While in prison in Chihuahua, the kid is forced to join a chain gang that cleans garbage off the streets. He and Toadvine nickname their overseer “the goldtooth pervert” because of his metallic false teeth.
Toadvine has bigger plans for them, however - he informs the kid that they're going to break out of prison. They befriend another prisoner, a veteran from Kentucky. While working on the chain gang, the prisoners observe an increasing number of Americans heading west to California in hopes of finding gold. They also observe a different group that is certainly not involved in the Gold Rush. These men are unkempt and drunk and they wear necklaces made of human ears and scalps. Their leaders are a man named Glanton and Judge Holden. Toadvine explains that Glanton’s men are scalp hunters; Glanton earns one hundred dollars per scalp, and a thousand should he fetch Gomez’s head. Toadvine devises a plan whereby he, the kid, and the veteran will join Glanton's gang. It is unclear how Glanton frees the three men from prison, but soon enough, they leave town with him. Among the members of Glanton’s gang are two men named John Jackson, one black and one white. They do not get along, and the gang members make bets on which man will kill the other. Also in the party is a group of Delawares, Native Americans who act as guides.
The kid, the veteran, and Toadvine observe the extent of Judge Holden’s magnetic influence when a Prussian Jewish arms dealer named Speyer delivers a shipment of Colt revolvers to the company. Glanton tests the weapons by shooting animals and objects in a local courtyard. Based on those tests, Glanton grows angry and insists the guns are not worth the asking price of $50. Meanwhile, the sound of shooting attracts the attention of some armed Mexican soldiers, who confront Glanton and his men. This meeting almost escalates to a violent conflict, but the judge convinces everyone to calm down. Each member of the scalp hunting operation gets two pistols before they start their journey upcountry.
As the company moves forward into the mountains, Toadvine befriends another fugitive named Bathcat, who has been with the company for a while. After three days of riding, the company arrives in a town called Corralitos, and the townspeople gather in the streets to watch them ride through. General Zuloaga (a Mexican reform leader) invites Glanton, Judge Holden, and the Brown brothers to visit him, while the rest of the company roams around town.
Before Glanton's gang leaves Corralitos, a family of magicians – a man, his wife, and their son and daughter - approach them, hoping to come along. Glanton agrees to let the family accompany them, provided they remain quiet and don’t do any strange tricks, like juggling. It quickly becomes clear that the magician's family doesn’t quite fit in with the scalp-hunters. The magician tries to set up a tent on the windy prairie but it is quickly swept away. That night, Glanton asks the magician to tell his fortune, so the man and his wife bring out their tarot cards. He recites the fortunes of Glanton's men in untranslated Spanish, singling out the black John Jackson and warning him to avoid drinking alcohol. During the kid's turn, he chooses the Four of Cups. When the magician comes to Glanton, his card mysteriously disappears before anyone can see it. The magician’s wife proclaims Glanton to be a witch, and Glanton pulls out his revolver. Luckily, the judge stops Glanton before he does anything dangerous.
The next morning, the magician and Glanton seem to have come to terms. Together, they lead the company into the town of Janos, which appears to be empty even though a company of soldiers is supposed to be stationed there. They encounter an old woman, who is half naked and barely able to walk. Glanton shoots her in the head and the single Mexican member of the company takes her scalp. Later that night, the magician’s words start to ring true when the kid sees the black John Jackson (who is drunk) in a compromising situation with the magician’s daughter.
Other strange things start to happen. In a town cantina, the kid encounters a mad man, also a veteran, who somehow knows that the company is from Texas. He asks about the bounty on Gomez’s head. As they ride towards the next town, men from Glanton's company keep on disappearing, including the veteran and two of the Delawares. That night, the conflict between the two John Jacksons reaches a fever pitch and the black man cuts off the white man’s head with a bowie knife.
Glanton's gang is crossing the western edge of a large playa when they see a group of Apaches. Thankfully, the experience is much less brutal than the kid’s first conflict with Indians, and he fires his rifle at the enemy for the first time. Toadvine manages to kill a man. The judge and Glanton take all of the dead Apaches' effects, including scalps. The Delawares rejoin the company along with the veteran’s horse, which is still saddled. Glanton doesn’t say anything to them and simply throws the veteran’s belongings into the fire.
Further down the road, they come across a carriage carrying the bodies of a man and a young boy. Glanton takes their weapons, ammunition, and ore samples. They ride onwards to the abandoned ruins of Santa Rite del Cobre. They learn that the area is not entirely empty when they come across an old presidio (a large, triangular building). Inside are several American men who were heading to the mountains to prospect for gold but were attacked by the Indians en route. These men are in bad shape. One of them is bleeding from a bullet hold in his lower chest and they have been living off the meat from a dead mule. Outside, they have tied up a horse that was bitten by a snake, which has gone completely mad as a result. Glanton’s company does not understand why the Americans would leave a mad horse alive. One of the squatters criticizes Glanton for treating his horse like a pet. There is also a young Mexican boy in the house, but nobody seems to know who he is. It begins to rain heavily, so the company spends the night in the presidio. The judge takes this opportunity to examine the ore samples and then gives a spontaneous lesson on geology to whomever will listen. Later, the judge paces naked around the house.
When dawn breaks, the storm is passed, the ill horse is dead, and the young Mexican boy is dead from a broken neck. The squatters want to join Glanton’s company, but Glanton ignores their request. He does, however, leave them some ammunition. The company rides away to the sound of the dying man’s hymns.
Tobin, an ex-priest in Glanton's company, tells the kid more about Judge Holden. Tobin says the judge is a renaissance man who speaks many different languages, sings, plays the fiddle, and dances. Tobin claims that every man in the company has encountered the judge in some way or another even before joining Glanton's gang. Tobin himself met the judge at a time when the company had run dry of gunpowder. They were riding along when they encountered the judge perched on a huge rock in the middle of the desert, carrying a bag filled with pistols, gold, and silver. Tobin claims that Glanton and the judge engaged in a short conversation and have been inseparable ever since. Glanton trusts the judge implicitly and heeds his advice, even when it means changing course. Tobin further explains that the judge sometimes stays up all night watching bats, taking notes, walking up and down the mountain, and pressing leaves in his books. Tobin also assures the kid that Glanton is completely insane.
Tobin continues his story, recalling that the judge’s first major contribution to the company was to remedy their lack of gunpowder. He led the company up a steep rocky trail to a cave and instructed the men to fill their wallets and bags with the cave dirt, which contained nitre. Then, he led them along the sharp, dangerous rim of brimstone along the mountain. They perched there, overlooking an approaching herd of Indians. The judge remained calm as he mixed the nitre and the brimstone and then proceeded to urinate into the mixture, urging the company to follow suit. He finally chopped the mixture up with his knife. Glanton filled his rifle with the concoction and was then able to fire a powerful blast. The whole company started filling their weapons with the judge’s homemade gunpowder while the judge waved his white linen shirt at the Indians in false surrender. As the Indians approached Glanton’s company, however, the judge started shooting. Soon, all 58 Indians were dead. There was not a single misfire with Judge Holden’s gunpowder.
This section of Blood Meridian is paced differently than the previous one. In the first five chapters, the kid is mostly traveling alone, going from person to person and town to town. When he shares a cell with Toadvine at the end of Chapter 5, it is the first time the kid encounters a familiar face. Between Chapters 6 and 10, this trend continues as he forges more lasting relationships. He starts listening to other people and perhaps even trusting them. It is also possible to argue that for the first time, the kid is forging an identity within the context of a group - he is no longer just a nameless kid, but a member of Glanton's infamous gang.
In general, however, there is a great deal less detail about the kid's specific movements in this section; the story focuses more on the journey of Glanton’s whole company. McCarthy takes the time to introduce the supporting characters; the kid no longer drives the plot. As a result, McCarthy's writing becomes episodic as the reader experiences the company’s journey at the same time as the kid. This stylistic choice is in keeping with the picaresque style, wherein a character moves from one colorful episode to another without continuity or structural cohesion. It makes the reader feel as though we are along for the ride, rather than witnessing the psychological growth of our protagonist from a distance.
In fact, it becomes difficult in these chapters to even define the antagonistic forces, precisely because the perspective is so open-ended. The kid is technically the protagonist, but he seems to have very little agency in his life’s journey. McCarthy offers us almost no insight into the kid's thought process, thus shutting the reader out of the protagonist’s heart and mind. Some critics argue that the kid is the ultimate “anti-hero.” In a conventional sense, he is a 'hero,' especially given the conventions of the Western that McCarthy exploits. He is out in the world seeking his fortune as a true individual, and therefore has much in common with the archetypal Western hero. However, whereas Western heroes usually exhibit some level of integrity and morality, McCarthy establishes early on that the kid is inherently violent and evil. Other characters also describe the kid as having an affinity for violence, and there is no indication that he will ever find redemption; it is unclear whether or not the kid even wants to change. The judge, too, has many characteristics of a Western hero: he exhibits charisma, brilliance, and the ability to think on his feet. Tobin's story certainly feeds this mythical image, but it also foreshadows the darker aspects of the judge's character. Most certainly, it is clear in this section that the judge has little respect for human life. Similarly, it is difficult to ascertain who serves as antagonist in the novel, since most of the major characters commit heinous acts of violence. Although Glanton is a scalp-hunter, he is only doing his job; he is also responsible for securing the ostensible protagonist's freedom from prison.
By refraining from defining a traditional protagonist/antagonist relationship, McCarthy ends up incriminating all of humanity. Every character is capable of extreme violence, and by setting his novel in the romanticized American genre of the Western, McCarthy suggests that such cruelty is part of the national legacy. This bleakness is one of the reasons that readers have often found it difficult to read Blood Meridian. The violence in these chapters is often gratuitous; most of the violent beats do not actually move the plot forward. Furthermore, McCarthy's sophisticated and poetic language can give the effect of celebrating violence as opposed to openly condemning it. For example, he describes the black John Jackson decapitating his white counterpart as "two slender [ropes of dark blood rising] like snakes from the stump of his neck and arched hissing into the fire" (107). However, because McCarthy is not consistent in his stylistic handling of death, it is likely that instead of openly condemning or celebrating violence, he intends to express this death as a natural part of the human experience. McCarthy reveals the veteran's death in a simple and straightforward manner. Even Glanton has no reaction or attachment to the life of a man he pulled out of prison.
This section of the novel employs a great deal of foreshadowing, particularly through the magician's family. In the tarot card scene, the magician accurately predicts the outcome of the conflict between the two John Jacksons, for example. The magician also sees that there is something deeply evil in Glanton, a sentiment that Tobin reiterates in his story.
McCarthy keeps Blood Meridian from feeling like a fantastic violent dystopia in two significant ways: first of all, through historical detail, and secondly, by weaving in a mystical and transcendental layer into the narrative. This section includes a great deal of historically accurate facts. For instance, the characters observe the rumblings of the Gold Rush, which was happening during the 1850s. The carriage holding the dead man and his son serves as a dark symbol of the consequences of the greed that marked this era in American history. The squatters in the presidio, too, paint a particularly bleak picture of the Gold Rush. Their quest for riches has left these men desperate and hopeless. When Glanton chooses not invite the squatters to join his company, their farewell is the sound of a dead man’s hymn. McCarthy once again suggests that violence and greed are not only inherent human qualities, but are also a part of America's legacy.
It is also useful for readers of Blood Meridian to understand the state of Mexican politics following the Mexican-American War. General Zuloaga was a real reform leader in country that was struggling to redefine itself. Meanwhile, the "Gomez" that McCarthy refers to is Valentín Gómez Farías, another Mexican political leader. Mexico was disorganized and mired in political strife during this time; it was common for the government to hire independent American mercenaries to kill and scalp the roving bands of Indians that kept causing problems. The fact that Glanton will earn extra money to scalp Gomez contextualizes his group's mission in the struggle for political power in Mexico.
Finally, Blood Meridian is unique for the way in which McCarthy infuses his narrative with both historical accuracy and a sense of mythical timelessness. The judge is grounded in reality; he accomplishes great feats (like making his own gunpowder) because of his deep understanding of science. And yet there is an otherworldly villainous quality about him. He follows traditional patterns of a demonic archetype - every member of the company has encountered the judge at some point before. Meanwhile, a secret conversation between Glanton and the judge somehow secured Glanton's success, which evokes the traditional 'deal with the devil.' The way the judge is perched on the rock in Tobin's story also evokes the Biblical story of Christ meeting temptation in the desert. It is also important to note how the judge smiles at the kid when the kid left Nacogdoches, suggesting that he knew they would meet again.