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Line Shack Winter, Part 1 of 2
by D. L. Chance

Charlie Phipps manned a high-country line shack on the Rocker O spread in Wyoming for years. He enjoyed the isolation, the work and the scenery. All in all, there was no place else he'd rather make his meager living. Little did he know, fate had a far different future in store for him.

His job consisted mainly of saddling up one of the stock horses he kept on hand and scouting for strays a couple times a week. When he found enough to make the ride worthwhile, he would haze the wayward cattle back to the summer pastures halfway downslope with the rest of the herd. But if a few were stubborn enough to winter over in the higher altitude, he'd round them up and keep them fed until spring thaw in a large shed not far from the cabin. A fast-flowing creek running beside the shack kept him, his horses and any cattle around the place in plenty of water. And a natural hot springs a pistol-shot distance from the cabin helped round out his personal comforts.

If he got tired of eating beef from the prime steer the foreman let him butcher and smoke for his pantry every year, there was always plenty of other game in the woods along the ridge above the small one-room log house. The same forests provided all the firewood he needed, along with a variety of berries and other wild snacks he thoroughly enjoyed stocking up on when they were in season.

In the evenings, and when it was too snowy to do much outside, he enjoyed playing his guitar and humming the blessed old hymns he'd learned at his dear churchgoing mother's knee. When he was in the right mood, he would sometimes write simple rhyming verse in one of the ledger books he kept on hand for jotting down doings around the cabin that the boss might ask about someday. Some of them were solemn and thoughtful, but most of the poems Charlie wrote came from a deep love of fun and laughter.

He kept the books, and a precious stock of well-used pencils, in a small rough-plank cabinet nailed to the wall directly over his bed, and he guarded them jealously. Any critters looking to get into his meager store of writing supplies – and there were always plenty of squirrels, chipmunks and rats looking to get in and steal some warm winter bedding, especially in the fall – would have to go through him to get at the books and pencils.

Another pastime Charlie enjoyed was throwing his tomahawk. He used to tell how it was given to him directly by Chief Broken Nose, of the Northern Cheyenne, but he had to stop when a real Cheyenne stock wrangler threatened to use it on him if he didn't stop making up silly names and stories about imaginary people. Charlie had never been very accurate with the 'hawk, but scars on most of the trees around the cabin offered silent testimony to the fact that it wasn't because he didn't practice. He kept it hanging on the wall by the same nail that held the bentwood-and-sinew snowshoes he used – along with a furry pair of knee-length Lakota moccasins – to get around the place when the midwinter snows were thigh-high and powdery.

But what Charlie mostly liked about living at the line shack was the seclusion. The endless days of solitude that taught him not to just look at the high country splendor all around – the ever-changing vistas, the interplay of both the wild and domestic animals, the sounds that insisted on being recorded in long stanzas of pleasant poetry – but to become one with it.

And he enjoyed the silence – the peaceful absence of noise, especially the man-made kind that could cascade so relentlessly from the constantly moving mouths of the boys in the bunkhouse.

Here, he could talk to the trees, to the animals, to the hillsides, to the wind, to himself and – except for the wind and some of the animals – they hardly ever talked back. At the headquarters…he didn't like thinking about living anywhere near the bunkhouse.

But he did look forward to spending his usual week in town during the summer. It was a thirty-mile ride one way, but with nothing to spend his pay on through the year he always had plenty of jingle in his britches when he rode in. He always rode home broke, but thoroughly satisfied in all the various ways an unattached man of temporary means can possibly enjoy.

One day, when he was getting the place ready for his eighth winter in the line shack, Charlie spotted a rider coming up the valley and recognized him as the ranch hand who worked the line shack in the next valley over. The man was leading two pack mules loaded with winter supplies for both outposts, and he'd probably stay the night before heading to his own place at sunup. Charlie had a big supper of beef stew and cornbread made from the last of his supply of meal hot and ready on the potbelly stove when the man pulled up out front and dismounted.

"Dave," Charlie said, standing in the doorway.

"Charlie."

"Hungry?"

"A mite."

"Fiddle?"

"Always."

They swapped quick nods of the forehead, men of few words who understood each other without a lot of yakking.

While Dave went to take care of his horse and get the pack animals unloaded, fed and put away in the barn for the night, Charlie set the table. Later, they played a few tunes. After running through all the songs they both knew, they stopped playing and just sat staring silently into the fire.

"Changes," Dave finally said, taking a deep breath. "Yep."

"Yep."

"Change is a coming, all right."

"I reckon." Then, blinking, Charlie looked over at the other cowboy. "Wait a minute, what changes? What the hell are you talking about?"

"The foreman is sending his oldest boy up here to winter over with you." Dave shrugged. "He wants the kid to learn how to work a place like this."

"Me?" Charlie set his guitar aside. "Why not send the kid to winter over with you?"

"I reckon it's probably because I told him how you been pining for company," Dave said, a grin playing at the corners of his mouth. "Otherwise, he might be sending the boy over to my place."

"Why the hell did you tell him that?"

"Because I don't want no –"

"Hell, I don't want him here neither!"

"How do you know, Charlie? Hell, you might like having him around."

"You might like having him around, too!"

Dave carefully laid the fiddle beside his chair and reached into his pocket.

"The ramrod said if you balk I was to give you this here note," he said, handing over a folded piece of paper. "He thought you would."

Charlie turned the paper so that he could see it better in the firelight. "Charlie, let the boy stay with you," he read out loud.

He read it through silently a few more times, and then cocked a suspicious eye at Dave.

"You wrote this on the way up here," he said.

Dave held out his palms innocently.

"I won't lie to you, Charlie. I did write it. But it's what the man would have told you if he thought –"

"Nope, I'm not having it!" Charlie wadded up the paper and tossed it into the fire, and immediately regretted it when he realized he could have written something on the clean side of it. "That's just plain cheating, Dave. It's not right."

"Okay!" Dave sat back in his chair, and sighed deeply. "How 'bout we cut cards for it?"

"Gambling's a sin," Charlie pointed out.

"It sure is," Dave said, reaching into his other shirt pocket. "You want to shuffle 'em?"

"Damn right I do!" Charlie laid his guitar over his knees, strings down, and reached for the bedraggled cards. "You think I was just hatched, or something?"

"Not now, I don't," Dave muttered, glancing at the smoldering embers of the phony note and handing the cards over. "But be easy with them. They're all I've got."

"Then let's use mine." Charlie came to his feet and, taking his guitar, crossed to his bed to hang the instrument by its rope strap on the nail where he kept it. Checking to make sure Dave wasn't watching, he opened the cabinet door where he kept his writing materials and found the new deck of cards he'd picked up on his last trip into town. "I can trust these," he said, returning to his chair and handing the cards to Dave. "Cut 'em."

The cowboy took the cards in his work-rough hands and expertly mixed them up, then reached down to set them on the floor.

"Best of three?" he asked.

"What's wrong with one cut?"

"Just making it a little more fair. 'Course now, if you only want one cut, I guess –"

"Best of three, then!"

Dave came up with a four, and Charlie was feeling pretty good about the first cut.

Until he turned up a deuce.

"That's one for me," Dave said, smirking.

"I can count to one, same as you."

"Okay. How 'bout you go next?"

Wordlessly, Charlie turned over a five, and it was his turn to smirk when Dave came up with a trey.

"This 'un tells the story," Charlie said, reaching for the stack again.

He cracked his knuckles and wiped his fingertips on his shirt, and reached deep into the pile. He turned over the queen of clubs,

"Well howdy Ma-am!" He waved the card in Dave's face. "Let's see this feller here try to –" He stopped gloating and his smile disappeared when Dave came up with a suicide king from the cards left on the floor. "I'll be damned."

"Nice deck of cards," Dave said, handing his cards over. "Wanna cut one more time for 'em?"

"No!" Charlie gathered up the cards and dropped them into his shirt pocket. "I reckon I'll need 'em now to keep the kid occupied."

Dave gazed thoughtfully at his old friend for a long moment.

"Look, Charlie, if he gives you too much trouble, you can –"

"Send him over to your place? Good. Why don't you just take him to begin with."

"I never said I'd nursemaid no kid all winter! I was gonna say you can send him back home to his mama if he gets to be too big a handful."

"The boss said I can do that?"

"No, but once he's back at headquarters there won't be much anyone can do about it."

"Except fire me," Charlie pointed out. "The boss can do that."

"He damn sure can."

"Damn."

"Well then," Dave said, reaching for his fiddle, "now that we got that settled, I reckon I'll be moving on come first light."

"Uh-huh. So you won't –"

"You won him fair and square, Charlie."

Defeated, Charlie's shoulders slumped.

"I reckon."

Charlie dropped back onto his chair while Dave, careful with his fiddle, took the other one.

"By the way," Dave said a few silent moments later, "I was told to pass the word along that a rogue grizzly has moved south into this part of the high country. It 'pears to be a big 'un, too."

"How big?"

Dave shrugged. "Couple of the boys down at headquarters thought they saw it when they were clearing the summer pasture last week, but it was gone when they got there. Word from other spreads is that from the sheer amount of carcasses it leaves behind, it's a great big one."

"What kind of carcasses?"

"Cattle, mostly. Some folks claim it's even taken down full-growed buffalo bulls. But it don't eat what it takes. It just kills 'em and chews on 'em a little here and there before it moves on."

"That's bad," Charlie opined. "A thing like that could put a big hurt on a man's profits for the whole year. Any word on the griz heading this way?"

"There ain't no way to know for sure. It's been showing up on both sides of the range – sometimes killing on this side, sometimes killing on the west side – and there's talk about the Cattlemen's Association hiring a professional hunter to go get it. But there's plenty of places in these mountains for it to hide, so I don't 'spect no one'll kill it unless they're mighty lucky."

Charlie agreed, and by mutual unspoken agreement they let the subject drop.

Dave laid out his bedroll near the fire, and they split the last of the beef stew for breakfast. He was saddling up next morning when Charlie jerked a thumb at the pack mules.

"Aren't you taking a load out to your place?" he asked, noting the double pile of supplies laid out on the straw floor. "Surely this kid don't eat that much."

"I got plenty," Dave said. "And if I run short the Anderson spread ain't but a half-day's ride from the house. It's as far for you as headquarters is, and I can get anything I need there." He led his mount from the barn. "And besides," he said gazing off in the direction of the main ranch house complex, "I suspect the kid can eat more than either of us can imagine, him still a growing boy, and all."

"I 'magine so."

"So long, Charlie."

"Dave."

When the other cowboy was gone, Charlie moved the supplies into the cabin and spent the rest of the day tending to his regular chores – and trying not to think about his impending house guest.

Four days later, it was getting on toward supper time and Charlie was sitting in the privy out back when he heard someone yelling around at the front of the cabin. Damn, he thought, finishing up his personal business and shrugging into his suspenders. Better go get it over with.

"Hey, Old Timer," a mounted teenager said, as soon as Charlie appeared. "Is this the right cabin? Looks kinda rundown. I've been two days getting here, and I sure hope it is. Wandering around in all these trees and mountains has 'bout got me wore down to nothing. Lost a mare on the way up here, too. She skinned out into the woods and I ain't seen her since. May I never see a patch of woods again! How come these shacks have to be so far out in the woods, anyway? Ain't no cows around here nowhere that I can see. Are you . . . Charlie . . . something? Phillips? Are you Charlie Phillips? You look kinda old to be –"

"Who the hell are you, boy?" Charlie looked the kid over. Tall and red-haired, he was dressed cow enough, and he was packing what looked like an old but serviceable Sharps Big Fifty rifle in a saddle boot. Two empty feed sacks spilled over each side of the pommel on his rather ratty stock saddle, and a thick bedroll was tied behind the cantle. But his boyish youth still clung stubbornly to his peach-fuzzed face. "What do you want?"

A puzzled expression came over the teenager's generously freckled features. "I . . . I'm not a boy. I'm coming up on sixteen years old, and that . . . say, are you Phippo? Phlippy? How do you pronounce your name, anyway?"

"Are you the foreman's boy?" Without waiting for an answer, Charlie pointed at the barn. "Get your horse settled in and fed, then get back to the house. There's a few things you need to know if you're going to stay here."

He turned and disappeared into the cabin, leaving the boy muttering about being called boy again.

The kid jabbered all during supper, and he did a lot of complaining about the beef stew even though he managed to finish off two large bowls of it. He rambled on about his pals at school, about school, about his mother's cooking, about how high up might be, about the preacher's personal habits, about how the storekeeper's pretty daughter was probably too stuck up for her own damn good, and he didn't seem to notice that Charlie never spoke the first word.

"Leastways, that's what I think," he finally said before downing a last bite of cornbread. "How 'bout you, Phillips?"

Charlie slid his bowl aside and slowly looked up to meet the kid's eye.

"First thing is, you're going to sleep in the barn until the first good snow," he said. "Then you can spread your bedroll out in here by the fire. You did bring a bedroll?"

"I ain't sleeping in no barn!" The kid hooked a thumb at the corner where Charlie's slept. "There's a perfectly good bed over yonder," he said, "and it looks to be just my size."

"There's not all that much to do around here," Charlie continued as if the kid hadn't spoken. "But what has to be done has to be done right. There'll be ice to break up in the crik', cattle to tend –"

"I tell you I'm not sleeping in any barn," the kid said, coming to his feet. "My pa –"

"Is a long ways off," Charlie pointed out. "Now, your choices are to do it my way around here, or go back to him." He held up a hand when the kid opened his mouth. "Don't bother telling me you can get me fired," he said. "Your pa might be the foreman, but it was the big boss hired me way back. And I never yet give him reason to complain about my work."

The kid clamped his jaw shut and merely glared.

"That's better." Not daring to show how happy he was that the kid bought his tenuous story about being fire-proof, Charlie came to his feet and walked to his bed. He pointed at his cabinet. "See that? You can't ever touch it." He pointed at the guitar. "See that? You can't ever touch it." He pointed at a single-bit axe hanging on a nail near the door. "See that? You can touch it. In fact, starting tomorrow morning, you can take it outside and start splitting that pile of sawed logs up'side the house. But don't ever leave it outside when you ain't swinging it. There'll be more chores as I think of them."

"Is this because I said I wanted your bed?" The kid snorted. "I was only funning you. What's the matter, Old Timer? Got no sense of humor?"

Tempted to spit something equally nasty at the boy, Charlie merely stretched and let go a fake yawn, and pointed at the door.

"I could use some kindling chopped up for the breakfast fire," he said. "Did I mention how the axe is hanging on this nail right here?"

Wordlessly, the kid stalked out.

Charlie was trying to calm his nerves with a few hymns a half hour later when an explosion went off from the direction of the barn.

"Damn!"

He pulled his boots on over his longjohns and grabbed his Winchester on the way out the door. The kid was nowhere in sight, but he could see lamplight peeking through cracks in the barn wall. Otherwise, all was quiet under the bright half-moon.

"What the hell was that?" he barked from outside the building, careful not to go busting in. "What are you shooting at in there?

In a moment, the big door squeaked open and the kid, with the massive Sharps fifty caliber hunting rifle in his hands, looked out and grinned.

"I was cleaning my rifle, and I guess it kinda went off," he said sheepishly. "I'll fix that hole in the roof come morning."

Torn between wanting to yell at the kid for doing something so stupid, and allowing how it was in fact a good idea to keep the heavy gun as clean as possible, Charlie let out the deep breath he'd been holding.

"Why'd you pack along a Sharps Big Fifty?" he asked. "By the time you get it shouldered, whatever is big enough and mean enough to need that kind of firepower to stop will have either already killed you, or bid you good day and run clean over the horizon."

"Oh yeah," the boy said, resting the single-shot rifle butt on top of his bare foot. "That reminds me. My pa told me to tell you there's a big grizzly running loose somewhere in the mountains around here. He said if I saw it a regular Winchester probably wouldn't do more than make it mad, so he made me bring along this Sharps."

Charlie looked from the kid's face to the rifle, then back to the kid's face, then back to the rifle.

"Well, be more careful with it!"

"I will."

Charlie expected the kid to say more. But when he didn't, Charlie turned toward the cabin and went inside to bed.

For the next couple of days, the kid mostly kept his mouth shut and did what he was told. But he gradually started talking more and more until it seemed to Charlie as if the foreman's son couldn't stay awake without yammering away about some damn thing or another.

One evening, as the autumn air grew colder and colder, Charlie allowed the kid to stay longer inside by the fire. Remembering how Dave had said the foreman wanted the boy to learn some cowboying, Charlie took his prized fifty-foot riata down from its special linen-wrapped nail and began rubbing a chunk of beef fat into the tightly braided leather. He'd won several roping contests with it over the years, and he never knew when he might need it. Might show the kid a few tricks with it.

"I've gotta go check that there's good water flow at a tank downslope five miles or so," he said, turning to look at the kid. "It's the only good water hole for better than a half-dozen sections. You can stay here or ride along and see what it takes to keep it running." He tested the suppleness of the lariat, and began wiping it dry with a piece of burlap. "If the windmill quits, there's lots of cattle that could die."

"I'll go," the kid said quickly. "No offense, but this place it getting mighty tedious to look at. A change of scenery might go good."

"At least it'll give you something different to talk about."

The kid looked puzzled. "What?"

He didn't add anything, and Charlie didn't want him to, so they parted for the night and were on the trail leading to the prairie water tank at sunup.

At the tree line, where the open range spread out before them, Charlie pulled up and pointed at the twirling windmill blades visible in the distance.

"There's usually a bunch of wild hogs around there," he said, making sure his Winchester was handy in its saddle boot. "Don't bother 'em. They'll keep their distance while we're working, but they'll attack if they think we're going to hurt their young'uns."

"Why don't we shoot one or two? I love pork. I get so tired of eating beef sometimes. It starts tasting like –"

"When we leave, I'll drop one and we'll take it back to the house," Charlie snapped. "That's what I was gonna tell you if you'd ever shut up." He didn't like the way the riata draped over the rifle butt. "Here," he said, handing over his trusty leather lasso. "Hook this over your saddle horn, and don't – do not – drop it."

"I reckon I know how to handle a lariat."

"Make sure you do."

Charlie briefly wondered if he would come to regret uttering those words, but he tentatively shrugged it off as a case of itchy nerves.

A few squirts of oil from a can in a small tool chest nailed to one of the windmill legs erased a slight squeak in the gear machinery up top. Water was flowing smooth and cold into the small pond at its feet seconds after Charlie pulled the lever that re-engaged the mechanism.

The kid never even stepped to the ground. He passed the time watching the thirty or so hogs milling around fifty feet from the waterhole, and making foolish comments about how tasty they looked.

"We'll get one, don't worry," Charlie said, moving to examine his mare's off hind leg. She limped a couple times on the ride in, and he wanted to make sure her shoes were cleared. "Hold your mud."

With his back to the kid, he didn't see when the boy nudged his own mare forward. Using his knife blade to pry a pebble from the horseshoe, Charlie didn't see the kid shake a large loop in the lariat, either. But Charlie did turn in time to see the foreman's boy swing the lasso over his head a couple times, then toss it at the herd of wild hogs.

"Damn!"

He was almost in the saddle when a half-grown porker – a boar if its nether region decorations could be believed – stepped in the loop. Before Charlie could get both feet set in the stirrups, the kid pulled the lasso taut on a hind leg and the adolescent hog let out a screech like a train wreck.

Instantly, all the other hogs joined in. They squealed and stomped and kicked up enough dust to hide their brethren on the inside of the herd, and they closed ranks around the smaller pigs.

Both cowponies, not used to dealing with critters that could produce such a racket, shouted their own manic cries. Charlie did his best to rein his mare in, but she wasn't having it. She wanted to get gone, but ended up in the small pond instead. The best he could do was get her started bucking, spinning around and through the muddy, knee-deep water.

When she would swing around just right, he saw that the kid was having similar troubles of his own. But, he saw, instead of simply dropping the riata, the kid had looped the slack end around his saddle horn, and his horse was about to throw him right in among several tons of incensed pork on the hoof.

The kid was game, though. He hung on.

But some of the larger hogs, those battle-hardened old boars with the long tusks made for slashing at bigger animals, were starting to circle around the panicked mare and her equally terrified rider.

And the noise seemed to get louder and louder all the time.

"Drop the rope!" Charlie managed to get some control over his mount, and he cautiously approached closer to the boy. "Drop the damn rope, boy!"

"Don't call me boy!"

"Dammit, I –"

"You said don't drop it!"

"Let the damn rope go, or those hogs are going to eat US!"

"It's too tight! I can't work it loose!"

Charlie pulled the knife he'd used to clear the horseshoe, and moved closer.

"Edge this way and I'll cut it!"

But the kid's mare couldn't be controlled.

Taking a deep breath, and choking on the dust, Charlie spurred his horse forward and deftly parted his beloved old lasso with his knife, then galloped on past the outlying layer of fuming, thoroughly-insulted wild hogs.

Free from the rope, the boy's mare spun around and shot toward the foothills in the distance, dragging at least twenty feet of riata behind her.

Three muscular boars paced Charlie's mount for better than a hundred yards before giving up and turning back to where their kinfolk were still angrily cussing out Charlie and the kid in hog.

He caught up to the boy within another minute or two. Taking up the slack in the ruined lasso, he untied it from the kid's saddle horn and slowly worked it into as neat a coil as he could manage. He took extra time with the five feet of unraveled leather thongs that had dragged the ground.

"Damn."

"Come to think on it some," the kid said, glancing back at the windmill, "I never cared all that much for pork anyway."

They rode along in silence for a long time, until the kid gave a quick snort.

"You gotta admit, though," he said. "That was kinda funny back yonder."

"It weren't funny, and don't you ever say it was again in my hearing!"

The kid shrugged. "I won't," he said. "But it would be funny if you had a sense of humor, Old Ti –"

The look on Charlie's face shut the kid's mouth tight.

Outside of complaining about having to sleep in the barn again, the foreman's son stayed quiet enough for the rest of the day. Heavy storm clouds moved in overnight, and by morning a good foot of snow had fallen. The kid came dragging in as Charlie stood at the potbelly stove frying two large slabs of venison – and wishing it was pork chops-his bedroll, rifle and other personal effects in his hand, and shut the door behind him.

"I ain't sleeping out there no more," he said boldly. "It's too cold."

Charlie pointed at the fireplace. "You can lay out your bedroll at night, but keep it rolled up during the day. And keep your possibles sack out of the way, too. I don't aim to be tripping over your stuff all winter."

The kid did as he was told, and was back at the stove a moment later, rubbing his hands and smacking his lips.

"Sure smells good," he said. "'Course now, bacon would have smelled a lot better than – hey, I'm just funning!"

Charlie dropped the stick of stovewood he'd reached for back into the box and jerked a thumb at the table.

"Sit," he snarled.

The End

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