A sweat-dripping horse and a half-naked myall,
And a message: ‘Come out to the back of the run—
Be out at the stake-yards by rising of sun!
Ride hard and fail not! there's the devil to pay:
For the men from Monkyra have mustered the run—
Cows and calves, calves of ours, without ever a brand,
Fifty head, if there's one, on the camp there they stand.
Come out to the stake-yards, nor fail me, or by all
The saints they'll be drafted and driven away!'
Boot and saddle it was to the rolling of curses:
Snatching whip, snatching spurs, where they hung on the nail.
In his wrath old McIvor, head stockman, turned pale,
Spitting oaths with his head 'neath the flap of his saddle;
Taking up the last hole in the girth with his teeth;
Then a hand on the pommel, a quick catch of breath,
A lift of the body, a swing to the right—
And, ten half-broken nags with ten riders astraddle,
We sped, arrow-swift, for the heart of the night.
Thud of hoofs! thud of hearts! breath of man! breath of beast!
With M'Ivor in front, and the rest heel to flank,
So we rode in a bunch down the steep river bank,
Churning up the black tide in the shallows like yeast.
Through the coolabahs, out on the plain, it increased
Till we swung with the stride of the dingo-pack, swooping
On scent of weak mother with puny calf drooping.
Staring eyes, swaying forms o'er the saddle-bow stooping,
With the wind in our shirts, grip of knee, grip of rein,
Losing ground, falling back, creeping forward again.
Behind us the low line of dark coolabah;
Overhead a sky spangled by planet and star;
And to left, on our shoulder, the mighty Cross flaring,
While afoot the quick pulsing of hoof-beats disturbs
Moist silence of grasses and salty-leaved herbs.
Steering on by the stars, over hollow and crest;
Tingling eyes looking out through a curtain of tears
From the slap of the wind over forward-pricked ears,
Over forehead and nose stretching out for the west,
And into the face of the sombre night staring.
Threading in, threading out, through a maze of sand rises
That spring either side, loom a moment, then flee:
Dim hillocks of herbage and sun-blasted tree,
Till again a dark streak of far timber arises;
And anon, through the thick of a lignum swamp tearing,
Bare tendrils, back-springing, switch sharp on the knee.
Plain again! and again, with the speed of the wind,
The long miles in front join their comrades behind;
Then a sound in our ears like to far summer thunder
Or the booming of surf in a southerly gale;
And we shouted aloud each to each in our wonder,
For we knew that those beasts must have come fast and far,
That they moaned as the breaking of waves on a bar.
But behold! overhead the dark sky had grown pale,
With the azure-tinged paleness of newly-skimmed milk,
And the dawn-spiders floated on threads of floss-silk
As the guards of the sun drew aside the thick veil
And made ready to fling the dawn-portals asunder.
Still that sound swelled and rolled, thrilling deep on the air,
Calling long, calling loud in the ear of each steed,
Bringing courage and strength in the moment of need,
And light'ning the weight of the burdens they bare.
But that moment behind us upshot a red glare
As the sun swept the sky with a roseate sponge;
And McIvor's blue roan gave a rear and a plunge,
A half-sob, and so fell, like an over-ripe pear.
Not a rein did we pull, not a stride did we stay,
Speeding onward and speeding! For long we could hear
Old Mac.'s maledictions ring loud in our rear
As we rode in hot haste from the incoming day.
Then all sudden and strangely we came face to face
With the lead of the cattle, and lo! our long race
Was run out; and we drew up the horses, all panting
In stress of the chase, and yet ready for more;
And our eager ears drank in that thunderous roar,
While we watched the red squadrons come over the levels
As if view-holloa'd by a pack of night-devils—
Cow and calf chasing heifer and lumbering steer,
With their grey, dripping nostrils, and eyes wide with fear,
As if Burgess's cob followed hard on their rear.
So we blocked them, and lo! the new sun laid a slanting
Red finger on one who rode over the plain,
Steed treading full slowly, head drooping, slack rein,
Turning often aside through the dew-laden grasses
To crop a sweet mouthful. We needed no glasses
To see it was Fogarty. Once and again,
And again did we hail—yet he never looked round,
Neither made the least motion of hearing the sound.
Riding on like a man who should ride in his sleep,
Or as one in the web of some deep-woven charm,
So he came through the grass—his horse striding breast-deep—
With a woman held close in the crook of his arm;
And her hair, all unbound, rippled over his shoulder,
Dead black; and her brow, where the sweat of fierce pain
Had dried, was brown-tinged as bronze is, but colder—
Ah, many times colder! and as he pulled rein,
He unwrapped saddle-blanket in which he had rolled her,
And lo! the gay sunlight lit ominous stain,
Where a murderous bullet had torn a blue vein
And let out her life in a warm crimson rain.
Then gently he laid his sad load on the ground,
And with sorrowing glances we gathered around.
Then he turned to the west, with his eyes all aflame,
With his brawny fists raised, calling witness from Heaven—
On his shoulder and flank the dark blood of the slain—
And he hurled his curse back on the place whence he came:
A loud curse, and a threat that he yet would stand even
With those of Monkyra who wrought this foul shame—
Though, to tell the God's truth, we'd have done just the same
In their place, and have reckoned it nothing but right:
For the black girl and Fogarty quietly crept
On the Monkyra men in the dead of the night;
And it happened the watchman was weary and slept,
So the gin, who no doubt was a game little pullet,
Slipped in, and brought both their night horses away,
While Fogarty started the cattle that lay
On the camp; and the trick was so bold it succeeded;
For the Monkyra men, when their cattle stampeded,
Had nothing to send in pursuit but a bullet.
Yet that was as much as the little gin needed:
She made no great fuss, though, nor murmured nor cried;
Only rode on the right of her lord till she died.
Her life ended well—nothing scamped or by halves:
Where she went who can tell? But we branded the calves.
A sweat-dripping horse and a half-naked myall,