There was more here than profaned the eye or ear or nose or heart. There was more here than mere destruction. The American soul itself was involved, its anthropology.
This quote from Chapter 11 alludes to the role of the buffalo as a national symbol and as a symbol of the American West in particular. Years ago the buffalo had roamed freely in the West, and had more thickly populated the land. The annual tradition of slaughter, instituted by the government in order to thin out the herd, undermined this ancestry and this symbol. Above and beyond the cruelty implicated in both the act and method of killing, Swarthout takes issue with the carelessness with which the government treats these beasts.
For a moment, or moments, it was as it had been in the beginning, before fear, before evil, before death, at the time of the creation, when the earth was new and living things flourished therein, where the earth was fair and all living things dwelt together as kindred. For a moment, or moments, beasts and children were friends, there in the sweetness and silence of the night, there in the calm and lovely fields of the Lord.
This moving quote from the end of Chapter 16 speaks to the similarities between the buffaloes and the Bedwetters. He also uses this communion between man and beast to draw similarities between the two. Swarthout believes in the power of the buffaloes to bring peace and harmony to those who treat them with kindness. Using scent, which animals instinctually employ to determine the absence or presence of danger, the boys become at ease with the animals and experience a certain entirely novel tenderness and peace, which they have never before experienced with other human beings. Swarthout believes in the power of nature in creating this timeless and innocent connection.
A living buffalo mocks us. It has no place or purpose. It is a misbegotten child, a monster with which we cannot live and which we cannot live without. Therefore we slay, and slay again, for while a single buffalo remains, the sin of our fathers, and hence our own, is imperfect. But the slaughter of the buffalo is part of something larger. It is as though the land of Canaan into which we were led was too divine, and until we have done it every violence, until we have despoiled and murdered and dirtied every blessing, until we have erased every reminder of our original rape, until we have washed our hands of the bloods of every other, we shall be unappeased. It is as though we are too proud to be beholden to Him. We cannot bear the goodness of God.
At the end of Chapter 11, Swarthout implicitly comments once again on the similar situations of the buffaloes and the misfit campers. In using the metaphor, "a misbegotten child," hints at this connection. The Bedwetters have been "warehoused" at Box Canyon Boys Camp because, like the buffaloes, they "have no place or purpose." Swarthout once again links the beasts and boys by implying that society has no appreciation for these misfits who, despite their oddities and disorders, possess redeemable qualities. Furthermore, the author comments on man's capacity for cruel behavior and destruction, despite the wealth God has given him.
They had a last glimpse of John Cotton's red hair flaming like a torch as the truck seemed to soar and dive and disappear. And that was all, except for the remote but unmistakable concussion of metal and rock and the recognition of its meaning, which, microseconds later, cracked their hearts even as it freed them, too, forever.
This quote from Chapter 20 provides the Bedwetters with their last living image of Cotton. Despite the sadness of his death, which "cracked their hearts," this image strikes the reader as triumphant and celebratory. Cotton lived, and died, with tremendous vivacity. The mention of his "red hair flaming like a torch" seems to speak to the intensity with which he lived and to the strength of his personality.
Born on this preserve, fear of men had been bred out of them. Inoculated against disease, they were prime. Fed hay when winter snows covered their browse, they followed a feed truck about like sheep. They had never known the arrow or the lance, the lightning or the fire which crazed their ancestors over cliffs and into swollen rivers, nor had they known, until yesterday, the sounds and implication of a gun.
This quote from Chapter 11, in which Swarthout describes in gory detail the buffalo killings, speaks to the sudden shock of the death of these creatures. However, to Swarthout this does not represent the greatest injustice done to them; rather, their lack of freedom and instinct signified their status as completely different creatures from their ancestors.