Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805
Pepe Torres is a “gentle, affectionate boy” whose only fault is his laziness. Reared by his protective and loving widowed mother, Mama Torres, who struggles to provide her children with a stable emotional environment and a meager material existence on the family farm, Pepe would rather not work. Hour after hour, he plays with his dead father’s switchblade, throwing the knife at a post until his aim is extremely accurate.
One day, Mama Torres sends Pepe to town for some salt and medicine. Pepe has never been trusted with such a mission, and he feels proud when his mother gives him his father’s round black hat with the tooled leather band and his green silk handkerchief to wear on the journey. After he has left, Pepe’s younger brother asks if Pepe has become a man today; his mother answers, “A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed. Remember this thing. I have known boys forty years old because there was no need for a man.” Mama Torres’s wisdom is sound, but she does not foresee the tragic events that are about to unfold.
Pepe returns home in the middle of the night, stopping only briefly in his flight to the mountains. He tells his mother that in town he was called names he “could not allow” as a man, and that in the subsequent fight, he killed with his knife the person who called him such names. The definition of manhood in his society required such action. The mother understands, declaring, “Yes, thou art a man, my poor little Pepe. Thou art a man.” She gives Pepe the father’s rifle and his black coat, and when the other children ask where Pepe is going, she states that “Pepe is a man now. He has a man’s thing to do.” As soon as he leaves, she begins “the high, whining keen of the death wail,” for she intuits that he will not be able to survive in the mountains.
The second, longer part of the story follows Pepe into the high mountains, where he attempts to elude the posse. He has no real choice in his actions now: He meets the ordeal that he must endure with “a man’s face.” His initiation into manhood, which began with his journey into the city, is complete, and he struggles against the forces of society and nature with the status of manhood. Occasionally, he sees dark figures in the landscape watching him: forms of men who are always faceless, suggesting the formless figures of death.
Although Pepe successfully evades the posse for a few days, one morning his horse is shot out from under him without warning, and in the ensuing gun battle, he is wounded in the hand by a sliver of granite, chipped off a rock by a bullet. Although he does escape into the high barren peaks, he is without water, and soon his hand and arm begin to swell with the wound.
During the course of these events, he loses his father’s possessions piece by piece: the hat, the horse, the coat. When his hand and arm become gangrenous, he is almost crazed from pain and lack of water. At last he finds a dry streambed in the bottom of a ravine, digs down into it for a few drops of water, and falls asleep. When he awakes in the afternoon, a mountain lion is watching him from twenty feet away. The beast has no fear of Pepe, for in his present condition, Pepe no longer presents a threat. Pepe is himself a “hurt beast.” The lion watches Pepe until evening; it appears that the lion is about to fall asleep, and then suddenly it leaves. A few moments later, Pepe hears the dogs of the posse looking for his trail. He struggles to his feet and once more eludes the posse. Weak from his ordeal, he falls asleep again, near the top of a high, barren ridge. When he awakes and goes on, he realizes that he has forgotten his rifle; he returns but cannot find it. The last item once belonging to his father is now gone.
In the final scene, Pepe crawls up the slope of the ridge, and as the dawn breaks, he stands up on the top of a big rock on the ridge peak. He cannot actually see the members of the posse, but he knows they are nearby. There he is shot, standing upright to take the bullet. His body tumbles down the slope, starting a small avalanche. “And when at last he stopped against a bush, the avalanche slid slowly down and covered his head.” The forces of society have overwhelmed him, but he has died with dignity, achieving a tragic stature in his struggle.