Blood Meridian, Chapter Nineteen- “You done been paid.”

blood meridian sky Huge developments!  HUGE!  THE HUGEST!!!

Okay, this was a great and exciting (but also bloody and disturbing) chapter.  Tempting to jump to the end, but that’s not how we do things here at the good ship Dunce Academy.  But hang in there; it will be worth the wait.

The Howitzer

We start with a little bit of background about the doctor who runs the ferry and how it came into his hands.  It seems like it was pretty much just fortuitous (well, fortuitous at the time; that is, until Glanton’s group showed up).  The doctor was on his way to California, we gather that Major Graham’s command was pulling out, leaving a hillside fortification unfinished, and the doctor saw an opportunity to make some serious wealth.  And he has.

From Major Graham, the doctor inherited some wagons but, more significantly, also a mountain howitzer (a short-barreled cannon), which up to this point has gone unused.  But not for long.

In the beginning of the chapter, the Judge, Glanton, Brown, and Irving are all sitting down with the doctor, telling him tales of their adventures, primarily as a prelude to informing the doctor that he needs to protect himself against the Yumas.  Having had no problems with the Yumas, the doctor resists, and Glanton tells him anyone who trusts the indians is a fool.  The doctor starts to get upset, and as usual, the Judge intervenes.  They convince the doctor to let them load the howitzer and otherwise prepare themselves to protect the pilgrims waiting to cross the river.  They move the loaded howitzer to a place overlooking the river.

Remember how Glanton had met with the Yumas in the previous chapter and conspired to seize the ferry?  Well two days later, as we gather was agreed, the Yumas attack.  What the Yumas had not bargained for was that the howitzer was now loaded and ready to murder them en masse.  As the Yumas attack, two of the Glanton gang, including Brown, stick a cigar to the cannon’s touch hole and blast away, killing over a dozen of them in a single shot.  The Yumas are enraged by this betrayal.  They begin to fight, but their arrows are no match for Glanton’s armed, mounted, and slaughter-hardened gang.

The passengers who had been crossing grab their guns, take cover, and begin to fire on the Yumas, the women and children finding cover where they can.  The Yumas flee into the woods, leaving their dead and wounded behind.

Glanton and his group do not give chase.  They mill among the bodies, shooting survivors in the head, and taking scalps.  The ferry travelers look on.  The doctor looks on in silence, then returns to his quarters, where he stays.

Glanton Takes Over the Ferry

We knew this was coming.  Glanton could not stand seeing all those riches going into someone else’s hands.  With the Yumas retreated and the doctor in hiding, Glanton takes charge of the ferry.  Inflation kicks in real fast.  People waiting to cross at a dollar a head now had to pay four, and even this rate only lasted a couple of days.  Loved this:

Soon they were operating a sort of procrustean ferry where the fares were tailored to accommodate the purses of the travelers.  Ultimately all pretense was dropped and the immigrants were robbed outright. (p. 262)

Oh man!

The doctor, who had up to this time been getting plenty rich operating peacefully and cooperatively, makes an appearance on behalf of the travelers, who are being beaten and sent into the desert with nothing.  Glanton pays him his share (this time), and that seems to pacify him.  But when horses start getting stolen outright, women violated, and bodies start floating down the stream past the Yuma camp downriver, the doctor barricades himself in his quarters “and was seen no more.” (p. 262).  That is, until a little bit later, and then….well, you’ll have to wait and see.

In the following month, a company from Kentucky under General Patterson arrived, and not wanting to pay the exorbitant prices Glanton is charging, they construct their own ferry downstream, cross, and then the Yumas take over that ferry, to be run by a man named Callaghan.  Within days the other ferry is burned, “and Callaghan’s headless body floated anonymously downriver, a vulture standing between the shoulderblades in clerical black, silent rider to the sea.” (p. 262).  I’m telling you, there is a thesis in here on birds as twisted religious figures.  And a good lesson in economics: never compete with a bloodthirsty band of scalp hunters, I guess particularly when engaged in the ferry business.

The Sonorans

Sonora is just a name for this part of the country, what is currently mostly in the state of New Mexico, spreading southwest through Mexico towards the Gulf of California.  “Sonorans” are, I would then gather, people native to that part of the country.  On pages 262 to 263, the kid, Billy Carr, and Toadvine have crossed the river to collect willow poles, and we see a group of the Sonorans around a stuffed Judas, hanging in effigy to celebrate Easter, from which I gather that they are Christian.  So I guess I don’t know for certain if they are native to the region or of Spanish/European descent.  If anyone knows, let me know.

The Sonorans have been up all night drinking, and one of them sets the stuffed Judas on fire.  It’s loaded with fireworks, and starts to blow apart, until a bomb hidden in its pants explodes the whole thing.  The group calls out to the kid in Spanish, offering him wine, but the kid hurries on.  Is he afraid of their Christianity, or something darker?

We find out that Glanton has enslaved many of these Sonorans, and put them to work building up the fortifications.  Also detained are a dozen or more “indian and Mexican girls, some little more than children.” (p. 263)  I don’t even want to know…  Glanton is interested in the building up of the fortifications, and the money of course, but other than that, he lets his men do whatever they want.  Giving them a “terrible latitude” the text says.  (Id.).  Every night Glanton puts his treasures in a chest, including jewelry, watches, pistols, raw gold in little leather stives, silver in bars, knives, silverware, plate, and teeth.

A Deputation for the Coast

A few days later, Glanton sends a group of three–David Brown, Long Webster, and Toadvine–out to the coastal town of San Diego for supplies.  They take a string of pack mules with them.  Not to get ahead of myself, but this ends up being one of my favorite adventures in the book.

They get across the desert in 5 days, ride into town, and can hear the ocean in the distance.  They take out a big bag of money and, not surprisingly, head straight for the whiskey grocers.  Unannounced, they dump the bag out on the counter, and there is money from all over the world.  The grocer organizes the money and weighs it.  He pours them each some whiskey in small tin cups “whereon the gills were stamped” (anyone have any idea what this phrase means?).  They put down their cups for more, and the grocer (wisely) passes the bottle to them.

They work out a price for flour and coffee and then, each with a bottle in hand, they head out into town.  They see a series of tents and small squatting houses made of hides by the beach.  Brown wakes up in one of these in the morning, with no recollection of what had happened the night before.  But he is alone.

By noon, Brown is at the alcalde’s (either mayor or magistrate in Spanish or Latin American town) demanding the release of his friends.  Apparently they were up to no good.  The alcalde sneaks out the back and goes and gets an American corporal and two soldiers to warn him away.

An hour later, he is at the blacksmith’s with a really, really nice gun (I won’t even attempt to define all the fancy terms for gun parts that are used).  He demands that the blacksmith saw off the barrels (it doesn’t say, but I’m thinking he intends to take back his companions by force, and the sawed off shotgun will play a role in that process).  It’s a beautiful and expensive gun, and the blacksmith refuses to do it.  The exchange between them on pages 264 to 268 is one of the best in the book.

Some highlights include when Brown asks him to cut them off, and the blacksmith says “I cant do that.”  Brown responds “Cant or wont?”  The blacksmith retorts “You pick the one that best suits you.”

Also, even though the blacksmith refuses, Brown asks him what a fair price for the sawing would be.  The blacksmith tells him one dollar.  Brown pours out over twice that amount.  The blacksmith says Brown can’t pay him to ruin the gun.  Brown replies “You done been paid.” “No I aint” says the blacksmith.  “Yonder it lays,” said Brown.  “Now you can either get to sawin or you can default.  In the case of which I aim to take it out of your ass.”  The blacksmith turns and runs, fetching the sergeant.

While he’s gone, Brown puts the gun in the benchvise and begins sawing it himself.  When the sergeant gets there, he asks Brown if he threatened the blacksmith.  Brown says no.  “I dont threaten people.  I told him I’d whip his ass and that’s as good as notarized.”  (p. 267).  “You don’t call that a threat?” asks the sergeant.  “It was not no threat.  It was a promise.”

With the gun in hand, he goes to get his friends, only to find them newly released.  They look wild and they stink.  Naturally they start drinking again.  They head down to the beach, none of them having seen the ocean before.

But they can’t stay out of trouble for long.  They end up drinking at a bodega.  Some soldiers come in and a fight breaks out.  It seems like things are calming down, but then Brown pours a pitcher of aguardiente (strong liquor) over a young soldier and sets him on fire (the description is at once awful and awesome) (pgs. 268-269).  The young soldier runs burning into the streets.  By the time his fellow soldiers got a bucket of water to help extinguish the flames, it is too late.

This time it’s Brown waking up in jail, you would think probably for good or until he can be executed.  But he’s still got his money, and he has the luck of being guarded by a very young and inexperienced soldier named Petit.  He ends up convincing this young soldier that he has a fortune buried in the desert, $30,000.  He tells Petit of the ferry, basically describing himself in the role of Glanton.  Brown tells the soldier that if he will help him escape, Brown will split the money with him, 50/50.  Make him a partner.  Poor, dumb soldier.

They leave two nights later.  They each have a decent horse and a mule and some provisions.  In the first light as they enter the hills, Brown shoots the boy soldier in the back of the head.  Brown gets back his sack of coins, the boy’s rifle, knife, and coat, and then cuts off his ears and adds them to the collection he wears around his neck.  He mounts up, the packmule follows, and after a while the boy’s horse follows as well.

Apparently Toadvine and Webster did not know of Brown’s escape.  When they get back to camp at Yuma, they don’t have their provisions, the mules, or Brown.  Glanton takes five men and goes to retrieve Brown and their provisions, leaving the Judge in charge.  This will prove to be a very, very bad idea.  Ominous, I know.

Glanton’s Search for Brown- A Bad Night to Be the Alcalde

They get to San Diego in the dead of night and go directly to the alcalde’s house.  The alcalde, in his sixties, comes to the door literally in nightshirt and stockingcap, holding a candle before him like some old, ill-fated Wee Willie Winkie.  Both he and his wife get smacked around pretty good, and then Glanton puts a rope, already tied in a noose, around the alcalde’s neck.  Glanton tells one of his recruits to get on another recruit’s shoulders, and they throw the other end of the rope over a beam, raising the alcalde mute and struggling into the air.

The alcalde, gasping, asks them what they want.  Glanton informs him that he wants his mules and his money and his man, Brown. The alcalde is struggling.  His wife gets out of the bed and holds him up at his knees so he doesn’t suffocate.  This was an interesting line: “She was sobbing and praying for mercy to Glanton and to God impartially.” (p. 271).  Not, I don’t think, because she viewed Glanton as a god in that moment, but because she was so terrified and desperate that she would take mercy from wherever it could be found.

The alcalde, once he understands who they’re looking for, insists that he doesn’t know where Brown is, that he’s been gone for 7 or 8 days.  They ask where the juzgado (hoosegow, jail) is.  The wife points.  Two men go to check, and then come back, confirming that the little dungeon is empty.  They cut down the alcalde, and he and his wife collapse to the floor.  Glanton and his group head to the grocer’s, presumably the same one Brown visited some days earlier.  The alcalde, his wife, and the grocer are found 3 days later in an abandoned hut 8 miles away.  They have been bound and are lying in their own filth, with a bowl of water to drink from like dogs.  They were left so near the ocean that no one could hear their screams over the surf.  I take it they did not pay for their new provisions.

Glanton Returns- Leaving the Judge in Charge Was a BAD Idea

After a couple nights of drinking, Glanton returns to Yuma alone, the five men he’d brought with him having gone off to pursue their fortunes in the gold fields.  On the road, he encounters haggard refugees, sickly, some dead, others dying.  They warn him of the dangers at the crossing, but he rides on “like some storied hero.” (p. 272).  The danger ahead is of is own making, and he has nothing to fear.  Or so he thinks.

When he arrives, he is drunk, having brought whiskey and other provisions with him.  He looks down on the river, he “who was keeper of the crossroads of all that world.” (p. 272).  His loyal dog comes up and nuzzles his foot in the stirrup.

One thing I will just point out here; in reading these last chapters, it has become increasingly clear to me that Glanton is really all about money.  He doesn’t mind hurting people to get it, but I don’t think that’s what drives him.  The scalphunting was just a means to an end, and now he has an even easier way of obtaining even greater riches.  It maybe wouldn’t last forever, but he seems like he is content for now.

There is a great deal of symbolism in this last section of the chapter, not all of which I can work out just based on a plain reading of the text.  Things to look for are dogs and their relationships to their masters and whatever the symbolism of Jackson, who is black, as contrasted with the Judge, who is bald and white, and their being naked except for a loose-fitting robe or blanket could mean.  Also, the idiot is central to this last portion, but I don’t know what his role is, other than to insert an extra layer of chaos and insanity to the disturbing events that are taking place.

The first hint we get that things have gone terribly awry under the Judge’s leadership comes in the form of a young Mexican girl, naked, with a collar around her neck, chained to a post, with blackened meatscraps beside her in a bowl nearby.  There is no one else about, and things seem ominously quiet.

The doctor reappears, and he is filthy and babbling.  “That man,” he says.  “That man.” (p. 272).  He is grabbing Glanton’s leg, but pointing up to the Judge.  The judge is up on the hill, and Glanton sees him in silhouette, “like some great balden archimandrite.” (p. 273).  More twisted religious imagery.  He is wrapped in a freeflowing cloth, but is otherwise naked.  Brown appears, and is dressed similarly.  Glanton goes to his quarters.

The ferry stands idle.  No one is crossing.  By night, the screams of young girls being carried across the river can be heard.  Of course no one is stopping it.  Someone has given the idiot whiskey, and he dances around the fire “with loping simian steps.” (p. 273).

In the early morning, Jackson, described here as “the black,” walks out to the landing and is urinating in the river.  Despite the vulgarity of the act and the violence we’ve seen all over this chapter, the scene is very serene.  That is until an arrow appears, as if out of nowhere, piercing him through the upper abdomen, passing straight through and then floating in the river behind him.

More arrows come close behind.  He scrabbles for his weapons, but they are not there.  He is still clothed in just the robe.  He’s hit in the chest and the groin.  He seizes his thigh where we see that dark arterial blood is spurting.  Brown is a goner.

Not surprisingly, it’s the Yumas.  They have had enough.  One of them finishes Jackson off, smashing his head in with a war club.  The rest swarm up the hill, in war paint and little if anything else, ready to wreak vengeance.  One goes into the doctor’s quarters and emerges with his dripping head (the irony, of course, being that the doctor has done nothing wrong and wanted none of this).  The doctor’s dog is bound up and dragged along too, but his time is limited as well.  Several others of Glanton’s group are murdered on the spot.

They enter Glanton’s quarters, and he is literally lying among his riches “like a debauched feudal baron” (p. 286), his weapons hanging all around, but alas, not close enough to save him.  Caballo en Pello (literally “horse hair”), described in the text as an old man, and possibly the leader of this group, gets in the bed with Glanton, and is handed an axe by one in the group of indians.  Glanton, mean and fearless until the end, spits and tells him to hack away.  And he does, splitting his head to the “thrapple” (i.e. windpipe).  Ouch!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here again: no one can get darker or more violent more quickly than McCarthy.

And now, in one of the most vivid and disturbing visuals of the entire book, they enter the Judge’s quarters where they find the idiot, and a young girl, and the judge, all naked.  As if that wasn’t crazy or disturbing enough (I won’t even venture to speculate on what was going on before they arrived), the judge is holding the howitzer, pried from its blocks, and is aiming it at the Yumas, with a lit cigar in his hand, ready at the touch-hole.  We knew the judge was strong, but according to Wikipedia, the barrel of these Mountain howitzers weighted 220 pounds.  And that’s not accounting for what the kick or force of this thing would be if it fired.  The judge doesn’t even appear to be breaking a sweat.  The Yumas fall all over themselves trying to get away.  They seem to have no doubts about whether or not he is bluffing.

The judge grabs his trunk and both he and the idiot, who reaches just to the judge’s waist, disappear into the woods.

The Yuma’s Revenge

The Yumas build a bonfire and throw all the white men’s possessions into it, save a few valuables.  They take Glanton’s body and throw it in.  His loyal dog, though not yet dead, has been tied to the body, and suffers a symbolic but no doubt horrific death.  The doctor’s torso is tossed in too, along with his dog.  I won’t describe the suffering his dog endures, but it’s nasty.  Eight other bodies were tossed in.  The doctor’s head, at first mounted on a pole like some kind of trophy, is tossed in.  The guns and clothing and gold and silver are all divided up, the rest tossed in to burn.

The last sentence in the chapter goes on for 12 lines, and describes this macabre group watching their enemies burn “as might some painted troupe of mimefolk.” (p. 287).  Again, McCarthy talks of future violence, and destiny, and the destiny of violence.  The last few lines are as dark as they are beautiful.  Looking into the fire at the remains of Glanton and most of his gang, the Yumas watch “like the prefiguration of their own ends the carbonized skulls of their enemies incandescing before them bright as blood among the coals.” (p. 288).  Fire, blood, red, destiny.  What a chapter!


howitzer- a large gun that is used to fire shells high into the air for a short distance; a short cannon used to fire projectiles at medium muzzle velocities and with relatively high trajectories

farrier- a person who shoes horses; blacksmith

abutment- a heavy structure that supports something (such as a bridge)

demur- to disagree politely with another person’s statement or suggestion; to politely refuse to accept a request or suggestion

scow- a large flat-bottomed boat with broad square ends used chiefly for transporting bulk material (as ore, sand, or refuse)

littoral- of, relating to, or situated on the shore of the sea or a lake.

dragoon- a soldier especially in the past who rode a horse and carried a gun

dunnage- loose materials used to support and protect cargo in a ship’s hold; also :  padding in a shipping container; baggage.

parapet- a wall, rampart, or elevation of earth or stone to protect soldiers; a low wall or railing to protect the edge of a platform, roof, or bridge
procrustean- marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances
Sonoran- relating to, denoting, or characteristic of a biogeographical region including desert areas of the southwestern US and central Mexico.
gibbet- a gallows.
loam- a paste of clay and water with sand, chopped straw, etc., used in making bricks and plastering walls.
squib- a small firework that burns with a hissing sound before exploding.
fibre morral- a fiber bag usually used as a food bag for horses :  nose bag– West, from the Spanish
sashmilled- raw cut from a saw mill???
sea oats- a tall grass (Uniola paniculata) that has panicles resembling those of the oat, grows chiefly on the coast of the southern United States, and is useful as a sand binder
selvage- an edge produced on woven fabric during manufacture that prevents it from unraveling.
dory- a boat with a narrow, flat bottom, high bow, and flaring sides.
alcalde- a magistrate or mayor in a Spanish, Portuguese, or Latin American town.
cabildo- chiefly Southwest :  the chapter house of a cathedral or collegiate church; a town council or a town hall in a country formerly a Spanish colony
lazarous- from proper name Lazarus in the Bible, extended in medieval times to mean “one deformed and nauseous with filthy and pestilential diseases”
aguardiente- 1. Any of various strong distilled alcoholic drinks; 2. a liquor made in Latin America from sugarcane, often flavored with anise; 3. a brandy made in Spain and Portugal from the pomace of grapes.
judas hole- a peephole or secret opening for spying
vigas- a rough-hewn roof timber or rafter, especially in an adobe building.
juzgado- court, tribunal; place where you await judgment; jail; root of “hoosegow” – Spanish juzgado panel of judges, courtroom, from past participle of juzgar to judge, from Latin judicare  
caissons- a chest or wagon for holding or conveying ammunition.
archimandrite- the head of a large monastery or group of monasteries in the Orthodox Church.
skein- a long piece of yarn or thread that is loosely wound
thaumaturge- a worker of wonders and performer of miracles; a magician.
atavistic- relating to or characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral.
fard- to paint (the face) with cosmetics
thrapple- throat, windpipe —used especially of the horse
portmanteau- a large trunk or suitcase, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts.
durance- imprisonment or confinement.
suttee- the act or custom of a Hindu widow burning herself to death or being burned to death on the funeral pyre of her husband; also :  a woman burned to death in this way
prefiguration- to show or suggest (something that will happen or exist at a future time); to show, suggest, or announce by an antecedent type, image, or likeness; to picture or imagine beforehand

7 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter Nineteen- “You done been paid.”

  1. These reviews are great: I especially enjoy the vocabulary at the end.

    A “gill” (pronounced with a soft “g”) is a unit of measurement: four fluid ounces. A tin cup “whereon the gills were stamped” would be one with visible fill lines; patrons could then see if the proprietor poured them their fair share.

    I believe it is Jackson, not Brown, who is the first to be killed by the Yuma at the end of the chapter (and who is garbed similarly to the judge).

    • Thanks! Anyone who can read Blood Meridian without a dictionary close by has a much more advanced vocabulary than I do.

      Oh, great, thanks for this definition. I couldn’t find it anywhere.

      I will have to check on the Jackson/Brown issue and correct accordingly. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

  2. I read ‘the black’ in this chapter as Jackson, who is referenced as the ‘black man Jackson’ on p 284 of the new edition. Last we heard of David Brown he was escaping alone from prison and Glanton was looking for him. Maybe I read something wrong though–I find the plot hard to follow!

    • Right you are. Somehow I must have switched the names in the analysis. Thanks for pointing that out. It’s the black Jackson (as opposed to the white Jackson, who the black Jackson killed earlier in the book). Brown does escape, but it doesn’t end up doing him much good (as you will soon see, if you haven’t already). You were right, I was wrong. It is hard to follow the plot sometimes. And things happen so fast, you miss a sentence, and you’re lost. Hope you’re liking it, though.

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