The Montana plains in fall could be a desolate place, MacDonald thought as he led his small group of riders up the last slope; even this little outcropping of hills with its thin scattering of pines appeared barren. But the barrenness was deceptive: the short, dry grass would take cattle through a winter and even fatten them, game would thrive unless the snow got too deep and stayed too long—and the February thaw always seemed to come just in time. The land was, he knew, richer than it looked, though in fall there was no sense of climax or a last stand against winter. Cottonwood and willow leaves turned yellow and dropped without the brilliant colors oaks or maples might have shown, and the grass simply remained the sun-blasted brown of August until one day snow came and the season changed from summer to winter. The snow would come before long now, and MacDonald would keep his men close to home until spring; but they had one last piece of business to take care of first.