A Black Reckoning [poem by Kenneth Mackay]

[Editor: This poem by Kenneth Mackay was published in Stirrup Jingles from the Bush and the Turf and Other Rhymes (1887).]

A Black Reckoning.

“You want to know why I’ve wandered away
Alone like a beaten dog?”
Said the old sheep super Harrison Grey
“Well, take a seat on the log;
And here, as you don’t seem given to chaff —
A fool’s own game at the best,
I’ll tell you the reason — now, boy, don’t laugh!
I once was loved like the rest.
’Tis not always right to judge of a life
From the end that is nearly done;
God knows in the past that I dreamt of a wife,
A true woman’s love had won.

For in spite of all you youngsters may think,
When you see me sit and soak
A weary brain almost sodden with drink,
And rusted by dust and smoke,
I once had a heart that knew how to beat
At a word by a woman said,
Had an eye that could trace her dainty feet,
And an ear that loved their tread.
Boy, I’ve heard them say in these later years,
No woman could share my lot;

They can mind their business, and keep their sneers;
My life is mine, is it not?
No, you need not explain, for I don’t mean you, —
Perhaps in the main they’re right;
After all it is neither rare nor new
To sum up a man at sight;
Why should I squirm at the views of those
For whom I don’t care a curse?
We are atoms at best that each chance wind blows
About for better or worse.

No doubt it may strike you as somewhat queer,
To find me in such a strain, —
Boy, this very day in a long past year,
The woman I loved was slain;
And each wilted blade of the drought-dried grass
To-night has deep red dye,
And though you may deem me a drivelling ass,
I swear the stain is not dry;
In each deepening shade lurks a coward foe,
A spear in his dusky hand;
While out of the brigalow seems to grow
A house near a creek of sand;
And shrill on the wings of the sultry breeze,
Strike like a knell on my ear
Dread shrieks. They live in the holes of the trees —
To steal on me every year.

I’ll give you the tale, though I tell you straight,
There’s little to tempt the taste,
In the telling of women’s gruesome fate,
And a happy home laid waste.
But at least I know, and it comfort gives
In a sinful savage way,
That no single soul of the tribe now lives
Whose hands were at work that day.
The scene lies many a mile from here,
And long are the gloomy years,
Yet, to-day it seems in my mind so near,
That I see the blood-stained spears.

I was then, say, a man of twenty-eight,
As slim and as straight as you,
With never a trouble to addle my pate —
The whole of the world in view.
I managed the cattle on Manneroo West,
Well liked by master and men,
Reckoned a rider not far from the best
Who yarded wild cattle then.
I think on the run, from storeman to cook,
We mustered two dozen, all told, —
Men who at danger could steadily look —
As usually bought and sold.
We had fun enough in a wild sort of way,
If riding brumbies be so;
But still you may guess how we blessed the day
Macdonald took up “The Blow,”
For we heard, as well, that the girls would live
With him at least for a while,
And there wasn’t a man not ready to give
His hand for a woman’s smile.
I had met old Mac when I was a lad,
And he was counted a swell;

God only knows how he went to the bad,
For he kept his secret well;
But I’m sure at least that his tough old heart
Had a heavy load to bear,
Though he took his “gruel,” and played his part,
As one who the worst must dare.
His ‘diggings’ was only a largish hut,
Built on the bank of the creek,
And though twenty miles by the nearest cut,
Some of us went every week;
For to us each nook of the old slab place
Was lit by the sunny curls,
And filled with the lithesome and winning grace
Of his two motherless girls.

Macdonald had three thousand sheep or less,
And as he was clean played out,
His son and himself and his old slut Jess
Did shepherding turn about.
The girls kept house — if a house you can call
A humpy without a lock,
With a door where a man who chanced to be tall
His head was certain to knock.
Full often I told him he risked a lot
There where the niggers were bad;
He laughed at my words and quoted some rot —
For he had the usual fad
Of people who write from their country seats
Of wilds they have never trod —
To say that kindness the savage defeats,
If allied to faith in God.

Boy, do you fancy a white man would stand
Out from home to be driven,
Because the usurper held out his hand,
And asked to be forgiven.
You reckon not. Then what folly to say
A savage is to be won
By kindness, when those who come in his way
Are weak, and don’t keep a gun.

Man’s heart is selfish enough at the best,
And, to a certain extent,
I fear that, in truth, if all were confessed,
Some of my interest meant
That his youngest daughter a chord had struck
Deep down in my inmost heart —
In fact I was well in front of the ruck,
And had the rails from the start.
I know there were better men in the race,
But a woman’s love is won
Full often by him who has pluck to face
And take the fort at a run.

Be that as it may, where the myall shades
On the golden grasses fall,
When birds were asleep in the leafy glades,
I won her for good and all.
I tell you the words from the lips that fell
On the summer air that night,
Have striven and stood ’twixt myself and hell,
In many a mental fight;
For I loved her, boy, though it strange may seem —
But, stay, the subject we’ll leave;
A woman’s love is too sacred a theme
For one to wear on his sleeve.

We were saddling up for a longish spell
Of work at the West Run “licks,”
And had fixed our swags, I remember well,
When, up through the dead-wood sticks
Dashed the tracker Jack on a sweat stained nag —
Bare-backed and rowel-ripped,
While the black boy himself had every rag
From his sooty carcase stripped;
He jabbered away till I had to swear
If he did not change his style,
I would hang him up by his greasy hair
To collect his thoughts awhile;
But at last we caught from his broken talk,
That the blacks had burned “The Blow,”
That he’d seen them with spear and tomahawk
Every living thing lay low.

There were twenty men on their horses’ backs,
And twenty swags on the ground,
Ere the black boy’s jaws had time to relax
From utt’ring their latest sound;
And a savage crew through the slip-rails dashed —
A film of blood in each eye,
And silently into the scrub-land crashed —
A rifle behind each thigh.
We were all well armed; for in those wild days
Sudden death was apt to hang
In each heavy shade; and most wore the graze
Of some swift-thrown boomerang.
So although I feared we would not be there
To rescue my darling Nell,
Still at least I might feed my mad despair
With a vengeance swift and fell.
I led all the rest by more than a length
Through timber and rotten plains;
For a deeper dread had given me strength,
And love was guiding my reins.

We found at the end what we feared to seek,
Mac dead in a sandy bed,
And scattered over the banks of the creek,
Sheep speared by blacks ere they fled;
While, further on, at the butt of a tree,
One daughter and son lay slain.
But for her whose life was most dear to me,
I looked for a while in vain.
Ah, God! in the shade where our vows were said
I caught the gleam of her hair,
But the golden locks had a deeper red
Than erst while had lingered there;
Her wounded bosom lay bare to the light —
Poor thing, as she heard my tread,
In a dying effort to hide the sight,
She fell in my arms stone dead.
And holding her there I told the still face,
For every stain on her breast,
I would have a life from the cursed race,
Ere I tasted food or rest.

They thought to fool us by crossing the creek;
But we had a human hound,
Who could run the scent for a day or a week,
On broken or barren ground,
With an eye so keen, that a broken blade
Of grass was a finger-post,
While the slightest mark by a light foot made
Lay as the tramp of a host.
So we stood and watched till the searching black
At last made a silent sign,
That told us the sleuth-hound had found the track
In the scattered sprays of the pine.
And then like a hungry pack in full cry,
Or tigers that spring to feed,
We hurried behind through the scrublands dry
On their heels who did the deed.

And, just as the darkness was creeping on,
I caught a low warning sound,
And looking saw that the tracker was gone —
I guessed on what errand bound;
So, watching the boughs that late had shut
His dusky form from our sight,
I saw through the green leaves his dark face cut,
His eyeballs gleam on the night.
They were camped, he said, on a saltbush plain
Not a mile from where we stood;
Yes, the very dogs who the girls had slain —
For he brought a woman’s hood,
Which must have been dropped by the flying band,
As, darkly traced on the white,
Was the ghastly print of a human hand —
Standing out against the light.
I took it from him, but not a man spoke,
It seemed to act as a spell,
But fierce in each horseman’s heart there awoke
A fury as deep as hell.

We tethered our horses within the wood;
God knows they must have been glad,
For their reeking sides were ruddy with blood,
While our leggings were as bad;
And creeping along with a stealthy tread,
We followed the lean-limbed guide,
Who flitted across the fallen leaves dead,
With swift and serpent-like glide;
Till at last we saw through the thick-set brush
A camp of thirty or more;
But I sternly held back the wished-for rush,
I had deeper end in store;
And I made them surround the wretches’ camp,
And told them to pick their game,
Who, gorged and tired, never heard our tramp,
But sat or stood by the flame.

Boy, I gave the order to shoot them all,
Were they old or babes at knee,
For the sight of a gin with poor Nell’s shawl
Made sex and age one to me.
’Twas a fearful scene; and their dying yells
Still come to me in my sleep,
While a voice in my brain for ever tells
‘As one sows so he must reap.’
Few fled from the spot for our blood was up,
And we shot down young and hoar,
Till filled to the brim was the crimson cup,
Accomplished the oath I swore.

When the last was slain, on their own camp-fire
We tossed both father and son,
And built from the brush their funeral pyre,
Not resting till it was done.
Then threw ourselves down on the blood-dyed grass,
Tired with the kill and the chase, —
Heaven knows we must have been weary to pass
A night in that fearful place.
The rest may have slept; I at least could not,
And, turning again to the blaze,
I saw through the glow of the dead wood hot
A corpse its charred fingers raise;
It was but a muscle snapped by heat,
But I tell you, my boy, I thought
That fearsome being would rise to his feet,
And that it was I he sought.
For my rage had cooled, and I knew right well
That innocent blood was spilt, —
That the cries of those women would make a hell
To punish my savage guilt.
And it has been so; for I swear to you
There flows between us for aye,
The blood of the weak and helpless I slew,
Through the oath I made that day.”

Kenneth Mackay, Stirrup Jingles from the Bush and the Turf and Other Rhymes, Sydney: Edwards, Dunlop & Co., 1887, pages 30-39

Editor’s notes:
aye = always, forever

brigalow = several species of wattle trees (especially Acacia harpophylla), predominantly located in eastern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales

chaff = tease; banter; joking about or teasing in a good-natured or light-hearted fashion

clean played out = very tired, worn out, exhausted

diggings = home, house, a person’s place of lodging (often abbreviated as “digs”)

ere = before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)

fell = bad, cruel, destructive, fierce, or sinister (as used in the phrase “one fell swoop”)

hoar = old; someone with grey or white hair

humpy = an Aboriginal shelter, made from tree branches, bark, and leaves; also known as a “wurly” (which is also spelt as “wurley” or “wurlie”); in a general (or non-Aboriginal) context, may also refer to a roughly-made hut or shelter, particularly one built as a temporary structure (plural: humpies)

knell = the sound of a bell which has been rung slowly (i.e. in a solemn manner), especially for a funeral, or to announce or mark a death; a sound or sign which announces, indicates, foretells, or warns of the death, end, extinction, or failure, of a person, group, movement, civilisation, etc.; a mournful, ominous, or warning sound

myall = an acacia tree (wattle tree), especially the Acacia pendula (weeping myall) which has gray or silver foliage, drooping branches, and which can grow up to 10 metres in height (with a hard heavy fine-grained wood that is especially used for carving and fine woodworking); in another context “myall” can refer to an uncivilized or wild person (from the Aboriginal word “miyal” for stranger)

pate = the top of the head (the crown of the head); the head (may also refer to the brain)

played out = tired, worn out, exhausted

reeking = emitting fog, fumes, smoke, steam, or vapor (may also refer to emitting a strong unpleasant smell)

run = a property on which stock are grazed, such as a “cattle run” or a “sheep run”

slew = past tense of “slay”; killed

slip-rail = one of a set of several horizontal fence rails that can be moved (slipped in or out of place) so as to easily create an opening in a fence, and then close it up again (distinct from the common sets of fence rails, which are nailed or bolted to keep them in place) (spelt as “slip-rail” or “sliprail)

slut = (archaic) a female dog (may also refer to: a dirty, untidy woman, a slattern; a female who is regarded as being sexually promiscuous; a female prostitute)

swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a piece of calico, tent-fly, or blanket, secured tightly together (e.g. with rope or straps), and sometimes placed inside a cloth bag (such as a flour sack); swags were hung from the shoulder, making them easy to carry whilst their owners tramped many miles; a swag was also commonly referred to as a “bluey” (from the colour of the blankets, which were often blue), “drum”, or “Matilda”

swell = “a swell” is someone who is fashionably dressed or socially prominent; a toff, a dandy

’twixt = an abbreviation of “betwixt” (between)

[Editor: Corrected “say is these” to “say in these”; “in the shade were our vows” to “in the shade where our vows”; “wretches camp” to “wretches’ camp”.]

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