`One-eyed Luke' keeps the West alive with poetry TOMBSTONE NIGHTS

I watched the movie, I read the books, I steeped myself in the legends of Tombstone and fell in love with John Henry Holliday. Dentist turned gambler, ``Doc'' - as we aficionados call him - was a fetchingly world-weary consumptive who knew Latin and drew a gun faster than any man in the West. Pale, gaunt, hard-drinking, he scorned fools and valued loyalty above all other qualities. To no man was he more loyal than Wyatt Earp, alongside whom he fought for no cause other than friendship in the shoot-out at the OK Corral.

Feasting on these wilfully Byronic images of the Old West, I drive - for want of a horse - through the vast desert amphitheatre of the San Pedro Valley towards Tombstone. The sun is high, the mountains harsh, the cacti fat. I stop at Boot Hill cemetery and pause for solitary contemplation before two of the graves. "Here lies George Johnson/Hanged by mistake 1882/He was right/We was wrong/But we strung him up/And now he's gone''; "Here lies Lester Moore/Four slugs from a 44/No less/No more.''

Up an incline, perched on a "mesa" with a commanding view of the valley, rests Tombstone, pop. 1500. Imagine my distress when I am confronted with a swarm of tourists in Bermuda shorts voraciously buying up Apache headpieces, riding through town in bright red stagecoaches, queuing up for the 2pm re-enactment - "Hurry on down, folks", yells a voice from a loudspeaker, "just $5 for the show!" - of the OK Corral shoot-out. Imagine, if you can, my outrage when I come across a board outside a shop advertising "Doc Holliday's Special! A 100 per cent guaranteed fat-free yoghurt ice cream!"

As night falls, a low, lugubrious melody beckons me into the Crystal Palace Saloon, where ``Doc'' and Wyatt would drink and gamble the night away back in 1881. A cowboy band is playing ``Amazing Grace'' with banjo and harmonica. The light is dim and the saloon - wood-panelled, crimson curtains - is teeming with men in stetsons drinking whisky and beer.

At a table in a corner sits "One-Eyed" Luke Dudley. He hasn't shaved in three days. He's wearing a black hat, a black scarf, red shirt, black jacket and jeans. He wears glasses with silver frames. The right lens is tinted black. When he was 14, they say, a friend shot out his eye. He speaks in a flat, imperturbable Texan drawl. He's the founder, he says, of the Texan Cowboy Poets' Association. He tells me he is descended from the Earl of Dudley in Warwickshire. His family owns the castle and one of his ancestors was beheaded at the Tower - "that Anne Boleyn [pronounced `Bowlinn'], she did it". He speaks to me about poems and cowboys and mules.

We had a number of conversations over the next two days, Luke and I. He was consistently courteous and kind, and impermeably wrapped in a world long gone. I simply could not imagine engaging him in conversation about Bill Clinton, OJ Simpson, or Forrest Gump.

Jack Fiske, by contrast, straddled the ancient and the modern. He looked so much like a cowboy that Hollywood had invited him over a few times, he said, to play what he called "a featured extra". A Vietnam veteran shot in both legs, he described himself as "semi-retired", working in a local bookshop.

"You know how at the end of Tombstone Wyatt Earp goes to Doc Holliday's deathbed and hands a him a copy of a book, My Friend Doc Holliday by Wyatt Earp? Well, that never happened. Hollywood made it up. But we were inundated at the bookshop with demands for the book. So I stayed up for three nights, each time with a pitcher of Martini, and I wrote it myself. Here, let me go get you a copy."

He left me at the bar, came back five minutes later, opened the book and wrote on it, "To John Carlin, Best Wishes, Jack Fiske. Tombstone '95".

I Met ``One-eyed Luke'' on the boardwalk outside the Crystal Palace as I was preparing to head out of town. He inclined his head, tipped his hat. "A pleasure to meet you, John. Say hello to ol' England for me."

John Carlin