The Ballad of Ah Jake – A Charlie Chin Short Story
by Charlie Chin. Posted August 16, 2023
Harry and Margaret Yuen thought a small summer cabin up by Placerville, California would be fun. San Francisco Chinatown was crowded, dirty, and now, getting more expensive. Harry had seen his investment in that Tech company stock grow quickly and wanted to put his profits in a piece of property. Margaret thought it would be wonderful to have a summerhouse up where the air was clean and the scenery beautiful. A friend, who was moving to Montana, sold them an old cabin with a half an acre at a bargain price. The photos looked great, and it seemed like a splendid idea.
Miner’s cabin at Madrone Hill, Placerville, CA. Photo from Visit El Dorado Country website.
But when they got to the place, it was falling apart and in need of repair. The real estate agent and the man that ran the only grocery store in the nearby town, recommended a local handyman. The Yuens called and arranged a meeting. The next day a rusty pick-up truck showed up at the cabin with the grubby old man inside. He had a long unkempt beard and wore old fashion bib overalls. He stepped out of the battered pickup truck and introduced himself,
“Jeff Warner, but most folks around here just call me Pops.”
The geezer looked the place over with a practiced eye. As he checked the walls and knocked on the support beams, he sang the words of an old ballad just under his breath as he poked around the cabin.
“Ah Jake, what have you done?
You took the man’s boots, and you shot him with a gun.
Ah Jake, what will you say?
When the sheriff’s men come to take you away?”
After he investigated the whole property, he used a pencil stub and a scrap of paper, added things up, and quoted a decent price, so Harry and Margaret agreed to let him work on the place over the winter. The next spring, when they came up to see how the work was going, they were pleasantly surprised to see how well the cabin and grounds looked.
“You’ve done great job Mr. Warner.” The old man scowled,
“Just call me Pops.” Harry was unsure,
“I don’t want to appear impolite.” The old man glanced at Harry.
“If you insult me, I’ll know it.” Harry remained silent till they entered the cabin. Pops had put a few things in to make it homier. A rug, an Indian style banket on the wall, and a simple rustic wooden table and bench. Pops slide a bolt on the rear wall and opened a back door,
“Out here is your storage and root cellar. There’s no refrigerator but it’s cool enough back here most food will stay as long as it don’t get too hot.” Margaret was charmed but Harry was worried.
“You mean stuff might go rotten if it warms up?” The old man nodded and pointed at the bolt.
“Just buy a combination lock in town and use it when you close that room up. You don’t want black bears or Ah Jake to come in and take anything.” Margaret looked up from the table she was inspecting,
Photo from Placerville Tourism.
“Who’s Ah Jake?” The old man stopped, looked at them slowly in turn, and then pulled a dirty bandana from his hip pocket to wipe his brow. It was clear he was hesitant to discuss the matter.
“Jim at the store didn’t mention anything about it?” Both Margaret and Harry stopped where they were. Harry slowly rubbed the back of his neck before asking,
“Mention anything about what?” Pop frowned,
“Mind if I sit down?”
“No, no, go right ahead Mr. Warner, er.. Pops.” The old man wearily sat down in chair by the unlit fireplace and looked at the ceiling.
“It’s an old story, I heard folks tell since I was a boy. They sing about it in a song here abouts. Goes like this.” He sang a verse of the ballad again with an off-key whisky-soaked throat. As the old man sang, Margaret and Harry sat down on the cow hide covered wooden sofa to listen. When he finished, he explained,
“Now-a-days more and more Oriental people are coming to live up here. Of course, there was a big bunch first come way back in the rush of 1849, but they left when the mines played out. Still, even back in the in the 30’s there was a few Chinee people camping around here. They was mostly men scratching for gold dust and nuggets. They must have been farmers back in China as they didn’t know much about mining. But stories of men coming to a tidy sum in dust and nuggets is common here abouts.
Seems that a Chinee fellow, Ah Jake, least wise that’s what folks called him, his real name being too hard for American folks to get their mouth around. Now this Ah Jake, he was big and a rough fellow. Most of the Chinee coming here were quiet boys. Some of them so dainty you think they was a woman. But this Ah Jake, he was as rough as a grizzly bear and as loud as one on a drunk. He run into a Nevada miner name of Eddie Clint who wore a fine pair of handmade boots. What with the cold streams, sharp rocks, and rattlesnakes here about, a pair of stout boots was good for work and could maybe save your life. Seems this Ah Jake liked the boots of this Nevada fellow, so he offered him two ounces of gold dust for them.
The man wasn’t in a mind to give up his good boots, even for gold dust, so he said no. Day comes to night, and the next morning Eddie Clint was found dead at the edge of town, he was in his stocking feet with half an ounce of lead shot in his ear. The folks abouts knew it had to have been Ah Jake. Sure enough, Ah Jake came into town the afternoon of that day he was wearing those Nevada man’s boots. Some of the old-timers thought they ought to get a rope, but others felt it was a matter concerning the law. Somebody was sent down to Sacramento to get a sheriff and arrest Ah Jake.
Chinese and White miners at Auburn Ravine, CA 1852. Photo from Calif. State Library.
The Sheriff didn’t take any chances. He and his men waited behind a building near the old Chinee Joss house over there, and when Ah Jake came down to make his joss, they surrounded him, made him put his hands up, and took his pistol.” Pops Warner threw his head back and started beating time with his hand on the chair arm and sang another verse.
“The judge read the paper and the clerk wrote it down.
Says he’s a miner, the man lives in Chinatown.
On the day of the murder, he was seen with the deceased.
The defendant would know if he can talk to a priest.”
“When they got old Ah Jake in the jail, first thing he did was ask for a priest, when they couldn’t find one, he settled for a Baptist preacher. Ah Jake claimed in remorse of his sin, he wanted to convert to the true word of God. But most folks knew he was just trying to get some time to slip-slide out of being strung up in the town square by the upstanding citizens.
The preacher was Reverend Amstrad. He come to the gold country back in the lawless days to attend to the needs of the sin ridden souls of the locals who were mired in drink, gambling, and the temptations of unruly women. Well, as a Baptist preacher, he must have been a damn good one. He talked the judge into believing that Ah Jake had found God and accepted the revealed word of the Lord. For that reason, he claimed Ah Jake deserved the mercy accorded any Christian soul who had found Jesus. So, the judge ruled that Ah Jake be sent to the state prison for life. Most folks thought the case was closed but for one thing.
About a year later, Ah Jake started throwing fits and talking out of his head. The other prisoners feared him and didn’t want to be near him. So, the prison warden had Ah Jake sent to the home for the criminally insane down there in Marin County. Ah Jake kept acting out of his mind until one night they found him hanging by his neck by a bedsheet he had thrown over a ceiling pipe. They took him down and the prison doctor said, “This man’s dead.” There was no big ado about it, a janitor and another prisoner just put him in a pine box that night buried him out in the back of the prison hospital.
That should have ended it, but the prison doctor quit his job that fall and bought a mighty fine house near Auburn. When people asked him how he could afford it, he spun a story about finding a cache of gold nuggets in the hills that some miner must have buried and never got back to. Many folks didn’t believe him, but nobody said anything to his face.
Come next summer, somebody up near Taho claimed they saw an old Chinee man panning for gold dust in a branch stream. When he saw he was being watched, the man took off into the woods. Somebody in the Governor’s office remembered the case of Ah jake and became suspicious. They started to put things together and inspectors from Sacramento came to investigate. Ah Jake’s grave at the prison hospital was dug up. When they opened the pine box, weren’t anything in that coffin but a twisted-up bed sheet. The following winter, Saul Levy who ran the dry goods store in town, said he sold some camp gear and food staples to an old Chinee man who came down from the hills and paid for the kit and grub in gold dust.
Placerville was once known as Hangtown.
So, you see, every now and then, for years, when folks ain’t around, stuff disappears from cabins up here. Sometimes just some flour and salt, sometimes just some candles and matches. Left in their place is a fair size nugget or a little poke of gold dust. I went missing a good trade blanket, the Hudson Bay kind, two winters ago. The sheriff’s office claims it’s black bears. But everybody knows a black bear don’t need a candle or a blanket. That’s when we know.”
Harry was wide eyed, “Know what?” The old man smiled and pulled his right ear lobe.
“That it’s old Ah Jake.” Pops Warner leaned back again and sang the last verse of the ballad.
“Some say he’s dead, some say he went insane.
Some say north by the Santa Fe train.
Some say he’s over a hundred years old.
Still living in the hills, still digging for gold.”
After the old Pop Warner left, Harry and Margaret discussed the story of Ah Jake for a while. Margaret was not sure she wanted to live someplace where there might be some crazy man living in the woods and stealing food. Who knows what else he might do. Harry agreed and the next day they decided to buy a security camera. As an afterthought, they also went to the local store in town to buy a shotgun. While the storekeeper was putting out a box of shotgun shells on the counter, he made some small talk.
“Thinking about hunting?” Harry glanced at Margaret.
“No, just want to be safe. In case, you know.” The storekeeper was puzzled.
“In case of what?” Harry sheepishly admitted,
“Well, you know, Ah Jake.” The storekeeper laughed for several minutes before gasping.
“You’ve been talking to Professor Warner?” Harry and Margaret were confused.
“Professor Warner?” The man nodded with a smile.
“Professor Warner, you know, Pops Warner, before he retired up here and became a handy man, he was an English teacher and taught creative writing for twenty-five years over at UCLA.”
Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).