By Max Burbank
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
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
"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
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
"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."