Softcover (also available as an ebook), 978-1-49622-031-8, 192 pgs., $19.95
April 1, 2021
Fort Worth writer Sidney Thompson’s well-crafted new novel, Hell on the Border, is the second work in his planned trilogy of historical fiction drawn from the dangerous life of Bass Reeves, a unique figure in American law enforcement history.
In the late 1800s, Reeves, a former slave, became the first Black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River partly because he could speak several Indian languages. Serving mostly in Northwest Arkansas and the Oklahoma Indian Territory, Reeves arrested more than 3,000 wanted felons and killed more than a dozen without being wounded by return gunfire.
The trilogy’s first book, Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves, published in 2020, introduced Reeves growing up as a slave, then fleeing his enslaver during the Civil War, and living among Indian tribes until emancipated by Abraham Lincoln.
In Hell on the Border, Reeves is now an experienced marshal, assigned to track down and capture or kill several wanted felons in or near Indian Territory. To work in the most dangerous areas, he sometimes disguises himself as a threadbare wanderer seeking food, shelter, and work. The reason why, the author notes, is that “tramps of all sorts were as common in the territory as antelope.”
There are other reasons, as well, why Reeves is good at his job, Thompson writes:
Bass had learned from the Seminoles to embrace what he hunted, as if he and his prey were not ahead and behind but bound on the same journey by an invisible yoke. Seeing from the eyes of the hunted, while listening to the beat and song of its heart, would cut down on tricks and tragic mistakes and increase bounty. And it had. In nine years as a deputy, Bass hadn’t once been ambushed.
Hell on the Border works well both as stand-alone reading and as an entry point into the still-evolving trilogy. Thompson opens with the deputy marshal in the midst of tracking down murderers, but the slow pace of pursuit gives him moments to reflect on his past. Elsewhere in the book, Reeves also goes home to Arkansas to spend time with his wife, Jennie, and their ten children. Jennie is not happy with his long absences, but their love remains strong, and they share strengths learned as slaves.
Bass Reeves is not infallible, of course. During one of his tracking forays, the wrong man is shot, and Reeves is charged with murder and put on trial. And someone from his past shows up and deepens his jeopardy.
The real Bass Reeves finally finished his law-enforcement career in 1909 after more than 30 years as a federal peace officer and a two-year stint as a Muskogee, Oklahoma, police officer. There were more than enough events and tensions in his life to provide grist for the trilogy’s finale.
Sidney Thompson teaches creative writing and African-American literature at Texas Christian University. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas and a Ph.D. in American literature/African-American narratives from the University of North Texas.