The title refers to a little town in the midst of the vastness of Oregon, where at the turn of the 20th century, sheepmen and cattlemen vie for grazing territory as well as for the love of 18-year-old Esther Chambers.
Recently orphaned, Esther travels from Chicago in search of Ferris “Pick” Pickett, a distant relative about 10 years older than she is. Pick is friendly but taciturn, and he takes her out to Half-a-Mind, a property that had recently been abandoned by a farmer. Through Pick, Esther finds out that if she can live in Half-a-Mind at least six months out of the year for five years, she can claim it as her own, so she begins to homestead. Esther quickly discovers that much of the conflict out West lies in the hatred between cattlemen and sheepmen, for they’re constantly fighting about who has the rights to free rangeland. At first the tension emerges as petty violence—windows broken by slingshots—but it soon escalates to a much more serious level with hooded cattlemen driving hundreds of sheep over a bluff to their deaths and a retaliatory action in which a prize bull is beheaded. Amidst this growing violence Esther finds herself attracted to Pick, cautious spokesperson for the cattlemen, and Ben Cruff, a sheepman who almost by definition is hostile to the cattle ranchers. Keesey introduces us to a large cast of Oregonians here, including Joe Peaslee, whose apparent suicide might have actually been murder; Violet Fowler, a postmistress whose snoopiness leads her to open any interesting letter that comes her way; and Mr. Elliot, of the Far West Navigation and Railway, who’s investigating the possibility of establishing a spur line to Century and thus ensuring its continued economic viability.
Keesey writes lyrically and examines the ferocity of frontier life with an unromantic and penetrating gaze.