Will Andrews, the protagonist of Butcher’s Crossing, is a young man who heads West, leaving behind Harvard and everything else familiar to him to do so. He is one of the yarb-doctor’s “sick spirit[s],” sent “to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs.” Will the yarb-doctor make him an idiot?
He arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, a hide town in Kansas, looking for work—but not just any work. A family friend is ready to have him as a bookkeeper, but paperwork is just the sort of thing he has left the East to avoid. He wants nature; he wants to meet the hunters. Heedless of his friend’s warning, he does so, seeking out a man named Miller who is supposed to be the best of the bunch.
Miller easily convinces Andrews to fund and participate in, at best, a difficult trip. A decade earlier, Miller found in a high valley in Colorado and untouched herd of buffalo—one of the few remaining large herds, and still with luscious coats, which the plains buffalo now lack. It is a valley untouched by humans other than Miller, or at least it was ten years earlier, and Miller convinces Andrews, Miller’s companion Charley, and an experienced skinner, Schneider, to go along treasure-hunting. And thus begins Andrews strange experience of the West, and of work.
The work begins long before the party reaches the valley. Andrews discovers it is work simply to ride so long and so far—never has he spent more than a couple hours at a time before on horseback. He finds for the first time what it means to be bone-tired, and as they progress through Kansas to Colorado, what it means to be hungry, and viciously thirsty. The traveling alone is dangerous and physically gruelling, and the routine of it all begins to change Andrews.
The reality of their journey lay in the routine detail of bedding down at night, arising in the morning, drinking black coffee from hot tin ups, packing bedrolls upon gradually wearying horses, the monotonous and numbing movement over the prairie that never changed its aspect, the watering of the horses and oxen at noon, the eating of hard biscuit and dried fruit, the resumption of the journey, the fumbling setting up the camp in the darkness, the tasteless quantities of beans and bacon gulped savagely in the flickering darkness, the coffee again, and the bedding down. This came to be a ritual, more and more meaningless as it was repeated, but a ritual which nevertheless gave his life the only shape it now had.
Who does not recognize here the contemporary plight of the office worker, marking time with a new set of rituals, as Andrews heads into the deeper country and finds the West less beautiful, more terrible, and at least as numbing in its own way as bookkeeping might have been?
When they reach the valley, it gets worse. Miller’s buffalo are still there, and they are still as majestic as he remembered them. Of course, the very presence of the party there means that cannot last. Andrews is there as a skinner, with Schneider to teach him. Miller is the shooter, and a good one he is. In this herd relatively unexposed to the dangers of humans, he gets the biggest “stand” he’s ever had—that is, he kills the buffalo in such a way as to confuse the herd and prevent it from fleeing, shooting one animal after another, the dead dropping among the living, for an almost impossible length of time.
During the last hour of the stand [Andrews] came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at the last blind fury that toiled darkly within him—he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself. And he looked upon himself, crawling dumbly after Miller upon the flat bed of the valley, picking up the empty cartirdges that he spent, tugging the water keg, husbanding the rifle, cleaning it, offering it to Miller when he needed it—he looked upon himself, and did not know who he was, or where he went.
Has Andrews lost himself in work, or in bad work, or simply in the West? Has he lost himself simply by virtue of trying to “find himself,” when himself was with him all along? That first night after the first kill, Andrews is asked to dress a cow so the party can have fresh meat to eat, since he has shown himself not yet up to the task of skinning. The butchering too is too much, and he recoils. Reflecting on his disgust later that night, he decides that “he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut,” but “because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments more proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself….That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it.”
His hand, at this point, seeks out his own face, testing his features to see if he is still the same man he was. But the change is already there—it was there in the routine of the prairie, where he was already seeing himself an automaton or mechanism. The killing, and Miller’s approach to it, certainly heighten this feeling of change and distance from himself.
The last quoted passages are an example of why I think that perhaps Stoner is the “better” novel, despite my personal preference for Butcher’s Crossing. Andrews is on a journey of self-discovery, and his self-examination is often explicit. It would be absurd to say we have perfect access to what is “really” happening to Andrews, but there are many examinations of his Bildung through his own eyes—eyes that are half in, half out of the situation. He is able to recognize, at least in part, what is happening to him, and he does not like it. But as the automaton he believes he has become, his ability to change it is very limited.