Vess Quinlan: Three Poems

photo © 1993,  Kent Reeves; request permission for reproduction; find more below



The Old Hands
Mamma’s Cowboy
The Soul of a Cowman



by Vess Quinlan

It’s good to set and listen
to their talk of long ago,
these men with skin like leather
and hair as white as snow,

to hear how the world was run
a little different then,
produced a tougher breed of cattle
and a rougher sort of men.

The cows were lean and ringy
and working ’em was hard;
you could melt a hundred head
and not get a pound of lard.

There were damn few gentle horses
like we’re used to now;
it don’t take much to figger horses
had to match with man and cow.

A horse was five or six years old
before they’d run him in;
the idea of starting colts
was considered wrong back then.

Their days were long and lonesome
and the camps were far away;
they got to town about once a month
to spend the hard earned pay.

But the thing you hear most often
is the whole damn deal was fun,
in spite of winter’s biting cold
and summer’s scorching sun,

In spite of rank and spoiled horses,
or maybe ’cause of them.
You wonder if you’d have made a hand
had you lived back then.

You say you wish the old days
would come rolling back around
to see who could stay the camp
and who’d go back to town.

A grey head shakes, “No son,” he says,
“Not that, leastways not to the letter.
We done some things the way we did
’cause we just didn’t know no better.”

© 1990, Vess Quinlan, from The Trouble with Dreams
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission


It’s been over fifty years
and mamma blushes like a teen,
red as a desert sunset,
when one of her brothers says,
remember the time Bearcat Bearden
fell in love with Marjorie,
hung around the telephone office
all winter just to walk her home.

I am a son amazed,
not to learn that mamma
had a boyfriend before dad
but at the idea of old Bearcat,
who would saddle a horse
to ride to the outhouse,
walking her home.

© 1990, Vess Quinlan, from The Trouble with Dreams
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission


When we had enough of shopping,
grew tired of “Don’t touch that,”
“Behave yourself” and “Come back here”
little guy and I escaped, set off afoot
down a handsome tree lined street,
the best town offers with great white homes
and yards penned in by wrought iron.
Little guy took in the plenty grass,
and said, “Grandpaw where are all the horses?”
I swelled with pride to know that genes ran true
and the soul of a cowman was in that child;
barely two he damn sure knew what grass was for.
Then thoughts of pure clean genes running true
vanished in an old man’s grin of understanding.
Raised water short on our desert outfit,
the poor little buckeroo had never seen a lawn.

© 1990, Vess Quinlan, from The Trouble with Dreams
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

vessquinlanphoto by P’let Tcherkassky

Colorado rancher, writer, storyteller, and poet Vess Quinlan has been described, “Vess Quinlan is an American Cowboy Poet, who is widely considered to be one of the most respected poets of his genre.” There is no argument with that.

In July 2019, Andy Hedges’ Cowboy Crossroads podcast aired an outstanding interview with Vess Quinlan. It is filled with thoughtful insights about work, cowboys, poetry, and people in general. You’ll hear about his family’s and his own history and learn something about his perseverance and the wisdom he’s gathered. Listen to the episode here.

Find Vess Quinlan’s recitation of his poem, “The Barn Cats” and find more video at the Western Folklife Center’s YouTube channel. Vess Quinlan has been a part of all but two of the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings.

This favorite photo of the book Vess Quinlan carries with him was taken at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering  by Idaho photographer and filmmaker Betty K. Rodgers (

Quinlan Book B&W© 2010, Betty K. Rodgers; request permission for reproduction

The color photo up top of Vess Quinlan is by artist and friend-to-many Californian P’let Tcherkassky, taken at the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering. Find more about her at

The circa 1993 photograph of Vess Quinlan at the top of this page is by Kent Reeves from the landmark book Between Earth and Sky: Poets of the Cowboy West, by Anne Heath Widmark, with photographs by Kent Reeves.

Kent Reeves writes in the book’s Acknowledgments, “…I owe my work in this book to all the poets who allowed me to interrupt their lives and who took me in for a few days. I do not feel that I ‘took’ these photographs; I believe that each poet gave them to me.” In addition to Vess Quinlan, the book includes chapters with Buck Ramsey, Wallace McRae, Joel Nelson, Rod McQueary, Linda Hussa, John Dofflemyer, Shadd Piehl, Paul Zarzyski, Sue Wallis, Henry Real Bird, and Drummond Hadley.

See a gallery of photos from the book here and find more about Kent Reeves at, at his site, and on Facebook.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)