Luck of Roaring Camp
PART II of IV
I do not think that the fact of Sal's death was of much importance to the men, except as they began to wonder about the fate of the child. "Can he live now?" was asked of Sandy. The answer was one of the great doubt. considerable conversation then followed in which there was much talk about what food should be given him, what care he should have, etc.
Almost an hour passed in this way when the door was opened and the eager crowd of men, who had already formed themselves into a long line, entered one by one. Beside the low bed or shelf on which the figure of the dead mother could be seen under the bed covers, stood a pine table. On this box was placed, and within it, wrapped in some heavy red material, lay the last one to arrive at Roaring Camp. Beside the box was placed a hat. Its use was soon pointed out. "Gentlemen," said Stumpy in a voice which seemed to show that he now considered himself more or less in command, "will please pass in at the front door, around the table, and out at the back door. Those that wish to give anything to the orphan will find a hat on the table." The first man entered with his hat on; he took it off, however, as he looked around him and so, without thinking, set an example to the rest.
In such places as Roaring Camp good and bad actions were catching and were quickly copied. As the line moved forward and the men camp in, there were several who spoke in the direction of Stumpy, as though he was in charge of the show, voicing their surprise and their opinions in the matter. "Is that him?" "Pretty small fellow." Isn't any bigger than my hand." The things which were left in the hat were also those which might well have been expected from such a camp: a silver tobacco box, an old army pistol, a piece of gold, a very beautiful lady's silk handkerchief (from Oakhurst the gambler), a diamond pin, a diamond ring set with three different stones (suggested by the pin, which mention by the giver that he saw the pin and wanted to go two diamonds higher), a Bible (giver not known), a pair of doctor's scissors, a knife, a Bank of England note, and bout $200 in loose gold and silver money.
During all this time Stumpy remained as silent as the dead woman on his left and as serious as the newborn child on his right. Only one thing worth mentioning happened as the line of men passed by the table where the child lay. As Kentuck leaned over the box half-curiously,the child turned, and in a moment of possible pain caught a Kentuck's outstretched finger and held it fast. Kentuck looked foolish and embarrassed. The color rose in his weather-beaten cheek. "The little devil," he said, as he drew away his finger, gently and with greater care than anyone could have imagined he was able to show. He held that finger a little apart from its fellows as he went out, and examined it curiously. As he did so, he was heard to repeat what he had just said. In fact, he seemed to enjoy repeating it. "The little devil," he explained to Tipton, holding up his finger so that all might see it. "He grabbed it and held on to it."
It was four o'clock before the camp finally thought of rest. A light burned in the cabin where a few of the watchers still sat, for Stumpy did not go to bed that night. Nor did Kentuck. He drank quite freely and spoke with great pleasure of his experience, always ending with the same words: "The little devil." This description of the child seemed to make him feel less embarrassed because he had no wish to appear weak or sentimental before the rest of the men.
When everyone else had gone to bed, he walked down to the river, whistling softly to himself. the he started up the valley and passed the cabin again, still whistling. At a large pine tree he stopped, went back over his steps, and again passed the cabin. Half way down to the river's bank, he again hesitated, and then returned and knocked at the cabin door. It was opened by Stumpy. "How it goes?" asked Kentuck, looking past Stumpy toward the box on the table. "All quiet and peaceful," answered Stumpy. "Anything up?" "Nothing." there was a pause-- a long, embarrassing one--Stumpy still holding the door. Then Kentuck remembered his finger, which he held up to Stumpy. "Grabbed it and held it--the little devil," he said, and then left.
The next day Cherokee Sal was buried in the usual, simple manner of Roaring Camp. After her body had been placed in the ground on the side of a nearby hill, a meeting was held in the camp to decide what would be done with her child. When someone suggested that the camp adopt it, the idea was immediately taken up with enthusiasm by everyone. But there followed a great deal of discussion as to how the child should be cared for. It was to be noted, however, that this discussion did not become heated nor did it end up in a serious fight, as usually happened in Roaring Camp. Tipton suggested that they should send the child to Red Dog--a town about forty miles away--where it might have the care and attention of a woman. But everyone strongly opposed this idea. It was clear that no plan which meant parting with the little fellow would be considered for a moment. "Besides," said Tom Ryder, "those fellows at Red Dog would exchange him for another and give us the wrong child back." In Roaring Camp as in other places there was always considerable question of the honesty of those who lived in neighboring camps.
The idea of bringing a woman to the camp to take care of the child was also objected to. It was argued that no good or honest woman would want to accept Roaring Camp as her home, and the speaker added that they wanted a good woman or none at all. Stumpy had nothing to suggest. Perhaps he felt it was rather out of place for him to take part in the choosing of a person to succeed himself. But, when questioned, he answered strongly that he was sure he could raise the child. There was something original and daring in this plan which pleased the camp. Therefore it was decided to leave Stumpy in complete charge. Certain articles were sent for to Sacramento. A collection of money was taken up, and as one of the men left he was given a large pile of gold dust and directed to bring back from Sacramento only the best that would be got for the child--and to forget the cost.
Strange to say, the child grew well and strong. Perhaps the mountain air of the camp helped to make up for other things which he did not have. Nature seemed to take the little orphan to her own heart. In that rich, fresh air, sweet with the smell of pine, he seemed to find food and drink which caused his bones to form and his little body to grow. Stumpy held to the idea that it was his care that helped the child. "I have been father and mother to him," he would say. Then looking down affectionately at the little fellow before him, he would add, "Don't you ever go back on me."