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On the other side of Paredón, the truck picks up five farmworkers, and they ask John Grady where he’s from and where he’s going. One of them, older, nods at his cheap new clothes and says he’s going to see his novia, girlfriend or fiancée. John Grady says it’s true, and for a long time afterward he thinks of their smiles and good will, which can protect and honor others. At midnight they reach Monclova, and John Grady shakes hands with each one before disembarking.
The five farmworkers are the first people John Grady has met in a while who seem good and kind to him. Still maturing, he tends to take his own experience as reality, even if he’s been disabused of many of his romantic notions. Here he begins to develop a more nuanced understanding of human good and evil.
John Grady sets out the next morning along the road west, hitchhiking and stopping to bathe in an irrigation ditch. He watches naked children splashing around in a pool downstream, and two girls carrying laundry smile at him, with his pale skin and scars across his stomach. He walks all afternoon towards Cuatro Ciénagas, and everyone he meets nods to him and exchanges a few words. That evening he eats with workers in their camp. An old man prays for them all, reminding them that corn grows by God’s will and the entire world comes into being through His will.
In some ways, recently released from a life-changing confinement, John Grady seems more carefree and younger again, though his scars bear witness to what he’s experienced. The old man at the camp nods to the novel’s theme of fate. In his prayer, God’s will is the wheel turning the fate of the world, and humans can only bow to this fate and will rather than bend it themselves.
John Grady sleeps under a grove of trees, and the next morning hitchhikes into the town of La Vega. He orders a Coca-Cola in a café and eyes the calendar, having no idea what day it is. It turns out he’s been gone seven weeks from the hacienda, and summer is fading. He reaches the hacienda just after dark and knocks at the gerente’s door. Antonio comes out, saying that Alfonsa is at home, but Don Héctor and his daughter have left for Mexico City. No one knows when they’ll return. John Grady’s things are still in the bunkhouse, Antonio says, and he can sleep there.
John Grady’s weeks at the prison have taken place in a kind of alternate reality, one expanded to hold all that he’s learned and gone through since he was forced to leave the hacienda. Like others in the novel, Antonio doesn’t question what or why something has happened (such as John Grady’s return), instead accepting it as part of a larger order of things, which humans may not understand.
The next morning John Grady walks up to the house, where Carlos is standing outside and nods to him gravely. María tells him that Alfonsa is still asleep, and that she will be gone all day and will return before dark. María asks John Grady nothing, but puts her hand on his shoulder as she pours him coffee. He rises to go and asks to borrow a horse for the day. He tries to read María’s face to see what his chances are with Alfonsa, and he hopes what he reads is wrong.
María seems sympathetic to John Grady, even though, like Antonio, neither she nor Carlos ask what has happened or how he’s been able to return. She seems to intuit, however, why he’s come back to the hacienda. María knows Alfonsa better, and is more willing to face reality than John Grady is.
A vaquero calls out to John Grady as he passes the bunkhouse, saying the horse is happy to see him. John Grady rides out to the mesa and at noon stops for lunch, watching the country and the distant cordilleras (mountain ranges). He wonders what kind of dream might bring him luck. He thinks about Alejandra riding, and then of the last time he saw Blevins. He’d had a dream in Saltillo in which he’d asked Blevins what it was like to be dead, and Blevins had said it was like nothing at all. He falls asleep and doesn’t dream. That evening John Grady rides through groves of apple trees and the ruins of an old cabin where hunters had built fires in the floor. It’s a strange place, as if life hadn’t succeeded there.
It was Alfonsa who had told John Grady, the first time they met, that she believed that dreams meant something. Now John Grady seems to be searching for direction in addition to luck by having a dream that might deliver him some kind of message. Both his earlier dream of Blevins and his lack of dreams now, however, suggest that John Grady cannot seek wisdom in this matter elsewhere, but rather must confront Alfonsa and make his case himself.
Back at the hacienda, the other vaqueros invite John Grady to eat with them, and he tells him about everything that happened. They’re sad not to see Rawlins, but they say a man leaves much in leaving his country, and that it is no accident that one is born in a certain country and not another. No one speaks of Don Héctor, Alfonsa, or Alejandra.
Even when John Grady does tell his story, the vaqueros accept it without awe or surprise. Their response underlines their understanding of fate in the context of the country where one is born, and how that determines one’s character.
After dinner John Grady waits in the kitchen until María tells him that Alfonsa is in the parlor. She stands formally and with a chilling elegance. Alfonsa says Héctor thought John Grady wouldn’t come back, but she knew he would. He asks for an explanation, and she says that he’s been a disappointment to her nephew (Don Héctor) and an expense to herself. He’s been inconvenienced himself, John Grady says. She tells him the officers had come once before, but that her nephew had sent them away, quite confident there was nothing to it, and wanting to pursue his own investigation. John Grady had already lied to Héctor twice, Alfonsa says. The affair of the stolen horse, in which the thieves were American, was known before their arrival, and they had denied everything. Later his friend returned to Encantada and committed murder, she says. The facts are indisputable.
After a long build-up to this meeting, Alfonsa begins by calmly stating what she sees as the facts: John Grady had lied to Héctor and had been implicated in his friend’s murder. Notably, she lists these faults without mentioning John Grady’s relationship to Alejandra. In relying on these “facts,” Alfonsa’s speech bears chilling resemblance to the captain’s search for the “truth.” Here it’s far clearer that reality can actually be bent to support any of several versions of events, and that the truth may indeed be malleable. John Grady is not yet willing to accept the reality that the truth sometimes depends on the observer.
John Grady asks why Alfonsa bought them out of prison. She says he knows that, and that he also knows what the terms were—that Alejandra won’t see him again. Alfonsa says that many women in her family have suffered disastrous love affairs with men of questionable character—in earlier times, self-styled “revolutionaries.” John Grady says she took advantage of Alejandra, and that he won’t thank her. He should have been left in prison to die.
In some circumstances, knowledge is not the accumulation of new facts but the ability to better read existing ones, and John Grady probably hasn’t wanted to read these signs. He continues to insist that Alfonsa was wrong to make a deal. His position is idealistic in the extreme in preferring death to compromise.
John Grady says he would have thought Alfonsa’s own disappointments would have made her more sympathetic to others. Alfonsa says he thinks he knows something about her life, thinking that she is a bitter old woman jealous of the happiness of others. But that isn’t true, she says. She supported John Grady’s cause against Alejandra’s mother’s tantrums. Alfonsa is not a society person, she says. Society seems to be a machine for women’s suppression, though it is extremely important in Mexico. Mexicans, she says, have a great yearning for freedom, though only their own, and for truth and honor in form but not substance. They are convinced nothing can be proven unless it is made to bleed.
John Grady attempts to make a connection between his struggles with Alejandra and Alfonsa’s own life, but Alfonsa dismisses this comparison, claiming that John Grady knows far less than he thinks about life, and about her life in particular. She begins what will be a long monologue by contrasting her own openness to Mexican society, which, as she sees it, embraces violence for the sake of violence and fails, in a way, to grow up and face reality. For Alfonsa, many in Mexico are idealistic romantics.
Alfonsa sees a child, but also a version of herself, in Alejandra. In another life she could perhaps have been a soldier, she says, but she will never know. She has never been able to decide whether the shape of one’s life was there from the beginning, or whether random events shape themselves into a pattern after the fact. John Grady, in response to her question, says he believes in fate. Alfonsa says her father thought everything was connected, though she’s not sure she believes that. Her father thought responsibility for a decision could always be traced to more and more remote human decisions. His example was that of a tossed coin: it was once a piece of metal that a coiner placed in the die in one of two ways, an act from which all others followed, until our turn comes to pass. If fate ruled over all, she says, it could possibly be reasoned with, but such a coiner making his selection cannot. Her father saw in this story how origins can be accessible, but she sees no more than a puppet show—in which, behind the curtain, the strings can be traced only to the hands of other puppets, and so on infinitely. These “strings whose origins were endless” led to violence and madness in her own life, and to a nation’s ruin. She will tell John Grady about Mexico, she says: he will see how and why she—originally in his favor—turned against him.
Alfonsa draws on her own past and experiences in speaking to John Grady about fate. It’s difficult to unravel exactly what Alfonsa’s views on fate are from her story, unlike John Grady, who states explicitly that he “believes” in fate. Her father’s anecdote seems to suggest that he believed there is an order and reason behind human affairs, even if one person finds it difficult to access this order. Alfonsa, in turn, thinks that humans prefer to think that they are responsible for their actions, however violent and despicable they may be. This suggests that Alfonsa is skeptical of human agency and responsibility—or at least she sees not dignity and power but rather absurdity in people’s choices, as shown through her anecdote of the puppet show. She doubts that there is any reason for Mexico’s violence and madness—yet this very lack of agency has led her to make decisions for Alejandra and thus change her grand-niece’s life.
As a child, Alfonsa was deeply affected by the devastating poverty in Mexico. Families owned nothing, and attempted to sell bolts from fallen trucks, confident that this had value to someone. They were intelligent, though, especially the children, who were free until eleven or twelve, when suddenly they became grave, serious adults. By the age of sixteen, Alfonsa had become a radical freethinker speaking out against injustice.
John Grady and Rawlins had come to Mexico expecting a land populated by Comanche Indians or their equivalent, a place resembling tales from John Grady’s grandfather or cultural mythology. Instead they have been met with sights of quiet desperation, and from what Alfonsa says, even in the past such a romantic West never existed.
Alfonsa says her family had compadrazgo (loosely, comradeship or closeness) with the family of Francisco Madero. She loved his father, Don Evaristo, who was wealthy, smart, and hosted great parties at his hacienda in Rosario, with European visitors and orchestras. When she was seventeen, the two oldest boys, Francisco and Gustavo, returned from studying in Europe and the United States. Francisco set up schools for poor children, dispensed medicine, and fed hundreds from his own kitchen, all in an attempt to apply the freethinking ideals he’d learned. Everything seemed possible, Alfonsa says.
As Alfonsa describes it, the Mexico of her youth was a country of extreme income inequality, in which the poverty described above coexisted with enormous wealth and Europeanized lifestyles of hacendados. It was also European ideas that Francisco and Gustavo imported from abroad, attempting to use them to combat the two worlds of Mexico.
Alfonsa was especially attracted to Gustavo, who had a glass eye from an accident, and with whom she talked for hours about books. That autumn, she went to an hacienda in San Luis Potosí and suffered the accident to her fingers. It was devastating for a girl of the time, and causing, she felt, her father to think of her as disfigured. There was no more thought of her getting married. But after a few months, Gustavo came to call, and though she initially refused to see him, she conceded to her father’s will and let him in. He treated her no differently from before, and spoke to her of his and Francisco’s work, and of those who have suffered misfortune, who must treat misfortune as a gift of strength on which they can rely. Gustavo taught Alfonsa that to be a person of value meant one could not change with the hazards of fortune. All courage is a kind of constancy, and the first person a coward abandons is himself. Gustavo has been dead for forty years now, Alfonsa says, and her love for him has not changed.
Alfonsa had told John Grady in an earlier conversation that a woman only has her reputation, and without it she is nothing. Alfonsa seems to have experienced the coldness and harshness of society first-hand after suffering the accident to her fingers. Alfonsa earlier spoke critically about many of her compatriots finding meaning through blood and violence, but here she suggests that there is meaning, and courage, to be drawn from some kinds of suffering. The difference between what she criticizes and what Gustavo teaches her seems to be that suffering must be instrumental and meaningful—not used as an end in itself or merely to prove one’s value to the world, but as motivation to improve the lives of others.
Soon afterward, Francisco Madero began to enter the political field, and his enemies carried his name to the dictator Díaz. He was arrested and forced to flee to the United States, but he and Gustavo returned with guns and the revolution began. Meanwhile, Alfonsa was sent to Europe. Her father refused to bring her home unless she promised to disassociate herself from the brothers. She and Gustavo were never engaged, and he ultimately married someone else, but she never blamed him. Finally, Díaz had to flee, and Francisco became the first (and last) president elected by popular vote. Alfonsa was in London, and she was too stubborn to return, unable to forgive her father.
Porfirio Díaz was Mexico’s president until 1910. He changed the Constitution several times until his presidency became a de facto, 30-year dictatorship. Alfonsa shows how intellectual ideals and social goals directly impacted Mexican history, as well as her personal life—far more than the random tales of bandits and bandoleros that defined Mexico for John Grady and Rawlins. Alfonsa also shows remarkable loyalty here, a trait valued by John Grady and Rawlins.
Francisco believed in humankind’s goodness, and this was his undoing, for he was constantly surrounded by schemers. Ultimately, General Huerta plotted against him with rebels. Gustavo and Francisco were arrested, and Gustavo was turned over to a mob, where he was burned, his eye was gouged out, and he was hit by a rain of rifle shots. Francisco was shot behind the penitentiary. The family went into exile, but Alfonsa is still close with Francisco’s wife Sara. They are joined by bonds of pain, as Gustavo told her.
For Alfonsa, believing that one’s fellow humans are good is only naïve, and yet in some ways she respects Francisco’s innocence, even while decrying it. Still, her graphic description of the brutal deaths of Francisco and Gustavo show her disdain for her compatriots’ violence together with her commitment to face up to the reality of the past.
Alfonsa didn’t return from Europe until her father died, and now she regrets that she didn’t know him better. She later realized how similar he was to Gustavo, who wasn’t meant to be a soldier, and who, like Francisco, never really understood Mexico. In the end, she says, those who live long enough are cured of their dreams, and the world chooses between dream and reality. In school she studied biology, and learned that in experiments there is always a control group, in which nothing has been disturbed, so that scientists can compare the effects. History has no control group, however. There is no might have been, and she doesn’t believe knowing can save us. Instead the only constants are greed, foolishness, and love of blood.
For Alfonsa, the process of growing up was one of letting go of her illusions—as she puts it, dismissing her dreams and embracing reality, before the world’s uncaring ways exact their own reality. As an adolescent, she believed deeply in the power of ideas to change things. Now, she understands that without a control group, history simply hurtles on with no ability to step back, compare, and dispassionately choose a next step. She sees no reason or primacy of ideas in history—nothing other than the law of blood.
Alfonsa often speaks to her father at his grave, knowing he did not want to make her an exile in her own country, as a woman who embraced books because she knew she’d be denied much of the real world. The only future she can imagine is that of her grandniece, but she knows that there is nothing to lose. In her 73 years, she has known few people whose lives were satisfactory to them, and she’d like that to be different for Alejandra. She has no fixed opinions about how she should live, but just knows that she must come to value what is true above what is useful. It is not the case that Alfonsa has rejected John Grady for being young, uneducated, or foreign. But now she sees him more clearly.
Interestingly, Alfonsa was eager to face reality as a young girl. For her, books were not an escape but another way to access the real world. Still, she now knows that she did not understand all the rules of reality even as she pursued it. Having disabused herself of her illusions, Alfonsa now prides herself on being able to see through the illusions of others—to “see” John Grady clearly and thus use calculated reason and judgment to get her way. In some ways, Alfonsa has now embraced aspects of the reality that she once so deplored.
John Grady says Alfonsa won’t let him make his case for being with Alejandra, and she says his case is that things happened outside his control—which isn’t anything to recommend him. She says he may go to see Alejandra, but she knows Alejandra won’t break her word. Alfonsa shakes John Grady’s hand, explaining that she’s told him about herself because she believes one should know who one’s enemies are. Fate will tell whether he’ll hate her. John Grady says he thought she didn’t believe in fate, and Alfonsa replies that she just thinks it’s human nature to assign responsibility. We are all like the coiner, determined that even chaos come from human resolve.
Alfonsa seems to admit that John Grady wasn’t “responsible” for much of what happened, but given her own past, she has no patience or sympathy for those who bow to outside fate. Her final statement on fate underlines her ambivalence about it. For her, believing in fate means believing that there is a reason or order to human action, even if one cannot know it fully. She believes that much is beyond humans’ responsibility, and yet there is no choice but to act as if we are responsible.
The next morning, John Grady says goodbye to the vaqueros and María and then chooses a horse to ride. As he rides, he talks to the horse about things that his experience has taught him, as well as things he thinks may be true but may not be. He shares his lunch with children along a farm road. The oldest boy asks where he lives, and John Grady has to think about it. He tells them he is riding to his novia (girlfriend) to ask her to be his wife. He says her father is rich and he himself is poor, and the children seem downcast at this knowledge. The older girl says the novia will marry him if she loves him, but the boy says she cannot go against her father’s wishes. The grandmother must be consulted, the girl says, for without her help little can be expected: everyone knows the truth of this. John Grady tells them she cannot be counted on, and when the girl asks his offense, he tells them the entire story. At the end the girl tells John Grady to bring the boy Blevins to the grandmother so he can say Blevins is the one at fault. John Grady tells her Blevins is dead. They sit in silence and finally say that all that is left is to pray to God.
Once again, John Grady relies on horses to attempt to make sense of what he’s experienced and of how he sees the world. Rather than maintaining his power and control as he did while whispering to his horse in an earlier scene, his thoughts are less certain now, and he’s more aware of how much he doesn’t know (a step beyond being unaware of one’s own innocence). It helps John Grady to speak of his thorny problems to children, whom he understands—following what Alfonsa had said about children in Mexico—to have a certain wisdom on social matters. In their world, there is room to maneuver in difficult matters such as this one, but even they are ultimately awestruck by the knotty skeins of cause and consequence that have led John Grady to this point, and they see little else to do but rely upon God’s will.
In Torreón, the hotel clerk tells John Grady the only place to tie his horse is in the lobby. He sleeps almost twelve hours, and waits most of the morning at the telephone exchange to call Alejandra. He says he has to see her, but she insists she can’t. She’s going to La Purísima in two days. She had no right to make the promise she made, John Grady says, and he must see her even if it’s for the last time. She is quiet and then says she will meet him in Zacatecas the next morning.
If John Grady has learned anything from Alfonsa, it’s her stubbornness. He’s still clinging to his ideals of loyalty and sacrifice, according to which no one else has the right to save him in exchange for compromising. Though John Grady has faced reality full-on, his romanticism has not been stamped out.
The next morning John Grady wakes up at six and boards a train to Zacatecas. As he eats breakfast he feels better than he has in a long time, and his heavy heart begins to lift. He arrives in the late afternoon and checks into the Reina Cristina, an old colonial hotel. He walks through the narrow streets of the old town and looks through the shop windows looking for a gift for Alejandra. He finally buys a plain silver necklace. Her train arrives close to nine, and when she appears in a dress and blue hat he almost doesn’t recognize her. They kiss and she remarks how thin he is. He sees sadness in her eyes, and he knows that he is part, but not all, of the reason for it. They walk through the streets to the hotel and eat dinner in the dining room, where other patrons glance at them.
This scene is set in an atmosphere of striking normalcy. Since they’ve known each other, John Grady and Alejandra have had to conceal their relationship and sneak around in order to see each other. Here we have a glimpse of what a normal, adult life could be for the two of them, though of course, it’s laced with the complications of John Grady’s past and Alejandra’s promise to Alfonsa. In a show of maturity, John Grady realizes that Alejandra has suffered more than just for his sake.
John Grady says he must tell Alejandra what happened, everything from Blevins to the cuchillero. When Alejandra looks up she’s crying, and she asks how she can know what kind of a man he is, or what kind her father is: she asks what are men. John Grady says he’s told her things he never told anyone, but she asks what good that serves. She tells him that her aunt had threatened to tell her father they were lovers if she didn’t stop seeing John Grady, so she told her father herself. Don Héctor had said nothing. John Grady was on the mesa at the time, and when he returned he was arrested. Alejandra doesn’t hate her aunt, but Alfonsa says she wants Alejandra to be her own person while also constantly trying to make her her own person. This whole affair broke her father’s heart, Alejandra says, and she destroyed everything. She didn’t know her father could stop loving her, but now she knows.
Throughout the novel, Alejandra has been one of the few people in whom John Grady has felt that he could confide. In her response, Alejandra seems to echo Alfonsa, who similarly spoke of men’s power in Mexico and the accompanying danger for women, who could only be victims of reputation or of the suffering wrought by men’s violence. We also see a different side of Alfonsa, who occupies an ambivalent place in the novel. It’s ultimately unclear whether she is selflessly imparting wisdom to John Grady, or acting selfishly for her own interest—or, perhaps, a mix of both.
Late that night they make love, and Alejandra tells John Grady that she saw him dead in a dream long ago, being carried through the streets at dawn. In the morning they walk through the streets and eat at a café, as John Grady counts the hours until the train will come again. He tells her that if she stays with him he will never abandon her and will always love her, and she says she believes him. They enter a small plaza and Alejandra tells him her grandfather died here in 1914, in this strange place, at the age of 24. That night, back at the hotel, she tells him she loves him, but she cannot do what he asks.
Dreams have come to take a significant place in the novel. John Grady’s own dreams have been a chance for him to sort through his suffering and experiences, or even to fully understand what he’s gone through. John Grady seems to fully believe what he’s saying, and still clings to the possibility that Alejandra will remain with him. She, however, understood long ago that the demands of reality must inevitably triumph.
John Grady sees clearly how his entire life has led to this moment, and after it leads nowhere. He tries to reason with Alejandra, but it’s to no avail. They walk together to the train station, and when he speaks to her she doesn’t answer. She touches the silver necklace at her throat that he’d given her, leans in to kiss him one last time, and then is gone. He feels as if he’s in a dream. He watches a man whirl his daughter around in his arms, laughing, but when the girl sees his face she stops laughing. That night John Grady goes to a bar, gets drunk, and gets into a fight.
John Grady’s realization recalls Alfonsa’s question—whether there truly is a pattern in people’s lives, or whether people just assemble a pattern after the fact. During the first times he spent with Alejandra, John Grady felt as if he were in a dream, and as she leaves him the dreamlike quality returns. It’s perhaps to shock himself into the reality of the situation (or even forget it) that he gets into a fight.
The next morning John Grady wakes up in a green room in an unknown part of the city. He hitchhikes out of the city, rides all day, and reaches Torreón the next day to fetch the horse he’d left there and to buy a box of bullets. He sleeps in a field that night and watches the stars across the sky. He is in agony, and he imagines the world’s pain as a formless parasite seeking out human souls to inhabit: he fears that this process of seeking is endless.
It was neither Blevins’ death nor even his own near-death experience with the cuchillero that forced John Grady to really come to terms with the extent of the world’s violence and suffering—instead this farewell is the last straw. His agony stems in part from the apparent meaninglessness of such pain, whereas before he still tried to find some purpose in it.
John Grady rides all the next day towards Encantada, finally arriving to the old mud walls at dawn. He loads his pistol and rides through the streets to the old school, where he breaks in to sit at the captain’s desk and take out the handcuffs. The captain enters to see John Grady aiming his pistol at him. John Grady says he’s come to get his horse. John Grady leads the captain out the back door towards the jail, which John Grady unlocks to let out the old man, who’s still sitting as before. He handcuffs the captain’s hands in front of him and they go to the blue house where the charro comes out, seeming confused. John Grady says he wants his horse. Rawlins’ horse is also in a mud barn behind the house. John Grady takes the reins and asks the charro where the other horses are, his pistol to the captain’s head. He says Blevins was his brother and he had vowed not to return to his father without the captain’s head: if he fails other brothers are behind him. Doubt begins to cloud the captain’s face.
John Grady’s actions are methodical and dispassionate. There’s an interesting, if chilling, parallel with the captain’s earlier actions—John Grady may have learned something from the captain, though the novel makes clear that John Grady’s idealism, rather than gratuitous love of violence, is still at work here in his dogged desire to get back Redbo. This idealism, in fact, recalls Blevins’ attempts to steal back his horse and pistol, though John Grady has developed a far greater competence. In John Grady’s last stand in Mexico, McCarthy is perhaps suggesting a middle path between pure, dispassionate expertise and romantic idealism.
The charro tells him the other horses are at Don Rafael’s hacienda. They all ride out the ten kilometers. At the corral John Grady dismounts, draws his pistol, and leads Rawlins’ horse through the gate. He calls out to Redbo, who whinnies at him. Suddenly a man steps into a doorway, and John Grady whispers at the captain to say they have a thief and need to see the American horse. The man withdraws, and John Grady leads the captain out. As they’re turning John Grady sees Blevins’ horse. He assumes the man has probably gone to the house for a rifle and will soon be back. Indeed, the man calls for the captain from the stable.
John Grady’s task is now growing knottier and more complex. What was initially an attempt to get his own horse back now has become an opportunity to avenge Rawlins’ imprisonment and Blevins’ death. John Grady’s loyalty to both of them kicks in here, tied, again, to his idealism in paying little regard to his own safety or practicality in trying to take back three horses single-handedly.
John Grady hands rope to the charro and tells him to bridle Blevins’ horse. He snaps the handcuffs back onto the captain, tells the charro to wait there, and pushes the captain toward the door. John Grady steps out and aims the revolver’s barrels between the eyes of the man crouched there. Suddenly, his legs are slammed from under him with the crack of a rifle from somewhere else. John Grady grabs the first man’s rifle and sees the man who’d shot him in the bed of a truck across the lot. John Grady fires, hitting a tire.
This passage in the novel is somewhat confusing, as men seem to pop up from nowhere, but this confusion is meant to reflect the way that, John Grady is experiencing the scene, as he attempts to deal with at least four different adversaries at one time. He’s shot by the fourth, but is able to continue the fight.
John Grady yells to the charro to bring a saddle and bridle for his horse or he’ll kill the captain. He speaks slowly to Redbo as the charro obeys, and then looks down at his leg, his pants dark with blood. John Grady tells the charro to bring him the other two horses. He looks at the second man kneeling with his hands up. The man says John Grady is crazy, and John Grady says he’s right. He swings his leg over the saddle and backs his horse to where the captain was sitting, telling the charro to bring him a rope—he’s figured out there’s bad blood between the two of them. He hoists the captain onto Redbo and rides out the gate, leading Blevins’ horse on a rope. The charro is holding his hat and he bends down and takes it, saying Adiós. There’s no sign of the other two men, and when they reach the road six women and young girls are all peering out of the kitchen at them.
Having killed a man already, John Grady has now entered the “office” he imagined held by the captain when he looked at him following Blevins’ death. He treats this office with gravity rather than pride, but it may give him greater credibility in his threats against the charro and the captain in this situation. John Grady is able to draw on his skill in reading people, as he’s done before, in taking advantage of the “bad blood” that apparently exists between the charro and the captain. Indeed, by the end, it seems almost as if the charro is rooting him on. Also recall that the charro hadn’t been “brave” enough to shoot Blevins.
They set out back toward Encantada, the captain complaining about his dislocated shoulder, which John Grady ignores. Ten minutes later four riders appear galloping from behind. John Grady fires at them and the captain pulls on Redbo’s reins, stopping him in the road. John Grady hits the captain with his rifle barrel to make him drop the reins, and he sees the riders disappear into the brush. They head the other way, riding east along a broad river and up onto a gravel ridge. He sees six riders over the open country a mile below. There’s nowhere to hide. He tells the captain to follow him, assuring him that he can outride him should the captain try to escape. Across the ridge, he dismounts and cuts a string of cloth from his shirt, tying it from a dead branch to the hammer of the captain’s pistol. He lays a burning cigarette across the cloth, and then returns to the horses, driving them across the open country towards a low mesa. Halfway across he hears the pop of the pistol he’d been waiting for as the cloth burns through and the pistol fires.
The captain, who had shown such bravado when he was in charge of John Grady and Rawlins, now shows himself to be a weak and petulant coward. By portraying him in such a way, McCarthy thus creates a distinction between suffering that is gleefully inflicted and suffering that is nobly endured. It is not violence itself that is inherently unethical, but rather how it is used. This ambivalence supports the notion of reality that McCarthy has been developing throughout the novel, as multifaceted, slippery, and unable to be fully contained or understood. This helps to explain John Grady’s single-minded attempt to get back the horses, which for him do reflect an underlying order to reality.
They ride through the brush and stop to rest by a creek. The captain asks why John Grady won’t leave him here, and John Grady replies that the captain is a hostage. The captain points at his leg, saying he’ll die, and John Grady says God will decide. The captain says he should be afraid of God, since he isn’t an officer and has no authority. John Grady spits and orders him back onto the horse.
The captain’s response to John Grady is meant to be seen as laughable. God is to be feared only if someone has no earthly authority—the captain, then, need not fear him. John Grady had earlier mentioned God’s will in a different context, that of the inability of mortals to know what will happen or why.
That night they stop to camp, and John Grady builds a fire. He sticks the barrel of the pistol into the coals, and soaks his shirt in a creek. He takes off his pants and looks at his thigh wound. He wipes away the blood, seeing discolored skin around the wound. He drags the pistol from the coals and quickly jams the red-hot barrel into the bullet hole in his leg. He screams into the night, drops the revolver, and falls onto his side in agony. He pours water on his leg, gasping. When he turns around the captain is standing over him with the rifle. He demands the handcuff keys, but John Grady rises and takes the rifle, which is empty, from the captain. He reloads the rifle and picks his pistol back up. They leave the fire burning and continue along a ridge. The captain seems to be in pain: John Grady tells Redbo it’ll be a long night.
The graphic, vivid description of John Grady’s process of cauterizing his wound is meant to unsettle the reader, but also to prompt admiration. John Grady may not believe, as Alfonsa had critically said of her compatriots, that the law of blood is the only one that matters, but his willingness to inflict pain on himself in order to survive is meant to be respected rather than censured. Violence as we’ve learned throughout the novel, takes on different meanings depending on its context.
At dawn they rest and drink water. The captain says he can go no farther, but John Grady says they will. They rest again further on, at which point the horses are exhausted, and it occurs to him that the captain may die. John Grady tells the captain that he’s not going to kill him—he’s not like him. He tells the captain to take off his shirt, and he pulls the dislocated shoulder back into place as the captain screams.
Once again, the captain reveals his weakness and cowardice, which contrasts so sharply to the bravado he put on earlier in the novel. By making clear that he won’t kill the captain, John Grady sets himself apart and chooses another law than that of blood.
They continue on up through the hills at a much-reduced pace. In the early evening John Grady glimpses riders about five miles away. As he sleeps, he hears the horses stepping and drinking. He dreams of horses moving among the stones, as if at an ancient site where the world’s order had crumbled, carrying in their hearts the memories of this and other places where horses had been. The order in the horse’s heart is more durable than that written on stones, he thinks.
John Grady’s dream highlights the way he thinks about horses as a source of order and constancy in a world of dizzying change and unforeseen consequences of actions. He takes solace in the sense of history and stability that horses give him, something he finds often lacking in his own life.
When John Grady awakes there are three men standing over him with pistols. A man with a rifle tells him to give him his keys, and he continues on to the captain, handcuffing him. He asks which of the horses are John Grady’s. They all are, he replies. The man gives John Grady his blanket and touches the brim of his hat, saying that they are men of the country, and they ride away with the handcuffed captain. John Grady never sees them again.
While John Grady has promised not to treat the captain as the captain has treated others, there are other riders who do not hold such views. John Grady is not at all portrayed as happy about the captain’s fate, but simply as resigned to an outcome that doesn’t surprise him. Not much seems to surprise him now.
John Grady rides the entire next day with the three horses through the north country, which by evening is black and cold. He shoots a small doe. The animal is still alive, looking at him without fear, when he reaches her. He wonders if the captain is still alive and thinks about Blevins and Alejandra. He remembers the sadness he’d first seen in Alejandra, which he thought he had understood, but of which he knew nothing. He feels lonely and alien to the world, though he also loves it, and feels that the world’s pain counts for more than its beauty: that one flower becomes equivalent to the blood of many.
When John Grady had met Alejandra at the train station, it was a shock to realize that she had lived and suffered more than the small moments they’d spent together. As Alfonsa said about herself and Gustavo, it can be powerful to share in suffering, and at this moment much of John Grady’s loneliness stems not from the fact that he has suffered, but that he continues to suffer alone.
When John Grady wakes up he knows his father is dead. He rides on until the evening, when he sees lights in the distance of Los Picos. The next morning he orders a large breakfast at a café and speaks with the proprietor, who’s setting up the town gazebo for a wedding. He’s surprised at how far John Grady has come, and says that it was good that God keeps the truths of life from the young starting out or they’d never start at all. John Grady watches the couple emerge from the church in the rain, posing for photos that he thinks already look old. A small boy runs and splashes the bride’s dress. The husband scowls but then laughs, and the entire wedding party does too.
Now cognizant of the suffering awaiting him at home, John Grady confronts the places and people he meets with a kind of resigned, observant patience. The romantic nature of a wedding party might have moved him more earlier, but now that he knows such a future has been denied him, he is more aware of the unromantic aspects but also of the quiet joys evident in this wedding party in a small, unexceptional Mexican town.
John Grady rides out of the town and heads north, crossing the river to Texas in the rain, pale and shivering. He rides into Langtry, Texas, and asks some men in a pickup truck what date it is. They say it’s Thanksgiving day. For weeks, John Grady rides around the border country looking for the owner of Blevins’ horse. Just before Christmas he turns the horse over to the judge in Ozona. John Grady asks permission at the hearing to tell the entire story, which takes him almost half an hour. The judge says he doesn’t think anyone could make up a story like that, but he asks John Grady three questions just to make sure—the number of hectares in the hacienda, the name of the hacendado’s cook’s husband, and if John Grady could show the court his bullet holes. John Grady does so, and the judge says he was lucky not to get gangrene. John Grady says he burned them out with a hot pistol barrel. The court is absolutely silent.
John Grady’s border crossing back into the States has nothing of the excitement, adventure, or laughter of his entrance to Mexico, and the chilly rain only underlines this contrast. The Texas judge takes on enormous proportions in John Grady’s moral imagination. John Grady believes the man can pass judgment not only about the horse, but also on John Grady’s own moral status. Again, John Grady’s courage and the audience’s awe at his story of cauterizing his bullet wounds shows how differently violence and suffering can be portrayed, as valiant or as cowardly, depending on the circumstances.
The judge says he’s heard many things that make him have doubts about the human race, but this isn’t one of them. That night John Grady knocks at the judge’s door. He’s invited in and is introduced to the judge’s wife. John Grady says that he was bothered by what the judge said in the court—he doesn’t feel that he was in the right. The hacendado was good to him, he says, but he believes that Don Héctor intended to kill him when he went up to the mesa to look for him—and it was all his own fault. The judge says that John Grady seems to be a little hard on himself, and that he should put it all behind him. John Grady adds that he killed a boy in a penitentiary who was trying to kill him. He could have been a good old boy, he says, and he’s not sure he’s supposed to be dead. The judge says he must know the boy wasn’t a good old boy.
The judge’s sentence seems to give John Grady what he wanted , absolving him of his guilt. But John Grady doesn’t feel absolved, since he believes the judge has erred in considering him a good person. John Grady’s guilt stems directly from his sense of responsibility, and the judge’s response is to loosen that sense of responsibility, telling John Grady to give himself a break by accepting that he acted in the way he felt he had to. It’s an interesting argument for a judge, but it stems from the inherent ambiguity in the law and in morality itself—something that a judge would certainly be well aware of.
The judge asks John Grady if he’d want to be a judge, and when he says no, the judge said he originally didn’t want to either. What changed was the amount of injustice he saw in the court system. He didn’t have any choice, he thinks. He still thinks about the boy he sent to the electric chair in 1932. He’d do it again, but doesn’t feel good about it. John Grady says he almost killed someone again—the captain. But he didn’t: he doesn’t know why he wanted to. The judge says that’s between him and God. John Grady says he just didn’t want the judge to think he was special. As he stands up, he says that he wanted to kill the captain because he stood and watched him walk Blevins into the woods, and he never said anything. He needs to find out who the horse belongs to, he says: it’s like a stone around his neck. The judge says there’s nothing wrong with him, and he’ll get it all sorted out. He tells John Grady he can come back and visit anytime.
By confiding in John Grady about his own doubts and stories from his past, the judge shows just how difficult it can be to relinquish a sense of guilt and responsibility for an action. As Alfonsa said, there are no might-have-beens in history, whether individual or societal. Only at the very end of their conversation does John Grady confide what is most likely his deepest sense of guilt: his failure to act against Blevins’ murder. This failure to act is at the heart of the many debates about fate and responsibility. McCarthy never fully reveals his position on either side, only concluding that this guilt is something John Grady will not be able to escape.
The next Sunday, John Grady is in a Bracketville, Texas café when he hears a voice on the radio saying it’s the Jimmy Blevins Gospel Hour, in Del Rio. John Grady arrives at the Blevins house that afternoon, and tells the small blonde woman at the door that he wants to see the reverend about a horse. The woman thinks he’s there to have the bay horse blessed. The reverend Jimmy Blevins walks out onto the porch and says he’s never owned a horse, nor knew a boy around 14 named Jimmy Blevins. There’s tons of Jimmy Blevins around the country, even around the world, he says. They send him photos and letters sometimes.
John Grady and Rawlins hadn’t believed that Jimmy Blevins had given his real name originally, because they already knew of the radio show. But now John Grady is growing increasingly desperate. It’s unclear whether the existence of dozens of Jimmy Blevinses all around the world is meant to be reassuring, comical, or desperately sad—or perhaps a combination of all three.
The reverend invites John Grady in for dinner. He tells him how he got started, when he realized how powerful the radio could be to get people to hear the word of God. He excuses himself, and his wife tells John Grady that the reverend used to have people put their hands on the radio to be blessed. He cured many, but then people started to send dead people in crates on the railways to the house. It got out of hand, she says. But they get letters from China, from France, from Spain. People can even hear the station on Mars.
This is a somewhat melancholy interlude in the pages before the end of the book. It recalls what John Grady had told Rawlins, that there must be every kind of place one can think of in the world. The total lack of connection between this particular world and the Blevins John Grady knew seems to both present and challenge the notion that everything is connected.
John Grady never finds the horse’s owner. In March, he heads back to San Angelo and reaches the Rawlins’. He whistles below Rawlins’ room, and Rawlins exclaims that Junior, Rawlins’ horse, is there. He says John Grady must know his father died, and that Abuela is very sick. He asks what John Grady plans to do. Rawlins says he could stay at his house, but John Grady says he’s going to move on. This is good country, Rawlins says, but John Grady replies that it isn’t his country. He says he doesn’t know where his country is, though, and Rawlins doesn’t answer. They say goodbye, and Rawlins stands holding Junior and watches John Grady ride away.
John Grady has stayed unceasingly loyal to his friend Rawlins throughout his adventures alone in Mexico, just as Rawlins had stayed loyal to him by sticking with him even when John Grady got them thrown in jail. Here, however, there’s a slight awkwardness between the two, and a sense that things have changed for good between them. Their saga in Mexico has contributed to this, but it may also simply be a result of growing up and apart.
It’s cool and windy the day of Abuela’s funeral, and John Grady stands across the road, apart from the mostly Mexican group. He crosses the road afterward and wanders past the headstones emblazoned with the Mexican names he knows, along with “Born” and “Died.” Abuela had worked with his family for fifty years. He takes off his hat and says goodbye in Spanish. He holds out his hands, as if to steady himself against the world that seems to care nothing about all the anonymous people who live and die.
The novel is bookended by two deaths: that of John Grady’s grandfather and that of “Abuela,” or “grandmother.” In between, John Grady has witnessed countless struggles of small, unknown lives that seem able to be so easily extinguished. This understanding of humans’ ultimate insignificance is part of facing reality for John Grady, and it is agonizing.
After four days of riding, John Grady crosses the Pecos River at Iraan, Texas, and thinks about the time when there were still Indians on the plains. He comes across some Indians later that day. They stand watching him, though they don’t comment on his riding there nor seem to have any curiosity about him. They just watch, knowing he will pass and then vanish. John Grady rides through the desert red with dust. At evening he comes across a solitary bull, and then rides on with the wind blowing out of the west, his shadow merging with the shadow of his horse.
After dreaming about the adventures of Comanche Indians and of how he could revive them himself, John Grady now encounters “real-life” Indians, whose lives are presumably just as full of daily difficulties, small tragedies, and struggles as his is. But the novel ends on a more hopeful note, as the shadows merge and John Grady finds some kind of redemption, if only fleeting, in riding his beloved horses.