Last Updated on February 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042
Cervantes sends a letter, dated May 16, 1915, to Venancio. The letter describes that Pancracio and Lard killed one another over a card game, and Towhead Margarito committed suicide. Cervantes is now in the United States and encourages Venancio to join him there so that together they can open a Mexican restaurant. He promises that, in a short time, they could be rich.
Demetrio’s men are confused about why they are still fighting, as the Federales have been beaten; now, the revolutionary factions have turned on each other. “Against whom? On whose side?” they wonder, then remember that “if one carries a rifle in one’s hands, and the cartridge belts are filled with bullets, it is surely to fight.”
Whenever the men approach small settlements, they find everything empty and abandoned, the inhabitants hiding until the rebels pass. Their unwillingness to help angers Demetrio. He orders that any men caught hiding be brought to him, but Valderrama, a “tramp,” reminds Demetrio that the men who live in the Sierra are “made from the same substance as we are. Of this solid substance out of which heroes are made.”
Despite Valderrama’s impassioned plea, Demetrio has his men execute his order, and four fugitives are brought to him.
Demetrio asks the men why they hid, but they insist that they weren’t hiding; they were merely on their way home and know how unsafe it is to travel on the main road. They confess that they are deserters and that they fled after Villa was defeated at Celaya.
Demetrio’s men do not believe that Villa has been defeated, but when the deserters provide a detailed account of what happened, they are all stunned into “stupefied silence.”
The men take a break to eat before resuming their march. Valderrama, who disappeared into the landscape when he thought Demetrio was going to shoot the four deserters, is called back by Anastasio Montañés and hears the bad news: “Villa defeated in Celaya by Obregón. Carranza’s winning everywhere. We’re ruined!”
To Valderrama, however, the sides are meaningless: he fights because he enjoys it.
The men mount their horses, each thinking that “a defeated Villa was a fallen god.” Quail sums up everyone’s feelings: “It’s every man for himself.”
At the next small town they pass through, the men discover a barrel of tequila and pause for a day to rest. There are cockfights and music. In the afternoon, Demetrio asks Valderrama to sing “The Gravedigger.” Valderrama tunes his guitar but is distracted by a cockfight, a sport that angers him. When he finally plays the song, his eyes gleam “with the light of madness” as he takes in the desolate landscape.
The music brings Demetrio to tears, and after Valderrama plays, he hugs Demetrio and tells him that tears are beautiful. Turning to all the men, Valderrama proclaims, “Behold how the great wonders of the revolution are resolved in a single tear.”
Juchipila emerges in the distance, though the men know that “their march through the canyons was now the march of a blind man without a guide.” Valderrama has been counting the crosses the men have passed on the road, crosses which signify death. He dismounts to kiss the ground and offer a prayer to the fallen revolutionaries.
Demetrio’s men are disenchanted: they are young and inexperienced, or former Federales, or old and maimed. Anastasio Montañés tells Demetrio how the men are feeling. After listening closely, Demetrio agrees with the sentiment but says, “We complain and complain, and then we kill and kill . . . What ya should be doin’ is getting our people up.” Demetrio explains that he has received orders to fight against the Carranzistas and is determined to beat them.
Valderrama overhears the news of the upcoming fight and disappears from the group as mysteriously as he first arrived.
In Juchipila, the men arrive as the church bells ring, and it reminds them of the early days of the revolution when rebels were welcomed to town with joy and hope. Now, they remember it has been a year since they took Zacatecas, and the mood is somber.
Juchipila has been burned, looted, and boarded up, like all the other towns Demetrio and his men have passed through. Though the soldiers have money, there is no food to buy it with; the “awful mark of hunger could already be seen on the dirt-ridden faces of the people, in the bright flame of eyes that burned with fiery hatred whenever they beheld a passing soldier.”
Demetrio reunites with his wife after nearly two years apart. He thinks she has aged ten or twenty years, and his son, who doesn’t recognize him, is frightened and hides behind his mother.
Demetrio’s wife begs Demetrio to stay, to “never leave,” but he cannot make that promise. His wife is certain that this time Demetrio is going to be hurt, and she cries in fear. She asks Demetrio why he is still fighting. He picks up a rock and throws it down into the canyon below, then says, “Look at that rock, how nothin’ can stop it now.”
The soldiers march along the steep paths of the Sierra, and Demetrio remembers that, in this same place, he and a group of twenty men destroyed an entire troop of Federales, his first victory in the war.
The men begin to realize how dangerous their situation is: the enemy could be anywhere, ready to attack at any time. But no one shows fear, for that has never been Demetrio’s way.
The firing begins; the men are under attack. Anastasio is hit, then Venancio and the Indian. The men are no match for the machine guns of the enemy, and they fall “like ears of corn cut by a sickle.”
Alone, Demetrio hides behind a rock for cover, then begins to fire. His aim is true, and each bullet hits a target: “his famous marksmanship fills him with joy.”
The guns continue to fire, and the final image of the novel is that of “Demetrio Macías, his eyes fixed forever, [aiming] with the barrel of his rifle.”
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