|credit Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia|
The nanny goat crouched next to her youngest son as he put a hoof onto a lichen-covered rock.
"You can do it," she said.
"Bigger kids did," he bleated.
"That's right." The kids from last year, now immature adults, had run ahead without thinking. An earlier son of hers had been among them.
The entire band of goats had decided to leave their nursery pastures early. Not long after they'd arrived at the grounds, they lost a pregnant nanny to a mountain lion. After the births, the lion had come back. She'd hunted the edges of the nursery fields. Eventually she'd taken a week-old kid. And a few days after the mountain lion, the herd leaders had spotted a pair of coyotes.
One of the coyotes had attacked. The beast would have taken a child if not for the band's defense. When it picked up a baby goat in its mouth, the coyote had been forced to slow down. The nanny and her sisters had butted the coyote to force him to drop her child. They'd butted again. And again. They'd tried to surround the beast. A buck had charged in. He would have delivered a death blow, probably, but the coyote had bolted through the crowd at the sight of the buck's approach.
That night, she'd wondered if her child would survive the coyote attack. Her sisters and cousins had wondered if the beaten coyote had lived.
In the morning, the oldest buck and senior nanny saw three coyotes together, not just two. That answered the question about coyote survival.
"It's time," the old buck had announced.
The nanny couldn't disagree. She knew the group needed to migrate to the mountain peaks. But her child had been wounded. He needed to recover. The band's decision mean that he wouldn't have time. At best, he could heal while they walked. If he didn't, the group would leave him behind. They would leave her, too, if she stayed with her son. She felt tempted to remain. But it would likely mean her death.
"Now!" her boy huffed and churned his hooves. His back right leg, which still bore the blood marks from his bite, pushed as strongly as she could hope. In a burst of action, he clambered over the rock.
"You have conquered it!" she shouted. "I am so proud."
She hopped up the escarpment to nuzzle her son. As she did, her gaze passed over his head. Beyond her youngest she saw the billie to which she'd given birth last year. He seemed to be returning from the group of immature males. He strode forward with his leisurely, powerful gait - very nearly an adult. She could tell that when he finished growing, he would be among the toughest of bucks.
"I climbed over the same rock," he said. His horns announced his in-between status as more than a kid but less than sexually mature. With a sardonic tilt of his jaw, he asked, "Why did you not praise me?"
"It was not the same rock," said his mother. Her affection for him faltered for a moment. He was no longer a baby.
"How can you say that?"
"Last month, you scaled a cliff face." She gazed downslope to the one she meant. Her billie followed her gaze. "All of the nannies praised your strength and skill. You heard them. You danced to show off. Two days ago, you climbed a tree. You were proud to eat from the high branches."
"It was tasty."
"Today, you walked over a rock. If it were not for the struggle of your younger sibling, you wouldn't have noticed it. So no, it was not the same rock to you."
Her older son bowed his head.
"Your time will come again," she allowed. "Perhaps when you climb your next mountain, the nannies will sing your praises."
The following morning, the mightiest bucks and nannies led the way upslope. The wounded kid and a few other, slow youngsters were left to straggle behind. Between the leaders and the stragglers, there ranged the immature males and females. They formed groups that lasted for a while, split apart, and re-formed with different individuals in them.
The ground grew steeper and tougher. Grasses replaced the ferns and sedges. Mosses replaced fuzzy lichens although there would be other edible lichens near the top. Loose twigs and leaves that had formed ground cover lower down, near the lake, disappeared. The oaks, maples, and dogwoods that produced those leaves were gone. Beyond the grasses rose a forest of aspens and pines. In higher elevations, they would meet spruces and firs.
Her kid chewed on an aspen leaf.
"Is it good?" she said.
"Different," he mumbled.
"I hope you learn to like it." It would be the most plentiful leaf her kid found in the summer.
As the hillside grew steeper, the younger goats fell farther behind. The band stretched out farther than the nanny liked. She felt she had no choice but to drop back to watch for predators. It was a risk. A predator could take her, too. But she had a good vantage to watch her child climb. He seemed to be limping and sore but basically healthy. If he could keep up now, he would be fine at the top.
All that morning, she listened for noises. She sniffed the cool, arid breezes. Only once did she catch the scent of a carnivore, a wolverine. It was distant. The rest of her time she spent encouraging the goats ahead of her.
Early in the afternoon, the nanny was surprised to look up and notice that a goat had strolled downhill to meet her son. It was her billie from last year. She quickened her pace to catch up. The kid and the billie had stopped on a steep rise.
"I climbed here when I was your age," she heard her billie tell her younger son. "This is not your path, where great leaps are taken. See? It's all rock here, not soil."
"It's hard," said her kid.
"Right. To climb this, adults take strides greater than the length of your body. Your best path goes around to the left. Come here." While she watched from below, he led his younger brother into a patch of pine saplings. It was the sort of place that predators liked to hide, a path a child wouldn't normally take. But with the billie leading he way, her kid calmly walked through the scrub bushes. The two reappeared on the trail above the patch of sheer rockfall.
The nanny sprinted up the rocks to meet them.
"You did it!" she huffed.
"He did," said her older son. "He is sore today but I can tell he's going to be strong."
"And you ..." She nuzzled her billie, beard to beard for a moment. She whispered, "You are strong, too. Already you've climbed the next mountain."
He grunted. "I was wrong when I spoke to the little one, earlier. This is not quite the mountain I climbed before."