The Eastern day was well-nigh o'er When, parched with thirst and travel sore, Two of McPherson's flanking corps Across the Desert were tramping. They had wandered off from the beaten track And now were wearily harking back, Ever staring round for the signal jack That marked their comrades camping.
The one was Corporal Robert Dick, Bearded and burly, short and thick, Rough of speech and in temper quick, A hard-faced old rapscallion. The other, fresh from the barrack square, Was a raw recruit, smooth-cheeked and fair Half grown, half drilled, with the weedy air Of a draft from the home battalion.
Weary and parched and hunger-torn, They had wandered on from early morn, And the young boy-soldier limped forlorn, Now stumbling and now falling. Around the orange sand-curves lay, Flecked with boulders, black or grey, Death-silent, save that far away A kite was shrilly calling.
A kite? Was THAT a kite? The yell That shrilly rose and faintly fell? No kite's, and yet the kite knows well The long-drawn wild halloo. And right athwart the evening sky The yellow sand-spray spurtled high, And shrill and shriller swelled the cry Of 'Allah! Allahu!'
The Corporal peered at the crimson West, Hid his pipe in his khaki vest. Growled out an oath and onward pressed, Still glancing over his shoulder. 'Bedouins, mate!' he curtly said; 'We'll find some work for steel and lead, And maybe sleep in a sandy bed, Before we're one hour older.
'But just one flutter before we're done. Stiffen your lip and stand, my son; We'll take this bloomin' circus on: Ball-cartridge load! Now, steady!' With a curse and a prayer the two faced round, Dogged and grim they stood their ground, And their breech-blocks snapped with a crisp clean sound As the rifles sprang to the 'ready.'
Alas for the Emir Ali Khan! A hundred paces before his clan, That ebony steed of the prophet's breed Is the foal of death and of danger. A spurt of fire, a gasp of pain, A blueish blurr on the yellow plain, The chief was down, and his bridle rein Was in the grip of the stranger.
With the light of hope on his rugged face, The Corporal sprang to the dead man's place, One prick with the steel, one thrust with the heel, And where was the man to outride him? A grip of his knees, a toss of his rein, He was settling her down to her gallop again, When he stopped, for he heard just one faltering word From the young recruit beside him.
One faltering word from pal to pal, But it found the heart of the Corporal. He had sprung to the sand, he had lent him a hand, 'Up, mate! They'll be 'ere in a minute; Off with you! No palaver! Go! I'll bide be'ind and run this show. Promotion has been cursed slow, And this is my chance to win it.'
Into the saddle he thrust him quick, Spurred the black mare with a bayonet prick. Watched her gallop with plunge and with kick Away o'er the desert careering. Then he turned with a softened face, And loosened the strap of his cartridge-case, While his thoughts flew back to the dear old place In the sunny Hampshire clearing.
The young boy-private, glancing back, Saw the Bedouins' wild attack, And heard the sharp Martini crack. But as he gazed, already The fierce fanatic Arab band Was closing in on every hand, Until one tawny swirl of sand, Concealed them in its eddy.
* * *
A squadron of British horse that night, Galloping hard in the shadowy light, Came on the scene of that last stern fight, And found the Corporal lying Silent and grim on the trampled sand, His rifle grasped in his stiffened hand, With the warrior pride of one who died 'Mid a ring of the dead and the dying.
And still when twilight shadows fall, After the evening bugle call, In bivouac or in barrack-hall, His comrades speak of the Corporal, His death and his devotion. And there are some who like to say That perhaps a hidden meaning lay In the words he spoke, and that the day When his rough bold spirit passed away WAS the day that he won promotion.