Like many of John Steinbeck's stories, "Flight" is set in the area of California around Salinas and Monterey. In the exposition of the story Steinbeck describes a meager farm "on the wild coast." It is a simple homestead on "sloping acres" with a modest house and barn that are set low on the landscape. The reader may get the impression that this is difficult land to make a living on.
The Torres family consists of a mother, a 19-year-old son, and two younger siblings. Mama Torres is described as "lean" and authoritarian as she brings up her children after the death of her husband ten years earlier. The son, Pepé, is described as lazy and the mother says she must have encountered a "coyote" when he was born because the animal is "sneaking lazy." In Native American folklore the coyote often symbolizes a trickster and can take on both positive and negative character traits. In some stories he is reckless, lazy, and arrogant.
The conflict of the story revolves around Pepé's figurative journey to manhood. When we meet Pepé he is just a boy playing with a knife which the mother calls "toy-baby," representing Pepé's childish nature. When Pepé claims he is a man, the mother scoffs and calls him "peanut" and "little chicken." Nevertheless, she sends him on a man's errand to Monterey for salt and medicine. He is allowed to wear his father's hat and ride on his father's saddle.
The rising action begins with Pepé riding off to Monterey. After he leaves, his mother comments that when he returns it will be nice to have a man on the farm again. In Monterey, Pepé's newfound manhood is challenged and he kills a man with his knife in a bar fight.
When he returns, his mother outfits him for a "flight" away from the law that will eventually track him down. But, unlike the man he proclaims to be, he makes numerous mistakes as he flees. He takes a "well worn path" which makes him easy to track. He loses his knife and then leaves his hat under a tree where he stops to water his horse. He ascends high into the mountains above Monterey and never seems to have a set destination.
He is plagued by fear as he continually looks back along the trail and sometimes sees shadowy figures far away. Early the next morning as his horse climbs the steep trail in an open area, a shot from the valley drops his horse from underneath him. He has now lost his horse and becomes almost animal-like as he crawls and "wriggles" his way out of sight. He then discharges his rifle at something he imagines seeing along the trail. He gives away his position and a bullet from below causes a "sliver of granite" to pierce his hand.
After losing his rifle he is reduced to a primitive state and has lost the manly dignity he had bragged of in the beginning of the story. His hand becomes badly infected and he knows he will eventually die from the wound. Instead of allowing himself to die a miserable death like a rabid animal, he makes a decision to go out as he envisions a man would.
In the story's climax he crawls to the top of a rock and makes himself clearly known to the men below. Steinbeck writes, "He braced his feet and stood there, black against the morning sky." In the final moments of his life, and the resolution of the story, he affirms what he believes is manly behavior by dying a proud death confronting his attackers.