Captain Torres has just returned from a four-day hunt, and he has returned with fourteen captive rebels. He plans to punish them later that afternoon, at 6 p.m., and he wants to be sure that the barber is present. We find out at the end of the story that Torres has suspected the barber of secretly being a rebel, and his visit for a shave is in part due to find out if this is true. Torres allows the barber to shave him--a perfect opportunity to slash the captain's throat. But when the barber merely provides his customer a shave, without spilling a single drop of blood, Torres leaves the shop assuming that the barber is not a part of the revolutionaries--or else too cowardly to commit murder in such a manner. The captured rebels will be executed at 6 p.m., possibly by firing squad, but Torres suggests that their punishment may be "a little slower," since torture has been involved before. All loyal citizens will be expected to attend, and the barber will probably show up to watch his friends suffer in order to keep his secret hidden from Torres.
Hernando Tellez's short story "Just Lather, That's All" is about a barber in a small town or village in a Latin American nation—the author's native Colombia, perhaps. The people in this nation are suffering, as many did for many years, the tribulations of guerrilla warfare and a corrupt, brutal government that exhibits little inclination to defer to such niceties as the "rules of war," which prohibit the deliberate targeting of civilians and demand due process of law for those suspected of rebel ties. This is frontier justice and, within the small sector of this country, Captain Torres is the police, the jury, and the executioner. When Tellez's story begins, the military officer enters the barber's shop and demands a shave. The problem and the tension in this story derive from the barber's affiliation with the rebel movement that is fighting the government Captain Torres represents. For all the barber knows, that affiliation is unknown to his customer. The soldier and the barber engage in the seemingly usual banter while the barber contemplates his responsibility towards the rebel movement to take the opportunity to slit the captain's throat with the razor that is otherwise to be used for shaving. This banter, however, reveals the brutality of the conflict and the cavalier attitude of the captain towards those he has captured in the field. In the following exchange, the barber, who is also the story's narrator, asks the captain how many rebels the latter captured on his latest patrol:
"How many did you catch?" I asked.
"Fourteen. We had to go pretty deep into the woods to find them. But we'll get even. Not one of them comes out of this alive, not one."
It is this discussion of the captain's plans for his prisoners that leads to his invitation to the barber to come to the school at six o'clock to witness the prisoners' final moments. Captain Torres is known for executing his prisoners, but not before torturing them for information and for entertainment. In response to the barber's query regarding the captain's intentions for the prisoners, and assuming their execution, the officer replies,
"Come to the school today at six o'clock."
"The same thing as the other day?" I asked, horrified.
"It could be better," he replied.
"What do you plan to do?"
"I don't know yet. But we'll amuse ourselves."
At this point in the story, the reader knows that the barber is torn between his responsibility to the rebels to assassinate the captain sitting vulnerably in the barber chair and his dedication to his craft: barbering. What the reader does not know, and will not until the story's final sentences, is that the captain knows exactly who is this barber shaving his four-day-old growth. So, when considering the reason why the captain invites the barber to the school, where tortures and executions will take place, the barber, and the reader, can surmise that the captain, presumably ignorant of the barber's true nature, is merely inviting this inquisitive merchant to a day of macabre festivities, like one of the boys. The real reasons, however, can only be deciphered following the captain's revelation that he is fully aware of the barber's identity: "They told me that you'd kill me. I came to find out. But killing isn't easy. You can take my word for it."
The real reason for the invitation is to expose the barber to the treatment the captain has in store for him on the basis of the barber's sympathies for and cooperation with the rebels. It serves as a very serious warning that the military knows who he is and that he can expect the same should he threaten the captain in any way.