Bret Harte's classic tales bring the California Gold Rush to life with their boisterous assemblage of rough-clad miners, prostitutes, pistol-packing preachers, iron-willed women, and philosophical gamblers.
Theirs was an unpredictable world, filled with gold strikes and freak tragedies, when the wisdom of the gambler sometimes counted for more than that of the preacher.
A master storyteller, Harte weaves tales that seem to come directly from the campfire, where the spinning of yarns and swapping of lies were the highest form of entertainment.
In those decades, the experience of the West had begun to inspire the creation of a new American literature spun out of tall tales, plain speech, and the quick wits and sharp eyes of Western newspapermen like Mark Twain.
One of Bret Harte's first contributions to the Overland Monthly was his classic "The Luck of Roaring Camp."
In the rough California mining town of Roaring Camp, a dying prostitute named Cherokee Sal gives birth to a child. The child, given the name Thomas Luck, is adopted and raised by the miners, and their rough but tender-hearted affection for "the d----d little cuss" brings about the moral regeneration of Roaring Camp.
It's a clever retelling of the story of Jesus Christ transposed to the Wild West; one that ends in both apocalypse and redemption.
Many of Harte's stories are survival tales, set in the midst of horrific natural disasters. Each leaves a group of travelers stranded, forced to accept aid from strangers.
In The Outcasts of Poker Flat, a group of misfits and small time criminals are forced to leave town by the citizens of Poker Flat. On their way to the nearest town, through a challenging mountain trail, they encounter a newlywed couple, innocents headed back towards town.
They join up when a sudden snowstorm occurs, forcing them to take refuge in a nearby shelter, something meant to be temporary.
The group is stuck, due to the deep snow and the treachery of one outcast who steals all of their mules during their first night.
What follows is a survival tale as the days go by and their food begins to run out.
The twist is that the remaining outcasts each begin to make sacrifices in the hopes of keeping the newly wed couple alive. Their lives have been largely wasted, but they want to make sure this innocent couple, both genuinely good people, have a chance at survival.
BRET HARTE (1836-1902) was an American short story writer, best remembered for his short fiction featuring miners, prostitutes, gamblers, and other figures of the California Gold Rush, as well as his parodies of James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was at the forefront of western American literature, paving the way for other writers, including Mark Twain.