Holliday stumbled and only just managed to regain his footing as he all but flew down the rough wooden steps into the street. He staggered in the dust, knowing better than to spin straight around - knowing that would land him flat out - regaining needful balance. Steady at last he turned, and was brought up almost nose-to-nose with his attacker.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" A hand was rapped against Holliday's chest, not a punch but an angry little push with a surprising amount of force behind it.
"What's wrong with me?" Holliday echoed incredulously, his surprise making him step forward instead of away as would have been prudent.
"What in the hell is wrong with you, Doc?" the man yelled, delivering a harder push this time, a vicious jab to the sternum.
Holliday's knees buckled as his lungs seemed to collapse into themselves; he folded into a heap in the street, coughing.
The young man who'd flung Holliday out of the saloon, who'd wanted to punch him ten times harder than he actually had, lost much of his self-assurance and his anger. "Aw, shit," he swore, rubbing the heel of his hand in worry. "Doc?"
Holliday couldn't breathe – and it hurt, Christ it hurt – because it was so damn funny.
The man watched in mounting panic as Holliday lent forward and made a noise like a drowned corpse trying to retch gravel. "Doc?" He edged closer, regretting his earlier temper. "Shit – I'm gonna go get Doc Baines..."
One thin and long-fingered hand arced out and caught hold of Morgan's coat before he could make good his threat.
"Doc..." He wondered how much yelling and coaxing would be needed before those narrow and surprisingly steely fingers could be persuaded to cut him lose. Dammit, he wasn't well – he needed a doctor, and… It was then at last Morgan realised that despite the coughing, Holliday was laughing like a lunatic.
"What is wrong with me?" Holliday gasped, pulling against his friend's coat and almost managing to sit up straight. "What the fuck have you got?" He felt his bitterness justified; it had been a depressingly bad week.
His good luck had broken on the Faro tables, so much so he'd been forced to pawn his pocket watch – something that always put him in a god-awful mood until he got it back out of hock...
The weather had turned: still oppressively warm in the day but with a wicked chill before dawn, and his consumption revelled in it...
Kate hadn't let up all week about leaving for Globe; Holliday had taken to hating the place on principle and loathing the very sound of the name. He knew the only reason why she nagged was she felt sidelined. She resented the time he spent with any of the Earps: it was fine for her to disappear with friends or into a bottle, but she didn't half get pissy if Holliday wasn't around when she wanted him...
To make matters worse, Wyatt had been arguing with Mattie. Holliday didn't know the details and didn't ask – it was one of the reasons Wyatt sought out his company. Doc could talk a dollar a minute if he had a mind to, a stream of sly witticisms and moribund humour that never once turned to unwelcome prying. The domestic dispute had caused ill-feeling between the various men and women of the Earp household, ruining the usually peaceful, homely atmosphere Holliday was so jealous of.
Some much-needed tranquillity looked to come that night when Kate had gone to the Birdcage to see Eddie Foy's show - or so she'd claimed as she walked out the door. But two hours later she returned to their rooms very much the worse for wear and very much worse than usual. Nerves fraying and temper riding shotgun, Holliday was in no mood to engage in a slanging match with his stroppy lover. (Or rather he was in every mood, which was why he'd prayed Kate wouldn't give him the excuse.) He'd stalked out on her, needing to be far away from the woman before the leash he held on his mounting rage crippled him.
He'd gone to find Eddie for an after show drink, something guaranteed not to grate and maybe even heal his mood. Foy was an ad-lib comic and a good one, able to turn his hand to raucous song, accurate impressions and stinging satire as well as the usual low-brow humour. Holliday enjoyed their banter, each trying to outdo the other in clever quips and intellectual jokes. They scored points like a sporting spectacle, the whiskey ensuring a pleasant degradation from culture to gutter as their match progressed.
That night they'd sunk a bottle between them, and, feeling better than he had for days, Holliday had left for the Oriental at eleven, hoping to change his black-dog luck at cards. He'd been succeeding too, building up a respectable haul and regaining his too-long shattered equanimity a hand at a time, until Clanton had turned up and started mouthing off.
Ike Clanton didn't have the needful balls his old man had, neither did he possess the natural good looks and personability of his younger brother Billy. He lacked too the smarts of his buddy William Brocius, which left him languishing socially and mentally behind his peers, when as first-born he should have been leading the pack. These lamentable handicaps had made him mean, loud, and swift to anger.
After the respite with Eddie and a bottle of whiskey from his myriad irritations, Holliday thought it particularly cruel that fate should hand him this ignorant drunk so close after that brief, soothing reprieve. The evening had been ruined; words had been exchanged, and the inevitable altercation had occurred.
Holliday had found himself standing in an instant, leaning across the table with Hellbitch in his hand, her sharp point itching towards Ike's stomach while Holliday grated out a week's worth of bottled profanities.
With three men straining to hold Holliday back, Ike had felt brave enough to hawk up a mouthful of tobacco-spit and launch it onto Holliday's coat.
"You fuckin' little piece o' penny-whore's piss," Holliday had yelled at him, almost breaking free and feeling a small moment of satisfaction as Ike flinched back. "All I want from you is nine paces out in that street, you yellow tongued little skiv – you hear me?"
"I ain't heeled!" Ike shouted back, his voice high and cracked like an un-oiled gate.
Holliday lunged forward again, but a new set of arms had joined to chain him and he couldn't snap free. "Hell, if that's the only problem I'll lend you one o'mine," he rejoined with a diabolical sort of glee, the fingers of his left hand straining towards one of his .38s.
Ike's courage had long since deserted him; Holliday was too wild, too damn uncaring for his own life and limb – it tended to unsettle a man. "You crazy bastard," he accused, backing away. "You'll get what's comin' t'you, Holliday, you blood spitting 'Fed – an' the outcome'll be jus' like the war..."
"Oh, I ain't gonna die," Holliday announced with eerie certainty, "'til I've opened your skull an' spat red on that desiccated speck o'shit you call your brain..."
Not even dumb bravado could sustain him in the face of that oath; Ike ran.
Holliday surged forward, wanting to give chase, but was prevented by the weight of bodies pulling him back. He didn't shout, didn't curse, just gathered his strength for another push against his captors. Voices were raised: words were being had but he paid them no mind. All that mattered was getting free and lacing the hell outta that bug-eyed cowpoke...
"Turn 'im loose," someone commanded in a clear voice, a voice that held apparent authority because the decree was heeded without question.
The arms loosened, Holliday sprung free, but an instant later that same someone was grabbing him by the shoulder and using all his forward momentum to propel him towards the door of the saloon and out onto the street.
Holliday looked up at Morgan, still fighting against the need to laugh. "What's wrong with me?" he giggled to himself.
Morgan's shoulders slumped in relief and irritation. "Jesus, Doc," he complained, squatting down beside his friend to keep an eye on him as much to be companionable. "Why did you start on Ike?"
Holliday stopped laughing abruptly and cleared his throat. "Because I utterly detest that ignorant, arrogant, snivellin' little cu..."
"Doc!" Morgan despaired.
"Card," Holliday enunciated. "I'm sorry Morgan, what did you think I was about to say?"
Morg rolled his eyes and swore quietly and with much feeling. He looked back at the slight, superior and dishevelled man at his side and shook his head. "Even you don't usually hit it this hard, Doc," he said earnestly. "What gives?"
Holliday reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a plain silver hipflask, offering it to Morg and turning away to cough as he did so. Morg shook his head, so Holliday helped himself to a swig of whiskey. "I feel," he said gravely, "that I'm comin' t'the end o'my tether."
Morgan Earp looked irritated. "Doc – you don't have a tether!"
"All the more reason," he said with dark feeling, "for this sorry charade t'come to an end."
Morgan rocked back on his heels, hurt mingling with concern in his eyes. He was used to the volatile temper and the equally stormy flashes of morbid humour that could drown out the gentlemanly persona in an instant. But this note of resigned hate was new, and he had no idea what had caused it. "What you talkin' about, Doc?"
Holliday didn't meet his gaze, instead he tipped his head up to look at the stars. "Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris. Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior." He stayed looking up at the stars for a while longer and then finally rewarded Morgan's patience. "I can't open shop any more," he said quietly. "I barely been there all month. I can't do it."
He frowned, hearing the self-loathing but unable to comprehend the cause. "Why the hell not? You're the best dentist Dodge ever had – Fort Griffin were beggin' you not t'leave – they even trumped up charges t'make you stay! They'll catch on here once they know the style o'work you do..."
Holliday sighed, a tired and final breath that silenced Morgan's reassurances. "Morg, people are nervy enough at getting spikes in their mouths at the best o'times – they don't like it if you're coughin' so much you can't hold steady." He watched worry and understanding dawn on the man's face, and then turned away in case he saw pity.
"It's getting' worse, Morg," Holliday said gently. "It only ever gets worse."
"You told Wyatt..."
"Shuttup," Holliday growled. "No tattle-talin' t'your big brother."
"Christ have mercy! Don't act like you never kept shit from him before." He took another swig of whiskey.
Morgan's features twisted unhappily. "Damn it, Doc, this is serious..."
"Damn straight it's serious," Holliday agreed. "I gotta stick around t'watch your backs – play the guardian angel. James ain't interested, Virg's too busy, Wyatt's too blind, Warren's green-broke, an' you're too young."
"I'm older than you."
"Yeah, that's what you think," Holliday told him belligerently.
Holliday's head snapped up; there was something about that voice that was deeply wrong. Morgan was standing a pace away now, although Holliday hadn't heard him move. He looked a little older, a little tireder; he wore no coat but a black silk and wool waistcoat and a scarlet linen shirt. With a nasty mental lurch, Holliday realized the shirt had once been white.
Morgan gave him a level and hollow-eyed stare. "You're older than me now, Doc," he said.
Holliday looked up at the specter silently, like some small creature trapped by the shadow of a buzzard, waiting for it to pass judgment and destroy him utterly. For surely it must - surely that was why it was here?
"Turns out you weren't so good at watchin' backs as you thought. Although I did appreciate the loan o'the suit – this one weren't much fit for it."
Suit? He closed his eyes briefly. He'd given up a new Prussian-hued suit he'd bought a month back in Preston, handed it over to Louisa for Morg to be laid out in. He'd never been able to wear blue since. He listened to the slow, heavy sound of Morgan's blood as it left the hole in his spine, soaked through to his waistcoat and dripped onto the dry dirt of the street.
"How you been keepin' anyways Doc?" the shade asked.
He couldn't answer, his throat had locked. He wanted to say sorry; the word sat leaden on his tongue. But he had no right: by its very nature an apology was a plea for forgiveness, and Holliday knew he deserved no such thing.
Morgan's lips twitched into a sad and bloody approximation of a smile. "Kinda funny, ain't it? You with your 'the devil may care but I don't mind' outlook, you with no family t'call on, all bridges back t'Georgia blazin' an' burnt... You with a woman who don't even love ya, jus' passin' fond o'you an' your pocketbook... You with your lungs turned t'shit but with your pride so sure you gotta die right, always lookin' f'the one who could best ya... All that," he said with a sad sort of wonder. "Yet they never touched ya, barely even a powder mark."
Holliday lifted his hand towards the wraith, a wordless guilty supplication. Tell me how t'take it away from you, he screamed in the confines of his own skull. Show me how t'claim that bullet for my own, t'be twitchin' with a broken spine an' my blood on the pool table instead o'you...
Morgan's dark eyes showed understanding, but he shook his head, a small but implacable refute. "What's done is done, an' you gotta make your peace with that best you can. You take care, Doc. Be careful." He turned away and walked down the street, leaving Holliday to stare at his ruined crimson clothes, a name and an apology burning painfully – silently - in his mouth...
John Henry's eyes flicked open. He stared blindly at the darkened room and listened to his own heart as it thrummed in his chest. Through the open window the infrequent night-time sounds of the town reached him above the quiet hum of the land. At his side Kate shifted in her sleep, curling a little closer towards him, her jet-and-rubies hair splayed against the pillows.
He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw against the pull of his past, rising like a tide against him. "I'm sorry," he whispered hoarsely, seconds and years too late.
"I'm so sorry, Morg."
I'm pretty sure Holliday had given up on the idea of being a dentist before he got to Tombstone, so call that bit artistic licence.
He did actually have a knife called 'Hellbitch'. His cousin had taken a cleaver and fashioned it into a bowie knife. Holliday carried it with him most of the time.
Eddie Foy existed: he was a comedian/entertainer whom Holliday asked to work with him on a jaunt for the Sante Fe railway.
Lending a suit for Morg to be buried in may well be apocryphal; I've seen it sighted on the net but not found any source for it.
'Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris. Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.' = 'You could ask why I act like that. I don't know, but I feel it's happening and torture myself.' It's a quote from a Classical poem, but I'm afraid I can't remember who wrote it.
Please leave me reviews - they totally make my day =)