During the War of Reform and after, bands of robber outlaws take advantage of the troubled times to overrun those districts of Mexico where the local authorities, in a land still disturbed by civil war, are powerless to make effective reprisals against them. Roaming the countryside in armed bands, the plateados, as they are called, waylay and murder travelers, kidnap wealthy estate owners for ransom, and levy tribute on the villages and haciendas. For their amusement, they often wantonly burn the cane fields and inflict brutal tortures on their prisoners.
One town terrorized in this fashion is Yautepec, a pleasant village of the tierra caliente in the province of Morelos. By day, the people of the village maintain lookouts in the church towers to give warning of approaching marauders; at night, they barricade themselves in their houses, so that after sunset the little town in the middle of its circling orange groves resembles a place of the dead. The bandits, some five hundred strong, have their headquarters at Xochimancas, a nearby ruined hacienda from which they make forays to ravage the whole district. Their leader is El Zarco, a man of savage temper and cruel disposition whose bloody exploits cause respectable, decent people to fear him. The bandits sometimes enter the town and ride boldly through the streets.
On an evening in August, 1861, Doña Antonia sits in the inner courtyard of her house with her daughter Manuela and Pilar, her godchild. The two girls are plaiting flower garlands for their hair. After a time, Manuela begins to tease Pilar because her friend is making a wreath of orange blossoms, the flower of weddings; Manuela is twining a circlet of roses. When Manuela complains of her dull life, her mother rebukes her sharply, saying that Manuela ought to forget fiestas and dances, and take a husband who will protect her. Doña Antonia’s choice is Nicolás, the sober and industrious blacksmith of the estate at Atlihuayan. At this suggestion, Manuela begins to speak scornfully of the Indian, as she calls him, and declares that she would rather have El Zarco as a suitor. She adds that Nicolás might be good enough for Pilar, but she herself will never have him. Pilar blushes but says nothing.
Before Doña Antonia can reprove her daughter further, Nicolás, a nightly caller, arrives with the news that, on the previous night, the plateados robbed and killed an English family traveling to Acapulco, and that a cavalry detachment is being sent from Cuernavaca to pursue the bandits. Alarmed at this latest outrage, Doña Antonia decides that she and Manuela will go to Mexico City until times are better; they will travel with the troops as their escort for part of the dangerous journey. Nicolás thinks her decision a wise one for Manuela’s sake.
Later, while Nicolás is on his way back to Atlihuayan, another rider is traveling toward Yautepec. The horseman is El Zarco. In the village, he turns down a dark lane that leads to a stone wall surrounding Doña Antonia’s orange grove. Drawing rein beneath a giant sapota tree, he whistles twice. An answering whistle comes from the darkness under the tree, where Manuela is waiting for her lover.
El Zarco had met Manuela in Cuernavaca during a brief period when he and his men were aiding the government forces, and the two were strongly drawn to each other. After he established himself at Xochimancas, the bandit learned that Manuela and her mother had returned to Yautepec. Through his spies in the village, he...
(The entire section is 1447 words.)