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Authors: John Williams

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BOOK: Butcher's Crossing
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The passing of time showed itself in the faces of the three men who rode with him and in the changes he perceived within himself. Day by day he felt the skin of his face hardening in the weather; the stubble of hair on the lower part of his face became smooth as his skin roughened, and the backs of his hands reddened and then browned and darkened in the sun. He felt a leanness and a hardness creep upon his body; he thought at times that he was moving into a new body, or into a real body that had lain hidden beneath layers of unreal softness and whiteness and smoothness.

Baby fat is being shed and a man is emerging from beneath the soft, white, smooth layers but this imagery will play in a different register later in the novel as the four men are trapped by the weather and buried for several months beneath blankets of white snow. They survive by constructing a shelter of buffalo hides and then by stitching hides together to make second skins for themselves. In the spring, when the men emerge, what they are and what has arisen from this gestation, shall we say, is equivocal at best.

At the precise center of
Butcher’s Crossing
begins the buffalo hunt, a passage some forty pages long. The relative ease with which a herd of five thousand buffalo is picked off by Miller happens in odd, almost puzzling contrast to the hardship of the journey the four men endure getting to the secluded Colorado valley. Certainly as one reads one wants the deaths of these great beasts to matter more, to be more difficult. The mindlessness of this carnage is underscored—though it hardly needs to be—when Miller, the seasoned hunter, admonishes himself for having thought briefly about not getting a clean shot. This one brief flicker of perception—call it doubt; you cannot call it conscience—seems to break his concentration and destroys his aim. As the instinctual milling and bawling stand of the few remaining buffalo is broken, and they are led away out of the valley in a “thin dark stream” by the young bull, broken also is the mechanical loading and firing and reloading of Miller’s rifle, this collective machine of which Andrews is a necessary cog. He loads the rifles, then cools them down after they’ve been fired, cleans them and reloads them and hands them back to Miller. It is not surprising to read that Andrews—in thrall to this machinery and unquestioning of his participation in it—”did not know who he was, or where he went.” And afterwards, after the stand is broken, and the few living buffalo are gone down the valley, Andrews cannot count the dead buffalo much past thirty, cannot find the numbers, and once again in the novel infancy—an emergence from infancy or a return to such—is in contention. Is a man named William Andrews being formed, or is he being seriously regressed? He is now without his numbers in this blood-soaked valley, and at the end of the novel, he is without language for his fellow hunters: “The four men looked at one another, moving their eyes slowly and searchingly across the faces about them. They did not move, and they did not speak. We had something to say to each other, Andrews thought dimly, but we don’t know what it is; we have something we ought to say.”

There is a long list of fine contemporary writers who have taken up the western, perceiving it to be an important and quintessentially American genre, but they have most often done so parodically—hilariously. Read Richard Brautigan’s
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western
(1974) or Percival Everett’s
God’s Country
(1994)—these are fine rides!—or read Robert Coover’s
Ghost Town
(1998) with its unrelenting drollery, but John Williams took the western seriously, and more importantly, he took the reasons behind the emergence of the genre seriously. What even the most knocked-off, hackneyed western satisfied in slews of American readers was an urge and a desire and a hunger worth contemplating, excavating.

The western—no matter the medium—satisfied something in the American spirit, and sure it was hokum, snake oil, but we are still slathering it on ourselves today. The western is a major American genre, one that goes to the heart of our famous patriotism. “Bring ’em on” is voiced from the Oval Office in reference to Iraqi militants. It is the cry of the cattle drive, the wagon train pulling out of St. Jo, the sharpshooters poised in the rock crevices, the fierce Indians below—the desire for a foe, a challenge which will reaffirm our national character.

I think it is worth mentioning that Williams was writing
Butcher’s Crossing
as his country advised and aided Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam, and that
Butcher’s Crossing
was published as the first American troops landed on Vietnamese soil. Williams could not have known yet that millions would die soon in Laos and Cambodia—and that this blood would be on American hands, for no defensible reason.

Butcher’s Crossing
is a novel about a young man who sets out to “find himself,” but it is also the story of a young country violently insisting on itself mindless of the consequences. Will Andrews retching in the tall grass of the valley where almost an entire herd of five thousand buffalo has been slaughtered embodies a historical America, initially young and gung ho, this new contest merely an opportunity to confirm all that supposed to be enduring and strong in the national character, but like this buffalo kill in a valley in Colorado, and like Vietnam and perhaps like Iraq, a sickening revelation of character is at hand. Or perhaps the absence of character. John Williams’s unflinching attention in
Butcher’s Crossing
to the mechanical madness of human behavior suggests man at one with nature—man’s nature—to be a horrifying prospect.

In 1984, shortly after the summer Olympics in Los Angeles, I arrived at the University of California at Irvine to continue my graduate studies. Oakley Hall—himself the author of an important western titled
and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1958—leaned across his desk and said to me, “You studied with John Williams. He wrote the finest western ever written.” A year later Cormac McCarthy’s
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
would be published to give
Butcher’s Crossing
some company in what was becoming a pantheon of western masterpieces.



...everything that has life gives sign of satisfaction, and the cattle that lie on the ground seem to have great and tranquil thoughts. These halcyons may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather which we distinguish by the name of the Indian summer. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he takes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.

, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Will Boy?

The Confidence Man
, Herman Melville


The coach from Ellsworth to Butcher’s Crossing was a dougherty that had been converted to carry passengers and small freight. Four mules pulled the cart over the ridged, uneven road that descended slightly from the level prairie into Butcher’s Crossing; as the small wheels of the dougherty entered and left the ruts made by heavier wagons, the canvas-covered load lashed in the center of the cart shifted, the rolled-up canvas side curtains thumped against the hickory rods that supported the lath and canvas roof, and the single passenger at the rear of the wagon braced himself by wedging his body against the narrow sideboard; one hand was spread flat against the hard leather-covered bench and the other grasped one of the smooth hickory poles set in iron sockets attached to the sideboards. The driver, separated from his passenger by the freight that had been piled nearly as high as the roof, shouted above the snorting of the mules and the creaking of the wagon:

“Butcher’s Crossing, just ahead.”

The passenger nodded and leaned his head and shoulders out over the side of the wagon. Beyond the sweating rumps and bobbing ears of the mules he caught a glimpse of a few bare shacks and tents set in a cluster before a taller patch of trees. He had an instantaneous impression of color—of light dun blending into gray set off by a heavy splash of green. Then the bouncing of the wagon forced him to sit upright again. He gazed at the swaying mound of goods in front of him, blinking rapidly. He was a man in his early twenties, slightly built, with a fair skin that was beginning to redden after the day’s exposure to the sun. He had removed his hat to wipe the sweat from his forehead and had not replaced it; his light brown hair, the color of Virginia tobacco, was neatly clipped, but it lay now in damp unevenly colored ringlets about his ears and forehead. He wore yellowish-brown nankeen trousers that were nearly new, the creases still faintly visible in the heavy cloth. He had earlier removed his brown sack coat, his vest, and his tie; but even in the breeze made by the dougherty’s slow forward progress, his white linen shirt was spotted with sweat and hung limply on him. The blond nap of a two-day-old beard glistened with moisture; occasionally he rubbed his face with a soiled handkerchief, as if the stubble irritated his skin.

As they neared town, the road leveled and the wagon went forward more rapidly, swaying gently from side to side, so that the young man was able to relax his grasp on the hickory pole and slump forward more easily on the hard bench. The clop of the mules’ feet became steady and muffled; a cloud of dust like yellow smoke rose about the wagon and billowed behind it. Above the rattle of harness, the mules’ heavy breathing, the clop of their hooves, and the uneven creaking of the wagon could be heard now and then the distant shout of a human voice and the nickering of a horse. Along the side of the road bare patches appeared in the long level of prairie grass; here and there the charred, crossed logs of an abandoned campfire were visible; a few hobbled horses grazed on the short yellow grass and raised their heads sharply, their ears pitched forward, at the sound of the wagon passing. A voice rose in anger; someone laughed; a horse snorted and neighed, and a bridle jingled at a sudden movement; the faint odor of manure was locked in the hot air.

Butcher’s Crossing could be taken in almost at a glance. A group of six rough frame buildings was bisected by a narrow dirt street; there was a scattering of tents beyond the buildings on either side. The wagon passed first on its left a loosely erected tent of army drab with rolled-up sides, which held from the roof flap a flat board crudely lettered in red, J
, B
. On the opposite side of the road was a low building, almost square, windowless, with a flap of canvas for a door; across the bare front boards of this building were the more carefully executed letters, in black, B
. In front of the next building, a long rectangular structure of two stories, the dougherty stopped. From within this building came a low, continuous murmur of voices, and there could be heard the regular clink of glass on glass. The front was shaded by a long overhang of roof, but there was discernible in the shadow over the entrance-way an ornately lettered sign, in red with black edging, which said: J
. Upon a long bench in front of this place sat several men lethargically staring at the wagon as it came to a halt. The young passenger began to gather from the seat beside him the clothing he had doffed earlier in the heat of the day. He put on his hat and his coat and stuffed the vest and cravat into a carpetbag upon which he had been resting his feet. He lifted the carpetbag over the sideboard into the street and with the same motion lifted a leg over the boards and stepped onto the hanging iron plate that let him descend to the ground. When his boot struck the earth, a round puff of dust flew up, surrounding his foot; it settled on the new black leather and on the bottom of his trouser leg, making their colors nearly the same. He picked up his bag and walked under the projecting roof into the shade; behind him the driver’s curses mingled with the clank of iron and the jingling of harness chain as he detached the rear doubletree from the wagon. The driver called plaintively:

“Some of you men give me a hand with this freight.”

The young man who had got off the wagon stood on the rough board sidewalk watching the driver struggle with the reins that had tangled with the harness trace. Two of the men who had been sitting on the bench got up, brushed past him, and went slowly into the street; they contemplated the rope that secured the freight and began unhurriedly to tug at the knots. With a final jerk the driver managed to unsnarl the reins; he led the mules in a long diagonal across the street toward the livery stable, a low open building with a split-log roof supported by unpeeled upright logs.

After the driver led his team into the stable, another stillness came upon the street. The two men were methodically loosening the ropes that held the covered freight; the sounds from inside the saloon were muffled as if by layers of dust and heat. The young man stepped forward carefully upon the odd lengths of scrap board set directly on the earth. Facing him was a half-dugout with a sharply slanting roof at the near edge of which was a hinged covering, held upright by two diagonal poles, which let down to cover the wide front opening; inside the dugout, on benches and shelves, were scattered a few saddles and a half dozen or more pairs of boots; long strips of raw leather hung from a peg that jutted out of the sod wall near the opening. To the left of this small dugout was a double-storied structure, newly painted white with red trimmings, nearly as long as Jackson’s Saloon and somewhat higher. In the dead center of this building was a wide door, above which was a neatly framed sign that read B
. It was toward this that the young man slowly walked, watching the street dust pushed forward in quick, dissipating jets by his moving feet.

BOOK: Butcher's Crossing
9.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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