Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

There was something surreal about the way it was laid out, the bones still in one place (unlike a cougar or coyote scavenge), trimmed of all fat and muscle, not a scrap of nourishment left, as though boiled to the bone by a hungry, fastidious monster.

I’ve grown up with bears and ranch cows and this death scene was different than any I’ve come across in the past. Usually, a bear will eat portions of a dead cow, explicitly the entrails and maybe a hindquarter and/or one of the back straps, but that’s about it.

The black angus hide was meticulously placed to one side, stripped of all sinew and adiposity, carcass side down. It was still pliable and had a warm softness to it, as though licked clean by a much larger beast, sucking the last bits of nourishment from it before gently spreading it on the ground.

The stomach contents (grass) were strangely undisturbed, left bonded together in a clump where the predator had slipped the rumen from around them. Their still-sweet, still digesting, acidic smell could be distinguished in the clear mountain air. Unlike a sick one, this cow had eaten a prodigious last meal.

Three piles of bear scat were evident in the immediate area, and it appeared the brute went through his phantasmagorical meal in a relaxed and leisurely fashion.

There was very little smell of death and no ravens called out the way; nor had any coyotes been seen or heard, giggling and yipping amongst themselves. Whatever occurred there had happened since last I rode by that spot, four days earlier.

Overall, such scenes create a mood of cool, deliberate thought, for one has witnessed an occurrence of something immense but basic in the natural world, and sometimes in a situation like that, there is a tendency to think that Mother Nature is perhaps making a voulu attempt to offer more to the story than actually exists.

Methodically, I looked for the ear tag, an indispensable, record-keeping item of cattle identification in our modern world, and could find none. The skull was bare of ears, no remaining cartilage to even suggest a lifelike form and a gentle nudge with my boot turned up nothing but the underside of the bony apparition.

With a squeeze of my legs and a cluck of my tongue, my horse Drifter and I headed into a steep hill, grappling our way up a narrow trail to a flat expanse of pasture high above. In this rain-soaked summer, vegetation is dense and tall, making it difficult to see the trail and sometimes we spook animals that haven’t seen us, or vice-versa.

The clues are subtle, especially when you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, but between Drifter and me, we wanted to go a certain direction and eventually ended up on the brush-covered edge of a substantial cliff with a grand expose of flat, smooth rocks. I’d been there before, eating lunch on those same rocks, and remembered it as a great sentinel over thousands of acres of land, with Capital Peak and others on the horizon.

But on this day, there was an urgency, a feeling we were on to something so we didn’t admire the view, but rather reconnoitered the area, riding back and forth, looking for this sign or that.

And then, there it was, the nest. Not the lair, nor the den, but the nest of a sizeable, carrion-eating bear, if one could believe the large paw prints. This refuge was obviously well-used, with a perfect view of the dead zone.

Who’s to know what really happened? But as I traveled back by the now-devoured smorgasbord of dead beef, I spotted the ear tag, clearly visible, lying next to the skull.