The Preliminary Skirmish
Part One | Part Two
The local officials believed the Cubans could do nothing; that they were, in effect, beaten, being without counsel and already distraught under the force of the unexpected economic blow.
In view of the rumored lynching, we hastily concocted a plan to throw a sort of Cuban shock troop around the jail, with fixed signals to be used in extremity. We had to trust our guard would be able to "postpone" the lynching. As for me, in the morning I would visit the presiding Judge and demand a legal trial for the hapless prisoners.
I went to bed, though to think rather than to sleep.
At 3 0'clock in the morning my door was suddenly opened and, by the lamplight from the hall, I saw three Americans. They came quickly to their business. It seems they were "running Key West" and I was not to interfere. Furthermore, a steamer, in fact the very steamer that had brought me from the mainland, was steaming the next night and my best interests required me to be aboard with my luggage in plenty of time for sailing.
"But," I said incredulously, "I have only just come. I have a particular bit of business to attend to; I haven't finished yet and I don't know how long it will take me. Of course I shan't be finished by tomorrow night and I couldn't possibly leave until I am."
They were not pleased with me. In some detail they enumerated the lawyers of Key West, describing their abilities. Certainly I would see no more were required in the present circumstance. Besides, they pointed out, imported lawyers were invariably a nuisance. They interfered so with local plans and, in fact, did not good to anyone. Therefore it must surely be my own common sense view that tomorrow's boat would suit me perfectly.
It seemed foolish to bandy words any longer.
"And if I don't choose to go north?" I asked.
Suddenly they grew hard. "Then, they assured me in unison, "you must take the consequences."
"Al right; I'll take the consequences. But be good enough now to leave the room and don't come back."
"Oho! And so you threaten us?" they cried.
I sketched a brief course in case I was bothered any more, and reminded them that they seemed to have done a little threatening too. They went out and shut the door.
Presently I received notice in writing that I was to be out of Key West in 24 hours. And then another notice. And yet another. But the negotiations for my departure were never resumed by word of mouth.
Perhaps an hour after my visitors had left, I heard a careful hand on my door-knob. I sprang up, asking who was there. It was a Cuban, sorry to disturb me, but there had been talk that I had been molested and he had come to see if I was safe.
In the morning, making sure the Cuban prisoners were alive and well guarded by their friends, I went to call on the Judge. Indicating in my preamble that I knew he would be the last to betray the due process of the law, I suggested the desirability of a speedy trial, especially since the men had been in jail quite a while, in violation, as I must add, of their guaranteed rights.
The Judge asked what I called a speedy trial.
"Oh, some time this morning, Your Honor."
He glowered at me, saying, "Yes, that would indeed be a speedy trial; but suppose I refuse to try the men? What then?"
"Then I must take the next steamer to the mainland, get writs of habeas corpus and come back and have them served."
For several minutes the Judge studied the ceiling reflectively.
"Very well," he said finally, with a growl. "You shall have your trial, and a speedy one too. I will hear the case at the court-house at 10o'clock this very morning." His tone made it very evident what sort of trial we might expect.
We hunted for an officer to take the men from jail to court, but could not find one. So we arranged to take them ourselves, not a difficult matter since it was true they were as accessible now as the ill-intentioned mob of the night before had gloatingly observed.
Court was held on the second story of a building having a single staircase. All the Cubans possible were rounded up and instructed to crowd into the court-room immediately the judge arrived with his attendants. They were then to overflow the room and clog the stairway so no one else could enter but the prisoners and counsel. Along the route from the jail double rows of Cubans protected the prisoners, with whom I rode in an open surrey. The two men were calm though a little pale. We had difficulty getting up the jammed stairway and into the crowded court-room.
Plainly the Judge was in anything but a judicial mood. He glared at me when I asked to see the complaint, saying he would not allow it. I suggested that it would do if I knew on what charge the men were held without bail privileges, and for such a length of time. He told me with asperity, however, that the charge was none of my affair. I asked that the tial proceed. The Judge consulted with his clerk, and the call was made.
"Is the complainant in court?"
The complainant did not answer.
"Witness in court?"
No witnesses were there.
We waited, in a deep and ominous silence, though none of us in the packed assemblage knew for what purpose. Finally I suggested we had better proceed or, failing any legal case, the prisoners should be discharged. So the calls were repeated, for complainant and witnesses, without names being mentioned, however. Obviously they had not run the gauntlet of the crowd.
Finally the Judge, after nervously whispering with his clerk, declared that, in the absence of either complainant or witnesses, he was constrained to discharge the prisoners.
Happily cheers were withheld, but a sound like air escaping from a highly inflated tire hissed through the room. As tension relaxed, the Judge said he would say a few words. Hastily I begged him not to, but he scouted the idea of advice from me. I urged him to regard well the mood of the crowd, but he said bitterly, "I know them better than you do." Nevertheless he did reconsider, glaring angrily at me as he said, "Well, I need not tell them; they will find out for themselves; and you too!"
My released prisoners and I worked a difficult way to the street. They were turned quickly over to the Committee to be placed quietly aboard a steamer sailing for Tampa that night to avoid any demonstration.
Long afterward I learned that the only charge against them was of disorderly conduct. They had been arrested on the generalization that an example must be made to cow the Cubans. Alas it was not the last time such trivial pegs were manufactured to hold incidents full of dangerous potentialities. However, this time the useful purpose had been served of establishing me in the confidence of people I must deal with, and Martí's judgment had been vindicated; even the Cuban children paid "Our Lawyer" the most embarrassing compliments in the streets.
Back of the decision to send counsel from the north to protect the rights of Cubans at Key West lies the extraordinary mentality of José Martí. Martí was the dominating figure in the affairs of the Cuban Revolutionary Party until his death. He was a mere boy at the time of the Ten Years' War, so Spain did not perceive that he was to be taken seriously. Later, when he acted according to his conscience, Spain punished him, but when he was free again he became the leader of his people in the destruction of Spanish domination in Cuba. The cold eye of history has failed to appreciate him as a brilliant and powerful figure and so we should turn aside for a little to consider him.
Part One | Part Two