“Hello, the house,” the middle-aged couple heard as they stacked the last of the home-canned beets on the shelf. It was fall in the high country and that meant getting ready for winter. There was ranch work to be done, but the fall canning took precedence because they would be living on the vegetables from Mrs. Fritz’s garden. Besides, the cowboys hadn’t shown up yet for the fall roundup to move the cattle from the mountain pastures to the lower country.
Freddy, the ranch owner, stepped out the door of the log cabin that was the ranch house for one of the biggest ranches in Eastern Arizona. He looked at the four cowboys, sitting comfortably on their cow ponies. The horses were lean and tough as were the scruffy and unshaven men with their longish hair hanging over their collars, except for the youngest of the men, whose hair was too curly to hang. Instead, it only curled over his ears and under his hat. Their clothes were dirty and worn from life on the range, but their saddles were oiled and well cared for.
“Howdy, men,” said the ranch owner, smiling. “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it. I thought maybe Newell and Carson got throwed in jail like last year for being drunk.”
Newell and Carson grinned at the teasing, looking down at their saddle horns. Caleb, the oldest of the bunch and self-appointed spokesman of the crew, chuckled, then pointing to the youngest man, said, “It was Butch this time.” Three of the cowboys laughed long and hard, joined by Freddy on the porch. Butch hung his head, embarrassed.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here. We was just finishing the last batch of canning for the day and I was planning on unloading and splitting firewood from the wagon. Put your horses in the corral and your blanket rolls in the bunkhouse. We’ve got work to do.”
The next morning, the four cowboys and the ranch owner saddled their horses and left the split and carefully stacked firewood to ride deeper into the mountains, climbing in elevation until they reached their destination, ten miles from the ranch house. It was a line shack that the four hired hands would work from as they pushed cows and calves to the lower country that wouldn’t get as much snow.
The men tied their horses to the hitching rail at what they called the barn, which consisted of four stout log poles with a tin roof butted against a solid rock cliff face. Caleb was first to make his way to the line shack, which was nothing more than four walls and a roof with a plank floor held off the ground by four ponderosa pine logs. It hadn’t changed from last year, he decided, as he stepped up on the rough floor.
As he opened the door he noticed the mattresses from the bunks, rolled and hung from the ridge pole to keep the mice out. They seemed to be in good shape other than the thick layer of dust that covered them – and everything else in the one room shack.
The four cowboys went to work, cleaning with a broom that had seen better days. Most of the dirt fell through the spaces between the planks on the floor. Freddy brought the pack mule close to unload the supplies his hired hands would need while they stayed there, then telling the men to be careful, he mounted for the return trip home.
By the end of the day the cowboys were settled into their home away from home and had a roaring fire in the stove. It was colder here than the lower elevations, and they each knew from experience that winter would be there any day. The next day they would hunt for a good sized elk to hang at the barn for their winter meat. Between that and the provisions brought up by Freddy, they would be set.
For the next week the cowboys made good progress gathering the cows and driving them off the mountain. Their rawhide tough cow ponies handled the hard work well, as did the rawhide tough men.
Real winter came on the eighth day. The cowboys had a large bunch of cows and their big calves moving off the mountain at a good pace. By noon, a cold wind was blowing and by four o’clock, when the men left the cows and started toward the line shack, the snow was three inches deep and growing deeper with each mile.
At their arrival, the cowboys took care of their horses, then made their way to the shack for the night, each carrying an armload of wood from the huge stack at the barn.
Butch leaned down, balancing the armful of firewood as he turned the knob to open the door. The rank, skunk smell hit him immediately. “Awww!” he exclaimed, as he entered and dropped his wood into a corner of the shack, close to the pot belly stove. The reaction of the other men was the same. They squinted their eyes and tried not to breathe.
The next morning, riding through the snow on the ground on their way to push the next bunch of cows off the mountain, the men discussed what to do. “I think we ought to shoot the little bastard,” said Carson, patting his lever action .30-.30 in its scabbard under his leg.