FINDING A PANTHER GUARDING A DEAD BEAR
By S. C. Turnbo
In the cemetery at Lead Hill, Ark., is an unmarked grave in which the mortal remains of Joe Coker were deposited. We have made reference to him in several other sketches. Joe was the eldest child of Buck Coker and was a noted character. He has lived on the bank of White River and in the Sugar Loaf Prairie and on East Sugar Loaf Creek. While he lived at the Big Spring below where the town of Lead Hill now stands he built a little mill and the settlers visited this mill far and near to have their corn ground. He also put up a whiskey still where he manufactured corn whiskey to supply those fellows that were "dying for the want of a dram." I was told that at the time of his death which occurred in 1862 he was living at what is now the Brice Milum residence at Lead Hill. It is said that at the moment of his death he was alone. There was no one in the house to smooth his dying moans with a word of consolation and hope for the future welfare of his soul. A negro woman, one of his slaves, was the only one in the house just before the cold icy hand of death came to him. Perceiving that the life of her master was nearing to an end she hurriedly left the house to notify a neighbor. When she returned back Mr. Coker had passed over the deep and dark valley to his long home. He had lived to a great age and had lived in this country 48 years. He and his brothers were the owners of good stock. Buck Coker, father of Joe, gave Payton Keesee the first calf he ever owned which gave him his start of cattle. It is said that Uncle Joe once owned all the land on which Lead Hill now stands. Many years ago he donated a plot of ground there for school and church purposes and for the burial of the dead. About the year 1849 he built a church house on this land of pine logs that he had hauled from the pineries. I am told that Steve Brigs did the first preaching in this house, and as the Sugar Loaf country settled up many revival meetings were held here from time to time. A few years after the close of the Civil War this building was taken down and the logs removed. But the spot where the house stood is pointed out to the present time as the place where "the pine log meeting house was." "Cherokee" Joe Coker, son of Uncle Joe by his Cherokee Indian wife, Aeny, died in 1853 and his remains were the first interment here. George Coker, another son by Cynthia, another Indian woman, was killed in the Jake Nave Bend in 1854 and his body was the second burial here. This graveyard is a noted one and many people who lived in this country during the early days as well as in modern times are resting here. When Joe Coker came to White River in 1814 he would go up on the Sugar Loaf Knob and see buffalo, deer and elk all at the same time. A narrative of his encounters with wild beasts and other matter relating to the early history of this part of Arkansas would fill a book of many pages, one story of which we introduce here. In the month of July, 1824, Jane Coker, Joes eldest sister, married Charley Sneed. Neighbors lived far apart then but a few days before the wedding came off Buck Coker sent for his friends to come and be present when his daughter and Charley were united in the bonds of matrimony. Among Cokers most intimate friends was Payton Keesee and he was among the invited guests. Elias Keesee informed me that he was two months old when this occurred and that his parent told him that it was a hot July days ride through the wild woods from where they lived on Little North Fork to where Buck Coker lived at the lower end of the Jake Nave Bend on White River to be present at that wedding on the following day. Soon after the marriage Sneed and his wife located on Osage Creek seven miles west of Carrollton. Sneeds residence stood on the road leading from Carrollton to Huntsville and near the mouth of a hollow called Jews Harp. Sneed and the Cokers, in visiting each other, beat out a trailway. The country looked so wild then that it made the visitors feel lonely to pass through back and forth between the Sugar Loaf country and Osage Creek. On a certain time Joe Coker paid his sister and brother-in-law a visit and as usual he had gone alone. Two years afterward he told the story of this journey through the wilds of Carroll County to Dave McCord, and Mr. McCord related it to the writer and here is the way it was told me. Mr. Coker said that he did not take the precaution to carry a gun with him on that trip but he met nothing serious until on his way back home. "While I was riding down Lead Mine Hollow which flows into West Sugar Loaf Creek on the west side," said Uncle Joe, "I saw a huge panther crouched down at the side of a dead bear which lay at the foot of a post oak tree that stood at the side of the pathway. The panther was guarding the bear. The two savage animals had met here and engaged in a terrific fight and the bear was killed. The scene of the encounter was in a small prairie bottom with a few scattering trees and nearly ½ of a mile above the mouth of the hollow. I rode up as close as I dared to view the ferocious beast and its dead adversary and the spot where they had fought. The panther showed much anger at being disturbed and growled fiercely and rose on his feet and threatened to spring at me. I needed no second warning and gave the enraged beast plenty of room at once and it lay down again at the side of its dead victim. The grass under the tree was all mashed down and stained with blood and the hair on both animals was red with blood. It was evident that they had met here and fought only a few hours previous to my arrival. Part of the outside bark of the tree was raked off from about two feet above the ground to four and five feet up the tree trunk. Evidently when the bear found that he was receiving the worst end of the fight he had attempted to escape up the tree but his powerful antagonist had pulled him back and he had clawed the bark off with his paws in trying to hold to the tree while the panther was preventing him from going up the tree. Appearances indicated that the bear had made several efforts to climb the tree before his enemy finally killed him." Mr. Coker said that when he left them and went on home he intended to return back with gun and dogs and try to kill the panther, but on his arrival at home something occurred which prevented him from going back. Mr. McCord said that Uncle Joe gave him this account in 1838. The combat between the wild beasts took place two years before or in 1836. "Cokers story aroused my curiosity," said Mr. McCord, "and in company with my brother, John McCord, I visited the spot where Coker told me the right occurred and we found evidence of the combat was still visible. The marks on the tree made by the bears claws showed very plain and the shattered bark which had escaped destruction from the forest fires since the fight lay around the roots of the tree, and a few of the bears bones were found in the grass under the tree. Doubtless if Coker had reached there sooner he would have witnessed a terrible scene of savagery, blood and war between these angered animals of the forest."
Springfield-Greene County Library