This story begins with an epigraph from a popular ballad. These words (“They’ve gone and killed the bitch / but the puppies still remain…”) refer to the way that the spark that began the Revolution created successive movements which were often quite independent of its original impulses and were difficult to bring to heel. The narrator of “The burning plain,” Pichón, describes the fate of one such group, that of Pedro Zamora.
The narrator is a member of Pedro’s band of revolutionaries, and after the epigraph the story begins in medias res with a battle cry from the federal soldiers in support of their general, just before a skirmish begins: “¡Viva Petronilo Flores!” The soldiers are in a ravine whereas the revolutionaries are up above, and after a few moments La Perra, one of Pedro’s men, gathers the four Benavides brothers (Los Cuatro) to “see what bulls we’re going to fight.” The reconnaissance mission is observed leaving by the rest of Pedro’s men (including the narrator) from their position against a stone fence. The men try to sleep but keep getting distracted by the noise in the ravine.
Finally a shot rings out and Pedro’s men hear the racket of a gunfight. El Chihuila gets up and goes to see what has happened. Some time later, the soldiers suddenly appear right in front of the men in hiding. They are passing by, unaware they are being watched. Pedro’s men take aim and when then signal comes they fire on the soldiers, picking them off quite easily, “like ninepins.” Once silence reigns again, one of Pedro’s men shouts out: “Viva Pedro Zamora!,” to which some of the wounded federal troops whisper: “Save me, boss! Save me! Holy Child of Atocha, help me!”
Suddenly the revolutionaries receive fire from behind their position. They run to the other side of the fence, past the men they have killed. They continue to run for some time, and every so often one of them is hit by a bullet. They reach the barranca and roll down as they continue to hear the battle cry.
Panting, the men stay crouched behind some stones and look at Pedro Zamora to see what he wants to do. Pedro is silent and counts the men silently with his eyes. Eleven or twelve men are missing, not counting those who had left before the ambush. Los Joseses, La Perra’s two sons pace back and forth until Pedro tells them not to worry, that they will find their father. The Federal troops keep the revolutionaries pinned there all afternoon. When night arrives El Chihuila returns with one of Los Cuatro, but he cannot tell the band if the soldiers have left.
Pedro calls to the narrator, Pichón, and gives him a commission to go to Piedra Lisa with Los Joseses and and see what happened to La Perra. If the man is dead, they will bury him, along with any others. Any wounded will be left for the soldiers to pick up. When the narrator reaches the corral where the horses had been, there are none left. The Federals have taken the horses. Shortly later they find the bodies of Los Cuatro, stacked on top of each other. They find other dead bodies in the vicinity as well, but see no sign of La Perra. They speculate the soldiers must have taken him captive to show him to the government.
A few days later Pedro’s band meets Petronilo Flores at a river crossing. The narrator manages to escape a general slaughter by sinking under his dead horse in the river until it came ashore downstream. After this encounter, Pedro's band lays low for some time. As a result, no one is afraid of Pedro’s men anymore: “Peace had returned to the Great Plain.”
This does not last long, however. Soon Armancio Alcalá arrives at Pichón's hiding place in the Tozin Canyon. Alcalá a mountain of rifles slung like a suitcase over his horses’ haunches and directs Pichón and the group to San Buenaventura, where Pedro Zamora is waiting. The next day the party sets out.
Before they reach the ranch they can tell its buildings are on fire. Just before entering San Buenaventura they encountered horses dragging men behind them, some living, some dead. Pedro has more men than ever before, which pleases Pichón and his friends.
The united band later burns San Pedro and continues on to Petacal. It is harvest-time for the corn, and Pichón takes pleasure in seeing the dry cornfields burn. The smoke “smelled of cane and honey because the fire had reached the canefields too. Eventually, the federal troops arrive, but this time they can't kill Pedro’s men as easily.
Pedro’s men ambush the Federals, who fight harder than the soldiers did before. These new soldiers are brave and professional. They come from the highlands of Teocaltiche.
Pichón remarks that it would be much easier to simply raid the ranches rather than try to ambush the Federals. As a result they scatter, doing more damage than ever this way. Some burn ranches and others approach the soldiers, dragging branches behind them to stir up dust and exaggerate their numbers. Many towns are burned during this time and the soldiers are helpless to prevent it. Every time they moved, the town behind them would go up in flames. At El Cuastecomate Pedro’s men kill soldiers in a playful way, goring them as though they are “bullfighting.” Rulfo provides a description of one such "bullfight," in which eight soldiers are killed with a razor.
Soon, people from other places, including Indians, join the revolutionaries. The Indians are some of the most dedicated to Pedro; sometimes they bring him the best girls from the towns they raided. All this changes after a train derailment on the Sayula hill, however. The band puts cow bones and horns along the tracks and — just in case — bent the rails as the tracks approached a curve. Then they waited. As dawn a train full of people topples off the tracks and plunges "to the bottom of the barranca," killing all aboard.
Pedro’s men run away, but the federal troops come after them with machine guns. Eventually, even the Indians turn against Pedro's band. The revolutionaries wish for peace, but this is impossible after so much damage has been done. In the end, Pedro’s men have no choice but to separate, “each one going in a different direction.”
Pichón remarks, from a present-day perspective, that he was with Pedro for five years. He recalls some say Pedro went to Mexico City, following a woman, and that he was killed there. Pichón was released from prison three years ago. He was punished for lots of crimes while there, but not for being one of Pedro’s men. They didn’t know he was with Pedro, but rather jailed him “for the bad habit I had of carrying off girls.” The narrator says that now he is living with one of them, perhaps the best: the one that was waiting for him when he was released.
She said to him that she had been waiting for him for a long time, and Pichón suspected she might be there to kill him. He vaguely remembered her, and “felt again the cold water of the storm falling that night we entered Telcampana and plundered the town.” He suspects that this woman’s father was the man they killed as he pulled the girl up onto his horse. He had to hit her a few times to stop her from biting him. Upon exiting the jail the woman told him she had a son of his, “and she pointed with her finger at a tall skinny boy with frightened eyes.”
The boy looked just like Pichón, “with something mean in his look.” The woman tells him that they call the boy “El Pichón” too, “but he’s not a bandit or a killer. He’s a good person.” Upon hearing this, the narrator’s final words are: “I hung my head.”
“The burning plain” is the longest story in the collection that bears its name. This is the first story that gives the reader insight into what the historical moment of the Revolution was like, and it does a particularly effective job of eroding away the mythical veneer that makes it seem to be a movement by and for the inspired, morally just masses. Narrated in first person, “El llano en llamas” makes the Revolution seem like little more than a celebration of “machista” brotherhood. Here Rulfo adds little to the description of the nature of the male revolutionary already captured by other previous writers (men like Pedro are violent on and off the battlefield and ignorant of the far-reaching repercussions generated by their actions). Supposedly an emancipatory movement, the Revolution is ironically characterized by violence and betrayal so profound that — when the fighting is over — it is hard to imagine a way forward.
In fact, one must ask if the “Revolution” ever really accomplished anything, or if it has even ended. This ambivalence is apparent in the final encounter of Pichón with the woman he raped and who bore his son. While he seems to recognize his own “mean look” in the boy’s face, the woman insists that he is no thief or murderer but rather a “good person.” Much like the promises of the post-revolutionary politicians, despite the mother’s assurances it is difficult to say with any certainty what the boy’s future holds.
Even the epigraph that starts the story — taken from a popular ballad — is ambivalent: “They’ve gone and killed the bitch but the puppies still remain.” One might be tempted to interpret this as an idealistic affirmation of revolutionary zeal: the Revolution is more than just one man, each campesino is a seed capable of multiplying itself indefinitely, and the struggle will run its course until justice is done. However, one can also interpret these lyrics in a more troubling way. The violence done to and by one generation of Mexicans has resulted in another generation of orphaned children who are now in jeopardy of losing their moral compass. What example will guide the “puppies” left behind by the Revolution?
The ballad lyrics imply that the maternal influence is the crucial one, and it can be no coincidence that the boy’s mother is the only “moral” character that Pichón has any contact with. It is she who is capable of making him hang his head in shame by reaffirming the value of being a “good person.” In this manner, her words subvert the violent cult of masculinity that Pedro Zamora’s and his men have been promoting — always at the expense of women and children — as the ideal model for male offspring to follow.
Perhaps “The burning plain” best captures the ambivalence of the Revolution in the character of Pedro Zamora, which is very likely based on a real-life historical figure. Pedro is much more than a small time bandit, he is a revolutionary caudillo. Latin American caudillos (charismatic populist leaders who combined political and military strength in order to act as strongmen or warlords) who were were common in the 19th and into the 20th century. As much as one rejects Pedro’s violent tactics, he is still considered a great leader by his men. His calm nature and particularly his watchful, piercing eyes are much admired by the narrator. In this manner his men feel protected around him, and protection is exactly what caudillos offered the campesinos who lived in the areas under their influence. The admiration expressed in “The burning plain” for the figure of the caudillo is rather remarkable, since normally realist narrative treated them as nothing more than oppressors. Rulfo effectively communicates the apparent need men have for a powerful father, while also recognizing the importance of the mediating ethical role played by the figure of the mother in the story.