Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
It’s purty, ain’t it, the pastoral scene we see from our cars and trucks, green pastures full of peaceful cows and horses grazing the well-watered grass? Images of cowgirls grace our consciousness, swathed in skin-tight jeans, their smiles bright under wide-brimmed Stetsons as their spurs jingle with every cycle of their horses’ galloping hooves. Idyllic it must be, for it has attracted every man (or woman) who’s had enough means to make his way west, living a dream that exists mostly in the mind but real enough to keep the myth fueled.
The Arcadian contentment we see hides the seldom-talked-about brutality that comes with the territory, a lifestyle that seamlessly incorporates hardship, heartache and pain into the peaceful, bucolic scene that shapes our vision of a cowboy’s life, one full of contradictions and joy, the cruelty of it all relegated to the overused but romantic saying, “Cowboy up!”
My granddad, standing in the middle of a snowpacked and icy Woody Creek road with a pitchfork across his torso, hollering “Whoa” at the runaway horse I was riding, made me believe there were miracles in the world. At the barn, I tried to return the favor with a hug but was rebuffed and pushed away with the admonishment, “Never let a horse get away from you like that.” I was 6.
We could hear the raspy breathing from a long way off, my horse and I, but couldn’t quite ascertain its source. We jogged across the small stream, ducked through a bank of thick willows and headed into the sparsely spaced pines. There, pushed up against rotting deadfall was an acutely ill, beautiful black calf, prime coyote bait, the buzzing flies already destroying his eyes and making themselves at home all over his body. My saddlebags contained a full vial of antibiotic, but 12 miles from home and a poor prognosis, I made the wiser choice. The rattle of my lever-action rifle as I chambered a shell precluded the end of the cacophony of death in the hot summer heat.
She grew up on the wind-swept open expanse of Missouri Heights, fighting every day to be comfortable in the insistent, bleak hardship of such an unforgiving place. What are the dreams of little girls in such situations, and how do they make them come true? “Oh, my God, yes, marry that man. He owns his own ranch, is decent-looking, and you’ll be off this ugly mesa,” said her best friend. She threw in with the man, living at the end of a long valley, the benefit of his small ranch being plentiful water, solitude from a prying mother and little else. In her new home, the ranches were farther apart, peers even fewer, and a growing, gut-wrenching loneliness made the toughness of her youth seem a welcome memory. Such concerns were of little merit as the incessant trials of raising a family on a meager income took precedence and the quiet, salt-laced tears seeping onto her pillow at night became a way of life.
It’s work and it’s fun, an ingrained way of life, and in the end, I reckon the hardships and brutality are well outnumbered by the satisfaction of being self-reliant. What bad memories the whiskey can’t kill become part of the tapestry, and we begin to realize that each thread contributes to the whole, that grain of life by which we live.
The following, anonymous letter I received a while back tells the tale fairly well: “Sumthin about it, you must know the life of a cowboy ’cause yore writings just good, purty work! My dad was still a young’un, ridin the rough stock when he got drug to death by a bad one, my Uncles still punchin’ cows at 88, and i’m gettin to a time when 70s a memory and I can’t hardly walk but i’m gonna keep ridin til its over! If nuthin else, i’ll see you at the gather up yonder someday.”
It’s not all pretty, but it’s real.
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