The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” opens with a “commotion” underway. The setting is quickly established as a small mining settlement called Roaring Camp in California during the gold rush. The town’s population is all male, with the exception of one woman: Cherokee Sal. Cherokee Sal is in labor, and things are not progressing well. Perplexed about how to help, the men finally decide to send a man named Stumpy in to see if he can help her, as he has “had experience in them things.”

About a hundred “reckless” men gather around the cabin to await news of mother and child, placing three to five bets that Cherokee Sal will survive delivery. They hear a “sharp, querulous cry—a cry unlike anything heard before in the camp,” and even nature itself seems to hang in suspense over the fate of this woman and her child. The baby is delivered, but his mother dies. The men enter the delivery room and offer gifts for the baby, including various items ranging from a revolver to a diamond ring to a golden spur. As Kentuck, a “prominent citizen” of the town, leans over, the child grabs onto his finger, and the man affectionately calls him a “d—d little cuss.”

The next day, the men bury Cherokee Sal and try to determine what to do with the child. They consider sending the child forty miles away—where women could tend to him—but this suggestion does not gain favor. They unanimously decide to adopt the child with great enthusiasm. Stumpy volunteers himself and his donkey to take care of the child.

Nature treats the infant kindly, and so do the men of the town. They decide to name him Thomas Luck, calling him “the Luck” most often. They hold a christening ceremony, and Stumpy stands in as godfather. The ceremony is complete with a choir and a speech declaring the child “Thomas Luck, according to the laws of the United States and the State of California, so help me God.” It is noted that this is the first time that the name of God has been used in a manner other than profanity in the camp.

And so “the Luck” brings about positive changes in the men. They begin to engage in better sanitation so that they can hold Luck. They speak in whispers so as not to disturb him. Former expletives in the camp—“D—n the luck!” and “Curse the luck!”—are abandoned. They sing a lullaby of ninety stanzas.

Nature seems to embrace Luck as well. Golden shafts of sunlight fall just within his reach. Wandering breezes entertain him. Birds sing, squirrels chatter, and flowers bloom seemingly just for him. The men begin to consider making the town better for their baby, even considering the possibility of inviting families to move in, which would offer female companionship.

However, the winter of 1851 brings devastation to the town. Melting snow sends a mass of runoff into the river which borders the small town; suddenly, the river overflows its banks and sweeps away Stumpy’s cabin. They find the body of its owner, but they cannot find Luck. A boat from downriver appears, having picked up a man and an infant. Kentuck is inside the boat, badly injured and clinging to the dead child. When he learns that he has not managed to save Luck, he dies with the words “he’s a taking me with him—tell the boys I’ve got the Luck with me now.”

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