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Big Boots of Pain - Part 6

Endings and Beginnings


Ennis sobered after three days and only because the whisky ran out. It was a hard returning. Reckoned he’d caught a chill, remembered lying in snow, and ached all over, nothing to do with amber poison still inside. Felt like his wrist broke; couldn’t move it and hurt like hell when he tried. The bed stank where he’d pissed in it, but he figured it could have been worse.

He lay under the window where he could see Brokeback and wondered how long he’d lain there. Remembrance came slow and hard. He’d done something bad, but it eluded him for the present.

That he had missed Christmas was a given with three days growth of beard and a smell to scare horses. He coughed weakly and his eyeballs ached. A shivering set in even under blankets.

It was the first time he’d escaped since coming to Brokeback permanent. For that was what he’d done: continued the inevitable pattern of his life. He never stuck to anything long. For the first time, hitting him hard and quick like a rock-spiked snowball, it came to Ennis that perhaps all he’d ever wanted from Brokeback was the occasional high-altitude fuck. Perhaps Brokeback, like everything else in his life, had been kept deliberately temporary: Alma, kids, jobs. Jack. Perhaps he only had enough inside this thin beat up body for temporary. It occurred to Ennis that he’d been taught the value of temporary by a curve in the road when he was ten. Maybe he had started up with Jack because they were unlikely ever to meet outside the twice-yearly fuck-dates, and that fucking was all he had asked for or given.

Maybe this was where he’d gone wrong now. Two-fucks-a-year Ennis Del Mar thought he could live the Wonderful Life right here on Brokeback Mountain. He should have known a curve would come along sometime soon.

Ennis needed to piss, felt there wasn’t much point bothering one way or the other, and went where he lay.

Hot liquid, squeezed from his eyes, made smaller tracks on the pillow.

* * * * * * *

When he woke again, he was on the couch by the fire, naked but wrapped, shivering and retching. Nothing came up but sadness, and he cried some more, self-pity and sickness in equal measure.

Jack squatted down and offered him water. “You got a fever, Ennis, ‘s all. You bin real sick.”

Ennis’s mouth was stuck. He swallowed the water. “How long?”

“Fifth day. Bin a pig—had t’ call the doc out one night. Said ya had an infection in yer lungs. I told ya to give up those damn cigarettes.”

Ennis wasn’t easily fooled, and heard a great deal behind Jack’s friendly tone. “Kin I git up? Fuck the devil; how’d I do this?” He held up his wrist.

“Were like that when I found ya.”


Jack’s eyes skittered away, and when he said, “On the ice,” Ennis saw they’d slipped and hit hard.

“Christ, I’m sorry, Jack. Cain’t remember.”

“I’ll git yer clothes. Ma’s home tomorrow—‘for I forgit.”

So soon? Ennis realised he’d spent their whole time together either bitter, drunk or sick. “I’m real sorry, cowboy. I’ll make it up t’ yer.” He turned to follow Jack’s progress and saw the tree.

* * * * * * *

Ennis dressed like an old man, using only one hand.

“Kin ya eat something?”

“Jist some coffee m’be?”

He sat at the table, head in hands. There were three cards: shared one from his girls, which blurred when he tried to read it; Bobby to both of them; and one that played a tune when he opened it and read It’s fucking Christmas, Twister. Get laid, get happy, love Tobes. ps, use the enclosed soon. It contained an open ticket to New York City on American Airlines. The card continued to play its Merry Christmas tune.

Jack brought coffee, sat at the table and lit a cigarette, squinting at Ennis. “Soon as ma gits here, I’m goin’ t’ New York fur a few days. Reckon you be well enough to take care ‘a things here?” He made it sound like Ennis had a bad case of the clap. Made him feel like it, too.

Ennis toyed with the ticket, wondered what Jack would do if he tore it up. “What if I said I were real sorry?”

“I’ll be glad to hear it, friend, but ask you t’ remember to check the mail every day, ‘case someone wants the cabin.”

“Jack, this ain’t fair.”

“I bin wiping yer ass fur two days, Del Mar, cain’t see the fair in that neither.”

“I bin sick! Fuck, Jack, yer cold as a witch’s tit t’ me! I bin acquainted wi’ your shit fur twenty years. Think on that.”

Jack pushed back his chair. “I gotta pack.”

“Jack! Goddamn!” He coughed and felt a lifetime of smoking coming up. “Fuck the pope, I’m dying here, Twist!” Jack jogged up the stairs. “What’m I gonna do without ya?”

A disembodied voice replied, “You kin open yer fuckin’ Christmas presents, if yer want, friend.”

* * * * * * *

Ma arrived by cab as far as town; Jack met her. By her expression, Ennis reckoned she’d heard the highlights of Christmas, but she began to fuss around him, and he surrendered to the only warmth he’d been offered for many hours.

Jack came down with bags.

Ennis struggled up, a cough rattling his water and making him need to piss. “Jack, I’m askin’ ya; I’m fuckin’ beggin’ ya. Please. Don’t take this trip.”



“Why, Ennis? You too sick t’ come, so jist seems real fortunate I gits sent a ticket and you ain’t.”

“Stop it, Jack, I don’t rightly know you like this. I did what ya wanted… in the sack. I tried. Jack, I tried!”

Jack set the bags down and came over, embraced him. “Yeah, you tried, Ennis. I gotta go now or I’ll miss m’ flight.”

“M’be I ain’t gonna be here when you gits back! M’be I don’t want t’ be knowin’ what you done in New York City.”

Jack hesitated. “Ya cain’t leave ma in the middle ‘a win’er, Ennis. If yer gonna leave, take her t’ town first.” He swung a bag onto his shoulder and strode out.

Ennis called his name, but coughing took his voice. He had not found it by the time the pick-up was out of sight.

* * * * * *

Ennis was sick proper then. His fever soared so high ma called the doc again. Doc said hospital, but was persuaded by her uncompromising, unstinting care. She nursed him with stockpiled love. Her store cupboard overflowing, Ennis got love-fat on affection. On the forth day, he woke with weak sun on his face and a sense of being well. Until he remembered Jack.

He had only a hazy notion of what men of a certain disposition did with other men, besides what he did with Jack, which he never thought of in the way of disposition but just their business. When he did think on it, it was Alma’s voice in his head. Ennis thought about Jack in New York and heard Jack nasty.

* * * * * * *

He’d been put in ma’s bed, big and wide and comfortable as her love. She brought up her sewing for company, and he cut squares for her, methodical and exact. He’d never had softness like this his whole life and wondered how, without it, he got the little niceness inside that he had. She told him about the Pentecost; bible stories passed the hours, but on the second day of feeling better he was crawling out of his skin and sickening for something else.

Jack had hired a boy to tend the horses. Ennis took his first walk to the barn, which nearly killed him, and paid the boy off. He tended their horses with the same care he’d been given.

He wasn’t as recovered as he thought, and that night, over supper, tears came. With shaky hands, he covered his eyes, mumbling apology. Ma slammed down her fork. “You a stubborn fool, Ennis Del Mar, worse than t’ other one, an’ that sayin’ something.”

Ennis had nowhere to go and could not escape his misery.

“Hush, quit that! Yer dripping in the Lord’s good food. Go look in the barn.”

“I jist—.”

“Well maybe use yer eyes this time.”

* * * * * * *

The tent and all Jack’s camping gear were missing.

* * * * * * *

He reckoned the ride would kill him, but not seeing Jack would kill him anyway. Story of his fucking life.

The air snagged some damage in his lungs, making him breathe shallow and sharp. If he went with the horse, it wasn’t too bad. Worst was his wrist, not the pain, but a gradually returning remembrance of punching ice. What he’d have done with a hole he didn’t want to think on.

He didn’t want to think on other things, but did, his mind clear as Brokeback air. Fever and absence of Jack had branded the truth on him, hot and hard and painful. 

He found Jack’s camp where he’d known it would be. One time they’d done Brokeback by pick-up, camping close to tracks, Ennis’s horse going lame a few days before. Ennis rode to the first camp they’d made that year, and Jack was there, tent pitched on snow but real close to the pick-up for shelter.

Jack looked old, grey and cold. Ennis reckoned he probably looked worse. He dismounted, clung to the saddle till dizziness passed then sat by the fire. “Bitchin’ furst Christmas we had, Twist.”

Jack’s welcome was as cold and biting as the air. “Ma told ya.”

“Guess she likes me.” No humour in Jack Twist. Ennis asked, eyes to flames, “Do you? Because, if ya do, yer the only one sittin’ around this fire who do. I spent our whole lives hurtin’ you, an’ I’m sorry fur each an’ every time. But here’s the thing, Jack, here’s what come to me when I were sick and missin’ ya.” He shuffled his feet, lining up sticks like thoughts. “I knowed what I was afore I mets ya. Knew afore I met Alma an’ wanted her real bad because ‘a that. Didn’t want to be like Earl an’ killed worse than an animal fur lovin’ wrong. Took me that job on Brokeback deliberate, t’ keep me outta trouble till I could marry Alma and git respectable. But I swear t’ God, Jack, there you were, my herder for the whole fuckin’ summer. Knew if I let m’self, I’d never come off the damn mountain. So, Jack, it weren’t you I’ve bin keepin’ on a tight rein, it were me. I quit everythin’ I turned m’ hand to: marriage, kids, proper home, jobs and you. Quit ya regular, twice a year, so you cain’t swallow me whole being so ‘xactly what I want. I ain’t nineteen no more, Jack, knowin’ something I don’t want t’ know, bein’ somethin’ I scared t’ be. I’m forty years old, an’ I got you. So, hell, I’ll say it, Jack Twist. I’m queer. I’m damn queer fur you, an’ this ain’t a one-shot thing. This is it fur me, an’ if you don’t come home an’ let me be real sorry for a real long time, then I might be out punchin’ that damn ice ag’in. An’ just so ya know, I bin real sick an’ squattin’ on m’ ass in the snow ain’t gonna do me no good.” Twenty years of words all at once exhausted him. He felt Jack’s hands, was moved into the pick-up slow and easy, shivering so bad even Jack’s arms couldn’t warm.

Jack’s breath on his neck worked better. “Littl’ darlin’. Don’t know if I’m madder at you or ma.”

“I’m bettin’ my makin’ it up t’ yer’ll be more fun.”

Jack turned his face away. Ennis felt a lump of dread in his belly, flash flood coming and no way to stop it. “I found ya on the ice, an’ yer heart had stopped beatin’.”

“Cain’t be so, Jack; jist the cold an’ yer numb fingers, most like.”

Jack shrugged. He knew what he knew. “Thought I’d lost ya. Ticket come the next day. Didn’t stop lovin’ ya; I were just bitchin’ mad wi’ ya. You damn near killed yerself Ennis. After all this time an’ me needin’ ya like I do.”

Ennis turned to look out at the snow. “Why didn’t ya go?”

“Cus’a the tree.”

Ennis turned back, sweating, although he was chilled to the bone. “The tree.”

Jack took one of Ennis’s hands like it was strange and new and not something he’d had intimate acquaintance with for more than half a lifetime. “Did ya read the card from Alma Junior and Jenny? Said they missed ya and told ya some funny stories about that place Scotland where Jenny with Junior fur the holidays. Asked if you remembered the tree you brung in one year and sat up all night makin’ a whole bunch’a shiny things fur ‘em while they was sleepin’. Said it were their best Christmas. Christ, don’t do that, Ennis. Bin enough sadness, I reckon. I jist wanted t’ say I should ‘a thought ‘bout how this yer furst Christmas so far from yer girls an’ how ya’d feel ‘bout that. But I went on in a Jack Twist way: like the fuckin’ world revolve around what I want. I’m selfish to the core, Jack. Lureen right ‘bout me there. So I gits to thinkin’ as I drivin’ to the airport, an’ when I done thinkin’, I come up here. Didn’t tell ya cus I’m mean, an’ I’m still bitchin’ mad at ya fur dying on the ice and leavin’ me behind.”

They weren’t up to kissing, Ennis coughing and hot, Jack guilty. The intent was there. It drew them closer than lips meeting, for hearts had free rein to feel all the connection. After a time, Jack released Ennis from a sweaty embrace and dug in his pocket. “I got somethin’ fur ya.”

Ennis rubbed his face. “Jack, I ain’t got—.”

“It ain’t nothin’ t’ do wi’ Christmas. Even I ain’t that stupid.” He held out an envelope. For one cold-chill moment Ennis thought it was a matching ticket to New York. He took it, not wanting it.

“What it fur then?”

“Lovin’ ain’t a sin, an’ I ain’t gonna live my life like it were.” He opened the door. Cold flooded the cab. “I love Ennis Del Mar!” shouted to Brokeback mountain. The mountain made no reply. It probably knew that already.

Jack closed the door. “I was selfish because I was bitter an’ sad, an’ I got no use fur that now.”

Ennis held a ticket to Aberdeen in Scotland.

* * * * * * *

Jack shuffled nervous and out of place in an airport arrival lounge. Foot to foot until one hip ached and he swapped. Foot to foot, waiting. Ennis had been gone three months. Two weeks with his girls, and then when Jack called he’d been told Ennis had gone travelling, the coffee-pot not big enough now, and that Jack would understand.

Three months was okay. He’d endured longer than that every year for twenty years, wanting and needing and loving Ennis Del Mar.

A few passengers appeared. Businessmen first, always somewhere to go faster than the rest. One glanced at Jack. Mexico glinted in dark eyes and Jack looked away, shamed.  When he searched again for Ennis though, arousal honed the hunt. Three months weren’t okay at all; three months had been a slow death, sleeping wrapped in Ennis-scented sheets, crazy and sad. He wanted to save the hot need, all Ennis’s, but eyes fastened, predator-like, on another man, long and fine, striding through the lounge, a prize stallion ready for breaking. The New York beauty with long, unkempt curls and leather jacket clinging just right roved Jack’s eye. The New York he’d exchanged for a ticket to Scotland. Jack swore and looked down, maddened and guilty, held hat to the front of his jeans where the three months betrayed him. Joy at the thought of seeing Ennis was tainted.

The beauty stopped, and for a stranger seemed mighty pleased to see Jack. He dropped his bag and strode over, lifting him. “Darlin’, you fuckin’ darling.”

“Ennis?” He shied at another embrace, pretty mare with a low startle point and nervous eyes.

Ennis looked around. “I reckon no one gonna mind, an’ if they do, they ain’t no acquaintances ‘a mine anyways. You here t’ take me home or gawk at me?”

* * * * * * *

“Spring looks prutty.”

Jack nodded, went along with this conversation that was not the one they needed to have. “Snow still up on the mountain though. Had us a real storm last week.”

“How’s ma?”

“Same as when you left, I reckon.”

Ennis glanced sideways at him. “An’ you?”

“As ya see, I guess.”

Ennis grinned. “You okay then.”

Jack couldn’t help smiling in reply, and Ennis nudged him.  Jack took a breath to ask. Ennis murmured, “When we gits on Brokeback, Jack. Not afore,” and Jack had to be content with that.

* * * * * * *

They drove past the house and headed for the cabin. “Cancelled a fishin’ party. Told ‘em we had a double bookin’.” He glanced at Ennis. “Wanted it jist us. Was I right?” Ennis nodded, distracted. Jack looked away, sharp, breath caught in his throat like a fishing hook: Ennis looked like he didn’t know the place.

* * * * * * *

Ennis peeled off his clothes, dropped them in a heap and went to the bathroom. Fancy shower he’d never used before washed the trip from his body. Bathroom business had always been their personal business, private men brought up modest, but Ennis heard Jack, seized his arm and pulled him where they’d not been before. No desire for talking, rough cotton scrubbed Ennis’s skin as they wrestled and fought. Ennis wanted Jack’s clothes off. What Jack wanted off Ennis was less tangible, but a struggle for all that. Three months and tightly wired, they misfired, bagging no game.

* * * * * * *

Jack brought coffee to the porch, leant on the rail, watching the lake. He found two cigarettes.

“I done give up.”

Jack could have done without that right now. He lit one and took some nicotine. “I got to know, friend. You git what I’m sayin’?”

“You wanna walk some?”

Jack’s throat squeezed shut. “Jist tell me!”

Ennis turned and leant on the rail, back to the lake. “I wus wrong when I said there ain’t no reins on this, Jack. Took me an ocean t’ see it, but the reins you got me on? Shit, they so tight I cain’t rightly breathe. Felt that tug ‘a yours clear over the ocean.” He saw Jack’s face. Strode to him and forced an embrace that could not be broken. “I done had three people in m’ life, Jack, an’ one of them’s you. Once I tasted you, didn’t want no one else. That don’t change wi’ miles. Them reins? You kin tighten them any time you want, cowboy.”

Jack thought of Mexico and pretty rodeo boys, Texas foremen and a lifetime of lying to Ennis. “I’m tellin’ ya straight, Ennis. I don’t believe ya. I don’t know you! You ain’t the same. Don’t smell the same, don’t talk the same. Hell, you don’t even look the same.”

“I grew my fuckin’ hair and exchanged mah hat for a prutty jacket. An’ I seen some things. Seen a whole world out there that ain’t this place. Changes a man, an’ I done some thinkin’. That’s all!”
Jack took off, running through the snow to the lake.

Ennis let him go. It wasn’t the leaving that was important; it was the coming back. He’d just proved that, after all.

* * * * * * *

Jack returned while Ennis was eating. He came in, snow cold and wet. “Why ya ain’t written? Three months, Ennis, an’ furst I heard wus comin’ home, come meet me!”

Ennis snorted, amused. “When I ever writ ya, Jack? You’d think fur sure I were cheatin’ on ya if I up and wrote prutty words.”

Jack couldn’t argue against that.

“You gonna eat?”

Jack grabbed his arm.

* * * * * * *

It wasn’t love; it was still confrontational and aggressive. Jack needed to prove things. Ennis wanted them proved. In the struggle and the sweat, slick fluids under fingers and familiar tastes on tongues, he told Jack things he’d seen, things he’d done and things he had not done. Jack punished and pleasured and was given what he needed to be sure. In the darkest hour of morning, more one body than two, Ennis said, “Everywhere I went, I see people punchin’ holes in ice, lookin’ fur something they ain’t never gonna find. Whole world of sad, lonely people out there, Jack. Niver see’d it before.”

“Before you wint on this trip?”

Ennis licked along Jack’s jaw line. “Fool. Before I got t’ lovin’ you.”

After some considerable negotiation, done with muscle and might, it was decided how it would go from then on. After a while, Jack began to laugh.  Ennis twisted around. “Fine time t’ be laughing. What the hell so funny, Twist?”

Jack pushed his fingers into the long curls he couldn’t get enough of, pulled like reins and bit Ennis’s neck. “You ain’t changed on the inside, leastways.”

* * * * * * *

The day after Ennis returned, spring came early, a brief flare of warmth. Snow around the house and cabin melted, land turning to dark stickiness, clinging to boots. Ennis missed most of this; a man of the land and seasons and the natural passing of time, he was defeated by jet lag. He slept long into the day, was grumpy and quiet when awake and bitched and moaned about Jack. Jack could not have been happier. Ennis bitching and moaning, in his bed, was a secret source of satisfaction: curls and confidence aside, Ennis was now pretty much what he had always been.

Jack’s body was satisfied too. Ennis had no problem taking his declaration I’m queer fur you to its logical conclusion. They coupled frequently, fully naked, bright light of day in the cabin, and Ennis requiring Jack’s eyes upon him just as ardently as he required his seed.

Bed intimacy naturally led to closeness in daily life, and with Ennis more able or more willing to talk, they fought less and had fewer secrets.

It was with some surprise to Jack then that Ennis said one morning, stealing an occasional drag from Jack’s cigarette, “M’be ask those friends ‘a yours t’ come visit.”

Jack turned on his side, facing Ennis, thinking. His need for New York had lessened considerably since I’m queer for you had been established. Ennis was blowing lazy smoke rings to the ceiling, hair damp and sticky. Jack grazed his eyes down the lanky body, trail-worn and used. “They prob’ly busy.”

“Ask ‘em. Owe them fur the cabin and a ticket, I’m thinkin’.”

“M’be they find it too quiet here. Ya know.”

Ennis raised an eyebrow and blew a perfect ring. “Reckon we could find somethin’ to liven it up.”

Jack’s eye caught movement with dismay. Ennis rolled on him and gave him the benefit of the arousal.

* * * * * * *

Ennis didn’t let it drop. Jack avoided doing what he’d been asked, and it simmered between them until the following week. Moved back to the house because of a fishing party, they were both in when the telephone rang. Ma answered, passed it to Jack who turned his back to Ennis and spoke low. Ennis continued eating until he’d had his fill then stretched over Jack’s shoulder, plucked the handset from him and made the invitation himself.

* * * * * * *

Jack was squatting by the lake. Ennis watched him for a while from the porch of the house: a small dark shape against ice. When he was ready, he buttoned his coat and walked leisurely, stopping only to adjust the tarpaulin on the stack of lumber by the barn.

Jack must have heard him coming, didn’t turn. Ennis squatted behind, caught him roughly in a headlock. “If we want some fun t’night, I guess it’s gonna be the barn; ‘less you thinkin’ on riskin’ frostbite.” He cupped between Jack’s legs. “Warm m’ hands, bud.”

Jack lurched to his feet then came back and aimed a kick at the laughing Ennis. “You know I’m pissed wi’ ya.”

Ennis stood up, brushing his butt then tackled Jack, swift and hard, down onto frozen, muddy grit. “But yer fun when yer mad.”

Jack rolled them, him on top, pinning Ennis’s arms. Breath steamed between them. “You thinkin’ you top dog now, Del Mar, jist because you done had yerself some travellin’?”

Ennis considered, brought up his knee, threw Jack off, scrabbling back on top. “I always top dog, Twist; I jist kept quiet ‘bout it outta respect fur yer feelings. You rethinkin’ this queer thing now? You wanna git yerself another littl’ wife ‘stead of a man?”

Jack began to laugh, and the game was ruined. “Lureen scared the balls offa me.”

He snapped Jack’s jeans open, pushing an icy hand into his warmth. “They still there, far as I kin tell.”

“Why’d ya invite ‘em, Ennis? You pissed me off doin’ that.”

Ennis slid his hand under Jack’s bunched coat and shirt. “You wanna git into this some more or argue?”

Jack considered for a moment. Ennis helped him decide, finding a nipple and twisting it.

* * * * * * *

The day Martin and Toby were to arrive, Ennis woke early and lay watching dawn track slowly across the ceiling. He’d woken with familiar need, the warmth between their squashed bodies inflaming desire. He put his mind back to the possibilities of the day. “I’m goin’ t’ town.  You want somethin’?”

Jack turned with some difficulty in the single bed. “Ennis, ya cain’t buy—.”

Ennis nudged his hips forward, kissing began, and Jack did not finish his warning.

* * * * * * *

They arrived lunchtime, with a fresh flurry of snow. Jack jogged down the steps to greet them, Ennis absent most of the day. As Jack helped them carry bags into the cabin, he appeared. Jack paused, waiting to see which way the wind was blowing. Ennis leant against the doorframe, arms folded, taking comments on his hair with a slow smile. When the conversation died, he switched his gaze lazily to Jack then back to the visitors. “Ain’t this nice.”

Jack grabbed his hat and nudged Ennis. “Leave ‘em be to settle in, m’be.”

Ennis sloughed off his nudge. Toby’s eyes flicked from one to the other. “Am I sensing trouble in paradise?”

“Jack an’ me bin lookin’ forward to yer visit. Thought we’d m’be have some fun.”

Jack caught his arm more forcibly. “Ennis.”

Ennis turned his eyes slowly to Jack’s. “Cain’t deny it, friend. You always thinkin’ on fun wi’ ‘em.” He suddenly twisted his arm around, gripped Jack’s sleeve and tugged him out. “Come on, I got us a littl’ surprise in the barn.”

More polite than eager, Martin and Toby followed.

* * * * * *

Shafts of sunlight speared through cracks, streaking the three standing. Jack seemed ready to skitter at some unseen danger, but a vein of mutinous anger held him fast. Ennis rose from a box he was exploring and came close to Toby. Too close, closer than a man ever stood with another. He wrapped his arms slowly around the thin waist and buckled something behind. “There. Suits ya.” He did the same to Martin. By the time he came to Jack, he was laughing, mostly at Jack’s expression.

Martin put a hand on Ennis’s arm. “I don’t get it.”

Ennis slid back the huge barn door and indicated the stack of lumber. “Thought we’d have a cabin-raising, friend.” He tapped the purchase around Martin’s waist. “Bought you a fancy tool belt, an’ all.”

* * * * * * *

Martin and Toby refrained from noticing Ennis’s black eye that afternoon. It didn’t seem to fit with the hot glances and frequent touching. They could not conceive that Jack had punched him for love and for fun and for the delight of seeing Ennis laughing, so confusion kept them quiet. They were too busy working, anyway. For the first time they came to realise the difference between bodies honed in gyms and bodies formed by the land, Ennis and Jack carrying twice the weight twice as often.

The taskmaster allowed a break after a few hours. He sent Martin to the lake to fill a pot for coffee then followed him down. “You okay?”

Martin gazed at the mountain reflected in the lake, rubbing blisters. “I’m building a cabin by a lake on a mountain with friends. We’ve got whisky, coffee and cake. Jesus, Ennis, this is the quintessential American Dream.”

Ennis snorted. “I’ll take that as a yes then” He glanced behind at Jack and Toby fooling with some wood. “I’m real sorry, by t’ way.”

Martin closed his eyes and the sun took a turn around the world before he replied. “We didn’t want to tell you. Does Jack know?”

Ennis watched the man’s profile. “Most likely not. I see the same thing in London an’ all over. Jack’ll prob’ly think it jist bruising. He’s acquainted wi’ bruising.”

“They think you catch it from blood. There’ll be a cure by the end of the year, they say; so we’re not worrying.” He rubbed his eyes with the heel of one newly calloused and dirt ingrained hand.

“You gonna fill that pot proper or jist drip in it?”

Martin’s smile was as weak as sun through cloud. “How many funerals have you been to, Ennis?”

Ennis squatted down to disturb the reflection in the water, which was too perfect for this moment. “Some. M’ folks. Couple ranch hands got kicked or trampled.”

“We’ve been to almost thirty since last fall.”

They were quiet together for a while, skimming some stones and watching ripples, until a holler from the site. Ennis took the pot, began to fill it. “You still wanna do this thing? ‘S gonna be hard.”

Martin stretched. “And, like, Toby and I have a problem with hard?” He nudged Ennis, and Ennis felt no need to move away.

* * * * * * *

They spent the evening on the beach as had become the routine. A large fire blazed, defeating some of their shadows.  Toby was telling a story about bears fighting in the club. Martin was laughing at Ennis and Jack’s expressions and explained. Jack told a story about a bear; said it was the first time he ever touched Ennis, tending his wound over another fire on Brokeback in another lifetime. Ennis’s thoughts ran to Aguirre and he thanked Toby for teaching Jack choice expressions; so they swapped a few more, coarse laughter ringing out over the lake. Toby wanted to know about Jack’s scars, so Ennis told them, saying Jack was a fool and would get the story wrong. Death crept close to join them at the fire then. Ennis swung one leg behind Jack, pulling him close. Toby lay with his head on Martin’s lap, pale and thin in firelight. They talked of the cabin and of the future, and Ennis laid his cheek to Jack’s, stubble to stubble. In the darkness, Jack put questioning fingers to wetness but Ennis shook his head for quiet. Jack stayed silent, kept his hand on Ennis and took over the talking. It began to snow, soft flurries invisible until they hit the light then illuminated for a second before dying. They watched, silent, passing the whisky, helpless.

* * * * * * *

The next day, Martin and Toby were woken by the sound of horses.

Ennis, tying knots, pulled his hat low over bloodshot eyes and said gruffly, “Cain’t have you slaves gittin’ all angsty on me. Thought we’d go up on the mountain fur the day, see us an eagle m’be.”

Spirits returned, as he’d hoped, when they began to climb. The air was as sharp as sap, sun warm despite new-laid snow, larch so spring-green it hurt the eye to look upon.

They stopped for lunch by a river. Toby dared Jack to jump, so he did, casting off clothes and plunging through thin ice at the banks. Martin hissed, “Shit, he’ll be freezing.”

Ennis snorted. “Jack Twist always bin easy to warm up.”

* * * * * * *

They left at the end of two weeks, promising to come back in the fall and help finish the cabin, a promise that was not kept.

When they received Martin’s card, not saying deceased but another word, the same however it was written, Ennis took Jack up on the mountain for a few days. Grief was best done together and alone.

* * * * * * *

They bought dark suits for their first visit to New York, not how it was supposed to be. The morning of their flight, in a cabin almost uninhabitable but something they’d needed around them like memory, Ennis began to pack. His hands brushed a pair of shirts, one inside the other. He pulled them out, went past Jack still sleeping and onto the porch, leaning on the rail.

Blood. It soaked their sleeves still, his and Jack’s, indistinguishable. Twenty-one years had passed so fast it hardly seemed faded. For the first time, Ennis saw those decades not as waste and disappointment and needing something he could never have but as providence, some intervention in their lives. Blood was nothing more than a stain on a pair of old work shirts.

Humbled, thankful, he lifted his eyes skyward, not to heaven, but to Brokeback, which had held them safe and which rose yet high and mighty and as enduring as love.

The End.

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