It was hard times in the mountains, it was heartbreak on the plains
Where folk were losing courage from ten years without good rains.
The land was dark with dying beasts, in one great western arc,
Converging on the mountains' grass, as if on Noah's ark.
Old Harrison had highland grass, yet horse-flesh kept him poor
— Lost a paddock at the races, and bounced back to lose three more;
To him a steed was seething power, to be owned with fear and pride,
And held love and joy and panic in the rhythm of its ride.
His Dad had murmured "Pardon", then his last word was "Regret"
— His mind was on the highlands tribe and his own unpaid debt:
How he promised blankets, horses to the last 'Ngarigo
Then brought in guns and cattle, and suggested they should go.
The son who'd never heard his father speak of such remorse
Assumed his theme was racing, and went out and bought a horse.
The Colt named Hope was mad for freedom, true son of old Regret,
The cracks had vowed to break him, but he wasn't saddled yet,
For horse sense is a funny thing, and it's been often said,
The hardest thing's to get a thought out of a horse's head.
Some swore Hope had an inkling, that he dreaded as his life:
Of a cold curving piece of steel they call a gelding knife;
He'd seen the bawling bull-calf's veins get staunched with hissing steel,
And it may have crossed his fancy that he might dislike the feel.
So he jumped the stockyard railing, in a mood of die or bust
And vanished — to their horror — in a cloud of drumming dust.
Harrison fumed, "He's worth a thousand; well I'll give a hundred pound
To the man who gets him haltered, and back alive and sound!
And with all the damned new stock that's pushing up here for the drought,
I'll cheer if some bright bastard shoots the other brumbies out."
Soon a letter came, much quoted, it was Clancy's thumb that wrote it,
(And in mansions and in stables some tut-tutted and some gloated)
"I've brought my stock down here half dead, on spec from McIlroy;
Can't leave my poor beasts starving to go chase a rich man's toy.
In three months send a bag of oats and I'll ride night and day
I've half a dozen children, and very little pay."
A second script dropped in the mail-tin one week later and it said:
"Am coming over anyway, since my last beast is dead."
The brumbies' leader was "The King", one who knew no laws,
In horses (as in men, some say) it comes down to sperm wars;
And sometimes of an evening you could hear the sickening smack
Of the King's heels shoving in some brave colt's ribs and back.
He was a moonlight mare-thief that no stockman's art could pen;
His black mane sparked like Furies, he was perilous for men.
Such power and such wildness neighed from eerie heights above;
It was something to call out a girl's first silver-brumby love.
"Riders will come," said Harrison. "They'll be queuing at our gate;
Great sportsmen need great quarry, the colt's a perfect bait;
The land below is overtamed. Who's proud of catching roos?
A rogue stallion, a wild mustang's the best a man can choose
— Besides, the way the drought is, it's got to cross their brains
To catch the colt from old Regret may bring more cash than rains."
They came from Bright and Beauty, Tubbut Station and Turnback,
From the Pinch and Suggan Buggan to the Bally Hooley Track;
From Tuckerbox and Toombullup, the Great and Little Popong,
And Hinnomunjie, Mellick Mungie, Toolong and Corryong;
And trotting in from Tingi Ringi, Tidbinbilla, and Mibost
(Stray syllables of fading tongues, and meanings almost lost)
From Avalon and Bete Bolong, and Tambo, Deddick, Dargo,
From Jagumba and Jagungal, Star of Hope and Mt Wombargo;
From Crooked River, Copracambra, Cuppacumbalong, Gooroo,
Grabbengullen and the Quidong, Swindlers Creek and Tongaroo;
From Dederang and Dinner Plain, Byadbo, Maramingo;
Wonnangatta, Wanniassa, and a dozen Creeks named Dingo;
From Tanjil, Tilba, Tara, Bendoc, Brodribb, and Ensay,
From Biddi, Bulga, Bull Town, Yass, and Merrijig and Yea;
From Budgeree and Boolarong and Goomirk came an army,
From Jeeralang, and Yarram, and Yan Yean and Upper Yalmy;
From Wonyip, Bemm, and Bogong, Botheram and Monkey Bear,
Mounts Buggery, Cope, Useful, Mugga Mugga and Despair;
From Bacchus Marsh, Burrungubugge, Paddys Creek and Jackys Pass,
And Talbingo, Towong, Matong, Tumut, Tonghi and Tear-Arse;
And from Numbla Vale and Numbla Creek, Cooney and Coonhoonbula,
And Haunted Stream and Hairy Man, and half way to Dimboola.
There were Macnamaras, Pendergasts, and Barrys and O'Rourkes,
A Woodhouse and some Sheahans whose address was "Snowy Forks";
There were cracks like Owen Cummins, and the odd brave stableboy,
And Spencer, Clarke and Cochrane, and Jack Riley and Jim Troy;
A Faithful and some Treasures, Haines and Crookes of Holey Plains
And Crisps and Wroes and Roses from Euroa to Cobains.
They brought "Hemlock," high-strung "Horehound," and "Candlebark" beside,
And "Goanna" who could wriggle up the steepest mountainside.
They'd a code — if it was patchy, they observed it in the main
— Some would say as old as Adam and some bits as old as Cain.
"Horse-shooting's vile," cried Hanrahan, "Catch 'em alive's the game;
You've got to war against this land, and love the thing you tame."
John the Turk heard him and laughed — he felt so much the same.
They poured in, bits a-jingling, stirrups clashed on railing logs,
Whips were cracking, harness creaking, tribal cries of men and dogs;
No oilskins for the stockmen, and for some a hessian sack
Was all that kept the sleety hail from running down their back.
There was old McKell from Pambula, his young boy "Premier" Bill
Who fought a war within a war to keep the peaks wild still;
And John the Turk from Googong who rode 18 stone, with skill
— A madman who while galloping at full stretch used to fling
Himself from off his saddle to the brumby's neck and cling;
And Cross-eye Jack from Crackenbak, who now seemed bent and old
— He had dug up half a mountain to pan half an ounce of gold;
Old Jackson and his saddle-boy whom gossips called his wife,
Though wiser heads would mutter something gently about "life";
And Billy Cobyam, the full-blood, tall and lean as a roo hound,
And when he rode, the jesters crowed, his feet trailed on the ground;
He knew the things blackfellows lost, and white folks hadn't found,
Like the "Stone Bridge" near Williams where the Snowy's underground;
And Pat and Rob from Campbells Knob who blushed when others peered
And whose chins beneath Akubras seemed fairly free of beard;
And Red-Rag Tom from Cardiff, who wed a local, full-blood too
— Something his grandsons to this day assure you is untrue.
"Who's left to join tomorrow's ride, come fight the brumby plague?"
"Just me — the man from Snowy River," piped Jim Craig,
"I've rode for days after this prize ... I mean, to join the race."
He had his pride, but hunger's pinch was carved along his face.
"You got permission, Jim?" "Dad's dead, I try to run the mine ..."
"No use to tell the story, son. Mount up, and join the line."
"So, you're a Man from Snowy River?", Ferret Curl began a "mock",
"Your pony looks three-cornered; five bob says he's a crock.
But then I've never seen a mountain horse that wasn't mainly cur,
With matted mane and brumby feet and vermin in the fur.
The mares there breed too early, like the stockmen's womenfolk
— Leaves them weedy, pallid creatures, all egg-white and no yolk;
And who comes from Snowy river? It's a gorge without a track.
A torrent hurtling through a cleft or squirting from a crack."
Clancy drawled, "That creek's a brumby, it hides out in the hills,
And if you go to trace it, Curl, you'll have some spills and chills,
And need a boat, or ride a goat or yes, a mountain-horse
— One light as his might suit you — if you carried it of course.
The land down there stands on its end, any nag from there is tough;
And the lad or horse that holds his own can pass as good enough."
Cold dawn, hoof-crack on frosted mud, about a house so grand
It had an ornamental gumtree — one the architect had planned.
The squatters' wives at shutters of their palace, prison, school,
Were asking what can turn a man to such a horse-mad fool;
And their daughters peeped and giggled at the tattered-trousered men
And wished them on some Miss they knew back at "the boarding pen";
Whispering how the stockmen's kids lived shivering in some shack
On wages of four pounds a month, bulk rabbits and hard tack:
"No underwear, no nothing, Heralds plastered on the wall,
And mostly pasted wrong-way-up, 'cause they can't read at all."
But wild-willed Jessie ventured out, the squatter's spunky daughter
With a squint that sort of hinted things dear daughters shouldn't oughter.
Did Jim leave her by the stockyard rail, alone to learn that song
Of the hooves that sound so loud at first and then are gone so long?
Was she feverish and fervid, all pubertical intense?
Would she wed a sweaty stockman? Come now, show some sense!
And the sun came up like gunfire on a perfect mountain day;
The cracks all scrubbed and saddled, champing for the fray.
"A bold peasantry," beamed Harrison at large, "their country's pride ..."
" — Chased overseas," snapped Red Rag Tom, "have learned to shoot and ride."
And the gang-gangs clanged their clarion, as if to split the land,
The cock crowed and the crow cawed, the light flowed, it was grand;
And the riders rode out cheering; hooves flashing, long manes flying,
They pounded past the humpies where a native "Duke" lay dying;
They smashed through slopes of mint bush, where every broken leaf
Released some mighty fragrance — it was half beyond belief
How that humble herb-plant could possess the mountain air
As sometimes a trace of gumleaf makes bush tea beyond compare.
Each rider's breath like private fog; dawn's slant light showing bold
Each buttercup or boulder — like God's work in gold.
Their horses rose through endless groves of box and cypress-pine,
Climbed frozen creeks to frosted heaths where sallees hold the line.
Up where fox-scats stud the byways with their freeze-dried scale and fur
The cawing soaring ravens spoke of thoughts most folks defer;
The slope was like a house-wall, and they walked up it like flies,
Sneaking round behind the mob in hopes of a surprise;
Vast flowerbeds that elsewhere would denote a stately home
Soon lay vibrantly before them, untended and unsown
— Day lilies, gentian violets, eye-brights of deep-sea blue,
Though there wasn't too much colour once the troops had trotted through.
At mid-morning out to a plain of plum-pine shrubs they broke,
The last one dropped some matches, and the years went up in smoke.
(And that night from pigmy possums you might have heard the wails
As fox and wildcat picked them off, defenceless as stunned quails.)
But the black horse from his look-out by a mighty pile of dung
Had seen the circling horsemen long before their trap was sprung,
He'd caught the hint of hoofbeats and the odd unwary shout
And knew his lungs or theirs would crack before the day was out;
So the stallion gave the "raspberry", turned with flying mane and tail,
And just before the fire was lit had picked an upward trail;
Then he stayed behind his hareem as he got them mountain-bound
Bunching up so close you could have flung a net around.
Jim Craig cantered quietly and let Andy pick his stride,
As the King fled ever higher, up towards Kosciusko's side;
And to men who tried to stay with him the rhythm seemed as fine
As if man and horse were grafted, calf to flank and arse to spine,
They would tighten stride or loosen, leaping just as high as need,
Picking shorter ways and swifter than the lead-mare dared to lead;
Some whacked their hooves in hurdling, or got "yarded" among crags
But the Man just kept on coming, with a hundred zigs and jags
— Out-guessing and short-cutting, and arriving up ahead
Of all but Curl and Clancy, where the brumbies had just fled.
At noon they raced beside the Snowy like a tribe of upland gods
And their hooves flung up the divots till the air was raining clods,
And the wildlife gazed in wonder as the sod was smashed asunder,
And to distant Tumbarumba came the music and the thunder
As they edged the wild ones sideways, out towards the Great Divide,
Till they squeezed them West of Twynam, tried to pin them back beside
The deathly drop at Watson's Crags, and get them roped and tied;
Then as Clancy spurred to head them, they must pass him or succumb
And the hillslope seemed to rumble like a giant muffled drum;
The King came straight at the riders — some were glad to let him through;
As he rose up on his hind legs like a monstrous fighting roo
The Ferret cried, "Give way, back off, you'll never hold him here,"
— The main force of the riders was still furlongs to the rear.
The King's high-lashing foreleg caught Clancy's ribs a whack,
Half daunting the tough skilful man who fought to hold him back.
And he was through — but wheeled and wounded Ferret neck and thigh
As the mob poured round and past them, up towards the mountain sky.
Yet that last attack had trapped him, as the men came up apace,
And boxed him back against the drop, with scarcely rearing space.
He gave the "death neigh" then, and while Clancy was drawing breath
Like a defeated Rajput warrior the King had leapt to death
— As if racing for his freedom, while his legs still seemed to go,
Then he splattered, and his blood splashed on the boulders far below.
And Clancy damned the late arrivers; the terms he found were terse
And even now, most probably, unusable in verse
Yet it was grand to hear that outback horseman curse.
Then he spurred off up the cliffside where the mares had got away
And, Hurrah!, the colt was with them, hanging on behind the play.
— Enter the Man from Snowy, who'd come round the other way!
No one man could have stopped them, but he slowed and steered their flight,
Back towards the cliff-edge when ... What happened to the light?
The mountain mist, which Blacks had thought the souls of bygone men,
Came closing in, with swirls of rain, relented, then again
Dissolved precipice and fugitives in one thick milky white
While the cracks chased far-off hoofbeats through a luminescent night.
And when the white-out lifted there were screams of "Stop!" and "Stand!",
The few who'd come so far were trapped, out on a prow of land,
While below them down a vast scree slope the brumby mob was stumbling
To freedom and the Geehi, the Colt haunch-sliding, almost tumbling;
Harrison bawled, "Dismount! He's lost! Gone down the Great Divide.
No force on earth can bring them back from on the other side;
I don't want blood or widows! Hold the men back at the hill"
— To plunge down there and live would take more luck than skill.
But Cross-eye Jack from Crackenbak had blindly spurred on down,
Came off on a snowgum fork, and stuck, with a cracked crown
— His horse in shock on three legs, with a front hoof dangling dead
In agony until some man could lend an ounce of lead.
And as they stood distracted, up to the brink Craig swept
And in that moment of pure madness and momentum down he leapt;
He was young enough to think himself immortal, even so
His insides knotted at the horror of the open air below.
That scree slope was a stone woodpile, steep and loose inside
And could hold no weight beyond its own before it had to slide;
Then it was landing, slipping, gathering, jumping, man and horse
As they tried if they were equal to that monstrous log-strewn course;
Like the old Kiandra skiers on their homemade fencing slats
It was keep your feet or break a leg — till you reached the river flats.
And Craig's heartbeat mounted faster, louder, harder all the time
As he thundered down the gully through the scent of crushed wild thyme
With his stockwhip cracking double, like a poem in triple rhyme.
Now Jim Craig knew a hidden canyon on the Geehi Flats below
And guessed it was the refuge where the old lead-mare would go.
So he headed off directly, but his dream soon sank to doubt
As the bush grew calm and lonely, distant hoof-beats faded out;
And Andy trotted lamely, and heaved a desperate sigh;
The Man's fierce spurs had savaged him, pink meat from hip to thigh.
But then an odd thing happened, that no one had thought to bet:
You see, our famous runaway was full of fierce regret.
He'd found it hard in mountain gales to get his rightful ease,
His "stable" shivering in sleet between two stunted trees.
He'd found the snowgrass wiry, and the pepper-bush quite fiery,
And the paths around his billet much too slippery, iced and miry,
He'd have gladly whinnied back to smell of hay and apple pips
But that row of hooting devils, with their hissing cracking whips
Made him flinch and flee before them, getting more and more upset
— And such a race-horse without rider never lost a straight race yet.
But when the Man had halted in thick bush below the crags
A gentle breeze stole onward, with oat-scent from saddle-bags.
Oh, a bewitching, a beguiling scent; drool-strings hung from the jaws
Of a spoilt young thoroughbred, now three weeks out of doors;
And with him were two ex-station mares who'd left the mob behind
(The flanks of all were evidence the King was less than kind).
So Craig just slip-knotted his stockwhip, tossed the noose on Hope
And led him unresisting — almost pushing — up the slope.
Harrison saw the mares emerging, their worn teeth and docile trot,
Roared "Notch their ears and set 'em free. We can't use such rot."
(A waste, thought Jacques from Calais, who had eyed one for the pot).
But then his eyes grew wider, then he grinned a foolish grin,
He kissed the Man, he kissed the Colt, all three had had a win
— And all were now oblivious to a new distant din.
"Look boss, below!" — storms booming on the parched far plains with zest.
"It's rains!". "No, floods," said Craig, "The stock will turn back west."
They raised a ragged cheer, then stood, and watched, as the land renewed;
Then took the long wet homeward trot, stonkered, and unsubdued.
Well the colt went up to Randwick, down to Mordialloc too,
Won the Geldings Plate at Cargelligo, and once in far Barcoo ...
And the Man from Snowy River treated all comers down the pub,
And you'll find his sons there to this day, or maybe at the Club.
And the Snowy, the great Snowy? — You might be ashamed to look;
They went and chopped its head off, as if it was a chook.
And if you say you're "from the Snowy" no one thinks you mean downstream,
Since the flow's been redirected for the Snowy Mountains Scheme;
And to chart that hidden river? Since no boat can float its course,
Where wheels and gears won't get you, it still takes a special horse.
He has published 16 books of verse, and is the editor of Oxford University Press's Two Centuries of Australian Poetry. He was the Australian National University's H C Coombs Fellow in 1999, and thereafter a Visiting Scholar in Archaeology and Natural History. His verse play "Planting the Dunk Botanic Gardens" was performed last year at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. See http://www.bigtoeproductions.com.au/ He has also published books on environment and on literary criticism.
Ha publicado 16 libros en verso y es editor del libro de Oxford University Press Two Centuries of Australian Poetry (Dos Siglos de Poesía Australiana).
Su obra en verso "Planting the Dunk Botanic Gardens" ha sido representada en el año 2007 en el Edinburgh Fringe Festival (http://www.bigtoeproductions.com.au/).
También ha publicado libros sobre medio ambiente y crítica literaria.