“The Luck of Roaring Camp” is set in California during the mid-19th-century Gold Rush. Cherokee Sal is “a coarse and…, very sinful woman,” and the only woman living in a mining camp of about 100 men. Sal gives birth, assisted by a miner named Stumpy, and dies soon thereafter. Her sinfulness apparently refers to prostitution, and no one knows who the baby boy’s father is. After he is left an orphan, the men take up a collection for his welfare and debate the best manner of caring for him. They feed him with milk obtained from a female ass (donkey).
While they recognize the challenges of the boy’s motherless state, they remain critical of Sal’s morals. According to the narrator, their reluctance to bring a woman to camp to care for him pertained largely to the idea that a “decent woman” would not want to come, and “they didn't want any more of the other kind.” The narrator continues that this “spasm of propriety… [was] the first symptom of the camp's regeneration.” Stumpy assumes the role of nurse and care-giver for the boy and resists all offers of assistance.
The second piece of evidence of their regeneration is their decision to christen the boy and invoking the Lord’s name in doing so. During the ceremony, Stumpy pronounces his name Thomas Luck, “so help me God.”
It was the first time that the name of the Deity had been otherwise uttered than profanely in the camp.
The men’s behavior begins to improve in numerous ways. They keep both Tommy and his cabin clean, and even start bathing occasionally themselves. When visiting the baby, they refrain from cursing. Some of the men even rock him and sing him lullabies (or sea chanties, the specialty of one former sailor).
Through an entire summer, not only do things go well for Tommy, but the men have excellent luck with the mining. They continue to improve the camp’s appearance, and an idea is soon circulating to build a hotel the following spring. The promoters hope
to invite one or two decent families to reside there for the sake of The Luck, who might perhaps profit by female companionship.
But the idea itself seems to be the limit of the regeneration, for the hotel cannot be built. The story has no happy ending. Instead, the spring brings torrential rains, which cause the river to flood and wash away half the camp, including Stumpy’s cabin. Like the biblical flood, which punished sinners, this deluge took Stumpy’s life. The next day, the baby is found in a boat with another miner, Kentuck. He lives long enough to proclaim that the baby has brought him luck, but little Tommy is already dead.