Harlequin's Slash Fic

Then I Defy You, Stars

Title: Then I Defy You, Stars
Author: Stew
Universe: Tombstone
Characters featured: Doc Holliday/Juliet (OFC), Doc Holliday & Wyatt Earp
Category, Word count: Story; 34,000 words
Rating: R
Summary: My version of Doc’s early years, his affair with the cousin he oh-so-briefly mentions in the film, and his later life, including his friendship with Wyatt. It is almost entirely a figment of my overactive imagination.
Notes: With thanks to William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, John Keats and Frederic Chopin for quotes and inspiration.

First published: 1 January 1996 in Espresso 1



Then I Defy You, Stars


Doc Holliday rarely consulted doctors these days because, every time he’d done so, the medical men would tell Doc quite seriously that he only had days or maybe months to live. The doctors had been saying that for eleven years now: it was quite ridiculous.

But Doc could feel the disease eating away inside of him; and that distant threat of an early death was slowly becoming more distinct, more real. Nevertheless, he might well have another five years, the way he’d been going. It was all lasting such an exquisitely long time, this lingering state of not‑dying, as if Death were more inclined to accompany Doc rather than claim him.

All these long years of dying gave a man perspective and a sense of priorities. Doc had deliberately lived a life that allowed no regrets and, if Death became bored and took him tomorrow, Doc would be satisfied. He’d already out‑lived so many healthy people, after all.

But there was one eternal regret, that dated back to before this disease. One enormous disaster, that had changed the entire course of his life in a way that the consumption had only echoed. One terrible event that re‑made everything he knew into perversion: because, like Romeo, Doc hadn’t wanted to live without his love; and yet, despite this mortal disease, and despite all the risks and all the gun‑fights, here was Doc Holliday, still alive and suffering.

These days, Doc rarely recalled, let alone thought about, all that ancient history.

Life had once been full of promise. Doc had been raised as a gentleman, in the humid green of Georgia, amongst white airy houses and spreading oaks, on money from his family’s cotton plantation. Long ago, when he was John Henry Holliday, second son of Thomas and Emma: before he became Doc Holliday, the gambler and the killer.

His father, Thomas, had also been a second son. Thomas’s elder brother, William, had inherited the plantation, just before the Civil War broke out. By luck, their lands hadn’t been destroyed in the fighting, as so many plantations were throughout Georgia; but the abolition of slavery, and the advent of sharecropping, had changed the family’s role from management of large‑scale agriculture to management of a business interest. There was money, but there was also a lack of occupation, and a great uncertainty despite the post‑war economic boom: the lesser Hollidays needed independent professions.

Thomas had studied the law when he was young, perhaps showing some foresight, and his first son, dull Edward, followed his lead. John Henry had gotten drunk one night, and made a new acquaintance, and travelled to Pennsylvania with him to study dentistry.

Shocking. Everyone wanted to know why John Henry didn’t at least study to be a doctor, which was somewhat more fitting for a gentleman. There was much speculation about the need to go to Pennsylvania, too, when there was the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, and dental colleges opening up throughout the South.

John Henry had tended to saunter along the expected path when he was young, observing with a sharp eye but rarely questioning. Following an occasional shocking impulse, such as this dentistry business, had been the extent of his rebellion.

Life had been easy back then; there had been privilege and plenty, even for the second son of a second son. Only the petty concerns of respectable society to worry about, only the prying concerns of a large family to bother him. John Henry’s only responsibility had been helping to tutor his cousin Juliet, William’s beloved only child.

Ah, she was precious, precocious. Juliet would inherit everything in time; she was the darling child of the whole family, all the myriad aunts and uncles and cousins many times removed: and she knew all of this, and loved it, and was more than adept at having her way. Since her mother had died, years ago, no one ever curbed her. All of which would have made her obnoxious, but for her generous heart, her enthusiasm and seriousness, and her constant good humour.

Right from when she was a child, she’d taken a shine to John Henry that no one else quite understood, and they were as close as brother and sister. There was some story she’d tell about how she’d been afraid during the war, and John Henry had comforted her, diverted her: he had no recollection of any particular occasion, but he accepted her loyalty.

Every afternoon except Sundays, he tutored her in French and English and a smattering of Latin, and they read the classics and the latest books out loud to each other. They both enjoyed Shakespeare, and would perform the plays all over the music room and library of William’s townhouse, dividing up the parts between them. Inspired, they’d dream of the adventures they would have. She was intelligent, full of energy and curiosity, and so accomplished for someone of her age: neither John Henry, nor the official tutors William chose, ever tried to hold her back from learning.

In return for his tutoring, Juliet tried to teach John Henry to play the piano, which she had a talent for, and he… well, he lacked the skills and the application, but he had an ear for music, and compensated for his mistakes with honest feeling. Despite her teasing encouragement, however, he never played the piano when there was anyone else around.

He was eighteen when he left for Pennsylvania, and Juliet was thirteen, and she was the closest thing to a friend he’d ever had. John Henry was great at making acquaintances amongst the men, and had a wide range of drinking companions to suit all occasions. The rumours had it, with some semblance of the truth, that he also had a knack for seducing the sort of women that his family would not and could not deign to acknowledge. But he didn’t have friends, and he’d never had what anyone, no matter how generous, would term a lover. As far as John was concerned, he’d never had anything in common with his brother, dull Edward, or with any of his cousins, other than Juliet. And perhaps he never felt the lack of these ties of friendship.

Yes, at eighteen he left the easy life in Georgia, and drifted into the unlikely profession of dentistry. The last time John Henry saw Juliet before he left was at her first holy communion: she looked sweet and serious and innocent in her short white dress, the veil spilling from the flowers in her midnight black hair.

‘Doc,’ Wyatt said, recalling him from the humid green past to the arid desert present. The man was sitting at his desk in the marshall’s office, and Doc was opposite him: they both had their feet up, and a glass of whisky in hand. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you.’

‘What?’ Doc prompted, when the silence continued. There had been long days and months here in Tombstone, since they’d won the war against the Cowboys; long dry days at this slow pace all through summer and fall and winter. But Doc was beginning to hanker after adventure, with the approach of spring.

It wasn’t that Doc took the doctors’ advice, but every now and then he did let himself rest. He had cut back on the drinking and the smoking during these long months, for instance, though he was still making a fine living at the poker table until late every night. He’d always had luck at the game, which complemented a talent for it, but rarely had he been on such a roll for so long a stretch. Fortune smiled on him from above, and Death, at his shoulder, watched with interest rather than envy.

‘Doc,’ Wyatt eventually continued, ‘do you remember telling me about what sort of man Johnny Ringo was? That he had a great empty hole through the middle of him, and he could never murder enough or steal enough or inflict enough pain to ever fill it. I asked what he needed, and you said ‑‑‘

‘Revenge,’ Doc supplied, ‘for being born. What about him?’

‘Not him ‑‑ you. It was as if you were talking about yourself, as well.’

Doc sighed. Wyatt might claim to be slow, but he was also uncomfortably perceptive. ‘Perhaps I was,’ Doc said. He’d spent the first twenty years of his life not even knowing he had that great empty hole through him ‑‑ and he’d spent the time ever since trying to feed it, with no result.

‘I’ve been meaning to ask whether you really see yourself like that.’

‘I do.’

‘Because I don’t think you’re like that now, and maybe you never really were.’

‘Oh, I was,’ Doc said. When he’d lost everything he’d ever wanted, and the gaping dimensions and endless hunger of the hole became apparent, and he’d started dying. And all the adventures since then were little or no solace. ‘And I am,’ Doc added, though his thoughts returned to the beginning of the end, back when he was an unformed and uninformed creature, back when he was no more than a gentleman of twenty.

Once he’d graduated, John travelled back to Georgia by train, taking his time and stopping in the towns along the way, drinking and talking with anyone who’d keep him company. Being a student and living far from home hadn’t changed him: he still trod the easy path; he still hadn’t learned to question himself or others.

Dull Edward collected him at the station, shook his hand very properly. There had never been any feeling between the brothers or, at least, nothing more than annoyance; though dull Edward tried to pretend the annoyance sprang from fraternal duty.

John didn’t bother pretending. He loved observing all the complex, meaningless rituals of these, his family and his society and his religion. John belonged, and wouldn’t have it any other way, but he carefully maintained a detached perspective, that Thomas dismissed as affected. If people noticed this second son loitering in the background, then they noticed him for his dry humour and occasional shocking gestures of disregard for what was proper: if they noticed him, it was only because he annoyed them.

A young man with every advantage, who could easily have studied law and entered his father’s firm ‑‑ how grand Holliday & Sons sounded ‑‑ took up the necessary, but feared and rather bloody, trade of dentistry. Why, it was almost disgraceful.

The brothers had little conversation on the drive home, but John didn’t care enough, and dull Edward didn’t have the imagination, to feel uncomfortable. The townhouse was as lovely as John remembered: tall columns climbed two stories to a gently sloping roof; the deep balconies were decorated with iron lace; the walls had recently been re‑painted lilac; the oak trees spread their glorious dappled shade.

Thomas and Emma awaited their second son in the drawing room. John walked to them, greeted his mother with a kiss on the cheek, ‘Good afternoon, madam,’ and shook hands with his father, ‘Good afternoon, sir.’

‘Good afternoon, John Henry.’

Then there were introductions to dull Edward’s new wife: they had been married almost a year, and she was heavily pregnant. She tried to stand to greet him; but John let Edward help her back down, then gallantly bent to offer her a kiss, too. Welcome to the family, dull Jane.

‘How have you been keeping, John Henry?’ asked his mother. ‘Your letters were most irregular.’

‘In both content and frequency,’ John agreed easily. No one seemed amused at this. ‘I am well, if that’s what you’re asking.’

‘I am pleased to hear it,’ said his father. A moment of silence. ‘What are your plans now? You haven’t been very forthcoming.’

‘I thought I’d take a few weeks to settle in again.’

‘And what then? Are you intending to set up a dental practice here?’

John shrugged. ‘I suppose so.’

Frowning, Thomas said, ‘You could borrow capital against your trust fund, as your twenty‑first birthday won’t occur for some months. I could offer you a reasonable interest rate, and I wouldn’t charge you for legal services.’

‘Yes, sir.’ It sounded as if his family had planned it all on his behalf. John let his father talk, with his brother providing additional comments. Perhaps this was what his life would be. He stifled a yawn, which became an unsuppressable cough.

Emma asked, ‘Are you ill, John Henry?’

‘No. This is nothing; a chill I haven’t quite recovered from.’

‘Nevertheless, perhaps you would like to retire to your room. Now that Edward and Jane are married, you will have the garconierre to yourself. I’m sure you wish to bathe and rest before supper.’

‘Yes, mother.’

‘Your uncle William and cousin Juliet will be joining us for supper, so I trust you will make yourself look presentable.’

‘Yes, mother.’ John sketched a bow to the gathering, and left, content to be alone for the balance of the afternoon.

The garconierre, living quarters for the single young men of the family, was small but pleasant. Nothing to compare to the one attached to the plantation’s mansion out in the country, of course: that garconierre was bigger than this townhouse. No, this was on a more modest scale, but nice nevertheless.

It was tucked away at the foot of the garden, hidden from the main house by the oak trees and massing flower beds, linked only by a winding path of haphazard stones that were dangerous to navigate on dark or rainy or drunken nights. The first floor of the garconierre contained a hallway and stairs, with the large bedroom and study that had been dull Edward’s to the right, and a small paved bathing room to the left. John put his head around the door of the latter, and saw a copper bathtub already prepared for him, steam rising as if it had only just been filled with water hot from the stove. Up the stairs, there were two more bedrooms, smaller than dull Edward’s, one of which was John’s. He looked around it, pleased to have returned. This room was home and comfort, if anywhere was. Everything had been tidied, and kept dusted, in his absence, but otherwise it was all as he remembered. He smiled, pulled an old robe from the closet, and headed downstairs to bathe.

In John’s mind, Juliet had remained the precocious child of thirteen, so he was little prepared for the graceful young woman, almost as tall as himself, who was shown into the drawing room that evening. He stood there at the far end of the room, confounded by her beauty and her maturity, while Thomas and Emma greeted their guests.

Juliet was composed, though she was evidently excited about something, and John had to assume she was rather glad to see him. She was speaking to his parents, very polite and proper, only occasionally allowing the distraction of a glance at John. The child she’d been would have run to him, ignoring the proprieties, and hugged him, insisted on sitting on his lap all evening. The woman behaved with more circumspection: though her eyes shone, and her mouth wouldn’t stop smiling even as she nodded seriously at a comment of Emma’s; the glances at John were full of thirst, though she was too civilised to ask for refreshment.

At last Juliet sketched a polite curtsy to her host and hostess, and walked towards John. Everyone ‑‑ Thomas and Emma, William, dull Edward and dull Jane ‑‑ turned to watch this greeting between the cousins close as siblings. There was an expectant hush.

Still astonished by the beauty of this mysterious and yet familiar young woman, John almost dared to exclaim, O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! But, even though the family were looking upon them fondly, some wary anticipation of trouble made John act carefully, even at this earliest of moments. ‘Why, Juliet,’ he said at last, in the condescending tone befitting an older cousin, ‘I barely recognised you. My, haven’t you grown.’

Juliet drew closer, and said, ‘Welcome home, John Henry.’ The others smiled and turned away to their own conversations.

‘No, no: I was always John to you,’ he complained. ‘I’ve been just plain John for two years now, and it’s horrid to return to being John Henry. I had hopes I’d still be John to you.’

‘Only if I’m still Julie to you.’

‘Why, of course, my dear,’ he replied, with a quick but elegant bow. ‘You’ve noticed, I’m sure,’ John continued, ‘that no one ever calls your father Will or Bill, or my father Tom, or my brother dull Ed or dull Ted. Even dull Jane calls him Edward. They’re all so terribly formal.’

Juliet was trying not to laugh. ‘You’re as wicked as ever,’ she observed. ‘You’ve barely even met poor Jane, and already you’ve dismissed her.’

‘Here’s a challenge for you: convince me my dismissal is unjustified.’

She surrendered to the laughter. ‘I’m afraid to admit that I’m ill qualified to take up that challenge, John.’

They chatted on about nothing and everything, about the minutiae of family life that he’d missed, about anything other than John himself or Juliet herself. And John’s initial uneasy surprise began to lose its edge, although he wasn’t quite sure who this new Juliet would prove to be. No doubt she’d changed from loving to act out Shakespeare’s tragic and comedic roles, to worrying over ballgowns and beaux. For long moments, John was profoundly sad, mourning the loss of his friend; but this new beauty soon distracted him.

William eventually approached, and he and John had much the same conversation as John had endured with his parents that afternoon. Juliet was required to socialise with gravid Jane, and so the group spilt and re‑formed by rote.

The hour for supper drew close. Custom dictated that father Thomas accompany cousin Juliet, uncle William partner mother Emma, dull brother Edward accompany dull sister‑in‑law Jane, and John tag along on his own ‑‑ but neither he nor Juliet wanted that. Suspecting that she couldn’t very well put herself forward now, though she had as a child, John appeared at Juliet’s side just as supper was announced, and she took his arm with alacrity, and Thomas ended up leading the pack on his own.

But everyone indulged them, because Juliet was happy, and it was nice to see these cousins so affectionate, it was good to see John in the honorary role of older brother when he seemed to care so little for his more official roles.

Supper was fascinating conversation with Juliet, annoying interruptions from the others, and the uninteresting distractions of food. Then the ladies retired to the drawing room, leaving the men to their port and cigars.

John gulped his glass of port, smoked a cigarette, and with almost unseemly haste joined the three women. A scattering of books was an ideal pretext for leading Juliet over to the far table, leaving Emma and dull Jane to the coffee tray and their own devices.

‘You’ll come tomorrow afternoon, won’t you?’ Juliet asked, ostensibly reading the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice. ‘For our usual lessons.’

‘I’d love to, my dear,’ John replied: ‘but do you feel it’s appropriate for us to be alone together?’

‘Of course it is: you’re my cousin.’ She said it with an innocent tone, but damned if he didn’t hear a flirting tease to it, too.

John considered her, as he stood beside the chair she sat in, as she pretended interest in the book. The sweet intelligent child had become an incredible and beautiful young woman. The long black hair was now full and luxurious, and she wore it up in a loose and flattering arrangement. Her dark but warm brown eyes were large against her palest skin. The round face was now defined and made elegant by high cheekbones; the chin was now slightly pointed, creating a heart shape. And she was so exquisitely dressed, in a lovely sage green silk, with a full and generous skirt, and a tight bodice revealing all that it covered. With all that to consider, it was difficult to answer her clever questions about Jane Austen’s characters.

His thoughts that night, alone in the garconierre, were far from appropriate or cousinly.

Wyatt was sitting behind his faro table, raking in money from the miners and the drifters and the bank clerks. Doc sat by him, watching the suckers come and go. He couldn’t understand why these people played against the house, when the odds loomed large against them. And taking advantage of the gullible, as Wyatt was doing, was no challenge: though there was more smart cynicism in it than Doc would have expected from his friend. Making a living from poker, on the other hand, was a matter of the player’s own wit and skill and style, and knowledge of his fellow players: there was no one to blame for losing but yourself and fickle Fortune. And Doc Holliday, of course, if you were fool enough to play against him.

Doc let out a sigh, which degenerated into a cough, and waved away Wyatt’s instinctive concern. When the marshall could spare his attention, Doc said, ‘I am interested, my friend: if we were to decide, right at this moment, to leave Tombstone immediately, could you simply get on your horse and ride away with me? Or would you have to return to the hotel room? Pack your belongings? Conclude your business dealings?’

‘I don’t know,’ Wyatt said, which meant either he wasn’t interested or he’d have to think about it.

‘What possessions do you have that you couldn’t leave behind?’

After a moment’s consideration, Wyatt said, ‘None, I guess, that I couldn’t live without if I had to. What about you?’

‘Me? I have my money,’ Doc drawled, then cocked an eyebrow, ‘hidden about my person.’

Wyatt grinned at this. ‘Don’t say that too loudly in this crowd: you might have unwanted company on your walk home tonight.’

‘None of these people would have the imagination to find it,’ Doc said with an insinuating smile. ‘In any case, I also have my guns.’ He laid a caressing hand on one ivory handle. ‘And my guns and my reputation tend to frighten off petty thieves.’

‘Your money and your guns. Is that all you need?’

‘The clothes I’m wearing, and my horse. And if I lose either of them, I could improvise.’

‘I’m sure you could,’ Wyatt said with a laugh. ‘I suppose, if I had to, I could ride away with you immediately. It’s just that I haven’t had as much practise at leaving town in a hurry as you have.’

‘You’re teasing me,’ Doc observed, the reproach undermined by the quirk in his smile.

‘But, unless you really want to prove a point, let’s wait until tomorrow, Doc.’ Wyatt looked across at him when Doc remained silent; the marshall shook his head in amusement. ‘I don’t often surprise you, do I? Doc, you’ve been itching to ride down that trail out of town for months now. I don’t know why you stayed this long.’

‘How uncommonly perceptive you are, Wyatt.’

‘I even warned the mayor we’d be leaving town soon.’

Doc grinned. ‘Then it’s as I thought, my friend: you need time to organise yourself.’

‘All right, I admit it; but I still surprised you, didn’t I?’ And Wyatt asked, ‘So where shall we head for?’

‘Let’s see where the trail leads us, my friend, let’s follow our instinct for adventure.’ And Doc noted with approval that Wyatt accepted that rather irresponsible and romantic plan.

He knew her, and yet she was an enigma; John felt at home with her, and yet Juliet unsettled him more than anything had ever done.

She wore simple white cotton dresses for their afternoon lessons, she let her hair cascade loose down her back, tied with no more than a forest green ribbon; and her beauty was just as devastating as it had been that first night in sage silk.

The first afternoon, she dismissed the servant he’d brought with him, laughing at this attempt at propriety. She taunted, ‘What did you say to her: that you were scared I’d compromise you?’

‘No; I said I thought the young lady might appreciate a chaperone. Surely even these innocent ears have heard of my shocking reputation.’

‘I’m afraid, John, that you left town, and we all forgot about you. You’ll have to work on a new reputation now, because the old gossip and stories left with you.’

He smiled. ‘Touche, my dear. But you didn’t all forget about me, did you?’

A demure lowering of the eyes, and again there was that hint of flirtation in the tone of her voice. ‘Why, John Henry, I believe Edward recalled you occasionally. Yes, I think he mentioned you over tea every now and then, and we all had to search our memories for who he meant.’

‘You’re incorrigible, and don’t call me John Henry.’ This silly banter put him at ease: John walked near, and sat opposite her. ‘Now, what have you been reading in my absence? Volumes both illuminating and informative, I trust, rather than any romantic rubbish.’ And so they began again.

She was as familiar as if she were a part of himself, and yet she was exotic: it was an intoxicating combination. Their friendship was unique to each of them: she had always been devoted to him and no one else, and he’d never allowed anyone to know him this well.

At first he tried to pattern their afternoons on how they’d conducted themselves when she was a child, but that was impossible: what was playful then was flirtatious now; what had been innocent had become dangerous; many of the topics she’d been interested in then seemed irrelevant, even superficial, now. She had more insight, wanted to share more of his true opinions and reflections, was eager to expand her knowledge.

By the end of their first week, she grew frustrated with him: ‘There are things I can’t ask my other tutors.’

‘Then no doubt you shouldn’t ask me, either. And, if you do so, I am not obliged to answer.’

‘You always used to.’

‘With great tact and diplomacy. If you paid more attention to me, perhaps you’d learn something about discretion.’

‘I’m not a child any more, John, if you hadn’t noticed.’

‘Then why this temper tantrum, my dear?’

‘Don’t be so condescending. I want you to treat me like a woman.’

He left a long silence, because any answer seemed fraught with difficulty. Even then, when he took a breath, that irritating cough prevented him from speaking. Finally he said, very stiffly, ‘You are my young cousin, and I will treat you accordingly.’

‘Don’t, John. Forget that little girl I used to be.’

‘I will not: she was my friend.’

I am your friend: be true to who I am now.’

‘But if you are a young woman, then we should not be alone together.’

She asked, with exasperation, ‘When did you become so proper?’

John closed his eyes, thought of the correct responses, and why they were all wrong. If he didn’t offer her honesty now, then he would be nothing more than dull Edward spouting platitudes, and he owed both her and himself more than that. He looked again, and she was standing close, as if she had wanted to approach him while he was unawares. John said, ‘When I first saw you, all grown to beauty. We must be proper now.’

‘Friendship and love are more important than being proper.’ She sounded so sure of herself.

‘Don’t do this, Julie. Don’t make this impossible.’

She sat beside him. ‘It’s not impossible, John. Here,’ and she pressed a volume into his hand; ‘read me a speech.’

He groaned when he read the title: Romeo and Juliet. And then he let out a humourless laugh, and quickly searched through the pages. ‘A speech you shall have. For my mind misgives some consequence, yet hanging in the stars, shall bitterly begin his fearful date with this night’s revels and expire the term of a despised life closed in my breast, by some vile forfeit of untimely death.

She said, ‘Read from the next scene.’ Her dark eyes intent upon him.

‘No, Julie. That’s enough.’

‘Why is it enough?’

‘It seems I have to be sensible for both of us.’ And yet he remained there, unwilling and unable to move from the sofa they shared.

‘I don’t want you to be sensible, John; I prefer you adventurous.’

‘You are placing me in an impossible situation. In fact, you are forcing me to act like my dull brother would, and I do not thank you for it.’

‘Then be yourself instead, that’s all I’m asking. Here, read from this line on.’

Guessing which speech she was indicating, he looked down at the volume and saw he was correct. ‘Julie, please.’

‘John, I want you to. Now, read.’

He closed his eyes for a moment, but couldn’t find the strength to resist any further; this was, after all, the very thing that he’d wanted from the moment he saw this young woman. Surrendering, he looked down at the volume resting between them, connecting them, and took her right hand in his left. ‘If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine, the gentle fine is this: my lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.’

And Juliet spoke her namesake’s part: ‘Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, which mannerly devotion shows in this; for saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, and palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss.

John felt her watching him, still intent: she did not lower her gaze to read what she apparently knew by heart. He sighed, and continued, ‘Have not saints lips, and holy palmers, too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do! They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.’ Though his tone already betrayed more despair than Romeo’s faith and fervour.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. Thus from my lips by thine my sin is purged.’ John stared at the stage direction written there: kissing her. His Juliet awaited him. The reasons why he shouldn’t do this crowded around him: but Juliet always got whatever she wanted, and apparently she wanted him; and John had never wanted for anything, but was in the habit of indulging himself. At least, he’d never wanted for anything, until a week ago. He looked up at her, seeing again that beauty and maturity and thirst.

Juliet smiled at him, gentle despite her impatience. ‘Don’t look so serious, John. You should be as full of joy as I am.’

Doubting, he asked, ‘Are you full of joy, my dear?’

‘Of course.’ She chided, ‘Don’t you know that I’ve loved you for as long as I can remember? And then you came home, and I saw that you love me, too. I’ll tell you a secret, John, that no one realises, but you know me well enough to credit it: I’ve never asked for anything for myself alone. Until now. Let me be selfish for once, and ask for a kiss. Because, just this once, I want something that’s all mine. From someone I value more than anything in my life.’

‘Flattery or not, I thank you for the thought.’ He admitted, ‘I’ve never heard of a better reason for a kiss.’ Then, when she remained silent, he said with a wry smile, ‘I’ve never been seduced so eloquently, either.’

‘Then let’s begin this adventure, John; let’s begin an adventure together.’

And John pushed aside the despair, leaned forward, and kissed that sweet and eager and untutored mouth. They spent the rest of the afternoon sitting there on the sofa; every kiss only inflaming their mouths’ hunger; their hands’ caresses innocently not straying beyond the other’s face and hair, or shoulders and arms; until John at last linked his arms around her waist, and pulled her hard against him.

At the hour he usually left, he stumbled out of her arms, out of William’s house, down to the nearest saloon, in a state of diffuse but intense desire. To his surprise, he found that no one but Juliet would do for him now, so he got roaringly drunk instead.

Wyatt observed, ‘You thrive on trouble, don’t you, Doc?’

They were sitting side by side, gazing into the mysteries of a campfire. Doc said, both to the flames and to his friend, ‘Life is nothing without adventures.’

‘You mean, your life is nothing without taking risks.’

Doc turned to ask, ‘How do you define adventure, Wyatt?’

The man shook his head. ‘Did you have to insult each of those three men, as well as win all their money?’

‘That was a hell of a poker game, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ Wyatt agreed; ‘and it only lasted five hands. Did you also have to humiliate that young boy when he tried to pick a fight with you? And you weren’t really going to claim that girl in lieu of the money, were you? She was the man’s daughter.’

‘Of course I had to put that pup in his place. And I would have taken the girl if they’d agreed: she seemed willing enough, didn’t she? My friend, I never do anything I don’t mean.’

Wyatt frowned. ‘You don’t lie, do you?’

‘I didn’t say I never say anything I don’t mean.’

‘But I can’t think of any time you’ve ever lied to me.’

‘If that’s true, you can work out the reason for yourself.’ Doc sighed. ‘Let me tell you a secret, Wyatt, the most important thing I’ll ever say to you: your vulnerabilities are your strengths. Can you understand? I think you might. Every other man in the land considers his vulnerabilities to be his weaknesses, but he’s wrong and, knowing that, you can beat him every time.’

Wyatt was staring at him, bemused. ‘Doc, all I know is your antics cost us a bed tonight. I’m getting quite good at leaving town in a hurry, aren’t I? It must be all the practise you’re giving me. So here we are in the desert, with a blanket each, rather than in a hotel in town, with feather beds and clean sheets and hot baths.’

Doc smiled his provocative smile. ‘But we had fun, didn’t we? And I’m almost three thousand dollars richer.’

‘And we’ll have to take turns keeping watch for what’s left of the night, in case any of them come looking for revenge.’

‘They won’t.’

Wyatt asked with great scepticism, ‘Why not?’

Because I outwitted and outclassed them so thoroughly. Outraged, they’ll tell and re‑tell the story, and detail exactly what they’d like to do to me in revenge, but secretly they’ll be glad I let them get away with lives and souls intact. All Doc said to Wyatt was, ‘Because I’m faster on the draw than any of them.’

‘Doc, if you hadn’t noticed, that tends to invite challenges rather than scare them off.’

‘You do understand, don’t you? They hate the vulnerability of being second best, so they have to challenge me at poker or gun‑play, and hope they can win. But if you’re not afraid to lose, then that’s a whole different story.’

‘But you never do actually lose.’

Don’t I? Doc smiled, and said, ‘I know.’

Wyatt shook his head. ‘You’re not making any sense tonight.’

‘As long as you keep trying to make sense of me, that’s fine, my friend.’ Doc wrapped a blanket around himself, and settled down to the sandy ground.

‘I’ll keep watch,’ Wyatt said. ‘You try to get some sleep.’

Doc knew those cowards back in town would be happy to let the pair of adventurers go, and would only have felt they had to seek revenge if he and Wyatt had challenged them by staying; but he let Wyatt sit up, because the man wanted to. ‘Good night, Wyatt,’ he drawled, and let himself relax into the restful state that was often all the consumption would allow him of sleep.

The despair and the foreboding had been forgotten, along with the ignoble fact that he hadn’t loved her like this for all her life. Instead, John caught Juliet’s joy, and each continually provoked the other into dizzying exhilaration.

The only time John ever wondered at this magnificent change in his life was when he looked into a mirror. It didn’t make sense to him that the girl‑child had fixed on him, when the young woman she grew into could have had anyone. John had never been handsome: he was tall but too lean, only recently beginning to learn grace to replace the ungainliness; his face was too long, with the contours of his cheekbones too pronounced; his complexion was too sallow, his eyes and hair were merely hazel. He liked to dress smartly, and perhaps had an individual style, though he wasn’t dashing. Emma had once complained that his expression was only ever uncaring or critical; his response had been to add cynical to his repertoire. How Juliet had ever decided he was attractive, John did not know.

They became lovers within days of their first kiss.

At times, it seemed to John that society was nothing more than submission to self‑delusion, a denial of things essential to being human. For example, this girl, supposedly innocent, knew something about sexual relations, and wanted to explore the notion with John. By then, he wasn’t arguing or trying to be sensible: anything Juliet wanted, he wanted; anything she wanted, John made happen. He was careful with her, though, because he knew she’d never even kissed anyone other than him, despite her precocious knowledge. He’d never had a virgin before; and he felt the weight of responsibility rather than the victory of conquest.

The afternoons were theirs alone: William, Thomas and dull Edward all had business; Emma had her friends and her good works; gravid Jane retired to her room to rest, defeated by the climate; and the servants were used to letting John and Juliet be, for the sake of her lessons. So they would talk a great deal and read a little at William’s house, play the piano for a while, and then ostensibly go out for a walk. The pair would stroll around the park for the sake of appearances, often reciting poetry to each other along the way, and then retire to John’s room in the garconierre at Thomas and Emma’s, creeping through the garden so that no one in the house would see them.

They spent long delicious hours in his rumpled bed, the windows open to the breeze and the light filtered through the oak leaves, Juliet eager to learn him and to love him, and to learn herself, too. John adored her hips, and her long shapely legs: after all, her lovely breasts and neat waist had been displayed for him to admire before now, though encased in silk and cotton; but her generous hips, and the secret places between them, had been hidden beneath a veritable fortress of skirts and petticoats and bustles and bloomers and stockings. He loved to hold her hips in each hand, and trail kisses across the tender alabaster of her stomach. She’d laugh, both tickled and delighted, and throw her head back, her dark hair massing and tumbling behind her like night. One of the many gaps in her knowledge was the pleasure he could induce in her: they explored that mystery together.

Yes, delicious was the word for this illicit affair, this secret game.

One afternoon they sat close together on the piano stool, Juliet’s arms around John’s waist and her head on his shoulder, as he slowly played a nocturne by Chopin. ‘That’s so beautiful,’ she whispered.

‘That’s so amateur,’ he said in mild disagreement.

‘You express the feel of the piece better than anyone I’ve heard. Doesn’t amateur come from the Latin word for lover? Your performance proves that you love the music.’

He smiled, and pressed a kiss to her hair. ‘You have been paying attention to my language lessons.’

‘And also to the tutor himself.’

The distractions proved too much: John missed the timing, and recovered the piece with difficulty. ‘Unfortunately, as a music student, your tutor has clumsy fingering.’

She said, her smile evident in her tone, ‘But, as an amator, your fingering is excellent.’

John groaned. ‘When shall we take a turn around the park, my dear?’

‘Soon. Be patient.’

‘Julie, Jule, Jewel,’ he murmured, savouring the shape of the word in his mouth. Then, almost abruptly: ‘I am impatient to hold you. If only we had the nights as well as a stolen hour or two in the afternoons.’

‘We will.’ She kissed his shoulder, and he wished his undershirt and shirt and waistcoat didn’t separate his skin from those lips. ‘Anyway, I’m sure you enjoy your evenings without me.’ She laughed a little, and advised, ‘You had better revel in the last of your freedom.’

A moment’s consideration, before he said, ‘Why, I do nothing more enjoyable in the evenings than fast and pray.’

‘That doesn’t sound like the John Henry I know. Since when could you fast and pray at the saloons?’

‘But I haven’t been visiting the saloons,’ John explained, as surprised at this as Julie was. She had, indeed, affected his every hour, his every pursuit. ‘I read and I sleep and I rest and I think of you. Isn’t that banal? But how else can I ensure I live up to your expectations, my dear? If I indulged in drinking during the nights, I’d soon disappoint you during the afternoons.’

She seemed glad of this answer. ‘I fast and pray,’ she repeated thoughtfully. ‘What poem is that from?’

‘Keats,’ he said. ‘I’ll recite it to you when we take our walk; it is very apt to our situation.’ Another groan of frustration as he considered that situation anew. ‘Come to supper tonight,’ he pleaded. ‘At least we can talk, at least I can drink in your beauty.’

‘But I haven’t been invited.’

‘It’s all right, I’ll tell mother I invited you.’

‘That wouldn’t be proper.’

He laughed at the expression of perplexed distaste she turned on him. ‘Here you are, conducting a secret affair with me, and yet you worry about imposing on my mother for a family supper.’

‘It matters, John; don’t laugh.’ She sighed. ‘We’ll have the nights as well, but let’s just enjoy each other for now. They all know I love you, it will be all right. So let’s not make it their business until later.’

And John, having never thought to ever say the words, abruptly stopped playing and asked, ‘Shall we marry, my dear? Is that what you want?’

‘Of course, John, I’d love to marry you. But let’s not do that yet: as soon as it’s official, we’ll belong to everyone, instead of just to each other.’ And Julie at last murmured, ‘Come, my love; let’s take a turn around the park.’

The day is gone, and all its sweets are gone!
Sweet voice, sweet lips, soft hand, and softer breast,
Warm breath, light whisper, tender semi‑tone,
Bright eyes, accomplished shape, and languorous waist!
Faded the flower and all its budded charms,
Faded the sight of beauty from my eyes,
Faded the shape of beauty from my arms,
Faded the voice, warmth, whiteness, paradise ‑‑
Vanished unseasonably at shut of eve,
When the dusk holiday ‑‑ or holinight ‑‑
Of fragrant‑curtained love begins to weave
The woof of darkness thick, for hid delight;
But, as I’ve read love’s missal through today,
He’ll let me sleep, seeing I fast and pray.

So the loving continued, with nothing to mar the joy: in their first six weeks together, there had been no discord between them, and no unwelcome curiosity from others. John was amazed at how lovely this affair remained: if they disagreed, they welcomed the other’s opinion; if they wanted something, the other would willingly give it. ‘Why are we so happy together, do you think?’ he asked.

‘Many reasons,’ Juliet replied, sure of herself as she always was regarding this topic, ‘beginning with our friendship.’

Eventually, actually believing that this love might last them a lifetime, John said, ‘I should ask for your hand in marriage.’ They were lying together, naked in the afternoon breeze, lazy and satiated.

She seemed reluctant, and he pressed her to tell him why. ‘Because it will never be the same again. This is wonderful, what we have now. I’ve decided I quite like being selfish; where you’re concerned, at least.’

‘And it will be wonderful again. We’ll marry as quickly as we can arrange it, and our honeymoon will be like this, except we’ll have each other all day and all night.’

‘It won’t be the same, John.’

‘Then it will be different, but just as good, or even better.’

‘You know, I asked Father Andrew if he’d have married Romeo and Juliet in secret, like Friar Lawrence did in the play.’

John laughed in surprise, though she seemed serious. He propped himself up on an elbow, the better to see her. ‘What on earth did he say?’

‘He wanted to know if I was asking him for literary criticism, or whether I had a Romeo of my own. I said I was only interested in how realistic the play was, but he probably suspected something, because he was very cautious, and said he’d have advised them to seek their families’ permission.’

‘If he suspects you of having a suitor ‑‑‘

‘This was a couple of months before you returned, and I think he’s forgotten all about it. You and I are still safe.’

John smiled, and said, ‘But, my dear, if we keep doing this, there will soon be a very good, and increasingly obvious, reason for us to marry.’ He leaned down to press a kiss to her stomach. ‘I know you will look far more graceful than dull Jane does, my dearest Jewel, but that is not the state you are expected to be in for your nuptials.’ Though, now he thought of it, the sight of a gravid Juliet, radiant in her bridal gown, was rather appealing.

‘All right,’ she agreed.

He smiled. ‘Then, if I have your consent,’ he said, punctuating each phrase with another kiss, ‘I will ask my father for his permission to ask your father for your hand…’

‘All that bunkum,’ she complained, ‘when it’s nobody’s business but yours and mine.’ But she at last returned his smile.

‘And then we’ll have each other, to have and to hold, for all our lives.’ Amazing and completely unexpected, that Juliet and Juliet’s love were the best things that had ever happened to him. John’s expression was delighted as he moved up to kiss her mouth, trying to communicate through his touch all the new‑found promise and faith in his heart.

Doc wondered now how anyone, let alone himself or his intelligent cousin, could be that wilfully blind.

Back in Tombstone, he had found himself playing that same nocturne, with Kate sitting back to back with him on the piano stool, both of them sensually rocking to and fro in time with his halting rendition of the music. But, out of all the differences between the partnership with Kate and the love affair with Juliet, one in particular was vital: he and Kate had no illusions, no delusions; he and Kate knew exactly what society thought of their association, and he and Kate didn’t care.

Out of all the similarities, perhaps the most important was the honesty he’d shared with both women.

John spoke to his father after supper the following evening, over glasses of port and cigars. ‘I’m intending to marry,’ he said with no prelude, ‘and I would appreciate your permission.’

Thomas, of course, was surprised at this, and apparently pleased. Even dull Edward awoke from his stupor. ‘This is unexpected, John Henry,’ Thomas said. ‘I never thought to discover you to have formed an attachment.’ After a moment, he asked, ‘Who is the lady?’

‘You really haven’t guessed? She told me you’ve all known all along that she loved me. I was tardy in returning the sentiment, though we have been close friends, but I am endeavouring to make up for my slowness with the excessiveness of my passion.’

This speech was met with a frown of incomprehension.

‘I am speaking of Juliet, my cousin, your niece. She and I wish to marry.’

The incomprehension slowly turned to something like amazement. Dull Edward was actually gaping.

John offered, ‘Of course I’m unworthy of her, there’s no need to tell me that. She would grace the hand of the finest man in the land. But she has chosen me, and I’m not totally ineligible to be her suitor.’ He added, ‘Close your mouth, Edward, you never know what might climb in.’

Finally Thomas said, ‘I cannot believe that you are serious.’ His tone was difficult to fathom: certainly some great emotion or other was roiling underneath the confounded exterior.

‘I admit to not being a particularly serious young man in the past; but Juliet requires me to mature enough to be a husband, and her slightest wish is my happy command.’

That emotion of Thomas’s became evident as anger. ‘You are ineligible to be her suitor: you’re first cousins. The blood relationship is too close.’

John said, ‘What does that matter? It’s not as if either of us are the result of previous marriages within the family.’

‘It matters a great deal. I have no idea how you can ask me to even consider giving my consent: I will not. In fact, I forbid you to entertain such a notion again. And if you breath a word of this to your mother or to Jane, I’ll have you whipped.’

The man was serious, deadly serious. And dull Edward seemed to share his views: he was peering at John with something like disgust.

John watched Thomas for a few minutes, wondering whether to fully explain the situation, which might only exacerbate matters. But it seemed he’d have to, if he wanted to receive any sort of blessing. ‘Father, you don’t understand. There is a good reason why you must consent, and let us marry quickly.’

Thomas stared at him, took his meaning, and paled. He asked faintly, ‘Have you got her with child?’

‘I don’t believe so, but it’s possible.’

‘How dare you?’ Thomas cried out. ‘How can you have the insolence to sit there so calmly and tell me of such monstrous sin? And expect my approval of it?’

‘We assumed you would condone, even promote, a marriage between us. The family have always been glad we’re as close as sister and brother.’

This was too much. Thomas tried for words to express his outrage, but beyond voicing, ‘Incestuous sinner,’ he failed. Finally he sat back, looking ill, and muttered, ‘Did I ever expect anything more than shame from you? My poor niece violated, my brother’s trust abused.’ And, with more feeling, ‘If William doesn’t kill you for this, I certainly will.’

As it appeared Thomas had finished for now, dull Edward hissed: ‘I have tried for years to be charitable towards you, but you have finally earned the appellations of seducer and reprobate.’

John commented laconically, ‘My, what long words I’ve inspired you to.’

Thomas stood swiftly: he took three strides around the table to his second son, and slapped him so hard that John’s head cracked against the back of the chair: John sat there, and lifted his reddened face to his father, staring at him, daring him to strike again. Thomas growled, ‘Stay here until I return. I’ll confess to William what a vile creature I’ve sired. Then I’ll try to decide what to do with you.’

John was left alone with dull Edward. The brothers looked at each other for a moment, Edward still disgusted, John considering; and John stood.

‘Father told you to stay here,’ dull Edward said.

‘Then father never loved.’ John brushed passed the man, despite an ineffectual attempt to stop him, and left his family’s house.

It took over twenty minutes for him and Juliet to stroll from William’s music room to John’s bedroom in the garconierre: John ran the distance in less than ten minutes tonight, though the damned cough haunted him the entire way. As he drew near, he could hear Juliet playing the piano, something impassioned that he didn’t recognise, so he crept through the garden towards the lighted windows. It appeared he had beaten Thomas here: though even as he thought that, he heard a horse approach along the gravel drive at a fast trot.

He stood at one of the music room windows, letting a mild coughing fit run its course; all the while watching his love bend and sway over the ivory keys, the music pouring from her soul out through her fingertips.

As soon as he’d caught his breath enough to speak, he rapped at the glass.

Juliet heard immediately, despite the loud music, and turned to see him. The most beautiful smile suffused her face, and she rushed over to throw up the window and help him in over the low sill. ‘John, how wonderful.’ She leaned in to press a kiss to his mouth, and he grabbed her up in both arms, turned the kiss into something as dramatic as the music had been. When he let her go, she laughed, but uneasily, and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’

There was no time for being gentle. ‘My dear, I spoke to my father tonight, about marrying you. He did not consider the idea a good one.’

‘No?’ She sounded pensive. Drawing him over to the piano, she sat him down beside her on the stool. ‘Perhaps you surprised him.’

John sighed. ‘It’s true I surprised him. But, surprised or not, he concluded that, if William doesn’t kill me, Thomas will.’

Juliet looked up at him, worried. ‘Let me speak to my father ‑‑‘

‘I came here because my father is doing just that, right now, and I had to warn you. My dearest, you must prepare yourself: I told Thomas that we are lovers; I thought it would convince him that we must marry. He and William will no doubt join us here momentarily, and let us have the full benefit of their fury and their wisdom regarding this matter.’

‘Oh, John,’ she said, more sad than scared. ‘What if they won’t agree to let us marry?’

‘I don’t know.’ He searched her lovely face for an answer, wild alternatives running through his mind, knowing none of them were at all suitable.

And then she was kissing him as if her heart would burst, and their arms held each other so close and so strong it seemed almost enough to bind them together forever. But John’s foreboding returned in full measure, and she seemed to catch it from him.

The doors flew open; William, already crying, let out a broken sob, ‘So is it true?’ The lovers defiantly remained in an embrace, until Thomas took John by the shoulders and shoved him away, letting him fall to the floor. Juliet almost went to comfort her father, but Thomas began beating his son with his fists, John not deigning to even protect himself. John succumbed to another fit of coughing, while Juliet, now crying as well, tried to pull Thomas away.


Juliet, unable to move Thomas, dropped down beside John and tried to shield him. ‘Stop it!’ she said over the tears. ‘Please stop it. He hurts enough.’

William at last moved, took his brother’s arm. ‘Don’t, Thomas. Leave it be.’

Long moments, while everyone tried to control their anger and their fear. Juliet helped John up to a chair, where he sprawled, numbness already beginning to ache where he would bruise. The coughing had left him alarmingly weak. But, against all that, and against the forbidding presence of their fathers, Juliet stood by him and held his hand.

‘What did you think you were doing?’ William pleaded of his daughter.

‘You always knew I loved John, father.’

‘You were a child, with nothing more than a child’s infatuation.’

‘But I’m a woman now, with a woman’s love.’

William groaned. ‘Did you really think you could marry? It’s impossible. He’s your first cousin, Juliet.’

‘Tell me why it’s impossible, father. And tell me what I can be, if I’m not a maid, nor a wife, nor a widow. And if you cannot tell me either of those things, then give your consent for John and me to marry.’

‘How can you expect me to welcome your seducer as my son‑in‑law? The manner in which you both have conducted yourselves appals me.’

‘John is your nephew. You cannot simply dismiss him like that.’

‘Yes, your father can dismiss him,’ Thomas ground out; ‘when the sinner’s own father disowns him as well.’

‘No!’ Juliet protested, her hand tightening around John’s.

Thoroughly dispirited by now, William said, ‘Even if he had conducted himself as the gentleman we all thought him, I could not give my consent. There is no point in arguing, Juliet: you are first cousins, and it is impossible for you to marry.’

There was a silence then, until Thomas said, ‘Leave your uncle’s house now, John Henry, and never return. If you try to see your cousin again, then your life will be the forfeit. Neither are you welcome in my house.’

‘Sir, I had no intention of visiting or living in your house ever again.’ John hauled himself to his feet, weak and in pain. He raised Juliet’s hand to his lips, despite Thomas’s angry anguished growl. ‘Farewell, Julie, my dear. I am sorry for your distress,’ he added, quoting something she’d recognise from Pride and Prejudice; ‘I wish it a happier conclusion than there is at present reason to hope.’

She returned his gaze, intent and serious. ‘Farewell, John.’

Then John turned to William. ‘Hate me if you want, but don’t punish her. Juliet is guilty of no more than beauty and generosity. It is no sin to love too well, and be loved not wisely but too well in return.’

‘We were both to blame,’ Juliet murmured.

‘This is no time to be noble, my dear.’

Thomas said, ‘Leave now; or must we force you out?’

A last searching look at Juliet’s face, and then John left as he’d entered: through the window. He managed to walk as far as his favoured saloon, which incorporated a hotel, where he took a single room on the second floor, and ordered a bottle of whisky.

John proceeded to spend his days and nights carefully maintaining a fine state of drunkenness. The pain remained, both spiritual and corporeal, but the drink took the edge off it. His thoughts and memories, however, were neither slowed nor blunted, and his grief for what he and Juliet had lost remained obstinately vivid.

An unremarked stretch of time later, there was a knock on the door and, when John didn’t respond, it opened to reveal dull Edward. Expression pinched as if he didn’t want to touch the squalor with even his gaze, dull Edward focused on his brother where he lay in bed, and said, ‘John Henry, I have been sent to fetch you.’

‘Why?’ There can be no reconciliation, unless you allow her to have me. John wanted to say it, but his lips and tongue would not co‑operate.

‘Juliet intends to enter a convent. At first, we treated this as a threat, but she has convinced uncle William that she is serious.’

John didn’t move, though some impossible hope he hadn’t even been aware of died within him. ‘Ah.’

‘Uncle William has asked that you try to talk her out of it.’

‘Ah.’ But the family remained determined against them. It was more of a surprise that they would let him see her again, even under the circumstances.

‘Will you come?’

‘Yes.’ Of course. He attempted to drag himself up, even as one of the hotel’s boys wandered in with two steaming jugs of water.

Dull Edward seemed affronted that the boy hadn’t knocked, but recovered himself enough to explain, ‘When they told me something of your situation here, I took the liberty of ordering a bath, a meal and coffee.’

‘Ah,’ John said. And he managed to add, ‘Very wise.’ At last he managed to sit upright on the side of the bed. ‘How long has it been?’

Apparently surprised that John would have to ask, dull Edward said, ‘As of this evening, five days.’

‘Is that all? It feels like forever.’

It took John over two hours to recover a little sobriety, and to prepare himself. The food almost made him ill, but he swallowed four or five mouthfuls, and drank all the coffee while he lazed in the bath.

An impatient dull Edward was reduced to serving as a makeshift valet. However, despite his lack of expertise, he only cut his brother once while shaving him, and that was more due to John suddenly coughing than to dull Edward not taking care. Together, they selected the least unpresentable of John’s few clothes that lay scattered around the room, and dull Edward helped dress him. The clothes hung on John, as if he were little more than skin and bones.

‘Adequate,’ John pronounced.

Dull Edward’s expression said, Barely, but he declined to comment verbally. And, gesturing for John to lead the way, dull Edward accompanied him out of the saloon.

His brother was still at his heels when John was shown into William’s drawing room. Juliet glanced up from a book, her expression instinctively pleased as she saw him, though she then dissolved into irony. ‘So they’ve taken me seriously at last.’

John looked at William, who sat at a table in the opposite corner behind his daughter, but the man would not acknowledge him. Dull Edward hovered until John selected a chair facing Juliet, a decorous distance away; then dull Edward also seated himself, but over by the door. So, it seemed the couple were to be afforded the illusion of privacy. For long moments, John attempted to recover from the exertion of coming here: he was shaking and felt pale, and had needed to sit before his legs failed him.

Juliet was watching him, faintly amused. ‘What have you been doing to yourself? You look awful.’

‘Why, thank you, my dear. I have been seeking solace in whisky.’

‘Have you found it?’

‘No, I haven’t, and that’s the damnable misery of it.’ John paused, then said, ‘They tell me you intend to seek solace behind convent walls.’

‘I do. I suppose they want you to dissuade me.’

‘Indeed, my dear. But, tell me, what do you want most in the world?’

She said simply, ‘To marry you.’

‘That is what I want, too.’

Dull Edward said, ‘We didn’t bring you here to talk of that.’

Ignoring him, John said, ‘I feel empty all the way through, my dear.’

From his corner, dull Edward muttered, ‘It’s probably the excess of drink and the lack of food.’

John laughed. ‘What a witty and apt retort. My brother is full of surprises. Why, only the other evening he used a three syllable word in our conversation. I think it was reprobate ‑‑ isn’t that right, Edward?’

‘We can leave now, John Henry, if you won’t behave yourself.’

‘All right, all right. My dear, as I was saying, I feel quite empty: I think I must have always been empty. I was nothing until I loved you, and you filled me up.’

‘There is a remedy,’ Juliet said: ‘you must try to love yourself as much as I love you.’

‘A hopeless and thankless task if ever there was one.’ He asked, ‘Have they convinced you there’s no chance of us marrying?’

‘Yes, John. I have talked and argued for days, and no one will be persuaded. Our fathers won’t give their permission. Your brother agrees with them. Your mother has kindly counselled me against the idea. Father Andrew calls it sin, and wouldn’t perform the ceremony. They won’t let it happen.’

John said with a sigh, ‘I’m sure you’ve done your best, and I know how persuasive you can be.’

She smiled at that, just for a moment. ‘But I was wrong, John. My mother, and then my father after she died, taught me what was right, and I learnt it all ‑‑ except where you were concerned. I loved you, I always have, and I never applied what was proper to how I felt for you or how I behaved with you.’

‘I see,’ he said, though he didn’t really.

‘They said they always knew I was infatuated with you, but they assumed your heart would never be touched, so it was safe to let us be together.’

‘Then they underestimated both you and I ‑‑ but at least I am accustomed to being underestimated.’

‘I made a mistake, because I thought they must approve of what they knew I felt.’

‘Don’t let them teach you to believe our love was wrong.’ A pause, as John realised he was already speaking of their affair in the past tense. Dull Edward tried again to interrupt, but John waved an impatient hand at him. ‘She is not a sinner,’ he said to the two men who witnessed this meeting. ‘She has done no wrong.’

‘It was wrong, John,’ Juliet said gently. ‘I will not stay in society, and be the subject of scorn and gossip and pity. Neither will I pretend that our love was a meaningless game. I will not stay in this house and this town until I become so lonely that I give in and marry any man who’ll have me. The family’s money would compensate for the dishonour of my condition, but I could not expect a good match. And then I would hate my life, and I would hate my husband for not being you. Because, John, you have been my only love and my only lover, and I want it to remain that way.’

This was terrible, for her to so thoroughly renounce what he saw as life. ‘My dear, with time another man, a husband, might make you happy. I do not, I cannot, I will not require you to be true to me.’

‘I want to be true to you. Our love was too important for anything else.’

He sighed, then asked, ‘Are you carrying a child? Is that the reason you seek seclusion?’

‘No, I am not.’

‘I suppose we must be glad for one less complication,’ he said, though he felt unexpectedly sad at the barrenness of their love. ‘Well, I cannot offer you much of an alternative, my dear; simply a lesser form of seclusion. We could turn our backs on family and society, and find another priest who will consent to marry us. We would have to leave this town, of course: I am persona non grata now. How would you like to be the beautiful wife of a poor, itinerant, outcast dentist?’

Dull Edward said quickly, ‘That is not possible, John Henry, and you are not here to discuss such ideas.’

Juliet nodded. ‘It isn’t possible, John. But I thank you for offering.’

‘Then you really want to join a convent? It’s not an unconsidered reaction? It’s not simply a way to punish us?’

‘It isn’t unconsidered, but of course I’m punishing them. I am declaring that if I can’t have you, then the family can’t have their precious heiress. That will hurt them, and I’m glad of it. But Edward can be the heir, and he will do all that’s right by the family, so it really won’t matter very much in the years to come.’

John cast a disparaging look at his brother, wondering if dull Edward was secretly glad of this, whether he was even capable of taking up the crown. This whole business certainly had far‑reaching ramifications.

‘Aside from that, this is what I want to do. I’ll be teaching young women literature and languages and music, all the things we taught each other. It’s what I want, John.’

He sat there in silence, more for the sake of watching her than to consider all this. Juliet was determined and, as always, she would get whatever she wanted. Finally John said to William, who still hadn’t faced his nephew, ‘I can’t help you, unless you let her marry me. It appears she’ll have either me or Jesus, and I don’t see that he’s a more suitable husband.’

William didn’t speak. It seemed he was crying again.

Juliet said, ‘Thank you, John, for letting me go.’

He sighed. ‘You realise, of course, that my life will be nothing without you.’

‘You must find something that you want to do, a place you want to be.’

‘You know who and what the only thing I want is.’

‘Yes, my love; but it’s impossible.’

Silence again, as John helplessly began to weep, too. He had dim memories of the past few days: of weakness and misery and fury; of drunkenly sobbing, and exclaiming to himself over and over, O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! Juliet returned his gaze, calm and sad. John thought she must be the strongest person in the entire family.

It seemed that even dull Edward was not immune to the pathos. But eventually he stood and said, ‘We should leave.’

John pushed himself to his feet, and said to William’s distant profile, ‘If you will not let me hold her one last time, then you are not human, and you never loved.’

After a moment, William turned away further, which John took as acquiescence. He walked closer, and Juliet stood as John knelt: he wound his arms around her waist, and pressed his face to her stomach, warm even through the layers of cotton.

‘I love you, Julie; remember that I did truly love you.’

‘I’ll remember, John.’

And he tore himself away, and walked out the door. It was as well that dull Edward had brought the carriage, because John was overtaken by a coughing fit as they drove away, the worst one yet. It left blood on his handkerchief.

Wyatt was still speaking quietly out there in the hallway, presumably in an effort to avoid disturbing the invalid, but Doc could tell from his tone that he was angry. His face showed it, too, when he finally came into the room and shut the door firmly behind him. It was amusing how quickly Wyatt then changed his expression from simmering irritation to solicitous cheer, focusing it on Doc. ‘How are you feeling?’ Wyatt asked.

‘Better.’ Doc added, ‘I’ll survive, for now, at least.’

Wyatt came over to the bed, and hovered. Dropping the ever‑positive‑nurse attitude, he admitted, ‘You scared me out there.’

‘It’s no use getting scared every time I start coughing, my friend: I’m going to die sooner or later, of this or of something else; so there’s no point in wasting our time in fear.’

Nodding once, abrupt, Wyatt went over to the basin to wash and dry his hands. There was still a bloodstain on his shirtsleeve, that he hadn’t seemed to notice.

‘What was that about?’ Doc asked, nodding towards the door.

‘Nothing. I sorted it out.’

‘Sorted what out?’

Wyatt glanced at him, then asked, ‘Do you get a lot of prejudice? Because of the consumption, I mean.’

‘They wanted to throw us out of the hotel,’ Doc concluded. When Wyatt didn’t dispute this, he continued, ‘Of course: it’s a revolting disease, and no one wants a dying man around, and no one wants to catch the dread thing from him. So how did you convince them to let us stay here?’

‘Told them I’d look after you, keep the room clean and aired. Paid them a little extra. Even so, room service aren’t coming past the door.’

Used to this, Doc shrugged. ‘Why do you stay?’ he asked. ‘What if you caught it from me?’

There was a silence, as Wyatt echoed Doc’s shrug, and searched for an answer. Finally he grimaced and said, ‘A man’s got to die of something.’

Doc smiled a little. ‘Yes, a man’s got to die of something.’

John couldn’t stop laughing, curled up on the bed, even though the mirth provoked another coughing fit. This was all so perfectly hilarious: and so hilariously perfect, come to that.

Dull Edward, who’d brought the family doctor to John’s room at the saloon, stared at his brother in horror. He seemed to want guidance from doctor Burbage, who was packing up his bag, but he received none. ‘Don’t you understand, John Henry?’ dull Edward said at last. ‘You might die of this consumption.’

It seemed like a divine joke, except that John couldn’t believe in God any more, not that he ever really had, and his family’s God had never had a sense of humour. Perhaps Fortune, and her sister Fate, were casting an ironic glance at him. ‘Let the emptiness eat me away,’ he declared to his brother, melodramatic as an actor on the stage: ‘for I swear I want nothing more than to die.’

This was beyond dull Edward’s comprehension.

Suddenly savage, John said, ‘You’ve taken away the only thing that gave me a reason to live.’

Dull Edward’s stare turned angry: Not in front of the doctor.

‘Doctor Burbage knows the whole sorry story, I’m sure, and probably all from your perspective. Haven’t you been asked to treat my sweet cousin, doctor? For melancholy, or for fear of a delicate condition, or for her delightfully unfeminine wilfulness. How doth my lady? How fares my Juliet? That I ask again, for nothing can be ill if she be well.

‘She is well,’ the old doctor said. He came over to stand by the bed.

‘Then so am I. She tells me she does not carry my child.’

‘That is true.’

‘Is it this disease that makes me infertile? It cannot be her, all mellow fruitfulness. How sad: a love so doomed, that nothing will grow from it.’

‘Perhaps it is the consumption. There are many other reasons that might explain it.’

John nodded, then turned away to face the wall, dismissing these two. ‘Ah, Keats,’ he muttered to himself. ‘How romantic to meet the same fate as Chopin and Keats.’

The doctor said, ‘You must rest, eat only nourishing food, stop drinking and smoking so heavily, and have someone take care of you. This condition need not be fatal; or, at least, you can postpone the inevitable end. I will suggest to your father that you return home.’

That made John laugh again, and he turned back to them. ‘Impossible: if he would allow me to return, which he won’t, I wouldn’t wish to go. Anyway, he has threatened twice now to kill me: he’ll be glad that the deed is being accomplished without his immediate assistance.’

Dull Edward protested, ‘John Henry, you’re the one who’s behaving impossibly.’

Doctor Burbage said, ‘The climate here is too humid to be healthy for you. Perhaps, under the circumstances, a move to a drier region would be appropriate.’

‘Highly appropriate, not to mention highly convenient,’ John said flatly. ‘Send the reprobate hence! Body’s death and body’s banishment.’

‘Perhaps you would excuse us, sir,’ dull Edward said to the doctor, discreetly slipping the man a folded bill. And the brothers were alone again. Silence, until dull Edward said, ‘I hope you do not think that my part in this has been with the view of future inheritance.’

John shouted out another laugh, and said sarcastically, ‘No, I am far more willing to suspect you of ruining two lives for the sake of specious scruples rather than for personal avarice.’

‘I never thought, John Henry, to discover you to be attached.’

‘Father’s words.’

‘You have to admit, it was unexpected.’

‘And who told Juliet he thought my heart would never be touched? Whose wise words are those?’

‘Uncle William’s.’

‘I see.’ John lay back, contemplated the ceiling. ‘You believe I love her, Edward? Do you believe how very much I love her?’

‘Yes,’ the man said quietly. ‘She is… splendid.’

‘And you like me for loving so much, even admire me. You never thought you’d ever like me, did you? Yet at the same time you loathe me because, from your perspective, it’s incest and fornication and therefore a sin. Added to which, my sin has ruined her virginal purity.’

But dull Edward was staring at him with annoyance. ‘Do you have to say the words?’

‘Incest? Fornication? They’re only what you accuse me of, by your actions if not your words.’ John sighed. ‘Tell me what all this is for, Edward. What’s the point of me being a gentleman, and possessing every privilege, if I can’t have the one thing I’ve ever wanted from life? And what’s the point of you being a gentleman, and professing to support all that’s noble, if you can’t let me love her?’

But it seemed John had already lost his brother’s reluctant fledgling sympathy. ‘You never used to talk like this.’

‘Because I never used to have any reason to question life: but now that I do, I find the answers lacking in both quantity and substance.’

‘I cannot help you.’

‘You’ve done so much to help me already,’ John said with polite insincerity.

Dull Edward was apparently too well bred to respond to the sarcasm. ‘If you leave here quietly, for a drier climate, and let Juliet enter the convent with no fuss, then I’ll see that father sends you the money that’s held in trust for you.’

‘Ah,’ John sighed, feeling little interest: ‘bribery.’

‘Call it that if you will, as you’ve grown so fond of cruel words. Do you agree?’

‘When does she go to the convent? Ask me then. I’ll be waiting here.’

‘Within the week, I understand.’ He obviously didn’t like it, but at last dull Edward said, ‘I’ll return then.’ And, with no further words of farewell, he left.

John curled up again on the bed, and reflected that was the first real conversation he’d had with his brother since they were boys. And, no doubt, it would also be the last. Well, John didn’t mind that dull Edward wouldn’t be there in John’s future ‑‑ the future that had abruptly become measured and lonely and unforeseeable ‑‑ but John’s generosity could grudgingly acknowledge that this disaster at least seemed to have stimulated dull Edward out of his previous pervasive stupor. Which was just as well because the future, for the entire family of Hollidays, had changed from obvious and secure, to unknown and uncertain.

Between them, Life and Death were gradually opening the eyes of the unformed creature of twenty, but there was as yet little progress. Doc remembered those first few months with amusement: young John Holliday had blundered about, stumbling through the motions of what he thought was as normal a life as he could lead; as clumsy and unsuccessful in searching for who he was as Wyatt now.

Dull Edward had, surprisingly enough, managed to convince Thomas to let John have the money that had been put aside for him: a small fortune that carried a price, of course; John must never approach any member of the family ever again. The contents of his room were packed into trunks and placed in store for him at the train station ‑‑ but, if there was any concern about his health, it was not conveyed to him. He wondered if they’d told Juliet he was dying, and assumed not.

He’d spent that last week in Georgia at the saloon, mildly but continually drunk on whisky, waiting in case Juliet had any need of him. Waiting, he supposed, in case she changed her mind, though that was hardly likely. Then, once dull Edward had told him it was all too late, and Juliet was preparing to take her vows, John collected up his clothes and a few belongings and all his books, and began to travel West.

Not knowing what else to do, John arrived in Dallas, and set up a dental practice. The brass plate beside his door declared him to be Dr J H Holliday ‑‑ so John was renamed anew. Business was good: Texas was rich from cotton and cattle, mining and oil; and a qualified dentist was welcomed.

But at last, even though he was doing exactly what he might have done with his family’s support, John was beginning to ask questions. His life so far had been defined by his family and his society and his religion: now that they had renounced him, John needed to discover what alternatives there were. It was painful but intriguing to begin to question the truths he’d blindly inherited.

For a while, John turned to the familiarity of books and plays and poetry and music, but he soon began to realise that he’d enjoyed them in the past mostly for the sake of entertainment, thought‑provoking though that entertainment was: now, when he needed more, all that their wisdom and insight seemed to do was ask the same questions he was trying to articulate for himself. Why? That’s what it all came to: humanity’s struggle for knowledge was nothing more than a cry to the empty heedless universe, a cry of Why? John added his voice to the clamorous multitude.

But what was the use? Knowledge allowed humanity to describe the loftiest and noblest of ideals, but what was the point when it was so impossible for men and women to live up to those ideals and dreams? Humanity was capable of no more than aiming high and sinking low.

John missed Juliet. He missed her because she was, quite literally, half of him. He’d been barely awake before he loved her and, if she hadn’t roused him, John would have continued on, wasting his short life in dull ignorance. He was empty, he had a great hole all the way through the middle of him; for some unknowable reason he had never received the vital elements that would make him complete until Juliet filled him effortlessly, joyfully. He hadn’t known he was alive until he’d found her, hadn’t known he was dying until he’d lost her. The only symptom he could identify was the drinking: all the alcohol he’d consumed over the years must have been an unconscious way of blunting the hunger of the hole. If it had worked before, it was doomed to failure now.

But at least, through the drinking, he discovered the possibilities of poker.

Dawn was clear pale blue through the windows of the saloon. John held up his fresh glass of whisky so that it caught the first rays of the sun and cast rich gold tints across the money piled in the centre of the poker table. Because it hurt, and because he wanted to annoy the four men he was playing against, he said, ‘But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.’

Some of the men came regularly to this table, perhaps for the entertainment John provided, or maybe for the challenge of trying to beat this unreasonably successful young man. ‘Holliday,’ one of them said now: ‘show your hand.’

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief that thou her maid art far more fair than she.

‘Hey, Doc,’ the man said, trying to catch John’s attention with this new nickname he’d been blessed with. John supposed Doc was preferable to Dent. ‘Come on, it’s late. Show us your hand.’

‘Late? You are mistaken: it is early.’ John smiled, and skipped ahead a few scenes. ‘Look, love, what envious streaks do lace the severing clouds in yonder east; night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.’ And he declaimed, ‘I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

‘Holliday, you should be on the stage.’ But it was said with little admiration.

One of the others muttered, ‘Should be on the first stage out of here.’

‘Ah, that’s what I love about Dallas,’ John said: ‘all the sparkling repartee.’

‘Enough. Your hand, Holliday.’ It had been a long night, and these people had been steadily losing their money for most of it.

At last John laid the cards down with a flourish: a full house, made up of three aces and two queens. ‘Can you blame me for savouring the moment?’ he asked in his broadest Georgian accents. The others all groaned, and threw their hands down; two of them had three of a kind, but there were no better. John smiled, and swept the pile of winnings over, began sorting the dollar bills into some semblance of order.

‘How the hell do you do it?’ one of the disgruntled losers asked.

‘Luck and skill, that’s all; there’s no secret behind my inordinate success. Now, whose deal?’

‘Yours, and you know it.’

‘So it is.’

‘But I’m out of here.’ And the others began to stir, gathering up the last of their money.

‘One more hand,’ John said, allowing them to hear the pleading note: I need this more than you do. ‘Just one more round before we face the day’s toils. You never know: one of you might win some of this back.’ They were wavering. John suggested, ‘How about I put in twice as much as the rest of you? If you bet a hundred, I have to throw in two hundred to match it.’

Apparently that was an irresistible offer, for the men settled again.

John shuffled the pack and dealt, so quickly that all eyes followed his hands, dazzled and suspicious. But John never had to cheat: though, as he grew to know the game intimately, he had cheated occasionally, just to see if he could get away with it, viewing this as simply another challenge to his skills; and, of course, he had gotten away with it, every time. This night’s winnings, though, were fairly taken.

As the others lifted their cards, examining them with the thoughtful frowns that most men here seemed to adopt as cover, John said, ‘And, just to make the game really interesting, how about I throw in a free dental service for the man who wins this hand?’ He beamed happily around the table as they all stared at him: John hadn’t met a person yet who didn’t fear him, at least for the sake of his profession; for dentists were considered, at best, an unsophisticated but necessary evil. John fixed on one of the players, the one who’d started calling him Doc; peered across at the man’s mouth. ‘Why, you may well need a tooth pulled, if my eyes don’t deceive me.’

‘Just play your hand,’ the man growled, barely moving his lips. The others shuddered, and returned their attention to the cards.

There was a bevy of lovely and easy women, prostitutes in all but name, who graced this saloon and helped attract a wide range of customers: one of them came over to the poker table with a fresh bottle of whisky, as John dealt the draw cards. She said, ‘Dr Holliday, can’t you think of any sweeter way to spend your nights?’

He smiled at her, as a couple of the men chuckled at this boldness. ‘An idea occurred to me as soon as I saw your pretty face.’

‘Well, then,’ she pouted; ‘why are you still here playing cards?’

This teasing was a common game these days; and perhaps the game was all the more amusing because John never took up their increasingly blatant offers. It seemed these women found him attractive or challenging, at least in comparison to the rough men who frequented the saloons. He no doubt presented as somewhat more romantic and interesting, and he could certainly afford them. Under the circumstances, John was surprised at the ease with which he remained chaste. ‘Didn’t I tell you the sad story, pretty one?’ John said, gazing up at her as she poured him another nip. ‘I’m suffering from a broken heart; in fact, that’s why I’m ill. Haven’t you seen me coughing up my heart’s blood?’

‘Poor Dr Holliday. Can nothing console you?’

‘Nothing, I’m afraid; not even you with all your charms.’ He smiled sadly after her as she sauntered back to the bar, her bustle and skirts swaying. ‘Adieu, pretty one.’ And, returning his attention to the game, ‘Now, where are we?’

John only had three of a kind, three tens, but his confidence led to one player dropping out without placing another bet, and the others seemed either rattled or distracted. Inevitably, John won again. ‘One more hand?’ he asked wistfully, but the other men left, tired and, at best, rueful.

Alone again, and forever lonely without his love, John took up his whisky glass and wandered over to the piano. He slowly picked out a tune, regretting that his dexterity with the cards didn’t translate to a better ability to play music.

Another day at the surgery to look forward to. That was the life John honestly intended to lead, as a respectable professional; so it didn’t make much sense to him when he realised he’d prefer just to drink some more whisky, and win some more at poker, rather than go to work.

He’d been drinking for years, of course, so there was nothing new in that. In fact, he’d first taken up poker simply as a way of whiling away the evenings he spent drinking in the saloons. It was when John found he had a knack for the game, and for winning, that he began paying closer attention.

As he had claimed only minutes before, John’s success came down to simple things: he had the wits to calculate the odds and probabilities, and a feel for how the fifty‑two cards would fall; he had the insight to quickly learn how various types of people played the game, and to see when someone was bluffing; and he had the nerve to bluff in turn. The life‑long habit of hiding behind a repertoire of uncaring, critical and cynical expressions became abundantly useful. Complementing these skills, Fortune seemed prepared to lend this dying man her favours. So, if he concentrated, and applied his easy confidence to the game, then he won. It all seemed too easy: soon he was making more money in a night’s poker game than in a week’s dentistry.

The other players never quite knew what to make of him: dapper in his gentleman’s clothes and manners; sweating and coughing in the first stages of his mortal illness; philosophical and whimsical in his educated conversation. He soon learned to use all that, of course: these rough men tended to trust the gentleman with the lazy Georgian accent; they were morbidly fascinated by the consumption; and they were either spell‑bound or annoyed by John’s never‑ending flow of words and teases and ideas.

And John soon found another way to disconcert these people: these tough men, whose only goal was to be tougher; every single one of them cowered behind the out‑sized frame of what a man was supposed to be. They simply didn’t know what to do with someone who was so different from them, but just as confident and even more successful than they were; didn’t know how to treat a man who wasn’t afraid to be honest, or to admit to what they saw as alarming vulnerabilities. John completely undercut all that posturing by the male of the species, by calmly rising above it. And, if any of these rough men had the imagination to try something of the same tactics in return, John found it so easy to humiliate them, to pour scorn into their fresh wounds.

He remained in control of any situation, by constantly surprising and provoking his companions, by putting people off guard, by flaunting his vulnerabilities before anyone could think to exploit them. It was easy to despise people for being so easily manipulated, so readily seen through, so gullible to his bluffing.

John had learned how to shoot as a boy, as a gentleman in embryo: but now John bought himself a beautiful pair of ivory‑handled pistols with his winnings because, of course, when he consistently won other men’s money, they didn’t take kindly to it. Added to which, he loved provoking the other players into rashness with elaborate, intelligent insults. And these tough men assumed that this vulnerable, weak, thin, dying man posed no threat. He hadn’t killed anyone, but he’d had to injure a couple of the persistent ones in order to keep his own body and soul together.

Again, he had more dexterity with the guns than his piano‑playing would give anyone an idea of. Maybe his creativity and talents lay in these hitherto unsuspected directions. Indeed, he’d taken to practising handling the guns in between appointments at the surgery: the next patient would often walk in to find John standing there twirling flashes of silver and ivory in his long pale fingers; or he would be drawing the guns again and again, smoothly and quickly, and finding the target each time.

The sun had risen fully now, and dawn’s cool clarity had vanished in the dry dusty heat. People were beginning to seek their business on the streets outside the saloon. John told himself he should go now, so he’d have time to bathe and change before facing the day. But he stayed, fingers idle on the piano keys, as if he was waiting for something.

It occurred to him then, the notion that his thoughts had been tending towards: there was life out here in Mantua; banishment from Verona wasn’t so bad, because Life and Fortune were everywhere. There were alternatives beyond family, beyond society and religion, beyond his chosen profession, beyond the expected and the respectable. It seemed such an obvious lesson, but he’d had to come so far to learn it.

Ah, Juliet: the only thing to be regretted was Juliet. It felt like betrayal to realise he could experience pleasures without her, enjoy himself when she’d renounced both life and love. She should be here with him, learning and seeking adventures alongside him.

And John began to wonder if Juliet had made the wrong decision when she chose seclusion, because she had been as unaware as he of all this Life out here for the taking. Neither of them had seen beyond Verona’s confines, Verona’s precepts.

The grief re‑visited him, and John wept for the first time since he’d travelled to Dallas. The whole damned tragedy seemed so meaningless. He sat there at the piano, under the curious stares of the bartender and the few customers and the women; his blood‑stained handkerchief and his glass of whisky in his hands; and he cried for the futile sacrifice of his love.

‘John, you look terrible.’

He lifted his head to see her standing across the barren little room, and essayed a wry smile. ‘Didn’t our beloved family warn you, my dear? Just as I thought.’

‘Warn me about what?’

Juliet was walking over to him, expression concerned and serious. John wondered if he’d expected her joyous and eager, but was too tired to raise the emotions in himself, let alone to try to inspire hers. He took the opportunity to watch her, tall and lithe beneath the shapeless, heavy habit: her beautiful dark hair was mostly hidden beneath a veil, but her eyes were as bright and intelligent as ever, and her face as pleasingly formed. This woman would be strikingly beautiful all her life, no matter how they tried to suppress her.

‘Have you been seeking solace in whisky again? Is that why you look like this?’ She sat beside him on the bench, with such a complete lack of hesitation it seemed she didn’t even consider the possibility of temptation. ‘You’ll make yourself ill, John.’

‘I do indeed continue to seek solace in whisky. But I am also ill, my dear: I was diagnosed as consumptive before I left Georgia, soon after I last saw you.’

Her face was full of sorrow. ‘Oh, love,’ she murmured. Then it occurred to her: ‘That cough of yours.’

‘At least your new mother and sisters let me see you, when I explained I was dying.’ He glanced around at the drab walls. ‘Did our late unlamented family even tell you I’d gone? Where I was?’

‘Only that you’d left, and quietly, so there was no disgrace.’

‘I’ve been in Dallas, Texas. The drier climate is supposedly beneficial to my condition.’

She took his hand in both of hers, and bowed her head over it. ‘I’ll pray for you, John. But you must take better care of yourself. Death is no answer.’

Her touch was alarmingly cool. John turned his hand to grasp hers instead, with fierce warmth. He said, ‘Life is the answer.’

‘You’ve learned that?’ She looked up at him again. ‘That’s good, John. God doesn’t give many of us warning enough to put our lives in order.’

John grimaced. ‘Do you think I’ve come here to repent? To make peace with God? You know me better than that, Julie.’

‘Then tell me why you came.’

A moment’s silence, while he attempted to gather his thoughts. Perhaps this had been unwise, to rush here without giving himself time to plan what needed to be the most eloquent plea he’d ever voiced. ‘I’ve found new life, Julie,’ he began. ‘There’s a world out there we used to dream about. Remember we’d plan all these wonderful bold grand adventures together, back when we were children? I don’t know what happened to us: we grew up, and our imaginations narrowed, our world became limited by Verona’s horizons. So that when our family told us we couldn’t have the one adventure we both wanted more than any other, we didn’t dare to contradict them.’

‘Is that how you see it now?’ she asked gently.

‘When this started, you said you didn’t want me to be sensible, that you liked me adventurous: well, my dear, here I am. I’m no longer offering you the hand of a poor, itinerant, outcast dentist. How would you like to be the beautiful wife of a rich, itinerant, outcast adventurer? I’ve forsworn family, society, religion, profession. Instead, I plan to seek all that Life has to offer, before Death claims me. Come now, my dear, accompany me to Mantua and beyond, and share my last few years.’

Juliet was watching him, calm and serious. ‘And then what would I do, once I’d lost you again?’

‘Why, you’ll inherit all my worldly possessions, and regain your freedom. Continue adventuring, I’d suggest, and live for both of us. Or you could return here if you wish, or magnanimously let the family take you back.’

A silence, as if she was considering this extravagant offer. But when she spoke, she seemed very sure of her reply. ‘No, this is my life now, John. I like it here, and I enjoy teaching.’

He frowned. ‘You can’t spare me a handful of years? I promise Death will claim me soon enough for you to devote the majority of your years to Life rather than me. Why, you could be back here by the time you’re twenty.’

‘Wouldn’t my devotion become rather meaningless, if it was subject to my pleasures?’

‘Pleasures? You might describe me in stronger terms than that. Not so long ago, the only thing you wanted was to marry me. Only months ago, I was your devotion.’

‘But I couldn’t live as a selfish adventurer, and then with good conscience choose selfless devotion.’

‘Your choice of selfless devotion now, is as selfish as my choice of adventuring.’

She nodded, unperturbed. ‘Yes.’

‘But it is a choice, freely made,’ he said. And that was what hurt him because, even now she had more options before her, she still did not choose his love. He pleaded, ‘I am empty without you, I am nothing.’

‘You let me go before, John. You must be strong enough to let me go again.’

‘And if I’m not?’

‘You must. What else can you do?’

He glanced around the four walls. ‘Stay here, and weep and wail and lament, until you change your mind.’

‘No, John; if Life is the answer, then go and live. There’s a world out there, as you’ve discovered.’ She squeezed his hand, and let it go. ‘Is it useless to ask you to take care of yourself? With the proper care, you might not die.’

‘Oh, I will die, my dear. But until then I will live and have a fine time doing it. If you hear of Doc Holliday, the gambler and the adventurer, then follow his career with interest.’

Her sorrowful expression was marred by pity, and John knew that Juliet’s love for him had been tainted; the purity and the enthusiasm and the certainty were things of the past. The grief in him rose again, and the bitterness. If he and Juliet had remained lovers, if their family hadn’t parted them, John knew her love would have continued to grow: but now even her love had been taken from him. Why hadn’t he, that night he’d told Thomas about their affair, then stolen to William’s music room to warn Juliet ‑‑ why hadn’t he taken her away? Why hadn’t he seen the simple alternative of running away with her? ‘Would you have come?’ he asked.

After a while, she nodded. ‘Perhaps. Yes, I think I would have, in my defiance. But could we have been happy?’

‘We would have learned to be happy,’ he said. ‘Look at us now: we’ve both turned our backs on them. If only we had each other, we’d be happy, wouldn’t we?’ The tears, which seemed never far from his eyes these last few days, began to flow. ‘Julie, I could keep you in such style on my winnings from poker. I have a talent for the game, you know. We’d have no responsibility but to love each other. We’d have a few precious years together, rich in adventure. Doesn’t any of that tempt you?’

After a moment, she murmured, ‘Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical! A damned saint, an honourable villain!

‘It seems you haven’t completely forgotten your Romeo,’ he said.

‘Of course not.’ She looked at him, with that lovely seriousness. ‘I do love you, John; remember that I did truly love you.’

He let out a sob, then, because he knew what her answer was. ‘I’ll remember, Julie.’

‘Now, I want you to leave, my dearest. You must be brave, and leave me. Let me live my new life; go and live yours.’

It was the most difficult thing he’d ever had to do, because this time he knew that it was final. But he eventually stood, and walked out of that horrible little room, out through the gardens and down the drive and between the big wooden gates.

It was the last thing he did with any dignity for a long while.

What he lost, when he lost her. Doc didn’t often let himself dwell on it. In fact, now he considered the matter, he realised he hadn’t done so for long years. Well, perhaps now was as good a time as any, for he was lying a‑bed alternating between lucidity and fever and, with Wyatt taking such prodigious care of him, there were no demands or distractions.

At the time, the thought of what John had lost was a hard bitter nugget within him. He’d centred the nugget in his emptiness: but he wasn’t pitting this loss against the hole that ran right through the middle of him; he knew well enough that the grief only fuelled the hole’s bilious hunger.

He shouldn’t have ignored it for so long, for this was an important part of him. Indeed, this loss was his raison d’etre, it was nothing less than the origin of Doc Holliday.

What John lost, when he lost Julie. Doc hadn’t mentally composed a melodramatic romance novel dealing with their every day and season and year together: he’d simply allowed himself one scene, one beautiful perfect detailed scene that encompassed all that might have been. Once, it had been the most real and vivid thing in his life. If he opened up that impervious poisonous nugget, then the scene blossomed free…

A room at the mansion on the family’s plantation; a large airy white room, windows open to the wide balconies overlooking the grass and the oaks and the distant fields. A baby in his arms, smelling warm and milky, trustingly innocently asleep. A child sitting by him, reading aloud from a book, managing to recognise and pronounce the word horse for the first time, proud of the achievement and John’s joy. Juliet wandering in with the breeze, ledgers in hand, expression turning from frowning concentration to happy contentment. And, dear God, she is so beautiful, every day more beautiful. The plantation runs like a miracle under her guidance. She is brave and innovative and thoughtful. She speaks of bumper yields, diversifying, investing profits ‑‑ it amuses him to hear these strange words she is so familiar with, words that he hadn’t taught her. Through an open door is their room, their bed. Most nights, Julie and John re‑create miracles there, too. People gossip over their blood relationship, but the children are perfect. He leans forward to plant a kiss on her gently swelling stomach, where a third baby grows. People make snide remarks over the fact John is more consort and nanny than man or husband, but neither of them care. Life is perfect. That annoying cough had faded over the healthy happy years. The empty hole through him might never have existed, because he is so abundantly full…

Doc started aware, grasping at the last shreds of this scene, afraid that it would flee. For a moment it seemed as insubstantial as a dream, as the morning mists burning away in the sunlight. Come weep with me ‑‑ past hope, past cure, past help. He frowned, then, when he realised he hadn’t lost the vividness or the immediacy: he frowned, and wondered at his indulgence of the thing after so long.

‘What’s wrong?’ Wyatt asked. He’d been over by the window reading a newspaper, but was approaching with a concerned expression. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Fine. Merely an idle whimsy. A haunting.’ Doc settled back again, closed his eyes, and Wyatt knew to leave him alone.

That scene had never been allowed to happen: that’s why John Henry became Doc Holliday; that’s why he became everything that Thomas would despise, and surrendered all to the demands of the hole’s hunger. In the process, Doc inadvertently became a legend, which was all the better, because Thomas and dull Edward and William must surely know the worst of him. The legend had spread much further than Georgia, though surely Doc’s misdeeds were at least exaggerated by the time they reached the South.

Few people saw beyond the legend to the flesh and blood beneath; perhaps no one but Wyatt tried. And even Wyatt wouldn’t believe in the truth of Doc’s one dream, in the improbable event of Doc telling him about it; wouldn’t credit that the only thing Doc had ever wanted was the love of a woman, with all the children and domesticity that particular love brought with it. Doc wouldn’t blame Wyatt, either, because no image could be further from the legend of Doc Holliday, the gambler and the killer. For that matter, even the unformed creature named John Henry never believed in love, let alone anticipated it happening to him. Julie’s John had loved too well; but even John was shocked at his own disappointment when Juliet didn’t fall pregnant.

A wife and children: that was what Wyatt professed to want. Well, Doc agreed that the man wanted Josephine, that spirited and adventurous actress of his, wanted her with a power Doc empathised with ‑‑ but the idea of domesticity and children didn’t suit either Wyatt or Josephine. And Wyatt would frankly not believe that they once would have suited Doc.

Not any more, of course. It was no longer an option, and hadn’t been since he’d gone to the convent and Juliet had sent him away alone. Thou art wedded to calamity. Even so, it was the loss of what should have been that drove him to what he became, that defined everything he would rage against.

He never blamed Juliet for what happened, and he never blamed himself. That seemed a little naive to him now, though he didn’t want to attach any sourness to her memory. Doc was used to blaming that damnable trinity of family and society and religion; who professed to revere love, and yet had forbidden it. So capricious that the trinity hadn’t welcomed the wandering John Henry into the fold: when he’d wanted to become the ideal family man, with their blessing, they had denied him. He blamed those three venerable institutions for the whole debacle; and Thomas, as the embodiment of the trinity’s righteous furious rejection, became Doc’s focus.

Doc set out to be all that would outrage Thomas.

What he lost, when he lost Juliet. Doc had lost everything familiar, everything he’d known, with the notable exception of himself. So he began to explore himself, to discover what he was capable of. Realising the extent of the hole through him, and terrified that nothing but Juliet would ever fill it, he tried to find something he might want other than her, though he knew the search was doomed to failure. His goal became to experience all he could, recklessly be all he could be; wallow in crazy self‑indulgence, make the most of Life, live his Death in style. John had had the heights, for a grand total of six weeks: now Doc sought the depths and breadths.

Within days of leaving Juliet behind at the convent, Doc had bedded three different women; two prostitutes and one restless wife. He did it in grief; the act was bitter painful self‑annihilation compared to the warm cherishing, the hot potency he had discovered with Juliet.

Within three months, Doc had gambled from Georgia to Wyoming, played poker hard and ruthless, and won a small fortune to rival the one Thomas had so grudgingly left him.

Within six months, he’d become such an accomplished liar and swindler and thief, that only his manner betrayed the fact he’d ever been a gentleman.

Within nine months, Doc had discovered the utter debauchery of bedding, and being bedded by, other men.

Within a year, he had maimed four men and killed one.

Throughout, Doc had continued drinking, though he resisted the dangerous allure of opium and absinthe: perhaps he feared their thorough finality. He began to explore, and continued to display, all his vulnerabilities rather than be the heavily defended man everyone expected, with one exception: he never again mentioned his broken heart, his sad but personal melodrama; Doc Holliday was not to be seen as capable of love or, indeed, any finer feeling. I was born to shame: upon my brow shame is proud to sit.

Doc never bothered returning to Dallas, collecting his belongings; he only cared to possess the barest essentials. He practised with his ivory‑handled pistols, developing this deadly skill far beyond the point where he was quicker than any man he’d faced. He deliberately worked on his ability to comprehensively insult and provoke people. He observed people, and learned them, in order to better exploit their weaknesses; he grew ever more cynical as a result. There’s no trust, no faith, no honesty in men; all perjured, all forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers. Yes, Doc set out to experience all that Life had to offer, and he fulfilled that goal with a vengeance.

And none of it made the slightest bit of difference to the great emptiness through him. He defiled and sacrificed all that Thomas had held dear, he offered the bleeding wreckage of himself to the hole, and for the briefest of moments Doc would be triumphant, satisfied. Then, all too soon, the glow would fade, and he would be nothing again.

Life was nothing without her, no matter what he did.

From there, things degenerated for a handful of years. And then Wyatt Earp arrested Doc Holliday for murder.

Doc recognised the marshall, of course: partly because Doc always made a point of knowing who the local law was, and avoiding it whenever possible; but mostly because Wyatt Earp was fast gaining a reputation as a fair and increasingly effective lawman.

Earp was sitting at the bar of the saloon as if waiting for something, and hadn’t bothered hiding his interest in Doc Holliday; though he seemed to deliberately play this low key, and perhaps Doc was the only one to notice. Despite the distraction of curiosity, and a sense of impending trouble, Doc continued the poker game for another three hands. There was no point, after all, in not taking advantage of his current roll.

There sat the man who was beginning to be seen as the quintessential lawman, presumably waiting for him. Doc took the opportunity to not only win some more money, but also to study his new opponent. The man’s face was squarely built, the overall expression one of a determined lack of nonsense. His hair was thick and long, and his moustache was out‑sized, which made Doc half‑seriously speculate on what Earp was compensating for. The man’s silhouette was lean but strong. He wore heavy black; the sole relief being an ivory shirt, with no collar. He carried two pistols on a low‑slung belt. Interesting.

Doc at last collected up his winnings, and headed outside. He didn’t acknowledge Earp, didn’t so much as glance at him, but was unsurprised when the man followed him out onto the saloon’s verandah. Doc stopped to light a cigarette, using the opportunity to glance around and ensure there was no one else within earshot.

‘You’re Doc Holliday,’ Earp said.

He took a long draw, and let the smoke out on a sigh. ‘So I understand.’

‘I’m arresting you for the murder of Matt Saunders.’

‘Ah,’ Doc responded, in a polite but distant murmur; ‘so Matthew is dead.’

Earp continued to stare directly at him, apparently believing this to be no more than dissembling. He said heavily, ‘Saunders was found in his house an hour ago. You’d better accompany me to the marshall’s office before word gets out.’

‘You fear rough justice? That I’ll be strung up on the nearest tree?’

The marshall nodded once, firm.

‘What a pity this is one of the few places in Kansas to actually have trees,’ Doc mused; but Earp didn’t respond with either shared amusement or defensive parochialism. ‘Why would these good townsfolk leap to the conclusion, as you have, that I am the guilty party?’

‘Your reputation. The fact you and he were friends. One man said you were close as thieves.’

Doc laughed, and ground the butt of his cigarette out under one heel. ‘A popular and rather ludicrous misconception.’ He looked at this man, who still betrayed no reaction, and displayed minimal understanding. Doc elaborated, ‘That thieves can ever be close, I mean. But also that Matthew and I were friends. I admit to nothing more than calling him an acquaintance. After all, I’ve only been in town for five weeks or so; barely time to learn what the man’s drinking habits are.’

Earp waited a moment, as if willing to hear all Doc might have to say ‑‑ which Doc grudgingly noted as wise, at this early stage ‑‑ then repeated, ‘You’d better come with me now.’

Shrugging acquiescence, Doc handed over the two ivory‑handled guns he had at his waist; they disappeared into the voluminous pockets of Earp’s coat. Then Doc stepped down to the street, aware of Earp at his shoulder. The man was wound tight: as the two of them walked down and across the three blocks to the marshall’s office, Earp kept sharp if relatively unobtrusive watch on both Doc and their surroundings. Despite his insistence on the need for wariness, however, they reached their destination safely.

No one else was there. Earp placed Doc’s precious guns on his desk, never once letting Doc out of his sight or within arm’s length, and said, ‘Your other weapons.’

Doc dropped a knife and the small pistol on a nearby table. And then he stood, arms and legs wide, while Earp ran careful, bold but business‑like hands over him; cocked an unapologetic eyebrow when Earp located a second knife sheathed inside his left boot.

‘I’m going to lock you up for now,’ Earp finally said, collecting his keys, and ushering Doc to the cell at the rear of the large office. ‘One of my deputies will keep watch on you while I see to Saunders. Then I’ll want to talk to you.’

‘Hell, sir, I’ll talk to you right now,’ Doc offered. ‘I can explain all this.’

‘I’m sure you can,’ the marshall said flatly. He shepherded Doc into the cell, locked the door, then paused to gaze at him through the bars. ‘But I want to figure a few things out first, before I let you muddy the waters.’

Poker face well in place, Doc didn’t betray the fact he was mildly impressed with how Earp was handling this: he’d been willing to listen to Doc’s initial reactions, but wouldn’t take the risk now Doc had had time to concoct a story. Other lawmen dealing with Doc Holliday had made mistakes: arresting him publicly, for instance, calling him out and starting a riot; or letting themselves become confused by Doc’s version of events; one had even been charmed into letting him go. Well, he’d been arrested often enough, but had never been convicted of anything serious; and Doc saw no reason why Wyatt Earp should make this charge stick.

Doc settled himself on the barely adequate bunk, and prepared for a wait.

‘Cup of tea?’

The poker face cracked, and Doc was forced to cover with a laugh. ‘All right.’

Earp handed him a steaming mug through the bars. Then, as another man clattered up the stairs, Earp nodded a farewell and left.

Alone with his thoughts, Doc sipped at the hot tea, and considered the late Matthew Saunders. Doc hadn’t, of course, been strictly honest with the marshall: Matthew had indeed been an acquaintance rather than a friend, but Doc had also found the man… convenient as a bed‑fellow. There was no cause to sentimentalise the association, however: convenience was definitely the key to understanding that part of it. Although Doc knew he’d definitely enjoyed exploiting Matthew’s shame. He let a smile suffuse him: men so on fire for sex with their fellows, but too prudish and afraid to often indulge, made amusing prey. Otherwise, he and Matthew were both clever and unscrupulous and willing to play for money, and therefore had interests in common, at least for a short while.

It was a pity Matthew was dead, because being arrested for murder was so damned inconvenient. Yes, Matthew had made a suitably profitable partner in crime, but he was barely up to appreciating Doc’s speed, let alone matching it. Matthew’s fear of catching a fatal dose of the infamy Doc enjoyed was going to break their association sooner rather than later.

It would be interesting to see how much of this sordidness Wyatt Earp managed to uncover.

By the time Earp returned, a small crowd had gathered outside the marshall’s office. But, while they were restless, Doc couldn’t feel he was in much danger. Indeed, from the little he could make out, a few of them seemed more interested in the sunset ‑‑ rich gold under dramatically lowering clouds over the endless plains ‑‑ than in the office or its occupants. A second deputy had joined the first, but they simply sat there calmly, feet up on the table between them, talking just low enough for Doc to miss hearing the content.

Earp stood on the verandah out the front, and said a few words to the crowd, in a voice that did carry. ‘Yes, we’ve made an arrest; yes, we’re gathering evidence; and, no, there’s nothing you can do here. Go on home, all of you. I appreciate your concern, and Matt would have, too, but go home and let me do my job.’

Not glancing at Doc, Earp strode in and spoke to the two deputies, apparently dismissing them from further duties. Once they were alone, Earp sat at his desk and read through a newspaper. To any other observer, this may have seemed a waste of time better spent elsewhere; but Doc’s heart sped up. Was Earp onto his and Matthew’s little schemes already? Could the marshall possibly be a worthy adversary in the game of Life? How very interesting.

It was only the years of playing poker that enabled Doc to judge that the granite‑faced Earp had found what he was looking for. Soon after, the marshall approached the cell.

‘It seems you were right about the lynch mob,’ Doc commented dryly. ‘How flattering all this attention is.’

‘So far it’s only attention, and no trouble. Which might change once they start drinking tonight.’

‘Why trouble themselves over me?’

Earp looked at him. ‘It’s not you they care about ‑‑ Matt Saunders was a popular man around these parts. He began that newspaper single‑handed. People used the paper and Saunders himself to fight the land buy‑ups, to put pressure on the governor to move the Indians further West, to encourage the Texas cattlemen up here to the railroad, to get popular support for the theatre to be built. Saunders did a lot for Dodge City. There was talk of him running for mayor.’

Doc rolled a cigarette, and declined to comment. Matthew may well have been influential, and worked to make himself indispensable, but he was ineligible for sainthood. Perhaps Earp was already discovering that. ‘What’s your opinion of Matthew?’ Doc asked.

A pause, not uncomfortable. ‘I don’t get involved in politics,’ Earp finally said, which didn’t really answer the question.

‘A wise man,’ Doc murmured. He continued, ‘But your appointment as marshall is at the whim of the mayor, who is elected by and answers to the people. You can’t help but be involved.’

Earp shook his head, apparently amused, though his expression was still difficult to read. ‘We both have a more immediate concern. You should be trying to save yourself from a hanging, one way or another.’

‘Pardon me if I’ve taken an unwarranted interest in your affairs,’ Doc said, playing the Southern gentleman for all the role was worth.

Nodding in polite acknowledgement, Earp waited a moment, then said flatly, ‘Tell me about this silver mine.’ He drew the title deed out of his pocket, folded in three like legal documents everywhere.

Doc frowned at it, as if deep in thought. ‘Why do you suppose I can tell you anything?’

Another moment, during which the granite man managed to convey the message, Don’t be a fool. ‘Because I found this note nearby.’ A square of paper from Matthew’s notepad, covered with Doc’s bold black scrawl: Let’s call it ‘Mantua’. The title Earp had shown him was, of course, for the Mantua mine down in Texas.

‘Why do you suppose that’s my handwriting?’

Earp patiently drew a third piece of paper from his pocket: a note Doc had written at one of his banks, requesting a transfer of funds.

‘Ah,’ Doc said, ‘I see.’ He offered a smile. ‘You have been thorough, haven’t you.’

‘So tell me about it.’

Doc shrugged. ‘Matthew had an interest in this mine; in fact, I believe he might have owned it outright. He asked me to suggest a romantic name for it. Have you read much Shakespeare, marshall?’

‘Why was he trying to sell off part of his interest through the advertisement in his newspaper?’

‘I don’t know.’

Earp watched him, but when it appeared obvious Doc wouldn’t offer anything more, the marshall explained his concern, ‘This title is years old, and the name’s only recently been changed. I’m wondering if the mine was all worked out, and Saunders was trying to sell something worthless to people who trusted him. You were definitely involved, maybe even suggested the idea to him.’

‘A fascinating scheme for a lawman to dream up,’ Doc commented in his lazy drawl.

‘Your fascinating scheme is nothing more than common fraud.’

‘But,’ Doc continued, ‘even if it were all true, what would it have to do with Matthew being murdered?’

‘That’s what I’m going to find out.’ Earp was still staring at him, as if he was determined to solve the puzzle of Doc Holliday sooner or later. ‘Saunders had a reputation around here for being honest and forthright. There’ll be trouble when people begin hearing all this. They’ll blame you for it.’

Doc laughed. ‘So now you’re crediting me with corrupting the man. More flattery.’

Earp was saved from responding by the arrival of a woman. He walked over to greet her, to unburden her of a heavy black pot and a covered basket. Leaving them on the table, he passed the time of day with her, asking a few questions and nodding at her answers. She glanced once at Doc with some curiosity, dipped a polite curtsy when Doc tipped his hat, then let Earp escort her to the door.

‘Your gentle wife?’ Doc inquired.

‘She brought us supper,’ Earp said flatly, as if daring Doc to make any untoward comment.

‘Your gentle and delightful wife,’ Doc amended. He watched as the marshall set out bowls and cutlery, and slices of bread, from the basket, then spooned out a thick stew from the pot. The smell was so incredible that Doc, not one to eat much or to treat food as more than a bothersome necessity, rediscovered the joyful immediacy of hunger about to be satisfied.

‘If I let you eat out here at the table,’ Earp said from across the room, ‘do I have your word you won’t cause any trouble?’ He looked up, that granite face demanding.

‘Does my word have any value around here? I thought it an undervalued currency.’

The man repeated, ‘I’ll take your word.’

Doc raised his eyebrows. ‘Then you have it, sir.’ Whether Doc would keep his word was another matter: but Earp’s biggest worry was presumably that Doc would try to escape. If Earp hadn’t realised it was unlikely, that was his problem. Doc was not about to waste valuable days or months of Life: this inconvenience would be resolved far sooner if he stayed around. The only option was to run, with a wanted poster tailing him.

The two men sat opposite each other, and ate in silence. Earp devoured a generous second helping.

‘You must give your gentle lady my compliments: that was the tastiest meal I’ve had in years. I’m only sorry I can’t do it as much justice as you.’ Doc sat back comfortably, met the marshall’s sardonic stare. ‘That is not an exaggeration: I’m rarely blessed with a home‑cooked meal.’

‘I’ll tell her,’ Earp finally said, though it was evident he didn’t believe Doc was serious. ‘Claire will be glad: she takes pride in her cooking.’

‘Claire; a lovely lady,’ Doc murmured absently, though he thought her exactly the good little mousy nothing that a lawman would marry. He asked, ‘Do you have a deck of cards, marshall? Let’s while away the hours with a game or two.’

‘What game?’ Earp asked, suspicious.

‘Why, poker, of course.’ Apparently Earp needed convincing. ‘It’s blind luck and it’s clever calculation, it’s knowing your opponent and it’s complete self‑interest. It echoes Life itself.’

The marshall raised an eyebrow. ‘If there’s no room for sharing an interest, establishing a… partnership, then it’s not like the life I know. There’s no sheer hard work, either, I suppose.’

‘And that’s the beauty of it,’ Doc said, smiling. Imagine this stolid man so quickly grasping Doc’s analogy and applying it to himself. ‘Shall we?’

A moment for consideration, though it wasn’t as if Doc hadn’t thrown down enough enticement. ‘All right,’ Earp said. The marshall added, ‘It wouldn’t be proper for us to play for money, though.’

‘Then what do you suggest? Betting is a vital part of the game.’

‘Matches? I don’t think I can afford to lose anything else to you.’

‘Ah, more flattery,’ Doc murmured, appreciating the dry hint of humour. ‘Matches it is, then.’

They began with three boxes each, and Doc ended with all six by midnight. Earp hadn’t managed to win a single hand: if Doc saw that Earp might have better cards, he simply folded and let Earp take the first round of bets; the granite man wasn’t so hard to read when he wasn’t working. The marshall took his thorough drubbing well enough, though he could obviously think of a number of more enjoyable ways to spend his time.

They’d been interrupted a few times during the game by hollering from the street outside. Each time, Earp would listen, and then shrug. ‘Let them yell, they’re not going to do anything.’ And he’d frown at Doc, deadly serious. ‘Yet.’

Once Doc had won the last hand, he offered, ‘If you like, we’ll play again tomorrow. And I’ll teach you how to win.’

Earp looked at him. ‘Why would you teach me that?’

‘Because,’ Doc began. He quickly searched for an acceptable answer. ‘Because I’d soon get bored, winning all the time. And there’s only so many matches a man can usefully strike in a lifetime.’

That almost won a smile. ‘All right.’

‘How long do we have?’

‘Judge Clemens is due to arrive within a week. My brother Virgil is escorting him on this circuit.’

‘A week should be enough to teach you the rudiments.’

Earp did smile, then. ‘I have a number of cases to prepare. Including yours.’

‘Then we’ll confine our games to the evenings.’

Shaking his head ruefully, the marshall agreed. But tonight’s entertainment was over: ‘Time to return to the cell, Mr Holliday.’

Doc went readily enough, and settled on the bunk, under the two threadbare blankets. Earp, on a cot over by his desk, was quickly asleep. Doc almost envied him.

An auspicious meeting, though Doc had had no idea at the time that Wyatt would become a friend. It was five years now, since Wyatt had arrested him, and Doc had long given up wondering at the impossibility of friendship between the lawman and the killer. The association simply existed: the bedrock; the truth. Wyatt was such a reliable sort.

So here Doc was: another campfire providing light and focus in the wilderness; another companionable silence shared with Wyatt. Doc sat huddled into a blanket because, as his illness progressed, the cold bit harder.

‘We should have stayed in town,’ Wyatt said, looking at him. He’d built the fire high, and taken the trouble to find a stack of wood to feed it, for Doc’s sake. ‘You’re not recovered enough to travel.’

‘I have better things to do with my few remaining seasons, than lying in bed ‑‑ alone!’ Doc added with a laugh. ‘Alone and feeling poorly. In any case, I heard of all this beautiful gold in need of my guardianship, and the allure was too strong.’

They both gazed at the small wooden crates that sat between them. Quite a burden, in both weight and responsibility. Quite a danger, if any man with a greedy soul knew what their two newly acquired burros carried.

‘So I volunteered us to transport it over to Seminole, and as soon as the bank heard the name Wyatt Earp, they accepted with alacrity.’

Wyatt shrugged, and lifted his gaze from the crates to Doc. ‘At least the job pays well, I suppose.’

Doc finally voiced what Wyatt was obviously wise enough to fear. In his most seductive, insinuating tone, Doc murmured, ‘Guardianship yearns to become ownership.’

There was a measure of relief in Wyatt’s expression, as if he was glad to have his suspicions confirmed, and to confront this potential trouble. ‘You can’t be serious.’

‘Why not? Don’t tell me you’re above temptation, Wyatt. There’s enough gold here to last a lifetime. Well,’ Doc added with dry humour, ‘to last my lifetime, anyhow.’

‘No, I’m not above thinking about it, but there’s no sense to the idea: the lack of sense outweighs the temptation.’

‘How so?’

‘We’d never get away with it. We’re far too well known. The bank knows exactly who they gave the gold to, and we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere to hide.’

‘Ah, but we could concoct a suitable story about being robbed.’

Wyatt laughed. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. I know we’re not invincible, but who would believe anyone got the better of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday? Especially if we ride into Seminole without a scratch on us.’

‘But they trust you as a lawman, even if you are retired. They’d believe anything you told them.’

‘I’m not above suspicion, Doc, especially now I’m spending all my time with you. They might be more willing to swallow a tall tale if I was with Virgil.’

Doc smiled. ‘But the situation would not arise if you were with Virgil. And, anyway, I’m a far more accomplished liar than either of you ‑‑ though I have hopes for you, Wyatt.’

After a thoughtful silence, Wyatt said, ‘My reputation is like a great, heavy coat… that’s too big for me. I wish I could shrug it off, leave it behind. People expect…’ He looked up, and said with some bitterness, ‘People expect Wyatt Earp! But I don’t want to be larger than life. Is that how it is with you?’

‘Mmm.’ Doc nodded. ‘Except you have an image to live up to, and I have to live down to mine.’ He was rewarded with a laugh. Doc continued, ‘Consequently, you’re uncomfortable with yours, while I enjoy it all. A reputation carries definite benefits. Simply by being Doc Holliday, I outclass mere mortals, and they know it. Which makes it so much easier to take what I want from them.’

‘But there are disadvantages, too,’ Wyatt argued. ‘Every man wants to measure himself against you. Every man wants to add to his reputation by destroying yours, by beating the unbeatable.’

‘And what disadvantage is it that prevents you and me from taking this gold, these beautiful alluring riches?’

‘Because we can’t be anonymous. We couldn’t even use false names, because people would recognise us: and I can’t picture you incognito, Doc. Everything we do becomes significant, only because we’re who we are. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.’

Doc nodded. ‘Good,’ he said; ‘you’re learning, Wyatt, to articulate at least. One day I might teach you to have the gall to actually take the gold. But not today, I think.’

Wyatt shook his head, amused at this impossible task Doc had set himself. ‘No, not today.’

By the third evening, marshall Wyatt Earp was beginning to win a few hands of poker. The first lesson Doc had imparted was to take the game as seriously as he regarded his work: Earp immediately became harder to read. The second lesson was that Earp should treat poker as he would a fickle and desirable woman: after some contemplation, Earp declared that he understood the significance of this metaphor, though Doc was forced to wonder whether the man had any direct experience to draw on.

Earp was slowly becoming more and more interesting. It had been his idea late this evening, for instance, that they quit playing for matches.

‘What shall we use instead?’ Doc asked.

‘Whoever wins a hand gets to ask the other a question, and receive an honest answer.’

‘Ah.’ Doc paused for a moment, wondering whether this was incredibly naive, or incredibly sophisticated of the man; pondering on the fact that Earp must surely realise that a question can be as revealing as an answer. ‘How would you know if I was telling you the truth?’

‘Maybe I wouldn’t. That’s not what’s important.’

What in hell do you think is important, then? But Doc didn’t ask that. ‘Is this your notion of interrogation? You can’t expect me to voluntarily incriminate myself.’

Again, the man silently said, Don’t be a fool. It had been a long time since Doc had cared about anyone thinking him a fool, and he didn’t like what that implied. Earp said, ‘I’m hardly going to ask you a question that you won’t reply to. In any case, even a lie tells a truth about the person who chooses to tell it.’

Intriguing. Curious about what Earp planned to ask him, Doc agreed.

Doc’s first question was, ‘Where did you find Matthew?’

Earp was startled but, after thinking it over, apparently decided no harm would be done by telling him. ‘On the floor by his desk.’

‘The desk he worked at, in his front room?’


His second question was, ‘Where was he shot?’

‘The shoulder and the chest, from the front.’ Earp was watching Doc carefully. His demeanour seemed to say, Either you didn’t know the answer, and you’re innocent, which is unlikely; or this is more dissembling, which is either very naive or very sophisticated. Doc could almost hear the cog wheels turning in Earp’s mind.

Doc won a third hand, and asked, ‘Where was the weapon?’

Earp countered, ‘Why would the murderer leave the weapon behind for us to find?’

‘I know you’ve found it, marshall, though I didn’t know you’d found it at Matthew’s house: I overheard one of your deputies mention it.’

The man received this with the faintest touch of annoyance, and Doc gleefully anticipated the deputies getting an earful of irate Earp the next day. ‘Saunders’ gun was lying on the floor about six feet from the body. It had been fired twice. I assume it was the murder weapon, because the only other option is that Saunders fired it at his assailant; but there’s no disturbance, no signs of a fight, no shots that went wide and hit the wall, no blood other than around the body, and no injured man in town that I know of.’

‘So the murderer used it, and dropped it,’ Doc continued the line of reasoning. ‘Whoever it was lacked both sense and style.’

Earp almost smiled. ‘If that’s your defence, Mr Holliday, I doubt it will be quite enough to acquit you.’

‘The good townsfolk have obviously tried and convicted me already.’ Doc tilted his head in the direction of a pair of men loitering in the street just beyond the verandah. There had been at least two men there and often more, all round the clock since that first night, as if the citizens were taking it in turns to menace the accused. During the day, women walked by, too, glaring their disapproval; one lady had even stepped up to the open doorway in order to spit on the floor, which had startled the marshall more than all the simmering unrest. The only people who treated Doc with any civility were the deputies ‑‑ grudgingly, on Earp’s orders ‑‑ the marshall, and the marshall’s mousy little wife.

At last Earp won the chance for a question. ‘You believe you’re the only person in town to have known who Matt Saunders really was.’

‘Yes,’ Doc said. ‘My, that was an easy one.’

‘It was a statement, not a question. What do you know about him that I don’t?’

‘Ah.’ Doc took a breath. ‘Matthew was not an honest man.’

‘I knew that already: I told you he was going to run for mayor.’

‘And politicians are, by definition, not honest? You definitely are a wise man, marshall. All right. Matthew maintained a public persona, and tried to hide his lack of scruples and his private truths from even himself. He wore a mask, and barely even knew who he was.’

Earp asked, ‘Is being Doc Holliday like wearing a mask?’

‘You haven’t earned a second question yet, but luckily I’m feeling magnanimous. The answer is no, I have never worn a mask. What you see is who I am. What about you? Is there more to you than meets the eye, marshall?’

A long moment, while Earp considered this with an uneasy frown. At last he said, ‘I don’t know. Sometimes I fear there might be.’

‘Yes,’ Doc said approvingly: ‘but you shouldn’t fear it; you should explore it. You should live, marshall.’

Another silence. Then Earp said, ‘That’s enough poker for tonight.’ He didn’t seem resentful, or defensive; more as if he simply had something on his mind. He began moving around the office, tidying things up, but absently keeping an eye on Doc all the while.

‘May I read the newspaper?’ Doc asked.

Earp looked at him. The only paper in the office was the issue in which Matthew had advertised the sale of interest in the Mantua mine. Perhaps the marshall welcomed the chance to watch Doc’s reactions to whatever else was in there. He brought the paper over to the table, then sat close by with his feet to the fire. The weather had taken a cold turn that afternoon.

Doc read through the articles, though he’d skimmed most of them a few nights ago, keeping Matthew company while he typeset it. He laughed when he reached the back page, and showed Earp the advertisement for the Mayfair boarding house: single and double rooms for disconcerting gentlefolk.

The marshall laughed, too. ‘Disconcerting? They’ll be outraged. The Mayfairs really put on airs.’

‘I know: they wouldn’t let me stay there. Obviously not discerning enough for them, though I think undesirable was the word they used.’

‘This is your idea of revenge?’ Earp asked, frowning.

‘Hell, no; this is merely an amusement.’ Doc added, in inspired tones, ‘Maybe the Mayfairs read this, and were so outraged they killed Matthew.’

Earp just shook his head. ‘Nice try, Mr Holliday. It’s time to retire.’

The cell was beyond the warmth of the fire, and the two blankets did not offer much protection tonight. Doc huddled on his bunk, shivering, unsurprised when the cold air exacerbated his cough.

After a bout that lasted a few minutes, Earp walked over to stand at the bars. ‘You’re consumptive, aren’t you, Mr Holliday. Do you need a doctor? Medicine?’

‘There’s nothing to be done.’ Another cough, which he barely managed to suppress. ‘I apologise for disturbing your sleep.’

‘Never mind that.’ A moment. ‘Is it the cold? Should you sleep near the fire?’

The trouble with Earp was that he was so damned decent, and could therefore be taken advantage of. ‘Yes,’ said Doc.

Earp lit a lamp, shifted his own cot over to the fire, then unlocked the cell and invited Doc out with a sweep of his hand.

‘You’re a generous man, marshall.’ With the extra blankets, and the cheering flames, Doc soon warmed up. His last sight before surrendering to sleep was of Earp in the soft glow of the lamp, feet out but sitting upright on his wooden chair, reading a book to keep himself awake: Doc’s last thought was wonder that Earp could be so mindlessly decent he would trade his own comfort for that of a hardened and unrepentant criminal.

Doc was sitting on his bunk, back against the wall, watching the marshall prepare his cases. The man was methodical: arranging his evidence and affidavits; frowning over his presentation; writing down the key points of his arguments. Every now and then he’d ask Doc’s help in finding the best word to use; so when Earp was conspicuously silent, Doc assumed it was his own case.

The diverse people who visited the office, singly or in pairs, were apparently the marshall’s witnesses come to review their testimony, and prepare for cross‑examination. Virtually all of them glared at Doc on behalf of the late Matthew. It was almost comical.

Earp had apologised for leaving Doc in the cell during the days, explaining that he had to concentrate. It was understood between them that Earp considered Doc safer there, too, though Doc really couldn’t find it in him to fear the townsfolk of Dodge City. Nevertheless, Doc accepted the situation gracefully: Earp had been far more hospitable than any other lawman who’d taken Doc into custody.

It was the fifth afternoon since Earp had arrested him and, although there were still a handful of people loitering in the street outside the office, everything was quiet. Doc watched as Earp gathered up the paperwork on his latest case, and slipped it all neatly into a box file. The man remained standing, linked his hands and stretched his arms high above his head: Doc could feel a sympathetic tug in his own shoulders and back. Then Earp refilled the kettle and swung it over the fire.

‘Cup of tea, Mr Holliday?’

‘Thank you, yes.’

The man seemed pensive, thoughtful, as he slowly went about this latest task. ‘I’m all done,’ Earp said after a while. ‘Unless I’ve forgotten something.’

‘I don’t imagine you have,’ Doc offered: ‘you seem very thorough.’ He added with a laugh, ‘Too thorough for my peace of mind.’

Earp looked across at him, weariness eating away at the granite. ‘You feel you have something to fear from my case against you?’

Doc raised an eyebrow. ‘Surely I do.’

Shrugging, Earp poured the hot water into the teapot. ‘I’ll let you out; come sit by the fire. Talk to me about poker or something, anything other than law and evidence and witnesses.’

‘With pleasure.’ They sat in chairs either side of the fire, feet to the warmth of it. How strange that this should be so comfortable, sharing time with a lawman, and a serious and dedicated lawman at that. Although he didn’t want to lose this unlikely companionship, Doc asked, ‘What does your lovely wife think of you staying here all day and all night? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you lived here.’

Earp dismissed this with a shrug and said, ‘She understands. It’s not always like this.’

Doubting the woman really did or even could understand Earp’s priorities, Doc declined to comment. He was slowly realising that he wanted to try to know Wyatt Earp, who had a number of unexpected traits. So rare ‑‑ in fact, unique in Doc’s experience ‑‑ that a good and honest and decent man should be unpredictable, should exhibit any subtleties or intelligence or depths. Though those depths, unlike Doc’s, remained unplumbed: Earp seemed troubled by the fact of them on occasion, but otherwise largely ignored them.

Anyhow, better Earp’s company than one of the mundane, colourless, interchangeable deputies.

‘She says she understands,’ Earp amended, apparently still considering his wife.

‘I hardly need to tell you that people rarely say what they mean.’

‘Rarely? No, lies are the exception, and truth is the general rule.’

‘You believe that, yet you seem unsurprised when people do lie, or at least avoid speaking the truth?’

Earp frowned, massaged his temples with hard fingers. ‘People do and say what they want to, what they feel they have to, that’s all.’

‘That’s all?’ Doc queried.

‘No one’s going to change another person’s mind for them; and no one really has the right to try.’

‘You don’t allow for the influence, in your case, of friends and family? Let alone conversing at length with your enemy.’

Shrugging, the marshall said, ‘I do, but I also have a choice about being influenced, and how deeply.’

Silence. Then Doc said, ‘You must have a resilient notion of who you are.’

‘No.’ Earp almost smiled at this, though it was a sad expression. ‘I thought I did, once. Now I guess I know who I want to be, and that’s about it.’

‘Not many people, if pressed, could even claim that much.’ Doc shook his head. Just when he thought he was beginning to grasp the essence of Wyatt Earp, the man confused and eluded him. Doc felt this latest conversation could have made little sense to either of them, but at least they were trying to communicate with each other, on fairly vital topics. Yes, that was the important thing. Reverting to the start, Doc suggested, ‘So, your wife says she understands your continued absence, and you take her at her word, even though you suspect she’s not telling the truth.’

‘Who am I to decide she’s lying? If that’s what she says, then I have to accept that’s what she means. If it’s not quite true, then she has her own reasons for saying it.’

‘You’re never going to learn to play poker if you insist on taking people at face value.’

‘But you said to treat the game as seriously as work. I never take people at face value when I’m on a case.’ Earp shrugged. ‘As I said before, the choice to tell a lie, in itself, tells a truth. Maybe Claire thinks it’s the right thing for her to do, to leave me here in peace for the sake of law and order. Hell, maybe she enjoys being left in peace. Though I hope not.’

Doc just gazed at the man, wondering whether that made the man a good husband or a bad one. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a position to judge.

And Earp again said something completely unexpected: ‘Why do you call yourself my enemy?’

‘Surely you’re mine: if you’re successful, you’ll see me hang for murder.’

No comment was offered. Earp eventually nodded his head, more in acknowledgement than agreement.

Seeking a topic less fraught, though still vital, Doc said, ‘So summarise for me what you’ve learned about poker. Let me review your progress.’

Earp shot him a tired and withered glare, then visibly began to gather his thoughts. ‘Luck plays a role, but so does calculation,’ the man said. ‘You don’t know what cards were dealt to the other players, and you don’t know what draw cards you’ll be dealt; but you can calculate the odds, and work out how likely it is that anyone has a better hand than you.’ The marshall rubbed at his temples again. ‘That’s where I fall down,’ he confessed: ‘I don’t have a head for figures.’

‘You’ve already got a feel for how the cards fall,’ Doc said. ‘You could get by without actually doing the mathematics.’ He smiled, and added, ‘You’ll just never beat me, that’s all. It’s just as well there are so many wretches out there you can beat.’

Accepting this rather back‑handed compliment, Earp continued, ‘There are only a certain number of decisions you can make, and not many alternatives for each decision. So you have to be careful to make the best decision, because you don’t get a chance to remedy any mistake. And because there are limits on the decisions to be made, if you know your opponent, you can guess at what his situation is by the decisions he makes, and play accordingly.’

‘Very good,’ Doc said. ‘Anything else?’

‘You have no interests in common with the other players, in fact you’re in direct conflict with all of them, because you all want to win all of the pot. How’s that?’

‘Excellent. You really are taking this seriously. Now you should do what I did: leave your profession, and begin a new career.’

Earp laughed. ‘Poker as a career?’

‘It’s an honest trade,’ Doc declared, wondering at the defensive note that had crept into his voice. ‘And a profitable one.’

The laughter grew. ‘What on earth was your profession?’

‘Actually,’ Doc said, beginning to fear he was being made fun of, ‘I was a dentist.’

He’d been right: Earp now began laughing so hard that tears welled in his eyes. So much for the man of granite. Doc watched, bemused; finally admitting to himself that he rather valued Earp’s interest in and good opinion of him. How many years was it since anyone had dared to laugh at Doc Holliday? The answer seemed to be too many.

‘I’m sorry,’ Earp eventually spluttered. ‘I guess anything’s better than being a dentist.’ And that thought set him off all over again.

Helpless paroxysms, thought Doc, and at my expense. I’m touched. The only other person who’d found him at all amusing had been Juliet, especially during the years of their friendship. Which was obviously and disturbingly significant, although Doc really didn’t want to examine why just now.

A silhouette filled the doorway for a moment, resolved into a tall slim man with dark eyes, greying hair, and a moustache even wider and longer than Earp’s.

Doc watched him warily as he approached them across the room; Earp, huddled up and shaking with mirth, was oblivious to the fact they had company. Like the marshall, this stranger was dressed in heavy black, relieved in this case with a white shirt, grey tie and dark red waistcoat. The effect was quite stylish, though that seemed to be the last thing this man would consider. Abruptly the no‑nonsense expression connected with previous information, and Doc decided he must be looking at Virgil Earp.

‘Wyatt?’ the man asked, sounding suspicious. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Virgil!’ The marshall unwound from the chair and stood, wiped the tears from his face with a quick brush of his shirtsleeve, reached to hug his brother. ‘How are you?’ he asked with another laugh. ‘I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.’

‘Made good time, thought we’d press on,’ Virgil explained. He looked askance at Doc.

‘It’s great to see you. I had a letter from Morg the other day.’ Earp chattered on for a few moments, relaying the mundane family news.

Which gave Doc adequate time to reflect that anyone with a brother named Morgue was obviously a suitable man for Doc Holliday to know.

‘Wait up a minute, Wyatt,’ Virgil eventually said. ‘Who’s this, and what are those people doing out front?’

Earp at last followed his brother’s distracted gaze. ‘Sorry, I should have introduced you. Virgil, this is Doc Holliday. He’ll be up before Judge Clemens, but those people out front want to see justice done sooner than that. Mr Holliday, this is my older brother, Virgil Earp.’

It was apparent from his expression that Virgil knew of Doc by reputation. Nevertheless, after a long moment, he held out his right hand.

‘Excuse me if I don’t shake hands,’ Doc said. He felt uncomfortable about this, though he hadn’t for years. But, while he wouldn’t make an exception for the sake of the marshall, he decided to at least offer an explanation. ‘Small point of honour, I suppose,’ he said lightly, as if it was of little consequence. ‘You’re a lawman, too, aren’t you, Mr Earp? You may want to arrest me at some stage, and I do so abhor all the confusion and conflicting loyalties when acquaintances find themselves in such a situation.’

‘I see,’ said Virgil disapprovingly, drawing himself up even further.

The marshall looked from one to the other of his companions, and suggested a drink. Virgil seemed surprised when a bottle of whisky and three shot glasses were produced.

Doc sat quietly, enjoying the spirits, and letting the brothers talk. He amused himself thinking about the issue of etiquette, and decided he was not going to meekly retire to his cell, though the marshall seemed to be the only man present who hadn’t even considered that Doc really should. The deciding factor was that Doc found the spirits and the fire very welcome. Wyatt Earp was obviously far too decent for his own good.

Rolling a cigarette, Doc allowed himself a wry smile at Wyatt’s expense: the man was still too decent, all these years and tribulations later. They were three days from Seminole, and needed supplies of food and other sundries. Rather than put temptation in anyone’s way but their own, it had seemed wise to avoid civilisation while the gold was under their guardianship: Wyatt had therefore volunteered to ride to the nearest town to make the necessary purchases while Doc stayed at their camp with their charge. As if Doc would ever elect such bother over the opportunity to relax.

It was far easier to sit here beneath the tree that had sheltered them during the night, stretched out with his feet bare, and mull over his and Wyatt’s first meeting.

Wyatt had certainly managed to capture Doc’s attention during those days of enforced companionship. It had begun with Doc’s grudging respect for Wyatt’s skills as a marshall; and progressed through an appreciation of Wyatt’s innate decency; to a realisation that the man couldn’t be dismissed as slow. Yes, Wyatt was perceptive, and was able to learn and to question. Quite amazing traits for a marshall.

In fact, three of Wyatt’s traits were so rare as to be almost unique in Doc’s experience: Wyatt’s ability to surprise Doc; his unwillingness to judge people, or to try to change them; and Wyatt’s serious delight in laughing both at and with Doc.

But perhaps none of that would have so fully engaged Doc’s interest if it hadn’t been for the fact that Wyatt was so much larger and more complex than even Wyatt himself was aware of. There were depths and breadths there that Wyatt barely recognised, even though he used them when he had to: Wyatt’s reckoning, his war with the Cowboys, sprang directly from those depths. There were heights Wyatt probably hadn’t explored, either, though he might if he ever got around to chasing after that spirited actress of his, the lovely Josephine.

The miracle was that, though Wyatt tried to be something less than what he was, the real man would not be diminished.

Hell, Doc thought. Even the uninformed John Henry had realised he wasn’t dull Edward. Why couldn’t Wyatt realise that he wasn’t just another Virgil?

Not that Virgil Earp wasn’t a stout fellow, in his way, and a good lawman. But there were no surprises to him, no real ability to question and learn, no depths. And damn little humour, if it came to that; let alone any appreciation of Doc’s finer qualities.

The consequence of Wyatt’s hidden complexities was years of blunderings: Wyatt kept earnestly trying to be the man he thought he was, but inevitably headed in all the wrong directions and ended up worse off than when he started. It would be quite amusing if it wasn’t so sad.

Once, Wyatt had almost got it right: after Claire had died of typhoid, Wyatt left Dodge City and went wandering, though he still worked as a marshall. But then there was Wyatt’s move to Tombstone: he’d retired as a lawman, and instead made a rich living through the faro table; he’d tried to create a home for his family, bringing his brothers and their wives along with him, rather than continuing his wandering; he’d entered into a doomed marriage with Mattie. And he was wrong on all counts.

It wasn’t that Doc wanted Wyatt to remain a lawman, but the profession was far closer to Wyatt’s true nature than the alternatives of gambling, and managing a growing range of money and mining interests and shares. As for settling down, and surrounding himself with family, that just didn’t suit the man. Yes, Wyatt’s ties to his brothers were strong, but that didn’t mean he could share his life with them. As for a wife and children, that was nothing more than one of society’s demands Wyatt hadn’t yet thought through. Doc suspected Wyatt knew as much, at least instinctively: why else did he choose Mattie for a wife, when it was clear they’d never make each other happy? And when it was also clear that she had needs nothing but laudanum would ever satisfy.

But Doc saw all these well‑meaning blunderings as a hopeful sign: at least the man was trying to figure out who he was, and was doing something about it. That was good. In fact, it was admirable.

After all these years of witnessing Wyatt’s failed attempts, though, Doc found himself wanting to help. He didn’t want to change Wyatt, just as Wyatt had never tried to change Doc. The man was, however, worthy of some assistance: if Doc could only push him in the right direction, help him see a little clearer… Even teach Wyatt a few things that he seemed unable to quite grasp, clarify a few things the man seemed to only guess at.

Wasn’t that what a friend expected from his fellow? Doc had to assume so.

Surely it was of the utmost importance that Wyatt fulfil his potential. Surely the only point of Life was to know yourself, and to be all you could be. No one could deny that Wyatt had tried to do that on his own: but he was now in need of some guidance.

Doc stood, and stared around him at the empty barren countryside. Considering the meaning and purpose of Life? he queried himself, inclined to scoff. He thought he’d left such large questions behind him years ago.

Yes, he had voiced the eternal question of Why? When there was no reply, then Doc had turned his attention within, and begun exploring exactly what he was capable of, finding where his limits were and pushing them further. There were some he hadn’t even found yet.

And there were so many capabilities and limits he never would have found if he’d remained John, or John Henry, and hadn’t become Doc Holliday.

Doc reached for his tobacco pouch, and began rolling another cigarette. That was the inevitable conclusion his thoughts had been tending towards, perhaps, but it wasn’t one he was comfortable with. No, Juliet and Juliet’s love were the only things he’d ever wanted in his life. Without her, he was nothing, and Life was nothing.

But the idea refused to be ignored. None of Doc Holliday’s potential would have been fulfilled if he’d remained in Georgia. None of it.

Doc Holliday’s lowly triumphs and pains and sordid pleasures are at the expense of John’s love, he reminded himself. That was the tragedy of his life.

Impatient for Wyatt to return, Doc began prowling around their campsite. At times a man’s thoughts were too unsettling to be suffered alone. Not that he could or ever would tell Wyatt any of this: but the man was good for distraction if nothing else.

The court hearing, once it eventuated, was rather an anti‑climax.

On the first morning of court, Wyatt Earp had walked up to the cell in the marshall’s office and, too low for his deputies to hear, said, ‘I’m going to leave your case until last.’ Doc Holliday, already dressed to the nines, must have betrayed his frustration, because Earp murmured, ‘I have my reasons. Trust me.’ And on that unexpected note, he’d turned and left, with Doc staring after him, wondering if this was a hopeful sign or not. It would be just like the well‑meaning marshall, if he felt he’d secure a conviction, to think that an extra couple of days languishing in this cell were of value to Doc.

So, on the fourth morning of court, Doc finally sat at the defendants’ table in the town hall. Judge Clemens and his legal clerk were at a table on the dais, and the marshall was at the prosecution table to Doc’s left. The open area behind Earp and Doc was filled with restless townsfolk, with Virgil Earp and the deputies keeping a stern eye on them.

The whole thing was over quickly. Wyatt Earp presented his case well enough, in simple and direct and unemotional language. It was obvious he’d prepared himself, and put some thought into the situation. It also became obvious, however, that the evidence against Doc Holliday was all circumstantial. Doc had certainly been Matthew’s acquaintance, and had helped him name a mine that, Earp had discovered, was indeed all worked out. Doc had definitely earned himself a reputation as a gambler and a killer, and was known to have been involved in a swindle or two. The fact that Matthew knew Doc might explain the lack of a struggle. Business papers, and the title deed for the mine, were spread across the desk, which suggested a disagreement over money. It appeared that Matthew, if not Doc as well, was guilty of fraud relating to the attempted sale of the mine. But that was all. It seemed the marshall hadn’t even uncovered the two other little schemes Matthew and Doc had been playing with.

‘No witnesses to the murder itself?’ Judge Clemens asked. ‘No evidence to support your accusal of this man?’

‘None that bears directly on the case, your honour,’ the marshall said, quite open about the matter.

The judge pondered for a moment, and provided his summing up. ‘A man is dead, a good man, someone we all knew and respected. That’s a sad thing. Especially when it appears that Matt Saunders wasn’t exactly the man we thought him. But there’s no reason to hold Doc Holliday responsible for Saunders’ death, and there’s no evidence adequate to find him guilty of murder, even though some of you are tempted to draw that conclusion.’ The gavel cracked down. ‘Case dismissed.’

The townsfolk were not impressed.

Trust me, marshall Wyatt Earp had said. Apparently, by that time, he’d known he wouldn’t be able to prove a case of murder, and had only taken the matter to court in an attempt to prove Doc Holliday’s innocence to the people of Dodge City. He’d made plans just in case the people remained unconvinced.

So it was that Virgil Earp stayed behind in Dodge City, and the marshall escorted Doc to the nearest State line which was, unfortunately, Okalahoma.

‘Let me know your address, and I’ll have your belongings sent on,’ the marshall offered, decent and exploitable to the last.

How strange, that the pair of them should be waiting in the middle of nowhere, each still on their horses, as if uncomfortable with saying farewell. ‘Thank you, sir,’ Doc belatedly replied. ‘And I thank you for your generous hospitality.’ He should simply turn away and ride on. Acquaintances surely shouldn’t have to suffer this sense of too many things unsaid and unsayable.

‘Well,’ Earp said, ‘it was interesting to meet you. I enjoyed the poker games, and the conversations.’ He tipped his hat politely. ‘Goodbye, Mr Holliday.’

‘Wait.’ No time to consider his motives; which were something along the lines of valuing Earp’s good opinion, and offering the man some truth even though Doc risked absolute foolishness. Doc said, ‘I think Matthew shot himself, I think it was suicide.’

Earp frowned. ‘But he was shot twice, and the gun was six feet away.’

‘He was determined, give the man credit where it’s due. If Matthew was at the desk, and all the Mantua papers were there in plain view, along with who knows what else, then he did it to spite me.’

‘That’s a pretty arrogant assumption.’

‘Yes, and I make no apology for my arrogance. If Matthew wanted me to hang for his murder, then he’d have the nerve to shoot himself in the shoulder first, before doing the deed. Even then he wouldn’t have died immediately. He could have let the gun fall, if not actually tossed it away.’

The marshall seemed full of doubt. ‘That’s an awful lot of pain.’

‘And a lot of hate motivating it.’ Doc said fiercely, ‘You didn’t know him, Wyatt. Matthew had that sort of determination, and he used it; sometimes to get what he wanted, and sometimes to deny himself.’ He added, ‘Though he could have staged the thing better.’

‘All right,’ Earp said. ‘I’d been speculating along similar lines, but I didn’t quite see it.’

Doc nodded, satisfied that they had reached an agreement.

‘Suicide,’ the marshall continued. ‘A lot of people would still lay the blame at your door. Matt Saunders must have cared a great deal for you. What do you feel about that?’

A long moment, as Doc looked at the man. The marshall required the truth, in everything he required the truth, and perhaps he even deserved it. The risk, of course, was that in this case Earp would not find the truth palatable. But, if Doc didn’t offer it, then the risk became a certainty that Doc would never be considered this man’s acquaintance. The truth it was. ‘I didn’t care for Matthew. And I can live with one more death on my conscience.’

The marshall was silent.

And, because he didn’t ask why Matthew might have committed suicide, Doc told him. ‘I showed Matthew who he was, and he hated himself. He hated me for doing that, and for not caring about him. So, on the spur of the moment, he decided to rid the world of both of us.’

‘All right,’ Earp repeated. ‘Goodbye, Doc.’

‘Aren’t you going to tell me never to return to Dodge City?’ Doc let out a laugh. ‘There are so many towns I’m not supposed to return to.’

‘No, I’m not. Just give them enough time to forget, that’s all.

Doc nodded. It was more than time to make a graceful exit. But Wyatt Earp was offering him his right hand. A moment of turmoil, then Doc took it in his, grasped the hand firmly and shook it. ‘Goodbye, Wyatt.’ And he let the man go, and rode away.

‘What on earth is in Denver, Colorado that has you so keen to travel there?’ Wyatt asked, exasperated with him.

‘Far more than there is in Seminole, Texas,’ Doc countered.

‘That may well be true, but it’s a damned long way, Doc. You’re still not fully recovered, are you?’

‘And I never will be, my friend,’ Doc said gently. As Doc had intended, Wyatt found himself unable to argue with that. ‘I have a wandering spirit, Wyatt. Indulge me.’

The man said, ‘You need to rest.’

‘There’s plenty of time for resting after I’m dead.’

Wyatt stared at him, barely managing to suppress a flinch. ‘I see,’ he said tightly.

Doc felt something sink within him. He hadn’t meant to hurt the man, but he was impatient to be moving again. It seemed that if he remained still his thoughts tended in directions he had no wish to follow. ‘All right,’ Doc said at last: ‘we’ll stay here for a few days before moving on.’

‘Good.’ A moment of silence. Then Wyatt headed for the door, saying, ‘I’ll go down to reception and see if the room’s available for another week.’

Another week? Wyatt was obviously taking matters into his own hands. Doc sighed, and reached for his luggage. Sure, he’d rest if Wyatt insisted: but the man might not be so happy when he realised Doc intended to find peace at the bottom of a bottle of bourbon.

Wyatt was right about one thing: Doc was tired. He pulled his boots off and lay back on the bed, swallowed a dram of the liquid fire, and then another. That should be enough to encourage sleep, though it was only early afternoon. Doc curled up on his side, and dozed, only vaguely aware of Wyatt quietly returning.

The afternoon stretched, and Doc tossed restlessly from troubled meandering thoughts to heavy sleep and back again. Burdened with images, his thoughts were little more than idle dreaming memories of the two distinct lives he’d led. The first life had been all ease and unquestioning plenty as a gentleman in the green South, steeped in ignorant indolent stupor. The second was a long wasting death, and destruction and bloodshed, as an adventurer in the mountains and deserts of the West. In between the two, that was where his Life lay. Six incredible weeks of loving Juliet, before he lost her.

There was no good reason for the tragedy that had thrown his life so far off course. If their family hadn’t been so obstinately, prudishly narrow‑minded, all would have been very different.

Though that fever thought now returned to haunt him: it was indeed a little naive not to attach any blame to either Juliet or himself.

She had been so defiant that night when Thomas and William had first found out about the affair; so brave and loving. She’d even admitted, when he’d visited her in the convent months later, that she would have run away with John if he’d suggested it. Doc frowned: why in hell hadn’t he? He recalled the option occurring to him, but he’d dismissed it immediately.

Because it hadn’t seemed like a possibility to either of them, to live outside of Verona, without the blessing of the damned family and the worthless society and the mindless religion they’d been brought up with. Naive of both of them.

So, Doc now wondered with some pain; had he been wrong to simply withdraw from the fracas? He’d gone on a five day drunk in his favoured saloon, and left Juliet alone to insist on having her way. But, no, the presence of John Henry, vile reprobate and unrepentant seducer, would only have exacerbated the situation. And if his beautiful, serious, articulate Juliet couldn’t talk them into letting her marry John, then no one could. She had been the darling child of the whole family, after all, and was accustomed to having what she wanted.

He was sure she’d done her best during those five days. But she’d also had her chance to be with him, she didn’t have to stay in that damned convent. She didn’t have to turn him down when he offered her the last few years of his life.


Both John and Julie were to blame, because they had had their chances. If they had failed to take those chances, it was because of who they were, and what they’d been taught to believe. It was long months later, in Dallas, before John even began to realise that they’d made their decisions based on a set of false assumptions.

So neither of them were to blame. It was simply all a sorry mess, if any tragedy that had ruined two young lives could be expressed in such poor terms. It was doomed, because neither of them could see beyond their limited expectations.

But then it had to follow ‑‑

Doc hauled himself upright, reached for the bottle of bourbon, and glared at Wyatt who was sitting quietly minding his own business over by the window. Not bothering with a glass, Doc swallowed a mouthful of fire, a second and a third.

It had to follow that Doc couldn’t continue to blame Thomas and William for the whole debacle, either. They had simply been acting within their limited beliefs, too. They were products of the society and the religion Doc had now turned his back on. It was naive to suppose there could have been any other outcome, really.

It was everyone’s fault, and it was no one’s fault. It was life; random and callous and meaningless life.

Doc sighed, and took another drink. But the bourbon wasn’t an answer. He considered the distraction of Wyatt, and decided he hadn’t really treated this man fairly, either. Which hurt a little, but was easier to think about than being fair to the memory of Thomas.

Wyatt was more than a distraction: Wyatt was a friend. Which made a grand total of two friends in Doc’s life. Well, Juliet had made his first life bearable, back when she was still a child and his pupil ‑‑ similarly, Wyatt’s companionship had ensured that Doc’s second life out here in the West hadn’t all been barren. There was some good resulting from the disaster of losing Juliet.

Another thought he had no wish to indulge: he had no wish to associate Wyatt with that old bitterness. He may as well put the problem aside, and simply make the most of what Life had bestowed him.

Clambering off the bed, Doc stumbled as he found the floor to be further away than he remembered it. ‘Where are the cards?’ he asked. ‘Shall we play a game of poker?’ After a moment, Wyatt agreed. The man looked bemused when Doc smiled at him, gentle again, but Doc had no intention of explaining these swings of mood.

Apparently Wyatt didn’t know whether to be amused or worried at how easily he was winning tonight. They were playing for money, which was merely a way of keeping track of the game: during their months of wanderings, mine and yours had ceased to mean very much; there was simply plenty and ours. Doc’s initial kitty had, however, been steadily finding its way to Wyatt’s side of the table.

‘What on earth are you thinking about, Doc?’ the man eventually asked with a laugh, gathering up another hundred dollars. ‘You’re lucky you’re playing against a man who’s willing to pay your hotel bill at the end of the week.’

Doc sighed, undecided whether to answer seriously or not. But Wyatt had apparently reached the truth sooner than Doc had, at least about one thing that Doc was currently bothering over. In fact, Wyatt may even have prompted this whole process of thought, damn him. ‘A while ago, back in Tombstone,’ Doc at last replied, ‘you said that I’m not like Johnny Ringo any more, if I ever was. That I don’t have a great empty hole through the middle of me that can never be filled.’

‘I remember,’ Wyatt said, dealing a new hand.

‘Do you still think that?’

‘Yes,’ was the immediate reply. Then, after they’d each considered their cards, discarded accordingly, and Wyatt had dealt the draw cards, Wyatt added, ‘You’re not seeking revenge for being born.’

‘Not for being born: that was definitely Ringo I was referring to. As for me, I was seeking revenge for something else. For losing something that was… precious to me.’

Wyatt looked at him, no doubt curious to hear more: but one of Wyatt’s most reliable traits was an unwillingness to pry. ‘You’re not seeking revenge from the world, Doc, not even for whatever it was they took from you. I know what revenge feels like, and that’s not what you’re about.’

‘Ah,’ Doc said, trying to cope with this bombardment of ideas. Why the hell did Wyatt keep insisting he was slow? They took from you was a telling interpretation of what Doc had said, especially as he’d only just begun to acknowledge that John indeed lost his Julie rather than had her taken from him. And no doubt Wyatt would have said WHOever it was, if he wasn’t inclined to respect a man’s privacy. And of course Wyatt knew all about revenge: he had sought a reckoning with the Cowboys, for the sake of Morgan’s death and Virgil’s crippled arm, for the sake of his own grief and guilt; and a reckoning was all about atoning and avenging.

Wyatt won another fifty dollars, and Doc dealt another hand. They played slowly, as Doc kept pausing for reflection, though this wasn’t unusual: he liked to savour a game, and to consider all its nuances.

As they were examining their cards, Doc mused, ‘If my life is not about revenge, then what is it about?’

Wyatt let out a laugh, but it seemed born of surprise rather than maliciousness. ‘You’re asking me?’

‘Yes, my friend. You were right, I think, about that great empty hole of mine: it’s not so hungry any more, though I’m not quite sure why. However, it is still there, and if I’m not seeking revenge and trying to fill it, then what am I doing?’

Silence for a while, as they both considered this. Doc managed to win the hand, more through luck than skill. Wyatt at last said, ‘You’re having fun, I suppose. Living. Adventuring.’

‘Fun?’ Doc repeated with a frown.

‘Not ‑‑‘ Wyatt searched for the right words. ‘Not in a light‑hearted way, maybe. But you enjoy everything to the utmost. You take your fun seriously.’ He shrugged. ‘I’m probably wrong. If I’ve offended you, I didn’t mean to.’

‘No, of course you haven’t. I asked you, and you answered as honestly as you always do.’ Doc pondered a moment, then said, ‘The trouble with you, Wyatt, other than your honesty, is that you make me think. And I’m suddenly wondering whether my life seems terribly self‑indulgent to you. How can you admire me, when I’m such a frivolous creature?’

This time, Wyatt had an answer ready. ‘Because you live with such enthusiasm. It’s easy to admire enthusiasm. And because you have your own kind of honour, and you have always applied it very consistently when dealing with me.’ Wyatt looked across the table at Doc, very direct, and added, ‘Though I think you call it style rather than honour.’

‘Of course I have style, Wyatt,’ Doc retorted testily. ‘I’m the most stylish man I know.’

‘You were raised a gentleman, weren’t you? So you must have some sense of morals that you can’t get away from.’

Doc felt thoroughly affronted, and let it show in his tone. ‘If I do have some vestigial remnant of fairness, I only use it to measure how outrageous I’m being.’

Wyatt’s expression slid from direct to amused: he was watching Doc with a half smile, as if he had Doc’s measure and knew it. The man was quite unsettling.

‘Stop looking so sly, Wyatt. You’re wrong.’

The expression became familiar granite. Wyatt nodded once, and returned to the game. But eventually he said, ‘You’ve been worrying over something for days. Is that the reason for all these questions? What are you trying to figure out?’

‘Never you mind,’ was Doc’s immediate reply. But he regretted the words even as he spoke them: he was still treating this man unfairly. He offered, ‘There is something that’s worrying at me; you’re right again, Wyatt. Ancient history, from before I met you. I suppose I’m trying to get it sorted out.’ Doc sighed, and said, ‘There might be plenty of time for resting after I’m dead, but I don’t imagine there will be any chance for thinking.’

And, despite the fact Doc was repeating a comment that had hurt Wyatt earlier in the afternoon, the man nodded again, accepting this partial confession. Far too decent.

Doc started awake, glanced wildly around him. The night’s darkness had that quality which meant it was rather late. The room was empty, which should have been reassuring: he frowned, and wrote his sense of unease off as the remnants of a bourbon‑troubled dream. But Wyatt wasn’t there, patiently waiting on his friend, which wasn’t reassuring at all. Strange how Doc had come to rely on the man’s continual presence. Maybe the unease was the result of knowing he was alone.

Reaching for the bottle, which should have been exactly where he’d left it on the floor, where he always left it, Doc frowned: it had gone. Glancing around again, he saw the bourbon had been capped and placed out of easy reach on the sideboard. Was Wyatt being tidy, or was he trying to dissuade Doc from drinking? Doc leaped to the latter conclusion, and thought darkly of his erstwhile friend.

He clambered off the bed, allowing for the extra height of it this time, and headed for the bottle; swallowed a few quick and defiant mouthfuls.

Well, if Wyatt wasn’t here to distract him with poker and conversation, Doc would seek the game elsewhere.

Their money was gone. Doc searched all four of his old hiding places, and his new one, with increasing outrage: all he found was two hundred dollars in his coat pocket, along with a note. Wyatt’s handwriting: No, we haven’t been robbed. I put it in the hotel safe.

Damn the man. Doc crushed the note and dropped it, picked up the coat and the money and the bourbon, and walked out the door.

An hour later he was well on his way to thoroughly soused, and had borrowed another two hundred dollars from a man likewise soused, on the strict understanding that Doc would at least double their capital at a poker game of his choice.

The two of them wandered from saloon to saloon, drinking steadily from Doc’s bottle, until Doc found a poker game he felt an interest in: he liked a challenge. Also, given his reputation, some tables refused to deal him in: this one welcomed him. Obviously men of taste and spirit. In fact, he complimented them expansively on their derring‑do, and they laughed at him.

By the time Wyatt had found him, Doc had tripled both his money, and that of the man who was impressed and drunk enough to be declaring life‑long friendship.

Doc didn’t deign to acknowledge Wyatt with more than a nod, saving his smiles for the players he was busy fleecing; though none of them were laughing at him now. To Doc’s surprise, Wyatt simply chose to sit behind Doc and his new companion, and settle in for a patient wait: Doc had expected a lecture about taking care of himself, and a speedy walk back to the hotel in order to rest some more. He found he couldn’t even provoke a lecture by ordering another bottle of whisky and proceeding to imbibe a fair portion of it.

Eventually the game was over: the other players had lost enough money, and Doc was frankly too soused and too tired to find another table. He handed over half his winnings to his new partner with great aplomb, and shook his hand. Needless to say, the other man was delighted. Wyatt said to him, ‘Perhaps we should escort you home: you shouldn’t be carrying all that around at this hour on your own.’

A polite refusal, and Wyatt instead escorted Doc out the door, with a supportive hand at his elbow. ‘You took our money,’ Doc said, blunt in his drunken resentment.

‘For the sake of safety,’ Wyatt replied. ‘You were in no condition to look after it, and I had to go out for a while.’

The night air was brisk, and would have been invigorating for anyone else: Doc suffered a minor fit of coughing. When he could, he said, ‘You were trying to stop me from playing poker. I told you, I will not waste my time feeling poorly, Wyatt.’

‘I know,’ the man said easily. ‘I put the money in the safe, that’s all, and I told them you should have access to it, too. Wouldn’t they hand it over?’

‘Ah,’ Doc said, wondering if he’d been foolish. ‘I didn’t ask for it.’

Letting this go, as if it were all of little significance, Wyatt asked, ‘So who was that man? I think you made his year.’

‘I don’t know. Just someone I borrowed money from.’ Doc sighed. ‘Just another sucker. How was he to know I’d win? I should have just walked off with his precious money, after the game, and taught him a lesson about the futility of trust.’

‘You wouldn’t do that,’ Wyatt said.

Doc said petulantly, ‘Stop thinking the best of me, Wyatt.’

‘Why? Are you going to teach me about the futility of trust, too?’


Wyatt laughed, as if genuinely amused. ‘I don’t think so, Doc.’

A brief silence, during which Doc wondered if his dignity would be best served by ignoring this man, or by dreaming up some riposte. But, unable to think of anything witty, he made do with ignoring him.

‘I told you I know you have honour,’ Wyatt said: ‘you just don’t call it that.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Wyatt. I quit living by society’s rules years ago.’

‘Remember the second time you came to Dodge City? You won five hundred dollars from a man who couldn’t afford it, and you gave it back to him.’

How the hell do you know about that? Doc flared in alarm: he thought he’d shamed that boy into eternal silence. He said, ‘If you’re referring to that young Mexican idiot ‑‑ and I have to assume you are, because I rarely return my winnings ‑‑ I did not give him the money. He earned it back from me.’ Doc added primly, ‘And don’t expect me to tell you how.’

Wyatt chuckled; and Doc found he had no idea what Wyatt imagined the transaction might have involved. The marshall said, ‘That’s compassion, Doc.’

‘It is not,’ Doc retorted. ‘Don’t insult me, Wyatt. The boy was hardly a worthy opponent: it is no fun, if I may use your expression, to take candy from the mouths of babes. It is no challenge. It was, however, a challenge to make him earn the money back.’

‘All right,’ Wyatt said: ‘I call it compassion, you call it wanting a challenge; I call it honour, you call it style. What do you call the thing I think of as decency?’

‘Ah. No, you can have that one all to yourself, Wyatt.’ Doc saw with some relief that they were almost at the hotel. Perhaps Wyatt would allow him to change topics. ‘And what did you go out for in the first place?’ Doc asked.

‘A bit of business, and to buy dinner. I left yours, but it will be cold by now.’

‘I am in no fit state to eat, I’m afraid.’

Wyatt laughed again. ‘I gathered that.’

Within minutes, Doc was safely in the hotel room, stripped down to his undershirt, and gratefully curling up under the quilt. Wyatt was standing there beside the bed, with his arms folded, gazing down at Doc with an expression that approached quizzical. Doc said rather pointedly, ‘There’s no need to follow me about, Wyatt: I didn’t trip over anything.’

‘Only because I guided you around it all. You would have walked right into that chair while you were taking your shirt off.’

‘Well, there’s no need to tuck me in.’

Wyatt breathed a gentle sigh, and reached to untangle the quilt. ‘I know,’ he responded fondly.

Doc frowned. ‘Don’t think me compassionate, Wyatt, or honourable: I’m callous and immoral and faithless. I tell you this for your own good.’

‘Yes,’ Wyatt said in that same fond tone: ‘you’re a complete scoundrel.’ It was almost as if the man were reassuring him.

Irritable, Doc asked, ‘Then why do you call me a friend?’

‘I don’t have the first idea.’

Doc looked at him, perfectly aware he was being humoured. Still, Wyatt had spoken enough truths that day, so Doc would just accept this and dismiss the whole damned issue.

Wyatt said, ‘Get some sleep; give yourself some rest.’

Strangely, Doc found himself reaching out, and grasping Wyatt’s hand in his own. Which of them had initiated that? His frown deepened.

Apparently interpreting this as a need for further reassurance, Wyatt said, ‘Yes, I’ll be here.’

Doc grimaced and turned away. To his later surprise, he slept well that night.

‘I’ve never seen you so troubled,’ Wyatt said the next morning, after sharing Doc’s silence for a time.

Sighing, Doc shifted so that his legs were curled under him on the sofa, and huddled deeper into his robe. He bowed his head over his second cup of coffee, closing his eyes to better feel the slight heat and steam rising from it. ‘I’m thinking, Wyatt,’ he said, too flat to be wry.

‘Well, I guess I’ve never seen you so troubled by your thoughts.’

Doc offered the man a small smile. ‘It could simply be that I’m suffering the effects of last night’s over‑indulgence in alcohol.’

‘It’s not just a hangover. Anyway, you’ve been thinking for days.’

‘As opposed to drinking for days.’ Doc sighed again. All right, Wyatt wasn’t prying: he was concerned. ‘My friend, something has been bothering me, as I told you yesterday. There’s something I have to think through, but it’s painful.’

‘I know how that feels, Doc.’

‘Yes, you do,’ Doc allowed. ‘But I only have a certain amount of time allotted me. I’ve left this particular matter unexamined for years, and this is probably the last chance I have to face the truth.’

‘And you do have to face this truth, even though it hurts?’

‘Yes, Wyatt, of course I do.’ Doc considered the man. ‘We were talking yesterday about what my life’s purpose is. You said it was having fun, adventuring. That’s certainly part of it.’

‘I didn’t mean to belittle you,’ Wyatt said.

‘I know that, and I’m not offended. How I’d describe it is exploring everything of who I am, and being it all. Leaving no stone unturned, leaving nothing unexperienced. So, do you see I must think this through? It’s probably the last part of me I’ve left untouched.’

Wyatt nodded. ‘I understand. I just wish I could help.’

Laughing, Doc said, ‘Oh, you’ve helped a great deal, Wyatt. In fact, you’ve pushed and prodded me into this, though quite inadvertently for the most part, and I thank you for it. Or, at least, I’ll thank you for it when I reach the other side of all this trouble and I can rest again. No, not rest: then I can live again, with all the joie de vivre that there is in the world. In the meantime…’


‘Perhaps another pot of coffee? For the sake of my poor head.’

‘Nothing easier.’ And Wyatt went off to order it from room service.

Doc recalled a passage from Pride and Prejudice, and paraphrased it: Mr Earp had been a most delightful friend ‑‑ so easily guided, that his worth was invaluable; but Doc checked himself. That was unfair and, if he was going to continue taking advantage of Wyatt’s better nature, Doc should at least be honest about what he was doing.

In the meantime, he should really get this thinking over and done with: it was getting in the way of Life itself, and that was the only sin that Doc Holliday knew.

It was difficult, he supposed, because his thoughts were challenging some of his most basic assumptions. And questioning the place that Juliet occupied in his life and in his heart felt more like betrayal of her than all the sexual relations he’d indulged in since he lost her.

All right. If his life was about exploring everything that Doc Holliday was, then he had to conclude that he had achieved that purpose and then some. Doc had lived Life to the hilt, had not stinted on any experience. In that, he could be proud.

And Wyatt was right: Doc had had plenty of fun in the process.

It wasn’t an attractive idea, that he could have fun and enjoy Life without his Juliet; but the truth of the matter was that he had. He supposed that was why this felt like betrayal.

So how would he have fared if John could have married his Julie? Doc was sure they would have been as happy together as his imagination painted that one precious scene of his. Wyatt would be more than surprised, but Doc was no cynic about this at least: he knew long term relationships could indeed work, if suitably comprised. After all, Doc and Kate had been partners in crime and in bed for years; he and Wyatt had been friends for even longer.

Doc didn’t suppose, as it was fashionable to, that Shakespeare meant Romeo and Juliet, if they’d survived, to end up as bitter and unhappy as the Capulets: Younger than she are happy mothers made, pleaded the suitor ‑‑ but the father answered, And too soon marred are those so early made. No, not his Juliet: she would have unfurled and blossomed and grown, as John would have. Shakespeare, though perhaps a realist, gave more true feeling to Romeo’s, O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! and Juliet’s, Sweet, good night! This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, may prove a beauteous flower when next we meet. Then there was Mercutio, cursed by reckless intelligence and restless insight, who so appreciated the change in his friend once Romeo had forgotten his infatuation with Rosaline for the sake of his true love for Juliet: Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art by art as well as by nature.

In fact, John would have fulfilled the very same purpose in Life as Doc: exploring who he was, and being it all. The difference would have been that Juliet shared that exploration, that they would have found a whole range of possibilities and potentials that Doc had no access to. But, Doc thought, again quoting Jane Austen, no such happy marriage could teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was.

Wyatt now returned to the hotel room, carrying a steaming pot of coffee, a bag of bread rolls and a newspaper. Once he’d poured Doc a fresh cup of coffee, Wyatt proceeded to munch through the rolls and read through the paper, endeavouring not to disturb Doc. Wyatt was truly the best of men.

All right. John would have been all that he could be. What was also true was that Doc had explored everything that Doc could be. So the disaster of losing Juliet hadn’t in fact ruined his life: it had simply changed it.

Doc frowned. This, at last, was the heart of the betrayal: the notion that Life could go on without his love. Well, Juliet had seemed satisfied with her new life, too; she seemed to have discovered a vocation for teaching, for preparing other young women to deal with Life. Doc was forced to swallow his arrogance and suppose that Juliet’s life hadn’t been ruined, either. Surely, if she had been unhappy at the convent, she would have run away with him when he asked her. For that matter, if she’d wanted him, or needed him to rescue her ‑‑ unlikely though the latter idea was ‑‑ she would have been able to get in touch with him. Everyone knew who Doc Holliday was, after all, and Juliet was nothing if not determined. But he’d never heard from her, or about her, in all these years.

If they’d married, John would have had the only thing he’d ever wanted. Instead Doc had become all of what Doc could be: he was thoroughly self‑aware, he’d had adventures both grand and sordid, he was the consummate adventurer. John would have been a wonderful and unusual man and husband: but Doc was damned wonderful and unusual in his own right.

Perhaps John, living a quieter and healthier life, would have survived longer. On the other hand, Death might have been bored with him, and claimed him early. Doc didn’t think so, though: even Death would have to be impressed at the extent of John’s love and connubial felicity.

Face it, Doc told himself: life is no longer nothing without her. That’s simply the way it is. Now get on with the rest of it; enjoy these last few seasons Death will grant you.

This was Wyatt’s fault, of course. Wyatt’s friendship had made all the difference; had arrested that miserable self‑abnegation, that offering of himself, bleeding and broken, to the hunger of the hole through him. Living up to Wyatt’s expectations, and living down to his own, had made for an interesting balance. What Doc used to do in bitterness and loathing, he now did for the fun of it. He’d be outrageous for no better reason than to make Wyatt laugh.

It was rather pathetic, really.

But Wyatt’s good opinion mattered more to him than all of society’s precepts, and Doc lived accordingly. Perhaps there was something in what Wyatt had said, because the idea seemed to apply here: what Wyatt called behaving like a gentleman, Doc called wanting Wyatt to like him.

The marshall was sitting there, waiting on Doc, having finished reading the newspaper. Doc spoke his name, and Wyatt looked up immediately. Doc said, ‘You see a link between my sense of style and your sense of honour, right?’

‘Yes,’ Wyatt said. He smiled a little, unsure, and observed, ‘You’re looking happier.’

‘Be that as it may, I have another idea for you: I speak my opinions of people bluntly, but what I call wit, you call a desire to avoid vulgarity.’

Wyatt laughed. ‘That’s about right.’

‘What I call a desire for skill and prowess, you call putting limits on debauchery.’

‘I hardly like to comment on that.’

Doc lifted an eyebrow. ‘Drag your mind out of the gutter, Wyatt, I am about to say something serious.’

The man obediently sobered, and so quickly that it almost made Doc laugh. ‘Go on.’

‘What I call exploring my greatest vulnerabilities, you call friendship. And I’m only prepared to do that with you. What I call meeting your demands, you call honesty.’

Wyatt was staring at him. At last he said, ‘That’s good, Doc.’

‘I happen to think so, too. That’s the part that really surprises me.’

‘You’re still an utter scoundrel ‑‑‘ Wyatt said.

‘Why, thank you.’

‘‑‑ but you’re my closest friend.’

Doc smiled. Juliet’s love, and Wyatt’s friendship: an embarrassment of riches, that few would be capable of fully appreciating. What had Keats said in one of his letters? I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination. Doc Holliday would make the most of this association, just as John had made the most of his affair with Julie. Life was damned good, when all was said and done.

‘You are looking happier,’ Wyatt repeated, apparently both glad and curious. ‘Or do you call happiness something else, as well?’

‘I suppose I call it having fun. And,’ Doc mused, though he was unsure of this now, ‘never looking back.’

‘So you’ve finished all your thinking?’

Nodding, Doc looked at the man. ‘That’s more than enough thinking for now. Some of my conclusions are a little tough to swallow, but I’ll persist in the attempt. It’s merely a matter of… becoming accustomed to some new ideas. Maybe not even that,’ Doc continued speculatively: ‘perhaps it’s merely realigning my thoughts and adjusting my perspectives. Does that sound to you like a rather insignificant outcome?’

Wyatt returned Doc’s smile in full measure, and said in that reassuring tone of his, ‘No, that’s good, Doc. That’s really good.’ The moment stretched warmly, pleasantly; then Wyatt reached for the newspaper. ‘When you’re feeling better, I think I’ve found us a job.’

Doc groaned, and reached in turn for the coffee pot. The trouble with Wyatt, other than his honesty and his tendency to make Doc think, was that he didn’t share Doc’s lazy streak. ‘Let a man feel poorly for a while, Wyatt.’ The marshall, however, showed little mercy. Life, damned good, went on.


Posted in: Het fic, Tombstone

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