The Old Camp-Fire

A poem by Francis Bret Harte

Now shift the blanket pad before your saddle back you fling,
And draw your cinch up tighter till the sweat drops from the ring:
We’ve a dozen miles to cover ere we reach the next divide.
Our limbs are stiffer now than when we first set out to ride,
And worse, the horses know it, and feel the leg-grip tire,
Since in the days when, long ago, we sought the old camp-fire.

Yes, twenty years! Lord! how we’d scent its incense down the trail,
Through balm of bay and spice of spruce, when eye and ear would fail,
And worn and faint from useless quest we crept, like this, to rest,
Or, flushed with luck and youthful hope, we rode, like this, abreast.
Ay! straighten up, old friend, and let the mustang think he’s nigher,
Through looser rein and stirrup strain, the welcome old camp-fire.

You know the shout that would ring out before us down the glade,
And start the blue jays like a flight of arrows through the shade,
And sift the thin pine needles down like slanting, shining rain,
And send the squirrels scampering back to their holes again,
Until we saw, blue-veiled and dim, or leaping like desire,
That flame of twenty years ago, which lit the old camp-fire.

And then that rest on Nature’s breast, when talk had dropped, and slow
The night wind went from tree to tree with challenge soft and low!
We lay on lazy elbows propped, or stood to stir the flame,
Till up the soaring redwood’s shaft our shadows danced and came,
As if to draw us with the sparks, high o’er its unseen spire,
To the five stars that kept their ward above the old camp-fire,

Those picket stars whose tranquil watch half soothed, half shamed our sleep.
What recked we then what beasts or men around might lurk or creep?
We lay and heard with listless ears the far-off panther’s cry,
The near coyote’s snarling snap, the grizzly’s deep-drawn sigh,
The brown bear’s blundering human tread, the gray wolves’ yelping choir
Beyond the magic circle drawn around the old camp-fire.

And then that morn! Was ever morn so filled with all things new?
The light that fell through long brown aisles from out the kindling blue,
The creak and yawn of stretching boughs, the jay-bird’s early call,
The rat-tat-tat of woodpecker that waked the woodland hall,
The fainter stir of lower life in fern and brake and brier,
Till flashing leaped the torch of Day from last night’s old camp-fire!

Well, well! we’ll see it once again; we should be near it now;
It’s scarce a mile to where the trail strikes off to skirt the slough,
And then the dip to Indian Spring, the wooded rise, and strange!
Yet here should stand the blasted pine that marked our farther range;
And here what’s this? A ragged swab of ruts and stumps and mire!
Sure this is not the sacred grove that hid the old camp-fire!

Yet here’s the “blaze” I cut myself, and there’s the stumbling ledge,
With quartz “outcrop” that lay atop, now leveled to its edge,
And mounds of moss-grown stumps beside the woodman’s rotting chips,
And gashes in the hillside, that gape with dumb red lips.
And yet above the shattered wreck and ruin, curling higher
Ah yes! still lifts the smoke that marked the welcome old camp-fire!

Perhaps some friend of twenty years still lingers there to raise
To weary hearts and tired eyes that beacon of old days.
Perhaps but stay; ’tis gone! and yet once more it lifts as though
To meet our tardy blundering steps, and seems to move, and lo!
Whirls by us in a rush of sound, the vanished funeral pyre
Of hopes and fears that twenty years burned in the old camp-fire!

For see, beyond the prospect spreads, with chimney, spire, and roof,
Two iron bands across the trail clank to our mustang’s hoof;
Above them leap two blackened threads from limb-lopped tree to tree,
To where the whitewashed station speeds its message to the sea.
Rein in! Rein in! The quest is o’er. The goal of our desire
Is but the train whose track has lain across the old camp-fire!

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