The annals of the Old West tell of fateful alliances between lawmen and outlaws, some of the most notable being those of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Bat Masterson and Ben Thompson.
To these legendary team-ups must be added the names of Sam Heller and Johnny Cross, whose on-again, off-again deadly friendship proves instrumental in shaping the destiny of the folk of Hangtree County, Texas, and ultimately the history of the Southwest.
Sam Heller is a Yankee, a Kansas man who tries to live by the precepts of the Bible and the law but by doing so often finds himself on the wrong side of evildoers cloaked in the guise of authority.
Johnny Cross is an outlaw and gunfighter who professes to believe only in his own raw nerve and lightning-fast draw, yet whose sense of fair play more often than not finds him fighting on the side of the angels.
The common thread binding these two unlikely allies is a Texas town called Hangtree, a lonely outpost on the edge of civilization that will battle the forces of savagery and destruction to become a cattle country empire in the county that bears its name.
The settlement is located on the Pecos River near the West Texas border, south of the sprawling Staked Plains region. It takes its name from a lone, lofty, lightning-blasted oak that served as a gallows for a gang of renegade deserters during the Mexican-American War who terrorized the region until decent folk fed up with their depredations banded together to eliminate the outlaws by stringing them up from the tree. The tree still stands as a symbol of justice in a lawless land.
Our saga begins in 1866. The Civil War is over. Like other states in what had been the Confederacy, Texas is in dire straits.
Most of the men have been away for years, fighting since the war began. Many are now dead and will not return; a number of the survivors are missing limbs or are otherwise seriously wounded. Even those who return whole and intact possess little more than the clothes on their backs and the muskets they’ve been allowed to keep during the demobilization.
Their long absence has worked great hardship on the families they left behind. Homes have been pillaged and burned, farmlands have returned to wilderness, remnants of cattle herds have wandered off into the brush. Displaced kinfolk have been scattered to the four winds.
Little peace and less justice awaits the returnees, with Texas hard-pressed under the yoke of the Governor Davis administration. Davis and his corrupt minions, a ring of homegrown scalawags and outland carpetbaggers, plunder all they can, protected by federal occupation troops whose primary mission is to keep the ex-rebels down.
Outlaw bands ravage the state at will, while the central and western regions are also prey to Comanche raiders grown strong while peacekeeping efforts languished during the war years.
But despite the hardships life goes on and the slow, shaky business of rebuilding begins.
The town called Hangtree has been hard-hit by the neglect of the war years, but its location along a key gateway trail to the southwest, and its well-watered grazing lands, have kept it alive, a patch of civilization in a howling wilderness.
Several square blocks of wooden frame buildings stand at the crossroads, ringed by a scattering of tumbledown ranches and farms. It seems little more than a ghost town, but Hangtree is already beginning to quicken with renewed life and commerce. War’s end has loosed hordes of ex-soldiers and civilians migrating to the open lands, mineral deposits, opportunity, and freedom from oppressive government in the Southwest.
The hollows and thickets of the grasslands surrounding Hangtree teem with maverick cattle belonging to anyone who can put their brand on them, round them up, and bring them to market.
Instrumental to the town’s prospects is its nearness (a day’s ride away, a short distance in the Lone Star state) to Fort Price, a U.S. cavalry outpost newly remanned to deter Comanche war parties raiding their way south through Texas and into Mexico. But the cavalry is not only a potential savior but also a threat to the citizenry, due to their officers being charged to support the venal Governor Davis administration.
To Hangtree comes Sam Heller, an ex-captain who was one of the best rifle shots in the Union army and a veteran of many dangerous behind-the-lines missions for Allan Pinkerton’s Secret Service during the war. His wanderings bring him to the growing West Texas town, where he’s quick to realize its prospects for growth, not only as prime cattle country but also as a transportation hub for westbound settlers and freight wagons—and, in the future, for a railroad line to whose construction the terrain is ideally suited.
Unlike many of the outsiders descending on the town, he’s a builder not a ravager, but he must confront the suspicion and hostility of native Texans who fought on the opposite side of the war and now suffer the injustice of the Davis regime and federal occupation troops who keep the administration in power.
Sam’s no troublemaker but he’s righteous, and when he encounters circumstances that offend his sense of fitness he steps in to set things right. Once the scrapping starts, he’s a cyclone of destruction that embodies his last name: Heller.
To Hangtree, too, comes Johnny Cross, long, lean, wolfish—a deadly gunfighter who originally hails from the Texas Panhandle. Now barely out of his teens, he’s spent the last few years of the war as a pistol-fighter in Bloody Bill Anderson’s mounted band of guerilla irregulars, as part of Quantrill’s raiders alongside the likes of Cole Younger and the James brothers. Cross went with fellow Texan Anderson when the latter split from Quantrill to form his own faction. The band fled from the Missouri-Kansas war zone into Texas, where Cross turned against the guerrillas when they began preying on loyal Confederates with the same savagery they’d wielded against the Yankees. When he quit the group and returned to his hometown, his onetime comrades tracked him down and massacred the inhabitants, man, woman, and child, including all his kinfolk.
Cross was gunned down and left for dead but survived. It’s hard times in ravaged postwar Texas, but there’s always a good living to be made out of killing for a gunman as fast, accurate, and fearless as Johnny Cross. He’s a gun for hire—that’s business. But no business can hold him when he crosses the trail of any of the men who destroyed his family—that’s personal. Texas is vast but time is long and Cross is relentless. There’s no opposition too strong or odds too long to thwart him in his vengeance quest.
Sam Heller stands for progress and civilization and will enforce the law with a badge and a gun. Johnny Cross believes only in the law he can make with his pistols. Polar opposites with every reason to hate each other, they form an unlikely friendship to stand beside each other through the years against the evil forces that would destroy the lusty, brawling, fractious folk of Hangtree County.
Until the inevitable day when Heller and Cross must face each other in the final, fatal showdown.
The preacher named Fulton had presented more sermons than he could count, and long ago lost any fear of speaking before crowds. Second nature for years now. Words flowed from him with the comfortable ease of an autumn breeze through an open window. Strong words, powerful. He’d seen grown men wipe tears under the influence of his sermons, and a time or two, when the Texas summer was at its peak and his oratory brimstone its hottest, watched weaker parishioners faint and drop right off their pews onto the well-worn floor of the Hangtree Church, overwhelmed. When that had happened he’d kept right on preaching while others tended to the overcome ones. Nothing deterred Fulton when he was going full-steam at what he was called to do.
So what, he wondered, was wrong today? Why was he stammering and stuttering so uncharacteristically through his sermon, mind adrift, thoughts roaming off in unwanted directions?
This never happened. He wondered if perhaps he were about to suffer an apoplectic attack of the sort that had killed his grandfather many years before, dropping him like a chopped weed. That grim rumination made it even harder to focus his thoughts.
Embarrassed by his poor performance, Fulton had kept his head lowered through much of the sermon so far, looking at the pages of his open pulpit Bible rather than the faces of his congregation. When he did glance up at them, they looked puzzled. Fulton was glad his wife was home nursing a cold this Sunday; her presence would have heightened his embarrassment.
Fulton actually knew exactly what was wrong with him. The source of his distraction was seated near the rear of the little sanctuary, clad in a dainty gingham dress that brought out the rich blue of her large eyes and enhanced the chestnut color of her thick, piled-up hair. From the moment the young, innocent-looking female stranger had slipped quietly into the church, her mere presence had overcome him. She was a beauty surpassing all others Pastor Fulton had seen in this dusty Texas backwater on the cusp of the Llano Estacado tableland. As a man devoted to righteousness, he habitually made a habit of eschewing anything that might provoke improper thoughts . . . but this young woman, a newcomer to Hangtree, was not making it easy for him. How could he avoid looking at someone seated in his congregation, directly in his line of sight? Each time his eyes swept across her, his thoughts fired off in directions he did not choose. He suspected he was not the only man fighting this particular battle: he’d seen the general reaction of the congregation when she had swept into the church-house and seated herself near the back during the congregational singing of “When I Can Read My Title Clear.” Old Deacon Walker, leading the singing, had broken into a coughing fit worthy of a man choking in smoke, but his unblinking seventy-year-old eyes followed the lovely visitor all the way to her pew, his thoughts becoming those of a virile and not particularly devout twenty-year-old man.
Fulton paused, having forgotten his place again. He raised his eyes from the Bible and knew it was hopeless, going on this way. He sighed loudly, leaned forward with forearms resting on the sloped top of the pulpit, and smiled wryly at his humble gathering of saints in a town dominated by sinners.
“I see no point in disputing the obvious: I am ill-prepared for today’s service, and am doing a poor job of it. You’ve noticed it too; I can see it in your faces. I can give you no excuse except to say I have had much on my mind these past days, and it has made me distracted and negligent. I’m sorry, friends. You deserve better, and in the future you shall have it.” He closed the Bible and smiled again.
“Are you sick, Preacher?” asked one of the elders in the front row of pews.
“No, Brother Ned. No. Just a lot on my mind lately.” He paused, then decided that, since he was lying to God’s people right here in God’s house, he might as well make the lie a good one. “Family concerns, from back home. My oldest uncle, a man like a father to me, near a century of age now, and finally succumbing to the years. I received the letter this week, and since then have wondered if he is even still among the living. I should not have let it keep me from doing my work as well as you have right to expect.”
“We’ll stop and pray for the old man right now, if you want, Preacher,” said the elder.
“I appreciate that, Ned,” Fulton replied. “We’ll have that prayer before we leave here today.” Fulton gave a tight smile and swept his eyes over the small crowd. They came to rest on the pretty young woman. “We have a guest today. That makes me particularly regret my poor execution of God’s work. I’m sorry, miss. Accept my apologies.”
She smiled, the image of grace and perfect femininity. Fulton felt his throat tighten and coughed to clear it.
The elder named Ned Randall stood. “Preacher, I feel led to share a verse of scripture that is a favorite of mine. Maybe others here will have verses of their own preference that could stand us in lieu of regular preaching today.” Randall straightened his shoulders and spoke his verse. “‘I lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment, that I may cause those that love me to inherit substance; and I will fill their treasuries.’”
Movement in the right rear corner of the sanctuary pulled Pastor Fulton’s eyes away from the beautiful visitor. At first glance it looked like some random heap of old clothing left for the local poor had been dumped on the end of the last pew and was shifting of its own weight, about to fall. A second look revealed the heap to be a man, clad in very tattered clothing and topped with a weathered derby. His garb was too heavy and abundant to be justified by the weather; this was evidently a man of the road who carried his entire wardrobe on his body. Fulton, as distracted all morning, had not previously observed the ragged stranger.
The man stood and lifted his unshaven face. “Hello, Preacher!” he said in a growling, murky voice. “Didn’t even know I was here, did you? My greetings to you and the good saints here on this fine Sabbath morning!” He doffed the derby, revealing a shaggy head of graying brown hair, and grinned at the people nearest him, most of whom shifted a few inches farther away. A woman on the far end of his pew rose, crossed the aisle, and took a seat on the other side of the sanctuary.
The ragged man lifted his shaggy chin and said loudly: “Proverbs 8:20 and 21.”
Fulton said, “Uh, are you asking me to look those verses up, sir?”
The ragged man shook his head. “No, sir . . . I’m just ’dentifying that them’s the verses quoted by our good brother on the front pew.”
“Is he right, Brother Ned?” asked Fulton.
“He’s right,” said the elder. “Always been favorite verses of mine. I just forgot to cite the reference when I gave them.”
Fulton looked back at the tattered fellow. “You know your Bible, sir, seemingly better than I do. May I ask your name?”
“Got a name right out of the Bible, I do. My mama, God rest her, opened her Bible up and stabbed a finger in and told the Lord to guide it to whatever name she was supposed to give me.”
“What was it?”
“Well, it wasn’t the best one she could have hit. I think she pointed before the Lord had a good enough hold on her finger.”
“So . . .” Fulton was beginning to be glad for this strange interruption; it was, at least, more interesting and less humiliating than stammering witlessly through a disjointed sermon while thinking sinful thoughts about a woman half his age . . . a woman come to worship in his own church, no less. He had a lot of repenting to do when he and the Lord found a private moment. “So what is your name?”
The man hung his head. “Judas, sir. Judas Aristocrat.”
“I . . . uh, I think you may mean Iscariot.”
“That’s right! Durn . . . all these years and I always say it wrong. ’Cause that’s how my mama said it. She wasn’t much for reading, Mama wasn’t. Couldn’t make out very good on any word with more than four letters.”
Fulton looked more closely at the man. “Sir, is that a gunbelt I see?”
“Yes, Preacher. Call me Jude. Folks take to ‘Jude’ better, y’see.”
“Very understandable, Jude. We . . . we ask that guns not be brought into the church-house during worship. It doesn’t seem fitting, you know.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, sir. I am. Preacher . . . you folks take up an offering on Sundays?”
“We do. Why do you ask?”
“I want to give something.”
“Thank you, sir. We’ll do that right now. Ushers?”
Four men rose and moved forward to the altar table in front of the pulpit, and there picked up four heavy wooden, deep-sided plates. They divided to the various sides of the two blocks of pews and began passing the plates. Most of the offerings placed in them were meager, though a couple of successful ranchers and a local banker gave more generously.
“I have a question, Preacher,” Jude said.
“You told that pretty lady over there you were sorry the service wasn’t going good with her being a visitor. Well, me, I’m a visitor too, and you ain’t said no such a thing to me.”
“I failed to notice you before, sir. I am sorry.”
The collection plate reached Jude. “Just a moment,” he said, and reached into a pocket. Producing a few pennies, he dropped them in the plate. The usher moved to pull the plate back, but Jude grabbed his wrist. “Wait. Changed my mind.” He reached into the plate and scooped up what he’d dropped in, along with all the other money.
“What the . . . you can’t do that!” the usher bellowed. “Once it’s in the plate that money belongs to the church.”
Jude sighed, rolled his eyes, and drew out the pistol he’d brought into the church-house. Clicking the hammer back, he pointed it at the usher’s chest. “I’ll have what’s in all them plates, friend, and no more lip about it. And the rest of you, start cleaning out your pockets. I’ll take coin, bank notes, jewelry, even good folding knives and watches, if you got such.”
It took several moments for the congregation as a whole, and Preacher Fulton, to take in what was going on. They were being
. Robbed in church. Fulton, who had ceased to keep a loaded pistol hidden in the pulpit once the church elders had come up with the no-guns-in-church rule, felt helpless, along with the rest of his congregation.
Except one. One of the offering plates had just reached the beautiful chestnut-haired visitor. With it clutched in her hands, she watched the drama being played out on the other side of the aisle. For once she was not the center of attention, so nobody noticed the peculiar intensity with which she stared at the tattered man with the gun. Quietly she moved out of her pew and across the back of the church toward Jude, who was eyeing the door, planning his flight. He found himself face-to-face with the lady.
“Good God a’mighty!” Judas said. “
“Preacher,” she shouted toward the front of the church, “I have a verse to share, too! Book of First Pepperday, third chapter, fifth verse: ‘And lo, he who desecrated the house of the Lord verily beshat his own teeth on the following morn! ’” Then, with a sudden full swing, she pounded the rim of the heavy wooden collection plate very hard against the mouth of the thief, knocking out teeth and ragged pieces of gum, and driving most of the pink-and-crimson mess back into his throat. Jude reflexively swallowed teeth, flesh, and blood as he collapsed to the floor. His pistol fell from a hand gone as limp as the rest of him. Some of the men of the church, once past the shock of the sudden violence from so unexpected a source as a lovely young woman, surrounded the fallen man and commandeered his dropped pistol.
Behind his podium, Preacher Fulton lifted his hands and said, “Brethren, I’ve seen much in my days as a sinner, and even more in my days as a follower of the Lord, but I have never,
seen the like of that! We stand dismissed. And for God’s sake, somebody go fetch the law and let’s get this scoundrel out of here. Oh, a doctor, too . . . or dentist. Whichever you can find first. Amen and God bless us all.”
The pretty woman who had demolished one worship service and one human mouth stood over the crumpled outlaw, from whom blood flowed like a river. “Oh my,” she said. “Look what a mess I’ve made! Oh my!”