The best West-of-the-Mississippi novel since Oakley Hall's The Badlands last year. There are indeed horses and sixshooters and badmen aplenty here, but to call it a Western is to miss its stern seriousness altogether. This is about the last days of Belle Starr, the bandit queen, who has just turned 40 and has only a few months to live. You can't help liking Belle, who is plain as a leather bag and fairly bighearted. Her flaw is that she can't help manipulating her children, who are adults and getting into adult trouble. Belle is, as her son Ed calls her, a ""britches woman."" She wears the pants and lays down the law. But just as she was uppity as a young girl when handsome outlaw Cole Younger got her pregnant and her father locked her in a closet for three weeks to repent, so too her children must go their own way: teenage Ed is a skirt-chasing, money-losing lunk who marries a whore, and daughter Pearl becomes a flossy floozy in a Fort Smith, Oklahoma, cathouse. When Ed kills a marshal who is serving a writ on Belle, she finds herself in bondage to a Cherokee politician who perhaps can save Ed's neck. The U.S. government has found various ways to fox the Cherokee out of their big Oklahoma strip, and landboomers are already moving in to claim Indian property. Will Belle become a Cherokee mercenary and fight the invaders as a guerrilla? Yes, to save Ed. What happens is a hard-focused, authentic, fact-following drama--rich in living history and timeless dialogue. A wonderful book with a great big movie lying all over its pages.