Young willow trees slap me in the face as I weave my way through the island. I can’t see more than two feet in front of me even with my headlamp on. I’m tripping on dead cottonwood branches and occasionally stepping into pools of water. I have cockleburs in my hair, stickers in my legs, and my stomach is growling.
If you think it would be fairly easy to find a whole herd of goats in a relatively small area even at night, you’re wrong. You don’t know anything about goats. They don’t care about you or your life or what you have to do the next day. They do what they want.
I am down on my hands and knees, belly crawling through a particularly dense area of vegetation. I’ve gone too far to turn back and try to find an alternate route. Lena, my border collie, has tried to abandon me twice already. It is 9:00 p.m. on a Monday and we have been looking for the goats for over an hour and a half.
When the water is low on the Yellowstone River during late summer and early fall, a large island near our farm becomes accessible to livestock. It's a jungle: willows, cottonwoods, Russian olive, tamarisk, woody debris piles – all packed in as tight as can be. The goats hit the island hard in the fall, going straight for the leafy spurge and the other noxious weeds they love.
Tonight, they didn’t come back to the barn. Ungrateful bastards. I take care of them: feed them, doctor them, make sure they have a good life and they repay me with a late night trek through a river bottom.
I know this island. I have played on it since I was a kid, following the game trails, swimming in the river and exploring, but right now, in the pitch black, it feels unfamiliar. I can’t see any lights that would help orient me besides the red flashing radio antennas that I occasionally glimpse through the trees. Walking through the willow trees is disorienting and I feel like I’m walking in a circle.
The movie the Blair Witch Project pops into my mind. It doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that I am about to stumble upon an old cabin with a crazy witch in a corner waiting to kill me. It would be the goats’ fault and I bet they wouldn’t even care.
As I exit the willows onto a sandy beach I hear a loud KABOOSH. It sounds like a large person doing a cannonball into a pool. I look over and see a dark mass moving through a small side channel of the river. It’s a very angry beaver. Lena runs to the edge of the water with her ears up.
“Sorry Mr. Beaver,” I say. I turn and head west.
KABOOSH!! It’s louder this time. I quickly turn, feeling like he is right behind me and he is. He sensed victory as I retreated down the beach and he swam as close to me as he could for one more “f*** you” tail slap. I think about the fisherman in Belarus who was bitten to death by a beaver, and all he was doing was trying to take its picture. Ok, so no Blair Witch death for me; Death by beaver bite it is. Still I’m sure the goats won’t care either way.
We walk. We walk some more. We get on the four-wheeler and Lena sits on my lap. We drive up and down the river. Raccoons are up in the Russian olive trees eating the berries. Owls fly by carrying tiny rodents. And the goats, well, the goats are probably bedded down chewing their cud, most likely somewhere fairly close to me, but they’ll stay still and quiet because they're assholes. I’ve probably already walked by them numerous times.
A plus is that no one has called yet to tell me my goats are in their yard or running wild in the nearby trailer park. Not that that has ever happened before. There is one neighbor whose number I have programmed in to my phone whose first name is “the goats are out,” and last name is, “stop whatever you are doing and pick up the phone now.”
We give up and go home. I worry about them all night. There are a couple old does with the herd and it wouldn’t take much for a coyote to take them down. But they are goats, not sheep, which means they try to avoid death, not run towards it.
The next morning we find them bedded down next to one of the sloughs in a place I didn’t think to look the night before. As we walk up to them some of them stand and stretch in the sun and others keep snoring, oblivious to our presence.
This is how the conversation went.
Me: (louder) Hey!! Do you know what you put me through last night? I was looking for you for hours.
Me: Seriously, you are all really lucky that one of you isn’t dead.
Me: Well, are you gonna follow me or what?
Goats: (chew cud)
Me: Will you please follow me?
Goats: (look up)
Me: Pretty please?
I lure them with a fresh branch off a cottonwood tree to show them the path back to the gate they need to go through. They love cottonwood leaves so they begin to follow me slowly, unsure if I can be trusted. Twenty feet from the gate the smallest doe, and the leader of the herd, sees a part of the fence where ground dips, making more space than usual between the bottom wire and the ground.
If you think a full grown goat is not able to fit under a six inch gap between the ground and wire, you’re wrong. You don’t know anything about goats. They don’t care about you or your life or if you have time to fix fence that day. They do what they want.
I turn just as the little goat sticks her head under the wire and begins to belly crawl through.
Me: The gate is right here. You can’t walk an extra 20 feet?
Goat: (continues to belly crawl)
I watch as the entire herd, all of whom are two to three times the size of the little goat, follow her underneath the fence.
Me: F****** goats.