Born in rural Georgia in the decade before the Civil War, John Henry Holliday led a hard life. His father, only happy when he was a soldier, was miserable and took it out on John. His mother developed consumption (what we call tuberculosis) when he was ten, just as the Civil War began. His father went to fight for The Cause, leaving him to tend his mother.
When she died, the war had ended, the South lay in ruins, and young John was only happy in the presence of his charming cousin Mattie. So off to Philadelphia he would go to become a dentist. He planned to setup practice in Atlanta and marry Mattie, but that cough, the one that killed his mother, developed before he graduated. John left Georgia – and tragically, Mattie – forever, heading west to practice dentistry and save his lungs.
It was in Dallas that “Doc” Holliday discovered his two true talents – gambling and gunslinging. When he wasn’t fixing teeth, Doc could be found dealing faro, playing poker, or providing security for the railroads or Wells Fargo.
But despite most legends being mostly myth, a gunslinger develops a lot of enemies, and Doc was no exception. He moved from Texas to Colorado to Dodge City, Kansas, north to the illegal mining camp at Deadwood, and eventually to Arizona. Along the way, he picked up a persistent common law wife, best known as Katie Elder, who refused to leave his side. He also became fast friends with Wyatt Earp and witnessed the murder of Wild Bill Hickock. In Tombstone, he became a fugitive after the Earp families famous vendetta ride in the wake of the OK Corral shootout and its aftermath. Eventually, he settled in Colorado, where he spent the last of his days trying to stay ahead of the consumption that killed his mother.
The Last Gamble of Doc Holliday is a well-researched novel that leans heavily on the truth, but weaves in myths that put Holliday in a positive light. It should. LT Brooks has written from Doc’s point-of-view. Which is not to say she white-washes Holliday’s life story. Holliday is long-suffering as a child and teen, driven as a dental student, but quick-tempered as an adult. His tempestuous relationship with Kate Elder included a lot of mutual abuse, and sometimes, Holliday held a grudge.
Two things really stuck me with this book. One was Holliday’s relationship with fellow gunslinger Bat Masterson. The two never liked each other, according to Brooks, and yet the respect for each other was deep. If one picked up the story midway without reading those early scenes between Holliday and Masterson in Dallas, one might suspect they were closer friends than Holliday and Earp were.
The other is the love story between Mattie and Doc. The two never truly parted, though they never saw each other again since Doc left Georgia forever. Mattie had and gave up their child and refused to marry again. And yet the letters between them sustained each other through their trials over the years.
The jacket flap states that Brooks, whom I met in 2005 at a group book signing, was working on a second book. If so, I’d like to see it. She’s painted an intriguing portrait of one of the Old West’s most iconic figures.