John Boyle O'Reilly
A Song For Soldiers - Poem by John Boyle O'Reilly
WHAT song is best for the soldiers?
Take no heed of the words, nor choose yon the style of the story;
Let it burst out from the heart like a spring from the womb of a mountain,
Natural, clear, resistless, leaping its way to the levels;
Whether of love or hate or war or the pathos and pain of affliction;
Whether of manly pluck in the perilous hour, or that which is higher,
And highest of all, the slowly bleeding sacrifice,
The giving of life and its joys for the sake of men and freedom;—
Any song for the soldier that will harmonize with the life-throbs;
For he has laved in the mystical sea by which men are one;
His pulse has thrilled into blinding tune with the vaster anthems
Which God plays on the battle-fields when he sweeps the strings of nations,
And the song of the earth-planet bursts on the silent spheres.
Shot through like the cloud of Etna with flames of heroic devotion,
And shaded with quivering lines from the mourning of women and children!
Here is a song for the soldiers—a song of the Cheyenne Indians,
Of men with soldierly hearts who walked with Death as a comrade.
Hush! Let the present fade; let the distance die; let the last year stand:
We are far to the West, in Montana, on the desolate plains of Montana;
We ride with the cavalry troopers on the bloody trail of the Cheyennes,
Forty braves of the tribe who have leaped from the reservation
Down on the mining camps in their desecrated valleys,
Down to their fathers' graves and the hunting-ground of their people.
Chilled with the doom of Death they gaze on the white men's changes:
Ruthless the brutal force that has crushed their homes and their manhood,
And ruthless the hearts of the Cheyenne braves as they swoop on the camps of the miners!
Back to the hills they dash, with reeking trophies around them:
But swift on their trail the cavalry ride, and their trumpets
Break on the ears of the braves with a threat of oncoming vengeance.
At last they are bayed and barred—corraled in a straightwalled valley,—
The Indians back to the cliffs with the shattered rocks as a breastwork,
The soldiers in lined stockades across the mouth of the valley.
Hungrily hiss the bullets, not wasted in random firing,
But every shot for a mark,—thrice their number of soldiers
Raking the Cheyenne rocks with a pitiless rain of missiles,
One to three in the firing, but every Cheyenne bullet
Tumbled a reckless trooper behind his fence in the stockade.
'God! they are brave!' cried the captain. 'Seven hours we've held them,
Three, ay, five to one, if you count their dead and their wounded:
Damn them! why don't they yield for the sake of their lives and their wounded?'
But never a sign but flame and the hiss of the leaden defiance
Comes from the Cheyenne braves, though their firing slackens in vigor
To grow in fatal precision—grim as the cliff above them
They fight their fight, and the valley is lined with death from their rifles.
Cried the captain, ''Men, we must charge!' and he grieves for his boys and their foemen;
'But show them a sign of quarter;' and he swings them a flag to tell them
That his side is willing to parley: the Indians riddle the ensign,
And the captain groans in his heart as he gives the order for charging.
Terrible getting ready of men who prepare for a death-fight:—
Scabbards are thrown aside and belts unstrapped for the striking,
Ominous outward signs of the deadlier inner preparing
When the soul flings danger aside and the human heart its mercy.
Out from the fatal earthworks, their eyes like fire in a
With naked blades the troopers, and nerves wire-strung for the onset,
When suddenly, up from the rocks, a sign at last from the Cheyennes!
Two tall braves on the rocks—'Re-form!' brays the cavalry trumpet,
And grimly the soldiers return, reluctantly leaving the conflict.
Still on the rocks two forms of bronze, as if prepared for the stormers,
Then down to the field, and behold, they dash toward the wondering troopers!
The soldiers stare at the charge, but no man laughs at the foemen,
Instead of a sneer a tremor at many a mouth in sorrow.
On they come to their death, and, standing at fifty paces,
They fire in the face of the squadron, and dash with their knives to the death-grip!
Fifty rifles give flame, and the breasts of the heroes are shattered;
But falling, they plunge toward the fight, and their knives sink deep in the meadow!
'On to the rocks!' and the soldiers have done with their feelings of mercy—
But never a foe to meet them nor a shot from the deadly barrier.
First on the rocks the captain, with a cheer that died as he gave it,—
A cheer that was half a groan and a cry of admiration.
Awed stood the troopers who followed, and lowered their swords with their leader,
Homage of brave to the brave, saluting with souls and weapons;
There at their feet lay the foemen—every man dead on his rifle—
The two who had charged the troops were the last alive of the Cheyennes!
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