A Prairie Heroine Poem by Robert James Campbell Stead

A Prairie Heroine

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They were running out the try-lines, they were staking out the grade;
Through the hills they had to measure, through the sloughs they had to wade;
They were piercing unknown regions, they were crossing nameless streams,
With the prairie for a pillow and the sky above their dreams,
They were mapping unborn cities in the age-long pregnant clay:
When they came upon a little mound across the right-of-way.

There were violets growing on it, and a buttercup or two,
That whispered of affection ever old and ever new,
And a little ring of white-washed stones, bright in the summer sun,
But of marble slab or granite pile or pillar there was none;
And across the sleeping prairie lay a little, low-built shack,
With a garden patch before it and a wheat-field at its back.

"Well, boys, we'd better see him, and he hadn't ought to kick,
For we'll give him time to move it if he does it pretty quick."
But scarcely had the foreman spoke when straight across the farm
They saw the settler coming with a rifle on his arm;
Some one ha' hiked for cover but they had no place to run,
But most of them decided they would stay and see the fun.

The farmer was the first to speak: ' I hate to interfere,
And mighty glad I am to see the railway comin' near,
But before you drive your pickets across this piece of land
You ought to hear the story, or you will not understand:
It's the story of a girl who was as true as she was brave,
And all that now remains of her is in that little grave.

I didn't want to bring her when I hit the trail out West,
I knew I shouldn't do it, and I did my level best
To coax her not to come out for a year or two at least,
But to stay and take it easy with her friends down in the East;
But while I coaxed and argued I was feeling mighty glum,
And right down in my heart I kep' a-hopin' she would come.

Well, by rail and boat and saddle we got out here at last,
A-livin' in the future, and forgettin' of the past;
We built ourselves a little home, and in our work and care
It seemed to me she always took what was the lion's share;
God knows just what she suffered, but she hid it with a smile,
And made out that she thought I was the only thing worth while.

'She stood it through the summer and the warm, brown days of fall,
And of all the voices calling her she would not hear the call;
But when the winter settled with its cold, white pall of snow
She seemed to whiten with it, but she thought I didn't know;
She tried to keep her spirits up and laugh my fears away,
But I saw her growing thin and ever weaker day by day.

At last I couldn't stand it any longer, so I said,
" I think you 'd better try and spend a day or two in bed
While I go for a doctor. It's only sixty miles."
She gave a little wistful look, half hidden in her smiles,
And said, ' Perhaps you 'd better, though I think I'll be all right
When the spring comes.' . . . Well, I started out that night.

' I made the trip on horseback, by the guiding Polar star,
And a dozen times the distance never seemed one-half so far.
But the doctor had gone out of town, — just where, no one could say,
And a lump rose in my chest that fairly took my breath away.
But I daren't stay there thinking, and my search for him was vain,
So I bought some wine and brandy and I started home again.

Forgetful of my horse, I spent the whole night on the road,
Till early in the morning he collapsed beneath his load;
I saw the brute was done for, and although it made me cry,
I hacked into his jug'lar vein and left him there to die;
And then I shouldered the supplies and staggered on alone,
And thinking of my wife's distress I quite forgot my own.

She must ha' watched all night for me, for in the morning grey
She saw me stagger in the snow and fall beside the way,
And God knows how she did it—she was only skin and bone —
But she came out here and found me and dragged me home alone,
And she took the precious liquor that had cost us all so dear,
And poured it down this worthless hulk that's standin' blattin' here. . . .

I guess you know what happened — I lived, she passed away;
I robed her in her wedding dress and laid her in the clay;
And every spring I plant the flowers that grow upon her grave,
For I hold the spot as sacred as the Arimathsean's cave;
And when the winter snows have come, and all is white and still,
I spread a blanket on the mound to keep out frost and chill.

Folks say I've got a screw loose, that I've gone to acting queer,
But I sometimes hear her speaking, and I know she's always near;
And sometimes in the night I feel the pressure of her hand,
And for a blessed hour I share with her the Promised Land: —
Let man or devil undertake to desecrate my dead
And as sure as God's in heaven I will pump him full of lead.'

They were rough-and-ready railway men who stood about the spot,
They were men that lied and gambled, they were men that drank and fought,
But some of them were sneezing and some were coughing bad,
And some were blowing noses on anything they had,
And some of them were swallowing at lumps that shouldn't come,
And some were swearing softly, and some were simply dumb.

At last the foreman found his voice: ' I guess your claim is sound;
I wouldn't care to run a track across that piece of ground. . . .
We'll have to change our lay-out . . . but I hope . . . we have the grace
To build a fitting monument to mark that holy place;
Put me down for a hundred; now, boys, how much for you ?'
And they answered in a chorus, 'We'll see the business through.'

The passengers upon a certain railway o'er the plain
See a shining shaft of marble from the windows of the train,
But they do not know the story of the girl-wife in the snow
And the broken-hearted farmer with his lonely life of woe,
And none of them have guessed that the deflection in the line
Is the railway-builders' tribute to a prairie heroine.

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