Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
I pulled up to the corrals, readying for the first spring roundup, just as a rose-hued sky lit itself up. Already there, with his horse saddled, hat pulled down and his feet up on a large bale of straw, was a guy I’d never seen before, sipping a cup out of his tall Thermos. An “old bastard,” I figured, a guy past the point of having to prove anything, whose quiet demeanor and way of moving is what you like around cattle, unlike the typical wannabe who gallops around like one of Custer’s lost minions, wondering where the hell everybody went.
Inside my horse trailer tack room, putting my chinks on, I turned around just in time to catch the guy studying my outfit, much like a law enforcement officer or polished crook might, standing back about 20 yards and giving himself every opportunity to evaluate my setup without getting so close that he couldn’t see me reach for a weapon or turn on him with a knife. But the guy was friendly (and he didn’t comment on how much anything cost) so I let it go, although I was a bit concerned that he’d seen more of my property than I felt comfortable with.
One-by-one and two-by-two, the crew arrived, and before long, we were flushing cattle out of partially frozen creek beds, hollering them up muddy riverbanks and down brush-covered hillsides, creating a long serpentine of reluctant, steaming hides, all headed toward the big corrals. The “new guy” came up over a ditch bank, looking for directions, and I sent him down a narrow track, drawing a picture of urgency as I explained what might happen if escaping cows got through the wrong way. He laid the spurs to his horse and left with the confidence of a man who knows what he’s doing. I marveled for a second at the natural ability one must have to be truly good at this work, but then a cow ducked, and my horse lunged to head her off, and the philosophy lesson was over.
It takes a long time for a man to reach down into the depths, to share his past – especially with strangers – and no one wants to give up much, but like oil on canvas, a definable picture slowly develops.
The “new helper” and I were pushing cows through the chutes, a few at a time, and there were intervals of 10 or so minutes between each push. The late-April afternoon sun was beating down, not so much that we could take our coats off, but just enough to make us sleepy and lethargic after a big lunch under the cottonwoods. The talk rolled easily as we fought the doldrums, and it was about team roping, horses we’ve owned, women and traveling across the country. My corral partner was waiting for the summer season of cutting-horse action to get rolling, when he rode horses for well-heeled owners who follow the circuit.
Divorces, ranches lost, treacherous girlfriends and the sometimes-stultifying onus of having to go to a regular job every day were the foundations upon which we built our conversation when the tone quietly changed. A small Arizona ranch, a winter retreat mostly, just right for a few horses, was on the for-sale block; he couldn’t go back anymore.
Something about a meth lab on the neighboring place, loud noise at all hours and a wind-wafted solvent stench that could warp a man’s brain, all leading to a confrontation on the neighbor’s trash-strewn front lawn. The quick draw of a concealed .38 special took down the supposed ringleader of the cheap operation, and everyone else ran back in the house/lab, hoping to avoid further trouble.
“Yeah, I got off. I’m a retired cop, and it was self-defense anyway, but Jesus, if I hadn’t left, I’d a killed ’em all and nobody coulda got me out of that mess.”
The sun started its drop behind the mountain, and we pushed the rest of the cows through the corrals. We parted with a smile, a farewell handshake and the knowledge that the West is still a little wild.
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