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Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

The call came the day after his arrest, something about having a young, unemployed guy locked up for vagrancy and possible drunken driving, although in those days it was worse to be broke than to be drinking and driving. He’d run out of gas and was spotted in the vicinity of Catherine Store, leaning up against his car, South Dakota plates, drinking a beer.

The Garfield County sheriff said he thought the man would make a good hand if my dad had need of one, and besides, they didn’t want to press any charges unless they absolutely had to. My dad and I shortly drove to the prearranged “prisoner exchange,” which took place beside the still-out-of-gas vehicle, carrying a couple cans of gas.

Good ranch hands are where you find them; they don’t come with pedigrees or fancy university titles to pave the way. They like their jobs; they pay attention, have a sense of humor and get the job done. Neil Kuper was that kind of guy. Just passing through at the time of our meeting, down on his luck but looking for a new home, Neil probably didn’t weigh more than 140 pounds, but he was tough in the way that allows smaller people to do the jobs of big men without hurting themselves.



We put him up in the cabin down the road, the one we called the bunkhouse, no modern conveniences but one hell of a wood stove in the kitchen. That fall, after the other hired hand had left, Neil and I became good friends. He was in his early 30s but seemed content to put up with my 12-year-old drivel. We smoked Camel cigarettes without filters, played gin rummy for matchsticks and planned all sorts of great ranches we would own someday. Neil was a veteran of the Korean War, and I learned more about that frozen wasteland than I wanted to know and could, in my own mind, break down and reassemble an M1 carbine in less than 10 seconds – just from listening to Neil describe it so many times.

It was hard to catch Neil without a smile on his face, under bashful eyes. He loved working cattle, riding horses and putting up hay. A neighbor lady gave him a spoiled young horse to ride, even though my dad thought he might be better off on a reliable steed. The outlaw came with an immaculate, hand-tooled burgundy saddle with large swells and a high cantle – just right for bronc riding. Neil broke the horse to a fine tune, and it ended badly between him and the neighbor lady, for one reason or another, over something besides the horse.




Neil came by our house one night to show my folks the sparkling diamond ring he’d bought, sort of breathless in his shy way about what it all could mean. He’d been dating a native Aspen lass, a young head-turner by the name of Ellen June Condon, a soft-spoken beauty with a mane of naturally wavy, incredibly long, dark locks that were the stuff of daydreams for the local male populace. Other young couples had started out in that cabin, including the birthing of babies, so it didn’t seem odd that Neil and Ellen June would continue the tradition, with or without water and electricity. And naturally, she said yes.

Industriousness was in Neil’s bones, and he and Ellen June moved to town after a while, readying to raise a family. It all runs together in my mind following that, their raising a couple of boys, whom I got to know, and the triumphs and tragedies that always seem to go with it.

The last time I saw Neil, I’d rolled my truck down a huge embankment along Maroon Creek Road. He was plowing a powder skier’s dream snowfall with a Pitkin County road grader and kindly stopped to see if I was still alive. Fellow ski patroller and climber Flint Smith was roping me up the slippery bank, and as I reached the road, disoriented in the midnight air with a broken nose and blood running down my front, I invited Neil up to the house for breakfast. He accepted.

Neil’s journey ended in 1997. I am hopeful that he found what he was looking for, but it’s hard to grasp the essence of dreams, even for the dreamer.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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