Two Bits

Where the shimmering sands of the desert beat
In waves to the foot-hills' rugged line,
And cat-claw and cactus and brown mesquite
Elbow the cedar and mountain pine;
Under the dip of a wind-swept hill,
Like a little gray hawk Fort Whipple clung;
The fort was a pen of peeled pine logs
And forty troopers the army strong.

At the very gates when the darkness fell,
Prowling Mohave and Yavapai
Signalled with shrill coyote yell,
Or mocked the night owl's piercing cry;
Till once when the guard turned shuddering
For a trace in the east of the welcome dawn,
Spent, wounded, a courier reeled to his feet: —
" Apaches — rising — Wingate — warn! "

" And half the troop at the Date Creek Camp! "
The captain muttered: " Those devils heard! "
White-lipped he called for a volunteer
To ride Two Bits and carry the word.
" Alone, it's a game of hide and seek;
One man may win where ten would fail. "
Himself the saddle and cinches set
And headed Two Bits for the Verde Trail.

Two Bits! How his still eyes woke to the chase!
The bravest soul of them all was he!
Hero of many a hard-won race,
With a hundred scars for his pedigree.
Wary of ambush and keen of trail,
Old in wisdom of march and fray;
And the grizzled veteran seemed to know
The lives that hung on his hoofs that day.

" A week. God speed you and make it less!
Ride by night from the river on. "
Caps were swung in a silent cheer,
A quick salute, and the word was gone.
Sunrise, threading the Point of Rocks;
Dusk, in the canons dark and grim,
Where coiled like a rope flung down the cliffs
The trail crawls up to the frowning Rim.

A pebble turned, a spark out-struck
From steel-shod hoofs on the treacherous flint —
Ears strain, eyes wait, in the rocks above
For the faintest whisper, the farthest glint;
But shod with silence and robed with night
They pass untracked, and mile by mile
The hills divide for the flying feet,
And the stars lean low to guide the while.

Never a plumed quail hid her nest
With the stealthiest care that a mother may,
As crouched at dawn in the chaparral
These two, whom a heart-beat might betray.
So, hiding and riding, night by night;
Four days, and the end of the journey near;
The fort just hid in the distant hills —
But hist! A whisper — a breath of fear!

They wheel and turn — too late. Ping! Ping!
From their very feet a fiery jet.
A lurch, a plunge, and the brave old horse
Leaped out with his broad breast torn and yet.
Ping! Thud! On his neck the rider swayed; —
Ten thousand deaths if he reeled and fell!
Behind, exultant, the painted horde
Poured down like a skirmish line from Hell.

Not Yet! Not Yet! Those ringing hoofs
Have scarred their triumph on many a course;
And the desperate, blood-trailed chase swept on —
Apache sinews 'gainst wounded horse.
Hour crowding hour till the yells died back,
Till the pat of the moccasined feet was gone;
And dumb to heeding of foe or fear
The rider dropped — but the horse kept on.

Stiff and stumbling and spent and sore,
Plodding the long miles doggedly;
Till the daybreak bugles of Wingate rang
And a faint neigh answered the reveille.
Wide swung the gates — a wounded horse —
Red-dabbled pouches and riding gear;
A shout, a hurry, a quick-flung word —
And " Boots and Saddles " rang sharp and clear.

Like a stern commander the old horse turned
As the troop filed out, and straight to the head
He guided them back on that weary trail
Till he fell by his fallen rider — dead —
But the man and the message saved — and he
Whose brave heart carried the double load;
With his last trust kept and his last race won,
They buried him there on the Wingate Road.
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