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 store clothes.

"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 Piutes admire.

"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 straight.'

"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 earnings.

"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 English.

"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 have it.

"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 might.

"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 our paper.

"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 pocket.

"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."