The old farmhouse of Mato Rujo stood blankly in the countryside, carved in black against the evening light, the only stain in the empty outline of the plain.
The four men arrived in an old Mercedes. The road was pitted and dry--a mean road of the countryside. From the farmhouse, Manuel Roca saw them.
He went to the window. First he saw the column of dust rising against the corn. Then he heard the sound of the engine. No one had a car anymore, around here. Manuel Roca knew it. He saw the Mercedes emerge in the distance and disappear behind a line of oaks. Then he stopped looking.
He returned to the table and placed a hand on his daughter's head. Get up, he told her. He took a key from his pocket, put it on the table, and nodded at his son. Yes, the son said. They were children, just two children.
At the crossroads where the stream ran the old Mercedes did not turn off to the farmhouse but continued toward Alvarez instead. The four men traveled in silence. The one driving had on a sort of uniform. The other sitting in front wore a cream-colored suit. Pressed. He was smoking a French cigarette. Slow down, he said.
Manuel Roca heard the sound fade into the distance toward Alvarez. Who do they think they're fooling? he thought. He saw his son come back into the room with a gun in his hand and another under his arm. Put them there, he said. Then he turned to his daughter. Come, Nina. Don't be afraid. Come here.
The well-dressed man put out his cigarette on the dashboard of the Mercedes, then told the one who was driving to stop. This is good, here, he said. And shut off that infernal engine. He heard the slide of the hand brake, like a chain falling into a well. Then nothing. It was as if the countryside had been swallowed up in an unalterable silence.
It would have been better to go straight there, said one of the two sitting in back. Now he'll have time to run, he said. He had a gun in his hand. He was only a boy. They called him Tito.
He won't run, said the well-dressed man. He's had it with running. Let's go.
Manuel Roca moved aside some baskets of fruit, bent over, raised a hidden trapdoor, and looked inside. It was little more than a big hole dug into the earth, like the den of an animal.
"Listen to me, Nina. Now, some people are coming, and I don't want them to see you. You have to hide in here, the best thing is for you to hide in here and wait until they go away. Do you understand?"
"You just have to stay here and be quiet."
"Whatever happens, you mustn't come out, you mustn't move, just stay here, be quiet, and wait."
"Everything will be all right."
"Listen to me. It's possible I may have to go away with these men. Don't come out until your brother comes to get you, do you understand? Or until you can tell that no one is there and it's all over."
"I want you to wait until there's no one there."
"Don't be afraid, Nina, nothing's going to happen to you. All right?"
"Give me a kiss."
The girl pressed her lips against her father's forehead. He caressed her hair.
"Everything will be all right, Nina."
He remained standing there, as if there were still something he had to say, or do.
"This isn't what I intended," he said. "Remember, always, that this is not what I intended."
The child searched instinctively in her father's eyes for something that might help her understand. She saw nothing. Her father leaned over and kissed her lips.
"Now go, Nina. Go on, down you go."
The child let herself fall into the hole. The earth was hard and dry. She lay down.
"Wait, take this."
The father handed her a blanket. She spread it over the dirt and lay down again.
She heard her father say something to her, then she saw the trapdoor lowered. She closed her eyes and opened them. Blades of light filtered through the floorboards. She heard the voice of her father as he went on speaking to her. She heard the sound of the baskets dragged across the floor. It grew darker under there. Her father asked her something. She answered. She was lying on one side. She had bent her legs, and there she was, curled up, as if in her bed, with nothing to do but go to sleep, and dream. She heard her father say something else, gently, leaning down toward the floor. Then she heard a shot, and the sound of a window breaking into a thousand pieces.
"ROCA!...COME OUT, ROCA...DON'T DO ANYTHING STUPID, JUST COME OUT."
Manuel Roca looked at his son. He crept toward the boy, careful not to move into the open. He reached for the gun on the table.
"Get away from there! Go and hide in the woodshed. Don't come out, don't make a sound, don't do anything. Take the gun and keep it loaded."
The child stared at him without moving.
"Go on. Do what I tell you."
But the child took a step toward him.
Nina heard a hail of shots sweep the house, above her. Dust and bits of glass slid along the cracks in the floor. She didn't move. She heard a voice calling from outside.
"WELL, ROCA? DO WE HAVE TO COME AND GET YOU?
I'M TALKING TO YOU, ROCA. DO I HAVE TO COME AND
The child was standing there, in the open. He had taken his gun, but was holding it in one hand, pointing it down and swinging it back and forth.
"Go," said the father. "Did you hear me? Get out of here."
The child went toward him. What he was thinking was that he would kneel on the floor, and be embraced by his father. He imagined something like that.
The father pointed the other gun at him. He spoke in a low, fierce voice.
"Go, or I'll kill you myself."
Nina heard that voice again.
"LAST CHANCE, ROCA."
Gunfire fanned the house, back and forth like a pendulum, as if it would never end, back and forth like the beam of a lighthouse over a coal-black sea, patiently.
Nina closed her eyes. She flattened herself against the blanket and curled up even tighter, pulling her knees to her chest. She liked being in that position. She felt the earth, cool, under her side, protecting her--it would not betray her. And she felt her own curled-up body, folded around itself like a shell--she liked this--she was shell and animal, her own shelter, she was everything, she was everything for herself, nothing could hurt her as long as she remained in this position. She reopened her eyes, and thought, Don't move, you're happy.
Manuel Roca saw his son disappear behind the door. Then he raised himself just enough to glance out the window. All right, he thought. He moved to another window, rose, quickly took aim, and fired.
The man in the cream-colored suit cursed and threw himself to the ground. Look at this bastard, he said. He shook his head. How about this son of a bitch? He heard two more shots from the farmhouse. Then he heard the voice of Manuel Roca.
"FUCK OFF, SALINAS."
The man in the cream-colored suit spat. Go fuck yourself, you bastard. He glanced to his right and saw that El Gurre was sneering, flattened behind a stack of wood. He was holding a machine gun in his right hand, and with his left he searched his pocket for a cigarette. He didn't seem to be in a hurry. He was small and thin, he wore a dirty hat on his head and on his feet enormous mountain clogs. He looked at Salinas. He found
the cigarette. He put it between his lips. Everyone called him
El Gurre. He got up and began shooting.
Nina heard the burst of gunfire sweep the house, above her. Then silence. And immediately afterward another burst, longer. She kept her eyes open. She looked at the cracks in the floor. She looked at the light, and the dust that came from up there. Every so often she saw a shadow pass, and that was her father.
Salinas crawled over beside El Gurre, behind the woodpile.
"How long would it take Tito to get in?"
El Gurre shrugged his shoulders. He still had the sneer on his face. Salinas glanced at the farmhouse.
"We'll never get in from here: either he does it or we're in deep shit."
El Gurre lighted the cigarette. He said that the kid was quick and could manage it. He said that he knew how to slither like a snake and that they would have to trust him.
"But we'll need a little distraction."
Manuel Roca saw El Gurre emerge from behind the woodpile and throw himself to the ground. From that position the machine-gun volley arrived punctually, prolonged. I've got to get out of here, Roca thought. Ammunition. First ammunition, then crawl to the kitchen and from there straight for the fields. Wait. El Gurre isn't stupid, he must have someone behind the house, too. But no one's firing from that direction. If someone were there, he would be firing. Maybe El Gurre isn't in charge. Maybe it's that coward Salinas. If it's Salinas, I can handle it. He doesn't have a clue, that Salinas. Stay behind your desk, Salinas, it's the only thing you know how to do. But first go screw yourself. First the ammunition.
El Gurre was shooting.
Ammunition. And money. Maybe I can take the money with me, too. I should have run immediately, that's what I should have done. God damn. Now I've got to get out of here, if only he would stop for a second, where did he get a machine gun? They have a car and a machine gun. Too much, Salinas.
The ammunition. Now the money.
El Gurre fired.
Nina heard the windows pulverize under the machine-gun shots. Then leaves of silence between one burst and the next. In the silence, the shadow of her father crept between the glass. With one hand she adjusted her skirt. She was like an artisan intent on refining his work. Curled on her side, she began eliminating the imprecisions one by one. She lined up her feet until she felt her legs perfectly coupled, the two thighs softly joined, the knees like two cups one inside the other, the calves barely separated. She checked the symmetry of her shoes, paired as if in a shop window, but on their sides, you might have said lying down, out of exhaustion. She liked that orderliness. If you are a shell, order is important. If you are shell and animal, everything has to be perfect. Precision will save you.
She heard the pounding of a long volley. And right afterward the voice of a boy.
"Put down the gun, Roca."
Manuel Roca turned his head. He saw Tito standing a few yards away. He was pointing a pistol at him.
"Put down that gun and don't move."
From outside came another burst of gunfire. But the boy didn't move, he stood there, gun pointed. Under that rain of shots, the two stood motionless, staring at each other, the two like one animal that had stopped breathing. Manuel Roca, half lying on the ground, looked the boy in the eyes, as he stood there, in the open. He tried to comprehend if he was a child or a soldier, if it was his thousandth time or his first, and if there was a brain attached to that gun or only blind instinct. He saw the barrel of the gun tremble just perceptibly, as if it were making a tiny scribble in the air.
"Stay calm, kid," he said.
Slowly he placed the rifle on the floor. With a kick he sent it sliding into the center of the room.
"Everything's okay, kid," he said.
Tito didn't take his eyes off him.
"Quiet, Roca, and don't move."
Another blast arrived. El Gurre was working methodically. The boy waited until he finished, without lowering his gun
or his gaze. When silence returned, he glanced toward the window.
"SALINAS! I'VE GOT HIM. STOP IT, I'VE GOT HIM."
And after a moment:
"It's Tito. I've got him."
"He's done it. Shit," said Salinas.
El Gurre made a kind of smile, without turning. He was observing the barrel of the machine gun as if he had carved it himself, in idle hours, from the branch of an ash tree.
Tito looked for them in the light from the window.
Slowly Manuel Roca got up just enough so that he could lean his back against the wall. He thought of the gun pressing into his side, stuck in his pants. He tried to remember if it was loaded. He touched it with one hand. The boy didn't notice anything.
Let's go, Salinas said. They went around the stack of wood and headed straight for the farmhouse. Salinas walked slightly bent, as he had seen it done in films. He was ridiculous like all men who fight: without realizing it. They were crossing the farmyard when they heard, from inside, a gunshot.
El Gurre ran. He reached the door of the farmhouse and kicked it open. Three years earlier, he had kicked open the door of the stable, had entered and had seen his wife hanging from the ceiling, and his two daughters with their heads shaved, their thighs spattered with blood.
He kicked open the door and went in and saw Tito, pointing the gun toward a corner of the room.
"I had to do it. He has a gun," the boy said.
El Gurre looked in the corner. Roca was lying on his back. He was bleeding from one arm.
"I think he has a gun," the boy said again. "Hidden somewhere," he added.
El Gurre went over to Manuel Roca.
He looked at the wound in his arm. Then he looked the man in the face.
"Hello, Roca," he said.
He placed one shoe on Roca's wounded arm and began to crush it. Roca shrieked and folded over on himself in pain. The gun slid out of his pants. El Gurre leaned down to pick it up.
"You're a smart kid," he said. Tito nodded. He realized that he still had his arm extended in front of him, and the gun in his hand, pointed at Roca. He lowered it. He felt his two fingers relax around the trigger of the pistol. His whole hand hurt, as if he had been punching a wall. Stay calm, he thought.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Without Blood by Alessandro Baricco. Copyright © 2004 by Alessandro Baricco. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.