Go back in time to gun­fights of the Old West

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - Travel - BY DEAN BEN­NETT

TOMB­STONE, ARIZ. — Wy­att Earp’s boots crunched on the baked desert earth as he, Mar­shal Vir­gil Earp, Mor­gan Earp and Doc Hol­l­i­day strode past Bauer’s butcher shop and the Pa­gago cash store to­ward the O.K. Cor­ral and their date with des­tiny.

The chill wind that Oct. 26, 1881, af­ter­noon blew open Hol­l­i­day’s long grey coat, re­veal­ing the shot­gun he hid within.

Weapons ready, they were de­ter­mined to dis­arm those varmint Clan­tons and McLau­rys. What fol­lowed was a vir­tual toe-to-toe shootout that came to epit­o­mize and ro­man­ti­cize the vi­o­lent mythos of the Old West.

Vis­i­tors to Phoenix who want to take a day off from golf­ing should hop in the car and drive three hours south­east — past lonely mesas and stands of prickly saguaro cac­tus — to this en­dear­ingly kitschy re-cre­ation of a Wild West town and the gun­fight that made it fa­mous.

“If there was any­thing Wy­att Earp could have elim­i­nated in his life it would have been Tomb­stone be­cause that was his down­fall,” says Bill Hun­ley, a life­long Tomb­stone res­i­dent, who owns the town’s his­toric Bird Cage The­atre.

“(Af­ter Tomb­stone) he lost one brother, the other brother was crip­pled the rest of his life, and the fam­ily kind of fell apart.”

Tomb­stone’s town jewel is the re­built, re­fur­bished O.K. Cor­ral site, or more ac­cu­rately, the al­ley be­hind the cor­ral, which is where the gun bat­tle ac­tu­ally occurred.

Walk in the noon­time heat through the cor­ral and mu­seum and you see, be­hind a wrought­iron fence, eight man­nequins with an­gry eyes and guns poised, four on four. Press a but­ton and a voice on a loud­speaker re­counts the bat­tle.

When Wy­att Earp draws, his gun hand slowly rises and you can imag­ine the vi­o­lence that saw 30 shots fired in 30 sec­onds.

Af­ter the smoke cleared, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clan­ton were dead while the un­armed Ike Clan­ton ran away. On the Earp side, only Wy­att es­caped without a scratch.

In­side the cor­ral mu­seum, lis­ten to the vel­vety voice of Vin­cent Price nar­rate a half-hour show on the his­tory of Tomb­stone, com­plete with vi­su­als and a funky re­volv­ing dio­rama.

And twice a day, ac­tors re-cre­ate the vi­o­lent gun­play.

From the cor­ral, vis­i­tors can walk down Allen Street and into his­tory. Cow­boys in dusty chaps in­vite you to other lunchtime gun­fight re-cre­ations: “Come for a burger and a mur­der!”

Vin­tage replica news­pa­pers from that dark day are avail­able at the Tomb­stone Epi­taph news­pa­per of­fice.

Stop in at Big Nose Kate’s Sa­loon — named for Doc Hol­l­i­day’s girl­friend and per­haps the town’s first pros­ti­tute. The bar is vin­tage Old West: dark wood, long bar, with cow­boy pic­tures and ar­ti­facts cram­ming ev­ery inch of the walls. The dom­i­nant mo­tif: guns, naked women and naked women with guns.

The Bird Cage is one of the few sites that hasn’t been com­pletely re­built. The town was dev­as­tated by two fires but sur­vived and thrived, con­tribut­ing to its nick­name: “The Town Too Tough to Die.”

“ The Bird Cage was a brothel, a bordello, a gam­bling casino, a dance hall, a sa­loon and an opera house all rolled into one. That’s where the mys­tique of the sa­loon started,” said Hun­ley.

Vis­i­tors can tour the Bird Cage mu­seum, look up and see the cur­tained-off “cribs” above the casino, where pros­ti­tutes en­ter­tained clients.

Twenty-six peo­ple died vi­o­lently in gun bat­tles in the Bird Cage’s hey­day. They live on, says Hun­ley, on a spir­i­tual plane — dis­em­bod­ied voices and ap­pari­tions — that has made the mu­seum a favourite haunt for ghosthunters.

Broth­els and booze were the fuel for wide-eyed prospec­tors who came to Tomb­stone in the late 1800s in search of gold and sil­ver.

The town was named for Ed Schi­ef­fe­lin, who came out prospect­ing in the 1870s. Good luck, chor­tled his bud­dies, the only thing you’ll find in that patch of god­for­saken desert is your own tomb­stone. When Schi­ef­fe­lin did find his claim, he cheek­ily named it Tomb­stone.

The Earps came for the min­ing and gam­bling but ended up try­ing to keep the peace against ma­raud­ing cow­boys who rus­tled cat­tle, robbed stage­coaches and shook down hon­est folk.

Shortly af­ter the O.K. slaugh­ter, their en­e­mies ex­acted re­venge. Vir­gil Earp was shot on the street, his left arm for­ever maimed. Mor­gan was gunned down while shoot­ing pool.

Vi­o­lence be­gat vi­o­lence. Wy­att hunted down and killed those he be­lieved re­spon­si­ble in a vendetta that brought him last­ing fame — and no­to­ri­ety.

The O.K. gun­fight is hotly de­bated to this day, par­tic­u­larly over who shot first. Some call the Earps hon­est law­men try­ing to dis­arm law­break­ers il­le­gally car­ry­ing guns in town lim­its. Oth­ers la­bel them cow­ards, hid­ing be­hind badges to set­tle a long­stand­ing blood feud.

Years af­ter Earp died of old age in 1929, Hol­ly­wood care­fully weighed both sides of the de­bate and de­cided it couldn’t care less. Earp was a hero! Since then, he has been li­on­ized in films, TV and pop­u­lar cul­ture as the heroic anti-hero: a good man pushed by evil to com­mit evil to right wrongs.

“ When he per­ceived the courts as im­po­tent, the anti-vig­i­lante be­came the ul­ti­mate vig­i­lante jus­tice,” sum­ma­rized au­thor Casey Te­fer­tiller in his book “ Wy­att Earp: The Life Be­hind the Leg­end.”

“As such,” he wrote, “the Earp saga is not a de­fence of vig­i­lan­tism; it is an ac­cep­tance of such ac­tions only un­der the most dire ne­ces­sity.

“ Wy­att Earp can­not be de­fended, but he can be un­der­stood.”

A short drive from the cor­ral, the bodies of Clan­ton and the McLau­rys lie un­der a cairn at the fam­ily plot in the fa­mous Boot Hill Ceme­tery.

Vis­i­tors can walk among the graves, feel the hot wind as it whis­pers through the val­ley be­low, and stare at the dis­tant Dra­goon Moun­tains, where the fa­mous Apache war­rior Cochise once hid out.

The dearly de­parted are buried less than a me­tre deep in the un­for­giv­ing bedrock, their grave-sites blasted with dy­na­mite to make even a lit­tle hole.

Rocks were heaped on top to keep coy­otes from pick­ing at the re­mains.

The epi­taphs speak of those who died in gun­fights, by Apache at­tacks, by hang­ing, and by fall­ing down mi­ne­shafts. Oth­ers died of dis­ease be­fore they got a chance to live.

All tes­tify to a hard­scrab­ble ex­is­tence for gen­er­a­tions that scratched and clawed to make a liv­ing from a land­scape that, even in death, re­fused to yield a sin­gle inch.

Cana­dian Press photo

A Wy­att Earp man­nequin stands ready in Tomb­stone.

Cana­dian Press photo

Tomb­stone’s town jewel is the re­built, re­fur­bished O.K. Cor­ral site or, more ac­cu­rately, the al­ley be­hind the cor­ral, which is where the gun bat­tle ac­tu­ally occurred.

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