The Goat Thief
North of Ardmore, Oklahoma
September 1, 1920
All morning Joe watched Nanna and her seven kids. Tending goats was boring, so he amused himself by peeing on the red-ant nest near the stock pond. His mother had been very clear in her instructions to return only when Nanna’s belly distended like a ripe yellow squash. She was the mama goat and needed her grass and water.
The sun was just shy of noon. The nape of his neck was sodden from the heat. He took off his shirt and hung it over the fence post. On the opposite hillside, just across the pond, two white men planted trees. Pecans, most likely. Pa said there was big money in pecans. He’d planted one for the family, directly behind the house. Joe had to water it every night, three full coffee cans.
Joe was nine, old enough for school—but in Carter County there were no schools for blacks. Even the Cherokee had their own school. This did not bother him except that he suspected school was less boring than watching the goats. Pa said he was lucky to have any work at all, much less the opportunity to show others how ignorant he was. No one he knew went to school—his sister, his nephews in Berwyn, not a soul.
Joe examined Nanna’s belly. Not quite full. Her teats were reddish with dust. She had birthed over fourteen kids, and showed no sign of flagging.
The stock pond had a high western bank that dropped gradually on either side to the eastern edge, where the goats now grazed. The high bank had a three-foot drop, excellent for jumping into the pond.
He squatted at the water’s edge as the animals drank. Gnats and flies buzzed around their anuses and clambered across fur like explorers on the prairie.
Joe rose. His right leg tingled; it had fallen asleep. He wandered up the slope, his leg dragging, the needle pricks making him want to laugh and curse at the same time. He knew some good swearwords. He knew “damn” and “shit” and “crap.” He told the goats (except for Nanna) they were no good for shit. The words felt rich and complex in his mouth, like he imagined a robber might talk. He had never held a dollar in his life, but he could imagine a bundle of notes so large it would bulge in his dungarees like a clenched fist.
A goat bleated—frantic and piercing. He whirled around. Nanna was submerged to her neck, head thrashing in the water, the rest of the herd milling agitatedly along the shore. He ran to her. Had she followed him up the bank? He glanced down and saw tracks gashed in the mud, down the bank and into the water.
No-good-for-shit goat. He grabbed the coil of rope in his pocket and scrambled into the water. It was tepid, the surface like dirty bathwater.
Nanna shied back as he neared, her eyes wide and alien. As he tried to slip the lead over her head, she yanked away, sending up a spray that blinded him. He wiped his eyes clear. The rope was floating away, toward the center of the pond.
“Got problems, boy?”
Joe turned, his skin prickling despite the heat.
A rangy white man in an undershirt and jeans stood on the bank above him, hands on hips, grinning. He was bald, his pate burned brown.
“Yessir,” Joe said.
“I heard of a nigger in the woodshed, but here we got one in the pond.” The man glanced back as a second man appeared, grinning at the hilarity of his friend’s comment.
“Well,” the rangy man said, “I ain’t lettin’ a goat go and drown itself.” He slipped off his boots—the heels stove up and chewed, ripped along the outer soles—and stepped into the water. He waded to Nanna, all the while talking low and steady. “Come a-here; you ain’t wanderin’, not yet.”
Nanna blinked, transfixed by the white man.
“Get that rope, boy,” he said. “Bring ’er here.” He moved closer, resuming his patter.
Joe moved right, the mud sucking against the soles of his feet. Nanna ignored him. He stretched until he thought his arm would burst out and snatched the hemp.
“Give it here.” The man’s right hand now rested lightly on the goat’s scruff. He eased the rope over Nanna’s neck, then pulled tight. The goat’s eyes blinked.
“Thought you’d take a swim, eh?” The man yanked her into the shallows and onto the bank. “Big old mama desertin’ the little’uns?” He grinned at Joe. “She always this obliging?”
Nanna shook herself, drops spattering the clay.
Joe shook his head. “She got a temper.”
The other man, round and chunky with a scroungy, faded beard, was watching from the bank. He scuffed out his cigarette. “Look here, Tom. That nigger’s goat is bigger ’n mine.”
“He don’t starve it like you do,” Tom said. “I figger this boy here just takes good care of his animals.” He patted Nanna’s side, then gave Joe a wink. He turned to his friend. “Come on. We got another fifty trees to plant.”
The two began walking away.
“Thank you, sir,” Joe called out.
Tom turned around. “You’re welcome, boy. Keep a close eye on that goat. It’s a fine animal.”
~ ~ ~
Pa beat him with the belt after learning of Nanna’s adventure. That was Pa’s usual response to just about anything Joe did that varied from instructions. The boy didn’t volunteer that the men were white—he knew Pa would double the whipping for talking to white men. It wasn’t safe or proper.
Afterward, Mama found him behind the shed, next to the goat pen. She laid a rag-covered plate and cup beside him, then glanced at the sky. “Come in afore dark,” she said. Then she walked away, the pink bottoms of her feet stark against the red dirt.
He grabbed the slab of corn bread. It was slit and filled with a slice of ham. The smell made his stomach growl uneasily. He took a bite. The bread had bits of grit in it. He spit it out. There was a snuffling sound to his right.
Nanna gazed back through the fence, her eyes fastened on the lump of half-chewed food. “Go on,” he said, tossing the remainder to her. “Damn-for-shit goat.”
The other goats rushed up, but Nanna had already gobbled it down. They brayed unhappily.
Why had the white man helped him? Pa said that you couldn’t trust a white man. Yet Tom had helped him. Joe rose, taking the plate in one hand and cup in the other.
They probably worked for Mister Cogdon up the road. Almost everyone worked for him—except for Pa. The hill opposite the pond was Cogdon land. Mister Cogdon hardly came around, now that the cattle were selling in Wichita. He left behind his wife, and two daughters twice Joe’s age. The girls were wild, restless for their futures to begin. He’d heard they drank. At least once a day Mrs. Cogdon and the girls drove by Joe’s house in their Model T, the wheels pluming dust that rose and obscured the horizon.
Joe’s house sat thirty yards east of the road. Years of buggies and wagons and now automobiles had coated it in red dust, broken only by the single window Mama cleaned every Saturday morning. A small stand of bur oaks stood north, casting the only substantial shade. A juniper bush nestled against the ground near the door. Scorpions sometimes nested near the foundation.
Joe decided to wait until well after sunset to go inside. Ida would pester him as to why Nanna almost drowned. He was lucky she had been helping Mama cook, instead of following him around the pond. A younger sister was akin to the ticks that crawled up your leg and lodged in the soft folds of your crotch—hardly noticeable at first, then impossible to ignore.
He pulled the screen door open. It squeaked. He held his breath. But Pa and Mama and Ida snored on, oblivious. The day’s heat was still trapped inside, along with the smell of sweat and bacon grease.
Then his stomach grumbled again. He ran to the outhouse.
~ ~ ~
Afterward, Joe lingered by the horse shed, drained and reluctant to return to the stuffy house. Bats flitted in the dusk, visible as they crossed the full moon. From the goat pen came a bleat, then silence.
What if Tom hadn’t come along? Could Joe have rescued Nanna by himself? The goat was well stuck, scared, and ornery, and she outweighed him by a good fifteen pounds. He would have pulled and yanked, but she wouldn’t move. Then gradually she would give up, her legs collapsing until water filled her nostrils. A final thrashing and she’d die. Her corpse would have poisoned the pond.
Or Tom could’ve taken Nanna. White folks would say it was his due for saving a nigger boy’s hopeless animal. After all, if he hadn’t come along, the goat would’ve died. Joe picked his nose contemplatively. Tom would want to give Nanna back, of course—Joe could tell the man was different from other whites—but his friend would egg him on until he had to take it. Couldn’t let a nigger boy shame you.
A light caught his eye, then disappeared. He rose. The light reappeared, and a rattling, gravelly sound—a truck coming down the road. Joe decided to move into the shadows, behind the bur oaks. No one came down here at night, unless it was the Cogdon girls returning from a party in Ardmore. White folks at night were trouble, Pa said.
The lights drew nearer. A few hundred yards away the shadows resolved under the moonlight into an open-bed truck. A hand dangled from the driver’s side, grasping a bottle. The red tip of a cigarette glowed from inside the cabin.
The truck stopped about fifty feet north of the house, the engine dying with a hiccup. The driver emerged, still grasping his bottle. Joe swallowed hard.
Tom walked toward the house with the excessively careful walk of a man on the verge of drunkenness.
“Hold on!” His friend emerged from the passenger side holding his own bottle. “What the hell you doin’?”
Tom ignored him. He stopped about ten yards from the house. He took a swig from his bottle. He seemed to be studying the lone window and front door.
“Who lives in this piece of shit?” the chunky man said.
Tom turned. “Shut up. I’m thinkin’ here.”
Joe felt the blood pulsing in his neck, his breath shallow and skittery. If he didn’t move, they wouldn’t see him. Pa said white folks didn’t like niggers running around in the dark.
“Why we here?”
Tom kept staring. “’Cause that boy has a fine goat. Don’t see a goat like that every day.” Then he glanced at his companion. “Besides, we ain’t got no place else to go on a Wednesday night.”
The chunky man took a swig from his bottle, then let out a belch. “Huh.”
Tom remained silent. The night breeze rustled his shirt, open at the neck, exposing an undershirt that gleamed white in the moonlight. After a long pause, he said, “Actually, them Cogdon girls live up the road a ways.”
“The skinny ones?”
“Thin,” Tom said. “I’d call ’em thin.”
A tickle rose in Joe’s throat. He swallowed hard, willing himself not to cough. The uncertainty and boredom in the men’s voices bothered him. They had to move along before Pa woke.
“I like the older one,” the chunky man said. “She got the right shape.” He snorted cheerfully.
Tom pursed his lips, then glanced toward the bur oaks.
Joe held his breath, willing the shadows to meld with his skin. The scratching of cricket legs filled the air.
Tom’s gaze turned again to the house. “Reckon they’re all tuckered out.”
“Come on,” the other said. “Let’s find them sisters. Give ’em a drink.”
“Imagine bein’ a nigger boy, with a goat like that,” Tom said. His voice was soft, filled with wonder. Joe thought he might just walk through the front door and wake his family. But then Tom blinked. “Shit. Come on.” He turned and climbed into the truck.
After the engine sound faded, after the taillights were lost behind the next rolling hill, Joe emerged. Exhaust hung in the air, astringent yet oily. He felt he’d avoided something, but wasn’t sure exactly what it was. Tom had issued no threat, nor had his friend. They were just two drunk white men.
The mare snuffled in her pen, a warm, sleepy sound that made Joe feel sad. Why wasn’t he in bed, listening to Ida snore? Why was he standing outside his own home, staring down the road like a fool?
He wandered to the lane. Dusty tire tracks led off the shoulder and into the edge of their front yard. The johnsongrass was mashed, two parallel grooves ending abruptly. He bent down. A palm-size splotch of oil glistened in the loamy soil. He dipped a finger in it, then lifted it to his nostrils and breathed in. Mr. Cogdon had a Dodge with a running board and an engine you could hear roaring a half mile away. Joe didn’t know any Negroes with automobiles, but Pa said he’d seen dozens in Greenwood. Negroes with suits and derby hats and shining cars.
Joe rubbed the oily residue between his forefinger and thumb. In two or three years he would go with Pa to work in town. There was a place waiting for him, everything arranged. The hotel was always needing boys to run errands and such. The two of them would share a lunch pail and sit in the alley on the kitchen steps, watching the deliverymen bringing bottles of milk and cans of beans and corn. When he was old enough, he might even work with Pa, cleaning hallways and keeping an eye on the furnace.
He wandered back to the bur oaks and sat down. The air felt lighter now, a breeze lifting goose bumps on his arms. He leaned against the trunk and looked up. Pinpricks of starlight peeped through the leaf canopy. He imagined working alongside Tom, planting pecans. Drinking afterward, driving the back roads. He closed his eyes.
~ ~ ~
An engine rumbled in the distance. Joe blinked, sat up, wiped drool from his mouth. How long had he slept? Light flashed on his left. Headlights appeared over the far hill. He hid himself on the far side of the oaks, away from the road. His heart pounded.
The truck rolled up and paused, staying on the road this time, the motor idling. Laughter spilled into the night air—Tom’s deep chuckle—and a higher one, a girl’s. Then another girl’s laughter, and the other man’s as well. The engine hiccuped and the girls giggled, as if this were the funniest sound they’d ever heard.
“There’s a prizewinnin’ goat here,” Tom said. His arm lolled over the door, a cigarette hanging carelessly from his fingers.
“Them niggers live here,” the girl next to him said. “That man Woods and the rest of them.”
“You know the boy?” Tom said. “Maybe nine or ten?”
“Joe?” The girl laughed. “He’s a dirty old thing.”
“Smelly,” the other said.
Tom shut off the engine and opened the door. The drop to the ground proved too complicated; he ended up face-first in the grass.
The girl rushed over. “You all right, hon?”
He shook her off and rose. “I want to show you this damn goat. ’S a fine animal.” He walked unsteadily toward the back of the house, passing within a dozen feet of Joe. The boy stood motionless, watching the girl—the taller and skinnier of the two—chase after him. She seemed less drunk, although her giggles suggested that she was doing a good job of catching up.
The other two stayed in the truck, passing a bottle back and forth.
“I’m not going back there,” the girl in the truck said. “Not for a goat. I know these niggers.”
“You scared?” The chunky man seemed genuinely curious.
“No,” she said, her voice testy. “But just say they had a shotgun. What then?”
A noise to Joe’s left made him turn.
Tom was leading Nanna out of the pen, his Cogdon girlfriend tagging along. The goat’s eyes were opaque, her gray-brown coat fading into the dusk. She was strangely silent and uncomplaining.
Maybe it had been Tom’s plan to show the goat to the others. Maybe he had forgotten that it was past midnight, that he was drunk, that the goat was in fact not his. The plan might have worked, except that Nanna saw Joe in the shadows. Her green eyes grew wide.
Tom jerked the lead around her neck. Nanna bleated again. “Goddamn,” he muttered, dragging her toward the pickup.
Joe wanted to move. He wanted to burst from the shadows and wrest his goat away. But something bumped inside the house. A scrape of metal against wood.
Pa stepped through the front door. “That’s my goat,” he said. In his right hand he carried a thin curved sword—a souvenir of his grandfather’s service in the Union army.
Tom spun around, jerking Nanna to the left and bumping the Cogdon girl.
“Hey,” she said. “Why don’t ya—” Her eyes widened. “Mister Woods.”
Tom raised his right hand and waved the bottle at Pa. “Hold on there,” he said, his words thick, almost slurring. “I was just showin’ your goat to my buddies.”
“It’s my goat,” Pa said. “You got no right.” His voice was tight and low.
The chunky man emerged from the truck. He seemed angry now, as if he’d made up his mind about something. “Hush up, nigger,” he said. “I expect you stole it anyhow.”
“Joe,” Pa said, staring at Tom.
An electric shock ran through the boy.
“I know you’re out here. Come on.”
Joe emerged from the shadows of the bur oaks. He walked toward the men and halted at Pa’s right.
“You know them?” Pa said.
“Yes, sir.” The words felt pulled from his dry throat.
Pa didn’t seem surprised. “And how’s that?”
“I saved this goat from drowning,” Tom said.
“Come on,” the chunky man said. “We got to go.”
“Shut up,” Tom said, his hands still tight on Nanna’s lead. For some reason, the appearance of Joe and Pa had calmed her. She stood, her head turning from one speaker to the next, as if a midnight showing were an everyday event.
“Then I expect I should thank you,” Pa said. He gave Joe a flat look, then turned back to Tom. “But that’s still my goat.”
Tom shrugged, then handed the rope to Pa.
Pa’s fingers grasped the lead and pulled Nanna toward him. For a second, the goat seemed confused. Then she shook her head, her ears flapping, and moved toward them.
“That goat’s too fat to be a nigger goat,” the thinner of the two Cogdon girls said, her voice haughty.
Pa’s jaw tightened.
“You’re drunk,” Tom said, grasping her wrist. “Let’s go.”
“Niggers always steal,” she said, her voice rising. “They stole my daddy’s land.”
“Your daddy’s doin’ all right. Now come on.” Tom opened the truck door and gestured.
The Cogdon girl stared at Joe, her face hard. “You gonna let a boy take your goat?”
Pa opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. Nanna bleated, then began snuffling around his feet, looking for remnants of grass in the dust.
Tom pushed her into the truck.
“Ow! You’re hurtin’ me!”
He climbed in and slammed the door. He seemed more embarrassed than angry, as if the girl had somehow insulted him instead of the boy.
Joe glanced again at his father. The man’s jaw was set tight, his nightshirt gapping to reveal muscles burrowing into his torso.
Pa always said they had their five acres because Mr. Cogdon didn’t want it—too many ravines. They had access to the pond because Cogdon felt guilty about selling them the land, he said. They owed the Cogdons no favors. Joe imagined those words coming out of his father’s mouth now. Shaming those girls.
But words wouldn’t shame the girls, would they? They lived apart from the farm, apart from the land, in their parlor, in their car, going to Tulsa once a month. They were waiting for men to take them away—to pretend they didn’t belong to this land, and that they didn’t live down the road from a nigger boy and his goat.
Nanna nuzzled his hand. Joe stroked the dip between her eyes, the only place she truly liked. He wondered what she had thought in the pond, the muck pulling her under. He suspected she didn’t think at all, at least in a way he’d recognize.
The truck engine revved, and Tom’s hand drifted out, settling into a crook atop the door. “Take care of that goat, boy,” he said. Then he shifted and the truck creaked into gear, gradually gaining speed as it moved down the road.
“See what comes of talkin’ with white men?” Pa said. He sounded more weary than angry. “Get her in the pen and then come inside.” He turned and disappeared into the house.
Joe led Nanna down the worn path to her pen. The sky seemed closer now, the stars brighter as the full moon waned. A nighthawk swooped over the ridge of the house. Nanna followed, surprisingly obedient. Joe felt simultaneously tired and anxious. No doubt he’d wake up tomorrow and face the beating of his short lifetime. Perhaps he’d see Tom and the other men again, working the hillside.
Nanna trotted through the gate. Joe slid the lead off and then latched the pen.
“Damn-for-shit goat,” he muttered. Had the evening actually happened? His right hand brushed against his pants, and then he felt grit on his thumb. He raised it to his nostril and breathed in the odor of motor oil. They had been there all right. In the morning he would find the tire tracks and goat droppings and empty whiskey bottles.
He reached the back door, which was ajar to let in the night air. His father was already snoring. Ida shifted on the opposite side of the bed, her legs sprawled over his two-foot corridor along the edge. He’d have to shove her over, and she might wake Mama.
Joe took the blanket folded on the foot of the bed and laid it on the floor near the door. He settled back, watching the stars through the opening. He raised his palm, then flipped it over and back again. Black, gray, black.
Tom had saved Nanna from drowning, had returned to admire her. Not to steal her.
Not a thief.