In November of the year 1880, Joseph Luban descended from the Southern Pacific Railroad train at Tucson in the Arizona territory, where the train had stopped for refueling and taking on supplies, before continuing to San Francisco. Joseph had planned to look over the city, but when a fellow passenger suggested that if he wanted to see "the real West," he should travel to Tombstone, he decided to do so. He wasn't sure he could return in time to catch the train, but there would be another in a week and he was in no hurry. He took a stagecoach to the "cheerfully named" town, as he later described it to his acquaintances in San Francisco.
The town in some ways looked familiar to him—like a village in Russia laid out along a single main road—and yet different, rougher in some ways. Little green evident, it sat smack in the middle of buff-colored dust. And the men who populated it each had the handle of a six-shooter poking out of the holster on their hips. He noticed that they looked at the place his would be if he had one, and seeing none, dismissed him; some more relaxed for the fact, others with scorn. And he wasn't dressed like they were. They wore jeans and shirts or shirts and vests, and hats with floppy brims.
"Just off the train, eh" one man said passing him, without waiting for an answer. He ran after the man.
"Anything interesting to see here in Tombstone?" he asked.
The man stopped, scratched his ear, and thought for a moment. "You might try Boot Hill."
"The graveyard. Nothing much else special hereabouts. Brown's Saloon is only interesting at night. The O.K. corral might interest you if you like horses." It would take a while before Joseph learned to distinguish between the locals' seriousness and their humor.
Joseph didn't like cemeteries—but it had been recommended; he considered its name disconcerting and at the same time, amusing. It turned out to be unlike any cemetery he had ever seen. The grave-markers were rough, and the people buried, mostly men, had died young. Many from gunfights, as the captions, some humorously, made known. The epitaphs displayed a casualness toward death, if not an irreverence. Boot Hill was named in tribute to those buried there because they had died with their boots on.
The horses in the O.K. Corral seemed to him, well, okay, he thought, fully aware that he knew nothing about horses. The humor of the name of the corral joined to his judgment of the quality of its horses was typical of Joseph's amused reflection on things. In Russia, among other jobs held, he had been a badkhn , a humorist who entertained guests at Jewish weddings. Joseph had an ear, and an eye for humor. And this Tombstone was certainly an amusing place. This might explain why, when the train for San Francisco puffed its way out of the Tucson station, Joseph was not on it. To support himself, he rejected the profession of gunfighter, cowboy, or undertaker as unsuitable to his skills, and found himself a job as a dishwasher in Brown's Saloon.
Joseph's experience as a badkhn helped him to dry out and cut down his effusive, and yet sharp, Yiddish humor—with its Biblical references suitable for the audiences in Russia—to suit the Western folk who doted on the expansive and laconic humor of the American prairie. It soon made him an accepted fellow in the community, which could boast not a few unusual characters among its citizenry. His accent and Indian-like aquiline nose caused some to ask if he was a Sioux or Comanche. His going unarmed also contributed to his semi-celebrity status. An additional factor on his side was that Wyatt Earp, the town marshal, took a liking to him, calling him "the funniest unarmed man I ever met."
He told the locals he came from "somewhere back East," since "Russia", his original explanation, was too much for them. Although he managed quite well with most people, there was occasionally someone ornery or drunk who might not like you for one reason or another, especially in Brown's Saloon where drinking predominated. Joseph usually defused threats with his humor, or someone with standing at the bar came to his assistance, or he simply pointed to the fact that he didn't carry a gun.
Due to this latter peculiarity, one man told him, "In these parts, you'd better learn to be a gunslinger." For a few moments, Joseph wondered if he would have to learn to sling a gun at an adversary, like David sling stones at Goliath, before realizing it probably meant to draw a gun from its holster in order to shoot. Still a greenhorn in the West, Joseph mused.
As a dish washer in Brown's Saloon (at first, a dish-breaker, till he got the hang of it), he witnessed almost every evening a minor fracas that invariably resulted in a shoot-up, or two, that resulted in broken glasses and bottles. It was his duty to replace these by "replenishment" stock kept in another room (out of range). He suggested substituting wooden glasses, but the saloon owner snorted that the effect wasn't the same—"my customers like to hear the tinkle of glass."
"They should attend Jewish weddings," Joseph said, the humor residing in the fact that the groom crushes the wine glass the bride and groom drink from, so that it would not be used for a lesser purpose. Of course, the humor was lost on his boss, "Four-fingers" Hardy, who had never attended a Jewish wedding, nor his own wedding, as he lived with a woman without "the encumbrance of nuptials," as he put it. Hardy had earned his sobriquet because he had once lost a finger in a showdown, and subsequently chose to be a saloon owner as "it was my trigger finger which was unfortunately shot off."
"Four fingers," as he was universally—or at least tombstone called—took a liking to Joseph, who was his sole sober worker, which led to his being promoted from dish washer to the more respectable and responsible job of substitute barman, when the regular barman was ill or, more usually, temporarily incapacitated as a result of being collateral damaged from a shootout or injured from flying glass. This occurred when the cowmen (ranch owners) or cowboys (ranch workers or cattle rustlers) arrived to town to let off steam accumulated in months on the range, and delighted in shooting out the glasses off the shelves, and even bottles of liquor. Hardy didn't mind as the next day the apologetic, sober offenders, if ranch owners, paid double the cost. The cowboys sometimes had to be prodded by Wyatt Earp or other law enforcers, supplemented by Hardy's reminding them that he could shoot "tolerably well" with his non-trigger fingers.
Because of his experience with pogroms in Russia, Joseph had developed a sixth sense when to duck behind the solid mahogany bar, and so escaped flying glass or bullets. He was promoted to fulltime barman after the regular one died as a result of a contaminated splinter—not of glass or bullet, but wooden from Tombstone's boardwalk sidewalks. According to the coroner's report, the splinter entered the barman's buttocks on a night of drunken romancing of "Tigress" Lily Jenkins, who apparently took exception not so much to his suggestion that they retire to an upstairs room (while Joseph filled in for him) as to his "odd physical suggestion," in her words, of what he would do to her there, and threw him out of the establishment onto the pavement, where his naked behind received the splinter. Doc Holiday tried to live up to his name, but the task was too much for him, especially as he was, among other things, a dentist, not a doctor, and not entirely sober. Wyatt had to restrain him from pulling out the victim's teeth as cure.
One night, Wyatt chanced to see Joseph "disarm" a drunk, belligerent man who threatened to "Put a hole" in Joseph, accusing him of being "too slow" on refilling his glass. Joseph's humorous verbal mollifying of the man calmed him down.
Wyatt leaned close to him and said, "Joe, you can't keep bargaining your way out of problems with those types. You have to learn to shoot."
"Thanks, Marshal. I could have used you back in Russia."
"Well, this is Tombstone, not Russia. I'm going to give you a lesson in shooting."
"Much obliged, Mr. Earp." (Joe had gradually picked up the local parlance.)
"Wyatt, Joe. Mister, Sir, and the like are back east titles—except when addressing undertakers."
"Okay, Wyatt, you name the time and place."
Wyatt laughed at the use of the usual gunfight challenge in this capacity. "Tomorrow morning. 10 o'clock. Behind the cemetery."
Not the best omen, thought Joseph.
At ten, Joseph found marshal Wyatt already waiting for him. Wyatt took out his .44 caliber Smith and Wesson and explained its workings to Joseph. He then showed him how to load it. He then pointed it at the tin cans that he had arranged on a log.
"Now here's the way it should work." He proceeded to put a hole smack in the middle of each can which jumped into the air impressively when hit.
Joseph clapped his hands in admiration. His teacher pushed back his hat with the barrel of the pistol and nodded his thanks. "No reason you can't learn to do the same."
Joseph glanced in the direction of Boot Hill. It was of small comfort that he wore shoes and not boots. If anyone could keep him out of there, it was Wyatt.
"Your turn," Wyatt told him. "Here, let me help you." He steadied Joseph's aim, pointing the revolver toward the six new cans he had placed on the log.
"Pull the trigger, slowly!" he ordered. Joseph pulled the trigger. The first can jumped off the log.
"You're a natural shot, Joe," Wyatt encouraged him.
The lesson continued for another half hour. Under Wyatt's tutelage, Joseph made rapid progress. It concluded with instruction on how to quick draw. "Keep the gun," Wyatt added, "I have plenty of spares. Made it a habit to 'borrow' them from those who no longer had any use for them."
"You're ready, pardner." Wyatt clapped him on the shoulder.
For what? Joseph wondered to himself, hopeful he would not be called upon to draw, yet filled with a certain confidence now that his "pre-gunfighter" stage was behind him.
The "for what" occurred two weeks later when a drunken man, hearing Joseph's accent, snarled, "I don't like foreigners." What he said was less important in Joseph's eyes than what he did. He reached for his revolver.
Joseph was faster, thanks to Wyatt's instruction, and shot the man before he realized what he had done.
It was a clear case of self-defense.
Hardy celebrated the event by ordering drinks for everyone on the house. He even served them in place of Joseph. Although the crowd toasted Joseph, his ultimate accolade was Wyatt's.
"Couldn't have done it better myself—well, maybe a split second faster."