John Grady Cole enters the hallway of his family’s house, which is lined with dimly lit portraits of his ancestors. He looks at the body of his grandfather wrapped in funeral cloth. He thinks about how his grandfather never combed his hair that way while he was alive.
The novel enters with John Grady inhabiting a space that is both familiar and alienating: it’s the home where he’s lived for years, but his grandfather’s death and unfamiliar hair makes John Grady feel distanced from, rather than belonging to, his past.
It’s cold outside, but John Grady goes out to stand on the prairie for a long time, until he hears the train howling in from the east. He goes back inside and greets Luisa, the woman who’s been working for his family for years, along with her mother, Abuela, and Luisa gives him a sweetroll. He asks her in Spanish if it was her that lit the candle in his grandfather’s room, but she says that it was John Grady’s mother.
The wide-open prairie contrasts with the sound of the train, a reminder of industrialization and a means of connecting one American city to another. Within this rapidly changing word, there are still signs of constancy, as in Luisa’s long-lasting relationship with the Coles.
At the funeral, John Grady’s father stands by himself a little away from the others, as the women hold onto their hats against the strong wind. That evening, John Grady rides his horse out west from the house on his normal route, to the westernmost part of the ranch where he can see the Concho River. He likes riding at night, because the shadowed road seems like something from the past, where horses and their Indian riders with painted faces would ride down from the north in search of war.
Already, we see how John Grady can sometimes feel more comfortable around horses than around other people, especially at difficult moments. His nighttime horseback rides feed his imagination, allowing him to replace dull and sometimes painful reality with a romantic past, in which war is no more than an exciting event.
John Grady finds an old horse skull in the brush and turns it over. He loves in horses the same thing that he loves in men: “the heat of the blood that ran them,” that is, the ardent side of living. He rides back home, still thinking about the warriors following the laws of blood riding across to Mexico.
At this point in the novel, blood symbolizes what John Grady thinks of as most real and true. He equates the image of blood coursing through a man’s or horse’s veins with intensity, integrity, and courage.
We learn that it’s 1949, and though the house was built in 1872, John Grady’s grandfather is the first man to die in it. Before that, the original family ranch had been carved out of a government land grant in 1866. Five years later, the grandfather built the house and grew the ranch to 18,000 acres. All his brothers died in violent accidents before the age of 25, and his wife died in an influenza epidemic before they had children. He then married his wife’s sister and they had one child: the mother of John Grady Cole—and this is the first time we learn his name.
The laws of blood seem to have already been present in the past of John Grady’s family, though here they are more of an occasion for sorrow than for courageous bluster. We also learn that the family ranch has its roots in early American history: land grants were given in the mid-nineteenth century to encourage Americans to settle in the still largely unexplored American West.
John Grady meets his father in a café, where people seem to recognize them. John Grady says “she’s” gone to San Antonio, and his father admonishes him not to call his mother “she,” and that she can go where she wants to. His father admits he didn’t want any of this for John Grady, who says he knows. His father suggests they go out and ride on Saturday, and though he repeats several times that John Grady doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to, John Grady says he does have to.
Though the prose here is sparse, made up almost entirely of dialogue between John Grady and his father, we can see how strained their relationship is, and how it most likely has something to do with John Grady’s mother. Horseback riding seems to be something that unites them, however. The father seems to want to mend the relationship through riding.
In the next scene, John Grady and his friend Lacey Rawlins are lying outside in the dark on saddle blankets. Rawlins asks what John Grady plans to do. “She” didn’t say anything to him, John Grady says. He also says he won’t go with his father on Saturday.
Like many teenagers, John Grady confides in his friend more readily than in his parents. In some ways this makes him seem younger than the horse-riding cowboy he’d like to be.
John Grady returns home and walks into his grandfather’s office, where he looks at his mother’s framed high school graduation photo. Out the window he can see the old telegraph poles, which his grandfather had told him the Comanche Indians would cut and splice back together with horsehair.
The Comanche Indians, by this point greatly reduced from their earlier size and might, symbolize for John Grady the romance of an earlier time and place, one whose traces he can still see in the telegraph poles.
John Grady’s mother, referred to as “she,” switches on the light and comes into the office to ask what he’s doing. She stands there for a long time without talking before going back up the stairs.
While John Grady’s relationship to his father is strained, he seems both angrier at and more afraid of his mother.
It’s autumn and there are a few warm days left, which John Grady spends drinking coffee (his father whisky) in the hotel room where his father is now staying. John Grady asks him if he’d buy the ranch if he had the money, but his father says he didn’t buy it when he did have the money. John Grady suggests they play chess again one of these days, but his father, who was in the army, says he doesn’t have the patience anymore. He says poker’s different since you can make money out of it. John Grady asks him to talk to his mother, but he says he can’t—the last real conversation they had was in California in 1942. It isn’t her fault, John Grady’s father says: he’s different now. John Grady says his grandfather never gave up, and always thought his parents would get back together.
We learn a few more things about John Grady’s father in this passage: time, and perhaps the war, seem to have changed him profoundly, contributing to the disintegration of his marriage and to his constant low-level distraction. A penchant for alcohol and gambling seems to confirm his father’s declining mental state. We can now better understand why John Grady is so attracted to the exciting, adventure-filled stories of the Comanche Indians. Compared to John Grady’s idea of the Old West, his father seems paralyzed, unable or unwilling to act to save the ranch or get back together with his wife.
John Grady says he should be getting back home, and as they walk into the lobby his father says the Bible says the meek shall inherit the earth, but he wonders whether that’s a good thing. He hands a key to his closet to John Grady and says there’s something that belongs to him there. John Grady rides back up the elevator and sees a new Hamley Formfitter saddle. John Grady swears in awe and walks out of the hotel with the saddle slung over his shoulder.
As we’ll see, the Bible and Christian imagery will serve as a common backdrop to scenes in the novel, as characters grapple with the implications of religious meaning in their own lives. Though he struggles to renew his former closeness to his son, John Grady’s father recognizes his son’s gift and passion for riding horses.
Over the next few weeks, it rains and floods, and John Grady’s horse Redbo has to be cajoled into directing the cattle. John Grady, Luisa, and another ranch worker eat in the kitchen when his mother isn’t there, and sometimes he catches a ride into town and looks up at his father’s window to watch his shadow pace back and forth. When his mother returns they eat in the dining room at opposite ends of the long table. He asks why she couldn’t lease him the ranch. His mother says there’s not any money, and the place has barely paid expenses for years. He’s only sixteen, she says, and is being ridiculous. She leaves the room and he looks at an oil painting of horses with wild eyes breaking through a corral. He’s never seen horses like that, and when he’d once asked his grandfather what they were, he said they were picturebook horses.
Here, we gain a better sense of John Grady’s inability to connect with either of his parents. He seems to want to have a relationship with them, but doesn’t make an active effort with his father, while he and his mother talk past each other. John Grady’s mother embodies the calculating, practical side of adult reality, whereas John Grady’s increasingly hopeless ideas on how to keep the ranch only underline how little he knows about this adult world. The anecdote about the oil painting shows both John Grady’s expertise in distinguishing horses, and his innocence in his inability to tell “storybook” from real horses.
John Grady goes to see Mr. Franklin, a lawyer, who tells him that the ranch is his mother’s property and she can do whatever she wants with it, especially since she and John Grady’s father are divorced—John Grady didn’t know this, but it was finalized three weeks ago. John Grady asks Franklin to talk to her, but he says she won’t change her mind. She doesn’t want to live on a cattle ranch in west Texas, and he guesses she wants to have a better social life. Mr. Franklin says it’s John Grady’s father’s fault for signing every paper anyone put down in front of him. He tells John Grady he’s sorry he doesn’t have better news, but some things in this world can’t be helped.
Clearly John Grady has been ignorant of much of what’s going on between his parents. He tries to enter their adult reality by paying a visit to his lawyer, but this is mostly a futile endeavor. John Grady continues to believe there must be some kind of a solution—that because he loves the ranch so much, and couldn’t bear for it to be sold, proof of his love will somehow make things right. Franklin tries to gently disabuse John Grady of his idealism by telling him that there isn’t always a solution to life’s problems.
After Christmas John Grady’s mother is always absent. Luisa is often crying. One morning, John Grady carries a leather satchel with a shirt, socks, toothbrush, and razor out of the house and waves down a hitchhiker to San Antonio. The driver tries to talk to John Grady, but then realizes he’s “not much of a talker.” Snow is falling on the Edwards Plateau when he crosses it and it’s a snowstorm when they reach San Antonio. He walks into a café at random and orders a cheeseburger and chocolate milk. He walks around town in the snow, checks into the YMCA, and stretches out over his bed to sleep.
Often McCarthy will introduce new scenes that follow the characters closely, but won’t give much context to explain why they’re acting a certain way. At this point, we know only that John Grady’s home life is increasingly isolating and somber, and that this has some connection with his decision to go to San Antonio. He’s old enough to stay in a hotel by himself, but still a teenager who prefers to drink chocolate milk at a café.
The next day John Grady pays for a balcony seat for the town theater. At intermission he smokes a cigarette in the lobby and notices the glances of the other theatergoers. He watches the play intensely, hoping there will be something in the story to tell him about the way the world is, or is becoming, but he doesn’t find it. When the lights come up, his mother comes forward several times to bow. He sits for a long time in the empty theater and then leaves.
Here we learn the reason for John Grady’s visit to San Antonio (and the reason for his mother’s frequent absences). Her sophisticated urban social circle has little in common with the ranch life John Grady is used to, which is perhaps why he believes the play might have something to teach him.
The next morning the temperature’s still freezing and the only café open is a Mexican café, but John Grady is able to order and speak to the waitress in Spanish. He walks up Broadway and watches his mother walk through the lobby of the Menger Hotel on the arm of a man in a suit. He waits for a while and then asks the clerk at the desk if there’s a Mrs. Cole registered—he says there isn’t.
Most likely because of the ranch workers back home, John Grady knows Spanish well. This is especially useful in Texas, which borders Mexico. In the hotel, John Grady must accept that his mother has definitively moved on—she’s no longer going by her married name, and is seeing another man.
John Grady and his father ride one last time together in early March, along Grape Creek into the hills and open country, barely speaking all day. His father looks thin and frail. He seems to look out at the world as if either he no longer saw it right, or finally did see it right. John Grady rides the horse more comfortably, naturally, as if he was born to ride.
The contrast between the ways John Grady and his father ride horses highlights the different ways they see the world. John Grady feels at home in the world, as if it couldn’t harm him, whereas his father no longer has that kind of confidence.
They ride into town and tie their horses in front of a café. His father asks if he’s thought about “boarding” his horse, keeping it at the ranch in exchange for feeding and cleaning stalls. John Grady says Redbo wouldn’t like that. His father asks if he’s still seeing the Barnett girl, but he says he isn’t. He doesn’t know who broke up with whom, so his father says that means it was her who ended things. He says John Grady’s mother and he never agreed on much—he always thought it was enough that she liked horses. She left for California when the war came, while Luisa looked after John Grady. She wanted him to go out there, his father says, but he didn’t last long. He says she came back for John Grady, not him, and he’d like to see them make up. She saved him while he was in Goshee (a POW camp), since he constantly thought of her and wrote to her. The last thing his father says is that the country won’t be the same again, because no one feels safe anymore.
John Grady’s conversation with his father begins haltingly and somewhat awkwardly, as his father tries to make small talk and John Grady refuses to make an effort to fill in the conversation. The reason for his father’s awkwardness seems to be that he’s attempting to explain things to his son and to justify his ex-wife’s behavior by trying to make clear that she always loved her son. We also learn here why John Grady’s father seems so haunted: he was taken prisoner during World War II, though the only thing we learn about his time there is in relation to his family. The war has forced him to accept that reality can be brutal and unsafe—a lesson John Grady hasn’t had to learn yet.
That night, John Grady and Rawlins lie out beneath the stars. Rawlins asks if John Grady has told his father about leaving, and he says no. Rawlins says his father ran away from home, otherwise he’d have been born in Alabama. John Grady says he’d never have been born at all. After bickering, Rawlins says that if God wanted him to be born he’d have been born—and if he didn’t he wouldn’t have been born, John Grady replies. They both agree that their heads hurt. Rawlins says John Grady has more reason to leave than him, but asks if John Grady will still go without him. John Grady replies that he’s already gone.
Again John Grady’s finds relief from his struggles with his family by talking with Rawlins. Rawlins, as we’ll see, often thinks about God, though he struggles to understand mysteries like the idea of God’s omnipotence. Their conversation shows how something like Rawlins’ birth can hinge on the barest of choices, like his father’s decision to run away from home—but this doesn’t solve their questions about fate.
John Grady sees the Barnett girl (Mary Catherine) one last time in town, running into her on the street. She says she thought they could be friends, but he just nods and says he’s leaving soon. He asks if the girl’s new love interest would be jealous that they’re talking. She asks if he hates him. He shakes his head and she presses him, until he says it’s all just talk. She wishes him the best, and he takes her small hand—the first time he’s shaken hands with a woman—and tells her to take care of herself.
Before he leaves, John Grady seems to be severing relationships with many people in his life—his father, his mother, and now his former love interest. That Mary Catherine seems to have moved on is only another reason for him to depart, though the way he tells her he’s leaving suggests that he hasn’t entirely gotten over her.
Late that night, John Grady meets Rawlins in front of his house with their two horses. They ride across the open pasture onto the prairie, feeling like thieves in the night with the whole world available to them.
Escaping from home is a dream of many adolescents, but John Grady and Rawlins imagine an alternative, romantic narrative for their journey.
The day afterward, they’ve ridden 40 miles into land they still know. They water the horses and eat the sandwiches they’ve brought, resting under trees at midday. John Grady has only brought his grandfather’s old revolver, which he doesn’t know how to shoot. By sunset, they can hear trucks along a highway. They reach a gate on one side of the highway but don’t see one on the other, and don’t want to cross it in the dark. They see lights in the distance, probably Eldorado, and decide to sleep there until daybreak.
The boys’ escape still seems like a relatively familiar, safe adventure, in known territory and with the revolver serving only as a useless prop. They’re hardly in the Wild West, given that they’re riding next to a modern highway. This provides a bit of humor (and shows the naivety of their journey), as the boys run into difficulty in crossing the highway, which hasn’t exactly been constructed with horses in mind.
They lead the horses around old car parts strewn around the highway to a roadside café and order breakfast. Rawlins points to distant mountains and says that’s where they’re headed. After eating they go outside, where a Mexican is changing a tire on a truck. He asks where they’re going and Rawlins says Mexico—they pretend they’re running from the law, having robbed a bank. The man doesn’t believe them, and when Rawlins asks if he knows that country, the Mexican says he’s never been to Mexico in his life.
Again the horses are juxtaposed humorously against signs of the modern automobile industry. The distant mountains to which Rawlins gestures seem to them like a playground for adventure, populated with bandits and thieves. McCarthy is also being ironic when the “Mexican” turns out to be just as American as the boys are.
The boys follow a valley west, and Rawlins shoots a rabbit, which they clean to eat later. As they’re cooking it that night, looking out at the black hills and crescent moon, Rawlins says he could get used to this.
In some ways, the American West hasn’t actually changed much over the decades—you can still hunt and spend nights under the moon.
They ride all the next day in rolling hill country and then into a town, Pandale. They’re dirty and dusty and John Grady tells Rawlins he looks like a desperado. The woman at the deli is impressed that the boys rode all the way down from San Angelo. Rawlins wonders what everyone’s doing back home, and John Grady jokes that they’ve probably struck oil and are picking out their new cars. Rawlins asks if he ever feels just ill at ease for no reason, and if that means that you’re somewhere you aren’t supposed to be. John Grady says he’s making no sense, and Rawlins agrees. He decides to start singing country tunes from the radio.
John Grady and Rawlins revel in how exotic they must seem to people like the woman at the deli, since they’ve now shed the image of the schoolboys they were back home. Still, Rawlins at least hasn’t entirely relinquished his hold on San Angelo, given that he wonders about what’s going on there. More than John Grady, Rawlins has some doubts about the whole enterprise, though his desire to be brave and adventurous prevents him from expressing too much unease.
The boys cross the Pecos River, the horses gingerly choosing their steps. John Grady says someone has been following them on horseback, but he says they should just keep riding and the follower will show or not. They ride onto a high plateau with a vista over the grass-covered country to the south. At a stand of cedars, Rawlins suggests they wait on the follower.
This is the first true event to happen to the duo: an unknown follower on horseback. John Grady and Rawlins are eager to meet this first test head-on, which is why they wait for the rider rather than continue on by themselves.
A rider (Jimmy Blevins) with a broadbrim hat and overalls, riding a beautiful, big bay horse, approaches them. He’s about thirteen. Rawlins asks if he’s following them, and the kid denies it, saying he’s going to Langtry. When John Grady asks where he got the horse, the boy says it’s his. He claims to be sixteen and coming from Pandale, where he saw John Grady and Rawlins. John Grady and Rawlins ask each other who gets to shoot him, and they flip a coin. The boy says they’re just joking, but Rawlins asks how he can be so sure. Rawlins asks who’s hunting him—or at least the horse—and the boy doesn’t answer. Rawlins says he’ll get them thrown in jail, and he and John Grady turn and head south alone. Rawlins is surprised the boy isn’t following them, but John Grady says they haven’t seem the last of him.
Within a few minutes of meeting John Grady and Rawlins, the boy seems to have told nothing but lies: about his age, where he got his horse, and where he’s going. John Grady and Rawlins take the opportunity to play with the boy a little, asserting their maturity and preparedness over his uncertainty. The boy certainly seems to be in some trouble, but it’s not the kind of trouble that John Grady and Rawlins were perhaps hoping for—trouble that that might play a part in their grand adventure. They’re still realistic enough to turn their backs on the boy and head off alone.
That night they cross the Southern Pacific tracks near Pumpville, Texas, and make a fire in the shadow of the Pumpville water tank. The next morning they reach the river dividing the U.S. from Mexico. They ride upriver to where the river meets a creek and look for where they should cross. Before doing so, they eat lunch under willow trees. After a nap, John Grady sees the same boy riding towards them. Rawlins says they should remount and get away: they’re both feeling uneasy about him. Rawlins gets his rifle and they walk down the creek to where the boy is sitting in the shallow water. The boy, who says he’s called Jimmy Blevins (the name of a radio host), says no one will hunt him in Mexico, though he refuses to answer for what. He has no food or money: Rawlins asks why they would want him with them. He just says he’s an American, and Rawlins shakes his head.
Again, the pair’s wilderness adventure is often humorously juxtaposed with signs of modern, industrial American life, like the Pumpville water tank. Blevins seems even more eager than the other two to escape into Mexico, which strikes him not just as a place of adventure, without real worries, but as a means of escaping his material troubles in the United States. He grasps at a kind of patriotism that Rawlins, at least, finds naïve—indeed, that’s how the pair consider Blevins at first, as a very young, innocent hanger-on who won’t add anything to their group but probably wouldn’t be a disastrous companion either.
They cross that night under the moon, and the horses have to swim by midriver. Rawlins holds his rifle in the air and they look like a band of marauders. Once they reach the other side, they look back at the American border silently, and then ride into a gallop while laughing and patting their horses.
It seems almost too easy: they simply cross a river on horseback and they’ve suddenly reached another country. At this point the group acts like the teenage boys they really are.
They camp at the edge of a plain, and when Rawlins asks, Blevins says he last ate several days ago. John Grady and Rawlins tell him their names and say they’re from San Angelo, but Blevins doesn’t say where he’s from. Rawlins suggests they exchange his horse for one less likely to get them shot, but Blevins refuses. He says he has a gun, a 32-20 Colt. Rawlins doesn’t believe him, but he reaches into his overalls for the pistol. Rawlins asks if he can shoot anything with it, and Blevins says anything he can throw up in the air he’ll hit. Rawlins takes out his billfold and throws it up into the air, and Blevins punctures it with a pistol shot. Rawlins picks up his billfold and says they should get going.
Crossing the national border apparently has made John Grady and Rawlins feel a little warmer towards their newfound companion, or at least curious. Blevins has told enough lies that Rawlins is skeptical of his claim to have an enviable 32-20. But like John Grady with horses, Blevins seems to have a way with pistols. It looks like Rawlins is chastened and perhaps a little embarrassed by this turn of affairs. Blevins’ expertise in shooting has, at least temporarily, compensated for his naiveté in other aspects of life.
They ride side by side and look around at the new country, watching hawks and low hills covered with nopal and creosote (cactuses and tar). They ride into the town of Reforma, where the main street is lined with mud-brick houses and a pole corral. They enter a store where a girl is sitting reading a comic book. John Grady asks in Spanish for something to drink, and she hands them cider, which Rawlins pays for with a dollar bill with a hole at each end. They walk outside and Rawlins notes that there’s no electricity here—there’s probably never been a car. He wonders what they’re saying back home, and John Grady reckons people are saying that they’re gone.
By deploying descriptions in Spanish, McCarthy helps the reader perceive the Mexican landscape as unfamiliar and exotic, just as it seems to the travelers. The first town they reach seems to have been forgotten by time, lacking electricity and cars. While John Grady embraces the newness, Rawlins is more likely to contrast it to life back home, which serves as a measuring stick for all his other experiences.
That evening, they come to a small estancia (farm) where two little girls in white dresses are standing in the yard. They eat inside at a pine table, with a framed picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall The little girls watch them eat in awe. The estancia owner asks them about America, which he’d seen once across the river as a boy. They’re sitting on backless benches and Blevins leans back at one point, crashing to the floor. The little girls squeal in delight, but Blevins is ashamed and whispers that he can’t be laughed at. He climbs over the bench and goes out, and the owners look worried. After dinner John Grady finds Blevins sitting on the ground, and Blevins refuses to get up to sleep in the house with him.
For the American boys, Mexico is an exotic dream, but at the same time easily accessible. For the estancia owner, however, America seems physically close but practically unattainable. This speaks to the unequal economic realities of each place—realities of which the boys are largely ignorant. We learn more here about Blevins’ personality: he’s acutely aware that he can seem young and naïve, so he acts inordinately proud as a result—shame being, of course, tied to pride.
John Grady and Rawlins sleep in the back of the house, and John Grady says that the estancia owner had told him there are big ranches one or two hundred miles away where they can work. Rawlins wonders if he thinks they’re desperados. He asks if Blevins is just going to sleep in the yard, and says maybe he’ll be gone in the morning. He spreads out the cards that were in his billfold, exclaiming that his picture of Betty Ward, a girl from school, is shot through between her eyes.
Rawlins, more talkative and direct than John Grady, is often the one to explicitly articulate their attitude towards their journey south. In many ways it’s oriented outwards, to other people, whom they hope will think of them as “desperados” and thus give them a sense of confirmation and identity. Though Rawlins is easily exasperated by Blevins, he’s also grudgingly impressed by his skill.
The next morning they ride out and see Blevins on the road. He asks if they have anything to eat, and the boys tell him they can’t give him their lunch at seven in the morning. They eat lunch under the shade of trees next to a swamp. Blevins says that in the old days, this would be where the Comanches would lie in wait for travelers. Rawlins notes that the road seems deserted, and Blevins replies that it used to have far more people on it. Rawlins, exasperated, asks what he would know about the old days.
Blevins’ pride and stubbornness evinces a lack of maturity and foresightedness, given that he’ll now have no lunch like the others. Like John Grady, Blevins imagines the landscape populated by the Comanche Indians in olden times. Rawlins’ exasperation is interesting, since he too has been spinning romantic yarns about the area’s heritage, but he dislikes sharing them with Blevins.
That night they camp off the road and stare into the embers of their fire. Rawlins tells Blevins how good a horse rider John Grady is—that he can outride anyone he’s ever seen. Blevins claims he’s seen Booger Red ride, who can probably beat John Grady, but Rawlins laughs at him, saying Booger Red’s been dead for years. He continues poking fun at Blevins, but John Grady tells Rawlins to leave him alone.
Rawlins continues to provoke Blevins, acting as if he’s the mature adult and Blevins the naïve youngster. There’s some truth to this, but Blevins’ even greater innocence only makes it more difficult to see that John Grady and Rawlins aren’t exactly experienced marauders either.
In the following days, they ride toward the distant cordilleras (mountain ranges) at the horizon. Rawlins wonders how to get there—it looks like paradise. He remarks how huge a country this is, and John Grady says that the hugeness is what he’s there for.
While John Grady doesn’t have concrete reasons for going to Mexico, he is at least looking to escape from a home life that feels confined and stifling. Mexico seems the opposite.
They ride down the northern slope of a mountain covered with evergreens and persimmon trees. That night, for the first time, they hear the howls of a wolf. John Grady looks up at the constellations in the sky, picking out Orion, Cepella, and Cassiopeia, and thinks about wildness in nature as well as inner wildness.
John Grady and Rawlins’ usual stargazing seems different—and wilder—when framed by the wolf and by their new circumstances in Mexico. John Grady finds these two kinds of wildness mirror each other.
The next morning it’s cold, and they drink the last of their coffee around a fire. Rawlins asks how long they’ll last on coffee and cold tortillas, but John Grady says he isn’t worried. As they watch the sun rise, Rawlins asks if there will be a day when the sun won’t rise. Judgment day, John Grady answers, whenever God decides. When Rawlins asks if he believes in all that, John Grady says yes, but Rawlins isn’t sure. Blevins says he’s an infidel, but Rawlins tells him he doesn’t know anything, and to shut up.
Much of the pair’s adventure is ultimately about them trying to find a way to eat every day, though they’re far from desperate. Again, Rawlins is the one to bring up God, once more in the context of if and how things are predetermined. He’s still grappling with the possible answers to these questions. Rawlins’s spiritual angst clashes humorously with his impatience towards Blevins.
By midmorning, they’re out of the mountains, and they come across three other riders for the first time across the plain. They’re zacateros (hay-cutters) heading to the mountains to work. The men are dressed in ragged clothes, have old, worn saddles, and smell of smoke and sweat. They seem wild and strange to the boys. John Grady watches them to see what they are thinking but can’t tell at all. After speaking of the weather in the country, they wish luck on the Americans and head off.
Unlike the three boys, these zacateros have a purpose to their ride—earning their daily bread—and in fact, they’re far less wild than the boys themselves. Their supposed “wildness” is a function of how different from the boys they are, with distinct pasts, families, and experiences of which the boys know nothing.
The boys ride on through the valley and camp in the low hills that evening, where they cook a jackrabbit shot by Blevins. Blevins buries it in the ground and builds the fire over it, saying that the Indians do it that way. When Rawlins asks if he’s ever eaten a jackrabbit, he says he hasn’t.
Blevins may be an expert shooter, but his (and the other boys’) knowledge about cooking and camping is based mostly on what they’ve heard rather than experienced themselves.
Rawlins asks Blevins where he’s from, and he says Uvalde County on the Sabinal River. He continues to refuse to answer why he’s run away, but when John Grady asks if he’s done it before, he says he has. He had gotten a job at a bowling alley in Oklahoma when he was bitten by a dog and it got infected. The doctor thought he might have rabies, and sent him back to Uvalde. He had saved up to go see a striptease show that was supposed to come through Uvalde, before the show’s manager was thrown in prison for indecency. Anyway, the show never made it to Oklahoma either.
Blevins starts out committed to keeping his past a secret, but now he yields pretty easily to his new companions’ questions. Blevins’ story shows how in many ways he’s a typical teenager, eager to glimpse the secrets of the adult world but ultimately subject to this world’s rules himself. Blevins is perhaps a bit more stubborn than the average teenager, and living a more reckless life as well.
When Rawlins asks why Blevins wanted to go to Mexico, he says it was for the same reason as Rawlins: no one could find him there. Rawlins says no one is hunting him. Blevins says that he told his stepfather he wouldn’t stand to be whipped by him (Blevins’ father died in the war). Rawlins asks what he was doing when he was bitten by a dog, but at this point Blevins clams up and stops answering questions. They dig up the rabbit, which looks like a sandy effigy, but covered in hot sauce it tastes good enough.
Unlike John Grady, and especially Rawlins, Blevins is running away to Mexico to escape something very concrete—an abusive stepfather. Blevins isn’t sharing the whole story here, but what is clear is that Blevins has experienced and suffered more than what Rawlins and John Grady first thought.
The next day they start to encounter caravans of migrant traders headed north to the border, plodding with donkeys bearing loads of furs, goat hides, or handmade rope and carrying water in hog skins. The boys try to buy water but they don’t have coins small enough to do so. Instead, they buy a canteen of sotol (an alcoholic drink) and are drunk by evening. Rawlins catches sight of Blevins’ horse with an empty saddle, and they turn back to see Blevins sitting in the middle of the road. Next time they’ll leave him behind, Rawlins says. Blevins gets back on but drops the reins, and when he digs his heels in the horse goes forward and Blevins falls backward into the road. Rawlins spits in disgust and John Grady curses at him to get back on the horse.
Again, the boys’ experience crossing the border—easy, joyful, fun—has little to do with the migrant traders’ conception of the border. Their economic reality is underlined by the fact that the three boys don’t even have small enough coins to make change when they want to buy water. Instead, we’re treated to a Wild West version of the adolescent party, in which Blevins plays the part of the class clown, giving John Grady and Rawlins another opportunity to roll their eyes at him for his immaturity (here, shown in his inability to handle alcohol).
An ominous-looking storm swells in front of them and lightning glows from the distance. Blevins says he can’t be outside in lightning—it turns out he’s afraid of it, and is sure he’ll be struck. His grandfather, uncle, great-uncle, and cousin were all struck by lightning. He explains in detail just how his relatives were paralyzed or set on fire, and says he’s been struck twice, which is why he’s deaf in one ear. He says wildly that he’ll try to outride the storm, which John Grady tells him is impossible. But at the first crack of thunder Blevins rides out towards the north, losing his hat as he goes. Rawlins says he won’t take any responsibility for him—he’ll fall off and the horse will be back in the States before long.
Blevins’ story seems like another of his outlandish fabrications, and it’s difficult to believe him at first. But his fear is undeniably real. Just as at the estancia, Blevins’ stubbornness kicks in here as he dreams up the wildly impractical plan of attempting to outrace the approaching storm. With John Grady having been unsuccessful at reasoning with him, Rawlins suggests they stop looking out for him. For Rawlins, Blevins’ own stupidity and stubbornness frees them of any responsibility towards him.
They ride north, and eventually come across Blevins’ horse tied to a willow tree next to a stream beside the road. John Grady rides through the willows until finding Blevins crouched under a dead cottonwood tree. John Grady tells him that if there’s a flood it’ll wash him away, but Blevins says he’s less afraid of drowning than of getting hit by lightning. John Grady rides back up to tell Rawlins Blevins is just sitting there, and Rawlins says he knew the boy was crazy.
Again, John Grady attempts to reason with Blevins, and again, Rawlins develops his own reasoning for why they shouldn’t be held responsible for Blevins, especially if he’s “crazy.” John Grady has a stronger sense of loyalty to the boy than Rawlins does. From another perspective, Blevins might be reasoning his way out of his worst fear by choosing a lesser danger.
John Grady and Rawlins take shelter under a rock overhang. At one point they hear a horse running in the rain. The storm lets up by evening, and the next morning they untie the horses. John Grady says they should go find Blevins. Rawlins wonders if they should just go on without him, but John Grady doesn’t think he can just leave him there, and Rawlins agrees.
At this first major opportunity to leave Blevins behind, Rawlins is more eager than John Grady to wash his hands of the boy. Still, despite his complaining, he does seem to retain some sense of responsibility for Blevins along with his friend.
John Grady finds Blevins in the same place he left him. His clothes are washed way, and his horse is gone. He doesn’t know what he’ll do. John Grady says Blevins probably knows he’s worn Rawlins out. John Grady rides downriver and finds Blevins’ sopping wet shirt. He hoists Blevins up onto the back of his own horse. When Rawlins sees them, he’s too dismayed to even speak.
In addition to making irrational decisions, Blevins also seems to get himself into situations that are simply absurd. It’s perhaps the ridiculousness of falling off a horse or losing all his clothes that irritates Rawlins, who was so thrilled about becoming a roaming marauder—and being anything but ridiculous.
They continue riding, the country taking on bright, almost electric green and yellow colors from the rain. They ride into a camp in the footlands of a low mesa where Mexicans had dug a firebox to mount a boiler onto. Several burros are standing loaded with the candelilla plant that can be boiled for wax. A dozen men dressed in rags are eating off clay plates beside them. John Grady greets them in Spanish and asks if they have something to eat. They gesture at the fire and the three boys fill their plates.
Again the boys find themselves encountering locals for whom horseback riding is part of their livelihood, not just an adventure. Still, there seems to be a general camaraderie in the Mexican outback, allowing riders who encounter each other—even foreigners—to share food and enjoy some kind of kinship.
Blevins asks if John Grady will ask them about his horse. Rawlins says he won’t get his horse back, and they should trade his pistol for clothes and a bus ticket home. But Blevins says the pistol is with the horse. After a pause, Blevins looks up to ask what he ever did to Rawlins, who responds that he hasn’t done anything, and won’t: that’s the point. But John Grady says it won’t hurt to try to get Blevins’ horse back.
Once again, Rawlins makes it quite clear that he has little patience for Blevins’ mistakes and fears. Though Rawlins did agree to go back for Blevins after the storm, he’s now attempting to draw a thick line between the two of them. John Grady re-assumes his role as mediator.
John Grady asks the Mexican men about the candelilla, which looks like a bar of soap. He tests it, and one of the men asks if the blond (Blevins) is his brother. He says no, that he’s just a boy—not a relation, friend, nothing. The man asks how much he’s worth, and if he wants to sell him. John Grady stands up and thanks him for his hospitality, while the man offers to trade him for wax. John Grady studies him and the others, noting that they don’t look evil.
Even though John Grady seems to feel more of a responsibility towards Blevins than Rawlins does, he’s also quick to distance himself from Blevins when the situation seems to require it. Still, failing to claim responsibility is hardly the same thing as selling someone into slavery—indeed, John Grady seems shocked that the man is actually serious.
When John Grady heads back to the others, Blevins asks again about his horse, but John Grady says they don’t have him. Rawlins asks what’s wrong, but he tells them to hurry up and mount the horses. They ride south without speaking, and about a mile later Blevins asks again what the man had wanted, and Rawlins tells him the man wanted to buy him.
Being older and more world-wary, Rawlins grasps far more quickly than Blevins what happened between John Grady and the man at the camp. He and John Grady both seem stunned into silence by the clear example of human evil they’ve just encountered.
That night, with Blevins sleeping wrapped in a blanket, Rawlins says he looks pitiful. He asks if John Grady has thought about Rawlins’ suggestion to leave Blevins behind. Something bad is going to happen, Rawlins says.
Suddenly, it’s become clearer to John Grady and Rawlins that the stakes are higher than simply having to endure Blevins’ silly, ridiculous decisions. There is real danger on their Wild West adventure.
At noon the next day, they ride into the town of Encantada, where they see Blevins’ pistol sticking out of the back pocket of a man bent over the engine of a Dodge car. John Grady grabs Blevins before he slides off the horse. Rawlins says they should stash the boy somewhere safe while he and John Grady look around. They leave Blevins in the shade of some trees and continue on, eventually glimpsing the horse inside an abandoned mud house. They keep riding, but when they return to the trees Blevins is gone.
Blevins is again impulsive and reckless—in a new town, in a foreign country, he fails to plan ahead and consider his actions. John Grady and Rawlins, having received a shocking introduction into how people in this region can think, are more wary, preferring to do some reconnaissance and try to grasp the current situation before they act.
Rawlins tells John Grady that for every dumb thing he’s ever done, there was an earlier choice that got him into it. This is their last chance to just leave Blevins. What if it was you? John Grady asks, and Rawlins says neither of them would leave the other one. After a while sitting and smoking, John Grady says he can’t do it. Rawlins says he knew he’d say that, though John Grady says he didn’t know himself.
Rawlins’ suggestion underlines the flip side of fate: how one purposeful decision can lead to others. For Rawlins, the value of loyalty is unimpeachable, but his is loyal only to John Grady. Still, it’s implied that Rawlins might have known what John Grady would say, and so Rawlins knew he wouldn’t leave Blevins either.
After falling asleep, they wake up to find Blevins squatting watching them. John Grady says his horse is here without a saddle, and they’ll try to help him get it back. Blevins looks at the ground, and Rawlins exclaims that they could get shot dead for horse stealing, but that doesn’t seem to mean anything to Blevins. As they fall asleep, Blevins looks at Rawlins and realizes he was right, but there was no help for it.
After deciding to risk their own safety for Blevins, Rawlins is appalled that Blevins doesn’t seem more grateful. This kind of loyalty, which demands gratitude, isn’t as noble and selfless as are his feelings toward John Grady. Blevins, in turn, is too stubborn to admit Rawlins is right, though he’s beginning to see it.
Just before dawn, they ride through the silent streets until they reach the mud house, but the horse isn’t there. Blevins dismounts and climbs through the house’s window. He doesn’t come back. Dogs start to bark through the town, and lights go on. Rawlins curses, and all at once they see Blevins on his bay horse, surrounded by howling dogs, exploding into the road after breaking through a fence. The dogs swarm over the road and three pistol shots can be heard from somewhere. Blevins passes Rawlins and John Grady. The two of them race up the hill, hearing shots behind them. They turn south and gallop through the town, riding up into the low hills.
As usual, Rawlins and John Grady have thought through their plan, and are aware of anything that could go wrong, from the barking dogs to the lights in town windows. Blevins does away with any subtlety by bursting through as he does. John Grady and Rawlins, having committed to helping Blevins, are now implicated in his frantic escape and have no choice but to follow him out of town. The scene is ridiculous and almost comic, except for the deadly reminder of the pistol shots.
A mile away they catch up with Blevins. Blevins says that people are coming for them, and he tells the other two to let him take the road, while they slip into the country. He gallops away and John Grady and Rawlins ride through the brush in the dark. They hear horses on the road at some point, and then silence. Rawlins asks what will happen if they catch Blevins—he may well say where the others were headed. John Grady says they should just keep riding.
John Grady and Rawlins are finally free of Blevins, though not on the terms that either of them would have wanted. Having staked out their loyalty to Blevins, they now have to wonder if Blevins would be just as loyal to them, especially if facing threat of imprisonment. The pair will continue to doubt Blevins’ loyalty, which to them is tied to his lack of maturity.
As Rawlins starts wondering how long it’s been since they’ve eaten, they hear riders from far away. They keep moving. At daylight they leave the horses tied up and climb a hill, where they see three riders descending another hill two miles away. Rawlins swears they’ll have to get past his rifle, but John Grady says he doesn’t want to shoot his way back to Texas. Rawlins says he’ll kill Blevins if they see him again. They ride out west, at one point glimpsing the three riders further south. By midmorning, they assume that the riders have stopped pursuing them.
Now it appears that the riders are on the hunt for John Grady and Rawlins just as they are for Blevins. The boys are able to use their horseback riding expertise to their advantage, and for the first time the possibility of having to use violence arises. For Rawlins, the entire episode is another piece of evidence for why Blevins was always a risky gamble in terms of companionship.
Toward evening, they come across a band of sheepherders, but Rawlins suggests they continue, since he’s had enough of natives in this part of the country. But they’re unable to find water, and later that night he says they should have asked the herders for water. As they prepare to fall asleep, Rawlins says he’ll say one thing for Blevins—he wouldn’t stand for anyone “hijacking” his horse.
The pair’s latest two encounters with the locals have punctured their image of Mexicans as wild and exotic but harmless. Though Rawlins is exasperated by Blevins, he’s willing to admit the boy’s strong points—in addition to his shooting chops, he was courageous and determined.
In the morning, Rawlins goes off to scavenge and finds nopal fruit. As they eat, John Grady says the problem is that they wouldn’t necessarily recognize the three riders. The two of them are more noticeable, though Blevins is most of all. A good-looking horse is like a good-looking woman, Rawlins says—more trouble than they’re worth. Rawlins echoes what John Grady said: they haven’t seen the last of Blevins.
Though John Grady and Rawlins appear to have shaken off their pursuers, they know that as foreigners and newcomers, they’re easy to spot in this landscape. They both finally seem to be realizing that they may have gotten into more than they can handle.
They ride all day, finally finding water at noon. That evening, Rawlins manages to shoot a buck, which they cook over a fire. They’re impatient to eat. As they wait, Rawlins asks if John Grady ever thinks about dying, and if he thinks there’s a heaven. John Grady says yes to both. Rawlins says there’s so much that could happen to someone in life. John Grady asks if he’s getting religious on him, and Rawlins says no, but that he may be better off if he was. John Grady wants to be sure Rawlins won’t leave him, but Rawlins reminds him that he’d said he wouldn’t.
While John Grady and Rawlins both are affected by what they’ve experienced so far, Rawlins is more likely to vocalize his feelings. Here, he feels overwhelmed by the diversity of human experience, and wonders how to carve meaning out of a series of events that may seem random. John Grady, perhaps correctly, interprets these thoughts as revealing Rawlins’ doubts about their journey.
Rawlins asks if John Grady thinks God looks out for people, and they both agree that God does. Rawlins says someone can sneeze somewhere in Arkansas and that can lead to war. While they don’t know what will happen, God must know, Rawlins says. John Grady just nods. Rawlins wonders if Blevins is safe, and when John Grady says he thought Rawlins was glad to be rid of him, Rawlins says he just doesn’t want to see anything bad happen to him.
Again, Rawlins grapples with how events are interconnected, and whether there’s a guiding intelligence determining these connections—which, even if humans can’t know these connections, would be comforting to many people. Here, his questions are directly related to Blevins’ wellbeing, showing that he doesn’t lack loyalty to Blevins.
The next day they ride west, chewing on the deer meat throughout the day. That night they watch lightning on the horizon, and the following day they come across pools of rainwater. On the plain before them they see vaqueros (cowboys) driving cattle across the dusty ground. That night they build a bonfire against the cold, and the next day they ride across a plain with grass they haven’t seen before, making out the path of the cattle from the previous day.
McCarthy’s novel is full of lushly written descriptions of the Mexican landscape, which portray the setting as if it were another character. The setting is one of constant, cyclical change within a vast realm: even the diversity of weather patterns underlines the almost rhythmic environment of the West, in which nature is in harmony with human activity.
They encounter the vaqueros, who tell them about this part of the country. Together they all drive the cattle west and then south to a road. A young girl comes riding down the road wearing English riding boots and a blue jacket, sitting atop a black Arabian saddlehorse. The horse, along with the girl’s boots, is wet from riding in the river. She wears a wide-brimmed hat covering her hair, which falls halfway to her waist. She turns and smiles to them, and each of the vaqueros tips his hat to her. Rawlins exclaims about the girl to John Grady, who doesn’t answer, still looking down the road after her.
Despite John Grady’s and Rawlins’ newfound wariness of men in this part of the country, they are often welcomed into the landscape described above. The girl on the Arabian is described just as meticulously as the land—and it is telling that while Rawlins verbalizes his admiration of her (as he tends to do for most of his thoughts), John Grady simply is unable to stop looking at her even when she heads back down the road.
That evening they help drive the cattle into a holding pen. Afterward the vaqueros introduce John Grady and Rawlins to the gerente (manager), who seats them in the kitchen to ask about their understanding of ranch work. The gerente writes down their names in his book, and they shake hands and walk into the darkness, a foreign world made slightly more familiar by the squares of window light.
John Grady and Rawlins seem to have wandered into a job. At least here, their straightforward vision of leaving for Mexico and finding work seems to have found its equivalent in reality. After so long on the move, the ranch feels like an oasis from the country’s foreignness.
They clean up in a long adobe bunkhouse and join the other men for dinner: beans, tortillas, and stew. After dinner the vaqueros ask them about American horses and cattle (but nothing about the boys themselves), since for most of them America is only a rumor. They nod carefully at the answers. The vaqueros are skilled at their own work, and are scornful of any suggestion of knowing something secondhand.
Like other Mexicans the boys have met, these vaqueros do not see America in the same way the boys see Mexico. The unequal opportunities leading to this unbalance don’t reveal anything about the innate ability or intelligence of the vaqueros, who take pride in the knowledge and expertise of their work.
That night, Rawlins whispers that the vaqueros seem to be good men, though he wonders if they think the two are on the run. John Grady tells him to go to sleep, but his last words are about how this is how it must have been for the old war marauders.
Having reached the ranch and stable work, Rawlins and John Grady can consider the events with Blevins as just part of their wild adventure, now safely confined to the past.