The Gunfight at the OK Corral and High Noon come to mind in this ‘lawman’s gotta do what a lawman’s gotta do’ narrative. A reckoning is brewing, a showdown in the style of a classic western. Only The Texas Job by Reavis Z Wortham takes place as the Wild West is giving way to the industrial age. It’s the autumn of 1931 and Texas is on the cusp of a black gold rush. The landscape is being overrun by derricks in the hunt for oil.
The lawlessness of the six-shooter isn’t diminished by suits and corporate money from the East, or by trucks replacing horses. Opportunities for untold wealth are the seeds for corruption and murder, and into the fray steps Tom Bell, a relentless Texas Ranger on the hunt for a killer.
This is a panoramic tale that entertains us with a suspenseful manhunt but it also reflects on dark times. The birth of the modern United States is bloody, unforgiving and racist. Big oil crushed the poor if they stood in their way and the law offered no protection, particularly to the First Nations people. The voiceless were trampled by the ambition, prejudice and corruption of venal and power hungry white men. Their greed and actions are the most chilling aspect of The Texas Job, which is based in fact and reimagined as fiction. So this is a detective story, a Western and a tale of corruption, conspiracy and gangsterism. The hunt for the killer that Tom has embarked upon tumbles him into a nest of vipers and a dirty war he can’t ignore.
Tom is riding the East Texas road heading for Gladewater with a warrant for killer Clete Ferras, believed to be hiding out on one the local ranches. He spots the buzzards from a distance, a sure sign something is dead – most likely a cow. But then Booker Johnston comes running up causing Tom’s horse to shy. The boy says there’s a dead woman about a mile away. Booker is part Cherokee, mixed blood is common in these parts, and the victim is one of his people, Hazel Freeman.
As Tom takes the woman’s body to the nearest town shots are fired at him but the shooter runs off when he returns fire. Clearly someone is trying to hide something. Sheriff Dobbs won’t allow the Indian woman’s body inside the white mortuary. No need to investigate, either. Stanley McCord has already been arrested for taking an Indian girl for a ‘good time’ leading to her unfortunate death.
McCord says Hazel was a prostitute, they fought over money, she grabbed his gun and it went off. No jury around here will convict a white man for an accidental killing like this. McCord’s employer has already posted his bail and he’s back at work. Booker’s family say Hazel was a good Christian woman, the community are devastated but powerless to act without terrible consequences.
But there’s more to Hazel’s death.
Quinn Walker married Mallie Whitehorse for her land, they have 400 wells now and he’s ordered himself a Duisenberg on his wife’s account. Quinn and his cousins Gene Phillips and Jack Drake are angry the stranger retrieved Hazel Freeman’s body. This new lawman in the area is a worry because Quinn has plans to become the biggest local landowner and the wrong attention could scupper that. There’s already one Texas Ranger in town, Enrique Delgado, cleaning up the streets and lawless behaviour. Tom and Enrique are on separate missions, they mostly work alone, but circumstances might just get them together. To top it Gene has just screwed up again with tragic consequences and that needs to be handled right.
Tom starts his search with the local landowners to see if anyone hired Clete Ferras and he takes young Booker as his guide. There are new men in town every day, rough camps all over. Tom heads for the biggest concern, JR Rupert’s drilling operation, but the reception is hostile. This is a going to be a tricky job, these are tough men and they don’t take kindly to the law and that’s before Tom starts poking his nose into their business. Tom doesn’t yet appreciate how personal things are going to get as he forms an attachment to a local woman but he can’t turn a blind eye to what’s going on even though he’s got a fugitive to find.
Tom’s hunt for the killer is straightforward but it takes a while to get to grips with the thread about the white men marrying First Nation women for their land and just how dark a moment in history this is. When Quinn and his cousins meet and they begin discussing what their doing you have to go with it until it becomes clear. It’s a minor hiccup in the flow of a steadily paced but gripping read.
Tom is a the strong silent hero type, but when he begins to care about the people here and about what’s going on he’s vulnerable and vastly outnumbered. Reavis Z Wortham’s writing has an easy, comfortable style, a sort of steady drawl that builds The Texas Job towards the crackling crescendo we’ve already hinted at. The sense of time, place and language feel authentic and the treatment of First Nations genocide adds gravitas and is empathetic. This is a smouldering powder keg of a read.
Reavis Z Wortham is a journalist and author. His historical crime novels, including the Texas Red River series set in the 1960s, often feature the place he grew up, the Texas Panhandle.
For more about the indigenous American experience as reflected in crime fiction, try The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. For similar greed and recklessness but with an Australian setting, see Opal Country by Chris Hammer. For present day US Rural noir try Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars