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Chasing Wild Horses

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Every day, Travis checks the rock on top of the fence post between his grandparents’ ranch and the Patrick ranch next door. Every day, usually before dusk while he’s finishing up his day, riding the property line to ensure everything and everyone on the ranch is safe for the night, Travis will get off his horse and stand by the fence post. Their fence post. And he’ll pick up the baseball-sized rock with the flat bottom and look underneath for a note from Nolan. Today there isn’t one, but one of these days there will be. That’s how Travis will know that Nolan has come back home to him. One day.

***

Travis arrived at his grandparents’ ranch in April, when the snow was still thick on the fields and the sky was steel gray from sunup to sundown. His grandfather had a stroke in March and couldn’t walk or talk normally, let alone run the ranch like he had for fifty years, so Travis drove his beat-up truck eight hours from his parents’ farm in Nebraska to Wyoming. Travis arrived in time for dinner with his Gran, who was so happy to see him that she hugged him in the front hall of the ranch house and cried all over his jacket.

After making sure Travis was well-fed after his drive, Mrs. Konecny showed him into the master bedroom at the back of the house where his grandfather was propped up in his recliner. There was a tray with his dinner half-eaten on the table by his chair and he looked up at Travis with bright eyes. 

“Hi Gramps,” Travis said, his voice cracking at the sight of his grandfather, who he remembered as tall and imposing atop a horse. Now he looked so small in a robe and pajamas. 

His grandfather reached out for Travis’s hand and held it loosely. His mouth worked for a moment and then he nodded and rasped, “Good to see you, boy.” 

“You two can talk more tomorrow,” Mrs. Konecny said, guiding Travis out of the room. She took him to his room upstairs, a large bedroom with a bay window at the back of the house that looked out over the fields. It was dark but Travis could see the barn and outbuildings by the glow of the moonlight off the snow. 

“This was your father’s room. I had a lock put on the door for your privacy,” Mrs. Konecny showed him and then moved to a door next to the en suite bathroom. “And this door goes down the stairs to the side yard so you can come and go as you like.”

“Gran, that’s great, thank you.”

Mrs. Konecny moved to take his face in her hands, which were warm and dry on his cheeks. “Thank you, Travis, for coming here to take care of us. I know what you’re giving up to do this and I want you to feel comfortable. So anything you need, please let me know.”

When she shut the door behind her, Travis flopped onto the bed and stared at the ceiling, fatigue from the drive finally washing over him.

***

The next day, Travis ate breakfast in the kitchen at dawn. As he was finishing, his grandfather shuffled in, leaning heavily on a cane.

“Gramps, are you okay being up?” Travis went over to take his hand.

“He’s better in the mornings,” Mrs. Konecny called out from where she was washing up the breakfast dishes at the sink. “Take him out to the barn so he can get you settled.”

Travis led his grandfather out the back door and across the cleared yard to the barn, where his grandfather pointed out the equipment that’d need to be rehabbed before the fields could be planted in May and the horses that Travis would use on the ranch, describing their personalities and preferences like he was talking about his children.

After his grandfather shuffled inside, Travis met Brad, the ranch hand who had been keeping the ranch running over the past month but who would now be working under Travis. Brad was a small wiry young man with a hawkish face who warmed up to Travis the first day, letting him in on the quirks of the herd and all the things that his grandfather wasn’t able to show him. 

Travis spent those first weeks delivering and caring for calves in the early mornings, working alongside Brad in the barn during the afternoons, and playing cards in the ranch house with his grandmother at night. In between, he spent long hours in his room staring out the window at the flat expanse of Wyoming. The ranch seemed to stretch on forever until it rose up in dark mountain peaks that seemed impossibly far away. Some nights, storms rolled in and blacked out the entire horizon, only for the sky to be lit up like daytime with flashes of lightning. Spring was coming and Travis waited for the thaw to reach the ranch and for his life here to really start.

***

Travis finally got out into the fields in May. That morning, he saddled up his grandfather’s favorite horse, a chestnut mare named Gritty. Under his grandparents’ watchful eye, he rode out with the herd, leading them to the far end of the ranch, his heart soaring at the beauty of the land in the early morning light, mist rising off the horizon in pink and purple clouds. He missed Nebraska, the hot afternoons riding the thresher across the fields, but he felt like he could start to belong here too. 

After riding the herd out, Travis spent until mid-afternoon riding the fence line, stopping frequently to repair it. Most of his time was taken up on the north side of the ranch, where the fence separated his grandparents’ ranch from a large ranch next door and where it looked like several fence posts were rotted at the base. After riding back to fetch replacement posts and extra tools, he dug the old posts out and unlinked them before setting to work pounding the new posts into the soft soil. 

It was hot under the early spring sun, so Travis stripped his flannel off and resumed his work, enjoying the sun warm on his back. He was so absorbed in the work that he almost didn’t notice when someone rode up on the other side of the fence line and stopped to stare at him.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Travis looked up, lifting his hand to shield his eyes so he could see who was talking to him from atop a large black horse. It was a young man, barely twenty, and he was wearing ratty jeans and a faded Clash t-shirt. His hair was long, curling around his shoulders, and he wore a baseball cap backwards on his head. His cheeks were bright pink.

“I’m Travis. Who the fuck are you?” Travis laughed, but the young man just frowned at him.

“This is sort of my spot.” 

“This...out here in the middle of nowhere is your spot?” Travis looked around, confused. 

“It’s the farthest spot from the house,” the young man gestured back across the fields toward what Travis assumed was the neighboring ranch house, “and it’s my spot to come to. When I want to be alone. But you’re here.”

“I’m fixing the fence,” Travis said, feeling idiotic. 

“But who are you?” the young man sighed, his horse sighing and stomping with him.

“I’m Travis,” he held his hand out over the fence toward the young man, who only looked down at him from his horse and didn’t move to shake Travis’s hand. Travis noticed that the young man was staring at him somewhere below his face, moving his eyes from his toned shoulders down to his flat stomach and then back up, eyes wide.

“Do you work here?”

“Yeah, it’s my grandparents’ ranch.”

“Travis Konecny?” 

“Yeah, do I know you?” Travis ran his hand through his sweaty hair, impatient that he was answering all of these questions but not getting any answers. All the same, he did think it was interesting that the young man’s eyes tracked his movements, running his gaze over the tattoos on his arms, the fish and flowers on his shoulder and the small upside-down triangle on the inside of his bicep. “So, who are you?”

The young man lifted his chin and pulled on the reins of his horse, starting to trot away. “Nolan Patrick. This is my parents’ ranch.”

“Nice to meet you Nolan!” Travis yelled as Nolan rode away. “See you around!”

“Unfortunately,” Nolan hollered back.

***

"I met one of the neighbors today," Travis started casually as he dug into his mashed potatoes that night at dinner. "From the Patrick ranch?"

"Steven?" Gran asked, sliding the gravy toward Travis.

"No, Nolan," Travis said, picking up the gravy boat and shooting a quick glance at his grandfather across the table. He had already eaten but he sat with Travis to hear about his day. When Travis mentioned Nolan's name, he saw his grandfather wince ever so slightly.

"Nolan's an interesting boy," Gran said evenly.

"He's weird and his father don't like it," Gramps said slowly.

"Bob," Gran cautioned and then turned to Travis. "He's sensitive, is all. Likes to read. Isn't into trucks like the other boys."

"Wants to see the world," Gramps said, like Nolan wanted to go to the moon. 

"Graduated high school this year and there was a godawful fight when his folks wouldn't let him go to college," Gran added.

Travis looked down at his plate, taking this all in. He had graduated high school the year before and had gone to work on his family's farm in Nebraska before his grandpa's stroke brought him to the ranch in Wyoming. His life was exactly what his parents wanted it to be. It was the life they had, carried out on their land just like the family had done for generations. Travis hadn't even thought of trying to buck that trajectory and, now that he thought about it, wasn't sure if he could if he wanted to.

"He didn't seem too friendly," Travis said.

Gran sighed. "He's a nice boy, just used to being on his own. Maybe you two will be friends.” She paused and then continued quietly, “The boys at school weren’t any too kind to him.”

Travis grunted as he chewed on a bite of chicken fried steak. From the greeting he got from Nolan, he could see how that would be possible.

“Boys can sense when someone’s different,” Gramps said slowly, giving Travis a significant look.

“Bob, you know we don’t judge our neighbors,” Gran said sharply. 

Travis had gone cold at the comment, suspicious of what his grandfather was implying. It was the same type of thing he was worried people would say about him back home, even though he dressed like all the other boys, went fishing and listened to country music like them too. It was the reason he kissed Lawson in his room with the door closed but wouldn’t go to prom with him, even though Lawson begged. It was the reason he broke Lawson’s heart, in the end. 

“Well,” he shoveled the last bite of potato into his mouth and stood to take his plate to the sink, “thanks for dinner Gran.” He headed upstairs to shower and, while the water beat down on his shoulders, he thought about Nolan, the way his eyes had flashed at him and Travis felt hot all over, even under the cool water. 

***

A week later, Travis was riding the fence line again when he found Nolan in his spot, sprawled out on old plaid blanket with a book and with his horse tied to one of the new fence posts Travis had installed. 

“Fancy meeting you here,” Travis called out when he spotted Nolan, who looked up from his book.

“This is my spot,” Nolan said dryly before licking his finger and slowly turning the page. “What are you doing here?”

“There was a storm last night so I’m checking up on how my posts are doing,” Travis said. He swung down from Gritty and thumped his fist on one of the new posts. “Whatcha reading?” 

Ulysses,” Nolan said.

“What’s it about?” Travis leaned on the post and looked down at Nolan, who rolled his eyes and put the book down.

“Do you read?” 

“I can read,” Travis said defensively.

“I meant books. Do you read books?” Nolan was staring directly at him now.

“Not stories like that. I like to read about real stuff,” Travis babbled. “I read this good one about a guy who climbed Mount Everest and a whole bunch of people died.”

Into Thin Air,” Nolan said, looking more interested.

“Yeah! Did you read it?”

“Yeah, it’s good.” Nolan sat up straighter and nodded at Nolan.

“So what’s your book about?” 

Nolan stood up and came over to the fence to lean on the post next to where Travis was standing. He rested his arms on the top of the post and leaned his cheek on his arms, looking up at Travis as he spoke. “It follows a day in the life of this one Irish guy. It’s like a stream-of-consciousness novel and I really want to learn to write like this, just rambling about what I’m doing and everything that happens in one long sentence but my life is so boring.” 

Travis was momentarily distracted by Nolan’s eyes, shining a pretty green in the sunlight. “What’s so interesting about this Ulysses guy’s life?” Travis scoffed.

Nolan laughed, surprised. “His name isn’t Ulysses.” 

“Oh,” Travis said, feeling his cheeks flush with how dumb he felt. “Well, I think you should write about your life anyway.”

“I guess,” Nolan sighed. "But all I know is here.”

Travis raised his eyebrows at Nolan to continue.

“I just...I want to know about something other than this."

“What do you mean?"

Nolan flung his arms out and tilted his head back. “Don’t you want to see what’s after this ranch and this fucking endless prairie?”

“I mean, it’s mountains and then it’s South Dakota,” Travis offered.

“I’m not explaining it well,” Nolan sighed.

“All the more reason to write about it.”

Nolan turned to look at him.

“Write about what you want to see. I’ll read it,” Travis shrugged. He shoved his hands in his pockets because he wasn’t sure what else to do when Nolan was staring at him so intently. 

“You don’t even know me,” Nolan said, his voice barely above a whisper. 

“Then tell me about you. Here,” Travis picked up a large baseball-sized rock with a flat bottom. “Write about you and then leave it here for me. I’ll read whatever you write.” 

“Where did you come from?” Nolan squinted at him like he was trying to figure something out.

“Nebraska,” Travis smiled and then got back on his horse. “I’ll see you around, Nolan.” As he rode off, he looked back and was satisfied to see Nolan staring after him, rooted to the same spot by the fence.

****

A few days later, Travis was moving the herd to the pasture by Nolan’s spot. When he rode by the fence post, he saw a piece of white paper pinned under the rock, edges flapping in the breeze. He jumped off his horse and bounded over to grab the paper and read it right away.

Travis - 

I don’t know what your life was like back in Nebraska or how long you’re going to be here on your grandparents’ ranch. I do know that everyone else I know here - my whole family, everyone at school - lives and dies in this town. My sister is the only one I know who managed to move away and I’m sure that one day my parents will manage to convince her to come back here. I keep telling my sister to stay away from Wyoming, even on holidays. To find a nice guy in Chicago and marry him, move as far east as she can, or this place will swallow her back up.

I tried to leave last year. I applied to college and got in. I even got a scholarship. But what they don’t tell you is that it costs so much money just to get set up to go to college. You need money to fly out east, you need a car, you need money for books and a dorm room and for food. I tried to do it on my own but my parents defeated me. That makes it sound like they did something. They didn’t - just by doing nothing, by standing in place here like their ancestors have done for generations, they defeated me. 

At night I make lists of places that I want to go and the pages go on forever. It’s a kind of sickness, I think, one that will keep me from ever being happy. I want so much and I don’t know how to make any of it happen. Nothing ever changes. 

Except you. You’re new. I don’t know anything about you. Maybe you’re a new adventure, something for me to discover. Maybe we should find out.

- Nolan

Travis stood in the field, the paper with Nolan’s neat scrawl on both sides of it held tight in his hand, and felt his heart thumping in his chest. 

The next morning after breakfast, Travis snagged two of Gran's apple turnovers and put them in a Tupperware. After he fed and tended to the horses, he rode out to the fence post and left the Tupperware with a note for Nolan.

Nolan -

Thanks for your note :) I can't write like you can so instead I brought you these from my Gran. Please bring the Tupperware back though or she'll kill me.

- Travis

The next afternoon, the empty Tupperware and a note were waiting for Travis at the fence post.

Travis -

Please thank your Gran for the turnovers. She's my favorite baker. 

I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve known your grandparents my whole life. When I was eight, your grandfather taught me how to ride a horse. (My dad got impatient and yelled at me because I wanted to feed the horses a snack and make sure we were friends before trying to ride them.) I’ve eaten your Gran’s turnovers at every church picnic for as long as I can remember. 

I don’t know if you know this, but I was the one who found your Gramps in the field when he had his stroke. I was riding along the fence to my spot and saw him about 200 feet away from here, slumped over. I don’t know how long he was out there before I came along. I jumped the fence and slung him over the back of his horse so I could get him back to the house and your Gran could call the ambulance. 

Your Gran is a really special lady. I had some trouble at school last year and got into a fight with my dad about it. She let me stay in the guest room for a few nights while my dad cooled off. She didn’t ask any questions. She just brought me extra pieces of pie and made me feel like I wasn’t such a freak at a time when I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I still felt that way, but at least I wasn’t lonely and I had pie.

I don’t know if you know what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong. You seem pretty much like what a rancher should be like. You look the part. But I don’t know anything about you. There might be a whole other Travis under the surface that I don’t know just yet.

- Nolan

***

Travis put the Tupperware into his saddle bag and tucked Nolan’s note into his shirt pocket. When he got back to his room that night, he put the note in the tin that he kept special things in - the pictures of himself and his parents from last Fourth of July, the ticket stub from the first time he went to the movies in town with Lawson, the first note Nolan had written him. 

A few days later, while he was bringing the herd in for the night with Brad, they got to talking.

“What have you been doing on the weekends around here? I haven’t seen you in town yet,” Brad called to him over the cattle. 

“I haven’t been doing anything. I’ve been a little busy,” Travis gestured to the ranch. 

“There’s gonna be a bonfire party tomorrow night. I’m going with a few of my buds. You should come.”

Travis thought about it for a minute. He had been to dozens of bonfire parties in Nebraska thrown by kids who were too young to drink at bars in town. Everyone sat on the back of their pickups in the woods and drank warm beer that someone’s older brother bought. There was usually terrible music and people sneaking off into the woods to make out. “Alright,” he said. 

“Cool, man. There might be some hot girls there, you never know.”

“Cool,” Travis said, biting the inside of his cheek. “Pick me up?”

“Yeah, I’ll come get you at 9.”

***

The next night, Brad and his younger cousin Chase picked Travis up at 9, Brad handing Travis a flask of whiskey to sip from when he squeezed into the cab. They drove toward town and then veered east on a dirt road into the woods. Brad’s truck rattled down the road for a few minutes before Travis spotted a clearing in the woods up ahead, lit up by the headlights of pickup trucks and the bonfire blazing in the center. 

They spilled out of the car and headed for the kegs set up to the side of the clearing. There were probably fifty kids there, surrounding the bonfire on a cool June night. As he waited for his beer, Travis looked around the clearing, spotting a knot of girls by a rusty brown truck on the other side of the fire. At their center was Nolan, his head bent toward one of the girls, an amused expression on his face. As if he felt Travis’s eyes on him, Nolan looked up and right into Travis’s eyes.  

Travis looked away when Brad nudged him and handed him a foamy beer. Travis wandered back to Brad’s truck with him and Chase and hoisted himself up to sit on the tailgate. He listened to the conversation between the brothers and some of their friends gathered around, mostly local gossip about what everyone was doing for the summer. 

“Looks like fairy Nolan is still in town,” Chase said loudly during a lull in conversation. The whole group looked over to where Nolan was sitting, a blonde girl standing behind him braiding his hair into an elaborate French braid. Brad and Chase were doubled over in laughter at the sight, and the rest of the group was snickering unkindly.

“I gotta take a leak,” Travis said, pushing off of the truck and heading into the woods. When he finished, he avoided Brad’s truck and wandered over to where Nolan was standing, his braid finished and his cheeks flushed a pretty pink.

“Hey,” Travis said quietly. 

“Hi,” Nolan said, shoving his hands in his pockets. 

“I like your hair,” Travis smirked.

Nolan laughed. “My friend Christine did it.”

“She did a good job,” Travis said nodding, looking away to where Brad, Chase, and their friends were looking over at them. 

“You’re here with those guys,” Nolan said, his voice flat.

“Yeah, Brad works on the ranch and he invited me.”

“Brad’s a dick.”

“Yeah, a little,” Travis admitted.

“His cousin Chase called me a faggot in seventh grade,” Nolan said, his face stony.

“Why...why would he do that,” Travis stammered. 

“Well," Nolan drawled, his voice low, "probably because I'm sexually attracted to guys. Back then, all he knew was that I’d rather read than go hunting so that was apparently enough for him.” Nolan was looking at Travis seriously, almost daring him to look away.

“Oh,” Travis swallowed. Oh, he thought. “Me too.”

Nolan just raised his eyebrows.

“Guys, you know, I like...I mean, I go hunting too, but-” Travis mumbled too fast. 

“You can just say you’re gay, Trav,” Nolan said quietly. 

“I’m not really good at that,” Travis said, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck. 

“Does anyone know?”

“My parents. Nobody else though. It’s not like I’m hiding it,” Travis felt defensive all of a sudden. “I don’t want to hide it. I’ve...I’m sick of hurting people by not being honest.”

Nolan looked like he was going to say something when Brad shouted Travis’s name and waved for him to come over.

“I’ll uhh…I’ll see you later, Nolan,” Travis said as he backed away.

Nolan just stared at Travis as Travis rejoined the group around Brad’s truck. 

“He didn’t try to kiss you, did he,” Chase cracked to the guffaws of the group.

“Don’t be a dick,” Travis snapped and took the flask out of Chase’s hand, tipping it up to his mouth to take a long drink. Travis knew how to handle guys like this, to be aggressive so they didn’t question you. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Get me another beer, punk.”

The guys hollered in response and Brad grabbed Travis to wrestle him into a headlock. “Konecny, you badass!” he shouted. Travis looked up to see Nolan watching him, a skeptical look on his face. He tried to telegraph an I’m sorry to Nolan with his eyes but, from the way that Nolan turned away, he didn’t think he was successful.

***

Travis woke up with a headache the next morning and spent most of the day in the sun, riding the ranch to sweat out some of the alcohol. When he stopped by the fence post in the afternoon, he left a note for Nolan under the rock.

Nolan - 

Do you want to meet me here for lunch at noon on Thursday? 

- Travis

When he rode by the next afternoon, there was a note from Nolan.

Travis - 

I don’t know. I want to talk to you. You said something at the bonfire party that I want to know more about and I’m sort of excited that we might have something so consequential in common.  But at the same time, I’m not willing to put myself out there for someone who is friends with guys like Brad and Chase. I know a lot about them that you don’t know. They’re basically everything I hate about this place and I can’t bear the thought that you - someone who I thought would...I don’t know what I thought, but someone for me - would be like them too.

- Nolan

Travis turned over the note and pulled a pencil out of his saddlebag to write on the back.

Nolan - 

I’m not like them, I promise. Please have lunch with me.

And at the bottom, Travis wrote: 

Please circle your answer: YES or HELL YES

He left the note for Nolan, not expecting to get an answer. But when he rode by on Wednesday morning, there was a Post-It note stuck to the underside of the rock. Nolan had written the word “FINE” on the Post-It.

***

On Thursday, Travis showed up at the fence post at noon sharp. Nolan was already there, standing on his side of the fence. Nolan was wearing round sunglasses and his hair was pulled back into a messy bun. “You have to know that my expectations for this lunch are sky-high,” Nolan called out as Travis dismounted.

“Did you bring the blanket?” Travis asked.

“It’s right here,” Nolan said, pulling the plaid blanket off of the back of his horse and tossing it over the fence. He followed, climbing up and swinging his long legs in tight black jeans over the fence. 

“Aren’t you going to tie up your horse?” Travis motioned to where Nolan’s horse was wandering away from the fence post.

“Claude will be fine, he’ll come back,” Nolan said, spreading out the blanket on the ground. 

Travis went to his saddle bags and started pulling out containers - one of cold fried chicken, one of potato salad - a bag of apples, a zip-lock with baby carrots and celery, and a bag with Gran’s famous apple turnovers. He set the food out on the blanket, along with a roll of paper towels and a couple of forks. 

“Not bad, not bad,” Nolan said, apprising himself of the spread. “Nothing to drink?” He plopped down on the blanket and looked up at Travis with a smirk.

“I almost forgot,” Travis said, fetching the Thermos and cups from the other side of the saddle. “Gran made lemonade this morning.”

"You didn’t make all of this food?” Nolan asked, popping open the container of chicken.

“You don’t want to eat anything I could make,” Travis laughed softly. He sat down cross-legged on the other side of the blanket. He took one of the apples out of the bag and tossed it to Gritty, tied to the fence post nearby. 

Travis was busy rolling up the sleeves of his flannel over his forearms when he said, “I’m really glad you came.” He felt nervous, like there was something between him and Nolan that needed to be hashed out but they were both afraid to talk about. Rather than talk, Travis started shoveling potato salad into his mouth. 

Nolan started talking. “You know, when my parents found out that I’m gay, my dad kicked me out of the house for a week. That’s when I went to stay with your grandparents.” Nolan was looking out at the prairie, the way it spread away from the fence across the long expanse to the ranch house and then the road beyond. “I didn't know anyone like me here so I went online. I met this guy who lived 30 miles away. He was my age and he grew up on a ranch and I thought he understood me. We talked online for months and I told him so much stuff that I didn’t tell anyone else. Like, I told Christine and some of the girls I knew at school that I might be bi, but I was really quiet about it.”

Travis tipped his hat back on his head so he could see Nolan’s expression, the wistfulness and pain drift across his face as he talked.

“The guy turned out not to be real. It was Chase and another of those guys. They pretended to be him online. They sent pictures, like explicit pictures and I still don’t know where they got those. But they really hooked me and they told everyone at school that I'm gay.”

“Oh my god,” Travis whispered, feeling an icy chill at the thought of being outed and humiliated like that.

“It got back to my parents. Everyone was talking about it. And there were these assholes who were like I always knew he was gay, like congratu-fucking-lations Colombo. You cracked the case.” Nolan’s cheeks were bright red and his eyes looked fiery, angry at the memory. 

“And your dad kicked you out?”

“Well, he didn’t physically kick me out, but I heard him tell my mom that he wasn’t going to have a fag in his house. So I left. They knew I was at your grandparents’ house but they waited a whole week to ask me to come back. Then the whole college thing happened and basically it’s been fucked up ever since.”

Travis fiddled with his fork for a long time, not looking at Nolan.

“So,” Nolan exhaled, putting on a chipper tone, “Are you going to tell me that your parents were supportive when they found out about you?”

Travis laughed. “They weren’t not supportive? But they definitely treat me like I’ve got some horrible disease that they’re totally fine with but that we must keep secret at all costs.”

Nolan nodded, pulling a piece of chicken apart with his fingers and taking slow bites. “Don’t they realize what it says when they care more about what the neighbors think than about us.”

“Yeah,” Travis said. “I thought hiding it was the only way it could be and that...fucked up a lot of things. But I don’t want to live like that. I won’t let anyone do that to me anymore.”

“People, man,” Nolan said hotly, “fuck ‘em.” 

“Yeah,” Travis smiled at him, “fuck ‘em!”

Nolan leaned his head back to shout at the sky. “Fuck ‘em!” 

Travis laughed, a deep belly laugh that reminded him of long afternoons laughing with Lawson, of how easy it used to be. He looked at Nolan, who was happily munching on celery sticks, and nodded. “Fuck ‘em.”

***

After they finished eating, they laid back on the blanket, side by side, watching the clouds skitter across the sky. Travis was warm so he unbuttoned his flannel, letting the shirt flap open in the breeze and the sun warm his chest. He looked over at Nolan, whose eyes were locked on the strip of exposed skin, his hands fisted at his sides like he was trying not to reach out. 

“What?” Travis asked quietly with a smile.

Nolan shook his head and looked back up at the sky. “Did you leave a boyfriend back in Nebraska?”

“No,” Travis said, looking at Nolan’s profile. There was more to this story, but Travis didn’t want to ruin this moment with the memory of Lawson, who had left Nebraska for the west coast after graduation and was never Travis’s boyfriend anyway. “What about you? Do you have someone?”

“There’s no one gay here for me to date,” Nolan said, turning his head to look at Travis. “I mean, there wasn’t before you got here.”

Travis held his gaze for a long moment, certain that Nolan was inching closer to him, but then his alarm went off. 

“What the fuck-”

“Shit,” Travis stood up quickly, scrambling for his phone and gathering up the remnants of the picnic, “sorry, I set an alarm. I have to get back for a delivery. We’re getting a new part for the baler and I need to…,” Travis trailed off. He looked down at Nolan, who looked disappointed for reasons that Travis didn’t want to start thinking about. He stowed the containers and leftovers in his saddlebags and untied Gritty from the post, quickly swinging into the saddle. “I’ll see you around?”

“Yeah,” Nolan said weakly, finally getting up and shaking out the blanket. “See you around.” 

Travis started riding away, but turned in the saddle to look back. Nolan was standing still in the field, the blanket held limply in one hand, his eyes concealed by his sunglasses. Travis looked away, still thinking about the heat of Nolan’s gaze on his face as they laid on the blanket together. 

He thought about Nolan for the rest of the afternoon and dreamed about him that night, the first time he had dreamed about anyone other than Lawson in what felt like forever. In his dream, Nolan floated all around him like a fine mist that he could feel whisper against his face but couldn’t grasp. He heard Nolan’s voice as if from a great distance, calling to him across the ranch, beckoning to him, begging him to come take him. 

Travis woke up drenched in sweat, laying on his stomach, his cock hard against the mattress. “Fuck,” he muttered as he threw off the covers and rolled over, “Nolan.”

***

A week later, Travis was poking around in the kitchen at lunchtime when he heard the doorbell ring. His Gran answered the door and, from the kitchen, Travis heard a familiar voice. He drifted toward the front hall, where he saw Nolan at the door handing his Gran a large white envelope. 

“Hey,” Travis called out to him. 

Nolan’s eyes went to him over Gran’s shoulder and his eyes softened. “Hi Trav, how are you?”

“Good,” Travis said, coming up behind his Gran to take the envelope out of her hands. “What’s this?”

“Nolan’s cousin Dara is getting married and we’re all invited,” Gran said, snatching the envelope back and heading for the kitchen. “Nolan, do you want to stay for lunch? I made chicken salad.”

“Thanks Mrs. Konecny, but I have to get back to the house. More invitations to deliver.” He winked at Travis and then turned to go.

“Hey,” Travis called out and followed Nolan down the porch steps out into the yard. “Are you going to this wedding?”

“Yeah, it’s my cousin,” Nolan said, nudging the kickstand of his bike with his foot. “Plus I have to read a poem at the ceremony.” 

“Oh, that’s cool,” Travis said, drawing in the dirt of the driveway with the toe of his boot. “Are you bringing a date or whatever?” When Travis looked up, Nolan was beaming at him.

“Nope, going stag,” Nolan said, swinging his leg over the bike. “Don’t want to disappoint the ladies.”

“Well, if you’re not too busy with them, maybe you can save a dance for me,” Travis said, his voice coming out small and cracked. He tried to swallow but his throat was dry.

“Hmm, maybe,” Nolan said, smiling back at Travis as he pedaled down the driveway toward the road.

“Definitely!” Travis yelled after him, but Nolan only waved.

***

Travis was nervous in church the morning of the wedding. His grandparents hadn’t made him come to church with them on Sunday mornings so he stuck out as a newcomer among the regulars. He fiddled with the cuffs on his dress shirt and the tie his Gramps had made him wear, trying to ignore the looks from townsfolk who didn’t have anything better to do than gossip about the new guy.

The ceremony started and Travis zoned out, slightly sleepy and bored, until a voice from the dais snapped him to attention. It was Nolan, wearing a dark suit with his hair brushed back neatly from his face. He unfolded a piece of paper and read in a clear, deep voice:

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it (anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

                                                

i fear

no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want

no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

 

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

 

A shiver ran through Travis’s body as the last line of the poem faded out into the hushed silence of the church. The air was heavy and warm but Travis was ice cold as Nolan looked up to meet his eyes. 

***

The rest of the ceremony flew by and Travis went through the motions of the reception, bringing his grandparents plates of food and refills of punch. He lingered around the perimeter of the tent behind the church, watching the bride and groom dance their first dance and sipping from the beer he purloined from the inattentive bartender. He scanned the crowd for Nolan but didn’t see him sitting with the bride’s family or with the clutch of girls he had seen him with at the bonfire party. 

He got another beer and circled around to the side yard of the church and found Nolan sitting on the steps by himself and staring into space.

“I brought you this,” Travis said, holding the bottle out to Nolan.

Nolan took the bottle, brushing his fingers against Travis’s. “How’d you get this?”

Travis sat down next to him and shrugged. “Guess I’m that charming.”

Nolan took a swig from the bottle and smiled. “I’m sure that’s it.”

“I liked your poem.”

Nolan rolled his eyes. “It was E.E. Cummings. I was supposed to write a poem of my own but I…,” he gestured at the air with his beer bottle.

“What?” Travis prompted.

“I don’t exactly have a wealth of experience with love to draw on. I thought about it for such a long time and in the end, I just read someone else’s words.”

“Well, I liked it. Very...descriptive of love,” Travis said, peeling the label off his beer bottle.

“You think about love a lot?” Nolan asked skeptically.

I think about you, Travis thought and then pushed that feeling away. He just shrugged.

“Have you ever been in love before?” Nolan asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

“I don’t know,” Travis said, scared, unable to look away from Nolan, whose eyes were boring into him with the same intensity he had seen when they had lunch together.

Travis could hear the sound of Willie Nelson singing “Always on My Mind” from the tent around the back of the church. Nolan held out his hand. “Wanna dance with me?”

Travis took Nolan’s hand and let Nolan pull him to his feet. Nolan held out his right hand to take Travis’s left and put his left hand on Travis’s hip. 

“Why do you get to lead? Because you’re tall?” Travis huffed.

“Because I asked,” Nolan said, gently pulling Travis in closer to him.

Travis’s heart was beating fast but he wanted to get closer to Nolan. He slid his hand from Nolan’s shoulder around to the back of his neck and laid his head on Nolan’s chest, a little nervous that Nolan would push him away. Instead, Travis felt Nolan press his face into Travis’s hair and sigh into it, making a contented sound. They swayed like that for a minute and then Nolan let go of Travis’s hand to snake his around Travis’s waist, joining his other hand to press against the small of Travis’s back. Travis put his hands in the hair at the base of Nolan’s neck, playing with the curls there until Travis felt Nolan shiver under his touch.

Travis pulled back to look up at Nolan, whose face was flushed a pretty pink. Before he could doubt himself, Travis craned up to kiss Nolan softly on his lips, once, twice, Nolan’s lips parting to meet him, before Nolan pulled back suddenly. 

Nolan stepped back from Travis, his fingers touching his lips and his eyes wide.

“Nolan, there you are. Your mother and I are ready to go,” Nolan’s father said, frowning at them frozen in place as he came around the corner.

Nolan looked at Travis, his eyes sad. “I gotta go.” And then he was gone, leaving Travis with two warm half-empty beers, feeling like an idiot.

***

A few days later, Travis was riding the fence line when he found a note from Nolan under their rock. He unfolded it and read it immediately.

T - 

I’m worried that you think I pulled away from you at the wedding because I didn’t want to kiss you, but that’s not it. I wanted to kiss you since the day I met you and I was so surprised that it actually happened. I want so many things, more each day, but I’m used to not getting any of them. Right now, the thing I want the most is for you to kiss me again but I know not to get my hopes up, just in case. If that never happens, at least I’ll have one perfect kiss from you to remember always.

- N

That night, Travis stood at the window in his bedroom and watched night fall just as a storm rolled across the prairie, the thunder shaking the house and the driving rain turning the yard into a fast-flowing river. Travis watched the lightning light up everything he could see and then, when the rain let up, he ran pulled his hat on and ran out to the barn to check on the horses. Once he was done, the horses calm and settled in for the night, he went outside to find that the sky had cleared and that there was a thick blanket of stars overhead. He stood in the yard, his boots sunk into the mud and his head thrown back, and marveled at the sky above. He wondered if Nolan was looking at the sky too.

***

In the morning, Travis rode out to check on the herd, swinging by the fence post on his way back to the farm. There was a note from Nolan under the rock. The paper was dry, so he must have left it early that morning. 

T - 

My favorite thing about the prairie is the way night falls - dark thick on the ground but light in the sky, glowing pink from above like an upside-down bowl lit with reflected neon light.

I went to the city once - Chicago, to see my sister - and darkness there fell evenly in the sky but not at all because the glow of the city kept the whole place lit up, even in the dark of night. There weren’t any stars to be seen. It was like the clouds rolled in and blacked out anything, forever.

I like the stars on the prairie. Once it gets dark - true, inky dark - the stars are the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. When we were kids, my sister and I used to lay on the roof and look at them and I would wonder why anyone paid to go to the movies when the night sky was free.

It’s a cliche - looking up at the same stars as someone you love and feeling connected to them, even if you’re not in the same place. But I find it reassuring, which I guess is why we use cliches after all. I like to think of all the people and places I’ll never know and all those I do connected to me through the stars in the sky and it makes this whole big world seem a little more manageable somehow. 

- N

Late that night, Travis snuck his Gran’s address book out of the drawer in the kitchen and copied down the Patricks' phone number on a scrap of paper. He went upstairs to stare at the phone, picking up the receiver and putting it back down several times before collapsing back on his bed, the scrap of paper held in his hand. 

Travis fell asleep like that on the bed in the clothes, only waking to his 5am alarm in the dark. After he showered himself awake and dressed, he tucked the scrap of paper in the back pocket of his jeans and headed out for the day.

***

It took him two days of screwing up his courage, but he finally picked up the phone one night after dinner and called Nolan. Mrs. Patrick picked up the phone and said hello.

“Hi, is Nolan there?”

“May I ask who’s calling?” Mrs. Patrick said, her voice clipped.

“It’s Travis Konecny.”

“Oh, Bob’s grandson!” Mrs. Patrick exclaimed, warmth flooding her voice. “I’m sorry I didn’t meet you at the wedding. There were so many people there.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I should have introduced myself,” Travis said, laying his accent on thick to charm Nolan’s mom.

“Nonsense, I should have had you over for dinner by now,” Mrs. Patrick said. “Especially if you know Nolan?” 

“We met through some friends in town,” Travis said, not entirely honest but trying to keep Mrs. Patrick from suspecting that he was calling to ask her son out. “Is he around?”

“Of course, dear,” she cooed. It sounded like she covered the receiver to shout Nolan’s name, and then there was a clattering. Travis could hear Mrs. Patrick hiss, “It’s the Konecny boy, be nice.”

“Hello,” Nolan said, his voice deep and gravely into the receiver. “Mom, I’ve got it, you don’t need to hover.”

“Hi,” Travis smiled into the phone, “Are you busy?”

“Almost never,” Nolan said flatly.

“What about tomorrow night? Wanna go to the drive-in with me?” Travis said and then held his breath.

Nolan laughed softly and Travis could hear him moving to a quieter part of the house with the phone. “Are you asking me out on a date?” he said quietly. 

“I don’t know,” Travis mumbled.

“The drive-in. That’s a date,” Nolan said. 

“Fine,” Travis groaned, “pick you up at 7?”

“I haven’t said yes yet.”

“C’mon, Nols,” Travis whined.

“Ask me nicely.”

“You’re a dick,” Travis sighed, and then nicer, “Nolan Patrick, would you come on a date with me?” 

“Hmm, your approach needs work but yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, pick me up at 7.”

***

“So what are we seeing?” Nolan asked as he slid into the cab of Travis’s truck. He was wearing a faded black hoodie and jeans, his hair still damp from the shower and curling where it was tucked behind his ears.

“They’re doing a Hitchcock double feature.”

“Oh yeah, it’s Friday night,” Nolan said. “They always do old movies on Friday night.”

“Is that okay? We can go another night if you want to see the new Fast and Furious movie.”

“No, I like old movies,” Nolan said. 

Travis looked over to see Nolan smiling softly at him. “Ok good, me too. What’s your favorite Hitchcock movie?”

North by Northwest,” Nolan said automatically.

“Mine too,” Travis said, grinning out the front windshield of the car as he drove toward town.

Travis pulled into the drive-in and froze for a moment. If he parked too far back, would Nolan think that Travis assumed something would happen in the truck during the movie? If he parked too far in the front, would Nolan be insulted? After panicking, he pulled into a spot dead center in the middle row of trucks. 

“The movie’s going to start in a minute,” Travis said. As soon as he parked, he started to feel nervous, Nolan too close and the cab of the truck too small. There were people in trucks next to them and Travis wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do here - what did straight couples on a first date do at the drive-in? Travis thought about Nolan’s last note, about how Nolan wanted Travis to kiss him again, and Travis broke out into a sweat. In a panic, he got out of the truck and leaned into the window, trying for casual. “Popcorn?”

“Sure,” Nolan said, leaning back in his seat and smiling easily.

Travis threaded his way through the trucks to the concession stand. As he waited in line, he wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans and took a few deep breaths to calm down. I’m on a date with a guy, he thought to himself. Finally, after everything that had happened with Lawson, he was here. 

Travis flashed through memories - Lawson’s eyes lingering on Travis a little too long across the aisle at church, Lawson with his knee pressed against Travis’s in the back row of the movie theater, Lawson kissing him over the gearshift of Lawson’s mom’s car parked behind the Walmart after it closed. Travis let himself remember those good memories, purposefully ignoring the others - when he avoided Lawson at school so no one would guess how close they were, or when he kissed Kelly Cahn in front of his friends, in front of Lawson, in a failed effort to prove to himself that he liked girls. Then he thought about Nolan, who looked at him with such openness and trust, even though he had every right to be cynical. Travis wasn’t sure he deserved him. 

The line moved and Travis purchased a large popcorn and two sodas. He turned away from the counter and saw Brad, Chase, and their friends standing in a cluster near the condiments.  

“Hey Konecny,” Brad yelled.

Travis went over to them, shifting the bucket of popcorn in his arms and trying not to spill it. “Hey guys.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m seeing a movie, man,” Travis said, trying for light and hoping he didn’t sound nervous.

“Who are you here with?” Chase asked.

“Nolan.”

“Nolan Patrick?” Brad asked, incredulous. “I didn’t know you two were friends.”

“We’re getting to be,” Travis said, holding eye contact with Brad, almost daring him to go further.

“There you are,” Nolan said, reaching around Travis to pluck the popcorn bucket out of his hands. “Did you get butter?” Nolan smiled at Travis, a conspiratorial smile just for him.

“No,” Travis exhaled. He looked at Nolan, his hair soft in the light from the concession stand, and felt stronger somehow. 

“I got it, babe,” Nolan said, leaning past Brad to drizzle artificial butter flavoring all over the bucket of popcorn. He turned to Travis and, pecking him on the cheek, said, “Meet you back at the truck.” And then he swept away.

Travis watched him go for a beat and then turned back to the guys, who were standing with their mouths open in silence. “I’ll see y’all around,” he said, patting Chase on the shoulder and following Nolan back to the truck.

When he got in, Nolan was there, his feet propped up on the dashboard and the popcorn bucket in his lap, munching away. “Hey,” Nolan smiled at Travis when he got in the cab.

“Hi,” Travis said. He set the sodas down in the cup holders and slid across the seat toward Nolan. “C’mere,” he said, taking Nolan’s face in both hands and kissing him softly on the lips. 

“What was that for?” Nolan asked when Travis pulled away.

“Just for being you, I guess.”

“You’re a sap,” Nolan said. 

“Maybe,” Travis said. He reached over for some popcorn and they stayed sitting close together, Nolan’s head on Travis’s shoulder. On the ride home, Travis took Nolan’s hand and interlaced their fingers, resting both of their hands on his leg as he drove. 

***

A few days later, Nolan was lounging on the blanket in his spot by the fence post when Travis rode by in the late afternoon. 

“Fancy meeting you here,” Travis called out over the fence. 

“Hi,” Nolan looked up at him from his book. “Can you hang out a minute?”

“Yeah, Brad’s moving the herd and most of my chores are done. Just have to deal with the horses before dinner.”

“Well then, c’mon over.”

Travis climbed up over the fence and settled down on the blanket next to him, setting his hat off to the side and laying back with his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes. “I’m just going to fall asleep right here.”

“Okay,” Nolan said.

Travis heard Nolan turn the page of his book. “Are you reading?” 

“You’re sleeping,” Nolan said, poking Travis in the side.

Travis opened his eyes and turned on his side to look at Nolan. “I’m awake. Talk to me.”

Nolan rolled over onto his side, propping his head on his hand, and looked at Travis. “Are you leaving?”

“What?” Travis sputtered.

“You came here because of your Gramps. When he gets better, are you leaving?”

“Oh, Nolan,” Travis said quietly, putting his hand over Nolan’s on the blanket. “Why are you worried about that?”

Nolan pulled his hand away and sat up, hugging his knees to his chest. “I’m not worried. I just wanted to know.”

“I don’t think I am leaving.”

“Oh?” Nolan looked at Travis out of the corner of his eye.

“I don’t think my Gramps should have been running the ranch by himself even before the stroke, if I’m being honest. He might not get back to how he was before but even if he does, I think he needs me here.” Travis sat up and scooted close to Nolan, leaning his head on Nolan’s shoulder. “It’s nice that you want me to stay though.”

“I didn’t say that,” Nolan said, leaning away.

“You did, I heard you say it. Travis, I’d die without you," Travis teased, doing a cartoonish high voice. 

“Oh yeah, that sounds exactly like me.” Nolan rolled his eyes but he was smiling and leaning closer to Travis.

Please don’t leave, you’re too sexy for Nebraska, you said.” Travis stared at Nolan’s mouth, the way he was smiling, his lips pink and plush. “You’re the best kisser in Wyoming, you can’t leave, you said,” Travis said quietly, suddenly serious. He reached out to touch Nolan’s face, his calloused fingertips soft on Nolan’s cheek, and kissed him. 

“You are a good kisser,” Nolan whispered when Travis pulled back. They were still inches apart, their noses brushing and their foreheads tilted together. Their next kiss was tantalizingly close, but Travis wasn’t in a rush. The syrupy sweetness of the afternoon - the warm sun beating down, the sound of the bugs buzzing, the wind rustling the grass - was all around them and Travis wanted to stay here and kiss Nolan like there was nothing outside of this moment.

Nolan was a gentle kisser, his lips soft and his tongue hesitant. He let Travis guide him, opening his lips to the press of Travis’s tongue and letting Travis nip gently at his bottom lip. He clung to the front of Travis’s shirt while they kissed, like he was worried he’d be swept away if he let go, and tangled his long legs with Travis’s on the blanket. 

Travis didn’t know that kissing could be like this, slow and deliberate, no fear or fumbling. Every kiss he’d had with Lawson had been stolen, the terror of being discovered and outed mixed in with the thrill of the contact. But with Nolan, he could take his time and let himself enjoy the feeling of Nolan's hands in his hair as they kissed without worrying that their time would run out.

The late afternoon sun was lower in the sky when they finally parted, shooting each other bashful smiles as they got on their horses to head in opposite directions. Travis didn't know about Nolan, but he was pretty sure that he was going to spend the rest of the night thinking about the way Nolan's body felt pressed up against his, Nolan's hand against Travis's lower back as they kissed. He was pretty sure that he would dream about Nolan that night.

***

Nolan called Travis at home a few days later to ask him to the bonfire party that Friday night. “I’m hanging out with Christine Friday afternoon, but you should meet us there,” Nolan said.

Travis obviously said yes. He was itching to get close to Nolan again, even if it was around other people. He put on his best jeans and a soft henley that clung to his shoulders - probably too nice an outfit for drinking in the woods, but his Gran said he looked nice - and pulled up to the clearing at 9:30 Friday night. 

He spotted Nolan, Christine, and the other girls sitting on the tailgate of the rusty brown truck again and he went to them, ignoring the stares from Brad and his friends across the clearing. 

“Hey,” Nolan said, making grabby hands at Travis and pulling him down into a hug. 

“Hi,” Travis smiled into Nolan’s shoulder. While Travis introduced himself to Nolan’s friends, Nolan went to get him a beer, returning to stand in between Travis’s knees as Travis sat on the tailgate of the truck, Nolan’s hands lightly playing with the long ends of Travis’s hair. 

Travis was happy, lightly buzzed from the beer and how close Nolan was standing. He let the party swirl around him, people laughing and playing music and disappearing into the woods. Travis was too busy watching the light from the bonfire dancing across Nolan’s face and the way it lit up his hair, wavy and loose around his shoulders. He almost didn’t notice that the wind was kicking up and that lightning was flashing in the sky overhead.

At the first loud clap of thunder, the mood of the party turned, people drinking faster and drawing closer to the fire for protection. Travis noticed that Brad and Chase had come over and were watching where Nolan was playing with Travis’s fingers between them. 

“Hey Konecny, you going to hang out with the girls all night?” Chase called.

“Girls and fairies,” Brad said a little too loudly.

Nolan turned to glare at them. “Piss off, Bradley.”

“Oooh, we’re real scared,” Chase mocked.

Travis got up, moving Nolan out of the way and stepping close to Brad. “I think you’ve forgotten that you work for me, bud,” he said, poking Brad in the chest with his finger and sending him stumbling slightly backward.

“I work for your grandfather. Wouldn’t he be interested to know about your little boyfriend here?”

Travis smiled and stepped closer to Brad, nose-to-nose with the smaller boy. “He’s not in charge anymore,” Travis said, shoving Brad hard away from him. He stood and watched as Brad and Chase started backing away. “And by the way? Nobody cares that people are gay!” he shouted. “This isn’t Brokeback Mountain.”

Travis turned to see Nolan, surrounded by Christine and his friends, looking at him with laughter in his eyes. “You know those guys didn't see Brokeback Mountain,” he said. He walked up to Travis and put his arms around Travis’s waist.

“That movie came out fifteen years ago,” Travis said, brushing Nolan’s hair back from his face. 

Before Travis could kiss Nolan, the skies opened, pouring rain and dousing the bonfire. Everyone scrambled for their trucks and Travis took Nolan’s hand to pull him toward his. 

They jumped in the cab, laughing and still giddy from the confrontation. Travis drove fast down the dirt road away from the clearing, the tires spraying up what was now mud, one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding tight onto Nolan’s hand. 

Nolan was pressed close to him on the seat, kissing Travis’s neck and letting his free hand stroke up and down Travis’s thigh. “Nols,” Travis cautioned him, “it’s hard enough to drive in this rain.”

“Then pull over,” Nolan said as he nipped at Travis’s earlobe. 

Travis didn’t need to be told twice. He veered off the road, put the hazards on, and put the truck into park before turning to catch Nolan’s hungry lips with his own. He pulled Nolan halfway onto his lap while they kissed, fast and rough, the rain beating down on the roof of the truck. 

Nolan was wedged against the steering wheel and pressing down on Travis’s lap, his hands on Travis’s face as they kissed. The windows were steamed up with their breath and Travis was feeling lightheaded with the feeling of Nolan all around him. He didn’t want to stop kissing Nolan. The problem was that he wanted so much more, right now, but this wasn’t the place for it.

“There’s not enough room in this truck,” Travis grumbled, his hands sliding up Nolan’s broad back to the back of his neck. “You’re too tall.”

Nolan rested his forehead against Travis’s, breathing heavy. “What do you suggest instead?”

Travis bit his lip and hesitated a moment. “Come over my place some night soon? I uhh, I have a separate entrance to my room. Gran is pretty good about-”

“Okay,” Nolan said and kissed Travis to cut him off. “Okay, Sunday night? After dinner?”

“Yeah,” Travis said, smiling at Nolan as he slid off his lap and tried to get his hair under control again. “It’s a date.”

***

The next day, Travis found a note from Nolan under the rock at their spot. It was a poem, written out by hand by Nolan:

At the touch of you

As if you were an archer with your swift hand at the bow,

The arrows of delight shot through my body.

 

You were spring,

And I the edge of a cliff,

And a shining waterfall rushed over me.

 

- Witter Bynner

Travis didn't really know anything about poetry - all he remembered about the poetry unit in junior year was that you could sing any Emily Dickinson poem to the Gilligan’s Island theme song - but the fact that Nolan sent this poem to him had to mean something. At the touch of you, that sounded like Nolan was thinking about when they kissed, about being alone with Travis in his bedroom, about what might happen there.

Travis spent the rest of the day with goosebumps all over his arms at the thought of Nolan and his poem. Nolan wasn’t even there but somehow this was the sexiest thing that had ever happened to him. After dinner, he hurried to his room to jerk off, so overcome with thoughts of Nolan. Nolan had to be feeling this way too. He just had to.

***

Sunday dinner at the Konecny ranch was always at 5pm sharp. That night, Travis could barely eat, picking at his chicken pot pie until his Gran scolded him. “If you’re going to play with your food, you’ll have to leave the table young man,” she said, smiling at him. “You’re not too old to be sent to bed without dessert.” 

“That’d be great, Gran,” he said with relief, pushing his plate away and getting up from the table. Both of his grandparents stared at him in disbelief. “I don’t know what happened to my appetite.” 

“Are you feeling okay, son?” Gramps asked.

“I’m fine,” Travis said, hoping that they couldn’t see the way that he was sweating nervously. “Can you wrap my plate, Gran? Maybe I’ll be hungry later.”

“Sure, Trav,” she said, patting him on the arm as he went by. “You go lie down. I’m sure you’ll feel better.”

Travis scrambled up the stairs and threw himself into the shower, letting the icy cold water run down his body in an attempt to cool down. He put on a relaxed pair of jeans and a soft t-shirt and tried to straighten up his room, stopping every few minutes to look out the window to see if Nolan was there yet. 

After what seemed like an impossible wait, Nolan pedaled his bike into view in the side yard, parking it under the stairs and then bounding up them to Travis’s room. Travis opened the door before he could knock, smiling at Nolan and taking his hand to lead him inside.

“This is your room?” Nolan asked once Travis shut the door behind him. He peeked in the bathroom and then crossed the room to look out the bay window. “You have a ton of space.” He moved to the wall where his Gran had hung pictures of the family, including Travis’s high school baseball team photos and his graduation portrait. Nolan pointed at the baseball picture and smiled. “You play?”

“Yeah, I’m not bad. I used to pitch a little.” Travis was standing in the center of the room, unsure of what to do with his hands. 

Nolan went over to the radio and turned it on, flipping through the stations until a classic country station came on. He turned the volume down so it was playing softly. He came over to where Travis was standing and took his hand, leading him to the bed. They sat next to each other, hands still joined. “You look nervous.”

Travis shrugged. “I’m fine, I just…I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“I really like you,” Nolan said quietly, his eyes on Travis. “Everything else we’ll figure out.”

Travis leaned forward to kiss Nolan softly on the lips. He tasted like cherry and he kissed Travis so slowly that it took Travis’s breath away. They laid back on the bed together, just kissing for the longest time, Travis’s hand still on Nolan’s hip. When Travis touched Nolan’s tongue with his, Nolan made the most beautiful sigh. Travis had never heard anything like it. Travis wasn’t sure he could ever kiss Nolan enough and be satisfied.

Travis wondered who should make the first move, but as he was thinking about it he felt Nolan slide his hand up the front of his shirt to ghost his fingers over Travis’s abs. “That first day,” Nolan said breathlessly.

“What,” Travis said between kisses.

“The first time I saw you," Nolan said, sliding his hand up Travis’s chest, “I thought you weren’t real.”

“Why wouldn’t I be real,” Travis said, nonsensically into Nolan’s mouth. He turned his head to let Nolan kiss down his neck as his fingers explored his chest. 

Nolan huffed a laugh and bit gently at Travis’s neck. “I thought maybe you were a mirage. Like, I had been on the ranch for too long and I imagined you.” Nolan was inching Travis’s shirt up his chest so Travis sat up and pulled it over his head. When he looked down at Nolan, he saw that Nolan’s cheeks were bright pink, his eyes glazed slightly, his lips parted as he stared at Travis. Nolan reached out to brush a hand over Travis’s nipple and watched Travis shiver under his touch. “You’re real though.”

Travis leaned down to kiss Nolan again, not sure that any of this was real. Nolan rolled over onto his back and Travis slotted himself against him, his leg resting between Nolan's legs and his hand edging Nolan's shirt up over his stomach. They kissed like that, Nolan pulling Travis almost on top of him until Travis could feel Nolan hard against him. "You should take off your shirt," Travis said. He sat back and watched Nolan peel his shirt off, his long torso pale in the dim light of the room. 

Travis leaned down to kiss Nolan, his tongue deep in Nolan's mouth, and Nolan's fingers sliding along the front of the waistband of Travis's jeans. 

"That tickles," Travis whispered and then watched as Nolan rolled him over onto his back and slid down to kiss across his flat stomach.

"Here?" Nolan looked up at him. "Does it tickle here?"

Travis shook his head, touching Nolan's face, his cheeks where he was smiling as he kissed back up Travis's chest. 

"What do we do now?" Travis asked with Nolan straddled over his hips, sucking a mark into his neck.

"What do you want to do?" Nolan said, grinding down onto Travis and pulling a groan from him.

"I don't know, everything," Travis said. 

"We have time," Nolan whispered into Travis's ear, "we have time."

***

That night they had time to slowly unbutton each other's jeans, dragging them down their legs. They had time to feel each other through the thin fabric of their boxers before Nolan brazenly took his off, flinging them across the room while Travis watched with wide eyes. Travis recovered enough to pull Nolan close, to let him slide against his abs, panting into Travis's ear as he rubbed off against him until he was coming across Travis's stomach. Travis watched as Nolan traced a finger through the mess on his stomach, lost himself in Nolan's soft kisses after, the way Nolan was warm and sweet against him where moments ago he had been hard and desperate.

Later, when it was almost time for Nolan to bike home to make curfew, Travis held his breath and watched Nolan inch down his body, peeling off his boxers and taking Travis in his mouth. The sensation was like nothing Travis had imagined, achingly wet and sensitive and soon Travis was coming into Nolan's mouth with a sharp cry.

"Where," Travis said into Nolan's hair as he held him after, "where did you learn how to do that?"

"We have the internet on the ranch, you know," Nolan chuckled. He paused for a moment. "Before tonight, had you ever done any of this?" Nolan's voice faded out, uncertain.

Travis thought for a moment of the rushed hand jobs he had exchanged with Lawson in the hayloft in his parents' barn, the matter-of-fact slap of skin and the hurried dressing after. He didn't want to ever put that in the same category of this thing with Nolan, this earth-shattering thing that Travis felt had changed him forever, so unlike that shameful fondling. 

"No," Travis said, leaning down to kiss Nolan sweetly on the lips. "Never until you."

***

Travis was up early the next day, whistling as he made coffee in the kitchen. His Gran found him standing by the open back door, coffee cup in hand, watching the sky brighten over the prairie. 

"Looks like someone's feeling better this morning," she said, pouring a cup of coffee for herself. "What's got you so happy?"

"It's a beautiful day, Gran," Travis said, coming over to drop a kiss on her cheek and put his cup in the sink. "Can't wait to get out there."

Gran smiled and shook her head. "Okay Trav, have a good day."

"I intend to," he said and headed out. He spent most of the day out riding, letting Gritty open up into a full gallop across the fields and feeling the wind in his hair. The freedom of this place, the wildness, Travis could feel it in his blood, could feel it beating in his heart. With every breath, he felt Nolan, his skin hot against his, his hands grabbing at his as he gasped, mouth open, head thrown back. One night with Nolan and Travis didn't know how he had done without him all these years. 

***

Over the next weeks, Nolan left Travis his own poems, scraps of paper with Travis's name written over and over, flowers that Nolan picked and that wilted in the bright late summer sun on top of the fence post. Nolan's long notes from when they first met were replaced by these things, like Nolan was so overcome that he couldn't order his words into prose and had to let them spill out onto the page, passionate and formless. Travis kept all of them in his special box in his room. Sometimes at night, he would bring them out, lay all the pieces of paper on his bed and lie down in the center of them, reading and rereading them, letting Nolan’s words wash over him. He’d fall asleep that way and dream of waking up next to Nolan, kissing him awake in the bright sunshine in his room.

***

“Have you ever seen the ocean?” Nolan asked late one night. He was lying on his stomach on Travis’s bed, stretched across Travis, his feet hanging off the side and his hands tangled in Travis’s hair. He had been kissing Travis slowly, his tongue playing gently across Travis’s lower lip. 

Travis blinked up at him. “No. What made you think of that?”

“I don’t know,” Nolan said, rolling onto his back. “I was just thinking that I want to swim in the ocean one day.”

“We were making out and you were thinking about the ocean?” Travis scooted close to Nolan again and put his hand on his face. 

“I want to see the ocean with you, silly.” Nolan smiled at him and then dropped his eyes. “I want to see everything with you. It’s a little scary.”

“Nols,” Travis said softly, nuzzling Nolan’s cheek with his nose. “Why is it scary?”

“It’s just...it's so much,” Nolan said. When he looked up, his eyes were wide. “I want you so much.”

Travis kissed him hard then, shifting so he’d feel Nolan underneath him. Nolan’s arms and legs came around Travis and pulled him in. “I want you so much too,” Travis sighed, and it was the most truthful thing he had ever said, although it didn’t begin to describe all of Travis’s feelings. Maybe Nolan was talking about physical want, but Travis wanted all of Nolan, was falling in love with him like he never knew was possible before. 

***

“I can’t believe you’re real,” Nolan whispered, kissing Travis helplessly as they laid facing each other, touching themselves and edging each other closer, closer to coming together. 

“You’re so beautiful,” Travis said into Nolan’s mouth. Travis leaned back for a moment to look at Nolan, his skin glowing in the dim light of the room. Travis still couldn't believe that he got to touch Nolan like this, kiss him everywhere, feel him shiver under his tongue. "Come with me, baby,” Travis said, sliding his hand into Nolan's hair and pulling him back into a kiss. Nolan let out a whimper and bit Travis’s lip, like Travis knew Nolan would do when he was about to come. They watched each other’s faces as they came, eyes on each other, searching, searching. 

***

“Tell me about him,” Nolan said, holding Travis’s hand as they sat on the blanket in the field by their spot in late September.

Travis shrugged. “There’s not a lot to tell.”

“I know that’s not true,” Nolan said, bumping Travis with his shoulder.

“Okay, okay,” Travis said, letting out a deep breath. “His name was Lawson. We were best friends since kindergarten. And one day in 11th grade, he kissed me in the back of the bus on the way back from a baseball game.”

“And you guys were together?”

“No,” Travis shook his head. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We fooled around and didn’t talk about it. Eventually he wanted to come out but I couldn’t even admit to myself that I was gay. I was so scared. After graduation, he moved away and that’s the last I heard from him.”

“Did you love him?” Nolan asked, his voice very small.

“No,” Travis said. “He was my best friend and I loved him like that but not like…,” he trailed off. Not like you, Travis thought.

“You fooled around?” Nolan smiled ruefully at him. “I thought you said you never-”

“It wasn’t like this,” Travis gestured between them. “It was kid’s stuff, not like real boyfriends.”

“Oh,” Nolan said, surprised. 

“I mean,” Travis tried to pull his hand away but Nolan held on tight. “If you want.”

“I really do,” Nolan said. 

Travis felt his cheeks flush and he smiled at Nolan, who was smiling back, his eyes bright green in the morning sun. “Good. Boyfriends, then.”

***

Later that afternoon, Travis led Nolan down the steps from his room out into the side yard to say goodbye. At the bottom of the stairs, they met his grandmother.

“Hello boys,” she said. She was carrying a basket of laundry to the line to hang dry.

“Let me get that for you, Mrs. Konecny,” Nolan said, taking the basket from her and carrying it to the line. He set it down and went back to stand close to Travis.

“Thank you Nolan.” She turned to look between them. “I’m glad you boys are friends. I think it’s good for Travis to have someone his own age.”

“Actually Gran,” Travis said, taking Nolan’s hand, “we’re...um...”

“Oh!” Gran said, looking a little shocked but covering it well. “Isn’t that sweet!” 

Nolan scratched at the back of his neck with his free hand. “If you could not mention this to my parents, ma’am, we have enough differences without-”

“Of course, dear. I’m not one to talk out of school.”

Travis hugged her, relieved. “Thanks Gran,” he whispered in her ear as they hugged. 

“I’m proud of you,” she whispered back. “He’s a lovely boy.”

***

By October, the herd had been culled, the alfalfa that Travis had planted earlier in the season had been harvested, and winter wheat was in the ground. Travis hired a new ranch hand, letting Brad go with a speech about how it was time for everyone to move on. The new hand was a woman named Irma in her mid-30's who kept to herself in a way that Travis found refreshing.

As he rode the fence line one cool afternoon, checking on the posts after the first hard freeze, he saw a piece of paper flapping under the rock at his and Nolan’s spot.

It was a letter from the Dean of Admissions at Bennington College addressed to Nolan, inviting him to reapply for the next school year and letting him know that the scholarship he had won the year before was again available. 

Travis read the letter twice and folded it into a small square before tucking it in his jacket pocket.

Travis thought about the letter for the rest of the day, tuning out his Gran’s conversation about the fall festival during dinner. He was up half the night thinking and staring out the window and got up early to tend to the horses. By the time Nolan found him in the barn at that afternoon, he was sweaty and exhausted. 

“I need to talk to you,” Travis said. 

Nolan nodded. “I’ll meet you upstairs?”

“Yeah,” Travis said, leaning in to give Nolan a quick kiss. “I’ll be done here in a few.”

When he got up to his room, Nolan was tucked into his bed, the covers pulled up under his chin. Travis crawled up the bed and started kissing his face and pulling the blanket away so he could kiss his neck. 

“Ew get away from me, you smell like the barn,” Nolan laughed, pushing Travis away.

“Come shower with me then,” Travis said, standing up and pulling the covers off Nolan.

“I’m not dirty,” Nolan said.

Travis bit his lip and looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t make me say it.”

“Don’t make you say what,” Nolan smiled, crawling down the bed to Travis. He stood up on his knees and started unbuttoning Travis’s shirt. “That you can make me dirty?” 

Nolan,” Travis groaned, pulling Nolan to him to kiss him, biting at his lips and digging his fingers into his hips. They undressed on their way into the bathroom, giggling as they tripped pulling each other’s pants off. By the time they were kissing under the hot water, they were both hard and rubbing up against each other, their wet skin the perfect friction as they moved against each other. “God, you drive me crazy,” Travis moaned, grabbing at Nolan’s ass as Nolan clung to his neck, his mouth hot on his. Travis reached between them, bringing Nolan over the edge and then himself. They stood there, kissing and letting their hands roam, until the water ran cold.

After they dried off, they got in bed together to cuddle. “So, about the letter,” Travis started. 

“Trav,” Nolan whined, “it’s cuddle time. Cuddle time is quiet time.”

“Nope, not today,” Travis said. “C’mon, why did you give me this?”

Nolan shrugged.

“Are you going to reapply?”

Nolan squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. “Nothing’s changed since last year.”

“You have me now,” Travis said quietly.

“So?” Nolan said, and then started backpedaling when he saw the hurt look on Travis’s face. “Trav, I mean, just because I have you doesn’t mean my parents are miraculously going to want to pay for me to go to college.”

“I think you should reapply. I think we can work it out.”

Nolan stared at Travis for a long moment. “What does that mean?” he asked hesitantly.

“Do you trust me?”

Nolan signed impatiently. “Yes, of course, but I-”

“Then reapply. The rest will work itself out.” He didn’t say more, but Travis was already planning. He was thinking about the money he had earned by helping bring the harvest in for his neighbors in Nebraska year after year. He was thinking about the money he had saved up for a new truck. But most of all, he was thinking about Nolan - how he wanted Nolan to be happy and to have all of his dreams come true. 

Nolan just sighed and closed his eyes. Travis held him for a long time, Nolan sweet and sleepy in his arms until he started kissing Travis so insistently that Travis couldn’t hold back. He pushed Nolan over onto his back and slid down his body to take Nolan in his mouth, enjoying the quiet moans falling from Nolan’s lips. He teased under Nolan’s balls with his fingers and waited for the sharp intake of breath that would tell him to stop exploring. Instead, Nolan spread his legs open a little wider, and then a little more, until Travis could touch all the way down. 

Travis lifted his head to look at Nolan. “D’you want to?” Travis asked, tracing the tips of his fingers around Nolan’s hole. When Nolan nodded, Travis scrambled to grab the lube from night table and re-positioned himself, his cheeks burning red as he opened the bottle for the first time. He started with one hand on Nolan’s hip to ground him and slid one finger in slowly, slowly, feeling the heat pool in his belly at the beautiful sounds he was pulling from Nolan with each movement. He watched, disbelieving, as Nolan threw his head back and gasped for another finger, and then as Nolan opened so beautifully for him. Travis kissed Nolan’s hip over and over as he worked his fingers in and out of him, finally taking Nolan back in his mouth and feeling Nolan explode, his whole body quaking around Travis. 

After, Nolan looked so overcome that Travis held him, whispering into Nolan’s hair that he needed to breathe. 

“I’ve never...it’s never been like that,” Nolan whispered into Travis’s chest. “Where did you learn how to do that?”

“I have the internet on my ranch too,” Travis joked and Nolan laughed. He kissed Travis like they hadn’t spent all afternoon together like this and Travis wondered how much more he could love this boy.

***

A few weeks later, Travis and his Gramps left the ranch early one morning to go fly fishing on the North Platte River. Over the past few months, Gramps had been getting stronger and he finally convinced Gran that he could wade into the river to fish with Travis. 

They were out on the water for a few hours, standing in silence with their lines cast and watching the bugs dip against the surface of the river, when Gramps started talking. “You know, Travis, this place has changed a lot since I was a young’un. When your Gran and I were first married, we were on our own out on the ranch. We didn’t have a telephone until your dad went into the Navy. I would go into town to get the news once a week but otherwise we were pretty cut off from the world.”

Travis turned to watch Gramps’s profile, waiting for him to meander his way to whatever point he was trying to make.

“Change happens slow out here, not because we’re against it.” Gramps paused, shifting his pole to lean on his good leg. “We’re just not used to it. Everything takes a little longer here.” 

“What are you talking about, Gramps?” Travis said, his palms suddenly sweaty on his fishing rod.

“I know you and the boy are in a rush, but give everyone some time to catch up.”

“Gramps,” Travis started.

“I had a stroke. I’m not dumb, Travis," Gramps looked over at him with a wink. “I used to look at your Gran the way you look at that boy. You look at him like he just came down from heaven.”

“I do not,” Travis huffed. 

“It’s alright. It’s good to be young and in love. I just want you to be careful. People aren’t going to make it easy for you.”

“I know, Gramps. But I can’t not live my life because of-”

“I’m not asking you not to live your life,” Gramps said sharply. “As if anyone could stop you, you’re as strong willed as your Gran. Just be patient with us old folks.”

Travis looked out over the river and spotted a bald eagle soaring overhead. “Alright, Gramps.”

They fished in silence for another little while, until Gramps started looking tired. "You know I appreciate you, son. Everything you do for us," he said as Travis helped him into the truck. "You're a good boy," he said, patting Travis on the shoulder. 

Travis drove them home that afternoon, looking over to watch his grandfather sleeping in the passenger seat of the truck. 

***

Winter fell fast on the ranch, faster than Travis experienced in Nebraska. Before he knew it, there were snow drifts all around the barn and winds howling against the ranch house at night. 

It was too cold for Nolan to bike over so Travis picked him up in his truck, stopping in the house for small talk with Nolan's mom while he got his boots on. 

In early December, Mrs. Patrick was grim and tight-lipped at the sight of Travis on her front step calling for her son. By Christmas, Travis had warmed her up with Gran's Christmas cookies and gossip from the church craft bazaar. By January, Mrs. Patrick knew how he liked his cocoa (with extra marshmallows) and looked genuinely pleased to see him.

"It's the Midwest, you can win anyone over with good manners," Travis said smugly after Mrs. Patrick made Nolan wait ten minutes while she described the plot of the most recent episode of Downton Abbey to Travis.

Nolan rolled his eyes. "It's clever that you've so effectively distracted her from the fact that you defiled her innocent son."

"You defiled me," Travis screeched, reaching over to tickle Nolan.

"Technically no one has done any actual defiling," Nolan sulked.

"I mean, I was sort of waiting.”

"For a special occasion?" Nolan sassed.

"For the right time," Travis said, parking the truck in the side yard and turning off the ignition. He turned to look at Nolan, the engine ticking in the cold. "I figured we'd both know when it's right."

"Yeah, you're right," Nolan said, sliding out of the seat. 

Travis came around the truck and took Nolan’s hands, leaning him up against the door. "I want everything to be perfect for you," he said, kissing him softly. "In the meantime, I don't hear you complaining."

"No," Nolan said, his breath catching as Travis ground his hips against him. “Let's go upstairs so you can not defile me some more."

***

"I'm almost done with my application," Nolan said into the dim late afternoon light in Travis's bedroom.

"Yeah?" Travis asked, propping his head on his hand to look at Nolan. "You write the essay yet?"

"Almost done," Nolan said.

"What's it about?"

"It's about the ranch," Nolan looked at him with a small smile on his face.

Travis beamed at him. "You wrote about here?"

"Write what you know," Nolan shrugged. 

***

Nolan let Travis read his essay eventually after demanding that Travis be honest but also that Travis never tell him if he hated it. Travis didn’t have to lie, in the end. He loved the essay, the way that Nolan weaved together the story of this place and the people connected to it. He wrote primarily about Travis’s grandparents and how they represented everything that Nolan thought he hated about Wyoming - tradition, the old guard - but also how their compassion and understanding saved Nolan when he needed it most. At the end, he wrote about Travis, about how even the prairie that he resented could bring him something life-changing. He concluded that although he wanted to leave Wyoming to go to college, he wasn’t sure if Wyoming was done with him after all. Wyoming was in his blood, where his heart was, the place he’d always return. 

***

Travis spent most of the winter shuttling between the barn and his room, where he and Nolan huddled against the unforgiving Wyoming winter. In March, they were in bed one afternoon after Travis had been up early with the first new calves. Travis was dozing, Nolan’s arms wrapped around him and the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head. 

“What do you think it’ll be like out East?” Nolan said.

“Hmm?” Travis mumbled, burrowing deeper under the covers.

“In Vermont. What do you think winters are like there?”

Travis sighed and rolled over, pushing the hood back from his face. “I think it’s cold there too, but maybe not as much wind as here? They probably have a proper fall.”

“Yeah,” Nolan smiled. “Autumn foliage, maple syrup.”

“Sounds nice,” Travis said, kissing the tip of Nolan’s nose. 

“I got in,” Nolan said quietly, searching Travis’s eyes.

“That’s awesome!” Travis said, a smile breaking out over his face.

“Yeah?” Nolan looked relieved.

“Of course yeah! You didn’t think I’d be happy?”

Nolan bit his lip for a minute. “If I go-”

“You’re going,” Travis said quickly.

"I don't have the money to go. The scholarship only covers tuition."

"I'm working on it. Leave that part up to me, okay?"

"I don't know why you would help me like this," Nolan said, blinking fast at the tears welling up in his eyes. "I'll be leaving. Really leaving.”

“I know," Travis said, his voice thick in his throat.

Nolan was crying now. “Trav, how am I going to-"

Travis pulled him into a tight hug. “Can we think about that another day? Can we just be here together now?”

“Yes,” Nolan sobbed into Travis’s shoulder. “I just want to be here with you.”

***

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like anything on a ranch changes. The rhythms are the same year after year. Calves are born, crops are planted, calves grow, crops are harvested, cattle are sold, crops are planted, and on and on, repeat until the sun burns out.  

But underneath the snow, changes are always in the works. When the spring came that year, when the snow finally melted away, there were changes big and small if only you knew where to look.

Irma came back for another season, and she brought her wife Lorena to help with the chickens that Gran bought that spring and the large organic garden she was planting in the near pasture. 

Gramps was learning how to use the computer Travis got him for Christmas. He read about ecotourism and wanted to make a website with a blog for the ranch, although he got distracted when he found a YouTube channel about fly fishing.

And in early May, Travis and Nolan rode the herd out together for the first time that season. They galloped ahead of the cattle, riding east into the sunrise. Nolan had sent in his acceptance to college and claimed his scholarship. Maybe they only had until the next frost, but they were together now and they weren't going to waste a moment apart.

***

One evening in June, Travis found his grandmother on the porch at dusk. Her knitting was on the table beside her chair and she was staring out across the front yard. “Sit for a minute with me, Trav,” she said when she heard the screen door creak behind her.

“What are you doing out here?”

“I was just thinking about your dad. Did he ever tell you that he was going to be a rancher like you?”

“No,” Travis said, looking over at Gran, watching the profile of her face.

“This was before he went to Vietnam. He met your mother on the naval base in San Diego and her family had a farm in Nebraska and that was that. When you were born, your Gramps and I planned for you to take over the ranch when you grew up. We hoped that it would last in our family for years and years after we're gone.”

“Well, I’m here so I guess it all worked out.”

Gran looked over at him and smiled sadly. “But I don’t want that for you anymore.”

Travis frowned at her and then looked down at his hands. 

“After we’re gone, I don’t want you to be tied to this place if you don’t want to be. I want you to live the life you want and if that means selling this place and moving out east with Nolan, that’s what I want for you. Maybe you’ll be a dairy farmer in New York State and sell artisan cheese in New York City.” She turned to look at him, a smile on her face and tears in her eyes. “Can you imagine that? You can have a farmhouse upstate and Nolan can write the great American novel there. Or maybe you’ll go back to school, do something neither of us can imagine right now.”

“Or maybe we’ll stay here.”

“Maybe you will. Whatever it is, I want you to be free.”

“Thank you Gran,” Travis said, getting up to go over to her chair and give her a gentle hug. “Thank you.”

***

In July, Travis and Nolan went to a bonfire party on the woods together. They met Christine, back from the university in Laramie for the summer, and some of Nolan’s high school friends. 

As they stood chatting around the tailgate of Travis’s truck, Travis spotted Brad across the clearing by the kegs. Brad looked at them and nodded, tipping his hat in Travis’s direction. Travis gave him a small wave and then looked at Nolan, who rolled his eyes at him and reluctantly waved to Brad. 

“I still hate that guy,” Nolan said, squeezing Travis’s hand.

“I know, but we won so we can afford to be the bigger people,” Travis smiled at him, kissing Nolan’s fingertips where they were holding on to Travis’s hand. 

Nolan raised his eyebrows at Travis. “I guess we did win.”

“Yeah, look at us. A year later and here we are. We’re not hiding. We’re a part of this town and we’re together. That’s everything I wanted.”

Nolan leaned over to kiss him hard, following it up with several small kisses down his neck. “That’s all you wanted? Are you sure about that?” Nolan’s had put his hand on Travis’s leg and was crawling his fingers up Travis’s thigh. 

Travis tilted his head back and laughed. “Well, not everything.”

“My parents are going to Chicago next week to see my sister,” Nolan said, continuing to kiss Travis’s neck. “Gone for four whole days.” He pulled back to look at Travis. “Seems like a special occasion to me.”

“Yeah? You’re sure?”

“More than sure,” Nolan said, kissing Travis again. “Are you?”

“Definitely.” 

“Okay, come over on Thursday.”

***

Travis was nervous when he got to Nolan’s house. Nolan ushered him to his room and Travis spent a minute looking at the books on the shelves and piled on every surface and the framed New Yorker covers. “I can’t believe I’ve never been up here before,” he said, flopping down onto the bed.

“I’m 19 and my parents have a strict no boys policy for my room. That’s normal, right?” Nolan smiled ruefully.

“Are you nervous?” Travis asked, pulling Nolan down onto the bed next to him. 

“A little,” Nolan said.

"We should start slow," Travis said, sliding his hand behind Nolan's neck and pulling him in for a kiss.

Nolan gripped Travis's hip. "We have four days."

"I can make you come so many times in four days," Travis said. He started unbuttoning Nolan's jeans and scooted down to kiss Nolan's stomach where his shirt was riding up. Then he slid his hand into Nolan's pants.

Nolan let out a small moan when Travis wrapped his hand around where he was already hard for him. "Your mouth, I want your mouth," he gasped.

Travis smiled up at him and then set to work, peeling Nolan's pants off and slowly taking him apart with his tongue.

***

After, they cuddled together in Nolan’s bed, talking about what they wanted to do with the rest of their summer. Travis had his arms wrapped around Nolan and one leg hooked over Nolan's legs. “I want to take you fishing,” Travis said. “You can come with me and Gramps. He taught me how to fly fish when I was little. He can teach you.” 

“Okay,” Nolan said. “I want us to go camping. Have you ever been to the Grand Tetons? We can do a whole Ansel Adams thing on the Snake River.”

“I’ve never been. We should go the first week of August,” Travis said, kissing Nolan’s shoulder from where he was spooned against him. 

“I keep thinking about how much time is left,” Nolan said quietly.

“I know, me too,” Travis whispered. “We have to buy your plane tickets soon and reserve your dorm room. There’s a lot to do.”

Nolan turned to look at Travis. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, I told you I'd figure it out. I have some money saved and Gramps gave me the rest for your first year. If you like it there, he wants to set up something for the rest of your time there.”

“Travis, I can’t begin to thank you. And your grandfather, you’re both so generous,” Nolan said, kissing Travis and burying his face in Travis’s neck.

“You don’t have to thank us. Just go and live the life that you deserve. Don't even think about Wyoming.” Travis was trying to keep his voice light but he could feel his face wobble with the effort at not thinking about what came next.

Nolan huffed and looked up at Travis, tears in his eyes. “I’ll come back, I will.”

“You don’t have to say that,” Travis said, wiping the tears falling down Nolan’s cheeks with his fingers. 

“I have to come back to you,” Nolan cried.

“Don’t think about me, just go,” Travis said, his heart breaking.

“I’ll come back, I will. I promise, I promise, I promise.”

***

Nolan cried until he fell asleep, the tears on his eyelashes glinting against his cheeks as he slept. Travis watched him for hours, trying to remember everything about Nolan’s face, memorizing the way his hair tumbled across the pillow in riotous waves and the way that Nolan smiled in his sleep. He held Nolan’s hands tight in his, tracing Nolan’s long fingers and trying to remember how they felt against his skin the first time they were together, and every time after that. 

Nolan woke later and smiled when he saw that Travis was awake and staring at him. “You’re a creeper,” he teased, crawling onto all fours on top of Travis. “I was dreaming about you.”

“Yeah?” Travis asked, craning up to kiss Nolan’s neck. “What was I doing?”

“Want me to show you?” Nolan whispered. He kissed Travis slowly, his tongue teasing Travis’s and his fingers wandering to glance against Travis’s nipples on their way down his body. Travis felt his cock harden as Nolan moved over him, his body grinding down onto Travis so slowly that it was excruciating. Nolan was so sexy when he was like this, all languid limbs and hooded eyes, and Travis still couldn't believe that Nolan was touching him like this. 

“I want you,” Travis said, his voice low.

“You can have me,” Nolan said, looking down at Travis with desire all over his face. Travis thought that he had never seen anything so beautiful. 

But soon Nolan was under him, grasping the sheets tightly in his hands and his legs locked around Travis’s waist as Travis fucked him, and that was the most beautiful thing Travis had ever seen. Travis kissed Nolan through it, biting Nolan's lip and dragging his nails down Nolan's chest when the sensation became too much and he needed to slow down. But Nolan was begging for more, tight around Travis and moaning his name, and Travis couldn't stop if he wanted to. He dropped his head to Nolan's shoulder and buried his face in Nolan's hair, his breath coming fast as he pushed deeper into Nolan and Nolan cried out in pleasure. 

All of these versions of Nolan flashed across Travis's mind - Nolan atop his horse that first day; Nolan staring at him across the bonfire; Nolan cuddled next to him in his truck at the drive-in; Nolan sneaking into his bedroom on Christmas morning; Nolan with his lips wrapped around Travis's cock in the shower; Nolan taking his hand at the dinner table; Nolan with him forever. Nolan was so many things to Travis that he couldn’t help sobbing Nolan's name as they moved together, edging closer and falling out of rhythm, their bodies one body. And then Travis came in a brilliant flash of white, Nolan's hand pressed flat where Travis's heart was beating out of his chest. In that moment, Travis was certain that Nolan was everything. 

***

The first of September, Travis woke early. Before going down to breakfast, he took a moment to look at the framed picture of him and Nolan from the campsite in Jackson. Nolan had taken the picture one evening, turning the front-facing camera on and leaning his head close to Travis’s. He had it framed and gave it to Travis before he left. Travis touched the photo briefly and then set it back in its place on his nightstand so he could look at it before he fell asleep that night. 

Travis had breakfast in the kitchen with his grandparents and then mucked out the stalls in the barn. After that, he rode the fence line, making sure the cattle were grazing where they were supposed to be and scouting out the far fields for winter wheat planting. When he got to their spot, he saw a piece of paper pinned under the rock and flapping in the breeze. 

T - 

What would you do if the prairie never ended? We could get on our horses and ride and ride and never fall off the end or see the mountains rise up, barring the way. We’d drown here in this field together, our love stretching out over these fields, lasting forever forever forever. 

But the mountains are there and I’m going to climb them. I’ll see you from the top. You won’t ever be out of my sight and I’ll come home to you again. One day you’ll be in the field and you’ll see me, riding toward you. The sun will be low in the sky and you’ll remember the glow, exactly how the light was when I came back to you.

I love you,

-N