The man in the T-shirt brought the car out again.
"See you later," Leonardo said as he paid.
"Take care," the man said, turning away.
Leonardo pulled over a couple of kilometers after the service station. Before getting out of the car he looked around. The countryside was flat and the yellow grass, mostly unmown, was bending over in the hot wind. A long way off was a hut and the ruins of what must once have been a kiln for making bricks. Then a line of mulberries and some electric pylons disappearing into the distance in the direction of an almost invisible group of houses.
Leonardo listened to the silence for a while then got out of the car and checked that the cans were in place. He opened them and sniffed to make sure the contents had not been replaced while the car was being filled up, then he closed the trunk and mopped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. He became aware of an acid stench of decomposition.
He looked into the ditch separating the road from the fields. There was a dog lying in it, its belly swollen, a swarm of flies whirling around its eyes and open mouth. A black Labrador killed by another dog or poisoned.
He was about to turn back to the car when he heard a whimper. A few meters from the dead dog, the ditch disappeared into a small tunnel no wider than a bicycle wheel. He understood at once what was going on.
He returned to the car, started it, and moved on. He switched on the radio, but the preset came up with nothing, so he switched it off again and drove for several kilometers without slowing down until he was forced to stop at a crossroads.
Checking to make sure there was no other car with the right of way, he noticed a group of men not far off in a field. There were six of them, armed with rifles, and they seemed not to have noticed him: two were using a long pole to explore the ditch that bordered the field, while the others were following them with their eyes on the grass.
Leonardo put the car into gear to drive away but, as he engaged the clutch, six, ten, perhaps twenty dogs jumped out of the ditch the men were searching and all began to run in the same direction. Taken by surprise, the men hesitated then started yelling and shooting at the tapering shapes racing through the grass. The dogs had almost reached a water channel that would have given them protection, when, for no apparent reason, they turned at right angles and offered the wider target of their sides to the hunters. Leonardo saw one or two roll over in the grass, others vanished as if swallowed up by a hole, yet others exploded into reddish puffs of air. Then the shooting stopped and the men spread out to comb the field. An occasional isolated shot followed and then total silence.
Leonardo realized his foot was still on the clutch. He put the car in neutral and took his foot off. The engine struggled, but did not stall.
The men went back to the irrigation trench from which the dogs had come. Leonardo saw some of them go down into the ditch and throw out what looked like small soft bags full of earth. After a few minutes there must have been about thirty of these, piled in a heap.
Then the men scattered across the field and dragged the carcasses of the dogs toward their puppies, and when this was done one of them took a can from his knapsack and poured the contents over the heap.
Leonardo closed his eyes, his chilled sweat-soaked shirt sticking to his chest. When he opened his eyes again a column of black smoke was rising in the air. He stared, paralyzed, for a few moments with the acrid smell of burned fur coming into the car through the window, then he engaged the gears and made a U-turn. Moving away, he thought he could see in his rear mirror the men waving their arms to attract his attention, but he continued to accelerate.
He recognized the place near the ruins of the kiln. He drew up and, while dust from the edge of the road enveloped the car, he went to the ditch. Lowering himself in, he slithered down it until he was lying on his face in the earth, a few centimeters from the dog's carcass. Disgust forced an inarticulate sound from him, and when he touched his bare arms he realized they were dirty with yellow slime. He wiped them on his shirt, got up, and walked quickly to where the tunnel passed under the road.
Excerpted from The Last Man Standing by Davide Longo. Copyright © 2013 by Davide Longo. Excerpted by permission of Quercus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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