The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

Earlier Sketches


An Idyl of Red Mountain

Bret Harte



THE HURRIED statement of the messenger was corroborated in the streets that night. It was certain that McSnagley was killed. Smith’s Pocket, excited but skeptical, had seen the body, had put its fingers in the bullethole, and was satisfied. Smith’s Pocket, albeit hoarse with shouting and excitement, still discussed details with infinite relish in bar-rooms and saloons, and in the main street in clamorous knots that in front of the jail where the prisoner was confined seemed to swell into a mob. Smith’s Pocket, bearded, blue-shirted, and belligerent, crowding about this locality, from time to time uttered appeals to justice that swelled on the night wind, not infrequently coupling these invocations with the name of that eminent jurist—Lynch.

Let not the simple reader suppose that the mere taking off of a fellow mortal had created this uproar. The tenure of life in Smith’s Pocket was vain and uncertain at the best, and as such philosophically accepted, and the blowing out of a brief candle here and there seldom left a permanent shadow with the survivors. In such instances, too, the victims had received their quietus from the hands of brother townsmen, socially, as it were, in broad day, in the open streets, and under other mitigating circumstances. Thus, when Judge Starbottle of Virginia and “French Pete” exchanged shots with each other across the plaza until their revolvers were exhausted, and the luckless Pete received a bullet through the lungs, half the town witnessed it, and were struck with the gallant and chivalrous bearing of these gentlemen, and to this day point with feelings of pride and admiration to the bulletholes in the door of the National Hotel, as they explain how narrow was the escape of the women in the parlor. But here was a man murdered at night, in a lonely place, and by a stranger—a man unknown to the saloons of Smith’s Pocket—a wretch who could not plead the excitement of monte or the delirium of whiskey as an excuse. No wonder that Smith’s Pocket surged with virtuous indignation beneath the windows of his prison, and clamored for his blood.

And as the crowd thickened and swayed to and fro, the story of his crime grew exaggerated by hurried and frequent repetition. Half a dozen speakers volunteered to give the details with an added horror to every sentence. How one of Morpher’s children had been missing for a week or more. How the schoolmaster and the parson were taking a walk that evening, and coming to Smith’s Pocket heard a faint voice from its depths which they recognized as belonging to the missing child. How they had succeeded in dragging him out and gathered from his infant lips the story of his incarceration by the murderer, Waters, and his enforced labors in the mine. How they were interrupted by the appearance of Waters, followed by a highly colored and epithet-illustrated account of the interview and quarrel. How Waters struck the schoolmaster, who returned the blow with a pick. How Waters thereupon drew a derringer and fired, missing the schoolmaster, but killing McSnagley behind him. How it was believed that Waters was one of Joaquin’s gang, that he had killed Smith, etc., etc. At each pause the crowd pushed and panted, stealthily creeping around the doors and windows of the jail like some strange beast of prey, until the climax was reached, and a hush fell, and two men were silently dispatched for a rope, and a critical examination was made of the limbs of a pine-tree in the vicinity.

The man to whom these incidents had the most terrible significance might have seemed the least concerned as he sat that night but a few feet removed from the eager crowd without, his hands lightly clasped together between his knees, and the expression on his face of one whose thoughts were far away. A candle stuck in a tin sconce on the wall flickered as the night wind blew freshly through a broken pane of the window. Its uncertain light revealed a low room whose cloth ceiling was stained and ragged, and from whose boarded walls the torn paper hung in strips; a lumber-room partitioned from the front office, which was occupied by a justice of the peace. If this temporary dungeon had an appearance of insecurity, there was some compensation in the spectacle of an armed sentinel who sat upon a straw mattress in the doorway, and another who patrolled the narrow hall which led to the street. That the prisoner was not placed in one of the cells in the floor below may have been owing to the fact that the law recognized his detention as only temporary, and while providing the two guards as a preventive against the egress of crime within, discreetly removed all unnecessary and provoking obstacles to the ingress of justice from without.

Since the prisoner’s arrest he had refused to answer any interrogatories. Since he had been placed in confinement he had not moved from his present attitude. The guard, finding all attempts at conversation fruitless, had fallen into a reverie, and regaled himself with pieces of straw plucked from the mattress. A mouse ran across the floor. The silence contrasted strangely with the hum of voices in the street.

The candle-light, falling across the prisoner’s forehead, showed the features which Smith’s Pocket knew and recognized as Waters, the strange prospector. Had M’liss or Aristides seen him then they would have missed that sinister expression which was part of their fearful remembrance. The hard, grim outlines of his mouth were relaxed, the broad shoulders were bent and contracted, the quick, searching eyes were fixed on vacancy. The strong man—physically strong only—was breaking up. The fist that might have felled an ox could do nothing more than separate its idle fingers with childishness of power and purpose. An hour longer in this condition, and the gallows would have claimed a figure scarcely less limp and impotent than that it was destined to ultimately reject.

He had been trying to collect his thoughts. Would they hang him? No, they must try him first, legally, and he could prove—he could prove—But what could he prove? For whenever he attempted to consider the uncertain chances of his escape, he found his thoughts straying wide of the question. It was of no use for him to clasp his fingers or knit his brows. Why did the recollection of a school-fellow, long since forgotten, blot out all the fierce and feverish memories of the night and the terrible certainty of the future? Why did the strips of paper hanging from the wall recall to him the pattern of a kite he had flown forty years ago. In a moment like this, when all his energies were required and all his cunning and tact would be called into service, could he think of nothing better than trying to match the torn paper on the wall, or to count the cracks in the floor? And an oath rose to his lips, but from very feebleness died away without expression.

Why had he ever come to Smith’s Pocket? If he had not been guided by that hell-cat, this would not have happened. What if he were to tell all he knew? What if he should accuse her? But would they be willing to give up the bird they had already caught? Yet he again found himself cursing his own treachery and cowardice, and this time an exclamation burst from his lips and attracted the attention of the guard.

“Hello, there! easy, old fellow; thar ain’t any good in that,” said the sentinel, looking up. “It’s a bad fix you’re in, sure, but rarin’ and pitchin’ won’t help things. ’T ain’t no use cussin’—leastways, ’t ain’t that kind o’ swearing that gets a chap out o’ here”, he added, with a conscientious reservation. “Now, ef I was in your place, I’d kinder reflect on my sins, and make my peace with God Almighty, for I tell you the looks o’ them people outside ain’t pleasant. You’re in the hands of the law, and the law will protect you as far as it can,—as far as two men can stand agin a hundred; sabe? That’s what’s the matter; and it’s as well that you knowed that now as any time.”

But the prisoner had relapsed into his old attitude, and was surveying the jailor with the same abstracted air as before. That individual resumed his seat on the mattress, and now lent his ear to a colloquy which seemed to be progressing at the foot of the stairs. Presently he was bailed by his brother turnkey from below.

“Oh, Bill,” said fidus Achates from the passage, with the usual Californian prefatory ejaculation.


“Here’s M’liss! Says she wants to come up. Shall I let her in?”

The subject of inquiry, however, settled the question of admission by darting past the guard below in this moment of preoccupation, and bounded up the stairs like a young fawn. The guards laughed.

“Now, then, my infant phenomenon,” said the one called Bill, as M’liss stood panting before him, “wot ’s up? and nextly, wot’s in that bottle?”

M’liss whisked the bottle which she held in her hand smartly under her apron, and said curtly, “Where’s him that killed the parson?”

“Yonder,” replied the man, indicating the abstracted figure with his hand. “Wot do you want with him? None o’ your tricks here, now,” he added threateningly.

“I want to see him!”

“Well, look! make the most of your time, and his too, for the matter of that; but mind, now, no nonsense, M’liss, he won’t stand it!” repeated the guard with an emphasis in the caution.

M’liss crossed the room, until opposite the prisoner. “Are you the chap that killed the parson?” she said, addressing the motionless figure.

Something in the tone of her voice startled the prisoner from the reverie. He raised his head and glanced quickly, and with his old sinister expression, at the child.

“What’s that to you?” he asked, with the grim lines setting about his mouth again, and the old harshness of his voice.

“Didn’t I tell you he wouldn’t stand any of your nonsense, M’liss?” said the guard testily.

M’liss only repeated her question.

“And what if I did kill him?” said the prisoner savagely; “what’s that to you, you young hell-cat? Guard!—damnation!—what do you let her come here for? Do you hear? Guard!” he screamed, rising in a transport of passion, “take her away! fling her downstairs! What the h—ll is she doing here?”

“If you was the man that killed McSnagley,” said M’liss, without heeding the interruption, “I’ve brought you something;” and she drew the bottle from under her apron and extended it to Waters, adding, “It’s brandy—Cognac—A1.”

“Take it away, and take yourself with it,” returned Waters, without abating his angry accents. “Take it away! do you hear?”

“Well, that’s what I call ongrateful, dog-gone my skin if it ain’t,” said the guard, who had been evidently struck with M’liss’s generosity. “Pass the licker this way, my beauty, and I’ll keep it till he changes his mind. He’s naturally a little flustered just now, but he’ll come round after you go.”

But M’liss didn’t accede to this change in the disposition of the gift, and was evidently taken aback by her reception and the refusal of the proffered comfort.

“Come, hand the bottle here!” repeated the guard. “It’s agin rules to bring the pris’ner anything, anyway, and it’s confiscated to the law. It’s agin the rules, too, to ask a pris’ner any question that’ll criminate him, and on the whole you’d better go, M’liss,” added the guard, to whom the appearance of the bottle had been the means of provoking a spasm of discipline.

But M’liss refused to make over the coveted treasure. Bill arose half jestingly and endeavored to get possession of the bottle. A struggle ensued, good-naturedly on the part of the guard, but characterized on the part of M’liss by that half-savage passion which any thwarted whim or instinct was sure to provoke in her nature. At last with a curse she freed herself from his grasp, and seizing the bottle by the neck aimed it with the full strength of her little arm fairly at his head. But he was quick enough to avert that important object, if not quick enough to save his shoulder from receiving the strength of the blow, which shattered the thin glass and poured the fiery contents of the bottle over his shirt and breast, saturating his clothes, and diffusing a sharp alcoholic odor through the room.

A forced laugh broke from his lips, as he sank back on the mattress, not without an underlying sense of awe at this savage girl who stood panting before him, and from whom he had just escaped a blow which might have been fatal. “It’s a pity to waste so much good licker,” he added, with affected carelessness, narrowly watching each movement of the young pythoness, whose rage was not yet abated.

“Come, M’liss,” he said at last, “we’ll say quits. You’ve lost your brandy, and I’ve got some of the pieces of yonder bottle sticking in my shoulder yet. I suppose brandy is good for bruises, though. Hand me the light!”

M’liss reached the candle from the sconce and held it by the guard as he turned back the collar of his shirt to lay bare his shoulder. “So,” he muttered, “black and blue; no bones broken, though no fault of yours, eh? my young cherub, if it wasn’t. There—why, what are you looking at in that way, M’liss, are you crazy?—Hell’s furies, don’t hold the light so near! What are you doing; Hell—ho, there! Help!”

Too late, for in an instant he was a sheet of living flame. When or how the candle had touched his garments, saturated with the inflammable fluid, Waters, the only inactive spectator in the room, could never afterward tell. He only knew that the combustion was instantaneous and complete, and before the cry had died from his lips, not only the guard, but the straw mattress on which he had been sitting, and the loose strips of paper hanging from the walls, and the torn cloth ceiling above were in flames.

“Help! Help! Fire! Fire!”

With a superhuman effort, M’liss dragged the prisoner past the blazing mattress, through the doorway into the passage, and drew the door, which opened outwardly, against him. The unhappy guard, still blazing like a funeral pyre, after wildly beating the air with his arms for a few seconds, dashed at the broken window, which gave way with his weight, and precipitated him, still flaming, into the yard below. A column of smoke and a licking tongue of flame leaped from the open window at the same moment, and the cry of fire was reechoed from a hundred voices in the street. But scarcely had M’liss closed the open door against Waters, when the guard from the doorway mounted the stairs in time to see a flaming figure leap from the window. The room was filled with smoke and fire. With an instinct of genius, M’liss, pointing to the open window, shouted hoarsely in his ear:—

“Waters has escaped!”

A cry of fury from the guard was echoed from the stairs, even now crowded by the excited mob, who feared the devastating element might still cheat them of their intended victim. In another moment the house was emptied, and the front street deserted, as the people rushed to the rear of the jail—climbing fences and stumbling over ditches in pursuit of the imagined runaway. M’liss seized the hat and coat of the luckless “Bill,” and dragging the prisoner from his place of concealment hurriedly equipped him, and hastened through the blinding smoke of the staircase boldly on the heels of the retiring crowd. Once in the friendly darkness of the street, it was easy to mingle with the pushing throng until an alley crossing at right angles enabled them to leave the main thoroughfare. A few moments’ rapid flight, and the outskirts of the town were reached, the tall pines opened their abysmal aisles to the fugitives, and M’liss paused with her companion. Until daybreak, at least, here they were safe!

From the time they had quitted the burning room to that moment, Waters had passed into his listless, abstracted condition, so helpless and feeble that he retained the grasp of M’liss’s hand more through some instinctive prompting rather than the dictates of reason. M’liss had found it necessary to almost drag him from the main street and the hurrying crowd, which seemed to exercise a strange fascination over his bewildered senses. And now he sat down passively beside her, and seemed to submit to the guidance of her superior nature.

“You’re safe enough now till daylight,” said M’liss, when she had recovered her breath, “but you must make the best time you can through these woods to-night, keeping the wind to your back, until you come to the Wingdam road. There! do you hear?” said M’liss, a little vexed at her companion’s apathy.

Waters released the hand of M’liss, and commenced mechanically to button his coat around his chest with fumbling, purposeless fingers. He then passed his hand across his forehead as if to clear his confused and bewildered brain; all this, however, to no better result than to apparently root his feet to the soil and to intensify the stupefaction which seemed to be creeping over him.

“Be quick, now! You’ve no time to lose! Keep straight on through the woods until you see the stars again before you, and you’re on the other side of the ridge. What are you waiting for?” And M’liss stamped her little foot impatiently.

An idea which had been struggling for expression at last seemed to dawn in his eyes. Something like a simpering blush crept over his face as he fumbled in his pocket. At last, drawing forth a twenty-dollar piece, he bashfully offered it to M’liss. In a twinkling the extended arm was stricken up, and the bright coin flew high in the air, and disappeared in the darkness.

“Keep your money! I don’t want it. Don’t do that again!” said M’liss, highly excited, “or I’ll—I’ll—bite you!”

Her wicked little white teeth flashed ominously as she said it.

“Get off while you can. Look!” she added, pointing to a column of flame shooting up above the straggling mass of buildings in the village, “the jail is burning; and if that goes, the block will go with it. Before morning these woods will be filled with people. Save yourself while you can!”

Waters turned and moved away in the darkness. “Keep straight on, and don’t waste a moment,” urged the child, as the man seemed still disposed to linger. “Trot now!” and in another moment he seemed to melt into the forest depths.

M’liss threw her apron around her head, and coiled herself up at the root of a tree in something of her old fashion. She had prophesied truly of the probable extent of the fire. The fresh wind, whirling the sparks over the little settlement, had already fanned the single flame into the broad sheet which now glowed fiercely, defining the main street along its entire length. The breeze which fanned her cheek bore the crash of falling timbers and the shouts of terrified and anxious men. There were no engines in Smith’s Pocket, and the contest was unequal. Nothing but a change of wind could save the doomed settlement.

The red glow lit up the dark cheek of M’liss and kindled a savage light in her black eyes. Relieved by the background of the sombre woods, she might have been a red-handed Nemesis looking over the city of Vengeance. As the long tongues of flame licked the broad colonnade of the National Hotel, and shot a wreathing pillar of fire and smoke high into the air, M’liss extended her tiny fist and shook it at the burning building with an inspiration that at the moment seemed to transfigure her.

So the night wore away until the first red bars of morning light gleamed beyond the hill, and seemed to emulate the dying embers of the devastated settlement. M’liss for the first time began to think of the home she had quitted the night before, and looked with some anxiety in the direction of “Mountain Ranch.” Its white walls and little orchard were untouched, and looked peacefully over the blackened and deserted village. M’liss rose, and, stretching her cramped limbs, walked briskly toward the town. She had proceeded but a short distance when she heard the sound of cautious and hesitating footsteps behind her, and, facing quickly about, encountered the figure of Waters.

“Are you drunk?” said M’liss passionately, “or what do you mean by this nonsense?”

The man approached her with a strange smile on his face, rubbing his hands together, and shivering as with cold. When he had reached her side he attempted to take her hand. M’liss shrank away from him with an expression of disgust.

“What are you doing here again?” she demanded.

“I want to go with you. It’s dark in there,” he said, motioning to the wood he had just quitted, “and I don’t like to be alone. You’ll let me be with you, won’t you? I won’t be any trouble;” and a feeble smile flickered on his lips.

M’liss darted a quick look into his face. The grim outlines of his mouth were relaxed, and his lips moved again impotently. But his eyes were bright and open,—bright with a look that was new to M’liss—that imparted a strange softness and melancholy to his features,—the incipient gleam of insanity!

M’liss - Chapter VIII

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

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