The Tale Of The Celebrated Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County As Related For Your Edification By The Celebrated Author, Mark Twain
By Max Burbank
June 16, 2001
As a young man, I traveled for a time through logging towns along the northern Californian coast, always in great haste and generally only a few steps ahead of the law. I was pursued by both wanted posters, and persistent rumors of questionable activities involving a Christian youth group. You may well imagine I was traveling light and fast, and the more forsaken the towns I stayed in, the happier I was. Still, I did make time for the collections of tales as is my habit. Perhaps if, as a youth, I had spent less time collecting tail I would not have been obliged to flee the forces of the law so often, but that, dear listeners is a different story than this one and costs more if you want to hear it. I'll be out back by the dumpster after the show.
It was during this time that I first encountered the Tale of the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, a tale I have had the opportunity to repeat ad nauseum ever since, greeted at first with much mirth, then after many tellings, with boredom and recently with violence. Still and all, it's one of the few stories I can recollect in its entirety as drunk as I am now, and I assure you, I am drunk enough to date your grandmaw's milking cow.
There was a feller by the name of Jim Smiley who came to live in Calaveras some time around eighteen forty-nine. He was the most curious man you ever did see for wagering. He would bet on just anything that come up! If he couldn't find no one to bet against him, why he'd up and switch sides. So long as there was a bet on, old Smiley was a generally happy man. And uncommon lucky! He so rarely lost that a portion of the town came to believe he was in league with the devil and loudly petitioned to burn him at the stake. The would have done it too, if not for the fact that Mr. Smiley was as passionate a man for firearms as he was for gambling.
There wasn't one solitary thing come up, why that man wouldn't wager on it. If there was a horse race on, he'd bet on it. If a dog fight had been arranged, he'd be there, his wallet open. If two tom cats had set to hissing at each other, puffing and scratching, why Mr. Smiley would be waving all comers into the alley and making book. If a flock of birds was a settin' on a fence post, Smiley would badger you about which one was going to fly first until you finally bet him, just to make the old bastard shut his chow hole! If two dung beetles was rolling a road apple up the street, Smiley would climb upon your shoulders and beat at your face with a hickory brush until you at last agreed to wager with him as to which of the dung beetles was the handsomest!!... I could go on like this all night...and I would too, if I was being paid by the hour. Since my fee is only for the talk and not the time it takes, I believe I will assume you get the picture and attempt to be out of here well before last call.
Now, Smiley was good at cards and dice. He was well known for his unmatched skill at the roulette wheel when gambling boats made it all the way up the coast. More than once he had correctly deduced the number of jellybeans in the jar on the counter of Johansen's dry goods store. He had once even been seen to stake a wager on the number of small pox blemishes a certain logger would acquire before he at last succumbed to the disease and died of it. But in particular, Smiley liked to bet on animals.
This here Smiley had a mare. The boys called her the Four Dollar Nag on account of the fact that Smiley would let you borrow her for the evening for that price and not ask what your business was. Gambling and guns were Smiley's true passions, but animal husbandry ran a close second, if you follow me. He earned money with that mare, but he won it, too, in races. She was as broken and dispirited a horse as ever you did see, but when a race was on and there was money on the table, she always come in first! She'd thunder across the finish line, her eyes rolling, her hide trembling and flecked with foam! Why sometimes she'd run for hours after the race was well over, and Smiley was obliged to trek clear across the county to fetch her back. "It's my secret method of animal training" old Smiley would say, laying a finger along side of his nose. Secret it may be. I suspect, however, it had a great deal to do with crates of "Dr. McGilicutty's Revitalizing Tonic", a patent medicine obtained in bulk by Smiley whenever a steam ship came up the coast from San Francisco. A potent revitalizer, it is ten percent wood alcohol, ten percent mineral oil and eighty percent ground Coca Leaf. A teaspoonful will allow your old aunt Sophie to dance all night at your wedding. An entire bottle might encourage a horse to do most anything. Incidentally, a gram or two introduced to your evening tea will make even the most unendurable Chautauqua entertaining, be you lecturer or listener. I recommend it highly.
Smiley also had himself a small bull-pup, a little scaliwag of a thing that warn't worth a cent to look at him. But only put him in the ring and lay odds on him, and the wee thing became a different sort of dog all together! His jaw would drop and widen, displaying rows of sharp, uneven teeth, and a vile foam would pour from his mouth as thick and frothy as the head on homemade brew! Once the little bastard had affixed it's jaws to the hind legs of his opponent, there was no dislodging him. Many were the times that after the fight was well over and the enemy dog quite completely dead, Smiley's bull-pup would still not unlock his jaws until a crow bar or some other leverage enhancing device was introduced. Everyone desired to know how Smiley was able to coax such magnificent and savage performance from so small and unassuming a hound, but the man revealed nothing, only nodding sagely and alluding to his "secret methods of animal training". Secrecy aside I have it on good authority that any dog maintained on a steady diet of gunpowder will behave thusly, if you can only keep the damned thing alive long enough to fight! For one final memorable bout against a huge, Russian Wolf Hound, Smiley penned the poor bull-pup with raccoons, until the tiny mutt was quite rabid. Directly before the match began, Smiley doused his unfortunate dog with water, and the hydrophobia endemic to rabies drove the poor animal completely insane. The enthusiastic fans were forced to open umbrellas to keep from being spattered by the flying innards of the wolfhound. Even his owner was compelled to agree that he'd never witnessed such a spectacle, nor been so thoroughly entertained. Smiley acquired quite a pile of loot that day, and would have treated the entire town to drinks, were it not for the fact that he was a singularly stingy son of a bitch.
Around this time, it was getting increasingly hard for old Smiley to make book on his animals. His fighting cocks were uncommon savage and never lost. His homing pigeons were always home before anyone else's. His novelty mice and rats ran mazes faster and more efficiently than any challengers. His Mare and bull-pup we have already discussed. Smiley's fame so far outpaced him that even the most dedicated gamesmen would not bet against him. So Smiley decided he would have to acquire an unusual animal. The kind of animal that is not, or was not at that time, usually wagered upon. Smiley disappeared into the great Calaveras swamp. When he returned, he brought with him, the frog.
Now this frog was not much to look at. It was not in any way unusual when compared with other frogs, It was no larger than your average frog. It's leg muscles were no more tightly sinewed. It did not possess any particular light of intelligence in its eyes that would set it apart from its cousins. It was, quite simply, a frog.
"Not just any frog," said Smiley. "I am training him to jump higher, faster and farther than any frog which ever God Himself did set upon the earth."
Now it is very important, that you, my audience understand this key point. No one in town, not one solitary soul, had actually seen Smiley's frog jump. Oh, they had seen the critter itself, setting in its box, breathing. One young rascal even claimed to have seen it eat a fly, although the child was a notorious liar whose unfortunate father was then forced to give him an educational whupping. But no one save Smiley had ever seen the damn thing jump.
Smiley toted his frog about town in a little box, showing it to whoever asked, until one day a stranger wandered into town. It is my suspicion that this was the very moment Smiley had been waiting for.
"What might it be you've got in that box, mister?" the stranger asked.
And Smiley says, sorter indifferent like, "It might be a parrot. It might be a canary. It might even be the mummified fist of a monkey which through some dread evil will grant its bearer three wishes! But it ain't. It's only jest a frog."
The stranger took the frog from its box, turned it this way and that, examining it, and says "Hmm. 'Tis a frog. What's he good for?"
"Oh, nuthin'. 'Cept for one thing, I should judge. He can out jump any frog in Calaveras County."
"Oh," said the stranger. "That's nice," and he turned on his heel and began walking away.
"This here frog, Mr. Stranger, if that really is your name, can jump one hundred and forty yards in a single leap, and I'll put him up against any frog you got!" screamed Smiley in a frenzy. "If'n your frog can jump even a tenth as far, I'll give you a hundred dollars and you can spend the night with my horse!"
"Well," said the stranger, suckin' upon his teeth. "That's a good bet, and I'd wager you, except for one thing. I don't got a frog. Lord knows what would make you think I would."
"Hold my frog," says Smiley, thrusting his hapless amphibian upon the stranger. "I'll go down the swamp and fetch you up one."
Now at this point in my narrative you might well wonder why old Smiley allowed this "Stranger" to hold his celebrated frog. I myself, as a youth, got into quite a bit of trouble, not to say outright scandal for handling stranger's frogs, if you know what I mean. You might also ask yourself why the aforementioned Stranger would trust his opponent to provide him with a sportsworthy, unadulterated frog. For Smiley's part, perhaps he was so hot to wager, so possessed by the demon of gambling, that he did not think. As for the stranger...well, he had plans of his own.
No sooner was Smiley out of sight, than the stranger plunked hisself down upon the road. Taking the frog, he prized its mouth open and proceeded to pour buckshot down its throat. He damn near filled the poor dumb animal to the brim!
Smiley soon returned, his trousers caked with mud, but his eyes gleaming. In his hands he held a new frog, one in truth a bit bigger and stronger looking than his own, and this he gave to the stranger. By now a crowd had gathered and money was changing hands quite rapidly. All manner of wagers were being taken, most on Smiley's frog but quite a few on the stranger's, who some of those early to arrive had seen load Smiley's animal with five pounds of shot. Venders moved about the crowd selling peanuts, cold beers and potent home remedies. In no time a carnival atmosphere had enveloped the tiny town.
"Now, if'n you're ready, stranger, place your frog beside mine, their little for paws just even, and I will give the word," said Smiley. A hush fell over the assembled crowd.
"One...two...three...JUMP!" hollered Smiley. The stranger's frog gave a respectable flop forward and landed staring about blankly. Smiley's frog remained as stationary as a hitching post.
"JUMP!!" Smiley roared again, but his beast only blinked at him apologetically. A schoolgirl in the assembled crowd giggled and her laughter took hold of the crowd like wild fire.
"JUMP, YOU DAMNED SON OF A WHORE, JUMP!!" Screamed Smiley, his face so red and swollen, old Doc Ritter feared he had suffered a conniption fit.
"Well," said the stranger, revealing foreknowledge of his opponent. "It seems as if your celebrated secret methods of animal training have failed you at last, Mister Smiley. I believe I will take my money and go git a room for me and your horse."
"Not so fast!" hissed Smiley. "My frog has not forgot his lessons. He jest needs a little...refresher course." With that, Calaveras County's famed gamblin' man loosened his suspenders, dropped his trousers and revealed to all assembled his secret frog training method. It seems that old Smiley had painted his man part most realistically to resemble a savage, voracious, frog devouring swamp weasel! The crowd sucked in its collective breath. Smiley approached the frog, his weasel wagging, its baleful, red, painted-on eyes glistening in the north Californian sun.
"Now, you sorry excuse for a weasel snack," said Smiley "YOU...WILL...JUMP!!"
It's tiny, golden eyes bulging with terror, Smiley's frog rose into the air screaming like a woman in childbirth, tumbling rump over teakettle through the bright blue sky. One hundred and sixty three yards later it landed, ass backwards, breaking every bone in its body and expelling the entire load of buck shot in a violent blast which traversed the entire distance the frog had leapt and blew the strangers head quite completely off his body.
Well, you can only imagine the mirth of the collected townsfolk witness to such a merry sight, and everyone had to agree that Smiley had won his wager fair and square.
It was Smiley himself who said, a twinkle in his eye as he rifled the dead man's pockets, "It just seems a shame it had to end so badly. If he'd lived, we could have hung him for cheating, and I'd have placed book on how long it took the conniving bastard to expire."