Proving ground on Father’s Day |

Proving ground on Father’s Day

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

It was Father’s Day, and the old man opened my door about 4 a.m., putting an end to my restless sleep. We had eggs, pancakes and coffee in pretty much of a hurry, all cooked by my dad, and headed to the horse corral to gather up our mounts. The two ranch hands were already there, getting the saddles on, and we helped them finish the job, tying our saddlebags and slickers on behind the saddles. It was dark, with just a little light from a quarter moon, and everyone was talking very quietly, which, in my mind and in my stomach, accentuated the nervousness caused by a lot of adrenaline pulsing through my system.

As we mounted up and headed for the herd in the big corral, my grandfather flashed through my mind. He was gone now, and no matter how big I thought I was at 11, I was going to miss his calm presence and leadership. Most of all, I was going to miss his protection and caring on a drive where I was expected to perform as well as the rest of the men on the trip. My dad had made his expectations clear, more than once, and he was the boss.

Getting this herd moving in the dark was very exciting as I watched and listened to it

unfold. Those ol’ cows weren’t accustomed to seeing people on horseback that time of day, so they sort of stood or laid around the corral as if tolerating our presence in that arrogant way that says, “Leave me alone.” It was hard to see the cows in this darkness, but I could feel and barely glimpse shadows and shapes slowly begin to get up and move around, trying to get out of the way. They knew something was up but hadn’t latched onto a collective idea yet.

The gate up by Woody Creek road was open, although the cows were taking their time figuring it out. We cowboys were very quiet, talking in whispers, if at all, and letting our horses do all the work rather than hollering at the cows. “Coaxing them out of the gate,” I still call it. We didn’t want to get the herd energized any sooner than we had to, because once aroused, it would take a long time to calm them down.

Two or three cows finally decided to take a chance on the open gate and got through with no interference. Once that happened, the cool, dark morning air became charged with energy, and even the cows farthest from the gate knew when this happened, through some sort of bovine telepathy. The cows began to run toward the gate, crowding it and creating a small stampede that was dangerous to the calves and anyone who happened to get in the way. It was impossible to stop these cows now, as they had one objective ” to follow each other out of the gate and down the road.

Within seconds, the hooves of the leaders hit the hardened roadbed, and this sound intensified the already highly charged level of excitement running through the herd and the cowboys. Other sounds in the dark were also contributing to the collective energy; the struggle of animal against animal to get out of the gate, the creak of corral poles on either side of the gate as they were pushed to their limits, and the grunts of the cows as they tried to maintain their positions in this rush to get moving.

The herd was moving out, out of control at this point, and I wondered for an instant if my horse and I were up to the task at hand.

The sun was hot in the afternoon sky as the last cow trailed through the gate at the Northstar Ranch, above Aspen. I hadn’t committed any major screw-ups along the way but was still unsure how my dad might have judged my performance. As we finished closing the gate, he squeezed my arm with a smile and said, “Good job, son!” I don’t know how his Father’s Day was, but he sure made mine.