by Wallace McRae
You know, some men just look like a cowboy,
Though you’d be hard-pressed to say why.
It may be their posture, or bearing,
Or the confident look in their eye.
Since I was needing some ranch help,
I tapped into the cowboy grapevine,
Where every saloon and each bunkhouse
Can transmit, or receive, on the line.
Later on, well, in rolls this pickup
With them buckin’ hoss Wyoming plates,
‘N the hat that the driver was wearing
Looks like a twin of George Strait’s.
There’s rawhide mudflaps on the outfit
And a big gooseneck ball in the back,
A bedroll, a basket-stamped A-fork,
The gun rack’s plumb festooned with tack.
On the windshield’s a Quarter Horse sticker
From clear back in seventy-seven.
“Mighty nice country,” ‘s the first words he spoke
“It sure looks to be a cow heaven.
“I was down at the sale barn in Sturgis
where I hears that yer needin’ a hand,
So I drives up through Belle Fourche and Lame Deer
Maybe thinkin’ to ride for yer brand.
“I’m no hell of a hand now, you savvy?”
(Here he offers a pinch of his snoose.)
“There’s lotsa good hands in the county
‘N I’m just a sorry excuse.
“But all I been’s just a cowboy.
I follered a cow all my life.
I guess if I’d been more aggressive
I’d maybe still have me a wife.
“I lost her ‘n them cows, I guess nine years ago.
She called losin’ our cows the last straw.
She called me a loser (probl’ly she’s right).
And moved back in with the mother-in-law.
“As a hand goes, I guess I’m just av’rage,
Or maybe a notch below that.
I’m partial t’wards lady-broke horses
that couldn’t buck off a man’s hat.
“Now some people brag on their ropin’
That can’t find their way outa town.
Me? If I can’t catch ’em runnin’
I keep chargin’ until they lay down.
“I’d say I’m a lousy horseshoer;
‘N machinery I don’t cotton to.
Do I drink? Well, I ain’t no abstainer
‘N I like to hoist me a few.”
He went on a-jokin’ and jobbin’
With a humorous gleam in his eye.
Damned if I didn’t right away find myself
Laughin’ and likin’ this guy.
I’d had it with all of them blowhards
With them buckles proclaimin’ them “Champ.”
He could roll out his bed in the bunkhouse’
Diogenes could hand up the lamp.
Here for damn sure was the last honest man,
Who was humble—devoid of all guile.
I figured that here was a cowboy
That could do it all…with a smile.
I was led like a poddy to slaughter.
I’m amazed, ‘n I bet you are, too.
The sumbitch was a liar I tell ya,
Ev’ry word that he told me was true!
© Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission
Wallace McRae, third-generation Montana rancher and National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow shared “Hired Hand” in an excellent session at the recent Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Best known for one of his least-favorite poems, “Reincarnation,” he commented that this year at Elko he was sharing some of his lesser-heard poems and graciously gave us permission to share this one.
That said, see a fun video of Wallace McRae, along with his friend Paul Zarzyski performing “Reincarnation” at the 2009 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering:
For a wonderful look at this complex man, watch a Western Folklife Center video in which he “… tells a true story about Northern Plains ranching, with a moving tribute to a neighbor.”
For another aspect of his work, view his presentation of his stirring, masterful poem, “Things of Intrinsic Worth,” performed in 2013 and a part of WESTDOCUMENTARY, a feature-length documentary work-in-progress by H. Paul Moon.
Wally will turn 82 this month, and he says he doesn’t want to be reminded about it. He relishes being known as “the cowboy curmudgeon,” but his work is full of heart that belies any such characterization.
He is the author of a number of books: Stick Horses and Other Stories of Ranch Life, Cowboy Curmudgeon, Things of Intrinsic Worth, It’s Just Grass and Water, and Up North is Down the Crick.
Find more of Wallace McRae’s poetry and more about him in our feature at CowboyPoetry.com.
This untitled 1939 photo by Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) is from The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Farm Services Administration (FSA). It is thought to be from the Quarter Circle U Ranch, Big Horn County, Montana.
Rothstein was a student of Roy Styker, who conceived the documentary photography project for the FSA. Find more about Arthur Rothstein here.
Find more about the photo here.