Wyatt Earp in Gunnison

Wyatt_Earp_portraitThe bent mustache figure lurched at his small desk amid faro tables, frontier ash trays and clouded, empty glasses. He had been a lawman, better the law, from Dodge City to Tombstone for the past 30 years. Now he wore spectacles, they stabbed into the thin residue of his gray-haired temples. It all seemed a badge-less blur. The once quick-triggered stagecoach guard turned deputized gunslinger was now proprietor of a struggling gambling enterprise in Gunnison, Colorado.

Some days it all closed in. He had been a feared United States Marshal. Now it had come to this. His dreams of days as a buffalo hunter on the Kansas plains were interrupted by loud clopping on the back stairs.

The door opened and a shaky voice said: “Earp, I’m calling you out!”

Earp peered around the corner and focused on a tall lanky kid whose Colt revolver anchored him to the stairs like a skeleton whaler in a winter gale.

“Did you hear, Earp? I’m calling you out. Just you and me in the street…”

Not another one, Earp thought. This was getting old. It was up to more than two a week in the summer. Did these punks really expect  to gain instant fame by gunning down this grandfather gunfighter? It’s 1903. The classic gunfights were ages ago. Even though the kid probably couldn’t shoot cans off a tree stump, that formidable revolver, and the nervous stance made him a valid threat so early in the morning.

“Not so fast, kid,” grumbled Earp. “I haven’t even had coffee. Why don’t you go home and sleep it off. I’m sure your momma has chores for you to do.”

Earp felt the need to push the kid a little just to see how far he intended to take this challenge. No sense getting shot in his own faro parlor or worse making the trek down to the dusty street of the mining town just to fall prey to the twists of a desperate nipper.

The kid was fresh from momma’s kitchen by way of a full length bedroom mirror where he had carefully practiced his facetiously fatal lines.

“Go for your gun, Earp,” he had mouthed just moments before, his holster hung loosely off his hip, his white handles glowing in the first light. He had practiced his lines for weeks now, driven by a wish for that first notch in his gun barrel. After shooting Wyatt Earp his career as a terrible gunslinger would take off. He would be somebody, not some punk kid from the back alleys of Gunnison. People would show a new found respect for the man who had gunned down the infamous Wyatt Earp.

Despite fears that he would panic and back down or botch his well rehearsed lines if he didn’t take immediate action, the kid faltered. Earp stared.

“You’re the one come a callin’, pushed the old lawman. “Now maybe we can settle this whole matter easily. Why don’t you run down to Sally’s and fetch me a cup of coffee, black, and two or three of those cheroots…”

“I said I’m gonna shoot you! Dammit, didn’t you hear me? Now get up off your ass and meet me down in the street before…”

“Before you lose your nerve? Just go quietly and we’ll forget anything happened. And watch your language. This is a family faro parlor. Go home.”

Just then another stumbler hit the door. This time it was Doc Holiday, already well pressed and oiled from the night before. He stumbled then stuttered his words into a burped sentence that resembled Good morning gentlemen. Whether his presence was any advantage to Earp was unclear since he did not pick up on the scene at first. Then he saw the kid’s revolver.

“Who’s your buddy, Wyatt?” said Holiday putting his arm around the kid’s shoulder. Hey, kid, you wanna cut the cards for fifty bucks? How about a little black jack?”

Holiday’s breath was enough to herd sheep and the kid backed up.

Educated in the profession of dentistry, Holiday had long ago opted for the more lucrative career as gunman. It was easy to see that he would have more customers at 40 paces than he might crouched over some miserable creature, his whiskey breath reeking.

Eyeballing the pistol, Holiday continued his affront, his arm affectionately slung across the kid’s shoulder. He was now hanging on him and effectively blowing the kid’s intricate presentation. Suddenly the kid took a deep breath and bolted from the room and down the stairs. Wyatt pulled his six-gun from his lap under the desk and looked at Holiday.

“Just how drunk are you, Doc? he asked.

“Not that drunk,” said Holiday.

The two shared an induced laugh, reassuring each other that surely the kid would not be back.

“I’m getting tired of these interruptions,” said Earp recounting the number of challenges he tolerated since arriving in Gunnison some months before. He had come north from Pima County to retire, not to baby sit belligerent shavelings. Although his draw was still more than enough to drop the kid in his boots, he sought peace. Along with Holiday and the dapper Bat Masterson he had opened the faro parlor near the booming mining districts of the Elks and the eastern San Juans.

“Maybe I need something a little less conspicuous, out of the mainstream, Doc,” said Earp.

“Running this joint up here in the sagebrush is about as invisible as Wyatt Earp can get,” said Holiday. “Don’t let the kid rattle your nerves. You’ve been through a whole lot worse.”

 

Meanwhile on the other side of town the rawboned gladiator fingered his Colt. He had been embarrassed and would seek revenge, this time, on both Earp and Holiday. He could corner the two on the street that night and fire off six deadly rounds while they were caught off-guard, digesting their dinner. In one evening’s surprise he would shed his baby face for the life of an icy, callous gunslinger. No sun to contend with if he approached from the west on Tomichi. He plotted things out in his swirling head. Then he methodically planned out his moves once more, for good measure.

He had to let them go for their guns, though, or he’d be spending his time in the territorial prison or, more likely, at the end of some improvised noose, a poker-faced mob watching him dangle from the town’s landmark oak. But why the preoccupation with failure? He had accomplished nothing since his less that remarkable birth in 1886, five years after the Earp Brothers murdered/dispatched the Clanton Gang at Tombstone. Now he stood at the threshold of fame, and maybe even fortune. All he had to do is shoot Holiday and Earp.

That evening moments before the sun slid behind the Antelope Hills he called out.

“I’m gunning for you, both of you. Now let’s make it simple. Go for your guns.”

That sounded pretty good plus there were a few local toughs in earshot since the kid had chosen a communal spot in front of the pool hall for his performance. They dropped their faces and their cues and backed up into the doorway.

“Not you again,” muttered Earp under his breath spreading his coat back to access his revolver. Holiday too was tense. The kid was now facing them in the street and may pull his pistol at any provocation. It looked like someone would find himself face down in the dust.

“Go for your gun!” prodded the kid, showing his good teeth, glaring at the two from the lightly shaded street. “I’m gonna…”

“You’re gonna come home and finish your chores before dark,” said a female voice to Earp’s right flank. “You’re as worthless as your father. I should let these men shoot you down but then I’d have to hire a man to build fence next spring.”

The heavy-set the woman walked fearlessly between the shooters and lunged at the kid, grabbing his neck via his ear and dragging him off onto a side street.

Earp and Holiday could only laugh, shaken by the knowledge that this recent affront had come dangerously close to a deadbolt gunfight.

“As long as he’s packing, we ain’t safe,” said Holiday moments later. Masterson still has a badge. He’s still a sheriff’s deputy up in Leadville. Maybe we could have the kid arrested before somebody gets hurt.”

An rattled Earp thought the idea a bit cowardly. Years before he would have simply dispatched the weedy warrior, flicking him away like a flea, leaving him crying for his mother in the blood and the dust. But things were more civilized now and if he wanted to enjoy the his later years he had better listen to Holiday. Masterson was consulted.

* * *

“That badge is from Cripple Creek,” quacked Masterson, but I’ll talk to the kid if you want. You say he’s carrying a Colt like the one we took off Les Dalton in Dodge? Can he shoot straight?”

Masterson would confront the kid on the main street with his dog, Jubal, at his side. He had named the dog after the Confederate general, Jubal Early, for no apparent reason, saying that the dog needed a name and Jubal was as good as any other.

“I’ll be staying in clear view of witnesses for our little conference to be sure,” quipped Masterson, “and I’ll bring Jubal for backup. He’s got more sense than most men and the natural instinct to see a problem coming down.”

After about an hour of searching Masterson found the kid near the livery stable saddling his mare.

“Going someplace, kid?” sassed Masterson. “Maybe that’s best considering…”

“Considering what? said the kid fingering his holster. From the looks of it he had been crying.

“Did the old men make a monkey out of you?” asked Masterson, pushing just a little more. “It could’ve been a whole lot worse. I know those two and you’re lucky to be breathing.”

Masterson then asked the kid to explain his behavior and instead was met with threats of the same kind that had plagued Earp and Holiday. At one point Masterson thought seriously about pulling his gun and ending the standoff for good, but he held back.

“You’re nuts, kid,” said Masterson. “And unless you get some sense real quick you’re gonna be dead.”

“I’ll shoot all three of you in a row at sundown!” fumed the kid. “You just be there!”

Then, as he turned toward his horse Jubal bit him hard in the butt, tearing through his jeans and drawing blood.

“Jubal!” cried Masterson. “Down boy! There’s no call for violence!”

The green gunman scurried off cursing Masterson and Jubal. Masterson set off to report to Earp, but turning the corner near the pool hall he saw the kid sneaking up the same back steps to Earp’s office, his pistol drawn.

“You go one step further and I’ll shoot you, bushwhacker,” cried Masterson. “Drop it or I’ll drop you.” The kid complied, dropping his weapon just as all the commotion brought Earp and Holiday out onto the landing.

“Are you one of those shirttail Tombstone relatives?” a frustrated Earp asked, shoving the cornered kid, “or have you just tired of living? This is your final chance. Now come in here and let’s have a drink and forget this whole matter. I’m warning you, Doc here has reached the end of his patience and even I’m getting in a foul mood!”

“I don’t drink,” said the kid. “My mother says it’s sinful. If she saw me take a drink she’d…”

Now let me get this straight,” smiled Earp. “You’re more than willing to shoot down a man you don’t even know, but drinking’s a sin? That makes no sense. You think your momma’s gonna welcome you back home with blood on your hands? Your gonna shoot Doc and I, and for all I know Bat Masterson too, but a go-round with demon rum is out of the question?

“I think we’ll just flip a coin to see who shoots you,” said Holiday. “It’s getting on to opening time and we can’t have all these distractions. The day miners are about to get off shift and we don’t seem to have a bartender for the evening.”

“We’re trying to run a business here,” said Holiday, “and you, my friend, are becoming a major annoyance. But unfortunately you’re not the only one. Just in the past week I’ve had three baby gunmen challenging me to a fight. When push comes to shove somebody’s going to be dead.”

“Has that dog had his shots?” quizzed Earp on the way back up the stairs. “I don’t know about the dog but I could sure use one,” he laughed.

“Heh, kid,” Holiday chuckled, “Are you old enough to tend bar? We’re a little shorthanded here and the pay ain’t bad.”

“Yeah, you can just sit around and watch us on our way to the whiskey grave,” he added, “without firing a shot from that cannon you’re hauling around.

“I won’t shoot you,” said the kid, “but I’m sure not gonna work for you either.”

“But you don’t know the job,” entered Masterson. “Wyatt here doesn’t need a bartender. He needs an executive secretary. You could fit the bill.”

“What do you mean…”

“I mean a sort of body guard,” continued Masterson, someone to ride shotgun when punks to thinking about shooting the famous Wyatt Earp.”

The kid, along with Earp and Holiday sat stunned at the suggestion.

“Wyatt, what do you think?” asked Masterson.

Earp sat pondering the situation. He did not answer.

“What about you, Doc?” he continued. “You could use a little organization in your life. A secretary might be just the thing.”

“Ain’t secretaries girls?” prodded the kid. “I ain’t no secretary…”

“Hang on, kid. Nobody’s saying you gotta take dictation. If you can shoot straight you can be the secretary/body guard/ hired gun in the employment of this faro parlor. Your clients are sitting right here in front of you. If you can keep these punks off our back we can pay you a healthy salary. Now you think about it. Would you rather be in long wooden box or working for Wyatt Earp?”

The kid shook his head.

“You wanted fame,” said Holiday. “You wanted to kill Wyatt Earp and be a famous fellow over at the pool hall. Well now you have the chance to be just as famous without all the blood.”

Holiday was clearly onto something. The kid thought about his friends in town and how they might see him as a hired gunman in the service of such a cast of characters.

“What would I have to do?” he asked.

“Quit asking questions for starters,” picked up Earp. “The job is simple. I don’t want to deal with every young pistolero that hits town. I don’t want nobody sneaking up my stairs. I don’t want to have to shoot anyone anymore. I don’t want no more trouble.”

“So I’d be the go-between? The peace keeper of the faro tables? I’d be paid to watch the backs of you three?” he asked. “I have to admit I could use the work. Would I get a badge?”

“You could use this badge,” gestured Masterson exposing his Cripple Creek star, “but you had better keep it under your shirt for the time being.”

And that’s how it happened. The kid took the job and quit sneaking up stairs, gunning for the infamous. Earp and Holiday went back to the business of separating ore from miners “bucking the tiger” at the high stakes faro tables. Masterson, with Jubal by his side, wandered back to Dodge City where he established a successful photo studio, specializing in portraits of recently shot but still warm desperadoes. Some of his cold clients included Cold Cut Johnny, Three Fingered Pete, Ned Christie and Cole Estes.

Years passed with Holiday passing on from consumption and Masterson following closely behind, a victim of pneumonia. Earp lived until 1929 dying in his bed at 81. The kid left Gunnison after a few years working for the faro enterprise, moving to Denver where he was elected state senator in 1916. He died in 1950.

– Kashmir Horseshoe

 

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