|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||200 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Guillotine Squad
By Guillermo Arriaga
Washington Square PressCopyright © 2007 Guillermo Arriaga
All right reserved.
The battle of Torreón was one of the most difficult and hardest fought that the División del Norte had faced. After the city was taken, General Francisco Villa decided to set up camp in a neighboring plain amidst a cluster of willows whose shade sheltered the fighters from the pitiless sun. Every day, countless merchants would make their way there to hawk their wares to the revolutionaries. Vendors bustled among the troops, making it seem more like a Sunday market than a military outpost.
The general, as was his custom, tended to his affairs far from the din, accompanied only by his most trusted men, under the protection of the more terrifying dorados, his elite soldiers. Villa was going over some military matters with Colonel Santiago Rojas when Sergeant Teodomiro Ortiz arrived to inform him that a merchant, an elegant, dandyish man, insisted upon seeing him. The general was fed up with dealing with salesmen; he had already spoken to three that very morning: one, a bicycle salesman, claimed that a regiment mounted on bicycles was more efficient than a cavalry; the second was offering Spanish armor; and the third carried sombreros with gold and silver trimmings. Annoyed, Villa had kicked them out, though not without warning them first that hewould fill their guts with lead if they didn't leave immediately.
Villa looked at Ortiz. "Tell him I'm not seeing anyone," he said.
"I told him a hundred times, sir, but he insists on seeing you. He says he's got something very important to show you, something you'll be interested in."
Villa remained pensive for a few moments and, with his eyes, ordered Ortiz to call the merchant over.
The sergeant went to get him and returned a few minutes later. He was accompanied by a short, bald, well-dressed, and heavily perfumed man. He greeted Villa with propriety.
"Good afternoon, General Villa. Good afternoon, Colonel Rojas. I am attorney-at-law Feliciano Velasco y Borbolla de la Fuente at your service." He stretched out his hand toward Villa. Villa just looked at him. The little man did not know what to do. He slowly lowered his hand, wiped the sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket, gulped some saliva, and smiled.
"General Villa," he said parsimoniously, "I have come to show you a formidable invention that will be of great use to the Revolution. With this invention, General, sir, you can be sure that you will instill terror in the enemy troops. Whoever dares face the División del Norte will think twice before he does."
"They already think twice," Sergeant Ortiz answered forcefully.
The attorney remained silent and only managed to smile stupidly. He breathed in and went on with his speech.
"You are absolutely right, but this invention will assist in bringing prisoners to justice while reducing expenditure on ammunition, which, as you well know, is scarce, and it isn't worth spending money on other matters that aren't the matters of the war itself.... With this apparatus I have, it is no longer necessary to execute the enemy by firing squad -- "
"Yes, that's why we hang them," Sergeant Ortiz again interrupted.
"Yes, I know," said the short man, "but what do you do when you can't find a tall enough tree?"
"Well, we burn them alive or cut them up with machetes...that's the least of our problems," answered Colonel Rojas.
"But look, Colonel, sir," Velasco went on, "with this invention that I've brought to show you, you can execute prisoners with no hassle at all. Why don't you come see it, and if you like, we can try it out?"
The man led them to a covered wagon where his assistants awaited: one, a tall, ragged man with a large nose and sunken, though animated, eyes; and the other, a strapping young man of average height, with bulky cheeks and a big head. Mr. Velasco requested that his guests wait for a few minutes and then gave a loud order:
"Set it up!"
The assistants hurriedly started to build the apparatus. They took out beams, ropes, pulleys, nails, hammers, supports. They rapidly mounted a structure from which hung in its upper parts a sheet of metal.
Mr. Velasco walked from one side to the other, nervous, wringing his hands the whole time. Once it was ready, he stood before the general and his men and began to speak.
"Gentlemen, this is called...a guillotine. It is an extraordinary instrument, capable of severing a man's life in an instant."
The little man looked at Villa with a smile and walked toward the device. He took a rope in his hands that led to a pulley and yanked it. From the top, the enormous metal sheet dropped, ending in a loud, dry bang. The general and his men were amazed. The merchant raised his hands as if he had finished a magic show. He got one of his assistants to raise the blade again, went to get a thick, heavy wooden log, put it in the base of the contraption, and pulled on the rope again. The log dropped in two pieces with such ease that the machine might as well have cut through a twig.
"What good is that?" asked a stunned Rojas, without fully comprehending what the instrument could be used for.
"Ahhh," exclaimed the little man, "I would like to show you this, of course, as long as General Villa allows it. May I?"
"But to do this I require some prisoners you intend to bring to justice. I need just a few.... Could you have some brought here, General, sir?"
Villa, with a gesture, sent Ortiz to get them.
"This invention was of great use in the French Revolution, almost two centuries ago, and for this reason I have considered that it may be of great use in this our own Revolution," the salesman went on, emphasizing the word our.
General Villa looked at the dandy suspiciously: he did not trust him, but he remained silent.
Sergeant Ortiz returned with the prisoners. He had all kinds: fat ones, skinny ones, tall ones, short ones. He stood at the ready before Villa.
"Here are the prisoners, sir."
The prisoners, ignorant of what was about to happen to them, but certain that their final hour was near, pushed and crowded each other like cattle at a slaughterhouse. The general slowly looked over the prisoners, one by one, up and down. His eyes fixed on a tall, skinny prisoner.
"That one," he said, gesturing at him with his head.
"Very well," said the little man, and ordered his assistants to go get him. The tall, skinny man didn't know what to do and tamely let himself be walked to the guillotine. The assistants made him kneel and placed his neck in a rounded hollow at the base of the machine. People began to notice that something strange was happening and silently crowded around. Villa, impatient, waited with his arms crossed.
Once the preparations were finished, Velasco offered the general the rope. Villa slowly walked up and took the rope that the attorney's anxious hands held out to him.
"Now pull, sir."
Villa started the mechanism and the blade dropped instantly on the prisoner's neck, slicing his head off in one cut. A woman in the audience screamed in horror and fainted. The little man smiled, pleased at the display of his contraption's total efficacy. Villa was staring, engrossed, at the death throes of the decapitated body.
The other prisoners, overcome with terror, gazed, completely paralyzed, at the macabre spectacle that it was their turn to continue. Completely pale, with their eyes out of orbit, they implored the heavens that they should not be next.
Villa, spattered with blood, seemed not to believe what he was seeing. His gaze, however, shone with that peculiar glimmer that his eyes possessed when something truly pleased him. Mr. Velasco, fully conscious of his success, stood before the general and began to chant like a street vendor:
"As yooouuu caaan seee, theee guiiiloootiiine quiiickly teeerminated the exiiisteeeence ooof this iiiindiviiiduaaal." He pointed at the victim's decapitated body as it shivered slightly. "Iiiit has dooone sooo, iiiin suuuch a faaashiooon thaaaat iiiinstiiills amooong usss, a feeeeling of feeear aaand ressssspect."
A veritable tumult had formed around the scene. The majority looked on, concerned.
Villa, with evident interest, asked, "How long does the blade last?"
"Thousands of executions, General, sir," answered the little man. "This product comes absolutely guaranteed. If you like, we can try it again."
The prisoners, who had all overheard the conversation, milled about, trying to go unnoticed, to hide behind each other. The people, expectant, awaited the selection of the next prisoner to be executed -- a dark-skinned man with curly hair.
The assistants went to fetch him, but the man resisted, shouting for clemency.
"Line me up, shoot me, but please, not this!" he desperately moaned.
Several soldiers were required to drag him up to the stand. Nevertheless, the prisoner pushed himself up strenuously and lifted his neck out of the hollow every time it was held there. The struggle seemed as if it would never end, until it occurred to Sergeant Ortiz to walk around to the other side and hold him down by his knotted hair. The man was finally immobilized.
The merchant pulled the rope and the murderous blade once again carried out its purpose. The dark-skinned man's head was cut loose into Ortiz's hands, and he raised it up victoriously.
Villa, visibly excited, had the procedure performed several times. And in every instance, the guillotine made heads roll in the dust. One by one, the prisoners were executed, until it was necessary to bring more for the general to be truly convinced.
After four hours of bloody demonstrations, the area was covered in a shapeless mound of decapitated heads. The audience, their morbid curiosity satisfied (including, of course, the woman who had at first fainted), went back to their daily chores, chatting excitedly about the event. General Villa, Sergeant Ortiz, Colonel Rojas, and the merchant were left alone. The latter, though pleased with himself, approached Villa timidly.
"See, General, sir, how my invention works like a charm? Did I not tell you so?"
"Well, yes," said Villa, "it's pretty good."
"Let me also add that the guillotine can be set up and taken apart at a moment's notice. That makes it easy to control and transport."
Mr. Velasco, with a definitive air of triumph, smiled happily. The others, Villa among them, were also smiling. All of a sudden, the merchant turned serious and began to talk with a demeanor that said, "Let's get down to business."
"Well, General, sir...if it's not too much trouble...I'd like, of course, if it's possible and you're interested in my product...I'd like to discuss the price."
"The price?" asked Villa, looking puzzled.
"Yes, General, sir. Building a guillotine is an expensive venture, and seeing as how we've built it with imported components -- "
"How much do you want for it?" Colonel Rojas interrupted.
"A mere thirty pesos," answered Velasco.
"Don't you think that's excessive?" the colonel reproached.
"I beg you to consider the fact that it is built from the finest materials: cast iron, walnut wood, Dutch pulleys, jute ropes -- "
Villa intervened, "Mr. Velasco, I can pay you with something even better."
The little man turned to look at him.
Villa smiled at him complacently. "I am going to pay you with something that's worth more than fifty thousand pesos."
The salesman blushed, both pleased and embarrassed. "I am infinitely grateful, sir, General, sir."
Villa turned to Sergeant Ortiz. "Sergeant..."
"Yes, General Villa."
"Do me the favor of enlisting first Captain Feliciano Velasco y Borbolla de la I-don't-know-what in the División del Norte and immediately integrating him into the Guadalupe Victoria brigade."
The look of pleasure that had formed on the merchant's face started to disfigure. "I don't understand, sir."
"What's not to understand, my little friend? I just did you the honor of giving you a military rank in the revolutionary army."
"I thank you from the depths of my soul, sir, but to tell the truth, I'd rather you pay me at least, say, twenty pesos....Please understand, General, sir...it's just that when it comes to war, I'm really an idiot."
"It shows, Mr. Velasco, it shows, but don't you worry, we'll get rid of the idiot in you as we go."
"That's not it, sir, it's just that, to tell the truth, I think it's best if you give me the twenty pesos and -- "
"Are you trying to tell me that you are spurning the position I just granted you?" roared Villa.
Velasco realized that he had just incensed Villa's legendary temper.
"No, General Villa, sir, don't get me wrong, it's just that..."
Villa stared at him with his fiery eyes. "It's just that what?" he asked, underscoring his indignation on the final what?
The little man gulped: he knew he had no way out.
"It's just that what?" repeated Villa, enraged.
As best he could, attorney-at-law Velasco began to chatter out verbiage, hoping to attenuate the revolutionary leader's fury.
"It's just that, look, sir, I am ashamed that, with no merits on the battlefield, you should give me, just like that, such a high rank, I who, when it comes to war, am a..."
Velasco shut up when he felt Villa's fierce eyes running over him. He was certain that a storm of insults would soon rain down upon him, and that any minute Villa would pronounce his death sentence, and his head would roll with the others. But instead the general smiled, gave him a slap on the back that almost knocked him over, and spoke slowly:
"You're right, my little friend. If I make you a captain just like that, my people wouldn't take kindly to it, and I wouldn't like that at all, now, would I? Why don't we give you the rank of sergeant instead, and if you hold up when it's time to fight, I'll bring you back up to captain. Now do me the favor of going with Sergeant Ortiz, who'll provide you with a uniform and your necessary effects. Then he'll take you to Colonel González, who's the head of your brigade. And you, Ortiz, take good care of our new comrade-in-arms."
Both of Feliciano Velasco y Borbolla de la Fuente's assistants were also enlisted into the División del Norte. They became Corporal Juan Álvarez (the lanky one with lively eyes) and Private Julio Belmonte (the strapping, chubby-cheeked one), who under the direct orders of Sergeant Feliciano Velasco formed the Guillotine Squad of Torreón, so named in honor of the recently captured city, and of which they were the only three members. Sergeant Ortiz provided them with uniforms and military equipment: boots, ammunition, canteens (which were usually only given to the highest-ranking officers, but, in light of the prominent role of the guillotine in the Revolution's plans, were given with honors to Sergeant Velasco and his men), knives, pistols (Sergeant Velasco's was a Smith & Wesson with a mother-of-pearl handgrip, an honor reserved only for the highest-ranking officers, et cetera), Winchester lever-action rifles, and their respective insignia.
The uniforms, which were all one size and seemed to be tailored for a man Villa's height, marvelously suited Corporal Álvarez and Private Belmonte, who somehow or other, with a rolled sleeve here and a tuck there, managed to make them fit. This was not the case with Sergeant Velasco, whose shirt fit him like a coat and his pants like a swimming pool. It was necessary to have the tailor make him a special uniform.
Sergeant Ortiz introduced them to Colonel González, head of the Guadalupe Victoria brigade, who received them with great pleasure. The colonel lined up the troops and, before the entire brigade, praised the revolutionary fervor of their new comrades-in-arms (without having known them for more than five minutes). The tight, prolonged hug Colonel González gave Sergeant Velasco, and the cordial, affectionate handshakes he gave to Corporal Álvarez and Private Belmonte, sealed the three new members' admission into the Guadalupe Victoria brigade. Once the ceremony was over, after rounds were fired in their honor, the three were assigned a tent with cots (an honor reserved for the highest-ranking, et cetera).
Copyright © 1991 by Guillermo Arriaga
Translation copyright © 2007 by Alan Page
Excerpted from The Guillotine Squad by Guillermo Arriaga Copyright © 2007 by Guillermo Arriaga. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.