Poems » william oldys » how the fire queen crossed the swamp


The flood was down in the Wilga swamps, three feet over the mud,
And the teamsters camped on the Wilga range and swore at the rising flood;
For one by one they had tried the trip, double and treble teams,
And one after one each desert-ship had dropped to her axle-beams;
So they thonged their leaders and pulled them round to the camp on the sandhill’s crown,
And swore by the bond of a blood-red oath to wait till the floods went down.

There were side-rail tubs and table-tops, coaches and bullock-drays,
Brown from the Barcoo Wonders, and Speed with the dapple greys
Who pulled the front of his waggon out and left the rest in the mud
At the Cuttaburra crossing in the grip of the Ninety flood.
There was Burt with his sixteen bullocks, and never a bullock to shirk,
Who twice came over the Border Line with twelve-ton-ten to Bourke;
There was Long Dick damning an agent’s eyes for his ton of extra weight,
And Whistling Jim, for Cobb and Co., cursing that mails were late;
And one blasphemed at a broken chain and howled for a blacksmith’s blood,
And most of them cursed their crimson luck, and all of them cursed the flood.

The last of the baffled had struggled back and the sun was low in the sky,
And the first of the stars was creeping out when Dareaway Dan came by.
There’s never a teamster draws to Bourke but has taken the help of Dan;
There’s never a team on the Great North Road can lift as the big roans can:
Broad-hipped beauties that nothing can stop, leaders that swing to a cough;
Eight blue-roans on the near-side yoked, and eight red-roans on the off.
And Long Dick called from his pine-rail bunk: “Where are you bound so quick?”
And Dareaway Dan spoke low to the roans, and aloud, “To the Swagman’s, Dick!”
“There’s five good miles,” said the giant, “lie to the front of you, holding mud;
If you never were stopped before, old man, you are stopped by the Wilga flood.
The dark will be down in an hour or so, there isn’t the ghost of a moon;
So leave your nags in the station grass instead of the long lagoon!”

But Dan stood up to his leader’s head and fondled the big brown nose:
“There’s many a mile in the roan team yet before they are feed for the crows;
Now listen, Dick-with-the-woman’s-heart, a word to you and the rest:
I’ve sixteen horses collared and chained, the pick of the whole wide West,
And I’ll cut their throats and leave them here to rot if they haven’t the power
To carry me through to the gates of Hell -- with seventy bags of flour!
The light of the stars is light enough; they have nothing to do but plough!
There’s never a swamp has held them yet, and a swamp won’t stop them now.
They’re waiting for flour at the Swagman’s Bend; I’ll steer for the lifting light;
There’s nothing to fear with a team like mine, and -- I camp in the bend tonight!”

So they stood aside and they watched them pass in the glow of the sinking sun,
With straining muscles and tightened chains -- sixteen pulling like one;
With jingling harness and droning wheels and bare hoofs’ rhythmic tramp,
With creaking timbers and lurching load the Fire Queen faces the swamp!
She dipped her red shafts low in the slush as a spoonbill dips her beak,
The black mud clung to the wheels and fell in the wash of the Wilga creek;
And the big roans fought for footing, and the spreaders threshed like flails,
And the great wheels lifted the muddy spume to the bend of the red float-rails;
And they cheered him out to the westward with the last of the failing light
And the splashing hoofs and the driver’s voice died softly away in the night;
But some of them prate of a shadowy form that guided the leader’s reins,
And some of them speak of a shod black horse that pulled in the off-side chains --
How every time that he lifted his feet the waggon would groan and swing,
And every time that he dropped his head you could hear the tug-chains ring!

And Dan to the Swagman’s Bend came through mud-spattered from foot to head,
And they couldn’t tell which of the roans were blue and which of the roans were red.
Now this is the tale as I heard it told, and many believe it true
When the teamsters say in their off-hand way -- “’Twas the Devil that pulled him through!”