Complete Poetical Works

The Station-Master of Lone Prairie

Bret Harte

AN EMPTY bench, a sky of grayest etching,
A bare, bleak shed in blackest silhouette,
Twelve years of platform, and before them stretching
Twelve miles of prairie glimmering through the wet.

North, south, east, west,—the same dull gray persistence,
The tattered vapors of a vanished train,
The narrowing rails that meet to pierce the distance,
Or break the columns of the far-off rain.

Naught but myself; nor form nor figure breaking
The long hushed level and stark shining waste;
Nothing that moves to fill the vision aching,
When the last shadow fled in sullen haste.

Nothing beyond.    Ah yes!    From out the station
A stiff, gaunt figure thrown against the sky,
Beckoning me with some wooden salutation
Caught from his signals as the train flashed by;

Yielding me place beside him with dumb gesture
Born of that reticence of sky and air.
We sit apart, yet wrapped in that one vesture
Of silence, sadness, and unspoken care:

Each following his own thought,—around us darkening
The rain-washed boundaries and stretching track,—
Each following those dim parallels and hearkening
For long-lost voices that will not come back.

Until, unasked,—I knew not why or wherefore,—
He yielded, bit by bit, his dreary past,
Like gathered clouds that seemed to thicken there for
Some dull down-dropping of their care at last.

Long had he lived there.    As a boy had started
From the stacked corn the Indian’s painted face;
Heard the wolves’ howl the wearying waste that parted
His father’s hut from the last camping-place.

Nature had mocked him: thrice had claimed the reaping,
With scythe of fire, of lands she once had sown;
Sent the tornado, round his hearthstone heaping
Rafters, dead faces that were like his own.

Then came the War Time.    When its shadow beckoned
He had walked dumbly where the flag had led
Through swamp and fen,—unknown, unpraised, unreckoned,—
To famine, fever, and a prison bed.

Till the storm passed, and the slow tide returning
Cast him, a wreck, beneath his native sky;
Here, at his watch, gave him the chance of earning
Scant means to live—who won the right to die.

All this I heard—or seemed to hear—half blending
With the low murmur of the coming breeze,
The call of some lost bird, and the unending
And tireless sobbing of those grassy seas.

Until at last the spell of desolation
Broke with a trembling star and far-off cry.
The coming train!    I glanced around the station,
All was as empty as the upper sky!

Naught but myself; nor form nor figure waking
The long hushed level and stark shining waste;
Naught but myself, that cry, and the dull shaking
Of wheel and axle, stopped in breathless haste!

“Now, then—look sharp!    Eh, what?    The Station-Master?
Thar’s none!    We stopped here of our own accord.
The man got killed in that down-train disaster
This time last evening. Right there! All aboard!”

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