Cold, Cold on the Range

Well, there was this cowboy a long time ago who lived in Montana, where life was lonely and the winters were bitterly cold. He was a good cowboy, young and full of vigor, and he loved to ride the range. One day, though, with another winter approaching, he decided he couldn’t stand any more of the cold and snow and decided to clear out and go south to Texas.

Before he left, he sold off everything he could not carry and everything that might remind him of his life in Montana.  Among the things he sold were all of his heavy winter clothes.  He figured he wouldn’t need them down south.  He used the money he got to buy himself a fancy new pair of hand-tooled cowboy boots, just the sort of thing they’d wear in Texas, he figured, and the sort of thing he’d always wanted for himself.  Then he lit out south across Wyoming.

Of course, Wyoming is a pretty cold place too, and even though it was only October the Montana cowboy got caught in an unexpected blizzard.  It seems that winter arrived early that year.  The cowboy no longer had his warm winter clothes, so he suffered terribly from the cold and, alas, he finally froze to death out there on the prairie. It was very sad.

Well, it seems that not long afterward, three cowboys rode by looking for steers that had wandered away from the herd and gotten lost in the blizzard.  They still hadn’t found any cows when, as luck would have it, they stumbled upon the corpse of the Montana cowboy.  By now, it was frozen solid.

Now, two of the three cowboys were well outfitted for the winter, with heavy buffalo robes and warm socks and boots.  But the third, even though he had warm clothing, didn’t have a sound pair of boots.  His boots were old and cracked and full of holes, and he didn’t have any socks at all, so his feet were always cold and he complained about them all day long.  The other two cowboys had long since gotten sick of listening to him complain and telling him to shut up.  So when they found the Montanan’s corpse the cowboy’s attention was drawn immediately to the dead cowboy’s fine boots.  They sure looked good to him.

He stepped down from his horse and told the other two, “I’m gonna to get me some warm boots, by golly.  This old sod ain’t gonna need them anymore.”  He set about trying to pull the boots off the dead man, but they were frozen so solidly to the dead man’s feet that he couldn’t get them off.  The cowboy was a determined man, though, and like most good cowboys he was resourceful.  He drew his Bowie knife from under his coat and began cutting the dead man’s legs off just above the boot tops.  “I’ll just take these things home and thaw them out,” he said, “and they’ll slip off as easy as an un-cinched saddle.”  The other cowboys agreed that he was probably right, and after he had sawed off the dead man’s legs and stowed the booted leg stumps in his saddle bags, the cowboys resumed their ride in search of cows.

These were tough and hard-working cowboys and they worked so hard for the rest of the day that they realized they wouldn’t be able to make it back to the bunkhouse before dark.  It was getting colder as the darkness closed in and the wind picked up, so they decided they needed to find a sheltered place to bed down for the night.  As luck would have it (luck figures prominently in this story), they knew of the cabin of an old man who lived nearby.  They felt certain he would let them in on a stormy night like this.

They rode hard to the old man’s cabin, and they banged on the door when they arrived.  When the old man appeared in the doorway they asked him if they could stay the night and he said, “Sure.” The old man had punched a lot of cattle in his younger days, so he knew what cowboy etiquette required him to do.

“Ain’t got no barn, though,” he said, because everybody could see that the cowboys’ horses were tired and steaming.  “I’ve brought my two horses into the cabin for the night, but there ain’t no room in here for your’n.”  And sure enough, the cowboys could see behind the old man, outlined against the firelight, two big horses inside the little cabin like the old man said.  There was no room for theirs.

“Now I do have a run-in out there,” the old man gestured.  “If’n you was to tie your mounts in the lee of that thing, maybe they’d be alright till morning.”  The cowboys sighed, and having no other choice they rubbed their horses down good and tethered them in the lean-to like the old man had suggested.  Then they picked up their saddles and tramped into the cabin.

The old man had a good fire going and enough room for the cowboys to spread their bedrolls out on the floor. He also had some hot coffee and the remains of his evening stew which he shared with them.  They all ate and smoked and talked a while and then prepared for bed.  Before they bedded down, though, the old man said, “Let me give you one word of warning.  Them horses of mine is pretty dangerous.  They’ll attack any man except’n me, so you better leave them be.”  The cowboys agreed and went to sleep.  They had no interest in bothering the old man’s horses.

Everyone slept heavily, and since the blizzard was still blowing the next morning they all just rolled over and kept sleeping when the sun came up.  Except for the cowboy with the new boots.  He remembered that it was his mother’s birthday and that she would be disappointed if she did not receive a birthday greeting from her son that day.  And he was a good son, as cowboys go, so he dragged himself out of his bedroll and quietly began making preparations to leave.  His plan was to ride on into town, in spite of the weather, and send a telegram to his mother back in Omaha.

He did not want to disturb his partners, so he was very quiet in his preparations.  He realized that they might wake up later and wonder where he’d gone, but he figured he’d meet up with them later and straighten everything out.  He might have left them a note, but he didn’t have any paper or a pencil, and besides, he couldn’t write very well and they couldn’t read.

He dressed warmly against the storm, but before he put on his old cold cracked boots he checked to see whether the heat from the fire had thawed out the new boots.  Happily for him, the boots had thawed just enough for him to pull them off the Montana cowboy’s legs, along with the socks, and to put them on his own two feet.  The sensation of comfort and warmth was indescribable, and he knew he would never have to wear his old boots again.  He took his old boots and set them over against the wall and, as an after-thought, he slipped the Montanan’s leg stumps into them to get them out of the way.  They were pretty gross to look at.  Then he slipped out and saddled up and headed for town.

When everyone else woke up, they could see that the third cowboy was gone, without explanation, leaving only the old boots with the leg stumps sticking out of them.  The first two cowboys puzzled over it for a while, while the old man looked on in dawning amazement.  Then he turned to his horses and studied them for a while and finally said, “Damn!  I knowed you was mean horses, but I never thought you’d eat a whole cowboy!”

And everyone sat and pondered this amazing thing, while the horses looked on peacefully and sidled a little closer to the fire.