You can call him Al | AspenTimes.com
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You can call him Al

Tony Vagneur

The first time we met, I was 2 years old and he’d just arrived at the house, about half-in-the-bag after having had a drink or two down the road at my great-uncle Sullivan’s place, with a big smile upon his face and an Indian Head buckle holding his belt together. Looking for a ranch job he was, having arrived in Glenwood by bus and hitchhiked up to Woody Creek on the rumor that he could probably find work. By using one of today’s descriptive phrases, anyone hanging around our front yard that day long ago would have said, “Cowboy, my ass!”Anyway, I conned Al out of the belt buckle that afternoon (with the aid of a little booze and his desire for a job) and for the next 50 years listened to him complain that he’d had to tie his pants up with a piece of rope until he could get to town. My granddad had hired him on that momentous day, and he worked until his retirement, usually employed by one Vagneur family or the other, moving cows, breaking horses, irrigating, putting up hay and doing all the other ranch chores too tedious to mention.To me, he was just a hero, and it didn’t matter what he did.He was 25 or 30 years older than I, but in a sense, we kind of learned the cowboy ways together. He’d arrived here a greenhorn from Vermont, expressly to ride horses in the mountains, and if that meant being a ranch hand, so be it. Early on, he found part-time work for the Red Mountain group of cattlemen, spending summers in a tent up Hunter Creek, learning the ropes. It wasn’t long until he hired on as the range rider for the Red Canyon Cattlemen’s Association, a job performed mostly from our lonely cow camp in the Sloan’s Peak area, watching over 1,200 head of fattening Hereford cows. The die was cast and Al would cut short anyone who called him a cowboy, letting them know he was a “range rider” first and foremost, and forever more. We spent a lot of time together during my young years, and he taught me a lot. I learned about U.S. military life in the Philippines, malaria and the mosquitoes that carry it, and how it left Al susceptible to tick fever. He had examined almost every discipline under the sun, by virtue of his lonely nights at the cow camp, with little to do but read books. It was entertaining (and educational), listening to him expound on subject after subject, up to and including relativity theory, but what endeared him to a kid like me was his innovative ability to make a positive out of almost any situation. I learned to like onion sandwiches when our cabin supplies would allow nothing else; discovered how to wash coffee cups in the water trough when in a hurry; developed a sense for seeing the humor in an ironic twist of fate; became aware that Al enjoyed baking biscuits as much as anything; got to know the kind of man who would give you the shirt off his back; and surmised that if nothing else in life, I wanted to be a range rider, forever more.Al and I knocked back a few drinks in Aspen’s watering holes after I got old enough and worked together occasionally until the last Vagneur ranch sold. As so often happens, the glue that held us all together dissipated with the sale – Al moved to Grand Junction to live out his retirement, and I never caught up with him again. Alfred Franklin Joseph Senna Jr. III (ask my cousin Wayne), died last week, at 81 or so, and I reckon with a heart as big as his, he might be the one to finally corral the devil’s mighty herd.Tony Vagneur thinks the grim reaper is due for spring break. Read Tony here on Saturdays and send comments to ajv@sopris.net


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