The Luck of Roaring Camp
and Other Stories
The Idyl of Red Gulch
Sandy was very drunk. He was lying under an azalea-bush, in pretty
much the same attitude in which he had fallen some hours before. How
long he had been lying there he could not tell, and didn't care; how
long he should lie there was a matter equally indefinite and
unconsidered. A tranquil philosophy, born of his physical condition,
suffused and saturated his moral being.
The spectacle of a drunken man, and of this drunken man in particular,
was not, I grieve to say, of sufficient novelty in Red Gulch to
attract attention. Earlier in the day some local satirist had erected
a temporary tombstone at Sandy's head, bearing the inscription,
"Effects of McCorkle's whiskey kills at forty rods," with a hand
pointing to McCorkle's saloon. But this, I imagine, was, like most
local satire, personal; and was a reflection upon the unfairness of
the process rather than a commentary upon the impropriety of the
result. With this facetious exception, Sandy had been undisturbed. A
wandering mule, released from his pack, had cropped the scant herbage
beside him, and sniffed curiously at the prostrate man; a vagabond
dog, with that deep sympathy which the species have for drunken men,
had licked his dusty boots and curled himself up at his feet, and lay
there, blinking one eye in the sunlight, with a simulation of
dissipation that was ingenious and dog-like in its implied flattery of
the unconscious man beside him.
Meanwhile the shadows of the pine-trees had slowly swung around until
they crossed the road, and their trunks barred the open meadow with
gigantic parallels of black and yellow. Little puffs of red dust,
lifted by the plunging hoofs of passing teams, dispersed in a grimy
shower upon the recumbent man. The sun sank lower and lower, and still
Sandy stirred not. And then the repose of this philosopher was
disturbed, as other philosophers have been, by the intrusion of an
"Miss Mary," as she was known to the little flock that she had just
dismissed from the log schoolhouse beyond the pines, was taking her
afternoon walk. Observing an unusually fine cluster of blossoms on the
azalea-bush opposite, she crossed the road to pluck it, picking her
way through the red dust, not without certain fierce little shivers of
disgust and some feline circumlocution. And then she came suddenly
Of course she uttered the little staccato cry of her sex. But when she
had paid that tribute to her physical weakness she became overbold and
halted for a moment, at least six feet from this prostrate monster,
with her white skirts gathered in her hand, ready for flight. But
neither sound nor motion came from the bush. With one little foot she
then overturned the satirical headboard, and muttered "Beasts!" an
epithet which probably, at that moment, conveniently classified in her
mind the entire male population of Red Gulch. For Miss Mary, being
possessed of certain rigid notions of her own, had not, perhaps,
properly appreciated the demonstrative gallantry for which the
Californian has been so justly celebrated by his brother Californians,
and had, as a newcomer, perhaps fairly earned the reputation of being
As she stood there she noticed, also, that the slant sunbeams were
heating Sandy's head to what she judged to be an unhealthy
temperature, and that his hat was lying uselessly at his side. To pick
it up and to place it over his face was a work requiring some courage,
particularly as his eyes were open. Yet she did it and made good her
retreat. But she was somewhat concerned, on looking back, to see that
the hat was removed, and that Sandy was sitting up and saying
The truth was, that in the calm depths of Sandy's mind he was
satisfied that the rays of the sun were beneficial and healthful; that
from childhood he had objected to lying down in a hat; that no people
but condemned fools, past redemption, ever wore hats; and that his
right to dispense, with them when he pleased was inalienable. This was
the statement of his inner consciousness. Unfortunately, its outward
expression was vague, being limited to a repetition of the following
formula: "Su'shine all ri'! Wasser maar, eh? Wass up, su'shine?"
Miss Mary stopped, and, taking fresh courage from her vantage of
distance, asked him if there was anything that he wanted.
"Wass up? Wasser maar?" continued Sandy, in a very high key.
"Get up, you horrid man!" said Miss Mary, now thoroughly incensed;
"get up and go home."
Sandy staggered to his feet. He was six feet high, and Miss Mary
trembled. He started forward a few paces and then stopped.
"Wass I go home for?" he suddenly asked, with great gravity.
"Go and take a bath," replied Miss Mary, eying his grimy person with
To her infinite dismay, Sandy suddenly pulled off his coat and vest,
threw them on the ground, kicked off his boots, and, plunging wildly
forward, darted headlong over the hill in the direction of the river.
"Goodness heavens! the man will be drowned!" said Miss Mary; and then,
with feminine inconsistency, she ran back to the schoolhouse and
locked herself in. That night, while seated at supper with her
hostess, the blacksmith's wife, it came to Miss Mary to ask, demurely,
if her husband ever got drunk. "Abner," responded Mrs. Stidger
reflectively, "let's see! Abner hasn't been tight since last
'lection." Miss Mary would have liked to ask if he preferred lying in
the sun on these occasions, and if a cold bath would have hurt him;
but this would have involved an explanation, which she did not then
care to give. So she contented herself with opening her gray eyes
widely at the red-cheeked Mrs. Stidger, a fine specimen of
Southwestern efflorescence, and then dismissed the subject
altogether. The next day she wrote to her dearest friend in Boston: "I
think I find the intoxicated portion of this community the least
objectionable, I refer, my dear, to the men, of course. I do not know
anything that could make the women tolerable."
In less than a week Miss Mary had forgotten this episode, except that
her afternoon walks took thereafter, almost unconsciously, another
direction. She noticed, however, that every morning a fresh cluster of
azalea blossoms appeared among the flowers on her desk. This was not
strange, as her little flock were aware of her fondness for flowers,
and invariably kept her desk bright with anemones, syringas, and
lupines; but, on questioning them, they one and all professed
ignorance of the azaleas. A few days later, Master Johnny Stidger,
whose desk was nearest to the window, was suddenly taken with spasms
of apparently gratuitous laughter, that threatened the discipline of
the school. All that Miss Mary could get from him was, that some one
had been "looking in the winder." Irate and indignant, she sallied
from her hive to do battle with the intruder. As she turned the corner
of the schoolhouse she came plump upon the quondam drunkard, now
perfectly sober, and inexpressibly sheepish and guilty-looking.
These facts Miss Mary was not slow to take a feminine advantage of,
in her present humor. But it was somewhat confusing to observe, also,
that the beast, despite some faint signs of past dissipation, was
amiable-looking, in fact, a kind of blond Samson, whose corn-colored
silken beard apparently had never yet known the touch of barber's
razor or Delilah's shears. So that the cutting speech which quivered
on her ready tongue died upon her lips, and she contented herself with
receiving his stammering apology with supercilious eyelids and the
gathered skirts of uncontamination. When she reentered the schoolroom,
her eyes fell upon the azaleas with a new sense of revelation; and
then she laughed, and the little people all laughed, and they were all
unconsciously very happy.
It was a hot day, and not long after this, that two short-legged boys
came to grief on the threshold of the school with a pail of water,
which they had laboriously brought from the spring, and that Miss Mary
compassionately seized the pail and started for the spring herself. At
the foot of the hill a shadow crossed her path, and a blue-shirted arm
dexterously but gently relieved her of her burden. Miss Mary was both
embarrassed and angry. "If you carried more of that for yourself," she
said spitefully to the blue arm, without deigning to raise her lashes
to its owner, "you'd do better." In the submissive silence that
followed she regretted the speech, and thanked him so sweetly at the
door that he stumbled. Which caused the children to laugh again, a
laugh in which Miss Mary joined, until the color came faintly into her
pale cheek. The next day a barrel was mysteriously placed beside the
door, and as mysteriously filled with fresh spring-water every
Nor was this superior young person without other quiet attentions.
"Profane Bill," driver of the Slumgullion Stage, widely known in the
newspapers for his "gallantry" in invariably offering the box-seat to
the fair sex, had excepted Miss Mary from this attention, on the
ground that he had a habit of "cussin' on up grades," and gave her
half the coach to herself. Jack Hamlin, a gambler, having once
silently ridden with her in the same coach, afterward threw a decanter
at the head of a confederate for mentioning her name in a bar-room.
The over-dressed mother of a pupil whose paternity was doubtful had
often lingered near this astute Vestal's temple, never daring to enter
its sacred precincts, but content to worship the priestess from afar.
With such unconscious intervals the monotonous procession of blue
skies, glittering sunshine, brief twilights, and starlit nights passed
over Red Gulch. Miss Mary grew fond of walking in the sedate and
proper woods. Perhaps she believed, with Mrs. Stidger, that the
balsamic odors of the firs "did her chest good," for certainly her
slight cough was less frequent and her step was firmer; perhaps she
had learned the unending lesson which the patient pines are never
weary of repeating to heedful or listless ears. And so one day she
planned a picnic on Buckeye Hill, and took the children with her. Away
from the dusty road, the straggling shanties, the yellow ditches, the
clamor of restless engines, the cheap finery of shop-windows, the
deeper glitter of paint and colored glass, and the thin veneering
which barbarism takes upon itself in such localities, what infinite
relief was theirs! The last heap of ragged rock and clay passed, the
last unsightly chasm crossed, how the waiting woods opened their long
files to receive them! How the children perhaps because they had not
yet grown quite away from the breast of the bounteous Mother threw
themselves face downward on her brown bosom with uncouth caresses,
filling the air with their laughter; and how Miss Mary herself
felinely fastidious and intrenched as she was in the purity of
spotless skirts, collar, and cuffs forgot all, and ran like a crested
quail at the head of her brood, until, romping, laughing, and
panting, with a loosened braid of brown hair, a hat hanging by a
knotted ribbon from her throat, she came suddenly and violently, in
the heart of the forest, upon the luckless Sandy!
The explanations, apologies, and not overwise conversation that ensued
need not be indicated here. It would seem, however, that Miss Mary had
already established some acquaintance with this ex-drunkard. Enough
that he was soon accepted as one of the party; that the children, with
that quick intelligence which Providence gives the helpless,
recognized a friend, and played with his blond beard and long silken
mustache, and took other liberties, as the helpless are apt to do.
And when he had built a fire against a tree, and had shown them other
mysteries of woodcraft, their admiration knew no bounds. At the close
of two such foolish, idle, happy hours he found himself lying at the
feet of the schoolmistress, gazing dreamily in her face as she sat
upon the sloping hillside weaving wreaths of laurel and syringa, in
very much the same attitude as he had lain when first they met. Nor
was the similitude greatly forced. The weakness of an easy, sensuous
nature, that had found a dreamy exaltation in liquor, it is to be
feared was now finding an equal intoxication in love.
I think that Sandy was dimly conscious of this himself. I know that he
longed to be doing something, slaying a grizzly, scalping a savage,
or sacrificing himself in some way for the sake of this sallow-faced,
gray-eyed schoolmistress. As I should like to present him in an heroic
attitude, I stay my hand with great difficulty at this moment, being
only withheld from introducing such an episode by a strong conviction
that it does not usually occur at such times. And I trust that my
fairest reader, who remembers that, in a real crisis, it is always
some uninteresting stranger or unromantic policeman, and not
Adolphus, who rescues, will forgive the omission.
So they sat there undisturbed, the woodpeckers chattering overhead
and the voices of the children coming pleasantly from the hollow
below. What they said matters little. What they thought which might
have been interesting did not transpire. The woodpeckers only learned
how Miss Mary was an orphan; how she left her uncle's house to come to
California for the sake of health and independence; how Sandy was an
orphan too; how he came to California for excitement; how he had lived
a wild life, and how he was trying to reform; and other details,
which, from a woodpecker's view-point, undoubtedly must have seemed
stupid and a waste of time. But even in such trifles was the afternoon
spent; and when the children were again gathered, and Sandy, with a
delicacy which the schoolmistress well understood, took leave of them
quietly at the outskirts of the settlement, it had seemed the shortest
day of her weary life.
As the long, dry summer withered to its roots, the school term of Red
Gulch to use a local euphuism "dried up" also. In another day Miss
Mary would be free, and for a season, at least, Red Gulch would know
her no more. She was seated alone in the schoolhouse, her cheek
resting on her hand, her eyes half closed in one of those daydreams in
which Miss Mary, I fear, to the danger of school discipline, was
lately in the habit of indulging. Her lap was full of mosses, ferns,
and other woodland memories. She was so preoccupied with these and her
own thoughts that a gentle tapping at the door passed unheard, or
translated itself into the remembrance of far-off woodpeckers. When at
last it asserted itself more distinctly, she started up with a flushed
cheek and opened the door. On the threshold stood a woman, the self-assertion
and audacity of whose dress were in singular contrast to her
timid, irresolute bearing. Miss Mary recognized at a glance the
dubious mother of her anonymous pupil. Perhaps she was disappointed,
perhaps she was only fastidious; but as she coldly invited her to
enter, she half unconsciously settled her white cuffs and collar, and
gathered closer her own chaste skirts. It was, perhaps, for this
reason that the embarrassed stranger, after a moment's hesitation,
left her gorgeous parasol open and sticking in the dust beside the
door, and then sat down at the farther end of a long bench. Her voice
was husky as she began,
"I heerd tell that you were goin' down to the Bay tomorrow, and I
couldn't let you go until I came to thank you for your kindness to my
Tommy." Tommy, Miss Mary said, was a good boy, and deserved more than
the poor attention she could give him.
"Thank you, miss; thank ye!" cried the stranger, brightening even
through the color which Red Gulch knew facetiously as her "war paint,"
and striving, in her embarrassment, to drag the long bench nearer the
schoolmistress. "I thank you, miss, for that; and if I am his mother,
there ain't a sweeter, dearer, better boy lives than him. And if I
ain't much as says it, thar ain't a sweeter, dearer, angeler teacher
lives than he's got."
Miss Mary, sitting primly behind her desk, with a ruler over her
shoulder, opened her gray eyes widely at this, but said nothing.
"It ain't for you to be complimented by the like of me, I know," she
went on hurriedly. "It ain't for me to be comin' here, in broad day,
to do it, either; but I come to ask a favor, not for me, miss, not
for me, but for the darling boy."
Encouraged by a look in the young schoolmistress's eye, and putting
her lilac-gloved hands together, the fingers downward, between her
knees, she went on, in a low voice:
"You see, miss, there's no one the boy has any claim on but me, and I
ain't the proper person to bring him up. I thought some, last year, of
sending him away to Frisco to school, but when they talked of bringing
a schoolma'am here, I waited till I saw you, and then I knew it was
all right, and I could keep my boy a little longer. And, oh! miss, he
loves you so much; and if you could hear him talk about you in his
pretty way, and if he could ask you what I ask you now, you couldn't
"It is natural," she went on rapidly, in a voice that trembled
strangely between pride and humility, "it's natural that he should
take to you, miss, for his father, when I first knew him, was a
gentleman, and the boy must forget me, sooner or later, and so I
ain't a-goin' to cry about that. For I come to ask you to take my
Tommy, God bless him for the bestest, sweetest boy that lives, to
to take him with you."
She had risen and caught the young girl's hand in her own, and had
fallen on her knees beside her.
"I've money plenty, and it's all yours and his. Put him in some good
school, where you can go and see him, and help him to to to forget
his mother. Do with him what you like. The worst you can do will be
kindness to what he will learn with me. Only take him out of this
wicked life, this cruel place, this home of shame and sorrow. You
will! I know you will, won't you? You will, you must not, you cannot
say no! You will make him as pure, as gentle as yourself; and when he
has grown-up, you will tell him his father's name, the name that
hasn't passed my lips for years, the name of Alexander Morton, whom
they call here Sandy! Miss Mary! do not take your hand away! Miss
Mary, speak to me! You will take my boy? Do not put your face from me.
I know it ought not to look on such as me. Miss Mary! my God, be
merciful! she is leaving me!" Miss Mary had risen, and, in the
gathering twilight, had felt her way to the open window. She stood
there, leaning against the casement, her eyes fixed on the last rosy
tints that were fading from the western sky. There was still some of
its light on her pure young forehead, on her white collar, on her
clasped white hands, but all fading slowly away. The suppliant had
dragged herself, still on her knees, beside her.
"I know it takes time to consider. I will wait here all night; but I
cannot go until you speak. Do not deny me now. You will! I see it in
your sweet face, such a face as I have seen in my dreams. I see it in
your eyes, Miss Mary! you will take my boy!"
The last red beam crept higher, suffused Miss Mary's eyes with
something of its glory, flickered, and faded, and went out. The sun
had set on Red Gulch. In the twilight and silence Miss Mary's voice
"I will take the boy. Send him to me tonight."
The happy mother raised the hem of Miss Mary's skirts to her lips. She
would have buried her hot face in its virgin folds, but she dared not.
She rose to her feet.
"Does this man know of your intention?" asked Miss Mary suddenly.
"No, nor cares. He has never even seen the child to know it."
"Go to him at once tonight now! Tell him what you have done. Tell
him I have taken his child, and tell him he must never see see the
child again. Wherever it may be, he must not come; wherever I may take
it, he must not follow! There, go now, please, I'm weary, and have
much yet to do!"
They walked together to the door. On the threshold the woman turned.
She would have fallen at Miss Mary's feet. But at the same moment the
young girl reached out her arms, caught the sinful woman to her own
pure breast for one brief moment, and then closed and locked the door.
It was with a sudden sense of great responsibility that Profane Bill
took the reins of the Slumgullion stage the next morning, for the
schoolmistress was one of his passengers. As he entered the highroad,
in obedience to a pleasant voice from the "inside," he suddenly reined
up his horses and respectfully waited, as Tommy hopped out at the
command of Miss Mary.
"Not that bush, Tommy, the next."
Tommy whipped out his new pocket-knife, and cutting a branch from a
tall azalea-bush, returned with it to Miss Mary. "All right now?"
And the stage-door closed on the Idyl of Red Gulch.
Previous Story Next Story
or the Index to
The Luck of Roaring Camp Stories
Main GRoL menu