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Bridge-Guard in the Karroo

1901 “. . . and will supply details to guard the Blood River Bridge.” District Orders-Lines of Communication, South African War.
Sudden the desert changes,
The raw glare softens and clings,
Till the aching Oudtshoorn ranges
Stand up like the thrones of Kings

Ramparts of slaughter and peril
Blazing, amazing, aglow
‘Twixt the sky-line’s belting beryl
And the wine-dark flats below.

Royal the pageant closes,
Lit by the last of the sun
Opal and ash-of-roses,
Cinnamon, umber, and dun.

The twilight svallows the thicket,
The starlight reveals the ridge.
The whistle shrills to the picket
We are changing guard on the bridge.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,
Where the empty metals shine
No, not combatants-only
Details guarding the line.)

We slip through the broken panel
Of fence by the ganger’s shed;
We drop to the waterless channel
And the lean track overhead;

We stumble on refuse of rations,
The beef and the biscuit-tins;
We take our appointed stations,
And the endless night begins.

We hear the Hottentot herders
As the sheep click past to the fold
And the click of the restless girders
As the steel contracts in the cold

Voices of jackals calling
And, loud in the hush between
A morsel of dry earth falling
From the flanks of the scarred ravine.

And the solemn firmament marches,
And the hosts of heaven rise
Framed through the iron arches
Banded and barred by the ties,

Till we feel the far track humming,
And we see her headlight plain,
And we gather and wait her coming
The wonderful north-bound train.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,
Where the white car-windows shine
No, not combatants-only
Details guarding the line.)

Quick, ere the gift escape us!
Out of the darkness we reach
For a handful of week-old papers
And a mouthful of human speech.

And the monstrous heaven rejoices,
And the earth allows again,
Meetings, greetings, and voices
Of women talking with men.


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Poem Bridge-Guard in the Karroo - Rudyard Kipling