Each spring, when the city of Pendleton fires up its $25,000 flower munching, goat-driven weedeater, I think back to when I was a goatherd. To be a bit more precise, I once owned a goat.
Thirteen of us began the winter 32 miles off the nearest plowed road, high in the Salmon River Mountains of central Idaho. Four were under the age of 5. A friend who had a mining claim nearby decided we needed more milk for the smaller citizens, and showed up before the first snows with a half a ton of hay and a milk goat. Her name was Mandy, marked like a mule deer with floppy ears. Howdy had an older resident goat, Granny, who was about milked out. Granny was pleased to have the company.
The only other domestic critters in town were six hens, a pet rat named Roscoe, a Collie named Snoopy, and a full-grown Great Dane named Abby. Abby became a bit overexcited when dealing with quickly moving objects, like humans on sleds. We had a hill where one could flop onto a plastic sled and shoosh 50 yards right into a large hot springs pool. Abby liked to run alongside the sleds and nip at butt cheeks. She rarely drew blood, but I didn’t slide down the hill on my back.
In early February, Abby’s owners loaded up their snow machine and trailer with kids, announced that they’d had enough of Paradise and were headed back down the mountain to the snow-free sagebrush. No room for Abby. They would be back to get her in June when the road opened. There were 300 pounds of dry dog food in their cabin. Would I keep her company? She slept beside my bunk. She snored.
At dusk a couple of weeks later, two fellows from the valley showed up on snow machines bearing whiskey and lettuce, precious commodities for the snowbound. We did it up right. When the whiskey was gone, the city boys mounted up and tore back out of town. About midnight, Beth loaded a dishpan from the party house and headed down to the wash room at the foot of the hot pool.
Two minutes later she screamed. We poured out of the party house, down to the pool, to find Abby, red muzzled, standing over Granny’s body. Mandy was treading water in the pool. The noise and speed of the snow machines had been more than Abby could stand.
We held a town meeting. Should we shoot Abby? I said that if she was mine I probably would, but she wasn’t and I wouldn’t kill another’s dog. No one else wanted to play executioner. Should we butcher and eat Granny? No, we had plenty of food in the root cellar, particularly with Abby’s owners gone. We would bury Granny in the morning. I didn’t sleep well with Abby snoring beside my bunk that night. She had just killed a critter that was my size.
It required pick, shovel, axe, pry bar, a bonfire and six hours for Howdy and me to dig a goat grave beneath 5 feet of snow and through 4 feet of frozen rock patch. When we yarded Granny to her resting place we discovered that she was frozen stiff in a prone position and would not fit in the hole, Granny went to goat paradise as a quadruple amputee. I began locking Mandy in the barn at night.
A month later, days turned warm enough to melt the top inch of snow, which then froze into backcountry sidewalks by midnight. Abby had eaten the last of our chickens and we voted her off the mountain. At the next full moon, Stewart, Laurel and Abby walked 15 miles over the frozen slush, down into the Salmon River canyon. Laurel walked back in two weeks later. They had given Abby to a young couple from Boulder who were hitching around the country, and were afraid of cougars. I wondered how hitchhiking with a Great Dane was going to go.
Mandy disappeared during a May lightning storm, just disappeared. I tried tracking her, watching for cougar or bear sign, but could not sort between the goat, deer, and elk tracks. We were back on powdered milk.
The pass opened on the last day of June. One of the first rigs to make it over was Abby’s owner. He rolled up to the edge of the hot pool, popped the door on a camper shell and out jumped Abby. Seems he had stopped to pick up some hitchhikers and ended up giving them $50 for his own dog. He was a bit hissy until we told the Granny story.
The very next morning I woke to a clomping on my porch. Mandy had returned, looking a bit worse for her vacation. The hair was rubbed from her lower legs where she had negotiated deadfall for a couple of months. Her udder was dry. Her backstrap was a tick parking lot. She had lost 20 pounds.
I got out of the goat business on the Fourth of July by talking Abby’s owner into letting Abby ride with him in the cab and loading Mandy into the camper. He was to find a herd for her off the mountain, somewhere she wasn’t going to be the lone member of her species. I never heard from her again. She didn’t write or call. However, I have noted in the Pendleton weedeaters a few buckskin critters with wandering eyes that may carry her DNA.