Complete Poetical Works

“The Babes in the Woods”

(Big Pine Flat, 1871)

Bret Harte

“SOMETHING characteristic,” eh?
    Humph!    I reckon you mean by that
Something that happened in our way,
    Here at the crossin’ of Big Pine Flat.
Times aren’t now as they used to be,
    When gold was flush and the boys were frisky,
And a man would pull out his battery
    For anything—maybe the price of whiskey.

Nothing of that sort, eh?    That’s strange!
    Why, I thought you might be diverted
Hearing how Jones of Red Rock Range
    Drawed his “hint to the unconverted,”
And saying, “Whar will you have it?” shot
    Cherokee Bob at the last debating!
What was the question I forgot,
    But Jones didn’t like Bob’s way of stating.

Nothing of that kind, eh?    You mean
    Something milder?    Let’s see!—O Joe!
Tell to the stranger that little scene
    Out of the “Babes in the Woods.”    You know,
“Babes” was the name that we gave ’em, sir,
    Two lean lads in their teens, and greener
Than even the belt of spruce and fir
    Where they built their nest, and each day grew leaner.

No one knew where they came from.    None
    Cared to ask if they had a mother.
Runaway schoolboys, maybe.    One
    Tall and dark as a spruce; the other
Blue and gold in the eyes and hair,
    Soft and low in his speech, but rarely
Talking with us; and we didn’t care
    To get at their secret at all unfairly.

For they were so quiet, so sad and shy,
    Content to trust each other solely,
That somehow we’d always shut one eye,
    And never seem to observe them wholly
As they passed to their work.    ’Twas a worn-out claim,
    And it paid them grub.    They could live without it,
For the boys had a way of leaving game
    In their tent, and forgetting all about it.

Yet no one asked for their secret.    Dumb
    It lay in their big eyes’ heavy hollows.
It was understood that no one should come
    To their tent unawares, save the bees and swallows.
So they lived alone.    Until one warm night
    I was sitting here at the tent-door,—so, sir!
When out of the sunset’s rosy light
    Up rose the Sheriff of Mariposa.

I knew at once there was something wrong,
    For his hand and his voice shook just a little,
And there isn’t much you can fetch along
    To make the sinews of Jack Hill brittle.
“Go warn the Babes!” he whispered, hoarse;
    “Tell them I’m coming—to get and scurry;
For I’ve got a story that’s bad,—and worse,
    I’ve got a warrant: G-d d—n it, hurry!”

Too late! they had seen him cross the hill;
    I ran to their tent and found them lying
Dead in each other’s arms, and still
    Clasping the drug they had taken flying.
And there lay their secret cold and bare,
    Their life, their trial—the old, old story!
For the sweet blue eyes and the golden hair
    Was a woman’s shame and a woman’s glory.

“Who were they?”    Ask no more, or ask
    The sun that visits their grave so lightly;
Ask of the whispering reeds, or task
    The mourning crickets that chirrup nightly.
All of their life but its love forgot,
    Everything tender and soft and mystic,
These are our Babes in the Woods,—you’ve got,
    Well—human nature—that’s characteristic.

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