Sunday, February 24, 2013

The dean of western short story writers

Cheryl told me to blog about a short story. To me, when someone says “Western short story,” one man’s name comes to mind.

* * *

He came to ride for her pa’s ranch, a tall slim man, quiet yet strong, and he always meant what he said. That was new to Ellis, and it wasn’t long before she fell in love with the cowboy and wanted to marry him.

She knew her father, maybe better than he knew himself. The cowboy wanted to ask for her hand, but she said her father would never allow them to marry. But they did. And they settled down on a little spread he’d bought with money he’d saved up from when he rode as a scout for the Army. Just an adobe hut with a simple ramada. Just thirty yearlings to start with. Just somewhere hard work and patience could build a place for a family to live in peace. Just a place.

Then the old man rode in with a rifle across the saddlebows and five men at his back. He’d not married until forty and the girl was his only child. Not a girl to marry a ne’er-do-well cowboy who was more like a redskin than a white man. Not that. She’d marry a man capable of building further on what her father had already built. She would. She surely would.

“Where is he?”

“He’s at the stock tank,” she said, “but he’ll come in now.”

“Whether he does or not,” the old man said, “you’re coming home with me.”

“I’m married now, Pa.”

“Don’t talk foolish.”

“Married in Willson. By a priest.”

“We’ll talk about that at home.”

“I am home!”

“Girl, this isn’t going to be a public debate.”

“Then why did you bring an audience?”

The man’s name that came to mind when Cheryl said “Short story?”

Elmore Leonard, of course. You know him for 3:10 to Yuma. Valdez is Coming was also a short story to begin with. Originally, this story was entitled The Waiting Man, but in the collection of Elmore Leonard’s short stories, the title is Moment of Vengeance.

How many stories have you read where the protagonist goes in with both fists slamming into those who oppose him, or where he jerks out a Colt SSA .45 and blasts baddies to oblivion, or where he leads them out into the desert where they die a terrible death of thirst? So many. So many.

But this one is different. As the title says, there’s a moment of revenge. It comes because the man Ellis chose to be her mate was patient. He held no disrespect for her father. He was rough with a couple of riders while he was being patient, but never on camera.

Then the old man came after him with shotgun across his lap. They talked. Then talked some more. Her man was patient.

“I’m anxious to see my wife,” the man said.

The old man’s face came up, out of the shadow, deep-lined and solemn, but the hard tightness was gone from his jaw. He shifted his weight and came down off the saddle, and on the ground, he handed the shotgun to her husband. “This damn thing’s getting too heavy to hold,” he said.

You’ll have to go find the story if you want to know what finally happened. But it wouldn’t matter what Elmore Leonard short story you picked up to read. He's the dean, and it’d be a good one.


  1. And THE COMPLETE WESTERN SHORT STORIES OF ELMORE LEONARD is still readily available, too. It's a fantastic volume and I recommend it highly.

  2. I really liked 3:10 to Yuma as well as a host of others but my all time favorite is Wine On The Desert by Max Brand.

  3. I agree ith James- I can't recommend that book highly enough.

  4. Hi Charlie,

    Sorry I'm so late getting over here today--I've been out of pocket all day long. I have a book called "Triggernometry" with western short stories in it, and it's got some excellent ones in there.

    I loved 3:10 to Yuma, too, Jerry.

    This sounds like a good one, Charlie, and as you say, it doesn't matter which one of Elmore Leonard's stories you choose, it'll be a good one!

  5. Indeed. I was watching Inside Actors Studio on youtube last night with John Travolta as guest. Talk eventually got around to Get Shorty, and Travolta paid homage to Elmore Leonard. "You don't get better dialogue than what Leonard writes," Travolta said. "I had to get some of what the scriptwriter had changed returned to the original. You just can't beat Leonard." Or words to that effect.

  6. The Leonard book of short stories is full of great stories. I also liked the L'Amour 'Gift of Cochise'. In truth there are so many great stories, it is a gift to read any and all of them.

  7. i love good western stories, i really love the excerpt above. i want links to purchase these books, please Chyrel ! :)

  8. Hey Burl! Here's a link for you for Amazon, but if it doesn't work for you just go to Amazon and type in "Moment of Vengeance" by Elmore Leonard and it'll come up. I'm so glad to see you here! It's good to have you among us!

  9. My favorite L'Amour short story, if I can remember the title correctly, was "The Keylock Man." I think he later turned it into a novel under a different title. Also, Rod Miller's Death of Delgado is a mighty good short story, too.

  10. I haven't read Elmore Leonard until I read this excerpt. Now I want more.

    Thank you for this introduction.

  11. I've liked dozens of them, including those listed here, but my current favorite is one by our own Dale Jackson. THE LAST OF THE COWBOYS is just crisp.

  12. Nice overview, Charlie. It's been years since I read an Elmore Leonard story. Like so many, the first one I read was 3:10 to Yuma. Great writer. Truly.

  13. Asked the same question, I would have picked an Elmore Leonard story, too. Besides the economy of storytelling, there is his patented dialogue, which is what makes "3:10 to Yuma" remarkable--two men in a hotel room talking. And Leonard's dialogue is smartly imitated by the writers for the series, JUSTIFIED.