by Wallace McRae
Old-timers in the neighborhood
Would bandy words on who was good
At puncher jobs for hours on end when I was just a kid.
They’d get wall-eyed ‘n paw and bawl
And swear, “By damn I knowed ’em all.
If’n Josh he wasn’t best trailhand, I’ll eat my beaver lid!”
“Down and dirty, I’m the dealer
Old Bob Seward? Best damn peeler
Ever snapped a bronc out, jist give me one he broke.”
“Give you say? That’s what I heard.
You’re right that Bob’s a tough ol’ bird.
But better practice cactus pickin’ and work on your spur stroke.
Cain’t stay astraddle one of his his’n
When he pops the plug and goes t’ fizzin’
She’ll be adios caballo and howdy to the nurse.”
They’d move from bickering bronc peeler
To rawhide hands ‘n fancy heelers.
“Red Carlin?” “Young Mac Philbrick?” They’d testify and curse.
They’d analyze Link Taylor’s cuttin’:
“His bag-splittin’ way of calf denuttin’
Is pure askin’ for trouble, ‘sides he don’t cut by the sign.”
“You cut your calves by the moon?
Keep on night brandin’ and pretty soon
The sheriff’ll change yer address and you’ll be twistin’ hair
On they’d rave and postulate
‘Bout who was fair and who was great.
As they scratched brands in the hot dust, I’d never say a word.
But in their jousting verbal battle,
Among the boasts and barbs and prattle,
I sat in youthful judgment as they sorted out the herd.”
So, I came early to understand
The names of every good top hand.
In my scope of country, from hearing tough hands talk.
But when they’d crow and blow and boast
The one name that came up the most
Was a wily wild horse runner they simply called “ol’ Proc.”
“You boys jist start ’em. I’ll stop ’em.”
Old Proc’d say and then he’d chop ’em
Off at some escape route. He’d wheel ‘n bring them in.
“Proc thinks horse,” I’d heard them say,
And finally there came the day
That I would get to meet this fabled mounted paladin.
My mother’s father, John McKay,
Up and said on fine spring day
While I was staying with them, “Minnie, get your bonnet.”
“Let’s go up by Castle Rock
‘N see some country, visit Proc.
If you’re late, I’ll be upset. You can bet your life upon it.”
He never paused for her reply.
My grandma fussed around and I
Asked grandpa, “Is he the wild horse man?” “That’s him,”
my grandpa said,
As we ricocheted and bounced our way
In a tobacco-stained green Chevrolet
My grandpa told “Proc stories” and chewed and spit and sped.
From all the tales Grandpa told me
I felt like an authority
On this ranahan, Joe Proctor, who came north with Texas cattle.
His wife had been the JO cook.
But Proc had sparked and won and took
Her for his bride. They fought and won the homestead battle.
I couldn’t wait to meet Mr. Proc,
Whose peers all praised his ways with stock.
But when his calloused hand gripped mine, surprise hit me
Those old cowboys who cut no slack
Deemed it unimportant Proc was black,
And wasn’t worth a mention that Joe Proctor’s folks were slaves.
© 1992, Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission.
View Andy Hedges’ recitation of this poem at the Western Folklife Center’s 2019 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Earlier this year, Wallace McRae, third-generation Montana rancher and National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow, told us about this poem, which is based on a real person, Joe Proctor, who came up to Montana with Texas cattle. His grandfather talked about him, and told how he and his wife were the only Black people he ever knew.
There was a Black woman who was a cook at an area ranch, and Joe Proctor would ride over to visit her and they eventually married. Some of their descendants still live in the area. Wallace McRae’s grandfather would say that Joe Proctor was widely respected as “a heck of a hand.” Wallace McRae said that Joe Proctor died before he had the chance to meet him, and added that he took a bit of liberty in the poem.
Wallace McRae is most well known for his own least favorite poem, “Reincarnation.” A closer look at his work shows a body of serious work as well as his unique humor.
Find his stirring, masterful poem, “Things of Intrinsic Worth,” performed in 2013 and a part of To the West, a feature-length documentary work-in-progress by H. Paul Moon.
Wallace McRae has retired from public appearances. Find more of his poetry and more about him in our feature at CowboyPoetry.com. He relishes being known as “The Cowboy
Curmudgeon” (which is the title of one of his books). You can share this post, but please don’t otherwise use his poem without permission.
The Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (January 27-February 1, 2020) in Elko, Nevada will have a focus on the historic and contemporary culture of Black cowboys through performances, exhibits, films, and more.
Noted photographer and journalist Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is most famous for her Depression-era photograph of a migrant woman, and she captured images of other migrants and workers, including cowboys.
This 1936 photo by Dorothea Lange is from The Library of Congress. It is captioned:
Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Texas. Born a slave about 1850, south of San Antonio, Texas. Came to Carrizo Springs during Civil War with white men seeking new range for their cattle. In 1865, with his master was one of the first settlers. He knew Billy the Kid, King Fisher, and other noted bad men of the border.
(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem with this post, but for other uses, request permission. The photo is in the public domain.)