I SAW him first in the summer of 1902. He was then (if I am to believe the War Department records) rising ninety-five years old.
A Character Out of the Long-Ago and a True Tale of the Frontier
By WILL IRWIN
The veterans of the Old Soldiers' Home at Yountville, California, had just finished the stiff and pathetic ceremonial of daily guard mount. And among them, as they tottered away to their quarters, my eye caught the one who was different. At a distance his gait and carriage marked him. Little, stiff, and old though he was, he walked with a curious freedom of the hips. His body sloped forward with each step at an angle wholly unmilitary, and he planted his feet parallel with the line of his course. As he came nearer, the blurred outlines under his slouch hat grew to an extraordinary face.
The wonder of it was not so much a certain aquiline nobility in the mold—spite of his creases and wrinkles—as the contrast between his leathery skin and a pair of youthful eyes. Large, full, gray-blue, they showed no blurs across the iris, no tinge in the eyeballs. Gray agates in globes of porcelain, they had always the appearance of looking far away. Even as he approached, saluted the commandant, and pursed his lips into a familiar smile, they seemed to be observing something in the distances beyond.
"A plainsman or a trapper if ever I saw one," I said.
"Right the first time," answered the commandant, "and the oldest living, I guess. That's Buckskin Joe O'Donnell, Kit Carson's chief scout in California. Oh, Joe!" he called.
A Ghost of the Old West
THE old man turned on the word, and came nearer. His voice broke and crackled as he spoke.
"Mornin', Colonel. Whar's Old Bess?"
"His gun," whispered the Colonel. "He lost his gun before they brought him here." It was as though a ghost had risen before us—a ghost of the old West. For it is a dead dialect that he spoke; they say "thar" and "whar" and "ba'ar" no longer in all the length and breadth of the Western country. Here was a man speaking that dialect and, without affectation, giving a pet name to his gun!
Buckskin Joe had caught the whisper.
"I want Old Bess!" he said with a kind of defiance. "They took away Old Bess! No more hunting for Joe O'Donnell and three squa'ars a day: I want Bess!"
The commandant hailed a passing veteran and borrowed a Springfield rifle.
"Let's see how you shoot, Joe," he said. A change came over the old man; his face set itself in stern lines, his back stiffened. He brought the implement of his craft to shoulder, and held it, steady as a rock, on a distant horse. His trigger hand was high, his trigger finger had the long, sensitive reach of the expert shot, and neither you nor I could keep a muzzle so steady.
Suddenly he grounded the butt. "It ain't like Bess," he grumbled. "No new-fangled gun's as good as Old Bess." And he was gone toward his quarters.
"They found him on a ferry of the San Joaquin," said the commandant. "He was feeble and a little touched, and people were afraid he'd drown. The sheriff found his Mexican War papers and shipped him up to us. His hair was on his shoulders—I bet it hadn't been cut for forty years—and such a time as we had shearing him! We thought he hadn't long to live, but after we fed him up he brightened a lot. His mind wanders some, though I've noticed that when he talks to Charlie he talks pretty straight."
"Who's Charlie?" I asked.
The commandant smiled.
"We've some pretty queer stories up here. This is the queerest, I suppose. Buckskin Joe gets his one drink of whisky a day—doctor's orders—three o'clock at the canteen. He's himself for a while after that, and talks straight. You'd better ask Joe about Charlie and—everything."
I found Buckskin Joe in the canteen at three; we sat and talked while he sipped his glass of whisky, while his mental faculties gathered themselves. The story came out at first in fragments, in exclamations broken by Spanish words, by phrases from forgotten Indian tongues. But when I guided him in the right direction, he talked vividly, consecutively. He spoke, too, in the fashion of the very old—impersonally, as about some one else. Life was over; he was only waiting; why should he not tell, with no shame at revealing his penetralia, not only the outward events of the past existence, but also its triumphs, its shames, its failures, and its hidden glories? Parts of this story I confirmed afterward by history. I even visited a certain grave among the vinelands of old Sonoma, and found from its flaking inscription how truly Buckskin Joe spoke.
He sprang from that mixture of Irish and English blood which has given us our bravest ground-breakers. He was born in Kentucky when that land was still remote frontier. His father before him was a trapper. All his boyhood and youth he traveled by far trails, lived as blood-brother with the Indians, and saw a town only when he brought the season's furs to market. In the year 1834 or thereabout, he joined a party of trappers and explorers who were bent on striking further into the unknown than man had ever gone before. Living with tribe after tribe of friendly Indians, they traveled West for two years until they reached a range of giant mountains, far across which, the Indians said, lay the ocean. They saw white men at a distance, stalked them Indian-fashion, and found that they were Spaniards. The tradition of Spanish cruelty was a bugbear of the frontier. Assured that this was Spanish or Mexican territory, the party turned back and returned to Kentucky. At the time when he told me his story, Buckskin Joe was the first man then alive who ever looked from the Sierra upon California.
The Winning of California
TEN years later Fremont led his third expedition through to the Pacific Coast. This was the venture which gave California to the United States. Kit Carson, that romantic king of the frontier, was Fremont's guide and chief of scouts; and Kit Carson knew of this man who had entered California. He sent a call for him along the frontier. But Buckskin Joe was on an expedition into the Ozark Mountains; the message came three months too late. Buckskin Joe, however, packed and followed on. At the Missouri River he found an immigrant train starting on the overland journey. He joined it as hunter and guide, and carried it safely past the perils of Indians and Mormons into California.
Charlie Stewart was the "Kid" of that party, a likely young Missourian in his twenties; and although Buckskin Joe was nearly forty, they became chums and bunk mates. Charlie's older sister, Mary, was with him. And before they reached the Sierra, Mary and Joe had fallen in love.
"Nothin' bindin'," Joe told me, "because I was goin' fur to fight. But we savveyed each other." They had an understanding, it seems. And at the Sacramento Buckskin Joe, found the American forces. The party separated. Charlie and Mary Stewart went to Sonoma, the old adobe capital of California: Joe traveled with Kit Carson to the wars. He saw the American flag flying at San Juan Batista, he fought through the little campaign by which Fremont secured the American title, he was present at the ceremony by which California passed formally over to the United States. Then Marshall found gold in the Sacramento. But Joe went back to the mountains, trapping. He stayed within range of Sonoma, however: and every spring, when he brought down his hides, he lingered there to visit Mary Stewart. Why they did not marry became understood between us without words. I doubt, indeed, if he could have made his reason articulate. He was a thing of woods and forests and mighty, primitive struggles; she a thing of towns and firesides and roof-thatches. The forest, the great out-of-doors, was a part of him; it was no part of her. The Lord of Life, who implants some loves for his own laughter, was playing with these two. Their souls yearned for each other, while tastes, training, circumstances drew them apart. Which force would have conquered, had they played the game to the end—who can guess? The Lord of Peace intervened. One spring Buckskin Joe came across the hills into Sonoma, and found that she was dead. Charlie Stewart was gone, none knew where. The neighbors led him over to the churchyard of Mission Sonoma and showed him her grave.
The Passing of Fifty Years
HE WENT back to the forest after that; and his feet traveled their accustomed ways for ten more years, twenty more years, fifty more years. But the old West was passing fast in those regions. So, in the end, he was running a little ferry across the San Joaquin and using old Bess on muskrats and migrating ducks.
All those fifty years he maintained one habit. As soon as the rains were over and spring broke, he packed his kit and took the trail to the graveyard at Sonoma, where Mary Stewart lay. At first his way led over untrodden valleys of wild mustard, over unbroken hills of chaparral; here and there he encountered a little huddle of miners, polluting the streams with their gold-washing. The sixties came; and now he passed great herds of cattle. The Seventies, and he saw no more lordly herds, but the valleys were green with springing wheat-fields, and he must amend his course to avoid towns and railroads. Now it was the nineties; where wheat-fields had been, spread orchards and little farms; from the hills above Sonoma he looked down on great shaft-houses by which men were tearing up the earth for clay and lime. Year by year he had seen his old West go past him: he was walking through a world which he knew not—a ghost come to visit a grave. But he never missed, not once, until they took him away from his ferry, and lost Old Bess for him, and carried him to his final camp in the Veterans' Home above the pleasant Napa Valley. They sent him to the special ward which they kept for the very old.
It was bedtime when they moved him in; the rest of the inmates were asleep. When the sunlight woke him, he turned over to face the morning. The man in the next bed turned also—away from the light. Buckskin Joe looked him over; a resemblance and a memory came into his mind. He lay there, studying the face, wondering, he told me, if it could be an illusion, like those fancies which had haunted him in the mind-worn days before they took him away from the ferry. But the resemblance and the memory grew, until he could bear it no longer. He reached over and shook the other old man.
"Hey!" he cried, "what's your name?"
"Charlie Stewart," responded the other old man, sleepily.
I SAW Buckskin Joe once more before I left. Unless I meet him somewhere among the outer nebulæ, carrying the purposes of the Creator to new peoples of new-made worlds, I shall never see him again; for two years later he passed from sleep to Mary Stewart. He and Charlie sat on the piazza. His hand was on Charlie's knee, and they were gazing southward toward that range of hills which curtained their sight from Sonoma—decayed Sonoma, dreaming among her vines.