Tony Vagneur: The real deals
The phone rang loud, like it was the only fixture in a large empty room, the kind of ring you never hear anymore and you wonder about the whole household setting and where that phone might sit.
Again and again it reverberated in my ear, and then the sweet sound of a woman’s voice, “Hello,” as though this was the first call she’d ever received.
“Is L.E. there?” I asked.
I’d never met L.E. but knew him only by reputation and wanted to rent 30 horses from him for the summer. He didn’t have any idea who I was, a brash kid of 25, but he’d rented horses to the T-Lazy-7 before, so somewhere, in his mind and in mine, it didn’t matter who I was because it had worked before and would surely work again. No credit reports, no copies of an income-tax return, no pictures of my passport, none of that. Not even a handshake, as we were doing business over the phone.
“L.E.’s out back, I’ll get him,” the woman said.
She hadn’t asked who was calling — it didn’t seem to matter. I heard her slowly clunk the heavy receiver down on the table or desk, and then after she walked away, there was dead silence on her end, except for the sounds that a very quiet room makes. There was life in that long silence and I patiently waited.
The sound of the screen door opening got my attention, not so much as when it opened but as when it gently squeaked closed, and then there were the footsteps of someone coming across the hardwood floor in cowboy boots; a slow shuffle, one boot hitting the floor harder than the other, like one hip might be bad, or an old wreck that healed a little crooked, and then the voice came on the line.
That was our first conversation and the beginning of some life-changing adventures. About 30 years later, we were sitting together at the Elks Club bar in Hotchkiss. He’d just gotten a new knee for his 90th birthday to go with his recent hip replacement, and he was all excited because now he could ride a horse again.
“Come back in a month or so and we’ll take a ride,” he’d said.
That was our last conversation. The next week, a car ran him over and took a bright light away from the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison.
Somewhere in the same 30 or so span of years, I was working cattle during one of the last hurrahs of the Vagneur Ranch Co. in Woody Creek. My horse Willie, then 17, a tall, powerful beauty with a bay complexion and enough energy to power a Mississippi river steamboat, was ducking and diving with his amazingly quick reflexes as we sorted cows in the corral down by the barn. Those quick reflexes scared some tough cowboys away from riding him; Willie’s walk was faster than most people can jog and his heart was bigger than the sky and stars above.
Watching the proceedings from high up on the road bank, an excellent vantage point, sat a grizzled, retired cowboy who had worked for my family for over 50 years. From his unmoving face, you couldn’t tell what he might be thinking, an old hand who had about seen it all.
As we walked up to the main house for lunch, Al, the cowboy emeritus from the road, grabbed my arm and pulled me down onto the big bench along the front porch.
“Before I die, I want to ride that horse. My God, that’s a magnificent beast.”
Al went into the house, rolled a cigarette, settled into a big armchair with a glass of whiskey and kibitzed while the rest of us ate. Al outlived Willie by about five years, and he never did get to ride that horse.
So it could happen when I die; I’ll be wandering the never-ending wilderness, wondering where the hell I am. Far ahead, riding high into the mountains, I’ll spy a big, striking bay gelding carrying an old, stoic-faced cowboy up the steep, red dirt trail behind our ranch, the two of them as one, not needing to stop and quickly disappearing from sight. From my vantage point, I can’t see it, but I know there’s a big smile on Al’s face.
And then, off to my right, will be the gravelly voice of L.E., hardened by a lifetime of drinking I.W. Harper whiskey and telling horse stories that could last all night.
“Hey, let’s take that ride now. We missed it the last time around.”
“I’d love to, but that damned Al has got ahold of my horse and I don’t think he’s coming back any time soon.”
Those two cowboys were a couple of the best.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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