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THE PLACE WAS not perfect. This was not where he’d wanted to fight, not on this road, and not on this hillside, which was mostly barren and lit fully by the afternoon sun. Che Guevara had not wished to ambush the truck in the first place, but the soldiers in it had seen the forward element as they were drawing water from the stream next to the road, and the engagement was sharp and fast. Guevara had cursed when the lead column blundered close to the road, and he was furious when he heard the pop pop pop of rifles firing ahead of him.
Guevara trotted past the burning truck, and the reek of flaming tires wafted over him, sharp and acrid. Some of the smoke was white, but most of it was black and rising in a dense, greasy pillar above the mountain road and into a vividly cloudless sky. By the time Guevara reached the place where the stream cut under the road, he guessed that perhaps a hundred bullets had been fired into the cab alone—a quarter blasted through the windshield—and as the driver lost control, the truck had lurched off the turn, smashing over a low guardrail but somehow remaining upright. Guevara had splashed out of the culvert in time to see the bodies of the driver and the passenger dragged from the cab. Their heads lolled, and the heels of their boots made white marks across the road as the corpses were hidden next to the stream. What had been fatal misfortune for the truck drivers would now become an opportunity for the guerrillas.
Guevara knew that from the valley the smoke could be seen for miles. As he crossed the road, he looked back at the burning hulk; inside the cab he could see the steering wheel ablaze in a perfect circle of flames. He was certain now that the army would come, and he was confident that at this distance, the Bolivian soldiers would not see him, his men, or the ambush put down on the last of the tight hairpin turns carved into the mountainside.
All he had to do was wait.
Cradling his rifle in the crook of his elbow, Guevara moved into cover behind a large boulder. His dark hair was shoulder-length, and his beard, thin as it was, covered his face from nose to chin. He was of medium height, and six weeks in the cordillera had made his features sharp and angular—he still looked younger than his thirty- eight years, but rather more haggard than he had looked in many months.
At the boulder, Guevara shifted the weight of his pack off his hips, then the straps from his shoulders. His back was wet where the pack had covered it, and his shirt stuck to his skin as he dropped the rucksack onto the gravel. Where Guevara took cover, there were two men, Joaquin and one of the Bolivian comrades, Willy. Joaquin calmly chewed a piece of grass as Guevara took a map from his pocket and unfolded it on the dirt. Resting his chin on his hand, Guevara looked at the map and then below, where the ribbon of oiled road switched back on itself in a series of tight hairpins. What was called the Camiri Highway was not much more than a two-lane dirt track. Often it was worse. Immediately before each of the hairpin corners was a rude wooden guardrail, and beyond the series of drop-offs, the road was thin and nearly straight as it traversed the valley nine or ten kilometers distant. In places, the road doubled on itself, trees clumped together, and on the valley floor, irregularly shaped plots of corn were bordered by clumps of brush and lavish stands of hardwood. As it paid off into the valley, the road shone almost white against the grass-covered hillsides.
Joaquin squinted down into the valley. On the road below, a truck and two jeeps appeared over a distant hill and slowly, slowly began the long climb.
“I’m guessing we have twenty minutes, maybe thirty,” Joaquin said.
“Yes,” Guevara answered.
“Do you think they’ll send a patrol up first?”
“If they do, we’ll see it.”
Guevara took a pair of binoculars from his pack and studied the convoy. Behind the vehicles, ocher trails of dust blew off to the south. In each of two jeeps, a sergeant was behind the wheel, and beside him was an officer in a green field uniform and a gold-braided hat. Such hats. They were an amazement. Behind the jeeps, nearly invisible in the dust clouds, was a large American-made truck. A .30- caliber machine gun was mounted in a turret ring on the roof of the cab.
“How many men?” Joaquin asked.
“Enough to go around.”
The soldiers in the convoy outnumbered the men he had on the slope, but that did not matter. Guevara watched for a few moments, then handed the glasses to Joaquin.
As he took the binoculars, Joaquin lifted himself on an elbow. Above the Ñancahuazú basin, the sun beat down, and glare burned from the windshields of the convoy. Joaquin counted thirty-eight Bolivian soldiers and two officers. Like Guevara, he wasn’t worried by the numbers. Joaquin had learned long ago that a few men in ambush could kill many men on a road, and he was sure the comandante knew his business.
“Keep the center group out of sight in the ravine,” Guevara said. “I’ll initiate on the lead vehicle.”
Joaquin glanced over the ambuscade; ten men were hidden along the outside of the turn, and another seventeen in a line with Joaquin and Guevara. They made roughly the shape of an L. Twenty more men were in cover just over the crest of the hill, backing up the main force—a surety against surprises on their flank or rear.
“You think they’re ready for this?” Joaquin asked.
“Us or the army?”
Joaquin smiled tightly. Guevara took back his binoculars and placed them in his pack. “What’s the matter, Joaquin? Got the butterflies?”
“Bats is more like it.”
It was Guevara’s turn to smile. Joaquin lifted himself to a crouch and trotted off toward a place among the second group.
Guevara adjusted his rifle strap and felt the slow, steady beating of his heart against the brown dirt. He breathed deeply and felt a twang of pain in his chest. He clenched his teeth hard. It was a tactic he had used since boyhood to hold off the asthma that was like an anvil pressing down on his lungs. He made his body rigid and inhaled deeply, imagining that he was drinking in air like water. He tried to make himself think of other things—to think of anything but the tightness around his heart and the wheezing in his throat. For an instant he considered having the men fall back, having them avoid this second contact, but he knew the convoy was too close. They were committed, and now the ambush must happen.
Guevara had not wanted contact with the enemy for several reasons. In the first place, the Bolivian comrades were green, and that was why they’d scattered after the first exchange of fire. A second and more tricky problem was that the contact had occurred too early in the day. There were still many hours of sun left, and in daylight the guerrillas could easily be pursued or spotted from the air. They were now only thirty miles from the garrison town of Abapó.
Guevara cursed again. At that manly art, he excelled—his favorite insult being “monkey-faced shit-eater”—and slowly, his mood lightened. In the first engagement, they had not lost a man, and two of the enemy were dead. Joaquin had told him that some of the Bolivian comrades had done well. They had dropped into covered positions and fired steadily. In every engagement, there are things to be learned, and now the Bolivian comrades would be taught to stand and fight. This was a start.
A fluttering of diesel exhaust pulled Guevara from his reverie. Creeping forward in low gear, the convoy came steadily up the twisting road. The Bolivian officer had kept his men in their vehicles —he’d been too stupid or too lazy to send a foot patrol first to investigate the burning truck. Guevara could see the major’s jeep as it approached the start of the last hairpin. Standing on the passenger seat, the officer had one hand on the top of the windshield. As the convoy lurched around the turn, the major was looking at the burning wreck, staring at the only place around him where the guerrillas were not. The major was a paunchy man in a sateen uniform. There was a silver pip on each of his gold-braided shoulder boards. Guevara aimed carefully, the man’s name tag positioned perfectly over the front sight. Several long seconds passed, and Guevara let the jeep roll slowly to the place he knew marked the end of the first squad.
When the lead jeep was just even with him, Guevara rocked the safety with his thumb and moved the muzzle of his rifle slightly to the right. He squeezed a long burst into the major’s radio, an oblong box mounted on the rear of the jeep. Instantly, the guerrillas opened fire.
The ambush broke upon the Bolivian soldiers like a wave. The noise was astonishing, a cacophony of hammer strikes and screeching ricochets. Four bullet holes appeared in the windshield of the first jeep, and the driver jerked backward in a pink cloud of blood and brain matter. A bullet creased the visor of the major’s hat, ripping it from his head and spinning it through the air like a pie tin. Although he had been missed, the major’s knees buckled, and as he fell, he clutched at the uniform of the dead sergeant. Bullets kicked dust and gravel from the road, and the major pulled the sergeant’s corpse on top of himself as a shield.
Bullets swept the turn in the road, striking everywhere. Riddled with fire, the truck slammed on its brakes, and the second jeep smashed into the rear of the burning truck. A young lieutenant spilled from the jeep, waving his pistol in the air and yelling for his men to advance. Some soldiers did jump down from the truck, but they fell where they landed in the road, crumpling like broken dolls. The lieutenant continued to rush forward and was cut down when he stumbled into the cross fire. He fell to his knees, then toppled over as three bullets drilled into him. He lay twitching in a widening puddle of blood that mixed with the dirt, rendering a pool black and thick as tar.
In forty-five seconds, all effective resistance had ceased. Several of the Bolivian soldiers threw down their weapons and started to run off downhill. Some made it. Some were shot down.
Guevara stood, placed his fingers in his mouth, and whistled loudly. The shooting stopped as if someone had turned off a tap. His ears were ringing, and the day seemed suddenly to have been made still. No birds sang. He could not hear the noise of the wind. For a long moment there was only the sound of the fire burning inside the cab of the wrecked truck.
In the shade of the first jeep, Major Gustavo Villa Lopez Buran curled himself against the tire and considered playing dead. The body of his driver was sprawled across his legs; blood from the sergeant’s several wounds was soaking through the major’s trousers. The major could hear the crunching of boots crossing the dirt road and he unsnapped the top flap on his leather holster, removed the pistol, an American-made .45 automatic—and he tossed the gun under the jeep. After this, Major Buran kept his head down and did not move. He heard the moans of the wounded and commands being shouted. The major kept his eyes closed and prayed not to be killed.
A boot pushed upon his shoulder.
Major Buran held his breath and did not move. The voice said again: “Get up.”
Major Buran slowly lifted his face from the dust. Above him stood a bearded man wearing a green slouch cap like a cabdriver might wear. The sun was directly behind the man’s head, and looking up, the major could see only a silhouette with a blinding corona behind it.
“Are you the ranking officer?” Guevara asked.
The major nodded, all at once aware that his mouth was dry as sand. The man standing over him reached down and lifted the officer to his feet.
“I’m prepared to accept your surrender.”
“You have it,” Buran stammered.
Next to the truck, the surviving Bolivian soldiers raised their hands.
“What’s the name of your unit?” Guevara asked.
The major was silent, breathing like a man who had climbed a long staircase.
“Come on, friend, let’s do this the easy way,” Joaquin said.
“We are the Second Company . . . Second of the Fourth Infantry Battalion.”
“Based in Abapó?”
The major took a second to answer. “That is correct.”
The guerrillas herded together the unwounded soldiers, disarmed them, and relieved them of their boots. Packs and crates of ammunition were handed down from the truck. The goods were quickly distributed among the guerrillas. The major was stunned, leaning against the hood of his jeep, blinking like an idiot.
Guevara spoke in a measured tone. “We are going to patch up your wounded, then your men are to be marched along the road back to Abapó.” Guevara slung his rifle and produced a well-chewed pipe. Despite his asthma, tobacco was his chief vice and muse. He reached into the top pocket of the major’s uniform and removed a silver Zippo lighter. He flicked it open and applied the light to the bowl of his pipe.
The guerrillas heaped burning bundles of reeds into the two jeeps and the truck. The vehicles quickly started to burn.
Joaquin touched Guevara on the elbow. “We’re ready, Comandante.”
“Commence the withdrawal,” Guevara said.
The guerrillas started off, one group moving uphill and following the stream. The second group ambled over the side of the embankment and plunge-stepped down into the canyon. Guevara removed a notebook from his pack and leaned against the hood of the wrecked jeep. As the major stood and panted, Guevara calmly composed a letter. He then tore the sheet from the notebook and handed it to Major Buran.
“This is a communiqué from the Army of National Liberation. Give it to your commanding general.”
Buran took the paper, noticing for the first time that his fingers were black with blood and dirt. Guevara observed blandly that the major’s hands were shaking. As Guevara put on his pack, he looked down at the body of the lieutenant sprawled next to the truck.
“Who was this man?” he asked.
“Cortazar,” the major answered. “His name was Cortazar.”
The lieutenant’s head was turned, his pistol lying next to his outstretched hand and his eyes were closed. He looked like a little boy, asleep forever.
“Tell his family he died bravely,” Guevara said.
Trembling, Major Buran watched as Guevara and his band stepped off the road and vanished into the bush.
From the Hardcover edition.