November 30, 1881
‚ÄúCold-blooded murderers,‚ÄĚ Ike Clanton declared. ‚ÄúThe Tombstone law will never touch them.‚ÄĚ
* * *
Five angry men clustered outside the courtroom where Judge Wells Spicer‚Äôs month-long probing into the deadly shootout in the vacant lot behind the OK Corral had just concluded. Billy Clanton dead. Frank McLaury dead. Tom McLaury dead. ‚ÄúMurdered in the streets of Tombstone,‚ÄĚ the Fort Worth lawyer who had come to assist the prosecution had thundered to the court, Will McLaury, an indignant man, defeated by what he called a ‚Äúcorrupt home-town judge.‚ÄĚ Frank Stillwell and Pete Spence sounded almost vicious in their fury and passersby stepped wide to avoid their wrath.
The curly-black-haired man had remained silent as the others fulminated. But when Curly Bill Brocius opened his mouth other men always fell silent. His companions moved in close to hear the soft voice.
‚ÄúThe Earps‚Äôll be watching for us to make our move. We get justice in our own time.‚ÄĚ
For thirty days, the hearing in Judge Spicer‚Äôs courtroom had droned on as witness after witness testified what they knew, or claimed they knew, or wanted Spicer to think they knew, about the October gunfight.
* * *
Three men dead, at least one of them shot down unarmed and surrendering. "We was just talking, minding our own business when they strutted down Fremont Street and opened up on us." So maintained Ike Clanton. The encounter‚Äôs other survivor, Billy Claibourne gave solid corroboration of the unprovoked nature of the encounter when he added, ‚Äúall we was talking about was getting Ike on his horse and out of town. When the Earps got to us, the Marshal said ‚ÄėYou sons-of-bitches have been looking for a fight and now you‚Äôve‚Äô got it.‚Äô That‚Äôs when they started shooting.‚ÄĚ
Others told a different story. Ned Boyle testified that when he encountered Ike Clanton armed on the streets of Tombstone, Ike told him, "as soon as the Earps and Holliday show themselves, the ball will open." Julius Kelly said when he was tending bar in the morning Ike Clanton told him that when Doc Holliday had insulted him the night before he was not heeled. "But today they have to fight on sight." And Robert Hatch declared that the first words of Virgil Earp to the Cowboys were "I've come to disarm you boys.‚ÄĚ
Finally, Judge Spicer had heard enough and delivered his ruling:
I find that Ike Clanton was about the streets of Tombstone, armed with revolver and Winchester rifle, declaring publicly that he intended to shoot the Earp brothers and Holliday on sight.
It is clear to my mind that Virgil Earp, the chief of police, honestly believed that the purpose of the Clantons and McClaurys was, if not to attempt the deaths of himself and brothers, at least to resist with force and arms any attempt on his part to perform his duty as a peace officer by arresting and disarming them.
I cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides—that it was a necessary act, done in the discharge of an official duty. There being no sufficient cause to believe Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday guilty of murder, I order them to be released.
With the inquest behind it, Tombstone settled back to its normal routine.
* * *
Winter meant short days and longer nights, but the change of seasons did nothing to interrupt the cycle of three shifts a day in the Contention Mine beneath the very streets of the town, for it was always night in the shafts. Miners came off duty still needing their whiskey; they still gambled; affairs went on unchanged by the three new mounds of dirt in the small cemetery outside town.
Townsmen accepted the judgment of the Tombstone Epitaph that a full legal hearing had produced substantial evidence; that Judge Spicer had ruled, and that the law had been served. In town, only the Johnny Behan faction, their voice magnified by the pages of the Tombstone Nugget, questioned the fairness of the outcome. But The Nugget had always hated the Earps.
And so the sad events at the OK Corral faded into history.
Or so it seemed.
Out on the open grassy range that stretched ninety miles from the Mexican border to the Galiuro Mountains, from the Whetstone Mountains east to New Mexico, the succession of seasons had its own rhythm. Shorter days meant less time for range chores. Cross-border night drives of cattle out-racing angry rifle-toting Mexican pursuers was never popular. But long nights meant more time to drink. And out in San Pedro Valley, at the small adobe structure Ike Clanton called his ranch, the conversation inevitably turned to the single subject Ike Clanton would not let subside.
* * *
"We got to do something," Ike always said.
"Last time I was in Tombstone, Virgil Earp was back walking the streets, but Morgan is still laid up," Pete Spence reported.
"Virg is the one we want," Frank Stillwell said. "He's the one who called the tune."
"Billy, Tom and Frank won‚Äôt rest for just one killing," Clanton insisted. "And I ain't waiting much longer."
No one took Ike Clanton seriously. No one respected a man who would run out on his brother in a gunfight, but as long as he poured the whiskey, they were willing to listen to his bombast knowing it would lead to nothing. The tone changed the day Curly Bill stopped over on his way south for a routine Mexican raid.
Curly Bill Brocius was already an institution in Southeast Arizona. The Texas posse that had pursued him contented itself when he crossed the state line and became someone else‚Äôs problem. A man in his early twenties has many options in his life and Brocius, with Texas foreclosed, soon found himself in Southeast Arizona where family and connections mattered not at all, where a man made his own reputation, and where troublesome lawmen seldom interfered with a man‚Äôs ability to live according to his own lights.
December 28, 1881
Other men sought a free life as well, some specializing in Wells Fargo stages, others on domestic cattle, but Brocius found his opportunities across the border, with Mexican ranchers who let their cattle range unrestricted just as Americans did, but whose unfamiliar brands were more easily marketed to butchers in Tombstone, Bisbee, Contention, and elsewhere.
More men than Brocius found Mexican cattle a good business opportunity, men older than Brocius, but without seeking it, Curly Bill quickly found himself recognized as a leader of the Cochise County Cowboys. There was a certain quality to him. Not prepossessing in looks among the hearty men of the saddle, never having honed his fighting skills with fists or guns, he had other attributes that drew men to him. When Curly Bill spoke, men listened. Men were not afraid of his anger; they were afraid of losing his respect.
And so, when he listened to Ike blathering about vengeance, and saw the glazed looks in the eyes of Spence and Stillwell and others, Curly Bill spoke up. ‚ÄúTom and Frank were fine men. Billy too. But this thing is bigger than them. When the Earps murdered the boys, they declared war on all us Cowboys. Tombstone will never be safe again as long as they walk the streets.‚ÄĚ
"They all got to go,‚ÄĚ Clanton insisted.
‚ÄúBut not yet," Curly Bill counseled.
There had been threats—against Virgil, against Wyatt, against Doc Holliday, against Judge Spicer, even against Mayor Clum, editor of the Tombstone Epitaph. When Christmas came, and no assaults had been attempted, the threats faded in memory as just empty Clanton bluster.
* * *
The Oriental Saloon on Fifth and Allen Streets was doing a good business on December 28. Wyatt and Virgil relaxed in convivial company. Shortly before midnight, Virgil stepped out the door into the coolness of the evening. No longer wearing a badge, he was not armed, but under Tombstone law, neither was anyone else. As he turned toward his room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, just a few paces north on Allen Street, the normal rumbling of night sounds were suddenly outdone as a shotgun blast let loose its lethal spray and Virgil Earp fell to the boardwalk. Witnesses debated who the three running men were, but the consensus soon held the assailants to be Ike Clanton and Pete Spence. Virgil maintained he had seen Frank Stillwell just before the shooting.
In his over eagerness, the assassin had failed. He had merely shredded Virgil's left arm, amputation was discussed and refused, and survival seemed clear. "Never mind," Virg told Allie. "I've got one arm left to hug you."
When Curly Bill swung back from Mexico, and heard about Ike‚Äôs blundering attempt, his oaths turned the air in the cabin blue. ‚ÄúShattered Virg‚Äôs arm,‚ÄĚ he said, his withering scorn silencing Ike Clanton‚Äôs triumph for a moment. ‚ÄúAin‚Äôt that just dandy. Now he‚Äôll hole up where we can‚Äôt reach him.‚ÄĚ
March 12, 1882
‚ÄúThey say he‚Äôll never use it again,‚ÄĚ Pete Spence maintained, as though that was a defense for failure.
‚ÄúBut not his gun arm,‚ÄĚ Curly Bill pointed out. ‚ÄúYou call that justice?‚ÄĚ He turned to Ike. ‚ÄúNext time I do the shooting,‚ÄĚ he said ‚ÄúAnd I do it sober.‚ÄĚ
Pete Spence scuffed the soles of his muddy boots on the wooden scraper and swung open the door to the Clanton ranch house. Inside, he shrugged out of the sheepskin and moved toward the welcoming warmth of the wood stove.
March 18, 1882
"Didn't know I was moving to Montana when I left Texas," he grumbled. "Thought spring was supposed to come early in Arizona."
"A whiskey will warm you up real quick,‚ÄĚ Clanton said. "What are them killers up to?‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI made the rounds,‚ÄĚ Spence reported. ‚ÄúDowned a whiskey at the Oriental, did the same at the Alhambra, and Hatch‚Äôs. Didn't see Wyatt or Doc Holliday running their gambling tables. At Hafferty‚Äôs, Sammy the barkeep told me they both sold out and the Earps are getting rid of their mining claims. Word is they plan to skedaddle as soon as Virg can travel."
"Then we got to move right away."
No one thought that Ike Clanton was a leader, not the way he ran out on his brother when bullets started to fly. Not the way he bungled a clear shot at Virgil Earp. It was Johnny Ringo who gave voice to what all men felt. "Curly Bill won‚Äôt be back with his Mexican gather for a week. He‚Äôd never forgive us if we did it without him.‚ÄĚ
A week,‚ÄĚ Clanton begrudged. ‚ÄúBilly won‚Äôt wait longer.‚ÄĚ
The Earps were in a celebratory mood. Virg‚Äôs strength was coming back. He could leave his room for the first time in over two months. His left arm would never again be functional, of course, but California would present new opportunities. His biggest problem now was cabin fever and his brothers had a remedy for that.
* * *
In his own room, Morgan changed to a clean shirt for the night on the town, a visit to the theater, a quiet evening in a saloon, and the return of normal life. He hugged his wife as he prepared to leave but she held tight while she pestered him with what had become her recurrent theme. "I hate Tombstone, Morg. I wish we had never come."
"Now that Virgil can travel, it won't be long. We‚Äôll be on our way to California before you know it.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúNot too soon.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúFor me, either. I‚Äôd like it to be tonight.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThen why don‚Äôt we—‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre a family, Louisa. We leave together.‚ÄĚ
It was Saturday night. The new show at Schlieffelin Hall was good, with roars of laughter from the audience, but Morgan, Wyatt, and their newly-arrived youngest brother Warren took more pleasure from Virg‚Äôs enjoyment than from the play. And on the street again, they were unwilling to let the night end. An animated Virgil Earp breathed in the cool night air. "Not whiff of medicine," he said with pleasure. "Let's go to Hatch's."
* * *
Bob Hatch had just turned over barkeep duties to Phil Bascom as they entered.
"Up for a game?" Morgan challenged Hatch.
In the rear room devoted to billiards, they settled in as Morgan set up the rack for the first break. Men drifted in to watch the game, then drifted out as their glasses needing refilling while Morgan racked up the points.
No one in Tombstone paid attention to what they called Mexicans, never mind that Florentino Cruz had been born in Texas over a decade after Texas became a state of the union. He was as American as they, despite the bronzed skin that made everyone call him Injun Charlie.
But Curly Bill had always treated him right. Though he never joined in their illegal activities himself, they trusted him and treated him as an equal. They were his friends and so he shared their outrage at the murders of the McLaurys and Billy Clanton.
No one noticed when he slipped into the back room of Hatch‚Äôs billiard hall and watched the pool game as Morgan and Hatch jostled for points. No one noticed when he left to make his report to the men waiting in the shadows.
Back in the billiard parlor, Morgan, always the better player, won the first game and stood with his back to the window, watching as Hatch leaned across the table to make the break for the second game.
With no warning the glass shattered, spraying shards throughout the room. Morgan fell prone, his spine shattered, a bloody hole carved in his abdomen. Wyatt hit the floor just before the second bullet ground into the wall where he had been standing. In the alley outside, the footfalls of several men running away could be heard.
Inside, Wyatt knelt beside his favorite brother as life ebbed away.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôre cold-blooded murderers,‚ÄĚ Wyatt Earp declared. ‚ÄúJohnny Behan‚Äôs law will never touch them.‚ÄĚ
* * *
Doc Holliday had an answer. ‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt need a crooked politician‚Äôs help to get justice.‚ÄĚ
Before Wyatt could concern himself with justice, he had more immediate concerns. Morgan was dead, Virgil was crippled. Both needed to be transported to the Earp parents‚Äô home in California. And so, on March 20, the Earps traveled to the railhead at Contention and boarded the train. At Benson they transferred to the Southern Pacific for the journey west.
* * *
With the rumors of an unwelcome reception in Tucson, Wyatt and Doc Holliday traveled that far with the mourning family. At Tucson Depot, the train stopped for an hour layover so passengers could take their meal at Porter's Hotel. As the train prepared to leave, Virgil, his wife and Morgan's widow reboarded. Wyatt and Doc boarded with them, and walked the train from one end to the other, searching for unwelcome passengers. When satisfied that the train carried only harmless travelers, they said their goodbyes and swung down.
The twenty-five-year-old Frank Stillwell had done many things since coming to Southern Arizona from his Iowa home—he'd worked as a Teamster, a saloon keeper, a liquor salesman, a livery man, and finally a partner with Pete Spence as a saloon owner in Bisbee. Only when the sheriff of the newly-created Cochise County named him deputy did people stop disregarding him as a shiftless drifter. But all that changed the day Wyatt Earp figured out who had stopped the Wells Fargo stage outside Benson. Now he had lost his badge and was out on bail awaiting trial. But in the process, he had made new friends. Ike and Billy Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius and others, and his grievance against Wyatt had become greater than personal when the Earps gunned down his friends. Now, Morgan had received what he deserved, but justice remained incomplete, and Virgil planned to escape it altogether. Tonight, Stillwell determined to prove his worth to his new friends. He'd never killed anyone by himself, but tonight he would show people he walked tall.
March 21, 1882
And so, in the shadows of the Southern Pacific station yard at Tucson, Frank Stillwell eyed the lighted passenger cars carefully, searching for the window where the hated target could be found.
"Long way from Tombstone, Frank."
Stillwell stiffened at Wyatt's challenge, his hand instinctively moving toward his hip. Even as he turned, he saw the iron already in Wyatt's fist. The click of the hammer being brought into position stayed Stillwell‚Äôs hand. He cursed his luck that Virgil would escape his justice.
‚ÄúMy hands are up, Earp. I‚Äôm surrendering.‚ÄĚ
The darkness of night erupted in six yellow muzzle flashes.
Wyatt Earp‚Äôs vendetta ride had commenced.
An Earp no longer carried a Tombstone policeman's badge. Nor did any boast status with the Cochise County Sheriff's office. But Wyatt Earp still held appointment as Deputy US Marshal, and there were murderers at large.
March 22, 1882
With monies from ‚Äúlaw and order‚ÄĚ townsfolks, Wyatt Earp formed and outfitted his posse, dependable men like Turkey Creek Jack, Texas Jack Vermillion, Sherman McMasters, his brother Warren and of course Doc Holliday. Men he could rely on. Men more committed to justice than to the law.
Was Earp‚Äôs policy directed to the elimination of all the rustler element, of the smugglers who violated US tariff law, as perhaps U. S. Marshal Dake believed? Were all Cowboys at risk? Or was his attention focused on only three or four men? Only Wyatt Earp knew for sure. Perhaps the members of his posse did not care.
Hastily provisioned, their horses saddled and ready in front of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Wyatt gave the signal, and the men led their horses into the street. As Wyatt assumed the lead, Johnny Behan turned the corner and started down Fifth Street toward them, waving a piece of paper, a telegram from Tucson calling on him to arrest the murderer of Frank Stillwell. It was only a piece of paper, not a warrant. Later, it would be held as insufficient basis for arrest. But Behan was not constrained by legal technicalities. Not today. Not against Wyatt Earp.
The sheriff stepped into the center of the street as the horseman approached. ‚ÄúI need to see you, Wyatt,‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúYou may see me once too often, Johnny,‚ÄĚ Wyatt replied as he swung to the saddle. ‚ÄúGet out my way or get ridden down.‚ÄĚ
The wood cutter paused in his task as six horsemen appeared on the rise and began their descent toward him. Florentino Cruz knew what they wanted, what had brought them out here to the wood camp where he worked. He had heard about poor Frank Stillwell. Now they wanted his employer, Pete Spence. But they were out of luck; Spence had made himself scarce. Cruz laid down his axe, and let his muscles rest. It should only take a moment and they would be on their way.
March 23, 1882
"Where is he?" Wyatt demanded as the men drew to a halt. "You know who we want."
"Pete? I think maybe he went to Contention City to see about selling some firewood, Mister Earp." With arrogant men, Cruz knew to act submissive, to let them swear at him if that made them think they were better than him. Let them ride off, and he could get back to work. "Don't know how long he‚Äôll be gone."
‚ÄúTell him he was lucky this time. You get that.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúYes sir, Mister Earp.‚ÄĚ Cruz tried not to smirk at the killer‚Äôs frustration as Wyatt reined his horse‚Äôs head around to continue his journey. Wyatt was halted by what his brother had to say.
‚ÄúHe was there, Wyatt," Warren Earp declared. "I saw him in Hatch's back room watching us play.‚ÄĚ
"So you're part of it," Wyatt accused.
‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt do nothing. Mr. Earp. All I did was let the boys know you were playing.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúLet who know?‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúLet‚Äôs see, there was Frank Stilwell. And Pete, of course, It was Curly Bill who paid me.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúPaid you for what?‚ÄĚ Perhaps the flat emotionless tone of Wyatt‚Äôs voice gave Cruz some warning, for he reiterated his innocence.
‚ÄúLike I said, I didn‚Äôt do nothing. I just held their horses whilst they went down the alley to do their business.‚ÄĚ
The week had gone well, Brocius reflected, as he squatted in front of the Sibley tent at his Iron Springs camp.
March 24, 1882
One of the killers dead; one maimed for life, and the third with his tail tucked between his legs scampering for mama out in California. The threat to a simple Cowboy‚Äôs refuge of pleasure in Tombstone was gone; overall, it was enough Cochise County justice to let a man get back to work down on the Mexican border
Brocius wasted few regrets on Frank Stillwell, the knockabout who had stepped above himself, trying an ill-considered play to prove his manhood. War has casualties.
Brocius glanced up as Pony Deal picked his way down the slope and swung to the ground. He listened with disbelief and then fury at the news from town.
‚ÄúCharlie was a good-natured fellow. He never hurt no one,‚ÄĚ Brocius said when Deal told of the discovery of the woodcutter‚Äôs bullet-ridden body. ‚ÄúEarp‚Äôs a mad dog. Guess we‚Äôll put off our trip to Mexico until the business is finished.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúRingo,‚ÄĚ he called to one of the men in the tent, ‚Äúgo find Behan‚Äôs posse. Tell him we‚Äôre in the hunt and he can drive them to us. Behan can have the credit, so long as we get the killing.
Henry Clay Hooker ran the biggest spread in Sulphur Springs Valley, which made him an enemy of any man who disrespected the cattle brands that marked out a rancher‚Äôs property. Therefore, Wyatt had known he would find welcome when his posse sought a change of mounts and more provisions that they had been able to put together in their hurried departure from Tombstone.
* * *
In the morning at first light Wyatt had his men were mounted and ready to ride.
‚ÄúWhere to?‚ÄĚ Warren asked. ‚ÄúGuess we should head down to Ike Clanton‚Äôs place and arrest him,‚ÄĚ he suggested. ‚ÄúMaybe he;ll do us a favor and resist.‚ÄĚ
Doc Holliday smirked. ‚ÄúIf I find him snoring in his bedclothes, he‚Äôll be resisting arrest.‚ÄĚ
But it was Wyatt who led the posse. ‚ÄúIke‚Äôs a runner. He proved that when he skedaddled out of the shootout. We‚Äôll never find him again in Cochise County.‚ÄĚ
Cochise County covered 6200 square miles of mountains and arid grasslands, a large area to hunt for a few outlaws on the dodge. Larger still if you considered they might have crossed into Sonora. Vast uninhabited tracks of land could mean days of apparently aimless riding with no guarantee of success.
Wyatt led them west, toward the Whetstone Mountains. In Arizona style, they rode with their rifles or shotguns balanced across the pommel of their saddles, alert, ready. They moved at a deliberate pace, covering ground while saving their horses for a chase if they got lucky.
‚ÄúWe know all the water holes,‚ÄĚ Wyatt said. ‚ÄúA man can‚Äôt camp in Arizona very far from water. If Brocius isn‚Äôt here, likely he‚Äôs already down raiding Mexico.‚ÄĚ And so the men rode through the morning, through the heat of the day, into the still-sweltering afternoon, checking Mesquite Springs and Arrowhead Creek, and seeps too small even to have names. Finally, the sun was growing low.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôll overnight at Iron Springs,‚ÄĚ Wyatt told his posse, ‚Äúthen ride on to Skeleton Canyon and settle his hash when he comes back.‚ÄĚ
Iron Springs was located several miles back in a narrow a canyon of the Whetstones. Into its mouth, Wyatt led his posse, eyes to the ground, looking for signs of recent passage. After a mile or two, with no recent hoof prints, the men knew they had the canyon to themselves. When Wyatt‚Äôs horse scented water, he loosened his hold on the reins, moving out ahead of the posse at his horse‚Äôs speed.
As the trail rounded a rocky shoulder, one hundred yards from the spring, Wyatt swung down and walked forward, reins gripped in his left hand, shotgun grasped loosely by the stock as his men trailed behind.
Curly Bill squatted beside the campfire, stirring the pot of beans when motion at the margin of his vision brought him alert. And so began a confrontation neither man had expected.
‚ÄúThrow up your hands, Bill,‚ÄĚ Wyatt directed. ‚ÄúI promise you Cochise County justice.‚ÄĚ But even as Wyatt swung up his shotgun for business, Brocius‚Äô hand was slashing for his pistol.
Pistols are more maneuverable than scatterguns. Curly Bill‚Äôs shots came first, the bullets tearing at Wyatt‚Äôs long black coat. But shotguns out-range .45s and even a hastily aimed shot spreads a cone of lethal lead. The second round left the curly-haired outlaw sinking to the ground, his blood soaking into the Arizona desert.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs done,‚ÄĚ Earp told the posse. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm leaving Arizona for good.‚ÄĚ