I didn’t look up when Margarita came through the door.

I was playing cards, minding my business. She was looking for company — paying company. Suddenly all hell broke loose. There was shouting and pushing, and the flash of a knife blade, and Margarita collapsed at our table.

“Call a doctor,” said the gentleman to my right.

“No need,” said the cowboy on my left. “She’s dead. Let’s play cards.”

Then we stood up and ambled away, and the small crowd sheltering from the baking desert sun chuckled and applauded politely.

The incident had been real enough, or so the story says. Gold Dollar, a prostitute in the silver mining town of Tombstone, Ariz., had indeed killed a perceived rival, who dubbed herself Margarita, over the affections and business of local gambler Billy Milgreen. But that had happened in the 1880s; 130 or so years later, our “bar” was an open set comprising a doorway, a few stools and not much else, erected in the middle of Tombstone’s Allen Street; the knife in question was plastic; and the woman taking the role of Gold Dollar was the mother of the one playing Margarita. The entire show was the work of the Tombstone Vigilantes, a local nonprofit group that, two or three Sundays a month, performs reenactments — many of which, as in the skit I had just been invited to join, address through a darkly comic lens the violence that at times was endemic in the Old West.

But this was no ordinary Sunday in Tombstone, a normally sleepy tourist town about 70 miles south of Tucson. This was part of a three-day festival of gunfight reenactments and Old West celebrations dubbed Wyatt Earp Days in memory of the town’s most famous former resident, one of several such festival weekends in the town each year. Earp lived in Tombstone for little more than two years, but in that time he saw one brother murdered and another wounded by gunfire, and participated in a roughly 30-second gunfight that killed three men and entwined the names Earp and Tombstone in history forever.

That gunfight in 1881 — in a vacant lot next to the O.K. Corral — is arguably the most famous single incident in the history of the Old West, although few are aware of the circumstances that led to it, and fewer still can recite the names of the three young men who lay dead when the shooting stopped and the smoke cleared.

“One of the most famous gunfights in the world took place right here, and we have the chance to stand on that street and do gunfights,” marvels Bill Kenney, who goes by the stage name Texas Bill when he is performing as a member of the Guthrie Gunfighters from Guthrie, Okla. “It’s pretty much the Super Bowl for Old West reenactors.”

That gunfight is also arguably the single biggest reason Tombstone, unlike so many other towns of its era in the region, continues to thrive.

“We have founded our entire economy on a 30-second triple homicide,” says Stephen Keith, an actor who plays Earp’s friend Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral. “Without the gunfight, this town would be rubble in the desert with a pretty name.”

* * *

I never wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up; I didn’t even grow up in the United States. So what on earth was I doing here? And why was I enjoying it so much?

Of course, even coming of age in the United Kingdom, I was aware of the Old West. It was hard not to be. Our televisions, too, broadcast “Bonanza,” “The High Chaparral” and John Wayne movies. But then, they broadcast a lot of U.S. shows, and if any of them made a profound impression on my malleable mind, it wasn’t a western; it was “Vega$,” featuring Robert Urich as a private investigator who drove around Sin City in a Ford Thunderbird. Upon first seeing it, I resolved that I would one day live in Las Vegas (which I did) and that driving a convertible along the Strip (which I also did) would make my life complete (which it didn’t).

If anything, I was more interested in outer space than in the Old West. When I watched the 1957 movie “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,”what struck me most was the visceral shock at seeing “Star Trek’s”DeForest Kelley involved in a fatal shootout. How did Bones McCoy get caught up in all this? (Even more shocking was when Bones — along with Kirk, Spock and the gang — was transported to the O.K. Corral in the 1968 “Star Trek” episode “Spectre of the Gun.”)

My interest in the West came later in life, after I had moved to the States. A deep passion for the polar regions had led me to a life in Alaska, and one cold evening in my tiny cabin, I took the recommendation of a friend and watched a movie called “Tombstone.”

Now this was a western. With a rousing score, crisp dialogue (much of it uttered by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, in a tour de force) and a barnstorming performance by Kurt Russell as Earp, it gained a cult following soon after its 1993 release. The film had the perfect combination of memorable moments and undemanding plot that allowed for repeated viewing over the years, and ultimately I found myself increasingly intrigued by the historical underpinnings of an admittedly glorified and fictionalized story. When I realized that Tombstone still existed, I knew I had to turn off the movie and go to the town. And once I arrived, I had barely unpacked before I headed out into the evening to commune with the spirits along Allen Street.

One saloon, the Crystal Palace, has been lovingly restored to very closely resemble its 1880s appearance; the Bird Cage Theatre,which opened its doors in December 1881, retains its atmospheric, internal mustiness; and the sign that hangs outside the O.K. Corral (which is now the site of a museum, a twice-dailygunfight show and a Vincent Price-narrated history) looks much as it did when the Earps drew their guns. But Tombstone is no Colonial Williamsburg: The saloon where Wyatt Earp dealt cards is now a clothing store, and the billiards hall where one of his brothers was shot dead is a souvenir shop, the site of his assassination marked only by a sign that hangs from the ceiling. Except on festival weekends, you are about as likely to encounter someone in the brown livery of a UPS uniform as someone in Victorian cowboy garb.

To some, this can be disappointing. But the history here is palpable, accentuated by the town’s small size (the historic district runs just three blocks west to east). I took a slight detour and passed the site of Wyatt Earp’s house (now a museum and art gallery, with a massive statue of Earp outside) and, across the street, the corner lot, now a B&B, where his brother Virgil lived. Back on Allen Street, I walked along the boardwalk and instantly regretted not wearing boots; somehow it felt as if boots would echo more faithfully in the night.

* * *

If lead gained Tonbstone lasting infamy, it was silver that prompted its creation and allowed it to erupt, for a brief period at the end of the 19th century, into one of the most vibrant boomtowns in the West.

A block south of the main drag, at Toughnut and Fifth streets, Carey Granger leads me below the surface and takes me on the Good Enough Mine Underground Tour — the name referring, not to a modest appraisal of the experience but to the appellation given the mining claim. The claim was filed in 1878; by the end of the following year, the mine was producing, at a conservative estimate, $25,000 of high-grade silver ore a month. As a consequence, Tombstone exploded into a bustling settlement.

“Tombstone was open 24 hours a day,” says local historian and author Don Taylor, who sells Western clothing and gifts at the Bronco Mercantile store. “The miners worked rotating 10-hour shifts; everything had to be open when they got off, including banks.”

The hustle, bustle and money generated by the roughly 25 mines that opened in the area attracted hordes of others who sought to make a swift and easy fortune in various ways, as bartenders, hoteliers, restaurateurs, card dealers, bankers — and prostitutes, many of whom plied their wares out of small “cribs” that lined Sixth Street. Among those who arrived in the town’s heady early days were 31-year-old Wyatt Earp, older brothers Virgil and James, younger brothers Morgan and Warren, and friend Doc Holliday. Wyatt had been an assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kan.; Virgil had recently been appointed deputy U.S. marshal for the Tombstone region of the Arizona Territory; and both brothers spent time during their spell in Tombstone in and out of law enforcement positions.

But their time in Tombstone ultimately came to be defined by their clashes with the “cowboys,” a loose confederation of ranchers, rustlers and stagecoach robbers. Not everybody disliked the cowboys: They spent money when they ventured into town to eat, drink and make merry, and few were unhappy with their penchant for stealing into Mexico and returning with rustled cattle. But there was growing antipathy between them and the largely Yankee mercantile class that was beginning to dominate Tombstone politically and economically, and which the Earps — late of Kansas but hailing from Illinois — defined.

On the afternoon of Oct. 26, 1881, a night and day of escalating threats and confrontations came to a boil when Virgil, who by then was city marshal, gathered Wyatt, Morgan and Holliday and set off for a vacant lot just west of the O.K. Corral, where a group of cowboys had gathered.

“Boys, throw up your hands,” Virgil commanded. “I mean to disarm you.” There was a pause, and the click-click of a gun — or guns — being cocked. Half a minute later, two cowboys — Frank McLaury and his brother Tom — were dead, and a third, Billy Clanton, lay screaming in agony before ultimately succumbing to his wounds. Holliday, Morgan and Virgil were wounded but survived; Wyatt was untouched.

The gunfight only fueled the fire: On Dec. 28, Virgil was shot and wounded by several unseen assailants in the darkness of an Allen Street night. On March 18, 1882, Morgan was gunned down while playing billiards. In revenge, Wyatt, accompanied by Warren, Doc Holliday and others, set out on a vendetta ride in which they killed at least three cowboys and perhaps more. Pursued by a posse rounded up by pro-cowboy Sheriff John Behan, the Earp clan broke up and left the Arizona territory, never to return.

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as it later became known, in many ways marked the end of the age of frontier justice, and it would not be long before Tombstone’s great era came to an end.

“In 1886, the pump at the Grand Central Mine was destroyed by fire, and the other pump at the Contention Mine couldn’t keep up by itself, and it was destroyed in the same way in 1891,” explains Carey Granger as I follow him through the underground maze beneath the town. Unable to fight back against the water table, and with experienced miners moving elsewhere, Tombstone seemed at risk of disappearing back into the desert.

But the town was able to fall back on those 30 seconds of violent history, the mythologizing of which truly began in 1931, two years after Wyatt Earp’s death at age 80, with the publication of the hagiographic “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal” by Stuart Lake. Just three years later, “Frontier Marshal” was a Hollywood movie, and the tale was told and retold with varying degrees of accuracy over the years: “My Darling Clementine” in 1946, “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” in 1957. Then came television.

“When we were growing up, pretty much what you had after ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ and ‘Superman’ was westerns,” recalls the self-identified Dr. Jay, who is simultaneously a forensic dentist, ordained minister and host, in period costume, of an enthusiastic and informative historical tour of Tombstone. “And a whole generation of people like us grew up wanting to be that and do that.”

Those westerns traveled around the world, becoming iconographic representations of America and its individualist, frontier spirit. Kids who had never seen the United States and didn’t know a Cherokee from an Apache donned small Stetsons and fired at imaginary enemies from behind their couches.

“We’ve had a group of Vietnamese Buddhist monks, who spoke maybe 10, 20 words of English, and they had heard of Wyatt Earp and they had heard of the gunfight,” says Tim Fattig, author of a voluminous biography of Earp, who works as a guide at the O.K. Corral. “They thought it was the greatest thing in the world to be here, and I wasn’t about to argue with them.”

Stephen Keith, Tombstone’s resident Doc, says: “As a tourist, the first thing I want to see up the street three blocks away is a guy that walks out onto the street and I recognize him. And I enable that to happen by aping the movie, because Val Kilmer created an iconic character. ... When I dress like this and I walk out on to the street, right away people are going, ‘There he is!’ That’s what’s important.”

It’s impossible to spend much time in Tombstone without encountering Keith, as he strolls down Allen Street, flourishing a cane — and, on occasion of an evening, dealing faro, a once-popular card game, in the room behind the Oriental Saloon where Holliday and Earp did the same.

Before taking on one of Tombstone’s most infamous residents, Keith was a performer at renaissance fairs. “You draw people in and make them part of the show, and that’s what I do on the boardwalk. I see a little kid, and I might say, ‘Well, howdy, kid. I heard you were in town.’ All of a sudden, his eyes are wide, and that kid gets back to Kansas or London, and that’s what he remembers, that little piece of magic. ... They know it’s not real. They come in willing to suspend their disbelief, and if you allow them to, they will.”

Many of the gunfight shows in town are slapstick, or at least exaggerated: brief snippets that alternate historicity with dark humor and focus heavily on the murder and mayhem that Tombstone has embraced as its own. In contrast, in the show at the O.K. Corral — which Keith writes, directs and produces — the shooting occupies, as it did in real life, but a few seconds; the bulk of the performance focuses on imagining the conversations that may have taken place among the young cowboys who lost their lives that day in the minutes and hours before the Earps and Holliday rounded the corner and confronted them.

At show’s end, the actors portraying the slain men do not stand up and take a bow, but remain lifeless and prone as the audience files out.

“What I saw that fascinated me is there are three guys who get killed,” Keith says. “And in every movie they’re cannon fodder. They’re really not developed characters. So in my show, I thought, let’s make them real people, with girlfriends and issues and lives. These were real people who died.”

In Keith’s script, the Earps, far from triumphant over their victory, are shaken by what has transpired. It is a portrayal that reflects one description of Holliday’s demeanor in the gunfight’s aftermath, when he reportedly returned ashen-faced to his room and sat on the edge of his bed. “It was awful! Just awful!” he exclaimed. And he wept.

* * *

On my first full day in Tombstone, I met with Janice and Keith Hendricks, who run Tombstoneweb.com and publish the freeTombstone Times newspaper once a month. Amid the suggestions for people to meet, places to see and things to do, Janice Hendricks said something that I couldn’t shake.

“This is a town that sells itself on death,” she observed.

It was hard to disagree. From mock gunfights and stabbings in the street during Wyatt Earp Days, to boasts of bullet holes in the Bird Cage, and even the deliberately morally ambiguous show at the O.K. Corral, virtually every story and every exhibit in town focuses on, revolves around or concludes with someone dying at someone else’s hand.

Except, that is, for the mines. And the rose tree.

Incongruously, Tombstone is home to what’s billed as the world’s largest rose tree, planted in 1885 and lovingly nurtured ever since; climbing up supports and spreading over elevated trellises, it extends across more than 9,000 square feet. Inside the Rose Tree Museum, which is tucked away behind an unassuming entrance on Fourth and Toughnut streets, the baking Arizona sun and the sound of gunfire yield to a cool, unhurried quiet. Sitting in the shade provided by the tree’s expansive branches felt like a peaceful celebration of life amid the murder and mayhem.

And then I realized just what it was about Tombstone that I liked so much. Sure, a movie I loved initiated the experience, but that didn’t guarantee that I’d enjoy myself when I got there. Tombstone’s history may be obsessed with death, but the history itself is a living one, kept alive by the fact that the town is not a museum or a theme park, but a community whose 1,500 members nurture its past with pride. And that pride and enthusiasm exert a contagious pull.

Lynda and Dusty Knox, from Britain, had also experienced it. They felt it so strongly, in fact, that they stayed, converting an old brothel into the Tombstone Bordello bed-and-breakfast, which they have run since 2004.

“I’ve had people come here, take one look around, not understand what all the fuss is about, and leave,” Lynda Knox says. “I’ve had others who’ll come and stay for weeks, just to sit on the boardwalk and take it all in. And others who come back for the same weekend year after year.”

Although it’s the gunfight that draws people in, there is also the context in which it took place. The fight, and Tombstone’s glory days, marked one of the final chapters in a period that epitomizes, in the words of Maria Untalan of the Tombstone Vigilantes troupe, the “spirit of independence,” the final years in this country’s young but turbulent lifetime in which a frontier was tamed, and those who did the taming yielded to civilization. As Tim Fattig, of the O.K. Corral, expressed it, “Tombstone has become a symbol of our violent history — of how we wrestled order out of chaos.”

* * *

On one of my last nights in town, I was invited to the Apache Spirit Ranch, a tourist destination built as a small western-town-within-a-town on Tombstone’s outskirts. The ranch is beautiful, dominated by a “street” with a bank, a jail, a hotel and 14 other locations, each of which reveals itself, on closer inspection, as a perfectly appointed room, many with views of the Dragoon Mountains. On this night, the managers threw open the property’s huge barn and bade everyone in Tombstone to dance and make merry.

It was a warm, clear night, and the community was out in force. As author Don Taylor and I talked conspiratorially on the edge of the light cast by the barn, the young actress who plays Wyatt Earp’s niece Hattie at the O.K. Corral danced, in costume, to the music. Virgil Earp provided security at the door. Stephen Keith showed up as Doc Holliday, a woman on each arm.

I stepped away from the crowd and soon found myself in darkness. The music from the barn teased my ears from a distance. Overhead, in the clear Arizona sky, the stars seemed close enough to touch. Nearby, the old stagecoach route snaked its way toward Tombstone, the route by which Wyatt Earp would have arrived in town in 1879. I imagined him looking up at those same stars draped over this bustling boomtown, contemplating the prospect of a prosperous and peaceful future.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer in Old Town Alexandria. He wrote about polar bears for the fall 2009 travel issue of the Magazine. To comment on this story, send e-mail
to wpmagazine@washpost.com.