Authors: John Williams
Occasionally he would interrupt his wait by the window and go down into the street. There the few buildings in Butcher’s Crossing broke up his view of the land, so that it no longer stretched without limit in all directions—though at odd moments he had a feeling as if he were at a great distance above the town, and even above himself, gazing down upon a miniature cluster of buildings, about which crawled a number of tiny figures; and from this small center the land stretched outward endlessly, blotched and made shapeless by the point from which it spread.
But more usually, he wandered upon the street among the people who seemed to flow into and out of Butcher’s Crossing as if by the impulse of an erratic but rhythmical tide. He went up and down the street, in and out of stores, paused, and went swiftly again, adjusting his motions to those of the people he moved among. Though he sought nothing in his mingling, he had odd and curious impressions that seemed to him important, perhaps because he did not seek them. He was not aware of these impressions as they occurred to him; but in the evening, as he lay in darkness on his bed, they came back to him with the force of freshness.
He had an image of men moving silently in the streets amidst a clatter of sound that was extraneous to them, that defined rather than dispersed their silence. A few of them wore guns thrust carelessly in their waistbands, though most of them went unarmed. In his image, their faces had a marked similarity; they were brown and ridged, and the eyes, lighter than the skin, had a way of looking slightly upward and beyond whatever they appeared to gaze at. And finally he had the impression that they moved naturally and without strain in a pattern so various and complex that his mind could not grasp it, a pattern whose secret passages could not be forced or opened by the will.
During Miller’s absence, he spoke of his own volition to only three persons—Francine, Charley Hoge, and McDonald.
Once he saw Francine on the street; it was at noon, when few people were about; she was walking from Jackson’s Saloon toward the dry goods store, and they met at the entrance, which was directly across the street from the hotel. They exchanged greetings, and Francine asked him if he had got used to the country yet. As he replied, he noticed minute beads of sweat that stood out distinctly above her full upper lip and caught the sunlight like tiny crystals. They spoke for some moments, and an awkward silence fell between them; Francine stood solid and unmoving before him, smiling at him, her wide pale eyes blinking slowly. At last he muttered an apology and walked away from her, up the street, as if he had some place to go.
He saw her again early one morning as she descended the long stairway that came from the upper floor of Jackson’s Saloon. She wore a plain gray dress with the collar unbuttoned at the throat, and she came down the stairs with great care; the stairs were steep and open, so that she watched her feet as she placed them precisely at the center of the thick boards. Andrews stood on the board sidewalk and watched her come down; she did not wear a hat, and as she came out of the shadow of the building, the morning brightness caught her loose reddish-gold hair and gave warmth to her pale face. Though she had not seen him as she came down, she looked up at him without surprise when she got to the sidewalk.
“Good morning,” Andrews said.
She nodded and smiled; she remained facing him with one hand still on the rough wooden bannister of the stair; she did not speak.
“You’re up early this morning,” he said. “There’s hardly anyone on the street.”
“When I get up early, I take a walk sometimes.”
She nodded. “Yes. It’s good to walk alone in the morning; it’s cool then. Soon it’ll be winter and too cold to walk, and the hunters will be in town, and I won’t be alone at all. So in the summer and fall I walk when I can in the morning.”
“This is a beautiful morning,” Andrews said.
“Yes,” Francine said. “It’s very cool.”
“Well,” Andrews said doubtfully, and started to move away, “I suppose I’ll leave you to your walk.”
Francine smiled and put her hand on his arm. “No. It’s all right. You walk with me for a while. We’ll talk.”
She took his arm, and they walked slowly up and down the street, speaking quietly, their voices distinct in the morning stillness. Andrews moved stiffly; he did not look often at the girl beside him, and he was conscious of every muscle that moved him with her. Though afterward he thought often about their walk, he could not remember anything they said.
He saw Charley Hoge more frequently. Usually their conversations were brief and perfunctory. But once, casually, in a remote connection, he mentioned that his father was a lay minister in the Unitarian Church. Charley Hoge’s eyes widened, his mouth dropped incredulously, and his voice took on a new note of respect. He explained to Andrews that he had been saved by a traveling preacher in Kansas City, and had been given a Bible by that same man. He showed Andrews the Bible; it was a cheap edition, worn, with several pages torn. A deep brownish stain covered the corners of a number of the pages; Charley explained that this was blood, buffalo blood, that he had got on the Bible just a few years ago; he wondered if he had committed, even by accident, a sacrilege; Andrews assured him that he had not. Thereafter Charley Hoge was eager to talk; sometimes he even went to the effort of seeking Andrews out to discuss with him some point of fact or question of interpretation about the Bible. Soon, almost to his surprise, it occurred to Andrews that he did not know the Bible well enough to talk about it even on Charley Hoge’s terms—had not, in fact, ever read it with any degree of thoroughness. His father had encouraged his reading of Mr. Emerson, but had not, to his recollection, insisted that he read the Bible. Somewhat reluctantly, he explained this to Charley Hoge; Charley Hoge’s eyes became lidded with suspicion, and when he spoke to Andrews again it was in the tone of evan-gelicism rather than equality.
As he listened to Charley Hoge’s exhortations, his mind wandered away from the impassioned words; he thought of the times, short months before, when he had been compelled to be present each morning at eight at King’s Chapel in Harvard College, to listen to words much like the words to which he listened now. It amused him to compare the crude barroom that smelled of kerosene, liquor, and sweat to the austere dark length of King’s Chapel where hundreds of soberly dressed young men gathered each morning to hear the mumbled word of God.
Listening to Charley Hoge, thinking of King’s Chapel, he realized quite suddenly that it was some irony such as this that had driven him from Harvard College, from Boston, and thrust him into this strange world where he felt unaccountably at home. Sometimes after listening to the droning voices in the chapel and in the classrooms, he had fled the confines of Cambridge to the fields and woods that lay southwestward to it. There in some small solitude, standing on bare ground, he felt his head bathed by the clean air and uplifted into infinite space; the meanness and the constriction he had felt were dissipated in the wildness about him. A phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended came to him: I become a transparent eyeball. Gathered in by field and wood, he was nothing; he saw all; the current of some nameless force circulated through him. And in a way that he could not feel in King’s Chapel, in the college rooms, or on the Cambridge streets, he was a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained. Through the trees and across the rolling landscape, he had been able to see a hint of the distant horizon to the west; and there, for an instant, he had beheld somewhat as beautiful as his own undiscovered nature.
Now, on the flat prairie around Butcher’s Crossing, he regularly wandered, as if seeking a chapel more to his liking than King’s or Jackson’s Saloon. On one such sojourn, on the fifth day after Miller had left Butcher’s Crossing, and on the day before he returned, Andrews went for the second time down the narrow rutted road toward the river, and on an impulse turned off the road onto the path that led to McDonald’s shack.
Andrews walked through the doorway without knocking. McDonald was seated behind his littered desk; he did not move as Andrews came into the room.
“Well,” McDonald said, and cleared his throat angrily, “I see you’ve come back.”
“Yes, sir,” Andrews said. “I promised I would tell you if—”
McDonald waved his hand impatiently. “Don’t tell me,” he said, “I already know....Pull up a chair.”
Andrews got a chair from the corner of the room and brought it up beside the desk.
McDonald laughed shortly. “Hell, yes, I know; everybody in town knows. You gave Miller six hundred dollars, and you’re off on a big hunt, up in Colorado, they say.”
“You even know where we’re going,” Andrews said.
McDonald laughed again. “You don’t think you’re the first one that Miller has tried to get in on this deal, do you? He’s been trying for four years, maybe more—ever since I’ve known him, anyway. By this time, I thought he’d have stopped.”
Andrews was silent for a moment. Finally, he said: “It doesn’t make any difference.”
“You’ll lose your tail, boy. Miller saw them buffalo, if he saw them at all, ten, eleven years ago. There’s been a lot of hunting since then, and the herds have scattered; they don’t all go where they used to go. You might find a few old strays, but that’s all; you won’t get your money back.”
Andrews shrugged. “It’s a chance. Maybe I won’t.”
“You could still back out,” McDonald said. “Look.” He leaned across the table and pointed a stiff index finger at Andrews. “You back out. Miller will be mad, but he won’t make trouble; you can get four, five hundred dollars back on the stuff you’ve laid out for. Hell, I’ll buy it from you. And if you really want to go out on a hunt, I’ll fix you up; I’ll send you out on one of my parties from here. You won’t be gone more than three or four days, and you’ll make more off of those three or four days than you will off the whole trip with Miller.”
Andrews shook his head. “I’ve given my word. But it’s kind of you, Mr. McDonald; I thank you very much.”
“Well,” McDonald said after a moment. “I didn’t think you’d back out. Too stubborn. Knew it when I first saw you. But it’s your money. None of my business.”
They were silent for a long while. Andrews said at last, “Well, I wanted to see you before I left. Miller will be coming back tomorrow or the next day, and I won’t know when we’ll take off from here.” He got up from the chair and put it back in its corner.
“One thing,” McDonald said, not looking at him. “That’s rough country you’re going up into. You do what Miller tells you. He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he knows the country; you listen to him, and don’t go thinking you know anything at all.”
Andrews nodded. “Yes, sir.” He went forward until his thighs pressed against McDonald’s desk and he was bent a little above McDonald’s disheveled face. “I hope you do not think I am ungrateful in this matter. I know that you are a kind man, and that you have my best interests in mind. I am truly indebted to you.” McDonald’s mouth had slowly opened and now it hung incredulously wide, and his round eyes were watching Andrews. Andrews turned from him and walked out of the little shack into the sunlight.
In the sunlight he paused. He wondered if he wished to go back to the town just now. Unable to decide, he let his feet carry him vaguely along the wagon tracks to the main road; there he hesitated for a moment, to turn first one way and another, as the needle of a compass, slow to settle, discovers its point. He believed—and had believed for a long time—that there was a subtle magnetism in nature, which, if he unconsciously yielded to it, would direct him aright, not indifferent to the way he walked. But he felt that only during the few days that he had been in Butcher’s Crossing had nature been so purely presented to him that its power of compulsion was sufficiently strong to strike through his will, his habit, and his idea. He turned west, his back toward Butcher’s Crossing and the towns and cities that lay eastward beyond it; he walked past the clump of cottonwoods toward the river he had not seen, but which had assumed in his mind the proportions of a vast boundary that lay between himself and the wildness and freedom that his instinct sought.
The mounded banks of the river rose abruptly up, though the road ascended less steeply in a gradual cut. Andrews left the road and went into the prairie grass, which whipped about his ankles and worked beneath his trouser legs and clung to his skin. He paused atop the mound and looked down at the river; it was a thin, muddy trickle over flat rocks where the road crossed it, but above and below the road deeper pools lay flat and greenish brown in the sun. He turned his body a little to the left so that he could no longer see the road that led back to Butcher’s Crossing.
Looking out at the flat featureless land into which he seemed to flow and merge, even though he stood without moving, he realized that the hunt that he had arranged with Miller was only a stratagem, a ruse upon himself, a palliative for ingrained custom and use. No business led him where he looked, where he would go; he went there free. He went free upon the plain in the western horizon which seemed to stretch without interruption toward the setting sun, and he could not believe that there were towns and cities in it of enough consequence to disturb him. He felt that wherever he lived, and wherever he would live hereafter, he was leaving the city more and more, withdrawing into the wilderness. He felt that that was the central meaning he could find in all his life, and it seemed to him then that all the events of his childhood and his youth had led him unknowingly to this moment upon which he poised, as if before flight. He looked at the river again. On this side is the city, he thought, and on that the wilderness; and though I must return, even that return is only another means I have of leaving it, more and more.
He turned. Butcher’s Crossing lay small and unreal before him. He walked slowly back toward the town, on the road, his feet scuffing in the dust, his eyes watching the puffs of dust that his feet went beyond.
Late on the sixth day following his departure from Butcher’s Crossing, Miller returned.