Life is dangerous in the Dakota Territory, circa 1875. Enroute to Deadwood, Birch Rose’s family is waylaid by a Lakota raiding party, his father is killed, and their horses are stolen. He sets off alone on the trail to Deadwood to get help, dazed and enraged, and the teenager manages to kill several erstwhile Lakota ambushers along the way. He stumbles into town barely alive, and soon learns that his mother has been killed by bandits, and his two brothers are missing, presumed dead. The course of Birch’s life is now set–he must find the men who killed his family and exact revenge, by any means necessary.
In Ride the Trail of Death, Kenneth L. Kieser has written an engaging yarn of the Old West, based loosely on a historical footnote from his own family tree. He captures the sights, sounds, smells, and characters of the notorious frontier town of Deadwood in a time when justice was the province of rough men who weren’t afraid to bend the rules when they saw fit.
Kieser’s style is winsome and accessible. It’s the story of a boy hurled instantly and unmercifully into manhood, and it often reads like a young adult book, though its portrayal of the violence rampant in the Dakotas during the Black Hills gold rush days is graphic and unblinking. The story shifts among a variety of points-of-view besides Birch’s, which provides some interesting insights but also causes the storytelling to wander into side plots that aren’t fully explored or resolved. Many interesting characters are introduced, but sadly, most of them don’t survive very long, victims of a time and place where life was held cheap and danger lurked around every dark corner.
Keiser includes a preface that explains his family connection to this story, as well as some nice photographs and maps of 1870’s Deadwood and its surrounding environs. My trade paperback copy featured attractive cover art depicting Birch and a couple of companions on horseback, in pursuit of the killers. Editing could have been tighter–I stumbled across several typos and grammatical errors–but I enjoyed Ride the Trail of Death very much overall, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good Western.