Deadwood Drama

Sentimentality is both a strength and a weakness in Kenneth Kieser's Western debut

Few places captivate the American mind like 1870s Deadwood. It's a ripe setting for modern-day storytellers and their readers: There's something about the rough-hewn heroics, the gold-fueled lawlessness and the romantic patriotism that will always keep us coming back for more.

One Deadwood disciple is Kenneth Kieser, who has crafted, in Ride the Trail of Death, a tale of cowboys and Indians infused with the essence of the time and place. In this slightly unoriginal but action-packed adventure, Kieser, previously a magazine and newspaper writer, tests his mettle as a Western novelist for the first time, and hopefully, not the last.

The setting is the Dakota Territory. The prospect of gold has drawn a scattershot population to the region. Even long-time inhabitants are often on the move; Birch Rose is just a teenager when his family decides to relocate from Custer to Deadwood to keep up with the evolving economy. In order to get there, his family has to take a treacherous path through the wooded mountains. While they camp there, a Lakota warrior springs from hiding and kills Birch's father. Birch, separated in the panic from his mother and his younger twin brothers, flees and encounters several more Lakota. Afraid and enraged by his father's death, he slays a few of them and flees for Deadwood.

Once there, Birch is stunned, sad and alone, but he's quickly resurrected by a friendly but tough local sheriff named Seth Bullock. Birch is safe, but soon receives more bad news: His mother has been found dead near the site of the attack. Mourning his family and his past life, he studies shooting and other police tactics with Bullock, while becoming a legend around town for killing all those Lakota. Soon, he finds out who killed his mother: A roving Mexican gang leader named Rico. Birch works hard as an officer, but steadily calculates and anticipates his next meetings with his two nemeses.

Birch makes friends. He meets a girl; he grows tall, blond and tanned. He becomes known as the quickest gun in town, a reputation he lives up to every time one of Rico's gang tries to take him out. Since he's not tethered to any family but a small band of officers, his moral code fluctuates: At times, he's consumed by thoughts of revenge; at others, he is a cop in the extreme, respectful of the law and justice. Because he has a badge, he can get away with a more trigger-happy existence than most; more than a few rogue, drunken miners and cowboys meet their demise on a gritty barroom floor, just because their fingers got a little too close to their holsters. Birch also manages to steal a local girl, Amy, from a friend who was "courting" her, but, hey--she fell in love with him, so that makes it OK, right?

It's up to the reader to decide whether Birch's borderline virtue is the real thing. But Kieser does a good job of showing Birch's dimensions, as well as that of his main rival: While you can blame Black Moon for starting the battle by killing Birch's father, you can't really fault the Lakota warrior, either, who feels as though he's fighting for his people's existence as they're being forced onto reservations.

Ride the Trail of Death is filled with rich imagery of the Old West, from the whiskey-stained saloons to dust-kicking horses to saucy prostitutes. Rough-hewn masculinity is taken to an extreme in Deadwood: Fights are common, and more often than not, they result in a dead body or two. Kieser occasionally gets mired in clichés, but the action is quick enough that those moments of sentimentality are fleeting. But for all its rich imagery, Ride the Trail of Death can seem a little thin, especially when it comes to its methodical plot. There aren't too many surprises or risks. Deadwood's such an exciting setting that the book is never boring, but it would have been nice to see Kieser play around with mystery or suspense. He actually gives away much of the plot in the chapter headings.

But for a first shot at a Western, it's a good one, and Kieser's heart is clearly in it. He explains in a prologue that his family history can be traced to the Dakota Territory at the time the novel is set. His great-great-great grandmother and her children reputedly rode on the same treacherous path as the Roses (the Lakota stole their horses, but spared their lives). So clearly, the book is a highly personal project. Even though his sentimentality works as a strength and a weakness, to read a labor of love like Ride the Trail of Death is like sifting through the soil to discover little nuggets of gold.

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