By Tom Gliatto
Updated October 13, 1997 12:00 PM

FOLKS IN ALPINE, A WEST TEXAS town of 6,200, were of two minds when they got wind of the fact that their most famous neighbor, 58-year-old novelist Robert James Waller, had pretty, blonde Linda Bow, 34, working as landscaper and handyman on the 1,200-acre Firelight Ranch he shared with wife Georgia and daughter Rachel. One local recalls, “The men were saying, ‘He’s riding around the ranch all day with his gardener? Yeah, right.’ ” Others saw no cause for interest in the private life of the author of The Bridges of Madison County, the colossally popular 1992 weepie about middle-aged extramarital lust. When Waller and Georgia came into town, “they seemed a solid couple,” says Jean Hardy, owner of Front Street Books.

Chalk one up for the cynics. This past spring, Waller and Bow confessed their love for each other to Georgia, 56, who first captured Waller’s heart at a dance in Iowa City, Iowa, and became his bride in 1961. News of the Wallers’ divorce, finalized in August and revealed only last week in Texas Monthly, brought a flood of reporters to town to sniff out details of their intriguing new living arrangements. Georgia is staying on alone at the Firelight, while Waller and Bow have moved onto an adjoining spread, the 7,300-acre Del Norte Ranch. Rachel, 29, a student at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, resides with two roommates in a third home nearby, the 360-acre Firelight South. Rachel, who sides with her mother and no longer communicates with her father, has rechristened her digs Cekiya—a Lakota word meaning “cry for my people.”

The parallels between Waller’s life and his art—his Bridges heroine, farmwife Francesca, sacrifices her chance for happiness with a globe-hopping photographer in order to stay home and shield her loved ones from small-town scandal—haven’t been lost on the locals. Townspeople have dubbed the contretemps “Burning your bridges in Brewster County,” says one Alpine resident. As Rachel told a friend, “The irony impales me.”

And may escape Waller, a onetime University of Northern Iowa business-school dean, who dashed off the shamelessly sentimental Bridges in two weeks in 1991. Alpine, on terrain dotted with mesquite and cacti, was just the sort of high mountain desert oasis the suddenly rich romantic craved after Bridges’ success. In 1994 he and Georgia transformed a ramshackle ranch at the foot of Bird Mountain into a luxe compound featuring faux-weathered adobe walls and, roaming about, a small, essentially ornamental herd of longhorns. Waller, partial to boots and a black felt cowboy hat, takes his ranch mystique “really seriously,” says Hardy.

So when Bow, a former gardening-department employee at True Value in Alpine, came to work at the Firelight in 1995, she may have fit perfectly into his Big Valley fantasy. “She has natural sun-bleached blonde hair,” says a local. “Wears little or no makeup. So tan, she’s brown as a berry. Always wears jeans.” And, like Waller, the Austin-raised Bow was something of an outsider in town, where she married a rancher and furniture maker, Robert Bow, 44, in 1986. (Camera-shy, she refused to have a photographer even at her wedding.) She stayed on in Alpine after their 1988 divorce to help raise their son Gregory, now 10, who lives with his father. “There are not many available women like her in Alpine,” says her ex-brother-in-law Steve Kimball, an ad executive in Houston. “Beautiful, outdoorsy, artistic, unafraid of work.”

Or, it seems, play. Waller may have been ripe for an affair: This summer, in a conversation with a friend, he alluded to problems with Georgia, calling Linda the catalyst, not the cause, of the breakup. Robert Bow believes that Waller “saw Linda and it happened.” His ex-wife, he told PEOPLE, “comes from the heart.” Perhaps coincidentally, the female protagonist in Waller’s 1995 novel Border Music, about an emotionally scarred West Texas rancher redeemed by her love, was named Linda Lobo (although friends say the character’s speech and looks are like Georgia’s). “I thought it was astonishing,” says bookstore-owner Hardy of the autobiographical touch.

Georgia and Rachel apparently were less attentive readers. Both became such good friends with Bow that they proposed moving her into a mobile home by the main house. Waller insisted it be parked a few miles off, says an Alpine friend. “We should’ve known something was up,” says the friend.

Then, last spring, the Wallers took off for a six-week trip to India and Bali. They invited Bow—because, says a pal of Georgia’s, “she had never been anyplace pretty.” One evening in India, says the friend, Georgia confronted the pair, who “sprang the news at dinner. Robert declares he’s in love with Linda, Linda’s in love with him. Georgia was stunned and furious. When she could finally speak, she said, ‘I’m going home.’ Robert asked, ‘You’re not going on to Bali with us?’ She said, ‘No. You two go and have a fantastic [expletive] time.’ ”

Reeling, Georgia flew back to Alpine and filed for divorce. She considered relocating to Santa Fe but realized that the Firelight was home. And so, even though Waller sued for ownership, “she decided to fight for it,” says an acquaintance. When the divorce was declared final on Aug. 15,11 days shy of their 36th anniversary, Georgia, who got possession of the ranch, invited 45 guests to celebrate. It is a pyrrhic victory, says a friend: “Now the house has ghosts.”

Townspeople, it seems, are trying to help. “Everyone feels sorry for Georgia,” says one Alpine resident. When she turned up at the local Railroad Blues bar on a recent Friday, patrons streamed by to hug her. The split, says one angry partisan, “has practically killed Georgia. That little thing doesn’t weigh 98 pounds, and she used to weigh about 110.”

Georgia steers clear of the Gage hotel and its restaurant, the Cafe Cenizo, in Marathon, 30 miles east of Alpine. The Wallers’ former haunt (where Robert, who cut a 1993 album, The Ballads of Madison County, loved to sing and play guitar, despite decidedly mixed reviews from his audience) is now a hangout for her ex-husband and his lover. The couple like to dine on an outdoor patio under the stars. “They have an aura between them,” says a worker at the Gage.

Robert Bow thinks the relationship will go no further. “Linda told me years ago she’d never marry anybody else after me,” he says. Others wonder if a Texas cowgirl and a would-be cowboy have what it takes to last as a couple. Linda “is a horsey, rock-climbing person,” says a friend of the Wallers. “Robert doesn’t know the first thing about either one.”

But who knows? Maybe Francesca got it wrong. With time, the scandal may fade, tempers may subside, and Alpine may prove big enough to accommodate everyone—Waller, Linda, Georgia and Rachel. That’s Hardy’s opinion. “If Robert and Georgia stay,” she says, “the town will accept them.”