Vagneur: Reflections on a cowboy friendship |

Vagneur: Reflections on a cowboy friendship

Tony Vagneur

There are designated times for viewing, if you get there early enough, but not every one wishes to do that. Arriving a bit early for the main Mass, however, the church was already full, standing room only. That’s the kind of respect the community had for this man for whom we all gathered.  

Funerals, memorial services, remembrances, whatever they are called in our world, are times that bring friends and family together; and for each of us sitting in anticipation of the service, our thoughts are pretty much our own.

That’s how friendships and family are — we each travel our own trail, not only with each other, but particularly with the person being honored, whose path on this Earth has ended. Memories are mostly distinctive to each and take center stage with our thoughts. 

It was a time-honored ceremony that seemed unique in today’s world. Up front, before the assembled crowd, the deceased was visible in the half-open casket in case anyone needed a last glimpse before the service began. It was traditional, comforting in that sense. 

Then, in the midst of the long-established rituals of the church, prayers began, some in Latin, accompanied by wistful singing, always confusing for me but totally expected by many. Remember, you are there to honor the deceased and his loved ones. 

His family and mine ran cattle together some years ago, making a connection between us that even though we had never been formally introduced, we fairly well knew each other’s history. No need for long explanations, who was related to whom, or that sort of stuff. I don’t think we ever told each other our names, nor did we ask. It got figured out one way or the other. 

Years ago, I’d take a shortcut through his cattle permit allotment on my way to pack salt or move cows on our allotment on the other side of the division fence. I can still see the big smile he’d get when we’d meet up. We’d cross trails occasionally, generally each of us leading a pack horse, sometimes loaded with chainsaws and needed accoutrement or salt, and sometimes he’d have a riding partner, usually a man, sometimes a younger, nice-looking woman totally capable of holding up her end of the mission from all appearances.

We’d chat for a spell, listening to what each other had been doing, and somehow over that small amount of communication, we became friends. At another memorial service, a few years ago, he came and found me in the crowd, wanted to introduce me to his new wife, after his first wife had died years before. I thought it a supreme compliment he thought that highly of me. 

While the prayers and singing at the beginning of the service were being carried out, a couple of people, most likely from the funeral home, came forward and with ritualistic, almost tragic purpose, began to prepare the closing of the casket. 

The cowboy hat, with a cattleman’s crease, the mark of a lifelong rancher, was taken from the side of his hip and placed, crown down, on the lower, closed part. The American flag, folded three-corners in honor of his service during the Korean War, was removed. The rosary beads, clearly draped across his hands, were carefully removed and placed along with the flag and hat. Those three things, framing the man at rest, even if you didn’t know him, represented three very important facets of his life, features that everyone there recognized.

As they gently closed the open cover, taking the man from view with the prayers and singing still providing background, it was on my own personal level the saying of goodbye. As a chill quickly ran up my spine, my eyes filled — the same tears that blur my vision as I write these words. 

Rest in peace, John Nieslanik. 1932-2023. 

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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