We're all in for a treat, if treat is the right word, with Sarah Cawkwell's new short story about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
The decisions we make regarding those we care about, ay?
“Didya ever stop to think how I might feel? No. Not once. You went on an’ did – how was it you put it? You did what you thought was best. Who for, Wyatt? ‘Cos it sure as hell weren’t me.”
The argument had been raging for well over an hour now and Doc Holliday was exhausted. Having been bed-bound for days, his energy levels were all but depleted as it was and his mood had swung from fuming to resigned, straight back to fuming several times an hour since he had regained consciousness.
“No, I didn’t stop to think how you might feel, Doc. We’ve been over this.” Wyatt Earp ran his fingers through his hair, his head bowed as he sat at the bedside of his friend and colleague. “I did what I thought was right.” By all the hells, it was sometimes impossible to deal with Doc Holliday’s infernal sense of logic. “I did what I thought was best.”
“Same answer... same question, Wyatt. Right for who? Best for who?” The mask gave his voice a metallic, featureless edge but the tone was not devoid of emotion. Indeed, the emotion was more than evident. It was naked fury.
Wyatt didn’t really blame the man for feeling that way.
The lawman let go of his hair, raising his head so that his gaze locked with Doc’s. The deputy’s eyes were burning brightly; a peculiar combination of the fever that had finally begun to subside and this new, but apparently infinite ire that was fuelling him.
They stared at one another for several long, uncomfortable minutes, each daring the other to look away first. They had undergone many disputes, disagreements and old-fashioned squabbles in the years they’d known one another, but this was something else. Earp felt as though he was losing his friend – and losing him in a way somehow more insidious and painful than if the deputy had died.
The mask changed Doc’s appearance radically. They’d had to shave off his moustaches whilst he’d been unconscious in order for the apparatus to fit properly and the exposed face beneath had been a painful reminder of Doc’s comparative youth. It had merely served to strengthen Earp’s resolve. Doc Holliday had to live.
Who for, Wyatt?
“For me,” he said, eventually breaking the silence and answering the question both of them were asking. He did not miss the brief glint of triumph in Doc’s blue eyes and for a moment, resentment bubbled. The deputy had no idea what he’d put on the line to get this outcome. Gratitude might have been welcome.
But then, perhaps Doc was right. Perhaps Earp should have consulted the deputy’s position on whether he lived or died. But he had not. He could no more change what he had done than he could change the phases of the moon. His shoulders straightened and his arms folded across his chest. “Happy? I did this for me. Because I’m not ready to let you go. Not yet. You…”
What? You’re too young. Too smart. Too valuable.
Doc was still glaring at him and Earp shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He’d been more or less a constant visitor since returning with the mask, deeply afraid he’d taken too long, that what had started when he’d made the trip might have taken its natural course. Doc’s life was measured in hours when he got back and he had been by his friend’s side until the fever had finally broken. Once the former dentist had the strength to realise what was going on, the tirade had begun. That had been three hours ago. And he was still going strong. It was something to be grateful for, in a peculiar way.
“I’m what, Wyatt?” The weariness was telling once more and Doc sank back into the pillows, his eyes losing their fire. “Why d’you keep me alive when I might’ve been ready to jus’ go on an’ have the next great adventure? What was the cost?”
The effort grew too much and his lids drooped until sleep stole him back into its embrace. But now, at least, it was healing sleep instead of the death slumber of the near-deceased. The mask clicked quietly as his chest rose and fell, the light winking a steady and deep, arterial red. With every wink, another tiny breath of life was forced back into Doc’s dying lungs and the struggle to breathe lessened. It wouldn’t cure him, but it would keep him alive.
“I did it because you’re my friend, Doc,” said Earp to the sleeping man. “That’s why.” He drew his chair back up alongside the bed and settled in to wait once more. “The cost doesn’t matter.”