I Met a Goat on the Road

A visiting guinea? A ‘possum in the dining room? What strange and wondrous occurrences can one expect while living on an Ozark mountaintop for over forty years?

These lyrical adventure stories feature chickens, raccoons, bugs, dogs, cats, and natural critters of this woodland home. Throw in a few neighbors who shoot copperheads or remodel the dirt road. Ponder the passage of time through a philosophical lens of wonder and delight. The seasons bring summer heat, winter snow, pouring rain, the power of fire. Lessons learned, questions posed–who has lived and died on this land? What is our responsibility to this place, its creatures, each other?

Come meet the goat on the road.

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An Ozark Interlude

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Yesterday, the pesky doe had circled the fenced yard all day, causing the dogs to bark incessantly. Nerves shot, at around 5 p.m. I decided to fire off a few rounds to scare her away. I grabbed my .22 rifle and stood on the porch at the west end of the house, which is my daughter’s apartment, and looked for the doe. From there a person can look downhill toward the ponds and pasture, normal doe hangout. Nowhere to be seen.

I returned to my dinner preparations, fed the dogs, fed the cats, and fed the goldfish. One cat of the four—Esmeralda—didn’t show up. I thought, okay, she followed me to the apartment. So I went back there and looked for her, called, nothing. Usually she is front and center demanding food at that point, so this was highly unusual.

Then the barking started again. I grabbed the .22 and went to the gate. There stood that stubborn doe not a hundred feet from the house.

Now let me say that this has been an ongoing war for multiple deer generations. Before we got these two hounds, the deer jumped over our yard fence and helped themselves to whatever they pleased—hosta, flower beds right by the porch, any tomatoes or other veggies I tried to grow in the raised beds. But for the last five years with hounds running free in the yard, the deer have decided discretion is the better part of valor, hosta notwithstanding.

But this doe has become quite clever at avoiding the hounds by jumping the fence in the wee hours of morning when the hounds are sacked out in the house. Consequently my tomato plants have been topped multiple times and the peppers probably won’t come back. This is after a second planting. So I really don’t care that it’s not deer season or that my .22 bullet wouldn’t be a clean kill.

In the winter, I would have opened the gate and let the hounds chase her off. But it’s tick season. Worse, the last time we let both hounds go at the same time, the younger one—Weezie—didn’t come back until well after dark. She was shaking and terrified and smelled of tobacco smoke. Someone had penned her up. So now when we let Weezie out, it’s without her big sister Cu. She usually bounds around chasing squirrels in the adjacent woodland, living dog ecstasy for ten or fifteen minutes before she’s ready to come back in the yard. Cu, on the other hand, will stay out much longer, baying as she tracks scent clear back to the canyon.

So I’m standing at the gate with my rifle and the dogs are going nuts. The deer is being coy, facing me with several large trees between us. I can’t get a clear shot. Plus I’m having pangs of conscience. The .22 can’t deliver a kill shot. She might have a fawn around here. I’m thinking, well, if I let Weezie out, she’ll put a good scare in that bitch and I won’t have to shoot her.

I’m juggling the rifle and Annoying Emma the mongrel terrier is underfoot. The minute my hand touches the gate latch, Emma lunges, Weezie lunges, I nearly drop the rifle, and all three dogs are out the gate. Damn it.

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Look, that deer is right out there. Can we go out, please please?

Okay, calling them is worthless. In two seconds, two brown streaks are hurtling through the underbrush down by the pond. The doe bounds east and then south toward the canyon, dogs in fast pursuit. I go inside, put the rifle away, and eat my cold dinner.

This is worse than it sounds because Cu is my daughter’s dog. She’s housesitting this week and swamped with coursework for the two graduate level summer school classes she’s taking. Plus she’s seriously attached to Weezie. If she knew the dogs were out there dashing through the late afternoon heat harvesting ticks by the bucket and bound not to return for hours, she would be worried sick. So I decide not to tell her. Dinner goes down hard.

Then I remember I have a missing cat! Why? I could understand if she was preoccupied with her last stealth moves on a mouse or mole, but it’s been an hour. Something is wrong. I go back outside and stand by the gate. Emma goes out too, because she’s way too smart (and too old and too fat) to try to run with the hounds. As she exits the gate, which I’ve left open for the hounds’ return, she briefly sniffs the bed of ivy growing along the fence. She immediately jumps back.

ivyWhat fresh hell is this? I lean forward toward the ivy before I hear the unmistakable rattle. I can see nothing—the ivy is a green mass about five feet wide and ten feet long and at least a foot deep. But the sound is familiar.

Snake.

I go back and grab the .22. I’m holding the gun listening. Can’t see a thing. Rattling continues. I shoo Emma back because of course if I told her to, she’d jump into the ivy.

I aim and fire at the sound. The first round cracks out of the gun and the rattle continues. I give it my Shaolin concentration and fire again. The rattle stops and the ivy starts to move. I fire a couple more rounds.

I set down the gun and grab the hoe from the other side of the porch. I start hacking at the ivy, trying to pull that tenacious vine apart so I can see what I’m up against. I don’t want a coiled snake to suddenly strike, so I’m working incrementally from the edge inward. Finally I see a flash of color, that familiar brown-rust pattern of a copperhead. It’s coiling and turning as I expose part of it to view.

I’ve learned that lots of snakes rattle their tails. Once I thought about it, I remembered that rattlesnake rattles are higher pitched, a hissing sound like air escaping a tire. This rattle was lower pitched, a tail hitting leaves. Either way, I’m always thankful for the rattle.

Hack, hack, I drive the hoe down on its body. As it moves toward me, I realize I’m only hacking at the last six inches. I chop more vine. Finally, there’s the wedge-shaped head. I slam the hoe down but it has moved. Toward me.

I’m sweating and cursing and keep telling Emma to get back damn it. I rip more vines and finally I can see the whole snake. I’ve done a fairly decent job of smashing a place six inches from its tail, and now I can see a bullet hole I managed to send straight through its middle. From that point to its head, it seems unable to fully move. Maybe the shot injured its spine.

That doesn’t mean it can’t bite and send its load of venom into my ankle. Or Emma’s face. So I land the hoe behind its head. The ground under all that ivy is super soft. I’m just burying the snake in dirt.

I hook the hoe under the snake’s midsection and lift it out of the ivy. Once I’ve tossed it onto the driveway, a swift blow behind its head finishes it off. Of course it’s still moving and Emma still wants in the middle of it, so I leave the hoe blade sitting on its neck and step back.

I’m thinking this explains the missing cat. This area here between the gate and my car is a place she frequents. If she spotted the snake, she might do what lots of cats do, which is chase the snake. I once had a cat that specialized in chasing snakes. She’d herd them right out of the yard and away from the house. That’s when the kids were little and I always thought she knew exactly what she was doing, protecting our babies.

Of course, I also once had a cat that got bit. Twice. Old Reece’s Pieces was a slow learner or had a contract with death, I never could figure out which. I’ve written about him before. Once he burst through the pet door and ran down the back hallway. I found him my daughter’s closet, cowering in the corner. His right eye was swollen shut and the area around it bloody and turning purple. Trip to vet. Fangs hit his forehead and eyelid, barely missing the eyeball. Vet thought he’d lose the eye but he didn’t.

A year or so later, Reece’s didn’t show up for dinner, just like Esmeralda hadn’t shown up. I remembered what happened then, how I searched around the house for two days before I found him lying in tall weeds. I talked to him, wondering why he didn’t get up and come to me. He was less than twenty feet from the house. How I missed him before I’ll never know.

But he didn’t get up, just meowed weakly. So I picked him up and the hand I put under his belly came back bloody. He’d been snake bit in the stomach. In the two days he’d been laid up, the bite wound had spread about six inches in diameter, the hair had fallen off, and the skin was black and rotten. He was too weak to move.

The vet shook his head, shot him full of antibiotics, and sent him home to die. I kept him in my bedroom where he crawled under my bed. He wouldn’t eat. The next day, I sat nearby eating cantaloupe and he sniffed the air. I gave him some. He couldn’t eat enough.

Who knew? For the next several days, Reece’s Pieces ate mashed cantaloupe. Then he started eating regular food. Slowly he got well.

Is this what happened to Esmeralda? Was she lying in the grass somewhere or in the woods, paralyzed by copperhead poison?

I began searching, again touring the house, under the beds, my daughter’s apartment. Then outside—the flower beds, under the porch, under my car. The weeds. The underbrush, hoe in hand, because one snake is never the whole story.

Meanwhile, every fifteen minutes or so, I’m calling the dogs. I can hear them way down in the woods. Then even further, like they were down in the canyon now. Paying absolutely no attention to my calls, my demands that they get in the yard right now. They’re tracking, hollering as they go.

Which is, of course, what hounds do.

What about snakes?! They could easily stumble across a big rattler—years back, a neighbor shot a timber rattler that was nine feet long. I killed a velvet tail coiled up right by my car door after I thought I was getting a flat. I shot two bigger ones about six feet long and traveling across my yard. I regret killing them. They were beautiful and if the stupid little Pekinese I had at the time had left them alone, I wouldn’t have needed to shoot them.

If those hounds got snake bit out there in that rugged country, I’d never find them. I’d have to wait for the buzzards to start circling. Oh, damn, this is not going well.

I don’t find the cat. Anywhere.

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Taco instructing Finnegan on cat rules.

I’ve never regretted killing a copperhead. I leave this one lying on the drive. Our old patriarch cat, Taco, comes by to sniff. Our two younger cats investigate, appropriately wary of the smell. There is a strong scent to poisonous snakes and cats have good instincts. Except the young male Finnegan, appropriately bold for a young king. He wants to pop it a couple of times. The snake is still writhing like they do after death. That thrills him. He stalks around it, hair standing up on his spine.

I try to watch television, springing up at every commercial to look again for Esmeralda. I imagine she’s dead or dying somewhere. I may never find her.

I call the dogs. It’s 7:30 p.m. I can’t hear them at all.

Light is fading. It’s 8:30. No dogs. No Esmeralda. I’m calling, calling. Go to the far end on my daughter’s porch and call some more.

Minutes tick by. I listen to the bullfrogs warming up at the pond. I hear lapping noises at the water bowl. I think it’s Emma. But it sounds like a big dog…

Yes! I step back inside her living room and there is Weezie lapping water like she’s dying of thirst and Cu spread out of the floor like she can’t move one more step. Both dogs panting as fast as they can.

I hurry through the house to close the yard gate before they decide to venture out again. They have no such intention. They’ve been running for three hours in this miserable heat. They follow me to the kitchen where they stretch out on the cool floor. Panting. Lots of panting.

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Esmeralda temporarily captive.

As I step back into the kitchen from closing the gate, there’s Esmeralda. What? Where did she come from? She’s all relaxed, doing her ballet stretches as I scold her. Then she’s all about her dinner.

The only thing I can figure out is that she was having a nap in the apartment and just wasn’t ready to respond when I was back there searching. Or whatever. She’s one of those Cats.

As for the dogs, they are too exhausted to move. Forty-five minutes elapsed before they stopped panting. Covered in ticks. Fortunately, their meds kills the ticks once they bite, so it wasn’t like they were going to be sucked dry. Still, I couldn’t stand it. I got about a dozen off each ear and that was all they’d let me look for. I’m so glad it’s not late July. That’s when the super tiny ticks start, the ones you can’t see that spread like dust by the thousands.

Today has been a vast improvement. The snake is in an old dishpan. It’s about two and a half feet long. Esmeralda is pursuing enigma. The dogs are napping. Once it cools off a little, I’ll walk down the driveway and toss the snake into the woods.

 

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A Rat’s Ass

Rattus_norvegicus_1Last night, my faithful yellow cat Mao brought me a late supper of Rat. He’s generous that way, concerned that my regular offerings of crunchies and delectable leftovers not go without reciprocation. And unlike some ungrateful cat owners, I accept his offerings with praise, petting, and a token nudge at the critter before turning off the light and trying to get back to sleep.

As usual, Mao became slightly perturbed that I didn’t actually taste his hard-won offering. I admit it’s rude not to appreciate the no-doubt rich flavor of a fine, plump, mostly grown Rattus norvegicus. He resorted to his usual tactic, which was to continue with his breathy purring and occasional trills while tossing the rat across my throw rug and otherwise demonstrating its near-life status in order to tempt my appetite. Eating small mammals while still technically alive is a code among cat-kind and he must think me thick-headed not to take advantage of such a careful presentation.

Sometimes this last flurry of playing with the food results in escapes that require human intervention, such as opening the closet door under which the frenzied furry thing wriggled away or otherwise facilitating the rediscovery of prey. Mostly, Mao is far too skilled to allow real escape. However, he does encourage fake escapes so that the fleeting thrill of capture can be enjoyed multiple times with any given victim.

The half-grown rabbit he brought in a couple of weeks ago managed to escape and get re-caught countless times over what seemed a period of hours. Sleep became a fiction of half-dreams punctuated by shrill bunny screams. It was a relief when the inevitable crunching of skull broke the wee hour silence.

They always start with the head.

Conceding to the gentle reader’s possible horror at these goings-on, allow me to explain that I live in the Ozark woods where Nature exhibits her ruthless beauty on a daily basis. In spite of forty years of living here, always in company of cats and various other domesticated creatures, there has been no diminution of birds or small mammals. I’ve learned to respect the flow of things and step aside for the ways of everything from snakes to ground hornets to the occasional bear. And cats.

Mao came to me as an injured feral stray who even now tolerates contact with few humans besides me and who goes completely nuts when put into a cat carrier. When he appeared at my front steps, he’d been shot. The wounds had mostly healed, but one area on his left shoulder kept abscessing. Over a period of months, I fed him and watched his wounds fester then drain in a desperate cycle that increasingly weakened him until even my tempting roast chicken failed to put much meat on his bones.

I lured him to a cage and the vet discovered a dozen BB-sized pellets lodged in his body, some of which remain ten years later. But the shoulder injury that kept him on death’s door responded to treatment, which involved me locking him in a spare bathroom for ten days in order to visit him twice a day with antibiotics. He literally climbed the walls in that room. Closed doors remain cause for terror.

The vet estimated his age at about one year at the time of his capture. Who am I to get between this cat and the means of survival he learned living alone in the woods? More than most cats, his hunting is part of his life. There’s no shortage of prey. He brings me gifts, heralding his delivery as soon as he hits the pet door. I thank him.

The rat had already succumbed to unconsciousness by the time Mao woke me to announce that the food order had arrived. In order to preserve the relatively unstained state of my new bedside rug, I subtly dragged the senseless limp rat body several feet away. Mao promptly brought it back. I haven’t figured out if the attraction to my bedside rug is based in its proximity to my sleeping body, or if it has to do with the textural similarities between a natural land surface and a rug. But after four futile attempts to relocate this particular feast to the easily-mopped surfaces nearby, I gave up and let Mao have his way.

It took him quite some time to dispose of the rat, due in part to my inconsiderate lack of interest in a meal meant for two. I found a tiny bundle of leftovers this morning, the gall bladder and the skin and tail of the rat’s hindquarters. This phenomena continues to intrigue me, as all cats who have ever patrolled my woodland property and delivered rats to my bedside have left the rat’s ass on the floor. All other creatures are consumed in their entirety, every last bit of fur, nails, feet, and tails of rabbits, moles, voles, and squirrels. But not the rear ends of rats. Quel mysterieux!

I’ve provided the image of last night’s leftovers in order to share Mao’s impressive abilities. The hide of the hindquarters is turned inside-out with tail and foot protruding so that the hip meat could be consumed without touching the anal region. Meticulous butchery, to say the least. I’ve written about this before, my conviction that this particular eccentricity in the cat-rat dynamic is the basis of the old saying that someone wouldn’t give a rat’s ass.

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