Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115
Rosendo Maquis is the mayor of Rumi, a small Indian town in the Peruvian uplands. The village is a communal organization, as it was for centuries. Its life is peaceful, for the Rumi Indians are an agricultural people. Rosendo’s only troubles are personal. His wife is dying, and he is sent into the mountains to find herbs to be used in making medicine for the sick woman. On his way back to the village, he sees an evil omen in the passage of a snake across his path. Troubled times, he believes, lie ahead.
That same night, Rosendo’s wife dies, and her death marks the beginning of many misfortunes for the mayor and his people. A few days later, it becomes known that Don Amenabar, whose ranch borders the Indian village, is filing suit to take away the best of the land belonging to Rumi. Rosendo and his selectmen saddle their horses and ride to the nearby town to get a lawyer to defend them. They hire Bismarck Ruiz, a man who has a poor reputation in the town because of his love affair with La Castelana, a notorious woman of very expensive tastes. In return for a large fee, Ruiz promises to win the suit for the Indians.
Life goes on as usual in the village during the days before the trial. There is a cattle roundup, to which Don Amenabar sends men to collect the cattle belonging to him. Although he does not pay the grazing fee, and the Indians know it would be futile to ask it of him, he charges them a high fee to redeem any cattle that accidentally wander onto his lands. The Indians are also busy building a school, for the commissioner of education of the province promised them a schoolmaster as soon as they have a hygienic place for the school to convene.
In an effort to learn what Don Amenabar is plotting against them, the Indians send one of their number to the ranch to sell baskets and woven mats. When Don Amenabar sees the Indian on his ranch, he orders his overseers to give the unlucky fellow a hundred lashes, a punishment that would kill many men.
Finally, the case comes to court. The Indians believe at first that they will win. Don Amenabar’s men removed the stones marking the community boundaries, but the Indians returned them. The return, they believe, is indicative of their success. The case is soon over, however, thanks to a large number of perjuring witnesses who testify against the Indians by claiming that the people of Rumi encroached on Don Amenabar’s land. Even the judge receives money and preferment from the rancher.
The Indians’ lawyer immediately makes up a brief for an appeal to a higher court, but Don Amenabar’s men, disguised as the followers of Fiero Vasquez, the outlaw, steal the mailbag containing the documents as the mail carrier passes through a desolate part of the Andes. Don Amenabar does not want the authorities in Lima to hear of the affair because he wishes to send his son to the legislature and, eventually, to become a senator himself.
Correa Zavala, a young lawyer fired with zeal for the cause of the Peruvian Indians, takes up the villagers’ case. It has become clear to the Indians that Ruiz is not helping them, and they have evidence that he is in the pay of Don Amenabar. The young lawyer makes up a long brief that includes many documents from the history of the village. These are sent to the capital with a guard of troops and Indians, for their loss will make it difficult to prove the village’s legal existence as a community.
All is to no avail, however, for at last the day comes when the court order, enforced by troops, is delivered to the Indians. They are to leave the most fertile of their lands and move to what is left to them in the higher areas. When one of the village women goes to her lover, Vasquez, the notorious highwayman and bandit, he comes with his band of cutthroats to help the Indians drive off the people who are forcing them to leave. Rosendo refuses aid from the outlaws because he knows that resistance would be useless. His point is made when a villager is machine-gunned to death for daring to kill one of Don Amenabar’s men with a rock.
Even in the highlands the Indians are not safe from Don Amenabar, who wants to make them slaves to work a mine that he owns on another piece of property. He resolves never to be satisfied until they are delivered into his hands. His men raid the Indians’ cattle herds, even creeping up to the corrals in the village at night. At last, the prize bull of the village disappears. The Indians find the animal on Don Amenabar’s ranch. In spite of the brand, Don Amenabar refuses to return the bull and orders Rosendo off the ranch. That same night the mayor returns, determined to regain the animal for his people. He finds the bull, but as he is leading the animal away, he is captured. Taken into town, Rosendo is jailed on a charge of thievery. At his trial, he is found guilty and sentenced to a long term in prison.
While Rosendo is in jail, Vasquez is captured and placed in the cell with Rosendo. Having plenty of resources to make bribes, the highwayman makes arrangements to break out of prison. When he escapes, Rosendo is blamed. The prison guards beat the old man so severely that he dies within a few hours.
Not long after the death of Rosendo, a young Indian he reared comes back to the village after an absence of many years. Benito Castro, a soldier and a gaucho, is quickly accepted as a leader by the Indians, who need the wisdom and aid of someone who was outside the mountain village. Under Castro’s leadership, the people drain swampy meadows and rebuild their village in a better location in the highlands. Their relative prosperity, however, is short-lived, for Don Amenabar still plans to enslave them or drive them into hiding. At last, a large detachment of troops, augmented by men convinced that the Indians are mutinous against the government, attacks the village. In a long battle with the forces sent against them, the Indians are utterly defeated, their leaders are killed, and the village is destroyed. The few survivors, told by the dying Castro to save themselves, have no idea where they can go to seek a refuge in that harsh, lawless land.