The Horse Soldier
by Merline Lovelace
(Mira, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-784-3
****
The Horse Soldier is the best western romance I have read in quite a while. Lovelace’s excellent evocation of life on a frontier cavalry post adds greatly to this love story of a cavalry major and the girl he left behind him, way behind him!

Major Andrew Garrett is second in command at Ft. Laramie. The Civil War has been over for two years and the army is now mostly involved in trying to protect the settlers flooding west. One day, as he goes to warn a wagon train that in planning to travel on to Montana, they are taking a big chance, he encounters Julia Bonneaux. Julia takes a hard look at the rugged soldier and faints dead away. When she comes to, the wagon train has moved on. The wagon master’s wife made sure of that.

The reason for Julia’s faint soon becomes clear. Six years earlier, as the war was just beginning, Julia met Andrew at a ball in New Orleans. The sixteen year old belle fell madly in love with the dashing stranger and married him secretly. Then, she discovered that he was really a Yankee spy, trying to ferret out information about her family’s shipping business. When Andrew sent her a note, telling her that he was coming to get her, she told her uncle. Her uncle shot Andrew and left him for dead.

Julia, sent to Natchez in disgrace, met a handsome Confederate naval officer; her marriage annulled and believing her husband dead, she married him. But Philip Bonneaux is a gambler who has headed off to Montana to make his fortune. Julia has used her last penny to pay to take her and her young daughter to find him. Instead, she finds her first husband.

Julia and Andrew have lots of baggage from the past. In a sense, each betrayed the other. Now Julia finds herself dependent on her ex-husband’s protection, a situation she finds most unacceptable. The fact that she still finds him devastatingly attractive, despite the harsh effects of war, does not make the situation any easier. The fact that Andrew has never forgotten “the girl he left behind” adds even more complexity. Then comes information that Philip is dead.

Lovelace describes the tension between the two with great skill. Their situation is made more complicated because they must work out their relationship under the scrutiny of the small military community at Ft. Laramie. To most, she is “Mrs. Major Garrett;” they don’t understand the concept of annulment. When Julia refuses to accept that role, preferring to take a job as a laundress to support herself and her daughter, neither the officer strata nor the enlisted strata of the post know what to make of it.

Julia and Andrew are both interesting characters; each has changed markedly in the past six years. Andrew has had to endure war and imprisonment in the horrible Andersonville. But Julia has changed more. She has had to learn how to take care of herself and she finds that she gets a great deal of satisfaction in doing so.

Lovelace paints the military world of Ft. Laramie with a sure hand. I don’t think any author writing romance today understands the military better or portrays it more surely. She also provides an interesting subplot as Andrew has to deal with an incompetent commander who would like nothing more than to provoke an all out conflict with the local Native Americans.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Perhaps the only thing that keeps me from giving it keeper status is a certain discontent with the plot devices at the end. It all seemed a bit too pat. Still, this is a very good western romance.

--Jean Mason


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