All the Pretty Horses | Study Guide

Cormac McCarthy

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Course Hero. "All the Pretty Horses Study Guide." December 12, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2023.


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All the Pretty Horses | Chapter 2 | Summary



The ranch John Grady and Rawlins find themselves working on is called the Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción (in English, Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, a clear tribute to the Virgin Mary). It's 11,000 hectares—roughly 27,000 acres—and spans an ecologically and topographically diverse swath of land. The ranch is owned by Don Héctor Rocha y Villareal, whose family was given the parcel in 1824, the year the constitution of the Republic of Mexico was approved. Don Rocha is 47 years old and lives the life of an aristocrat. He has a collection of horses and greyhounds. He has another property in Mexico City, the country's capital, and he flies his own plane between his home there and his farm. Over 1,000 cattle live on the ranch.

The boys' first assignment is tending to young cattle—giving them shots, gelding, and so on. Three days later they are tasked with breaking—that is, domesticating—a group of 16 skittish young colts that have been transported from the cliffs atop the ranch. John Grady and Rawlins stand around the pen and appraise the horses, all of which are growing increasingly frantic. John Grady asks rhetorically if they can break the horses in four days, but Rawlins is skeptical: "My feelin is that any horse broke in four days is liable to come unbroke in four more." John Grady tells him that Armando, the stable manager, says that Don Rocha has around 400 additional horses up in the cliffs. All are descended from Little Joe (José Chiquito in Spanish), a horse both boys know of.

John Grady tells Armando they can break the horses in four days. Armando doesn't believe they can but allows them to try. On Sunday morning the boys enter the pen and begin their labor. Breaking the horses is exhausting, dangerous work, but they steadily make their way through the herd. The rest of the ranch hands come to watch the boys in action and are impressed by what they see. By noon the boys have roped up all 16 horses. When they return to the pen, there is a group of about 20 people, young and old, waiting to see them work.

The next step is to ride the horses into submission, which the boys do multiple times over the next few days in front of increasingly large crowds. On Wednesday, while John Grady is riding a horse outside the pen, he is passed by the beautiful girl on a beautiful Arabian horse. She looks briefly at John Grady as she rides by, and he again becomes tongue-tied.

A few days later the boys go up to the mountains accompanied by an elderly cook and three young vaqueros. Their task is to round up wild mares and drive them back down to the ranch. At night they listen to the cook's stories about his family and life during the bloody Mexican Revolution. They continue this work for multiple weeks and eventually bring over 80 mares down to the ranch.

One morning John Grady is summoned to the main house to meet Don Rocha. Over coffee they discuss famous horses, John Grady's background, and the quality of the horses on the mountain. The conversation is pleasant, and Don Rocha comes off as intelligent and down-to-earth. At the end of the conversation he asks John Grady if he rode down from Texas with just Rawlins. John Grady says yes, it was just the two of them.

As a result of his horse breaking prowess and his deep knowledge of horses, John Grady is given a new, more important role of breeding and caring for the mares. While he's taking a mare back into the barn, he runs into the girl while she is getting ready to saddle her horse. He says "buenas tardes" (good afternoon) to her. She returns his greeting and then rides off.

The next week John Grady and Rawlins go back up to the mountain. After the cook and the vaqueros go to sleep, the boys discuss the girl. Given how much John Grady knows about her—she's 17, attends prep school in Mexico City, and her name is Alejandra—it seems very likely they've been talking over the past week.

On Sunday the boys ride into La Vega, a town six miles from the ranch. They get haircuts and go clothes shopping at a local store. Rawlins buys a spiffy pair of black boots. That night they attend a dance in town along with one of the ranch hands, Roberto. The three of them drink and then enter the dance hall. John Grady spots Alejandra dancing with a boy from another ranch, and he heads over to her. They dance and converse awkwardly in English. Alejandra tells him she's glad he made it to the dance.

When the band takes a break John Grady buys lemonade, and he and Alejandra go for a walk outside. John Grady tells her his life story, and she does the same. Alejandra has been away at prep school for the past three years but is able to visit her mother in Mexico City on Sunday nights. Alejandra's mother, who seems to be a bit of a loner, resents Alejandra for spending so much time at the farm. Alejandra volunteers to introduce a pretty friend of hers to John Grady, but he is not interested, reasoning that "I bet she aint as pretty as you." Alejandra blushes at the comment, and then the two part ways. John Grady rides back to the ranch alone.

In late May Don Rocha's prized stallion is transported to the ranch from Mexico City. The horse had been brought to Mexico by Armando's brother Antonio; it took him two months to retrieve it from the United States after he left the ranch. The horse is a specimen of equine perfection: "deep chestnut in color and stood sixteen hands high and weighed about fourteen hundred pounds and he was well muscled and heavily boned for his breed." After the horse arrives on the farm John Grady can't help asking Don Rocha if he can ride him. "Of course," Don Rocha tells him. Over the next few days they discuss breeding strategy and all things horse related.

Over the next few weeks John Grady and Antonio breed the prize horse with the mares John Grady and Rawlins wrangled from the mountain. When Alejandra is around, John Grady rides the horse in an attempt to impress her. Following one of the horse's intense mating sessions John Grady takes him out for a ride and crosses paths with Alejandra riding her Arabian. She asks if she can ride the stallion; John Grady hesitates, but she brushes off his concern. She rides the horse back to the stable, and John Grady takes her horse to Armando's house to keep their meeting secret. There seems to be no one at the house, but as John Grady walks away he hears someone open the door.

Alejandra returns to Mexico City, and a week later John Grady is invited to meet Dueña Alfonsa, Alejandra's great-aunt and godmother, in the main house. He arrives after dinner in his new clothes, and Dueña Alfonsa introduces herself and invites him to play chess. She's a good player; he wins the first two games, but she takes the third. They make small talk, and she explains how she lost her two fingers in a shooting accident. The conversation then turns to Alejandra. Dueña Alfonsa is concerned about Alejandra's reputation and says she does not want him and Alejandra to ride together without adult supervision.

John Grady discusses the meeting with Rawlins while they're up on the mountain. Rawlins asks if John Grady thinks Dueña Alfonsa was speaking on behalf of Don Rocha; John Grady replies, "I dont think she speaks for anybody but her." Rawlins also asks him how he knows Alejandra likes him back. He says, "I just do. I can talk to her." Rawlins replies that even though Don Rocha likes John Grady, he won't tolerate their relationship.

Less than a week later John Grady is awakened by a knock outside his bunk. It's Alejandra. She asks John Grady what Dueña Alfonsa said to him, and he tells her that her great-aunt forbade them from being seen riding together. "I wont be treated in such a manner," she says, defiantly. Under cover of darkness they sneak out of the barn and go riding, John Grady on the stallion and she on her horse; they return before the morning. They continue sneaking out for many nights. During one of them they ride to a lake, and John Grady takes his clothes off and enters it. She follows him in, and romance ensues.

One evening, while John Grady and Rawlins are waiting for dinner outside the bunkhouse, five Mexican rangers pass through the ranch. The leader seems to look toward John Grady and Rawlins, but the group keeps riding toward their destination: the ranch house. Alejandra visits John Grady in his bunk over the next nine nights. Then she travels back to Mexico City. The following night, when John Grady speaks with the stable groom, Esteban, he acts strangely. John Grady goes to the ranch house to review mating figures with Don Rocha. Don Rocha asks him to play pool, and they begin. Over the course of the game Don Rocha discusses the history of the ranch, Mexico, and his family, giving special attention to the story of his aunt, Dueña Alfonsa. He ends his long talk by revealing that he is sending Alejandra to France.

The next Sunday John Grady eats dinner at Antonio's brother's house. After dinner John Grady gets philosophical and asks Antonio for advice, but Antonio responds that "no one could advise him." John Grady tells Antonio when Alejandra gets back to the ranch he will have to speak with her. Confused, Antonio tells John Grady that Alejandra arrived at the house yesterday.

A week or so later Rawlins and John Grady go back to the mesa. While they're cooking dinner three greyhounds enter their site and walk around the fire. The dogs leave, but no people appear. Rawlins asks John Grady "you think he's huntin us?" John Grady says, "if he wants us he can find us." When they arrive back at the ranch they expect to see Don Rocha and his riding companions, but he's not around. The boys make another run up to the mountain a few days later and bring back a fresh group of mares. When they sit down for dinner in the bunkhouse the vaqueros at the table finish eating and leave.

Early the next morning John Grady is awoken by two men with guns. They have Colt service pistols and khaki uniforms, just like the rangers who visited the ranch not long ago. They order John Grady to dress and search his belongings. They tell him to find his horse, Redbo, and he locates him in the stable. Outside he sees Rawlins handcuffed atop his horse. John Grady gets on Redbo and is handcuffed. The group, which includes a leader, his lieutenant, and six other rangers, rides past the bunkhouse and heads north as the vaqueros look on.


In the first part of this section the boys appear to have found the paradise they've been searching for. They are doing the kind of work they love and earning the respect of their peers; after they start breaking the first set of mares, the narrator explains that the other vaqueros "treat them with a certain deference" at dinner. Their happy visit to the tienda in La Vega seems to mark the apex of their success. When they enter the store, they are satisfied, playful, and (relatively) flush. Even Rawlins, who is typically a bit of a cynic, is easily convinced to get a pair of new black boots. He even starts dancing in them, which brings the shop clerk to remark how "guapo" (cute) he looks. Rawlins is clearly pleased with himself and the boys' current status. Taking in the scene, he muses: "Black boots ... I always wanted to be a badman."

There's a hint that trouble is brewing, however, during Rawlins and John Grady's second trip up the mountain. While they're discussing Alejandra, John Grady gets mildly defensive when Rawlins calls her "fancy," revealing the obvious: he likes her. More worrisome, his infatuation could spell trouble for the boys. Rawlins reveals a trace of concern, but he knows his old friend too well to think he can talk him down when matters of romance are concerned, saying, "I've told you before but I don't reckon you'll listen now any more than you done then."

If John Grady's conversation with Rawlins is a yellow light, his meeting with Dueña Alfonsa is a flashing red one. Their evening starts off pleasantly, but after the chess games Dueña Alfonsa gets down to business. She explains she is "not a particularly oldfashioned woman," but she does not want him and Alejandra riding alone. If they are seen together in this way, people may get a bad impression of Alejandra, which could harm her reputation—an invaluable currency in upper-class Mexican society at the time. "In an ideal world the gossip of the idle would be of no consequence," Dueña Alfonsa explains soberly. "But I have seen the consequences in the real world and they can be very grave indeed. They can be consequences of a gravity not excluding bloodshed." John Grady explains he "never meant not to be" inconsiderate of Alejandra, which Dueña Alfonsa appreciates. She reemphasizes, however, the gravity of the situation. "This is another country. Here a woman's reputation is all she has."

The scene vividly illustrates a clash of perspectives on how things ought to be. John Grady is the idealistic youngster who challenges conventions he thinks are unfair: "I guess I'd have to say that that don't seem right," he says, after Dueña Alfonsa explains that in Mexico a woman only has one chance to preserve her honor. Dueña Alfonsa, however, isn't concerned with right and wrong. With her flip response, "Oh. Yes. Well," Dueña Alfonsa expresses her weary acceptance of the status quo.

It's a fairly conventional plotline: a starry-eyed young lover is warned off the object of his infatuation by an adult who claims to have his best interest in mind. It's unsurprising, then, that being told he can't have Alejandra only strengthens John Grady's love for her. Still, familiar or not, this new wrinkle raises the dramatic stakes of the story. If John Grady and Alejandra continue pursuing each other, there will be repercussions—which may or may not exclude bloodshed.

John Grady and Rawlins's conversation on the mesa shows how their mood has changed. Rawlins warns John Grady to consider what he's doing in explicit terms. "I know the old man likes you ... But that don't mean he'll set still for you courtin his daughter," he says. "What I see is you fixin to get us fired and run off the place."

When Don Rocha asks John Grady if he wants to play pool, a sense of unease bubbles up from the pages. The reader isn't sure how much Don Rocha knows or what he will say to John Grady. The scene mostly involves Don Rocha sermonizing to John Grady as he strikes each ball. Don Rocha begins his speech with an unrelated commentary on the poolroom, which used to be a chapel. Then he talks about Alfonsa, explaining how when she was young she fell in love with a revolutionary. Alfonsa and the revolutionary, he says, were educated in Europe, which instilled in them all sorts of nontraditional "ideas," such as the notion that "people can be improved in their character by reason." Alas, he informs John Grady, "Mexico is not Europe"—that is, their new ideas simply would not be tolerated. He speaks mostly in generalities, but it's clear he knows something is happening between John Grady and his daughter. "Beware gentle knight," he warns. "There is no greater monster than reason."

The appearance of the greyhounds in John Grady and Rawlins's camp confirms the inevitable: the jig is up. Don Rocha is letting the boys know he knows what's going on. The only question is what happens next. The boys get their answer when the Mexican soldiers show up at their door.

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