The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight,
for in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the
entire settlement. The ditches and claims were not only deserted, but
“Tuttle’s grocery” had contributed its gamblers, who, it will be
remembered, calmly continued their game the day that French Pete and
Kanaka Joe shot each other to death over the bar in the front room.
The whole camp was collected before a rude cabin on the outer edge of
the clearing. Conversation was carried on in a low tone, but the name
of a woman was frequently repeated. It was  a name familiar enough in
the camp,–“Cherokee Sal.”

Perhaps the less said of her the better. She was a coarse and, it is
to be feared, a very sinful woman. But at that time she was the only
woman in Roaring Camp, and was just then lying in sore extremity, when
she most needed the ministration of her own sex. Dissolute, abandoned,
and irreclaimable, she was yet suffering a martyrdom hard enough to
bear even when veiled by sympathizing womanhood, but now terrible in
her loneliness. The primal curse had come to her in that original
isolation which must have made the punishment of the first
transgression so dreadful. It was, perhaps, part of the expiation of
her sin  that, at a moment when she most lacked her sex’s intuitive
tenderness and care, she met only the half-contemptuous faces of her
masculine associates. Yet a few of the spectators were, I think,
touched by her sufferings. Sandy Tipton thought it was “rough on Sal,”
and, in the contemplation of her condition, for a moment rose superior
to the fact that he had an ace and two bowers in his sleeve.

It will be seen also that the situation was novel. Deaths were by no
means uncommon in Roaring Camp, but a birth was a new thing. People
had been dismissed the camp effectively, finally, and with no
possibility of return; but this was the first time that anybody had
been introduced _ab initio_. Hence the excitement.

“You go in there, Stumpy,” said a prominent citizen known as
“Kentuck,” addressing one of the loungers. “Go in there, and see what
you kin do. You’ve had experience in them things.”

Perhaps there was a fitness in the selection. Stumpy, in other climes,
had been the putative head of two families; in fact, it was owing to
some legal informality in these proceedings that Roaring Camp–a city
of refuge–was indebted to his company. The crowd approved the choice,
and Stumpy was wise enough to bow to the majority. The door closed on
the extempore surgeon and midwife, and Roaring Camp sat down outside,
smoked its pipe, and awaited the issue.

The assemblage numbered about a hundred men. One or two of these were
actual fugitives from justice, some were criminal, and all were
reckless. Physically they exhibited no indication of their past lives
and character. The greatest scamp had a Raphael face, with a profusion
of blonde hair; Oakhurst, a gambler, had the melancholy air and
intellectual abstraction of a Hamlet; the coolest and most courageous
man was scarcely over five feet in height, with a soft voice and an
embarrassed, timid manner. The  term “roughs” applied to them was a
distinction rather than a definition. Perhaps in the minor details of
fingers, toes, ears, etc., the camp may have been deficient, but these
slight omissions did not detract from their aggregate force. The
strongest man had but three fingers on his right hand; the best shot
had but one eye.

Such was the physical aspect of the men that were dispersed around the
cabin. The camp lay in a triangular valley between two hills and a
river. The only outlet was a steep trail over the summit of a hill
that faced the cabin, now illuminated by the rising moon. The
suffering woman might have seen it from the rude bunk whereon she
lay,–seen it winding like a silver thread until it was lost in the
stars above.

A fire of withered pine boughs added sociability to the gathering. By
degrees the natural levity of Roaring Camp returned. Bets were freely
offered and taken regarding the result. Three to five that “Sal would
get through with it;” even that the child would survive; side bets as
to the sex and complexion of the coming stranger. In the midst of an
excited discussion an exclamation came from those nearest the door,
and the camp stopped to listen. Above the swaying and moaning of the
pines, the swift rush of the river, and the crackling of the fire rose
a sharp, querulous cry,–a cry unlike anything heard before in the
camp. The pines stopped moaning, the river ceased to rush, and the
fire to crackle. It seemed as if Nature had stopped to listen too.

The camp rose to its feet as one man! It was proposed to explode a
barrel of gunpowder; but in consideration of the situation of the
mother, better counsels prevailed, and only a few revolvers were
discharged; for whether owing to the rude surgery of the camp, or some
other reason, Cherokee Sal was sinking fast. Within an hour she had
climbed, as it were, that rugged road that led to the stars, and so
passed out of Roaring Camp, its sin and shame, forever. I do not think
that the announcement disturbed them much, except in speculation as to
the fate of the child. “Can he live now?” was asked of Stumpy. The
answer was doubtful. The only other being of Cherokee Sal’s sex and
maternal condition in the settlement was an ass. There was some
conjecture as  to fitness, but the experiment was tried. It was less
problematical than the ancient treatment of Romulus and Remus, and
apparently as successful.

When these details were completed, which exhausted another hour, the
door was opened, and the anxious crowd of men, who had already formed
themselves into a queue, entered in single file. Beside the low bunk
or shelf, on which the figure of the mother was starkly outlined below
the blankets, stood a pine table. On this a candle-box was placed, and
within it, swathed in staring red flannel, lay the last arrival at
Roaring Camp. Beside the candle-box was placed a hat. Its use was soon
indicated. “Gentlemen,” said Stumpy, with a singular mixture of
authority and _ex officio_ complacency,–“gentlemen will please
pass in at the front door, round the table, and out at the back door.
Them as wishes to contribute anything toward the orphan will find a
hat handy.” The first man entered with his hat on; he uncovered,
however, as he looked about him, and so unconsciously set an example
to the next. In such communities good and bad actions are catching. As
the procession filed in comments were audible,–criticisms addressed
perhaps rather to Stumpy in the character of showman: “Is that him?”
“Mighty small specimen;” “Hasn’t more’n  got the color;” “Ain’t bigger
nor a derringer.” The contributions were as characteristic: A silver
tobacco box; a doubloon; a navy revolver, silver mounted; a gold
specimen; a very beautifully embroidered lady’s handkerchief (from
Oakhurst the gambler); a diamond breastpin; a diamond  ring (suggested
by the pin, with the remark from the giver that he “saw that pin and
went two diamonds better”); a slung-shot; a Bible (contributor not
detected); a golden spur; a silver teaspoon (the initials, I regret to
say, were not the giver’s); a pair of surgeon’s shears; a lancet; a
Bank of England note for L5; and about $200 in loose gold and silver
coin. During these proceedings Stumpy maintained a silence as
impassive as the dead on his left, a gravity as inscrutable as that of
the newly born on his right. Only one incident occurred to break the
monotony of the curious procession. As Kentuck bent over the candle-
box half curiously, the child turned, and, in a spasm of pain, caught
at his groping finger, and held it fast for a moment. Kentuck looked
foolish and embarrassed. Something like a blush tried to assert itself
in his weather-beaten cheek. “The d–d little cuss!” he said, as he
extricated his finger, with perhaps more tenderness and care than he
might have been deemed capable of showing. He held that finger a
little apart from its fellows as he went out, and examined it
curiously. The examination provoked the same original remark in regard
to the child. In fact, he seemed to enjoy repeating it. “He rastled
with my finger,” he remarked to Tipton, holding up the member, “the
d–d little cuss!”

It was four o’clock before the camp sought repose. A light burnt in
the cabin where the watchers sat, for Stumpy did not go to bed that
night. Nor did Kentuck. He drank quite freely, and related with great
gusto his experience, invariably ending with his characteristic
condemnation of the newcomer. It seemed to relieve him of any unjust
implication of sentiment, and Kentuck had the weaknesses of the nobler
sex. When everybody else had gone to bed, he walked down to the river
and whistled reflectingly. Then he walked up the gulch past the cabin,
still whistling with demonstrative unconcern. At a large redwood-tree
he  paused and retraced his steps, and again passed the cabin. Halfway
down to the river’s bank he again paused, and then returned and
knocked at the door. It was opened by Stumpy. “How goes it?” said
Kentuck, looking past Stumpy toward the candle-box. “All serene!”
replied Stumpy. “Anything up?” “Nothing.” There was a pause–an
embarrassing one–Stumpy still holding the door. Then Kentuck had
recourse to his finger, which he held up to Stumpy. “Rastled with
it,–the d–d little cuss,” he said, and retired.

The next day Cherokee Sal had such rude sepulture as Roaring Camp
afforded. After her body had been committed to the hillside, there was
a formal meeting of the camp to discuss what should be done with her
infant. A resolution to adopt it was unanimous and enthusiastic. But
an animated discussion in regard to the manner and feasibility of
providing for its wants at once sprang up. It was remarkable that the
argument partook of none of those fierce personalities with which
discussions were usually conducted at Roaring Camp. Tipton proposed
that they should send the child to Red Dog,–a distance of forty
miles,–where female attention could be procured. But the unlucky
suggestion met with fierce and unanimous opposition. It was evident
that no plan which entailed parting from their new acquisition would
for a moment be entertained. “Besides,” said Tom Ryder, “them fellows
at Red Dog would swap it, and ring in somebody else on us.” A
disbelief in the honesty of other camps prevailed at Roaring Camp, as
in other places.

The introduction of a female nurse in the camp also met with
objection. It was argued that no decent woman could be prevailed to
accept Roaring Camp as her home, and the speaker urged that “they
didn’t want any more of the other kind.” This unkind allusion to the
defunct mother, harsh as it may seem, was the first spasm of
propriety,–the first symptom of the camp’s regeneration. Stumpy
advanced nothing. Perhaps he felt a certain delicacy in interfering
with the selection of a possible successor in office. But when
questioned, he averred stoutly that he and “Jinny”–the mammal before
alluded to–could manage to rear the child. There was something
original, independent, and heroic about the plan that pleased the
camp. Stumpy was retained. Certain articles were sent for to
Sacramento. “Mind,” said the treasurer, as he pressed a bag of gold-
dust into the expressman’s hand, “the best that can be got,–lace, you
know, and filigree-work and frills,–d–n the cost!” Strange to say,
the child thrived. Perhaps the invigorating climate of the mountain
camp was compensation for material deficiencies. Nature took the
foundling to her broader breast. In that rare atmosphere of the Sierra
foothills,–that air pungent with balsamic odor, that ethereal cordial
at once bracing and exhilarating,–he may have found food and
nourishment, or a subtle chemistry that transmuted ass’s milk to lime
and phosphorus. Stumpy inclined to the belief that it was the latter
and good nursing. “Me and that ass,” he would say, “has been father
and mother to him! Don’t you,” he would add, apostrophizing the
helpless bundle before him, “never go back on us.”

By the time he was a month old the necessity of giving him a name
became apparent. He had generally been known as “The Kid,” “Stumpy’s
Boy,” “The Coyote” (an allusion to his vocal powers), and even by
Kentuck’s endearing diminutive of “The d–d little cuss.” But these
were felt to be vague and unsatisfactory, and were at last dismissed
under another influence. Gamblers and adventurers are generally
superstitious, and Oakhurst one day declared that the baby had brought
“the luck” to Roaring Camp. It was certain that of late they had been
successful. “Luck” was the name  agreed upon, with the prefix of Tommy
for greater convenience. No allusion was made to the mother, and the
father was unknown. “It’s better,” said the philosophical Oakhurst,
“to take a fresh deal all round. Call him Luck, and start him fair.” A
day was accordingly set apart for the christening. What was meant by
this ceremony the reader may imagine who has already gathered some
idea of the reckless irreverence of Roaring Camp. The master of
ceremonies was one “Boston,” a noted wag, and the occasion seemed to
promise the greatest facetiousness. This ingenious satirist had spent
two days in preparing a burlesque of the Church service, with pointed
local allusions. The choir was properly trained, and Sandy Tipton was
to stand godfather. But after the procession had marched to the grove
with music and banners, and the child had been deposited before a mock
altar, Stumpy stepped before the expectant crowd. “It ain’t my style
to spoil fun, boys,” said the little man, stoutly eying the faces
around him, “but it strikes me that this thing ain’t exactly on the
squar. It’s playing it pretty low down on this yer baby to ring in fun
on him that he ain’t goin’ to understand. And ef there’s goin’ to be
any godfathers round, I’d like to see who’s got any better rights than
me.” A silence followed Stumpy’s speech. To the credit of all
humorists be it said that the first man to acknowledge its justice was
the satirist thus stopped of his fun. “But,” said Stumpy, quickly
following up his advantage, “we’re here for a christening, and we’ll
have it. I proclaim you Thomas Luck, according to the laws of the
United States and the State of California, so help me God.” It was the
first time that the name of the Deity had been otherwise uttered than
profanely in the camp. The form of christening was perhaps even more
ludicrous than the satirist had conceived; but strangely enough,
nobody saw it and nobody laughed. “Tommy” was christened as seriously
as he would have  been under a Christian roof, and cried and was
comforted in as orthodox fashion.

And so the work of regeneration began in Roaring Camp. Almost
imperceptibly a change came over the settlement. The cabin assigned to
“Tommy Luck”–or “The Luck,” as he was more frequently called–first
showed signs of improvement. It was kept scrupulously clean and
whitewashed. Then it was boarded, clothed, and papered. The rosewood,
cradle, packed eighty miles by mule, had, in Stumpy’s way of putting
it, “sorter killed the rest of the furniture.” So the rehabilitation
of the cabin became a necessity. The men who were in the habit of
lounging in at Stumpy’s to see “how ‘The Luck’ got on” seemed to
appreciate the change, and in self-defense the rival establishment of
“Tuttle’s grocery” bestirred itself and imported a carpet and mirrors.
The reflections of the latter on the appearance of Roaring Camp tended
to produce stricter habits of personal cleanliness. Again Stumpy
imposed a kind of quarantine upon those who aspired to the honor and
privilege of holding The Luck. It was a cruel mortification to
Kentuck–who, in the carelessness of a large nature and the habits of
frontier life, had begun to regard all garments as a second cuticle,
which, like a snake’s, only sloughed off through decay–to be debarred
this privilege from certain prudential reasons. Yet such was the
subtle influence of innovation that he thereafter appeared regularly
every afternoon in a clean shirt and face still shining from his
ablutions. Nor were moral and social sanitary laws neglected. “Tommy,”
who was supposed to spend his whole existence in a persistent attempt
to repose, must not be disturbed by noise. The shouting and yelling,
which had gained the camp its infelicitous title, were not permitted
within hearing distance of Stumpy’s. The men conversed in whispers or
smoked with Indian gravity. Profanity was tacitly given up in these
sacred precincts, and throughout the camp a popular form of expletive,
known as “D–n the luck!” and “Curse the luck!” was abandoned, as
having a new personal bearing. Vocal music was not interdicted, being
supposed to have a soothing, tranquilizing quality; and one song, sung
by “Man-o’-War Jack,” an English sailor from her Majesty’s Australian
colonies, was quite popular as a lullaby. It was a lugubrious recital
of the exploits of “the Arethusa, Seventy-four,” in a muffled minor,
ending with a prolonged dying fall at the burden of each verse,” On b-
oo-o-ard of the Arethusa.” It was a fine sight to see Jack holding The
Luck, rocking from side to side as if with the motion of a ship, and
crooning forth this naval ditty. Either through the peculiar rocking
of Jack or the length of his song,–it contained ninety stanzas, and
was continued with conscientious deliberation to the bitter end,–the
lullaby generally had the desired effect. At such times the men would
lie at full length under the trees in the soft summer twilight,
smoking their pipes and drinking in the melodious utterances. An
indistinct idea that this was pastoral happiness pervaded the camp.
“This ‘ere kind o’ think,” said the Cockney Simmons, meditatively
reclining on his elbow, “is ‘evingly.” It reminded him of Greenwich.

On the long summer days The Luck was usually carried to the gulch from
whence the golden store of Roaring Camp was taken. There, on a blanket
spread over pine boughs, he would lie while the men were working in
the ditches below. Latterly there was a rude attempt to decorate this
bower with flowers and sweet-smelling shrubs, and generally some one
would bring him a cluster of wild honeysuckles,  azaleas, or the
painted blossoms of Las Mariposas. The men had suddenly awakened to
the fact that there were beauty and significance in these trifles,
which they had so long trodden carelessly beneath their feet. A flake
of glittering mica, a fragment of variegated quartz, a bright  pebble
from the bed of the creek, became beautiful to eyes thus cleared and
strengthened, and were invariably put aside for The Luck. It was
wonderful how many treasures the woods and hillsides yielded that
“would do for Tommy.” Surrounded by playthings such as never child out
of fairyland had before, it is to be hoped that Tommy was content. He
appeared to be serenely happy, albeit there was an infantine gravity
about him, a contemplative light in his round gray eyes, that sometimes
worried Stumpy. He was always tractable and quiet, and it is recorded
that once, having crept beyond his “corral,”–a hedge of tessellated
pine boughs, which surrounded his bed,–he dropped over the bank on his
head in the soft earth, and remained with his mottled legs in the air
in that position for at least five minutes with unflinching gravity.
He was extricated without a murmur. I hesitate to record the many
other instances of his sagacity, which rest, unfortunately, upon the
statements of prejudiced friends. Some of them were not without a
tinge of superstition. “I crep’ up the bank just now,” said Kentuck
one day, in a breathless state of excitement, “and dern my skin if he
wasn’t a-talking to a jaybird as was a-sittin’ on his lap. There they
was, just as free and sociable as anything you please, a-jawin’ at
each other just like two cherrybums.” Howbeit, whether creeping over
the pine boughs or lying lazily on his back blinking at the leaves
above him, to him the birds sang, the squirrels chattered, and the
flowers bloomed. Nature was his nurse and playfellow. For him she
would let slip between the leaves golden shafts of sunlight that fell
just within his grasp; she would send wandering breezes to visit him
with the balm of bay and resinous gum; to him the tall redwoods nodded
familiarly and sleepily, the bumblebees buzzed, and the rooks cawed a
slumberous accompaniment.

Such was the golden summer of Roaring Camp. They  were “flush times,”
and the luck was with them. The claims had yielded enormously. The
camp was jealous of its privileges and looked suspiciously on
strangers. No encouragement was given to immigration, and, to make
their seclusion more perfect, the land on either side of the mountain
wall that surrounded the camp they duly preempted. This, and a
reputation for singular proficiency with the revolver, kept the
reserve of Roaring Camp inviolate. The expressman–their only
connecting link with the surrounding world–sometimes told wonderful
stories of the camp. He would say, “They’ve a street up there in
‘Roaring’ that would lay over any street in Red Dog. They’ve got vines
and flowers round their houses, and they wash themselves twice a day.
But they’re mighty rough on strangers, and they worship an Ingin
baby.”

With the prosperity of the camp came a desire for further improvement.
It was  proposed to build a hotel in the following spring, and to
invite one or two decent families to reside there for the sake of The
Luck, who might perhaps profit by female companionship. The sacrifice
that this concession to the sex cost these men, who were fiercely
skeptical in regard to its general virtue and usefulness, can only be
accounted for by their affection for Tommy. A few still held out. But
the resolve could not be carried into effect for three months, and the
minority meekly yielded in the hope that something might turn up to
prevent it. And it did.

The winter of 1851 will long be remembered in the foothills. The snow
lay deep on the Sierras, and every mountain creek became a river, and
every river a lake. Each gorge and gulch was transformed into a
tumultuous watercourse that descended the hillsides, tearing down
giant trees and scattering its drift and debris along the plain. Red
Dog had been twice under water, and Roaring Camp had been forewarned.
“Water put the gold into them gulches,”  said Stumpy. “It’s been here
once and will be here again!” And that night the North Fork suddenly
leaped over its banks and swept up the triangular valley of Roaring
Camp.

In the confusion of rushing water, crashing trees, and crackling
timber, and the darkness which seemed to flow with the water and blot
out the fair valley, but little could be done to collect the scattered
camp. When the morning broke, the cabin of Stumpy, nearest the river-
bank, was gone. Higher up the gulch they found the body of its unlucky
owner; but the pride, the hope, the joy, The Luck, of Roaring Camp had
disappeared. They were returning with sad hearts when a shout from the
bank recalled them.

It was a relief-boat from down the river. They had picked up, they
said, a man and an infant, nearly exhausted, about two miles below.
Did anybody know them, and did they belong here?

It needed but a glance to show them Kentuck lying there, cruelly
crushed and bruised, but still holding The Luck of Roaring Camp in his
arms. As they bent over the strangely assorted pair, they saw that the
child was cold and pulseless. “He is dead,” said one. Kentuck opened
his eyes. “Dead?” he repeated feebly. “Yes, my man, and you are dying
too.” A smile lit the eyes of the expiring Kentuck. “Dying!” he
repeated; “he’s a-taking me with him. Tell the boys I’ve got The Luck
with me now;” and the strong man, clinging to the frail babe as a
drowning man is said to cling to a straw, drifted away into the
shadowy river that flows forever to the unknown sea.

Post navigation


Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /users/eblox/www/storybreeze/wp-includes/class-wp-comment-query.php on line 399