Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

As far as working dogs go, he didn’t look like much, lying there in the middle of the cattle trail, but by the same token, with black and white hair glistening in the late morning sun, he was about as beautiful as a canine can get. As I watched him pant, long pink tongue darting back and forth, brilliant white teeth completely evident in the lightness of the day and intelligent, brown eyes leaving me for only an instant at a time, a chapter of my life suddenly began to close.

My paternal grandfather was, undoubtedly, the most influential man in my existence, and I’ve spent a lifetime since his death trying to reconcile the changes in this valley with his life and wondering where along the way I’d find the key that would finally bring our lives together in a meaningful way. And then, studying my dog Topper as he waited for the horses and me to get moving again, a breeze of understanding began to miraculously disentangle long-forgotten emotional layers, buried deep over time, as though a serious, but gentle wind had come our way. The different and divergent paths between a boy and his grandfather, established 50 years ago, quietly and presently morphed into an understanding between two men, one long dead, but both of the same blood.

Topper probably didn’t realize it, but his tenure with me was assured that day, and we went about our business with a more relaxed air, knowing we’d made a commitment that would carry us until one or the other of us lays down for the last time.

Not long after came the cruel reminder that our mountainous terrain can quickly dish out whimsical and diabolical fate. An impulsive jaunt down a previously undiscovered path turned rapidly into disbelief. Where was my dog? He’s always within earshot, if not eyesight, and my futile calls and whistles went out, calmly at first, then becoming louder and more frustrated when Topper didn’t come sliding around the corner.

Back at the main trail, I could see where he’d scuffed the loose dirt with indecision, and then I worried over which direction he’d gone. It looked as though he had backtracked, so I headed the way we had come, finding a general paw print about every couple hundred yards. Tracks notwithstanding, it more and more looked like a wild goose chase, so I traveled back the other way, trying to convince myself that we’d soon come upon him panting alongside the trail, or I’d find him waiting for me at the horse trailer.

You can cuss, you can cry, you can argue with the gods up above, but none of that changes reality. Coyotes get brazen when they see a lone dog, and a yearling pup can’t put up much of a fight, anyhow. Darkness wasn’t far off, and I kept the spurs in my horse’s sides, anxious to see if ol’ Topper was gonna turn up.

Our trail converged with another, and there were fresh horse tracks, but no discernible dog prints in the hardened earth. But, what if he’d taken up with them, thinking I must be in their midst somewhere, on my own horse. Perhaps they had a dog, which could clearly distract a youngster from his mission at hand, and he just followed along? Or perhaps, a lone rider had gone on ahead at a fast gallop, and Topper thought Drifter and I were up ahead, and in a confused state, left the main group and sprinted ahead, looking for his connection to safe harbor and home?

We’ll never really know what Topper was thinking but fortunately, I’d had the foresight to outfit him with a tag listing his name and my phone number. While I was still on the trail, an old friend called, saying she’d found my dog and we agreed on a meeting place. I didn’t realize the depth of my emotions until, as I grasped Topper’s collar for the first time upon finding him, the tears began to roll. The dog means more than I can truly say.

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