Bill watched as the lady writer put away her cunning little recorder and her leather-bound notebook, tucking them neatly into her briefcase.
"Really, Mr. Rensselaer, I don't mind calling a cab," she said.
"I won't hear of it, ma'am," he said.
"Now, didn't I ask you to call me Liz?"
"I will, soon as you call me Bill. I'm going that way anyhow, it ain't no trouble to drop you by your hotel." He fidgeted, still agog at the idea that anyone from the city cared enough about his town to come up here and talk to him about runnin' it. "I hope you got what you needed, even if I don't quite get why you need it at all."
She laughed. "You're the longest-serving mayor in the United States," she said. "It's human interest. People like reading about nice things after they get their daily dose of gloom and doom."
"I don't know what's so special about it. All it means is there isn't anyone else who wants to do the damned job."
"No one else in thirty-five years?"
"Well, I did have an opponent once…when was that, Annie?"
"1966," his wife answered. "But that man didn't have the sense God gave the common rodent."
"There, you see? If I didn't keep running, who'd mind the store?"
They went out to his truck, a shiny new one of which he was proud and which had earned him some taunts from the boys. "Where are you off to this evening, then?" she asked as they started down the long driveway towards County R.
"I gotta go see Ennis and Jack about the 4th of July picnic. We always shoot off the fireworks from their back field."
"Who are Ennis and Jack?"
"They run the Brokeback Ranch, over on the other side of town. Big operation. Supplies a lot of head for the dairy farms all over the state. I'm hearing that they're thinking of adding a dairy stable of their own. Hell, everyone's got one, might as well."
Liz was watching him, and he smiled to himself, wondering if she'd ask. It was a local joke to bet on how long it took newcomers to Farmingdale to work up the nerve to ask what the story was on Ennis and Jack. He was betting she wouldn't waste any time – reporters were the nosy sort. "And they're…uh…are they brothers or something?"
He laughed. "No, they ain't brothers." He waited, not giving her a bit of help.
"So…they're…uh…" She was having trouble phrasing the question, probably out of fear of offending him.
He shook his head. "I thought big-city reporters were supposed to be smart. They're queer, see? You're familiar with the concept?"
"Oh, sure," she said, hastily. "Sure I am. I'm just…well…that goes over around here? I mean, it's not like the city…"
He stopped at a light and looked at her. "Ma'am, this is not the Dark Ages, and we are not in Alabama. This is Vermont, and we leave folks to their own business. Just because we live out here in the country don't mean we're all backwards rednecks, okay?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by that, but…well, I'm intrigued. I would very much like to meet these men."
"I don't know. If I could be sure Ennis wasn't home, maybe I would. Jack's real friendly, but I can't imagine Ennis'd be too happy that I brought a reporter into his house. And you do not want to get on his bad side." He glanced at her face, silently pleading, and gave in. Never could deny a pretty woman anything. "Oh, all right. But if Ennis even looks at me funny I'm hauling you right back out again."
The writer grinned. "Thank you. How far is it?"
"About fifteen minutes outside of town."
"When did they move here?"
Bill thought back. "Uh…must have been seven years ago. They moved from Wyoming for just those reasons you mentioned. Didn't care for the hospitality."
"And they never had any trouble with anyone?"
"Well…I wouldn't exactly say that. I don't see nothing wrong with how they live, but I'm well aware that a lot of the peace they found here has less to do with folks being tolerant and more to do with folks wanting to leave well enough alone. When they moved here they turned out to be stand-up fellas, and they ran a tight, efficient little operation that got big pretty fast, and they did right by everybody they dealt with, so no one had no reason to quarrel with 'em. Everyone knew they were queer, even though they never said or did anything to make you think so, and you'd never guess if you met either of 'em on the street. There was one little incident, musta been about a year after they moved here. I was there, actually. I was having a beer with my friend Carter at the White Horse. Jack was there having a drink with a feed distributor they'd been doing business with. The guy left, and Jack finished his beer and started to leave, too. Well, there was a table of local boys…not our most upstanding citizens…who'd had a few too many and one of them yelled 'faggot' at him as he walked by." Bill sighed. "The whole place went quiet. Jack turned back and said 'Say that again to my face, boy.' Well, they all stood up, and it was five on one. I think Jack was gonna try to let it go, but one of them hauled off and punched him across the face."
Liz's eyes widened. "Oh no!"
"Quicker than you could blink, they were all on him. Some of us went over to lend Jack a hand, but just then Ennis came in and saw what was going on. I never seen him so mad. He walked right over and hauled Jack clear, and within ten seconds, between the two of 'em, all five of those boys were laid out with bloody noses and shiners. I gotta say, Ennis looked like he'd been expecting it, because he knew exactly what he was gonna say…and Ennis ain't one for giving speeches."
"What'd he say?"
"He just looked around and said 'Me 'n Jack have got no quarrel with anyone in this town, and so far, no one's had no quarrel with us. We don't want no trouble, but I want to let it be known right now that if anyone lays a hand on me or my fella, I will fucking end you.' It was odd, because that was the first time I'd heard him even say anything acknowledging that they was more than just ranching partners. And then they just walked out, and s'far as I know, they haven't had no trouble since. It's a well-known fact that you don't mess with Ennis. Jack neither, although he's a lot easier to get along with."
"How old are they?"
"Damn, I don't know from ages. Forty, maybe? I'd say they're of an age."
"What's their story?"
"What is this, the third degree? I'm not the world's foremost expert on Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, you know. We're friendly enough. Annie and me have gone for a few cookouts at their place, with some of the other folks from town." He turned into the gravel road leading to the ranch, the iron gate arching over the entrance and spelling out in foot-tall letters 'Brokeback Ranch.' "Besides, you can ask 'em yourself in a minute."
Liz leaned forward as Mayor Rensselaer's truck rolled down the gravel drive. The ranch looked well-tended. She could see cows in the paddocks, and a neat red barn off to the right. He crested a hill and she saw the house, nestled comfortably in a small glen with a seam of trees running behind that could only mean a river. It was a sprawling one-story, log and brick, smoke rising from the stone chimney. A garage stood to one side of the wide dooryard, three doors open, trucks in two of them and a newish-looking sedan in the third. The mayor made a noncommittal grunt. "Looks like they're both home," he said, nodding towards the garage. "Now, don't be insulted if you can't get more than three words out of Ennis. He isn't much of a talker."
They pulled up near the garage and got out of the truck. The house had a wide front porch of red-stained cedar beams, but it didn't look like it got much use. The mayor knocked at the door, and after a pause she heard footsteps approach.
The door was opened by a man who, by his welcoming smile, had to be Jack. He was handsome and rangy, with shaggy dark hair and blue eyes. "Hey there, Bill!" he said, opening the door. "Was wonderin' if you were gonna come by tonight. Come on in," he said, stepping aside. "Who's your pretty friend?"
"Oh, this is Liz Forbes. She's a writer for the New York Post. Liz, this is Jack Twist."
"Nice to meet you," Liz said, holding out her hand. Jack shook it with a charming smile.
"Howdy, ma'am. What brings you way the hell out here?"
"Well, I came up to interview your mayor. He mentioned he was coming out here to visit with you, and I asked to come along."
Jack crossed his arms. "Now, why would you do a thing like that? What could possibly be so interestin' about a boring old ranch?" He was mock-serious, but his eyes were twinkling, and Liz could see that he knew exactly what had interested her.
She matched his expression. "Oh, no reason."
Jack half-turned. "Ennis! Bill's here!" he hollered over his shoulder.
"Y'okay!" came a shout in return, from somewhere near the back of the house.
"Let's go out back," Jack said, leading them through the house. It was homey and well-appointed. Liz envied the free-standing stone hearth at the center, which looked large enough to roast a pig. She soon saw why the front porch looked so neglected…one hardly needed it with a back porch like the one Jack led them to. It was a large expanse of redwood planking with a railing, shaded by the large trees and looking down across the lawn to the river. The sun was setting off to the side, and it was perfect.
"This is a beautiful porch," she commented.
"It oughta be," Jack said. "I never had as many splinters in my life as the summer we built it." He opened a cooler in the shade and took out two beers, handing one to Bill. "Beer, ma'am?"
"Thank you." She took it and sat down in one of the deck chairs that were loosely arranged around a firepit cut into the deck. Bill sat on her right, and Jack on her left. "This is quite a place."
"Shoulda seen it when we bought it. Beat to hell, it was. We're just lucky it took off quick enough that we could hire some help, or else it might not have made it."
The back door opened and another man came out, wiping his hands on his shirt. This must be the infamous Ennis, she thought. He was craggy and lean, like beef jerky, with a weathered face and curly dark blond hair. "Hey, Bill," he said, a smile starting and then stopping as he saw her.
"Ennis, this is Liz Forbes," Bill said, hastily. "She's a writer come up from New York to interview me."
Ennis nodded and sat down next to Jack, who wordlessly handed him a beer. "That so." He sounded closed-off already. "Well, ain't nothin' to write about here." The words had an air of finality.
"I couldn't help but be fascinated by your situation," Liz said, hoping to draw him out some.
He met her eyes, and she saw caution in them. "What situation is that, ma'am?"
She found herself almost afraid to continue, as if speaking the truth out loud might anger this man. But she had little choice. They couldn't dance around it all night. "I've never heard of a gay couple running a ranch as you are," she said. "I'd love to hear your story."
She saw Jack's eyes flick to Ennis's face, gauging his partner's reaction. Ennis displayed none. "Would you, now?" he said. She saw Jack relax a little. That seemed like an encouraging sign.
"People are interested in how men like you live," she said.
"Men like us," Ennis said, quietly, turning his beer bottle around and around in his hand. "You mean ranchers? Or retired rodeo cowboys? Or maybe men from Wyoming?"
Liz didn't know how to respond, but then Ennis glanced up at her and she caught a slight twinkle in his eye and realized he was joking with her. "Mr. Del Mar," she began.
She nodded. "Ennis, the world is changing. Since Stonewall, especially. People need to know that there are all kinds of gay men, and that not all of them are cross-dressers or drag queens or choreographers or any of the other stereotypes."
Ennis frowned. "Drag queen? What the hell's that, some kinda car-racing thing?"
Liz chuckled. "See, the fact that you have to ask that question would come as a shock to a lot of people with a lot of preconceived notions."
"I ain't interested in their notions. Me and Jack just want to live quiet. We don't want no attention."
"Maybe she's right, Ennis," Jack said. "I don't like to think of other guys going through what we went through."
Liz's ears perked up. "What did you go through, exactly?"
Ennis shot Jack a look. "I ain't concerned about no other guys."
"Hey, if things are changing and we can maybe help it along by talking about what happened to us, I'm all for it."
"A lot of people are telling their stories, because they feel some responsibility to help the gay community," Liz said, hoping to appeal to Ennis's sense of civic duty.
It was the wrong tack. "Look here, ma'am. I know you mean well, but the way I see it I ain't part of no community except this town, and the only things I care to be responsible for are my girls back in Wyoming, this ranch and this fella here. So don't go tellin' me I'm obliged to help along a bunch of queers I ain't never met and probably wouldn't like if'n I did."
"Maybe you would," Jack said, sitting up straighter. "I keep saying we should meet more folks liks us."
Ennis shook his head. "Bunch of queerboys with tight pants who talk like little girls? I didn't care for their kind before I met you and I still don't." He met Liz's eyes. "Look. I'm gonna lay it out for you. I know folks say that I'm queer. I don't rightly know what that means. Could be that I am. Truth is that a good-lookin' woman still turns my head, and I ain't never taken a second look at a man apart from him," he said, jerking his head towards Jack, who was rolling his eyes. "I don't know what that makes me, but I know that I ain't got no time for the kind of queers who march down the streets wearin' nothin' but pink frills shoutin' about bein' queer. I ain't like them, and livin' with him don't make me so. All the men who live with women ain't the same, are they?"
"No, and that's exactly my point," Liz said. "You are different, and people should see that."
"I don't want no one to see. I'm glad that they don't. I get the feelin' that you're wanting to write about us in your paper, ma'am, and I'm here to tell you that I won't stand for it. We just want to be left alone." He stood up. "If you'll pardon me, I gotta check the fences." He set down his beer and walked off, his hand barely brushing Jack's shoulder as he passed.
Once he was out of earshot, Bill leaned a little closer. "His fences are fine. That's his usual excuse when he don't want to talk any more."
"You'll have to excuse Ennis," Jack said. "He's stubborn as they come."
"Doesn't it bother you?" she said, turning her journalistic questions towards Jack.
"That he's ashamed of his relationship with you."
She saw Jack's face harden a little. "He ain't ashamed, ma'am. And if you can't see why he might want to keep a low profile, then maybe you ought to go back to city where things are so much easier to understand."
Ennis stayed out past sunset, which Jack might have predicted. He didn't bother waiting, just went about his usual business. He changed into his pajamas and sat down at the oak desk in the master bedroom to check the books.
It wasn't until after ten that Ennis came in, looking a little sheepish. "They gone?"
"They are, as much as you made 'em feel unwelcome."
He stripped off his shirt and went into the bathroom. Jack shut the books and yawned, stretching like a cat. He heard Ennis brushing his teeth; Jack climbed into bed, planning his route to persuasion, a skill he'd had to acquire during life with Ennis. "Wasn't them that was unwelcome," Ennis said, emerging. "That woman wanted to turn us into some kinda spectacle."
"Can't folks just let us be?" Ennis exclaimed, getting into bed. "My life ain't a goddamn feature in the Sunday supplement."
"Maybe if more folks read about our real lives, they'd be a mite less hateful."
Ennis snorted. "You think that if'n you want to. People don't change, Jack." He turned his head on the pillow and looked at him. "We got ourselves a good life now," he said, quietly. "That sweet life you said we could have? Well, we got it. I don't want to lose it. I just want to…"
"I know what you want. You wanna hunker down and hide here at the ranch and let the rest of the world go on by itself."
"That so bad, then?"
"S'fine for us, sure. What about all the other folks out there can't be with the person they want, because the world's still plain dumb about it? That was us once, you know. Nothing ever's gonna change unless people see we're just like them."
Ennis turned on his side and reached out to lay his hand on Jack's neck. "I know it's wrong 'o me, but truth is…I don't care about those other folks. I just care about you. And s'long as we keep to ourselves and don't raise no fuss, we're safe here. You're safe here." He sighed, while Jack reveled in this all-too-infrequent vocalization of Ennis's thoughts and feelings. "I'm scared, Jack," Ennis murmured. The mere fact that he'd admit such a thing to Jack was almost all the reassurance Jack needed of his significance to Ennis. "If we were to let that lady write about us, it'd be like a big old spotlight, and it might draw the kinda attention we don't want." He rolled onto his back again, staring at the ceiling. "I don't know what I'd do if'n anything ever happened a you," he whispered.
Jack slid closer and laid his head on Ennis's shoulder. To his surprise, Ennis immediately put his arms around him and held him. "Nothing's gonna happen," Jack said. "And I want to talk to her some more."
He felt Ennis's chest rise and fall in a sigh. "You do what you like, Jack. You will anyway." Ennis's hand came up and allowed itself one stroke through Jack's hair before settling on his arm again. "I love you," Ennis whispered.
Jack blinked, hoping he'd heard right. The number of times Ennis had said that to him was still in the single digits after twenty years. He rose up on one elbow and looked down at him. "You tryin' to make time with me, cowboy?" he said, smiling.
Ennis smiled back. "Didn't know I had to try, rodeo."