Cowboy Poetry

To some, "cowboy poetry" might be considered an oxymoron. But buckaroos and drovers have a long tradition of telling stories around the campfire. As with all oral traditions, a story is better remembered if it is in rhyme. Though some of this (even my own) might be more properly categorized as "doggeral," some of it approaches the level of Robert Service or Rudyard Kipling; and all of it reflects a certain humor, a certain set of values and a certain lifestyle that is fast becoming extinct. Don't read this poetry to be "elevated" or enlightened. Read it for amusement and entertainment, and if something lingers that enriches your life or your perspectives... well, if you eat a lot of oysters you're bound to find a pearl.

Initially at least, all of of the poems here are mine but hopefully, I will be able to present the work of a few others as I get this page up and running.

Trail Markers

Big Ed


For Want of a ...Nail?

This is an old story, I just put my own twist to it--and it was even published:

Big Ed

Now my tale is of the early years, when the century was new
And the rankest critters in the Basin were cows and buckaroos.

Picture a saloon in Prineville, where the liquor's flowing free,
Where gamblers deal up faro and the girls smile easily.

It's early on a weekend - maybe three in the afternoon,
The pianer's playin somthin 'bout love and a silver moon.

When suddenly the doors burst open and boys, it's a terrible sight...
A cowboy staggers forward his eyes rolled back to white.

His hands they fairly tremble and his face is chalky pale
" I come to warn you, Big Ed's comin'... I seen him on the trail!"

There's a moment of deepest silence, but before another breath is drawn,
The bar empties out like a winter cup when the last of the coffee's gone.

The barkeep, fresh from Ireland, stands frozen to the spot,
Mindful of his immigration and having second thoughts.

Now the windows start to rattle and the chairs begin to dance
And the danger hanging in the air holds the barkeep in a trance.

There's a sound of heavy galloping comin' down the street
And ahead of it an odor like week old vulture meat.

Crashing through the swinging doors and tearing out the wall
Comes a grizzly being ridden by a man near eight feet tall.

He's got a rattler for a bullwhip and he cracks it overhead.
And the grizzly's got a logging chain between his teeth instead

Of a snaffle bit and rein, and the rider draws 'em tight
As he screeches to a halt and slides off to the... right.

Two strides he's to the railin', and he growls to make his point,
" Barkeep give me whiskey, the best that's in the joint.

Now the Darbyman's been hidin' behind the tavern sink,
But he hastens with a shotglass and pours the man a drink.

With a look of raw impatience the stranger knocks it to the floor,
Bites the neck off of the bottle and spits it out the door.

He tosses back the contents and downs it with a swallow
And the look he gives the Irishman is cold and grim and hollow.

The barkeep says his rosary, he's thinkin' of his mother
But trembling courage prompts his lips "Would you care to have another?"

The stranger turns away in silence, he offers not a word,
Then says "There ain't no time, son, I'm surprised you haven't heard.

If I was you I'd close this joint and set my mount a'runnin',
I'm just a step ahead of death... Ain't you heard?...Big Ed's a comin'!"

I wrote this one fairly recently to commemorate one (or all ) of my teachers:


Ol' Frank had been a waddie til he got boogered up one spring
When the horse that he was riding shied off some snaky thing
And lost its footing in the morning frosted grass.
Twas a simple break above the knee, he thought he'd heal up fast.

But the doctors down in Pendelton cast the leg from hip to shin
And he laid like that for several weeks while bone disease set in.
Well, he left there on his own two feet though the hip was made of steel...
And the knee would hardly bend at all... but the pain was damn sure real.

Y'know there's a quiet desperation when you've been a buckaroo
And you find yourself afoot for keeps... and old at forty-two.
When you've spent your life astride a horse, wearin chinks and boots
A sidewalk makes you get plumb white-eyed in a suit.

So he goes to makin saddles like a lot of old wrecks do,
And what started as a hobby into a flaming passion grew.
Now he's handy with a swivel knife and he fits the tree to horse;
He builds a solid groundseat... without a stringer or remorse.

He'll tell you if you ask him that he's not a cowboy anymore--
He's lost the knack of the hoolihan and ridin makes him sore.
Oh, he still wears a cowboy hat (it serves as insulation)
And boots, and shirts he buttons to the neck--accouterments of station.

And he still dreams of summer pastures when he used to ride for wages
And he remembers every friend... their voices, place and faces.
And in the bunkhouse there's a cedar trunk filled with memories
And an occasional memento of the hand he used to be.

But nowadays his name is known, he's got a reputation.
His saddles are collector's items--each one an evocation
Of another time, a truer time, one with no horizons
When everything seemed possible... before the going of the bison.

Every trail a man rides down is changed forever by his passing;
The twig is bent, the stone is turned--each adding, in a fashion,
To the markers that define the path and guide those who come after...
Who share the skill, the lore and even common laughter.

I'm proud to say "I knew him when..."--before the crab had took its toll.
I learned to be a man from him, though just "handy" was my goal.
Old Frank, he died in ‘88, though this story don't reveal it.
I tell it like he's still alive, ‘cuz that's the way I feel it.

This one is more or less related to my Trade:

For Want of a...Nail?

My story’s one that goes back a ways, bout an Oregon buckaroo.
Back when we was still runnin’ ‘em to market in Elko and Winnemucca too.

Now Oxbow Bob craved a new pair of boots when he come off the trail
For three long months he’d favored the left on account of a wayward nail.

He’d pointed the herd from the old "P" Ranch to where the Humbolt river flows.
There’s a bootshop down on mainstreet and that’s where Oxbow goes.

So he eases into the settee and wrenches off a boot
His socks are black from a winter back when he cleaned the lantern soot.

Now a smell like ancient mummies arose from the tattered wraps
And it makes the master stagger and a customer collapse.

Bob, he never notices the gentlefolk streamin’ out the door,
But braces his back for the other boot and leans into the chore.

His muscles knot, his face turns red and his eyes begin to swell.
He curses the damned old stinker in words I dare not tell.

But it’s the left boot boys, that won’t come off and when all is said and done,
That nail is deep in Oxbow’s flesh - he and the boot are one.

Now the master knows his duty and approaches with a sigh,
He’s seen this problem many times and he knows the reason why.

"That boot will have to be cut off," he says, "and maybe a part of yore heel,
Yer lucky you didn’t loose the leg to that chunk of rusty steel!"

Now Bob, he’s got a new nickname, the hands all call him Tilt.
And Francine, down at Mona’s, thinks he oughta have a bootheel built

That will straighten up his stature and allow old Bob to hold her,
As they waltz around the dance floor, without his chin hooked on her shoulder.

So beware of a boot that’s made with nails, what you want is the hardwood peg,
At least if it lodges itself in your heel, you’ll have the start of a wooden leg.

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