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it could get easier (if you want it to)

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I wish I knew how to quit you.

The words struck him like a blow; Jack might as well have punched him, a punch he'd deserved since 1963 when they were coming down the mountain. And then he couldn't hold back anymore, choking out words around the tears in his throat, words he’d been swallowing for twenty years and a thousand partings. He shouldn't have cried over it, but he’d broken down with Jack before.

How many times had he told himself he didn’t care all that much, that when Jack sent the next postcard he’d throw it out and not bother, that he had to grow up and forget a summer that happened when he was a dumb kid? And how many times had he given into Jack’s pull, given into the way his heart didn’t beat right until he was looking at those blue eyes and that stupid belt buckle and even the ugly mustache he’d never tell Jack to shave because it would mean he cared what Jack did with his face?

He’d never thought Jack would be the one to go. Ennis had always thought he’d been the one who didn’t care—Jack was the one always chasing him, after all, and Ennis had just been pulled under the tidal wave. But hearing those words from Jack, thinking about weeks and months and years with no trips, no sliding into one sleeping bag, no laughing and shoving each other into frigid lakes, and he was breaking apart at the seams.

Jack came to him, of course, because Jack couldn't see him in pain and just look away the way Ennis could. Ennis tried to resist at first, but Jack wouldn't let him, and Ennis clutched onto Jack and cried and cried. When he'd finished and they got up off the ground, he didn't know what to do or where to look.

"You good to drive?" Jack checked cautiously. Ennis nodded, ashamed. After a pause, he said,

"I'll try to get the cabin?" It was tentative; he was afraid of setting Jack off again with the reminder that August was off. But Jack just shrugged and nodded wearily. Ennis was hit with a surge of gratitude—Jack was still there. He was still going to come back. Ennis didn't know how to say anything about it, so he squeezed the back of Jack's neck and pressed their foreheads together. Jack sighed and closed his eyes and they breathed together.

"Should get going," Jack murmured after a while. Ennis shook his head. "Careful," Jack warned. "Fella might think you want to keep him around." It only went bitter at the end but it still poked at that bruised spot in Ennis's guts that always missed Jack.

"I do," Ennis said. "What I want and what I get are two different things, Jack."

Jack sighed again, opened his mouth and then changed his mind and shook his head. "Okay, Ennis," he said. "Sure."

If Ennis were Jack, he'd push. He'd make sure to be clear that he wanted them to be together, that when they were apart he wasn't near whole, that he thought of their time together every day. But he wasn't Jack. He couldn't just pull up the words, and even if he could, he couldn't seem to force them past his teeth. He nuzzled his face against Jack's and kissed him, not the rough, bruising kind that sometimes felt more like a fight than affection but the slow ones that he'd only barely been able to admit to himself he loved, both hands against Jack's face and fingers tangling in his hair.

Ennis left first, because he couldn't bear to watch Jack drive away from him. He'd done it twice and both times ranked high in the worst moments of his life. He got home to his rattrap and sat in the truck for a while, staring unseeing out the windshield before the impatient stamping from the horses reminded him to get them out and fed. Coming back was always hard, left him grumpy and cold and run down. He went inside and drank himself to sleep.

 

Normally, he could keep his mind pretty quiet during the day while he worked. He'd spare himself some minute or two to think about Jack while he was riding out to check a fence—think on that harmonica way back when or how if Jack were at his side he'd be yammering away about something or other that'd pissed him off. But most of the time he kept his mind blank, following whatever orders the foreman threw at him and ignoring the buzz of conversation from any other hands working beside him.

The whole week he first got back, though, he couldn't keep his focus. He'd toss out hay and think of Jack's hands; he'd check in on some of the new calves and think of Jack snugged up with one of the little cow-dogs on his chest; he'd hear the other hands talking and think about Jack's voice. Every time, it warmed him, but it also gave him that ache in his stomach he got when he was missing Jack. And he kept thinking about what Jack had said—all the things Jack had said.

He wasn't enough for Jack anymore. If he was honest with himself, he probably never had been, not just two or three times a year. Jack gave himself away too easily, and he needed someone to be giving himself to. If Ennis wasn't around—well.

He couldn't really kid himself. Mexico couldn't have been the only place Jack was getting some on the side.

On the side. Ennis snorted at himself. They were on the side. Jack was married to Lureen, for all of God and country to know about. It was a little funny, somehow, that Ennis was Jack's sidepiece when Jack was the pretty one. He would've made more sense. Jack had Lureen though, and Ennis didn’t have anyone if he didn’t have Jack.

Ennis came back from work to find a note taped to his door, written in sweeping loops.

Missed ya, cowboy. Come find me when you're around.

It was Cassie. Ennis hadn't even spared her a thought since he'd been back. More like since he'd left, or in the four days leading up to the trip. He pulled the note off the door and thought of Jack's handwriting on all the postcards Ennis had stashed in a pillowcase in the back of his closet, and he crumpled the note and tossed it in the trash.

 

He only worked half days on Saturdays and Sundays, and the empty weekend afternoons gave him too much time to think of Jack's broken words. He tried to drink his mind quiet but it didn't work. What the whiskey did help with was his decision to call Jack. The pictures in his mind of someone else’s hands on Jack’s skin were making his blood boil and he found he had some more to say on the subject than he’d said a few weeks back.

He had to drive into town to find a payphone, because he'd never bothered getting his own. If one of the girls needed him, they knew to call to the ranch. He hunched up his shoulders and tried to move his lips as little as possible in case someone was watching.

He balked a bit when it came time to ask the operator, but he mumbled his way through and soon enough the woman was asking if he'd like to be connected. He swallowed hard and thought of Jack sharing a bottle with someone else and answered in the affirmative.

Two rings, and then a voice was saying, "Hello?" It was a kid—Bobby, no doubt. Ennis wondered idly how his English grades were going and if Jack had had to fire that tutor he’d gotten for him. Some of the wind was starting to go out of Ennis’s sails.

"Uh," Ennis started. "Can I talk with Jack Twist?"

"A'right," the kid said carelessly before screaming directly in Ennis's ear, "Daddy! Phone!"

"Christ almighty, boy, what'd I say about hollering like that?"

Ennis's guts just about seized up at the sound of Jack's voice, and he didn't have time to recover at all before there was a shuffling sound, a muffled laugh, and then Jack chirping,

"This is Jack Twist."

Ennis couldn't answer. His throat closed up. Usually he heard Jack's voice with a background of open sky and birds, horses chomping, wind rusting the leaves in the woods. It was strange to hear such nothing all around it. He’d only talked to Jack one other time on the phone in twenty years, after the divorce, and that certainly wasn’t something he wanted to think about.

All Ennis’s angry words flew away like birds and he was left gut-shot, throat tight and aching at the sound of Jack’s voice. He’d had a whole speech planned out, more of the same that he’d already said, really, just about boys like you and Mexico and wherever the hell else Jack was getting it and just what Ennis thought of all that.

Now all he could think of was blue sky and the bleating of sheep and an eagle feather.

"Hello?" Jack said, getting impatient now. He was a grown man now, not just a kid with a shiny belt buckle he was overly proud of, but patience was still not a virtue anyone could ever accuse him of possessing. "Anyone there?"

Ennis made some sort of sound, though it certainly wasn't any kind of words. There was a bit of quiet and he worried Jack would hang up.

"Ennis?" Jack breathed. "That you?"

"Yeah," Ennis managed to force out. Jack sucked in a breath.

"Is something wrong?" Jack asked, low and urgent. "You hurt or something?"

"No," Ennis said, almost confused except for how, depressingly, he wasn't. Jack thought Ennis would only call if something terrible had happened. He couldn’t think of Ennis just ever making a social call, and it was no wonder why. "I just..." He didn't finish his thought. Didn't really know what he'd been about to say. He brought his thumb to his mouth and bit at the ragged nail there.

Faced with this call, he suddenly realized he had never actually meant to say any of those biting words to Jack. He’d said them already. He’d just wanted to hear Jack whisper his name instead of cursing it.

"Yeah?" Jack asked, somehow able to get what Ennis meant even if Ennis wasn't entirely sure himself. He sounded almost wondering. For good reason, Ennis guessed. He'd never given Jack reason to expect this kind of thing. Back in the early days of their meetups, he’d probably threatened to kill Jack if he ever tried something like this.

"Yeah," Ennis confirmed, still not totally sure what he was agreeing to but knowing Jack was probably right, whatever it was. He scuffed his boot against the glass wall. "Jack, I—" He stopped again, gritted his teeth, tried to plow on. "You know I..." He made a frustrated sound. He couldn't do this, and he certainly couldn't do it on the phone. If Jack was in front of him, if Jack were there, Ennis could reach out and touch him, and that would say something, at least, but when it came to words Ennis was at a complete loss.

"Ennis," Jack said softly. "Oh, Ennis." The reverence in his voice helped loosen Ennis’s tongue just a bit.

"It was, uh. Didn't sit right. Way we left things."

"I know," Jack murmured. "Friend, I'm glad you called." His voice was so tender it made Ennis want to cry a little.

"Couldn't leave it that way," Ennis said. "I just, uh."

"I know," Jack assured him. He sounded about how Ennis felt, on the verge of tears. "God." His voice was all choked and for a moment neither spoke.

"Don't much know what else to say," Ennis admitted. Jack laughed a little, a bit wetly.

"Not that you've actually said much of anything," he teased. Ennis harumphed at him, lips twitching, and Jack laughed again, stronger this time, so Ennis let a whole smile break across his face. He listened to Jack breathing in his ear. Maybe he should get a phone in his house. There was something to this, maybe, and he wouldn't have to stand in the middle of town where anyone could see him.

"I gotta go," Ennis finally said, reluctantly, because he knew his time was almost up and he didn’t have any more quarters. His plan had been to spit some coals and hang up. Somehow he’d never thought of how it would be to hear Jack’s steady breathing in his ear.

"Okay," Jack answered. There was a smile in his voice that Ennis could picture, that dreamy smile that still made Ennis blush. His cheeks heated now, even without seeing it in person, and he ducked his head, fiddled with the cord.

"Might get a phone in my house," he offered. Then he shook his head at himself. Why'd he say that? He didn't actually want a phone. People calling, another bill to pay, a loud noise to wake him up. He didn’t even know if he could get a phone in that hole he lived in; he didn’t know if the phone company had rules about where they could put in a line, but if they did, he surely didn’t qualify.

"I'd surely like that," Jack told him.

"Well, we'll see," Ennis said. "See ya, bud."

"Bye," Jack answered, and it took Ennis another beat before he actually hung up. He stood there staring at the phone for another minute, and then he walked over to the phone company and got himself a phone line.

 

Getting the phone didn't change things all that drastically. The girls were excited, and Junior called about every other day mostly just because she could. But he didn't talk to Jack again for nearly a month. He'd stare at the phone, wondering if he should call, but the thought of Jack's wife answering left a cold sweat on the back of his neck.

But then it was 2 am, and he was awake and he was drunk and he was broke and lonely and miserable, and before he knew it he was dialing the number. How he could remember it so well when he had no head for numbers, he wasn't sure, and he didn’t care to think too hard on it.

It rang and rang, but finally Jack picked up, voice sleep-roughened and irritated.

"Who’s this?" He snapped into the phone, and the whiskey and the late hour loosened Ennis's tongue enough to shoot back,

"What kinda way is that to answer the phone?"

Jack blew out a breath. "Ennis, it's 3 in the fucking morning."

Ennis rubbed a hand through his hair. "Well, alright then. Won’t bother you no more."

"No, no, it's okay," Jack said hurriedly, and some distant part of Ennis that wasn’t pleased felt guilty about the way Jack treated him like he was dust going to blow away in the wind. "You woke me up, ’s all."

"I know how you get cranky when you don't get your beauty sleep."

Jack huffed. "Don't pretend you don't 'preciate my beauty sleep." He said it quiet, voice scraping the bottom of his register, and a little thrill shot through Ennis's stomach.

"Think so, do you?"

"Oh, I know so."

Ennis bit his lip. He knew what Jack wanted, probably, but he was never great at vocalizing these things in the best of times, and here he was drunk and hurting and couldn’t even see Jack to get him going.

“I do,” he said. It wasn’t what Jack had been meaning, what with the huskiness in his voice and way his breathing was starting to pick up—a sound more familiar to Ennis than his own voice—but he could say those words even if he couldn’t say the other kind.

Jack all but gasped, and not the kind that sent Ennis’s blood boiling. “Goddamn, Ennis, you dying or something?”

“No,” Ennis said defensively.

“Well, ‘scuse me for being a little surprised,” Jack snapped. “You just—you don’t never—and now here you are—”

Now Ennis just felt foolish. He was making a spectacle of himself and even Jack didn’t know how to take it. “Well, okay then.”

“No, don’t—I don’t want you to quit,” Jack fell all over himself to say. “Just taking me by surprise a bit, bud, but I sure ain’t complaining.”

Hearing that slight edge of awe in his voice, the confusion but the happiness, made Ennis’s stomach drop a little. He thought about what Jack had said about keeping him on a short leash and he swallowed hard. If he could, he’d keep Jack on the shortest leash possible—right at his hip, never straying and never far out of reach—but he couldn’t, so he figured he might have to lengthen it a bit.

“You wearing anything?” He ground out. Jack made an incredulous little noise.

“Where are you?” He asked, but his breath was getting faster again just like Ennis liked it.

“My house,” Ennis told him. “My bed.”

“Guess you got that phone after all.”

“Yup.”

There was some rustling, and then Jack let out a quick, harsh breath that Ennis had no trouble whatsoever deciphering. He didn’t have to work too hard to remember the feeling of that hot breath against his neck. It happened in his dreams most every night.

“You wringing it out for me?” Jack asked, teeth clenched, and Ennis groaned a little. It wasn’t half as racy as the things Jack normally said once they got going, the unending stream of filth he could spill from those pretty lips, but somehow being on the phone made it different, made it riskier. Ennis needed to keep his head, he knew that, needed to remember himself and keep them both safe, but he couldn’t help it with Jack’s rough voice in his ear like that.

“Am now,” Ennis forced himself to say, made himself actually form the words and speak them out loud so Jack could hear them. Jack damn near whimpered and that was about all Ennis needed. He always had a hair trigger for Jack.

Jack was panting in his ear, slowing down now he was spent, and Ennis could almost imagine him there in the bed, an arm wrapped around Ennis’s chest and his face pressed into the back of Ennis’s neck. Ennis thought it should probably bother him how much he liked lying that way, but he never could seem to help it, the same way he couldn’t help how much he liked Jack running his fingers through the curls at the back of Ennis’s neck.

“Well, wasn’t this a nice little late-night call,” Jack chuckled, voice slow like molasses the way it always got after he came. Ennis snorted, wiping his hand off on the dirty sheets.

“Probably not the best idea,” he pointed out, fears starting to crowd around again now that his brain was back up and running. Jack’s wife could’ve woken up at the sound of the phone too, could’ve heard what they were saying; Bobby could’ve gotten up for a glass of water and seen Jack; hell this was a goddamn party line and anyone could’ve picked up the phone at any second, not to mention some unsuspecting, bored operator just going about her business.

Jack sighed a little, and Ennis knew he’d fucked up again. He always ruined things when they were going well.

“I’m glad you called,” Jack said. He’d said the same thing last time. It made Ennis smile a little, dopily, and it was stupid and childish but he couldn’t stop.

“Me too,” he murmured.

“Night, Ennis,” Jack whispered. Ennis screwed up his eyes and pretended to feel night air around him, pretended they were together and Jack’s arm was around his waist.

“Night, Jack.”

 

He didn’t call Jack again for a while. He was used to going months at a time with nothing more than a postcard with a date on it, but somehow two phone calls were making it impossible to go without Jack. He would lie in bed and stare at the phone for a long time before he’d drop off to sleep. Getting the phone bill and seeing the numbers on that long distance call helped curb the desire some. He was lucky Junior was over eighteen now and he only had Jenny’s child support left to pay.

It wasn’t even Ennis who called Jack next—Jack called him. He supposed he should have seen that coming; normally, Jack would propose time together and Ennis would agree. It made sense he’d keep reaching for Ennis through the miles.

The shrill jangle of the ringing in the still evening air made Ennis nearly jump out of his skin. His heart was pounding almost painfully and he picked up the phone quick to stop the sound.

“’lo?” He asked, expecting to hear Alma Junior telling him all about that boyfriend she was dating—Troy, he thought. Baseball player. Now that he thought on it, she hadn’t mentioned him in a while. Maybe he should ask.

“You miss me?” Jack’s voice was slurred and desperate. He was drunk off his ass. Ennis frowned. Back in their younger days, Jack had been a funny drunk, singing and hollering and jumping around to make Ennis laugh. He’d told Ennis about his bad times, mostly about his daddy, but he’d always been goofy and silly. He’d steadily grown more morose as the years passed, and Ennis couldn’t be sure if that was his fault or life’s.

“Hell, Jack, you sound drunker’n a skunk,” Ennis said, aiming for lighthearted. Jack wasn’t having it. He rarely seemed to be these days.

“I said do you miss me?” He growled. “Goddamn you, Ennis, can’t you answer one fucking question?”

Normally he got Jack cuddly and clingy before he got mean and mad like this, but no go this time. It was pulling teeth to catch each other in those good moods anymore; the only time they were on the same page was when they were fighting.

Jack was spitting hornets, all at Ennis, and for some reason hearing it without seeing Jack’s face kept Ennis from spitting back. He just felt so damn tired. He hadn’t been lying when he told Jack he couldn’t stand it no more, but the thought of not standing it, of what that might mean, left him sick with fear on one side and anguish on the other.

“Thought you’d know by now I always do,” he said quietly.

Silence. He would’ve been afraid Jack had hung up but he could hear the ice in his drink clinking around. Strangely enough, Ennis didn’t actually know what kind of drink Jack would make for himself with the resources to do more than drink straight from the bottle. Jack made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob.

“And whose fault is that?” He accused. That got to Ennis, blew out his already so-short fuse. Sure, Jack was willing to risk life and limb to shack up together, but he hadn’t seen old Earl’s body and the maggots crawling all over him. Just the memory made Ennis want to retch.

“You want to die for this?” Ennis spat. “Want someone to come along and decide to make an example outta you? What happens when they bring out the tire irons, huh? Who you gonna scream to for mercy? Don’t think God’s gonna help and no people will neither.”

“Yes,” Jack choked. “Hell yes, I’d die for this, you stubborn, mean old son of a bitch. I’d die screaming your name and I wouldn’t regret it one second.”

He hung up. Ennis couldn’t even move, still holding the phone to his ear like Jack’s voice would magically come back if he just waited long enough. They didn’t do this. They didn’t talk like this, like their worlds revolved around each other and being apart killed them. They danced around it, sometimes, and Jack had vocalized more back at the trailhead than they’d ever said in twenty years. It was too dangerous. Naming something made the want stronger, and it was already so strong it choked Ennis most days.

But Jack had done it, had put it out there, and now Ennis couldn’t stop the flood of pictures in his mind. Waking up every day knowing Jack was there. Hearing his bitching a room over and shouting at him to shut up. Fucking him slow and loud as he wanted in a real bed. Summer sun tanning Jack’s skin a golden brown Ennis could never achieve. Laughing while Jack counted up the freckles on Ennis’s shoulders and pretended not to notice when he got at Ennis’s ticklish spots. Pushing each other into a shower like they’d done in that motel room the first time after four years apart, when they were drunk off each other and giddy with sharing the same air again. Ennis slammed the phone back down on the cradle hard enough to topple the whole thing off the counter and he kicked it away angrily.

Jack had no right to drag all that into the open. They were doing just fine until this last trip, when Jack had decided to break their silent agreement and talk about it, throw around ugly truths that should’ve always stayed hidden. Ennis kicked an empty beer bottle and heard the glass break. He didn’t even bother cleaning it up; he’d wait for morning, maybe, or he wouldn’t do it until the girls were set to stop by next. Junior had finally learned not to stop by unannounced after she’d noticed him noticing her pity and discomfort.

Ennis lay back in bed and closed his eyes. I’d die for this. What in the hell was that supposed to mean? It was a dumbass thing to say and Ennis wasn’t going to bother thinking about it.

That’s what he told himself, anyway. But instead, of course, he dreamed all night long about Jack screaming for him, his face a bloody mess as men gathered around him to finish him off. He woke up in cold sweats three times during the night. He was distracted all the next day and managed to slice his hand up on the knife he was using to cut the baling wire as he threw hay to the cows.

The foreman took one look at the gash on Ennis’s hand and the bloody rag wrapped around it and shook his head.

“You’re done for the day,” he said.

“No, I’m fine,” Ennis argued. “Just a little cut.” He’d worked through worse plenty of times through the years. This was a new job, though, and the foreman didn’t quite know him yet.

“Del Mar, you don’t go get stitches, that’s gonna get infected,” the foreman pointed out. “And then where’ll I be?”

Ennis pressed his lips together and fought back a few retorts. “All right, then,” he said. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”

The foreman looked dubious but didn’t say anything else, so Ennis considered himself dismissed. He didn’t go to the hospital; he hadn’t been to a hospital since Jenny was born, and even then he’d only shown up to take Alma and the new baby home. He went home and found half a bottle of whiskey. That would be fine to dull the pain. He wrapped a new handkerchief around his hand and drank until he fell asleep.

 

It was a week and three days before he called Jack again. He couldn’t take it anymore. He’d gone from mad about what Jack had said to scared. What if Jack went out and did something stupid, thinking he was proving something to Ennis? Jack always thought he had to prove something or other to someone, and he got reckless when he was trying to be a big man.

“Hello?”

It was Jack’s wife. Lureen. Ennis shouldn’t have called. But he couldn’t just hang up. She’d think he was some kind of pervert who called to listen to ladies breathe. Ennis had never understood the compulsion, but it was apparently something perverts did sometimes. She might call the phone company, get his number, report him to the police. Or worse, she might call him back.

“Hello, this is, uh, Ennis del Mar,” he said, because she wouldn’t know it was him just from a grunt, the way Jack would.

“Who? Who is this?”

“Ennis del Mar,” he repeated, feeling so foolish he could die. “An old buddy of Jack’s.”

“Jack used to mention you,” she affirmed, and he wondered what she meant by used to. “You’re the fishing buddy. The hunting buddy. I know that. I would’ve let you know what happened, but…I wasn’t sure about your name or address. Jack kept his friends’ addresses in his head.” There was a sort of wry undertone in her voice, but Ennis couldn’t be paranoid about that just now. He’d be plenty paranoid about it later, surely, but her words had him on edge.

“What happened?” He echoed. He was frozen. That sounded like…

“Oh, yeah. Few days ago,” she told him. “Jack was pumping up a flat on the truck, out on a back road. Group’a guys came through, roughed him up, stole the truck and his wallet. Beat him with his own tire iron.”

Ennis’s heart had stopped. He couldn’t breathe. His stomach rolled, the urge to throw up so strong he had to close his eyes for a moment. I’d die screaming your name. He shuddered, fighting down the retch threatening to rise up his throat.

“Is he…” He managed to say.

“Still in the hospital,” she said, almost bored, and relief flooded through him so strong his knees gave out. He had to sit down on his bed, landing heavily. Still in the hospital—still alive, then.

“He’ll be alright?” He checked, hoping his voice didn’t sound as weak as he felt.

“Doctor says his leg probably won’t ever be the same,” Lureen told him. “Same leg he busted up in the rodeo all them years ago. Never healed right in the first place, and now this made it worse.”

“But he’s, uh. He’s all there? He’s okay? In the head, I mean?” There was a guy about Ennis’s age around town who’d gotten beaten so bad he’d forgotten his own name. He’d never been right in the head after that, and Ennis was suddenly terrified Jack would be the same.

“Well, he’s complaining so much the nurses are all cussing him, so I s’pose he’ll be just fine,” she told him dryly. Ennis huffed a little laugh, because that was Jack, alright. He probably batted his long eyelashes at those nurses while he complained about not having fluffy enough pillows so the nurses couldn’t decide if they wanted to kiss him or strangle him.

“What about them guys?” Ennis asked. “They find them?”

Lureen sighed. “Found the truck abandoned just outside Lubbock. They crashed it into a ditch. Think Jack’s more heartbroken about that than his leg. But they haven’t found any of them.” Her voice burned a little and Ennis agreed. It was strange, the two of them talking. It was possible they were the two people who knew Jack best in the world, but he’d never expected to have a conversation with her, let alone one about Jack.

“I thank you for your time,” he said. He needed to get off the phone before he said something stupid, asked too much or pressed too hard for answers. He didn’t want to set off any alarms in her head, make her start asking questions she didn’t need to be asking. “You’ll tell Jack I hope he heals up fast?”

“I’ll tell him,” she promised. “He’ll be happy you called. Always does rush off for those trips of yours like a little boy on Christmas.”

That made Ennis smile, stupid as it was to get sentimental over something like that. “Uh, yes ma’am, me too,” he blurted out. “We been good friends since we was herding sheep on Brokeback one summer, back in ’63.” He clamped his lips together. Why did his mouth keep moving when he didn’t mean it to? Usually he couldn’t make himself talk and now he couldn’t make himself stop. Maybe this was how Jack felt all the time. It could’ve been the fact that Jack was all broken up in the hospital, but Ennis felt a rush of fondness for him so strong it almost took his breath away.

Lureen made a little noise like she was in pain and said, “Sure thing.” Then she hung up. Ennis frowned at the phone a little, but all he could see was Jack, hurt and lying in a hospital bed, busted up on the side of the road before someone could come along to help him, so close to making this an entirely different kind of phone call.

He didn’t remember making any kind of conscious decision, but next he knew, he was on the road. It was a long, flat drive to Childress and he suddenly felt bad that Jack had driven back and forth so many times for so many years. Ennis knew it hurt Jack’s back and the crushed vertebrae; the first day they’d get there he’d always be limping just a little. Now Ennis could see why. Keeping his legs all cramped up like that for so long wasn’t the least bit comfortable. Ennis had never driven that far before. Jack always came to him.

It was mid-morning when he pulled into the hospital. It was good Jack didn’t live somewhere like Dallas or something, because Ennis wouldn’t have known which hospital to find him in. Even still, he had to ask a nurse which room Jack was in, and she stared at him for a moment before giving him the answer.

He paused outside the door, hearing voices inside. It was a woman, talking about ten miles a minute.

“And we just can’t believe this happened to you, Jack, oh who would want to hurt you? You’re sweet as pie and there’s no cause for such a thing.”

“I’m alright, Lashawn,” Jack’s voice floated over to Ennis. He sounded tired, but there was a hard edge in his tone. Ennis couldn’t get inside fast enough after Jack spoke. To be so close, Jack just on the other side of a wall—he had to get inside. He pushed past the door and stood there for a second before anyone noticed him. A tiny blonde woman was barely pausing for breath as she motored along, but the man at her side was all rigid. Jack was glaring at him. Then his gaze shifted and he saw Ennis.

“Ennis,” he breathed, eyes wide. Well, one eye—one was swollen shut. His face was a mass of bruises, and one casted leg was elevated. Red was welling up behind Ennis’s vision. Someone had done this to Jack. Someone had seen him minding his own business and decided to hurt him. Ennis’s hands balled into fists.

“Hi there,” the woman said. “I’m Lashawn and this here’s Randall and we’re friends of Jack and Lureen. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you around town and I’ve seen most everyone. I like to make it my mission to welcome new folks into town, you know, because Jack and Lureen was so welcoming to us when we moved here. You a friend of Jack’s? Everybody just loves Jack, I swear, this man could charm a tree stump!”

“We’re going,” her husband said. Ennis pulled his eyes away from Jack to see the man glaring at him, lip curled, and the bottom dropped out of Ennis’s stomach because he knew this man knew. Ennis glanced over at Jack. Jack looked almost scared.

Randall dragged his wife away—they could hear her voice still going all the way down the hall—and left Jack and Ennis in silence. Ennis couldn’t hold back from moving toward Jack and putting a hand to his face. Jack closed his one open eye, breath starting to hitch a little.

“What’re you doing here?” He asked shakily.

“Called your house,” Ennis told him.

“Lureen told me.”

“She told me what happened,” Ennis said. “And I…” He shrugged, even though Jack wasn’t looking. “Had to check you were okay.”

“You drove all the way here to see if I was okay,” Jack said wonderingly.

“Course I did,” Ennis said. “You—they could’ve—what if you’d—” His own breath was shaky now, too. He couldn’t stop picturing Jack on the ground, men all around him, beating on him. Jack opened his eye, reached up a hand and touched Ennis’s arm.

“I’m okay,” he said softly. “I’m alright.”

“That Randall,” Ennis started. He stopped. He looked at Jack. Jack looked down at the sheets around him.

“He’s a neighbor,” Jack mumbled. And suddenly, with intense clarity, Ennis knew how Randall knew. His blood started boiling again, but this time at Jack. He wrenched his arms away from Jack, didn’t even want to be touching him just then.

“You and him, huh?” He spat.

“Now and again,” Jack admitted. That was something Ennis had always admired about Jack; he might keep things a secret, but once you confronted him, he was unwavering. It also made Ennis seethe. No shame, that Jack Twist. He’d bluster and bitch and would never apologize.

“I drive all the way out here,” Ennis growled. “And this is what I get.” He could’ve killed Jack. He’d told him he would if he found out. He wanted to.

“Fuck you, Ennis,” Jack said, not even angry but just kind of sad. “I meant what I said about needing it more than once or twice a year. And was I supposed to think you’re gonna change? Been twenty years already and still the same old shit. But how do you think he knew your name? Only name I ever say when I’m down and out, you know what I mean.”

That would give Ennis pause, later, when he could see again and wasn’t just picturing Jack walking around town offering to suck any dick offered to him, yes sir, step right up if you please.

“And what got you two snarling at each other like that?” Ennis asked sarcastically. “Lover’s quarrel? Trouble in paradise?”

“I cut him off,” Jack said softly. “I said no more.”

That finally stopped Ennis. “When?”

“After you got that phone. That night…Ennis, I never thought you’d do that. Made me think…” Jack shook his head. He tried to sit up straighter and hissed with pain. Ennis put a hand on his chest and pushed him back down.

“So he’s mad, is he?” Ennis couldn’t help the little burst of pride in his chest, warring with the anger and the terror over someone knowing for damn sure what the lay of the land was with Jack. That’s right, he thought. Not for you.

“Oh, he sent them boys after me,” Jack said tiredly, letting his head fall back against the pillow. “I know he did but not like I can tell anyone that.”

“He what?” Ennis said. There was a buzzing in his ears. Not only did that man fuck Jack, but he’d sent those people over to hurt him. And he’d been in the same room as Ennis not ten minutes ago. Ennis said he’d kill Jack for those things, sure, but they’d both known all along it was a lie. Ennis had spent the last sixteen years regretting one punch; he’d never do more than that, and Jack always could see through all his strong words even if no one else could. Even after that sucker-punch, Jack had never been afraid of Ennis.

“One of ‘em’s his brother-in-law,” Jack said. “Guess he told ‘em I was trying to get him into bed, which, if you’d like to know, ain’t even how it happened.”

“I’ll kill him.” Ennis’s teeth were clenched so hard they were hurting. He did not want to know, thank you very fucking much, Jack. He could feel that fire under his skin that only violence could clear out. And there was no reason to resist, not when they’d almost killed Jack and Ennis was already ready to kill someone and it couldn’t be Jack.

“Don’t leave,” Jack requested quietly. From the look on his face, it’d slipped out, but he was looking up at Ennis steadily now that he’d said it. “I mean it, Ennis. You drove all the way out here, don’t leave me so quick.” His words were strong even if Ennis could see one hand shaking a little.

“They can’t get away with what they done to you,” Ennis said, trembling himself with the terror and rage and exhaustion thrumming through him. He hadn’t slept since he’d talked to Lureen.

“I’m alive,” Jack pointed out. “Don’t think I’m s’posed to be. I’m pretty sure they meant to kill me.”

Ennis’s knees buckled at the thought and he had to sit down in the chair beside Jack’s bed. “How’d you stop them?”

“Fought back. Got a few licks in on Randall’s brother-in-law, hit one with the tire iron before the other two could get it from me.” There was a little pride in Jack’s voice that made Ennis’s heart swell. Jack always found a way to fight back, eventually. It made Ennis think of that Thanksgiving Jack had told him about and putting L.D. in his place. Another awful thought popped into Ennis’s head.

“You don’t think L.D. was part of this too, do you?”

Jack tipped his head, considering. “Thought about that. No way to know for sure. Sure as hell not gonna bring it up with Lureen.” He closed his eyes. “Christ, I need a smoke.”

“I got a pack,” Ennis offered. Jack huffed a laugh.

“Can’t smoke in the hospital,” he said, eyes still closed. “There’s sick people around here, might fuck up their lungs. Fuck up my lungs. Ribs’re busted again, punctured something inside.”

Ennis grunted, looking at the fan of Jack’s eyelashes against his cheek. He stroked the back of Jack’s hand, just once, and the hand in question twitched a little, fingers spasming like they wanted to grab on. Ennis pictured Jack on the side of the road, unconscious, and had to swallow hard against bile rising in his throat.

“Where would we go?” He asked quietly, heart hammering even at simply asking the question. Jack cracked his good eye open.

“Hm?”

Ennis took a deep breath. “Your better idea. You got a plan, don’t you? You’ve thought about it? Where would we go?”

For some reason, Jack looked mad. “Don’t tease me, Ennis. You been a lot of things over the years but you never been outright cruel on purpose.” Ennis wasn’t sure where Jack got that idea; he could think of plenty he’d done to Jack that was both on purpose and cruel. That was Jack, though, always thinking everything was coming up roses even when he was only surrounded by shit.

Ennis looked down at his hands, the bitten-off fingernails and red skin, and shook his head. “I’m not.”

Jack didn’t say anything for so long Ennis started to feel sick again. It was too late. Jack had changed his mind. He’d waited sixteen years but he’d hit his limit. Jack could stick a ride out, sure enough, but he’d jump off when his eight seconds were up, and Ennis knew it.

“Every time I’ve thought on it,” Jack started softly, and Ennis looked up quick to watch his face as he talked. “We go up to my folks’ place in Lightning Flat. Build ourselves a cabin on the property, help out. My daddy can’t do much no more. Hope he dies soon,” Jack added bitterly. “Make things better for everyone.”

Ennis didn’t comment on that last part; he knew which scars on Jack’s body had been there long before they met and didn’t have to ask where they’d come from.

“He’d let us come take over?” Ennis asked. He couldn’t meet Jack’s eyes while he talked. “He wouldn’t, I don’t know, run us off?”

“He could try, maybe,” Jack said, a hint of a laugh in his voice now. “But he can’t hardly lift a fencepost these days. Not really in much position to be turning down help. Not that he won’t bitch a blue streak about it.”

Ennis bit his lip. He was trying not to breathe too hard. “And you’re happy?” He whispered. “When you think about it?” Ennis had spent most of his life not worrying about happiness; happiness wasn’t something to worry about when just plain surviving took up so much energy. But he had spent a considerable amount of energy in the last twenty years making sure Jack was happy. Soup over beans, illegal elk, illicit camping trips, actually asking to borrow someone’s cabin and using the words fishing buddy to another human being, countless jobs he’d just up and quit if he couldn’t get time off. It was one thing not to care about his own happiness, but he did what he had to so he could keep Jack around, even as little as he got him.

“We’re both happy,” Jack answered softly, voice all tight the way it got when he was trying hard to stay calm. “Happiest either of us have ever been.”

Ennis’s hands were shaking so bad he clenched them together on the side of Jack’s bed. “You still think on that?”

“I’m thinking on it right now,” Jack told him. He reached over and laid his hand on top of Ennis’s. “Are you?”

“Jack, I…” Ennis trailed off and shrugged. “I want to.”

Jack tapped a finger on Ennis’s hands and Ennis looked up to meet those blue eyes. “You want to think on it or you want…it?”

Ennis squinted at the painting on the wall just beyond Jack’s left ear and mumbled, “Want it.”

Jack’s breath caught. “Don’t do this to me,” he said, ragged. “Don’t say something now and back out later. I won’t be able to take it, Ennis, swear to God. I’ll drop dead on the spot.”

“That’s the problem,” Ennis said. “You almost did. And I—fuck, Jack. Where’d I be without you, huh?”

Jack’s face was all screwed up like he was in pain. “Are you really saying this, Ennis? All this time and you’re finally saying it? How do I know it’s real?”

Ennis turned his hand over so they could be palm-to-palm. They weren’t holding hands, not really—they linked their hands together sometimes when they were fucking, but otherwise they didn’t really have much reason to hold hands; certainly didn’t sit around the fire holding hands—but their hands were resting there together.

“I wasn’t lying when I said I couldn’t stand it no more,” Ennis told him. “So I figure…we better fix it.”

Jack was really crying now, tears leaking down out of his swollen eye and getting on all the cuts on his face. Ennis realized just then that he had never seen Jack cry. It was embarrassing, if he really thought about it, that Jack had seen Ennis cry more than once and Jack was the one who was so…well. Ennis would’ve expected Jack to cry more, is all.

Ennis brushed a few of Jack’s tears away as gently as he could. That salt couldn’t feel good in the open wounds on his face. Jack turned his head, nuzzled into Ennis’s hand, and Ennis glanced quickly over his shoulder toward the door before he leaned down to kiss Jack, gentle as he could make it so it wouldn’t hurt Jack.

Jack laughed a little at himself, still crying, and said, “I ain’t even getting outta here for at least two more days.”

“Guess I can wait,” Ennis joked, smiling a little. “Sure as hell ain’t going to your folks’ place on my own.”

Jack squinted at Ennis’s wrist, close to his face. “What’s this?” He asked, pulling back and grabbing Ennis’s hand to examine the cut from earlier that week. “What’d you do?”

“Knife for the baling wire.” Ennis shrugged.

Jack fixed him with a dirty look. “You don’t believe in gloves, huh? You just walk around saying sure, cut off my fingers, I can spare a few?”

“Didn’t do it on purpose,” Ennis said, rolling his eyes. He’d had other things on his mind. This thing, to be specific, and part of him knew it was something he should tell Jack—Jack would like hearing it, if nothing else—but the words all stuck in his mouth and he was left tugging his hand away from Jack, too aware of the passing footsteps in the hall.

“Well,” Jack said. “Guess from now on I’ll have to always be working with you to make sure you’re wearing your gloves, huh?”

 

Lureen took the blow stoically, according to Jack. Ennis hadn’t gone with him to break the news, for obvious reasons.

“Kinda surprised she cared at all,” Jack revealed on the long drive to Riverton. Ennis had to pack his few things, tell his girls he was leaving. Jack couldn’t drive with his broken leg and didn’t have a truck anymore anyway. He’d brought with him two suitcases of clothes and their camping gear. “We ain’t even slept in the same room for almost a year now.”

“Well, you’re leaving her,” Ennis reminded him. “Not easy, even still.” He remembered how cold he and Alma had been at the end—for a long while toward the end—but it had still stung when she’d filed for the divorce.

“And for a man to boot,” Jack reflected.

“You told her?” Ennis asked, stomach dropping. “You fucking crazy?”

Jack gave him a long look. “Not crazy enough to think she didn’t already know.”

“You said she never suspected,” Ennis accused. “I asked you.”

Jack shrugged. “I lied. Knew you’d give yourself a heart attack over it. She wasn’t never going to do nothing about it. Didn’t seem to matter.”

“What else’ve you lied about?” Ennis muttered.

“Nothing left,” Jack said, even though Ennis hadn’t really been asking. “All out in the open now.” Ennis didn’t quite know what to think about that.

“What about your boy?” Ennis asked. He didn’t miss the way Jack’s face darkened in the corner of his eye.

“I never even wanted kids,” Jack said quietly. It wasn’t an answer, but it told Ennis quite a bit. He warred with himself but kept both hands on the wheel.

“But you got one.”

“I did.” Jack turned his face and looked out the window before adding, so quiet Ennis almost missed it, “He was lot more tore up than Lureen.”

Ennis’s fingers twitched. Another few miles stretched on, Jack still with his face to the window, and Ennis suspected he was crying a little. Why he was bothering to hide it was a bit of a mystery, after the trailhead and back there at the hospital a few days before. Finally, Ennis steeled himself and reached his right hand over, rested it on Jack’s leg just above the plaster. Jack jumped a little. He looked at Ennis like he’d never seen him before and Ennis tried not to hunch into himself too far.

“You’re full of surprises these days,” Jack murmured. He put his hand on his leg, too, next to Ennis’s but not touching, like Ennis was a horse he was trying not to spook. Well, no, actually. If Ennis were a horse, Jack wouldn’t use a lick of sense and would spook him all the same.

Ennis wasn’t a horse. He twined his fingers with Jack’s and blushed through the happy smile Jack shot him.

 

“You’re moving again?” Alma Junior asked. They were used to him moving around a lot; he moved closer to whatever ranch he was working on at the time, and quitting and taking up new jobs meant he went from one falling-down trailer to another.

“Moving pretty far this time,” he explained. “Up almost to Montana.” He couldn’t look at her while he said this, couldn’t look at Jenny and the tears starting to well up in her eyes as she realized what he was saying.

“Why?” Jenny asked. “You never moved so far before.”

“Uh.” Ennis licked his lips. “Well, you girls remember my fishing buddy Jack?”

Junior furrowed her brow as she thought. “We met him,” she remembered. “Just after you and Mama got divorced.”

Ennis winced at the memory. Sometimes behind his eyelids he could still see the disappointment cloud Jack’s face, the hope fade from his eyes, hear his dejected, I guess I’ll see you next month, then.

“Yeah,” Ennis said. “Well, uh, he had an accident, got busted up. Needs some help.”

“Oh,” Jenny said, stopping her sniffling now. “So you’ll be back?”

Ennis cleared his throat. “Uh, no,” he admitted. “We—we’re gonna start up our own ranch. Jack’s folks have some land they can’t run, so we’re gonna do it.”

Jenny looked confused; Junior looked thoughtful. “He don’t have a wife?” Junior asked. Ennis shrugged.

“Not anymore.”

Both girls nodded at that; they understood that from their own parents. “You still gonna have your phone?” Junior asked.

Ennis shifted and scratched at the back of his neck. “Don’t know if there’s a phone out there.” At the desperate looks on their faces, he added, “But I’ll get one. Alright? I promise. I’ll call you first thing.”

Jenny nodded, satisfied, and said, “Can I come visit when school’s out?”

“We’ll see,” Ennis said, looking away so he wouldn’t see her face fall. A we’ll see from Ennis most often turned into a no when you weren’t looking at it.

“Daddy, there’s—” Junior broke off for a second, squared her shoulders and started again. “I gotta tell you something, okay?”

Jenny bit down on a smile and Ennis felt apprehensive all over. “Alright.”

“I been seeing Kurt now for a while—”

“Huh? I thought you was seeing, uh, Troy,” Ennis broke in. Both girls gave him flabbergasted looks.

“Troy? Daddy, that was two years ago,” Junior scolded.

“Troy still playing baseball?” Ennis asked. He’d been a hell of a first-baseman, if Ennis remembered right.

“I don’t know what he’s doing; I’m seeing Kurt now,” Junior reminded him, the eye-roll just barely avoided. Jenny was flat-out giggling now.

“Well, what’s Kurt do?” Ennis asked.

“Works out in the oil field,” Junior told him. Ennis thought of his sister and the man she’d run off with, leaving him and K.E. to fend for themselves, and he grunted.

“So he’s a roughneck, huh,” he said, trying not to sound disparaging. Wasn’t like Ennis himself was the kind of man parents dreamed of for their daughters. Or…well.

Junior huffed a little. “Yeah.”

“I guess you’re nineteen now, you can do whatever you want, is that right?”

“Sure,” Junior laughed.

“Come on, tell him!” Jenny urged, bouncing up and down. She’d always been more hyper than Junior, despite the wheeze that followed her around as a kid. Ennis raised his eyebrows.

“Alright, tell me,” he said.

“Well, me and Kurt,” Junior said, and then a slow smile lit up her face. “We’re getting married.”

Ennis didn’t know what to say. She seemed so young, but he thought maybe that was because she’d always be young to him. He still looked at her and saw those little baby curls and the way she’d wailed all night for the first week straight so he’d thought he was going to drop dead on the spot.

“How long you known this guy for?” He asked. He couldn’t remember ever hearing the boy’s name. Not that that meant she hadn’t told him, really.

“About a year,” she answered tentatively, and his stomach clenched a little. One year? That was nothing. It was a blip in a lifetime. She could decide to marry him after one year? Then again, Ennis knew all too well how time stretched longer at nineteen, so a few summer months on a mountain could seem monumental. Hell, a year probably felt like eternity at nineteen.

But one year. One year and they were making a go of it together. He and Jack had struggled and fought and clawed their way through twenty years and were in the same boat as a couple of nineteen-year-olds, only their boat was taking on water with problems and resentments and hurts between them.

He didn’t say anything, so she smiled again, steadfastly trying to battle through. “The wedding will be June fifth, at the Methodist church.”

“I’m singing!” Jenny broke in proudly.

“Monroe’s gonna cater the reception,” Junior went on like Jenny hadn’t interrupted, which had always been their way.

Married. Ennis thought of his own marriage, and how it had been sour from the start, how he’d itched under his skin the whole time standing there in front of a preacher and hoped the itch would go away, figured Alma would be able to scratch as well as the only other person on earth who had and his dismay when he realized she couldn’t, not quite. Not the same. He’d always thought it would’ve been fine if he’d never met Jack. He never would’ve known anything different and would’ve been fine. It wasn’t what Alma deserved, just being fine, but at least things would’ve gone different.

“This Kurt fella,” Ennis started. “He loves you?” Junior looked startled for a second, because Ennis wasn’t one to get sentimental, usually. She’d probably never heard him use the word love in her life. But then she nodded, smiled at him almost shyly.

“Yeah, Daddy,” she assured him. “He loves me.” No hesitation, no question. He’d probably told her, more than once, so she knew. Ennis had to look away for a second and breathe. It was good this guy said those things to Junior. She deserved to hear them.

When he was quiet again, Junior added tentatively, “Was hoping you’d be there.”

Ennis let out a breath. How could he come back after he left? Alma would know—the girls would mention Jack, and Alma would know what it meant even if no one else did. She was bound to have told her sister, probably, so word would get around. How could Ennis face that?

“I don’t know,” he said. “Getting a new place up and running…” He chanced a look at her and saw her face fall, heard Jenny’s sad little hum from their right. Junior was fighting tears, braving up a smile because she was so used to being let down by Ennis by now, and the sight of it cut him through. She’d probably braced herself for this, knew asking him to come was all but a lost cause but wanted to give him one more chance, and here he’d gone and broken her heart again. Jenny probably wouldn’t even ask when her time came, not knowing he’d say no.

He thought of Jack, waiting back at Ennis’s little trailer, and what he would say if Ennis told him his little girl was getting married. Someday, when Bobby settled down, there was no doubt Jack would go back. Jack would hear about Junior—she’d send pictures, at least, after the whole thing was over—and he’d want Ennis to go, would scold him and call him a paranoid bastard if he found out Ennis had skipped it.

Ennis chewed his lip a minute, and then he said, “You know what? I reckon there’s no point running your own place if you can’t take time off.” Hope broke over Junior’s face like a sunrise. “My little girl getting married, huh?”

Jenny clapped her hands together and then threw herself at Ennis. “Oh, Daddy, yay!” She cried. Junior was more understated, but she was so happy Ennis actually felt proud of himself for once in his life.

A few more hugs, tears, and promises to write, at least, if he didn’t get the phone up and running, and Ennis was on his way. He’d never felt particularly excited to get back to his trailer, but now Jack was there, and Ennis had done something right. Those smiles on his girls’ faces were like sunshine.

“How’d it go?” Jack asked immediately. He was stretched out on the sagging bed, the only place to lie down in the whole place, his leg up on the table. He looked ridiculous and pathetic and Ennis laughed a little just at the sheer fact that he was there.

“Well, Junior’s getting married in June,” he said. Jack rose up to his elbows.

“Married?” He said. “Woo-ee!”

Ennis twitched out a smile at his excitement, then frowned a little. “I said I’d go.”

“Ennis, course you’re gonna go.” Jack said it like no other thought had entered his mind. It probably hadn’t.

“Well, I mean, it’ll leave you in the lurch for a bit.”

Jack waved a hand around. “You’ll be gone, what, two, three days at the most? We got two months before then. I’ll be up and walking.”

Ennis raised an eyebrow. “Think so?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “I broken my leg before, you know.”

“And you didn’t leave the cast on long enough to fix the bone, huh? That’s what made this time worse. You gonna wreck your leg forever, not be able to walk.”

Jack huffed. “Don’t need to be babied.”

Now Ennis flapped a hand. “Fine, go around on a broken leg, see if I care. Put down horses when they go lame, you know, but that’s your choice. I sure as hell ain’t gonna be carrying your ass around.”

They stared at each other for a minute. Usually this kind of bickering led to someone stomping away for a little while before coming back and pretending nothing had happened. But Jack couldn’t get up without help, and there wasn’t much room to stomp off to.

“Well,” Ennis said. “You want to get going now or stay here tonight?”

Jack blew out a breath. “I don’t know.” Plans to go back to his folks’ place always left him angry and sullen. The prospect of not just going back but staying was clearly rattling him a little. Ennis hesitated just for a second and then sat down beside Jack.

“We can wait ‘til tomorrow,” he said softly. “Don’t gotta be in no rush.” They’d barely gotten to Riverton hours before; Jack was trying to hide it, but his face was screwing up in pain. He’d complain about everything from the wind to a tick in the grass, but anything real got swallowed down and hidden. Cramping him up in the truck for another six hours seemed unkind.

Jack leaned his shoulder into Ennis’s. “Okay.”

They settled back. It was a little strange, being together in a house, as much as this dump could be considered such. They’d gotten that motel their first time off the mountain, and they’d had the cabin that time a few years ago, but an actual house one of them lived in was new territory. It was also new territory to be sitting here on a bed and not fooling around. Usually when they were together they were riding, drinking, or fucking, or some combination. Jack could do none of those things in his present state.

But they always talked, too, and joked, and Ennis supposed they could still do that. “So,” he said. “What’re we gonna name this operation?” All ranches had names, after all. Jack looked over at him, nose crinkled up with his smile.

“Ennis del Mar, I always knew you was sweeter than you looked.”

Ennis’s eyebrows pulled together. He wasn’t sure how to take or respond to that. Some little part of him was almost offended Jack didn’t think he looked sweet. Almost like he’d heard the thought, Jack broke out into a loud laugh.

“I’m sorry, bud,” he gasped out between peals. “Didn’t mean to imply you don’t look sweet. Why, I could eat you right up.”

Ennis shoved him a little, though he did so carefully. “Go ahead,” he said grumpily. “Least it’d give your mouth something to do ‘sides run.” Jack shrugged and reached for Ennis’s belt buckle, all too happy to oblige. Ennis swatted at his hands. “Quit it.”

“Why?” Jack asked, genuinely confused.

“You’re not s’posed to be getting up to anything.”

“I won’t be,” Jack said. “I’ll lay back and you can just—” He waved his hand rather demonstratively.

“Uh-uh,” Ennis held firm, even though Jack was still working on his belt and he hadn’t been this long in Jack’s presence without at least a quick fumble to take the edge off in twenty years, not to mention the mental image Jack had just conjured up was doing plenty to Ennis. “Your jaw can’t be feeling too good.”

Jack sat back and folded his arms. “See, look how sweet you are,” he teased, though his eyes were fond. Ennis rolled his eyes, feeling a little blush steal across his cheeks. Jack smiled at him. Ennis thought Jack hadn’t stopped smiling in three days, even with the hospital and his busted leg and everything. Maybe it was the pills the doctor put him on. Ennis found he didn’t mind one bit.

Jack sighed a little and stretched out further. “So, a name,” he said thoughtfully. “Hmm.” He stroked that moustache Ennis hated. Ennis wondered if he could say something about that now. If he was going to be seeing it every damn day, did that mean he got a hand in the decision to keep it or shave it? If that was the case, he should have given in years ago.

“Your daddy don’t already have a name for it?” Ennis asked. He hated the way Jack’s eyes darkened just at the mention of his father.

“No,” he said shortly. “Just called it his place.”

“Hm.”

They were both quiet, lost in thought for a while, their shoulders pressed together and Ennis’s hand between Jack’s legs—not intent on doing anything, just resting there. It happened sometimes, in the dark around the fire; Ennis usually loosened up enough for that kind of easy touching by day two. Not that they didn’t touch on the first day, of course, but it was a lot less casual and a lot more urgent.

“The J.E.,” Jack suggested.

“And the J is first why?” Ennis joked. “You not know the alphabet or what?”

Jack snorted. “E.J. don’t have quite the same ring.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you’re an arrogant bastard.”

Jack laughed, knocking into Ennis, and Ennis felt like a kid again, nineteen and high off having a friend for just about the first time in his whole life. Jack didn’t quite make it all the way back to sitting upright, so he was leaning half on Ennis’s chest, his good side against Ennis. Ennis lifted a hand to rub at the back of Jack’s neck and Jack pressed into it like a cat.

“The D.M.T.,” Ennis said, not serious but trying to get Jack to laugh again. It worked, and even after all this time it still made Ennis a little proud. It was a silly thing to be proud of, really, because it wasn’t like Jack was ever stingy with his smiles or his laughter, but it filled Ennis up anyway.

“We’d get people confused and trying to get their driver’s licenses,” Jack said.

They never came to any kind of conclusion, moving on to other topics such as property taxes (a subject Ennis had no knowledge whatsoever on) and Bobby’s tutor (a subject Jack had too much knowledge on, according to himself) and L.D.’s contemplation of running for political office (a subject they had the exact same opinion on, despite the fact Ennis had never met the man and certainly never would). It didn’t feel all that different from their regular trips, even without the open sky and a fire in front of them. Ennis took a few pulls of whiskey, but he felt a little guilty since Jack couldn’t have any. But, Jack pointed out, the pills from the doctor made him half-drunk anyway, so Ennis might as well have a nip or two.

Jack still had his leg propped up, because it hurt less that way, and he had to sleep leaning up against the wall that served as a headboard, due to his ribs. Ennis watched him wince and wished, for the first time, he had more pillows. He wasn’t set up much for comfort.

“Gonna be able to sleep?” Ennis asked, hands hovering uselessly. There wasn’t anything he could do about it if the answer was no, so he wasn’t sure why he was bothering to ask.

“I’ll be fine,” Jack said. “I’ve busted ribs before, too.”

“Yeah, but you were used to it back then,” Ennis pointed out.

“So I’ll get used to it again.”

Ennis stayed on his back so it at least felt like they were lying there together, his head up close to Jack’s hip, and Jack leaned down and ran his hand through Ennis’s hair for a while. Ennis fell asleep like that, Jack’s face the last thing he saw before he closed his eyes.

He woke up later on his stomach, one arm wormed around Jack’s waist and his face pressed into Jack’s thigh. Jack’s hand was resting heavily on the back of Ennis’s head, but Ennis didn’t mind. He snuffled a little, nuzzling further into Jack’s space, and fell back to sleep until morning.

 

Jack refused to just sit in the truck or the house while Ennis loaded up, even though he couldn’t actually do anything to help, so he sat there propped against the cab while Ennis threw his sack of clothes, his pillowcase of postcards he hadn’t let Jack see, and his coffee can of change into the back of the truck. Jack still couldn’t smoke, so he was just leaning there, reminding Ennis of the first time they’d laid eyes on each other.

Garbo, the bay mare Ennis’d sort of thought of as Jack’s horse since the day he bought her, nickered and stretched her neck toward Jack as Ennis led her to the truck.

“There’s my girl,” Jack murmured, reaching out and giving her nose a rub. He would’ve loaded her up himself, usually did when they were leaving so he could give her a proper goodbye, but he couldn’t. Ennis stopped and gave her a minute to lip at Jack’s hair. Couldn’t fault her, really, for wanting to get reacquainted after a few months apart.

He had to repeat the steps with his black gelding Abraham, who was either jealous of the attention Garbo had gotten or really just missed Jack, and Ennis shook his head.

“You spoil ‘em,” he said, like they didn’t both nose around his pockets eager for the handouts they knew he kept for them.

“Mmhm,” Jack said, unimpressed. He’d known Ennis long enough to know which creatures on earth got all his pent up tenderness. Ennis rolled his eyes before he helped Jack into the truck.

“Just loading everyone up,” he chuckled, knowing it would get a rise out of Jack. It did; Jack swatted him on the ass before he could get away, and it startled a laugh out of Ennis. Jack was still grinning when Ennis got in the other side and put the truck in gear.

Jack got more and more subdued as they drove north. Ennis had heard enough about Jack’s father to have a pretty good idea of why, but it didn’t mean he had to like it. He flipped on the radio to fill the silence, a phenomenon that did not usually happen with Jack present. If Jack didn’t look like he was ready to face a firing squad, Ennis might have tried to joke about it.

The pulled up to a weathered old house that looked like one strong breeze would blow it right over. Jack let out a long breath.

“You really sure about this?” He asked, staring straight ahead. Ennis watched from the corner of his eye as Jack ran his tongue over his lower lip.

“Came all this way,” Ennis pointed out. “What else we gonna do?”

Jack shook his head a little. “You sure know how to put a man’s mind at ease.”

Ennis shrugged. “Never claimed to.”

“Let’s just go,” Jack said. He opened his door and then had to pause sheepishly. He couldn’t get out without Ennis’s help.

“Hold your horses,” Ennis said. “Speaking of…”

The front door opened before he could finish the thought, and the woman who came onto the porch must’ve been Jack’s mother. Truth be told, Ennis saw no resemblance between Eliza and Jack Twist, but he wasn’t going to say anything.

He went over and helped Jack get out. He wouldn’t really have let the horses out before Jack. Well. He would’ve, if Jack didn’t object. Okay. He probably would’ve even if Jack did object. But not with Jack’s mother standing there watching.

“Oh, Jack,” she breathed as they made their way up the steps. She reached out a gentle hand and touched Jack’s cheek. The swelling had gone down on his eye, but he was still bruised and vaguely purple-hued.

“I’m alright, Mama,” he promised, all bravado despite the way Ennis was supporting a good ninety percent of his weight.

“Come on in, sit down,” she said, opening the door wider. “It’s good to meet you, Ennis.”

“Ma’am,” Ennis agreed, feeling tongue-tied. His name sounded pretty familiar in her mouth and he didn’t know what to make of that.

He settled Jack into a chair at the small kitchen table and tried not to let his face show how spooked he was by the room. Everything was so…gray. Colorless. Lifeless. He could not for the life of him fit Jack with this place. He tried not to fidget too much.

“Go on,” Jack said softly. “Get the horses out. You saw the gate when we came in.”

Ennis nodded, knowing the relief showed on his face by the little smile Jack gave him. He did his best not to look too eager as he beat his retreat. Unloading the horses, however, didn’t take long. He fiddled with the chain wrapped around the gate, halfheartedly making sure it was secure. He knew it was. He knew all the fences were fine. Jack said he’d just gone around and repaired them last time he was here, after their last trip.

The memory of their last trip spurred Ennis back into the house. He owed it to Jack to be there, and they were here, anyway. He couldn’t hide outside forever, tempting as the idea was. He hesitated slightly at the door, not sure if he should knock or not, but he knew that would be formal and would disappoint Jack, so he steeled himself and opened the door.

There was a man at the table now, sitting opposite of Jack and with a look of such pure disgust on his face Ennis wanted to turn on his heel and just walk back out the door. But there was a tendril of hurt in Jack’s stiff shoulders, too, and Ennis didn’t come all this way to leave Jack alone with a man who’d once beat him and pissed on him when he was barely more than a toddler.

Ennis took off his hat and held it in his hands for a second, unsure of where to sit or where to look. Jack had an empty seat beside him, though, and Ennis figured that was for him, now, would be his expected spot. He sat down and tried not to jitter his leg too much. It’d always set Alma to fussing, saying it wasn’t proper or polite and made people think he wanted to leave. Every time it had happened he had wanted to leave wherever they were, not that him explaining that had ever made her any happier.

“Ennis del Mar,” John Twist drawled out in a tone that made Ennis want to flinch. He’d gotten his share of whuppings from his dad and from his brother—even a few smacks from his sister, both before and after their parents were gone—but he’d still been a kid when his parents had died. His father had been gruff and sometimes derisive, but he’d never sneered at Ennis like that. He hadn’t had cause to, not yet.

Ennis didn’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about whether that would hold true now.

“You’re real, are you?” John went on. “Not some figment of Jack’s imagination.”

“Yeah, he’s real,” Jack said, but there was a thread of happiness in his tone that was just for Ennis.

“Been hearing about you for nigh on twenty years,” John said, ignoring his son. “The great Ennis del Mar. How you could come here and the two of you could lick this place into shape.” He snorted. “Like most of Jack’s ideas, never did come to pass.”

“Here we are,” Jack protested. “Why you think we’re here? To enjoy your pleasant company?”

“Jack,” Eliza scolded quietly.

“You ain’t never whipped nothing into shape,” John said, spitting into a mug. “Least of all yourself, now that you’re a fancy Texan salesman, huh.”

Jack flushed. Ennis had no idea what to do. He didn’t like sitting here and listening to this man cut Jack down—didn’t like to think about how often this happened, and how Jack kept coming back, time after time, and how much that sounded like what Ennis himself did to Jack—but he wasn’t part of this family and didn’t know these folks. Best he could think to do was hook his ankle with Jack’s under the table.

“You want some coffee?” Eliza asked Ennis.

“Uh, yes, ma’am,” Ennis said. “Thank you.”

Uncomfortable silence descended around them. Jack and his father were glaring at each other and Ennis just kept his eyes on the chipped tabletop. He was pretty sure that was a J carved in there, and it made him smile a little at the thought of Jack as a child, wanting to leave his mark. The feeling disappeared as he pondered on the punishment Jack must have received for that bit of artwork.

Eliza set a mug in front of him and Ennis nodded his thanks, grateful to have something to do with his hands. It was late spring, the border of summer, but the house was drafty and cool. It was a depressing place to imagine Jack returning to through the years and Ennis had the sudden urge to tug Jack into his arms and spirit him away.

“S’pose you think you’re sleeping in your old room?” John said. Jack raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

“Not sure where else you want me to go.”

“It’ll be good Ennis will be with you,” Eliza cut in. “Can help you get around.”

Jack scratched at his ear. “Not sure we’ll both fit in that bed.”

John spat into his cup again, muttering under his breath so fast and so quiet Ennis couldn’t catch any words, but the general idea came through loud and clear. Ennis felt his throat closing up.

Jack and Eliza went on talking, planning, but there was a rushing in Ennis’s ears that drowned everything else out. Here was Jack, bold as brass, putting it all out in the open that they’d be sharing a bed, no shame in any one of his words. Ennis’s chest felt tight, like he couldn’t quite get a full breath, and he started when Jack put a hand on his shoulder.

“Ennis?” He asked quietly. Ennis shrugged his hand away quickly. Jack might have had no shame, but Ennis had enough for the both of them. He ignored the way Jack’s eyes narrowed slightly and looked back down at the table again.

“I’m going to get supper started,” Eliza said. “Why don’t you boys go on up and get settled in?”

Ennis couldn’t look anyone in the face, least of all Jack, as he helped Jack up and practically carried him up the stairs. Jack hissed as Ennis’s panic left him careless and they bumped into the wall. Ennis couldn’t even apologize for it, just went on hauling Jack up the narrow staircase and depositing him on the tiny bed as directed.

Jack had that mulish look on his face that usually came with his hands on his hips, but since he was lying down Ennis just got the glare. “Had enough already?”

Ennis blew out a breath and shook himself out of his jacket. “Why the fuck you talking ‘bout us sharing a bed?”

Jack shook his head and looked around. “You planning on sleeping somewhere else?”

Ennis just shrugged, pacing. He hadn’t really put much thought into any of this. That was his problem—he went from zero to a hundred in everything, and then later he had to deal with the fallout.

“Not like they don’t both know,” Jack pointed out.

“Oh, yeah, I got that message loud and clear,” Ennis muttered.

Jack sighed, and there was enough agitation in it for Ennis to finally look at him. Jack’s face was pale and his breathing was shallow. He was curling in a little on his bad side.

“Hey,” Ennis murmured, coming closer and pushing Jack’s hair off his sweaty forehead. “Come on, let’s get you taken care of.”

“I’m fine,” Jack tried to brush him off. Ennis fought down the urge to snap back—all those years Jack would’ve killed for Ennis to take care of him like this, and now here Ennis was trying and Jack was fighting it—and set to work unbuttoning Jack’s coat. Jack didn’t resist as Ennis guided his arms out and stripped him of coat and shirt, leaving him in his t-shirt and jeans. Jack shivered a little in the sudden cold.

“You got a fever?” Ennis asked, low and soothing like he’d done for his girls, sometimes, when he’d been around. He let his hand rest on Jack’s forehead and his throat tightened a little at the way Jack’s eyes fell closed. All his anger had dried up, seeing Jack hurting like this.

“Maybe,” Jack conceded.

“Not good, bud.” Ennis rooted around in one of Jack’s suitcases for a clean shirt and the pill bottle.

“I don’t want it,” Jack said petulantly. “Makes me dizzy.”

“Well, you got dizzy or you got pain,” Ennis said.

“After supper,” Jack pressed, voice tight. “Sleep it off.”

Ennis frowned. “You can’t hardly hold a conversation.”

“How would you know?” Jack had one arm flung over his eyes, but Ennis could see his lips curving up in a teasing little smirk. Ennis snorted and poked at Jack’s belly. It wasn’t quite so soft as it had gotten in the last few years, not after a few days of eating through a tube and then living on hospital food and Ennis’s meager stores. His cheeks were a little sunken in a way Ennis didn’t like and the way he was breathing hard couldn’t have felt good on his sore ribs.

A sudden swell of tenderness rose up in Ennis. He knew all of Jack’s body, had learned every inch and every scar and every ticklish spot over twenty years, and the thought of that same body hurting so badly now made him want to cry.

He hadn’t felt this back in his falling-down trailer, or even in the hospital when Jack had looked far more battered. Maybe it had something to do with the knowledge that Jack was far too familiar with lying in this bed aching and broken from various beatings he’d taken.

Ennis stroked his thumb over Jack’s lips, let his hand trail down to Jack’s stubbled chin and to his collarbone. How many marks had Ennis sucked into that skin over the years? And now someone else had filled it, left ugly bruises that told pain and fear instead of need and desire.

He leaned down and pressed his lips to the crook of Jack’s neck, over to the bone that jutted out of his shoulder at a sharper angle than the other because of a broken arm that hadn’t set right, down to his chest just over his heart. He stroked gently at the hurt ribs, rested a hand on the plastered leg, leaned farther and put his forehead against Jack’s.

Jack had moved his arm but left his eyes closed through Ennis’s ministrations, and he left them closed now with Ennis’s face so close to his. He put his hand on the back of Ennis’s neck, breathing slower now as their noses rubbed together.

Ennis kissed him, feather-light and quiet, and felt that they’d just shifted something, that he’d shifted something. He wouldn’t have thought there were many lines left between them to cross, not after all the years and all the meetups and being here, now, but somehow his gentle touches had just pushed them over some kind of divide he hadn’t known he was at the edge of.

Neither of them spoke or moved for a long time, even though Ennis’s back was protesting at the way he was bent over. Jack was the first to move, but he just opened his eyes and squeezed Ennis’s neck and used his other hand to tug at Ennis, inviting him to lie down at his side.

Ennis did, reminded of that second night in the tent on the mountain because of their silence and their hands seeking out at each other. It had been a lifetime ago. He reversed their roles, cradled Jack to him this time because Jack was hurting and sick, and Jack slid his hand down Ennis’s body to untuck his shirt and slip down the waistband of his jeans. It wasn’t a sexual move; he was just holding on and reaching for skin, and somehow it felt more intimate than all the times he’d done it before with clear purpose in mind.

They must have dozed, or Ennis did, at least, because soon Eliza was calling gently up the stairs, “Supper’s ready, boys,” like they weren’t nearly forty years old with failed marriages and children and hurts bigger than they knew how to name.

Jack stirred in Ennis’s arms and Ennis didn’t fight the way his arms tightened at first, resistant to letting go. He felt Jack’s smile against the hollow of his throat and he pressed his cheek to Jack’s hair.

“Hungry?” He asked, near whispering.

“Not much,” Jack admitted. “But I’ll try to eat.”

Ennis patted him reassuringly on the ass, since he already had a hand there, and Jack laughed a little. He wriggled around, trying to make some space so Ennis could get out from under him.

“Can’t believe we been together this long and not so much as a little tug job,” Jack said. Ennis coughed out a little laugh, embarrassed to talk about it and especially in Jack’s childhood bed.

“You’re hurt,” he reminded Jack.

“I’m hurting,” Jack corrected him. “Dick’s just about the only part of me that ain’t broken and it’s starting to feel neglected. Only thing been near it lately is the goddamn catheter at the hospital and I surely don’t want no repeat performance of that.”

Ennis shook his head, because there were some things about Jack Twist that would never change. “Yeah, well, you be a good boy and eat all your supper and we’ll see if you get a treat.”

Jack laughed, delighted at Ennis’s teasing, and let Ennis pull him up off the bed and help him into a new shirt. He got quiet on the way down the stairs, and his face went all dark once his father came into view, but Ennis didn’t try to joke him out of that. Ennis wasn’t feeling so happy about seeing Twist, Sr. either.

Supper was quiet; Ennis got the feeling Jack usually filled the silence, but he was in pain and couldn’t hold up his usual chatter. Maybe, if Ennis were a different kind of person, he’d take over that job, but he was Ennis del Mar and he was never going to fill a silence, awkward or otherwise. Closest he ever got was with Jack, but he didn’t have any practice in interacting with Jack around other people since that one time with Alma, and that obviously hadn’t gone well.

They sat at the table drinking coffee and eating pie after dinner despite the way Jack’s teeth were clenched, because Jack was a stubborn bastard and Ennis didn’t want to attract too much attention and point out that they should go upstairs. Finally, Eliza shook her head and said,

“Jack, why’nt you go on up to bed? Pains me to think you’re pushing yourself to sit here with me. No reason, not now you’re staying a while.”

“I’m alright, Mama,” Jack lied, all but gasping, and Eliza gave Ennis a look that was clearly meant to get him to convince Jack. Ennis wanted to shrug at her. What was he supposed to do about it?

“How you plan to whip this place into shape if you can’t even get through supper without crying?” John asked. He had a way of talking that set Ennis’s teeth on edge, like nobody was nothing, no matter who they were.

“I’m fine,” Jack said, teeth clenched hard now.

John pushed back from the table, muttering now, and Ennis didn’t catch everything but he heard a few comments about what kind of man Jack was. He didn’t feel too happy about that, and Jack turned his head away.

“Come on,” Ennis said, low, just to Jack. “Let’s go on upstairs.”

“It ain’t even dark yet,” Jack snapped. His obvious pain mixed with his bullheadedness and his father’s under-the-breath comments were swirling around Ennis. He had to clench his hands hard not to just bolt from the room.

“I’m going out to check the horses,” Ennis mumbled. He just didn’t know how to handle Jack here. This was all new ground and Ennis wasn’t exactly known for his adaptability. He gulped in cold spring night air and went to the fence, whistled once and waited. Abraham came right up, obedient as always, but he had to whistle again before Garbo would come. There was a reason she and Jack got on so well. They both did things on their own time.

Ennis didn’t know where anything was, didn’t know if Jack’s father even had any grain or feed or anything. He hadn’t kept horses on his spread for nearly ten years now, Jack had said, so Ennis went to his truck and grabbed the bag of grain he’d stashed. He fed them with the nosebags he used while they were camping and made sure they had water.

At least he had an excuse to stay out longer, now, if they were using the nosebags. But even that didn’t take long, so he slipped them off, gave each horse a pat on the rear for dismissal, and forced himself to go back inside. Not even four hours and he was already wondering how big a mistake he’d made.

But then he slipped inside and the first thing he saw was Jack, hair messy from running his hands through it, and his stomach clenched a little. He still wasn’t used to seeing Jack so regularly, so he got a little shock every time he walked in a room and there was Jack. He wondered how long it would be before that wore off.

“All good?” Jack asked, not just talking about the horses. Ennis swallowed and nodded.

“You wanna go upstairs?” He asked. He didn’t say it loud, but he wasn’t whispering. Jack’s parents knew, anyway, like Jack had said, so there wasn’t a real point trying to hide it. Jack pursed his lips and for a second Ennis thought he was going to refuse, started wearily wondering if he needed to gear up for a fight. Then Jack blew out a breath and nodded tiredly.

“Night, Mama,” Jack said, ignoring his father sitting across from him completely.

“Goodnight, boys,” Eliza answered, gracing them with a small smile.

Ennis was more careful helping Jack up the stairs this time, hoping Jack would see it for the apology it was. Luckily, Jack was pretty good at knowing what Ennis meant most of the time. Ennis got out one of the pain pills and Jack swallowed it dry, sitting against the wall with his feet stretched out in front of him.

"Horses settling in?" He asked. It would take a few minutes for the pill to kick in; until then, he'd be coherent but he'd also be hurting. Ennis sat beside him, their shoulders touching.

"Yeah, they're happy to be out of the truck."

"Mm."

"You gotta show me around tomorrow," Ennis said. "See how much work we got ahead of us."

Jack nodded, his eyes falling closed. Ennis sat back a little, got his arms behind Jack and started rubbing his shoulders gently, staying high and away from his ribs.

"Feel alright?"

Jack dropped his chin so Ennis could get to his neck. "Real good. Thanks, bud."

"Neck's all tight."

"From sleeping sitting up," Jack said. "Can't breathe if I lay down but it's hell on my neck."

"Shoulda got you one of them pillows people get for an airplane," Ennis said, thinking of a movie he'd watched once with the girls. Jack snorted.

"You been taking a lot of trips I don't know about?"

Ennis huffed. "Hell, that trip to your place in Texas was the longest trip I been on."

Jack didn't say anything for a minute and Ennis thought maybe the pill had kicked in and he'd fall asleep soon. "Was real glad you came," Jack said finally, voice soft. "Saw you standing there and thought I was dreaming at first."

"Your Texas man wasn't no dream?" Ennis snipped.

Jack sighed. "Ennis," he said tiredly.

"Ah, I know."

"No, listen," Jack said. "I'm gonna say this once and for all. He was there to scratch an itch and nothing more, okay? He weren't no dream because he weren't you. All I ever wanted." His words were lengthening out as the pill took hold. Ennis wrapped his arm around Jack and pulled him to his chest.

"I know," he said quietly. "Was my fault you had to go to him anyway."

"Wasn't your fault," Jack said. He was all boneless, only upright because Ennis was supporting him there. "Couldn't do much about it."

Ennis snorted. "Well, you're a sight more forgiving now than you were while it was happening."

Jack laughed a little. "Yeah, ‘cause now I get ya full-time."

Acknowledging it made Ennis's stomach drop a little, the thought that they were here and it wasn't another trip making him sweat just a bit. He swallowed and leaned Jack against the wall. Jack made a sleepy little noise of protest.

"Come on," Ennis soothed. "Let's get you into bed." He knelt at the edge of the bed and pulled Jack's boots off. "Can you stand up?" Jack grunted and didn't move, so Ennis took that as a no. He unbuttoned Jack's jeans and guided his hips up so he could pull his pants down. Now Jack was gigging and Ennis rolled his eyes a little.

"Quit it," he said, trying to be stern but not quite making it because of Jack laughing. "Trying to be nice to you and help you out and you're just laughing."

"I can think of a way you could help me out," Jack leered, trying to raise his hips again. The effect was a little ruined by the fact that he hadn't even opened his eyes and his head was lolling.

"I don't think you're real up for that," Ennis said.

"Sure am," Jack countered, gesturing to his lap. Ennis couldn't help but laugh a little. He'd walked right into that one.

"Nope, not tonight,” he held firm.

Jack made an irritated noise in his throat. “Twenty years I get your dick and nothing else, now I get everything else and not your dick.”

It was supposed to be a joke, maybe, a little ill-tempered because Jack really was a bit het up just then, but it made Ennis’s throat swell up a little. All those years meeting in the mountains had been about more than his dick. How could Jack not know that? He’d already had somewhere to stick his dick, until the divorce. Jack thought he’d quit jobs for time off just for a roll in the sack? It stung, knowing Jack really thought on him that way, but he didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure how on earth to find words to put to that feeling.

Ennis got himself stripped down to his shorts and undershirt and pulled back the blankets as well he could with Jack a dead weight. “C’mere,” he said, guiding Jack back. There were more pillows here, strange against the hardness of the land and Jack’s father, but maybe Jack had been bringing more comforts with him as he came year in and year out. Either way, Ennis propped him up as comfortable as possible.

Jack was riding away on the waves of his pill now, but he puckered his lips enough to get his point across and Ennis leaned in and kissed him even though one part of him wanted to haul off with a sock to his jaw for making light of all they’d had through these years.

But he hadn’t hit Jack since that first punch, except for shoving him a little at the trailhead, and anyway Jack was so far gone he probably wouldn’t have even felt it. So Ennis kissed him and stroked his hair and lay beside him in a narrow bed hardly big enough for one grown man, let alone two, and he shoved the hurt down deep and let sleep take him away.

When he opened his eyes and saw Jack, the bruises on his face and the pillows propping him up didn’t register at first; he saw Jack beside him and he smiled automatically, knowing he wasn’t in the apartment with Alma’s disappointed face looking at him over something or other he’d done wrong and not in the dumpy trailer with lights that only worked half the time. He was with Jack, and he wasn’t sure which day of the trip it was but it didn’t feel like a last day, when he’d get the pit in his stomach reminding him they were leaving each other.

And then he remembered everything, remembered that they were tucked into Jack’s tiny bed where he’d lay the night before they ever met in front of Joe Aguirre’s trailer, and the feeling was—it was good, mostly, but it was overwhelming and confusing, and the only thing for it was to push his face into Jack’s shoulder and hide for a bit.

“Hey there,” Jack said, sleep-slow and gritty.

“Hay’s for horses,” Ennis told him solemnly. He looked up in time to see Jack’s nose scrunch up in disgust.

“It’s too early for this.”

“You don’t even know what time it is,” Ennis pointed out.

“It’s always too early for that.”

“That right?”

“That’s right.”

Ennis reached a hand between them. “Too early for this?”

Jack sucked in a breath. “’Bout motherfucking time.”

“No motherfucking gonna happen here.”

Jack groaned, laughing a little. “Look at you, Mr. Funnyman. Shit. That was too far.”

“You’re the one who said it.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this to you,” Jack panted. “But would you shut up?”

“You gonna gimme a reason to?” Ennis challenged.

He did. They had to be quiet, and Ennis felt guilty the whole time, knowing Jack’s parents were just downstairs, probably, or possibly just down the hall, but hell if Ennis could ever think right with Jack there. They jacked each other off, Ennis not willing to even think about fucking Jack with his leg and his ribs the way they were, but it wasn’t like either of them were complaining.

Afterward, Ennis helped Jack into the bathroom and they washed up. Jack tried to talk Ennis into a shower together and Ennis shot it down faster even than he’d shot down this life together sixteen years earlier. Going at it in Jack’s old room with the door closed was one thing; sharing a shower in the one bathroom in the whole house was another entirely.

But eventually they made their way down the stairs, where Eliza was making breakfast. Jack’s father was nowhere to be found. Ennis was strongly relieved.

“Good morning,” Eliza said over her shoulder. “You sleep okay? Jack, how you feeling?”

“Real good, Mama,” he said, sparkle in his eye that he sent Ennis’s way. Ennis frowned at him and looked away. Wasn’t right to behave that way in front of a woman, especially Jack’s mother. Jack rolled his eyes.

“Good,” she said, setting a plate of bacon down in front of them.

“Mama, you want me to help you?” Jack offered. Ennis snorted and Jack narrowed his eyes, mock-offended but face still shining.

“No, Jack, you stay right there,” she said. Her voice was mild as ever—Ennis couldn’t picture her ever raising it—but she sent him a little look that had Ennis coughing into his coffee. Maybe she knew exactly how good of a cook her son was.

Twist Sr. didn’t show up through all of breakfast, and then Jack said, “Come on, we’ll take a look around.” Ennis was starting to feel hopeful they wouldn’t see much of Jack’s father at all, but then they opened the back door and there he was on the porch, kicking mud off his boots against the side of the house.

There was a moment where nobody talked, and Ennis thought perhaps nobody would, but he should have known better after twenty years of knowing Jack Twist.

“Gonna show Ennis the spread,” Jack said. “Got anything particular you need us to do?”

“Could do with you shutting your trap once in a while,” John muttered. Anger flared up white-hot in Ennis’s chest. Jack was trying to be helpful and that was the thanks he got. The fact of the matter was this man was Jack’s father. The things a father did shaped your whole life—Ennis knew that all too well. And he knew boys were different, but he couldn’t help but think of how he would never in a million years talk to his girls that way, grown or not.

But he did talk to Jack that way. All the time, in fact. He swallowed hard and grabbed Jack before he could try walking off the porch himself, reaching out and steadying him down the steps so he wouldn’t fall. He waited until they were well shot of John, waited until Jack was looking a little less murderous, before he cleared his throat.

“Let’s check on the horses,” he suggested.

“Yeah,” Jack said. He didn’t say more, so Ennis tightened his arm around Jack’s waist and sort of snugged him up against his side. It was kind of awkward, since they were basically a three-legged race here, but they had a lot of practice moving together.

“Come on, this is your big dream, ain’t it?” He asked. “Us here together?”

“My dream didn’t have much of him in it,” Jack said, so down in the mouth it hurt Ennis’s stomach a little bit.

“Can’t say many of my dreams have your parents in ‘em either,” Ennis teased. That got him a smile from Jack.

“You dream about me, huh?” Jack asked. He was just joking, playing around, but Ennis squeezed him tighter for a second.

“Yeah,” he said. He didn’t add only the good ones or if I’m lucky, the way he could’ve because he meant those things. But Jack still shook his head like Ennis had said something noteworthy.

“Ennis,” he said helplessly.

“Come on,” Ennis changed the subject. “Garbo’s gonna forget about you if we don’t get over there.”

Jack didn’t push, didn’t ask Ennis why he was suddenly so sweet. It was good, because Ennis didn’t really know. He just knew that hearing Jack’s father talk like that made him want to gush out every good thing he knew about Jack—the color of his eyes, the perfect bow of his mouth, the soft tone in his voice when he was happy, the way he got excited about every little thing like he was still a kid, the way he could get knocked down over and over and he’d still get right back up and onto the bull.

But there was no way Ennis could ever say any of that out loud. So all he could do was agree when Jack teased him about his dreams. He hoped it would be enough, at least for the day. They checked in on the horses, who were happy as clams to be rolling around in the dirt and chomping on grass. They’d never had a pasture that big to themselves.

It was tough work convincing Jack to drive around the spread, but his leg and his ribs weren’t up to that much walking. The truck wasn’t all that great either, bouncing around over the uneven ground, even with Ennis doing his damnedest to make it a smooth ride. But Jack gritted his teeth and kept pointing things out, talking about this fence or that field.

“I figure we’ll build here,” Jack said, the truck parked and Jack sitting on the tailgate while Ennis looked at the foundation in the ground.

“You lay this?” He asked.

“Yeah, few years ago.” Jack wasn’t meeting his eyes.

“How many years ago?”

Jack shrugged and mumbled something. Ennis’s stomach dropped. He came up to the truck and stood next to Jack, close enough to crowd between his legs if he wanted. He did want, but he didn’t do it, even though they were completely alone up there. If anyone were to come up from the house, they’d hear the crunching on the gravel before they got there, and they were far enough in from the road that they were out of sight to anyone driving by. “When?”

“1976,” Jack said slowly. Ennis had to look away, remembering Jack pulling up and the butterflies in his stomach at the sight of him before the world came crashing down and he’d had to send him away.

“Jack,” Ennis murmured, not sure where he was going with it.

Jack shook his head. “It doesn’t matter anymore, Ennis. It already happened. But we’re here now.”

Ennis didn’t have an answer for that. He kept his head down and trailed a hand over Jack’s knee. “Sorry,” he said. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might’ve been the first time he’d ever apologized to Jack. Lord knew he owed him a million.

Jack sighed a little. He hooked his good leg around Ennis’s hips and pulled him in closer. “Okay,” he said. “It’s alright.”

Ennis shrugged. “Not really.”

“Well.” Jack shrugged back. “Like I said. We’re here now.”

Ennis nodded and leaned his forehead against Jack’s shoulder, holding most of his own weight. Jack could yap on all he wanted about being used to broken ribs, but it had been a long time since that had been true. “You got a floorplan?”

Jack brought a hand up to the back of Ennis’s head and brushed at the hair on the nape of his neck. His hair was long, spilling down almost to his collar in the back. He kept meaning to get it cut, but the thought of going into some store made his skin crawl. Alma had always cut it while they were married.

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “Not really. Thought we’d have two bedrooms, I guess, and a bathroom and a little kitchen.”

“So you mean a house, not a cabin,” Ennis pointed out.

Jack laughed a little. “We can make it outta logs, if you want.”

Ennis snorted. “Maybe.”

They were quiet for a minute, staying where they were. It was…nice, Ennis thought. Nice to stand there in the circle of Jack’s arms, Jack’s fingers working through his hair. It was a waste of time, probably, but without stock there wasn’t actually all that much to do. They needed to get going building a barn, going through the pastures and making sure there weren’t holes for cows to break legs in, build up this house for them to sleep in, but it was hard to think about work with Jack. They usually got together away from any responsibilities.

“Ennis?” Jack said, voice quiet because their heads were resting together now and his lips were right up close to Ennis’s ear. “Did you ever think about a house for us?” It was the kind of question Ennis could picture a much-younger Jack asking, hopeful and a little childish. Ennis hesitated, made a little humming sound to show Jack he wasn’t ignoring the question.

“No,” he finally said truthfully. “Jack, you know I…I thought I was lucky to just get what we had. I couldn’t—if I thought about more, well.”

“You’d want it more?” Jack asked.

Ennis shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “And it’d all get taken away. It’s like when you’re hunting, you know? You gotta be real quiet, and if you look at a buck too close, he’ll feel you looking and run.” Not that Jack knew how to hunt, in all reality. Holding still, staying quiet, and being patient were not things he excelled at.

Jack didn’t say anything for a long time. “Well who’s the buck here?” He asked, bitterer than his other question. “Because I wasn’t running.”

“No,” Ennis said helplessly. “That’s not…” He couldn’t explain it right. “Not you. Just…all of it.”

“You thought I’d quit you if you asked for more?” Jack pushed back now, wanting to look into Ennis’s eyes, but Ennis dodged. Jack knew Ennis better than anyone on Earth. Sure, he didn’t know what kind of food Ennis bought at the grocery store of the color of his plates, but he knew everything important. He listened when Ennis talked and remembered things he’d said. But they didn’t have hard conversations often. Ever, really—maybe three times in twenty years. They got such short time together they didn’t mar it with arguments. Or sobriety, for that matter.

But all this, making an everyday life together, it was drudging up all kinds of things they’d never talked about, and Ennis could see now it would keep drudging it up. He’d avoided most subjects with Alma by leaving the room or giving in to what she wanted, and a lot of the fight had gone out of her pretty quickly anyway. Their marriage had devolved fast into not much more than a living arrangement.

He didn’t want that to happen with Jack. For so long, Jack had been the bright spot in his life. He’d had his horses and his girls, and that had helped, but Jack was outside everything else, not part of Ennis’s real life. In a way, Jack had never felt real at all.

But here he was, insisting. Holding onto Ennis. Trying to get him to talk. Ennis tried to turn away and Jack tightened his hold.

“Ennis, I said I wish I knew how to quit you. ‘Cause I don’t know how. I can’t. Why would you think asking for more would scare me off? I was right there the whole time.” Jack was picking up steam now, getting mad, and Ennis didn’t know what to do. He bit at his thumbnail, Jack’s words starting to wash over him as he decided what to say.

“Not you,” he said, which wasn’t actually all that descriptive. He’d already said it. “I mean we’d—something would happen. I told you what I saw. That’d happen.”

Jack went still. “You thought if you wanted this too bad, something would happen?”

“Always does,” Ennis said.

Jack was quiet for a minute. He had a hand resting on the small of Ennis’s back, and he used it to press Ennis closer again.

“You had a pretty shitty life, huh?” Jack asked softly.

Ennis shrugged. “Guess so.”

“Lotta bad things happened to you when you were young.”

Ennis shrugged again. He didn’t get why Jack was saying this stuff. Jack knew it was true, so why was he asking?

“And I was a good thing you didn’t want taken away,” Jack finally concluded. His voice was different, like he’d just learned something new. How could that be new to Jack? How could he have not known that? Ennis knew he’d never said anything like that out loud, but did Jack think Ennis coming back again and again was just for fun? It made Ennis think of Jack’s comment last night, about getting nothing but Ennis’s dick for twenty years.

Ennis made himself look at Jack. He shrugged again. “Yeah,” he said simply. He knew he should say more. He knew Jack deserved it, especially if he’d been doubting it all this time. He didn’t know what else to say. Last night’s comment was still poking at him, though. So he gave Jack’s nose a little nuzzle and said, “More than my dick, you know.”

“What?” Jack asked, confused now.

“I wouldn’t do all this for twenty years just for my dick,” Ennis clarified, mumbling now. He couldn’t look at Jack while he said it. Jack didn’t even remember saying it, and now Ennis had opened up his stupid mouth for nothing.

Jack put his hands on Ennis’s face. He moved Ennis’s head so Ennis was looking at him. Ennis felt like he was looking into the past, seeing Jack that night in the tent as he studied Ennis’s eyes to see how Ennis was going to react.

Jack sighed and leaned into Ennis’s body again. “Okay,” he said thoughtfully.

“Okay?” Ennis echoed, a little lost as to what was happening here. He wasn’t exactly a wordsmith, but he’d just let Jack in on an awful lot of his feelings. And all Jack had to say was okay?

“Yeah,” Jack said. “Okay.” Ennis could tell there was a lot going on in Jack’s head. Ennis had never been much for socializing, but he knew how to read Jack. Jack didn’t seem intent on sharing, though, so Ennis let him be. It was a strange role reversal. Ennis felt like the whole world had gone topsy-turvy. All this new territory they were covering kept leaving him breathless and lost.

But Jack’s hands were on him, Jack’s head was tucked into the crook of Ennis’s neck, and Jack’s breath was ruffling Ennis’s hair just a bit. That wasn’t new or strange. He couldn’t be too lost if Jack was there with him, so he pushed all his confusion aside and let himself just lean into Jack.

 

It was a good thing Jack had already built the foundation for the house, because he could do absolutely nothing to help now. He grumbled about it, a little, saying he felt useless, and then Ennis made some crack about him never minding being useless before, and then Jack got pissy about it the way he could get sometimes. But Ennis could swear he saw a little twitch in Jack’s lips, so Ennis didn’t feel too bad about it.

About a month into the whole thing, they were wedging themselves into Jack’s little bed and Jack said, “Got a meeting in town tomorrow. Guy who moved down to Cheyenne but keeps a lot of his herd here wants to use our pastures for his cows.”

Ennis scratched the back of his neck. “So we do the work and he gets the money?”

Jack shrugs. “We’ll get money for doing the work, you know. And if we play our cards right, a cut of the profits, too.”

Ennis had to admit it was a pretty good idea. Raising up their own herd would take money they didn’t have. If they brought in some money doing this, they’d get up and running and have room to breathe without worrying about starting their own herd.

“Well, okay,” he said, unsure exactly what his response was supposed to be. He figured he’d drive Jack into town and wait somewhere while Jack had his meeting. “Town” actually meant driving the hour to Gillette, since Lightning Flat wasn’t actually a town, as such, anymore, so Ennis figured he’d find somewhere to have a cup of coffee or maybe a beer if he could find a bar open early enough. But when he pulled up to a café and didn’t cut the engine, Jack looked confused.

“You’re not coming in?” He asked.

Ennis felt as confused as Jack sounded. “Me?” Ennis asked. “What would I do in a business meeting? You know I’m no good at that kind of thing. Point me to the stock when they come and I’ll do my part.”

Jack pursed his lips. “You’re not some hired hand here, Ennis. I ain’t your boss.”

Ennis couldn’t help but quirk his mouth a little at that. He could think of a few ways to respond to both those statements. “That so?” He teased.

Jack snorted and rolled his eyes, but then he got serious again. “I’m serious, Ennis. We’re partners. You gotta come with in here, too. How’s he going to agree to a deal if he doesn’t meet both partners?”

Ennis sighed. He could see Jack’s point. But going in there, sitting there next to Jack in some booth, everyone hearing them throwing around the word partners like that…it made him nervous. He started bouncing his leg. “I don’t know nothing ‘bout contracts and salaries,” he warned.

“Well, for starters, he ain’t paying us salaries, he’ll be paying some kind of rental and labor service agreement,” Jack said.

“See?” Ennis said uneasily. “I don’t know—I should just make myself scarce.”

Jack crossed his arms. He was newly able to do that since his ribs were feeling better, and Ennis personally thought he was going a bit overboard on it just because he could. He used to always put his hands on his hips to show his exasperation.

“Is this about the business meeting or is this about us?”

Ennis swallowed hard. Jack always could figure him out faster than anyone else. “Jack,” he started.

“Ennis,” Jack sighed, irritated. “Nothing strange about two men being business partners. It ain’t like people’re gonna smell it on us.”

Ennis wasn’t so sure about that, but he knew Jack always thought he was being overly paranoid. Even now, even after what happened to him, Jack seemed to think he could go about his life however he damned well pleased and fuck everybody else. It made Ennis’s stomach clench whenever he thought about it.

But they didn’t exactly have time to sit here and argue. They really did need to get some kind of business started if they wanted to make a go at this, and being late to a meeting wouldn’t be a good start. Ennis hadn’t been to a lot of business meetings—a grand total of zero, truth be told—but he knew that much.

“Fine,” he muttered, throwing the truck into park and yanking the key from the ignition. He cursed Jack’s bum leg. If Jack could’ve just driven himself, Ennis wouldn’t be following him into this café now. Ennis nervously re-tucked his shirt and wished he’d gotten a haircut sometime in the last three months. Maybe Jack could do it for him later.

Jack was pretty rotten on his crutches, because he couldn’t use them much unless they were inside the house and not in his bedroom, which he tried to keep to a minimum. Ennis got the door open so he wouldn’t have to watch Jack struggle to pull it open while dealing with the crutches, too. It was like watching a bird try to flap around on a broken wing.

“Jack Twist!” A man in a corner booth called out.

Jack looked up from his grim battle with his crutches and pasted on a big smile Ennis had never seen before. “Well, if it ain’t Ed Wilson,” he said, hitting his Texas twang harder than usual. Ennis blinked at him, wondering what the hell that was about.

“Come on over and sit down,” Ed said. “Looks like you’d better get off that leg.”

“Ah, I’ve had worse,” Jack said. “You have too, if I remember right.”

Ed guffawed, so loud Ennis jumped a little as he leaned Jack’s crutches against the side of the booth and slid in beside him. “It’s been a long time since I’ve broken anything,” Ed said. “But I heard talk around town you got robbed!”

“Yeah, something like that,” Jack agreed, shaking his head. “Wish they hadn’t busted my ribs and my leg, but worst of all, they wrecked my new truck.”

“Brand new?” Ed checked.

“Off the lot two weeks before,” Jack confirmed. Ed whistled sympathetically.

“Well, I’ll keep this short, then,” Ed said. “Wouldn’t normally cut the foreplay, if you know what I mean,” he added with a wink. Ennis didn’t like him. “But I won’t keep you too long if you’re hurting. You alright with getting right down to brass tacks? I ordered us all coffee.”

“Sure thing,” Jack said. “Thanks a bunch.”

“Now, I’ve got most of my herd here in Gillette, but when I heard from your mama’s cousin you were coming back here I started getting ready to move ‘em. Anything for Jack Twist.”

Ennis narrowed his eyes a little. Just why, exactly, was this man willing to do anything for Jack Twist? Ennis knew why he was, but he was hoping that wasn’t this Ed man’s reason, too.

“Ed and I started in rodeo together up in Montana,” Jack explained. He must’ve picked up on some of Ennis’s prickliness.

“And Jack here saved my life,” Ed proclaimed. Jack huffed and shook his head, but Ed didn’t let him cut in. “He did. I came off that bull in two seconds flat and that place didn’t have no clowns to reign ‘em in. Jack ran in and waved him off before he could stick me with those horns. I quit that very day. The adrenaline life wasn’t for me.”

“That was a long time ago,” Jack said placatingly. “Now, listen, Ed, I’ll level with you here. We’re not looking to run someone else’s herd forever.”

“No, of course not,” Ed agreed. “But I was hoping for a two-year deal, at least to start. Exclusivity on your end, about a third to a half my herd. Payment for the property use, of course, and services rendered. What do you think?”

Ennis swallowed hard. He could hardly keep up with what this guy was saying. His ears were getting warm. He knew he shouldn’t have come in with Jack. He didn’t understand this part at all.

Jack made a considering face. “Two years sounds good. Why only half?”

“Well, Jack, I’m up to nearly a thousand head these days,” Ed said proudly. “I know you all have the space, but if memory serves you’d have to build up some new fences to keep that many.”

Jack nodded. “You are right about that.”

“And with just the two of you…?” Ed fished.

“Just the two of us for now,” Jack confirmed. “We’re not opposed to bringing in some hands if the work calls for it.”

“And forgive me, Jack, but I know it’s been some time since you were in the thick of things,” Ed said.

“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” Jack said. “Ennis here’s the best you’d ever hope to find.”

Ennis could feel himself going red as Ed looked him over. He did his best not to fidget. “You worked a lot of cattle?” Ed asked.

“Yessir,” Ennis said. “My whole life.”

“Oh, there ain’t an animal alive who can resist Ennis del Mar,” Jack said proudly. He clapped a hand on Ennis’s shoulder. “You give him a lion and he’ll make her purr like a housecat.”

Ennis gave Jack a look at that, because Ennis had of course never so much as seen a lion. He thought Jack was overselling him a good bit. Though there had been a time when a ranch he’d worked on had the “Ennis block”, an entire row of milking cows who couldn’t be milked by anyone but Ennis. They’d kick and bellow if anyone else came near but never gave Ennis any trouble.

“That so?” Ed asked curiously.

Ennis shrugged. “Listen to ‘em, that’s all you gotta do.”

Ed waited for a second, but Ennis didn’t know what else he was supposed to say. Ed chuckled. “Not exactly a man of many words, are you?”

Ennis shrugged again. He could feel his blush getting deeper, and now he felt even more tongue-tied. He’d always hated when people pointed out how little he talked. It didn’t make him want to talk more. It made him feel stupid. Or like they all thought he was stupid, anyway, and he knew he hadn’t done anything to give this Ed fellow a different opinion.

“Ennis always says enough to get his point across,” Jack said mildly, giving Ennis’s shoulder a little squeeze before moving his hand away. “He just saves all his sweet nothings for those cows.”

Ed roared with laughter. Ennis didn’t think it was all that funny, and part of him was a little annoyed at Jack for saying it. He didn’t want Jack talking about Ennis’s sweet nothings like he had any insider knowledge of the subject, even in jest. Besides, he remembered Cassie saying he got his point across, and it made him feel awkward to think about her. He’d never even told her they were over, but surely by now she’d gotten the hint.

“Now, listen Ed, let’s talk supply budget,” Jack steered them back on course. Ennis hardly listened as Jack and Ed haggled. Jack was good at this, Ennis realized. He knew, in the back of his mind, Jack’s job in Texas had dealt with stuff like this, but he’d never seen it in action. It made Ennis feel strange, like he didn’t know this man sitting next to him at all. He didn’t know that kind of smile on Jack’s face, didn’t know that tone of his voice. It made his stomach hurt a bit. He’d always told himself he knew Jack better than anyone on earth, because he’d known him so long and knew his deepest secret. But here was this other Jack Ennis had never seen before.

Jack had a spring in his step (only figuratively, of course, since the crutches were making him mutter and curse as much as ever) as they left the café, signed contract in place. He turned to Ennis with a grin once they got in the truck.

“That was a great meeting,” he said triumphantly.

Ennis grunted and started the truck. Jack was going on about the terms of the contract, about the extra money he’d secured them. It was one of those conversations Jack didn’t need anyone else for, so Ennis barely listened.

“—don’t you think, Ennis?” Jack finally started winding down after about twenty minutes.

“Yup,” Ennis said automatically.

“Really?” Jack pressed.

“Well, sure, if you think so.”

Jack sat back, arms folded. “Knew you weren’t listening. You just agreed to build a separate barn for the aliens.”

Ennis snorted. That was pretty good. “Well, didn’t sound like you needed much input from me.”

“Ennis, I ain’t your wife,” Jack warned. “You don’t just ignore me and agree with anything I say.”

“Maybe that’s how you and your wife did things, but wasn’t how Alma and I got along at all,” Ennis countered. She’d mostly told him to do things, he’d ignored her, and then he’d pretend he didn’t hear her crying in the other room. She should’ve left him a lot earlier. “Or did you forget the divorce part?”

Jack huffed. “Fine. But really, we gotta make these decisions together. Partners, remember?” He sounded almost giddy and Ennis didn’t have to think too hard about why he got such a thrill from calling them partners. There was a part of Ennis—a part he’d be keeping buried, thank you very much, because one of them had to keep their head on their shoulders—that felt that same little thrill.

“Jack, I don’t know none of that business stuff,” Ennis admitted quietly. “I didn’t know half those words you and Ed was using.”

Jack looked at him for a minute without speaking. When he did talk, he sounded surprised. “Ennis, you feeling bad about that meeting?”

“No,” Ennis said defensively. “I know it was good for us.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” Jack said, which was true. Ennis just didn’t want to have this conversation. “You got a smarter head for business than you give yourself credit for, Ennis. You were the one who told Ed we’d need extra money to hire hands if he wanted us to do the calving, remember?”

Something in his voice brought back that tongue-tied, stupid feeling in Ennis’s chest. “You don’t gotta butter me up and make me feel better,” he snapped. “I ain’t your wife.”

Jack put his hand on Ennis’s leg and Ennis blew out a breath. “Ennis,” Jack said. “I ain’t lying to make you feel better. You’ve known me a long time. When’ve I ever done that?”

Ennis shrugged. “Lotta things different now,” he pointed out. He was starting to feel stupid for a different reason. Not because he’d been stupid at the meeting, but because he’d flown off the handle just now.

“Yeah,” Jack agreed, sliding his hand a little higher on Ennis’s leg. Ennis raised his eyebrows. “We just went in a café together, d’you realize that?”

“We’re business partners,” Ennis reminded him. He was rewarded by a blinding Jack Twist smile.

“Yes, we are,” Jack said. “Ain’t it nice to say? Say it again.”

“Jack,” Ennis said, rolling his eyes again.

“We’re partners, Ennis.” Jack whooped and Ennis saw him without the gray hair and the mustache, saw that fool who couldn’t stop showing off his belt-buckle and just wanted someone to see him for once. It made Ennis’s heart ache a little, thinking about that kid. That kid had been a lifeline Ennis’s younger self had never known he’d needed. And besides, seeing the house Jack grew up in made so many things about that kid make a lot more sense. Ennis wanted to protect that kid. He couldn’t, had thrown away his chance to, but he could at least take care of this man that kid had grown into.

“We’re partners,” Ennis echoed, rolling his eyes a little again but smiling this time. Jack whooped again and Ennis couldn’t help but laugh.

“There’s that laugh!” Jack crowed.

“Hell, Jack, you’ve heard it before.”

“Not enough,” Jack said. “Never enough.”

They both fell silent, remembering the last time Jack used those words.

Ennis cleared his throat. “Well, you know.” He paused, chewing his lip as he considered his words. “You know, uh, you’re the only one ever made me laugh much.” He hunched a little after he said it. He didn’t know why; he knew Jack would like hearing it.

Sure enough, Jack reached over to brush at the curls spilling down to Ennis’s collar. “I’m glad I make you laugh, but I wish you laughed more,” he said softly. He kept his hand there for a minute. “Need a haircut, bud,” he said when he moved it away, glancing out the window. At least he had some sense of discretion and self-preservation. Ennis’s stomach gave a little lurch when he realized why the road might hold a bit more danger for Jack now.

“I know,” Ennis said. “You do it for me?”

Jack laughed a little. “You sure you want me to?”

Ennis shrugged. “Better than doing it myself, probably.”

“You do it yourself?” Jack asked, surprised.

“Sure, since Alma left.” Ennis shrugged again. “Don’t matter much how it looks.”

Jack shook his head a little. “Alright. If you don’t care.”

“You care?” Ennis asked.

Jack’s eyebrows flew up. His surprise made his mustache ripple. “Ennis del Mar, you fishing for compliments right now?”

Ennis harrumphed at him. Fishing for compliments? “Of course not.”

“Sounded like you were.” Jack was laughing at him. Jack was pretty much the only person who could laugh at him without making Ennis feel foolish. Most of the time, anyway. And this was that kind of laugh, the amused, teasing kind that made Ennis squirm a little, but in a good way. The kind of laugh that had drawn him to Jack in the first place, all those years ago.

“Maybe I wanted you to make a suggestion about me so I could make a suggestion about you,” Ennis pointed out.

Jack whipped his head around so fast Ennis was surprised he didn’t break something. “You got something to say about my appearance?” He sounded completely baffled.

Ennis scratched at the back of his neck. “Well,” he started slowly. “Just—the mustache.”

Jack raised his eyebrows again. “You don’t like it? You never said anything.”

“I…” Ennis felt a bit backed into a corner now. This was what whimsy got him. “Just saying.”

“You just said hardly anything,” Jack pointed out.

“Didn’t know as I had the right,” Ennis managed to say.

Jack tilted his head. “Come on, Ennis, tell me how you like my mustache.”

“I don’t,” Ennis finally snapped. “Hides your lip.”

Jack’s mouth dropped open. Ennis felt so foolish he could die right here on the spot. Except he was driving, and Jack was already injured, so he’d have to stay alive until they got back to the house.

“Well,” Jack said. “Never knew you cared about seeing my lip.”

Ennis was pretty sure his whole body was bright red by now. “Got that mole,” he mumbled, keeping his focus on the road in front of him. In for a penny, he supposed. Besides, if he could admit over the phone he was wringing one out, he could probably handle this. Jack didn’t say anything. At all. Ennis chanced a glance over at him. Jack looked like someone had cracked him one upside the head. “What?” Ennis demanded defensively.

“Nothing,” Jack said faintly. “I just—” He shook his head. “Goddamn, Ennis. All these years and you still surprise me.”

“That good?” Ennis asked, trying not to sound as anxious as he felt. Jack had surprised him at that meeting, and not completely in a good way. Maybe that’s what spurred this conversation. Ennis just wanted to feel like this was the Jack he knew. His Jack, maybe, if he let himself think that way.

“Yeah, Ennis,” Jack said softly. “It’s good.”

They didn’t say much the rest of the ride back. But as soon as they got up the stairs, Jack went right to the bathroom and shaved off his mustache. Ennis realized, for the first time, maybe it had been his right all along.

 

They were sitting down to breakfast when the jangling phone made everyone jump. Jack had bought the phone years ago, always paid to keep it up so his mother could call should she need anything, but in the month he’d been there, Ennis hadn’t heard it ring even once.

Eliza got up and answered it in a hushed voice. Jack’s father’s mouth twisted just at the sound. If Ennis had to hazard a guess, he’d assume Jack’s father didn’t like the reminder that Jack had the money to pay for things like that.

“Ennis, dear, it’s for you,” Eliza said. It took Ennis a second to process what she’d said.

“Me?” He asked, mostly involuntarily. He usually stayed all but silent if Jack’s father was in the room. There was something so incredibly unnerving about that man. Not to mention he made Ennis boil with rage at the way he treated Jack, and Eliza, too, and Ennis didn’t want to risk knocking his teeth out.

“I think it’s your daughter,” Eliza said. “She sounded lovely.”

Ennis wasn’t sure how someone could sound lovely, though if it were possible, his girls surely did. He wiped his hands on his pants and nodded his thanks as Eliza handed over the phone.

“Uh huh?” He said by way of greeting. He didn’t know for sure it was one of the girls, after all.

“Daddy!” Jenny squealed in his ear. He didn’t even mind that it hurt a bit. He smiled pretty big right away.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he said. “What’s going on? Everything alright?”

“Daddy,” Junior broke in, and he chuckled as he pictured them pressing their faces together and elbowing each other for control of the phone. “I just wanted to check and see if you’re still coming.”

“Coming where?” He asked absently. Before Junior could do more than groan, his brain caught up. “Oh, right,” he said. “Of course I am.”

Jenny squealed again, but Junior always tempered her excitement more. It made him sad, in a way. He didn’t want her to hide her happiness. But she’d probably learned it from him.

“Okay, great,” she said. “What’re your plans? I know you won’t want to stay with Mama and Monroe.”

“Uh, no,” he agreed wryly. “Don’t you worry about me.”

“How many days are you staying, Daddy?” Jenny asked earnestly.

He hadn’t planned to even stay the night, but then Junior added, “We’re doing a rehearsal the night before, and a dinner and everything. You don’t have to come if you’re too busy.”

It wasn’t a great feeling, knowing his own daughter was prepared for him to shoot her down without so much as a discussion. “I’ll be there,” he promised. “We got cows coming in early next week, but they’ll be settled by then.”

“Oh, thank you,” Junior breathed.

“What do we gotta rehearse?” He asked. “I mean, I don’t remember doing that.”

“Maybe you should’ve,” Jenny teased triumphantly.

“Jenny,” Junior scolded, but Ennis laughed. Jenny was turning into a real spitfire. “We’re just making sure everybody knows where to stand and when to walk in, Daddy.”

“Alright,” Ennis sighed, wondering if that meant he’d have to stand around in a fake wedding before standing around in the real wedding. “I’ll be there, darlin’.”

“Thank you, Daddy,” Junior cried, losing out on holding back her excitement. “Okay, we’ll see you next week.”

“Love you!” Jenny yelled.

“Alright, I’ll see you girls then. Be good,” Ennis added. They were too old to need his reminders, but it felt like something he should say. He was still smiling a bit when he went back to the table.

“Your girls?” Jack asked.

Ennis nodded. “Reminding me ‘bout the wedding.”

“You wouldn’t forget that,” Jack said reproachfully, like the girls should have more faith in Ennis. It was nice that Jack had that faith, but Jack was just about the only person who had any reason to. Ennis had skipped more dance recitals and school plays than he could count because cows were calving or a storm was coming or, more than once, to see Jack himself.

“You got girls?” John asked. He had that mocking tone in his voice that made all the hairs on the back of Ennis’s neck stand up.

“Yessir, two,” Ennis said. He knew a lot of people would go on with names and ages, but he didn’t. He might’ve, if it were just Eliza, but he didn’t feel like telling Jack’s father anything, least of all anything about the girls.

John spat into his cup. Ennis really hated when he did that, and he did it a lot. “So you both done left your children.”

Jack tensed beside Ennis. “Not like any of ‘em are children, really. Ennis’s older girl is getting married next week.”

“Your boy ain’t finishing school for years. If he finishes at all,” John sneered.

“Bobby’s doing fine,” Jack snapped. “He’s got a tutor now.”

“But he ain’t got a daddy, does he?”

“Oh, and what’d you ever do for me?” Jack asked hotly. “Beat me and cut me down.”

“Must not’ve beat you enough,” John said, tipping his chin toward Ennis. “Still a little pansy.”

Ennis’s blood was rushing in his ears now, but he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t argue it wasn’t true; John knew about him and Jack. And he couldn’t say anything he wanted to say in front of Eliza; nothing he wanted to say now was fit for a lady’s ears. She was staring down at the table, not saying a word, and Ennis knew the only reason Jack ever came back to this place was for her.

“I’m twice the father you ever were,” Jack spat.

“Yet here you are,” John drawled. “With your little friend.”

“Think that’s enough,” Ennis finally cut in roughly.

“Bet you do,” John muttered.

“Come on,” Jack said. “Thank you for supper, Mama, but we’re going out to check the horses.”

Ennis had his teeth clenched so hard he thought he might break some of them, but he followed Jack’s lead. It wasn’t like he could get in a fist fight with an old man, even if he was a nasty son of a bitch who deserved it. Ennis followed Jack, who was hopping out of the kitchen with as much dignity as he could muster. Ennis let him do it himself, because he could tell that was what Jack wanted.

Once the door banged shut behind them, Jack released a long, harsh breath. “Fucking hate him,” he said, voice low and angry. “Hate him so much.”

“Hey, we got that cabin almost done,” Ennis pointed out. “Get away from him soon.”

“Wish my mama would just smother him in his goddamn sleep,” Jack muttered, hopping away from Ennis and off to the pasture. “Course he won’t die on his own. That’d be a good thing for the rest of us.”

“He’s a mean old sumbitch,” Ennis agreed.

“I care about my son,” Jack went on. This was another one of those conversations Jack was mostly having with himself, but Ennis was wise enough about this topic to stay tuned in. That was Jack’s sore spot; he didn’t care much about being called a pansy or less of a man. Ennis didn’t know how Jack stood it, but comments like that had never bothered Jack. He was probably immune to it, growing up with that father. Besides, Jack had always been such a pretty boy; he’d probably heard he was a Nancy boy his whole life, from all kinds of folks.

But Bobby—that was the way to wound Jack. He’d always doubted himself as a father, always had LD telling Bobby what a miserable failure Jack was so Bobby’d be ashamed of him. Even still, Bobby adored Jack. Ennis hadn’t even met the boy and he knew that. Jack was the one who packed Bobby’s lunch every morning, who checked over his report cards, who found the tutor when Bobby’s teacher said he’d be held back if his grades didn’t improve. For all his bitching about LD over the years, most of Jack’s conversation topics circled back to his son somehow. Jack once told Ennis he knew he’d failed at most things in his life, but he didn’t want to fail with Bobby.

This was a situation where Ennis was supposed to comfort Jack. He knew that. He was supposed to say Jack was a good father. But what did Ennis know from good fathers? His own father, good or otherwise, had died before he was ten years old. He’d been raised by his brother, mostly, and Ennis himself was never winning Father of the Year. He hadn’t lived with his girls in years. It stung, a little, hearing that cranky old man imply he abandoned his daughters, but Ennis got over that slight a long time ago.

Ennis just didn’t know what to say to Jack. He was sure Jack was a good father, in that he cared enough to pitch a fit whenever Bobby needed it. Probably more than just when Bobby needed it, truth be told. It just wasn’t something Ennis was well-versed in. The only things Ennis knew enough about to pass judgment on were horses and Jack himself.

“He’ll die soon,” Ennis said. It was probably a callous thing to say, something that would’ve scandalized Alma, back when they’d first been married and she’d still thought Ennis was some kind of Prince Charming, but he knew it was a balm to Jack.

Jack sighed. “Not soon enough,” he said.

“Probably not,” Ennis agreed.

Jack had his back to Ennis and he was leaning against the fence. Ennis may not have words, but he knew what kind of touches Jack needed. He wrapped his arm around Jack’s chest, just like he did all those years ago. He hooked his chin over Jack’s shoulder and let Jack rest back against him.

“Maybe when the cows get here,” Ennis started, “he’ll want to come out and see. And maybe he’ll have an accident and get stomped on.”

Jack’s laugh rumbled against Ennis’s chest. “That’s a sweet dream,” Jack said.

“Maybe someone’ll give him a little help going down.”

Jack laughed again, louder this time. “You saying I should kill my old man?”

“Course not,” Ennis said. “You wouldn’t be able to look your mama in the face. I’d do it.”

“You’re getting to be a true romantic in your old age,” Jack teased.

“Getting tired of him calling us pansies,” Ennis grumbled.

Jack sighed. “Well, you get used to it after a while.”

Ennis frowned, though Jack couldn’t see it. “Don’t care to get used to it.”

Jack tensed up against him. He didn’t say anything for a second, like he was waiting for Ennis to say more. Ennis didn’t, of course, and Jack didn’t relax. He pushed away from Ennis and turned around to face him. “Well, guess we’ll just have to avoid him much as we can.” He had a strange look on his face, one Ennis didn’t know how to read. Being together this much was showing Ennis he really didn’t know Jack as well as he thought he did. He was used to Jack mostly being in a good mood when he got him. It seemed good-time Jack was a short-term thing.

“Fine with me,” Ennis said, trying not to sound too bewildered.

“Come on,” Jack said, nudging at Ennis. “We really do gotta feed those horses.”

Ennis wrapped an arm around Jack’s waist to help him get out to the barn. Jack chattered on about the deal with Ed and the cows coming in a few days, and he didn’t meet Ennis’s eyes for the rest of the night.

 

Ennis had a change of clothes and some sandwiches Eliza made him sitting in the truck. Jack wasn't meeting his eyes, like this was the last day of a fishing trip and there were so many things left unspoken that they couldn't say anything at all.

Ennis coughed, not sure what was going on or how to handle it, and clapped a hand on Jack's shoulder. "See ya in a few days."

Jack caught his hand and yanked him in, kissed him rough and scraping and left him breathless and aching. "See ya."

"The hell?" Ennis managed to ask. They were in the stifling room at the top of the stairs, so he wasn’t worried anyone would see, but he was still caught off guard. It wasn’t like they didn’t have their fair share of quick and dirty kisses, but this seemed a little out of the blue.

Jack shrugged, still not looking at him. "What's the point of ranching up if I don't getta give you a real goodbye?"

There was a hard edge under his words and Ennis didn't understand how to fix it, didn't even know what Jack was so sore about. They'd spent just yesterday working on the cabin—Ennis working, Jack watching and insulting his work—and had tussled gently in the tall grass. Far as he knew, Ennis hadn't dodged Jack the way he hated. He'd woken up with his arms full of Jack and getting his things ready to go was all he'd done since, barring throwing hay out to the cows and cutting a bunch of the bales into smaller chunks so Jack would have an easier time lifting them while Ennis was gone. Jack couldn’t be mad about that—his ribs were better, mostly, but they weren’t completely healed and usually he liked Ennis taking care of him. But here it was hardly 9 am and somehow Jack was already pissed off.

Ennis chewed at his thumbnail for a minute, watching the way Jack turned away from him, and squinted out the window at the sun. He felt uneasy leaving when Jack was in a mood like this, but he had to get going to make it to Junior's rehearsal dinner on time. He'd be late as it was.

Ennis shook his head, bewildered, and said, "Stay off that leg," as he left the room. Jack muttered something after him that sounded suspiciously like go to hell but he didn't pause to question it. Maybe Jack was cranky off coming down from the pills.

Ennis didn't think much on the drive there. If he let himself, he'd get worked up over what Alma was no doubt going to say to him, and he didn't want to show up for Junior all jittery and mean, so he kept his thoughts on the work they still needed to do. One week, probably, until the cabin would be ready; they had to wait on the hot water heater, because Ennis wasn't going to put up with Jack bitching about cold showers.

But everything else was mostly fine; there were walls and windows and a heater and fireplace, so they could go ahead and sleep there now, before it was completely done. He was tired of Jack's father's shadow hanging over them. That probably accounted for Jack's storm clouds this morning, or at least part of it. The whole month and a half they’d been there, Jack had been more subdued than Ennis was used to, glancing over his shoulder when he heard footsteps behind him. Maybe he’d relax a bit when they had a space of their own. And surely Ennis suggesting it would get him out of whatever doghouse he’d unwittingly slunk into last night.

Ennis got to Riverton and blew out a breath as he saw all the cars in the church parking lot. Junior had a lot of friends, he guessed, or maybe Kurt had a big family that all lived close. He squared his shoulders and reminded himself he was doing this for Junior.

He stopped in at the bathroom to take a piss and splash some water across his face, try to look presentable. He had shaved this morning, Jack holding the mirror for him because the little bathroom had no mirror on the wall after Jack's father threw him into it at fourteen and the whole thing broke, slicing Jack all up so his mama thought he'd bleed to death. It hadn't been long enough for any shade to grow back along Ennis's jaw. Truth told, it took Ennis two days to raise up the stubble Jack grew in a matter of hours. Ennis kind of liked the way Jack’s stubble felt against his smooth skin, but thinking about it too long made him hot under the collar and a little sick with shame, so he didn’t.

He tugged at his collar, making sure the mark Jack had left last night was well and covered, and then followed the sounds of screaming children and people talking, working to keep a grimace off his face.

"Daddy!" Jenny yelled when he came into sight. He flashed a smile for her, but he was overwhelmed. Ennis had never been what anyone could call social, but when he'd lived in town he'd been around people at the post office, other hands at the ranch, men holding up stools at the bar. In the month and a half in Lightning Flat, he'd seen no one but Jack and his parents, aside from their one business meeting in town.

This room was full to bursting with strangers, all talking and telling stories and clanking their forks around. It was too loud, too much movement all around the room at once. Everyone looked at him when Jenny brought their attention, and he worked hard not to turn around on the spot. Jenny ran up and hugged him, and that helped distract him from everyone looking at him.

Junior came running over, too, and soon he had one in each arm. An actual smile filled his face. He did love his girls, no doubt about that.

"Daddy, you look good," Jenny told him. Ennis laughed a little bit and tweaked her nose.

"Well, thank you, darlin’, even if you do sound surprised."

Jenny laughed, never stingy with it the way he was. "You know what I mean!"

He didn't, not really, but he didn't care. He squeezed them both again and Junior said, "I'm so happy you came, Daddy."

"I am, too," he told her, and it was the truth.

"Come on, get something to eat," Junior said, steering him over to a long table laden with mismatched cookware. Potluck, the way these things always seemed to be. "We're goin' a do the rehearsal in half an hour."

Ennis didn't quite keep the wrinkle out of his nose and Junior elbowed him without comment. Both girls hovered at his shoulders as he fixed a plate, telling him what they'd been up to and peppering their stories with,

"Daddy, take some more potatoes," and "That fruit salad's no good, Daddy, it's got raisins like you hate." He almost wanted to drop the plate and hug both of them to his chest again. He'd missed them, even if they made him come to things like this.

"What you been up to?" Jenny finally asked, curiosity not even hidden. "Getting that ranch up and going?"

Ennis shrugged. "Well, it's slow going," he revealed. "Jack's daddy’s pretty old, can’t do much, and Jack’s still a bit busted up, so I do most of the work with the cows."

"What exactly happened to him?" Junior asked. "You ain't said."

Ennis chewed his lip a moment, not sure what to tell them but knowing it wouldn't be the truth, no way. "He got, uh, mugged, police calling it. Some fellas came along, smashed him up, stole his truck."

Jenny gasped, eyes wide. "That's horrible!"

Ennis shrugged again, nonchalant like he didn't still have nightmares about it and what it could've been. "He's alive."

"It's just you two and his folks? Seems awful lonesome," Junior said reproachfully, always worried about Ennis being on his own like that wasn't his heart's desire, with a very short list of exceptions.

"Well Jack, he don't quit talking even one minute," Ennis revealed, helpless against the fondness rising in his chest. "Hard to get real lonesome with him there." That was more of the truth than he’d meant to say out loud, and talking about Jack was making his chest hurt a little. It wasn’t the sick fear he usually got; he realized, with a little start, that he missed Jack. So much time together all in a row was making Ennis soft. He used to go months at a time without so much as a word from Jack and he could bear it, and now he was missing him when they’d woken up together this morning.

"I'm glad you got your friend close by," Jenny declared. "You been meeting up all these years, must be nice to get to see him more."

Ennis ducked his head a little and hoped he wasn't blushing. "Sure is."

"I can't imagine only seeing Sarah Jo two or three times in a year!" She went on. "Junior, you don't see Edith much no more, do you? Don't you miss your best friend?"

"Well, Kurt's my best friend now," Junior said. "And I sure wouldn't want to be so far away from him for so long."

There was a quiet little something in her voice that made Ennis's stomach drop. He couldn't look up and look her in the face, could hardly swallow the mouthful he'd just taken. Jenny barreled right over the moment, sighing about how romantic Junior and Kurt were, and after a few minutes Ennis felt it was safe to look up.

"So where is this Kurt?" He asked. "I get to meet him?"

Junior's face lit up. "He's talking to Mama. I'll go get him."

Ennis felt a little dread at the mention of Alma. He willed her not to come over and talk to him, and he got some kind of lucky break because Junior came back with a guy at her side who looked like he'd recently been scrubbed within an inch of his life.

"Hello, Mr. Del Mar," he said, nervous but standing at Junior's side tall and sure.

"Kurt," Ennis said. He shook the boy's hand and appreciated the strong grip. His nails were mostly clean, though there was still a sheen of oil around them. They were cleaner than Ennis’s, actually, now he looked. "You reckon you're good enough for my girl here?"

Junior gave Ennis a dirty look and Jenny giggled. Kurt shrugged. "No, probably not," he admitted. "But I aim to do right by her." Kurt and Junior shared a look, one of those soft smiles that meant they were over the moon for each other, and Ennis's stomach suddenly hurt so bad he wanted to turn away. He swallowed hard.

"Good," he said, glad he didn't sound too rough. He wanted to say more, say that sometimes aiming to do right wasn't enough, say that if his heart wasn't in it he'd better get lost now, but he stuffed it down. He didn't remember ever looking at Alma that way, not even before he'd gone up the mountain and found what he hadn't been looking for, so he reckoned it was probably alright. He’d mostly just been afraid of her. Women were a mystery Ennis still hadn’t cracked.

Kurt sat there a while, talking about work and some new movie that was out. Ennis didn't contribute much, but Junior must've warned Kurt because he didn't look too put out. He brought up horses on what had to have been an inside tip and got three whole sentences out of Ennis.

"Daddy, you all done?" Junior asked, nodding at his plate. "Need some more to eat? How 'bout some pie?"

"No, darlin’, I'm fine," he promised. "Why don't we get on to your rehearsal?"

"You sure?" Jenny teased. "You could keep eating and put it off."

"Best get it over with, I s'pose," Ennis said, making his face extra solemn and grave. Jenny laughed open and loud and Junior giggled a little.

"It won't be so bad, Daddy," she wheedled. "You just gotta hold my arm and walk and then your part's all done."

And then I turn you over to this kid, Ennis thought, emotion suddenly choking him. He nodded but didn't say anything, stood up to throw out his plate. His luck didn't hold and he met Alma at the trash cans. He didn't know what it was about them and dirty dishes.

"Alma," he said.

"Ennis."

He didn't know if he was supposed to stick around and say anything else, but she made the decision by saying mildly,

"Heard you moved out to a place of your own."

Ennis tensed, ready for the blow to fall, and gave a noncommittal grunt for his answer. She was used to that, didn't let it deter her.

"What you always wanted, ain't it?" She asked, the stiff set of her shoulders belying her placid tone, and Ennis couldn't breathe.

"Guess so," he mumbled, because it wasn't like he'd ever let himself actually think about what he wanted. All those years he'd had what he had and he'd had what he did with Jack in the mountains and he hadn't wasted time or thought on anything else. Jack hadn't brought it up anymore after that once, that first time after four years, so Ennis had been able to ignore it even though his eyes had always held it.

"Guess so," she echoed under her breath. "Like you ain't all perky the way you always was after—" She cut herself off, wisely, and Ennis turned away from her, didn't even bother saying anything by way of parting, just went back to his daughters, tucking his hands into his pockets to hide the shake in them.

Ennis did his part, stood by Junior's side to practice walking like he needed a reminder on how to do it, and then he was free until tomorrow morning when he'd be contained by his old suit, too short in the arms and too loose in the ass, to do this all over again for real.

"See you in the morning," Ennis said, accepting a kiss on the cheek from both girls. He shook Kurt's hand again, avoided Alma's eyes, and drove off. He was making his way to the motel—not the Siesta, because he wasn't going to stay there alone—and didn't let himself second-guess stopping at the phone booth. The line rang four or five times before Eliza answered, almost cautious.

"Hello, ma'am," Ennis said, suddenly feeling too big for the booth. "Is, uh. Jack ain't up the stairs, is he?" He hadn't put thought into how Jack was going to get around without him. He was more mobile now, putting more weight on his leg, but the stairs were still tough. “Uh, it’s Ennis,” he added, just in case, feeling more foolish than he could remember feeling in a long time.

"Ennis," Eliza said warmly, and his cheeks heated. "He's right here."

"Ennis?" Jack asked warily. They weren't used to the phone, not even with the handful of recent calls before they’d started this new leg.

"Hey, bud," Ennis said, and then he stopped because that constituted the entirety of what he'd thought to say.

"You got there alright," Jack commented, maddeningly lukewarm.

"Yup. Went to the church, did the rehearsal part."

There was a beat of silence. Ennis was trying to gauge if Jack was still mad at him about whatever the problem had been that morning, and it seemed the answer was yes, going off the way he wasn't saying anything.

"Junior's got me wearing a, uh, a pink tie," he revealed. Sometimes if he kept talking Jack would take pity on him for the effort and jump in. "Says it's her colors. Gotta take pictures in it tomorrow 'fore the wedding."

Jack snorted. "Want to see that." He didn't go on, but it sounded like he was at least smiling a little.

"Kurt's alright," Ennis offered. "Met him."

"You didn't kill him, huh?" Jack said, fonder now. Ennis huffed.

"Well, Junior seems to like him okay."

"Hope so, if she's marrying him tomorrow." He was downright teasing now and Ennis could finally breathe again.

"She could still change her mind," Ennis said, thinking about how he'd spent the night before his wedding half-hoping Alma would.

"She could." Jack clammed back up again and Ennis was annoyed. He usually knew what he'd done to deserve the cold shoulder, but right now he didn't and he was mad that Jack was mad after Ennis had finally moved out there with him.

"You mad 'bout something?" He asked, tired of feeling it out. It was less of a question about the truth of the statement and more an unspoken why.

"Nope."

"Coulda fooled me."

Jack blew out a breath. "Just tired."

"You didn't go out and work on the well, did you?" Ennis scolded. "You can't be digging with your ribs all hurt. I know they’re feeling better but they won’t quit hurting if you don’t let ‘em heal."

"You ain't my mama, you ol’ hypocrite," Jack muttered, but at least it wasn't mean-spirited. It also didn't assuage Ennis's suspicions that Jack had pushed himself.

"Yeah, well, I sure hope not."

They were quiet a minute, strange to be back on the phone after over a month straight of talking in the flesh.

"Quarter's almost up," Ennis finally said. "I'll leave from the church tomorrow, probably around two or so."

"Alright," Jack said. "Tell Junior I'm happy for her."

"Will do," Ennis said, even though they both knew he had no intention of following through. He wasn't going to bring up Jack if he didn't have to, wouldn't give anyone any ammunition.

"Bye." Jack sounded unsettled in a way that left a pit in Ennis's stomach.

"Jack," he started, but found he didn't have anything else to say, not really. "See you tomorrow," he finished. It was almost a question.

"See you tomorrow," Jack echoed. Ennis listened to him breathing for another second before he hung up. He had a strange desire to call back, just to hear Jack again. He shook his head at himself and drove off.

 

Ennis tried not to fidget too much as he and Junior waited for their cue. She looked radiant, all done up in her white dress with her veil and all. She squeezed his arm.

"Thank you for coming, Daddy," she said, like she hadn't already thanked him and it was some great imposition.

"Wouldn't miss my girl's big day," Ennis said gruffly. She kindly didn't mention that she'd had plenty of big days he'd missed in the past.

"Your friend could've come, too, you know," she ventured. Ennis tugged at the cuffs of his jacket.

"You don't know him," he pointed out.

"I don't know half the people here," she laughed. "Never met most of Kurt's family. And he's your friend. Anyway, I met him once."

Ennis winced a little at the reminder. "Yeah. Well, he's all busted up. Long drive ain't good for his back."

"Hm."

It felt like it was taking forever for the music to kick up. Ennis cleared his throat awkwardly and rubbed his hands down his thighs.

"You like living out there with him?" Junior tried again.

Ennis grunted and shrugged. "'Bout as much as I like living anywhere, I s'pose." Then he added quickly, "Wish it were closer to you girls."

"We miss you," she told him. "But you look happy, Daddy. You're happy?"

They were both looking straight ahead, but it felt like she was looking right into his soul. His palms were starting to sweat. She was beating around the bush, sure, but he could tell—she was sniffing around, suspicious, and his heart was squeezing painfully in his chest. He wanted to play dumb, wanted to ask her what kind of question it was, but here it was her wedding day and lying seemed wrong. Besides, he was still feeling off-kilter about how strange Jack had sounded last night, and he felt like Jack would know, somehow, if he denied it.

"Yeah," he confirmed, the truth of it hitting him as he said it. "I'm happy," he said, surprised. "I am."

"Oh, Daddy." Junior's voice was choked up and she flung her arms around his neck the way she hadn't since she was a little girl. "I'm so glad."

"Thank you, Junior," he murmured. The music started up and he helped her make sure her veil was in place. "Ready?" He asked her. She held her head up high and squared her shoulders.

"Ready."

They walked down the aisle and he made himself focus completely on Junior, not on the people staring at him. He wondered how many of them heard he’d moved out there with his old fishing buddy and suspected—

He cut off his thoughts. He looked down at Junior and smiled, proud of how beautiful she was, and she beamed back at him. They stopped at the end of the aisle and he let go of her. She rose to her tiptoes and kissed his cheek, and tears welled up in his eyes. He hadn't thought he'd get so emotional. He took a step back and sat beside Jenny, who grabbed onto his arm and squeezed tight.

Junior and Kurt stood there before the preacher as he talked about sickness and health, worse and better. Ennis hadn't kept those vows. Not with Alma, anyway. He thought of worse—the trailhead, driving away time after time, the divorce, all the revelations about Mexico and Randall—and he thought of better—the time at Don Wroe's cabin, laughing over a bottle of whiskey across twenty years of different landscapes, singing on the mountain, sharing a real bed for the whole last month and working side-by-side every day—and he thought about sickness—that time they’d gone camping and Ennis had nearly shit his brains out after picking up some bug, and Jack kept running around bringing him water and bunding him up. Ennis got a lump in his throat so big it hurt. He felt guilty for how badly he wanted this to be over so he could leave.

Junior and Kurt sealed their promises with a kiss and then Jenny got up and sang and Ennis fought his way through the crowd to hug his girls, pat Kurt on the back, and beg off the catered dinner.

"Got a drive," he explained. Jenny pouted but Junior smiled softly and put her small hand on his arm and said,

"Tell Jack hello." He could only nod, throat tight as Kurt looked on curiously.

"I want to come visit!" Jenny insisted. "Please, Daddy, can't I?"

"I don't know, honey, we'll talk about it," he said, which was different than we'll see and made her eyes light up.

And then he loosened his tie, threw his jacket in the passenger seat, and lead-footed across the state.

It was long dark when he pulled up, the only light from Jack's little bedroom, and Ennis was bone-tired but suddenly couldn't get out of the truck fast enough, practically running to the house. He didn't know what it was, what had come over him, but he needed to see Jack. He didn’t even stop to check on the horses; he knew Jack wouldn’t be up in bed without taking care of them first, and just now he didn’t feel like he could stop for anything.

Ennis slowed down at the top of the stairs, took a deep breath before pushing the door open. Jack was lying on the narrow bed, hands up behind his head and a bunch of pillows propping him up, and he sat up when Ennis came in.

"You came back," he blurted out wonderingly. "I—"

Ennis suddenly realized why Jack had been so cold and he crossed the room in a flash, sat down beside Jack.

"You didn't think I'd come back?" He'd be hurt if it didn't make such sense. Jack hung his head anyway, like he'd done something wrong. It was Ennis who’d done it wrong all this time.

"I’m sorry," he said. "I just got worried you'd get there and people would be asking what you were up to and the girls would ask questions and there’s all the bullshit my daddy says all the time and..." He trailed off, putting a hand on Ennis's face. "But you came back."

It hadn't even crossed Ennis's mind not to. But, he realized with a rush of shame, not because he was so strong in his decision to be here. Mostly just because he didn't change quick without someone pulling him to it, couldn't think of reversing his decision after he'd made it. He lived here with Jack now, so he’d come back here. Ennis tipped forward and leaned his head against Jack's.

"Left some important things here," he whispered.

"Yeah?" Jack said hopefully.

"Garbo and Abraham," Ennis affirmed. Jack didn't move for a second, and then he scoffed and shoved Ennis away, but he was laughing.

"Funny man, huh?" He grumbled, rolling his eyes but smiling that wide smile that made Ennis think of a couple kids shooting the shit around a hundred different fires over the years. Jack tugged at the end of the tie Ennis was still wearing, his smile turning softer.

"Pink tie," he said.

"Said you wanted to see it," Ennis mumbled, embarrassed until Jack pulled a little harder and reeled him in for a kiss, smiling against his lips.

They sat there for a moment, heads rested together and breaths mingling. "Junior says hi," Ennis finally said. It was hard to push the words out, but he knew it was the kind of thing that would make Jack happy. It did; Ennis felt Jack's smile curve against his face. "And Jenny wants to come visit."

The smile slid away and Jack's eye flicked to the door—to the hall, to the room beyond, where his father was sleeping. "I don't know," he said slowly. "I wouldn't want her..." He swallowed and shrugged.

"Hey," Ennis said, brushing a hand through Jack's hair. "Cabin's almost ready."

That brought the sun back out, though it was dimmed just a little. "Can't wait."

"I know." Ennis nuzzled his nose around Jack's, thinking about all those feelings he'd had at the wedding but knowing he wouldn't be able to tell Jack about it. He wanted to, he wished he could, but he knew himself alright by now and knew it wasn't going to happen. “We could move out there now,” he pointed out. “Just waiting on that hot water heater.”

Jack raised his eyebrows. “Hot water heater? Ennis del Mar, you getting fussy in your old age?”

Ennis rolled his eyes. “We both know who it’s for.”

Jack just looked at him for a minute, his eyes shining in a way that made Ennis duck his head, and then he leaned in and kissed Ennis so soft it was hardly there.

“Yeah,” he whispered. “We do.” He tugged Ennis down to lie on the bed with him. Ennis felt like his heart was bursting. Like that Grinch in the book he read to the girls when they were little—his heart was growing, maybe. He’d scoffed inside when he read the book, but feeling it now, Ennis reflected, it wasn’t a bad feeling at all.

 

“What day that water heater supposed to get here?” Ennis asked, teeth chattering after the freezing shower he’d just taken. It felt like jumping in the river any time they went camping. Jack didn’t turn around, didn’t answer, didn’t give any indication he’d even heard. “Jack?” Ennis tried.

Jack turned around, and his eyes were all shiny. Ennis felt the bottom of his stomach drop out. Something must’ve happened. Why else would Jack be crying on a Tuesday morning, especially after they just enjoyed their first night in their own little house?

“Ennis,” he said softly, and then Ennis looked down and noticed Jack was holding a ratty old pillowcase in one hand and a bent postcard in the other.

Ennis felt his cheeks heat up. He didn’t really ever plan for Jack to find those. “Oh.”

“You kept all these?” Jack asked, voice hushed. “All these years?”

Ennis shrugged, feeling awkward. “Didn’t want nobody finding them in the trash.” It was a lie, and a bad one; his voice sounded unsure and hollow. Jack shook his head.

“That ain’t why.”

“Yeah, well, sounds like you got it all figured out,” Ennis said. He didn’t know, exactly, why it made him so uncomfortable that Jack was holding the stack of postcards. Maybe just because he never considered Jack would ever find them. He never had to consider that before. But it was ridiculous to be embarrassed for Jack to see a symbol of Ennis’s feelings. How could Jack not have known how important their time together was? And Ennis was here, wasn’t he? Why was he feeling foolish that Jack could see he was special to Ennis when they were shacked up together?

“Stay here,” Jack said. He put the pillowcase of postcards down, almost reverently.

“Where you going?” Ennis called after him. He couldn’t follow him because he was naked as a jaybird.

“Gotta get something,” Jack hollered over his shoulder just before the door slammed shut. That was Jack Twist, alright, always going around slamming doors and running off without explaining anything. Not that running was an accurate description of Jack was doing, necessarily. He’d cut his cast off himself—two weeks early, of course—while Ennis was gone, so he didn’t have to hop anymore, but his bad leg was weaker than ever and his gait was a little lopsided now. Ennis wouldn’t be surprised if that fool tumbled ass over elbows all the way to wherever he was going.

That thought worried Ennis a little, so he glanced out the window, but Jack was nowhere in sight. Ennis huffed and got himself into his clothes. Jack was taking so long he’d either gotten lost or he was going all the way up to the main house. They were pretty far away on purpose.

When Jack finally came back in, he wasn’t running anymore. He was breathing hard and wincing a bit with each step, and Ennis shook his head at the sight of him.

“You damn fool,” he said. “Gonna wreck that leg even more.”

“Shut up,” Jack said. He held something up. A shirt. Ennis raised his eyebrows. Jack ran all the way up to his old room to grab a shirt? It was a denim shirt, like Ennis had seen Jack wear back…

Ennis felt gobsmacked. There was a smear of rust-colored blood on the sleeve, and Ennis could see faded plaid creeping up the collar. He took a step closer and tugged the hanger from Jack’s hands.

“Is this…?” Ennis trailed off, because he didn’t need to ask. That was his shirt, the one he’d lost on Brokeback. And that was Jack’s shirt. Sometimes, in Ennis’s sweetest dreams, that was the shirt Jack wore.

“I kept ‘em,” Jack whispered. “Hid ‘em in the closet up there.”

Ennis swallowed hard. He could feel tears pricking at his eyes. “Jack,” he murmured.

“I had to have something, Ennis,” Jack explained softly. “I couldn’t walk away from you and not have one single thing to remember you by.”

Ennis nodded, because he knew. He understood. Not that Jack needed the shirts, and not that Ennis needed the postcards, to remember each other. Not really. But something tangible, something to look at and feel and know it was all real during those long, aching months apart—that was what he’d needed. Something to tell him for sure he wasn’t crazy, that it wasn’t just some dream he’d cooked up when he was half-asleep during morning feeding.

Ennis set the shirts gently on the bed beside the pillowcase of postcards and put his hand on Jack’s face. Ennis could map out Jack’s face by memory. He knew every inch and plane of it. He could map the freckles and moles and he knew every time a new line cropped up. He brushed his thumb over the smooth skin of Jack’s bare upper lip, bare for him, and he leaned in close and inhaled the smell of Jack. They probably smelled about the same these days; they washed their clothes together, used the same soap, shared the same aftershave. It was just like up on the mountain, when they’d both stank of sheep shit almost constantly and shared the one little sliver of soap they could find.

“God, Ennis,” Jack choked out. “I keep thinking you’re gonna run off one of these days. But you aren’t, are you? You kept those postcards all these years. You really are here for good.”

It would hurt, Jack still doubting him like that, if Ennis didn’t know he deserved that doubt. He’d never given Jack many reasons not to doubt him. Though, he reflected, he had always shown up when they agreed to, August notwithstanding. They’d be getting August after all, anyway, and November to boot. Not to mention everything in between.

“Jack, I swear,” Ennis whispered, voice thick.

“I know,” Jack murmured back. “I know, Ennis.”

Ennis sniffed, feeling a little overwhelmed and kind of silly by this outpouring of emotion so early in the morning. “Took you twenty years to get me here,” he managed to joke. “Guess it’ll take about twenty or so more to get rid of me.”

Jack laughed wetly and pulled Ennis closer. “You dumb son of a bitch,” he said. “You leave me in twenty years, it better be in a pine box.”

“Now that’s two murders you’ve planned in a week,” Ennis pointed out. “Slow down, rodeo.”

Jack laughed again and buried his face in Ennis’s shoulder. Ennis held onto him tight. He glanced down at their shirts, took in the way Jack had entwined them together. He’d put his own shirt on the outside. Ennis could think of the logical justification—in case someone happened upon them, maybe, so it’d just look like one of Jack’s old shirts. But Ennis knew why Jack had done it that way. That was Jack wrapping Ennis up in his arms. For twenty years, Jack had kept Ennis enfolded, even just in their shirts. He’d held onto Ennis as tight as he could.

Now, Ennis was standing here in the little house they’d built together, for themselves, and he was holding Jack in his arms. He tightened his hold on Jack and pressed his face against Jack’s. He pressed their lips together and relished the feeling of Jack, warm and solid against him, and he made himself a vow. No matter what happened, no matter who saw and no matter what anyone said, this was his job now. He was going to stay as tightly wound around Jack Twist as humanly possible, and he was never going to let another thing happen to him.

Jack had held him the first twenty years. The next twenty could be Ennis’s turn.