whatever you want to call it, by the end of October, half a dozen more people claim they have caught a glimpse of it: a pale shiver in the distance, a flash of fur through the trees. In the woods, hunters linger in their tree stands, hoping they might be the next. In the houses, the big cat creeps nightly, making the rounds of dinner tables and dreams.

    Twenty years in a taxidermy shop and Jack Wells has heard his share of tall tales, near misses, the one that got away. But the panther stories are different, told with pitch and fervor, a wild look in the eye. They don’t carry much truck with Jack. No one, after all, has any sort of proof—a photo, a positively identifiable set of tracks, or even a really good look at the thing. For all Jack is concerned, it’s an overgrown coyote, someone’s German shepherd, or a figment of everyone’s imagination. A mountain lion in Highland City? Sure, there’s woods out there, hills with deep hollers and abandoned tobacco fields; not a whole lot of people, nothing to the south but the PLAXCO plant, nothing to the north but Kentucky—but the chances are just as good you’ll run into a woolly mammoth. People, if you ask Jack, have lost all sense. . . . Read More.

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