Tête-à-tête in Tombstone.

“Art is the stuff that sticks with you,
art is the thing that won’t turn you loose.”

Photo by: Frank Kovalchek

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

When the shadow blocked the doorway of Johnny Ringo’s, everyone in the bar looked up. The door was propped open and traffic was brisk. The glare of the late afternoon sun fought the gloom of the little taproom to a draw. But then gloom captured the turf enduringly, and we all looked up to see why.

The stranger leaning against the doorjamb was long and lean and very relaxed. He wore black wool trousers pegged at the ankles over ornately-tooled snakeskin boots. His dove-grey top coat fit him like a glove. Beneath it he wore a rich brocade waistcoat and a white linen shirt open at the collar. He had eyes the color of coal and flowing brown hair that spilled halfway down his back. His handlebar moustache was trimmed and combed and waxed to perfection. A red silk cravat finished the ensemble, that and two nickel-plated Colt 45s with carved ivory grips. The sidearms were mounted high, at his ribs, and a double-barreled shotgun, breech open, was slung across his left arm.

And even though Johnny Ringo’s is the tourist trap for the sophisticated tourist, still everyone gawked. Everyone except one man in the corner at the end of the bar, a man nearly perfectly concealed by the gloom. He looked up at the stranger in the doorway and there was genuine fear in his eyes.

The stranger was looking right at him. Looking right through him. He didn’t stare, he glared, and the room fell deathly silent – not a nervous cough, not a stolen breath. The fearful man tried to hold the stranger’s gaze but couldn’t. He looked down at the drink before him on the table then looked up again quickly, something furtive in his eyes. The stranger nodded slowly and said, “I’m your huckleberry.”

Some moron guffawed in recognition but this didn’t relieve the tension, it added to it.

The stranger stood up straight and snapped the breech of the shotgun closed. He hefted it high in the air and the bartender snagged it with two hands. He mounted it on two pegs over the back-bar. He said, “Howdy, Doc.”

Doc nodded, saying, “Walter.” Lithe as a cat, he threaded his way past the close-packed tables to the juke box. He pulled a silver dollar out of the pocket of his waistcoat and spun it skyward. Without seeming to look for it, he grabbed it out of the air as it came down and deposited it in the machine.

While he was selecting tunes, the frightened man in the corner stood up and headed for the door. “Leaving so soon, Andrew?” Doc said without looking up. He tapped his fingertips on the grip of one of the pistols. “I thought you and me might have a talk.”

Andrew slumped back into his chair, and Doc left him there to sweat a spell.

This is one of the stories collected in the free book FREE Willie. Get yours today!

This is one of the stories collected in the free book FREE Willie. Get yours today!

And not everything is as it seems. It’s Tombstone, of course, but Tombstone in 1995, not 1881. Doc Holliday is indeed an expert killer allied with the forces of good, but the killings are all make-believe and the forces of good are comprised of the Historical Commission and the merchants of Allen Street. Doc and the Earps and the Clantons and McLowrys and assorted other pistoleers put on a gunfighting exhibition every afternoon at two. The rest of the time they’re just plain folks, just plain folks in very fancy Victorian garb.

And of course, it’s Doc and the Earps and the Clantons and McLowrys – the real historical figures, however embellished – who have made Tombstone a tourist mecca where other towns of the Wild West are barely of interest to historians. And on Allen Street, they know how to milk the tourists for all they’re worth. Up at the Bird Cage Theater, near where Curly Bill Brocius shot Marshall Fred White, things are pretty much undisturbed, but the sight of unmolested verity comes at a price. And down at the OK Corral, again for a price, you can stand on the actual spot where history – however embellished – was made. In between, on both sides of the street, there is nothing but hoke and smoke and filigreed forgeries of the very highest quality.

But what fun those forgeries are. The gunfighting exhibitions are run out of Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, a saloon that never was. It’s a restoration of the old Grand Hotel, where Dr. John Henry Holliday and Big Nose Kate Elder frequently stayed, so that ought to count for something. The Continental Saloon stands where the original Continental didn’t, and the Oriental, Wyatt Earp’s first toehold in Tombstone, has no occidental presence. The saloons are as authentic as Disneyland, but somewhat pricier. They are surrounded by gift shops and antiquities emporia and flyblown little restaurants offering authentic sourdough pizza and superannuanted ice cream. At the height of Tombstone’s notoriety, it was estimated that one edifice in three was devoted to providing what might be called the sporting man’s pleasures. Things have changed, but not much: Now one edifice in three is devoted to satisfying the cravings of idle voyeurs.

And alone against that tidal wave of Allen Street cant stands the lowly Johnny Ringo’s, a fragrant little bar that could be transparently transplanted into any seamy neighborhood in America. No fluff, no bluff, no souvenir stuff, just cold beer, cheap wine and all the distilled spirits a thriving ghost town can provide. The beer was three dollars for draft, to be sure, but even an anti-tourist tourist trap has to fleece the tourists. That’s what they come to Tombstone for, after all, and it’s bad for business to disappoint them.

I was standing at the bar and paying two dollars a pop for short Pepsis. I don’t much care for alcohol, but I’d lost the stomach for the more authentic places up the street. Even though soda never costs much where there’s liquor for sale, I had volunteered to pay the two bucks over Walter’s protest, because I know bar space is at a premium in a bar. And standing with my back to the bar, elbows on the brass rail, I had a good view of Doc and his victim.

The first of his tunes came up on the juke box – “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine. Doc grabbed a chair and swung it high in the air, bringing it down across the table from Andrew, the shrinking man. He sat on the chair backwards, planted his elbows on the table and suspended his chin on his palms. He smiled soft and slow with a gentle malice. He said, “Now ain’t you a daisy?”

If Andrew said anything, I didn’t hear it, and I didn’t hear anything he said through their entire conversation. Walter came over to the table with a bottle of whiskey and a polished silver cup. He poured out a double or perhaps a triple shot. Doc gently tapped the bottle with his fingertip and Walter set it down on the table.

“I thought that was just in the movies,” I said when Walter strode back behind the bar.

“It is,” he confided. “That bottle’s filled with Earl Grey tea, room temperature.”

“So you don’t make anything on Doc at all?”

“You kidding? Nobody leaves when he’s in here. If he stays an hour, we’ll be three deep at the bar.”

I looked around and saw it was true. Every gawker in the bar – myself included – was gawking at Doc, which only added to Andrew’s monumental discomfort.

Doc said, “I heard you were in town, snooping around over there at Kate’s. Tombstone is my town, boy, and you cannot spy upon me without my finding it out. I am not and never will be a pillar of this community, but I am well acquainted with a pillar or two, and Tombstone can keep no secrets from me.”

Andrew said something I couldn’t hear but Doc replied in full voice. “Did you think I might strike you, Andrew Covington? Did you think I might shoot you with my pretty pistols?” He ran a finger sensuously along one of the ivory grips. “They’re loaded with blanks, Andrew. Just black powder and wadding, make-believe bullets in a make-believe town.”

Whatever was said made Doc Holliday rear back and laugh raucously. “Hate you? Hell, boy, I’m grateful to you. You loosed me from the tar baby and stuck yourself instead. All you took from me was a bag of nothing, and you squandered everything you had to get it!”

Andrew looked every which way at the eager faces of the gawkers and even though I couldn’t hear him, I knew every word of what he said: “Please! Keep it down, will you?!”

“Keep it down? Hell, I want to shout it from the rooftops! Listen here, boys! Andrew Covington stabbed me in the back and it saved my life. Nobody’s ever betrayed me the way he did, and nobody’s ever done me a bigger favor. Here’s a toast to Andrew Covington, liar, cheater, sniveling whiner and professional backside kisser!”

The gawkers roared and drank. However Andrew replied, he did not hit Doc, which he surely deserved, and he did not get up and walk out.

The room fell silent and from the jukebox John Prine confided, “There’s flies in the kitchen. I can hear ’em there buzzin’. And I ain’t done nothin’ since I woke up today…”

Doc chuckled and said, “Look at you, boy. You’re a mess!” This wasn’t literally true. Andrew didn’t look all that hale, but he was middling healthy for a tourist: a little flabby, a little flaccid, a little weary-looking. But he was withering under Doc’s scrutiny, and the humiliation before a crowd of strangers wasn’t doing anything good for his posture. “You know who gets hurt by a lie? The liar. The person you tell a lie to may make a little mistake based on the false information you’re handin’ out. But the liar is hurt forever. When you tell a lie, you can’t ever forget what you say, for fear you’ll slip up. You have to portray that lie every day, every which way, no coffee breaks and no vacations. You have to supervise yourself all the time, and your own spontaneity becomes your worst enemy. And you have to keep tellin’ that lie until half-past-stupid, until it’s obvious to everybody that you’re full of shit. But even then you can’t come clean, because, if you do, you’re exposed as a liar.

“That’s the burden you took on, Andrew Covington, to steal a job you’re incompetent to do…”

“Hell, yes!” some drunk shouted. “You tell him!” The juke box whirred and a new platter dropped down, Bonnie Raitt singing “Luck of the Draw”.

“You got me fired, boy, good and plenty. And for a while there I was pretty pissed about it. But do you know what I found out? I discovered that by deceit and subterfuge you’d managed to steal from me everything in my life that I hated. I can work again, Andrew, and I owe it all to you. Shelley at the gallery told me you were scoping out the paintings. They’re good, aren’t they? As good as anything I ever did, and much better than anything I did while I was doin’ that uptown tap-dance.”

Andrew said something I didn’t hear.

“Yeah, well, that’s just the way it is. These good people come to town and they expect to see cowboy paintings or wildlife paintings or landscapes, and instead they stumble across what I’m doin’. Most of ’em walk away, but a few, a precious few see what’s there, and they take a canvas home. Art is the stuff that sticks with you, art is the thing that won’t turn you loose. It would be nice to make something that would seize everyone, but maybe I can’t do that. But I can grab one or two at a time, and that’s enough.”

“These things we do to keep the flame burning,” Bonnie sang, and it’s more a hymn than a song. “And write our fire in the sky. Another day to see the wheel turning. Another avenue to try…”

Doc said, “I’m doin’ that because of you, Andrew Covington. Without your slimy little underhanded political games, I’d still be wasting my life for money I never had the time to enjoy. Now I shoot the bad guys for a few bucks, sell a painting or two for a few more, and I have all the time I need to work. What have you got to show for your treachery?”

Treachery is a word you don’t hear every day. More’s the pity.

“Bullshit!” said Doc. “Tell it to your mama, son. If you’re so satisfied, what are you doing here? You’re looking for a way out of your own, boy, but there isn’t one, not for you. You gotta keep tellin’ them lies, tellin’ ’em over and over again. You’re their prisoner boy, and they ain’t never gonna let you go. You traded your life for a bag of nothing, and ain’t nobody gonna let you trade it back. Least of all me.”

The gawkers were gulping this performance down, and Walter was pulling off beers so fast that the floor beneath his feet was slick with the stuff.

“Now that’s where you’re wrong, Andrew. I have no reason to hate you. I have no reason to hit you or shoot you or slash the tires on your car. Nature will exact every ounce of retribution I might want from you, every ounce and a thousand pounds more. Look what’s become of you already! And you have sentenced yourself to life in your prison of lies. How could I ever hope to hurt you worse than you’ve already hurt yourself?”

Andrew said something else I didn’t hear, and Doc replied, “No, sir. I am merely telling you the truth. A truth, I’ll concede, that you want very much to avoid. Betraying me was destructive of your character. Spinning your web of lies was destructive of your character. Coming to Tombstone to spy on me was destructive of your character. Permitting me to berate you in this way is destructive of your character. Your sole objective is self-destruction, and you have sought me out in order to blame me for it.” He called out over his shoulder: “Walter, jot this down for inclusion in ‘Doc Holliday’s Compendium of Pithy Aphorisms’: When committing suicide, make sure it’s someone else’s fault.”

The third of Doc’s juke box selections began to play. It was a bootleg 45 of a haunted Bob Dylan playing the piano and singing “She’s Your Lover Now”.

Doc stood up and stared down at Andrew Covington, his black eyes boring through the flaccid man like no bullet ever could. “I’m done with you, boy, but you’ll never be done with me. You’re nothing to me, but I’ll always be everything to you, always the living symbol of everything you cheated yourself out of, everything you could have had but gave up for the sake of a bag of nothing. For every day of the rest of your scab-encrusted life, you’ll think of me. Your every thought will turn to rationalization and your every rationalization will turn to self-reproach, with no relief short of death. You’re gonna make an ugly corpse, Andrew Covington, and that’s all you will make of your life.”

Doc Holliday turned and stalked away, leaving poor Andrew Covington to his shame and his misery and his liquor.

He set his authentic whiskey bottle on the bar and Walter handed him the shotgun. As he walked toward the doorway, a man stepped up to block it.

It was the real Johnny Ringo, the real authentic make-believe Johnny Ringo from the gunfighting exhibitions. He said, “Doc, tomorrow I’m gonna burn your skinny ass!”

Doc Holliday gave a courtly nod and smiled with the confidence of a man who is armed with two six-shooters and a scatter-gun, the confidence of a man who is armed with a mind like a laser and a tongue like a razor, the confidence of a man who is not disarmed by even the smallest doubt. He said: “You’re a daisy if you do.”

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