”He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could not longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.”
This is the story of John Henry “Doc” Holliday. He is a lunger, a gambler, a fornicator, a gentleman, a killer, a dentist, and an accomplished piano player. He was a man capable of great violence one moment and compassionate kindness in the next. He was easily slighted. Any perceived slur against his honor would elicit stinging wit if you were lucky or if he was too drunk to lash you properly with his tongue a drawn gun. He was a loyal friend and a dangerous enemy.
Dodge City 1878. It doesn’t look like much does it?
This is also the story of Dodge City in 1878. At this time the town is filled with cowboys from Texas with wallets full of money and a lot of trail dust to shake out of their clothes. The reason that Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, and the Earps are there is to relieve those cowboys of as much of that money as they can. James Earp and his wife Bessie are running a bordello. Doc Holliday is playing poker and performing his dentistry on the side. Morgan Earp is a lawman. His brother Wyatt is a part time law officer making most of his money off of the two dollar bounty on each arrest he makes. There are plenty of arrests to be made. It was a fine line the Earps had to walk between keeping people safe and letting the cowboys have their fun. Too many busted heads and the Texans would elect to spend their money elsewhere.
Mary Katherine Harony (also spelled Horony, Haroney, and Horoney) was born to a Hungarian physician who became the personal doctor of Maximilian I. For those that don’t know, things did not go well for Max, and the Harony family had to move to the United States. In Iowa her parent’s died within months of each other leaving her and her sister orphans. At 16 Kate ran away from her foster home and found, as do most runaways today, that one of the few options available to a young girl to make money was to trade her virtue to slack the desires of men. When she met up with Doc in Texas there were fireworks of the lust kind and of the fighting tooth and nail kind. Doc was an educated man and he would have to look a long time for a woman south of the Mississippi that could match him quote for quote like Kate.
She talked him into going to Kansas.
”We should move to Dodge,” she decided.
We? he thought.
“Kansas?” he said, as though she were mad and that settled it.
“That’s where the money is.”
“Suit yourself,” he told her, “but I am not goin’ to Kansas.”
“Sera in fondo parsimonia,” she warned.
Seneca! he thought. Thrift awaits at the bottom of an empty purse.
Her Latin was always a treat.
She bucked him up when he felt stage fright before a big poker game.
”Drive the stake into Cyclops’ eye early. Word would get around. Her Greek was better than Doc’s, but she knew he would recognize the quote. ‘Enter Fearlessly.’ she recited. ‘However foreign a man may be, in every crisis it is the high face that will carry him through.’
“Brazen it out,” he translated.
“Words to live by,” she told him.
“Easy for Athena to say.”
Big Nose Kate not a great beauty, but certainly intriguing.
Mary Doria Russell really puts flesh on the bones of the characters, but also on the nuances of Doc and Kate’s relationship.
”When I am sick,” he told them softly, “she fears that I will die, and she will end up on the street. When my health improves, she fears that I will go back to Georgia, and she knows I will not take her home to the family.” He glanced at the others.”Strikin’ a balance eludes me.”
Doc would have rather spent his time doing dentistry work, but it didn’t pay well enough to keep him in the fine clothes he liked for himself and the latest fashions he liked to see Kate wear. He also had a powerful need for alcohol that dulled some of the pain and made breathing easier. He was forced to gamble to live the life he wanted to live and with the spectre of death riding on his shoulder who could blame him for wanting to live a little better for the time he had left.
Wyatt was explaining to Doc that he would love his wife Urilla for the rest of his life even though she died nine years ago.
”That is your ghost life, Wyatt,” Doc told him, and closed his eyes again. “that is the life you might have had. This is the life you’ve got.”
Who was Wyatt Earp?
It made me think about how different life would have been for Holliday if his mother had lived longer. If he hadn’t developed tuberculosis. If he hadn’t met Kate who kept pushing him to chase money. If he hadn’t met Wyatt Earp. The threads that spread from any one of those events not happening could have led Doc to a better life, certainly a different life, that maybe didn’t end with him in his grave at 36. We all leave ghost lives behind us. We zag left instead of right and it is remarkable to think about how sometimes the smallest change can ripple so large leaving us baffled at how we ended up with this life instead of another. We can’t think about it too much though or we stop living. We become lungs that can’t breath.
Doc didn’t particularly like gambling. He just happened to be good at it and sometimes watching people throw a year of hard work or even sometimes a lifetime of hard work on the table all in play for the turn of card was hard for him to observe without some remorse. He understands the impulse.
”When the bet is placed,” he said, “a moment is carved away from the past and the future. In that enchanted moment, anything is possible. A man’s debts and regrets and limitations disappear. He is buyin’ the chance to imagine--for one moment at a time--that the next card I deal will make him rich.”
I enjoyed Mary Doria Russell’s writing style and her ability to take these real life characters that I felt I knew well and put more flesh on their bones. There is a mystery that sort of binds everything together involving the death of a mixed race boy named Johnnie Sanders. A book must have a plot, but really it was secondary or only a means for us to see Doc and Kate and Morgan and Wyatt interact. Kate is certainly more than just a girlfriend or a friend with benefits or a harpy or a prostitute. Russell presents her in a more sympathetic light than I’ve ever experienced by showing why Doc was with her and the benefits she brought to the relationship. Wyatt Earp is also more well rounded with his weaknesses and his strengths weighed in equal measure. Morgan is shown to be the communicator between his family and the rest of the world. He likes people and Doc is actually better friends with him than he is with Wyatt.
Like a lot of people my favorite version of Doc is the Val Kilmer portrayal in the movie Tombstone but Russel’s depiction of the man strips away the legend and lets us see the man as so very human. You will enjoy his candor and his intelligence and his kindness and his stubbornness to continue living. You will wish that you could spend a day in Dodge City with Doc Holliday, hopefully on one of his better days, and play a few hands of cards with him. If you do figure out how to go back in time just make sure you lose because there will be no doubt he will need the money more than you do.