This story takes place between 1926 and 1929 during what was known as the Cristero War. It is told in third person by an omniscient narrator who describes the flight of a Cristero soldier, Feliciano Ruelas, from a successful ambush of federal troops.
The tale begins with Feliciano asking his two companions why they are walking so slowly, warning them that if they continue at this pace they will become sleepy. The other two men reply that they want to arrive at their destination at dawn. The narrator tells us that these were the last words Feliciano heard his friends say, “but he would only remember that afterward, the next day.” Then he adds that the men had also said that it was better to travel in the dark because then they would not be seen.
Feliciano walks off ahead of his two companions. He leans back against a tree trunk and falls fast asleep. Feliciano awakes to the sound of mule drivers traveling along the road. They say, "Good morning!" but he doesn't reply. Feliciano gets up and leaves the road. He abandons his heavy weaponry in order to travel faster, worried that the mule drivers will alert sentries of his presence.
Finally he sees the gray plain stretch out ahead of him and thinks that his friends must now be out there, lying in the sun with no worries.
Feliciano rolls down the canyon to the plain. Once there, he approaches the houses at Agua Zarca and watches the noisy movements of soldiers warming up beside bonfires. He sees two men hanging from a mesquite tree and realizes that they are his uncles, Tanis and Librado.
Feliciano hides himself in a corner to rest and hears someone above him say, “What are we waiting for to take them down?” Another man says, “We’re waiting for the other one to come” and adds that “the third one is just a boy” but that he was the one who “laid the ambush for Lieutenant Parra and wiped out his men.” They add that “if he doesn’t come today or tomorrow, we’ll finish off the first one who passes by so our orders will be carried out."
Feliciano calms his nerves, creeps to the edge of the stream begins to run through the tall grass. He doesn’t stop until he could no longer see the water: “Then he stopped. He breathed deeply, in trembling gulps.”
As far as historical context is concerned, this story is notable because it is the first to treat the subject of the Cristero War (1926-1929), which took place in Mexico after the Revolution (1910-1920). The Cristero War was a period of conflict between Plutarco Elias Calles’ government and Catholic militias. The topic of contention was the restricted rights of the Church under the revolutionary government and the Constitution of 1917. The Cristero rebels believed they were fighting for Christ, and this is why Feliciano’s character repeatedly makes references such as “Long live Christ, Our Lord!” The conflict was ended through diplomacy just as the tide was turning the Cristeros’ way.
This is a topic of particular interest for Rulfo because his family lost much their financial assets in both this conflict and the Revolution. In addition to losing his mother during the Cristero War in 1927, perhaps it is not irrelevant to the analysis of this story that two of his uncles died in 1928. However, none of the family deaths have been conclusively linked to the Cristero War despite speculation to the contrary.
“The night they left him alone” is also rather unique because it is a tale where negligence does not cost the main character his life. Death stalks the protagonists in Rulfo’s works and it seldom forgives mistakes. This is the case in stories like “The man,” “Tell them not to kill me!” and “At daybreak.” “The Hill of the Comadres” is perhaps one of the few other examples where impending death is foiled (or at least postponed). Rulfo cultivates a sense of dread as “The night they left him alone” proceeds and we become certain that Feliciano has made a fatal mistake in falling behind his uncles during the overnight trek. Indeed, death is a sure thing from the fourth line of the story: “It was the last thing he heard them say.” The only information we lack is who dies and how.
As a result, the reader is tempted to anticipate death in all its possible forms: Will Feliciano get lost in the night and fall down a canyon? Will he freeze to death as he sleeps under the tree? Will he wake up in the hands of the soldiers? Or, will the mule drivers turn him in as he himself suspects? Ironically, however, death does not come for this negligent young man but for the conscientious ones. Hence in this story we are confronted by the theme of death as the great leveler: it comes for all of us and when or how is beyond our control. Luck and chance are also depicted as being as important as calculation and preparation.
In some ways this brush with death brings the reality of its implacable yet unpredictable nature into greater focus for both Feliciano and the reader. When seemingly certain death is avoided it sends chills down both his and our spines. While the survival of the main character is rather surprising in Rulfo’s narrative world, his stories are filled with “limit-experiences” that give them narrative intensity. While men and women are pushed to their limits in stories like “The night they left him alone” and “Talpa,” in others (such as “They gave us the land” or “We’re very poor, where water is either severely lacking or in excess, respectively) it is nature that is presented in a situation of extreme disequilibrium. In all these cases life hangs in the balance.