They ride all day into the mountains and the country they’d first crossed four months earlier. At a break for lunch, John Grady sits and watches Rawlins, who won’t meet his eyes. The guards say little to each other and nothing to the Americans. At night they stop and offer them coffee and a dish of pale, stringy, sour food. On the third day, they ride back into the town of Encantada. John Grady asks a pair of young girls watching them to get them cigarettes. Rawlins groans at this attempt, and remains stony in response to John Grady’s jokes. John Grady says they should get out of this together, and that Rawlins doesn’t get to choose a time when the trouble started and blame it all on him.
It’s hardly surprising that Rawlins bears a grudge towards John Grady, who’s clearly at fault for their capture. Rather than joking and goofing around together, as they’ve done before, the boys, now divided by the choices of one of them, no longer seem to be a dynamic, loyal pair. John Grady tries to revive this sense of loyalty by challenging the idea that it was his sole decision that led to their predicament. He argues for a looser conception of cause and consequence to avoid taking all the blame.
John Grady says he had asked the officials to wake Don Héctor: they said he’d been awake a long time, and then laughed. He might have betrayed them because of some lie, he says, but Rawlins says it could have been for some truth as well. John Grady says he can’t start over, but doesn’t see the point in “slobbering” over it or blaming someone else. Rawlins says he tried to reason with him, but John Grady replies that some things aren’t reasonable. He’s the same person he always was, he never promised Rawlins he’d be safe down here, and he doesn’t believe in signing on until it stops being pleasant and you quit. Rawlins says he never quit him.
It’s been hinted at earlier, but now it’s clear that Don Héctor had a hand in the boys’ capture by the guards. In response to Rawlins’ exasperation—after all, he warned his friend that this could happen—John Grady amasses several arguments to defend his choices, and to deflect Rawlins’ sense of blame and responsibility, especially by referring back to loyalty. This works especially well, because Rawlins can’t seem to stand being called disloyal.
The girls return with cigarettes, and ask if the two are American thieves. They reply that they’re famous thieves, bandoleros, before guards call the girls away.
Even as their situation seems increasingly dire, the boys still pretend they’re in a romantic Western adventure.
They ride through the town and then stop before an adobe building with a corrugated tin roof, entering a school with floors of pine boards and windows with missing planes of glass. A stout man in a khaki uniform watches the prisoners expressionlessly, and the guards lead them out to a small stone building with an iron-shod door. There’s no light in the room, and the air smells of excrement. They can’t see anything, but out of the darkness a voice asks, “Is that you all?” It’s Blevins.
The boys have landed in a dingy, depressing jail cell, which seems far from everything familiar to them in Mexico so far. The reappearance of Blevins seems to stretch McCarthy’s realism, but also recalls the boys’ earlier sense that they weren’t free of him yet. Of course, it could also be their responsibility for the horse stealing, rather than fate, that brought them back together.
Blevins doesn’t know how long he’s been there, but it’s a long time. Rawlins accuses him of telling the guards to hunt them, but Blevins denies it. Still, they knew there were three of them, John Grady says. But Rawlins says they wouldn’t have hunted them if they’d gotten the horse back—Blevins must have done something. John Grady asks what he’s done, but he refuses to answer. An old man is sitting against the wall watching them, and John Grady asks him what the boy is accused of. He says it’s for the murder of three men. Rawlins says they’re dead men.
Rawlins continues to be suspicious of Blevins’ loyalty to the two of them, which makes sense, given his own restricted loyalty towards John Grady alone. Nevertheless, through what is portrayed as a kind of fateful development, the boys’ futures are now tied to Blevins. This isn’t exactly an encouraging sign, as Rawlins realizes upon discovering Blevins’ accused crime.
Only one of them died, Blevins pipes in. He had worked for a German family in Palau, 80 miles east, and after 2 months he’d returned to Encantada with the money he’d earned. He’d waited in front of a store until he saw the same man with his pistol go by. He snuck up behind him and snatched it from his belt. With prodding, Blevins admits that the man came at him and he shot him. As he returned to his horse, other men shot at him and he shot back, hitting two.
Though Blevins had been cagier about other stories from his past, he seems proud of this one and eager to clarify the facts. Blevins reveals the same kind of naïveté and bravado that had characterized his attempt to steal back his horse. He’s now tried on the costume of a wild Western cowboy, but with dangerous results.
Rawlins says Blevins doesn’t know how much trouble he’s in. Blevins assumes he’ll be sent to the penitentiary—he isn’t old enough to be hung—but Rawlins says they’ll lie about his age. John Grady tells Blevins not to listen: there’s no capital punishment in Mexico. John Grady asks Blevins if they ever get to walk around, but he says he can’t walk—they’ve busted his feet. They sit in silence, listening to sounds of ranchero music from afar.
Blevins doesn’t fully grasp the implications of his actions, which to him were simply adventurous and ethically justifiable, getting back “his” pistol. John Grady and Rawlins have a somewhat better understanding of the true perils, but John Grady recognizes there’s little use in explaining this to Blevins.
That night John Grady dreams of horses running in a high plain. He’s one of them, and their colors shine in the sun. There’s nothing but them in the world and they move in unison, none of them afraid.
Once again, horses represent a sense of order and fate that is lacking in John Grady’s waking life, which now seems increasingly chaotic.
In the morning two guards handcuff Rawlins and lead him away to the captain, who’s reading a three-day-old newspaper. He asks for identification, and Rawlins gives him his billfold with the photo of Betty Ward and money. The captain tells him to pull down his pants, and when he objects, the guard hits Rawlins across the head with a leather whip. Feeling nauseous, Rawlins obeys. Then the captain asks his address, date of birth, height, and weight. He says Rawlins must have a good memory—but that he’s not Lacey Rawlins. He asks why Rawlins came to work here. When asked how much they got paid, Rawlins says 200 pesos a month, and the captain asks the equivalent in Texas: a hundred dollars, or 800 pesos. The captain smiles and asks why they had to leave Texas. Rawlins says they didn’t have to.
From this description, the captain’s interrogation of Rawlins may well amount to torture. It doesn’t matter what proof Rawlins has of his identity, because the captain has a certain idea of what he wants to hear, and is unwilling to accept anything else. His violence is even more terrifying just because it is so cold and dispassionate. Still, one can perhaps understand the suspiciousness of the boys’ decision to work in Mexico, which makes sense only in their pursuit of a certain idea of the country rather than for any economic purpose.
The captain insists Rawlins tell him his real name. He says Blevins is Rawlins’ brother, and asks how many horses they stole, how many men they killed. Rawlins keeps denying everything and soon is close to tears. The captain asks the real name of the “assassin Blevins,” and Rawlins says he doesn’t know. The captain says he’s foolish. They let Rawlins go, and it’s John Grady’s turn. Rawlins says he can tell them whatever he wants—it won’t make a difference.
The captain’s disregard for any facts other than those that conform to his preexisting narrative proves overwhelming and frustrating to Rawlins, who cannot find a way out of the captain’s stubborn beliefs. The story the captain has developed seems fated to become the “real” story.
The captain tells John Grady that his friend told them everything, and it would be best for him to admit to everything right away. John Grady says he doesn’t know anything about Blevins—he just asked to ride with them. They’ve been working for Don Héctor at La Purísima, he says. The captain says Rawlins is the criminal Smith, but John Grady says they were raised together, went to the same school.
We learn a bit more here about the narrative that the captain is trying to impose on the boys, including Blevins’ true identity as a famous criminal. John Grady tries to counter the captain with facts and reality, not yet aware that for the captain the notion of “reality” is changeable.
The captain leans back, taking a cigarette from his shirt pocket, and his posture seems artificial with his arm perched with a burning cigarette by his ear. He asks how old the assassin Blevins is, and John Grady says he doesn’t know. He tells John Grady to give him his billfold, and he spreads everything out. He asks why Blevins came here to steal horses, and John Grady says for all he knows the horse is his—at least he saw Blevins bring it into Mexico. The captain says these are not the facts, and John Grady has the chance to tell the truth here, before he is sent to Saltillo in three days and the truth will be in other hands. Here they can make truth or lose it. John Grady says there is only one truth—it’s what happened, not what someone says. The captain says his town was quiet and calm before Blevins came to steal horses. He says it isn’t true that Blevins was just a quiet boy who never did any harm and then came in and did such a thing. The truth is that Blevins was always like this.
This scene, in which truth and facts become dizzyingly unstable, begins with the captain spreading out the contents of John Grady’s billfold, as he did with Rawlins—laying out the documents and pictures that would seem to provide evidence of reality and of a person’s past and identity. Then, however, the captain challenges this notion of the truth, suggesting that truth can be “made” rather than simply uncovered. This is a radical view of the truth, but here it’s put to simple and sinister results. The captain deals with uncertainty and complexity by constructing a narrative that comprises Blevins’ past and present character in order to assign responsibility.
Back in the cell, the boys watch Blevins being led away. John Grady tells him they’re going to Saltillo, and it seems like the captain wants to make some kind of a deal with them to keep quiet about Blevins. He says he thinks they want to kill Blevins. Rawlins says maybe they won’t, and, looking away, curses.
As usual, John Grady skillfully reads his surroundings in order to make inferences about what is going on and what is about to happen. Rawlins cannot yet fully accept the reality of what’s awaiting Blevins.
John Grady talks with the old man, who doesn’t know what crime he’s accused of. He’s been told he can go after signing papers, but he can’t read or write.
The old man is another casualty of the captain’s cold, psychologically (and physically) violent ways.
The guards bring in the buckets filled with beans as if they’re carrying slop for livestock. As they eat, Blevins asked what they’d told the guards about him. He said they could have tried to help him out, put in a good word for him, and Rawlins starts yelling and cursing at him. Damn you to hell, he keeps repeating, almost in tears, and John Grady tells him to let it go.
Blevins is generally unaware of the high stakes of his imprisonment, and instead still fixated on gaining the older boys’ friendship, approval, and loyalty. Rawlins’ harshness, paradoxically, shows how much he has grown to care for Blevins.
When John Grady asks the old man if they’ve mistreated him, he waves it off: he says there’s no intrigue for them in making an old man feel pain.
The implications of this statement are chilling—pain for the captain and his men is valuable only when it is “interesting”—not justified.
Three days later John Grady, Blevins, and Rawlins are led from their cell onto a truck. The captain and guards exchange words they can’t hear. The two young girls from earlier stand on the road, crying and watching. The three guards on the truck are young country boys, ordered not to speak to the prisoners.
The scene is described passively, devoid of the boys’ thoughts, in a way that emphasizes how events are unfolding without their ability to master or shape them.
They stop outside a bright blue house where an elegantly dressed man, whom John Grady calls a charro, or cowboy, comes out and gets into the front of the truck with the captain. Saltillo is 400 kilometers away, and Blevins says this will be a long trip. The boys don’t say anything. They stop in several towns along the way, and the guards give the prisoners orange soda. They turn south towards Torreón, and one guard looks from the road sign to the prisoners and then back again. They leave the road and barrel across rolling fields and meadows and finally stop in the yard of an abandoned estancia (small farm) by some ebony trees. The guards climb down with their guns, and Blevins asks, “What’s here?”
Blevins is still painfully naïve, treating the trip as another adventure, with only minor drawbacks such as the length of the travel. The other boys are still unwilling to make him aware of what awaits him, most likely because they are unwilling to accept it themselves, and there is no way to stop it if they did. The cogs of Blevins’ fate are now in motion. Given that one guard seems unaware of why they leave the road to Saltillo, it’s likely that the captain’s plans are outside of official rules and protocol.
The captain takes one guard’s rifle, and that guard says “Vámonos” (Let’s go), but “just the boy.” Blevins asks what they’re going to do, and Rawlins says they won’t do anything. When he looks at John Grady, John Grady says nothing. The guard grabs Blevins’ arm, and he wrenches off his boot, handing the wrinkled peso notes inside it to John Grady. Blevins limps away, looking back once in terror, flanked by the captain and the charro. John Grady’s mouth is tight. Watching him, he thinks that Blevins seems not substantive enough to provoke anyone’s wrath. Rawlins warns him not to say anything. John Grady turns to look at him and the strange land and sky and says he won’t. After a while, Rawlins says they can’t just walk out there and shoot him. As John Grady looks at him they hear two short pistol pops. The captain comes back carrying the handcuffs.
Blevins initially looks at Rawlins and John Grady as to older brothers who will be able to intervene in his favor, or at least explain to him what’s happening. But Rawlins and John Grady are only slightly more knowledgeable than Blevins here. They don’t fully understand what’s taking place either, or why, and only now are forced to grasp the full reality of the situation. Even once they do—and once Blevins does—they cannot see how they can take responsibility for the events, which seem so far from what they could have expected from other human beings, particularly officials in charge.
The truck winds back out of the meadows and they reach Saltillo by ten that night. The square opposite the cathedral, where the captain stops to get out, is vibrant and busy. They finally make it to the massive doors of the prison. The captain stands watching them, as if they’re all waiting for something. But the captain seems to occupy another space, the privilege to those of the “irreclaimable act”—murder—to which John Grady and Rawlins are barred access. Once someone chooses that world he cannot leave it. The captain says that the man who accompanied him was the brother of the man Blevins killed, and had paid money to take revenge. This had surprised him, since in Mexico criminals are not killed. Instead other arrangements must be made.
For the first time, John Grady contemplates the captain and struggles to identify the aspect of his character that has permitted him to kill a young boy outside the justice system without seeming to feel any remorse or responsibility. Those who kill, he concludes, belong to another subspecies of humans. This thought is perhaps somewhat comforting, because it allows John Grady to place the captain (and the violence he has wrought) into a separate, distinct category, one that he doesn’t have to connect to himself.
The captain says they’re not the first Americans in this prison. He has friends there, and they’ll be making arrangements with them. They can’t stay in prison or they’ll die, and other problems—lost papers, lost people—will arise, making trouble for everyone. As the captain is about to go, John Grady says he didn’t have to kill Blevins. The captain turns and says he’ll tell him a story, since he was once young like him. At that time he used to hang out with older boys, and at one fiesta they all went to see one woman. The captain was the last, and the woman refused him since she was too young, or the men had played a trick on him. He says a man cannot do something and then go back; a man does not change his mind. When he came back, he says, none of the boys were laughing. Where he goes, people stop laughing—even here, when the charro lacked the courage to carry out the deed, the captain completed it.
As in the scene at the earlier jail cell, the captain seems to see the world in terms of “arrangements” and “truths,” taking place on a separate, more pragmatic sphere from what John Grady would consider the truth. Though the captain lacks any remorse, he seems to want to explain his distorted understanding of violence and justice. By telling the story to John Grady, he creates a myth out of his own life and past, a myth in which power and individual character can only be proven through blood. In this twisted framework, killing Blevins—even though the charro recoiled at the last minute—is a sign of courage rather than brutality.
The boys are led out onto an iron catwalk above the prison yard and into an iron-barred cell. The next morning the list of prisoners’ names is called, which takes an hour, but neither of them is on it. Rawlins jokes that they must not be in prison, then. They spend the entire first day fighting: that night Rawlins’ nose is broken. The one moral standard of the prison seems to be how ready one is to kill. When the fighting starts again, Rawlins says they’ll be killed. John Grady thinks they’ll either kill them or eventually leave them be—there’s no middle ground.
John Grady and Rawlins are joking together again, as before, but now their jokes are tinged with a grim understanding of what they’re dealing with, an understanding they’ve been forced to confront after witnessing Blevins’ death. Here in the prison, like with the captain, violence serves as the legal system as well as the code of ethics, and John Grady and Rawlins have to learn it as they might learn a foreign language.
The brutal fighting eases off by the third day. After that they buy soap and tomato soup and try to recover. Rawlins wonders why no one’s looked after them better, if they think they’re rich Americans, as the captain had intimated. He says he never imagined there was such a place as this, but John Grady says there must be every kind of place you can think of.
Following their sudden, vicious immersion into a new world with its own rules and standards, the boys now have time to reflect. John Grady’s response underlines how their “adventure” has introduced them to grim realities they never could have imagined.
Rawlins asks John Grady about the Spanish lingo he’s picked up here: words for cigarette butt, big shot, and asshole. Rawlins remarks how it was all over a horse, but John Grady says the horse had nothing to do with it. We think we’re some tough cowboys, Rawlins says, but we could be killed at any time.
As usual, John Grady doesn’t offer much more than oblique circumspection. We’re left to infer that John Grady believes that entrenched ethical standards and values had more to do with Blevins’ and their fates than luck or responsibility.
Two days later a tall thin man, Pérez, asks them to come with him to his single-roomed house in the center of the prison. It has an electric light, a gas heater, and a carpet. He says to them that they enjoy fighting, and John Grady cuts Rawlins off to say yes, they do. Pérez says that Americans don’t stay long here—they don’t like it too much. Rawlins asks if he can get them out of here; Pérez shrugs and says yes. Rawlins asks why he doesn’t get himself out, and Pérez says he has political enemies, and needs money to make his own arrangements—getting out is very expensive. John Grady says they have no money: Pérez tells him nothing is possible without money.
Pérez occupies a somewhat uncertain role within the prison: he’s a prisoner himself, but seems as powerful as the guards, if not more so. John Grady and Rawlins grasp pretty quickly that Pérez, though clearly an ethically questionable character, may be their only chance to escape. However, John Grady is even more practical than that, admitting right away that neither of them has any bargaining chips.
Pérez says they’re naïve, because they think the struggle is for something like cigarettes, and they don’t understand the real situation, don’t “speak the language.” In a year they might understand, he says, but they don’t have time. He can only help them if they show him faith. John Grady and Rawlins push back their chairs and rise, and Pérez says they’re very foolish. He has power over those under his protection, he says, but the others are outside, in a world of possibility over which he has no control.
“Speaking the language” is code here for knowledge of social norms and rules, knowledge that John Grady—even if he can impress others with his Spanish skills—can’t hope to develop in such a short time. John Grady and Rawlins have been suitably disillusioned by now, and they’re finally aware of how much they don’t know.
The next morning, an unknown man with a knife stabs Rawlins with an Italian switchblade. Rawlins runs to John Grady, and they cross the quadrangle to the gate shack. John Grady hands Rawlins over to the guard. In the next few days, John Grady is acutely aware of his every move, relying only on the few friends he’s made from Yucatán, Sierra León, and two brothers from Bautista. They all told him Pérez’s power is mysterious—some say he isn’t confined to the prison at all, and has a mistress in town. The guards claim to know nothing about Rawlins.
Messages at the prison are conveyed in blood, as Rawlins’ stabbing seems to be a direct response to his and John Grady’s unwillingness to work closely with Pérez or to “show faith” to him. In response, John Grady slowly begins to develop his proficiency in how the prison works, by making friends and by attempting to figure out exactly what Pérez’s status might be.
Three days after the stabbing, John Grady arrives at Pérez’s door. Pérez asks after his friend, and John Grady says that that’s what he’s come to ask him about. If he tells him straightaway, John Grady will just leave, Pérez says. He asks where John Grady learned Spanish, assuming it was from servants. Pérez asks why John Grady believes he’s responsible for Rawlins, and when John Grady says he’s not there to do business but just to ask about his friend, Pérez says Americans are so close-minded—their vision of the world is incomplete. He tells John Grady that a prison is like a beauty parlor: it’s full of gossip, since crimes are so interesting. John Grady says they didn’t commit a crime, and Pérez says just not yet. He says it’s not a matter of what the police find, but what they choose. Once John Grady is charged it’ll be too late.
Pérez seems to be toying with John Grady, blatantly enjoying his position of knowledge and power over the American. John Grady has grasped the power Pérez wields, but he stubbornly refuses to concede to this hierarchy. In other situations, this might be seen as an example of John Grady’s naïveté and romanticism, as he refuses to work within a system of corruption and admit to his “crimes,” even when this is the most practical option. John Grady is certainly idealistic, though here it’s not entirely clear whether or not he’s using his idealism as a ploy to protect himself and Rawlins against Pérez.
John Grady asks what Pérez wants to know, and he says only what the world wants to know—if he has cojones, if he’s brave, so that the world can decide how much he’s worth. Rawlins isn’t dead, he tells John Grady, who pushes back his chair. Pérez says he hopes John Grady will think about his situation. He says Americans can be impractical, convinced that there are only good and bad things, and they’re superstitious. He once saw an American attack his own car with a hammer since it wouldn’t start. A Mexican wouldn’t do this, since he doesn’t believe a car is good or evil. There can be some evil in a man, but it’s not his own evil—evil can visit anyone. It’s the same with money, he says: Americans talk about tainted money, but money doesn’t have that special quality.
Pérez seems to view the world in the same way the captain does. In this conception, people prove themselves and develop their character through courage—which is defined through the willingness to draw blood. Pérez’s ideas on good and evil are nonetheless thought-provoking, developing a theory of evil in which it is not a quality inherent in a person but rather something that moves, shifts, and takes up residence in various bodies at different times. Still, this conception of evil allows Pérez to be pragmatic about violence rather than follow more rigid moral standards.
As John Grady turns to go, Pérez says he thought John Grady wanted to know what would happen out there. He says no one can know, and when John Grady says someone is in charge, Pérez replies that their confinement gives the false impression that things are in control.
Here another character muses on fate. Pérez’s words suggest that he thinks things happen according to a script that’s beyond his control. It’s difficult to know, however, whether Pérez is just saying this to trick John Grady.
John Grady tries to buy a knife, but no one will sell one to him. Finally he finds the Bautistas and gives one of them, Faustino, his money. Faustino says it’ll be ready that evening. John Grady doesn’t go eat at noon, and at four he waits to sit by Faustino until the switchblade is ready. He slides it into his pocket.
John Grady seems to have learned something from his conversation with Pérez—or at least learned that he needs to be prepared for whatever is awaiting him, by violent means if necessary.
Half an hour later, John Grady heads into the dining hall for dinner. It’s Sunday, so many prisoners have eaten food brought by family members, and the hall is half empty. He chooses a corner table occupied only by a young boy (the cuchillero), smoking a cigarette, who has a tattoo of a blue jaguar being suffocated by an anaconda. As John Grady sits he suddenly realizes why the boy is alone, but it’s too late to stand up again. He looks up and sees that the guards are gone, and he continues eating, his heart pounding.
Starting with John Grady’s entrance into the dining hall, the atmosphere becomes one of eerie tension, the half-empty hall a kind of stage for an unknown act, and the boy’s tattoo symbolizing the bizarre but menacing standards of the prison. John Grady understands the meaning of this atmosphere too late, once he’s made a choice that he can’t go back on.
The boy stubs out his cigarette and John Grady hears sounds from beyond the prison walls, meaning that the dining hall is silent. He opens his knife against his leg. The boy stands and walks along the table with his tray. Suddenly he slices the tray towards John Grady’s head. John Grady flings his own tray against it, and rolls back to scramble to his feet. Glimpsing the boy’s knife, he pulls out his own and slices his tray at the boy once again, hitting his forehead. They begin to thrust and feint back and forth, and from the precise, calm movements of the “cuchillero” (knife-bearer) John Grady knows the boy is a hired assassin. As John Grady tastes blood from a cut, it occurs that he’s going to die here. The other prisoners have risen silently from their benches and are watching, accustomed to seeing death.
In some ways, John Grady must have been expecting something like this to happen, because he’s prepared with his switchblade, after all. Unlike his bleak, somber reaction to Blevins’ death and his attempt to grapple with the meaning and purpose of violence, this encounter is devoid of any emotion or thoughtfulness. Instead, John Grady acts out of pure survival instinct, defending himself against the cuchillero as the other prisoners watch as if viewing a film, concerned only with who will “prove” himself.
John Grady accidentally drops his tray and, touching his shirt, realizes it’s sticky with blood. He backs away and sinks to the floor. The cuchillero leans in and grabs John Grady by the hair, forcing his head back. As he prepares to cut his throat, John Grady reaches up and stabs him in the heart. The cuchillero pitches forward into John Grady’s arms. John Grady pushes the body away and staggers to the door.
It is through blood that John Grady had realized he might die, but it also now gives him a renewed determination to live. By feigning surrender, John Grady is able to defend himself from the cuchillero, but at the cost of committing murder himself.
Other prisoners are still watching John Grady, but no one follows as he walks to his room with blood sloshing in his boots. He flings away his knife. A tall man tells him to come with him: Pérez wants to help him. John Grady steps back, twisting out of the man’s grip. His vision blurs and he falls, barely perceiving the man picking him up and taking him to Pérez.
John Grady has been severely wounded, and this, along with the murder he’s just committed, seems to have made him untouchable by the other prisoners. Still, even in his weakened state, John Grady doesn’t want to give in to Pérez’s “help.”
John Grady wakes up in a dark stone room, finding it difficult to breathe. He calls out but no one answers. He half wonders if he’s dead, and his despair leads to pain and then a renewed commitment to keep breathing. He struggles in excruciating pain out of the bed and to the door, which is locked. Finally, the door opens to blinding light, and a young man brings in a tray containing food and orange soda. John Grady asks the man to turn on the light, which he does before leaving the room again.
Like the blood he felt during the knife fight, John Grady’s current excruciating pain gives him a motivation to keep breathing and surviving. His suffering thus becomes meaningful for him. Having faced the test of the fight, it would seem that John Grady has once again been forced to relinquish control over his body and actions.
For the next three days, John Grady thinks about the terrible things probably done to his father in Goshee, and about everything he doesn’t know about him. He decides not to think of Alejandra—to save up those thoughts—and instead thinks of horses. He dreams of dead men standing around, silent but with terrible intelligence. He knows men have died in this room.
John Grady’s own suffering allows him to begin to understand what his father has gone through. In the midst of painful thoughts, thinking about horses allows John Grady to grasp something familiar and safe.
The next time the door opens, a man in a suit and carrying a leather bag comes in, saying he’s the doctor. He cuts away gauze over John Grady’s wound and rewraps the dressing over his stitches. He says John Grady is a fast healer. The next visitor wears what looks like a military uniform, and asks how soon John Grady can walk to his home. John Grady walks around the room to show him. The man says he’s fortunate, and then leaves. John Grady continues to sleep and wake, once enjoying roast chicken with a pear, which he savors, still thinking they might take him to the country and shoot him.
Various characters parade in and out of the room, apparently there to take care of John Grady, but unable to give him any information on where he is or why he is there. John Grady no longer harbors any illusions about people here, and instead attempts to come to terms with what might happen to him based on his new understanding of reality—even if this reality is heavily influenced by what happened to Blevins.
The next time John Grady wakes up, the man from the first visit comes in with a pile of clothes and boots. Two guards come in and he follows them into another part of the building, where he meets the “comandante,” the man in the military uniform, at his desk. The comandante slides an envelope to him, and John Grady asks where his friend Rawlins is. He says he’s outside. The comandante says they’re leaving, which John Grady finds difficult to believe. He’s led out to the street and sees Rawlins. They climb onto a bus waiting on the street.
It’s still unclear what John Grady is doing in the hospital/prison, and just as unclear as why he’s released by the comandante. Though he’s been suitably disillusioned, even now John Grady struggles to understand the rules and reasons behind the actions of people around him. It’s difficult to know what has allowed him to be released rather than shot.
Both say they thought the other had died, but then John Grady says they should sit and be quiet. It’s gray and raining outside, and some of the women on the bus peer back at the prison, which looks like a site of a siege from an earlier time, when the enemies were outside its doors.
As the boys leave the prison, John Grady contrasts the idea of a fortress defending itself from enemies outside (a romantic, antiquated vision) with his modern experience of shifting enemies and alliances.
At the centro (town center), John Grady suggests they get something to eat: he has a whole envelope full of money—the envelope that the comandante had slid to him. As they eat their steaks and fried potatoes, Rawlins lights a cigarette and asks why they’re not dead. Alfonsa the aunt must have paid them out, John Grady says. He expects it has to do with Alejandra—there is no other explanation. Rawlins says he was just in a hospital ward, and could have escaped. He says he doesn’t know why he didn’t, but he wouldn’t have left John Grady: he says, though, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t dumb. Rawlins says there was another boy in there, all cut up, who died. It seemed so peculiar to him, and he says dying isn’t in people’s plans, is it. Rawlins says they put a liter of blood into him, and asks if that means he’s part Mexican. John Grady jokes that he’s almost a half breed, but then says blood is blood, and doesn’t know where it’s from.
Now equipped with clues relating to their release from prison, John Grady is able to piece together an explanation for why they haven’t been killed—one that relies upon his knowledge of Alfonsa’s character and on their prior conversations. Though Rawlins had been frustrated with John Grady because of the latter’s responsibility for getting them detained in the first place, Rawlins now proves his loyalty by not escaping alone and leaving John Grady—even as Rawlins recognizes that, objectively, it may have been more intelligent to do so. His worries about blood show the connection common in people’s imagination between blood and identity or personhood.
Rawlins says he knows John Grady wants to go back to the ranch for Alejandra and for the horses. Rawlins tells him not to go, but John Grady says he has made up his mind. Rawlins says there’s only one kind of a deal Alejandra could have made with Alfonsa, and John Grady says he knows, but she’ll have to tell him herself.
Part of loyalty is knowing someone well enough to read or even predict his or her actions. Rawlins probably knows he wouldn’t be able to convince John Grady to stay away from the hacienda, but loyalty also forces him to try.
Rawlins gestures towards a kid across the street trying to sell newspapers, yelling to an empty road. Rawlins wipes his eyes, cursing and saying he keeps thinking about Blevins. He looks old and sad to John Grady, and says he keeps thinking how scared Blevins was. John Grady watches him and then says he, John Grady, isn’t Blevins. Rawlins says he knows that, but isn’t sure how much better off John Grady is.
Though Rawlins had never treated Blevins as kindly as John Grady had, he seems even more affected by Blevins’ death. Without wanting to, he developed a sense of friendship and loyalty to Blevins as well. Blevins’ death also catapulted the pair into stark reality, forcing them to face it head-on.
Rawlins and John Grady find a hotel room and, after showering, talk about how they’re going to get their stitches out. They count out their money: 970 pesos, or about 120 dollars. John Grady splits the money in half. Rawlins asks what’s the worst thing John Grady’s ever done. John Grady says he doesn’t know, and Rawlins says that in the hospital he started thinking he wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t supposed to be there. He says he and his friend once sold a pickup truck-full of feed to some Mexicans and pocketed the money. John Grady says that isn’t so bad. Lying quietly in the dark, John Grady says Rawlins must know what happened in the mess hall. Rawlins says John Grady had no choice, but John Grady says he never thought he’d kill a man—Rawlins doesn’t need to try to make it right. He tells Rawlins he bought the knife with Blevins’ money. Rawlins repeats that he couldn’t have acted differently: John Grady says he knows, but it wasn’t Rawlins who did it.
Rawlins, again becomes preoccupied with fate and destiny but here it’s tied to sin as well. In this understanding of fate, doing something wrong ensures that you’ll be punished by it in some other way, whether by God or by the more impersonal workings of fate. This conception is complicated, though—if Rawlins was fated to sin and suffer, then what responsibility does he have for his own actions? While Rawlins is committed to wrestling with these questions, John Grady prefers to plainly state the intractable facts: it was wrong for him to kill a man, but he couldn’t not have killed him. Both are true, though they’re contradictory, and John Grady has to face the reality of this contradiction.
The next morning, they buy new clothes and hats and buy Rawlins a ticket to Nuevo Laredo. They tell each other to take care, and John Grady watches Rawlins climb stiffly onto the bus. After standing for a while, John Grady turns and walks back through the rain to the hotel. For the next few days he looks for a surgeon. Finally he has the stitches removed, while the surgeon tells him not to look at the scar, since it’ll improve in time. A week later John Grady hitchhikes out of Saltillo on the back of a truck. Trying to brace himself, he stands with his hands outstretched on the roof of the truck, as if he’s someone bearing news for the country, a prophet being conveyed north.
There seems to be something final in Rawlins’ departure. The two have remained steadfastly loyal to each other, but their paths now split, with John Grady facing the country on his own, making decisions and wandering around towns alone rather than as part of an adventurous friendship. Part III ends with more religious imagery, which here has the effect of stressing the blunt, grim realities that John Grady has had to face and grow into.