Blood Meridian, Chapter Sixteen: “In the desert were drag marks.”


Lost scouts, found scouts, wild bulls, and lots of drinking, this was another rowdy chapter.  It increasingly seems like all these men have a death wish, or at least a death indifference.  But the judge keeps smiling, and they keep on drinking and dancing.  One gets the distinct impression that things are about to get a lot uglier too.  We’ll see.

Wild Bulls and Indifference

The group rides out from Santa Cruz after an uneventful stay.  Cognizant of all “wolf” references, did you notice how there were wolf tracks at the edge of town: “they saw where wolves had crossed the road”? (p. 223).  Are the wolves following them, or is this just wolf country?  And what would that mean?

They pass an “old hacienda at San Bernardino.” (p. 223).  I found this curious, as the only San Bernardino I am familiar with is in California, and in my mental map, I pictured them somewhere closer to Arizona (later in this chapter they end up in Tucson, so that would follow).  Did some quick research (thanks Wikipedia!), and there is a San Bernardino Valley in this part of the country, which would make a lot more sense.  Specifically, “[t]he San Bernardino Valley of Arizona is a 35-mi long (56 km) northeast-by-southwest trending valley in extreme southeast Cochise County, Arizona. The north end of the valley merges into the northwest-by-southeast trending San Simon Valley; both merge in western perimeter Hidaldgo County, New Mexico. The valley is an asymmetric graben.”  (A “graben,” for you vocab fiends, is a depressed block of land bordered by parallel faults. Graben is German for ditch or trench. The plural form is variously given as grabenor grabens.  I’m almost surprised McCarthy didn’t use that word here.  But I digress…)

I loved the image of these wild bulls out in the valley “so old that they bore spanish brands on their hips.” (p. 223).  They are angry and aggressive in general, as bulls are wont to be, and they charge the company, mostly without success, getting shot in their tracks, thought one gets a hold of James Miller’s horse and puts on quite a show.  This was another great visual McCarthy seen.  I was struck by the indifference of the men in the group watching this scene play out.  Someone hazes up the last spare horse from the remuda, but other than that they don’t raise a fingers.  This is Miller’s problem.  A compassionate bunch.


They continue, and pass an old mission.  The judge rides off to take a closer look, and three from the party ride with him.  For some reason this makes Glanton uneasy, watching the small group go “with dark misgiving.” (p. 224).  At first the rest of the group rides on, but then they turn back.  Did you catch the judge having given the short description of the history and architecture of the old mission?  “[A]nd those who heard it would not believe that he had never been there.” (Id.).  The judge has been everywhere, and knows everything.  Omniscient, seemingly omnipresent, but evil.  Creepy.

It’s a bad day to be a hermit.  The one gets shot, seemingly just because they weren’t sure what he was.  These two old immigrants living in the mission, in clothes they’ve made entirely out of sheep material, “not young, not altogether sane.” (p. 226).  The judge speaks to the lone survivor in German, which of course he speaks fluently.  You have to feel bad for the surviving hermit, as they are leaving, as he “seemed not to be aware that his brother was dead in the church.” (p. 226).  In fact, Glanton seems to feel sorry for him, in his way: “Ort to have shot that one too.” (p. 226).  [Love, love, love the “base” dialogue juxtaposed against the deeply intellectual writing in the remainder of the book.  Perfect!]  Because death would be better.  Although maybe it would be.  “I dont like to see white men that way…I dont like to see it.” (Id.).  Though we know he’s just fine seeing non-white men that way and worse.  There is so little mercy and compassion in this book, it really stands out when you see it.

Did you notice this whole exchange had the judge smiling?  He seems to have a lot to smile about in these chapters.

Lost Scouts

The group is still acting like they are being hunted.  Did you notice how they go far out in the desert to camp, which is “favored by every kind of fugitive,” because no one can sneak up on you. (p. 226).  I thought this line was great:

Each man scanned the terrain and the movements of the least of creatures were logged into their collective cognizance until they were federated with invisible wires of vigilance and advanced upon that landscape with a single resonance.

(p. 226).  Of course he could have just said “they were really watchful and careful,” but that would not have conveyed nearly the same message.

They pass abandoned haciendas and roadside graves.  This part of the country has been hit hard.

Remember how the scouts went missing, and there has been no sign of them for several days?  Well, the group finds them (pp. 226-227).  I won’t repeat all the gory details, but they have basically been hung upside down over a fire and tortured/burned to death.  Among them are the last of the Delawares, but also the Vandiemanlander who, if memory serves, shot those poor puppies a chapter or two ago.  Karma’s a bitch I hear, and apparently also an animal lover.  The torture sounds pretty horrific, but perhaps most disturbing of all: “Among their barbarous hosts they had met with neither favor nor discrimination but had suffered and died impartially.” (p. 227).  Man!  I’d hate to see what the Apaches do to people they really don’t like.

Apropos of nothing that I could tell, I nevertheless enjoyed the image as they are riding that night and “[a] pale green meteor came up the valley floor behind them and passed overhead and vanished silently in the void.” (p. 227).  Does this mean anything to anyone, or is it just a cool image?

The country and habitations they pass seem uninhabited and abandoned.  Maybe the living are just hiding from these killers.  And wisely.  The only people about seem those looking to do harm.

Catching Up to the Apaches

The group makes its way to the presidio of Tucson.  They pass several more burned out haciendas on the outskirts.  Did you notice the vultures?  Oh, I love it!  “[H]olding out their wings like cloaks.” (p. 227).  I haven’t been keeping perfect track, but I believe there have been several references to vultures as religious figures.  If vultures are the clergy, what kind of religion is that?  And heaven help the congregation.

They keep coming.  They find Apache tracks, “two days old and a hundred riders strong.” (p. 228).  As Tucson comes into sight, they see the Apaches camped out along the outer south wall, almost as if they were waiting for them.  The tension is unbelievable.  The Apache dogs are barking, and Glanton’s dog is pacing back and forth.

Can you believe the tension in this meeting.  A “deputation of riders” sets out from the Apache camp. (p. 228).  Twenty, twenty-five of them.  Fearsome, “jackal” warriors, they are shirtless despite the cold, and at least as crazy and bloodthirsty as Glanton’s group.  Some in the group are carrying the weapons and other accoutrements of the missing scouts.  You remember what happened to them.  You get the distinct impression these two groups would murder each other at the slightest provocation.  Sneeze and you’ll get your head blown off.

I especially liked the description of the indians making their way past each in Glanton’s group, shouldering their horses through the party: “in a sort of ritual movement as if certain points of ground must be trod in a certain sequence as in a child’s game yet with some terrible forfeit at hand.” (p. 228).

And it is in this hyper-tense context that Glanton’s horse lunges out, takes the ear of the Apache leader’s horse in its mouth, and bites it off.  Blood squirts everywhere.  It’s a miracle it is only the horse’s.  Indeed, as Glanton looks back at his men he finds them:

[F]rozen in deadlock with the savages, they and their arms wired into a construction taut and fragile as those puzzles wherein the placement of each piece is predicated upon every other and they in turn so that none can move for bringing down the structure entire.

(p. 229).

I never know what to do with the Spanish in these analyses.  I go for a general gist.  I will stand happily corrected.

The leader starts screaming in Apache.  The judge comes forward.  “Calm down,” he says.  “It was an accident, nothing more.”  “Look at my horse’s ear,” comes the reply.  So tense.  The desert under them “hummed like a snaredrum.” (p. 229).  Things seems as tense as they can get, an “unratified truce,” when the judge raises up to look at a new party of indians coming forward.

Didn’t the new leader (we gather a perhaps more “real” or “senior” leader) sound like a strange-looking guy? Bowlegged, a huge man, with a huge head.  “Strangely proportioned.”  The men in this group have the rest of the lost scouts’ gear.  The judge smiles. (p. 230).  Watch out!

This new leader speaks good Spanish.  It is not clear whether the Apaches know who Glanton’s group is or that it was their scouts they murdered.

“Good day, where are you coming from?” asks the new leader, whose name is Mangas (from the chapter heading, “Mangas Colorado”?).

The judge steps forward.  He presents Glanton formally as the chief.

“Let’s go,” Mangas says to the other indians.  “They’re friendly,” he says to Glanton.  “A little drunk, nothing more.”

I loved the next line.  “The Apache riders began to extricate themselves from among the Americans like men backing out of a thornthicket.” (p. 230).  Isn’t that quite the image?  And a good simile.  That was definitely a close one.

The discussion continues.  Mangas suggests that the only way to make up for the hurt horse is through whiskey.

Glanton spits.  “We don’t have any whiskey.”

“What?” askes Mangas.

“We don’t have any whiskey,” Glanton repeats.

“No whiskey?” he asks the judge.  “No whiskey,” confirms the judge.  And this was the best line.  As Mangas looks over Glanton’s men and their gear, he surmises: “In truth they did not look like men who might have whiskey they hadnt drunk.”  (p. 230).  That’s for sure!

“They have whiskey in Tucson,” states Mangas.  “Without doubt, and soldiers too,” answers the judge.

“Do you have gold?” Glanton asks Mangas.  “Yes,” answers Mangas.  “How much?” asks Glanton.  “Enough,” answers Mangas.  “Good,” says Glanton.  “Three days, one barrel of whiskey, here.”  “A barrel?” Mangas asks Glanton.  “A barrel,” Glanton confirms.  And there will be a barrel.  Of sorts.  More ugliness on the way for sure.

Is it just me, or is Glanton getting more gold hungry in these chapters?  More to come in this very chapter, in fact.  Is he getting more greedy, or is he looking towards some kind of end game?

Tucson Debaucheries

They enter Tucson, and we gather it has seen better days.  Poorly armed, poorly manned, degenerates lying about.  In charge is a lieutenant named Couts.  He’s trying.  He is very formal, and addresses Glanton as “captain,” giving him much more respect than he deserves, and much, much more than he will receive in return (more to follow).  I love the description of Glanton looking these men over, filthy and blackened by dirt and blood and soot, “[e]ven the horses looked alien to any he’d ever seen, decked as they were in human hair and teeth and skin.” (p. 232).  Oh and this is great, and I think central to themes in the overall book itself:

Save for their guns and buckles and a few pieces of metal in the harness of the animals there was nothing about these arrivals to suggest even the discovery of the wheel. (p. 232).

Yes!  Like primitive cave men.  Even this may be too complimentary.

The judge smiles at the vagrants in the square.  Recruits!  They do end up getting a couple.

But the best of all is the “imbecile.”  “Is that thing yours?” (p. 233).  And later “Where’s your ape at?” (p. 238).  It’s sort of awful (okay, not just “sort of”).  Another great line: “You let women see that thing?” (p. 234).  The fact that I find it so entertaining is evidence I’ve been reading too much Blood Meridian.  But it’s a man kept in a cage in absolute filth.  “Not right in the head” would seem to be an understatement.  He has severe mental challenges, and his brother keeps him in a cage and shows him for money.  He wants to get to California so he can show him for more money.  This gives Glanton an idea.  He offers to take the man and his brother to California for $100.  This further evidence to me that Glanton is getting money hungry.  We know he has no philanthropic reason for bringing these two along, and that it can only end in disaster.  But $100 is $100.

The judge too seems interested in both the imbecile and the brother.  This is curious to me.  We know he hates birds and children, but his interest seems less hateful in the weak and deformed.  What does this mean?  Later he closely examines the brother’s head, which seems to freak the brother out.  Any thoughts on what this is all about?

The group heads to an eatinghouse, and they are probably all starving.  As they enter, all the patrons inside leave, as seems to happen a lot when this groups shows up.  They probably saved their lives.  A woman is cooking meat out back.  The proprietor, a man named Owens, comes in and tells them he is glad to serve them but that colored people need to sit at another table.  This seems to baffle all of them, as the only colored one in their group is Jackson.  But he’s not moving.  The judge sits smiling.  Uh oh!  I won’t spell out all the details, but basically one of the group gives Owens a gun and tells him if he’s got a problem with Jackson he better shoot him.  Of course this is not what Owens wanted or expected, but before he even really has much chance to do anything about it, his brains are all over the floor, courtesy of Jackson.

They eat, and are later drinking in a cantina not a hundred feet from the eatinghouse where Owens lies dead.  Did you notice the light coming in through the hole in the ceiling?  The men walk around the light “as if it might be hot to the touch.” (p. 236).  Who fears the light?  There is also another reference to them as being “like cavefolk,” though I like too the description of them as a “hardbit denizenry.”  (Id.).  This latter is one of my favorite phrases in the book (yes, I realize I say that a lot about a lot of phrases; I mean it about all of them).

Lieutenant Couts is coming to take whoever is responsible for the death of Owens.  There are no other witnesses other than the group, and they aren’t coming forward.  It is flat out denial all around.  Couts is baffled, but doesn’t seem to know what to do.  The judge explains the law to him, and faced with how much more the judge knows, Couts is at a loss, though of course he’s right that they did do it.  The whole exchange between the judge and Couts is quite good. (pp. 236-237).  Especially rich is where the judge warns Couts to think twice about questioning Glanton on a point of honor (not because he has any honor, of course, but no one hates being called a liar more than a liar).

There is a discussion with the man whose brother is in the cage.  I liked this discussion as well, and the commentary on how growing up, people in the Bible belt were convinced that whatever was wrong with the brother was something spiritual.  I think this is central to the attitudes about religion throughout the book.  And there will be more later with the brother.  I also liked the visual of the judge with his hands on the brother’s head “like an immense and dangerous faith healer.” (p. 238).  What a contrast of terms.  But “dangerous” is for sure.

Oh, a great exchange with the brother:

“Has he always been like that?” asked the judge.

“Yessir.  He was born that way,” answered the man.

This seems to disgust Glanton.  “Were you?” Glanton asks him, seemingly referring to having been born the type of man who would put his brother in a cage and let him eat his own feces while other people look on for money.  But I’m just guessing.  Again, weird when Glanton or anyone shows anything even remotely resembling compassion.  It doesn’t happen often.

That night, another little girl goes missing.  Parts of her clothes are found torn and bloodied under the north wall “over which she could only have been thrown.”  (p. 239).  This is a loaded statement.  Suggesting strength and violence.  Who would/could throw the girl over the wall?  Of course the judge could.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that it would have been anyone else.  “In the desert were drag marks.” (p. 239).

More drinking and carousing goes on.  A strange scene where a man comes out with deformed dogs with extra appendages, trying to sell them.  Glanton threatens to shoot any men who buy them.  He sure loves dogs.  “Dogfreaks.”  More dancing in the streets.  Fandango!  The judge at the center of it all, playing a strange instrument, the men “naked and lurching.” (p. 240).

A sentence that encapsulates the seen: “By midnight the citizens had cleared out and there were armed and naked men pounding on doors demanding drink and women.” (p. 240)(emphasis added).  Indeed!

A Wager

By noon the next day the men are out an about again, dressed in new clothes, having burned their filthy skins.  They go to the farrier to get their horses, and he offers them a drink.  He has a huge iron meteorite for an anvil (it wouldn’t be the same meteorite seen in the sky those nights before, but an interesting cross reference).  There is no mention of how heavy it is, but it would safely seem to be exceptionally heavy.  I couldn’t even guess.  It is shaped like a “molar” (as in the tooth?).  The judge takes the opportunity to hold forth on the ferric (i.e. iron-like) nature of heavenly things and their powers and properties.  Soon there is a wager.  The judge lifts it.  Another wager, and he lifts it over his head.  A third, and coins “from half a dozen countries in both gold and silver” are laid down, as well as other moneys.  This wager involves some distance, and two lines are drawn in the dirt.  “The judge seized that great slag wandered for what millennia from what unreckonable corner of the universe and he raised it overhead and stood tottering and lunged forward.” (p. 240).  He clears the mark by a foot.  And he gets all the money because no, interestingly including Glanton, “had been willing to underwrite his third trial.” (Id.).  Is Glanton losing faith in the judge?  Becoming disenchanted?  Is this foreshadowing, or just specific to this bet?  We’ll see!


(I included them in the body of the review itself this time, though there were lots of them.  So, so, so, so good!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)


quince- A shrub or small tree (Cydonia oblonga) in the rose family, native to western Asia, having white or pink flowers and hard yellow pear-shaped fruit; the aromatic, many-seeded fruit of this plant, usually used for jelly or in cooked dishes.

yarded up- in this context, a locality in a forest where deer herd in winter

sacristy- a room in a church where sacred vessels and vestments are kept and where the clergy vests

disquisition- a long or elaborate essay or discussion on a particular subject.

parapet- a low protective wall along the edge of a roof, bridge, or balcony.

nave- the central part of a church building, intended to accommodate most of the congregation. In traditional Western churches it is rectangular, separated from the chancel by a step or rail, and from adjacent aisles by pillars.

docked- a: to cut off the end of a body part of; specifically :  to remove part of the tail of b :  to cut (as ears or a tail) short

esker- a long ridge of gravel and other sediment, typically having a winding course, deposited by meltwater from a retreating glacier or ice sheet.

ringdoves- a dove or pigeon with a ringlike mark on the neck, in particular.

quartering- lying at right angles

deputation- group of people appointed to undertake a mission or take part in a formal process on behalf of a larger group.

sclera- the white outer layer of the eyeball. At the front of the eye it is continuous with the cornea.

breechclouts- another term for loincloth.

lemniscate- The lemniscate, also called the lemniscate of Bernoulli, is a polar curve whose most common form is the locus of points the product of whose distances from two fixed points (called the foci) a distance  away is the constant.  Looks like infinity symbol sideways and centered on a mathematical graph (may also be that; I am not a math major, but an English one).  But as describing the double barrels of a gun faced head on, this is linguistically amazing.

baldric- a belt for a sword or other piece of equipment, worn over one shoulder and reaching down to the opposite hip.

tensile- capable of being drawn out or stretched; of or relating to tension.

bandylegged- (of a person) having legs that are curved so as to be wide apart at the knees; bowlegged.

borracho- drunk, drunkard

headstall- the part of a bridle or halter that fits around a horse’s head.

tiswin- a fermented beverage made by Indians of the southwestern U.S.

demiculverin- a culverin of about 412 inches bore for ball of 9 to 13 pounds; a long cannon (as an 18-pounder) of the 16th and 17th centuries

revetments-( especially in fortification) a retaining wall or facing of masonry or other material, supporting or protecting a rampart, wall, etc.; a barricade of earth or sandbags set up to provide protection from blast or to prevent planes from overrunning when landing.

hospice- archaic- a lodging for travelers, especially one run by a religious order.

huesos- literally bones, but from the context, probably ribs

Coke and Blackstone, Anaximander, Thales- I won’t completely rewrite it here, but I found a good link describing who these figures were.  The legal writings of Coke and Blackstone were for many years recognized as primary texts in English and American law.  Sir Edward Coke was an English barrister, judge and politician. Sir William Blackstone was an English jurist, judge and Tory politician of the 18th century. Anaximander and Thales were pre-Socratic Greek philosophers from Miletus in Asia Minor. Thales was one of the Seven Sages of Greece, regarded by many, most notably Aristotle, as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition.  Anaximander succeeded Thales to become the second master of the Milesian school where he counted Anaximens and possibly Pythagoras amongst his pupils. He is considered the first philosopher to have recorded his studies, although only one fragment of his work remains.

tonto- stupid, silly, mindless, idiot.  A derogatory terms, safe to say politically incorrect.  Note: Zorro’s sidekick in that old television series (was it also a book?) was named Tonto.

farrier- a craftsman who trims and shoes horses’ hooves.

slag- stony waste matter separated from metals during the smelting or refining of ore

2 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter Sixteen: “In the desert were drag marks.”

  1. “Later he closely examines the brother’s head, which seems to freak the brother out. Any thoughts on what this is all about?“

    The Judge appears to be attempting a phrenological diagnosis.

    This is from “Book Drum”. This site doesn’t provide much in the way of commentary but does support reading with a lot of great pics and explanations.

    Page 238. ” The judge reached and took hold of the man’s head in his hands and began to explore its contours. ” by knoxvillage1982 flag this content 1848 edition of American Phrenological Journal
    Public Domain1848 edition of American Phrenological Journal – Credit: Fowlers & Wells
    The judge is practicing phrenology, a pseudoscience popular in the first half of the 19th century which involved the feeling of bumps in the skull to determine an individual’s psychological attributes. Focussing on personality and character, it was distinguished from craniometry (the study of skull size, weight and shape), and physiognomy (the study of facial features).
    Although popular as a form of psychology during the Victorian era and 1840s America, phrenology was rejected by mainstream academia and had already been largely abandoned as a science by the early 20th century.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *