It was about 3 p.m. on October 26, 1881, as Tombstone’s town marshal, Virgil Earp (also a deputy U.S. marshal), his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and the Earps’ eccentric friend Dr. John H. Holliday confronted Isaac and William Clanton and Thomas and Robert Findley McLaury near the O.K. Corral.  After 30 seconds of firing, Morgan Earp lay badly wounded, Holliday and Virgil had sustained less serious wounds, while Billy Clanton and the McLaurys were dead or dying.  Only Wyatt and Ike Clanton—who had fled the scene unarmed—were unscathed.

Witnesses to the gunfight said that Billy and Wyatt drew more or less simultaneously, though Wyatt would later claim that he drew only when he saw Billy reaching for his gun.  Rather than shoot Billy, however, Wyatt went for the best gun in the bunch—Robert (known as Frank) McLaury—and shot him in the stomach.  The wounded McLaury took aim at Doc Holliday, crying out, “I’ve got you now.”  Raising his gun, Doc grimly quipped, “Blaze away: You’re a daisy if you do,” but Frank shot Holliday in the hip before being hit again by a wounded Morgan Earp.

The details, which have been debated by the Earps’ defenders and detractors for over a century and a quarter, are a little sketchy, and, for the sake of avoiding the controversy, I have mostly followed Casey Tefertiller’s painstaking and judicious reconstruction.  Most of us who are not experts on the Old West and do not have a dog in this famous fight will probably still see the events as the morality play in black and white that has been told and retold in fiction and movies.  The noble Earps—all good Republicans—were on the side of law and order.  They were virtuous men who did not drink liquor or indulge in the vices that were on gaudy display in the Old West.  The lives of these gallant officers of the law had been repeatedly threatened by a gang of rustlers, stagecoach robbers, and murderers, but when the time came, the fearless Earps, quick on the draw, showed their mettle.

This, or something very like it, was the story I grew up believing.  It was enshrined in one of the classics of frontier literature, Stuart N. Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, a book I read more than once as a boy.

The Earps were unquestionably tough men who inspired respect from many, envy from some, but very little affection.  Perhaps it was the steely glaze of their cold blue eyes, or perhaps it was the fact that they were continually on the make, willing to make money by almost any means that did not involve working with their hands.  At the preliminary hearing held for the killing of the Clantons and McLaurys, Wyatt, making a bid for social inflation, listed his occupation as saloonkeeper.  While he did tend bar from time to time, he was in tawdry reality a professional gambler who ran the faro table at the Oriental Saloon.

The aftermath of the O.K. Corral fight—which took place on the street, not in the corral—was even bloodier than the fight itself.  Ike Clanton, backed by Sheriff John Behan, filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday, though only Wyatt and Doc had to undergo a hearing.  The mood in Tombstone and around the country quickly shifted from a celebration of the Earps’ courage to condemnation of their murders, as the killings were now described.  Ike Clanton’s confused and contradictory testimony, however, undercut the prosecution’s case.  But Ike’s stupidity and prevarication do not necessarily exculpate the Earps.

It is true that Virgil and Wyatt were peace officers who had a right to disarm the Clantons, but anyone with a drop of common sense knew that blood would flow if the two groups met on the street.  Ike Clanton had been in Tombstone, getting drunk and bad-mouthing and threatening the Earps.  But—and this is how bizarre things were—not long afterward Virgil, Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Johnny Behan had stayed up all night playing poker.  During the game an altercation broke out between Ike and Virgil, who ended up beating Ike with his gun.  Taken into custody, Ike threatened the Earps, and Morgan offered to pay his fine—if Ike would face him with a gun.  Like Ike, Morgan always had a big mouth.  Later, about one in the afternoon, Wyatt ran into Tom McLaury on the street.  By this time, Wyatt was out for blood.

“Are you heeled?” Wyatt snarled at McLaury.

Tom told him politely that he was a friend of Wyatt’s and held no grudge, but “If you want to make a fight, I’ll make a fight with you anywhere.”

“All right, make a fight,” was Wyatt’s answer as he crashed his pistol into Tom McLaury’s skull.  It seems clear that the usually clearheaded and cool-tempered Wyatt—who had probably never killed a man and preferred to get the drop on a troublemaker by coming up behind him in an alley with a shotgun—had made up his mind.  Ike Clanton had shot off his mouth once too often, and it was time to kill the Clantons and any friends who stood by them before they killed the Earps.  This was the Code of the West: If a man threatened to kill you, he was fair game for any kind of attack.

Even after the hearings, the fight was not over.  In late December, Virgil was shotgunned by three men in the street.  Ike Clanton’s hat was found nearby, and his friend Frank Stilwell was spotted.  Wyatt drew the obvious conclusions—though they would not have amounted to much in a court of law.  By the end of January, while Virgil was still in a serious condition, Morgan Earp was pretty well recovered.  Though warned of trouble, he insisted on having a night on the town, going to the theater and then to the pool hall, where he was shot through the window as he bent over to make a shot.  People said the shooter was Frank Stilwell.  When Wyatt caught up with him, Stilwell and Ike appeared to be laying for Virgil Earp, who was being sent to California for his health.  Wyatt, as he mockingly recounted, killed Stilwell “helpless and trembling for his life.”

The killings did not stop until Earp and Holliday came across “Curly Bill” Brocius, one of Clanton’s Cowboys, in March 1884.  Brocius narrowly missed Wyatt, who gunned him down with a shotgun blast.  Was Wyatt an avenger or a cold-blooded killer?  Curly Bill, a murderer or a murder victim?

By the standards of civilized life, both sides were guilty of cold-blooded, premeditated murder in the first degree, but, if we look at it from the killers’ perspectives, we should probably conclude that they all had reasons that amounted to justification according to the Code.  The Clantons would say with some justice that the Earps had provoked a quarrel with the Clantons and McLaurys and then, with their homicidal dentist friend, gunned them down in the street.  By the laws of vendetta, the Earps deserved to die—not in a fair fight, as in an affair of honor, but executed without mercy or a chance to resist.  The Earps, on the other hand, though they would not have accepted the Cowboys’ right to blood, applied the same argument to the men who had assassinated Morgan and tried to do the same to Virgil.

For all their homicidal violence, neither the Earps nor the McLaurys were really gunmen, much less outlaws.  They lived according to an ancient code that had withered in London and Boston but sprang back to life on the frontier.  Gun battles and lynch mobs were as much a part of the can-do American mentality as quilting bees and barn raisings.

Some events pass into legend because they typify a way of life, a time and a place—Cato’s suicide at Utica; Travis, Crockett, and Bowie’s stand at the Alamo; Walter Raleigh spreading his cloak over a puddle for the Virgin Queen.  But the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been mythologized, not because it was a typical event on the frontier, but because it was so unusual—perhaps unique—for so many men to shoot it out on the street.  Perhaps it was its very uniqueness that made this shoot-out part of the American myth, but the treatment of the conflict also flattered the American sense of superiority.  Here were bold Northern men, officers of the law, who put down a violent conspiracy of anarchic Southerners who did not appreciate the Glorious Union.  Death be to all such men, whether they are Confederate rebels, Plains Indians, Filipinos, Nazi Krauts, or Ragheads who cannot be made to understand the advantages of U.S. occupation.

Christians have long debated the morality of war and the traditions of self-defense that lie behind dueling, vendettas, and vigilantism.  What most of the debate assumes is a legitimate legal and social order that does its best to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.  There are times, however, when there is either no order or the order is so corrupt that it protects criminals.  This is the situation described in the Pentateuch and among the Germanic barbarians who destroyed the Roman order.  It was also the condition under which the men and women of the frontier had to build their farms and ranches, mind their stores, and rear their children.  Was Sheriff Behan really a credible peace officer?  Could the McLaurys possibly have trusted Virgil Earp?  Today, alas, these are the sort of questions that many Americans are asking themselves.  If the law is without order, can there once again be an order that is without law?