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The Rock Hole (Red River Mystery Series #1)

The Rock Hole (Red River Mystery Series #1)

4.6 5
by Reavis Z Wortham

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In 1964, farmer and part-time Constable Ned Parker combine forces with John Washington, the almost mythical black deputy sheriff from nearby Paris, to track down a disturbed individual who is rapidly becoming a threat to the entire small Texas community of Center Springs. 
When Ned is summoned to a hot cornfield one morning to examine the remains


In 1964, farmer and part-time Constable Ned Parker combine forces with John Washington, the almost mythical black deputy sheriff from nearby Paris, to track down a disturbed individual who is rapidly becoming a threat to the entire small Texas community of Center Springs. 
When Ned is summoned to a hot cornfield one morning to examine the remains of a tortured bird dog, he finds a dark presence in their quiet community. A farmer by trade, Ned is usually confident when it comes to handling moonshiners, drunks and domestic disputes. But the animal atrocities turn to murder, and the investigation spins beyond his abilities. 
After a dizzying series of twists, eccentric characters and dead-ends, Ned’s friend, cranky Judge O.C. Rains, is forced to contact the FBI. Worse, sinister warnings that his family has been targeted by the killer lead Ned to the startling discovery that he knows the murderer very well. After the failed abduction of his precocious grandchildren Top and Pepper, the old lawman becomes judge and jury to end the murder spree in the Red River bottomlands.
With a heart-pounding pace, country humor and a stunning climax speaks to the darkness in us all. In bald-headed pot-bellied Ned Parker, Wortham has created an authentic American hero who will put you in mind of the best heroes and antiheroes you’ve ever experienced.
The year 1964 was the end of an era in Center Springs, and the climax may well shock your civilized sensibilities.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Texan farmer Ned Parker takes his part-time role as a constable seriously, so when mutilated animals with symbolic messages attached to their bodies start showing up in his neck of the woods, he pays attention. He makes sure his friend, black deputy sheriff John Washington, knows about the crimes as well. His ten-year-old grandson, Top, has just come to live with the Parkers, and much of this tale is told from Top's viewpoint. If anyone was hoping for an Andy of Mayberry story, this isn't it, because the rural area is harboring a serial killer. And the killer has plans for Parker's family. VERDICT Wortham does a great job of creating a foreboding atmosphere from the get-go. His assured debut is multilayered and shows his love of storytelling. The juxtaposition of the old ways with the new era—the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War—provides just the kindling needed for a crackling good mystery in a Western setting.
From the Publisher
"Not just scary but funny too, as Wortham nails time and place in a sure-handed, captivating way. There’s a lot of good stuff in this unpretentious gem. Don’t miss it." —Kirkus Reviews

"Throughout, scenes of hunting, farming, and family life sizzle with detail and immediacy. The dialog is spicy with country humor and color, and Wortham knows how to keep his story moving. The Rock Hole is an unnerving but fascinating read." —Historical Novels Review

"Solid characters and a vivid depiction of a vanishing period make this a series to watch." —Publishers Weekly

Kirkus Reviews

An accomplished first novel about life and murder in a small Texas town.

Back in the summer of 1964, life is simpler, though probably no less fraught with evil. In Lamar County, Texas, Ned Parker's the law. He's a bit long in the tooth but still has that don't-tread-on-me look that county reprobates have learned to take seriously. And then there's Top, the constable's adoring and well-loved 10-year-old grandson. Through them, in alternating chapters, Wortham tells a story of grace under pressure, of what happens when a deranged and vicious predator decides that they're his promised prey. Local news sources tab him "The Skinner," and the label is chillingly apt. He starts with small animals, then proceeds to small human beings—mutilated, murdered, their corpses gruesomely displayed as trophies, an idiosyncratic array doubly intimidating in its lack of pattern. Lamar County cowers. Constable Ned is convinced that a vendetta is involved, and though the why of it remains murky, he can no longer doubt its intent. Something noxious is heading for the Parkers. It arrives with breathtaking suddenness, leading to a fast and furious climax, written to the hilt, harrowing in its unpredictability.

Not just scary but funny too, as Wortham nails time and place in a sure-handed, captivating way. There's a lot of good stuff in this unpretentious gem. Don't miss it.

Product Details

Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date:
Red River Series , #1
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Rock Hole

A Red River Mystery
By Reavis Z. Wortham

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2011 Reavis Z. Wortham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59058-886-4

Chapter One

I came to live with my grandparents up on the Red River in the summer of 1964. Their hardscrabble farm sat exactly one mile from the domino hall in Center Springs, a one-horse settlement named after the clear-water spring that feeds Sanders Creek, which then drains into the Red.

When I climbed down the metal steps of that hot old bus outside the Greyhound station in the much larger town of Chisum, Grandpa and my grandmother Miss Becky were waiting on the sidewalk. I was so proud to see them I could have busted, Grandpa especially. There he stood in his sweat-stained old straw hat and overalls, with a tiny badge pinned to his blue work shirt.

I knew a revolver was in one of those big pockets, because he was the Law in Lamar County, though you couldn't rightly tell if you didn't know.

He hugged me against his big belly. Miss Becky was nearly dancing with excitement when he turned me loose to throw my suitcase into the truck bed among the bailing wire, empty feed sacks, and loose hay. He'd parked right at the curb, and the bus' front bumper was right against the tailgate. When the bus driver stopped a few minutes before, I could tell he was aggravated because the truck was in his way, but he didn't say anything.

"Why Top, you've growed a foot since we last saw you!" When Miss Becky hugged my neck, she smelled like the bath powder she kept in a round tin on her dresser

"C'mon, Mama, we have to go." Grandpa opened the door for us. "Get in hoss, and let's go look at a dead dog." He was always in a hurry to get out of town and back to the country. I crawled onto the dusty seat full of holes and Miss Becky gathered her long skirts and climbed in behind me.

"Ned," Miss Becky softly scolded him when he pulled away from the curb.

"Aw, Mama, it ain't nothin' but a dead dog and we're liable to see two or three in the same condition on the side of the highway before we get back to the house. It won't hurt him none."

"Well, y'all can drop me off at the house first, then."

"I intend to."

Ten-year-old boys are always up for an adventure, so twenty minutes later we let her out at the house and fifteen minutes after that I followed him through Mr. Isaac's chest-high corn. Grandpa led us between the rows with a hoe thrown over his shoulder and a 'toe sack dangling from the back pocket of his overalls. I wasn't sure how he knew where we were going until I looked down at his brogans and saw footprints leading through the rows in the sand.

I cocked my Daisy air rifle he'd remembered to bring for me. The BB gun's barrel was hot to the touch from the blazing summer sun. "Glad we have a gun." He always enjoyed kidding me. "You never know if you're gonna run across a booger-bear out here."

I rattled the air rifle to see how many BBs were left. "Is this your corn?"

"Nope. It belongs to Isaac Reader. I usually don't like being alone in another man's field. It feels like trespassing, but since Ike called me, here we are."

Turkey buzzards drifted on the thermals high above the thick corn stalks surrounding us. Locusts sang in the trees at the edge of the field. He stopped and wrinkled his nose at the edge of a tramped-down area in the corn. "Sheew. That stinks."

I almost gagged. The sight of what lay at our feet nearly made me fall out. Someone had used a heated two-handed screwdriver to torture a poor bird dog lying beside the cold remains of a fire. Dark stains on the blade and the German shorthair's wounds told us what had happened in the clearing. Burn marks made crisscross patterns in the animal's hide. Deep puncture wounds from the once red-hot blade still oozed fluid.

Despite the heat, a chill ran up my spine. I'd seen dead dogs on the side of the highway, but I'd never seen one intentionally mistreated. My stomach rose, but I choked it down again. The stink made my asthma act up, making me wheeze. I dug my puffer out of my jean pocket, stuck the atomizer end in my mouth, and gave the bulb a squeeze. My lungs tickled deep down inside and I began to breathe better.

"Bastard." Grandpa had a habit of talking quietly to himself. He hooked the sharp blade of his hoe under the stiff corpse and lifted it off the ground. Flies rose and buzzed all around us. "This one makes five now."

"Five what, Grandpa?"

"Just you never mind."

I waved flies out of my face as he knelt onto one knee and pulled a damp scrap of paper free from the sand. He unfolded the raggedly torn advertisement from The Chisum News. I got a peek at the drawing of a boy and girl playing catch.

He stood with a grunt and backed off a step.

I'd never seen anything so horrible in my life, and I wished Grandpa hadn't brought me. Center Springs was always my safe place, where I didn't have to worry about anything except running outside, hunting, and fishing. That's why I came.

Another truck rattled down the dirt road and pulled into the shade beside ours. Grandpa slipped the folded clipping into the deep pocket of his overalls, removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his bald head with a blue bandanna. "That's your Uncle Cody's bird dog someone stole out of his pen last week. But you don't say anything to him about it. I'll tell him."


He stared down at me with those pale blue eyes of his. "Because I said not to."

Behind him, I saw the tops of several corn stalks twitch, but there was no wind. I started to say something about it, but a man got out of the truck and hollered across the field. Had I known someone was creeping through the field with us that morning, I could have told Grandpa and we might have ended what was coming for us right then and there.

He also might not have had to do what he did.

But at the time I didn't know I'd been slapped square in the path of a maniac who had it in for our family.

Chapter Two

A cold feeling of dread grew in Ned's stomach as he absently folded the piece of newspaper. Animal mutilations were stacking up in the river bottoms, but for the first time, the threat pointed toward children.

Ned shivered at the future in his sun-browned hands. Crows called in the distance. Blinking sweat from his eyes, he wondered if he'd soon be staring down at a child's body.

He rose with a grunt and slipped the paper into his pocket as Isaac Reader slowed to a stop in the shade beside Ned's own pickup. It was Isaac who found the dog the evening before and called Ned on the party line. Isaac slammed the door and hurried into the field.

"Dammit. I hoped I'd get through here before Isaac showed up." He rubbed a damp bandana over the back of his neck. Sweat plastered the faded blue shirt to his back. Top didn't pay much attention, watching instead the corn stalks moving behind his Grandpa.

His youthful imagination in overdrive, Top pointed the muzzle of his BB gun toward the booger-bear Ned had warned him about. It was a perfect way of avoiding the corpse at his feet. He shot at a corn stalk and cocked the gun again. Ned glanced down at his grandson, then back at Reader.

A short, talkative man, Isaac Reader moved with quick jerky motions, as if he'd been weaned on too much caffeine. He matched Ned in a way that only comes from a lifetime of farming together. Dressed in faded overalls and soft blue shirts, both men wore straw Stetsons which fell under the "absolute necessity" category like a tractor, plow, and a good sharp hoe. With the first norther of autumn, they traded the breathable straws for a warmer felt.

He talked as he bulled his way across the rows toward Ned, breaking and shoving through the cornstalks without consideration toward his own crop. "I told you on the phone last night it was something!"

Waiting until Isaac was within conversational distance, Ned drew a long-suffering breath and stared at the distant tree line along the nearby Red River. He hated to be yelled at and any conversation with Isaac drained all of his energy.

Isaac soon joined him in the rough clearing. "Gosh-a-mighty! That stinks, don't it?"

"He's pretty ripe all right."

The little famer noticed the youngster holding his BB gun. "Hidy Top. What are you doing here?" Before the youngster could answer, Isaac pointed to the dog. "Listen, I couldn't believe it when I found that thing laying here. It weren't here three days ago, because my hands chopped this entire field. I believe if they'd seen anything I'd have heard about it."

"It probably happened night before last. He swelled pretty fast in this heat."

"I don't give a fiddler's fangdang when it happened. I don't like what happened."

"Well." Ned pondered the dog's corpse.

He thought about burying it right there in the cornfield, but he knew Isaac wanted the animal gone. "I'll carry it off a ways down to the river, but don't you tell Cody how we found him. You know how he is. He doesn't need to know how his dog was killed. I'll find the right time and tell him you found it already dead somewheres down here. I don't want anyone to know about this."

"Listen, I ain't telling nobody nothin'."

The trio stood in uncomfortable silence for several long moments.

Isaac hated silence between men when, in his opinion, they should be talking. "It's a crying shame. Who would do such a thing?"

"I cain't call anybody's name right now, but I'm afraid we probably know him."

"You don't say."

"I do say. Strangers can't come in here like this without being seen by someone who'd talk about it."

"I can't believe anyone in Center Springs would do something like this. Who'd wire up a dog and burn it with a screwdriver like that? And why pull its toenails? It looks like he wanted to make a necklace out of it."

Ned agreed. "It ain't nothing but puredee meanness."

"Listen, look at it. The poor thing's been halfway skint. Why would anyone peel an animal's hide back thataway? Do you think it was alive when he did it?"

Ned cut his eyes toward Top, who didn't seem to be paying attention to their conversation. He was busy shooting at corn stalks. "I can see it right there Isaac. You don't have to tell me to look at it."

"Listen, you reckon it's them circus people over there in Hugo?" Isaac never did like the Carson and Barnes Circus people who wintered across the river in Oklahoma.

"They're not there in the summer." Ned knew Isaac had always been suspicious of circus people because he'd been afraid of clowns since they were kids running the bottoms in Lamar County.

"I know it, but there's always a few of those people still hanging around all year long. Maybe it's one of them freaks they carry with them, like the feller that bites the heads off'n live chickens."

"Now you're thinking about those little carnivals that come to town." Any other time Ned would have laughed at the familiar conversation. "The circus just has elephants and clowns and such."

Isaac shivered despite the heat. "I hate clowns. People can hide under all that paint and colored hair and you don't know what they're up to. I bet there's a lot goes on over there we don't know about. Maybe one of 'em went crazier than usual and they left him behind."

"I doubt it."

"Listen, don't tell Joshua or any of my coloreds about this. I'm 'possa have thirty hands here in a week to gather my corn and this could scare 'em off. I have enough trouble getting good hands as it is. They'll probably think its voodoo or something. You know how them niggers are. They'll think this field is haunted."

Ned nodded toward Top and frowned, hoping the man would get his intent. "Joshua is as Baptist as you are, Isaac. His mama got the name from the Book of Joshua in the same Bible you carry in your hand to the white Baptist church every Sunday. Besides, they're just folks like you and me, only their skin is a different color."

"Well, listen, I don't care. All I know is that none of his people need to hear about this. They'll think the bogey-man lives out here and then I can't get anyone to ever hoe this field again."

"You're right. No one needs to know, black or white. I won't tell anyone, and you don't neither. Neither will Top, will you?"

"Nossir." Top pointed his air rifle toward the now still corn stalks and pulled the trigger. Satisfied with the snap, he cocked the rifle again. Neither farmer paid any attention to the youngster's shot.

Suddenly tired, Ned didn't want to talk any longer while stewing in the disgusting odor. He drew a 'toe sack out of his back pocket and handed it to Isaac. "I'll have to study on this some more. Here, hold this open."

Isaac knelt, making a face at the odor of decay. Ned took a long piece of bailing wire out of his pocket and looped it around the dog's hind feet, then used both callused hands to lift the dog's body into the sack. Isaac waved flies away from his head. One flew into a nostril and he jerked back in revulsion, shuddering and shaking his head. He gagged for a moment and then held the sack open.

Top giggled at the sight.

The loose weave of the burlap was no relief from the stench that settled deep into their sinuses. The shade called as they filed down the rows, Ned silently leading the way. Isaac followed, staring intently at the dry ground. Top brought up the rear, turning around now and then to be sure whatever had been moving in the corn wasn't coming after them. It was fun to pretend Indians were stalking the trio of pioneers as they made their way though the wilderness.

In the shade, Ned settled the sack gently beside the tree and exchanged the hoe for a shovel from his cluttered truck bed. Much to Isaac's agitation, Ned dug a hole in the soft sand.

"I thought you were gonna take him down to the river."

"I thought about it, but it's too hot to go off down there. Burying him here in the shade won't hurt nothing at all." Ned lowered the dog gently into the bottom of the hole.

"Well, I declare. I could have done the same thing myself."

"But you didn't."

Ned was thankful that Isaac had called when he found the dog. The scrap of paper would have probably been overlooked by anyone else, putting Ned's quiet investigation one more step behind. Finished, he refilled the hole and kicked at the sand around until it looked relatively normal.

Sweating profusely despite the shade, Ned stepped over to a hand water pump jutting three feet above the ground and primed it with leaf-stained water from a nearby rusty barrel. The water pump had been there most of his life, a place to get a drink during a hot day or to put fresh water into an overheating engine.

He worked the handle until pure cold water gurgled up from below. He immediately felt cooler after rinsing his sweaty face in the icy water, then handed Top a dipper. "You want a cold drink of water?"

"Yessir." Top held the dipper under the stream.

Isaac couldn't take his eyes off the drying sand of the fresh grave.

Finished, Top handed the dipper to Isaac. "Can I pump it for you Mr. Ike?"


Top used both hands to work the handle.

"Now I mean it, Ike." Ned dried his hat band with a bandana and put the Stetson back on his bald head. "Don't you say anything about this here killing or what we found today. No one needs to know but us. I'll tell Donald and Judge Rains later, but it don't go no farther."

For the past three years Sheriff Donald Griffin served the office, but Ned had little use for the man. Griffin was more politician than lawman and Ned considered him a criminal to boot.

In his opinion, there was nothing worse than a crooked lawman.

Ned intended to watch Sheriff Griffin as closely as possible, especially since he was a first cousin to the most notorious former sheriff in Lamar County history, Delbert Poole.

Judge O.C. Rains was the cantankerous county judge and a good friend to Ned Parker. The white-haired old man scared Isaac more than clowns. Using his name was a calculated move to quiet the farmer's loose tongue, though it probably wouldn't last. Isaac might keep his mouth closed for a day or two, but sooner or later he'd mention it up at the general store, or at the domino hall next door, and then it would be all over the county.

"Listen, I won't sleep a wink now for worrying. I reckon I'll need to keep the shotgun beside the bed for the next few nights." The introduction of a new idea on a subject often led Isaac into fits of worry that lasted for months.

"Well, it never hurts to be ready." Ned absently toed the dirt, watching a red harvester ant search for a way around his brogan.

"Listen. I heard Top here had come to live with you and Miss Becky."


Excerpted from The Rock Hole by Reavis Z. Wortham Copyright © 2011 by Reavis Z. Wortham. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

As a boy, award-winning writer, Reavis Z. Wortham hunted and fished the river bottoms near Chicota, Texas, the inspiration for Center Springs.   He is the author of Doreen’s 24 HR Eat Gas Now Café. Humor editor and frequent contributor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine, he writes on everything from fishing to deer hunting. In addition to several other magazines, his work has appeared in American Cowboy andTexas Sporting Journal. A retired educator of 35 years, he and wife Shana live in Frisco, Texas.

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The Rock Hole (Red River Mystery Series) 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
THE ROCK HOLE is an usual combination of old time Texas humor and chilling thriller.  The year is 1964, and these small communities are mostly segregated by white, black, and American Indians. Ned Parker is the white Constable, who is married to an Indian; best friends with the Black Deputy Sheriff, John Washington; uncle to Cody, a brave Vietnam war veteran; and forever friend of an old codger, Judge O. C.Rains.  After a car crash killed his parents, ten year old Top, has come to live with his grandparents.  Pepper, Top's ten year old tomboy cousin, spends most of her time at their house also.  Though a Constable, Ned really considers himself a farmer, who from time to time, finds himself dealing with drunks, bootleggers, and fighting families.  But a new evil has entered his community.  Someone is viciously mutilating animals, and he seems to be escalating his violence.  The communities in Texas and near by Oklahoma are affected.  The chase is on to catch this person who also seems to have a grudge against Ned and his family. This story is populated by wonderfully fleshed out characters, with a feeling of story telling that reminds me of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and A TIME TO KILL.  The atmospheric descriptions took me right back to the good and bad times of the 1960s. It reads like a combination of small town community, and good old fashioned westerns.  Great mystery, but feels like literature at it's finest.  Great start to this series! 
PammyKayTX More than 1 year ago
LOVED this book! Very entertaining. Brought back lots of memories growing up in Texas
Carl80 More than 1 year ago
A sensitive, suspenseful debut crime novel. Full of twists, wry and earthy humor, it epitomizes the grit, the patience and the perseverance, of middle America. Folks who grew up in Texas, where the novel is set, or anywhere in the belt that runs from the northwest angle of Minnesota to the Padre Islands and from the middle of Pennsylvania to Cody, Wyoming, will recognize themselves in this novel. Their humor, their practicality, their keen natural observations, are all here to savor. Welcome to 1964. In Center Springs, Texas, farmer and part-time constable Ned Parker is faced with a puzzling series of animal deaths. That they are brutal, atrocious unnecessary killings, only adds to the tension and suspense. Across the river, the black deputy, John Washington, is trying to find reasons for the same killings, while also dealing with the added difficulties of racism in the county. All these factors entwine to create a real and growing calamity for the small communities in the county surrounding Center Springs. As the killings continue, strange footprints are found near bedroom windows and citizens begin to carry weapons and look suspiciously at their neighbors. Laced with forthright humor, the novel proceeds at a racing pace through event after event as suspicion grows and plot twist after twist keeps readers off-balance until the stunning climax is reached. Ned Parker is a real character who carries the story in an authentic and realistic manner. The novel is not without its problems. Abrupt and annoying changes of points of view are occasionally confusing, but the writing, like the stories within the narrative is solid. This is an eminently satisfying novel. I look forward to the next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1964 ten year old Top moves to Center Springs, Texas to live on the farm of his grandparents Ned and Becky Parker. A part-time Lamar County constable Ned works minor crimes and family disputes. Thus, he is taken aback with the vicious torture and murders of animals starting with the bird dog of Top's Uncle Cody. Ned consults with his friend deputy sheriff John Washington, a black cop who works the black community beat. However, Ned is unaware that his grandchildren Top and his tomboy cousin, Pepper overhear the discussion. The already horrific case turns even more gruesome when the killer murders Ned's cousin Joseph as a psychopath is stalking the Parker kin. This is a great historical mystery that will remind readers of Dylan's song The Times They Are a-Changin' as the Civil Rights Era has begun with for instance Washington being the first black law enforcenmt officer in the county. The Vietnam War has started to heat up and also impacts residents. The mystery is fun as the professional adults and amateur sleuth tweeners compete. The strong deep cast makes the time and place come alive as Reavis Z. Wortham provides a strong whodunit. Harriet Klausner