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Saddle Sore: A shell of the past

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

We rounded them up straight from grazing ground my great-grandfather cultivated more than 100 years ago. It was tough going in the beginning — a couple of coyotes, apparently upset that we were moving the cows, tauntingly took up guard directly in front of the herd and refused to move. It was a standoff until we finally unleashed the talents of our cow dogs, stampeding the intractable creatures of two worlds out of the way. Maybe it was an omen, suggesting things are not as they used to be.

In the 1960s, we didn’t think twice about driving a herd down Highway 82, but with four-lanes and souped-up Volkswagens blazing the trail in today’s world, we wisely loaded the taciturn beasts in long, silver trailers pulled by diesel trucks and headed out.

A scuffle at the designated trailhead put a damper on the day — but only for a few moments. A disgruntled new property owner alongside the county road where we’ve stopped to unload cattle and horses for decades challenged one of the cowgirls with a litany of threats, most of the vocabulary consisting of the F-word, without fully realizing that not only could the rather petite cowgirl in question likely flatten him before he saw it coming but that she had considerable backup, if needed. It ended peacefully.

Trailing the cows up to the ranch my daughter and son-in-law leased, a place tucked into the terrain near the base of Mount Sopris so close it sometimes seems as if the mountain might scrape the top of your head, went smoothly. Deep, lush grass awaited the lumbering brutes, and they went willingly. In that regard, cows are like people — if they’re not in the mood, good luck: It’ll be a long day.

It’d been seven or eight years since I’d come this way, and there was a twinge of excitement as we neared the old homestead off of West Sopris Creek. At different fall roundups, my horses Donald and Drifter (and I) had pushed thousands of head of cattle through the old corrals standing there, and I was anxious to ride through them once again. Such reminisces are kind of like visiting old friends — memories are triggered, appreciated, and concurrently, today’s work becomes tomorrow’s reminiscence.

Wait a minute — isn’t this where we penned the large gather? Where’d the alleyway go? Ah, hell — the corrals are gone, the once well-trod ground overgrown with native grasses, and suddenly my sense of location is thrown off. We must be near the creek crossing, but without the corral gate, it’s anyone’s guess, at least for the moment. But the cows figure it out with a little help, and we celebrate the arrival at our destination.

“Come to the chuck wagon” is the cry, but where are we gonna put the horses without corrals or hitching rails? Take their bridles off and turn ’em loose in one of the large pastures, that’s where. A couple of guys hobble theirs; I tie mine to a ruin of a corral wall in the shade, in case we need a roundup horse later, and the rest are left to wander together like we used to do in the past.

Where once we ate on wooden tables in front of the hundred-year-old cow camp cabin, in the shade of towering cottonwoods, we now line up in lawn chairs under a giant awning alongside a 40-foot gooseneck camper. It has a kitchen and running water, that’s why, and the grub is like it’s always been; cold cuts, cheeses and bread. Make your own. And there’s beer, soft drinks and tons of water to drink.

As usual, I have to be somewhere else soon, and my horse and I leave early, afraid to look back for fear this might be the last time we see such a great group of friends and family, wishing we could stay and share in the good stories that are guaranteed to follow.

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


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