COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Big family ranches are an endangered species.

Some women, though, are holding on like hardy blue grama grass in a drought, refusing to pack it in after the kids have grown and the men have died. They pull on their boots, suck in the loneliness and hurt and take solace in the rhythm of ranch life.

"It's not for sissies. Ranching and farming wasn't near as romantic a life as people think. Let's say it developed my character," said Barbara Gieck, a rancher for 60 years and last year's Colorado Cattle Woman of the Year.

"We're seeing more women than in the past involved in ranching after they are divorced or widowed," says rancher Lucy Meyring, immediate past president Colorado Cattlemen's Association and the first woman to hold that post. "They stick it out because they love the life."

In that vast prairie east of Colorado Springs, Colo., home is a country where the ranch houses are modest, boots aren't fashion statements, and there's nary a Ralph Lauren linen set to be found. Money is better spent on a new bull, used hay baler, bovine vaccine or eaten up by high gasoline prices and drought damage. Cattle die sooner out here than most places because grit sifts into the native grassland and wears down their teeth. And the ranchers, too, perish with higher death rates than most other professions, from accidents and stress.

But the women say the good outweighs the bad in boundless ways, so they sweat, shiver and endure bodily aches and sometimes financial pains to stay on the ranch. They hope their work will be a legacy for their extended families, who more often than not have moved to the city.

On long winter nights, Dixie Boyer busies herself making memory quilts for her four children and five grandchildren. The flannel comes from her late husband's work shirts. Eldon Keith Boyer died two years ago of a heart attack, and Dixie Boyer now runs the family's big spread south of Rush.

After he died, some friends and family wondered how Boyer could stay on, but it was never a question she asked herself.

On a recent morning, the bespectacled rancher heads into the pastures. Boyer gets out among the cattle, pushes a lever on the feeder on the truck bed and then drives forward slowly as the contraption lays down a rug of cottonseed cakes for the animals.

Suddenly, she stops the truck and her pleasant windburned face squints into the sun. "That's a pretty sight when it's not my field," she says pointing at about 50 pronghorn leisurely eating the winter triticale, which will be harvested in May for livestock feed. She guns her truck and they lope away.

She doesn't say how many cattle she runs on her 1,190 acres. That's not something you ask a rancher. It's like asking how much money they've got in the bank.

Back at her modest house, she eyes the exterior. "This summer I've got to get out here and paint. And we're replanting the windbreak, with cedar, a lot of the trees died in the drought."

"We" includes son Jason, 32, who runs a neighbor's ranch. Boyer hires him to help with the tough work. Another son, Daniel, works on a ranch in Kansas, Bryce is a fireman, and her daughter, Jill Mekelburg, runs a feedlot with her husband and in-laws.

The TV is turned to RFD, an agricultural station, where a live cattle auction in Texas is in progress.

Boyer said she ached to be a rancher even as a city girl in Colorado Springs, spending vacations on a friend's ranch at Parlin. She graduated from Colorado State University and taught school in California, Colorado Springs and later Rush. She married Eldon Boyer, who spent his boyhood on an eastern Kansas farm. They bought their first 40 acres near Falcon in 1969, the year they were married. In 1990, they followed their dream to the Rush area, after Eldon retired as deputy chief of the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

Taped to her refrigerator is a quote from Thomas Edison:

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

These days, she does some substitute teaching at area schools. She's a longtime 4-H leader. Ranch work is endless, and some days "miserable." But she doesn't mind. "All the ranch women do this. It's what we do."

The worst are the weather-related crises. One morning, she was checking the calves in a blizzard, and the truck got stuck in a snowdrift. The only thing left to do was to shovel herself out.

This time of year she is sometimes up all night checking on newborn calves and scaring away coyotes. She's recuperating from a knee injury she sustained after jumping off the truck. "I was going to go to the doctor in town, but by the time I had the time, it was almost healed."

The hardest part about running the ranch has been making decisions about finances and other things by herself. "I've had to learn to become more decisive." Her husband did that, and she has carefully studied his methods.

She goes into town to visit her mother, and attends Kendrick Bible Church 17 miles away. The kids came home for Christmas.

Ranch life gives families a strong identity, she says. "Each of the kids knew they were important and needed." She's already seeing that spark in her grandchildren when they visit. Grandson Durham, 8, was thrilled recently to help hold up the fencing when she was setting fence posts. When her fifth grandchild was born recently, she painted his name in 2-foot letters on the side of her barn. "That's my birth announcement.

"I figured that I could feel sorry for myself or go forward. God has been gracious to me."

A narrow pink ribbon of sunrise races along the edge of the prairie and explodes into a cotton-candy sky. At Four Corners Ranch south of Yoder, Colo., Jean Meinzer has already served a breakfast of hash browns, sausage and fruit. Her husband, Harold, has fed the cattle in the north pasture on the way to his job at a propane company. Sons Jake, 16, and Jade, 14, finished with chores, are on a school bus that lumbers down the six-mile dirt road named after their grandparents, Art and Juanita Rasner.

Jean Meinzer's late grandfather, Frank Rasner, settled in this area 100 years ago. Her parents, who've been ranching this spot for 63 years, live in the main house. Meinzer and her family reside nearby.

Meinzer, like a lot of ranchers these days, took her turn with an outside job, driving more than 650 miles a week back and forth to Colorado Springs to work as a consultant with USDA Farm Service Agency. There aren't many self-sustaining ranches out here anymore.

Meinzer, 49, wears torn overalls over her parka and jeans, a baseball cap, well-used boots and silver hoop earrings. She's tall, a basketball player in her college years.

On clear days you can see New Mexico from the high spot on the ranch that straddles the El Paso, Pueblo, Crowley and Lincoln county lines.

Meinzer grew up here, learning to ride as soon as she walked. She received an agriculture journalism degree from Colorado State University and worked for the Ranchland News and the Limon Leader papers. She married Harold Meinzer, whom she had known all her life. That's usually the case in ranching communities, she said. "We don't have to be introduced. We're just raised with them, church, school, branding."

They lived in Simla before moving back to the Rasner family ranch in 1990. "Some people go to Cripple Creek, we gamble on ranching," she said. She likes being her own boss and being part of the natural scheme of things. "God put us farmers and ranchers on Earth to do what he started — to be stewards of the land."

Meinzer is on the Edison 54JT School Board, and as assistant coach helped lead the junior high boys basketball team to an undefeated season. She's an emergency medical technician for the volunteer fire department and a 4-H leader. And then there's the cattle.

Her three-quarter-ton pickup bounces down the two narrow ruts that pass for a road across the pastures. Tippy, her red border collie, sits next to her. "She does the work of four dogs, and four cowhands," Meinzer said.

"What do I do out here? There it is," she said pointing to a gate the cows had pushed down. She wrestles the tangled mess of barbed wire back into shape.

At the watering trough, she swings a heavy hatchet, cutting through the ice crust. She puts the truck in low gear, and as it meanders slowly across the field, she jumps on the truck bed and tears apart the 1,100-pound hay bale her kids loaded the night before. The cows trot behind, eagerly grabbing mouthfuls. Like many ranchers who don't irrigate their land, they've had to buy hay since the drought hit. Weather stresses the budget — and the psyche — out here.

Meinzer can't ride much anymore because of years of wear and tear on her back. The kids do the roundups. They have started to build their own cattle herds, and their 4-H projects are market beef and market swine.

Jake recently gave a technical talk at a meeting of the Society for Range Management in Canada. When he was 9, Jade began restoring a 1949 tractor, which he finished for a state fair exhibit when he was 12. "Old-timers would come by to see how he was doing and give tips," she said.

She goes 65 miles to Colorado Springs or La Junta to get her hair cut or see a doctor, and buys groceries twice a month. They don't go to movies — a waste of money — but do try to go camping and take vacations yearly to ease the stress. Last year, they went to Louisiana.

The most socializing they do is during branding season, when they work with other ranching families and have big communal meals.

It's calving season, Meinzer's favorite time of year, and not just because it's her paycheck.

"You see them born, they get up shake their head and walk to you before Mom, there's something satisfying about that."

She can't see herself ever moving away. "I'm just not fit for town. You don't get the Milky Way sky as big, or hear the coyotes," she said. And she wants to save the ranch, the ranching life, for her kids.

She sees eye to eye with her father, who gets around the ranch with a cane. "If they take my cows away from me," he tells her, "might as well put me in a pine box."

Barbara Gieck, 77, lost count of how many schools she took her giant felt hamburger to, but it was plenty. The hamburger had fabric lettuce, tomatoes, onion and a bun with sequin sesame seeds.

It got the city kids' attention when she talked about agriculture, as she traveled to schools, fairs and grocery stores as a volunteer for the Pikes Peak Cattlewomen, a branch of Colorado Cattlewomen. She found that many of the kids didn't have the faintest idea where their food came from. "They don't know how lucky they are to have food, that someone has been out in blizzards up to the fence posts to make it happen."

For such work and a lot more, she was named Cattle Woman of the Year in 2005 by Colorado Cattlewomen. She seems humbled by the title, but embarrassed by the fuss. "A lot do more than I ever did." But as a rancher for 50 years, she's done it all.

Daughter of a rural mail carrier, she met husband Pat Gieck at a country dance. They moved to a ranch south of Rush in 1947. She had to put meals on the table for hired hands hungry enough to eat a side of beef.

They had no electricity for the first six years, and the well was 400 feet from the house. They didn't get an indoor bathroom until 1953, or phones until the early '60s. The ranchhouse was a four-room adobe near Edison, 60 miles from the Springs.

"Ranchers are smart. They look for a wife who doesn't know what she is getting into," she says, laughing. "And you can't learn ranching from a book. I had a wonderful mother-in-law who taught me or I would have left. When my cakes fell she said, 'That's all right, good cakes sometimes fall."'

She found it tough, in the early years on the ranch, to have left family and friends in town. "I can't tell you how often I wished something would break down so we could go into town to get parts. But I got over it. Now that I'm living in town you could say I'm not much of a social neighbor."

She found rattlesnakes in her bread drawer and hated to put on her shoes in the morning for fear of what she'd find. But she learned how to hold the snakes down with pitchforks and chop off their heads with a shovel.

They grew corn, pinto beans and wheat as cash crops. These days, she says, young new ranchers can't afford to diversify like that, with equipment costing as much as houses used to. "You can hardly go into the business unless you inherit."

She worked in town for what is now US Bank for seven years while her youngest daughter was in high school, and she cared for her elderly parents. On weekends she went back to the ranch.

They moved to another ranch property in 1989. When Pat died in 1991, she didn't much like living out there, but she did it for seven years. "When I was young I didn't think of it as work. But I wasn't as young as I was." She moved into town eight years ago, and her grandson works the ranch. She had shoulder surgery recently and does water aerobics several times a week. But she doesn't care if she ever makes a homemade biscuit again. "I proved myself with rolls. I use Rhodes."

Two wagon wheels that belonged to her in-laws, who homesteaded in 1916, lean against the back fence of her home in Colorado Springs.

She says she and Pat had their first vacation 14 years after they married. "We went to California and visited family and Disneyland. And then we about never went on another one."

They didn't need one. Despite everything, there was peace and quiet and stunning sunrises and sunsets out on the ranch.

"I miss it still."