(A story of the droving days)

© Kelly Dixon

Winner, 2016 ‘Copper Croc Award’, Theodore, Queensland.

We lifted a mob from the wild Nebine scrubs;
a livelier mob you would likely not find.
They were sullen by day and they galloped by night,
as the dark of the mulga we left far behind.
Long-horned and lean, they were terrors to hold
on the camp in the dark, when they started to ring,
but they met their match in the drover that trip;
matched by the wiles of young Barnaby King.
Young Barnaby King was the best of the bunch,
and the Charleville locals to strangers would boast
he had never been beaten by bad ones before,
from the Watercourse flats, to the Gulf country coast.

It was said he’d been born in a Warrego camp,
when the rains at Carnarvon had poured for a week,
and his mother had taught him when twenty weeks old,
to swim without fear, in the Warrego creek.
At twenty five years he became a road-boss
who would baulk at no lazy old belly-deep run,
or a bank-to-bank flood in a river of foam
he would lead a mob in, and regard it as fun.
Just so long as the tailers were kept to the trot,
the cunning old leaders would follow him in,
and if ever a stranger should question him why,
he’d just grin them his lop-sided Barnaby grin.

He’d tell them the river was there to be crossed
so, why should he wait for the water to fall?
far better he’d state, to just lead the mob in,
and his method of swimming was best of ’em all.
If you wanted to get the mob where you were headed,
and wanted to wash off the dust from the hides
of the cattle, ‘twas good sense to take on the river,
than sit and just hope for a swapping of sides!
You might wait for a week, for the water to lessen,
but where would you feed ’em, the whole thousand head,
on a stock-route flogged bare by the passing of others?
No. Better to swim ’em, young Barnaby said!

We came to the banks of the Barwon one morning,
the water was racing, and spotted with foam,
The leaders were baulking and eyeing the torrent;
the tailers were hanging back, looking for home.
While some locals were watching we drovers from Queensland,
men covered with dust from their boots to their hats,
their swift-footed horses, the long-horned old leaders,
had started to ring, on those Mungindi flats,
until up to the lead rode a girl on a pony,
a girl of the bush I could tell from her seat,
with spurs on her boots and a whip ’round her shoulders,
a pony that looked both well-cared for and fleet.

She rode to where Barnaby King sat, just waiting—
waiting for bullocks to steady and stand,
and her smile lit the land, like the sharp morning sunrise,
she stood in her stirrups, to offer her hand.
In a voice etched with silver, she told him while smiling
she’d help him with coachers, if he could but wait.
So he rode with the girl to a Wayside tin humpy;
she stepped down so lightly, and opened a gate
to a yard where two Jerseys were finished with milking,
she haltered them both, and she gave one to King
to lead back to the mob where we drovers were watching;
back where the restless ones wanted to ring—

Then she rode with her Jerseys, straight into that river,
her pony unflinching in spite of the swirl
of the waters and currents, which carried the pony,
she angled him crosswise, that Mungindi girl,
and our bullocks decided to follow the Jerseys
who swam with their owner through flotsam and whirl.
What a sight was it then for the Mungindi locals,
as bullocks all swam, for that Mungindi girl.
And we made it —we drovers and old Nebine bullocks;
made it up pathways of yellowed wet clay.
When we came from that torrent bedraggled but grinning,
we ‘d bested the wrath of the Barwon that day.

We skirted the township and fed them on clover,
those long-horned bush bullocks, then just at last light,
we bedded the mob on a patch of blacksoil,
and we hobbled our horses on good grass that night—
We yarned for a time ’bout the girl and her pony;
the milkers she’d brought to the river that day,
to help us cross cattle from far away Boatman;
bush bullocks we’d brought from out Charleville way.
And when morning came fresh, with the promise of newness,
we all could read something was brewing that day,
A local man rode to our camp by the myalls
and told us, “The young girl had been swept away—

Years ago, when her stirrup had snagged in a sapling,
her pony was drowning, and she’d tried her best
to pull from the spring-bar, that treacherous stirrup,
the river the victor, took her to her rest.
Where the grey gums and lignum and wild willows wave,
there’s a tiny white cross, roughly nailed to a post,
and the girl with her milkers and pony you saw,
now and then drovers see, but, she’s only a ghost—
Yes, a ghost which still comes to the drovers in trouble,
to help with the cattle who baulk at the sight
of the river when flooded”— and mark you my words,
that young Barnaby King was quite thoughtful that night!

We had crossed the wild Barwon, led by a slim girl,
through the debris and foam of the late winter flood,
And we silently thanked someone watching our crossing,
who’d steered us up through the gum saplings and mud—
We blocked the mob then, in the shade of some myalls,
and everyone looked for the Mungindi kid,
who was not to be seen, she had just disappeared,
but we’ll always remember the job that she did
when she came to our help without asking reward
and led our bush cattle across that wild stream,
In wonder we sat in our saddles and thought,
was the girl ever there–or did we but dream?

Barnaby first met with Love by the Barwon,
and now where the girl and her pony’s asleep
he has placed a steel fence, and a slab of grey granite,
to fend off the hoofs of stray cattle and sheep
that might tread on the place where his young Love is resting,
way out where the fronds of the sad myalls wave.
And he always goes back to the flats by the Barwon,
to sit for a while by his bush darling’s grave—
Each year he goes back, and a bunch of bush blossoms,
he places each time, by the cross of white stone,
which marks where the Mungindi girl lies forever;
the only love Barnaby ever has known.

Now, the last of those drovers who crossed with the cattle,
crossed where the girl and her galloway died,
still talk of the love of a reckless young drover
who worshipped a girl by the old Barwon’s side—
They’ll tell you that Barnaby King never married,
and how he goes back to the town every year,
to sit in the shade of the grey weeping myalls,
where pictures of someone he loved are so clear;
someone who’d captured his heart at the crossing,
his first-ever love left his mind in a whirl,
and some swear to the truth of that day by the Barwon
when Barnaby met, with a Mungindi girl.

Author’s note:
Back in the forties a Mungindi woman used to help us cross cattle over the Bar-won by leading two big pet bullocks in front of the drovers’ mob, and this was done quite regularly if the bush-bred cattle baulked at walking across the traffic bridge, which led right into the end of the main street of Mungindi. Local legend had it that a young girl used to do the coaching job, but had drowned one day, and still her ghost came back now and then, to help drovers in trouble. My poem is based on that piece of folklore.

Return to 2016 Award-Winning Poetry.

Terms of Use

All rights reserved.

The entire contents of the poetry in the collection on this site is copyright. Copyright for each individual poem remains with the poet. Therefore no poem or poems in this collection may be reproduced, performed, read aloud to any audience at any time, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without prior written permission of the individual poet.

Return to 2016 Award-Winning Poetry.