Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 12, 2008
We breathlessly charged out of the red-dirt draw, crossed the sagebrush-dotted landscape at a full gallop, and with a sliding stop, pulled our horses up to the hitching rail in front of the old cabin. Having dismounted on the fly, we quickly entered through the squeaky, weathered door and dropped to our knees behind a rickety table along the front window. Pistols drawn and rifles at the ready, we eagerly awaited the arrival of our pursuers, imaginary outlaws from an olden West drama that we continually manipulated to fit our circumstances.
Our childhood games of the 1950-60s are somewhat behind us now and the horses we rode are long gone to well-deserved, forever-green pastures, but the old, stout, never-lived-in cabin remains, a solemn sentry to a way of life that died well before any of us can remember.
“Take it or leave it,” was the government’s attitude toward the land that would eventually surround the cabin. At least that’s how it was around 1915, when my grandfather made claim to the land, a small finger of mesa rising out of the Woody Creek Canyon and expanding up the front side of what is now known as Vagneur Mountain. My granddad already owned land on both sides of this tract, and why he took this unwanted sliver on seemed perplexing at first. There was a lack of natural water, the ground wasn’t very flat, and it was difficult to access from the valley floor. It was, however, good grazing ground and with its acquisition, Gramp’s ranch would become whole on the north side. Besides, Grandfather wasn’t big on neighbors and bringing this land into the fold would eliminate the possibility of encroaching outsiders.
If we tired of playing cowboys and outlaws, my cousin Don Stapleton and I would change our attire to that of Native Indians, and ride our horses by the front door of the cabin at breakneck speed, putting fear into the hearts of those within. Our rules allowed us to throw rocks at what was left of the window glass, but only if we hung from the sides of our horses and threw such missiles sidearm under the horses’ necks, making accuracy tough to achieve. We got fairly good at such stunts, but in our enthusiasm, sometimes found ourselves bouncing off the ground before our well-thrown rocks hit their targets.
In 1915, it wasn’t much to get some good lodgepole pine for cabin walls. Just wander up the mountain a way and skid them down behind a team of horses. In concert with that, imagine the same horse team working the homestead ground, pulling out the roots and stumps of Gambrel Oak and dragging them to a central spot for burning. Maybe Gramps would take a hired hand up to help him once in a while, but his attitude was one of doing it himself, ’cause that seemed to be the spirit of the Homestead Act.
Things had to be done in a certain way for the homesteader to gain a deed to the land, and it was with a meticulous mind that Granddad put the place together. In addition to building the cabin, he dug a root cellar out back, big enough to get a family of five through a Rocky Mountain winter. The grass grew tall in brilliant summer sunshine and the Hereford cows made good use of the land.
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To pass muster on inspection day, the shelter had to have doors and windows, a bed, stove, table and chairs. On this last visit to the cabin, Gramps symbolically left a well-made bed, a box of groceries on the table, along with a lantern and some candles, and a change of boots tucked under the bed. In essence, the log cabin remained a furnished, unoccupied second home.
If you went up there today, you might find some ancient items scattered around the cabin, items reminiscent of a day long ago when land in this area was valued differently.
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