One of the distinctive pleasures in reading Mark Twain is his ability to deliver of the most outrageous anecdotal details in such a matter-of-fact, nonchalant tone as to make it sound as though he was recounting the stitching craftsmanship at the Wednesday night quilting bee and gospel reading at the Methodist Church.
Take this passage from “Roughing It” about his introduction to the social climes of Carson City as just an example:
“We were introduced to several citizens, at the stage-office and on the way up to the Governor’s from the hotel — among others, to a Mr. Harris, who was on horseback; he began to say something, but interrupted himself with the remark:
“‘I’ll have to get you to excuse me a minute; yonder is the witness that swore I helped to rob the California coach — a piece of impertinent intermeddling, sir, for I am not even acquainted with the man.’
“Then he rode over and began to rebuke the stranger with a six-shooter, and the stranger began to explain with another. When the pistols were emptied, the stranger resumed his work (mending a whip-lash), and Mr. Harris rode by with a polite nod, homeward bound, with a bullet through one of his lungs, and several in his hips; and from them issued little rivulets of blood that coursed down the horse’s sides and made the animal look quite picturesque. I never saw Harris shoot a man after that but it recalled to mind that first day in Carson.”
I was reminded of that style and delivery the other day when I stumbled upon a thin paperback stuck between a couple of beefier volumes on a bookshelf. In gold on its brown spine was “The Historical Nevada Magazine.” Sometimes you go exploring for nuggets and sometimes you just trip over them.
I pulled it out and leafed through the pages to find an 11-page article called “Gunfighters of Pioche.” I’d always marveled at the historic marker on the outskirts of Pioche that recounted the town’s boom days and the gun battles over mining claims and women.
The magazine story, which first appeared in 1986, explained that the tiny mining community in the 1870s attracted and/or created real gunfighters as proficient as any created by pulp novel writers or Hollywood scriptwriters.
But what struck me as much as the facts and figures and tales of pitched gun battles and bloodshed was the writer’s matter-of-fact delivery and mastery of the tiniest of details that only master of the craft uncover.
I read about how — after gunfighter Morgan Courtney was gunned down by a rival for the affections of a local prostitute — a friend, John Manning, blamed a policeman for setting up Courtney and picked a fight with him.
The policeman, W.L. “Fat Mac” McKee, “tried to brush him off, but Manning went for a gun. According to the Pioche Record (newspaper), McKee outdrew him, and with consequences fatal to Manning,” the magazine article stated.
Then in Twain-like understatement, the writer goes on:
“Dime novels aside, this is the only reliable report the author has ever seen of one gunman outdrawing another who started to draw first. Possibly Manning was drunk and McKee sober. Also, Manning had to reach under his coat for his revolver, and it probably was a single-action, which could be fired only by pulling the hammer back before pulling the trigger. McKee carried a double-action revolver, which, like most modern revolvers, could be fired quickly without cocking the hammer. However McKee accomplished his feat, he was admired for it; he later was elected sheriff.”
But what else should I have expected. The writer was A.D. Hopkins, who was a longtime newspaper reporter and one-time editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Sunday supplement “The Nevadan,” a tabloid that devoted considerable space to Nevada history.
Hopkins was one the authors of “The First 100,” a coffee table book about 100 of the founders and shapers of the city of Las Vegas. It was published to mark the city’s centennial in 2005.
Like Twain, Hopkins is a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.
I had forgotten about the inscription in the front of the book, which referenced the fact I — on more than one occasion — would edit some of his longer stories to half the original length: “To Thomas Mitchell, who cut my stories, if not me, down to size. A.D. Hopkins.”
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.