My father often told me the story of how he, as a small boy, had sat on the knee of Wyatt Earp. The former marshal] of Dodge and Tombstone, as an old man, came to Chicago to give a lecture. He had heard of my Great-Uncle Garret’s heroism in rescuing a lady from an armed terrorist and expressed a desire to meet the kind of lawman he admired. Having no children of his own. Garret brought along his brother and his son, who got to sit on the hero’s knee. My father loved the West and in retirement spent some years in Del Rio—a decision that bewilders even most Texans. Among the earliest “grown-up” books I recall reading was Stuart N. Lake’s biography of Earp—which, at times, reads more like a film star’s “as-told-to” autobiography—and I never missed an episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the Hugh O’Brien TV show, “based loosely” on the book.

My father, although an Earp admirer, cautioned me that there was a little more legend and less life not only in the program but also in the biography. Although Wyatt preferred ice cream to redeye, the Earps were not exactly the milk-and-water Methodists portrayed on television. They made their money from gambling, invested in saloons, and contracted commonlaw marriages with women whose virtue was not at all dubious. “The fighting Earps,” their admirers called them. Others, less respectful, dubbed them “the fighting pimps.”

Wyatt had a particularly checkered career: He skipped bail on a charge of horse-stealing, and he showed little reluctance about hanging out with notorious characters like Doc Holliday. If Ike Clanton were to be believed (note the subjunctive), the Earps’ feud with the Clantons, celebrated in a hundred fact-ignoring films, began in a joint-venture robbery of a stagecoach in which both the driver and a passenger were murdered. While it may be safe to dismiss Ike’s claim that Doc Holliday suspected Ike of ratting out the highly vindictive dentist, Wyatt’s friendly relations with a variety of lowlifes did not enhance his reputation, and perhaps more than rumor gave Holliday the credit for the stagecoach murders.

There were even two sides, my father cautioned, to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and, depending on whether you follow the case in the Epitaph or in the Nugget, the Earps were either righteous defenders of law and order or cold-blooded killers. I have often thought that a director could have fun making a movie from the Clantons’ point of view: just a bunch of good timing cowhands who were persecuted by a courthouse ring of Republican gamblers who speculated at the faro table instead of on Wall Street. It would be a lie, but no worse than the frighteningly bad film that miscasts Burt Lancaster as Wyatt and Victor Mature as Doc or John Ford’s better but even less accurate movie, My Darling Clementine, which tried to pass off Henry Fonda as Wyatt and took Ford’s principle of “print the legend” to a new high.

If you confine your reading to Wyatt’s hagiography, which goes back to the Tombstone Epitaph, you will not discover that two of the cowboys—Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton—may have been unarmed, nor that the conflict had political as well as personal roots. In part, the feud between the Earps and their enemies was a product of post-war sectional conflict (as Richard Maxwell Brown argues in a recent book). Many of the cowboys were from Texas or Missouri, Confederate sympathizers, and Democrats; the Earps were good Republicans, and Wyatt’s older brother Virgil fought for the Union.

The Clantons and McLaurys, the fun-loving Curiy Bill Brocius and the book-reading John Ringo were all wild bucks living on one side or another of the law but almost always outside civilization. Quiet, churchgoing people occasionally became annoyed with the cowboys’ habit of hurrahing their way through town, shooting up bottles at the back of the bar, the heels off boots, and cigars out of mouths, but as Billy Breakenridge (Sheriff John Behan’s deputy) was to say years later, Tombstone (apart from cattle-rustling) was “an orderly and law-abiding town,” adding.

What little killing was done there was done among the lawless element themselves. This element was very much in the minority, and during the five years I lived there I never heard of a house being robbed or anyone held up in the city, and it was perfectly safe for any lady or gentleman to pass along the streets, day or night, without being molested.

The cowboys may have stolen a few cows and killed a few people, but Breakenridge, who deputized some of them as tax collectors, said he was well treated by these roughnecks: “I never want to travel with a better companion than Curly Bill. . . . I learned one thing with him, and that was that he would not lie to me. What he told me he believed, and his word to me was better than the oaths of some of whom were known as good citizens.”

On the other hand, the Earps (whom Breakenridge’s crack may be aimed at) supported the law-and-order commercial civilization of the Gilded Age, even when they deliberately defied the law—as they did when they shot Ike Clanton in the street not long after the murder of Morgan Earp.

Like most entrepreneurs—gambling is, after all, a kind of business now, and there is a revenue side to holding a monopoly on violence—the Earps were desperate to make their way in the world. Despite Wyatt’s loyalty to Holliday, they sided with public order; they were progressive and knew that the frontier would someday be tamed. Tombstone was the ground floor, and they were determined to cash in on their courage and on their connections: John Glum, both mayor and the Epitaph’s editor, supported them. However, compared with suburban American sports fans of my own generation, Wyatt and Curly Bill were two peas in a pod: Both were resolute in the face of danger, loyal to their friends, and determined to take revenge upon an enemy. Accept most of the attacks on his character at face value, and Wyatt Earp is still, as the TV theme song described him, “brave, courageous, and bold.” He was also a very dangerous man.

According to reliable sources, Virgil Earp was playing poker with Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton in the wee hours of the morning, the very day of the showdown. Virgil had the coolest head of the brothers, but this little pre-battle game—anything but friendly—underscores the importance of gambling in a frontier society. Everybody in the West seems to have spent most of his free time gambling. Indians played games like “button button” and bet everything they had; Mexicans were so good at Spanish monte that Ben Thompson—as famous for his gunplay as for his gambling—banned them from the “Americans only” monte banks he set up along the Rio Grande. At Eagle Pass, where he had skinned all the gringos, Thompson had the bad judgment to break his own rule, and, as he recalled later.

In less than five hours I did not have a cent. I even put up my silver spurs and gold cord that ornamented my hat. It was of no use, money, spurs, hat, cord, and all went, and the cigarette-smoking devils grinned as they won. A picked chicken, a scalded cat, a Georgia major, each was better fitted to walk abroad than I was.

But it was the miners and cowboys who set the tone. After working like the devil for months, they would blow everything they had on the turn of a marked card. While the law-and-order element moving into Tombstone or San Francisco might frown upon the reckless ways of the gamblers and the occasional vigilance committee might have to drive the bad elements out of town (as in Bret Harte’s masterpiece, “The Outcasts of Poker Flats”), gambling was good for business, not only the businesses in which most frontier towns specialized—whiskey and women—but also groceries, hardware, and supplies. What self-respecting miner would bring his gold to a town that refused to supply him with the necessities of life or offer him the thrill of being fleeced?

In truth, gambling must have been the quintessential frontier experience. Quiet and steady men do not leave their homes in Watertown, Wisconsin (as Billy Breakenridge did) to seek an uncertain future in the mines of Colorado or on the open ranges of Arizona. And men who come from a line of quiet and steady ancestors would probably never have found themselves in the New World. Much has been written, most of it wrong, about American exceptionalism, but on one point the America-boosters were right: Neither the adventurers who accompanied John Smith to Virginia nor the religious fanatics who settled Massachusetts were placid or timid men, and the best of the later immigrants were not the hapless cattle-boat starvelings celebrated on the Statue of Equality: They wanted land and were willing to take high-risk jobs in the mines to build up a stake.

One of the most improbable immigrants was Vaso “Chuck” Chuckovich, a Serbian merchant sailor from Dalmatia who jumped ship in California not knowing a word of English. He lost his teeth working with mercury in a gold refinery before teaming up in Denver with gambling legend Ed Chase. Chuckovich managed to save enough of his casino profits to send $1.25 million back to the government of Dalmatia. When Yugoslavia was formed after World War I, this money was a principle stake of its treasury.

In the old America, the reckless and high-rolling Vaso Chuckovich could fit right in. Only a Scandinavian socialist could conceive of a risk-free life without gagging, and if gambling can disrupt lives and warp characters, that is not because betting is inherently evil—as Puritans argue—any more than wine or erotic desire is evil. It is civilization that teaches a man to domesticate his erotic impulses with a marriage vow and to channel his gambling instincts into business investments or a friendly wager on the Super Bowl.

Gambling obviously has its dangerous side, but most good people like to gamble: Business depends on the risk-taking investor, whether he is a venture capitalist or someone who buys a hundred shares of Dell Computer. Farmers are the biggest gamblers, and they bet every year against the weather and against the markets. Anyone who has married and had children is taking a big gamble, and the odds are not necessarily in his favor.

These adventures in risk-taking—playing poker with friends or taking your life’s savings out of the bank and starting a dry cleaning business—are at best creative and at worst fairly harmless. They are also private and, in the case of the poker game, not always legal. There may have been plenty of cases of good family men who bet and lost the ranch to a crooked dealer—a plot staple of “B” Westerns—but perhaps more typical were the single men who plunged and lost and went back to work only to plunge again.

The gambler’s mentality was best expressed in an anecdote that made Canada Bill Jones one of my father’s heroes. Described by his friends as a “chicken-headed” little geek with an idiotic expression, Canada Bill had a deft hand for fleecing the suckers at three card monte. Unfortunately, he was not much of a hand at faro. He was losing steadily one night when a friend pointed out to him that the game was crooked: I know, replied Bill, “but it’s the only game in town.” Nobody made him squander his ill-gotten gains, and no government billboards encouraged people like Canada Bill to regard a lettery ticket as an investment.

Men will always waste money on pleasures, and a sportsman who is serious about hunting or fishing may spend more money on his toys than the poor fish who buys lottery tickets. But sport is something active and social; it is good for the body, trains the senses, and it lures the sportsman outdoors and away from the TV. What does a lottery ticket do, except trick the working poor into paying a stupidity tax? Since the odds are much worse than a roulette game in Vegas, no one in his right mind would make a regular habit of purchasing lottery tickets unless there were some hidden appeal.

The commercials make it clear what the message is. The Illinois Lottery pioneered a popular type of commercial in which a bunch of guys are sitting around talking about investments. When one of them asks if they have anything that can pay a million bucks, and explains that the Illinois Lottery does, the advocates of CDs and mutual funds are crest-fallen. The message is clear. The lottery is a less than one-in-a million chance that I can escape from the life I have made. It is a morally dangerous delusion, and the difference between heading West and going to Vegas or playing Lotto is the difference between shooting the rapids and riding a virtual-reality roller coaster. The “quick pick” is a quick fix.

Even 120 years ago, clear-sighted residents of Tombstone could see the end of the frontier coming. Wyatt turned away from the professionals and made an honest woman of Sadie Marcus, John Behan’s actress girlfriend. They made a pile of money in Gnome, Alaska, and lived comfortably. Bold men turned from faro games to real-estate speculation, and, after conquering the continent, Americans pursued an imaginary frontier, drumming up adventures in Cuba and the Philippines, in two world wars, and in the global struggle against godless communism. The hard lessons of conquest we learned in subduing the “First Americans” were inevitably applied to our competitors in Europe and Asia, who had to be demonized, reduced to subhuman status, and exterminated in almost risk-free aerial campaigns. Somewhere along the way, we lost their nerve and our humanity. To avenge his brother Morgan’s murder, Wyatt Earp killed Ike Clanton on the street and shot Curly Bill in the back. He did not burn down their houses or bomb their wives and children.

If Vaso Chuckovich could only have seen into the future, he might have gone back to the Balkans, where the people are as tough as the Earps and as wild as Curly Bill, but do not murder women and children for humanitarian reasons. Only a really civilized people is capable of such lying and such savagery.