I turn my horse for home when the first stars come out. We follow the fence line, crunching through snow that’s ankle deep and crusted with ice. Another storm rolls on the horizon, black against the fading twilit sky, but there’s plenty of time to make it home before it hits.
I pass three herds on the way back. Most of them are humped up against the cold, huddled together to escape the gale screaming down from the mountains. The skies are clear tonight, but the cold snaps in the air, and I can feel the ice in the wind. The last few storms have been from hell itself. The ice froze the gates shut, drove the cattle to the furthest corners of their pasture, and burned my hands with frostbite. The storms keep Keller’s men from my ranch as well. They’ve gotten worse in the last months, threatening me, my wife. They want the land, of course, my family’s ranch. They’ve taken over most of the valley now. None of the ranchers have stood up to them.
Only Kati and I.
But tonight, another storm will block the valleys, and his men will leave us alone. I’ll be inside when the storm hits. Our ranch house is drafty in the winter, and the roof leaks worse every year, but Kati and I are happy. When we light the fire and close the shutters, snuggling together on the couch beneath the quilts she stitched before we got married, I hardly notice the drafts. It’s always warm when I come home, and the fire and the lamps are always lit. It’s a good welcome after the cold of the pastures.
Except the windows are dark when I ride in, and there are horses tied in the yard.