Thank you to all those who participated in our Facebook Short Story Competition. Every submission we received was creative and well written. After much deliberation, we are pleased to announce this year’s Mystery Short Story Contest Winners!
In November 2014, archaeologists at Great Basin National Park unexpectedly stumbled upon a 132-year-old Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle. Park employees found the rifle—exposed to sun, wind, snow, and rain—leaning against a tree among some junipers in the park. The cracked wood stock, now weathered to gray, and the brown rusted barrel blended into the colors of the old juniper tree in a remote rocky outcrop, keeping the rifle camouflaged for more than a century.
From Great Basin, the mysterious rifle traveled to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West where our Cody Firearms curatorial staff studied, authenticated, and conserved it. The question still lives on: How was the Winchester ’73 forgotten in the park?
1st Prize: “Winchester 1873” by Shannon Gibson
Sam was just a boy when he joined the Pony Express and ventured out west for the first time. He wasn’t technically an orphan like the Express wanted; his mother died from consumption and his father was a mostly absent drunk. Maybe he was an orphan after all?
While Sam rode for the Express, through the basin of Utah and Nevada, he heard the rumors. The other boys knew them, even the old cowboys would tell gravelly voiced yarns about it. Even though no one had actually seen what was out there, the boys swore they would be the first to venture out into the wasteland to collect the riches for themselves.
As Sam would race across the miles of desert, sometimes casting his gaze to the south, where it was said copper was just lying on the ground ready to be picked up. Some said you didn’t even need to get off your horse, you could just reach down and scoop up a handful and never have another care in the world.
The Pony Express mostly stopped paying the boys and Sam wanted his money, he had been poor for too long and he didn’t want to be poor any longer. He knew that if he had money he would be able to find a respectable woman to marry. He’d start by buying a small ranch; he knew that to make it in the west he needed some land. With what was left over he’d buy a nice suit, he’d comb his hair and wear a dandy hat. He might even take a bath and brush his teeth.
These fantasies were with him on every ride through the basin, and he swore to himself that one day he would make them come true. One day he would be brave enough to steer his horse south and emerge victorious with bags of copper. Why didn’t he just detour? Was it some great allegiance to the Express? He can’t detour because he must deliver the mochila? He did swear an oath to the Express, after all. No, Sam was not concerned with any of that. Sam was concerned about the Indians.
The Indians in this region were very dangerous; there had been several instances of stations being attacked, station keepers being murdered, and horses and livestock being stolen. It was the not the most hospitable place for a boy. But, Sam kept telling himself, “one of these days I’m getting that copper…one of these days.”
After the Express went under Sam went back east to fight in the Civil War. He didn’t have anything else to do plus he figured the war would be exciting. There were many exciting times alright, especially when he was watching his buddies being slaughtered in battle after battle. They heavily fell with the Minie balls and exploded into pink clouds with the Napoleon guns. Sam distinctly remembered thinking, “one of these days” as he was pulling the trigger on his Springfield rifle that caused the gruesome death of quite a few men. Sam was haunted more by thought of that cooper than by the thoughts of killing those men.
When the fighting was finished Sam needed a way to get back out west so he took a job with the Union Pacific Railroad. He worked his way through the plains while working his way through the ranks of the company, eventually settling in Cheyenne to run the rail-yard. One morning Sam woke up and realized, “it’s time.” He had a respectable job, but he needed a wife. Sam had his eyes set on someone in particular, the daughter of Thomas Durant. He knew that he could only obtain her hand in marriage if he was wealthy, Durant would allow nothing less. On that hot and sunny morning he boarded the train with a small bag and his Winchester ’73, which he obtained in a poker game.
After a few days of riding the rails and bumping around in dusty stagecoaches Sam found himself in a new town called, Ely. He knew the area well for there used to be an Express station there. When Sam arrived he got himself a hot meal and then headed for the stables to get a horse. Next, he headed over to the mercantile to get supplies. Within two hours he was on his way.
Fifty or sixty miles were all that separated Sam from his dreams. After a few sweltering miles Sam made camp, it had been a long time since he slept outside. He thought maybe that was the reason his dreams were more like nightmares that night. He spent the night restless and sweaty. Sam decided to get going before the sun rose to beat the heat and get the nightmares out of his head. There weren’t many Indians left anymore, he kept telling himself, he didn’t have anything to worry about. The August air shimmered in the dry desert heat and the sun blinded his eyes. He had an uneasy feeling, the horse could feel it, too, but begrudgingly plodded along. Every few minutes Sam would turn and look behind him, he would tell himself he was just being foolish.
A small juniper tree stood out ahead and he thought it seemed a good place to camp. Sam eased off his horse with his Winchester in his hand. His whole body hurt, it had been so long since he spent all day on a horse. He propped his rifle against the tree and stretched his arms to the sky. Just at that moment he felt something rip in his body nearly wrenching him over. He stood back up and then felt another hot tear. Somehow he managed to get back on his horse which made no delay in racing off. Before Sam fell from his horse he looked down and thought, “I don’t see no copper at all…” His last thought before he heard the WHOOSH of a skull cracker was, “those damn liars!”
2nd Prize: “The Ghost” by Matt Turner
This is my Theory on what happened to the lost and found Decades later 1873 Ghost Gun.
Two Hunters riding Horse Back in the Great Basin in heavy timber Dusk setting in, the hunters harvested an animal. Excited and Darkness setting in fast, they leaned the 1873 against a tree hurrying to dress and load the animal on horses to return to camp, forgetting the gun leaning against the tree. As they were riding back to camp on a dark cloud covered night sky, realizing they left the gun in their haste to return. The two decide to return to the kill site in the Morning light and retrieve the 1873. Waking up to rain that washed away the Horses tracks and fog, they lost their way back to the 1873 never finding the gun. The 1873 rifle lost for Decades until found by National park Employees in the 21 Century still leaning on the same tree.
3rd Prize: “The Tale of 1873” by Robert Richards
A family moves westward in their wagon to the promise of a new life. They brave the cold nights, the blazing sun and the fierce winds as their supplies dwindle.
Junior takes his fathers 1873 sneaks away to avoid chores, and goes hunting for anything he can find while the others make camp. But, it’s been a long day and he decides to take a nap. He leans the rifle against a small juniper sapling and lays down for a quick snooze. He’s awakened by the angry yells of his father looking for him, and runs back to camp leaving the rifle as a historical footnote to his passage. The discovery much later in the trip, of the missing valuable rifle, would be sure to gain him a tanning from his father, so to be sure, he hid the fact that it was missing well. They’d be too far down the trail to go back for it.
- The first 100 participants will receive a Buffalo Bill Center of the West collector’s key chain.
1st Prize: Free day at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for up to 4 visitors and the Centennial Edition of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West book to remember your visit!
3rd Prize: Wild West poster of your choice from the Museum Store
Wild West poster options: https://store.centerofthewest.org/catalogsearch/result/index/?cat=&p=3&q=poster
*Thank you to our dedicated readers who brought to the attention of Buffalo Bill Center of the West Contest Officiants that a large portion of our previous 1st Prize Winner’s story was markedly similar to another published work. Therefore, we’ve had to disqualify that contestant. We apologize to readers and participants for this unfortunate turn of events. It is incredibly important to the Center of the West that in this, and every similar contest we host, creativity and originality are supported and exemplified. We do not support acts of plagiarism, even if unintended, and cannot tolerate them in any form.