Holy Jim

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier this year that didn’t work, but which I had a lot of fun writing. —ZN

***

7.2 miles – The last grizzly in California was said to have been shot in Trabuco Canyon around 1907. Its reported killer was a beekeeper and fig farmer named Jim Smith, an otherwise peaceful man whose profanity it was said was so abrasive, it’d peel the paint off a stovepipe. That is how this trail gets its name.

—US Forest Service, 1985

***

“I saw you. Don’t think I didn’t saw you. I’m looking right at you. This ain’t the first time I caught you poking around here, neither. I been waiting for you, you overbloated tub of fur and flies and filthy excrement. You’re crow bait and you know it. Look at you, huffing about as bow-legged as a Chinee Pandy. Mount too many of your own tight-assed little cubs, that it? Or are you huffing ‘cuz you let your toddlers tickle your titanic twat raw? O-ho! She looks at me! That’s it. Looky here, peanut. I got fifteen cartridges right here with your name on them. Want to see them? Look real close … nice and steady … that’s it … bit to the left … Wait—where you going? Where do you think you’re going? Come back here dammit…”

1769

When the Spanish lieutenant rejoined his party he reported a deceptively simple canyon of oak and modest toyon, threading its way along a small but rugged creek and reaching its arms straight up to the purple wall of the Santa Ana mountains. The vegetation was not imposing by appearances, but it was dense, with labyrinths of knotted roots that upset the topography, upending the very earth in search of what water they could find, and making the way generally slow-going. At times, he reported to his captain, the way through was clear but progress was thwarted by wild and unruly underbrush and devilish poison oak, the likes of which had never been seen in the Old country, but which doubtless had been here for just as long, untamed and uncharted.

The lieutenant bared his legs and arms to the captain to demonstrate the bubbling rash, which he scratched incessantly, and concluded that the way was unnavigable, undesirable, and unforgiving. “Besides which,” he noted in his report, “the canyon terminates in a cascade some six or seven meters tall, tumbling into a shallow and rocky pool.” If there were gold or Indians in the canyon, then the Lord protects them with His most cunning devices. If there was a way through the mountains by this route, then He guards it as He would the secrets of Heaven.

Padre Crespi, in reviewing the report, was troubled to note a blunderbuss missing from the lieutenant’s inventory upon return. He took the news to the captain, and while munching casually on a locust he had caught, said, “If it happened to fall into the wrong hands…” leaving the rest to the captain’s imagination.

“We will retrieve it,” the captain decided, wrinkling his nose as the friar produced from his pocket a second locust. He sent a contingent of four men back into the canyon to search for the weapon, with instructions to find a way through, that they may rendezvous on the northern side without loss of time. The captain was to meet De Portolà at the ships in three days, and he had no time to lose with his exploratory detachment. If they lost the blunderbuss, it would just have to remain lost. Besides, no primitive people would understand its operation, or make sense of it enough to duplicate its construction. In his wisdom, the captain sent his rash-covered lieutenant back into the canyon with four of his slowest men, as a means of “culling the herd”: if they made it to the rendezvous, they would be rewarded with minor promotions. If they succumbed to nature, beast, or savages, then they will have received the Lord’s justice, and the matter would be settled.

Padre Crespi’s journals make no further note of the doomed party, and it is assumed that they met their fate in the canyon, which today is known as Trabuco, or blunderbuss, Canyon.

However, it is interesting to note that in Crespi’s account, the lieutenant made passing reference to a sole inhabitant of the godforsaken canyon, a man described as “ragged and coarse as the very canyon,” and referred to only as “El Colmenero”: the beekeeper.

***

 

“Well if that don’t take the rag out the bush—you are brazen as all Hell, aren’t you, you oversized bath rug. What’d they wash you in, shit or shampoo? I can smell that sulfuric pelt from thirty yards. Yeah, you heard me, you gigantic guinea pig. You woolly hamster. I’m gonna turn you into a maggot mansion. I’m gonna filet you open and stuff you so full a’ slimy fish that you’ll be farting salmon ‘till it burns out your asshole. I’m gonna smear your wormy carcass with skunk musk and burn it on a pile of poison oak. Your ass-sore little cubs’ll suffer the stench and know their momma’s been to the goddamned mother-Holy beekeep’. Don’t turn your back when I’m talking to you. Hey! I’m talking to you! Horsefucker! Hey. Hey! Come back here with my honey!

“Well that is just the spit in the moon. Goddamn Grizz running away with my prized hive. We will just have to see who has the last laugh. On my mother Mathilda’s grave and her sister Mildred’s holy bosom, I will kill you, old Grizz. I will kill you.

1846

The excited cavalryman appeared in the entryway of the tent. He fidgeted nervously, and hiccupped when the Major acknowledged him to speak. “Sir, (hic) Forster is riding out to meet you. He sends word that he (hic) will speak with you alone.”

Major Frémont removed his gloves, which were caked with sand and dried clay and blood. “Well, that is news. All right. Rouse the second watch. Have the men stand vigilant against any ruse. Make sure the eastern flank of Capistrano is closely guarded… I will speak with Mr. Forster in private. Escort him in.” Frémont poured a mug of the coffee that had been prepared for him, and was about to pour a second when he paused. “Anderson,” he called.

Another young cavalryman appeared. “Sir?”

“Do we have any tea worth serving?”

“I’ll rustle some up, sir.”

“Post haste.”

“Sir,” saluted Anderson. He returned moments later with a small gunnysack of Indian tea—“Darjeeling,” announced Anderson—which Frémont accepted, dismissing him. He placed in the entire pouch in the second mug and poured the water over it, watching as it steamed.

“Frémont,” came a voice from behind.

Frémont lifted the steeping pouch and wrung out its last drops. He grasped both mugs and turned to face his visitor. “Forster,” he said, gesturing at a bench. “Tea?”

A tall, broad-shouldered man in a dark striped suit, clean-shaven with thin lips and sharp eyes, faced the major. “Thank you,” he accepted, taking a seat and sipping gently. His accent was unmistakably British, from the north country.

De nada,” said Frémont.

“I hope you’ll forgive me for what must have appeared a most untoward advance at San Luis Rey. But the fact of the matter is I had arrived only to accept title on behalf of my brothers-in-law. I have no personal stake in the mission or its presidio.”

“Indeed.” Fremont sat with his coffee in a tall chair. “I don’t suppose you’ve come to offer up Pico and surrender San Juan?”

“Not precisely, no.”

“I have you surrounded. I could shoot you right now. You have nowhere to go. You are likely finished.”

“All true, I’m afraid,” said Forster. “This is excellent tea.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Frémont. “This is terrible coffee. But a small insult to suffer for freedom, and service to my country, et cetera.”

“San Luis Rey was no insult, dear sir. I was merely being practical. You would have taken it for yourself. And San Juan Capistrano would not stand a chance against your men. I’m no fool.”

“Yet here you are.”

“Yet here I am.”

“What do you propose?”

“Negotiation! Excellent! Let me keep San Juan, and the ranchlands beyond. I will cede San Luis Rey, and permit free passage over my lands. My men will not stand in your way again.”

“So you are an opportunist.”

“I am a realist. And I see the writing on the wall. This land will soon be in America’s hands, and permanently so, I dare fathom.”

“And Pico?”

“Grant him and his brother safe passage to lower Mexico. They’ll not stand in your way.”

Frémont laughed. “You say are no fool, Forster, but surely you take me for one. You would betray your brothers-in-law—and your adopted country—and expect me to believe they would go along gladly?”

“Not gladly, no,” Forster confessed. “But willingly. I will talk to them. They know they are outnumbered and outgunned. They are hoping for a get-away. They have lofty posts awaiting them in Mexico City, and medals. And I say, let them go.”

“You are a fool if you think you will end this war yourself.” Frémont polished off the last of his coffee, right down to the silty sludge at the bottom, in a large gulp. He smacked his lips and exhaled with bared teeth. “No, Mister Forster, America will take what is hers, and more besides, if deemed necessary and in the best interests of her people. Mexico is weak and corrupt.”

“Aye, that she is, that she is, which is why I come to you. Mexico’s instability is bad for business. Let Britain annex California, or let her wave her besotted Bear Flag as the Texans have, though I’d much prefer annexation by the Americans. They know how to conduct business properly. Let Pico ride south unhindered. Have your men withdraw to the west and south. You have no truck in these canyonlands. They offer no strategic advantage. Your siege will end; you have more important business to attend to. I will stay put in San Juan, and remain open for business to those who wish to trade, under whatever flag the men of enterprise fly. Governor Pico will cause you no further trouble, and I suspect you will find his brother easy to rout.”

Frémont studied his guest’s face, which was serious, with a trace of stoic in the tight corners of his mouth. “How can you be sure I will have such an easy time of General Andrés Pico? He has proved elusive to Stockton’s men thus far.”

“Because he is riding for San Luis Rey as we speak.” At this, Frémont’s expression suddenly changed. Forster continued. “You see, old mate? I am just a businessman. I know nothing of military affairs.” Forster took a long sip from his mug. “This is truly excellent tea.”

It was agreed that, for appearances, Forster would receive some knocks by Frémont’s men, so as to bolster his claim that he was caught and tortured and had escaped. Frémont administered the blows himself, and though deceitful they did not feel counterfeit to Forster, who rode back to the mission feeling very much as one abused by the American military.

Better this than death, he thought sullenly. He’d suffered worse manhandling at the hands of the Mexicans, and the Spanish before that, and his own parents in Liverpool before that, if one was to go all the way back for a proper accounting. Forster rode back to the Mission, where his personal guards let him in a back entrance under a moonless sky. He kept his back stiff and shoulders squared despite the aching. If he must endure some cuts and bruises to spare the annihilation of his entire ranch and family at the hands of the Frémont and General Stockton, so be it. This covert parley would neither end the war nor confer any leniency on the Pico family, but it would ensure survival for Forster, who in truth cared little for Mexican governance. And it would also buy some critical time for his wife and Governor Pico to escape, for they themselves were dear to his heart.

No, the beating itself was a simple and necessary burden. The difficulty, he knew, would lie in convincing his wife and his proud brother-in-law, Pío Pico, the Governor of California, to withdraw to the canyon under guise of night like a lowly scofflaw. After a spell he would arrange transport for the two back to old Mexico. It was a contingency long in the planning. The hiding place he had already arranged: there was a spur canyon along a tributary branching north off of Trabuco Creek that was near impassable. There, beneath a waterfall, lived a reclusive apiarist who would, for a fee, keep the governor and his sister hidden from the Americans. It had been a more difficult negotiation than expected, and Forster had to promise the wily beekeeper a standing order of honey and figs, with future transactions to be conducted not in person but by a rickety trundle-car of the beekeeper’s devising, suspended by cable across the modest creek.

The beekeeper’s name was Jim.

***

 

“Dotter-of-a-dundering-sonofabitch, it’s you again. Hey chowder brain! Get your ass-scratching goddamn paws out of my hive. That hive is sacred. That hive is divine. To disturb it is to blaspheme, and to profane it is to invite the wrath of God and Zeus and Thor and my old Aunt Mildred.

“That is it—I’m going to saw your head off with a rusty blade. I’m going to use your empty skull to take my shits. Maybe I’ll yank my scrawny lasso into your eye sockets. I will peel your eyelids back and tickle my willy in your hairy nostrils while you watch, you dumber-than-toast muskrat. Oh, roar all you want. You want to hear a roar? This here’s a Henry rifle. Load it on Sunday and it fires all week. Listen to this

“Yeah, I thought so, peanut. I hope that notion’s lodged in your noggin good and sound. Go on. Get out of here. Next one’s going between your eyes.”

1907

Barnes sidled up to Porter. “You seeing what I’m seeing?”

Porter, the larger and older of the two, squinted and held out his hand for the binoculars. He looked through the clearing between the sycamores and scrub oak. “It’s a cave.”

Barnes took a magnifying glass out of the breast pocket of his government-issued wool shirt and studied the topographic map, incomplete as it was. “I don’t think so, though. Look. Middle of the canyon floor.”

“A bear den, maybe?” Porter handed back the binoculars. It sure looked like a cave.

Barnes got up and leaped over the fallen log. “I’m going to have a look-see.”

“Watch for rattlesnakes.” Barnes waved without looking back. They had been surveying the upper fork of Trabuco Canyon for weeks now, and had had their share of poison oak outbreaks and encounters with snakes, bears, and mountain lions. Porter kept a small pistol in his satchel; Barnes was deprived of a weapon as it was not standard issue—of this he complained often and loudly. It had gotten them out of several pickles though, and Porter was retrieving and loading his weapon when Barnes called out, “Will you look at that! Hey Porter, get over here!”

Porter scrambled over the rise and hoisted one leg, then the other, over the log, carrying his pistol gingerly as he went, making sure to avoid the poison oak, rattlesnakes, and generally taking great pains to avoid twisting his ankle again on a knotty root or hidden branch.

“This is incredible,” Barnes said, and Porter saw he was right, for before them now was a tunnel some twenty yards deep and ten feet wide of overgrown fig trees kneeling over in topiary submission.

“Is that fig?”

“Goddamn right it’s fig, you lily-livered goat fuckers. Touch it and die.”

Barnes and Porter looked up, and they heard the unmistakable click of a cocking rifle. Standing atop the living tunnel was a wiry old gnome, with tufted eyebrows and a beard of biblical proportions, wearing a cotton shirt and canvas overalls buttoned at one breast. His rifle was pointed right at Porter.

“Lower your weapon, in the name of the United States Geological Survey!” Barnes shouted. With a flick of his wrists the old-timer swung the rifle and pulled the trigger. Barnes blanched at its loud report, and it took him a moment to realize his hat had been blown clear off his head.

“Damn! Missed his face.”

Barnes staggered backward, speechless, but Porter did not. “You must be Cussin’ Jim,” he said, setting down his gun. “I heard a lot about you.”

“You ain’t heard jack shit, you spineless piece of toad’s ass. You heard the name Cussin’ Jim, is what you heard. And here’s a man cussin’ atcha. You put three an’ four together and got six. Well bully for you.”

“James T. Smith is your name—” Porter started to say, but could go no further than “Smi—” before the rifle cracked again and Porter felt a breeze upon his own balding scalp.

“Damn! Missed again. I better clean her better next time.” At this he stood his rifle on its stock and peered straight into its chamber.

Barnes had now recovered himself and stepped forward with a renewed sense of wonder. “Cussin’ Jim Smith, alive!”

The strange little man popped down from his perch and jammed the rifle stock into Barnes’s chest. Barnes lost his wind and retreated several more paces, clutching for his lungs, and finally fainting to the ground. “Did I introduce myself to you as James Smith, or Jim Smith, or as Cussin’ Jim or Greasy Jim or Lyin’ Jim? Because I for the life of me cannot remember ever given either of you two a name to call me by.” Barnes gave no answer, so the man supplied one of his own. “I did not. Nor did I invite your trespass, invite you to speak, nor invite you to dinner. And I most certainly did not, under any blamed circumstances, invite you pudgy penis-hats to disrespect me.” His voice suddenly dropped into a low and more gentle register, as one who is addressing his wife about the pleasantness of the weather. “Which is why you so kindly doffed your hats to me, and for that I am most certainly obliged.”

Barnes came to and grunted, but the crackpot geezer stood on his chest with his tiny boot. “Stay down, motherfucker.” Porter took quick stock of his thoughts, which were: (a) Cussin’ Jim Smith, the fabled settler of Trabuco Canyon, is real; (b) he is alive, which would most surely put him by most accounts at sixty-plus years alone in wilderness; and (c) Cussin’ Jim now had a gun pointed at his head and was eyeing him with a crazed look. This last thought became top priority, and Porter opened his mouth, unsure of what he was about to say.

“I’m a bee man myself,” Porter said slowly, his eyes clouded. “My old man was an apiarist, and I have twenty hives of my own now. The Porter farm out of Santa Ana. I’d love to see your work.”

“Well, why didn’t you just fuckin’ say so?” The man stuck out his gnarled hand which struck Porter as much to large for his small frame. Porter shook, and winced at the old-timer’s iron grasp. “James T. Smith’s my name. You can call me Jim. Let’s go.”

Jim led the through the brief tunnel and over a narrow but well-worn trail that braided the creek and took them up about five hundred feet in elevation. They stepped gingerly over the poison oak, with whose effects even young Barnes was well-acquainted. Barnes scribbled notes, still embarrassed by his confrontation with this madman. Porter walked beside Jim, or as nearly beside him as he could manage; he was as surefooted as a pack mule, and difficult to keep up with. The live oak, toyon, and sycamore gradually gave way to some sparser bushes of laurel sumac and sage, with patches of tall golden grass covering bald rises. Manzanita scratched at them as they passed.

“What’s this one here?”

“That one’s lemonade berry,” Jim answered, and Porter leaned in for a closer inspection. “Don’t drink it.”

At the top of a ridge they came into a small meadow governed by golden grasses and wild lilac, and the twin peaks of Santiago and Modjeska loomed into view.

“Old Mount Saddleback,” said Porter.

“Ain’t like any fuckin’ saddle I ever seen. You government men are piss poor at names. That is Mount Camel Humps. And by Jesus will she hump you ever.” Jim rubbed his crotch impulsively.

Porter ignored this and Barnes just looked with shielded eyes. “They look smaller from here.”

“They’re bigger when it rains,” Jim said. “Like my granny’s blessedly warm and swollen titties. A camel can go months without water, but it uses up its stores.”

“Oh,” said Barnes.

They kept moving, and gradually made their way down the backside of the ridge, back into the canyon. With Jim in the lead, the three men crossed the north fork of Trabuco Creek at a ravine, scrambling over a massive fallen sycamore. Barnes crawled steadily; Porter walked one foot over the other, arms akimbo for balance; Jim skipped. At one point Barnes thought he might have seen a glint of something golden in the ridgeline above them, and he fished through Porter’s waist pocket for the binoculars. Porter swatted absently at Barnes’s hand, but Barnes just kept rummaging.

Porter noted the sound of the falls first, and Barnes nodded, saying he heard it too. “Almost there,” said Jim. Not long after, they came upon another bend in the creek, this one dammed by a weir of carefully laid rocks. Beyond it was another clearing, shaded by sycamore and ancient live oak. At the back of this clearing was a large waterfall, some four men tall, pounding mightily over a wall of giant granitic rocks.

Underneath the dendritic arms of one particularly immense oak was a stone cabin, surrounded by a dozen or so small, neat cairns of river rock. Atop each of these cairns sat a humming wooden crate. Hives, thought Porter. “Welcome to my home,” murmured Jim.

Wordlessly they followed him across the weir dam and over to the yard outside his cabin. The roar of the falls was ever-changing yet somehow steady, Porter thought. He was soothed by it, and a look at Barnes demonstrated that he felt the same way. Barnes stared up at the falls and the surrounding trees in a trance.

A raspy pssshpsh brought Porter’s attention back to Jim, who was dipping a spouted tin can under the lid of a hive and squeezing its accordioned handle.

“What’s that?”

Porter said, “A smoker. It lulls the bees.”

Barnes looked nervous as Jim removed the lid entirely. Several bees flew drunkenly out of the hive. Barnes immediately began swatting at nothing.

“They won’t hurt you. ‘Less you’re a nectar-sucking pansy.” Jim pinched the air with his thumb and forefinger and caught a bee mid-flight. The two survey men stared at this demonstration, and neither knew quite what to say.

“Is it a honeybee?” asked Barnes. Porter was inclined to elbow him, but felt too entranced, as though the smoke had affected him as well. In answer, Jim pulled the bee apart, its body separating clean in two. A single droplet of thick amber poured slowly from the lifeless insect.

“So you corn-fed cowfuckers are map men, eh?”

“The United States Geological Survey, that is correct. We’re mapping the canyons of eastern Orange County.” As he said it, the word mapping suddenly felt very strange and silly indeed, like wallpapering or foxtrot.

“That a fact.”

“Yes. Well. You know, they’re building cabins out by—well, out on what’s known as the Cussin’ Jim tract. For camping.”

“That a fact.”

“Yes. Except…”

“Except what?”

“Well, you see, the people who come to the camp, they’re good Christian folk…”

“Fuckers. Cocksuckers. Deviants. Go on.”

“Well you see, they come out here to enjoy Nature, as God presents it. It wouldn’t do to name it ‘Cussin’ Jim Tract,’ you see?”

“What’d they name it?”

“They didn’t name it nothing,” Barnes spoke up. “That’s our job. In part, anyway.”

“Are you the only inhabitant of this canyon?” Porter asked.

“There’s some mule elk what live around here, and some black bear. Mountain lion, too. Coyote. Bobcat. Badger. Skunk. Opossum. Woodrats. Squirrels—them’s good eatin’—bats…”

“I meant human.”

Jim shifted his weight and looked at Porter with squinty eyes. “S’far as I kin tell.” There was something wild in his look. It made Porter uncomfortable, in a way that all his cussing and all his swearing hadn’t yet.

“There any grizzlies that you seen up here?” Barnes asked.

Jim scowled. “There ain’t but one, s’far as I kin tell.” Then he lightened. “So. What you thinkin’ a’ naming it?”

“We haven’t discussed it yet,” said Barnes.

“Holy Jim.”

Barnes and Jim turned to look hard at Porter, who appeared in a daze.

Jim finally howled and slapped his knee. “Well squeeze my scrotum and call me a soprano, that there is a bona fide genius name.” His jovial manner changed abruptly as Barnes fingered the edge of the hive nearest him. “Don’t touch that honey, son, or I will kill you and I will skin you and I will burn your blubber and turn your hide into a resting sheath for my enormous cock.”

***

 

“It’s you. Hnh. Been a while, ain’t it. Been waiting for you. Thought you could outlast me, didn’t you, peanut?

“Hnnh. I’m old, it’s true. ‘Old as my tongue and only slightly older than my teeth,’ my old aunt Mildred used to say. Never knew what came of her, she had the prettiest bonnets. Ptuh.

“What, you too tired even to go after my honey anymore? All you can do is skulk about my property and poke around with that smell-deaf muzzle of yours? Hey now, I was only kidding. Come any closer and I’ll blast your head clean off, I’ll skin you and gut you and roast your nuggets and sup on them with honeywine and fig marmalade.

“Aw, jeezus, what you standing up for like that, you’re blocking out my fucking sun. Aw, jeezus, you’re fucking tall.

“All right, then. Let’s get this over with.”