Almon Keefer

A poem by James Whitcomb Riley

Ah, Almon Keefer! what a boy you were,
With your back-tilted hat and careless hair,
And open, honest, fresh, fair face and eyes
With their all-varying looks of pleased surprise
And joyous interest in flower and tree,
And poising humming-bird, and maundering bee.

The fields and woods he knew; the tireless tramp
With gun and dog; and the night-fisher's camp -
No other boy, save Bee Lineback, had won
Such brilliant mastery of rod and gun.
Even in his earliest childhood had he shown
These traits that marked him as his father's own.
Dogs all paid Almon honor and bow-wowed
Allegiance, let him come in any crowd
Of rabbit-hunting town-boys, even though
His own dog "Sleuth" rebuked their acting so
With jealous snarls and growlings.

But the best
Of Almon's virtues - leading all the rest -
Was his great love of books, and skill as well
In reading them aloud, and by the spell
Thereof enthralling his mute listeners, as
They grouped about him in the orchard grass,
Hinging their bare shins in the mottled shine
And shade, as they lay prone, or stretched supine
Beneath their favorite tree, with dreamy eyes
And Argo-fandes voyaging the skies.
"Tales of the Ocean" was the name of one
Old dog's-eared book that was surpassed by none
Of all the glorious list. - Its back was gone,
But its vitality went bravely on
In such delicious tales of land and sea
As may not ever perish utterly.
Of still more dubious caste, "Jack Sheppard" drew
Full admiration; and "Dick Turpin," too.
And, painful as the fact is to convey,
In certain lurid tales of their own day,
These boys found thieving heroes and outlaws
They hailed with equal fervor of applause:
"The League of the Miami" - why, the name
Alone was fascinating - is the same,
In memory, this venerable hour
Of moral wisdom shorn of all its power,
As it unblushingly reverts to when
The old barn was "the Cave," and hears again
The signal blown, outside the buggy-shed -
The drowsy guard within uplifts his head,
And "'Who goes there?'" is called, in bated breath -
The challenge answered in a hush of death, -
"Sh! - 'Barney Gray!'" And then "'What do you seek?'"
"'Stables of The League!'" the voice comes spent and weak,
For, ha! the Law is on the "Chieftain's" trail -
Tracked to his very lair! - Well, what avail?
The "secret entrance" opens - closes. - So
The "Robber-Captain" thus outwits his foe;
And, safe once more within his "cavern-halls,"
He shakes his clenched fist at the warped plank-walls
And mutters his defiance through the cracks
At the balked Enemy's retreating backs
As the loud horde flees pell-mell down the lane,
And - Almon Keefer is himself again!

Excepting few, they were not books indeed
Of deep import that Almon chose to read; -
Less fact than fiction. - Much he favored those -
If not in poetry, in hectic prose -
That made our native Indian a wild,
Feathered and fine-preened hero that a child
Could recommend as just about the thing
To make a god of, or at least a king.
Aside from Almon's own books - two or three -
His store of lore The Township Library
Supplied him weekly: All the books with "or"s -
Sub-titled - lured him - after "Indian Wars,"
And "Life of Daniel Boone," - not to include
Some few books spiced with humor, - "Robin Hood"
And rare "Don Quixote." - And one time he took
"Dadd's Cattle Doctor."... How he hugged the book
And hurried homeward, with internal glee
And humorous spasms of expectancy! -
All this confession - as he promptly made
It, the day later, writhing in the shade
Of the old apple-tree with Johnty and
Bud, Noey Bixler, and The Hired Hand -
Was quite as funny as the book was not....
O Wonderland of wayward Childhood! what
An easy, breezy realm of summer calm
And dreamy gleam and gloom and bloom and balm
Thou art! - The Lotus-Land the poet sung,
It is the Child-World while the heart beats young....

While the heart beats young! - O the splendor of the Spring,
With all her dewy jewels on, is not so fair a thing!
The fairest, rarest morning of the blossom-time of May
Is not so sweet a season as the season of to-day
While Youth's diviner climate folds and holds us, close caressed,
As we feel our mothers with us by the touch of face and breast; -
Our bare feet in the meadows, and our fancies up among
The airy clouds of morning - while the heart beats young.

While the heart beats young and our pulses leap and dance.
With every day a holiday and life a glad romance, -
We hear the birds with wonder, and with wonder watch their flight -
Standing still the more enchanted, both of hearing and of sight,
When they have vanished wholly, - for, in fancy, wing-to-wing
We fly to Heaven with them; and, returning, still we sing
The praises of this lower Heaven with tireless voice and tongue,
Even as the Master sanctions - while the heart beats young.

While the heart beats young! - While the heart beats young!
O green and gold old Earth of ours, with azure overhung
And looped with rainbows! - grant us yet this grassy lap of thine -
We would be still thy children, through the shower and the shine!
So pray we, lisping, whispering, in childish love and trust
With our beseeching hands and faces lifted from the dust
By fervor of the poem, all unwritten and unsung,
Thou givest us in answer, while the heart beats young.

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