California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman


KIND reader, it is only necessary to say that California Joe continued his wanderings about the border daily winning greater fame as a plainsman and Indian-fighter, until the promise he made Feather Face, to "do as, much for him," was faithfully kept, and more so, for he took that chief's scalp instead of his ears in a fight he had with him one day, after guiding a party of soldiers to his village, to punish him for slashing about with "the hatchet," when it was supposed to be buried.

When the civil war broke out, California Joe went with the Union Army as one of a band of Border Sharpshooters.

That his deadly aim did not fall him in army service, is proven from the fact that war-correspondent of Harper's Weekly sent a report of his having "picked off" a Confederate sharpshooter at the distance of fifteen hundred yards, when even artillery had failed to dislodge him.

After the war, in which he won the name of a long-range dead-shot, California Joe returned to the border, and one day came near losing his life, as he was on his way to make a visit to the Reynolds cabin, where he had not been since the night he had carried Maggie back to her parents.

He was riding along the river bank, when suddenly he beheld a canoe and an occupant, and turned just as a rifle was leveled at him. He spoke just in time to save his life. But as Joe related the story of that meeting with Maggie Reynolds-for she it was-to Captain Jack Crawford, the "Poet-Scout of the Black Hills,"* and he has told it in rhyme, I will give my readers a few of the verses, in their own pathetic words:

Beside a laughing, dancing brook.
A little cabin stood,
At weary with a long day's scout,
Spied it in the wood.
A pretty valley stretched beyond,
The mountains towered above,
While near the willow bank I heard.
The cooing of a dove.

T was one grand panorama;
The brook was plainly seen,
Like a long thread of silver
In a cloth of lovely green.
The laughter of the waters,
The coning of the dove,
Was like some painted picture
Some well-told tale of love.

While drinking in the grandeur,
And resting in my saddle,
I heard a gentle ripple,
Like the dipping of a paddle.
I turned toward the eddy-
A strange sight met my view:
A maiden, with her rifle,
In a little bark canoe.
She stood up in the center,
The rifle to her eye;
I thought (just for a second)
My time had come to die.

I doffed my hat and told her
(If it was all the same)
To drop her little shooter,
For I was not her game.
She dropped the deadly weapon,
And leaped from the canoe.
Said she: "I beg your pardon,
I thought you were a Sioux;
Your long hair and your buckskin
Looked warrior-like and rough,
My bead was spoiled by sunshine,
Or I'd killed you, sure enough."

"Perhaps it had been better
You dropped me then," said I;
For surely such an angel
Would bear me to the sky."
She blushed and dropped her eyelids;
Her cheeks were crimson red;
One half-shy glance she gave me
And then hung down her head.

That blushing young huntress being Maggie Reynolds, dear reader, it need not be said that the romance of her life and that of California Joe ended in the reality of matrimony.

In his book, "My Life on the Plains," General Custer thus speaks of California Joe:

"In concentrating the cavalry which had hitherto been operating in small bodies, it was found that each detachment brought with it the scouts who had been serving with them. When I joined the command I found quite a number of these scouts attached to various portions of the cavalry, but each acting separately. For the purpose of organization it was deemed best to unite them in a separate detachment under command of one of their own number. Being unacquainted with the merits or demerits of any of them, the selection of a chief had to be made somewhat at random.

"There was one among their number whose appearance would have attracted the notice of any casual observer. He was a man about forty years of age, perhaps older, over six feet in hight, and possessing a well-proportioned frame. His hand was covered with a luxuriant crop of long, almost black hair, strongly inclined to curl, and so long as to fall carelessly over his shoulders. His face, at least so much of it as was not concealed by the long, waving brown beard and mustache, was full of intelligence and pleasant to look upon. His eye was undoubtedly handsome, black and lustrous, with an expression of kindness and mildness combined. On his head was generally to be seen, whether awake or asleep, a huge sombrero, or black slouch hat. A soldier's overcoat, with its large circular cape, a pair of trowsers with the legs tucked in the top of his long boots, usually constituted the make-up of the man whom I selected as chief scout. He was known by the euphonious title of 'California Joe,' no other name seemed ever to have been given him, and no other, name appeared to be necessary.

"This was the man whom, upon a short acquaintance, I decided to appoint as chief of the scouts.

"As the four detachments already referred to were to move as soon as it was dark, it was desirable that the scouts should be at once organised, and assigned. So, sending for California Joe, I informed him of his promotion and what was expected of him and his men. After this official portion of the interview had been complete, it seemed proper to Joe's mind that a more intimate acquaintance between us should be cultivated, as we had never met before. His first interrogatory, addressed to me in furtherance of this ideal was frankly put as follows:

"'See hyar, gineral, in order that we hev no misonderstandin', I'd jist like ter ax ye a few questions. First, are ye an ambulance man er a hoss man?'

"Professing ignorance of his meaning, I requested him to explain.

"'I mean,' said he, 'do yer b'lieve in catchin' Injuns in ambulances or on hossback?'

"Still assuming ignorance, I replied, 'Well, Joe, I believe in catching Indians wherever we can find them, whether they are in ambulances or on horseback.'

"'Thet ain't what I'm a-drivin' at,' he responded. 'S'pose you're after Injuns had really want to hev a tassel with 'em would yer start after low on hossback er would yer climb inter a ambulance and be hauled after 'em? That's ther p'int I'm a-headin' far.'

"I answered that I would prefer the method on horseback, provided I really desired to catch the Indian; but if I wished them to catch me, I would adopt the ambulance system of attack.

"'You've hit the nail squar' on the head,' said he. 'I've bin with 'am on the plains whar they started out after Injuns on wheels jist as ef they war goin' to a town funeral in ther States, an' they stood 'bout as many chances uv catchin' Injuns ez a six-mule team would uv catchin' a pack of thievin' ki-o-tes, jist as much. Why, thet sort uv work iz only fun fer the Injuns; they don't want anything better. Yer ort to've see'd how they peppered it to us, and we a-doin' o' nuthin' all the time. Sum uv 'am wuz afraid the mules war goin' to stampede and run off with ther train and all our forage an' grub, but that wuz impossible; fer besides the big loads uv corn an' bacon an' baggage the wagons had in 'em, thar war from eight to a dozen infantry men piled into am besides. Yer ort to hev heard the quartermaster in charge uv of the train tryin' to drive infantry men out uv the wagons and git them into ther fight. I 'spect he wuz a Irishman, by his talk, fer he said to 'am: "Git out uv thim wagons; get out uv thim wagons; yez'll hev me thried for disobadieance uv orders for marchin' tin min in a wagon whin I've ord hers fer but ait.'"

California Joe was killed, as was his friend Wild Bill, by the hand of an assassin.

He was seated in front of his cabin at Red Cloud, Dakota, on Dec. 5th 1876, cleaning his dearly loved weapons, when some foe fired at him from an ambush and shot him through the heart.

Who that unseen assassin, was no one ever knew, and the secret will doubtless remain unknown, unless the "still, small voice of conscience" may drive the murderer to confess the crime some day, for most truly, is it said that "murder will out."


[Back]* Jack W. Crawford, known as "Captain Jack, the Poet Scout," a famous border ranger and the companion of California Joe and Buffalo Bill in many a wild scene of frontier life. -THE AUTHOR
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