“Thirty seconds?” said Stuart Lake, screenwriter, journalist, former boxing promoter and all-round dubious character, “that’s too brief. The fight needs to be longer.”
The old man sitting opposite stared at him with cold lizard eyes. “Then do what you do best, Lake,” he replied in his low, growling voice, “lie. Fabricate. Exaggerate. Make shit up.”
Stuart coughed to hide his discomfort and stared down at his writing pad.
“Item,” he said, stabbing at the pad with his pencil, “one gunfight between outlaws and lawmen. That’s a good start. That’s great. The public lick this shit up.”
“Always have,” remarked the other, “ever since the dimestore novel days.”
Stuart nodded. “Okay. Next item. The fight happens in Tombstone, Arizona.”
He glanced up at the old man. “It really happened there?”
The long head opposite him slowly nodded. “Yep.”
His companion was well into his seventies. Thin and dapper, neatly parted white hair steadily receding, thick white moustache bristling under a prominent nose, strong chin, rat-trap of a mouth, cold, cold eyes staring from under heavy brows.
This man has killed people, Stuart reminded himself, all of them criminals. So he claims.
“Well,” said Stuart, “it’s dynamite so far. Outlaws, lawmen, a shoot-out to the death in a place called Tombstone. Yes, sir. But…dammit, thirty seconds?”
The old man shrugged his bony shoulders. “If I’d known there was going to be a movie, I would have asked the god-damned Clantons to make more of a fight of it.”
“We didn’t expect a shoot-out. Told them to put down their guns. Billy Clanton shot first.”
Stuart nodded, biting his lower lip. He had listened to the old man’s testimony three times, and made discreet enquiries from other sources, yet still had his doubts over who shot first.
Lawmen and Outlaws. The words were jotted in capitals in the centre of his pad. He drew a line between them. No more than the thickness of a line, he reckoned, separated such men in the old days.
It didn’t matter. His job was to write a screenplay, not ferret out the truth behind some grubby massacre in the wilds of Arizona, forty years gone.
Still, something nagged at him. Stuart was annoyed. He had thought his days in the world of semi-amateur boxing, fixing fights and swapping bribes, had wiped out his conscience, and good riddance.
“If it’s okay with you,” he said, turning over a fresh leaf in his pad, “can we just go through it one more time?”
He scarcely needed to ask. The old man seldom tired of describing the most famous incident in his career. Whatever talents he once possessed as a lawman were matched, if not exceeded, by a gift for self-promotion.
“Sure,” he said, his leathery face cracking into a grin. After slugging back his coffee and helping himself to a refill, he closed his eyes and went into it.
“Ike Clanton had been shooting his mouth off for weeks,” he began, “said he was gonna run us out of Tombstone or see us buried under it. I was sick of him and his boys swaggering around town. They wanted it to happen. Stupid bastards.”
“We went out, me and my boys, and met the Clantons. I said to Billy, ‘throw up your hands, I want your guns’.”
Stuart looked up, pencil hovering. “And then?”
The lizard eyes drilled into him. “Then Billy and Frank McLaury ripped out their six-shooters and let fly. Billy aimed at me. Luckily he couldn’t hit a donkey’s ass at ten paces.”
“I knew McLaury was supposed to be a good shot, so I aimed at him. Hit him plumb in the gut. Then all hell broke loose. Tom McLaury got behind his horse, the sneak, and took a couple of pot-shots at us. The doc soon settled his hash. Blew a great hole in his chest with a shotgun.”
The old man gave a low whistle. “Glad the doc was my friend. Sure as hell wouldn’t want him as an enemy. He’s dead now. Coughed up his guts a couple of years later. They’re all dead. All except me.”
Now he did look tired, and even older than his years. “You know the rest of it,” he said wearily, rubbing his brow, “half a minute later, two of their boys lay dead, and two of my brothers were hurt.”
“Not you, though,” said Stuart.
“No, sir. I was fortunate.”
Stuart bit his lip. The old man was half his size, twice his age, and no longer carried a gun. Still, Stuart wouldn’t have called him a liar to his face for a million dollars.
“Billy shot first,” he said.
The eyes held him. Stuart thought he could smell the dust and blood of that distant day in Tombstone, hear the crack of bullets, and the screams.
“Well, thank you again, Mister Earp, for your time. Maybe we can pad the fight out a bit for the movie. You don’t mind, do you?”
Wyatt Earp gave one of his slow smiles. “Not a bit. So long as I get paid.”
He stiffly rose from his chair. They shook hands, and as he turned to leave Stuart thought the old lawman winked at him.
Stuart looked down at his pad, and drew two lines under the projected title of the movie:
GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.