The very best of Western fiction
Apart from the nine Western novels (if you include Cuba Libre, which I do) Elmore Leonard wrote 31 Western short stories between 1951 and 1994. Thirty of them were collected by Gregg Sutter (Leonard's research assistant, now running the Elmore Leonard website) in a single edition, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, in a Harper hardback edition in 2004. In the 2007 paperback edition, a lost story, The Treasure of Mungo’s Landing, was added.
The bulk of the short stories come from the early and mid-1950s. This is not surprising. Just as this period was the heyday of the Western movie, so it was of the Western short story. At the higher end of the scale The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers paid well for Western tales, and in the pulpier domains there were many magazines: Argosy, Ace-High, Dime Western, Masked Rider, Star Western, Wild West Weekly, and so on, almost ad infinitum. Once Leonard had decided he wanted to become a writer, he said that he “looked for a genre where I could learn how to write and be selling at the same time. I chose Westerns because I liked Western movies.” The pulps paid him two cents a word.
Leonard read a lot as background research. “I read On The Border With Crook, The Truth About Geronimo, The Look of the West and Western Words.” His first published Western tale, Trail of the Apache (original title Apache Agent), which appeared in Argosy in December 1951, was very typical of his early output. Most of his early stories were about Apaches, usually featuring a tough, experienced scout and a green but brave young US Army Lieutenant, chasing a fearsome Apache chief. It wasn’t until his fifth published story, Law of the Hunted Ones (Western Story Magazine, December 1952) that he changed the formula and told a tale about outlaws - and even then Apaches figure largely.
Another outlaw story which was made into a film was The Captives (Argosy, February 1955) which became the excellent Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott oater The Tall T (Columbia, 1956). This time the movie follows the original story very closely, only adding the occasional scene (and for the better). It’s another tense, exciting tale, rather chilling in its ferocity and typical of Leonard in its spare, terse telling.
All sorts of classic Western material followed: Under the Friar’s Edge (Dime Western Magazine, January 1953) was an enjoyable silver-mine story and The Rustlers (Zane Grey’s Western, February 1953) is a cattle-droving tale. The Big Hunt (Western Story Magazine, April 1953) is about buffalo hunting.
In many of the stories there is a girl to be wooed and won by the hero. Sometimes, as in Long Night (Zane Grey’s Western, May 1953) it all happens very suddenly and he gets the girl because of the action of the plot.
Only Good Ones (Western Writers of America Anthology, 1961) is a very interesting story because it will be instantly familiar to many Western fans. The story recounts the first part of what became the 1970 novel Valdez Is Coming and of course the great United Artists movie of the same year and same title, starring Burt Lancaster. What happens to Bob Valdez, though, is very different indeed in Only Good Ones.
Some stories, like The Boy Who Smiled (Gunsmoke, June 1953) or The Kid (Western Short Stories, December 1956) feature youths hardened by the harsh realities of the 1870s and 1880s south-west. In the latter, the boy concerned has been abducted by Apaches and struggles to re-integrate into white society and the same is true of the woman, Mrs. Isham, usually referred to as “the woman”, in a more modern story, The Tonto Woman (Western Writers of America Anthology, 1982) whose face has been tattooed by the Mojave Indians when she was among them.
The Tonto Woman features the sympathetic character Ruben Vega, the badman’s sidekick from a 1979 novel, Gunsights. In the same way, another character from that novel, the admirable, tough black cavalry vet Bo Catlett, comes back in the 1994 story (Leonard’s last Western short story) in “Hurrah for Captain Early!” (Western Writers of America Anthology).
All the stories are set in Arizona or New Mexico in the period between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century. There is an excellent and useful map of the territory at the start of the book. If you know that part of the world, as I do, you will feel that Leonard has got it absolutely right and his spare, undecorated prose admirably suits those arid, beautiful locations. Even in the early 1950s Leonard was writing in his signature economical way, without flowery description or purple prose, and often advancing the action through the dialogue. The stories on this volume still read well, and seem fresh and modern.
This book is a must-have (because you will be able to re-read the stories often) for Elmore Leonard fans and indeed for lovers of the Western genre as a whole.