(excerpted from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian)
In the days to follow all trace of the Gilenos faded and they pushed deeper into the mountains. By fires of highland driftwood pale as bone they crouched in silence while the flames yawed in the nightwinds ascending those stony draws. The kid sat with his legs crossed mending a strap with an awl he'd borrowed from the expriest Tobin and the frockless one looked on as he worked.
You've done this afore, said Tobin.
The kid wiped his nose with a swipe of his greasy sleeve and turned the piece in his lap. Not me, he said.
Well you've the knack. More so than me. There's little equity in the Lord's gifts.
The kid looked up at him and then bent to his work again.
That's so, said the expriest. Look around you. Study the judge.
I done studied him.
Mayhaps he aint to your liking, fair enough. But the man's a hand at anything. I've never seen him turn to a task but what he didnt prove clever at it.
The lad drove the greased thread through the leather and hauled it taut.
He speaks dutch, said the expriest.
The kid looked at the expriest, he bent to his mending.
He does for I heard him do it. We cut a parcel of crazy pilgrims down off the Llano and the old man in the lead of them he spoke right up in dutch like we were all of us in dutchland and the judge give him right back. Glanton come near fallin off his horse. We none of us knew him to speak it. Asked where he'd learned it you know what he said?
What did he say.
Said off a dutchman.
The expriest spat. I couldnt of learned it off ten dutchmen. What about you?
The kid shook his head.
No, said Tobin. The gifts of the Almighty are weighed and parceled out in a scale peculiar to himself. It's no fair accountin and I dont doubt but what he'd be the first to admit it and you put the query to him boldface.
The Almighty, the Almighty. The expriest shook his head. He glanced across the fire toward the judge. That great hairless thing. You wouldnt think to look at him that he could outdance the devil himself now would ye? God the man is a dancer, you'll not take that away from him. And fiddle. He's the greatest fiddler I ever heard and that's an end on it. The greatest. He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer. He's been all over the world. Him and the governor they sat up till breakfast and it was Paris this and London that in five languages, you'd have give something to of heard them. The governor's a learned man himself he is, but the judge...
The expriest shook his head. Oh it may be the Lord's way of showin how little store he sets by the learned. Whatever could it mean to one who knows all? He's an uncommon love for the common man and godly wisdom resides in the least of things so that it may well be that the voice of the Almighty speaks most profoundly in such beings as lives in silence themselves.
He watched the kid.
For let it go how it will, he said, God speaks in the least of creatures.
The kid thought him to mean birds or things that crawl but the expriest, watching, his head slightly cocked, said: No man is give leave of that voice.
The kid spat into the fire and bent to his work.
I aint heard no voice, he said.
When it stops, said Tobin, you'll know you've heard it all your life.
Is that right?
The kid turned the leather in his lap. The expriest watched him.
At night, said Tobin, when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep, who hears them grazing?
Dont nobody hear them if they're asleep.
Aye. And if they cease their grazing who is it that wakes?
Aye, said the expriest. Every man.
The kid looked up. And the judge? Does the voice speak to him?
The judge, said Tobin. He didn't answer.
I seen him before, said the kid. In Nacogdoches.
Tobin smiled. Every man in the company claims to have encountered that sootysouled rascal in some other place.
Tobin rubbed his beard on the back of his hand. He saved us all, I have to give him that. We come down off the Little Colorado we didnt have a pound of powder in the company. Pound. We'd not a dram hardly. There he set on a rock in the middle of the greatest desert you'd ever want to see. Just perched on this rock like a man waitin for a coach. Brown thought him a mirage. Might have shot him for one if he'd had aught to shoot him with.
How come you to have no powder?
Shot it up all at the savages. Holed up nine days in a cave, lost most of the horses. We were thirty-eight men when we left Chihuahua City and we were fourteen when the judge found us. Mortally whipped, on the run. Every man jack of us knew that in that godforsook land somewhere was a draw or a cul-desac or perhaps just a pile of rocks and there we'd be driven to a stand with those empty guns. The judge. Give the devil his due.
The kid held the tack in one hand, the awl in the other. He watched the expriest.
We'd been on the plain all night and well up into the next day. The Delawares kept callin halts and droppin to the ground to give a listen. There was no place to run and no place to hide. I dont know what they wanted to hear. We knew the bloody niggers was out there and speakin for myself that was already an abundance of information, I didnt need more. That sunrise we'd looked to be our last. We were all watchin the backtrack, I dont know how far you could see. Fifteen, twenty miles.
Then about the meridian of that day we come upon the judge on his rock there in that wilderness by his single self. Aye and there was no rock, just the one. Irving said he'd brung it with him. I said that it was a merestone for to mark him out of nothing at all.
He had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now, all mounted in german silver and the name that he'd give it set with silver wire under the checkpiece in latin: Et In Arcadia Ego. A reference to the lethal in it. Common enough for a man to name his gun. I've heard Sweetlips and Hark From The Tombs and every sort of lady's name. His is the first and only ever I seen with an inscription from the classics.
And there he set. No horse. Just him and his legs crossed, smilin as we rode up. Like he'd been expectin us. He'd an old canvas kitbag and an old woolen benjamin over the one shoulder. In the bag was a brace of pistols and a good assortment of specie, gold and silver. He didnt even have a canteen. It was like... You couldnt tell where he'd come from. Said he'd been with a wagon company and fell out to go it alone. Davy wanted to leave him there. Didnt set well with his honor and it dont to this day. Glanton just studied him. It was a day's work to even guess what he made of that figure on that ground. I dont know to this day. They've a secret commerce. Some terrible covenant. You mind. You'll see I'm right. He called for the last of two packanimals we had and he cut the straps and left the wallets to lay where they fell and the judge mounted up and he and Glanton rode side by side and soon they was conversin like brothers. The judge sat that animal bareback like an indian and rode with his grip and his rifle perched on the withers and he looked about him with the greatest satisfaction in the world, as if everything had turned out just as he planned and the day could not have been finer.
We'd not rode far before he struck us a new course about nine points to the east. He pointed out a range of mountains maybe thirty mile distant and we pulled for those mountains and none of us asked what for. By then Glanton had give him the particulars of the situation in which he'd installed himself but if bein naked of arms in that wilderness and half of all Apacheria in pursuit worried him at all he kept it to himself entire.
The expriest had paused to rekindle his pipe, reaching into the raw fire for a coal as did the red scouts and then setting it back among the flames as if it had a proper place there.
Now what do you reckon it was in them mountains that we set out for? And how did he come to know of it? How to find it? How to put it to use?
Tobin seemed to frame these questions to himself. He was regarding the fire and pulling on his pipe. How indeed, he said. We reached the foothills in the early evenin and rode up a dry arroyo and pushed on I guess till midnight and made camp with neither wood nor water. Come mornin we could see them on the plain to the north maybe ten mile out. They were ridin four and six abreast and there was no short supply of them and they were in no hurry. The judge had been up all the night by what the videttes said. Watchin the bats. He would go up the side of the mountain and make notes in a little book and then he would come back down. Could not have been more cheerful. Two men had deserted in the night and that made us down to twelve and the judge thirteen. I gave him my best study, the judge. Then and now. He appeared to be a lunatic and then not. Glanton I always knew was mad.
We left out with the first light up a little wooded draw. We were on the north slope and there was willow and alder and cherry growin out of the rock, just little trees. The judge would stop to botanize and then ride to catch up. My hand to God. Pressing leaves into his book. Sure I never saw the equal to it and all the time the savages in plain view below us. Ridin on that pan. God I'd put a crick in my neck I couldnt keep my eyes off of them and they were a hundred souls if they were one. We come out on some flinty ground where it was all juniper and we just went on. No attempt to put their trackers at fault. We rode all that day. We saw no more of the savages for they were come under the lee of the mountain and were somewhere on the slopes below us. As soon as it was dusk and the bats was about the judge he altered our course again, ridin along holdin onto his hat, lookin up at the little animals. We got broke up and scattered all in the junipers and we halted to regroup and to recruit the horses. We sat around in the dark, no one spoke a word. When the judge got back he and Glanton whispered among themselves and then we moved on.
We led the horses in the dark. There was no trail, just steep scrabbly rock. When we reached the cave some of the men thought that he meant for us to hide there and that he was for a fact daft altogether. But it was the nitre. The nitre, you see. We left all that we owned at the mouth of that cave and we filled our wallets and panniers and our mochilas with the cave dirt and we left out at daybreak. When we topped the rise above that place and looked back there was a great spout of bats being sucked down into the cave, thousands of the creatures, and they continued so for an hour or more and even then it was just that we could no longer see them.
The judge. We left him at a high pass, a little clearwater creek. Him and one of the Delawares. He told us to circle the mountain and to return to that place in forty-eight hours. We unloaded all the containers onto the ground and took the two horses with us and him and the Delaware commenced luggin the panniers and the wallets up that little creek. I watched him go and I said that I would never set eyes on that man again.
Tobin looked at the kid. Never in this world. I thought Glanton would leave him. We went on. The next day on the far side of the mountain we encountered the two ladsthat had deserted us. Hangin upside down in a tree. They'd been skinned and I can tell ye it does very little for a man's appearance. But if the savages had not guessed it already now they knew for sure. That we'd none of us any powder.
We would not ride the animals. Just lead them, keep them off the rocks, hold their noses if they snuffled. But in those two days the judge leached out the guano with creekwater and woodash and precipitated it out and he built a clay kiln and burned charcoal in it, doused the fire by day and fired it again come dark. When we found him him and the Delaware was settin in the creek stark naked and they appeared at first to be drunk but on what none could surmise. The entire top of that mountain was covered with Apache Indians and there set he. He got up when he seen us and went to the willows and come back with a pair of wallets and in one was about eight pounds of pure crystal saltpetre and in the other about three pounds of fine alder charcoal. He'd ground the charcoal to a powder in the hollow of a rock, you could have made ink of it. He lashed the bags shut and put them across the pommel of Glanton's saddle and him and the indian got their clothes and I was glad of it for I never seen a grown man with not a hair to his body and him weighin twenty-four stone which he did then and does now. And by my own warrant, for I added up the counters on the bar with my own and sober eyes at a stockscale in Chihuahua City in that same month and year.
We went down the mountain with no scouts, nothin. Just straight out. We were dead for sleep. It was dark when we reached the plain and we grouped and took a headcount and then we rode out. The moon was about three quarters full and waxing and we were like circus riders, not a sound, the horses on eggshells. We'd no way of knowin where the savages was. The last clue we'd had of their vicinity was the poor buggers flayed in the tree. We set out dead west across the desert. Doc Irving was before me and it was that bright I could count the hairs on his head.
We rode all night and toward the morning just as the moon was down we come upon a band of wolves. They scattered and come back, not a sound out of them no more than smoke. They'd drift off and quarter around and circle the horses. Bold as brass. We cut at them with our hobbles and they would slip past, you couldnt hear them on the hardpan just their breath or they would mutter and grouse or pop their teeth. Glanton halted and the things swirled around and slank off and come back. Two of the Delawares backtracked off to the left a bit braver souls than me and sure they found the kill. Twas a young buck antelope new killed the evenin before. It was about half consumed and we set upon it with our knives and took the rest of the meat with us and we ate it raw in the saddle and it was the first meat we'd seen in six days. Froze for it we were. Foragin on the mountain for pinon nuts like bears and glad to get them. We left little more than bones for the lobos, but I would never shoot a wolf and I know other men of the same sentiments.
In all this time the judge had spoke hardly a word. So at dawn we were on the edge of a vast malpais and his honor takes up a position on some lava rocks there and he commences to give us a address. It was like a sermon but it was no such sermon as any man of us had ever heard before. Beyond the malpais was a volcanic peak and in the sunrise it was many colors and there was dark little birds crossin down the wind and the wind was flappin the judge's old benjamin about him and he pointed to that stark and solitary mountain and delivered himself of an oration to what end I know not, then or now, and he concluded with the tellin us that our mother the earth as he said was round like an egg and contained all good things within her. Then he turned and led the horse he had been ridin across that terrain of black and glassy slag, treacherous to man and beast alike, and us behind him like the disciples of a new faith.
The expriest broke off and tapped the dead pipe against the heel of his boot. He looked at the judge over the way where he sat with his torso bared to the flames as was his practice. He turned and regarded the kid.
The malpais. It was a maze. Ye'd run out upon a little promontory and ye'd be balked about by the steep crevasses, you wouldnt dare to jump them. Sharp black glass the edges and sharp the flinty rocks below. We led the horses with every care and still they were bleedin about their hooves. Our boots was cut to pieces. Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through to the molten core of her. Where for aught any man knows lies the locality of hell. For the earth is a globe in the void and truth there's no up nor down to it and there's men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoof-prints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock? I'd not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was little devils with their pitchforks had traversed that fiery vomit for to salvage back those souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It's a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things this world must touch the other. And somethin put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen them there myself.
The judge, he seemed not to take his eyes from that dead cone where it rose off the desert like a great chancre. We followed solemn as owls so that he turned to look back and he did laugh when he seen our faces. At the foot of the mountain we drew lots and we sent two men to go on with the horses. I watched them go. One of them is at this fire tonight and I saw him lead them horses away over the slaglands like a doomed man. And we were not doomed ourselves 1 dont reckon. When I looked up he was already upon the slope hand and foot, the judge was, his bag over his shoulder and his rifle for alpenstock. And so did we all go. Not halfway up we could already see the savages out on the plain. We climbed on. I thought at worst we'd throw ourselves into the caldron rather than be taken by those fiends. We climbed up and I reckon it was midday when we reached the top. We were done in. The savages not ten miles out. I looked at the men about me and sure they didnt look much. The dignity was gone out of them. They were good hearts all, then and now, and I did not like to see them so and I thought the judge had been sent among us for a curse. And yet he proved me wrong. At the time he did. I'm of two minds again now.
He was the first to the rim of the cone for all the size of him and he stood gazin about like he'd come for the view. Then he set down and he begun to scale at the rock with his knife. One by one we straggled up and he set with his back to that gapin hole and he was chippin away and he called upon us to do the same. It was brimstone. A weal of brimstone all about the rim of the caldron, bright yellow and shining here and there with the little flakes of silica but most pure flowers of sulphur. We chipped it loose and chopped it fine with our knives till we had about two pounds of it and then the judge took the wallets and went to a cupped place in the rock and dumped out the charcoal and the nitre and stirred them about with his hand and poured the sulphur in. I didnt know but what we'd be required to bleed into it like freemasons but it was not so. He worked it up dry with his hands and all the while the savages down there on the plain drawin nigh to us and when I turned back the judge was standin, the great hairless oaf, and he'd took out his pizzle and he was pissin into the mixture, pissin with a great vengeance and one hand aloft and he cried out for us to do likewise. We were half mad anyways. All lined up. Delawares and all. Every man save Glanton and he was a study. We hauled forth our members and at it we went and the judge on his knees kneadin the mass with his naked arms and the piss was splashin about and he was cryin out to us to piss, man, piss for your very souls for cant you see the redskins yonder, and laughin the while and workin up this great mass in a foul black dough, a devil's batter by the stink of it and him not a bloody dark pastryman himself I dont suppose and he pulls out his knife and he commences to trowel it across the southfacin rocks, spreadin it out thin with the knifeblade and watchin the sun with one eye and him smeared with blacking and reekin of piss and sulphur and grinnin and wieldin the knife with a dexterity that was wondrous like he did it every day of his life.
And when he was done he set back and wiped his hands on his chest and then he watched the savages and so did we all. They were on the malpais by then and they had a tracker who followed us every step on that naked rock, fallin back at each blind head and callin out to the others. I dont know what he followed. Scent perhaps. We could soon hear them talkin down there.
Then they seen us.
Well, God in his glory knows what they thought. They were scattered out across the lava and one of them pointed and they all looked up. Thunderstruck no doubt. To see eleven men perched on the topmost rim of that scalded atoll like misflown birds. They parleyed and we watched to see would they dispatch any of their number after the horses but they did not. Their greed overcame all else and they started for the base of the cone, scramblin over the lava for to see who would be first.
We had I would suppose an hour. We watched the savages and we watched the judge's foul matrix dryin on the rocks and we watched a cloud that was making for the sun. One by one we give up watchin the rocks or the savages either one, for the cloud did look to be dead set for the sun and it would have took the better part of an hour to have crossed it and that was the last hour we had. Well, the judge was sittin making entries in his little book and he saw the cloud same as every other man and he put down the book and watched it and we did all. No one spoke. There was none to curse and none to pray, we just watched. And that cloud just cut the corner from the sun and passed on and there was no shadow fell upon us and the judge took up his ledger and went on with his entries as before. I watched him. Then I clambered down and tested a patch of the stuff with my hand. There was heat comin off of it. I walked along the rim and the savages was ascendin by every quarter for there was no route to favor on that bald and gravel slope. I looked for rocks of any size to send down but there was none there larger than your fist, just fine gravel and plates of scrag. I looked at Glanton and he was watchin the judge and he seemed to have had his wits stole.
Well the judge closed up his little book and took his leather shirt and spread it out in the little cupped place and called for us to bring the stuff to him. Every knife was out and we went to scrapin it up and him cautionin us not to strike fire on them flints.
And we heaped it up in the shirt and he commenced to chop and grind it with his knife. And Captain Glanton, he calls out. Captain Glanton. Would ye believe it? Captain Glanton, he says. Come charge that swivelbore of yours and let's see what manner of thing we have here.
Glanton come up with his rifle and he scooped his charger full and he charged both barrels and patched two balls and drove them home and capped the piece and made to step to the rim. But that was never the judge's way.
Down the maw of that thing, he says, and Glanton never questioned it. He went down the pitch of the inner rim to where lay the terminus of that terrible flue and he held his piece out over it and pointed it straight down and cocked the hammer and fired.
You wouldnt hear a sound like it in a long day's ride. It give me the fidgets. He fired both barrels and he looked at us and he looked at the judge. The judge just waved and went on with his grindin and then he called us all about to fill our horns and flasks and we did, one by one, circlin past him like communicants. And when all had shared he filled his own flask and he got out his pistols and saw to the priming. The foremost of the savages was not more than a furlong on the slope. We were ready to lay into them but again the judge would not have it. He fired off his pistols down into the caldron, spacin out the shots, and he fired all ten chambers and cautioned us back from sight while he reloaded the pieces. All this gunfire had give the savages some pause no doubt for they very likely reckoned us to be without powder altogether. And then the judge, he steps up to the rim and he had with him a good white linen shirt from out of his bag and he waved it to the redskins and he called down to them in Spanish.
Well it would have brought tears to your eyes. All dead save me, he called. Have mercy on me. Todos muertos. Todos. Wavin the shirt. God it set them yappin on the slope like dogs and he turns to us, the judge, with that smile of his, and he says: Gentlemen. That was all he said. He had the pistols stuck in his belt at the back and he drew them one in each hand and he is as eitherhanded as a spider, he can write with both hands at a time and I've seen him to do it, and he commenced to kill Indians. We needed no second invitation. God it was a butchery. At the first fire we killed a round dozen and we did not let up. Before the last poor nigger reached the bottom of the slope there was fifty-eight of them lay slaughtered among the gravels. They just slid down the slope like chaff down a hopper, some turned this way, some that, and they made a chain about the base of the mountain. We rested our rifle barrels on the brimstone and we shot nine more on the lava where they ran. It was a stand, what it was. Wagers was laid. The last of them shot was a reckonable part of a mile from the muzzles of the guns and that on a dead run. It was sharp shootin all around and not a misfire in the batch with that queer powder.
The expriest turned and looked at the kid. And that was the judge the first ever I saw him. Aye. He's a thing to study.
The lad looked at Tobin. What's he a judge of? he said.
What's he a judge of?
What's he a judge of.
Tobin glanced off across the fire. Ah lad, he said. Hush now. The man will hear ye. He's ears like a fox.