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Testing True Love in Faith

One of the most colorful characters around Faith was Jens Peterson, aka Rattlesnake Pete. Pete came to South Dakota from Nebraska with a carnival about 1909. He drove a racehorse and chariot, and between acts ran a concession stand.

When he got to Faith he liked what he saw, and decided to stay. For years he lived in a sheep wagon, killed and skinned rattlesnakes to make belts and hatbands, stocked ponds and fished — and raised goats.

Now and then Pete gave a kid goat to a neighbor kid for a pet. In the early 1930s he brought a pair of baby goats to my friends Bernard and Eldora Thomas. As they grew, the goats lost popularity with Bernard and Eldora’s mother, especially when they ate the garden and the flowerbed. But in the middle of the Depression, children had few toys, and at least the goats brought some fun.

One afternoon I was playing with Bernard and Eldora when a shiny new car pulled up the wagon trail from the south. A tall young man got out, stepped back to admire his car, and hollered up to us, “You kids stay away from my new car, ya hear?”

It was a gleaming brown Whippet coupe with a tan canvas top. The young man was Gene Baker, who worked at Gilbert Lee’s garage in Faith. He’d come to take Bernard and Eldora’s visiting aunt Melissa to town to a dance.

When the sun set, I headed over the hill toward home, long before Gene and Melissa returned in the wee hours of the night. They got out of the car and went to the house, where Gene would spend the night. The commotion woke the two little goats, which slept in the yard. They apparently decided to inspect the new car.

The leapt onto the running board and climbed the fenders to the hood, their hooves furrowing the shiny paint for traction. From there they hopped to the canvas top, where they romped and butted in a game of king on the mountain, their sharp little hooves poking holes in the canvas. Then they nibbled the fraying fabric until they’d ripped a gash big enough to drop through to the shiny, patent leather seat. There they danced, pottied and chewed. But even fun can be tiring, so eventually they settled down to nap on the torn cushions.

Exactly what happened when Gene went out to his car early Sunday morning I know not, though Monday morning at school Eldora and Bernard told the terrible tale of the ruined Whippet.

In the spring, when Gene asked Melissa to marry him, she had no reason to doubt his love.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the November/December 2002 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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