Tony Vagneur: Now is time to drink in memories of dogs, horses and cattle drives
The breeze blew across the tall, too-early brown grass of the meadow as my horse’s ears stayed cocked forward, his fast pace clicking and clacking on the small pebbles of the trail. We turned left, off the trail, looking for the salt lick we supply every late summer, and the intensity of the day increased.
The spirits of those who rode this park before me caressed my mind, and the days of old, riding with my grandfather became intermixed with the present ride, and for a moment, I wondered if all those spirits were still riding beside me, just in a different dimension. If a person passes through a beautiful meadow with you, and later dies, does their essence of that memory stay there, waiting for our return, or are we just massaging our imaginations?
I wanted to bury my dog, Topper, in this very meadow, for here is where his performances were of the most heroic kind. A 40-pound dog turning a galloping, 1,200-pound, angry cow around with nothing more than sheer guts and determination got my attention early on. But it was too far from home, it seemed, and the winter winds would make it too cold and lonesome for him.
Before Topper, and just as I got my good horse, Drifter, we turned cattle out on that range, cattle that hadn’t been there before. Oh, we tried to control them with the salt, but without leaders, many didn’t know where to go. Some cows of the previous permit holder returned for the summer, but like oil and water, they just didn’t mix with the new bovines.
A good horse like Drifter, a blue roan, stout and tough enough to trail cattle through the mountains all day, was a blessing and not knowing any better, I took advantage of that ability. I’d start in the low land, just above the ranch, and drive the cows I found for miles uphill, through brush, around fences and over ridges. We were working in 20,000 acres of lush, green pasture.
I’d push them up to a big pond near the highest reaches, surrounded with succulent grass and cool shade from the aspens. Showing them how nice the high country can be in the summer. And, more than once, many of them would return to the lower reaches, more comfortable being close to where they’d spent the spring.
One day, a couple of experienced mule skinners named Gil and Blythe, good friends from the neighborhood, happened by along the trail and asked if they could help out. “Well, hell yes! Come on,” I replied, thinking they’d enjoy the cattle drive, and help was always welcome.
They stuck with it, were great help, and though it wasn’t easy, we got the cows where they needed to be. Strange, but never was that couple seen again by me, riding mules in that country, and whether correct or not, word came back to me sometime later that maybe they’d been worked a little hard and it was wise to stay away from Tony V when he was driving cattle up the trail.
Time moves on, and just as I begin to commune with spirits of the past, things are different. The dancing of the grass against the breeze is more beautiful than I remember; big, powerful Drifter has passed on, replaced by Easy, a red roan who is a very remarkable horse in his own right, and who has my heart on those long, all-day rides.
Topper died last summer, so my cattle herding partner isn’t there and turning a hell-bent cow around in that expansive park by myself can be a lonesome proposition, due to the terrain and deadfall from the patches of aspen. Even so, after many years, the cattle have fairly well learned the territory and don’t require so much intense work.
The other day, during a 20-mile jaunt across the mountainsides, leading a pack horse, I stopped, got off Easy and took a long drink of cold water from an insulated jug in the saddle bags, hugged my horses and admired the view. Later, my partner Margaret asked what stood out from the day, and my comment about taking a drink while intentionally stopped seemed remarkable, because I just never take time to do those things. “I know that about you,” she said. “It’s odd.” Earlier, I’d had a nice, relaxed lunch among the whispering pines, damned near tempted to take a nap.
Maybe it’s about getting older, maybe it’s about appreciating more of the journey than just getting the job done. Whatever it is, the pace seems to fit and I’m gonna try to keep after it. My birthday is coming up and I’m looking for another border collie. We’ll be a force: Me, Easy, the pack horse Django, and a new dog, forging the trail ahead.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.