The goat left no evidence. No hoof prints in the fresh dusting of snow. No droppings. Nothing.

But police had two eyewitness accounts -- one of them from an officer -- that a large black goat had been eating breakfast at 8:30 a.m. on a stretch of Capital Beltway median near the Lewinsville Road overpass in Tysons Corner.

So, armed with tranquilizers, three Fairfax County animal control officers set off yesterday on an early afternoon hunt for the Beltway goat.

Their plan was simple: Two of the officers would try to find the goat and flush it out toward a small creek in a gully between the Beltway's inner and outer loops while the third officer, armed with an air rifle, waited to shoot it with a dart and put it to sleep (temporary sleep, not the Big Sleep).

It was cold out. It was windy. In short, not good goat weather.

Officer Andy Sanderson loaded his rifle, then donned a black knit hat, pulling the mask low over his chin to keep himself warm. As he walked toward a rocky area leading down to the creek, traffic whizzed by in both directions. Sanderson lowered the gun, trying to conceal it from motorists. "What we don't need," he said, "is people calling the police saying, 'There is a man with a black mask on the Beltway carrying a rifle.' "

Officer Mary Zambrano, who had checked with three veterinarians on the proper sedative dosage, held a coffee can filled with what looked like goat party mix. That was Plan B. More on it later.

It was easy to see why this patch of median was attractive to a goat. It is a protected area, with a blue sign that speaks volumes: "Wildflower Meadow. Special Mowing Only. Restricted Area. Do Not Pick."

The first goat sighting was Wednesday, as Stanka Kukich, a physician with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was commuting from her Vienna home to her office in Shady Grove. Thursday morning, Kukich spied the animal a second time. Yesterday made it three for three.

"There's a deep ditch there with a lot of rocks," she said yesterday. "It is a huge black goat. I called the police [Thursday], and they said they couldn't find it. I called this morning when I saw it lying on the ground. It was alive. I told them that I was not moving until someone came out."

An animal control officer also saw the goat yesterday morning but couldn't capture it alone.

It was a mystery why the goat was alone. Goats are herd animals.

"They aren't roamers, really," said Joannie Rhodes, pet groomer at the Aldie Veterinary Hospital in South Riding and a goat owner. "They like other goats."

They also like roughage, she said, "grass and trees and brush. And if there is a water supply, there's no reason to leave. He probably comes out early in the morning to eat and then hides the rest of the day."

Rhodes said goats are smart. Hers, named L.B., "doesn't like to go outside in the cold weather or when it's raining. They watch people. Mine can open the gate on the fence because he just watched people do it."

One can only imagine what the goat on the Beltway is learning by watching motorists.

When Plan A failed yesterday, Zambrano went to Plan B: She dumped out the party mix to try to lure him out. No luck. So she went to Plan C:

"We'll come back [today] at 8:30, since that's the time he always seems to be here."