Good triumphs over evil in wild west tales

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 January, 1999, 12:00am

Time has slipped back to the days of stagecoaches, dusty saloons and ranches a day's ride from the nearest town. Apaches roam the prairies and valleys of mid-west America while white settlers, some well-intentioned and some otherwise, encroach on the frontiers of unexplored land.

Shotguns, gold mines, cattle ranches and sleepy townships are peopled by men and women of all ages, young and keen, old and toughened or just worn down by the dust, heat and desperation of their lives.

Into this bleak but compelling landscape, Elmore Leonard drops his 19 tales.

The Tonto Woman, whose nickname gives the volume its title, was once the wife of a wealthy cattle baron. When rugged Ruben Vega (who has stolen about 20,000 head of cattle but never killed unless it was to save his life) happens across her, she is a lone figure bathing at the water pump outside her small log home.

Her face, as Vega soon discovers, is tattooed with the blue stripes of the Mojave.

Yavapai Indians had killed the woman's parents and brothers, later trading her as a slave to the Mojave. She had been among the desert Indians for 12 years, and they had tattooed her face so that when she died the spirits would recognise her as a Mojave.

'But there's something different,' observes Vega. 'Mojaves tattoo their chins only, I believe.' 'And look like they were eating berries,' the woman replies. 'I told them if they were going to do it, do it all the way. Not like a blue dribble.' Her defiant spirit still smoulders, despite being cast out by her cattle baron husband, when she finally manages to return home, and forced to live in isolation in her log cabin.

The wild west and tales of the American frontier are unusual fodder for today's big-sellers, but The Tonto Woman carries off the genre beautifully, even for non-western fans.

Leonard's characters are as three-dimensional as ever, embodied with all the strengths, weaknesses, foibles, fears and virtues bestowed by human nature. The best and worst of human kind stride forth in these plots.

The 19 stories vary in length and depth, but each is painted with the detail and thoroughness which brings them to life.

In Apache Medicine, the bravado of a cocky young killer and would-be rapist leads him to his death at the hands of a warrior chief. In The Colonel's Lady, a young woman affronted at the intentions of her Apache kidnapper manages what 1,000 troopers and 100 scouts have been unable to do. And in The Boy Who Smiled, a half-Indian boy avenges his father's lynching by leading the killers - blinded by their own arrogance - into the jaws of death.

In these pages at least, the good don't die young. Those with right on their side, an upstanding nature and courage will pull through. Leonard is less forgiving of the black-hearted, pitting them against stampeding buffaloes, vengeful Indians, knives, guns and other bloody forms of retribution.

It may be easy to pick the characters who triumph by the end of Leonard's western stories, but it's the journey there that really counts.

The Tonto Woman And Other Western Stories by Elmore Leonard Delacorte Press, $240 Ruth Mathewson