TOMBSTONE (Arizona), Feb 17 — Ken Curtis felt a stinging pain beneath the double-stitched leather holster where his Mitchell Arms pistol rests when it is not in his hands, as it was that afternoon in October.
He slid a finger inside his pants.
Blood oozed from a hole in his lower abdomen.
Curtis took a deep breath and slipped right back into character.
People were watching and waiting, he said. He still had an outlaw to gun down.
Curtis, 68, was portraying the 1880s deputy sheriff Kip Phillips in his final gunbattle, in which the deputy killed the outlaw, Filomino Orante, but the outlaw killed the deputy, too.
The bullets for the show were meant to be blanks, props in one of three re-enactments that are performed each day by a group called the Tombstone Vigilantes here on Allen Street, where the Tombstone of today is briefly obscured by a theme-park rendition of the way it was more than a century ago.
This historic outpost, 35 miles north of the Mexican border on a barren stretch of high desert 90 minutes’ drive from Tucson, survives thanks to visitors who come by the tens of thousands each year to experience the lifestyle of Western legends through guided tours and re-enactments.
In one such performance, on Oct. 18, the actor playing Orante mistakenly used a gun full of live rounds in the skit, shooting Curtis. City officials immediately halted the street gunfights, leaving in doubt their future and the fate of Tombstone’s single-themed tourism industry.
On Saturday, the actors were back to their old routines, to the delight of visitors from across the country and far corners of the world — a man in a neon-green shirt had come all the way from Auckland, New Zealand.
At high noon, the Orante scene entertained the audience, which this time was corralled behind ropes on a street block flanked by the Shady Lady clothing store and the Smoke Signals tobacco shop.
Curtis, who has recovered from surgery to remove the bullet, watched from a nearby tent, where he was selling raffle tickets for a Colt .45-caliber carbine rifle offered by the Tombstone Vigilantes, who have run the re-enactments on Allen Street since 1946. They are an all-volunteer group of engineers, title agents, teachers, exterminators and other professionals whose idea of a good time is giving visitors a reason to have a good time.
“The tourists come here because they want to relive the Wild West,” said Curtis, clad in riding boots, leather vest and cowboy hat. “We try our best to make that happen.”
The shooting remains under review, the Cochise County attorney’s office said. For three months, Mayor Dusty Escapule, who owns a stagecoach tour company in town, said he was focused on finding a way to resume the gunfights safely.
“We still wanted people to know they could come to Tombstone and bring their guns, so whatever we did had to respect the Second Amendment,” Escapule said. “Guns are our history and a big part of life here. They’re what make Tombstone Tombstone.”
An armorer, stationed at the entrance to the roped-off area Saturday, checked weapons as actors walked in — handing out blanks and making sure there were no real bullets inside. The guns are now inspected again as the actors walk out and the blanks collected for the next show.
Jeff Ingertson, an applications engineer who holds the title of chief of the Tombstone Vigilantes — “it’s the same as president,” he explained — said Curtis’ shooting in October “was an anomaly,” the first time anyone had been injured during a re-enactment.
The group works for donations only, and the money it raises helps a no-kill animal shelter here, the senior citizens center and a scholarship fund for Tombstone High School graduates, Ingertson said. The gunfights, he added, are “make-believe fun for all ages.”
On Saturday, Joe and Rozalyn Palicte drove in from Buckeye, 190 miles northwest of here, with their four children, including a son named Zachary, 11, who was wearing a fake mustache, a black hat and jacket, and a sheriff’s star pinned to its lapel.
“He’s a huge fan of Doc Holliday,” Joe Palicte said, referring to the gambler and dentist immortalized for his role as a deputy marshal in the extrajudicial search for a band of outlaw cowboys, which led to the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, the Wild West’s most famous gunbattle.
Sternly, Zachary ran his fingers through his mustache.
Up the street, Don and Sissie Puckett of Kingston, Tennessee, were looking for a place to have lunch. They were on a 30-day excursion through Arizona, an annual tradition that, for three years, has always included a visit to Tombstone. This time they brought friends from Butte, Montana, and Alvin, Texas.
“We learn about our history and have a good time while at it,” Don Puckett said as he walked past a vendor selling Victorian hats.
“There’s no other place like this one.” — The New York Times