We certainly don't take pleasure in spoiling a plot twist when discussing a novel—especially an exceptional genre novel like the ones Tucsonan Johnny D. Boggs tends to write—but we sense that letting everyone know they shouldn't take the familial relationships in Soldier's Farewell at face value won't hurt the enjoyment.
Very often, the blow that knocks you out is the one you only perceive hints of—hints like the one revealed on the book flap of Boggs's latest: "When Julian Munro finally returns to Soldier's Farewell, he is not in uniform." What kind of soldier doesn't wear a uniform when coming home?
In any case, Julian is a U.S. Army officer stationed at Fort Tejon, an outpost in New Mexico in 1860. War is on everyone's mind and tongue as Julian's father, Conner Munro, does his best to run the Overland Mail Company station, which also serves as a relay station for a stage line, in a place called Soldier's Farewell. Named by the Apaches and deemed a cursed locale by everyone else, Soldier's Farewell consists of nothing but rocks, dust and mules tended to by Conner and his teenage son Smith, along with some hands. Julian gives his brother a birthday gift, a leather-bound diary to record his thoughts and practice his grammar. Julian provides lessons whenever possible—but there's not much time for lessons due to the rough nature of living and working so far away from what can be called civilization.
At first, nowhere seems to suit Julian just fine, knowing that he'll be reassigned as a spy by the Army in the impending conflict between North and South. However, things get murkier upon the arrival of a dark stranger, Pinto. A Texan unafraid to speak openly about Southern secession, Pinto makes everyone wary, especially Julian. He warns Smith to stay away from the "killer," a designation that resonates in Smith's mind, making him defensive and causing him to stick up for someone he'd earlier described as "a raw-boned tall hombre." After a conversation about war sparks a near-duel in Soldier's Farewell between two stage passengers which escalates into a murder at the next stop, it seems clear, at least to the reader, that Pinto may have played a role in it.
Despite the "Dear Reader" technique of the diary entries, Boggs adroitly manages, via Smith's developing grammar and writing style, to convey a suspenseful narrative arc in the same way an old Hollywood Western like Shane reaches its ugly, inevitable conclusion. Though Smith is no Shane (an innocent trapped in a fallen world), he remains sympathetic—despite Smith setting himself up as the next Cain right from the get-go (the book's prologue) with a despicable and epic pledge of fratricide:
Four years of hatred, abomination for my own flesh and blood, four years of torment. Four years of watching this miserable stagecoach station in the middle of nowhere turn to dust, watching me mutate into fugitive and vagabond. Four years waiting for a war to end, waiting for my older brother to dare show his face—never once accepting the fact that he could very well have been slain by some enemy's bullet, by grapeshot, or fever, or maybe ... a broken heart.
"How will Smith reach this evil mentality?" readers will wonder. The answer lies in the expert way Boggs makes us look left while maneuvering right, giving us a complex interplay between characters, particularly in the tight yet strained love between Connor and his two sons. (Smith and Julian's mother passed away when they were babies.) The dialogue is nuanced and succinct enough for a screenplay. We won't reveal everything, but the conclusion is equal parts darkness and light, with bittersweet characters that include the U.S. Army, Confederate treasure stealers and Apache raiders.
As you can probably tell, Soldier's Farewell is a less-traditional story than Boggs' previous novel, Killstraight (about a Comanche detective hero), especially in its narrative approach. (The parts where Smith scribbles in his diary while watching action unfold may irk readers who cleave closely to utter "realism.") The best part about the book, though, is how Boggs eschews any moralizing on the righteousness of "maintaining the Union," opting instead to let characters on both sides of the conflict show weakness and strength.
Ultimately, Soldier's Farewell is a tale of two brothers falling far short of what their father expects of them, and what they expect of each other. This is another fine novel by one of today's better writers of Westerns.