Henry Lawson wrote many poems that captured the character of rural Australia in his time and the harshness of life in the bush, but this one is my favourite. It’s a little sad and a little funny, as well as being about drought, dust storms and bushfires (despite the opening line it’s not about war)…
Ah, better the thud of the deadly gun, and the crash of the bursting shell,
Than the terrible silence where drought is fought out there in the western hell;
And better the rattle of rifles near, or the thunder on deck at sea,
Than the sound – most hellish of all to hear – of fire where it should not be.
On the runs to the west of the Dingo Scrubs there was drought, and ruin, and death,
And the sandstorm came from the dread north-east with the blast of a furnace-breath;
Till at last one day, at the fierce sunrise, a boundary-rider woke,
And saw, in the place of the distant haze, a curtain of light blue smoke.
There is saddling-up by the cockey’s hut, and out in the station yard,
And away to the north, north-east, north-west, the Bushmen are riding hard.
The pickets are out and many a scout and many a mulga wire,
While Bill and Jim, with their faces grim, are riding to meet the fire.
It roars for days in the hopeless scrubs, and across, where the ground seems bare,
With a cackle and hiss, like the hissing of snakes, the fire is travelling there;
Till at last, exhausted by sleeplessness, and the terrible toil and heat,
The squatter is crying, ‘My God! the wool!’ and the farmer, ‘My God! the wheat!’
But there comes a drunkard (who reels as he rides), with the news from the roadside pub:-
‘Pat Murphy – the cockey – cut off by the fire! – way back in the Dingo Scrub!’
‘Let the wheat and the woolshed go to’- -Well, they do as each great heart bids;
They are riding a race for the Dingo Scrub – for Pat and his wife and kids.
And who is leading the race with death? An ill-matched three, you’ll allow;
Flash Jim the Breaker and Boozing Bill (who is riding steadily now),
And Constable Dunn, of the Mounted Police, is riding between the two,
(He wants Flash Jim, but the job can wait till they get the Murphys through).
As they strike the track through the blazing scrub, the trooper is heard to shout:
‘We’ll take them on to the Two-mile Tank, if we cannot bring them out!’
A half-mile more, and the rest rein back, retreating, half-choked, half-blind;
And the three are gone from the sight of men, and the bush fire roars behind.
The Bushman wiped the tears of smoke, and like Bushmen wept and swore;
‘Poor Bill will be wanting his drink tonight as never he did before.
‘And Dunn was the best in the whole damned force!’ says a client of Dunn’s, with pride;
I reckon he’ll serve his summons on Jim – when they get to the other side.
It is daylight again, and the fire is past, and the black scrub silent and grim,
Except for the blaze of an old dead tree, or the crash of a falling limb;
And the Bushmen are riding again on the run, with hearts and eyes that fill,
To look for the bodies of Constable Dunn, Flash Jim and Boozing Bill.
They are found in the mud of the Two-mile Tank, where a fiend might scare survive,
But the Bushmen gather from words they hear that the bodies are much alive.
There is Swearing Pat, with his grey beard singed, and his language of lurid hue,
And his tough old wife, and his half-baked kids, and the three who dragged them through.
Old Pat is deploring his burnt-out home, and his wife the climate warm;
And Jim the loss of his favourite horse, and Dunn his uniform;
And Boozing Bill, with a raging thirst, is cursing the Dingo Scrub –
He’ll only as for the loan of a flask and a lift to the nearest pub.
Flash Jim the Breaker is lying low – blue-paper is after him,
And Dunn, the trooper, is riding his rounds with a blind eye out for Jim,
And Boozing Bill is fighting DTs in the township of Sudden Jerk –
When they’re wanted again in the Dingo Scrubs, they’ll be there to do the work.