Last Stand at Saber River
by Elmore Leonard
These days, Elmore Leonard is probably best known for creating the TV show Justified, or maybe as the creative mind behind Get Shorty. But before he got into television and film, Leonard was just another genre author. He made his name writing crime fiction, but he did a stint in his early career writing westerns. The confluence of the two genres would birth Justified, but before there was Raylan Givens, there were guys like Paul Cable, Kirby Frye, and Fank Tanner.
Last Stand at Saber River concerns Paul Cable, and you can immediately see that even in 1959 while penning horse operas, Leonard had a taste and a talent for the twisty plots of crime novels. Cable is a former Confederate soldier, discharged after two years of service due to injuries sustained in the line of duty (injuries that are only vaguely defined). Cable served with Nathan Bedford Forrest, which in 1959 no doubt was shorthand for “tough, capable dude no one should mess with” but in 2019 immediately makes Cable a complex and difficult protagonist to root for. While my forebrain concerned itself with the plot and Cable’s travails, my backbrain could not lose track of the fact that Cable was mostly likely a racist piece of garbage and deserved everything that happened to him.
While Cable was away playing war, his wife Martha and their three children stayed with her family in Sudan, Texas. And their Arizona ranch was occupied by the Kidston brothers, Duane and Vern, who are raising horses for the Union Army. Complicating things further is Edward Janroe, a one-armed man who has taken over the local general store, once owned by a friend of Cable’s. Janroe is part of a smuggling operation bringing British rifles from Mexico and getting them into the hands of the Confederate south. He lost his arm in battle but was shuffled out of active service for other reasons and ended up in Arizona. Janroe sees Cable as the solution to his current problems, while Cable just wants his land back, and the Kidstons, and their men, are set on being as difficult as possible. Meanwhile, Martha and the children are caught right in the middle of all this potential violence and maneuvering. It is primarily due to implicit and eventually explicit threats to the children that I found my way to sympathizing with Cable and his plight.
Not that Cable presents himself as being a terrible person. He’s thoughtful, careful, and cautious, all positive traits in a Western hero. He loves and trusts his wife, who is presented as an equal partner with the deciding vote on whether the family stays or leaves. He indulges and dotes on his children. The two Mexican-American characters, Luz and her brother Manuel, are his only real friends and allies for most of the book, and of course not a single African American appears to test whether Cable was really a Confederate on philosophical grounds related purely to states’ rights or a full-blown pro-slavery turd.
There’s a 1997 television movie of the book, starring Tom Selleck and the Carradine brothers. I have not seen it, but my quick investigation suggests there were a lot of changes. The fact that the war is still going on is an important part of the plot in the book, for example, while the movie takes place after the war is finished. The gunrunning general store owner and the horse farm supporting the Union side is presented as a microcosm of the war, while the villain of the piece emerges as the one person in the area unwilling or unable to let the war go, no matter how far from the conflict they all are. I have to imagine this was pretty heady stuff for 1959, but more or less taken as given nowadays.
The TV movie looks like it was shot pretty much like a TV movie, but whether it was Leonard’s prose or my own fevered imagination, I saw the book running through my head like a Spaghetti western. Dusty and dry and dirty, full of unshaven men in roughspun clothes sweat all the way through, with violence quick and brutal. Although there is one moment of “bullet-time” as well. I suppose that’s how Leonard’s work ended up adapted into film and television so easily – his prose is staged cinematically, with everything framed precisely on the page and in the reader’s mind.
Most of the Westerns I’ve read are by Louis L’amour, but I think I’ll have to add Elmore Leonard to the rotation. This was a quick, engaging read with a plot that twisted around several times before settling down and becoming straightforward. Plenty of action, nuanced characters, and a great feel for the setting and the time in which the story takes place.
One of my favorite past times is haunting used bookstores, looking for out-of-print and forgotten classics. My taste in literature tends to run toward fantasy, science-fiction, and horror, and I find modern novels too often weighed down by bloat and too much world-building. As a consequence, I tend to seek out older books that tend to focus more on ideas and action and move along more quickly. I always liked the “Box of Paperbacks” series at the A.V.Club, so I thought I’d take a stab at something in the same vein.