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During World War II, in 1944, Frank Arnold, a shipbuilder living in Mobile, Alabama, decides to enlist in the Navy. After arranging for his foreman, Paolo Bertucci, to manage his shipyard, he moves his wife Ann, an old-money Southern belle, and his seventeen-year-old son Josh to their summer home, a ranch outside of the small town of Sagrado, New Mexico, a place he loves and where he plans to retire. Although Frank's declared reason for taking his family to the remote southwestern town is its distance from strategically vulnerable ports and Ann's supposedly fragile health, he intimates to Josh that he wants them, especially Josh, to get away from the claustrophobic, old Southern society. Before reporting for duty, Frank drives the family to Sagrado, where he carries out the annual ritual of negotiating with his long-time caretakers and friends, Amadeo and Excilda Montoya, the terms of their employment and afterward they drink a toast, in which they honor him as patrone . The mutual respect and fondness that the Montoyas and Frank feel for one another is not shared by Ann, who complains that they are the "most unsatisfactory servants" she has ever had, to which Frank gently responds that they are not servants, but employees. On their last night together, when Ann tells Frank that she never feels safe away from him, he reminds her that her sister Emily claims that Alabama women are strong, but Ann admits that perhaps she never really grew up. At the train station, Frank provides Josh with final orders, among them, to practice speaking Spanish and not to drink the vintage burgundy, and offers words of wisdom, such as being kind to others without expecting reciprocation. Frank, who is innately perceptive, explains that Ann will become homesick and asks Josh to help her adjust. Treating him like an adult, Frank shakes Josh's hand, and then departs. Josh attends his first day of school inappropriately dressed in a suit, but soon adapts to the casual ways of the Southwest. His introduction to the cultural mix of white, Indian and Mexican inhabitants comes from friends he makes at school, Steenie Moreno, the town doctor's bright son, and his platonic friend, Marcia Davison, who has an unconventionally bawdy and articulate wit. Inadvertently, however, Josh also makes enemies of two trouble-makers, Chango Lopez and the more dangerous Lindo Velarde. One day, while trying to avoid Lindo, Josh stumbles upon a house where, through the window, he sees a nude woman. When the homeowner, artist Romeo Bonino, confronts Josh, he learns that the woman is Romeo's model and mistress and that Romeo is a friend of Frank. Ann, having a harder time adjusting to life in Sagrado, complains about the food and the people, and becomes depressed and increasingly dependent on alcohol. When Jimbob Buel, a sycophantic "cousin" taking advantage of Ann's Southern hospitality, arrives for an extended visit, Ann is delighted, but Josh resents his bigotry and rudeness to the Montoyas and his attempts to assume control. While Marcia takes a short-lived interest in school athlete Bucky Svenson, losing her ardor upon realizing he is as smart as a "loaf of bread," Josh arranges a double date with the promiscuous Cloyd twins, Venery Ann and Velva Mae, for himself and Steenie. While the boys are making out with the twins in a car, Chango arrives and tries to fight Josh, but Chango's virtuous sister Viola intervenes. Later, Chamaco, the sheriff, tells Josh that a quarrel between Lindo and Chango resulted in Chango being hospitalized. An apologetic Chango warns Josh that Lindo, who is hiding from the law, is now threatening to kill Josh. Although Chamaco cannot find Lindo, Viola, who plans to become a nun, discovers his hiding place and takes food to him, offering to pray with him. Instead, she enters into a secret sexual liaison with Lindo and pulls away from school, her family and her religion. When Jimbob becomes ill from Excilda's spicy food and is hospitalized, Josh tells Ann that Jimbob's presence in their house is ruining her reputation in town. She retaliates by slapping him several times until he apologizes. That night, Ann fires the Montoyas and drinks herself to sleep. After Josh receives a letter from Frank granting him permission to rehire them, he visits them at their home to ask them to return and they agree, on the condition that Josh take over the role of "patrone" and prevent Jimbob from giving orders. At Marcia's request, Amadeo drives her and Josh to the reclusive mountain village of La Cima, where they watch a violent festival game, involving horsemen competing to snatch a rooster from the ground to win the prize of a virginal bride. In the crowd Josh sees Viola and, without thinking, calls to her, thus interrupting the festivities and focusing the hostile attentions of the crowd on himself. Men begin to beat Josh, but Amadeo and Marcia manage to rescue him and they make a hasty escape. That evening, driving home from the Montoyas, Marcia realizes Josh is in pain and orders him to stop the car. They find a nearby barn and decide to make love, each for the first time. Later, Romeo asks for Josh's help in carrying a huge rock up a mountainside. At the top, Josh realizes that the boulder, like others previously placed there, has been sculpted to depict the image of someone Romeo admires. Surrounded by the faces of Humphrey Bogart, Franklin Roosevelt, Joe Di Maggio and Winston Churchill, Romeo calls the area his "Poor Man's Mount Rushmore" and says it was Frank's idea. At school, Viola, who has been truant for days, arrives to ask Chango for help, and Chango sees that Lindo has beaten her. Josh tells Chamaco that he has seen Lindo in La Cima and, as the sheriff prepares to go there to arrest him, Steenie and Josh eagerly offer their help. At Chamaco's insistence, the teens stay behind, but Chango asks Josh to accompany him to the village, where he feels he must confront Lindo and fight for his sister's honor. When they arrive, Chamaco is in a stand-off with Lindo and the villagers. Chango tries to fight Lindo, but is knocked out by local men. While Chamaco's attention is diverted, Lindo attempts to kill him, but, because Josh shouts out a warning, Chamaco receives only a knife wound. Chamaco manages to subdue and arrest Lindo and, with Josh and Chango, returns to Sagrado. When Josh arrives home, Romeo is waiting outside to tell him that he got a call from Paolo, who was listed as Frank's emergency contact person, informing them that Frank's ship hit a mine, killing everyone on board. Josh tells Ann and, when she goes off alone to grieve, Jimbob offers to be Josh's surrogate father. Politely, Josh says that Jimbob is inappropriate for the role and that he will take care of himself and Ann. Surprisingly gracious, Jimbob makes plans to leave. On one of their last adventures together, Josh, Steenie and Marcia hike to Romeo's mountain. Josh and Steenie will soon be reporting for military duty, and Marcia, who will be left behind, woefully realizes how much everything will change. Spotting a new face among the rocks, Josh realizes that it is Frank's and is touched by Romeo's tribute. Later, as they ride to the train station, Ann tells Josh that she plans to wait in Sagrado, as it is a place to grow up and what Frank wished. Before boarding the train, Josh shakes hands with Steenie. When Marcia jokes that she will "give herself" to the first man in uniform she sees after the war, Josh tells her to keep her eyes closed until he returns.