A woman and a man named Demetrio Macías listen attentively in their little house to their dog, Palomo, barking at something in the darkness. A child sleeps in a makeshift hammock. The woman suggests that Demetrio hide and reminds him that his rifle is hidden under the bedding. Described as “tall, robust, with a bright, beardless red face,” Demetrio takes his rifle and disappears out the door into the darkness. A shot rings out, and Palomo moans, then stops barking.
Men on horseback appear, and two dismount to speak to the woman, asking for something to eat and complaining about how easy it is to become lost in the landscape. They are a sergeant and a lieutenant for the Federales, clearly drunk, and when they learn that they are in Limón, the sergeant replies, “Land of the famous Demetrio Macías!” and calls Demetrio a “bandit.” The lieutenant has begun insinuating that he will spend the night sexually assaulting the woman when, suddenly, Demetrio fills the home’s doorway. The lieutenant claims that he “always [respects] the house of a brave man, of a real man,” and the horsemen ride away.
The woman asks Demetrio why he didn’t kill the men, and Demetrio responds that it “just wasn’t their time yet.” He tells the woman to take the baby and go to his father’s house. They both depart, walking in opposite directions. After several hours of climbing the mountainside, Demetrio turns and looks back to see, at the bottom of the canyon, his house in flames.
As Demetrio climbs through the night, he thinks that the Federales will find “our trail,” though their advantage is that they know the landscape better than the Federales do. The towns in the Sierra “are reliable and would never turn [them] in,” but Demetrio is also fleeing from a cacique from Moyahua. When dawn breaks, he pauses to sleep.
Upon waking, Demetrio continues to climb. When he reaches the summit, he blows a horn three times. Three whistles reply, and soon “many men came forth,” among them Anastasio Montañés, Quail, Lard, and Pancracio. After Demetrio tells them that his house was burned, they insult, curse, and threaten the Federales, eager to fight them. Confident in a victory because they have guns, the men feast on calf hide and sing songs before falling asleep.
The men wake up and begin waiting to spot soldiers fighting for the Federales. When “the side of the cliff was covered with people: tiny men on tiny horses,” the men, under Demetrio’s direction, fire. They have good aim, and soon the shooting becomes like a sport, with the men bantering with each other about their targets. Quail, one of the men, takes off his pants and waves them in the air to taunt the Federales. As a result, the Federales send waves of bullets toward Demetrio and his men. The men relocate away from the bullets and return fire, yelling insults at their enemy. In the melee, Demetrio is shot.
The Federales have retreated, and two men are missing from Demetrio’s crew. As Demetrio’s men gather the horses the Federales left behind, Quail finds the bodies of the missing men, Serapio and Antonio, hanging from a tree.
The next day, Demetrio’s wound, still bleeding, necessitates some of his men carrying him on a stretcher. Venancio, a barber, creates a tourniquet for Demetrio’s thigh, and the men take turns carrying the stretcher through the desert. Whenever they come upon a small hut, they stop to ask for food and drink and to receive blessings from...
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the men from the Sierra who also hate the Federales, calling them “damned government criminals who have declared a war to the death on all us poor people.”
At sunset, the men arrive at a small cluster of huts on the river, and the residents gather around them in curiosity. Demetrio’s fever causes him to shake violently, and Señora Remigia, an old woman, invites Demetrio into her hut for the night and feeds the men. Among the things the Federales took, she tells Anastasio, was “Señora Nieves’s youngest daughter.”
Quail and Anastasio awaken to a gunshot. When they go outside the hut to investigate, they discover that Pancracio is leading a man he has shot in the leg. The man is a government soldier who has deserted, and instantly there are calls to kill him. Demetrio, however, has the prisoner brought to him so he can hear the full story.
The prisoner, who identifies himself as Luis Cervantes, says he is a “medical student and journalist.” He was “pursued, trapped, and made a prisoner—all for having said something in favor of the revolutionaries.”
Unable to decide what to do with the man, Demetrio orders Cervantes to be locked up and guarded until the next day.
In the corral where he is jailed, Cervantes tries to find a comfortable place to rest, but when he realizes he is sharing his space with a pig, he becomes aware of “the vivid and clear failure he sensed within himself,” and thus sleep becomes impossible.
In his mind, Cervantes recalls the events that brought him to this point. The transition from writing columns in a provincial newspaper to becoming a soldier has been rocky. After eight days of marching, his side encountered the rebels, and he heard a soldier near him say, “Every man for himself!” Cervantes’s horse turned around and galloped so far away from the battle that Cervantes decided to try to find a place to sleep in the desert. He was awoken by a kick from his colonel, who then “[bashed] his face in.” While normally a deserter would be shot by a firing squad, the other soldiers laughed at Cervantes’s punishment and asked that Cervantes be pardoned. Thus, the colonel sent Cervantes to “take care of the pots and pans as a helper in the kitchen.”
This episode marked a turning point for Cervantes; he began to understand “the suffering and the misery of the dispossessed,” and he now sees the rebel cause as “the sublime cause of an oppressed people demanding justice, pure justice.” Though he continued to wear the uniform of the Federales, he believes in the ideology of the revolution.
Cervantes became the confidant of the troop and learned from many of his fellow soldiers that though they, too, were fighting for the Federales, they didn’t believe in the cause. Yet, Cervantes thinks bitterly, when he finally arrived to join the side he believed in, they locked him “in a pigsty.”
As the sun rises, Cervantes is able to see the sleeping forms of his guards, Pancracio and Lard, and begins to tremble in fear.
Upon awakening, Demetrio formulates a plan to determine if Cervantes can be trusted. He tells Quail to go to the nearest chapel and steal the priest’s cassock. Demetrio will then tell Cervantes that he’s going to be killed, and Cervantes will give his confession to the “priest.” If the confession reveals malicious intentions, Cervantes will be murdered; if not, he will be free.
It is not until evening that Quail returns with the cassock. Cervantes says to Demetrio that he “wanted to fight the blessed struggle of the poor and the weak. But you do not understand me; you reject me. And so I say: do with me what you will!”
Demetrio’s men act their parts and carry out the plan, with Quail taking the prisoner’s confession. When Quail reports back that Cervantes didn’t reveal any intentions of killing Demetrio or sabotaging the men, Demetrio allows Cervantes to live.