Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I’d been holed up at our cow camp, waiting out a blowing, early October snowstorm. At daylight, I awoke to at least 2 feet of snow, and it was still coming down.
Without too much thought, I gave my good horse, Willie, an extra ration of hay, put together a beef stew on the wood stove and burrowed in for the day. As I leaned back in my chair, a good book in my lap, there was a cold shiver of exquisite contentment tickling my spine.
As the fire crackled, there’d occasionally be a stir of life from the corner of the cabin nearest the stove, too big to be a mouse. He made a run for it once, dashing along the floor, and from the reaches of my peripheral vision, I determined my guest to be a pack rat.
If you’re not experienced with pack rats (wood rats, if you prefer), you might liken them to a wolverine, only a much milder form. If given enough time, they’ll completely destroy the inside of a cabin, chewing everything you cherish into bits of trash and dragging in more grass and stale humus than you could reasonably imagine. But still, he added a little diversion to the too-quiet ambiance and I determined to go easy on the critter.
There was another pack rat, in an earlier time, a vision conjured up for me by my cousin, David E. Stapleton. Imagine, if you will, a young teenaged boy, traveling the length of Owl Creek road behind a flock of sheep, headed to the summer range on what was to become the Snowmass Ski Area.
These drives weren’t the stuff of movie legend; no border collie sheep dogs and well-trained horses for assistance. David was on foot, relying on every bit of his own will to get the job done.
His only companion was a man named Tony Garcia, a herdsman who forever spoke with broken English and who carried the proud conviction that as a Mexican, he was an infinitely better sheepherder than his Basque counterparts, men from another continent.
The sheep camp cabin, on the Divide between Brush and Snowmass Creeks, was the summer home of these men. In its last reincarnation, it was the dinner spot for the nightly Snowmass Stables sleigh rides. That was before Columbian mammoths and Ziegler Pond.
Coyotes, the scourge of sheep ranchers, silently watched the herd by day and as darkness fell, formally announced their deadly intentions with mournful, bone-chilling wails. David slept with his .25-.30 rifle next to his bunk, a flashlight taped to the octagon barrel for emergency night work.
In the dark, he heard the footsteps, quick as a mouse but much larger, and mentally followed the sound as he pulled the rifle up to his shoulder and switched on the light attached to the barrel. There, in full luminescence, running along the ceiling rafter, was a pack rat with David’s socks in its mouth. The blast awakened Tony, who wasn’t too pleased with the noise, but welcomed the thought of one less rat.
Some things never change, and as the present-day pack rat in our cow camp began scurrying around after I’d snuffed the lights, it became a nuisance rather than a companion. The small claws noisily tapped about the cabin, trying my patience, and I shined the light around to see what in hell could be so interesting to a rat.
Fatally, the beam caught the creature’s eye and he was immediately hooked. He came around the bunk and up onto my sleeping bag, intent on crawling in with me. That was enough.
I swatted him off, and as he stood defiantly in the corner, the last thing he saw was a flicker of mesmerizing light, shining the way for my hand-held pistol.