The Five Nations

Bridge-Guard in the Karroo


Rudyard Kipling

. . . 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 swallows 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.

So we return to our places,
    As out on the bridge she rolls;
And the darkness covers our faces,
    And the darkness re-enters our souls.

More than a little lonely
    Where the lessening tail-lights shine.
No—not combatants—only
    Details guarding the line!

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