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The narrator of the story is asked by a friend to call on old Simon Wheeler and ask about his friend’s friend, Leonidas W. Smiley. The narrator now suspects that his friend never knew anybody named Leonidas W. Smiley, and that this was the pretext to get Wheeler to tell him about another guy named Jim Smiley. It turns out that Wheeler is a boring man who talks ad nauseam.
The narrator begins to narrate the story of his meeting with Wheeler.
The narrator finds Simon Wheeler taking a nap in a bar at a mining town called Angel's Camp. Wheeler is pudgy and bald and looks simple and gentle. So far, so good.
The narrator tells Wheeler he’s trying to find out some information about the Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley who was once a resident at Angel’s Camp.
Simon Wheeler backs the narrator into a corner and traps him there. Throughout his tale, the narrator says, Simon maintained the utmost gravity, as if his story was the most important thing. Yet, the narrator says, it was an absurd story.
Wheeler admits that he doesn’t know a Leonidas Smiley, but one time there was a "feller" named Jim Smiley in ’49 or maybe it was ’50.
Here begins Wheeler's story within the narrator's story.
Jim Smiley is the sort of man who will bet on anything. If he suggests a bet and the person doesn’t want to take it, he offers to bet on the other side. He just wants to bet, that's all. But he's lucky and almost always wins the bet. He bets on dog fights or horse races or even on the minister, Parson Walker. One time, Parson Walker’s wife was really sick, and Smiley bet that she wouldn’t get well. Clearly the guy doesn't have the best social graces.
Smiley had a mare that the boys liked to call the "fifteen-minute nag." She seemed really old and slow, and she had asthma. She’d get a head start, then amble along until the end of the race, when she’d suddenly start bolting ahead like crazy, wheezing, until she would win, but barely.
He also had a small "bull pup" named Andrew Jackson that didn’t look like it could do anything, but as soon as somebody bet on him, he’d manage to beat any better-looking dog in a fight. He had a trick of catching the other dog’s back leg in his mouth with a tight grip until the fight was over, and he’d won. This worked until Andrew Jackson ended up in a fight with a dog that didn’t have back legs. Not knowing what to do, he gave Smiley a look like his heart was broken, then crawled away and died.
(It was too bad, Wheeler comments. A dog like that probably had some "genius" in him – he hadn’t had opportunities in life, and here he managed to come out on top. He must’ve had talent.)
So one day, Smiley catches a frog and takes it home, saying he plans to educate the animal. For then next three months, he does nothing but sit in his backyard and "teach" that frog to jump. He gets the frog to jump so well that it looks like a doughnut whirling in the air – then the frog comes down "flat-footed" like a cat. Smiley teaches the frog to catch flies, to the point that the frog just needs to be able to see the fly and it's his.
The frog's name? Dan’l Webster. The frog is "modest and straight-forward" despite his many gifts. When he's on level ground, he can jump higher than any frog you could ever see – that is his specialty, it’s important to understand that.
Smiley keeps Dan'l Webster in a box and every once in a while, he fetches the frog down for a bet.
One day, a stranger in the camp asks what's in the box. Smiley grins and says it might be a parrot or a canary but actually, it’s just a frog.
The stranger eyes him and asks what the frog is good for.
Smiley says he’s good for one thing: he can outjump any frog in Calaveras County.
That so, says the stranger. He looks at the frog, then says he doesn’t see anything about the frog that makes him so special.
Well, maybe you understand frogs and maybe you don’t, says Smiley. But I’ll bet forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras County.
So the man thinks about it, then says that if he had a frog, he’d bet against Smiley.
Smiley offers to go get him a frog. He gives the other man the box and goes to get a frog.
The stranger sits there with the box and waits. Soon, he gets Dan’l out, opens the frog's mouth, and begins to fill him full of quail shot. Then he sets him on the floor. Smiley comes back from the swamp with a frog and gives him to the stranger.
They set the frogs side by side, and Smiley says, "One two three jump!"
The stranger’s frog jumps. Dan’l tries to heave upwards but can’t budge.
Smiley is surprised, and a little "disgusted," but he gives the stranger his money.
The stranger starts to leave and, just to rub it in, he repeats what he said earlier – that he doesn’t see anything special about Dan’l that should distinguish him from any other frog.
Smiley scratches his head and stares down at Dan’l. Finally, he wonders aloud what the matter is. He picks Dan’l up and exclaims that he weights five pounds! He turns Dan’l upside down, and Dan’l belches out the quail shot.
Smiley gets mad as hell. He runs out to catch the stranger, but the stranger has already gotten away.
Here Wheeler's story ends.
Wheeler hears his name called from the front yard and goes to see what’s up. He tells the narrator to sit and wait, he’ll only be gone a moment.
The narrator is pretty certain that he’s not going to find out anything about the Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, so he starts to leave.
At the door, he meets Wheeler, who starts back up with his story, telling the narrator about Smiley’s yellow one-eyed cow that didn’t have a tail and—
The narrator interrupts, saying, oh-so-good-naturedly, that he basically doesn’t give a hoot about Jim Smiley or his cow.