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For Good

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Jack’s fingers drum against the steering wheel. His truck sputters along the dirt roads that line endless ranches. Cows sleep in fenced off patches of grass under the starry sky. Every rock and dip in the ground shakes the entire vehicle. Jack turned up the radio, singing loud. King of the road, Roger Miller. A perfectly appropriate song for the occasion.

 

Jack felt invincible. He was riding high from a victory in his last rodeo and bringing home a decent wad of prize money. Life in the rodeo wasn’t glamorous, but sometimes he got to ride bulls to the roaring approval of a captivated crowd and reap the rewards after he’d conquered the challenge. Besides, anything was better than being at home.

 

Home, however, was just where he was headed. Being a traveling bronc rider didn’t give him much in the way of a permanent address. As of now Ennis was sending him postcards at Lightning Flats. He wouldn’t miss a chance to see him. In between gigs Jack would go racing home to check the mail. Putting up with his father’s bitter griping was well worth a visit with Ennis Del Mar.

 

He pulled into the front yard at dusk. Nobody was awake. No surprise there. His parents were in bed by now, and thank god for that. Jack wouldn’t have to deal with John Twist’s bitching. The mail was left sitting on the counter in the kitchen. A coupon book and a bill and a postcard. Jack picked it out from the pile with a smile.

 

He flipped the card over eagerly, looking at the simple script on the back.

 

Twist

 

Gotta a little problem at home. Two little problems actually. Can’t make it out to Brokeback anytime soon. I’ll send you another card whenever I can.

 

Ennis

 

All the joy from his rodeo victory was stolen from him in an instant. Jack’s fingers curled tight around the card, crumpling the thick paper in his grip. Hollow disappointment settled in. Indefinite time without Ennis seemed unbearable. Life without Ennis was barely tolerable even with the few visits he did get. His breaths shook out of his lungs. Tears stung his eyes.

 

He missed Ennis so much he could hardly stand it.

 

He couldn’t stand it.

 

The return address taunted him. Jack stared at it through the film of unshed tears. He knew where Ennis lived. He’d gone down and seen his girls and met his wife and seen the little apartment Ennis had set his family up in.

 

Months. Maybe more without Ennis.

 

He was back in his truck before he could finish the thought. Leaving without kissing his mama or fighting with his dad or even locking the door behind him. He was off to go see Ennis.

Chapter Text

It took the better part of a day to drive from Lightning Flat to Riverton. Jack had left impulsively the night before, driven by emotion to get to Ennis as fast as possible. But he’d been driving for hours before to get back from his rodeo contest. He’d just left Lightning Flat when the exhaustion caught up with him. He’d pulled onto the side of the road and slept in his car.

 

He woke up to the sun in his eyes the next morning and gotten straight to driving. It was a eight hour drive from Crook county to Fremont county. He drove anxiously, his fingers gripped his steering wheel tight and he chewed through his bottom lip as the sun passed overhead. His thoughts were on Ennis the whole time. Torturing him with thoughts of how Ennis might react when he got there. Why he didn’t want to see him in the first place. He dreaded the idea that his wife may have found them out. Or that Ennis had decided he didn’t really need to see Jack anymore. He’d always worried about that. Ennis was rigid. He had said he wasn’t queer on the mountain and he’d believed it. Jack had lied about his own sexuality out of obligation. Make Ennis feel like they were just fooling around out of loneliness or something. He’d thought that Ennis secretly returned his feelings.

 

But when he’d run off and married Alma after the passionate summer they’d shared Jack had worried that it was true. Ennis wasn’t queer. He was just using Jack because he was desperate and isolated. And now that he had his wife he didn’t have to humor Jack anymore. He didn’t know what he would do if Ennis told him to go the hell away. He’d be crushed. Ennis was it for him. He’d never felt that way about anyone else and he didn’t think he ever would. He was happy with Ennis. The enchanted summer they’d shared. The brief affair they’d had months earlier, just after they’d seen each other for the first time in four years. He’d never been happier in his life. The thought that Ennis didn’t care about that, didn’t feel like he did...

 

He clenched his jaw and stepped on the gas pedal.

 

Riverton was the most populated place in Wyoming. Which wasn’t saying much. It had a population of nearly 7,000 and a lot of cattle ranches. Ennis lived in town in an apartment above the local laundromat. There wasn’t much. A small clothes store, a grocery store, a gas station. All the essentials for the population. Plus a few small things to do. A bar, a burger joint, a concrete building that sold ice cream. And the laundromat Ennis lived over. Jack pulled into park on the gravel. Looked up at the stairs that lead to Ennis’ place. He felt another spike of anxiety. Chewed his raw lip again. But there was no turning back. Jack was already here. And he cared too much to not know.

 

The stairs rattled beneath his boots. Jack took a deep, steadying breath and knocked on the door.

 

Things didn’t sound good on the other side. Ennis’ daughters were screaming pitifully and Jack heard what sounded like a glass shattering on the floor. Someone swore loudly inside, stomped towards the door and swung it open, and Jack only saw Ennis’ tired, irritated face for a moment before his jaw dropped in shock.

 

“Jack fuckin’ Twist?”

 

Ennis did not look good. Or smell good. He reeked of vomit. His shirt, a ratty white tank top had seen better days. Stained and crusted with what Jack could only assume was the source of the smell. His hair hadn’t been washed in days, he was sweating with bags under his eyes. He looked defeated. Totally and utterly defeated.

 

“Jesus, Ennis. You look like you’ve seen hell.”

 

“Girls got a stomach bug.” He muttered. “They’re not happy campers.”

 

Jack could hear that much. The unhappy little girls were still wailing inside, and Jack felt bad for them. They were all miserable.

 

“Where the hell is your wife?”

 

Ennis slumped against the doorway with a deep sigh. “Well. I’m a widower now. So I gotta do the best I can with what I got.”

 

Jack’s heart dropped to his stomach. “Jesus. I’m sorry to hear it.”

 

Ennis looked conflicted. It was obvious that Jack wasn’t really welcome at the moment. But Ennis was too tired to argue about sending him away. “Well, come in. Lettin’ all the cool air out. Shit.”

 

Jack stepped in as he was told. Ennis closed the door and shuffled off into the kitchen, letting Jack follow him. A plate had fallen to the tile and broken on impact. Shards of china were scattered all over the floor. Ennis looked at it hopelessly, and again Jack felt pity for the man. It was hard enough being a newly single father. A newly single father of two miserably sick children wasn’t easy by any means. He doubted Ennis was getting much rest lately.

 

“Sit down, I’ll get it.” Jack offered.

 

“I don’t need your help.” Ennis spat bitterly.

 

“But I’m going to give it. Do you really want to fight about it right now?”

 

Ennis was still to tired to fight the stubborn Jack Twist. He sighed and collapsed into a nearby kitchen chair.

 

Jack felt a little satisfied, but mostly worried. “Where’s your broom?”

 

“By the coats. Hung up on a nail. Has its own dustpan.” Ennis answered quietly.

 

Jack retrieved it and swept the china into a pile. They sat in silence. No, not silence. They didn’t talk, but there was no quiet to be found. Not with the girls screaming in the other room. Ennis looked more wretched than ever. Jack threw the remains of the plate into the nearby bin.

 

“Thanks.” Ennis muttered.

 

“No problem.” Jack replied easily. “How much sleep are you getting?”

 

Ennis glared at him, causing Jack to raise his hands defensively. Fair enough. It was a stupid question. “I just mean. What can I do?”

 

“You can go back home. It’s rough right now but I can handle it.”

 

Jack ignored the sting of Ennis’ words. He didn’t mean it. He was desperate for the help. He was just too proud to ask for it. Jack wasn’t going to let him suffer alone. “You’re going to burn yourself out.” He said accusingly. “Your kids can’t afford to have you collapse on them when they’ve got no mama to back you up. I’m here already so you’re just going to have to accept my help.”

 

“I told you I couldn’t see you.” Ennis muttered. “Stubborn ass.”

 

“I could say the same thing to you.” Jack replied coldly. “This place is a mess. Come on. I’m not going to let you alone until you give me something to do.”

 

Ennis glared, but it was undercut by the way he swayed in his chair.

 

“Laundry.” He finally said. “Kids ruined all their damn clothes. All the sheets. I’ve got them in diapers on towels right now.”

 

Jack nodded. That was easy enough. They were right above a laundromat. He stepped out of the kitchen, leaving Ennis where he was to go gather everything up.

 

He followed the screams of Ennis’ daughters to find the nursery. They were exactly as Ennis had described them. Their bare mattresses were covered with a layer of towels. The older one was sprawled across a little kid’s bed, screaming at the ceiling. The younger one was standing up in her crib, holding onto the edge. Her read face covered in tears, her chest covered in sick. Jack picked the toddler up out of her crib and used one of the rags on the diaper table to clean off her front. Changed her diaper while he was at it. Took the trash and laundry out of the room with him.

 

The trash he threw into the dumpster outside. The clothes he took into the laundromat below. He tossed them inside, shoveled a few generous scoops of detergent into the machine and left it to wash all the kids clothes. Then went back up and grabbed Ennis’ hamper to do the same. He used the last of his quarters on Ennis’ clothes. While the clothes watched themselves Jack took another trip up the stairs to try and comfort the kids.

 

“Come on, oh, oh, oh. Poor girls.” He said, scooping the toddler up into his arms. Tears quickly soaked the shoulder of his clothes. The other child fit into his other arm, resting the weight of her larger body on his hip. They clung to his jacket and bawled. He bounced on his heels, at a loss of what to do to comfort them. He could imagine Ennis, quiet, tired Ennis standing right where he was for the past who knows how many days. Trying and failing to do exactly what he was trying to do now. He knew it was probably helpless. When babies were hurting they would cry without stopping for days. Jack remembered many times his mother complained that he’d been a colicky baby. Impossible to comfort or quiet. He felt a sudden pang of sympathy for his mother.

 

He continued bouncing on his heels, trying to recall everything his mother had ever told him about babies. Babies liked movement. Rocking chairs or something. Which Ennis was tragically lacking. Jack instead made it his business to pace circles around the small nursery. Kids liked being held. Not that he could tell. They were screaming like their lives depended on it. Mothers sang lullabies to their children. He supposed to calm them into sleeping. He didn’t know if that worked when they were sick, but he was getting increasingly desperate. Children crying was terribly stressful. He didn’t know how women did it.

 

“I go out walkin' after midnight. Out in the moonlight.” He sang. “Just like we used to do, I'm always walkin' after midnight, searchin' for you.”

 

The kids were just as loud and unhappy as ever. But Jack kept pacing, kept singing, kept praying they’d feel better soon.

 

“I walk for miles along the highway

Well, that's just my way

Of sayin' I love you, I'm always walkin'

After midnight, searchin' for you”

 

He pressed a kiss into their curls. “I stop to see a weepin' willow

Cryin' on his pillow

Maybe he's cryin' for me

And as the skies turn gloomy

Night winds whisper to me

I'm lonesome as I can be”

 

“I go out walkin' after midnight

Out in the starlight

Just hopin' you may be somewhere a-walkin'

After midnight, searchin' for me”

 

He hums the guitar parts aloud. The children are still crying, but not so loud as before. Not the pained screams they once were. “I stop to see a weepin' willow

Cryin' on his pillow

Maybe he's cryin' for me

And as the skies turn gloomy

Night winds whisper to me

I'm lonesome as I can be”

 

“I go out walkin' after midnight

Out in the moonlight

Just hopin' you may be somewhere a-walkin'

After midnight, searchin' for me.”

 

He finished the song to the whimpers of uncomfortable children. Their whines growing louder in his silence. “Okay, okay.” He said. “I’ll sing it again. Just please don’t scream anymore.”

 

So he did. Sang it again, and again after that. Sang it for so long that time no longer meant anything. Until the cries and whimpers went totally silent. To Jack’s great surprise and unending relief the children had finally fallen asleep.

 

The apartment was full of silence for the first time since Jack had arrived. Which was strange. When was the last time Jack had seen Ennis? He gently laid the children back in their beds. Sending several desperate prayers to heaven that they wouldn’t wake for a while before setting off to find Ennis.

 

Ennis was just where Jack had left him, slumped over the table, asleep with his head in his arms. Jack smiled. He felt accomplished. He’d put everyone in the house to sleep. Now all he had to do was fetch the laundry.

 

It took two trips to bring the baskets upstairs. He set them by the door and latched it shut. Ennis startled at the noise.

 

“Shit. What time is it?”

 

“Only eight.” Jack answered.

 

Ennis looked disoriented. His face furrowed in confusion. “Did you... did you put the girls to sleep?”

 

“Let’s just hope they stay that way.” Jack replied.

 

“Well I don’t fucking believe it.” Ennis looked amazed. “Ain’t been quiet in days.”

 

“Or clean. Get out of those clothes and take a shower. I’ve got a clean shirt for you.”

 

“They didn’t throw up on ya.” Ennis grumbled, eyeing Jack’s clean shirt with envy.

 

“I’m sure they will.” Jack said. He’d brought his bags in, just in case. With his clothes, money, toiletries, and traveling liquor. “Shower. You need one. You stink like a dead calf in the summer sun.”

 

Ennis gave Jack a half-hearted scowl but didn’t argue. He left for the bathroom. Jack did his best to fold the clothes while the shower ran in the other room. He did a piss poor job of it. Folding clothes wasn’t nearly as easy as letting the machine wash em. Jack called it good enough and shoved them into their respective dressers. With that done Jack put the hampers back where he’d found them and laid down on Ennis’ bed. He was exhausted. He didn’t know what he’d expected to find when he showed up at Ennis’ apartment but it wasn’t this.

 

A widower. Damn. How long ago did his wife die? He was probably still grieving. Grieving and exhausted from taking care of his daughters all alone. It made sense why he couldn’t go out to Brokeback like this. Ennis was committed to his daughters. Jack understood that. But now he was here. He could help him while he adjusted to life without his wife. Help take care of things around the house. Jack had no other commitments. He was a rodeo cowboy with no set schedule and a new lump of change in his pockets. Besides, nothing was more important than Ennis right now. He’d stick around as long as the man would let him. And probably a little longer than that.

 

“Sure, just make yourself at home.” Ennis said sarcastically. He walked in wearing a new tank top and some loose pajamas. His blond hair dripped water onto his shoulders, soaking the top of his shirt.

 

“Don’t mind if I do.” Jack replied playfully.

 

Ennis rewarded him with a small smile. He collapsed into the bed beside him. His eyes fell shut as soon as his head hit the pillow. In the dim light of the room Ennis looked especially handsome. His tan skin looked golden in the lamplight. Delicate shadows laid on his cheeks from his lashes. Jack drank the sight of him while he wasn’t looking. He’d missed this. He’d missed him.

 

“I can feel you lookin’ at me, rodeo.” Ennis muttered.

 

“Guilty.” Jack said. “Let me have this.”

 

“I don’t let you have anything.” Ennis said, the words were exasperated. But also soft. Fond. “Stubborn jackass.”

 

Jack grinned.

 

“Turn off that damn light.”

 

Jack did as he was told. The room was plunged into darkness immediately. They didn’t get under the covers. The summer was too hot for that. They laid atop them, Jack in his jeans and jacket, Ennis in his pajamas. For a while it was quiet. Everything was still.

 

Just when Jack thought Ennis was asleep he heard the quiet rustling of a hand moving over the duvet in the dark. Their fingers touched, and evidently Ennis had found what he’d been looking for. His hand closed over Jack’s.

 

His resting heart suddenly started to race. Jack did everything in his power to keep his breaths steady. Ennis was pulling at his hand, and Jack let himself be moved. Ennis pulled Jack in to curl up against his side, arm slung over his chest. Jack said nothing. Did nothing to discourage Ennis from whatever he wanted to do. Like he was afraid of scaring off a particularly skittish bird. Ready to take flight and leave him at any time.

 

Ennis settled in, his arm hooked under Jack’s neck and resting along his back, and didn’t do anything more. Ennis sighed through his nose and went to sleep like that.

 

Jack felt hot in a way that didn’t have anything to do with the summer outside. He tightened his fist to try to rid himself of the newfound excess energy while remaining still. It took him a long time to fall asleep.

 

He finally did to the comforting thud of Ennis’ heart.

 


 

They woke the next morning to renewed cries from the next room. Jack was still pressed close to Ennis. Their legs were tangled up in each other. One of Jack’s hands was threaded through Ennis’ curls.

 

“Ah, shit.” Jack sighed.

 

“Well, you bought us a few hours.” Ennis said.

 

“Yep.” Jack said, pulling himself out of Ennis’ arms unhappily. “Alright. I’ll get em. Put some coffee on or somethin’. Too early for this shit.”

 

Ennis mumbled some kind of affirmative. They set off to do their separate jobs. Jack changed the children and pulled them into some clothes. Ennis brought Jack warm milk, and he gave the older child the bottle to feed herself. Jack was holding the younger while he fed her. “They’re prolly just gonna throw it up in an hour.” Jack said.

 

“Prolly sooner. Still gotta feed em.” Ennis said. “Coffee’ll be done in a few minutes.”

 

“Thank god.” Jack said, mostly to himself. He fed the toddler the bottle while he sat on the floor. The child screamed at him from her bed, not drinking her milk. Jack did his best to ignore her. They’d have to feed her something. Something other than milk. She needed to eat something. They both did.

 

“Coffee.” Ennis said, crouching down to hand him his cup.

 

Jack chugged it like he would die without it, ignoring the way it scalded his tongue and throat. Jack handed it back to Ennis moments after he’d taken it, Ennis looked down into the empty mug with surprise. “What are we gonna feed them?”

 

“Cereal? Shit. That’s all I’ve been feeding them for like four days.”

 

Jack didn’t mock him for it. He knew Ennis was trying his best. “We could pick up some fruit or something from the market. I think kids like bananas.”

 

Ennis grunted, quiet as always. Jack stood, pressing his back against the wall for support and using his legs to lift himself without letting go of the baby or the bottle. “Alright. Grab the kid. Let’s go feed her. What are their names again?”

 

“The big un’s Alma Jr. The little un’s Jenny.”

 

Jack nodded. They walked the narrow hall into the kitchen. Ennis placed Alma into a high chair and poured some dry cereal into her tray. Alma didn’t even look at the food, crying fitfully and reaching for her father.

 

“Baby, ya gotta eat.” Ennis said. “Look, it’s good.”

 

He demonstrated by plucking a piece of cereal off the tray, popping it into his mouth and chewing exaggeratedly, making dramatic sounds of enjoyment. Alma was unmoved. Screaming and making grabby hands at her daddy.

 

“Damn.” Ennis swore, lifting the child back out of her chair into his arms. “We gotta get that fucking banana. She’s gotta eat something. They’ve already lost weight.”

 

“You taken them to a doctor or something?” Jack asked, worried.

 

“Ain’t a damn thing he can do. Just said they gotta ride it out.” Ennis looked miserable once again. He was bouncing on his heels, patting Alma Jr’s back in a comforting manner.

 

“Alright. I’m gonna go get the fruit. Try feeding Jenny the cereal while in gone. I’ll get some other stuff. Grapes, bananas, shit, I don’t know. Whatever the kid might eat.” Jack offered.

 

“Yeah. Take my wallet.” He gestured to the counter where his wallet sat.

 

“I’m not gonna make you pay.” Jack said.

 

“They’re my kids. You’re not gonna pay to feed em.” Ennis said, irritated. “It’s not that much, just take my wallet. Jack fuckin’ Twist...” he muttered the last bit to himself, shushing his daughter as he began to walk about the kitchen.

 

“Alright.” Jack said. He didn’t want to argue over nothing. The toddler gave a miserable little whine. He handed her off to Ennis and grabbed the wallet, walking as quickly as he could out of the apartment to go get what they needed.

 

The grocery was right down the street. Jack didn’t bother with his truck. Damn thing would take longer to start than it would to just walk. He jogged, making the trip faster. He needed to get this done.

 

The store was small, not a lot of selection. A few aisles with all the essentials in life. Baby formula and diapers, condiments, canned foods, pasta, and against the back wall was milk and eggs. Arranged in displays was the produce. Jack quickly picked up bananas, grapes, and some jarred baby food from the other aisle. The kids were toddlers, but “peaches and carrots” sounded good to him. He tossed them into his basket before running to check out. He laid his items on the counter and brought out Ennis’ wallet.

 

The lady at the cashier raised her eyebrows at him. “Ain’t seen you around here before.” She said conversationally while she rang him up.

 

“Yeah.” Jack breathed.

 

She gave him a look but didn’t say anything more. She told him what he owed. Jack paid and left, carrying his items in his arms with him.

 

Running back to the apartment Jack sprinted up the stairs and pushed through the door, completely out of breath. The kids were still screaming away inside.

 

“That was fast.” Ennis murmured.

 

“You’re welcome.” He dropped the load on the counter, putting Ennis’ wallet beside it. Peeling one of the bananas quickly and taking a knife from the drying rack, Jack made quick work of the banana. Sliced into manageable pieces easily. He scooped them up with his hands and dumped them onto the highchair tray. Ennis slid Alma into place and handed Jenny off to Jack. Unsurprisingly she didn’t pause her crying to eat.

 

“Please.” Ennis said, straight to Alma’s face.

 

“Are you begging a child to eat?” Jack asked incredulously.

 

“Can’t hurt.” Ennis murmured sheepishly.

 

“Try feeding it to her. Put it up to her mouth.”

 

Ennis did what Jack suggested. Alma squirmed and moved away, twisting her body away from the offered food. “No!” It was the first words Jack had heard her say since he’d arrived.

 

“This ain’t workin.” Ennis said.

 

“I can see that.” Jack watched Ennis follow Alma’s movements, attempting to persuade Alma to eat with quiet pleas at every twist and turn. “We could try the grapes. Or baby food.”

 

Ennis turned to look at him. “You got baby food?”

 

“It’s peaches and carrots ground into mush in a jar. That can’t be too bad. It’s like soup when you’re sick.”

 

“It’s not like that at all.” Ennis said.

 

“Well it’s nutritious. Do you want to try it?”

 

Ennis contemplated. “Yeah. Fuck it. If it don’t work out we can give it to Jenny.”

 

Jack cracked the top of the jar open, twisting it off and away and getting a spoon to feed with. He handed the materials to Ennis. The bananas laid forgotten on the highchair tray while Ennis attempted to goad Alma Jr. into eating.

 

“Here comes the airplane.” Ennis said, his voice quiet and deadpan as ever. Alma was not convinced.

 

Jack laughed in spite of himself. Ennis gave his friend a dirty look over his shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry, really. But you’re not gonna get a kid to eat like that. You’ve gotta be more expressive.”

 

“Expressive.” Ennis repeated.

 

“Yeah. Here.” He bent down to Alma’s eye level, big excited grin on his face. “Woah! Whooooo! Here comes the airplane!” He imitated the noises of an aircraft the best he could. Ennis did his job. Waving the spoon in an irregular path on the way to Alma’s mouth. “Woooah! Here it comes! Aaaaaah...” he opened his mouth in demonstration.

 

Despite Jack’s best efforts Alma’s mouth remained closed for the spoon. She was looking at Jack like he was a crazy person. Maybe she was a bit too old for that trick to work. Ennis was smiling though. Not even his little shy smiles. A big one, with teeth.

 

“You sure you the bull rider? Cause I see a rodeo clown.”

 

Jack gave Ennis a playful cuff on the shoulder.

 

Alma whined uncomfortably. “Daddy.” She said. “Tummy hurts. Don’t wanna eat.”

 

“Shit.” Ennis mumbled. “Sweetheart, I’m trying. Gotta eat even if you don’t feel like it.”

 

He pressed the spoon up to his daughter’s lips insistently. Jack did his best to keep Jenny pacified.

 

Finally Alma opened her mouth. Ennis gratefully put the spoon in. Feeding was slow and agonizing every step of the way, with a lot of complaints on Alma’s end, but slowly they got something into Alma’s stomach.

 

Jenny gave a wet cough right before throwing up what little she’d had that morning on Jack’s shirt.

 

“Damn.” Jack sighed.

 

Ennis was grinning yet again. “You’d better clean up, rodeo. You’ve been wearing them clothes too long anyway.”

 

He was right. How long had he been in these? Four days? Ennis didn’t need to know that. He shushed Jenny and walked off to change clothes.

 

When they were all clean and fed Ennis and Jack collapsed onto the couch, exhausted. “This is hard.” Jack complained.

 

“Try doing this for days without help. Then you can complain.”

 

“You’re welcome, by the way. When do you have to work? I’ll watch the kids for you.”

 

“Boss gave me a week or two off work while I sort out my affairs.” Ennis muttered.

 

“How much of those two weeks you use?”

 

“The first. Not enough time, I think. But calves wait for no one.”

 

Jack agreed quietly. He dreaded asking. But he felt as though he had to. “How did Alma die?”

 

Ennis sighed. He’d been dreading the question too, it seemed. “It was sudden. She just collapsed at work. Her heart was weak, I don’t know why, she always seemed perfectly healthy. It just gave out.”

 

Jack nodded. That was a tragic way to die young. He held the sleeping Jenny on his chest, listening to her breathing. He ran a hand through her blond curls. A lot like Ennis’ hair. He wondered how Ennis felt about it. If he blamed himself. If he cried when he found out his wife was dead. If he was with her when she died or if she died in her workplace, when Ennis was working on some ranch oblivious to her passing. He wondered if he regretted their affair. If he felt like Jack being here was a disservice to his commitment to her.

 

Those thoughts weighed on his heart. His throat shook when he tried to use it. “I’m sorry.” Jack finally said.

 

“Ain’t your fault.”

 

“Still.” He shushed Jenny when she fussed. “It’s hard. Ain’t fair.”

 

“Nothin’s fair.” Ennis said with finality.

 

Ain’t that the truth.

 

The rest of the day was spent comforting the children when they cried. Cleaning up vomit and changing diapers and taking care of the chores that had been neglected. Ennis cleaned the toilets while Jack looked after the kids and Jack washed the dishes and highchair while Ennis bathed the girls. Ennis watched Jack put the sheets back on the girl’s mattresses while he held the children. At the end of the day things finally seemed to be settling down. They were no longer so feverish. Their stomachs weren’t as upset and they were more interested in food than they’d been before. Ennis was relieved. Jack was grateful.

 

But putting a kid to bed was never an easy task.

 

They were fussy, not wanting to sleep. Alma Jr. clung to the hem of Ennis’ shirt, begging him to extend her bedtime. Ennis looked tired again. Jack frowned. He didn’t want Ennis to wear himself out again. Not when he’d gotten him laughing and joking and living again.

 

“I’ll get it.” He picked the girls up. “You wanna know how I got them to sleep before? When they were damn near impossible?”

 

Ennis leaned against the doorframe, arms folded over his chest. He didn’t say anything but his eyebrow raised in challenge.

 

“Ya sing to em.” Jack answered.

 

He began his bouncing little pace around the room, turning in circles while he sang. “I do my best to hide this lowdown feelin'

I try to make believe there's nothing wrong

But they're always asking me about you darling

And it hurts me so to tell 'em that you're gone

If they ask me I guess I'd be denyin'

That I've been unhappy all alone”

 

The children stopped fussing to listen. Once again captivated by Jack’s singing. He wasn’t a professional by any means. Ennis often complained of his “caterwaulin’” when they were up on Brokeback. But he could sing to pass the time and soothe children and make car rides easier. That’s all his voice needed to do. Ennis was quiet. Everyone was. Listening to Jack.

 

“But if they heard my heart they'd hear it cryin'

Where's my darling, when's she coming home”

 

“I ask myself a million times what's right for me to do

To try to lose my blues alone or hang around for you

But I make it pretty good until that moon comes shining through

And that I get so doggone lonesome”

 

He imitated the guitar with his mouth. Little silly twanging notes that brought giggles out of Alma Jr. and put a smile on Ennis’ face.

 

“Time stands still when you're a waitin'

Sometimes I think my heart is stoppin' too

One lonely hour seems forever

Sixty minutes more to wait for you

But I guess I'll keep waitin' till you're with me

Cause I believe that loving you is right

But I don't care if the sun don't rise tomorrow

If I can't have you with me tonight”

 

The words came easily. He stopped pacing as the children drifted off, he looked at Ennis as he finished the last lines of the song.

 

“Well I know I'll keep on loving you

Cause true love can't be killed

I ought to get you off of my mind

But I guess I never will

I could have a dozen others

But I know I'd love you still

Cause I get so doggone lonesome”

 

The room falls into silence. Only the sounds of sleepy children and the rattle of a distant train outside.

 

Jack put the girls in their beds. Ennis turned the lamp off, leaving the girls in darkness. Jack followed Ennis out of the room. Finally breaking the silence when the door to the nursery was closed.

 

“Can I use your shower?”

 

“Yeah.” Ennis answered. “Bout time.”

 

Jack laughed quietly. He went off to clean himself. Ennis had been half joking, but he’d been completely right. He hadn’t had a shower since the one after his rodeo in the motel. It had been days since. Days of sweat and work and vomiting children. He was glad to step into the hot water. Jack sighed.

 

Soap slid over his skin as he washed the days off. He ran a soapy palm over his dick, looking down at it while he cleaned it. He hadn’t been around Ennis for so long without having sex since their first weeks on Brokeback. The last month had been a sexual marathon. Jack thought he’d never ride a horse the same again. He shook his head, washing away the soap. It wasn’t a good time. Ennis was a fresh widower with two little kids on his hands. Jack should be grateful he was there at all. He was. Even with the challenge of sick children he was happier than he’d been in months. He wasn’t going to fuck that up by thinking with the wrong head.

 

He stepped out of the shower feeling refreshed and pulled on a fresh change of clothes. Finally wearing pajamas to bed again. He slept in his jeans too often. He dried his hair while he walked to the bedroom.

 

Ennis was laying in bed, looking at the ceiling. Jack sat on the other side, tossing the towel into the hamper.

 

“Jack.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Thank you. For coming. And helping me.” Ennis said.

 

The thought sounded incomplete. But Ennis didn’t continue. “You’re welcome.” Jack finally replied.

 

“Get over here. And turn that light off.”

 

Jack did as he was told. Turning off the light and cuddling into Ennis’ arms. It was much better when they were both in pajamas. Jack could feel all of Ennis’ skin pressed against his. Their exposed arms. Their chests, though covered by thin fabric, shared warmth. Ennis pressed his face against Jack’s head. Jack could feel Ennis’ lips graze over his scalp, a gentle kiss. Their fingers laced together between them. In the dark their intimacy was hidden. Nobody could see their shared weakness. Not even themselves. They could touch each other without guilt. Ennis could press small kisses into Jack’s hair and face and pretend he didn’t mean anything by it. They exploited that false anonymity to its fullest extent.

 

It was a good night.

Chapter Text

The next day the girls were downright chipper. They woke up to Alma climbing on the bed, big smile on her face. “Daddy! Daddy! Wake up!”

Ennis groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes to block out the sun hitting his face. “What am I wakin’ up for, darlin?”

“Pancakes.” Alma said seriously.

“Pancakes, huh?” Jack stirred beside him, not quite processing the situation. He nuzzled his face into Ennis’ collar, mumbling sleepily.

The scratch of Jack’s stubble against his chest reminded Ennis that this was not, in fact, his wife sleeping beside him. This was Jack. And his daughters were looking at them curled up in bed together. Alma Jr. was bouncing on his lap while Jenny tried to climb up with them. Her legs were too short and she couldn’t get any purchase on the covers so she couldn’t haul herself up. His daughters caught him with a man in his bed.

Ennis shot up instantly, hauling his daughter in close to his chest. “Alright sweetheart, let’s get those pancakes for ya.”

Alma cheered. Jenny followed them out of the bedroom while Jack scrambled out of bed, suddenly realizing the situation.

Ennis was already in the kitchen, fetching eggs and milk out of the fridge. There was box buttermilk mix on the counter. Good for pancakes and waffles “like mama used to make!” according to the advertisement on the box. Alma sat on the counter, swinging her legs over the edge while she watched her daddy crack eggs into a bowl. Jenny sat on the floor of the kitchen, playing with a spoon Ennis had given her.

“Alright baby. Syrup or honey today?”

“Syrup!” Alma chirped.

“Anything for you.”

Alma beamed at her daddy. Ennis measured out milk and box mix and whisked it all together until it made a thick batter. He poured it into a hot pan with butter and let it cook while he put on a pot of coffee. Jack watched from the doorway. Not only because he didn’t want to intrude on their family time when he wasn’t needed, but also because he liked seeing Ennis like this. He always thought the man was handsome. Rugged. Well equipped for mountain survival and hunting and cooking over fires. But over a stove in a kitchen with his kids? He looked stunning. It was a different kind of attractive. One he’d never had the privilege to experience before. Mountain Ennis and daddy Ennis were two different men. It was novel.

Ennis turned to his daughter so she could watch as he flipped the pancake and caught it in the pan. The satisfying sizzle rang through the apartment. As did Alma’s shouts of joy.

“Alright. These’ll be done in a minute. Jack! Get yer butt out here and set this table.”

Jack, surprised at being addressed, did as he was told. Putting down pairs of plates and cutlery at each chair. Ennis rounded on him with a simple warning, “hot,” and set the pancakes on the table.

“Alright. You girls dig in. Me and my friend have some talkin’ to do ‘fore we join ya.” He set Jenny in the highchair this time. Pulling out a Seat for Alma and kissing his daughters heads before pulling Jack out of the kitchen, back into the bedroom.

As soon as the door was closed Ennis was shoving him up against it. “You’ve got to stop.” Ennis said, low and angry.

“Stop what?”

“Stop it! My daughters can’t be seeing us like this. I can’t expose them to that kind of thing.”

“Like what kind of thing?” Jack’s voice trembled on the words. But not with tears. With fury. “Affection? If I recall correctly you’re the one who keeps pulling me into your arms at night.”

Ennis’ arms tensed. He looked like he was seriously considering hitting Jack. “It ain’t affection that’s a problem. Me and Alma were plenty affectionate. That’s just the problem. Their mama just died. I can’t be fooling around with you in front of them. It ain’t right and you know it.”

“Fooling around?! They didn’t exactly walk in on you inside of me!”

“Keep your damn voice down!” Ennis hissed. “I’m not fucking around, Jack. I will throw your ass out.”

“Just.” Jack shoved Ennis away. “Fine. But don’t expect me to hold you at night if you’re going to act like this in the morning.”

“I’ve done fine without you holding me at night for a long time, Jack Twist.” Ennis said.

Well I wasn’t. Jack thought. He’d miss him so bad at night that his body ached with need. But he couldn’t say that. Not when Ennis was so wrapped up in the guilt of his own feelings like this. So angry at what they had. So he said nothing.

They left and sat to eat pancakes. There was a definite tension between them. Jenny seemed oblivious, but Alma was looking between the men with a nervous kind of curiosity. Ennis smiled at his daughter and soaked her pancakes in syrup. “Eat up, darling. You have some pounds to put back on.”

Jack chased his pancakes around his plate with his fork, not eating much. Ennis ate as normal, ignoring his friend’s behavior completely. It was hard to ignore the gnawing sensation of guilt at Jack’s dejected face. But he couldn’t back down. When he thought of his daughters being subjected to the sins he was weak to... it made Ennis sick to think of it. It was harmless now, sure. But how long would it be before they, as Jack so crudely put it, ‘walk in on him inside of Jack?’ He had to do his best to control himself. For his daughters sake.

He drank his coffee in silence.

“Daddy, can we go out today?” Alma asked.

Ennis contemplated. Taking a deep sip of coffee. It ought to be good to get the kids out the house. Cooped up for days being miserable. “Where would we go darlin’?”

“Ice cream!” Alma said instantly.

Ennis smiled softly. “Ah. You were after somethin’. Should’ve known.”

“Please daddy! I’ll be an extra good girl. No foolin’.”

Ennis was easily persuaded by his daughter’s bright smile. It had been too long since he’d seen it. “Well, alright. You’re eating your vegetables tonight though. No whining.”

“Yay!”

They left pretty soon after they’d finished their pancakes. Jack’s was left decimated and unfinished on his plate. He followed them out. Alma walked beside her daddy, holding her finger in her little hand. The baby rested on Ennis’ hip.

Ennis put them in the back of his truck while Jack climbed quietly into the passenger seat. Folding his arms over his chest.

The ice cream place was the concrete building Jack had seen on his way into town. A painted sign advertising its purpose in the gravel parking lot beside it. The building was painted a cheerful red to disguise its drab grey and make it more appealing. A white and red awning extended from the building to shade a window out of the front. That was where you’d place your order to the lady waiting inside. She’d scoop your ice cream of choice, put it in a cone or dish, and hand it out the window to you with a flat wooden spoon. There were picnic tables and benches where you’d sit to eat. There was no option to eat indoors. But it was good for the Wyoming summers and for family outings.

“Yeah, can I get two small vanillas?” Ennis asked the lady in the window. “One in a dish and the other... you want a cone or a dish, baby?”

“Cone!” Alma said. “Pleeeease!”

“You heard her.” He finished with a smile.

The worker served their ice creams over the counter. “That’ll be 68 cents.”

“Thank you ma’am.” Ennis pulled out his wallet, fishing around for the change he needed. He had two quarters, making fifty cents. But he couldn’t find the rest of the change he needed to pay. Jack watched him struggle for a moment before he decided to step in. He slapped the last few cents on the counter.

Ennis glared at Jack. “I don’t need you paying for me.”

“I’m not paying for you. I’m paying for the girls.” Jack said easily. “And myself. Can I get a chocolate? Thank you, darlin’.”

Ennis sighed, slipping his wallet back into his back pocket. Their ice creams were prepared quickly. Alma was given her vanilla cone, Jenny her little dish of vanilla, and Jack his chocolate cone. They seated themselves at one of the benches and enjoyed their treats in silence. Jenny was enraptured with her dish, eating the ice cream like it was the only thing in the world. Alma chattered away about something she’d seen on television, smearing ice cream all over her face while she ate.

Jack savored what he had. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had an ice cream. He was so caught up in the experience that he didn’t notice Ennis’ greedy eyes fixed on his mouth.

He finished his quicker than the girls. Licking the sticky drips that had run down his fingers. Swirling his tongue around the edges to get them clean. Ennis’ hands tightened into fists in his lap.

He ate the cone in just a few bites and leaned back with a sigh of satisfaction. “That was good.”

“Yeah.” Ennis said quietly.

“So, money tight?”

“Sure was before all this. Now we don’t have Alma’s income coming in no more and I ain’t been to work in a week.” Ennis said to the hands folded in his lap. Jack felt a pang of pity. He knew how Ennis was about these things. It was a matter of principle. Providing for his family. Any man could understand that.

“Well you’ll get back in the swing of it soon.” Jack assured him. “I’m thinking of searching for work too. Maybe somethin’ nearby.”

“Ain’t got another rodeo to get to?” Ennis asked bitterly.

“Rodeoing ain’t much of a job. It’s rough work that eats more money than it makes. I’m better off getting a job paving roads or somethin’, fixing fences, I don’t know.”

Ennis stood, making it clear that Jack was meant to follow. They walked a distance, far enough to not be heard but not out of sight of the girls.

Ennis rounded on him again. Same angry expression from this morning. “You sure this just about your career choices?”

“Oh, piss off, Ennis.” Jack spat.

“I told you, two guys can’t be livin’ together.” Ennis growled. “‘Specially not in this town. Fire and brimstone, the lot of em. We’re the first into the fire if they figure us out. You hear me?”

“Ennis.” Jack was frustrated. “I don’t care where I am. Or what I’m doin. As long as I’ve got you. Fire and brimstone doesn’t sound so bad with you.”

Ennis scowled. Jack and his lofty ideas. “Well I fer one don’t wanna be pitched into the fire.”

“Daddy!” Alma was running towards them. Her shirt ruined with ice cream. Sticky face and hands wet with it. Jenny followed after her sister as fast as she could. Ennis immediately dropped the subject. Turning to his daughter to catch her in his arms as she ran into them.

“Oh, baby you’re getting big.” Ennis groaned dramatically. Despite his words his lifted Alma with ease. Jenny finally caught up. She too was a sticky mess. The lap of her skirt had a drying puddle of vanilla on it. “Let’s take you girls to the park. It’s a nice day out.”

“Okay, daddy.” Alma said into Ennis’ shoulder.

Jack followed miserably behind. He felt like all they’d done that day was fight. It was going be a long day if this is what it was going to be like.

The playground was only two blocks away from the ice cream place. It wasn’t the fanciest place in the world. Had a metal slide that scorched Alma Jr.’s thighs last summer. That had been a rough day. A swing set, a single rusted seesaw that squealed when it was used, a jungle gym, and a couple small horses on springs that his daughters liked to play cowboy on. The paint job faded and chipped on the saddles, snout, and tail. When his girls were smaller they’d contented themselves with the swings. Ennis and Alma would push them while they screaming with delight, soaring into the air. But now that Junior was bigger she was more adventurous, climbing the jungle gym and hanging from the bars to test her limits. Jenny was too small to play at her level just yet. So Jack went to push her on the swings while Ennis kept a watchful eye on his climbing daughter on the other side of the playground.

“Daddy, look!” Alma said, pulling her knees above her head and hooking them around the bar she hung to. Letting go of her hand’s grip, she swung upside down and hung there.

“Wow.” He said in his most impressed voice. “Darlin’ you’re a regular gymnast.”

Alma grinned, swinging her hangs back up to pull herself upright. She sat atop the structure now, picking at the chipping paint job while she caught her breath.

“Daddy, why are you fighting with the nice man?”

Ennis sighed. Alma was like this. Always asking questions he couldn’t answer. Once she asked why the sky was blue and refused to accept “because God made it so.” Ennis had to go to the library to try and find for the answer. She’d bothered him all week about it until he finally gave her the answer. He couldn’t say it as eloquent as he wanted. He wasn’t quite sure he understood it himself. The air in the sky was made mostly of nitrogen and the rays of the sun interacted with it to make blue light somehow. Alma finally let him off the hook, but not before teaching him a lesson. She’d never accept the easy answer.

“It’s complicated, baby.”

She wasn’t going to accept that. Just like she wouldn’t accept God making the sky blue.

Ennis sighed, frustrated. “Jack wants something I can’t give him right now.”

Alma also wasn’t going to accept that. “I just think he wants to spend time with you. You’re always telling me to be nice and play with my sister. Even when she’s being really annoying and not leaving me alone!”

“This is different.” Ennis tried to explain.

“I like him, daddy.” Alma said. “He sings real beautiful.”

Beautiful isn’t the way Ennis would describe Jack’s singing. It wasn’t horrible, no. But it wasn’t church choir ready neither. “Beautiful?” He repeated.

“Yeah. He sings...” Junior hesitated. She was searching for a word. Ennis waited, but she couldn’t seem to grasp a good one. “Sad. But happy?” She decided, and didn’t seem satisfied with her own description.

“Sad.” Ennis echoed. “But happy.” He’d only seen Jack sing to his daughters that one time. But he’d heard him sing countless times on Brokeback. Throwing his head back and letting his voice echo off the trees and mountain side. Jack sang loud, with all his might. He sang silly, but happy. Even though he was off-key sometimes and howled too damn loud, Ennis could never deny him. Jack sang with his soul. On Brokeback it was always church hymns and things he heard on country radio. Songs about working on railroads and freedom under the sky. But when he sang for his daughters, there was something else, now that he thought of it. He chose sadder songs, and sang sadder too. It was sad, disguised underneath the cheerful tone and the silly guitar imitation. But also hopeful.

It was so....

Lonely.

“I know what you mean.” He said.

“I want him to stay, daddy.” Alma said. “He’s like mama sometimes.”

That had Ennis’ throat closing up. He felt guilty for bringing Jack into his wife’s bed and guilty for not providing for his daughters. Not healing them from their grief. He wasn’t good at this. At talking about feelings. Alma was always the one who comforted them when they cried. Now Jack stepped in, singing to them when they were inconsolable, doing what he couldn’t. What Alma used to do for him. Could he deny Junior whatever comfort Jack gave her? He wasn’t sure he could deny himself the comfort. And he was. Comforted and stung in equal measure by Jack’s presence.

“Okay.” He said.

Alma was back to climbing. Experimenting with her ability to transfer from bar to bar. Swinging like a monkey in a tree, but eventually she dropped, whining at the way it stung her palms. Ennis kissed her red hands while she sniffled.

“Alright, you need a break. How about the swings? Swings are fun.”

Junior agreed, and they joined Jack and Jenny. Jenny seemed to be enjoying herself. Jack not so much. He was trying to hide it, but he’d always worn his heart on his sleeve. Again Ennis felt a little guilty. Guilt, it seemed, was the emotion of the day.

Alma hopped onto the swing beside her sister, kicking her legs impatiently while he waited for Ennis to start pushing her. This was the thing he was best at. He wasn’t good at comforting sick children, and his cooking would never be as good as Alma’s, his magic healing kisses never seemed to be as good as their mama’s. But playing was his domain. He pushed swings higher than Alma ever dared to. He didn’t worry about them ruining their shoes or getting their clothes dirty outside. He still grabbed his little girls and tossed them into the air, and his daughters would scream with joy, knowing their daddy would always be there to catch them when they fell. He let them feel like they were flying, because he trusted himself to keep them safe. They trusted him in turn, and even now Alma flew into the air.

There was a moment after she’d been pushed forward. After she’d gone racing up into the air where she lost all of her forward momentum. Suspended for a moment before she fell and went racing back to be pushed again. Where she felt weightless, and her body lifted off of the seat of the swing and the only thing keeping her on it was her grip on the chains, where she felt for a moment what it was really like to fly. That was what Ennis gave her.

Ennis, and now Jack. Pushing Jenny right alongside her. Jenny was still in the baby swing, the kind you put your feet through so they didn’t go flying away across the wood chips. Jenny laughed. Junior lifted her face towards the sun and closed her eyes. Feeling the wind in her hair and the sun warm her sticky face. Time passed like that for a while. Just like it had before mama died. Like it hadn’t since she had. Like her family was complete.

Alma didn’t want Jack to go away. She didn’t want to lose any more family ever again.

 



Eventually the girls tired themselves out. First on the swings and then chasing each other around on the grass outside the wood chips of the playground. Ennis was carrying Alma in his arms where she dozed. They were headed back to the car after the girls had had their fun and exercise. Jack was holding Jenny, who was also taking a nap. Ennis was thinking about the day they’d had, and how he’d treated Jack, and what his daughter had said.

Ennis cleared his throat to get Jack’s attention. “I uh, I’m glad you came with us today.”

Jack didn’t say anything, but out of the corner of his eye Ennis saw his surprise.

“I would put you up. Until you got a job in the area. If you’re still thinking that’s what you wanna do.”

Jack looked even more surprised. “Thought you didn’t want me around.”

Ennis turned his head a little to the left, hoping Jack couldn’t see the way his face turned red. “Yeah, well. Can’t stop you from settlin’ down wherever you want. Might as well keep ya around so you don’t get into trouble.”

Jack smiled. “Come on, trouble’s why the ladies like me.”

“Yeah, well. The ladies love a scandal.” Ennis smiled easily. Smiles always seemed easy around Jack. “Can already hear the church gossip about ya.”

“I’m lookin’ forward to it.” Jack said sincerely.

It wasn’t so bad, he supposed. Ennis had much needed help with the girls and a second source of income if Jack stuck around. And if he flirted with the ladies around town maybe nobody’d suspect them. He wondered if he could get away with saying that Jack was his out of town cousin. The loud obnoxious cousin. Everyone had at least one in the family. It wasn’t safe. It was probably a really stupid idea. And it wouldn’t always be easy.

He held Alma closer, bouncing her once to adjust his grip on her. Well, life was never easy. The challenge made it interesting.

Chapter Text

Jack made good on his promise of looking for a job. Woke up the next few mornings after sleeping on the couch, stretched his stiff muscles and went out into town. Went around to all the ranch foremen in town looking for jobs to do. They’d consider him, but they weren’t necessarily keen on outsiders. Small towns never were. Not until they got to know you as their neighbors and friends. Someone you could rely on.

 

“Don’t worry about that right now. You’ll get work eventually. God knows these guys could use another ranch hand.” Ennis said. “We got groceries to worry about.”

 

That was true enough. Now that the girls were no longer sick they ate like lumberjacks. They were going to run out of milk soon and they didn’t have any more canned vegetables in the cupboard. If they ran out of coffee they were in big trouble. It was time to go shopping. Something Ennis had been trying to avoid for as long as possible. But Jack could dig into some of his rodeo money if they couldn’t get everything they needed. He put some in his pocket just in case.

 

The girls were excited to get out again. They walked with them to the store. They avoided every crack in the sidewalk, hopping over them instead. Ennis herded them inside the grocery easily.

 

“Ennis!” A man inside said with a kind smile. “How’re you holding up?”

 

“Mornin’, Monroe. I’m doin’ my best.”

 

Monroe looked genuinely sympathetic. “Yeah. Well, you need anything you just ask. Alma was a real sweet woman.”

 

Ennis nodded quietly, his jaw clenched. Jack recognized it as his “socially awkward situation” face.

 

“Who’s this with ya? I saw him come in the other day. But he didn’t stay long enough for me to introduce myself.” Monroe reached his hand out to shake Jack. He took it firmly.

 

“This is Jack.” Ennis said before Jack could answer for himself. “My out of town cousin. He’s here to help me while I get back into things. Rodeo cowboy, but he’s thinkin’ of settling down here.”

 

Monroe smiled. “Well it’s a real pleasure to meet you, Jack.”

 

“Jack Twist. Ennis likes to forget that people got two names.” Jack said smoothly. Out of town cousin, huh? He supposed that was as good an excuse as any. If people believed it they might not bother them about living together for however long they did.

 

“I’m glad you’re here. We’ve all been worried about him. I can rest easy knowing he’s got someone helping him out.” Monroe said to him, finally retracting his hand. “Again, you just ask for anything you need Ennis.”

 

“Thanks, Monroe.” With that all done Ennis shuffled off to get a basket.

 

“He seems nice.” Jack said passively.

 

“Yeah.” Ennis agreed gruffly. “He was real good to Alma. She worked here. What’s on the list?”

 

Jack looked down at the scrap of paper he’d been entrusted with. “Uh, apples. Milk, canned corn, beans, coffee, ketchup, pancake mix, eggs.”

 

Ennis steered them down the isle for canned goods. They got a couple of cans of corn, some beans, and then Jack convinced Ennis to get potatoes and carrots. They needed variety, after all.

 

“Coffee, next.” Jack insisted. “I don’t know how I’d go on without it.”

 

“Oh, you’d a mess. More than what ya are now.” Ennis teased.

 

“Daddy! Daddy!” Jenny tugged at Ennis’ pant legs to get his attention. “Strawberries!”

 

“Strawberries.” Ennis glanced inside his wallet with a small frown. “Yeah. I guess we can get em.”

 

Jack scooped the toddler into his arms. Jenny, now used to being held by Jack, instantly buried her face into his chest. They continued on and got the cheapest coffee money could buy. Ketchup was picked up quickly. Jack frowned in thought. “You think we should get some meat?”

 

“Meat’s expensive.” Ennis grunted.

 

“It don’t have to be nothin’ fancy. Just some sausage. I’ll even cook tonight.” Jack offered.

 

Ennis looked again into his wallet. “What do you girls think of sausage?”

 

“I like sausage.” Alma said.

 

“Well. Alright.” Ennis steered them towards the meat. Bacon was expensive. As was all the better cuts of meet, roasts and ribs and steaks. Sausage was cheap enough. The spare bits of meat scraped away from bone that no one wanted to buy repackaged with some casing and seasonings. Ennis picked out the pork variety and tossed it in their basket. Right next to the deli was the dairy and produce.

 

“Alright, baby.” Ennis said, lifting Alma by her armpits to look at the selection of strawberries. “You pick.”

 

Alma, as it turns out, had a very discerning eye. She turned over the pulp boxes they came in, squinting her eyes between the gaps, picking strawberries out and turning them over in her hand.

 

“Whatcha lookin’ for?” Jack asked.

 

“Mushy bits.” Alma said. “I hate it when we get mushy ones. Once daddy found a bug in one of them.” The girl wrinkled her nose in distaste.

 

“Fair enough.” Jack said.

 

Finally Alma found one that lived up to her standards. She pointed at the box she wanted. Ennis set her down to get the one she picked. After that they got their milk and eggs from the refrigerated cases.

 

Jack glanced at the list. “Oh, we forgot pancake mix.”

 

“Alright. Let’s get it and get out. I’ve got stuff to do today.”

 

Jack scanned the shelves for what they needed. He hummed quietly as he walked. “What are you gettin’ up to today?”

 

“I gotta plan Alma’s funeral.”

 

Jack’s steps faltered. “Oh.”

 

“Yeah. Death is so expensive.” Ennis said quietly. “I can’t afford a casket or a plot of land to bury her in. Much less a gravestone. We’re having her cremated but there’s still a wake to plan, family to invite, and a cremation to pay for.”

 

Jack glanced at Junior at their feet. She didn’t seem to be paying any mind to what the adults were saying. Boring adult business she didn’t care much about.

 

“Just tell me if you need anything from me.” Jack said quietly.

 

Ennis didn’t answer, but Jack knew he heard. He didn’t push it. They grabbed their pancake mix and went to pay.

 

There at the counter was the same woman who he’d paid the other day. When the girls were sick and he went on a desperate errand to find something they’d eat. Jack glanced at her name tag. Lottie.

 

Lottie looked straight at him. “Well, well, well. Look what the wind blew in.”

 

Jack smiled. “Sorry I didn’t get to introduce myself the other day. I’m Jack Twist. Relation of Ennis.”

 

Lottie’s eyes glanced at Ennis, who was rummaging around in his wallet. “Ah, I see. You settling down here?”

 

“Sure hope so, ma’am. Gonna try and find work.”

 

She nodded. Had a stern face, the kind that always looked just a little bored. “Well. There’s roads that need paving next town over. I don’t think they need skilled labor. Just strong hands that aren’t herding cows right now.” She mentioned as she run up their items.

 

“Really?” Jack made a mental note of it. “Thanks for the advice.”

 

“Don’t be takin’ no advice from me. Just mentioning where you can find work. That’ll be $4.92.”

 

Ennis didn’t look happy about it. He laid down a five on the counter. She gave them their change and wished them a good day.

 

“Well, that was productive.” Said Jack, walking out with bagged groceries and a pleased smile. “I think I may have a job soon.”

 

“That’d be best for everybody.” Ennis agreed.

 

Jack put away the groceries while Ennis started on the paperwork authorizing and paying for Alma’s cremation. The girls drew on scrap paper in the other room with some crayons Ennis had retrieved for them. Jack made lunch for everyone while Ennis worked. Beans, toast, and strawberries for the girls. The girls ate at the table quietly while Jack did the dishes. Ennis sighed, frustrated. The girls looked over, worried eyes fixed on his creased brow and set jaw.

 

Jack took their plates for washing. “Why don’t you girls go back to coloring? I’ll put something on TV for ya.”

 

Jack turned the channel onto some episode of the Flinstones that was airing. He turned the volume down enough that he hoped it wouldn’t disturb Ennis and went back to check on the man.

 

Ennis was still working on the papers, clicking his pen when it wasn’t moving. Jack sat across from him.

 

“You okay?”

 

“No.” Ennis answered honestly. “This is more money than we have right now. Have to get back to work.”

 

“You’re going back at the end of the week anyway.” Jack reminded him.

 

“I can’t wait until Friday if this is how much a cremation costs. No idea what they’re charging so much for.” Ennis grumbled. “Gotta go back sooner. Behind on bills already as it is.”

 

“Well, I’ve got money.” Jack said. “I won a rodeo just before I came here. Won a big prize. A hundred dollars.”

 

“Jesus, Jack.” Ennis swore. “You’ve been carrying that much money around with you all this time?”

 

Jack nodded. “Saving it for something good. Thinking we could put it towards a ranch, if you want to. Don’t know why you’re living in this apartment to begin with.”

 

“Alma was tired of the ranch we was on. Made her lonely. Came here with the kids to please her.” Ennis explained. “Could move out now. Get a mortgage, buy another small ranch. But the way things are going right now I can hardly afford this place.”

 

Jack was all the more determined to find a job. They could have land together. They could live in peace and have the sweet life he dreamed of. Not at Lightning Flat. As if he would introduce his curmudgeonly father to the girls. No way. Things were different now. Jack had a new dream. A dream of having land of their own, a vegetable garden, raise the girls together. The family he thought he’d never have.

 

“I better find a job then.” He stood from the table. “I’m gonna go to the next town and see if I can find what needs doing. Be back soon.”

 

“Alright.” Ennis muttered. He focused his attention back on the paper in front of him. Jack grabbed his hat, jacket, and keys.

 

The next town over was Hudson. Twenty minutes away. With a population close to four hundred people. There was nothing but dirt roads and cattle farms. There was a Main Street with all the shops in town, but that too was dirt. Jack parked his truck in front of the community hall. Best place to start.

 

Inside was a desk where an older woman sat, tapping away noisily at a typewriter. She sat in front of a line of filing cabinets. Her name plaque said Madge and called her the secretary and record keeper.

 

Jack stood in front of the desk. “Afternoon. I’m wondering if you’re hiring for the roads to be paved?”

 

Madge turned her attention onto him, fingers paused over the keys of her typewriter. “You looking for work?”

 

“Yes ma’am. Got a strong back and I’m ready to put it to use.”

 

Madge turned in her chair and grabbed a file. “Yes. We’re paving Main Street. It’s about time. We got some money from the state to do it. Lot of men looking for work around here. Why should we hire you instead of a local?”

 

“My handsome face?” Jack offered with a playful grin. Madge did not look charmed. “I’m young, I’m strong, and I’m ready to work every day for as long as you need. Maybe there’s nothing special about me, but I’m offering my strength.”

 

Madge handed him a paper from the file. “Fill this out. If you get the job we’ll call you at the number you provide. Don’t leave anything blank.”

 

Jack took a seat with the paper and filled it out with the pen provided. Basic stuff. Name, age, past job experiences, address, how to contact him. It was a surprisingly quick paper to fill out. Within minutes he was handing it back to Madge, who dutifully put it in a basket of other applications.

 

“You’ll get a call within five business days.” She said deadpan.

 

“Thank you, ma’am.”

 

Madge didn’t answer. So Jack turned around, walked out, and drove himself home.

 

By the time Jack got home Ennis was done filling out his papers. Or perhaps he just gave up for the time being. He was sprawled across the couch looking worn out. The girls were still watching television just like Jack had left them.

 

“How’d it go?” Ennis asked tiredly.

 

“Not bad. I didn’t get an interview or anything. Just filled out an application. Don’t know if they’re even giving interviews.” Jack shrugged. “They said they’d call me in five days about if I got the job or not.”

 

“Great.” Ennis said. “When are you gonna cook dinner? I could use the food.”

 

Jack smiled. “I could start right now.”

 

“Do that.” Ennis ordered, pulling a pillow over his face.

 

“Daddy’s tired.” Jenny said.

 

Jack took off his shoes and hat. “Yeah, I know. You just leave your daddy alone. You need anything come get me.”

 

“‘Kay.” Jenny replied.

 

Cooking was simple. At least for Jack it was. He set the oven to preheat and got out everything he’d need. A dish for baking, tin foil, and a knife. He cut up the sausage into chunks and put them in tin foil. Then went rummaging around for cans. In the cupboard was the carrots and potatoes they’d gotten. He took them and set them aside. In the pantry, hidden behind spare seasonings and tins of spam were canned bell peppers. Jack took them too. Along with salt, pepper, and some cayenne.

 

Draining the vegetables of their liquid and dumping them out of the can was short work. Put them in with the sausage and season with the spice he’d picked out. Salt and pepper. Then close up the tin foil. Wrapped all up together and put in a baking dish. Put in the hot oven to cook. Simple.

 

“Daddy.” Jack didn’t even register the child until she pulled on his pant legs. “Daddy!”

 

He looked down, confused. “Are you talking to me?”

 

Jenny nodded. “Pee peed myself.”

 

“Oh, well we better take care of that.” Jack said. He lead Jenny into the bathroom and changed her. “Honey, you know I’m not your daddy, right?”

 

“Oh.” Jenny frowned. “What then?”

 

“Uh.” He didn’t know what to say. “I guess just call me Jack for now.”

 

Jenny nodded. “‘Kay. Kissie?”

 

Jack gave her several kisses on her face before letting her down to go back to her sister. Dinner was done within minutes. In that time he had the table set and ready. All that was needed was for the vegetables to warm up and the sausage to cook.

 

“Dinner’s ready!” He called, setting the dish on the table.

 

The girls came running in right away. Always eager for mealtime. Ennis took a bit more time. Groaning as he dragged himself off the couch and shuffled into the kitchen. He sniffed in the doorway. “What’d’ya make?”

 

Jack pulled the tinfoil apart, revealing the sausage and vegetables inside. “Sausage and vegetables.”

 

Ennis looked into the dish. “Where’d you get peppers?”

 

“Behind the spam.” He answered.

 

Ennis shrugged and sat down.

 

“Daddy! Daddy! Can Jack say grace?” Alma asked.

 

“Oh. I guess.”

 

Jack smiled. Easy. He’d been listening to his mama say grace every dinner for years. Didn’t mean he couldn’t have some fun with it. They joined hands, bowing their heads. “Thank you Lord,” Jack began, “for this food. For our health. For these lovely girls I’m eating with. May the food I cooked not be fu– messed up and may it nourish our bodies. Amen.”

 

Ennis rolled his eyes. “Don’t think that’s how you’re s’possed to say it.”

 

“Well I’m sure the Lord heard it anyway.” He picked up the serving spoon and dumped a serving of vegetables and sausage on Ennis’ plate. Same with the girls and himself. Ennis gave the food one more cautionary glance before taking his first bite.

 

He swirled the food around in his mouth and raised a brow. It wasn’t the best thing he’d ever had. It was kind of wet, to be honest. The vegetables were mushy. But it was seasoned well enough and better than anything Jack had cooked up on Brokeback before. Ennis chalked it up to better ingredients and tools at his disposal.

 

“You like it? The sausage grease makes the vegetables taste good.” Jack shoveled the food into his mouth.

 

“Well, it’s passable.” Ennis said honestly.

 

Alma and Jenny were eating without complaint. That was enough of a commendation of Jack’s success all on its own. The bell peppers were the worst offender when it came to the wetness. But they brought a flavor that balanced the dish. Ennis couldn’t deny his success. With a bit of work, maybe vegetables that didn’t come suspended in water to begin with, he could be a decent cook.

 

“Not bad.” He said, because he was feeling generous. Jack’s bright smile shouldn’t have meant as much as it did.

 

Ennis and Jack did the dishes together, side by side, elbows bumping as they cleaned in silence. It suddenly struck Ennis how easy this was. How well Jack fit into his life where Alma had been. Actually, he fit better than Alma ever had. What did that say about him?

 

He pushed the thought away.

 

The girls went to bed after a long night of television. Jack even gave them a handful of peppermint candies he’d picked up at a bar after a rodeo. Spoiling them rotten, he was. Ennis got the feeling it would only get worse after Jack got a job and had some money to spend on them. He couldn’t deny how happy that made him. The girls deserved all the love they could get.

 

Jack tucked them into bed and told them stories that Ennis wasn’t sure were entirely true. Dramatic stories with big expressions about his travels. The trouble he got into with bulls, the mountains and rivers he’d seen, the crowds he’d performed for. Ennis leaned against the doorframe and let Jack charm his kids to sleep.

 

Then they were settling in for the night. With one bathroom in the apartment they had to share. This didn’t cause a lot of conflict usually. Despite the wide open nature of Brokeback, their campsite had been very small. They’d gotten used to living close together a long time ago. The only difference this time was walls and a stove. They brushed their teeth together over a very small sink, washed their faces and went to bed. Jack slept on the couch since their argument about sharing beds around the kids, and Ennis slept alone in the bedroom.

 

Or, they usually did.

 

Tonight Jack was being particularly distracting. Or maybe Ennis was just hyper aware of his behavior. Every brush of their elbows had his nerves jumping under his skin. A sharp change from the earlier closeness of doing the dishes, which Ennis hadn’t reacted to at all. Out of the corner of his eye he could see muscular arms, now exposed by his sleep shirt. Ennis looked away, trying to regain control over himself. Where had this come from? The past few days had been completely asexual. He hadn’t thought of touching Jack that way even when they’d been curled up in bed together. Now he could hardly keep himself from taking Jack right over the sink. Jack seemed totally oblivious to Ennis’ struggle, the bastard. He leaned over to spit the lingering toothpaste in the sink, giving Ennis a good view of his ass.

 

God damn it.

 

Ennis quickly spat into the sink, rinsed off his toothbrush, and left without washing his face.

 

“Ennis?”

 

He stifled a groan. “What?”

 

“Did I do something?”

 

Ennis was trying his best not to look at Jack. “Why would ya think that?”

 

“Because you stomped out of the bathroom and you ain’t lookin’ me in the eye.” Jack stepped into his line of vision. “I’m not doin’ anything, am I?”

 

Just existing around Ennis was enough. For whatever reason the thing between them had suddenly caught up with him. He was trying not to lose it. His girls were just a short walk away. This wasn’t the mountain. He didn’t have the luxury of isolation where he didn’t have to worry about being caught. He bit his lip. His mind was reminding him once again of all the danger they were in just being together.

 

“Ennis?”

 

“Back off.” Ennis said shortly.

 

Jack looked hurt. “C’mon.” He huffed. “I’ve been good these past days. Can’t you just–”

 

“Shut up.” Ennis really was ruined by Jack.

 

“Ennis.” Jack said again, more sharply this time. He knew. Ennis knew he was being a jackass right now. “What’s going on with you?”

 

He heard the girls shift in their beds in the other room. They could probably hear him arguing with Jack. He pulled Jack into the bedroom and closed the door. If they were going to hash it out he didn’t want his girls to hear it.

 

“It caught up with me.” Ennis whispered.

 

To anyone else it would have sounded like complete nonsense. But he knew Jack understood. Jack gave Ennis a sympathetic look. “Hey, it’s okay. Not gonna do anything you don’t want.”

 

He knew that. Jack had been a gentleman the entire time he’d been with Ennis. It was Ennis who was itching with the barely suppressed need to touch him all the time. It wasn’t about Jack doing something Ennis didn’t want. It was about Ennis doing what he did want.

 

He hauled Jack toward him by the sleeves of his sleep shirt and brought him into a possessive kiss. Jack stumbled on his own feet at the sudden motion and moaned in surprise. Jack tasted like spearmint toothpaste and the lingering cigarette he’d had earlier.

 

Yep. He was completely screwed.

 

Ennis backed Jack up against the door. Just like he had a few days earlier, when they were arguing about exposing the girls to their behavior. This time though Ennis turned the lock on the door. Even if the girls got up in the middle of the night they wouldn’t be catching him doing something he wasn’t supposed to. Jack heard the click of the lock. The sound had his blood pressure rising like a river behind a dam. There was a finality to the sound. Ennis was committed to having his way with Jack.

 

With that done Ennis turned them around, pushing Jack towards the bed. “Take your clothes off.” Ennis ordered. “And be quiet. If you wake them girls up I will kick you out of my house. Understand?”

 

Jack nodded eagerly. Now that Ennis had given the go ahead he was burning with need. He’d never taken his clothes off so fast in his life. It helped that he wasn’t wearing a lot to begin with. All he had to do was untie the drawstring on his pajamas and drop his pants and boxers to the floor. Pulled his shirt off in one fluid motion and he was naked. By the time he turned around Ennis was also completely undressed.

 

Ennis was looking at Jack like a coyote looks at sheep. “Well? Get on the bed.”

 

His legs were shaking in anticipation, making his crawl over the bed feel a little weak. “How do ya want me?”

 

Ennis made an appreciate sound. “On your back.”

 

The bed dipped under the weight of Ennis getting on the bed. Jack spread his legs as Ennis came closer, giving him a place to settle against him. Jack was tilting his head back in offering. Ennis wasted no time, grasping Jack’s face and tilting him up for another kiss.

 

Their kisses were nearly always aggressive things. Battles that Ennis always won. Their noses mashed against each other and harsh breaths passed between them as they opened their mouths for their tongues to pass through. This time was no different. Neither of them were very interested in a gentle love making session. They were desperate after whatever mental barrier that had been holding them back from this had broken. Now they were making up for lost time. Ennis was devouring him. Jack was whimpering shamelessly, holding Ennis’ head and shoulder to try and keep him as close to himself as possible.

 

“Shut up.” Ennis growled into his mouth. “I mean it, Twist. You better not wake the girls.”

 

Jack did his best to suppress the noises that clawed the inside of his throat. Ennis was making it harder than it had to be, running enthusiastic hands over his body. Kissing his jaw when Jack pulled back to gasp for breath. Then Ennis was twisting a nipple between his thumb and forefinger. Jack hissed but managed not to shout. His cock was killing him. Leaking against his stomach untouched. He curled a fist around himself to alleviate the pressure.

 

“Ennis could you please fuck me.” Jack urged.

 

“Impatient bastard.” Ennis said. But his tone made his appreciation clear. “Turn over then.”

 

Jack flipped himself quickly, letting go of his dick to prop himself up on all fours.

 

Ennis snagged a jar off the bedside table. It was hand lotion. Something his wife used to put on before bed when the weather was dry. Smelled like coconut and almond oil. He scooped some of the creamy concoction onto his fingers, appreciative of its slick texture. This would be perfect for his purposes.

 

Jack jolted at the first press of fingers. So he was going to take his time with the process. Jack wanted to kill him. He was used to spit-slicked fucks in odd places. Now Ennis wanted to spend his time on prep work? Damn tease.

 

Ennis drew a throaty noise from Jack, one that he tried best to stifle in the pillow, with the first hard thrust of fingers into him. Two to start with. Jack bit into the pillow and grabbed it with his hands, trying his damnedest not to let the louder, hungrier sounds that threatened to spill with every stroke of those fingers.

 

He slips another finger in, just for the hell of it. Jack sighs a little and rolls his back. Ennis feels it inside. That odd swollen place that Jack loves having touched. He doesn’t know what it is but Jack’s body jolts when he rubs it. Soon he’s panting into the pillow. Twisting the cover so hard in his hands Ennis was sure it would rip.

 

He’s being a good boy, Ennis thinks. His volume is relatively low, considering the way he used to shout on the mountains when Ennis did this. He’s clearly being considerate. Ennis rewards him another kiss, turning Jack’s face out of the pillow and around enough to press their lips together again.

 

“Please hurry.” Jack’s voice is tight with need.

 

If Ennis were a more patient man he’d spend a lot longer loosening Jack up. He’d tease that springy place inside of him until he was slack against the bed. But Ennis was not a patient man. He put his hand against the nape of Jack’s neck and pushed him into the mattress. With one swift motion he was sinking into Jack.

 

“Fuuuuck.” Jack’s muffled moan was heard through the pillow.

 

Ennis’ mouth dropped open. He was used to hot fucks on the mountain. Where there was no lube at their disposal. Spit made a poor substitute, slicking the way just enough for a tight, dry fuck that had Jack’s muscles dragging against him with every pull. This was nearly frictionless. Wet in a way that had Ennis punching his hips in easily. Their skin met with a smack. Hips against hips. Jack nearly squeaked at how quickly Ennis entered him. They released a shaky breath at the same time.

 

“Jack.” Ennis grunted. He hauled the man up by his waist, holding him to his chest. The other arm gripped the headboard, his knees planted firm on the mattress. Jack was held up mostly by Ennis. His legs were trembling too much to hold much weight. His breath was punched out of him with every thrust. He put his own hands on the headboard. The mattress was too soft. Didn’t give him enough to grip on. Ennis uses their newfound stability to fuck the lights out of Jack.

 

He’s just barely containing the moans that were building in his chest. He shifted his legs on the bed, spreading them a little further and arching his back downwards until Ennis was hitting that spot inside of him.

 

“Yes!” He gasps. One hand leaves the headboard to furiously stroke himself. “Ennis! Ennis, Ennis. Yeah there!”

 

“Quiet.” Ennis reminds him. But it’s undercut by his own groan of pleasure.

 

Jack was almost there. He could feel that torturous pressure in his hips. The one that was stoked with every stroke of Ennis inside of him. The muscles in his legs tightened as Ennis’ thrusts turned into a demanding grind that pressed that spot inside of him so good. He’s bit his lip hard enough that he could taste the tang of blood.

 

Ennis let go of his hold around Jack’s waist in order to grip his shoulder, pulling him back into every push forward. Jack came with a stifled groan, gritting his teeth and twisting his fist around his dick so hard he chafed himself.

 

His partner wasn’t too far behind. He ruts Jack like a wild animal and came inside like it was his right to do so. Buried his face in Jack’s hair and felt better than he had in months.

 

They rolled off to the other side of the bed to avoid the cum Jack left streaked on the sheets. The silence that fell between them as they caught their breath was comfortable. Ennis still had his face in Jack’s hair.

 

“You were holding back on me.” Jack slurred. His eyes were heavy with exhaustion.

 

“Quiet.” Ennis said again. He reached over and turned the light off.

 

Jack was too worn out to argue. He sighed, satisfied, and allowed himself to doze off. Hopefully there was going to be a lot more of that in the future.

Chapter Text

Jack stirs in the dark. He isn’t sure what time it is. He isn’t sure of much of anything. He’s only vaguely aware of his surroundings and very tired. Ennis is kissing his neck. The rough, unshaven parts of his jaw scrape against his skin. He makes a noise, struggling to understand through the lingering fog of sleep.

 

“‘Nnis?” He mumbled. “Wha time is it?”

 

“Shhh.” Ennis kissed him sweetly.

 

More pieces fall into place. Ennis is between his open legs. His hard on pressed against Jack’s thigh. His hand is stroking his thigh comfortingly. Jack hums his approval, rolling his hips to indicate willingness.

 

Ennis is a lot slower than he was a few hours ago. Last night was all rough kisses and desperate thrusting. Now that they got some of it out of their system Ennis seems content to savor Jack’s body. His lips trail over Jack’s arms and chest. Leaving kisses wherever he pleases. Jack is still relaxed with sleep, a pleased sigh pulled itself from his lungs.

 

Ennis said something Jack didn’t quite catch. But he sounded so affectionate when he said it that Jack felt like he would burst. Sucked on his skin just above the collarbone.

 

Jack let Ennis move him about as he pleased. Lets him hook his legs over his hips. Ennis settled between those inviting legs and kissed Jack again. Their lips met softly. There was no clashing of teeth or colliding of noses. There was no shoving or hissing, huffing breath like there usually was. Just a gentle, insistent press that had Jack melting against the bed. Ennis had one hand cradled against his face, tilting him where he wanted him. He’d never felt so perfect in all his life. Never so comfortable as he was in that bed.

 

With a push Ennis was back inside of him. Jack gave a small sound of pleasure. Ennis pressed a warm palm against his mouth and shushed him. “Remember the girls.” He said. Jack nodded.

 

There was no aggressive shoves of the hips. Ennis kissed him again and Jack blearily thought this could almost be called love making. He shuddered as Ennis hit that perfect spot inside of him again.

 

Jack wrapped his legs around Ennis’ back, pulling the man closer, flung his arms over his broad shoulders and his held the man so tenderly. Ennis smelled like sweat and soap and Jack was drunk on his aroma. Heady, masculine, Ennis all the way. So perfect he could drown in it. The bed creaked quietly under them with every movement. Ennis threaded his fingers through the wet curls of Jack’s hair. Jack tasted salt when their lips met.

 

He can’t see Ennis in the dark. But he could feel his eyes on him. Sense his intense gaze like he could as surely as though he was touching him. Jack’s breath hitched. “Ennis...” he was silenced with another sweet kiss. So fond and doting he almost didn’t register the deep thrusts inside of him. He soaked in the affection like a plant basks in the sun. Like a child takes in love. And loved he felt, even if it was unsaid. Ennis always seemed to love him most in the dark.

 

He came with a besotted moan. The sun is rising now, and in the grey light of the earliest morning Jack can see Ennis’ face, cast in shadow. He can see the hair plastered to his forehead in sweat and the handsome jaw and all the things he loved about Ennis so much. Ennis is still thrusting against him, and Jack aches suddenly with the need to tell him what he never can. He loves him. He belongs to him. He trusts him. He feels vulnerable because of how bad he wants Ennis. Need that surpasses logic or self-preservation. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for the cowboy inside of him. He wants Ennis like he would die without him. Which is why he could never tell him. He could never risk rejection when so much is on the line. The words ache against his teeth, he clenches them shut and groans.

 

The sound Ennis makes is thrillingly explicit. Jack feels his muscles flutter from that sound alone. He gathered Jack close in his arms, which was always a good sign, buried his face in Jack’s sweaty hair and sighed as he came. Jack spreads his fingers over Ennis’ back, feeling the way his muscles shuddered beneath his skin, and felt satisfied.

 

There were no words after. Ennis settled back in and went to sleep. Jack wondered what woke him up to begin with. He pulled himself away from Ennis’ arms, ignoring the pang of loss to go take a desperately needed shower.

 


 

The next days were quiet. Some sort of awkwardness had settled between them. It wasn’t openly hostile, but it was still a wedge driven between them. They didn’t talk about the sex or the fact that by the time Ennis woke up Jack was sleeping on the couch again. Ennis spent a lot of time smoking at the widow, staring into the distance in quiet contemplation. Jack didn’t ask what he was thinking about. Eventually it was time for Ennis to go back to work. Jack was left to take care of the girls and wait for a call from Madge.

 

The phone rang while Jack was helping the girls into their shoes on Tuesday. He rushed to pick up the phone, cleared his throat, and held the receiver up to his mouth. “Hello?”

 

“This is Dottie, at the Hudson city hall. Am I speaking to Jack Twist?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” Jack answered.

 

“We’ve decided to hire you on the road paving project.” Jack breathed a sigh of relief. “A schedule of your work hours has been sent by mail and should be arriving shortly. I recommend you aren’t late.”

 

“Wouldn’t miss it. Thank you so much.” Jack said.

 

It was good news. The phone call ended and Jack was grinning. Ennis was going to be glad to hear the news. He knew how the man worried about money. He raced back to help the girls put their hats on.

 

Junior noticed Jack’s bright, carefree expression. “Didja get the job ya wanted?” Alma asked.

 

“Yes, baby.” Jack was proud to say. He kissed Alma’s forehead. “Let’s go to the park. Good days like this don’t last forever.”

 

The girls happily agreed. They’d fallen into a comfortable routine. Jack would make breakfast, lunch, and dinner while Ennis was gone at work. Take the girls outside on sunny days and on dreary days he would watch cartoons and color with them. He’d do the grocery shopping for the household, which was the hardest part of his day, considering the negligible allowance Ennis left him to work with. He did his best to leave his rodeo prize money alone. A rainy day fund that he knew he could rely on. He was becoming a regular coupon user, with the help of some sweet old ladies he’d been meeting around town.

 

Now that they knew Jack to be a relation of Ennis, the townspeople were friendly to him. They seemed eager to know him. His reputation so far was that of a charming young man who was kindly helping his bereaved cousin in his time of need. You couldn’t ask for a better reputation in a small town. Young ladies looked at him as an object of desire. Men treated him with respect. Older ladies and widows showered him with baked goods and praise. Jack had never been treated so well in all his life. The community had welcomed him with open arms, and it just made Jack more eager to settle down and build a life here.

 

The playground was full of younger children and their mothers. The school aged children packed the playground on weekends, but today it was just the little ones. Jack let the girls run off to play with the other girls and joined the mothers on the benches.

 

“Jack Twist!” They greeted him. “My, it’s fine to see you. How are the girls?”

 

“Just fine. And yours?” Jack returned politely.

 

“Oh, you know Bobby. He’s just a troublemaker! Tim is so well behaved, it’s hard to believe they’re brothers! Well, I suppose Bobby is his daddy’s son.” Majorie Davis sighed. “My, they’re getting big. Why, this coming fall Bobby is going into kindergarten! Alma Jr. is too, ain’t she?”

 

Jack thought about it for a minute. Kids entered school around five, and Alma was four years old this past January. She was getting to be school aged. If she was the same age as Bobby it stood to reason she’d enter school with him. “Shoot, I guess she is.”

 

“Oh, that’s wonderful. Ennis must be so proud. Now, don’t y’all worry about Bobby. He may be a little stinker but I won’t stand for any pigtail pulling.”

 

Jack smiled. Yeah, she better not. The thought of any kid messing with Alma made him want to hit somebody. “That’s kind of ya.”

 

Carol Smith butted into the conversation at this point. “Well how’ve you and Ennis been? Don’t keep us in the dark.”

 

“Oh, you know. Ennis is missin’ his wife.” Jack said, masking the awkwardness he felt under layers of charm. The ladies made sympathetic noises. “I got a job though, one less thing for him to worry about. Although I’m worryin’ about what we’re gonna do with the girls if we’re both at work.”

 

“Oh well congratulations!” Nancy Miller said. “You’ll need to find a babysitter. Are you friends with Miss Mary Brown? She’s a lovely old lady. Lost her husband, no children. But my, she loves little girls. Prolly watch em for you real cheap.”

 

Jack was familiar with Miss Mary Brown. She was a very nice old lady. He had known she was a childless widow. Jack didn’t know much else about her, hadn’t had the chance to talk to her much. She lived in a small house on the other side of town. One of the men on town maintained her lawn for her. She had arthritis and a glowing reputation. Everyone helped her when she needed it and she looked after children sometimes when the parents needed help. Jack quietly considered talking to her. They did need help with the girls.

 

“Well, I’ll have to look into it. How’s James, Nancy?”

 

The women gushed about their husbands while Jack listened half-heartedly. They all thought their men were so special. They were fine, Jack supposed. But they had nothing on Ennis. Didn’t care too much about their kids, either, if their wives input was to be trusted. Ennis was always so attentive to his girls. Even if he didn’t know what he was doing, he tried. James went to the bar most times after work. Carol’s husband Robert wouldn’t change a diaper even if she begged him to. Jack wondered how these ladies could stand their men.

 

“Jack Jack!” Jenny called. Jack turned his attention to the little girl running to him. “Down!”

 

He knelt on the wood chips. Jenny tapped his cowboy hat, and Jack obligingly took it off. In it’s place Jenny put a clumsy chain of dandelions. It was already falling apart, but Jack smiled.

 

“Thanks darlin’. Feel like a prince in it.”

 

Jenny ran off to gather more weeds and wildflowers. She often offered him gifts of whatever blooms she could find in the field. The mothers always sang his praises when this happened.

 

“Oh, you are just so sweet with them!” Majorie cooed. “You would be just the best daddy. Are you thinkin’ of getting married? I know some ladies in town that would just die to marry you!”

 

Jack smiled. Fat chance. “Well, you know. I ain’t doin’ anything until I’m sure Ennis is okay. I don’t need anything more than what I got. Love those girls like my own.”

 

“Of course not.” Carol simpered. “Poor darling. Alma was such a sweet girl. Can’t imagine what he’s going through right now. You know, you are such a saint for helping him.”

 

“Well, he’s my cousin.” Jack lied. “I’d do anything for him.” That rang with truth.

 

“Jack Jack!” It was Alma calling him this time. “Push me on the swings!”

 

Jack excused himself from the conversation to take care of the girls.

 

It was important to let the girls tire themselves out. It always made them better behaved and easier to deal with when Ennis eventually came home. But of course then he had to make sure they had their afternoon nap. He put them down for bed later in the afternoon and made himself a mug of coffee. Those girls knew how to run him ragged. He felt exhausted half the time. But there was something undeniably rewarding about the experience.

 

He sighed and settled onto the couch with his coffee. Riverton was a good town. People liked him there. Especially the ladies. He bet the younger ones would like to marry him. What would that be like? A girl, a ranch, a couple kids of his own. He’d never thought about it, not for himself. Before when he imagined the future he thought of the next rodeo he was going to. Now when he pictured his future the only thing he could see was sending Alma Jr. off to her first day of school. Or teaching Jenny to tie her shoes. The only thing he wanted to do every day for the rest of his life was wake up next to Ennis. The only thing he could see for himself was Ennis and his family. When had he become so romantic? He snorted into his coffee.

 

For dinner that night he made pasta and threw grated cheese on top. He still wasn’t the greatest cook but he learned that putting cheese on things made the kids more likely to eat it without complaining. He was just finishing heating the canned beans when Ennis came home.

 

“Mail came for you.” He said, tossing it onto the table. He came up behind Jack and stood right behind him, settling his chin on Jack’s shoulder. “Whatcha makin’.”

 

“Beans n’ pasta.” Jack answered.

 

“Beans.” Ennis muttered. “Why do we always seem to end up eating beans together?”

 

Jack smiled at the memories. “Beans ain’t so bad.”

 

“Hmmm.” Ennis said, not sounding committed one way or the other. His arms wrapped around Jack’s waist, holding him from behind now. He sighed, sounding weary from his day. Jack basked in the intimacy of the moment.

 

He let the beans cook a little longer than they needed to, not wanting to part from Ennis’ arms. But eventually Ennis let him go without explaining why he got to holding him in the first place. Jack turned off the stove with a sigh. “You better get the girls up from their nap.”

 

Ennis made a noise of assent. He’d been especially quiet these past days. Jack wondered if it had something to do with the sex or if it was something else. Ennis left while Jack set the table.

 

Alma came running into the kitchen first. “Jack! What’s dinner?”

 

“Pasta and beans.” He explained again.

 

Alma wrinkled her nose. “Beans.” She said distastefully.

 

So nobody seemed jazzed for beans. Jack would have to remember that. “You don’t have to eat too much of it. We just gotta eat what we got.”

 

“Why’d we get em if I don’t like em?” Alma asked.

 

“Cause they’re cheap.” Jack said. “Healthy too. Good for growing girls.”

 

Alma still didn’t seem convinced. But Ennis came in moments later, so they didn’t have time to argue the point. He set Jenny down at the table and ruffled the hair Jack took his time to brush and sat down next to her.

 

The family, Jack had learned, judged his food harshly if it didn’t meet their standards. They were used to whatever fare Alma had made them in her living years, which was obviously better than whatever he was capable of. Today they were all unhappy about beans, but they seemed alright with the pasta.

 

Jack shoveled a couple of bites into his mouth and tore open his new mail. Sure enough it was the schedule he’d been promised earlier that day.

 

Ennis looked over his friend’s shoulder. “You got yer job?”

 

“Yeah.” Jack said happily. “First day’s on Wednesday. Gotta find someone to watch the girls.”

 

Ennis frowned. “Don’t got a lot of money to pay a sitter.”

 

“Well, hopefully my job will help that. But I’m thinkin’ of goin’ to church this Sunday. Find some older lady to watch em for cheap.”

 

His frown deepened. “Older lady?”

 

“Sure. Widows, grandmas. They sure like little girls. Especially such pretty little girls like them.” Alma Junior grinned into her pasta. “They’ll help us out.”

 

“Don’t much like church.” Ennis said.

 

Jack didn’t either. He recalled memories of his mother forcing him into his fanciest shoes and scratchiest shirt and forcing him to sit and listen to boring preachers for an hour on one of his two days off. Church had never had much appeal for Jack. He’d liked the singing, of course. But the actual religious aspects didn’t appeal to him. “Well, thats the way people socialize in small towns like this. You should be going to church.”

 

“Fire and brimstone folks.” Ennis muttered. “They’re... unpleasant at church.”

 

Jack could imagine. He shook his head. “Well, don’t gotta go every Sunday. But we have to this time. Should go for major events too.”

 

He still seemed unhappy. But he didn’t push much. Jack was determined, though. They needed to find someone to watch the girls. Besides, how bad could it be? The people in town had been perfectly fine to him so far.

 

Things would be fine.

 


 

That Sunday Jack struggled with Alma Jr.’s hair. He’d never had a sister or a daughter before. His calloused fingers fumbled over the fine strands as he attempted to braid them nicely. All he managed to do was make a mess. Eventually he settled on tying them in pigtails with blue ribbons. Her natural curls were cute anyway. He dressed the girls in the finest dressed they owned and helped them pull their legs into stockings. By the end they were cranky and impatient but well dressed. Jack wiped Jenny’s teary eyes and called it good enough.

 

“You look like angels.” Jack said.

 

Alma looked at him like she didn’t like him very much at all.

 

Ennis was wearing a white button up and the only pair of dress pants he owned. Jack hadn’t brought such formal clothes, so he just pulled himself into his nicest jeans and a blue button up.

 

“Well, don’t we look nice.” Ennis said.

 

Jack turned and gestured to himself. “Alright. I think we’re ready for church. How’s my handsome face?”

 

“Ya missed a spot shaving.”

 

Jack cursed and went back into the bathroom to fix himself.

 

They left the house fifteen minutes later. Jack pacified the girls with little chocolates while he buckled them into the truck. Ennis stomped out the last bit of his cigarette and they were on their way.

 

Church was a big part of the culture of small towns. The local church was where all social events happened. Ennis told him about the annual picnics and the Christmas plays the children put on. Old Mrs. Francis played the piano every Sunday and made raisin bread for coffee hour after the service where people would sit and socialize. On Easter Sunday they would have a public egg hunt for the little ones and an extra long church service. The church had their own daycare, but Ennis seemed to resent the service, and a playground on the back part of the property for this purpose. It was the focal point of the town and was treated with great care.

 

The ladies were quite happy to see Jack and Ennis show up. “Jack Twist, my goodness! So good to see you showing up to church.”

 

Jack grinned, putting on the charm he always did with the ladies in town. “Well, you look just lovely Carol. Is this Robert?” He extended his hand for a firm shake. “I’ve heard a lot about you, it’s good to finally meet.”

 

“All good things, I hope.” Robert said gruffly.

 

No. Jack still remembered Carol’s banter about what a terrible father Robert was. But he smiled. “The best.”

 

Ennis looked surprised that Jack was socializing so easily with all the townspeople. Majorie was kneeling down with squeals of excitement. “Well, hi girls! Gosh, you just look so sweet! Ennis, did you do their hair?”

 

Ennis looked a little uncomfortable at being addressed. “No, ma’am. Jack’s work.”

 

“You did a fine job.” Majorie praised. “Gosh, well we better get going! Service is starting soon. Oh, take a seat by the door. Girls that little need to go potty in the middle of service a lot, and it’s best to be close to the exit.”

 

“I’ll keep it in mind.” Jack said.

 

The pastor was already standing at the altar. Mrs. Francis was playing a tune while people filtered in and took their seats. They took the seats closest to the door, as previously advised. Ennis was settling the girls down. “Did you bring anymore of those candies?” He asked quietly.

 

“There’s only so many chocolates in the apartment.”

 

“Christ, Jack!” Ennis hissed, earning some disapproving looks from the surrounding church patrons. “We’ll have ta get more.”

 

“Hey, if you’re good and quiet for all of church I’ll let you have cake at coffee hour.” Jack promised the girls.

 

Alma nodded, wide eyes glittering with excitement at the prospect of cake. Finally they sat down and waited for service to start.

 

“My friends.” The pastor said. “Brothers, sisters, children. It’s an unhappy day in the eyes of the Lord.”

 

The girls were already fidgeting out of boredom. Jack gave them the pamphlet provided to tear into little pieces.

 

“In England there was a most unholy decision of the government. Decriminalizing sodomy. Sexual acts between men.” The church patrons murmured unhappily. Jack’s heart dropped. Ennis folded his arms over his chest. “The Sexual Offences Act is a degeneration of moral values. A victory for the devil. The views on the Bible on sodomy are clear. Lust between men in an abomination. That will never change at this church so long as I am the pastor. Let’s pray for the men who struggle with sin. We will pass around the donation basket. It will go to organizations who help men in their fight with sexual sin and put them back on the path to God.”

 

Jack was reeling. Church was starting off on a bad note. A really bad note. He felt like he’d been struck. Ennis didn’t look any better. He also seemed unhappy with the politics of the church. Everyone’s heads were lowered in silent prayer. Jack wasn’t much of a religious type. He certainly didn’t want to pray for the conversion of queers in England. He bowed his head in mock prayer, just in case anyone was looking, and prayed that the rest of the service would be over quickly.

 

Church was as unfortunate as Ennis had described. The outwardly polite people of the town were enthralled by the pastor’s nasty rhetoric. The pastor, it seemed, was unhappy about the state of the country. Men lived in sin, drowning themselves in alcohol. Women were whores who had sex outside of marriage. Children were tempted by modern music into devil worship. The pastor saw the devil in everything. The entire country was going to hell, in his view. The only thing that could save them was spiritual surrender to Jesus Christ.

 

By the end Jack was a little cranky. As were the girls, who wanted their cake and hadn’t listened to one boring word the pastor had said. Jack supposed he could at least thank god for that. Next time he’d just follow Ennis’ advice and skip church. But now was the time they came for. Coffee hour. Jack could vet women as potential babysitters at his leisure. Also if he didn’t give Alma Jr. and Jenny their promised cake he thought they might kill him.

 

There was a small room full of folding chairs and tables where people sat for the communal coffee hour. Pots of coffee were provided, of course, and people brought baked goods for people to snack on while the town exchanged gossip. Jack cut off two generous slices of pound cake and sat the girls down at a table. The town moms that Jack had acquainted himself with were seated nearby, chatting about the day’s sermon.

 

“Oh, ain’t it just awful? Can’t believe they’d allow that kind of sin. The state should uphold moral values!” Nancy Miller was saying. Jack restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “Oh, Jack, Ennis! Come join us.”

 

Jack smiled. “Sorry, ladies. I have to talk to Miss Mary Brown.”

 

“Oh, shoot!” Nancy said with a pout. “Well, you come on over whenever you’re ready.”

 

“Will do. Ennis.”

 

They shuffled across the room to where Miss Mary Brown was sitting with the other town elders. They had their servings of raisin bread and coffee before them and were talking quietly. Jack took off his hat.

 

“Miss Mary Brown?” She turned to acknowledge him. She had thick eyeglasses, with a chain for keeping them attached to her neck. A glittering bird was pinned to her wool sweater. Her grey hair was pulled up on top of her head modestly. “I’m Jack Twist. You know my cousin, Ennis Del Mar.”

 

She turned her eyes to Ennis, and they were full of genuine sympathy. “Yes. You lost your wife. So soon to lose someone so precious.”

 

Ennis’ face was unreadable. He nodded quietly. Jack took one of the free seats. The elders regarded them as they sat. “Well, as you also know he has two little girls to take care of. I’m here to help him, but I also just got a job. I hear you take care of little kids sometimes. Would you be interested in these little girls? They’re real well behaved and they need good care, especially now.”

 

Miss Mary Brown’s eyes traveled to where the girls sat, entranced with their cake. Her eyes were soft and sympathetic. Not the fake, cloying sympathy Jack often saw in the women in town. A deep sympathy that came from reflected pain. Jack remembered that Miss Mary was a widow herself. A childless one, who had never remarried, but one who had known the loss of her loved one.

 

“Of course they do.” Miss Mary said. “I would love to look after them. When do you need me to take them?”

 

“Every weekday.” Jack said. “From about nine to six. I will drop them off and pick them up and pay you whatever you need.”

 

“Oh, ladies my age don’t need much of anything. A dollar a day would suffice.”

 

Jack nodded. That was a lot more reasonable than the rates they’d get anywhere else. “Are you sure you don’t need more? We can offer a bit more.”

 

“Oh, hush. I’m living comfortably. I need company more than money. Little girls make for very good company.” Miss Mary Brown’s hands shook slightly as she picked up her coffee. “Young man, I’m so sorry about your wife. I know the pain you’re going through.”

 

Ennis’ jaw clenched. Jack ached to hold his hand, but there was no way he could do that in this church. The sermon was fresh on his mind. The hellish rantings of the pastor. His hand twitched uselessly on his lap and stayed put.

 

Miss Mary’s wrinkled hand covered Ennis’ instead. “Don’t hesitate to ask anything of me.”

 

“Thank you, ma’am.”

 

Miss Mary Brown looked over at the children again. “You should go get your little girls. I’d love to meet them.”

 


 

After church Jack drove them home. Ennis would have, but he couldn’t focus on anything. The events of the day were crowded in his head. The seething speech from the pastor on queers. The undeserved sympathy of Miss Mary Brown. He remembered her compassionate eyes with guilt.

 

I know the pain you’re going through . She said. She thought she was connected to him.

 

The truth was Ennis wasn’t in pain. Not as much as he should have been. He didn’t feel the hollow grief that Miss Mary Brown endured. He had mourned Alma, a quiet contemplation on what she’d meant to him. But Jack had made him forget that.

 

The shame was more than he could bear.

 

How could he betray his wife this way? How could he forget her place in his life? Put Jack in the place where his wife had slept? Why was she so easy to forget? Why was she so easy to get over?

 

He’d loved Alma.

 

So why did Jack replace her so easily?

Chapter Text

“Jack Jack, I don’t wanna eat this.” Alma said unhappily. She was looking down on some truly pitiful pancakes. Evidently Jack just did not have the talent for them that Ennis did. He’d followed the instructions on the box. But the batter turned out runny and when he tried to flip them they’d fallen apart. He’d cooked the decimated pieces and served them shamefully to the girls.

 

“I know, baby.” Jack said sincerely. “I’m sorry. I don’t have time to remake them. I need to drop you off at Miss Mary’s place and get to work.”

 

“I don’t want you to go!” Jenny shouted.

 

Jenny had gotten rather attached to Jack. Asking for hugs and kisses and to be picked up whenever Jack turned his attention away from her. She asked him to tell stories and sing and refused to stay in bed until he did. She craved his affection and hated that he was leaving the house.

 

“It won’t be too long.” Jack promised. “Hey, Miss Mary is a real nice lady. She’ll tell you stories if you ask nicely.”

 

“I like your stories.” Jenny muttered.

 

“And I’ll tell you more when I get back home. Okay?” He kissed her cheek, which seemed to please her. “Please eat your pancakes.”

 

Jack drove to Hudson early that Wednesday morning. Dropped the girls at Miss Mary Brown’s at nine as promised and drove down to the town. Work started at ten and went until five. They’d go until the road was paved and then Jack would have to find a new job. It would be hard, short work. Not a sustainable career. But it would keep him employed until the end of the summer and it paid alright.

 

By the time Jack got there they were already working. He stepped out, watching the machinery that worked its way down the Main Street.

 

“Hey.” He said, catching the attention of nearby workers, who were waiting for the heavy machinery to finish their job. “What are they doing?”

 

The workers were all bigger than him. Heavier in both fat and muscle mass and worn by sun and hard work. They looked at him like he was out of place here.

 

“They’re diggin’ for the base.” The worker explained.

 

“Mind explaining that to me?”

 

The worker explained easily what was happening. The excavation was digging a trench for the stabilizing aggregate layer. Jack of course would be laying this down along with the rest of the boys. Then the gravel layer, base layer, and surface layer.

 

“So yer workin’ with us?” The worker thrust out his hand. “I’m Gavin. You ain’t from here. Where you comin’ from?”

 

“Riverton. Jack Twist’s my name.” Jack answered. “I’m surprised they hired me from out of town.”

 

Gavin grumbled. “Well. This is old coal mining town. Mine closed down while ago. Bunch a old coal miners with bad lungs ain’t so good fer work anymore. Burnt out. Not many men in the town to begin with. They bring in you to do their hard work. Fresh young back to break.”

 

Jack supposed that made sense. It would be a hard job. He looked at the long trench that had already been dug. A hole he’d have to fill in with several layers of rocks and sand and soil. He adjusted his hat.

 

Time to work for a living.

 

“Alright, boys! This is what we’re putting down first. Fifteen inches of subgrade layer. These are your shovels and rakes. Get to work!”

 

Jack followed behind and picked out his tools. The sun was hot that day. It burned them under its cruel glare as the men slaved under it.

 

“Why ain’t you workin’ in Riverton then, Jack?” Gavin asked, shoveling another load of gravel into the hole.

 

“Nobody hiring.” He said, pausing to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

 

“Well, you better hope they are in the fall. No road left to pave after that.”

 

“Oh, they will be.” Jack was sure of it. “They’re gonna have to get ready for the winter. Store feed, fix up the barns, clean. They’ll have work to do.”

 

“You a rancher?” Another worker asked. He was another big guy, his arms were turning red where they were exposed.

 

“Well, no. Rodeo cowboy.”

 

The guys laughed. “How a rodeo cowboy end up pavin’ roads in Hudson?”

 

Jack shrugged. “Life had other plans.”

 

“I hear ya.” The other worker said. “I didn’t want to settle down so much as I couldn’t stay on the road anymore. Didn’t want to grow up just couldn’t be a kid no more. Got kids of my own, now. They’re trouble.”

 

“Funny, I also got kids.” Jack said, leaning on his shovel. “Actually, didn’t ‘get’ kids so much as they just... fell into my lap.”

 

That drew another uproarious bout of laughter from the men. “I hear that! Yer a rascal, Jack Twist.”

 

Time passed slowly. The sun continued to slowly roast them all. The small talk was good. Gavin cracked jokes and the other worker, John, smacked him with his hat frequently. They were provided water and breaks to piss and a lunch eventually. Lunch couldn’t come soon enough. Jack was starving by the time he got the break.

 

“That’s all yer eating, Twist?”

 

Jack looked down at his sandwich. Bologna on cheap grocery store bread with mustard. It wasn’t so bad. It was all he had time to make for himself in the morning between feeding the kids breakfast and dressing himself for work. “Yeah, I guess.”

 

Gavin scoffed. “Yer wife ain’t a good cook.”

 

“I made this.” He admitted. “I ain’t so much of a cook either. Good with a can opener.”

 

“Ah, well. My old lady ain’t good at much but she keeps me well fed.” John said. “What’s your lady like?”

 

Jack chewed quietly. Ennis was no lady. But he was what Jack had. “Quiet,” was the first word that came to mind, “special too. Hardworking. Great with the girls.”

 

“Yer a lucky man.” John said. “My wife is on my ass over every little thing. Never quiet.”

 

“You happy with her?” Jack asked.

 

“Happy? Hell yeah. Light of my life. Even though she busts my ass.” John said proudly. “Eh, I deserve it most the time anyway. I’m a bastard.”

 

Jack grinned. “Yeah, I’m sure ya are.”

 

John slapped him with his hat again. It seemed to be his way of showing affection. They smoked cigarettes and drank water and worked the day away. It was slow, tedious work, but at the end of it all he got to settle back into his truck and go home with a sense of accomplishment. They’d only filled a small portion of the trench, but there was progress made. Besides, thinking of the pay he’d earn at the end of the week kept him in relatively high spirits.

 

Jack’s shoulders were killing him. The drive back to Riverton was hard, turning the wheel felt damn near impossible with his aching arms.

 

Miss Mary Brown was sitting on the porch of her old home, rocking gently back and forth while the girls played in the grass on her property. Her old eyes watched them closely. He drove in and parked on the driveway.

 

She regarded him as he approached. “You look bone tired, young man.”

 

“Well they worked these bones. Deserve to be tired.” Jack said with a sigh. “Gotta get home get dinner on the table.”

 

“You poor thing.” She stood shakily from her chair. Jack reached out automatically to steady her. He wondered guiltily if someone in her state was even fit to care for such energetic young children.

 

“I hope the girls didn’t give you any trouble.” Jack said.

 

“Nonsense. They’re angels. I’m so glad to have them.” She turned to speak off the porch. “Come inside girls! I have lemonade! Would you like some lemonade, young man?”

 

“That would be lovely, ma’am.”

 

“Well come on in then.” She shuffled her way inside slowly. “I also got some stew you can take home. Shouldn’t spend all your last energy on cooking after a hard day’s work.”

 

“I can’t take that from you, ma’am.” She was already doing a lot for him.

 

“I’m giving it freely. Oh, I’ll be happy to know Ennis is eating well. Poor dear.” She poured him and the girls glasses of lemonade. Condensation sparkled on the pitcher. Jack licked his lips. “He’s so good with his girls. He was a better husband. Give him my love, young man.”

 

Jack didn’t know what to say. “Right.”

 

Miss Mary Brown was packing stew into tupperware for him to take. It smelled good. He looked over her shoulder. It was a beef stew. Carrots, potatoes, spices. He sighed. It did look satisfying.

 

The girls came running in, kicking their shoes off at the door and reaching their hands out for lemonade. Jack was already drinking his serving. It was a good balance of sweetness and acidity. “Girls, drink slowly. You’re gonna hurt your tummy.”

 

Jenny heeded his advice. Alma didn’t. “You girls have fun?”

 

“Mhmm.” Jenny lifted her arms. “Up!”

 

Jack complied, his shoulders screaming in protest as he lifted her weight. Jenny wrinkled her nose as she was enclosed in Jack’s arms. “Jack Jack, you smell.”

 

“Yeah? Sure you ain’t smelling yourself you little stinker?” Jenny giggled as she was tickled. Jack’s shirt was soaked through with sweat. “That’s my cue to get home and shower. Wait.” He stuck his hand in his back pocket and pulled out a dollar. “For payment. You sure you want them back tomorrow?”

 

Miss Mary’s eyes were shiny with affection. “It would be my pleasure. You take that stew and go home, then.”

 

Jack left gladly with dinner in one hand and the girls clutching the other. It had been a good day.

 

Ennis was home by the time they walked in. Jack smiled at him. “Hey. You’re back early.”

 

“Nah. You’re just back late. Is that food?”

 

“Yeah. Miss Mary Brown gave us some of her stew.”

 

Ennis’ eyes widened in surprise. “Her famous beef stew?”

 

“I guess? This is famous?” He looked back down at the dish.

 

“It’s only the most coveted dish at the church potluck every April. Bring that in.”

 

The Alma was chattering excitedly at Ennis about her day with Miss Mary. Jenny clung to Jack’s leg, sitting on his foot and wrapping her arms and legs around his leg. He awkwardly shuffled in a wide stance to the kitchen.

 

“Seems Jenny’s taken a liking to you.” Ennis said as he poured stew into bowls.

 

“Yeah. I guess.” He’d taken a liking to her too. He’d never had a daughter before. He found that he liked the kids.

 

“Jenny, let go of Jack’s legs and go wash up for supper.”

 

Jenny whined. “Daddyyyy.”

 

“Go.” Ennis repeated.

 

Jenny finally let him go to comply. Ennis was setting the bowls on the table. “Take your boots off, Twist. This ain’t a damn barn.”

 

“Hey, you try that when Jenny’s all over you.”

 

Everyone settled around the table for dinner. Jenny said grace. Stumbled through it. Her vocabulary wasn’t the biggest yet but she’d heard enough prayers from her mama to get through it.

 

Then they finally got to eat. Jack moaned when the food hit his tongue. “I see why this is famous.”

 

“I wouldn’t go to any other church shit if Alma didn’t drag me. But church potlucks were always worth it.” Ennis said, savoring his own serving.

 

It was satisfying food after a long day. He considered it a gift from God after all he’d done. It was almost enough to soothe his back. But that wasn’t going to stop aching anytime soon. He could feel it in his bones. Literally.

 

The stew was packed away quickly. They ate until everything she’d given them was gone. Then they sent the girls to bed and Ennis did the dishes while Jack threw away the various trash that had built up.

 

“So, how’s your first day at work, rodeo?”

 

“Ain’t too bad.” Jack said. “Worked me like a dog but the boys are good to work with. Almost make it worth the damage.”

 

“Hang in there, rodeo.” Ennis slapped him across the back. Jack groaned, feeling his muscles protest. Ennis looked him up and down. “You hurt yourself at work?”

 

“No, just wore out.” He rolled his aching shoulders. “Do we have aspirin?”

 

Ennis made a noise and went off to get it. Jack collapsed into one of the chairs. He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. It paid well, but Jack wondered if he’d make it till the end of summer. He’d never worked so hard in his life.

 

A glass of water and a pill was set in front of him. “Drink all a that.”

 

Jack did so happily. Popping the pill into his mouth and pounding the water down in an instant. Then he set the glass down and let his head loll forwards. His eyes closed as he tried to let the tension leak out of him. It was impossible. His muscles were tight from overuse.

 

“Come on. Big baby.” Ennis’ hands clasped Jack’s shoulders, pressing firmly into them. It took a moment for Jack to realize that his pressure was rhythmic. Purposeful.

 

“Are you massaging my shoulders?” Jack asked incredulously.

 

“They’re rocks. Can’t go back to work with these.” His thumbs dug into hard muscles in his shoulders. Jack bit his lip. His hands were warm and the pressure was good . Jack gripped his thighs.

 

“Stop tensin’ up.” Ennis grumbled. “Ruinin’ my work.”

 

“Sorry.” Jack whispered. He tried his best to relax, he did. But he couldn’t help the occasional twitches of his shoulders as Ennis kneaded the sore muscles.

 

Little noises of pleasure escaped Jack without his notice. Ennis had conflicted feelings. There was desire. He always struggled with desire around Jack. It was embarrassing how often he had to look away from the man in fear of losing control. Then there was shame. The echoes of the pastor’s words were still in his mind. The sympathy of Miss Mary Brown over his supposed grief. Alma and what she meant to him. What Jack meant to him.

 

He shouldn’t be here. Massaging Jack’s shoulders, getting hard at the feel of his body. He was a disgrace to his family and his late wife. He disgraced himself.

 

He let go and turned away without a word. It was time to go to bed. It was time to take a cold shower. A long, cold shower where he would reflect on his actions. Then lock himself in his bedroom and control himself.

 

Jack’s shoulders were cold, sensitive to the air after being warmed by Ennis’ hands for so long. Ennis was doing that walk again. That walk that said “I’m mad at you but I don’t want to say it.” He always did it when he got awkward feelings about what they were doing. He did it that first time they’d slept together in the tent and he’d been doing it on and off ever since.

 

Jack sighed. He didn’t know what to do. Ennis was the one initiating all of the intimacy. He was also the one walking away when he got conflicted over his feelings. There was nothing Jack could do to fix it. He wondered if the rest of his life would be like this. Periods of bliss followed by days of cold-shouldering and quiet discontent. He wanted to make Ennis feel better. He wanted him to quit being a jackass and just accept his feelings already. But he couldn’t force growth.

 

He laid on the couch and went to sleep with a troubled mind.

 




The next day Jack woke up feeling like God had tried to break him in half over his knee. He pulled himself up with barely suppressed shouts of pain, stopped with gritted teeth. He stumbled to the shower and stood under scalding water, groaning at the ache. Working like this would be hell on earth.

 

The entire thing was a grind. The kids were reluctant to get out of bed. They whined about his terrible pancakes again. Jenny peed her pants right after Jack had managed to get her dressed. So he had to start over. They ran out of the apartment late and Jack drove them to Miss Mary’s house as fast as he could.

 

He popped another aspirin into his mouth as he was driving and silently prayed it would get him through the day.

 

Work was exhausting. He was weaker than he was yesterday, and slower. John and Gavin hadn’t slowed at all. Jack eventually abandoned the shovel and got in the bottom of the trench to even out the gravel they’d already put in. It was better than the constant lifting and digging, but it was still work. Work in the blazing sun. Jack drank water and worked through it. It was worse than the time he’d been thrown off a bull named “Gentle” and ended up in the hospital. His back had never felt so bad in his life.

 

John and Gavin gave him pats on the back at lunch, which caused Jack to nearly pass out, and promised him things would get better. He’d get stronger and work would be easier. On the weekend he could rest and he’d be back good as new for next week. Besides, think of the pay. The pay was the only thing that made him really feel better. The thought of Ennis no longer bitching about money and finally relaxing, being content, maybe smiling a little. It made Jack want to try.

 

The things Jack did for Ennis fucking Del Mar.

 

Jack felt truly defeated by the end of the day. He drove to pick up the girls. Jenny once again asked to be picked up as soon as she saw him.

 

“Oh, baby. I can’t.” He didn’t know if he could lift her. Tiny as she was she still weighed almost twenty pounds. Jack might collapse under even that much.

 

Jenny’s eyes filled with tears and she began to cry. That open mouth wail of disappointment only young children could truly pull off. Jack fell to his knees and held her close and felt like shit.

 

To make matters worse, Ennis was still acting distant by the time he got home. Jack made dinner. Just pasta and cheese. Didn’t bother with vegetables or anything else. He was so tired. All he wanted to do was collapse on the couch and go to sleep. Luckily everyone ate without complaint. If Junior complained about his cooking again the thought he might lose it.

 

Then dinner was over. He wrangled the kids into bed.

 

“Jack Jack I’m not tired.” Alma whined.

 

“I know.” Jack said, wrestling a nightgown over her head. “But I am. So tired.”

 

“But I’m not !” Alma reminded him.

 

“Yeah.” He dragged a hand down his face. “Okay. What can I do to make you go to sleep?”

 

“Sing again, Jack Jack?” Jenny asked.

 

Jack didn’t think he had the energy left for singing. He sang with his soul, and his soul was depleted today. “How about a story?” His stories were good because they were engaging, something he was going to struggle with in his state. But he had to try. If he didn’t lay down in the next thirty minutes he was going to get seriously cranky.

 

“Okay.” Alma said, sounding a little disappointed.

 

“Alright. Have I...” he didn’t know what to talk about. He usually told them stories of his time rodeoing and the things he’d seen in his travels. Or the trouble he’d gotten into as a kid. Stealing plums from his neighbors and climbing fences into private property. But none of that was inspiring to him. Only one thing came to mind. “Did I ever tell you about Brokeback?”

 

“No.” Jenny said. “Wassat?”

 

“Well it’s one of the Bighorn mountains.” Jack said. “It’s beautiful. I met your daddy there. It’s how we became friends.” Friends felt a little awkward, considering what they were doing most of that summer. But it was true. Jack had never had a closer friend in his life.

 

“Why were you there?” Alma asked, finally settling into bed to listen.

 

“I was herding sheep as a job. Your daddy was my partner. He tended the camp and then switched to watching the sheep at night.” He recalled the memories in vivid detail. In spite of his tired muscles and his frustration, he found himself relaxing. The weight of the day lifted off his shoulders as he remembered the summer he fell in love. “We was working for this asshole,” the girls giggled at his language, “all we had to eat was beans for two months. I had a harmonica. Your daddy hated that.”

 

He just kept talking. He danced around more intimate details. Left out a lot. But he told them about the sheep. The beautiful trees. Washing their dishes in the stream and boiling water to bathe with. About riding horses for so long his backside ached and the time it snowed suddenly. It wasn’t as energetic as his other stories, but the girls hung onto every word.

 

Slowly the girls fell asleep. Jack sighed, relieved. He didn’t bother with a shower. He smelled like sweat, but he’d get to it in the morning. It would be the weekend soon, and then he could try his best to fix whatever damage he was doing then.

 

“Jack?”

 

Ennis was standing behind him. Leaning against the door with his arms crossed. Jack motioned to the girls and put a finger over his lips. Ennis flipped the lights off and helped Jack to his feet.

 

“Ya need more aspirin.” Ennis said. He sounded nearly concerned, which is how Jack knew it was really bad.

 

“‘S fine.” He shrugged. “Just gotta lay down.”

 

Ennis didn’t look convinced. His hands twitched at his sides like he was going to do something but they stayed put.

 

Jack was comforted by the sight of the couch. He laid down with a sigh. “Thank God.”

 

“You’re sleeping on the couch?”

 

“I don’t have nowhere else to sleep, in case you haven’t noticed.” Jack said, irritated.

 

Ennis looked really concerned. “Jack, you’re just gonna hurt your back more. Christ sake.”

 

“Again. Nowhere else to sleep.”

 

Ennis looked at Jack like he was an idiot. “I’m saying take the bed, fuck.”

 

“‘Take the bed?’” He repeated. The phrasing implied Jack would sleep alone on the mattress while Ennis slept elsewhere. “Where are you sleeping, then?”

 

“Couch, I guess.”

 

“No.” Jack said. “Ain’t takin’ your bed.”

 

“I wasn’t offering for nothing, Twist. You hurt your back too much you can’t go to work.” Ennis looked strange. Like he was lying. It suddenly occurred to Jack that he was being caring. He was concerned for Jack and wanted to alleviate his pain, not for practical reasons, but just because he was suffering. “Gotta pay the bills.” He finished awkwardly.

 

“Alright.” Jack said quietly.

 

“Get up and go to bed. I’m getting more aspirin.”

 

Jack groaned as he pulled himself upright. His knees were killing him. His lower back cramped and Jack leaned against the wall for a moment, panting as his body worked through the pain. It took him a moment to gather himself, and then he limped to the bedroom, trying in his awkward gait to avoid more cramping.

 

Ennis came back with the pills as Jack dropped his body into bed. He looked even more worried than the had two minutes ago. “Ya got bags under your eyes.” He said, brushing a thumb over them.

 

“Do I?” Jack hadn’t looked in a mirror recently.

 

“Yeah. Just means you need good rest.” Ennis looked assured in his decision. The bed was the best place for Jack. “Take this.”

 

Jack swallowed them dry and laid down again, groaning a little as he shifted. Jack wasn’t in pajamas. Didn’t bother getting out of his clothes. They were dusty and sweaty and probably messing up the sheets but Jack couldn’t be bothered anymore and Ennis didn’t say a word of protest. Ennis pulled the blankets up around Jack’s shoulders.

 

“You comfortable?”

 

No. Jack’s body hurt. But it was better than the couch and Ennis couldn’t fix his body any further. “Yeah, I guess.”

 

“Alright.” Ennis’ face was so vulnerable it killed Jack. Full of longing so intense it pained him. He felt the same way. He wanted Ennis to stay. He didn’t want to stay in Ennis’ bed alone.

 

But Ennis got up and left and turned the light off as he went. He left Jack alone on the bed in the dark with his aching body and throbbing heart.

 

Jack turned over, his shoulders protesting as he tried to get comfortable, and settled in. His throat felt tight, and his face wet itself with tears. Jack cried quietly in the dark until he fell asleep, wishing more than anything else that he wasn’t so alone.

Chapter Text

Ennis used the weekend to plan Alma’s funeral. He was writing invitations to her various family members and whatever friends he could recall her having. Jack laid on the couch nursing an ice pack and taking aspirin for the days he had off. Jenny and Alma Jr. were impatient those days. They didn’t have the attention of either Jack or Ennis and there was only so long they could go watching cartoons.

 

“Jack Jack.” Jenny was pressing into Jack’s ribs to try and gather his attention. “Park!”

 

“Ugh.” He groaned. “Baby, I’m tired.”

 

Jenny was pouting. It was a Sunday. Saturday had been spent inside. They were getting more and more restless.

 

“Ennis.” He called. “Ennis, can you take your girls to the park?”

 

“Jack Jack has to come too!” Jenny insisted.

 

“I’m busy with the funeral.” Ennis said from the kitchen. “Gotta get these sent out before I go back to work.”

 

“Oh god.” Jack groaned. “Okay, baby. How about this. If you can promise to be a good girl for the rest of the day I’ll take you to the park. That means you gotta eat your vegetables and no whining.”

 

“Yes!” Jenny agreed happily.

 

Easier said than done. Jack felt a little bit better after resting Saturday, but he was still sore. He pulled on his hat and boots and drank another glass of water before taking the girls hands and taking them outside.

 

It was still hot. The sun had been brutal the whole month. He adjusted the hat Jenny was wearing again. He was always worried about the girls getting sunburned. He’d have to make this a quick trip. “Alright, girls. Go play. I’m going to be right over there, okay?”

 

Jenny seemed a little reluctant to leave Jack, but Alma tugged her away to sit on the other half of the seesaw.

 

“Jack Twist! It’s good to see you back at the park.” Marjorie Davis said from the bench. “Haven’t hardly seen you since church! Where’ve you been, honey?”

 

“Work.” Jack said, sitting on the bench.

 

“Oh, you got a job? Well that’s just great news. I didn’t see you at church this morning.”

 

“We’re busy this weekend. Ennis is planning the funeral.”

 

“Oh dear.” Majorie gasped. “Well, that’s just awful. Still, you should make time for church. It’s important to spend time with God, especially with such little girls. Have to raise them proper.”

 

Jack very much doubted the ability of the Riverton church to have any positive impact on the girls lives. “Well maybe next week.” He lied. “I think we’re using the church for the funeral.”

 

“Well of course. No better place.” Majorie nodded. “Is Ennis planning on getting remarried?”

 

Jack felt sick at the question. “I think it’s a bit soon to be planning anything. His wife has only been gone for a month.”

 

“Oh, I know dear.” Majorie didn’t sound terribly concerned over the grief Ennis would be experiencing. Like it was just a childish episode he would snap out of soon. “But he has children to think of. They need a mother after all.”

 

Did they? Jenny and Alma seemed satisfied with Jack as their caretaker. Jack would raise them as his own if Ennis allowed him to stay. He would love them like his own daughters and give them all the love they were missing out on from their mama. Why would a woman be any better? Would a woman love them any more than he was already capable of?

 

Jack didn’t say any of that. He doubted Majorie had any capability of understanding Jack’s feelings. “Well, give him time.” He said instead.

 

Majorie talked about Bobby and Tim. Tim was learning words very quickly and Bobby stuck his fingers in the cake she’d made for church this morning, completely ruining it. Jack only made polite responses, not returning with any real information about his own family. He’d decided that he didn’t like Majorie very much.

 

Bobby shoved his little brother off the top of the slide, and Majorie had to leave early, taking her screaming boys with her.

 

Jenny got bored with the seesaws. “Jack Jack! Play with me!”

 

Jack sighed. “I don’t have the energy for much, baby.”

 

“That’s okay, Jack Jack.” Jenny said. “You can braid flowers with me!”

 

Braiding flowers is something he could do. Jenny tugged his hands. “Pick flowers! Pick flowers!”

 

“Alright.” Jack pulled himself to his feet.

 

Jenny lead him off the wood chips into the nearby field. There was a lot of weeds there. Brightly colored dandelions and purple flowers. But also clusters of white blossoms. Orange flowers hidden in the grass. Alma joined them quickly.

 

“You’re making flower crowns?” Junior asked.

 

“Yeah!”

 

Jack opened his hands up at his sides. “Alright. What do you need me to do?”

 

“Do you know how to braid?” Alma asked.

 

“Well not hair.” He remembered Alma squirming as he struggled to put her curls together. “But in general, yeah.”

 

“You braid flowers!” Alma said.

 

“Yes ma’am.” Jack replied. He sat in the grass while the girls ran around, gathering different flowers. Alma came back first, her arms full of different flowers and dandelions.

 

“Can I tell you a secret?”

 

“I’d love to hear a secret.” Jack said.

 

Alma knelt next to him in the grass, sitting cross legged and pulling her dandelions out of the flower pile. “Dandelions have really thick, stringy stems. You use your nail to split em like this.” She showed him the way her nail cut the stem in the middle at the base of the flower. “Then you open it a bit. But don’t tear it! And put other flowers in it.”

 

Through the hole she made Junior put the stems of white flowers and orange ones, and then another dandelion. Then she continued the chain.

 

“Wow.” Jack said. “That’s cool.”

 

“You do it.” She shoved some dandelions into his hands. “Jenny only knows how to braid. She’s not gentle enough and they tear.”

 

Jack tried it himself. Digging his thumb length-wise down the stem. It split easily. Alma was right. It was soft, but fibrous, making it good for this. He pulled the stems of another dandelion through. As he went, it made a chain.

 

Jenny came running back with her own armfuls of flowers. She did employ the braiding method. By twisting the long stems over each other she could make strings of flowers. She went slower than Alma, and her chain didn’t look as sturdy, but she was younger. At least she had an excuse. Jack wasn’t nearly as good as Alma and he was twenty years older than her. Alma was the queen of flower chains. She made beautiful chains with speed. Jack’s looked a little pathetic.

 

She pulled Jack’s cowboy hat from his head and replaced it with her crown. Jenny was quite concentrated on her chain. “There.” Alma said, satisfied.

 

“Thanks, baby. Do I look handsome?” Jack said.

 

“Yeah. You look soooo pretty Jack Jack. Come on! Here’s more flowers.” Alma dumped the last of her dandelions into Jack’s lap. “Imma get more! You braid.”

 

Jack continued to put flowers together with Jenny. A bumblebee soared by them. Clouds passed overhead. It was a good way to spend the Sunday. He’d been reluctant to go but he found spending time with the girls like this relaxing. The tension slowly bled out of his aching shoulders.

 

His chain grew longer and longer. Alma came back with a fresh supply of dandelions and little white blossoms. “Jack, your chain is so long!”

 

He looked down at it. It was about two feet in length. “You never told me to stop.” He said in his own defense.

 

“Well now it’s too big to be a crown. Here, close it off like this.” She reached forward and did up the ends for him. “What are we gonna do with this?”

 

Jack lifted the garland over his head and settled it on his shoulders. It draped down his front, and his shirt was dusted with pollen. “There. That ain’t so bad.”

 

“But we still need crowns!” Alma said. She pushed more flowers into Jack’s hands. “Make another one. Not too long!”

 

“Right.” Jack went back to work with the flower chains. The sun was hot enough that he wanted to put his hat back on. He took off his crown and put it along the brim so he could wear both at the same time. With his head shaded he continued. Alma placed the crown she made on top of her own head. Jenny finally finished with hers. Then they were all wearing garlands of flowers. Jack held the extra chain he’d made in his hand.

 

“Well who’s gonna wear this one?” He asked the girls.

 

“Daddy! Silly.”

 

“Oh, daddy. Well, we better go home and give it to him.” Jack said. “Come on, baby. I think it’s high time you ate, anyway.”

 

“Okay, Jack Jack.” Jenny said. “No beans!”

 

Jack laughed. “Alright. Alright, no beans.”

 

They sang along to the radio on the ride home, with Jack being the loudest, and enjoyed the warm air that came through the open windows.

 

“Daddy! Daddy!” Alma clambered through the door with the extra garland in hand. Jack stayed behind to help Jenny take her shoes off. “Daddy, you gotta wear this.”

 

Ennis made some little mumbling noises while Alma put the flowers in his hair. “You make this yourself, baby?”

 

“No, Jack Jack did. You should see his first chain! It’s soooo long.”

 

“Junior! Come back here and take your shoes off!” Jack said as he let Jenny go inside.

 

“Oh. Be right back, daddy.”

 

Jack kicked his boots off and walked into the kitchen. Ennis was sitting at the table with various documents spread before him. He raised an eyebrow at Jack’s appearance. His pollen-dusted shirt and the bright flowers that adorned him.

 

“Well, I can see you had a productive day.”

 

“Yep.” Jack said. “Your daughter taught me how to make flower chains. Also I got them out of the house so you could work. A ‘thank you’ would be appreciated.”

 

Ennis was still looking at the flowers adorning his hat and chest. “Thanks.”

 

Alma came running back in to toss the last flower crown onto her daddy’s head. “You look beautiful daddy.”

 

“Thanks darlin’. Feel beautiful.” Ennis said.

 

Jack grinned. “Alright. Gotta take off this hat and get cooking. What do you want for lunch?”

 

“Sandwich!” Jenny shouted.

 

Jack was good at sandwiches when he wasn’t in a rush. The guys at work always ragged on him for his plain bologna sandwiches but the kids were too demanding to leave him time for anything else. At home for the kids he did a little more. Ham cold cuts, tomato, lettuce, and mayonnaise always did the job just fine. They were simple but satisfying. He served them with juice and potato chips. Ennis usually had a beer with his.

 

They were made rather quickly and set out. “Ennis, stop working. You gotta eat.” He brought a beer for him and pushed his paperwork out of the way to make room for the plate.

 

“You nag like a wife.” Ennis muttered. The awkwardness of the statement seemed to catch up to him quickly. But Jack didn’t mind.

 

“Just eat my damn food.”

 

The flowers began to wilt. Jack took them off his hat and shoulders and took Ennis’ crown and tossed them off the balcony. The sandwiches went down quickly and Ennis finally finished up his funeral invitations.

 

“I gotta mail these.” Ennis muttered. “I’ll do it tomorrow. After work.”

 

“What are we gonna do the rest of the day?” Jack asked.

 

“You should be resting is what you should be doing. Your back ain’t helped by all this movement.” Ennis looked him up and down. “You need more aspirin?”

 

“I feel fine right now. Sure I’ll be achin’ tomorrow.” Jack nearly dreaded the thought. “Should entertain the girls. Both of us. They don’t stay still for long.”

 

Ennis sighed. “Yeah, well. I still got flowers to arrange and...” He looked completely miserable. Jack felt a pang of pity for his friend.

 

“Hey. You’re allowed to take a break. The funerals not for another month. You’ve been at it for hours.”

 

Ennis shook his head.

 

Jack bit his lip. “Tell you what, we’ll watch TV with the kids. You can take a nap, they’ll be occupied. It’s a good deal.”

 

He should spend time with the girls. Even if they’re not really doing anything. Ennis seemed to agree. Nodding slightly. So Jack put some cartoons on the television and gave the girls some crayons and paper and sat down on the couch.

 

“Come on, cowboy. The Wild Wild West is on.”

 

The show was bright and colorful, with strange, dramatic plots and an energetic sense of humor. It didn’t make sense sometimes but it was great for kids. The girls loved it. Alma Jr. seemed to have some kind of girlhood crush on James West. Ennis sat down next to Jack with a grunt. Beer in hand he watched the show.

 

It was an odd episode. “The Night Of The Kraken.” A tentacle had been creeping out of the water at night and dragging fishermen under. James West eventually discovered the so-called Kraken was actually a machine. There was an underwater facility and a conspiracy to use a submarine missile to sink the greatest military ship of its time. The action scenes were decent, although Ennis thought their costumes were a bit flashy.

 

“No self respecting cowboy would wear those fancy suits.” Ennis griped. “They’d stain too easy.”

 

“Aw, but it looks good on camera.” Jack said with a grin.

 

“Not practical.” Ennis insisted.

 

He drained his beer over the episode and ended up falling asleep towards the end. Jack kept watching the show with the kids, who occasionally turned to show him their drawings and ask for his opinion.

 

Ennis shifted in his sleep, falling against Jack’s shoulder. Jack slung an arm over his shoulder and pulled him in, arranging the blanket over his sleeping companion’s lap. Ennis snored when he slept sometimes. Jack smiled at him. He was cute. Even if Ennis would punch him for saying so, he’d still think it privately.

 

Another episode began to play, another adventure of James West. Jack wasn’t paying attention anymore. He slid his fingertips quietly into Ennis’ hair, disturbing the curls and tracing a path through them. Ennis’ breath was hot on his face. Jack usually felt it on his neck. When he was curled up against him in the tent. He liked it, and he liked this too.

 

“Daddy?” Jenny had turned around with another picture.

 

“Shhhh. Daddy’s sleeping.” Jack whispered.

 

“Oh.” Jenny turned to him instead. “What think?”

 

“It’s beautiful, baby.” Better than he could draw, anyway. Jack could barely write legibly and his ability to draw was dubious at best. He wasn’t too embarrassed that a toddler could draw better than him.

 

Jenny seemed satisfied with the answer and turned back to make another picture. Jack turned his attention back to Ennis. Poor Ennis. He wasn’t the type to take naps. Often he berated Jack for being a lazy son of a bitch on Brokeback, napping with his hat over his face when he was supposed to be doing their laundry or cooking their meals. Ennis was always attentive until bedtime.

 

Until now. The task of the day must have worn him out. The stack of invitations and all the arrangements he had to deal with. Jack brushed a hand through his hair again. He was perfectly willing to let the man sleep. Time passed for quite a while like this. The sunlight from the window that lit Ennis’ hair faded away with the sunset and the world turned dark outside. The hands on the clock creeped forward into the girl’s bedtime. They’d been watching television for hours.

 

“Alright. It’s time to go to bed.”

 

“Awww.” Alma whined. “Jack Jack one more episode.”

 

“Uh-uh. Go brush your teeth. I’ll be up in a minute.”

 

The girls reluctantly complied. Not even casting a glance back at Jack before running off to the bathroom. Jack looked back at Ennis. He was still sleeping. He didn’t want to disturb him, didn’t want to wake him when he clearly needed the rest.

 

He stood and went to make sure the girls brushed their teeth. Got them into their pajamas and their socks and put them in bed. He drew the covers up around Jenny’s chin.

 

Jack was satisfied with his work. The girls weren’t tired yet, but at least they were lying down. “Alright. What is gonna get ya to sleep tonight?”

 

“Tell us about the mountain again.” Alma said softly. Her eyes looked so big in the dim lamplight.

 

Jack sat on the floor beside their beds. “You like that, huh?”

 

“You sound so happy when you talk about the mountain.” Alma said. Jack briefly felt a swell of emotion before he shut it away.

 

“I was happy.” He whispered. “Happier time I’ve never had before or since.”

 

“So tell us.”

 

“Alright. Where did I leave off? Did I tell you about the stars? The mountain was dark at night, cause there was no other light. Just whatever campfire we had. The sky was so full of stars. They were beautiful.” Jack began. “Yer daddy and I would drink ourselves stupid sometimes and lay under them and just. Look at them for hours.”

 

He told them about the horse bucking their daddy off and the donkeys scattering their food all over the woods at the sight of a bear. “You don’t know how lucky you are. You complain when I make beans but that was all Ennis made for weeks. I hated him when he put another bowl of beans in my hands. Didn’t hate him any other time though.”

 

“I think he hated me sometimes though. When I played my harmonica or when I was loud and he was trying to sleep. But sometimes I think he wouldn’t have wanted anyone else on that mountain with him.”

 

“Once the hailstorm scattered the sheep all across the mountain. They ended up flocking with someone else’s sheep. Took hours to sort it out. Don’t think we ever found all our own sheep. Took some with us that never went up.”

 

“Then I’d sing. Just like I do with you girls. I’d sing in the night and the early morning and your daddy would tell me I was howling like the coyotes. But he liked when I sang. The mountain was so big that my voice would come back after traveling for miles and we’d get to hear it again.”

 

The girls were falling asleep, hanging onto his every word. “You like being on the mountain with daddy?” Jenny asked.

 

“Oh, yes.” Jack said quietly. “Yes, of course. He became my best friend that summer.”

 

Jenny mumbled and turned over in her sleep. Alma was slumped against her pillow awkwardly, sleeping with her neck at an odd angle. Jack straightened her out and turned off the light. He turned to leave them.

 

Ennis was standing in the hall, just outside the door. His expression was dark. He’d never seen an expression so dark. Jack’s heart dropped.

 

Without saying a word Ennis turned and left. His shoulders were tense with anger. Jack followed quickly.

 

“Wait, Ennis–”

 

The man spun around, pinning Jack to the spot with his burning glare. Ennis looked furious. “Why the hell are you telling them about Brokeback?!” He hissed.

 

“I ain’t told them nothing that would harm us.” Jack said.

 

“They shouldn’t know at all.” Ennis raked an anxious hand through his hair. “The girls can’t know about us. They can’t know what you are.”

 

“What I am?” Jack was fed up. “What about you, Ennis? It takes two with this. You think you’re any different from me?”

 

“I’m not a damn queer.” Ennis snarled.

 

“Who cares?! I am.” Ennis flinched. “Oh, don’t do that. You know I am. You always knew. There ain’t two ways about it. I kiss men. I go to bed with men. I ain’t looked at a woman since I met you. I–”

 

Jack abruptly cut himself off.

 

“You’re...” Ennis couldn’t even gather the words. “I ain’t like you. I can’t be like you. Can’t just go chasing my passions. It’ll hurt me and my girls. I can’t throw away my life just because of my dick!”

 

“Is that all this is? Your dick?” Jack’s throat felt rough.

 

“Don’t pretend it ain’t for you.” Ennis said bitterly.

 

“No. It’s more. Ennis. How could you not know?”

 

“Know what?!” He was practically shouting at this point. He wasn’t thinking of the girls or anything else.

 

“I’m in love with you.”

 

Ennis was completely silent. He stood perfectly still and didn’t say a word. Regret began to seep in. Jack felt panicked. Felt like he’d just made the worst mistake of his life. 

“Ennis...”

 

He still didn’t say anything. Just held his hand up. Jack went silent. Ennis stepped around Jack, his strides were long, like he was desperate to just get away. He took his coat and his hat and left, the door latching quietly behind him. Jack was left alone in the apartment, feeling like he’d just ruined his life forever.

Chapter Text

Ennis was at a bar. The saloon at the edge of town. It wasn’t much of a bar, just a place where men went to avoid their wives and get drunk after work. Ennis had no wife to avoid anymore, but he was avoiding Jack. The words he’d said still echoed in Ennis’ ears.

 

I’m in love with you .

 

He slammed his glass down on the bar. “Can I get another?” He asked.

 

The bartender silently filled his glass. Ennis grunted his thanks.

 

That fucking idiot. What was he thinking? Saying shit like that. He wasn’t in love. He thought he was in love because Jack was a fool with fancy ideas and big dreams. Well, he could keep this dream to himself. Ennis’ stomach churned when he thought about what could happen if he allowed himself to be in love with a man. He could be hung in the trees outside town or thrown into the creek with his face smashed in. He thought of that man he’d seen as a child, humiliated and murdered. His death had been no easy thing. He’d been brutalized beyond recognition. Jack thought they could just be together with no consequences. But everything had consequences in this world.

 

He thought of his daughters. Who would be there to care for them if he was killed for being a queer? They’d already lost their mama. He couldn’t stand it if he let them suffer any more because of his own feelings. If he lost Jack, what did that matter? What did it matter as long as his daughters were safe?

 

He drank more, feeling the tears that threatened him at the thought of losing Jack.

 

He didn’t want to lose Jack.

 

The truth was Ennis knew he wasn’t being fair to Jack. He pulled him in, desperate for affection. Desperate for the way Jack made him feel. Only to shove him away when the guilt caught up to him. Yell at him and blame him and shove him around for his own needs. If he’d treated Alma like that she’d’ve left his ass. It wasn’t right. He felt guilty for his relationship with Jack and guilty over the way he treated him for it.

 

He was guilty. Guilty of marrying Alma when he didn’t feel about her like he felt about Jack. He was guilty of doing what he thought he ought to instead of what he wanted. Alma was a fine woman. She was a beautiful, morally upstanding, soft-spoken lady. She bore his children and fixed his shirts. Cooked meals and fixed up the apartment for them to live in. She’d cleaned his dusty clothes by hand and never complained about it. She had been utterly wasted on a man like him. A man who didn’t love her like she deserved.

 

Hell, he didn’t know if he would have asked to marry her in the first place if things had been different. If it hadn’t been for his siblings getting married and leaving him in his own. He didn’t honor the vows he made. Had an affair with a man behind her back and brought him into their marriage bed when she was no longer there to occupy it. Now she was gone and he could never set it right. Now she was gone and Ennis was ruining the last good relationship he had by pushing Jack away bit by bit.

 

He groaned, burying his face in his hands. He was a mess before Jack came to help him. Jack had cleaned his laundry like Alma had when she was alive. And changed diapers and put the kids to sleep when he couldn’t calm them down. He cooked for Ennis, or at least tried to. He’d never be the cook Alma was but Ennis appreciated the effort he made. He changed the sheets on the crib. Jack never asked for a thing in return for all of this.

 

Jack said he loved him.

 

Ennis didn’t say it back. Didn’t even do that one thing for him.

 

He’d loved Alma. Or thought he did anyway. He cared about her. Appreciated her quiet frontier charm and her modest values. He’d wanted to share a life with her. Marriage, kids. Things he thought he ought to have. Because that’s what men did. That’s what fulfilled men. And they did. His kids meant everything to Ennis. But marriage with Alma? There’d been something... missing. It never felt easy or natural. Like being with Jack felt easy and natural. Being with Alma made him content for a while. But it didn’t make him happy.

 

Being with Jack made him happy.

 

He had tortured himself for the past few months about Jack replacing Alma. Replacing her in his bed and his heart. Usurping her place as the caretaker of his children. But he wasn’t replacing Alma in his heart, Ennis saw that now. Jack was always in Ennis’ heart. He’d held a place there since the moment Ennis had met him.

 

Ennis drank deeply from his beer. The alcohol seemed to clear his mind as it hit his system. Pushed away the fear and denial that weighed him down and let him confront his feelings for what they were.

 

It was wrong. He knew that much. It was dangerous, it was different. It wasn’t what he was supposed to be. He was supposed to be stoic and provide for his family and take humble satisfaction in doing so. He wasn’t supposed to want the excitement Jack brought to his life. He wasn’t supposed to want Jack’s body. Ennis had chosen what he was supposed to do before.

 

Maybe now that he had a second chance he could choose what made him happy.

 

I love you, Jack Twist.

 

Even with the alcohol, the thought of saying such a thing made Ennis panic. He had no idea how Jack said it like he did. The bravery that must have taken must have been enormous. Or the stupidity. He remembered Jack’s stricken face before he’d left. Looking like he’d made a huge, unfixable mistake. He’d probably felt pretty stupid in that moment.

 

He shouldn’t have left Jack alone. He remembered how Jack was when Ennis left after that first whiskey-drunk fuck on Brokeback. He’d looked so scared when Ennis came back. Like he hadn’t been sure Ennis would come back at all. He was probably feeling just that way now. Curled on the couch, wondering if Ennis would return and kick him out. Or kick his ass. Truth was Ennis didn’t know if he had the courage to face him. Not without a lot more alcohol. Maybe not even then.

 

“Hey, buddy. Go home.” The bartender said.

 

Ennis glared at him. “You think I’d be here if I wanted to go home?”

 

The bartender looked sympathetic. “I know you just lost your wife, Ennis. But you can’t do this. Your girls need ya.”

 

“Don’t you think I know that?” Ennis said desperately. “It’s all I ever think about.”

 

The bartender looked torn and poured him another glass. “This is your last. Drink it and go home. I’ll put it on your tab. Just get back to your family.”

 

Ennis shook his head. He couldn’t go back so soon. Not with Jack waiting there for him. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready. He couldn’t do it.

 

He knocked back the last of his alcohol and took a deep breath. He could do this.

 

His steps faltered slightly as he left the bar. He stumbled over the gravel in the parking lot. He thought again of Jack. On the couch at home, waiting for him. Fear roiled within him.

 

He could not do this.

 

Ennis fell into his truck. It was fine. He’d sleep there tonight. Wake up, go to work, then he’d face Jack. Maybe he’d be ready then.

 

He felt like that was a lie.

 


 

Jack woke up the next day to sun in his swollen eyes. He scratched at the salty tracks of dried tears on his face. He had to go to work today. He groaned at the thought.

 

Ennis hadn’t come home last night. Jack’s stomach felt heavy with dread.

 

He stood. He couldn’t worry about that. There was work to do and kids to feed. He pulled himself to his feet and shuffled to the bathroom.

 

The mess that looked at him from the mirror was shocking. His eyes were still puffy from his crying, which were only compounded by the dark circles from his lack of rest. He shaved his face, hoping that would help his ragged appearance. But it only did so much. Jack sighed and stepped into the shower. He had to change his clothes.

 

When he was clean and combed he pulled on a fresh shirt and pants and went to wake the girls.

 

“Jack Jack, you look...” Jenny paused, looking for the right word. “Yucky.”

 

Jack sighed. “I feel yucky, baby.”

 

Jenny hugged him. “I love you, Jack Jack.” She said quietly.

 

He returned the embrace quickly. “I love you too.” He croaked. He shook himself, trying to stave off the oncoming tears. “Let’s get you ready for Miss Mary’s. Alma, it’s time to get up.”

 

Junior sat up. “Is Jack okay?” Was the first thing out of her mouth.

 

Jack sighed. “That bad, huh? I’m gonna make you breakfast. Get dressed.”

 

He didn’t have the energy to make pancakes. Jack poured cereal into bowls. The girls didn’t complain about what they were served. Jack drank cold coffee left over from the previous morning. Threw together his low-effort sandwich and put it in a paper bag. The girls ate quietly while Jack tried his best to get his shit together.

 

Miss Mary gave him a worried look when he dropped the girls off. But he left too quickly for her to say anything about his tired appearance. He was sure she would fuss over him when she picked the kids up.

 

Gavin whistled low when he showed up to work. “Jack Twist. You look like hell.”

 

“Yeah. The girls been worrying about me all mornin’.” Jack said. He picked up a shovel. They were still filling the trench with gravel. Soon they’d be able to put the next layer down.

 

“Your wife get on your ass?” John asked.

 

“She didn’t even come home last night.” Jack said. He couldn’t keep the concern out of his voice if he tried. “Don’t know where she is. She was so mad.”

 

John nodded. “I hear ya. My old lady goes to her sister’s when she’s too pissed off to look at me. She’ll be back. Get some flowers or somethin’. Act real sweet.”

 

Jack didn’t think flowers would fix the situation he was in. But he appreciated the advice.

 

“What’d you do that pissed her off so bad, anyway?” Gavin asked.

 

Jack thought about how to word it. “I told her something she didn’t want to hear.”

 

John laughed. “Yeah. Happens all the time. Aw, don’t worry. If she loves you she’ll always be back. Don’t matter what you say. Just matters how you treat her. You love this woman?”

 

“With all my heart.” Jack said, and the sincerity with which he said it caused his companions to pause.

 

John grinned. “Well, shit. Then she’ll be back. She knows how good she’s got it with you.”

 

Jack wasn’t so sure anymore. Once he’d been sure that Ennis loved him, even if he’d never said it. Now the only thing that he was sure of was that he’d fucked up. He wasn’t sure if Ennis loved him or if he would be back no matter what he’d said. Jack knew he’d be back for the girls. But maybe not for him. The idea of being kicked out onto the streets made his heart wilt.

 

Work went so slowly. But he was almost glad for once. Jack was apprehensive at the idea of going home to Ennis. His back was killing him again, his shoulders ached, and John and Gavin chattered away. But time passed on as surely as it ever did. When the time came for work to be over Jack said goodbye to his coworkers and climbed into his truck.

 

“Okay.” He said to himself. “You can do this.” One thing at a time. He had to get the girls.

 

Miss Mary Brown was waiting on the porch for him again. She frowned at him as he strolled up the steps.

 

“Jack Twist. You look a mess.” She said sternly. “Get inside boy. You’re having a piece of cake. Ah! Don’t think of saying a word about it. Cake makes things better.”

 

Jack could only be ushered inside by the tiny Miss Mary Brown. The girls were playing with antique dolls that Miss Mary had given them. She pushed Jack down into a kitchen chair with surprising strength and began to cut him off a generous helping of cherry chocolate cake.

 

She set it before him delicately. The fine china clinked quietly on the tabletop. “There. Poor dear. Now tell me what’s wrong.”

 

Jack sighed. He didn’t much feel like eating. He took a bite out of obligation. The sweet taste did nothing to assuage his guilt and fear. “I had a fight. With Ennis.” He said.

 

Miss Mary clicked her tongue. “Now, that’s too bad. Try not to be too hard on him. He’s trying his best after the terrible loss he’s had.”

 

“I know.” Jack said solemnly. “It’s my fault anyway. I’m the one who pushed the issue onto him. Now I just have to deal with it when I get home. It’s... I’m not looking forward to it.”

 

“Well, don’t you worry. You’re family. Family forgives. If they don’t they end up regretting it.” She said. Jack didn’t agree. He didn’t forgive his father. He wouldn’t regret it either. His father was a bitter old bastard and he would be glad when he was gone. Besides, he didn’t know if he counted as Ennis’ family. He was his so-called “cousin” but that only meant that people wouldn’t suspect them for being queers.

 

“I don’t know, Miss Mary.” He said. “Ennis doesn’t agree with me on this issue. We never have. It’s driven a wedge between us before.”

 

Miss Mary looked terribly sad. “Well, you got to just talk to him. I know you’re worried about him. If he cares about you he’ll come to some kind of agreement with you. You’ve got girls to look after.”

 

Everyone was trying to build Jack up to his confrontation with Ennis. He wished he could be as brave as everyone was telling him to be. He wished life was as simple as they seemed to think it was. He wished he could be sure everything would work out fine.

 

He took the girls home. Jenny and Alma were quieter than he’d ever seen them. They kept giving him wide-eyed looks of worry. He tried to pull it together. Smiled at them over his shoulder. But they weren’t convinced.

 

The apartment was quiet when they stepped inside. Jack helped the girls take off their shoes. “You girls need something to eat?”

 

“No, Jack Jack.”

 

“You want me to take you to the park?” He asked.

 

“No. You just feel better. ‘Kay?”

 

He sighed. “I’ll try, baby.”

 

The girls played in their room while Jack waiting anxiously for Ennis to come home. Time was torturously slow. The hands on the clock seemed to stand still while he waited for his friend to come home. Jack drank three beers while he waited. Smoked cigarettes one after the other. He was behaving erratically, he knew that. But there was only so much he could do to comfort himself. He was sure that whenever Ennis walked through that door he’d force Jack out and shut that door behind him forever.

 

The evening dragged on. Ennis hadn’t been home in a day now. Jack made dinner for the girls, watched television with them, watched them brush their teeth, put them to bed. Jenny kissed his face sweetly. Alma hugged him tight and told him that she loved him. Jack bit his lip.

 

“Hey, baby. I love you too. No matter what. Okay? No matter what, even if you don’t see me around someday, I still love you forever.”

 

Jenny and Alma’s eyes were wide. “What do you mean, Jack Jack?”

 

Jack was worrying them. But he felt it was important. “I just love you. So much. That’s all.” He did. Like his own. He settled them with kisses and turned off the lights. He went back to waiting. It felt like maybe the moment would never come. That he’d just worry forever, suspended in that empty apartment, waiting and waiting for Ennis to come back.

 

But they couldn’t put off the moment forever.

 


 

Ennis woke in the bar parking lot hungover. The sunlight burned his eyes. He groaned, covering them with his hands.

 

“Shit.” He muttered. He really had stayed out the whole night. He was a fucking idiot. He wondered if the girls had worried about him. He wondered if Jack had worried about him.

 

The thought of Jack brought back the memories of the previous night.

 

I’m in love with you .

 

He had to go to work.

 

The bumps in the road only served to exacerbate his migraine. Ennis groaned. He wished more than anything that he had some coffee. He wasn’t going to risk going back to his apartment to get it. Wasn’t going to face Jack this early in the morning.

 

He gripped the steering wheel. Did Jack sleep? Memories of his stricken face rose to the surface. The bright, emotional eyes he’d been faced with.

 

I’m in love with you.

 

He parked his truck in front of the ranch. The Davis ranch, a smaller operation. Bob Davis was a stern man. He wasn’t friendly with his employees, but he was fair and he paid well enough. Ennis stepped out. He had to feed the cows, take them out to pasture, and clean the barn. He set about his work. Hopefully he could lose himself in routine, push his thoughts aside.

 

He didn’t find himself lucky that day. Jack Twist still occupied his mind. He thought about him while he shoveled out the pens and herded the cattle. Jack was at work by now. Ennis worried that he was hurting his back again. He’d been worried all weekend about his back. Couldn’t afford a doctor if he hurt it bad.

 

Jack had been working hard. He’d been attending to the girls and working while Ennis tried to get the funeral arrangements together. They’d gotten quite attached to him. Jenny followed after him like a duckling after their mama.

 

The analogy hurt Ennis as soon as he’d thought it.

 

He put himself into his work. One of the heifers had finally gotten pregnant. She was quite far along. Ennis made sure to attend to her. Gave her the supplements and grain she needed to bear a healthy calf. He ran a comforting hand down her snout. She was a sweetheart. Never gave him trouble, never stepped on his toes. One of the cows had a habit of standing on his feet and refusing to move on no matter how Ennis shoved her. Ennis moved the heifer along. Got her out to pasture.

 

He swept out the stalls. They’d been mucked and were ready to be hosed down and filled with new hay. Then he’d have to clean the horses hooves and put new shoes on them. He was looking forward to that. It was one of the more relaxing parts of his job.

 

There was one horse, however, that he wasn’t looking forward to. He spooked easy and had a nasty habit of kicking. He hadn’t knocked Ennis yet but he was still dreading the broken ribs he was sure to get when he did.

 

Jack would probably love that horse. He seemed to like active horses. The ones that wanted to throw you the whole time you rode them. He liked the challenge.

 

I’m in love with you.

 

Ennis threw hay into the stalls with more force than was needed. His movements were aggressive and jerky. He still had a headache. He was pissed off and nervous and tired. His neck hurt from sleeping in his car. He couldn’t stop Jack’s voice from invading his mind. Why couldn’t he get him out of his mind?

 

Jack continued to follow him throughout his day. As Ennis tried to escape him he whispered his love confession in his ears. He heard it over and over. He cleaned hooves and put shoes on them and brought the cows back from the pastures and Jack was with him every step of the way. I’m in love with you. He said.

 

Ennis got back into his truck after work, resting his head on the steering wheel. His hangover was subsiding a bit, but the nervous feeling remained. He was worn out. It had not been a good day.

 

Ennis stopped by the post office and dropped off the invitations that needed mailing. It was one less thing to occupy his troubled mind.

 

He was delaying, he knew that. He stopped to get gas instead of going home. He pumped gas into his truck, tapping his foot as he waited. The wind was biting, blowing in from the west. It climbed down the collar of his shirt while he stood, sending chills down his spine.

 

Ennis spit onto the pavement and lit a cigarette while he paid for his gas.

 

He spent most of the evening driving around town, ignoring the gnaw of hunger. He hadn’t eaten all day. Hadn’t been home for breakfast, hadn’t stopped working for lunch, and certainly missed dinner time with his delays. Pastures flicked by in his window. Cold air rushed in when he rolled down the window to toss away his cigarette. The sun set while he drove. More time passed. Jack was waiting at home. Putting the kids to bed. Waiting for him to return.

 

He was a coward. Couldn’t go back to his own family. Couldn’t face the man who’d occupied his thoughts all day.

 

I’m in love with you .

 

The words echoed back at him from his memories again.

 

He knew what he needed to do. He knew he lacked the courage to do it. He always lacked Jack’s courage. Jack’s slick charm and bold words. What would he say?

 

He would say exactly what he’d meant. What he’d said last night.

 

I’m in love with you .

 

Ennis sighed. He couldn’t put it off forever.

 

He turned his truck around and finally drove home.

 


 

Ennis walked in late. Jack stood as soon as Ennis walked in the door. Ennis shuffled awkwardly, kicking off his shoes.

 

“Ennis.” Jack sounded relieved and terrified in equal measure. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“Shut up.” Ennis snapped. Jack’s jaw clenched shut. Ennis sighed, regretting what he said already. Not off to a good start. He cleared his throat. Start again.

 

“Jack. I don’t know.” He looked away, trying to steel himself. “I don’t know what to say. No, I do. I mean... I don’t know how.”

 

Jack waited so patiently. He was standing right there in front of him, giving him the chance he’d thrown away so many times before. Jack always gave him another chance. Jack was brave enough to love him in the face of uncertainty. In many ways, Ennis wasn’t the man Jack was. He admired him.

 

“I uh,” he shuffled his feet. The words were right there. Clogging his tight throat. “Jack.”

 

“It’s okay.” He said it so soft that Ennis wasn’t even sure he’d said anything at all.

 

Ennis had never been good with words. They were not easy to find now. “You... I want a life with you.” He started. He took a few steadying breaths. “I love–” he cleared his throat “having you around. And the way you treat the kids.”

 

Jack’s eyes were so wide. Their stuttering breaths were the only sounds for a few moments while Ennis got the courage to try again.

 

“I love. Your cooking. Your singing too. I love your attitude. You...” he closed his eyes. “Jack I... I love you.”

 

Even now that he’d gotten the words out he felt like the panic would consume him. His throat was tight and his whole body was shaking.

 

In a moment Jack’s body was molded to his. Trembling arms wrapped him up tight. Jack was panting right next to his ear and Ennis felt tears wet the shoulder of his shirt.

 

“Jack?”

 

“Yes. Yes.” Jack breathed. “God, say it again.”

 

Ennis didn’t want to. It’d been hard enough to say it the first time. But Jack sounded so needy. So scared and vulnerable. Ennis could hardly deny him.

 

“I love you.” Ennis said quietly.

 

Jack’s knees buckled and gave out. Ennis wrapped his arms around him and held the man up.

 

“I thought you’d say the opposite.” Jack confessed. “You’d come home and say you hated me and you didn’t want no fag around your kids.”

 

“Jesus, Jack.” Ennis wished he could say that he’d never say that. But he knew why Jack would think that he would. With all his worrying about queers and the shit he’d said. He wished he’d never done anything to inspire such doubt in his lover.

 

His lover. Ennis’ heart raced with fear and excitement at the thought.

 

“I want a life with you. Queer or not.” He’d decided that already. There was no going back. “We’re gonna have to be careful. And the kids can never know. It’ll be difficult. But when I thought about life without you... that was more difficult than anything we have to do to be together.”

 

Jack was crying pitifully. “I want a life with you, too.” Jack’s voice broke on the words. “So much. Do anything.”

 

“Shhh.” Ennis ran his hand through the man’s hair. “Stop crying. Ain’t gonna leave again. Sorry it took so long.”

 

“Please.” Jack sighed. “I gotta lie down. I can’t stand anymore.”

 

Ennis hauled them to the bedroom. No more sleeping on the couch. He was going to sleep with Jack. He hated sleeping on his own, anyway. Knowing Jack was just in the other room. They tumbled into bed together, not bothering to change their clothes.

 

Jack sighed. “I’ve waited so long for this. Didn’t think it’d ever happen.”

 

Neither did Ennis. He never thought he’d ever choose this life. But Jack was one convincing son of a bitch.

 

“Wanna get a ranch again.” Ennis said. “Tired of this shitty little apartment. Get a ranch. Rooms for the girls. Cows. Place of our own. We’ll save money. Get there someday.”

 

Jack sighed wistfully. “We could do it soon. With the rodeo prize money and everything I’m gonna earn this summer. We’ve got enough to start our mortgage.”

 

“Maybe. Don’t matter how long it takes. Just as long as we’ve got the time together.” Ennis closed his eyes. “I’m fucking starving.”

 

Jack sat up. “Oh! You didn’t stop for dinner?”

 

“Didn’t stop for anything. Worryin’ too much all day to eat.”

 

Jack gave him a stern look. “Well now you gotta eat.”

 

Ennis looped an arm around Jack’s waist, not bothering to open his eyes. “Just a few more minutes.”

 

Jack could hardly say no to that. He’d needed the reassurance all day. He said back down. “Just a few more minutes.” He agreed quietly.

Chapter Text

Jack woke up where he’d left off. The night before he’d cooked Ennis a grilled cheese sandwich. They’d sat silently at the table while Ennis ate ravenously. Jack held the hand that wasn’t occupied with his sandwich, tracing mindless shapes on the back of Ennis’ hand with his thumb. They’d brushed their teeth, showered together, and quietly slipped into bed. After they’d said what they needed to there were no more words between them. Ennis pulled Jack into his arms and fell asleep.

 

Jack found that he was still there when he woke. Ennis had him clutched to his chest so tight that he couldn’t even look at his face. He took a deep breath. Ennis smelled clean and warm. He didn’t know warm had a smell before he’d met Ennis. Jack smiled. He shifted his shoulders, loosening himself enough from Ennis’ embrace to pull back.

 

Ennis stirred at the motions. Jack planted a kiss on his lips. “Mornin’.”

 

“Yeah, mornin’.” Ennis muttered. He slung an arm back over Jack’s shoulder from where it had slipped down over his waist. “Sleep. More.”

 

“Mmmm. I don’t know.” Jack said, kissing his partner more insistently. “You might have to convince me to stay in bed. It’s a beautiful morning.”

 

Ennis opened his eyes. “You’re trouble.”

 

“Guilty.” Jack breathed in between kisses.

 

Ennis was no longer asleep. He gripped the hair at the base of Jack’s head, tilting him down for a better angle. “Gettin’ me all riled up in the morning. Shame on you.” Ennis growled against Jack’s lips.

 

“Fuck.” Jack gasped. “Yes, Ennis.” Jack was being handsy. They roam freely over Ennis’ body, groping appreciatively at his arms and ass. Ennis took his wrists, pinning them to the bed. He turned so that he was straddling Jack. Sitting on top of him and setting the pace. Jack nipped at his lips, sharp introductions of his teeth before licking over the indents he left.

 

Ennis let go of Jack’s hands in order to grip his hair. He liked pulling at it. Ennis shifted his weight back, dropping it on top of Jack’s cock. That wrung a dirty little noise out of Jack. Things were escalating quickly. Their kisses were wet. Swollen lips slid over each other. Ennis was rolling his hips atop him and Jack was going to–

 

Bang bang bang . The doorknob rattled and tiny fists pounded the door impatiently. “Daddy! Make pancakes!”

 

Jack closed his eyes, dropping his head onto the pillow in defeat.

 

“Ah. Figures they’d wake up.” He sighed. “Kids, man. They have the worst timing.”

 

“Or perfect timing. Think God is punishing us already.” Ennis says, and Jack was pleased to hear that teasing tone. He’s less pleased when Ennis climbed off of him. He groaned and his dick throbbed in his boxers.

 

It suddenly occurs to Jack that the girls had tried to get in and hadn’t succeeded, which lead to their loud interruption of his potential orgasm. “You locked the door?” He asks while Ennis pulls on his pants.

 

“Yeah.” Ennis confirms. “You better get in the habit of it. Don’t want the girls walkin’ in on shit they don’t need to see.”

 

Fair enough. Jack didn’t want them to see anything either. He adjusted his dick, biting his lip as he did so, and pulled on his own pair of pants. “Fuck. I gotta go to work today.” Jack groaned.

 

“Well, I’m already late. I’ll make breakfast and drop them off. You go and get there on time.” Ennis offered.

 

“Thank you.” Jack pulled on a flannel and did his belt. He leaned in as if he was going to kiss him, then halted awkwardly.

 

Ennis rolled his eyes, pulling Jack in and kissing him on the cheek. “Dumbass.” He muttered. “Get to work.”

 

Jack grinned. He finally opened the door. The kids came running in immediately. They swarmed Ennis while Jack put on his boots and slipped out the door.

 

“Shit.” Gavin said when he showed up to work. They were already laying down the next layer on the road. Within a week they would be paving it over with tar. “Yesterday you was looking like hell on Earth. Now you look like you could fly. You and your lady make nice?”

 

“Oh yeah.” Jack said with a happy smile.

 

“Well, shoot. That was quick.” Gavin grunted at the weight he was moving. “What d’ya do?”

 

“Didn’t do anything.” Jack replied. “She just decided she wasn’t mad at me anymore I guess.”

 

John howled with laughter. “Yeah, sounds like ya got a good wife.”

 

Jack couldn’t agree more. “I do.”

 

Work was still killing his back. But he found he didn’t mind it much. Ennis’ morning kiss was still warm on his lips and he knew that he’d be coming home to a happier household. Jack was grateful things had worked out. They had a long way to go, but Ennis deciding they were in it together meant they’d taken the first step. As long as he was with him Jack thought he could do anything.

 


 

The next few weeks were hectic. Jack and Ennis bought clothes to wear to the funeral, Ennis was making all the last minute arrangements. Flowers, getting the permission to use the church as a venue, the cremation process. Everything Ennis had to handle himself. Slowly the work got done. The date creeped closer and closer.

 

Jack did his best to help on his end. He experimented with doing the girls hair every day. He was slowly getting better at braiding, but he usually couldn’t do much with Jenny’s hair. She was fussy and impatient. She squirmed too much for Jack to do a good job. Alma only sat still with the promise of candy. Hopefully he could do something nice with their hair the day of the funeral.

 

Ennis still fell into awkwardness sometimes. Especially as the funeral came closer. Jack was starting to realize it was a matter of guilt. He felt badly that he was moving on so quickly after his wife’s death. It was an understandable feeling. Jack held back his intimacy. He didn’t want to initiate anything while Ennis was struggling with his grief. Sometimes Ennis would look at him, like he was expecting something, but he never said anything.

 

Finally the day came. The day of the funeral got off to a somber start. Ennis was particularly quiet. He slipped into his black clothes and made breakfast without a word. Jack got the kids out of bed and got them into their clothes while Ennis made the eggs. Jenny and Alma were also quiet that morning. They were very good at recognizing their daddy’s moods and they seemed to realize that something was happening today.

 

“Jack Jack, why I wearing this?” Jenny asked, wrinkling her nose at her dress. “It’s itchy.”

 

“It’s your mama’s funeral.” Jack explained. “You wear black as a sign of respect.”

 

“What’s a funeral?” Alma asked.

 

Oh. Jack sucked in a breath. “It’s a service where you say goodbye to someone who’s passed.” He said.

 

Alma looked sad. Jenny didn’t seem to process what he meant at all. Jack’s heart hurt. They were such young children. Too young to lose their mama. He kissed their faces and smoothed their hair down.

 

Ennis served sausage and eggs and they ate in near silence. Jenny would occasionally ask questions. “When are we going?” “Is it boring?” “Do we have to?” Junior would tell her little sister to be quiet. Jack would just answer the questions as best he could. Ennis looked tired already. Jack squeezed his hand briefly.

 

They left for the church at noon. The service would be starting soon. People from all over town had gathered for the funeral. Alma’s family was there. The Beers looked at Ennis disapprovingly, but didn’t say anything. The church was full. Flowers lined the aisles and the front, where a small table held an urn.

 

Ennis sat them down in the front row. The priest, the same one who’d rambled in rage weeks earlier, stood at the head of the church. He held up his hands, signaling to the audience that they needed to be silent.

 

The crowd was quiet at once. He took it as his cue to speed. “Friends. We are gathered here today to celebrate and mourn the life of Alma Del Mar.” The priest said. “A mother who died tragically young. She leaves behind two small children. She was a simple woman of modest values. Alma Del Mar lead an honorable life. A Christian life. Let us pray for the salvation of her soul.”

 

Everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer. Jack didn’t know what to pray about. He’d hardly known Alma. He met her once before whisking her husband off for an affair. She was, in his mind, a barrier to his relationship with Ennis. But that hadn’t been her fault. She had also given birth to the children Jack now considered his own. He didn’t believe in God, but he did pray for Alma’s soul. He prayed for the kids to be okay in whatever grieving they might experience. He prayed things would be better.

 

“She will be missed by her family. If you have something you’d like to say, you may now come to the front and say it.”

 

The first to stand was her sister. Her sister talked about how Alma was a kind woman who always went to church and extended the care in her heart to every aspect of her life. Jack had a hard time paying attention to the long speeches her family made. So did the kids. Jenny and Alma seemed restless. Jack handed them peppermint candies to occupy them for a little while. Ennis wrung the edge of his shirt in his hands while Alma’s family spoke. They occupied quite a bit of time.

 

“I walked my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Only a few years ago. She was young and beautiful and ready to start her new life.” Alma’s father was saying. “I never– never imagined that I’d come to her funeral.” The man took a shaky breath. “She was too young.”

 

When Alma’s family finally finished talking everyone looked towards Ennis. They were expecting him to speak. Make some kind of heartfelt speech about his love for his wife and how he’d miss her forever. But Ennis stayed where he was, his shoulders shaking with unbroken tension. Ennis wasn’t good at speaking in a one-on-one conversation. Much less in front of a town. His declarations of love were rare and private. Not meant for the entire town of Riverton. Whatever Ennis Del Mar felt for his wife was between him and God.

 

When they finally realized he wouldn’t be speaking they moved on. Walking to the front to stand in front of her urn and say their goodbyes. Ennis, Jack, and the girls waited for everyone else to finish before them.

 

They finally got to go up. Jack lifted Jenny up to look at the urn.

 

“That’s mama?”

 

“That’s mama.” He confirmed.

 

Jenny frowned. He could see her thinking. She was only two years old. Jack wondered if she was even capable of understanding the finality of death. What death was. That she would never see her mama again. Alma seemed to understand. She looked at the urn with a deep sadness that was only possible through understanding.

 

Jack set Jenny down. Ennis was still quiet, looking at his wife’s urn with uncertainty. Jack suddenly felt like an intruder in the moment. He wasn’t a part of this process. He didn’t know Alma and didn’t mourn her. Why was he here?

 

Ennis’ hand snaked into his own, angled in a way to hide it from the crowd. Ennis tangled their hands together and held tight.

 

He looked over towards him. Ennis’ face was pinched with emotion. His hand was wound so tight around Jack’s that he was nearly bruising him.

 

Jack didn’t say a word. He reciprocated the pressure. Squeezing his hand in return.

 

People began to leave. The funeral was over, there was no need to stay. Only people who were directly involved in Alma’s life stuck around. Her family. The Beers approached when everyone was gone. Ennis let go of Jack’s hand and turned around to face them.

 

“Hello, Ennis.” Mrs. Beers said. “So. How will we be splitting the ashes?”

 

“I’ve already had that taken care of. If you’ll talk to the priest he’ll tell you where you can find your share.” Ennis said.

 

“Hmm.” She looked down at the children. “Well. Call us every once in a while. Let us talk to the kids. Come for holidays. Or just drop the girls off.”

 

“Will do.” Ennis said, clearly not interested in the conversation.

 

The Beers gave Ennis one last collective, disdainful look and turned away. Jack watched them leave. “What was that about?”

 

Ennis shook his head. “Don’t think they liked me much.” He said. “They never thought of me as much of a provider.”

 

Jack scowled. Ennis didn’t have much, but he was hard working and he always got food on the table even when money was tight. That was a lot more than some of the men in Riverton could say.

 

Ennis’ eyes turned back to the urn. “What do we do now?” Ennis asked. He sounded a bit helpless, like he was at a complete loss. Maybe confused. Jack wondered if Ennis had planned for anything beyond the funeral. Or if whatever emotions he was having at the moment were preventing him from thinking things through clearly.

 

“We go home I guess. Take the ashes. The kids need to eat. Maybe get outside.” He noticed how tired and bored Jenny and Alma seemed. Funerals weren’t really for little kids. Neither were any of the other long, boring services that the church seemed to have.

 

Jack took the urn, ignoring the sharp hiss of breath from Ennis as he touched it. Then they left, leaving the church empty. The glassy surface of the container was cold in Jack’s hand. It suddenly struck him that he was carrying the last of Ennis’ wife. It was one thing to know that and another thing to really think about. The human body condensed in a jar. It felt odd to think about.

 

The ride home was quiet. Jenny kicked her feet until she was let out of the car. Ennis made dinner while Jack helped Jenny go potty. Alma stripped herself of her funeral dress immediately and pulled her hair out of her ribbons. They began to settle in for the night.

 

While the girls were winding down Ennis took the urn. “Where are we gonna put it?” He muttered, tapping absently on the sides.

 

“Living room?” Jack suggested. “Should be where the kids can access it.”

 

“They’re young, though. Don’t want them knocking over their mama and spilling her all over the carpet.”

 

That was understandable. Jack cringed at the idea. “Yeah. Well, out of reach. But still where they can see it?”

 

Ennis ended up putting it on a shelf. Higher than the girls could reach, but still where it could be seen by anyone. His fingers lingered on the porcelain for a moment before finally letting go.

 

Ennis let go of a shaky breath. “It’s over.” He said. “It’s over.”

 

He turned to Jack. “It’s over.”

 

“Yeah.” He whispered.

 

Ennis sighed. Ran a hand down his tired face. “I should be ashamed, but I’m just glad it’s over.”

 

“Was it that bad?”

 

“Nah. It just wasn’t good either.” Ennis looked back at the urn. “I should put a picture of her up.”

 

Jack wondered if that was a good choice for Ennis. To have a visual reminder of his wife, a source of shame for her, in plain sight. But he couldn’t deny the girls a connection with their mother. That would be just as cruel.

 

He supposed life would just have to be like this. Maybe there would always be a tension. A guilt within Ennis. But as long as he actively chose to be with Jack they could be happy.

 

He wanted to hold his hand. Jack hesitated. He felt like he should comfort Ennis, but the moment passed and he lost his chance. His hands clenched at his sides as the girls came racing out of their room.

 

“Jack Jack! Story!”

 

Jack turned away from the moment. Away from Alma and Ennis and his worries. He smiled at them. “Alright. Let’s see. I could tell you about the time I took a stray kitten inside.”

 

He charmed the children into sleep again with his expressive story. They rather enjoyed the kitten story. He left out some parts. The way John whipped him with his belt when he found out about the stray and sent him out to the shed to sleep with the cat. Animals belong outside.  It had taken days for Jack’s mama to convince his father to let her son back inside. In the end he’d had to let the kitten go. He never saw her again.

 

Jack didn’t reflect on that. Didn’t mention it in his story. He spoke instead of the soft orange fur and the big green eyes and how he’d fed her lunch meat for a week. The girls fell asleep with smiles on their faces.

 

Ennis was standing just outside as he always did. “You’re a little too good at that.” He said.

 

“What can I say?” Jack grinned. “I’m a natural story teller.”

 

Ennis rolled his eyes as he turned out the light. His expression was stern as it always was, but there was a note of fondness. “Alright, rodeo. I think it’s your bedtime too.”

 

“Hm. Don’t have work tomorrow.” Jack shut the door behind him. “But maybe I’ll get up early tomorrow anyway. Don’t we have to enroll Alma in school soon?”

 

Ennis frowned in thought. Alma was four, turning five in the fall. When did kids enter kindergarten? “...you might be right.”

 

They were walking into the bathroom. Jack unbuckled the front of his pants and pulled the toilet seat up. “I know I am.” Jack said. “Bobby is entering this fall and he’s the same age.”

 

Ennis was applying toothpaste onto his toothbrush. “Who the hell is Bobby?”

 

“Oh for Christ’s sake, Ennis. Majorie Davis’ boy. You work for his father.” Now it was Jack’s turn to roll his eyes. “You need to get out the house more.”

 

Ennis grunted at him, too busy brushing his teeth to reply. Their bedtime routine went smoothly. Clean their faces, brush their teeth, change into more comfortable clothes. Jack shed his funeral garb and put it away. Hopefully he wouldn’t be touching that again for a long time yet.

 

He settled into bed with a sigh. Jack absently thought that they should clean the sheets soon. He’d ask Ennis to wash them tomorrow before he went to school to ask about enrollment. He turned over to kiss Ennis goodnight. He’d almost met his lips before he froze.

 

Jack hesitated again. He’d been doing that too much lately. Ennis frowned.

 

“Why do ya keep doin’ that?” He asked.

 

Jack furrowed his brow. “Doing what?”

 

“Holding back!” Ennis snapped. “Sometimes you won’t kiss me when you want to.”

 

The other shook his head. Jack looked conflicted. “I just... I don’t want you to get scared off again.”

 

Ennis sighed. For fuck’s sake. Where was the brave Jack Twist? The man who always took the initiative? Ennis seemed to remember being drunk as hell on whiskey and pulling away from Jack before the rodeo cowboy hauled him back in for a kiss. He remembered Jack initiating nearly all of their sexual encounters on the mountain. Pushing him up against trees, outside the privacy of the tent, to put his hands all over him. What changed?

 

His behavior towards Jack changed. The more time went on the more Ennis regretted his previous cowardice. His hot and cold behavior had planted doubt in Jack’s mind and now the spontaneous part he loved about Jack was suppressed.

 

He tried to gather the words. You’re mine. I love you. I want you to kiss me. I want everything you want because I want you. There’s nothing you could do now to turn me away. There were a lot of things he could say. But Ennis had never been that good with words. Nor with feelings. “I chose you.” He said, and it summed up how he felt.

 

He didn’t wait for Jack to respond, just hauled him in for a kiss. “Don’t hold back on me or I swear I’ll hit you.” He threatened.

 

“I won’t.” Jack promised.

 

“Good.” Ennis paused. Just about to kiss him. “I love you.” He said.

 

Jack didn’t even get a chance to respond before Ennis was giving him a crushing kiss. Jack was still riding the high of another love declaration. A kiss was just the cherry on top. They rolled over in bed. Ennis reached over and turned off the light. In the dark Ennis pushed his hands up under Jack’s shirt. Jack smiled against his lover’s lips.

 

A new page was turning.

Chapter Text

Wyoming passed from summer to fall. Temperatures dropped at night, enough that Jack got out the thicker pajamas for the girls and heavier quilts to sleep under. The leaves turned to gold and orange. Breezes came more often and stole the warmth from his body as they passed. Jack finished his job paving the road in Hudson. He’d added a decent amount of money to his rodeo prize winnings. This led to him starting a bank account locally. Another step in settling into his new life with Ennis in Riverton. Of course they’d also enrolled Alma Jr. in school. It was a very exciting time to be a parent. Jack drove them all to the store for school shopping to celebrate the occasion.

 

“What exactly are we looking for?” Ennis said, he’d been given the task of pushing the cart.

 

“Back to school clothes.” Jack replied. “Hmm... I don’t know what little girls wear to school. Button ups?”

 

“The girls around town seem to just wear sweaters and skirts.” Ennis pulled a sweater off the rack, inspecting it.

 

“Those are high schoolers.” Jack said. He didn’t know if little girls wore the same things as older girls to school. He tried to think back to the girls he went to school with. What did they wear? He couldn’t remember. He’d never paid much attention to the girls at school, what they wore, or the ways they tried to accentuate their bodies. He couldn’t recall a transition in age between clothes. “She’s four. Maybe we should start with shoes. What size is she?”

 

Ennis shrugged. Jack scoffed at his partner. “Okay. Time to learn what your daughter’s shoe size is. Baby, can you take off your shoes?”

 

Alma bent down in the isle and pulled her shoe off, offering it up to Jack. Jack looked inside, looking for any print or tag that told them the size. There was a tag sewn on the underside of the tongue of her shoe that listed the materials of the shoe and the size. Jack scanned it quickly. “Okay, this says nine. Does that sound right, darlin’?”

 

Alma nodded. “Great. Let’s go get shoes then.”

 

Alma was very careful in her selection. Jack helped her pull boxes off the shelves and push her feet into them. Watched her walk circles around the aisle. Asked if they were comfortable. “Do they pinch your toes?”

 

“Nuh-uh.” She looked down, wiggling her toes in the red sandals she was currently trying on. “I want these!”

 

“Alright. Let me have them, baby. You should get two pairs.”

 

After a lot of deliberation Alma decided on a second pair. A set of black Mary Janes that shone under the harsh store lights. She gave the other pair to Ennis for him to put in their cart. “Why are we buying shoes if she already has shoes?” Ennis asked.

 

“Well we’re gonna have to buy her shoes every year now, kids grow real fast. And I think it’s to give them a sense of pride?” Jack thought about it. “Like, they’re meeting kids their age and joining social groups. I think they’re supposed to look good. Otherwise they’ll get picked on.”

 

Ennis grunted. “I don’t remember shopping for school.”

 

“Well neither do I. I remember being picked on, though.” Jack said, loading the sandals he was holding into the cart. Alma reached up, making grabby hands to be lifted. Jack put her in the cart as well. “I don’t know if that was because of my clothes, if I’m bein’ honest.”

 

Then they were right back where they started. In the children’s section looking at pleated skirts and cardigans with no clue what they were looking for to begin with. Jack paced in front of the sweaters, looking at them like a mystery to solve.

 

“First time?”

 

Nancy Miller was there with her daughter. Daisy Miller was slightly older than Alma, about six years old. She was a quiet little girl and she played with Alma nicely when they were together. She seemed shy. Always hiding behind her mother’s legs, just as she was doing now. Peeking out from behind them at Jack and Ennis.

 

Immediately Ennis went quiet like he always did when he wasn’t talking to Jack. Jack was the one responsible for socializing with the townspeople. “Yeah.” Jack said. “Alma here’s going to school in a few days.”

 

“Oh well, congratulations!” Nancy said with a smile. “You need to get her some skirts, some stockings, and some sweaters. Get nice thick ones but also a lighter one for when the weather starts to get warmer. It’s okay to get them a bit big, she’ll grow into them. Little girls grow like weeds.”

 

Jack sighed. “Okay. Sweaters. Sweaters are easy. Ennis! Get over here. I need you to help me decide between dark blue and white.”

 

Nancy smiled. “Good luck you two! I have to go get belts.”

 

“Thanks Nancy.” Jack said as she left. “Anyway, dark blue or white?”

 

“Dark blue.” Ennis finally said once Nancy was out of earshot. “I’m not spot treating that white sweater every time she spills juice on it or plays in the grass.”

 

“Good point.” Jack said. He threw the navy blue garment into the cart.

 

Alma chose a series of pleated skirts and fluffy sweaters. They tossed some stockings in for good measure. Had to have nice socks for her to wear her new shoes in. They bought enough clothes to last her the year that afternoon. Jack also threw together some notebooks, crayons, and pencils for her.

 

“I think she’s ready.” Ennis said, looking at the cart they’d filled.

 

“Not yet. She needs a lunch pail and a school bag.”

 

Ennis groaned. “Why do kids need so much?”

 

“It won’t be too bad next time. We’ll save these clothes and just hand them down to Jenny. Save us a lot on clothes shopping.” Jack turned to Alma. “Alright, baby. Let’s go get your bag.”

 

Alma happily walked through the store with them. She looked over the selection of bags. They were small, sized appropriately for her age. There wasn’t much selection, though. There was never much selection of anything in small towns. Alma picked out a black bag with straps she could put over her shoulders. She looked happy enough with her selection.

 

Lunch pails, however, were a much more exciting process. Brightly colored tin boxes in a greater selection than school bags were available. Some were shaped more like pails, others boxes, all with sturdy handles and latches. Different decals and designs decorated the boxes. One box in particular caught Alma’s eye immediately.

 

“Daddy! Wild Wild West!” She said, holding up the box to show her father. Her eyes sparkled at the colorful painting of Jim West.

 

Ennis nodded awkwardly. “It’s nice.” He said.

 

“How about Disney, baby? You like Mickey Mouse?” Jack picked another box off the shelves, crouching down to Alma’s level to show her.

 

“Hmmm.” She seemed to consider the yellow box. It’s bright cartoon characters and it’s sturdy handle. But in the end she didn’t seem nearly as impressed with it. “I like James.”

 

Of course she did. Jack understood. He’d seen The Pirate as a child with his mama. He’d had a pretty big crush on Gene Kelly. In his childhood innocence he didn’t hide it nearly well enough. It was the first time she’d realized something was different about him. He understood the innocent awakening Alma was experiencing well. James West was pretty handsome. She had good taste, Jack thought. “I bet you do.” He said with a grin.

 

Ennis shot Jack an exasperated look. Jack just smiled at him.

 

They ended up buying her the James West lunchbox.

 

Alma spent the rest of the day excitedly showing her sister all of the things she got for school. Jenny was excited to go to school until she was told she wasn’t old enough yet. This ended in her crying and walking into her daddy’s arms.

 

“I wanna go to school!” She wailed.

 

“You will. When you’re old enough.” Ennis tried. But Jenny wasn’t happy with that.

 

She huffed, shoving her head into her daddy’s chest and whining. “I wanna go with Junior!”

 

It took quite a bit of cajoling to distract her. Alma was annoyed that Jenny had taken the fun out of her new school supplies. But Ennis managed to distract them with the TV.

 

Ennis and Jack rewarded themselves with beers from the fridge. It had been a long day. Ennis sighed. “Boy. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when she actually goes.”

 

“It’ll be fun. You got a camera? You should take pictures. You only get two first days of school.” Jack took a deep swig out of his beer.

 

“I think you’re a better daddy than I am sometimes.” Ennis said, and it was a joke. Mostly. There was an undercurrent of insecurity there. Jack frowned.

 

“Nah.” He said. “I’m just a different one. Besides, I never see the dads in this damn town take care of their kids. I don’t think half the dads in this town even like their kids. My daddy never liked me, that’s for damn sure. You love your girls. It’s very attractive.”

 

Ennis rolled his eyes. “I think you just find me attractive.”

 

Jack smiled. “True.”

 

His flirting was rewarded with a rather attractive blush. Ennis clenched his jaw, looking down at his empty beer. “Yeah, yeah. It’s time to make dinner, rodeo.”

 

“I’ll get you later.” Jack promised. He bent over into the fridge to start gathering the ingredients he needed. He expected Ennis to leave the kitchen. Leave the conversation behind. He didn’t expect Ennis to bend over him. Grip his waist in his hands. Whisper in his ear.

 

“I’m counting on it.”

 

Then he was gone, with the last word in. Jack was hot under the collar.

 

Oh, boy. Was he getting it later.

 


 

The morning Alma went to school was thrilling. And messy. Ennis made pancakes as quickly as he could while Jack meticulously braided her hair. He matched the ribbons in her hair with the red of her sweater. He helped her into a black skirt and her stockings and Mary Janes.

 

“You look like an angel.” Jack said, smoothing out her clothes. “Now let me get the camera.” Ennis’ camera was the cheapest thing he could buy at the time. Film was expensive, and he only got one so that Alma’s mama could take wedding pictures. Alma had taken pictures of her children at their birth and baptism, but mostly the camera was unused. Jack intended to change that. Life passed quickly, and he wanted something to remember the girls by when they inevitably grew up and left them. Ennis may bitch about expensive film now, but he’d thank him later.

 

Alma, however, was not thanking him at the moment. “Jack Jack.” She whined. “I wanna eat pancakes.”

 

“Just smile sweetie. It’ll take two seconds. Big smile!”

 

Alma begrudgingly smiled, Jack took a picture. She looked so cute. He smiled. “Okay, baby. Go eat.”

 

While they were eating Ennis packed lunch for Alma in her newly acquired tin lunchbox. Then he took her out to wait for the bus. The morning was cool and clear. The wind disturbed the wispy, looser hairs out of Alma’s braids, sweeping them across her face. Ennis looked down at his daughter. She always seemed to tiny to him. Even as she grew and grew.

 

She really did grow so fast. It seemed like just yesterday the nurse brought his firstborn daughter into the hospital room in a little pink blanket. Pink as her tiny pinched face. This was a big step forward. Ennis had the sudden urge to hold her and never let go.

 

He fidgeted as the bus pulled up to their apartment. “You have a good day, okay baby?”

 

“Yes daddy.” Alma made grabby hands at her daddy. He knelt down for a hug.

 

Ennis pressed a kiss into her hair. Jack had done such a good job braiding it. He was getting so good at doing their hair. He smoothed her hair with his hands as he pulled away. “Be a good girl, listen to your teacher, learn a lot.”

 

“Yes daddy.”

 

He fiddled with the ribbons in her hair. “Okay. You get going now.”

 

Alma adjusted the straps on her shoulders. She began stepping onto the bus.

 

“WAIT!”

 

Ennis turned to see Jack practically falling down the stairs. He jumped over several steps in his haste to get down as quickly as possible. He ran over to them, tripping on his feet as he did so. His outstretched hand held Alma’s lunchbox.

 

“Your lunch.” He panted when he finally came to a halt in front of them. “You forgot your lunch.”

 

“Thanks Jack Jack.” Alma said, taking the box from his outstretched hand.

 

Jack collapsed to his knees and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Have a great day at school, darlin’.”

 

Alma jumped up the stairs. The bus door closed behind her. Jack and Ennis watched it rumble away down the street while Jack caught his breath.

 

Jack sighed, leaning against Ennis’ shoulder. “There she goes. They grow up so fast.”

 

“You’ve only been her daddy for three months.” Ennis pointed out.

 

“Yeah and she’s already learning to tie her shoes and going to school. What a big girl.” Jack huffed, finally his breath had caught up with him. “Let’s go get Jenny. You gotta get to work. I should probably start looking for more permanent employment.”

 

Ennis hauled himself to his feet, reaching out for Jack and helping him up. “Is Miss Mary Brown available today?”

 

“Oh, for sure. If she isn’t I’ll just bring Jenny with me.” Jack and Ennis climbed the stairs together.

 

Ennis grabbed his hat and keys. “I’m going to work, then. Can you heat those leftovers for dinner? I don’t want them going bad.”

 

“‘Course. Have a good day at work.”

 

He didn’t say anything in return. He simply grabbed Jack’s collar, pulled him in, and kissed him goodbye before putting his hat on and walking out.

 

Jack’s heart fluttered. He’d never get over that. A smile spread over his face.

 

Jack Twist, rodeo cowboy, wanderer, dreamer, had finally settled down after years of chasing the horizon. For the first time in his life he felt truly at home.