ERNIE MC BURNEY’S RIDE
© Ellis Campbell
Winner, 2008, ABPA Queensland State Championship and ‘Gold Nugget Award’, Charters Towers, Queensland.
It was stockman Jack McBurney and his only son named Ernie
who were riding ranges to the west of here.
They were searching scrubs for cattle on the station Old Seattle,
for some strays evaded muster every year.
And the stockhorse Ernie mounted was the type that always counted
when the bullocks broke to vanish into scrub.
He’d survived a hundred musters where the gidgees grow in clusters–
the old chestnut bore the scars of rock and shrub.
But the stockman’s mount was flighty—sired by the great Swans Mighty–
just a young colt barely broken in to ride.
Jack declared the roan a beauty, though as yet unfit for duty
on a stirring chase where mountain scrubbers hide.
But their search went unrewarded, for the dark ravines afforded
all the shelter wild stock needed from the heat.
Now the stockman and young Ernie, wearied by their fruitless journey,
were reluctantly conceding their defeat.
As the evening shadows lengthened so a bank of storm clouds strengthened,
out beyond the range of mountains to the right.
With their horses’ footsteps dragging, and their spirits somewhat flagging,
they commenced the long ride homeward through the night.
A vibrating clap of thunder seemed to rip the sky asunder
and a chain-like flash of livid lightning gleamed.
All around the bush was glaring, like a lurid furnace flaring–
an eruption straight from hell, it surely seemed.
While the storm raged unabated, and the ground reverberated–
and the mountains vivid splendour blazed with flair–
a gigantic box tree shattered as explosive lightningscattered
strips of scorching, acrid timber everywhere.
Both the startled horses bolted, and bewildered riders jolted
as they plunged through trees amidst the blinding rain.
And the hardy chestnut Rajah—like a soldier’s gallantcharger–
kept his pounding feet upon the rough terrain.
But the anxious young colt bounded, through the rough scrub wildly floundered,
reared and bucked across uneven, rock-strewn ground.
As a horseman of some station, Jack clung on in desperation,
but the roan horse plunged in terror newlyfound.
And, despite Jack’s skilful riding, dark misfortune lurked abiding
and his head was bashed against a stringybark.
As he crashed to ground, lain senseless—midst the scrublands wild and fenceless–
his last thoughts were all for Ernie in the dark.
But old Rajah never faltered as his pounding hoof beats altered
to accommodate conditions quite perverse.
His young rider sat bewildered where the heavens’ dome was gilded
with the angry storm cloud’s lightning growing worse.
Through this iridescent raddle Ernie glimpsed the roan colt’s saddle
and despair assailed the young lad’s chilling veins.
For the saddle flaps were flailing and the bridle reins were trailing
and no rider steered this demon with the reins.
Was his father dead or crippled where the low line ranges rippled–
midst the wilderness that cast its awesome mask?
With the rain and darkness blinding Ernie knew his chance of finding
where his father lay could prove a daunting task.
But he halted Rajah’s racing, turned his head to set him facing
to the driving rain and sleety hail that blew.
And the chestnut stepped out boldly, while his lean flanks quivered coldly,
and his wise eye seemed to state the old horse knew.
There amidst the looming starkness of the driving rain and darkness
the old stockhorse picked his way among the trees.
And he found his way unerring through the rushing gullies stirring,
while the gushing water swirled about his knees.
With the horse’s instinct guiding Ernie sat there numbly riding
through the lonely scrub while thunder boomed again.
But young Ernie knew that steering might confuse the horse and, fearing
for his father’s safety, let him take the rein.
And he sensed his numb brain praying till he heard the old horse neighing
and his father’s voice called weakly down the track.
“I’m here, Ernie, in this hollow—where old Rajah leads just follow–
I was sure his sense would bring you safely back.”
There his father’s form was lying with the darkened shadows vying,
mud and blood bespattered o’er his pain-wracked face.
And his words were softly spoken, “I’m afraid my hip is broken.
I can’t walk and you won’t lift me from this place.
“There is only one decision—curse the dark and lack of vision–
let old Rajah take you homeward come what may.
Though you doubt his path’s direction, don’t attempt the least correction,
let the old horse wander freely on his way.
“I will need a helicopter—ring up Fred from Nellie Nopta–
say I’m somewhere to the south of Clapman’s Bore.
Go now, son, and don’t you worry, for there really is no hurry–
I’ll survive until they find me—say no more.”
With a firm handclasp they parted and young Ernie bravely started
through the dark aboard the gallant chestnut horse.
Into darkness blankly staring—quite devoid of any bearing–
till he reached a flooding, tree-lined water course.
For a moment Rajah halted—snorted once, but never faltered
as he plunged into that muddy, gushing stream.
And he breasted current’s swirling, where the foaming logs were twirling,
swept from banks into the rushing water’s teem.
But the raging whirlpool’s sweeping made their motion barely creeping,
bore the horse and rider downstream with its force.
And young Ernie’s heart was pounding louder than the current’s sounding,
but his hand went out to pat his noble horse.
Up the greasy bank he floundered while his gasping snorts resounded
and the homestead lights came into Ernie’s view.
Somehow feeling rather older, Ernie stroked old Rajah’s shoulder,
and the tear that stained his cheek was overdue.
As the signs of light were dawning, on a misty summers morning,
Fred McMurtry’s droning ’copter hummed its tune.
With his bushman’s knowledge guiding—and eternal hope abiding–
he was certain he would find his neighbour soon.
The McBurneys are still working on the station, never shirking
when it’s time to start the mustering again.
But their wife and mother Heather always warns them, “Watch the weather–
and leave early if there’s any sign of rain.”
On the flats of Old Seattle Rajah wanders with the cattle,
and is rarely given any tasks to do.
Jack relates the tale with pleasure, “That old chestnut is a treasure,
for his instinct surely saved the lives of two.”
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