Before he began writing the wonderful crime fiction for which he became so famous, Elmore Leonard wrote Westerns, mostly short stories that sold well enough to the magazines of the day to allow him to continue writing while he developed the style that would work so well for him later in his career. Elmore would end up writing some thirty Western short stories and eight Western novels before, as he puts it, “television killed the Western.” Fortunately, by the time that happened, Leonard was ready to move on to a very different genre – and the rest is literary history.
This week’s short story, “The Boy Who Smiled,” first appeared in the June1953 issue of Gunsmoke magazine, and I found it in a compilation titled The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.” The book contains Leonard’s thirty Western shorts (assuming here that “complete” means “complete”), and for what it’s worth, it’s one I’ve enjoyed dipping into since I purchased it back in 2004.
The story’s narrator is a white man responsible for monitoring just over one hundred Apaches who are allowed to live off the reservation because they have always been “fairly peaceful.” The agent is also responsible for Mickey Solner, a white man living nearby who married an Apache and fathered a son by her. As the story opens, that boy, 14-year-old Mickey Segundo steps into the agent’s office and plops a couple of human ears down on the man’s desk.
The ears once belonged to Tony Choddi, the horse-thief who traded a stolen horse to Mickey’s father before running off. Unfortunately for all concerned, the wealthy rancher whose horse was stolen wanted to hang someone for stealing his horse, and Mickey’s father was the only one at hand. So now Tony Choddi has lost his ears, along with his life, and the agent wonders if the wealthy rancher will be the next to die.
Five years later, nothing has happened and the agent is still embarrassed that he ever warned the rancher about Mickey Segundo. But then the day comes when a very different looking Mickey Segundo agrees to lead the rancher and another man across the desert on a pronghorn hunt. The agent can tell that the rancher doesn’t recognize Mickey, and even as it’s happening, wonders why he isn’t identifying the boy for the man himself.
“The Boy Who Smiled” is early Elmore Leonard but even this early on, it is obvious that Leonard is every bit as interested in his characters and what makes them tick as he is in the story’s action. His Western short stories were a definite cut above the bulk of what the pulps of the day usually printed.