Blood Meridian, Chapter Fifteen: “You think I’m afraid of him?”

High Desert PlainsA new contract, a lottery, an escape, a sacrifice.  Oh, and the ogdoad (i.e. a group or set of eight) [shiver].  The chapter heading is rich with the promise of big, wild events to come (note: these chapter headings are increasingly becoming one of my favorite parts of Blood Meridian) .  Glanton’s group leaves Ures rather quietly, just three days after arriving. (p. 204).  They have a new contract for Apache scalps signed by the governor of Sonora.  Carroll and Sanford, the newest members of the gang, and never really a part of it, decide that they have had enough, and “defect.” (Id.).  But the group gains a new member, a boy named Sloat, left sick to die by a gold train passing through weeks earlier.  Apparently there is a commodore with the same last name, and there is a funny exchange between Glanton and the boy about whether they are related.  The boy seems grateful to join the group and be out of Ures, though these sentiments may be (and indeed prove) misplaced: “yet if he gave thanks to any god [lower case] at all it was ill timed for the country was not done with him.” (p. 204).  As we will see shortly (p. 218), poor Sloat is not long for this world.

THE LOTTERY

The group wanders aimlessly, “pursuing rumors and shadow” of Apaches (or other violent indians) to scalp, but finding none. Just two weeks out they “massacred a pueblo” on the Nacazori River. (p. 204).  According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, a “pueblo” is “a group of Native American homes that have flat roofs; the communal dwelling of an  Indian village consisting of contiguous flat-roofed stone or adobe houses in groups sometimes several stories high.”  I assumed in my first read through that these were Mexicans, but I guess there is less of a distinction at this point in the 19th century.  Two days later, they are confronted by the armed Sonoran cavalry, led by by General Elias. (pp. 204-205).  I think that’s why I assumed they had attacked a Mexican establishment (hey, it wouldn’t be the first time).  Is that why Elias is confronting them now, for killing Mexicans at the pueblo, or have they somehow found out what went on outside Chihuahua?  Or is it for some other reason entirely?

Regardless, there is hard fighting, and Elias is in hot pursuit.  Better armed than their usual foes, and with significant numbers (over 500, p. 205), Elias does some serious damage.  It’s hard to keep track of how many there are in Glanton’s group at this point (there were 19 when they attacked the Gilenos in Chapter 12, but then they lost McGill; they lost at least 4 (or was it 6?) in Jesus Maria; they gained and lost Carroll and Sanford after leaving Jesus Maria, so that’s a wash; and they gained (for now) Sloat.  Did any join in Chihuahua or anywhere else?  Rough guess, the group is somewhere in the low teens).  In fighting with Elias, seven are wounded, four so badly that they cannot ride.

And so comes the need for the lottery.  Glanton takes a quiver of arrows, and counts out enough so there is one arrow for each man.  He takes a red flannel shirt and makes 4 strips, and ties 4 of the strips to the bottom of 4 of the arrows.  He places all the arrows face down in the quiver and has the men file by, each selecting an arrow, like drawing straws.  When it comes to the kid’s turn, he puts his hand on an arrow, but sees the judge watching him, so he takes his hand off and selects another.  The new arrow has the red tassel on it, and when he looks at the judge, the judge is no longer looking at him.  Did the judge want the kid to get the red tasseled arrow or not?  In total, 4 have drawn the arrows: the kid, Tate, Webster, and Harlan.

Of the four severely wounded, two are Delawares, one is a Mexican, and the last is Dick Shelby.  The Delawares are pretty severely hurt, and the Mexican is shot through the lungs and will thus die soon anyway.  But Dick Shelby has only been shot in the hip.  He’s too hurt to ride, but “clear in his head.” (p. 207).  He is also, we learn, from a prominent and presumably wealthy family back in Kentucky, and has even been to college, which probably makes him unique among this group.  This is not what he signed up for.  We also learn he has gone west “because of a woman.” (p. 207).  To say he is probably regretting that decision at this point in the story would be a gross understatement.

This lottery is serious business, and their is a somber air over the group.  A healthy Delaware approaches the four men who have drawn the arrows, looks them over carefully, and then takes the arrows from Webster and Harlan.  They are spared, and so mount up to join the main group.  The Delaware takes his “warclub,” straddles one of the two injured Delawares, and hits him once deftly in the head: quick, “clean,” and honorable.  He does the same to the other, mounts up, and rides off with the group.  You wonder why the Delawares are with this group; it would seem a conflict of interest.  I guess money is money.  And I know not all the native American groups had what you would call warm feelings for one another.  But still.

This leaves the kid and Tate to finish off the Mexican and Shelby.  Neither of them wants to do it.  So why not just leave them? “You know what they’ll do to them?” asks Tate.  “I can guess,” says the kid.  “No you caint,” responds Tate.  If what they would do is beyond what these guys could guess, it would have to be pretty freaking bad.

Tate decides to leave without doing anything.  That just leaves the kid to do (or not do) the dirty work.  The kid and Shelby talk for a while, discussing what Shelby wants the kid to do.  Shelby has no good options.  He’s dead either way.  It seems like they both know the kinder thing would be to just kill him, but of course that’s hard to swallow.  Shelby asks what if Glanton comes back, as if that would somehow be worse than being killed by the kid or captured by the Mexicans. (p. 208).  Shelby asks the kid to at least leave him with a gun, but the kid says he can’t do that.  Shelby asks the kid to hide him, but when the kid tries, Shelby goes for the kid’s gun.  So the kid just drops him where he is.  The kid takes his own canteen, fills up Shelby’s, and then tells him “Yonder they come,” meaning the Mexicans. (p. 209).  Shelby is crying.  The kid leaves him there.  There is no meanness to it.  He just mounts up, looks back at him, and then rides out.

GETTING BACK

You would assume Glanton’s gang couldn’t have gone too far, and the kid would catch up quickly.  But not long after leaving Shelby, the kid sees another horseman in the distance.  As he catches up, he realizes that it is Tate, and one of his horse’s hooves is badly hurt.  Karma?  Or just more bad luck?  In truth, neither of them has been doing anything to earn any points with the universe.  The kid could have just kept going, but he didn’t.  The kid is the only member of the group who shows any compassion.  He stops and helps Tate along, taking turns riding the kid’s horse, though Elias is close behind.

A big, cold snowstorm comes, and the going gets even tougher.  They head for higher country.  They eventually lie down and go to sleep.  It’s snowing so hard, they are soon completely covered.  During the night, Elias’s scouts practically stumble right over them.  The kid sits up suddenly “like some terrible hatching.” (p. 211).  He has his pistol in one hand and his boots in the other.  He shoots the man closest him directly in the chest.  The scouts are shooting back, and the kid narrowly escapes, putting on his boots and fleeing on foot.  This is presumably the end of Tate.

Beautiful imagery of the sky and surroundings as the kid continues his journey.  It is very cold, but slightly better during the day.  I particularly liked the “red” imagery on p. 212:

Ice had frozen on the rock and the myriad of icicles among the conifers glistened blood red in the reflected light of the sunset spread across the prairie to the west.  He sat with his back to a rock and felt the warmth of the sun on his face and watched it pool and flair and drain away dragging with it all that pink and rose and crimson sky.

The kid’s path is taking him deeper into the mountains, and he is exhibiting signs of hypothermia and probably frostbite.  The stars look on with “lidless fixity.” (p. 213) (celestial objects have a significant role in the story, but I’m not sure what it all means.  The sun, obviously (referred to in a recent chapter as “brother sun”), but also these stars are personified).  The kid travels at night and sleeps during the day when it is warmer.

Towards the end of the day he sees horsemen battling on the plain below (p. 213).  It does not say whether these are Glanton’s men or Elias or two different groups completely.  They are too far away for him to hear anything, and the silence feels eerie.  The mountains look on, “brooding in dark silhouette.” (p. 213).  Darkness overtakes the valley below, and then catches up with the kid.

Maybe the kid thinks one of the groups is Glanton’s, because he seems to head down the slope in that direction, working all night, his hands cold from falling and touching snow.  He makes it to the valley, and it is still cold, but there is less snow.  There are very few plants.  He has been without food for two days.

Finally, in the distance, he sees a fire.  Freezing, starving, it is probably a very welcome sight.  But even then, he is cautious.  Creep up on the wrong fire unannounced in this country and it will be the last thing you ever do.  He gets on the ground to “skylight the terrain to see what men were there, but there was no sky and no light.” (p. 214).  He keeps moving towards the fire, and “[a] troop of figures passed between him and the light.  Then again.  Wolves perhaps.” (p. 215).  I think “troop” is significant here, which typically refers to a group of soldiers, though it can also refer to a flock or group of mammals.  I am becoming more and more aware of the wolf references, and their relation to the Glanton gang.

As it turns out, the fire is a lone tree burning in the desert, struck by lightning in the storm.  The kid warms his hands and body.  But he is not alone.  There is quite the assortment of animal life surrounding the fire, most of them deadly (spiders, lizards, snakes, other poisonous insects).  They are joined there in a “precarious truce” (like I would picture it is at a watering hole in the Sahara desert).  Does anyone know the meaning of the reference to the sandvipers as being “the same, in Jeda, in Babylon.”? (p. 215).  As I understand it, Babylon is approximately where modern-day Iraq is, though I know “Babylon” can have broader connotations.  Jeda, possibly an older form of Jeddah, which is a city in Saudi Arabia?  This seems an obvious “burning bush”-type reference, though with the twists and perversions we’ve come to expect from McCarthy at this stage in the story.

In the morning, there is nothing but the “smoldering skeleton of a blackened scrog.” (p. 215). (“Scrog” is dialectal for a stunted shrub, bush, or branch).  By the light of day, the majesty of the night before is gone, as are all the other animals.  Sitting there, he watches the world “tend away at the edges to a shimmering surmise that ringed the desert round.”  (p. 215).  The only definition of “surmise” I’m familiar with is “a thought or idea based on scanty evidence.”  I love this!  Also loved the “demonic tracks of javelinas. (Id.) (wild pigs from that part of the country, in case you are not familiar).

He finds some water, drinks, and keeps moving.    Soon he comes across the trail of the Glanton party.  He can tell just from the tracks how fast they were going, about how many there were, that they were together, and that they came through at night.  He sees no sign of Elias.  Soon he finds the scalps they took in Nacozari in a burning heap on the side of the trail (note the wold and coyote tracks coming up to the heap).  Why did they burn the scalps?  Were they weighing them down?  Were they getting rid of the evidence?  Or do they just know they can never redeem them, so why keep carrying them around?  All those lives wasted for nothing.

The kid finds a lone horse, and after some work manages to get a hold of it.  He figures it’s one of the packhorses purchased back in Ures.  This seems a good twist of fortune for the kid.  He’ll make better progress now.  As he continues to trail the party, their tracks intersect with the tracks of about a hundred Apaches.  Maybe they have done this to try to hide their tracks from Elias.  He finally sees the group ahead, and catches up to them.

REUNION

Glanton’s gang looks ragged and beaten, almost in as bad shape as the kid.  They had lost four (are we close to 10 now?), and the others were ahead on scout.  The kid can’t know for sure who’s dead and who’s ahead scouting, though we know the new recruit Sloat is a goner because Toadvine brings the kid his horse.  They had joined the tracks of the Apaches to try to throw off Elias, but they don’t know how far ahead the Apaches are or how far behind Elias.  They head out.  The kid falls asleep in the saddle, and is “jostled along in his sleep like a mounted marionette.” (p. 219).  At one point he wakes to find the expriest alongside him, another time the judge who, having lost his hat, is riding with a “woven wreath of desert scrub about his head like some egregious saltland bard.” (p. 219).  The expriest and the judge seem to take the greatest interest in the kid.  Are they competing for his soul?

Have we noticed how frequently the judge smiles?  Who could smile under these conditions?  But here the judge is smiling “as if the world were pleasing even to him alone.” (Id.).

That night the judge goes to get a horse to kill, cook, and eat.  He asks for help, and no one moves.  Except, of course, the kid.  “Pay him no mind lad,” the expriest says. (p. 219).  “You think I’m afraid of him?” the kid asks.  He should be.  Again, we see the sheer strength of the judge.  He picks up a hundred pound rock and smashes the horse in the skull, killing it with a single blow.  The men join in the eating, though they wanted no part in the killing.

The scouts do not return.  We will see why soon.

The next day they encounter the ogdoad, a circle of eight men’s heads, facing out.  (p. 220).  What an image!  The judge kicks one of the heads “[a]s if to satisfy himself that no man stood buried in the sand beneath it.” (Id.).  A little while later, they encounter a burnt out wagon train.  McCarthy only mentions “nude torsos.” (p. 220).  Are these the bodies the heads belong to?  There are buzzards and rooks, and they have been eating on the bodies.  I loved the the buzzards trotting off with their wings outheld “like soiled chorines” (i.e. chorus girls). (Id.).  I like the vultures/buzzards in this book.  What better place for them?

Finally, they make it to Santa Cruz.  The people know they are coming, and seem none too happy to see them.  The town is described as a presidio, or armed settlement, and it is along the border.  They have apparently had a rough go of it, and they are in no mood to take any crap from these guys.  A ragtag militia lines the streets, with makeshift weapons, a sorry lot.  Even in their reduced state, Glanton’s men “glare[] from their saddles at this falstaffian militia with undisguised contempt.” (p. 221).
Somehow Glanton and another Mexican find someone to take them in.  They are fed and then taken around back to an adobe shed with a mare and suckling colt inside.  Maybe it’s the time of year, or the other religious-type references in the book, but this made me think of a manger seen.  I also kept waiting for something bad to happen to the horse or foal, though nothing ever did (that I know of).  I did think it was weird the men wanted the horse left in the shed with them.  Maybe for the warmth.  It doesn’t seem like they would care about putting the colt or the mother out in the cold unless leaving them their served some purpose to them.
It was dark inside.  Very dark.  I was curious about this line: “In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing.” (p. 222).  What is this a reference to?  Prison maybe?  Would there be some other time some of them had been shut in a dark place involuntarily?  I don’t know, and McCarthy doesn’t seem to expound.  Light and dark imagery closes out the chapter.

SIMILES

“[T]he fires on the plain faded like an evil dream.” (p. 205)

One of the best in the book, as the kid is cold and trying to get back to Glanton’s gang, he is “stumbling along with his hands in his armpits like a fugitive in a madman’s waistcoat.” (p. 214) (presumably a straitjacket).

Describing the burnt tree on the plain: “the spire of smoke from the burnt tree stood vertically in the still dawn like a slender stylus marking the hour with its particular and faintly breathing shadow upon the face of a terrain that was without other designation.” (p. 215)

VOCABULARY

dam- the female parent of an animal and especially of a domestic animal

norther- from the north, and from the context, a storm, and a cold one at that, bringing wind and snow

ocelot- a medium-sized wild cat that has a tawny yellow coat marked with black blotches and spots, and ranges from southern Texas through South America.

roadagent- a highwayman who formerly operated especially on stage routes in unsettled districts

cantle- the raised, curved part at the back of a horse’s saddle.

bracken- a tall fern with coarse lobed fronds that occurs worldwide and can cover large areas.

frog- the triangular elastic horny pad in the middle of the sole of the foot of a horse

piñon– a small pine tree with edible seeds, native to Mexico and the southwestern US.

Great Bear- Ursa Major- A constellation in the region of the north celestial pole near Draco and Leo, containing the seven stars that form the Big Dipper.

Pleiades- 1 : the seven daughters of Atlas turned into a group of stars in Greek mythology. 2 : a conspicuous cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus that includes six stars in the form of a very small dipper.

spall- a splinter or chip, especially of rock.

chines- backbone; spine; a cut of meat including all of part of the backbone; the intersection of the bottom and the sides of a flat or V-bottomed boat

promontory- a prominent mass of land overlooking or projecting into a lowland

escarpment- a long, steep slope, especially one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights.

palmilla- jipijapa; a palmlike Central and South American plant (Carludovica palmata of the family Cyclanthaceae) with leaves used especially to make Panama hats

scurf- something like flakes or scales adhering to a surface

solpugas- a type of spider I gather, though I am having a hard time finding a good definition; a kind of venomous ant (or, acc. to Solinus, a kind of venomous spider)

vinegarroons– a crazy looking spider that also has a tail, kind of like a scorpion

basilisks- a mythical reptile with a lethal gaze or breath, hatched by a serpent from a cock’s egg; another term for cockatrice; a long, slender, and mainly bright green lizard found in Central America, the male of which has a crest running from the head to the tail. It can swim well and is able to run on its hind legs across the surface of water.

mygale spiders- A genus of very large hairy spiders of the family Ctenizidae, having four lungs and only four spinnerets. They do not spin webs, but usually construct tubes in the earth, which are often furnished with a trapdoor. The South American bird spider (Mygale avicularia), and the crab spider, or matoutou (Mygale cancerides) are among the largest species. They are also called trapdoor spiders. Some of the species are erroneously called tarantulas, as the Texas tarantula (Mygale Hentzii).

stylus- sharp, pointed instrument used for writing, marking, or engraving.

fulgurite- vitreous material formed of sand or other sediment fused by lightning.

canter- a three-beat gait of a horse or other quadruped between a trot and a gallop.

centroid- the center of mass of a geometric object of uniform density.

bajada- a broad slope of alluvial material at the foot of an escarpment or mountain.

ocotillo- a spiny, scarlet-flowered desert shrub of the southwestern US and Mexico, sometimes planted as a hedge.

grama- any of several pasture grasses (genus Bouteloua) of the western United States.

reata- lariat

keelson- a centerline structure running the length of a ship and fastening the transverse members of the floor to the keel below.

presidio- (in Spain and Spanish America) a fortified military settlement.

rebozo- a long scarf covering the head and shoulders, traditionally worn by Spanish-American women.

miquelet- An irregular or partisan soldier; a bandit, though from the context we gather it is a reference to a gun, perhaps a gun someone matching this description would possess

falstaffian- of or resembling Shakespeare’s character Sir John Falstaff in being fat, jolly, and debauched.

alameda- (in Spain and Spanish-speaking regions) a public walkway or promenade shaded with trees.

peloncillo- not sure- Peloncillo is a mountain range in northeast Cochise County, Arizona.

 

8 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter Fifteen: “You think I’m afraid of him?”

  1. Just finished this chapter and was blown away by the writing and details. Will comment more later, but am currently inebriated at a restaurant.

    Question: the last scene is in no way to be taken literally? The description of light upon the men almost seemed purposefully supernatural. It gave me chills to say the least..

    • Sounds like you’re having more fun than I am. It did seem purposefully supernatural. I felt like there was a great deal of tension built into the scene, but I wasn’t sure why. It felt very supernatural. Are these men ghosts? Spirits? Demons? Also, what is reality? What are any of us? Crazy, wild stuff!

    • I took it to show the darkness of the men. They are in “profound and absolute darkness” and yet the darkness is glowing light in comparison to them.

      Could be static electricity though. And St Elmo’s Fire has previously appeared. I think its really light, as the mare is unaccustomed to it, but I think it shows the darkness of the men as well.

      • Great insights. Yes, St. Elmo’s Fire has appeared before. I like your idea that the men are darker than the utter darkness. There is darkness as in the absence of light, and then there is darkness as in absence of soul.

  2. Inside the barn? I’ve seen someone suggest that they lit a fire and another claim that they decided to engage in some ungodly orgy.

    • Interesting. Both distinct possibilities, though if it was an orgy, all references are pretty subtle/symbolic. But it could be a fire. I guess it could be anything.

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