Monterey is a city with a long and brilliant literary tradition. It remembers with pleasure and some glory that Robert Louis Stevenson lived there. Treasure Island certainly has the topography and the coastal plan of Pt. Lobos. More recently in Carmel there have been a great number of literary men about, but there is not the old flavor, the old dignity of the true belles-lettres. Once the town was greatly outraged over what the citizens considered a slight to an author. It had to do with the death of Josh Billings, the great humorist.
Where the new postoffice is, there used to be a deep gulch with water flowing in it and a little foot bridge over it. On one side of the gulch was a fine old adobe and on the other the house of the doctor who handled all the sickness, birth, and death in the town. He worked with animals too and, having studied in France, he even dabbled in the new practice of embalming bodies before they were buried. Some of the old-timers considered this sentimental and some thought it wasteful and to some it was sacrilegious since there was no provision for it in any sacred volume. But the better and richer families were coming to it and it looked to become a fad.
One morning elderly Mr. Carriaga was walking from his house on the hill down toward Alvarado Street. He was just crossing the foot bridge when his attention was drawn to a small boy and a dog struggling up out of the gulch. The boy carried a liver while the dog dragged yards of intestine at the end of which a stomach dangled. Mr. Carriaga paused and addressed the little boy politely: “Good morning.”
In those days little boys were courteous. “Good morning, sir.”
“Where are you going with the liver?”
“I’m going to make some chum and catch some mackerel.”
Mr. Carriaga smiled. “And the dog, will he catch mackerel too?”
“The dog found that. It’s his, sir. We found them in the gulch.”
Mr. Carriaga smiled and strolled on and then his mind began to work. That isn’t a beef liver, it’s too small. And it isn’t a calf’s liver, it’s too red. It isn’t a sheep’s liver— Now his mind was alert. At the corner he met Mr. Ryan.
“Anyone die in Monterey last night?” he asked.
“Not that I know of,” said Mr. Ryan.
They walked on together and Mr. Carriaga told about the little boy and the dog.
At the Adobe Bar a number of citizens were gathered for their morning conversation. There Mr. Carriaga told his story again and he had just finished when the constable came into the Adobe. He should know if anyone had died. “No one died in Monterey,” he said. “But Josh Billings died out at the Hotel del Monte.”
The men in the bar were silent. And the same thought went through all their minds. Josh Billings was a great man, a great writer. He had honored Monterey by dying there and he had been degraded. Without much discussion a committee formed made up of everyone there. The stern men walked quickly to the gulch and across the foot bridge and they hammered on the door of the doctor who had studied in France.
He had worked late. The knocking got him out of bed and brought him tousled of hair and beard to the door in his nightgown. Mr. Carriaga addressed him sternly: “Did you embalm Josh Billings?”
“What did you do with his tripas?”
“Why—I threw them in the gulch where I always do.”
They made him dress quickly then and they hurried down to the beach. If the little boy had gone quickly about his business, it would have been too late. He was just getting into a boat when the committee arrived. The intestine was in the sand where the dog had abandoned it.
Then the French doctor was made to collect the parts. He was forced to wash them reverently and pick out as much sand as possible. The doctor himself had to stand the expense of the leaden box which went into the coffin of Josh Billings. For Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man.
John Steinbeck, Cannery Row