The buckskin horse walked up Allen Street just before dawn. Its head was low, its dollar-gold hide was marked with drying sweat, and its black legs were caked with dust. The man on its back was slumped forward with his face in the tangled black mane. His hat was missing, showing hair as straight and black and disarranged as his mount’s. A stain spread dark on the side and skirt of his brown canvas coat.
An ore wagon thundered by, murdering sleep for newcomers who weren’t accustomed to the sound. A few drowsy, half-drunk miners trudged toward the shafts that rimmed the town, clutching their coats to keep out the cold spring air. Neither the miners nor the wagon driver so much as glanced at the man on the horse. A man slumped on a horse wasn’t enough to make a baby stare in Tombstone.
The horse stopped uncertainly at the edge of the street, outside a building tricked out in turned porch posts, raised moldings, and gold paint. Yellow light glowed in its window and through the open double doors. The murmur of men’s voices and the clank of glass against glass reached the street.
The buckskin seemed to expect the man to rouse himself, fling the reins around the hitching rail, and clatter across the boardwalk and through the doors. When nothing of the sort occurred, it stepped forward, once, twice. A fly bit it, and it flinched. At that, the rider slid out of the saddle like an unstrapped pack, and landed hard on his back in the dust.
A man peered out the door. His face was round, blunt-nosed, and topped with a pile of sandy-red cherub curls; a moustache, an imperial, and a scowl kept it from outright childishness. He was red-eyed with liquor and smoke. His shirt was wrinkled, and sweat made dark half circles under his arms.
“Hell. Some damned drunk fool fell off his God-damned horse.” He stepped unsteadily to the edge of the boardwalk and frowned over the still figure. “Well, shit. Milt, Billy!” he called back over his shoulder. “Give me a hand!”
Chairs scraped inside, and Milt and Billy pushed out onto the walk. Milt, the older of the two, sent an arc of tobacco juice into the street. “Just because you can’t play cards worth a fart doesn’t mean you can break up the game.”
“Help me haul this kid.”
Billy, taller than the other two, bony at the joints like an adolescent wolf, looked down at the boy in the street. His eyes grew wide. “Jesus, Ike,” he said with the suggestion of a squeak. Then he seemed to recollect himself; he settled his face into an awkward sneer. “Better him than me.”
“Quit yammering and take his legs.”
They picked up the boy and maneuvered through the doors. They slung him, not very gently, onto the surface of the table closest to the window, scattering the components of their interrupted poker game. The bartender, nodding behind a copy of yesterday’s Epitaph, ignored them.
There was only one player still sitting at the game. When the three men dropped their untidy burden in front of him he sighed heavily. “I believe,” he said, “I am being inconvenienced.”
“Sorry—Milt, go fetch Goodfellow—but the doc’ll want the light.” Ike jerked his thumb at the lamp shining down over the table. “Fellow’s been shot, don’t you see.”
The bartender looked up sharply over his newspaper. “By God, Ike, if he bleeds on that table, you’ll clean it up.”
The seated man raised a corner of the boy’s coat and extracted a glass half full of whiskey from under it. He took a swallow. “Anyone you know?”
Billy answered. “He might be Sarey Diaz’s brother, up from Cananea.”
“Hell, no,” replied Ike, chewing his moustache. “Seen him before, though. He was riding drag with Leonard and Crane on a herd going up to Chandler’s ranch.”
“Is he still alive?” asked the seated man.
Another heavy sigh; then the last of the whiskey went down his throat. “Yes, he would be.”
Doc Holliday looked down at the wounded boy on top of his cards and tried to think of something else. He clutched at irritation over the spoiled game: now he’d never know if Milt Hicks had had anything when he raised the second time.
He wasn’t drunk enough for dying boys, especially ones he wasn’t responsible for. To have this one land in front of him—if he signified what Doc suspected he did—was a foul sort of practical joke.
The fever swelled in his skull, buzzed in his ears. His lungs were like hot lead bars inside his chest—lead bars you could cough up a piece at a time. He ought to be in bed, not on display in the front window of the Oriental. Damn Morgan for a perfect empty-headed, God-forsaken idiot.
He was lucky it was Frank Leslie tending the Oriental’s bar. Frank did what Wyatt told him to, and Doc, in Wyatt’s absence, could sometimes pass for the voice of Wyatt. He’d bullied Frank into selling him a bottle.
And the cards were good, better than medicine. He’d rather play with clever players, but he’d settle for Ike and Billy Clanton and Milt Hicks. Doc loved the cool, relentless logic of the cards. They had no pity or fear or doubt; they fell as they fell, and anyone who regretted or begged them or raged at them was a fool. Sometimes he wished he could be part of the deck. A red jack, maybe, expressionless, with two heads and no ass.
Now here was this corpse, or soon-to-be corpse, reminding him that flesh was frail and plans were made to totter and fall.
At the corner of his eye, he saw someone step through the doors. Milt with the doctor. Goodfellow must have come in his nightshirt, Doc thought as he looked around. But it wasn’t Dr. Goodfellow.
Doc could measure and judge a man or woman at a glance; any decent card dealer could. He might choose to fly in the face of his judgment, but he always took that measure. He didn’t gamble.
The man who stood framed in the doorway could be read like a book printed in three languages, none of which Doc felt he properly knew. He straightened a little in his chair.
He wanted to know how the man’s eyes moved, but the newcomer wore dark spectacles like a blind man, smoky green glass in gold wire frames. His wide-brimmed, low-crowned hat deserved better treatment than it had received of late. His hair, probably brown under the dust, hung in a plait to his shoulder blades, the way some Indians and a few of the Mexicans wore theirs. Doc guessed he’d been clean-shaven a week ago.
The nap was worn off his corduroy sack coat at the sleeve hems and elbows and collar; Doc was puzzled to make out its original color. The waistcoat underneath was missing a button, and there was no collar on his shirt. The buckle of a gunbelt showed at his open coat front.
The newcomer swept his hat off and moved to slap it against his thigh, then seemed to reconsider. Good; the dust would have choked them all. The man surveyed the room and its inhabitants, and spotted the unconscious boy.
“Oh. There he is.” He moved toward the table. Doc expected him to take the spectacles off then, but he didn’t. It was like looking into the blank dark eyes of a locust.
“If you’re a friend of this gentleman’s,” Doc said, “I feel I should warn you that he has a God-damned large hole in him somewhere.”
The newcomer laid two fingers to the boy’s pulse just below the jaw. He frowned. “No, not a friend. Have you sent for the doctor?”
“Heavens, no,” said Doc, and saw Ike twitch. “We had a mind to let him bleed to death and see how long it took.”
The man smiled—good white teeth—as he folded back the boy’s coat and pulled up the checked shirt underneath. Doc stayed where he was. He was afraid he might sway if he stood up.
The man fumbled at his trouser pocket, but the gunbelt got in his way. His eyebrows dropped down to meet the spectacle frames. He unbuckled the belt in a single smooth motion and dropped the rig on the chair next to Doc. Doc made a point of studying it over, just to see what its owner would do, which was exactly nothing. A blued, long-nosed Colt Army with walnut grips, in worn leather.
“My name’s Jesse Fox.” The man pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. Unlike the rest of him, the handkerchief looked clean.
“Pleased,” Doc said. “Dr. John Henry Holliday, at your service.” In his own ears it sounded like an alias. Nobody called him John, and precious few called him Dr. Holliday.
“You’re a doctor?” Fox’s hands stopped above the boy’s ribs, and his face turned to Doc.
Doc grinned. “Dentist.”
“Oh. Would you pass me that whiskey, please?”
Doc looked at the bottle on the floor beside him, that he’d snatched off the table when Ike made to drop the boy on it. “Only if you intend to drink some.”
“Let’s pretend I am.” Fox stretched his hand out for the bottle.
Doc looked up into Fox’s face. No threat or plea—only the neutral, polite smile and the outstretched hand. Doc passed the bottle even as he wondered why he would do any such thing.
And of course, Fox poured it on the wound. At least I hadn’t bought the good stuff.
Fox made a Ladies’ Aid Society noise—tsk, tsk—and did something with the handkerchief and the wound. “I hope the doctor’s close.”
“Funny how you went right for the spot,” Ike said suddenly. Doc almost jumped; he’d forgotten there were other people in the room. “Maybe you shot him.”
Fox raised his face in Ike’s direction. “Positively I shot him. He was stealing my horse.”
That shut Ike up. And Doc, too, but he recovered quicker. “Mr. Fox, Ike Clanton. The young man with him is his brother Billy.” Fox gave them each a polite and distant nod. “You appear to be wearing most of the dirt between here and Prescott. Whereabouts did it happen?”
“I was camped two hours north of here.”
“And this fellow showed up on foot?”
“Maybe someone stole his horse.” The face around the spectacles was perfectly expressionless.
Doc grinned and leaned back in his chair. This was as good as a play. And useful, perhaps. He stole a glance at Ike and Billy, and decided that, with a little prompting, they’d remember the conversation.
“He’s got his hair braided up like a squaw,” Billy said suddenly, as if it had taken him that long to recall where he’d seen it.
“Or a Chinaman,” Ike said. “No, on Chinamen it’s longer. You’re right, Billy, it’s a squaw braid.”
“I hear fellas who’ve got the syphillis wear dark glasses. Light hurts their eyes.” Billy shot a look at Ike and grinned.
A pity that Billy took his older brother for his model. And it was just like Ike to wait until a man had proved himself polite and sober, and had taken off his gun, before he poked at him.
But for all the reaction of the round green lenses, they might have spoken Russian.
“Say there, fellow,” Frank broke in from behind the bar. His eyes shifted from Fox to Ike and Billy. “If you’re meaning to stay in here, I’ll mind that gun for you.”
What’s the matter, Frank? Doc thought. Getting too old to duck?
“Certainly. Thank you.” Fox lifted the gunbelt off the chair and pushed it to Frank across the bar, as if he’d offered to take his hat and coat.
“Who says that’s your horse?” Ike asked. “Might be this fella’s, and you were the one doing the stealing.”
“If I’d done it, my feet wouldn’t hurt, and I wouldn’t be standing here on them discussing it with you. I suppose you mean trying to do it.”
Ike frowned at Fox as if he wasn’t sure he’d been answered.
A crack of laughter escaped Doc before he could swallow it. “These fine distinctions are wasted on Ike,” he said. Ike turned his frown on Doc. “This boy’s in no condition to tell his side. Lacking that, you might want to back your claim with something.”
Fox sighed. “What would you have done for fun if I hadn’t shown up?”
“Won money off these boys until they quit.”
Ike opened his mouth to reply, but Milt burst through the doorway with Doc Goodfellow behind him. He stopped at the sight of Fox. Goodfellow ran into Milt from behind, swore at him, and pushed past to the table. Fox stepped aside.
The doctor jerked open the wide mouth of his leather bag and began to pull things out: two brown bottles; a canvas bundle that unrolled to show the bright chrome of scissors, probes, and retractors; a wad of cotton lint; a scalpel case. Doc rose and moved away from what had become a surgery. He didn’t like to linger in places where life and death were smiling at each other over their cards.
“Gunshot?” Goodfellow asked the room.
“Yes, sir,” Fox replied.
Goodfellow spared him a glance before turning back to his work. “Anybody who knows how it happened should tell it to Ben Sippy.”
Fox turned to Doc. “The law?”
“City marshal. But Goodfellow’s a damned high stickler about these little disagreements.” Doc watched Goodfellow out of the corner of his eye, and was sorry to find himself ignored.
Fox sighed. “As well now as later. Where do I find him?”
“City offices are on Fremont. North, and a block west. It’ll be another hour before anyone’s there.”
“Then I guess I’ll sit on the doorstep.” Fox turned toward the door.
Ike stepped into his path. “You plan on telling him about that horse?”
Fox, from the set of his head, just stared.
Doc ambled to the end of the bar. He wanted to watch Fox’s face for this. Ike must be even more drunk than he was himself.
“Well?” Ike stuck out his chin. “I’ll wager you can’t prove that’s your horse.”
Fox’s voice was so soft Doc had to hold his breath to hear it. “I don’t feel like taking your money.”
Stand aside, Ike, Doc thought happily. Stand aside or prepare to throw down. The room was thick with the feeling before the lightning. But Fox’s gun was behind the bar. Had he forgotten he wasn’t heeled?
Fox drew his spectacles a little way down his nose. That was all: just slid them down and studied Ike over them like someone’s maiden auntie might.
Fox’s eyes were a penetrating light brown. The lamplight caught in the nearest one, like a glass of good bourbon with a flame shining through it.
In that suspended moment, Doc was gripped by a feeling he couldn’t name. It wasn’t fear. He feared only one thing, and no man could bring that down on him. But it was enough like fear to make him heedless of the weight in his lungs.
Ike stepped aside, his mouth pressed shut under his moustache. Fox pushed the spectacles up. The lightning had struck and gone, and left cold empty air behind it.
Fox walked outside. Ike, Milt, and Billy followed him, unconscious as ducklings. Doc pushed away from the bar and followed, too, as far as the doorway, where he leaned.
There was a buckskin horse of exceptional quality tied to the rail. It raised its head, nostrils flaring, as Fox reached the edge of the boardwalk.
“That’s a handsome fellow,” Doc said.
Fox glanced back and smiled. Then he untied the horse, laid the reins loose over the saddle, and walked away into the street.
Halfway across he stopped and whistled, three carrying notes.
The horse’s ears swiveled at the sound. It lurched away from the rail and covered the ground between it and Fox in a few brisk steps. Fox looked over his shoulder at the men standing outside the Oriental and nodded. Then he turned back up Fifth Street with the horse behind him like a dog at heel.
“You forgot your iron,” Doc called after him.
Fox stopped and looked back. The round green lenses flashed in the dawn.
“It’ll wait for me,” he replied. He, and the horse that was unquestionably his, went on up Fifth and passed out of sight.
“That son of a bitch is looking for trouble,” Ike grumbled.
“I doubt it,” Doc replied. “But if he is, you’re not the man to bring it.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Not a thing, Ike. You do as you please.” Doc smiled up at the morning sky. He felt pleasantly tired, sleepy even. Now he could go back to Fly’s and maybe catch a few winks before he set off after the posse.
Copyright © 2007 by Emma Bull. All rights reserved.