The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Johnson Sides
by Florence Finch Kelly
The day was hot, and the wind was high, and the alkali dust from the
sagebrush plains sifted into the car, and whitened the stuffy
upholstering, and burrowed into the nerves of the passengers.
Everybody longed for the coming of night, and the relief of the climb
up the cool heights of the Sierras.
I looked out on the sun-flooded platform at Winnemucca and wondered,
with a feeling of irritation against all things earthly, what I should
do with myself during all the long, hot, and uncomfortable hours that
were still to be endured. And then I saw the big, broad-shouldered
figure and the round, good-natured face of the Nevadan enter the car
and come straight toward my section. At once I forgot the heat and the
alkali dust, and my heart sang with joy, for I knew the Nevadan of old,
and knew him for the prince of story tellers. So there was content in
my soul and foreknowledge of delightful entertainment with tales new
and old. For the Nevadan's old stories are just as interesting as his
new ones, because you never recognize them as anything you ever heard
before. His store of yarns is limitless and needs only a listener to
set it unwinding, like an endless cable, warranted to run as long as
his audience laughs.
So the Nevadan talked, and I listened and felt at peace with the world.
And presently he began to tell me about Johnson Sides.
"Of course, you 've heard about him, have n't you?" he asked.
"Everybody who has lived on either slope of the Sierras must have heard
about Johnson. Well, Johnson Sides is a whole lot of a man, even if he
is only a Piute Indian. It ain't quite fair, though, to speak of him
as only an Indian, for he has developed into an individual and wears
"The first time I ever saw Johnson was away back, years ago, when I
first went to Virginia City. Going down C Street one day I stopped to
look at some workmen who were excavating for the foundation of a house.
They had been blasting, and were working away like good fellows getting
the pieces of rock off the site. On the south side of the biggest
stone they had removed, where the sun shone on him and he was sheltered
from the wind, a big Piute was lying on the ground and watching the
workmen as if he had been their boss. He was wrapped in an army
blanket, new but dirty, and he wore a fairly good hat and a pair of
boots without holes. His face and hands were dirty, and his hair hung
around his ears and neck and eyes in that fine disorder which the
"I wondered why he was watching the workmen, for it is little short of
a miracle for a Piute to take any interest whatever in manual labor.
So I spoke to him. Without paying any attention to me or what I had
said, or even seeming to be conscious of my presence, he rose,
straightened himself up, threw his head back, and said, as if he were
addressing the world in general: 'White man work, white man eat; Injun
no work, Injun eat; white man damn fool.'
"I laughed and said, 'You 've struck it, right at the bottom. Anybody
with as much wisdom as that deserves to be supported by the community.
Here 's a dollar for you.'
"He took the money as disdainfully as if he had been a prince and I a
subject paying back taxes, and without once looking at me stalked off
down the street. An hour afterwards I ran across Johnson, two other
bucks, and a squaw, sitting on the ground in the sun behind a barn,
playing poker. Johnson must have raked in everything the whole party
had, for that night the rest of them were sober and he was whooping
drunk. In consequence, he got locked up for a while. The police of
Virginia City always paid Johnson the compliment of locking him up when
he got drunk, for with whiskey inside of him he was more like a mad
devil than anything else.
"After he got out of jail I saw him standing around for several days
looking as lordly and unconscious as if he had been worth a million.
But the pangs of hunger must have set his wits to work. For pretty
soon he appeared on the streets with a wrinkled, decrepit, old Piute
tied to a string. He had fastened the string to the old fellow's arm
and he walked behind, holding the other end, but apparently as
unconscious of the whole business as if he 'd been the sole inhabitant
of Virginia City. He stalked along with his head in the air, and the
old fellow trotted out in front until Johnson yanked the string. Then
they stopped and the old man began to beg money of the passers-by, and
Johnson turned his back on his companion and looked off down the
street, proudly pretending that they weren't together. If any one gave
the old man money Johnson took it at once and it disappeared somewhere
inside his blanket. Johnson and his prime minister, we used to call
the combination. But Johnson would n't beg for himself. Oh, no! He
was too proud. It's a fact, I never knew or heard of Johnson Sides
himself asking for money. But he kept his prime minister trotting
around for several weeks, and he never let go the string or let the old
fellow keep a two-bit piece.
"But Johnson was reformed at last; and it was the power of the press
that did it. Talk about the press as a moral agent! Why, bless your
soul, when one newspaper can reform a whole Piute Indian and make a man
of him—well, the question's settled, then and there, and the pulpit
and the platform ain't in it after that.
"We did n't try to reform him—in fact, we 'd rather have kept him as
he was at first. He was more amusing. But the aspirations of
Johnson's soul were too much for us. I used to give him money
sometimes—he was sure to do something if he got drunk that was worth
writing up—and so he got into the habit of coming to our newspaper
office whenever he felt the need of more cash. He did n't ask for
anything, and he always made you feel that he was doing you a great
favor in accepting any stray chicken-feed you might have about your
clothes. He just sat around like a bronzed and blanketed statue of
Caesar, or Alexander, or Napoleon Bonaparte. Not one of the whole lot
of them ever looked more as if he owned the whole earth than Johnson
did after he 'd sat there three hours waiting for somebody to give him
two bits or a chew of tobacco.
"I found out after a while that he could give me scraps of news about
the Indians over at Pyramid Lake or in the city that were worth making
into local items, and I always paid him for them. Nobody ever saw a
prouder Indian than Johnson was the first day I did that. I marked the
paragraphs with a blue pencil and gave him a copy of the paper, and he
carried it around with him until it was worn out. The money I gave him
for them he kept in his pocket for two whole days. But at last there
was a big poker game behind a barn—six bucks down from Pyramid Lake
with five dollars apiece, and it was too much for Johnson. His proudly
earned silver went into the pot with the rest.
"Johnson brought up items every day after that, and soon began to feel
himself one of the profession and a man of consequence. He always
brought two or three other bucks with him to see his importance and be
impressed by his superiority. While they stood against the wall or
squatted in a corner Johnson would take a chair at a dignified distance
from me and begin, 'Now, you make 'um paper talk.' And he always ended
his account with the emphatic command, 'Now, you make 'um paper talk
"But his information was not always 'straight.' He had all the
instincts of the modern and progressive journalist, and he did n't
hesitate to fake when news was scarce and he wanted money. For after
he joined the newspaper profession he gave up begging by proxy and
allowed his prime minister to beg on his own account and keep his own
"Well, it was n't long after Johnson's entrance into literature until
he discarded his blanket and appeared in a coat. The other Indians
began to regard him with awe-struck admiration. Every afternoon he
waited in the office until the paper came out, and then he marched off
with a copy in which his 'talk' was marked. He showed this to every
Indian he saw, and together they admired it with the paper wrong side
up, sidewise, and every other way. Johnson's special friends among the
whites were similarly favored. He would hand the paper with a
magnificent air, point a dirty finger to a marked paragraph, and say,
'Make 'um paper talk—me!'
"The civilizing influence of literary pursuits and universal respect
soon told upon Johnson's personal appearance. He began to wash his
face and hands. His self-respect seemed to grow, like love, by what it
fed on; and the more he became respectable, the more his ambitions
spread out and flourished. The next time he had big luck in a poker
game, instead of spending his money in a spree, he bought a brand-new
suit of store clothes.
"His new position in society by that time demanded more money to
support it properly than his literary efforts brought in; and as poker
games were not always on hand, and sometimes turned out the wrong way,
Johnson actually decided to work. His free, proud soul had been so
effectually tamed by respectability and harnessed by civilization that
he accepted every odd job of work that came along by which he could
earn money. He looked quite decent and respectable, and, by virtue of
really trying to do it, he managed to get a fairly good command of
"The civilizing process had been going on two or three years when
Johnson's mind got an illumination as to the value of knowledge. He
decided that the young Piutes ought to go to school, though Johnson
himself never had showed any great desire for knowledge. He has since
learned to read a little, and can write his own name, but at that time
he was satisfied with 'making the paper talk' through my agency.
However, he set his heart on having a school for the young Indians. I
suppose he realized that they could n't all achieve social position and
influence in the field of journalism, as he had done, but must be
provided with some of the implements of civilization to start with.
"There was some Government money with which the school could be run
after it was started, but there was no building in which it could be
held. The thing lagged along for a while, and Johnson tried to set
several schemes going, without success. Finally, one fine morning, the
proprietor of a lumber yard thought some of his piles of lumber had
been tampered with. He saw some tracks, which he followed, and in the
outskirts of the town, near a bunch of wickiups, he came upon two other
lumber-yard men, also following tracks. A little farther on they found
Johnson, even more important and dignified than usual, superintending
the construction of a schoolhouse. Half a dozen Indians were at work,
and Johnson was bossing them as if he had been building schoolhouses
all his life.
"The men boned him about stealing the lumber, and he frankly said yes,
he had stolen it. That is, he had bossed the job, and made the other
bucks do all the packing. He explained that he had to steal it,
because he could n't buy it, and they would n't give it to him, and he
had to have that schoolhouse. His frankness amused them, and they told
him, all right, go ahead, and if he needed any more lumber he might
"He finally got the schoolhouse finished, corralled the Indian brats,
and after the school was started visited it three times a week, when he
did n't go every day. If any of the youngsters showed signs of mutiny,
all the teacher had to do was to threaten to call in Johnson Sides, and
immediately peace became profound. For by that time he had more
influence among the Indians, big and little, than anybody else, white
or red. They looked up to him with a veneration which he accepted as
his right as calmly as he had formerly taken the quarters and
half-dollars his prime minister had begged for him.
"That schoolhouse was the last stealing he ever did, even by proxy, and
pretty soon he quit getting drunk. He has never given up poker
entirely but he has quit gambling away everything he gets, and only
joins in a social game now and then, when he is flush, as any gentleman
"He was a good deal of a man, was Johnson, and everybody respected him
and was glad to help him along. He worked and earned money, and saved
a little, and proved himself quite capable, and was clean and decent
and respectable. People liked to employ him, for he was industrious
and sober. That is, he was sober for a long time. There must have
been five or six years in which Johnson was never even tipsy. He was
mighty proud of himself and his good reputation, and when he did fall
it hurt him bad.
"For fall he did, at last, when a big enough temptation came along.
And then he got whizzing, whooping, roaring drunk. It was a wilder,
madder, more devilish drunk than any he had ever taken in the old days
when he was only a dirty Piute buck, without ambitions or achievements.
It seemed as if he were making up for all the time he had lost while he
was respectable, and condensing into one all the drunks he might have
taken and had n't.
"He kept it up for three weeks. Part of the time he was with the
Indians, part in Virginia City, and part in Carson. How he managed to
escape arrest is more than I can tell, and how it happened that he did
n't massacre the whole population of Nevada is still more of a mystery.
He had fights with Indians and with whites, with men who were drunk and
men who were sober, and they drew guns, knives, and fists. But Johnson
didn't get hurt, and nobody else got killed.
"After it was all over and he had sobered up, Johnson came to me and he
was so repentant and humiliated that, I declare, I never felt so sorry
for anybody in all my life. He thought it was all up with him, that he
had ruined all his good repute and influence, that nobody would ever
believe him, or trust him, or respect him after that, and that it was
quite useless for him to try to be a good Indian again. Of course he
did n't put it in so many words—he expressed more by gestures and
looks and grunts than by words—but that was the meaning of it all.
"I felt so sorry for him that I made up my mind I 'd give him a lift;
and as I began to talk and try to encourage him I had an inspiration
that was just the thing.
"'Don't you be so discouraged, Johnson,' I said. 'We can make things
all right again. We 'll get the Legislature to repeal this drunk of
yours and that'll set you right up where you were before. I 'm going
over to Carson to-morrow, and I 'll have the Legislature make a law
that will wipe out the whole business and fix everything for you as if
you had n't been drunk at all.'
"Johnson was delighted, but he did n't feel quite sure about it. So I
had to make him understand that I knew what I was talking about.
"'It's all straight,' I said. 'They do that every session for
somebody. Why, So-and-So'—and I mentioned the name of a prominent
citizen—'was on an awful drunk last winter; and just as soon as he
sobered up he went right over to Carson and had the Legislature pass a
bill repealing his spree, and you know that he is just as much
respected as he was before. I'll attend to your business myself
to-morrow, and then I 'll publish the whole thing in the paper and
everybody will read it and know that you are all right again. But you
must remember one thing, Johnson,' I said. 'You must remember that as
you are an Indian the Legislature can't do this for you more than once.
If you were a white man you could have as many drunks repealed as you
wanted. But being an Indian this is your last chance, and you must
keep straight after this.'
"Well, the upshot of it was that Johnson put his trust in me; and I
flatter myself that I was just the man he needed in the emergency. You
've lived in the West, and you know what the Nevada Legislature is, and
always has been. There never was one that you couldn't count on to do
anything under the sun that tickled its sense of humor. I thought that
bill about Johnson's drunk would strike 'em in just about the right
place, and it did. They dropped everything else and sent it through
with a hurrah.
"There was a long preamble, telling about Johnson Sides's prominence
and influence and the great importance of his retaining the high
position in the respect of the community which he had won, and about
the misfortune into which he had fallen, and how it was the universal
wish that he should be reinstated in public esteem. And then there was
a resolution which declared that Johnson Sides's drunk should be and
was thereby repealed, destroyed, wiped out, for ever and ever, and that
all statutes not in accordance with that act were thereby annulled from
that time forth. They passed it through both houses unanimously, and
the next day I published the bill verbatim and all the proceedings in
"Johnson's face fairly shone with joy when I read it to him. It was
his patent of respectability, and he stowed it away in his breast
pocket as carefully as if it had been his passport to heaven. He
carried it there until it was worn out, and then he came after another.
He's worn out three or four since then, but he always keeps one in his
"The scheme worked like a charm; for his redemption has been complete,
and he 's been a good Indian, sober, industrious, and respectable—but
not nearly so interesting—ever since."