Author's Note: One of the characters in this story, Shotgun Gibbs, is from the Life And Legend of Wyatt Earp television series.
Loud, raucous laughter, cigar smoke and the smell of sweat and cheap whiskey filled the air in the Alahambra saloon in Dodge City, Kansas. The heat of the day was giving way to an unseasonably crisp evening. It was Saturday night, two Texas trail herds were in town and Dodge City was as boisterous as a frontier cowtown could be. Saloon owner James "Dog" Kelley looked around happily; some serious cash was flowing into his coffers tonight. Standing room only at the bar and all the tables were full. Good times.
Five men sat around a table playing poker, an island of seriousness in the ocean of noisy frolic around them. All were hard men; some were members of the fraternity that called themselves 'the sporting crowd.' Men such as these were opportunists; the great Texas cattle drives generated a lot of money and where quick money was to be had, one found the sporting men.
The game tonight was not for amateurs. The two Texas trail bosses, loaded with cash, sat with a well to do cattle buyer out of Chicago and a professional gambler called Slim Jim Finney. The fifth member of the group wore the faded finery of a sporting man. He spoke with a soft Georgia drawl and drank steadily, easily twice as much as everyone else at the table.
"I have a full house, gentlemen," he announced, laying down his cards to prove it.
The others groaned and threw down their hands in disgust. "Doc, you're hotter than hell on the Fourth of July," Finney declared.
"Lady Luck does indeed seem to have smiled on me tonight," Doctor John H. Holliday observed happily, raking in a pile of cash. He signaled a saloon girl to bring more drinks. "Gentlemen, this round is on me."
"I thought you might take your winnings and run," one of the trail bosses said suspiciously. He was unhappy with his losses and had drunk just enough to be reckless.
The others tensed; knowing Doc's volatile temper. Doc, however, was in a benevolent mood, due to his increasing supply of money. "I have one cardinal rule of gambling, sir. I never, ever, leave a hot table and a good game. I'd sooner sell my sainted mother and all her relatives. Of course, some of them were fallen saints, much like myself." He paused for the laugh, smiling; if Doc laughed, everybody laughed. "So, rest assured, sir, you will get your chance, for I'm staying right here. Now, I believe it is your deal."
LLWE LLWE LLWE
Outside, Dodge City reverberated with celebratory gunfire and the yells of drunken Texas cowboys, rejoicing that the end of months of hardship and privation of the trail and the drive were finally over. But the cowboys could not help but notice that the attitude of the Dodge City townspeople had changed lately. The earlier cordial welcomes had faded as the upstanding citizens had grown tired of their town vandalized and shot up, in addition to the senseless drunken murders that occurred whenever cowboys, townspeople, sporting men and hard liquor mixed. Their marshal had recruited a man who had already acquired a tough, controversial reputation as a head cracker in Wichita. Since Marshal Larry Deger had brought over Wyatt Earp, the tolerance for drunks, shootings, riding horses through buildings, thieving and unsolved murders had dipped considerably.
Bat Masterson was sheriff, a young, hot tempered man with a quick hand on his gun. He was fast making a reputation nearly as formidable as Earp's. A laconic Wyoming frontiersman called Shotgun Gibbs had recently joined as a deputy and few wanted to tackle him with his ancient British made shotgun that reminded one of a small civil war cannon. The Texas cowboys harbored an understandable resentment of these renowned 'buffaloers', men who cracked their opponents across the head with their pistol barrels or, in Gibb's case, his shotgun. These men, along with Earp's chief deputy, a calm man named Hal, and the other deputies, had been hired by the very townspeople who still were grateful to have the cowboys spend money in their town. They just didn't want all the accompanying problems with the money.
A small group of resentful cowboys huddled together near an alley between the general store and another saloon. All had had recent encounters with the law, none of it good. Bitterness and a need for revenge were at the top of their lists. It was time to teach Dodge City a lesson, starting with the local arrogant John Law.
"Are we all set?" The leader, a perennial troublemaker named Frank Roper, surveyed his troops. He was tired of being rebuffed by Dodge City gentry, especially when they were so happy to relieve him of his money. The cowboys bragged as they passed around a whiskey bottle.
"Yeah. Let's do it! Let's get that goddamn Earp! He like to broke my head last night."
"He ain't gonna bash no more heads tonight, hoss. We'll bash his! See how he likes it."
"I'm going to do more than bash his head; I'm gonna gun him. I aim to spend that bounty money, boys!"
"Not if I get there first!"
It was a poorly kept secret that the Texas trail bosses and cowboys had put a thousand dollar bounty on Deputy Marshal Earp and many a man hungered for that kind of money. Fame, notoriety and wealth rarely came in one neat package such as this.
With a bravado born of bottled courage, the cowboys started yeehawing and shooting their guns in the air. A couple of them shouted obscenities at some of the passing townspeople, who promptly hurried for cover. One of them, a cowboy known simply as Texas Joe, slinked further back into the alley, intent on finding the back door of the Long Branch saloon and, more importantly, the storeroom. He would let the others lure Deputy Marshal Earp into the ambush. That damn Earp was walking death on two feet and the cowboy would prefer not to have another encounter with him. By pure luck, Joe found the door and started struggling with it. The lock proved stubborn, as the owners had had previous experience with drovers, so, being a true Man of the West, Joe shot it off.
Dreams of liberating a number of whiskey bottles evaporated when a vise like grip locked onto his neck and gun belt. Texas Joe found himself unceremoniously dumped into the filth and dirt of the alley. Snarling, he clambered to his feet, only to be seized again by his shirt front. To his true dismay, Joe stared directly into the icy eyes of Wyatt Earp, whom, Joe instantly decided, must move like a wildcat.
"You hold it right there, cowboy!" Earp snapped.
It had been said that Wyatt Earp could draw his gun and buffalo a man faster than the eye could see. Texas Joe wasn't sure about that, but he did know what it felt like to be buffaloed; Virgil Earp had done the honors the previous drive. It was not an experience he wished to repeat.
Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw Earp's hand snake down to his gun belt, in a blur of motion. Joe panicked. Lunging at the lawman, he yelled, "Oh no, you don't, you sidewinder! You ain't gonna buffalo me!"
"Get off me, you drunk!" Wyatt snarled, driving his thumbnail into Joe's ear lobe that he clutched with his left hand.
It was incredibly painful and Joe bellowed and roared. But he also latched onto Earp's right wrist with both hands, effectively seizing the lawman's gun hand. He hung on for dear life and a strength born of desperation.
It was an instant standoff; Texas Joe could not reach his own gun without relaxing his grip on Earp's right arm. But Wyatt could not free his hand from Joe's double handed grip and the pinch on the ear was proving harder to maintain as the cowboy bucked like a bronc.
Meanwhile, at the end of the alley, attracted by the commotion, the other Texas cowboys crowded in for a look.
"Well, hell. Lookit ole Joe!" Frank Roper whistled in disbelief. "He's got Earp!"
Lem Tucker, the ramrod of one of the drives, looked positively satanic in the lamp glow of the nearby window. "Boys, we got that head breaker right where we want him!"
"Earp! We gonna drag you through town, get out some tar and feathers, and then we gittin' a rope!" One young Texan rejoiced.
"It's bounty time, boys!" The drunken cowboys gathered courage and excitement at the thought of evening the score with Dodge City's uncompromising deputy marshal.
"Git down here and help me!" Joe shrieked, impatient with all the bragging while his ear was being pinched clean off.
Although his face gave nothing away, Wyatt Earp was acutely aware of the fact his situation was perilous. He had always been careful not to be cornered by the Texas men; well, unless his temper got the better of him. But this was rapidly going out of control. He was tired and he had been careless. Also, Wyatt knew better than anyone there was no chance of any help arriving soon.
The cowboys advanced, except one, who still nursed bitter memories of his last visit to Dodge. He went over to his horse and pulled a rifle from the saddle boot. "Tonight you gonna pay, Mister Earp!"
LLWE LLWE LLWE
One of the drunken cowboys burst in the Alahambra saloon, shot his pistol in the air and announced, "We got that head breaking skunk Wyatt Earp cornered in the alley behind the Long Branch. We aim to have a fandango - right on his head! Who wants to help?"
A roar of approval went up from the drovers; the townspeople looked concerned but made no move to rise, acutely conscious of the large numbers of armed Texans present. Some of the cowboys rushed outside; a couple fired their guns in the air.
"Where's Sheriff Masterson? Or Shotgun Gibbs? Or Hal?" One of the townsmen demanded nervously.
"Masterson is over at Hayes, testifying at that gambler's trial. Due back tonight some time. Gibbs is trying to sort out that shootin' tonight over south of the line. Hal and the others are at the Texas House, a big fight over there." Kelley said, wearing his usual expression of indignant and worried. He had warned Wyatt time and again about the cowboys being out to get him and as usual, Earp brushed off his concern. Well, Jim Kelley couldn't run all over Dodge saving foolish young lawmen from their own egos. Besides, he could hardly run out to the rescue with all of these Texas guns in his place. It would be bad for business, not to mention perhaps very bad for his health. It would be just like that fool Wyatt to get himself killed and come back and haunt me, he thought with an aggrieved sense of injustice.
"But there's no one else!" One of the townsmen said worriedly, only to fall silent when his card playing partner, a Texas man, calmly pulled a gun on him.
Hearing this, several more cowboys got up and left, following the first group that had rushed out the swinging doors.
Silence reigned at the poker table. The trail bosses exchanged malicious grins at word of the deputy marshal's plight but made no move to leave. This was long overdue, by their standards.
"Well, you boys in or not?" One of trail bosses demanded. Pausing to light his cigar, he thought Earp getting some of his own back would just about even up losing a considerable sum to Doc and Dodge City in general.
Doc Holliday hesitated. He had a daisy of a hand. It was true that he had developed a grudging respect, bordering dangerously close to friendship, for the purer than snow Deacon Earp. But it wouldn't do to drop everything just to help some Johnny Law who didn't have the sand to kill a few bushwhackers when they would surely kill him on sight if they could. Doc could never abide Wyatt's don't shoot to kill rule and they had just had a bitter argument over it two days ago. Besides, Doc had no friends - and he liked it that way. Or so he told himself and anybody else within earshot.
Only Slim Jim Finney knew that Doc and Wyatt Earp had met and co-operated on the capture of Dirty Dave Rudabaugh near Fort Griffin, Texas. The news had certainly stunned the sporting crowd when they heard that. It was rumored Earp and Holliday were friends. Just how good of friends remained to be seen. Finney could not conceive of a world that Doc Holliday would leave a poker table for any mortal man, let alone a Yankee lawman.
Doctor John H. Holliday sighed, threw back the remainder of his bourbon. A fierce internal battle had been raging within him ever since the news of Earp had been announced. With a true air of deep regret, he stood up. "Gentlemen, I fold. I trust you'll not mind me taking my winnings with me; I should be back shortly." The Georgian left after scooping up his money, not at a run but he literally shoved men out of his way that didn't move fast enough. When they saw who it was, wisely no one objected. Everybody in the saloon watched spellbound, with varying degrees of astonishment.
"Well, I'll be damned," one of the trail bosses said in disbelief.
"Never thought I'd see the day," the cattle buyer added.
Slim Jim sat open mouthed. He felt like he'd seen one of nature's aberrations, like a river running uphill or snow in July. Doc Holliday leaving a hot game where he was winning big! Folding himself, as Jim's own hand was terrible, he left the Texans and the cattle buyer to battle it out. Before he departed however, Jim took a quick look at Doc's discarded hand. A royal flush! Finney nearly fainted. He wouldn't have left this hand for free women! Gathering his wits, he hurriedly left the table and headed outside. This would be far more interesting than the game.
LLWE LLWE LLWE
A shouting, gun waving crowd blocked the entrance of the alley. Wyatt Earp had managed to hold back the snarling cowboys by keeping Texas Joe in between them and the Long Branch saloon at his back. But this could not last much longer; the cowboys were growing more surly and reckless by the minute and soon even their compadre Joe's pleadings not to shoot wouldn't stop them. Earp's situation was desperate. Somehow, despite all of the reckless risks he ran, Wyatt really never thought about being trapped in an alley in Dodge City to meet his maker. He always figured he would get it in the street.
He and Joe were still locked in their macabre dance of death. Every time Wyatt tried to get to his gun, Joe tightened his hold as the others encouraged him and yelled abuse to the lawman. Neither man could let go without giving up the advantage.
"C'mon, Joe, bring him down!" One of the watching drunks yelled from the safety of the crowd.
"Just git down, Joe! I can take him from here!" Another shouted, standing on some upturned wooden crates, waving his Colt in the air.
"No! Don't shoot, Abe! You always were a lousy shot. You'll hit me!" Texas Joe, his ear bloody and his head now achingly clear, was frankly alarmed at the willingness of his friends to take chances with his life.
The quiet cowboy with the Winchester shouldered his way forward. "Earp! You bushwhacker! You lousy snake! You damn near broke my head open last time I was in town! Now, it's my turn!" He raised the rifle and took deliberate aim.
Texas Joe gave a squeal of terror and tried to shove away from Earp. Wyatt, his grip momentarily loosened, scrambled to regain his hold on Joe's ear. He did but Joe remained crouched down, leaving the lawman's head and shoulders exposed. Even as he struggled to haul Joe upright again, Wyatt found himself looking down the barrel of a Winchester aimed right at him. In an instant, Wyatt Earp realized his life was seconds from being over; just another fallen lawman in the West. He hoped fervently that his brothers Morgan and Virge could avenge him.
Two shots rang out and both Wyatt Earp and Texas Joe jumped. The Winchester flew out of the cowboy's hands and he doubled over, falling to the ground. A couple of bystanders moved cautiously to him and checked. The man was dead.
Wyatt's head rang and he could feel something stinging his face. He knew he had been hit with something but the bullet from the Winchester seemed to have missed him, thankfully. The slug now resided in the back wall of the Long Branch, right next to where his head had been.
Off to the side, shoving through the crowd, Doc Holliday held his smoking nickel plated pistol. "I never could abide such one sided fights," he drawled, still keeping his gun on the crowd. "What is this, thirty to one? My, my, but you're a brave bunch of boys here." He moved over to stand next to Earp. "Mind if I give you a hand, Deacon?" He asked with deceptive mildness. Doc didn't bother to look at his victim; he never shot to wound.
Texas Joe's grip loosened at Doc's unexpected shot and Wyatt finally freed his gun by the time Holliday joined him. Incredibly, he still retained his hold on Joe's tormented ear. Earp pointed his own gun at the crowd. "All right, that's enough! You can all go on home now or be arrested! Now move! Break it up!"
Suddenly facing two of the most famous gunmen the West would ever produce, the Texas cowboys abruptly sobered up. The jury was still out on whether Wyatt Earp would give a man an even chance in a fight but few harbored such reservations about Holliday. Wyatt, face streaming blood from wooden splinters, looked cold and grim as he faced the mob but Holliday had a small smile on his face, as if enjoying the prospect of bloodshed. Secretly, Doc realized he relished the chance to go out, guns blazing, with Wyatt at his side. It was a helluva feeling.
Texas Joe finally dropped to the ground, whimpering, and holding his ear. It seemed to be an unspoken signal for the cowboys began slowly backing away, while those in the front ran.
"I declare I wish somebody had fired," Doc said with mock peevishness. "It puts me in an ill humor when I have to leave a good poker game and then can't shoot but one man!" The few cowboys who still loitered defiantly practically ran away when they heard that casual statement.
Wyatt Earp took a deep breath and holstered his gun. He'd really thought his game was up. Turning to Holliday, he said, "Doc, I'm not even gonna pretend. You saved my life tonight." He rubbed a hand across his face and was surprised when he saw blood.
Doc looked sad for a brief moment. He was a man with very few friends in a dangerous world and now that he had this twice damned tuberculosis, he'd finally found one to ride the river with in Wyatt Earp. However, it wouldn't do to be sentimental. "Somebody, it seems, has appointed me as guardian angel to a stubborn, piously righteous Johnny Law. It seems I have angered the Almighty beyond redemption, to be saddled with such a chore!"
There was a small commotion in the street and one of the drunker cowboys lurched back into the alley, swearing, "I'll kill you, Earp!"
He was suddenly struck down from behind, buffaloed by Bat Masterson. "Wyatt! You all right? I heard there was some trouble-" he stopped as he caught sight of the kneeling Texas Joe, Wyatt's bloody face and the man who stood beside him. "Doc? What are you doing out here?"
Straightening his faded vest, Doc replied with studied casualness, "I was just out for a breath of fresh air. After I help Deputy Marshal Earp here take this mewling babe to jail and clean out the wood splinters in his face, hopefully, I will return to the arms of Lady Luck. And if I do not win, I will hold it against you for all eternity," he added bitterly to the marshal.
Hauling Joe up by the shirt and shoving him along, Wyatt smiled, although Bat still looked concerned by Doc's tone. Walking towards the jail, Wyatt was glad they had Doc's gun along, for the streets were still lined with sullen cowboys although he could see Jim Kelley organizing the citizens' committee at the far end of Front Street. It was a nice idea but a little late.
"Doc, I can pick splinters out myself. I don't want you being my enemy over a poker game," he said lightly but his feelings were anything but trivial. He had heard Doc expound many times on the wisdom of never leaving a poker game when one was winning. And yet, Doc had left one tonight, for him. Secretly, Wyatt was both touched and grateful. But it wouldn't do to show it. Neither of them were that kind of men.
"You will do an inferior, hurried job and develop an infection, this undoing all of my good work tonight," Doc snapped. "I'll take care of it and do a proper job."
Bat began to bristle at Doc's patronizing tone but Wyatt shrugged it off. He was used to Doc's outbursts. His head however, was beginning to ache with a vengeance.
"You okay, Wyatt?" Bat asked in some concern.
Doc stopped and forced Wyatt to stop. Bat took charge of the silent Texas Joe, who was still wondering what the hell had just happened.
Peering closely at Wyatt's eyes, Doc said, "Deacon, I suggest you let young Mr. Masterson here take this vagrant to jail while you and I go over to Doctor McCarty's. I think you may have suffered a concussion."
'I'm all right," Wyatt insisted, although he wished his voice sounded stronger.
"Is it serious, Doc?" Bat asked with concern.
"I don't think so, but head injuries can be tricky things. One never knows."
Wyatt, despite the headache, ringing in his ear and the blood now soaking the collar of his shirt, bristled. "One never knows! Thanks, Doc, that's very reassuring. I feel so much better now. You must have been wonderful as a dentist!"
"My patients were reassured. Or I shot'em." Doc turned to wink at Masterson. "He'll be all right."
Bat grinned. "Good. See if you can keep him off the streets tonight, Doc. Shotgun, Hal and I can handle things."
Almost appearing like magic, they saw the tall form of Shotgun Gibbs round the corner a block away. When he spotted them, he pushed his mule Roscoe to a gallop.
Joining them, Shotgun slid off and whistled when he saw Earp. "What in tarnation happened to you?"
"By all means, let us stand out here and discuss it," Doc snapped. "Come on, let's go before Kelley and the rest of the council arrive, demanding a full accounting."
Shotgun ignored him. "You gonna be okay, Wyatt?"
"Yes," Earp answered, before Doc could get in there. "You two could get this man to jail," he said, indicating Texas Joe, who looked in worse shape than Wyatt, except for the blood.
"Go!" Holliday roared.
"No need to get in an uproar, Doc," Shotgun said calmly but with none of the usual cringing most people used when addressing Holliday. "Ol' Roscoe knew there was somethin' wrong, that's why we come back on a gallop. He was practically brayin' with worry."
For once, Doc looked nearly speechless. "You mean your mule knew something was wrong?" He spluttered.
"Of course," Shotgun replied implacably. "I just done said so, didn't I?"
Bat laughed but his smile vanished when Wyatt swayed ever so slightly. Earp's head was pounding and the world seemed to be swirling by ever faster. He felt slightly nauseous.
"We'll be going now, gentlemen," Doc said firmly, taking Wyatt's arm and walking closely by him.
Wyatt tried to turn and issue orders. "Don't forget to-"
Bat interrupted. "You'd better get going. Here comes Jim Kelley."
Doc abruptly pulled Wyatt along, something else that never happened before as nobody ever forced Wyatt Earp to go where he didn't want to. The sheriff and deputy watched as the two headed for Doc McCarty's place. Bat and Shotgun shared a smile and then shoved Texas Joe toward the jail, none too gently.
"I don't know if that's good or bad," Bat remarked. Holliday was a cold blooded killer; he could cause Wyatt all kinds of problems.
"Well, appears to me that tonight it was a good thing," Shotgun replied. "Neither you nor I would have made it in time to save Wyatt."
"Yeah, that's true," Bat said thoughtfully. Texas Joe whimpered. "Aw, shut up and get moving!"
Slim Jim Finney watched from the boardwalk across the street. It was unbelievable! Doc Holliday had finally found an amigo; someone he held in even greater esteem than good poker hands. For it to be a lawman, the hardest of a hard breed, the incorruptible Wyatt-accept-no-vices-Earp bordered on the incredible. He couldn't wait to spread the news to the other members of the sporting crowd. They'd buy him drinks for a year just to hear the story!