In Chihuahua City, the scalp hunters go to the public baths where they strip and submerge themselves, turning the water to bloody filth. Behind them, merchants spread out European clothing and Spanish boots, from whom the scalp hunters buy many goods. The men exit into the square where the scalps they’ve taken are being hung like decorations.
The scalp hunters’ depravity, represented by the gore and filth that covers them, is so absolute that they pollute the very waters they’re trying to clean themselves in. The Mexicans hang the scalps, not knowing that among them are the scalps of their own people.
Governor Trias invites Glanton and his officers to dine with him, but Glanton says that he does not dine separately from his men. Trias, accordingly, invites all of the scalp hunters to a great feast. Trias and the Judge sit next to one another and speak in a language no one else there understands.
Though willing to shoot and scalp McGill, Glanton is not willing to eat without his gang—a perverse code of fraternal honor. The Judge is mercurial, infinitely flexible, an educated monster, a child-murderer one moment and the Governor’s favorite the next.
When the meal begins, the Mexicans toast American heroes like Washington and Franklin. Ignorant of diplomacy, the scalp hunters toast their own national heroes as well, not even knowing the names of any Mexican heroes.
Captain White claimed that the Mexicans are barbarous, but they prove here to be informed and accommodating. It is the Americans who are ignorant, mindlessly patriotic.
The scalp hunters eat so voraciously that the cook barricades the door to his kitchen. Trias attempts to make a toast, but the men at the table continue to scream out toasts of their own and demand more drinks. Glanton dumps the gold paid to the gang for their scalps out onto the table among the bones and rinds of the feast. The Judge arranges for musicians to play dance music, and while the other scalp hunters lurch and stomp, he skillfully dances with two ladies. Soon prostitutes are brought in, and Trias excuses himself while the scalp hunters become wilder and wilder, until they begin firing their pistols, fighting, and lighting furniture on fire.
The scalp hunters wildly exploit the Mexicans’ hospitality, and their celebratory mood soon becomes debauched and violent. Trias seems to recognize that he has entered into a deal with the devil. As is characteristic of the novel, dancing—a symbol for warfare as a ritual—preludes gunfire and flame. Also characteristic is that the Judge both orchestrates and excels in the dance, symbolic of his orchestration and excellence in warfare.
Scenes like this are repeated night after night, as the scalp hunters plunge Chihuahua into debauchery. The locals come to distrust their so-called protectors—“better the Indians,” people write in charcoal on the city walls. On August 15, the scalp hunters vacate the city, and a week later are reported by cattle drovers to be in the town of Coyame eighty miles away.
The people of Chihuahua come to learn that these debauched and vicious scalp hunters are actually more savage than the Apaches themselves. To protect themselves from monstrosity, the Mexicans have hired a monster yet more dangerous.
Gómez and his Apaches had demanded tribute from the people of Coyame for years, and so the scalp hunters are heartily welcomed there, as saints, even. Three days later, the gang rides out and no one even follows them to the town gates, presumably because the men so abused the hospitality of the village.
The scalp hunters begin to show their true colors as indiscriminate killers who war for war’s sake alone, regardless of the alliances they’ve formed. The Mexican’s fanfare sours to lamentation.
The gang rides on toward Texas, where Glanton is wanted by the law. Four hundred miles to the east, in the U.S., live his wife and child, whom he will never see again. The men wander the border for weeks seeking the Apache. At Hueco Tanks (an area of low mountains and boulders with water-collecting fissures), the Judge sets to copying hieroglyphics painted on the wall into his ledger before destroying one of the originals. The next morning, the gang heads south, where in three day’s time they’ll massacre a band of peaceful Tigua Indians.
In the west as McCarthy imagines it, identities are very unstable: Glanton can be at once a hero and, in nearby country, an outlaw. Bonds as strong as that between man and wife, or father and child, can be easily slipped and shattered irrevocably. And ancient hieroglyphics signifying the worldview of a people, like that which the Judge copies, can be destroyed and lost in an instant.
The day of the massacre comes. Toadvine tells the kid that the Tiguas aren’t bothering anyone, but no one responds. Bathcat notices that Toadvine is wearing a necklace of gold teeth. The scalp hunters go on to slaughter the Tiguas. After the massacre, Tigua women who had been upriver return to their camp to find everyone dead and scalped. They mourn through the ruins. The narrator says that every trace of the massacre will be forgotten.
As with the Judge’s murder of the Indian infant, here Toadvine objects to the murder of a peaceful people; but he does not have the courage of his conviction. The narrator says that the massacre of the Tiguas will be forgotten, but the novel itself bears witness to it, refusing to let evil deeds fall through the cracks of history.
After riding through the ruined town of Carrizal, bathing in a warm spring, leading their horses through difficult dunes (Los Medanos), and camping on a plain, the gang returns to Chihuahua City, where two soldiers stop Toadvine at the gate and Glanton announces, “I aint got nobody’s teeth.” Two days later, about a hundred Mexican soldiers escort the gang out of town.
The teeth referred to here belonged to the goldtoothed overseer of the Chihuahua prison (Ch. 6). Toadvine must have murdered him and made a necklace of his teeth. Toadvine is somewhat complex, a capricious murderer who nonetheless violently objects to killing the innocent.
The Americans next ride through the mountains, doffing their hats to the villagers they pass and whom they’ll murder within the month. They arrive at a village called Nacori, where they dismount to refresh themselves in a cantina. Tobin guards the horses. A funeral procession passes, and the juggler heading it explodes a rocket, which disturbs the Mexican horses but not the American. The narrator comments that this detail should have warned the Mexicans.
The narrator tells us that the Americans doff their hats now to those they’ll soon murder, presenting the future alongside the present as though the future is inevitable, fated. The rocket doesn’t disturb the American horses because they’re so accustomed to the sounds of warfare, evidence that their riders are seasoned killers.
In the cantina, someone mutters an insult about the Americans. The kid demands to know who issued the insult, but is interrupted when another rocket explodes outside. The Americans, led by gang members John Dorsey and Henderson Smith, soon followed by the Judge and Charlie Brown, rush to the doorway, to be followed by a drunk Mexican with a knife; he stabs a scalp hunter named Grimley. The Judge shoots the drunk in the head, and a melee breaks out. Almost forty Mexicans are killed and scalped. The scalp hunters ride out, abandoning Grimley. A scalped survivor emerges from the cantina and asks to go home.
The Mexicans, understandably outraged with the scalp hunters, insult and attack them. The Americans more than justify both insult and attack by killing and scalping forty of the people they’re still being paid to protect. As soon as Grimley is wounded, the gang breaks ties with him and leaves him for dead like a stranger (compare with McGill’s fate). The survivor asking to go home adds pathos to the scene.
The scalp hunters ride into another village, unnamed, and lay waste to it while the citizenry run to the church and kneel before the altar. Four days later, the gang returns to the same village, to find the dead still in the streets being eaten by scavengers.
This scene recalls various massacres in the novel that take place in churches—history repeats itself in Blood Meridian, always calamitously.
The Americans ride through the mountains into a mountain town where, at night, Mexican soldiers confront them. The Americans fire on them; many Mexicans die, and some retreat into the darkness. Glanton personally kills the Mexican captain, and orders five men to pursue the survivors into the mountains. Two days later the gang reunites, the surviving Mexicans having scattered into the woods and escaped.
The gang’s crimes against Mexico’s citizenry have at last come to light, and alliances are quickly redrawn: no longer treated as the protectors and heroes of Mexico, the scalp hunters are recognized as enemies and treated accordingly. Glanton orders men to pursue the survivors to kill all witnesses to the gang’s crimes.
Glanton discusses with the Judge and David Brown whether the Americans can overtake the Mexican soldiers who escaped before they make it to Chihuahua City. They decide that they better try, and are soon riding onto the plain where the Mexicans were last seen making camp. On the third day, about twenty miles outside of Chihuahua, the Americans catch up with the Mexicans and gun them down, ensuring that all evidence of the slaughter is burned and buried.
Glanton is intent on destroying the witnesses to the gang’s crimes so that his freedom and that of his men is not jeopardized. After all, Glanton is already wanted in the U.S., and is running out of county where he’s free to be whomever he chooses. The impulse to destroy witnesses recalls the Judge’s story about the harness maker who kills the traveler (Ch. 11).
The scalp hunters then ride back into Chihuahua, where the Mexican government pays them unknowingly for the scalps of Mexican citizens. The city’s finances are now low, and the city government rescinds the bounty on Apache scalps. Within a week of the gang leaving the city, a bounty of eight thousand pesos is posted for Glanton’s head.
The gang members succeed in suppressing evidence of their crimes and enter Chihuahua free men to which the state is obliged. However, the Mexican government soon learns of the gang’s atrocities, and Glanton supplants Gómez as Mexico’s greatest public enemy.