The three goats, winter-heavy coats gleaming white and unmistakable in the sunlight, stood in a pocket of still air there beside a heap of tumbled-down granite boulders, munching contentedly on the last of the good green tundra grass of the fall and filling themselves up on the dried, yellowing variety when that ran out. Liz lowered herself instinctively to the ground in one smooth motion that somewhat amazed Einar, considering the increasing awkwardness of carrying the baby, not wanting the creatures to see her, pulling Einar along with her.
“Goats! I knew they were around, but didn’t expect to see any down this low in the timber.”
“Bit of an unusual sight, for sure, but a real good one for us. Better than an elk, in a lot of ways.”
“Oh! I know we can eat the meat and use the hide for warmth…but I wonder if there’s any chance we might snare one, take it back over to the cabin and work at domesticating it, teach it to be a pack goat and eventually start our own herd for milk, meat, fur…”
Grinning from ear to ear at the image of himself dashing at full speed down that slope, lasso of nettle cordage whirling round his head as he charged in amongst the goats and snared one about the neck, snubbing the rope around an aspen and hanging on for dear life, Einar shook his head. The thing would probably drag him to death up the nearest cliff. Which would be a pretty interesting way to go, really, being dragged to death up a cliff. Plenty of people have suffered sudden deceleration after unfortunate encounters with cliffs, but I doubt too many have been beaten to death on rocks on the way up them…which wasn’t particularly relevant, seeing as the goal that day was to get ahold of some meat and a hide or two, not to perish in the most unique and unexpected way possible, and he fought to halt the silent fit of mirth that had come over him at the images he’d created in his head. The laughing hurt his ribs, even if it was silent. Liz was staring at him, and he guessed she wanted an answer of some sort. “Some animals just aren’t made to be domesticated, Einar-critters and mountain goats probably included, but even if it would work, we’re in no position to acquiring livestock right now! We’d probably never keep the critter alive through the winter, even if we could somehow prevent it absconding with itself and rejoining the herd.”
“I know I’ve seen them grazing in the summer, but what do they eat in the winter? The snow must get way too deep up here for them to forage for grass…”
“Don’t eat much. They spend a lot of time in the timber down a little lower, but not a whole lot lower than these critters are right now--some of them stay right up near treeline, all winter long--and best as I’ve ever been able to tell from looking at their droppings and following them around for a while, they mostly chew on the evergreens and strip them of lichens and moss and such. It’s a pretty sparse diet, and they end up losing a lot of weight over the winter, as much as fifty pounds sometimes for a good-sized goat, but they always make it up pretty fast in the spring once things start greening up again. That’s sometimes kinda the way I did it, too, up at my cabin. Nibble on things through the winter, then make it up in the spring…yep, me and the goats.”
“If you eat nothing but lichen and evergreens and lose fifty pounds over the winter, you’ll be a skeleton. You’ll be dead.”
“Nah, not dead, just mighty doggone ugly. Doesn’t take much to keep me going.”
She rolled her eyes at him, shook her head. You’d try it just to prove me wrong, wouldn’t you, if the baby wasn’t coming? Just to prove you could make it through the winter by chewing lichen and evergreen needles, and you’d probably somehow manage to do it, too, but there sure wouldn’t be much left of you by the time spring came. “Well, you don’t have a coat like they do to keep you warm. I’m sure that incredible coat has a lot to do with their ability to survive hungry winters at treeline as well as they do. And you don’t have one, and I’m pretty sure you can’t grow one, either, as hard as you might try.”
“I'm about to have one…” At which he handed her the binoculars and fitted a dart to the atlatl, motioning for her to follow as he descended towards the grassy opening, keeping carefully to the heaviest of the timber and moving quietly over its carpet of damp, cushioning needles. Some three hundred yards above the steep, grassy area at the top of the open the slope he stopped, waited for her to catch up and spoke in a whisper.
“Gonna work my way in closer, try to get down to where the trees thin out before doing anything. You be ready with the bow, back me up when I let the dart go. I’m after the big one, the male, but if he moves on before we get there or is at a bad angle, I’ll go for the nearest of the females. Aim just behind the shoulder, like on an elk. Thick as his coat of fur is now with winter coming, it’s gonna take a lot of force to go through it and do the job, but hopefully between us we’ll get in at least one real good shot, take him down. You ready?”
She nodded, pulled an arrow from her pack and very slowly they continued their descent, approaching the group of three lazing, grazing animals with the wind in their faces, making hardly a sound on the soft, springy duff of the forest floor. Blocked from sight of the goats by several large granite boulders they managed to work their way in quite close without the animals becoming aware of their presence, and Einar was about to lead them on the final few moves that would bring them into their shooting positions when a growing tension in the pit of his stomach told him wait, listen, and sure enough, the next second he could hear it. The chopper was returning. He wanted to bolt for the timber, wanted it so badly he could taste it, but made himself wait, flattened himself against the backside of those boulders and pulled Liz in beside him, the two of them partially concealed by the overhanging shadow of the rock, a few sparse currant bushes their only other cover, Einar praying that it would be enough. Had to be enough.