An earlier version of this story was first published as "Mystery at Jackass Gulch" in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel on November 6, 2016.
Angels Camp, Calaveras County, California, 2016
He’d been silent, the other man at the bar, gazing into his glass of whiskey before growing animated at the mention of Mark Twain. “I met Twain one time, you know, out near Jackass Hill.”I looked quizzically at the bartender and motioned towards the other man with a slight jerk of the head.
The bartender raised an eyebrow. “The professor here knows more about Mark Twain than anyone in town. Isn’t that right, professor?”
I’d taken the long way home to San Francisco and had stopped at a small saloon in Angels Camp, the birthplace of Twain’s story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” As we were exchanging pleasantries, I’d joked with the bartender that I was no Mark Twain and he could spare me his tall tales.
I studied the man he’d called professor more closely. He looked to be in his sixties and, though he sported several days of stubble, seemed otherwise tidy. It was hard to tell if he was fashionably grizzled or simply the town drunk.
“You look pretty good for a hundred and fifty years old,” I said in jest, assuming he wasn’t serious.
“It wasn’t all that long ago; a few years back,” he answered in a matter-of-fact tone, though he had a faraway look in his eyes as he said it. “For a few hours that day,” he continued, “I became a time traveler.”
The bartender grunted, sounding more annoyed than alarmed, as if he’d heard the line too many times before. He quickly busied himself at the other end of the bar. As the World Series of Poker flickered silently on the TV above us, I sipped my beer and considered my options. Dare I press the matter further?
“Time travel, huh?” I asked, having decided to hear him out.
“Yes, sir. I was a visitor here myself and had stopped at Jackass Hill, just this side of Tuttletown. You may have passed it yourself.”
“Young Mark Twain lived there with his friend Sam Gillis during the winter of 1864. The two of them were on the lam from some legal troubles in San Francisco. There’s still a shack up there called the Mark Twain cabin but it’s a replica. The original was owned by Sam’s brother Jim.”
I knew something of Twain’s time in San Francisco and the professor’s tale sounded credible thus far. Twain had written for papers and consorted with other upstarts of the day, like Brett Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard. But I knew nothing of his flight from San Francisco or his time on Jackass Hill.
“Wasn’t it a rather remote place for a man like Twain?” I asked. “How did he tolerate the isolation after the excitement of San Francisco?”
The professor chuckled and nodded in agreement, his face relaxing momentarily into a less alarming appearance. “He could satisfy his sundry needs at Swerer’s store in Tuttletown but there was little of interest for him there. Once restlessness got the better of him, he ventured into Angels Camp.”
Seeing the professor’s glass was empty, I signaled the bartender to pour another round. The man might be a drunk or a lunatic, but I wanted to hear how far he’d go with his claims of time travel. “So you met Twain on Jackass Hill?”
“No. But while I was up there, I thought about him walking all the way into town. It was nearly eight miles, a long way for the little amusement he could find in a half-deserted mining town. So I decided to walk it myself. You know, put myself in his shoes. I left my car on Jackass Hill and headed towards Angels Camp on shank’s mare, as they used to say.”
The professor took a sip of whiskey as if bracing for the journey.
“After an hour of walking,” he continued, “I’d made it only as far as New Melones Lake. You must have crossed it yourself coming here. It was hellishly warm that day and I still had the bulk of my journey ahead of me. I started across the Stevenot Bridge with hopes that a cooling breeze would be rising off the water. To my dismay, crossing the bridge was worse than hiking the scorched hills. I grew quite dizzy and thought I might be suffering from heat stroke.”
The professor sat upright on his stool. A wistful expression enveloped his face.
“As I reached the end of the bridge and crossed into Calaveras County,” he said, “the dizziness grew worse. I had to steady myself against a pole for a moment. When it had passed, I looked up and saw a man reclining under a tree. He was thirty or so: dark suit, tussled hair, piercing eyes, and a rather precipitous red mustache.”
I couldn’t suppress an audible gasp. “Twain?”
The professor ignored the interruption and kept speaking. “He said to me, I had every intention of a spirited walk into Angel’s. But as the day wore on, I found myself given over to a bout of indolence brought on by this blasted afternoon sun and an unmerciful lack of shade.
“His mouth twisted into a wry smile then he rose to his feet. And so it is I find myself dawdling here. I had hoped to meet someone in possession of a wagon or spare horse but, sir, it appears you are the company I seek, given you’re the only infernal soul on this damnable road.”
“It was Twain,” I exclaimed again. The professor’s face darkened and he stared blankly at the rear wall, as if he could picture himself facing the young scribe.
“I studied him carefully, suppressing the urge to laugh. I was sure he was one of those historical reenactors. I thought he might have been hired by Angels Camp for a celebration in town. I have no patience for such foolishness but I tried to play along.
“I asked him what brought him to Angels Camp and he replied, I have of late contented myself with a reclusive life on Jackass Hill. But having tired of such restive preoccupations, I ventured into Angel’s for the miserable concoction that passes for whiskey at the Angels Hotel saloon. While I was thus engaged, the garrulous barkeep there told me a most amusing story. That was some time ago and the story has weighed heavily on my mind since. So I felt compelled to once again venture into town in hopes of inducing the cussed man to repeat the tale.
“As I mentioned, this barkeep is predisposed to a meandering storytelling style that can mesmerize the most flighty gadabout. His was a tale not unlike those told by my host Jim Gillis. It is the method of telling these men employ that is so engaging, you see. My attempts to replicate such stories have yielded only limp and colorless prose. This time, I shall study the man more closely.”
The wistful look passed from the professor’s face and he looked directly at me for the first time, a perceptive twinkle in his eye.
“I wanted nothing to do with this play acting. As I paused and considered returning to my car, I noticed the road was no longer paved. It had become a dirt road deeply rutted by horseshoes and wagon wheels. I glanced back at the lake I had just crossed only to discover it had vanished. Instead, I was on the crest of a river valley. Down below, the river coursed through sloping hills and a ferry sat idle, awaiting passengers.”
I looked over at the bartender. “Does that sound right to you?”
He nodded. “Yep. They dammed the Stanislaus River ages ago. And several roads around here are named for ferries.”
The professor looked annoyed that I’d not only interrupted him but had questioned the veracity of his account. He downed his whiskey before continuing the tale.
“My own appearance had changed as well. I was suddenly dressed in canvas clothes and heavy boots.”
“Is that when you realized that he was the real Mark Twain and that you were back in his time?” I asked, hoping to get to the time travel part of the story.
The wild look had returned to the professor’s face. I was beginning to wonder if he might be dangerous.
“It took a minute for it all to sink in, for me to accept what had happened. But I eventually understood the full implication of our situation. I could talk to him. I could ask him anything I wanted to. I’ve never been so excited. There we were, Mark Twain and I, walking side-by-side towards Angels Camp. He did most of the talking, chattering away like we were old friends. After climbing one of the steeper hills, he stopped to rest, flapping the collar of his jacket and his hat to fan himself.“This road has an interesting story. He pointed toward the eastern part of the river valley. Over there was the once thriving camp of Jackass Gulch. Back then, men were still coaxing fortunes from the earth with surface mining. Shacks and tents covered this entire area, all the way up to Jackass Hill, which you no doubt passed on your way here. This road connected Jackass Gulch to other mining towns, including Melones, which was also called Slumgullion. The pitted byway we’re on thus came to be known as Slumgullion Road. Perhaps that’s a term with which you’re familiar?
“Twain glanced at me briefly then resumed walking before I could respond.
“When I inquired into the matter further, he continued, I was informed by a reputable source that the word was an old whaler term for the vile offal and blubber that accumulates on the deck of such ships. Whalers who’d come here seeking gold used the word to describe the sludge in the bottom of their sluice boxes.
“If that explanation is accurate, he said, then I find slumgullion to be a most fitting name. We’ve enjoyed fine weather here of late and the road is thoroughly dry, but when rains pummel the land, this thoroughfare is churned into the most viscous muck you can imagine, a loathsome mix of mud and dung, and thus…slumgullion.”
The professor took a deep breath and stared again into his empty glass. I was both repulsed and intrigued by the man. Though I’d finished my beer and could have made a tactful exit, I wanted to hear what the two men did together. I ordered the professor another whiskey.
“Did the two of you ever make it into town?”
The professor swirled his new drink. “Oh yes.” The liquor was having an obvious affect; his voice had grown more effusive and his words, a bit muddled.
“Twain talked constantly during the two hours it took us to walk into town. We were parched by then and in need of refreshment. He led us up Main Street out right out here.” The professor jerked his thumb towards the door. “Down to the other end of this block. The Angels Hotel building is still there, though it’s no longer a hotel. As we paused near the entrance to the saloon, Twain took me by the elbow.
“This undertaking of mine, he said in a low, serious voice, is not for the faint of heart. The barkeep within, a man named Ben Coon, veers and dodges around his subject like a rabbit chased by hounds. I must impose upon your good nature and ask that you refrain from engaging the man in any undue conversation.
“I assured him I’d let him do the talking. Satisfied with the response, Twain ambled confidently into the saloon with me in tow.“It was late afternoon and a harsh light was pouring in through the front windows, though most of the room was in shadow. Ben Coon was behind the bar, talking with two men. Coon gave a quick wave to Twain and said, Look what the wind blowed in, fellas, our gentleman friend from Jackass Hill.
“Twain shook hands all around and said, You flatter me with that honorific, Mr. Coon. It is an homage rarely bestowed upon my person. Now, if you’d be so kind, my friend and I will sample your finest whiskey.
“Coon poured two shots from a grimy bottle, remarking there was only one brand of whiskey on hand but one fit for any man with a proper thirst. When he appeared ready to resume his conversation with the others, Twain quickly intervened.
“During our journey into town, I attempted to repeat the tale you related to me when last I was here. But I found my memory sadly lacking, more than likely owing to the quantity of liquor I consumed during that visit. If it is not too impolite to ask, Mr. Coon, would you tell my friend the story of the jumping frog?
“The barkeep feigned forgetfulness, appearing uncertain of the tale in question. After a few head scratches and some fiddling with glassware, he promptly recovered his memory.
“I reckon you’re talking about that Coleman feller used to come in here, the man who’d bet on anything.
“Twain nodded in the affirmative and Coon proceeded to tell me, in a thick, hill country drawl, about the clever man who’d trained a bullfrog to jump great distances. As Twain had warned, Coon meandered, drifting off into unrelated stories before picking up the original thread. Never did a hint of excitement creep into his voice. He droned on in a flat, colorless manner. It was the storytelling style Twain had described and the quality he’d attempted unsuccessfully to render into prose. During our walk, he’d explained that such stories were told gravely, that the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects there is anything funny about what he’s saying. Coon’s blathering made an absurd yarn seem even more absurd.
“While the bartender’s attention was focused on me, Twain pulled a tattered notebook from his jacket pocket and began scribbling. I played along with Mr. Coon, showing a convincing sense of awe at every fanciful twist of his account.
“With so many detours, the story took a long time to tell. Without pausing, Coon refilled our glasses and busied himself with mundane tasks behind the bar. Once he’d conclude his tale and had been showered with laughter and pats on the back by his devoted audience, I headed for the men’s room down a rear hallway. I soon realized there were no indoor facilities, however. The signs were directing me to an outdoor privy.
“As I opened the back door, I suffered a dizzy spell similar to the one I’d experienced on the bridge. The gas lamps illuminating the hallway seemed to dim to near darkness and I had to steady myself against the door frame. The feeling soon passed and I continued outside.
“Instead of a courtyard or alley crowded with outhouses, I found myself at the very place where I’d encountered Twain. The Slumgullion Road was once again a paved modern highway. New Melones Lake and the Stevenot Bridge had magically reappeared. Judging by the position of the sun, it was roughly the same time of day I had first crossed the bridge. And I was once again dressed in jeans and sneakers.”
The professor swigged the last bit of his whiskey then slammed the glass down on the bar as if to punctuate the end of his story. The bartender had rejoined us and was leaning in close. I caught myself, mouth agape, staring at the grizzled storyteller. He stared back, apparently recovered from his inebriety, a triumphant glimmer in his eyes.
“And…” I prompted, “Then what happened? Did Twain follow you?”
“He did not,” said the professor, tracing circles on the bar with the empty glass. “I wondered if he and the other men would notice that I was gone. I wasn’t sure how it worked…this time travel thing. Was there another me back in the saloon? Or would Ben Coon later fabricate another meandering yarn about the mysterious stranger that had just up and disappeared one afternoon? And what about Twain? Did he go looking for me? Did he wonder why I left so abruptly?”
The professor leaned over towards me, inches from my face, the smell of whiskey ripe on his breath “Or for a moment, did some inexplicable sense of the impossible flit through Mark Twain’s imagination?”
“You tell me, professor,” I replied. “How did it end?” I no longer cared if the man was deranged or if the story was true.
The old man cackled and sat bolt upright.
“I don’t know how it ends, my friend, which is why I’ve remained in this town and have searched for Twain in these parts ever since. I don’t know how I slipped back in time that day but I’m certain of one thing: people can move through time. So every day, I return to this bar or to the bridge or to Jackass Hill, hoping one day I’ll slip through time again to rejoin Twain. Or that Twain will somehow wander into our present time. Eh?” He cackled again, a little too hysterically this time.
Whatever spell the professor had cast over me—if he was a professor—was broken. I tossed a twenty dollar bill on the bar, nodded to the bartender, and thanked the professor for his time. As I walked out into the bright afternoon sun, a man brushed past me on the sidewalk.
“My sincere apologies, sir,” he said in a soft drawl, without stopping.
I glanced after him as he hurried down the street, only his back visible to me. He was of medium build, had tussled dark hair, and was dressed in a dark, rumpled suit. For the briefest moment, a thought flickered through my mind. Could it be?
Then I shook my head slowly and walked away in the other direction.