The story of Wide Open is told by Will Merritt. In Abilene, young Will has found true friends, respect, adventure, and the belief that he “is at the center of the universe.” But Will’s family depends on the Texas cattle trade, and Will, like all his friends, despises the poor settlers whose new farms are slicing up the rangeland needed by the huge Texas herds. Among Will’s friends there is no tolerance for deviation from this contempt for settlers. So Will is astonished and dismayed when he meets Anna Dunham, a poor settler girl to whom he is immediately and powerfully drawn. At first, his greatest fear is that his best friend Jasper, whose hatred of settlers seems boundless, might discover his betrayal. But as Will struggles with his confusing and irresistible feelings for Anna, his father, J. T., is preparing to reveal a secret that will tear Abilene apart and make all the Merritts outcasts.


Born in the waning years of the Civil War and now six years old, Jenny Merritt is the bane of her older brother Will’s existence, the irritant that frequently drives him to distraction at just the wrong moment. But she is also his greatest admirer, and as the years pass, she is destined to become one of his greatest assets.



In 1867 Joe McCoy writes his friend J.T. Merritt and tells him to come west to Abilene and make his fortune. J.T. is an endlessly restless man, a risk taker, and soon his family is in Abilene, “a place so isolated, so sparse of trees, and so different from the luxurious civilization of the East” that Will’s mother, Eleanor, “seemed almost to lose her breath.” But J.T. is smitten with the promise of Abilene, and a few months later, he takes all the family’s meager savings and every cent he can borrow and buys twenty-five town lots in what would become Abilene’s business district. Electrified by the the town’s energy and opportunity, J.T. is in his element, but Eleanor sees a terrible flaw—the sins of Texastown, sins that cannot be contained south of the tracks. “To her, our home was a tiny, leaky life raft bobbing about on an ocean of peril.” And then, ever discontented with life as he finds it, J.T. conceives a plan which he keeps secret from all but Eleanor, a plan that will change the course of Abilene’s future and threaten his family’s place in the community.


Jasper Hardeman is Will Merritt’s best friend. After the death of his parents, Jasper is sent to live with his uncle, Joe Hardeman, the owner of the Elkhorn Saloon in Texastown and a man who has not warmed to the responsibilities of raising his nephew. Jasper would do anything for Will, but he boils with an obsessive anger directed toward settlers, a rage that even Will finds unnerving. “Jasper was scary. Even I knew it. Not because he was big or powerful, he wasn’t. Jasper was scary because he brimmed with an anger that could make him crazy. You had no faith that he would stop where normal people would stop.” But Will’s uncertainty about his friend is soon to be resolved. By summer’s end, he will know the extent of Jasper’s rage precisely.


Phil Coe is part owner of the notorious Bull’s Head Saloon, the only saloon in town owned by Texans and therefore a cowboy favorite. Coe is perhaps the one man in town physically bigger than Marshal Hickok. A drinker and quick to anger, he is soon at war with the marshal, who he sees as a man hired to make his life difficult. On both sides of the tracks, everyone predicts trouble between the two, but no one imagines the tragedy that ultimately unfolds.



Caleb and Sarah Dunham brought Anna and their three other children to Abilene during the previous summer. With the help of J.T. Merritt, they homesteaded 160 acres northeast of Abilene. For Caleb owning so vast a farm is a marvel beyond his dreams, and he attacks each day with relentless energy, impatient to build the future he sees in his minds eye. But this part of Kansas is outside the experience of most settlers. It is dryer, and in the late summer it is plagued by blazing hot crop-destroying winds. No one yet knows if it is suitable for farming. Certainly, few townspeople in Abilene think so. Mayor McCoy calls the farmers fools. “This is cattle country, not crop country. God decided that, not Abilene.” Caleb and his neighbors find themselves dismissed by the townspeople, menaced by the weather, and physically threatened by the Texans. It is a land of hardship. But one day, J.T. Merritt comes to call. He has a plan and wonders if Caleb would be willing to help.


Cocky, easy to like, full of “ideas,”and looking for adventure, Mike Williams comes to Abilene with the first herd of the season and decides to stay for the summer. At first, he hires on with an outfit bossed by the infamous Print Olive. But later, on the strength of his fast-talking ability to calm the wild Texans, Marshal Hickok gets him a job as a special deputy at Texastown’s new Novelty Theatre. Here Mike’s fate darkens, becoming irrevocably tied to Hickok’s.


Johnny Hodge
is the son of Abilene’s farm implement dealer, and one of Ablilene’s few supporters of the settlers. As such, he and his friends are the blood enemies of the pro-cattle boys led by Will and Jasper. But Abilene is about to change, and soon Will’s relations with Johnny will change with it.

When Joe McCoy discovered Abilene, it was little more than a mudhole surrounded by a few dilapidated shacks and sod houses. But now his vision has made it an economic powerhouse, and a notorious symbol of human excess. “He had unruly brown hair, a bit longer than most of our men, and if you happened to catch him at rest, his face was a bit plain. But the mayor was rarely at rest, and as soon as he spoke, the plainness was swept away in the rush of his energy.” Will’s father J.T. and Joe are longtime friends, but J.T.’s secret will bring them into opposition and change both their lives forever.