The Wanderers

© Catherine Lee

Winner, 30th Blackened Billy Verse Competition, Orange, NSW.

He came from out of nowhere like a stranger on the run,
emerging as a phantom from behind the blinding sun.
He wore his aged Akubra at an easy, rakish slant,
rode tall within the saddle as if nothing could supplant,
with stock whip furled beside him and a bedroll firmly trussed;
his dusty boots had seen some miles – were caked in ochre dust.
He looked as if he’d seen it all – seemed rugged, stern and tough;
when greeting us impassively, his voice was low and gruff.
Yet one free hand protectively and tenderly caressed
a one-eyed pitch-black Labrador, reclined against his chest.

He wasn’t staying all that long, just drifting round for work—
a competent, efficient hand who wasn’t known to shirk.
He had a way with animals and rode in full control—
an asset during muster, when he’d focus and cajole.
Though keeping to himself a lot, not one to sit and yack,
he joined us at our campfire and he said his name was Jack.
Returned from war, he’d little inclination to expound
on how it was, exactly where, on which unholy ground,
yet slotted in quite well despite reserve with dialog—
and shadowing his every step was Jet, the one-eyed dog.

But Wayne was having none of this—he tried to goad and rile;
it only served to irritate when Jack would merely smile.
A chip weighed down his shoulder and he liked to play the boss;
unpopular, yet Wayne was not a man you’d want to cross.
Though mostly Jack dismissed his words like flies on outback spoor,
just once we saw a rage in him we’d seldom seen before…
the yelp was shrill, retaliation swift! Eyes shards of ice,
Jack sprang to Jet’s defence to grip Wayne’s throat in steely vice.
His threat was grim—while Wayne gaped numbly, belly full of grog—
 “You call me what you like, but don’t you ever touch that dog!”

So no-one intervened, for Jack took everything in stride,
though Wayne provoked him every day through pique and wounded pride;
he openly took issue with involvement in a war—
harassed and baited, mocked them both as strangers to abhor.
I tried to shut him up, but he was ignorant and mean,
so simply sought to place myself discreetly in between.
Then one day while the mob was resting underneath some trees,
us sprawled within a rocky clearing capturing the breeze,
antagonism seemed to grow from nowhere, undeserved,
demolishing the shaky sense of peace we’d all preserved.

We hadn’t been there very long when Jet began to growl;
with hackles risen, ears on end, shot up to pace and howl.
“Ah, shut that mongrel up!” spat Wayne—Jack raised a warning arm,
already on his feet to find the source of Jet’s alarm.
But Wayne was on a roll and plainly itching for a fight;
“That’s it!” he spat, and leapt at Jack with sudden, needless spite.
Anticipating injury or worse in anger’s heat,
the rest of us as one were yelling, springing to our feet.
He’d lost all reason, grabbed a rock and raised it in the air,
when suddenly a black projectile launched towards the pair!

The swirling soil was rendering the battle hard to see;
as chaos reigned, potential harm now seemed a certainty.
Though secretly we figured Wayne deserved his fate in store,
our common sense compelled us, so we stepped in with a roar
to roughly drag him backwards, shove him off disgustedly—
yet still ferocious barks continued inexplicably,
till finally a piercing yelp, a shout, and then a groan—
as dust dispersed, we gazed transfixed at Jet, now lying prone.
For inches past the spot where Wayne had knocked his master down,
there lay the headless body of a deadly Eastern Brown.

We fixed our stares on Jack as he approached that sorry sight
and knelt beside his pup with face implacable and white.
Yet even as he scooped him up and murmured soft and low,
Wayne wouldn’t stop his badgering – just had to have a go!
“You shouldn’t get attached! It’s made you barmy in the head,
‘coz after all it’s just a dog – and now it’s clearly dead!”
The silence that descended could be severed with a knife—
we reckoned Jack would thrash him within inches of his life.
Not one of us would blame him if he wrung that drongo’s neck,
yet though his glare was cold, he somehow kept his rage in check.

“This here,” he hissed, “is ‘just’ a dog – who sniffed for bombs and mines;
he’s ‘just’ a simple mutt who crossed the vilest battle lines,
alerting us to dangers knackered soldiers couldn’t see—
and when we parachuted out, would trust implicitly.
A highly trained and loyal guard who tracked a dying mate,
and helped me keep perspective in that vicious zone of hate.
In fact, he saved my life, and in the process lost his eye;
I argued hard to bring him home – refuse to let him die!
So shut your filthy gob, ‘coz there’s a bond between us two
you’ll never comprehend – he’s worth a thousand blokes like you!”

Without another word he spun around to mount his horse.
For once Wayne wisely held his tongue – I hoped he felt remorse.
Approaching Jack in silent shame, I gestured with my hand
to hold the pooch while Jack remounted – knew he’d understand.
I took the lifeless body from his own arms into mine…
then both of us were startled by a sudden, muted whine!
He nodded imperceptibly, acknowledging support,
with ashen face revealing how his hope and sorrow fought.
I passed Jet up, and Jack took off at once to find the vet,
who told him there was little chance to save his chum—and yet…

His master was determined, and throughout the coming days
sat staunchly by his side to share in every painful phase;
spoke softly as his breathing laboured, vomiting commenced,
and held him when the tremors hit, or treatment was dispensed.
Severely injured, whimpering, oblivious to light,
the pup was badly weakened and a bleak, distressing sight—
yet surely proved a fighter, for to everyone’s surprise,
against the odds he rallied – now a hero in our eyes!
We sent Wayne packing—didn’t need a yob like him around—
but Jack had been there long enough, was further outback bound.

He left one morning early like a drifter in the night,
a shadowed silhouette against the faintly dawning light.
He twisted in his saddle as a rose blush kissed the sky,
to raise his aged Akubra in a gesture of goodbye.
Saluting him respectfully, I felt a sharp regret
to know he’d not return – the coolest bloke I’d ever met.
His hat replaced, he turned towards the desert’s boundless space—
to me a lonely figure, plagued by scenes you can’t erase.
Yet glimpsing pointed ears I smiled, for one free hand caressed
that one-eyed pitch-black Labrador, reclined against his chest.

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