Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820
After Heraclio Inés’s mother dies while giving birth to him and his father dies while attempting to tame a wild stallion five years later, he is sent to be a lowly shepherd on the Hacienda de la Flor, even though his family enjoys the protection of the patrón, Don Aurelio Becerra, who is also his godfather. Heraclio leaves behind his fellow pastor, the young but already embittered David Contreras, Don Aurelio’s illegitimate son by María Contreras, who is thought to be a witch. Heraclio’s brothers treat him cruelly in his new home, forcing him to break horses as they once did and to be brave beyond his years. Under the threat of a lashing should he return home on foot, the brothers leave Heraclio, the proud and diffident fifth horseman, to tame a wild stallion thirty kilometers away from the hacienda.
When Heraclio is rude to the patrón’s children, Crispín and Carmen Becerra, Don Aurelio does not rebuke him because Don Aurelio is inordinately fond of his godson and asks only that he provide the two with riding lessons. For the haughty Carmen, these occasions soon turn into opportunities for sexual encounters that all would frown upon for their scandalous violation of the church’s moral teachings as well as for their violation of society’s strict class boundaries. Heraclio’s discovery of their irreconcilable worldviews concerning the future of Mexico leads him to tell Carmen about her father’s sexual exploitation of the native women living on the Hacienda de la Flor; he discloses this before she and her brother leave to attend the university in Seattle. In their absence, Carmen’s dissolute cousin from Spain, Domingo Arguiú, arrives to fulfill a contract to unite in marriage the Becerra fortune with the noble name of his family. Heraclio takes an immediate dislike to his dandified elitism but perversely thinks that Domingo might make a suitable husband for Carmen.
Some time later, the patrón organizes a fiesta to welcome home his children from the United States. Carmen, more eager than Heraclio to continue their illicit relationship, eventually discloses the situation to her parents. The knowledge prompts Don Aurelio to plan a hasty marriage for the boy. Meanwhile, Crispín vows never to succeed his father as patrón in such an oppressive social order, and he goes to the United States with his American wife. After the Inés brothers dominate the hacienda’s equestrian competition, winning and sharing prizes in every category of horsemanship, Heraclio kills the patrón’s contador, Juan Vásquez, who came upon him making love to Carmen. He thereupon flees to the hills, where he joins a bandit group that includes his childhood friend David Contreras.
The aged Ysabel Pulido, leader of the thieves who redistribute their booty among the rural poor, is taking his men to join forces with the emerging rebel hero, Pancho Villa, when he dies suddenly in his sleep. Though he is still a teenager, Heraclio declares himself the new leader of this rebel band, much to the envy of David and to the amusement of Villa. David tries to shoot Heraclio in the back at Juárez. Upon his return to the hacienda during a lull in the fighting, Heraclio marries the saddlemaker’s daughter, Marcelina Ortiz, and spends the night with María Contreras. David’s robbery and murder of a merchant seals his fate as an outlaw. Soon, though, Heraclio is called to rejoin the ever more powerful and seemingly unstoppable Villa, who is celebrating victories in Jiménez and Chihuahua. Villa sets up his revolutionary headquarters in Chihuahua, and he passes the virginal Indian circus performer Xóchitl Salamanca on to Heraclio to be his mistress; she has innocently declared that she would prefer to be violated by the more handsome of the two men. Decisive rebel victories follow at Torreón and Zacatecas, where the foolish Domingo perishes during a bandit attack; Domingo goes against Heraclio’s advice not to surrender.
After a variola plague in Zacatecas kills off the devoted Xóchitl, Heraclio loses his revolutionary fervor and returns to resume his family life on the Hacienda de la Flor, where he expresses his condolences to the widowed Carmen. In a brutal attack that seethed inside him since the night his revered Ysabel Pulido died, David kills Heraclio’s baby daughter and rapes Marcelina, who also dies. This forces Heraclio to murder David in revenge. Heraclio refuses Carmen’s suggestion that he marry her and become patrón. Instead, he travels a great distance by train to kill the traitorous General Celestino Gámez. He decides against wedding his brother Concepción’s widow, Otilia, for whom he always felt a great affection, and flees into California to begin a life in exile. Villa’s decimated Division of the North heads for sure defeat.
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