The Greatest Western Writer Of The 21st Century
The novels of William Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone have set the standard for hard-hitting Western fiction. In his new series, this master storyteller trains his sights on Texas—and the men and women who sowed their sweat and blood into the land.
A Good Day To Die
In Hangtree, Texas, any day could be your last. For on the heels of the Civil War, Hangtree is drawing gamblers, fast women and faster gunmen. Amidst the brawls and shooting, the land-grabbing and card-sharking, two men barely hold the boomtown together: Yankee Sam Heller and Texan Johnny Cross. Heller and Cross can’t stand the sight of each other. And Hangtree needs them more than ever.
A Comanche named Red Hand leads a horde of warriors on a horrific path of bloodshed and destruction, with Hangtree sitting right in Red Hand’s path. For a town bitterly divided, for Heller and Cross, the time has come to unite and stand shoulder to shoulder—and fight, live or die for their little slice of heaven called Hangtree.
On a night in late May 1866, Comanche Chief Red Hand took up the Fire Lance to proclaim the opening of the warm weather raiding season—a time of torture, plunder, and murder. For warlike Comanche braves, the best time of the year.
Six hundred and more Comanche men, women, and children were camped near a stream in a valley north of the Texas panhandle, on land between the Canadian and Arkansas rivers. The site, Arrowhead Rock, lay deep in the heart of the vast, untamed territory of Comancheria, home grounds of the tribal nation.
The gathering was made up mostly of two main subgroups, the Bison Eyes and the Dawn Hawks, along with a number of lesser clans, relations, and allies.
Red Hand, a Bison Eye, was a rising star who had led a number of successful raids in recent seasons
past. Many braves, especially those of the younger generation, were eager to attach themselves to him.
Others had come to hear him out and make up their own minds about whether or not to follow his lead. Not a few had come to keep a wary eye on him and see what he was up to.
All brought their families with them, from the oldest squaws to the youngest babes in arms. They brought their tipis and personal belongings, horse herds, and even dogs.
The Comanche were a mobile folk, nomads who followed the buffalo herds across the Great Plains. They spent much of their lives on horseback and were superb riders. They were fierce fighters, arguably the most dangerous Indian tribe in the West. They gloried in the title of Lords of the Southern Plains.
Farther southwest—much farther—lay the lands of the Apache, relentless desert warriors of fearsome repute. During their seasonal wanderings Comanches raided Apaches as the opportunity presented itself, but the Apache did not strike north to raid Comancheria. This stark fact spoke volumes about the relative deadliness of the two.
The camp on the valley stream was unusual in its size, the tribesmen generally preferring to travel in much smaller groups. The temporary settlement had come into being in response to Red Hand’s invitation, taken by his emissaries to the various interested parties. Invitation, not summons.
A highspirited individual, the Comanche brave was jealous of his freedom and rights. His allegiance was freely given and just as freely withdrawn. Warriors of great deeds were respected, but not slavishly submitted to. A leader gained followers by ability and success; incompetence and failure inevitably incited mass desertions.
It was a mark of Red Hand’s prowess that so many had come to hear his words.
The campsite at Arrowhead Rock lay on a wellwatered patch of grassy ground. Coneshaped tipis massed along the stream banks. Smoke from many cooking fires hazed the area. The tipis had been given over to women and children; the men were elsewhere. Packs of halfwild, halfstarved dogs chased each other around the campgrounds, snarling and yapping.
The horse herds were picketed nearby. Comanches reckoned their wealth in horses, as white men did in gold. The greater the thief, the more he was respected and envied by his fellows.
For such a conclave, an informal truce reigned, whereby the braves of various clans held in check their craving to steal each other’s horses . . . mostly.
North of the camp, a long bowshot away, the land dipped into a shallow basin, a hollow serving as a kind of natural amphitheater. It was spacious enough to comfortably hold the two hundred and more warriors assembled there under a horned moon. No females were present at the basin.
To a man, they were in prime physical condition. There was no place in the Comanche nation for weaklings. Men were warriors, doing the hunting, raiding, fighting, and killing—sometimes dying. Women did all the other work, the drudgery of the tribe.
The braves were highspirited, raucous. Much horseplay and boasting of big brags occurred. It had been a long winter; they looked forward to the wild free life of raiding south with eager anticipation. An air of keen interest hung over them as they waited impatiently for Red Hand to take the fore.
At the northern center rim of the basin stood a triangularshaped rock about twenty feet high. Shaped like an arrowhead planted pointup in the ground, it gave the site its name. Among Comanche warrior society, the arrowhead was an emblem of power and danger, giving the stone an aura of magical potency.
A fire blazed near its base. Yellowred tongues of flame leaped upward, wreathed with spirals of bluegray smoke. Between the fire and the rock, a stout wooden stake eight feet tall had been driven into the ground.
The braves faced the rock, Bison Eyes grouped on the left, Dawn Hawks on the right. Both clans were strong, numerous, and well respected. Nearly evenly matched in numbers and fighting prowess, they were great rivals.
A stir went through the crowd. Something was happening. A handful of shadowy figures stepped out from behind the rock, coming into view of those assembled in the hollow. They ranked themselves in a line behind the fire, forming up like a guard of honor in advance of their leader. Underlit by the flames’ red glare, they could be seen and recognized.
Mighty warriors all, men of renown, they made up Red Hand’s inner circle of trusted advisors and henchmen, his lieutenants.
Ten Scalps was a giant of a man, one of the strongest warriors in the Comanche nation. He’d taken ten scalps as a youth during his first raid. After that he stopped counting.
Sun Dog, his face wider than it was long, had dark eyes glinting like chips of black glass.
Little Bells, with twin strings of tiny silver bells plaited into his lion’s mane of shoulderlength hair, stood tall.
Badger was short and squat, with tremendous upper body strength and oversized, pawlike hands.
Black Robe, clad in a garment he’d stripped from a Mexican priest he’d slain and scalped, was next. Part long coat, part cape, the tattered garment gave him a weird, batlike outline.
The cadre’s appearance was greeted by the crowd with appreciative whoops, shrieks, and howls. The five stood motionless, faces impassive, arms folded across their chests. They held the pose for a long time, their stillness contrasting with the crowd’s mounting excitement.
After a moment, a lone man emerged from behind the rock into the firelight. He wore a war bonnet and carried a lance.
The Bison Eyes clansmen vented loud, fullthroated cries of welcome, for the newcomer was none other than their own great man, Red Hand. But Red Hand’s entrance was almost as well received by the rival Dawn Hawks.
He was a man of power, a doer of great deeds. He had stature. He had stolen many horses, enslaved many captives, killed many foes. With skill and daring he had won much fame throughout the plains and deep into Mexico.
Circling around to the front of Arrowhead Rock, Red Hand scrambled up onto a ledge four feet above the ground. Facing the assembled, he showed himself to them. Roughly thirty years of age, he was in full, vigorous prime, broadshouldered, deepchested, and longlimbed. Thick coalblack hair, full and unbound, framed a long, sharpfeatured face. His eyes were deepset, burning.
He was crowned with a splendid eaglefeather war bonnet whose train reached down his back. He wore a simple breechcloth and kneelength antelope skin boots. A hunting knife hung on his hip.
From fingertips to wrists, the backs of his hands were painted with greasy red coloring, markings that were stripes, wavvy lines, crescent moons, and arrows. His right hand clenched the lance, holding it upright with its base resting atop the rocky ledge. Ten feet long, it was tipped with a wickedly sharp, barbed spear blade.
This was no Comanche war spear. He had taken it in Mexico the summer before from a mounted lancer, one of the legions of crack cavalry troops sent by France’s Emperor Napoleon III to protect his ally Maximilian of AustriaHungary.
Red Hand knew nothing of the crowned heads of Europe nor of Napoleon III’s mad dream of a New World Empire that had prompted him to install a Hapsburg royal on the throne of Mexico. Red Hand knew killing, though, dodging the lancer’s lunging spear thrust, dragging him down off his fine horse, and cutting his throat.
Word of this enviable weapon spread far and wide among the Comanches. More than a prize, the lance became a talisman of Red Hand’s prestige. It evoked no small interest, with many braves pressing forward, craning for a better look.
Red Hand lifted the weapon, shaking it triumphantly in the air. It was met by a fresh round of appreciative whoops.
Notably lacking in enthusiasm, was Wahtonka, a Dawn Hawks chief standing in the front rank of his clan. He, too, was a great man, with many daring deeds of blood to his credit. But he was fifty years old, a generation older than Red Hand.
Of medium height, Wahtonka was lean and wiry; all bone, sinews, and tendons. His hair, parted in the middle of his scalp, was worn in two long, grayflecked braids. His face was deeply lined, his mouth downturned, dour.
Red Hand’s enthusiastic audience did nothing to lighten his mood. Others were not so constrained in their appreciation of the upstart, Wahtonka noticed, including many of his own Dawn Hawks. Too many.
The young men were loud in their whooping and hollering, and a number of older, more established warriors also stamped and shouted for Red Hand.
Wahtonka cut a side glance at Laughing Bear standing beside him. Laughing Bear was of his generation, himself a mighty warrior, though with few deeds in recent years to his credit. He was Wahtonka’s kinsman and most trusted ally.
Laughing Bear was heavyset, with sloping shoulders and a blocky torso, thick in the middle. His features were broad and lumpish. The gaze of his small round eyes was bleak. He looked as if he had not laughed in years. Red Hand’s appearance this night had not struck forth in him any spirit of mirth. He shared Wahtonka’s grave concerns about the growing Red Hand problem.
The hero of the hour basked for a moment in the gusty reception given him, before motioning for silence. The Comanches quieted down, though scattered shrieks and screams continued to rise from some of the more excitable types. The clamor subsided, though the crowd kept up a continual buzzing.
“Brothers! I went in search of a vision,” Red Hand began, his voice big and booming. “I went in search of a vision—and I have found it!”
The warriors’ cheers echoed across the nighted prairie.
Red Hand’s face split in a wicked grin, showing strong white teeth. “In the old times life was good. The game was thick. Birds filled the skies. The buffalo were many, covering the ground as far as the eye could see.” He had a faroff look in his eyes, as if gazing through the distance of space and time in search of such onetime abundance.
He frowned, his gaze hardening, dark passions clouding his features. “Then came the white men,” he said, voice thick, almost choking on the words.
The mood of the braves turned. Whoops and screeches faded, replaced by sullen, ominous mutterings accompanied by much solemn nodding of heads in agreement. Red Hand was voicing their universal complaint against the hated invaders who were destroying a cherished way of life.
“First were the Mexicans, with their highhanded ways,” he said, thrusting his lance toward the south, the direction from which the initial trespassers hailed.
“They came in suits of iron, calling themselves ‘conquerers.’” Red Hand sneered at the conquistadors who had emerged from Mexico some three hundred and fifty years earlier. It might have been yesterday, so fresh and strong was his hate.
“They rode—horses!” Red Hand’s eyes bulged as he assumed an expression of popeyed amazement, his clowning provoking shouts and laughter.
“We had never seen horses before. The horses were good!”
He paused, then punched the rest of it across. “We killed the men and took their horses! We burned the settlements and killed and killed until only cowards were left alive, and we sent them running back to Mexico!”
The braves spasmed with screaming delight, some shouting themselves hoarse.
Red Hand waited for a lull in the tumult, then continued. “From that day till now, they have never dared return to our hunting grounds. We could have wiped them off the face of the earth, chasing them into the Great Water, had we so desired. Aye, for we Comanche are a mighty folk, and a warlike one. But we were merciful. We took pity on the poor weak creatures and let them live, so they could keep on breeding fine horses for us to steal.
“One black day, out from where the sun rises, came the Texans.” Texans—the Comanches’ generic term for Anglos, Englishspeaking whites.
“Texans! They, too, wanted to steal our land and enslave us. They had guns! The guns were good. So we killed the Texans and took their guns and killed more, whipping and burning until they wept like frightened children!
“Not all did we kill, for we Comanches are a merciful people. We let some live so we could take more guns and powder and bullets from them.
Their horses are good to steal, too! And their women!
“But the Comanche is too tender hearted for his own good,” he said, shaking his head as if in sorrow. “For a time, all was well. But no more. The Texans forget the lesson we taught them in blood and fire. They come creeping back, pressing at our lands in evergreater numbers. They will eat up the earth if they are not stopped.
“What to do, brothers, what to do? I prayed to the Great Spirit to send me an answer. And I dreamed a dream. The sky cracked open! The clouds parted, and an arm reached down between them—a mighty red arm, holding a burning spear. The Fire Lance!
“The hand darted the spear. It flew down to earth, striking the ground with a thunderclap. When the smoke cleared, I alone was left standing, for all around me the Texans lay fallen on the ground. Man, woman and child—dead! Dead all, from oldest to youngest, from greatest to most small. All dead. And this was not the least of wonders.
“Everywhere a white person had fallen, a buffalo rose up. Here, there, everywhere a buffalo! They filled the plains with a thundering herd, filling my heart with joy. So it was shown to me in a dream, as I tell it to you. But I tell you this. It was no dream, but a vision!”
Wild stirrings shot through the crowd, a storm of potential energy yearning to be released.
“A true vision!” Red Hand bellowed.
The braves chafed at the bit, straining to break loose, but Red Hand shouted down the rising tumult. “The Great Spirit has shown us the Way— kill the Texans! Take up the Fire Lance! Kill and burn until the last white has fled from these lands, never to be seen again! The buffalo will once more grow thick and fat! All will be well, as in the days of our fathers!”
Brandishing his lance, Red Hand shook it at the heavens. Pandemonium erupted, a near riot. The hollow basin became a howling bedlam as the wild crowd went wilder.
So great was the uproar that, in the tipis, the women and children marveled to hear it. Any outsider, red or white, hearing it crashing across the plains, would have taken fright.
Red Hand hopped down off the ledge that had served him as a platform and stepped back into the shadows, partly withdrawing from the scene while the disturbance played itself out. His henchmen followed.
Presently, order was restored, if not peace and quiet. The braves settled down, in their restless way. Red Hand put his head together with his fiveman cadre, giving orders.
Carrying out his command, Sun Dog and Little Bells moved around to the east side of Arrowhead Rock, where a lone tipi stood off by itself in the gloom beyond the firelight. Sun Dog lifted the front flap and went inside.