I remember it clearly: first I heard the clicking of spurs, then came the imposing figure―skin tanned by the Brazilian northern sun, gray eyes, a leather hat and a prophet’s long beard. He walked into my grandfather’s barbershop without saying a word, inspiring fear and imposing silence upon us all. In walked the most wanted man in the country; his head was worth land and cattle. Fearsome to police and outlaws alike, in came Severino Correia de Assis, better known as Rattlesnake Severino: impervious to all harm, baptized by Father Cícero, a descendant of Lampião, vigilante of the caatinga.
“Boy,” my grandfather said firmly “bring me the mirror.”
Back then, my job was to hold a small mirror in front of the customer’s face while my grandfather shaved them.
But before we go on, let me tell you about my grandfather. He was long on the tooth, but still vigorous and strong. When younger, he had been known for his misdeeds. He’d been in a lot of fights; he even killed people and almost died one day. He stole and resold horses with his gang and they terrorized the city. One day, he was caught in an ambush, and the only reason he didn’t die was because a pai-de-santo had blessed him. But from that day on, he could never do evil again, or tragedy would strike. So he settled down, opened a barbershop and lived a simple life. But I knew that inside him, the spirit of trouble still lived. I knew he was buried in debt and also, that he thirsted for notoriety and acclaim.
This is why a cold sweat ran through me when I looked into his eyes and saw his shaking hands and blade at the ready as he shaved Rattlesnake Severino, a man with a prize on his head worth a gold mine, whose neck was now naked and unprotected. I knew what my grandfather was thinking. I knew there was more than one rattlesnake in that room. And I knew that all it took to kill Severino was a flick of his wrist.
But Severino was a shrewd man. He’d never make such a flagrant mistake. He respected my grandfather’s old age, but he’d seen many barbaric grizzled men. So, without a word, he sat on the chair my grandfather indicated, took out his rifle and pointed it at me, who was standing right there holding the mirror to his face. If my grandfather tried anything, I was the one who was going to get it.
And so it was that, as my grandfather’s shaking hand put the blade to Severino’s face, Severino pointed a Winchester at my chest. It was the fastest gun against the fastest blade in the Northeast.
Then, the moment came to shave Severino’s neck. My grandfather pressed the blade against his throat and looked at me, as if waiting for a sign. I glanced at Severino’s rifle, and noticed he had his finger on the trigger. I knew I could flash a light on his eyes with the mirror and briefly blind him. I also knew that eyesight wasn’t his only guide: he’d still have his keen senses of smell, hearing and his instincts. But all it’d take was a sign from me.
But I faltered. I shook my head, embarrassed at my lack of guts. Severino took his finger off the trigger, my grandfather shaved him as usual and the afternoon came upon us.
Freshly shaved, Rattlesnake Severino paid my grandfather a good amount of stolen money and called me. I timidly approached him and he handed me his rifle, the very same one that had recently threatened me. The heavy Winchester was in my hands.
Here we have it: the most unexpected attack was yet to come.
As Rattlesnake Severino turned his back to me, on his way to the door, I pointed and cocked the rifle at his back. Severino stopped on his heels when he heard the click. My grandfather, stunned, just stood there, breathing raggedly.
My heart beat fast, wild and uncontrollable. None of those rattlesnakes had thought to worry about an innocent boy. I closed my eyes and impulsively pressed the trigger.
The rifle was empty.