The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

Earlier Sketches


An Idyl of Red Mountain

Bret Harte




JUST where the Sierra Nevada begins to subside in gentle undulations, and the rivers grow less rapid and yellow, on the side of a great red mountain stands Smith’s Pocket. Seen from the red road at sunset, in the red light and the red dust, its white houses look like the outcroppings of quartz on the mountain side. The red stage, topped with red-shirted passengers, is lost to view half a dozen times in the tortuous descent, turning up unexpectedly in out-of-the-way places, and vanishing altogether within a hundred yards of the town. It is probably owing to this sudden twist in the road that the advent of a stranger at Smith’s Pocket is usually attended with a peculiar circumstance. Dismounting from the vehicle at the stage office the too-confident traveler is apt to walk straight out of town under the impression that it lies in quite another direction. It is related that one of the tunnel men, two miles from town, met one of these self-reliant passengers with a carpetbag, umbrella, “Harper’s Magazine,” and other evidences of “civilization and refinement,” plodding along over the road he had just ridden, vainly endeavoring to find the settlement of Smith’s Pocket.

Had he been an observant traveler he might have found some compensation for his disappointment in the weird aspect of that vicinity. There were huge fissures on the hillside, and displacements of the red soil, resembling more the chaos of some primary elementary upheaval than the work of man; while, halfway down, a long flume straddled its narrow body and disproportionate legs over the chasm, like an enormous fossil of some forgotten antediluvian. At every step smaller ditches crossed the road, hiding in their shallow depths unlovely streams that crept away to a clandestine union with the great yellow torrent below. Here and there the ruins of some cabin, with the chimney alone left intact and the hearthstone open to the skies, gave such a flat contradiction to the poetic delusion of Lares and Penates that the heart of the traveler must have collapsed as he gazed, and even the bar-room of the National Hotel have afterward seemed festive, and invested with preternatural comfort and domesticity.

The settlement of Smith’s Pocket owed its origin to the finding of a “pocket” on its site by a veritable Smith. Five thousand dollars were taken out of it in one half-hour by Smith. Three thousand dollars were expended by Smith and others in erecting a flume and in tunneling. And then Smith’s Pocket was found to be only a pocket, and subject like other pockets to depletion. Although Smith pierced the bowels of the great red mountain, that five thousand dollars was the first and the last return of his labor. The mountain grew reticent of its golden secrets, and the flume steadily ebbed away the remainder of Smith’s fortune. Then Smith went into quartz mining. Then into quartz milling. Then into hydraulics and ditching, and then by easy degrees into saloon keeping. Presently it was whispered that Smith was drinking a good deal; then it was known that Smith was an habitual drunkard; and then people began to think, as they are apt to, that he had never been anything else. But the settlement of Smith’s Pocket, like that of most discoveries, was happily not dependent on the fortune of its pioneer, and other parties projected tunnels and found pockets. So Smith’s Pocket became a settlement with its two fancy stores, its two hotels, its one express office, and its two first families. Occasionally its one long straggling street was overawed by the assumption of the latest San Francisco fashions, imported per express, exclusively to the first families; making outraged nature, in the ragged outline of her furrowed surface, look still more homely, and putting personal insult on that greater portion of the population to whom the Sabbath, with a change of linen, brought merely the necessity of cleanliness without the luxury of adornment. Then there was a Methodist church, and hard by a monte bank, and a little beyond, on the mountain side, a graveyard; and then a little schoolhouse.

“The master,” as he was known to his little flock, sat alone one night in the schoolhouse, with some open copybooks before him, carefully making those bold and full characters which are supposed to combine the extremes of chirographical and moral excellence, and had got as far as “Riches are deceitful,” and was elaborating the noun with an insincerity of flourish that was quite in the spirit of his text, when he heard a gentle tapping. The woodpeckers had been busy about the roof, during the day, and the noise did not disturb his work. But the opening of the door, and the tapping continuing from the inside, caused him to look up. He was slightly startled by the figure of a young girl, dirty, and shabbily clad. Still her great black eyes, her coarse uncombed lusterless black hair falling over her sunburned face, her red arms and feet streaked with the red soil, were all familiar to him. It was Melissa Smith—Smith’s motherless child.

“What can she want here?” thought the master. Everybody knew “M’liss,” as she was called, throughout the length and height of Red Mountain. Everybody knew her as an incorrigible girl. Her fierce, ungovernable disposition, her mad freaks and lawless character, were in their way as proverbial as the story of her father’s weakness, and as philosophically accepted by the townsfolk. She wrangled with and fought the schoolboys with keener invective and quite as powerful arm. She followed the trails with woodman’s craft, and the master had met her before, miles away, shoeless, stockingless, and bareheaded on the mountain road. The miners’ camps along the stream supplied her with subsistence during these voluntary pilgrimages, in freely offered alms. Not but that a larger protection had been previously extended to M’liss. The Rev. Joshua McSnagley, “stated” preacher, had placed her in the hotel as servant, by way of preliminary refinement, and had introduced her to his scholars at Sunday-school. But she threw plates occasionally at the landlord, and quickly retorted to the cheap witticisms of the guests, and created in the Sabbath-school a sensation that was so inimical to the orthodox dullness and placidity of that institution, that, with a decent regard for the starched frocks and unblemished morals of the two pink-and-white-faced children of the first families, the reverend gentleman had her ignominiously expelled. Such were the antecedents and such the character of M’liss, as she stood before the master. It was shown in the ragged dress, the unkempt hair and bleeding feet, and asked his pity. It flashed from her black fearless eyes, and commanded his respect.

“I come here to-night,” she said rapidly and boldly, keeping her hard glance on his, “because I knew you was alone. I wouldn’t come here when them gals was here. I hate ’em and they hates me. That’s why. You keep school,—don’t you? I want to be teached!”

If to the shabbiness of her apparel and uncomeliness of her tangled hair and dirty face she had added the humility of tears the master would have extended to her the usual moiety of pity, and nothing more. But with the natural though illogical instincts of his species, her boldness awakened in him something of that respect which all original natures pay unconsciously to one another in any grade. And he gazed at her the more fixedly as she went on still rapidly, her hand on the door-latch and her eyes on his.

“My name is M’liss—M’liss Smith! You can bet your life on that. My father’s Old Smith—Old Bummer Smith—that’s what’s the matter with him. M’liss Smith—and I’m comin’ to school!”

“Well?” said the master.

Accustomed to be thwarted and opposed, often wantonly and cruelly, for no other purpose than to excite the violent impulses of her nature, the master’s phlegm evidently took her by surprise. She stopped. She began to twist a lock of her hair between her fingers; and the rigid line of upper lip, drawn over the wicked little teeth, relaxed and quivered slightly. Then her eyes dropped, and something like a blush struggled up to her cheek, and tried to assert itself through the splashes of redder soil and the sunburn of years. Suddenly she threw herself forward, calling on God to strike her dead, and fell quite weak and helpless, with her face on the master’s desk, crying and sobbing as if her heart would break.

The master lifted her gently, and waited for the paroxysm to pass. When, with face still averted, she was repeating between her sobs the mea culpa of childish penitence—that “she’d be good, she didn’t mean to,” etc., it came to him to ask her why she had left Sabbath-school.

Why had she left Sabbath-school? Why? Oh, yes. What did he (McSnagley) want to tell her she was wicked for? What did he tell her that God hated her for? If God hated her, what did she want to go to Sabbath school for? She didn’t want to be beholden to anybody who hated her.

Had she told McSnagley this?

Yes, she had.

The master laughed. It was a hearty laugh, and echoed so oddly in the little schoolhouse, and seemed so inconsistent and discordant with the sighing of the pines without, that he shortly corrected himself with a sigh. The sigh was quite as sincere in its way, however, and after a moment of serious silence he asked about her father.

Her father. What father? Whose father? What had he ever done for her? Why did the girls hate her? Come, now! What made the folks say, “Old Bummer Smith’s M’liss” when she passed? Yes; oh, yes. She wished he was dead—she was dead—everybody was dead; and her sobs broke forth anew.

The master then, leaning over her, told her, as well as he could, what you or I might have said after hearing such unnatural theories from childish lips, only bearing in mind perhaps better than you or I the unnatural facts of her ragged dress, her bleeding feet, and the omnipresent shadow of her drunken father. Then raising her to her feet, he wrapped his shawl around her, and bidding her come early in the morning he walked with her down the road. Then he bade her “good-night.” The moon shone brightly on the narrow path before them. He stood and watched the bent little figure as it staggered down the road, and waited until it had passed the little graveyard and reached the curve of the hill, where it turned and stood for a moment, a mere atom of suffering outlined against the far-off patient stars. Then he went back to his work. But the lines of the copybook thereafter faded into long parallels of never-ending road, over which childish figures seemed to pass sobbing and crying to the night. Then, the little schoolhouse seeming lonelier than before, he shut the door and went home.

The next morning M’liss came to school. Her face had been washed, and her coarse black hair bore evidence of recent struggles with the comb, in which both had evidently suffered. The old defiant look shone occasionally in her eyes, but her manner was tamer and more subdued. Then began a series of little trials and self-sacrifices in which master and pupil bore an equal part, and which increased the confidence and sympathy between them. Although obedient under the master’s eye, at times during recess, if thwarted or stung by a fancied slight, M’liss would rage in ungovernable fury, and many a palpitating young savage, finding himself matched with his own weapons of torment, would seek the master with torn jacket and scratched face, and complaints of the dreadful M’liss. There was a serious division among the townspeople on the subject; some threatening to withdraw their children from such evil companionship, and others as warmly upholding the course of the master in his work of reclamation. Meanwhile, with a steady persistence that seemed quite astonishing to him on looking back afterward, the Master drew M’liss gradually out of the shadow of her past life, as though it were but her natural progress down the narrow path on which he had set her feet the moonlight night of their first meeting. Remembering the experience of the evangelical McSnagley, he carefully avoided that Rock of Ages on which that unskillful pilot had shipwrecked her young faith. But if, in the course of her reading, she chanced to stumble upon those few words which have lifted such as she above the level of the older, the wiser, and the more prudent,—if she learned something of a faith that is symbolized by suffering, and the old light softened in her eyes, it did not take the shape of a lesson. A few of the plainer people had made up a little sum by which the ragged M’liss was enabled to assume the garments of respect and civilization, and often a rough shake of the hand and words of commendation from a red-shirted and burly figure, sent a glow to the cheek of the young master and set him to thinking if it was altogether deserved.

Three months had passed, from the time of their first meeting, and the master was sitting late one evening over the moral and sententious copies, when there came a tap at the door, and again M’liss stood before him. She was neatly clad and clean-faced, and there was nothing perhaps but the long black hair and bright black eyes to remind him of his former apparition. “Are you busy?” she asked; “can you come with me?” and on his signifying his readiness, in her old willful way she said, “Come, then, quick!”

They passed out of the door together and into the dark road. As they entered the town, the master asked her whither she was going. She replied, “to see her father.”

It was the first time he had heard her use that filial expression, or, indeed, allude to him in any other way than “Old Smith” or the “Old Man.” It was the first time in many weeks that she had spoken of him at all. He had been missed from the settlement for the past fortnight, and the master had credited the rumors of the townsfolk that Smith had “struck something rich” on the “North Fork,” about ten miles from the village. As they neared the settlement, the master gathered from M’liss that the rumor was untrue, and that she had seen her father that day. As she grew reticent to further questioning, and as the master was satisfied from her manner that she had some definite purpose beyond her usual willfulness, he passively resigned himself and followed her.

Through remote groggeries, restaurants, and saloons; in gambling-hells and dance-houses, the master, preceded by M’liss, passed and repassed. In the reeking smoke and blasphemous outcries of noisome dens, the child, holding the master’s hand, pursued her search with a strange familiarity, perfect self-possession, and implied protection of himself, that even in his anxiety seemed ludicrous. Some of the revelers, recognizing M’liss, called to her to sing and dance for them, and would have forced liquor upon her but for the master’s interference. Others mutely made way for them. So an hour slipped by, and as yet their search was fruitless. The master had yawned once or twice and whistled,—two fatal signs of failing interest,—and finally came to a full stop.

“It’s half past eleven, Melissa,” said he, consulting his watch by a broad pencil of light from an open shutter,—“half past eleven; and it strikes me that our old friends, the woodpeckers, must have gone to bed some hours ago, unless they are waiting up for us. I’m much obliged to you for the evening’s entertainment, but I’m afraid that even the pretext of looking for a parent won’t excuse further dissipation. We’d better put this off till to-morrow. What do you say, Melissa? Why! what ails the child? What’s that noise? Why, a pistol!—You’re not afraid of that?”

Few children brought up in the primeval seclusion of Smith’s Pocket were unfamiliar with those quick and sharp notes which usually rendered the evening zephyrs of that locality vocal; certainly not M’liss, to have started when that report rang on the clear night air. The echoes caught it as usual, and carried it round and round Red Mountain, and set the dogs to barking all along the streams. The lights seemed to dance and move quickly on the outskirts of the town for a few moments afterward, the stream suddenly rippled quite audibly behind them, a few stones loosened themselves from the hillside and splashed into the stream, a heavy wind seemed to suage the branches of the funereal pines, and then the silence fell again, heavier, deadlier than ever.

When the last echo had died away, the master felt his companion’s hand relax its grasp. Taking advantage of this outward expression of tractability, he drew her gently with him until they reached the hotel, which—in her newer aspect of a guest whose board was secured by responsible parties—had forgivingly opened its hospitable doors to the vagrant child. Here the master lingered a moment to assure her that she might count upon his assistance tomorrow; and having satisfied his conscience by this anticipated duty, bade her good-night. In the darkness of the road—going astray several times on his way home, and narrowly escaping the yawning ditches in the trail—he had reason to commend his foresight in dissuading M’liss from a further search that night, and in this pleasant reflection went to bed and slept soundly.

For some hours after a darkness thick and heavy brooded over the settlement. The sombre pines encompassing the village seemed to close threateningly about it as if to reclaim the wilderness that had been wrested from them. A low rustling as of dead leaves, and the damp breath of forest odors filled the lonely street. Emboldened by the darkness other shadows slipped by, leaving strange footprints in the moist ditches for people to point at next day, until the moon, round and full, was lifted above the crest of the opposite hill, and all was magically changed.

The shadows shrank away, leaving the straggling street sleeping in a beauty it never knew by day. All that was unlovely, harsh, and repulsive in its jagged outlines was subdued and softened by that uncertain light. It smoothed the rough furrows and unsightly chasms of the mountain with an ineffable love and tenderness. It fell upon the face of the sleeping M’liss, and left a tear glittering on her black lashes and a smile on her lip, which would have been rare to her at any other time; and fell also on the white upturned face of “Old Smith,” with a pistol in his hand and a bullet in his heart, lying dead beside his empty pocket.

M’liss - Chapter II

[Pagenote: There are two forms of this tale. The earlier one is that printed originally in The Golden Era and afterward and until this time included in Mr. Harte’s collected writings. It is comprised in four chapters and occupies about thirty pages. When the present edition was under consideration, Mr. Harte called his publishers’ attention to the fact that the editor of the same paper proposed to him some time later to continue it as a serial. In order to do this, he found himself obliged to make some changes in the earlier incidents. Accordingly he republished the story in its first form, but with some interpolations and alterations, and then proceeded with other chapters, making ten in all, “concluding it,” he says, “rather abruptly when I found it was inartistically prolonged.” This was in 1863. But even thus the story was not to be let alone. Ten years later, in 1873, another writer took the tale up at the end of the tenth chapter, added fifty more, and issued the whole in The Golden Era. When the continuation had been running some time, Mr. Harte discovered the fraud, and inserted a card in the same paper, advising the public that he had nothing whatever to do with this further amplification of his story. Afterward, when the whole was published in book form, he instituted legal proceedings and suppressed the sale.

The present form is Mr. Harte’s revision and extension of his first, and is reprinted from The Golden Era with his consent. EDITOR.]    [back]

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

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