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A Special Christmas With Billy the Kid

By: Carl Langley
web posted December 17, 2007
GUEST COLUMN – Every growing boy should enjoy the companionship of a goat. There is much to be learned in keeping and caring for a goat. During this Christmas season I recall the time my brother and I got our own goat. On Christmas Eve of 1939 Billy joined our family. He was a solid white goat about six months old.

My father looked across the breakfast table that morning and said he had something special to show us. He took us out back to the smokehouse, opened the door and there stood Billy.

I rushed in and hugged our Christmas present. I had wanted someone to play with other than my brother, who was the baby of the family until my parents adopted our sister in 1952.

My brother loved being baby brother. He would have been a girl had my mother gotten her druthers. But making do with what was delivered, mother didn’t have brother’s hair cut until he started school and kept him in dresses until father objected. My brother’s status led to a lot of pampering.

Billy was pampered, too. He was fed on wheat shorts, corn meal, oats and greens and in time grew into a magnificent goat with a fine set of horns. He also showed the dark side of a goat - unpredictable and cantankerous. He climbed atop chicken coops, chewed clothing hung out to dry and chased barnyard fowl.

My father was a sharecropper and we lived on a farm about three miles out of town. The farm was at the edge of a Carolina bay, which we called a swamp, and the land belonged to a widow lady by the name of Dolly Johnson. I saw her only once but remembered she had a huge mop of white hair.

Oscar Ard, a handyman who repaired wagons and harnesses at one of the town’s livery stables, helped my father at times. He sometimes sat with me and my brother in the evenings when my parents went to visit neighbors and family members or went to square dances. Oscar would tell us ghost stories, and he terrorized us with the tales of creepy things.

Oscar was a jack of all trades, and a master at making things out of scrap lumber, metal and other materials. It was this talent that prompted my father to ask him if he would build a little cart that the goat could pull. I don’t know what my father was thinking about.

Oscar jumped at the chance to show off his skills and within a few days had turned a pair of old tricycle wheels, an apple box, some banana crate wood, baling wire, scrap leather and other odds and ends into a cart.

I remember the morning he delivered it. My brother and I were beside ourselves with joy when the cart was wheeled into the yard. My father and Oscar caught Billy, put a pony halter on him that had been modified to fit his head, and hitched the goat to the cart.

I started to get into the cart but my brother began crying. He always cried to get his way. He told my father he wanted to be first. My brother wanted to be first in everything, except the Saturday afternoon baths forced upon us by mother or helping to do the yard chores.

“Let Knotty (my brother’s nickname) go first,” my father said. My brother got his nickname from a family friend who said his mop of tangled curly hair looked like twisted tufts of wool.

I reluctantly stepped aside as my brother, with a smirk, jumped into the cart and grabbed the lines that were attached to Billy’s halter. Oscar had been struggling with Billy, holding tightly to his horns and bending the goat’s head down in an effort to subdue him. The struggle was a clear sign of disaster in the making.

“Turn him loose, Oscar,” my father said after my brother took his perch in the cart seat and began popping the reins like a stage coach driver. What happened next remains among the most memorable - and exciting - moments of my life.

Billy, freed of Oscar’s strong hands, shot forward as if propelled out of a cannon. Bleating and kicking, Billy raced toward a ditch that was used to drain the front yard. It was through a miracle that the goat and cart roared across a pine pole bridge spanning the gully. I looked on in wonder. I didn’t realize a goat could move so fast.

With the cart bouncing wildly behind the enraged goat and my brother’s screams of terror filling the air, Billy made a sharp left turn just across the bridge and headed down a wagon path that ran parallel to the ditch.

Billy didn’t go far when he decided to make another left turn. He headed back toward the ditch, the cart careening left and right. The goat suddenly went airborne and leaped the narrow, deep ditch, but gravity took control of the cart. It plunged into the ditch, which was filled with stagnant water, briars, cattail stalks and plum brush.

The impact broke the cart shafts and released the harness lines, freeing Billy. I watched Billy race across a stubble field and head in the direction of the swamp about a half mile behind the house. My wailing brother, bruised and punctured by branches and briars, was in the bottom of the ditch with the remnants of the cart. It’s amazing how long and loud someone can scream when the threat of doom appears.

My father and Oscar, who had taken out running behind the cart, jumped into the ditch and began pulling apart the wreckage and freeing my brother, who was screaming for mother. He was dragged out of the ditch and taken to the house for comfort and first aid.

I didn’t run after the cart. I stayed in the yard and waited for Billy to return. It turned into a long wait. Night came and there was no sign of Billy, so I cried myself to sleep. My brother didn’t miss Billy, and he told me over and over he never wanted to see the goat. My mother pouted at my father.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of miracles, and one was soon to appear. Billy had been missing for almost a week when a neighbor came walking into the yard late one afternoon. He carried in his arms what appeared to be an old sheet. It was Billy. My goat was shrunken and shriveled and his once chalk white coat was frayed and muddied.

The neighbor told my father he found Billy in the woods about two miles from our house. He had gone there to cut fireplace wood and poles for a chicken house and came upon Billy tangled up on a stump. The broken line on his halter had snagged on the stump and the more he struggled the tighter his bonds became.

“Someone said your goat was missing, and I figured this was him,” the neighbor said while handing Billy over to my father.

Billy was near death from thirst and starvation, but my father brought him back. He was bedded down in the warm smokehouse on a deep pile of hay and fed grits, corn meal cakes, collards and helpings of mush laced with cod liver oil and other tonics.

Each day during Billy’s convalescence and as soon as I got home from school, I would go to the smokehouse and spend time with my goat. His recovery was important to me, because Billy and I had a lot in common. We were both independent and didn’t like to be put upon by others, especially my brother.

A few years after the cart was destroyed we moved across town to another farm. We put everything we had in a couple of wagons, including Billy. He rode up front with me and my father’s friend Silas, who loaned us a wagon for the move. We went through town like we were on a Roman chariot, while the city kids laughed at us.

I have thought about Billy a lot over the years. He was a special Christmas gift, and he has remained in my heart and memory. It was because of Billy and my brother that I will always remember the old saying, “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.”


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