Excerpted from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, p. 324--337 (1985 Vintage paperback edition)
They entered the town in a light rain falling. The horse nickered and snuffed shyly at the hocks of the other animals standing at stall before the lamplit bagnios they passed. Fiddle-music issued into the solitary mud street and lean dogs crossed before them from shadow to shadow. At the end of the town he led the horse to a rail and tied it among others and stepped up the low wooden stairs into the dim light that fell from the doorway there. He looked back a last time at the street and at the random windowlights let into the darkness and at the last pale light in the west and the low dark hills around. Then he pushed open the door and entered.
A dimly seething rabble had coagulated within. As if the raw board structure erected for their containment occupied some ultimate sink into which they had gravitated from off the surrounding flatlands. An old man in a tyrolean costume was shuffling among the rough tables with his hat outheld while a little girl in a smock cranked a barrel organ and a bear in a crinoline twirled strangely upon a board stage defined by a row of tallow candles that dripped and sputtered in their pools of grease.
He made his way through the crowd to the bar where several men in gaitered shirts were drawing beer or pouring whiskey. Young boys worked behind them fetching crates of bottles and racks of glasses steaming from the scullery to the rear. The bar was covered with zinc and he placed his elbows upon it and spun a silver coin before him and slapped it flat.
Speak or forever, said the barman.
Whiskey it is. He set up a glass and uncorked a bottle and poured perhaps half a gill and took the coin.
He stood looking at the whiskey. Then he took his hat off and placed it on the bar and took up the glass and drank it very deliberately and set the empty glass down again. He wiped his mouth and turned around and placed his elbows on the bar behind him.
Watching him across the layered smoke in the yellow light was the judge.
He was sitting at one of the tables. He wore a round hat with a narrow brim and he was among every kind of man, herder and bullwhacker and drover and freighter and miner and hunter and soldier and pedlar and gambler and drifter and drunkard and thief and he was among the dregs of the earth in beggary a thousand years and he was among the scapegrace scions of eastern dynasties and in all that motley assemblage he sat by them and yet alone as if he were some other sort of man entire and he seemed little changed or none in all these years.
He turned away from those eyes and stood looking down at the empty tumbler between his fists. When he looked up the barman was watching him. He raised his forefinger and the barman brought the whiskey.
He paid, he lifted the glass and drank. There was a mirror along the backbar but it held only smoke and phantoms. The barrel organ was groaning and creaking and the bear with tongue aloll was revolving heavily on the boards.
When he turned the judge had risen and was speaking with other men. The showman made his way through the throng shaking the coins in his hat. Garishly clad whores were going out through a door at the rear of the premises and he watched them and he watched the bear and when he looked back across the room the judge was not there. The showman seemed to be in altercation with the men standing at the table. Another man rose. The showman gestured with his hat. One of them pointed toward the bar. He shook his head. Their voices were incoherent in the din. On the boards the bear was dancing for all that his heart was worth and the girl cranked the organ handle and the shadow of the act which the candlelight constructed upon the wall might have gone begging for referents in any daylight world. When he looked back the showman had donned the hat and he stood with his hands on his hips. One of the men had drawn a longbarreled cavalry pistol from his belt. He turned and leveled the pistol toward the stage.
Some dove for the floor, some reached for their own arms. The owner of the bear stood like a pitchman at a shooting gallery. The shot was thunderous and in the afterclap all sound in that room ceased. The bear had been shot through the midsection. He let out a low moan and he began to dance faster, dancing in silence save for the slap of his great footpads on the planks. Blood was running down his groin. The little girl strapped into the barrel organ stood frozen, the crank at rest on the upswing. The man with the pistol fired again and the pistol bucked and roared and the black smoke rolled and the bear groaned and began to reel drunkenly. He was holding his chest and a thin foam of blood swung from his jaw and he began to totter and to cry like a child and he took a few last steps, dancing, and crashed to the boards.
Someone had seized the pistol arm of the man who'd done the shooting and the gun was waving aloft. The owner of the bear stood stunned, clutching the brim of his oldworld hat.
Shot the goddamned bear, said the barman.
The little girl had unbuckled herself out of the barrel organ and it clattered wheezing to the floor. She ran forward and knelt and gathered the great shaggy head up in her arms and began to rock back and forth sobbing. Most of the men in the room had risen and they stood in the smoky yellow space with their hands on their sidearms. Whole flocks of whores were scuttling toward the rear and a woman mounted to the boards and stepped past the bear and held out her hands.
It's all over, she said. It's all over.
Do you believe it's all over, son?
He turned. The judge was standing at the bar looking down at him. He smiled, he removed his hat. The great pale dome of his skull shone like an enormous phosphorescent egg in the lamplight.
The last of the true. The last of the true. I'd say they're all gone under now saving me and thee. Would you not?
He tried to see past him. That great corpus enshadowed him from all beyond. He could hear the woman announcing the commencement of dancing in the hall to the rear.
And some are not yet born who shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's soul, said the judge. He turned slightly. Plenty of time for the dance.
I aint studyin no dance.
The judge smiled.
The tyrolean and another man were bent over the bear. The girl was sobbing, the front of her dress dark with blood. The judge leaned across the bar and seized a bottle and snapped the cork out of it with his thumb. The cork whined off into the blackness above the lamps like a bullet. He rifled a great drink down his throat and leaned back against the bar. You're here for the dance, he said.
I got to go.
The judge looked aggrieved. Go? he said.
He nodded. He reached and took hold of his hat where it lay on the bar but he did not take it up and he did not move.
What man would not be a dancer if he could, said the judge. It's a great thing, the dance.
The woman was kneeling and had her arm around the little girl. The candles sputtered and the great hairy mound of the bear dead in its crinoline lay like some monster slain in the commission of unnatural acts. The judge poured the tumbler full where it stood empty alongside the hat and nudged it forward.
Drink up, he said. Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of thee.
He looked at the glass. The judge smiled and gestured with the bottle. He took up the glass and drank.
The judge watched him. Was it always your idea, he said, that if you did not speak you would not be recognized?
You seen me,
The judge ignored this. I recognized you when I first saw you and yet you were a disappointment to me. Then and now. Even so at the last I find you here with me.
I aint with you.
The judge raised his bald brow. Not? he said. He looked about him in a puzzled and artful way and he was a passable thespian.
I never come here huntin you.
What then? said the judge.
What would I want with you? I come here same reason as any man.
And what reason is that?
What reason is what?
That these men are here.
They come here to have a good time.
The judge watched him. He began to point out various men in the room and to ask if these men were here for a good time or if indeed they knew why they were here at all.
Everbody dont have to have a reason to be someplace.
That's so, said the judge. They do not have to have a reason. But order is not set aside because of their indifference.
He regarded the judge warily.
Let me put it this way, said the judge. If it is so that they themselves have no reason and yet are indeed here must they not be here by reason of some other? And if this is so can you guess who that other might be?
No. Can you?
I know him well.
He poured the tumbler full once more and he took a drink himself from the bottle and he wiped his mouth and turned to regard the room. This is an orchestration for an event. For a dance in fact. The participants will be apprised of their roles at the proper time. For now it is enough that they have arrived. As the dance is the thing with which we are concerned and contains complete within itself its own arrangement and history and finale there is no necessity that the dancers contain these things within themselves as well. In any event the history of all is not the history of each nor indeed the sum of those histories and none here can finally comprehend the reason for his presence for he has no way of knowing even in what the event consists. In fact, were he to know he might well absent himself and you can see that that cannot be any part of the plan if plan there be.
He smiled, his great teeth shone. He drank.
An event, a ceremony. The orchestration thereof. The overture carries certain marks of decisiveness. It includes the slaying of a large bear. The evening's progress will not appear strange or unusual even to those who question the rightness of the events so ordered.
A ceremony then. One could well argue that there are not categories of no ceremony but only ceremonies of greater or lesser degree and deferring to this argument we will say that this is a ceremony of a certain magnitude perhaps more commonly called a ritual. A ritual includes the letting of blood. Rituals which fail in this requirement are but mock rituals. Here every man knows the false at once. Never doubt it. That feeling in the breast that evokes a child's memory of loneliness such as when the others have gone and only the game is left with its solitary participant. A solitary game, without opponent. Where only the rules are at hazard. Dont look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar which bonds? The judge leaned closer. What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man's jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward? Look at me.
I dont like craziness.
Nor I. Nor I. Bear with me. Look at them now. Pick a man, any man. That man there. See him. That man hatless. You know his opinion of the world. You can read it in his face, in his stance. Yet his complaint that a man's life is no bargain masks the actual case with him. Which is that men will not do as he wishes them to. Have never done, never will do. That's the way of things with him and his life is so balked about by difficulty and become so altered of its intended architecture that he is little more than a walking hovel hardly fit to house the human spirit at all. Can he say, such a man, that there is no malign thing set against him? That there is no power and no force and no cause? What manner of heretic could doubt agency and claimant alike? Can he believe that the wreckage of his existence is unentailed? No liens, no creditors? That gods of vengeance and of compassion alike lie sleeping in their crypt and whether our cries are for an accounting or for the destruction of the ledgers altogether they must evoke only the same silence and that it is this silence which will prevail? To whom is he talking, man? Cant you see him?
The man was indeed muttering to himself and peering bale-fully about the room wherein it seemed there was no friend to him.
A man seeks his own destiny and no other, said the judge. Will or nill. Any man who could discover Mis own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man's destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.
He poured the tumbler full. Drink up, he said. The world goes on. We have dancing nightly and this night is no exception. The straight and the winding way are one and now that you are here what do the years count since last we two met together? Men's memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.
He took up the tumbler the judge had poured and he drank and set it down again. He looked at the judge. I been everwhere, he said. This is just one more place.
The judge arched his brow. Did you post witnesses? he said. To report to you on the continuing existence of those places once you'd quit them?
Is it? Where is yesterday? Where is Glanton and Brown and where is the priest? He leaned closer. Where is Shelby, whom you left to the mercies of Elias in the desert, and where is Tate whom you abandoned in the mountains? Where are the ladies, ah the fair and tender ladies with whom you danced at the governor's ball when you were a hero anointed with the blood of the enemies of the republic you'd elected to defend? And where is the fiddler and where the dance?
I guess you can tell me.
I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior's right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?
You aint nothin.
You speak truer than you know. But I will tell you. Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.
Even a dumb animal can dance.
The judge set the bottle on the bar. Hear me, man, he said. There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone. All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name. One by one they will step down into the darkness before the footlamps. Bears that dance, bears that dont.
He drifted with the crowd toward the door at the rear. In the anteroom sat men at cards, dim in the smoke. He moved on. A woman was taking chits from the men as they passed through to the shed at the rear of the building. She looked up at him. He had no chit. She directed him to a table where a woman was selling the chits and stuffing the money with a piece of shingle through a narrow slit into an iron strongbox. He paid his dollar and took the stamped brass token and rendered it up at the door and passed through.
He found himself in a large hall with a platform for the musicians at one end and a large homemade sheetiron stove at the other. Whole squadrons of whores were working the floor. In their stained peignoirs, in their green stockings and melon-colored drawers they drifted through the smoky oil light like makebelieve wantons, at once childlike and lewd. A dark little dwarf of a whore took his arm and smiled up at him.
I seen you right away, she said. I always pick the one I want.
She led him through a door where an old Mexican woman was handing out towels and candles and they ascended like refugees of some sordid disaster the darkened plankboard stairwell to the upper rooms.
Lying in the little cubicle with his trousers about his knees he watched her. He watched her take up her clothes and don them and he watched her hold the candle to the mirror and study her face there. She turned and looked at him.
Let's go, she said. I got to go.
You cant lay there. Come on. I got to go.
He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the little iron cot and stood and pulled his trousers up and buttoned them and buckled his belt. His hat was on the floor and he picked it up and slapped it against the side of his leg and put it on.
You need to get down there and get you a drink, she said. You'll be all right.
I'm all right now.
He went out. He turned at the end of the hallway and looked back. Then he went down the stairs. She had come to the door. She stood in the hallway holding the candle and brushing her hair back with one hand and she watched him descend into the dark of the stairwell and then she pulled the door shut behind her.
He stood at the edge of the dancefloor. A ring of people had taken the floor and were holding hands and grinning and calling out to one another. A fiddler sat on a stool on the stage and a man walked up and down calling out the order of the dance and gesturing and stepping in the way he wished them to go. Outside in the darkened lot groups of wretched Tonkawas stood in the mud with their faces composed in strange lost portraits within the sashwork of the windowlights. The fiddler rose and set the fiddle to his jaw. There was a shout and the music began and the ring of dancers began to rotate ponderously with a great shuffling. He went out the back.
The rain had stopped and the air was cold. He stood in the yard. Stars were falling across the sky myriad and random, speeding along brief vectors from their origins in night to their destinies in dust and nothingness. Within the hall the fiddle squealed and the dancers shuffled and stomped. In the street men were calling for the little girl whose bear was dead for she was lost. They went among the darkened lots with lanterns and torches calling out to her.
He went down the walkboard toward the jakes. He stood outside listening to the voices fading away and he looked again at the silent tracks of the stars where they died over the darkened hills. Then he opened the rough board door of the jakes and stepped in.
The judge was seated upon the closet. He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him.
In the saloon two men who wanted to buy the hide were looking for the owner of the bear. The bear lay on the stage in an immense pool of blood. All the candles had gone out save one and it guttered uneasily in its grease like a votive lamp. In the dancehall a young man had joined the fiddler and he kept the measure of the music with a pair of spoons which he clapped between his knees. The whores sashayed half naked, some with their breasts exposed. In the mudded dogyard behind the premises two men went down the boards toward the jakes. A third man was standing there urinating into the mud.
Is someone in there? the first man said.
The man who was relieving himself did not look up. I wouldnt go in there if I was you, he said.
Is there somebody in there?
I wouldnt go in.
He hitched himself up and buttoned his trousers and stepped past them and went up the walk toward the lights. The first man watched him go and then opened the door of the jakes.
Good God almighty, he said.
What is it?
He didnt answer. He stepped past the other and went back up the walk. The other man stood looking after him. Then he opened the door and looked in.
In the saloon they had rolled the dead bear onto a wagonsheet and there was a general call for hands. In the anteroom the tobacco smoke circled the lamps like an evil fog and the men bid and dealt in a low mutter.
There was a lull in the dancing and a second fiddler took the stage and the two plucked their strings and turned the little hardwood pegs until they were satisfied. Many among the dancers were staggering drunk through the room and some had rid themselves of shirts and jackets and stood barechested and sweating even though the room was cold enough to cloud their breath. An enormous whore stood clapping her hands at the bandstand and calling drunkenly for the music. She wore nothing but a pair of men's drawers and some of her sisters were likewise clad in what appeared to be trophies—hats or pantaloons or blue twill cavalry jackets. As the music sawed up there was a lively cry from all and a caller stood to the front and called out the dance and the dancers stomped and hooted and lurched against one another.
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he'll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.