Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687
On an autumn day, Mateo Falcone and his wife visit the fields to inspect their flocks, leaving their home under the care of Fortunato, their ten-year-old son. While they are away, Fortunato hears a burst of gunfire and then sees a man in ragged dress, wounded in the thigh, emerge from the underbrush not far from the house. The man is Gianetto Sanpiero, a bandit who has been raiding the area recently who is now being pursued by government troops. Fortunato is reluctant to help Sanpiero until the bandit offers him a five-franc piece. Fortunato hides Sanpiero under a haystack and arranges a cat and her kittens on top of it so that it looks as though the hay has not been disturbed. Shortly thereafter, government troops arrive at the house and the adjutant, a distant relative of Mateo named Tiodoro Gamba, asks Fortunato if he has seen a man in the area. Fortunato claims that he has been asleep but makes his excuse in so clumsy a manner that Gamba refuses to believe him. The adjutant threatens the boy several times, but Fortunato will not provide any information, merely repeating the words “My father is Mateo Falcone!” over and over.
The government troops search the house and even thrust into the haystack with their bayonets, but Fortunato displays little concern. Finally, Gamba holds up a fine silver watch worth at least ten écus and offers to give it to Fortunato if he will tell him where he has hidden Sanpiero. Fortunato is strong enough to resist temptation only for a few moments. He then takes the watch in one hand, gesturing toward the haystack with the other. Immediately, the troops begin to remove the hay, find Sanpiero, and take him into custody.
As the guards prepare the litter on which they will carry Sanpiero back to town, Mateo Falcone and his wife return. Assuming that the troops have come to arrest him, Mateo orders Giuseppa to get behind him and help him load the weapons. Gamba, aware of Mateo’s skill as a marksman, advances toward him, speaking in as friendly a manner as he can. Gamba explains that he has arrested Sanpiero who, as Giuseppa knows, has been raiding Mateo’s own herds recently. In an effort to flatter Mateo, Gamba praises Fortunato for the help that he gave him. Without the boy’s assistance, Gamba claims, Sanpiero would certainly have gotten away.
As the soldiers lift Sanpiero in the litter, the bandit sees Mateo, spits toward the house, and calls it the “home of a traitor.” Although such an insult would ordinarily provoke an immediate response, Mateo does nothing. Now aware that he has done something wrong, Fortunato offers Sanpiero a drink. The bandit, however, contemptuously refuses it and requests that he be given a drink by the soldiers who have arrested him. When the adjutant and government troops have gone, Mateo remains silent for a long time. Fortunato tries to speak to him, but Mateo immediately orders the boy out of his sight. Giuseppa then notices the chain of a watch hanging out of Fortunato’s pocket. She asks Fortunato where he had received such an expensive gift. At once, Mateo understands what has happened. He pounces on the boy, smashes the watch against a stone, and wonders aloud whether such a child can really be his.
Mateo then becomes resolute. He sets off toward the underbrush and orders Fortunato to follow him. Giuseppa runs after Mateo, pleading for mercy on the grounds that Fortunato is his son. Mateo retorts that he is Fortunato’s father, sends his wife away, and leads Fortunato toward a remote spot. He orders his son to kneel down and say his prayers. Fortunato, sensing what is about to happen, begs for his life, but Mateo takes aim and kills him with a single shot. Without even glancing at the body, Mateo returns to the house and finds a shovel. Giuseppa asks him what he has done. “Justice,” Mateo replies and, as he leaves to bury Fortunato, says that their son-in-law must now come to live with them.
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