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Bret Harte
The Luck of Roaring Camp
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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 from 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

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

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;" "Has n'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 5 pounds;
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 damned 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 damned 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 damned 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

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,-- damn the

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 damned 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 eyeing
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 rose wood 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 pat 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 he 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
was a-talking to a jay bird 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 slumbrous 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 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.

* * * * *


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