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Force of Nature: Earthquake

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“…can’t make it tonight, Gary. There’s the opening dinner I can’t get out of, and then I’m supposed to meet these guys from Abilene for drinks with Andy. How about if we get together tomorrow night?”

“If you’d told me you were coming, then—”

“I didn’t even know until yesterday at four. This is all last minute.”

“You could have called me last night. Then I would have at least tried to clear my schedule.”

“Yeah, well, too much was going on last night. I couldn’t—”

“It’s too late now. I can’t do tomorrow. I’m taking last year’s starters and a few other members of the team out to dinner, and then they’re coming back to my place. You know, a sort of relaxation thing before the school term starts, building team spirit.”

“How about Friday night then?”

“Friday I can do. I have a hot date, but I’ll cancel him and make you my hot date instead.”

“I used to be, but not anymore. Listen, how about lunch tomorrow too?”

“Wow, you are eager. Be careful, John-boy. You’re going to turn my head, because I think I’m flattered.”

“Get your head on straight. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you, and I’m ready to shoot the breeze, kick back, and have a good time.”

“Say no more. Lunch on Thursday. Where do you want to meet?”

“I don’t know this town. I’ve only been here once before. I’m at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the Riverwalk.”

“Oh, fancy. You cattle feeders don’t do things half-measures, do you? Including getting cattle shit on your boots. You’ll scrape off before you meet me, right?”

“Real funny.”

“How about the hotel restaurant? You won’t have to go far then, and it’s probably good.”

“No way. The idea is to get away and do something different. Somewhere else.”

“Okay, then how about The Republic of Texas restaurant? It’ll remind you of what you’re missing by going off to the wilds of New Mexico to live. Good food and me, that’s what you need. They have excellent shrimp fajitas and buffalo steaks. It’s on the Riverwalk, about three blocks down—”

“I’ll find it. Meet you there at noon?”

“I’ll have a bottle of red wine waiting. Remember how we used to share a bottle on Friday nights before we—”

“It was only last year. Sure I remember. Listen, I got to go. So long.”

Jack jerked the phone away from his ear and slammed it down, because he didn’t know what he was doing in San Antonio. Corliss and James were the ones who were supposed to be here, making connections, taking advantage of contacts, and learning from the management practices of other feedlots. Hell, he didn’t even know enough to ask the right questions. He could sell the lot services to customers, the way he had in Kansas City, without even half trying, but here at the Cattle Feeders Association, he was in over his head.

Jack got up from where he was sitting on the colorful swirls of the Southwestern-styled bedspread and stalked over to the window. He was on the third floor, low down in this hotel that stretched more than fifteen stories above him. He wished he was up higher instead of this close to the noise and confusion of the Riverwalk. The Crowne Plaza was right on it, prime real estate, and though him and Andy had checked in not thirty minutes ago, he knew already that people would be strolling along the river—dammed up, re-directed, turned-in on itself to make what was natural into something unholy unnatural—at all hours of the day and night.

The balcony door slid open with a smooth swish, and he stepped out into the late afternoon sun. When he leaned on the rail it was warm as it pressed against his palms, not hot, easy to hold on to.

Flat-bottomed boats drifted along the sluggish water, giving the tourists a ride in more ways than one, with the tour guides spouting their spiels over microphones. Mariachi music came from his left and from his right, maybe from one of the open air restaurants that ran along both river banks and maybe from one of the boats. Somebody had a good sound, but it was hard to separate out the tunes. Outside one of the shops a senorita was handing samples to passers-by; she was wearing a wide, full skirt in bands of rainbow colors one after the other, and her hair was piled up high on her head, topped with a bow.

San Antonio. Parties broke out along the Riverwalk at the drop of a hat. This was a good-times city, sobered only by the wreckage of the Alamo not far away. But Jack had already made that pilgrimage, him and Lureen and Bobby, when the boy was in middle school. So it would be drinks tonight, lunch tomorrow with Gary with his legs stretched out and a wine glass in his hand to help the afternoon speed by, the Association awards banquet Thursday night with Miss Texas singing and plenty of good-looking, tight-assed waiters to fill up the view, and then Friday night where he could finally let loose and have a good time. He was in a big city where he could forget life for a little while. Damn it, he intended to take advantage.

Jack drew in air and let it out slowly. He watched a young couple pushing a stroller on the other side of the water; the Riverwalk was marked by ups and downs, steps all over, not a good place for a baby on wheels. The mother picked the little boy up as the dad picked up the stroller and carried it across to the next smooth patch. But there was another set of steps not too far on that Jack could see but the parents couldn’t.

He realized that he’d said nothing to Gary about staying over with him at his house on Saturday night, after Andy would take the plane back to Angel Fire. Today had marked the second time that Jack had flown in a small private plane at the feedlot’s expense, but there was no other easy way to get some places. If he stayed over like he’d said—

—using Gary as a threat, thrown at Ennis like a rock, aimed at his temple, direct hit, he was a boy in the schoolyard, hey, you hurt me, I’m going to hurt you—

—if he stayed with Gary like he’d said he would, there was no easy way to get back to New Mexico. He’d better check out flights to Albuquerque, and then he’d have to rent a car and drive back to Eagle Nest. It was going to cost. He wasn’t sure he wanted to do that, except he was so fucking mad. His anger whirled through him like a fierce wind, rearranging everything, a hurricane that was still blowing strong. Ennis’s face looking down at him defiantly when Jack had seen that mare, Ennis demanding that he couldn’t see Gary: remembering that kept Jack’s temper going.

Jack went back inside and slid the door shut behind him, and the sounds of the city-alive faded to a low buzz. Gary, he’d always been fun to be with, at least before Ennis had showed up, and that was what Jack was after right now. Gary wouldn’t mind if Jack decided to stay over with him on Saturday at the last minute.

Fuck you, Ennis.

With his badge pinned on his black sports coat, he made sure he had his new business cards in his inside pocket. His best gray felt hat went on his head. The first Meet and Greet session of the 1984 Texas Cattle Feeders Association convention was due to start in five minutes in the Brazos Room on the mezzanine, and him and Andy had things to do for the Tulip feedlot. He scooped up the room key at the last minute. The door closed behind him, and he walked toward the elevator that would take him down.

Hours later, he had to admit that the Association was no penny-ante operation. It knew how to take care of its members. After the opening dinner, they hadn’t had to go far for entertainment or booze, not even outside to the river. The president had announced over the after-dessert hub-bub that the hotel lounge would be open until two and they’d arranged the best entertainment money could buy. It seemed half the membership had trooped on down to find a knock-out, red-headed singer who purred with the best of them and had boobs that would knock you over if she turned too fast. Jack had spent half the night staring at them through the smoky air, not with the fake interest he’d perfected long ago on the rodeo circuit, as if he wanted what she had to offer, but in mourning. He was remembering the times he’d buried his face in Lureen’s breasts and sucked on her tits with his eyes closed, so that he didn’t really have to see what he was doing. Most of the time, it’d been a dick in his mouth he’d imagined and what had got him hard. He wondered if Lureen had figured that out, that their whole sex lives together had been him conjuring up a man.

He took a drag on his cigarette and blew out smoke. God, he was drunk already. How’d that happen so fast?

The good ol’ Texas boys from Abilene were talking to each other, and Jack watched their lips move without having any idea what was being said. They were reps from a twenty-year established feedlot who knew Corliss but hadn’t looked too sad that he wasn’t around. They were okay, the kind of men who felt like he did, that it was fine to keep their hats on in the lounge, where a person could hardly see across the table in the flickering light of a single candle anyway.

Jack took another swallow of his Johnnie Walker on the rocks, thinking maybe he was staring at the guy right across the little round table too long. But he wasn’t able to shift his sight until after he’d let the booze linger on his tongue for a while. Then he swallowed. There. He put the glass down carefully, following it with his sight, exactly on the same wet ring as it’d been on before, next to the ashtray that he’d added to considerably. He could relax with these guys as much as he could relax with anybody who didn’t know his secrets. Hell, nobody told anything but lies in dark places with velvet-curtained walls anyway.

Andy was on his second Coke. Jack guessed it was a big deal that the upstanding member of Living Water Baptist Church had even bowed down enough to be in this place with him and the others. “Feedlot business,” he’d said with a set jaw, and followed Jack in. But he did stick out like a horse at the Indy 500, uncomfortable enough to run away with the bit between his teeth. Ennis would be able to fix that, of course, since he could train damn near any horse alive to do what he needed it to—

Nope. Jack wasn’t going to think about that fucker who thought so little of him.

He leaned in closer to Andy, sitting next to him. “You could put some rum in that, you know.” He nodded at the drink in Andy’s hand. “Rum and Coke. It’s famous.”

“No thanks. Baptists don’t—”

“I know.” Jack sat back in his rickety chair. “You don’t dance, you don’t drink, you don’t…how do you get babies, anyway?”

He scored a hit, because the other two guys laughed out loud, but the look Andy sent his way wasn’t good. But what the fuck, his boss was almost young enough to be his son. Ten, no, thirteen years between them.

Jack sat there a while, his thoughts skittering, trying to make sure they didn’t land on that man back in Eagle Nest who used to be his best friend and lover, and now was…. Jack didn’t know what the fuck he was to Ennis now or where he stood, and that about made him want to kill something. He drank some more and lit up another cigarette.

He was glad when the singer came back on, something to grab his attention, though surely not the way she grabbed the eyes of the other three men at the table. That…that was sad. Jack sent his sight down to his drink—didn’t know how many he’d had—saw he had less than an inch left, brought it to his lips, tasted it, and set it down. Even he’d been able to appreciate Lureen’s beautiful breasts, that she only had one left of, but he’d never really wanted them. He wanted a person who came equipped with a dick and balls, because he was a gay man who knew what that meant, damn it. He lifted his head and gave some words to Andy.

“You’ll have to do lunch tomorrow on your own.”

Andy turned away from temptation in a green sequin dress like he was glad he had an excuse to do so. He leaned in a lot closer to hear over all the noise in the place, the singing and the talking. “What’s that?”

“I’m having lunch with a friend tomorrow.”

“There’s an address on animal activism during the lunch here. It’s on the schedule.”

“Oh, come on, Andy.” Jack was aware he didn’t quite get those words past his stiff lips as clearly as he wanted to. “You don’t need me for that.”

“Who are you meeting? I didn’t know you knew anybody here.”

“A fellow.”

Andy’s eyebrows raised up. It was sort of interesting to see. “A fellow?”

Hadn’t he made that plain? “Yeah. A fellow. A friend, you know. I met him when I lived in Amarillo. This past winter.”

Andy threw him a little frown. That was a frown, wasn’t it? It was a little hard to tell in this cave. “Really?” his boss said. It seemed that one word held a world of disappointment in it. Sort of the way Lureen used to say when she knew Bobby was trying to pull a swift one.

Well, fuck it. Andy wasn’t his mom, or dad, or Lureen, or Ennis. Damn Baptists. A man could miss one fucking lunch. He was going to miss Friday night too.

The singer reached a high note and held it. Don from Abilene raised his hand, caught the waitress’s eyes, and waved at her to come over.

“Sure, go have a nice lunch,” Andy said, getting Jack’s attention again. He lifted one shoulder and shifted in his chair like his butt had got stuck to the plastic. But Andy didn’t have a butt worth looking at twice, not like his own good-looking…not like….

“So, how’s your wife doing?” Andy asked.

Jack took a breath. The place was so filled with smoke, having a cigarette in his hand seemed hardly needed. “Ex-wife. She’s okay.”

“That was nice, meeting her at the animal preserve. She seemed like a fine woman. It’s such a shame that the cancer has her. I hope she goes into remission.”

“Me too,” Jack said. He let his back curve as he slouched down in his seat.

“How’s Ennis?”

If he hadn’t been wasted, he would’ve sat up straight. What the fuck? “How the shit should I know?”

He’d never talked to Andy that way before, and he wished he hadn’t the second, or two seconds, or three seconds, maybe, after the words were out of his mouth.

But Andy didn’t let Jack stop him; he looked real determined, like a man with a mission. “I thought…. I mean, it was nice meeting Ennis a few weeks ago. I hadn’t realized he lived near us.”

Andy met Jack’s eyes, being brave. “You should have told me about the two of you.”

Jack’s scotch hit the table with a crash. The glass splintered against his fingers and toppled over. It spilled what was left of good booze mainly onto his creased forty dollar pants but splattered some onto Andy and the floor too.

The waitress was over in a second with a cloth.

The waitress was over with a smile, “Another round for y’all?”

Jack blinked.

“Andy, Jack?” Hal from Abilene asked.

“Nope, I’ve had it,” Jack said.

“Me too,” Andy said in a rush. “Travel days always take it out of me.” He pushed his chair back and stood. “If you can tell me tomorrow where to get that information on the feed discounts, I’d appreciate it.”

“Sure thing,” Hal nodded, but his attention was back on the waitress, not twenty-five yet with a smile and a skirt slit up to here.

Out in the lobby, the tobacco smoke smell suddenly released them, and Jack saw Andy take in fresher air. The man probably had never smoked or held a joint between his fingers. Probably he’d never even seen a joint. Probably he’d never been drunk. He wasn’t wise in the ways of the world, and that meant Andy wasn’t one who would jump to conclusions about him and that friend of his who, yeah, lived pretty damn close to him back home. It would never cross Andy’s mind.

The elevator was crowded with men in hats aiming to hit the hay, but when Jack got off on floor three he was the only one who did. He walked back the way he’d come seven and a half hours earlier, his feet in his best boots hardly making any sound at all on the deep gold carpet. He should sleep tonight as soon as his body hit the sheets. Good, because he sure hadn’t slept much the night before in Eagle Nest, thinking on things that whirled around and around in his brain, questions that he’d brought with him to the Alamo City.

He put the key in the lock, pulled it out, and pushed the handle when the green light came on. Home. Home on the Range. The tune slithered out of his brain and kept playing itself over as he got ready for bed. When he collapsed back on the pillow, the damn song disappeared, and he wondered where Ennis was sleeping. Last night, Jack had taken the couch under the air conditioner. Ennis had dragged the mattress back into the bedroom and had sweated it out there.

“You are a damn fool,” he whispered into the dark. “Just to make a point, I bet you’re still sweating tonight. You’re a fool.”

The distant echo of a late night happy-go-lucky man laughing on the Riverwalk drifted up to him where he was alone in his room. His air conditioner turned itself on then, masking the noise of people down below, providing a cushion of steady sound that he could sink down into, fall asleep to. But sleep didn’t come easily after all. He’d get close, could feel it drifting over him like a blanket, only he’d jerk awake because somebody walked down the hall or flushed a toilet a few rooms away. More than a time or two, he thought he heard soft snoring from the pillow next to him.

But nobody was there. Nobody gave a damn about Jack Twist, trying to sleep in a big hotel bed in San Antonio, mad at the world and fearful that all he wanted was slipping through his fingers.

*****

“What’s the problem? Ennis? I said, what’s the problem with you?”

“Nothing.”

“You look like you’ve lost your best friend.”

Floyd was a pain in the ass.

Wednesday on the Buckminster ranch was passing like it was a month long. Rocky’s steady walk, and Betty Jo’s toothy smile, and the boys’ complaining about school coming soon, and the little one’s blue eyes going through him like arrows cause they reminded him of Jack-not-here. Floyd his normal self, friendly, when nothing in the whole fucking world should be normal. Jack had gone to Texas to meet the coach.

“Ennis, Rocky told me you should take Delilah instead of Samson this morning. Cheer up, my friend, tomorrow will be a better day.”

Tomorrow, and then the day after that, and then the day after that was when Jack should be coming home, only he’d said he wasn’t coming home when he should. He was staying over.

Delilah gave him a lot of trouble, and his face burned to think of Rocky up on her when he’d trusted Ennis to give him a good horse.

After lunch Ennis wanted to huddle with the three year olds, just him and them. He wanted to take a brush to every horse’s hide and curry them until they reflected the sun, but Rocky needed his help sorting through a big feed shipment, After that he wanted to talk about how they were gonna finish off the three year olds and when some of them might be ready for the auction block. Ennis spent the whole afternoon in sheds with him, in the big barn, and finally in the room of the house that Rocky used as an office. The boy came running in to give his dad a big hug and then did the same with Ennis. Davey wanted to sit on his lap for a while, and he didn’t feel he could say no, not in front of the boss, so there Davey sat. At least the young one didn’t hardly have two words. Toward the end Floyd showed up, yakking about the shoeing schedule for the broodmares. Him and Rocky tossed words back and forth like they were baseballs. Ennis couldn’t get away from any of it, when he needed to get away, though for what he didn’t know, cause what he was thinking was crushing the life out of him.

Jack was in the big city that was nothing like northern New Mexico, and he was with the damn maybe-he’s-a-donkey-dong, who knew all about Ennis’s business. His…his most private stuff, how he felt on Jack inside and what they’d done on their mountain trips that told of how Ennis felt. When he thought of Jack telling the coach things—maybe they’d been naked when they’d talked, maybe one of the coach’s long arms had been wrapped around the man Ennis had thought was his, maybe it’d been a lot worse, things Ennis knew had happened but couldn’t stand to think on—a shiver went right across his shoulders. Goddamn Jack cared so little for what was precious to Ennis, what he guarded not only for himself but for the two of them together, that he blabbed all about it to that asshole. Ennis felt like the top layer of his skin had been peeled off.

Finally the long day ended, and he was released from the hell of walking around like ordinary. It was time for him to go home, but Ennis’s shoulders hunched when he got closer to his truck. There was nothing to go home to. There was no reason to go back to the house except the horses, nothing that pulled him there except Fancy for O’Hara, and Trouble for Morgan….

He punched the Ram’s frame before he opened the door, and for the flash of a second it was the coach’s face he punched, or maybe Jack’s, and it felt fucking good except that it felt fucking bad. He got in the truck and revved the engine, trying to drown out his own thoughts.

Stubbie’s was safe, loud with music blaring, with a cigarette machine that gave him Marlboros and a bartender who gave him booze and then left him alone. Perfect. It gave him hours to know he didn’t give a fuck about that man from Lightning Flat, always pushing him, never happy with just-Ennis, always comparing him to those that had plowed the Jack-ground before him and after him and every other time in between, that shithead. The guys with the really big dicks who knew how to use them cause they’d had plenty of practice, who had good jobs with money to spend.

About ten o’clock, though, when he’d long since lost count of the beers and the whiskeys, when he felt like ten truckloads of horse shit had been dumped on his head, sudden fear froze his bones right there on the barstool.

Jesus, was Jack even coming back at all?

Ennis clutched at the bottle in front of him and groaned out loud, but nobody heard him. He’d got it wrong. He didn’t know where or how, or what he’d done that had turned things around this way. How’d it get like this? A couple weeks back, it’d been good, hadn’t it?

Frantic, Ennis stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray without caring that he scorched his fingers, feeling sick like he was on one of those kid’s carnival rides, dangling upside down. Jack hadn’t seen it, had he? That…that…that what he’d done yesterday hadn’t been so bad. Had it? He’d been forced to take on that extra horse. What could he do with Floyd offering and the deal being damn good? Jack hadn’t seen that the mare wasn’t gonna take much care, that she’d give a good return and that would be found money for them. Him and Jack could put that money into a better house for next year and….

Him and Jack.

Jack and the coach.

Ennis found himself outside in the stinking parking lot, fighting the urge to puke over a black puddle that seeped into the wall.

The door banged open. “Hey, you there! Don’t you skip out on the tab!”

Ennis straightened, fumbled for his wallet, and handed the man a twenty.

“Five more. That wasn’t just beer you were drinking, Mister.”

Shit. Ennis wiped his mouth on his sleeve and paid up.

He was half a mile down the road before he remembered to put on his headlights, and then his fingers slipped twice before he could pull out the knob to make the highway bright. Too bright. Ennis squinted past the spot where he’d almost hit Jack’s Ford, when he’d stopped for the downed hawk. Damn that man, such a fool, stopping for animals, now in Floyd’s care, Floyd who’d caused all this trouble with that damn fucking horse. Okay, so he’d been fucking mad about the phone call with the coach, and it was true that sixth horse he’d brought in the next day had been part of that, but he hadn’t thought it would push Jack as far as it did. He’d just meant…. Shit, he should’ve stopped to think.

Ennis pounded the steering wheel and then pulled on it to get the truck going straight again. It’d serve Jack right if he died on the road, show that fucking man what he lost, what he’d lose if he didn’t come back, and who the hell was Jack Twist to say no more horses? Whose horse business was it, huh?

His stomach gave off a hunger pain, sloshing against the whiskey, though no way could he imagine putting food in his mouth.

He drove the truck all the way down to the stable cause he needed not to stop at the house that was dark and soundless. The bare overhead light bulb came on with a snap, shining on the six stalls and the middle aisle that was beaten down dirt and dusty with straw. Ennis stood in the doorway, his hands clenched by his side, his ears straining for sounds of life. There…. A horse moving, the only horse he was still keeping in the stable, since he’d put Floyd’s mare in the paddock. The pinto made a sound that was only half-horse, the barest hint of a normal whicker, and Ennis had to swallow against the relief. He was still alive, not laying flat waiting to be hauled off for cheap dog food. A couple seconds later and Ennis could see him, moving slowly, carefully hanging his head over the stall half-door.

Ennis shuffled over to him. He had to hold on to the edge of the wood with both hands for a minute to get his balance, but when he could he reached up and scratched the gelding behind his ears.

“You okay? You doing better? Maybe you need that new feed….” His voice came out ragged. His hand was shaking as much as his words, the damn booze getting to him, the long day, Jack spilling his guts to the fucking coach.

He pushed the horse back and opened up the door to slip inside to where it was living. Ten feet by ten feet, that’s what the pinto’s world had collapsed to, waiting to see if Ennis could get him back to where he should be. Ennis stepped up next to him, ran his hand from the crest of his neck, over the bump of his withers, and along his spine to his tail.

“You are skin and bones.” He felt down the horse’s hindquarters like he had to, to know the touch of the horse’s skin against his palm, the sharpness of bone, the tension of muscle and ligament. The warmth.

The pinto shifted from side to side, away from him, toward him, away from him again, but he was one of those horses that, sad-sack though he was, seemed to want a man’s hands on him. The brush was away down the aisle where Ennis kept such things, and that was too far to go. Ennis didn’t take his hands away but kept both of them flat on the patterned horsehair. He slid them along the pinto’s side.

“You like that?” The horse shifted once more, toward him, pushing up against his hands, so Ennis did it again, sweeping his fingers from front to back along the grain of the hair, not against it. Some pansy-ass might say he was petting the horse like he was a dog or a cat, like this was some ordinary thing he was doing alone at midnight. But this was something different, important, something this animal needed, it seemed. Maybe it wasn’t new feed that would turn him around. Maybe it was, as Ennis had thought, that somehow his spirit had got broken. His own sad heart seemed to overload at the thought.

“Who done that to you, boy? I’d kill him, taking a fine animal like you must’ve been, bringing you low.”

He kept stroking over and over, trying to do some good, trying to make some sense out of what had happened. It was Wednesday night late in Texas, an hour later than in New Mexico with the time change. Who knew what Jack was doing right now, maybe finding life in a city with fucking fancy-pants Gary Shelborne to his liking. When he came back—if he goddamnit came back—maybe he’d be different, fed-up, and not wanting to try with Ennis any more.

Ennis’s hands stopped moving. “What’m I gonna do?” he whispered. His thoughts rose up from the ground at his feet like ghosts. It wasn’t true what Jack had said, that he wanted any man, wanted any dick. If Jack was in his head right now, he’d know that truth. If he was here, Ennis would grab him and shake him and say stuff he should’ve maybe shouted at him when they were in the field, when everything was falling to pieces. He’d say….

The pinto’s back was a resting place for his two hands, for his sweaty forehead bowed down, for his aching head. I listen to you, you goddamned fool. Every word. I can’t forget anything you say, it’s always running around in my head, all the things you want me to do, the ways you want me to act.

He pushed himself up straight, tired right through. His goddamned man. What the fuck did he have to do to get through to Jack and make things right? He’d already moved heaven and earth to be here in New Mexico. Hell, he’d even said Bobby could live with them. What more did Jack want?

Maybe…maybe nothing would be enough, nothing that a man from Wyoming had to give, anyway. Those other men Jack’d had…. Guess he didn’t stack up too good compared.

It wasn’t the first time he’d slept in a stall, and it wouldn’t be the last time. A saddle blanket on a bed of straw, that was okay for him. He bedded himself down in the next stall over and listened to the way the pinto was still breathing.

But he couldn’t sleep. He knew he couldn’t go a second day to the Buckminster ranch without any sleep, and hung over too, so he tried, but it wasn’t much use.

Didn’t Jack know…. Didn’t Jack know how Ennis felt on him?

*****

He should be back at the hotel for one of the afternoon breakout meetings. He’d told Andy he would cover “Expanding the Market for Beef,” and it’d started twenty minutes ago. Instead, Jack was making the circuit of the Riverwalk, turning left when he’d walked out of the restaurant instead of right just because he wanted to, just because he felt like giving the finger to the whole wide world today. It would be a while before he found himself back in front of the hotel as he walked the big circle that attracted the tourists to the city every year, and that was fine with him.

“You sounded blue over the phone, John,” Gary had said over lunch. “How are things with you and Ennis? Okay?”

“Sure,” he’d said easily as he reached for the wine. “Fine.”

“Really? I thought I’d really pissed him off the other night.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “You did a fine job of that.”

“So, did he do a count?” Gary asked with a wicked grin.

“What?”

“Did he count the spots on your ass?”

Jack laughed out loud, the first of a bunch of laughs during the ninety minutes he spent over lunch. Why not? It was impossible to get serious with the new coach of the Trinity University basketball team, especially since Gary seemed in a really good mood, happy to see Jack and insisting on paying the tab. So, Jack let himself get carried away in that direction. They ate quail and elk and buffalo, drank the full bottle of cabernet, and talked about everything except what was on Jack’s mind. Any time it looked like Gary was headed in that direction, he steered him somewhere else.

They parted outside the restaurant, shaking hands like ordinary men, and then Gary pulled him into a hug like the lovers they used to be. Jack told himself he didn’t give a fuck, because nobody knew him in this town anyway. “We’ll have a good time tomorrow,” Gary said. “I’ll pick you up in the hotel lobby at eight o’clock, okay?”

Sure. He was looking forward to it. Ennis could burn in hell before he would stop Jack from spending time with his friend.

Jack lit a cigarette and wandered along the flagstones of the Riverwalk. Up a set of stairs to take him over a bridge, back down to the pathway, under a different bridge where the air was a lot cooler and the smell was dank and musty, and then out into the bright yellow sunshine again.

He could see the high tower of the hotel from almost anywhere on the walk, and when it seemed he’d passed the halfway mark on his journey back to it, he slowed his steps. There was every kind of upscale store along the sunken pathway the river took, and soon he let one catch his attention. He opened the door of the boot shop.

There were aisles and aisles of fine quality boots in every size. The air smelled of leather and polish, the floors were waxed wood, and the price tags were enough to make his mama faint. But he wasn’t his mama, and Jack was feeling restless and reckless in equal parts. He went over to where the sign said Size 12.

After a while looking, he zoned in on a pair of crocodile leather Noconas with full grain cowhide leather uppers and fully lined with soft calf leather, according to the label. They were black with bold blue stitching, exactly to his liking, but even in his mood, he wasn’t ready to put down $450 for a pair of boots. He set them back on the rack.

He passed over a bunch of ordinary-styled cowhide boots, because he had two pair of those already, one that he was wearing, though nothing like what this store offered, top grade premium. A gray and black pair of rattlesnake leather caught his eye, but he had no liking for snakes and couldn’t imagine feeling comfortable with them on his feet. But right next to them were a pair of more traditional-styled boots that were made of ostrich leather. Black again, which seemed to be what he wanted today, and on sale for $225. Better yet, the toe style was one he favored, not as pointed as some but not the wide ordinary look either.

What the hell, he thought, try them on. You just got a big raise. Go ahead.

He sat down on one of the little padded stools and started to pull off his old boots that looked shabby compared to the new ones. The salesman turned toward him, probably to help with the pulling off and sensing a sale, but he got distracted by another customer. Jack stood and stomped his feet into the ostrich boots until his toes got comfortable, and then he set off down the aisle to see how they were when he walked.

Pretty good. He stopped and looked down at how they appeared. Not bad. He turned and started to go back to where his own boots were sprawled across the carpet, when the boots in the new section he was in caught his eye.

Work boots. Really fine-looking, sturdy, top-of-the-line work boots, of the kind Ennis had never worn in his life, the kind he never would even think of wanting. Jack stopped dead in his tracks.

Size 13. It was like Jack had no control of his hand at all. He reached out and pulled one off the rack, brown, ordinary, low-heeled, cowhide.

It was like touching something living. Ennis.

God, the man worked so hard. He was up against the raw line of exhaustion half the time, dragging himself from one task to another. But that wasn’t an excuse.

Slow down, Jack thought. Slow down and take a look at me. Take a look at what you’re doing to us, you goddamned son of a bitch. Because if you don’t, there isn’t going to be an us any more.

Jack looked at the boot he was holding like it might break any second, or die. Ennis would wear them well. Lord knew, he could use a new pair, the way his were now, worn down at the heel, scuffed and scraped, on their last legs for the past couple of years. Jack could imagine how new ones would look on him and how he’d feel knowing he’d done that for Ennis, given them. Would Ennis smile that dumb smile that was more a twitch at the corner of his mouth, and then would he point out how Jack shouldn’t be wasting his money? At $120, still they weren’t cheap.

No way. He was going to hold onto his anger a lot longer than this. Ennis had said I’ll buy whatever goddamned horse I feel like buying, you asshole, and then he’d gone and proved where Jack stood in his life by getting another horse. Jack shoved the boot back with its mate. He went over to the stool and started to yank off the ostrich skins.

“May I assist you with that?” the sales clerk asked, boot jack in his hand. “Were you interested in a purchase?”

“I sure am,” Jack said, the wind whirling inside him again.

Ten minutes later he was in a jewelry store, where he bought a genuine Taxco, Mexico turquoise and silver necklace that he’d send to Lureen the first chance he had.

That night, he lasted past the cocktail hour, through the salad, and past the prime rib they put in front of every cattleman at the Association Awards banquet. But a man could take only so much. Right after the strawberry shortcake dessert was served, he pushed back his chair, leaned in to say to Andy, “See you tomorrow,” and walked out under the crystal chandeliers, way before Miss Texas even made an appearance.

He thought of leaving the Riverwalk and seeing what he could find on the sidewalks of San Antone, to open himself up to the whole city. But the sound of a good band lured him down the paths to the Lone Star Ballroom instead, and he threw himself right in. He spent the evening alone drinking shots and Budweiser, and watching men dance with pretty women.

*****

Ennis woke up stiff as hell, groaning, rolling over so he could put hands to his lower back, and with the clear memory of something Jack had said back on that day that was theirs, the day he’d moved in to the house on Prospect Drive in Amarillo.

“I’ll never leave you again.” That’s what Jack had said. Almost six months ago now, since it was getting late in August, and they’d got together on February 28.

Slowly, Ennis sat up and brushed away the saddle blanket that’d come up on his shoulders with him. He was glad that he’d woke up well before the sun showed and could spend extra time with Trouble. He’d skipped the day before, damn it, and he wasn’t gonna let Jack do that to him again, drive him to spend the night at a bar instead of doing what he needed to be doing, getting that gray horse ready for Janice on this coming Sunday. But even as he fed the horses, made sure they had plenty of water, spent time with the pinto again, and mucked out his stall, and even as he told himself over again that Jack was gonna come back cause he had to, damnit, he had his clothes and stuff here so there wasn’t any question, Ennis couldn’t convince himself it would happen. Nothing would be right with God’s green world if Jack didn’t come back, cause he’d never be able to get Jack to see the light if he didn’t show.

Work at the ranch wasn’t much better than it’d been the day before. It was even worse cause he wasn’t feeling too spry from not-much-sleep and too-much-whiskey. At lunchtime, he climbed the slope way past the foaling barn, way past where he often went at noontime, and then he sat for a while, staring off into space and not touching his food. He had to know what he’d say and where he’d take a stand. Jack had said that he hadn’t ever arrived, that Ennis couldn’t leave cause he wasn’t there yet. Ennis frowned and tried to get past how mad those words made him. Jack had said it like he meant it.

But why was it that a man couldn’t find peace anywhere? There was Floyd climbing up, aimed directly at him, finding his way past the rocks.

“Hey, Ennis,” he said. “Mind if I join you?”

Floyd could take that sound he made any way he wanted to, but Ennis had no doubt his silence was gonna be broken.

The man surprised him, though. He opened the brown paper bag he was carrying and pulled out a sandwich and a can, and then he sat on the grass next to Ennis, chewing and swallowing, his eyes fixed on the east side of the Moreno Valley.

Ennis followed his gaze, wondering what was so fascinating. He’d been looking inside, not outside. The hills rose up more gently on that side, the Blood of Christ mountains that sure did turn red at sunset. Some road noise came up to them, always some car or truck going someplace, but from where they were, he couldn’t see the highway or any other road. It was why he’d picked the place to start with, being away from it all. Over the months, he’d found he liked being on the upslope of the Buckminster property, higher than anything else, and he could think clearly there. Or at least more clearly, anyway.

He glanced at Floyd, who seemed like a man with no care in the world, resenting him for it compared to him, a queer with man troubles.

“What’s that?” Floyd asked, turning to him.

Ennis dipped his head. He hadn’t meant for that sound to come out of him. “Nothing.”

He ate his food in a hurry, drained the orange juice he’d brought, and then he put the bottle on the ground between his legs. He leaned forward and crushed the plastic flat with the heel of his hand. It made a crinkling sound as the air whooshed out of it. When he looked up at the noise, to see what Floyd made of it, him acting that way, the man was leaning back on his hands, his head tilted up to look at the clouds.

He should go back to work. On a ranch like this, even small as it was, there was always too much work and too few people to do it. But Ennis stayed. Finally he said, “How’s that hawk doing?”

Floyd sat up and scratched the side of his round-jowled face. “Pretty good. I’m not going to let it even try to fly for quite a while yet, though.”

“You need more money for its care?”

“No, Jack gave me enough to take me through.”

A trick of the breeze brought the sound of a slamming door to his ears. Ennis watched while the tiny figure of Rocky left his Silverado, come home from wherever he’d been. BJ came out of the main stable and went up to him, looking like she was saying something. The two of them walked off toward the house, went around a corner and out of his sight.

He thought of him and Alma, bright promise that had never been real, though he’d convinced himself it might be. Like a shiny penny, not worth much. He wondered about Floyd and his wife, the gal who’d run away from him with the man from Phoenix. He thought of him and Jack, and hated that he was carrying all this sick feeling around inside himself, like some woman laid low by her man. Fuck. But the feeling was there.

He thought on that weird talk him and Floyd’d had, about the unanswerable questions. Huh. How come him and Jack were so different? Ennis didn’t need to talk to anybody except Jack, and it was real hard for him to understand that Jack had needed to spill his guts to the coach when he’d gone away, with no thoughts of ever seeing Ennis again.

Ennis picked up a pebble and threw it down in front of him. It rolled for thirty feet before it came to a stop in the cascade of other pebbles that went with it.

Jack had said that he was a coward, with no strength to go after him. Well, he’d showed that man, hadn’t he? He’d gone after him to Amarillo, and good had come from it, hadn’t it? This was good, what him and Jack had, their months here, better than anything he’d ever known.

He sat there and picked grass from next to the bottle he’d massacred, shredded the blades, thinking that at least he’d thought the months had been good. Maybe Jack didn’t think the same.

Floyd was getting to his feet. Ennis squinted over at him, cause the summer sun was surely bright. “Ready to go back to work?” Floyd asked.

“Be down soon.”

He watched Floyd climb back down to the broodmares. It looked like maybe the old man was favoring his left leg, not surprising at the age of seventy-one. It was amazing how he carried on despite his years.

Ennis hugged his legs and looked inside again. It was Thursday. If he left right now, got in his truck and took off for San Antonio, it’d take through to Friday for him to arrive, all worn out, and Jack would probably be mad as hell that he’d shown. Then he’d just have to turn around and drive back again, though maybe with the satisfaction of making that punch to the coach’s face real.

But it would show Jack…. He wasn’t sure what it would show.

He got up and followed where Floyd had gone. He didn’t know anything, except nothing was right.

*****

They started on Friday evening with dinner at a restaurant called Gershwin’s, where a woman played soft music from behind a grand piano set up high where everybody could see her. She wore a long skirt and earrings that brushed her shoulders. Gary threw a kiss in her direction as they followed the maitre d’ to their table.

“Know her?” Jack asked as he took his seat.

“She plays in the same orchestra as Jeffrey does, and her music has helped me seduce three men since I arrived here.”

Jack chuckled. “Usually it takes more than a couple of songs, doesn’t it?”

“That and a good meal at a place like this, not to mention my charming personality and other attributes. I tell you, John, this city has a thriving gay population, and I don’t know why I didn’t move here years ago.”

Jack picked up the menu and couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows at the prices. “So, how about Jeffrey and you? Are you over him yet?”

Gary waved his hand in the air, flicking his fingers. “History.”

“Anybody else interesting come along?”

“Only you.”

He looked at Gary over the price of rack of lamb. “I’m not interesting any more.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Gary said as he shook out his napkin.

It was amazing that Gershwin’s was on the Riverwalk, because it didn’t feel like that to Jack. It was all glass and chrome and black shiny walls, an island away from how everybody walking along the river in shorts and t-shirts seemed intent on being loud and happy no matter what. Things here were slow, and hushed, and first class all the way. This was the kind of restaurant he’d only ever been to a few times before, when customers had been buying in Houston or Dallas. There sure wasn’t anything like this in Eagle Nest. He knew Gary was trying to make a point. Okay, point made, but Jack didn’t care. This was his Friday night out.

They put their heads together over the wine list, with Gary making fun at how little Jack knew about chardonnay and cabernet, but Jack didn’t care about that either. The wine steward came to set them up and pour out, looking from one to the other of them to try and figure out who got the privilege of taking the first swallow. Jack waved in Gary’s direction at the same time that Gary said I’ll take it.

The first bottle disappeared before their steak au poivre and T-bone even arrived, so they got another. Jack felt himself relaxing with every sip and with every laugh that Gary’s wicked tongue surprised out of him. He’d forgot that, how his old lover had something to say about everybody. Even his comments about people Jack had never met or heard of were enough to loosen the tight band of unrest he carried across his chest. Gary told tales about the six foot eight inch center who was going to star on his team, and the university president, and the man he’d slept with the weekend before.

Jack wanted to frown at the last one, but he didn’t. “You mean the one you threw in Ennis’s face?”

Gary was sitting back in his leather padded chair, holding up his wine glass and admiring the color against the light. “One and the same. I begin to see your preference for certain, shall we say, physical characteristics. The man was a fantastic screw.” His gaze shifted over to Jack. “Like someone else I know. We sure had some good times, John.”

“We did.”

“How’s Ennis?”

“Same as when you asked over lunch.”

“You haven’t talked to him since yesterday afternoon?”

Jack looked down at the white tablecloth, at the sprinkling of crumbs from when he’d broken open the crusty white bread. “No.”

“You two are so much like an old married couple that I thought you’d talk to each other every day. Not so?”

No way was he going to let on how bad things were, that he’d left without even saying good-bye. He mocked Gary instead. “What do you know about being married? You’ve never been near a woman.”

“Oh, I have a thought or two in my head. I’m glad to hear you two don’t act like I thought you did. We aren’t like men and women together. We’re gay men, and we shouldn’t act like the straights.”

Jack chuckled. “I know a man, a good guy, a church-going man, who’d have a heart attack if he heard you comparing him to one of us, saying we might act the same.”

“Apples and oranges, John. Apples and oranges.”

The waiter came then to take away their entrees and ask about dessert. Gary wanted key lime pie, Jack nothing but coffee, strong. It arrived steaming and was one of the best cups he’d ever tasted, though he was aware that he was in the mood to like anything that wasn’t New Mexico and the man he’d left behind there.

“Where to next? It’s only ten o’clock.”

Gary smiled like the Cheshire Cat in that book that Jack had tried to get Bobby to read. “I’m going to surprise you.”

Jack nodded, deeper than he’d intended because the coffee was no match for the wine. “Okay.”

“You’re going to like it. But first, I have something I want to ask you.” Gary hitched forward. “What is it you see in that man?”

“Oh, come on, we aren’t going down that road.”

“I mean it, I really don’t see—”

“I’m not talking about me and Ennis, you old busybody.”

The grin from across the table was sudden and definite, like a lot of the statements that Gary made, but all he said was, “Waiter? Check, please.”

The bonus provided to the university basketball coach had been spent on a red Mustang convertible that they waited to get from the valet parking service provided by the Crowne Plaza. Jack was well pleased that nobody from the convention was around to see him waiting out front under the strong lights with Gary. It was just as well that Andy wasn’t there to see him and Gary dressed up sharp in crisp open-necked shirts and jackets, both of them lounging back against the barricade, their hands in their pockets, though he would likely think they were on the prowl, looking for women. Which was probably something he wouldn’t approve of either. But it would be a disaster for Jack’s career at the feedlot for anybody to figure what he was really like. Including James Perez. Looking back at how he’d asked Ennis to go with him and James the past weekend to the gun show, he must’ve been crazy…. But he wasn’t going to look back, was he?

“Have you ever been to a gun show?” he asked after they sped away from the curb and then stopped at an intersection. Since the top was down, Jack laid his arm along the edge of the door. He checked out the hazy sky and faint clouds over the city. There weren’t many stars, though.

Gary threw him a look. “Please, you’ve got to be kidding.”

“I went last weekend with a guy from the feedlot, and then afterward we went to a field where they had targets set up. I’ve never seen anybody handle a gun like that, including…. James is a crack shot. They even had some pistols there, and it was like he was the Lone Ranger. I was glad he wasn’t aiming at me.”

The light changed and Gary showed what he thought of that, along with how fast a Mustang could accelerate. Jack put his head back and let the wine take him along just as fast. His hand played with the wind outside the car, and Gary turned on the radio.

This was…this was okay. This was the way a Friday night should be, driving fast in a sports car, without cares, sitting next to a man as gay as he was, not thinking about the man he’d left behind.

Ennis….

What do I see in you, anyhow?

They drove to the edge of downtown and then beyond, through a seedy neighborhood and then past a big furniture store and an old-fashioned hotel. They parked in a self-serve lot that was almost full and walked a block past some shops to where a small sign, lit up, said “Rosie’s.” The single door with painted glass gave away nothing, though the faint thump of music came to them through the walls. It wasn’t hard to figure what Gary wanted to share with him.

“Ready?” Gary asked as he reached for the handle.

Jack went in first, to be hit by a wall of sound from a heavy-duty sound system and the sight of plenty of bodies on a crowded dance floor. One glance proved he was right, because all those bodies were male.

Gary came up from behind him and slipped an arm around his waist, in an old familiar way that, even so, Jack stepped away from. Gary didn’t seem to notice. “John-boy, welcome to San Antonio’s best gay bar.”

“You found one.”

“More than one, but this is the one I like the best. I couldn’t remember, have you been to one of these before?”

“Sure. The last seven, eight years, every time I went to Houston and one time in Dallas. I never found them anyplace else.”

They claimed the last open booth up on the second seating level that arced around the dance floor. They’d got there at just the right time, when Rosie’s was starting to jump, getting crowded and noisy. Perfect. Ennis would shit a brick before he’d step foot in such a place.

They tried to get the attention of the jailbait waiter, but he was too busy flirting three tables down, so Jack took that as an excuse to make his way over to the bar and get their drinks. He took the long way around, walking slowly, not elbowing his way into the crowd but waiting for it to part. For those few seconds before he plunged in, he felt like he was two different people in one body. It was all familiar and right, and yet it was all like some alien planet too. He was living the life with Ennis in Eagle Nest, last week painting his son’s bedroom like a good dad, wasn’t he? He’d given nobody the right to touch him except the man he was living with, but he’d practically hung a sign around his neck saying the opposite the minute he’d stepped through the innocent-looking doorway. That’s what a place like this was all about. Being here was…like it used to be after Ennis’s divorce, on one of his few trips roaming away from Lureen, his eye cocked for a likely man. He knew what this was all about and had been part of it more than once. He should stop being a wet blanket and move on in. He needed a drink.

He pushed past two young men, almost teenagers, kissing and pressed against each other like they were going to screw the next minute. Jack looked at them with a pang, remembering how it felt to be that young and desperate to stay in somebody’s arms. A certain someone’s arms that he’d had at that age for so few weeks. And he felt more. Maybe…satisfaction? That what was normal and natural for those kids wasn’t something that had to be hidden from his eyes.

Most of the men in the crowd were younger than he was, and plenty looked like they visited the gym all the time, but there were still some who gave him the eye as he pushed his way past them. Jesus, it had been a while. More than a few gave him more than the eye, dusting a hand across his arm or shoulder, pretending to step out of his way and then instead brushing forward against him, and there was one most definite grope of his ass. The Friday Night Meat Market, that’s where he was with Gary. Everywhere he turned to look, there were men dancing, men talking it up, men kissing, men with hungry looks in their roving eyes. Men in plaid shirts, men in leather vests and pants, men with shades on, men with lipstick and mascara, men in wigs and dresses, men looking for other men. No gay man could be in this place for a minute without having the pulse of the music and the push of the energy lift him up in more ways than one.

When he got back to the booth, Gary said, with a raised voice against the piped-in music, “It’s country western night. I scouted it just for you. The band’s not bad.”

“You scouted it? No you didn’t.”

Gary laughed. “You know me too well. Happy accident, don’t you think? Cheers.”

Gary was right. Five minutes later the band started a set and, over his preferred drink during this San Antonio dream, Johnnie Walker on the rocks, Jack admitted they sounded great. Of course, almost any music would probably sound good to him, as sloshed as he was getting. The group was from Atlanta, the drummer and singer were in hysterical Dale Evans drag, and it seemed half the men in Rosie’s knew all the words to their raunchy songs. Jack had brought back doubles; they set about proving they would need another round soon.

Gary tried to say something to him, but in the noise Jack didn’t get it. “What?” he bellowed across the table.

He never did find out what. Two friends of the coach’s showed up and joined them in the booth, squashing him and Gary together in the middle. But not for long. A line dance was going strong on the floor, and the hook-nosed guy sitting next to him, who Jack hadn’t caught the name of, hollered “Want to dance?” He didn’t wait for an answer but grabbed Jack’s hand and pulled him down the steps, to where it hardly seemed two more bodies could fit.

It wasn’t that it had been a long time since he’d done this: he’d never done this. He’d never been to a gay bar without keeping a weather eye out for a likely screw. Not needing to do that was freedom. He’d never been to a bar like this with people he knew, or at least that he’d been introduced to by somebody he knew. He’d never been to a bar like this since him and Ennis had got together, since that hole in his soul had been mended and the world looked different. And he sure hadn’t been to a bar like this since he’d got fucking mad and run away to Texas.

And…he liked to dance. He knew most of the line dances, managed okay with the two-step, and could do a Cotton-Eyed Joe like nobody’s business.

He’d have to be dead not to have a good time, so to prove that he wasn’t, he did. This was nothing like the dead-ass affairs he’d gone to in Childress with Lureen.

He said yes to every man who asked him, but he didn’t dance more than once with anybody. He didn’t need complications; he was just there to have fun and forget, forget. His head had whirled through a bunch of songs, and a bunch of guys’d had their hands on him dancing, who he’d had his hands on too, when he glanced up to where he’d left his drink in the booth. It was empty, but when the next song started it was Gary in front of him, holding his hand out, saying, “Isn’t there some old saw that you should dance with the person who brought you? Or save the last dance for me, something like that?”

A small voice from really far away told him he shouldn’t take that hand, but the bar was so loud that he could barely hear his own thoughts. “This isn’t the last dance yet,” he said, and he grabbed the man and swung him into the rhythm of the music.

It took a minute or two to adjust to their height difference, almost five inches, but once they had that sorted they took a fast turn around the floor with lots of fancy footwork that probably would have never worked if either of them was sober. The fact that it was Gary he was dancing with meant nothing to him. He told himself that the coach was like any of the other men who’d tried to slip their hands down to his ass, or angled to pull him close enough to get a good feel, and that he didn’t know just about every inch of that drink-of-water body, because they’d been together four fucking months, after all.

“I didn’t know you could dance,” Jack said loud enough to be heard, breathless because he’d been dancing hard for almost an hour and the song was fast.

Gary twirled him around with a hand over his head. “I didn’t know you could either. We never had the chance to find out.”

The band took a break then, which at least Jack had the good sense to know was a good thing. Back at the booth there were the same two men that Gary knew, Danny and the other one, plus a new man who Jack recognized as one of those he’d two-stepped with early. Jack shoved himself in at one end, Gary did the same at the other end, and they snagged a waiter with drink orders.

Danny lit two cigarettes and passed one over to the two-stepper. “I ran into another married man last weekend.”

Gary groaned. “What are you, a magnet for them?”

“I wouldn’t mind so much, except they never want to bottom.”

Jack looked over toward where there were still plenty of guys cutting a rug to the canned music. If he’d hooked up with Danny during his prowling days, he would’ve surprised him. Most of the time, that’s what he’d wanted, to get fucked. It seemed lately, though, that was changing. Looking down at Ennis’s face all sweaty—as sweaty as Jack was right now—and then sliding into him…. Jack’s dick, on automatic the last hour, throbbed at the memory.

“I wish the married men would stop pretending,” put in the hook-nosed guy who’d first pulled Jack onto the dance floor. “They want to have their cake and eat it too.”

“They want our freedom,” two-stepper said.

Hook-nose agreed. “They get stuck with one woman, and the grass looks greener on our side of the fence.”

“John here,” Gary said, gesturing widely across the table at him, “John used to be married.”

The other three guys looked at him like he’d just stepped off a flying saucer.

“For fifteen years,” Gary added.

“Seventeen,” Jack said.

“Christ,” Danny said. “How’d you do it? I wouldn’t live like that if you gave me a million dollars.”

“And now,” Gary drawled, “he’s partnered. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”

“Never,” two-stepper said with a definite shake of his head. “You’ll never catch me being tied down like that.”

Jack thought of bringing up Jeffrey, taking a jab at the dreams that Gary’d had that hadn’t worked out, but the drinks showed up then, and they started talking politics. He let it drop.

The next hour passed in a blur. He bought some cigarettes, not the brand him and Ennis had been smoking but any port in a storm, and he shared them with the other men when Danny ran out. The waiter brought him another scotch when he finished the first. No, that was the second he’d had at Rosie’s, which meant this was his third, and with his buzz getting loud maybe it’d be good to slow down some. He didn’t think about anything except what was happening to him that minute—the music rising and falling, the sound of Gary’s voice getting loud in an argument with two-stepper, the clink of the ice cubes in the glass when he raised it to his mouth. He was pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about Ennis, and that was good. He’d managed not to think about Ennis the whole trip so far, and he hadn’t given in to the ache inside that would take him over if he let it. Though he hoped the fucker was somehow watching from a hole in the clouds. See here, here I am, lookit me, see where I am.

When the band started playing again, Danny next to him shoved him with an elbow and said, “Hey, good-looking, I haven’t danced with you yet. Want to give it a try?”

It didn’t sound right to hear himself called that, because that’s what he used for Ennis, but Ennis didn’t dance—Jack had never asked him because he knew already what the answer would be. It brought a hard, sour chuckle to his mouth to even think of Ennis dancing... and then, in the next second, a need for exactly that pounded in him deep. Christ almighty, to have that man in his arms, to look into his guarded eyes that opened only for Jack, to move with him in the rhythm that he knew they could find if they looked for it…but Ennis didn’t give a fuck about him, did he?

Jack ground out his cigarette and was happy to oblige Danny with a dance.

Him and Gary were back at the table a while later, both blowing smoke, when Gary said, “I’m not as young as I used to be.”

Jack snorted. His legs were stretched out straight under the booth, and his spine was as relaxed against the seatback as it could be. “You’re younger than me.”

“Not by much. It’s late, and I haven’t shown you my house yet.” Gary pulled the ashtray over and flicked ash into it. “What do you say we go over to the house? Before I drive back to your hotel and the convention.”

Jack made a face at the reminder. Checking his watch was something he didn’t want to do and hadn’t done since they’d stepped into Rosie’s. But it was Friday night. Tomorrow a plane would leave for Angel Fire, and he still hadn’t talked to Gary about staying over.

He looked down at his wrist. It wasn’t Friday anymore. It was Saturday morning, one-twenty, and Andy and him were supposed to be at a sum-up meeting at nine o’clock.

Jack ran his hand through his hair. “Maybe just stay here until closing time.”

“Oh, come on. I’m not the big bad wolf,” Gary said.

“No, but you sure have big teeth,” Jack said, feeling pretty good that he could come up with that, considering it was a little hard to think straight.

“I got a great deal on the townhouse. It’s something like yours was in Amarillo. Come on, John. You’ve stirred up the natives here enough, don’t you think?”

What the hell. The least he could do was look at Gary’s new house. He heaved himself to his feet and reached down to drain the dregs of the scotch left in the glass. “Let’s go,” he said.

Walking back outside was like stepping from Oz back to Kansas, from color and laughing and noise to pools of white light under streetlamps and silence except for the sound of their feet against the sidewalk. The air was rich as he breathed it in, strange to have it not be tobacco-scented, and though it was hot since it was Texas in August, still the brush of air against his face felt good. Jack put his head down and watched the toes of his brand new ostrich leather boots. Left, right, left, right. It felt like a year since he’d left Eagle Nest, but it’d only been three days. And this night felt like three days in itself, or a bubble out of time, set apart from the rest of his life and even his stay in this city. His ears were ringing, and his throat was sore from smoke and shouting.

“That was a good night. I’m glad we went there,” Gary said as they got into the Mustang.

Jack pulled on his seatbelt, not something he did all the time, but he had enough wits left to know that Gary might not be the straightest driver this night.

“Me too,” he said. It was true.

Gary’s place was not too far, ten or fifteen minutes around the north loop, and the ride helped clear his head some. Even so, when they pulled up under a live oak tree in a big development of townhomes, Jack got out feeling like his head was stuffed with cotton.

“Nice,” Jack said as he looked around at the landscaping while Gary fished for the right key. “Homeowner’s association?”

“The dues are killing me, but it’s worth it. These houses keep their resale value.”

“You just got here. You won’t be selling anytime soon.”

Inside was familiar-looking, since he knew Gary’s furniture, the books on the bookshelf, and the fancy twenty-seven inch TV with a Betamax set up in the corner. All of it was arranged differently, though. He said the right things that he figured Gary wanted to hear before collapsing on the black leather sofa.

“Get you a drink?” Gary asked from the kitchen. “I’m having some Macallan Scotch, the genuine article. Or I’ve got some beer if you’d like.”

“Think I’ll pass,” Jack said. He fought to not drop his head back against the cushion and zone out. The night was starting to catch up with him. He put his feet up on the glass and chrome coffee table that he remembered and settled his hands over his stomach. He looked over at the TV remote but it was too far to reach without moving, and he didn’t want to move.

Gary stayed where he was for a while, and like it was from another house, Jack heard the sounds of the cap coming off the bottle, the booze being poured, and some swallowing. Some more pouring. Then Gary came and stood over him, holding a full rocks glass. He looked down with a smile. “Why don’t you put your feet up and get comfortable?”

“Thanks.” Jack yawned. “I think I will.”

Gary sat down next to him with a thump, like a newborn lamb all uncoordinated, and Jack thought of laughing at him but couldn’t find the energy to do it.

“Nothing…nothing on TV this late,” Gary said. Some more scotch disappeared.

“S’okay.” Jack’s eyes drifted closed.

There was some shifting of the weight next to him on the cushion. He lifted his eyelids enough to peek and saw Gary lean forward to put his glass down on the table. Carefully.

“There,” Gary said. He clapped his hands to his knees as if he’d accomplished something good. Then he turned toward Jack and kissed him.

For about two seconds Jack was only surprised. More seconds passed while he remembered the taste of Gary’s mouth, how they used to romp in bed, and how at one time he’d tried to tell himself they could make a life together. Gary pressed forward, showing he meant this seriously, and his hand came up around Jack’s neck. Jack, feeling and remembering, gave a little groan and opened so their tongues touched and slid together.

He’d been on the edge of a hard-on all evening. Taking Gary in like this brought him over the edge, because it was Saturday morning early after a Friday night late, they’d been out drinking together, had a good meal, Gary had made him laugh, and there’d been a place for him there even though it wasn’t the place he wanted. Kissing, being kissed, the way Gary’s fingers left his neck and came over to cover his ear as they kissed, he remembered that, it was familiar, there was force of habit in what they were doing because they’d done this before. Gary tasted smooth and a little wild, like the fine scotch he’d just swallowed.

But…but...Jack tried to separate himself from what his body was suddenly waking up for. He hadn’t meant this. This wasn’t the way the night was supposed to end. It hadn’t been on his mind except to not do this thing and to make sure it didn’t happen. He opened his eyes wide to see Gary’s closed tight. What the fuck was he doing here, kissing the hell out of Gary? This was going to lead straight to the bedroom upstairs, to one more desperate fuck in one more of Jack’s desperate attempts to find what he knew, he damn well knew, he could only find in one man.

The kiss went on another couple of seconds until there was a natural stopping point, and they parted to draw breath. Gary twisted around so they were side by side, half-sprawled against the sofa back, face to face, but he reached out so his fingers brushed against Jack’s cheek. There was a small smile on his face, showing some satisfaction at what was happening.

Jack pulled away. “No,” he said.

It was like he hadn’t even been heard. He was kissed again, but he pulled back right away this time, so it was nothing.

“Nope, let’s not do this.”

Gary hitched closer. “Ah, come on, John, we can….”

“Hey, beanpole, you’re getting confused. We don’t do this anymore.”

“Sure we can.”

“When we’re this drunk we might think so, but we don’t.”

“What?”

“I said….” But he’d forgotten already what he’d said, the exact words. “Come on, let’s see what’s on TV.”

Jack pushed himself up so he was sitting straight and looked around for the remote again. He needed to get his mind off what might have been, what wasn’t going to be, and the way his dick sure wished he would mind his own business and let it do what came naturally….

Gary pulled him back to where he’d been. This time his long arm went around Jack’s shoulder, so he was in close, this close to another kiss and a lot more.

“You’re thinking too much,” Gary whispered into his ear. “Just go with the flow. Go with the way we used to be. Remember?””

Shit. Gary was making this hard for him, in more ways than one. Jack managed to get out of the hold on him and stood up.

Careful of his balance, he turned around to look down at his ex-lover. “We’re friends, get it? That’s it.”

Gary stood up too, joining him in the little space between couch and coffee table. He looked well-kissed, his lips soft and a little swelled up, and Jack felt guilty for letting that kiss go on longer than it should have. “That’s okay, that’s good,” Gary said, smooth and careful. “I like being friends with you. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fuck like we used to.”

“Yes, it does.”

“No, it doesn’t, John,” Gary said, like he was talking to a first grader. “That’s the whole point of being gay. Gay men like us get to act the way we want to. We don’t need to stick to one man or one woman, because we don’t make babies. We get to screw a different man every night.”

Even when he’d been out on the road, desperate, lonely, looking, he hadn’t…. “I don’t want to screw anybody tonight.”

Gary grinned at him. “Sure you do. Or you want to get screwed. You told me you did a minute ago, because hard cocks don’t lie.” Gary reached out as if to put his hand between Jack’s legs, but Jack batted it away.

“Jesus, Gary, what’s got into you tonight?”

“You can, if that’s what you prefer. Come on, don’t be a prick tease. You’ve been saying yes all night long. Don’t say no now.”

“Just because we had drinks and danced one dance doesn’t mean—”

Gary made a sudden move that had Jack tensing, because the man had a temper on him and outweighed him by more than fifty pounds, but he was only leaning over and reaching for his drink. He drank like he was thirsty, quickly, and then put the glass down again. He spread his hands wide, using his persuade-them voice that Jack remembered well.

“Think about it. This could be really good for both of us. You could come visit every now and then, stay with me here, and it can be a little vacation for the two of us away from the rest of our lives. Or better yet. Leave that stick-in-the-mud partner of yours and come live in San Antonio full-time, where you can dance at the clubs whenever you want and have your pick of men. You can be free.”

Somehow Gary had got close again. He ran his fingers down the length of Jack’s arm and took hold of his hand.

“We wasted a lot of time when we were younger, not being connected to what’s out there. But we can make up for it now and live the good life. You can go back to your farm in West Godforsaken if you’ve got to, but for now, for tonight, why not live the way you were made? Why not take advantage of what you’re offered? Come on. Come upstairs with me. I’ll show you a good time.”

Staring over Gary’s shoulder, Jack heard every word. It all sounded good, and it all made sense…but for somebody else, not for him. He shook his head. “It’s not gonna happen like that, Gary.”

“Oh, you are such an asshole, John Twist. Get with it!”

Gary flopped to sit back onto the couch and pulled Jack down with him. They ended in a tangle, Jack mostly on top, Gary trying to press him into another kiss but mainly trying to get his hand between them to grab Jack’s dick. Jack did his damndest to get away and stand up again, but his head was spinning. It was hard to get his arms and legs to work together.

“Damn it, Gary, I said no way!”

Jack jerked back but Gary was reaching around his shoulder by then, determined. A second later Jack was going the opposite direction no matter what his intentions. Bam! With no balance or control, his face hit Gary’s, cheek to cheek, and shit, it hurt. Pain streaked across and into his nose as he fell back, gasping, finally separate, next to Gary on the couch.

He sat there in the sudden stillness and panted, anger welling up from a knot well-hidden inside him. It wasn’t even halfway okay anymore because Gary had taken it too far, the dickwad, and shit, Jack shouldn’t have let it get to this point. Anger at himself poured out for being such a fuckup, and then pure mad at everything else all at once: at his dad he hated, at the guys who’d thrown him down in the dirt on the rodeo circuit, at L.D. who’d never given him the time of day, at Gary because he wasn’t the friend he needed, and at Ennis, Ennis, Ennis.

“Christ, you asshole,” Jack growled. He got himself standing again and grabbed at the scotch, overbalancing and having to catch himself with a quick hand against the table. But the glass was in his hand. He dumped everything in it over Gary’s head, ice cubes and all, and then threw it across the room so it smashed against the far wall.

Shit, his nose was bleeding on top of his cheekbone throbbing. He wiped blood from his face on his shirt sleeve and aimed a finger at the man sitting in front of him, a man who was gasping wet and holding a hand to his eye. “I’m leaving. Don’t follow me, you asshole.”

The Mustang’s engine was purring in the parking lot before he saw the shaft of light that meant Gary had got up and opened the front door, probably just then realizing Jack had grabbed the keys on his way out. But Jack wasn’t stopping for more words or anything else. He gave the car gas and left.

*****

Ennis stared up at the first stars showing in the sky and fought to get his breath back. He felt the hard ground against his shoulders. He felt where a rock dug into his butt. He felt most of all where his head had hit against another rock. He was lucky he wasn’t out cold.

After a minute he moved, testing, and then he groaned out loud, though it didn’t do him any good and there was nobody there to hear him. Everything hurt, but especially his head. And especially his ankle. Maybe it was broken and he’d be in big trouble. He might not be able to walk or do his job. He might not be able to do both his jobs, because there was an important one, the job he had to do to get Jack all the way back. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to even get back to the house.

Ennis could hear Trouble bounding across the grass, giving a kick now and then before finally settling under the tree up by the stable. Damn horse. He probably felt proud that he’d got rid of the man trying to ride him.

Feeling almighty sorry for himself, Ennis sat up and rubbed the back of his head. Damn, a knot was coming up already, sore as could be. Then he pushed himself off the ground and took a couple steps. Guess he’d live.

The sun had set ten minutes before. He’d been trying to wring out every second he could get on Trouble and had meant to stay up on the horse for as long as he had any light at all. At least until a bat had come out of nowhere. It had almost flown under the horse’s nose. Ennis couldn’t really blame Trouble for startling, when he’d been startled himself.

He pushed his lips together and started walking to where the horse stood swishing his tail under full saddle and bridle. Ennis hobbled, cause the ankle was throbbing, but he had to get to that horse. Trouble need to be calmed, stripped down, brushed, watered, and turned out for the night. The horse needed to be ready for Ennis to work with him again early the next morning, as early as could be and then all through the day. It would be Saturday tomorrow. Morgan had called on the phone tonight right after Ennis had come in from the ranch. They’d set up that him and Janice would stop by Sunday after lunch for her to see Trouble and ride him for the first time. Morgan had asked to talk to Jack. Ennis had said that he was traveling on business like it was a normal thing to say, and not like the ground he’d been walking on had suddenly disappeared, leaving him flailing.

He managed to get close enough to Trouble to grab his trailing rein. No more riding tonight. Ennis started the two of them on a slow trip back to the stable. Though he felt hollow inside to think of it, he knew there was no way things could work out the way he’d hoped they would on Sunday. He’d had some dumb picture in his head. He’d thought of Morgan smiling and Janice, whatever she looked like, getting up on the horse and riding down the field.

The truth was that he’d known damn well for a full week that it wasn’t gonna happen. He couldn’t let Morgan’s wife, Jack’s friend’s wife, ride that horse free, on her own, especially her being a beginner, and with Trouble still being touchy now and then. He was better, especially the last days. He wasn’t the kind of horse that Fancy was, mainly mean-spirited. And he wasn’t like Delilah, strong, independent, and, Ennis had finally concluded, a whole lot stupid. Trouble wasn’t headstrong or dumb, only green. Ennis would have to keep Trouble on the lead rein and walk horse and rider around. It would scorch his pride, not having the horse ready when he’d told Morgan clear and plain that he would. He guessed he wasn’t too good in the horse training business, cause he sure had reached for farther then he’d been able to grab. He needed more time with Trouble, it was simple as that. Another couple weeks should do it, and he shouldn’t have told Morgan otherwise.

But there’d still be Sunday. He’d been looking toward it the way a plant aimed its head to the sun, trying to think of only presenting the horse, trying not to fix on Jack showing that day. Jack. It felt like he’d been gone three months instead of three days, or maybe like those four years they’d gone without each other, wandering in the desert. Ennis wasn’t shamed to own the feeling he had of needing Jack to come home soon.

Trouble snorted as he tied him to the post and went to take off his saddle. That’s right, Ennis thought, soon ain’t soon enough. He needed Jack now, this minute, looming up out of the dark like he’d done when Ennis had driven up with two horses in his trailer. This time it would be different. Somehow he’d take them off in another direction, like the way it used to be. Ennis looked into the shadows of the yard, the hair on his arms standing up as he thought, maybe Jack’s here right now…. But of course he wasn’t. Sunday. Jack had said he was staying over until Sunday.

Him and his damn fool imaginings.

Thirty minutes later Ennis was back in the house, the door locked behind him, and ten minutes after that he was stripped naked in the bathroom. He stepped carefully into the hot water of the tub and settled back with a wince and a sigh. He looked down the length of his body to his ankle and lifted it to see better. It was swelled up on one side like an orange. He lifted it some more to prop his leg up on the side of the tub, cause it didn’t seem to him that hot water would do his throbbing soreness much good, even if all his other joints were crying out for it. He’d ice it down in a little while.

His hand went down to his dick, just rested over it, cause he sure didn’t feel like pulling his pud. He’d not touched himself since Jack had gone. Sitting here in the bathtub, no way, cause it reminded him….

A long time ago, when he’d been just a little kid, his dad had taken long baths on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes Ennis had gone in there to piss when he could have done it outside at a time his mom wasn’t looking, but he’d wanted to go where Daddy was. There was a time or two or three when his daddy was sleeping in the tub and he’d tiptoed over and stared down at what a man looked like, what he would look like when he was grown up too. Those times, what his dad had seemed enormous to him. His dick and his balls seemed to float on the water like they were islands.

One time, little-boy-Ennis had thought he’d caught movement and he’d looked up fast, but his daddy was still sleeping. Another day, the same thing had happened. He’d looked up but this time Daddy’s eyes were narrowed at him, and the next second he’d been hit good on the side of the head. That was the end of his man-sized, dick-looking days.

Resting back in his own bathtub now, Ennis wondered if his daddy had really been as big as his memory painted, or if that was only in his kid’s mind. He thought he really was, had a big dick that he hadn’t passed on to his second son. He’d passed on something else, though, this need Ennis had for a man, cause however that worked it must come from the ma and dad somehow, right? If his daddy saw the queer coming out in Ennis when he was a kid, it must have made him awful mad, knowing he’d had his part in it.

Last night, sleeping alone in the bed, he’d dreamed again. It had been mainly running with Jack away from Daddy, who was screaming and then laughing. There’d been some big wall that Ennis had hit full on, knocking him back. Then Jack went down on all fours and leaped over it like an animal, taking Ennis with him, and then there’d been the most amazing feeling of flying through the air. Up and up and then over and down, getting away except they’d landed in fire, and Jack had disappeared in flame. Ennis had woke up with sweat dripping into his eyes.

The water was cooling, so he turned on the hot tap. It squeaked and shuddered when he did. The pipes in this old house were showing their age.

He leaned back again and contemplated the tile over the faucets and the dirty grout in between, feeling the weight of living without Jack settle on him heavily. His ankle throbbed, but it seemed the whole rest of him had been throbbing for days. Big pulses, big booms like giant heartbeats that stretched his whole self out to the southeast, toward where Jack was now, on this Friday night. It hurt bad to think of what Jack might be up to this minute.

He’d go crazy if this went on much longer. He needed Jack with him right now. Ennis needed to hear him talking no matter what he said. It seemed the sound of Jack Twist’s voice had been in his mind from that time outside Aguirre’s trailer, but he needed it more now that they’d been sharing the days and the nights in this house. The place echoed with Jack’s words, but Ennis didn’t want echoes.

That night, sleep was hard to come by with nothing complete in him and a hurt foot. He startled awake twice, thinking he’d heard something dangerous in the house. The second time he even got up and limped through, checking the doors and windows, cursing that Tag and his friends had made him skittish like some old maid. He climbed back into bed and stayed where he was for more than a full hour, aching in body and soul, thinking of how Jack had looked when Ennis had brought the pinto home, mad and sad. He should have left that horse where it was, and then Jack wouldn’t have said that nobody cared what he thought, when that wasn’t true, didn’t he know that?

Ennis rolled over and put both hands under the pillow. Guess Jack didn’t know.

Maybe Ennis hadn’t talked clearly enough, or maybe Jack figured, because of the horses, that…. It was just Ennis working.

He tried to find better memories than Jack sad-eyed, but he had to reach further back than the last weeks, and that was no good. He finally fell back to sleep again to messed up flashes of bad dreams.

The sun was peeking over the mountains, creating long shadows out in the yard, and Ennis was pouring his Saturday morning coffee into his thermos when the phone rang.

*****

The San Antonio city council was fighting over water distribution. There’d been a murder on the south side of town, and a cop who’d stopped to help a broken down car at midnight had got sideswiped and was in critical condition in the hospital. The Republicans had held their presidential nominating convention in Dallas, and it’d just ended. The San Antonio Express-News was filled with stories of Ronald Reagan going for his second term, plus how some protestor burning the American flag had got arrested. The world was taking no heed of Jack Twist and his aching head and aching heart. It kept going on.

It was 8 a.m. Saturday morning. He was sitting alone in a hotel restaurant booth. The hostess had tried to put him next to a window where the sun shone through, but he’d let her know he’d prefer a nice dark corner, thank you kindly, ma’am. Jack could hardly see straight, but he was trying to drum up interest in what the newspaper gave him to read. That had to be healthier than what he was thinking. It wasn’t working.

He picked up his coffee and took it in, black and strong and hot, but that didn’t help either. Nothing would, including the few hours of sleep he’d finally managed right before dawn. He’d held off this feeling for three whole days and four whole nights, since he’d stomped away from Ennis and his horse Trouble, but he was feeling it full now.

It was like his right arm had been cut off. Him without Ennis, when he’d thought his dreams of them together were finally coming to be real, thought they were real…. He couldn’t ignore the bleeding anymore by clutching at his anger like a shield.

Ennis….

Blood was pouring out of him now, and he knew it. He felt the drain as he thought of his angry words when they’d faced off. He’d said it wasn’t him Ennis needed, just some man. Maybe it was true. Maybe Ennis didn’t feel about him the way he felt about Ennis. But he did feel, strong, stronger now than even when he’d been a lovesick nineteen-year-old.

His pain this morning was the fault of the dancing last night, when he’d imagined taking Ennis’s hand, stepping up against his body, and looking into his man’s eyes. The two of them moving together because they both wanted to. That’s what he’d thought about for hours as he lay awake. His need for that Wyoming man made the palms of his hands prickle, and he wanted to reach across the bed for him. Even though Ennis had hurt him bad. Even though he didn’t know if he could ever get Ennis to see him, Jack, all of him. Even though he didn’t know if Ennis would ever calm down enough so the life they led together wasn’t a game of how much Ennis could hide, how little he could act in the world, and how many times he could say “no.”

He put the coffee cup down and forced his fingers past a sort of numb clumsiness to turn the newspaper page. There wasn’t ever going to be a headline in his life that said Prominent Gay Citizen Announces Liquidation of his Horse Training Business, would there? He ran a finger across a line talking about how some land was being set aside for wildlife under the Open Spaces Act, not seeing the words, feeling three times the fool for wanting from a man who could not give.

The hostess seated four more groups of men on this last morning of the Cattle Feeders convention while Jack stared at meaningless marks on a paper.

“Your breakfast, sir,” the waitress said. She slipped a plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, and sausage onto the table, and then a side order of pancakes too. “Can I get you anything else? I’ll refill your coffee as soon as the new pot’s ready.”

Jack took up his fork and went to it, relieved to have something take his mind away from circling around his tender, throbbing center. He always felt better after a night with the bottle if he had a big breakfast the next morning.

The food went down okay, because he’d never had a chancy stomach. He forced his thoughts to what he needed to do to get ready for the plane ride home that afternoon. He didn’t even know when they were due to leave. It would’ve been crazy to stay over until Sunday, and he’d known that all along, hadn’t he? A thousand dollar airfare and traveling all day Sunday for just another night. Anyway, staying over with Gary would’ve been a big mistake.

He looked up as a tall figure stopped by his table. Talk about a big mistake, looking down at him right then.

Gary gestured awkwardly toward the empty side of the booth. “Mind if I sit down?”

Jack turned away and shoveled hash browns into his mouth. “Okay.” He swallowed as Gary slid onto the seat. He guessed he looked like Gary did, red-eyed, puffy-faced, and strung-out, the remains of being wasted the night before. There was a bruise coming up next to Gary’s eye that wasn’t too different from the one that showed on his own cheek, running up to the side of his nose. “How’d you get here?”

“I took a taxi.”

“What I should’ve done last night.” Jack reached into his jacket’s inside pocket and brought out the car keys and the valet parking ticket. “Here.” He handed them across. “Thanks for the loan.”

“You didn’t give me much choice.”

Jack rested both hands on the edge of the table. “And neither did you.”

At least Gary looked embarrassed. “Listen, I…. I came to get the car, but I wanted to say I’m sorry about last night.”

“Good.”

“But you did lead me on.”

Jack sighed and attacked his pancakes.

“And I was drunk,” Gary said.

“You want some of these?”

“You know I can never eat on Saturday morning after a Friday night like we had.”

“I guess I forgot.”

“John….”

“What?”

“What I said last night…. I know it wasn’t presented in the best of circumstances, but I meant it. I can’t imagine that you’re happy with Ennis. Why not—”

“It’s not for you to judge, is it?”

Gary plowed on. “Why not come live here? I bet you could get a job easily, with your sales skills.”

“I like the job I’ve got.”

“I know, but you could—”

Gary sat back as the waitress came by with Jack’s coffee and a cup for the man who’d joined him. She poured for both of them and then left, leaving a space of silence between them that Gary wouldn’t let stand.

“Last night, we both had a good time.” Gary was talking quietly, intensely, and Jack knew he really meant it. “A really good time. I could see you were enjoying yourself. Ennis will never give that to you. You’re going to be buried in the wilds of horse country until you forget how to live. Please, think about this.”

He did think about it. He’d been thinking about it every waking moment since he’d roared out of the parking lot in a borrowed Mustang, going seventy when forty would’ve been safe.

Jack had to face facts. There were some things he’d never have. He’d never dance with Ennis. He’d never go to a bar with Ennis where men gathered to be with other men. He’d never stand up with him to do everyday things like he’d done with Lureen, because Ennis didn’t see them together in the same way he did.

He wanted too much, and he didn’t know if he could live with what he would get instead.

Jack took the paper from where it was spread out between him and Gary, put it on the bench next to him, and shoved his plate aside. He folded his hands together in front of him and tried to explain.

“You and me, Gary, we want different things. You’ve found something that you want here, and that’s good. Maybe you’ll be happy, and I hope you are. But me….” He looked off to the side, to the collection of sugar packets, salt, and pepper. “I don’t want to be free. Not now, I don’t think ever. I got tied down when I was young, and that’s just the way it is.”

He heard the waitress talking to some people in the booth behind him, saying good morning, pouring them coffee, and getting their order for oatmeal, toast, eggs, a bowl of strawberries. Him and Ennis, when they were up on Brokeback, they’d eaten beans for breakfast more than a few times. It hadn’t mattered.

Fingers covering his folded hands surprised him. He brought his attention back to Gary, who had reached across the table with a look on his face that he’d hardly ever seen there.

“Okay,” Gary said softly. “I guess I’ll never understand it, but okay.” He smiled a small smile, gave his hand a squeeze, and pulled back. “Sorry about your nose.”

Jack felt where it was tender. “I’ll be okay. Sorry that I…led you on. I didn’t mean to.”

Jack went back to eating, and Gary sipped his coffee, making a face and complaining that he made it better with fresh ground beans in his own coffeemaker in his own kitchen. Three minutes later, Jack looked up to see Andy walking toward them, not being led by the hostess but coming in on his own, obviously fixed for Jack’s table. “My boss,” he said quietly to Gary, so he’d be warned how to act and what to say.

But of course Gary always did take it that step too far, the way he was. After introductions he stood up to leave, saying, “I need to go and gas up my car. Besides, I imagine you have all sorts of cattle-related things to do. Maybe you’ll look me up again the next time you’re in town.” He extended his hand. “Friends?”

Damn it, Gary, Andy’s here…. But Jack took that hand, shook it, and said the only thing he could say. “Friends.” Andy did glance at the two of them and then turned away, but that was no wonder, considering they both were sporting bruises and looking like something the cat had drug in.

Andy ordered a wedge of cantaloupe when the waitress came, explaining that Carolyn had put him on a diet and it was time he stuck to it. Jack nodded and devoted himself to trying to read the paper again and sharing the sections with his boss. He pretended to take in the articles, all while wishing he could go home and find the Ennis he’d started out with back in the winter. Back then, they’d each thought they’d done all the hard work needed. They were finally going to live together, weren’t they? Back when he’d said he’d never leave Ennis again.

He saw that Andy was looking across at him. He tried to think of what he’d say when he got asked where the mark on his face had come from, but Andy went back to the sports section without opening his mouth. Jack was glad that his boss didn’t feel the need to talk this morning. It was unusual for him, but Jack needed the quiet.

He was fucking tired.

When they paid at the cash register and walked together out to the glittering lobby, Andy said they should each check out and leave their baggage with the bellhop. That way they could get out of the session when it ended at noon and leave for the airport right away. “The final panel starts in fifteen minutes,” Andy said as he glanced at his watch. “I’ll meet you there, okay?”

Up in his room, Jack checked himself out in the mirror, but there wasn’t anything he could do except splash water on his face, brush his teeth, and wish he had some Advil for general, all-around crappiness. He moved around the room slowly, getting stuff out of the closet and putting it in his suitcase. It was a miracle he’d packed in a way that made sense on Tuesday night, considering the state he’d been in.

One last glance around the room, a check of the bathroom where he found a t-shirt he’d hung on a hook, and he was ready to go. He settled his hat on his head and was reaching for the doorknob when the phone rang.

He hesitated, not up to talking with anybody, but it just might be…. Not that Ennis would call him any more than he would leave Jack a note on his pillow, but Jack walked over to the nightstand and picked up the receiver anyway.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Jack?”

There was a moment when everything stopped. Then time started up again, all of time, and everything it held that he didn’t want to face. Jesus God, he knew that voice, as old-lady quavery as it might be. By the time his butt hit the mattress something inside him knew what must have happened.

“It’s Faye, Jack. Are you there?”

“Yeah. What’s…. How’s….”

“Lureen….” His ex-wife’s mother could barely get out the name of her only child. Jack listened to her shudder as she breathed. “Jack, she…

Don’t let her say the words, please not those words, I’m not ready to hear them.

“She died yesterday.”

“But…but….”

It couldn’t be true. How could Lureen be dead when she’d ridden into his life so strong?

“Jack? Did you hear me?”

Lureen was alive in his mind. She’d said I’m pregnant, Jack and Bobby looks like you and Let’s get away for a weekend, Hot Springs would be nice and she’d stood in the kitchen in Eagle Nest and said Everything will be fine.

Stupidly, he latched on to what he thought he’d known. He knew it was stupid even as he said it. Lureen couldn’t be…. “The doctors said another three or four months.”

“I know. But the good Lord took her. She went in her sleep.”

“Her sleep.”

“She was taking naps in the afternoon. Bobby came home for dinner and….”

“Jesus,” Jack breathed. “Bobby found her?”

“He called me. He’s with us here now.”

His boy. His son, close to being grown but still far from grown, slamming the door like he always did when he got in from wherever he’d been, calling out Mom? Bounding up the stairs two at a time in his teenaged way, to where Lureen, Jack’s not-for-him Lureen who’d stood in the animal preserve parking lot and said that Ennis should take care of Jack, she was….

Jesus God Almighty. It seemed his tongue could barely move. “Faye, I….” Tears slipped down his cheeks and one sob escaped, so much pressure in his throat and chest pushing it out.

“Please, Jack, don’t. I can’t keep talking to you if you let go, cause I’ve got more calls to make.”

Of course, the bastard L.D. would put that on her shoulders. Wasn’t there anybody else who could’ve made these calls, not her mother telling folks her little girl was gone? But Lureen had always been Daddy’s girl more than anything else, and Jack could imagine the old man on this black day. For all his bluster, L.D. wasn’t strong. “Okay, okay,” Jack said, gulping air, getting control of himself. “I’m….”

“I thought you’d want to know.”

“’Course,” he mumbled into the phone. “I can’t believe…. Was hoping that there’d be…. Remission.”

“I know. She didn’t seem….”

“I saw her two weeks ago, and she looked good. She wasn’t in any pain then. Was she—”

“Three weeks ago.”

“What?”

“You were here three weeks ago.”

“Oh.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. It hurt, but he hardly noticed. “Right. I…. Was she in pain?”

Faye choked, coughed for a good minute, and finally got herself back to being able to talk, though now she was hoarse on top of the worst kind of heart-shot hurting. “No. That’s the good thing, what the Lord did for her. No pain.”

“Thank God.” He swallowed. “How’s Bobby?” He didn’t even know if Lureen had kept her word. She’d promised him that she would tell Bobby what was facing her, and then, as she’d put it, it would be Jack’s turn. She’d tell Bobby that his daddy was living with another man, sleeping in the same bed, and doing things no high school boy could think about without being sick to his stomach.

“Let me talk to him,” Jack said, maybe the bravest words he’d ever spoken, but his son had to be in the worst shape, and faggot or no faggot, Jack had to be there for his boy.

“No,” Faye said, and Jack was only human. Some part of him was glad to hear her say that. “He’s sleeping now. We were up most of the night, the three of us, and soon we’re going to the funeral home to pick out a casket. Let him sleep.”

He hadn’t even thought that far. “Oh. When….”

“The funeral will be Monday morning. The viewing on Sunday night.”

“So soon? I don’t—”

“Jack,” Faye said, cutting him short. “This is so hard. The sooner the better, for all of us.”

“Sure, sure. Okay.” He was bent over on himself, the receiver pressed to his ear, his other hand gripping his head, everything coming down on him. “I’m in San Antonio,” he said. “I can rent—”

“I know where you are! I called the number Lu had in the book, where you live now in New Mexico, and that man answered.”

Oh. Jesus, he had to pull himself together. He hadn’t even thought of how Faye had known to call him at the hotel, but she must’ve talked to Ennis, that man.

“Okay. Good. I can—”

“Good? Good? How can you say….” Faye choked again, though she didn’t start coughing. Jack had an image of her holding a white tissue to her mouth, her worn eyes red from her tears. “I’m sorry,” she said after a while. “I can’t seem to catch my breath. The man you are living with in New Mexico told me you were in Texas.”

“I’ll rent a car and be there as soon as I can. This afternoon for sure.”

“I knew you’d want to be here.”

“Of course…. Bobby…. And, Faye, seventeen years we were together.”

“She was forty-one,” Faye managed to get out. “I had my darling for just forty-one years.”

Jack couldn’t talk for a while, taking on his mother-in-law’s feelings on top of his own. Lureen, gone.

“I’ve got other calls to make,” she said when the silence got thin.

“I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“All right.”

The line went dead.

After a while the phone got noisy, making that sound it had to let a person know the receiver had not been hung up properly. Jack stared at it in his hand. Oh, yeah. He needed to put it back, so he did.

He dropped back on the bed, his feet on the floor, and flung his arm over his forehead. He wanted to cry. Tears prickled his eyes, but nothing came but a hundred memories, a thousand of them. Lureen smiling at him the first time, him handing her that red hat. Lureen on their wedding night, her belly already full of Bobby, not knowing Jack feared their marriage was a big mistake that he couldn’t make work. Lureen in Fort Worth with him and the boy that time at the Japanese Garden, speaking to Jack sharp and mad because she didn’t understand why the place fascinated him so, and why he was lingering over the swirls of sand and the hungry fish. Lureen on one of their trips to Padre Island, only the two of them, her sporting a two piece bathing suit that had the lifeguard looking, but Jack was fresh from a weekend at Lake Kemp, and the next month he’d see Ennis. Lureen the moment he said I want a divorce, sending her hurt eyes down to the carpet in their bedroom that Jack never slept in again.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

After a while he looked at the bedside clock. Nine thirty-five. The Texas Cattle Feeders Association convention waited for no man, though he bet Andy was wondering where the hell he was. He needed…he needed to sit up and start thinking.

He did. It had to be a seven, eight hour drive from San Antonio to Childress, but he’d get there by late afternoon. He’d have time enough to spend the night with Bobby and let the boy know his old man was there for him even if he didn’t want him to be. Damn, he should’ve called Lureen any time these last three weeks. He’d meant to, had thought of it, but things had gone to hell in a handbasket with him and Ennis, and he’d kept thinking he’d go see her again at the end of the month or maybe the first of September, and that would be enough. He should have called and asked her if she’d had that talk, asked her how she felt, told her that he was sorry she was gonna die, and now all he had was that one last thing he’d done for her, holding her on the couch in their living room while she cried, three weeks ago, when she’d fallen asleep on his shoulder and now forever.

Jack wiped another tear away. He’d have tonight with Bobby, no matter how hard that might be, and then all day tomorrow with him until the viewing, and then the funeral on Monday, and then after that….

The sound of a mariachi band came from below, almost like it was waking him up, Christ, happy music this early in the morning. Right. After the funeral, there was a shit load of stuff to figure. He’d have to settle Bobby with the Montcriefs and talk to L.D. about the trust for Bobby’s college. He’d have to make sure the old bastard knew he wasn’t turning his back on his son and that he had rights as the boy’s father that he was going to stand on. No way he could go back to work, to home, to Ennis until Tuesday, maybe Wednesday or Thursday, it depended on how things were, maybe he’d even bring Bobby back with him, spend a week away in New Mexico except Jack didn’t know when school started, the first day might already have come, because Texas schools did start early, he’d have to find out and he needed Bobby to be okay with Ennis, the two of them meeting, that moment, would anybody ever understand how Jack felt on him?

His hand rested on the phone. It wasn’t any use. Nine-thirty in San Antonio meant eight-thirty in Eagle Nest on a Saturday. With Morgan coming tomorrow for the gray horse, there was no way Ennis would be there to take this call.

Even so, he had to call, he had to call right then, even though it made no sense, because everything in him of a sudden pointed straight to Ennis like the needle on a compass. Jack dialed his own number, that number that he wasn’t supposed to answer himself, and he listened to it ring just once before it was picked up.

“Hello?”

He closed his eyes and imagined it was the two of them talking in their kitchen across the table, the remains of dinner spread between them, the way it’d been a couple of weeks ago when things had been fine. “Ennis, it’s me.”

He actually heard the shuffle of feet against the kitchen floor. “Hey, bud.”

He wished Ennis would say more so the words would wash over him, good words to wash the other stuff away, words that would tell him everything was all right between them. But Ennis had never been about words. “How come you aren’t outside?”

“Uh, your mother-in-law called. I figured…figured I’d wait in case you called too. It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, well…. I guess she told you?”

“She told me nothing. She sure didn’t want to talk with me. But I can guess. I suppose… Lureen? Turn for the worse? Or….”

“She died yesterday afternoon.”

“Shit. I am sorry to hear that. She was a fine lady.”

“Yeah.”

“How come it took this long for them to call you? Seems—”

“I’m just the ex-husband who ran off to live with another man. I don’t rate, but then again I never did rate. I’ll be lucky if they let me near Bobby. He was the one who found her, Ennis. Yesterday.”

“Oh, damn.”

“I don’t…don’t want to think about that, but now he’ll have that the whole rest of his life, finding his mom like that.”

“That’s hard.”

“I’ve got to go there.”

“Course you do.”

“The viewing’s tomorrow night, with the funeral the next day. They’re rushing things, it seems to me, but I don’t have any say.”

“I guess not. Uh, Jack?”

“What?”

“You…coming home after that?”

He opened his eyes. The suitcase was right in front of him, waiting to be taken away to the town where he had too much history. “Yeah,” he said into the receiver. “Yeah, I’ll be back. Though I don’t know when because there are things to be done.”

Ennis made a sound like the choke that had come from Faye. “I…I guess I’ll see you when you get here, then,” that man said.

“Right. Don’t you fall on your head while I’m gone.”

“You…you be careful. There’s folks in Childress who don’t want to see you there. Remember?”

That really bad night outside Childress, a terrifying black cloud in Ennis’s mind, Jack knew. Ennis’s fears…. Let them be a heavy weight on his bowed shoulders, not Jack’s. He was sick of living with them. “Nobody’s going to go after a husband come in for a funeral, you shithead.”

“Even so, you be careful.”

“Okay, I will. I’ll come back to prove you are dumber than shit for worrying.”

“You do that. Jack…. I’m sorry this happened. That you gotta deal with all this now.”

Jack let out a sigh that somehow turned into another rush of sorrow that clogged his throat and brought the tears burning back to his eyes. “I know,” he tried to say like normal, but he couldn’t and he knew those fucking tears had been truly heard. For a couple of seconds he let himself wish that Faye had called him when he was at home, when he could have turned to somebody who maybe cared about the way he was feeling…. Him and Ennis, they’d be all right, wouldn’t they? Jesus Christ, he needed them to be all right.

“I’ll see you later,” he barely managed to get out, and he hung up the phone.

*****