MIDNIGHT MUSTER

© Donald Crane


Winner, 2013 ‘The Bronze Swagman Award’, Winton, Queensland.


The out of work drovers and no-hoper ringers who’d mustered the station for many a year,

Were race and chase merchants without any knowledge of working wild cattle, their tactics not clear.

Despite their bravado these whip swinging yahoos were lacking in talent when put to the test,

With a couldn’t care manner and policy setting of ‘get what we can and to hell with the rest’.

‘Round the campfire at night they would skite ‘bout the chases and boast ‘bout the number of bulls they had tossed,

The cleanskins they’d tied from the mobs they were running — with never a mention of those they had lost.


Now onto the scene came a master scrub rider, a legend ‘mongst stockmen whose prowess and fame

Was gained from a lifetime of working wild cattle, in vine scrub or wattle; Jim Wormwell by name.

Through whipstick or mulga, in basalt or wattle, this peerless scrub rider was up with the best,

With a knowledge of cattle, their minds and their habits, as feats oft recounted do rightly attest.

Where others would bustle and scatter the scrubbers, and tie one or two risking goring or fall,

This wily old stockman would follow a’distance, the mob kept in sight, and come out with them all.


How many missed cleanskins had yet to be yarded, how many wild scrubbers was anyone’s guess,

But Jim and three stockmen, (including yours truly) had taken the contract to clean up the mess.

Three weeks of good going had mustered most paddocks — ahead was the scrub where the ‘escapees’ ran,

A task we were dreading, for real is the danger in catching scrub bulls, both to horse and to man.

For these were the cunning most roguish of scrubbers who’d beaten the musterers time and again,

And ours was the challenge to have a ‘clean’ muster, our task was a tough one, the danger quite plain.


Daytime would find the whole mob on the creek flats, ‘round waterholes languid ‘neath gum trees they’d laze,

Where shade was aplenty and grasses abundant, from deep in the vine scrub they’d come out to graze.

But the sight of a horseman, the slightest disturbance, would have the whole mob on their feet in a flash,

And back through the vine and the whipstick and wattle, on daily used pads they would hastily dash

To their sanctuary deep in the scrub and safe refuge, away from the torment of dogs and of man,

But little they knew that their free days were gone, as the boss ‘round the campfire unfolded his plan.


“We’ll muster the gully tonight in the moonlight!” — those words struck us dumb, was the boss off his head?

To muster the worst of the country — and cattle — at night, and in darkness!, a task we should dread.

“We’ll muster the gully tonight in the moonlight”, we found ourselves asking if this was a joke,

But after he told of his plan in more detail, ‘twas plain to us all that experience spoke.

And as we partook of our corned beef and damper, Jim told of the times and successes he’d had,

Recounting the times he had mustered by moonlight, when paddocks were vast and the scrub bulls were bad.


Our horses were saddled an hour before midnight, we lingered awhile with a last quart of brew,

Then riding three miles found us roughly mid-gully, where Jim gave strict orders, instructions anew.

Our task to be done without hustle or bustle, to move about quietly, ghostlike — at a walk,

And this above all; — for no matter what happens, in absolute silence, no noise and no talk.

To utter a sound would assure a disaster, for this was the secret those old stockmen knew,

And also the reason why others who’d mustered had troubles galore and came home with so few.


Not a beast was in sight when we got to the gully; — in thought I was wondering whether

We were wasting our time, ‘til the boss calmly spoke, “I’ll try putting a small mob together”.

And with that from his throat came the sound of a calf in distress, and its bellows were sounding

Like a pack of wild dingoes were pulling it down; the result of this ruse was astounding,

For from deep in the scrub came the bovine response, their protective instincts were then stirred,

With the cracking of sticks from each flank of the creek, to the rescue — a thundering herd.


Like spectres we horsemen sat silent and still as the mob gathered ‘round us kept milling,

As they searched, but in vain, for the calf in distress that the pack of wild dogs had been killing.

But alas, they’d been conned by a bushman who knew every trick in the book and who’d played

On the instincts protective inbuilt in each beast, their response he knew well now displayed.

Nothing more could we do but encircle the mob and move off on our homeward bound course,

And  strange as it seems, while strict silence prevailed, man was seen just as part of the horse.


With the branded stock settled and acting as ‘coachers’, the cleanskins, though nervous and tense,

Were led by the quiet ones and finally trapped as they went through the gap in the fence.

Come daylight we yarded the fruits of our labour, then drafted the lunar-lit haul,

Counting scrub bulls and mickeys, bush heifers as well, — twenty seven I seem to recall.

Our contract fulfilled there was nought left to do, with the ‘Ten Mile’ clean mustered once more,

So we rolled up our swags as Jim modestly said, “Three hours work, not a bloody bad score”.


Now those days are long gone, the vine scrub has been pulled, and it's sad the scrub rider whose fame,

Made him stand out from stockmen whose chosen life’s work was to follow the mustering game

Has departed the scene; modern times have arrived, and the horse given way to the ‘quad’,

And instead of good horsemen to muster the stock, now a helmeted Honda bike squad!

But I fancy if somehow old Jim could return, he would yearn for the times that have passed,

When the pear scrubs were thick, and the scrubbers all wild, and the paddocks still unfenced and vast.


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