Eleanor was born to the wind swept plains and loneliness of Wyoming. The daughter of a ranch hand, she grew up knowing and expecting nothing else but hard work. Her mama had given her a hopeful smile the day John showed up in his Sunday best, with hat in hand, to ask her daddy permission to marry her. Her daddy always said, “Never trust a man with clean boots.”
John Twist’s boots were caked with the dirt of the land his family worked, which was more than her old man had ever accomplished, and John’s hands were calloused from honest work. It had been enough for her daddy and for her. She was taught that she would grow up to be a God fearing wife and mother and that’s all she wanted in life.
That hard man with his steady gaze was the answer to her simple prayers. John never laid a hand on her in anger and he worked to support his family. She had never expected anything else, but in the shelter of the night he held her close and sometimes he even whispered in a gruff murmur, breath tinged with whiskey, that she was a fine woman.
The first time she told her husband she was in the family way John hadn’t even smiled, but the very next day he had started building a cradle. The night she woke with blood soaking through her night gown, he busted up the cradle in the barn with an axe while the neighbour’s wife delivered her stillborn. With each dead child John threw curses at the Lord, but never once blamed her with either an accusing word or look. With the last baby before Jack, she almost died and it took seven months for John to touch her again as the Good Book said a husband should touch a wife. Jack was born nine months after the night John caressed her with shaking hands and had whispered against the skin of her belly, “No baby’s worth ya dying. No more.”
A part of Eleanor knew John never forgave Jack for risking her life by having the nerve to be conceived once John had declared there would be no more babies in her belly. Watching her boy grow up with a knack for trouble and mouth to boot, Eleanor might have worried that Jack was so different from his daddy. If they hadn’t lived in the middle of nowhere John might have gotten the silly notion in his head that some other man had been knocking boots with her nine months before Jack started bawling and his lips never stopped flapping. When Jack was colicky and the weather wasn’t too nasty, Eleanor would wrap her squalling boy in a blanket, going outside for a midnight walk, pacing to and fro from the house to the barn so as not to wake John.
They say girls marry men like their father and boys look for a wife just like their mama. Eleanor wasn’t holding her breath for Jack to bring home a girl with a knack for baking an apple pie or beheading a chicken with the single swing of an axe. She had given up on the hope for a pretty lil’ daughter-in-law when she caught sight of Ennis Del Mar. Witnessing the way Jack looked at Ennis, Eleanor had known her son was sweet on him. One look at Ennis and Eleanor could tell the feeling was mutual, but the poor boy was more scared and skittish than a jack rabbit. She noticed right away that Ennis didn’t have clean boots and it was the point in his favour.
What she would never say out loud is that the quiet and serious boy Jack had dragged back home was too much like John. Ennis watched Jack with the same possessive gaze that John still settled on her. One of her cousins told her before she got hitched that nothing good came from a jealous man, but Eleanor thought that only happened if she gave John reason to be jealous. She still got a shiver down her spine when he laid his hand on the small of her back when they rarely ventured off the ranch. She wasn’t anything fine to look at anymore, but John still treated her like she was a slip of a girl he feared might run off with another man. With no entertainment but a broken radio that only worked when the wind was coming in from the west, Eleanor made a habit of watching the boys. Ennis carefully watched Jack with a hungry gaze that he tried to hide, but it was as plain as day if anyone was looking for it.
Eleanor was a God fearing woman, but had come to peace with the boys’ lusting after one another, even if the Bible said it was wrong. She prayed for them every night just in case, even though deep in her heart she didn’t believe God hated them. After Jack left, Eleanor had prayed for anything to bring Jack home and keep him there. Being a woman of faith Eleanor accepted that the Lord worked in mysterious ways. The Lord answered prayers, but you might not like or understand how he answered them, especially if it was a simple ‘No.’ Ennis Del Mar was the answer to her prayers. That boy tied Jack to Lightning Flat as long as Ennis stayed put. Then working in even more mysterious ways, her family had grown with Ennis’ sister Merle wandering onto the ranch, bringing two unruly babes that Eleanor adored. It didn’t matter that none of them were blood. All that mattered was that God had granted her more children after she had lost so many.
This night Gunny had started bawling, just like Jack had back in the day. Merle hadn’t even twitched when Eleanor whisked him away and set out for a midnight walk. The babe had stopped fussing in a way he only seemed to do for her. If he had continued too much longer, Eleanor would have sought Ennis out because Gunny quieted the most down for Ennis. Making her way past the barn, Eleanor saw the soft glow of a lantern. Thinking it was a fire hazard that one of the menfolk might have left burning after their tough day fencing, she went into the barn. What she saw made her stop dead in her tracks.
Ennis was leaning against one of the stalls, head tilted back and shoulders slumped. Jack was pressed up against Ennis, his own face pressed against Ennis’ neck and Ennis’ arms wrapped loosely around Jack’s waist. The boys weren’t doing anything untoward, but it was the intimacy of the posture that clutched at Eleanor’s heart. Jack and Ennis were holding each other casually seeking comfort. Still hidden around the corner, Eleanor watched them silently. She watched as Ennis splayed his fingers over Jack’s lower back and his thumb stroked slowly. In the silence of the night she could hear Ennis humming some off key tune under his breath.
Her boy who never seemed to stop talking or moving was silent and still in Ennis’ arms. A slow smile crept across Eleanor’s lips as she bounced the baby in her arms and kissed his downy curls. Eleanor was sure blessings came in all shapes and sizes. Hers just came in the shape of a young man named Ennis.
When Gunny fussed, making a squeaking noise, Ennis looked up and caught Eleanor’s gaze. He tensed and Eleanor thought he would push Jack away, but something he saw reflected in her own look hinted at a wary acceptance of her knowing. Ennis’ shoulders straightened and he kept his arms around Jack’s waist, pulling Jack protectively tighter against his body. By the slight tilt of Ennis’ chin, he sent her a silent challenge.
“G’nite, boys,” Eleanor told them with a hint of a smirk. “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”