One morning the man is wakened by a noise. He grabs the pistol and then sees a group of people coming down the road. They are all hooded and masked and carrying lengths of pipe as clubs, and behind them is a diesel truck. The man hides the cart and then he and the boy run off into the trees with their knapsacks.
These are the “bad guys,” the violent men who have turned to murder and cannibalism to survive, and exploit the broken state of the current world. Even though a few humans remain alive, they have mostly turned on each other.
The man and boy hide in a ditch and watch the group pass. The man can see several people with rifles, and he wonders what the truck is running on. He hears it rumble on and then come to a stop. He hears the group trying to get the truck started again. Then the man raises his head to look and he comes face to face with a bearded man from the group, who is approaching them and unbuckling his belt.
After the monotony and bleakness of daily life on the road, this sudden action builds up the tension and danger again. McCarthy narrates it in the same dispassionate voice as the rest of the book, and we see how close to death the man and boy constantly are.
The man points the pistol at the bearded man and tells him to keep walking quietly forward. The bearded man says he was just trying to go to the bathroom, and the man asks him where the truck is going. The bearded man says he doesn’t know. The bearded man says the man won’t shoot, as the rest of the group will hear the shot. The man says the bearded man won’t hear the shot though, as his “frontal lobe” and other parts of his brain will be gone by then.
The man’s speech about the brain is one of the few clues we get to his previous occupation, which was perhaps a doctor or scientist. The tension heightens as the man and boy are almost discovered by a murderous, cannibalistic gang. With every stranger they meet they must decide whether or not to trust them.
The bearded man asks if the man is a doctor, and he invites him to the truck to take care of his hurt companion. The man sees the bearded man looking at the boy and threatens to shoot if he looks at him again. The bearded man says the boy looks starving, and he invites them to the truck to have something to eat. The man threatens to kill the bearded man but says he would rather lead him up the road a mile and turn him loose.
The man is trying to be one of the “good guys,” the humans who avoid violence and cannibalism, but he is willing to do almost anything to protect the boy. The boy is sacred to the man, as the man threatens to kill the bearded man just for looking at the boy.
The bearded man calls the man “chickenshit” and pulls out a knife. The bearded man runs towards the boy, dives, and comes up with his knife at the boy’s throat. The man aims his pistol and shoots the bearded man in the forehead. The man then picks up the boy, whose face is expressionless and covered with blood and brains, puts him on his shoulders, and starts running.
McCarthy intersperses the long, lonely traveling sections with these scenes of extreme tension. The man is also an excellent shot with the pistol, making his past life even more mysterious. The boy remains expressionless, just like after his mother’s suicide.
The man runs through the woods until he collapses from exhaustion. That night he hears the group, and he fears he is going to cough and give them away, but he stays quiet and the strangers pass by. The boy is shivering so the man takes him stumbling through the woods to keep warm and alive. Finally the boy collapses and the man holds him, recognizing that there is only one round left in the pistol now.
The man and the boy are on the verge of death at all times, but in this scene the tension is especially high, as they are at the mercy of the elements while being hunted by murderers. The man’s cough grows more persistent, again illustrating the characters’ tenuous hold on life
The next morning the boy won’t speak at first. The man finds where the truck group camped, and he sees bones in their firepit. Then he leaves the pistol with the boy, who protests, and goes back to where he killed the bearded man. The man finds their cart but the boy’s knapsack is gone. The remains of the bearded man are there too, except for his flesh which has been eaten. The man goes back to the boy and holds him.
The marauding gangs have no loyalty even to their own members, as they eat their fallen comrade. The man always leaves the pistol with the boy when he goes off alone – his idea being that if the boy is attacked he can easily kill himself with the pistol, while the man will risk capture. The man is always trying to protect the boy’s innocence.
They travel all day and then the man leaves the boy to go find firewood, but the boy keeps repeating that he’s “really scared.” The man gathers up some wood and builds a small fire, and he and the boy eat. Then he takes the boy down to the edge of the partly-frozen river and washes the blood and brains out of the boy’s hair. The man thinks to himself that this “is my job.” Then he carries the boy back to the fire and the boy falls asleep. The man rubs the boy’s hair until it is dry. All these actions feel like “some ancient anointing,” a new ceremony for the post-apocalyptic world.
In this new, post-apocalyptic world everything must be reinvented – an acceptable father-son activity is the man washing blood and brains off of the boy, and the man tousling the sleeping boy’s hair becomes a sort of religious ceremony. Humans crave ritual, especially in chaotic times like these, as with the “deranged chanting” of the “bloodcults” after the apocalypse and the man’s anger at God.
The man wakes up and strokes the sleeping boy’s golden hair, thinking of it as a “golden chalice, good to house a god.” He realizes that the bearded man he killed was the first human other than the boy that he had spoken to in a year. He thinks of the bearded man as “my brother at last,” and remembers his face with his gray teeth which had eaten human flesh.
Their recent brush with death makes the man appreciate the boy all the more, and affirm his vow to protect the boy’s sacred life. One of the great tragedies of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic vision is that though there are so few humans left, they still distrust and turn on each other.
They travel all day and that night the man apologizes to the boy for not being more careful. He tells the boy that he was appointed by God to take care of him, and he’ll kill anyone who touches the boy. The boy asks if they are still the “good guys,” and the man says that they are and always will be.
In this world everything has been boiled down to its essentials, to the point that the man can divide everyone into literal “good guys” and “bad guys.” The man and boy are good guys in that they don’t murder or eat humans, but the man begins to blur the line when he kills to protect the boy.
The next morning the man gives the boy a rough wooden flute he carved. Soon the boy falls behind playing it, “a formless music for the age to come,” or else “the last music on earth.” The man watches him play, thinking of him as announcing a troupe of traveling players, unaware that they have all been killed by wolves.
Music is absent from this world just like light and color, so the boy’s flute-playing seems significant and archetypal, a remnant of an old, lost world, or a reinvention of art and civilization.
Later they come to a town and the man scans the horizon with binoculars. He sees nothing, but the boy can see a distant wisp of smoke. The man suggests they go investigate, as they desperately need food. First they search through an abandoned store and find a few coats. They scour through some houses but everything has been looted. They climb up a hill and look down at the town, and they hear a dog barking. The boy worries that they will kill the dog, but the man assures him they won’t. He kisses the boy’s forehead.
The boy begins to prove himself as adept at surviving as well, as his youthful eyesight is often better than the man’s. The boy’s faith has been shaken by the gang member’s death, and he now doubts that he and the man are still “good guys” who would naturally spare a dog’s life. The boy shows both his naiveté and his compassion for all living things.
They sleep in a car that night and see lights in some of the windows in town. The man wakes up at night and vaguely wonders where they are. The boy asks him question for reassurance, and the man says that they will be okay because they’re “carrying the fire.” In the morning it’s raining, and they search through some more houses. They don’t hear the dog anymore.
The phrase “carrying the fire” comes to symbolize the man’s drive to persevere and maintain something of what was lost in the catastrophe, to both survive in the face of despair and remain a “good guy” in the face of violence and depravity. This phrase is never fully explained, but over the course of the book its symbolic meaning fleshes itself out.
While the boy is sitting on the steps of a house he sees another boy, about the same age. The strange boy watches him and then runs away. The boy calls out that he won’t hurt the stranger and for him to come back, but then the man comes out of the house and gets angry at the boy. The boy starts crying and saying he wants to go see the strange boy, but the man angrily pulls him away, asking if he wants to die. The boy says he doesn’t care anymore, and he sobs.
The boy is naïve – yelling in an inhabited town could be deadly – but he is also naturally compassionate, and wants to help the strange boy. The ideas of “goody guys” and “carrying the fire” start to diverge for the man and the boy, as the boy still has a pure idealism while the man is cynical and practical.
They wander through the town, the boy worrying that the strange boy doesn’t have anyone to take care of him. The man reassures him that he must. Then the boy starts crying again and says he wishes they could find the strange boy and the dog and take them with them. The man tells him to stop and he takes out the map to show him their route, but the boy won’t look.
The boy has never met another child, and he has only his father for companionship – he longs both to help someone in need and to have some semblance of normality in his life, like a friend. The man tries to comfort him with the map, a different kind of order.
They make camp that night and the man thinks of the last dog they saw, the one the boy is probably remembering. It was a starving dog who followed them for two days, but it never came too close. The next morning they eat some raisins, the last of their food, and the boy asks if they’re going to die of starvation now. The man assures him that they won’t. He says they’re going to drink some water and then “keep going down the road.”
They now come closer to starving than they have yet in the book, and their situation grows more desperate. The man keeps setting reachable goals – not just going south or heading for the coast, but one step at a time, like drinking some water and walking down the road.
They travel all day and then make camp. The man feels a dull despair and can’t think of anything to say. He imagines the names of colors, birds, and “things one believed to be true” fading away into oblivion. It keeps getting colder and darker. The next day they scavenge a barn and eat some unknown grain, raw. They go further and see a row of human heads, tattooed and flayed, next to a pile of viscera. The man puts his arm around the boy and leads him away.
Though the man keeps up his optimism in front of the boy, he too suffers from the depression and existential despair that is natural in such a situation. In his memory he begins to connect names with the happy past. The name of something has power over the thing itself, so if the names of colors (and the characters) are forgotten, then somehow their essence might fade away too.