A Drift from Redwood Camp

       Bret Harte / Western
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A Drift from Redwood Camp Produced by Donald Lainson

A DRIFT FROM REDWOOD CAMP

by Bret Harte

They had all known him as a shiftless, worthless creature. From thetime he first entered Redwood Camp, carrying his entire effects in ared handkerchief on the end of a long-handled shovel, until he lazilydrifted out of it on a plank in the terrible inundation of '56, theynever expected anything better of him. In a community of strong men withsullen virtues and charmingly fascinating vices, he was tolerated aspossessing neither--not even rising by any dominant human weakness orludicrous quality to the importance of a butt. In the dramatispersonae of Redwood Camp he was a simple ”super”--who had only passive,speechless roles in those fierce dramas that were sometimes unrolledbeneath its green-curtained pines. Nameless and penniless, he wasoverlooked by the census and ignored by the tax collector, while in ahotly-contested election for sheriff, when even the head-boards of thescant cemetery were consulted to fill the poll-lists, it was discoveredthat neither candidate had thought fit to avail himself of his actualvote. He was debarred the rude heraldry of a nickname of achievement,and in a camp made up of ”Euchre Bills,” ”Poker Dicks,” ”Profane Pete,”and ”Snap-shot Harry,” was known vaguely as ”him,” ”Skeesicks,” or ”thatcoot.” It was remembered long after, with a feeling of superstition,that he had never even met with the dignity of an accident, nor receivedthe fleeting honor of a chance shot meant for somebody else in any ofthe liberal and broadly comprehensive encounters which distinguished thecamp. And the inundation that finally carried him out of it waspartly anticipated by his passive incompetency, for while the othersescaped--or were drowned in escaping--he calmly floated off on his plankwithout an opposing effort.

For all that, Elijah Martin--which was his real name--was far from beingunamiable or repellent. That he was cowardly, untruthful, selfish, andlazy, was undoubtedly the fact; perhaps it was his peculiar misfortunethat, just then, courage, frankness, generosity, and activity were thedominant factors in the life of Redwood Camp. His submissive gentleness,his unquestioned modesty, his half refinement, and his amiable exteriorconsequently availed him nothing against the fact that he was missedduring a raid of the Digger Indians, and lied to account for it; or thathe lost his right to a gold discovery by failing to make it good againsta bully, and selfishly kept this discovery from the knowledge of thecamp. Yet this weakness awakened no animosity in his companions, and itis probable that the indifference of the camp to his fate in this finalcatastrophe came purely from a simple forgetfulness of one who at thatsupreme moment was weakly incapable.

Such was the reputation and such the antecedents of the man who, on the15th of March, 1856, found himself adrift in a swollen tributary of theMinyo. A spring freshet of unusual volume had flooded the adjacent riveruntil, bursting its bounds, it escaped through the narrow, wedge-shapedvalley that held Redwood Camp. For a day and night the surcharged riverpoured half its waters through the straggling camp. At the end of thattime every vestige of the little settlement was swept away; all that wasleft was scattered far and wide in the country, caught in the hangingbranches of water-side willows and alders, embayed in sluggish pools,dragged over submerged meadows, and one fragment--bearing up ElijahMartin--pursuing the devious courses of an unknown tributary fifty milesaway. Had he been a rash, impatient man, he would have been speedilydrowned in some earlier desperate attempt to reach the shore; had hebeen an ordinary bold man, he would have succeeded in transferringhimself to the branches of some obstructing tree; but he was neither,and he clung to his broken raft-like berth with an endurance thatwas half the paralysis of terror and half the patience of habitualmisfortune. Eventually he was caught in a side current, swept to thebank, and cast ashore on an unexplored wilderness.

His first consciousness was one of hunger that usurped any sentimentof gratitude for his escape from drowning. As soon as his cramped limbspermitted, he crawled out of the bushes in search of food. He didnot know where he was; there was no sign of habitation--or evenoccupation--anywhere. He had been too terrified to notice the directionin which he had drifted--even if he had possessed the ordinary knowledgeof a backwoodsman, which he did not. He was helpless. In his bewilderedstate, seeing a squirrel cracking a nut on the branch of a hollow treenear him, he made a half-frenzied dart at the frightened animal, whichran away. But the same association of ideas in his torpid and confusedbrain impelled him to search for the squirrel's hoard in the hollowof the tree. He ate the few hazel-nuts he found there, ravenously. Thepurely animal instinct satisfied, he seemed to have borrowed from it acertain strength and intuition. He limped through the thicket notunlike some awkward, shy quadrumane, stopping here and there to peerout through the openings over the marshes that lay beyond. His sight,hearing, and even the sense of smell had become preternaturally acute.It was the latter which suddenly arrested his steps with the odorof dried fish. It had a significance beyond the mere instincts ofhunger--it indicated the contiguity of some Indian encampment. And assuch--it meant danger, torture, and death.

He stopped, trembled violently, and tried to collect his scatteredsenses. Redwood Camp had embroiled itself needlessly and brutally withthe surrounding Indians, and only held its own against them by recklesscourage and unerring marksmanship. The frequent use of a casualwandering Indian as a target for the practising rifles of its membershad kept up an undying hatred in the heart of the aborigines andstimulated them to terrible and isolated reprisals. The scalped andskinned dead body of Jack Trainer, tied on his horse and held hideouslyupright by a cross of wood behind his saddle, had passed, one night,a slow and ghastly apparition, into camp; the corpse of Dick Ryner hadbeen found anchored on the river-bed, disembowelled and filled withstone and gravel. The solitary and unprotected member of Redwood Campwho fell into the enemy's hands was doomed.

Elijah Martin remembered this, but his fears gradually began to subsidein a certain apathy of the imagination, which, perhaps, dulled hisapprehensions and allowed the instinct of hunger to become againuppermost. He knew that the low bark tents, or wigwams, of the Indianswere hung with strips of dried salmon, and his whole being was newcentered upon an attempt to stealthily procure a delicious morsel. Asyet he had distinguished no other sign of life or habitation; afew moments later, however, and grown bolder with an animal-liketrustfulness in his momentary security, he crept out of the thicket andfound himself near a long, low mound or burrow-like structure of mud andbark on the river-bank. A single narrow opening, not unlike the entranceof an Esquimau hut, gave upon the river. Martin had no difficulty inrecognizing the character of the building. It was a ”sweathouse,” aninstitution common to nearly all the aboriginal tribes of California.Half a religious temple, it was also half a sanitary asylum, was used asa Russian bath or superheated vault, from which the braves, swelteringand stifling all night, by smothered fires, at early dawn plunged,perspiring, into the ice-cold river. The heat and smoke were furtherutilized to dry and cure the long strips of fish hanging from the roof,and it was through the narrow aperture that served as a chimney that theodor escaped which Martin had detected. He knew that as the bathersonly occupied the house from midnight to early morn, it was now probablyempty. He advanced confidently toward it.

He was a little surprised to find that the small open space between itand the river was occupied by a rude scaffolding, like that on whichcertain tribes exposed their dead, but in this instance it onlycontained the feathered leggings, fringed blanket, and eagle-plumedhead-dress of some brave. He did not, however, linger in this plainlyvisible area, but quickly dropped on all fours and crept into theinterior of the house. Here he completed his feast with the fish, andwarmed his chilled limbs on the embers of the still smouldering fires.It was while drying his tattered clothes and shoeless feet that hethought of the dead brave's useless leggings and moccasins, and itoccurred to him that he would be less likely to attract the Indians'attention from a distance and provoke a ready arrow, if he weredisguised as one of them. Crawling out again, he quickly secured, notonly the leggings, but the blanket and head-dress, and putting them on,cast his own clothes into the stream. A bolder, more energetic, or moreprovident man would have followed the act by quickly making his wayback to the thicket to reconnoitre, taking with him a supply of fish forfuture needs. But Elijah Martin succumbed again to the recklessnessof inertia; he yielded once more to the animal instinct of momentarysecurity. He returned to the interior of the hut, curled himself againon the ashes, and weakly resolving to sleep until moonrise, and asweakly hesitating, ended by falling into uneasy but helpless stupor.

When he awoke, the rising sun, almost level with the low entrance tothe sweat-house,
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