“TURN out, boys!”—“What’s up with our super to-night?|
The man’s mad—Two hours to daybreak I’d swear—
Stark mad—why, there isn’t a glimmer of light.”
“Take Bolingbroke, Alec, give Jack the young mare;
Look sharp. A large vessel lies jamm’d on the reef,
And many on board still, and some wash’d on shore.
Ride straight with the news—they may send some relief
From the township; and we—we can do little more.
You, Alec, you know the near cuts; you can cross
‘The Sugarloaf’ ford with a scramble, I think;
Don’t spare the blood filly, nor yet the black horse;
Should the wind rise, God help them! the ship will soon sink.
Old Peter’s away down the paddock, to drive
The nags to the stockyard as fast as he can—
A life and death matter; so, lads, look alive.”
Half-dress’d, in the dark, to the stockyard we ran.
There was bridling with hurry, and saddling with haste,
Confusion and cursing for lack of a moon;
“Be quick with these buckles, we’ve no time to waste;”
“Mind the mare, she can use her hind legs to some tune.”
“Make sure of the crossing-place; strike the old track,
They’ve fenced off the new one; look out for the holes
On the wombat hills.” “Down with the slip rails; stand back.”
“And ride, boys, the pair of you, ride for your souls.”
In the low branches heavily laden with dew,
In the long grasses spoiling with deadwood that day,
Where the blackwood, the box, and the bastard oak grew,
Between the tall gum-trees we gallop’d away—
We crash’d through a brush fence, we splash’d through a swamp—
We steered for the north near “The Eaglehawk’s Nest”—
We bore to the left, just beyond “The Red Camp”,
And round the black tea-tree belt wheel’d to the west—
We cross’d a low range sickly scented with musk
From wattle-tree blossom—we skirted a marsh—
Then the dawn faintly dappled with orange the dusk,
And peal’d overhead the jay’s laughter note harsh,
And shot the first sunstreak behind us, and soon
The dim dewy uplands were dreamy with light;
And full on our left flash’d “The Reedy Lagoon”,
And sharply “The Sugarloaf” rear’d on our right.
A smothered curse broke through the bushman’s brown beard,
He turn’d in his saddle, his brick-colour’d cheek
Flush’d feebly with sundawn, said, “Just what I fear’d;
Last fortnight’s late rainfall has flooded the creek.”
Black Bolingbroke snorted, and stood on the brink
One instant, then deep in the dark sluggish swirl
Plunged headlong. I saw the horse suddenly sink,
Till round the man’s armpits the waves seemed to curl.
We follow’d,—one cold shock, and deeper we sank
Than they did, and twice tried the landing in vain;
The third struggle won it; straight up the steep bank
We stagger’d, then out on the skirts of the plain.
The stockrider, Alec, at starting had got
The lead, and had kept it throughout; ’twas his boast
That through thickest of scrub he could steer like a shot,
And the black horse was counted the best on the coast.
The mare had been awkward enough in the dark,
She was eager and headstrong, and barely half broke;
She had had me too close to a big stringy-bark,
And had made a near thing of a crooked sheoak;
But now on the open, lit up by the morn,
She flung the white foam-flakes from nostril to neck,
And chased him—I hatless, with shirt sleeves all torn
(For he may ride ragged who rides from a wreck)—
And faster and faster across the wide heath
We rode till we raced. Then I gave her her head,
And she—stretching out with the bit in her teeth—
She caught him, outpaced him, and passed him, and led.
We neared the new fence, we were wide of the track;
I look’d right and left—she had never been tried
At a stiff leap; ’twas little he cared on the black.
“You’re more than a mile from the gateway,” he cried.
I hung to her head, touched her flank with the spurs
(In the red streak of rail not the ghost of a gap);
She shortened her long stroke, she pricked her sharp ears,
She flung it behind her with hardly a rap—
I saw the post quiver where Bolingbroke struck,
And guessed that the pace we had come the last mile
Had blown him a bit (he could jump like a buck).
We galloped more steadily then for a while.
The heath was soon pass’d, in the dim distance lay
The mountain. The sun was just clearing the tips
Of the ranges to eastward. The mare—could she stay?
She was bred very nearly as clean as Eclipse;
She led, and as oft as he came to her side,
She took the bit free and untiring as yet;
Her neck was arched double, her nostrils were wide,
And the tips of her tapering ears nearly met—
“You’re lighter than I am,” said Alec at last;
“The horse is dead beat and the mare isn’t blown.
She must be a good one—ride on and ride fast,
You know your way now.” So I rode on alone.
Still galloping forward we pass’d the two flocks
At M’Intyre’s hut and M’Allister’s hill—
She was galloping strong at the Warrigal Rocks—
On the Wallaby Range she was galloping still—
And over the wasteland and under the wood,
By down and by dale, and by fell and by flat,
She gallop’d, and here in the stirrups I stood
To ease her, and there in the saddle I sat
To steer her. We suddenly struck the red loam
Of the track near the troughs—then she reeled on the rise—
From her crest to her croup covered over with foam,
And blood-red her nostrils, and bloodshot her eyes,
A dip in the dell where the wattle fire bloomed—
A bend round a bank that had shut out the view—
Large framed in the mild light the mountain had loomed,
With a tall, purple peak bursting out from the blue.
I pull’d her together, I press’d her, and she
Shot down the decline to the Company’s yard,
And on by the paddocks, yet under my knee
I could feel her heart thumping the saddle-flaps hard.
Yet a mile and another, and now we were near
The goal, and the fields and the farms flitted past;
And ’twixt the two fences I turned with a cheer,
For a green grass-fed mare ’twas a far thing and fast;
And labourers, roused by her galloping hoofs,
Saw bare-headed rider and foam-sheeted steed;
And shone the white walls and the slate-coloured roofs
Of the township. I steadied her then—I had need—
Where stood the old chapel (where stands the new church—
Since chapels to churches have changed in that town).
A short, sidelong stagger, a long, forward lurch,
A slight, choking sob, and the mare had gone down.
I slipp’d off the bridle, I slacken’d the girth,
I ran on and left her and told them my news;
I saw her soon afterwards. What was she worth?
How much for her hide? She had never worn shoes.