The Tonto Woman and Other Western Storiesby Elmore Leonard
This raw, hard-bitten collection gathers together the best of Leonard's Western fiction. In stories
From a forbidden glance on a Miami night to a killer's slow burn on a Detroit street, no one mixes passion, scheming, and violence better than Elmore Leonard. But before he did it in Miami Beach or Motor City, Elmore Leonard did it on the American frontier.
This raw, hard-bitten collection gathers together the best of Leonard's Western fiction. In stories that burn with passion, treachery, and heroism, the American frontier comes vividly, magnificently to life. In "Only Good Ones," we meet a fine man turned killer in one impossible moment . . . "Saint with a Six-Gun" pits a doomed prisoner against his young guardin a drama of deception and compassion that leads to a shocking act of courage . . . and in "The Colonel's Lady," a brutal ambush puts a woman into the hands of a vicious renegadewhile a tracker attempts a rescue that cannot come in time.
Etching a harsh, haunting landscape with razor-sharp prose, Elmore Leonard shows in nineteen brilliant stories why he has become the American poet laureate of the desperate and the bold.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.39(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.20(d)
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The Tonto Woman
A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the church in Benson, kneel in the confessional, and say to the priest, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-seven years since my last confession. . . . Since then I have fornicated with many women, maybe eight hundred. No, not that many, considering my work. Maybe six hundred only." And the priest would say, "Do you mean bad women or good women?" And Ruben Vega would say, "They are all good, Father." He would tell the priest he had stolen, in that time, about twenty thousand head of cattle but only maybe fifteen horses. The priest would ask him if he had committed murder. Ruben Vega would say no. "All that stealing you've done," the priest would say, "you've never killed anyone?" And Ruben Vega would say, "Yes, of course, but it was not to commit murder. You understand the distinction? Not to kill someone to take a life, but only to save my own."
Even in this time to come, concerned with dying in a state of sin, he would be confident. Ruben Vega knew himself, when he was right, when he was wrong.
* * *
Now, in a time before, with no thought of dying, but with the same confidence and caution that kept him alive, he watched a woman bathe. Watched from a mesquite thicket on the high bank of a wash.
She bathed at the pump that stood in the yard of the adobe, the woman pumping and then stooping to scoop the water from the basin of the irrigation ditch that led off to a vegetable patch of corn and beans. Her dark hair was pinned up in a swirl, piled on top of her head. She was bare to her gray skirt, her upper bodypale white, glistening wet in the late afternoon sunlight. Her arms were very thin, her breasts small, but there they were with the rosy blossoms on the tips and Ruben Vega watched them as she bathed, as she raised one arm and her hand rubbed soap under the arm and down over her ribs. Ruben Vega could almost feel those ribs, she was so thin. He felt sorry for her, for all the women like her, stick women drying up in the desert, waiting for a husband to ride in smelling of horse and sweat and leather, lice living in his hair.
There was a stock tank and rickety windmill off in the pasture, but it was empty graze, all dust and scrub. So the man of the house had moved his cows to grass somewhere and would be coming home soon, maybe with his sons. The woman appeared old enough to have young sons. Maybe there was a little girl in the house. The chimney appeared cold. Animals stood in a mesquite-pole corral off to one side of the house, a cow and a calf and a dun-colored horse, that was all. There were a few chickens. No buckboard or wagon. No clothes drying on the line. A lone woman here at day's end.
From fifty yards he watched her. She stood looking this way now, into the red sun, her face raised. There was something strange about her face. Like shadow marks on it, though there was nothing near enough to her to cast shadows.
He waited until she finished bathing and returned to the house before he mounted his bay and came down the wash to the pasture. Now as he crossed the yard, walking his horse, she would watch him from the darkness of the house and make a judgment about him. When she appeared again it might be with a rifle, depending on how she saw him.
Ruben Vega said to himself, Look, I'm a kind person. I'm not going to hurt nobody.
She would see a bearded man in a cracked straw hat with the brim bent to his eyes. Black beard, with a revolver on his hip and another beneath the leather vest. But look at my eyes, Ruben Vega thought. Let me get close enough so you can see my eyes.
Stepping down from the bay he ignored the house, let the horse drink from the basin of the irrigation ditch as he pumped water and knelt to the wooden platform and put his mouth to the rusted pump spout. Yes, she was watching him. Looking up now at the doorway he could see part of her: a coarse shirt with sleeves too long and the gray skirt. He could see strands of dark hair against the whiteness of the shirt, but could not see her face.
As he rose, straightening, wiping his mouth, he said, "May we use some of your water, please?"
The woman didn't answer him.
He moved away from the pump to the hardpack, hearing the ching of his spurs, removed his hat and gave her a little bow. "Ruben Vega, at your service. Do you know Diego Luz, the horse-breaker?" He pointed off toward a haze of foothills. "He lives up there with his family and delivers horses to the big ranch, the Circle-Eye. Ask Diego Luz, he'll tell you I'm a person of trust." He waited a moment. "May I ask how you're called?" Again he waited.
"You watched me," the woman said.
Ruben Vega stood with his hat in his hand facing the woman, who was half in shadow in the doorway. He said, "I waited. I didn't want to frighten you."
"You watched me," she said again.
"No, I respect your privacy."
She said, "The others look. They come and watch."
He wasn't sure who she meant. Maybe anyone passing by. He said, "You see them watching?"
She said, "What difference does it make?" She said then, "You come from Mexico, don't you?"
"Yes, I was there. I'm here and there, working as a drover." Ruben Vega shrugged. "What else is there to do, uh?" Showing her he was resigned to his station in life.
"You'd better leave," she said.
When he didn't move, the woman came out of the doorway into light and he saw her face clearly for the first time. He felt a shock within him and tried to think of something to say, but could only stare at the blue lines tattooed on her face: three straight lines on each cheek that extended from her cheekbones to her jaw, markings that seemed familiar, though he could not in this moment identify them.
He was conscious of himself standing in the open with nothing to say, the woman staring at him with curiosity, as though wondering if he would hold her gaze and look at her. Like there was nothing unusual about her countenance. Like it was common to see a woman with her face tattooed and you might be expected to comment, if you said anything at all, "Oh, that's a nice design you have there. Where did you have it done?" That would be one way--if you couldn't say something interesting about the weather or about the price of cows in Benson.
Ruben Vega, his mind empty of pleasantries, certain he would never see the woman again, said, "Who did that to you?"
She cocked her head in an easy manner, studying him as he studied her, and said, "Do you know, you're the first person who's come right out and asked."
"Mojave," Ruben Vega said, "but there's something different. Mojaves tattoo their chins only, I believe."
"And look like they were eating berries," the woman said. "I told them if you're going to do it, do it all the way. Not like a blue dribble."
It was in her eyes and in the tone of her voice, a glimpse of the rage she must have felt. No trace of fear in the memory, only cold anger. He could hear her telling the Indians--this skinny woman, probably a girl then--until they did it her way and marked her good for all time. Imprisoned her behind the blue marks on her face.
"How old were you?"
"You've seen me and had your water," the woman said, "now leave."
It was the same type of adobe house as the woman's but with a great difference. There was life here, the warmth of family: children sleeping now, Diego Luz's wife and her mother cleaning up after the meal as the two men sat outside in horsehide chairs and smoked and looked at the night. At one time they had both worked for a man named Sundeen and packed running irons to vent the brands on the cattle they stole. Ruben Vega was still an outlaw, in his fashion, while Diego Luz broke green horses and sold them to cattle companies.
They sat at the edge of the ramada, an awning made of mesquite, and stared at pinpoints of light in the universe. Ruben Vega asked about the extent of graze this season, where the large herds were that belonged to the Maricopa and the Circle-Eye. He had been thinking of cutting out maybe a hundred--he wasn't greedy--and driving them south to sell to the mine companies. He had been scouting the Circle-Eye range, he said, when he came to the strange woman. . . .
The Tonto woman, Diego Luz said. Everyone called her that now.
Yes, she had been living there, married a few years, when she went to visit her family, who lived on the Gila above Painted Rock. Well, some Yavapai came looking for food. They clubbed her parents and two small brothers to death and took the girl north with them. The Yavapai traded her to the Mojave as a slave. . . .
"And they marked her," Ruben Vega said.
"Yes, so when she died the spirits would know she was Mojave and not drag her soul down into a rathole," Diego Luz said.
"Better to go to heaven with your face tattooed," Ruben Vega said, "than not at all. Maybe so."
During a drought the Mojave traded her to a band of Tonto Apaches for two mules and a bag of salt and one day she appeared at Bowie with the Tontos that were brought in to be sent to Oklahoma. Among the desert Indians twelve years and returned home last spring.
"It put age on her," Ruben Vega said. "But what about her husband?"
"Her husband? He banished her," Diego Luz said, "like a leper. Unclean from living among the red niggers. No one speaks of her to him, it isn't allowed."
Ruben Vega frowned. There was something he didn't understand. He said, "Wait a minute--"
And Diego Luz said, "Don't you know who her husband is? Mr. Isham himself, man, of the Circle-Eye. She comes home to find her husband a rich man. He don't live in that hut no more. No, he owns a hundred miles of graze and a house it took them two years to build, the glass and bricks brought in by the Southern Pacific. Sure, the railroad comes and he's a rich cattleman in only a few years."
"He makes her live there alone?"
"She's his wife, he provides for her. But that's all. Once a month his segundo named Bonnet rides out there with supplies and has someone shoe her horse and look at the animals."
"But to live in the desert," Ruben Vega said, still frowning, thoughtful, "with a rusty pump . . ."
"Look at her," Diego Luz said. "What choice does she have?"
It was hot down in this scrub pasture, a place to wither and die. Ruben Vega loosened the new willow-root straw that did not yet conform to his head, though he had shaped the brim to curve down on one side and rise slightly on the other so that the brim slanted across the vision of his left eye. He held on his lap a nearly flat cardboard box that bore the name L. S. Weiss Mercantile Store.
The woman gazed up at him, shading her eyes with one hand. Finally she said, "You look different."
"The beard began to itch," Ruben Vega said, making no mention of the patches of gray he had studied in the hotel-room mirror. "So I shaved it off." He rubbed a hand over his jaw and smoothed down the tips of his mustache that was still full and seemed to cover his mouth. When he stepped down from the bay and approached the woman standing by the stick-fence corral, she looked off into the distance and back again.
She said, "You shouldn't be here."
Ruben Vega said, "Your husband doesn't want nobody to look at you. Is that it?" He held the store box, waiting for her to answer. "He has a big house with trees and the San Pedro River in his yard. Why doesn't he hide you there?"
She looked off again and said, "If they find you here, they'll shoot you."
"They," Ruben Vega said. "The ones who watch you bathe? Work for your husband and keep more than a close eye on you, and you'd like to hit them with something, wipe the grins from their faces."
"You better leave," the woman said.
The blue lines on her face were like claw marks, though not as wide as fingers: indelible lines of dye etched into her flesh with a cactus needle, the color worn and faded but still vivid against her skin, the blue matching her eyes.
He stepped close to her, raised his hand to her face, and touched the markings gently with the tips of his fingers, feeling nothing. He raised his eyes to hers. She was staring at him. He said, "You're in there, aren't you? Behind these little bars. They don't seem like much. Not enough to hold you."
She said nothing, but seemed to be waiting.
He said to her, "You should brush your hair. Brush it every day. . . ."
"Why?" the woman said.
"To feel good. You need to wear a dress. A little parasol to match."
"I'm asking you to leave," the woman said. But didn't move from his hand, with its yellowed, stained nails, that was like a fist made of old leather.
"I'll tell you something if I can," Ruben Vega said. "I know women all my life, all kinds of women in the way they look and dress, the way they adorn themselves according to custom. Women are always a wonder to me. When I'm not with a woman I think of them as all the same because I'm thinking of one thing. You understand?"
"Put a sack over their head," the woman said.
"Well, I'm not thinking of what she looks like then, when I'm out in the mountains or somewhere," Ruben Vega said. "That part of her doesn't matter. But when I'm with the woman, ah, then I realize how they are all different. You say, of course. This isn't a revelation to you. But maybe it is when you think about it some more."
The woman's eyes changed, turned cold. "You want to go to bed with me? Is that what you're saying, why you bring a gift?"
He looked at her with disappointment, an expression of weariness. But then he dropped the store box and took her to him gently, placing his hands on her shoulders, feeling her small bones in his grasp as he brought her in against him and his arms went around her.
He said, "You're gonna die here. Dry up and blow away."
She said, "Please . . ." Her voice hushed against him.
"They wanted only to mark your chin," Ruben Vega said, "in the custom of those people. But you wanted your own marks, didn't you? Your marks, not like anyone else. . . . Well, you got them." After a moment he said to her, very quietly, "Tell me what you want."
The hushed voice close to him said, "I don't know."
He said, "Think about it and remember something. There is no one else in the world like you."
He reined the bay to move out and saw the dust trail rising out of the old pasture, three riders coming, and heard the woman say, "I told you. Now it's too late."
A man on a claybank and two young riders eating his dust, finally separating to come in abreast, reined to a walk as they reached the pump and the irrigation ditch. The woman, walking from the corral to the house, said to them, "What do you want? I don't need anything, Mr. Bonnet."
So this would be the Circle-Eye foreman on the claybank. The man ignored her, his gaze holding on Ruben Vega with a solemn expression, showing he was going to be dead serious. A chew formed a lump in his jaw. He wore army suspenders and sleeve garters, his shirt buttoned up at the nec
Meet the Author
Elmore Leonard has written thirty-four novels, including such bestsellers as Cuba Libre, Out of Sight, Riding the Rap, Pronto, Rum Punch, and Get Shorty, and numerous screenplays. He lives with his wife, Christine, in Bloomfield Village, Michigan.
- Bloomfield Village, Michigan
- Date of Birth:
- October 11, 1925
- Place of Birth:
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- B.Ph., University of Detroit, 1950
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This is a very interesting Western short stories collection. With lot of twists on the way, but not deep enough to move you. Some of the main characters, man or woman, are kinda opportunists with survival instinct instead of a person with great morality to be respected. The stories are all interested enough to keep you read along. But if you want to find great hero or heronin like what you could find in Louis L'Amour's fictions even in those short stories, you won't find any.