Part 4: Wyatt’s Nightmare
Wyatt Earp woke with a start and sat up in bed. His face was bathed in sweat, and he was shaking. He wiped his brow with the sleeve of his night-shirt, and took several deep breaths to calm himself. At his side his wife, Josie, stirred herself.
“You had that dream again, didn’t you?” she said. “You cried out in your sleep.”
“Guess it’s no use denying it,” grumbled Wyatt. “Cain’t keep anythin’ from you, my sweet!”
His mind drifted back to the nightmare he had just experienced. Once again he saw himself and his brothers clothed in their black frock coats, and opposite the group of cowboys staring defiantly. He heard again his brother, Virgil, say:
“We’ve come to arrest you, boys!”
And the ominous click as Doc Holliday pulled back the hammers of the shotgun.
Suddenly the scene erupted with a bewildering explosion of sound as everyone started firing at once.
“The most frustrating part,” said Wyatt to his wife, Josie, “is that I can’t remember who fired first, us or them, much less which individual let go the first shot.”
“I’ll wager it was Doc,” said Josie. “He was always a hasty, hot-headed fellow, and he sure hated Ike Clanton.”
“You never did care for Doc, did you, honey,” said Wyatt.
“I can’t say that I did,” replied Josie. “He was a mean drunk, and an argumentative fellow.”
“But he was a loyal friend to me,” countered Wyatt.
“Maybe so,” conceded Josie. “You were the only real friend he had! He was so attached to you he even made me jealous!”
Wyatt spoke softly, his voice tinged with pain:
“I cain’t seem to get it out of my mind, Josie. I go for days, weeks, months without giving it a thought, but I guess while I’m sleeping it drifts up out of my mind like a dead body coming to the surface of a river, and I live it all over again. I smell the cordite, I hear the screams and groans of the wounded, and I feel the bullets whistling around me. I have my pistol out, and everyone else is firing, but I can’t seem to get off a shot. Now I know that I actually fired several shots in the fight – don’t remember if I hit anyone – but in the dream I’m just paralyzed. And then the smoke clears, and I see the bodies in the street – Frank McLaury, his brother Tom, young Billy Clanton – all dead. It’s a terrible sight!”
“It was twenty years ago, Wyatt,” said Josie. “We’ve moved on in our lives. You have to let it go!”
“I’m not sure that I can, my dear,” said Wyatt ruefully. “I’m afraid it’ll haunt me to my dying day.”
“Never mind,” said his wife tenderly. “I’ll always be here by your side in the middle of the night to hold your hand and comfort you.”
“Thank you, my angel,” said Wyatt gratefully.
“Now you get some sleep,” said Josie.
The next morning Wyatt Earp was sitting in the lobby of his hotel in Los Angeles, enjoying a morning cigar when a young man approached him.
“You are Mr. Wyatt Earp, the famous marshal of Tombstone, are you not?” said the newcomer in tones of awe.
Wyatt sighed. Another hero-worshiper!
“Yes,” he admitted. “I am Wyatt Earp for my sins! But I was never marshal of Tombstone. That was my brother, Virgil. I was only ever his occasional deputy.”
He gave the young man a swift perusal. He was clean-shaven, and his pink face had a scrubbed look about it. His blond hair was cut short, parted neatly and slicked down with lotion. He was neatly dressed in a dark suit, and he carried straw boater in his hand. He appeared eminently respectable.
“Please excuse me for interrupting you, Mr. Earp,” the young man continued, “but my father read in the newspaper that you were here visiting Los Angeles, and he told me all about your famous exploits as a lawman. He is a devotee of western tales, and he has read stories about you written by Mr. Ned Buntline.”
“Buntline and those other pen-pushers,” said Wyatt contemptuously. “They exaggerated everything. Made it all seem so much more than it was. The truth was far away from the melodramatic tosh that flowed from their pens.”
“I wonder, may I sit down. Just for a moment, mind you,” said the young man tentatively. “I’ll not disturb you for long, but it is such an honor to meet you. My name, by the way, is Henry Erskine.”
“Pull up a chair, son,” replied Wyatt generously. “What do you do for a living?”
There was a barely discernible pause before Erskine replied:
“I’m…er…studying for the bar examination. It’s my ambition to practice law.”
“A mighty lucrative career, I’d say,” declared Wyatt with just a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“That could be,” answered Erskine, “but the competition is fierce here in Los Angeles. It’s tough for a lawyer starting out.”
“Maybe you oughta hang up your shingle in a smaller town, say San Bernardino or Pasadena or some such,” suggested Wyatt.
“You may have a point, Mr. Earp,” agreed Erskine. “Is that why you moved to Tombstone? Because it was a smaller place?”
“It wasn’t so small in them days,” said Wyatt. “It was quite a bustling town, people movin’ in all the time. There were silver mines, even a little gold, and there were stores sellin’ supplies to the miners, not to mention saloons and gambling halls to take away the miners’ hard-earned paydirt!”
“It must have been a lively spot!” remarked Erskine.
“It was,” said Wyatt. “My brothers and I, we wanted to settle there with our wives. We bought homes. We invested in real estate and mining properties. I myself had a partnership in a gambling casino, and I was a faro dealer. I’ve always been more comfortable playing cards than being a lawman.”
“You surprise me, Mr. Earp,” said Erskine. “I would have thought it was glamorous and exciting to be a peace officer. Were you not a lawman in Ellsworth, Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas?”
“I see you’ve researched my career thoroughly, son,” commented Wyatt drily. “For your information bein’ a lawman ain’t glamorous. It’s downright dangerous. Several friends of mine have died on the job – Bill Hickock and Fred White, for example. Why even my own brother, Morgan was killed! And the pay for a lawman is lousy! I was always happier dealin’ cards than hittin’ drunken cowboys over the head on a Saturday night!”
He leaned back in his seat, drew on his cigar, and blew the smoke up into the air above him.
“You wanted to settle down in Tombstone,” said Erskine. “So what went wrong?”
“Why you so all-fired curious, boy?” said Wyatt, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
Erskine blushed, and stammered:
“Gee, Mr. Earp, I don’t want you to think I’m nosey. It’s just so interesting to me. Nothing exciting ever happens around here.”
“There you go again!” exclaimed Wyatt irascibly. “Warn’t nothing exciting about it! It was a bitter blood feud that got out of hand with terrible consequences for all concerned! No-one came out of it unscathed! To answer your question, boy, I’ll tell you what went wrong! There was a group o’ cowboys that lived outside of town. We called them ‘the cowboys’, but truth is they were rustlers and thieves who went down across the border and stole Mexican cattle and brought ‘em back to sell to local ranchers. They were a bad lot, and when they come to town, they’d cause a ruckus. They killed the marshal one night. The law-abiding citizens weren’t well-pleased, and my brother, Virgil, took on the job of making sure the town was peaceful. So there was bound to be a showdown. Couldn’t be avoided. It was only a matter of time!”
“So, what happened, Mr. Earp?” asked Erskine breathlessly leaning forward in his chair.
“There was an ordinance forbidding folks to carry firearms inside the city limits,” replied Wyatt. “Virgil got word that the Clantons and the McLaurys, two pairs of brothers, were armed and looking to cause trouble. So he deputized me and my brother, Morgan, and my friend, Doc Holliday, and we set off to place them under arrest.”
“You must have been expecting trouble,” remarked Erskine.
“It’d been brewing for a while,” admitted Wyatt. “There’d been incidents. One time I had to pistol-whip Ike Clanton because he was threatenin’ to kill somebody. I always preferred that to shootin’ someone. Most people’d rather wake up in jail with a sore head than end up in boot-hill!”
“I can see that,” said Erskine. “So what happened when you met the cowboys at the OK Corral? Were they armed?”
“You see that’s another inaccuracy that’s plagued the story over the years,” said Wyatt in exasperation. “The fight actually took place right beside Fly’s boarding house and photographic studio. It was some distance from the Corral. But these pesky dime writers figured ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ had a better ring to it, I guess.”
“Who fired the first shot, Mr. Earp?” asked Erskine curiously.
Wyatt stroked his jaw.
“You know, son, I can’t rightly say,” he said. “It was all a blur. When someone starts shootin’, you don’t have time to think. You just react, and fast or you’re a dead man. Everyone was shootin’. Bullets was flyin’ everyplace. When the smoke cleared, both my brothers were wounded, Doc got creased, and three of the cowboys were dead.”
“But you were unharmed, Mr. Earp. How miraculous!” declared Erskine.
“Just lucky, I guess,” replied Wyatt philosophically.
“My father told me that some people had claimed that the cowboys were unarmed, and you shot them down in cold blood,” ventured Erskine.
“Ike Clanton was without a weapon,” said Wyatt, “and I pushed him aside, and told him to clear out, which he did. He was a coward, all bluster. But Billy Clanton and Frank Mclaury were carrying pistols for sure, and I’m certain that Tom was reaching for the rifle in the scabbard on his horse when the shooting started. They had to be armed, else how did my brothers get wounded?”
“Maybe they got in the way of bullets from each other meant for the cowboys,” suggested Erskine.
The next moment he quailed as he glimpsed the angry expression on the old lawman’s face.
“You suggestin’ we murdered those cowboys?” Wyatt exclaimed furiously.
A few heads were raised from behind newspapers around the hotel lobby.
Wyatt lowered his voice, but it still held an icy tone.
“Look, boy,” he said, “maybe we should have let those boys leave town and avoided the showdown. I’m not sure to this day if we made the right decision. But they were breakin the law by carryin’ firearms, and if we’d have let them go, it’d have sent a bad message to them and their kind and there’d have been a fight some other day. And we paid dearly for that fight. My brother, Virgil, was ambushed a few days later, and ended up crippled in one arm. My brother, Morgan, was murdered in front of my very eyes, playin’ a game of pool, and I spent a year of my life in a long, exhausting quest for revenge. I ended up a fugitive, I had to leave Arizona for good, and I still have nightmares about it. And now I’m done talkin’.”
He rose to his feet and stalked away across the lobby. Had he turned back he might have been disturbed to see a strange expression of satisfaction on the young man’s face.
The next day Josie laid a newspaper down by his plate at breakfast.
“You made the front page again, my love,” she said drily.
Wyatt glanced at the headline.
“LAWMAN ADMITS DOUBTS ABOUT OK CORRAL GUNFIGHT. CLAIMS HE HAS NIGHTMARES.”
He frowned as he read the next words: ‘exclusive by Henry Erskine’, then tossed the newspaper on the table.
“Dammit! I got well and truly hoodwinked by that young whippersnapper!” he fumed. “He told me he was a law student. Looked so young and innocent, too green to be a reporter. Well, that’ll teach me to go shootin’ my mouth off! But when are they goin’ to let me forget that damned gunfight?”
Josie sat down beside him and took his hand.
“You have to accept that they’re probably never going to let you forget it,” she said. “To them it’s a thrilling story. You’re always going to have fellows like Erskine trying to get you to talk, but you can choose to stay silent, not to answer. You can send them packing!”
“But in a way talkin’ to that boy did me a bit of good,” mused Wyatt. “It gave me the chance to tell the story my way, straighten out a few things, express some doubts, and get a little angry with him. I feel a mite better!”
“Well, good,” said Josie brightly.
“You know what, my dear,” said Wyatt. “The days are getting cooler. I figure we should plan on setting out for that cabin of ours in the Mojave Desert next week. We can find some peace and quiet out of reach of cunning and ambitious young reporters.”
“An excellent idea, my sweet,” replied Josie warmly. “You know how I love those desert sunsets! And there’s no one that I’d rather share them with than my own true love, the brave, gallant and handsome Wyatt Earp!”
copyright Michael Neat, January 22, 2019.