The snap of breaking branches woke Sam. Staring at the swirling cedar panels of their bedroom’s ceiling fan, he waited for another crunch, another grind, another press of hooves into soil. Munching drifted through the open window, blending with the perfume of roses and earthy-scent of disturbed mulch.
Tossing back the sheets, Sam slammed his feet onto the carpet and glared through the honeysuckle curtains billowing before the window’s screen. Rays of morning light poured in, riding a soft bleat from outside. With a growl, Sam rose, stirring the mattress.
Behind him, Adele shifted, the pillows scrunching beneath her ruddy curls and drowsy squint. “Where are you going?”
“He’s back,” said Sam, yanking on yesterday’s jeans.
With a long yawn, Adele curled beneath the sheets. “Let him alone.”
“I planted those roses for you, not to feed the neighbor’s pets.”
While Adele drifted back to sleep, Sam marched out of their shadowed bedroom and jammed on the flip-flops waiting by the front door. Sunlight warmed his face when he plodded outside, down their brick stoop, and along the flagstone path leading into the garden.
The rose bushes quivered beyond the plot of herbs beneath the kitchen window and Sam stormed forward, his flip-flops slapping, his arms waving.
“Get out of here.”
White and grey bolted from the rose bushes’ clipped branches and into the blackberry vines covering Clay’s picket fence. Following the primal dash, Sam dragged the prickled curtain aside, the heaviest fruits splattering at his feet.
Under the thick vines, a stave swung back and forth, revealing Clay’s brown grass and his backyard’s muddy patches. Flustered chickens resumed their clucking and pecking but Webster’s knowing bark made Sam wince.
“What is it boy?”
Sam backpedaled when the bloodhound snuffed over and Clay’s thumping steps approached. Crossing his arms and spreading his near-bare feet wide, Sam waited for his neighbor’s leathered face shaded by his molded ball-cap to appear.
“Sam!” Clay beamed, deep furrows curving his cheeks. “Morning.”
“He’s been in my bushes again, Clay.”
Clay’s caterpillar brows knitted together. “What? Who?”
“That damn goat of yours.”
“Sheila?” Clay planted his hoe and glanced over his shoulder. The chickens tittered while the rows of vegetables encased in their wire barricade glistened under a fresh watering. “I don’t see her.”
“I did,” said Sam. He thrust a finger at the nipped section of bush where the house’s siding peeked. “I saw her right in there.”
Clay shook his head. “She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. The fence here’d keep her in, like it does my other girls.” He thumped the picket with the end of his hoe. “Solid as a rock.”
“Not down here.”
Reaching through the blackberry’s lush foliage, Sam earned another set of scrapes on his forearm as he swung the loose plank. The last nail holding the stave in place groaned.
Clay dropped to a knee and, tipping back his cap, scratched his receding widow’s peak.
“Oh…I see.” With a grunt, he straightened, adjusted his cap’s brim, and leaned again on the hoe. “But she couldn’t make it through such a tight space.”
“Something did. Something that looks a whole lot like her.”
“Maybe it was the rabbits. They’ve been doing havoc on my radishes. Lost all my peas up to my knees too.”
“Rabbit’s don’t bleat, Clay.” Sam shook the nibbled section of rose bush, now void of blooms and leaves, with stems marred by teeth marks. “And they can’t eat something at waist height.”
Webster huffed and rose onto all fours, his tail curved and still. His ribbon of pink tongue disappeared behind his jaws as he swiveled his head toward Clay’s paint-mottled ranch house.
“What is it boy?”
With a whine, Webster pivoted, nostril’s flaring and body rigid from muzzle to the black tip of his tail. The chickens seemed to sense his focus. Their clucking quieted and even the winds stirring the blackberry vines and the garden of leafy greens calmed.
A pained bleat rippled through the silence.
Using his hoe as a staff, Clay headed across his patchy grass, Webster at his heel.
The bleat echoed again, the sour note dispelling the irritation stewing in Sam’s gut.
“Is she all right?”
Clay didn’t stop, and rounding the coop, he squatted, his flannel covering the rump of his dirt and grease spattered khaki’s. Beside him, Webster lifted his head and Sam stiffened when the bloodhound’s sad brown eyes spotted him over the blackberries.
Webster woofed and his tail began an anxious wag.
“Damn it,” said Sam.
Pushing aside enough of the branches to grasp the top of the fence, he clambered over. Mud squelched around his bared toes and he trudged through the turned earth, taking big strides to save the hem of his jeans from being completely soaked. The chickens resumed their flustered pecking when he passed their coop and Webster woofed in greeting. The bloodhound then skittered back, giving room beside Clay who cradled Sheila’s head in his hands. Blood dotted her muzzle in fat, wet globs.
“I see that,” said Sam. He knelt at Clay’s side. “What is it?”
“Thorns I think.”
With a tender finger, Clay worked under Sheila’s upper lip. The goat’s bleat turned into a whimper. Her glassy eyes circled in their sockets like rolled marbles and she shuddered, making the red-tipped rose thorns imbedded in her gums and piercing her cheeks tremble amid gushes of rust-scented blood.
The “I told you so” evaporated from Sam’s tongue. He laid a hand on Sheila’s throbbing side, his fingers arching across the delicate ribs straining beneath her coarse hide. Sheila’s frantic pulse worked into his veins, charging his heartbeat.
“What do you need, Clay? Pliers?”
Clay lowered Sheila’s lip and stroked the goat’s neck with bloodied fingers. “I…I don’t know…. I don’t know if I can get them out. There’re so many. There’s so much blood.” Clay’s voice began to quiver like the goat beneath Sam’s hand.
“It’s okay.” Reaching around Clay, Sam worked off the other man’s flannel and balled the fabric into a loose wad. “See if you can stem the bleeding until I get back.”
Clay nodded as he did as instructed. He looked up though, when Sam stood. “Get back?”
“We’re taking her to the vet.”
“The vet….” The uncertainty in Clay’s eyes cleared and his head’s bobble firmed with understanding. “Yes, the vet. Good idea.”
Sam thumped Clay on the back and then started back across the yard.
“Adele!?” Vaulting the fence, he called out again. “Adele!?”
Her face, surrounded by a frazzled mane, appeared in their bedroom window above the pruned rose bushes.
“Hand me my keys.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the vet.”
“Sheila?” Adele vanished from the screen, and fabric rustled as change clanged. “Who’s Sheila?”
Returning to the window, Adele raised the screen, her head cocked. His key ring dangled from the hand she held out of reach.
“You mean The Goat?”
“Yeah,” said Sam. “The thorns have made a mess of her face.”
Adele balked with a sudden gasp. “Is she going to be okay?”
“I hope so,” said Sam as he held out his palm.
Adele tightened her fingers on the key’s ring. “You do?”
With a wince, Sam grabbed for the keys but Adele kept them in her grasp.
“I’m not a monster, Adele. I want her to stop eating my plants, not get killed by them.”
Grinning, she released the keys and followed them up with his wallet. “Get going then.”
Stuffing his wallet away, Sam palmed the keys and headed for his truck. A quick reverse, short jaunt, and turn into Clay’s drive, and he leapt out again, leaving the engine rumbling and the door ajar while he trotted toward his neighbor’s backyard.
Clay met him at the gate cradling Sheila who he’d wrapped up in his flannel. Ushering them onto his pickup’s backseat, Sam closed the mini door and hopped behind the wheel.
“Sorry about your roses,” said Clay.
Sam waved him off as he pulled onto the main road. “Don’t sweat it.”
A glimpse in the rearview mirror revealed the wet stain spreading on the back seat’s cushions from beneath Sheila’s rear end.
With a gruff sigh, Sam cinched his fingers around the wheel and sped toward the first intersection.
“Fix the fence, Clay, and we’ll call it even.”