By Terry Martin
Who was Skeeter and when did his story take place? It was in the sixties when some ranchers who lived far up in the mountains close to Aspen, Colorado, had Aussies they worked on cattle in the summers on BLM land. That winter a litter of pups were born under a shed when there was several feet of snow on the ground. The pups had been dug out once, but the bitch had moved them back. Now the puppies were several months old and wild as coyotes.
I heard about the pups and had wanted one of their dogs for a long time. If they could trap one they were going to call me and I could have it. They were going to have to shoot them all if they couldn’t be caught. One day the call came that they had trapped a pup in an outbuilding, so with four-wheel drive I made it to their mountain home. Four people trying to catch that wild pup in a building packed with “stuff” would be a story in itself. He was scared to death but didn’t try to bite when we finally got our hands on him.
Skeeter came home with us and I tried keeping him in the house to tame him, but he really didn’t change much. Finally he moved outside with the older dogs, and he would follow them as they went around the ranch with us. The only way he could be touched was to corner him somewhere and then he would tolerate it.
Then one morning he was on the porch with a face full of porcupine quills. I thought he would be terrible to work with, but that wild dog stood and let me work for over an hour pulling them out with a pair of pliers. That incident was repeated many times as Skeeter seemed to get into a porcupine every few weeks.
Skeeter grew into a really attractive dark blue dog. He worked cattle with the other dogs and became a really good chute dog, but he would never work for us alone. At the time I had Skeeter I also had my original Aussie, Kid, his daughter, Lolly, and a Malamute named Kisha. For years these Aussies had the bad habit of running away every couple of months and staying gone for a week or more. I never knew where they went, but we lived far from highways where there was nothing but ranches and mountains.
One spring the four dogs had been gone for over a week. It was night when I heard a dog howling mournfully outside by the barn. The dog was Skeeter. I had never heard him howl before. He was alone. When I went back out in the morning I saw he was again full of quills, some into his chest and completely through one front leg. That night and all week I would lie in bed at night and hear Skeeter howling by the barn.
One afternoon I had to go check some cattle so took a horse and started out to the back of the place. About a hundred yards behind the barn I came upon the remains of a grayish dog. It looked like it had been there for months and was in some tall grass. About a quarter of a mile farther out I found a dead black dog in the same condition. This was by a trail going into a ravine I had to ride through. When I came to the top of the trail on the other side, I rode up on another smaller black dog carcass. That was when the horror hit me. These were my dogs. Even though they were unrecognizable and looked like they had been there far longer than mine had been missing, the story was suddenly sickeningly clear. Kid, Lolly and Kisha had died trying to come home. Whatever they had eaten had taken the smallest first, then Kid, with Kisha almost making it back. Skeeter, with a mouth full of porcupine quills, could not eat whatever poison they had encountered and so had made it. But he knew they were out there.
I have never forgotten losing my first Aussies. I can’t tell how many nights I lay in bed and thought about those three fighting to get back to their home. I still think about it when I hear a lone dog howl at night……….
Skeeter did live on but his destiny was not to become a normal dog. He remained at the barn and only came to the house to eat at night. We had a hole cut in the utility room door for the dogs to come and go. Skeeter would occasionally sleep there. He followed us when we went around the place on horseback or in the pickup but would no longer jump into the truck as he had with the other dogs. I could corner him and give him attention, but he never once came to me on his own.
The barn where Skeeter stayed was a large former dairy barn remodeled into a horse barn. In front of the barn and adjoining the house yard was a large lot with a big cement water trough in the center. Each of three pastures had gates opening into this lot so cattle or horses could come in to drink. That winter we had broodmares in a ten acre pasture and they had to drink at the cement tank. Several times a day they would wander up and spend a little time around the tank before going back to the snow covered pasture when they were fed hay each day.
First we noticed that Skeeter was no longer at the barn but seemed to be always out in the pasture lying on patches of hay. Food still disappeared from the porch, but we never saw him come get it. He would come to the trough with the mares but go back to the pasture with them. It didn’t take long to see another pattern developing.
Skeeter was always with a palomino mare we called Papoose. This strange attachment progressed rapidly and became more obvious. We would drop hay flakes out of the back of the pickup and Skeeter would trot along with his favorite until she decided to stop and eat. He then set up guard and kept the other mares away from her. Sometimes he simply laid in the hay beside her. Papoose never showed any signs of reciprocating this affection and seemed to ignore him. This progressed until Skeeter was not letting the other mares drink at the same side of the tank as his mare. He never actually ran them around but just kept them from her immediate vicinity. Since he wasn’t really causing a problem, we just watched and let him live the life he had chosen. There are some bitter winters in Rifle, Colorado, and Skeeter never sought shelter that entire winter. Morning always found him curled into some hay close by his favorite.
Skeeter’s story began to wind down when spring arrived. His guardianship of his chosen mare did not extend to her newborn foal. We found Skeeter holding the foal away from its mother and although he did not physically hurt it, the potential was there. We kept Skeeter in a stall for a short period to let the foal mature a little and then let him go to see what would happen. It didn’t work. He would chase the foal. It was spring and we were moving the mares to a pasture farther from the house so we again caught him and moved the mares. Skeeter again decided to live at the barn and seemed to be as content as he ever was. Then one morning he simply was gone. Skeeter’s own story ended that day as we never saw him again.
Shortly after this I was riding out by some steep ravines when I saw a small tan puppy all alone. It took me about an hour but I finally coaxed her up to me and caught her. She quickly became friendly and we found a home for her with some friends. Since we were far from a road or houses, where did that little puppy come from? My boys and I decided to walk the ravines and see what we could find. We had several glimpses of a yellow dog who ran from us. Our hunt was rewarded with the discovery of a tunnel back into a bank with pawprints all around. We took food there and more or less staked the place out. Several days later we had “captured” four puppies who were only about six or seven weeks old and tamed quickly. We could only get to within 100 feet or so of their wild nondescript looking yellow mother. As I remember, two of the puppies were black, one was yellow and the other one was a blue merle! The blue merle and one of the black ones had bob tails! We felt then that Skeeter must have taken a little time off from his beloved mare to spend with this little wild yellow dog. We found homes for all the puppies but sadly were never able to coax the mother to come to us. She too moved on and was never seen again.
I gave that blue merle puppy and the natural bob black pup to ranchers. As an adult, the blue merle looked like any Aussie. I know the man who got the blue puppy bred it to a black dog. His black dog could have been a Border Collie cross or an Aussie. Dogs from such crosses were registered during that time with NSDR and into ASCA. We would be rewriting history if we did not admit that little wild dogs like Skeeter found in Colorado could not be in the ancestry of our Aussies.