I finished Butcher’s Crossing this morning. Will Andrew’s buffalo hunting party gets snowed into the valley they were hunting in, and are forced to winter there. The party makes it through the winter relatively unscathed, but their return journey is thwarted. The river they had to cross to begin their ascent to the pass is flooded with spring runoff, and crossing is difficult. The horses make it across fine, as does the wagon, until a dislodged tree trunk hits one of the horses and forces it into the wagon. The wagon is pushed sideways and the current takes it along with the oxen. The man riding the horse is killed in the accident.
The remaining members of the party make it back to Butcher’s Crossing only to find out that it is quickly on its way to becoming a ghost town. The bottom fell out of the buffalo hide market and the railroad will come through 50 miles north of the town. Williams’ seems to be critiquing the American frontier spirit, because there never actually was a frontier to conquer. On all levels (individual – Will Andrews, group – the hunting party, and society – Butcher’s Crossing), the quest for frontier is thwarted.
Upon returning to Butcher’s Crossing, the hunting party seeks out McDonald the man who ran the buffalo hide processing operation. McDonald promised the men a price for the hides they brought him, and Miller – the organizer of the party – wants to receive payment for the hides that they left at their campsite. They find McDonald in a cheap boarding house. He has no money to pay them, because he lost it all buying hides before the market dropped. Miller cannot accept that McDonald can’t pay him.
The frontier dream is to create something new on one’s own. In this way, Americans find fulfillment and freedom. Frustration comes when we realize that there is nothing new, and that we can’t create anything on our own.