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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


The town of Bodie,—or is it, perchance, a “city”?—lying a score of miles to the north of Mono Lake, was in its earlier days a place of ferociously bad repute. Although, so far as I am aware, Bret Harte does not mention it, his genial ruffians must have known it well. But in these dull times, when not only law but order reigns over the Sierra, the place subsists, so far as pungency of reputation is concerned, upon its past; the real has toned into the realistic; and bad men are spelled with capital letters in a poor attempt to revive the glories of the past.

Some local patriot with a fancy for alliteration, bent upon retarding in this case the obliterating process, has promulgated a legend of a “Bad Man from Bodie with a Butcher-knife in his Boot.” I had been entertained with this epic, and when I encountered an individual who actually bore the name of the reprobate town I was naturally interested, and my eyes sought his boots in an endeavor to identify him with the Bodie “of that ilk.” A very short acquaintance showed, however, that in his case the badness and the butcher-knife were mere pleasantries of speech, and fuller knowledge resulted in a sincere liking which the critical intimacy of camp-life has confirmed, and cemented with respect.

I think it was when we were camped in the Till-till that, glancing over one Sunday morning about five o’clock to Bodie’s sleeping-place, I saw the smoke of reverie already ascending from his placid form. It came out in subsequent conversation that he had been engaged in benevolent reflections upon how he would like to “dump a thousand or more of them young monkeys out of the Bowery and them places down in a medder like this here, kind of on a suddent, so’s they would n’t know it was coming. And, say, how’d it be to put in a bunch of milk cows, and a band of burros for ’em to ride? Whoopee!”

It appeared from occasional similar remarks that the Bad Man’s thoughts somewhat frequently took this peculiar range when they were for a time released from the cares of his profession. To a remark bearing upon the beauty of the scenery or the weather, or the goodness of the water or the beans, this sympathetic human chord, or vox humana, in him never failed to respond, though in an oblique and apologetic manner. Once, indeed, he recounted to Field and myself an instance of practical philanthropy on his part, discounting it at the start by giving us to understand that it was only a sporadic outbreak.

Grasshoppers were under discussion in some connection. “Well, sir,” Bodie remarked, “there’s one good act, as you might say, that I did once in my life, and them insects remind me of it: though I don’t blow about it, you understand.” Being assured that we understood, and urged to relate the particulars of this solitary episode, he continued:—

“It was when I was up in Montana, in the Big Hole River country, along in the eighties. I had quite a little bunch of cattle in them days, and it so happened I had four or five cows come fresh along about together, and of course the calves was little and could n’t take near all the milk, so I had a heap more than I could get away with; that is, until the calves should grow bigger. I used to take and milk them cows on to the ground, for to free them of the milk they carried that would have hurt them. Many ’s the gallon of good milk I‘ve seen run away down them prairie-dogs’ holes: it was sure a bonanza for them little cusses, unless some of them got drownded out.

“It happened one day, branding, I threw a steer kind of awkward so he broke a leg, and of course I had to butcher him. Well, sir, that day, or the next, —I forget which and it don’t matter,— along comes a family that was in mighty bad shape. They was driving, of course, and the whole outfit was as poor and peakied and pitiful as ever you see. There was seven of them, father and mother and three girls, all well growed, and two younger boys, and they was all thin, and dirty, and their clothes was all dirty and tore. Say, d’ you ever notice that people what’s dirty is generally thin? I don’t say always, mind you, but generally. Well, that’s the way these people was. Good people, too, they was, honest and decent: aye, and the man he told me,— and I believe it, too,— that two years before he would n’t have took twenty-five thousand dollars for his holdings, away down in Kansas somewhere. Them grasshoppers had done him up. Two years running they came, and they cleaned him out like a tenderfoot in a ’Frisco poker-joint.

“Well, sir, the whole family was moving along, going anywhere to get out of that country; and if you’ll believe me, they was bringing along with them an old runt of a cow that was poor as sin, like the rest of them, and give no more milk than what you could milk into that lard-pail over there, the little one. They had that and they had some corn meal, and that was dead plumb all them people had to eat; literally nothing else on earth did they have. And their horses was poor, and the old wagon squeaked, and they was all naturally broke up.

“Well, sir, I see this outfit coming along, and I calls out to them and asks them where they come from and where was they going; and they up and tells me the whole rigamaree. So I says to them, ‘Turn in right here,’ I says, ‘and bring your horse-pail, and here’s another horse-pail of mine, and them young women had best go over and milk them heifers over there. And,’ I says, ‘I killed a beef yesterday, and you can take all you want of the meat, for there’s a heap more ‘n I can begin to use.’ Well, sir, say, you ‘d ought to have seen that outfit; it did me good to see ‘em get busy. They stayed by me and camped four or five days, and washed up, and mended up, and heartened up, and filled up,—say, I wish ‘t I ‘d thought to have measured them: it was sure wonderful how they fattened on that range.

“And then it come to be, what was they going to do next? Well, sir, right then I thought of old John Goldfinch, that lived away down thirty or forty miles. He was an Englishman, and a good, straight, square man as ever I see, and I knew him well. He had two ranches, John had, with houses and barns on them, and all a man would want; and I says to this outfit, ‘ Go over to old John Goldfinch,’ I says, ‘ and you tell him just what you told me, and tell him I told you to tell it to him, and he ‘11 sure help you out.’ And so they did; and John, he says to the man, ‘Why, you’re the blooming feller I’m looking for’: and he puts them in one of them houses, and gives the man and the oldest boy a contrack right off for a thousand of poles he wanted cut up in the hills, and grub-staked them, and started them farming on shares.

“Well, sir, I was over that way a year or so after, to old John’s. I’d forgot all about them people; never give ‘em another thought. There was a girl about the yard, and when I looked at her I kind of thought I’d seen her face somewheres before, but I could n’t just place her. And then she goes in, and out comes a woman and another girl. It was them same people, clean, tidy, prosperous, and smiling all over their faces and round to their backs with good living and kind feelings. They knew me, and say, maybe you think they was n’t glad to see me. Why, that man, he said he ‘d struck luck right from the time they ‘d met me, d’ you believe it? He’d had good crops, and potatoes was worth ten and twelve and a half cents a pound that year, paid right there at his own dooryard. And flour was twenty dollars a hundred then, too, and he’d got potatoes and flour to sell, and a plenty to eat besides. And that old cow, say, she’d have took a prize; she was a Holstein, and milked like an artesian well as long as she got her wages. And that ’s how it was with them; I had to go over and eat supper with them that night, and they gave me the whole song and dance.

“Durn them mules, I hain’t heard the bell for half an hour. If they ‘d get headed up the trail we ‘d be in a divvle of a fix.”

The native modesty of this ministering angel forbade, except in this instance, his relating any incident that threatened to reflect credit, even indirectly, upon himself. But his occupation for many years as a “packer” on the mountain trails had often brought him across the tracks of those historic bears of the Sierra, some of whom were known not only by sight but by name to the exasperated sheep-men whose mutton they slew and whose rifles they held in disdain.

“Well, sir,” he remarked one day when the degeneracy of the present muttonless race of Yosemite bears was under discussion,—“well, sir, I remember when there was sure-enough bears in these mountains: bears I mean, not woodchucks. Once down in Kern County, in San Emigdio Caņon I think it was, twelve or fifteen years ago, I was packing for some sheep-men; that is, carrying the supplies for the herders’ camps. There was a Mexican herding a band of sheep at a dry camp,—good feed but no water. We wanted to use that mountain for the feed while it was green, on account that sheep don’t need water so long as there ’s good green feed. The herder kicked about the bears bothering him a whole lot: he said they got in the corral ‘most every night, and killed his sheep and scattered the band. It made it hard for him, you understand, for it would take him all day to get the sheep together again, and then he could n’t be sure that he got them all.

“So one day he says to me, ‘You’ve got to give me a man to help me as long as I’m on this mountain, or else I’ll have to be moved to some other place.’ Well, sir, it happened an Irishman comes along. He had n’t never herded sheep before, but I took him to the camp anyway, more to make company for the Mexican than for any good he ‘d be with the sheep.

“That same night a she-cinnamon comes into camp with two cubs about half-grown. The Mexican had got his bed by an old pine tree that was broke down: he ‘d built him a rail platform out from the tree, and he slept on top of that, not to be bothered by the sheep and skunks. I don’t know where the green Irishman was sleeping, but it was somewhere close by. Anyway, the herder’s dog runs out at the bear, and she chases him back into camp, pronto. Then the dog runs under the bed to get out of the bear’s way, and the bear goes after him; but there was n’t near room enough under there for a bear and dog fight, so the bear she just took and fired the bed and the man and the whole shooting-match up in the air, and scattered them all over the ground. Then she began slapping and cuffing at the man, like it was a prize fight, but the greaser was on to bears, and he sabed enough to cover up his head and make out he was dead.

“While all this was going on the Irish runs up to where there was a big pine tree, about four foot thick, and begins grabbing and hugging at it, trying to climb up out of the way. It would n’t have helped him any if he could, for that matter, because a bear will climb a big tree, though he can’t climb a little one. But the Irish did n’t know nothing about bears, except he knew he hated to be eat up by them. The Mexican he calls out, ‘Throw some fire at her; throw some fire at her, why don’t you?’ But the Irish was busy trying to skin up the tree about then, and he calls back, ‘I’ll not do it: I’m a-doing well enough where I am.’ By that time the bear had gone back to where the cubs was. They was acting kind of dazed with the excitement, and the old bear cuffs them and hustles them to make them run away; that’s how they do; and then they all skinned out.

“Well, sir, next morning I was eating my breakfast at my own camp down in the lower caņon, and I see a man coming down to the meadow. He was coming down a big high mountain, and making fast time. ‘Hullo!’ I says, it being the Irishman, with his blankets on his back: ‘Hullo, where are you going?’ ‘ Going?’ says he, ‘I’m going back to where I come from, that’s where I’m going. I would n’t stay up on that mountain not if you was to give me the whole Kern County. Why, there was four big bears come in there last night and chewed the greaser. No, I don’t want no breakfast,’ says he; ‘how far is it in to Bakersfield, that’s what I want to know?’ ‘Sixty-five miles and better,’ I says. ‘So long,’ says he, and off he goes on a two-twenty gait.

“I was in Bakersfield myself, a day or two after, and, say, that Irishman had sure enough got in there the same night when I saw him in the morning. He‘d walked forty miles, and a rancher with a wagon had give him a lift the last twenty-five.

“Anyway, I never knew an Irishman have any luck herding sheep, or killing bear either. There was Johnny O’Donnell, up in the Big Hole country; a bear had got into his corral one night, and picked up a hog that must have weighed all of two hundred, and hopped out again and never so much as knocked a rail off. So Johnny baited for him the next night with another hog, and he clumb up into a big tree right over the corral to get the bear.

“Well, he waited and waited. It was pretty quiet and lonesome, and after a while what does he do but go to sleep, up there in the tree. Well, the bear come, sure enough, and Johnny he wakes up sudden and scairt, and falls down out of the blame tree and breaks his arm, and the gun, too. The wonder is he did n’t shoot himself instead of the bear; that would have been the real Irish of it, to a finish. But he did n’t, and he scared the bear and saved his bacon all right, and Johnny and me used up the hog that he had baited with.

“But you ‘d never believe how plenty they used to be, specially down lower in the sheep country. There was a man down there I knew that killed five one night. He was another Mexican, too. It was down on the old Tejon Grant, and he was always complaining to the foreman about the bears coming into the corral every night, killing his sheep and crippling and wounding them. You see, it is n’t only what they kill first-hand, as you might say, but the sheep get scared and stampede, and pile up and suffocate against the corral, like I’ve heard people will do at a theatre fire.

“Well, the foreman fixed him up with a rifle and about fifty rounds of cartridge. He had got his bed set up on four posts in the middle of the corral, about ten feet clear of the ground. That ’s the way herders mostly do, and it ’s a good way, too. I never have no use for skunks, and they are always plenty around sheep-camps. This herder had got his bed up extra high just on account of the bears, they was so annoying.

“Along about eleven or twelve o’clock,—moonlight it was, and clear,—a bear hops into the corral, and he ups with his gun and he hits him the first shot and wounds him. The bear rolls over and commences to holler and scream outrageous. Then another bear jumps over to see what all this hollering was about, and the Mexican lets drive again and gets him: that was number two. About that time number three happens along, and he plugs him. Then along comes number four and passes in his checks, and pretty soon number five chips in and cashes his.

“The Mex. had been doing considerable shooting, on account he ‘d plugged them half-a-dozen shots apiece all around, so as not to make no miscue when he got down on the ground. His ammunition was pretty near gone, and he could n’t tell but what there was more bears out on the warpath looking for a scrap. So he waited for half an hour or an hour, maybe, but no more bears come along; and he climbs down at last, pretty much excited, and without so much as waiting to put his boots on he starts down to the ranch-house, three miles away, and wakes up all the men on the ranch and tells them what he’d done.

“Of course they all thought he was lying; but young Neale (that was the son of one of the owners of the ranch), him and some more of the men concluded to go up and find out how much of a liar he was. So they went and looked, and sure enough there was the five bears dead in the corral, and as many as a dozen or fourteen sheep lying around trampled and suffocated.

“I knew young Neale myself, and he gave me the straight story, so I know it’s a fact. “One other time down in Kern I had planted a herder in a new camp. That afternoon he butchered a sheep at the foot of a tree and hung the carcass up to one of the limbs. His camp was made at the foot of this same tree, and he meant to come along next day and get part of the mutton. Well, sir, along in the night in come three good-sized bears into camp, and commenced chewing up the sheep. The herder, (an old man he was), and his dog ran out at them, thinking in the dark they was cattle; but he soon sees his mistake when one of the bears hits the dog a lick and breaks his leg.

“There was a little table arrangement at the foot of the tree, built out of small logs. It might have been twenty feet from the table up to the first limb, that the meat was hung from, and the old fellow jumps up on the table and catches hold of the tree and the rope both, and climbs up in his night-clothes. The wind was blowing hard, and it was bitter cold, near freezing. But there he was, and there he stayed, shivering with the scare and the cold till them three bears made a clean-up and vamoosed. Then he comes down and builds three or four big fires to warm himself and keep the bears away. That day he built him a crow’s-nest in a live-oak, about fifteen feet up from the ground, and after that he used to sleep there as long as he stayed.

“The next year it happened I had to plant another herder with a band of sheep in that same camp. He was a French boy, and a greenhorn, just out from the old country: did n’t speak a word of English even. He‘d butchered a sheep and it was hanging from this same crow’s-nest in the live-oak, and the boy was sleeping there too, like the old man used to. The mutton was hanging maybe eight feet clear of the ground.

“Well, the first or second night an immense big grizzly jumps the corral and first of all eats up the offal. Then he stands up on his hind feet and commences on the carcass, and eats off the head and neck and the fore-shoulders, clear up to the liver. The boy was all the time lying in bed, five feet or so above the bear, watching him chew the mutton. I guess the bear did n’t see the boy; if he did he did n’t take any stock in him, and the boy laid there mighty quiet and still, you bet. Anyway, there was the big grizzly so close he could pretty near touch him, chewing away and cracking the bones like they was walnut shells. When he gets through he walks off, and leaves the other half of the carcass hanging. I tell you that was a pretty badly scared boy, and him a parlyvoo and a greenhorn, too.

Well, sir, I was past there that day to see how the new boy was making out, and he showed me the half mutton all chewed up, and tried to tell me about it. He was so excited I could n’t make out much of what he said, but it was all ‘l’ours’ over and over, and I knew a little French from being Canadian. Anyway I could easy see what his trouble was. I knew the bear would surely come back that night to finish the mutton; so I got two other men with me, with rifles, and we went over to the camp and built another crow’s-nest about thirty yards away.

“About dark we got up in the tree. I had fixed it that we would all shoot at the same time, and I was to give the word. The boy was down at a little spring to get a pail of water while the daylight lasted, when along comes the bear. The boy hollers in French, ‘Voilā l’ ours gui vient!’ and the bear raises up and looks ugly at him. At that I gave the word and the three rifles popped all together. The bear fell over, and the boy lit out lively for his tree. No, he was n’t carrying no water-pail.

“The bear rolled over and over, hollering and yelling most unearthly, and after a while he got away into the brush. It was too dark to trail him that night, but next morning we went after him with dogs. We found him two or three hundred yards away from where we had shot him. He was pretty much crippled up, and we easy finished him.

“He was quite an old bear; his teeth was all wore out, and his claws was wore short down, and the fur was rubbed off in places. He was a bear what had done a heap of mischief, too: Pinto they called him. The sheep-men all knew him, and they used to say Pinto killed more mutton than all the butcher-shops in Bakersfield. We gave the skin to the boy, and he sold it for twenty dollars. That was quite a strike for a sheep-boy, and like a loony he had to go showing the money around. So in about a week I heard that Curly Ike down to Swiftwater had got it away from him.”

Thus far the good Bodie. But the two grizzlies most eminent in their time, and whose legends circulate most regularly around Sierra camp-fires, were Clubfoot and Old Joe. The former had the misfortune early in his career to put his foot into a trap, and paid for his freedom with a toe. But the incident taught him caution, and his amorphous imprint soon became dismally familiar to ranchmen over a wide extent of the foothill region. His history has already become nebulous, and I found that the glamour which is fatal to moderation of statement has settled about his name. Only the last scene of his life emerges plainly from the trailing clouds of glory into which he vanished. It is known that he made a brave end, turning up his remaining toes somewhere “up north,” where he was taken at a disadvantage in the act of dining royally upon beef of his own killing.

Old Joe reigned about the same time over a region a little to the south of Clubfoot’s territory, and there his twelve-by-nine footprint was recognized with respect by backwoodsmen and cattlemen of the Mariposa country. The famous hunter Jim Duncan was engaged about that time upon his stint of a hundred bears, and was particularly anxious to check off Old Joe on his rapidly increasing tally. As John Conway, now the patriarch of Wawona, who was himself a crony of Duncan, expressed it to me,—

“Jim’s score was doin’ nicely, but they was mostly blacks and cinnamons, and Jim he just naturally hankered after Old Joe. One dark cloudy day, down on Alder Creek, Jim was out hunting with his old muzzle-loader. He stopped along by some big pines, just resting and standing quiet, and he looks up and there comes Old Joe, walking along in easy range and not seeing him. Jim he looks at Joe, and he puts up his gun, and draws a bead, and—and then, by thunder, he crawfished ( Yes, and I would too, if I’d have looked at Old Joe along any old muzzle-loader.”

Thereafter, the terror of Old Joe lay heavier than ever on the foothills, and the ranchmen paid their tolls almost with alacrity. At last, however, his oppressions roused the sheep-men of the Hornitos region to fury, and they conspired under the leadership of one Hadlick to overthrow him. Half-a-dozen of them proceeded to Pothole Meadows, whence he had been last reported, and where there was a big corral, the traces of which remain to this day to vex the souls of tourist gentlemen interested in mutton. A couple of sheep were killed, and the carcasses, after being trailed around, were hung up in an oak tree about ten feet above the ground. Then, having staked their mules out in the meadow, the men gathered around the fire and passed an hour or two in a symposium of verbal bravery at Joe’s expense.

When darkness fell they stopped talking and lay down quietly with rifles ready to hand, and waited for events. About nine o’clock the jacks came tearing into camp on the lope, trailing their picket-ropes, and stood with their tails to the fire, their necks stretched forward, and their ears working like metronomes, gazing out into the darkness. Presently Old Joe arrived and walked up into the light of the fire, while the mules bolted back into the meadow, where they stood shivering and snorting, their terrified eyes shining greenly in the firelight. But Old Joe was not the bear to take tough mule when there was fresh-killed mutton hanging in plain view. After a few moments of what looked like ostentation, but may have been only indecision, he walked up to the tree where the sheep were hanging, reached up and took down a carcass as if he were a butcher, and walked thoughtfully away. And all the while Hadlick and his merry men lay watching, and no man durst put finger to trigger.

I ventured to suggest to Mr. Conway, in extenuation of their inaction, that I had heard similar cases ascribed to a species of hypnotism. “I don’t know about that,” he rejoined, “but if that ’s what you call being scared plumb out of your senses, I reckon that ’s what them fellers had.”

“No,” he added, in reply to my inquiry as to the circumstances of Joe’s departure, “no one knows what came of Old Joe. He was never killed, anyway not in this section of country. I reckon he just naturally got old, and went off up into the jimmy-sal,1 and died, as you might say, in bed. But you can bet he died with his boots on.”

1Jimmy-sal: chamisal, e., greasewood-brush.

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