I know what Wyatt Earp was thinking as he stepped off the plank walkway in front of 44 year old Colonel Roderick Hafford's Saloon, on the corner of Fourth and Allen Streets, just before 3:00pm, Wednesday, 26 October, 1881. He was deciding on a plan of action for the coming fight, and he didn't have much time. The distance Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp and friend John Holliday had to cover was just 310 feet. At an average walking speed of 3 miles an hour, they would reach the corner of Fourth and Fremont in less than 20 seconds, and 312 Fremont Street, Mollie Fry's boarding house, in another 30 seconds. Fifty seconds between life and death. And another 30 seconds to determine who would die and how.
Oddly, this fight which would come to symbolize the violence of the American West occurred after the crest of the wave. The peak had come in 1878, when there were 36 recorded gunfights along the frontier. The next year that dropped to 14, but in 1880 there were 25, and the one about to occur would be one of 27 in 1881. But after this bloody year, the total would never rise above 20 in any given year - at least until historians stopped counting in 1900.
In part this was a function of how few men actually made their living at least part time through gun violence. Out of the 365 documented gunmen in the American West, most had been born before the civil war - average birth year was 1853 - but most were too young to have fought in that conflict. Almost a third - 110 - worked at least part time as lawmen, like the Earps and Johnny Behan. And the badge extended their lives. Of the remaining 255, 35 were good enough to be full time professional hired guns, while another 174 could be called Cow Boys - ranchers and rustlers who used gun violence to achieve other ends. Almost all of these men ended up at the end of a rope or being shot to death, when their average age was just 35.
Waiting in the 15 foot wide alleyway (above) between the boarding house and the home of William Arthur Harwood - second mayor of Tombstone - stood 6 Cow Boys. Wesley "Wess" Fuller, was deepest in the alley. This 26 year old gambler and Cow Boy had been posted to warn of anyone approaching from the Allen Street entrance. He was now speaking to Billy Claiborne. To Billy's left stood Ike Clanton. To his left stood Robert Findley "Frank" McLaury, holding in his left hand the bridle of his brother's horse . Frank had abandoned his guard post south of Fourth and Allen to deliver with Johnny Behan a warning that the Earps were alert. To his left was his brother, Thomas Clark "Tom" McLaury. To Tom's left stood 19 year old Billy Clanton. The odds are the six were arguing about what to do next - leave town at once or go inside the boarding house and murder Doc Holliday in his bed, and then leave town.
Because of their arrests, Ike Clanton (above) and Frank McLaury were still unarmed. Ike had tried to buy a pistol in the hardware store, but the manager took one look at his bandaged head and refused to take Ike's cash. There is no indication any of the Cow Boys protested this "violation" of his Second Amendment rights. And once again not having access to a gun, saved Ike's life.
It is important to note who might have been in the alley that afternoon. Pete Spence and Frank Stillwell were still in jail in Tuscon, awaiting trial for the Bisbee stage robbery. Curley Bill Brocius (above), the smartest and best shot of the Cow Boys, was in New Mexico, trying to pick up the pieces of the Rustlers' Trail, after the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre. The gang was off balance, making it a bad time to move against the Earps. But this reflexive lashing out was just the kind of angry hot blooded assault Frank McLaury was well known and well feared for.
As the 4 lawmen reached the corner and turned onto Fremont they were accosted by Cochise County Marshal Johnny Behan. Johnny assured Virgil he had already disarmed the Cow Boys.
In fact, Behan and Frank McLaury had walked south on Allen, before passing through the alley, drawing Wes Fuller with them, to a conference between Fly's Boarding House and the Harwood House. There the Cochise County Marshal warned the Cow Boys that the Earps were alarmed and ready for a fight. Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton, Wess Fuller and Billy "The Kid" Claiborn still wore their guns. Behan now suggested the Cow Boys disarm or just leave town, But the hot head Frank McLaury had insisted he would disarm only if the Earps disarmed first. Confronted by the angry Frank, Behan had delivered a more conciliatory message to the Earps But the McLaurys and Clantons had reneged on every promise made to the Earps over the last year. The lawmen kept walking.
The quartet walked west on Fremont, staying close to the south side store fronts. They had been told by several civilians where the Clantons and McLaury's were gathered - in the alleyway (above). And by hugging the packed sand walkway they would be visible to the Cow Boys only if one of them stepped out into the street. And none did that.
But Behan's lie did have an effect, and it was disastrous.. Striding west on Fremont, as they passed the rear entrance to the OK Corral, Wyatt, VIrgil and Morgan all three pocketed their 8 inch long 3 pound Smith & Wesson 44 caliber New Model 3 hand guns. Doc was carrying the coach gun, but also had a nickel-plated .41 caliber "Long" Colt Thunderer in a holster under his arm. If the lawmen had kept the pistols in their hands, visible, they would have left the Cow Boys no choice but to hand over their guns, peacefully. But by introducing doubt into the lawmen's minds, Johnny Behan had insured there would be a gun fight. The lie, meant to protect his allies, had driven the final nail into coffins for 3 of them.
As the 4 lawmen turned into the alley, Wyatt Earp was on the right, the furthest forward., three steps into the alley, the wall of Fly's Boarding House protecting his left flank. To Wyatt's right stood Virgil Earp. To his right was Morgan Earp. And to his right, still armed with the Coach Gun under his coat, was Doc Holliday. The Earps had just appeared without warning, no more than 6 feet away from Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury. Doc Holliday was no more than 10 feet away from 19 year old Billy Clanton. In a breath the Earps had gotten "the drop" on the Cow Boys, just as a year earlier when the Earps were looking for the stolen Army mules. If their guns had been in their hands, the odds are the Clantons and McLaury's would have surrendered at once.
Before anyone Cow Boy had time to react, Virgil Earp called out, "Throw your hands up, I want you guns." Shocked, "Wess" Fuller and Billy Claiborne bolted, running north, into the rear of Fly's boarding house. That left 4 Cow Boys facing 4 lawmen. But only 2 of the Cow Boys were armed.
Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton put their hands on their holsters, containing their 3 pound, 13 inch long Colt 1873 revolvers. Virgil immediately yells either, "Hold! I don't mean that!" or "I don't want that!" But he shifts the cane to his left hand, freeing his right to draw his weapon. Wyatt and Morgan put their hands on their own pocketed weapons as well.
And in the next breath, just at that instant, Doc Holliday swings the 7 pound 37 inch long Coach Gun out from under his coat and cocked both barrels. The sound of that metallic double click ignited the tension. What happened next is best described as chaos.