In a barbershop in a small Colombian town, the proprietor, the narrator of the story, is shaving a man. This is no typical customer, however; the barber recounts that he began to tremble when he recognized him. The barber’s detailed description of Captain Torres hanging up his military cap, bullet belt, and holster highlights the man’s authority and his potential for violence. During the course of the shave, the two men engage in brief but revealing dialogue. The captain has just returned from capturing a band of revolutionaries and takes pride in his success on a difficult mission. The barber encourages Torres to give details on the number of men apprehended and their fate, because he is a clandestine member of that faction. To add to the barber’s anxiety, Torres asks for acknowledgment of his treatment of revolutionaries. His brutality is confirmed when he reminds the barber of the previous week’s event when he summoned the town to view target practice on the bodies of hanged rebels.
The barber’s monologue reveals the moral dilemma that he faces while shaving the captain. On one hand, he is an informant for the revolutionary party and has the opportunity to kill his enemy. Allowing the man to leave unharmed would compromise the barber’s credibility as a rebel. Given his expertise with a blade, the barber contemplates how easy it would be to slit Torres’s throat while he reclines, with his eyes closed, and his face covered with lather. Killing the captain would mean avenging the death of many of his comrades and perhaps even saving those recently captured. Fate has presented him with a rare opportunity to become a hero.
On the other hand, the barber considers that killing under such circumstances not only could be interpreted as a cowardly act, but also would make him as much a criminal as Torres. “Murderer or hero?” the protagonist asks himself. He realizes that the crime would eventually lead to his capture and execution. The barber also reflects on the result of revolutionary armed conflict. Although he recognizes Torres’s inhumanity, murdering him would contribute one more link to a never-ending chain of violence. “Others come along and still others,” the rebel in barber’s gown thinks to himself, “and the first ones kill the second ones, and they the next ones and it goes on like this until everything is a sea of blood.”
He finishes the shave and must determine what to do before the captain rises from the chair. The story’s climax is reached with the barber’s decision. “I don’t want blood on my hands,” he says to himself, “Just lather, that’s all.” As Torres leaves the barbershop he says, “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.”