Answer by Kris Larson:

In the 1860's, a Nevada newspaper editor, one Mr. Clemens, found himself challenged to a duel with one Mr. Laird, the editor of a rival paper.  One small problem — Clemens had never shot a pistol before.  However, he had a good friend named Steve Gillis who was an excellent marksman.  Gillis offered to coach Clemens for his upcoming showdown.

So the two men went to a field just outside town to practice.  Clemens could not hit a single target.  They could hear the gunshots of his rival practicing nearby; Laird was known to be good with a pistol.  After a small bird had landed on a bush nearby, Gillis took the pistol, aimed at the bird and killed it in a single shot.

Just then Laird's right-hand man was walking by and observed the bird on the ground.  "What a splendid shot! How far off was it?"

"About thirty paces."

"Thirty paces?!  Who made that shot?"

"Mr. Clemens here did so," Gillis lied.  "He can make that shot about four times out of five".

The man went back to report what he'd seen to Laird, and when Clemens got home about a half-hour later, there was a note from Laird, who had apologized for what he had written about Clemens and declined to participate in the duel.

It is fortunate that the duel never happened, because the editor Samuel Clemens might have been lost to history. Instead, he went on to write literature that became widely regarded around the world… under his pen name, Mark Twain.

P.S. This story was featured in an episode of "Mysteries at the Museum" on Travel Channel.  The Nevada Historical Society has a pistol from the Clemens family on display.

An artifact of Mark Twain’s ‘Duel that Never Was’

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