wallyjlwatermarkphoto by Jessica Brandi Lifland

by Wallace McRae

They contemplate their town-boot toes
As they stand around and mill.
They check the south horizon,
‘Cross the tracks above the hill.

Their suitcoats hint of mothballs,
Their Levis are clean and creased.
They speak of grass or cattle
But never the deceased.

Some have shook the Gov’ner’s hand,
And one’s been in the pen.
Crooked legs define the bronc hands,
Cropped-off thumbs the dally men.

Their spring-toothed necks are throttled up
In silky black wild rags.
Their faces scored like flower-stamps
On well-worn saddle bags.

They’ve come early to the funeral home,
Yet don’t want to go inside.
There’s no comfort in a breathless room
Or words of “eventide.”

They somehow share a secret bond
As each one recollects:
Together. Separate. Silently.
Each pays his last respects.

You’ll hear no keening to the vaulted skies,
But the good hands know when a good hand dies.

© Wallace McRae, used with permission
Wally McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Montana.He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In his book, Cowboy Curmudgeon and other poems, Wally McRae notes this poem is “Dedicated to the memory of my uncle Evan D. McRae.”

Texas Hill Country poet and writer Linda Kirkpatrick suggested this poem. She comments, “When I began writing cowboy poetry I studied the classics, paying close attention to the subject matter, the rhyme and the meter. I hope that beginning writers study this poem. It should be read and pondered. It is just beautifully written.”

This outstanding photograph of Wally McRae is by photojournalist Jessica Brandi Lifland, used with permission, from her “Cowboy Poets” project. See more of her photos of Wally McRae here.

Others photographed for her “Cowboy Poets” project include Amy and Gail Steiger, Rodney Nelson, Henry Real Bird, Jack Walther, Bimbo Cheney, Waddie Mitchell, Doris Daley, Jerry Brooks, Elizabeth Ebert, D.W. Groethe, and Bill Lowman. Find the photographs here.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but any other use requires permission.)