California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman


"Who was California Joe?"

Kind reader, that question I cannot answer more than can I the queries: "Who was the Man of the Iron Mask!"

"Who wrote the 'Junius Letters'?"

But from the time he entered upon the eventful career of a border boy, when he was in his seventeenth year, I can write of him, and many a thrilling tale of his adventures can be told.

But go beyond that night when he first appeared to a wagon-train of emigrants, and became their guide, and all is a mystery, as though a vail had been drawn between him and the years that had gone before, for of himself this strange man would never speak.

One night-nearly half a century ago-a train, westward bound, was encamped just where the prairie met the woodland and hills.

It consisted of a score of white-tilted wagons, drawn by oxen, half as many stoutly-built carryalls, to which were hitched serviceable horses, and the stock of the emigrants, comprising horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs.

Perhaps half a hundred souls were in the train, half of them being hardy, fearless men, and the remainder their wives and children, seeking homes in the border land.

When the camp had been pitched for the night, an hour before sunset-for the train traveled slowly, retarded as it was with their stock -a few of the younger men took their rifles for a stroll through the woodland above, hoping to knock over a few wild turkeys and squirrels for the evening meal.

They were quite successful, and lured on by the sport, they penetrated the hills for a couple of miles, and only thought of returning when the evening shadows warned them that night was at hand.

"Heaven above! Look there!"

The cry came from the lips of one of the party and all were thrilled with the sudden exclamation, which told of something more worthy of attention than a wild turkey or even a bear.

All glanced in the direction in which the one who had made some startling discovery was gazing, and every eye became riveted at once in a manner that proved the thrilling cry of their comrade had not been uncalled for.

There, some hundred paces distant from where they stood, was what appeared to be a horse and rider.

The animal was snow-white, and stood as motionless as though carved from marble.

The rider was dressed in deep black from boots to hat, and sat silent and still.

Even in the gathering gloom his face, seemingly very pale, was visible, and it was beardless.

Across his lap lay a rifle, also seemingly painted black, and a belt of arms of the same somber hue was about his waist.

The horse was saddle and bridleless, and stood with head erect gazing upon the party.

This much all of the young immigrants saw.

But who was this strange being and his ghost-like horse?

One remembered to have heard their guide tell the story how a phantom horse and rider had been seen by old hunters and trappers in that forest of late months, and none knew aught of him.

All then recalled the story and felt that they beheld the same mysterious being.

The guide had died a few days before, and been buried by the roadside, and the train was continuing its way upon the indistinct memory of one of the wagoners who had before been over the trail, rather than delay for weeks until another plainsman could be found to lead them.

They therefore could not ask the guide, upon their return to camp, to describe again the Phantom of the Forest, which he and others had seen; but that this must be the horse and rider that had won such fame, there could be no doubt in the minds of the young emigrants.

The guide had said, they remembered, that he allowed no one to approach near him, and this they would now solve the truth of.

After a moment of hesitation, passed in low, earnest conversation, they decided to hail the seeming Phantom.

"Ho, stranger!" called out one of the number.

But no reply came, and neither horse or rider moved.

"Stranger, who are you?"

Again was the call unanswered.

"Ho, stranger, we are lost; our train is on the prairie, under the red bank cliff, and we would thank you to show us back to camp."

One of the arms of the mysterious horseman was raised and beckoned to them as though to follow, and the white horse turned and walked slowly away, though no reply came from the rider.

"Come, boys, let us follow him," cried one, and taking their game they did.

Arriving at the spot where they had just beheld the seeming Phantom standing, they halted suddenly.

And no wonder, for they stood in the midst of a dozen graves.

The grass had not yet covered them, which proved they had not long held their occupants, and no head-boards marked them.

But a well-worn path led from the spot sacred to the dead up the hillside.

But this path was not the one the mysterious horseman had taken, as he had turned short off down the hillside.

As he saw the party of emigrants halt among the graves, he again beckoned them on, and once more they followed him, silent and wondering.

Slowly the shadows deepened around them, and night came on; but as though to still allow them to keep him in sight, the silent horseman dropped back until the white steed could be seen winding his way through the timber.

At last he halted, and allowed them to approach almost up to him, and then the white horse bounded away and disappeared in the gloom.

They called to him, yet no answer came back, and soon the fall of the hoof-strokes were no longer heard.

Reaching the spot where they had last seen him, a cry broke from the lips of all, for there, right below them, they beheld the cheerful glimmer of their camp-fires

He had guided them truly, and five minutes after they were in camp, telling over and over again the strange story of the Forest Phantom.

[Back]*Even if the real name of California Joe is unknown, some saying that it was Joseph Milmer, others that it was Joseph Hawkins. A few assert that he was a distant relative of Daniel Boone. Of where he was born, his parents and early boyhood life, he never spoke and he died leaving all a mystery behind him.--THE AUTHOR
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