No Country for Old Men

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Sheriff Ed Tom Bell Character Analysis

The sheriff of Terrell County, Texas, and protagonist of the novel, Ed Tom Bell struggles to adapt to a changing world where senseless violence, greed, and corruption have become the norm. Bell is a man of faith who values ethics, morality, and honesty, but finds it increasingly difficult to effectively do his job in the face of the heinous violence he confronts in U.S. society. He depends on his wife of 31 years, Loretta, and his Uncle Ellis for support as he comes to terms with the end of his career. Bell is a decorated WWII veteran, and struggles with guilt through the narrative as he tries reconcile his involvement in the war and the loss of men under his command. His desire to make right the actions from his past leads to his striving to protect the people of his community. He goes to great lengths to protect Llewellyn Moss and Carla Jean, and put Anton Chigurh behind bars, but by the end of the novel, he recognizes his powerlessness over the forces of evil in the world, and retires from his duty as sheriff.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell Quotes in No Country for Old Men

The No Country for Old Men quotes below are all either spoken by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell or refer to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of No Country for Old Men published in 2006.
Chapter 1 Quotes

But there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it and that where this is going…Somewhere there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell, an agent of law and order, is frightened by the state of modern society. There is tremendous evil in the human soul--indeed, Bell has met the very embodiment of evil; the "prophet of destruction." Though we haven't met him yet, Bell is probably referring to Anton Chigurh, the nihilistic killer around whom much of the book revolves. As Bell admits, he has no desire to confront such a frightening person ever again.

Bell's description of Chigurh makes him sound like a force of nature more than a human being. In the clash between good and evil, Bell seems to acknowledge that evil has the "edge." Bell can't do anything to remove evil from the face of the Earth; all he can do is hope that Chigurh chooses to stay far away from the rest of humanity.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

The ones that really ought to be on death row will never make it. You remember certain things about [an execution]. People didnt know what to wear. There was one or two that come dressed in black, which I suppose was all right...Still they seemed to know what to do and that surprised me. Most of em I know had never been to a execution before. When it was over they pulled this curtain back around the gas chamber with him in there settin slumped over and people just got up and filed out. Like out of church or somthin.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell comments on the decay of law and order, and connects it to the broader decay of society. Bell notes that the people who really deserve to die never actually make it to death row--sometimes, they go free, since they're smart enough to escape the police. On the other hand, many people who are executed for their crimes don't really deserve to die, at least according to Bell. Bell describes a grisly execution, and then compares it to a church gathering. Bell's comparison between the execution and  church seems to suggest that death and execution have replaced love and mercy as "events" for common people. All of society seems to follow a twisted religion, in which a man's death is a cause for a community gathering.

Clearly, Bell has some strong opinions about modern society, and a nostalgic view of a more "just" past. By the same token, he himself has a strong moral code--a code grounded in his own experiences as a police officer and former soldier, and in his religious faith. One of the most important conflicts of the novel is between Bell's philosophy of justice, higher power, and moral absolutes, the chaos and nihilism of Chigurh, and the independence and self-actualization of Moss.

It’s a odd thing when you come to think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say it is…it takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell is insecure about the current state of society, and he's equally insecure about the current state of law enforcement. Despite working as a sheriff for many years, Bell notes that anyone can be a cop, no matter how immoral they are. Bell recognizes the absurdity of the situation: anyone can apply to be a police officer and be given "the same authority as God."

Bell's comments reinforce the decay of civilization as he sees it. Law enforcement--an institution that's supposed to protect good people and punish bad people--has become hopelessly corrupt, to the point where the law enforcers themselves are often the real villains. In the end, Bell repeats, justice has disappeared and the most evil people always go free--Chigurh is just one example.

I used to say they were the same ones we’ve always had to deal with. Same ones my granddaddy had to deal with…but I dont know as that’s true no more. I’m like you. I aint sure we’ve seen these people before. Their kind. I don’t know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they’d have to build an annex on to hell.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Torbert and Wendell
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bell surveys a crime scene: a man has been murdered with a bolt gun (which belonged to the depraved killer Anton Chigurh). Bell has never seen anything that can compare with the crime scene. In a  literal sense, the murder weapon in question is unlike any murder weapon he's seen before (he doesn't yet know that it was a bolt gun, a tool for slaughtering cattle efficiently). More abstractly, though, Bell can't remember a time when people killed each other with so little remorse or guilt.

Bell conveys the decay of social values by contrasting his experiences as a sheriff with those of his grandfather. Bell seems to be dealing with a greater evil than his ancestors ever had to confront--an evil that's utterly free of guilt or meaning. Bell concludes that very structure of the (Christian) universe (the layers of hell) is unprepared for this new, savage evil.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I know they’s a lot of things in a family history that just plain aint so. Any family. The stories get passed on and the truth gets passed over…which I reckon some would take as meaning that the truth cant compete. But I dont believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Bell acknowledges that his family history is full of fictions--tall tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. In spite of the prevalence of fiction in his "family lore," Bell insists that truth wins out in the end. Truth--with a capital "T"--will always last longer than fiction.

Bell's comments could be interpreted as a confirmation of his faith in moral values--the timeless truths of human society. Rules like "do unto others ..." and "love thy neighbor" don't fade away with time, at least according to Bell--rather, they're true both now and forever. Bell sees evil and immorality all around him, And yet rather than accept that the world is a dark, meaningless place, he continues to feel a profound faith in the rightness of moral truths. Whether this kind of rigid morality is admirable or just naive, however, is up to the reader to judge.

I guess in all honesty I would have to say that I never knew nor did I ever hear of anybody that money didnt change.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Carla Jean Moss
Related Symbols: The Briefcase
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bell pays a visit to Carla Jean Moss, the wife of Llewellyn Moss. Carla Jean knows that Moss has run off with a lot of money, but she's confident that her husband will remain the same man--in other words, his personality and values won't change at all. Bell, who's more experienced and more realistic about human nature (on this subject, at least), insists that money changes everyone.

We've already seen plentiful evidence that Bell is right about Moss. Even after Moss senses that possessing the briefcase full of money is endangering his life, he continues to hang onto it. The love of money, so the saying goes, is the root of all evil. But the novel makes a subtler point about the briefcase--that Llewellyn keeps it even after he knows his peril not because he hopes to get rich (he seems to know that he would never have the freedom and safety to actually enjoy the money), but because he wants to assert his own survival and independence in the face of a seemingly-unstoppable murderer like Chigurh.

Chapter 6 Quotes

What is that Torbert says? About truth and justice?
We dedicate ourselves anew daily. Somthin like that.
I think I’m goin to commence dedicatin myself twice daily. It may come to three fore it’s over.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Torbert and Wendell
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Bell remembers something his colleague says about law and justice: one must dedicate himself to the rules of justice every single day. In other words, one makes a constant "choice" to uphold the laws of morality--at any given time, one could choose to stop upholding justice.

Bell acknowledges that it takes constant effort to be a good, moral agent in the modern world. Indeed, it's not enough to choose to uphold the law every day--Bell promises, half-jokingly, to dedicate himself two or more times daily. Bell's quiet joke expresses the impossibility of being a constant moral agent. Bell has managed to spend most of his life being "good," but at any given time, he could waver in his principles and commit an evil act. In spite of the apparent impossibility of justice, Bell resolves to continue trying to be good--a mark of his near-fanatical devotion to right and wrong.

Chapter 8 Quotes

That aint half of it. [The drug dealers] dont even think about the law. It dont seem to even concern em. Of course here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge. I guess he concerned em. Add to that that there’s peace officers along this border getting rich off narcotics. That’s a painful thing to know. Or it is for me. I dont believe that was true even ten years ago. A crooked peace officer is just a damn abomination.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to Chapter 8, Bell continues to lament the decay of law and order. Even a decade ago, he claims, there were no corrupt peace officers--nowadays, however, the prevalence of drugs has led to police officers who secretly sell drugs and profit at every turn.

Bell's point is that criminals no longer try to kill police officers--unless the officers are corrupt, and need to be taken "out of the picture." Police officers have become so ineffectual that criminals have no practical need to murder them. In short, Bell is humiliated and embarrassed by the incompetence and corruption of his peers, and, as usual, he nostalgically looks back to an idealized past to contrast to the current state of affairs.

Chapter 9 Quotes

How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothing, but that dont mean much…This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?

Related Characters: Uncle Ellis (speaker), Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Sheriff Bell talks to an old relative, Uncle Ellis. Ellis challenges Bell's nostalgia for the past, pointing out that the nation of America has always been violent and dangerous, killing its own citizens. Ellis is old enough to remember some of the wars Americans have fought in long ago. Moreover, he's critical of the people who continue to trust their country long after their country proves itself to be corrupt.

In short, Uncle Ellis's words challenge everything Sheriff Bell has been telling us. Bell naively believes that things were better a time long ago in America--a belief that Ellis angrily disputes. Bell continues to feel a deep faith in American law enforcement and government, even if he doesn't like specific law enforcers and governors. Ellis tells Bell that he should throw aside his own love for his country and for the past: life has always been and will always be savage.

Chapter 10 Quotes

I thought about my family and about [Ellis] out there in his wheelchair in the old house and it just seemed to me that this country has got a strange kind of history and a damned bloody one too.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Uncle Ellis
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Bell thinks about his recent conversation with Uncle Ellis--a conversation that ended with Ellis angrily telling Bell that America has always been a violent, amoral country. Bell has always had a lot of faith in the idyllic past: he sincerely believes that things used to be good in the U.S., and now they're bad.

Now that he's spoken with Uncle Ellis, Bell starts to question his own naive faith in America's past. America has always been dangerous, Bell realizes--therefore, he was wrong to celebrate American history as a model for honor and morality. It would seem that Bell is finally losing his moral faith. After 200 pages of acting as the "moral center" of the novel, Bell is finally surrendering to the darkness and nihilism of life. This is, as the novel's title says, "no country for [loyal, moral] old men."

Chapter 11 Quotes

I told him that a lawyer one time told me that in law school they try and teach you not to worry about right and wrong but just to follow the law and I said I wasnt so sure about that. He thought about that and he nodded and he said that he pretty much had to agree…if you dont follow the law right and wrong wont save you.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell crosses paths with a young lawyer, with whom Bell discusses law in the United States. The prosecutor confirms Bell's worst suspicions: he claims that the purpose of the legal system of the United States is to maintain law, not to "do the right thing."

In short, the institutions of law and order--the very thing that Bell continues to trust after all these years--are no more "right" than organized crime. Courts and juries aren't really designed to dole out justice to people; they're designed to preserve the law itself, whether the law is morally correct or not. In general, the passage further challenges Bell's faith in morality. There is no institution, it would seem, that's genuinely concerned with good, moral behavior. Bell's only benchmark for right and wrong, then, is his own instinct.

Chapter 12 Quotes

She was tryin to be a reporter. She said: Sheriff how come you to let crime get so out of hand in your county? Sounded like a fair question I reckon. Maybe it was a fair question. Anyway I told her, I said: It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight. I told her, I said: It reaches into every strata. You’ve heard about that aint you?...I told her that you cant have a dope business without dopers. A lot of em are well dressed and holdin down goodpayin jobs too.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell offers his own theory for the decay of society. Bell, when asked by a reporter why crime is so bad in the U.S., claims that crime begins with the decay of manners. When people don't say Sir and Ma'am, "the end is pretty much in sight."

Bell seems to believe in a kind of "broken window hypothesis" of crime: i.e., he believes that small crimes and misdemeanors gradually give rise to big crimes like murder and theft. It's difficult to tell if Bell is being totally sincere in this passage, though. Bell's explanation may explain some crimes, but it can't do justice to a figure like Anton Chigurh. (Chigurh, we can be pretty sure, didn't become a criminal simply because he didn't say "please" as a child.)

Chapter 13 Quotes

This man had set down with a hammer and a chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasn’t that nothing would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know bettern that. I’ve thought about it a great deal…And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell recalls a stone trough that he saw long ago. The trough makes a great impression on him: it strikes him as a symbol of everything that humans, and human civilization, are capable of. The stone trough will still be there in thousands of years, exactly the same as it is now. When Bell tries to understand why anyone would carve such a trough, he concludes that the sculptor must have been trying to honor "a promise."

What does Bell mean by "a promise?" Perhaps Bell is suggesting that it takes faith to build something like the stone trough: faith in the correctness and usefulness of one's own profession. The sculptor carves the trough because he's confident that his work will bring help and comfort to people for many years. It could also be something vaguer and more individual, like a sense of hope or optimism. Sheriff Bell obviously admires the sculptor deeply: Bell struggles to bring the same commitment and optimism to his own work as a law enforcement officer, but by now he can't help but feel that his work is useless. He'll never be able to reduce crime or fight people like Chigurh. In part, Bell's poignant admiration for the sculptor's work explains why Bell chose to retire: he knew he could never create anything as useful and long-lasting.

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Sheriff Ed Tom Bell Character Timeline in No Country for Old Men

The timeline below shows where the character Sheriff Ed Tom Bell appears in No Country for Old Men. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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The novel begins with a monologue from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Each of the following chapters begins with a similar monologue told from the present tense,... (full context)
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Bell believes there is a way to view the world that is different than his, and... (full context)
Chapter 2
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The narrative moves back to Bell’s monologue in the present tense. He contemplates whether working in law enforcement is more dangerous... (full context)
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After the shoot out, Bell drove to a café in Sanderson, Texas. People came out to see the bullet holes... (full context)
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The narrative then moves back to the past. Bell goes to his office and gets a call from a deputy named Torbert telling him... (full context)
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Bell states that the wound in the man’s head looks as if it came from a... (full context)
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Back on Highway 90, Bell comes across a big red-tailed hawk, dead in the road. He picks it up and... (full context)
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Bell heads to the sheriffs office in Sonora, and finds the building surrounded by yellow police... (full context)
Chapter 3
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In this monologue, Bell reflects on the changing technology in law enforcement. He is not sure it helps, and... (full context)
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Bell goes on to note that the people who really deserve to be on death row... (full context)
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Bell is glad that he never had to kill anyone in the line of duty. He... (full context)
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The narrative cuts to Bell. He gets a call from Wendell during dinner about a reported car fire. He finishes... (full context)
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The next morning, Bell tells Wendell to get his wife Loretta’s horse saddled. They drive with the horses in... (full context)
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Bell and Wendell find the two men Chigurh murdered the night before, and Bell notes that... (full context)
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Bell looks in the truck and discovers there was heroin inside at some point. He and... (full context)
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Bell and Wendell find the final dead man. They note that the man was not killed... (full context)
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Bell drives out to pick up Torbert. Torbert says he got a report from the coroner... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Bell reminisces about his service as sheriff. He was elected when he was twenty-five. His father... (full context)
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Bell talks about his thirty-one year marriage to Loretta. They lost a little girl, he says,... (full context)
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The narrative moves to the past. Bell sits in a café, reading the newspaper. There is a picture of Lamar’s deputy (the... (full context)
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Bell and Wendell go to Moss’s trailer. They enter cautiously, and Bell notes that there is... (full context)
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On Wednesday, Bell is sitting in the café reading the newspaper. A reporter from the San Antonio Star... (full context)
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Bell and Torbert drive back out to the scene. Torbert says ten people are dead, including... (full context)
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McIntyre walks around the scene with Bell and Torbert. He holds a handkerchief to his nose to block the smell of the... (full context)
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The narrative moves to Bell as he enters his office. Torbert lays the coroner’s report on the desk in front... (full context)
Chapter 5
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Bell tells about his family coming west to Texas from Georgia by horse and wagon. He... (full context)
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Bell tells about a newspaper article he read last week about a couple from California who... (full context)
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The narrative shifts to the past as Bell drives out to Odessa to talk to Carla Jean at her grandmother’s house. When she... (full context)
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Bell looks at his face reflected in his coffee, noting the way it shifts and loses... (full context)
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Bell says if he turned the money in, they would put it in the papers. This... (full context)
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Bell and Carla Jean continue talking about Moss. Bell says he is going to end up... (full context)
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Carla Jean tells Bell about the job she had at Wal-Mart before she met Moss. The night before she... (full context)
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Before they leave, Carla Jean asks Bell if he really cares about Moss. He says that the people of the county hired... (full context)
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Bell is in bed that evening when the phone rings. The caller informs him about the... (full context)
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Bell and the sheriff go over to the motel and find the murdered night clerk. The... (full context)
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Bell goes to the courthouse and does some paperwork, and on the way home it begins... (full context)
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Toward the end of dinner, Loretta tells Bell he might never hear another word about all of the trouble that has happened. He... (full context)
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...of Chigurh, but Wells says he would use the word ‘wary’. Moss brings up Sheriff Bell, but Wells calls him a redneck sheriff in a hick town, county, and state. He... (full context)
Chapter 6
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Bell reflects on the way young people have a hard time growing up. He remembers his... (full context)
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The narrative switches to Bell as he gives his assistant a book of checks, and asks if she has any... (full context)
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Bell gets a coffee, and as he comes out of the café he stops a flatbed... (full context)
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Bell stops at the Devil’s River Bridge, and gets out of his car. He leans against... (full context)
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...on the phone, she tells him she didn’t think he would do this to her. Bell has been there, and she was afraid Moss was dead. He tells her she needs... (full context)
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Bell talks to the Eagle Pass sheriff. The sheriff tells Bell that they are closing the... (full context)
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Bell and the sheriff go back to the hotel and see the tracking unit on the... (full context)
Chapter 7
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Bell reflects on his service in WWII. He says he is supposed to be a decorated... (full context)
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Bell states that the sixties sobered some of these men. He talks about a survey sent... (full context)
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The narrative cuts to Bell driving out into a pasture and parks his truck at a well. He looks up... (full context)
Chapter 8
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Bell thinks about friends he has lost over the past few years, and is beginning to... (full context)
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A few years ago, Bell was part of an investigation of a plane found used for drug running on a... (full context)
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The narrative moves to Bell as he drives out to Van Horn, where Moss and the young hitchhiker were killed... (full context)
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At the hospital, Bell and the sheriff go into the mortuary. Moss is lying dead on the table, covered... (full context)
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...to his truck. Just as he is about to turn the truck on, he sees Bell pull his cruiser into the parking lot. Bell goes into the room Chigurh left moments... (full context)
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As Bell walks to his car, he asks himself if a person can feel when someone is... (full context)
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Bell spends the night in a motel on the east side of El Paso, and goes... (full context)
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Bell goes to Carla Jean’s motel room and knocks on the door. He tells her he... (full context)
Chapter 9
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Bell, once again issuing a monologue from the present, wishes he could have told Carla Jean... (full context)
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The narrative jumps to Bell as he visits his Uncle Ellis who still lives in the family homestead. His uncle... (full context)
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Bell asks Ellis what his biggest regret in his life is. Ellis tells him he does... (full context)
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Bell and Ellis continue talking while they drink some coffee out of the same porcelain cups... (full context)
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Ellis tells Bell that his grandfather did not ask him, (Ellis) to become a sheriff. Instead, Ellis signed... (full context)
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Ellis tells Bell that he thought God would come into his life when he was older, but he... (full context)
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...on the land, so she left. The house burned down, but the chimney remained standing. Bell doesn’t remember the woman, but he wishes he could. Ellis tells him this country is... (full context)
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Bell tells Ellis about how we got his decoration as a war hero. He was in... (full context)
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Bell tells Ellis about the shame he feels about receiving the bronze star for his heroics... (full context)
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Ellis tells Bell he didn’t have a choice, but Bell says he could have stayed behind. Ellis reminds... (full context)
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Bell asks Ellis what he thinks his father would have done in that situation. Bell thinks... (full context)
Chapter 10
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Bell reflects on his conversation with Ellis. They talked about growing old, and how being hard... (full context)
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Bell thinks about what Ellis said about waiting for God to come into his life. He... (full context)
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Bell then discusses the letters his great aunt sent to his Uncle Harold. She was the... (full context)
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Bell notes that he went back out to the family homestead where Uncle Ellis lives one... (full context)
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...then moves back to the past, a short time after Carla Jean has been murdered. Bell gets a call from a detective with the Odessa Police Department. The detective tells Bell... (full context)
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Bell meets David DeMarco in a café. DeMarco doesn’t seem worried as he sits down. Bell... (full context)
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The next morning, Bell goes to DeMarco’s school and gets the names of his friends from his teachers. He... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Bell tracks down Moss’s father and goes to visit him. They sit on the front porch... (full context)
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Moss’s father tells Bell about the difference between WWII and Vietnam. When the Vietnam veterans came back they were... (full context)
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On the drive home, Bell reflects on his career as sheriff. He realizes that some part of him always wanted... (full context)
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Bell tells Loretta that he is quitting his job as sheriff. He doesn’t feel right taking... (full context)
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Bell goes to Ozana and talks to the district attorney about the Mexican man they are... (full context)
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On the way out of the visit, Bell runs into the county prosecutor. The prosecutor tells him when he got out of law... (full context)
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Bell asks the prosecutor if he knows who Mammon is. The prosecutor knows it’s in the... (full context)
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When Bell gets home, he notices that Loretta has taken her horse out for a ride. He... (full context)
Chapter 12
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Bell reflects on his relationship with Loretta, noting that she is more spiritual than he is.... (full context)
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Once, a reporter asked Bell why he let crime get so out of hand. He told her it starts when... (full context)
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On his last day at his job, Bell walks out of the courthouse for the last time. He feels sad, but there is... (full context)
Chapter 13
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Bell recollects the house where the men in his squad died in Europe. Behind the house... (full context)
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Bell notes that in his telling of his story, he has not done his father justice.... (full context)
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Bell had two dreams about his father after he died. He doesn’t remember the first dream... (full context)