eBook extras: "Martin Amis Interviews 'The Dickens of Detroit'"; Elmore Leonard's "If It Sounds Like Writing, Rewrite It"; "All By Elmore: The Crime Novels & The Westerns"; Selected Filmography
Leonard's famous "Tropical Western" delivers a smuggler, a sugar baron, and one smart, pistol-hot lady to Havana during the Spanish-American War.
War in Cuba isn't Ben Tyler's concern. Still, sailing with guns into Havana harbor in 1898 -- right past the submerged wreckage of the U.S. battleship Maine -- may not be the most intelligent thing the recently prison-sprung horse wrangler ever did. Neither is shooting one of the local Guardia, though the pompous peacock deserved it.
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July 30, 2002
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Excerpt from Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard
Tyler arrived with the horses February eighteenth, three days after the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor. He saw buzzards floating in the sky the way they do but couldn't make out what they were after. This was off Morro Castle, the cattle boat streaming black smoke as it came through the narrows.
But then pretty soon he saw a ship's mast and a tangle of metal sticking out of the water, gulls resting on it. one of the Mexican deckhands called to the pilot tug bringing them in, wanting to know what the wreckage was. The pilot yelled back it was the Maine.
Yeah? The main what? Tyler's border Spanish failed to serve, trying to make out voices raised against the wind. The deckhand told him it was a buque de guerra, a warship.
Earlier that month he had left Sweetmary in the Arizona Territory by rail: loaded thirty-one mares aboard Southern Pacific stock cars and rode them all the way to Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico. Here he was met by his partner in this deal, Charlie Burke, Tyler's foreman at one time, years ago. Charlie Burke introduced him to a little Cuban mulatto--"Ben Tyler, Victor Fuentes"--the man appearing to be a good sixty years old, though it was hard to tell, his skin the color of mahogany.
Fuentes inspected the mares, none more than six years old or bigger than fifteen hands, checked each one's conformation and teeth, Fuentes wiping his hands on the pants of his white suit, picked twenty five out of the bunch, all bays, browns and sorrels, and said he was sure they could sell the rest for the same money, one hundred fifty dollars each. He said Mr. Boudreaux was going to like these girls and would give them a check for tbirty-seven hundred fifty dollars drawn on the Banco de Comercio before they left Havana. Fuentes said he would expect only five hundred of it for his services.
Tyler said to Charlie Burke, later, the deal sounded different than the way he'd originally explained it.
Charlie Burke said the way you did business in Cuba was the same as it worked in Mexico, everybody getting their cut. Tyler said, what he meant, he thought they were going directly from here to Matanzas, where Boudreaux's sugar estate was located. Charlie Burke said he thought so too; but Boudreaux happened to be in Havana this week and next. It meant they'd take the string off the boat, put the horses in stock pens for the man to look at, reload them and go on to Matanzas. What Tyler wanted to know, and Charlie Burke didn't have the answer: "Who pays for stopping in Havana?"
That evening Charlie Burke and Mr. Fuentes left on a Ward Line steamer bound for Havana.