For three days, John Grady and Rawlins ride behind the uniformed officers, cuffed to their horses. On the third day they ride into Encantada, the town where they found and rescued Blevins' horse. They are taken to a small adobe jail and left in a windowless cell. A voice breaks the silence: "Is that you all?" It's Blevins.
Blevins tells them that after they left Encantada and split up, he worked for a German family in Palau for two months. With the money he'd earned, he rode back across the desert, returned to Encantada and shot the man who stole his pistol. He planned to make a quick getaway, but in the course of being pursued, he shot and killed one of the local boys. They threw him in jail, bludgeoned his feet so he couldn't walk, and went looking for his two 'accomplices'.
The next morning, Rawlins is taken to meet the captain. He peppers the American with illogical questions, makes unfounded accusations, even orders him to pull his pants down for an unexplained inspection. On the verge of tears, he returns to his cell and tells John Grady that it doesn't matter what they say - their fate has been written long before. When John Grady is taken to meet the captain, he puts up with the barrage of irrational questions - mostly about their relationship to the "assassin Blevins" - for only a short while before falling silent. "I think they aim to kill Blevins," he says to Rawlins upon returning to his cell.
Three days later, they are loaded into a truckbed and driven to an abandoned estancia near Torreon. After they're taken off the truck, the guards grab Blevins by the arm. He flails desperately and manages to shove a wad of crumpled pesos at John Grady before they grab a hold of him. They drag him off into the trees and Rawlins and John Grady hear two pistol shots come from the distance. The guards return, load the two stunned men back into the truck, and drive them to an old prison in Castelar. The captain enters their cell and makes it clear that they will not be leaving the jail until they pay their way out.
For the next two days, the two Americans are left in la periquera, the prison yard, to defend themselves against their bloodthirsty jailmates. Rawlins' nose is broken, John Grady's eyes are bruised, and still John Grady tells his partner, "They either got to kill us or let us be. There aint no middle ground." On the third day, the fighting intensifies - John Grady is blindsided with a gravel-filled sock that knocks out two teeth and leaves his left eye completely closed. They are invited to meet with a man named Emilio Perez, who offers to help them get out of the prison with the help of his political connections. But when John Grady and Rawlins tell him that they have no money to pay, Perez responds: "Without money you can do nothing." When the Americans restate their inability to buy their way out, Perez makes it clear that they are staying in the prison at their own risk - and implies that those who are not "under his protection" do not survive.
Tellingly, Rawlins is stabbed the next day by one of the convicts. John Grady returns to Perez, hoping to find some way to secure protection for both himself and Rawlins. Though their conversation is civil and turns towards philosophy, nationalism, and ethics, the conclusion is the same - Perez will not help him without money. John Grady realizes that he has no bargaining power and takes leave of Perez. Determined not to be blackmailed - or killed - by one of Perez' cronies, he takes the wad of pesos given to him by Blevins and convinces one of the convicts to sell him a makeshift switchblade.
That night at the evening meal, he sits across from a boy his age who is smoking and drinking alone. The hall suddenly goes silent while John Grady is eating. As he looks around and notices the absence of guards, food servers, and a sound from the rest of the inmates in the hall, he realizes why this boy is by himself. The boy stubs out his cigarette, steps over the table bench, and tries to slash John Grady with the edge of his tray. John Grady pulls out his knife and the two men engage in a protracted, bloody battle. Finally, just as the cuchillero is about to cut his throat, John Grady brings his knife up from the floor and sinks it into his heart. Wounded badly, he pushes himself off the floor and shoves the dead body away. No one follows him as he leaves the hall. When he walks into the yard, a man approaches and tells John Grady to follow him: Perez wants to help him. But John Grady is too weak to respond and collapses. Just as the alarm horn sounds and the yard lights come on, the man picks him up, carries him across the yard into Perez' house and kicks the door shut.
A doctor comes three days later to tend to him. Soon after, both he and Rawlins are released. As they eat at a café, John Grady tells his friend that Duena Alfonsa not only paid their way out but also gave them an envelope full of money to make their journey. He then tells Rawlins that his friend will have to make the journey back home alone, since he plans on returning to Rocha's ranch. After buying new clothes, the two friends part. Rawlins heads back to San Angelo, John Grady towards the ranch at Monclova.
At times, the third chapter of All the Pretty Horses seems as if it belongs in a different book. Its plot does not flow from the chapter preceding, the characters stagnate more than develop, the tone sheds abundance for austerity. But thematically, the chapter fulfills McCarthy's plan - a plan characteristic of nearly all his major works. Romantic characters must lose their innocence by encountering violence, bloodshed. As the most fundamental trial of their souls, these characters must cling to their spirit when freedom, serenity, idealism turns to fear, atrocity, evil. This crisis is inevitable. But death is not. And as we watch John Grady and Rawlins crawl from terror and darkness, we see McCarthy's most valued theme illuminated: The heart of a person, indeed the life of a person, is revealed not only in their search for peace and fulfillment, but also in their realization that both are fleeting - and the understanding that neither are innate.
The second chapter unfolds as a tentative, languid love story that slowly unravels. But the third ignores all these loose threads left to reprise a subplot from the first chapter. By the end of it, the Monclova ranch and all its suspended mysteries - Was Rocha involved in their capture? Did Alejandra go to France? - are not only forgotten, but suddenly insignificant as well. In addition to the theme, this narrative structure also bolsters McCarthy's manipulation of genre. In a classic Western, the third act is usually synonymous with the climactic showdown between good and evil. Motivated by a tangible prize (the girl, the ranch, the town), this culminating battle ends with the hero displaying his wit, brawn, and tenacity and either destroying or banishing the forces of evil. None of these familiar elements come into view as John Grady and Rawlins take on the prison at Castelar.
First, there is no 'prize' to be won - when the two Americans are released, they've gained nothing but their freedom. Their emotions upon leaving the prison - uncertain, dispirited, slightly stunned - reflect this:
What? He said.
You ought to be happier about bein out of that place.
I was thinking the same thing about you.
Rawlins nodded. Yeah, he said.
What do you want to do?
You're goin back down there, aint you? Said Rawlins.
Yeah. I guess I am.
On account of the girl?
What about the horses?
The girl and the horses.
When they comment on each other's lack of joy upon being released, the irony both tragic and darkly comment. Wounded early in the battle, the sidekick never had a chance to defend his best friend. Now, clearly disillusioned, exhausted, he wants only to go home. The hero, meanwhile, has lost his girl, his horses, and inexplicably suffered the murder of his friend, the indignity of bargaining for his freedom, the wounds of useless fighting. After all this, he still has to go and settle scores. Reading this passage again with attention to the irony, we can almost sense John Grady's frustration that the story must go on. Indeed, when Rawlins points out the folly of going after Alejandra, John Grady does not become defensive or irrational. He himself rejects the prospect of an impending showdown, agreeing to return home if she refuses him. 'I still want the horses,' he adds, as if to make it fully clear that he will not return home until he has, at the very least, what he started with: his freedom and his horse.
Second, John Grady does not muscle or outwit his way out of prison. Instead, his freedom is bought - bought by a woman, bought by his nemesis who had warned him that only she 'had the right to say.' Adding to the sinister irony is the fact that John Grady does indeed have to fight for his survival, but this fight has no purpose, no upshot. His brutal battle against the cuchillero is simply a literal portrayal of the 'inescapable evil,' the inevitable bloodshed, which McCarthy believes is so central to human nature. The tone of the imagery during this fight - passionless, sequential, almost journalistic - mimics this viewpoint:
The boy came opposite him. He passed. John Grady watched him with a lowered gaze. When the boy reached the end of the table he suddenly turned and sliced the tray at his head....He was trying to block John Grady's view with his tray. John Grady stepped back. He was against the wall.
McCarthy uses his prose to empty the fight of 'showdown' connotations. The violence isn't dramatic or glamorous - in reality, it's almost boring. Moreover, there is no logical reason for it, no guiding context, nothing at stake. His interruption of his customary tone, style, prose rhythms to offer what is essentially a tedious eyewitness account of a brawl plainly reflects his philosophy - that the trappings of life can and will be interrupted at any time by instinctive violence. Though this might appear a sensible theory, it subverts not only the Western genre, but the experience of reading a hero-driven novel as well. When John Grady emerges bloodied and broken into the peliquera after killing the assassin, bloodied and broken, we unconsciously wait for his courage to be rewarded. Thus when Perez' man immediately appears to tell him that el padrote will help him, we naturally assume that this flows out of the preceding battle:
He was halfway to the first steel ladder when a tall man overtook him and spoke to him. He turned, crouching. In the dying light perhaps they would not see he had no knife. Not see how he stood so bloody in his clothes.
Ven conmigo, said the man. Esta bien.
No me moleste.
The dark tiers of the prison walls ran forever down the deep cyanic sky. A dog had begun to bark.
El padrote quiere ayudarle.
The hyperbolic imagery of the bloody, entrapped hero still willing to battle on only serves to confirm our assumptions. John Grady's valor, his staunch righteousness, has convinced Perez that his freedom should not be bought, but is justly deserved. McCarthy, however, finds such beliefs vapid, even dangerous: surviving violence is not an act of courage, simply an act of survival. John Grady's battle against the cuchillero is not a hardship, an iniquity, a climax, but rather something ordinary, something natural in the 'balanced expenditure' and 'equal exchange of life and death' (Tatum 48). What ultimately sets him free, then, is the only thing that can set him free - money. And because he rejects this notion of paying for freedom so thoroughly, the money must come from an outsider, and it must come from his enemy.