Luck of Roaring Camp
On the long summer days The Luck was usually taken down into the valley where the men dug for the gold which was the life blood of Roaring Camp. There on a blanket spread over some pine branches he would lie while the men worked in the stream below. Forest flowers or other sweet-smelling plants were brought and placed near him in an effort to make even this spot more beautiful and comfortable. The men had suddenly become aware of the fact that there was beauty and importance in these things--things which they had never before even noticed. A piece of fresh gold or shining metal, a pretty stone from the bed of the stream became suddenly beautiful to eyes thus made clearer--and were always put aside for The Luck.
It was surprising how many treasures the wood and hills gave up that "would just do for Tommy." With such things to play with, it is hoped that the child was happy. He appeared to be pleased--although his little face usually wore such a serious expression that Stumpy was sometimes worried. He was almost always quiet and seldom cried, and it was once reported that, having crept beyond his blanket and the pine branches placed around it, he dropped over the bank on his head in the sort earth, and remained with his legs in the air in this position for at least five minutes without making a sound. He was pulled out--also without a sound or other show of emotion. I hesitate to mention the many other examples of his unusual powers of both mind and body because these are based, unfortunately, upon the words of those whose opinions were colored by the great admiration and love they bore for him.
There was even a touch of the superstitious in some of the stories told about him. "I crept up the bank just now," said Kentuck one day, in a state of great excitement, "and, believe it or not, there he was talking to a little bird that sat alongside of him. There they were, just as free and friendly as anything you please, talking away with each other like two old ladies." However, whether creeping over the pine branches or lying lazily on his back looking up at the leaves above him, to him the birds sang, the squirrels spoke, the flowers grew fresh and beautiful. Nature was his companion. For him, she would let the gold of the sun slip between the leaves and fall on his blanket; she would send the wind to wander among the trees, to visit him and make him comfortable during the heat of the day; at the same time the tall trees spoke to him familiarly and gently and brought him the quiet rest which, as a growing child, he needed.
Such was the happy summer at Roaring Camp. They were the "good times"--and The Luck was with them. The camp was proud of its gains and looked with suspicion on all strangers. No one who was not known as admitted or invited to the camp, and to separate themselves even more from outside influences the men laid claim to the land on both sides of the two mountains that formed their particular valley. This, together with the fact that most members of the camp were well known for their use of guns, well served to keep other people away. The man who regularly brought the mail--their only connection with the outside world--sometimes told wonderful stories about the camp. He would say, "They've got a street up there in Roaring Camp that beats anything in Red Dog. They've got plants and flowers all around their houses, and they wash themselves twice a day. But they're rough on strangers, and they've got some Indians baby that they're all crazy about."
With these better times, there came a desire to improve the camp even more. It was suggested that several new buildings be put up and that one or two decent families be invited to live in the town so that "The Luck" might enjoy the advantage of such companions as he grew older. The sacrifice which such a move meant to the men, who were in general opposed to introducing women of any kind into the camp, can only be explained by their great affection of Tommy. A few, however, still held out. But the plan could not be carried into effect for a few months, while the houses were being built, so that even these few finally gave in, with the hope that something might turn up in the meantime to prevent it. And it did.
The winter of 1851 will long be remembered in these hills. The snow lay deep in the Sierra Mountains, and every stream became a river and every river a lake. Each valley, great or small, was changed into a waterfall that moved down the side of the hills, tearing down giant trees and were left lying everywhere. Red Dog had been twice under water, and Roaring Camp had thus been warned. "Water first put the gold into this valley," said Stumpy. "So there was water here once before and there will be water here again." That night the great river suddenly jumped over its banks and swept up the valley of Roaring Camp.
In the rush of the water and darkness that seemed to flow with it and cover the whole valley, everything and everyone was so confused that little could be done to keep order in Roaring Camp. When morning broke, the cabin of Stumpy, which lay nearest the river bank, was gone. Higher up in the valley, they found the body of the unfortunate owner, but the town's greatest treasure, its pride, its hope, its happiness, "The Luck" of Roaring Camp had disappeared. They were returning with sad hearts when a shout from the bank called them back.
It was a boat from down the river. They had picked up, they said, a man and child about two miles below. Both were in bad condition. Did anyone know them and did they belong here?
It needed but one look to show them Kentuck lying there, badly hurt, but still holding The Luck of Roaring Camp in his arms. As they leaned over to look closer, it was seen that the child was cold and no longer breathing. "He is dead," said one. Kentuck opened his eyes. "Dead?" he repeated weakly. "Yes, my man, and you are dying too." A smile lighted up the eyes of the brave Kentuck. "Dying," he repeated. "He's taking me with him--tell the boys I've got The Luck with me now." And the strong man, holding tightly to the small child as a drowning man is said to hold whatever he can reach, floated away into the shadows of the dark river that flows forever to the unknown sea.
This story is from American Classic Vol.5 published by Regent Publishing Company. The original author is Bret Harte, but it was simplified and adapted for greater reading pleasure by Robert D. Nixon. All rights reserved to the author(s).