The Swagsman’s Find [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).]

The Swagsman’s Find.

Very well, if I must, just fill up once more, —
Now. Temple, pass on the bottle!
For a joker so small, as I said before,
You’ve a most capacious throttle.
It was in, let me see, about sixty-eight,
We were humping our drums “out back,” —
I may be a year or so wrong in the date, —
Anyway we had lost the track.

And you know what that means on a cloudy day,
In a country flat as a flam,
With little or nothing to eat, I may say,
And miles from a tank or a dam,
Said Joe, “let us make for the Tarran tree there,
Just to go into means and ways;”
For, of both we were scanty, as you may swear, —
Having not seen a house for days.

Anyhow, up we went, and there, in the shade
Lay a tramp, his head on his swag:—
Now, I ain’t much given to being afraid,
But I ain’t much given to brag —
So own to you straight that his cold white face
And his eyes’ dull, meaningless stare
Have cut deep in my mem’ry a fiery trace, —
I got such a deuce of a scare.

“Well,” said Joe at last, “the poor joker is dead, —
He’s lost the last trick, and has paid;
Just you open the swag for the tommyhawk, Ned, —
It must do instead of a spade;
For we can’t leave a man like ourselves to rot
On grass, like a dog by thunder! —
This appears a softish enough sort of a spot,
Where we can soon put him under.”

So we scooped a hole in the sticks and the dirt,
With such tools we couldn’t do better,
And, lifting him, saw in his old twill shirt
The faded page of a letter.
Says my mate, “I guess it’s a mean sort of a game,
And reading this letter I hate,
Still ’tis the only way to find out his name,
That his friends may know of his fate.

So, down we both sat for to spell it out there, —
When a picture fell from the fold;
’Twas a woman’s face, that was wondrously fair,
Bound about with a tress of gold
Which we read had been sent from another land
As a token to one in this,
And away in the past that a small gentle hand
Had been touched by the dead tramp’s kiss.

For he, so it told, in the years now gone by,
Had left her, to win him a name,
Left home, love, and friends, in the Yarran to die,
Having got the worst of the game.
“P’rhaps,” said Joe, “she may still be waiting to hear
His step, and her name on his lips;
I guess it is better to let him lie here
While she watches the home-bound ships.

For at best we can only tell of his end
While sending the likeness and hair;
Her heart would be liker to break than to mend;
Nor would it be treating him fair.”
So we laid her love in his lone shallow grave, —
Face, letter, and tress on his breast;
And, unsullied by foot of coward or knave,
The hope of her heart lies at rest.

Kenneth Mackay, Stirrup Jingles from the Bush and the Turf and Other Rhymes, Sydney: Edwards, Dunlop & Co., 1887, pages 49-51

Editor’s notes:
humping our drums = “carrying our swags” (in the singular, “humping my drum”; also expressed as “humping the drum”), regarding swagmen humping (carrying) their swags (drums)

out back = remote rural areas; sparsely-inhabited back country; often given as one word and capitalized, “Outback” (variations: out back, outback, out-back, Out Back, Outback)

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”

swagsman = an alternative spelling of “swagman”

yarran = in a geographic context “yarran” refers to an area where yarran trees grow in large numbers, i.e. a largely unsettled area

[Editor: Corrected “its a mean” to “it’s a mean”.]

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