The story opens by establishing the heritage of the Touhey family. Old Red, the ninety-six-year-old patriarch, along with his Vietnam War veteran son Aladdin and family, raise sheep and cattle in the arid bunchgrass region of northwestern prairie land in Wyoming. Grandson Tyler and granddaughter Shan, siblings of Ottaline, leave their home, proving themselves to be unreliable ranch workers. In contrast, Ottaline has little choice but to stay home and join her father as the primary workforce on the ranch. The narration suggests her numerous skills for working the place, but the loneliness of her existence becomes more pronounced as time goes by. References to her weight problem accentuate her isolation. She endures insults from her mother and serves as an often unappreciated laborer for her father. Her connection to the world outside the ranch is limited to listening to vulgar conversations on the police scanner. Her interior life diminishes to the point that she converses with a junked tractor.
As the story moves toward resolution, Ottaline is required by her father to show the cattle to a buyer because of her father’s illness. In an ironic turn, the cattle buyer’s son, Flyby, unexpectedly shows up in his father’s place. He recognizes Ottaline’s knowledge of cattle, confesses his own loneliness, and decides to marry her. Shortly thereafter, Aladdin wrecks his airplane and dies. Old Red understands then that Ottaline will take her father’s place and manage the ranch. Her existence will continue to be defined within the parameters she has always known.