Vagneur: Ribs and whiskey, song and dance

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Instead of following the herd, the great chuck wagon with the red canvas top went first and stealthily, creaking and tipping along its own rough trail, to a spot near the cool waters of a mountain stream, seven miles distant from the ranch headquarters.

It was a 1990s Braun Ranch cattle drive, and as we skirted the meadow above cow camp, our day’s work done, the distinctive smell of barbecue and baked beans wafted our way and a few cowpokes and cowgirls took off at a gallop, so welcoming was the thought of the respite that awaited us. Moving 300 pair of bovine beasts up a steep, dusty trail makes for a parched throat and a hungry belly.

Horses know, maybe even before people, when the day is done, and my horse and I took the shortcut, where we dropped down a precipitous bank, sucked mud through a grassed-over bog and then danced across the small stream before we rode into camp, longing for a bucket of oats, the taste of cold beer and the laugh of good friends.

“It damn sure weren’t no chuck wagon,” as they say; it was the Hickory Wagon, owned and operated by my good friend Troll and his wife Donna. It was a stretch, getting that thing up the path to cow camp and undoubtedly required some assistance from brush cutters and a chain saw. Impressed, I reached out my hand in greeting to which Troll grabbed me by the back of the neck and pulled me close, giving me a big kiss directly on the mouth.

And then he laughed like hell. It couldn’t have been more appropriate — two old friends, bawling cows, smoking ribs, grazing horses, popping tops on beer cans and a million tales yet to be told around the campfire.

We first met Troll, Buck Deane and I, on an early morning trip through Carbondale in the late 1970s. He was cooking up a batch of ribs for Circle Supers (pre-cursor to City Market), and we casually struck up a conversation with him. He was a rather small man with a huge personality, a large beard and an even larger laugh, a guy who saw humor in almost everything and who faced the world head on. The twinkle in his eye was impossible to miss.

During that first visit, I’d carelessly tossed my Levi jacket over the front of his barbecue wagon and left without it. Troll, new to the community and after much effort, finally tracked Buck down and returned my jacket. A guy like that becomes unforgettable in a hurry.

Rest in peace, my friend.

A June cattle drive is generally not quite as challenging as the fall roundup when weather can play a big factor. One late autumn, again with the Braun Ranch outfit, we rode into a surly snowstorm the night before the big gather. Tents were hurriedly pitched all around the Red Canyon cow camp, accommodations for the 20 or so people who would spend the night. Warm, green hay was fed to the horses and a huge bonfire built in the outside fire ring. The cook stove in the cabin bubbled with hot stew, and steaks were grilled over the open fire.

Yours truly began playing his accordion around the blazing bonfire, and folks of all stripes, well-oiled by great food and free-flowing beer and whiskey, danced round and round, turning the rain- and snow-soaked ground into a muddy mess. Smiles were big, and the kids, including my daughter, Lauren, spent their time making s’mores and roasting marshmallows until at last they crashed on bunks inside the cabin, safe from the cold and the partying adults still circling the fire.

Turning in at last and being careful not to muddy up the tent, I carefully removed my boots on the way in and leaned them upright by the door. As Pam Houston said in her book, “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” the best way to sleep on a freezing night is naked so I neatly tucked my clothes into the sleeping bag with me and dozed off to the sounds of the horse herd, right outside.

Next morning, my clothes were warm and tolerable, but the boots, stacked as they were against the tent wall, were frozen stiff. I got ‘em on but it hurt like hell so constricted and cold was the leather. Then it was right back into the soggy, wet snow and half-frozen mud, standing around to get breakfast and saddle the horses.

Just two weeks ago, I spent several days rounding up cows through freezing rain and snow, smiling and trying to stay warm. One thing about it and the only thing you can really say, even though it’s not all pleasant, it’s all memorable.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at