For as long as humans have existed, God and the Devil have walked among them, endlessly searching for a virtuous man. Whenever they’d find one, which actually wasn’t that often, they’d get together and place some nasty obstacles in front of him. Then they’d make bets, sit back and watch what happened.
It’s impossible to say when exactly the two got bored with the arrangement and began to add side bets to spice it up a
little. If they hadn’t, they would probably never have bothered with Herbert T.
Barrow in the first place.
It’s not that Herbert wasn’t, in his own way, a virtuous man; he just wasn’t anybody’s immediate choice on the matter.
He tended to do things on impulse, whether it was jazz, women, or stealing cars. Nor was he, even by his own estimation, particularly kind or generous. But then it was hard to be in 1933, when the Great Depression was in its fifth year and anyone who still had two nickels to rub together only had them because they’d run out of sympathy for anyone who didn’t. Besides, Herbert T. Barrow was an avowed atheist and whatever moral compass he possessed was strictly his own. Perhaps this was something neither deity completely grasped, or perhaps they thought they did, but were wrong. It’s always hard to tell with gods. Either way, that was their big mistake.
The real subject of their wager was the legendary Texas Ranger, Captain Frank Hamer. If there was a single lawman in
Texas whose honesty and incorruptibility was beyond reproach, it was Hamer. Renowned for his skills as a detective and a tracker with more than fifty kills to his credit, Frank Hamer was one exceedingly straight, tough hombre. His mistake was letting his pride get the best of him.
Herbert’s mistake was picking up a hitchhiker named Stevens, while running from the ‘laws’ in a stolen car. It was
not the sort of thing he usually did, especially since Stevens appeared to be
some kind of backwoods preacher. Herbert was fleeing back to Texas, Stevens was late for a midnight meeting with somebody at a crossroads near Tupelo, Mississippi. Getting him there almost on time put Stevens in Herbert’s debt, something Herbert wasn’t interested in collecting on, since Stevens didn’t have any money
on him and all the things he was offering seemed like really bad ideas.
Like all good fugitives, Herbert was heading for the border, to a small city on the Rio Grande called Del Rio. While
nearly everyone else was hungry and broke, Del Rio was rolling in dough, thanks to a quack doctor named J.R. Brinkley, who had set up a “goat gland” clinic, where his phony sexual rejuvenation cure brought in dozens of
well-heeled suckers each day. To reach them, Brinkley built the world’s most powerful radio station across the river in Mexico, just outside the FCC’s reach. Beside him gather a freebooting assortment of preachers, clairvoyants, hillbilly quartets and snake-oil salesmen, all eager to catch some of the easy money that’s suddenly floating around. Herbert drives to Del Rio, hoping to join their ranks as a singing cowboy and even shill for products of questionable purpose.
But after letting Stevens off, things get strange. Herbert learns that he is being linked to the notorious Texas outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. According to the newspapers and radio news bulletins, he has
joined them as a ‘criminal mastermind.’ This puts him into the path, first of
Frank Hamer, who is hunting them down, and then of Bonnie Parker and Clyde
Barrow, who turns out to be his much younger cousin.
Without wanting to, Herbert travels with the Barrow Gang and though he does ultimately break free from them and escape to Del Rio, Hamer remains on his trail even after killing the others. Eventually he shows up there and a final bloody reckoning ensues, and always with God and the Devil nearby, arguing endlessly over perceived violations and interferences of their bets. Herbert, having no use for either, vows to stick it to them both, and bad. Luckily for him, he finds an unlikely ally in Rose Dawn, a pregnant, unhappily married radio prophetess.