“Gunboat Whores” (which so far is leading all entries in The Devil’s Coattails for the “Best Title” award) is a quick peek into the early life of Wyatt Earp, the renowned Old West gunslinger who’s been immortalized in countless stories and films. In John Shirley’s tale (excerpted from a longer work-in-progress, according to the author’s note), Earp, reeling from a personal tragedy, has left his home in Missouri and has blazed a trail of drunkenness and bad decisions across the country. Eventually he falls in with a man known as Walton, the proprietor of a floating brothel called a gunboat. Earp marries one of the gunboat’s working girls and settles in as kind of onboard bouncer, an arrangement that works out for a while – until the night that one of the customers feels he’s not exactly getting his money’s worth, and decides to take things in a more violent direction.
It’s a straightforward Western, and although the episode itself has a definite conclusion, it still reads as what it is – a piece of something rather than a completely stand-alone story. It’s certainly well written and enjoyable, as Shirley brings an authenticity to the settings and dialogue so that it never feels like a campy, Saturday morning serial, and it’s an interesting look at how tough just living could be back then. That being said, the lack of any fantastical elements makes it something of an odd fit for this particular anthology.