Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
We gathered around the casket a little nervously, taking a polite last look without wanting to. What you see doesn’t mean a thing, except if you haven’t seen one before, you suddenly know what a corpse looks like.
What you don’t see is what makes a life; small nuances like a glint in the eye or maybe how a guy held his coffee mug in the mornings or danced the two-step at the old Eagles Club. A guy I never liked shuffled up alongside me and whispered, as though I might agree, “There lies one worthless prick.”
He was younger than me, freckled face and a tight upper lip that always held a smile. Despite his prepubescent age, words rasped over his tongue like that of a much older boy. Football was his dream and his folks had bought him a pair of shoulder pads, a helmet and a pale yellow uniform with the number “1.” He ran the sidelines of every home game the Aspen Skiers played, conducting his own imaginary game in the distance, but careful to copy every long run I made. He’d proudly stride up to me after the game, telling me how he’d re-created the competition in his mind and I’d pull him in with an arm and a smile.
After college, I asked about him, thinking he’d have made a fine athlete, but there weren’t any words of support. His dad died in a nasty car wreck, just about the time the kid could have really used a father, and his mother had trouble keeping the family together, what with little money and trying to self-medicate the pain.
He was darker, like his Cherokee-blooded mom, and maybe that ancestry was why alcohol made him a little crazy. Where the anger came from, it was hard to say because life is never that simple, but losing his immediate family in the formative years was a likely suspect. Maybe it was watching Aspen rapidly change, shutting him out, even as he struggled to grow into a history of horses, lumber jacking and ranching.
“Don’t take any crap off that kid” were my instructions as I tended bar at the Eagles Club. “Throw him out before he hurts you.”
Being a hero carries some responsibility, even if it was in the past, and I asked him politely a couple of times to “straighten up or get out.” His eyes were hard, his face without expression as the whiskey spoke, “Don’t mess with me – you’ll regret it.”
We went to the alley at my invitation, where I longed to give him the thrashing I thought he’d earned, knowing full-well it could backfire. We faced off and a smile crossed his face, “Tony, for Christ’s sake, I can’t fight you. We’ve been through it, man. I’m goin’ home.”
He was a bad outlaw who couldn’t smile for the cops though, and after years of getting their asses kicked, they finally nailed him on trumped up charges and sent him to prison. That was the end of him, but still it took time.
Out of jail, he sometimes worked on a neighboring ranch and we’d occasionally pass each other by in the mountains, always riding alone and looking for cows. He was a free spirit with little need for talk. He’d take my cow-camp whiskey without asking, but would split a cord of firewood for the cabin without being asked.
At 50, weight had piled on his medium frame, his eyes had slicked over, and one morning as he mounted up in the horse corral, his heart stopped, ending a journey that never really took off. If there was time to think about it, he likely went down with relief that it was finally over.
Whatever he was, besides my friend, it’s hard to say.
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