Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Gray light came slowly down the valley to reveal a foot, maybe half again that much, of fresh, spring-wet snow. Overnight, the temperature had plummeted almost as fast as the precipitation had come down, and the beginning of a nightmare was unfolding.

Blasts of condensation emanated from the nostrils of my dapple gray mare, forming the top of a giant “A,” which spread out toward her feet and almost touched the ground. Ironically, it was the first day of spring, and the mood of the crew was as somber as the quiet, bone-chilling air.

In preparation for a dispersal sale, things were turned upside down at the ranch, and confusion wrangled against common sense in my mind. The old man had sent me down to the creek bottom to see how many new calves had been born overnight, and through the rising mist of the water, I witnessed a travesty of things gone wrong. The long shed we normally used for birthing calves (near the house with a roof over it) had clearly been appropriated for something else, and the poor mother cows, those giving birth and already distressed at a change in the decades-old procedure, had been forced to calve out in a partially frozen Woody Creek swamp.

I fashioned a sled of sorts out of old sheets of roofing tin tied together, caught the struggling and freezing calves in the snow, hogtied and loaded them up and headed for the dry of the tack room, the only unused place out of the weather. There were 12 newborns that I found, and I could only haul one or two at a time, an arduous task. My young horse soon felt my frustration and occasionally reared, bucked and otherwise did anything to create problems. My language and its volume degenerated with the continued deterioration of the day, drawing curious onlookers and my dad finally sent some help my way.

How do you dismantle a ranch? You might think it difficult; thousands of acres of land surrounding you, hundreds of cattle to sell, hay still in the stack, saddles and bridles lining the tack room walls, pastures full of horses, houses and barns full of memories. Do you have a big sale like the Elkhorn Ranch was having that day, a family-owned operation trading beef, horses and machinery for dollars?

No, you just kill the dream. It doesn’t happen overnight, but when the wind no longer blows through your hair at a gallop, when the cattle bring frustration instead of smiles, when nuances too subtle to notice, change, it’s gone. Whatever it was, my dad’s new vision of freedom was “get out,” and the soul of the place cried.

Whether we got all the calves in, I don’t remember, and then I watched my dad run some yearlings through part of the corrals for prospective buyers. He was angry at me for not bringing in the calves alone, quietly, and I didn’t much care for him that day, either.

There were sandwiches for sale on the back porch, but I went into the kitchen to make my own and was told by some self-officious woman that it was off-limits. Too tired to argue, I stumbled through the back hall leading to the living room, and found it full of bee-hived strangers, running adding machines and collecting money.

The reality of it glanced off me as bile rose in my throat. I spent the rest of the afternoon in my upstairs room, face down on the bed, trying to comprehend what the hell we’d done to ourselves.

Spring came begrudgingly, late. The old man had to use our stock truck to deliver all the horses we’d sold since none of ’em had ever seen the inside of a horse trailer.

By early summer, my parents had left, but I stayed, belligerently sleeping on a mattress on the floor of an empty house, heating tea water with a blowtorch. Until I started college. For the next 20-odd years, I wandered elusively, a party boy and general mess, a cowboy without a dream.