I walked out of my tent in the early morning whistling a happy tune, exuberant about the task before me: I was going to execute a prisoner. Pancho was his name, a local farmer who had served as an occasional guide (and, incidentally, as a reluctant supplier of revoltingly emaciated, overpriced chickens). The capital charge against Pancho had originated in this way:
I had sent Coco and several men on a scouting mission to search for targets of opportunity. Unfortunately, the only opportunity of which Coco had seen fit to avail himself was the one to hopelessly lose himself and his detachment somewhere in the jungle. We went in search of them, and had been stumbling around for weeks while Pancho performed an increasingly dubious imitation of a bloodhound. But somehow, our search party always seemed to just miss catching up with the missing men; at the end of every day, we would find a cool pile of ashes where they had built a cook-fire the evening before. Late one afternoon, however, as we came across the inevitable remains of a campfire, Pepe found the very bayonet that he had lost the previous night. It then became obvious that Pancho – a hulking great campesino, incidentally, with a walrus mustache and feet the size of scuba flippers – had been leading us in circles, and that the campfires had all been our own. The penalty for sabotaging the revolution was, of course, death, and I was looking forward to dispatching this traitor.
I summoned Pepe, Hector and Augusto and could barely contain a smile at the prospect of seeing their grateful faces when I informed them that they had been chosen for the honor of making up a firing squad. Yet, to my surprise, when so informed, they grew sullen and fidgety and tried to excuse themselves. “There’s nothing I’d rather do, Jefe”, Pepe spluttered, “but I’ve got to make breakfast for the men.” Since the aroma of Pepe’s cooking was usually the sort of thing that caused the men to pull the flaps of their sleeping bags over their heads, if not actually push their faces into the dirt, I told Pepe that I was sure they’d be willing to spare him for a little while. Hector claimed that he was still trying to get accustomed to using his middle finger to shoot his rifle (having blown his trigger finger off while cleaning a pistol), and Augusto said he had a headache. I glared at them with contempt.
“This is a standard part of your duty as privileged members of the vanguard of the revolution. Why, back in ’59, I personally shot so many prisoners at La Cabaña, that I got to where I didn’t even have to look up from my newspaper when I pulled the trigger.”
Augusto went white, and Pepe began massaging his stomach. Hector sucked the stump of his index finger. I was brooking no more nonsense, however, and barked at them to grab their weapons and follow me.
Our happy group reassembled a few minutes later and marched over to a thin line of trees at the edge of a shallow ravine. There sat Pancho, with his back against a boulder, bound hand and foot with rope. I took out my knife and cut the bonds on his feet, and he rose and stretched, creating the illusion that the larger part of the boulder had broken off and come to life. Pancho gave a tremendous yawn, his mustachios flapping upward like the wings of a fruit bat in flight, and he smacked his lips. His insouciance, under the circumstances, was so striking that I began to wonder whether he had forgotten that he was the guest of honor at a firing squad.
“Pancho, you realize, don’t you, that you have been tried and sentenced to death?”
“Si, señor Che.”
“Ah. Very good, then. Men, form your line! Pancho, stand over there by that tree.”
“Un momento, señor Che. Don’t I get a last meal?”
I admit that I was a little taken aback by this request; however, I had a ready answer. Shooting a sidewise glance at Pepe, I asked him, “Pepe, do we have any leftovers from dinner?”
“Oh, si, Jefe; plenty.”
“And what was on the bill of fare?”
“Er…tossed salad and lobster Newburg.”
I sneered at Pepe’s fantastic embellishment. “Pancho, that would be dandelion leaves and burnt crawdads.”
Pancho snorted in disgust. “No, let’s get on with it, then. But I do have some final words.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Ok, ok. Speak your last words.”
Pancho cleared his throat. Marx dammit, I thought. An orator.
Pancho stood tall and straight, and bellowed in his loud baritone, “I die so that Bolivia may live.”
I turned again to my men. “All right. Ready!...”
“No, wait, señor Che. There’s more.”
I tapped my foot impatiently. “Well?”
“Now, let’s see…where was I?...Oh, yes…I die so that Bolivia may live, and I regret that I have only one life to give in the fight against godless communism. Amen.”
“That’s all? You’re sure you wouldn’t like to sing the Bolivian national anthem?”
“No, no. I’m through.”
“Ready!” I shouted. “Aim!” I suddenly realized that I had been absentmindedly standing in front of the guns, so I hustled out of the way. “Fire!”
The air was punctured with a ragged volley of…clicks. “Imbeciles!” I roared. I looked at Pancho and asked, “Can you believe this?” He grinned sympathetically and shook his head.
“Didn’t you boys forget something? Like bullets, for example? We’re not here to starve the prisoner to death!”
The prisoner coughed discreetly. “Excuse me, señor Che.”
“What do you want?” I snapped.
“If I can’t have a last meal, how about a cigarette?”
I stomped over to the prisoner, pulled a gasper out the pack in my shirt pocket, and jabbed it into his mouth, lighting it with a match. Then I stomped back to face the men.
They were standing there, sheepish but strangely relieved. Hector spoke up. “Sorry, Comandante, but you’ve been rationing ammo, and we’re so used to walking around with empty guns that we forgot all about the bullets.”
“Well, one of you run back to my tent and get some out of the ammo box. And, er, try not to disturb Tania; she was, um, up kind of late last night.”
All three began to trot off. “Halt!” I shouted. It just occurred to me that their new-found zeal might conceivably have something to do with the (unfortunately) well-known fact that Tania slept in the nude. “Hector, Pepe, you stay here. Augusto, you go. And stand outside of the tent, you hear? Holler in through the opening.”
I then proceeded, as the gringos say, to rip the remaining two a “new one”. Their eyes never left the ground, and by the time I was finished, they were properly scorched. I was looking forward to repeating my little lecture for Augusto’s benefit.
Augusto returned (after what I felt was an inordinately long time). He handed over three bullets, and stared, frowning, in the direction of our prisoner.
“Where’s Pancho?” he asked.
“Idiot! He’s right where he was when…”
I had swung around and was now pointing at Pancho - or rather, at the empty space he had recently occupied, since he, himself, was gone. His smoldering cigarette butt lay on the ground. I went over to the spot where he had been standing and picked up the coil of rope that had been used to bind his hands. I saw immediately that the rope was burned clean through. We ran to the edge of the ravine.
I had to hand it to him. He might have been built along the lines of a gorilla in snowshoes, but he moved with the silent swiftness of a gazelle. We caught sight of him clambering out of the ravine on the other side, after which he quickly disappeared into the woods.
I looked down at the three bullets in my hand, and then at my three incompetent comrades. “You know”, I said through clenched teeth, “once you’re in the mood for an execution, it’s very difficult to leave the urge unsatisfied.”
Pepe’s voice broke as he virtually squeaked, “Say, how about breakfast?”
I let them go. After all, perhaps Pepe’s cooking would yield the desired results.
[Author’s note: the previous episode, and links to the whole series, can be found here. One of these days, I’ll try to create a folder.]