I met Travis Loving when I went to work at Nowhere Ranch. I’d been shuffling around ranches throughout the Midwest, doing time in Kansas and the Dakotas. Nowhere, in northwestern Nebraska, was the farthest west I’d yet gone. I will admit I answered the ad because of the name. Also because if I went through one more fucking North Dakota winter, I was going to hang myself. I’d heard it wasn’t quite as bad in Nebraska. So after a few good days of partying in Omaha, I contacted the ranch manager, who said he’d give me a try, and off I went.
The other thing I liked about Nowhere Ranch was it was a hobby ranch, almost as small as a larger farm. I know everybody’s all about the sexy Southern cowboys and big ranches and tumbleweeds blowing by you, but I grew up on a farm, and it’s what I know. Ranches usually feel too big. It’s the wrong culture or something.
Nowhere Ranch was smaller, and it was way out in the boondocks—hence, the name. Apparently when Loving bought it, he kept talking about how he was moving out to the middle of nowhere, and the name stuck. It was a good, solid operation, especially considering the owner was still pretty green. The feed was all organic, and he had about as many sheep as he did cattle. We only had sheep a short while at Dad’s farm, but I knew enough about them to understand what I was getting into.
None of the other hands lived on site, which worried me at first. But the manager said it really was a small operation, and they rotated through a set of local guys when they needed them. He also said if I wasn’t fussy, there was an apartment above the stable I was welcome to. It wouldn’t cost me anything if I was willing to be on standby to do work off the clock, like help round up steers that got out. So it would only be me and the owner at the ranch, with the manager and his family down the road.
As soon as I heard about having my own apartment, not a bunk with other guys, I was ready to do about anything to get there. I was careful about anybody finding out I was queer, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling something I didn’t expect would trip me up. I was pretty sure handling sheep and calves wasn’t going to give me away, but in my own place I could jerk off without watching to make sure nobody noticed there was nothing but dick in the mags and vids I had.
Except the apartment was a real fucking dive. It was about twelve by twelve, and I think the carpet had been there since 1972 without once making the acquaintance of a vacuum. It was furnished, with a bed and a table and a recliner and a nightstand, but I took one look at the bedding and headed to Walmart to replace it. While I was there I picked up a bottle of bleach too. But I was still overall pleased with the place. After a little cleaning and replacement parts, it was a palace to me.
The only problem was there really wasn’t a kitchen to speak of, just a dorm-sized fridge and a hot plate. I’m not any kind of fancy chef, but eating out all the time is expensive, and I get tired of sandwiches. It was enough of a hitch in my get-along that I thought about asking for a proper stove, but in the end I decided I could limp along to start. I’d lobby for a moderate kitchen upgrade once I had a better lay of the land. If I even stayed long enough to bother with it.
The first two weeks I only saw Loving in passing, usually in the mornings as he stood with the manager, Tory Parrish, at the fence rail. Tory would nod while Loving spoke quietly, his tan cowboy hat bobbing as he turned this way and that, gesturing to fields and barns and equipment. Occasionally I also saw Loving head out on his horse a couple hours after the last of the hands had gone home and he’d had his evening meeting with Tory. Sometimes I would watch him ride out, because it was a nice vista, man on horse, silhouetted against the sunset.
Loving was tall and broad, a few inches shorter than my six-two. Handsome in a way I appreciated, but he was significantly older than me. By this time I was almost twenty-five, and Loving had to be pushing forty. He seemed more like my dad than somebody to ogle. Also, he’s the boss. I knew he used to be a professor in Omaha and he was divorced with no kids, and I knew he’d only owned this ranch for about three years. Mostly I didn’t pay him much attention outside of noting when he was around so I could work harder at not being a dick. Because I did like the job, and outside of the mediocre kitchen, I enjoyed the apartment.
One Saturday night there was a knock on my door, and when I opened it, by God if it wasn’t Loving standing there. He gave me a curt nod as a greeting. “We got trouble on the north ridge. Can I get you to lend a hand?”
I said sure. After hustling into my boots, I grabbed my hat and followed him down the stairs.
Tory was already on a four-wheeler, rifle stowed in the back. Loving had his own ride waiting beside Tory’s, but I noticed there wasn’t a third, so I climbed on behind Tory and held on to the rack as we rode.
When I saw the ewe bobbing around in the field, bumping into the other sheep and acting like she was drunk, I knew what we were in for.
“It looks neurological.” Loving sounded uncertain though, and Tory shrugged.
“It’s neurological all right,” I said. “That ewe has rabies.”
They both turned to me, surprised. “How can you tell?” Tory asked.
I motioned to the ewe. “She’s acting all crazed. It’s eating her brain right now. We’ve got to put her down and get her the hell out of here. Need to isolate the rest of this herd right quick. Groups as small as you can get. You don’t know how many she’s bit.”
“I’ll call the vet.” Loving reached for his phone.
I shook my head. “Ain’t no point.”
“But there’s a treatment,” Loving pressed. “They give it to people.”
“Yeah. And it’s several thousand dollars a pop. This is thirty head of sheep. You’d do better to slaughter them and get new.” I gestured to the huddled herd. “Partition them off as best you can and wait it out, is my advice. Either they been infected or not. All you can do is wait and see.” I tugged on the brim of my hat. “What you do need to do is call all the hands and make sure none of them’s been bit. You only got so many hours between exposure and death.”
Loving reached for his phone again, but Tory already had his out and waved him off.
“I’ll call the boys. You two get her put down and figure out how the fuck we’re going to isolate them.”
Loving grabbed the rifle, nodding at me as he loaded the cartridges. “You’re sure about this?”
Hell yes, I was sure. “They get it from skunks, see. Anyway, it’s the sort of thing you don’t mess around with. She could infect half the herd tonight. Better to kill her and find out I’m wrong than wait and lose them all. The only positive test is to examine her brain. Which kind of requires her to be dead.”
Loving grimaced and nudged his hat higher on his head with his knuckle. “And here I thought foot rot was hell.”
“Oh, everything about sheep is hell. We never cussed more than the years we raised them.”
Loving sighed and raised the rifle, only to lower it again. “Would you mind trying to separate her a little? But don’t expose yourself.”
Heading for the main body of the herd, I clapped my hands and called, “Hee-yah,” until they started to bleat and stumble over each other trying to get away. The rabid ewe followed them for a second before she fell. She got up pretty quickly, and when she did, she came for me.
Sheep don’t exactly set land-speed records, but I hustled out of the way because I wasn’t interested in catching any stray gunshot. Turns out I needn’t have worried, as Loving could shoot a single hair off your head at half a mile. He put the bullet right between her eyes, and she went down like a ton of bricks.
Tory tucked his phone back into his pocket. “I got hold of everybody. All the boys are coming in to help sort them out. I thought probably in the stalls in the horse barn. Chaucer and the boys won’t hurt to be out in the pasture a few days, and we can whip up temporary pens in the south field.”
That’s what we did. We ended up only losing two more sheep total, which was good. But I didn’t talk to Loving for the rest of the week. On Friday, he took off. Tory said he’d be gone through the weekend.
I thought maybe this would be a good time to get away myself. I was starting to get itchy. I headed into town to the public library, where an online search for nearby gay bars informed me I would be going three hours north to Rapid City to get laid. I know they have them fancy apps on smartphones to hook up, but I can’t abide putting that kind of money down for a piece of plastic.
I worried Tory would say I couldn’t leave the ranch unattended, but he said not to bother about it, as he always kept an eye out when Loving was gone. He said I was to go on and have a nice time.
The drive was okay. Mostly I didn’t notice anything around me, too busy thinking about how I could spend the next forty-eight hours fucking and getting fucked. I checked into my hotel, showered, and fussed with my clothes before heading over at nine.
The bar was small and sad, nothing like the flashy stuff I’d gotten used to in Omaha and Kansas City. In North Dakota I had gone to Fargo, which hadn’t been bad. This place was a different story. There was hardly anybody there, and most of them had already hooked up. But I saw one lone cowboy sitting at the bar, and I bee-lined to him, determined to spread my legs even if he looked like Ethel Merman.
You probably saw this coming, but I have to tell you, you could have knocked me over with a feather when the cowboy turned around and he was Travis Loving.