Ballad of the Range

The whole country is in a duel and we want no part of it.
They see us ride, they say
all you men going the wrong direction.
We’re getting to California. We ain’t got time to enlist.

If some forts ready to be sawed to Colt towns,
others are abandoned since ricket-limbed Southies
couldn’t let their grudges aside and mauled
each other to blood strops.

All around us forts lie built and unbuilt, half-
walled towns as men yoke themselves to state,
but we brothers are heading through fields of blue rye and plains
scullground to silt sand, 

afar, the boomtowns of precious ore.


    Ballad of Fort Mann

Come to a fort of ragged cedar posts,
rigged together by rodent sinews of prairie dogs.
We holler and little boys peek from above,
their faces seared by blast wind.

:Who you be? What you want? They shout thinly.

Boys in rags and twine suspenders hold Winchesters
much too big for them. They aim at us.
:Where all yer Pops?     
:They at war!

We lost a brother, axed in the head by a rancid trapper,
so we pluck one boy from the litter,
lure him out with hen fruit and fresh violet marrow.
We pounce him. Christen him Jim.

But our adapted boy’s head done turned.
All he does is sing, his throat a tender lode of tern flutes
disturbing our herd, singing of malaria,
his murderous, lime-corroded ma. 


    Ballad of Heel-Squatter Canyon

The land shocks up to a clay
escarpment up to towers of Cretaceous cliffs
burrowed with a thousand snake holes
like an Aztec civilization forgotten.

Against this heathen monument, we make camp.

At night, a grand illumination:
the prairie grass licking up in a widening, spiraling fire.
A herd of antelope springs out
from that conflagration so far from us

they’re fleas leaping from pelt
yet Our Jim shoots one easy as varmint
and we fast reckon this queer 
piper can tame this harrowed land.


    Ballad of Tombstone Omaha 

Day’s gone immortal.  

The bleached ruin of light lasts and lasts, no night
to repair our minds, no white clip moon to give us rest,
only pitiless noon where our sleep-starved consciousness
patters faintly behind our squinted eyelids.

Then, sod homes, no bigger than raised graves, and inside,
none dwelled, only nail keg and soap box for chairs.
We sacked the sod home down, 
drank dram beer.

As we pulled the last of the spuds,
phantom harridans raged from these mounds to chase us down,
Earth crusted to their salt skin as if God didn’t finish
his making and we shot, shot, shot

and nothing but plovers rose into the air.


    Ballad of Rites Inside a Rookery of Avarice

This is the last barricaded fort we pass.
Men of faith and the whores they cured have taken reign,
using brandy cask–rigged pulpits
to mete out their punition.

Whores have a fandango to celebrate one man
hung and dry lightning splits

while preachers swaddle the other thief
like an Indian babe in winter, and they carouse
while he measles sweat. One bastard child 
whips him fast on the ear.

A preacher hitches Our Jim to a shaking post
and his leppy body trembles to a million ticks,
a foreboding of what’s to come.
:He’s in you. He’s in you now!

Our Jim cries from such an invasion.
:No one never in me. No one.


    Ballad of the Occasional Indian Disturbance

Our Jim kills our first, a Miwok, who done tried to sneak
off with our mules. For days, we drug his gutted body, tailed
by a lariat of vultures who peck him raw,
A procession of wild, piss-eyed lobos.

His sister rears the parade.

When we break for camp, she alights on us like a woolen moth,
begs us for his body so she can mourn him
we stomp at her, unload our pistols near her, still she begs
and so we take her hard.

Later, she begs ’til one
of us brothers tired of her yammerings, her pleadings
unhooks the gnawed-on body
from the wagon.

Our Jim’s gone husk.
He warns us of our weakness.


    Ballad Beyond the Forts

We stop speaking. Our lips curl back so we’re just teeth. 
Our Jim sings as if all his body’s reed.
No thought flickers behind his linseed eyes.
Soon we’re the same,

A small parasite bore into our bellies
and memories slide out like gut. We kill
the few pickings of buffalo, butchering their huge
roddled heads, their liver tongues.

Blood bursts from Earth’s throat
in a mighty tornado and speckles itself across
the soil, hardening to ruby poppies.
A mighty empire arises.