The next morning the man wakes up to see a group of strangers coming down the road. They are all wearing red scarves of some kind and marching in rows of four. The man wakes the boy and they hide and watch. The strangers are all bearded and carry lengths of pipe or spears. Behind them comes a group of slaves dragging wagons full of food, then a group of women, some pregnant, and then a group of collared young boys. When the caravan finally passes the man affirms that those are the “bad guys.”
This is a more organized group of “bad guys” than the gang in the truck, and it shows the brutal societies being formed in this post-apocalyptic world. This is what the woman killed herself to escape – being captured by violent men and either murdered for food or used as a sex slave. We now see the true horror and violence that the man is risking by choosing to survive.
It starts to snow that afternoon and the man and boy trudge on. Soon they are freezing and exhausted, and the boy asks if the man would tell him if they were going to die. The man says “I don’t know. We’re not going to die.” They make a nest under a tree and start a fire. The boy falls asleep and the man watches him, suppressing his rage at their helpless, hopeless situation.
The boy has no choice but to trust in the man, and he often asks questions for comfort and reassurance. The man keeps up his optimism, especially regarding death. The only thing that will keep them both alive and sane is to keep going down the road.
They are awakened by the sound of trees falling all around them. They move their camp to a clearing, then dig a tunnel under a fallen tree and fall asleep again. When they wake up the man feels like he can’t concentrate, and he has a hard time getting the boy to follow him back to the cart. When they find the cart the man makes new shoes for them by lashing pieces of the tarp and a coat around their feet.
Death is so ubiquitous in this world that the man and boy’s plight often seems hopeless. The man rages against factors he cannot control, but he does not give up his fight against death and violence. The man is a very resourceful survivor, but it is unclear if he learned these skills before or after the disaster.
They set out on the road but it’s very slow going through the snow. The boy asks if they’re going to die, and wonders how long they can live without food. The man says that as long as they have water it takes a long time to starve. The boy says that he thinks the man might lie to him about dying. The man admits that he might lie, but he also reassures the boy that they’re not dying.
The man is the boy’s source of order and the only thing keeping him alive, but the man is also living for the boy’s sake, so in their conversations the man is comforting himself as much as the boy. They both choose to keep up their faith – the boy to trust the man even in his doubtful optimism, and the man to keep up his hope despite the circumstances, despite knowing better.
They keep going, eating snow and growing weaker. That night the man watches the sleeping boy and notices the “strange beauty” of his thin face. The next morning they see wagon tracks in the snow, and the man fears it is the “bad guys.” The man and boy wander around in circles, leaving confusing footprints so the bad guys can’t follow them. They make camp at a high place and then the man sees two strangers going down the road. One turns and almost sees the man, but he blends into the background wrapped in his gray blanket.
It is mostly when the boy is asleep that the man thinks of him as something sacred and “other.” When he is awake the boy is a human to be taken care of and reassured, but while he sleeps he seems like an angel trapped in such a depraved world. They continue to risk violence and a fate worse than death by choosing to persevere and continue down the road.
They keep traveling, and after five days without food they come to a big plantation house. The boy is scared and doesn’t want to go in, but the man says they have to, as they need to find food. They walk onto the porch and the man imagines the slaves that must have worked there once. They go into the house and see a pile of mattresses and clothes. The boy is terrified and clings to the man’s hand.
This is clearly a very dangerous move, but the man feels driven by hunger to desperate measures. The man’s musing on slaves shows how the horrors of the post-apocalyptic world are not random – there has always been a part of humanity willing to commit atrocities.
The man finds a locked hatch in the floor and then looks for a shovel to pry it open with. He breaks open the lock, ignoring the boy’s frightened protests, and goes down the wooden steps, holding a lighter. There is a terrible stench in the darkness, and the man sees a huddled group of naked people and a dismembered man lying on a mattress. The people whisper for the man to help them, but the man grabs the boy and hurries back up the stairs, panicking.
The boy’s terror seems justified in this situation, and it transfers itself onto the reader as McCarthy builds tension. This is one of the book’s most horrifying scenes, and truly shows the depths to which humanity has sunk – these prisoners are being kept as livestock and being killed off one by one for food.
The boy points out the window and the man sees six strangers coming across the yard towards them. The man grabs the boy’s wrist and sprints out of the house. He pulls the boy to the ground in the yard, hiding in some leaves and thinking “this is the moment.” The man feels he is going to cough and he uses all his willpower to stifle it. He can hear the strangers talking in the road.
This moment is almost unbearably tense, and is a testing point for the man’s decision to survive instead of to kill himself with his wife. If they are caught, then the man has kept the boy alive and hoping only to end up captured, raped, and eaten.
The man pushes the pistol into the boy’s hand, telling him to put it in his mouth and fire if the strangers find him. The man says he is going to run and try to lead the strangers away from the boy, but then he changes his mind – he decides he can’t leave the boy. The man wonders if he could find the strength to kill the boy if the moment comes. If the pistol doesn’t fire, he wonders if he could “crush that beloved skull with a rock.” He kisses the boy and promises to never leave him.
This is the moment of truth, where death is truly better than living as a captive to the bad guys. The man has reached the point of true desperation, as he might be forced to commit the ultimate act of paternal love – to kill his own son and save him from a fate worse than death, or to allow himself to be captured and eaten to possibly save the boy.
They stay in their hiding place until night falls and the boy falls asleep. Later they hear screams coming from the big house and the man covers the boy’s ears. Then the man makes them get up and set out through the black woods. The boy is weak and exhausted and the man carries him for a while. Finally the man collapses too and they both sleep. They wake up and move a little, and the man wraps the boy in blankets, noting that he looks like “something out of a deathcamp.”
McCarthy delves into the horror genre in these scenes, as he builds up suspense and dispassionately describes the worst things that humans are capable of. The boy as a deathcamp victim is another reminder that these atrocities are not limited to the post-apocalyptic age – they have precedence in history.
The boy falls asleep and the man considers whether he should leave him alone to go look for food. He decides to leave the pistol with the boy and he sets off. He finds a house and barn and explores them, at first finding only a powder of grape flavor for drinks. In the barn he finds a screwdriver and a boxcutter. The barn still smells like cows, and the man thinks about how cows are probably an extinct species now.
Despite their narrow escape their hunger situation is still the same, and the man is forced to take more risks. It seems that almost all animals are extinct now, as there is no sun to grow anything for herbivores to eat.
On the way through the yard the man finds some old apples. He eats a few, seeds and all, and gathers up the rest for the boy. He goes back into the house for a basket and then finds a cistern of pure water. He drinks some and it tastes better than anything he can remember. He fills up some mason jars with water and then carries them and the apples back to the boy. The boy is still asleep, and the man waits for him to wake up. They eat the apples and then set off on the road again.
Their travel down the road starts to fall into a pattern, where the man and boy near starvation and then make a lucky find that keeps them alive and hoping. Despite the bleakness of their situation, they do seem to have good luck in terms of finding food at opportune times.