In “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” an unnamed narrator tracks down a man named Simon Wheeler in a tavern in a small mining town in California called Angel’s Camp. The narrator has been advised by his friend in the East to seek out Wheeler in order to ask him about a man named Leonidas W. Smiley. However, instead of telling him about Leonidas, Wheeler launches into a “monotonous” story about a different but similarly named man called Jim Smiley. The narrator begins to think that his friend tricked him into sitting through a long, rambling story.
Jim Smiley is a prolific gambler who is willing to bet on absolutely anything—including whether or not the Parson’s wife will survive her illness. Smiley owns many feeble-looking animals and trains them to be fierce fighters and racers. For instance, he trains his sickly looking mare to hold back in races and save all her energy for the final stretch so that she can barely win the race as an unexpected champion. This practice, combined with the horse’s dreadful appearance, causes many people to bet against her, consequently winning Smiley more money. Smiley also owns a bulldog puppy named Andrew Jackson, who, like the mare, doesn’t look like he would be able to win a competition. Indeed, he lets other dogs attack him without fighting back while the bets are being raised. When all the money is on the table, Jackson clamps onto the back leg of his opponent and holds on until the fight is over.
One day, a stranger came to town. Smiley had spent the last three months training his frog, Dan’l Webster, how to jump high, and was thus eager to bet on the frog’s jumping abilities. While speaking with the stranger, Smiley bet him 40 dollars that Webster could out-jump any frog in Calaveras County. The stranger replies sadly that he doesn’t have a frog, but if he did, he would accept the bet. Smiley hastily leaves for the swamp to catch another frog for the stranger, leaving Webster with the stranger in the process.
While Smiley is gone, the stranger quickly fills Webster with heavy quail-shot. The shot weighs Webster down so that he can’t jump. When Smiley returns with another frog for the stranger, the two men place their bets and encourage their frogs to jump. Much to Smiley’s dismay, Dan’l Webster won’t jump, and the stranger wins the bet. He promptly flees the town with Smiley’s 40 dollars. Upon discovering that the stranger cheated, Smiley is enraged but fails to catch the stranger or recovery his money.
Back in the present, when someone calls Wheeler’s name and interrupts his story, the narrator takes the opportunity to slip away; just as he reaches the door, Wheeler intercepts him and launches into another rambling tale about Jim Smiley’s “yaller one-eyed” cow that had a stump for a tail. However, “lacking both time and inclination” for another one of Wheeler’s stories, the narrator leaves.