”You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies at school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you’re the only one that knows the secret; only then it’s too late. You’re old.”
Will Andrews bought into the Manifest Destiny rhetoric of Horace Greeley, Go West, Young Man! The year is 1873. He has three years of education at Harvard and to throw off the yoke he feels settling around his young shoulders he decides to head to Kansas. His father, a Unitarian Minister, gives him the name of a man he knew named McDonald as a person who might be able to help him settle in out west. If the father had known what a den of iniquity that most of Western Kansas was at this point he might not have been so encouraging of his son to head West.
Butcher’s Crossing is a hide town. A town that exists only as a central point for Buffalo hunters to bring their hides for sale and to drink and get their ashes hauled. McDonald is the buyer of hides and he is buried in paperwork. He tries to hire Andrews to help him in the office, but Will did not come West to sit behind a desk. He asks for directions to a reliable Buffalo hunter. At one time there were millions of Buffalo stretching from Canada to Mexico, but after decades of slaughter their numbers have greatly diminished. By 1873 the large herds numbering in the thousands have been broken up into small pockets of a hundred or less. The meat is left to rot and the hides are being sent back East to be made into coats. Later the bones of the deceased Buffalo are picked up off the plains and ground into fertilizer.
Large Mound of Buffalo Bones
It was an eradication of a species on an epic scale.
The numbers of Buffalo today have come back from the brink of extinction. There are about 200,000 Buffalo being raised for the parks service and for meat. They are such a majestic animal and it truly would have been tragic if they had disappeared forever.
My Great Grandfather Ashley Joseph Ives in his Buffalo coat.
Andrews finds Miller and provides the cash to supply one last great Buffalo hunt. Miller had seen a large herd numbering nearly 3,000 a few years before in a valley in the Colorado mountains. It has always been his dream to go back. Andrews also meets Francine, a prostitute from St. Louis who was tired of all the competition in Missouri and liked that she could pick and choose her customers in this small backwater town in Kansas. Andrews, except for a furtive few moments with a willing cousin has very little experience with women.
”He pulled away from her a little to look at her soft heavy body that clung to him like velvet, held there of its own nature; there was a serenity on her face, almost as if it were asleep; and he felt that she was beautiful. He was assailed by the knowledge that others had seen this face as he was seeing it now; that others had kissed her on her wet lips, had heard the voice he was hearing, had felt the same breath he was feeling upon his own face, now. They had quickly paid their money, and had gone, and others had come, and others. He had quick and irrational image of hundreds of men, steadily streaming in and out of a room. He turned, pulled away from her, suddenly dead inside himself.”
As they journey to Colorado Andrews discovers how unprepared he is to do this much riding and this much work for this many long hours, finding himself beyond bone tired, so tired he can barely remember who he is.
”Day by day the numbness crept upon him until at last the numbness seemed to be himself. He felt himself to be like the land, without identity or shape; sometimes one of the men would look at him, look through him, as if he did not exist; and he had to shake his head sharply and move an arm or a leg and glance at it to assure himself that he was visible.”
They find the Buffalo.
They kill the Buffalo.
They reduce a herd of 3,000 down to a few hundred.
I was rooting for the Buffalo. I wanted a stampede, or any intervention that would wreak vengeance upon the hunters for their greed.
Buffaloes can reach speeds of 35mph.
”At night, when the two of them rode wearily out of the valley to the small red-orange glow that marked their camp in the darkness, they found Miller slouched darkly and inertly before the fire; except for his eyes he was as still and lifeless as one of the buffalo he had killed. Miller had even stopped washing of his face the black powder that collected there during his firing; now the powder smoke seemed a permanent part of his skin, ingrained there, a black mask that defined the hot, glaring brilliance of his eyes.”
I know people who hunt and I know people who kill. There are those that go out to hunt for a specific purpose and there are those that go out to kill anything that is moving. I’ve walked along the river that flows through my family property after people have been through there shooting squirrels, birds, and rabbits, not to eat them, but just for the sport of it. Everything is silent, a condemnation of our failed stewardship colors the air. There is something inherently missing in people who choose to treat life this way. I used to hunt with my friends and family and then I shot my first deer soon after turning 15 and that was my last time. I walked up to the dying deer hidden by the grass. He had looked so large when he had stared across the field at me and in death looked so tenderly small sprawled on the ground. The stain was larger than the gain.
I sold my rifle.
To keep a herd from running away you have to kill their leader first.
”The buffalo passed their wounded leader, and ran beyond him some three hundred yards, where their running gradually spent itself, and where they stood, milling uneasily about. The old bull stood alone behind them, his massive head sunk below his hump; his tail twitched once or twice, and he shook his head. He turned around several times, as another animal might have done before sleeping, and finally stood facing the two men who were more than two hundred yards away from him. He took three steps toward them, and paused again. Then, stiffly, he fell on his side, his legs straight out from his belly, The legs jerked, and then he was still.
That bull had fought off all his competitors. He’d won the right to inseminate and pass along his bloodline to the next generation. He stood between his herd and every threat that nature could throw at him. ”The old bull carried thick scars on his sides and flanks that could be seen even at a great distance.” A bullet fired from a man two hundred yards away that he couldn’t even see exploded through his chest cavity, punching through both his lungs, drowning him with his own blood, and he didn’t even get a chance to fight.
The hunting party stayed too long in the mountains, greed overrides common sense, and nature comes calling.
Many more trials and tribulations await the less than heroic characters that populate this novel. John Williams is a wonderful writer. His book Stoner is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, so despite this being a subject matter that I find particularly distasteful the writing was superb. This is a epic western with all the grandeur of inspiring descriptions of the landscape and the wonderful character sketches of the rough and tumble people who for a time made their living on the plains of Kansas. They cleared the land for the farmers and the ranchers that were coming close behind them. My Great-great Grandfather Thomas Newton Keeten came to Kansas in the 1880s, so he was part of the migration of farmers who settled after the near eradication of the Buffalo and the Indians had been “pacified”. He broke the sod, built a house, helped form the Methodist church that I was baptized in, and is buried in the cemetery among the bones of the Buffalo.