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Tony Vagneur: Don’t sell the cows

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Almost every morning he awakened, it was the same view, from the day of his birth until he was almost 80. No matter what direction he looked, across lush fields of green or up steep mountain hillsides, there was not a neighbor to be seen.

Not many of us can claim such allegiance to our roots. The night before he died, he called his best friend and said, “Whatever you do, don’t sell the cows.”

He was a man I never really knew, but should have taken the time to visit with. Oh, I knew him from when I was very young and was around when he died in 2006. It’s that period in between that never quite got filled in.

One of his sons was a good childhood friend and we spent time at each other’s houses, the usual kid stuff, and I helped them with their cattle occasionally, mostly trailing them around the Red Mountain range. If I remember correctly, he was a strict disciplinarian, but wasn’t beyond pulling practical jokes on his son and me. When he knew he had you, he’d give you a sideways look with a half-smile across his face as he walked off.

I’d ride my horse to their house, a couple miles up Woody Creek, where my buddy and I would play trucks on a great, black earth hillside made just for such shenanigans. With garden hoes, we carved roads, turn-arounds, switchbacks and had it going on for our big Tonka trucks. It was the best car and truck playground in the valley.

My instructions were to be home before dark, and on those days when it was getting a little late, I’d cluck my big, black horse Spades into a full-on gallop and head for the house through the hayfields, paying little attention to irrigation ditches or other obstacles. In retrospect, that powerful steed took better care of me than I probably deserved. Sometimes we’d have to stop and open a gate or two, which didn’t please either one of us.

His family went back to 1900 in Woody Creek and was part of what Billy Grange jokingly refers to as the Aosta Mafia, meaning his ancestors came from Val D’Aosta, in northern Italy. Like most of those folks from Aosta who bought or settled land in the valley, they knew how to farm and irrigate and turned good farmland into excellent farms and ranches.

You’d think the Italian heritage might have made a kinship between Woody Creek families, but the independent streaks were fierce. Even so, the man and his wife were friends with my parents for years, and it seemed like they’d occasionally trade off dinner at each other’s houses. My first very late night, as a young child, was accomplished at this man’s house, where for some odd reason, as our parents played cards around the dining room table, we were allowed to stay up until about 1:00 a.m. Funny the things you remember.

Woody Creek was a busy ranching community when I was a kid, particularly in the fall when grain needed to be threshed and potatoes picked. The threshing machine traveled from ranch-to-ranch, and the ranchers followed it, helping each other bring in the sheaves of oats from the fields.

Each rancher brought at least one wagon and team of horses to haul the oats to the threshing machine, and if this man was at our ranch, he’d let me drive his team. I was 10 or 11 years old. His wife congregated with the other women all morning, preparing a big midday dinner for all the hands working on the threshing crew.

The last time I saw him was at City Market in El Jebel, maybe in 2005. He and his wife were in an aisle to my right as I passed, and for whatever reason, I didn’t stop. Of course, I’d hardly seen either one of them since the 1960s, so it kind of made sense, at the time, to pass them by.

He’d sold the family ranch in the late 1990s, getting the money out before inheritance taxes and potential family squabbles developed. Money, for people who had struggled for decades to keep everything together, suddenly they had a lot of it. And for him, it didn’t seem to bring happiness, or any sense of relief or elation. If anything, it compromised his sense of independence, having to pay for things he’d previously managed on his own.

The night before, he called his best friend, another life-long valley rancher, laying out some of his frustrations and tied himself to the land and the ranching life he missed so much, by saying, “No matter what happens and whatever you do, don’t sell the cows.”

The next day, he walked up to the gate at the edge of the subdivision in which he lived, gun in hand, and ended the pain.

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


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