As is common in E. Annie Proulx’s stories, landscape plays a critical role. In this story, the rural setting in the foothills of the Big Horns is a powerful force that contributes to the main character’s demise. Mero had long ago abandoned this harsh environment, but he naturally feels compelled to return on receiving the news of his brother’s death. The landscape theme becomes pronounced as the story reaches its climactic moment. The environment kills Mero as he struggles to find shelter from the snow. The plight of a struggling human in the midst of an indifferent and dangerous landscape hearkens back to the works of naturalist writers of the late nineteenth century such as Stephen Crane and Jack London. Mero’s conflict, like the conflicts in many of the naturalists’ stories, suggests a human struggle against ominous environmental forces in which survival is largely a matter of chance.
Another important theme in the story is the notion of returning home. Mero has been away sixty years, but the story is framed with his origins and death in the harsh West. Apparently, Mero abandoned the poverty of his ranching family to reinvent himself in an eastern urban setting, but the compulsion to see his brother causes him to return to his place of origin and former life.
The story also suggests that life is a journey, and the episodes encountered along the road define human character and destiny. The related theme of unfinished business is expressed through the tale of the steer. The story hints that there are unpleasant consequences for not finishing jobs, for quitting before the appropriate time.
In a more pessimistic existential sense, the story puts forth the idea that human activity is essentially futile when the greater context of imminent death is considered. Mero cannot evade the symbolic steer, just as one cannot evade death. Attempts at redefining oneself are, in the end, relatively pointless or at least temporary and therefore limited.
These themes correlate with the implied theme of brothers living united in purpose and spirit. Though the story does not reveal any overt antipathy between Rollo and Mero, they have lived in separation from each other. Rollo had intended to one day check up on Mero, but he did not fulfill that intention. In the end, this separation is problematic.