Posey by Florence Finch Kelly
"Since I breathed,
A houseless head, beneath the sun and stars,
The soul of the wood has stricken through my blood."
Everybody who has ever seen him knows him only as "Posey"—a name for
which he is indebted solely to the accident of birth. For in that
Indiana county where he first saw the light, and when he went to
California, some forty years ago, that was the name at once bestowed
upon him, and by it he has been known ever since. It is possible that
Posey has not forgotten what his name really is; but, if so, he is the
only person who has allowed his memory to be burdened with that useless
The traveller is likely to meet him striding along any one of the
forest roads or trails within forty miles of the Yosemite Valley, or
lounging around a stage station, or taking his ease in some
mountaineer's cabin. And he will know at once that that is Posey, for
no one who has ever heard of him can mistake his identity at even the
first glance. Moreover, Sunday is always with him, and Sunday is just
as unmistakable as Posey. Sunday is a very small dog, of about the
bigness of your two fists, that carries within his small skin enough
courage, audacity, and dignity to befit the size of an elephant. He is
also known as "Posey's bear dog"—a sobriquet bestowed upon him partly
in humor, because of his ridiculously small size, and partly in honor,
because of his utter fearlessness.
Posey is a sparely built, muscular man, of medium size, quick and jerky
in his movements, and springy in his gait. His face is broad and
tanned, his cheek bones high, and his nose a snub. His beard is short
and thin and grizzled, and his gray hair, curling at the ends, hangs
around his neck. His shoulders are sloping, his chest deep but not
wide, his arms long, and his hips narrow. He is always dressed in a
blue flannel shirt, blue overalls, hob-nailed shoes, and a gray slouch
hat; and the whole outfit is always very old and very dirty. His
overalls, fastened upon him in some miraculous way, hang far below his
waist. Why they stay in place suggests the goodness of God since it
passeth all understanding.
Nature made a great mistake when she caused Posey to be born a white
man, heir to all the white man's achievement. For he is a child of
earth—a gentle, kindly savage, a white man with the soul of an Indian.
But Posey has done his best to correct nature's mistake, and has made
himself as much of an Indian as his white man's heritage will allow.
He is a nomad, as thorough a nomad as any barbarian who never heard of
those wondrous works of man called civilization. In all that wide
stretch of country which he frequents and in which he has lived for
thirty years and better, there is not one spot which he can call home.
But that is nothing to Posey. He would not know what to do with a home
if he had one.
His sole possessions are some blankets, a gun, and Sunday. If he wants
to go anywhere, whether it be one mile or fifty miles away, he straps
his blankets on his back, whistles to Sunday, shoulders his gun, and
goes. Sometimes he sleeps on the ground and sometimes he stops for a
night or for three months in the cabin of some lone mountaineer or in
an Indian rancheria. It is doubtful if Posey himself knows how many
Indian wives and half-breed children he has in these Indian villages
scattered through the mountains. He will drop in on one of them for a
day or a month, divide his possessions with her and her children,
provide lavishly for them with gun and fishing-tackle while he is
there, and when the desire fills him to be somewhere else he will leave
them with as little concern as he feels for the birds and squirrels in
Save in the mirthfulness of which he is an ever-bubbling spring, Posey
has become, in looks and gestures, in mode of thought and manner of
expression, as much Indian as white. Nevertheless, he prefers, very
greatly, the society of his own race, and likes best that of people of
superior mental qualities and force of character. In Posey's creed
there is but one article, namely, that all men are eternally and
immutably equal—just as good as he is. That is, that would be the
sole article in his creed if he had any creed and if he were conscious
that such is his belief. For it is very certain that Posey never gave
thought, in all his life, to the question of human equality. He simply
has an unconscious feeling about it which he has breathed into his
being from the mountain air around him and absorbed from the earth
which has been his bed for many and many a night. It is there, just as
the dirt on his neck is there, and Posey is equally unconscious of them
Formerly, for a good many years, he was a guide in the Yosemite Valley,
and once he had in his charge a woman who was a many times millionaire,
of social prestige throughout two continents, and known by name all
over her own land from the palaces of Newport to the huts in the
Sierras. She found fault with many things, and finally insisted that
her stirrup was too small. Posey, who had cheerfully endeavored to
satisfy all her complaints, examined it carefully and then told her, in
gentlest voice and politest manner: "The stirrup 's all right, madam.
It's your foot that 's too damn big."
Nobody ever saw Posey troubled in the least about anything in this
world or the next. To him, mere existence is a pleasure, and the days
of his life have been a linked merriment long drawn out. He is always
ready to listen to and laugh at and join in jokes and fun; and if
nothing new of that sort is at hand, old ones will answer the purpose
almost as well. He is quick to repay such entertainment from his own
inexhaustible store, and he never fails to turn anything that happens,
no matter how serious it may be, into jest and farce. He has even been
known to fling witticisms and ridicule at a bear that was coming at him
full speed. But, no; that is not quite accurate. Posey has been known
to say that he said these things to a charging bruin. But Posey
usually hunts alone.
He is learned in the habits and secrets of the beasts and birds and
reptiles and insects of the mountain and the forest, and in the virtues
and malefactions of trees and flowers. But he does not consider this
knowledge of any consequence, and sets far more store upon another
stock of learning, which he does not display upon ordinary occasions.
For such chance acquaintances among the tourists as he considers
unusual in mental attainments he rolls out the scientific names of
trees and plants with unction and delight. Usually they are not
recognizable at first, because, having been learned by ear and
preserved by memory, their Latin has become somewhat Poseyized.
He can reel off yards upon yards of narrative about adventures in
mountain storms, exciting incidents in hunting, the people he has
guided in the Yosemite Valley and upon the mountains, and all the
strange things that could not but have happened to a merry
earth-spirit, living alternately among the denizens of the wilderness
and in the midst of a stream of people from all the four quarters of
the globe. When he tells these tales he generally adopts the crescendo
method, being spurred on by the applause of his hearers to larger and
larger achievements as story succeeds story.
One autumn afternoon I sat on the veranda at Wawona and listened to the
tales of luck and pluck in forest and mountain that Posey, squatted on
the steps, poured forth for my entertainment and that of such others as
chose to stop and listen. He talked in quick, jerky sentences,
constantly bobbing his head about and making little, angular gestures
with his hands and arms.
"Posey," I said, "did you ever meet a bear, face to face, when you did
n't have a gun?"
"Lots of times!"
"What did you do?"
"Pooh! I don't care, if 't ain't a grizzly. If I meet a grizzly on
the trail when I hain't no gun with me I don't tramp on his toes, you
bet. I jest hide behind a bush and purtend I don't see him till he
gets out the way. But any other kind of a bear 's got to give me right
o' way, gun or no gun. Me get out of the way fer an ornery brown bear!
Huh! Not much! All you've got to do is jest to stand up and lay down
the law to 'em, and they 'll sneak out and into the bushes and leave
you the trail, 'fore you can get furder 'n 'Be it enacted.' I 'll bet
I could talk any brown bear in the Sierras out o' the trail in five
"Once I was comin' down Pinoche Mountain, windin' along a narrow trail
through some high bushes, when I seed a bear roundin' a turn not more
'n ten yards ahead of me. I did n't have no gun, and it was n't much
of a trail, but I reckoned it was a heap sight better 'n scramblin'
through them bushes, and I jest thought I 'd let the bear do the
scramblin'. Sunday, he rushed out between my legs and begun to
bow-wow, bold as if he 'd been John Sullivan. 'Hist, Sunday!' says I,
'I've got the floor! Gimme the first chance; and if there 's any
talking to do after that, you can do it.' So he come and squatted down
beside me; and the bear, he stood there lookin' at us.
"'Mr. Bear,' says I, 'I 'd hate to have to spile your hide, but I 'll
do it if you don't get out o' this trail. I 've killed eighty bear in
these mountains, and I won't take no sass from you. The climate in
this trail ain't what you need, an' I advise you to git out of it. Off
into the bushes with you! Whoop! Git!' An' off he went, just as if I
owned that trail an' he was trespassin'.
[Illustration: "I 'd hate to have to spile your hide,
but I 'll do it if you don't get out o' this trail."]
"That bear was as reasonable as any I ever see, but I had more trouble
with a big feller up toward Crescent Lake. I got sleepy that
afternoon, for I 'd been settin' up watchin' fer bear the night before.
So I put my gun an' a snack I had on a stump and went to sleep. When I
waked up there was a big brown bear nosin' my lunch and tryin' to open
the bundle with his paw. I picked up some pine cones—Pinus
pondyrosy it was I was sleepin' under" (he rolled this out with the
slyest glance at a professor from an Eastern college who had joined his
little audience)—"an' begun peltin' 'em at him just so's to tip his
ears and his tail. Sunday, he 'd travelled off somewhere and missed
this fun. Then I started in to abusin' that bear. My! I called him
everything I could lay my tongue to. He 'd stop an' listen a minute,
cock up one ear and wink, and then he 'd go to work at that lunch
passel ag'in. I jest kept on swearin' harder and harder at him till I
could taste brimstone. And at last it got too much for 'im. He took
his paws down off 'n that stump an' marched off as dignified as a woman
who 's heard you say somethin' you did n't mean her to.
"But the cheekiest thing I ever did with a bear was one night over in
Devil's Gulch. A big storm come up just about dark an' I found a sort
o' cave to crawl into. A big tree, a Pinus Lamberteeny" (another sly
glance at the professor), "had fell alongside o' some rocks an' made a
fine dry den. A lot of dry leaves was made into a bed, an' I says to
Sunday: 'Reckon we 'll have company before long. Wonder whether it 'll
be a brown or a grizzly.' Sunday, he curled up an' went to sleep, an'
I was settin' down at the mouth of the den lookin' out into the dark
when up come a big, black thing. I knew 't was the bear, an' it was
too dark to see if it was a grizzly. But it just made me mad to think
of that bear comin' to turn me out into the rain, an' I up with my fist
an' give 'im a cuff. 'Git out o' this, you ole tramp,' says I. 'I was
here first, an' there ain't no room fer you.' An' I belted him on the
other ear. That bear jest turned tail an' walked off as meek as Moses,
an' me an' Sunday had the den to ourselves all night.
"Yes, sir," and he shook his head and chuckled in delighted remembrance
of his waggishness, "that was jest about the cheekiest joke I ever
played on a bear!"
Posey's mirthful spirits make him always a welcome visitor in the
cabins that, tucked away among trees and bowlders, shelter the lone
mountaineers. But of all those who live within the circuit of his
peregrinations his particular chum is Win Davis—"J. Winthrop Davis" is
the name painted in big, black letters on a pine board nailed to his
cabin door, although nobody ever takes the trouble to call him anything
but "Win." After seeing that doorplate, you will hardly need to hear
his nasal intonation to know that he came from the land of the tutelary
That was nearly half a century ago and ever since he has been the child
of the mines, the forests, and the mountains. And Nature, as if in
gratitude for his loving allegiance, seems to have taken him under her
protection and stayed the progress of years over his head. For,
although he has almost reached the allotted three score and ten, his
big frame, his ruddy face, his shock of hair, his auburn beard that
flows to his waist, his actions, and his apparent feelings do not
indicate a day over forty.
When our buckboard stopped at his cabin door he rushed out, shouting
hospitable welcome in a tremendous voice. If he ever spoke in anything
less than a roar he would make his Herculean body and Jovian head
ridiculous. As he never does, he is grand.
Posey was there, and, while Win bustled about in the lean-to kitchen
making hot biscuits and coffee, he began to tell us entrancing yarns of
the adventures and successes they had enjoyed hunting and trapping
together during the previous winter. Apparently neither had felt it
any hardship that for months they had been shut off entirely from all
companionship with their kind. Nature is good to these lone men of the
mountains. She gives them happiness and serenity in her arms, steeps
them in lore of all manner of wild things, and makes them simple and
honest of heart as a child. But for what she gives she exacts an awful
price, for she cuts from their hearts the dearest ties of the race. In
all those little cabins scattered along the slopes and through the
gorges of the Sierras there is scarcely one in which you will find wife
or child, or regret that there is none, or wish that such might yet be.
The talk drifted from one thing to another, and finally one of our
party told Mark Twain's yarn about "the meanest man on earth." Our
host listened at the kitchen door, a streak of flour shining white
athwart the cataract of his auburn beard, and testified his amusement
by a delighted roar that was like unto the rejoicings of a bull of
"Posey," he exclaimed, "tell 'em about that stingy friend o' yours!"
Posey chuckled and pushed his old slouch hat to the back of his head.
"Well," he said, "I reckon that feller was jest about as stingy as the
feller you 've been tellin' about, and mebby stingier, 'cause he 'd
take more risks. Anyway, he was as ornery stingy as he could be an'
live. If he 'd been any wuss he 'd of died to save grub an' shoe
leather. W'y, him and me was out huntin' together oncet, over toward
Mono. But I oughter tell you fust it was a long time ago, 'way back in
the days when everybody had to carry powder-flasks, an' each of us had
one on a string 'round his neck.
"Well, 'long about noon we come to a clear, purty little lake and set
down to eat a snack. I was stoopin' over the edge of the lake to get
some water in my hat an' my powder-flask slipped off an' went,
kersplash, down to the bottom! The water was so clear I could see it
layin' down there, as plain as could be, fifty feet down, I reckon, fer
them mountain lakes is prodeejus deep. Well, the other feller, he
could dive better 'n I could—he was a great one fer divin'—an' he
said he 'd go down after it. So he stripped, but kep' his powder-flask
'round his neck. That kinder riled me, fer it looked as if he was
afeared I 'd run off with it while he was gone. I did n't say nothin',
though, an' down he went.
"Well, I set there an' waited, an' finished eatin' my snack, an' waited
an' waited for him to come up agin. I reckon I must a' set there about
fifteen minutes, anyhow, and at last I begun to git so curious about
what he could be doin' all that time, that I up an' went over to the
edge of the bank an' peeked down into the water. An' consarn my
soul!"—here Posey bristled up with as much excited interest in voice
and manner as if he were at that moment peering down into the depths of
the lake—"What do you s'pose he was a-doin' down there?"
"Drowning?" suggested one of our party in a tone that Posey must have
thought too flippant for the occasion, for he turned upon the speaker
with an indignation that could not all have been inspired by the memory
of his stingy friend's deed.
"Drownin'! Him! An' leave his duds up on the ground fer somebody else
to git the good of? Huh! Not much! No, sir! There he was, down
there at the bottom of the lake—an' I 'm a-tellin' you the Gospel
truth, an' you may take me out an' drown me in that there very lake if
I ain't—there was that ornery, stingy cuss down there takin' his time
to empty the powder out o' my flask into his'n! I was so mad I felt
like heavin' a rock down on 'im!"
Like many a man in far less humble station, Posey has but to repeat an
idea or a statement a few times to convince himself of its absolute
truth, no matter how reckless may have been its first enunciation. As
we talked, the sound and savor of frying venison came appetizingly from
the kitchen. Posey sniffed it and straightened up, with childlike,
"Venison 's a mighty healthy meat, ain't it, Doc?" he said, addressing
a physician who was with us. The doctor gave assent, and Posey swelled
and beamed with pleasure that his opinion had won scientific approval.
"Yes, sir," he went on enthusiastically, "it's the healthiest meat
there is! Wy, if a man would jest eat venison all the time, he 'd
never be sick, an'—an' he'd never die, neither!" He paused a moment,
the least mite taken aback by the sweepingness of his proposition, then
glanced belligerently around his little circle of listeners and
repeated with emphasis: "No, sir! he'd never die!" He stopped again,
but this time with triumph shining in his face, as who would say.
Dispute it if you dare! Evidently he was quite convinced by that time
of the truth of his statement, but still felt the need of making his
hearers believe. He brought his fist down upon the table with a blow
that made the dishes Win Davis was placing thereon jump and rattle, and
exclaimed in tones of the most serious and heartfelt conviction:
"No, sir! He'd live forever, he would! He 'd never, never die!"