The kid begins to live by begging and theft. He rides across a barren prairie, where the wind makes the weeds rattle like gnashing teeth. At night, the kid sleeps outside under a sky full of falling stars while wolves cry. The sun is the color of steel when it rises. The kid wears a hat made from leaves.
Throughout Blood Meridian, nature is markedly hostile, full of empty space and predators. One must be at war with it just to survive, converting raw materials like leaves into useful resources, like the kid’s hat.
One day, the kid sees smoke rising from among the hills and rides toward it. He finds a hut where a hermit lives, half mad and filthy. The kid requests water; the two enter the hermit’s gloomy hut, where the hermit points to a bucket of salty water. The kid drinks. He then goes out to a nearby well and draws up water in a rawhide bucket for his mule to drink.
The hermit’s degradation demonstrates just how hostile nature can be. However, his small act of kindness toward the kid shows that the world of the novel is not entirely corrupt and belligerent.
The kid thanks the hermit, but the hermit predicts that a storm is coming and tells the kid that he ought to stay in the hut for the night. The kid reluctantly agrees. He leaves his leather saddle outside, but the hermit tells the kid to bring it in lest something eat it.
It is because the resources necessary for life are so scarce in nature that the kid can’t leave his saddle out, lest it be eaten. In contrast, the acts of human violence committed later in the novel are not only gratuitous, but serve no practical purpose at all.
Inside, the hermit asks the kid if he lost his way, and the kid responds in the affirmative. The two begin talking, and the kid learns that the hermit was once a slaver in Mississippi. The hermit rummages through his belongings and produces a dried and blackened human heart. He says that four things can destroy the world: women, whiskey, money, and black people. He goes on to say that he paid $200 for the human heart, or rather for the black slave the heart “hung inside of.” The hermit says again that the kid has lost his way in the dark.
The kid has lost his way, both geographically and morally. The hermit himself did too, involved as he was in the cruelties of the slave trade. Of the four things that the hermit says can destroy the world, the novel repeatedly points to two as motivating violence: alcohol and money. However, the novel does not endorse the hermit’s indictment of women and black people, included by the hermit, it would seem, out of bigotry.
The hermit begins speaking of religious matters: how it is difficult and painful to live in sin, how the world God made doesn’t suit everybody. He claims that we cannot know what we ourselves think and that we don’t want to know what we feel in our hearts. This is so, he concludes, because, though we have the capacity to do anything, we are fundamentally evil, and so use our power to make evil machines, and machines that make those machines. This amounts, in the hermit’s view, to evil “that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”
The hermit says we don’t want to know what we feel in our hearts, and indeed the characters in Blood Meridian very rarely consider why they do what they do. Only the Judge does so, and he claims that our deepest desire is to engage in unending warfare. The hermit may well agree, given his prophecy that we are in the process of creating self-perpetuating evil.
The kid and the hermit eat together while thunder booms overhead. Eventually the kid makes his bed and falls asleep, only to wake in the night to find the hermit looking over him, almost in the kid’s bed with him. The kid asks what the hermit wants, but the hermit only crawls away into the darkness.
Why the hermit looks at the kid like this is unclear—perhaps he senses that the kid has a unique role to play in evil events. Note that the Judge also looked upon the kid as he rode out of Nacogdoches, perhaps with a similar sense. Though it could also be that the hermit wants to sexually molest the kid.
In the morning, the kid gathers his things and leaves, riding out through a forest at first, and a day later the prairie again. He meets a party of cattle drovers, or cowboys, whom he camps and eats with as they tell stories. The drovers tell him about two of their party who have parted ways and gone to the town of Bexar for a spree of drinking and sleeping with prostitutes, with the ultimate intention of going to Mexico. The kid expresses interest in going that way himself.
Like the tavernkeeper’s wife and the hermit, these drovers are kind to the kid. However, the two who left their company from Bexar do so for reasons the hermit identified as destructive: intoxication and bodily pleasure. The temptations in the west exert a strong pull, and later on the kid succumbs readily.
In the morning, the kid breakfasts with the cattle drovers before saddling up his skinny, sore, and balding mule. The drovers have tied a bag containing food and a knife to the mule’s neck, a gift for the kid. Once again, the kid and his mule ride out across the endless prairie.
Even acts of mercy can ironically enable acts of war; such is the case with the knife gifted to the kid.
Four days later, the kid arrives in Bexar, a town of adobe houses and a wagon-filled plaza. The sun is setting on the town, and swallows fly about “like fugitives from some great fire at the earth’s end.” As the kid rides into town, he sees a cart heading out, loaded with human corpses. The kid finds a well and draws up water for his mule to drink. He hears horns and guitars, and sees people dancing in the street gaudily dressed and speaking Spanish.
The “great fire at the earth’s end” alludes to the apocalyptic fire that the Bible holds will destroy the earth, or else to the fires of hell. This allusion reminds us that, even in the picturesque town of Bexar, destruction and punishment are imminent. It is also fitting that a cart of corpses foregrounds the first instance of dancing in the novel.
The kid ties up his mule and enters a cafe. He tells the bartender that he would like a drink though he has no money, but the bartender doesn’t understand and asks an old man, seated nearby playing dominoes, to translate. The kid asks if the old man speaks American and tells him that he’ll work in exchange for a drink. The old man translates this, and the men in the bar begin to laugh. The kid offers to sweep; the bartender says in Spanish that the floor isn’t dirty, but gives the kid a broom anyway. The kid proceeds to sweep the floor.
Throughout the novel, meaning is lost in translation, as here with the kid’s request. Appropriately, the illiterate kid also misunderstands his language; he refers to it as “American” but that is his nationality, whereas the language he speaks is English. Misunderstanding and jingoistic ignorance both contribute as the scene unfolds to an outbreak of violence.
After sweeping, the kid re-approaches the bartender for his drink. The bartender ignores the kid, then shoos him away. The kid becomes aggressive, only for the bartender to calmly draw and cock a pistol. The old man stands up, says something in Spanish, and leaves the bar. The bartender’s face turns pale. He sets down his pistol and grabs instead a bungstarter, a club-like tool used to open barrels. He and the kid proceed to fight. The kid deftly breaks two bottles over the bartender’s head before stabbing his eye with a glass shard. He then steals another full bottle and leaves the cafe, taking his mule with him.
When a character’s will is frustrated in the novel, bloodshed tends to ensue; here the kid exerts his will to a drink by becoming combative. Whatever the old man said to the bartender, it seems to scare him into deescalating the violence, for he puts down his pistol for a less deadly tool instead; he seems less interested in doing harm than protecting his interests. But the kid pulverizes him nonetheless.
The kid wakes up the next morning in a ruined church, the floor filthy with animal feces and bones. He is tormented and parched from his night of heavy drinking, but drinks more liquor immediately upon waking. He can’t find his mule, however, and goes out searching for it, coming across buzzards, domed buildings, and, in the sacristy of the church, decayed human corpses. While searching, he finishes the rest of his liquor and outside the church sees statues of saints as well as the baby Jesus, all shot to pieces by American soldiers.
The ruined church where the kid wakes up—one of many in the novel—suggests that Christianity not only goes unobserved in the novel’s world, but is also actively disrespected. Instead of being centers for human redemption and eternal life, they are the sites of death. The kid himself seems bent on self-destruction, drinking as heavily as he does.
Very faintly in the dust, the kid discerns the tracks of his mule and follows them down to a ford. There, several black people are washing a carriage, and the kid asks one of them if they’ve seen his mule. The black person responds that he saw something with long ears come down the road toward the nearby river a while ago; and, at the river, the kid does indeed find his mule, grazing among lush grass. The kid ties up the animal and kicks it halfheartedly, but it only shifts away and continues to graze. After realizing that he’s lost his hat made from leaves, the kid wades out into the river “like some wholly wretched baptismal candidate.”
Blood Meridian can be a darkly humorous novel, as is the case here, where the kid’s mule has been so misused that it is not recognizable as a mule, only something with long ears. But the mule’s condition also reflects how ruthlessly the kid exploits the animal in asserting his will over nature. The narrator compares the kid’s swim to a Christian baptism, but ironically the kid is only physically cleaned here and not spiritually cleaned.