I’ve got this idea about a series of posts in which I adore somebody else’s writing. I’m starting with Elmore Leonard, who died in 2013 at 87 years old with something like fifty-five novels under his belt. At the time of his death he was still involved with the television series Justified, based on his Raylan Jennings short story “Fire in the Hole.” The cast and producers recorded a wonderful short tribute to him that you’ll find after the excerpted scene below. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, start at exactly one minute in.
This scene is from Cuba Libre, a historical novel set in the Southwest and in Cuba. It opens with the sinking of the Maine in Cuba Harbor in 1898, and ends later that year with the battle of San Juan Hill. Every time I re-read it, I fall in love with Leonard’s prose, his ability to draw a character in precise, short strokes, the effortless way he weaves indirect and direct dialogue, the rightness of the way the spoken language flows, the visual cues. All perfect.
Note where the tense shifts from past tense to present tense, that’s a storytelling technique we all use in our day-to-day communication with the people around us. When you get to the exciting part, you switch into present tense.
What happened, Tyler’s business fell on hard times and he took to robbing banks. So then the next time Charlie Burke actually saw him was out in the far reaches of the territory at Yuma Prison: convicts and their visitors sitting across from one another at tables placed end to end down the center of the mess hall.
Mothers, wives, sweethearts all wondering how their loved ones would fare in this stone prison known as the Hell Hole on the Bluff; Charlie Burke wondering why, if Tyler had made up his mind to rob banks, he chose the Maricopa branch in Sweetmary, where he was known.
He said on account of it was the closest one.
Charlie Burke said, “I come all the way out here to watch you stare past me at the wall?”
So then Tyler said, all right, because it was where LaSalle Mining did their banking and LaSalle Mining owed him nine hundred dollars. “Four times I went up the hill to collect,” Tyler said in his prison stripes and haircut, looking hard and half starved. “Try and find anybody in charge can cut a check. I went to the Maricopa Bank, showed the teller a .44 and withdrew the nine hundred from the mine company’s account.”
“That’s how you do business, huh?”
“Hatch and Hodges owed me twelve hundred the day they shut down their line. They said don’t worry, you’ll get your money. I waited another four months, the same as I did with LaSalle, and drew it out of their bank over in Benson.”
“Who else owed you money?”
“But you robbed another bank.”
“Yeah, well, once we had the hang of it…I’m kidding. It wasn’t like Red and I got drunk and went out and robbed a bank. Red worked for Dana Moon before he came with me, had all that experience, so I offered him a share, but he’d only work for wages. After we did the two banks I paid Red what he had coming and he bought a suit of clothes cost him ten dollars, and wanted to put the rest in the bank. We’re in St. David at the time. We go to the bank to open a savings account and the bank refused him. I asked the manager, was it on account of Red being Warm Springs Apache? The manager become snotty and one thing led to another….”
“You robbed the bank to teach him manners.”
“Red was about to shoot him.”
“Speaking of shooting people,” Charlie Burke said, prompting his friend the convict.
“We were on the dodge by then,” Tyler said, “wanted posters out on us. To some people that five hundred reward looked like a year’s wages. These fellas I know were horse thieves–they ran my stock more than once–they got after us for the reward, followed our tracks all the way to Nogales and threw down on us in a cantina–smoky place, had a real low ceiling.”
“The story going around,” Charlie Burke said, “they pulled, Ben Tyler pulled and shot all three of them dead.”
“Maybe, though I doubt it. All the guns going off in there and the smoke, it was hard to tell. We came back across the border, the deputies were waiting there to run us down.”
“Have you learned anything?”
“Always have fresh horses with you.”
“You’ve become a smart aleck, huh?”
“Not around here. They put you in leg irons.”
“What do you need I can get you?”
“Some books, magazines. Dana Moon sends me the Chicago Times he gets from some fella he knows.”
“You don’t seem to be doing too bad.”
“Considering I live in a cell with five hot-headed morons and bust rocks into gravel all day. I’ve started teaching Mr. Rinning’s children how to ride the horsey and they like me. Mr. Rinning’s the superintendent; he says to me, ‘You’re no outlaw, you’re just stupid–a big educated fella like you robbing banks?’ He says if I’m done being stupid I’ll be out as soon as I do three years.”
Charlie Burke said to him that day in the Yuma mess hall, “Are you done?”
“I was mad is all, those people owing me money I’d worked hard for. Yeah, I got it out of my system,” Tyler said. “But you know what? There ain’t nothing to robbing a bank.”