Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Deadly Power of Nature
The story opens with a young cowboy, later nicknamed Montana, who chooses a pair of fine boots over gear which will protect him from the elements of a harsh Wyoming winter. Because Wyoming is further south than Montana, he believes it will be warmer. Seriously underestimating the power of the weather he faces, he freezes to death in those fine boots. Later, Dirt Sheets and his group are nearly frozen—the temperature so cold that "spit crackled in the air"—and seek refuge at old man Grice's shack. Old Man Grice tells the men to watch out for his blood bay as he is spirited and later believes the bay capable of eating a cowboy raw. Throughout the story, elements of the natural world prove ominous and capable of destruction.
The Covert Nature of Deception
Sheets's friends know that he has likely left the shack to take care of something related to his mother's birthday, as evidenced by their first reaction when they see him the next day:
When they saw Sheets that night at the bunkhouse they nodded, congratulated him on his mother's birthday . . .
Yet they say nothing of this knowledge to old man Grice. Thus, old man Grice is willing to pay off the cowboys for Sheets's untimely "death," which he believes his bay horse has caused. Old man Grice loses forty gold dollars, plus his poker winnings from the night before, in order to keep the men quiet about the incident he mistakenly believes has happened. And the cowboys are perfectly willing to keep this information to themselves in order to profit from the deception.
Later, they say nothing to their friend Sheets about their surprise payment, further profiting from the incident—as Sheets may have wanted his own cut, or at least his own losses back from the night before. They seem to have gotten away with their deceit, profiting from their knowledge, and no one is the wiser.
Pride Can Cloud Judgement
If Montana had been more aware of the journey he sought to undertake, surely he would have prepared better. The states of Montana and Wyoming are stacked on top of each other, so there were surely people who could have provided him with ample information to educate him about what type of gear he would need along his journey. But the narrator also tells us that Montana is "somewhat vain," and he is thus more interested in being stylish than in adequately protecting himself from the elements. This failure to properly assess his journey costs Montana his life.
Old man Grice wakes up to find one man missing from the group that stayed at his house the night before and immediately thinks that his horse has eaten the man. It seems that he may have noticed that there were no screams of pain during the night and that there is no blood in his shack that would indicate a battle. However, the narrator also notes that "secretly he was pleased to own a horse with the sand to eat a raw cowboy." Old man Grice's pride clouds his vision and costs him a great sum of money as a payment to keep quiet a crime that never happened.