In the morning, John Grade leaves La Purisima. He rides on to Torreon where he stays the night at a hotel. The next morning, he calls Alejandra. She tells him that she is returning to La Purisima in two days and can't see him. John Grady tells her that he will not leave until he sees her, even if it is the last time they ever meet. Alejandra relents and says she will meet him in Zacatecas the next day.
He takes a train to Zacatecas, checks into a hotel, and meets Alejandra in the evening. They walk through the streets back to the hotel where, over dinner, John Grady tells her everything that has happened. She cries, then suddenly seems anxious. Finally, she confesses that she is responsible for everything: she told her father that they were lovers. John Grady is shocked, betrayed, but Alejandra responds that her aunt knew of their affair and threatened to tell him - and even if she kept it to herself, she could not stand for her Alfonsa 'to have that power.' Indeed, the only reason Rocha didn't kill John Grady himself was because he was afraid his daughter might take her own life. The lovers spend the night and the next day in each other's arms. At night, he takes her to the station and can barely watch as the train pulls away.
He rides for days until he reaches a crossroads. Several arrows point towards the northern border - one towards La Encantada in the west. 'The hell with it,' John Grady says out loud. 'I aint leavin my horse down here.' When he reaches the town early the next morning, he ties up the horse, loads his pistol, and goes back to the old school building to wait the arrival of the captain. When the captain enters, John Grady demands his horse and leads him at gunpoint to the home of the charro, or town cowboy. The two men take him to Rawlins' horse. Increasingly agitated, John Grady demands to know the whereabouts of the other horses. When the captain takes too long in answering, John Grady finally explodes, telling the captain that Blevins was his brother and that he vowed to avenge his death.
All three men ride on Rawlins' horse to the house of Don Rafael, where the charro says the other horses are being kept. In the corral, he finds both his and Blevins' horse. But just as he's preparing to leave, he's shot in the leg from behind. Unable to pursue the shooter, he asks the charro to help him wrangle the horses. After a protracted struggle, he manages to lead the captain and four horses - his own, Rocha's, Blevins', Rawlins' - from the hacienda. Four riders from Encantada pursue them as they head out into the open country. With no place to hide, John Grady unhitches the captain and tells him to follow on Rocha's horse - and warns him that to attempt an escape is sure death. They soon lose the riders and find a place to stop as darkness falls. John Grady tends to his wound at a shallow basis and then rides on, the captain in tow.
They ride and stop intermittently. The captain begins to lose his verve, begging John Grady to let him go or at least stop and rest. Eventually John Grady takes pity on him, cuffs him to the saddle of one of the horses, and tells him he can go as far as he can carry the saddle. When he wakes up the next morning, he finds the captain still sitting beside his fire - and three men standing over him with pistols. They turn out to be genial riders, however, who say only that they are 'men of the country.' They take the captain and mysteriously vanish, leaving John Grady to take his riderless horses alone to the border.
Days later, after braving snow, storms, icy wind, he rides into Langtry, Texas. For weeks, he rides through the border country seeking the owner of Blevins' horse. When multiple claims are made, the county constable impounds the horse and John Grady is ordered to appear in court. He tells the judge of his ordeal, answers his questions dutifully, and shows him the bullet wound in his leg. The judge awards John Grady custody of the horse. Later that night John Grady goes to the home of the judge and as if driven to purge his soul, tells him that he killed a man in jail and nearly killed another (the captain). The judge offers him comfort, but it is clear that John Grady still struggles to accept the violence he had to commit in order to survive.
He searches for the owner of Blevins' horse, but never finds him. Later in the month, he drifts north back to San Angelo. He rides to Rawlins' house and tells friend everything that has happened. He finds out that his father has died. He remains in San Angelo for a short time and attends the funeral of Abuela, the woman who had worked for his family for fifty years. But then, just as before, he leaves without a destination or compelling motivation. He crosses the Pecos River, rides through the desert, and vanishes "into the darkening land, the world to come."
All the Pretty Horses simmers to a boil as it reaches its conclusion, exploding into unexpected bursts of violence, settling into lulls just as we expect climaxes. Ultimately, it ends as it begins - with the main character restless at home, contemplative at a funeral, resolved in his decision to leave without a destination.
Before John Grady leaves Duena Alfonsa, he accepts that she has the right to 'say' but challenges her powers over fate:
JG: I intend to see her.
DA: ...She will not break her word to me. You will see.
JG: Yes mam. We will.
JG: I don't hate you.
DA: You shall.
JG: We'll see.
DA: Yes. We'll see what fate has in store for us, wont we.
What is unclear from this exchange, however, is how each of them expect Alejandra to react. When Duena Alfonsa insists that her grandniece will not 'break her word', does she believe that Alejandra will resist his advances entirely and refuse to meet him? Or does she know that they will see each other and realize the futility of their love? And why is John Grady so quietly confident about meeting Alejandra? Does he truly believe that they have a future together? The build-up is laden with so much rage and resentment that Alejandra merely becomes a pawn in a war of philosophies. But we know what the outcome will be the moment John Grady finishes telling her everything that has happened since he left. She looks at him, tears in her eyes, and confesses not her love for him, but her own self-doubt:
How do I know who you are? Do I know what sort of man you are? What sort my father is? Do you drink whiskey? Do you go with whores? Does he? What are men?
In the war of philosophies, Duena Alfonsa gets to Alejandra first. Her grandniece not only told her father because she could not stand for her grandaunt 'to have that power' over her, but now unknowingly speaks her words, believes her truths. Though they continue their conversation over dinner and Alejandra tries to justify why they cannot every see each other again, it is clear that it is Alfonsa who has ultimately decided her fate and tamed her spirit.
He watches her train leave, the fury quietly building inside him. But there is no enemy to pursue, no revenge to be taken. Characteristically, he rides on, seeking strength and seeking a purpose, but the agony in his heart "was like a stake." The simile reflects how his ordeal has weighed down his soul, left him without purpose. He is alone and he has nowhere to go. He wanders near the border, but when he reaches the crossroads, his heart, laden with pain, cannot point him in a direction. If he left San Angelo reveling in the electric lightness of dark, the beauty of possibility, now all he sees is faintness:
He rode at night that its hooves might benefit from the damp or from what damp there was and as he rode he saw small villages distant on the plain that glowed a faint yellow in that incoordinate dark and he knew that the life there was unimaginable to him.
In the void, he sees neither light, nor dark, nor life. If his heart will not give him a path, his anger, however will. He will not return home until he, at the very least, has the things with which he came to Mexico - his horse and his pride. He returns to Encantada not as a hopeful drifter, but a hopeless avenger.
The violent recapture of the horses and humiliation of the craven captain restores the vigor of our hero, but we sense his desperation, the emptiness of the revenge. The explosion of violence detonates in the narrative suddenly and impassively, much like John Grady's encounter with the cuchillero:
He saw the man who'd shot him standing in the bed of a truck a hundred feet away across the lot with the barrel of the rifle resting on top of the cab. He pointed the pistol at him and the man crouched down and watched him through the rear window of the cab and out through the windshield. He cocked and leveled the pistol and shot a hole in the windshield and cocked the pistol again and spun and pointed it at the man kneeling behind him.
McCarthy reinhabits the guise of a journalist, dispensing with figurative language and narrative license for a cold reenactment of the encounter. Only after John Grady sets the captain free does he restore the languid imagery of his hero's consciousness:
In his sleep he could hear the horses stepping among the rocks and he could hear them drink from the shallow pools in the dark where the rocks lay smooth and rectilinear as the stones of ancient ruins and the water from their muzzles dripped and rang like water dripping in a well...
Just as the similes and metaphors return, so does the lightness of John Grady's heart. He returns to San Angelo with the understanding that the soul
Beat[s] at some terrible cost and that the world's pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.
Indeed, he has learned the same lesson as the reader - that no matter how beautiful an image, no matter how serene a view, life will always interrupt it with the cruelty of pain, blood, carnage. The search for beauty and peace is not a linear quest, but a cycle of gain and loss. Thus, when John Grady finally does return home, it is fitting that the cycle resets. The story begins once more, only this time our battle-hardened hero is armed with the lessons of his own experience. He attends a funeral, searches for meaning in the landscape of his hometown, and finds nothing - "nothing for the living or the dead." This time, he leaves alone, not into the glowing void between light and dark, but into a 'bloodred sunset like an animal in sacrificial torment.'
Indeed, the sacrifice may be over, but the torment is not. This time he ventures into "the world to come" not in search of a story, but in search of an end to the cycle, in search of a resolution.