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by Fredric L. Rice
Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006 at 5:30 AM
The ups and downs of life on the ranch.
The Untimely Suicide of Sebastian Goat
by Fredric L. Rice
Some years back -- about five or six, as I recall -- I visited my brother who was doing cowboy ranch work on an undisclosed Indian reservation somewhere in the American Southwest.
I had driven an old and temperamental Toyota Celica at the time, a vehicle so heavily patched with used parts (taken from old Fords, Dodges, Chevrolets, and Jeeps) and so patched with pounded-flat "High C" drink cans, it had been nick named "Toyotastein." He was the kind of car that police officers all across the nation's highways loved to stop and inspect for safety violations in a vain attempt to remove it once and for all from said highways.
Toyotastein had been brought to its virtual charade of life through the clever use of coat hanger wire, a considerable amount of human blood (extracted from skinned knuckles, mostly) and a considerable amount of invocation to deities (such as, "Run, god damned it you sour bitch!" and "I swear to god I'll roll you off a cliff if you don't fucking start!")
I had long ago left the main interstate that splits the Reservation, going full speed along the washboard dirt road, further ripping the guts out of my tortured ride, kicking up a mile-long tail of dust that hung suspended in the hot Summer daylight behind me, dust that was reluctant to settle back down to the oven-hot ground.
At the base of the mountain and canyon range I hung a right, followed a narrow canyon for half a mile, then came to the end of the road: a wide patch of hard packed desert dirt and rock with a wooden sign whose original message had long since faded away to nothing, now replaced with a badly hand-painted message which read, "Lost, ain'tcha?" written by some unknown wit years ago.
Standing there before the sign, feet burning on the hard packed Earth right through my tennis shoes, I shouldered my backpack, took a hit from one of my canteens of warm water, then started hiking up the mountain, leaving behind Toyotastein to fend for himself.
This range of mountains had once been the bed of a vast ocean a thousand or more epochs ago and as volcanic uplift (and isometric rebound; this part of the United States had been covered in glacial ice during the past Ice Age) slowly raised the Earth's crust in this region, the sea fled, leaving rivers to carve their way through the strata of sandstone, sedimentary rock, and occasional outcrops of volcanic rock.
The levels of the various muddy rivers around here had maintained pretty much the same altitudes when measured against sea level. With the rising of the ground, the river beds cut deeper into the rising rock and sand and the result after countless years was this system of canyons running through a mountain range that still continued to slowly rise under my feet.
It was a long and hot walk. I had needed to gain about five thousand feet in altitude and a distance of some 18 miles to get to the big house I was aiming for. Holding a hand-held GPS receiver, I ensured I knew where I was going. Aloud I repeatedly sang the same song over and over, "An old cowboy went riding on a dark and windy day, upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way..." Ghost Riders in the Sky: My way of praying for a cool rain.
When I reached the big house, I learned that my brother and one of the other ranchers were out chasing down a goat that had managed to escape from the compound. They had checked two horses out of the vehicle pool, taken their overnight gear, and had left early.
This particular goat was well known on the ranch, having a rap sheet several pages long, a born troublemaker who was mean and would attack riders on horses as well as any other ranch animal he could ram with his hornless head. His name was Sebastian Goat though he was called a great many other names, nearly all of which were profane.
Sebastian had continued to live regardless of numerous violent altercations with other ranch animals and ranchers over the years solely because there was coming a day when poor old Sebastian would find himself gutted, skinned, spitted, and slowly turning over the center yard's fire pit, a meal which all the ranchers were looking forward to with anticipation some day.
Sebastian Goat, causing trouble again.
I got on the radio and gave a call. "I'm at the main house, where are you Shithead?" I waited. Waited. Then I called again, "Kimosabe, I made it to the Big House, where are you?" Eventually I got an answer.
"We're about four miles out," followed by GPS coordinate which I keyed into my receiver. "You're welcome to join us," came the suggestion.
"What are you and Tonto doing out there?" I asked over the radio.
Tonto and Kimosabe, together again: my paleface brother and a fellow ranch hand -- a Native American Indian -- out there in the canyons, doing rancher cowboy things. My brother had showed up at the ranch the previous year and had asked for water and then for work, work in exchange for food and a place to stay. He'd been given a day, all the beans he could possibly eat, plenty of exercise, and a spot in the shared community bunkhouse along with a real bed.
Mostly work on the ranch was hot and sweaty, made more difficult by swarming legions of insects that tried to suck the moisture from one's eyes. Horses were used rarely on this ranch, with four-wheel drive pickups and an occasional quad ATV used to run around the place, but on occasion horses would be used to move other animals who didn't like gasoline-powered motors.
"Would you believe we're fishing for this god damned goat?" eventually came from the radio. I keyed the microphone and told my brother that I'd hot foot it over and could be there in about an hour. I wanted to see for myself what "fishing for goats" looked like.
It actually took over an hour but I finally got to where I found the two ranch hands leaning over a canyon wall, looking over a drop of about 500 feet or so. Tonto was indeed holding a rope over the side swinging it from left to right. "Fishing for goats?" I unbuckled my backpack and let it drop heavily to the ground.
"Well he's finally done it," Tonto said when I walked up and looked over the side. Down about 100 feet stood Sebastian Goat on a narrow shelf, torn bits of fur and flesh clotted with dried blood. Below the goat a slope of rock and clinging cactus fell away another 400 feet or so before the bottom of the canyon was reached. "I'm trying to get him to step into the loop so I can drag him back up here."
The rock ledge that the goat had tumbled 100 feet down to was about two feet wide at the widest point, tapering off on both ends, and slightly sloped. There was a small, angry looking cactus plant growing on the edge of the ledge, and one small bush whose leaves were dried and brown. The goat just stood there, gazing off into the distance, clueless that it was perched on the ragged edge of death.
I had to laugh -- which caused the two ranchers to give me dirty looks before returning to the job of trying to rescue the damn goat from his ledge. My brother told me that they'd tried everything, lowering grass and things to try to get the goat to stand still over a loop of rope so they could snag it around the middle.
Part of the problem was the weight and length of the rope and the time it took to move the far end of the rope. They had repeatedly laid a loop along the narrow ledge and had waited only the goat refused to step in to it. They could get the rope around its neck but dragging it up 100 feet – by the time they got it up the goat would probably be dead.
"Why not tie the rope around the Indian and lower him down?" I asked. That caused the two to turn and stare at me. "You want your goat back, don't you?" I added.
My brother turned back around and continued to stare at the goat far below. "We also want our Indian back," he said.
Tonto laughed and also turned around, flipping loops in the rope since it wasn't doing anything useful any way. "That's right, send down the Indian," he said with amusement. "Wouldn't want to risk a paleface."
"I'll go over," I volunteered. That got them turned around again.
"I suppose that could work, then every other day we can come back out here and lower food and water to you until you die of old age," my brother said. "That'll work."
The other cowboy flipped the rope again, using it to gesture along the cliff face below. "It's too dangerous. I'd rather leave the goat down there."
I thought about that. "Is you cowboys or ain't ya?" I asked.
"Cowboys, yes," my brother said, "not mountain climbers. We have no pitons, no harness, no friends, gloves, chocks, or anything else we need to go down there and get back."
For the next two hours or so we continued to try to get that rope around the goat's neck and front legs so it could be hauled back up. Every time the rope hit the goat, it caused that stupid animal to leap from side to side, apparently unaware of what was hitting it.
When darkness started falling, Tonto hauled up the rope and carried it back to where the two had tied up their horses. "This damn goat" was the subject of discussion over dinner that night, a small camp fire ringed by rocks under an oak tree. The beans were good -- tender pinto beans seasoned with enchilada sauce and peppers and onion, dumped frozen from a plastic bag and in to a frying pan that hadn't been really clean since the Civil War, it looked to me. The beans were served up with some hard bread that was also probably baked back during the Civil War.
That whole day had been lost standing around for which two cowboys had to be paid, and there was every possibility that tomorrow would be much the same. Ultimately the goat would probably just have to be abandoned unless someone else at the Big House could come up with a plan. Goats are valuable, but not enough to waste on trying to rope and rescue for a whole damn day.
My first night up there on the mountain was glorious, with more stars visible from that clear Summer night's altitude than even down below in the Mojave Desert or the highest ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains. When I camp in Death Valley or the Mojave during the Summer, the stars blink and swim in the heat-roiled air. Here the stars stayed still, blazing away bright enough to read a newspaper by.
Morning found things pretty much as we had left them: Sebastian Goat was still on the cliff though it had settled down and was resting on one side. The horses were hungry and bored. In all nothing else had changed since the previous day.
Once again we met at the edge of the cliff with the rope despite the morning's argument about the pointlessness of trying again. The rope was lowered down with its loop and dropped around the goat -- who woke up and backed away out of the loop of rope, starting the day's futile exercise again at the very point we'd left off the previous day.
The goat forgot about the rope and walked to the dried up bush to look it over for something it could eat though I don't think it actually ate any of it.
While the goat was looking it over and sniffing around it, Tonto lifted his loop of rope and placed it on the other side of the bush, then he walked along the ridge and dragged the rope along the base of the bush -- and the goat stepped both of its front legs into the loop!
The cowboy yelled "Yah!" and started hauling on the rope, walking backwards away from the cliff face while my brother and I watched the loop of rope tighten around the bush and the goat's front legs. It was working! We'd got that bitch! Or so we thought.
Sebastian got extremely frightened and started bucking and kicking as he found himself caught with a dead bush crushed against his face. "Wait! Wait!" my brother yelled when one of the goat's legs escaped the noose, leaving the goat hanging there against the cliff face, rear legs leaving the ground, goat now coughing and choking way down there.
I had to laugh and started singing a little song, "Waltzing Matilda, Matilda my darling, you'll come awaltzing Matilda with me." That got an angry and annoyed glance from my brother.
"He's choking to death," my brother yelled to the other cowboy. "Drop him. You have to drop him!"
Instead of dropping the goat, Tonto stood there, arms bulging with the weight of Sebastian who continued to kick and struggle. "Do I have both legs?" He asked.
"He's got the rope around his neck and one leg and you pulled out the bush. Hear him choking?"
Tonto decided enough was enough and despite the goat's distress he once again continued to haul and walk backwards, dragging the goat along the cliff face while it kicked and choked. We watch until the goat freed its other leg, finally hanging there solely by his neck, dead bush still pressed against his face and one rear leg kicking.
"His leg's free!" my brother yelled. "You're lynching him!" I watched fascinated, torn between horror and hysterical laughter. For some reason the sight reminded me of Elvis Presley. Thank you. Thank you very much!
Tonto ran forward to lower the rope and the goat back down to its ledge. When he joined the two of us, we watched the goat regain its feet and shake the noose free from around its neck. Once free the goat leaped off of the cliff, rolling over once, gaze sweeping across the three humans high up on the ridge, gaze sweeping past the rocks coming up very fast below it, then rolled again to sweep its doomed gaze once again across us humans.
I screamed and my brother yelled "SHIT!" Tonto merely said "Well!" as Sebastian Goat turned one last slow roll before splatting against the outcrop of metamorphic granite some 500 feet below. We stared, each of us horrified, for several minutes at the unmoving and split body below us.
Sebastian Goat wouldn't be causing anybody no more trouble.
We walked back to the camp with Tonto coiling up the rope. The two cowboys started silently gathering up their equipment and picking stickers from their horse blankets. I had my old backpack already assembled and sat on the packed dirt waiting, noticing something building in the air around us.
I looked around trying to figure out what was happening and couldn't quite place it until I looked at the two cowboys’ faces, then brought a hand to my own lips. We were all grinning, damn us all, and the fact was that it wasn't funny. They continued to work in silence with stupid grins on their faces while I sat with a grin of my own.
"At the coroner's inquest," I said from my seat on the ground, "we will say that the Indian pushed him. They'll believe that."
My brother and Tonto both lifted their saddles from their green tarp and carried them to the horses, tossing them onto the blankets on the horses' backs. "No, it was suicide," Tonto said.
When we were ready to go -- me on foot, the other two would walk along side their rides -- my brother got on the hand held radio, "Kimosabe to Big House, we're coming in. Sebastian is dead."
Almost immediately the answer came back, "Really he's dead? About fucking time! Bringing back carcass?"
"No," my brother answered before stuffing the radio into his canvas bag.
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