Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Montana Cowboy
Despite winter coming and the possibility of terrible cold on the high plains, a young Montana cowboy chooses to spend most of his money on a pair of beautiful, handmade boots. He diverts too little money to a heavy coat and warm mittens, and so he freezes on one especially cold night, even though he'd traveled south to Wyoming in the hopes of finding it a little warmer. Once the three cowboys find his body and Dirt Sheets cuts off the Montana cowboy's feet because the boots are frozen on to them, the Montana cowboy's role in the story is over.
These two cowboys and Dirt Sheets are rounding up stray cattle, as some have wandered to find grass to eat that isn't frozen over by snow. The two men watch as Sheets cuts off the Montana cowboy's legs just above the boots, and they say nothing. They take no issue with his opportunism and make no moral or ethical complaint regarding the fact that he cuts off a man's feet to get the boots; everyone seems comfortable with the gruesome act. After all, Sheets needs boots, and the dead cowboy doesn't need them now.
The two cowboys, of course, prove to be just as opportunistic as Sheets is: when old man Grice wakes up and thinks his horse has eaten Sheets, they do not tell him the truth, as they realize how this could turn to their own advantage. Later, they tell Sheets nothing of the money they earned from going along with Grice's idea that his own horse had eaten Sheets. They are as opportunistic as he is. It's as though everyone accepts what a hard life they have, and so everyone takes advantage of whatever opportunities they can and doesn't begrudge anyone else's luck.
Dirt Sheets is the man who cuts off the Montana cowboy's legs so that he can thaw them out and take the beautiful boots. He has no qualms about simply cutting through the man's shins and plopping the severed legs into his bag to thaw out later. In the morning, he chucks the feet into the corner of old man Grice's home—rather than at least throwing them outside into the snow—and this results in another opportunity for his compatriots, which they exploit without reserve and without cutting Sheets in. Again, everyone takes what they can; life is too tough to leave money on the table.
Old Man Grice
Old man Grice takes in the cowboys when they need a place to stay for the night. When he wakes in the morning to find Sheets gone and his horse playing with a pair of men's feet, he jumps to the conclusion that his blood bay has eaten one of his lodgers, and he panics, thinking that the other two men will report him. He kicks the horse, who had been allowed to sleep inside, out into the cold, although he is secretly proud of having a horse so tough that he will eat a man raw.
The Blood Bay
A blood bay is a kind of horse that is reddish in color, but its name is certainly rather macabre. Old man Grice thinks that his blood bay has devoured Dirt Sheets alive, but really, the misunderstanding derives from Sheets leaving the feet inside the house and from the two unnamed cowboys' unwillingness to tell Grice the truth.