voices from the past

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An Old Master

by C. J. Dennis (1876-1938)

Australian writer

We were cartin' lathes and palin's from the slopes of Mount St. Leonard,
With our axles near the road-bed and the mud as stiff as glue;
And our bullocks weren't precisely what you'd call conditioned nicely,
And meself and Messmate Mitchell had our doubts of gettin' through.

It had rained a tidy skyful in the week before we started,
But our tucker-bag depended on the sellin' of our load;
So we punched 'em on by inches, liftin' 'em across the pinches,
Till we struck the final section of the worst part of the road.

We were just congratulatin' one another on the journey,
When we blundered in a pot-hole right within the sight of goal,
Where the bush-track joins the metal. Mitchell, as he saw her settle,
Justified his reputation at the peril of his soul.

We were in a glue-pot, certain red and stiff and most tenacious;
Over naves and over axles waggon sittin' on the road.
"'Struth," says I, "they'll never lift her. Take a shot from Hell to shift her.
Nothin' left us but unyoke 'em and sling off the blessed load."

Now, beside our scene of trouble stood a little one-roomed humpy,
Home of an enfeebled party by the name of Dad McGee.
William was, I pause to mention, livin' on an old-age pension
Since he gave up bullock-punchin' at the age of eighty-three.

Startled by our exclamations, Daddy hobbled from the shanty,
Hobbled out and over to us on his old rheumatic pins,
Shadin' his old eyes and peerin' here and there around the clearin',
While we watched his consternation with half-sympathetic grins.

"Eh!  Wot's happened now?" he quavered, in a weak and shaky treble,
Gazin' where the stranded waggon looked like some half-foundered ship.
Then the state o' things he spotted, "Looks," he says, "like you was potted,"
And he toddled up to Mitchell. "Here," said he, "gimme that whip."

Mitchell, bein' out o' patience, flung a glance of anger at him,
Followed by some fancy language of his very choicest brand.
Then old daddy seemed to straighten.  "Now," he yelled, "don't keep me waitin'!
Pass that whip, you blarsted blue-tongue!"  Mitchell put it in his hand.

Well! I've heard of transformations; heard of fellers sort of changin'
In the face of sudden danger or some great emergency;
Heard the like in song and story and in bush traditions hoary,
But I nearly dropped me bundle as I looked at Dad McGee.

While we gazed he seemed to toughen; as his fingers gripped the handle
His old form grew straight and supple, and a light leaped in his eye;
And he stepped around the waggon, not with footsteps weak and laggin',
But with firm, determined carriage, as he flung the whip on high.

Now he swung the leaders over, while the whip-lash snarled and volleyed;
And they answered like one bullock, strainin' to each crack and clout;
But he kept his cursin' under, till old Brindle made a blunder;
Then I thought all Hell had hit me, and the master opened out.

And the language! Oh, the language! I have known some noble cursers -
"Hell-fire" Mac and "Cursin': Brogan - men of boundless blasphemee,
Full of fancy exclamations, trimmed with frills and declarations;
But their talk was childish prattle to that language of McGee.

In a trance stood messmate Mitchell; seemed to me I must be dreamin';
While the wondrous words and phrases only genius could loose
Roared and rumbled fast and faster in the throat of that Old Master
Oaths and curses tipped with lightning, cracklin' flames of fierce abuse.

Then we knew the man before us was a Master of our callin';
One of those great lords of language gone for ever from Outback;
Heroes of an ancient order; men who punched across the border;
Vanished giants of the 'sixties; puncher-princes of the track.

Now we heard the timbers strainin', heard the waggon's loud complainin',
And the master cried triumphant, as he swung 'em into line,
As they put their toes into it, lifted her, and pulled her through it:
"That's the way we useter do it in the days o' sixty-nine!"

Near the foot of Mount St. Leonard lives an old, enfeebled party
Who retired from bullock-punchin' at the age of eighty-three.
If you seek him folk will mention, merely, that he draws the pension;
But to us he looms a Master - Prince of Punchers, Dad McGee!

About the Author

See our page on C. J. Dennis. Includes a linked list of all his writing available on our website.

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