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Ramon -- Bret Harte

Guest poem sent in by Mallika Chellappa
(Poem #1321) Ramon
 Drunk and senseless in his place,
 Prone and sprawling on his face,
 More like brute than any man
 Alive or dead,
 By his great pump out of gear,
 Lay the peon engineer,
 Waking only just to hear,
 Overhead,
 Angry tones that called his name,
 Oaths and cries of bitter blame,--
 Woke to hear all this, and, waking, turned and fled!

 "To the man who`ll bring to me,"
 Cried Intendant Harry Lee,--
 Harry Lee, the English foreman of the mine,--
 "Bring the sot alive or dead,
 I will give to him," he said,
 "Fifteen hundred pesos down,
 Just to set the rascal's crown
 Underneath this heel of mine:
 Since but death
 Deserves the man whose deed,
 Be it vice or want of heed,
 Stops the pumps that give us breath,--
 Stops the pumps that suck the death
  From the poisoned lower levels of the mine!"

 No one answered; for a cry
 From the shaft rose up on high,
 And shuffling, scrambling, tumbling from below,
 Came the miners each, the bolder
 Mounting on the weaker`s shoulder,
 Grappling, clinging to their hold or
 Letting go,
 As the weaker gasped and fell
 From the ladder to the well,--
 To the poisoned pit of hell
 Down below!

 "To the man who sets them free,"
 Cried the foreman, Harry Lee,--
 Harry Lee, the English foreman of the mine,--
 "Brings them out and sets them free,
 I will give that man," said he,
 "Twice that sum, who with a rope
 Face to face with Death shall cope.
 Let him come who dares to hope!"
 "Hold your peace!" some one replied,
 Standing by the foreman`s side;
 "There has one already gone, whoe'er he be!"

 Then they held their breath with awe,
 Pulling on the rope, and saw
 Fainting figures reappear,
 On the black rope swinging clear,
 Fastened by some skillful hand from below;
 Till a score the level gained,
 And but one alone remained,--
 He the hero and the last,
 He whose skillful hand made fast
 The long line that brought them back to hope and cheer!

 Haggard, gasping, down dropped he
 At the feet of Harry Lee,--
 Harry Lee, the English foreman of the mine.
 "I have come," he gasped, "to claim
 Both rewards. Senor, my name
 Is Ramon!
 I'm the drunken engineer,
 I'm the coward, Senor"-- Here
 He fell over, by that sign,
 Dead as stone!
-- Bret Harte
Another oldie and goodie from my brother's poetry text - "Poems Old and New"

Heroic acts by everyday unlikely heroes.  Altruism (survival of the species
at the cost of the individual) is alive and well in literature at least!

Mallika Chellappa

[Martin adds]

More than altruism, the poem draws on another powerful and universal theme -
the desperately heroic act of self-redemption by one who has shamed himself.
Note the strict accounting principle at work - Ramon has endangered the
lives of others, and therefore paid for his mistake with his life. His
heroism likewise wipes out his cowardice, and he dies with honour intact.
(Incidentally, the best twist I've seen on this theme was in an sf story,
where in the final scene, the girl leaves the hero - she couldn't bear to stay
with anyone so selfish he'd endanger all their lives for the sake of his
honour).

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