The title of Elmore Leonard’s 1979 western Gunsights is a play on words although the reader doesn’t find that out until the plot twist on the novel’s final page.
The pun has to do with a Wild West show in the 1890s. For most of the story, though, “gunsights” seems to be about an expected shoot-out between Dana Moon and Brendan Early, two friends with a cross-hatched history who find themselves, sort of, on two sides of a land war in Arizona.
Certainly, as the novel opens, reporters from big-city newspapers, camping out at the Gold Dollar in Sweetmary, are expecting this brother-in-arms-against-brother-in-arms battle, even to the point of toying with the idea of naming the violent real estate fight after the two — the Early-Moon Feud.
As things turn out, however, there’s not really a feud, just a couple of guys who have worked closely together — such as the two tracking an Apache band who kidnapped a young woman (who, later, becomes Moon’s wife) and the one (Early) helping the other (Moon) break out of jail — while, now and again, getting a bit irritated with each other, as guys do.
“I can go home…”
I.e., during the jail break when they stop to have a conversation about Phil Sundeen, this mean, nasty, vicious bad guy who has it in for the both of the men and who is almost certainly waiting outside the jail to shoot each of them:
Moon seemed to study [Early] forming words in his mind. “Is it you’ve been sitting around too long, you’re itchy? Or you just wanted to shoot somebody?”
“I can go home and leave it up to you,” Early said, a cold edge there.
“Yes, you can. And I’d probably handle him one way or the other.”
Early stared at Moon a moment, turned and walked toward the door.
Moon said, “You understand what I mean? I want to be sure about him.”
Early pulled the door wide open and stepped aside. “Go on and find out then.” Still with the cold edge.
Shit, Moon thought. He said, “Get over your touchiness. You sound like a woman.”
“A little boy playing guns”
Uh-oh, the reader’s thinking, this is the turning point in the friendship of the two men, and now they will try to shoot each other to death, just for spite.
But Gunsights isn’t that kind of western or that kind of adventure novel. Emotions here, as in Leonard’s other books, aren’t blunt instruments of love, hate, greed and compassion. Rather, they’re subtle layers of colors, such as, love overlaid with confusion or duty overlaid with stubbornness or friendship overlaid with irritation.
There is action throughout Gunsights, well-described, but the core of the book is in the private interactions of its characters. For instance, here’s Janet Pierson with whom Early is kind of living and to whom Early would kind of like to be married except she doesn’t want to, even though she is fascinated by the stoic granite face with which he approaches the world and its contrast with the private person she knows:
Bren Early: silent, deadly, absolutely true to his word.
But she could not help but think of a little boy playing guns.
He was a little boy sometimes when they were alone, unsure of himself.
“Like a spoiled brat”
Later, Maurice Dumas, the Chicago Times reporter who, by dint of hard work, clear thought and a bit of luck, has become something of a sounding board for Early and Moon, comes to the home that Janet shares with Early. To his surprise, she invites him in, but doesn’t ask him to sit. Instead, she laces into Early through Dumas:
“Well, the next time you see him,” Janet Pierson said, “tell him to quit acting like a spoiled brat and grow up.”
“Like he got out of bed on the wrong side every morning. Tell him to make up his mind what he’s mad at. If it’s me, if I’m to blame, I’ll gladly move out. Ask him if that’s what he wants. Because I’m not taking any more of his pouting.”
“Or his silence. All day he sat here, he didn’t say a word ‘Can I get you something?…Would you like your dinner now?’ Like walking on eggs, being so careful not to bother him too much. He’d grunt something. Did that mean yes or no?…”
“As he saw the blue sky”
Don’t get the impression that this is a novel only about Bren and Janet, or Bren and Moon. It’s also about Moon and his wife the formerly kidnapped, formerly named McKean girl, now Kate Moon who plays a rather key role at the very end of the novel.
It’s also about reporter Maurice Dumas, and about the inside of the heads of some of the bad guys, but not Sundeen who busts through the narrative like a runaway rhino.
Sundeen’s second in command is Ruben Vega who is one of the more interesting figures in this novel. He meets his end after he has had the vague thought of changing sides but ends up thinking a bit too much.
His hand going to his holster, to the hard grip of the .44, the Mexican saw Sundeen’s hand moving, and knew he shouldn’t have said anything and now was going to lose….and, Christ, it was like being punched hard, hearing himself grunt with the wind going out of him and the .44 in his hand, trying to put it on Sundeen…ughhh, grunting again in the noise of something hard socking him in the chest…firing, as he saw the blue sky and felt himself going back, falling —
Patrick T. Reardon