Five days later, mounted on Earl’s horse, the kid rides out with Captain White’s army of filibusters (people engaging in unauthorized warfare against a foreign country). They ride through the town of Castroville where coyotes have dug up the dead and scattered their bones. Captain White hunts little wild pigs and antelope. All of the filibusters are armed to the teeth. The rifle the kid bears has no scabbard, so he rides with it on his saddlebow, as many others have carried it. The men eat skinned and gutted antelope at nights, laughing and jesting despite all of the gore.
Throughout Blood Meridian, the living warriors inherit the equipment of the dead, as the kid inherits Earl’s horse and a rifle. But the warriors who inherit will also be outlived by the same equipment, in a seemingly unending cycle of violence in which the tools of violence survive past their wielders. On the path to war, White’s filibusters are in high spirits, laughing and jesting despite the blood they wallow in. The war itself will see them reduced to blood.
Six days pass in similar manner. The filibuster’s horses kick up dust that vanishes in the immensity of the landscape. The narrator says that death, personified as a merchant, drives the army on. Two of the filibusters fall ill with cholera and one dies before dark. The next morning another falls ill. Both die, and their comrades dig their graves with antelope bones, bury them, and ride on. The sun rises over them, suffusing the sky with the color of blood. After marching on further, yet another soldier dies. Wolves begin to follow the army as they travel through the alien land.
The narrator personifies war as a merchant, and the filibusters are bartering for the opportunity to acquire the spoils of war with their lives. Indeed, before White’s army can make war on the Mexicans, nature first makes war against them with sickness. That the living bury the dead using the bones of the dead, emphasizes the ubiquity of death in this wasteland where the sunrise portends bloodshed.
The wagons of the army begin to break down, slouching with dryness and ground down by sand. The men manage only makeshift repairs. Ten days out of Bexar, the army reaches a plain of barren pumice stone. One man in the ranks says that it “looks like the high road to hell.” Another wonders what the horses will eat. Two days onto the pumice plain, the men come upon white bones in the sand, and they themselves have come to look like soldiers in a ghost army, they are so pale from the dust covering them. The wolves continue to follow them, but no one else falls ill.
Nature eats away at the men’s health and also their equipment. The hermit earlier claims that men are inventing an evil that can mechanically sustain itself, but White’s army is a machine breaking down. Compare it with Glanton’s gang, much more the self-sustaining machine of death. Even in life White’s soldiers seem already dead, ghostlike, buried; for White, it seems, is not as devoted to the god of war as Glanton and his scalp hunters are.
The army begins to travel only by night, in a silence broken only by the wagons’ trundle and the horses’ wheezing. The men study the stars and come to know their positions in the night sky well. Sand gets into everything the men have, including their food. The horses begin to fail. The men rest, then resume their trek; during an electrical storm one night, it seems as though fire is running over the metal of the horse’s equipment and the wagon wheels. All night, thunder and lightning. It is as though, the narrator says, the army is riding through “some demon kingdom,” or an ever-shifting land of nightmares.
Although it could be argued that the lightning gives the desert the appearance of being a hell, it seems more accurate to say that the lightning reveals that what appears to be a hell is in fact a demon kingdom, populated by the damned, like Captain White’s soldiers. Indeed, the world of the novel at large is a kind of hell. This hell-scape also foreshadows the punishment of White’s army at the hands of the Apaches.
The army halts its progress; the men put away their weapons, fearful that the lightning might strike it. A man named Hayward prays for rain, asking God to deliver it if it’s not too much trouble for Him. Hayward says that the men are as dry as jerky and asks for just a few drops. Then the army moves on. Within the hour, the wind cools and raindrops fall as though shot by an artillery piece. Even so, by the next day their kegs of water are empty and some of their horses have perished.
Although a nostalgia for the observance of Christian doctrine permeates the novel, so too does the idea that the god of this world is malignant. Hayward’s prayer is answered, but ironically the rain comes down not gently but shot-like; and it does not satisfy long, but soon dries up. It would be a cruel god indeed who answers prayers in this way.
The men come upon a hut along with a stable and enclosure. Although the hut is empty, they know from the hot coals inside that people must be near. Captain White instructs a sergeant to find them, as well as any food or water that may be nearby, to be provided to the horses. Water is soon found in an enclosure, and soon after two soldiers find an old man in the stable. They drag him to the Captain’s feet; the old man moans and urinates in his pants. One man asks if the Captain wants the army’s translator, Candelario, to speak with the old man in Spanish, but the Captain dismisses the old man as a halfwit. By the next morning, the old man has fled.
Although Captain White claims to come to Mexico as a liberator, he is hypocritically barbarous to the people he encounters, here pillaging a hut and terrorizing its remaining inhabitant. The old man’s urinating in his pants emphasizes the terrible unnaturalness of the encounter. Without any reason save perhaps for ones born in bigotry, the Captain dismisses the old man as a halfwit. Glanton would not be so impractical, nor as merciful as to let the man live.
The men camp in the area for the night, care for their horses and mules, and make repairs to their wagons by firelight. In the morning, they depart into the vast desert, under the endless void of the sky. The terrain seems uncertain, slanted, veering. They march over stony ridges. They pass through a village and leave it in ruins. They camp in a church and use its fallen timbers to make a fire.
At this point, White’s army has encountered no spoils of war, which casts doubt on the practicality of their enterprise. Indeed, even though they sack a village, the narrator says nothing about how they profit. The misuse of church timbers shows just how far White and his men have fallen from a more moral way of life.
The next day, Captain White surveys the desert with a brass telescope and spies what he thinks is a large herd of horses. He orders that the translator Candelario come forward to explain the meaning of the herd. Candelario doesn’t know. The army moves on. As they approach, they see that the herd is composed of several thousand cattle, mules, and horses, tended to by a dozen drovers or so, Indians and perhaps Mexicans. The Captain assumes that the livestock have been stolen and notes that the drovers don’t seem very concerned about the army’s presence. With a grim smile, he suspects that a skirmish may ensue.
It is characteristic of the racist Captain White to assume that the non-white drovers stole their cattle (which, hypocritically enough, may very well be his object in engaging in combat here—stealing the cattle for himself). White is strikingly casual in his prediction that violence will soon break out, suggesting just how terrifyingly commonplace bloodshed is in his world.
As the filibusters approaches the herd, they see that the ponies are painted with chevrons, hands, suns, and other devices. Suddenly, from a nearby hillside, there emerge thousands of mounted Comanche Indians, like something out of a fevered dream. Some riders wear animal skins, one wears a stovepipe hat and has an umbrella, another wears a bloodstained wedding veil, and another yet wears the armor of a long-dead conquistador.
As the desert seemed feverishly nightmarish during the electrical storm, so too do the Indians as they ride down on the filibusters. Some wear mundane Western costumes, suggesting the flimsiness of civilization; others wear armor from ancient wars, suggesting the ubiquity of bloodshed, and that wars or battles such as these have gone on for hundreds if not thousands of years.
The riders howl like a horde from hell and rain down arrows on the army of filibusters. The filibusters fire back. The kid’s horse sinks down underneath him with a sigh, and the kid finds himself next to a soldier with an arrow hanging out of his neck. The kid would have removed the arrow had he not noticed that the man had also taken an arrow to the chest and was, in fact, dead. Horses fall; men scramble, bleed, are shot or lanced. One prepares to shoot his rifle even as blood comes out of his ears. A pony bites at the kid from out of the murk and disappears.
In the midst of frenzy and fury, the kid is compelled to an act of mercy—helping the wounded soldier—despite the fact that, in shifting his attention away from the battle, he might expose himself to yet more danger. The kid is violent, but it is acts like these that distinguish him from the vicious company he keeps.
The Comanches have won the day. They circle the company, cut their ranks, strip the dead of their clothes and scalp both the living and the dead. They hack and chop at the naked bodies, dismember and gut them, hold up viscera and genitals, slathered with gore. Some of the victors fall upon the surviving but defeated filibusters and begin to sodomize them. Dust clings to the bloody heads of the scalped who lay “like maimed and naked monks” while the dying groan and gibber and scream.
The Indians here and Glanton’s gang later both commit heinous atrocities. The novel seems to hold that all men, regardless of race, are capable of doing so. The simile comparing the scalped men to monks foreshadows the Judge’s argument that war is God, and that all warriors serve Him.