”But to think of the Old West as one gigantic gunfight is fantasy,” Peter Carter writes in the preface to his novel, Borderlands. ”In 1871, Abilene, in its busiest season as a cattle town, with hundreds of cowboys walking its streets, had fewer homicides than humdrum Mer-thyr Tydfil, in peaceful Wales.” So he sets out to portray life on the Chisholm Trail and in the Kansas railhead towns of Abilene and Dodge City as it really was. He succeeds, perhaps too well.
In the spring of 1871, newly orphaned Ben Curtis, 13, and his brother Bo, 17, are kicked off their hardscrabble Texas ranch by an unscrupulous preacher who had lent money to their mother with the land as collateral. They sign on with a crew driving a herd of wild longhorns to Abilene. The brothers endure the usual Chisholm Trail hardships: heat, dust, dangerous river crossings, the possibility of Indian attacks (which never occur) and stampedes (one of which does occur, but in a curiously undramatic fashion).
Once in Abilene, Bo promptly gets drunk, joins a crooked poker game, and gets himself killed. Instead of returning to Texas with his crew, Ben decides to stay in Kansas and avenge his brother’s death.
Carter has done his research. His portrayal of the tedium, filth, and barbarism of the frontier are vivid and realistic. What the tale lacks is dramatic tension, probably because Ben tells his story in a folksy, corn-pone voice that, over 424 pages, becomes wearisome. B-