Al Hooper

Truth in fiction

On the trail of Wyatt Earp

For any foot-stompin', dung-kickin' would-be son of the Old West, the Promised Land is an isolated enclave in Southern Arizona.

Here the Western legends don't simply echo a bygone past, they occupy a parallel universe.

In Tombstone, tucked away amid ghost towns and mountain ranges just north of the Mexican border, the names of desperate characters leap from the storied annals of yesteryear: Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, Billy Claiborne, Frank Stilwell, Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius.

It's more than just their spirit that populates Tombstone. Their graves are here too . . . right over there in Boot Hill.

Of course it was Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday who put most of those desperadoes below ground. With a little help from Wyatt's brothers Virgil and Morgan.

Who isn't familiar with the gunfight at the OK Corral? In the intervening century or so, it has come to acquire a mythic status -- the Old West's quintessential clash between White Hats and Black Hats.

Even before arriving, our vacationing troupe knew most of the storied details. June Hooper and I were traveling with a pair of young Earpophiles named John Boughton and Lynn Peterson -- and benefiting immeasurably from their expertise.

Any pilgrimage to the area must start with Tucson. A matter of historical deference. The Tucson Train Station is a natural first stop in retracing the trail blazed by the Earps and Doc Holliday.
The station isn't much to look at today. Decrepit and largely abandoned, except for a lonely ticket depot at one end.

But this was where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday made an honest corpse of Frank Stilwell. Happened soon after the shootout at the OK Corral. The rustler faction had retaliated for its losses in that confrontation by badly wounding Virgil Earp from ambush, and the infamous Curly Bill Brocius assigned Frank Stilwell to finish the job.

When Virgil and his family boarded the train in Tucson, bound for California, Stilwell approached under cover of darkness. He drew a bead on the lighted window of the passenger car. But Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had accompanied Virgil from Tombstone to guard against this possibility.

Several shots sounded. None came from Stilwell. His body was later found beside the tracks, profoundly ventilated.

Partly as a result of such lively events, the Tucson Train Station is now on the National Register Of Historic Places. But the true mecca for any self-respecting Earpophile is Tombstone, a two-hour drive to the southeast.

We began our trek on a balmy day in December, temperature in the 70s. Interstate 10 takes you to U.S. Highway 80 and from there to the county seat of Benson, from whence more than a few stagecoaches proved susceptible to road agents while transporting gamblers, opportunists and ladies of flexible virtue to the swinging boomtown of Tombstone in the early 1880s.

With mounting excitement, we approached Tombstone itself. Population: 1,330. Down more than somewhat from its high-water mark of 20,000 as a silver-mining El Dorado.

But these legendary Tombstone streets are very much as they were then: Allen Street, Fremont Street, Toughnut Street.

The former Grand Hotel is now Big Nose Kate's Saloon, but the Crystal Palace is still the Crystal Palace. And the Birdcage Theater, boarded up for 60 years until the town realized the commercial possibilities of its colorful past, looks pretty much as it did when performers like Lily Langtry and Eddie Foy included Tombstone on their performance schedules . . .

After checking in at the Tombstone Motel (Fifth and Fremont Street), we begin our quest at Boothill at the western gateway to the town.

The names leap off the headstones: the McLaurys and  Clantons, Marshal Fred White, Billy Claiborne, Curly Bill Brocius.

Still filled with a sense of Western history, we dine at Nellie Cashman's Restaurant, named for and once operated by “the angel of the mining camps.” One of Tombstone's admirable qualities is that its restaurants surpass what you might expect to find in a small town. Today, tourism is the mother lode. And tourist expectations set the standard.

This is confirmed the next day when we sit down for a sumptuous breakfast at the Longhorn Cafe. It was from the second floor of this location on Allen Street that Curly Bill Brocius's cowboys staged their cowardly ambush of Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp.

As Virgil began his rounds that fateful midnight, the cowboys bushwhacked him from the darkness. The date was December 28, 1881, just two months after the gunfight at the OK Corral.

The equally craven murder of Morgan Earp -- shotgunned through a glass-paneled door while playing billiards with brother Wyatt in an emporium on Allen Street -- eventually led to lethal reprisals by Wyatt and Doc Holliday.

Time, then, to visit the dusty plot of real estate on Fremont Street where this melodrama reached its apogee.

Time to mosey on over to the OK Corral.

All the old ghosts are present and accounted for in life-size mockups. On one side: Frank and Bill McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Billy Claiborne.

Facing them are the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. Once again it is October 26, 1881. As a recorded voice-over intones, Virgil is attempting to enforce a town ordinance by demanding that the cowboys give up their guns. The cowboys demur. Further conversation is brief.

Somebody goes for his sidearm, probably Billy Clanton. Two shots ring out, then several more. Ike Clanton rushes up to Wyatt Earp and grabs his arm, begging for his life, but Wyatt throws him off: “The fighting has commenced! Either join the fight or stay clear!” Ike turns and runs, escaping through C.S. Fly's Photo Studio which borders the OK Corral.

Ike's brother Billy is not so fortunate. He and the McLaury brothers die in a fusillade of lead. Virgil and Morgan Earp are wounded, and Doc Holliday sustains a bullet crease above his gunbelt.
Wyatt Earp is untouched.

At the time, the moral high ground of the gunfight at the OK Corral was fiercely debated by rival supporters of the Earps and Clantons. The court found the Earps' actions wholly justified. But the Clanton family's descendants, to this day, have never forgiven. Or forgotten.

But then nobody has forgotten. How could we? A hundred books and films have etched those tumultuous events on the world's psyche. For when the smoke cleared at the OK Corral, the drama was just beginning.

First, Virgil and Morgan Earp were ambushed by backshooters. Then, soon afterward, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday rode down Allen Street for the last time. Sitting tall in the saddle, calm and unhurried.
Neither Wyatt nor Doc ever saw Tombstone again.

But they didn't disappear from the territory. Not hardly. 

In the ensuing weeks, one after another of the cowboys identified with the crippling of Virgil Earp and the assassination of young Morgan got their 15 minutes of fame by having their names printed in the Tombstone Epitaph. Each of them had been shot dead out on the lone prairie. R.I.P.

Somebody was calling in some debts for Virgil and Morgan Earp . . .

At the time the divided town wasn't sure what to think. Certainly the murderous cowboys deserved killing. But Wyatt's methods tended to raise a few eyebrows . . .

Today the town's verdict is unanimous in at least one respect. Without Wyatt Earp then, there would be no Tombstone now. Wyatt lived 80 full years before dying of natural causes in 1929, and he spent only 20 months of his life in Tombstone. But those 20 months provide the current town with its core industry.

Tourists line up at the OK Corral, parade through C.S. Fly's adjacent studio, take stagecoach rides along Fremont and Allen streets, and see the various locations where Virgil and Wyatt and Doc Holliday once lived.

They (and we) discover that Tombstone's Chinatown in the 1880s occupied a full block between Toughnut and Allen streets at the west end of town. Today it's a motorhome park. 

And inevitably, at high noon, we pull up a bench in a sun-baked courtyard to witness a stylized gunfight. So many quick-draw artists and Western character actors winter in Tombstone that there's never any shortage of performers. 

If we have a complaint, it's that the performers too often shill for tips after the show. It's demeaning. The kind of thing Ike Clanton might do.

Speaking of whom, a curious thing occurs that evening when we visit another historic site, the Bella Union restaurant on Fremont Street. We’re led out back for a tour of the reconstructed opera house by a young fellow who wants to broker a sale of the Bella Union. It’s selling for $500,000. He must think we look solvent. We gently disabuse him of that notion.

He tells us that members of the Clanton clan storm into Tombstone once a year for a family reunion. “Nobody in town likes them,” he confides. “Too arrogant. They tried to buy this place once but for all their talk they couldn't get up the money.”

“If they had bought it,” we tell him grimly, “we wouldn't be eating here now.” 

No true Earpophile would. Man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. 

One point of interest we didn't manage to see this trip was Iron Springs. This was where Curly Bill Brocius and nine of his cowboys ambushed the tracking party led by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday after Morgan Earp was murdered.

Countless rounds were fired by both sides. Wyatt Earp's saddle-horn was blown away. Curly Bill stood “trying to pump lead into me with a Winchester,” Wyatt told an interviewer in 1896 -- fourteen years later.
Swinging off his horse, Wyatt advanced on Curly Bill with a shotgun and unloaded both barrels.

Curly Bill went down. The shooting continued. Wyatt's traditional black overcoat sprouted a dozen bullet holes.

But when the gunfire subsided and the ambush party fled, nobody appeared to have suffered a scratch. With the singular exception of Curly Bill Brocius, who more than made up for it.

The baddest cowboy of them all was stony. In fact he had been turned into a crowd. Courtesy of the twin load from Wyatt Earp's shotgun.

Next time, we definitely have to visit Iron Springs.

Next time. Has a nice ring to it. Adios, Tombstone.

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