This story first appeared in the July 2000 issue of Men's Journal.
I saw the son of a bitch while I was up on my tractor, running the rotary cutter along a wall of green sagegrass that was five feet high. It was August in Mississippi, hot, on over in the afternoon but not near sundown. The sky had softened, and the coyote was trotting along in the open like the most unconcerned thing you could imagine. I stopped the tractor when I realized that he hadn’t seen me. Or maybe he hadn’t registered what I was.
He ambled on across the freshly clipped pasture grass I’d cut the week before, dropped over into a patch of stuff about two feet high, and stopped. I eased back on the throttle, and the Cummins diesel sat there doing its steady chug. I knocked it into neutral, took the PTO out of gear, and heard the swigswigswig of the six-foot blade slowing down a little, turning freely, but so heavy and with so much momentum that it would take close to two minutes to finally come to a complete stop. He laid himself down in the grass, and I got off the tractor.
Just for the fun of it, I thought I’d see how close I could get to him if I kept the outline of the tractor behind me and walked in a straight line. I didn’t have my gun. It was in the cabinet at the house, and the house was about a quarter-mile across the pasture. I didn’t think I’d be able to get close to him. But I hated him so bad I wanted to have a better look. I wanted to kill him was what I wanted to do. But the gun was too far away. He’d probably run before I took many steps. But I started taking some anyway.
The glimpse I’d had of him, he didn’t look all coyote. He looked about half dog, or coy-dog. He might have been about half malamute, because he had patches of tan and black, and his ears didn’t look right. I knew coyotes bred with dogs sometimes and I knew that they ate a lot of dogs, and I knew they ate baby goats, too. I knew that bitterly, and I wished hard for my gun in my hand with each step I took. I took a surprising number of them in a straight line, and he didn’t get up and run. I couldn’t see him, but my eyes had never left the spot where he’d stopped, even when I was climbing down from the tractor, so unless he’d crawled away, he was still there.
The distance closed from 50 yards to 40 to 30 to 20, and once I got away from the tractor, it didn’t make very much noise — the land, or maybe the tall patch of grass I’d been mowing, absorbed the sound somehow.
I wouldn’t have thought he would have just trotted out across the open like that with me up on the tractor. But I also thought that maybe since I wasn’t walking on two legs it messed him up somehow, let him get within shooting distance of a man, a man who, luckily for the coyote, had no gun.
I knew he was still there and I wondered what he would do if I surprised him. Would he run? Would he come at me? I didn’t have anything but a pocketknife, but I took it out and opened it up. I started taking baby steps then, looking into that tall grass, and when I got to within 20 feet or so, I could see a brown, mottled form curled and at rest, just a vague glimpse of it through the grass, and I figured he was taking a nap. And how long would he sleep? Would he sleep long enough for me to make it all the way back to the tractor and get on the other side of it and then run bent over behind the wall of sagegrass back to the house and get the single-barrel and some buckshot out of the cabinet and then run back? And do this whole sneaking-up thing again until I got close enough for just one damn shot? Just one?
There wasn’t anything to do but try. I started backing up, real slow, real careful, watching the spot where he was.
The Immaculate Kid came when we least expected him. I was riding the tractor around one afternoon when I went by Nanette lying in some grass, and there was a little white thing with black spots next to her. You’d have thought I’d gone crazy. I started blowing the horn on the tractor, and whooping and hollering, and they heard me in the yard and came over, and I showed them our first baby goat.
This was before bestial incest crept into the picture.
What happened was that we’d taken Nanette on for a while. My friend Tom had been trying to keep her in his little pasture in Oxford, and it just wasn’t working out. But we have more than 60 acres out here, or my wife and her mother, Mamaw, do, and they let me live on it, and my son Billy Ray raises cows on it. All kinds of stuff happens with animals out here. Sometimes things happen that you can hardly believe.
One Saturday, Billy Ray had gone to the sale at Pontotoc. That’s one of those big barn deals where they run livestock into the ring — cows, pigs, bulls, heifers, horses and mules, donkeys and burros sometimes — and they’ve got an auctioneer with a microphone, and he’s sitting up there in a booth above the smoke and the sawdust, and once in a while a young pig jumps through the steel pipe ring and maybe shits in somebody’s lap. You can sell or buy. Billy Ray bought what he thought was a young goat, but it turned out to be a full-grown pygmy goat. He had Tom’s permission to breed Nanette. But when he got that hairy thing home, I said, “Forget it, man, he’s not going to be able to get up on her." Nanette was a regular-sized goat. We watched him try. She’d just be grazing while he was hunching on her. So we said, Nah, it’s not gonna work, and Billy Ray sold the pygmy goat, and I forgot all about it until that afternoon when I found the Immaculate Kid. We called a couple of friends of ours and said, “Oh, hey, come over and look at the cute baby goat." They came over, we took pictures and made videos, and my neighbor Joe even got down behind an overturned feed trough with a pig puppet on his hand and messed with the little goat’s head, and we had a big time. We celebrated the young goat’s life, such as we could. We didn’t know then all the trouble that lay down the road. Because when you start screwing around with goats — well, they’re not cows. They’re goats, and somehow they achieve a realm of even worse nastiness than cows. It’s probably hard to believe unless you’ve witnessed it yourself. But it does occur. It occurs like a motherfucker. I told Billy Ray. He wouldn’t listen to me. Even when the baby goats started getting killed at night. Even when they started getting their throats slashed. That’s always the problem: He won’t listen to me.
But he’s tough as hell, can go out and work in all kinds of bad weather, and is already a much better man than I ever thought about being, except that he thinks women ought to stay in their own place. But he’s real smart and funny, and he’s already 24, and it’s only now, at 48, that I can see how much of a boy I was at his birth, when I was 24.
The Immaculate Kid never was good for much. He was too wild to pet, so we didn’t get to play with him. After a while we just ignored him, and he and Nanette ranged over the pasture like the cows did, not really soul mates.
Billy Ray’s got all kinds of cows, calves, heifers, bulls. And after the new goat had been hanging around for about six months, I began to wonder when those things became sexually active. And would a goat do its mother? I knew dogs would. I knew dogs would in a second. I don’t figure big cats would do it. I think their family ties are stronger than that. I didn’t know but I went ahead and said something like, “Well look, Bud, now, you don’t want to let that thing get old enough to where it’d think about screwing its mother before you sell it, okay?" And of course he assured me that wouldn’t happen. And I went happily on with whatever project I was involved in, either writing something or building something or cutting something down and dragging it somewhere, I’m sure.
And one day I saw him riding her. A goat on its mother. I found Billy Ray and said, “Come on, let’s get him loaded up and sell him, we don’t want to have baby goats born from a mother and son, come on, go catch him." And he did get up and try. He tried for a long, long time. He chased that damn goat all over this place several times, and I don’t remember how long it took him to catch it, but I think it was a long time. Eventually the Immaculate Kid got sold, and I hoped Nanette wasn’t pregnant.
Fast forward about three months, and one morning Nanette had three babies about the size of rabbits, with little striped faces and hanging ears, and they were bouncing and bucking around on their new legs, and they were just about the cutest little things I’d ever seen in my life. One was black, one was brown, and one was gray and black. You could pet them. They weren’t deformed. They looked pretty normal. I felt a failure to prevent animal incest nonetheless.
But they were just cute as hell. I got them into the heifer pen because I was already thinking about coyotes. The heifer pen is built out of woven wire, and it’s right behind Mamaw’s house, where Babe, Billy Ray’s big Walker hound, sleeps. I figured they’d be safer there. They weren’t too hard to catch. They’d run but you could catch them, and they’d bleat — maybe in terror, who knew? — but eventually you could run them down and play with them some. I did it several times.
I made it back to the tractor without him seeing me. I ducked behind it, bent over, and started running. The wall of green sagegrass was a couple hundred yards long. It’s one of the main pastures and it grows so much grass that the cows can’t eat it all, so we have to mow it a few times each summer. That was what I’d been doing that afternoon. I’d mowed a lot of it, but there was still plenty to go. It’s probably six or seven acres, maybe more. It’s hard for me to look at a piece of land and say how many acres are in it.
So there I was, running bent over. Running bent over, running bent over, running bent over. It’s a hard way to run. Man was not meant to run like that. I figured once I got a little ways off from him I could straighten up. But I wasn’t going to stop running, not if I had even a slim chance of getting the gun and some shells and making it back up there before he left. I was going to shoot him in the head after what he’d done to my baby goats. He’d come on the place and killed. Over and over. I had the right to defend my livestock. Even if they were already dead.
So I kept running bent over, running bent over, running bent over. I ran bent over for a long time, until I got down under the slight rise of land that lay between us, and then I straightened up and kept jogging back toward the house. I don’t remember who was in there. I ran to the gun cabinet and got my Harrington & Richardson single-shot 12-gauge, scooped up some 00 buckshot and No. 4 steel shot, and jogged back out the door, shells in my pocket, the piece at port arms.
The little goats prospered and grew. Young children were brought out from Oxford to pet them and play with them. They made you just feel good in your heart, by God, to look out there in the heifer pen and see them prancing around, like they had springs under their feet, or all four legs were pogo sticks. They seemed to have limitless energy and enthusiasm. Nanette had a big old bag with fat teats winking from between her legs, and I even thought of milking her but never did.
The little goats got to be the size of big rabbits pretty soon. Their bleats were musical, and Nanette seemed content. She was bad about butting, and Tom’s youngest boy had gotten scared of her for that reason, but it never bothered me. Even if she hit you, it wasn’t that bad. If she hit me, I’d just get a hold of her horns and wrestle with her for a while. She wasn’t mean. She was just a goat.
I couldn’t hear the tractor running at all. I said, “Shit, it’s quit." I was still running and I knew there wasn’t any chance of him still being there. Just more wasted effort, just one more thing you spend time doing that doesn’t pay off. What difference would it have made anyway? They were dead already. But in a bad way that lives within me, I would have felt better if I could have killed him. No solid proof that he was the one, but he was the only one available and he would do. A sacrificial goat-yote.
When I got back to the wall of sagegrass, I bent over again and soon running running running I could hear the murmur of the tractor — odd how that distance swallowed up all the sound — but nothing had changed. I stopped behind the tractor and broke the shotgun open and pulled out some shells. The No. 4 pellets were smaller, but there were more of them. I loaded the chamber and closed the gun and went out front again. I knew he was gone. It had been probably 10 minutes, and he wouldn’t have lain there for that long. Although with a wild thing you wonder just how they do live, on winter nights when the moon is up and ice hangs from all the trees, and the grass is white and frosted and stiff. What warmth is there for them, and where do they hide? But man has a tough time of it, too. He tries to raise goats for the joy their companionship brings. For the goatsongs they sing.
I never did exactly get to be best friends with the little goats. I enjoyed them, but it didn’t seem to go the other way. They weren’t like dogs, puppies, cats, kittens. They didn’t live in the house or even on the front porch, although one time I took one of them over to the patio where the family was cooking out. It didn’t really want to go, but I took off my belt and made a loop with the buckle and put the loop around its neck and opened the gate and started leading it out. Nanette got upset. She came after us. The little goat was bleating for her, and she started bleating back, and it just made the little one bleat harder, and before long it started sounding like somebody was murdering them. But I closed the gate and took off across Mamaw’s yard with it, the goat kicking and struggling, trying to pull away, and I kept talking to it, and trying to pet it, but it didn’t want to calm down, and it took a while to get it over to the patio. And it didn’t like it over there, either. It kept on bleating, and although everybody thought it was cute, it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t going to make much of a pet. I took it back to the pen and put it up. Billy Ray came home that evening and opened the gate and let the goats out into the pasture for some reason. The next morning there were only two baby goats.
Billy Ray and I have these little talks sometimes. I tell him how things are going to go if he doesn’t do A or B, and then when he doesn’t do A or B, it happens, and we have to talk again. And I knew that I had made it perfectly clear to him that Nanette and her babies needed to stay in the heifer pen because of all the coyotes around. We’d shot them. We’d captured them. They were still here. Now we’d lost a baby goat because he hadn’t listened to me. I told him, Let’s get them back in the pen and let’s keep them in there, okay? He said okay.
I got on the tractor while he herded them back toward the heifer pen. I was holding out for hope, praying that maybe it had just gotten separated from Nanette and was wandering around in the pasture, bleating for her. But I made a wide and close sweep right before sundown, and there was nothing. Meat, bones, blood — all gone. But like I said, it —wasn’t much bigger than a rabbit.
I couldn’t tell if he was gone or not. Everything looked the same. The tractor was still running. The wind was still blowing. There were some pieces of rusted tin out on the pasture grass in front, remnants of the ’84 tornado that sucked up the barn and spewed it back into thousands of pieces, many of them still lying here and there. Once in a while you’d run over some of it.
I had my shotgun up, ready to aim it. But I didn’t see a damn thing to aim it at. I knew I couldn’t be that lucky. I knew he was gone.
The place was green and beautiful. The sycamores that lined the creek were in full foliage, and up past the other pond you could see the row of cedars along the fence. More than once I’d mowed a big patch of pasture and kept cutting it into ever smaller circles and seen the rats running, and then watched the hawks fall on them and carry them to the big oaks down in the bottom below the house and eat them, perched on a limb. In long years past I’d fed my father-in-law’s cows out of his blue-and-white ’67 Chevy pickup, delivered their babies, hauled off the dead carcasses of the ones that hadn’t made it. I’d been on this place more than 20 years, had seen it change through weather and wind and snow, had mowed it, fenced it, farmed it, made love and made children from that love on it. I didn’t like anything coming on it and taking what it wanted.
Life rocked on. It always does. No matter what happens, you just keep going until the day you can’t go anymore. I was saddened by the death of the little goat, even though I hadn’t known it very personally, and I was determined that it wouldn’t happen again.
But Billy Ray has problems. He has cows and heifers and bulls, and sometimes I don’t fully understand every little increment of what’s going down because I don’t have time to listen to all of it. Nonetheless, I do sit down at night with him sometimes and discuss this cow or that cow. This fence or that fence. This bull or that bull. I know I will never be free of cows. And I know that’s what he’s interested in, so I try to cheer him along some, though I know already the heartbreak of cow ownership and do not want to sip the wine of its fruits anymore in this life. He let the goats out again for some reason, and another one disappeared.
I got pretty pissed off then. I put the remaining two back in the heifer pen and I kept them in there. But one night, not long after that, the coyote came back. The dogs raised a commotion, some bleating was heard, and the next morning when I went out, Nanette was sitting very still with her horns caught in the woven wire, and the last remaining little baby goat was lying close to the back gate with its throat torn open. It was quite dead. The son of a bitch didn’t get to eat it, but he killed it anyway.
The way I saw it, I had failed as a livestock caretaker. I don’t think it bothered anybody else as much as it did me. I just couldn’t quite reconcile it. It didn’t seem fair.
Billy Ray had to haul the last baby goat off. I don’t know where he took it. I’m sure wherever it was, some coyotes found it and ate it anyway.
It came as a big revelation to me that he was one of those big brown pieces of tin lying out in the pasture. I only realized it when he stood up and started walking away. I cocked the hammer and put the bead on his shoulder at less than 40 yards, and when I touched the trigger I saw his hair fly. But it didn’t knock him down, and he only whirled and started running up the hill. I ran with him, sideways, breaking open the gun and fumbling for another shell and loading the gun and shutting it and cocking it again and trying to track him. I couldn’t believe the shot hadn’t blown him down. How petrified with fear had the baby goats been when he came? At the creep feeder on top of the hill he whirled again, still looking for where the shots were coming from, and I leveled on him and fired, and I knew it was a load of 00 buckshot, and a blast seemed to fan around him, some shock wave that still didn’t topple him, and he left running, tail out, streaking low, and I tried to reload again, but it was no use, because he was too fast. He was headed right toward the cows, standing down there in the bottom below the house, as if he knew somehow that I wouldn’t shoot in that direction, and he dove among them and exited very fast stage left, ducked into the overhanging creek trees, and was gone.
I stood there looking after the last fleeting image of him, brown, low to the ground and laid out, getting away. Holding the gun like nothing. And feeling so helpless and hating it so bad. He was just an animal, but still he had gotten the best of me. He came, he saw, he ate, he left. And there was not one thing I could do to prevent any of it, given the circumstances of my station and my family and cattle matters that were out of my hands. But still, it hurt. It hurt about as bad as anything had in a while. They were just so goddamn cute. If you could have seen them, you would know what I mean.
We don’t have any goats now. Nanette got sick and died. I found her. I don’t know if Tom ever told his children or not. But I guess when they grow up they might read this and finally know.
I keep one of Nanette’s horns in my desk. There is also a picture of her on a promotional CD for Blue Mountain’s Dog Days. The horn, hollow and fluted, is a spook, a talisman, a key. I keep it here to remind me of what a man can go through for goats. It reminds me of what is possible in this life in the country, and sometimes what is not.