Not having considered the possibility of a border on the south side of the preserve, the discovery of the fence comes as a surprise to the Bedwetters. While they meet to discuss a solution to the problem, they spread out half of the remaining bales of hay to keep the buffalo within a reasonable distance. Cotton encourages the boys to help him push through the fence to break it, and, although they slump down in exhaustion, he continues to exert his strength on the fence. However, he stops in panic upon spotting a Jeep and two pick-ups in the distance, headed toward them. Ordering Teft to use his rifle to shoot at the oncoming vehicles, Cotton attempts to drive the truck through the fence.
Cotton steps on the accelerator and succeeds in breaking the fence and driving through to the other side. To force the buffalo to flee the oncoming trucks, he lays on the horn long and loud. Almost fifty buffalo run through the fence to their freedom, and Cotton rides on, and, somehow unable to locate the brakes, crashes to his death. Approached by the sportsmen and officials, the five boys both grieve and celebrate Cotton's end.
Swarthout's application of the traditional famous American folksong "Home on the Range" has tremendous significance to the book's themes. As the novel progresses, the author inserts increasingly corrupted versions of the original lyrics, which read, "Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play, where seldom is heard, a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day."
The Bedwetters have stayed awake the entire night and have exerted themselves physically and emotionally. They have reached a state of near-delirium, and Swarthout's re-construed song attests to their lack of acuity. In addition, the lyrics speak directly to the conditions under which both the boys and the buffaloes suffer. It expresses hope for a brighter future that does not hold much promise of presenting itself. The homes that the boys and the beasts inhabit do not welcome them. Rather, they barely accept them, and then, with abuse. Swarthout has also chosen this song because of its role as a symbol of the ideals of the American West. By Chapter 20, the song reads as follows: "O twayne me a twim, where the ffubalo jym, where the rede and the telopen zoom; where nibber is nat, a conframitous rat-tat-tat, and the dils are not icky all doom."
Cotton has taken great interest in military affairs and admires the military lifestyle during his young life. While at home he often watched clips from the Vietnam War on television. He places much emphasis on bravery and perseverance, and Swarthout at times refers to the Bedwetters in military terms. He writes, "He reviewed his regiment . He smiled again, every sign of his seizure erased, and for a moment, inexplicably, he reminded them of an old soldier sitting on a bench by the courthouse in Prescott, recollecting his childhood and watching the world go by and chewing on the idea of eternity." Here the author demonstrates his pride in his "regiment," and also foreshadows his death with the phrase "chewing on the idea of eternity."
When the group spots the Jeeps and trucks in the distance, they becomes agitated, panicked, and disappointed. Their mission represents a fundamental break from the Box Canyon Boys Camp, from authority, and from mainstream society. The approaching vehicles represent an imposition of society on the efficacy and meaning of their mission. In addition, the men in state uniforms represent not only mainstream society but also, and more specifically, the government which has condoned and supported the buffalo killings.
The Bedwetters both celebrate and grieve Cotton's death in the final pages of the book. This bittersweet ending echoes much of the rest of the book, which speaks to the opposing forces of beauty and violence, and compassion and cruelty. Swarthout intrigues the reader by writing an open-ended conclusion to the novel and leaving a certain amount of interpretation up to the reader. In response to whether Cotton's death results from an accident or a suicide, Swarthout responds, "I can't and won't justify the ending of this book. There could be many reasons why Cotton dies. It may have been the last best thing he could do for his friends by ridding them of his leadership. He sacrifices himself, just as he does the chamber pot."