Where Do Old Goats Go?

The rocks made it hard to pull the “RADIO FLYER” wagon through the pasture. The trail had become familiar that year. It seemed that none of the medicines worked. Slowly we lost more and more of our sheep and goats to the hated intestinal parasites. Ever since I could remember I tried to save all the sick and injured things on our ranch. When it was no longer reasonable to keep trying I would load the dead or dying creature into my wagon and make the trip through the rocky pasture to the “bone yard” near the back of our pasture. This was one of those trips.

It was probably useless from the beginning. As I would learn years later, the damage from Nodular Worms is not reversible. Once the stomach lining was badly scarred the old goat was certain to become weaker and weaker until death added her to the collection of carcasses and bones at the end of my trail. But ten year old boys think they can do anything and I had believed I could save the goat.

She had two kids that appeared pretty strong. That meant that she was using a lot of her energy to make milk for them. At feeding time she had come in dragging up the rear of the long line of goats coming to be fed. Even at ten a ranch kid knows that the weak need help. When the gate was closed behind her my father and I caught the old goat. She struggled for a few moments but seemed to sense that it was useless in her weak state. After the feeding frenzy stopped and the other goats drifted away we managed to catch her two kids as they came looking for more milk from their mother. They seemed not to understand or care that their food was draining her last energy reserves. As we loaded the goat family into the pickup the difference between the high energy kids and their weakened mother was striking.

The Caskey Place was about 2 miles from the Home Place. Like most Central Texas families of the time we had several “Places” leased for pasture and farming. The Caskey Place was one of my favorites. It was almost two hundred acres of good pasture. More importantly it was the site of an old Indian camp and it was common to find arrowheads while tending stock or building fences. The other thing that made it special was that my father had been born in the old bungalow ranch house in 1923. The barns and corrals were the best we had. The fences were good. The water supply was good. Everything about the Caskey Place seemed good. But underneath all the prosperous looking exterior was a pasture so heavily contaminated with microscopic parasite larvae that we were going broke from losing our stock to the unseen creatures.

The ride in the back of the old pickup only took a few minutes. I rode in the back with the goat. She almost seemed to understand that I wanted to help her. When we reached home we put her in the pen reserved for the sick and injured. She was weak but ate readily and seemed to settle in pretty well. It was my job to tend all the stock in the pens around the house. Each day the old goat grew weaker and weaker. Each day I became more and more determined to save her.

Over the next few weeks it became clear that we needed help. We found more and more weak and dead goats. Calling the veterinarian was a rare occasion but his time things were serious. Dr. Dunlap came out from Belton. He always drove a new Cadillac filled with his equipment and medicines.  It seemed as if God had arrived when “Doc” stepped out in his white shirt and tie to walk through our goat pens. After looking at the flock he proceeded to cut into some recently dead goats. He was still in his white shirt and tie but in his exalted state no dirt or gore would have dared to soil him. It was truly impressive! After due deliberation he rendered his verdict–Nodular Worms– our worst fear. We had been medicating with phuenothiazine and nicotine sulfate every few weeks to no avail. But like the wonder worker we knew him to be “Doc” told us about a new medicine that would save our goats– thiabendazole. Within days our losses slowed and the sick pens emptied out except for the old goat from the Caskey place.

By now the kids were eating some on their own. It was time to separate them from their mother to save her strength. For the next few days and nights there was the constant plaintive call of mother and babies trying to reunite. As the days passed the kids began to fend for themselves. We loaded them back into the pickup to return them to the Caskey Place herd. As we drove off the old goat stood quietly. Life had moved on. Other kids in other years had been weaned. Somehow I think she knew these would be the last weanlings to be parted from her. A sadness filed her brown eyes. It was still there as she bounced along in my wagon.

The new medicine helped most of the herd. Maybe it was her age. Maybe it was the extent of the damage to her digestive tract. Maybe it was the number of kids that she had produced. I fed special food. I repeated the thiabendazole over and over. Nothing worked.  The days went by. Weeks went by. And finally it came. The stark reality of hopelessness settled in when she could no longer rise. Only then did I realize that our time together had made this nameless goat special to me. She was no longer just another of our hundreds of goats. She had become a part of me and it seemed that I had become a part of her. The reality of her impending death put a large lump in me throat and blurred my vision.

She was part of my responsibility. I had done this task before and knew it was time to do it again. While it may seem strange in today’s word, most ten-year-olds I knew had access to guns. I had my own, a highly prized 410 gauge shotgun. With a 3 inch shell in my pocket I took the weapon from the closet in my bedroom and pulled the red wagon from the yard to the tree in the sick pen where the old goat was semiconscious on a mat of hay. In her wasted state it was easy to load her into the wagon. The trip through the pasture was harder. The rocks! The cedar brush! The blurry trail! Then we were there! I found a place under a large oak and propped her up as comfortably as possible. We just sat there a while. Thinking. Wishing. Then it was time.

The aim was careful. Just a quick flash and she stiffened briefly as the crimson ran down her face. The wagon bounced over the rocks easier without the load. But the trail was still blurry.

In over 30 years of veterinary practice I have been called on to end the lives of hundreds of animals. People often ask if it bothers me. Of course it bothers me! As a ten year old on a trail in the back of nowhere I walked alone with an empty red wagon and prayed that someday God would grant me the ability to help his creatures. That prayer was answered. I couldn’t count the births. I couldn’t count the repaired bones or removed tumors. My prayer really was answered. But in the quiet sobs of a family in my exam room I still feel the trail blur. I’ve learned not to look at the sad eyes. I’ve been trained to say the right words. But in the quiet places of my heart there are still rocks on the trail and the wagon still bounces with a painful emptiness.



Buttons, the Flying Horse

The canyons along Kell Branch as it nears the Leon River are typical “cedar breaks.”  Steep limestone walls, heavy brush, and scattered small meadows held a treasury of squirrels, rabbits, deer, and other wildlife.  For thousands of years Indians lived around the springs and caves along the Branch.

In the 1950s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began condemnation of the bottom lands that extended along the Leon and up Kell Branch.  The soon-to-be-built Lake Belton would eventually flood the “Bottoms” and would forever erase the magic of that unique piece of Texas real estate.

During the transition between condemnation and actual flooding, our family leased from the government a large tract in the Leon bottoms.  It was a cheap lease, but came with the difficulty of managing cattle in the rough terrain.  The cattle we ran mirrored the terrain – rough and dangerous.

To assist with the cattle wrangling, my father bought an additional horse.  The new mount was a medium sized sorrel gelding.  As he walked, his ears flopped in an unusual manner and my cousins suggested the name “Rabbit” to match the ear motion.  For some reason, my father preferred the name “Buttons” and it stuck to the new mount.

Whenever a new horse comes on the scene, it takes a while to learn the horse’s disposition and abilities.  There were a few things that we certainly needed to know about Buttons.  It wouldn’t take long for us to learn those lessons.

Moving the cows out of the bottoms and into the corrals was always challenging.  On the first such roundup with Buttons things were especially difficult.  Cows went in all directions all day.  Calves, separated from their mothers, hid in the tight cedar brush canyons.  Just as the cows neared the wing fence that guided them toward the corrals, one especially difficult cow we called Crook, took off the wrong way.

Buttons, with Dad on board, made his move.  The problem was that he was already in the wing and thus on the wrong side of the fence to get in front of Crook.  To the horror of all concerned, Buttons headed straight toward the fence.  A disaster was inescapable.  Just at the moment of imminent cataclysm  – BUTTONS FLEW!  Over the fence, Dad hanging on for dear life.  Three to four feet of fence – never touched!  Out in front of Crook, a quick turn, and back into the wing came Crook with a surprised look.  We had a horse that could fly.

A few weeks later, we were at it again.  Crook had to be caught, and by now had a new calf.  Crook was a mean spirited old cow on the best of days.  When defending a new calf, she was especially dangerous.  Our working dog was a Border Collie named Skipper.  Skipper made a pass around Crook and her calf to bring them around to be within roping distance.

All at once, Crook turned on Skipper and the direction of the chase reversed.  Skipper ran straight toward Buttons, fleeing from the charging cow by running under the horse.  Head down, full speed, horns poised, Crook ran straight at Buttons in pursuit of Skipper.

At the very last moment, it happened again – Buttons flew.  This time up and forward in a sudden jerk.  Just in time, disaster was again diverted.  Crook’s horns barely scraped Buttons.  Flying had become the normal expectation for our new horse.

Round three took place the next day with the pursuit still aimed at catching Crook.  By now we had several family members on horses and on foot, all aimed at getting Crook into an opening where getting a rope on her would be possible.  The moment came with my father in hot pursuit on Buttons.  The rope went straight on Crook with her in a full run.  It pulled tight, and then POP!

The saddle girth broke, and this time it was Dad that was flying.  It seemed like forever before he hit the ground – still in the saddle.  Within seconds, Crook, the lariat, the saddle, and Dad all disappeared into the cedar brush.  We found them all a few hundred feet into the brush with Dad still tangled in the saddle that had become wedged under a cedar bush with Crook still on the end of the rope.

My uncle threw another loop on Crook and controlled her while the rest of us retrieved my groaning father and the saddle from the brush.  We got him home and into bed where he recovered over several days.

After his flying lesson, my father rarely rode a horse.  I never saw him rope another cow from a horse.  We were always careful not to get into a situation where Buttons would have occasion to jump.  We eventually had to place a leather strap with a length of chain to his front leg to keep Buttons the Flying Horse from jumping our fences.

The Gun Fight

I must start this tale with a disclaimer:  It is not something of which I am particularly proud. Neither is it intended to condone similar behavior.  It is one of those experiences in life that hopefully teach us better ways to behave and resolve conflict.

We ran several hundred sheep on our ranch.  Most of the time they were pastured along the brushy creek canyons.  Frequently, dogs from around the community would stray and get into the sheep herd inflicting terrible injuries and deaths.  My father’s policy was simple – all stray dogs in our pasture were shot on sight.

In order to know when dogs were attacking the sheep, we put large bells on several of the ewes.  My parent’s bedroom was on the corner of the house nearest the sheep pasture.  They always slept with a window partly open so they could hear the bells when dogs began chasing the sheep.  Several times a year it would be necessary to defend the sheep.

When I was in high school, hunting was a major part of my life.  I had a 410 guage shotgun and a .22 caliber rifle with a pump action.  Dad also had a .22 bolt action.  We were both good shots and could drop squirrels from the pecan trees with great precision.  So defending sheep was easy by comparison.

One fall night I was awakened by my folks and told that dogs were in the sheep.  Within moments, Dad and I were dressed and out the back door with flashlights and rifles in hand.  A few hundred yards into the pasture we could hear the bells clanging and the panicked bleating of the sheep.  An occasional bark from the pursuing dogs told us there were several attackers.

Dad and I split up with me taking the rougher downstream part of the pasture.  I hadn’t gone far when I heard a sheep running my way.  As she came by my flashlight illuminated her side where the pursuing dog had ripped away a large chunk of wool and skin.  Right behind was the dog, and with the flashlight held under the rifle barrel, the dog was an easy target.  The sharp rifle report was followed by a loud yelp as the dog gave up the pursuit and crashed into the nearby brush.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, a new factor entered the nighttime scene.  From a short distance across the pasture, a voice rang out.  “You better not shoot my G____ D_____ dog!” said the unknown trespasser.  At my present age I would know to lay low and try to calm the situation.  At 16, I had no such inclination.  I simply hopped up on a nearby boulder and proudly proclaimed, “I’ve already shot your G___ D____ dog!”

Then, with adrenaline flowing on all sides, it started – Bang – and a bullet ripped through the nearby cedar brush.  I still remember that I couldn’t believe I was being shot at on our home ranch.  There is nothing quite comparable to being shot at, especially in a dark brush pasture.  The only thing I could think of was to get down and start shooting.  The first few shots I simply pumped the rounds through as fast as possible as I looked for cover.  By now there were more rounds from across the way and I could see the muzzle flashes.  I began more measured return fire and by now I could hear Dad coming through the woods yelling and wanting to know what was going on.  When he reached my position there were a few more shots exchanged and a lot of yelling back and forth.  After a few moments, the trespasser yelled, “Don’t shoot any more.  I’m coming out.”  As it turned out, he only had a nine shot .22 revolver and had run out of ammunition.  Fortunately, none of us got hit.

By now the air was tense and tempers were beyond description.  My father walked up to the guy, flashlight in his face, and said, “I’m going to blow your brains out.”  I really thought that was about to happen.  Fortunately, it didn’t, and things calmed down some.  There was a tense discussion about trespassing, sheep damage, and dead dogs.  At the end, the dog’s owner was allowed to remove his other dogs and leave our property.

Over the years of running sheep, there were other encounters that involved dogs, guns, and near violent situations.  None, however, compared to the gun fight on that dark night.

Mama Fell!

Living in a multi-generation household was great! As an only child I pretty much had a monopoly on attention. We lived in the ancestral home of my father along with his mother. My grandfather had died when I was barely old enough to remember him. From my earliest remembrances I knew I was the apple of my grandmother’s eye.

Mary Ena Aycock had come to Temple, Texas, with her railroad family when the tracks were first laid through central Texas. She lived a life of relative ease for those years. She loved to tell about her formal education. She took pride in her music studies. She would sit and look longingly at photos of her family in nice clothes in front of nice houses. It always seemed strange to me that life had turned out so differently than her beginnings.

Like many families she had picked up a grandmother name that was unique. One of her first grandchildren had wanted to go “to Mama.” Somehow in the mind of that youngster Tomama became her name. It soon spread to other grandchildren and Tomama answered to her unusual handle for the rest of her life. The name seemed appropriate. We all went “to mama” for comfort and counsel. Her easy positive attitude just made you feel better whatever the situation.

Tomama was short and rotund. Climbing into her lap was like trying to climb a treadmill. But once you managed to get in place it was a lap worth sitting in. Endless hours of reading and story telling would follow and somehow the next event would be waking up in bed and not remembering how I got there.

The old bungalow house she had spent most of her adult life in was never much to begin with. The years and 11 children had taken a serious toll in wear and tear. My father had done well with several crops and especially the booming turkey business. It was time to build a new house! The old house was demolished and much of the old lumber was reused in the new house. We moved in and everything looked as rosy as only the world of the 1950s could.

Good smells filled the new house. Country cooking was an everyday occurrence and that day was not to be an exception. Then it happened! There was a thud and an excruciating groan of pain. Tomama was in the kitchen floor and my world was changing forever. She couldn’t get up and her weight was beyond reason for my pregnant mother who was feverishly trying to help her mother-in-law. Help was needed. If anyone was going for help it had to be me.

The gravel road in front of our house was deserted as always. My father was plowing on my uncle’s farm about a mile away. He was the nearest help in a world before telephones. My feet began the trip easily enough. As I got farther from the house the fear of a five year old took over. The road seemed to go on forever. My brown felt moccasin house shoes kept coming off. Was Tomama going to be all right? Why was my mother in such distress? Could I find the way through the fields to my father?

Fear comes to everyone. My first recollection of fear is the feeling of that day. The tears flooded my face. They dropped onto the felt moccasins. They dropped onto the dusty road. Sometimes we just have to keep going through the fear of our lives. All I could do was run for help. Fear could not win–Tomama needed help.

Fear also eventually goes away. After an eternity of running I could see across the field to my father. When he spotted his five year old running across the field he knew there was trouble. Soon I was on the Farmall tractor with Dad and we sped to the house where he began the process of moving Tomama for the trip to the hospital about twelve miles away.

Things were never quite the same after that day. Tomama never fully recovered from the broken hip. She would live the remaining thirteen years of her life in a wheel chair. She would spend her final years suffering from “hardening of the arteries”–now known as Alzheimer’s. My mother’s attempts to move her injured mother-in-law resulted in one of her several miscarriages. The hospital bills took our family to the edge of desperation. Both Mom and Dad would go to work in town. We continued the farm and ranch operation. By eight I was farming during the summer days and Dad would work on the farm into the night.

Over six decades later I have observed many changes. The most troubling of these has been the loss of family continuity. We all live with an awful fear. It is the fear that those closest to us will exit from our lives. The fear I felt as a five year old was awful, but it never occurred to me that we could ever stop being a family. I knew that Tomama would be cared for. I knew that we would survive the disasters of that year. There was no stress that could pull us apart! It made the fear bearable. It still makes the fears bearable. That feeling was and is the best gift any family can give a five year old.

The “Second Chance” Bull

The only time I’ve elk hunted with a rifle I killed a nice bull about 30 minutes after sunrise on opening morning. Concluding that rifle hunting was not very challenging, I decided on primitive weapons – muzzle loaders and bows.

For those of you not familiar with primitive weapon hunting, there is one thing you should know right away: a lot can go wrong. For me, the going wrong part just became the norm. Sometimes it was as simple as a wind shift spooking my quarry. Sometimes it was as serious as looking for my lost hunting buddy for a couple of days instead of hunting Weather, straying horses, missed opportunities or just the wear and tear of a guy in his 60s hunting above 10,000 ft. all resulted in an absence of elk meat in my freezer.

Elk season 2009 started off the same way. I had drawn a muzzle loader tag and picked a favorite camp site in the South San Juan Wilderness. On arriving at camp Dale, one of my hunting buddies had a broken bow string. My other friend, Glenn, also an archery hunter, and I hunted on muzzle loader opening Saturday without seeing much. We were also discouraged that other hunters were camped nearby. We began to consider riding out for a day or so, getting the bow repaired and returning to hunt later in the week.

Saturday night made that decision much more appealing. About midnight a violent storm blew in. We were camped at the edge of the tree line just off the west side of Conejos Peak. Since lightning seems to like the trees at the edges of the high open spaces, we got pounded with nearby lightning, gusts toppling trees, and a wet mix of rain, ice, and snow. By 3:00 a.m. our tent was about to be broken down by ice. We all 3 got up and worked to clear the ice from the tent for the rest of the night. By daylight there was a deep cover of ice on everything. The horses couldn’t graze. We were wet and cold. Every step made a loud crunch. It seemed like a really good day to start down the mountain and have Dale’s bow repaired.

On Monday Dale drove to town to get the bow repaired. The plan was to ride back up to camp on Wednesday in hopes that the other hunters would be gone. Since it seemed like a shame not to hunt on Tuesday, Glenn and I drove up the road a few miles. We hiked about a mile before daylight then split up. It was still wet, cold, and thundering.

As I neared some sparser areas in the tight cover I began to see fresh tracks. I stopped, caught my breath for a while, and glassed the area but didn’t see anything. Taking up a spot with a couple of trees for cover I used a squeeze cow call and followed immediately with a rather small short bugle. There was an immediate answer not very far ahead. Wind? Right! Sun? Right! Cover? Good! A few more calls back and forth obviously had adrenaline levels up on both me and the bull.

He came into view at about 50 yards looking for the location of his challenger. I raked a tree discretely and he headed nearly directly toward me, now at less than 40 yards. I cocked my old Thompson Center’s hammer but the first of the 2 clicks made the bull stop and look for the source of the noise.

I froze, knowing that the second click of the hammer could ruin the day. The solution – carefully cock the hammer with my thumb while holding the trigger down to avoid the click. Now, this wouldn’t normally be a problem but at 11,000 ft., cold, winded, and excited it wasn’t a good idea. BOOM!! The 370 grain bullet sent mud and sticks flying from the ground about 4 feet in front of me. The black smoke simply drifted to my right as the puzzled looking bull went left. It seemed like another empty freezer awaited me.

Something told me the bull was confused, so I quietly reloaded and just stayed still with a few curse words floating in my mind. I had just finished reloading when a cow and yearling came into view on my left not far from the point of the bull’s exit. She also was looking around as if trying to decide if there was an intruder or if it had just been more thunder. I gave her a few minutes to walk off a short distance. Just as she went out of view I hit the squeeze call again. The cow didn’t stop but off to my left the bull gave a horrific roaring bugle and began working a tree over. I matched him with tree raking and my smallest bugle. This time he got really angry. He came charging around a few fallen trees which had fallen with large roots sticking up. A few steps put him broadside in an opening at 35 yards. This time the old 50 caliber was already cocked. Raise, Aim. Fire. The nice 5×5 took about 10 steps and collapsed.

I know from previous years that second chances with a primitive weapon are rare. Sometimes we just get lucky. Or maybe that bull just need removal from the gene pool.

The Three Bears

Nope – This isn’t about Goldilocks. This one is very real.

September is for one thing – primitive weapon hunting in Colorado. The weather is gorgeous. The golden trees are beyond description. And the bugle of a bull elk is always thrilling. It was that kind of day in mid-September, 2010, when this story took place.

As I was walking to a favorite spot, bow in hand, a young Black Bear hopped out the bushes about 40 yards ahead. I’ve encountered bears before and found the little guy interesting. He was fat and slick and ambled up onto a ridge where he took a position in some trees and made soft grunting noises. It was one of those moments that outdoorsmen love. I stood still and thought, “Neat.”

A moment later a second cub came out of the bushes and joined the first cub on the ridge. Even though I was fascinated by the scene before me, my aging Aggie brain kicked in. Two cubs, mama bear was nearby! I could feel the adrenaline begin to rise and strung an arrow onto my bow.

Sure enough, here came a large female from my front left at about 30 yards. She was the opposite of the cute cubs. She was thin, ragged looking, and her grunts and smacks were much more troubling. Add 50% to the adrenaline level.

The cubs were about 50 yards away ahead and to my right. The female came across gazing intently at me and making huffing and grunting noises as she closed to about 20 yards. Once she was situated directly between me and the cubs she turned squarely toward me with a few more smacks and grunts. I remember thinking that once the cubs were properly guarded she would lead them away. Adrenaline level down by 10%.

For what seemed like a long time, we both stood there. Now I was thinking that this thin, desperate bear was looking at me as a tasty morsel for her and her cubs. I knew not to run though it was tempting. Finally, I decided it was time to try to discourage her. Standing tall, arms up, bow in my left hand, I yelled pretty loud, “Hey Bear.”

Everything I knew from a lifetime of being around animals made me think this wild animal would flee from a human, take her cubs to safety, and continue looking for food. Wrong answer! She intended to find food alright. That would be me in her estimation. She immediately bounded directly toward me stopping at less than 10 yards, bouncing a little, with more grunts and smacks. Adrenaline level to 100% plus all reserves!

All I could think about was trying to frighten her. I pulled the arrow and sent it into a rock pile by her right foot. It struck with a twang as I reached for another arrow. Then it hit me that she could get to me in less than a second. There was no time to clumsily restring an arrow and get my release put back on the bowstring. I just held the arrow in my hand thinking this wasn’t a good hunting experience. Adrenaline levels on Major Overload!

I guess the twang of the arrow and my fidgeting with the bow distracted her. Her nose ducked a little and for the first time her large eyes looked to the side and away from me. It was almost like a parting gesture. She simply stepped a few steps to my right, got a tree between me and her, and began softer grunts directed at her cubs.

A few backward steps down the trail for me. A few steps toward the cubs for her. It was over. As we put distance between us I could still hear her grunts.

All who know me know I’m pretty tight with money. A few yards down the trail it dawned on me that my high dollars carbon arrow with a fancy hunting tip was still up there in the grass. The thought didn’t last long. It seemed the rocks had probably ruined it anyhow. Maybe I’d just leave it – Oh well!

After a few days the encounter became a little funnier than it was at the moment. It does pain me a little when I think the bear might have gone back and gotten the arrow as a den wall trophy of the experience. If so, I hope she enjoys the trophy.