"It don't take near as much sweat to make your money our way."
The shirtless man leaned on his spade as he looked at the jovial rider. Up at first light he had been getting a head start on the building furnace that was Arizona under a cloudless summer sky. The irrigation ditch now stretched south three miles, from Soldier's Well toward the parched land he worked with his brother and to his planned alfalfa field. Hot, backbreaking, sweaty work, it was and a half mile still to go before time for the August planting. At a time like this, his sore muscles cried out in support of Curly Bill's carefree life.
"We've had this talk before," Tom McLaury reminded the horseman. "Come back in ten years when I got a good ranch built and see what you think then."
Curly Bill Brocius gave an amused scoff at the optimism of the sweaty man. "In ten years, you and me will be stretched out in some dusty arroyo bleaching our bones, Tom."
McLaury knew better than to try to persuade the outlaw to see a future different than the present. He bent his neck backward and looked up at the sun. "I have one more hour fighting old Sol's tender caresses and I'll break for noon. See you at the house."
"Whiskey's in my saddlebags," Brocius replied. He jerked his head toward the draw. "We borrowed a dozen Mex steers to fatten themselves on your range. Hope we can count on your neighborly courtesy like before."
McLaury and his brother had talked it over time and time again, and the conclusion had always been the same: don't join Curly Bill in Mexico, but help him market his stolen beef. It wasn't Tom's choice, but Frank had a say in their life, too. "See you at the cabin," McLaury said as he watched the rider and his companion depart.
Boyhood on a Buchanan County farm in central Iowa teaches a lad one of two things: that hard work is an essential part of a contented life, or that avoiding chores—and the responsibility that goes with them—is the secret to a life of pleasure.
As he put his weight behind the spade, Tom McClaury gave no thought to the philosophical choice he had made—perhaps he was unaware he had made a choice. His hard-working father had voiced no complaint at his labor as long as Tom had known him; Tom's own daily chores had grown in intensity as he grew in capability. To be a man meant to be like his father. And to be successful in life, to know the joys of his own family, meant carving his existence out of the land here in Sulphur Springs Valley as his father had in Buchanan County.
"Dropping off twelve cows for you today," Curly Bill was saying as Tom pushed through the door. "Same deal as usual?"
"Be faster for you if you just ran them into the butcher yourself," Tom pointed out.
"Sure, but you boys are running beef with this spread you brag about. You can dicker for a better price than good, honest rustlers like ourselves." Johnny Ringo joined in the laughter.
"No one is being fooled," Frank McLaury said. "We aren't getting enough for the risk."
"Ride with us to Mexico, and you'll get a full share, Frank," Ringo reminded him.
"We won't." Tom hastened to forestall any wavering by his brother.
"He speak for you, Frank?"
"We talked it over," the older McLaury admitted. And so they, several times, Frank's argument always yielding to Tom's insistence. "I stand with my brother." The one fixed star in Frank's constellation, Tom knew family ruled him more than money.
It was hours before Curly Bill and Johnny mounted and rode on, hours of whiskey, and useless chatter, but finally Tom could take up his spade again and extend the irrigation ditch a few more feet before graying skies and his belly combined to call a halt to the day's labor.
After supper, Tom renewed the old debate. "Time we stopped making their deliveries, Frank. It ain't right."
"Doing favors is just being a good neighbor," Frank replied.
"It's not Bill's beef we're delivering. He's bringing them up from Mexico and you know no Mex ranchers are getting paid for them."
"You want to spread the word to our neighbors that we're too sniffy legal to associate with the likes of them?"
"Curly Bill's a good fellow. He won't get mad. Nor Johnny Ringo, either."
"You can swing by Ike Clanton's place and explain to him."
Tom had yet to find an answer to that regular sally of Frank. "He's a mean one. Wouldn't put it past him, some night in his cups, to ride over and toss a flaming brand into someone's barn if he took it into his mind that the neighbor wasn't friendly."
"We're not in Iowa any more, Tom. We can't look to the county sheriff to keep the peace. Out here it's just us and our neighbors."
Tom McLaury leaned on his spade to rest his muscles for a moment and gazed out over the near-empty grasslands
Southeast Arizona was a new frontier, a land of promise for two young men seeking to carve out a good life for themselves. That it was still lawless, that other kinds of men—takers, not builders—were drawn to the land barely dimmed the optimistic plans with which the two brothers had arrived in what was still Pima County in 1878.
Tom and Frank had left home together to seek their place in the world when he was twenty-one, Frank being four years older, and the natural leader. First, they went to Fort Worth, Texas, where their older brother Will was starting his career as a lawyer, doing dusty office work that held no attraction for young men of action. They cowboyed for others, learning new skills, but working for wages only satisfied men of limited aspirations.
Finally, when still sparsely settled Southeast Arizona opened for settlement, opportunity cried out to them. With the spurt of growth promised by the silver strikes that gave birth to the burgeoning community of Tombstone, with open range and the Homestead Act, all a man needed to make his way was a few cows and a willingness to work.
Tom admired the austere beauty in the reddish sand dotted with the gray-green clumps of tabaso grass, a beauty it had taken him years to value after the rich, dark loam of Iowa and the lush greenness of cultivated fields. Part of the beauty, he knew, came from one simple fact: this land was his land. But he valued it too for its ruggedness. It took a strong man to thrive in the Arizona desert. As he imagined the land dotted with cattle carrying the McLoury Inverted Triangle brand, Tom McClaury could see the future and liked what he saw.
Sometimes he wondered whether Frank shared the vision.
"Where's your brother?"
At the harsh, guttural voice, Tom turned to face the dark-mustachioed horseman quartering down the hogback. Lawmen had a quality to them that quickened the pulse, tensed the muscles, even for a simple cowman engaged in honest labor on his own land. This lawman special. "He's up to the house fixing supper, Marshall."
"Meet me at your shack," the rider said as he reined aside. Not "when you're done with your work." Not even, "please." Just a peremptory command given with no doubt it would be obeyed. Two good hours of work lost to whatever was stuck in the lawman's craw. Just a gambler in town and brother to the town marshal, the Deputy US Marshal badge he carried gave him enough heft to command obedience and to make trouble for those with minds of their own. "Yes. sir, Mister Earp," Tom called after the departing lawman.
"Two Army mules were stolen in town yesterday with big conspicuous US brands on their rumps. You want to walk to the corral with me where I can learn what you already know?"
"We saw the US brand, but the fellow who left them said he has a bill of sale," Tom assured the Marshall.
Earp's sniff showed the two young cowmen what little credit he gave to Tom's tale. "Fellow have a name?"
"Not a name you're needing to hear," Frank growled.
Tom's hand brushed Frank's arm as he quickly spoke up to forestall his brother's anger. "We didn't know they were stolen, Marshall. We'll bring them in tomorrow."
Wyatt Earp fixed Tom with a practiced lawman's stare. "I'll hold you to that." He paused at the doorway and faced Frank. "If you can find that friend of yours, tell him I'd like to take a gander at that bill of sale." He gave a short laugh. "If he can find it."
Tom held tight to Frank's arm and released it only when they heard the hoof beats moving off. "That tinhorn gambler don't respect men who earn their living by their sweat," Frank McLaury declared. "Wyatt Earp is nothing but an arrogant bully."
"Earp's a bully with a badge, Frank. That makes the difference."
"Lawmen come and go. We're building us a ranch that will be here long after they move on."
The scar on the land that went by the name Tombstone jarred Tom McLaury's senses even before he reached the outskirts. The smells came first, rising from the garbage heaps outside town, and then the fragrance of the unwashed sweat of three thousand human beings; after the smell came the noise, the bustling disorder heard half a mile away, the hammering of rebuilding after the June fire that devastated three blocks of the commercial center of town, from the Birdcage Theater to the Oriental Saloon, rising above the clean desert sounds. Finally the town came in view, with its slew of dust-covered miners, boisterous cowhands spruced up for a town's excitement, cursing teamsters driving their wagon loads through the bustle of the street, women of all kinds on the boardwalk, some stepping aside to avoid brushing a sweaty workman, others seeking to apply their wiles, the promise of violence not needing to be spoken in the new, some would say violent, community. Tom felt his tension rise every time he crested the eastern hill and looked down at the sprawling ramshackle thrown-together excuse for human habitation. Back in Iowa, a trip to Independence was pleasurable and predictable, a place where everyone knew each other, where a man didn't have to worry that a stray glance would give offense and lead to fists, knifes, or worse. He wondered if Buchanan County had once been as wild as Tombstone.
Tom paused at the Wells Fargo station on the outskirts of town and turned the mules loose. "Marshall Earp will be by to take charge," he told the station master. After dropping off the mules, Tom led two steers with foreign brands down Allen Street where he found Jim Carruthers standing in front of the meat market that bore his name. "Got room for some more beef?" Tom asked.
Carruthers looked hastily up and down the street. "You seen Earp since you got to town?"
When Tom shook his head, Carruthers motioned to the narrow alley between his shop and the restaurant next door. "Make it quick. Get then out of sight."
Behind the building, Tom removed the lead rope from the steers and turned them loose in Carruthers' makeshift holding pen. He stepped through the rear door into the butcher shop. "Touchy today, Jim."
"It's Marshall Earp. He's making trouble, threatening to confiscate beef he decides is stolen."
"Sheriff Behan's never questioned our beef. Virgil Earp's got no call sticking his nose into what happens outside Tombstone."
"Not our town marshal, Tom. I'm talking about Wyatt. Some say he's trying to make Johnny look bad. The skinny is that he's running against him for Sheriff come election."
"Still don't see why he's got his nose in cattle business. Nothing federal there."
"He struts that badge as though it makes him some big auger that runs things around here. He tells me and the other butchers we're buying Mex brands. He says they been stolen."
"Stolen in Mexico. What's his beef?"
"He says they been driven across the border, smuggling he calls it, not paying the import tariff. So he says that makes them contraband and he'll seize any he finds. I'll butcher these quick and get rid of the hides, Tom, but I can't pay you for them until I know I can sell the beef."
In a small town, trust is the commodity that makes economic exchange possible. "We've been working together a long time, Jim. You'll still be here next time I come to town."
Tom turned on Third Street and walked past the Chinese laundry, past Mulligan's Blacksmith shop and turned east on Fremont Street. He slowed as he passed Camillus Fly's photographic shop and reminded himself to get Frank in so they can get a picture made to send back to the family in Iowa. Half a block beyond Fly's was the City Hall and the marshal's office. Tom congratulated himself on his early start, early enough that the Earps would still be abed, especially Wyatt who ran his faro table as far into the wee hours of the morning as he had customers. Tom planned to leave a message that the mules had been delivered and go about his business.
No such luck.
"You bring them like you said?" The deep rumbling voice of Wyatt Earp greeted him as he swung open the door.
"Yes sir. They're at the Wells Fargo corral." The message delivered, he turned to leave but Earp's voice stopped him.
"Trouble's brewing, McLaury. Maybe you don't seem as rotten as some I could name, but when an angry fire scours the range it turns to black ruin whatever if finds in its path. You be careful you ain't burned with the rest."
"Just minding our business, Marshall," McLaury insisted. "Trying to start a ranch."
"You declare sides every time you ride with them. You cross the line every time you market stolen beef. Don't think I don't know."
Frank looked at the newspapers Tom had tossed on the table. "I won't have that Earp-loving Cowboy-hating rag in my house."
"The house every nail of which you hammered personal," Tom replied. It was the standard joke between the brothers, and it usually brought the start of a smile to Frank's lips. Not today.
"You know what I mean. Clum can't let a week go by without he tells he town how much he hates our friends, and that means us too."
"I brought the Nugget, too. You can read that," Tom told his brother. "I'll know more about what's going on if I read both sides." The Tombstone Epitaph carried the story of the theft of the US Army mules. "It is understood our enterprising Deputy US Marshal has quickly determined the guilty party and expects the mules to be restored to federal authority promptly." On an inside page, an editorial decried the lawlessness of Cochise County, "which Sheriff Behan seems unable, or unwilling, to address. Only the vigilance of the town marshal, Virgil Earp, keeps the violence of the Cowboy elements under control in the city."
The Tombstone Nugget had an answering editorial praising Sheriff Behan for his monumental efforts to transform the newly-formed Cochise County, less than one year old, from the wildness of life beyond the reach of the law to the beginning of civilization. "His Republican opponents, blinded by personal ambition, are unable to see the changes he has achieved."
September 30, 1881.
No one questioned that Ike Clanton was a forceful man, a man of strong opinions even when sober. If you chose to talk about the rumors, he and his father, Newton, had been involved in the Skeleton Canyon massacre where a dozen Mexican smugglers and their pack train had been ambushed, killed, and their booty sold in Tucson, Willcox, and Tombstone. None doubted that the Clanton ranch gave friendly welcome to outlaws of all sorts, including the robbers of the Benson stage, as well as men in "the border trade," men like Curly Bill Brocius, Pony Deal, Johnny Ringo, and a roster of the most notorious men of Arizona. Tom and Frank McLaury knew these things, but spoke of them only among themselves.
So when Tom saw Ike swing down and hitch his horse to the corral post, he schooled himself to handle his tongue and avoid offense.
"Damn that Wyatt Earp," Clanton snarled as he came through the door. "Ran into the polecat in Tombstone today. Told him if he don't shut his lips, folks will hear some stories about his buddy Doc Holliday he don't want told."
"What's he got stuck in your craw this time?" Frank asked.
"Him and that so-called dentist pal of his are spreading the damn lie I was working with him to split the reward for bringing in Billy Leonard for the Benson stage robbery."
"The one where Bud Philpott got killed?" Tom asked. "Folks liked him."
"No one believes that about you, Ike," Frank assured Clanton. Tom remained silent, remembering the doubts he had heard men express. Johnny Ringo maintained that Earp had made a deal with Clanton, Clanton would set up Leonard, and would get the reward, but Earp would get the public credit that would elect him as Sheriff. "Billy Leonard, or money," Ringo said. "Which do you think gets Ike's loyalty?" So said Ringo.
"I've had all I can take from Earp's run-on mouth. Looks like I'm going to have to do some business with him that he won't like." Clanton drained his glass and rose to leave. "Almost forgot. Reason I stopped by. The Nugget's list of unclaimed mail has your name in it."
Tom watched thoughtfully as the door closed behind Clanton. "Trouble's coming Frank, and were going to get caught in the middle."
"Not me, Tom. You'll never find me straddling between our friends and swaggering bullies like the Earps."
After picking up the supplies that Tom had listed, and swinging by the post office to retrieve his letter, Frank made his customary final stop in the ornate Alhambra Saloon, not as crowded or noisy this midafternoon as it would be later; only two gambling tables in operation, one being Doc Holliday's.
McLaury took his beer off to the farthest corner, settled in and leaned back. He ran a thumb under the seal and opened the letter from home. Frank McLaury didn't have a face that smiled easily, but the bartender thought it softened as he read.
"Save me some work, McLaury. Tell me what butchers you sold your smuggled beef to so I don't have to traipse all over town."
"Never smuggled as much as a baby goat, Wyatt," Frank insisted. "Never even been to Mexico."
"Receiving stolen goods gets a man as much penitentiary time is stealing them in the first place. Yuma for cattle, Leavenworth for Army mules."
"Don't think I don't know what you're doing. You and your neighbors. Question is which one of you will it be that pushes me too far so I use him to be the "Come to Jesus" moment for the rest of you outlaws."
Frank stuffed the letter in his shirt and got to his feet. "Like a law-abiding citizen, I'm not wearing a gun in town, Earp. That makes it easy for you to run your mouth. Anytime you want to meet me outside of town, let me know."
The face-off with Earp was hardly worth a mention when Frank got home. The big news was what he was bursting to share with Tom. "Letter from ma," he told his brother. "Sister Caroline. She's getting married to Jim Reed come November."
"Reed? The son of old Joshua Reed? He's got a big spread. That's a good match for Caroline."
"Hard to think of little Caroline being grown up now. She always was my favorite." Frank's face softened and Tom could see his mind was miles away. "Sure wish we could be there to see it."
"Why not?" Tom's sudden inspiration could give them a respite from the Earp-Cowboy turmoil. "Winter's coming. The cattle graze fine without us. We go back for the wedding. Visit awhile, we'll be back in spring in time for calving, roundup and branding." But even as he spoke, Tom knew Frank would have a major objection.
"Hate to look like I'm running out on our friends."
"Things will cool off during winter," Tom assured his brother. "It's when the election gets close, that's when things get hot. We'll be back by then."
As Frank's face brightened at the notion, Tom's mind roamed far ahead. "Remember Annie Baker, one of Caroline's schoolmates? I wonder how she's filled out." He looked around their small house and considered the expansion his new plans would require. "Who knows? Maybe I'll even get fitted for out a double yoke myself."
October 26, 1881.
The McLaury brothers halted at the outskirts of Tombstone and saddle-bagged their .45s. "So the plan for the day is we ride into town, settle our accounts, have a couple of drinks for the road, and be back home for an early supper, bed and on the trail to Willcox at first light."
Their first chore was to swing by Carruthers Meat Market. "Got some regular Arizona beef for you today, Jim," Tom told Carruthers. "Burned our Inverted Triangle on them myself when they were barely weaned."
Carruthers stepped over to the lead steer. "Let me check the brands, Tom."
Frank McClaury bristled. "You questioning my brother's word?"
"Tom's word's all I need, Frank. But if the brand don't pass Wyatt's inspection, the beef's no good to me."
Tom shrugged off Frank's predictability and played his customary role of pacifier. "Jim's got a job to do, Frank. Let him get on with it."
Carruthers examined the brand. "Looks well-seasoned, Tom. Come inside. I'll pay you for them and for the last you brought in."
While Carruthers was counting out the money, he filled the brothers in. "Today's not a good day to be in town. Ike Clanton's been drinking hard since yesterday, saying he'll kill Doc Holliday on sight along with any Earp that gets in his way. Folks are saying if the Earps don't stand up to him, none of the Cowboys will ever respect the badge. It'll be like before Virg was made Town Marshall."
When the brothers separated for their errands, they agreed to meet in an hour at the Oriental Saloon. Tom needed to stop by butchers Jacob Eberhard and Bob Clifford to make his collections and then settle his accounts at Dexter's Feed Store and Hoeffler's General Merchandise. Finally, he completed his business at the Pima County Bank where he made his deposits and withdrew their needed traveling money.
As Tom left the bank, he heard two men talking, "Wyatt took that loudmouth Clanton to Judge Wallace. That should quiet things down."
Curious, Tom turned down Fourth Street toward police court where he encountered Wyatt Earp coming the other way.
Onlookers never knew what words were exchanged when the two men met, but suddenly Wyatt's left hand slapped Tom across the face while his right fisted his revolver and slammed it into Tom's head. While Tom slumped to the street, Earp stalked off.
Back on his feet but still shaken, Tom fought down his resentment at the departing Marshall's bullying and turned toward the Oriental Saloon, the drink, and the badly needed respite from the streets of Tombstone. He was on his second whiskey when his brother stormed in.
"I hear that Wyatt pistol-whipped you. We ain't taking that. Get up. We'll brace the bastard."
Tom booted back the chair across from him. "Have a drink for the trail, Frank," he told his brother. "Then we ride out. All I'm thinking about is that train ride tomorrow, Iowa, and seeing home again. Cochise County troubles will be here for us when we get back." Before Frank could answer, Billy Clanton rushed in.
"Tom, you got to help me. Ike's got it in his craw that Holliday has been spreading word about Billy Leonard. He's raving about killing him before he leaves town. Wyatt, too. I got to get him in the saddle and on the trail."
"Where is he now?"
"Out in the vacant lot behind the OK Corral. Billy Claibourne is trying to calm him down."
If trust is the major economic glue in a small town, friendship imposes its own obligation. The McLaurys responded to Billy Clanton as a matter of course. As they led their horses down Fifth Street behind Billy, they ignored the clusters of men on the street. But when they turned west on Fremont, they couldn't miss the words "the Earps" and "Clanton."
Nestled between Fly's boarding house and Harwood's house, the small vacant lot backed onto the building that housed the OK Corral. Scarcely thirty feet wide, Harwood's gave some afternoon shade from an Arizona sun hot even in October. It was there they found Ike Clanton and Billy Claibourne.
"Got to settle this with Wyatt once and for all," Ike was saying.
"You're drunk, man," Frank told the older Clanton, as he strapped on his gun belt now that they were leaving town. "It won't be a fair fight. Take him when you got an even chance."
"Front or back, makes no difference. Wyatt's been spreading lies about me. Once he shows himself, I'll get him."
Tom could see Ike Clanton was in one of his moods. Even without the whiskey, he was never an easy man to turn aside. But Tom owed it to Billy to try. "Got more important things to do, Ike. We need you back at our cabin, We're having a going-away party and need your help using up our whiskey."
"Whiskey," Ike began and Tom knew he had found the lure to get Ike Clanton out of town. Just keep him focused, Tom told himself, and we'll be mounted and on the trail in five minutes.
"What you boys up to?"
Tom turned to face the interruption. "We don't plan no trouble, Johnny," he assured the sheriff. "Saddle-bagged my irons like the law says," he shifted so Behan could see his empty holster. "We're just getting ready to head for home."
Behan looked from Tom to Frank standing behind his horse, to Billy Claibourne and Billy Clanton, and a long time at Ike Clanton before he turned back to Tom. "I'll hold you to that, Tom," he said and turned back down Fremont Street. As Tom watched him walk away, he saw four determined men brush past Behan's attempt to slow them down.
"Get ready to be braced," he muttered to Frank. "Let them bluster their piece and let's get out of here."
As he lay in the street, Tom Mclaury tried to remember how it had happened. Had Doc Holliday opened up with the shotgun? Had Frank's hotheaded nature erupted at one more episode of Earp bullying? Had Wyatt come with killing in his intent? Or had Ike Clanton's whiskey-clouded bluster been accompanied by an unwise move toward his hip? It had erupted so suddenly, been over so quickly, he couldn't be sure, like a harsh thunder clap and a gully washer that took out everything in its path. Now his world was closing in on him and all that remained was the hole in his belly and unendurable pain.
Then that, too, was gone.