We almost lost Mark Twain in a duel.

Mark Twain: Photo by Paine. The Morgan Library and Museum

Samuel Clemmens couldn’t even hit the barn door with a pistol shot. He was a dead man for sure.

Huckleberry Finn might never have rafted the Mississippi river with a runaway slave named Jim.

Tom Sawyer might never have exposed the murdering Injun Joe or explored a big, dark cave with Huckleberry and a cute little girl named Becky Thatcher.

They might have all died early.

They might have all died in the mind and imagination of Samuel Clemmens long before he came to be known as Mark Twain.

Of course, Mark Twain might have never existed either.

Clemmens was only one lethal gunshot away from forever changing the landscape of American literature.

He was young.

He was brash.

He was a firebrand who happened to work for a newspaper, the Virginia City Gazette. He wrote: It was the old “flush times” of the silver excitement when the population was wonderfully wild and mixed; everybody went armed to the teeth, and all slights and insults had to be atoned for with the best articles of blood your system could furnish.

Some fool made Samuel Clemmens editor, and he immediately claimed the editorial page is his own personal domain with the goal of making as many people as he could mad before the week was out.

He made most all of them all mad.

But one took exception.

Clemmens had written a derogatory editorial about Jim Lord, the editor of a rival newspaper.

Clemmens was just having fun. He would later write: He flew up about some little trifle or other that I said about him. – I do not remember now what it was. I suppose I called him a thief, or a body-snatcher, or an idiot, or something like that. I was obliged to make the paper readable.

Lord didn’t see the humor in Clemmens’s caustic words.

He promptly wrote an editorial of his own.

He wasn’t having fun.

He drove his editorial like a knife into the heart of Samuel Clemmens, who decided he had no choice but to challenge Jim Lord to a duel.

He wrote: Well, out here, if you abused a man, and that man did not like it, you had to call him out and kill him; otherwise you would be disgraced.

He hoped Lord would not accept at gunfight at thirty paces.

Lord refused to fight.

Clemmens should have been relieved, but he felt more courageous than before.

He challenged Jim Lord a second time, a third time, a fourth time.

He was full of piss and vinegar now.

He was thirsting for blood.

But, damn, the word came back from Jim Lord.

Clemmens did not expect it.

Let’s fight, Lord said

One of them would never leave the dueling field alive.

His friends ushered Samuel Clemmens out to a small ravine so he could practice with a pistol he had never shot before.

They set up a barn door.

They nailed a rail in the ground.

That, they said, was Jim Lord’s skinny body.

They placed a squash on top of the rail.

That, they said, was Jim Lord’s head.

As Clemmens wrote: If there was any intellectual difference between the squash and his head, it was in favor of the squash.

They handed Clemmens a naval revolver.

He took aim.

He fired.

Clemmens missed the rail.

A second shot missed the squash.

Clemmens couldn’t even hit the barn door.

He was a dead man for sure.

But fate smiled down upon him.

A small bird flew past and lit on the limb of a sagebrush.

Steve Gillis, serving as Clemmens’s second, took the pistol and shot the bird’s head off just as a couple of spies from Jim Lord’s camp walked into the ravine.

These are the memories of Samuel Clemmens.

When Lord’s second saw the bird, he said: “Splendid shot. How far off was it?”

Steve said with some indifference: “Oh, no great distance. About thirty paces.”

“Thirty paces! Heavens alive, who did it?”

“My man – Twain.”

“The Mischief he did! Can he do that often?’

“Well – yes. He can do it about – well – about four times out of five.”

The second looked at Clemmens.

Clemmens smile.

He shrugged.

The spies left.

Clemmens went back to his office, and that afternoon, a note arrived from Jim Lord.

He declined to fight.

Samuel Clemmens later found out that, during Lord’s practice session, he had hit his mark thirteen times in eighteen shots.

He was deadly with a pistol.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry would live for one reason.

Samuel Clemmens was not the better shot.

But he and his friend were the better liars.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Confessions from the Road, a collection of true stories he gathered during his years as a travel editor. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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