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Saddle Sore: Rounding up memories

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

We hit Lenado around sunset, Ted and I. We still had to ride several miles down to the Elkhorn Ranch, hoping with gritted teeth that we’d make it before darkness enveloped us. A long summer day on the cattle range can build a powerful thirst in a man, and, our canteens empty, the long ride home seemed tough and miserable without a drink of water.

We stopped at a nondescript draw somewhere above Sawmill Gulch, and Ted dismounted, handing me the reins to his horse.

“What the hell, Ted?” I offered. “There ain’t no water in that draw. What’re you doing?”



Without saying a word, Ted, who was in his late 20s compared with my 12 years, started digging with his knife and hands, and before I could get too impatient, he’d dug down about 8 inches to a good water source. It was muddy, sure, but we waited a few minutes for it to clear, and then, oh man, the cool taste of water straight from the earth. We laughed and joked all through the hour or so it took for us to get home. In somewhat of an appropriate fashion, I’ve called that unnamed gulch the Water Draw ever since.

One early summer morning, Al Senna, the range rider, and Max Vaughn (a local kid a year older than I was) arrived at the ranch, and we headed to one of our mesas to push a few cows up the trail toward the higher mountain pastures. Hay fever, the bane of many of my childhood expeditions, set in with a vengeance early on, and with eyes almost swollen shut, my day was looking to be one of interminable misery. Al had a job to do and wasn’t very concerned with the state of my health, but Max took an understanding view and, with the eagle eyes of one who knows the territory, covered for my lack of participation in a most admirable way.




Later that afternoon, we arrived at cow camp, and, thank God, the higher altitude had dispersed my allergies. It was with great enthusiasm that Max and I claimed our territories within the cabin, being careful not to piss Al off too bad. Al was a great guy, but he’d never had kids and lacked that certain empathy that parents develop over years of watching kids learn the hard way. As darkness fell, Al baked an oven full of biscuits and cooked a hell of a dinner, and then, before the lanterns were turned off, we drew straws to see who had the “privilege” of rounding up the horses the next morning.

Whoever pulled the short straw got to traipse all over the steep and aspen-covered terrain of Horse Pasture Hill (on foot, Al never kept a wrangle horse in), probably 100 acres or more, looking for the saddle horses. We’d put a bell on a couple of them, which took a lot of guesswork out of the task, but wading through knee-high grass, wet with morning dew, made the job one of those that no one really liked, and drawing straws took the argument out of it.

Bill Blakeslee, another kid I spent time with at cow camp and whom many of you may know today as the water commissioner, turned up one day at the cabin unannounced, under Al’s tutelage, of course. Bill was quiet and unassuming, didn’t talk a lot and always kept an eye out for trouble along the way. He seemed a little older and wiser than I was, and one day, in a tussle with my horse, Bill calmly replied that maybe if I tried this or that, life might be a little easier. Like Ted and Max, Bill became part of an unforgettable tableau of summer memories. And Bill didn’t mind rounding up the horses in the early-morning dew.

I never saw Bill much after that; hell, I never saw any of them much after that, except Max, who shared the Red Brick School with me and the rest of the Aspen kids.

Three different stories about three different boys (even Ted seemed young), seemingly unrelated, tell of the education of a Woody Creek kid who learned to always be looking out for the other guy, and whether you spent a lot of time together or not, you could count on each other when the chips were down.

We were hardworking kids who hardly ever left the valley, but through our cow-camp exploits, we had a lot of fun and learned much of what we needed for the road ahead.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.