has also reviewed:

The Night Remembers

Sunrise Song

 
The Last True Cowboy
by Kathleen Eagle
(Avon, $20.00, PG) ISBN 0-380-97522-X
****
Kathleen Eagle has been one of my favorite authors since I read her book Private Treaty, one of the very first Harlequin Historicals, ten years ago. I immediately realized that this woman wrote Indian romances as if she had invented the genre. There was no cheesy dialogue, noble savage hero or timid heroine who secretly dreamed of ravishment. Instead I found a classy, lyrical, thoughtful and above all authentic romance with realistic, three-dimensional Indian and white characters. I've been a big fan ever since.

I put all of that out front there because I hate to admit that The Last True Cowboy was not one of my favorite Kathleen Eagle books. The strong writing and delicately portrayed characters are still there, but the plot didn't interest me as much as those in her other novels. But I have a strong feeling that many Kathleen Eagle fans will be more than satisfied.

Julia Weslin has come home to High Horse, the Wyoming ranch where she spent her early childhood, to bury her brother Ross, the only Weslin offspring who took to ranching and kept alive the family tradition. Now Ross is gone and Julia, a social worker whose best talent seems to be going to school, must decide whether to keep the ranch or sell it. Her grandmother, Sally, believes that somehow the ranch can continue to thrive, but Julia's baby sister Dawn is eager to sell it to the owner of the neighboring ranch for a cool four million dollars. How can three women and a couple of old ranch hands maintain High Horse?

The answer to this question may be in the person of K.C. Houston, a charming drifter who has a magical touch with horses. Before his death, Ross asked K.C. to come to the High Horse and check out a herd of wild mustangs who roam the nearby Painted Mountain. Ross' dream was to tame and sell some of the horses. But now that Ross is dead, the Weslin women need a ranch foreman, not a horse specialist.

Thanks to Sally's machinations, K.C. has no choice but to sign on to help the High Horse for a while. But Julia is not so sure this is a positive move. She's already met K.C. at a bar on his first night in town, and in her drunken grief over Ross' death she engaged in a little mutual flirting and kissing. She's embarrassed to see him again, and she's sure that he would prefer her cute-as-a button sister Dawn. Besides, she can tell right off the bat that K.C. is not the type to stick around long. But she can't help being charmed by him.

K.C. has been on his own since he was 12 years old, and his past is just a tad on the shady side. But he has a good heart and he loves women. He has known there was something special about Julia since the first moment he saw her, but he also knows that the best he can offer her is a few months of comfort and pleasure. He's never had a home of his own, and he always moves on in the end.

Julia and K.C. make an unusual pair the thinker and the doer, the straight-laced scholar and the slightly wild cowboy - but eventually they both find a place for themselves at the High Horse. Along the way, Julia uses her skills to establish a work program for juvenile offenders and K.C. uses his horse sense to make an astonishing discovery about the wild mustangs that Ross so admired.

The Last True Cowboy seems to be modeled after the Zane Grey westerns that K.C. loves so much. It reads like an ode to the beauty of horses and ranching life. Unlike most of Eagle's novels, it contains only a token mention of any Indian characters or influence, and frankly I missed that. Perhaps the author wanted a break from the many fascinating Indian characters and plot lines she has created over the year, but I was disappointed by the omission.

You'll find less social commentary in The Last True Cowboy than in previous Eagle books; it is more of an intimate character study. As usual Eagle is a master at creating realistic, slightly flawed characters who are doing their best with the situation life has thrown at them. Watching Julia, K.C. and even the selfish Dawn grow, overcome difficult pasts and find strengths they hadn't appreciated before is a quietly rewarding experience. The lyrical writing style invites the reader to slow down and savor the words and phrasings.

Personally, I preferred the gritty urban setting of Kathleen Eagle's previous novel, The Night Remembers, but I enjoyed The Last True Cowboy on its own merits.

--Susan Scribner


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