In the gang there are two men named John Jackson, one black, the other white. They have bad blood between them. As they ride under the mountains the white Jackson pulls up next to the black and whispers to him, and the black Jackson shakes the white off. Everyone in the gang watches, but no one cautions the Jacksons to hold off in their antagonism.
Earlier in the morning, the gang had met on the outskirts of Chihuahua City to receive a delivery, made by a Jewish arms dealer from Prussia named Speyer. Speyer produces and opens a box for Glanton, who lifts from it a huge pistol. He loads it and levels the pistol at a cat as it walks upon a wall; he fires. No blood, no cry—the cat just disappears. Glanton then fires into a group of birds, which explode into feathers. He then shoots, in quick succession, a goat, a clay container, and a bell. Glanton does not think the pistols are worth the fifty dollars asked for them, and he tells Speyer so.
Glanton and his men are obsessed with the technologies of death, like these pistols. While the world falls to ruin around them, the gang members maintain their often elaborately decorated firearms with an almost religious zeal. Glanton’s pistol here is capable of more than killing: it is also capable of obliterating, of making the signs of violence simply disappear, thereby making it impossible to bear witness to that violence.
Suddenly a group of armed Mexican soldiers ride into the courtyard and demand to know what’s wrong; Speyer and the Judge assure them, despite the dead animals, that everything is fine. A Mexican sergeant, Aguilar, is not convinced, but Judge Holden converses with him warmly and presents him to each member of the gang. When he comes to the vexed-looking black Jackson, the Judge introduces him to Aguilar very learnedly—drawing on accounts of the inferiority of the black race presented in the Bible, Greek poetry, anthropology, and science.
The Judge proves himself here to be silver-tongued and effective in diminishing the consequences of the gang’s actions. His account of the inferiority of the black race also demonstrates wide-ranging (if false) erudition. This account also anticipates Jackson’s troubles to come, e.g., with the white Jackson and law enforcement in Tucson, for which he seems fated.
The black Jackson ignores Aguilar’s attempts to shake hands, and he asks the Judge what he’s told Aguilar. The Judge responds, in quasi-legal terminology, that Jackson doesn’t need to know the facts to fulfill his historical destiny, although the facts do require a third-party witness, in this case Aguilar. The Judge concludes that, although Aguilar is too ignorant to understand the meaning of the facts of Jackson’s racial heritage, the authority of the words themselves transcends this ignorance.
The Judge argues here that historical facts need to be witnessed before they can contribute to the fulfillment of destiny. But why does Aguilar need to witness them if the Judge already has? Either the Judge is trying to provoke the black Jackson (quite in character), or he is spouting something very close to nonsense (not out of character—many of his fellows denounce the Judge as “crazy”).
The Judge’s speech is received with silence from the gang, a few smiles, a half-witted guffaw. The black Jackson is sweating. The Judge proceeds to show Aguilar one of the just-delivered pistols and carefully explains how it works. He then presents Aguilar with some money and shakes hands with the soldiers under his (Aguilar’s) command. The Mexican soldiers ride into the street, and the scalp hunters, each armed now with a pair of pistols, set off upcountry.
If the Judge intended to provoke the black Jackson, it would seem that he’s succeeded, for the black is sweating and will be especially on edge in the scenes that follow. The Judge also demonstrates a thorough practical knowledge of weaponry here—but he seems to know at least something about everything.
After a day of riding, the gang makes camp. The narrator explains that Toadvine, the Kid, and Grannyrat are replacements for three scalp hunters who died earlier in the desert. As these three sit together, they watch the several Delawares, or Delaware Indians, who are part of the gang sitting apart. One crushes a coffee bean with a stone and another searches for a coal with which to light his pipe.
As the kid inherited Earl’s horse, so does he inherit a vacancy in Glanton’s gang, and so the cycle of warfare spins on. Though Glanton’s men hunt Indians, there are Indians in their party, suggesting that membership in the gang is more about opportunism than arbitrary racial divides.
In the morning, the gang sets out. Toadvine becomes friendly with Bathcat, a.k.a. the Vandiemenlander, a fellow fugitive originally from Wales who migrated to Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) to hunt aborigines. Bathcat offers a bet to Toadvine as to which Jackson will kill the other, but Toadvine declines. Bathcat predicts that black Jackson will kill white. Toadvine turns to his companion and sees that he’s wearing a necklace of human ears. The narrator also says that Bathcat has a number tattooed on his arm, which Toadvine will see first in a Chihuahua bathhouse and later within the year when cutting down Bathcat’s torso from a tree limb.
Bathcat probably suspects that the black Jackson will kill the white because he holds the racist belief that blacks are morally inferior to, and more savage than, whites. Though Bathcat would have won the bet, the black Jackson kills the white not because he’s more savage, but because the white does not treat him like an equal, a brother-in-arms. The narrator’s forecast of Bathcat’s death suggests that his death is not accidental but fated.
The gang marches on and camps that night in the corral of a hacienda, with watch fires burning all night. The narrator says that, two weeks earlier, a party of campesinos (farmers) had camped in the very same place, only to have been slaughtered by Apaches and then partly eaten by hogs. Glanton orders a goat killed for supper.
Although the murder of the campesinos is not part of the novel’s plot, the narrator nonetheless bears witness to that violence, as though it would dishonor the campesinos to let them die without some sort of vigil, some record of their suffering. Their murder also foreshadows the gang’s future run-ins with the Apaches.
On the third day, the gang rides into the town of Corralitos. The townspeople come out and watch them pass with wonder. The gang camps in the town plaza. Glanton, the Judge, and two other members of the gang, David Brown and his brother Charlie Brown, ride out to the estate of General Zuloaga (a Mexican general and Conservative leader in the War of Reform), where they dine and pass the night without incident.
Glanton and his deputies have access to some of the most powerful people in Mexico, like General Zuloaga. However, the crimes of the gang will soon make them Mexico’s most infamous public enemies. Favor is quickly won and lost, partisanship quickly established and betrayed.
As they prepare to ride out in the morning, the gang is approached by a family of magicians—a father, mother, son, and daughter—seeking safe passage up to the town of Janos. A member of the family, an old man, tries to explain this to Glanton despite not speaking English, going so far as to have the company put on part of the show, with dancing dogs and juggling. Glanton says the family can travel in the rear, but makes no promises as to their safety.
As with the encounter between the kid and the bartender in Bexar, meaning is lost in translation here—action, pantomiming, is the only universal language. Whereas the family of magicians speaks the dialect of entertainment, however, the gang speaks the dialect of violence.
The gang crosses the Casas Grandes River at noon. They pass the scene of a years-old massacre, where Mexican soldiers had slaughtered an encampment of Apaches, including women and children. Bones strew the ground.
This scene suggests the ubiquity of warfare, and foreshadows the encounter between Glanton’s gang and the Apaches.
At night, the gang makes camp. The family of magicians set up their tent, but it blows away on a strong wind into the wrathful darkness of the desert. The old magician is deepy saddened by this and sits by the fire while his family unpacks.
Even Glanton’s gang can’t protect the family from the elements. The image of the tent being sucked into the darkness epitomizes the empty destructiveness of nature.
Glanton asks the old man if he tells fortunes; he does, and produces a pack of Tarot cards. He offers a card to Glanton, who declines; but the black Jackson accepts. Jackson draws a card with a picture of a fool and cat on it. A female magician begins chanting and says something in Spanish. Jackson asks Ben Tobin, an ex-priest in the gang, what the woman is saying, but Tobin dismisses fortune telling as idolatry.
Though the Judge suggests to Aguilar that the black Jackson’s fate is already determined, Jackson draws the Fool card, which signifies the potential for new beginnings, self-creation. However, it seems that he declines to realize this potential, perhaps because his fortune is lost in translation. Tobin, meanwhile, a man who failed to enter the priesthood and now is part of a murderous gang, bears judgment on what he considers the blasphemy of the magicians.
Jackson then asks the Judge to tell him what the woman is saying. The Judge is picking “small life” from the folds of his skin and appears to be making a gesture of blessing until he flings something from his fingers to the fire. The Judge tells Jackson that the woman is saying he should avoid rum. Tobin says that this would not constitute a fortune, and the Judge agrees. He assures Jackson that he will, in the fullness of time, know everything, as will every man.
The Judge picks “small life” (i.e. body lice, etc.) from his body because he wants no life to be autonomous or exist without his permission. It may well be that he evades telling Jackson what his fortune means because the fortune suggests the potential for autonomy, and the Judge would rather Jackson think himself fatedly indentured to the trade of war.
The Judge instructs the old magician to offer a card to the kid, who draws the Four of Cups. The Judge smiles. The kid orders the old magician to get away from him, but the magician doesn’t understand. A gang member from Kentucky called Tate (his first name is later given as Sam)—who served with Tobin and other gang members with McCulloch’s Rangers during the Mexican-American War—whispers to the old magician, who ceases to engage the kid. He asks whose fortune he should tell next.
The Four of Cups signifies that one needs to be introspective to discover truth, and avoid external diversions. Warfare, we might say, is what is diverting the kid from thinking on the state of his soul. Indeed, McCarthy hardly represents the kid as having an interior life, a consciousness, at all: we know only what he does, and very little of what he thinks.
Finally the Judge instructs the old magician to offer a card to Glanton. Glanton accepts, but as the magician reaches for the card drawn that he might see its image, the card vanishes from Glanton’s hand. Perhaps Glanton saw the image himself, perhaps he didn’t. The older female magician chants in Spanish that Glanton drew the card with an image of a wheelless cart on it that traverses a dark river, a card of war and vengeance, of loss in the night. Glanton tells the woman to shut up and draws his pistol but the Judge prevents him from shooting her.
Glanton, we later learn, is intent on ruthlessly pursuing his fate, which perhaps explains why he is so hesitant to have his fortune read, and why he might be grateful that his card vanishes. Nonetheless, his card the wheelless cart on the dark river does accurately portray his future death.
In the morning, the gang, as well as the family of magicians, resume their journey and reach the crumbling walls of Janos in the afternoon. In the town square, Glanton meets up with two Delawares and a man named Marcus “Long” Webster who had ridden ahead of the gang as outriders. They have with them an old Apache woman, captured at a meat camp which the outrides found, where hunters dress and store animal carcasses. Glanton shoots her in the head, and the single Mexican member of the gang, Juan Miguel (called McGill throughout, an American mispronunciation of his name), scalps her while the family of magicians watch “like witnesses.”
Fittingly, the day after the family tells the gang members’ fortunes, the gang commits the first in a series of outrageous murders that seal their fates as men doomed to die violently. Like the Delawares, McGill is one of the few non-Americans in the gang, but his partisanship nonetheless goes so deep that eventually he will kill fellow Mexicans in order to sell their scalps. It is as though by witnessing this murder that the magicians submit it to the reckonings of fate; otherwise it would be as though the murder did not occur at all.
The gang leaves the square and makes camp in a nearby grove. From there, Toadvine and the kid watch the family of magicians announce their entertainments to the beat of a drum. Bathcat leans over to them and points out black Jackson, who is in the square with the magicians, standing behind their tent. The old magician gives a signal, and his daughter pushes Jackson onto the stage, as it were, where he strides, strangely posturing, in the torchlight.
It is unclear why the black Jackson joins the family of magicians, but that the daughter pushes him suggests that it was the magicians’ idea. Perhaps they are encouraging him to pursue a new beginning, as the Tarot card he drew portended he could. If so, this encouragement fails; the black Jackson soon falls back into a life of violence.