Monday, February 7, 2011

Ghost Dog

We called it our own little wilderness, a 40 acre plot to raise miniature horses, farm a little, and enjoy the majesty and relative peace of nature. What I loved best – and still do – is the air itself; alive with the haunting music of living things, and carrying the mixed scents of the various seasons. I encounter the world in new ways, through my skin and the soles of my feet. And I learn.

The three dogs we'd brought, all of dubious parentage and rescued from death row, adjusted quickly to their rugged life. They abhorred bath time, yet plunged eagerly into the streams and muck behind the house. After removing odd bits of objectionable vegetables and kibble from their bowls with surgical precision, they went off merrily to chase and eat grasshoppers, rabbits, and whatever else happened their way. In warm weather, they eschewed comfortable beds indoors to lie in a snoring heap on the porch. Dan and I, after a time, often followed their lead and slept in outdoor hammocks.

In the clammy mist of dawn one morning, I saw the Ghost Dog. Appearing, reappearing and finally fading into the muted silence of the forest. I assumed it was either a wandering stray, or a figment of my imagination. Giving it no more thought, I continued home.

The dogs were in the crawl space under the house. I whistled, and Bear wormed his way out, looking – well – embarrassed. The others followed close on my heels as I went to fetch their breakfast. “You goofballs. What were you doing under there?” I asked, wondering if they'd purloined something and settled into the space to enjoy their loot. I made a mental note to have Dan take a look, that sort of thing coming under the heading of “men's work” in my mind.

Twilight, and the banging of metal buckets had stirred the horses more than usual. They were milling about, shifting into each other uneasily, twitching and blowing. Amid the noise, I heard it, or at least an echo of it. A choking, sobbing sort of cry, snatched away by the breeze as soon as it reached me. Every hair on my body stood up. I dumped the feed and sprinted for the house.

“Did you hear that?” I yelled as I barreled through the screen door.
“What?” asked Dan, gently spraying me with toast crumbs as he polished off a bagel.
“That sound, like a crying animal! Only, different. Scary, weird.” Our dogs were all accounted for, of course; they were grouped in a silent begging circle, willing Dan to drop something.
“Nope,” he replied laconically. “Probably a couple of feral cats fighting. Don't tell me living in the wild has finally got you spooked.”
Gut check. Yep, I was definitely spooked, but not about to reveal anything more.
“I just hope nobody's set a trap or something in our woods.” The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed.
Dan thought for a moment. “I'll give Jim down at the Game Commission a call. He can come up and have a look around. I don't fancy the idea of you out riding if there's poachers on the property.”

The dead of night, and I clawed my way to consciousness amid noise and confusion. Dan was crashing about the room, struggling to get jeans on, the dogs were barking and whining frantically, there was a commotion in the paddock, and the raw taste of fear in my throat. Dan, grabbed the rifle and torch and headed down the stairs two at a time. I was in sweat pants, no need to dress, and as I skidded into the kitchen Dan was shouldering his way back inside, carrying one of our beloved little colts, smaller than a dog, in his arms. They were both covered with blood.
“Call the vet,” he said, tersely. I opened the door a crack and whistled for the dogs. Then I heard them, under the house. I knew they wouldn't come out. I grabbed the phone and shakily called the vet. His voice was thick with sleep, but he was coming. It's that way, out here; in the city we had to make an appointment, or in an emergency find our own way to transport the animal. In the rural areas, separated by miles, we are sometimes closer than people living cheek by jowl. Distance can be fairly relative.

It wasn't so bad, after all; little Cocoa had his flanks raked pretty well, and lost blood, but with careful nursing he was all right. The vet asked about our dogs, and about any possible strays in the area; he was worried that a “dumped” dog, gone feral, might have appeared in the area. I hesitated to tell him about the things I'd heard and seen. Truthfully, they sounded like the ravings of a madwoman. Because what I saw, and heard, was not a dog. I was sure of it.

He listened thoughtfully. “You're right, it's probably not a dog. Maybe something close to it though. It's sometimes referred to as a “ghost dog” or “prairie ghost”. You know, coyotes.” He closed up his bag. “If so, it's going to be a problem. They seldom bother livestock, other than chickens, but this little fellow was just the right size. And coyotes are quick enough to dodge the mother's hooves. You'll have to keep them inside at night from now on. Or, if you want, you can hire someone to try and track it and shoot it.” He shrugged. “Some people consider them vermin. It's a shame, patching up people's pets, but on the other hand, Mr. Coyote is just trying to make a living. Your call.”

I wasn't sure I believed him. “We're not on the prairie, Jay. We're in the Northeast.”
He smiled. “I assume you haven't heard about the three which showed up at Columbia University in Manhattan last year.”

What to do? The dogs were obviously petrified of their wild cousins. I burned with anger as I re-bandaged Cocoa's wounds, yet I found the idea of shooting a wild creature in cold blood appalling. Dan felt the same way.
“Predators, prey, beauty, death, all part of nature. Still, we have to do something to protect our stock. I don't know what.”

Nature, and the Internet, provided an answer.

We hired a night watchman. Sort of. He works for room and board. His charges regarded him warily at first, perhaps because of his regal bearing and no nonsense expression. Or his unappealing habit of spitting. At any rate, the coyote appears to have moved on and the horses are safe.

Hurricane, our new guard llama, is on the job.

Based on a true story - names and a few details changed.

Coyote: photo, Nat'l Park Service US

Guard llama for horse farm in PA.
(Yes! Really!)


  1. I'm so glad another solution was sought and found - a guard llama. I like your line about the dogs in a "snoring heap on the porch." There are some very nice images in your writing.

  2. I really enjoy your writing. It has good imagery and keeps me wanting more. I live in Pennsylvania and we have coyotes here. They sometimes snatch up small dogs or cats. I hear llamas are tough animals. I was told that people use them to protect sheep. Keep writing, and take care. Thank you for visiting my sites.

  3. When I read the first few paragraphs, I felt like I had read something like this a while ago... and then the memory slipped...
    Anyway, I liked this story, and the guard llama was an unexpected twist. I didn't know llamas could keep away coyotes.

    1. A friend of mine has a horse farm, and had trouble with coyotes - so they purchased 2 llamas, which solved the problem.

      This was re-printed by 2 other people (by permission) several years ago, so you might have read it somewhere else. :-)