October 26, 1881
"Feet on the floor, Wyatt. Trouble's a-brewing."
December 24, 1880
While Wyatt Earp pulled on his trousers, his brother Morgan filled him in on Ike Clanton's bellyaching. "He had a rip-snorter of an argument with Doc last night," Morgan began.
"You woke me up to tell me that!" Wyatt Earp was not a happy man. "One thing you never doubt about Doc Holliday is whether he can handle a loud-mouth drunk like Ike Clanton. After a night in the sack, all he'd be good for is bending his elbow to nurse his hangover."
"Didn't do no sleeping," Morgan declared. "After Doc run him out of the Alhambra, he got his second thirst. He decided he needed to wash out the Holliday taste with another drink."
"Or five," Wyatt said.
"Or ten," Morgan agreed. "He spent the night going from saloon to saloon, The Occidental, Hatch's, Rafferty's, and his anger at Doc growing by the drink. Before long, he was saying he'd kill Doc on sight. By morning he was adding you to his list, and any other Earp who gets in his way. Not easy now to tell who is tops on his target list."
Wyatt stomped into his boots. "That cowdogger's not worth the trouble he causes."
When he had arrived in Tombstone at the end of 1879, the thirty-one-year-old Wyatt Earp was a rootless man on the unsettled frontier, a man who saw in the infant community a future for a man bold enough to carve it out. Born in 1848, too young to join his brothers James and Virgil in the mid-century struggle that created a nation and in which men defined themselves, he had ricocheted around for years, served as a teamster, worked on railroad construction, defeated his half-brother Newton for constable of Lamar, Missouri, left town before taking up his office, worked as a buffalo hunter, then as a police officer in a succession of Kansas cattle towns, before learning from his brother James that the new, but already burgeoning, Tombstone was a place where a man looking for the main chance could make his way. Soon his brothers Virgil and Morgan followed him to Tombstone to secure the family's future.
Tall, broad-shouldered, with a jet-black swept-back mustache, Wyatt Earp bestrode the boardwalk with a vigor that made women sigh and men step aside. A man's experience in carrying the badge, amplified by his own telling and coupled with his imposing physique had made him a natural for the job when Marshal White had looked for a deputy capable of handling off-shift miners and rowdy cowboys in from the range.
The lawman's job gave Wyatt what he needed, stature in the community, freedom to move around, the chance to locate opportunities. Already, he had built a reliable operation dealing faro in the Oriental Saloon and had joined his brothers in speculating on the town's main industry by backing a few of the start-up mines whose prospectors hoped they would find a lode even bigger than the Contention Mine that had started Tombstone on its way in 1878.
"Come over to the Crystal Palace," Brocius invited. "I owe you a long night of drinking."
Curly Bill Brocius was Cochise County's most notorious outlaw, or "Cowboy" as they preferred to be called, rustler, robber, smuggler, and now wanting to be a drinking buddy of the man who only days before had arrested him for murder. Perhaps he was a man of honor. Perhaps his word was considered of greater value than many up-right Tombstone citizens. "I've never lost a penny treating Brocius or any of his men," the town physician insisted to any who disparaged the Texan. But he was still an outlaw. He and Wyatt Earp walked on different sides of the street.
Curly Bill's unaccustomed gesture of friendship had begun in an unpromising fashion eight weeks earlier as Tombstone Marshall Fred White and his deputy idled in front of the Oriental Saloon, enjoying the coolness of the night air. White had pointed up to the full moon in the clear sky. "A target like that's hard for a liquored-up cowboy to resist."
A good lawman knows his town and its occupants, so not more than five minutes elapsed before the rowdiest of the men in town for their pleasure, part of Curly Bill Brocius' border-crossing crew out to celebrate the gains of their recent expedition, clustered in the open street beyond the Bird Cage Theater and competed with each other in their efforts to poke holes in the Man in the Moon.
"They're harmless," White said as Earp took a first step down the street. "Give than a few minutes to let off steam." But after ten minutes, the noise-making showed no sign of abating. "Let's go," said White, and the two men strode briskly down Allen Street. When they turned the corner on Sixth, their very presence dampened the enthusiasm of the cowboys. "Your game's done, Bill," White told Brocius. "I'll take your gun."
Brocius was submissive, or so he seemed, as he shoved his revolver forward. White grasped the barrel and seized possession of Brocius' pistol with a quick jerk.
In the life-changing moment that every lawman knows is never more than an instant away, White lay on the ground, bleeding, dying, and Curly Bill, the barrel of his .45 still smoking, looked down at the gut-shot town Marshall. "I didn't . . . I didn't mean . . . "
There had been no doubt that Brocius' revolver had fired the fatal shot. The only issue was whether he should hang. As arresting officer and chief witness, all knew that Wyatt Earp's testimony at the inquest was the principal evidence which would determine the fate of the notorious outlaw. "Didn't seem on purpose to me," Earp testified. "Before he died, Marshall White told me the shot was an accident. He said he'd been careless the way he yanked the gun from Mr. Brocius and put the blame on himself."
When Wyatt left the witness stand, there was only one possible verdict and Brocius now stood on the street, notorious outlaw that he was, a free man.
Wyatt's mentor and employer was dead and except for occasional duties as part-time Deputy US Marshal for Southeastern Arizona, Wyatt Earp's career in law enforcement seemed at an end.
But better opportunities were on the horizon. The legislature had voted to carve Cochise County off from Pima County and that meant a new sheriff and new deputies. With his self-described reputation, Wyatt put in for sheriff, a post that would see him and his brothers set for life. A Republican, so he called himself for such had been the allegiance of all lawmen in Kansas, and with a Republican holding office as Territorial Governor, what could seem more natural?
But Johnny Behan wanted the job, too, a Democrat with partisan connections across a territory that voted Democrat. "Back me, and I'll make you deputy," Behan urged Wyatt. And so Johnny Behan sat behind the Cochise County Sheriff's desk and Wyatt called on the sheriff to get his badge. But other deputies were appointed, men like Frank Stillwell and Pete Spence, and Wyatt was left without a local badge.
"What do you expect, Wyatt," brother Virg jibed at him. "Josie moves her blankets from his place to yours and you go on like nothing happened?"
"That fat tub?" Wyatt snorted. "It's Behan's own lookout if he's not man enough to satisfy his woman. What's that got to do with keeping his word to make me deputy?" Virg's skeptical expression showed he was unconvinced.
"No matter," Wyatt told his brother. "Townfolks will back me when the election comes around. We just got to keep him from stuffing the ballot boxes with Cowboy votes."
Meanwhile, Wyatt dedicated himself to proving he was up to the job.
The seeds for Wyatt's advancement had been sown on that March night when popular, friendly, Bud Philpott drove the Wells Fargo stage on its regular run to Benson with four passengers and twenty-five thousand in silver aboard. Just a routine run, or so it seemed when the dust of the departing stage settled back onto the streets of Tombstone. But in an unsettled frontier, nothing is routine.
October 3, 1881
Only a few miles north of Contention, three masked robbers made their play. When it was over, Bud Philpott lay bleeding and dying. To Bud Philpott's friends it was a tragedy; to Wells Fargo, it was a crime against the banking system. To Wyatt Earp it became a career opportunity.
When months passed with no arrests, the anger of the citizens, at least those in the town of a Republican persuasion, was expressed by the Tombstone Epitaph. "For Tombstone to prosper, outlawry must be stopped," the editor thundered. "By his incompetence, Sheriff Behan refutes the wisdom of the governor's decision to pass over a proven lawman like Wyatt Earp for an untested man merely on the basis of political connections."
Of course, the Nugget saw it differently. "We have no doubt that our efficient sheriff is even now determining the identity of the killers and soon will have them in jail."
The Epitaph responded in its next issue: "The killers of Bud Philpott are well known outlaws in this county. Is Sheriff Behan too committed to his "Cowboy" friends to bring the killers to justice?"
And so Wyatt Earp made his plans.
On Fourth Street, Wyatt motioned to Ike Clanton and the two stepped into the alley behind Barron's Saloon for a private talk.
"You and me got some business to talk over, Ike."
Ike Clanton was an odd associate for Wyatt Earp in any business, a drunk in town, a hard-scrabble rancher on the range, a man generally believed to be hip deep in the "cross-border trade" of the sort that had got his father ambushed and killed in Guadalupe Canyon only weeks earlier. What business could a man with ambitions for a career in law, a man carrying a Deputy US Marshal's badge have with one of the county's outlaw elements? No greater affinity did Clanton display for Wyatt as he eyed him with the suspicion a dishonest man always has at an unexpected encounter with the law.
"You just a tinpot gambler today, Earp, or are you playing at the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge you like to strut?"
"I'm talking personal business," Wyatt replied. "Bud Philpott was a popular man. His killing riled people up. The man who brings his killers in will ride all the way to the sheriff's office come election."
"Don't you try pinning that on me, Earp. Everyone knows it was—"
"Billy Leonard and his chums Harry Head and Jim Crane." Earp had expected hostility. Even his testimony to save Curly Bill Brocius from hanging for murder had done nothing to make him, a Northerner, a Republican and a lawman, popular with the rustlers of the county. "I won't give you my campaign speech, but I'm going to wear that badge come election day and you're part of my plan."
"Behan's fine for us Cowboys. We got no needs for the likes of you." Clanton started to turn away.
Wyatt grasped Clanton's arm firmly. "I got a reason you'll want to hear, Ike. Thirty-six hundred of them. That's the rewards from Wells Fargo for bringing in Billy Leonard and his pards. I guess you could use the money."
Wyatt knew his man. The hunger glistened in Clanton's eyes. He was listening, but guardedly. "What are you saying?"
"Chasing after them, I'd never catch up to them. But working together we get the job done. You set them up them for me to take. I get the credit, and I turn the reward over to you."
Clanton's eyes narrowed as the savory taste of money worked its way, but Clanton, even with a load of whiskey in his belly, was too cautious to jump to the bait. "Word gets out and I'm dead."
Clanton had tried to snarl but avarice weakened his rejection. He hadn't said no. That's when Wyatt knew he had the makings of a deal.
"Folks know about our deal and I can kiss the election goodbye," Wyatt said. "We both got good reasons to keep our lips buttoned. That's how we know we can trust each other."
Clanton seemed to think the proposal through. "I could get them to come by my cabin, easy enough," Clanton acknowledged. Then a thought came to him. "Won't work, Wyatt. I know those boys. They'll never let you take them."
"I checked. Wells Fargo will pay the reward dead or alive."
"Dead is always easier," Clanton acknowledged.
And so the plan was hatched, a plan that would lead to gunfire and death, but not in the way either planned.
The White Mountain Apache were on the move. Newspapers blared the story of the San Carlos massacre of Colonel Carr and his troops and the ensuing uprising near Fort Apache left citizens across the territory on edge as bands of angry Apache roamed apparently freely stealing and killing.
October 10, 1881
Geronimo and his band broke out of the San Carlos Reservation, rejecting once again the confinement, the rules, the domination of the Nantans who wore blue suits. Did not this land belong to the Apache, The People? Had it not been given to The People, by Usen, the life giver, when he brought forth First Man from the depths of the earth? Was not ranging free across their own land what gave The People their fullness?
As he moved south, Geronimo raided Henry Clay Hooker's ranch in Sulphur Springs Valley and run off with 135 horses. His band continued south, coming closer to Tombstone, gathering cattle where they found them, ignoring the strange markings the White Eyes had burned into brown hides and driving their acquisitions toward the Mexican border.
And causing alarm wherever they went. "The Army is on their trail," Sheriff Johnny Behan told Tombstone Marshall Virgil Earp, "but people in town are restless that the savages will get here first. I'm raising a posse to head them off. Protecting Tombstone is your job. I want you along as my second in command." It would not escape the attention of the editor of the Epitaph that Johnny Behan had, in the words of the editor "required the assistance of proven professional lawmen in the time of need."
Thirty-five townsmen, some of whom even felt comfortable on horseback, rode out on their errand. For three days they rode, cut trails left by the Indians, lost the trail in a torrential rainstorm that left them soaked and demoralized, continued on as their numbers dwindled. Finally, exhausted, the posse paused near a small ranch, as good a place as any to rest, cook a solid meal, and plan their next move. The Apache band they had been seeking to intercept had, it seemed, escaped.
The McLaury ranch house, if the small adobe shack could be called that, was located in Sulphur Springs Valley, a few miles south of Soldier's Well, and not far from the entrance to the Apache Stronghold. The McLaurys were not present, but in the range custom that made no difference. Behan, Virgil, Wyatt, businessman George Parsons and the rest down-saddled, stretched their back muscles, and pushed into the small cabin.
Curly Bill Brocius greeted Virgil Earp with a Texas-sized "Howdy" and a firm handshake as others followed into the cabin. It was enough to leave George Parsons' mouth agape. Later the businessman challenged the town Marshal. "That man's an outlaw and a rustler. He killed our last Marshal. Yet you greeted him as a friend."
"My job is to keep the peace in Tombstone," Virg replied. "Bill's rowdyism is always good-natured and he makes sure his men know how to enjoy themselves without causing me any trouble." He flashed a glance across the room where Sheriff Behan was conferring with a deputy. "As to rustling, talk to Johnny Behan about doing his job."
While the friendly goodwill between law and lawless surprised some, to the more practical Earps it made good sense. And perhaps the reminder of Johnny Behan's failure to do his job of bringing law to the county would be remembered when the time for the Sheriff's election came around.
Wyatt's conspiracy with Ike Clanton ended the day Leonard and Harry Hand were ambushed and shot to death by stockmen defending their range. The surrender of Jim Crane to another lawman followed quickly. Wells Fargo was satisfied, but it did nothing to advance Wyatt Earp's career.
October 25, 1881
But an even better opportunity presented itself when another robbery occurred, the Bisbee stage this time, and again, Sheriff Behan seemed unable to find and arrest the outlaws. His failure turned into a double advantage for Wyatt's political ambitions when Wyatt ran to earth and arrested the suspected robbers, Frank Stillwell and Pete Spence, for they were two of Johnny Behan's deputies. The Tombstone Epitaph had no difficulty in thundering about the corruption of the sheriff and demanding his resignation and the appointment of a proficient lawman. With those satisfying thoughts in mind, Wyatt turned the corner onto Fifth Street and ran into one of the mouthiest of the Cowboys.
"I'll never speak to Spence again for letting himself be arrested by the likes of you," Frank McLaury declared. "If any of you ever comes after me, I'll kill you."
"We know your business, Frank," Wyatt said. "And we'll be ready when the time comes."
For Wyatt Earp, the death of Billy Leonard and his confederates ended his compact with Ike Clanton. It was over and forgotten. For Clanton, forgetfulness was not that easy. Rumors had begun to circulate about the Clanton-Earp deal, and Clanton suspected a double-cross by Wyatt Earp and his talkative friend Doc Holliday. Already suspicions had damaged Clanton's standing among his Cowboy confederates and among Billy Leonard's friends. If the rumors took hold and were not refuted, and forcefully, before they came to be believed, Clanton knew he wore a target on his shirt.
October 26, 1881
Clanton pushed his face forward until it was not more than three inches from the tubercular dentist. "You coughing polecat. You're trying to get me killed," Clanton said. "You and your high'n mighty card shark are spreading lies about me."
Holliday kept his voice low, in control of his emotions as always. "You call me a liar again, and you'd better have more than air in your holster."
Ike Clanton was drunk. Wyatt could tell that even if he had not heard the slurred voice raised in his confrontation with Doc Holliday. Not for the first time, Wyatt applauded the wisdom that banned the wearing of firearms in town. He watched Ike approach.
"I'll talk to you, Wyatt," the rancher-cowboy-outlaw declared.
"I'll listen, Ike," Wyatt replied and walked part way down Fifth Street with him, stopping by the brewery building.
"You and Doc have been spreading tales, Wyatt," Clanton said. "Trying to get me killed. You know what I'm talking about."
"Use sense Ike. It does me no good to let folks think I'm working with you."
"You say!" Clanton shouted, "I ain't fixed right tonight, or I'd a had it out with Doc right there in the Alhambra." His snarling face competed with his drunken demeanor to make him look a ludicrous threat. "Tomorrow, I'll be ready, iron on my hip and all." Clanton turned and stalked off as well as he could on unsteady feet.
As Wyatt left the boardinghouse, Ned Boyle stopped him. "Ike is on the street hunting Earps with a sixgun and a Winchester rifle right here out in the open. He's saying the Tombstone law don't have the cojones to brace him." And so the challenge had moved from personal to professional.
Wyatt found Virgil standing at Fourth and Fremont. The two men walked down Fremont Street until they found Clanton. "I hear you're looking for us," Wyatt said as Clanton threw his Winchester around toward Virgil. Virgil grabbed it with one hand while he fisted his six shooter with the other and swung it at Clanton, knocking him to the ground. Virgil took possession of both weapons and Wyatt shoulder-steered Clanton to Justice of the Peace Wallace.
As he sat against the wall, waiting for Wallace to finish a prior case, Clanton turned to Wyatt, his lips curled in an angry snarl. "I'll get even with all of you for this."
When Wyatt left the courtroom he turned toward Hafford's Saloon where a fresh cigar would burn away the tension of the day.
"I hear you Earps are cold-cocking my friends." The voice belonged to Tom McClaury, the least offensive of the Cowboys, a man who might even mean it when he claimed his only purpose was to build a ranch. But a man was known by his associates.
"Ike's walking around town armed and threatening murder, Tom. You sure you want to claim him as a friend?"
"You know Ike never backs up his bluster, Wyatt," McLaury said. "You Earps are bullies using your badge as an excuse to strut over us hard-working men."
Wyatt Earp, his life threatened, his brothers' lives threatened, his friend Doc Holliday threatened by the loudest bully in Cochise County, just coming from a confrontation with Ike Clanton, had exhausted any patience he ever had. His left hand slapped McLaury across the face and with his right, he bashed his revolver into the Cowboy's head. As McLaury staggered and fell, Earp stalked off.
An hour had passed. Ike Clanton had paid his fine and recovered his weapons. His brother Billy had joined him on the streets, and now Tom and Frank McLaury swelled the number of troublemakers. If Virgil Earp had thought a visit to Justice Wallace and a fine and would reduce tension, he had misread the resentment that had been building. Now Doc Holliday had joined the three brothers at Hafford's Corner at Fourth and Allen where the four men pondered the situation.
Tombstone was a small town. The active area stretched all the way from Third Street to Seventh along Allen and Fremont Streets. Citizens could not be unaware of the events of the afternoon. Already more than one had pointedly asked whether the Town Marshall would like help in dealing with the situation. "They're wondering if I'm up to the job," Virg said.
"We let a group of rowdies think they've treed the town, and there won't be a Cowboy in Cochise County who don't think he can have his fun in Tombstone any time he wants," Holliday said.
"It's like Dodge," Wyatt said. "Got to show folks who's in charge."
Before Virg could answer, Joe Coleman came up the street. "Them outlaws are talking things over in the vacant lot behind the OK Corral," he told the marshal. "Billy Claibourne has joined them. They're all armed, and mean trouble."
"Leaving town, they say," Virg said.
"It don't take but a minute to swing up and ride out of town," Doc Holliday pointed out. "They're getting ready to make their move."
Ike Clanton had become the test on which Wyatt's campaign for sheriff would rise or fall. If the Earp's could not handle a staggering drunk cowboy and his friends, what claim could Wyatt ever make to the sheriff's badge? This was the moment to show that he could preserve he peace of Tombstone, that he had the heft to measure up to a lawman's duty.
"Never wait for a rattler to get his coils set," Wyatt declared. "We move in on them before they're ready and disarm them."
"Or something," Doc muttered lowly.
Virgil Earp traded his shotgun for Holliday's cane and the four men spread out abreast as they began their deliberate walk west along Fremont Street.
As the four men strode along, Johnny Behan intercepted them. "I've disarmed them, Virg," he declared. "They're leaving town."
Virgil Earp shouldered past Behan without pausing. In a moment the four men reached the vacant lot where the Cowboys stood conferring on their next move and came to a halt with less than ten feet separating the opposing parties. At once, Wyatt saw the six-shooter riding securely on the hip of Frank McLaury. "That stinking politician Behan," he said lowly. "He set us up."
"I've come for your guns" Virgil Earp told the cluster of men,
A hammer clicked to full-cock. "Hold," Virgil declared, "I don't mean that."
But already guns were roaring.
Wyatt Earp looked down at the carnage with a singular regret. Frank McLaury dead. Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton dying in agony, secondary men who had resisted his brother's command to turn over their guns. His regret focused on the biggest troublemaker in Cochise County, Ike Clanton, who had abandoned his friends to make good his escape. More trouble would come of that.
Wyatt turned from the dying outlaws to attend to his wounded brothers.