© David Judge

Winner, 2022 ABPA Victorian Bush Poetry Championship, at the Man From Snowy River Festival, Corryong, Victoria.

Author’s Note: ‘Bailed Up’ is the name of an iconic Australian rural scene painted by Tom Roberts in 1895, whilst staying at Newstead sheep station near Inverell. It features a group of bushrangers holding up a Cobb and Co coach between Newstead and Paradise in the New England district of NSW. Roberts modelled the painting’s characters on local people, including ‘Silent’ Bob Bates, who was a stagecoach driver held-up by the bushranger Thunderbolt, 25 years earlier. The model for the female passenger was Isabella Caldow.

The poem also draws on my family history. My great grandfather, David Treffone, a miner who moved to the Inverell area after leaving Hill End where he was born. He married Wilhelmina Brice from Inverell and their eight children, including my grandmother Olive Bradstock, were born in either Hill Grove, Tingha, Inverell or Howell. David worked in the mines of Tingha and Howell, not far from where Tom Roberts painted his famous painting..

In the early 1980s I spent time in the Glenn Innes/Inverell/Tenterfield area, researching itineraries for Kangoala Safaris. Deepwater, Torrington and Emmaville were included in the final itinerary featured in the Kangoala Safaris program during the early years of its operation before relocating to Cairns.

The day was hot as Hades and the countryside was brown,
when Cobb and Co took passengers and freight from town to town.
The track was rough and stony on the way to Inverell,
and ‘Silent’ Bob was at the reins as far as I could tell.
He’d been held-up by Thunderbolt as Tom had heard him say,
and so I’m sure that he’s the bloke who sat upfront that day.

The coach had left Glenn Innes with two passengers on board,
the type of outback travel that the well-healed could afford.
The bay horse and the dapple-grey were tireless and fit,
both shod with steel for granite ground and straining on the bit.
And as they cantered through a gap of stringybarks and scrub,
they took a break at Newstead which provided bed and grub.

The horses had been fed and rested for the day ahead,
and harnessed up by ‘Silent’ Bob with nothing being said.
He had a reputation in a land of harsh extremes,
his equine bond uncanny as a ‘whisperer’ of teams.
And as the sounds of daylight broke the silence of the night,
the red coach that was Cobb and Co had disappeared from sight.

The flat and open grasslands soon gave way to woodland scenes,
of ribbon gums on rocky slopes and shaded dark ravines.
The track became uneven with its many twists and turns,
through gorges with a filtered light that danced on fronds of ferns.
The bay horse and the dapple-grey had shown what they were worth,
and galloped on with nostrils flared and foaming at the girth.

The steel rims with the wooden spokes ensured a bumpy ride,
and both the passengers on board were thrown from side to side.
The breeching straps and tug-stops kept the shafts intact and true
 and Cobb and Co’s best driver knew exactly what to do.
The reins slapped at the terrets and the buckles sang a tune,
in harmony with horses hooves that sunny afternoon.

The coach stopped at a mountain stream, just where is not precise,
but somewhere after Newstead on the way to Paradise.
A stretch of untouched wilderness where roos outnumbered flies,
would see that day completed under cloudless cobalt skies.
Refreshed and ready for the dash to where they’d stay the night
the bay horse and the dapple-grey knew something wasn’t right.

Perhaps they sensed it on the breeze or heard what men don’t hear,
reluctant to continue with a buck, a prance, a rear.
But ‘Silent’ Bob was adamant and gave both rumps the whip
intent on making sure that Cobb and Co complete the trip.
And as they thundered round a bend they saw that fateful sight,
a barricade, a fallen tree; those horses had been right.

A group of horsemen then appear to take what they can find,
with rifles and an attitude Tom Roberts had defined.
A bloke leans forward on his horse in slovenly repose,
another speaks to ‘Silent’ Bob, in friendship I suppose.
His rifle does not pose a threat nor does his cobber’s stance,
who chats with Isabella as if asking for a dance.

There was no gold on board that day, just mail for mining folk,
who had a torrid, tortured life and mostly stony broke.
Those horsemen were a consequence of pioneering days,
with little opportunity to change their wayward ways.
They took the tea and sugar which would last a week or two,
deciding that the coach should pass, the righteous thing to do.

This story from a painting is as vivid as the day,
that mates and I in childhood were those characters we’d play.
It uses conjured images reflected in my mind,
from years of living in the bush that I have left behind.
And ‘Bailed Up’ is a wondrous scene, a story I can tell,
imagining those characters in places I knew well.

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