The Wild, Wild West

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Earp’s trouble began on the night of March 15, 1881, when a stagecoach left Tombstone carrying eight passengers, and, we are told, $80,000 worth of bullion.∗ Bandits attempted to halt this miracle of transportation. They failed, but in the process they killed the driver and one passenger. The killer was, according to a statement by his wife, Doc Holliday; and the talk around town was that the brain behind the bungled holdup was Wyatt Earp’s. Moving fast, the Earps persuaded Big Nose Kate to retract her statement and bundled her out of town lest she contradict the retraction. There remained the task of silencing forever Holliday’s accomplices.

∗It is always instructive to examine Wild Western estimates. At $1 per fine ounce. $80,000 worth of bullion would weigh two and a hall ions, a load sure 10 snap the axles of any coach.

Wyatt went to one of their friends, Ike Clanton, and offered a deal. If Clanton would arrange to have those accomplices hold up another stage so that Earp and Holliday could ambush them, he, Earp, would guarantee that Clanton would be paid the reward for their capture. Clanton seems to have considered this offer seriously, but at length he refused. The rebuff was serious, for Ike was a blabbermouth who could not be trusted to keep the offer quiet.

Nor did he. Scared stiff that he would be shot for a stool pigeon, Clanton denied everything, so loudly and publicly that Doc Holliday overheard him and reported to Wyatt. That was in mid-October. Something would have to be done.

On October 26, Ike Clanton was back in Tombstone with his younger brother, Billy. With them were Frank and Tom McLowry and another youngster, Billy Claiborne. All these men were cattle rustlers or, at the very least, hard cases. That morning Virgil Earp, as town marshal, deputized his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and thereafter the three prowled the streets, seeking to pick a quarrel with the Clantons or the McLowrys. Virgil Earp clubbed Ike Clanton with the barrel of his revolver. Wyatt Earp deliberately jostled Tom McLowry and then struck him. But despite the provocations, there was no fight.

That afternoon the Clanton brothers, the McLowry brothers, and Claiborne went to the O. K. Corral to pick up their horses and ride out of town. Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, together with Doc Holliday, went after them. Sheriff John Behan tried to interfere, but he was brushed aside.

The Earps and Holliday marched into the corral. Somebody spoke; somebody started shooting. After a couple of minutes, Billy Clanton was dead, Frank and Tom McLowry were dead, and Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne, having run for their lives, were safe. Morgan Earp was hit in the left shoulder; Virgil in the leg; Holliday in the left hip.

The Earp apologists have described these slayings as a triumph of law and order. In Tombstone the reaction was somewhat different. A sign over the caskets of the dead proclaimed: MURDERED IN THE STREETS OF TOMBSTONE. A mining engineer named Lewis, who had witnessed what he called cold-blooded murder, was one of three men appointed by the Citizens’ Safety Committee to tell the Earps that there should be no more killing inside the town’s limits, and that, if there were, the committee would act without regard to law; finally. Virgil Earp was fired as town marshal on October 29.

In any case, friends of those slain took matters into their own hands. Virgil Earp was ambushed and wounded on December 29. In March, 1882, Morgan Earp was picked off in the middle of a billiard game, by a sharpshooter who fired through a window from an alley in back. By this time Wyatt Earp had apparently at long last managed to be deputized by a federal marshal. (No records exist in either the Department of Justice or the National Archives to show that he ever held a regular commission as U.S. marshal or deputy.) He in turn deputized such gunmen as Doc Holliday, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, and Texas Jack Vermillion, and took off in pursuit of his brother’s killers.

He rode and he rode, but he never came back. He rode north and east to Colorado where, he hoped, he would be safe. Behind him he left Mattie, his common-law wife, who had taken in sewing at a penny a yard when money was scarce. Behind him, too, he left a town so far from being tamed that President Chester Arthur was obliged, a few months later, to threaten martial law. It was left to a short-spoken, sawed-off, former Texas Ranger named John H. Slaughter to restore order to Cochise County.