From the early 1970s until 1992’s Unforgiven, Westerns had become outmoded, pitiful television productions and lame B-films that had run the genre into the dust heap, and unless Clint Eastwood was starring in the saddle, no Western was getting noticed. I was still unabashedly hooked, even with the worst of the lot, and championed the unsung. But during that long, long drought, there was one author’s name that routinely surged, as when an apologist (my definition: owlhoots who loved the genre but were afraid to acknowledge it) would say something along the lines of, “I only read Elmore Leonard Westerns.” Since I hadn’t read Leonard at that point, whenever I would hear such words, I’d hold my worn paperbacks by Max Brand or Luke Short closer to the vest, wagering, “I see your Elmore Leonard and I raise you one Elmer Kelton.”
Then, along the rails, I began devouring Leonard. After Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, and Valdez Is Coming, I had to take a step back and admit that Leonard was cut from different rawhide. Like Louis L’Amour before him, he was a gifted, natural-born storyteller. Unlike L’Amour, he kept a tighter rein on his characters—L’Amour reminds me of Hemingway in that his genius shows in the short story and not the full-length books he became celebrated for and in which he tends to ramble. Back then, my reading “The Dickens of Detroit” was like discovering the genre for the first time. Leonard was that damn good! Fellow writer Martin Amis told him, “Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.” True enough.
I also read Leonard’s gritty crime novels with pleasure, but secretly hoped he would return to the Western. He didn’t before passing away in 2013, though he came closest with modern-day Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who shoots first and asks questions later… or not at all. It was while watching a recent season of Justified, featuring Timothy Olyphant as Raylan, that I decided to head back to the beginning of Leonard’s robust career and enjoy his debut Western, The Bounty Hunters.
This 1953 novel begins with two men searching for Apache renegade Soldado Viejo in Mexico. One is Dave Flynn, who knows the lay of the land and how to hunt human prey. Flynn’s a Civil War veteran who quit the military, disillusioned by an act of cowardice he observed from a commanding officer named Deneen. He now works (and is making more money) as a guide and Indian tracker. His latest assignment is offered to him by Deneen, and Flynn suspects it may be a way for his former commanding officer to kill him off, removing the one link to the man’s cowardice. Still, Flynn accepts the assignment. The other man in search of Soldado is Bowers, a by-the-book, green lieutenant, who is just learning his job and the harsh realities and responsibilities that go along with it. His sobering orders state, “… if detained by Mexican authorities, because of the nature of the assignment, [Bowers] will not be recognized by the United States as a lawful agent.”
Early on, Flynn and Bowers come across a burnt-out wagon train littered with dead Mexicans and the remains of a family Flynn was friendly with. He’s unsettled by the carnage:
Two men and a young boy. Worn, white cotton twisted unnaturally. He could see the rope soles of their sandals. They lay facedown with the backs of their heads showing the blood-matted, scorched smear where they had been shot from a distance of no more than a yard.
The scalps of the dead have been removed, and the bounty hunters determine it’s the work of a gang that sells the “trophies” in Mexico as Apache to make a sizable profit. Flynn also notices that a young girl he’d fancied is also missing from among the scattered bodies and he’s more determined than ever to rescue her.
Many Elmore Leonard attributes that became respected over the years are present in The Bounty Hunters, starting with a likable protagonist in Flynn and the sharpest dialogue this side of Rum Punch. What needs to be disregarded is an overuse of adverbs and that characters occasionally get lost in the action. But, please forgive me, I’m a pigeon pecking at a legend’s statue. As The New York Times said, “A first novel and a good one.” Absolutely.
Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.