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The Luck Of Roaring Camp








From: Selected Stories

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;" "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 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,--damn 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 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 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 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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Previous: Liberated



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