There’s a picture of my paternal grandfather and his four brothers out on the flats of Woody Creek, mischievously looking like they’ve been coerced into holding still just long enough for the photographer to get his job done. They range in age from 7 or 8 to 20 or so, indicating the year to be sometime in the late 1890s, and they’re all astride young, half-broke-looking cow ponies.
Those kids, the “old grandpas” as Laurie Vagneur calls them, who all spent a lifetime in Woody Creek, have been gone a long time now, but their wild spirits linger on, especially in times of introspection.
The other day, we were taking down an old fence along the perimeter of what were the cattle pens on the original Vagneur homestead, settled in the 1880s, when word arrived that my cousin Leroy Vagneur, a son of those mentioned above, had just died.
I guess when you’re standing on the land where it all started more than 130 years ago and you get news like that, there’s a charge of familial pride along with a sadness that seems to bring it all crashing home. In a large family like ours, there are scattered members that some of us will never know, but we all seem to remember the older folks.
Leroy’s generation, to which my father belonged, the third to thrive in Woody Creek and legendary in its own right, is almost gone now, too. The incessant march of time leans us more and more deftly into our own setting sun, and we become a little more historical than real with each succeeding year. The clock stops but once for each of us, but until then, at least in my family, it’s mostly full speed ahead.
Leroy was the guy who came back from college about the time I began to realize there was a bigger world out there, and although we seldom spoke to one another, his return to the valley was watched by yours truly with curiosity. His first job back was on the Aspen Mountain ski patrol, something that immediately thrust him into hero status. I didn’t think it possible for mere mortals to get such a job, but then, maybe Leroy wasn’t mortal. Years later, when I assumed my turn on the patrol, there still were stories about Leroy making the rounds and, with typical ski-patrol humor, mostly in a good light.
Being the youngest of his siblings, he found things a little crowded around the ranch, a place he loved, and he ended up in the big town of Durango — but not before putting in stints as the manager of the Roaring Fork Valley Co-Op, the first manager of the Starwood Ranch and, of course, the ski patrol.
Leroy became a respected Durango banker, a top officer and effective businessman. But as any good cowboy can tell you, a man’s life can change in a heartbeat — or a gunshot. It happened in the ’70s, after a very late game of cards in a back room somewhere. About halfway through an early-morning breakfast in an all-night joint, a disgruntled citizen of the world wandered in and pulled a pistol on a real or imagined enemy. A blaze of gunfire dropped the intended target to the floor but not before an errant and ricocheting bullet ended up stuck deep in a deck of cards in Leroy’s shirt pocket. Had it punctured a couple more cards, it might have been lights out for Leroy. His employer, a staid consortium of bankers, felt compelled to let him go — it wouldn’t do to have bank officers out gambling late at night, especially when those escapades involved guns, murder and front-page stories in the local paper. No sense of humor, I reckon.
You can’t keep a good man down, and Leroy put his irons in the raging fire of real estate, a broker to the end.
In my mind, Leroy always will be the young man who came back from college with a big grin on his face, an independent kid descended from a line of tough cattlemen, an aspiring Woody Creek rancher and a skier with many mountains to conquer. He’s now joined the “old grandpas” on the other side. We’ll miss him until our turn comes.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.