Some towns play out and fade away. Others die hard.
By midnight Midvale was ablaze. The light of its burning was a fire on a darkling plain.
It was a night in late March 1866. Early spring. The earth was quickening as Midvale was dying.
The well-watered grazing lands of Long Valley in north central Texas supported many widely scattered ranches. Midvale had come into being at a strategic site where key trails came together. The town supplied the needs of local ranchers and farmers for things they couldn’t make or grow but couldn’t do without.
A cluster of several square blocks of wooden frame buildings, it had a handful of shops and stores, several saloons, a small café, a boardinghouse or two, and a residential neighborhood.
Tonight Midvale had reached its end. Its passing was violent. The killers had come to usher it into extinction. Raiders they were, a band of cutthroats, savage and merciless. They came under cover of darkness and fell on the town like ravening wolves—gun wolves.
The folk of Midvale were no sheep for the slaughter. The Texas frontier is no place for weaklings. For a generation, settlers had fought Comanche, Kiowa, and Lipan Apache war parties, Mexican bandits and homegrown outlaws. The battle fury of the recent War Between the States had left this part of Texas untouched, but there was not a family in the valley that hadn’t given husbands and sons to the armies of the Confederacy. Few had returned.
The folk of Midvale were not weaklings. Not fools, either. They were undone by treachery, by a vicious attack that struck without warning, like a bolt out of the blue. By the time they knew what hit them, it was too late to mount any kind of defense.
Ringing the town, the raiders swooped down on it, shooting, stabbing, and slaying. No fight, this—it was a massacre.
After the killing came the plundering. Then the burning, as Midvale was put to the torch.
The scene was an inferno, as if a vent of hell had opened up, bursting out of the dark ground in a fiery gusher. Shots rang out, shrieks sounded, and hoofbeats drummed through the red night as the killers hunted down the scant few who’d survived the initial onslaught.
All were slain outright; all but the young women and children, boys and girls. Captives are wealth.
The church was the last of Midvale to burn. It stood apart from the rest of the town, a modest distance separating it from worldlier precincts. A handful of townsfolk had fled to it, huddling together at the foot of the pulpit.
That’s where the raiders found them. Their screams were silenced by hammering gunfire.
The church was set on fire, its bell tower spire a flaming dagger thrusting into night-black sky. Wooden beams gave, collapsing, sending the church bell tumbling down the shaft into the interior space.
It bounced around, clanging. Dull, heavy, leaden tones tolled Midvale’s death knell.
The marauders rode out, well satisfied with this night’s work. They left behind nearly a hundred dead men, women and children. It was a good start, but riper targets and richer pickings lay ahead.
The war had been over for almost a year, but there was no peace to be found on the Texas frontier. No peace short of the grave.
But for the ravagers and pillagers who scourge this earth, the mysterious and unseen workings of fate sometimes send a nemesis of righteous vengeance....
Monday noon, the first day of April 1866. A hot sun topped the cloudless blue sky. Below lay empty tableland, vast, covered with the bright green grass of early spring and broken by sparsely scattered stands of timber. A line of wooded hills rose some miles to the north.
The flat was divided by a dirt road running east-west. It ran as straight as if it had been drawn by a ruler. No other sign of human habitation presented itself as far as the eye could see.
An antlike blur of motion inched with painful slowness across that wide, sprawling plain. It was a man alone, afoot on the dirt road. A lurching, ragged scarecrow of a figure.
Texas is big. Big sky, big land. And no place for a walking man. Especially if he’s only got one leg.
Luke Pettigrew was that man, painfully and painstakingly making his way west along the road to Hangtown.
He was lean, weathered, with long, lank brown hair and a beard. His young-old face, carved with lines of suffering, was now stoically expressionless except for a certain grim determination.
He was dressed in gray, the gray of a soldier of the army of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy was now defunct a few weeks short of a year ago, since General Robert E. Lee had signed the articles of surrender at the Appomatox courthouse. Texas had joined with the South in seceding from the Union, sending its sons to fight in the War Between the States. Many had fallen, never to return.
Luke Pettigrew had returned. Minus his left leg below the knee.
A crooked tree branch served him for a crutch. A stick with a Y-shaped fork at one end, said fork being jammed under his left arm and helping to keep him upright. Strips of shredded rags were wrapped around the fork to cushion it as best they could. Which wasn’t much. A clawlike left hand clutched the rough-barked shaft with a white-knuckled grip.
A battered, shapeless hat covered his head. It was faded to colorlessness by time and the elements. A bullethole showed in the top of the crown and a few nicks marked the brim.
Luke wore his uniform, what was left of it. A gray tunic, unbuttoned and open, revealed a threadbare, sun-faded red flannel shirt beneath it. Baggy gray trousers were held in place by a brown leather belt whose dulled metal buckle bore the legend: CSA. Many extra holes had been punched in the belt to coincide with his weight loss. He was thin, half-starved.
His garments had seen much hard use. They were worn, tattered. His left trouser leg was knotted together below the knee, to keep the empty pantleg from getting in his way. His good right foot was shod by a rough, handmade rawhide moccasin.
Luke Pettigrew was unarmed, without rifle, pistol or knife. And Texas is no place for an unarmed man. But there he was, minus horse, gun—and the lower part of his left leg—doggedly closing on Hangtown.
The capital of Hangtree County is the town of Hangtree, known far and wide as Hangtown.
From head to toe, Luke was powdered with fine dust from the dirt road. Sweat cut sharp lines through the powder covering his face. Grimacing, grunting between clenched teeth, he advanced another step with the crutch.
How many hundreds, thousands of such steps had he taken on his solitary trek? How many more such steps must he take before reaching his destination? He didn’t know.
He was without a canteen. He’d been a long time without water under the hot Texas sun. Somewhere beyond the western horizon lay Swift Creek with its fresh, cool waters. On the far side of the creek: Hangtown.
Neither was yet in sight. Luke trudged on ahead. One thing he had plenty of was determination. Grit. The same doggedness that had seen him through battles without number in the war, endless forced marches, hunger, privation. It had kept him alive after the wound that took off the lower half of his left leg while others, far less seriously wounded, gave up the ghost and died.
That said, he sure was almighty sick and tired of walking.
Along came a rider, out of the east.
Absorbed with his own struggles, Luke was unaware of the newcomer’s approach until the other was quite near. The sound of hoofbeats gave him pause. Halting, he looked back over his shoulder.
The single rider advanced at an easy lope.
Luke walked in the middle of the road because there the danger of rocks, holes and ditches was less than at the sidelines. A sound caught in his throat, something between a groan and a sigh, in anticipation of spending more of his meager reserves of energy in getting out of the way.
He angled toward the left-hand side of the road. It was a measure of the time and place that he unquestioningly accepted the likelihood of a perfect stranger riding down a crippled war veteran.
The rider was mounted on a chestnut horse. He slowed the animal to an easy walk, drawing abreast of Luke, keeping pace with him. Luke kept going, looking straight ahead, making a show of minding his own business in hopes that the newcomer would do the same.
“Howdy,” the rider said, his voice soft-spoken, with a Texas twang.
At least he wasn’t no damned Yankee, thought Luke. Not that that made much difference. His fellow Texans had given him plenty of grief lately. Luke grunted, acknowledging that the other had spoken and committing himself to no more than that acknowledgment.
“Long way to town,” the rider said. He sounded friendly enough, for whatever that was worth, Luke told himself.
“Room up here for two to ride,” the other said.
“I’m getting along, thanks,” muttered Luke, not wanting to be beholden to anybody.
The rider laughed, laughter that was free and easy with no malice in it. Still, the sound of it raced like wildfire along Luke’s strained nerves.
“You always was a hard-headed cuss, Luke Pettigrew,” the rider said.
Luke, stunned, looked to see who it was that was calling out his name.
The rider was about his age, in his early twenties. He still had his youth, though, what was left of it, unlike Luke, who felt himself prematurely aged, one of the oldest men alive.
Luke peered up at him. Something familiar in the other’s tone of voice . . .
A dark, flat-crowned, broad-brimmed hat with a snakeskin hatband shadowed the rider’s face. The sun was behind him, in Luke’s eyes. Luke squinted, peering, at first unable to make out the other’s features. The rider tilted his head, causing the light to fall on his face.
“Good gawd!—Johnny Cross!” Luke’s outcry was a croak, his throat parched from lack of water.
“Long time no see, Luke,” Johnny Cross said.
“Well I’ll be good to gawd-damned! I never expected to see you again,” said Luke. “Huh! So you made it through the war.”
“Looks like. And you, too.”
“Mostly,” Luke said, indicating with a tilt of his head and a sour twist of his mouth his missing lower leg.
“Reckon we’re both going in the same direction. Climb on up,” Johnny Cross said. Gripping the saddle horn with his right hand, he leaned over and down, extending his left hand.
He was lean and wiry, with strength in him. He took hold of Luke’s right hand in an iron grip and hefted him up, swinging him onto the horse behind him. It helped that Luke didn’t weigh much.
Luke got himself settled. “I want to keep hold of this crutch for now,” he said.
“I’ll tie it to the saddle, leave you with both hands free,” Johnny said. He used a rawhide thong to lash the tree branch in place out of the way. A touch of Johnny’s bootheels to the chestnut’s flanks started the animal forward.
“Much obliged, Johnny.”
“You’d do the same for me.”
“What good would that do? I ain’t got no horse.”
“Man, things must be tough in Hangtree County.”
“Like always. Only more so since the war.”
They set out for Hangtown.
Johnny Cross was of medium height, compact, trim, athletic. He had black hair and clean-lined, well-formed features. His hazel eyes varied in color from brown to yellow depending on the light. He had a deep tan and a three-day beard. There was something catlike about him with his restless yellow eyes, self-contained alertness and lithe, easy way of moving.
He wore a sunbleached maroon shirt, black jeans and good boots. A pair of guns were strapped to his hips. Good guns.
Luke noticed several things right off. Johnny Cross had done some long, hard riding. His clothes were trailworn, dusty; his guns, what Luke could see of them in their holsters, were clean, polished. Their inset dark wooden handles were smooth, well worn with use. A late-model carbine was sheathed in the saddle scabbard.
The chestnut horse was a fine-looking animal. Judging by its lines it was fast and strong, with plenty of endurance. The kind of mount favored by one on the dodge. One thing was sure: Johnny Cross was returning to Hangtree in better shape than when he’d left it.
The Cross family had always been dirt-poor, honest but penniless. Throughout his youth up till the time he went off to war, Johnny had worn mostly patched, outgrown clothes and gone shoeless for long periods of time.
Johnny Cross handed the other a canteen. “Here, Luke, cut the dust some.”
“Don’t mind if I do, thanks.” Luke fought to still the trembling in his hands as he took hold of the canteen and fumbled open the cap. The water was as warm as blood. He took a mouthful and held it there, letting the welcome wetness refresh the dust-dry inside of his mouth.
His throat was so dry that at first he had trouble swallowing. He took a couple of mouthfuls, stopping though still thirsty. He didn’t want to be a hog or show how great his need was. “Thank you kindly,” he said, returning the canteen.
Johnny put it away. “Sorry I don’t have something stronger.”
“That’s plenty fine,” Luke said.
“Been back long?”
“Since last fall.”
“How’s your folks, Luke?”
“Pa got drowned two years ago trying to cross the Liberty River when it was running high at flood time.”
“Sorry to hear that. He was a good man,” Johnny said.
Luke nodded. “Hardworking and God-fearing . . . for all the good it done him.”
“Finn joined up with Ben McCullough and got kilt at Pea Ridge. Heck got it in Chicamagua.”
“That’s a damned shame. They was good ol’ boys.”
“War kilt off a lot of good ol’ boys.”
“Ain’t it the truth.”
The two were silent for a spell.
“Sue Ellen’s married to a fellow over to Dennison way,” Luke went on. “Got two young’uns, a boy and a girl. Named the boy after Pa. Ma’s living with them.”
“Imagine that! Last time I saw Sue Ellen she was a pretty little slip of a thing, and now she’s got two young’uns of her own,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “Time sure does fly. . . .”
“Four years is a long time, Johnny.”
“How was your war, Luke?”
“I been around. I was with Hood’s Brigade.”
Luke nodded. “We fought our way all over the South. Reckon we was in just about every big battle there was. I was with ’em right through almost to the finish at the front lines of Richmond, till a cannonball took off the bottom part of my leg.”
“That must’ve hurt some,” Johnny said.
“It didn’t tickle,” Luke deadpanned. “They patched me up in a Yankee prison camp where I set for a few months until after Appomatox in April of Sixty-Five, when they set us all a-loose. I made my way back here, walking most of the way.
“What about you, Johnny? Seems I heard something about you riding with Bill Anderson.”
“Did you? Well, you heard right.”
Hard-riding, hard-fighting Bill Anderson had led a band of fellow Texans up into Missouri to join up with William Clarke Quantrill, onetime schoolteacher turned leader of a ferociously effective mounted force of Confederate irregulars in the Border States. The fighting there was guerrilla warfare at its worst: an unending series of ambushes, raids, flight, pursuit and counterattack—an ever-escalating spiral of brutalities and atrocities on both sides.
“We was with Quantrill,” Johnny Cross said.
“How was it?” Luke asked.
“We gave those Yankees pure hell,” Johnny said, smiling with his lips, a self-contained, secretive smile.
His alert, yellow-eyed gaze turned momentarily inward, bemused by cascading memories of hard riding and hard fighting. He tossed his head, as if physically shaking off the mood of reverie and returning to the present.
“Didn’t work out too well in the end, though,” Johnny said at last. “After Bill’s sister got killed—she and a bunch of women, children and old folks was being held hostage by the Yanks in a house that collapsed on ’em—Bill went off the deep end. He always had a mean streak but after that he went plumb loco, kill crazy. That’s when they started calling him Bloody Bill.”