Chapters from my Autobiography

By Mark Twain

Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII

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[Dictated in 1906] In those early days duelling suddenly became a fashion in the New Territory of Nevada, and by 1864 everybody was anxious to have a chance in the new sport, mainly for the reason that he was not able to thoroughly respect himself so long as he had not killed or crippled somebody in a duel or been killed or crippled in one himself.

At that time I had been serving as city editor on Mr. Goodman`s Virginia City "Enterprise" for a matter of two years. I was twenty-nine years old. I was ambitious in several ways, but I had entirely escaped the seductions of that particular craze. I had had no desire to fight a duel; I had no intention of provoking one. I did not feel respectable, but I got a certain amount of satisfaction out of feeling safe. I was ashamed of myself; the rest of the staff were ashamed of me -- but I got along well enough. I had always been accustomed to feeling ashamed of myself, for one thing or another, so there was no novelty for me in the situation. I bore it very well. Plunkett was on the staff; R. M. Daggett was on the staff. These had tried to get into duels, but for the present had failed, and were waiting. Goodman was the only one of us who had done anything to shed credit upon the paper. The rival paper was the Virginia "Union." Its editor for a little while was Tom Fitch, called the "silver-tongued orator of Wisconsin" -- that was where he came from. He tuned up his oratory in the editorial columns of the "Union," and Mr. Goodman invited him out and modified him with a bullet. I remember the joy of the staff when Goodman`s challenge was accepted by Fitch. We ran late that night, and made much of Joe Goodman. He was only twenty-four years old; he lacked the wisdom which a person has at twenty-nine, and he was as glad of being it as I was that I wasn`t. He chose Major Graves for his second (that name is not right, but it`s close enough; I don`t remember the Major`s name). Graves came over to instruct Joe in the duelling art. He had been a Major under Walker, the "gray-eyed man of destiny," and had fought all through that remarkable man`s filibustering campaign in Central America. That fact gauges the Major. To say that a man was a Major under Walker, and came out of that struggle ennobled by Walker`s praise, is to say that the Major was not merely a brave man but that he was brave to the very utmost limit of that word. All of Walker`s men were like that. I knew the Gillis family intimately. The father made the campaign under Walker, and with him one son. They were in the memorable Plaza fight, and stood it out to the last against overwhelming odds, as did also all of the Walker men. The son was killed at the father`s side. The father received a bullet through the eye. The old man -- for he was an old man at the time -- wore spectacles, and the bullet and one of the glasses went into his skull and remained there. There were some other sons: Steve, George, and Jim, very young chaps -- the merest lads -- who wanted to be in the Walker expedition, for they had their father`s dauntless spirit. But Walker wouldn`t have them; he said it was a serious expedition, and no place for children.

The Major was a majestic creature, with a most stately and dignified and impressive military bearing, and he was by nature and training courteous, polite, graceful, winning; and he had that quality which I think I have encountered in only one other man -- Bob Howland -- a mysterious quality which resides in the eye; and when that eye is turned upon an individual or a squad, in warning, that is enough. The man that has that eye doesn`t need to go armed; he can move upon an armed desperado and quell him and take him prisoner without saying a single word. I saw Bob Howland do that, once -- a slender, good-natured, amiable, gentle, kindly little skeleton of a man, with a sweet blue eye that would win your heart when it smiled upon you, or turn cold and freeze it, according to the nature of the occasion.

The Major stood Joe up straight; stood Steve Gillis up fifteen paces away; made Joe turn right side towards Steve, cock his navy six-shooter -- that prodigious weapon -- and hold it straight down against his leg; told him that that was the correct position for the gun -- that the position ordinarily in use at Virginia City (that is to say, the gun straight up in the air, then brought slowly down to your man) was all wrong. At the word "One," you must raise the gun slowly and steadily to the place on the other man`s body that you desire to convince. Then, after a pause, "two, three -- fire -- Stop!" At the word "stop," you may fire -- but not earlier. You may give yourself as much time as you please after that word. Then, when you fire, you may advance and go on firing at your leisure and pleasure, if you can get any pleasure out of it. And, in the meantime, the other man, if he has been properly instructed and is alive to his privileges, is advancing on you, and firing -- and it is always likely that more or less trouble will result.

Naturally, when Joe`s revolver had risen to a level it was pointing at Steve`s breast, but the Major said "No, that is not wise. Take all the risks of getting murdered yourself, but don`t run any risk of murdering the other man. If you survive a duel you want to survive it in such a way that the memory of it will not linger along with you through the rest of your life and interfere with your sleep. Aim at your man`s leg; not at the knee, not above the knee; for those are dangerous spots. Aim below the knee; cripple him, but leave the rest of him to his mother."

By grace of these truly wise and excellent instructions, Joe tumbled Fitch down next morning with a bullet through his lower leg, which furnished him a permanent limp. And Joe lost nothing but a lock of hair, which he could spare better then than he could now. For when I saw him here in New York a year ago, his crop was gone; he had nothing much left but a fringe, with a dome rising above.

About a year later I got my chance. But I was not hunting for it. Goodman went off to San Francisco for a week`s holiday, and left me to be chief editor. I had supposed that that was an easy berth, there being nothing to do but write one editorial per day; but I was disappointed in that superstition. I couldn`t find anything to write an article about, the first day. Then it occurred to me that inasmuch as it was the 22nd of April, 1864, the next morning would be the three-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare`s birthday -- and what better theme could I want than that? I got the Cyclopaedia and examined it, and found out who Shakespeare was and what he had done, and I borrowed all that and laid it before a community that couldn`t have been better prepared for instruction about Shakespeare than if they had been prepared by art. There wasn`t enough of what Shakespeare had done to make an editorial of the necessary length, but I filled it out with what he hadn`t done -- which in many respects was more important and striking and readable than the handsomest things he had really accomplished. But next day I was in trouble again. There were no more Shakespeares to work up. There was nothing in past history, or in the world`s future possibilities, to make an editorial out of, suitable to that community; so there was but one theme left. That theme was Mr. Laird, proprietor of the Virginia "Union." His editor had gone off to San Francisco too, and Laird was trying his hand at editing. I woke up Mr. Laird with some courtesies of the kind that were fashionable among newspaper editors in that region, and he came back at me the next day in a most vitriolic way. He was hurt by something I had said about him -- some little thing -- I don`t remember what it was now -- probably called him a horse-thief, or one of those little phrases customarily used to describe another editor. They were no doubt just, and accurate, but Laird was a very sensitive creature, and he didn`t like it. So we expected a challenge from Mr. Laird, because according to the rules -- according to the etiquette of duelling as reconstructed and reorganized and improved by the duellists of that region -- whenever you said a thing about another person that he didn`t like, it wasn`t sufficient for him to talk back in the same offensive spirit: etiquette required him to send a challenge; so we waited for a challenge -- waited all day. It didn`t come. And as the day wore along, hour after hour, and no challenge came, the boys grew depressed. They lost heart. But I was cheerful; I felt better and better all the time. They couldn`t understand it, but I could understand it. It was my make that enabled me to be cheerful when other people were despondent. So then it became necessary for us to waive etiquette and challenge Mr. Laird. When we reached that decision, they began to cheer up, but I began to lose some of my animation. However, in enterprises of this kind you are in the hands of your friends; there is nothing for you to do but to abide by what they consider to be the best course. Daggett wrote a challenge for me, for Daggett had the language -- the right language -- the convincing language -- and I lacked it. Daggett poured out a stream of unsavory epithets upon Mr. Laird, charged with a vigor and venom of a strength calculated to persuade him; and Steve Gillis, my second, carried the challenge and came back to wait for the return. It didn`t come. The boys were exasperated, but I kept my temper. Steve carried another challenge, hotter than the other, and we waited again. Nothing came of it. I began to feel quite comfortable. I began to take an interest in the challenges myself. I had not felt any before; but it seemed to me that I was accumulating a great and valuable reputation at no expense, and my delight in this grew and grew, as challenge after challenge was declined, until by midnight I was beginning to think that there was nothing in the world so much to be desired as a chance to fight a duel. So I hurried Daggett up; made him keep on sending challenge after challenge. Oh, well, I overdid it; Laird accepted. I might have known that that would happen -- Laird was a man you couldn`t depend on.

The boys were jubilant beyond expression. They helped me make my will, which was another discomfort -- and I already had enough. Then they took me home. I didn`t sleep any -- didn`t want to sleep. I had plenty of things to think about, and less than four hours to do it in -- because five o`clock was the hour appointed for the tragedy, and I should have to use up one hour -- beginning at four -- in practicing with the revolver and finding out which end of it to level at the adversary. At four we went down into a little gorge, about a mile from town, and borrowed a barn door for a mark -- borrowed it of a man who was over in California on a visit -- and we set the barn door up and stood a fence-rail up against the middle of it, to represent Mr. Laird. But the rail was no proper representative of him, for he was longer than a rail and thinner. Nothing would ever fetch him but a line shot, and then as like as not he would split the bullet -- the worst material for duelling purposes that could be imagined. I began on the rail. I couldn`t hit the rail; then I tried the barn door; but I couldn`t hit the barn door. There was nobody in danger except stragglers around on the flanks of that mark. I was thoroughly discouraged, and I didn`t cheer up any when we presently heard pistol-shots over in the next little ravine. I knew what that was -- that was Laird`s gang out practicing him. They would hear my shots, and of course they would come up over the ridge to see what kind of a record I was making -- see what their chances were against me. Well, I hadn`t any record; and I knew that if Laird came over that ridge and saw my barn door without a scratch on it, he would be as anxious to fight as I was -- or as I had been at midnight, before that disastrous acceptance came.

Now just at this moment, a little bird, no bigger than a sparrow, flew along by and lit on a sage-bush about thirty yards away. Steve whipped out his revolver and shot its head off. Oh, he was a marksman -- much better than I was. We ran down there to pick up the bird, and just then, sure enough, Mr. Laird and his people came over the ridge, and they joined us. And when Laird`s second saw that bird, with its head shot off, he lost color, he faded, and you could see that he was interested. He said:

"Who did that?"

Before I could answer, Steve spoke up and said quite calmly, and in a matter-of-fact way,

"Clemens did it."

The second said, "Why, that is wonderful. How far off was that bird?"

Steve said, "Oh, not far -- about thirty yards."

The second said, "Well, that is astonishing shooting. How often can he do that?"

Steve said languidly, "Oh, about four times out of five."

I knew the little rascal was lying, but I didn`t say anything. The second said, "Why, that is amazing shooting; I supposed he couldn`t hit a church."

He was supposing very sagaciously, but I didn`t say anything. Well, they said good morning. The second took Mr. Laird home, a little tottery on his legs, and Laird sent back a note in his own hand declining to fight a duel with me on any terms whatever.

Well, my life was saved -- saved by that accident. I don`t know what the bird thought about that interposition of Providence, but I felt very, very comfortable over it -- satisfied and content. Now, we found out, later, that Laird had hit his mark four times out of six, right along. If the duel had come off, he would have so filled my skin with bullet-holes that it wouldn`t have held my principles.

By breakfast-time the news was all over town that I had sent a challenge and Steve Gillis had carried it. Now that would entitle us to two years apiece in the penitentiary, according to the brand-new law. Judge North sent us no message as coming from himself, but a message came from a close friend of his. He said it would be a good idea for us to leave the territory by the first stage-coach. This would sail next morning, at four o`clock -- and in the meantime we would be searched for, but not with avidity; and if we were in the Territory after that stage-coach left, we would be the first victims of the new law. Judge North was anxious to have some object-lessons for that law, and he would absolutely keep us in the prison the full two years.

Well, it seemed to me that our society was no longer desirable in Nevada; so we stayed in our quarters and observed proper caution all day -- except that once Steve went over to the hotel to attend to another customer of mine. That was a Mr. Cutler. You see Laird was not the only person whom I had tried to reform during my occupancy of the editorial chair. I had looked around and selected several other people, and delivered a new zest of life into them through warm criticism and disapproval -- so that when I laid down my editorial pen I had four horse-whippings and two duels owing to me. We didn`t care for the horse-whippings; there was no glory in them; they were not worth the trouble of collecting. But honor required that some notice should be taken of that other duel. Mr. Cutler had come up from Carson City, and had sent a man over with a challenge from the hotel. Steve went over to pacify him. Steve weighed only ninety-five pounds, but it was well known throughout the territory that with his fists he could whip anybody that walked on two legs, let his weight and science be what they might. Steve was a Gillis, and when a Gillis confronted a man and had a proposition to make, the proposition always contained business. When Cutler found that Steve was my second he cooled down; he became calm and rational, and was ready to listen. Steve gave him fifteen minutes to get out of the hotel, and half an hour to get out of town or there would be results. So that duel went off successfully, because Mr. Cutler immediately left for Carson a convinced and reformed man.

I have never had anything to do with duels since. I thoroughly disapprove of duels. I consider them unwise, and I know they are dangerous. Also, sinful. If a man should challenge me now, I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot, and kill him.


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