It is 1949, outside San Angelo, Texas, and the death of John Grady Cole’s grandfather causes his absentee mother to sell the family ranch. John Grady’s poor, ill, vagabond father, who is also a gambler, cannot help the family.
John Grady and Lacey Rawlins, his friend, head for Mexico. The boys enjoy the old cowboy life without the cattle. They are followed by a skinny younger boy who calls himself Jimmy Blevins and claims ownership of the magnificent bay, or red-colored horse, he is riding. Although John Grady and Lacey doubt his story, they allow him to ride along anyway.
Jimmy exhibits his shooting skills and regales them with his stories. One day a norther, or strong storm with north winds, threatens, and Jimmy insists on trying to outride the storm; he hides in an arroyo wearing only his dirty underwear because he fears the fastenings of his clothes will draw lightning. The next day, John Grady and Lacey find Jimmy with only one boot and no horse. His clothes have washed away in the flood of the storm. John Grady consults the reluctant Lacey and then lends Jimmy a shirt. He and Jimmy ride double.
In Encantada, they spot Jimmy’s pistol in a man’s hip pocket and his horse in an old mud building. Rawlins argues that they should ride away before it is too late, but John Grady realizes that he cannot abandon Blevins, and Rawlins agrees to stay. Blevins says that he will not leave without his horse, saddle, and gun. The boys ride into town at daybreak but cannot locate the horse. Blevins vanishes into an open window of the stable and suddenly bursts through the fence on the galloping bay. They are hotly pursued until Blevins says that because his horse is faster, he should stay on the road and John Grady and Lacey should head cross country. With that, he is gone.
John Grady and Rawlins ride until they come to a huge ranch, La Purísima, and hire on as ranch hands. John Grady has exceptional skills with horses, and he makes a deal with Don Rocha to break and train his range stock. Rocha is impressed with John Grady and promotes him.
The boys also notice Rocha’s beautiful equestrienne daughter, Alejandra. John Grady is invited by Alejandra’s grandaunt, Dueña Alfonsa, to visit the house and play chess. Some days later, John Grady and Alejandra become lovers. The next day, officers appear at the house, but they soon leave. Don Rocha finds out about his daughter’s activities and considers killing John Grady. Soon, however, John Grady is wakened and arrested by two officers tipped off by Rocha. He and Rawlins are handcuffed, returned to Encantada, and put into a small jail cell where Blevins is already incarcerated, his feet crippled from beatings. Two months after parting, Blevins had returned to the town to retrieve his pistol and ended up shooting three men, one of whom died. Though he likely acted in self-defense, Blevins is charged with murder. The boys are interrogated, brutalized, and taken away in a truck. At a stop, Blevins is removed from the truck and then shot. The boys end up in an old Saltillo prison, where the captain admits that, to save face, he fulfilled a contract on Blevins by the brother of Blevins’s victim.
After much suffering in prison, John Grady secretly purchases a knife from inmates and kills a young would-be assassin. Wounded and scarred, he is set free along with Rawlins, paid out of prison by Alejandra’s grandaunt. Rawlins promptly returns to San Angelo and John Grady returns to La Purísima, where Dueña Alfonsa tells him that because he is unlucky he will never be with Alejandra. He is given Rawlins’s grullo horse. John Grady telephones Alejandra, who sneaks out to meet him in Zacatecas. They spend a glorious day together but, devastated because her father is so angry at her, she cannot stay with him. They sadly part.
John Grady returns to Encantada, where he retrieves his, Rawlins’s, and Blevins’s horses and kidnaps the captain. In the mountains one night, he is awakened by three mysterious men who give him a serape, remove the captain’s handcuffs, and take the captain away.
In early 1951, John Grady returns to Texas and searches vainly for the owner of Blevins’s horse and identity. Finding neither, he is awarded the horse by a judge. He returns to San Angelo, delivers Rawlins’s horse, and learns his own father has died. From a distance, he watches the funeral of the Mexican abuela who raised him, and he then rides west into a wild, fading world.
The Crossing opens in 1941, with sixteen-year-old Billy Parham observing the wolves running on the plain near his family’s ranch, close by the Animas Peaks. One day, he and his brother, Boyd, meet an Indian boy who demands food. Billy complies, but though they agree to bring him coffee, they do not return from the house.
A wolf is killing calves on their range, so the boys and their father borrow traps and try to catch it. The wolf, a female who came up from Mexico after hunters had killed her mate, outsmarts them at every turn. However, she is more interested in finding other wolves than new hunting grounds. Billy asks an old man for help, and the old man tells him he must recognize the place where God sits and plans to destroy Creation, where fire is still in the earth. Billy sets a trap inside the dying embers of a vaquero campfire and catches the wolf. Upon finding her, treating her injured leg, and suffering much travail, he decides to lead her back to Mexico. He leaves, telling no one.
In Mexico, Billy is stopped by armed men who confiscate the wolf. She is taken to a festival, where she becomes the feature attraction. She is chained and forced to fight vicious dogs. Billy grasps her collar and...