The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

Earlier Sketches


An Idyl of Red Mountain

Bret Harte



THE OPINION which McSnagley expressed in reference to a “change of heart,” as experienced by M’liss, was more forcibly described in the gulches and tunnels. It was thought there that M’liss had struck a “good lead.” And when there was a new grave added to the little inclosure, and—at the expense of the master—a little board and inscription put above it, the “Red Mountain Banner” came out quite handsomely and did the correct thing for the memory of one of “our oldest pioneers,” alluding gracefully to that “bane of noble intellects,” touching slightly on the “vicissitudes of fortune,” and otherwise assisting our dear brother into genteel obscurity. “He leaves an only child to mourn his loss,” said the “Banner,” “who is now an exemplary scholar, thanks to the efforts of the Rev. J. McSnagley.” That reverend gentleman, in fact, made a strong point of M’liss’s conversion, and, indirectly attributing to her former bad conduct the suicide of her father, made affecting allusions in Sunday-school to the beneficial effects of the “silent tomb,” and in that cheerful contemplation froze most of the children into speechless horror, and caused the fair-complexioned scions of the first families to howl dismally and refuse to be comforted.

Of the homes that were offered to M’liss when her conversion became known, the master had preferred that of Mrs. Morpher, a womanly and kind-hearted specimen of Southwestern efflorescence, known in her maidenhood as the “Per-ra-rie Rose.” By a steady system of struggle and self-sacrifice, she had at last subjugated her naturally careless disposition to principles of “order,” which as a pious woman she considered, with Pope, as “Heaven’s first law.” But she could not entirely govern the orbits of her satellites, however regular her own movements, and her old nature asserted itself in her children. Lycurgus dipped in the cupboard “between meals,” and Aristides came home from school without shoes, leaving those important articles at the threshold, for the delights of a barefooted walk down the ditches. Octavia and Cassandra were “keerless” of their clothes. So that with but one exception, however the “Prairie Rose” might have trimmed, pruned, and trained her own natural luxuriance, the little shoots came up defiantly wild and straggling. That one exception was Clytemnestra Morpher, aged fifteen. She was the realization of her mother’s most extravagant dream. I stay my hand with difficulty at this moment, for I long to describe this model of deportment; but the progress of my story just at present supplants Clytemnestra in the larger prominence it gives to another member of the family,—the just Aristides.

The long dry summer had come. As each fierce day seemed to burn itself out in little whiffs of pearl gray smoke on the mountain summits, and as the upspringing breeze scattered what might have been its red embers over the landscape, the green wave which, in early spring, had upheaved above Smith’s grave grew sere and dry and hard. In those days, the master, strolling in the little churchyard of a Sabbath afternoon, was sometimes surprised to find a few wild flowers, plucked from the damp pine forest, scattered there, and oftener rude wreaths hung upon the little pine cross. Most of these wreaths were formed of a sweet-scented grass which the children loved to keep in their desks, entwined with the pompon-like plumes of the buckeye and syringa, the wood anemone, and here and there the master noticed the dark blue cowl of the monk’s-hood or deadly aconite. One day, during a walk, in crossing a wooded ridge, he came upon M’liss in the heart of the forest, perched upon a prostrate pine, on a fantastic throne, formed by the hanging plumes of lifeless branches, her lap full of grasses and pine burrs, and crooning to the just Aristides, who sat humbly at her feet, one of the negro melodies of her younger life. It was perhaps the influence of the season, or the memory of this sylvan enjoyment, which caused Aristides, one midsummer day, to have a singular vision.

The just Aristides had begun that morning with a serious error. Loitering on his way to school, occasionally stopping to inspect the footprints of probable bears, or indulging in cheerful badinage with the tunnel men,—to whom the apparition of a short-legged boy weighed down by a preternaturally large satchel was an object of boisterous solicitude,—Aristides suddenly found that he was an hour and a half too late for school. Whether this circumstance was purely accidental or not is a question of some uncertainty, for Aristides, on finding himself occupying this criminal position, at once resolved to play truant. I shall not stop to inquire by what system of logic this result presented itself to that just youth as a consistent deduction, or whether some indistinct apprehension of another and a better world beyond the settlement, where there were no schools and blackberries were plenty, had not influenced him in taking this fatal step. Enough that he entered on his rash career by instantly eating the dinner which he carried with him, and having propitiated that terrible god whose seat is every small boy’s stomach, with a feeling of inexpressible guiltiness creeping over him, he turned his back upon the schoolhouse and ran into the woods.

Away from the glare of the red road, how deliciously cool was the damp breath and twilight dimness of the stately pines. How they seemed to welcome him in their deepest recesses, ranging themselves silently around him as he ran, shutting out the world and its schoolhouses, and the pursuit of indignant parents and vindictive teachers. How in the forest depths the blue jay called to him mockingly, and the kingbird, spreading his tail like a crimson pennant, beckoned him onward. How there was recognition and greeting even in the squirrel that scampered past him, mischievously whisking his ridiculous tail within an inch of his outstretched fingers. And how Aristides, at last flinging away hat, shoes, and satchel, uttered a shrill whoop and dashed forward like a youthful savage. But are not these things written in the dog’s-eared pages of every boy’s memory, even though they seemed afterward to the just Aristides a part and parcel of his own strange vision?

Yet even such delights had their hour of culmination, and Aristides found himself at high noon back on the road again in a state of feverish excitement, carrying a ravished jay’s nest, two pine cones, a dead hare, and a plume of the white syringa. Somewhat overpowered by the weight of these trophies, which he had collected in the vague belief that they would be of future service to him, he began to look about for some convenient place to bestow his booty. It was nearly time for the great Wingdam stage to go by, and when it came at last with a sharp rattle of wheels and prancing of horses, and a red pillar of dust hanging over it that partook of both the fiery and cloudy attributes of the Israelitish sign, Aristides exchanged epithets with the driver, and, although standing knee-deep in red dust, felt a thrill of joy in the recognition which no future honor or dignity might ever give him.

Retracing his steps, the truant presently came to a semicircular opening in the side of Red Mountain, which inclosed, like the walls of some vast amphitheatre, what had been the arena of the early struggles of the gladiators of fortune. There were terrible traces of that struggle still—in the rock blasted by fire—in the bank furrowed by water—and in the debris of Red Mountain scattered along the gulch two miles in extent. Their forgotten engines were lying half buried in the ditches—the primeval structure which had served them for a banking-house was roofless, and held the hoards of field-mice and squirrels. The unshapely stumps of ancient pines dotted the ground, and Aristides remembered that under the solitary redwood, which of all its brothers remained still standing, one of those early pioneers lay buried. No wonder that, as the gentle breeze of that summer day swept through its branches, the just Aristides might have heard, as part of his wonderful dream, some echo of its far off brothers of Lebanon, saying, “Since thou art fallen, no feller has risen up against us!”

But the short legs of Aristides were aching, and he was getting thirsty. There was a rough cavern close at hand; and as most of these openings condensed their general dampness somewhere in quiet pools, Aristides turned into the first one. When he had slaked his thirst, he looked around him and recognized Smith’s Pocket.

It had undergone little change in the last two years. The winter rains had detached those portions of the wall which were not upheld by decaying timbers. It was certainly a dirty pocket—a pocket filled with rubbish—a shabby pocket—a worn-out and ragged pocket. It was so unpromising in its present exterior, so graphic in its story of misfortune, and so terrible in its recent memories, that the most sanguine prospector would have passed it by, as though the hopeless sentence of Dante had been written over its ragged portal.

The active mind of Aristides, however, saw in the lurking shadows of its arches much promise as a future play-room, to which he intended to induct hereafter his classical brother Lycurgus. In this reflection he threw himself on the ground, and luxuriously burying his bare feet in the cool, loose soil, gave himself up to serene meditation. But the heat and exertion were beginning to exert a certain influence over him, and once or twice his eyes closed. The water rippled beside him with a sleepy sound. The sunlight on the hill without made him wink. The long-drawn cawing of a crow on the opposite hillside, and the buzzing of a bluebottle fly who had sought retreat in the cavern, had a like effect, and he felt himself falling asleep. How long he slept, or if he slept at all, he could not remember, for he started suddenly, and, listening a moment, sprang to his feet. The low, heavy blows of a pick came deadened and muffled from the extremity of the cavern.

At first a terrible fear took possession of him; for an instant the white, rigid face of Smith, as he had seen it on the day of the inquest, when an irresistible curiosity led him to creep into the room where the dead man was lying—for an instant only, this fearful remembrance seemed to rise before him out of the gloom of the pit. The terror passed away.

Ghosts were historically unknown to Aristides, and even had his imaginative faculty been more prominent, the education of Smith’s Pocket was not of a kind to foster such weaknesses. Except a twinge of conscience, a momentary recollection of the evil that comes to bad boys through the severe pages of Sunday-school books—with this exception, Aristides was not long in recovering his self-possession. He did not run away, for his curiosity was excited. The same instinct which prompted an examination of bear-tracks gave a fascination to the situation, and a nervous energy to his frame.

The regular blows of the pick still resounded through the cavern. He crept cautiously to the deepest recesses of the pocket, and held his breath and listened. The sound seemed to come from the bowels of the mountain. There was no sign of opening or ingress; an impenetrable veil of quartz was between him and the mysterious laborer. He was creeping back, between the displaced rafters, when a light glanced suddenly in his face, and flashed on the wet roof above him. Looking fearfully down, Aristides beheld between the interstices of the rafters, which formed a temporary flooring, that there was another opening below, and in that opening a man was working. In the queer fantasy of Aristides’s dream, it took the aspect of a second pocket and a duplicate Smith!

He had no time to utter his astonishment, for at that moment an ominous rattling of loose soil upon his back made him look up, and he had barely time to spring away before a greater portion of the roof of Smith’s Pocket, loosened by the displacement of its supports in his search, fell heavily to the ground. But in the fall a long-handled shovel which had been hidden somewhere in the crevices of the rock above came rattling down with it, and, seizing this as a trophy, Aristides emerged from Smith’s Pocket, at a rate of speed which seemed singularly disproportionate with his short legs and round stomach.

When he reached the road the sun was setting. Inspecting his prize by that poetic light, he found that the shovel was a new one, and bore neither mark of use nor exposure. Shouldering it again, with the intention of presenting it as a peace-offering to propitiate the just wrath of his parents, Aristides had gone but a few rods when an unexpected circumstance occurred which dashed his fond hope, and to the conscientious child seemed the shadow of an inevitable Nemesis. At the curve of the road, as the settlement of Smith’s Pocket came into view, with its straggling street, and its church spire that seemed a tongue of flame in the setting sun, a broad-shouldered figure sprang, apparently, from out of the bank, and stood in the path of that infelix infant.

“Where are you going with that shovel, you young devil?”

Aristides looked up and saw that his interlocutor was a man of powerful figure, whose face, though partially concealed by a red handkerchief, even in that uncertain light was not prepossessing. Children are quick physiognomists, and Aristides, feeling the presence of evil, from the depths of his mighty little soul then and there took issue with the giant.

“Where are you going with that shovel; d—n you, do you hear?” said he of the red handkerchief impatiently.

“Home,” said Aristides stoutly.

“Home, eh!” said the stranger sneeringly. “And where did you steal it, you young thief?”

The Morpher stock not being of a kind to receive opprobrious epithets meekly, Aristides slowly, and with an evident effort, lifted the shovel in a menacing attitude.

A single step was all that separated six feet of Strength from three feet of Valor. The stranger eyed Aristides with an expression of surly amazement, and hesitated. The elephant quailed before the gad-fly. As that precocious infant waved the threatening shovel, his youthful lips slowly fashioned this tremendous sentence:—

“You let me pass and I won’t hit you!”

And here I must pause. I would that for the sake of poetry I could leave my hero, bathed in that heroic light, erect and menacing. But alas, in this practical world of ours, the battle is too often to the strong. And I hasten over the humiliating spectacle of Aristides, spanked, cuffed, and kicked, and pick him from the ditch into which he was at last ignominiously tossed, a defeated but still struggling warrior, and so bring him, as the night closes charitably around him, in contrite tears and muddy garments to his father’s door.

When the master stopped at Mrs. Morpher’s to inquire after his errant pupil that night, he found Aristides in bed, smelling strongly of soap and water, and sinking into a feverish sleep. As he muttered from time to time some incoherent sentence, tossing restlessly in his cot, the master turned to those about him and asked what it was he said.

It was nothing. Aristides had been dreaming, and that was his dream.

That was all. Yet a dream that foreshadowed a slow-coming but unerring justice, that should give the little dreamer in after years some credit to the title of Aristides the Just.

M’liss - Chapter III

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

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