On October 26 in 1881, the Earp brothers fought the Clanton-McLaury gang at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
They look like nice boys but the Earps thought different.
The Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil were, broadly speaking, acting in various ways as law enforcers. Virgil was the the town marshal. However, law and disorder went gun in glove in the west at this time and the Earp brothers would throw their weight around when it suited.
The Clantons and McLaurys were small-time cowboys who weren’t averse to a bit of thieving and murder. Like the Earps, they wanted control of the town which seemed to have so obligingly named itself in preparation for such a murderous conflict.
On the morning of October 25, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury came into Tombstone to get some supplies. There then followed a series of small scale fights between them, the Earps and their friend Doc Holliday. The next day Billy Clanton, Frank McClaury and Billy Claibourne rode into town. Holliday gleefully informed them that Ike and Tom had been pistol-whipped by the Earps. Insulted and bristling for revenge, they went in search of the Earps.
The Earps and Holliday found them first in the OK Corral. The gunfight lasted all of 30 seconds with about 30 shots fired.
There is still argument about the fight. Most reports state that the shootout began when Virgil Earp shot Billy Clanton point-blank in the chest, with Doc Holliday firing a shotgun at Tom McLaury. Frank McLaury was wounded in the stomach by Wyatt Earp but both he and Billy Clanton managed to fire a few shots before collapsing.
When the smoke cleared Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers lay dead and Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne had fled the scene.
Sheriff John Behan, who witnessed the fight, charged the Earps and Holliday with murder. A Tombstone judge found the men not guilty, however, ruling that they were justified in committing the homicides.
I’ve written one western story which I greatly enjoyed writing. I thought I’d put it here to celebrate a legend that was almost certainly not justified to be remembered as such.
The word ripped round Carson like a storm chasing bison. Johnny Durand was coming to town.
Cecily Mayhew was drinking tea at her dressing table when her lover Henry Pitts brought the news. Her hand trembled slightly but apart from that she gave nothing away.
‘Johnny Durand, from Tombstone?’
‘Yep,’ said Pitts. He studied himself in the looking-glass, tilting his chin to catch the best angle.
‘So he claims. Rumor has it he finds the back of a man the easiest place to aim for.’
That’s true, she thought. Her eyes stared fixedly as she remembered Durand pumping lead into the backs of her Daddy and her Ma. How he set their homestead aflame. How he took her brutally, a child of fourteen, mere yards from the bodies of her poor dead folks.
In the mirror she saw Pitts leave off gazing at himself and start to examining his Smith and Wesson instead. ‘He’ll learn soon enough that his sort ain’t welcome in Carson City,’ he said.
He kissed Cecily on the forehead and strode out.
She stared at herself in the mirror. Her grey eyes stared back, lakes of deep sadness. Yet now the grey was more intense and steelier than ever before. She brushed her hair mechanically, wondering how she would react if she saw Durand, wondering what she might do.
It was just after noon on the following day that the saloon doors flew open. A figure stood in the entrance. The fierce noise of the room cascaded into silence.
Jake Barlow began wiping the counter exactly where it was most clean. ‘Howdy, Mr,’ he said.
The man in the entrance nodded. He was dressed in brown leather breeches, a white shirt, neat black tie and a cream Stetson. Two well-polished Colt Peacemakers swung from a thick black belt.
He walked towards the bar. His legs moved stiffly as if he was treading on eggs. The top half of his body, however, was fluid and supple. It rippled like a side-winder snake in the sand.
‘Whisky,’ he said. Jake poured him a large measure. ‘The bottle.’ His voice was low and threatening; he threw out his words as if it was the job of the listener to catch them.
Jake slid the bottle towards him.
The man turned and regarded four men at a table. They had been playing poker until the gunman’s arrival had given them pause.
‘Room there for a new hand?’ he asked.
‘Of course, Mr Durand,’ said one of the players. ‘I was ready to dip out anyhow.’
Johnny Durand picked up his bottle and strolled across to the table. He paused at the sight of one of the saloon girls, frowning as if he recognised her from somewhere. Then he smiled at her, revealing yellow and broken teeth. He tipped his hat. ‘Afternoon, miss. Maybe we’ll get better acquainted after I’ve had myself a game here.’
‘I very much doubt that,’ she said.
‘Sissy,’ cried Jake. He gestured her over to the bar, leaning close towards her.
‘Sissy, what you thinking of? Do you have any idea who he is?’
‘Then keep a civil tongue towards him. He’s a gunman and he means no good to any who cross him.’
‘I’ll be civil enough.’
‘Just see you will.’
Durand and the three men began a new game of cards. Two were raw cow-pokes in town for the day. The third was Henry Pitts. He was a professional gambler who had worked theMississippisteamers before the war. He played fourteen hours a day and split his winnings 80:20 with Jake for the privilege. Both had grown rich on other men’s losings.
The cards flew fast and the liquor with it. Four games down and Durand clicked his fingers at Sissy to fetch him another bottle. As she handed it to him he grabbed her and kissed her on the lips. Furious she shied away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
‘I advise you not to do that again Mr,’ she said. ‘No matter your reputation.’
She looked at Henry. He appeared not to have noticed so intent was his focus on the cards.
She stared at him for a moment then shook her head.
The game continued for most of the afternoon. True to form Pitts let Durand accumulate a hefty pile in order to soften him up and make him feel he was on a winning streak. Then, he began to play slick. He slowly hauled in every cent Durand had won.
The cowpokes were empty and Durand getting emptier when a sudden change began in the play. Pitts began to get beat and the run of play turned once more towards Durand. The locals were used to Pitts’ strategy and became intrigued by this, hustling closer to watch the play.
Sissy watched as well. Ten years before it had been a game just like this when her Daddy had been beat, when he’d called Durand a cheat and when they’d all paid the price for his challenge.
She watched Durand now, wondering if at last Henry had met his match. He was cool, as all card-sharps have to be, and only she realised he was getting worried. If this carried on Durand would clean him out. She strolled round the table and placed herself to the back of Durand, her eyes as sharp as a lynx.
At last she saw it. Every so often, on an irregular basis, Durand would draw a card off the bottom of the deck. She realised that he must have slung cards long before guns. In fact he was quicker on the switch than anyone west of the river; his equal could only be found inWashington. She glanced at Pitts. A bead of perspiration was forming on the bridge of his nose.
She strolled to the bar and came back with two more bottles. She pushed one towards Durand and gave him a smile which told him she was impressed with his skills and maybe she would want to see another type of demonstration later on. He chuckled to himself and filled his glass. She carried the second bottle over to Pitts and bent close as she gave it to him. ‘He’s bottom-dealing,’ she whispered. ‘What you going to do about it?’
Pitts glanced up at her. She blinked in surprise. His eyes were shrunken with fear. He gave a quick shake of his head, clamped his lips tight and returned his attention to the game.
You coward, she thought. He’s cheating you hollow and you’re too yellow to do a thing about it.
She gave herself no time to think about it. She turned and stared at Durand, who was sipping at his glass, contemplating her.
‘Mr Durand,’ she said. ‘I do believe you are cheating.’
She heard the silence descend upon the room, she saw the heads turn towards her in surprise, she smelled a sudden stink of panic from Henry Pitts beside her.
Durand put down his glass, slow and purposeful. He did not look at her but looked at Henry Pitts instead. ‘Is that what you think?’ he asked.
Pitts did not trust himself to answer. He shook his head.
‘Are you certain?’
Again Pitts shook his head.
‘Does that mean you’re certain or you ain’t? Because if you want to call me out, it only takes a word.’
Pitts shook his head so violently that his knees knocked against the table and his glass smashed upon the floor.
Durand turned towards Sissy. ‘Well, little gal,’ he said, ‘it seems that you must have been mistaken.’
‘I’m not mistaken now, nor was my Daddy mistaken back in Tombstone ten years since.’
Durand clicked his fingers. ‘Of course. Cecily Mayhew. I do believe I’ve already had the pleasure of you.’
‘Yes you did. Which is why no decent man would wed me and I’ve ended up with lily-livered low life like that.’ Her eyes smoldered as she stared at Pitts.
‘Well maybe your luck has turned today. I reckon we’ll be good friends.’
‘Not with the likes of you. A stinking cheating coward.’
Durand smiled very affably and tilted his head as if acknowledging applause. Then he slapped her so hard that she crashed into the table behind.
He stood and looked round the saloon, daring any man to stand up and take her side. None did.
Durand sat back down. The table was empty save for his winnings. Pitts and the cowpokes had fled. No one helped Sissy as she tried to struggle to her feet. Finally a frail voice called out. ‘I call you a coward, Johnny Durand.’
In the corner of the saloon an old man rose to his feet. He walked towards Sissy and helped her up.
He turned to Durand. ‘I call you a coward who is only brave when it comes to whupping women.’
‘Sit down, Cougar,’ called Jake, hurrying from behind the bar. He positioned himself between the old man and Durand. ‘Ignore him, Mr Durand,’ he said. ‘He’s taken too much whisky.’
Durand tilted back his hat. ‘Don’t worry. Old men like to play the hero sometimes.’
‘I’ll see you tomorrow at dawn,’ the old man said. He put his arm in Sissy’s and they walked out of the saloon.
‘Cougar Boone,’ Sissy said when they got out on the street. ‘Why did you go and do such a fool-hardy deed as call him out. He’s a killer.’
‘I’m an old man, Sissy, I reckon I’m gonna die soon enough, gunslinger or no. And when I’m dead how could I look my great gran-pappy in the eye knowing I hadn’t defended a lovely girl like you.’
‘How many times do I have to tell you that you’re not Daniel Boone’s descendent. And I can look after myself.’
‘Maybe you can,’ Cougar said. ‘But even a girl like you can do with a little help.’ He smiled and shuffled off. Then he stopped and turned. ‘Daniel sure was, you know. My great gran-pappy.’
She shook her head. Then she ran after him. ‘Cougar,’ she said. ‘There is one way you can help.’
He tilted his head in question.
‘Would you teach me how to shoot?’
The next day only a few people were up before dawn to see if the gun-fight would take place. Most people thought that old Cougar would chicken out and the rest were certain that his aged mind would have forgotten entirely.
So it was astonished early risers who saw him totter onto the main street as the sky grew light in the east. A cold wind blew from the prairie, its icy fingers penetrating to the skin of the old man dressed in buckskin.
Word ran round the town and in minutes the street was crowded with people, most of them still clambering into their clothes.
The last but one to appear was Johnny Durand. He strolled out from the saloon, hat pushed low against the sun which was peering above the horizon.
Cougar straightened as the gun-slinger paced towards him.
‘You don’t have to do this, old man,’ Durand said. ‘I don’t make a habit of killing those with one foot already in the grave. I don’t have to fight you.’
‘How about fighting a woman then?’
The townsfolk turned. Sissy Mayhew stepped onto the street. She was dressed in shirt and trousers and a revolver hung from her hip.
‘Or are you too scared?’ she called.
Durand laughed and shook his head. ‘An old man and a young bitch,’ he said. ‘Carson City’s sure some place.’
Sissy Mayhew stepped slowly towards Johnny Durand. Her mouth went as dry as a gulch in August. Her left hand felt as cold as snow and her right, the one she would have to shoot with, was hot and slippery with sweat.
Durand gazed at her as she took up position. His face wore an expression of amusement but as she straightened her stance he began to look troubled. Few men ever dared face him; a woman doing so was something he had never contemplated.
Sissy wiped her hand upon her shirt and inched it out to the side, itching for the draw.
‘I can’t let you do it,’ Cougar said.
Before she could answer he stepped in front of her. He gestured to her to move away which she did.
‘Come on big shot,’ Cougar cried. ‘I’ve seen you hit a woman, but dare you fight a man?’
The two men paused, poised on the brink of life and death. Their hands flashed. Cougar’s gun was still coming out of the holster when Durand’s bullet drilled into his head.
The old man was driven backwards and sprawled dead in the dirt. Durand walked over to him and stared down, a sardonic smile upon his face.
A shot rang out. Durand’s arms flung high with the impact. He dropped to his knees and plunged face-down beside the old man.
Sissy stood unmoving, the gun still shaking in her hand. Durand groaned and moved a little. She took four steps towards him. Five more shots rang out as she emptied the chamber into his back.
Her hand did not shake as she returned the gun to its holster.