Before he became a popular author of quirky crime fiction bestsellers, Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) was a working author of gritty, well-crafted westerns. He started with short works in the western pulp magazines and transitioned seamlessly to paperbacks in the 1950s. Last Stand at Saber River was released by Dell in 1959, and the subsequent British edition was re-titled Stand on the Saber. Somewhere along the way, the novel was also released in hardcover as Lawless River. Over 60 years later, the book is still in print as a paperback, ebook and audiobook.
Our hero is Paul Cable who fought for the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War for over two years and is returning home to his ranch on Arizona’s Saber River to be with his family. The war had been rough on Cable as he took bullets in his hip and thigh and was sent home to Arizona before the outcome of the war was determined.
Upon arrival back in Arizona, Cable finds that things have changed in his absence. Specifically, there are men living in his house that he and his wife built themselves. While Cable was at war, a man named Vern Kidston came to town with a sizable crew of men and set up a business supplying horses to the Union Army. He took over the Cable house and has been housing his men there while Vern’s horse herd grazes on Cable’s land. As you can imagine, Cable isn’t thrilled with this arrangement. Likewise, Vern and his men are not interested in negotiating with or taking any guff from a former rebel soldier.
At times, the book felt like a home invasion horror novel with a lot of cat-and-mouse suspense. Other times, it was a straight-up combat adventure tale with lots of gun-pointing stand-off scenes. As the title of the paperback indicates, all the disrespect and mini-skirmishes along the way lead to a series of showdowns where Cable defends his property rights against Vern’s men.
Elmore Leonard was a master at plotting and dialogue, and this knack is on full-display in Last Stand at Saber River. The characters are vividly drawn and they always seem to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. The author wisely steers clear of the relative merits of the Confederacy vs. the Union and uses the divide to explain the mutual distrust and hostility between the novel’s combatants.
The short paperback’s resolution was intelligent and unexpected - if a bit abrupt, and it was a testament to Leonard’s superior storytelling abilities. If you like westerns filled with moral dilemmas and smart character development, Last Stand at Saber River is definitely for you. Recommended.
In 1997, Last Stand at Saber River was adapted into a TV movie starring Tom Selleck on the TNT cable network. It remains a available as a $2.99 rental on all the major streaming services. You won't be surprised to learn that the universal consensus is that book is better than the movie.
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