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Life Ain't Easy

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What was and what could have been. One choice. A few words either spoken or buried deep inside. The possibility can be just as real as what we think is our genuine reality. And perhaps, just perhaps, someone’s personal heaven or hell is experiencing what could have been.

++++++

“Well, I guess I’ll see ya around, huh?”

“Right…” Jack felt sick as Ennis turned. “Still the middle of August,” he blurted out suddenly and waited for Ennis to turn to acknowledge him again. “Know you was expectin’ another month’s pay.” Knowing he had to step carefully around a man who’s pride was bigger than the entire state of Wyoming, Jack was careful to pick his words. “Know I was. Well, see, my daddy’s always lookin’ for help. Hard ta keep good hands up at Lightning Flats. It being so isolated ‘n’ all.”

Ennis squinted and turned to look down the road. “Whatcha tryin’ ta get at, Jack?”

“Jus’ tryin’ ta say that… that you’d be more than welcome at my folk’s place. My ol’ man’s forever whinin’ he can’t get no decent help. I know you can work… ya work harder than any man I know.”

“You offerin’ me a job?” Ennis looked doubtful and scowled a little, drawing the wrinkles in his eyebrows together.

“Maybe… yeah,” Jack admitted with a nod. He shoved his hands into his jean pockets and leaned against the old truck.

The lines deepened around Ennis’ eyes. “Gettin’ married in November.”

“I know.” Jack’s response sounded tense, but he rushed on, trying to convince Ennis. “You’re gettin’ hitched at the end of November. All the more reason you should be lookin’ for more work. No guaranteed ranch work waitin’ for you back home?” When Ennis shook his head, Jack continued, “Didn’t think so. Listen, friend, send your girl a postcard tellin’ her you’ve taken a job ‘til the beginning of November. That’s a little over two months of pay.”

“Suppose I could use the pay,” Ennis mumbled under his breath. His knuckles where white from gripping the sack he was holding so tightly. He felt sick, but blamed it on the heat, not on the hopeful look Jack was giving him.

Jack glanced down and then back up at Ennis under the brim of his dust mottled cowboy hat. “That and a couple more months of freedom to…”

“Don’t got no money for gas,” Ennis cut Jack off before he could continue. That mischievous little grin of Jack’s was no good at all. His gaze snapped over to Aguirre’s trailer, as if the bastard would storm out here.

“I’ve got enough gas money ta get us back to Lightening Flats. I promise ya won’t regret this decision, Ennis.”

Ennis never actually said yes, but didn’t correct Jack either. He looked down at the ground and kept his gaze locked on his scruffy boots. Ennis knew by the crunching of gravel underfoot that Jack was coming closer to him. “You’re not sore over that punch?”

Jack leaned in close and butted Ennis’ shoulder with his own. “Might’ve been if ya didn’t hit like a girl!”

Ennis’ tight lips slid into a small smile. “Fuckin’ Jack Twist. Get in the damn truck, ya dummy.”

Ennis briefly thought about sending that postcard to Alma, but figured it was just as easy to do in Lightening Flats as it would be here.

++++++

Dust swirled around the truck as it inched up the drive to the Twist’s Ranch. Both of the young men were flushed and sweating from having to push the rusted metal beast for the last six miles.

“Thought ya said you had enough gas!” Ennis grumbled for the seventh time.

“I did!” Jack snapped back. “Well, at least I thought I did. Think the gas hose got a leak in it after sittin’ there all summer.”

“The gauge was on empty, ya stupid son of a bitch.”

“It’s always stuck on empty,” Jack snorted with laughter. “Damn thing’s been broken for years.”

Ennis then understood why Jack had kicked the thing that first day outside Aguirre’s trailer. “Piece a’shit truck.”

“Can’t afford no better,” Jack shot back. His eyes lingered over Ennis’ chest since they had both taken their shirts off with the heat beating down on them. They stopped pushing as seemed close enough to the house.

Ennis wiped his brow with his hand, taking in the rundown clap board house and barn that had seen better days. No one was in the yard, but still Ennis reached inside the cab and pulled on his shirt. He tucked his shirttails into the back of his jeans and wiped his palms on his thighs. “This it?”

“Yeah, this is it,” Jack nodded and felt a heated blush rise on his cheeks. “Not much…”

“If ya got nothin’, ya don’t need nothin’,” Ennis said quietly. “My Ma used ta say that.”

Now the blush on Jack’s cheeks burned for a reason other than embarrassment. “You’re Ma sounds like she was a smart lady.”

Ennis shrugged his shoulders. “Guess so.”

“You’re gonna like my Ma,” Jack said. Following Ennis’ lead, he put his own undershirt on, then pulled on his jean shirt. “My grandma used ta say that woman's got all the heavenly virtues rolled up in one good package. And damn, my Ma can cook, too. Quiet though. My ol’man ‘n’ her are lucky if they say more than a few words to each other in a day. Guess that’s one of the reasons I don’t mind you so much. Was used ta makin’ my own conversation round here. Now my daddy… he’s another story…”

“Wanna smoke?” Ennis asked. He took the pack out and tapped a cigarette out. Without waiting for Jack to answer, he handed him the first lit cigarette, then lit another for himself. After this pack was done, he’d start rolling his own again.

“Thanks, bud,” Jack said and took a drag before he started talking again. “Like I said on Brokeback, my ol’man is a grade A asshole. Reason I left here. Never gives me a break.” He paused to take another puff and noticed Ennis grunt in his way that meant he was listening. “Got no brothers to help out, so he never gave me a days rest. Always ridin’ my ass, sayin’ I’m lazy…”

“You are one lazy son of a bitch.” Ennis had nearly gotten down to the end of his cigarette and wanted to save some for later. He killed the ember with his fingers and put it into his shirt pocket.

Jack was ready to tell Ennis off when he saw the teasing, shy smile. “Guess I am. Jus’ means you’ll have’ta do more work ta cover for me.”

“Used ta that,” Ennis snorted, but his expression turned serious. “Your ol’man… he’s not expectin’ you back this early, let alone me.”

“Doubt if he’s expectin’ me ta ever come back. Though he told me I’d drag my sorry ass back here sooner or later. He needs the help ‘round here ‘n’ my Ma knows it. She’ll make him see reason. Jus’ work hard ‘n’ ignore him. Like I said, we need the help. My cousins help out sometimes during calfing season, but it’s quite the drive from Uncle Harold’s place. He’s my Ma’s brother… good ta know he didn’t kick the bucket after all. But ya know what I missed the most? My Ma’s cookin’. Can’t take no more goddamn beans.”

“Ya already said she was a good cook,” Ennis pointed out. He leaned over and looked at his reflection in the window of the truck, trying to flatten out the curls he hated. “Anyone’s gotta be better than you.”

There was a familiar shared silence between them as the banter died down and they both realized they couldn’t stall going in forever. “Be gettin’ ‘round supper time here. Guess we should go in.”

“Thinkin’ ya should go ‘n’ say howdy to your folks first.”

Jack could tell after spending the summer with Ennis that the man had no intention of coming in with him. The stubborn bastard would stay out by the truck and wait for Jack. He’d been dreading the day they’d leave Brokeback and though he dreamed it, he never really thought he’d be able to stay with Ennis.

“Alright then,” Jack agreed. “I’ll come ‘n’ get ya when I’m done.”

Ennis nodded and sighed a little. “You… You gonna be okay?”

Jack gifted Ennis with a smile. Now it didn’t matter if Ennis came inside with him right away or not. All that mattered was that Ennis was here and not on his way back to his fiancée. He could say so much with just those few words and those eyes of his. “Yeah, I’ll be jus’ fine. Back in a bit, cowboy.”

Jack took his hat off and scraped his boots on the door mat his Ma kept out. Even though this was his childhood home, he always had the strange urge to knock. Taking a deep breath and one last look at Ennis, Jack opened the screen door. Stepping back into the depressing white room again, the first thing is eyes were almost always drawn to was the heavy cross on the wall. His Ma was in the same place she almost always was when he came home and now was no different. The kitchen.

Eleanor Twist looked up from her cutting board to see her only child walk back into her life. “You’re home.”

“Sure am,” Jack nodded and offered her a nervous smile. “Daddy?”

“He’ll be comin’ in from the fields any time now.”

“Right, of course.” Jack rotated his hat in his hands nervously.

Eleanor looked back down at her handy work and started to cut the potatoes again. Her hand had almost slipped off the knife when she saw Jack. “Ya back for a spell or jus’ visitin’?”

“Hopin’ it’ll be for awhile,” Jack answered. He can’t help but look through the window, trying to catch a glimpse of Ennis. “Depends on how daddy takes it.”

“He could use the help. His back’s been actin’ up somethin’ fierce.” Her knife hovered over the last potato on the chopping board. “Ya gonna invite your friend in? I got enough roast to go ‘round.” Jack’s mouth gaped a little and she smiled. “We got windows, boy, and I keep’em clean. Can see with my own eyes that ya got someone out there.”

“Course ya can,” Jack answered, speechless for once. “The windows look real clean.”

“What’s his name?” Eleanor pulled out more potatoes from the burlap sack under the sink.

“Ennis,” he stopped where Ennis usually did, but remembered that wasn’t proper. “Ennis Del Mar. He worked with me up on Brokeback herdin’ for Mr. Aguirre. Real fine man, Ma. Hard worker.”

“Uh huh.” Eleanor popped the eyes off the potatoes with her thumb before using the knife to start and peel. “Why’s he here and not headin’ back home?”

Jack’s grip on his hat tightened and he wrung the brim. “Don’t have no home ta go to, Ma. His folks are dead. And his brother ‘n’ sister are…”

“Don’t be needin’ ta tell me his whole life story. Not my business. If ya say he’s a stand up fella, then I believe ya, Jack. Ya say he’s a good worker?”

He looked up at his mother and straightened his posture. She hated it when he slouched. “Real hard worker,” Jack insisted. “Trustworthy.”

“We could always use some help ‘round here,” Eleanor said casually. “Can’t pay him much. Cover room ‘n’ board, with a lil’ extra on top. I mean, that’d be up to your daddy, of course. His decision ta make.”

“Right,” Jack agreed and couldn’t help but grin stupidly. He knew from experience that John Twist always ended up thinking he made the decisions around here. That they usually happened to be the right decision in Eleanor Twist’s opinion was far from a coincidence. “Me ‘n’ Ennis will whip this place into shape. Promise, Ma.”

“Best be invitin’ your friend inside, Jack. Thought I brought ya up with better manners than that.”

“Sorry,” Jack apologized immediately. He walked into the kitchen and gave his mother a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks, Ma.”

“Good ta have ya home, son.”

Jack tore out of the kitchen like he used to when he was twelve years old and whooped out loud when he threw the door open. He didn’t see his mother’s shoulders slump with relief when the door shut or see her quickly wipe away a few tears with the corner of her apron.

Ennis was still leaning against the truck and finishing his second cigarette. Jack ran to Ennis with a stupid grin on his face. “It’s gonna be fine now, bud. My Ma’ll convince my daddy. She wants me ta bring ya in. And damn, you should smell the roast she’s got cookin’ in the oven. Never thought it would feel this good ta be home. Told ya it would all work out.”

“We’ll see,” was all the Ennis said. He followed Jack back into the house and in a mirror image of what he’d seen Jack do earlier, he took his hat off, then wiped his boots on the mat outside the door.

Eleanor looked up and locked gazes with Ennis. Jack watched this with interest, not to sure of the outcome. Whatever his mother saw in Ennis’ eyes, she seemed satisfied enough to come out of the kitchen. She wiped her hands on her flowered apron and shook hands with Ennis.

“Nice ta meet ya, Ennis.”

“Ma’am,” Ennis greeted her back. “Nice place ya got here.”

“We manage.” She gave him a visible once over and pronounced, “You’re too thin, boy. Though ya got yourself an honest face.”

“Uh, thanks, ma’am.”

“Well, sit down,” Eleanor said and shooed them towards the table. “Sit.”

Jack took Ennis’ hat and hung it next to his on the hook by the door. While his mother finished the potatoes and put them to boil on the stove, Jack started to chatter about the summer. Neither her, nor Ennis, replied any and let Jack talk, each of them occasionally nodding. At one point, she pulled out the cookie jar and laid out a number of cookies on a plate.

Jack stopped complaining enough to reach out and grab a cookie before the plate even reached the table. It was in that moment that Jack learned something new about Ennis. The man had a sweet tooth. His eyes lit up in a way Jack had never seen before.

“Go ahead, dear,” Eleanor encouraged him and pushed the plate towards Ennis. He took one and closed his eyes when he ate it. In that moment, Jack fell a little more in love Ennis Del Mar. His mother nodded in satisfaction and smiled at Ennis. “Good to see a healthy appetite in a boy. Jack was always fussy. Never liked a simple thing like baked beans.”

“Aw, Ma!” Jack complained with a full mouth and grabbed another cookie, but instead of eating it himself, he laid it in front of Ennis. “If she starts ta tell embarrassin’ stories ‘bout me, jus’ you ignore her.”

Ennis just smiled and took a small bite from the cookie, savouring it terribly. “They’re very tasty, ma’am. Thanks.”

Jack was just reaching for another cookie of his own when the door flew open, its hinges creaking. It was John Twist and he gave his son a sour look. “You’re back.”

“Yes, sir,” Jack said and gritted his teeth.

“And he brought a friend,” Eleanor added. “Ennis Del Mar. Good worker ‘n’ polite to boot.”

“Manners don’t mean nothin’ out on the range,” John scoffed and gave Ennis the once over. “You been chasin’ after sheep with my boy?”

“Yes, sir,” Ennis mumbled and set his half eaten cookie on the table.

John looked between his wife and son knowing something was up. “Ya lookin’ for work?”

“Only if it’s offered,” Ennis answered. “Don’t take no charity.”

John made a pleased grunt and nodded. “We don’t pay much, but you’ll have food on yer plate ‘n’ a honest day’s work. No slacking off here.” He gave Jack a piercing stare before adding, “And ya sleep in the barn.”

“Slept in worse,” Ennis told him. “Not afraid of work.”

“Not like my lazy, good for nothin’ boy then.”

“Jack worked real hard this summer.” Ennis didn’t look up at John, but he picked up the cookie and took another bite.

John’s brows drew together and he scowled first at Ennis, then at Jack. They were both expecting a confrontation, but he turned to his wife and asked, “Supper not ready yet?”

“Roast’ll be ready to carve soon enough,” she told him.

“Alight then.” With that he left the room to wash up with that damn scowl still plastered on his face.

Eleanor handed each of the boys another cookie and patted Jack’s hand before drawing away. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to.

++++++

Ennis had a blanket laid out on a section of dry hay and Eleanor had insisted he take an old quilt faded from time and a goose down pillow. Ennis flopped onto the blanket and punched the pillow to fluff it up.

“Can’t believe he’s makin’ ya sleep in the barn,” Jack groused.

“Sure as hell better than a tent smellin’ like piss,” Ennis answered. He scratched idly at his chest and crossed his legs.

“Well, try sleepin’ in a bed that’s too small for ya,” Jack complained. “My damn feet hang off the end.”

Ennis had his eyes closed, but cracked one open to consider Jack. “Least ya have a bed.”

Jack looked down and immediately felt guilty. “Ennis, I’m sorry…”

Jack was standing close enough that Ennis nudged him in the shin with his boot. “God, you’re easy,” Ennis snorted. “It’s not so bad here.”

“Ya look comfortable, friend,” Jack said, looking a little happier. He moved until he was standing over Ennis, looking down at him with a mischievous grin. “Ya know my folks went ta bed like an hour ago. Always asleep before sunset.”

“Jack…” Ennis said in a warning tone. “Can’t have none of that here.”

“Why not?” He kept his left thumb hooked in his belt loop, but his right hand was sneaking dangerously close to his groin.

“Don’t ya dare,” Ennis hissed under his breath.

Ennis shifted a little higher on his blanket, but wasn’t quick enough to escape before Jack dropped down on his knees. Next thing he knew, they were wrestling around in the hay, each trying to fight for dominance. It wasn’t like the last time on Brokeback Mountain. Their hands were careful and more playful than anything else. It ended when Ennis had Jack pinned to the blanket, bits of hay stuck to their hair and clothing.

“I told ya this was a one shot deal,” Ennis’ voice was gruff and he was breathing heavily.

“Yeah,” Jack agreed. “The deal’s just not broken yet.” His hands moved to settle on Ennis’ hips. “Ya know what I want…”

“It’s what ya always want,” Ennis answered, giving Jack a little thump on his shoulder. “Always thinkin’ with your dick.”

“Yeah,” Jack nodded and used his hold to pull Ennis down onto him. “I want that, but I’ll settle for a kiss.” In real world off of Brokeback Mountain, Jack knew he was going to have to seduce Ennis all over again. At Ennis’ questioning look, Jack continued, “One kiss. Then I’ll leave ya alone.”

Ennis gave him a suspicious gaze and glanced back at the closed barn door. “One kiss?”

“Jus’ one kiss,” Jack assured him. He’d managed to pull Ennis’ shirttails free from his jeans and rested one palm on his lower back.

“Then ya’ll leave me alone?”

“Sure.” Of course, Jack didn’t say that it was only for tonight. Tomorrow was another matter entirely. He rubbed his hand gently along Ennis’ spine, saying the one thing that always seemed to calm Ennis’ nerves. “It’s alright.”

Ennis closed his eyes, letting the words soothe his doubts. The inner voice that sounded an awful lot like his long dead father was telling him that he was queer. He listened to Jack for once and not the voice that said he should be back kissing Alma, not the man squirming under him. He had done things with Jack a good girl like Alma would never do, even after they were married. After all these months together, Jack made him feel funny. In a way Alma never had. He opened his eyes and stared down into Jack’s eyes, falling even deeper into the man’s trap.

“It’s not alright,” Ennis told him, but still leaned forward and brushed his lips against Jack’s. It started as a chaste kiss. Ennis had every intention of pulling away quickly, but with the sweet caress of those lips, he was lost. He leaned his body down and started to kiss Jack deeper, grinding his hips down. And he sure as hell didn’t like it when Jack pushed back on his shoulders. “Wha-”

“I always keep my word, Ennis,” Jack told him and licked his lips. “One kiss.”

Ennis’ brows were drawn together in a confused scowl. “Jack…”

“One kiss,” Jack laughed and rolled out from under Ennis. He stood up, even though there was nothing more he wanted to do than stay with Ennis on that blanket. But he had to keep Ennis wanting him. He picked up his hat from where it had fallen during their struggle and dusted it off. Putting his hat on, he tipped it at Ennis. “Night, cowboy.”

Ennis flipped over onto his back and covered his eyes with his forearm. He tried to ignore the need for Jack, both physical and just wanting to hold him. The voice in his head taunted him, calling him a weak queer. Another louder part of his mind could only remember the taste of Jack’s lips and that sweet smile. “Jack fuckin’ Twist…”

END Part 1.

Chapter Text

When Jack came downstairs shortly after six o’clock in the morning, his mother looked up and smiled at him indulgently. His hair was sticking every which way and his face covered with dark stubble. Jack still looked half asleep, but then again, her baby had never been one for mornings. “I let ya sleep in this mornin’.”

Jack rubbed the back of his head and yawned. “Mornin’, Ma. Coffee?”

She handed him a cup of freshly brewed coffee pale with cream from this morning’s milking. “Your friend Ennis is already out helpin’ your daddy feed the herd.”

“He’s alone with him?” Jack blurted out and almost dropped his coffee mug.

“If he’s gonna be workin’ here then I would think it would happen soon enough. Sooner, rather than later, by Ennis’ doin’. He was waitin’ ‘n’ ready ta go when your daddy got up this mornin’.”

Jack looked down at his coffee, afraid to meet his mother’s knowing gaze. “Ennis Del Mar was always one to worry what other people think. He didn’t want daddy to think he’s a lazy son of a bitch.”

“They should be back within the hour.” She took a bowl and spooned out a few large scoops of oatmeal into it. He watched her put in raisins, which had always been his favourite, then top it with brown sugar and the same fresh cream that had just gone into his coffee. “Now, your friend ate like there was no tomorrow in God’s sweet world. Can tell he’s not used to a woman in his life.”

“It’s been a few years since his sister up ‘n’ married,” Jack told her. He knew even though yesterday she had said Ennis past was none of her business that she was fishing for information. “He ‘n’ his brother have been workin’ on a ranch. But his brother got married, so don’t want him ‘round no more.”

Eleanor didn’t answer, but simply nodded. Jack took his bowl of oatmeal and sat down at the kitchen table. He wasn’t surprised when his mother set down a plate of warm toast spread with homemade strawberry preserves.

Jack took a big bite from the toast and smiled at his mother. “I bet Ennis liked this.”

“Certainly did,” Eleanor confirmed. “I’ll put some of this in his oatmeal tomorrow. Either that, or some honey.” She dropped several slices of bacon into a cast iron skillet. “I’ve got a large pot of water onto boil.”

Jack’s spoon stopped halfway to his mouth. “Oh, yeah?”

“Figured you boys could freshen up after so many months out in the boonies. I’ve got the ol’tub set up out back. Ennis can wear some of your ol’clothes while I wash ‘n’ mend his. Once you’re clean, I can cut your hair in the kitchen.”

His mother never was one for too many words, but Jack found she always spoke more when they were alone. “Sounds alright.”

The comfortable silence between them continued as Jack quickly finished off his oatmeal. He wanted to get out to see how Ennis was fairing with his father, but he dared not insult his mother by not finishing his breakfast. He was just about to push away from the table when she set down a plate of crispy bacon in front of him. Jack sighed, knowing she would follow that up with eggs cooked in the bacon grease. And if she even thought he still looked hungry, then she would plop down more toast spread with bacon grease. He chewed on his bacon and saw her slice off two thick slices from the bread loaves. Guess he looked hungry.

“Jack?”

“Yeah, Ma?”

“I think it’s best if ya stay with me when Ennis goes out back to wash up.”

“Wha-”

“You’re daddy’ll be ‘round,” she cut him off.

Jack was completely taken aback because she never cut him off. She’d always let Jack chat away since he was a child and just smiled at him. “Ma?”

“I left some of your ol’clothes next to the tub ‘n’ some soap, too,” Eleanor rushed on, offering no explanation to her earlier suggestion. “Wash cloth ‘n’ towel, of course. He won’t need no help.”

Jack exchanged a glance with his mother. It was an unspoken request not to question her. “Okay, Ma. I wouldn’t mind visitin’ with ya after bein’ away all summer. And… and maybe Ennis would appreciate the privacy.”

Eleanor nodded again and scooped out the sunny side up eggs from the sizzling bacon grease. Jack was just finishing up the toast spread with the same bacon grease when his father came through the door. Ennis was on his heels, but hesitated at the threshold before taking his hat off.

“We’re done,” John announced, even though it was more than obvious. He stared down at his son until Jack lowered his eyes. “Eleanor, the boy’ll do.” With that he grabbed the cup of coffee his wife had prepared for him and pushed past Ennis to get out the door.

“Get a feel for our place, Ennis?” Eleanor asked.

“Yes ma’am,” Ennis said with a nod and glanced quickly at Jack. “Fine stock.”

She walked out of the kitchen and over to Ennis. His look was uncertain, but softened a bit when she simply took his hat and hung it on the rack by the door. “I bet it’s been awhile since ya had a decent hot bath?” Ennis nodded at her mutely. “Go on out back. There’s a tub ready to go. Got some of Jack ol’clothes ya can wear that should fit jus’ fine. When you’re done, bring your lot inside to be washed ‘n’ mended.” When Ennis looked at Jack for direction, she quickly added, “No arguments now. Go on… git.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ennis mumbled under his breath.

Jack waited inside and helped his mother with the breakfast dishes. He knew his father was probably out in the barn tending to the horse this time of day, but he couldn’t help briefly think of all the times his father had sneered at him for doing woman’s work. When Ennis came in with wet hair and wearing Jack’s clothes, his stomach did a little flop. The jeans were much tighter than Ennis’ normally baggy jeans and must been an older pair. He was glad he had finished drying the last plate for fear he might have dropped it.

Ennis looked pleased to finally get the smell of sheep washed away. Jack knew the feeling all to well. There was a point when the dirt becomes second nature. Ground in under your fingernails so deep it seems permanent. Jack just wondered if Ennis was relieved to rid himself of the last vestiges of Brokeback Mountain

Taking his turn, Jack went out back and bathed in the same now tepid water. When he came back inside, dressed in clean clothes, he found Ennis sitting at the kitchen table and reading a four month old copy of a local newspaper. His mother had her scissors out and a sheet so worn you could barely make out the floral pattern. Without being told, he sat in the chair and waited for her to cut his hair. The Twist family never had the extra money to waste on a barber, even if one had been close enough to visit on a regular basis.

Eleanor laid the old sheet over Jack’s chest and shoulders. “Jack used to hate to get his hair cut,” she said commented and picked up the scissors. “He used to kick up the biggest fuss until I told’im that cowboys like John Wayne didn’t have long hair. Should’a seen him, Ennis. After that, he was good as an angel… at least for those few short moments it took me ta cut his hair.”

“Ma…” Jack complained when she told Ennis that story. Though part of him was glad she was being so friendly to a stranger.

“Keep movin’ around, boy, ‘n’ I’ll end up cuttin’ the tip of your ear off.”

“Sorry, Ma,” Jack apologized and tried to sit still. Ennis still had the newspaper open but Jack had already caught him sneaking glances at him once.

“Like I was sayin’, Jack was quite the handful,” Eleanor said. “Was always readin’ comics about cowboys ‘n’ beggin’ us to take him to the rodeo. Used to drag around a lasso before he could barely walk ‘n’ terrorize the chickens. He always had a thing for cowboys.”

Jack felt a blush rise on his cheeks and had to keep from looking at Ennis or he would burst out laughing. “Ya almost done, Ma?”

“Yeah,” Eleanor answered and actually ruffled his hair. “And it almost makes you respectable. No John Wayne, mind you, but maybe more like… what’s the name of that actor in that movie set in Texas you made us take you to see in the drive-in when you were younger?”

“James Dean,” Jack mumbled, more than happy to get out of the chair when she took away the sheet and stand up. In the back of his closet, he still had a picture of James Dean he had ripped out of woman’s magazine one time they had visited the closest general store. It was the closest he had ever come to stealing anything.

As he passed Ennis, he stopped and reached out to brush a stray curl away from Ennis’ forehead. He leaned and whispered, “It’s curlin’ nice now that it’s all washed up.”

Ennis pulled away from Jack’s touch and looked at Eleanor nervously, but sighed with relief when he saw she had her back turned. He got up and took a seat in the chair surrounded by tuffs of jet black hair. Eleanor turned and tied the sheet into place.

She had just cut away the tip of the first blonde curl when Jack blurted out, “Not too short, Ma.” When two pair of eyes immediately stared at him he felt embarrassed and started to stammer, “I like… I mean, maybe Ennis likes it a bit longer…”

The truth was that Ennis hated his hair longer. Every time it grew out even a little bit, it started to curl and he thought it was too much like a girl’s. Only reason he didn’t get it cut more often was lack of any money or opportunity, like out on Brokeback Mountain. He also knew for a fact that Alma preferred he keep it shorter.

“I don’t have’ta look at it,” Ennis interrupted Jack quietly. “Leave it a little longer I guess. Jus’ don’t wanna look like no hippie.”

“I’ll jus’ give it a nice trim, honey,” Eleanor assured him.

The boy did look better with his hair a touch longer, even if he always was trying to straighten out those curls. She didn’t miss the shy smile that Jack gave to Ennis. It lacked all of his usual bravado. It was refreshing to see from a young who sometimes thought he deserved the whole world. And that made his smile even more special.

She had never seen Jack smile like that before… just like John used to smile at her.

++++++

The sheets whipped in the wind as Eleanor clipped them to the line with wooden clothes pins. After the boys had gone out to help John with the chores, she had gone up to Jack’s room to collect his dirty laundry. Seeing the cuff of a shirt sticking out from under Jack’s pillow, she had discovered two blood stained shirts. Holding them up, she had known right away one belonged to Ennis. She had folded Ennis’ shirt inside of Jack’s jean shirt and placed them back under the pillow.

Now Ennis’ single pair of jeans, his only other shirt and jean jacket were hanging on the line next to Jack’s. “Gonna have’ta buy that boy more clothes next time I go into town,” she muttered to herself under her breath.

A strong gust of wind tore up and made the sheet dance something awful. It was about to fly away when a strong hand stopped its escape. “I got it, Ma.”

“Thanks, sweetie,” Eleanor said and trapped the sheet to the line with another clothes pin.

“Where’s Ennis?”

“He’s spendin’ some quality time with the Sears catalogue in the outhouse,” Jack snorted with laughter. He grabbed the laundry basket off the ground and held it on his hip so it was easier for his mother to reach inside.

“Get much done?” She asked and pinned a pillow case to the line.

“Yeah,” Jack nodded and ran his free hand over a damp sheet. He remembered as a boy running under the line with the fresh smelling sheets thrashing around him. If he knocked one down, his Ma would chase him with a broom until he ran away squealing with laughter. “Didn’t realize that daddy was strugglin’ this much to keep things up.”

“Our last hand left at the end of June,” Eleanor told him. “Didn’t like the pay much.”

Jack nodded and handed his mother a damp dish towel from the basket. “Well, now daddy has two hands to boss around.”

“Sometimes ya do need to listen to your daddy,” Eleanor chided her son and shook the dish towel at him. “He might be full of hot air, but he’s lived a tough life ‘n’ there’s some good things knockin’ around that stubborn head of his.”

“Ma…”

“Shush, I gotta say this,” Eleanor cut him off. “He ain’t easy to live with. Never was, never will be, but neither are you. But he’s your daddy ‘n’ the only one ya got. Ya got your stubbornness from him, that’s for sure.”

“I’ve never got nothin’ from him,” Jack grumbled and scowled. “As far as he’s concerned, I’ve never done anything right in my life.”

Eleanor shook her head and smiled sadly at her son. “Now, that’s not true. Ya did one thing right… you was born. Never seen him as happy as the day you was born.”

“Ma…” This time his tone was a little uncertain. He had never heard her talk like this before. Usually she would just scold him and tell him to respect his father. “It’ll never be easy to live with him.”

Eleanor didn’t answer right away, but looked off into the distance. She looked back over her shoulder to consider this man who was still very much a boy. “Suppose not.” There was a pause before she continued. “I talked to him last night.”

“About?” Jack prompted, his curiosity peeked.

“That you’re your own man now,” Eleanor answered. With the last bit of laundry on the line, she turned to face her son. “That you’ll be needin’ ta feel like a man.”

“Ma?”

Eleanor took the empty laundry basket back from Jack. “I’ve been thinkin’ this afternoon maybe ya should take Ennis on a tour of the whole ranch. Maybe stop in ‘n’ check up on Gran’s ol’place…”

“Why would I wanna…”

Eleanor continued as if Jack had never spoken. “It’s not too far off, but needs some work, I suspect. Would make a good home…”

“Are ya sayin’ you want me to move out to Gran’s ol’place?”

“I’m jus’ sayin’ that since Ennis is here, it might be nice to have him help ya fix it up. It would give ya somethin’ ta do in the evenings. If ya wanna stay, would give ya a place to live… if ya choose to leave…” Eleanor stopped for a moment, but made herself continue. “Then your daddy had talked about rentin’ it out for some extra money. Of course, don’t make sense to have strangers livin’ in our family’s home, if ya ask me.”

“What about Ennis?” His immediate thought was that his father had come up with this sudden plan to keep Ennis away from him at night. He would never see Ennis if the man was sleeping in the barn and he was sleeping way out at the other end of the ranch.

“Would only make sense he stay out there with ya,” Eleanor answered quietly. “Better than the barn, even your daddy agreed. Said the boy was scarin’ his horses. Of course, ya boys would come back here for work ‘n’ for meals.”

Jack couldn’t quite believe what his mother had just told him and trailed after her as she went through the back door. “And daddy’s okay with this?”

“Why wouldn’t he be okay with it? You’d be fixin’ up his Ma’s house. Your daddy never said a bad word about a hard days work.”

“Oh, right…” Jack agreed with a nod of his head. He could play along. “Not gonna say no to that.” He scratched the back of his neck and tried to comprehend what he was being offered. His parents where offering him freedom and respect he had never tasted before. And they… at least his mother, was giving him the one thing he wanted more than anything… the possibility of a life and home with Ennis. “I think I like the idea, Ma.”

“Gran’s ol’place should be jus’ about the right size for ya boys,” Eleanor said. She put the laundry basket down by the back door. “I always thought it was too small for kids m’self. And the young women these days would want electricity ‘n’ runnin’ water. It’ll be jus’ fine for ya both.”

Jack was quickly by his mother’s side and gave her a big hug, followed by a peck on the cheek. He knew this was her doing. “I love ya, Ma.”

She patted his cheek fondly. “Love ya, too.” When Jack had pulled away, she told him, “Ennis is a fine young man, Jack. Almost as good as my boy.”

“Aww, Ma…” Jack mumbled and felt himself choking up a bit.

“I know… I know,” Eleanor said. “You’re a man now, not my lil’boy no more.”

Jack rubbed his nose with the back of sleeve. “I’ll always be your lil’boy, Ma. Gotta go… uhm, tell Ennis.”

Eleanor watched her son take off out the back door and knew that the key to keeping him here was keeping Ennis Del Mar.

++++++

Ennis sat on top of the dappled grey mare he had been riding since he got to the ranch. He was shading his eyes, looking down at the dilapidated house with its broken windows and front door falling off its hinges. The prairie grass had grown up around the foundation, smattered with flashes of colour from the remnants of an old garden. He could by looking at the place that someone had loved it once.

“This it?” Ennis asked, turning to Jack.

“Yep,” Jack answered and nodded his head. “This is my Gran’s ol’place. It was the first house built on the homestead by my great-grandpa. My granddaddy built the house my folks are livin’ in now, but after my granddaddy died, my Gran moved back here. She died before I even started school. Place has been abandoned since then.”

“Gonna need a lot of work.”

“That’s why I got you,” Jack snorted with laughter. After talking with his mother, he had found Ennis and pestered him into going out right then and there on the pretense of checking the perimeter fencing. He had told Ennis that his daddy wanted them to fix it up, but not about moving in. “It’s got a nice view, don’t it though? And it’s outta the way, so lots of privacy. Can only access it through our land.”

“Guess so,” Ennis grunted in reply. He clicked his tongue and gently dug his heels into Patch’s side.

“I remember visitin’ my Gran here,” Jack continued and got his old bitch of a roan to follow Ennis’ horse. “My daddy would put me on a pony older than I am now, named Betty Grable... And I’d follow behind my ol’man…” Jack scrunched his nose up. “Suppose he wasn’t a complete bastard all the time.”

“Guess not.” Ennis said as he tugged on the reigns and got Patch to stop her slow gate. He lifted himself off the saddle and dropped easily to the ground.

“You’d think the old lady would’ve been lonely out her livin’ by herself, but from what I can remember, she was happy. She’s the one who first gave me the harmonica,” Jack said and got off his mount. He tied the reigns to the same scraggly tree Ennis had. “Gran loved it here. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I always dreamed about gettin’ my own log cabin. Happy memories…” He walked over to the home that had been built from solid Wyoming trees and by the sheer will of his family, having weathered all of this time. He ran his hand over the logs and thought about making a home here with Ennis.

“Might as well tell me, rodeo,” Ennis said as he came to stand behind Jack.

Jack turned and gave Ennis a nervous smile. “Tell ya what?”

“Whatever it is that’s sneakin’ around that dumbass head of yours. I know ya got somethin’ ta say, but ya don’t wanna say it.”

“How do ya…”

“Ya look guilty,” Ennis told him. He reached out and actually pinched Jack’s cheek near the dimple. “Can’t hide those, friend.”

Jack rubbed his cheek and glared at Ennis. “Fuck off, asshole.”

“Uh huh,” Ennis said with a smirk. “There they are again. They get worse when you’re tryin’ to hide somethin’ from me.”

“Jus’ for that, maybe I’ll let ya keep sleepin’ in the barn…”

Ennis moved quickly and had Jack pressed up against the wall of the log cabin. “I knew it…”

“Ah, c’mon Ennis,” Jack pleaded. He heard the horses whinny in the background and wondered for a moment if they could sense the tension. “Think about it. No one out here to bother us…”

Ennis thumped Jack against the wall. “Told ya I’m gettin’ married in November.”

“Again ‘n’ again,” Jack snapped back at him, but his hand settled on Ennis’ right hip. “Doesn’t have ta spoil what we got now. No one’s gotta know, ya stubborn son of a bitch. Nobody’s business but ours.”

“I ain’t…”

Jack shut Ennis up when he grabbed him and kissed him. He couldn’t hear him say that word again after all these months. “Don’t ya dare say it…” Jack hissed at Ennis between kisses. “This is my time, Ennis. November’s gonna come fast enough, but this is my time, ya bastard.” When he felt Ennis stiffen and start to pull away, Jack immediately started to may calm hushing noises. “Hey now, don’t runaway from me.” He started to caress Ennis’ face when he saw those tortured eyes. “It’s alright…”

Ennis’ voice was gruff and low when he spoke. “We can’t hide from the world…”

“We can try,” Jack insisted and kissed Ennis again. His hand moved swiftly to Ennis’ shirt and began to unbutton it. He had until November to convince Ennis that they could share a sweet life together.

Jack turned and pushed Ennis up against the side of the house. He quickly unbuttoned Ennis shirt and ran his hands down the lean chest. Knowing he had to move quickly before Ennis could think, his hands scrambled with Ennis’ belt. Troubled brown eyes watched him intently as he dropped to his knees.

Ennis’ head fell back against the wall as Jack opened his jeans. He still remembered the first time Jack had ever done this for him. Back in the tent, up on Brokeback Mountain, Jack’s touch was the only thing that seemed real. His mouth was so sweet to kiss it was damn right painful to admit, but it was the other wicked things Jack did with his mouth that Ennis knew was wrong.

Ennis’ hands started to run through that thick black hair that was nothing like Alma’s wispy, mousy hair. He held the back of Jack’s head tight and started to thrust into the moist heat. Anything this good had to be a sin. He felt the sin burning through his body and finally gave into Jack’s talented mouth.

He knew Jack was a wicked sinner and wouldn’t be partaking in that Pentecost his Ma believed in. Because it wasn’t right for a man to like doing so much what Jack had just done. Jack’s hand rubbed himself through his jeans and the wet spot was just another sign that they were both going to hell.

Jack got to his feet as Ennis fumbled to close his zipper and belt. His head was bowed when Jack leaned in and kissed him, making sure Ennis couldn’t ignore what they had just done with that taste in his mouth.

Jack leaned his forehead against Ennis when he whispered, “You’re gonna stay here with me.” It wasn’t a question, it was a confident statement.

Ennis knew he should argue. Knew he shouldn’t even be here. He should have turned his back on Jack and kept walking at Aguirre’s trailer. But those blue eyes would probably be the death of him if he wasn’t a stronger man. No words came out of his mouth, and when he should be denying Jack this, he instead found himself nodding.

++++++

END Part 2.

Chapter Text

"Your Ma said we should wash the floor properly," Ennis said and kicked aside a broken whiskey bottle. Dust swirled in the air, even as they set down the old mattress on floor.

"That's her way of sayin' she wants ta scrub it down herself," Jack grumbled and dropped his end of the mattress. "Place would stink like bleach if we let her."

"That’s jus’ your way of keepin’ her from fussin’ over ya out here. And if it smelt like bleach, at least it wouldn't smell like someone died in here no more," Ennis shot back and tried to lean the mattress against the wall. He kicked it in frustration when it flopped down onto the dirty floor. The damn thing had been a bitch to haul down from the Twist’s attic and then into the back of the pick up with Jack's old mattress also in tow.

"Someone did die in here," Jack pointed out. “My Gran.”

Ennis looked down at the floor, but not quick enough before Jack caught his blush and the mumbled, "Didn't mean ta speak ill of the dead."

Jack stepped around the mattress and punched Ennis lightly in the arm. "Hey now, cowboy. It's not that this place is haunted or anythin'. She loved it here from what I remember of her 'n' would be right proud ta see us fixin' it up again."

"Well, it needs a lotta work," Ennis answered without looking up. "Can see why we need ta stay out here if where gonna get anythin' done after a full day on the ranch."

Jack smiled and squeezed Ennis' arm gently before letting go. It wasn't much, but it was probably as close as Ennis would get to agreeing that moving in here was a good idea. "Better yet, my ol' man is clear across the other side of the spread. Was thinkin' we should get a dog. That way we'd hear anyone comin' close."

"Ya mean that ol' scrap that follows after your daddy?" Ennis snorted and shook his head. It was every inch John Twist's dog, growling at everyone but him. After it had snapped at Jack, he wouldn't have it around unless they where herding.

"Nah, that dog hates me. Figurin' on a pup. And it's gonna have a real name. My ol' man just calls his dog."

Now Ennis looked up a little at Jack. "Ya liked that one up on Brokeback." The day they had to turn the dog back over to Augurrie, Jack had looked heartbroken. "Maybe it'd be a good idea ta have another workin' dog around. Make our jobs easier."

"Whoo wee!" Jack hollered with a whoop and a big smile. "Next time we go into town, we can look around."

Ennis took out a cigarette paper and then a tuft of tobacco from the package in his shirt pocket. He lined the tobacco carefully on the paper and then licked it closed. "We? I didn't say nothin' about agreein’ ta go inta town."

"Not really a town," Jack amended, sensing Ennis' unease. "Not big enough. We gotta go in for supplies anyways. Ma likes to do a big trip before the snow comes...stock up. And I can think of another reason ya need to go in."

Ennis lit his cigarette and took a few deep puffs before he passed it to Jack. "Oh yeah, what's that?"

Jack took a drag from Ennis' cigarette to calm his nerves. He didn't want to bring this up, but it had to be done. "Ya gotta mail that girl 'n' tell her you’re off the mountain. Gotta say ya won't be comin' back..." When Ennis gave him a sharp look, he added, "'til November."

"Suppose I should," Ennis agreed and plucked the stub of the cigarette from Jack's fingers. "Don't know what ta say though."

"Don't worry about that," Jack told him. "I'll help ya."

Ennis gave Jack a suspicious look, but didn't say anything about it. The truth was he didn't want to talk about Alma. "Nice of your Ma to let us use those mattresses."

"Yeah," Jack agreed easily enough. "The one up in the attic used ta belong to my Uncle Harold. My Ma kept it around hopin' she'd have another kid, but it jus' sat up in the attic. Awful small, don't ya think?"

"No smaller than yours," Ennis pointed out. Jack had that smirk on his face that gave him an uneasy feeling.

"Uh huh," Jack agreed again. "I outgrew it along time ago."

"Jack, what ya gettin' at? A small ol' mattress is better than sleepin' on the ground any day." The cigarette had burned down to the end, but Ennis didn’t want to flick it on the floor. For now, he leaned over and put the butt on the top of the old wood stove, not wanting to scorch the floor boards.

"Yeah, but two small ol' mattresses pushed together makes one big mattress..."

"Hell, no..." Ennis hissed under his breath even though there was no one around but them. "We ain't sleepin' together!"

Jack took a step closer to Ennis and noticed that Ennis backed up, but his boots hit the wall. "We slept together all the time up on Brokeback..."

Ennis’ lips pressed into a tight line and his eyes narrowed. "That was different."

"How?" Jack challenged and moved even closer.

“No one was around,” Ennis snapped back.

“No one’s gonna be around here either,” Jack said. “And I know exactly what you’re gonna say… you’re gonna say it’s my parent’s place, but my ol’ man already said he wouldn’t be visitin’ no rat hole. That’s his way of sayin’ he won’t be comin’ around.”

“What about your Ma?” Ennis shook his head. “She already wants ta come here ‘n’ clean…”

Jack reached out and brushed away a smear of dirt from Ennis’ cheek. His hand settled on Ennis’s shoulder and he stepped close enough so that they were boot to boot. “She wants ta help. While you were up in the attic, ya know what she told me?” Ennis shook his head, but didn’t pull away from Jack’s touch. “She told me it was gonna be my home ‘n’ that I was a grown man now. That she wouldn’t visit without lettin’ us know first.”

“I don’t know…”

“This is gonna be my home,” Jack cut him off. “I never had much of my own before ‘n’ I want this, Ennis. Growin’ up, all I ever dreamed about was leavin’ this place…findin’ me a sweet life away from Lighting Flat. Dreamed about gettin’ rich ‘n’ famous on the rodeo circuit. But for the first time, I’m thinkin’ I can actually stick it out here.” What he didn’t say was that he wanted this sweet life with Ennis.

“It’s not proper…” Jack could tell Ennis’ words had no real fight behind them and was relieved his stubbornness hadn’t reared its ugly head when it came to this struggle.

Jack knew he could try to reason with Ennis or trick him, but for some reason he simply told Ennis the truth. “I want this, Ennis.”

Ennis looked down again and sighed. This was just like when Jack was bitching about being hungry and he ended shooting that elk just to shut him up. “Suppose it’s gonna be cold.”

Jack grinned at Ennis, knowing he was going to get what he wanted. “Oh yeah, gonna be cold, friend. One of the reasons we put the mattresses out here by the stove.”

“And I spotted a hole in the roof in the bedroom,” Ennis added quietly. “No where else ta put the mattresses.”

“Jus’ bein’ practical,” Jack laughed and leaned in to kiss Ennis. At first Ennis was a little hesitant, but gave in to his teasing lips. “Ya jus’ gotta trust me, cowboy.”

“I must be crazy for even considering that, boy...”

++++++

It was early enough in the morning that the sunshine was just creeping in the window. Jack was still sleeping, his head resting on Ennis’ forearm, his mouth open slightly and drooling. Ennis’ arm was asleep, but he didn’t want to move it and wake Jack up.

Yesterday, they had stood in the general store in Lightening Flat, staring at a blank postcard. Only when Jack had leaned in and whispered in his ear, “Jus’ say what ya gotta,” had he been able to put borrowed pen to paper.

Alma,

Be back when I need to be.

Ennis

When he handed that postcard to the woman behind the counter, he wasn’t sure why he felt funny. He remembered looking at Jack, who had given him a lopsided smile that made his palms sweat. Thinking the woman would see, he looked around nervously, but she was too busy stamping his postcard with the Lightening Flat postmark. Still, the feeling that others must know how he desired Jack overwhelmed him.

It was Jack’s quiet urging of, “Let’s go, cowboy,” that moved him from his spot. They had finished picking up the supplies from the list Jack’s Ma had given them and no one had called him a fag like he feared. The worst anyone in the small town did was smile at him or greet him with mild curiosity as the new person in town.

Ennis had thought the talk of getting a puppy nonsense would just blow over. But the soft whimper coming from a cardboard box near the door spoke of Jake’s luck. After talking to the mechanic about the cost of fixing his truck, Jack had found out the grizzled guard dog chained out back had whelped one last time… one pathetic little pup that the mechanic had every intention of drowning. Jack had taken one look at the scraggly, ugly mutt and fallen in love.

For now, Ennis could not regret what else had happened that night when Jack was still in his arms and the passion lingered. Jack, with his easy laugh and constant chatter, letting Ennis forget there was anyone in the world but them. The blue eyed devil had used the cold as an excuse to snuggle up real close, even when Ennis told him it wasn’t right.

Whispered words were always his downfall with Jack, “It’s alright… It’s alright…” Drowning him with sweet kisses. There had been fingers unbuttoning his shirt and caressing his skin, causing him to shake his head in denial. He hadn’t fought these desires this intensely since their second night together. This was the real world now and they shouldn’t be doing this. But still Jack’s hands caressed over his skin and he’d kissed him. Jack rolled on top once they were naked and Ennis felt trapped. Trapped by this sin that was so delicious that burning in hell was worth it. Still the thoughts taunted him, thinking he knew what Jack wanted to take.

“I ain’t queer,” Ennis had growled and flipped Jack back under him. He had kissed Jack to chase away the hurt look in those damnable blue eyes. He wouldn’t be queer as long as he didn’t let Jack push him into doing what that man wanted. Begging looks, with unsaid words, had always lain heavy between them. And that night, with Jack writhing under him and begging for something else, Ennis felt more like a man. Jack’s sweet moans and hissed curses started to smother memories of Alma. But the guilt was deep, dragging Ennis down. Was he making Jack less of man for his own sake? He had no choice but to be a man. His daddy and life had taught Ennis that if you weren’t a man, you weren’t worth nothing.

Ennis kissed Jack’s bare shoulder and ran his hand from Jack’s chest to his hip. Jack stirred and grumbled under his breath, making Ennis chuckle. “Can’t sleep forever,” Ennis teased. “Even if ya want to, ya lazy ass.”

“Fuck off,” Jack grumbled. “Jus’ go back ta sleep.”

“Don’t think so,” Ennis insisted. “Sun’s up. Gotta get ta your folks place.”

“Don’t remind me.” Jack groped until he found Ennis’ hand and laced their fingers. “Jus’ a few more minutes…”

Ennis kissed Jack’s shoulder again and this time nipped it. “Now I sound like I’m your Ma wakin’ ya up for school. We can’t let movin’ out here make us lazy ‘n’ give your ol’ man more of a reason to bitch at us.”

Jack groaned and smacked his head back against the pillow. “Oh, and he would bitch somethin’ awful. Fine… fine, I’ll get up.”

Ennis gave Jack a playful shove and sat up. “Ya know, your socks have holes.”

Jack gave Ennis a strange look. “So what?”

Ennis grabbed their jeans and was trying to decide by the stains which pair belonged to who. “Ya don’t wear socks with holes in them, fool.”

Jack sat up and rubbed his face with his hands. “Fine, I’ll get Ma ta darn them. I want some coffee.”

“We don’t got no coffee here,” Ennis told him. He stood up and started to pull on the jeans he thought were his. “And if ya get your Ma ta darn your socks, that means ya gotta wear socks with hole in them there. Not right for a woman havin’ ta darn your smelly socks.”

“What’s with you ‘n’ socks this mornin’?” Jack growled. He grabbed the other pair of jeans from Ennis’ side of the bed and looked up at him. “I got more socks back in my ol’ room.”

Ennis reached down and grabbed his rumpled shirt off the floor. He considered the ancient wood stove with the smoke wafting out of the cracked stove pipe. “We can get a coffee pot ‘n’ boil some coffee up in the mornings after we fix that ol’ pipe. Smoke’s driftin’ out the broken window now, but once we fix that, it’ll just smoke up the place. Ya should wear my socks.”

Jack stood up and glared at Ennis. “You’re actin’ mighty strange, friend. Nattering on about fuckin’ socks! Ya been into the whiskey this early?”

Ennis didn’t say anything, but simply turned around to button up his shirt. “Spare socks are in my sack.”

“Ya really have lost it! Fuckin’ socks! Fine, I’ll wear your fuckin’ socks if it’ll shut ya up!” Jack stomped the short distance to the corner of the room and grabbed the sack Ennis kept his worldly possessions in. He reached inside, but didn’t pull out a pair of socks. Instead there was only one thing inside… something about the size of his hand and hard. “This ain’t… oh…” He pulled out a carved wooden horse that he remembered Ennis working on up on Brokeback Mountain. Jack dropped the sack and ran his hands over the whittled likeness, whose roughness reminded him of Ennis.

While they had been in the general store in Lightening Flat, Ennis had watched Jack. Knowing that the hand running over the new shirt or lingering gaze on a new set of fancy boots was part of the dreams Jack couldn’t have. Ennis had nothing his whole life and wanted nothing more than a roof over his head, someone to call family and a way to take care of those he cared about. Jack wanted the sky, but this was all Ennis had to give him, but he could give him something.

“It ain’t socks,” Ennis agreed. “Guess you’ll have to wear socks with holes in them after all.”

“Ennis…” Jack started, but his voice cracked.

Ennis gifted him with a shy smile and looked down at his own bare feet. “That’s my name. But ya gotta figure out one for that poor excuse of a mutt ya dragged home…”

Jack’s fingers traced over the carved mane, down its flanks to the tail. “But, Ennis…”

“Ennis? Don’t think I like the idea of havin’ a dog named after me. Even though I always said my firstborn would be a Junior.” Ennis moved over to the cardboard box and picked the whimpering puppy up by the scruff of its neck. It was a muddy brown colour with a one black spot that covered half of his right ear and the top of his head. The ears where set a little too wide, with only one flopping over, giving him an odd look. “Jus’ never thought it’d be a dog.” He tapped the top of the puppy’s head right on the spot. “Figure this is where God hit him with an ugly stick?”

Jack figured now that Ennis wasn’t going to let Jack acknowledge the gift. He grinned at the kindness that was one of the many emotions Ennis tried to hide. He set the carved wooden horse carefully on a wooden shelf he remembered his grandmother keeping her collection of three porcelain elephants on.

“Are you insultin’ our dog?”

“Yeah,” Ennis agreed and held out the puppy for Jack to take. “Ugly as sin. No wonder the mechanic was gonna drown it.”

Jack took the dog in his arms. “I don’t know what I’m gonna call it. M’sure we’ll figure somethin’ out.”

“Shoulda got somethin’ older. That thing’ll be useless for almost a year before it’s ready ta heard. Besides, can’t leave it here alone.” He wouldn’t say it, but Jack did look awful happy with that puppy in his arms, but he couldn’t let Jack know that.

“The puppy can keep my Ma company during the day,” Jack decided, liking the idea a whole lot. It wasn’t right she was alone while they worked the ranch all day.

“That’s some ugly company ta subject your own Ma to…”

“Ah, shut up,” Jack shot back and held the puppy in front of him. It squirmed and tried to lick Jack’s face. “Well, I admit, he’s kinda ugly... kinda looks like you!”

“Asshole!” Ennis mocked growled and tried to grab at Jack, who simply danced away with the puppy.

“C’mon now, we gotta get goin’,” Jack said and slipped away again when Ennis tried to grab him. “Said so yourself.”

Ennis took one last half assed grab for Jack before he picked Jack’s holey socks off the floor and threw them at him. “Only reason I don’t beat your ass is ‘cause you’re holdin’ the dog.”

“Oh… so he’s a lucky dog then?” Jack considered the puppy. “Maybe Lucky?”

“No,” Ennis sighed. “Not naming the dog after Lucky Strikes.”

“Wouldn’t be after Lucky Strikes, would be ‘cause he save me from you!”

“Not namin’ him Lucky. Puttin’ my foot down. And speakin’ of foot, get your foot outta your ass ‘n’ put your socks on.”

Jack set the still unnamed puppy on the floor and grabbed his socks. Once he had them on, he looked down to see that damn hole right over his left big toe and wiggled it. It felt right to be joking around with Ennis. He didn’t look guarded for once or like he was carrying the weight of the world on those shoulders. Jack wanted to give Ennis his own gift. He wanted Ennis to think of this place…shared with him, as home.

END Part 3.

Chapter Text

Jack was trying to drive him crazy. That was the only explanation Ennis could come up with. This morning he had grazed his thumb with the hammer while they where fixing the fencing in the back forty. Ennis had been distracted by Jack simply looking up. Jack had been holding the wire in place and looked up at him under the brim of his hat, blue eyes and full lashes. It made Jack sound like a girl, but Jack’s damnable smirk when Ennis swore from the pain was no where near like a sweet girl. He was a rotten bastard.

Just now, when Ennis was standing in the bed of the pick up throwing bales off, Jack had purposely stopped the truck abruptly, making sure Ennis tumbled into the mud.

“What did ya do that for, ya son of a bitch?” Ennis hollered back as Jack got out of the cab.

“Cause it was damn funny,” Jack laughed back, slapping his thigh with amusement.

“Got my clothes all covered in muck! Jus’ made more work for your Ma,” Ennis complained. “Shit, I got some in my boot!”

Jack’s grin grew wider. He hooked his thumbs into the belt loops and leaned against the truck. “At least ya didn’t get it on your face…” Ennis wasn’t paying attention to him since he was too busy balancing on one foot and trying to pry his left boot off. “Yet!” With that, Jack bent down and scooped up a handful of mud, only to launch it at Ennis’ head.

The mud hit Ennis dead on centre with a solid splat, knocking him off balance. Ennis swore loudly and fell back into the mud. Jack was bent over laughing when he felt mud hit him in the face. He looked up to see Ennis smiling at him, boot lying in the mud forgotten.

“Dirty lil’ shit,” Ennis mocked him. “Looks like ya got a little mud on your face. Wonder how that happened?”

Jack traced one finger down his cheek and flicked off the mud. “Oh yeah, wonder how that happened,” he repeated back with amused sarcasm. He knew his father was on the other side of the ranch, or else he wouldn’t have launched himself onto Ennis like he did. Soon they where wrestling around in the filth, stuffing cold mud onto their faces or down each others shirts. They were breathing hard and covered head to toe by the time Ennis had Jack pinned under him.

Ennis leaned in close and kissed Jack almost shyly. It was a quick, gentle kiss that was over far too quickly in Jack’s opinion. It wasn’t about sex. It was about being playful, flirting and loving each other. It was the first time Ennis had initiated any sort of affection that wasn’t about fucking.

“You’re dirty,” Ennis murmured quietly and swiped away some of the mud from Jack’s face.

“Yeah,” Jack whispered back. His arms settled on Ennis’ lower back and he hugged him. “So are you, friend.”

Ennis reached out and pushed back Jack’s muddy hair away from his forehead. “Should be gettin’ up.”

“Yep, definitely should,” Jack agreed, but neither of them where moving.

They lay there in each others arms, not saying anything for several more minutes. “You won’t be sore that I won, huh?” Ennis teased and poked Jack in the ribs.

“You won?” Jack snorted with amusement. “You hit your head, bud?”

“Nope,” Ennis shook his head. He reached out and scooped up some mud, smooshing it onto Jack’s head. “I was jus’ takin’ it easy on you before.”

“Oh, those are fightin’ words!” Jack crowed and they started right back up with the wrestling. Jack managed to snap his hips up and use the momentum to roll Ennis under him. He laughed, but his victory was short lived when Ennis flipped Jack right back under him again. Ennis was lying solidly on Jack between Jack’s legs and started to grind down. Their eyes were locked and breathe quickening until they heard something that made them freeze.

“Boys?” Eleanor was standing there in her faded floral print dress, knitted cardigan and rubber boots. Jack couldn’t have been more scared or embarrassed if the Pentecost itself had whacked him across the head.

“M-Ma?” Jack’s voice cracked as he tried to shift Ennis off of him but their long legs only tangled together as Ennis tried to scramble off at the same time.

Their cowboy hats had been knocked off earlier and where also drowned in mud. Jack grabbed for his and planted it firmly in his lap. Ennis managed sit down in the mud next to him and drew his knees up. Sitting in the mud, they looked like the two very guilty teenagers they where and not like the men they tried so very hard to be.

Jack wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t his Ma smiling slightly. She held up a galvanized bucket that had colourful tea towels peaking out from the top. “I brought ya boys some lunch.”

“Oh, y-yeah?” Jack stammered. Ennis was being no help at all. Ennis’ face was pale, but starting to turn red with the blush of embarrassment. “That’s nice.”

“Ya boys done your rough housin’?” Eleanor asked.

“Umm, yeah,” Jack nodded. “We was jus’…”

Before he could continue, Eleanor cut him off. “It’s nice ta see ya got a friend, Jack. No matter what your Daddy says, it can’t be all work ‘n’ no play. Never got to do much goofin’ off with no other kids around growin’ up.” She smiled again, this time more fondly, though she couldn’t hide the slight blush on her own cheeks. “I brought sandwiches. Egg salad. Ya like egg salad, Ennis?”

Ennis made a troubled sound and clenched his hands into fists. He only spoke when Jack elbowed him in the ribs. “Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled.

“That’s good,” Eleanor said and set the bucket down on the tailgate of the truck. “I’ll leave this here. Ya both look dirtier than our ol’sow. Why don’t ya go take a swim in the creek? Then ya won’t drag all that muck into your place before ya change ‘n’ bring those clothes for me ta wash up later.”

“The creek…” Jack repeated back dumbly. He was still trying to process why his mother wasn’t praying for his deliverance to a vengeful Lord or hitting him with the bucket after finding them grinding in the mud.

“Yes, dear. The creek,” Eleanor repeated back slowly and indulgently. “Did you hit your head on a rock while you where… playin’?”

“No, Ma,” Jack answered back immediately. There was definitely no need to be keeping his hat in his lap anymore. He stumbled awkwardly to his feet as he slipped on the mud. “Thanks for lunch. Ya didn’t have ta walk it out to us. We didn’t expect ya…”

“I suspected as much,” Eleanor said. “It was half past two when I left the house. Y’all where expected around noon. Couldn’t let ya go hungry.”

Ennis had also stumbled to his feet, socked foot sinking into the mud. Jack looked over and noticed the blush had even spread to Ennis’ ears. “Thanks, Ma. We just lost track of time… fencing. Lots of fencing ta do.”

“I know, sweetie. I’d best be gettin’ back to the house. I’ll see ya boys for supper.”

“Yes, Ma,” Jack nodded and wrung the hat in his hands.

Eleanor straightened her cardigan and started to walk away when she turned to Ennis. “Don’t forget to put your boot on, boy.” Ennis just nodded mutely and they both watched her walk away.

When she was only a speck in the distance, Ennis mumbled, “She knows.”

Jack’s heart lurched and his mouth went dry with panic. If someone knew, Ennis would run. Run from what they shsred, right into the arms of Alma. “She didn’t…”

“She knows,” Ennis repeated and leaned down to pick up his boot. He turned confused brown eyes on Jack. “Didn’t say nothin’. Why?”

“She loves me,” Jack answered without hesitation. He should have thought it before he said it. He should have weighed all the possibilities, but the answer had come without hesitation. He wanted to added that he loved Ennis, but that would drive him away for sure.

Ennis’ hands wrung the hat in his grasp. “Best be gettin’ ta the creek.”

Jack was taken aback by Ennis’ reaction. “Huh?”

“She said ta wash up,” Ennis mumbled and turned his boot over to try and get the mud out. “We can eat after. Change ‘n’ get ta work.”

“Ennis, I think…”

“Don’t think, Jack,” Ennis snapped, his lips tight. He put his mucky hat on his heat and turned away from him. “It only gets ya in trouble.”

++++++

Jack had worried that Ennis would leave or, if he stayed, he would pull away. He was afraid he would loose Ennis. But Ennis was a stubborn man and, in this, he was a down right stubborn bastard. Ennis was intent on ignoring that Jack’s Ma had found them fooling around. Jack should have been relieved, but instead he was pissed. He was pissed off at Ennis for ignoring the fact that someone knew and it wasn’t the end of the world.

Yesterday had been an awkward mess as they had finished the work and meals with Ennis barely looking at him, let alone talking. They had gone to sleep in silence, with space separating them on the shared mattress. But in his sleep, Ennis could not deny the closeness he craved and they woke up wrapped around each other.

Thunder crashed again and the room was temporarily lit up from a lighting streak across the sky. “Gonna rain,” Jack commented with a yawn.

“Sounds like,” Ennis agreed, still half asleep and nuzzled against Jack’s neck.

Lightening cracked again and Jack heard the puppy whimper from its bed. “This is why they call it Lightening Flat.”

“No shit,” Ennis snorted and pulled Jack in closer.

They where silent, huddled under the shared warmth of the blanket when the rain started to pour down. Jack had no intention of moving until he felt a drip of water on his forehead. “Shit! The roof’s leakin’.”

Ennis shifted away with a sigh and pushed away from Jack. “Well, shift your lazy ass ‘n’ help me move the mattresses.”

“Gonna have’ta patch it soon,” Jack complained and flung back the quilt. There was more thunder and lightening as he stepped off the mattress, into a puddle of water.

“Your bitchin’ isn’t gonna fix it any quicker.” Ennis grabbed one mattress and pulled it back, as Jack grabbed the other one.

“It’s leakin’ all over the place.”

Ennis walked the short distance to the kitchen and pulled out some dust covered pots and pans. “This’ll catch the water.” Ennis grabbed a cast iron frying pan and set it on the smoking woodstove. The puppy was crying in the corner, yipping with every clap of thunder. “Damn it, shut up mutt!”

The puppy quieted down, but continued to whine softly. Jack sighed and scratched the puppy behind his spotted ear. “You’ve been doing that a lot.”

“What?” Ennis snapped. “Don’t give me shit over yellin’ at the mongrel. He’s gotta learn not ta be frightened.” The puppy had managed to crawl out of the box and seeking some sort of comfort, he had crawled to their mattress. “Damn it, get off the bed!”

The puppy didn’t get off the bed, but he did stop chewing on Ennis’ pillow and looked up at him. “Well, I’ll be damned. He listened to ya. Did that twice in a row.”

“Jus’ have’ta be firm with them,” Ennis grumbled back and rubbed the back of his neck. The puppy started to chew on Ennis pillow again. “Damn it, I told ya to stop it ya stupid mutt!”

The puppy stopped chewing the pillow and ran directly to Ennis. Jack laughed and clapped his hands together. “Whoo wee, looks like our lil’ buddy has a name.”

“What craziness are ya talkin’ about now, Jack?” Ennis asked as he set a pot on the windowsill to catch another steady drip.

“Seems he answers to Damnit.”

“You gotta be kiddin’ me…”

Jack crouched down and held out his hand, making cooing noises. “Damnit, c’mere.” The puppy ran directly to Jack with his tail wagging. “See?”

Ennis shook his head. “He’s just doin’ that cause your talkin’ to him like he’s some sorta baby or somethin’.”

Jack picked the puppy up and considered him. “Damnit would suit’im if ya ask me. You’re always sayin’ he’s damn ugly.”

“Ain’t right. It’s not a proper name for a dog.”

“You got any other ideas?” Jack challenged and scratched Damnit’s head.

“No,” Ennis conceded. If it made Jack happy to name the mutt something stupid, then what did he really care? “Jus’ make sure he stays out of trouble.”

Jack moved Damnit’s box filled with old blankets to a dry corner and checked the blankets to make sure they where dry before he set the puppy down. He looked out the window to see the solid torrent of rain coming down. “Ain’t gonna be able to go anywhere when it’s like this.”

Ennis knew the horses where dry in the old barn out back since, like any good rancher, they had fixed it up before the house. They kept Jack’s truck at his folks place and rode the horses back and forth over the rough terrain. The idea of not working didn’t settle well with him though. “How long do ya think it’ll take before it breaks?”

“Could be all mornin’,” Jack told him, “But it’s been known to rain like this all day this time of year. A little bit colder ‘n’ this would be a snow storm. Guess that means we jus’ gotta go back ta bed, friend.”

“Go ahead,” Ennis said. “I’ll stoke the fire first.”

Jack got back into bed, propped up on one elbow, watching Ennis fuss over the fire. “You’re takin’ too long.”

“Gotta do this right,” Ennis grumbled and shoved a log into the wood burning stove. “If I don’t, then you’ll jus’ be bitchin’ about how cold ya are.”

Jack’s grin grew wider. Ennis wasn’t one for saying much, especially about anything he felt. Rather, he was the kind of man who would show you he cared. Back on Brokeback Mountain they had slept in all their clothes just to keep warm. Now it was a luxury to be stripped down just to their long johns. Jack felt the blaze of heat radiating from the stove and watched as Ennis closed the door and adjusted the flue. He had insisted that first night for Jack to take the side closest to the stove, so he climbed onto his side of bed.

“Don’t seem right to be slackin’ off like this,” Ennis complained, flopping onto his back.

Jack’s hand settled onto Ennis’ stomach, noticing it was still warm from the heat of the fire. “It’s called relaxin’.”

“Its call bein’ a lazy ass son of a bitch,” Ennis sighed with no real bite behind his words. Trying to be nonchalant, he laid his own hand on Jack’s hand, twining their fingers together.

Jack turned his head and kissed Ennis’ stubbled cheek, nuzzling gently. “This ain’t such a bad life… rather a sweet life.”

“It’s… okay,” Ennis admitted and yawned. He turned on his side and pulled Jack close. “Gonna wear ya out later.”

Jack could tell Ennis was close to sleep. They had both been working so hard to keep his father of their backs and then coming back here to make as many repairs as possible before the snow hit. “Not now, cowboy?” Jack teased quietly.

Ennis kept his eyes closed and mumbled back, “Jus’ gonna rest my eyes first ‘n’ then you’re in for it, bud…”

“I bet ya will,” Jack chuckled and listened to Ennis’ breathing slow and soften with sleep. Having experienced these moments with Ennis made Jack even more desperate to keep Ennis by his side. Maybe if he had never had this, he could have settled for something else. But with Ennis’ strong arms wrapped around him, Jack knew he could never give him up. He would fight everything and everyone… including Ennis.

++++++

Eleanor stepped into her kitchen to find Jack and Ennis already up and sitting at the table. She grabbed her apron off of the hook and tied it around of her waist, but was forced to stop and make sense of the peculiar situation in front of her. There was an open can of condensed soup in between them and they where sharing it, digging in with two spoons. Ennis immediately looked embarrassed and looked down.

“Ya boys hungry I take it?”

“Yeah,” Jack mumbled with a full mouth. He swallowed and then grinned at her. “Sorry, Ma, but we ran out of firewood a few hours ago after the storm broke. Came here ‘cause it’s warm.”

“I’ll chop when we get back tonight,” Ennis added quietly.

“I’m sure ya will,” Eleanor told him with a smile. “If ya boys where hungry, why didn’t you wake me up?”

Before Jack could say something, Ennis did. “No, ma’am. Wouldn’t do that.” He shook his head. “Not proper.”

“Guess we could’ve cooked something for ourselves…” Jack sighed and ate another spoonful of cold, condensed soup.

Now Eleanor cracked a genuine smile. “You’d best not be messin’ around in my kitchen, Jackie.”

“Ma…” Jack groaned when she used his old nickname. He looked sideways at Ennis who was smirking, even though he was trying to hide it. “I know I can’t cook worth shi- I mean, beans. Now Ennis here ain’t such a bad cook. Not like you, Ma, but he can cook bacon without burnin’ it.”

“I’m sure he can, dear,” Eleanor answered indulgently. She picked up the half eaten can of soup, making a tsking sound, and grabbed the spoons right out of their hands. “Can’t have my boys eatin’ like this. If any of the women in town found out…” She made another tsking sound and headed into the kitchen. She grabbed a loaf of bread, cutting four thick slices, then slathering them with butter and preserves. “Where did ya find that poor excuse for soup anyways?”

“In the winter emergency supplies,” Jack answered. His mother always prided herself on cooking everything from scratch. She kept looking at the half eaten can of soup like it was the devil himself.

Eleanor put the plate of bread slices in front of them, looking at them expectantly. “That’ll tide you over ‘til I cook something warm up.”

“Thanks, Ma,” Jack said and grabbed a slice. Eleanor only went back into the kitchen when she saw they had both taken a slice each.

Ennis leaned over and whispered, “She always like that?”

“‘Fraid so,” Jack confirmed. “Better get used to it.”

Ennis looked quickly over into kitchen where Eleanor was hustling around and then back at Jack. “Women are funny creatures.”

“Didn’t your sister do stuff like this?”

“Nah,” Ennis shook his head and took a big bite from his slice of bread. “How do ya think I learned how ta fry bacon ‘n’ open a can of beans? Merle tried her best, but she worked at a diner mornin’ ‘n’ night. Last thing she wanted was ta cook for us, so K.E. ‘n’ me had to fend for ourselves most of the time.”

“Ya miss your brother ‘n’ sister?”

Ennis’ forehead scrunched together, but not in a scowl, more like he was considering the answer. “Only family I got.”

“That’s not an answer…”

“It was a stupid question,” Ennis told him and finished off his slice of bread with one last bite. “Don’t matter if I miss’em or not, even if I did. We got our own lives now.”

Jack recognized that tone of Ennis’ that meant he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “Say, what does K.E. stand for anyhow?”

The scowl on Ennis’ face lightened and was quickly replaced by a smirk. “He hates his name. Kentucky Elijah Del Mar.”

Jack made a low whistle and lightly smacked the table top. “Whoo wee, that is a doozy. Kentucky?”

“Our Ma’s people came from Kentucky,” Ennis told him. “She loved the name. K.E. said she would’ve been better ta give him a kick in the head.”

“At least she had a sense of humour,” Jack said. He looked over to the kitchen and saw his own Ma loading up two plates with eggs, bacon and toast smeared with bacon grease.

“She was a nice lady,” Ennis commented quietly, watching Eleanor approach with the laden plates. Both of them knew she was off to the kitchen to cook even more, probably out of guilt.

“What was it like growin’ up with a brother ‘n’ sister?” Jack had always wanted a brother and at times would have settled for a sister.

“Learned how ta duck quick ‘n’ run fast,” Ennis chuckled and stabbed at his scrambled eggs with his fork. “Merle could punch awful hard for a girl.” Jack leaned over the table and smacked Ennis in the shoulder. Ennis looked mock offended and rubbed his shoulder. “What was that for?”

“Ta make ya feel right at home,” Jack laughed. He was getting ready to smack Ennis again when he sensed his Ma was giving him a warning look. Glancing up, sure enough she was and she was holding the wooden spoon that he had dreaded from childhood. Jack promptly lowered his balled fist and pretended like he had been grabbing for his fork the whole time. “Ya think Merle ‘n’ K.E. are happy bein’ married? Do ya think anyone ever really is?”

Ennis chewed on a slice of bacon and gave Jack a sharp glance. Jack knew then Ennis didn’t want to talk about this. “Someone must be I expect, or I suppose no one would.”

November felt frighteningly too close. Jack looked down, his gaze following the wood grain of the tabletop. At least Ennis hadn’t mentioned how happy he was going to be married to Alma. “Never saw much point in gettin’ married myself. I figure women are more trouble then they’re worth.”

“Usually are,” Ennis agreed, but his lips had thinned like they did when he was uncomfortable. “But sometimes they’re all a man’s got.”

END Part 4.

Chapter Text

It was shortly before supper and Jack had dragged Ennis behind the barn, knowing soon his Ma would be hollering for them. Jack leaned over and plucked a rolled cigarette from Ennis' shirt pocket without asking. The wind was picking up, so he had to shield the tip as he tried to light it. It took two matches, but he finally was able to puff the ember to life.

"Ya know, Ennis, you've never even asked what my folks are payin' you."

"Don't need ta," Ennis told him and leaned over to pluck the cigarette from Jack's lips. He took a few drags off of it and handed it back to Jack.

Jack took the cigarette, taking a few puffs and then used the hand holding the cigarette to motion at Ennis. "Why not? Don't ya care?"

"'Course, I care," Ennis complained and grabbed the cigarette back. "You're gonna put it out if you're not careful, dummy. But me askin' ain't gonna make them pay me more. More likely would make them think I was ungrateful. Whatever they're payin' me is more than I'd be sittin' on my ass doin' nothin'."

"True enough," Jack agreed. More often than not, Ennis and him had started to share everything now, even more so than on Brokeback. They drank from the same whiskey bottle, smoked from the same cigarette and even shared food off each other's plate. "My old man don't pay me nothin'. If I want anything, I gotta ask him for it. I still got money left from Aguirre 'n' after that runs out... I don't know. Don't feel right a man my age havin' ta beg his old man for money."

"Well, then ask him for a wage," Ennis reasoned. There was a little bit left of the cigarette, so he handed it back to Jack to finish up. "Don't gotta be much 'cause this'll be your place someday, but enough ta do what ya gotta do."

"He won't do it," Jack insisted stubbornly.

"Won't know ta ya ask him, now will ya?"

"Suppose so..." Jack admitted. "I was thinkin' of goin' down ta the rodeo in Gilette this weekend. Last one of the season 'n' I have enough cash stashed ta cover the entry fee." Ennis gave Jack a dubious look. He obviously didn't like the idea of being left alone on the ranch with Jack's parents. "Now don't give me that look, cowboy. Ya know damn well I want ya ta come with me."

Ennis blushed and tugged down the brim of his cowboy hat. "That's just ‘cause ya want me ta scrap your rodeo fuck up ass off the ground afterwards."

"See now, that's the spirit!" Jack chuckled. "It won't cost ya nothin' either... I got the gas money covered. You can come along for the ride."

"What about a place ta stay?"

"Can drive back that night, or if we get ta boozin’, we can sleep it off in the truck," Jack insisted. "As for food. It'll only be a day 'n' maybe one night. Figure Ma can pack us enough ta last... sandwiches 'n' such." Jack rubbed his hands together. "I already feel lucky, friend. Can feel that prize money fattening up my wallet.” He caressed his prized belt buckle. “That’s where I won this here beaut…"

"Last year?"

"Nah," Jack shook his head. "Year before last. Missed the Gilette last year 'cause I was up on Brokeback. Did manage to catch few rodeos earlier this spring before I headed up ta Brokeback though."

"Don't seem right ta be leavin' your folks ta fend for themselves..."

"They fended for themselves all the while I was up on Brokeback jus' fine," Jack groused, but when Ennis' expression turned more serious, Jack realized that wasn't the right approach. "We'll do as much as we can before we leave that mornin' 'n' I'll do extra chores when I get back. C’mon, Ennis..."

Ennis brows scrunched together. "The dog..."

"Ma already said she would watch Damnit."

"One day?"

"One day," Jack repeated back with a grin and flicked away the butt. "C'mon, I wanna do this."

"I don't know, rodeo..." Ennis hedged, but there was that sly smirk on his face that Jack adored. It was enough to melt Jack, especially in combination with the rarely used nickname.

Jack punched Ennis on him arm. "Don't make me sing again, Ennis. ‘Cause I'll sing until ya agree ta go."

"It'll make my ears bleed."

"I'll sing 'n' use my harmonica!"

Ennis gave him a lopsided grin and held up his arms in mock surrender. "Can't have that. Fine, I'll go."

"Good," Jack said and nodded. He butted Ennis’ shoulder with his own and shoved his hands into his pockets.

"Alright then." They stood there for a few moments just standing side by side. If on cue, Jack's Ma called out that supper was ready and they walked towards the house, shoulder to shoulder.

++++++

Jack's turn wasn't up for a few hours, but he'd already drawn his bull and wanted to check it out. It turned out it was an ill tempered Black Angus-Brahma cross named Ernie. He had his boot on the lowest rung of the fence and arms resting on the top considering the beast. No one else was around, since one of the top cowboys on the circuit was up.

Ernie looked at Jack and snorted. "Nasty ol' cuss," Jack said and spit on the ground. "Ya ain't gonna come between me 'n' what's mine. Understand me?"

Jack whirled around when he heard a deep laugh. It was a tall dirty blonde cowboy with green eyes. It sure as hell wasn’t his blonde cowboy. This guy had about six years and thirty pounds of muscle on Ennis.

"Ya waitin' for him ta answer back?"

"‘Course not," Jack answered sullenly. He had to get out of here before the cowboy recognized him, if hadn’t already. He tipped his hat and turned to walk away, but felt a restraining hand on his shoulder.

"Hey now, no reason ta take off. Don't ya remember me, Jackie-boy? Cause I sure as hell remember you."

Jack pulled away from the grasp and turned. There was no point in causing a scene because that wouldn't do anyone any good. "Gabe. Nice ta see ya again."

Gabe gave him a confident grin that had once seemed attractive to Jack, but now only made him nervous. "Haven't seen ya since this spring. I looked for ya on the circuit."

"Been workin'," Jack told him. He looked around and still there was not a soul to be seen. "Well, I had best be..."

"Keepin' yourself outta trouble, huh?" Gabe took a step closer and leaned his hand on the fence post, blocking Jack’s escape. "I must say I was hopin' ta see ya here, Jackie-boy. Listen, maybe we can get a drink tonight? Get reacquainted... I got a room at the local motel."

Jack was already starting to kick himself mentally. Before Ennis he would have gladly taken Gabe up on his offer. Hell, he had done as much just this spring, but now was different. "Thanks for the offer, but..."

Gabe leaned in even closer, lowering his voice to a husky whisper. "Jack, now don't be this way. Ya were right friendly last time I saw you. Real friendly."

Jack swallowed nervously and shook his head. Last spring, Gabe seemed to spot something in him Jack hadn't even known was there. "Gabe, listen, I..."

"Got a girlfriend?"

"No," Jack answered automatically and then shook his head again when Gabe’s leer grew. "I mean, yes."

Gabe chuckled fondly and actually chucked Jack under the chin. "I always liked ya, Jackie-boy."

"The name's Jack... not Jackie-boy."

"Ah, see now," Gabe said. "There's the spirit I saw last time. You're feisty, Jack. I like that." Gabe put his hand on Jack's hip. "Feisty ‘n’ pretty."

Jack was just about to punch this asshole when he heard Ennis growl deadly and low, "Get you're hands off’a him." Jack pushed Gabe away with hard shove. Ennis was starring at Gabe with his fist balled and a murderous gaze. “C’mere, Jack.”

Jack moved quickly to Ennis’ side, his back turned to Gabe. “I wasn’t…”

Ennis’ hand shot out and he grabbed Jack by his neck, dragging him closer. “Shut up,” Ennis hissed, his fingers digging into Jack’s skin.

“Guess ya like them jealous, Jackie-boy,” Gabe said, but took a few steps back. He turned to Ennis and whistled low. “Oh, you’re ready ta knock my head in, aren’t ya?”

All Ennis could think about was that a stranger had touched Jack. No man but him was allowed to touch Jack like that. “I’m gonna kill ya,” Ennis hissed and lunged at the asshole, only to be held back by Jack.

Jack sensed that Ennis was going to attack Gabe and grabbed him around the waist. “Ennis, no!”

“He touched ya…” Ennis struggled and tried to lunge at Gabe again.

“Get the hell outta here!” Jack hissed at Gabe. “Keep your mouth shut or I’ll kill ya myself.”

Gabe took in Ennis’ murderous expression for a second and hesitated. “I don’t trust him not to seriously hurt ya…”

“I’m gonna kill’em!” Ennis snapped and almost got out of Jack’s grasp.

“Get outta here!” Jack repeated, tightening his grip on Ennis’ waist. “I can’t hold him back forever.”

“If you need me, you know where to find me,” Gabe told him and finally left. It took all of this strength, but Jack held Ennis until he calmed enough to stop struggling. Jack leaned in real close and whispered, almost crooning, “It’s gonna be alright… it’s alright…”

“He touched ya,” Ennis replied in a broken tone. It was like the fight went out of him in that moment.

“Not here, Ennis,” Jack begged him and started to tug Ennis away from the bull pens. Their truck wasn’t parked too far away in one of the back fields that served as a parking lot on the fair grounds. “Please, keep it together. Jus’ a little longer.”

Jack let go of Ennis only when he was certain the other man would follow him. They didn’t pass a single soul and for that Jack was thankful. He opened to the door and watched as Ennis slid into the cab without comment or argument. Jack climbed in next to Ennis and slammed the door shut.

“He touched ya,” Ennis said after a few tense moments of silence.

Jack’s palms felt sweaty and he wiped them on his jeans. “I didn’t ask him to. I was gettin’ ready ta deck him when ya showed up. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Ennis looked at Jack with brown eyes filled accusation. “He’s touched ya before… I can tell.”

“Last spring, we…”

“Someone else touched you…” Ennis’ voice wasn’t angry like Jack expected. Rather it was lost and desperate, like something important had been broken. “You’re queer.”

“Now, you shut up!” Jack snapped and hit the steering wheel with his open palm. “I won’t let ya destroy us. Ya didn’t need ta know.”

Ennis turned and faced Jack, his eyes where starting to tear up, but not fall. He voice was thick and tight when he spoke, “I'm gonna tell you this one time, Jack fuckin' Twist, ‘n' I ain't foolin'. What I don't know… all them things I don't know… could get you killed if I come to know them. I mean it.”

“You threatenin’ me Ennis Del Mar?”

Ennis reached out and gripped Jack’s arm painfully. “You’re mine.”

The possessive statement should have angered Jack, but instead it thrilled him. Ennis wanted him. Jack gripped the steering wheel and then glared at Ennis. “Never said I wasn’t. And even if some man touched me before you, doesn’t change that.”

Ennis’ hand moved from Jack’s arm to grip the back of his neck. “If I ever…”

“You’ll never have to worry about that,” Jack said, forcing himself not to yell. “I don’t want him, Ennis. I don’t want any other man. He never fucked me. We messed around a little last spring.”

The dark truth was still plain on Ennis’ face. “I still wanna kill him…”

“Don’t wanna kill me no more?” Jack asked. The dark intimacy of Ennis’ jealousy and rage was soothing to his anxious soul. Electric and intense in a way that was so wrong it had to be right.

Ennis’ lips were a thin line again and he shook his head. His blood was pounding and all he wanted to do was hold onto Jack harder, pull him closer. There were things he wanted to say, but he couldn’t. He felt broken.

Jack’s hand moved up to hold onto Ennis’ neck, mirroring Ennis’ hold on him. He leaned forward until their foreheads were touching. “Only you, Ennis.” When Ennis didn’t answer, Jack looked directly into intense brown eyes and shook Ennis a little. “Only you, okay?” No matter how much he wanted to kiss Ennis right now, he had to remember where they were. They had limited privacy in the truck. If anyone saw this, they could end up dead. Jack pulled away reluctantly, but knew he had no choice. “Ya wanna go home now?”

Ennis completely surprised him when he shook his head. “No. We’re stayin’ here.”

“Why?” Jack challenged quietly. He thought that maybe Ennis wanted to find Gabe and finish him off.

Ennis got a stubborn set to his face. “‘Cause ya wanted ta ride a bull ‘n’ I’m not lettin’ anyone take that away from you.”

Jack kept his eyes on the steering wheel and he felt almost sick. It hurt to love someone this much. He sniffed and then used his sleeve to wipe his nose. “Guess I really am a rodeo fuck up, huh?” Ennis mumbled something that Jack couldn’t understand. “What was that?”

Ennis sniffed himself, though he tried to hide it. He shifted around on the bench and mumbled again, “I said, you’re my rodeo fuckup.”

“Aw, Ennis…”

“Get your head on straight,” Ennis told him more gruffly. “If ya get hurt ridin’ that bull, I’ll whoop your ass.”

“Right, I…”

“Eight seconds, Jack,” Ennis cut him off. “Can be an awfully long time. Let’s go.”

“Are you sure you don’t wanna stay here?” Jack questioned. He trusted Ennis could control himself, but maybe it would be best for both of them if Ennis wasn’t watching when he risked his life riding that bull.

“Ya ain’t gettin’ outta might sight, boy.” Ennis sat up and straightened in the seat. “Not now or anytime soon.”

And Ennis hadn’t spoken truer words. They took a few more minutes to collect themselves, not touching, before they got out of the truck. Ennis followed behind Jack several feet. Even without looking back, Jack could feel Ennis’ gaze burrowing into the back of his skull. When they got to the arena, they lounged against some fencing and watched the current bull rider get thrown after four seconds. When Jack looked at Ennis watching him, he knew to anyone else, Ennis looked calm enough. Like any other cowboy, except maybe a touch colder and reserved, but not to Jack. Jack felt the jealousy and possessiveness burrowing deep inside. It wormed its way into Jack’s heart, making him confident that Ennis wanted him. It was a dark desire he knew Ennis wished he didn’t possess, but it was something Jack could cling to.

They watched as cowboy after cowboy took on the bulls. He watched Ennis tense when one cowboy was trampled and thrashed by his thick necked bull, only to be rescued in the nick of time by the rodeo clowns. Ennis tensed even more when a rodeo hand came over to tell Jack that he needed to get ready because he was up soon.

Ennis reached out and stopped Jack momentarily by grasping his elbow. “Ya know?” he asked him in a hoarse voice.

Jack nodded and cracked a nervous smile. “I know.”

Riding a bull was like staring death in the face and laughing at it with no apologies… the thrill of hopefully cheating death. As Ernie came crashing into the chute, Jack realized for the first time why bull riders hesitated as they got older. He understood why they had a tendency to retire when they got married. He looked into Ernie’s eyes, seeing instinctual animal hatred that could take him away from Ennis. It was the first time he felt a twinge of guilt and regret for doing this thing he loved. But then he also understood why some of those guys with families had an edge. They where doing this for someone, not just themselves. He had seen the fear in Ennis’ eyes, but he had also seen the flash of pride.

As Jack climbed the sides of the chute and settled onto Ernie’s back, he barely registered the words over the loud speakers. “…Jack Twist from Lightening Flats, Wyoming…” The cheering and applause where drowned out by the beating of his own heart as he felt Ernie twitching under him. He tugged on his glove and gripped the bull rope tightly, wrapping the tail around his hand. The cowboy by the exit chute started to count down and Jack tightened his thighs, taking a deep breath.

Jack heard the sharp metal clink of the chute open and then his world stood still. There was no time to count. Every time felt like an eternity as he tried to hold on. They were all winners in their own minds, until the announcer told them differently. All bull riders were alive and flying until the hoof of an angry bull told them differently. And it was like soaring when you went sailing off that angry beast, your strength failing you.

The wind was knocked out of him and his hat went flying as he hit the dirt.

“…eight seconds! Eight seconds for Jack Twist. Let’s give this cowboy a hand…”

Everything was spinning. When someone looses, someone else wins and today… today Jack Twist had won. He scrambled to his feet because Ernie’s only concern was trampling Jack’s skull. But then Jack saw his hat and had to dive back to grab it before he was turning to run back to climb over the arena fences.

He landed on the other side and was immediately met by other competitors and hands congratulating him. Men where slapping him on the back and shaking his hand, but none of them were Ennis. Once everyone had dispersed to get the next rider ready, he saw Ennis standing about ten feet away, just watching him.

Any other bull rider coasting the adrenaline high would have been able to kiss and paw their wives or girlfriends in the excitement. Jack was no different and wanted to walk over there and kiss Ennis. But in this place where people would kill them for doing so, Jack had to settle with a hand shake, pat on the back and a shared knowing look from Ennis.

“Jack Fuckin’ Twist,” Ennis said under his breath. “Ya did it, rodeo.”

“I did,” Jack agreed and gifted Ennis with a blinding smile. He was a little taken aback when Ennis thumped him in the arm. “What was that for?”

“For goin’ back for your hat,” Ennis grumbled. “Fool thing ta do.”

Jack dusted off the hat in question that he was still clutching in his right hand. “I suppose so.” Jack realized that he didn’t have anything to prove to anyone anymore. He’d found it in Ennis. “Truth be told, I don’t know when, or if, I’ll be bull riding again.”

++++++

Ennis had purposely chosen a spot away from anyone else so he could watch Jack in privacy. He was watching from the sideline of the open air arena again, but this time he didn’t feel helpless. Jack wasn’t riding a bull, but rather getting ready to be called up to receive his prize money and new belt buckle from a pretty girl.

“He only has eyes for you, ya know.”

Ennis knew that voice and he tensed when he recognized Gabe. “Get away from me before I…”

“Yeah, yeah… kill me, I know,” Gabe chuckled. He leaned against the side of the barn that kept them hidden from the crowd, but still allowed them to see the presentation of awards. “I’m not here ta ‘cause trouble.”

“Then why are ya here?” Ennis spat out and his body posture became threatening. “Better not see ya around Jack, or…”

“You’ll do something extremely unpleasant I’d imagine,” Gabe cut him off. “Got it the first time. Listen, I didn’t know Jack had a… friend. I’m here ta smooth things over. Men like us…”

“I ain’t queer.”

“Never said ya were,” Gabe tried to placate Ennis quickly. “Jus’ sayin’ that sometimes we… even if we don’t like each other, gotta watch each others backs.”

“I don’t need no one’s help.”

Gabe shook his head and sighed. “But Jack does. He’s a dreamer. I like the kid ‘n’ wanted ta make sure you was doin’ right by him.”

“Jack’s business ain’t none of your concern…”

“True enough,” Gabe conceded with a tip of his head. He had enough experience to see that whatever Jack and this Ennis character shared was still raw, marred with insecurity. Though he doubted this boy would ever grow out of the jealousy because he just didn’t seem the type. “But I know Jack’s type.”

Through tight lips, Ennis asked, “And what type would that be?”

“The kinda man who falls hard ‘n’ fast, but forever.” Gabe could see he was walking a fine line with this young man who clung so hard to Jack, but didn’t want to. “I’m jus’ sayin’ that should anyone ever come ta have for feelings for a man like Jack… whoever that is, should treat him right. There’s not too many in the world like him.” When Ennis’ eyes narrowed again, Gabe couldn’t help but chuckle. Maybe these two boys stood a chance after all, if he could get over his own foolishness. “Not me. Certainly not me.”
Ennis hated this man from deep down. The man who had touched Jack before him. The cowboy was older, more confident and certainly more good looking than Ennis. Women looked at men like this, just like they looked at Jack. At one point, Jack had looked at Gabe and liked what he saw. Maybe Jack really was queer…

Ennis was getting ready to smash his fist into Gabe’s too perfect face, wanting to close those green eyes with a black shiner, when he heard Jack’s name announced over the loud speaker.

“Go on,” Gabe told him, seeing Ennis step around the corner, eyes squinting to see. “Ya can try ta beat the crap outta me later. Go see your cowboy.”

“Don’t think I won’t beat the shit outta ya,” Ennis warned, but he was already moving away.

“Sure, if ya can catch me,” Gabe warned and shook his head. Ennis had already forgotten him and was making his way closer to catch a better glimpse of Jack. “Now if ya excuse me, I got my eye on a certain rodeo clown.”

When everything was done and the crowd was milling around, Jack made his way to Ennis. He stopped dead in his track when saw Jack. The cocky son of a bitch was damn near strutting he was so proud of himself. But he walked right past any number of girls who would have been more than happy to help him celebrate.

He strutted right up to Ennis and pressed that shiny belt buckle into Ennis’ hand. “That’s for you, cowboy.”

Ennis shook his head minutely. “Jack, I…”

“Shut up, Ennis,” Jack said affectionately. “Let’s go home. Nothin’ for me here anymore.”

Ennis bit his bottom lip and nodded. He curled his fingers around the metal that was still warm from Jack’s touch and he didn’t let go of it, not even once, the entire trip back. The only time he let it go was to give it back to Jack so he could show his Ma. Afterwards, Jack gave it right back to him. That night back in their cabin, Ennis shined the belt buckle up real nice and put it on the shelf right next to the horse he had whittled for Jack.

END Part 5.

Chapter Text

After they got back from the rodeo, life went back to the grind of working on a ranch. Jack wanted to talk about what happened with Gabe, but he knew Ennis wanted no such thing. Ennis coped by pretending nothing was wrong. For Jack, living this life with Ennis was both a dream and nightmare. He had Ennis now, but the uncertainty of November was always looming. Now he wanted to forget and the best way to forget was numb the pain.

He’d asked his Ma to watch Damnit for the night. He knew it wasn’t a burden for her because she adored the little mongrel, always slipping him scraps of food. Jack raided his secret stash of whiskey hidden in the rafters of his parent’s barn. He slipped two bottles into his jacket pocket and showed them to Ennis once they where back to their place for the night. Ennis nodded with a tired smile, kicked off his boots, and sat down on the mattresses with his back against the wall. The second bottle of whiskey was hidden safely under his cowboy hat within easy reach of the bed.

Twenty minutes and half a bottle later, Jack was sitting next to Ennis on the bed with his own boots kicked off.

"Where did ya get this again? Tastes like rot gut." Ennis asked and took a swig from the bottle. "Maybe that's bein' too kind. Kinda tastes like turpentine."

Jack snatched the bottle from Ennis and, looking somewhat offended, he tapped the bottle with his finger. "If it's good enough for me, then it's good enough for you." He took a sip and the burn made him wince a little. "When you drink turpentine anyways?"

"Didn't."

"That all ya gonna say?"

"Yup." Ennis slouched down deeper against the wall and tugged his cowboy hat over his eyes.

Jack leaned in closer and poked Ennis in the ribs with his finger. "You're drunk."

Ennis tipped his hat back up a little and opened one eye, giving Jack a crooked hint of a smile. "And you ain't, rodeo?"

Jack took another sip from the whiskey bottle. “Nope,” Jack said and shook his head. “Just happy.”

“Didn’t know they was callin’ pissant drunk happy now.” Ennis took the bottle from Jack and swirled the amber liquid around, watching it. “We’re gonna feel like shit tomorrow, bud.”

Jack shifted closer and laid his head on Ennis’ shoulder. “Probably,” he agreed and sighed contentedly when Ennis didn’t push him away. “But it’s not like we haven’t done it before.”

“Not since Brokeback.” Some days had seemed so long with a nasty hang over and the bitter cold of the mornings. “Don’t miss those sheep none.”

“Me neither,” Jack echoed. Silence settled over them as the warmth of the whiskey worked its magic on Jack’s nerves. Jack turned his head and nuzzled Ennis’ neck lazily, kissed him softly. Ennis’ skin tasted like sweat and dirt. “Would ya really have killed that rodeo cowboy?”

Ennis tensed and his face drew into a scowl. “Don’t wanna talk about this.”

“Well, I do,” Jack mumbled against Ennis skin, kissing it again. “You were so jealous you were nearly green, Ennis.”

Ennis’ hand came to rest on the back of Jack’s head, fingers running through his hair. “He touched ya…”

“And ya hated that, don’t ya, cowboy?” Jack asked carefully.

Part of him thought that Ennis would react violently to this confrontation, but another part of him knew how vulnerable Ennis was. That was the part of him that remembered how Ennis had come to him shyly, hat in hand, after running off that first night on Brokeback Mountain. Jack knew Ennis well enough to know he was driven by fear, which competed with a strong sense of responsibility. That responsibility was intertwined so close with guilt that Jack knew at times it must drive Ennis near craziness.

“Probably wouldn’t have killed him,” Ennis admitted and took a swig of whiskey. “Would’ve beaten the shit outta him though.”

“Don’t doubt that,” Jack said and took his own sip from the bottle. “Ya know I can take care of myself. Could whoop your ass if I wanted to.”

“Could try,” Ennis snorted, his fingers still carding through Jack’s hair. “I know ya could hold your own in a fight. Still don’t stop me from wantin’ ta beat the shit outta that asshole.”

“Ya know I’d never hit a woman…” Jack said quietly and closed his eyes. “A real man doesn’t do that. But I swear, Ennis, if I ever saw that girl of yours touch you... part of me would want…”

Now Ennis’ hand tightened in Jack’s hair in a warning. “Don’t…”

“I wouldn’t,” Jack hissed out and felt Ennis’ grip loosen. He was coming from the same place of pain and messed up hurt that Ennis knew intimately. “I jus’… I don’t want ya ta go. I don’t wanna share.”

Ennis lifted the bottle to his mouth and drained the rest of the whiskey. “M’tired.”

Jack wanted to push. He needed an answer from Ennis, but when he turned to confront him, the look in Ennis’ eyes stopped him cold. It wasn’t just fear. Jack would call it more like cold terror in those brown eyes.

Jack didn’t know what Ennis was afraid of, but he hoped it was the idea of loosing him. But knowing Ennis, it could easily be the horror of loving another man. “Ah, Ennis…”

Ennis pulled away from Jack and flopped down on the mattress, pulling his coat tighter to his chest. He felt cold, even though they had just fixed the draft coming from the front door. Even though he knew he had an obligation to go back to marry Alma, he had never really contemplated a life without Jack. Ennis clenched at his stomach, feeling sick, even though he was far too drunk for a hang over yet. Nothing made sense. He felt Jack lie down next to him and wrap an arm around his waist.

The question was… did he want to go?

++++++

Last time he had worn a tie was at his parent’s funeral. Now it felt like a noose around his neck. He wanted to fuss with it, but Alma had already made her daddy retie it once for him. His palms where sweaty, but he dared not wipe them on the borrowed suit that KE had worn at his own wedding.

Alma was pretty in her white dress. She was everything any man should want. She was quiet, wanted kids and knew how to take care of a man. The soon-to-be Mrs. Ennis Del Mar.

“‘Til death do us part…” His parents had said those words and meant then. Ennis wanted to run and never look back.

He looked up into the pews, seeing his sister Merle. She wasn’t smiling. Maybe she knew? But then there was KE staring at him with the eyes of their father…expecting him to do the right thing. To be a man.

“I do…” The words that sealed his fate. Trapping him in something he thought he wanted. Trapped with Alma’s sweet smile and gentle ways.

But then he saw sad blue eyes considering him from the front pew. His Jack. Never thought that maybe Jack would come to his wedding.

A possibility started to wrap itself in his mind. What if he could have both? Alma and Jack. Alma had been kind and easy to be around. Jack was his best friend… his only friend.

The wedding swirled into a blur, fast forwarding to what could be. He could have a place with Alma. With his luck, he would probably knock her up fast. He could have a job on some ranch with Jack… see him during the day and at nights for a few beers. No one would think there was anything odd about friends sharing a few drinks… maybe on Fridays, he might have a few too many and have to stay over at Jack’s place. He’d probably make a regular habit of it. Drinking buddies… fuck buddies…

Even though Jack had said he didn’t want to share, part of him knew Jack would do what he wanted if he pushed it. Just like that rodeo fuck-up had said Jack’s type fell hard and fast. If he wanted to he could get what he wanted from Jack… a life with Alma and a dirty secret with Jack.

They were in a bedroom of some cheap apartment, wrapped around each other. He was so tired from working side-by-side with Jack on some rundown ranch. Except now there was no satisfaction that their work meant something. They weren’t working on land that would someday belong to Jack. They were just breaking their backs for the sake of a paycheque and stolen time together away from Alma and a screaming baby.

“Gonna have’ta leave in a few hours,” Ennis sighed and kissed Jack’s shoulder. He didn’t say ‘go home’ because no place was home without Jack. When he left him, he ached and resented Alma for not being Jack.

“Don’t have’ta do nothin’.”

“I’ve been here all day ‘n’ last night. She’ll want me there for supper.”

“Suppose I’ll go down ta the bar then,” Jack told him. “Cozy up to the new waitress.”

He felt that deadly jealousy flare again. “I’ll buy ya beer. No need ta go out. Maybe Alma’ll be mad enough at me ta kick me out again.”

“People’ll talk if I don’t get friendly occasionally with the ladies, Ennis. It’s not like back on my folks place with no one around. I thought once it could be different, but then ya got married…”

Ennis held Jack tighter and whispered into his hair. “I don’t wanna share…”

He could loose Jack…

Loose him to someone else…

And if anyone ever found out without Ennis there to fight by his side… to protect each other…

Jack’s handsome, smiling face flashed before him again, but then he saw Jack screaming in pain. Ennis saw him fall, but couldn’t come to his defence as a pack of men wielding tire irons laid into him.

He could loose Jack…

++++++

Ennis bolted awake and gasped for breath, the images of Jack dying fresh in his mind. Jack had been wrapped around him and woke just as abruptly when Ennis pulled away. His mind was in a haze as he heard a wrenching sob from Ennis.

“Usually ya can hold your booze better than this…” Jack croaked out, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand.

At the sound of Jack’s voice, Ennis turned to look at him, taking in every detail of Jack’s face. He reacted quickly, rolling over and pinned Jack back down to the mattress. Almost violently, he smashed his mouth against Jack’s, kissing him with desperate need. Ennis fisted one hand into Jack’s shirt, pulling him up while at the same time pressing him down with the weight of his body.

Jack’s hands came up to frame Ennis’ face, kissing him back with equal passion. He was all about letting this go the way his dick wanted it to go, except this wasn’t in Ennis’ nature. Ennis had a wild side, but not like this.

“Hey…” Jack whispered between kisses. “What’s wrong, cowboy?”

Ennis’ breath was heavy and he rested his forehead against Jack’s. Jack was alive, but the fear wasn’t any less real. His hand tightened in Jack’s shirt, as if it would anchor him here. He wanted to explain everything to Jack. Make him understand how all of this was so hard for him. After being alone for so long, suddenly having someone in your life like Jack was confusing. Someone who was so full of life and everything he wasn’t. Jack drove him damn crazy, but when Jack was out of Ennis’ sight, he wanted to see him again… touch him again. It was so powerful and twisted his insides up.

Ennis kissed Jack again, this time more slowly, but not any less desperate. “It ain’t right…” Ennis whispered.

“What ain’t right?” Jack couldn’t keep a hint of bitterness out of his tone. “Us?”

“Feelin’ this for someone… anyone,” Ennis tried to explain and faltered. “It hurts.”

Jack wanted to throw Ennis off of him, but there was one way he knew he could hurt Ennis more than a fist to his face. He wanted to make Ennis hurt. Jack wrapped an arm around Ennis’ so he couldn’t pull away and whispered harshly in Ennis’ ear. “You’re queer for me.”

Ennis’ hand loosened his grip on Jack’s shirt and struggled to roll off of Jack, but the other man held him tighter. “N-No…”

One hand stayed on Ennis’ lower back and the other came up to wrap painfully in Ennis’ hair. “Yes!” Jack hissed, kissing him again savagely, knowing it was turning something he loved ugly.

Ennis pulled away from the kiss, shaking his head. “No… I ain’t queer. You ain’t queer.”

“Coulda fooled me. Ya want me ta remind you of all of the queer things we’ve done together?”

Ennis closed his eyes, wishing they could shut out the pain. That the darkness could hide his weakness for needing Jack. “My ol’man told me what fags are… showed me what happens ta them,” Ennis said, his voice cracking. He remembered Earl’s dead eyes… they had been blue like Jack’s. “What we got… it ain’t like that. It’s…”

The whiskey and darkness made him bolder than he felt. “It’s what, Ennis?”

“It’s all I got…” Ennis answered in a broken voice. The fight was gone from him now and he slumped against Jack. His head dropped down to rest against Jack’s neck. He felt stupid and thick tongued for not being able to make Jack understand. “You’re all I got. It ain’t dirty like that…”

Jack’s hold on Ennis turned from restraining to comforting almost instantly. He ran his hand up and down Ennis’ back over the cotton shirt soaked with sweat. Trying to wrap his mind around Ennis’ confusing words added to his frustration, but at the same time they soothed some of his heartache. Because wrapped up in Ennis’ twisted logic, Jack thought Ennis knew they shared something so binding… that like Ennis said, it hurt. And it didn’t surprise him that Ennis thought of being queer as dirty and wrong. It was all they had ever known.

“I won’t call what we got queer,” Jack promised quietly and continued to soothe Ennis.

“M’not queer…” It was a quiet denial that didn’t sound at all convincing coming from Ennis, especially since he was clinging to Jack like he couldn’t breathe without him. “My ol’ man told me what queers were like… you’ve heard the stories at school. I ain’t like that… won’t do what we do with no other man.” It sounded like a confused promise to Jack that made him hold Ennis tighter. “Ya make me crazy, Jack. Like no one else.”

Jack couldn’t stop himself from asking. “Not even that girl?”

Ennis was silent and shifted in Jack’s grasp, but not to pull away. His hand moved down to Jack’s waist and slipped under Jack’s shirt, just to touch a hint of warm skin. It was a comfort he needed, but would never admit. When he finally did answer, Jack had to strain to hear Ennis repeat, “Like no one else…”

“Same goes for me, ya son of a bitch.”

They never said anything after that for a long while, just kept holding one another. Each man was fighting his own demons let loose by the whiskey and desperation. Desperation to hold onto each other in a world that told them what they shared was wrong and a sin. As boys they had both lived the hard life of ranchers and known they wanted to be more than their fathers. But everything they knew… everyone they knew said real men… cowboys… shouldn’t feel like they did about another man. To be true to what they were meant cracking that image of what they had wanted to be their whole lives.

Ennis was the first to speak and when he did, his lips brushed against the skin of Jack’s neck as he nuzzled lightly. “We’re in one hell of a mess, Jack.”

Jack tilted his head a little so he could rest his face against dirty blonde curls. “Why’s that?”

“Cause I’m not lettin’ ya go.”

End Part 6.

Chapter Text

When Jack woke up that morning, he woke up alone. He looked around the cabin and his head flopped back down on the pillow with a groan. Just like that first morning together back on Brokeback, Ennis had run.

Jack yawned and cradled his throbbing head as he swore under his breath, “Stupid mule-headed asshole.”

The only thing that kept him from getting up and thumping him in the head was the knowledge that Ennis needed time alone, but only mostly his massive hang over. Even on Brokeback when Ennis ran off, he came back to Jack. All that really mattered in the end was that Ennis came back to him. Jack dozed for a little while longer, trying to chase away his insecurity and the dull thump in the back of his head.

When he did get up, he found Ennis out in their small ramshackle barn with the horses. He was in the stall with the dappled grey mare named Patch, running his hand over her coat. That horse could be a right cuss for anyone else and had bucked Jack off on a number of occasions. She had such a low startle point that Jack had used her to practice before rodeo season. He thought that was why his old man had given her to Ennis to ride, as some sort of punishment. But Patch was like a different beast for Ennis.

Ennis had always been most comfortable around animals. Horses had drawn him more than anything else with their noble grace and unspoken language. After his parents died, he found refuge in the barn. More often than not, he slept nights in the hay loft to get away from memories of their mother, only to be dragged out by KE to attend the funeral. He was never allowed to return to their home or his horses after the burial because the bank repossessed their ranch.

“Lil’ darlin’,” Ennis cooed under his breath to Patch.

“You’ve always had a way with horses…”

Ennis was startled out of his thoughts and looked up at Jack. When he stopped petting Patch, she head butted him and he started to scratch her neck. “They don’t talk. I like that.”

Jack’s shook his head in amusement. “I talk ‘n’ ya like me.”

“Ya don’t stop talkin’,” Ennis corrected. He gave Jack a shy smile and quickly hid his eyes under the brim of his hat.

“Is that right, now?”

“Yep.”

“And ya don’t get fed up with me talkin’ all the time?”

“Sometimes…” Ennis admitted, but Jack could tell he was teasing. “Better than your harmonica playin’. Besides, I figure it all balances out. You chatter, I don’t.”

“Ya say a lot with the little you do say, Ennis. Like last night.”

Ennis nervously wrapped his fingers in Patch’s mane again and he looked away from Jack. “I said stuff.”

“Did ya mean that stuff?”

Ennis didn’t answer right away and when he finally did, it was barely a whisper. “Yeah.”

Ennis had admitted to not wanting to let Jack go, but he hadn’t said whether or not he planned to stay with Jack. There was no point in beating around the bush anymore. If he convinced Ennis to stay, then he needed to know. He came up behind Ennis and wrapped his arms around his friend’s waist. It was a mirror image of that one day on Brokeback when Ennis had dared to hold him and hum under his breath. “You gonna stay with me, cowboy?”

Jack didn’t have to see Ennis’ face at that moment to know that his brows would be drawing in and his lips would be thinning. It was simply Ennis’s way. It was also his way of avoiding some things at all costs. Jack was starting to figure out when Ennis didn’t talk, it told him than if he did. Jack started to hum a hymn his Ma used to sign under his breath and waited. Jack felt some of the tension leave Ennis’ frame when he finally spoke.

“Never told nobody this before…” Ennis had to stop as the images of the dead body from his dream and memory swarmed in his mind. “When I was maybe eight, don’t think I was nine yet, my daddy took KE ‘n’ me out ta this irrigation ditch outside of town. This ol’man in town had been killed real nasty like.”

Jack’s arms tightened more around Ennis. “What’d he do?”

“Ranched up with another man. That got’im killed, Jack. They thought he was queer ‘n’ they killed them. I think my ol’man did the job. Made me ‘n’ KE look at the body so we’d know what would happen ta queers. What would happen ta me…”

Jack knew how justice worked in small towns like theirs all over the country. Unless the dead man had some family who gave a shit to retaliate, then nothing would get done. The law certainly wouldn’t investigate. Hell, half of the time lawmen where involved.
Ennis had taken his hand away from Patch and crossed his arms over his chest.

Jack kissed the back of his neck and murmured quietly, “Ennis, I won’t let that happen ta you…”

“Not worried about me…” Ennis said, his hand moving to cover Jack’s hand. “Worried about you, Jack. Used ta worry people would find about me, but then you knew… And now I… I worry about you gettin’ hurt.”

“I’m not sayin’ what we wanna do is gonna be easy,” Jack told Ennis, his voice thick. “But it’s nobody’s business, but ours.”

“Maybe…” Ennis said, his thumb continuously caressing the space between Jack’s thumb and finger.

Decisions had always been made for him by his father and then KE. When KE had gotten married and there had been no room in his life for his little brother, Ennis had felt lost. A fellow ranch hand had let him know about Aguirre’s operation and that was one of the first decisions he had made on his own, but more so out of necessity than out of courage. Ennis was starting to realize that he had never really been his own man.

“My ol’man ‘n’ KE… they both used ta say if ya can’t fix something, you gotta stand it.”

“That don’t sound like somethin’ I wanna hear,” Jack warned Ennis.

“Thing is…” Ennis started to say, but had to stop to get the words right. “I figure I can fix this.”

“Fix bein’…” Jack stopped himself from saying queer because he remembered Ennis’ reaction to the word last night. “…bein’ with me? Ya figure you can fix what you want with me by gettin’ married to that girl? ‘Cause you’d be doin’ no one any favours by doin’ that.”

“No…” Ennis shook his head. “Figure I can fix the mistake I made the day I proposed ta her…”

“You stayin’ with me?” Jack demanded more than asked.

Ennis had been facing away from Jack, but he turned now to look at him. He framed Jack’s face with his palms and kissed him slowly. He tried to show Jack things there was no way he could say. When he pulled away, he rested his forehead against Jack’s forehead and whispered to him, “Yeah.”

+++++

The knock on the door was so faint that it didn’t register with KE. He took another sip from his beer and tried to concentrate on the baseball game playing on the radio. He’d just put his feet up on the coffee table when he heard the faint knocking again.

“Jeanie! Someone’s at the front door!” KE bellowed, taking a long swallow from the warm beer.

“I’m busy with the baby,” his wife called back. The baby’s screams echoed in the small house and drown out the staticy radio. “You’ll have to get it.”

“Goddamn it,” KE slammed his beer on the table and stood. He stalked over to the door and flung it open. “This better be important!”

The figure standing outside in the rain jumped back from his voice. It was a slip of a girl who was drenched head to toe, face hidden behind her long hair. “I… I…”

“Sorry, Miss,” KE’s voice gentled as he took in her appearance. “You one of Jeanie’s friends?”

“I… I…” The girl took another step back and didn’t look up.

There was a crack of thunder in the background and the lights flickered in the house.

“Girl, don’t you have the sense to come in out of the rain?” Now the girl looked up at him with wide brown eyes and he was sure that tears where mixing with the rain drops on her face. “Ya lost? Your car break down or somethin’?” The girl shook her head. KE sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He wondered if the girl was simple. “This here is the Del Mar house. Who are you lookin’ for?”

“You…” She admitted in a quiet voice. “You KE Del Mar?”

“Yeah…” KE answered with a nod and a bit of apprehension.

The girl shuffled her feet nervously and looked like she wanted to run, but finally said in a quiet voice. “My name’s Alma Beers.”

KE looked at her with his mouth gapping open a little. “Huh?”

“I’m… was… Ennis’ fiancée.”

“Oh shit,” KE swore and then immediately apologized because he’d done it in from of a lady. “Sorry, Miss… Miss Beers. You c’mon in.” He stepped aside, holding the door open. As she stepped by him, he bellowed out, “Jeanie, Ennis’ girl’s here!”

Alma wiped her face with her hand and fresh tears started to spill. “Was Ennis’ girl,” she corrected in a quiet voice.

“What did my idiot lil’brother do?” KE asked with sigh.

His baby brother had always been shy and avoided women, preferring the company of horses over girls. When they where out working on Jackson’s spread and he was getting serious with Jeanie, he had been surprised to find out from Mrs. Jackson that one of the neighbour’s girls had taken a shine to Ennis. She’d told him the whole story about how the neighbour girl would visit on the pretence of gossiping with the Jackson girls, but spend the time making moon eyes at Ennis working out with the stock. She told him that the girl had finally lured Ennis into talking to her with the lure of apple pie. The boy had always had a sweet tooth.

Alma didn’t say a word, but simply took out a crumbled piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to KE. He unfolded it and recognized Ennis’ scrawl as he read it…

 

Alma,

I know I said I would be back when I needed to be, but I don't need to anymore.
You're too good for me. I'm real sorry. Hope you find yourself a good man.

Ennis

 

“Shit,” KE growled and didn’t bother apologizing this time for swearing. He bet the girl wouldn’t mind cussing herself, if she could bring herself to do it. “You were gettin’ married in November. What happened?”

Alma wrapped her arms around her waist. There was a small puddle forming at her feet and soaking the cheap linoleum. “I don’t know. We were fine before he went off ta work that job. Then I got a postcard marked Lightning Flats, sayin’ that he would come back when he needed to… I don’t understand,” Alma shook her head. “Somethin’ happened, KE. I’m worried about him…”

KE just needed to know one thing. “Ya want him back?”

Alma nodded and looked at KE with desperate hope. “I miss him.”

“Alright then,” KE told her. “Jeanie!” His wife recognized the angry shout and came out of the back bedroom with a sniffling toddler perched on her hip. “Get the girl outta her wet things ‘n’ make her stop cryin’. I got a call ta make.”

With that, KE folded the letter still in his hand and slipped it into his pocket. He walked over to the phone in the kitchen and dialled a number Jeanie had scrawled in the address book.

As he waited for someone to pick up, his knuckles grew white from his death grip on the phone. When he heard a quiet familiar greeting, he answered, “Merle, we got a problem with Ennis…”

++++++

Ennis was brushing down Patch in the main barn on the Twist ranch when he heard the footfall of John Twist coming towards him. It was good that Jack was helping his Ma in the house. He preferred to avoid the man if at all possible, but he wouldn’t let any man scare him away from taking proper care of his horse.

“You’re takin’ good care of her,” John said and spat a hunk of his chew onto the ground. “I like it when a man takes good care of what’s mine.”

“Only right,” Ennis grunted and kept brushing the horse. Ennis had the feeling that they weren’t just talking about livestock.

“Yep.” John spat on the ground again and seemed to consider Patch with a critical eye, but his gaze settled on Ennis. “She’s lookin’ good. Always caused me trouble. Righteous temper ‘n’ lazy ta boot.”

When Patch whickered softly, Ennis smiled just a little. “Jus’ gotta know how ta handle her.”

“Suppose so,” John said and hooked his thumb into the loop of his belt. “My missus said you’re gonna be stickin’ around.”

Ennis nodded and now started to work the knots out of Patch’s mane. “Yep.”

John Twist looked like the nasty cuss he was, a man who had known nothing but a hard life and didn’t expect anything out of it except adversity. “For how long?”

“Do I still have a job here?”

John watched Ennis work, always looking like he was judging. “Boy, when I first saw ya, I thought you was a lazy, son of a bitch.”

Ennis’ hand stopped moving in Patch’s mane. “And now?”

“And now,” John stopped for a minute and dug more chew out of his pocket, tucking it into his cheek. “Now I jus’ think you’re a son of a bitch.”

“Well, that’s somethin’,” Ennis answered and his fingers started to work on the tangle in Patch’s mane again with his fingers.

“Yep, somethin’ alright,” John agreed. “Don’t go thinkin’ that means I like ya or anythin’.”

“No, sir,” Ennis mumbled. Nothing was really solved between them, but some things had been settled.

John turned to walk out of the barn, but stopped and looked over his shoulder. “I’m still watchin’ ya, Del Mar.”

++++++

Ennis was sitting on the open tailgate of Jack’s truck, watching Jack trying to teach Damnit how to play fetch. Jack would wave the stick in front of Damnit, who would bark and jump for it. Then Jack would throw it and Damnit would look at Jack and bark some more. Jack would shoo him towards the stick, but Damnit would just roll onto his back and want his belly scratched. Finally Jack gave up with a sigh and went to get the stick himself.

“Looks like you’re the one’s doin’ the fetchin’, rodeo,” Ennis laughed and clapped when Damnit stole the stick from Jack’s hand.

“Shut up!” Jack called back and chased after Damnit, who dodge him, but ended up tripping over his own large front paws.

“That dog ain’t gonna be any good at herdin’.”

“He will,” Jack insisted. He grabbed one end of the stick and ended up playing tug of war instead of fetch. “Jus’ ya wait ‘n’ see.”

Since Ennis had made the decision to stay, Jack had noticed he seemed more settled and happy. When they were alone, Ennis touched him more. He laughed more freely and teased Jack, but it was always softened by his shy smile. But the best of all was when Jack caught Ennis watching him. Ennis would always look away embarrassed, but those serious eyes showed him something Jack craved.

“C’mere,” Ennis said and motioned Jack with his hand. Jack threw the stick again and just shook his head when Damnit started to chase his tail. He walked over to Ennis and came close, standing in the space between his legs. Ennis pulled out a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it, puffing it a few times before handing it to Jack. He lit his own cigarette and after he put his lighter away, his hand settled naturally on Jack’s hip. “You’re wearing my shirt.”

“Mine was dirty,” Jack laughed and took a drag off his smoke, vaguely tasting Ennis. “Smelt like shit.”

“We always smell like shit,” Ennis pointed out. The hand with his cigarette reached out and he tweaked the collar of the shirt, cigarette secure between his fingers. “This is the one your Ma got me.”

Jack smiled at that, remembering when his Ma had brought out a few shirts and new jeans she’d picked out at the general store for Ennis. Ennis had stared at her until she shooed him upstairs to try them on for size. His Ma had looked so happy to have someone else to fuss over and Ennis hadn’t complained about it costing too much.

“I like it,” Jack said and shrugged his shoulders. What he didn’t say was that he liked wearing it because it smelt like Ennis when he first put it on.

“Looks good on ya,” Ennis said and tugged on the collar again.

“Thanks,” Jack smiled and looked down. The simplest of compliments from Ennis meant a lot to him because they were rare and sincere. “Say friend, why are ya always tuckin’ in your shirt?”

Ennis’ brow came together in a slight scowl as he considered the question. Jack couldn’t resist reaching out and caressing it with his thumb.

“I jus’ do it,” Ennis reasoned. It seemed like a good enough reason to him. Jack was always over thinking everything.

“That so?” Jack reached around and ran a finger along Ennis’ lower back, exposed from his shirt riding up.

“Yeah…” Ennis’ tone was now quieter and teasing again. “Gonna be a few hours ta supper.”

“That so?” Jack mimicked Ennis’ with a smirk. His fingers where now tracing up and down Ennis’ spine.

“I figure…” Ennis’ voice became even quieter, like even he couldn’t believe he was being this bold. “We could ride back ta the cabin…”

“I’m thinkin’ that I like the way ya think…”

Ennis was about ready to say that he liked something else about Jack when they saw a cloud of dusty signalling that someone was driving up the lane. Jack patted Ennis’ skin and then tucked his shirt back in for him.

Jack stepped away from Ennis reluctantly, but promised, “Later, cowboy.”

Ennis’ earlier playfulness was now replaced by a look of worry. He was never comfortable around new people and the Twist’s weren’t excepting anybody.

“Wonder who it could be…” Jack considered out loud.

His question was answered soon enough when an old pick up truck came to a stop in the yard. Jack could see there were two women and a man sitting in the cab. He looked at Ennis, who had turned pale when he saw the occupants get out of the truck.

“KE… M-Merle…” Ennis stammered out and grabbed his hat off his head when he saw his sister. His posture straightened and he worried the brim of his hat with his hands, looking down.

“Aren’t ya forgetting someone, boy?” KE asked, putting his hand on the shoulder of the girl standing next to him. “Aren’t ya gonna say howdy to your girl?”

End Part 7.

Chapter Text

Ennis was so taken aback at seeing Alma that he couldn’t speak. The words were caught up in his throat, pinned down by the fear and shock. His first reaction was to turn to Jack with a pleading look.

Jack’s heart clenched a little knowing that Ennis would turn to him and not away from him at a time like this. He was just getting ready to say something when the woman who had to be Ennis’ sister stepped forward. She had dirty blonde hair like Ennis and the same soulful brown eyes. Even her lips drew together in the same tight line that Ennis’ did. Her small frame was drowning in the old men’s coat she was wearing over her faded blue gingham dress. She was thin, but not too tall with the top of her head hitting Ennis’ shoulder. Ennis’ sister was a little plain, but there was something engaging about her.

Merle’s hand came to rest on her pregnant belly and she greeted Ennis quietly. “Ennis.”

Ennis quickly took his cowboy hat off his head and checked to make sure the tails of his shirt were tucked in. His hair was curling even more from the sweat on his forehead.

“Merle,” Ennis responded with an unsure nod.

“Damn, don't ya two start in on that whole sayin’ somethin’, but sayin’ nothin’ thing again. Merle, we're here for a reason,” KE admonished and motioned to Alma, who was standing quietly by his side. “Ya always coddle him. Used ta drag’im around like a baby doll, but he’s a man now. No point in lettin' the boy clam up like he usually does. It’s time ta give him what for.”

Merle cocked her head to the side and looked back at the oldest of her baby brothers. “KE.” She seemed to say more in the tone of his name than a whole rant of cuss words could have.

“What?” KE caved under her gaze in a way he didn’t even for his wife. He kicked at a rock with his boot and looked down. “Oh, c'mon Merle.”

Merle’s fingers tapped out a gentle rhythm on her belly. Her tone was quiet and even. “Why don’t ya go have a smoke?”

“But, I…” KE started to protest, but stopped when Merle just continued to stare at him. The whole confrontation just made Ennis look more nervous.

Jack found it hard to describe. The woman wasn’t fierce by any means. The looks she gave KE where almost expressionless, but the man seemed to read whatever he needed to into them. Because the next thing Jack knew KE was storming off out of earshot towards the barn. He pulled out a cigarette and Jack could tell Ennis’ brother was mumbling under his breath.

Alma had been watching everything silently, taking it all in. She was the first person that Jack had ever hated at first sight. Jack turned his attention to her and stepped closer to Ennis, wondering if either woman would pick up on his clear show of possessiveness. The girl was fine featured and pretty enough in a mousey sort of way, seeming to melt into the background. Alma was everything Jack wasn’t and he wondered what Ennis had seen in her.

Merle motioned slightly with a tilt of her head and Ennis seemed to know what that action translated because he was moving away with after another nervous glance exchanged with Jack. That left Jack starring at Alma silently.

Ennis’ hands worked the brim of his hat and his eyes stayed glued to his scuffed boots.

“Ya workin’ for him?” Merle asked and nodded towards Jack.

“No, ma’am,” Ennis answered, shaking his head. “For his daddy.”

Neither spoke for a few moments and Merle slipped her hands into the pockets of the big coat she was wearing. “Ya know why we’re here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ennis replied. He didn’t have to be book smart to figure out that Alma had gotten his postcard and somehow gotten in touch with his family. One thing had led to another and, with a little bad luck, it had all apparently led to Lightning Flats.

Merle moved closer to Ennis and her hand came out to touch his face. Her fingers rested under Ennis’ chin, forcing him to look up at her. “Ya don’t treat a woman like that.”

“But I…” He stopped when she shook her head.

“Do ya love her?” Merle asked.

Their eyes met and Ennis knew Merle understood. She wasn’t judging him. His sister didn’t hate him from turning away from the life he thought she would want for him. He just prayed that she didn’t understand the reason why he didn’t love Alma.

“No,” Ennis admitted.

She patted his cheek and then pulled her hand away. Ennis bit his lip and shook his head. “Then ya have ta tell her. It’s only proper.”

KE and Merle would know he was queer. He didn’t want to think about what would happen after that. “But, KE will…”

“Leave KE ta me,” Merle told him. It had always been that way. Merle took care of him.

KE had always accused Merle of coddling him, but Merle usually stared him down until KE shut up. She had never been easy on Ennis after their parent’s died. She made sure he worked hard, side by side with KE to keep their small family alive. His younger age had never bought him an excuse.

“Ya came here ta get me, didn’t ya?” Ennis asked. He wasn’t sure he could say no if Merle asked him to come with her. Saying no to Alma was hard enough, but he had never said no to Merle in his life. Even before their Ma died, he always obeyed what she said.

“Haven’t decided what I’m gonna do yet,” Merle told him the truth. “Now go be a man.”

Jack watched the quiet exchange between Ennis and his sister. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but this sure wasn’t it. He would have thought there would be more screaming and maybe even Ennis’ brother taking a swing at one of them. He kicked at the dirt with his boot. And that girl… Alma was just standing there like a simpleton. Some people might have felt sorry for her, looking so lost and frightened. If it was any other girl, Jack was sure he would feel pity for her. But now he just wanted her to leave.

He noticed that Ennis had moved away from his sister. His friend’s face was drawn, frown lines set prominent on his face. Ennis slipped his cowboy hat back on and that was a signal to Jack. Ennis always removed his hat in front of a lady, but now it sat firmly on his head as he started to walk over to Alma.

Jack stepped forward and grasped Ennis’ arm. “Ennis?”

“Gotta do somethin’, Jack,” he answered the unasked question with a rough voice. “Meant what I said before.” His eyes locked with Jack’s and he bit his bottom lip before asking him quietly, “Ya know?”

Jack nodded his head. It was their way of saying what they couldn’t say, but felt. “Yeah, I know.”

“Ennis?” Alma pleaded. It was the first time she had spoken. Her voice was soft and it took all of Jack’s strength to let go of Ennis when all he wanted to do was keep holding on. "Ennis, what’d I do wrong?"

"Nothin'," Ennis answered, digging the heel of his boot into the dirt.

"Did ya meet another girl?" Ennis didn't answer, just shook his head. "Is she prettier than me?"

Ennis had no idea what to say to her. She had always been nice to him. Always quiet and shy in a way that wasn’t threatening like other girls. He had liked her. Liked her more than any other girl and he had honestly thought that was enough to build a marriage on. But after meeting Jack, he finally understood why people wanted to get married. Not because everyone expected it, but because there was a person who you didn’t feel right without when they weren’t around. Jack just made him feel more of everything, even if he hated it sometimes.

Jack drew Ennis' eye like Alma never had. He was stubborn and talked too much, where Alma was sweet and timid. Jack was a frustrating cowboy that drove him mad. Looking at Alma now, Ennis knew he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Said there was no other girl," Ennis mumbled. He didn’t want to lie to her, but he didn’t want to hurt Alma either.

Alma stepped forward and grabbed Ennis' arm. "Then tell me what I did wrong?" she begged.

Ennis recoiled from her touch and pulled his arm away. "Did nothin' wrong," his voice was thick and raw. "It's not meant ta be, Alma. See the sense in that."

"No," Alma shook her head in denial. "We were fine. We were gettin' married, Ennis. That's means somethin'."

"It does," Ennis agreed. "Means I was ready ta make a big mistake. I was gonna do wrong by you, Alma Beers. I wouldn't make a good husband."

“I'm the one who should judge that.” She sniffed a little and a few tears fell down her cheeks. "I know about your quiet ways, Ennis. I know how ornery you can be. I don't mind that. I know you're not gonna give up the drink 'n' be a churchgoer. I know who you are."

"Ya don't know who I am." This time his tone was sure and steady. Ennis shook his head sadly and straightened his shoulders. It was time to be a man. "I ain't gonna marry ya, Alma. It's for the best."

"E-Ennis, no..." Alma stammered and began to sob.

"Don't ya have any pride, girl?" Jack snapped. He had held his tongue, but now he couldn't take anymore. "He doesn't wanna marry you!"

"Who are you?" Alma demanded, scowling at Jack.

"His friend." Jack could see that Ennis' brother had moved to stand beside Merle, and they where both taking in this development with interest. When it looked like KE was going to interrupt, Merle stopped him with a meaningful look.

"No friend that I know,” Alma hissed.

Jack stepped closer to Ennis so that their shoulders bumped. "I'm Jack Twist. We met up on Brokeback Mountain 'n'..."

"Jack..." Ennis cut him off in a low, warning tone.

"And it's a shame ya can't see this is for your own good," Jack finished. "He doesn't wanna get married. Wouldn't ya rather find out now than get divorced?" He saw the small gold cross chain hanging from Alma’s neck and took one more chance. "'Cause that'd be a sin."

Alma's mouth gaped a little and her hand came up to grasp the cross. "He loves me," she said in a quiet, desperate plea. She looked at Ennis again. "Don't ya, Ennis? Whatever's wrong... we can fix it together."

"Did he ever say he loved ya?" Jack challenged. It was a cruel question, but he wanted to hurt her. He wanted her to leave and never come back. Another selfish part of him wanted to know that Ennis had never said it to her.

"H-He’s not that kinda man," Alma tried to explain and shrank back from Jack's angry question. "But, I knew. Ennis, I don't like him. He's scarin' me."

Ennis put a restraining hand on Jack's shoulder and almost gasped when Jack turned those damn blue eyes on him. Whatever he saw in them, it gave him the courage he needed. He kept his hand on Jack's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.

"Can't fix me, Alma," Ennis finally spoke. "I know sayin' sorry won't make it better, but I'm real sorry."

Alma rubbed at her tears with the palm of her hand. "I hate you, Ennis Del Mar." Ennis flinched and closed his eyes, looking like he was expecting to be slapped. But instead Alma turned to Jack, sniffing and with accusing eyes. "This is your fault... we was fine before he met you, Jack Twist... Jack Nasty!"

"Alright! Alright... that's enough from everyone!" KE bellowed and came striding over. He put a hand on Alma's lower back and guided her back towards the truck. "I think ya got your answer, Miss Beers, even if it wasn't the one ya wanted."

Now Alma turned her accusing gaze on KE. "Ya said you'd help me get him back!"

"Oh no," KE denied immediately, taking his hand off her lower back and holding them up in mock surrender. "I said we'd check ta make sure the boy was okay 'n' give him a chance ta set things right. If he doesn't wanna marry ya, then he don't. You heard it straight from the jackass' mouth."

"It's not fair! You're jus' takin his side 'cause you're his brother."

"Blood is blood," KE sighed. "Listen, girl. A pretty lil' thing like you will have no problem snaring another man. Probably one a hell of a lot better for ya than Ennis ever would’ve been."

Alma wrapped her arms around her stomach in a protective gesture, looking small and sick. "I wanna go home."

"Yeah, yeah..." KE lowered his voice and agreed with her. "We can take ya home, Miss Beers. Merle! Let's hit the road." He turned a judging gaze towards Ennis that reminded Ennis of their father. "No reason ta stay here."

"I'm stayin'," Merle said.

"Wha-" KE started to protest, but then Merle fixed him with that look. "How ya expect ta get home?"

"You'll come'n get me."

"Oh hell, no!" KE protested. "I already wasted enough of my time 'n' money..."

Merle carried on like KE had said nothing. "Drop Miss Beers off 'n' go home ta Jeanie. My baby's not settlin' right after all that travelin'. I suspect that I should be ready ta travel again in a few days..." Then she fixed that same stare on Ennis. "Maybe longer. I'll call when I'm ready ta be picked up."

"But what about..."

"Got a bag with my things in the back of the truck. Call Gunny 'n' tell'im. He wouldn't want me travellin' when I don't feel well. If he makes a fuss, tell'im ta call his Ma."

"Uh huh," KE nodded, but he looked a little doubtful and a touch worried. He got Merle’s small bag from the back of the truck and set her by her feet. "Are ya okay, Merle?" He waved absently in the general vicinity of her round belly.

"I expect so."

"Alright then,” KE said. Just then, the puppy ran over and lifted his leg to KE’s truck. “Damnit, the dog pissed on my truck!" Ennis tried to hide his smirk when Damnit perked up at the sound of his name and simply wagged his tail. “That’s gotta be your dog, ain’t it, Ennis?”

Since the day Jack had picked the ugly mutt up, Ennis had denied any responsibility for it. Even though he fed it when Jack forgot and scratched his homely head. Right now, he was real fond of that mutt. “Yeah, he’s mine.”

“Trouble always finds ya,” KE grumbled.

Ennis took some small pride that his older brother, who was more like a father to him, had said that instead of how he was always causing trouble. The truth was that Ennis always tried to do what was right. He kept his head down, mouth shut and abided by what life threw his way. But KE was right, trouble always seemed to find him through no fault of his own. Ennis risked a glance back at Jack. That was the biggest trouble who had ever found him yet.

“Guess my life ain’t borin’,” Ennis said, straightening his shoulders. “You’d best be goin’, KE. I’ll take care of Merle.”

“And you got nothin’ else to say ta me?” Alma asked quietly, but the impact was felt by everyone there.

“I figure I’ve done ‘n’ said enough,” Ennis mumbled.

“You broke my heart.” Those where the last words Alma ever spoke to Ennis as she got into the truck.

KE locked eyes with Ennis. “I expected more from you.”

KE’s disappointment hurt Ennis more than his older brother’s anger ever could have. “My choice ta make.”

“Guess you gotta learn from your mistakes.”

“This wasn’t a mistake,” Ennis insisted with a little more bite to his tone.

“We’ll see, lil’ brother. We’ll see.” He opened the door and hesitated, exchanging a challenging glare with Ennis. “Take really good care of Merle, or you’ll have me ta answer to.”

Ennis nodded and tipped his hat at KE. It was a warning he expected and would have been worried if he didn’t hear it. KE got in and started the truck. Neither of them waved goodbye as the pickup pulled out of the yard.

Jack had watched the whole exchange with a bit of awe. He’d never had siblings himself and it was all a little strange. Ennis’ brother and sister were more like his parents. His friend hadn’t lied when he said they raised him.

Merle had a backbone of steel under that quiet demeanour. The woman had invited herself to stay at a stranger's place, without anyone saying anything. He had been relieved that his parents were absent, but now he was nervous as hell.

As if sensing his thoughts, Merle turned to Jack and addressed him for the first time. "Your folks wouldn't mind puttin' me up, would they? Suppose I could stay in town if I..."

The woman was obviously a master of the guilt game. Especially considering how she changed her posture to shove her belly out even more. Jack decided then that Merle reminded him an awful lot of his Ma.

"No," Jack said quickly. "No, I'm sure you'd be welcome ta stay."

"That settles it then," Merle announced as all three of them watched KE’s truck rattle away from the house.

Ennis took off his hat again. "You should sit down, Merle."

"Don't fuss, Ennis," she told him, then turned to Jack, "I'm no slouch. I can pull my weight despite my condition. Should we be asking permission from... your wife?" She asked the last part with a pointed look.

"Wife?" Jack repeated back stupidly and too quickly. "Not married." Then Ennis elbowed him and he added, "Not married, ma'am."

"Best talk ta your Ma, then."

When Ennis elbowed him again, Jack took off his hat. "Yes, ma'am."

“Might help if you’d introduce us, Ennis.”

“Right, sorry, Merle,” Ennis mumbled. “Merle, this is Jack Twist. He’s my… friend. Jack, this is my sister Merle Del… Merle Dovers.”

Merle held out her hand. Jack wiped his hand on his jeans and shook her small hand. “Nice ta meet ya, ma’am. Real nice. Ennis spoke highly of you.”

“Seems ta be real chatty lately.”

Ennis looked a little lost and his hand took the brunt of his nervousness. “Ah…”

“Usually keeps to himself,” Merle said and patted her belly.

Jack saw there was blush of embarrassment rise on Ennis’ cheek. “Merle…”

“Hush, Ennis,” Merle chided. “Ya never had no friends before.”

“But, I…”

“He’s a fine friend,” Jack said immediately, seeing how uneasy Ennis was. And he didn’t care if this woman was his friend’s sister, he didn’t like anyone talking bad about Ennis.

“That so?” Merle asked.

“Yep,” Jack insisted with a nod.

Merle made a noncommittal sound. It was too feminine to sound exactly like Ennis’ grunts when he didn’t particularly want to speak, but the similarity was there.

Jack was about to ask Merle into his parent’s house when his mother came out of the front door.

"Sorry, I was in the garden out back, or else I woulda come out sooner," Eleanor said. The garden she was talking about was half an acre of potatoes, carrots and other vegetables. She wiped her hands on her apron and held it out to Merle, who shook it just as politely as it was offered. "Ya must be one of Ennis' people. You’ve got his look about you."

"His sister, Merle," she replied. "You must be Jack's Ma."

"Certainly am." Eleanor nodded and her eyes were drawn to the telltale dust cloud that still hovered in the distance. “Anything wrong?”

“Family business. That’s Ennis’ place ta tell you,” Merle said. “But I did come ta check up on ‘im.”

“He’s a nice young man,” Eleanor said, with a hint of a smile. “Quiet, but polite ‘n’ a good worker.”

“That’s good.” Merle glanced at Ennis with a bit of pride.

Jack noticed that Ennis perked up a bit after the muted praise. He wasn’t sure how he would survive any time with these people who said so much with so little. It must have been his bad luck to come from a family where silence was the norm.

“Best come inside,” Eleanor said. “Get off your feet.”

“Thanks,” Merle nodded in appreciation. She didn’t even have to look back to know that Ennis had picked up her small bag.

Eleanor held the door open as Merle nearly shuffled inside, followed by Ennis. When he came close, Jack asked uncertainly. “Should I go tell daddy?”

“He’ll figure it out when he sees her sittin’ there,” Eleanor told him and gave Jack’s arm a quick little squeeze. “‘Sides, Ennis might go mute if you’re not here.”

END Part 8.

Chapter Text

They went inside the house and gathered near the kitchen. They hung their jackets and hats by the door, Ennis taking his sister's coat from her without being asked. Jack watched as Ennis pulled a chair out for his sister and waited for her to sit down.

"Ennis, I'm in the family way, not dying," Merle said as Ennis hovered near her.

"Jus' being polite," Ennis murmured and blushed when she mentioned 'in the family way'.

"Jus' don't be bothersome," Merle chided him. "I taught ya better than that."

"Yes, ma'am," Ennis mumbled and sat down in the chair with his shoulders slumped.

Jack wished he could have a cigarette now, but didn't want to smoke in front of his mother or Ennis' sister. He could see that Ennis was nervously bouncing his leg under the table. If he was beside him, he would have laid his hand on Ennis’ thigh to calm him down.

Eleanor settled down in the seat next to her son and across from Merle. “Long drive?”

“Certainly was,” Merle said and laid her Ennis’ shoulder for a moment until he stopped being so fidgety in the chair.

“Expect it was hard,” Eleanor said. The two women had many years between them, but shared many things in common. They shared a certain hardness only like on a poor ranch could burden a woman with. Each had seen their fair share of too much work with too little help and not enough money coming in.

Jack was watching this exchange, not sure what to make of it. He hadn’t told his mother that Merle had invited herself to stay and that he had agreed to it. Women where devious and he never had learned to understand them. At least with Ennis, the man could be as ornery as a newly castrated bull, but was easy enough to understand.

“Ya know how it is,” Merle said and shrugged her shoulders.

Eleanor nodded. “I do.”

Jack exchanged a quick nervous look with Ennis. They both knew something was going on, but neither of them seemed to be able to figure out. The quiet women seemed to be saying a whole lot without saying much. Maybe they where sizing each other up, but Jack couldn’t tell. He was just worried about how he was going to tell him Ma that Merle was staying here.

Merle shifted in her seat and looked around the stark room, eyes lingering on the crucifix. “Lovely home.”

“Thanks,” Eleanor said. “Will you be stayin’ long?”

Jack wondered where in the hell that came from and how his Ma had figured it out.

“Jus’ long enough ta settle the baby,” Merle said back. “I do appreciate your hospitality.”

“It’s the Christian thing ta do,” Eleanor said this with a bit of a smile which grew a little larger when Merle smiled back.

Seemed to Jack they understood something he sure as hell didn’t. He looked at Ennis again, who just shrugged his shoulders. At least Ennis was just as confused as he was. Now all he had to worry about was hoping that Ennis wouldn’t start sleeping in the barn again. He didn’t want to think about how his cowboy would react if his sister found out they where sharing the same house away from his parents.

“It’ll be nice ta see Ennis some,” Merle said and glanced at her baby brother who just turned a little more red and looked away. “Haven’t seen him for awhile.”

“Know how that feels. It was nice when my Jack came home.”

Merle looked a touch sad when Eleanor said that. Jack wondered if she wished Ennis lived closer. He bet that Ennis had been much closer to his quiet sister than KE. They certainly acted alike and understood each other in a silent way. He had noticed that Ennis seemed almost fearful of KE, but the respect for his sister was loud and clear.

“Hope Ennis hasn’t been any trouble.”

“Has barely said boo,” Eleanor said and this time smiled at Ennis. “Been a big help. Been livin’ with Jack up at his gran’s ol’ place. Helpin’ him fix it up real nice. Hope ya don’t mind stayin’ with us in Jack’s ol’ room.” Jack heart felt like it jumped up into his throat. “Of course, the boys will have to haul one of the mattresses back here. We don’t get a lot of company.”

No one stayed here. When Uncle Harold and his mob came out, they only stayed for the day since Uncle Harold couldn’t stand his father.

“Maybe… maybe I should sleep in the barn,” Ennis said quietly. He looked down at the table, eyes fixed on the salt shaker when three pair of eyes locked at him. “Ta be closer to Merle ‘cause of the…” He absently waved his hand in the direction of her belly.

“Boy, she’s at least two months away from popping,” Eleanor chuckled in amusement.

“Three,” Merle clarified.

“Three?” Ennis looked genuinely surprised. “But ya look as big as a…” Jack kicked Ennis under the table. “Ow!”

When Ennis was busy holding his throbbing leg, Jack went on to quickly cover for him. He plastered on charming grin. “What my friend here meant ta say was that ya look so good, that he forgot you’re…”

This time it was Ennis that kicked Jack under the table. “She’s my sister, she doesn’t look good!” Then he realized what he said and looked over at Merle. “Oh.”

Merle was amused and bit her bottom lip. “Your friend always this charmin’, Ennis?”

“Yeah,” Ennis mumbled. “Ya look fine Merle.” Then he fixed Jack with a glare. “As for him, he’s worse than a used car salesman sometimes.”

Jack rubbed his leg and gave Ennis a wounded look. “Says you, friend.”

Now Merle turned to Eleanor. “They always like this?”

“Not always,” Eleanor said admitted and shook her head. “Usually not, bein’ worn out from hard work. But, they’re still boys. Boys’ll be boys.”

“Ma…” Jack automatically protested. “Not a boy no more.”

“Don’t contradict your Ma,” Ennis hissed under his breath and kicked Jack’s booted foot this time. “It’s not polite.”

“See…” Eleanor said and got up from her chair. “I’ll make some coffee. Jack, take her bag upstairs. Then you ‘n’ Ennis can go ta your place to bring back a mattress.”

“Yes, Ma,” Jack agreed politely this time with a nod of his head.

“It’ll give me some time ta get to know Ennis’ sister.”

Ennis and Jack pushed away from the table. They shared a guarded, nervous glance. Neither of them was sure they liked the idea of the most important women in their life getting to know one another.

The trip back to the cabin was made in silence. Ennis’ lips where thin and his brow scrunched as he looked out the window. Jack gripped the steering wheel a little too hard and kept sneaking glances at Ennis. When he shut the truck off, Jack briefly wondered if it would start again. It would be a small mercy if it didn’t and they had an excuse not to go back right away. Of course, life had never been one to grant him any kind of mercy.

Ennis followed him into the house silently and shut the door after him with a solid slam. Jack turned around, ready for a fight. “Don’t start…”

He never got a chance to finish his sentence because Ennis had him pinned against the closed door. Ennis pushed against him and wrapped his arms around Jack tightly. He buried his face against Jack neck.

Jack returned Ennis’ embrace and gently kissed his check. “It’s alight… it’s alright…”

It had become his mantra to calm Ennis when he got like this. So worked up that he was sure Ennis couldn’t see straight. Wrapped up in guilt, worry or anger.

“Ya know, Jack?” Ennis mumbled against his skin and gave him a little shake.

“Yeah, I know,” Jack replied. They didn’t have to say it to know what it meant. His hand came up to rest on the back of Ennis’ neck, running his thumb over the curls and damp skin. “She’s gone, Ennis.”

“Never wanted ta see her again,” Ennis said. His hand was fisted tightly in his friend’s jacket. The other loosened its death grip and moved under Jack’s shirt to touch skin. It wasn’t meant to be seductive, just comforting. “Didn’t want that.”

“I know,” Jack repeated. He just held Ennis and felt happiness like he never had before. What they shared had been tested today. Ennis could have gone back with Alma. He could have run back to that old life with his family there backing up the girl. “Ya wanted me.”

To someone else that statement might have sounded cocky, but to Ennis, Jack was just speaking the truth. “I did.”

Jack pushed Ennis back just enough so that he could look him straight in Ennis’ worried brown eyes. “And ya got me.”

Ennis bit his bottom lip. “What I feel, Jack…” It was a whispered confession. He couldn’t describe his need to be around Jack. How sick, guilty and angry he’d felt seeing Alma again. “It makes me crazy.”

Jack gave him a teasing smile. “You were already crazy, cowboy.”

“Rodeo fuck-up,” Ennis answered automatically with a thick voice. It sounded like the endearment it was between them, rather than the insult most people would take it for.

“I feel it to, Ennis,” Jack promised him and leaned in for a slow, comforting kiss. When Jack pulled away, he rested his forehead against Ennis’. They were both breathing more heavily. “Don’t think we can do anything more…”

“No,” Ennis admitted with regret. He shifted his stance, widening his legs. “They’d know.”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed, but didn’t let Ennis go. “Real glad you’re stickin’ with me.”

“Jack…” Ennis sighed and blushed a little. For such an emotional man, he hated to discuss it.

“Jus’ had ta say it,” Jack insisted. “And was it was jus’ me or were those women spooky together?”

“That’s the way women are, Jack,” Ennis said uncomfortably and nodded. “They know things we don’t.”

Jack couldn’t help but smile at the near solemn look on Ennis’ face. He added a healthy fear to his check list of things Ennis felt for his sister Merle. “I like your sister, not to taken with KE though.”

Ennis still had his hand under Jack’s shirt and was just absently running it over the soft skin on Jack’s hip. “Merle… she’s more of a Ma to me than our Ma was. Our Ma had Merle right off after gettin’ married… KE a little while later. Then there was a few years with no babies… at least that’s what they told me. She got in the family way few years ‘fore I was born with twins. They was born sickly ‘n’ didn’t live. Our Ma was never the same after that Merle said. Sickly herself ‘n’ not quite right in the head. Liked ta sleep a lot.”

“Your brother said she used ta haul you around like a baby doll…” Jack teased. He didn’t like that sad look on Ennis’ face.

“Guess she did,” Ennis said. The twitch of his lips could have been a smile.“My daddy pulled Merle outta school ta take care of me ‘cause our Ma couldn’t. Always remember her ‘n’ not our Ma so much.”

“And what if she wants you ta go with her?” Ennis hand stopped moving and Jack missed the gentle caress.

“‘Probably why she stayed,” Ennis said. Merle had always been protective of him. He remembered the time she gave KE a black eye for pushing Ennis off the hayloft. “Ta see how I was.”

“Didn’t answer my question, Ennis,” Jack challenged. He hadn’t gone through all of this to loose Ennis, but he knew Merle had more sway over Ennis than Alma could ever have dreamed of.

“Jus’ have’ta make sure she knows I’m happy here,” Ennis told him. His hand had gone back to caressing Jack’s skin. He looked down, away from Jack’s sharp eyes and said even more quietly. “‘Cause, I am.”

“Ennis…”

“Now don’t start with that,” Ennis scolded and his hand smacked Jack where he had just been caressing. “Don’t go lookin’ at me like that… ‘n’ sayin’ my name like that…”

“And why not?” Jack challenged. Ennis had pulled away from him and he didn’t like it one bit.

“‘Cause we’ll never get outta here,” Ennis grumbled. “That’s why.”

Jack gave him a teasing smirk, feeling a lot more at ease. Alma was out of the picture. All he had to do now was impress Ennis’ sister. “We could say the truck wouldn’t start right off…”

“Jack…” Ennis’ voice was sharp. “She’ll know.”

“Who, my Ma or your sister?”

“Merle…” he hissed under his breath. “I told ya… they know stuff. Never could get away with nothin’ around her.”

“Yeah, like you ever did anything too bad,” Jack snorted. He walked over to the two mattresses pushed together to make their bed. They would be squished together on the one mattress left, but that wouldn’t be too much of a hardship. When they slept together, they slept wrapped around one another. Sometimes in the dark of the night, he didn’t know where he started and where Ennis ended. “Bet’cha a young Ennis Del Mar was a bit of a mama’s boy… always doin’ what he should ‘n’ never causin’ a ruckus.”

Now it was Ennis’ turn to smirk. “Rodeo, I’ve done a lot a foolish things… ‘n’ you’re one of them!”

Jack threw a pillow at Ennis, who caught it and whacked Jack on the ass with it. “You’re not gonna do me again if you go around talkin’ like that…”

“Sure, Twist,” Ennis mocked him and took another swing at him. This time he knocked him solidly in the head, knocking his hat off and Jack tumbled onto the bed. “I’ll remember that next your rubbin’ up against me like a cat in heat.”

“Oh, now you’re askin’ for a beatin’, Del Mar!” Jack grabbed the other pillow and whacked Ennis solidly in the midsection.

Ennis groaned, exaggerating it greatly and falling to the bed. When he fell, he just happened to fall on top of Jack. They wrestled around a bit until they where breathing heavily and rocking together in a way that was no longer about playing.

“She’ll know…” Ennis said in a desperate plea. Jack had him pinned to the mattress and was thrusting against him. The friction through their jeans was delicious.

“She won’t,” Jack tried to assure him, but wasn’t so sure himself. Something about Merle said she was too damn observant for her own good, but Jack couldn’t stop. He wanted to and needed this from Ennis. To show them both that Alma was really gone and Ennis belonged with Jack.

Ennis shifted, pulling Jack closer. “Good thing I got another pair of jeans now, huh?”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed. He happily let Ennis thrust against him and pin him down.

He was happy about a lot of things right now.

By the time Ennis and Jack got back to the main house and hauled the mattress upstairs, Eleanor had already finished lunch and laid it out on the table. His old man came in and sat at the head of the table looking the sour old man he was. Jack could never image being that bitter and beaten down. Forty seemed like a life time away for a nineteen year old.

John gave Merle a curious glare and it was obvious he didn’t know who she was or why she was. He took one look one look at her belly and then looked at Jack. “I doubt my boy did that to ya,” John said, then looked at Ennis. “That one knock you up?”

“Hope not, ‘cause he’s my baby brother,” Merle answered. She didn’t cower at John’s roughness, but held her ground with her own quiet strength.

“Huh,” John said. “Okay.” Jack wasn’t sure how to read his father, but he sure didn’t expect him to turn to Ennis and ask, “Boy, your family need you?”

“No, sir,” Ennis mumbled. He shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable.

“Then why’s she here? I'm not gonna have some other girl showin' up here 'n' causin' trouble, now will I?”

Ennis could tell by looking at Jack that his friend was pissed off at his father, but telling off John Twist would just cause a whole mess of trouble.

"No, sir," Ennis said to John. "She's already been here 'n' caused trouble."

John's eyes narrowed. "Are you bein' a smart ass, boy?"

"No, sir," Ennis mumbled. “My sister came here with my brother ‘n’ my ex-girlfriend,” Ennis said. “My ex wanted ta get back together, I didn’t. She tried ta get my family on her side.”

He wasn't sure why he had said it. Men like John Twist were easy enough to get along with, despite all the belly aching Jack did. You simply kept your mouth shut and did your work. Ennis was good at that. But here he was saying something he shouldn't be saying. Only thing he could think about was that Jack's mouth was rubbing off on him. That couldn't be a good thing.

John made a little huffing sound and looked suspiciously at Jack. "And you're not goin' no where, Del Mar?"

"No, sir," Ennis repeated yet again.

Merle was watching him, taking it all in. She wasn’t saying anything, but he could tell by simply looking at her that she was planning something.

"Good," John snapped. He picked up his spoon and put it into the bowl of pea soup Eleanor put in front of him. "'Cause I don't have the time or the patience ta train another hand."

"Ennis' sister is gonna be stayin' with us a spell," Eleanor said. She put down bowls of soup and thick ham sandwiches in front Merle, Ennis and Jack, only serving herself last.

"Expected as much," John grunted and slurped his soup loudly. "Woman in that condition shouldn't be travellin' none." With an empty spoon, he shook it at Ennis. "Shouldn't let women in your family be puttin' themselves in danger none."

"Didn't know she was comin'," Ennis said. He moved his own spoon was moving around in the soup, poking at a large chunk of ham.

"Ma worked the farm when she was... in the family way with me," Jack said. He couldn't pass up an opportunity to contradict his father. Even though he had never seen his father hit his mother, he never made her life easy.

"Did no such thing," John snapped. "Had my Ma 'n' her good for nothin' brother, Harold, around ta help."

"Your daddy was real... protective of me then," Eleanor added in quietly. She looked a little wistful and Jack didn't miss the look between his parents.

Silence descended on the table as everyone started to eat. Everyone else seemed fine with the quiet, but like always, it made Jack a little twitchy.

He turned to Ennis and said, "My Uncle Harold's kinda like you."

Ennis looked a little lost at the sudden switch in conversation. "Huh?"

"Not really like you," Jack said and took a large bite out of his sandwich. "Doesn't look or act like you or nothin', but my Ma... she's his sister."

"Figured," Ennis shook his head. "Bein' your Uncle 'n' all."

"Yeah, well, he's like you 'cause my Ma's a lot older than him. Like you 'n' Merle. So, he was always around a lot. Used ta live here before he got married."

Ennis didn't answer. Sometimes it was best to just let Jack chatter and nod occasionally. Eleanor put another ham sandwich on Jack's plate and Ennis smiled to himself at the thought that she was always feeding him to shut him up. But that really didn't stop him because Jack started to talk with his mouth full. He only stopped when his mother gave him a disapproving look.

"Sorry, Ma," Jack immediately apologised.

After a few moments, Merle said to Ennis, "Your friend sure talks a lot,"

"Sure does," Ennis agreed. He took another bite of his sandwich and saw Jack was glaring at him.

"Always has," Eleanor put in. "Would chat up a storm for hours to himself."

There was silence for a few more moments and then surprisingly John added, "Caught the boy talkin' ta a cow once." It wasn't said with any menace, but no mirth either.

"Talked ta the sheep too," Ennis commented.

"I liked it all better when y'all didn't talk," Jack complained. "Ennis talks ta the horses all the time."

"You're supposed ta talk to your horse," John said as if the good book itself had made it a commandment.

"How's that any different than talkin' ta the sheep or a cow?" Jack didn't deny that he did it. But they where all teasing him and he wasn't going down alone.

"Just is," John said. "Man relies on his horse. Talkin' ta livestock is jus' crazy."

"Well, next time I'll just sing ta them..."

Ennis groaned next to him knowing that wasn't an idle threat. He was going to need more whiskey. And the way Merle and John were eyeing each other, he was going to need a lot more whiskey.

END Part 9.

Chapter Text

"Crazier than a shithouse rat."

Jack looked up at Ennis. The man hadn't said anything for well over two hours and this was the first thing out of his mouth. "Wha-?"

"Ya heard me," Ennis mumbled. They were patching a section of broken fencing in the back acres of the Twist ranch.

"Yeah, but who you talkin' about?"

"Who do ya think?" Ennis asked sarcastically. "You see anyone else around here?" He waved his hand dramatically at the herd of cows. "Maybe one of them?"

"You still upset about this mornin'?"

Ennis made a little huffing noise. "Should go back to not talkin' ta you."

"I noticed," Jack snorted with a laugh. "Figured that was normal. Didn't think you were sulkin'."

"Not sulkin'," Ennis said and it sure sounded like it was sulky to Jack.

"Sure as hell think you are," Jack sighed. He shoved his hands into his jeans pocket. It was starting to be cold enough that he could see his breath in the air. Jack moved closer and butted his shoulder against Ennis'. "Can't help it if I wanted ta hear 'bout you growin' up."

Ennis scrunched his nose up and glared at Jack. "Shouldn't be askin' Merle 'bout stuff like that."

"Why not?"

"'Cause... just 'cause. She'll figure it out... told ya already." Ennis said and lowered his voice. Which was kind of funny considering the only other living thing within miles was the damn herd of heifers. "She knows stuff. She can figure out when I'm lyin'."

Jack rolled his eyes at Ennis. "Jus' means ya gotta get better at lyin'. Like me..."

"Still shouldn’t have asked," Ennis repeated with a grumble.

"Why not? How else am I supposed to find stuff out 'bout you? Sometimes it's like talkin' ta a stone." He saw Ennis glare at him and he gave his friend his best grin. "How else would I find out they used to call ya Curly when you were a kid?"

A blush rose on Ennis' cheeks. "Can't believe she told ya that," he muttered under his breath. "I was jus' a runt."

Jack reached out and tugged at one of Ennis' curls on his forehead. "Sorta fittin'. Big sisters enjoy embarassin' their lil' brothers. Of course, I wouldn't know 'cause once my parents had me, they saw perfection 'n' stopped."

“Still think you’re crazier than a shithouse rat," Ennis said, but this time it was with a bit of amusement he couldn't hide. He was succumbing to Jack's charming smile and teasing even though he didn't want that. "Definitely full'a shit."

Jack bumped Ennis with his shoulder again, but this time hard enough to make him stumble a bit. "You like it."

"Don't," Ennis denied, but had to look down to hide his smile. Then he snuck a quick glance at Jack from under the brim of his hat.

"Ya sure do..."

"Maybe a little," Ennis admitted. He took off his working gloves and smacked Jack across the ass with them. "We got lucky this mornin', bud."

"We did? Sure as hell don't remember that!" Jack laughed and punched Ennis playfully in the arm.

"I'm talkin' about the fact that your ol'man was up 'n' out with the herd before Merle got up."

"Suppose you're right," Jack admitted. "But they can't avoid each other forever. He wouldn't do anythin' except yap at Merle. Can't say much about John Twist, but he won't hurt a woman… especially one who’s in the family way."

"Merle can be… Merle," Ennis sighed. "And if she's anything like a knocked up heifer, then she's probably gonna be ornery."

“Better not let your sister be hearin’ ya call her a heifer standin’ right there in front of her,” Jack chuckled.

"Wasn't callin' her a heifer, was jus' sayin' if she's like a heifer…"

"They hear what they wanna hear, Ennis," Jack cut him off.

"Guess that's one good thing 'bout bein' queer... don't have'ta deal with women," Ennis grumbled and then his eyes widened a bit. "Not that I'm queer."

"Uh huh," Jack said and resisted the urge to smile. Ennis had all but admitted to being queer. He didn't want to make a big deal out of it because Ennis would probably try to take a swing at him. Instead, he took out a crumpled paper bag from his saddle bag. His Ma had snuck him that morning without saying a thing. "Ma made some cookies 'cause we got company."

Ennis reached into the bag and pulled out four cookies and actually licked his lips. Jack loved that Ennis had a weakness for sweets. They both started to munch on the cookies.

Damnit had followed them out to the field. He was sitting there, staring and transfixed by nothing. The dog had been staring at the same spot on the ground for the last ten minutes.

"What's Damnit doin'?" he asked.

Jack shrugged his shoulders. "Bein' a dog."

Just then Damnit barked at the ground and got a crazy gleam in his eyes that Ennis had seen with the herding dogs up on Brokeback Mountain.

"He's doin' it again."

"Maybe he's hunting somethin'," Jack suggested. "Could be a good huntin' dog?"

That made Ennis laugh out loud. "What good is a huntin' dog gonna do ya? You can't shoot the broad side of a barn…"

"Don't bring up that fuckin' elk again," Jack grumbled.

"How 'bout the coyotes?"

"Them neither…"

Ennis seemed to consider this for a moment and gave Jack those shy teasing smiles he loved. "Okay, Rodeo. Won't bring up how ya can't shoot either an elk or coyotes."

"Jackass."

"Don't think ya could shoot a jackass either," Ennis said this and bit his bottom lip. "But I'm not bringing that up since you're bein' all girly about it." Jack didn't answer him, but looked away, seemingly looking over the herd. Ennis reached out and poked Jack in the ribs with his finger. "Now who's the one sulkin'?"

"Ya know I missed shootin' that elk just so you'd feel like a big shot."

Ennis nodded solemnly. "Sure ya did, Rodeo."

Ennis looked over and saw that Damnit was still staring fixatedly at the same spot, even drooling a little bit.

"He's doin' it again," Ennis pointed out and motioned to Damnit. Now Damnit’s tail was wagging so hard his whole back end was swaying back and forth.

"Well, maybe he might not be a huntin' dog, but maybe he's jus' laying in wait… ready ta pretend ta do that. Herdin' puppies do that. Try to herd everything. Had this cow dog that used ta herd the chickens."

"What's he herdin'… air?"

"Well…" Jack hesitated for a moment. He had to admit when he looked over at Damnit, the dog looked mighty odd and more than a touch stupid. "Suppose he could be herdin' gophers or somethin'."

"Maybe they dropped him on his head… crazy mutt." Ennis gave Jack a side long glance. "Almost crazier than you."

Jack had half a cookie left and stuffed it into Ennis' mouth. "That's to shut you up."

Ennis mumbled around the cookie, a few crumbs escaping. "That mean all I gotta do is carry around cookies ta shut you up?"

"That'd be an awfully big bag of cookies, friend."

Ennis snorted with amusement and shook his head. He pulled on his gloves feeling they had slacked off long enough and there was always work to be done. But before he turned his attention back to the fence he reached out and brushed a few cookie crumbs from the corner of Jack’s mouth. He tried not to let his thoughts stray too much back to the way Jack had caught his thumb between his teeth, nipping and sucking just a bit. Ennis wasn’t too successful at banishing those thoughts after all.

“Fuckin’ Jack Twist,” he mumbled and picked up his hammer.

They worked together in comfortable silence. Unlike with his parents, Jack didn’t mind these times of silence with Ennis. Not quiet because he had to be or had nothing to say, but simply because he wanted to be.

+++++

Eleanor wasn't used to sharing her kitchen, but it was nice to have another set of hands around. Even though she was younger, she wouldn't call Merle Dovers a girl. They had spent time alone together, but no one had said anything telling.

"The men'll be comin' back in a few hours for lunch."

She was tempted to cook something special because company was around. But that would be putting on airs and the good Lord treasured humility. So it would be cheese and macaroni with bacon for lunch.

"Ennis still eat like he's never seen food?"

"Certainly does." She was preparing fresh buns for lunch and her hands were covered with flour as she finished kneading the dough. "So does Jack."

"I always thought Ennis would eat anything, even the table leg if it wasn't holding his plate up."

Eleanor chuckled and shook her head. There had been so many lonely days when Jack was gone, but now he was back and the place seemed to come alive. It was nice having both boys around and needing her. Ennis was in need of a mama and that made him family. And so his sister was family, too.

Eleanor plopped the dough into a bowl and covered it with a tea towel to let it rise. "Caught them eatin' out of a can of soup once. Puts a woman to shame knowin' her menfolk would eat that stuff in her kitchen."

Eleanor didn't miss the blush that rose on Merle's cheeks and how she looked away. Eleanor felt ashamed of her comment. The woman's mama had died and the girl had been left to take care of her two brothers. Maybe she never had the benefit to learn how to cook like a woman should.

"Ennis used to be too lazy to heat up soup." Merle watched Eleanor putter around the kitchen. "Boys grew up on beans. Most days I was workin' so the boys had to fend for themselves."

"Nothin' wrong with that," Eleanor told her. "We do what we gotta do."

Merle smiled just a little at Eleanor. The older woman had noticed she didn't smile a lot. "Always wondered if I'd get a husband not knowin' how to cook too good. People were thinkin' I was gonna be an old maid."

Eleanor could imagine that a girl with a baby brother in tow wouldn't be too appealing to the local boys. Men wouldn't want that sort of responsibility. And Merle for all her youth still came off as a serious woman far older than her years.

"Well, doesn't matter what the waggling tongues 'n' ol' hens chirped about," Eleanor told her. She looked at her pregnant belly and reached out to pat Merle's left hand with its simple gold wedding band. "Someone loves you now. You ever learn how to make bread?"

"No, ma'am," Merle shook her head.

"I can teach ya while you're here if you want." When Merle nodded, Eleanor smiled at her. "With a baby on the way, it'll be handy to know."

"Thank you," Merle answered. "My husband Gunny would like that, too."

"Gunny's an unusual name..."

"He was a Gunnery Sergeant," Merle said. "Everyone jus' calls him Gunny. Got wounded in Vietnam. Been a roughnecker since he was discharged."

That fit into what little she knew about Merle. No wet behind the ear boy would be a Gunnery Sergeant. Marrying an older man would suit Merle's constitution. Eleanor nodded in approval. "Older men always make good providers."

Eleanor started to wash the few dirty dishes left over from breakfast. Without being asked, Merle grabbed a tea towel and started to dry as the dishes were ready.

"I like Gunny," she said. She held up a plate, using the light from the window to make sure she hadn't missed any spots. "Good man. Wouldn’t mind if I brought Ennis to stay with us."

Eleanor's almost dropped the coffee mug she was washing. Very calmly Eleanor asked, "You planning on takin' him back with you?"

"Thought about it," Merle told her. "After that Alma girl caused such a fuss thought it would be a good idea."

Eleanor made a noncommittal sounded and finished washing the mug, handing it to Merle. "Suppose you'd like him close?"

"It'd be nice."

"Was he planning on settling close after he got married?"

"Don't think so," Merle said. She dried the mug and set it on the counter. "But that was then."

Eleanor reached up and grabbed the handle of the water pump, heaving the leaver down a touch harder than she should. "And now?"

Merle shrugged and hung the wet towel on her shoulder. "Have'ta make sure he's happy."

Eleanor looked straight at Merle and said, "Jack's awfully fond of Ennis."

Merle didn't say anything right away. The two women seemed to be frozen, starring at one another. It was obvious they each loved their own boy so much it almost hurt. "I'm thinkin' Ennis is fond of Jack, too."

"Jack's always been friendly, but never had a friend like Ennis before."

Merle looked down and her fingers picked at a stray thread off the tea towel. "Ennis neither."

"Would be a shame to see Ennis go." She had become attached to him in the short time he was with them. And Eleanor knew if she lost Ennis, she’s most likely loose her Jack.

"Haven't ya thought that it'd be for the best..." Merle said quietly. "Ennis could come back with me. Wouldn't want... a friend gettin' in between your Jack 'n' the life you want for him."

Eleanor's hand came to tighten on the edge of the counter. Sometimes she prayed to Jesus and wondered what she did wrong. Didn't she love Jack enough? Had she loved him too much? But prayers didn’t change what she knew.

In her dreams she wanted Jack to marry a nice local girl. Maybe one of the girls from church and have a mess of children. She dreamed about having grandchildren. But they were just dreams because she knew her Jack was different. And no matter what the preacher said on Sunday, she could never hate her baby boy.

"What I want for Jack 'n' he wants for himself... are two different things."

There was no judgement in Merle's eyes. "He your only one?"

"Only one that lived," Eleanor answered quietly.

Merle's hand came to rest on her belly protectively. "He's a nice boy."

"Thanks, I know if you tell Ennis to go with you, he probably would."

Merle nodded and looked out the window. "Wouldn't tell him, would ask."

"You gonna ask?" Eleanor challenged.

"Honestly, don't know." The tension was thick in the room. "Just want him to be happy."

Eleanor reached out and adjusted the old lace curtains framing the window even though they were perfectly fine. "Ya think he would've been happy with that girl?"

There was no hesitation in her answer. "No."

Eleanor turned back to consider Merle. "That so?"

"Yep." Merle nodded. "She was too quiet. Ennis is already quiet enough. Runs in the family. Needs someone... feisty."

The two women stood in silence for a few long drawn out moments. Two women who wanted something else for the young men they loved. Two women who had never seen their boys as happy when they were around one another. They were both pulled in so many directions.

"Ya know..." Eleanor started, barely above a whisper. She looked at the door, checking to make sure it was closed. "Our place is mighty lonely. Always worried the army would get Jack. Keep forgetting he's a man now... nineteen. Uncle Sam says he's old enough to be a soldier, but he's barely old enough to remember to wash his face everyday. Only good news about Lightning Flat is that the only thing that finds us is lightning 'n' a whole lot of nothin'. So, I'm puttin' my faith in the good Lord that the draft board will keep its hands off my boy. But if there's anyplace someone wanted to keep to themselves out of trouble, it'd be here."

Merle understood her just fine. "Good place to hide, huh? Safe?"

"Not hide..." Eleanor corrected gently. She filled up a kettle and put it on the stove to boil. "That's implying someone would have to be ashamed of. It's jus' a good place to... mind your own business... go about your life as you see fit."

"Huh," Merle said. "Ennis always did like to keep to himself."

"Seems like the type," Eleanor agreed with a nod of her head. "He's welcome here. Would have a job, roof over his head 'n' food in his belly. Be good company for Jack."

"Well... Ennis does seem settled."

Eleanor reached into the cupboard and took out her good tea cups. The ones she never used with any of the menfolk because they might break them. "Somethin' to be said for that."

"Certainly is."

Merle unbuttoned the sweater that was stretched over her belly and the buttons straining. "Ennis was too young to get married anyways."

Eleanor shared a smile with Merle. Merle hadn't said she wasn't going to take Ennis with her, but they seemed at least to have reached an understanding about the lay of the land. "Same with Jack."

END Part 10.

Chapter Text

Merle watched people. She had always watched people since she was a child. One of her favourite people to watch was Ennis.

After the twins died their Ma had never been the same. She slept all the time and forgot to watch out for KE. Merle remembered the Pastor visiting a lot and whispers that their Ma never should have had another baby. Saying that their Ma was too old and sick to be in the family way again. Their daddy had thrown the Pastor out one day and the family never went to church again.

But there had been another Del Mar baby no matter what people wanted. She remembered their father bringing their Ma home from the hospital. It was storming out and even then Ennis hadn't cried. When Ma had brought KE home, she had proudly held him all the way from the hospital and carried him inside. With Ennis, their daddy had just bellowed at Merle that the baby was in the car and to go get him. He had helped his wife into the house, practically carrying her inside, neither of them looking back.

Merle had found the unnamed baby in the backseat sleeping in a bassinet. Merle had carried the bassinet inside and learned how to make formula by reading the directions on the back of the can. Ennis had slept in the bassinet next to Merle's bed starting that night and her daddy told her she wouldn't be going back to school. At eleven years old, she had already skipped too many days to stay home to help their Ma. There was no other choice, so Merle hadn't argued. Her daddy just called him ‘the baby’ and never bothered to think of another name when Merle started calling him Ennis.

She had done her best to protect the boys from the rumours around town after their parents died. The rumours that whispered behind their back about the night the Del Mar's crashed Chrysler was found. About how the local Sheriff could still smell the whiskey on their daddy's body. The rumours that kept weaving their ugly tales after the ranch was taken from them. She had born the sympathetic stares simply out of necessity. With KE and Ennis to take care of she had to rely on the charity of others. The Methodist preacher had found them a place to live, but they still never went to church except to bury their parents out of respect for their daddy's wishes.

She'd tried to do her best by the boys. KE had left school and gotten a job, while Merle picked up some shifts at a local diner. She'd tried to make sure Ennis got an education. But then their beat up pick up truck got busted and there was no money to fix it. Ennis had to become a man far too young, but there was no other choice.

And now watching Ennis, she saw he was still so much of the little boy she remembered. He was the same little boy who had cried when the men from the bank took away his horse to pay their parent's debts. He was the teenager who had mumbled over the phone to her that he was getting married. He was the young man who looked at her with desperate eyes when that girl was demanding to know why he wouldn't marry her.

That afternoon after lunch she had told Eleanor that she was going for a walk. When Eleanor had quietly asked her if she was well, she had said fresh air would be good for the baby. It was stark, nearly barren land, but still beautiful in its own way. Different from the part of Wyoming near Sage, but still familiar enough not to be too foreign. Eleanor had told her it was best to keep to the west side of the ranch because there was a bull with a bad attitude with the herd in the east pastures. Always one to be contrary, Merle had set out towards the west side of the property, but once she was out of sight of the main house she started walking east.

The cabin came into view first, even though it was hidden by a shield of a few trees and overgrown brush. It was easy to see that it was the original homestead for the ranch, but you could tell someone had been working to fix it up. Merle had found what she was looking for.

++++++

"Bat-shit crazy," Ennis muttered under his breath. He was standing by Jack's horse and his fingers were tugging on the cinch ring.

Jack was lazily leaning against a post watching Ennis. "Cowboy, you have a bad habit of calling me crazy..."

Ennis stopped and turned to look at Jack with a smirk. "You're all sorts a’crazy."

Jack loved Ennis' shy smirks. "Mind telling me why I'm bat-shit crazy?"

"Well..." Ennis hesitated as if considering a long list. "With you I can tell when you're crazy 'cause your lips are movin'. Jus' now I'm thinkin' your bat-shit crazy 'cause there's nothin' wrong with your saddle. I checked it myself."

"You're right." Jack nodded and pushed off the post, ambling over to Ennis. "It was jus' an excuse to come back here."

A blush rose to Ennis' cheeks and he looked down. His thumb came up to his mouth and he started to bite at the skin around his nail. "Now don't be gettin' any ideas, Jack."

"No problem there... these ideas," Jack tapped the side of his head. "Are already in my head. Have been all day."

Ennis quickly glanced up and then right back down. His hand moved and absently began to rub at the horse’s neck. "Jack..."

"Ennis..." Jack said, his tone was teasing where Ennis' had been in warning. This chasing after and seducing Ennis was part of the game he enjoyed the most.

"Jack," Ennis said a little more sternly.

"Ennis," Jack repeated. This time his tone wasn't very teasing, more heated.

“We shouldn’t…”

“Ya know we’re gonna.” Jack stepped in closer. So close that his breath ghosted over Ennis’ skin.

Ennis licked his lips. He reached up and touched Jack’s cheek. At first, they had been so intense together and then playful. Brokeback had given them that. But spending this time together, Ennis was happy to be able to simply touch Jack. Just like now when he ran a single finger along Jack’s jaw line. He loved that he could trace that finger down Jack’s neck and pop the first button of his shirt.

There was a soft whinny and Jack’s horse head butted Jack’s shoulder.

“Old nag’s jealous…” Jack laughed.

“‘Cause you’re a fine man,” Ennis mumbled and pulled Jack away from the stall towards the loose hay stack.

Jack’s answer was to push Ennis down into the hay and fall on top of him. They started to wrestle. Hands strayed and undid buttons, pushing away fabric to get at skin. When Jack kissed Ennis’ neck, he could taste the saltiness of sweat and licked his way up to nibble on Ennis’ ear. They started to thrust against one another, groans mixing and dying off into gasps. It would be so easy to keep going just like this with the sweet friction of denim.

“Want more,” Ennis growled. He was on top of Jack, but used his strength to roll them so that he was on his back and Jack laying over him.

Jack popped the button on Ennis’ jeans and worked down the zipper. He slipped his hand inside, grasping Ennis just right. “C’mon…” Jack hissed in encouragement. He was hard and wanted to feel Ennis touching him.

“Yeah…” Was Ennis’ rough acknowledgement. He fumbled with the button and stopped with a loud moan. Jack was handling him just right… a little rough and firmly. Just the opposite of how Jack liked it. He knew because he’d watched Jack touch himself more than once. For just this moment he forgot about touching Jack and instead moved his hand down. He ran his hand over Jack’s, wanting to feel Jack touching him.

There was a quiet cough behind them. In that moment, Jack and Ennis' eyes met. There was no describing the panic and dread.

"Merle..." Ennis was begging with that one word. He was in danger of loosing someone he loved. In that moment he wasn’t sure if it was Jack, Merle or both.

But she didn't scream at them or turn away in disgust. She just gave Ennis that unreadable look of hers and then said, "Guess there’s not much to say, Ennis."

"Merle, please..."

"I caught ya with your pants down." Ennis gaped at Merle. He had to be dreaming. Maybe Jack's horse had kicked him in the head. Because he had to be imaging that Merle had a shadow of a smirk on her face. "Close your mouth before the flies get down it."

"B-But..." Ennis stammered.

"And you..." Merle shook her head and sighed, looking at Jack. "Get your hand outta his pants."

"Yes, ma'am," Jack replied automatically and scrambled to comply. Now that the shock had worn off, they were both scrambling to get their pants and belts done up.

"And don't try sayin' it wasn't what it looked liked," Merle told them. Ennis was quickly buttoning his shirt and even now trying to tuck the tails into the back of his jeans. "'Cause I'm not stupid."

Jack could see Ennis tearing up. It tore him up inside to see Ennis this upset. He stepped in front of Ennis, putting himself between his man and Merle. Because right now this small, pregnant woman was a greater threat to Ennis than any raging bull had ever been to Jack.

"It's my fault," Jack told her. "Don't go blaming him."

Merle made a curious noise in the back of her throat. "Is that so?"

Jack steeled himself and stood his full height. "It is."

"Merle..." Ennis said behind him, but stopped speaking when Merle shushed him.

"I wanna hear what he has to say," Merle told him quietly. Her brown eyes so similar to Ennis', locked with Jack's fierce blue ones. He was willing to do what ever he needed to do to protect Ennis. "This thing..." She gestured between Jack and Ennis. "You say it's your fault. And what if I went 'n' told your daddy?"

"Then he'd probably kick my ass off the ranch if he didn't shoot me first," Jack admitted.

"Uh huh." Merle's hand drummed a gentle rhythm on her belly. "And what if I didn't tell him, but took Ennis back home with me?"

Ennis gave his sister a miserable look, but didn't say anything when she gave him that look.

"Don't know what I'd do," Jack admitted. It was like holding your breath and waiting for the axe to fall. He wanted to look away, but for whatever reason, he couldn't look away from her gaze. She seemed to be looking for something. Jack licked his lips and waited for a moment that seemed like an eternity in hell.

"Ennis," Merle said, now fixing that knowing gaze on Ennis. "Seems like you got yourself a loyal friend, Ennis."

"Don't ask me to go with you, Merle..." Ennis' voice was gruff and low.

"You happy?" Merle asked.

Ennis shifted nervously from foot to foot. His answer was a whisper. "Yeah."

"Well," Merle said. "Guess that's that then."

"Yeah?" Ennis asked uncertainly. His eyes were red and he rubbed at them with the palm of his hand.

"Yeah," Merle told him and gave him a little grin. It was the same smile Merle use to give him when he scraped his knee or fell off his pony. "Now git for a bit while I talk to your friend."

Ennis coughed nervously. He could barely understand the idea that Merle had found out that he was a little bit queer and wasn't mad at him. That he wouldn't loose her or Jack. "I don't know..."

"I wasn't askin', Ennis," Merle said with the most bite that either men had heard since she had come to the Twist Ranch.

"Yes'm," Ennis mumbled. He looked at Jack and whispered, "Ya know?"

Jack just nodded and watched as Ennis walked out of the barn. He wished he was going with Ennis instead of having to face Merle alone. She scared him in only a way his Ma had before.

His horse whinnied and Jack was a little startled. Merle was still staring at him.

"Ya need to know that if ya ever hurt Ennis..." She didn't finish the sentence, instead letting the implied threat hang heavily between them.

"I wouldn't," Jack insisted. He checked his own shirt tails as it couldn't hurt if they were tucked in.

Merle huffed a little and cocked her head to the side. "Time will tell."

"You ain't gonna tell my folks?"

Merle shook her head. "Nope."

Jack had never known when a good time was to hold his tongue. He couldn't just accept her answer and blurted out without thinking, "Why?"

"Figure this is a good place for Ennis," Merle answered. "Figure he wants to be here."

"And you aren't gonna..." Jack had a hard time trying to roll up all of his worries about Ennis into words. "You aren't gonna make this hard on him?"

Now Merle smiled at him just a little. The sort of genuine smile that Ennis gave him sometimes. They were so rare that getting them made them all that more important. "Figure this'll be hard enough on him already. Know that girl wasn't right for him. Know he seems happy here. Don't need to know much else."

"Uh, yeah..." Jack wasn't sure what to say. This was the most he had heard Merle say since meeting her. It was one of the first times he was at a loss for words.

Merle took a few steps forward until she was real close and looking up at him. "I pretty much raised Ennis, ya now that?"

"Yes'm," Jack gulped and nodded.

"God gave Ennis a sensitive soul." Merle reached out and tapped Jack on the chest, right over his heart. "Loves deep when he can, but... our Daddy... wasn't a nice man. Tried his best to scare everything different outta Ennis." Jack bit his lip and nodded again. "So, I don't wanna see no real harm come to him. Don't wanna see no... friend of his hurt him."

"No, ma'am..."

"That bein' said," Merle gave him that smile again. "He's like the best horses he loves so much. Can spook easily 'n' likely hard to break. Someone puts in the time with him..." She huffed under her breath when Jack's mouth hung open. "He'll make a fine friend. Don't let that Del Mar stubbornness get the better of him 'n' fight back when ya need to." Now Merle punched him in the shoulder. "I like you. Don't ever make me not like you, huh?"

"No, ma'am," Jack croaked and blinked at her a few times.

"You can call me Merle if the notion strikes you, Jack." She stepped back and held out her hand.

"I like you too, ma'am... Merle," Jack said and shook her hand. Her hand was small in Jack's grip. It was covered from scars and calluses born of hard work, just like his.

She gripped his hand a little tighter and her tone was serious. "And you be careful. I know your type, too. Lots a big dreams 'n' pretty words to go with them. Ennis'll help you keep your feet on the ground. But you... you both gotta be real careful." She let go of his hand and stepped back. "The army 'n' the world can be out to get you."

"Lightning Flat's a good place to lay low, nothin' happens here," Jack muttered to her.

"That's what your Mama said," Merle told him. Jack's face turned pale when he realized the implications of that sentence. He didn't have time to say anything to her because Merle soon called out, "Ennis, c'mere!"

Ennis came, not running, but walking more quickly than Jack had ever seen him walk before. "Yeah?"

"Was jus' makin' friends with Jack."

"Oh, yeah?" Ennis looked between Jack and Merle, a worried look on his face. Jack smiled at him and the worry lines on Ennis' forehead lessened a little.

"Yep," Merle said. "Good man."

"Yep," Ennis agreed and nodded his head. He also gifted Jack with a twitch of a smile.

"You jus' remember ya always got a place in my home," Merle told him. She gave Jack a knowing look and Ennis nodded. "Was jus' tellin' Jack here you'll be careful with the army 'n' everything else..."

"Yes'm," Ennis mumbled and there was a growing blush on his cheeks.

"I won't be a stranger," Merle said. "Though won't be comin' out here unannounced. You can trust that. Now, see y'all at supper."

"Merle, that's a long way to walk," Ennis said. He couldn't keep the worry out of his voice and glanced at her belly. "Why don't ya let Jack ride back to the house 'n' come back to get ya with the truck?"

Merle smacked Ennis on the arm hard enough that the sudden sound startled Jack's horse. "'Cause I'm in the family way, boy, not lame."

"But I..."

"My own two legs carried me here, they can carry me back jus' fine. Thank you very much." She saw Ennis glance at the horse. "And I'm not riding in this condition. I must've dropped you on your head one time too many." Ennis opened his mouth to say something but didn't because Merle spoke first. "And don't forget I can ride circles around you."

"You wish," Ennis mumbled under his breath.

"What was that?" Merle challenged him, her small hand bunched into fists and Ennis took a step back.

"Nothin'," Ennis said and smirked at his sister. Since Merle had gotten to the Twist ranch, Jack had seen her more as Ennis' caregiver than his sister. But now he was seeing the brother-sister relationship first hand.

"Good." With that Merle walked out of the barn leaving two confused young men behind her.

++++++

That night at supper Ennis and Jack learned that they weren't the only ones who got cornered that day by Merle. When they came into the house, Jack's Ma made an offhand comment about Merle being out in the barn with John. Ennis actually dropped his cowboy hat. Just a few moments later, John opened the door for Merle and let her in first, just like he always did for his wife.

Jack and Ennis kept waiting for something happen. What happened was that everyone acted like nothing was different. The men hung their hats by the door and wiped their boots on the door mat. As they all sat down for their evening meal, everyone was quiet. Even Jack was silent.

They bowed their heads and Eleanor said grace. "Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.
May this food by thee be blessed. May our souls by thee be fed. Ever on the living bread. Amen."

John was the first to speak and break the silence. "You don't scare me lil' girl," John grumbled and glared at Merle. He was waggling his finger at her and Merle didn't say a thing back to him. John narrowed his eyes. Jack was getting ready to say something. He was ready to verbally defend his friend's sister, but then John said something that left him speechless. "Pass the potatoes."

Merle picked up the bowl of potatoes and passed them to John. "They're kinda lumpy. I made them."

John humphed under his breath. "Course they are."

Jack wondered what the hell Merle Dovers had said to John Twist to knock him down a peg. He wondered maybe if the Pentecost his Ma believed in so hard had come and smacked his Daddy hard in the head. Whatever happened, it was one of the first times Jack ever believed in miracles because Merle and John seemed to have come to some sort of strange truce.

"Ya made the bread, too?" John huffed and tapped his slice on the table, then ripped a junk out of it. He chewed on it noisily, not bothering to close his mouth. "Hard as a rock."

"Yep," Merle answered. "Doubted if the dog would eat it."

John made a point of taking another bite from his slice. "You'll probably poison your husband."

"We'll find out soon enough."

Ennis took the bowl of potatoes that John passed to him. He automatically spooned a large heap of lumpy mashed potatoes onto his plate, then handed the bowl to Jack.

"Ya leavin', Merle?" Ennis asked her quietly. He shared a nervous glance with Jack.

"It's time," Merle answered. "Found what I was looking for." The unasked question hung heavy in the air. "After the baby's born, I'd like ya to come for a visit."

Ennis would be staying with Jack. If Merle had asked him to come with her, he wasn't sure if he could say no, but he was damn sure now that he would've tried. "I'd like that."

END Part 11.

Chapter Text

Merle left the Twist ranch with far less fan fare than she came. She called KE and he came to pick her up even if he grumbled about it. Just before they left KE shook Ennis' hand a little more willing once he realized Ennis had slipped several bills into his brother's palm.

"For gas," was all that Ennis had mumbled.

That was nearly half of Ennis’ pay he had saved since working for Aguirre and the Twist’s. The rest was in a crumpled paper bag at the bottom of Merle's own bag. He had scribbled a note that simply said, 'For the baby' and never told her about it. He knew she would never take it from him if he handed it to her. After everything she had done for him, it was hardly any sort of pay back, but it was a start.

Ennis settled into the tiring and hard life at the Twist ranch. In November, the day he would have gotten married came and went. With it came the cold, bitter winds of winter. He and Jack had managed to patch up the old cabin enough that it was tolerable. It was comfortable enough that they could make it through the winter. Wood had been stockpiled for their wood burning stove and hay brought up for the horses from the main barn.

They woke up together, worked together and ate meals with Jack's parents. They still went to bed at night feeling beaten down and weary from the backbreaking work, falling asleep in each other's arms. John still harped at his son and Eleanor still quietly spoiled the boys. Jack still bitched and talked Ennis' ear off. Ennis still mumbled that Jack was crazy and quietly did his work, but enjoyed listening to Jack talk. He still watched Jack, even more closely now than he did on Brokeback. When Jack caught him, he would blush and look away. Damnit grew a little bigger and a lot more stupid. When a day had been particularly hard, they would pass a bottle of whiskey back and forth.

After supper on some nights, if the wind was right and the work didn't need attending to right that minute, they would all sit together and listen to the old radio. On Sundays John and Eleanor dutifully drove into Lightning Flat to attend church. Not once did Eleanor ask either boy to come with her.

Jack and Ennis were careful, keeping touches confined to the safety of their own place. No matter what, the passion they shared never lessened. The desire never waned, only seeming to grow until it consumed them both.

It was the sweet life Jack thought he wanted. Ennis was at his side and eased into life at Lightning Flat in a way that reminded Jack too much of his old man. Ennis never admitted that he was queer, but he seemed to have accepted their life together.

Life should have been easy. Jack had gotten what he wanted... who he wanted.

Jack was about to learn that life and love wasn't easy.

++++++

Spending nearly all of your time with someone, you get to understand all of the things you love about them and every damn thing that drives you crazy.

Jack hated how Ennis would use his teeth to pick and pull at the skin around his thumb and fingers. He did it when he was nervous or uncertain. Jack had watched Ennis pick at the skin until it bled and hurt. Jack hated it.

He also hated that Ennis was a mule headed fool.

Two weeks after Merle left, Jack was pissed off his father after they'd gotten into an argument over mice getting into the cattle feed. All the way back to their cabin, Jack had ranted on about how much he hated his old man. Ennis hadn't said a word, but made sounds that meant Jack knew he was listening. Usually they'd ride close enough together to pass a cigarette back and forth. They each rolled their roll their own, but some how they had always ended up sharing.

Ennis just kept listening until they got back in the barn. Still pissed off at his old man, Jack had been none to gentle stripping the harness off his horse.

"You're a fuckin' idiot," Ennis had snapped and pushed Jack away roughly from the horse who was shying away from Jack.

"What, don't tell me you're on his side?"

"Don't care 'bout that." Ennis was already cooing at the horse. "Poor lil' darlin. Don't need that jackass touchin' ya rough like that."

That was the night Jack had learned just how deeply Ennis loved horses. He learned that telling Ennis that Ruby was, 'Just a dumb animal,' was not the best idea.

Ennis had turned and glared at him, still petting Ruby's muzzle. "And your jus' an idiot for treatin' a good animal like that."

"I was pissed off."

"That's no excuse."

That explanation didn't cut it with Ennis. Ennis stopped talking to Jack after that and stripped off the rest of the tack himself. That night Jack slept alone because Ennis slept in the barn.

Jack spent a sleepless night fuming. He almost went out the barn so many times to get Ennis, but stopped himself. He thought Ennis could freeze for being so stubborn. All night he expected Ennis to come back in. To come back to him with his head hung and hat in his hands like he had back up on Brokeback Mountain. Because Jack knew he was right. He knew he was right in the morning, but he couldn't take another night alone.

And deep in his gut, he felt the old uncertainty. What if Ennis decided to leave?

There was a light dusting of snow on the ground and it was still dark out when he went out to the barn. He found Ennis laying down in the small hayloft shivering under a saddle blanket.

Jack stood over him, hands on his hips. "If I say I'm sorry, will you come back inside?"

"Not me ya gotta say sorry to," Ennis had mumbled back.

"I'm not gonna say sorry ta no horse!"

"Then guess you're bunkin' down with Damnit." Ennis had turned over and tugged the blanket over his shoulders.

Jack stormed back to the cabin, swearing and cursing at Ennis. Come first light, Jack went back to the barn again. Ennis met him at the barn door with Patch and Ruby already saddled up. They mounted silently. That silence didn't last long. Jack started a tirade aimed at Ennis.

There shouldn't have been a difference to one of Jack's normal outbursts. Jack usually did all of the talking and yelling. Ennis was the kind to show his anger with a cold stare or muttered curse. Ennis never reacted to Jack's outburst this time. It should have been no different than usual, but it felt different to Jack.

That morning, it felt like Ennis wasn't listening. He wasn't just ignoring Jack... he had gone so deep inside his own silence, that he couldn't hear Jack. That morning Jack’s fear grew stronger and wrapped tight around him like a noose. With every moment that Ennis didn't talk, didn't try to fight back with his words or a glare, that noose of worry tightened.

What if the day came that Ennis didn't want to listen to Jack anymore?

Ennis' silence usually intrigued him. On Brokeback, he had been drawn like a moth to a flame. He'd wanted to reach Ennis. Make him smile. Hear those few, sweet words that were sometimes near painful for Ennis to speak. Jack had fought the silence hard and finally broken through once he got Ennis' trust. The silence had been broken. Now Ennis' spoke a little more, but not everything was about words. Some promises were made with shy glances or a soft, genuine laugh. A whole lot could be said with a touch.

Nothing hurt Jack more when Ennis retreated back into the unreachable silence.

Jack made a soft clicking noise in his mouth, just enough to get Ruby to speed up a little. Jack used the reins to move Ruby to turn directly into the path of Ennis' horse.

"This is all stupid. We're fighting 'bout nothin’."

"Whoa..." Ennis said to Patch as he got her to stop. He looked up at Jack under the brim of his hat. "How a man treats his horse... speaks ta the kinda man he is."

Jack's hands tightened on the reins. "And what in the hell is that supposed ta mean?"

Ennis shrugged his shoulders. "Jus' expected more from you, Jack." With a quick flick of his reins, Ennis steered his mount around Jack's own.

It was a quiet rebuke that cut deep. It was the first morning that Jack willingly looked for work away from Ennis.

++++++

The slow burn of Ennis' temper usually complimented the quick flash of Jack's own temper. When Jack was riled up, Ennis was usually unaffected. His calmness would quell Jack's anger. It was like on Brokeback when Jack had been forced to sleep alone up near the highest peaks of the mountain, with Ennis chipping away at life closer to the valley. They found their balance near the end of the summer. They had found happiness in the mid-meadows, somewhere between the extremes.

Day to day life was like that. Together Ennis and Jack usually found the balance, tempering each other's faults and extremes.

But not today. Today their tempers roared full and nasty.

That night after a silent, tense supper shared with his parents, they had gone back to their cabin. They didn't speak the entire ride back and Jack nervously smoked his own cigarette. Today they didn't ride side by side, because Ennis lagged behind.

When they got into the barn, Jack stripped the tackle and saddle from Ruby with much more care than yesterday even though his temper was raging. It wasn't the horse's fault that he felt like screaming. But both horses could sense the tension and nervously pawed in their stables.

As Jack hung up the reins on a hook, he turned and confronted Ennis. "You wanna be here, Ennis? With me?"

Ennis just kept fussing with his own tackle. "I'm here, ain't I?"

Ennis' answer just pissed Jack off more. Sometimes fear can make someone say the most stupid things. Things we would normally never say. Jack would always regret starting this fight with Ennis.

"I wonder…" he snapped at Ennis. He got up close into Ennis' personal space. "I wonder if you wanna be here with me. I'm wondering if you aren't regretting not goin' with Merle."

Ennis' face darkened with a scowl. "You tryin' ta get me to leave, Jack?"

"Maybe you're not here for the long haul."

Jack was trying to get him to react and Ennis knew that. Jack was itching for a fight, but Ennis didn't want to give it to him.

"Said I was here." And for Ennis that was enough. He was here, working and sharing Jack's life. For him, actions spoke louder than any promises or words could. Ennis just turned away from Jack and shook his head. He muttered under his breath. "I swear ta God you're worse than a woman..."

"What did ya jus' say?" Jack had heard exactly what Ennis said and it infuriated him.

Ennis wasn't the only one who was guilty and sensitive about what they shared. He wasn't the only who had fought this intensity back on Brokeback Mountain. Sometimes Jack felt like less of a man for liking what he did.

"I said..." Ennis repeated it back more slowly. "Sometimes you're worse than a woman."

"That what ya want, Ennis... you want a wife? 'Cause I ain't your goddamn wife..."

Ennis never got a chance to say anything back. Because right after that Jack shoved Ennis hard, pushing him back against a post in the barn. Ennis grunted and looked at Jack with a mixture of shock and anger.

"This better not be 'bout..." Ennis couldn't even finish saying it. He was so embarrassed, frustrated and enraged that he scrunched his nose and looked away. "Told ya I won't. Can't."

"Oh, it's 'bout more than that," Jack said. He stalked closer to Ennis and shoved him again. "But it's 'bout that, too. You think it makes me less of man."

"Ya told me..." It was so difficult for him to speak that the words came out forced and thick. "Ya told me ya like it."

When Jack normally used words to draw Ennis out of his silence or seduce him, this was a time like this that he knew he could use words as weapons against Ennis. Words that pained them both.

"That's what you wanted to hear." He knew it was a mistake when he saw Ennis flinch. He knew how much it hurt this man who for all his gruffness, was gentle and vulnerable underneath. Jack knew this and yet couldn't stop himself from lashing out again. His hand came up and he stabbed Ennis in the chest with his finger, emphasizing his words. "Wasn't it?"

"Ya said I wasn't hurtin' ya..." Ennis' words were begging and accusing all at the same time.

"I think ya like hurtin' me."

Jack knew it wasn't true. When Ennis lashed out, it was from a place of fear and pain. It was his way. It was the same pain that had gotten them in the fight after the snow fell, driving them down from the mountain. A need so fierce it was frightening.

Ennis' fist flew up and connected with Jack's face, catching him on the chin. Jack stumbled back a little, clutching at his jaw. Ennis was breathing heavily, shaking his head. "I don't," he denied.

When Jack pulled his hand away, it was stained with a little blood since Ennis had managed to split his bottom lip. He held up for his hand to show Ennis. "What about this?"

Ennis shook his head in denial again. "I... I..." he stammered out. "I jus'..."

Ennis reached out, looking to touch Jack where he hit him. He didn't get that chance because Jack punched Ennis just below his right eye. It was a solid hit, knocking his cowboy hat off and Ennis' head smacked back against the post with a sickening thump. Jack watched in horror as Ennis slid down the post until he was sitting on the ground, head hanging.

Jack immediately crouched down in front of Ennis. He reached out and grabbed Ennis' head in panic. He cradled the base of Ennis' skull with one hand and when he pulled the other back, it was covered with blood. "Christ, Ennis..." Ennis groaned in pain and Jack started to apologize immediately. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

"I threw the first punch," Ennis muttered, his voice thick and slurred. It was a justified punch in his mind.

Jack kept touching Ennis. Running his fingers through the blond hair now stained with blood. This time, Ennis let Jack comfort and touch him when he was hurt. He didn't reject it like when his horse threw Ennis up on the mountain. It didn’t matter that Jack was the one who had hurt him in the first place.

Jack felt sick and guilty. "You're hurt."

But Ennis had already judged himself and like usual, found himself wanting. "Deserved it. S'not that bad..."

"I didn't mean to do this," Jack promised him. "Just keep thinkin' you'll leave. That I'm not what ya really want."

"Gave up everything for you..." Ennis whispered the confession. He turned his mouth and spit a mouthful of blood onto the dirt floor of the barn. "Ain't gonna have no kids. My own brother looked at me like I was queer. Gave up bein' a real man for you..."

"Cowboy, you're a real man..." Jack tried arguing with him. He didn't like the lifeless tone to Ennis' voice. It caused him more pain that the damn punch.

"Riskin' the tire irons..." Ennis mumbled. It wasn't the fear of dying that drove his fear, though he didn't like the idea of dying more than anyone else. It was gut wrenching fear that they'd get Jack. Ennis looked up at Jack with tortured brown eyes. "Had'ta try to forget they could get you."

It felt like his heart broke in that moment for Ennis. He understood then that Ennis was more afraid for him more than anything else. Something else clicked. Ennis had just about married that girl partly because he wanted to protect Jack. "Ennis..."

"Willin' ta stay... to fight." Ennis' eyelids drooped and Jack shook him gently. Ennis' head lifted up and a little bit of blood trickled down the side of his mouth. He smiled weakly at Jack. "Not you, Rodeo. Don't wanna fight with you... fight anyone that tries ta hurt you."

Jack's hands came to frame Ennis' face and he wiped away the blood with his fingers. "I think I hurt you bad..."

"Nah, jus' bit my tongue," Ennis told him, dismissing the injury.

Jack didn't say that he was talking about hurting Ennis' physically and emotionally. He leaned forward and kissed Ennis softly in a moment of apology. "M'sorry... so sorry."

Once Ennis had committed to something... once he promised something, he stuck by that decision. The same stubbornness that could drive Jack crazy meant that Ennis would cling to their friendship with a rugged and from time to time senseless tenacity. It was all that he had left in life, even if it terrified him.

"Might nag worse than a woman," Ennis grumbled and groaned as he sat up. The fight was what it was. He was here with Jack and both had wicked tempers. Right now he just wanted his head to stop throbbing. "But ya sure as hell hit like a man."

Jack choked out a half sob and laugh. "How can you not be mad at me?"

"Well, I'm sure as hell not happy with you," Ennis mumbled. He licked his lips, spreading the blood. "But I know you're not happy with me either." His hand came out and clutched at this temple. "My head hurts."

"We'll go inside, get you cleaned up 'n' some whiskey." He offered his hand to Ennis, who took it and Jack helped pull him to his feet.

"Lots'a whiskey." Ennis wavered a little on his feet. It gave Jack an excuse to get in real close, wrapping his arm around Ennis' waist. "My hat..."

Jack leaned over and scooped up Ennis' hat from the barn floor. "You're not gonna sleep in the barn." It was a half question, half demand.

"Too cold." Ennis slipped his own arm around Jack's shoulder. "And you smell better than the horses... most of the time."

"This mean we're okay?" Jack asked tentatively.

Ennis sighed heavily. "Jus' means we're gonna have some whiskey 'n' sleep, Jack."

END Part 12.

Chapter Text

Ennis woke up with a throbbing headache and to the gentle touch of Jack’s finger tracing his cheekbone.

“I got ya real good, cowboy,” Jack whispered in his ear.

Ennis’ skin felt like it was burning and Jack’s palm felt cool. “Look as bad as it feels?”

“Yeah,” Jack answered quietly. He leaned in closer to kiss the purple and yellow tinged skin around Ennis’ right eye.

Last night they had drunk their way through half a bottle of whiskey while not saying anything for fear of saying some else stupid. Finally they had passed out, but at least in each other’s arms. Jack had tried to stay up to watch Ennis, but the whiskey had finally called him with its sweet whisper.

Ennis reached out and his thumb traced Jack’s swollen bottom lip. It looked a little red and was scabbing over where it had split. “Made ya bleed. Don’t like that.”

Jack snorted and shook his head. Out of two of them, Ennis had bled the most. “We both jus’ a sorry pair of deuces.”

“Yep,” Ennis agreed and kissed Jack’s palm. “Reckon it’ll always be that way.”

“I don’t want it ta be…” Jack insisted. “I want…”

“Jack Fuckin’ Twist…” Ennis cut him off with a teasing tone. Now Ennis’ hand ran through that thick, black hair he loved. “Stop that dreamin’ now. That nonsense’ll jus’ get us in trouble.”

“I won’t.” Jack’s face had a stubborn set to it. “The day ya give up is the day…”

“Not givin’ up,” Ennis sighed. He tightened his hand in Jack’s hair just a little, giving it a little tug. “Anything but.”

Jack had that look to him where he was just going to start talking way too much. “But, I…”

“I’m here. You’re here,” Ennis said. He wanted Jack to understand. Despite everything… despite last night, he planned to be steadfast. This was his life now. Jack was his life now.

Jack batted away Ennis’ hand and rolled them over so that he was lying on top of Ennis, looking down at him. “And what about tomorrow, or the day after that?”

Ennis scowled at Jack. For all his thinking, Jack sometimes never got it. He thought too much and forgot the small, obvious stuff. “Not plannin’ ta go anywhere.”

“You say that, but…”

Ennis’ hand fisted into Jack’s shirt. “There’s always a ‘but’ with you, Jack.”

There was no denying that. Jack couldn’t help on thinking about ‘more’. He couldn’t really define it. Since he was a kid, he’d always been thinking about everything and then some. At first thinking about what lied outside of the Twist ranch and then Lightning Flat. He was always pushing and never satisfied to accept what was. His Ma called him a dreamer. His father just called him ungrateful.

Ennis looked a little scared. “You’ve never said what you wanted. You’ve always got these big plans in your head. You’ve talked about headin’ out…”

Something clicked for Jack. He knew Ennis was a big mess of insecurities. “Ennis, ya didn’t think…”

“Don’t like ta think too much,” Ennis mumbled, brown eyes troubled and sorrowful. He didn’t like to dream because they had never amounted to anything before. “Jus’ gets me in trouble.”

“Can’t help it if I think ‘bout stuff, Ennis. It’s jus’ the way I am.”

“Figured ya might get bored with this life sooner or later.” What went unsaid is that he thought Jack might get bored with him.

“Aww, Cowboy…” Jack kissed him gently. “Would never get bored of you. It’s not like I know what I’m doing… jus’ tryin’ ta figure this out as I go along.” Jack held Ennis a little tighter. He had to ask Ennis something. Only so much could go unsaid between them and this was something he sure as hell couldn’t figure out on his own. “How do you think queers live?”

Ennis tensed in Jack’s arms. “Don’t know how queers live. Heard there’s some in prison, but the only ones I met was Rich ‘n’ Earl. They seemed normal enough until they ended up dead. And that queer rodeo fuckup…” There was no hiding the jealousy that flashed across Ennis’ face.

Ennis’ jealous was comforting knowing the other man still wanted him. Before Ennis’ he had been looking for something and always afraid he’d end up dead trying to find it. Jack snuck his hand under Ennis’ shirt, caressing the warm skin he found there. “Was always told a man’s not a man unless he’s got a woman.”

On Brokeback Mountain, they had talked about near everything. Everything except sex. That had just happened. Only briefly Ennis had said he was going to marry Alma and never mentioned any other girls.

“Know plenty of men who don’t got a woman at home,” Ennis reasoned.

“Chased after a few girls in school…” Jack admitted. He was running his hand up and down Ennis’ washboard stomach. “Wasn’t old enough to do nothin’ even if they let me catch ’em. Hell, didn’t even really wanna catch’em. Caught you though…”

“Only kissed Alma,” Ennis admitted, his breath hitching just a bit. “She was a good Christian gal. Didn’t want anything else ‘n’ never felt the urge to push.”

“No other girls, Ennis?” Jack already knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it from Ennis. Ennis didn’t say anything, but shook his head. “Mmm, so I’m the first one ya ever touched like that?”

“Ya know it.” Ennis’ answer was gruff.

“Well, you’re the only man that’s had me like that…” When Ennis’ scowled a little, Jack laid his palm on one cheek. “It’s true. Only ever messed around before. Not even kissin’ another boy. Jus’ a quick hand job behind the barn.”

Ennis moved quickly, bucking his hips upwards to unbalance Jack. In flash he had Jack pinned under him and it felt right. Felt to Ennis like he belonged right there. He touched Jack with purpose.

“You’re my man.” Dark and possessive… both the words and Ennis’ touch.

“Shh, I know… I know,” Jack promised him. He could see Ennis was getting all worked up at even the mention of anyone else touching Jack. And damn him, but it thrilled Jack. Even in a place where there was no one else to even look at except cattle, Damnit the dog and his parents, it fired him up know this. “No one else. Only you.”

“Not queer,” Ennis told him fiercely. “Don’t think they gotta name for this. Everything my daddy always told me I was supposed ta feel for a woman… I feel for you ‘n’ more. Ya chase the words right outta me that don’t wanna come out for no one else, not even for me. Gettin’ into my head with those blue eyes ‘n’…” Ennis stopped to kiss Jack careful of his bottom lip. “Your words. Like the devil himself made you ta make me sin…”

Jack started to struggle under Ennis, wanting to touch him again. “Fuck, Ennis…”

Ennis took Jack’s arms and pinned them above his head. With a shy, quiet man like Ennis Del Mar, when he did find his words they had meaning. And what he said next, Jack would remember the rest of his life.

“I like sinning with you, Jack.” Jack could only writhe under Ennis’ hold. Ennis leaned close, face to face with Jack. His face was intense when he confessed, “I like sinning with you too much.”

“Tell me what you like the most,” Jack begged. Ennis kept Jack’s hands pinned above his head with one hand and with the other hand Ennis started to unbutton Jack’s shirt slowly.

“Like it most when…” Ennis stopped, his hand moving down to Jack’s ass.

“Say it,” Jack demanded. Even though he was the one pinned down, he knew how much power he had over Ennis.

Ennis massaged Jack’s ass roughly though the denim. He nearly choked on the words before they came out a forced whisper. “When I’m takin’ ya from behind.”

“Ya jus’ like it that way ‘cause you can’t see my face…” It wasn’t the first time he had thought Ennis liked it best that way so he didn’t have to look at him when they fucked. Part of him was bitter that Ennis would want to deny he was doing Jack.

“No… no,” Ennis snapped. Ennis leaned so damn close their breath was mingling. Jack wasn’t sure he had ever heard Ennis sound so damn raw and intense before. “Like doin’ it that way ‘cause I can get so deep I can almost split ya open.”

“Christ…” Jack swore. He had never heard Ennis talk like this. He hadn’t even thought it was possible. This was the same man who couldn’t admit he was queer or that he loved Jack.

Ennis didn’t miss the way it affected Jack. It gave him more courage. Courage to chase the words out of Ennis he felt dirty even thinking. “Every time I take ya like that… makes me think of the first time.” His fingers dug almost painfully through Jack’s jeans. “And I know how much ya like it… like you was made for it. For me.”

And Jack couldn’t deny it. He loved it when Ennis was taking him. He loved to feel Ennis’ passion and strength. “You think I’m less of a man ‘cause of it,” Jack accused.

“No,” Ennis hissed and kissed Jack, crushing their mouths together. “Said you’re a man… my man.” Jack shifted a bit under Ennis, spreading his legs so Ennis could grind down against him. “Know ya like it that way… only makes you my man more.”

Jack groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. Ennis’ words and intense look made him so damn hard. It made the shame of wanting what he did lessen. “Ya don’t think…”

“Told ya ta stop thinkin’,” Ennis growled at him. “Don’t gotta think ‘bout this. It is what it is. We like what we like. And we’ll make our lives whatever we want it ta be. Ya know?”

“Yeah…” Jack said and smirked at him. It was their way of saying they loved each other. “I know.”

Ennis in his round about way was making a promise. And Jack didn’t have to stop dreaming, he just had to change his dreams. It never really occurred to him until this moment that he was lucky enough to have someone else to include in his dreams now.

Jack started to kiss Ennis. He felt blessed that after the fight, Ennis was here. He wrapped his legs around Ennis’ hips, pulling him in tighter. “Show me, Cowboy.”

“Drive me goddamn mad,” Ennis muttered. He let go of Jack’s hands then, wanting to feel his touch as much as he wanted to touch him. With fumbling hands, he managed to undo Jack’s shirt. Running a hand up Jack’s chest his hand paused over Jack’s heart. “No punch would every keep me away from you. Nothin’ could now.”

“Damn… damn,” Jack moaned. Lightning Flat was cold and boring enough to feel like hell had frozen over, and it must be now because the day Ennis Del Mar spoke more than Jack Twist meant that hell had truly frozen over.

Ennis now ran his hand over Jack’s face gently. He gave Jack an intense look and bit his lip. “You’re a fine man, Jack.”

“Friend, you’ve done shocked me with all this talkin’,” Jack laughed with delight. “One good thing ‘bout fighting is makin’ up. Now why don’t ya shift up a bit so I can turn over ta give you what ya want? ‘Cause I know what ya want, Ennis. And I’m fine with givin’ it ta you.”

Ennis straightened up and looked down at Jack. He looked torn. He obviously wanted that, but something was eating at him. Ennis looked guilty. “Not that.”

“Wha-” Jack stammered. His mind was all caught up and in a jumble. “You punishing me, Ennis? For the fight… said I was sorry.”

Ennis looked even guiltier. “No… just won’t hurt you no more.”

“Oh… no. No, Ennis.” His own hurtful words aimed at Ennis from last night came back to haunt him. He should have known Ennis would take them to heart. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Might not say much, Rodeo,” Ennis told him. “But I’m good at listenin’ ‘n’ I heard what ya told me last night. Hurt ya before ‘n’ don’t plan ta do that again.”

“Shit, Ennis…” This was not good. He could tell by the set to Ennis’ face that he serious. “I must’ve hit your head too hard. I was jus’ bein’ an asshole. Wasn’t serious.”

Ennis kissed Jack then, a sad squint around his eyes. “Said I was listenin’. There’s other stuff we can do.”

Jack wanted to feel close to Ennis and being with Ennis the way he wanted was like making Ennis a part of him. He would not be denied that. “I don’t want other stuff… I want ya to…”

“Jack,” Ennis said his name with a little more force. “Not with you jus’ for that. We’ll make do without. Like ya said, we’re makin’ this up as we go along. Jus’ know I’m not gonna hurt ya like that no more.”

Just then Ennis managed to work his hand into Jack’s pants and grasp him. Jack wanted more, but this wasn’t the time. Ennis was still confused from the fight and Jack needed to feel his touch. He couldn’t handle Ennis’ stubbornness and sense of responsibility right now.

“Won’t hurt ya…” Ennis promised him and Jack’s stomach dropped at the implications.

+++++++

Jack and Ennis knew there was no putting it off. There was no way to hide the bruises on their faces from Jack's parents. Jack was the first to walk inside the door, followed by Ennis, who had his head down.

Usually they would be greeted with a 'good morning' from Jack's Ma, but this morning there was only a soft gasp followed by, "Oh, dear."

John took one look first at Jack and then at Ennis before he growled, "Del Mar... barn. Now!"

"No, don't..." Jack argued, stepping closer to Ennis and laying a hand on his shoulder. He was shocked that his father wanted to take it out on Ennis and not him.

"Don't start with me now, boy. This is my home," John snapped at Jack. He turned to Ennis and glared at him, "Ya heard me, Del Mar?"

"Yes, sir," Ennis said. He quickly shared a looked with Jack. By John’s demeanour they both knew if John didn't get his way now, it would just be worse later. His tone meant he wouldn't put up with any arguments.

Ennis' lips moved and it wasn't even a whisper, but Jack knew what he was saying. Ennis had mouthed the words, "Ya know?"

Jack nodded and watched as Ennis followed his father outside with slumped shoulders. He was left alone with his Ma. She walked over to him and grabbed his chin, turning his head slightly both ways, looking at Jack's injury.

"Seen worse," Eleanor announced with a sigh.

"Yeah..." Jack admitted. "On Ennis."

"I'm not gonna say that boys'll be boys, Jack," Eleanor told him and let go of his face. "'Cause you're not a boy no more. You're a man."

Jack sighed and looked out the window towards the barn. He couldn't see either his father or Ennis. "We got in a fight."

"Figured as much."

"Ma?" Jack wasn't sure what he wanted to ask her.

Eleanor waited patiently and finally prompted him. "Yes, Jackie?" She very rarely called him that nickname and now only when they were alone. The last time she had called him that was the day he left for Brokeback Mountain.

Jack gave her a lost look. "I shouldn't have hit him..."

"Can't change that now."

Jack looked out the window again. "No, I can't."

"Bet ya Ennis feels jus' the same." When Jack didn't answer, she patted his cheek. "It’s never good when the cat’s got your tongue." Jack sniffed a little, trying to hide that he felt like crying. Men didn't cry, especially in front of their mothers. "Not gonna quote no scripture at ya, Jackie. 'Bout this... or other stuff. It is what it is."

His Ma had always known what was bothering him without him having to say anything. "But I don't know what it is..."

"Tell you somethin' my Ma told me when I was 'bout your age," Eleanor said. "Bein' married ta your daddy wasn't an easy thing. Here I was a seventeen year old away from my folks 'n' supposed ta be all grown up. Felt like I was playin' house with a stranger. Young people think that once ya get married, everything'll be happily ever after. She told me there’s no such thing as happily ever after."

"But, I want..."

"Hush now," Eleanor smiled at him sweetly. "Lovin’ someone ain't the end of things, Jack. It's just the start."

"I just..." Jack started, but had to stop. It was like everything he wanted was a big ball of words caught in his throat. There was no way he could make her understand when he didn't understand himself.

"You're young," Eleanor said. "Ennis' is young. Gotta work at it. Bein' with someone isn't about some fancy words... it's about stayin' with'em. It's the good times you'll love 'n' the bad times that'll test ya. Love is stayin’ with someone when ya honest ta God think of leavin’ ‘n’ givin’ them a reason ta stay with you. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle."

She knew her baby boy wouldn't be changing his mind about what he was. She saw the way he looked at Ennis. Her son adored that boy in a way that wasn't any puppy love. Ennis was a good man and Eleanor was afraid what would happen if Ennis left.

“He’s not leaving?” Eleanor asked. Jack looked miserable and she had to make him understand sometimes things were as simple as staying when thing where difficult.

“He’s stayin.”

“And you’re stayin’?”

“Yeah, of course I am, Ma,” Jack told her.

“Well, that’s that then, isn’t it?” Eleanor said and smiled at her son. She gave him a quick hug. “The rest’ll work itself out. It always does when it’s meant to. Bein’… friends is never easy. It’s not magic, Jackie, it takes hard work.”

“It was all a stupid argument anyways,” Jack sighed with a bit of a pout and shoved his hands into his pockets.

"Ya can't always be right. Even though you wanna."

"But I was..." Jack sighed. His boot scuffed on the worn out floor boards. “Not that it matters now.”

"You can be right 'n' alone. Or learn otherwise 'n' share your time with someone else. Your daddy thinks he right all the time," Eleanor said and smoothed out a wrinkle on Jack’s shirt. "Don't mean he is. Jus' mean he thinks he is."

“Were you ‘n’ daddy ever friends, Ma?”

“Never stopped bein’ friends, Jack,” Eleanor answered him, her tone much more serious. “Your daddy’s always been surly ‘n’ that won’t change. Got in our fair share of arguments, still do… always will. And I’m just as much of a sinner as anyone. Sometimes people don’t understand why ya love someone… not even ourselves.” She gave her son an understanding look. “Can’t help who ya love, son.”

++++++

Once they were in the barn, John turned and glared at Ennis. "Del Mar... you've been fighting."

Ennis couldn't deny it. The bruises on their faces and Jack’s sour mood was proof enough. "Yes, sir."

"Never made no bones about the fact that I think Jack is a lazy, good for nothin'… faggot." John stopped when he saw Ennis' own expression darken. "You got a problem with that, Del Mar?"

He didn’t care if this man was Jack’s daddy or not. No one got to talk about Jack like that. "I do," Ennis growled.

"Well, ain't that jus' fine ‘n’ dandy. You ain’t got a pot ta piss in 'n' you think you got the right ta tell me what I can think of my own son?"

"No." Ennis shook his head. His lips were drawn in a thin line. "Figure you can think what ever you want about Jack. Jus' figure you should watch who you say it around..."

"Funny hearin' ya say that considerin' Jack's wearing a mark from your fist." John stalked even closer to Ennis. "See, I know Jack's a lazy, good for nothin' faggot, but he's still my boy. And no one lays a hand on my boy."

The threat caught Ennis off guard coming from John. But it didn’t change the threat that John posed to Jack and Ennis wouldn’t stand for that. "Except for you?" Ennis challenged.

"I hardly ever laid a hand on him." John snorted. "Maybe I should've beat him more so wouldn't have grown up ta be what he his."

"Understand one thing, Twist,” Ennis said in a low voice. Now he didn’t look up from under the brim of his hat, half hiding like he usually did. Instead he met John’s gaze full on and straightened to his full height. “I won't let ya lay a finger on him..."

“I’m not gonna touch him. Can’t say the same for you. You seem to me touchin’ my boy in too many ways ya shouldn’t be.”

Ennis answered him a raw, tight voice. He knew this day had been coming. Part of him wished Jack was here to back him up, but the other part of him was glad he wasn’t. "If Jack 'n' me scrap, that's our business. What else we do is also our own damn business."

"It ain't," John snarled at him. "He's my boy. My family.”

“Jack’s his own man.”

“With you around, I don’t think he is…”

Ennis snapped in that moment. “Shut up!”

John Twist looked down right murderous. “What did you say to me?”

“I said…” Ennis hesitated for only a moment. His right hand balled into a fist. “I said, shut up. Won’t let ya talk ‘bout Jack like that.”

"I'm not stupid, boy," John said and spat on the dirt floor of the barn. "I know what you are.”

“Don’t see how when I don’t even know.”

“Knew somethin’ was wrong with’im since he was young,” John told Ennis. “He could do no wrong as far as his Ma was concerned, but I jus’ knew. Tried my best ta make a man outta him, but I failed.” Now John just looked tired more than angry. “Don’t like what he is… but he’s the only sorry excuse for a son I got. Not sure what’s worse, him bein’ queer or the lazy son of a bitch that he is. Always walkin’ away from his responsibility ‘n’ family ta grasp at fool’s dreams. Left with talk of bein’ some hot shot bullrider ‘n’ ends up herdin’ sheep. Then he drags you home like some sorta stray.”

“Ya tellin’ me ta go?”

John spit on the ground again, his expression going sour. “Didn’t say that.”

“Then what are ya sayin’?”

“I’m sayin’ that Jack’s a whole mess of nasty things, but he’s my blood,” John said and looked older than his years. He also looked like a protective father. “You mess with one Twist, you mess with us all. Got that?”

Ennis felt like he was going to be sick. He felt like going back into the house and grabbing Jack, begging to go to the damn sweet life Jack talked about. But Jack’s pissed off old man was real life. He had to be dealt with and was a part of any life Ennis and Jack had now. “If I’m not welcome here no more…”

“Fuck, you sure you’re not a simpleton, boy? I’m jus’ warnin’ ya. Can’t be bothered ta hire another damn hand. Jack’s here, which is more than I expected in the spring ‘n’ doin’ more than he used to. But, the day ever comes he even looks at a girl the way he should, I want ya outta here. You understand me?”

“Yeah,” Ennis nodded and mumbled back. Because the day Jack ever wanted him gone, he wouldn’t have to be told because he would be gone. “This isn’t over.”

“Hell, no.” Finally John looked at Ennis’ swollen and bruised eye with a smirk. In that moment Ennis saw a brief echo of Jack’s own smirk in his father. “At least he throws a good punch for a faggot.”

END Part 13.

Chapter Text

Jack was so damn nervous about his old man and Ennis being alone that he felt sick to stomach. He kept telling himself that he should have been more insistent that Ennis not go. Before he left for Brokeback Mountain, he had been openly rude to his father, thinking he was never coming back. But now that he was committed to staying here with Ennis, he was learning that he had to take a different approach with his old man. He was sure his Ma would just say it was part of growing up, but Jack just thought it was annoying as hell. And on top of that Ennis had made it clear that he was his own man and had to work it out with John Twist if he was going to stay with Jack. So Jack waited.

"Your daddy likes Ennis." Eleanor she set a large plate filled with bacon on the table and moved around the bacon slices until they all lined up perfectly.

"Since when?" Jack’s stomach dropped a little when his Ma looked up from fussing over the bacon. "Sorry, Ma."

"Eat somethin'. It'll make ya feel better."

"Not really hungry." But still Jack grabbed a piece of toast off another plate anyways. His mother looked far happier to see him eating.

He was on his second piece of toast and fourth piece of bacon when he finally looked out the window to see his father walking out of the barn followed by Ennis. Jack nervously watched them walk back and finished his toast. He grabbed another piece just to keep his hands from shaking.

John came into the house first and looked at his son. Jack dreaded what his father was going to say. He expected an immediate verbal attack. What his father said to him shocked him like no curse could have.

"Did ya say grace before you ate?"

"Wha…” Jack mumbled with a full mouth. “No."

"Your Ma doesn't like it when ya stuff your face without sayin' grace," John huffed and sat down in his chair at the head of the table. "Raised ya better than that."

Jack gave Ennis a confused look, but Ennis only shrugged his shoulders. Ennis didn't look happy, but he sure as hell didn't look like he was ready to leave the Twist ranch either.

"Sorry," Jack apologised automatically. His mother had finished putting out breakfast and was acting like it was any other morning. Ennis had taken his normal seat and was staring at his empty plate.

Eleanor said her usual grace, just like she had at every meal Jack remembered. A mumbled, "Amen" from the men around the table was a signal for her to start serving the food.

"Gotta check the herd this mornin' for pink eye," John said, breaking the silence. Eleanor set the first heaping plate in front of him. He was always served first and Eleanor always took the last plate of food. "Jack, you're gonna come with me to check the yearlings. Del Mar can see ta the feed."

Jack's mouth fell open a little in surprise. In all his years on the ranch, his father had never asked him to help check the stock for disease. It was a job that John only trusted himself to do properly. John even bad mouthed the Vet right to his face. Now here his old man was telling him that he was going to be helping. It so damn strange and Jack kept waiting for the axe to fall. He wondered if his father was just setting him up for something.

Jack wasn't sure what to say, or that he should say anything at all until Ennis nudged him with his boot under the table. "Yeah, sure… but, isn’t it a little outta season?"

Jack expected his father to snap at him for questioning him. Instead his father nodded his head and answered, "Little late, but heard there was an outbreak next county over. Not gonna try ta get outta this, are you?"

Jack knew exactly what his father was asking without asking it out right. His father was trying to see if he would balk at his job to try to work with Ennis instead. He was challenging Jack to see if his son was going to take on this new responsibility. Jack knew it was a test.

Jack shook his head. "Like ya said, herd's gotta be checked. Better sooner rather than later."

John grunted in response, but Jack could have sworn he looked a little pleased. Well, as pleased as John Twist could look. His daddy wore a sour expression, slightly less pissed off. Jack was sure it was nasty enough to scare the cattle, but to Jack it was almost like a smile.

Jack saw his father look over at Ennis, eyes drawn to Ennis' black eye. Jack almost dropped his fork when he saw his father smirk a bit. His father looked back over Jack and it definitely was a smirk. Jack waited for the inevitable cutting remark.

John stabbed a heap of scrambled eggs with his fork. "Never did show me that damn belt buckle ya won from that rodeo.”

Jack wasn’t able to follow this sudden turn in conversation at all. "Wha…"

"Ya ashamed of it?" John shovelled a fork full of scrambled eggs into his mouth. With his now empty fork, he pointed to Jack. "Smaller than that one ya always wear?"

"No.” The truth was he had given it to Ennis and it was sitting back in their cabin, displayed on the shelf next to Ennis’ whittled horse. He almost couldn't comprehend that his father might want to see it. The man had never talked about bull riding other than to degrade Jack for pursuing it even though he had been a champion rider in his days. "Jus' back at the cabin."

"Well, heard ya braggin' 'bout it to your Ma. Might as well see for myself ta see that your words aren't bigger than your deeds. Always flappin’ your lips. Bring it down ta the house if you aren't lyin'."

Jack was about ready to snap that he wasn't lying. That he had ridden that damn bull for eight seconds and won the prize belt buckle fair and square. But Ennis must have known what he was thinking about, because Ennis kicked him under the table.

"Yeah..." Jack hissed under his breath. "Yeah, I'll bring it."

"Wouldn't mind seein' it myself again," Eleanor said and started to eat her own breakfast before it become too cold.

Jack just picked up a piece of bacon and chewed on it. His Ma had given him the extra crispy ones knowing how much he liked them. If he didn't know any better, his old man was treating him with just a speck of respect. It felt like just a drop in the bucket after years of being treated like he worth nothing. Jack continued to chew on his bacon and sneak unsure glances at his father. Whatever it was, it felt damn strange.

+++++++

Jack's world seemed like it was turned upside down. His father was treating him like he didn't completely hate him. He could still count on his father to be down right ornery and nasty as it was just his nature. But his father had looked at him differently, even if for a brief moment. Like he done something right, even though Jack wasn't sure he wanted to figure out what that was.

The one comfort Jack had had since Brokeback Mountain was Ennis. He could always count on Ennis’ passion and the spark that drove them do things Ennis didn't want to acknowledge as queer. But since their fight, Ennis had refused to fuck him. Every time Jack tried, Ennis would just distract him and they’d end up using hands or mouths. There was only so much rejection a nineteen year old man could handle. Especially after he was used to getting whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Two days without the sex he wanted, the way he wanted, was enough to drive Jack mad.

That morning Jack had left the ranch telling Ennis that he had to go into town to run some errands for his Ma. Ennis wasn't comfortable going into Lightning Flat and he had just nodded when Jack told him.

Now Jack was back at their cabin and Ennis was sulking. He was sitting on a rickety chair with his feet propped on their small table. He knew Jack was there, but kept ignoring him.

Jack was leaning against the door frame watching Ennis whittle away at a chuck of wood. "Cowboy... got somethin' for ya out in the barn.”

"Not fallin' for that," Ennis told him without looking up. His knife never faltered as it peeled off strip of wood.

"Ain’t nothin' like that.” Jack had to stop himself from smirking. If he had his way, his little surprise would chip away at Ennis stubbornness and stupid idea. Now Ennis looked up and gave him a doubtful look. Jack crossed his finger over his heart. "Really, I swear."

Ennis took his feet off the table. "Somethin' ya got in town?"

"Yeah..." Jack could see that Ennis' curiosity was starting to get the better of him. For all the gruffness that Ennis hid behind and denial that he did, he liked Jack's attention. Jack took out a candy bar from his pocket and saw the corner of Ennis' mouth twitch when he saw the Hershey Bar wrapping. He knew this was Ennis' favourite treat. He learned that the day in the general store when they had mailed the postcard to Alma. Jack remembered how Ennis’ gaze lingered on the candy bar just a hint longer than anything else. "Gonna start with this."

"Didn't have'ta get me anythin'…" But Ennis had already set the piece of wood aside and stuck the blade into the table top. His eyes were focused of the candy bar.

Jack held it out in front of him, not handing it directly to Ennis. If Ennis wanted it, he would have to come closer to get it. “Didn’t have’ta, but I did. And got myself a nice lil’ stash of this stuff, plus more whiskey, friend.”

“Shouldnt’ve wasted your money on candy.” Ennis’ words had no bite. He was so damn stingy with his money that he wouldn’t buy anything for himself. Ennis licked his bottom lip. “Was a fool thing for you ta do…”

“Yep.” Jack was smirking since his bait was working.

Ennis stepped even closer. “But wasting it would be even more of a fool thing…”

“Oh, yeah,” Jack agreed again with a nod. He loved it when Ennis tried to reason out things he wanted with weak excuses. “Be a waste of my hard earned money.”

“That’d be a damn shame.” Ennis moved so close that his boot touched Jack’s boot. “Ya gonna have some, bud?”

“Maybe jus’ a bit,” Jack said. He knew that if he didn’t have a little taste Ennis would feel guilty about taking the candy bar. “Had one in the truck.”

Jack opened the wrapper, noticing that Ennis eyes were following his every move. Ennis was pretty damn easy to please. The simplest things made his day. Jack had started to realize that, but also that Ennis would deny himself those simple pleasures. It was his job to make sure Ennis got them despite himself.

Jack snapped a little piece of the chocolate off and popped it in his mouth, licking his lips. “Mmm, looks like I got a little on my fingers.” With that he started to suck on his finger slowly.

Ennis’ breath hitched and he growled, “Jack Fuckin’ Twist…”

Jack took his finger out of his mouth slowly and almost obscenely. “What?” Jack asked with mock innocent. Then he started to draw his thumb over his lips and suck just on the tip. “Ya want somethin’ sweet, Ennis?”

Ennis’ brow drew down into a scowl. “You’re anythin’ but sweet, Rodeo. Dangerous if ya ask me.”

“Dangerous?” Jack rubbed a still wet thumb over the chocolate and then sucked into his mouth again, sucking on it noisily before he popped it out. “Me?”

“Not gonna be fooled into doin’ it…” Ennis pressed his body against Jack’s and his hand settled on Jack’s hip.

“’Course not.” Jack snapped another piece of the chocolate off and held it to Ennis’ lips.

Ennis kept one hand on Jack’s hip and the other hand grasped Jack’s wrist. He used the strong grip to move Jack’s hand exactly where he wanted it.

Jack’s hand was so close to Ennis’ mouth that he could feel Ennis’ moist breath on his fingers. Ennis guided the piece of chocolate and Jack’s fingers into his mouth. Ennis met Jack’s gaze boldly and nipped at Jack’s fingers. Just as Jack moaned, Ennis pulled away with a shy smirk. “Not the only one who knows how ta play games.”

“You’re gonna give in, Ennis…”

“I’m not.” Now it was Ennis’ thumb rubbing over the skin of Jack’s wrist. The spot just below the sleeve that was so sensitive it made him shiver.

Jack looked him straight in the eye. Ennis never denied him when he looked at him like this. “I want this.”

“So do I,” Ennis hesitated, but his touch didn’t stop. He continued to rub and tease. “But don’t wanna hurt ya.”

“Ya don’t hurt me…”

Ennis looked slightly unsure. “You said I did.”

“I was angry ‘n’ bein’ an asshole.” Jack reached out and tugged at a blonde curl, tucking it behind Ennis’ ear.

“Ya sayin’ you were lyin’?” Ennis turned a little red and his grip tightened on Jack’s wrist.

Jack looked away and sighed. “Didn’t mean ta. I was jus’ so damn angry, but yeah… yeah, I lied.”

“It’s not the first time.” Ennis’ tone was low, but not angry. His grip on Jack lessened, but he didn’t let go. “Ya do that sometimes when ya think it’s what I wanna hear. Like when ya told me you only messed around behind the barn…” Ennis’ scowled and his eyes darkened. “With that rodeo fuck-up. Know ya did more.”

Jack’s breath caught immediately. “He didn’t fuck me!”

“Know that…” Ennis moved so that he was now cupping Jack’s face. “Know ya didn’t lie about that. But I knew ya lied ‘bout some of the other stuff.”

“E-Ennis…” Jack’s voice cracked. There was no forgetting how jealous Ennis got. And he had lied. He had told Ennis what he thought he wanted to hear. He felt guilty and ashamed, but desperate now that he had been caught.

“Not gonna leave ya over this. It’s part of you. Done enough fightin’ ‘n’ I know you’re mine now. But I think you’re fibbin’ ‘when ya say I don’t hurt ya when we… ya know.”

Jack made a face at Ennis. “So, you think I’m lyin’ when I say I was lyin’?”

“Yep.” Ennis nodded and looked serious. “You’re contrary like that.”

“That’s just…” There were so many words that Jack wanted to scream at Ennis. The man’s logic just aggravated him. Here he was trying to tell the truth now and Ennis wasn’t going to believe him. Before he could pick a curse, Ennis snatched the candy bar. He quickly broken off another square of the Hershey bar and popped it into Jack’s mouth.

With a smirk, Ennis popped a small piece of chocolate into his own mouth. “Thought ya had a surprise for me in the barn?”

He chewed on the chocolate and swallowed quickly. “I do…” Jack was still a little leery that Ennis wasn’t roaring mad over this whole of lies and truths that were thought to be lies. But Ennis had looked so damn sincere when he said he didn’t want to fight and Jack didn’t want to fight either. His Ma had said they had to work at it. Maybe this was working at it. “Wanna go see?”

“I do.” Ennis popped another piece of chocolate into his mouth, rolling it slowly on his tongue. While Jack usually quickly bit into and ate a candy bar, Ennis always ate it slowly, savouring each bite.

Jack watched as Ennis carefully folded the foil and paper over the remaining half of the chocolate. He put it into his shirt pocket, right behind his pack of tobacco.

“Ya don’t have ta save it, Ennis. Told ya I got more.”

“Like havin’ a little bit at a time.”

“Okay.” Jack reluctantly pulled away from Ennis and nodded his head towards the door. “Let’s go.”

“So, what’d ya get me?”

“It’s a surprise…”

Ennis was quiet until they were about half way to the barn. “Is it bigger than a bread box?”

Jack could just imagine a young Ennis playing this game with Merle. “Definitely,” Jack answered with a chuckle.

“Huh.” Ennis followed him towards the barn, boots crunching in the snow. “I’m stumped.”

“Aren’t ya supposed ta ask more questions than that?”

“Suppose so.” Ennis seemed to consider this, but then shrugged his shoulders. “But not much point seein’ as ya said it’s in the barn ‘n’ we’re at the barn.”

Jack just shook his head and led Ennis into the barn. Patch and Ruby were in their usual stalls, contentedly chewing on hay. Ennis being the horse man that he was immediately noticed the fresh straw spilling out from one of the usually empty stalls.

“What did ya…” He didn’t finish asking. Ennis stalked over to the stall and stood motionless when he saw what was in it. “It’s a colt…”

Jack felt nervous and excited all at the same time. “Yeah.”

It was a strawberry roan colt with odd patches of red and white mingled into its coat. The colt wasn’t proportioned well and looked like it would topple over on its long legs with knobbly knees and thick barrel chest. Even its ears seemed too big on its head and placed a little funny. One ear was white and the other was red.

Ennis tiled his head a bit and squinted his eyes. “It’s ugly.”

“Maybe…” Jack felt a little sick thinking Ennis hated his gift. “Jus’ a little.”

“Why’d ya buy me an ugly colt?” Ennis didn’t sound angry, just perplexed.

“You like horses.” Jack thought it was appropriate since a horse had started their argument and Ennis loved the animals probably more than himself. Jack’s palms were sweating and he wiped them on his jeans. “Ya like’im?”

“Well…” Ennis looked at the colt that was cautiously starting to make its way over to them. Then he looked sideways at Jack, a little bit of red rising on his cheeks. “I suppose he’s not that ugly.”

Jack butted his shoulder against Ennis’. “Friend, now you’re lyin’.”

Ennis smiled shyly at Jack. “Okay, he’s uglier than Damnit is stupid.”

Jack whistled under his breath. “That’s pretty damn ugly.”

“It’s a pretty damn ugly horse. Never seen one with a head that big before. Looks like he’s gonna topple ass over tea kettle.”

Jack did have to admit that the colt’s head was mighty big. “He was foaled outta season. They thought the broodmare was too old ta foal anymore. Next thing ya know… there he is. Unexpected ‘n’ unwanted.” Ennis’ hand was resting on the corner of the stall and Jack moved his hand to cover Ennis’ hand. “And his mama died.” Jack knew he was babbling, but he couldn’t stop. “Wanted ta get you a fine horse… but this one was the only one I could afford. They practically gave ’im away.”

“I can see why…” Ennis interlaced his fingers with Jack’s. “But maybe he’ll grow out it. What’s that story… the one with the butt ugly turkey that grows up ta be all good lookin’?”

Jack snorted and shook his head. “Ya mean the ugly duckling?”

“Yeah, whatever, duck… turkey. Same shit, different pile.” Ennis was looked at the colt again, assessing it with a horse man’s eyes. “He’s weaned? Does looked old enough ta be.”

“He is… though not of his own choosin’. The guy I got him from switched him ta feed… didn’t wanna bother tryin’ ta bottle feed him ‘n’ really didn’t care if he kicked the bucket ‘cause of it.”

“Tough ‘lil shit.” Ennis held out his free hand and the colt nuzzled up to it, sucking on Ennis’ fingers.

“He might not make the winter, but…”

Ennis shook his head and made a made a cooing sound at the colt. “He survived bein’ foaled outta season ‘n’ his mama dyin’. He wants ta live. He’ll probably do it jus’ ta spite everyone.”

Jack could see that Ennis was already smitten with the beast. “What ya gonna call him?”

“Mmm…” Ennis let the foal suck his fingers but then pulled them away, only to reached out and scratch behind its ear. “Ugly.”

“You’re gonna call the poor thing Ugly?”

“Yep.” Ennis nodded and smirked. “Suits’im.”

“He’s yours, you can name him whatever ya want. Hell, ya named the dog Damnit. Why not an ugly horse named Ugly?”

Ennis ignored the comment about naming the dog. He still pretended he didn’t like the animal. “Did they say what sired him?”

“Nope.”

“Looks ta be at least part draft horse.” He scratched the very top of Ugly’s nose. “Damn, I think he’s gonna be one be big ugly son of a bitch.”

“So ya like’im?” Jack asked again. He had given Ennis a half dead, ugly colt. It wasn’t much of a gift.

“I like him jus’ fine. Would like anything ya gave ta me.” The smile Ennis gave Jack was sweet and sincere. “Even a kiss.”

“Now that, friend, I can do.” Jack leaned over and shared a sweet kiss with Ennis.

It was a start to gaining Ennis’ trust back. It was a start to getting what Jack really wanted and ached for.

END Part 14.

Chapter Text

Ennis and Jack were alone in their cabin and passing an evening together as the Wyoming wind whipped outside. Damnit was sleeping by the wood stove and Ugly was safely bedded down in the barn.

"Ya know, I've been tryin' ta think of how to get my way..."

Ennis looked up from the checker board and pursed his lips. "That's no secret. Figured you’d stop tryin’ ta be subtle sooner or later."

Jack watched as Ennis considered his next move.

"You're sure takin' awhile,” Jack commented as Ennis reached out, but then pulled his hand back.

"Good games take skill."

"Ya don't got no skill," Jack teased with a chuckle. "You're jus' playin' 'cause you're bored. And you're takin' so long 'cause ya can't figure out what ta do next."

"I know what I'm doin’." Ennis scowled at the board and then looked up at Jack. "Jus' takin' so long 'cause I forgot what all the colours mean."

"There's only two colours."

"There's all sorts of colours." Ennis waved his hands at the board. "The squares are black 'n' white. The playin' pieces are all different colours."

Jack picked up one of the bottle caps that were serving as their playing pieces. "Yeah, they might be all different colours... but there’s only supposed ta be two colours of playin' pieces. Red 'n' black."

Ennis scowled even more at the board and then at Jack. "But they aren't red 'n' black..." He waved his hand at the mass of different coloured bottle caps. "There's lots of red ones. But then lots of different ones."

"Well, yeah..." Jack admitted. "Ya know how hard it is to get bottle caps that aren't all too bent up?"

Ennis picked up one of the bottle caps. "This one is bent."

"Ignore that. The most aren’t bent up so much.” Jack snatched the cap away from Ennis and put it back on the board. “Got lots of Budweiser ones. Those are red. You're red."

"But the rest are all sorts of different colours..."

"Those are black. I'm black."

Ennis squinted and bit his lip as he concentrated. "I know they're not black..." He wiggled his pointer finger at a few. "Some are green... silver... mind you, some of the letters are black..."

"Christ," Jack sighed and wondered if Ennis was putting him on. "If they're Budweiser caps, you play with'em. If they're not, then I play with'em."

"Why didn't ya jus' say that in the first place then?"

Jack slapped his hand down on the table and some of the bottle caps skittered around on the board. "'Cause the pieces are supposed ta be red 'n' black!"

"What did ya do with the real ones?"

Jack looked away and the side of his mouth ticked. "Lost'em when I was a kid."

"Bet ya did somethin’ stupid with'em." Ennis moved one of the red Budweiser caps to another square. "Like eat them or stick'em up your nose..."

"I didn't do that." Jack quickly moved a silver bottle cap to another square. "Glued them ta the back of my bedroom door."

"Why'd ya do that?"

"Seemed like a fun thing ta do at the time. Wasn't too much fun playin' checkers by myself."

Ennis was quiet for a moment and gave Jack a strange look. "Bet ya talked ta yourself a lot..."

"Yeah, I did. So, what?"

Ennis moved his cap, jumping over Jack's and capturing it. He landed on the end of the board, flipping the piece over to crown it. "You're losin', bud."

"Shit..." Jack couldn't deny it. He wondered now if Ennis was a strategic mastermind. With all his talk about which colour the playing pieces were, Ennis had managed to distract Jack from the moves he was making. "Ya might win at this game, but I'll win at what I wanna win at."

"Maybe… if I let ya." Ennis moved the cap backwards on the board capturing another of Jack's pieces.

"I call my own shots!" Jack snapped and moved one of his pieces. "Ya don't let me do nothin'... don't need your permission, Cowboy."

"Uh huh." Ennis moved another of his pieces, only to have Jack jump it with his. It was a set up and sacrifice, because Ennis was able to flip over another cap, crowning it. "I let ya talk... yammer... natter..."

"Not gonna let me..."

Ennis interrupted him, “Let ya put your foot in your mouth all the time."

There was a definite blush rising on Ennis' cheeks. While this denial of what they both wanted had started out angst filled, it had definitely become a game between them. Jack kept seeing how far he could push Ennis. Ennis kept trying to resist.

"I've seen ya watchin’ me..." Jack leaned back in his chair, spreading his legs wide. "Real hungry look. Know ya want it jus' as bad as I do."

Ennis bit his bottom lip and his eyes raked over Jack's provocative sprawl. He picked up one of the bottle caps and tapped out a nervous rhythm on the table top. “So what if I was watchin’ ya?”

“Nothin’ wrong with that.” Jack’s hand started from his knee and slid up his thigh slowly. “I like it when ya watch me.”

Ennis dropped the bottle cap as Jack popped the button of his jeans. “Jack…”

“Like it when ya touch me…” Jack worked his hand into his jeans and started to caress himself.

Ennis’ breath hitched and he squirmed in his chair.

Jack licked his lips. “Like it when ya fuck me…”

“I’m not gonna fuck ya,” Ennis said with a gravely voice, but he didn’t sound very convincing. He had started rubbing himself through his jeans.

“Sure ya are…” Jack slowed his movements, wanting to draw this out. “Maybe not now, but soon.”

Ennis made a pained noise and widened his own legs. His own movements were echoing Jack’s movements. “Won’t give in…”

Jack continued on, ignoring Ennis’ increasingly weaker pleas. “Maybe you’d like to lay me over this table ‘n’ fuck me real good…”

Ennis squeezed himself hard through his jeans. “That what ya want?” His voice was raw and intense.

Jack sped up his hand, licking his lips again. “Oh, yeah.”

“Or, if ya don’t wanna fuck me over the table, could always do it in the back of the truck. Bend me over the tail gate…”

“Son-of-a bitch…” Ennis groaned and a wet spot grew on his jeans under his hand. “Son-of-a-bitch.”

Seeing Ennis come like that was almost better than getting fucked. Jack locked eyes with Ennis and gasped loudly as he spilled onto his own hand. In that moment, something clicked into place. He wasn’t less of a man for wanting what he did. Because looking at Ennis, he knew he had power. He held the power to be pleasured intensely and give pleasure. It appealed to his innate selfishness that he tried to keep hidden. He liked knowing that he was the centre of attention and of Ennis’ intense nature.

With a smirk, Jack pulled is hand to his mouth and started to lick it clean. “Your move, Ennis…”

++++++

“Del Mar…”

Ennis didn’t look up from the ground. He was mucking out the stalls in the main barn. “Sir.”

“Missus bought you some new gear. It’s in the house ‘n’ I suggest ya like it.”

Ennis’ pitch fork hesitated and he looked up to give John a strange look. “Clothes are clothes.”

John grunted a little and folded his arms over his chest. “Where’s Jack?”

“He’s out back.”

The truth was Jack was avoiding him. Every time Ennis got close to Jack, his friend would just smirk at him and find a way to slip away. It was so damn frustrating and he knew Jack was giving him a taste of his own medicine. But it was only a matter of time before Ennis would catch Jack. He didn’t like being denied.

John grunted and shook his head. “Kinda odd.”

Ennis slung a heap of manure into a wheel barrow. “What’s odd about that?”

“Usually the boy’s your shadow. Haven’t seen him near ya all day.”

Ennis gripped the pitch fork a little tighter. “We work apart.”

“Not often,” John snapped back at him. He took a step closer to Ennis. “Del Mar… my boy’s been twitchy ‘n’ actin’ more squirrelly than usual. I thought we talked about this.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“He’s my blood. It’ll always be my business.”

Ennis sniffed and looked down at the ground again. The one thing he appreciated about Jack’s old man was that at least you knew where you stood with him. And even though the man made his skin crawl sometimes, he appreciated that he was protective of Jack.

“We’re not fighin’.”

“Better not be.” John adjusted his hat, flicking snow off. “You’d better get that idiot’s head screwed on straight soon, Del Mar, ‘cause I know this is somehow your fault.”

Ennis didn’t answer. He had no intention of telling the old man anything else about Jack. With a few more swipes of the pitch fork, he filled up the wheel barrow. “Horses are doin’ fine.”

John seemed to accept the switch in conversation. “Even that new glue factory reject of yours?”

“Yep.” Ennis flung another mound, but this time he missed the wheel barrow and it landed on John’s boot. “Sorry.”

John just glared at Ennis and shook the shit off his boot. “I’ll give ya a raise if it lives ta spring.”

Ugly had already been following them around when they were close to the cabin. He trailed behind Patch and Ruby, with Damnit on his heels. He was like some sort of hound and not much of a horse. Ennis swore he caught the animal staring down a yearling through the fencing already. Ennis had been slipping him carrots from the Twist’s root cellar and brushed him every day. For an ugly horse, he was okay.

“We’ll see.” But Ennis was already planning on buying a new pair of boots in the spring with the extra money.

“You’re not worth the money I already pay ya, so don’t get your hopes up.” John looked at the barn door. “Would’ve expected Jack ta come in here by now. Always seems to get his panties in a bunch when I’m alone with you.”

“Wouldn’t know why.”

“’Course not,” John huffed and his face grew passive. “Listen, Del Mar, some of the locals was askin’ after ya when I went into town on Sunday.”

Ennis almost dropped the pitch fork. Despite his nervousness, he managed to keep his voice even. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, some of the biddies were circlin’ ta see if they could pawn off their daughters on you.”

“What did ya tell’em?”

“Told’em the truth…” John stopped to spit on the ground. Ennis could tell he was enjoying making Ennis sweat. “Told’em ya wasn’t good enough for their daughters. That you’d already left one lil’ gal at the alter ‘n’ wouldn’t be wantin’ ta get hitched anytime soon.”

The side of Ennis’ mouth twitched and he rubbed his sweaty palms on his jeans. “True enough.”

“Asked after Jack, too.” Now they exchanged a look, sizing each other up. “Words gotten out that he’s home. Always were too many twitty girls sniffin’ around ‘n’ bein’ sweet on him. Too pretty for his own good. Needs a girl with some sense ‘n’ a backbone. Like your sister if she wasn’t already long in the tooth ‘n’ knocked up.”

Ennis still didn’t say anything. He felt like anything he would say would just provoke John. He could sense the older man was watching him and he tried to keep his head held high.

“Wanna know what I told them, Del Mar?”

Ennis shrugged his shoulders. “Figure you’re gonna tell me anyways.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” There was that hint of a smirk that Ennis had seen at the kitchen table after their fight. It was more than a little disconcerting. “Told’em that he was stickin’ around, but any girl that came ‘round would have to put up with me since Jack’s stayin’ here.” The smirk got a little bigger. “They didn’t like that.”

Ennis’ mouth hung open a little. He knew madness must run in the Twist family because the man was contrary, just like Jack. “Huh?”

“Oh, Christ,” John sighed in exasperation. “Jus’ get back ta muckin’ out the stalls. And fix whatever ya did ta Jack. If you don’t, I swear I’ll…”

Something sparked in Ennis at the threat. His stopped slouching and met John’s gaze full on. “Already gotta put up with you.”

John stood poker straight. “Son, you jus’ insulted me.”

“Umm, yeah,” Ennis said. He felt sick, but wasn’t going to back down. “Yeah, I did. You can be an ol’ cuss sometimes.”

The silence and tension was thick in the air. Ennis fidgeted, his hand adjusting his grip on the pitch fork. He waited, wondering what kind of dumbass mistake he’d made. He flinched when he saw John’s arm move, but instead of coming up to punch him, he slapped Ennis on the back.

“Well, hell… ya might jus’ have a backbone yet, Del Mar.”

Ennis looked at him dumbly. All Twists were definitely crazy. “Ah…”

“I’m warning ya now, jus’ don’t fling it if ya can’t fight back.” The brief glimpse of amusement on John’s face was quickly replaced by his usual sour expression. “Now get back ta work, ya lazy son of a bitch.”

+++++++

“What’s ya doin’, Jack?” Eleanor asked. She had been watching Jack peer out the window to the barn for the last few minutes.

“Ah, nothin’…” He turned to look at his mother, but looked guilty. He looked like he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“He’s still out in the barn.”

“I’m not lookin’ for Ennis,” Jack denied automatically. “Jus’ came inside for a drink of water.”

“Uh huh.” Eleanor opened one of her cupboards and pulled out a glass, filling it with water from a jug sitting on the counter. “Here ya go.”

Jack took the glass and drank half of hit, looking out the window again. “Thanks, Ma.”

“He’s been out there for a while. Doing all the chores twice I think. Never seen the barn that clean before.”

“Ennis likes to work.” When he thought he saw a movement near the barn door, Jack moved away from the window to get out of sight.

“Sure does. And I figure if ya wanna be gettin’ back ta your place, you’ve gotta go in the barn eventually.”

Jack gave her a confused look. “Huh?”

Eleanor smiled at him and shifted one of the kitchen chairs until it was perfectly straight. “Your horse is out there.”

“Right, my horse…” He was more than a little distracted trying to catch a peek out the window.

“Ennis was lookin’ for ya earlier.”

“Was he now?” Jack did sneak a peek, but quickly pressed himself back against the wall.

“Oh yeah, you weren’t here. I gave him some cookies. He came back three times lookin’ for ya. Ate all my cookies.”

This time Jack did see Ennis when he peaked out the window. “Sorry I missed him.”

Ennis was leaning against the barn door, lighting a smoke. He waved at Jack and tipped his hat.

“I’d offer ta make up your bed for ya, but ya hauled that back ta your place after Merle left. Our couch is mighty uncomfortable.”

Jack moved so that his mother couldn’t see what he was doing and flipped Ennis off. Ennis just smiled and waved again, blowing smoke rings in the air. “Maybe I could slip around the back of the barn…”

“You could try,” Eleanor seemed to consider the option. “Though this bein’ Lightning Flat, there’s not a lot of cover. Kinda flat.“

“The couch isn’t soundin’ too bad…”

“If ya stay, then you can come ta church with your daddy ‘n’ me in the mornin’.”

Jack visibly paled and even though his mother wasn’t smiling, he could tell she was amused by this whole situation. Jack and Ennis had been playing this cat and mouse game all day. The anticipation was thrilling and maddening. It would only be doused by going to church. Jack tugged his coat back on and put his hat on.

“Well, we’d best be callin’ it a night, Ma.”

“Figured ya would. I’ll pray for ya tomorrow…”

And Jack knew she wasn’t talking about his moral redemption. His own mother had made a joke about this whole damn situation. That realization made Jack scramble to get outside all the quicker. He wondered if he would need her prayers after nearly a week of pent up sexual energy was released.

As he walked closer towards the barn, he could sense Ennis staring at him hungrily and wondered how in the hell they were going to wash their own clothes and sheets if they survived the encounter.

END Part 15.

Chapter Text

Ennis was slouched against the stall door, watching Jack approach.

"Where's my old man?" Jack looked around the barn, but only saw the horses.

"Not here."

"Huh." Jack looked up to see that Patch already had her bit in and Ugly was prancing around one of the stalls with Damnit nipping at his legs playfully. Ruby wasn't saddled and was lazily chomping on some hay. "I'll just saddle Ruby..."

A slight smirk crossed Ennis' face. "Can't."

"'Course I can, I just..." Jack's gaze slipped over to saddles that were hanging over the edge of an empty stall. Now he recognized the familiar smell that lingered over Ennis. Saddle soap and neatsfoot oil. His saddle had never looked that good before. "Ya cleaned it."

"Yep." Ennis nodded. "Both gotta dry."

"I'm not stayin' here..." There was no way Jack was going to stay here with Ennis looking at him like that and he couldn't endure his mother's gentle teasing.

Ennis pushed away from the post with a lazy grace. His hungry gaze was locked onto Jack. "Goin' back ta the cabin myself."

"I'm not walkin'."

"Neither am I." Ennis moved a little closer and tipped his hat up. "Gonna ride... bareback."

"Ennis..." He was used to Ennis being reluctant and ashamed. This rare glimpse of the man's other side was both thrilling and a little shocking. It looked like their little game and misunderstanding was about to come to an end. Jack gulped and felt himself responding. "I like bareback."

"Mmm hmm." Jack moved towards Ruby's stall, but stopped when he felt Ennis' hand settle on his hip. "You're gonna ride with me, rodeo."

Jack could feel Ennis' thumb rubbing against his skin, just above his belt loop. It was distracting when he was trying to think. The words that usually came easily seemed to have abandoned him. "I like riding."

Now Ennis moved in even closer so that his lips were dangerously close to Jack's ear as he whispered, "I know ya do... and I forgot that. Not gonna forget that again."

Jack's breath caught and he gave Ennis a wicked smile. "Oh, yeah?"

Ennis grabbed Jack's belt loop and tugged him closer, nodding as his bit his bottom lip. He didn't say anything. Jack thought for a moment that Ennis was going to kiss him right there in his parent's barn, but Ennis didn't do that either. Ennis just stared at Jack intensely with open yearning and a possessiveness that would frighten most people off.

Ennis mumbled, “Ya know?”

“I know. Boy, do I know…”

Ennis’ usual shyness was back and there was a slight blush on his cheeks. “That’s good.” He gave Jack a quick kiss behind his ear and pulled away looking guilty. “Best be gettin’ back ta our place.”

“I could borrow my ol’ man’s saddle ‘n’ horse…” Jack suggested, not abandoning the game just yet. He got almost exactly the reaction he wanted when Ennis lost the guilty look and glared at him with that possessive intensity again.

“The hell you are…”

Baiting Ennis felt familiar and right. Just as familiar as Ennis’ silence or the smell of cow manure in the morning. Conscious of Ennis’ eyes on him, he sauntered over to the horse stall holding Patch and flicked open the lock. “Well, maybe not.”

He grabbed Patch by the reigns and started to lead her out even though she huffed. His father had been grumbling about getting rid of the old nag, but after she came under Ennis’ care, Patch seemed to find a new will to work. He figured Patch would last a few more years. Just enough time for Ugly to grow up and get broken. The gangly, ill tempered foal had taken to Ennis, seeming to put the good sense to die aside and stubbornly cling to life. Ennis was that way with people, too. Bringing out the best and worst in them.

Since Ennis had come into his life, Jack knew he had become a better man. His father was still a rotten bastard, but treated him a little better. Jack took pride in his work on the ranch, challenged to keep up with Ennis’ work ethic. That was the good. But then there was the bad part of Jack’s personality that Ennis naturally triggered. Jack always wanted to bait Ennis’ temper and possessiveness regardless, or maybe just because of, the consequences.

He knew there were times when he probably shouldn’t say things. When it he was being dumber than a bag of hammers to taunt or tease Ennis. Like now. Ennis was watching him like he was ready to jump on him right there.

Jack knew he probably shouldn’t tease Ennis anymore, but the words just seemed to spill out. “So, ya said you wanted ta go ridin’ with me?”

Ennis grabbed the reigns from Jack. “Get on the horse, Jack.”

“Well, I was thinkin’ ol’ Patch would appreciate a blanket first.”

Jack reached out and tugged a saddle blanket off the stall door. Throwing it over Patch, he made a point of keeping his movements slow even though he wanted nothing more than to tear out of here.

“Get on the horse, Jack,” Ennis repeated, his voice more tense and his eyes narrowed a bit.

Even without stirrups Jack was able to easily mount the horse. He shifted around, feeling a little at a loss without the familiar cradle of the saddle. “Hand me the reigns…”

Ennis shook his head and licked his lips. “I’m in charge of this ride.”

Keeping the reigns in his left hand, Ennis mounted Patch behind Jack. He quickly changed the reigns to his right hand. Ennis’ left hand tightened around Jack’s waist and pulled him back tight, not letting go. He made a clicking noise and dug his heels into Patch’s side. When Ugly and Damnit saw they were taking off, Ugly whinnied and butted against the closed gate. Damnit scrambled between the rungs and howled.

“Stay!” Ennis said firmly to both animals. He looked down at Damnit and told him. “Go stay with Ugly.” The dog put his tail between hi s legs and skulked back into the stall and circled between Ugly’s long legs.

“I’ll never figure out how animals understand what ya want…”

“Well, if ya tell ‘em what ya want… then they’ll figure it out.” They left the barn and still heard Damnit howling mournfully. “I’ll get him a bone or somethin’ tomorrow,” Ennis mumbled guiltily.

Ennis’ arm was snug around Jack’s waist and it was a unique feeling to be riding, but not in control. He had no power over the reigns and had to rely on Ennis. Patch was galloping and Ennis urged her to get quickly away from the main house. With each jolt Jack was forced back and rubbed against Ennis. He could feel how much the game of cat and mouse had been affecting Ennis.

Jack’s hand settled over Ennis’. “You’ve been planning this for awhile, haven’t ya?”

Ennis laced their fingers together and even though Jack didn’t think it was possible, moved them closer together. “Yep.”

The gallop eventually slowed to an easy canter. With every shift of the horse under them, Jack and Ennis moved together. Jack now knew exactly why Ennis had wanted this sweet torture. Ennis eventually pulled his hand away from Jack’s but only moved it onto his thigh. He started to caress Jack slowly, rubbing the denim just the right way to create a delicious friction. The entire ride back to their cabin Ennis fondled Jack and ground against his ass.

When they got to the cabin, their breath was coming hard, puffing into clouds that whirled around them in the cold. Ennis kissed and nipped at the back of Jack’s neck before he slid off of Patch’s back. He secured her reigns to a tree outside the barn. Jack didn’t need help from the horse, but didn’t say anything as Ennis helped him down with hands on his waist.

Ennis tugged on Jack’s belt loops and started to walk him backwards into the barn. “C’mere…”

Jack wanted to protest that it was too cold inside the barn, but the look on Ennis’ face stopped him. It was the same look Ennis had on his face their second night together. He looked apprehensive, guilty and excited all at the same time. Ennis wanted something… him.

“Whatever you want, Ennis… I’ll give it to ya.”

Ennis nodded, ducking his head down to avoid Jack’s gaze. He continued to back Jack up into the dimly lit barn.

“It’s alright,” Jack whispered to him. “I mean it, cowboy. There’s nothin’ I wouldn’t give ya.”

“I know…” Ennis said. It was a mixture of an answer to his statement, but also filled with the secret meaning it usually did between them. He leaned in real close and clung to Jack before he spoke again. “You’d give me anything… you’ve given me everything. Now it’s about me givin’ you somethin’.”

With that Ennis pulled away and with a little devilish shy smirk, gave Jack a push.

“What the…” Jack tumbled back onto a bed of loose hay covered with a blanket.

Ennis unbuckled his belt and slowly pulled it from his belt loops. “Been thinkin’ about this for a long while.”

“Oh, yeah?” Jack normally would have been struggling to undue his own belt, but something about Ennis’ look stopped him. All he could do was watch the other man’s careful movements.

“Yeah.” Ennis crouched down over Jack and started to crawl up towards him. He sat back on his haunches, with Jack between his thighs. “I’ve been takin’ a lot.”

“Cowboy…” Jack automatically responded to Ennis’ whispered confession. His hand came up and caressed Ennis’ thigh. “We’re in this together.”

“Yeah, but we got into this mess ‘cause I…” Ennis couldn’t finish. He didn’t feel comfortable with all of this talking. He spoke more when he was around Jack than anyone else, even his family. But now the words were like a lasso tightening around his throat. He could only choke two words out. “Trust me?”

“Always.”

Ennis’ own answer was a kiss. A kiss where Ennis took his time, making it slow and drawing it out. As he kissed Jack, Ennis’ hand came up and grasped Jack’s wrists. Jack gasped as he felt Ennis wrap the belt snugly around his wrists.

Ennis looked hesitantly at Jack even as he tightened the leather. And it was all about trust because Ennis saw the trust in Jack’s face. He kissed him again. Ennis needed Jack’s trust to let him do it this way. Because Ennis wanted to give him something he never had been able to give Jack before, but he needed this security. He needed the illusion that Jack couldn’t force him.

Jack was drawn into every of Ennis’ actions, watching him intently. The cold didn’t matter anymore. Ennis’ touch and unsure glances were enough to heat him. The way Ennis’ touch was hard one moment, but cautious the next. The way Ennis’ hand shook slightly when he undid Jack’s belt buckle. But Jack was done in when Ennis bent down and kissed his rodeo belt buckle and ran his thumbs over the tarnished metal. The sound of the zipper being undone tore into the silence. Even though Ennis blew on his hand before working into his jeans, Jack could still feel the chill on his skin.

Ennis licked his lips and bent down to kiss Jack’s denim covered thigh. He had never been able to give Jack this before. The fear that if he did, he wouldn’t be a real man, was always too real. But despite the fear, he had determination fuelling him now. His fingers held and caressed sweat chilled skin. It was slow and sweet, but he wanted to give him warmth. Ennis wanted to make Jack feel how Jack made him feel. He might not be able to go down on his knees like Jack did for him, but he could give him this with this veil of power in place. He didn’t have Jack’s strength, but he wanted to try. And so he trusted Jack to trust him now. To let him pretend he had the control.

And with the first taste of Jack, he knew he was lost. Ennis closed his eyes and let the sensations over come him. He became lost in Jack’s smell, taste and feel. And in that moment he knew he had no power. Even though he knew Jack had the power when he let Ennis take him, he felt powerless now. But being this close to Jack now… being able to give him this… he didn’t care.

Jack fought the urge to struggle against the bonds holding him down. He could feel the leather tight around wrists and the reality was almost crushing that he wasn’t just tolerating this for Ennis. He liked the feeling of giving in and being pinned down by Ennis’ strong hands on his hips. Ennis’ mouth and being were possessing him. And he craved it.

They balanced each other out. The dance of give and take. Ennis wanted to take and Jack wanted to give. And Jack knew he had the ultimate control by giving this and everything else to Ennis. That realization just made him crave it all the more. Jack was moaning loudly and bucking his hips. It made him buck his hips up more just to feel Ennis’ fingers press into his flesh and hold him down.

He was so damn close that he swore when Ennis pulled away. “Ya son of a whoreson bitch…”

Ennis licked his lips and smirked at Jack. “Guess that means I didn’t fuck it up.”

“Ya fucked it up when ya didn’t finish it,” Jack snapped.

“Like it when ya get all riled up, Jack. Gonna have to do this again jus’ ta see it.”

“Well, ya can finish it now…”

“Not the way ya want it… not now.”

“Ennis…” There was no ignoring the whining tone to Jack’s voice now and he struggled slightly against the bonds.

But Ennis moved quickly and flipped Jack down onto his stomach, hands still over his head. Ennis leaned in real close and whispered into Jack’s ear. “Promised you a ride, rodeo. And you’re gonna get it.”

Jack smelt the familiar scent of neatsfoot oil and felt Ennis start to pull Jack’s jeans down. He felt it drizzled onto his newly exposed skin, trickling just where Ennis wanted it. Once Jack felt Ennis’ fingers, he knew all the waiting was worth it. Because Ennis was giving him something they both wanted. Ennis teased him, making Jack groan and writhe.

And when Ennis got closer and slipped easily inside, Jack was almost sure he heard Ennis whisper, “Lil’ darlin’…”

But he never asked because he was too lost in the intensity they shared. Feeling Ennis like this again felt right and Jack didn’t think he could live without it. It wasn’t just about the pleasure, but the closeness. It was about the give and take. Give and take that was so powerfully wrapped up together, Jack wasn’t sure where one started and the other ended.

And when Jack was riding the next day, he couldn’t keep still in his saddle. Ennis just watched him with a smug look on his face and tipped his hat at Jack with a wink. Jack never could smell neatsfoot oil again without getting hard.

Later in the day John Twist cornered Ennis and huffed at him, “Del Mar, I told ya to fix ‘em. He’s smilin’ like an idiot, but at least he’s smilin’ again. I just better never find out why.”

++++++

Time passed much as it had before as the winter set in full force upon the Twist Ranch. It was after dinner one night and the boys had brought in a fresh load of firewood. Jack was crouched in front of his mother's woodstove, stoking the fire.

Ennis scowled at Jack and dumped the last load onto the pile. Somehow he had ended making the last few trips by himself because Jack was fussing with the fire. "You're always messin' with that fire. Just let it burn."

"Burns better this way." Jack poked the glowing coals with a stick again and blew on the closest embers.

Eleanor just shook her head and made a tsking noise. "Ya remember how many time's you burnt your fingers?"

"Well... ya need good coals to make cookies, don't ya?" He glanced up at his mother and gave her a sheepish grin. He knew damn well she didn't usually do baking this time of night.

"Cookies, huh?"

"Yeah..." Jack said and poked the fire again with the stick. The end caught on fire and he blew it out.

"What happened ta that batch I made the other day?"

"Ennis ate 'em all."

Ennis made a rude sound, but couldn't deny he had eaten the bulk of the cookies. "They were good," he mumbled and knocked some snow off a piece of pine.

Eleanor leaned over and seemed to seriously consider the glowing embers. "Well, would be a waste of a good cookin' fire."

Jack tossed the stick into the flames and clapped his hands, gifting his mother with a big grin. "With raisins?"

Ennis didn't say anything, but gave Jack a sideways glance. He always preferred the ones with chocolate. Eleanor wasn't a fool when it came to hungry teenagers. "Raisins," she promised with a smile and then added, "And chocolate."

Jack closed the door to the woodstove and hissed when the handle was a little too hot. "Whoo wee... we are in for a treat."

From out they heard the sound of a vehicle coming into the yard. Eleanor looked out the window and recognized the truck. "That's odd to see Roger comin' out here this time a night."

Eleanor went to the door while Ennis and Jack stayed by the stove. But the anxious tone of Eleanor’s voice brought Ennis running. “Ennis!”

Looking through the open door, Ennis could see Merle was standing in the ankle deep snow. An oversized man's pea coat was pulled over her large belly and black dress. She met her brother's gaze with a numb expression on her face. Seeing her like this, he knew something horrible had happened.

Merle's voice was monotone when she spoke, "Gunny's dead, Ennis. I lost my husband."

END Part 16.

Chapter Text

Ennis rushed through the snow to get to his sister. Normally he wasn't one to offer physical comfort, but now he didn't care. He wrapped his arms around Merle and drew her into a hug. She didn't sob, but hugged Ennis back.

There would be time later to find out what had happened. Right now Ennis’ biggest concern was getting Merle inside. Ennis kissed the top of her head and mumbled into Merle's hair, "Come in outta the cold."

He pulled away and slung his arm around her waist, leading her into the house passed a worried Eleanor and Jack.

Eleanor whispered to Jack, "Get her bags 'n' talk to Roger. Find out what ya can. Then go get your daddy, tell 'im what's what."

Eleanor followed Ennis and Merle inside, closing the door behind her. She immediately went to the stove and added two large logs to the fire. Her eyes drifted up to the cross and she sent up a silent prayer. Everything had settled and this just added a whole lot of pain and uncertainty to everything.

Ennis guided Merle to a chair and crouched down in front of her. "What happened?"

"Gunny was workin' out on the rigs," Merle answered in an eerily calm voice. "They told me a line snapped 'n' somethin’ fell on him. He got crushed. No one would let me see him... even at the funeral."

"Funeral?"

"We buried him yesterday." Her hand settled on her large belly and she sighed, "Closed casket."

Ennis felt sick from just witnessing her sorrow. "Why didn't you call? We would’ve come…"

"I don't know..." Merle looked at him with lost eyes. It was the first time in Ennis' life he had seen her like this. When their parents died, she was the one who had kept it together for her brothers. Now she was clearly in shock and wrecked by deep grief. "It all happened so fast. I'm sorry."

"No reason ta be sorry. You're here now." Ennis' voice was thick and raw. He didn't know what to do, but Merle had come to him and he would have to be strong for her and her unborn baby. She was vulnerable and alone. It scared the hell out of Ennis.

"His Ma wouldn't stop talkin'... kept talkin' about how much she missed him... 'bout missin' her only son. Everyone kept comfortin' Gunny's Ma tellin' her what a comfort the baby would be to her. She had it all planned out..." Merle stopped and considered Ennis who was watching her intently. She reached out and absently patted his cheek. It was the most she had talked in one sitting in a long time. "Without talkin' ta me, she'd already decided I was gonna move in with her 'n' she'd take care of the baby while I was workin'. She had this strange look when she told me that. Like my baby could replace Gunny."

Ennis swallowed thickly. He wasn't clever in his own mind and had no idea what to say. Ennis couldn't help but think about what it would feel like to loose Jack and he couldn't comprehend that. Jack was his life and he figured Gunny had been the same for Merle. "Figure there's nothin' I can say that's gonna make it better, Merle. He's gone, you're here 'n' ya miss him. But I figure... I don't know... missin' him that much means somethin'. Don’t know what, but it does."

"I ran, Ennis. Like a coward," Merle confessed. "Slipped out durin’ the wake when they were all fussin' over Gunny's Ma."

Her normally neat hair was dishevelled and it reminded him of their own Mama. He saw the ghost of the woman who they had both loved, but who had never been quite right. He would do anything to keep Merle from turning into her. "Ya did what ya had to do. I don't doubt that."

"Just packed a bag 'n' went to the bus station. Wasn't sure where I was gonna go..." That's when Merle turned to look at Eleanor. "I was gonna go ta see KE, but then I jus'... came here."

"You're always welcome here, dear," Eleanor told her and smiled at her. "I'm glad you're here with us."

"Thank you." Merle tugged at the pea coat and Ennis recognized it as Gunny's Marine coat from his dress uniform. The man had worn it on their wedding day.

"Merle, ya want me to call Gunny's family for you?" Eleanor had laid a piece of paper and pencil on the table. "That way they won't be worried 'n' won't come lookin' for ya. Jus' write down the number 'n' I'll take care of it."

"Oh. Right." Merle picked up the pencil and scribbled down a number. "That might be a good idea."

Just then the front door opened and John came in trailed by Jack who was carrying Merle's carpet bag. John made a point of grumbling loudly, "Don't drop her bag, boy. Take it straight upstairs."

When Jack normally would have made a biting comment, he just nodded and headed upstairs but not before he exchanged a meaningful glance with Ennis.

"And you, missy," John pointed at Merle. "Can you climb stairs in that condition, or do you wanna sleep downstairs?" Merle stared at him for a moment and then blinked owlishly. "Ya can always sleep in the barn. Though might scare the horses like your brother."

"I can climb stairs jus' fine," Merle finally answered him quietly.

John made a doubtful noise in the back of his throat and motioned at her belly. "You're as big as a goddamn house. If ya so much as feel one twitch from that youngin' you'd better tell me so we can get the doc up here. Ya understand me?"

Ennis was tempted to lash out at the old man for daring to talk to Merle when she was suffering like this, but it was the only reaction coming from her that hadn't scared him. Whatever John Twist was doing seemed to be reaching Merle and scratching away at the shock.

Merle's brows drew together and she glared a little at John. "I heard ya jus' fine."

John huffed under his breath. "Good. And you'd best listen now. You're not leavin' here until I say so, missy."

"That so?" Some of Merle's old quiet fire shone through in that moment when she stared up at John who had his arms crossed stubbornly over his chest.

"That's so." He nodded and glared right back at Merle. "And don't think I'm gonna let ya mope around feelin' sorry for yourself. Tomorrow's Sunday 'n' unless you're sick, you're comin' ta church."

"Maybe I've had enough prayers."

John considered Merle for a few moments before he spoke again. "Maybe ya have, maybe ya haven't. If you're up to it, you're goin'. The Preacher man there isn't too much of an idiot. It'll do ya good." Merle still didn't answer John and this time he turned his attention to Ennis. "Ennis, I sure as hell know you ain't Pentecostal, so what are ya then?"

He was shocked to realize that this was the first time that John had ever called him by his first name. "Our folks was Methodist..."

John turned back to Merle. "I think the doc in town's a Methodist. If ya prefer that, he can take ya with him to service after he checks ya out tomorrow mornin'."

Ennis would have stopped what he considered bullying expect Merle seemed to be responding to it. He watched a little colour come back to her pale face. "Maybe I don't want to see no doctor."

"There ain't no maybe 'bout it," John growled at her and pointed at her belly. "You're gonna see that doctor tomorrow after traipsin’ all over God's green earth in your condition. Ya hear me?"

"I hear ya," Merle repeated back to him.

Jack came back in the room and joined Ennis and his mother who were just watching the exchange.

"When's the last time you ate?" John challenged her.

"Yesterday."

"Fool woman," John huffed and looked even more pissed off than normal. "Eleanor, fix this girl somethin' ta eat. She's gonna eat it, then she's gonna go lie down. Your brother can sleep on the floor in your room for tonight."

Ennis didn't like to be away from Jack, but he wanted to be close to Merle right now. He looked at Jack who gave him a reassuring nod.

"I'll sleep on the couch," Jack said quietly. "I like the lumps."

Eleanor had moved to the kitchen and was putting together a cold pork sandwich for Merle. The silence was thick in the air and Merle kept playing with the loose button on Gunny's old coat.

John brought out a bottle of whiskey and three shot glasses. He filled up the glasses to the brim. "Your husband was a solider, wasn't he?"

"A Marine," Merle clarified. “We buried him in his uniform.”

"Marines saved my life more than once during the war. Bet he was a good man." John grabbed one of the shot glasses and glared at Jack and Ennis until they grabbed the others. "Boys, toast to a good man... a good Marine 'n' good husband." They raised their glasses and each man downed the shot. Once the glasses hit the table again, John filled them back up. "And this one's for Merle, who can't have one, so we'll have it for ya. For bein' a good wife 'n' mama."

All three men drank the shots again. Jack exchanged a look with Ennis. For the first time in his life since he was a little boy, Jack was proud of his father. He watched as his father put his finger under Merle's chin and lifted her face up. Tears were falling down her face and John wiped them away with his stained cuff.

"Feels like the end of the world, but it ain't," he promised her in a low, gruff tone. It was the same rare gentleness Jack had only seen directed at his Ma a few times. "Ya gotta carry on." He pulled away and tried to scowl, but didn't pull it off very well. When Eleanor brought the sandwich over he told Merle, "Ya eat that up now."

Eleanor smiled at Merle when she took a bite of the sandwich. "I'll jus' call the Dovers ta let ‘em know you're okay."

Merle nodded, but didn't answer. She simply took another bite of the sandwich and fiddled with the button on Gunny's coat.

++++++

Ennis held the phone in a sweaty palm. He hated making calls, but this had to be done. On the other end of the line, he heard a soft woman's voice answer, "Hello?"

"Umm, hey. KE there?"

"May I ask who's callin'?" Ennis knew his sister-in-law was probably worried he was a bill collector.

"It's Ennis, Jeanie." Then he realized that KE would probably want to talk to a bill collect rather than his queer brother. "Tell ‘im it's about Merle."

"I'll get KE."

Ennis heard the phone being set down and some rustling around. There was the sound of a baby crying. It was his niece who he'd only seen in pictures.

KE’s voice finally came over the line. "What do ya want, Ennis?"

"It's Merle," Ennis answered. "She's okay, but Gunny's dead."

"Fuck. What happened?"

"Gunny's head got smashed in on the rig. His family wanted him buried real quick 'cause it was messy. They were all fussin' over his Ma 'n' sounds like they forget 'bout Merle. She jus' got on a bus 'n' came here after they buried him."

"That don't sound like somethin' Merle would do." The worry was clear in KE's voice. "Ennis, she's okay?"

"About as okay as a new widow who's in the family way can be, KE. Can't lie. She's taken it hard. Not actin' like herself, but..." Ennis stopped to grip the phone tighter. "It's good for her ta be here. The Twists are good for her. Mrs. Twist... she's a nice woman, KE, I swear. Got nothin' but time ta spend with Merle."

There was no answer on the other line for a moment and Ennis felt sicker than he had before. Finally he heard his brother sigh heavily. "I'm glad she's with you, Ennis. I know you'll take care of her."

"I will," Ennis promised. "Keepin' a real close eye on her. Baby should be comin' soon."

"I wanna talk to her."

"She's sleepin', KE. I'm not gonna wake her up."

"Well, ya have her call me when she feels better. As for where she stays, I figure there's nothin' me or you can do 'bout it. She's Merle. She's gonna do what she wants 'n' there'll be nothin' we can do 'bout it."

"Yeah..."

"But ya tell her, Ennis. Ya tell her for me..." KE's voice was thick on the other line. "Especially if she don't wanna call me right away. Ya tell her I'm real sorry for her 'n' if she needs money or a place ta stay, she can count on me. I could swing a few days off, come up 'n' visit.” Now he sounded a little uncertain himself. “But hell, sometimes people jus' wanna be left alone. Tell her ta call."

"I will." Ennis' grip tightened on the phone. His big brother had always been doling out advice even if Ennis never wanted it. But now he could used some guidance. "KE?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't know what ta do for Merle. I don't know how ta make her feel better."

"Lil' brother, there's no fixin' this one." His tone had changed. KE usually talked to him like he was still a kid, but now he wasn't. "You're a man now. Jus' let her cry if she needs to... most women do that a lot. If she needs help, then help her. If I knew how ta fix it, I'd be doin' it myself."

"Well..." Ennis had run out of words. "Gotta go."

"Yeah," KE sighed again and paused. "We're all she's got left. Ya take real good care of Merle 'n' her baby, Ennis. Jus’ have to be a real man. I know ya can, even if… well, I jus’ know ya can."

Ennis ignored the biting insult that was mingled in with the rough praise. "Gotta go."

Ennis didn't even have to look to know that Jack was standing close by. He could simply sense his presence and welcomed it. Eleanor was upstairs watching over Merle as she slept and John had retreated to the barn. Jack had given him some privacy during the phone call, but seemed to sense in his own right that Ennis needed him. Jack moved close and took the receiver out of Ennis' hand to hang it up.

Ennis wanted to be closer but they were in Jack's parent’s house, so he didn't dare. He felt the tears stinging his eyes that he kept at bay for Merle's sake. Ennis hadn't known Gunny all that well. The man was far older, but he had been a decent man and good to his sister. More so, he ached for his sister's pain and felt helpless because he couldn't do anything.

Jack moved quickly and wrapped his arms Ennis in a hug. When Ennis tried to move away, Jack shushed him and held tighter. "It’s alright. Not lettin' go, friend."

Ennis laid his head on Jack's shoulder and hid his face. He wiped the few tears against Jack's shirt, wishing they wouldn't fall. Ennis let himself take the comfort Jack offered.

"Don't know what I'd do if I lost ya..." Ennis whispered to Jack. It was a quiet confession. Merle's pain made him realize how much he needed Jack. Life was a long, tough road ahead that he didn’t want to face without Jack.

"Let's not think 'bout that." Jack's hand came to rest at the base of Ennis' neck and he began to rub his over the sweat damp skin. For all that he tried to portray a cold, emotionless mask to the world, Jack knew the truth. Ennis felt everything so much. He knew damn well that Merle's pain ate at Ennis and fed his growing sense of responsibility for her. His biggest worry was that Merle would try to take Ennis with her if she left. "Let's think 'bout keepin’ her 'n' her baby safe, huh?"

Ennis sniffed and buried his face against the crook of Jack's neck. He made an affirmative sound in the back of his throat. He wanted to discuss long terms plans with Jack, but right now they just had to take it one day at a time.

The front door opened and John Twist shuffled inside. He stopped with the door wide open when he saw the boys holding each other. Jack felt Ennis tense in his arms, but Jack wouldn't let Ennis go. He wasn’t ashamed of this. Looking over Ennis' shoulder, Jack met his father's gaze straight on.

"Don't go makin' too much noise. You'll wake the girl up," John said gruffly. He used his foot to close the door since his arms were laden down with firewood.

Ennis struggled slightly against Jack's grasp and finally Jack let him go. His eyes were red and Ennis wiped at his nose with his sleeve. "W-We were jus'..."

John bent down to unload some of the logs onto the floor. "Ya know where the whiskey is if ya need it."

"Umm, thanks," Ennis mumbled. He looked down at his boots, clearly uncomfortable at being caught showing any affection with Jack, even if it was only comfort in a time of grief.

"Don't think you're both gettin' outta work."

Jack's temper flared. He was uneasy himself waiting for his father to lash out or turn innocent comfort into something ugly. "Of course not. Why would we jus' 'cause someone died?"

“’Cause the world doesn’t stop jus’ ‘cause we want it to! Those women are countin’ on us.” John slammed the last piece of pine on the wood pile. “So, jus’ shut your mouth. Stop actin’ like a selfish bastard ‘n’ take a lesson from Del Mar for once. Do what’s needed ‘n’ don’t complain. What’s needed right now is for you to get your ungrateful ass up to the attic. Take Del Mar with ya ‘n’ root around up there for your ol' crib. Bring it down 'n' clean it up."

Now was not the time or place for an argument. Jack knew that. Part of him was surprised that his father hadn’t lashed out about him being a queer. Instead he had admonished Jack for not doing his duty as a man. Jack hated that no matter what he did, he was never good enough for him.

Jack answered in a tight voice, "We’ll do it for Merle."

"You'd better. Then you can drive that heap of yours over ta your Uncle Harry's by yourself. Del Mar can make himself useful ‘round here. Your Aunt's got some baby stuff your Ma will be wantin'." When both young men just looked at him, he scowled at them. "Well, git!" Then he left the kitchen grumbling under his breath. "Lazy, good for nothin'..."

END Part 17.

Chapter Text

Damnit was sitting at Ennis’ feet with his head resting on the man' knee. Ennis' hand kept running through the dog’s scruffy fur. Every time they heard another scream, sob or hushed whisper from upstairs, Ennis would wince. Damnit seemed to sense the human’s unease and nuzzled his hand.

Jack squeezed Ennis' shoulder and lied, "It's gotta be over soon."

Ennis looked up at Jack with blood shot eyes. "Said that an hour ago."

"Doctor knows what he's doin'," Jack assured him, but felt restlessness when the sound of Merle’s sobbing increased even though it was muffled through the floor. "I need a smoke. Wanna come with me?"

"No," Ennis shook his head and looked up the stairs. "Gonna stay here."

"Then I'll stay, too."

"Nah. Go on out 'n' take a break, bud." He looked up the stairs again, just like he did every few moments. "I'll yell if anything changes. Got Damnit here ta keep me company."

"I don't know..."

"Go on..." Ennis insisted. "I'll be fine."

Jack nodded and felt guilty for wanting to escape. He felt helpless and unsure what to do to help Ennis or the women upstairs. He leaned down and dared to kiss Ennis on the cheek because no one was there to see.

Outside the front door, Jack rolled and lit up a cigarette. Away from the commotion, another idea struck him and he began to walk towards the barn. As soon his father had shown up with the doctor in tow earlier in the night, he had disappeared. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but Jack had this sudden need to tell his old man off. He found him sitting in the barn next to a lit kerosene lantern. There was an empty bottle of whiskey at John's feet and he was nursing another one.

"You're pathetic, ya know that?" Jack bent down and picked up the empty bottle. "Out here drinkin' like this."

"Ya jus' shut up..." John's voice was thick and slurred from the booze.

"No... No, I'm not gonna shut up!" Jack yelled back and threw the empty bottle against the side of the barn. It crashed, spooking the horses in the stalls. "Not gonna take your shit no more!"

John stumbled to his feet and got right into Jack's face. His breath stunk of whiskey. "Been waitin' for this day. Think you're better than me."

"I know I'm better than you," Jack hissed at him, not backing down one inch. All the hurt and pain seemed to bubble up. Come what may, he would have this moment here and now. He would have his say after years of taking his old man’s shit. Jack threw away the cigarette with disgust.

"Ya think you know everythin'." John took another swig from the whiskey. "Ya don't know nothin'!"

"You're always sayin' that. Sayin' that I don't know nothin', but I know one thing... know I don't wanna be like you. Don't wanna be no tired, bitter ol' man. Know I wanna treat people decently. Know that I'll never hate my own blood..." He stepped forward and poked his father in chest. "That's why I know I'm better than you. 'Cause even after everythin' ya ever did ta me... I still don't hate ya. Only pity you. That makes me the better man. Better than you!"

Jack expected his father to yell and spit at him. He was ready for him to throw a punch or banish him then and there. What he didn't expect was for his father to bark in laughter. "Ya think I hate my own blood?"

Taken aback Jack took a step to the side, consciously not stepping back. "Yeah, I know ya do. Never had a kind word for me. Nothin' I did was ever good enough. Even pissed on me when I was a kid..."

"Ya still remember that?" John sat down on a hay bale. "Of course ya do. Ya only remember the bad stuff."

"Ya humiliated me. I made a mistake every kid makes 'n' ya made me feel like I was dirt. Always have! Hell, ya never even gave me tip when I went bull ridin'. Never came ta see me ride."

"Never gave ya any goddamn tips 'cause your Ma never wanted ya rodeoing. Your Ma didn’t wanna see ya get your neck broke or busted up." John pointed at Jack with the tip of the bottle. He seemed more broken down than Jack had ever seen him before and more drunk than he had been in years. "Men don't talk 'bout shit like this. But not you... no, you've never done anythin' like no one else. I've never been able ta figure ya out. But, ya wanna talk 'bout things ya remember? Fine, we can do that, boy. Ya wanna talk 'bout what else ya remember from that time?" John stumbled to his feet again and glared at Jack. "Ya remember your Ma bein' laid up 'cause she was in the family way again even after I forbid her from tryin’ for another baby? Ya remember her screamin' even worse than the girl up at our house now 'n' bleedin' so much I thought she was dead?"

The colour drained from Jack's face. "N-No..."

John spat on the ground and continued to lash out verbally. "Ya don't remember 'cause we did everythin' we could ta protect ya from the big, bad world. Bet ya don't remember how we buried another one of your brother 'n' sisters. Your Ma was cursed... wanted a baby so damn much 'n' would carry 'em just long enough ta get our hopes up. They were all born ta die. That last one took a few breaths..." There was no hiding the tortured look on his face. "Cried a lil' bit. Baby girl, named her Beth. We named all of 'em 'n' got 'em baptised. Laid all of 'em ta rest." His gaze settled on Jack. "Bet ya don't remember me takin' care of ya while your Ma almost joined 'em."

He had been so young, but Jack had vague memories of his mother being sick and eating burned beans. It was one of the reason he hated them so much now. It had been years since he thought about it because she never talked about it. "Remember the woolies..."

John closed his eyes and drank more of the amber liquid. "It was one of the only things that shut ya up. You were so much trouble... born small... like all the other ones. Doc said ya wouldn't live, but ya did. Sick for the longest time. Promised myself that if ya lived, I wouldn’t baby ya. Learned from my ol’ man man… spare the rod, spoil the child. Knew I had ta toughen' ya up. "

Jack's temper surged again. "By pissin' on me?"

"Never messed yourself again," John grumbled, but saw something reflected on Jack's face that made him say more than he wanted to. "Your Ma was all but dyin' 'n' we had another Twist baby ta bury. Had no time ta be cleanin’ up after your messes. I had a ranch ta run, workin' day 'n' night... a kid ta take care of... doin' woman's work I didn't know how ta do. Mortgage was behind, bill collectors..." Still John saw the accusations plain as day on Jack's face. "I was drinkin' when I wasn't work... hell, drinkin' while I was workin'. Don't look at me like that, boy."

"Like what? Like I buy your excuses?"

"Not excuses," John shot back. "Stop lookin' at my like I was the worst father that ever breathed. Ya don't know how good ya had it. Ya had food in your belly 'n' a roof over your head. Only raised my hand to you when ya needed it. Your granddad always said I was too easy on ya before he died. Said I should've takin' the belt to ya more than I did, but I didn't. I've toughened ya up, jus' like I needed to."

Jack was pacing in front of his father. He didn’t want to hear this, but he couldn’t leave. "I never needed any of your shit!"

"The hell ya didn't." John dropped the whiskey bottle, some of it sloshing onto the cold ground, and stalked towards Jack. "I said ya were sickly. Never had that spark ta fight for life… always let things get ta ya too easy. Knew I had ta make sure ya had that spark or you'd be gone like the others. If ya had to fight for everything, you'd appreciate it even more. It worked." John stabbed in his finger into Jack's chest. "Ya learned how ta fight me 'n' life. Christ, ya were so damn sensitive... always cryin' 'n' dreamin', almost like a girl. Never understood it. Hate me all ya want, but I wasn't 'bout ready ta let no son of mine be eaten up 'n' spit ya out by the world."

Everything was spinning out of control. Before Brokeback, everything had been black and white. He had despised his father. But now there was a shit load of grey messing up Jack’s black and white world. "You're still a mean bastard."

"Damn straight. But ya think I'm dumb, too. I ain't." John pulled out his own cigarette and lit it with a scowl. "I know what ya are. Knew for a long time, even before ya brought Del Mar back here. Know you're thinkin' of runnin' again. You'll go with that boy if his sister takes him with her. But one thing I learned long ago is no matter how long ‘n’ far ya run… your problems always follow you."

It was true. Jack had thought about the future. If Ennis wanted to leave with Merle, then Jack would go with them. There was no point in hiding what he was anymore. This was a door than could never be closed again. Jack straightened his shoulders and glared at his father. What he didn’t realize is that he had the same glare that his old man did. "Better than stayin' here 'n' have ya hatin' me for bein' queer."

John blew a column of smoke out of his nostrils and mumbled, "Don't hate ya for bein' queer.”

"What was that?" Jack snorted out a derisive laugh. "You're lyin'."

"Don't like it. Think it's a sin. But ya jus' think I'm some damn joke." John's voice had taken on a tone Jack had never heard before. It didn't sound like the father he knew. "I was in the army. Saw the kinda..." John waved his hand absently at Jack. "Thing ya got with Del Mar. Also saw what can happen out in the real world ta men like you. If I hated ya, boy, I would've turned ya out into the real world. It would've been your death sentence. So, ya wanna blame me for one thing... them blame me for not doin' right by you as a daddy. If I had done better... done somethin' different, then you wouldn't be like this."

Jack's voice cracked when he asked in disbelief, "Ya think you made me queer?"

John looked at his son and he didn't look nasty, just beaten down and tired. "Well, how else did ya get that way?"

Jack had to turn away because he had so many warring emotions. He had carried his anger towards his father for so long and now a part of him felt sorry for him. There was no excuse for the way he's been treated, but there was the nagging reality his father had his own pain. "I don't understand you either. Ya always expect everyone ta be perfect... even yourself, but that's impossible. Nothin' ya did made me queer."

John threw down his cigarette and stomped out the ember under his boot. He grabbed the whisky bottle from the ground and drank until his throat burned. "Guess it don't matter now. Harm's done. Can't see ya up 'n' marryin’ some pretty girl like ya should."

Despite his anger, Jack couldn't help but shake his head and smile. "No, that's not gonna happen."

John held out the bottle to Jack and nodded when his son took it. The usual fight seemed to be gone from him, burned out in his own misery and whiskey. "Ya gonna leave your Ma again?"

Jack took a drink, welcoming the burn. It felt so strange talking to his father like this. Used to his father always scrapping, Jack didn't like him like this. He thought he would have been happy to see him defeated and feeling sorry for himself, but it was just depressing. The strange dismissal of him being queer didn't sit right. "Don't know."

"Ya leave again, you're gonna break her heart."

"There's nothin' for me here."

Some of John's usual temper showed and he grabbed the bottle back from Jack. "There's the land. Four generations of your damn family have lived 'n' died here.” The sarcasm was thick and distain evident again. “But what I can give ya has never been good enough for you. It doesn't matter that this land can offer ya a place where ya won't get strung up or arrested for bein'..." John didn't say 'queer', but made a face. He couldn't even bring himself to say it at the moment. "That."

"You're not doin' me any favours by offerin' me a home."

"No, of course not. I'm jus' some asshole who's not only taken in that boy... but his sister. Givin' ya all a safe place ta stay, food 'n' roof over your heads… that means nothin'. Turned a blind eye when most other God fearin' men would've chased ya off or shoot ya if they knew. I'm goin' against the Bible..." His voice rose again with his own pent up rage. "Goin' against God 'cause you're my son. So, ya go ahead 'n' hate me 'cause I'm already damned."

Jack had no words. He stumbled backwards as if slapped. It didn’t make any sense to him. John barely managed to make it over to the hay bale and sat down, his shoulders slumped.

"Don't goin' blabbin' any of this to your, Ma. She doesn't need any more worry. Ya wanted ta talk... so we talked." He stopped to take another long pull from the bottle. "Ya wanted ta hear this... so now ya gotta live with it like a man. And if she asks, I ain't goin' back in that house... not listin' ta that girl scream. Sounds too much like your Ma when she was goin' through that..." He took another drink and Jack was sure he would pass out soon. John's voice was heavily slurred when he looked up at his son. "One good thing 'bout ya bein' queer is ya won't have any kids ta worry 'bout. Won't have'ta worry 'bout buryin' 'em or worryin' 'bout 'em all the time... answerin' questions when there's no answers... sayin' no 'cause there's no money. Be thankful for that, Jack." His eyes slipped closed, but shot open again and he starred at Jack. "What ya lookin' at, boy? Git back into the house. Look in on the women."

"Yes, sir." It was the first time he had called his father 'sir' in years without any sarcasm or malice. He was grateful to leave his father behind and everything else this conversation had stirred up.

He was halfway back to the house when Ennis opened the door and bellowed out, "Jack!"

Jack bolted into a run and was in such a hurry, he nearly slipped on the front steps. "What?"

Ennis was pale and the worry lines around his eyes were deep. Eleanor was standing in the kitchen blood covering her apron and crying. Jack felt sick instantly. "Ma?"

"She had two babies," Eleanor said quietly and wrung her hands. "Doc's still with her. They were so small..."

Jack remembered his father's words about everything his mother had been through. It must have been torture for her to be up there and experiencing it again. He pulled his Ma into arms and tried to comfort her. "Are they gone?"

"No," Eleanor sniffed. "But so close. Doc's says they probably came early 'cause of Gunny's death 'n' twins are usually tiny. He's not sure they're gonna make it. Lil' boy 'n' lil' girl."

"I need ta see Merle." Ennis looked up the stairs, but didn't move. He was frozen in place, looking at Eleanor for permission.

"Yeah, we can do that." She pulled away from Jack and gently kissed his cheek. The unsure smile she gave Ennis was meant to comfort, but it just showed how truly shook up she was. "I jus' needed a moment."

"Ya don't have 'ta go in again, Ma,” Jack pleaded with her. “Ennis can..."

Eleanor straightened her shoulders and smoothed back her frayed hair. "That girl needs another woman in there 'n' Doc needs help with those babies."

Ennis used his sleeve to rub at his runny nose. "Anythin' we can do?"

Eleanor patted Ennis on the arm. "No. Nothin' we can do now but wait 'n' pray." She looked back and smiled more genuinely at Jack. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."

END Part 18.

Chapter Text

Ennis looked down at the sleeping babies and frowned. "They're so tiny."

"You were almost that small when our folks brought ya home," Merle reminded him. When Ennis made a disbelieving sound in the back of his throat, she added, "What? Ya weren't born with a scowl on your face 'n' blisters on your hands from workin’, lil' brother."

“Ya always teased me I was born with a lasso in my hand.” Ennis reached down into the crib and pulled the hot water bottle closer to the smallest baby. He checked it to make sure it was still warm. "Guess we all gotta start somewhere. They're doin' better."

"They are." Merle's voice was both sad and hopeful. "Doc said it's a good sign they're eatin' 'n' cryin'. Gonna move ‘em next ta the woodstove downstairs soon. We jus' gotta keep 'em warm 'n' pray."

Ennis kept watching the babies even though they were sleeping. He had all the confidence in the world when it came to new born animals, but these tiny babies made no sense to him. They looked like they would break if you picked them up and he had no intention of doing that any time soon.

“Saw they both got blue eyes.”

“They do, but most babies do. They might change.”

“Sounds like someone’s been tellin’ ya tall tales, Merle,” Ennis teased. He knew better. People’s eyes didn’t go changing colours. “Next thing you’re gonna be tellin’ me is that their skin’s gonna be turnin’ polka dotted. Decided what you're namin' 'em yet?"

"Yep. Namin' the boy after his daddy."

"Junior?” Ennis made an approving sound in the back of his throat. “Always liked the idea of havin' a Junior."

"Not Junior. Gonna call 'im Gunny."

“Huh.” He looked at the baby boy who was smaller than his sister. It was a good strong name for a boy who Ennis figured was going to be small and sickly if he lived. The red hair wouldn’t help him any either. It seemed like a bit of an odd name for a little boy, but then again, Jack told him Ennis was kind of a strange name. More than anything else, Ennis didn’t want to see that baby’s name on a grave stone. "What was Gunny's real name?"

"Don't matter. He loved bein' called Gunny, so that's gonna be the boy's name."

"Huh.” The baby boy didn’t look like much of a Gunnery Sergeant to him. “And the girl?"

"Gertrude."

Ennis peeked down at the little girl wrapped in a pink blanket. It seemed like a lot of name for such a little thing to take on. He wasn’t sure what kind of name would suit the squished up reddish face with tufted blonde hair. "Huh."

"Figure we can call her Trudy. If ya say 'huh' again, I'll find a way ta get outta this bed 'n' smack ya.” Merle shifted on the bed and winced from the slight movement. “You're not allowed ta comment on names. Jack told me how ya named your dog 'n' horse."

Of course Jack would have told her that. His friend had been keeping Merle company earlier in the day and just jabbered away for hours. There was no telling what kind of tales he had been telling Merle. "Goddamn, Jack."

Merle sat up a bit more in the bed. "The boy didn't stop yappin'. It was cute."

"Cute?" Ennis chuckled under his breath. "I'll have ta tell 'im that."

"Had a lot ta say 'bout you..." Merle's voice trailed off.

And even though he didn't want to, all he could come up to say was, "Huh?"

"Kinda got this goofy look on his face..."

"Merle..." Ennis normally would have left the room by now to escape his embarrassment, but if talking about him and Jack distracted Merle from her grief, then he was willing to give her that. For now. "He always looks goofy."

"Uh huh. Looked 'bout as goofy as you do round him sometimes. Ya get the same goofy look on your face you did when ya got your first horse."

Ennis rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at the floor. He could feel a blush starting to rise to his cheeks. "Do not."

"Sure ya do. It's nice ta see. Now, tell me what's rattlin' around in that head of yours, curly."

Ennis made a face when she used his childhood nickname. "Nothin' important."

"Ennis Del Mar, that's a lie. Ya got somethin' serious buggin' you. I can tell."

"It's not important, Merle. It can wait." Merle simply stared at him until he sighed. He never could say 'no' to her, but he was about to try. "I won't be goin' with ya if you decide ta leave."

She reacted with the same intense Del Mar stare that they shared. "I never asked ya ta do that."

"Well… if ya did, I wouldn't. Not that I wouldn't want to, but…"

Merle cut him with a soft smile. "Ennis?"

"Yeah, Merle?"

"It's okay to want ta stay somewhere. It's okay to want ta stay somewhere 'cause of someone. Now that Gunny's gone, I know that more than anything else. Don't let no one… not even me, keep ya from what's important."

Ennis could feel the blush rising on his cheeks. He didn't like talking openly about his relationship with Jack, even if it was sort of a veiled conversation. "Umm, okay. Good names. For the babies."

Merle shifted in the bed and noticed Ennis turned to watch her every movement. She decided to let him off the hook for now. "I thought so."

"You're not supposed ta be movin' around too much."

Merle fiddled with the quilt on her bed. She wasn’t the kind of woman who was used to, or liked, taking it easy. "I'm not."

"Well…" Ennis looked doubtful. He turned away from her and went back to standing by the crib. "Jus' be careful."

"I am."

"Figure if ya can't move around so much, then you'll be stayin' here for awhile, huh?" Ennis asked this without looking up from the babies.

"Ennis, don't try ta be all sly. I raised ya. Jus' ask."

"Fine." He sighed and turned to consider his older sister. "Are ya stayin' with the Twists?"

"For now. Got it worked out with Eleanor 'n' she says it's alright with John. She said it was the godly thing ta do, but I'm willin' ta earn my keep. Got Gunny's army pension 'n' there'll be some money comin' my way from his rig boss.” Her face was stoic, but there were dark bags under her eyes. She was a young widow and new mother. “I won't take charity."

Ennis wanted Merle to stay. He tugged at his cuffs and then tucked in the back of his shirt that always seemed to be sneaking out. He was trying to get up the courage to speak what he thought was best.

"It's a nice place ta live.” He paused for a moment and took a breath. “Decent folks. Nice place ta raise a family."

"It is. I won’t promise anything, but I can say that I’ll stay as long as it’s best for my family.” She was silent for a moment, collecting her own thoughts. Her fingers traced over the sewn pattern on the quilt. “Ennis, gotta have my say in this before I let it rest. Ya always wanted kids." Merle smiled a little sadly, deciding to keep pushing. "Way you're livin' now. That's not gonna happen."

"Don't wanna talk 'bout it... 'bout that."

"If ya can't talk 'bout it, then how can ya live it?"

Ennis shrugged and wished there was room to pace in the small bedroom. "Jus' do."

"Not an easy path."

Ennis met his sister’s gaze now. Not because he wanted to, but because she deserved that respect. "No, but whose is?"

"Jus' the way life is." Merle’s hands moved from the quilt to absently twirl her wedding ring. "If I thought God had somethin' against me... I'd jus' wanna give up. God never gives ya more than ya can handle."

There was always the bitterness deep inside that he had been singled out and somehow punished simply by being queer. That God was punishing him. "Don't like it."

Merle didn’t need to ask what. “Ya never have."

Ennis considered her. He didn't want to talk about it, but now he wanted to know. Ennis wanted to know if there was something that gave him away. Something their old man had seen and Jack noticed up on the mountain. Maybe a way he spoke or walked. Maybe it was something he didn't do. Maybe he wasn’t man enough.

"How did ya know?"

Merle shrugged and the side of her mouth quirked up. "Jus' did. And I knew ya didn't want it. That's why ya tried so hard with Alma when it didn’t feel right. But, Ennis?"

"Yeah?"

"When God gives ya a hardship..." She looked over at the crib. "He gives ya somethin' else."

It went unsaid that she was talking about Jack. And it was true. Jack was the cause of his biggest worries, but also his deepest joys.

"If ya stay… " Ennis sighed heavily and couldn't believe he was about to say this. But Jack had threatened him if he didn't, then he would do it himself. And Ennis wanted to keep Jack away from Merle when he was all worked up. There was no telling what sort of damage the man could do with that sharp tongue of his. It sure as hell didn’t hurt that they would stop talking about him being queer, which was definitely a good thing."Ya see, Jack wanted me to…" Ennis stopped again and bit his lip.

"Spit it out, Ennis."

"Jack wanted me ta warn ya 'bout his ol' man."

"Oh… 'bout what?"

"Said that…" He tried to think of a way to reword the more than colourful litany of curses he had used in a way that was appropriate to say in front of a lady. "That John Twist isn't a nice man ta be around. Especially if you're a kid."

"Figured he was a bastard ta Jack…"

Ennis wasn’t used to her swearing. "Merle…"

"Don't give me that look, Ennis Del Mar. I know how ta swear. Havin’ mostly raised you ‘n’ KE, never had much use ta be a lady. He’s a bastard. Not another word I'd figure cover it. John Twist strikes me as a bastard now 'n' probably was no better, or worse while Jack was growin' up. He’ll behave ‘round my kids, or he’ll have ’ta deal with me. Can't be no worse than our daddy was."

Images of Earl and Rich flashed in his mind. No matter how mean John Twist was, Ennis doubted he had ever killed a man outside of war. "But, Jack still…"

"Wanted to warn me?" Ennis nodded in answer to her question. It had always been a game guessing what was going on in that blonde head of her baby brother's."I know how ta handle men like John Twist. He won't be layin' a hand on my babies. Even if he was their granddad, I wouldn't let that happen. Ya can tell Jack that anythin' goes down that I don't like 'n' I'll be outta here. And I wouldn't leave before I gave him what for."

"If he ever… if anyone ever gives ya a hard time, ya tell me. I’ll take care of it. Of you ‘n’ the babies."

She gave her brother a tired, but still teasing, smile. "And you'll beat 'em up for me?"

Ennis got a stubborn set to his face. He wouldn’t stand by and let Jack’s father bully his kin. "I will."

Her tone was still teasing. "Even if it was, Jack?"

Ennis met her gaze and gave her a half smile. "Especially Jack."

"Ya really… like him, Ennis. I can tell."

"He's okay." As far as Ennis Del Mar was concerned, that was pretty much an admittance of undying love.

“Good. That’s good, Ennis.” Merle stoic mask started to crack and a few tears slipped from her eyes. She kept twisting her wedding ring, wishing there was someway they could have found Gunny’s after the accident. "I keep thinkin' Gunny's jus' away at work. That'll he'll come walkin' through that door any minute… askin' ta see his babies…"

Ennis had never been one for affection, but now he was quick to move over to the bed. He sat down on the side and pulled Merle into his arms. He tried to think of what anyone could say to offer him comfort if he lost Jack. He realized there was nothing he could tell her to take the pain away no matter how much he wanted to. Instead he just held her, rocking his sister as she cried. Her tears soaked through his shirt as she clung to him, finally letting herself feel the pain.

His hand settled onto the back of her head and he made soft shushing noises. He wasn’t going to tell her that it was going to be okay, because it wasn’t.

Ennis offered Merle the one bit of wisdom he had taken away from their daddy that he figured wasn’t complete bullshit. “Life ain’t easy. It sure is hell ain’t fair. But, it ain’t all bad.”

And it was true. Life had taken Merle’s husband, but given her two beautiful babies that if her prayers worked, would live. He had no idea how it might play out, but they had some sort of odd family here in the middle of nowhere in Lightning Flat. For him, life wasn’t easy being queer, but he had been given Jack.

When he looked up, he saw Jack standing in the doorway watching him comfort Merle. He kept holding her, but locked eyes with Jack, murmuring loud enough for him to hear, “No, life ain’t all bad.”

END.