“The Last Gunfight – The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral, and How It Changed the American West” By Jeff Guinn, 392 pps., published by Simon & Schuster
Let’s start with the title. It wasn’t the last gunfight in the Old West, and it didn’t take place at the O.K. Corral, and it didn’t change anything, but it probably is the real story of this infamous and deadly 30 seconds, or at least as close as anyone’s ever going to get to it. The shootout between the Earps and Doc Holliday on one side, and Ike and Billy Clanton, the McLowry brothers, and Billy Claiborne on the other, was one of the very rare face-to-face instances of gunslinging in a time and place where backshooting was the norm, and, along with the unpleasantness at the Little Big Horn is probably the single most famous episode of the Wild, Wild West.
Mr. Guinn’s great strength is not as a writer (He’s OK, but no better), but as a historian. He has dug up information that no one else has, and what emerges is a picture of the times and people that is unlike anything you’re going to see on a movie screen.
A few examples: Wyatt was what people then called a ne’er do-well. He aspired to a chief lawman’s job, money, and the respect of the community and never got any of them. He spent the entirety of his long life in and out of poverty. On the way to the O.K. Corral, he carried his Colt Peacemaker (not a Buntline Special) not in a holster, but in a special canvas-lined pocket. At the famous waterhole shootout where he split Curly Bill Brocius’ chest with a load of buckshot as bullets shredded his coat, he stood his ground because his pistol belt (he was wearing one then) slipped down around his hips and he couldn’t move.
Earp’s reputation as a lawman was nowhere near what it was when he wore a badge as it was in later life. Take, for example, the scene in Kevin Costner’s movie where he walks into an out-of-control saloon, fires his shotgun into the ceiling, and says:
“My name is Wyatt Earp and it all ends now.”
If this had happened for real, the cowhands would have said:
“Would you mind spelling that?”
“Clear out, you damn belch!”
“Go f*** a duck!
But then he would have started cracking heads, because he was a genuinely tough customer with his fists and with his guns, and as his friend Bat Masterson later said, completely unacquainted with fear.
The first book about him was such an obvious package of lies that no publisher would buy it. The second one, by Stuart N. Lake, was just as untruthful, but far more skillfully packaged, and it was what made his reputation.
And so on.
On the other hand, Mr. Guinn provides so much information, most of it not central to the story, that your mind wanders dangerously, and you find yourself wondering instead what Snooki is going to look like in 10 years, and you are tempted to cry, as I did, “Enough, for God’s sake, let’s get to the gunplay.”
On the whole, though, it’s worth the read, although you’ll never be able to watch a movie about the O.K. Corral again without snickering.