Butcher's Crossing

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Book: Butcher's Crossing by John Williams Read Free Book Online
Authors: John Williams
kept his head down, as if he were asleep in his saddle; and Andrews looked on either side of him at the little town that he was leaving. The town was ghostly and dim in the morning darkness; the fronts of the buildings were gray shapes that rose out of the earth like huge eroded stones, and the half-dugouts appeared to be piles of rubble thrown carelessly about open holes. The procession passed Jackson’s Saloon, and soon it was past the town. In the flat country beyond the town, it seemed to be darker; the clopping of the horses’ hooves became dull and regular in the ears of the men, and the thin clogging odor of dust clung about their nostrils, and was not blown away in the slowness of their passage.
    Beyond the town the procession passed on its left McDonald’s small shack and the pole-fenced brining pits; Miller turned his head, grunted something inaudible to himself, and chuckled. A little past the clump of cottonwood trees, where the road began to go upward over the mounded banks of the stream, the three men on horseback came to a pause and the wagon behind them creaked to a halt. They turned and looked back, widening their eyes against the darkness. As they looked at the vague sprawling shape of Butcher’s Crossing, a dim yellow light, disembodied and hanging casually in the darkness, came on; from somewhere a horse neighed and snorted. With one accord, they turned again on their horses and began to descend the road that led across the river.
    Where they crossed, the river was shallow; its trickling around the flat rocks that had been laid in the soft mud as a bed for crossing had a murmurous sound that was intensified by the darkness; the dim light from the filling moon caught irregularly upon the water as it flowed, and there was visible upon the stream a constant glitter that made it appear wider and deeper than it was. The water barely came above their horses’ hooves, and flowed unevenly over the turning rims of the wagon wheels.
    A few moments after they crossed the stream, Miller again pulled his horse to a halt. In the dimness, the other men could see him raise himself in the saddle and lean toward the lifting darkness in the west. As if it were heavy, he lifted his arm and pointed in that direction.
    “We’ll cut across country here,” he said, “and hit the Smoky Hill trail about noon.”
    The first pink streaks of light were beginning to show in the east. The group turned off the road and set across the flat land; in a few minutes, the narrow road was no longer visible to them. Will Andrews turned in his saddle and looked back; he could not be sure of the point where they had left the road, and he could see no mark to guide them in their journey westward. The wagon wheels went easily and smoothly through the thick yellow-green grass; the wagon left narrow parallel lines behind it, which were quickly swallowed up in the level distance.
    The sun rose behind them, and they went more quickly forward, as if pushed by the increasing heat. The air was clear, and the sky was without clouds; the sun beat against their backs and brought sweat through their rough clothing.
    Once the group passed a small hut with a sod roof. The hut was set on the open plain; behind it a small plot of ground had been cleared once, but now it was going back to the yellow-green grass that covered the land. A broken wagon wheel lay near the front entrance, and a heavy wooden plow was rotting beside it. Through the wide door, at the side of which hung a scrap of weathered canvas, they could see an overturned table and the floor covered with dust and rubble. Miller turned in his saddle and spoke to Andrews:
    “Gave it up.” His voice had a thin edge of satisfaction. “Lots of them have tried it, but don’t many make it. They pull out when it gets a little bad.”
    Andrews nodded, but he did not speak. As they went past the hut, his head turned; he watched the place until his view of it was cut off by the wagon that came behind

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