Blood Meridian, Chapter XX: “Creatures surpassing all description “

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.comWhen last we left our fearless heroes, the ferry crossing had become an extremely dangerous place to be a white man.  The natives are pissed and looking for blood.  This chapter kicks off with just two from the band of scalp hunters, the kid and Toadvine, trying to escape, and battling as they go.  At some point the kid took an arrow to the leg, and it is up against his leg, making it slow and painful going.  But as he himself points out, what choice does he have but to go on?

The land to the west is nothing but sand dunes, fine for hiding, but with no relief from exposure to the sun, and hardly any water, they won’t last long.  But their options are limited.

Simile and Sparseness

Once again, and really always, I am amazed with McCarthy and how he can say so much with so few words.  He is the master of conciseness.  A piece of ominous foreshadowing I really liked, as the kid and Toadvine make their way into the dunes, four Yuma indians crest one of the dunes, see the kid and Toadvine, briefly observe the surrounding terrain, and then let them go. (p. 277).  Not permanently, of course, but the Yumas are master trackers, and they can know at a glance just where the two will be headed.  And they will find them.

The kid limps along, and more than once he tells Toadvine to abandon him.  But Toadvine won’t.  A strange showing of compassion, rare in these parts among such men.

The Yumas are described as “aborigines” here.  They do pursue the kid and Toadvine, and have caught up to them by noon.  (simile time, the Yumas appear on the eastern horizon “like baleful marionettes” (p. 278)).  They are not on horseback, but on foot proceed at a trot.  The kid and Toadvine are out of water, the kid’s leg is killing him.  The indians are within arrow-firing range, and a hail of arrows comes down all around the two fleeing men.  They break the arrows that fall near them, a desperate attempt to decrease the ammunition of their pursuers.  They never know whether an arrow left behind unbroken will be the one delivering a fatal blow in the next volley.

With no choice and nowhere to hide, they make a stand.  The kid gets down on his elbows, takes careful aim, and fires the pistol they have.  One of the Yumas goes down “like a player through a trap.” (p. 279).  It’s a lucky shot at this range, and when the kid cocks the pistol again, Toadvine puts his hand over the barrel, as if to say “you got lucky that time, but you need to save your ammunition.  It’s going to get worse before it gets better.  The two carry on.

They go a full twenty-four hours without water.  Under these conditions, especially with the kid bleeding like he is, it would have felt like an eternity.  The natives “dogged their steps the day long.” (p. 279).

Water and another refugee

They reach the wells at Alamo Mucho.  The water is down in a sort of basin.  When they get closer, they see that someone else is already there, another member of the original group, the ex-priest Tobin.  They ask if any others have survived.  No one knows.  They thirstily go to the water.  The indians fan out around them.  They fire arrows down on the men.  The men call out whenever a new onslaught is coming.  The kid holds his fire.  But the light shifts, and some of the indians on the west side of the wells start to make their way closer.  The kid decides it’s time to make his move.  Tobin holds his hat to block the sun from the kid’s eyes.  The kid kills three more Yumas in short succession.  This misfortune seems to have discouraged the natives and, literally outgunned, they begin a slow retreat, “howling out bloodoaths in their stoneage tongue or invocations to what ever gods of war or fortune they’d the ear of.” (p. 280).  The kid cleans his gun and gets ready for what’s coming.

He’s a good shot, an invaluable asset in these times and circumstances.  But they are low on ammo and outnumbered.

Night falls.  The indians are still out there, though at some distance.  They can see their fires.  They don’t know whether another attack is coming.  It is a night so dark and solitary, no creature cries out.  In the morning, the indians are gone.

The Judge- Naked Again, to the Surprise of No One

Out of this barren wilderness wander two strange figures, one large, one small.  Both naked.  Of course it is the judge and the imbecile.  And of course they are naked.  Some really compelling descriptions here, comparing and contrasting the two figures, the judge white and the imbecile dark, the judge tall the imbecile small and crouched, “lurching together like some scurrilous king stripped of his vestiture and driven together with his fool into the wilderness to die.” (p. 282).  Whoa!  What has happened to them, how did they escape, and why are they freaking naked?

They are not completely naked.  The judge has a wig of dried river mud on his head with bits of straw and grass sticking out, and the imbecile has a fur on his head, blood-blackened non-fur side out.  What an image! Some kind of twisted Cain and Abel imagery?  The plant and the animal? And the judge has a small satchel and is “bedraped with meat like some medieval penitent.” (p. 282).  I don’t know what that means, but it’s another interesting religious reference.  The judge nods to the waiting three like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

The judge and imbecile drink.  Being so exposed and naked, the judge is sunburned and dehydrated.  Addressing him as “Louis,” the judge asks Toadvine what he’ll take for his hat.  Toadvine responds that it ain’t for sale.  “Everything’s for sale,” responds the judge.  Indeed.  But by this time, all of them should know better than to bargain with the judge.  The judge offers him $100 for it, an exorbitant sum.  Toadvine eventually accepts.  In the satchel are numerous gold coins.  They work out a deal.  The hat won’t fit, so the judge cuts a slit in it.  Not the first mention of the judge’s enormous head.

Toadvine starts eating the meat, no doubt starving at this point.

It comes up that the three only have the one gun among them.  They seem wary around the judge.  There is particularly tension between Tobin–the ex-priest–and the judge.  There is some debate about whether they will continue on together.

I can’t tell if the kid asks or the judge offers $500 for the gun.  But before it can happen,Tobin tells the kid to kill the judge, pointing out that he is naked and unarmed and that the kid will have no other chance.  “Do it for the love of God.  Do it or I swear your life is a forfeit,” says the ex-priest, unwisely within earshot of the judge.  (p. 285).  We’ll see.

It must have been the kid asking, because the judge says on the next page that $75 would be his best offer.  The kid wants to know if Toadvine is coming with them, but Toadvine says he can’t because he’s a wanted man in California.  It seems the party is dividing, the kid leaving to the west, Toadvine staying with the judge and the imbecile.  Before they leave, Toadvine says something interesting: “You wouldn’t think that a man would run plumb out of country out here.”  “It ain’t country you’ve run out of,” said the kid, and spat (p. 285).  What then?  Luck?  Friends?  Probably all of the above.

Another Reunion

Heading west, they encounter Brown heading east, riding one horse and leading another.  They meet, but seem wary.  Divided allegiances are becoming apparent.  They look him over and he looks them over, both cognizant of the supplies the other has, a cruel calculus out in the desert.  They say they thought he had been in jail, and he responds that he was.  They inform him that everyone else is dead except for the judge and Toadvine back at the well (no mention of the imbecile).  He asks if the judge is armed.  They say no.  After this brief exchange, they continue west and he continues east, presumably towards the judge, with what intentions no one knows.  Precarious times.

Another Attack

They continue on, and there is more evidence of ill-fated travelers, bones of animals and tatters of clothes and pieces of wagons.  There is a spot where thousands of sheep had died, and they crouch down to drink.  They say it’s an ancient lake, but I don’t know if it’s dried up or the water comes from a seep (spring?).  But the kid lifts his head from drinking and a rifle ball splashes in the water.  They are under attack.

The kid looks up, and it is the judge, “in the gusseted clothing of his recent associates.” (p. 287).  “Gusseted” here means “a piece of cloth usually in the shape of a triangle that is sewn into something (such as the underneath part of a sleeve) to make it wider or stronger.”  Or at least I think it does.  Long story short, the judge has somehow acquired the horses and rifle from Brown and the clothing from him and presumably Toadvine.  And now he’s attacking what remains of the group  The imbecile is with him in nothing but a hat.

The kid is down in the bones.  The judge is up on the hill, “trudging sedately,” in no fear or rush. (See p. 288).  The ex-priest is nowhere to be seen.  The kid and the judge exchange shots, but both miss.  The kid goes to get a drink from the creek, moving through the sand where wolves had been.

The kid hears the ex-priest hiss to him from the left.  The judge is gone.  The two horses are moving towards them, and when the kid looks closer, he sees that the imbecile is leading them.

He sees the judge to his right, but then he disappears again.  He hears a noise behind him and it’s Tobin saying “Shoot him.”  We think he’s talking about the judge, but Tobin clarifies that the kid should shoot the fool.  The kid tries to, but then the fool disappears too, the horses progressing to the water.

The kid heads back to the creek.  The expriest is gone.  The judge is gone.  The fool is gone.  Notice the kids leg, bleeding again, in the water, “marblings of blood…like thin red leeches in the current.” (p. 289).  What language!

The judge calls out, like as if to some new travelers, saying there is plenty of water for all.  A ploy?

The kid drinks more, as if storing up in case he needs to flee back into the desert.  He sees the hand and foot prints of Tobin mixed with other animal prints.

The judge calls out again, this time wanting to be friends.  Highly unlikely.

The kid sees a viper hiding nearby.  Exactly.

Then things get truly strange.  The expriest appears, holding up a cross he has fashioned out of bones and hide, babbling in tongues.  The judge is already all over it.  He fires at him with the rifle and hits him.  The kid fires at the judge, but misses (he was such a good shot before; is he even trying to hit the judge?).  The judge is gone.

The kid runs to Tobin.  He’s been shot through the neck.  It did not hit an artery, yet still won’t stop bleeding.  Tobin tells the kid to kill the horses.  It’s their only chance.

More blood in the water imagery, Tobin’s like roseblooms.

The kid is going towards the horses, but knows it may be a trap.  He tries to sneak, but the idiot sees him before he ever sees it.  The idiot is very watchful, but does nothing to stop him.  The kid sees the horses, shoots one then the other.

But the judge knows what has happened, and there will be consequences.  The kid hears the judge’s voice not more than 50 feet away.  The judge says he knows the priest put him up to it, but still, there is the question of property, and he demands the kid’s gun.

The kid knows he’s still got some distance, and ignores the judge and heads for the priest, who mistakenly thinks the kid has killed the horses and the imbecile.  The kid does not correct him, probably assuming the expriest is not long for this world.

They hide together, still two hours until dark.  The judge calls out to them, citing legal cases and all manner of things.  He specifically talks about law relating to taking or killing another man’s horse, ironic considering where the judge got the horses originally, and where Brown got them before that.  Tobin tells the kid not to listen.  The kid tells Tobin not to listen.

Finally, it’s dark.  They make their escape.  Unafraid if being seen or having his whereabouts known, the judge has built a fire.  They don’t speculate about what he’s using for fuel (bones or worse).

It’s cold.  They travel all night.  McCarthy calls the two “pilgrims.”  There are wolves all around.  They constantly look back to see if they are being followed.  Once the sun rose, they slept.  When they woke, it was midmorning, and they saw the sun well advanced.  Coming towards them in the middle distance were the judge and the fool.  Ominous.

A great chapter, like all of them.  Beautiful language.  Again, blood imagery, sun imagery, religious imagery, all very powerful and probably deeper than I am getting into in my surface reading.  But a lot there, and great writing.


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

forenoon- morning; before noon

wagon tongue- a long, heavy piece of wood used to guide the wagon; it is usually square but tapered toward the front.  With metal slats attached to the sides where they come in contact with the hounds.

hounds- pieces of wood that extend in a triangular fashion from between the bolster and the axle (every wagon-related vocabulary word creates yet further wagon-related vocabulary words; for a great review on a lot of these terms, check this out)

aborigine- a person, animal, or plant that has been in a country or region from earliest times.

baleful- threatening harm; menacing.

sprue- the waste piece on a casting (as of metal or plastic) left by the hole through which the mold was filled;  the hole in which a sprue forms

selvage- an edge produced on woven fabric during manufacture that prevents it from unraveling. (Geology- a zone of altered rock, especially volcanic glass, at the edge of a rock mass).

systole- the phase of the heartbeat when the heart muscle contracts and pumps blood from the chambers into the arteries.

rubymeated- red, I’m assuming, but what a gorgeous turn of phrase

portent- a sign or warning that something usually bad or unpleasant is going to happen; (archaic) an exceptional or wonderful person or thing.

  • 1:  something that foreshadows a coming event :  omen, sign

  • 2 :  prophetic indication or significance

  • 3 :  marvel, prodigy

taw- make (hide) into leather without the use of tannin, especially by soaking it in a solution of alum and salt.

scurrilous- making or spreading scandalous claims about someone with the intention of damaging their reputation; mocked, defamed, or insulted

vestiture- clothing, garb, dress

bandolier- a shoulder-belt with loops or pockets for cartridges.

croupier-1. the person in charge of a gaming table, gathering in and paying out money or tokens.2.historical- the assistant chairman at a public dinner, seated at the lower end of the table

siliceous- f, relating to, or containing silica or a silicate

jasper- an opaque reddish-brown variety of chalcedony.

carnelian- a semiprecious stone consisting of an orange or orange-red variety of chalcedony.

agate-an ornamental stone consisting of a hard variety of chalcedony, typically banded in appearance.

juzgado- Spanish term for jail, like hoosegow

alparejas- from the context, spanish for harness holding two mules together

spoilbanks- piles of refuse, created by excavation of earth materials from a site, or by removing excess surface materials from a site.

windrow- a long line of material heaped up by the wind or by a machine.

neolithic- of, relating to, or denoting the later part of the Stone Age, when ground or polished stone weapons and implements prevailed.

reconnoitre- make a military observation of (a region) (enemy)

paling- a fence made from pointed wooden or metal stakes.

roiling- make (a liquid) turbid or muddy by disturbing the sediment.

midden- a dunghill or refuse heap.

dowser- diving rod; one who uses

dishclout- dishcloth

gout- a drop or spot, especially of blood, smoke, or flame.

mansuete- (archaic) gentle, tame

revetment- (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.

promontory- a point of high land that juts out into a large body of water; a headland.

“a rocky promontory”
[Back after a long break.  It’s my goal to get this wrapped up this year.  It’s been a labor of love.  Only three chapters to go, plus the one-page epilogue.  I can make it!]

2 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter XX: “Creatures surpassing all description “

  1. Why does the judge want to kill the kid ar this point? Just for the sake of further killing? And why does the ex-priest say that killing the horses and the idiot is the only way to save themselves?

    • It could be a question of loyalty. He wanted the kid’s gun, and the kid wouldn’t sell it to him. Then Tobin encouraged the kid to kill the judge, and maybe the judge isn’t sure the kid didn’t think about it. He could be trying to kill him just to get his resources (guns, clothes, etc.). He could be trying to kill him because he wants his soul. It could be just for his own entertainment. Anarchy. It seems he’s not sure the kid isn’t trying to kill him. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, people in this book will kill each other with the slightest provocation, and sometimes with no provocation at all.

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