Cadet Grey - Canto III

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Where the sun sinks through leagues of arid sky,
  Where the sun dies o'er leagues of arid plain,
Where the dead bones of wasted rivers lie,
  Trailed from their channels in yon mountain chain;
Where day by day naught takes the wearied eye
  But the low-rimming mountains, sharply based
On the dead levels, moving far or nigh,
  As the sick vision wanders o'er the waste,
  But ever day by day against the sunset traced:


There moving through a poisonous cloud that stings
  With dust of alkali the trampling band
Of Indian ponies, ride on dusky wings
  The red marauders of the Western land;
Heavy with spoil, they seek the trail that brings
  Their flaunting lances to that sheltered bank
Where lie their lodges; and the river sings
  Forgetful of the plain beyond, that drank
  Its life blood, where the wasted caravan sank.


They brought with them the thief's ignoble spoil,
  The beggar's dole, the greed of chiffonnier,
The scum of camps, the implements of toil
  Snatched from dead hands, to rust as useless here;
All they could rake or glean from hut or soil
  Piled their lean ponies, with the jackdaw's greed
For vacant glitter.  It were scarce a foil
  To all this tinsel that one feathered reed
  Bore on its barb two scalps that freshly bleed!


They brought with them, alas! a wounded foe,
  Bound hand and foot, yet nursed with cruel care,
Lest that in death he might escape one throe
  They had decreed his living flesh should bear:
A youthful officer, by one foul blow
  Of treachery surprised, yet fighting still
Amid his ambushed train, calm as the snow
  Above him; hopeless, yet content to spill
  His blood with theirs, and fighting but to kill.


He had fought nobly, and in that brief spell
  Had won the awe of those rude border men
Who gathered round him, and beside him fell
  In loyal faith and silence, save that when
By smoke embarrassed, and near sight as well,
  He paused to wipe his eyeglass, and decide
Its nearer focus, there arose a yell
  Of approbation, and Bob Barker cried,
  "Wade in, Dundreary!" tossed his cap and--died.


Their sole survivor now! his captors bear
  Him all unconscious, and beside the stream
Leave him to rest; meantime the squaws prepare
  The stake for sacrifice: nor wakes a gleam
Of pity in those Furies' eyes that glare
  Expectant of the torture; yet alway
His steadfast spirit shines and mocks them there
  With peace they know not, till at close of day
  On his dull ear there thrills a whispered "Grey!"


He starts!  Was it a trick?  Had angels kind
  Touched with compassion some weak woman's breast?
Such things he'd read of!  Faintly to his mind
  Came Pocahontas pleading for her guest.
But then, this voice, though soft, was still inclined
  To baritone!  A squaw in ragged gown
Stood near him, frowning hatred.  Was he blind?
  Whose eye was this beneath that beetling frown?
  The frown was painted, but that wink meant--Brown!


"Hush! for your life and mine! the thongs are cut,"
  He whispers; "in yon thicket stands my horse.
One dash!--I follow close, as if to glut
  My own revenge, yet bar the others' course.
Now!"  And 'tis done.  Grey speeds, Brown follows; but
  Ere yet they reach the shade, Grey, fainting, reels,
Yet not before Brown's circling arms close shut
  His in, uplifting him!  Anon he feels
  A horse beneath him bound, and hears the rattling heels.


Then rose a yell of baffled hate, and sprang
  Headlong the savages in swift pursuit;
Though speed the fugitives, they hope to hang
  Hot on their heels, like wolves, with tireless foot.
Long is the chase; Brown hears with inward pang
  The short, hard panting of his gallant steed
Beneath its double burden; vainly rang
  Both voice and spur.  The heaving flanks may bleed,
  Yet comes the sequel that they still must heed!


Brown saw it--reined his steed; dismounting, stood
  Calm and inflexible.  "Old chap! you see
There is but ONE escape.  You know it?  Good!
  There is ONE man to take it.  You are he.
The horse won't carry double.  If he could,
  'Twould but protract this bother.  I shall stay:
I've business with these devils, they with me;
  I will occupy them till you get away.
  Hush! quick time, forward.  There! God bless you, Grey!"


But as he finished, Grey slipped to his feet,
  Calm as his ancestors in voice and eye:
"You do forget yourself when you compete
  With him whose RIGHT it is to stay and die:
That's not YOUR duty.  Please regain your seat;
  And take my ORDERS--since I rank you here!--
Mount and rejoin your men, and my defeat
  Report at quarters.  Take this letter; ne'er
  Give it to aught but HER, nor let aught interfere."


And, shamed and blushing, Brown the letter took
  Obediently and placed it in his pocket;
Then, drawing forth another, said, "I look
  For death as you do, wherefore take this locket
And letter."  Here his comrade's hand he shook
  In silence.  "Should we both together fall,
Some other man"--but here all speech forsook
  His lips, as ringing cheerily o'er all
  He heard afar his own dear bugle-call!


'Twas his command and succor, but e'en then
  Grey fainted, with poor Brown, who had forgot
He likewise had been wounded, and both men
  Were picked up quite unconscious of their lot.
Long lay they in extremity, and when
  They both grew stronger, and once more exchanged
Old vows and memories, one common "den"
  In hospital was theirs, and free they ranged,
  Awaiting orders, but no more estranged.


And yet 'twas strange--nor can I end my tale
  Without this moral, to be fair and just:
They never sought to know why each did fail
  The prompt fulfillment of the other's trust.
It was suggested they could not avail
  Themselves of either letter, since they were
Duly dispatched to their address by mail
  By Captain X., who knew Miss Rover fair
  Now meant stout Mistress Bloggs of Blank Blank Square.

© Francis Bret Harte