John Steinbeck

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Mama Torres lives on the Torres farm on the coast of California, raising her three children: Pepé (a 19-year-old boy) and his younger siblings Emilio and Rosy. Mama Torres has run the farm ever since her husband died from a rattlesnake bite. Pepé is a sweet and carefree young man, often scolded by his mother for being lazy and immature. But Mama Torres is privately very proud of Pepé and loves him dearly. One morning, upon finding Pepé throwing his father’s old knife into a wooden post to entertain his siblings, Mama Torres sends Pepé into town to run an errand. The farm is out of salt and medicine, and Pepé is tasked with traveling to the nearby town of Monterey by himself to purchase these supplies. Pepé is excited about going into town on his own, telling Mama Torres that he’s a man now. Mama Torres disagrees, with her usual wry sense of humor. She tells her son to spend the night at the house of a friend of hers named Mrs. Rodriguez, who’ll provide him with dinner and a place to sleep. As Pepé cheerfully rides off on a horse, Emilio imagines himself someday riding into town to fetch the medicine like Pepé, and he asks Mama Torres if Pepé has become a man today. She replies that Pepé will become a man when a man is needed. Seeing him dressed up on the horse makes her admit to herself that Pepé has almost reached manhood, and she’s pleased at the possibility of having a man on the farm again. Mama Torres, Emilio, and Rosy make supper together and eat on the front steps at sunset before going to bed.

That same night, Pepé rides back to the Torres farm, and Mama Torres wakes up at the noise of him entering the house, wondering why he’s back so soon. Pepé somberly tells his mother to light a candle, telling her that he must flee into the nearby mountains immediately. He explains that there were other men at Mrs. Rodriguez’s house, and everyone had been drinking wine. A man insulted Pepé, saying names that he “could not allow.” During a scuffle, Pepé killed the man with the same knife he had been playing with that morning—his father’s knife. Now that there are men hunting him down, Pepé seems to have no choice but to run away into the wilderness. Mama Torres is briefly shaken by this news, but she quickly resolves to hold back her emotions and prepare Pepé for his long and dangerous journey into the mountains. She wakes Emilio and Rosy up to help with the preparations, as Pepé stands silently and grimly reflects on the fact that he really is a man now—and a murderer. He’s given his father’s old black coat to wear, as well as a sack of dry jerky, a bag of water, and a rifle to defend himself. He mounts a different horse and takes one look back before riding off into the sunrise. Mama Torres’s stoic attitude crumbles shortly after he leaves, and she weeps and mourns for her son. Emilio and Rosy watch the sunrise and reflect on what’s happened. Like her mother, Rosy seems to accept that Pepé is never coming back.

As Pepé progresses on his long trek through the wilderness, the landscape around him grows gradually more and more lifeless and dry. He has a somewhat relaxed attitude at first, as he rides through a lush green area by a rushing stream, but the environment sharply becomes less hospitable as soon as the path diverges from the running water. Exhausted and becoming less sure of himself, Pepé makes his way through the main mountain pass and into a wide stretch of badlands, full of large rocks, dry hills, spiky shrubbery, and very little water. He sleeps in a grove of oak trees in a rare patch of green, encountering a wildcat and keeping a constant eye out for the men hunting him down. He awakens near dawn to the sound of his horse whinnying, and he hears the sound of another horse approaching. He starts to ride away, but his horse is shot by an unseen figure behind him. Pepé is forced to continue his retreat on foot, crawling and hiding from his pursuers while he nurses a wound he sustained from an unsuccessful shootout with the assailant. Over the next few days, his journey is brutal and miserable, as he runs out of water and gradually leaves his hat, coat, and rifle behind, usually by accident. Exhausted, dehydrated, and defeated, he hears hunting dogs approaching and decides that his time has come. He climbs up onto a large rock at the crest of a hill, where he knows he’ll be clearly visible, and he’s shot and killed almost instantly. He tumbles forward, and a small rock avalanche falls and covers his head.