VALDEZ IS COMING
ELMORE LEONARDA man can be in different places, different times, and be different men. Everyone likes slow moving Western constable Bob Valdez, who is allowed to patrol the Mexican part of town. He is a quiet man, a decent man who cares for the people he serves. However, when cattle baron turned gunrunner Frank Tanner and his hardcase thugs cause Valdez to kill a black man falsely accused of murder, another man, from another place and time, begins to stir. Seeking a lousy $100 to compensate the dead man's pregnant Apache wife, Valdez becomes a target of Tanners disdain.
When Valdez confronts Tanner again to gently insist on recompense, he is beaten, lashed painfully to a wooden cross, and left to stumble awkwardly, pitifully, through the desert to die. It is then the lethal Apache hunter known as Roberto Valdez, the man from another place and another time, rises from the agony of crucifixion. Tanner and his killers treated Valdez with contempt, because they didnt know about his old cavalry uniform, his Sharps rifle or his Buffalo gun. Roberto Valdez doesn't care about the odds, doesnt fear dying and has a simple message for his tormentors—Valdez is coming.
Elmore Dutch Leonard wrote forty-five novels during a career spanning six decades. A superb stylist, Leonard was skilled in translating the themes, attitudes and structure from his early Westerns to his later critically lauded crime novels. As in Valdez Is Coming and Last Stand at Saber River, his heroes often appear weak and insubstantial. When pushed too far, however, their veneer of civility is ripped aside to reveal cunning killers with an unrelenting appetite for violence. Leonard's most popular character in this vein is Ryland Givens, who segued from his original appearance in Fire in the Hole to the highly rated FX cable show Justified. Dubbed the great American writer, Leonard also wrote Hombre, which is considered one of the top 25 Westerns ever written.
While the twist of the hunted becoming the hunter was not new, Valdez Is Coming plays out the cliché until its almost anticlimactic, but still satisfying, conclusion. Much like Hemingway's novels, the simple themes forming the substance of Valdez Is Coming, and many of Leonard's other works, mask a deeper treatise on honor and manhood, right and wrong, and standing against the tide. This deeper level is what makes Valdez Is Coming so satisfying. The story is more about human empathy than the standard Western ritual of blood calling for blood. Bob Valdez is the everyman. He finds pleasure in simple things, having turned his back on a violent past, "before I knew better," as he puts it. But the past is always with us, beneath the surface, waiting to damn us or save us.
Leonard summed up his Ten Rules of Writing saying, "My most important rule is if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. I try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip." Acknowledging the influence of Ernest Hemingway on his writing style, Leonard was amused by being referred to as the poet laureate of wild assholes with revolvers.
Burt Lancaster originally planned to play Frank Tanner in the 1971 film version of Valdez Is Coming. Eventually, however, he wisely chose to embody the weary Valdez, the man driven to make one last stand. Lancaster is a joy to watch, every sunburnt crease in his face, every stoop-shouldered shuffle leading to his subtle transformation from sheep to talon-sharp bird of prey. As Valdez say, "You get one time, mister, to prove who you are."
CONTRIBUTOR ~ PAUL BISHOP