© Ellis Campbell
Winner 2010, ‘Victorian State Written Championship’, Benalla, Victoria.
I dozed a bit but soon awoke, a little after midnight’s stroke,
and saddled up my horse beside his stall.
The Southern Cross and Milky Way to southward of the stockyards lay –
an eeriness pervaded over all.
All Jack’s instructions long since heard, no ghostly figure spoke a word –
like silhouettes four silent horsemen etched
against the distant skyline’s rim. I rode beside old Fred and Jim,
our nerves like tensioned wires tightly stretched.
The night was still, devoid of breeze—the moon hung low above the trees –
our horses’ hooves clopped faintly on the ground.
No matches flared to light a smoke, the saddle creaked, but no one spoke –
though every rider knew where we were bound.
And Jack alone of all our crew was versed in what we had to do
to muster up the Scabby Gully mob.
Scrub bulls and mickeys*, cows and steers had roamed this wilderness for years,
in thickly timbered scrub beyond the knob.
These knew this scrubland—every inch—from Baldry Knob to Stony Pinch –
sought instant cover if a man drew near.
They scattered when a horseman stirred among the trees, this flighty herd
would melt into the scrub and disappear.
A stockman of complete resource—Jack signalled from his chestnut horse,
beyond the shadows near a moonlit glade.
Far less adept and quite untried, us others riding by his side
were phantoms in an eerie masquerade.
Jack’s upraised hand our sign to halt—prepare ourselves for this assault
inside a silvered patch of open ground.
Jack bellowed like a tortured calf that dingoes almost tore in half –
and suddenly we heard the strangest sound.
From belts of timber everywhere wild cattle’s crashing rent the air –
bulls bellowed in an anguished slavered moan.
A dingo howled to join the fray in stark response to Jack’s display
of mimicry the likes we’d never known.
A motley mob, they milled around, perplexed by Jack’s authentic sound –
the mass of surging beasts a sight to see.
From gully’s depths and rocky hill we heard more cattle coming still,
the horsemen moved as silent as can be.
Bewildered by Jack’s rare decoy the herd succumbed before his ploy,
though warily they stamped with some distrust.
They jostled with an anxious stride and bellowed low, quite mystified,
as nervously they milled among the dust.
From every point the beasts emerged but never horseman spoke or urged
his mount to move beyond a walking pace.
The branded cattle mixed among the scrubber ones more highly strung
helped soothe the herd within this moonlit space.
All knew to speak a single word would spook this feral bovine herd
and send them crashing through the scrub again.
Like eerie spectres everyone rode slowly till the mob begun
to drift toward a stretch of open plain.
The lowing cattle drifting slow weaved shadows in the moonlight’s glow,
all moved beneath the riders’ silent guard.
The fences loomed on either side and now the stockmen all could ride
behind the mob into the cattle yard.
Next day revealed a pleasing sight—the herd we’d captured overnight –
wild Brahman bulls and bony cows galore.
On spinifex where most stock starves fierce mickeys, steers and stunted calves
had ranged for years in valleys no one saw.
Those days are gone, so is the scrub—no longer vine and stunted shrub
afford the straying cattle camouflage.
The paddocks lined by fences strong that roving Brahmans string along –
repelled from roaming scrublands wild and large.
Now often when the moon is bright I dream about that long-gone night
and hear again Jack bellow like a calf.
A mighty stockman passed beyond the weight of any earthly bond –
and who am I to write his epitaph?
This story is based on an episode of skilful display
by Jim Wormwell, a stockman extraordinary.
*Mickey. Young scrub bull.