Willie Nelson sings about a man who lost his young wife and "Screamed like a panther in the middle of the night."

The scream of a panther - wild, terrifying, nocturnal - is the stuff of songs and legends. But folks living along the Blud Ridge Mountains may soon be hearing panther screams, just as their ancestors did a century or so ago.

Panther, mountain lion, puma, cougar - they're all the same. And the big cats have returned to the Blue Ridge; not many of them, but enough for their presence to be documented.

Virginia game officials think conditions may be right for the cats to return to their ancestral home in the mountains. Mountain lions once lived throughout the forests of the United States and southern Canada, but settlers drove the graceful native cats from large areas. They were thought to be extinct in Virginia.

Until a few years ago, mountain lions were believed to be living only in the Western states, from eastern New Mexico and Wyoming to the Pacific Coast, plus a few remote places in Louisiana and the Everglades.

No more.

"Ten years ago I'd have laughed at these reported sightings," says Joe Coggin, a game biologist with the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries and the state's "cat man."

"But now I don't laugh. We're getting good sightings from people we can depend on, people who know what they're seeing. Just in the past year we've had a number of Nelson and Amherst county sightings."

Coggin, who lives in Eagle Rock, has been assigned by the game commission to keep tabs on reports of mountain-lion sightings, and to determine, if possible, how many cats there are and where they're living.

One such sighting happened in rural Nelson County last July.

Mrs. Audrey Johnson, of Waynesboro, was visiting a friend at Afton, on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. It was late afternoon, and they were sitting on the front porch talking when a pony in the next field started acting strangely.

Shading their eyes, the women looked out to see a long-tailed mountain lion slinking across the field hardly more than rock-throwing distance from them.

Mrs. Johnson said the cat, including tail, was almost as long as the pony and acted "shy . . . like it wanted to hide."

The women watched the cougar for about three minutes. "I don't think it was trying to bother the pony," said Mrs. Johnson. "I think it wanted to get out of sight."

In another case, a biologist last fall got a good look at two mountain lions in Rockingham County. Larry Carpenter, of Dayton, was squirrel-hunting near Todd Lake when he heard a large animal coming his way through the leaves.

Thinking he'd get a close look at a deer or a bear, Carpenter put his squirrel scope on the source of the noise. An adult mountain lion walked into his field of view. Carpenter, a seasoned outdoorsman and game biologist, was congratulating himself on his good luck when a second cat walked up.

Last year in Pendleton County, W. Va., which adjoins Virginia's remote Highland County, someone killed a mountain lion that was threatening sheep, Coggin said. When authorities were called, they found a second mountain lion waiting near the first - and eating pieces of sandwiches from people who'd gathered.

Delmar Thacker, of Stuarts Draft, says his coon dogs have treed two cougar in the mountains of Augusta County in the past few years. He pulled the dogs off and let the cats go.

Most of the sightings have been in the Blue Ridge Mountain range, but not all. Several cats have been seen in Bath County, Craig County and Botetourt County, all of which are in the Allegheny Mountain range to the west.

The best place to see a mountain lion in Virginia has been the Peaks of Otter area along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Bedford County, Coggin says. The area is steep rugged mountains, virtually inaccessible once you leave the highway, and seldom visited by men and dogs.

Some of the reported sightings have come from park rangers along the Blue Ridge Parkway. One ranger said he'd watched two cats sunning themselves on a rock ledge for more than half and hour.

Potts Mountain in Craig County is also one of the places cougars have taken up residence, Coggin said.

In a report filed last June, Coggin told his bosses that 25 mountain lions have been seen in Virginia in the past seven years. A few more have been spotted since then, including the Nelson County and Rockingham County cats. But it seems that when you want to see a mountain lion - for scientific purposes, anyway - it's a very difficult thing to do.

Larry Crane of the Game Commission spent a week on Potts Mountain last spring looking for the big cats, or even a trace of them. He baited seven scent stations with urine from a cougar at Natural Bridge Zoo, but at the end of the week, no tracks; nothing. He checked out good-looking den sites in the mountain and found a small amount of horsehair in one den - but no evidence of cougar.

But the cats are there.

The Virginia Game Commission is so convinced of it that it passed a law in 1971 making it illegal to shoot or harm them in any way. If the mountain lion is coming back to Virginia, said the commission, let it come back in peace.

Biologist Coggin thinks he sees one reason for the cats' return. "Really, it makes sense that we have cougar again in Virginia," he says. "We're getting the deer herd built back up, and deer are the cougar's chief prey." Coggin says the jury is still out on whether the cats being spotted are a "residual layover" from pioneer days or recent arrivals who got wind of the good hunting in Virginia.

At any rate, seeing a mountain lion in Virginia is still rare. The cats are elusive and timid around man, and belong to the mystery of the mountains. The cry of a mountain lion, as wild a sound as any in nature, has been described by those who've heard it as "a woman screaming in pain."

"The cougar is a mysterious animal, all right," said Coggin. "Maybe that's why they're so exciting."

Mountain lions are not considered dangerous to humans, but there have been scattered cases of attacks by old, weak or rabid cats, so it's best to give them a wide berth. The cats weighs 100 to 175 pounds. Virginia game officials are interested in learning of all suspected sightings. If you see a puma, call the nearest game warden, or any police or sheriff's department.