This long story (or short novel) follows five momentous days in the life of an Indian pearl diver living in La Paz, a small port on the Gulf of California. Though told by an omniscient author, the work most often limits itself to Kino’s perspective as he suffers the gratuitous trials of an innocent tragic hero.
His sufferings begin when he witnesses a scorpion sting his beloved son, Coyotito, as the child lies happily in his cradle. Beside herself with terror, Kino’s common-law wife, Juana, insists that they take Coyotito to the doctor because that individual has authority even though he “was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino’s race.” The doctor irresponsibly evades seeing the child, and Kino takes his first step in his tragic growth by challenging the unfair order of existence. He strikes the doctor’s gate “a crushing blow with his fist.” His knuckles give instead of the doorway, but Kino’s gesture shows that he is prepared to become “a man.”
That same day, he and Juana go to dive for pearls. Juana tries to bargain with her people’s ancient gods and offers a prayer to the Christian God that they might find a pearl. Though she has made a better poultice of seaweed than the doctor could, she still feels the need for his magic and wants the wherewithal to force him to attend her baby. As if in answer to her supplication, Kino finds “the greatest pearl in the world.” He begins to dream about the good the pearl will bring his family. He imagines being married now that they can pay for the service. He pictures a new harpoon and then dares imagine possessing a rifle. That last image is so defiant that he goes even further: He dreams of sending his son to school to learn to read, write, and “make numbers.”
The people of La Paz have heard the news, however, and they intrude on Kino’s dream. Even the priest comes to express his hope that Kino will not forget the Church. The doctor rushes over to force a powder down Coyotito’s throat, one that will make him temporarily ill so that the doctor can pretend that the scorpion’s poison is still working and he can “cure” the baby. The doctor also tricks Kino into revealing the place where he has hidden the pearl, and that night either he or his henchman returns to steal it. In defending his home, Kino draws his first blood. Still, the family begins the next day “with hope.”
This optimism is quickly dashed. The pearl brokers, acting together (because they actually are agents for a single dealer), offer him a pittance. Kino refuses to sell and announces that he will take the pearl to Mexico City instead. His family—his brother, his sister-in-law, and his wife—stick by him, but they are worried. Juana urges him to crush the pearl between two stones and forget it, but Kino answers that he is “a man” and will not be cheated. He does not yet recognize the reversal his fortunes have taken.
The third day begins with Juana stealing the pearl and trying to throw it back into the gulf in order to avert the evil she senses is bearing down on her family. Kino stops her, but as he returns from the shore, he is attacked. Dropping the pearl, he slays his assailant. Juana finds the gem and submissively returns it to her man; she also urges him to flee to save himself from certain arrest. They go to get their canoe and find that someone has knocked a hole in its bottom. Then their brush house is burned by other searchers, the “dark ones.” Taking refuge with Kino’s brother, the family hides out all that day while Juan Tomas borrows provisions for their flight.
That night, the three head into the Sierra de la Giganta, planning to go to Lorento, a gulf town to the north, but trackers quickly find their trail. By the evening of the fourth day, Kino and his family are holed up in a cave while the trackers camp in the mountain cleft below them. Kino tries to sneak up on them to steal their rifle, but Coyotito whimpers, and one of the trackers, thinking (ironically, considering the baby’s name) that it is a “coyote pup,” idly shoots in that direction. Kino leaps too late. He kills all three men but finds that the top of Coyotito’s head has been blown off.
Late in the afternoon of the fifth day, the two return to La Paz, carrying their dead child. They walk straight through the town to the gulf shore. There Kino pulls out the great pearl and offers it to Juana, but she declines, and it is he who returns the pearl to the sea. Because of its tragic dimensions, their story becomes forever one of the town’s legends.