The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is one of those seminal historical events that every American knows about — or at least thinks they know. In the materials accompanying the ARC for Territory Emma Bull comments that there are many conflicting historical versions of the events leading up to those thirty seconds of gunfire that transpired between the Earp brothers (and Doc Holliday) and the Clanton gang. So instead of settling on any particular version of the truth, she set out to write a novel that could encompass all of them. I can’t claim to be well-versed in Tombstone historical lore, but I can vouch that Bull has done a excellent job of blending original characters and scenarios with the ureality of history into an entertaining read.
All the familiar faces are in Territory — Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp, Doc Holliday, and Ike and Billy Clanton, plus a few that not everyone remembers, such as Frank and Tom McLaury and John Behan. Bull’s also peppered her Tombstone with historical figures better known from a slightly later incident known as the “Earp Vendetta Ride” (to avenge Morgan’s murder), including John Ringo and William “Curly Bill” Brocius. However, with the exception of Doc Holliday, they all take a backseat to Bull’s original characters, Jesse Fox and Mrs. Mildred Benjamin (or Mrs. David Benjamin, as she’d usually prefer to be called). The latter is a typesetter at one of Tombstone’s two newspapers, a widow with literary ambitions — in other words, not your average Tombstone miner’s wife. The former is a little harder to categorize. Jesse is a bit of a wanderer, an itinerant horse tamer whose introduction to Tombstone comes when he shoots a young man for trying to steal his buckskin stallion Sam. He sticks around to see if the man survives, thereby renewing an old acquaintance with a Chinese doctor, Chow Lung, with whom he’s had several past adventures.
On the surface, Tombstone seems like any other bustling town in the Arizona territory. It’s feeling the growing pains of a town undergoing a burst of economic prosperity, with new faces arriving every day. There’s a thriving Chinatown (called Hoptown), the silver streak hasn’t let up and even the cattle rustlers are making a good living for themselves. But beginning with a stagecoach robbery gone horribly wrong, strange things are afoot in Tombstone, things which will ultimately lead to the famous gun fight — which Bull has cleverly chosen to leave off screen, and after the close of Territory (and leaves some doubt as to whether it does actually occur quite as in reality).
As Mildred’s paper covers this story, her path crosses Jesse’s on more than one occasion; at one point, (at her editor’s urging) she enlists his help to break a man accused of the stagecoach shooting out of jail, only to have the man’s arm turn up outside the paper’s offices, proof of his death at someone’s hand. She also comes into contact with the reclusive Earp wives, with whom she becomes friends — and with known cattle rustler Tom McLaury, who would like to become more than friends with her. As for Jesse, his horse thief ends up dying, which should be his signal to leave town, but he never quite manages to do so. He sticks around, tames a horse for Virgil Earp, ends up investigating the murder of a Chinese prostitute with Lung and grudgingly comes to acknowledge that he possesses powers that science can’t explain away. In short, magic: the same powers that drove his sister insane.
And Jesse’s not alone. There are other practitioners in Tombstone, using tokens to invoke spells from afar and blood sacrifices to create bindings. Who? And to what ends? That’s what Jesse must find out before he falls victim to one or another faction. Readers have some inkling, having the foresight of history, but that doesn’t lessen the intensity of his search one iota.
Territory is, at its heart, a character, rather than action, driven novel, told from Jesse, Mildred and Doc’s points of view, in alternating chapters. Jesse and Mildred are bursting at the seams with personality — humour, desires, quirks — and both are driven, in their own ways. Mildred’s determined to find her own path, be it as a pulp writer or reporter or something of that nature. And Jesse is determined not to become his demented sister — and later, to right various wrongs. The bond that develops between them is equal parts humorous and sweet, and never once falls flat. Jesse’s scenes with Lung are also strong, especially when they are discussing Jesse’s magical skill. And it’s impossible to go wrong with Doc Holliday, really. His scenes with wife Kate are charming and romantic, and those with Wyatt, bittersweet, a man resigned to a fate he can’t escape any more than he can cure himself of his consumption.
Bull makes an interesting decision to put the Earps on the back burner, letting readers see more of their wives than of the men themselves, though it does help to build an air of mystery and distance around Wyatt.
Readers coming in expecting a straight-forward telling of the O. K. Corral story with a helping of magic on the side will likely be disappointed. Territory is more subtle than that. Bull has made sparing use of magic throughout, letting it build only as the real events build towards that fateful day. To best enjoy this novel is to set aside what you know — or think you know about the history of that day and just enjoy Bull’s delightful characters and descriptions of a bustling western town
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the gorgeous cover illustration of a buckskin horse (Sam, presumably), rearing from the trunk of a tree, framed against a night sky. Simply beautiful — and a fitting image for both the relationship between Jesse and Sam and Jesse and his magic.