Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
You could never tell where these guys came from, but it all started at a bar of one kind or another, of that you could be certain. “Come with us to cow camp tomorrow. We got a spare horse.”
In the scheme of things, intentions were always good and given the popular saying, “Ride for the Brand,” those issuing the invitations always reckoned they were doing the Vagneur Ranch Company a favor by bringing along extra help. It usually didn’t matter much either way, but sometimes it backfired, especially when there was too much whiskey in the pack saddle panniers.
The guy was a little spooky in the eyes, like he was burning a hole in you with intensity, but you soon realized he was looking right through you, to a world all his own. Seemed like he seldom actually heard anything you said but was thinking real hard nonetheless, and his comments weren’t always of the same discussion.
“Yeah, he’s a little off,” said his “host,” explaining how the guy had once ridden in a wild horse race up north, Calgary or Cheyenne, some big rodeo like that. I came right back, “Hell, that ain’t no big deal. I’ve ridden in more wild horse races than you can count and can still carry on a conversation.”
Back in those days, not that long ago, we never locked the cow camp cabin. My cousin Wayne, who had grown up in a different generation and was an elder statesman of the clan, always figured it was neighborly to leave the door latched but unlocked in case someone needed shelter. “Might save a life,” he said. More practical, of course, was the thought that no one would ever have or could find a key when they needed it most, or memorizing the combination might prove challenging for others.
It was the beginning of the big changes in Aspen, city people coming here with grandiose ideas, some thinking they could live off the land and become independent mountain people. Obviously, they were wrong, but those of us who had been around a while were left to clean up after them.
Which sometimes meant there was an ugly mess in the cabin when we arrived, such as half-full pots and pans left on the stove, green mold covering the contents, or trash strewn all over the place.
It’d been a while since anyone had been there, so we faced not only the cruel challenge of cleaning the place up, but a large tree had fallen across part of the horse corral, necessitating further attention.
By the time we got done screwing around with various chores, we’d drunk a bunch of beer; some drank whiskey, and the steak and potatoes we cooked over the fire pit came too late to lessen the deterioration of common sense. Hubris continued to soar, however.
We all turned in, except the wild horse stranger from up north, and just as we doused the lanterns, he announced he was going for a walk. It was one of those pitch-black nights you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face and a little peeved, I hollered, “Good luck.” The guy had trouble finding the outhouse during daylight hours, and as the crew dozed off, I tossed uneasily in my bunk.
About an hour later, he noisily clambered into the cabin and clumsily fell into one of the chairs. All accounted for and soon all was silent except for the disgusting sounds men occasionally make in their sleep.
Come first light, the boys were in a circle around our wild horse rider, fully concerned over the violent, unnatural damage to his head. It was a miracle he’d made it back to the cabin and we packed him out of there in a hurry. Fractured skull, maybe some brain damage, was the hospital’s call.
Like a lot of guys, he healed up as best he could without insurance and left the valley. Life is more brutal for some than others and word was he eventually died from a bad liver.
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Teachers are underpaid. They can’t find housing. Turnover is unacceptably high. If you are a teacher in Aspen today, you face losing your entire current work group five years hence.