SWEETWATER STATION, Wyo. — In the fading afternoon light, the barnyard is turning raucous: the chickens are clucking, peacocks are pacing and sheep are bawling, making the llama a bit nervous. The donkey just works his gums as though chawing on a plug of tobacco.
Polly Hinds and Lynda German stand beaming amid the chaos, their old blue tractor in the background, framed by an endless expanse of prairie sky. For the two literary outliers, it is the end of another precious day on their unlikely experiment in the middle of Wyoming's nowhere.
Their hands filthy from chores, the two veteran booksellers carry armloads of hard-bound volumes, careful not to dirty the historical tomes and two Zane Grey works of fiction, "The Last Ranger" and "Last of the Great Scouts." The words scrawled in red on a storage shed explain the contrast: "BOOKS FOR SALE."
Thirteen years ago, the pair fled Denver following a bizarre altercation with police, looking for a quieter life. They found it here on a deserted ranch 40 miles from the nearest store, where the only violence comes from two marauding moose that sometimes break their windows in search of food.
Since then, they've perfected the art of doing what they want, where they want to do it — running a thriving scholarly oasis with a touch of oddball rural charm. Their eccentric Mad Dog and the Pilgrim bookstore offers 70,000 used and antiquarian texts — more books than the average Barnes and Noble — from a lonely wind-swept crossroads with a population between three and five, depending on the season.
On Highway 287, a weathered sign advertises "Old Books. Fresh Eggs. For Sale." At age 66, German is the Mad Dog, a self-professed curmudgeon. Hinds, 58, who dates her ancestry back to the Mayflower and has a penchant for pistols, is the Pilgrim.
Inside their two-story, climate-controlled book barn, volumes costing between $10 and $4,000 draw orders from the U.S. and Europe, including, they say, Buckingham Palace. A fourth of their $1,500 monthly profit comes from online sales. Buyers wander a store crammed with farm shears, pith helmets, fertility statues and a stuffed Syrian lion, taxidermied in 1900. The couple are also trying to find room for an 1850s child's coffin.
Their menagerie includes 62 chickens, 41 sheep, three peacocks and six guinea fowl. There's the donkey named Rucio, after Sancho Panza's furry sidekick, and the feisty llama Jose Habanero, who takes his sheep-guardian's duties seriously.
Fugitive sheep often wander the bookstore, particularly the old ewe Mona Moon. The littlest lambs are often dressed in diapers, prompting baffled book browsers to ask: "Are they, um, like, allowed in here?"
That's when Hinds says: "Allowed in here? Heck, they own the place!"
If she gets any guff, German might add: "You can leave. The sheep stay."
The only animals not at the farm are pigs, but one gets the sense that could change.
"I love pigs," German says.
Customers calling the store are often greeted by a recorded message with the barnyard joke of the day: "Talk after the beep, or baaaa, as it were. So what did the ram say to the ewe? Wool ewe marry me?"
Their transition to animal caretakers came when a rancher's wife dropped off a box with two infant lambs whose mother had no milk to keep them alive.
"They're real?" Hinds asked.
"Yes," the wife replied, hay in hand. "Here's what they eat."
Since then, they've adopted all kinds of animals, referred by ranchers and veterinarians.
Local ranchers at first thought two women by themselves would be needy, but they've endured, even though Plains life remains harsh, the work never-ending.
The worst times are when the winter winds blow, or when they dig a hole in the yard to bury a beloved sheep. "On those nights, I go to bed and immediately fall asleep," Hinds says. "You feel like a pioneer, so triumphant that you survived another day."
They arrived in Wyoming following a particularly bad night in Colorado. In 1997, they ran three bookstores in the Denver area and at night operated a cleaning service called Women in Need of Good Skills, or WINGS.
They were emptying trash in a back alley at 2 a.m. when a figure bolted past and threw a gun into the bed of their pickup. Pursuing police mistook the janitorial truck for the man's getaway car.
The women were handcuffed face-down on the pavement. An officer gestured at German: "She's got a gun!"
"No!" Hinds shouted. "It's her feather duster!"
The police eventually sorted things out, but the bruises were slow to heal. "Have you ever been handcuffed?" Hinds asks. "It hurts."
They abandoned the city and, after driving 3,000 miles of high-plains back roads, they found their dream in Sweetwater Station. "We wanted the kind of place you remember as a kid," says German, an Iowa native, "where people have time to read and neighbors get together to play cards. That's Wyoming."
They bought an old, deserted homestead and quickly discovered that moving a life's collection of books isn't easy: It took 1,200 Office Depot boxes and a dozen 750-mile round trips in a 20-foot Penske truck to move the books, ranging from military history to children's titles and Western Americana.
To soak in local cowboy flavor once they settled in, they went to a bar to "hear the spurs jingle," Hinds says. Ranchers in the area were curious about them as well. One stopped by to ask about their barn project.
"What are you putting in there?"
"What a waste. Barns are for cows."
Not everyone gets the pair. "People scratch their heads about what they're doing out here. This is no country for old men or old people," said rancher Rob Crofts. "I'm surprised they've made it work."
Partners for 35 years, the pair are content to sell their books and be themselves. One day their store will be packed, then there'll be nobody for three weeks. They don't advertise, knowing real book lovers will find them.
The ringing phone could be someone seeking a rare tome by Balzac or a dozen eggs, or a lawman returning a lost lamb. Chances are the line will crackle, like it always does after a good rain. The caller will probably get the answering machine, and another sheep joke.
"I wake up and think, 'Is my life really just a dream?' I'm so afraid it's not real. And then I realize it is, it is, it is," Hinds says. "We both love who we've become. I'm a bookselling shepherdess, and I'm just amazed."