Subtitled “A Weird West Tale,” Mike Resnick’s The Doctor and the Kid is an installment in his stories of the Weird West — an alternate universe in which the westward expansion of the United States has been halted at the Mississippi River by the magic of Indian medicine men. That doesn’t stop a few intrepid souls from making the journey to what would become the American West. (Well, in our universe, at least.)
“The Doctor” is Doc Holliday, dying of consumption and planning on spending his last days in a sanitarium in Leadville — until he blows his savings on a bad night at the card tables. He needs money, a lot of it, if he is to spend his last days in some sort of comfort, and the best way to make money fast is claiming the bounty on a wanted desperado. The most wanted — that is, the one with the highest bounty — is Billy the Kid, but it seems that Billy is somehow protected — as Doc learns from Geronimo, the protector is Hook Nose, who has not only protected Billy but also a rail station that sits on an Apache burial ground. Geronimo wants the station gone, and will protect Doc if he will get rid of it. Billy is the reward.
The milieu is alternate universe/steampunk (although thankfully, the “technology” never takes over) cum Wild West, itself a mythic place in the American soul, but the story is about the people, as all good stories are. Resnick seems to have a gift for turning mythic archetypes into real people, and that ability is in full measure here. And this cast of characters deserves the treatment: we not only have Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid, but Thomas Alva Edison, Ned Buntline, Pat Garrett, Kate Elder, Geronimo, and enough secondary characters to round it out nicely without overcrowding. The focus is tight, but even given the number of important characters, scenes are intimate. And the characters, while partaking of the archetypal Western heroes — laconic, hard-bitten, men (and women) of action rather than words — become fully human but never lose their essential mythic quality.
It’s an odd sort of story, not particularly fast-paced but meaty enough to keep the reader engaged. And it’s fun. And maybe that’s the best summation.