(I wrote this story nearly ten years ago, while editor of the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society. Happy Halloween!)
The car windows were down as I crossed the bridge back over Lake Worth, and the Allman Brothers were on the CD player. After all this time, still putting out high-energy rock and roll, with the new release taking me back to 1969 when “Eat a Peach” came out. The wind whipped by as I exited for the Nature Center.
After an autumn day looking for reptiles and amphibians, a group of us had called it quits and headed home. However, once on the road I realized we had not picked up some minnow traps we put out at Greer Island. A minnow trap is a sort of wire mesh bucket with a wire funnel leading in from each end. In the hands of herpetologists, minnow traps don’t catch minnows so much as frogs and snakes. We placed several of them in shallow water along the island’s shore, partly exposed so that anything that got in could breathe. However, I could not leave any animals trapped, and so I was headed back into the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge.
As I drove along the road at the edge of the lake, Greg Allman sang:
“Can’t you feel a cold wind is howlin’ down, blowin’ my song?
Well I ain’t an old man, but you know my time ain’t long.”
I thought about the cold wind that would soon be blowing on the refuge as fall changed to winter. Oh well, I was ready for a change. The end of summer had been unusually humid, and cool weather would feel good.
The sunset glow still provided some light as I walked the causeway to Greer Island. The wind picked up, scattering yellow cottonwood leaves to drift down through the remaining light. I felt a slight shiver. The thought of walking around alone on Greer Island in the gathering dark did not bother me, did it? I’ve been on the island many times, and it is as peaceful as any other part of the refuge. Maybe that Allman Brothers line about a cold wind howling down had gotten to me.
On the island, I pulled the first minnow trap up from where it had been nestled beside a fallen tree branch at the water’s edge. Inside was a water snake, its chocolate brown scales glistening as it frantically tried to find a way out. I put on the gloves, unfastened the trap and reached inside. The snake writhed and bit at the glove, with the small needle-sharp teeth barely penetrating to my skin. Although nonvenomous, water snakes defend themselves by repeatedly biting and by expelling a nasty-smelling musk. I wanted to get this done as soon as I could. Just before I released him, up came a small leopard frog the snake had eaten earlier in the day. “More data for the survey,” I thought, as I recorded the details of both snake and frog.
I searched for the next minnow trap with my flashlight, as it had now gotten dark. Pushing through buttonbush and stepping carefully among the deadfall, I squished through the saturated ground to the next trap. When I found it, it was open. This was very puzzling, because the two halves of the trap fasten pretty securely. I looked around, certainly not expecting to see something. No one else should be on the island at night, and besides, it was ridiculous to think that just because the trap was open, someone had opened it.
More wind whispered and sighed through the treetops, and the flashlight’s beam caught the flicker of a few more leaves fluttering to the forest floor. I reached the site of the third trap, but did not see it in the water. I moved the light around and caught a flash of metal. There! Hanging from a tree branch was a tangle of smashed wire dripping in the flashlight beam – the minnow trap! My hands felt numb and the two other traps dropped from my fingers to the ground. Not bothering to pick them up, I turned and walked quickly back toward the trail. I wanted out of there in a hurry. I pushed through underbrush and spider web, resisting the urge to run and trying to keep my bearings. The flashlight illuminated a narrow section of woods, and everywhere else the darkness seemed menacing. Some of the fear dissipated as I walked, and I emerged into an upland area where the woodland was less thick and the image of the mangled minnow trap was less immediate.
Finding the trail, I set out toward the causeway. Just a little bit now, I reassured myself, and I would be walking on that narrow strip of dirt and gravel under the stars toward the safety of the car. The path re-entered thicker forest and I concentrated on the circle of light from the flashlight. I kept it on the trail, unwilling to risk a glance to either side. The dirt path narrowed, understory shrubs and then tree trunks increasingly closing in. The trail ended! I must have gotten turned around, I told myself, but there were no trails on the island that simply ended. I turned, backtracked, and shone the light around. Nothing but oak and understory shrubs around me. Finally it occurred to me to get into the backpack for the GPS. It constantly plotted my path on its screen, like an electronic version of the trail of bread crumbs in “Hansel & Gretel.” I had used it on more than one occasion to help me backtrack through the forest. As I felt inside the pack for the GPS, I heard something some distance away. It was something like the wail of a large animal, rising in misery and then strangled in a series of barking or coughing sounds. I was frozen for a moment, staring stupidly at the flashlight beam shining where I had set it down, illuminating a tangle of greenbriar and Virginia creeper. Another wail pierced the forest, greater in intensity and ending in several guttural cries like shouts of rage.
Snatching up the flashlight, I ran back along the trail and then cut through a small clearing in the direction I thought I should go. My mind raced back to another memory from 1969 – what was it? The Lake Worth monster? A goat-man that had been seen numerous times but never found? The memory was cut short as I tripped over a downed branch and fell. I picked myself up and tried to run again, but a snare of entangling greenbriar brought me down like a staked dog reaching the end of its tether. I made a bleeding mess of my hands trying to pull the tough, thorny vines away and then finally yanked free. Back on my feet, I set off in a blind panic, the GPS lying useless in the dirt somewhere behind me.
I’m not sure how far I ran, and I’m even less sure of the direction. As I staggered breathlessly up to a higher elevation, the roof of a small pavilion came into view. My heart sank. This structure, with its concrete slab and two protective walls, was far from where I wanted to be. I took a few more steps up the slope, and saw the glow of a small fire burning on the concrete floor. The fire itself was obscured by someone or something sitting with its back to me.
I hesitated. The figure poked the small fire in front of it, without turning toward me.
“Ain’t no gittin away, try as y’might.” The high, thin voice spoke as if we were in mid-conversation. It had some of the hard edge of a threat, but the unsteady quality of a man barely containing his excitement, or maybe fear. Still I stood immobile, wary of doing anything.
“Sit right still, he’ll come,” he added, while drawing distractedly on the concrete with his stick.
I turned and ran, and after me came his high, unsteady shout: “Ain’t no gittin away!” And as if in answer, over to my left came another screeching cry, clipped off and followed by two short bellows of fury. I heard a large branch snap, up in the treetops. I turned and focused the light to see a large figure in the trees, eyeshine reflecting back at me. And then it dropped straight out of the treetops and out of sight. Running away from it would take me away from the causeway. My way out was blocked.
I crouched by a log in dense brush, waiting and trying to think. Bits and pieces of old news accounts returned to me. In 1969 there had been a series of frightening encounters with residents describing something half-man, half-goat covered with light gray fur and scales. Once it was said to have jumped out of a tree and onto a car parked at Greer Island. On another occasion, several bystanders at Lake Worth watched it until it supposedly hurled a car wheel (tire, rim and all) 500 feet in their direction. They mystery had never been solved.
My thoughts were shattered by a voice right beside me – “Ain’t no gittin away, told ye.” I jumped and fell backward in leaf litter and twigs, and when I was able to sit up I saw the old man from the pavilion. His eyes were too wide open and they darted around, not really connecting with mine. He had a desperate look about him, and he was covered with filth. As I started to say something, he swung a bag with something heavy in it, like gravel, and clubbed me.
In my next moment of awareness, I was slung over his shoulder watching the ground go by as he carried me. My wrists were bound. My captor was muttering crazily, “Billy brekkist, Billy lunch, he’ll come, oh yes.” We reached the pavilion and he put me down, and then set busily to work tying me to a support pole. Here and there he paused to look at me with a sick grin that exposed broken teeth and receding gums.
He sat down beside the flickering little fire and looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for some sort of performance. Away and to the side, I saw lightning flash on the horizon.
“Billy! He’ll come – oh yes oh yes. You’ll see.”
In the nearby woods, another wail – chopped, at the end, into staccato yells. The old man became agitated, gibbering “Billy, Billy, Billy, no gittin – no!” He backed away and stumbled into the darkness, eyes as big as saucers.
Why did he keep repeating that name? And suddenly it hit me! It was the children’s story about the goats who try to cross the bridge where the troll lives. I was the bait, and he was going to catch his billy goat.
I exhaled as far as I could, rolled my shoulders forward, and dropped down. The first loop of rope slipped, and I started working out of the bonds that held me. My captor flew into a rage, squealing “No gittin, no gittin!” as he jumped back up onto the concrete. As he got close enough, I kicked him away. I slid further down, escaping more of the rope and then was able to get free. My tormentor made another run at me, screeching “No gittin! No – no!”
Just then, an enormous form jumped in front of me, hitting the old man with such force that they both rolled ten feet away. There was a sickening sound of snapping bones. I looked toward them and in the dim firelight I got a glimpse of fur and horn – and a head turned and stared at me for an instant with the horizontal slitted eyes of a goat.
I leapt away from this horror and ran through the woods, branches and vines slapping me as I went. Somewhere I found the trail and was able to go faster. Behind me a long wail arose, riding on a gust of wind. Lightning flashed. I was aware of noise in the treetops, but could not tell if the trees were disturbed by wind or by some terror pursuing me. The trail widened and big raindrops began to spatter down among the leaves. I followed the bend in the road and emerged onto the causeway.
The rain came down in sheets as I reached the car and got in. As the cold wind blew through the treetops, I made my way out of the refuge. I could not get the old man’s shrill voice out of my head as I drove along Shoreline Drive. I had not gone very far through the heavy rain when a gust of wind blew something onto the road in front of me. I stopped the car and leaned over the steering wheel to look. It was a minnow trap.
“Billy goat for breakfast; Billy goat for lunch,
Billy goat, Billy goat, munch, munch, munch”