Dear readers, tonight we go to a Queer Weird West, to listen in on a conversation between a gunslinger haunted by a demon and Doc Holliday. They’re talking about murder, Wyatt Earp, and about the strange life in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881.
“The Protagonist Speaks…” John Ringo pondered this, then cast a sharp look at Doc Holliday. “That’s you, I suppose…”
“I am indeed the protagonist of my own life.”
John huffed a laugh. “And I’m my own antagonist?”
“How can that be? Even if you don’t consider yourself… entirely heroic.” Doc reached for the list of questions. An idle afternoon in a darkened saloon in Tombstone was in danger of turning tedious due to the Arizona heat. A distraction was called for. “Let’s make a start on these, anyhow. I have to admit I’m curious.”
What are you best known for?
“Easy,” Doc answered on Johnny’s behalf. “You’re known as a gunslinger, as am I.”
John shook off this thought and slumped further in the chair.
Doc, as he was wont to do, filled the silence. “It’s not that a hard reputation isn’t a convenience from time to time. It adds a certain… weight to one’s words. But I do wonder sometimes if I wouldn’t rather people see the truth beyond it.”
“Such as?” John prompted.
“Aren’t there days when you’d rather not be known as a killer? I know we’ve each earned it, but you could count up all our kills on one hand, and still have a few fingers left over. Add in Wyatt’s count, and you still wouldn’t need a second hand. Yet you and I are seen as desperados, while his lawman’s badge is barely even tarnished.”
Johnny ignored Doc’s chatter about Wyatt Earp with the ease of long practice, and mused, “I used to think… I could earn favors for the souls I freed.”
“Ah, yes. Your demon lover.” It had always been plain that Doc never believed Johnny about that, though he indulged such talk as if it were real. “I’m sure he is both beautiful and bodacious. But that still hasn’t motivated you to really earn your deadly reputation.”
“No, I met him after I’d earned it.” Johnny lowered his head, and rubbed at his face with both hands as if wanting to wrench off a mask. “I only killed the one man… and I thought I had good cause, but it ruined me. Maybe he – the demon, I mean – maybe he just has a taste for ruination.”
“Before that, then. Were you really so different as a youth?”
What was it like where you grew up?
“Ordinary. Indiana, then Missouri. My Pa owned a general store. They were quiet folk. Pious. I had some schooling, but mostly I read. Had the run of his aunt’s library.”
“Sounds idyllic,” Doc remarked – and he probably meant it, despite his sardonic tone.
“My parents decided to emigrate to California when I was fourteen. My Pa… On the way, in Wyoming… my Pa shot himself –”
“The deuce you say!”
“Don’t get all excited. It was an accident. Climbing down from our wagon carrying his rifle.” John sighed. “I saw the whole stupid thing.”
Doc considered him carefully, and then lit a thin cigar and drew in the smoke. “We’re not so different, are we?” he mused before a long exhale. “My mother died when I was fifteen. She was pious, too. My father, then… well, he lost my respect for ever.” Doc livened as another thought struck him. “But I wager you don’t have a saint in the family! My cousin Mattie, I swear it, will be canonized… Not that I’ll be around to see it.”
“No saints,” John confirmed. “But none of ’em were sinners.”
“Now, what’s next?”
What’s your favorite drink?
“That’s too easy,” Doc continued before Johnny could even take a breath. “I’ve never seen you without a bottle of whiskey in your hand.”
Johnny did not respond, but he was all too aware that the other thing he was known for was being a reckless drunk.
“Here’s one.” Doc cast him a roguish look. “I’ll tell you my honest answer, if you’ll tell me yours.”
Any romantic involvement?
Johnny baulked at that. “Romantic…?!”
“I’ll ask it plainer: Have you ever loved?”
“My family,” John promptly replied. “I cared deeply about them.” Then a grin stretched his mouth, but there was no humor in it. “What is it about you, Holliday? Most days I get by without saying more than a word or two. But you provoke a hundred times that from me.”
“That’s funny,” Doc murmured. “Wyatt said much the same to me once, back in Dodge… But if you’re feeling provoked and loquacious, Johnny Ringo, pray do continue.”
“My friends in Texas. We were loyal. We would have killed or died for one another – some of us did. But after I killed a man, my life twisted and I soured, and there was no love left in me.”
“You didn’t love the demon that haunted you?”
“He was not for me to love or hate, but to worship.”
Doc pondered this with a frown, and seemed about to argue.
Johnny headed him off. “What about you, then? You told me you’ve loved, but I never saw it. You were always such a selfish creature.”
A laugh that sounded genuinely amused, and then Doc replied with no resentment, “I have been selfish, true – but sometimes love got the better of me. I loved my cousin Mattie, for her purity and her beauty. Kate, for her fierce independence. You admire Kate, too, don’t you, brother?”
“She is fine and fierce,” John agreed, too much the gentleman to get into details.
“Wyatt,” Doc continued, “I love for his courage and determination. And you, Johnny Ringo. I even had love for you.”
John met and held Doc’s gaze for an unconscionably long while, but when John spoke it was only to say, “Next question.”
Whom (or what) do you really hate?
He barked a laugh. “I would have given you a different answer back in Texas. But when I saw what hatred could lead to –”
“You quit hating?” Doc asked skeptically.
“No… But what I hated – that changed. There’s no point in hating a Capulet just because you’re a Montague. But a betrayal… a lie, an ambush… I still hate a betrayal.”
“Because you love honor.”
John just shrugged a shoulder, and shifted in his seat. But eventually he said, “Once you’ve lost your honor… you’ve lost –”
“You know. Don’t you? It’s the very last thing you should lose.”
Doc nodded, and then asked the next question in gentler tones than John expected.
What does the future hold for you?
“I don’t know.” Johnny’s bewilderment must be palpable. “Every time I think I see a path ahead, I glance aside for a moment, and it’s gone. Obscured. Like following a trail in a dust storm.”
“And yet some diversions are worth the time, surely.”
John rolled his eyes. “You mean you, I suppose.”
Doc gestured expansively as if taking a bow. “If I’m the first thought crossing your mind when considering the notion…”
“But I still wish there were a way forward. I miss that. I used to have ground firm under my feet, and a clear enough trail ahead. Not anymore.”
“You might be glad of it,” Doc said with an ironic huff. “The trail I’m on has an abrupt ending not so far ahead. An abrupt and messy ending. Too tawdry for my liking!”
John offered him a rare empathic look – which prompted Doc to pick up the list of questions again.
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
“Ha! You’ve already pried out all my secrets, Holliday.”
Doc raised a brow. “Mmm… even the poetry.”
John sat up again, and reached for the sheet of questions. “There aren’t any more, are there?”
“I won’t trouble you with them, brother,” Doc quietly replied.
“Where did they come from, anyhow?”
“I’m not sure… Maybe your demon left them here, so we would while away an hour entertaining him.”
A shiver ran cold down Ringo’s spine – and when he looked about again, he was sitting alone and the whiskey bottle was empty.
Well, at least he could do something about the latter…
Julie Bozza is an Aussie-Anglo hybrid empowered by writing, fueled by espresso, calmed by knitting, overexcited by photography, and madly in love with Amy Adams and John Keats.
You can find John on the pages of Writ in Blood.
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