Winchester Cathedral

By Deanne StillmanMarch 17, 2015

Winchester Cathedral

LAST NOVEMBER, archaeologists made an astonishing find. Working in the backcountry of Great Basin National Park in Nevada, they came across a rifle leaning against a juniper tree. This was not just any rifle — it was a Winchester Model 1873, a repeating rifle known as “the gun that won the West.” When checked with Winchester archives at the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, it turned out that this rifle was manufactured and shipped in 1882, selling at about $25, one of 25,000 made that year, and one of 720,610 made between 1873 and 1916 when production stopped. In 1882, that particular gun or those among the 25,000 might have been deployed by the United States army against Native Americans who were being purged from their homelands, by Native Americans who had acquired it in trades, or by settlers, trappers, miners, hunters, homesteaders, cowboys, travelers, and anyone else who had a need.

The discovery of the old rifle in the park is important not just because of the role that Winchesters played in American history, but because people didn’t generally leave rifles behind in 1882, or in the years after that, nor do they do so today. And it wasn’t lying on the ground or buried in a cache; it was propped against a tree — a fact that makes its story all the more intriguing, as if it were starting a conversation. Pick me up — I dare you! I’ve been here for a long time, or have I? Where’s my owner? According to a press release from the National Park Service, “The cracked wood stock, weathered to grey, and the brown rusted barrel blended into the colors of the old juniper tree in a remote rocky outcrop, keeping the rifle hidden for many years.”

This Winchester may have avoided detection for a long time, but there is much evidence of our desire to be armed and use firearms in plain sight across the West. Left behind every day and year after year across the byways of the outback are countless bullet shells. As I write, I’m sure that there is more than one person traversing, say, the Little Bighorn battlefield or any number of others in search of overlooked remnants of metal that may have once ripped through someone’s body. In my travels across the marked and unmarked trails of our wide-open spaces, I have come across spent cartridges everywhere — and evidence of their use. In fact, one cannot walk certain paths or drive down a desert two-lane without spotting a bullet-riddled sign or pockmarked carcass of an abandoned vehicle. And there is more than physical evidence. One cannot hike in many areas without gunfire going off in the distance or even nearby, or traverse remote highways without seeing bar-joke bumper stickers that say “I carry a handgun because my AR-15 won’t fit in my purse.”

Alas, I have witnessed the results of fatal — and illegal — gunfire in wilderness regions, not so far away from Great Basin National Park. In 1998, 34 wild horses were gunned down at Christmastime in the Virginia Range outside Reno, Nevada. Upon learning of this incident, I visited the sanctuary where a horse that survived the massacre was living. Just a few months old, she was discovered by a hiker as she foundered in a gully while being watched over by a band of bachelor stallions. Her rescuers named her Bugz.

I visited the site of the massacre several times. Anyone who has visited a battlefield knows what it’s like to experience a scene where many have been felled by bullets in service of a cause; battlefields are lonely and silent, yet screaming with ghosts and stories and histories that have not yet been reconciled. This site — the one in the Virginia Range — is not an official battlefield. And there was not a fair fight going on here; wild horses are hardly armed. Yet some view them as an enemy, animals that are varmints, unwanted, unnecessary, stealing food and water from cows and sheep, in the way of development, gas and mineral extraction, and all manner of other infractions, all of which boil down to getting away with something. This is why rodeo horses came to be referred to as outlaws.

My first visit to the place where the 34 horses were killed was shattering. Subsequent visits were as well, in some ways, even worse. As the investigation into what happened was completed, I learned from forensic reports the exact manner of each horse’s death — entry and exit wounds and the damage that had been done. In one case, a horse’s heart had been shredded. In another, organs had ruptured, and in another, the lungs had collapsed. Over the years I visited the site several times. I was guided by one of the first persons on the scene at the time of the incident, Betty Lee Kelly, who, along with Bobbi Royle, took in the filly that had survived the massacre and gave her a home along with other injured and ailing mustangs. Each time that we were there, wending our way up the rutted road to Lagomarsino Canyon where the horses were felled, I was overcome with feelings that I could never shake, and haven’t tried to. I can only describe them as the truth — or a truth. Here is an account of my last pilgrimage; it came to mind when I read about the discovery of the Winchester Model 1873 in Great Basin National Park, for here, at the end of this trail, in the Great Basin itself, there was a message from Winchester, which came through loud and clear during that final visit. (It is from my book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West):

We had arrived, and we parked near the site and walked up a rise. It was springtime and the stands of sage were puffy with rain and fragrant. Except for our footsteps, it was quiet. The horse skulls and cages of ribs and shins and intact hooves and manes and tails were still there, forever preserved in the dry Mojave air. There was a pair of leg bones and they were crossed, as if running in repose. They were as pure a white as you will ever see, polished and caressed and battered by the winds of the Great Basin, radiating almost, a reverse silhouette of wildness paralyzed in movement and time. Betty knew exactly which horse this was, and had told me about her on our first visit to the site. She was horse #1 in the court record, or Hope, as she and Bobbi had named her — the one who had prompted the phone call from Animal Control.

“She had probably been here for a day or two,” Betty recalled, and as she continued, it was like a prayer. “She was lying in the sand. She had dug a small hole with her front legs, intermittently trying to get up.” I knew the story well, and in bearing witness there was comfort and then Betty’s voice trailed off and we walked on. After a while, we came across the horse known in the Nevada court system as #4.

Like the others, Bobbi and Betty gave him a name. It was Alvin. He was the one who was shot in the chest and whose eye was mutilated with a fire extinguisher. His carcass — the barrel of his chest — was picked and blown clean by time, wind, and critters, rooted always in the great wide open. His spine was vanishing but still flush against the sand, and his ribs curved toward the sky. “There was a stallion watching us that day,” Betty had told me long ago, now reciting the rest of the prayer. “Just standing at the perimeter as we found each dead horse. When the sun went down and we got in our cars, he trotted on down the road. His family had been wiped out, but we still didn’t know how bad it was.”

As I walked the site this time, I saw that someone or something, maybe a coyote or perhaps the weather, had moved a few of the large stones in the cross under a juniper tree that Betty had made on the one-year anniversary. But it was still very much a cross, and I decided that a natural force had disturbed the stones — a person who wanted to vandalize the scene would have done more damage. And then I discovered something new: an empty box of Winchester cartridges, lodged between the branches of another juniper tree.

Winchester — the gun that won the West, the ammo that brought it to its knees — now back as a reminder, probably placed intentionally and maybe by the people who killed the horses. Did someone have us in his sights? I wondered as I sat on a rock and looked out across the range. The latest nothing down subdivisions of Reno were just beyond the peaks on the horizon, but no one would know if someone decided to take us out that day; maybe someone would hear the gunfire — others who came out here to shoot, perhaps — but gunshots in the desert outside Reno, in the desert outside any American town or city, would not be a surprise and no one would rush to our aid.

“I think it’s time to go,” I said, but as we walked back to the pickup there came a wonderful sight — a few horses, down from a rise. Since the massacre, Betty rarely saw them in the canyon, and she had visited it several times a year, as a kind of a groundskeeper for the kill site. On my visits, I had not seen any horses either, nor had I seen any hoofprints, which made me think that they had been avoiding the area, because in the desert, tracks last for a very long time. The horses that approached were brown with black manes — the scruffy and beautiful Nevada horses that nobody asks for at the adoption centers. We stopped in our tracks and watched them, and they watched us back.

After a while, we bid them farewell. As we headed down the mountain, I turned for one more look. They were walking across the boneyard toward the stone cross, reclaiming their home.

A few hours later, at the Southwest Airlines lounge in the Reno airport, I overheard one of those conversations that explained a lot of things, a refrain really, the chorus of a song that we all know. It had to do with the civic religion of the country, our gleeful worship of personal rights. Someone was talking loudly, in the way that only certain big people do in case you should happen to miss them, a big man with a big gut, well over six feet, in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, on his cell phone. “Oh man,” he says, “I can’t believe this. They confiscated my ammo, I had a clip inside the steel toe of my belt and they actually made me leave it at the security gate.” He’s two seats over and in a cell phone trance, the Second Amendment with a boarding pass. “I told them I was working security at one of the casinos but they made me leave it anyway,” he says. “Can you believe that? But hey I applied for a concealed carry and I should have it next week. Hey, did you hear Al is in trouble? Yeah, lawyers have been called and a grand jury is in session. Looks like indictments are coming … Hey, I almost had me some last night. It was just there waiting for me. It’ll be there when I get back. You know, I like Reno. I like this whole friggin’ state.”

During my travels across the West, I sometimes meet people who carry a copy of the Constitution in their cars or pockets (I myself carry one in my purse), who can discuss search and seizure law as well as recognized legal scholars, who quote the Second Amendment like scripture. “Don’t tread on me” is a mantra of theirs, and often, that flag is flying in their front yards or is posted near fences at the edge of their property. I have written about some of these people; some have become my friends — and others will never make that cut.

I think for instance of a Gulf War veteran who was called to testify in the murder trial of a fellow Marine who was accused of raping and killing two girls. It was apparent that being on the witness stand was an ordeal; he had flown across the country to deliver bad news, recount his small and unwitting part in a damaging timeline and harrowing tale. When it was over, he was spent. The color was gone from his face and he had the shakes. But there was something he wanted to tell me, he said when we met in the hallway outside the courtroom. “I have Gulf War syndrome,” he confided. “They won’t admit that it exists. Please tell people what happened over there.”

I think of the mother of one of the murdered girls, whose legacy was one of poverty and violence that went back for generations, to the Donner Party, in fact, to the moment when some of her ancestors turned right at Hastings Cutoff instead of the other way, the one that turned out to be fatal, although their path lead to a different kind of deadly conclusion decades later in the California desert. Here was this mother of three, a bartender, ex-girlfriend of bikers, having recently volunteered to go to jail in place of the family pit bull who had angered a neighbor. And here she was again, organizing a scholarship in honor of her daughter, trying to raise $1,000 to help an average girl get out of town, the thing that her daughter almost accomplished until she was stopped in her tracks. I think of the people who came to the fundraiser at a local bar, donated food stamps and matchbook collections and coins and other trinkets, deposited ever so hopefully in the tip jar on a counter, and I think of how the funds were indeed raised, and I wonder what has happened to the average girl who wrote the winning essay about what she would do with the funds once she got out of town. Did she go to a community college and then return to help her sisters in need, as said she would do, or did she, like so many other average girls in her town, succumb to the legacy of poverty and violence that haunts them?

I think of the old mustangers who occasionally show up at my book talks. When everyone is gone, they approach me and want to talk. Now in their 80s and 90s, they regret living the life that was mandated by the grade-school mantra that we all learned, “It’s a free country and I can do what I want.” They apologize for their role in the decimation of wild horse herds, for going out into the wilderness and whacking mustangs for a price, or for participating in brutal “Misfits”- style roundups in which horses were taken from the land and sent to slaughterhouses at a meagre per-pound rate that led to the confiscation of millions. When they look across a plain, they see a Wal-Mart or a string of fast-food establishments and they know that they have been a part of what got us to this moment and they wonder about where is the reckoning and what, if anything, they can do.

There are many in this country who are looking over their shoulders, haunted by a shadow that seems to be there always. Perhaps it is the shadow that haunts us all as a nation, the ghost of the body politic, a demon of past sins right here in the homeland (let us say the names: Washita, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee) — how else to explain the never-ending parade of zombies and werewolves and vampires in our books and movies? Those who feel this shadow so keenly are often on the frontlines of America’s dirty work, going to war when asked, heading into mines and driving trucks, sweeping the floors after our conventions and parties, stoking the fires down below, becoming sick from the smoke, pouring drinks for each other in bars where the liquor is cheap, and making sure to have a cache of weapons because you never know.

According to the press release from the National Park Service about the discovery of the old Winchester:

Mysteries of the rifle’s journey through time spur creative and lively discussion … The Great Basin cultural resource staff is continuing research in old newspapers and family histories, hoping to resolve some of the mystery and fill in details about the story of this rifle. The park will provide a viewing opportunity for the community before sending the rifle to conservators to stabilize the wood and apply museum conservation techniques. The treatment will keep the gun looking as it was found and prevent further deterioration. When the rifle is returned to the park, it will be displayed as part of the park’s 30th birthday and the NPS centennial celebration.


Deanne Stillman is the author of Desert Reckoning and other books.

LARB Contributor

Deanne Stillman is an acclaimed writer. Her latest book, Blood Brothers, received a starred review from Kirkus and won the 2018 Ohioana Award for best nonfiction. Her book, Desert Reckoning, is based on a Rolling Stone piece and won the Spur Award for best contemporary nonfiction, and the LA Press Club Award for best nonfiction. It was also a Southwest Book of the Year, and is now under option for film. Her book Mustang was a Los Angeles Times "best book of the year" and won the California Book Award silver medal for best nonfiction. It's now in audio with Anjelica Huston, Frances Fisher, Wendie Malick, John Densmore, and Richard Portnow. She also wrote the cult classic Twentynine Palms, a Los Angeles Times "best book of the year," which Hunter Thompson called "A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer." She's a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.


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