Readers of Maggie Osborne’s novels can always anticipate something a little out of the ordinary, so I was excited when I began Prairie Moon, her latest historical western. I found out that despite the author’s skilled writing and an unusual, albeit meager cast of characters, the story line was not exactly uncharted territory. The result was an interesting contrast of familiar and unique.
Della Ward has a lonely, hard-scrabble life in Two Creeks, Texas. Widowed by the Civil War some ten years before, Della has been on her own for too long. She was a transplanted Yankee when she married into a Southern plantation family at seventeen, and the war also cost Della her home and way of life, as well the acceptance of her Southern in-laws. They gave her the deed to a Texas ranch house and sent her packing, without her baby daughter, Claire. Della is haunted by regret for having given in to them, and for writing angry words to her husband in a letter that she fears he read shortly before dying. She lives in a kind of suspended, depressed state, waiting to be somehow delivered from the guilt that plagues her.
When Della sees the handsome, steely-eyed stranger riding up to her place one dusty evening, she senses he will tell her something about the death of her husband, Clarence. Because she yearns for the information he will bring, she welcomes James Cameron readily. He confirms that he was with Clarence when he died, and Della assumes he was a great friend of her husband. Curiously, she fails to notice that he is not a Southerner.
Cameron has a confession to share with Della, though it has taken him years to get to her door. While fighting for the Union, he shot and killed Clarence Ward. A search of the body revealed a wedding photo and two letters, including the hurtful one written by the pregnant Della to Clarence. Clarence had been writing his reply to her when Cameron happened upon him. Overcome by remorse, Cameron took the letters and photo and walked away from the war.
Now a notorious lawman and bounty hunter, Cameron has been immortalized in the pages of a Western dime novel. He is the target of trigger-happy yokels wherever he goes, and dispatches his challengers without much compunction. Accustomed to a solitary existence, he is taken aback when he meets Della. He has spent years staring at her picture - planning how he would share the facts about Clarence’s death, including his hand in it. He cannot bring himself to tell her his story now that he is with her. She seems to need him, so he decides to help her in every way possible before revealing his secret.
They set out on horseback some 300 miles to Atlanta where Della hopes to find Claire, who would now be nine years old. Most of the story revolves around this journey, and it gives Della and Cameron an opportunity to get acquainted. Despite (or maybe because of) their tendency toward isolation from others, they feel compelled to talk, and talk they do. Della seems to be making up for lost time and he is a willing audience, yet they still manage to skirt the reality of Cameron’s story. There is much time spent burning with desire but holding back from each other, which was effective initially but later became frustrating.
There is something of a tortured soul in each of them and they are far from perfect. Della is not the everyday character found in standard romances. This fact becomes most clear toward the end of the book, though clues about her exist through out the story. She is fond of sipping whiskey and of cursing, too. Cameron loves her even after knowing everything about her, and she returns the favor. They are characters I probably won’t forget.
The tone of Prairie Moon is somber, and the ending seems a bit precipitous, as if it had to be rushed to conclusion. This was especially noticeable after that slower patch in the middle of the book where the traveling and the talking and the longing take place. The plot revisits the ‘guilty hero seeks out wronged-woman-with-child’ scenario. Having said this, I can still appreciate the author’s expertise with a phrase. While not my favorite historical western, and perhaps not Maggie Osborne’s best work, the writing is solid, with a nice twist at the end of the story for patient readers.