– 1921 –
The night of the damned” was how the inhabitants of the Salemi valley would recall that night in late July when the massacre at Borgo Guarine took place.
There was no moon to illuminate the vast fields of the large Sicilian landed estate, but the pitch-black sky was studded with billions of points of light. At its zenith flowed the river of the Milky Way, seemingly close enough to touch with an outstretched hand. In its brightness, the dark outlines of the surrounding mountains were just visible. The earlier heat had given way to a light breeze blowing in from the sea, and the magic of that landscape, so harsh and brutal during the day, was sweetened with the scent of wildflowers and lemon groves.
That fatal night, Gaetano Vassallo came down from the foothills of the Montagna Grande with two of his most trusted men: Corrado and Mariano. He hadn’t seen his children since he’d gone into hiding over four months earlier.
His two bodyguards showed up at Borgo Guarine first, while Vassallo remained behind a clump of prickly pear to steer clear of a possible ambush.
The night’s silence was ruptured by barking dogs alerted by the hoofbeats of the bandits’ horses. Corrado and Mariano approached the settlement’s small cluster of houses cautiously. Fearful eyes peered at them from behind the slats of the shutters, which were then quickly bolted. The two men spurred their mounts, splitting off to check both sides of the village. But there were no interlopers around. That was when Corrado gave a faint, prolonged whistle.
With a jerk of the reins, Gaetano Vassallo emerged from his hiding place and galloped toward the two men. Once they had regrouped, the three continued along the path leading out of the village and came to a halt about a quarter mile later in front of the farm of Gaetano’s brother, Geremia.
In a trench that had been dug into a gully by soldiers from the Royal Guard, a young soldier named Gaspare had heard the dogs barking, then a prolonged whistle, and finally the patter of horses’ hooves. Lifting the sod covering that the guardsmen had placed over their hideout as camouflage, Gaspare trained his binoculars on the farm.
Darkness and distance did not allow him to make out the details of Geremia Vassallo’s small farmhouse, but when the door opened a crack and a flickering ray of light spilled out, he glimpsed a shadow stealthily enter the house.
Gaspare’s heart gave a start, and he recalled Captain Lorenzo Costa’s orders: “If you have even a trace of a doubt, report it immediately.” This nighttime visit was definitely unusual. Gaspare crawled out of the ditch and started running as fast as he could to cover the mile or so separating him from an outpost manned by fellow guardsmen. After several minutes of frantic sprinting, he reached them and from there alerted headquarters by means of a field telephone.
An hour later, under the command of Captain Lorenzo Costa, forty Royal Guardsmen inched forward quietly in groups of three to surround Geremia Vassallo’s farm. The Royal Guard, a special branch of the military police numbering in the tens of thousands nationwide, had been alerted that Gaetano Vassallo, the most dangerous bandit in the territory of Salemi, was inside his brother’s house. Their orders were to prevent him from escaping and, if possible, to capture him alive. As for the other two outlaws, they could decide on the spot: dead or alive, there were no specific instructions.
Mariano, the first of Vassallo’s bodyguards, was covering the rear of the farmhouse, while the other, Corrado, kept an eye on the entrance.
Their long stay in the woods had heightened the bandits’ sensitivity to any sounds and movements that were not part of nature. When Mariano suddenly heard a suspicious, stealthy crawling nearby, he lifted his rifle and spun around, staring into the shadows in an attempt to penetrate the darkness. A young guardsman jumped out from behind a bush and leapt on him, clamping his mouth shut and then slashing his throat from ear to ear. The guardsman was swiftly joined by the other two soldiers from his group. But the outlaw Mariano had already breathed his last.
Corrado, the other bandit, heard a slight scuffle coming from behind the house and quietly called out to his friend.
One of the guardsmen let out a whistle in response. Corrado, suspicious, headed with his rifle around the side of the house, his finger on the trigger. The signal hadn’t convinced him, but his moment of hesitation was enough to allow the two foremost units of guardsmen to leap toward him. Corrado sprang like a cobra. As soon as he saw the first soldier’s figure outlined against the sky, he fired and hit the man right in the chest. An instant later he was overwhelmed by a superhuman force that slammed him to the ground. Then two, three, four, five Royal Guardsmen were upon him, finishing him off with their daggers and bayonets. A dozen other soldiers stormed the front door while still others, following the captain’s orders, guarded the windows of the farmhouse to block any means of escape.
As soon as they broke down the door, the first two guardsmen shouted for the occupants to surrender. But they found Geremia standing in front of them, holding the double-barreled shotgun he used for hunting. He shot the first man point-blank in the doorway, and in rapid succession fired at the second. The two young soldiers slumped to the ground with bloodcurdling screams. Inside the house, a woman was shrieking, and children were crying hysterically.
As Geremia hastened to reload the shotgun, ten other guardsmen acting in unison charged into the house.
Just inside was a kitchen with a fireplace; a large table stood in the center, with two cots placed against the walls. Brave little Jano, frightened but not crying, had rolled out from under the blankets to hide beneath his cot.
In his aunt’s room, directly adjacent to the kitchen, he heard his brother Giovanni bawling with all the force his young lungs could muster. Jano stuffed part of a blanket in his own mouth so a moan wouldn’t slip out. From under the bed, he saw a flurry of people break into the room and rush at his uncle Geremia, wresting the gun from his hands. Then the slaughter began. In horror Jano saw a severed hand fall beside the bed where he was hiding. Then he heard gunshots and immediately after that, pieces of bloodied legs and arms rolled to the floor. Drunk with terror, little Jano closed his eyes, covered his ears, and shrank back into the farthest corner of his makeshift shelter.
He could hear his aunt Rosalia’s strangely altered voice but was unable to see the woman fall desperately upon his uncle, gathering missing body parts off the floor in an irrational attempt to reassemble them. The next ten minutes were an orgy of screams, gunshots, objects torn to pieces and dashed to the ground. Luckily for him, the child did not see what his poor aunt had to endure, though her screams would remain fixed in his ears for many years to come.
Someone wrenched the woman away from her husband. Covered only by her blood-soaked nightgown, she was taken brutally, every part of her body violated. In the tumult, the woman, crazed with grief, managed to grab a gun from the floor and shoot herself. Fragments of her brain splattered the face of the man on top of her, who collapsed when the bullet ricocheted and reduced his eye to a pulp. It was a signal for yet another bloody frenzy. The Royal Guardsmen, not yet sated, went on to defile her corpse.
The mayhem ended with the arrival of Captain Lorenzo Costa, who had to fire several shots in the air to make himself heard by those men who had turned into savage beasts. Finally, exhausted, blood smeared, having had their fill of violence, the soldiers quieted down.
Captain Costa surveyed the wreckage in the rooms, taking care not to tread on any organic remains with his boots. In the bedroom, he found a child five or six years old lying on the floor with his head crushed. In a large cradle a few feet away he discovered two seemingly dead babies. But then he realized that only one of the twins had been strangled. The other, a girl just a few months old, seemed to be still alive; maybe she had been knocked unconscious by a blow to her face, which was now swollen. No one noticed Jano, huddled under the cot in the kitchen, hidden by a tangle of blankets.
“Where’s Gaetano Vassallo?” the captain shouted in a tone that made the men around him shudder. “You let him get away!”
“Captain, sir, no one got out of here,” one of the guardsmen spoke up. “We kept watch at every window. No one left the farmhouse.”
Suddenly something caught Costa’s attention. He noticed that under the cradle the floorboards were loose. He had them move the crib and saw a trap door leading to the cellar of the house; from there a natural tunnel led out to the slope of a nearby hill.
Evidently Vassallo had escaped by that route as soon as he heard the shot fired by his bodyguard.
The discovery infuriated the captain. He realized that the responsibility for all that havoc rested solely on him. He had subjected the young men to intolerable pressure for too long, anticipating their confrontation with the bandit. So inured had they become to death that life itself was now of little importance to them: he had turned them into a pack of wild animals. After this unprecedented bloodbath, they were sure to undergo a trial from which none of them would emerge unscathed. It would be a total scandal. Unless he quickly found some way out, his career and his entire life would be ruined. If only they had captured Vassallo, everything would have been more acceptable. They could say they’d been attacked by the bandit and his men and had defended themselves. But how could they justify the slaughter of two children, one still an infant, along with a woman and her husband? At dawn, the whole town would know. He had to find a solution fast. The blame would have to be pinned on a scapegoat, and the culprit had to be someone who stood to gain from wiping out the Vassallo family.
His decision made, he ordered his men to give him a pistol and one of the bloody daggers. Wrapping them in an undershirt he found in the bedroom, the captain charged one of his most trusted men, Michele Fardella, to go and stash the bundle on Rosario Losurdo’s farm. Next, he directed that the bandits’ three horses be led away into the woods, instructing his men to get rid of their saddles and harnesses.
Lastly he addressed his forty thugs and made a dire pact with them.