- 16 Sep 08, 01:44 PM GMT
The gunfight at the OK Corral is one of the defining tales of the American West. According to popular legend, the shoot-out erupted on 26 October 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, when Wyatt Earp and his fellow lawmen attempted to disarm the cattle-rustling Cowboy gang.
This story of a man doing what he had to do and cleaning up a lawless town has inspired countless films, books and songs. What I hadn't realised, though, was that the real-life shoot-out was actually a pitched battled between Republicans and Democrats.
"You think this election is vicious?" chuckled local historian Ben Traywick, 81. He took me on a tour of the town and told me about a time when a political bloodbath wasn't just a figure of speech.
In 1881, John P Clum, the Republican mayor of Tombstone, represented the Eastern mining interests who wanted to make the area safe for commerce. He hired Wyatt Earp's brother Virgil as the local chief of police. The Earps were also Republicans, and several of them had served on the Union side in the Civil War.
The Cowboys, by contrast, made sure that the countryside under their control voted Democrat. Many had fought for the Confederacy before moving west, and resented northern plutocrats telling them what to do.
Of course, the platforms of both parties have changed radically since then. But gun control, law and order and the influence of big corporations are still hot issues.
What actually happened on that day is hotly debated, and many historians have given the Cowboys a sympathetic reading.
But I was interested in how the myth of the Earps and Doc Holliday doing the right thing and facing down the bad guys might have shaped American politics - in particular, when it came to foreign policy.
Ben told me he was a conservative Republican, so I asked him whether he felt the spirit of Wyatt Earp was alive in America today. He frowned.
"We've given up on the last three wars we've gotten into because the media and politicians told us they weren't working," he said. "We don't have anyone standing up for the people any more."
We walked on through Tombstone. Its main strip still resembled an 1880s frontier town, except that all the stores sold postcards and souvenir stetsons. I wondered what the gunfight's participants would have made of their town earning its living not from silver mining nor cattle-rustling, but tourism.
Every day a group of actors re-enacts the gunfight. I went along to watch them square off against each other. Afterwards, I got talking to Tim Fattig, 31, who played Frank McLaury, one of the Cowboys. He told me he tended to vote for Democrats, although not the sort that the real-life McLaury would have recognised.
"It's not a popular position around here," he smiled.
"But John McCain says he wants to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years. I don't think that's a good idea at all."
At least he and Ben weren't trying to kill each other. As for me, I was grateful to Tombstone for putting the present-day animosity between red and blue America into context.
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