Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and other denizens of Tombstone, Arizona, in the later years of the 19th century were not only gunslingers but gourmets – slightly surprising intelligence I have derived from a book I feel just as surprised to have read.

Jeff Guinn’s recently published The Last Gunfight (Biteback, £10.99) is not the sort of thing I usually pull from the shelves. But we were off on holiday, and the volume was swept into the suitcase in the hope that it might be an engaging alternative to my usual diet of Victorian fiction, leavened by more recent biography and memoirs.

It was, proving a gripping page-turner that shed new light on characters and events familiar to me since my earliest days through their depiction on the screen, small and large.

Cowboy adventures were the stuff of my childhood – as for all of my generation – in a way that will seem odd for youngsters of today for whom the Wild West probably means nothing.

Sixty years ago, this faraway land and all that occurred within it were present in daily life for us, as the first (almost) generation of British television watchers.

Jeff Guinn reminds us that in 1959, “at the height of the TV western craze”, more than two dozen ‘cowboy’ programmes were broadcast every week.

I watched lots of them and they remain in my memory – their names at least – all these years later.

The best-remembered – I think because it ran the longest – was The Lone Ranger, forever associated with its theme music, by Gioachino Rossini.

“Can I please have something from the William Tell Overture?” a typically moronic listener to Classic FM once asked in my hearing. He obviously meant the famous final Lone Ranger bit.

Maverick, Laramie, Bonanza, Rawhide, Bromo (not the loo paper) for me all blur into one. Sugarfoot (known in Britain as Tenderfoot) stands out for its baby-faced hero’s habit of entering through the swing doors of a bar to surprise whiskey drenched tough nuts with his order of sarsparella.

I think the Milky Bar Kid must have been partly inspired by him.

Wagon Train – in which was introduced the recently deceased star Peter Fonda – is memorable for the fact that its plot was identical (or nearly so) in every episode. Each week saw the train’s steady progress west interrupted by a Red Indian attack – there were no ‘Native Americans’ then – which was beaten off by the settlers from a defensive circle of their waggons.

At least six of the cowboy programmes were linked to the legend of Wyatt Earp, among them Tombstone Territory, Broken Arrow and Gunsmoke. This indicates what an iconic figure he was.

It’s instructive, then, to discover from The Last Gunfight that his was largely a life of failure, with his great fame achieved only posthumously.

Ever a chancer, Wyatt Earp never gained the status as a professional lawman that he hoped to achieve.

That this was so owed much to the notoriety that arose from the shoot-out at the OK Corral on October 26, 1881. Here it was that his elder brother, Virgil Earp, Tombstone’s police chief, younger brother Morgan Earp and their friend Doc Holliday became involved in a calamitous confrontation with the cowboys of the Clanton and McLaury families.

The swift exchange of gunfire felled Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton who was probably unarmed.

The genesis of the trouble and its tragic aftermath are dealt with in compelling detail by Jeff Guinn.

His book gives as vivid a picture as I have known of life on the wild frontier. Its discomforts are graphically presented. Insufferable summer heat and biting winter cold brought agonies to rat-infested Tombstone, speedily erected to cater for the needs of workers in the thriving silver mines.

On the bright side, facilities included lavish bars and gambling dens. licensed (and presumably medically vetted) prostitutes, and a tempting array of restaurants serving multi-coursed gourmet meals to eager patrons for 50 cents.

“The most frequent dining dilemma,” Guinn writes, “was what kind of fine food to enjoy. Spaghetti with meatballs, chow mein, roast duckling, oysters that were fried or poached or served in a delicate sauce – all these delights were available.”

The demand for very spicy food arose from a dulling of the miners’ palates through the constant breathing of foetid air during the long hours of work.

“Constantly gorging themselves on the combustible fare” took its toll on their digestive systems.

As historian Joseph R. Conlin noted: “Miners were regularly debilitated by bilious fever, constipation, cramps, dyspepsia, diarrhoea, enteritis, gastritis, gastric fever, haemorrhoids, inflammation of the bladder, inflammation of the bowels, kidney and liver disease, and food poisoning.”

Well, every pleasure has its price.