The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

Earlier Sketches


An Idyl of Red Mountain

Bret Harte



THE LONG wet season had drawn near its close. Signs of spring were visible in the swelling buds and rushing torrents. The pine forests exhaled a fresher spicery. The azaleas were already budding; the ceanothus getting ready its lilac livery for spring. On the green upland which climbed the Red Mountain at its southern aspect, the long spike of the monk’s-hood shot up from its broad-leaved stool and once more shook its dark blue bells. Again the billow above Smith’s grave was soft and green, its crest just tossed with the foam of daisies and buttercups. The little graveyard had gathered a few new dwellers in the past year, and the mounds were placed two by two by the little paling until they reached Smith’s grave, and there, there was but one. General superstition had shunned the enforced companionship. The plot beside Smith was vacant.

It was the custom of the driver of the great Wingdam stage to whip up his horses at the foot of the hill, and so enter Smith’s Pocket at that remarkable pace which the woodcuts in the hotel bar-room represented to credulous humanity as the usual rate of speed of that conveyance. At least, Aristides Morpher thought so as he stood one Sunday afternoon, uneasily conscious of his best jacket and collar, waiting its approach. Nor could anything shake his belief that regularly on that occasion the horses ran away with the driver, and that that individual from motives of deep policy pretended not to notice it until they were stopped.

“Anybody up from below, Bill?” said the landlord as the driver slowly descended from his perch.

“Nobody for you,” responded Bill shortly. “Dusenberry kem up as usual, and got off at the old place. You can’t make a livin’ off him, I reckon.”

“Have you found out what his name is yet?” continued the landlord, implying that “Dusenberry” was simply a playful epithet of the driver.

“He says his name is Waters,” returned Bill. “Jake said he saw him at the North Fork in ’50—called himself Moore then. Guess he ain’t no good, nowhow. What’s he doin’ round here?”

“Says he’s prospectin’,” replied the landlord. “He has a claim somewhere in the woods. Gambles a little too, I reckon. He don’t travel on his beauty anyhow.”

“If you had seen him makin’ up to a piece of calico inside, last trip, and she a-makin’ up to him quite confidential-like, I guess you’d think he was a lady-killer. My eye, but wasn’t she a stunner! Clytie Morpher wasn’t nowhere to begin with her.”

“Who was she, Bill?” asked half a dozen masculine voices.

“Don’t know. We picked her up this side of ‘Coyote.’ Fancy? I tell you!—pretty little hat and pink ribbings—eyes that ud bore you through at a hundred yards—white teeth—brown gaiters, and such an ankle! She didn’t want to show it,—oh, no!” added the sarcastic Bill with deep significance.

“Where did you leave her, Bill?” asked a gentle village swain who had been fired by the glowing picture of the fair unknown.

“That’s what’s the matter. You see after we picked her up, she said she was goin’ through to Wingdam. Of course there wasn’t anything in the stage or on the road too good to offer her. Old Major Spaffler wanted to treat her to lemonade at every station. Judge Plunkett kep’ a-pullin’ down the blinds and a-h’istin’ of them up to keep out the sun and let in the air. Blest if old McSnagley didn’t want to carry her travelin’-bag. There wasn’t any attention, boys, she didn’t get—but it wasn’t no use—bless you! She never so much as passed the time of day with them.”

“But where did she go?” inquired another anxious auditor.

“Keep your foot off the drag, and I ‘ll tell you. Arter we left Ring Tail Canon, Dusenberry, as usual, got on. Presently one of the outsides turned round to me, and says he, ‘D—d if Ugly Mug ain’t got the inside track of all of you this time!’ I looked down, and dern my skin if there wasn’t Dusenberry a-sittin’ up alongside of the lady, quite comfortable, as if they had ben children together. At the next station Dusenberry gets off. So does the lady. ‘Ain’t you goin’ on to Wingdam,’ says I. ‘No,’ says she. ‘Mayn’t we have the pleasure of your kempany further?’ says the judge, taking off his hat. ‘No, I’ve changed my mind,’ says she, and off she got, and off she walked arm in arm with him as cool as you please.”

“Wonder if that wa’n’t the party that passed through here last July?” asked the blacksmith, joining the loungers in front of the stage-office. “Waters brought up a buggy to get the axle bolted. There was a woman setting in the buggy, but the hood was drawn down, and I didn’t get to see her face.” During this conversation Aristides, after a long, lingering glance at the stage, had at last torn himself away from its fascinations, and was now lounging down the long straggling street in a peculiarly dissipated manner, with his hat pushed on the back part of his head, his right hand and a greater portion of his right arm buried in his trousers pocket. This might have been partly owing to the shortness of his legs and the comparative amplitude of his trousers, which to the casual observer seemed to obviate the necessity of any other garment. But when he reached the bottom of the street, and further enlivened his progress by whistling shrilly between his fingers, and finally drew a fragment of a cigar from his pocket and placed it between his teeth, it was evident that there was a moral as well as physical laxity in his conduct. The near fact was that Aristides had that afternoon evaded the Sunday-school, and was open to any kind of infant iniquity.

The main street of Smith’s Pocket gradually lost its civilized character, and after one or two futile attempts at improvement at its lower extremity, terminated impotently in a chaos of ditches, races, and trailings. Out of this again a narrow trail started along the mountain side, and communicated with that vast amphitheatre which still exhibited the pioneer efforts of the early settlers. It was this trail that Aristides took that Sunday afternoon, and which he followed until he reached the hillside a few rods below the yawning fissure of Smith’s Pocket. After a careful examination of the vicinity, he cleared away the underbrush beside a fallen pine that lay near, and sat down in the attitude of patient and deliberate expectancy.

Five minutes passed—ten, twenty—and finally a half-hour was gone. Aristides threw away his cigar, which he had lacked determination to light, and peeled small slips from the inner bark of the pine-tree, and munched them gravely. Another five, ten, and twenty minutes passed, and the sun began to drop below the opposite hillside. Another ten minutes, and the whole of the amphitheatre above was in heavy shadow. Ten minutes more, and the distant windows in the settlement flamed redly. Five minutes, and the spire of the Methodist church caught the glow—and then the underbrush crackled.

Aristides, looking up, saw the trunk of the prostrate pine slowly lifting itself before him.

A second glance showed the fearless and self-possessed boy that the apparent phenomenon was simply and easily explained. The tree had fallen midway and at right angles across the trunk of another prostrate monarch. So accurately and evenly was it balanced that the child was satisfied, from a liberal experience of the application of these principles to the game of “seesaw,” that a very slight impulse to either end was sufficient to destroy the equilibrium. That impulse proceeded from his end of the tree, as he saw when the uplifted trunk disclosed an opening in the ground beneath it, and the head and shoulders of a man emerging therefrom.

Aristides threw himself noiselessly on his stomach. The thick clump of an azalea hid him from view, though it did not obstruct his survey of the stranger, whom he at once recognized as his former enemy,—the man with the red handkerchief,—the hopeful prospector of Red Mountain, and the hypothetical “Dusenberry” of the stage-driver.

The stranger looked cautiously round, and Aristides shrank close behind the friendly azalea.

Satisfied that he was unobserved, the subterranean proprietor returned to the opening and descended, reappearing with a worn black enameled traveling-bag which he carried with difficulty. This he again enveloped in a blanket and strapped tightly on his back, and a long-handled shovel, brought up from the same mysterious storehouse, completed his outfit. As he stood for a moment leaning on the shovel, it was the figure of the hopeful prospector in the heart of the forest. A very slight effort was sufficient to replace the fallen tree in its former position. Raising the shovel to his shoulder, he moved away, brushing against the azalea bush which hid the breathless Aristides. The sound of his footsteps retreating through the crackling brush presently died out, and a drowsy Sabbath stillness succeeded.

Aristides rose. There was a wonderful brightness in his gray eyes, and a flush on his sunburned cheek. Seizing a root of the fallen pine he essayed to move it. But it defied his endeavors. Aristides looked round.

“There’s some trick about it, but I’ll find it yet,” said that astute child. Breaking off the limb of a buckeye, he extemporized a lever. The first attempt failed. The second succeeded, and the long roots of the tree again, ascended. But as it required prolonged effort to keep the tree up, before the impetus was lost Aristides seized the opportunity to jump into the opening. At the same moment the tree slowly returned to its former position,

In the sudden change from the waning light to complete darkness, Aristides was for a moment confounded. Recovering himself, he drew a match from his capacious pocket, and striking it against the sole of his shoe, by the upspringing flash perceived a candle stuck in the crevices of the rock beside him. Lighting it, he glanced curiously around him. He was at the entrance of a long gallery at the further extremity of which he could faintly see the glimmering of the outer daylight. Following this gallery cautiously he presently came to an antechamber, and by the glimmering of the light above him at once saw that it was the same he had seen in his wonderful dream.

The antechamber was about fourteen feet square, with walls of decomposed quartz, mingling with flaky mica that reflected here and there the gleam of Aristides’s candle with a singular brilliancy. It did not need much observation on his part to determine the reason of the stranger’s lonely labors. On a rough rocker beside him were two fragments of ore taken from the adjacent wall, the smallest of which the two arms of Aristides could barely clasp. To his dazzled eyes they seemed to be almost entirely of pure gold. The great strike of ’56 at Ring Tail Canon had brought to the wonderful vision of Smith’s Pocket no such nuggets as were here.

Aristides turned to the wall again, which had been apparently the last scene of the stranger’s labors, and from which the two masses of ore were taken. Even to his inexperienced eye it represented a wealth almost incalculable. Through the loose, red soil everywhere glittering star points of the precious metal threw back the rays of his candle. Aristides turned pale and trembled.

Here was the realization of his most extravagant fancy. Ever since his strange dream and encounter with the stranger, he had felt an irresistible desire to follow up his adventure, and discover the secrets of the second cavern. But when he had returned to Smith’s Pocket, a few days after, the wreck of the fallen roof had blocked up that part of the opening from which he had caught sight of the hidden workman below. During his visit he had picked up from among the rubbish the memorandum book which had supplied M’liss with letter paper. Still haunting the locality after school hours, he had noticed that regularly at sunset the man with the red handkerchief appeared in some mysterious way from the hillside below Smith’s Pocket, and went away in the direction of the settlement. By careful watching, Aristides had fixed the location of his mysterious appearance to a point a few rods below the opening of Smith’s Pocket. Flushed by this discovery, he had been betrayed from his usual discretion so far as to intimate a hinting of the suspicion that possessed him in the few mysterious words he had whispered to M’liss at school. The accident we have described above determined the complete discovery of the secret.

Who was the stranger, and why did he keep the fact of this immense wealth hidden from the world? Suppose he, Aristides, were to tell? Wouldn’t the schoolboys look up at him with interest as the hero and discoverer of this wonderful cavern, and wouldn’t the stage-driver feel proud of his acquaintance and offer him rides for nothing?

Why hadn’t Smith discovered it—who was poor and wanted money, whom Aristides had liked, who was the father of M’liss, for whom Aristides confessed a secret passion, who belonged to the settlement and helped to build it up—instead of the stranger? Had Smith never a suspicion that gold was so near him, and if so, why had he killed himself? But did Smith kill himself? And at this thought and its correlative fancy, again the cheek of Aristides blanched, and the candle shook in his nerveless fingers.

Apart and distinct from these passing conjectures one idea remained firm and dominant in his mind: the man with the red handkerchief had no right to this treasure! The mysterious instinct which directed this judicial ruling of Aristides had settled this fact as indubitably as though proven by the weight of the strongest testimony. For an instant a wild thought sprang up in his heart, and he seized the nearest mass of ore with the half-formed intention of bearing it directly to the feet of M’liss as her just and due inheritance. But Aristides could not lift it, and the idea passed out of his mind with the frustrated action.

At the further end of the gallery a few blankets were lying, and with some mining implements, a kettle of water, a few worn flannel shirts, were the only articles which this subterranean habitation possessed. In turning over one of the blankets Aristides picked up a woman’s comb. It was a tortoise-shell, and bright with some fanciful ornamentation. Without a moment’s hesitation Aristides pocketed it as the natural property of M’liss. A pocketbook containing a few old letters in the breast pocket of one of the blue shirts was transferred to that of Aristides with the same coolness and sentiment of instinctive justice.

Aristides wisely reflected that these unimportant articles would excite no suspicion if found in his possession. A fragment of the rock, which, if he had taken it as he felt impelled, would have precipitated the discovery that Aristides had decided to put off until he had perfected a certain plan. The light from the opening above had gradually faded, and Aristides knew that night had fallen. To prevent suspicion he must return home. He reentered the gallery and reached the opening of the egress. One of the roots of the tree projected into the opening.

He seized it and endeavored to lift it, but in vain. Panting with exertion, he again and again exerted the fullest power of his active sinews, but the tree remained immovable—the opening remained sealed as firmly as with Solomon’s signet. Raising his candle towards it, Aristides saw the reason of its resistance. In his hurried ingress he had allowed the tree to revolve sufficiently to permit one of its roots to project into the opening, which held it firmly down. In the shock of the discovery the excitement which had sustained him gave way, and with a hopeless cry the just Aristides fell senseless on the floor of the gallery.

M’liss - Chapter VI

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

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