photo © Shannon Keller Rollins; request permission for use
by S. Omar Barker (1895-1985)
They asked me: “What’s this wagon
that we hear so much about.
Aren’t wagons simply wagons?”
Well, it kinder laid me out
To realize such ignorance
was still a-runnin’ rife
About cow country customs
and the facts of cowboy life.
And so I found a sunny place
and squatted on my heels
To try and make them savvy
that a double pair of wheels
Ain’t all that makes the wagon,
in the meanin’ of the word,
The way us cowboys use it
that have been out with the herd.
For a wagon ain’t The Wagon
on the roundup or the trail
Unless it totes a chuckbox
handy-like upon its tail.
This chuckbox is the cupboard
where the coosie keeps the gear
With which he wrangles rations
for the cowboy cavalier
Who comes in off the cow work,
like a farmer to his shack,
To save his hungry stummick
from a-growin’ to his back.
He may git whistle-berries
and shotgun-waddin’ bread,
It may be beef and biskits,
but it gits the cowhand fed.
Yer chuck ain’t all The Wagon means
to sons of saddle sweat.
It means dry clothes, a bed, a fire.
and somewhere he can set
To do what little talkin’
that the cowboy’s life allows
About the thoughts he’s thinkin’
while he’s out there with the cows.
It’s where his comrades bring him
when he’s sick or hurt or shot;
It’s his anchor, it’s his haven,
it’s the only home he’s got.
So when he throws his bedroll in
The Wagon for a “work,”
It means he’s swore allegiance
to a job he’ll never shirk.
You’ve heard of soldiers loyal
to the flags of regiments—
The cowhand’s flag’s The Wagon
and the brand it represents.
They asked me: “What’s The Wagon?”
It’s a thing words can’t explain,
Unless you’ve bedded ’round one,
under stars out on the plain.
Two lonesome riders passin’
pause to hail, like passin’ ships,
And “Whichaways The Wagon?”
Is the question on their lips.
So when a cowboy’s time has come,
St. Peter hears his hail:
It’s “Whichaways The Wagon?”…
And he points him up the trail!
…S. Omar Barker, from “Rawhide Rhymes,” used with the permission of the estate of S. Omar Barker
The second cowboy poetry gathering in 1986 at the Western Folklife Center included a tribute to S. Omar Barker by New Mexico historian Marc Simmons. He commented, “If any man deserved the title “Poet Laureate of the American West,” it was S. Omar Barker…Author of 2,000 poems and 1,500 short stories and novelettes (the first one published in 1914), he was a writer who drew inspiration from his bedrock acquaintance with the western range country. When Omar described cattle, bronc riders, or moonlight in a mountain meadow, the reader knew he was getting an authentic picture from someone who had ridden trails on horseback.
“….Molded by the hard knocks of a rural background, the younger Omar tried his hand at ranching, then went on to work as a forest ranger, high school teacher, state legislator, and briefly, a college professor. All the while he was churning out novels, stories, and poems that dealt with what he knew best—the land and the people of the Great West….”
Find more about S. Omar Barker in our features here:
Shannon Keller Rollins shares this great photograph. Shannon and Kent Rollins run the Red River Ranch Chuckwagon. They take their 1876 Studebaker chuck wagon for cooking on working ranches and at other locations and events “from bar mitzvahs to brandings.” Their popular book, A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales from the Trail, is filled with mouth-watering recipes, rollicking stories, and more of Shannon’s excellent photography. Kent is an award-winning cook and television personality as well as a popular storyteller and poet. He writes a regular column for Western Horseman.