Thursday, May 13, 2010
From the shelves of the Paco library
Not long ago, I wrote a piece celebrating Elmore Leonard’s Old West short stories. Today, I’d like to highlight a couple of his western novels.
The Bounty Hunters was Leonard’s first published novel, and it established him as a writer of gritty, realistic westerns, the protagonists of which are generally hardened men who have survived by keeping their eyes open and very quickly learning from experience. This novel deals with two men –a scout named Dave Flynn and young lieutenant Bowers - who have been ordered to cross the border into Mexico to hunt down a renegade Apache called Soldado Viejo. Not only do the two men have to worry about the Apaches; they are also up against a gang of scalp hunters (who are not particular in distinguishing between Apaches and Mexicans), and the newly established rurales, a rural police force consisting largely of former bandits, and commanded by a corrupt Mexican officer who has a deal with the scalp hunters to split the bounties on the latter’s grisly trophies. And as if all that didn’t constitute a more than sufficient handful of danger, the mission on which Flynn and Bowers have embarked has been ordered by Bowers’ commanding officer, who has a dark secret of his own which he hopes will evade detection if Flynn is killed in Mexico. In addition to the hot action you would expect in a book like this, there is also the interesting story line of the lieutenant’s education in the ways of western warfare – a course of study that, of necessity, must proceed rapidly, if he expects to stay alive.
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Some 26 years later, in 1979, Leonard published Gunsights, and, once again, we are taken back to the arid southwest, where tracker and scout Dana Moon, and Lieutenant Brendan Early, have crossed into Mexico to fetch an old Apache chief back to the reservation in the U.S. Their way is barred, however, by a stone-cold killer named Sundeen; he and his band are engaged in the lucrative business of scalp hunting. Moon and Early manage to shoot their way out of trouble, leaving most of Sundeen’s men dead, and Sundeen himself apparently mortally wounded. Leonard then jumps us ahead over the next seven years, which are marked by numerous attempts on the lives of Moon and Early by the friends and relatives of Sundeen’s dead gang.
In 1893, Moon has become the Indian agent for the Apache substation in White Tank, and Early, who has retired from the army, has become a successful prospector, selling out to a large mining company in return for a substantial cash offer and a purely nominal position with the company. The two old friends now find themselves on opposite sides of what the newspaper men are calling the Rincon Mountain War, an increasingly violent struggle between the mining company and the Apaches, Mexicans and a group of retired African-American cavalrymen who have established homesteads in the area under Moon’s supervision. The mining company hires gunmen, among whom is none other than Sundeen, who has proved a very hard man to kill.
One of the most fascinating sub-themes in the novel is the role of the press in whipping up rumors and attempting to create a false narrative in which Moon and Early are now being held up as deadly enemies, which turns out to be very far from the truth. The struggle is ultimately resolved after a short, sharp action between Sundeen’s men on the one side, and Moon’s on the other (Early throwing in with Moon). The concluding scenes serve as a kind of final curtain on the old west, as the violent action is temporarily halted when a small army of reporters and cameramen make their way into the fray, accompanied by a Buffalo-Bill-type character who wants to offer Moon and Early a job in his wild west show – assuming, of course, that they survive the battle (Sundeen’s frustration at the interruption is comically underscored, as his angry voice is heard echoing from the rocks: “What in the hell’s going on! Jesus Christ, can you believe this?”)
Both of these books are fine specimens of the Old West genre, enlivened by Leonard’s unique style and his deep insights into human nature.