Cowboy poetry at Christmas time offers a colorful view of how these hard-working, hard-playing characters enjoy their celebration, yet all the while recognizing the reason for the season.
S. Omar Barker’s “Shepherds of the Range” features only two stanzas, but packed into those stanzas is a beautiful story about the conflicted generosity of a bunch of celebrating cowboys, who leave their Christmas Eve dance to search for a lost shepherd.
Stanza 1: “The lights shone gay that Christmas Eve. The dance had just begun”
Cowboy poet, S. Omar Barker, writes in a rimed, rhythmic form that delights the ear, making the unfolding of his narrative especially enjoyable. The speaker in “Shepherds of the Range” begins his yarn by revealing that the cowboys had gathered “from miles around” to have fun at the Christmas Eve dance.
The speaker reports that the music has begun and “the fiddler’s foot was “pattin’ fast,” and the dance caller “sung out” colorful directions to the dancers: "Now swing your pardners, skin the coon and turn him wrong side out!" The dance is being held at a school house, and the weather outside is bitter cold.
Suddenly, they hear “a wailing shout” that “rose shrill.” A cowboy rushes to the door, opens it, and a Spanish kid in “ragged clothing, white with snow” walks through the door. He has a “frightened face,” and his eyebrows are “rimmed with frost.”
The “chico” then announces that his uncle Tio Juan “is lost / On Malpai Mesa with his sheep—the blizzard made them stray.” The kid is speaking in Spanish, but some of the cowboys understand him. The boy had feared no one would help, but he had to try anyway.
Stanza 2: “‘Sheepherder lost?" One cowboy shrugged. ‘That don't spell me no woe!’”
One cowboy pipes up, “Sheepherder lost? . . . That don’t spell me no woe.” And he insists that the dance continue. (This attitude is a reminder of the historic conflict between sheep herders and cattlemen.)
Despite the sour attitude of the one cowboy, another insists, “Let’s go!” And they all leave at once to help find Tio Juan. Amongst “quip and joke and jest” through a “driving storm,” they ride five miles to the “craggy mesa.”
Because of the historic sheep vs cattle wars, some of the cowboys still curse the sheepherders and “claimed 'twould be good riddance.” But they continue their mission to find the one lost shepherd.
Finally, around midnight, they find Tio Juan. He is alive but freezing, so they “packed him in to thaw.” They even fetch as many of the sheep as they could find.
Again, the complaining cowboy chimes in, cursing the “damn sheepherder” who “spoilt our Christmas Eve.” The cowboy is disgusted that by the time they get back to the party it will be over. But the fiddler has a few healing words for the complainer. The fiddler says he would “fiddle plumb to daylight if the women think I ort.”
And then the fiddler offers a few choice words about “cussin’ shepherds.” Addressing the cowboy who had continued to carp about shepherds, the fiddler explains:
And as for cussin' shepherds, son, if I remember right,Commentary
Seems like it's in the Bible how they watched their flocks at night,
And when the Star of Bethlehem brung Christmas long ago,
The fellers first to see it--they was herdin' sheep, y'know!
Barker’s poem celebrates the Christmas spirit. Despite long-time conflict and woes, the cowboys stepped up to help a fellow human being in distress. The fiddler represents the attitude that Christmas fosters, as he corrects the attitude of the cowboy who would “cuss” the shepherds.