Authors: Heidi Cullinan
Tags: #Contemporary m/m romance
by Heidi Cullinan
First published in 2011
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This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Many thanks to Marie Sexton, Signy Kuiper, Sue Danic, Libby Drew, Dan Cullinan, and Jason for beta reading, and to Jules Robin for being an awesome editor and most excellent friend.
My name is Monroe Davis, and this is the story of how I found home.
Once home was Algona, Iowa. Growing up, all the kids couldn't wait to leave it, but I would have been content to stay forever. I still miss it sometimes. I miss the way the trees are thick and leafy and the way the corn and soybeans roll around you as you drive through the country. I miss the way the earth bakes in August, moist and rich and full of life. I miss going to potlucks in the church basement, miss the Fourth of July parade full of people I've known since birth. But in the end I had to leave, because it wasn't home, not anymore.
It started when my mom found my porn. She was cleaning my room, and for whatever reason, she decided to clean out my bedside drawer too, all the way to the bottom, and she found my stash. She gave it to my dad, who came straight out to find me in the field. When I saw him coming, I turned off the tractor and ran to meet him because I thought something had happened, that someone had been hurt.
But he didn't say anything. He just held up those magazines and DVDs and looked at me, waiting for me to explain. Except it was exactly what he'd already figured out, so I didn't say anything either, just lowered my head and stared at the alfalfa under my boots as my breathing got funny and the blood rushed around in my head and sweat ran down my neck. Eventually Dad turned around and headed back to the house.
I got back on the tractor and finished raking the hay because I didn't know what else to do.
They sent the pastor of our church to talk to me. He told me about hell and how this would send me there. He explained to me how my choices were an abomination to God and an insult to the good name of my family. My dad wouldn't look me in the eye, and my mom cried all the time. My brother Bill looked at me like I'd punched him in the gut. You would have thought I'd murdered somebody's baby. I guess to them I did. Except I was the same Roe they'd always known. They just hadn't known about the part I'd kept quiet.
Bill was the one they elected to finally talk to me. He said they'd all been praying for me, and with Pastor's help, they'd come to a decision. It would be okay if I stayed, but I needed to get counseling from Pastor Tim. Bill also told me he knew some nice girls I should think about dating. He also hinted he knew a few—but don't tell Mom—who would be okay for just sex. But I had to do the counseling, and there could be no more gay porn and no more gay, period. It was either that, or I had to leave the farm.
Well, I left.
I didn't leave town, though, just the farm, and I ended up in prison because of a bar fight. They gave me three years, which turned into one, and then they let me out at eight months because of overcrowding. I wore my ankle bracelet for the last few months, kept my head down, and was good to my probation officer. When they turned me loose from that, I got out of Algona.
I was tired of it. Tired of letting other people make me feel like shit. Tired of people acting like I was the walking plague. Tired of, like the guys at prison, alternating between blaming everybody else for my problems and thinking if I were guilty enough they might forgive me.
I got tired of waiting for home to come to me. So I went out and made a new home on my own.
I met Travis Loving two years after I got out of prison, when I went out to work at Nowhere Ranch in northwestern Nebraska. I had been working my way around the Midwest, doing time in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, but Nowhere was the farthest west I'd yet gone. I will admit I answered the ad because of the name. That, and 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 western Nebraska. So after a good few 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 that 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, and it's like it's the wrong culture or something.
Nowhere Ranch really was out in the boondocks, though. Apparently it had gotten its name because the owner had kept talking about how he was moving out to the middle of nowhere, and the name stuck. But it was a good, solid operation, especially considering Loving was still pretty green. The feed was all organic, and he had just about as many sheep as he did cattle. We only had sheep six years back at Dad's farm, but I knew enough about them to know what I was getting into, and I could legitimately claim experience with them. So I had an edge there.
None of the other hands lived on-site, though, which at first worried me, because that's just weird as hell. But the manager said it really was that small an operation and that they rotated through a set of local guys when they needed them. But he also said that if I wasn't fussy, there was an apartment above the stable I was welcome to have. 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 just be me and the owner at the ranch with the manager down the road.
Really, 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 that, like it was with my mom, 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 jack off without watching to make sure nobody noticed there was nothing but dick in the mags and vids I had.
When I arrived at Nowhere, though, I found out the manager hadn't been kidding. 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 bed stand, but I took one look at the bedding and headed to Walmart, and 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 that there really wasn't a kitchen to speak of, just a dorm-sized fridge and a hot plate. It's not like I'm 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 about it, but I couldn't figure out if I should ask the manager or if I should go straight to Loving. In the end I decided I could limp along at least to start. I'd ask about getting 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 Tory Parrish at the fence rail. The manager 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.
He was tall and broad, a few inches shorter than my six-two. He was shorter than me, but he felt bigger. He was older, though. By this time I was almost twenty-five, but Loving had to be pushing forty, I figured. I'm not ageist or anything, but 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 that he was divorced with no kids, and I knew he'd only owned this ranch for about three years. I figured even that little was more than I needed to know. 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, though, 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, and then he said, “We got trouble on the north ridge.”
I hustled into my boots, grabbed my hat, and followed him down the stairs.
Tory, who only lived a few miles down the road with his wife and two kids, was already on a four-wheeler, a 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 reached back to hold on to the rack as we rode. When I saw the ewe bobbing around, bumping into the other ones and acting like she was drunk, I knew what we were in for.
“It looks neurological,” Loving said. He sounded uncertain though, and Tory just shrugged.
“It's neurological all right,” I said. “That ewe has rabies.”
They both turned to me, looking stunned.
“How can you tell?” Tory asked.
I motioned to the ewe. “She's acting all crazed. It's eating her brain right now. We got to put her down and get her the hell out of here. And we 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 said, reaching for his phone.
“Ain't no point,” I said. “Well, I guess you could get a vaccine into each of them and hope for the best. Though that would probably ruin your organic certification.” I really didn't know that, though. I realized I was going to have to do more research on what organic meant.
“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 buy new before you did that.” I gestured to the huddled herd. “Just partition them off as best you can and wait it out, is my advice. Either they been bit, or they ain't, and you just wait and see.” I grimaced and 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 nodded and reached for the rifle, but he glanced 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.”