California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman - Part 1

Part 1

California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman.

by Col. Prentiss Ingraham.



"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, r.e.t.a.r.ded 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, pa.s.sed 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 gra.s.s 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.

*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 a.s.sert 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



WHEN the dawn broke upon the camp, the emigrants were somewhat startled to discover a stick in front of the center fire, sticking up in the ground, and with a piece of paper fastened to it.

The captain of the train read what was written thereon aloud, and it was as follows: "WARNING: "If this train is bound for Sunset Settlement it is on the wrong trail.

"If they do not fear to trust the one who writes his, let them follow the wrong trail."

This was all, but it set the entire train of emigrants to thinking.

They had little confidence in their amateur guide, for the simple reason he had less in himself, and had only guaranteed to go the way he thought was right.

Now he said that he might be wrong, and he advised the captain to follow the staked trail.

But who was their unknown informer?

He had pa.s.sed the guards, that was evident, and had entered the camp unseen, for who else had put the stake there with its warning?

Then some one came in with the information that a large number of small sprigs had been cut from a tree near by, and another reported that one was staked out just beyond the camp.

Instantly the captain went to this stake, and it had evidently been placed there under cover of the night just pa.s.sed.

Afar off a close scrutiny showed that another stake had been placed, and then it was decided to follow the trail they marked out.

The order to move was given, and the train pulled slowly out of its camping-place.

Following the stakes, which were placed about a mile apart, with a bunch of prairie gra.s.s upon the top of each, that they might be the better seen, the train continued on its way until the noon halt.

Then the mysterious affair was talked over and the fact made known that the trail of a single horse had been left from stake to stake.

Could it be the Forest Phantom? Such was the question asked by all.

It must be, many thought, for had he not faithfully guided the hunters back to their camp the night before?

After an hour's halt the train again moved, and pa.s.sed through a valley that divided the range of hills out upon the prairie beyond.

Not caring to go away from a good camping ground, to perhaps make a dry camp* out upon the prairie, the captain of the train called a halt in the shelter of the hills, although there had been but about fifteen miles made that day.

And as soon as night came on, and all gathered around the camp fires, the subject of conversation was about their unseen guide.

Placing the guards, the camp again sunk to rest, and no sound disturbed them through the night; and the guards neither heard nor saw anything of a suspicious nature to alarm them.

But, strange to say, when the dawn came, there, in front of the captain's teat, was the stake, driven into the ground under the shadow of the night, and upon it was a piece of paper, evidently torn, as had the other piece been, from off an old letter, and written in pencil.

The writing was legible, but by no means written by a scribe.

This second note read: "You are doing right! Follow the staked trail."

And all through the day the train did follow the staked trail, for the stakes were still placed to guide them, though they were further apart than the day before.

At dark the train reached a small stream, and in the shelter of the few willows and cottonwoods upon its banks went into camp.

Hardly had the fires been lighted when, far off upon the prairie, a light was visible.

That it came from a camp-fire was evident, and the emigrants gazed at it long and earnestly, for who could have built it unless it was their unseen guide?

Some wished to go and see, but this the train captain would not allow, as he knew well he was in dangerous country, for both train robbers and Indians were to be dreaded in that border land.

After blazing for half an hour the distant fire died out, and then all was blackness upon the prairie.

At an early hour the train again pulled out, and the staked trail led directly over the spot where had been seen the fire the night before. A few charred sticks were visible right on the bank of a tiny stream, and there were only a dozen cottonwoods near to form a shelter for a camp.

But there, evidently, had their unseen guide camped, for they could see where blankets had pressed down the gra.s.s beneath the trees and where a horse had fed about the lonely camp.

On through the day pulled the train, until they came to a spot that was an excellent camping-ground, and here they halted.

Again were fires built, and after supper the emigrants a.s.sembled around them for a talk, the one topic of conversation being about their unseen guide.

Then there were croakers in the party, for some would say if he was honest he would show himself.

Others feared he was leading them into a trap, until at last the general opinion was against the unseen guide.

But his stanch friends were the hunting-party whom he had guided back to camp.

They all maintain that he was true, what-ever he was, or it was, ghost or man.

Some too believed they were being led by a spook, for superst.i.tion held a great sway over the minds of people two-score years ago, and even now many believe in the supernatural.

At last, after a warm discussion upon the subject, it was decided not to follow the staked trail the following day, but to take their bearings as well as they were able, and endeavor to find their way to Sunset Settlement as best they could.

Hardly had they come to this conclusion, and were about to separate for the night, to go to respective quarters, when suddenly into their midst came a white horse, and upon his back was the rider in black.

A few of the women screamed, men sprung to their feet, and at once all was a scene of excitement, as they gazed upon the snow-white steed and his sable-clad rider.

*A camp with no water near.