Part 1, Chapters 15–21
Last Updated on February 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1329
At the dance, Demetrio misses Camila. He thanks the neighborhood for their generosity, and the neighbors bless him in return.
The next day, María Antonia scolds Camila for crying over Cervantes. Señora Agapita, Camila’s mother, whips Camila with a leather strap to “drive away the evil spirits” that have so upset her.
Demetrio’s men are glad to be back in action and sing and laugh as they ride, “drunk with the sun, the air, and life itself.” They travel all day, until finally in the late afternoon they can see the buildings of a town. As they take the main road into the town, they encounter an old man sitting on the roadside. When Demetrio asks him how many Federales are in the town, he replies that there are “no more than a dozen.” Demetrio warns the man not to tell anyone in town that he saw Demetrio’s men.
Demetrio orders his men to make camp behind a stand of trees, and they all rest.
Demetrio awakens his men at midnight and explains his plan: they will attack the Federales at dawn. Cervantes asks if perhaps the men should find a guide who could give them valuable information about the layout of the town and where the Federales are quartered. Demetrio dismisses this idea, explaining that he’s always been a man who uses the element of surprise in his attacks: “That’s how we’ve always done it, many times before, and it’s how we’ll always do it.” Cervantes argues that the man they encountered on the side of the road could have been a spy planted there to give false information.
When they arrive in the town, Venancio enters the first house they pass and asks the man inside to guide them to the barracks, even though the man wants nothing to do with the rebels, for he is “just a poor peasant . . . [with] a wife and small children.” After the man shows them the way, he wants to return home; Pancracio hits him with his rifle.
Cervantes asks the man how many soldiers there are, to which the man replies, “A whole lot.” Demetrio pretends not to have heard this response. As they arrive in the plaza, they are met with gunfire; Demetrio’s horse is hit, as is Owl. The men retreat behind the houses that surround the plaza. A man emerges from a doorway and suggests that Demetrio and his men sneak up on the Federales from behind the chapel. When Demetrio asks this man how many soldiers there are, the man answers that while previously there had been no more than twelve, “last night they were real afraid . . . [and] they [called] for reinforcements.”
As Demetrio’s men strategize, the leader of the Federales, arrogantly confident because of how quickly Demetrio’s men retreated, begins “making unwise shows of courage and taking extraordinary risks.” When a peasant reports that Demetrio’s men have gathered in a spot that makes it “very easy to seize all of them at once,” the leading officer sends his lieutenant to bring the rebels back to him so they may be shot by firing squad and made an example of. Once he delivers his orders, he begins daydreaming about the letter he will send to the Minister of War bragging about his success, which he thinks will surely earn him a promotion to major.
Demetrio and his men make their way into an alley behind the church, then climb the church’s back wall. They huddle in the church tower, concealed from the soldiers below. Demetrio gives the order, and his men drop grenades onto the Federales; the chaos creates a scene “of rats running about in a trap” as the government soldiers scramble for their lives. The rebels gun down men who are trying to escape. When they run out of ammunition, they take out their knives for combat.
Cervantes recognizes the old man from the side of the road who told them there were only a dozen Federales in town and triumphantly announces that he knew the man was a spy. The man begs for his life, but Demetrio stabs him to death as Cervantes looks away in horror. The man who suggested the rebels attack from behind the church identifies his brother just as Pancracio slices the man’s throat. The killing and butchery continue; Pancracio and Lard shove the leading enemy officer off a platform, and he plummets to his death.
The men begin picking through the dead bodies, “joking and laughing” as they take whatever valuables they can find.
Demetrio and his men, who now number a hundred, meet up with Pánfilo Natera, a military general from Zacatecas. Natera praises Demetrio, having heard of the successful battles he’s led, and says, “With men such as General Natera and Colonel Macías, our motherland will witness nothing but glory.” Demetrio realizes he has now been given the title of colonel.
The men drink, and Cervantes delivers a toast about the nobleness of the cause. One of Natera’s men, Señor Solís, recognizes Cervantes and asks him how it is that “the man who wrote furious articles . . . and who used the epithets of bandits to describe [the rebels] is now fighting among [them].” When Cervantes disdainfully asks if Solís is “tired of the revolution,” Solís answers that he is disillusioned: he has seen how evil men are, and now his idealism is “soured, poisoned. Enthusiasm, dreams, ideals, joy” have all been destroyed by the realities of war. For Solís, “when a man surrenders himself to [the revolution], he ceases to be a man.”
Demetrio, elated by his promotion to colonel, names Cervantes his secretary. The drinking and debauchery continues into the night, and the next morning, a prostitute and two recruits from Demetrio’s group are found shot dead. Demetrio merely shrugs his shoulders at the news.
Natera’s men have failed to take the plaza at Zacatecas and are turning back to Fresnillo, “plundering every town” on their way. When their loot becomes too heavy for them to carry, they discard it on the side of the road. Demetrio, Anastasio, and Pancracio determine that these men “don’t have no nerve.”
That night, as they rest, Demetrio reminisces about Camila. He wants to go back to fetch her, and the men crack jokes about women.
News arrives that Pancho Villa, a hero of the revolution who represents “the bright torch of an ideal—to steal from the rich and give to the poor,” is coming. The men believe that Villa’s men are elegantly dressed and well fed and that they use airplanes in battle. None of the men, however, has ever seen Villa or his troops, and all of their information about him comes from word of mouth.
Cervantes is bewildered to find himself hiding in the midst of gunfire. Disoriented, he relies on Solís to explain what occurred. A battle took place on a precipitous summit, and the Federales had the advantage because they were fighting with machine guns, turning the rebels into a “tapestry of corpses.” When reinforcements arrived, Demetrio ordered a new charge, and though the rebels were vastly outnumbered, Demetrio, whom Solís calls “a beautiful soldier,” led a successful assault. Now, Solís and Cervantes watch women moving among the corpses to take anything of value.
In a reflective mood, Solís worries that even if the rebels win the revolution, they will simply rebuild “an enormous pedestal upon which a hundred or two hundred thousand monsters of the same species might arise. A nation without ideals, a nation of tyrants!”
Solís suggests to Cervantes that they move away from the stray gunfire, but Cervantes replies with a “disdainful” smile. As Solís watches the wreckage, he is shot in the abdomen and dies.