Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc met Johnny on the sidewalk near the butcher shop at about three o’clock. It was still terribly cold. Looking past the county Sheriff they could see the cowboys at the front of the empty lot. Doc was probably startled to find them next to the boardinghouse where he was staying with Kate Elder. Johnny, anxious to appear the master of the situation, said formally, “Gentlemen, I am sheriff of this county, and I am not going to allow any trouble if I can help it.” Having decided to act, the three brothers and Doc had no patience for one of Johnny Behan’s fine speeches. They pushed past him on the sidewalk. Johnny turned and followed. According to Virgil and Wyatt, he called after them that if they kept going they might be murdered. That still didn’t stop the Earp’s and Doc, who were now no more than about a hundred feet from the vacant lot where the cowboys waited. Virgil snapped over his shoulder to Johnny that they were going to disarm them. According to Johnny, he then informed Virgil that he was in the process of disarming the cowboys, by which Johnny meant that the Earp’s and Doc should back off and let him collect the weapons.
Both Virgil and Wyatt testified later that Johnny told them he had already disarmed the Clanton’s and McLaury’s. Hearing that, or at least believing that they had, Virgil and Wyatt slightly relaxed. Virgil pushed the pistol in his belt all the way back to his left hip where it wouldn’t be so conspicuous, and switched Doc’s cane from his left to his right hand. Wyatt tucked his pistol out of sight in the canvas pocket of his coat.
Virgil and Wyatt called after them that if they kept going they might be murdered. That still didn’t stop the Earp’s and Doc, who were now no more than about a hundred feet from where the cowboys waited.
For a very brief moment, it seemed that the risk of a gunfight was averted. But appearances were as important to the Earp’s as they were to Johnny and the cowboys. Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan couldn’t turn on their heels and abruptly walk away after making such a show of marching down to Fremont Street. As lawmen representing the citizens of Tombstone, they were obligated to see for themselves that the cowboys no longer carried weapons in defiance of city laws.
The Earp’s and Doc kept moving to where the cowboys waited on the edge of the vacant lot, and as they approached they were startled to see that Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury still wore their gun belts, and that the two horses had rifles hanging from their saddles. Apparently Johnny Behan had lied, and it was still up to Tombstone police Chief Virgil Earp, with the assistance of his brothers and Doc Holliday, to disarm the cowboys.
The cowboys watched the Earp’s and Doc brush past Johnny Behan and continue their resolute march toward them. Billy Claiborne and Billy Clanton stood deepest in the lot and likely had no view of what happened near the Union market. But Ike was only a few feet inside the lot, just off the street, and the McLaury brothers were practically on the sidewalk, with Tom marginally closer to Fremont Street than was Frank. The McLaury’s each held a horse; Tom apparently took Billy’s when the younger Clanton moved into the narrow lot while he talked with Billy Claiborne.
So far, as the cowboys were concerned, the Earp’s had no business harassing them any further. Johnny Behan was an officer of the law, and they were in the process of negotiating with him to either leave Tombstone or give up their weapons. If Johnny had just explained that to the Earp’s they evidently didn’t care, and it was now up to the cowboys to defend themselves from further insult and, probably, assault. The Clanton’s and McLaury’s had no specific plan for handling a possible confrontation. The cramped lot was a terrible place to be caught in during a fight; there was no room to maneuver. But they weren’t about to retreat. They’d been pushed around enough.
Johnny Behan was never a fighter. If there was to be shooting in the vacant lot, the county Sheriff wanted no part of it. As the Earp’s and Doc reached the east side of the lot, Johnny broke ahead of them, darted into the lot, grabbed Billy Claiborne by the shoulders and began propelling the young cowboy toward a landing that separated Fly’s boardinghouse from the photography studio behind it. It demonstrated an admirable sense of duty on Johnny’s part to remove Claiborne from the potential line of fire, but he was also interested in saving his own skin now that he believed a gunfight was inevitable.
Tom McLaury moved toward the horse he held and the rifle in its saddle scabbard. Doc pulled the shotgun from under his coat and Tom froze. For a moment no one spoke
Up and down Fremont Street, people watched with nervous fascination. Up until this moment the squabbling between the Earp’s and the cowboys had provided diversion. Now it seemed about to become something more. Since out-and-out gunfights, where opposing parties met publicly and settled their differences with six-shooters while standing face-to-face, were practically unknown, the uniqueness of the moment intensified its ghastly attraction to the citizens of Tombstone.
Angles made it impossible for most of them to see all the way into the lot, and even some of those directly across from it had their views partially blocked by Wyatt, Morgan, Doc, Frank, Tom, and the horses held by the McLaury’s. Many residents who recognised the Earp’s collectively couldn’t tell the brothers apart since they looked so much alike. The situation was almost as tense and confusing for the onlookers as it was for the eight men they were observing.
Virgil stepped into the lot, pausing a few feet inside it. He still held Doc’s silver-headed cane in his right hand. Wyatt, on Virgil’s right, stationed himself at the northwest corner of Fly’s boardinghouse. Morgan stopped a few feet out on Fremont and Doc was farther out on the street, positioning himself to see all the way into the lot as well as up and down Fremont if any of the cowboys’ friends came running to their rescue. Tom McLaury moved toward the horse he held and the rifle in its saddle scabbard. Doc pulled the shotgun from under his coat and Tom froze. For a moment no one spoke. After so many misunderstandings and with so much mistrust between them there was little left to say. During the past thirty hours the final dominoes had tumbled, leading inexorably to this confrontation...
The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the Ok Corral and How it Changed the American West is available now and published by the Robson Press.
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