Date: Sat, 18 Oct 1997 00:28:51 -0400
The man with the good hat (revised)
By Larry Daley, 18 October 1997
Thanks for the information, I never played the numbers not even to help Chita, the Taino woman who did laundry for us at the Casa de los Generales and who also sold numbers to support her many children. Robert do you remember the dream code of the numbers, do you remember if 45 or 64 was Muerte Grande, the number played when one dreamed of the violent death of an important man.
We were waiting, with our shotguns and 0.22s and revolvers not more than three of us, east of the Guisa River by another river, I think a western tributary of the Cautillo. Do not remember clearly who was with me that day.
I think one was Ramon, the darkest skinned of all of us, he carried a long barreled bolt action, three shot, 16 gauge shot gun. Ramon was very dark, almost glossy black, he had curly black hair, of the kind in Cuba we called pasas or raisin hair. He was shorter than me but broad and strong. Ramon was brave, quite uneducated and perhaps a little slow.
Ramon was also somewhat shy especially after the night when his well endowed sister, to his intense embarrassment, decided to be enthusiastically generous to all twelve or so of us in the group. When she approached me I told her kindly that perhaps that her full measure of support was not quite necessary. I had deep regrets, a deep sense of loss for saying that, for it was difficult to be a devout Catholic in such a primeval place. My self-frustrated desires burned for long after as Ramon's sister went from hammock to hammock waiting for each in turn to stand guard duty with her. The love-making went on all night long as Ramon's sister "pulled the train of joy." The things like this were what eventually broke my faith.
Perhaps the other rebel there that day was the one for whom my memory rejects his face. He was to be our group's suicide. I know his name, but it just will not come to mind, and has not for nearly forty years. He carried two revolvers, that I know for those were what he killed himself with, and a single shell 16 gauge shot gun.
The suicide to be was also short, and broad, his skin much lighter than Ramon's, perhaps lighter than mine, and his hair was straight and black hair like most of us. For some reason, the future suicide liked to go barefoot and thus his feet were wide and the soles thickly callused. Feet that looked like two thick duck paddles. We had to have a shoemaker make special wide, soft leather, topped, wide-toed half boots for him. The suicide, not much more than a boy, looked and acted like a gallego a Spaniard, he was from the town of Guisa and not a guajiro like most of us.
I grew the best beard of the three, and that was not much, mainly a drooping mustache and rather sparse, stupid, looking ruff around my neck and jaws. Any sound would spook us, a lizard running through the crackling dead leaf litter under the coffee trees would get our immediate attention. We were thin and that with our intense hyperactive attention to sounds and sights around us made us looked mean.
We wore simple peak flattened caps with the insignia of the July 28 movement, or went bare headed, for brimmed hats fell off going through the bush.. We dressed mostly in the gray green country clothes, and long sleeved shirts, our clothes were tattered and although in the foothills where the rivers were warmer, we could bath each day, our clothes were not too clean.
Dynamite bombs and knives hung from our belts. I carried my 0.22 semi-automatic rifle and I was good with it for Uncle Calixto Leonel had taught me to shoot, and it was his target gun I carried. We stood there boldly on the wide dirt road, by the river, our 7-26 red and black armbands on our right arms, our long hair and straggly beards, and our weapons giving us all the authority we needed.
Here this stream flowed stronger and with more water than the Guisa river, running down over pebbles, boulders and rocks between its the complexly formed karstic white rocks and coffee plantations covered banks. The brightly colored mosquito fish darted here and there on the tiny gravel shoals at the edges of the stream.
The river flowed clean and cold, a few leaves floating in the eddies, under the shade of what must have been algarrobos, the enormously large rain-trees of Cuba. The roots of these enormous tree legumes would feed nitrogen to the coffee. Where the trees grew in pastures the fruit fed the cattle. However, here among in these coffee gardens the fruit dropped into the coffee leaf litter, beneath the branches that supported the birds that ate the bugs, the trees' shade enhancing the coffee's flavor and thus its value. This was a place of established coffee gardens, gardens which yielded good rich coffee and lots of it, there was money here.
This place was for us unknown territory we were here for the first time. Yet at first we did not feel afraid for these great trees that extended their branches over the river, protected us from the prying eyes of the avioneta, the machine gun mounted spotter plane we all feared.
The area was not steep and aggressively mountainous like Los Numeros, nor wide, open and expansive like the Cauto plain. Nor was this land strangely broken and twisted into nooks and crannies as was the land around our camp at the north end of that high canyon on the Guisa River. The gentle tidy rows of glossy leafed coffee plants and the high canopies of the trees that shaded the coffee plantations that surrounded us. It was just a prosperous, bucolic and beautiful area in those limestone hills on the northern slopes of the Sierra Maestra.
We felt good and relaxed, we were working in the shade, our orders were simple: Mojena, our group leader, had said "search those going down the road to wards Guisa for people carrying number slips." We did as we were ordered, trying to be as polite as possible. The people we stopped were already apprehensive from the way we looked and submitted with deference and politeness to our search. With all this politeness going back and forth one would think we were in a country club. We searched, and searched. We stopped all those that passed that way to town, and let them go after finding nothing.
Then we began to realize what we were doing. It was clear that it was not safe. "What if one of those going towards Guisa told the soldiers of garrison" I thought. We were too close to town, the Batista Army could send out a patrol, which in quick quiet flanking moves through the surrounding coffee groves could surprise us and cut us down with their much superior weapons. Slowly this thought seeped into my mind, a little chill of fear followed, and I was much more alert.
Then after a few hours of this, our fustration and fears rising, a likely prospect, a little too prosperous and too confident to be earning his living in the fields, walked down the broad dirt road. He had nothing in his pockets, but wait he had a hat, more than the standard sombero de yarey. It was not the standard country hat made of one long plaited coil of yarey palm fronds, sewed side to side in concentric spiraling circles to make crown and brim in one piece. This man had had a more expensive factory made hat with a hat band running round the bottom of the crown.
"A hatband" I thought "that's different," and politely asked him for his hat. Sure enough there, not in the hatband, but tucked inside in the sweatband, was a small, carefully folded piece of paper with cryptic notations, with numbers. It was the tally sheet to record the gambling. We had our numbers runner he was the man with the nice hat.
Terror replacing confidence, the man with the nice hat would do anything for us. At that point I got too ambitious, I was fearful of holding that roadblock any longer and made my mistake. "Perhaps," I suggested to the man with the good hat, "you could take us to your boss." This he most readily, and fearfully, agreed to do.
We walked up river the path besides the river. We walked with rising spirits, not only were we going to be heroes, but we were glad to be getting further from the town. The path narrowed, we went up small and gentle hills, the karstic rocks now sticking up like giant white clean teeth in the shade of the coffee plantations.
We reached the top of one of the hills. Close to the path in the middle of a coffee plantation, there was a tidy royal palm frond thatched bohio, a country house. This house was different it lacked the yagua wall boards or the network of thin, cuje, horizontally placed poles that normally supported the walls. Instead of walls there were just the four solid rough wood posts, wide like stone columns, supporting the roof.
Inside the bohio, I could not believe it, was a full sized billiard table. "How" I thought "could such a very heavy table be carried up the foot path of that steep hill?" The man with the good hat led us to another bohio, one with the usual walls, just by and we met the Numbers King, the chief gambler of the area.
All I remember of the Numbers King, was that he was better dressed, wearing a good guayabera, and seemed very agreeable, why not, we had the guns. So I asked him very politely, "Would you like to come with us to see Mojena." He lied "Of course, it would be an honor." We looked around. our fearful informer, the man with the good hat, had disappeared.
The three of us left proud as punch, our captured Numbers King walking in front so he could not escape. The Numbers King, openly polite made courteous conversation, but surely cursed us beneath his breath every step of the way. We cautiously wended our way down the hillside to our former station on the road.
Mojena our group leader, and by repute a former bandit, was waiting for us, his heavy beard, dark brown and broad shouldered body mirrored his thoughts. His hand by the pistol by his side told us he was uncertain. Until he saw us come so proudly down the road, he had worried for he had not known what had happened. Had the soldiers come? Had a Batista patrol killed us?
Anger replace worry, Mojena told us off, and especially me the ring leader, "why did you leave your post?" We proudly displaying our captive Numbers King, we have broken the numbers racket we explained. Mojena and the Numbers King looked at each other with familiarity and then knowingly they both looked at us with an expression that obviously meant "you are really dumb and do not know what you are doing?"
Then I realized our road block was not part of a moral crusade against the numbers racket. This tactic was not intended as one little a step in a campaign to rid Cuba of gambling. The whole thing, the road block, our orders to search, were designed to get more money for the "Revolution" out of the Numbers King. We needed real effective weapons, and this was a way to get the money to buy them.
To get this money Mojena needed to take control of the numbers game away from the Batista Rural Guard Sergeant charged with the control of the Guisa area and who normally, as a customary part of his job, controlled the numbers racket in our area. Mojena needed to tax the Numbers King. Now the Numbers King knew that Mojena could intercept his runners. Without those runners there could not be any numbers racket. Mojena had the upper hand.
We never saw the money change hands, that was a private matter between Mojena and the Numbers King.. However, it is not difficult to imagine. Mojena must have said politely "Come have some coffee." and casually as they drank coffee together mention something about the "Revolution" needing financial support. The Numbers King would have lowered the cup he was sipping and said perhaps "Fine coffee, thank you. Oh! Yes! That indeed is a worthy cause, I will see what can I do to help." A discrete few days later money must have reached Mojena, and of that money most must have gone to La Comandancia, Headquarters high in the Sierra.
It is doubful if Mojena kept much more money than our group needed, for in the draconian Ley de la Sierra we lived and died by, the law by which the Rebels were ruled, there was a death penalty for stealing. The money must have gone to buy guns and have them shipped in by the secret airplane flights that more and more frequently droned through the night above the high ridges of the Sierra Maestra to drop weapons.
Larry Daley, copyright 1996, permission to copy granted for non-commercial purposes.
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