The governor of Sonora provides the gang with a new contract to hunt the Apaches. Carroll and Sanford have left the gang once and for all, but a man named Sloat has joined after falling ill and being left behind by a company of people seeking gold. The narrator implies that Sloat is not long for this world. The scalp hunters ride north onto the Sonoran Desert, where they massacre a village on the Nacozari River.
History is repeating itself—the gang has a new contract to kill. Carroll and Sanford, who joined the gang recently, desert, perhaps realizing that the scalp hunters are half mad and doom-driven. Given that the new recruit Sloat’s fate is imminent death, their desertion seems wise.
As they ride to Ures to receive payments for their scalps, the gang encounters a party of Sonoran cavalry led by one General Elias. A firefight ensues, in which three of Glanton’s men are killed and seven wounded, four so badly that they can’t ride. At night, camped, the gang can see the fires of a Sonoran army, some five hundred troops led by Elias. The wounded scalp hunters call out for water.
It seems that the Sonoran government knew of the gang’s crimes all along and issued the contract only as a means of coaxing them out of Ures until an army could be assembled to confront the Americans. Perhaps history is not repeating itself after all.
While the gang prepares to ride out, Glanton holds a lottery to determine which of the gang members will kill the four men unable to ride with them. The men draw arrows from a quiver, four of which have red flannel tied to them. When selecting his arrow, the kid begins to draw one, sees that the Judge is watching him, then choose a different arrow. Nonetheless, the kid draws a red-tasseled arrow, along with Sam Tate, Webster, and Harlan (first name later given as Tommy), who are therefore assigned to do the killings. Of the wounded, two are Delawares, one a Mexican, and one a man named Dick Shelby. An unwounded Delaware takes Webster and Harlan’s arrows, to which Glanton says nothing; he and the gang ride out onto the plain. The Delaware with Webster and Harlan’s arrows clubs the two wounded Delawares to death where they lie.
The kid attempts to avoid one of the fatal arrows, but as if by fate, and seemingly per the Judge’s will, he draws one. The gang members’ killing of their wounded comrades-in-arms is both pragmatic—the gang needs to flee Elias and can’t afford to be slowed down by the wounded—and also an act of mercy, in its perverse way: those Americans captured by Elias can expect torturous agonizing deaths. The Delaware seems to think it more proper or dignified that the wounded Delawares die by his hand, suggestive of a race-based partisanship within the gang.
The kid and Tate discuss who will kill whom; the kid tells Tate that he can ride out without doing either of the killings if he wants. Tate warns the kid that, if the Sonoran army captures either of the wounded scalp hunters alive, unthinkable cruelties will befall them. Then he stands, says that killing means nothing to the Indians (referring to the Delaware who’s just killed his fallen comrades), and rides out.
It is with moral self-sacrifice that the kid excuses Tate from doing his killing. Tate knows that it’s better for the wounded to die than to be captured, yet he inconsistently indicts the Delaware for killing his own. He is conflicted, it would seem, about the idea of comrades killing comrades.
The kid decides not to kill the wounded Mexican, who will die soon anyway. Shelby, however, is still fully conscious. The kid tells Shelby that he’ll just leave him if that’s what Shelby wants. After reminding him that Glanton will kill him for this act of mercy, Shelby asks the kid to hide him under a nearby bush. The kid obliges, only for the other man to attempt to take the kid’s gun. The attempt fails. The kid begins to take his leave, until Shelby cries out for water. The kid goes back to Shelby and gives him water, then rides out.
The kid attempts to minimize his agency in death by letting the Mexican die of already existing wounds. He does everything he can to accommodate Shelby, even after Shelby proves himself dangerous. Both here and when he helped Brown, the kid exposes himself to personal risk in order to treat another with kindness and respect. The Judge, however, later accuses the kid of abandoning Shelby to Elias’s cruelties, which is also accurate.
The kid, as he rides to catch up with the gang, comes upon Tate, whose horse has been lamed. The kid dismounts, and together the men walk through the desert leading their horses behind them. Snow begins to fall, and by the time the men begin to scale a ridge, it is a foot deep. In the night, while Tate and the kid sleep, five of Elias’s scouts come upon them; the kid shoots one and runs, being shot at all the while.
Again, the kid distinguishes himself by prioritizing his comrades-in-arms over personal safety, choosing to accompany Tate rather than speed away from Elias. Yet, however selfless the kid may seem, he is not so selfless as to make a stand with Tate, whom he pragmatically abandons.
Morning finds the kid crouched under a promontory. He walks all day, bitterly cold, and continues walking through the night to stay warm. At dawn he sleeps, only to resume his trek north soon after. That night, from a high rim, he sees armies mutely, senselessly clash and disperse. Then he moves on, starting down the mountain.
The clashing armies emphasize the purposelessness, the absurdity of violence. After all, what has Glanton’s gang gained for all the blood they’ve shed? The scalp hunters squander all they earn, morally destroy themselves, and poison their alliances.
After some time, the kid sees smoke; he heads toward it, to find a tree burning in the desert, ignited by lightning, around which crouch many desert creatures. The kid sleeps in its warmth. In the morning, he keeps moving. He comes upon horse tracks, which he follows for miles. Soon he comes across a great black mass: it is the burnt remains of the scalps taken from the people on the Nacozari.
In the Bible, God speaks through a burning bush to Moses. The burning tree here is silent, suggestive of God’s absence. The Americans abandoned the scalps in part because they are in Apache country and can’t afford to provoke the Apaches to retribution.
The kid finds a horse, which, after some difficulty, he mounts and rides. The two are soon joined by another horse, which walks alongside them. By the next day, the kid’s horse is dehydrated and failing, but he nonetheless manages to rejoin the gang. The scalp hunters are wounded, filthy, and exhausted; four more of their number are dead after being ridden upon and attacked by Elias’s army, including Sloat. The gang knows neither how far the Mexicans are behind them, nor how far the Apaches are ahead.
The scalp hunters’ vicious crimes are catching up with them, surrounded as they are by enemies bent on retribution. As the narrator foretold, Sloat has died, which seems to be the fate of all involved in the gang’s evils.
The gang rides all day. At night, the Judge selects the weakest horse to kill for meat. Standing beyond the firelight, he asks for help in killing it; none rise to help him. Tobin tells the kid to ignore the Judge and places “a cautionary hand upon the kid’s arm,” but the kid assures Tobin that he isn’t afraid of the Judge and volunteers. The two lead the horse out of the light, where the Judge crushes its skull deftly with a giant rock. Its meat is prepared to eat. The scouts sent out that night do not return.
In their dire straits, the gang members seem especially afraid of the Judge, and especially when he is in the darkness where he can’t be witnessed. Do they fear that he will murder them in the darkness now that the game is falling apart, or worse? The Judge’s method of killing the horse is gratuitously brutal, extravagantly imposing.
The next day, the gang rides and the men find in the desert a ring of eight human heads. The Judge kicks one as if to make sure that it’s not attached to a body buried beneath it. Then the gang moves on, riding past ruined wagons and more corpses. Before dark they arrive at the town of Santa Cruz. The locals greet them with weapons and contempt, but one family offers them a place to stay and food for the night. The men sleep in a stable, where they light a fire.
The eight human heads are reminders that human violence is ubiquitous in the world of the novel, not restricted to the actions of the scalp hunters and their pursuers. The gang members must be ragged and pitiful indeed for a family to take mercy on them, especially given what the family must know of the gang’s crimes.