Cattle would freeze before dawn, without help,
so Father rode out while it was night.
Sinking deep in snow by the porch, his boots
said fifteen inches, but maybe that was drifts.

Drifts stacked deeper by the fence,
where steers wandered and stopped,
hundreds mashed against barbed wire,
too dumb and cold to break it down.

He knew how far to the neighbor's grove,
how many wires he'd have to cut
when he found the herd, snow-coated lumps by now.
Yes, he came back by noon, yes, most steers

drifted downwind to the grove and stopped. Both storms,
while Father lost four toes and forty steers,
I slept downstairs by the fire he built.
Oh, I tried watching till sunrise while he rode

and even prayed for him, to be a man like him,
but slept in Daddy's chair under quilts
Grandmother spread--a boy, after all,
who couldn't stay awake one hour.

Walt McDonald


We come back always to Grandfather's ranch.
Forty years since he locked us out of the house
by dying, cattle and barns tied up for months
by probate. Cousins wanted cash and bonds,

not livestock and arid plains. At last,
the ranch was ours, 800 acres that remained,
the best range sold for taxes and lawyers' fees.
We raised five children before they left,

not one to carry on the herd. We followed two
to Europe, leasing the ranch to neighbors,
who gave back our land by dying, the year
our children left France and Belgium for Dallas.

We caught a plane and opened Grandfather's gate again,
one well caved in, planks on the back porch
rotted, everything else suspiciously the same,
except no cattle, no horses or family dog.

It took a week to clean the leaning barn
of cobwebs and snakes, air out the boarded house,
and sink the pump. The day clean water flowed,
we called our children and a dozen friends

and settled down at dusk on the back porch,
rocking, watching the stars come out, wondering
how many colts to buy for grandkids' visits,
how long before the barn falls down.

Walt McDonald
WALT McDONALD was a pilot in the Air Force and served as Texas Poet Laureate for 2001. Some of his recent books are All Occasions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), Blessings the Body Gave and The Flying Dutchman (Ohio State, 1998, 1987), Counting Survivors (Pittsburgh, 1995), Night Landings (Harper & Row, 1989), and After the Noise of Saigon (Massachusetts, 1988).  His poems have been in journals including American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly,  London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, Poetry, and TriQuarterly.