Main fanfic page
Written for Lar in the Yuletide 2004 challenge.
Notes: Many thanks to Elynross and Gwyneth Rhys for beta work. The movie takes many liberties with the historical facts. I take several more, and amend a few others.
Blood and Whiskey
He was one of the most unpredictable, bad-tempered, quick on the trigger, vicious hombres as you would ever hope not to meet, at least if you listened to the stories folks told; for my part, I never had a lick of trouble with him.
I met Doc in Texas, while I was on the trail of a fellow named Rudabaugh who had robbed a railroad in Santa Fe and led me a good, long dance over some 500 miles of the most outright wilderness in the country. When I landed at Fort Griffin I was sure I had lost him, and I didn't change my opinion none when a saloonkeeper told me one John Holliday might know a useful thing or two.
Doc's reputation was already something pretty black by then. He was dying of consumption every minute I knew him, and it had made him careless with his life. He'd already introduced some five or six gents to their Maker, and he didn't take much account of the law. I found him playing cards in the back room, near enough the sickliest creature I ever laid eyes on and soft-voiced in his greetings, but he had a hand under the far side of the table, and he surely hadn't missed the marshal's pin on my lapel.
I told him straight out I wasn't in town on his account, and I'd be obliged if he'd tell me where my man had got to, assuming he knew. I wasn't expecting much, but he said, "Well, now, that'll take some telling," in his courtly Southern way, and poured me a glass of whiskey with the hand that had been hidden under the table. I didn't find out until a good two hours later, when we stood up, that his gun had been on the other side all along. It was some years more before I learned first hand how little difference that would've made, and I do not mean to suggest that I am any slouch at the quick draw.
He helped me work out that Rudabaugh had doubled back to Kansas, and I wired my good friend Bat Masterson the news, he being sheriff in Ford County at the time. About a week I later heard back they'd caught the fellow not far outside Wichita and stretched his neck for him. Anyway I was soon a good $500 richer for the advice, which can't help but give a man a kind of friendly feeling, especially when Doc said no thanks to half of it, and I didn't at all mind spending some of the money buying his whiskey.
A couple of years after this I was doing a job of work as deputy sheriff in Dodge City, and Doc was dealing in the back room at the Long Branch saloon there. One afternoon about fifty cowboys rode into town fresh from a six-week trail, looking out some trouble for themselves and any honest townsfolk unfortunate enough to be in their way. I didn't know Ed Morrison was with them, or I expect I'd have taken a less idiotic approach to the situation, but as it was, the first I heard of it was the noise of them shooting up the windows on Front Street on their way to the Long Branch.
I figured them for a typical rowdy bunch of wranglers, not really mean, just liquored up more than they could hold. I walked right in the front door without taking my guns out of my holsters, thinking I didn't want to provoke a drunk into starting something I'd have to finish, and that's how I found myself looking right down the barrel of Ed Morrison's shotgun with Tobe Driscoll and a dozen of his good friends right there behind him.
It is a hard feeling to explain to someone who has never been introduced to the business end of a gun or seen what one can leave behind of a man. I know some say their knees go weak and others start thinking of their loved ones or the Almighty, but for me I must confess I was occupied mostly by wondering whether I could take Morrison or Driscoll with me, and which one I should try for. I have never been a very religious man, I am afraid.
Others say they don't mind it at all, but I only ever met one who wasn't lying, and he was already under sentence of death from a higher power.
Morrison was damn near laughing in my face. Me and him had run into one another a few times in Wichita, and on the last occasion I had kicked him out into the street and told him to steer clear of the place while I remained in it. He had the kind of courage it takes to draw on a man with twenty others back of you, and none of the kind required when you're alone.
Driscoll was another story. Some people said Doc was a born killer, that he liked to see men die. For me, the truth is he didn't much care either way, if a fellow was rash enough to cross him. Driscoll was the real thing, though, a sure-enough desperado who'd already killed fourteen men and was looking to kill more. He didn't have any private grievance with me, as far as I know, but I already had something of a name as a lawman, and I guess he thought he wouldn't mind being the man who shot Wyatt Earp.
I figured Morrison to be back of it all, but Driscoll was the worse specimen. I do not set up as a hero, but lawman work gets to be a habit after a while doing it, like anything else, and some part of me reckoned that the Earth would be the cleaner for my taking him along on my journey home. I had some leisure to think about it, as Morrison didn't aim to swing for my sake and was waiting until I should draw on them, but Driscoll was getting impatient, and with his record I don't suppose he planned on staying around long enough for the law to get to him.
Probably all told it was less than five minutes after I walked in the doors. Morrison was making various remarks as occurred to him might get me to draw, and Driscoll was smiling and fiddling with his trigger. I was getting ready to go for my Colt.
That's when Doc came jumping through the back door, cursing and yelling fit to wake the dead, with guns in both his hands. I was already looking that way, but everybody else turned, even Driscoll. Seeing my chance, I hit Morrison over the head and let Driscoll see the long barrel pointing right in his face when he turned back around. I didn't shoot right off. Now I seemed to have a fighting chance to walk out on my own two feet again, I wasn't reckless enough to start a gunfight in a packed house, and Driscoll for his part thought better of his ambitions when faced with my counter-argument.
Most of the cowboys had already put their guns down, figuring Morrison had me dead to rights, and nobody felt like picking them up again in Doc's face. He was pretty well known around those parts by then, as I have mentioned. One young fellow made kind of a half-hearted gesture at his rifle, and Doc sent it spinning across the floor with a single shot. I remember that shot probably better than any other part of the business. It seemed louder than thunder.
Doc came and stood at the front of the room with his two six-shooters while I relieved those fellows one and all of their firearms, and afterwards he walked out with me shoulder to shoulder, down the street to the sheriff's office.
I never met a live gunfighter who had a single thought he could put into words after the firearms cleared their holsters, and I am no exception. That state of calm carried me through locking up all the guns, and back out into the street, but somewhere between there and my place I became aware that my hand was shaking. Doc could not have helped but notice, close as he was standing, and he said, "Wyatt, you weren't concerned none, now were you? Why, there weren't above twenty cowboys in that room, and we had a whole eighteen bullets between us."
I laughed, and just like that the shaking quit. "Come upstairs and have a drink."
"Don't mind if I do."
I had a room on the second floor above the Alhambra saloon where I used to go when Mattie was feeling low and quarrelsome, or if I desired some privacy, as a man may do now and again. Doc was on the outs with Kate at the time, and being thus unaccountable to anyone, we did not stint ourselves. I do not mention this by way of being an excuse, which I do not see as I owe anyone. For that matter, I am reasonably certain we would have ended up just as we did even without the lubrication of whiskey.
There were no chairs in my little room, so we took off our boots and lay down side by side on the bed, drinking and playing friendly poker. We got worse and worse at the cheating as we went on, but we were getting drunker at roughly the same pace, so it made as much difference as nevermind. He won five hands out of seven and laughed himself into a coughing fit while I told him the story of how I'd run Morrison out of Wichita, elaborated with such devices as I thought improved the telling.
I got him a kerchief and another glass of whiskey, which helped some, and eased him down against the pillows. He opened his eyes while I was still bending over him, and looked at my mouth, by accident more than anything. I was not so drunk I could not read his expression.
"I don't suppose you've ever," he said thoughtfully, when he saw that I'd noticed.
"I don't suppose I have, either, but I guess that doesn't mean I can't," I told him.
I will say here straight out that it was not gratitude, or any such servile stuff, that made me willing. He gave me my life freely, and would not have taken anything from me for it. If I had not honestly wanted him, I do not think he would have taken me to his bed for any inducement. But I would be lying if I said it wasn't something to do with what happened at the Long Branch.
He came through that door knowing there were some twenty hombres with guns fixing to commit murder on the other side. I do not know if I could have walked through that same door myself. That is one of those questions no man can answer except in the event, and hopes never to be put to. But I do know that I would not do it for just any man. When he came into the Long Branch barroom that day, he was telling me I was a man worth dying for.
I had a good five minutes of getting ready to die before he came through that door, and then I didn't have time to consult my feelings. I did not put what I have just described into words for a long time afterwards, and then only to try and explain to my brother Virgil, when he asked me why I set so much store by Holliday. At the time, in that moment, I only felt deep in my heart that there was nothing this man could want of me that I could not want to give him, and nothing of him that I could not want.
I don't recall details, now. It was plain he knew more about the business than I did, and I think I managed well enough, following his lead. Mostly I remember the taste of his mouth, blood and whiskey together, and the fever always running under his skin.
Anyhow, I liked it fine, but there were Mattie and Kate to consider, so we left off. Doc rode out of town not much later, after he and Kate had another one of their dustups. I didn't see him again until Tombstone, though I heard the stories. In Colorado some young fool who called himself Kid Colton, having got tired of living, provoked him into a shootout. Then he was a while in New Mexico, until an argument with a local fellow turned ugly there and he had to clear out again.
He rolled into town flush from a run of good luck at the tables in Prescott, with Kate back on his arm. We were already having trouble with the Clantons, and I could not have been better pleased to see a man. But as I said, he was back with Kate, and by then I'd met Josie, so my bed was already too crowded for comfort.
About the business outside the O.K. Corral, more has been said and written than I would have imagined possible about an incident which spanned less than a minute of recorded time. I will only say here that if hereafter I find myself in the company of those same three men with whom I walked down Fremont Street to that meeting, I will call myself content, no matter what region of Creation I may be inhabiting at that time, and I think I speak for them all.
We killed Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers that day, but Claiborne and Ike Clanton ran when the bullets started flying, and hated us all the worse for it. But after that they and the rest of their gang did not have the courage to meet us in open contest. They got my brother Virg with buckshot from cover and ruined his arm, and then they killed my brother Morgan in front of my eyes, sniping at the two of us through the window at Hatchett's.
Doc was not an easy man to make a friend of, and he had few attachments. Morg and Virg had not approved all that much of my association with him, but Virg had put his own shotgun in Doc's hands that day at the Corral, and even shot and bleeding, Morg had propped himself up to make a shot to save Doc's life. That kind of loyalty meant more to Doc than I can easily describe, and he took Morg's death as hard as any of us. The body was not yet cold when Sheriff Behan came to tell me, "Your friend Holliday is gone plumb crazy, breaking into folks' houses and threatening people's lives. You'd better come close him down before he shoots somebody."
Behan was a friend to the Clantons, and had done more to promote lawlessness in that town than any man calling himself an enforcer of the law had a right to, so I took this as kindly as you might expect. "You can close him down yourself, if you like to try," I said to him. "If he's looking for the fellows that shot Morgan, I don't aim to interfere." He slunk off, a meager two-legged jackal if I ever saw one.
But no matter what I said to him, I knew if Doc kept on in this line someone was going to give him a face full of buckshot, and aside from my personal feelings in the matter, I was going to need him by my side when I went out hunting. I caught up with him outside Frank Stillwell's house. His wife and kids were scared half to death behind the door, with Doc setting in the yard bellowing for him to come out.
I did not doubt Stillwell was one of the fellows responsible, but it was a sure thing that he had high-tailed it out of town the second he knew Morg was dead and I was not. Doc was none too willing to go, but at my asking he came away. We held vigil over Morgan's body that night, and saw to his effects together in the morning.
We sent the womenfolk out of town the next day with the body, and Virg also: he was in hellish pain from the wreck that had been made of his arm, and had some recuperating to do before he could do any kind of work again. Still, I do not think he would have gone willingly if Doc had not been there by my side. "Ride herd on him, and ride herd on yourself," he told me, grasping my hand through the train car window.
By way of ignoring this good advice, I shot Frank Stillwell that very afternoon when we found him and Ike Clanton skulking outside the train station, shotguns in hand and no good intentions in their hearts. Nor did I stop to ask questions first. As I see it, when a man has been shot at from hiding by a yellow cayuse, he has a right to get a little hasty, and fellows who have quarrelled with him prior would be advised not to go waving guns in his general direction.
"Wyatt, I believe you're running wild," Doc said to me over the body, which was damned funny when you consider the source. He took me back to the house. It was quiet and empty with everybody gone and my shirts hanging wet on the line where Mattie had hurried to get them all washed before she left. She and I weren't hardly on speaking terms by that time, on account of Josie, but she'd still done that for me.
Well, it had a queer effect on me. Doc was good enough to get me inside, fill up my glass and keep it that way until I was ready to fall over, and then he put me to bed. Somewhere in the middle of the night I woke up still half-drunk and heard his labored breathing next to me. He was lying on top of the covers with his boots still on and his hand resting on his gun.
He opened his eyes when he felt me looking. "All right?"
"Not by a long shot," I said.
Curiously, of that night I can remember every detail, though you wouldn't think a death in the family and the better part of a bottle of whiskey would improve the memory any. Doc told me, "I don't mean to put you off the delicate notion, just so as you understand it's going to hurt like a branding to begin with."
He wasn't much short of the mark, and it gave me a new appreciation for why sometimes it takes a woman a long while to get warmed up. But afterwards was something like. He kept matters going for close on to an hour, until I thought it was coming down to whether my knees or the headboard were going to give out first. Then he gave me a couple of pulls and just that quick I was finished, which had not happened since round the time when I was so young my folks wouldn't let me go and fight for the Union.
We spent the next couple of months crossing every inch of the country for miles around, hunting down the rest of the gang. Passing days at a time in the saddle, we had neither the inclination nor the endurance to be doing much out of the ordinary. Occasionally, however, we would stop into a town for the night and take just the one room between us.
I have always considered myself a man of healthy appetite, but in those nights we gorged ourselves to the limit. I neither thought of any woman nor of sleep nor whiskey in the hours we had together, and in the morning we would stagger out to the horses and get back on the trail as if we'd been drinking all night. We both knew, I think, that the days of that spring were numbered. It could hardly be called a surprise when he got sick.
Like a rat sneaking out of his hole when the cat was gone, Johnny Ringo came gunning for me soon as he got word Doc was out of the picture. He was maybe even as good a shot as Doc, and I knew I myself could not kill him outside of an ambuscade, to which I did not aim to stoop. It will sound strange, but aside from the prospect of leaving him roaming loose, I found I did not mind so much. It looked likely Doc and I would be meeting Morg on the other side round about the same time, and that seemed as good an end to the story as any.
But Doc was never one to stick to the lines someone else had written for him, and you could say he'd gotten used to cheating death. The old boy got cheated twice more that day, when Doc dragged himself out to the meeting Ringo had invited me to attend, and when he laid that sorry son of a bitch out in a fair fight, despite having less than half a lung to do it with.
Doc was educated back East, before he caught consumption and had to come West for his health. In the shootout with Curly Bill Brocius and his gang, near the end of our long hunt together, we came so close to dying I wasn't sure afterwards we'd really made it out alive. Late that night, in our hotel room, he quoted me a line: "Of all things it seems to me the most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come." Those were the words we all lived by in those days.
The last time I saw him, in the sanitarium, he had already lost forty pounds and what color he'd had left, and it was plain to see death wasn't going to get fooled again. That's when he told me to go away and go find Josie. He wasn't the kind of man who said things he didn't mean, to rake in sympathy or for any other reason. I reckon he figured me for being too shy to go after her once he was gone, or maybe too guilty over Mattie, or even over him, and it made him so impatient he didn't want me around anymore. Or maybe he just didn't want me to watch him dying by inches, when he'd lived by miles.
Anyway, I did as he asked me. He died not long after. Josie came with me to the funeral, and she has been with me ever since. I have never felt any comparable sensation for another man, and I do not expect to ever again, now that he is gone.
When I look back over my life, with the considerable degree of bloodshed and bad luck which it has contained, I must nevertheless consider that I have been fortunate beyond my deserts, to have won the hand of the most extraordinary and beautiful woman I ever knew, and to have had for my friend and lover, while he lived, the sharpest, deadliest, most loyal man I ever knew.
= End =