A particularly loquacious and utterly verbose fella named Simon Wheeler has related a tall tale to the story’s narrator. A narrator that one must assume is none other than that world famous scribe Mark Twain. Wheeler’s story has to do with an amazing gambler who goes by the name Jim Smiley. Now Smiley is not just any gamble…this guy is willing to take a roll of the dice on anything, but he specializes in games of chance involving animals.
The narrator has sought out Wheeler on the advice on a friend back east who is desperately looking for information about a kid he used to know named Leonidas W. Smiley. All that the friend knows is that the Smiley headed west to minister to miners digging at Angel’s Camp. Along the way, however, the narrator arrives at the distinct conclusion that Leonidas W. Smiley never existed at all and that the urging of his friend was just a ruse although it is at Angel’s Camp where the finds Wheeler who does have a story to relate about Jim Smiley.
As Wheeler relates it, Jim Smiley is an utter fiend for gambling on everything from which one of two birds sitting on a fence would fly away first to when the wife of a particular parson would recover from her illness…or even if she would recover at all. Wheeler goes into greater detail about Smiley’s bulldog named Andrew Jackson who may not have looked like much, but always seems to come through when there was money on the line. Andrew Jackson’s days as a winner came to an end when his manner of winning with money on the line—biting the hind legs of the dog in front of him—got contravened by a dog with no hind leg to bite.
Those stories are nothing compared to the one about Jim Smiley and his jumping frog name Dan’l Webster. Smiley one day boasts to a stranger in camp that Dan’l Webster can outjump any frog in all of Calaveras Country. And he is willing to back up his boast with $40 to anyone with a frog capable of proving him wrong. The stranger, alas, has no frog against which Smiley’s frog can compete, but that’s hardly the kind of thing capable of stopping a dedicated gambler. Leaving Dan’l Webster behind with the stranger, Smiley heads to the swamp to find the man a jumping frog. While he’s gone, however, the stranger feeds Dan’l Webster buckshot as a means of increasing his weight and thus reducing his jumping capacity.
The contest takes place, Dan’l Webster is barely even able to move and the stranger thanks Smiley for the $40 and leaves. Knowing that no frog could possibly have beaten Dan’l so badly, Smiley lifts the frog up and realizes he’s too heavy. Hanging the frog upside-down, it suddenly burps out buckshot and Smiley catches on the stranger’s game. He chases after the visitor, but fails to catch him.
Just as he gets to this point in relating the story of Smiley to the narrator, Wheeler hears someone call his name. He leaves to see who it is, but advises the narrator to sit and wait as he’ll be right back. Determining that any more time spent with the garrulous storyteller will be wasted in his attempt to track down Leonidas Smiley, he decides to take a powder. When the narrator reaches the door of the tavern inside which Wheeler has been relating this story, however, he is met by the long-winded man who immediately launches into yet another story about Jim Smiley, this one having to do with a cow with only one eye and no tail.
Lacking the time and the desire to hear yet another story, the narrator makes a quick exit, leaving Wheeler behind to find some other poor soul to bore.