Redemption

Hanzo_portrait

Ryū ga waga teki wo kurau!

Father, I miss your wisdom.

All my life you demanded I live up to expectation. To be the one prepared to take the reins from you. From the moment of my arrival in this world, the burden was placed upon me. I was expected to be the one to take up the reins. To be your chosen, honourable heir. To be my brother’s keeper. To step into my birth right.

I was your scion.

I visit you every year since you died, Sojiro Shimada. It is fraught with risk and danger and still I come.

My father, I know you loved both your sons, but for very different reasons. I was your pride. Your first-born. The one who would take over the empire. I have it on account that following my birth, you celebrated for a full week. And yet for all that, I cannot recall a single moment of affection. No kind words, no look of pride or even love. You are too much like your mother, Hanzo. Your manner too soft. Your mood too easy to fall into introspection. Your aim, boy, is not true.

Perhaps they were words spoken to build character. To make me the best version of myself that I could be. All I remember was the endless sting of disappointment.

But there were times, Father, rare though they may have been, when I caught on your face the glint of something akin to pride. The day I first called forth and commanded the Shimada dragons. The pleasure it brought you to see that small boy struggling for control of that power, to then accomplish it was writ large upon your face. For me, a son who yearned for approval, for a kind word, that expression was the most glorious of things.

And there were times, too, when you would sit with me and impart the pearls of wisdom that I have held so close to my chest. Simple things.

Ah, my father. There is beauty, as you told me, in simplicity.

So if I was your pride, then Genji was most certainly your joy. He was spared your anger. Not for him, your disapproval. To him, you gave your fondness and your affect ion. You said, once, how you wished that Genji, your little Sparrow, was the eldest and that it was not beyond your powers to change who you selected as your heir.

I was never as jealous as I should have been. I loved my brother too much. Genji was always the light to my shadow. The humour to my gravity. We were as different as night and day, as far apart from one another in personality that even now I question our shared heritage. But you charged me with ensuring his safety. Father, I still remember the day you came into my room, reeking of sake, with that squalling bundle in your arms.

He is your brother, Hanzo. You must guide and protect him. Always.

And so I did. With the ferocity of a wolf, I ensured he was cared for and when our training paths diverged, I still watched over him as he practised for endless hours with his swords. His skill was something in which I found every reason to feel reassured that I was carrying out my task well.

But you, Father. You destroyed all my work. You indulged his every whim. Forgave his every transgression and there were many of those. Too many to count and each that little more damning than the last. You spoiled him and I paid the price.

Do you know that, Father? From wherever it is you have gone now? Do you look down upon your eldest son and rejoice that he showed the tenacity to do what had to be done for the furtherment of your empire? Or do you weep in the knowledge that your sons turned upon one another? Either way, it matters little now. Things are changing. I am no longer heir to the clan. I cannot put my all into something that has forced such heartbreak upon me. So I have fallen out of favour and thus I must continue my journey alone. I am outcast and disgraced.

I have no family, there is no guidance… no longer can I shelter behind the protection of the clan, for they have put a price upon my head and will kill me on sight. Already I have thwarted several assassination attempts and I do not imagine the clan will stop until I am dead.

I am lost without my brother. For all I was ashamed of him at the end for his wayward and irresponsible behaviour, for all I wished to see him punished for his acts, it was never my intention to kill him. It was a choice he forced upon me. Goading me into it, saying in what was very much your voice that I was too soft around the edges.

I proved him wrong. The greatest warriors are forged in the fires of regret, so they say, but it is little compensation for losing my brother. Without him, I am but part of a whole. Without him, I am no more than another broken, forgotten man, shattered by his death.

With every death, you assured me, comes honour.

With honour, redemption.

Now, as I journey alone, I strive to find either of these things in my life. For not to try is the ultimate failing and whatever else I may be, whatever the clan may say, I am – and always will be – a Shimada.

 

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Thirty Shots, Thirty Seconds

tombstone1881

Tombstone, 1881. Photography by C.S. Fly

Tombstone, AT
Wednesday, October 26, 1881
09:00am

It is cold, even when one considers that is nearing the end of October and the heavy clouds scud across the dull, leaden skies. They are laden with unshed precipitation and people look up, squinting and shivering, drawing coats and shawls more tightly around their bodies. In some eyes, it is the kind of weather that does not only herald a potential fall of rain or even snow, but is blatantly portentous. Ain’t nothin’ good gonna come out of a day like today, they say to one another, eschewing normal greetings.Everyone is in a hurry this morning. Everyone has the apparent need to get their business through and finished before the inevitable storm hits and a sense of urgency ripples through the mining town; a need to get behind closed doors. If pressed, not one soul could tell you why they feel as they do.

Of course, the invisible guiding hands of fate are playing their part. But fate and destiny aren’t things the folk of Tombstone bother themselves with. Such things are fanciful and more suited to dreamers and artists than to the hardy folk whose lives revolve around mining, gambling and whoring. So, the rushing continues. People continue to expedite their day. Business is transacted with more alacrity than normal, bartenders are slower and inexplicably reluctant to open their doors to the public.

Tombstone is, to all intents and purposes, the same as ever it is. The streets are as filthy and muck-strewn as ever. The hollers and cat-calls passing between drovers, miners and the saloon girls are just as loud as you’d expect. It’s just an arrogance to believe that something greater is at work here today.

Through all the hustle and bustle, other men, important to this tale, sleep. One will continue to sleep until past noon, having been awake all night policing the streets despite being off duty. Let us call him Virgil Earp, because that is, after all, his name. Two others – his brothers – will wake soon enough and the fourth man, the odd one out in this strange tableau, has already had his allotted rest. Five hours wouldn’t seem much to most, but he is used to long hours and short sleeps. His illness is not gracious to him when he lays down. He has gone to visit the barber and is blissfully unaware that things are unfolding.

They are secondary to this story at this time, however, so let’s focus instead on a lone figure as it trudges its way down Fremont Street. His given name, the one the preacher said over him when he was first born, is Joseph Isaac Clanton. Everyone has always known him as Ike.

Ike is the third of seven children and even his brothers and sisters feel that he has been born with a chip the size of Chiricahua Peak on his shoulder. The weight of that mountain also appears to press into him permanently, causing his broad back to stoop as it struggles to bear its burden. His face is prematurely creased in a permanent scowl. He is thirty-four years old and he is a long, long way from his home state of Missouri and he is bitter about it. The endless burning of the Arizona sun has tanned and hardened his skin. It has also hardened his attitude and made him into a callous, spiteful bully. His youngest brother, Billy, worships him and he struts around in the basking adoration like a peacock on display.

Ike Clanton is not a happy man. Ike Clanton is also not hungover. At first, this might seem like a surprise, given how much alcohol he has been taking on board. But it is not hard to realise that the reason he is not laid low by the after-effects of demon drink is simply because he has not stopped drinking. He has been imbibing now for close to sixteen, maybe twenty hours. Ike passed the shut-off valve for coherency and reason at about four this morning and has moved into the realms of cold, hard fury.

It is hard to quantify Ike’s anger at the best of times, but this morning, it’s doubly so. Specifically, it is hard to pinpoint which of his current issues is making him so tempestuous. But as he makes his way down Fremont Street like a man hellbent on finding his quarry, it’s safe to make some assumptions. It obviously has something to do with the man for whom he is now figuratively and literally gunning. The shotgun he is carrying suggests that he isn’t, perhaps, looking for a sit down and friendly discussion over a shared bottle of Old Overholt. It is evident that Ike Clanton’s approach is more… direct than that.

He comes to a stop outside C.S. Fly’s Photography Studio and Boarding House. He sure as hell isn’t here to have his portrait taken, that much is obvious.

One ham fist comes up to hammer incessantly at the door.

“Holliday!” He bellows the words loud enough to wake the dead, half a mile or so away up on Boot Hill. “Holliday! Get yer skinny good for nothin’ lunger ass out here right now, lunger. Get out here an’ let’s settle this once and for all.” He does not slur his words. There is no hint of the sheer, impossible level of intoxication that would have floored a less robust man. Ike Clanton can hold his drink, let’s say that for him.

There is no response to his summons and Ike hammers on the door once again. 

“Holliday!”

“He ain’t there, Clanton.” The voice is that of Camillus Fly himself. He’s coming around the back of the boarding house, having clearly been doing something in the back yard. Ike doesn’t particularly like Mr. Fly, but grunts and steps back.

“Where is he?”

“I’m his landlord, not his damn keeper.” Fly taps his pipe against the side of the building and, taking a tobacco pouch out of his pocket, begins to fill the bowl. “Heard the two of you had a fight last night.”

“No, sir, that weren’t no fight.” He is intense in his anger and the photographer behind Fly’s eyes wishes he could capture this moment of sheer intensity; the sense of righteousness that is driving Ike Clanton forward. The man is alive right now. If you could bottle that sort of energy and sell it…

Ike wipes his shirt sleeve across the back of his nose. “No, that weren’t no fight. That was just the invitation to dance. Holliday’s asked for it an’ I’m gonna make sure he gets it. Both barrels, you get my drift?”

“I get it, Ike. But are you sure you’re in any great state to shoot a weapon? You know the laws. You take that into town proper and Marshal Earp will…”

“Marshal Earp can kiss my ass.” Clanton slams his hand against the door of the boarding house one more time and steps back. “You tell that no-good dentist that I’m gonna get him soon as I see him. Gonna blow that smug, self-satisfied expression of his clean off his face. You hear?” Ike cackles maniacally, the sound grating Fly’s sensibilities like fingers on a chalkboard. Ever-placid, the photographer nods.

“I hear you, Ike. Lord, but most of Tombstone can probably hear you. And if what I hear about last night is true, I’m perfectly sure that Doc Holliday knows you’re looking for him.”

Bored with this conversation and too concerned with hunting down his target to engage the photographer further, Ike has already stormed away. A might thirst has come upon him and although it is an hour or two before the saloons open ‘officially’, Ike has no truck with ‘official’. They’ll serve him.

Fly presses the tobacco into the bowl of his pipe more tightly and watches the cowboy’s departure. Something’s brewing there, he realises. And isn’t it just typical that he’s been born into an age before easily transportable imaging technology?

Imagine just what he could have captured.

* * *

Camillus Fly is correct about one point. Doc Holliday does know that Ike Clanton is looking for him. As he relaxes in the barber’s chair enjoying the attention that is being paid to him, Doc Holliday also couldn’t give two hoots about the fact. Far as he’s concerned, Ike Clanton is a moron. But then, by Holliday’s standards, most people fall so far below his level that he simply – and vocally – assumes they’re ill-educated simpletons. It is a cocksure arrogance that marks him out, and not in a good light. Despite his genteel and polite manners, there is a superiority to John Henry Holliday that rubs a certain subset of the town’s population up the wrong way.

Just like his current feelings about Ike Clanton, Doc does not particularly care one way or the other what someone thinks of him. He has an oft-asked rhetoric for the subject. What, he postulates, is the benefit of bein’ liked? I do not see any point in formin’ long-term attachments. He’ll pause then and take a shot of whiskey, settling down the croup in his voice before he continues in a tone laced with bitterness. People are fallible creatures. They will just let you down in the end. They leave you, they hurt you… society would be a better place by far if there were no people in it. Of course, his illness is largely responsible for this fatalistic approach to life. He’s going to die sooner than most men, he reasons. Why pretend anything else?

He is quietly annoyed that nobody appreciates his attempts at irony in this backwards town.

Despite his repeated, vehement denials that he cares for anybody, it is beyond doubt that the softly-spoken Georgian gentleman has taken it upon himself to consider the Earps his adopted family. Virgil is often puzzled by this and will express his thoughts to anybody who cares to listen that he finds it strange how such a friendly man doesn’t surround himself with friends. Most of the high-profile sporting gentlemen in town have a bevy of hangers-on and sycophants, but not Doc Holliday.

Of course, Wyatt and Morgan are closer to him than Virgil is, largely borne of the fact that they’ve known one another since first Fort Griffin and later Dodge City. Virgil also holds Doc at arm’s length because he’s never quite sure that the man can be fully trusted. Oh, his word is his bond, sure enough, but Virgil suspects that there’s a Derringer in his sleeve at all times. Doc is certainly not beyond starting trouble for the sheer bloody hell of it and that makes Virgil edgy.

If Doc Holliday could learn to tame that Southern fire, hold his tongue at the right time and not antagonise the rowdier element of Tombstone, the place would be a lot quieter. Maybe if the dentist was less belligerent, Virgil reasons, then he would have more friends.

But Doc is fine with the status quo. He likes being on the edge of a crowd. Being at the centre is uncomfortable and claustrophobic. Nonetheless, everyone in town knows his face, knows who he is. In fairness, it is hard to be affiliated with the handsome sacks of brawn who bear the name ‘Earp’ and not be known.

Doc Holliday’s happiness is a long way from the top of Virgil Earp’s list of important matters. It is neither his business, nor his concern. Doc’s argument the previous night in the Oriental on the other hand was – and is – very much Virgil’s concern and it is that argument which is brought to the fore of his thoughts as he is woken from a pleasant sleep by a breathless man excitedly telling him that Ike is ‘huntin’ Doc down like a deer’.

Tired from a night of playing cards and keeping the peace, Virgil Earp rouses himself from his bed and listens to the over-excited exchange. He decides that Ike Clanton must surely burn out his energy and makes the extraordinary decision to go back to bed for another couple of hours rest. Doc’s old enough and ugly enough to take care of himself, he reasons. It’ll all blow over.

So, let us recap as to where the playing pieces in this game presently are. We have three pawns in active play on the board with the others on the side lines ready to make their entrance. There is Doc Holliday, relaxing in the barber’s chair, blissfully disinterested in Ike Clanton’s murderous rampage. There is Ike, of course, stalking Holliday as though he were the spectre of Death, albeit with a fraction of the charm. Unlike Virgil, Wyatt has woken and headed out to start his day. Not for him the after-effects of too much drinking. Being tea-total has its advantages.

Morgan Earp has yet to present himself to the attention of Fate, but the younger Clanton, Billy Claiborne and the McLaury brothers have just arrived in town, drawn by the allure of a possible fight. Ike is great comic value at the best of times, but when he’s angry, he’s even better.

The pieces are set. Fate takes up the die and blows on it for luck.

And rolls a six.

* * *

09:30am

And then there’s Kate.

She’s often referred to as ‘Big Nose’ Kate and never behind her back. She doesn’t particularly mind. A nickname simply means people have noticed you and in her case, it’s a misnomer. People are curious and want to know why she has the nickname when her nose is perfectly ordinary. Well, maybe a little bigger than normal in an unflattering light, but…

“I am interested in other people’s business,” she will interrupt in her unusually accented voice. “Whether they want me to be or not.” She’s Hungarian by birth, but since arriving in St Louis when she was seventeen, has become more Americanised than she likes to think. She was aristocracy as a child and that haughtiness has never left her. She was educated, and she is intelligent, and she is, without doubt, Doc Holliday’s intellectual equal.

Many people find it strange that a man as well-bred as John Henry Holliday has a whore as his near-constant companion, but then most people don’t know what those two do. They know that they are so bad for each other that it all balances out in the end. For every night they spend fighting and screaming at each other, there are countless other nights when they co-exist in a pleasant state of equilibrium. Kate finds suitable games for Doc to join and he keeps her in a style to which she believes she is entitled.

Even when he is on the breadline, appearances are important to Doc. He and Kate strike a handsome couple when they stroll down Allen Street together. But he has never married her and she has long since given up hinting. Like him, she is content with the status quo. But she will not accept that she is a kept woman. No, she is a working girl and she is a damn good one, too.

“Doesn’t it bother you none, Doc?” Wyatt’s concern has always been a source of gentle amusement to Holliday. “That she… she spends her time…” Doc takes brief, sadistic pleasure at the discomfort evident in the older man’s expression, but doesn’t draw it out from a sense of friendship.

“Miss Kate is very much her own woman, Wyatt,” he explains with a wry smile. “To control her would be like tryin’ to hold the lightnin’. Impossible, and even if you managed it… why, it would probably just out an’ out kill you.”

Mary Katharine Haroney, Kate Elder, Kate Cummings, Kate Fisher or any other number of pseudonyms she has adopted aside, she knows in her heart of hearts that she will probably forever be remembered as Big Nose Kate, Doc Holliday’s girlfriend.

She is not wrong.

She, along with Ike Clanton, is in a foul mood today. The chill temperature and threatening weather, the lateness of the hour, everyone she passes on her way back to the room she shares with Doc at Fry’s, all of it is making her irritable. This is in part because she didn’t go back with Doc last night. He won’t mind, he never minds, but there is always a moment when she gets back. A moment when his blue eyes meet hers and assess her. He’s never looked down on her chosen profession and he only ever rubs her face in it when things get ugly between them.

She loves him, she supposes. And she thinks that he might love her. But it’s a love borne of a need for the pair of them to have a taste at something that could, with a favourable following wind, be considered normal. The normality never lasts and it never takes that much to set one or other of them off.

It is rare that two such different people come together in a parody of union and remain together as long as Doc and Kate have. She’s left him countless times, he’s thrown her out just as frequently, but here she is. Here they are.

She’d not wanted to leave Dodge City, but Doc had felt the draw of a boom town. His gambler’s heart had deduced that there was nothing left in Dodge. He was a vagabond, never setting down roots. The Earp brothers, they all have cottages out on Fremont Street while she and Doc room at Fly’s. If she didn’t know herself better, she’d have suspected a tinge of jealousy.

She draws her shawl more tightly around herself and shivers as a particularly spiteful bite of Tombstone wind kisses the tips of her ears. Now, darlin’ that is what I would call a lazy wind. She could hear Doc’s playful commentary even without his presence at her side. Goes right through you instead of around you. Doubtless yet another of the pearls of infinite bloody wisdom the man had harvested in Georgia.

Despite her tempered anxiety at his displeasure, Kate nonetheless finds that she is suddenly looking forward to seeing him. She hastens her pace to Fly’s. Their erstwhile landlord is still outside, enjoying a leisurely smoke before he begins his studio sessions at noon. He nods gravely at her approach.

“Miss Kate,” he says, politely, touching his hat respectfully. Suspicious, as ever she is, she sniffs haughtily but for once decides to give the photographer a break and treats him to that rarest of things.

A smile.

Kate moves from attractive to beautiful when she smiles. It is a shame, Doc tells her regretfully, that she does it so infrequently.

“Is he back yet?” She nods toward the boarding house. Fly takes his pipe from his mouth and hesitates. The pair argue so often that he has no desire to be some sort of catalyst to another showdown. But not being truthful with Kate is inviting a whole world of pain.

“He’s been back and gone out again, ma’am,” he replies. Her eyes harden, the green of them bright as emeralds and every bit as unyielding. “Said somethin’ about getting’ a wash an’ brush up.”

Doc is a terribly vain man, but Kate has always liked that in him. He takes hot baths three, sometimes four times a week and sends his clothes to the Chinese laundry as soon as he takes them off. No matter the circumstances, Doc Holliday is a man who is always well turned out. A ‘dandy’, they call him, but she, being in possession of a more romantic soul than she lets on, considers him rather a rose amidst a veritable jungle of thorns.

Kate considers the relative merits of hunting her lover down. Perhaps they will take lunch together, or simply enjoy a stroll. However, tiredness wins out. She decides she will take to their bed and get some sleep. Perhaps she and Doc will pass one another like ships in the night, as they do on some days. On days like that, there is barely time enough to exchange more than a swift greeting. Sometimes he will take her small hand in his own and raise it to his lips, allowing his gaze to linger on her. Other times he is in an extraordinary hurry to get away from her.

Perhaps their timings will coincide and they might spend time together.

“Ike Clanton’s lookin’ for him.”

Camillus Fly’s words stop her as her hand rests on the handle of the front door. She turns to look over his shoulder and gives a dismissive, disinterested shrug.

“Ike Clanton is… töketlen kis béna pöcs, eh?” She makes a crude gesture suggesting that Ike Clanton is not very well endowed to accompany the Hungarian. Ike doesn’t scare Kate. Not one bit. He has tried his luck with her before, but she took great pleasure in telling him that if he were the last man alive in Tombstone she would still prefer to sleep with a mule.

Ike Clanton did not like that. He does not like Kate, even if her relationship with Doc is removed from the equation. The dislike is mutual. Kate yawns, deliberately and continues on her way without further comment.

She will see Doc one last time before he marches with great vim and vigour into the history books. Had she any clue of the longevity of her lover’s enduring legend, she might have been a little nicer to him.

Hindsight, though, is twenty-twenty.

* * *

11:00am

“Where were you?”

“Getting’ a shave, darlin’. That alright with you?” Despite his earlier good humour, Doc is not pleased to have returned to his room to find Kate there. On a good day, he usually enjoys her company. But these erratic hours they both keep; her persistent disappearances make for an awkwardness that he doesn’t like at all. He tugs off his boots and sits down on his side of the bed. He deliberately removes his pocket watch, checking the time. “I am gonna take some more sleep.” There is a brief pause and the tension softens a little. “You can stay, if you want.” It is evidently the closest to acknowledging her presence she is going to get.

Kate watches him without speaking, her eyes on him the entire time; challenging him to just dare to ask where she has been.

He doesn’t ask. He is not feeling up to a quarrel. He just wants a peaceful, restful day. He isn’t going to get it, of course, but right now he is oblivious. Instead, he lies down on top of the bed, fully clothed and closes his eyes. His hands move up to support his head, opening out his chest and making breathing that little bit easier.

Kate continues to watch him for a few moments longer in case he opens his eyes and has any words for her, but after a few short minutes, he is clearly asleep. He has gotten so thin of late, she thinks and the old knot of worry clenches in her gut. She laughingly tells everyone that the only thing she finds attractive in the man is his wallet, but that is not true. She has genuine affection for him, although at times it’s hard to tell. The doctors, she knows, marvel that he continues to draw breath, but they don’t know him like she does.

Tentatively, cautiously even, Kate lays back down and dares to put her head on his chest. She can hear his breath, rattling in barely-existent lungs. Lying like this, she can feel the shape of every bone in his rib cage. There is barely any meat on his bones. She wonders, as she falls into a doze, if he will even live through the winter.

All is peaceful in the little room at Fly’s Boarding House.

It is not peaceful elsewhere in Tombstone.

* * *

Virgil was out of town last week and Wyatt hasn’t yet taken off the mantle of Acting Marshal, even if he’s changed badges. Oh, he’s still one of Virgil’s lawfully appointed Deputies, sure, but damn me if Wyatt Earp is not a leader of men through and through. People listen to the Deputy, whether they agree with him or not. There’s a steadfast determination in his own sense righteousness that can leave you speechless. Whether he is placing you under arrest or telling you which horses he think you should back in next week’s race, his sheer earnestness is powerful. Wyatt Earp believes.

What is it that he believes in, exactly? Well, it’s hard to pinpoint, but most likely, he believes in Wyatt Earp. That solid core of self-belief that most people lack? Wyatt has it in spades. A big, imposing man with broad shoulders and the sort of cord-like muscles that could only be acquired through the years of hard work that Wyatt has put in, he is also blessed with the same fair haired, good looks that the rest of the family possesses.

Virgil is bigger still, towering over his brothers and it is this which makes him so intimidating to those who have reason to fear him, but also loans an air of security to those who seek his protection. Virgil is a born guardian, Morgan makes friends easily. James is a canny businessman and Warren… well, Warren’s a little shit most of the time if Wyatt is honest.

Sometimes he thinks he’s probably the closest to normal.

As though thinking of his brothers somehow summons them forth, he hears a cheerful voice call out a greeting to him and looks up at the approach of Morgan. Everyone gets on with that boy. He doesn’t have a bad bone in his body and would lay his life down for his family, whether that be his brothers or his wife, Louisa. Wyatt occasionally finds the sugar-sweetness of Morgan and Lou’s seemingly endless love affair to be blood-curdling and wishes they’d fight for once, like a normal couple. Why, he and Mattie fight all the time…

Well, there are reasons for that, of course.

And there he is, thinking of Josie again. He puts all thoughts of beautiful women out of his head and focuses on the present.

“Morg,” he says, in response to his brother’s greeting. “Don’t you look fresh as a daisy?”

“Clean leaving, early nights and a good woman to support me, Wyatt.” Morgan always smiles. It seems that he has no other expression. Even when he’s angry there’s a mildness to his nature. Wyatt’s chosen method of breaking up brawls or dealing with trouble makers is far more hands-on than Morgan’s quietly-spoken approach. Not that Morg is afraid to get his hands dirty when it’s needed, of course, but he’s never killed a man and Wyatt sincerely hopes it stays that way.

“You didn’t stay for the game last night then?” Wyatt reaches into his coat pocket and produces two cigars. He offers one to his younger brother, who accepts readily. The Earp boys – with the possible exception of Warren – have few vices, but smoking is one they all enjoy. A good cigar is a thing of beauty. Morgan runs the dark tube beneath his nose and inhales the tobacco with an approving nod. He draws a match across the hitching post and it flares into life before he uses it to light both cigars.

“There were some high stakes at that table.” Wyatt continued. The Oriental did a roaring trade in Faro, but poker was always where the big money could be made. Wyatt wasn’t keen on poker. His impatience got the better of him and Doc had told him once that he could no more hide his excitement at a good hand than a dog with a bone. You do not just have tells, Wyatt, the dentist had said, amused. Your whole body lights up. Like some sort of beacon. Don’t you ever try keepin’ secrets, for the love of God.

“Naw. Lou wants us to save up. You know.” Morgan’s cheeks burn pink for a moment or two. “She thinks it’s time we started producing a brood of little Earps.” There is a pause, of only two or three heartbeats. “Damn, I’m sorry, Wyatt.” His sympathy and regret are genuine.

“It’s alright,” says Wyatt, and it is, really. His personal tragedy was a long time ago now. And even though the most beautiful girl in town occupies his thoughts, there is always a moment in every day, perhaps when the sun first kisses the sky at dawn, or when it sinks below the western horizon at night, that he spares a thought and loving memory of Urilla. He may be falling in love right now, but he will never bury the devotion he had to his first wife. Her death set him on a path that might well have seen him join her in her early grave, but he’d fixed himself up and was walking a straighter line now. “But you have to name your first-born after me.”

“Even if it’s a girl? Wyatt, that’d be the dumbest thing.”

The brothers share a hearty chuckle at the idea. The awkwardness is broken and Wyatt relaxes visibly. He considers his ‘kid’ brother, who’s not so young. The marshal has always enjoyed spending time with Morgan. Something about the young man’s easy-going, amiable nature helps alleviate some of his own anxieties.

“You seen Doc this morning? He was looking set for a major session when I left the Oriental last night.” Morgan changes the topic of conversation. Morgan likes Doc; just as Wyatt does, he finds the Georgian entertaining and stimulating company. He is entertained by Doc always calling him ‘son’, even though Morgan is a few months the dentist’s senior.

“Not seen him, no,” says Wyatt. “But he got into a situation with Ike Clanton. I took him back to Fly’s.”

“Again?” Morgan frowns. The frequency of these incidents is becoming alarming.

Wyatt nods. Trouble has been brewing for weeks. Ike Clanton is a perfect target for Doc’s acerbic wit and occasional spiteful riposte. More often than not it’s wasted energy on Doc’s part; some of his more impressive and memorable jibes go so far over Ike’s head that the dentist may as well not have bothered.

“There’s no good gonna come of that, you know Wyatt.” Morgan is heavily hinting that Wyatt should do something about it.

“I’ll talk to Doc later,” concedes the older brother. “As a friend. You know how he gets when I pull the lawman card on him.” Yes, Morgan knows. Doc’s friendly, genial nature flees and is replaced by a sullen defensiveness that nobody can permeate. Such moods are frequently followed by bouts of heavy drinking. Heavier than usual. Doc already drinks pretty heavily. Medicinal, he claims, but Wyatt knows the signs.

Their wandering feet have brought them to the top end of Allen Street. They walk past the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral, which is already a hive of activity with people coming and going. Wyatt and Morgan respond with polite greetings when anyone acknowledges them. They have just reached Hafford’s Corner when Wyatt is pulled to a stop. There are no polite, perfunctory greetings or pretence at friendship. This man is all business. He jerks a thumb over his shoulder.

“Clanton’s in the Oriental,” says the man who’s stopped them. “Drinkin’.”

“Already?” Wyatt frowns at this news.

“Not so much ‘already’ as ‘still’,” comes the reply. “An’ I’m pretty sure he’s armed. I told him he should get home. Get some sleep. But he’s insistin’ that he’s gonna stay in town ‘til you boys an’ Holliday show your faces.”

It doesn’t require elaboration as to what Ike Clanton intends to do with those faces when he sees them. Wyatt nods, grimly. “Thanks, Mister Boyle.”

“Just doin’ my duty as an honest civilian, Deputy.” Boyle touches the rim of his hat. He’s been hauled up for his own share of minor misdemeanours. He’s not a bad man, not in context of Tombstone as a collective. In fact, compared to many, he’s practically angelic.

Morgan runs his fingers down his moustache, smoothing it. His expression is that rarest of things, a frown. He exchanges a glance with his brother and a single word leaves both their mouths at the same time.

“Virgil.”

* * *

11.45am

Once upon a time, Virgil Earp had wanted nothing more complicated than to own a smallholding. Perhaps produce a brood of children and enjoy life to the fullest. Happenstance had decided on a different path for him. Perhaps because of his size and bulk, Virgil always been a staunch protector of the weak and helpless. He does not do this through some desire for recognition, but out of an unconscious and extraordinary capacity for understanding right and wrong.

Well now, would you look at that, he marvels as the first white flecks mixing in with the rain begin to fall past his bedroom window. He has woken after a short nap feeling much refreshed and just in time, it appears. Below, the muffled sound of a banging on the door and Allie’s greeting. The words aren’t clear, distorted as they are by the floor that separates them, but the sonorous rumbles he hears in reply hold a pitch and tone that he cannot mistake. Virgil holds onto the blanket that Allie has thoughtfully put over him like he is clinging on for dear life.

Just five more minutes.

“Virg?” Allie’s head is peeking round the door and she smiles when she sees he is awake. “Your brothers.”

“Can’t you tell ‘em I can’t come out to play?” He has ever been in possession of a sense of humour although he rarely shows it outside of his own home. Her smile broadens a little and she practically twinkles.

“I’d like to, but…” Mock-regret. Virgil groans and sits up, swinging his long legs out of the bed. He runs his fingers down his moustache to smooth it out and stands, wincing at the fresh ache of his bones. He isn’t as young as he was and he works too many hours and doesn’t get enough sleep. But he is relatively content. Tombstone hasn’t been such a bad decision, he thinks. Morgan and Louisa seem well settled.

He heads down the stairs to where his brothers stand; Morgan the perpetually cheerful and Wyatt the eternally worrying. “Boys,” he greets them with a curt nod. “This better be a matter of life and death. Nobody interrupts me from my sleep without good reason.”

“It might be at that,” says Wyatt grimly. Virgil cocks an eyebrow and glances towards Morgan. The younger Earp shrugs in a faintly apologetic manner.

“Ike Clanton,” he says as though those two words explain everything.

They do. Virgil is already pulling on his boots even as his brothers repeat what they have just heard out on Allen Street. The plan is quite simple. Go to Clanton, relieve him of any weaponry and bring him straight up to the Courthouse to answer for his threatening behaviour.

“Reckon I should go round Fly’s?” Morgan isn’t sure. “Warn Doc?”

“No need to bother Holliday with this,” is Virgil’s reply. “What that man don’t know ain’t gonna hurt him. He had his share of being up in Clanton’s face last night. He doesn’t need to be involved.” He moves his gaze back to Wyatt. “Right?”

“Right,” says Wyatt. Virgil nods again and shrugs on his overcoat. It is too cold out there for just a jacket. His eyes rake over the shotgun in its rack by the door, but he leaves it there.

Later, that shotgun will cause no end of bother.

But that’s later. This is now.

* * *

Noon

The middle of the day has brought no hope for the weak sunlight that has failed all morning to permeate the cloud cover and the sleet is coming down harder. It disappears quickly into the parched, cracked earth of the Arizona mining town, but it is not long before there is that damp quality to the air that feels so strangely out of place here in the desert. The temperature is dropping and the older folk in town stare at the clouds, judging that their yellowish hue suggests the sleet will soon become snow.

People huddle, people hurry, people go about their lives in blissful ignorance. Fate checks her timepiece and begins her final countdown. She turns her attention to the epicentre, the two people who have brought this day to her door and assesses their current status.

Doc Holliday is snoring. Well, it could be called snoring, but only by someone who was feeling kindly. The noise his shattered lungs make with each exhalation of air is more of a whining, squeaking wheeze and each drawing of breath is an adventure in survival. He never sleeps for long: after an hour or so of this desperate grasping for breath, his body will finally force him awake. He does not rise, however, remaining where he is. He notes the darkness of the sky outside his window, despite the fact his clock tells him it is midday. Kate is still sleeping, her head resting on his chest, one arm protectively draped over his thin body. He reaches down to stroke her hair absently.

Perhaps it’s time we stopped roamin’, he finds himself wondering, but immediately pushes the dreams of settling down out of the way. He might not live out the week. Consumption is an unpredictable beast and he has even gone months with comparatively minor setbacks. Lately, though, he feels every beat of his heart is another hard-won triumph. He is tired. Not just physically, although the sleepless, disturbed attempts at sleep are not good for him. But he is tired of the endless battles in the endless war against tuberculosis.

He stops stroking Kate’s hair and forces himself to focus on the present and not allow himself to be transported by impossible hopes. Gently, he extricates himself from her grip and twists his body, so he can set his feet down on the floor. Their room at Fly’s is on the ground floor and he moves to the window. He twitches aside the curtain and stares out onto Fremont Street. The sleet is a rare curiosity, nothing more: he has seen enough hard winters in his travels west.

He shivers, although the room itself is not all that cold. He has slept in the shirt that he put on fresh this morning and that will not do at all. It is wrinkled and unsuitable for wearing out of the house again today. He removes it and takes a fresh, clean shirt from the wardrobe. He favours white or light, pastel shades. Subtlety and style. Today, he has selected shirt that is the faintest shade of green, a beautiful compliment to the light grey suit he has chosen. Doc has the most impeccable taste in clothes.

“Doc?” Kate’s voice is sleepy and he glances over at her with a charming, crooked smile.

“You go back to sleep, darlin’,” he says. “I have got errands to run.” She props herself up on one elbow, her hair dishevelled and her eyes sleepy. He loves her when she’s like this. The spitting wildcat tamed by sleep into a docile kitten.

“What errands?”

“My business.” He pulls on his jacket and pauses. “Don’t you be worryin’ none, though, my Hungarian beauty. I ain’t gonna get into any trouble. How ‘bout you meet me in the Oriental at four sharp? We can eat together. You an’ me.” He straightens his grey waistcoat and drops the watch into the pocket. In the slightly tarnished and distorted looking glass, he considers what he sees. He cuts a fine figure in a suit that has been expertly tailored by a remarkable seamstress over in Hop Town. It hangs on his frame well enough to conceal his thinness. His ash-blond hair, already streaked through with premature grey, is slicked back in a fashionable manner and his moustache is neat and well-trimmed.

“Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity… vanity, not love, has been my folly,” he murmurs.

“What?” Kate finds him a confusing, annoying, intoxicating blend of man and when he talks to himself, she gets defensive. He grins over at her, crosses the room and kisses her hand in a courtly, gentlemanly manner.

Pride an’ Prejudice, darlin’. Romantic flim-flammery at its absolute worst. Four. Oriental, yes?” He feels a thirst coming on. He knows what his first errand will be.

* * *

It transpires that even Ike Clanton actually possesses an upper capacity limit for alcohol. It further transpires that he has managed, through diligent application of hand-to-mouth action, passed it. He is done with drinking. Every time he raises the glass to his lips, his stomach clenches in an involuntary knot. He sets the shot glass down on the bar counter next to the bottle and throws a handful of coins down.

Stumbling more than walking, he heads out of the Oriental and into the sleet. A scowl immediately draws the lines of his face together and he squints up into the grey, colourless skies of the October Arizona day. The fresh air hits his drunken system like a hard slap and he leans over the nearby hitching post. His stomach contracts a few times and then he is violently sick. Nobody stops to see if he is alright; drunks vomiting up their guts is hardly anything new.

Wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, Ike gulps in several deep breaths. Being sick has cleared his head a little, but he knows he is still drunk. What he needs is a coffee. He lumbers off down Allen Street, weaving as he goes. He shoulders his way past people coming in the other direction and merely responds in curses and grunts whenever anybody calls him on his behaviour.

He stops in at Hafford’s Saloon to get coffee. He calculates that it might just be enough to tip him back into functioning sobriety.

And Fate, at this point, proves that she has her own unique sense of humour. As Clanton leaves the Oriental and walks down Allen Street, Doc Holliday is strolling up Fifth Street towards the very establishment his nemesis has just left. Approximately seventeen seconds. That is the margin by which they miss one another.

Imagine, just for a moment, if Doc had encountered Ike Clanton outside the Oriental, instead of the puddle of puke that has already started to merge with the dirt and the horse shit that lines the road. Frankly, the reaction of extreme distaste may not have been all that different. But imagine, anyway, that they do not miss one another. That they have a fateful showdown on that dangerous corner. That place between the Oriental and the Golden Eagle Brewing Company. Where Ike, almost laid low by his own drunkenness cannot hope to match the speed and ability of John Henry’s gunslinger skills.

It would just have been another street brawl. All the names we now know might simply have slipped out of history. Perhaps Doc Holliday died in Tombstone in that alternative reality. Perhaps the Earps finally broke even on their mining claims. Nobody would ever have known their names beyond seeing them on the odd census form located far down the roads of time by interested historians. A world where three men do not die before this day is out. And all because Ike and Doc did not miss one another.

But miss one another they do.

So, while Doc is pushing open the doors of the Oriental and greeting those within (to mixed reactions: there are plenty in here who still do not trust the dentist), Ike is at the other end of Allen Street, drinking strong, hot coffee and starting to notice the presence of a pounding headache.

In a few minutes, his headache is going to get far worse.

* * *

It has been a while since any new faces have come into this story, but now seems as good a time as any. Sheriff John Harris Behan – Johnny to his friends and Sheriff to more or less everyone else – is a man of contradiction and double-dealing. He has not endeared himself to many people in his life; his first wife divorced him and his relationship with Josie went rapidly downhill after she found him in bed with another woman. In fairness, and not to afford sympathy to a deeply unsympathetic man, that particular relationship had been doomed the moment Josie met the taciturn Wyatt Earp.

Johnny Behan rubs Wyatt Earp up the wrong way, but the feeling has always been entirely mutual. Behan robbed Wyatt of the position of undersheriff, going back on a verbal deal the two men made in a saloon. In return, Wyatt, whether intentionally or otherwise – Behan has never been sure – quite deftly robbed Behan of his fiancée. Tit, as they say, for tat, even in the crudest sense. Any acknowledgement of his own wrongdoing has long since been forgotten. The split, it is obvious, was the fault of Earp and nobody else.

As such, Johnny Behan does not care for Wyatt Earp or any of his sanctimonious brothers. Virgil he tolerates, because it is difficult to do anything but admire the big, dependable man. He has little interest in Morgan and the recent arrival of Warren has merely seen a new face frequently involved in fights and disagreements. But Wyatt, ah, now, Wyatt he really does not like.

There is no love lost between Behan and Doc Holliday, either. Doc finds Behan’s friendship with the various so-called cowboys to be nothing short of suspicious and rarely hesitates in saying so. Doc has frequently allowed the word ‘corrupt’ to tumble artlessly into conversations about Behan. There is animosity and tension among the group and Holliday’s frequent altercations raise them to boiling point on a regular basis.

But Behan is aware that Ike Clanton is on the warpath and whether or not he cares what happens to Doc Holliday, he is certainly grudgingly accepting of the fact that he needs to demonstrate some semblance of law and order in the town. In much the same way Ike is looking for Doc, Behan is now looking for Ike. He will reason with the cowboy, recommend he get himself some sleep. Some of the others are staying at the Grand Hotel; maybe Ike can bed down there for a while. Behan couldn’t give a skunk’s rump about whether Ike and Doc are fighting, but he does not particularly want the hassle of arresting Ike for disturbing the peace.

In short, Johnny Behan is a fundamentally lazy man. Some days, though, he must be seen to be proactive. He has picked a fine day for it.

During his search for Ike, he has found someone else. More than one in fact, in the shapes of the McLaury boys. Frank and his younger brother Tom are not being their usual rowdy selves today; he has found them sitting at a corner table in the Grand Hotel, bickering over a friendly game of Five Card Pickup. Billy Claiborne, just one of the seemingly endless men named Billy who seem to exist in this town alongside the inordinate number of men named John, is also with them.

The atmosphere is not particularly unfriendly. It has no reason to be. The McLaurys are in town to finish up a deal signing several head of cattle over to them so that they can drive them further west to their final destination. Herding is hard work, dirty work and exhausting work and Behan doesn’t blame the boys for taking their entertainment while they can.

“Why Sheriff Behan,” drawls Frank, his lips forming the words around the cigarette that is hanging there loosely. “What brings you in here today? We ain’t doin’ nothin’.”

“Curb the paranoia, Frank,” says Behan. Normally he’d enjoy this sort of banter with the younger men. They are, after all friends. Some people aren’t too keen on the town sheriff being quite so close-knit with a group of known troublemakers. Behan doesn’t let it get to him; why should he? Today, however, he doesn’t not wish to engage in this sort of flippancy. Today, he is annoyed by the news that Clanton and Holliday are squaring up for a showdown and he wants to put an end to it before it starts. “Where’s Clanton?”

“Billy?” Tom nods over to the bar, where a callow youth is measuring out shots of whiskey. Behan shakes his head. The kid must only be nineteen if he’s a day and already he’s showing signs of following the path set by his slovenly older brother. None of the Clantons have turned out well as far as Behan can see. Old Man Clanton most assuredly raised them in his image.

“Ike,” replies Behan, running a finger over his moustache. It is the only tell of irritation on his face. “I’m trying to track him down. I hear tell he’s looking for Holliday.” He takes off his hat for a moment, running his fingers through his hair.

This elicits a snort of derision from the brothers. Tom slaps his hand down on the table and laughs so hard that his drink practically comes out of his nose.

“Holliday? The hell’s Ike doin’ goin’ after that long drink of water? What’s Holliday gonna do, Sheriff? Cough on us? Bring it, lunger.”

This unimaginative insult brings fresh gales of laughter from the others, and, despite himself, Behan allows a smile to tickle around the edges of his lips. He gets it back under control again and forces a stern expression to take over. “Don’t underestimate him, Tom. He might look like he’d snap in a good wind, but you know the reputation.”

Yes. The reputation. The arrests. The drunken misdemeanours. The temper. The McLaurys shrug.

“Ike’s big enough to take care of it. Don’t you worry none, Sheriff.”

“I’m going to keep looking for him.” Behan replaces the hat and nods to the boys at the table. “Ain’t no point in letting this get out of control if we can help it. Ike doesn’t need another night in a cell.”

He touches the brim of his hat and glances at them all. Before he leaves, some kind of strange premonition encourages him to speak words that form in his throat and escape his lips before he can stop them.

“Stay out of trouble, boys.”

* * *

Later, much later, even Wyatt will allow the thought to pass his mind that Virgil might be a little heavy handed with Ike when they finally catch up with him. But it transpires as they follow the man’s passage through Tombstone, that he has retrieved his weapons from the West End Corral and that means, much to Virgil’s quiet satisfaction, that he is now once more in violation of the ordinances. It adds a determination to Virgil’s already lengthy stride. He enters Hafford’s Saloon, trying not to let the grisly exhibition of once-animate life bother him. He’s never felt comfortable in here, not with all those beady, dead eyes judging him silently.

“Ike Clanton,” he says and does not need to elaborate.

“Sure. He was in here,” says Colonel Hafford, wiping out glasses with a cloth. He glances across the bar. “Boastin’ about how he’s gonna get you and your brothers. And that nice Doctor Holliday.” Even mired as he is in his rising fury, Virgil marvels just how it is that Doc is such a lonely man. Everyone – barring Ike Clanton right now, obviously – seems to like the dentist. And they have good reason. Holliday is polite, more than a little charming, with that roguish, crooked smile of his, and smart. Why it is that the man seems to have no friends outside of the Earp family is a mystery.

A mystery for another time.

“Where’s he at now?”

“Left just now. Headin’ up Fourth best as I could guess.” Virgil nods grimly and leaves, following in Ike’s booted footsteps. It’s not hard to catch up to him. His brief period of sobriety has passed. Coffee in Hafford’s turned into something infinitely more alcoholic, and he is stumbling in a crooked line, unable to focus and once more colliding with on comers. He is completely unaware that Virgil Earp, tailed by two of his brothers, is right on his tail until he feels the resounding thump of the Marshal’s gun against the back of his head.

Pain. Pain explodes in Ike’s world like a whole stack of dynamite blowing out a mine head. The agony courses through his body and dazed by the blow, he falls face-forward, off the boardwalk and into the road. Now he is not only drunk and angry, he is injured – as evidenced by the slow ooze of blood from his head – and covered in horse shit.

It is not going well for Ike Clanton.

“Wyatt. Morgan.” Virgil says the four syllables with precision. “Get his weapons.”

Ike is disarmed and hauled to his feet before he even catches up to his current predicament. Wyatt and Morgan force him to stand and Virgil glowers at him through those Earp eyes. All the brothers share those eyes. Cold as ice, piercing right through any artifice and straight into the soul.

“You’re breaking ordinance, Clanton,” he says. “And you know what that means.”

“Am I under arrest, Marshal?” Ike sounds so clever in his head. Externally, he sounds drunk. Mi underesht, Marshal?

“You know it,” Virgil confirms, grimly and nods to his brothers. “Get him down to Judge Wallace, boys.”

* * *

Doc is in a good place. Not physically; not in the literal sense, although the Oriental remains one of his favourite places in Tombstone. Not as plush as the Grand Hotel, not as busy as the Golden Eagle Brewing Company on the opposite corner. He is seated at a corner table, alternating sips from the tea he pours from a beautiful china pot with shots from the bottle of Old Overholt, his favoured drink. He is dealing cards out in front of himself, engaging in a game of patience. He does not feel as tired or off-colour as he did when he woke earlier.

Bourbon, he has found, not only suppresses his cough, it takes the edge off his near-constant anxiety. Sometimes, the façade cracks. Sometimes, Doc Holliday’s cool, calm exterior will shatter and expose a vulnerable, frail twenty-nine-year-old man, afraid of a death which could come at any time. He always sits facing a door – keepin’ an eye out for the Reaper, as he will tell anyone who observes this practice. Ain’t gonna let him sneak up on me the way he did my poor mama.

Fanciful, but partially accurate. If he is sitting with his back against a wall, there is minimal chance he will go out like ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok, shot in the back in Deadwood some five years back. Because Doc Holliday understands there are plenty of people, both here in Tombstone and from elsewhere in his colourful history, who would enjoy nothing more than decorating the table with his brains.

Bourbon helps him to cope with an increasingly miserable existence. The tuberculosis is bad enough, but of late, he has also begun to experience other side-effects of his illness. His symptoms, which had been confined to his lungs, have spread to his back. In his introspective moments, and he has many of them, he pictures his spine crumbling to dust, like a clod of earth between a miner’s fingers.

Before he dies, six years or so after this fateful day, Doc Holliday will lose more than two inches in height through the deterioration of his spine. Already he finds it hard to stand fully upright. The cane he used after he was shot in the hip back in Texas had been less of a walking aid and more of an affectation, but now… now he needs to use it more frequently. His eyes linger on it, an innocent object leaning up against the table. It is rapidly becoming a symbol of his weakness, a rogue he cannot fight or face down, a thief who will take his life.

Sometimes, he is angered at the unfairness of it all. Other times, he reluctantly acknowledges that at least his terminal diagnosis has forced him to live – which is more than can be said for many.

“Maybe a year at the outside,” was the last verdict from Doctor Goodfellow. “If you give up your excessive lifestyle. No drinking, no smoking, no late-night gambling… that might buy you some time.”

Well,” Doc had reasoned, “I do thank you for the assessment, sir, but if I’m gonna give all that up, well then, I may just as well hand myself straight into the Devil right away.”

It is no surprise he has heeded none of the warnings. His deeds and misdemeanours have ensured he will receive a fast-track ticket to Hell. Why not enjoy the ride?

So, he is drinking bourbon (and tea – he is fond of the drink, despite what some of those crazy folks up in Boston might have felt), enjoying his own company and starting to appreciate the buzz that comes from a daytime visit to the Oriental Saloon.

He is, in short, starting to get drunk.

Not to the same degree as Ike Clanton – at least, not yet – but he is getting drunk nonetheless. But he is content to be by himself. No Kate, constantly worrying at him about leaving Tombstone. No Earp brothers, gently bickering over the smallest things. No Ike Clanton up in his face…

He recalls last night’s argument and shudders involuntarily. That came close to something other than harsh words. John Henry does not doubt his own skills as a gunslinger. He practises enough and even displays one of the classic signs of a man who does so. He must lean toward people to hear them when they are sitting on his left. Doc is, after all, a southpaw.

No, he doesn’t doubt his gun skills. But Ike is a big, powerful man. All it would take would be a well-aimed swing of one of those ham fists and Doc fears his fragile, frail bones will shatter like a shot glass dropped on marble.

And, of course, packing hardware in town is frowned upon most severely. Doc shifts position slightly, feeling the cool kiss of the Derringer against his forearm. He doesn’t doubt for one second that Virgil Earp would not turn a blind eye if he were to wind up shooting an oaf like Clanton through the forehead. No, that man would be down on him like an anvil. And it is not even Virgil’s disappointment he is reluctant to attract.

No, it’s Wyatt’s.

Wyatt is Doc Holliday’s friend. ‘Friend’ is just a word most people throw around freely, but Doc Holliday can count those he considers to be his friends on the long, delicate fingers of one hand. For Wyatt’s sake, he will hold his temper in check. But not for anybody else. He respects Virgil and he is fond of Morgan, but there is bond between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Neither of them understands it, and why should they? It is a fateful bond that the machinations of destiny have woven for them. Two unaware, innocent – as far as the word can be taken in relation to their activities – souls whose history pivots around a friendship founded in Texas, fortified in Kansas and which will be cemented into the bedrock of history today.

In around two and a half hours’ time.

Outside, the temperature has dropped another degree and the darkening skies are threatening snow. Inside the Oriental Saloon it is warm, and it is pleasant, and Doc Holliday has another shot of whiskey. He has no better place to be right now.

* * *

Wyatt stamps his feet a little and blows into his cupped hands to warm them. He is grateful for the wool overcoat that is keeping out the worst of the wind’s bite, but right now, he wants nothing so much as a hot drink to hold in his hands. He has left Ike inside with Virgil to answer charges before Judge Wallace. Morgan is rolling a cigarette and glances up as his brother emerges from the Courthouse.

“Good morning’s work?” Morgan’s grin is infectious. It always has been and what passes for a smile flickers onto Wyatt’s face. For him, that basically means his moustaches lift just ever so slightly.

“Better than hauling him and Doc off to Boot Hill.”

There is a moment of hesitation as there often is whenever the twin subjects of Doc and death are mentioned too close together and Morgan tactfully moves the subject onto the weather. Wyatt lets the younger man’s cheerful complaints – the boy can’t even complain without sounding happy about it – wash over him. He turns to head back inside and finds himself colliding with a heavy-set figure.

“Why don’t you watch where the hell you’re goin’?”

Tom McLaury has arrived. He has heard about what happened with Ike and has come to do whatever he can to sort the situation out. That’s what the cowboys do for one another. Help each other out.

“Watch your mouth, McLaury.” Wyatt maintains a firm stance, his feet planted slightly apart, his hip jutted forward enough that the other man can see he’s armed. It is an openly aggressive posture and McLaury hesitates. Wyatt glances at the cowboy’s hip. There is a holster there, but he can’t make out if it is presently occupied.

“You heeled, McLaury?”

Tom is surprised by the question, even though he was partially expecting it. Something bristles. Something burns, deep in his gut and his already potent dislike and distrust of Wyatt Earp sparks into something akin to open rebellion

“So what if I am?”

“Don’t get smart-mouthed with me, boy.” Tom is twenty-eight, not much younger than Wyatt himself, but the word ‘boy’ carries a heavy insult with it. He is a small man, not much over five feet in height and Wyatt Earp towers over him. But he suddenly doesn’t care. He does not feel threatened or intimidated or in any way afraid of this pompous son of a bitch.

“You don’t scare me,” he says and is rewarded with a blow to the side of the head. He didn’t even notice Wyatt take out the revolver, but he is aware of it when it connects with the side of his skull. Like Ike, barely thirty minutes previously, Tom McLaury goes down in the dirt outside the Courthouse. He remains there for just a little longer, then drags himself back to his feet and glowers up at Wyatt.

“You are all gonna get what’s comin’ to you,” he says, surprising himself with the aggressiveness of the threat. He puts a hand to his head and it comes away stained with blood. Tom grimaces and spits into the dust. At this point, Ike is being ushered out of the Courthouse, his pockets lightened by twenty-five dollars plus more in court costs. He too is looking the worse for wear after being struck by Virgil. He sees Tom and stumbles towards him. The two men move several feet away and talk together in low voices. Vigil also exits the building now and watches like a hawk.

“Hand over your weapon, McLaury,” Wyatt says, ignoring this complete disregard for his authority.  “I know you’re armed.”

“We’re leavin’ now,” comes the reply. “Ain’t armed. Handed my revolver in at the Capital before I came over here.” He flaps the tail of his coat to show an empty holster. It seems in order, but Wyatt is not completely convinced. “An’ you wanna be real glad we ain’t gonna file for assault. You got no right goin’ round just hittin’ people because you can.” He almost invokes the phrase ‘wait until Frank hears about this’, but he suddenly realises that calling on his older brother for protection isn’t going to always be the answer.

“C’mon, Ike.” Tom starts to walk toward Doctor Goodfellow’s place, not far from the Courthouse. “Let’s get both of us cleaned up and then we can…”

What it is Tom and Ike plan to do is lost in the clatter of a passing stage and Wyatt takes a step toward the retreating men.

“Let it be, Wyatt,” rumbles Virgil, quietly. “Clanton’s disarmed and sobering up pretty fast now. Everything is under control.”

Wyatt hesitates a moment, then reluctantly concedes the point.

“Glad we got that sorted,” says Morgan, amiably. The younger Earp brother can’t be further from the truth but at this point everything looks to have been dealt with. “Why don’t we go for a game or two over at Campbell and Hatch?”

Morgan loves his billiards. Wyatt shrugs and Virgil shakes his head. “No,” he says slowly. “No, I think we need to keep a careful eye out for the rest of the day. Something about all this doesn’t sit right with me.”

Fate ceases her whispering in Virgil Earp’s ear and hurries across town. She has somewhere to be and that somewhere is the Grand Hotel. Doc Holliday has just walked in and not only is he there, but so are Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. And she’s not done with them just yet.

* * *

“Doc,” says Frank warily as the other man walks in through the doors. The former dentist raises a hand to touch the brim of his hat in a polite manner. Just the short walk across the road from the Oriental to the hotel has left him breathless and he is keen to take a seat. He has no real desire to speak with McLaury, or the Clanton boy. But Alice McKey did not raise her baby boy to be impolite and so manners demand he acknowledges the greeting.

“Good day to you, Frank. Good afternoon, William.” He always uses Billy Clanton’s full name because he knows it annoys the boy and because it amuses him in turn to cause that annoyance. Doc Holliday takes a masochistic delight in winding people up and Billy Clanton is a prime candidate. His formal greeting is rewarded with an ugly scowl that makes Billy the perfect image of his older brother.

“What you doin’ in here?” Billy is less than polite and Doc brushes the light smattering of snow from his overcoat shoulders before he replies.

“Why, William, is a man not entitled to take an afternoon constitutional? Is he not allowed to take a drink in whichever fine establishment he chooses?” Doc’s words ooze charm and humility. “I am not interruptin’ whatever it is that you are occupyin’ your time with, am I? Does my presence insult you for some reason, son?”

Yes, actually, it does. Billy is aware that Ike and Doc fought last night and his sympathies are never likely to come down on the side of this itinerate Georgian. Billy scowls and drops heavily back into his own seat, glaring at the dentist. A crooked, borderline boyish grin lightens the creases of Doc’s face and, chuckling softly to himself, he moves to take a seat in the far corner. There are a handful of poker games starting up and he is feeling the urge to get some adrenaline pumping. Usually Kate will sound out the games for him, find the best ones for him to join, but today he will be happy to do the job himself.

He orders tea, but no bourbon to begin a planned afternoon of poker. He will break to meet with Kate – if she bothers to show – but poker is his aim right now. He watches in silence, absorbing all that is going on. Thus it is that he learns about the fracas with the other McLaury, Ike Clanton and the Earps from Billy Claiborne, who charges into the saloon and breathlessly drops down at Frank and Billy’s table.

“Ike and Tom…” he begins, but he is hushed by Frank who nods over to where Doc is sitting, still wearing his hat and coat. Billy Claiborne looks startled, then grim and then conniving. His face goes through the three expressions in a heartbeat and much to Doc’s distaste, he lowers his voice. They are sitting slightly to his left and his partial deafness, a result of all the hours practicing with his pistol, does him no favours. Occasional glances are shot his way and he judges the situation based on how Frank’s face grows darker and angrier.

When Claiborne has finished delivering his news, Frank gets to his feet and snatches up his coat from the back of his chair. He storms out of the Grand Hotel, slamming the door so hard it all but comes off its hinges. Doc quirks one fair eyebrow up in curious interest. For a moment, it looks as though Claiborne might say something, but he rushes off after Frank. Only Billy Clanton remains and he looks torn.

Then he points at Doc as though mimicking pointing a pistol at him and mock-fires.

Then he too is gone, leaving the dentist wondering what in the name of all that is good and holy has just happened.

* * *

Like so many of the inhabitants of Tombstone, Ruben Coleman is a miner. He is lucky enough to be employed in the Toughnut, one of the mines that’s going great guns. He likes it here and for the most part keeps his head down. He is not working today, although he should be, and he is also in the Grand Hotel when McLaury smashes his way out.

The other thing Ruben Coleman definitely is… is nosy. He is interested in what has occurred to make Frank McLaury so angry. He drains his drink and heads out the saloon after the other men. Doc doesn’t even notice. He’s already lost interest in Frank McLaury and turned his attention to a game happening right next to him.

So it is Ruben Coleman who witnesses Frank and the two Billys meet up with Ike and Tom just beyond the Grand Hotel. It is Ruben Coleman who watches them talk together in hushed, inaudible tones and it is Ruben Coleman who observes them head down to Spangenburg’s gun shop. He decides, there and then, based on the evidence that clearly the men mean trouble.

Ruben goes off in search of Sheriff Behan, passing Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan as he does so. The Earps murmur greetings to the miner, but he, pink-faced and puffed up with his own sense of civic duty, barely notices. Morgan chuckles at the little man’s sense of hurry.

“Reckon ol’ Rube’s on a promise, eh, Wyatt?” He nudges his brother, who doesn’t laugh. Virgil smiles, though, infected as easily as ever by Morgan’s bright, sunny personality.

“Can I trust you boys to keep an eye on things?” Virgil pauses outside Hafford’s. “If you wait here just a few minutes, I want to go home and get something. I’ll meet you back here.”

Wyatt seems offended that his brother thinks he might do anything but keep the peace and Morgan simply shrugs. It is snowing harder, now, and he is quite enjoying the spectacle of Arizona winter. He and Wyatt engage in low-level bickering, leaning up against the hitching post and keeping an eye on things without making it blatantly obvious.

Virgil strides off down towards his house on Fremont, hunching his shoulders against the wind that is biting at him. He is unaware, as he passes by Spangenberg’s, of the transactions occurring within.

His trip home does not take long and although Allie calls out a greeting to him, he only responds with a grunt. His quarry is right by the door, where he left it when he walked out this morning. He doesn’t know what it is that has compelled him to pick up the shotgun, nor why he conceals it beneath his overcoat, but he senses, instinctively, that it will all come clear.

* * *

Sheriff Behan is not pleased with the news that Ruben Coleman brings him. The puffed up little miner is filled fit to burst with the news that he has seen the cowboys buying ammunition at Spangenberg’s. Ruben also takes it on himself to tell Johnny Behan precisely what a Sheriff’s civic duty is.

“I reckon as they mean trouble, Sheriff Behan. You gotta go disarm ‘em before they start shootin’ up the town. You don’t want a repeat of what happened with poor Marshal White now, do you? You remember, don’t you?”

Behan instantly recalls Fred White to mind. The man has not even laid in the ground a year at this point. He had been the first Marshal of Tombstone and had done a sterling job until ‘Curly’ Bill Brocius had accidentally – at least allegedly – cut the thirty-one-year-old lawman down in his prime. Better part of three days it had taken the poor bastard to die, too. A lingering, excruciating death from the gunshot wound in his groin. And all because Brocius had been drinking too long, partaking of too much opium over in Hop Town and fancied his chances taking a pop at the moon.

Oh yes. Johnny Behan remembers.

Virgil Earp had succeeded White as Marshal and things have been on an even keel, more or less, until these past few weeks. Behan is acutely aware of the threats the Clantons – particularly Ike – have been making in what he considers to be an Earpwardly direction. He knows perhaps he can now no longer remain neutral.

“Spangenberg’s, you say?” He straightens his shoulders, stands up taller and stares up at the iron-grey clouds, filled with foreboding and pre-emptive regret.

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure I heard someone say the McLaurys were stabled at the West End Corral. If they ain’t already armed, that’s where they’ll be headin’, I’d say.”

“Fine.”

Coleman waits, just in case he is going to be made privy to anything else, but Sheriff Behan is already preoccupied with the situation. He strides down the boardwalk of Allen Street, a well-dressed, suave figure radiating an air of authority that seems all-too infrequent in the Sheriff. He will speak with the boys. Reason with them. Suggest they head out to Bisbee for a few days to cool off. Everything will be just fine.

Fate is barely able to contain her excitement. It is about two-thirty in the afternoon by now and the page of the story turns as it shifts into its next phase  

* * *

Some months earlier, not long after he first arrived in Tombstone, John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday found himself in trouble. But then, he thinks, as he cashes out of the poker game, when isn’t he in trouble? He’s trying to lead a peaceful life now, because he honestly doesn’t know how much longer he will have that life to live.

 He pulls on his overcoat and hat, murmurs his thanks to the other players. He hasn’t particularly enjoyed the game and they have treated him with the same wary uncertainty that so many do. Ever since Johnny Tyler. Ever since Doc was disarmed and bodily thrown out of the Oriental by Milt Joyce. Ever since Doc, steaming drunk and incapable of rational thought, had returned home, got his revolver and gone back to the Oriental. Ever since he’d messed up Milt’s hand, shot the bartender in the foot… ever since then, nobody really trusts him.

He could’ve gone to jail then. Only the fact that he’d stood up to Tyler, a bully if ever there was one, was in his favour. But fortune favours the bold, so they say, and on that day, fortune practically showered Doc with a torrent of favours that he senses are going to start haunting him soon. He lives on borrowed time, he has escaped more criminal charges than he openly admits to…

Where is it all going to end?

Fate an’ fortune will come to collect in the end, my boy.

It is his father’s voice. Doc has had no contact with Henry Holliday in years and even remembering the reasons why are enough to ignite the fire of anger in his belly. He takes a deep, calming breath, but it is a mistake. The air is too cold. It snaps against the back of his shredded lungs and he must rest against the saloon’s exterior wall as a painful fit of coughing takes hold of him. He selects a clean handkerchief from his left pocket and covers his mouth.

The coughing fit passes. It always passes. But not before he feels more tearing in his chest. The handkerchief he tucks away in the other pocket is stained with blood. It no longer shocks him, no longer frightens him. No longer affects him. Just like everything else.

He can’t feel any more. It is as though his own emotions have dried up and deserted him. He yearns for an adrenaline rush, even knowing that it will likely set off another coughing fit.

Doc sighs softly, getting control of his own body once more. He is tiring of this endless battle.

This insular, lonely man stands now outside the Grand Hotel in Tombstone, leaning against the wall and, in defiance of his respiratory health, rolling a cigarette. He looks back over the last eight years of his existence. Life hasn’t treated him fairly, that’s true, but he is here. He is, as he likes to tell Wyatt, rolling. The take on the Faro table – when he’s feeling well enough to deal – is good and while his organs and bones may be disintegrating, his pianist’s hands, deft and quick, can still deal from the bottom of the deck when he needs a dollar or two more than usual.

Even that is starting to lose its appeal. Doc Holliday is beginning to wonder if this is it for him. The beginning of the end. If gambling, his livelihood, no longer appeals, what does he now have left to live for?

Over on the other side of the street, standing at Hafford’s Corner, he sees Wyatt and Morgan, talking earnestly to Virgil. The biggest Earp – dear Virgil, how terribly proper he was at times – is catching the arm of passers-by and speaking to them. Doc knows the Earps well and there is an urgency to Virgil that piques his curiosity. He licks the seal on his cigarette and strikes a match against the hitching post. The tobacco flares as it catches and he takes a pull from it before gathering himself together. For most people, this is a quick jaunt across the street. For a broken, dying man, it is an expedition.

Appearances, John Henry. We must always put our best foot forward.

“Hey, Doc!” Morgan, at least, is pleased to see the man as he makes his slow progress across the street. He hides his pace by pretending to pause to greet those walking in the other direction and to a certain extent, it works. Wyatt is watching him from beneath half-lowered lashes, though and Doc is uncomfortable. Wyatt’s concern is evident. Doc must look bad if Wyatt is letting his reactions show.

“Boys,” he says, greeting the brothers as though he is a man much older. In fact, he is younger than Morgan by a sprinkling of months. His illness does make him seem more aged, though. “Now what on Earth is goin’ on here today? People have been comin’ and goin’ all afternoon as though there is some mighty storm comin’ in on the Tucson stage.” His eyes linger on Virgil.

The oldest Earp present is making a poor show of hiding the shotgun. None of the Earps are any good at subterfuge or subtlety and Virgil is no exception. A chill wind blows down Allen Street and as Doc steps up onto the boardwalk, idly scraping the muck off his boots, he realises for the first time that he is perhaps just a little on the tipsy side. “So what is it that you boys are takin’ such pains to keep quiet?”

For a few moments, none of them reply to his question and Doc feels the first stirrings of uncertainty. “This got somethin’ to do with Ike Clanton?” It is an educated guess, nothing more, but the way none of them look at him directly tells him that he is bang on the money. “I do declare that man can hold a grudge longer than any man I ever did meet.”

“Not just Ike, Doc.” Wyatt finally looks up at him. “His brother, too. We think the McLaurys are in with him now. And Claiborne.” Wyatt shakes his head. “Seems Ike’s been having a good brag about how he’s going to do for you. And us, too.”

“Why, isn’t that just peachy? A veritable gang of ne’er do-wells.” Doc is cheered immensely by news of this little vendetta.

“Virg is talking about trackin’ them down,” offers Morgan. “Disarming them.” Virgil glares at his younger brother and Morgan gives that little one-shouldered shrug he always adopts when his brother disapproves of something he’s said or done.

“You don’t need to worry yourself about it, Doc,” says Virgil, keen to keep the Georgian out of any more trouble. He’s not as close to Holliday as Wyatt or Morgan, but he has little desire to see things get out of hand.

And Doc Holliday is momentarily infuriated by Virgil Earp’s unintentional patronising. He is incensed enough that the next words to leave his mouth are just one of a handful of things he, and the Earps will say this day which will be remembered well over a hundred years later.

“That is a hell of a thing for you to say to me,” he says, hotly.

“What?” The flare of temper startles Virgil. There is fury burning behind Doc’s grey eyes.

“Ike Clanton started this and I will thank you, sir, to remember just who it was he was threatenin’ last night.” Doc’s ire is uncomfortable and Wyatt instinctively lays a calming hand on the other man’s shoulder. Doc glances over at him and something unspoken passes between them.

He checks his temper.

“I can help you,” he says, evenly. “Cover your back if you need it.”

Virgil Earp is not a man to act on the spur of the moment. No, he thinks things through carefully before he tugs uncomfortably at his moustaches. He looks over at Wyatt, then to Morgan before back at Doc.

“Apparently, they were heading out to Fremont,” he says to the assembled group. “There’s a vacant lot down there, out front of the O.K. Corral. Next to Fly’s. Reckon they’re waiting to get you when you go home.”

“Kate’s there,” says Doc and everyone looks at him immediately. It is rare that he shows true concern for his lover, but there is a hint of uncertainty in his voice. True to form, he covers it up immediately with wry, sardonic humour. “They do not want to be wakin’ her up from her beauty sleep. She would crush them with everythin’ she’s got.”

“Johnny Ringo isn’t going to let the boys worry at a woman,” offers Morgan and this much is true. For his many faults, John Peters Ringo has limits. Even Curly Bill Brocius would draw the line at attacking a defenceless woman. Although Kate probably isn’t defenceless, the younger Earp adds metal.

“Johnny Ringo isn’t in town,” throws in Wyatt. “Neither is Brocius.” This explains a lot; particularly why the Clantons and McLaurys have been throwing their weight around. With nobody to rein them in they have started running wild. Virgil considers the implications of these facts and then he nods.

“That settles it, then. We go down there, disarm them.” He looks to Doc, considers for a moment and then holds out a hand for the Georgian’s cane. The silver-tipped stick is swapped immediately and without hesitation for the shotgun which is stowed away neatly beneath Doc’s coat. He hides it better than Virgil; there is less flesh filling out the fabric and the swing of the material is more natural. Virgil doesn’t need to know, at this point, that Doc is also armed with his nickel-plated revolver as well as the Derringer.

What Virgil Earp doesn’t know about Doc Holliday’s law breaking won’t hurt him.

Marshal Virgil W Earp looks over his brothers who are also his sworn-in deputies, and Doc Holliday, who he has unofficially deputised through the action of giving him the shotgun. Holliday has always been one of the first to present himself when help is needed, or at least was until his illness worsened. Does he trust him?

He knows Doc is a little under the influence of alcohol, but he also knows that at least this way the dentist might just heed his words rather than simply going crazy.

So yes. He trusts him.

“Let’s go, then boys.” He shoots another look at Doc. “Kate will be fine, Doc. Don’t you worry none.”

“Do not mistake me for a man concerned about the welfare of a wildcat,” replies Doc, airily. “Miss Kate can most certainly take care of herself. I am not worrying.”

He is. But he’d be damned as a scoundrel before he let on.

A crowd has started to form. They are all aware of Ike’s threats, of the actions of the McLaurys – Rube Coleman has been the catalyst for the speed of the gossip spreading throughout the mining town – and they are interested in the manner in which the Earps and Holliday are gathering. With Virgil and Morgan in front, the men set off two-abreast down the boardwalk of Fourth Street toward Fremont Street.

Toward the scene that Fate has been busily setting up for them since time immemorial.

* * *

It will be some years before what happens is known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Indeed, that description does not even take off until the film of the same name is released in 1957, more than three quarters of a century later. Up until his death in 1929, Wyatt Earp always refers to it as the Fremont Street fight and the wider American public doesn’t even particularly know about it until the lawman’s biography is released two years after he has passed away.

But ‘the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ is, without question, an infinitely snappier name than ‘altercation that took place on a vacant lot out on Fremont, slightly to the west of the O.K. Corral, next to Fly’s Boarding House and Photography Studio’. History, so they say, is written by the winners. It is also written by those who like catchy titles, it seems    .

The relevance of all this is that events which transpire are never fully corroborated. The Earps are liked and hated in equal measure in Tombstone. There are those who side with the brothers, there are those who side with the cowboys. Doc Holliday, the wild card, garners no support, but nobody dares speak out about him, either.

These are all events still to come, however. Let us concern ourselves with the here and with the now. Snow is drifting gently now, settling on the shoulders of the dark overcoats worn by the Earps and Holliday as they walk down Fourth Street. It is not all that far, but they are not hurrying. Virgil has set the pace and he is not in a rush to get into a situation with the always-unpredictable Ike Clanton. Wyatt and Morgan mirror their older brother’s determined posture and expression.

Doc Holliday, so witnesses say later, is whistling cheerfully to himself as the group walks.

They encounter Johnny Behan at the corner of Fourth and Fremont.

Behan takes one look at the grim expression on the face of his Marshal and instinct takes over. Stepping down off his side of the road, he swiftly crosses to intercept.

“I’ve disarmed them,” he says. Later, he will claim that what he actually says is that it is his intent to disarm them, but the Earps will say differently. Either way, Virgil seems to relax a little at the news and Behan pushes this advantage. The Clantons and McLaurys are, after all, his friends – despite their reputations. He lays a hand briefly on Virgil’s arm. “It’s all under control. You don’t need to go in there.”

And this is the crossroads. This is the moment where Virgil could take Behan’s words as gospel and where he can spin around and let the matter lie. But like any deal made at a crossroads, the devil is here, whispering furiously in Virgil’s ear. Behan says he has disarmed the cowboys and that makes him relax just a little. He is holding Doc’s cane in his left hand with his right resting lightly on the revolver at his right hip. Encouraged by Behan’s claim, he is reassured enough to switch the revolver round to his left and move the cane to his right. It is his choice to do this which delays his partaking in any shooting that ensues.

Likewise, on hearing Behan’s claim, Wyatt also takes his gun, which he has in his hand under his coat and puts it into the pocket of his overcoat.

“You don’t need to go in there,” Behan repeats and Virgil hesitates as the demon at the crossroads provides him with just enough doubt.

“They’ve threatened my family,” says Earp and behind him, Doc Holliday looks up. He realises that Virgil has included him in that word and the sense of belonging is overwhelming. In that instant, Doc Holliday’s loyalty is assured. “I won’t have it. I am going to set this matter straight.”

The demon cackles, the deal is made. Behan shakes his head and steps aside as the four men continue down Fremont Street until, moments later, they catch their first sight of the cowboys standing in the vacant lot beside Fly’s Boarding House.

* * *

Kate is awake and is standing at the window of the ground-floor room she shares with Doc inside Fly’s. The sky has darkened and the room is gloomy, so she moves to the window, dressed only in her under garments. Not that she’s in any way bothered if anybody sees her. There are certainly plenty of men in Tombstone who’ve seen beyond even that layer. As she twitches aside the curtain to look out on the grey afternoon, she sees the Earps and Doc as they walk by.

Something romantic flickers over her at the sight of Doc. For now, he is still a handsome man, even with the ravages of his illness, and he is so much more stylish than any of these back-country miner types. Her heart flutters and she considers knocking on the window to attract his attention. It is instantly dismissed as too girlish and Kate doesn’t consider herself to be some giggling adolescent. She is way past that age for a start and besides, Doc’s walking with his left ear toward the boarding house. He probably wouldn’t hear her anyway. On top of that, he’s with the Earps.

Kate doesn’t like the Earps. Specifically, she doesn’t like Wyatt. She doesn’t like the snooty way he looks down his nose at her chosen profession. She doesn’t like the way Doc hangs on the man’s words like he’s dripping jewels of benevolent wisdom. She’s probably a little jealous that Doc enjoys spending time with the Earp brothers more than with her, but jealousy isn’t an emotion Kate easily admits to.

She’d usually have dropped the curtain by now, but something in the manner of the four men walking past her window holds her attention. She sees, out of the corner of her right eye, Johnny Behan standing on the corner, shaking his head. She notices how rigid Virgil is: how big and straight he is holding his posture. She catches the briefest glimpse of the shotgun inside Doc’s oversized coat and Kate Haroney is suddenly afraid. It is a strange fear and not one she is used to. For Kate is used to self-sufficiency. She is used to fear that gets her out of potentially dangerous liaisons with psychopathic, murderous men. She is used to fear that makes her run from danger when it starts. But right now, she is not afraid for herself.

She is suddenly, unconditionally and deeply afraid that this will be the very last time she sees John Henry Holliday alive. Her hand comes up to slap against the glass of the window. Only Morgan hears and he glances once, over his shoulder. He doesn’t see Kate: the angle is all wrong and so he turns his head and keeps walking. Kate’s hand leaves the glass of the window and she covers her mouth, her heart beating so loudly she is sure Mrs Fly, busy elsewhere in the house must be able to hear it. She is helpless to speak, helpless to act, helpless to intervene.

Caught by some compulsion she will never understand, a need to witness something she will carry with her to her dying day, Kate watches events as they unfold before her.

* * *

It is Tom who notices the arrival of the Marshal and his deputies first. He is standing. He looks up from his conversation with his brother and Billy Clanton and stares at the unlikely crowd of people who have followed Virgil Earp’s party down Fourth Street.

“Frank,” he says in a soft voice, filled with a warning tone. “Frank.” He nudges the other man with an elbow to interrupt the discussion. Frank looks in the direction indicated and his eyes narrow suspiciously. It has taken every ounce of effort on the part of his friends to calm Frank McLaury down after he learned of Wyatt’s assault on his brother. He is still not calm and the thunder in his face is more than evident.

A little further along, standing in the vacant lot, are Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne. During their visit to Spangenberg’s, they have picked up Wes Fuller, another one of the many people in town who is more than happy to deliver a little unpleasantness to the Earps. As well as the men, there is also a fine chestnut mare – Frank McLaury’s pride and joy – and another horse, a skittish young bay who is rolling his eyes and snorting as Billy Claiborne attempts to saddle him.

Six pairs of eyes meet four. Virgil slows his pace still further and approaches cautiously. His brothers fan out to his right – Wyatt next to him, Morgan on the far end, closest to Fly’s. Doc, without any prompting and instruction, anchors their line a few feet to Morgan’s right. He has shrugged off the overcoat now and the shotgun is clearly visible, although he still holds it against his thigh. He makes no effort to threaten. From her vantage point inside Fly’s, Kate realises how striking a figure Doc makes in his all-grey suit, standing out from the black-clad Earps.

He will freeze to death, is all her anxious mind will bring to the fore.

Doc is, in fact, cold without his coat, but he knows that if trouble starts – and somewhere, deep, deep down, he hopes that it doesn’t – the garment will likely impede his ability to shoot. Without the coat, he also exposes the revolver that has been loosened in its holster at his left hip. Each of the Earps has their six-shooter. By comparison, armed with his revolver, with his nickel-plated revolver and the hidden Derringer, Doc is without question the most heavily armed.

A silence falls. Even the crowd behind the Earps is holding its collective breath. The young bay snorts and bucks slightly as Wes Fuller surveys the scene. He says something to Ike and then leaves the lot. He does not approach the Earps, instead heading off at an accelerated pace down Fremont Street.

At this point, Wes Fuller fades into history, remembered only as window dressing.

Billy does his best to calm the bay, but all those currently present are exuding a sense of anticipation that is affecting the horses. The colt snorts and tosses his head and the chestnut mare beside him wickers softly.

Frank moves into the lot to take up her reins, his eyes remaining firmly on Virgil Earp. So far, neither side has said a word to the other. Only seconds have passed and then finally, Virgil speaks.

“Throw up your hands, boys. I want your guns.”

At this point the eye must follow very closely. Once the first shot is fired, the entirety of this unlikely historical event takes approximately thirty seconds to reach its conclusion.

But who fires the first shot?

It is impossible to be certain. Perhaps the fight commences after Doc Holliday raises the shotgun, readying it for action. He is not the first to fire, though, because the contents of the weapon’s barrels are destined for a particular target. When the shotgun comes up, the two parties are approximately eight feet away from one another and it is an instinctive thing for Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton to draw their own revolvers.

Virgil takes another step forward, raising the cane in his hand. “Hold!” He cries out, but nobody hears him. “Hold! I don’t want that!” But the pebbles cannot vote once the avalanche has started and the words disappear into the air.

Hammers are pulled back.

Triggers are squeezed.

Two shots go off, resounding with an echoing crack in the confined space.

On the other side of the face-off, only Doc is presently armed. But he has been told to follow Virgil’s orders and for now at least, he will hold to that promise. He keeps his position, holding close to the edge of the semi-circle and levels the shotgun, aiming at Frank McLaury’s head. He is not the only one whose instincts lead him to aim at the most dangerous man present. Frank McLaury has a reputation as something of a sharpshooter and represents the greatest threat. So as well as Doc’s shotgun aiming at him, Wyatt Earp is also – literally – gunning for him. The revolver that was previously in the deputy’s overcoat pocket is now in his hand and he returns fire.

The first shot, it is uneasily agreed later, was fired by Billy Clanton aiming at Wyatt. The second shot is Wyatt’s as he fires at Frank McLaury. He cannot tell if he has hit his mark because at this point, Ike Clanton rushes up to him and grabs the deputy by the lapels.

“I ain’t armed,” he babbles drunkenly. “I ain’t got a weapon, Wyatt!” Wyatt is not impressed by Ike’s blubbering and shoves the man roughly aside.

“Get to fighting, or get out of here, Clanton,” he yells and, stumbling over his own feet, Ike Clanton, one of the two people at the heart of this terrible situation, crashes through the front door of Fly’s Boarding House, disappearing out the other side. Johnny Behan sees him charging up Allen towards Toughnut Street and it is likely that in his drink-fuelled terror, he simply keeps running for his life.

Billy Claiborne notes that perhaps for the first time ever, Ike has demonstrated good sense and it is a question of seconds before he is also off and running.

Seven seconds.

Morgan is now also armed and has fired off at least two shots. Virgil, fumbling with Doc’s cane, finally swears – a testament to the severity of the situation – and drops it to the floor, cross-drawing his own weapon.

The bay horse is now in a panic and rears up, narrowly avoiding hitting Tom McLaury in the head with his hooves. Tom holds on desperately, but the horse is too strong. And now Doc breaks his promise to obey Virgil’s orders, taking the situation into his own hands. Tom has thrown a hand to his right hip, clearly ready to draw, and the Georgian is not going to let that happen. Not on his watch.

With graceful ease, an athleticism that belies his condition, Doc Holliday steps around the bay horse and unloads both barrels of the shotgun into Tom McLaury’s chest.

Twelve seconds.

Tom is pushed backward by the impact of Doc’s close-range shot, but does not fall. He stares down at his chest, startled to discover that he has a gaping wound there where once there was a breastbone. Tom McLaury is already dying at this point, but that fact has failed to register.

There is no pain, he thinks, and has very little time to marvel on the matter. It will better, he determines, for him to get away. Yes. Ike and Billy had the right idea. Doc has no interest in the man he knows is simply going through the motions. He throws down the now-empty shotgun and draws his revolver, turning his attention back to Frank McLaury. Tom releases the mare’s reins and the animal withdraws to the back of the lot, stamping and making a noise of terror that no animal should ever have to make.

Tom begins to stumble away, onto Fremont and Third, where he almost immediately falls, slumping at the base of a telegraph pole.

Fifteen seconds.

Shots continue to trade across Fremont Street. From her spot inside Fly’s, Kate can no longer see Doc. When he stepped out of her eyeline to shoot Tom McLaury, she almost ran outside. But she is not fool. She has seen enough gunfights to know that stray bullets are very much a thing. She is frankly chancing her arm standing this close to the window.

Nineteen-year-old Billy Clanton has failed to make it out of the alleyway. A shot to the side has taken him down and he slides, bleeding, down the wall. It doesn’t stop him from returning fire. Even when a well-placed shot from Morgan hits him in the wrist, forcing him to swap hands, he determinedly keeps on. If Ike had hung around, he would be proud.

But Ike isn’t there. It is Billy’s last regret.

A stray shot takes Morgan down. It is a shot that if today had been his day to die might well have felled him for ever more. It enters his body through the right shoulder, tearing through skin, sinew, muscle and bone. It rips a hole in one of his thoracic vertebra and reverses its entry process, tearing its way out the other shoulder. As he stumbles backward, Morgan trips on a newly-buried waterline and crashes to the ground.

Today, though, is not Morgan’s allotted time, although his appointment with Death will came far sooner than is just or even fair for a man of his age.

Eighteen seconds.

Virgil has moved from his original position too, and continues firing at Frank and Billy Clanton. Only Wyatt has stayed still. Perfectly, statue-still. It is this, later, that proves to be the smart move – or lack thereof – that saves him from any injury. He shoots at Frank McLaury and hits the other man in the abdomen. Wounded and desperate now to escape, Frank staggers into the alleyway and snatches the reins of his horse, leading her out and into the road. He struggles with the animal across Fremont Street, attempting to reach for the shotgun in the saddle scabbard. The movement unsettles the animal and he loses control. The horse wrenches free and now she can flee the horror, the noise, the shouting and the smoke.

Doc follows Frank, firing whenever he can take a shot. There is a burning in his own chest, but unlike Tom McLaury, still slumped against the telegraph pole, it is not because he has been shot. The exertion of this gun battle is tearing adhesions in his lungs, pieces of diseased tissue forcibly being wrenched from his chest cavity by his efforts. There is the taste of blood in his mouth and the urge to cough.

He fires.

He misses.

Somewhere, he hears a yell of pain as a lucky shot from Billy Clanton hits Virgil in the calf. With the tenacity of every Earp, possibly throughout history, Virgil continues to fire, back at Billy.  It becomes evident that Morgan, despite the severity of his own injury, has also got himself up into a shooting position.

Billy Clanton yells in pain and one more gun is silenced.

Doc is only aware of Morgan on the very edges of his awareness. His world is narrowing down, funnelling everything into one simple fact. It is him and Frank McLaury. Nothing else, nobody else is even important any more. He hasn’t been counting shots.

Frank shoots and the bullet grazes against Doc’s hip, stirring the old injury. The pain is e and extraordinary and he sucks in a breath. The scarlet flare of anger fires behind his eyes and he can no longer think rationally. Fuelled by drink and rage and something else, Doc Holliday lets out an almighty bellow of fury. Ignoring the blood now soaking through the fabric of his fine grey suit, he explodes into the temper for which he is justly famous.

“That son of a bitch has shot me! I will kill him!”

He is aware of Wyatt, shouting something at him, but he does not care to listen. Doc squeezes the trigger on his gun again and nothing happens A misfire? No ammunition? Either way, nothing happens.

Twenty-six seconds.

In this split second, Doc realises with absolutely certainty that this is it. This is his moment to die. He finds himself at peace with the idea that in a few heartbeats, he will be dead or dying and in a curious demonstration of defiance, he spreads his arms out wide. Frank, bleeding heavily from his own injury, laughs without humour.

“I’ve got you now, lunger.”

Doc nods, solemnly. Behind him, Morgan is fighting through his pain and sees this curious exchange. He hears Frank’s words and then he hears Doc utter the line that, over a century later, is repeatedly misquoted.

“Blaze away Frank,” says the dentist, his tone solemn. “You’re a daisy if you have.”

Frank fires.

Doc, acting on the instincts of a gunslinger, fires.

Morgan fires.

One man goes down and it is neither Morgan nor Doc.

Nobody ever knows who fired the bullet that hit Frank McLaury in the head, killing him instantly.

Thirty seconds.

The guns stop.

Three men are either dead, or headed in that direction. Three men are injured, one severely. Wyatt Earp remains precisely where he was half a minute ago, smoke curling from the barrel of his gun as he surveys the aftermath of the horror that has ensued. He wonders, briefly, what the loud noise is and then realises it is the sound of his own heartbeat, pounding urgently against his chest.

He exhales. He hasn’t even been aware he’s been holding his breath until that point.

Some way up Fremont Street, Doc Holliday sinks to his knees, cursing the searing pain in his hip. Unlike his prior injury, he knows that the bullet has grazed him, not gone through the skin, but that doesn’t stop it hurting. His blood stains the snow beneath him and he drags himself from his self-pity, drags himself back to his feet and forces himself to turn. He forces himself to check on his friends.

Wyatt is standing where he was, breathing heavily. Virgil is struggling to stand, but cannot. Morgan is crying out in pain. Now that the younger Earp has stopped, now that the adrenaline has stopped, the reality of his pain has begun to take hold.

But they are all alive and that is more than can be said for the cowboys.

Thirty shots, thirty seconds. Many years later, one of the men who re-enacts this battle, several times a day will tell me that they average nineteen shots during their thirty second shoot-out, but they consider that they are over-exaggerating for the benefit of a captive audience. Maybe thirty shots were fired. It is unlikely anybody will ever know for certain.

What is certain is that Frank McLaury is dead. Tom McLaury, who has not moved from where he fell at the start of the battle is carried with due care to the Harwood House, where minutes later he dies without speaking a word.

Not such a silent farewell for young Billy Clanton, who is bleeding, dying and demanding morphine with each breath. The arrival of Doctor Goodfellow – who someone had the sense to run to fetch as soon as the Earps set off from Hafford’s Corner –  grants him his wish. As they carry the youth to the Harwood House, where moments earlier his friend has passed away, he is still in terrible, agonising and lingering pain. Reluctantly, Goodfellow hits him up with a second shot.

Billy reaches up and grasps at the doctor’s sleeve. “They have murdered me,” he gasps, still resisting the effects of the morphine. “They have murdered me! Tell these people to leave me alone. Let me die!”

It is horrific to watch a man die in such agony. Doctor George Goodfellow is painfully reminded of the final days of Fred White and, as the light finally dies in Billy Clanton’s eyes and he goes to meet his Maker for whatever judgement awaits, he removes his hat respectfully. He reaches out and closes the boy’s staring eyes.

Then, and only then, does he go out into the street to take stock of the injuries sustained by the lawmen.

* * *

“I have to arrest you all, Wyatt.”

Johnny Behan is stunned by what he has just witnessed. Stunned to have seen three men he considers to be his friends fall. Stunned to have watched as his own Marshal and deputies deal out Tombstone’s unlikely justice. He’s seen gunfights before, usually one-on-one disagreements that end with an angry man shooting another angry man before one of them has the chance to pull their weapon. But this was something else. This was a grudge that got out of hand.

“What?” Wyatt is preoccupied with ensuring that Morgan and Virgil get home where they can be treated for their injuries. Goodfellow is overseeing their transportation, while Doc is managing – just about – to limp along with the aid of his cane in one hand and his other arm around Kate for support. Every other step brings another stab of pain, but he insists he can manage. Wyatt lets him walk. The dentist got so angry when it was suggested he be carried that it was easier to give in.

“You’re under arrest.” Behan is still hesitant, still uncertain.

“No.” Wyatt turns his full attention to the sheriff. “Nobody is being arrested. I won’t be arrested today. I am right here, and I am not going away.”

There is no arguing with Wyatt Earp’s stubbornness and Johnny Behan is a poor excuse for a law keeper. He steps aside and allows the Earp brothers to be carried home, where Goodfellow will treat them.

Doc, whose injury is superficial, nonetheless appreciates the opportunity to sit down in the big armchair in Wyatt’s front room. His chest is full of blood and it is an hour or two before the endless stream of handkerchiefs are no longer scarlet, but a sickly-looking pink. The man is exhausted by the afternoon’s events. Kate, relieved he is alive, tells him precisely what she thinks of what’s happened and he lets her endless vitriol wash over him like a balm.

“I’m alive, darlin’,” he mumbles and pats her hand gently. “Y’all can rip into me tomorrow when I am feelin’ up to it, hmm? I’m alive. I’m here, an’ you are here an’ I think we should let it be for now.” He pats her hand again. He feels light-headed and woozy, a side-effect of the laudanum that Goodfellow has given him to relieve some of the pain. It renders him docile, the firecracker of earlier now dissolved into a broken man who is dying inch by painful inch.

Doc’s words and the gesture of patting her arm are so gentle and unexpected that Kate Haroney decides to give it a rest.

This is nothing short of a miracle.

Doc closes his eyes, wanting nothing more than to rest. Wyatt does not grant him that liberty. He emerges from the back room, where Morgan is now stable.

“What have we done, Doc?” There is deep, heartfelt regret in his tone.

The dentist cracks open one eye, then the other. “I am not sure, Wyatt,” he says, reluctantly. “Everythin’ happened too fast. Three men are dead, though, an’ that will no doubt require us to explain ourselves.”

“But it’s dealt with, at least?” It is a question, not a statement and Doc takes a long time, a very long time to answer. Finally, he sighs.

“I fear, my taciturn friend, that we have not heard the end of the matter.”

How right Doc is. Months of trials, assassination attempts, life-altering injuries, successful assassinations and a startling vendetta ride across the Arizona landscape wait the attention of the Earps and Doc Holliday.

Even the newspapers carried on the bitter divide. The Epitaph found firmly in the favour of the Earps, while the Nugget championed the cause of the cowboys. Witnesses could not agree on what they had seen, what they had heard. Only a handful of people knew the absolute truth of the events on Fremont Street that October afternoon and half of them were now dead.

Thirty shots, thirty seconds. Not a soul alive could have told you where it would end.

– END –

Allegro [Overwatch]

Winston_portrait

Did… someone say ‘peanut butter’?

 

He loved many things.

The swell of the orchestra as the music built to a crescendo was one of them. He lay in his hammock, his eyes closed, appreciating the ebb and flow of the most beautiful Adagio from Spartacus. Yes, he loved music.

(It is worthy of note that he also had a soft spot for bananas and went crazy over peanut butter, but that was incidental to the joy of classical music).

Winston sighed softly and let his arm hang loose, swinging easily to the rhythm and cadence of the tune. This piece was one of his absolute favourites. Harold, his handler, had introduced him to the pleasure of classical music so many years ago that he’d lost count. While some of the other specimens had barely responded to music, Winston had adored it. And this particular work always took him back to the heady days of his youth. It didn’t have the drama of, say, the Rite of Spring, nor the airiness of the Nutcracker Suite, but the tune was nonetheless a most welcome…

…wait…

…he didn’t remember that infernal electronic drum beat in the middle of one of the most famous ballet scores in all of known history…

Dum-dum-dum-dum-d-d-d-d-d-dum-dum.

Neither did he recall the moment in the ballet that the girlish voice lifted in tuneful song, belting out one of the most popular K-pop tunes of the day occurred.

“Young people,” grumbled Winston in his deep baritone. “No respect.”

With easy grace, the gorilla rolled from his hammock and listened carefully to the endless drumbeat. He knew precisely where it was coming from and it was interfering with his rare moment of down time. He was feeling annoyed.

Annoyed, not angry. When Winston got angry, people knew about it.

“Do you want me to increase the volume, Winston?” He turned his head to the source of the voice and sighed.

“No, Athena,” he said, with reluctance. “It’s probably best not to ruin the optimal level for enjoyment.”

“I can turn down the other music remotely if that will help?”

It was tempting, certainly, to let the base’s AI interfere in this unlikely and sudden battle. Winston had still to get used to the newer members of the unit and this was no different. They’d exchanged very little in the way of words (‘LOL, you’re a gorilla’ and ‘GG, Winston’ being two of the more baffling phrases he’d encountered).

Hana spoke English beautifully but there were times when he wished she’d speak her native Korean more. He understood that more clearly than any of these bizarre Young People Acronyms. She seemed inordinately young to have taken up permanent residence on the team, but he couldn’t deny that her skills were more than welcome in these changing times.

He just found her so difficult to relate to. For the first time, he had grasped a reed-thin glimpse at what it must be like to be Commander Morrison when faced with the attitudes of a new generation.

“No, Athena, thank you. I will… speak to her personally.”

Moving at his easy lope, Winston made his way down the hallway to the young woman’s door. She had decorated it with a huge, golden star that contained more glitter than Winston had ever seen in his entire life. He was not keen on glitter. It got into the fur and made him look less than credible…

You’re an ape in a suit of armour, he thought, glumly. Don’t start talking about credibility.

He raised his knuckles and rapped on the door. Unconsciously, he was knocking in time to the drum beat.

Dum-dum-dum-dum-d-d-d-d-d-dum-dum.

D.Va_Portrait

I play to win!

There was no reply, so he tried again, twice more. Both times nothing happened and with a low growl of minor irritation, Winston raised his fist to bang more loudly. As he did so, the door swung open to reveal Hana Song standing in front of him. She was chewing loudly on her customary bubble gum, a pair of fluorescent pink headphones perched on her head and a game controller in her right hand.

“Hi, Winston!”

Everything the self-styled D-Va said was punctuated by exclamations. Two minutes of talking to her exhausted him so.

“Hana, I wondered if…”

“Is my music too loud?! I’m sorry! I was playing this great game and totally like, arguing with someone over my headphones! I’ll turn it down!”

“I…”

“I love this song! I forget there are other people here! Sorry!”

“I…”

“I gotta go, I’m queuing for competitive play and people get, like, SO down on you if you get kicked! GG, Winston!”

SLAM.

The drums softened to a barely audible whisper of sound, but Winston found his eyelid still twitched in rhythm. He had barely understood a word of the conversation. He swivelled a digit in his ear thoughtfully and stared at Hana’s now-closed door before straightening the glasses on his nose, uttering yet another sigh and loping back to his own room.

“Athena… unpause.”

“Of course, Winston. Would you like me to start from the beginning?”

“Why not?”

He got sixteen bars in before it happened again.

Dum-dum-dum-dum-d-d-d-d-d-dum-dum.

The gorilla pulled a pillow over his face and whimpered. This, he knew with deep regret, was his own fault.

A Perfect Moment [Overwatch]

Widowmaker_portrait

“Step into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly.

She stretches out her shoulder muscles. It is the first movement she has made in some considerable time, but such is the lot of a sniper. Amélie Lacroix has spent longer than this in infinitely more uncomfortable positions as she waits for the perfect opportunity, the perfect shot.

The perfect moment.

The form-fitting clothing she wears is dark, enabling her to blend effectively into the shadows although – and it is a grudging admittance – she doesn’t blend as well as her Talon compatriot, the man everyone knows only as Reaper. His ability to dissolve into the ether and make himself invulnerable to anything is a skill she envies. But she does not display such envy in front of him.

It is unladylike.

A movement catches her attention and she snaps her gaze back down to the building below her. It is a seemingly impossible distance away, but her sniper rifle combined with her precision marksmanship mean that for her, this is little more than a vague challenge. Others would have balked at the height. Afraid, no doubt, of losing their balance and falling.

Amélie does not fear falling. Now, hitting the ground, that she does fear. Because like anybody else, she has no desire to leave her life, cursed though it may be.

Below, the people move like tiny insects, scurrying about their business, heedless of the danger that lurks far above them. She brings the rifle’s sight to her eyes to allow her a telescopic gaze into the hive below. For so long now, this rifle has acted as her primary eye. Were she inclined to visit an optometrist, her near-sight would be terrible. But for what she does, it hardly matters.

Her long hair swings momentarily into her face, caught by an errant breeze and she flips back the pony-tail with gentle irritation. It has been suggested that a shorter cut might serve her far better, but she ignores such comments. There is something deeper than the neural programming has been able to reach. Something precious to which she clings with tenacious stubbornness.

They will not take my dignity.

So it has ever been. Proud, haughty, quite literally blue-blooded, the Widowmaker is not going to change for anybody ever again.

“If you don’t like what you see,” she says in her soft, lilting, heavily accented voice, “then don’t look.”

Her mark is down there in that buzzing anthill of activity. For most people, picking out an individual in a swarm would be nigh on impossible, But as an apiarist marks the queen, so the Widowmaker has spent time studying her prey. She knows his movements intimately. Her highly modified scope has been tuned, over the past few hours, to identify his specific heat signature. And he has been keeping largely inside. If she didn’t know better, she’d suspect a tip-off is keeping him indoors. But she does know better.

She has infinite patience. It is for the best, because it is another two hours before he leaves the confines of his sanctuary. In all that time, Amélie has been nothing more than a slight anomaly in the shadows that occasionally makes the slightest of movements to stop muscles from seizing up.

As she lines up the shot, she allows her mind to wander one last time. This time, she idly muses on how people paint the life of a sniper. Nobody ever includes the facts. Like sitting so still for such extended periods invites birds to perch upon your shoulders and utilise your clothing as a makeshift lavatory.

Amélie hates birds.

But then, she hates most things. It’s easier that way. Form no attachments, break no hearts. The easiest way to live is to live free of all ties and all connections. To be alone. Blissfully and terminally alone.

Enough. The thinking is done. It is time to act.

Her heartbeat, already slow and sluggish, becomes even more so and her breathing stills so much that she would barely mist a mirror. Every fibre of her being tingles with the exhilaration, the anticipation of the sniper’s perfect moment: those precious milliseconds between the instant your finger squeezes the trigger and the projectile strikes with the precision of a predator.

There is no feeling on earth like it. It is what she lives for.

It is all she has, now.

She aims.

She fires.

There is a distant sound of a projectile fired from a distance meeting its target. It burrows through flesh and bone, lodging itself into the man’s brain and he topples backward, eliminated.

Perfect.

She stands, a languorous movement and with the faintest of ‘clicks’ releases the grappling hook that will take her higher still and to the rendezvous point. Another successful mission. Another perfect moment.

She has no regrets. Emotions are for other people, not for her. She is a broken creature, really, but she does not care. To care is to imply interest. And she is not interested. To be interest implies connection and she has severed those. She is aloof and indifferent.

She simply seeks that moment of perfection. The exquisite satisfaction. It is the closest to joy she will ever feel again and so she basks in its warmth.

A perfect moment.

 

 

 

Man Down [Overwatch]

Ana_portrait.png

I’ve seen worse. You’re going to live.

“You’re hurt.”

She slid swiftly to her knees beside him and, out of a habit borne from years of working together, began to assess his condition. He tried to pull away from her.

“Don’t worry about it,” he snarled, leaning up against the wall. His hand was pressed firmly to his side and dark red blood oozed between his fingers. “Get back and…” She halted his words with a finger pressed briefly against his lips.

“Worrying is the entire point to my existence, Gabriel. Now sit still and let me…”

overwatch reyes.png

The reckoning draws near.

“That’s Commander Reyes to you, Captain,” he retorted, then bit back his harsh words. His dark eyes closed briefly, whether in regret or pain, Ana Amari was not sure. Either way, she appreciated what came out of his mouth next.

“I’m sorry. Sorry.”

“We can talk about your attitude later,” she scolded, but there was no small amount of affection in the statement. She had come to like and respect Reyes over the years and, like Jack Morrison, she had noted the man’s obvious recent descent into shadowy, brooding introversion with increasing trepidation. It had something to with whatever was going on with Reyes and that scientist woman… whatever it was they were researching in that laboratory, she was sure of it.

She reached for her medic pack, taking out the field-fix adhesive that would hold Reyes’ wound together until such time as they could get him stitched and as a courtesy, took out the syringe filled with painkillers. She held it up and gave him a questioning glance. He had opened his eyes again and was watching her every move while every other sense was apparently tuned into the sounds of destruction around them. When she offered him the painkillers, he shook his head.

“Need my senses about me,” was all he said and she put the syringe away without further question. She thought about asking him then and there what the issue was, but reasoned that the middle of a pitched battle was hardly the place to gently probe at whatever it was that was eating at him.

“Incoming!” The voice came from the other side of the wall where Reyes and Amari were presently taking refuge. With a scream of rockets, the incoming Omnic missiles impacted just feet away from where they were. Dust flew and huge chunks of broken concrete pirouetted their way from the blast’s epicentre. A piece the size of his head narrowly avoided hitting Reyes and he turned to glare at the offending projectile.

“I appreciate what you’re doing here, Captain,” he said, shortly, “but can you hurry it up? In case you’d not noticed, there’s an entire Omnic unit out there waiting for us to decline their invitation to succumb to the might of their wobbly wind-up overlords.”

His choice of language brought a smile ghosting to her lips.

“Just sit still,” she replied and pulled up the fabric of his uniform to assess the injury in his side. His body had long been scarred by the many injuries he’d received over the years of active duty and this new wound would add to that grisly tally, a deep gouge in his flesh that had been caused by a graze from a stray Omnic bullet during the last push they’d made to encroach into Overwatch’s ground.

Somewhere, she could hear Reinhardt’s unmistakable bellow as he demanded those who were still standing at the front line got behind him.

“He’ll be next,” she muttered. “Man keeps insisting on pressing ahead when falling back is the correct choice. He’s not as young as he was, but he keeps rushing in like a fool.”

“Fool maybe, but at least he’s prepared to do what’s right. Nothing wrong in that.” Reyes looked down at the bloody, ragged wound in his side and grimaced a little. He muttered something under his breath. Amari could not quite make out what it was, but was sure that it included the word ‘failure’.

She applied the adhesive carefully, squeezing the clear fluid from the tube and then holding the edges of the wound together for a few seconds. The look of pain that contorted his face troubled her and she reached back for the painkiller again. He caught her hand and shook his head vigorously.

“No,” he said. “I need to deal with it. How long before I can get back up and fight?”

“Another few minutes.” She applied a dressing over the wound. “Until the glue dries.”

He made a noise of exasperation.

“And I’d moderate your own rushing in for an hour or two,” she added, putting her kit away. Around them, further explosions orchestrated their own grim soundtrack to this calm conversation. Reyes watched her, unblinkingly for a few moments, then he reached out and caught her hand again. She looked up, sharply, in case he was having some sort of medical emergency, but instead he just studied her.

“Do you believe we’re doing the right thing, Ana?”

“What, you and me? Me patching you up? Of course I…”

“No. Overwatch.”

It was a question that caught her unawares and she could not answer him. To her mind, Gabriel Reyes and Jack Morrison were Overwatch. Both of them had different leadership styles, that was true, but they were leaders and she respected them greatly.

“We are protecting the world from the…”

“…from the threat of the Omnics, yeah, yeah, I get it. But are we going about it in the right way? Have we become so full of our own self-importance that we’re missing a bigger picture?”

“Commander…”

He released her arm and pulled himself up a little straighter. “Forget it.”

“But…”

“I said, forget it. It’s not important. We have tin robots to deal with. You locked and loaded?” A cloud passed over the weak afternoon sun, throwing the whole street into shadow. In the brief moment of natural darkness, Amari couldn’t help but notice that Reyes seemed to blend into the shadows like an insubstantial mist. The sun forced its way back out and the illusion passed, but she felt deeply discomfited by the moment.

What’s happening to you, Gabriel?

A thousand questions formed in her mind, but none came to her lips. In years to come, she would always wonder what might have become of Gabriel Reyes if she had pushed him to open up more on that gloomy afternoon, but in that moment, she simply nodded and slung her rifle back over her shoulder.

“Ready.” She put out a hand to help him to his feet and scrutinised him as he steadied himself. He took his guns back into his hands and gave her a brief, fleeting smile. They made their way back to re-join the unit. Wilhelm, whose barrier burned with the same intensity as the man’s apparently endless enthusiasm, glanced over his shoulder.

“Good to see you back up on your feet, Commander Reyes. We are ready to push the attack if you are?”

“Let’s do it. It’ll take more than that to keep me down, right Captain?”

“Yes, Commander,” she said, softly and touched a hand to Reyes’ arm gently. “Old soldiers are hard to kill.”

He put his hand over hers in a gesture of gratitude and affection. Instead of reassuring her, something about that touch troubled her deeply. Gabriel Reyes was heading for a disaster and it was not in her power to stop it. For now, she had to put it out of her mind. There was a battle to be fought, after all.

Seeking Purpose [Overwatch]

Reinhardt_portrait

Don’t worry my friends. I will be your shield.

“You are not Balderich von Adler.”

“That is correct.”

“The name on this is Balderich von Adler. I cannot help you.”

“Commander von Adler will not be able to answer your summons. I am here to take his place.” The newcomer stood ram-rod straight, staring directly ahead, fixing his one-eyed gaze on the wall behind. Jack Morrison considered him thoughtfully. The stance suggested uncertainty and awkwardness but that could surely not be the case.

The man was enormous, not just in terms of height which had to be verging on seven feet, but also across the shoulders. Muscles that had become well-toned through years of training in the Crusader armour had possibly developed sentience. The physique was more than obvious through the relatively thin fabric of the uniform that he wore. Physically, he was very like Morrison’s friend, Balderich von Adler. But this younger man lacked von Adler’s bearing. Where the leader of the Crusaders had exuded an air of nobility, this man had that all-too-familiar air of rawness to him. Tested in battle, yes, no doubt. But tested in the ways of the world? Less likely.

“You fought with him.” It was a statement, not a question and for the first time, Reinhardt Wilhelm turned his head so that he was looking directly at Morrison. “At Eichenwalde.”

Ja,” said Wilhelm. “Yes. I fought with him. He was more than my commander. He was my friend. He was mein Lehrer. My teacher. My mentor?” Morrison picked up on the question and correctly understood what Wilhelm was asking for. He nodded that the man had the right word and allowed him to continue. “And now he is dead because of my arrogance. My hubris. It is my shame to bear and it was his dying wish that I come here in his place.”

He reached up and touched a finger to his eye. The injury was still healing and the iris had turned milky white. “I have been recovering and re-training, otherwise I would have been here much sooner. You required a representative of the Crusaders and here I am.”

download

Young punks. Get off my lawn.

“I am truly sorry for your loss. Balderich was a good man.” Morrison meant every word. The loss of the Crusaders at the Battle of Eichenwalde had hit the world hard, despite having been a success. On paper, at least. For every battle against the Omnics that they won, the propaganda machine glossed casually over the human cost.

“He was a great man. I know I am not worthy to take his place, but take his place I must. There is no other, Commander Morrison. No more Crusaders. All gone.” He snapped his fingers. “Over the course of a single battle, my entire unit was wiped out. I am all that is left. I am here to represent Germany, to represent the Crusaders and more than anything else, to represent Balderich von Adler.”

“Talk a lot, don’t you?” Morrison was unused to such loquaciousness. The unit was still in its infancy and his new colleagues – barring Reyes, who he had known before – were largely suspicious and unsure of one another. Relationships were still very much in the forming stage and throwing this man, larger than life and twice as talkative, into the mix could be disruptive beyond measure.

To his surprise, Wilhelm threw his head back and laughed. “I am in love with the sound of my own voice, I am told. After a beer or three, that will be even more the case.” There was warmth in his tone and Morrison could not help but smile. “You are stuck with me, Commander Morrison. Tell me I am denied entry to your unit and I will follow you everywhere until you go quite mad.”

Morrison actually believed that the big German was quite capable of making good on such a threat.

He turned the medallion over in his hand and stared once again at the name engraved on its surface. He didn’t know this man. He had not been screened or assessed by the authorities for suitable entry into the Overwatch programme. And yet… here he was.

“What do you hope to bring to Overwatch?” Morrison held up a finger. “Don’t think that’s an invitation,” he warned. “I’m asking out of my own curiosity.”

“I can fight,” Wilhelm responded with a shrug of his huge shoulders. “I can fight well and I am a protector. I am strong and resilient. I do not claim to be the world’s cleverest man, but I have the ability to see the bright side in most situations.”

“And can you follow orders?”

Wilhelm was quiet for a few moments. Morrison recognised the expression. It was a moment of recall. Whatever had happened at Eichenwalde had left its indelible mark on the man before him. What he said next would be critical.

Then the former Crusader sighed heavily and sat down on the chair he’d refused to take on arrival. It creaked alarmingly beneath his weight, but did not collapse.

“Well?” Morrison pushed for a reply.

“Yes, I can follow orders. I have… been foolish in the past. But I have learned a hard lesson and if I do not put those learnings into practice, then von Adler’s death will have been for absolutely nothing. There is no Crusader unit any longer, Commander. I am a hero and an outcast in the same breath. I come from a line of protectors stretching back generations. If I cannot fulfil that role, then what am I for?”

There was such quiet acceptance in the man’s speech. Morrison, whose mind had been made up several minutes before Wilhelm had begun to set out his plea, simply nodded.

“I have to say that this is unprecedented,” he said, his tone stern. “I am unsure…” He got no further. Wilhelm interrupted him.

“Will you at least consider me as a lesser alternative to von Adler? I cannot sit by and watch when I can bring myself to the fight.” The determination was admirable. Damn it all, the man was admirable. It was hard not to be impressed by his sheer bulk and physical presence and the driving determination that had brought him from Germany to Morrison’s office. “Please, Commander Morrison. Let me do this.”

“You help us, we help you?”

“Precisely.” That wicked, infectious grin was back on Wilhelm’s face once again and Morrison shook his head to keep from smiling.

“Alright, Reinhardt. We’ll trial it. See how it goes. See if you’re a fit with the rest of the team. But you will have to prove that my trust in you is well-founded.”

Danke, Commander!” Wilhelm leaped to his feet and clasped Morrison’s hand across the desk. Morrison felt the crushing pain as though he’d caught his fingers in a vice and winced ever so slightly. “Thank you! I promise you that you will not be disappointed with this decision!”

“I hope not,” said Morrison, grimly. “I really do.”

Respect Your Elders [Overwatch]

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I’m not a young man anymore.

When they had been young men together, it was an absolute given that they would live forever. They were indestructible, invincible, incredible…

Idiotic.

What had seemed unlikely at the time was now a given. Time, that most deadly of enemies, could be staved off only so long without making serious and usually highly questionable concessions and Jack Morrison was not the kind of man to whom deals with demons came easily.

Or at all, for that matter.

The morning he’d found that first grey hair nestled contentedly within the blond had woken him to the fact that his own mortality was a challenge he now had to face every day. He’d reached the decision, when he’d developed a constant and inexplicable nagging ache in his lumbar spine, that single-handedly taking down the forces of Talon was infinitely preferable to blowing out the considerable candles on his metaphorical birthday cake.

It was good-natured grumbling for the most part. The recruits were seemingly getting younger and this newcomer, the young British woman, made him tired with her boundless energy and effortless optimism. Still, there was something – what was the word she’d taught him again? Ah, yes. Something chipper about Lena Oxton that made him smile beneath the scowl. Quite a long way beneath the scowl.

She’d certainly proven herself in the field. The King’s Row Uprising had given her every opportunity to fail but the reports from Lindholm, Wilhelm and Doctor Ziegler had been pleasing in the extreme. A little prone to setting off on her own perhaps, but that was where her unique ability allowed her to shine. Lena – or Tracer as the team had dubbed her – was able to zip in and out in the blink of an eye creating carnage and confusion in her wake. Even the Omnics found it hard to bring her down. She was absolutely an asset to the team and despite his forced professionalism, Morrison found his attitude naturally softening around her.

She’ll twist you round her little finger, that one. Watch out for those paternal instincts, Jack.

Gabriel’s words echoed in his mind and he switched his consideration to that of his long-time friend. Reyes was changing, too. Not just ageing as he was, but there had been a subtle shift in his mindset. The two had always complemented one another; Reyes was the shadow to Morrison’s often blinding light. He was the chaos to the calm. Reyes had always been sombre and moody but of late, that had been more pronounced. It was just one more worry to add to the considerable pile. Thinking of Reyes troubled him more deeply than he had the capacity to express. Had he been of a different mindset, he would have sat down with the man. Talked the matter through. But there was no time these days. He had to oversee the organisation’s logistics from headquarters while Reyes was frequently out in the field commanding Blackwatch.

Was that… envty he felt? That Reyes still had the rein to go out and fight the good fight while he was looking at a comfortable desk job for the remainder of his time to be served?

“Commander Morrison?” There was a rap at the door that tore him from his reverie. He pushed thoughts of Gabriel Reyes to the back burner where they could simmer gently until such time as he could address the matter.

“Cadet Oxton. Thank you for coming to see me. Please.” He waved vaguely at the desk opposite him. “Take a seat.”

Tracer_portrait

Cheers, love! The cavalry’s here!

She was a slight little thing, slim as a reed and leaving the impression that she could break in a stiff wind, but he was well aware of her strengths, not to mention her courage. Young she might be, but there was a fearlessness to the young woman that was greatly admirable. But she had not come to see him to receive his praise. His task today was infinitely more complex than that.

With caution evident in her eyes, she sat down. Her right leg jiggled slightly; it was nigh on impossible for her to remain stationary for any length of time. It could have been irritating in someone else, but Reyes was right. She had twisted him round her little finger. Yet another sign of his softening into middle age.

Morrison put on what he hoped was his most serious expression.

“You’ve performed in the field in a most exemplary fashion…” He began his well-practiced speech, brow furrowed in a stern manner. He leaned forward on the desk, his chin resting in his hands as he studied her with intensity. She squirmed and not just with restlessness. “But I’ve been asked by Engineer Lindholm to – ah – have a word about your practical jokes.”

“Oh?” Her innocence fooled nobody, but she seemed to be thinking about his words. Then her eyes widened. “Ohhhhh… that.”

“Blinking into Torbjorn’s workshop while he’s working and replacing his hammer with one that went ‘squeak’ when he used it…”

“Was hilarious,” she interjected with an infuriatingly infectious giggle.

“You…”

“Need to get people round here to lighten up,” she chirped, brightly. “I know, I know, there’s war and all that stuff, but sometimes you just have to say ‘bollocks’ to it all and have a bit of a giggle. I put all his tools back. Nothing blew up, exploded or generally went wrong, so it’s all fine, right, Commander?”

“I…”

He was losing control in a way he didn’t understand.

“Good talk.” She got to her feet, made finger guns in his direction and beamed her smile. “I like what you’ve done with your hair, by the way – are those silver highlights? That’s pretty cool. Cheerio!”

Blink.

“Er…”

She’d already gone.

“Um…”

Nothing where she’d been except a vague and passing imprint of her shape on his retina. Morrison sighed, wearily and wondered exactly when it was he had woken up and lost control of his own life. With a deep sense of letting go of who he had been, he not only embraced the encroaching stereotype, he welcomed it home after the second date to meet his parents.

“The youth of today,” he muttered to himself. “Don’t respect their elders.”