Branding Day


The chirping of crickets and the slow, waking breeze 
of a country morning is disrupted by the rumblings
of trucks and trailers easing their way down the caliche road.

It is as if the deep, rich scent of bittersweet coffee lures them, 
and they pull in, easing their horses backwards from the trailers, 
Resistols already pulled down and gloves in back pockets. 

Quiet chatter draws the first rays up over the horizon
as they slide bridles and bits into place and cinch their saddles,
the armor of a battle-ready cowboy on branding day. 


The pastures spread yonder, here and there-abouts, until they
find themselves down-aways, a herd in sight, grazing with
not a care in the world other than the occasional rattlesnake.

Divide and conquer, the army of riders move in with strategy,
pushing the herd back south towards the shipping pens,
a sea of Black Angus raising dust, their  bellowing a song. 

Spurs clang along creating their own dynamic rhythm,
reins taut in fists, sweat beginning to trickle and weave its way
lazily over muscles, over veins, over scars like rivers. 


The business of tending cattle is a difficult one, 
wrought with a pain that sears in the minds of ranchers
as well as in the flesh of the spring calves- a necessary evil.

Blood, sweat, soil, and pride- all caked onto the bottoms of boots, 
but it is the smoke that will hang high in the air, sickly sweet, 
long after the battle is through, long after the dust has settled. 

Tags in calf ears, shots administered, the bulls become steers. 
Ropes are tied back on saddles, and the young children,
their Wranglers still stiff from the store, grow up just like that.


“Dinner is the noon-time meal,” the seasoned cowboy will say.
“Lunch is something that comes in a paper bag.” 
They pile their plates with beans, cobs of corn,  slabs of brisket.

Resting weary bones on bales of hay, forks moving to mouths
faster that a cowboy can spit his tabacky, plates are empty, 
refilled, and emptied again between tall-tales told by the elders. 

A fresh biscuit sops up the juices, plate ready for a final treat-
a cowboy cobbler of berries, peaches, spices, and a lattice crust,
eaten much slower, savored, the prize for hard work done. 


The horses’ muscles twitch with pleasure upon a cool water bath,
a massage and brushing, from the neck and down to the flank,
hooves examined and muck and manure pulled out and tossed aside. 

Only a cowboy knows the unique aroma of a horse’s lather mingled
with leather, with dust, with blood, with smoke, with the day. 
Only a cowboy wants to breathe it, let it be a part of the soul. 

The wheels of time lower the sun down, bathing the land with 
a beauty typically unseen in the daytime duties of a cattleman, 
a peace placed over Earth that eases the aches and pains.

Author’s note: Below is a photo of my dad’s first (and only) selfie. I had to trick him to make it happen, for he does not believe in technology. He was also quite shocked to learn that my “telephone” could take a picture. Anyway, this is my dad, cattle rancher, Dave Nicholson. His personal brand is the “Rafter D.” I do not have easy access to photos taken at brandings over the years, but I wanted to honor this cowboy, the last of a dying breed of traditional, old-fashioned cattlemen, in some way. This poem is dedicated to him and all of the other cowboys who shape their children’s lives, teaching them the value of hard work and the beauty that lies in simple things.