From the dawn of the movie and television industries, the image of men in broad-brimmed hats marching toward a showdown has been a set piece. There is an ultimatum, and defiance. Townspeople scatter, leaving the combatants alone in the street. There is a moment of truth. Fingers twitch near holstered pistols. The bad guy makes a move. The good guy is faster. Frontier justice triumphs.
You can be forgiven if you’ve come to believe that such gun duels were common, especially if you grew up with TV Westerns like “Gunsmoke,” which began each of 635 episodes with Marshal Matt Dillon standing in the main street of Dodge City, facing down a bad guy in single combat.
Here’s how many walk-down, stand-up Wild West gunfights there were in real life: two.
At 6 P.M. on July 21, 1865 — after a series of conflicts involving a woman, the sale of a horse, a poker game and a gold pocket watch — Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt faced each other across the town square in Springfield, Missouri. They each fired one shot, and Davis Tutt was killed. It was a showdown just like in the movies — or rather, lots of movies have fake gunfights just like the Hickok-Tutt showdown.
The second and last Wild West shootout was the famous 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. (Note to pedants: Yes. I know it was the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Near the Corner of Fremont and Third Behind Fly’s Photography Studio, so please don’t bother to write and correct me.) The image of the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday advancing on Billy Claiborne and the Clanton and McLaury Brothers has been portrayed directly in over thirty feature films. It’s been the subject of novels, radio plays, comic books, and television shows. Variations on the 30-second tragedy in Tombstone provide the climax of thousands of action movies that end with some kind of personal combat between the main characters.
The who, what, where and when of the real events of October 26, 1881, have been endlessly explored in the past 132 years. Even the how of the fight is well-known after forensic analyses of every second to determine the exact positions of each participant at each moment, drawing on the trajectories of the wounds and the scatter pattern of the shotgun pellets.
And yet here I am: writing a novel about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Why? Because the why of what happened is almost always simplified, or buried, or falsified, or ignored, and that’s the part of life that interests me most: the why of it, and the consequences. Usually, the story stops when the last man falls, but I’ve always been interested in the aftermath of dramatic events.
Which brings me to the title of Novel Number Six.
The original working title was The Cure For Anger. I imagined cover art that would have those words carved on a tombstone — Tombstone! Get it? — implying that the only cure for anger was a grave. Not bad, but kind of … conceptual.
I have learned that simpler titles are easier for readers to remember — and to buy. The fact that I had to explain The Cure For Anger was a red flag. So my next try was Wyatt. Easy to remember, and it would make a nice pairing with Doc. That, however, set up expectations that the new novel didn’t match. Imagine the reaction if E.L. James wrote an epic novel about the 1917 Russian Revolution and she called it Fifty Shades of Red. Even if it turned out to be brilliant, readers would feel tricked. Early readers of Wyatt expected the story to focus on Wyatt Earp the way Doc focused on John Henry Holliday. This novel has a much wider field of view; the title has to reflect that somehow.
So what is it really about? Initially, I thought, It’s about Tombstone — the city, the politics, the personalities and conflicts that wound together tighter and tighter until that snowy, blustery day in October ended in gunfire. But the name “Tombstone” is already used by the 1993 movie with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. And I will be taking the story past that day, beyond that city, into the resulting vendettas and the aftermath of the violence, all the way to the end of Wyatt’s life and to his widow’s nearly successful quest to control the way Wyatt would be remembered.
[Yes, pedants, I know Josie and Wyatt were never legally married, but 49 years together counts.]
After Wyatt died in 1929, Josephine Marcus Earp worked with biographer Stuart Lake to make her husband’s complicated life into a simple and compelling story of good guys vs. bad guys, with a flawless, fearless, heroic man center-stage. Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal largely determined the way the West itself is remembered.
I am trying to restore some balance and realism to the myths that have grown up around the men who faced one another in that vacant lot behind Camillus Fly’s studio 132 years ago. While writing my version of the story, I’ve become quite fond of Josie. Even so, she and I are now rivals and to some extent opponents because our goals are the same: to produce a book that will influence the way the West is remembered; to let the dead rest easier; and to write Wyatt Earp’s epitaph.
So there it is. The name of Number Six will be Epitaph.