Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mort and the Dog Pack

In the 1970's, Colorado Springs was a rapidly growing, up and coming city. It still had a population under 300,000 and was surrounded by open grassland and working ranches. I lived on the outskirts, on the northeast side, in a brand spanking new example of urban sprawl, Village Seven.

If Mort and I crossed about 8 miles of prairie, picked up Templeton Gap Road and headed due north for another 4 or 5 miles, I would be in my ultimate fantasy land, Black Forest. It contained everything a girl could want, my riding club, a hot boyfriend and miles of gorgeous horse property buried in a deep forest.
It was out in the country, but still tame enough to not completely intimidate a wild-haired suburban girl rampaging through life on her first horse.

Colorado Springs is primarily built in the prairie and butts up against the foothills of the Rockies. The Black Forest is part of a 1000 miles of scarce timber that trickles down from Divide. It had recently been broken up into parcels of a minimum of five acres and filled with horses, horses and more horses. There were people and houses too, but I was a teenager and didn't care about that stuff. Once romance entered my life, it wasn't unusual for me to make the trek to the dark line of trees crossing the horizon.

I loved riding in "The Forest." There were horse trails everywhere, following the mandatory easements between properties. Cruising  through the deep shade on a hot summer afternoon, with Mort flying along in his ground eating trot, was life at its finest. The ground was level, soft and deep with pine needles, not steep and rocky like our Palmer Park, and the stands of mixed conifer forest were tall and thick, instead of  the grudging pinons and junipers I was used to.

That sunny afternoon we met a surprising danger on those trails - dogs.

Any rider who has spent enough time riding outside an arena has encountered them. Dogs love to bark at horses. They like to try to make them run and nip at their heels if they do. They can scare the crap out of a horse and the rider too. Dogs think they are pretty damn funny sometimes.

Mort and I had a pretty good defense. While my rangy gelding tolerated our dogs at home, he became savage if he was bothered by dogs which hadn't received his personal stamp of approval.

I had learned to confront loose dogs head on, at least I learned to sit deep and grab some mane, Mort was the one who knew to turned on our loud mouthed attackers. I soon realized most loose dogs were quick to scoot back home when we spun and Mort charged, his front legs and teeth flashing with intent.

One sunny, late summer afternoon we were taking our time along the shadowy trails. It was cool under the trees and I wasn't in any particular hurry to end my ride, having nothing more important to do than flirt with the boyfriend. In my infinite horse girl wisdom, I thought I'd look pretty bitchin' trotting bareback up the road to the boyfriends house in my cut-offs and a halter top. We ducked under the trees about a quarter mile from his street and I noticed I was looking and stinking about as horse-sweat sticky as I felt.

"Nothing says romance like the smell of hot horse, fly spray and day-old girlfriend, huh Mort?"

Mort snorted, loud and booger loaded, but I took it with a grain of salt. He wasn't impressed with me finally finding my hormones. I wasn't riding as much, and he spent way too much time hitched to fence posts at various strange places, waiting for me to show up, rumpled and breathless, from my latest clandestine meeting with "that boy."

Of course it was Mort's own damn fault. He wouldn't tolerate long trail rides carrying us double and distracted. After he had dumped us, first with a buck, again with a bolt into a goat shed, and finally scraped us off on a low lying limb, he got to stand tied.

I picked up my legs, one after the other and it felt like they'd been glued to the vinyl front seat of a locked car in July -- and a hairy one at that. I gazed at the thick line of goopy muck and horse hair stuck to the inside of my leg, knowing it made a perfect horseshoe across my butt and down the other leg. Oh yeah, I was smokin' all right. My Jon Boy's brick house. Sheesh.

It wasn't hard to decide to meander through the woods and at least cool down enough so my crazy hair could dry. When I got all sweaty it stuck flat to my head from part to ears, then sprung in wild, frizzy coils straight for the sky. The stubborn curls would tangle too tight to let me drag my fingers through it. I always ended up with double handfuls of damp snarls. If I flipped my head upside down and gave my scalp a good scrubbing, right before it was dry, sometimes I could get a semblance of the wind tossed curls I wanted.

Waiting to dry out a bit also gave me a chance to scrub some of the dried salt from my temples and let the half moons of embarrassing boob sweat dry.Then maybe, if I offered to let him hose me off at the spigot, the boyfriend wouldn't notice I had also forgotten to shave my legs. One could always hope.

Lost in my musing, I got a half-second of air time when Mort spooked and spun to the left and barely managed to keep my seat. I grabbed a handful of sparse mane and centered myself, leaning forward to squint into the shadowy ground under the trees. He was tense, veins popping on his neck, his legs and back so tight we rose a couple of inches in the air.

A pair of golden eyes and the wide grinning mouth of a chow mix poked his big head and powerful shoulders through a tangle of scrub oak and weeds. We squared off, but the look in the dogs eyes made me hesitate.
His eyes were cool and calculating, not the usual goofy, barking, "Hey guys, watch what I can do!" I was used to seeing in trouble-seeking dogs.

He was thin, matted and muscled. He was serious.

I heard a rustle behind us. An eager shepherd mix and a beagle made their presence known. Lots of barking and howling going on. We spun around and faced them. Mort took one look at their excited, goofy  faces and spun back to keep an eye on the chow-thing. He had moved forward a few paces and was joined by two more dogs.

There had been a story circulating all summer, comprised of sightings, rumor and dead farm animals. In the Black Forest area, a pack of dogs were attacking, killing and partially eating goats sheep, foals, calves and area dogs in broad daylight.

It was out of the Humane Society's jurisdiction and the county sheriff had been unable to find this mysterious pack of dogs. Newspaper accounts told of anywhere between four and fifty dogs. Theories abounded - these were coy-dogs, or attack dogs turned loose by an unethical owner. Maybe they were rabid, or strays, dumped by city-folk who assumed the dogs would find a "good country home." Nobody had a solid description.

The fact was, there was a trail of dead goats, sheep and chickens. There were a few wounded horses, a partially eaten new-born foal, and some cattle, bitten and run through fences. Some of the animals were eaten, some were chewed up, some were just dead. Nobody seemed to be able to get a handle on where the dogs were. The newspapers hinted it was a bunch of baloney. They labeled them "Ghost Dogs."

Turned out the dogs were certainly real, Mort and I were making their acquaintance.

I didn't know how many, it seemed to me, there were a lot of damn dogs. I heard the clink of dog tags and saw too many well groomed and fed critters to think these were all mangy strays.

Truth be told, I didn't have enough time for more observation. Mort and the chow thing had decided it was time to parlay.

Mort went after the big dog hard, his head was low and snaky and his front legs were pounding the ground, intent on mowing him down. Chow-thing came to meet us, then feinted off to the side. Mort grunted and hesitated for a split second. The cacophony rose around us and several more dogs closed in. Mort squealed in anger and fear, and I felt more than saw a dog leap at my legs.

I heard a dog scream when Mort threw out a double barreled kick with his back legs, but had no time to look, he gathered and leaped forward towards Chow-thing. We didn't stick around to deal with the dogs. This time he ended up plowing right over the top of Chow-thing and smashing him hard into the ground. Then we ran.

We shot through the woods and towards the boyfriend's house. The dogs followed for a few yards, but didn't leave the safety of the trees. We flew up the road and skidded into the boyfriends yard like hell itself was on our heels. He came from the garage, followed by his Dad, wiping his hands on an oily rag. Even in my panic it registered this must be a car repair day.

"You're bleeding," He said and offered a hand so I could slide to the ground. I ignored the hand and jumped down to inspect Mort. He had a tear over a tendon on his back leg and a solid bite on his shoulder.

"Got to meet the damn Ghost Dogs," I said, talking tough to cover my panic.

The boyfriends dad went to call the sheriff and boyfriend opened his arms wide in an unspoken offer of comfort. I side-stepped him, almost as neat as that effing chow-thing had and hugged Mort hard. He wrapped his neck around me and there I stayed until our shaking stopped.


The cut on my thigh proved to be from a tree branch. Good thing, or it would have been rabies shots for me.

Mort's wounds healed nicely and he was back to dog stomping in no time.

The county decided to temporarily ignore the law against firing a gun in housing areas, at least in Black Forest.. They also ignored complaints from owners whose dogs were shot if they were off their property.
It turned out the Ghost Dog pack was primarily caused by the flood of country-ignorant city folk buying up their five-acre piece of heaven. They left their much loved house dogs loose while they went to work. Perfect pets while their owners were home, they joined in with area strays to become the pack from hell from 9 to 5.

Several dogs were shot and killed over the next few years, but the killing of farm animals didn't stop until somebody nailed the big chow-mix. Nobody stepped in to rescue him, nobody declared him alpha, nobody screamed "breed prejudice."  Somebody finally shot him though, and the roving, day-time dog pack was done. Poor dog. His brains and bravery got him killed. Whatever dumb bastard dumped him on the roadside  was the one at fault. I don't think anybody shot him though.


Unknown said...

Nothing like a good thriller to have me on the edge of my seat in the morning!
Wow. Just Wow!

I can say that I hate hate hate, people who live on "mini ranches" that think it is okay to just let their dogs run loose, because they don't live within the city limits.

We have some neighbors that have three dogs that run out to greet you barking and yapping every time you go by. When my mare kicked the crap out of one right in front of the owner, I laughed. I felt bad for the dog, but hey Mister, there is still a leash law out here and I expect to be able to walk or ride down the road without your dogs chasing me or my horses. She doesn't like dogs at all, and if they mess with her, she lets them know. I think what bothers me the most about this neighbor, is that on the side of his house he has a dog yard fenced off, plenty big too. But some days he is just too dang lazy to walk the extra 10 feet to put the dogs in it, so he just throws them out the front door and lets go where they want.

My dogs? 6 ft chain link fence with a hot wire around the bottom. Huge yard, plenty of room, not allowed to run loose...EVER. (For their own protection as well as respect for the neighbors) But that's just me.

foffmom said...

Great great writing. How you capture the teen girl thought amazes me, not to mention the nuances of riding.
We have an across the road neighbor who had "moved to the country to let his dogs roam". Yes the leash law applies here. A beautiful pack of German Shepherds. I watched them rabbit hunt in a field while I rode, impressive. Until they started picking off my chickens. Then the kids' rabbit, plucked from its hutch. Then two goats. Each time the owner denied that it was their dogs. Then they went after an Angus cow and calf on a farm that boarded rehab Thoroughbreds. One dog dead, one home with buckshot, the other fine. After that they got serious about their fencing.

shadowlake2005 said...

I love Mort-stories! He reminds me so much of my Poco Bueno appendix gelding, Woody, who loved to "cut" the hapless dogs who tried to chase us. And you really captured the sight and feel of horse sweat and hair coated bare legs with that dried, dark rime. Took me back to 15 again, I could swear I smelled my summer-steaming horse.

Everstuff said...

I love reading about your adventures. I've been that teen girl, riding bareback in shorts, thinking I looked hot. Covered in scum from sweat, dirt, and dander from crotch to calf. The perfect "Bareback Butt." My off the track t-bred gelding had a deep hate for dogs. If one got in his paddock it usually escaped with bits of missing hide. He squared off with dogs that would come running down driveways and followed us out into the street. One day I thought I was going to be arrested when a shepherd ran us down and Monty went on the attack. I yelled and yelled for the owner to call his dog, and in the end the only thing I could do was try desperately not hang on while my otherwise timid gelding danced all over this dog till he killed it. The owner ended up with a ticket because Phoenix had leash laws, and my parents came to collect me and Monte. I was scared to death and so proud of the horse for protecting us both.

EverStuff Shrimp said...

Hm, make that try desperately not to fall and hang on

Melissa said...

"boyfriend opened his arms wide in an unspoken offer of comfort. I side-stepped him, almost as neat as that effing chow-thing had and hugged Mort hard."

Love this line!

Becky said...

There was a loose chow on some property we used to live on. He belonged to the caretaker who either kept him chained or let him run 100% free - there was no inbetween.

Large, rangy, around 80 pounds of solid muscle, he used to run to the center of the frozen pond and use his front legs to crash through the brittle center so he could take a swim.

He had incredible eyes - the only time I've ever seen their like was on a wolf hybrid - thinking eyes, with a scary kind of confidence.

Bear ended up living his life on a chain after the caretaker got the call from Animal Control - he'd been bringing down and eating full grown deer on his own, and they'd turned a blind eye to that due to he deer overpopulation, but then he wandered over to the neighboring pig farm and chewed all the ears off the piglets.

All the ears. All the piglets. Didn't kill them - just ate their ears.

Chows aren't my favorite breed - not because they are inherently mean, but because they're a little too smart for me to relax around.

Great story!

Anonymous said...

Great story,took me way back. You have a way with words that I so wish I had.

Heidi the Hick said...

Haha, the bad old days when I discovered why people don't usually ride bareback wearing shorts...

What I really want to talk about is the unwritten rules out in the country about dogs. When I was a kid we only had one farm dog at a time. They never came into the house. Only one dog had to be tied up because he took to roaming but otherwise they were free. They knew where our farm ended. I asked my ol man recently how he trained tem for that and he said he doesn't think he did. He just expected the dog to stick around. From an early age I knew that if your dog wandered off onto somebody else's place he would probably get shot. Harsh but that's the deal. Once they get a taste for the neighbors chickens its over. If he gets home unharmed you better tie him if you want to keep him around when your back is turned.

People who are new to rural life think this is horrible. But it has to work that way. Or bad things happen.

I was riding Champ down the road once and a dog came running barking down a lane, y'know guarding the place, and I felt a mad escape coming on. But the dog stopped at the end of the lane like there was a wall. Whew.

Clancy said...

Years ago the National Parks Department outside Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) were having so much trouble with urban fringe dogs running into the parks and killing wildlife that they advertised they would shoot and kill on sight any dog found in the parks, and if the owner could be traced they would be fined. There was a big uproar from owners saying it was cruel.

I rather thought they shouldn't be shooting the dogs either, because their idiot owners wouldn't be likely to learn. I favoured shooting a few owners and rehoming the dogs, might get the rest of the idiots attention.

Very descriptive writing and good for Mort.

Bif said...

Great story.

Great Mort ;-)

MichelleL said...

Oh how I LOVE your story telling Janet!

Growing up in the Country it was always a delight to have "new neighbors" who let their dogs loose to roam the neighborhood. Only took a couple of loads of rock salt from our closest neighbor to convice wandering canines to steer clear of the area.

DeeDee said...

Mort! Mort! Mort! Mort! Mort!

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a rural area. It was understood that a loose dog that 'behaved' would be left alone, one that chased or killed cats, chickens, deer, cattle, etc...would be shot.

Helen said...

Yes. Mort FTW! Do you have more photos of him you could scan and post, Mugs?

IndyApp said...

I Love the Mort stories. Just one question, did I miss one where you became interested in boys, or is this the first reference to that part of growing up?

gtyyup said...

That was a great Mort story...my eyes got BIG numerous times!!

KD said...

"I picked up my legs, one after the other and it felt like they'd been glued to the vinyl front seat of a locked car in July -- and a hairy one at that."

Took me back to my first horse, and then immediately to my first car with vinyl seats. I could actually feel that stinging sensation when I thought I was leaving skin on my seat along with my sweat. :-)

Thanks for a Mort story....I was kinda of sad though, when you started liking boys....that was the start of my non horse ownership for many years.

Anonymous said...

My jaw just hit the floor! I grew up in Village Seven!!! Got there in 1977. Man, the world just got a whole lot smaller....

mugwump said...

It's OK, KD...
I never quit owning horses....

Travelling Blueberry said...

Really great post! I love the story and the message, I wish this was published in some canine publication. I have read every single post on this blog and thought it was time I left a comment. You're an inspiring writer and your training really gets me thinking as a rider. It's interesting to see how your western concepts apply to my dressage riding. I was thrilled when I saw that Sally Swift is on your "syllabus" for clients; we have a lot in common! :D

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