Pieces People Ask For/Jem's Last Ride
JEM'S LAST RIDE.
High o'er the snow-capped peaks of blue the stars are out to-night,
And the silver crescent moon hangs low. I watched it on my right,
Moving above the pine-tops tall, a bright and gentle shape,
While I listened to the tales you told of peril and escape.
Then, mingled with your voices low, I heard the rumbling sound
Of wheels adown the farther slope, that sought the level ground;
And suddenly, from memories that never can grow dim,
Flashed out once more the day when last I rode with English Jem.
'Twas here, in wild Montana, I took my hero's gauge.
From Butte to Deer Lodge, four-in-hand, he drove the mountain stage;
And many a time, in sun or storm, safe mounted at his side,
I whiled away with pleasant talk the long day's weary ride.
Jem's faithful steeds had served him long, of mettle true and tried:
One sought in vain for trace of blows upon their glossy hide;
And to each low command he spoke, the leader's nervous ear
Bent eager, as a lover waits his mistress' voice to hear.
With ringing crack the leathern whip, that else had idly hung,
Kept time for many a rapid mile to English songs he sung;
And yet, despite his smile, he seemed a lonely man to be,
With not one soul to claim him kin on this side of the sea.
But after I had known him long, one mellow evening-time
He told me of his English Rose, who withered in her prime;
And how, within the churchyard green, he laid her down to rest
With her sweet babe, a blighted bud, upon her frozen breast.
"I could not stay," he said, "where she had left me all alone!
The very hedge-rose that she loved, I could not look upon.
I could not hear the mavis sing, or see the long grass wave,
And every little daisy-bank seemed but my darling's grave.
"Yet somehow—why, I cannot tell—but when I wandered here,
I seemed to bring her with me too, that once had been so dear.
I love these mountain summits, where the world is in the sky,
For she is in it too,—my love!—and so I bring her nigh."
Next week I rode with Jem again. The coach was full, that day,
And there were little children there, that pleased us with their play.
A sweet-faced mother brought her pair of rosy, bright-eyed girls,
And boy like one I left at home, with silken yellow curls.
We took fresh horses at Girard's, and as he led them out—
A vicious pair they seemed to me—I heard the hostler shout,
"You always want good horses, Jem! Now you shall have your way.
Try these new beauties, for we sold your old team yesterday."
O'er clean-cut limb and sloping flank, arched neck and tossing head,
I marked Jem run his practised eye, though not a word he said;
Yet, as he clambered to his seat, and took the reins once more,
I saw a look upon his face it had not worn before.
The hostler open flung the gates. "Now, Tempest, show your pace,"
He cried, and with a careless hand he struck the leader's face.
The horse, beneath the sportive blow, reared as if poison-stung;
And, with his panic-stricken mates, to a mad gallop sprung.
We thundered through the gate, and out upon the stony road;
From side to side the great coach lurched, with all its priceless load:
Some cried aloud for help, and some, with terror-frozen tongue,
Clung, bruised and faint in every limb, the weaker to the strong.
And men who oft had looked on death, unblanched, by flood or field,
When every nerve to do and dare by agony was steeled,
Now moaned aloud, or gnashed their teeth in helpless rage,
To die, at whim of maddened brutes, like vermin in a cage!
Too well, alas! too well I knew the awful way we went,—
The little stretch of level road, and then the steep descent;
The boiling stream that seethed and roared far down the rocky ridge,
With death, like old Horatius, grim waiting at the bridge!
But, suddenly, above the din, a voice rang loud and clear;
We knew it well, the driver's voice,—without one note of fear;
Some strong, swift angel's lips might thrill with such a clarion cry,—
The voice of one who put for aye all earthly passion by:—
"Still! for your lives, and listen! See yon farmhouse by the way,
And piled along the field in front the shocks of new-mown hay.
God help me turn my horses there! And when I give the word,
Leap on the hay! Pray, every soul, to Him who Israel heard!"
Within, the coach was still. 'Tis strange, but never till I die
Shall I forget the fields that day, the color of the sky,
The summer breeze that brought the first sweet perfume of the hay,
The bobolink that in the grass would sing his life away.
One breathless moment bridged the space that lay between, and then
Jem drew upon the straining reins, with all the strength of ten.
"Hold fast the babes!" More close I clasped the fair boy at my side.
"Let every nerve be steady now!" and "Jump for life!" he cried.
Saved, every soul! Oh! dizzy—sweet life rushed in every vein,
To us who from that fragrant bed rose up to hope again!
But, 'mid the smiles and grateful tears that mingled on each cheek,
A sudden questioning horror grew, that none would dare to speak.
Too soon the answer struck our ears! One moment's hollow roar
Of flying hoofs upon the bridge—an awful crash that tore
The very air in twain—and then, through all the world grown still,
I only heard the bobolink go singing at his will.
I was the first man down the cliff. There's little left to tell.
We found him lying, breathing yet and conscious, where he fell.
The question in his eager eyes, I answered with a word,—
"Safe!" Then he smiled, and whispered low some words I scarcely heard.
We would have raised him, but his lips grew white with agony.
"Not yet; it will be over soon," he whispered. "Wait with me;"
Then, lower, smiling still, "It is my last ride, friends; but I
Have done my duty, and God knows I do not fear to die."
He closed his eyes. We watched his life slip, like an ebbing tide,
Far out upon the infinite, where all our hopes abide.
He spoke but once again, a name not meant for mortal ears,
"My Rose!" She must have heard that call, amid the singing spheres!
Mary A . P. Stansbury.