Tombstone preserves site of mythic Old West gun battle

Wyatt Earp’s boots crunched on the baked desert earth as he, Marshal Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday strode past Bauer’s butcher shop and the Pagago cash store toward the O.K. Corral and their date with destiny.

A Wyatt Earp mannequin stands ready in Tombstone.

A Wyatt Earp mannequin stands ready in Tombstone.

TOMBSTONE, Ariz. — Wyatt Earp’s boots crunched on the baked desert earth as he, Marshal Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday strode past Bauer’s butcher shop and the Pagago cash store toward the O.K. Corral and their date with destiny.

The chill wind that Oct. 26, 1881, afternoon blew open Holliday’s long grey coat, revealing the shotgun he hid within.

Weapons ready, they were determined to disarm those varmint Clantons and McLaurys. What followed was a virtual toe-to-toe shootout that came to epitomize the violent mythos of the Old West.

Visitors to Phoenix can drive three hours southeast — past mesas and stands of saguaro cactus — to this endearingly kitschy re-creation of a Wild West town and the gunfight that made it famous.

“If there was anything Wyatt Earp could have eliminated in his life it would have been Tombstone because that was his downfall,” says Bill Hunley, a lifelong Tombstone resident, who owns the town’s historic Bird Cage Theatre. “(After Tombstone) he lost one brother, the other brother was crippled the rest of his life, and the family kind of fell apart.”

Tombstone’s town jewel is the rebuilt, refurbished O.K Corral site, or more accurately, the alley behind the corral, where the gun battle occurred.

Walk in the noontime heat through the corral and museum and you see, behind a wrought-iron fence, eight mannequins with angry eyes and guns poised, four on four. Press a button and a voice on a loudspeaker recounts the battle.

When Wyatt Earp draws, his gun hand slowly rises and you can imagine the violence that saw 30 shots fired in 30 seconds.

After the smoke cleared, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead while the unarmed Ike Clanton ran away. On the Earp side, only Wyatt escaped without a scratch.

Inside the corral museum, listen to the velvety voice of Vincent Price narrate a half-hour show on the history of Tombstone, complete with visuals and a funky revolving diorama. And twice a day, actors re-create the violent gunplay.

From the corral, visitors can walk down Allen Street and into history.

Stop in at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon — named for Doc Holliday’s girlfriend and perhaps the town’s first prostitute. The bar is vintage Old West: dark wood, long bar, with cowboy pictures and artifacts cramming every inch of the walls. The dominant motif: guns, naked women, and naked women with guns.

“The Bird Cage was a brothel, a bordello, a gambling casino, a dance hall, a saloon and an opera house all rolled into one. That’s where the mystique of the saloon started,” said Hunley.

Twenty-six people died violently in gun battles in the Bird Cage’s heyday.

The town was named for Ed Schieffelin, who came out prospecting in the 1870s. Good luck, chortled his buddies, the only thing you’ll find in that patch of godforsaken desert is your own tombstone. When Schieffelin did find his claim, he cheekily named it Tombstone.

The Earps came for the mining and gambling but ended up trying to keep the peace against marauding cowboys who rustled cattle, robbed stagecoaches and shook down honest folk.

Shortly after the O.K. slaughter, their enemies exacted revenge. Virgil Earp was shot on the street, his left arm forever maimed. Morgan was gunned down dead while shooting pool.

Violence begat violence. Wyatt hunted down and killed those he believed responsible in a vendetta that brought him lasting fame — and notoriety.

The O.K. gunfight is hotly debated to this day, particularly over who shot first. Some call the Earps honest lawmen trying to disarm lawbreakers illegally carrying guns in town limits. Others label them cowards, hiding behind badges to settle a longstanding blood feud.

Since then, he has been lionized in films, TV and popular culture as the heroic anti-hero: a good man pushed by evil to commit evil to right wrongs.

“When he perceived the courts as impotent, the anti-vigilante became the ultimate vigilante justice,” summarized author Casey Tefertiller in his book Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend.

A short drive from the corral, the bodies of Clanton and the McLaurys lie under a cairn at the family plot in the famous Boot Hill Cemetery.

Visitors can walk among the graves, feel the hot wind as it whispers through the valley below, and stare at the distant Dragoon Mountains, where the famous Apache warrior Cochise once hid out.

The dearly departed are buried less than a metre deep in the unforgiving bedrock, their gravesites blasted with dynamite to make even a little hole.

The epitaphs speak of those who died in gunfights, by Apache attacks, by hanging, and by falling down mineshafts. Others died of disease before they got a chance to live.

All testify to a hardscrabble existence for generations that scratched and clawed to make a living from a landscape that, even in death, refused to yield a single inch.