Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

My saddled horse stood motionless in the middle of a rain-soaked corral while I waited in the powdered dust of an old shed alongside the pen, trying to stay dry, but continually craning my neck around the corner, watching for my ride. Fog hung in the air like the leftover smoke of a thousand dying campfires and my feet, already wet, were getting cold.

A couple of top hands from Henry Stein’s Mill Iron Ranch were headed to Lenado to take care of their cattle permit and my dad, prepared to buy the grazing rights, wanted me to learn the country. Those guys were unknown to me but I immediately recognized their green Ford stock truck as it appeared, apparition-like, through the mist. Before long, we were unloading our horses into a serious rain at the mouth of Casady Creek, near Lenado.

Leo Berthod, 50-something head duck at the Mill Iron and husband of Bobbie, Democratic Party activist, and Dick Stutsman, then a kid in his 20s before he co-founded the Stutsman-Gerbaz excavating company, were the cowpokes I rode with that day.

We gathered about 15 cows along Woody Creek Road and started pushing them up Casady. It’d been drizzling rain for a couple of days and the mud was greasy. The Mill Iron boys put me in the middle on the narrow, steep path, figuring that was the safest place, I reckon, for a 12-year-old boy. Leo led, his horse occasionally slinging gooey clods of mud my way and I, half-miserable, kept my mouth shut and my ears open.

It was the second clearing going up the creek where the real action started. The downpour had stopped and we were following the easy-moving cows along with the peace that comes right after a heavy rain. Still leading through the wispy fog, Leo’s big buckskin clunked a hind foot going over a fallen, dead tree, just enough to get a nest of cabin-fevered, ground-dwelling hornets stirred up.

Approaching the log and unaware of the hornets, all I remember is that suddenly my horse was airborne and at first I thought he was exaggerating the necessary height needed to jump over the downed deadfall. But when he touched earth again, he didn’t stop and life suddenly became a blur of unequal proportions as I held on for all I was worth. We crashed through serviceberry bushes, cleared hemlock plants and leaped down and over the red rock so common in that area.

The horse finally stopped bucking and sulled up down by the creek, in a watery clump of wet willows. My hands and arms, my whole body hurt from the strain of staying on, and I was embarrassed as hell. What kind of a cowboy was it that couldn’t control his horse any better than that? “You OK?” asked Dick and we headed up the trail, nobody saying anything more.

My lunch was packed in an old oilskin pouch behind the saddle, an unsatisfactory way to operate in the rain, but we couldn’t afford saddlebags for everyone, so we made do. A soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich wasn’t much comfort, although the small thermos of hot coffee got me feeling better; but still, I was depressed over the way I’d handled that horse. The fierce reaction of the critter had unsettled me and I wasn’t sure if I’d gone about it the right way.

As later conversations would prove, those guys weren’t all that sure I could carry my own weight until the dustup with the horse. With lunch about over, Dick slapped me on the knee with a big grin and said, “Anybody who can ride a bee-stung bronc like you shouldn’t have much trouble in this life.”

I don’t know whether the sun came out right then, but it sure felt like it. For the rest of the summer, nothing was too big a problem when I rode with the Mill Iron hands.