The Abandoned Rifle

New developments in a story that stretches not just five years but more than a century into the past. In November 2014, Park Service archeologist Eva Jensen was doing a field survey in Great Basin National Park. I’ve accompanied archeologists on these walkabouts and I was amazed at all the things they could see at a glance – sherds scattered in what they call an “Oops! site,” the charcoal bed of an ancient hearth or the remnants of a rock shelter — that I would have missed completely. Soldiers accompanying Apache scouts had the same reaction to their guides’ uncanny ability not just to see the terrain but to experience it with all their senses.

Others have certainly hiked the ridge Jensen was scouting – there’s no place in the West a man has yet to set foot on, so far as I can tell. But she was the first in decades to spot a rifle leaning up against a juniper trunk. The cracked and weathered stock and rusted barrel blended perfectly with the tree, rendering the old gun all but invisible.

It’s an 1873 model Winchester, manufactured in 1882. Buyer and any subsequent owners are unknown, as is how it came to be where it was discovered or even how long it rested there before Eva Jensen’s sharp eye spotted it.

The ’73 Winchester was the AR15 of its day, “The Gun That Won the West.” Its rapid rate of fire and accuracy (at least at short ranges) made it the favorite weapon on both sides in the Apache Wars. It may have been a lever-action Winchester that cost Domingo Gallegos not just his wife and baby girl but his life. I believe Nana and his warriors rode down to Rancho Cebolla that day not because their Navajo guides had boasted of Domingo’s marksmanship but because they told Nana of his gun.

News stories don’t specify the caliber of the Great Basin find but it was probably chambered for the powerful .44-40 cartridge. That was scarce in Mexico, and the need to resupply was an important factor driving the Apaches to raid north across the border.

According to the news reports there was one bullet left in the Great Basin gun. The empty magazine might explain how the rifle came to be left behind. It was not dropped or lost on the trail but left neatly propped up against a tree trunk.

You don’t forget a ten-pound, yard-long weight. You’ll notice it’s missing before you’ve gone a hundred yards. I believe even a man suffering from dehydration, hunger, hypothermia or heat-stroke would keep such a valuable possession with him until the last extremity. Not to mention its value as a defensive weapon even with just one bullet, a good Winchester was worth around $40 or $50 used, which was a lot of money in those days.

I presume the Park Service archeologists made a very careful survey of the surrounding area, looking for harness or bridle hardware, spent cartridges, buttons and buckles, or any human remains. If so, nothing was found.

Imagine a man propping his rifle against a tree and walking off, never to return. Why?

3 Replies to “The Abandoned Rifle”

  1. I love that photo — It’s really beautiful the way it looks like it’s become a part of the tree! Kind of reminds me of the semi-sentient trees in the Lord of the Rings and their reactions to talk of axes.

    Like

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