Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
August 15, 2008
The crash of thunder hammered my ears and the lightning lit up the darkness of my granddad’s kitchen as, for God only knows what reason, we sat there, my mother, my aunt and I, waiting for the storm to die, or maybe for one of us to die. And then, like an apparition from out of the storm, the image of my grandfather appeared in the rear door window, astride his big, blue roan cow horse. As he slid from the back of the beast, obviously disoriented, my aunt Eileen ran out to help him into the house.
Blood caked his nose and the corners of his mouth and I could see where it had run down the front of his shirt, deep underneath the black rain slicker he wore. I was used to climbing up into his lap after dinners at his house, snuggling with him while he snoozed in his rocker. I’d never seen him at work, I guess, at least not in a slicker, one spur missing from his muddied boots, Stetson hat crushed into a funny shape and distress in his voice. I hadn’t thought the man to be mortal.
Blue, the horse, had lost his footing and rolled them both down a slime-covered Collins Creek embankment, landing on Gramps at the bottom. The women got the stove roaring with some dry wood, then Eileen did her best to clean him up, asking about the mishap. He was visibly relieved there didn’t seem to be anything debilitating that might hold him up for long. The gals helped him into a dry shirt, tried to straighten up his hat a tad and on the way out the door, he grabbed a dry pair of gloves. On the porch, he wriggled into the well-worn, black oilskin and with the rain still coming down, mounted up and headed back into the storm and Collins Creek, to finish whatever mission had been interrupted by the wreck.
That’s the first real memory I have of my grandfather, other than bits and pieces, and it took place when I was 5 or 6. The next summer, he became my mentor in the world of ranching, and we spent most days riding up Collins Creek, checking on the cows and the grass. Mentor, hell, he was my hero and no matter how old I get, that will never change.
The fall I turned 11, Gramps and I took our last ride together. He no doubt knew the score, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize what was going on. We sat under a huge jack-oak, waiting out a horrendous hail storm, and as we sat and talked about school and stuff, Gramps gave me the only hug I can remember sharing with him. On the way home, with the air sharp and alive from the squall, Grandpa let me know he was headed to the hospital for surgery the next day.
That winter, he stayed in my parents upstairs bedroom, sucking oxygen out of a green bottle, too weak to venture from the bed. Many people came to pay their respects, and he always said the same thing: “I’ll be feeling better in a few weeks.” I knew he’d be up and around ’cause I’d seen him do it before. A little more TLC, I figured, and Gramps would roll out the door once again, ready to face the storm of life. When you’re 11 and your granddad dies, your heart breaks, hard.
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Fifty years later, I’m still moving cows up the path and there isn’t much, except skiing, that I’d rather be doing. But you know, lately the thought whispers through my mind that maybe I’m still trailing those goddamned cows around the side of a mountain because I’m hoping for one last chance to help Granddad get that final leg up, to ride into one more sunset, help I couldn’t give him all those many years ago.
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