Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

Over 130 years ago, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were involved in a 30-second street fight in a vacant lot behind a photography studio in Tombstone, Arizona. To this day—because of movies and television—people around the world know their names. In her acclaimed 2011 novel Doc, Mary Doria Russell stripped away more than a century of mythology to reintroduce the real men to readers—by telling the story of their meeting in Dodge City, Kansas, three years before the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Structured as an American Iliad, Russell's next novel follows Doc and Wyatt to their fate in Tombstone. Here is the opening Invocation from Epitaph, coming in 2014 from Ecco at HarperCollins.


The Iliad of Homer

To understand the gunfight in Tombstone, stop—now—and watch a clock for thirty seconds. Listen to it tick away one-half of a single minute and as it does, try to imagine thirty seconds so terrible they will pursue you all your life, and far beyond the grave.

Begin your half-minute with righteous confidence, though you stand six paces from armed and angry men. They have abused you. They have threatened your life. Your rage and fear are justified. They are in the wrong. You are within the law. About all this: have no doubt.

Two quiet clicks. A breathless instant, and the gunfire becomes deafening. When a sudden silence falls just thirty seconds later, men will lie bleeding on the ground, and the life you thought was yours will be over.

Imagine. Your name is Earp. Your name is Holliday. Your name is Clanton or McLaury. Your name is Behan. Your name is Marcus or Blaylock or Haroney. You were in the middle of the gunfight. You watched, stunned by it. You heard the fusillade and thought, "Dear God, not my man. Please, God. Not mine."

Whatever your name, it will be blackened. Every flaw, every mistake: held up for scrutiny, condemnation, ridicule. Your secrets: made public. Your reputation: twisted and sere as a blighted leaf. Every accomplishment, every act of kindness or courage: forgotten. Everything you were, everything you hoped for, everything you planned: gone.

Whether you live five minutes or fifty years more, those awful thirty seconds will become a private eclipse of the sun, darkening every moment left to you and cursing you with a kind of immortality. A century will pass, and decades beyond it... Still, the living will haunt the dead as that half-minute becomes entertainment for hundreds of millions around the world.

Year after year, everything that did and did not happen during each of those thirty seconds of confusion and noise, smoke and pain will be lied about and distorted, described and analyzed, discussed and disputed. And long after you die, you will be judged by those who cannot imagine standing six paces from armed and angry men.

Not even for thirty seconds.

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