In Camp and Cabin with John Steele — part 8
After vaccinating the Indian village near Coloma, John Steele left Downing’s Ravine to make a tour of the Southern Mines. He was always in search of information, and he wanted to explore along the Mokelumne, Calaveras, and Stanislaus rivers. While in San Andres he had an encounter with a famous figure, and a brush with danger.
About this time a Mexican named Joaquin, a notorious desperado and leader of a gang, who, by murder and robbery, were a terror to the country, had been traced to the neighborhood of San Andres.
Steele was about to meet the noted outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, whose fame had not yet spread to the Northern Mines.
One evening, while at supper in a hotel, he, being unknown to any about the place, seated himself at the supper table. Back of him was an open window, and some twenty feet below was a water ditch probably ten feet wide, and on the opposite side were piles of broken rock. He faced the door and windows, which opened upon the street, and as I sat nearly opposite to him at the table, my back was towards the door.
He was a fine looking man and I had no idea who he was, but judging from his appearance that he was Mexican, and wishing to improve every opportunity to practice my newly acquired Spanish, I gave him the usual salutation, “Como le va, Senor?” (How do you do, Sir,?”)
“Muy bien, De donde V.?” (Very well, where are you from?”) “Del norte, cerca de Coloma.” (From the north, near Coloma).
As neither he nor any of his gang had operated in that region, he was evidently sure that I had no suspicion as to who he was, and so the conversation ran on.
Just a friendly chat between two strangers.
Suddenly he arose, turned to the window, and as several shots were fired, sprang out. Whether he was hit I do not know, but it was a desperate jump across the ditch upon those rocks; and although it was hardly dark, he disappeared in a large growth of chaparral just beyond and made his escape.
Steele himself was subjected to a rigorous examination by the sheriff — after all, he had been in friendly conversation with the bandit and might be part of his gang. Even after he and his friend convinced the sheriff of their innocence, they were still in danger from an excited crowd who thought they ought to be lynched. As soon as they could safely go, they returned to Coloma.
A year after this incident, on July 25, 1853, Joaquin was tracked down and shot by a band of rangers. His head was cut off and the grisly relic was exhibited along with the hand of “Three-Fingered Jack.” Ever since then the claim that the head was really that of Joaquin has been disputed.
Had John Steele really met the famous bandit chief? I like to think he did. Later the legend grew up that Joaquin had survived, and more and more legends accumulated around the romantic figure of a wronged man turned outlaw. Murrieta and his gang were made famous by John Rollin Ridge (“Yellow Bird”) in his sensational book The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, published in 1854 and still available.