Lessons from Tombstone

All the bruises have faded to yellow. The scrapes and cuts have healed. The idea of swinging into a saddle no longer makes me shudder. Several people have asked, “Was it worth it? Did you learn anything?” The answer is not just yes. It’s hell, yes.

When you walk down the broad Tombstone streets toward the gunfight site, you can still see what the Earps and Holliday saw: the buildings, the mountains in the distance. You can taste the dust and fight the wind. You can become aware of each of several corners, around which angry men with guns might be concealed. I’ve begun studying the dynamics of police shootings. Wyatt and Morgan were experienced policemen, but I’ve been struck by the fact their older brother Virgil was a combat veteran as well. John Henry Holliday was neither a veteran nor a cop. He was a hastily deputized man whose life had been repeatedly threatened that morning by a drunken braggart who had armed friends. What would Doc do — really? Watch Virgil, I expect. Virgil was calling the plays. He was the officer in charge — a mature, steady man in his late 30s who’d done this kind of thing hundreds of times. So: watch Virgil.

If anything, the Clantons, McLaurys and Billy Claiborne were even less experienced than Doc with this kind of confrontation, and three of them paid for that inexperience with their lives — as jumpy, testosterone-flooded young men often do when a policeman gives an order they are too confused or proud to obey when their friends are standing around, ready to judge them. When I return to Tombstone next March, I want to find their ranch sites, and spend time thinking about this whole story from their points of view, without making cardboard villains of them.

That much I might have imagined without leaving my office, so the most dramatic outcome of a week in Tombstone, Arizona, was developing a 3-D topographical understanding of the terrain, the landscape, the distances, and the geographic relationship of Tombstone to towns like Charleston, Bisbee, Contention, St. David, and Benson. Some of those places don’t really exist anymore. You can ride to where they were and find adobe ruins or stone foundations, but that’s all. There’s nothing to see, and yet — it was important to me to feel how long it takes to get someplace on horseback. I now understand precisely what “riding 16 miles to Charleston and back” would really mean.

Some Tombstone  historians have scoffed at Doc’s need to rest during that trip. They are, I believe, underestimating both the seriousness of his clinical status and the physical demands such a ride would make on anyone who is not saddle-hardened and healthy. I have ridden to the place where the Benson stagecoach was robbed, as well. The events of March 15, 16 and 17, 1881, have a physical reality for me that will affect my interpretation and portrayal of them.

Prior to this visit to Tombstone, I had an open mind about Doc’s participation in the Earp Vendetta Ride. There are those who say he was in the best health of his adult life and their evidence is that he spent many weeks on horseback riding with Wyatt’s posse. The assumption is that he stayed with Wyatt until the end, perhaps even shooting Johnny Ringo in July: therefore, he must have been healthy because a sick man couldn’t have done that. I now believe this is circular thinking. For a lot of reasons — medical, physical, ethical, emotional — I think Doc was done after a week. I’ve already written sketches of that part of The Cure for Anger, working through the dialog and the realities of the situation. This is a big change in how I was thinking about the Vendetta, and it accounts for several historical facts that do seem to be well-established.

So going to Tombstone, being there, thinking hard about who and what were involved with these events  — it will all go into what I’ll write about this seminal American story.

One last thing: often when we drove partway to a destination near Tombstone, it was over rutted, washboard “roads” that were nothing more than wheel-paths through open country. We took a pounding even though we were in 4-wheel drive SUVs with decent shocks and struts. Travel by stagecoach, sitting on unpadded wooden benches, over that kind of road would have been awful. In Doc, I described young Dr. J. H. Holliday’s coach trip between the Louisiana coast and Beaumont, Texas as “two hundred miles of jarring, bruising, dust-choked punishment.” I now know that description is an understatement!

Kudos to Steve and Marcie Shaw, for putting together The Earp Vendetta Ride. It was amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Lessons from Tombstone”

  1. What a pleasure to read this after reading “Doc”. Absolutely, Doc was in no shape to be Wyatts posse. After his lung bleed he couldn’t have much of a blood pressure or hemoglobin to withstand the phsical demands of walking nor riding. I have taken care of many a hemorraging victim and if the vessel isn’t too large when peoples blood pressure gets low enough they will stop bleeding. However there heart will eventually start screaming about the lack of oxygen to the coronary arteries. Fabulous read! See you soon.
    Kriss Ann

  2. Well, Kriss, the hemorrhages did resolve and Doc did rally and get better after all but the last crisis. On the other hand, once the lung tissue was eroded and replaced with fiber, his respiratory capacity was permanently degraded, and that damage accumulated. I think he might have lasted a week on horseback, given his strength of will, but two-three months? Not likely.

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