Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen Co, Colorado
I’d just gone out to feed the horses some oats when a group of high-powered rifle shots could be heard up the creek from the cabin; within seconds, another gun fired off a couple of rounds in rapid succession, and then all was quiet. The sun had just risen into a cloudless, blue sky and I wondered what it was like to die on a bright, sunny morning, with blown up lungs and a fading glint in your eye, looking at your own blood in the freshly fallen snow.
I left the cabin for the last time that day, my gear loaded on two pack horses stringing behind me. Somewhere along the trail, there is a giant rockslide from thousands of years ago, probably created when a small geologic fault juxtaposed itself side to side, slimming and slamming those rocks to the top of the earth. At the bottom of the slide, near the edge of a fast-flowing stream, is a small opening in the pines, about 30 feet by 50 feet, which is well shielded on all sides, except from the trail high above. I’ve been in a few wrecks there moving cows, mostly because of the rock slide, and I always look that way, as if acknowledging a curmudgeonly old friend.
Studying the opening, I spied a large bull elk pulling some grass out from under the side of an evergreen tree, in an uncharacteristically nonchalant manner. Whether he had lost his cows or they were a little farther back in the pines, I couldn’t tell, but I stopped to watch this magnificent animal, figuring he would bolt at any moment. When it was clear he wasn’t going to run, I swiftly and quietly pulled my lever-action, .30-.30 out of its scabbard and dismounted, all at the same time, a maneuver practiced hundreds of times as a youth. Very cautiously and stealthily, I eased up ahead of the horse, giving him a little breathing room if he needed it when I fired the gun. I squatted down in the rocks and took careful aim, fixing the great bull in the cross hairs of a powerful scope.
Most guns in my family have a history, it seems, and the rifle I held was manufactured by Winchester in 1899, the year my grandfather turned 8. Undoubtedly, he bagged his first big-game with it, and the year after his death, when I was 12, I took my first bull elk using the same gun. There I was, holding a ton of tradition and emotion in my hands, the shooting iron pressed tightly into my shoulder, contemplating a shot that most elk hunters can only dream about in a lifetime of hunting. Less than 50 yards off the trail stood a trophy-quality elk, six symmetrically grown points on each antler, almost a gift from the powers that be. I had pack horses at the ready, and was only a couple of miles from the horse trailer. But there was a hesitancy in my desire, no rush to send the distinctive, deadly crack of rifle fire into the air, accompanied by the instantaneous thwack of bullet entering mass, the sound that would signal the absolute end of this majestic beast.
And then he acknowledged me, but rather than jump and run off, he examined my intrusion out of the corner of his eye, slowly raising his head. I had the scope on him and could see the interest in his eyes, but no disdain, nor fear. As I lowered the gun, he and I locked eyes for the briefest of moments and then, almost casually, he trotted off into the dark timber. I slowly slung the weapon back in its sheath and leaned against my horse for the longest time, arms crossed atop the saddle, feeling a sense of great satisfaction.
Whiskey and killing must be alike, I reckon, in the sense that after a time, some men just walk away from either or both of them without really knowing why. But most remember when.
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