Watching through Hell On Wheels again got me in the mood for a western, and coincidentally enough, after watching the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma I saw several of Elmore Leonard’s westerns on Kindle selling for relatively small amounts of money. Leonard wrote westerns before moving into mystery-thrillers, mostly shorts like “Three-Ten to Yuma” for 1950s magazines. His earliest novels were westerns, and his first one was The Bounty Hunters. I own several of Leonard’s crime novels, and it’s hard not hearing something about him living in the Detroit metro area (the Metro Times did a cover article a few years back). Still, I find it ironic that the first novel of his I read is the first one he wrote.
Dave Flynn used to be in the Cavalry, but knowing the truth of his former commanding officer’s cowardice, Flynn grew sick of the suicide missions that vengeful officer sent him on. Now he only works for the army, as a contract guide and Indian tracker. That old C.O. now runs the fort Flynn contracts out of, has one more contract for Flynn: take a green lieutenant named Bowers south of the border to track down Soldado Viejo, a rogue Apache. However. Neither Flynn or Bowers will be there in an official capacity, meaning they’re acting on behalf of the United States inside a foreign country where they have no legal bearing. There’s also the corrupt rurales—Mexican gendarmes who are little more than deputized bandits—that constitute the law in the region, having all but occupied the small town of Soyopa that Flynn and Bowers are heading for.
Early in their travels, Flynn and Bowers run across a the burnt-out wagon train, littered with the corpses of scalped Mexican men, women, and children. These are members of an extended family who Flynn happens to be friends with; Flynn recognizes the raid was made to look like the work of the Apache, and realizes there’s one corpse missing: that of a beautiful girl he has a fancy for. And roaming the Mexican frontier is a gang of pretty bad bandits: they raid, rape, and scalp innocent Mexicans, then turn the scalps in to the rurales as “Apache” to claim a hefty bounty on dead Indians…
Leonard’s handling of the various factions is interesting, with Flynn and Bowers alone as the forces of good in a shades-of-gray world. Their cavalry commander is a coward, something proven multiple times. The Apache are distinctively the bad guys here, but are presented in a respectful way; Soldado’s chance encounter with Flynn and Bowers shows how smart and canny he is. The Mexican rurales are unlikable thugs lording over the peons of Soypa, heading towards internal conflict; their lieutenant is apathetic, only interested in power, while their sergeant is a washed-out “real” soldier who’s long since lost his tact for soldiering. By far, the worst are the American bandits under Curt Lazair; there’s something unnerving about their greedy willingness to kill Mexican civilians and sell their scalps as Apache.
Leonard’s prose is sparse, and tends to avoid prolonged description. (After all, two of his ten rules of writing are “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters” and “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”) I’m still not sure I know what any of the characters looked like, though I found his writing perfect for the Arizona desert—bleak and barren with occasional beauty. His now-legendary dialogue is superb. The Bounty Hunters consists on elements which have now become cliches—bad Mexicans, good Indians, tough-as-nails cowpokes, gunslingin’, scaplin’—but Leonard handles them in a way that’s not any more cliche than any other western.
I wish I could make comparisons between Leonard’s first book and some of his later ones, but (again) this is the first of his I’ve read. Parts of it are rough; others are aged with nostalgia for the ’50s and the heyday of the Western. Meanwhile, Leonard’s legendary realistic dialogue shines, and the prose is very cinematic—no wonder so many Leonard novels get filmed. The Bounty Hunters is chock full of action; there may not be any character development, but there is a solid plot with numerous players and some impressive action sequences. Everything builds to the finale, where the goals of the various factions intersect in a rapid-fire burst of gunfire and bloodshed.
A rough first work by Elmore Leonard that succeeds in all the right places, and a good example of why Leonard’s westerns are well regarded. Now, I only need to read his crime novels that I own…