The Goat family farmstead sat in a valley between two wooded hills. Farmer Goat and his wife had fallen ill and died two winters prior, leaving their three sons, the Goat brothers – ages 7, 10, and 14. The previous winter’s freeze had been a hard one, which had killed off many of the trees in the farm’s small orchard. The boys had rationed their jellies and jams, gathered wild fruits and vegetables, and hunted the rabbits and squirrels that frequented the orchard’s groves. Their father’s old single-shot .22 rifle had no sights, and due to a weak hammer-spring, only fired about every third time, but it was still enough to occasionally take small game. Unfortunately, the animals had also been thinned out by the freeze. They’d seen deer grazing in the pasture, but the rifle simply wasn’t powerful enough to take such a large animal without getting extremely close. A single kill that size could supply the boys with meat for an entire winter.
The Goat brothers decided to leave the farm for the first time in years, to seek work in the village. They hoped they could spend the fall earning money and stockpiling supplies before settling back in at the farm for the winter. The oldest brother, Billy, figured he could buy a better rifle and take a deer when they returned. As they set off one morning toward the village, the youngest brother, Geddy, ran ahead excitedly, shouldering the family’s old .22 rifle. The middle brother, Ziege, faltered a bit behind, carrying a heavy sack of the brothers’ clothing and tools. The oldest brother, Billy, fell the furthest behind, as he was hauling a heavy cart full of apples, pears, and blackberries that the brothers wouldn’t have time to can or dry. He’d trade them once they arrived in the village.
Geddy arrived first at the old wooden bridge which stretched across the brook. As he crossed, a haggard vagabond sauntered out from under the bridge and brandished a rusted stiletto from the folds of his blanket.
“You there, boy… drop that little rifle at your feet.”
Geddy quickly shouldered the rifle, cocked it, and pulled the trigger. Click. The rifle didn’t fire. The vagabond, who’d seized up momentarily, relaxed and laughed a wheezing laugh.
“Give me whatever you’ve got of value, or I’ll stick you.”
“Please,” said the boy, “I don’t have anything, but my older brother might. Keep the rifle, but please let me pass!”
The vagabond squinted and spotted the middle brother in the distance, carrying a large sack over one shoulder. The small boy sprinted around him, across the bridge, and into the woods toward the village. The vagabond picked up the old rifle and took aim at Ziege as he approached. The boy saw him and froze.
“Stop right there, boy,” yelled the vagabond, coughing, “Come here or I’ll put one between your eyes.”
Ziege reluctantly approached, scanning the forest for his younger brother.
“What’s in the sack?” the vagabond wheezed.
“Just clothes,” the boy responded, still approaching cautiously.
“Well drop it here and go on or I’ll put a hole in you.”
Ziege dropped the sack hesitantly, and edged around the vagabond. As he hurried across the bridge and toward the forest, the vagabond leveled the rifle at his back and pulled the trigger. Click. The vagabond checked to make sure the rifle was loaded, looked at it in brief disappointment, and threw it into the brook. He turned to see the oldest brother, Billy, scowling as he pushed his fruit cart toward the bridge.
“That’s my sack,” said Billy, “Where are my brothers?”
“It’s my sack now,” replied the vagabond, “and so is that fruit.”
The vagabond drew his rusty stiletto and gently twisted the point against his thumb. Billy picked up a stick and rushed the vagabond. He was exhausted from pushing the cart, and the vagabond easily shoved him off the bridge and into the brook. The vagabond laughed his wheezing laugh, and took an apple from the cart, biting into it greedily. Billy rose from the cold water, holding the family’s old rifle. He took aim. The vagabond laughed even harder, and took another bite of his apple.
Billy climbed back up to the bridge. His two younger brothers came out from the woods, on the other side of the bridge where they’d been hiding, and helped him load the vagabond’s body into the fruit cart. Together, they hefted the cart back to the farm. This would be plenty of meat to last the winter.
Illustration by Natasha Alterici
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