Jack waited. It was a long wait, made longer by anxiety. He paced a track in Ennis's floorboards, rehearsing what he'd say when Ennis returned. What argument could he use to make him agree? What words could he find that he hadn't already tried? Seemed he'd tried every word in the dictionary and Ennis hadn't budged.
But things were different now, he told himself. Ennis was divorced, he'd asked Jack to stay...maybe, just maybe, he was changing his mind. Maybe this time he'd listen.
Finally, as the sun was dipping below the horizon, he heard the sound of Ennis's truck pulling into the yard. Jack wondered if he ought to hug him, or kiss him, or just launch into his spiel. Would Ennis want to have sex first? Would he want to talk? He didn't know what to expect. There was no protocol in their history to prepare him. He'd never been inside Ennis's house before, tramping on his turf, making incursions into his sequestered Jack-free life.
Ennis came in and closed the door, then stood right up against it, like he was keeping his back to the wall to prevent ambush. He eyed Jack, an untidy mixture of apprehension and excitement on his face. "I cain't believe you did this," he began, not even bothering with a greeting. He shook his head and looked down at the floor. "I guess I ought not t'be surprised. Jus' like you t'drive sixteen hours 'cause 'o one phone call."
Jack took a step forward. "Well, why else did y'call me, then?" Ennis glanced up at him, the embarrassed denial going unsaid. Jack took another step. "What'd you think was gonna happen?" Ennis shrugged, keeping his eyes on his shoes, gnawing on his thumbnail, as he did when he was anxious. The thought flitted through Jack's mind that it was incredible how well he knew Ennis's habits, given the sadly short amount of time they'd spent together. "Look, you asked me t'stay so we could talk. So, let's talk." Jack sat down in one of Ennis's two chairs. After a brief hesitation and a quick glance at Jack's face, Ennis sat in the other one, leaning forward with his arms on his knees.
"What d'you want t'talk about?" he asked.
Jack sighed, his patience spinning out thinner and thinner. "Dammit, Ennis, you know what I want. It's the same thing I've always wanted. That ain't never changed, but you weren't never willin' to even entertain the notion."
Ennis raised his head and met Jack's eyes. "You'd really do it, wouldn't you? You ain't jus' spitballin' or wishin' out loud. You'd chuck it all. Leave your family, your job, your boy, jus' t'be with me."
"Yes, damn you!" Jack said, frustration roughening his voice. He reached out briefly, wondering if he could choke understanding into Ennis if words didn't do the trick. "What the fuck've I been sayin' all these years? All I ever wanted was jus' t'be with you, you stubborn son of a bitch."
"How c'n you be so..." Ennis flapped a hand, like the right word might flutter down and land on it. Jack knew what he meant.
"Times I wish I wasn't," Jack said. "It ain't easy. You know what it's like. Y'got one life but want another, you're with one person but want t'be with another. I had my share 'o sleepless nights over you." Ennis was nodding, staring at his hands. "I had times I jus' wanted it t'go away. Then maybe I could be happy with Lureen, 'n be the kind 'o husband she deserves." Jack reached out and grasped Ennis's hand in his own. "But it don't never go away. Fact is, cowboy, that I don't know how to quit you. What's more, I don't never want live t'see a time when I start wishin' that I did, and I can see that time comin'."
Ennis was squeezing his hand, his eyes still downcast. "Yeah," he said, almost too quietly for Jack to hear.
"Goddammit, Ennis. Let's do it. What the hell are we waitin' for? What're we afraid of?"
Ennis shook his head. "Jack, y'know I wish it was that simple, but...two men ranchin' up together, it ain't gonna fly. We'd be beat or killed or worse."
Jack took a breath. "Is that your only stickin' point? That y'think folks'd hate us?"
Ennis shrugged. "I don't know."
"What if I told you that there were places where it ain't like that?"
He snorted. "And where's that, Jack? Some kinda fairy-tale land over the fuckin' rainbow?"
"Hell, no. It's a big-ass country, Ennis, and some places got folks who understand about...well, about fellas like us." Ennis said nothing, but his silence encouraged Jack to continue. "I was at this trade show, and I met this pig farmer. He was, uh...well, he was queer. Him and his fella own a place together. We got t'talkin...don't look at me like that, I didn't tell him nothin', I jus' asked him a few questions. He said that he ain't never had no trouble where he is, and that folks are nice."
Ennis grunted. "And where's he live?"
"New Hampshire?" Ennis stared at him. "That's clear on the other side 'o the country, Jack!"
"Will y'listen t'me, already? I, uh...I done some checkin'. Up there, and especially in Vermont...well, I ain't gonna say that no one's got no troubles, but mostly they're friendly. Lots 'o folks like us live there, and they live free 'n open, together. Own land, run farms, even have kids 'o their own."
"I cain't go that far away. The girls..."
"The girls see you once a month, if that," Jack said, gently. This was where he had to be the most cautious, because he didn't want to belittle Ennis's attachment to his daughters. "And don't you think they'd be better off with a daddy who's happy? And maybe more successful? They see you livin' like this...fuck, Ennis, I know you. It'll only get worse. You gonna burrow further and further into your little shell and live sad and alone, and someday those girls are gonna know that it's on their account that you stayed here and lived your miserable fuckin' life. How's that gonna make 'em feel?" He got up and squatted in front of Ennis. "Jus' think of it. Our own ranch. We c'd make it run real well, I know it. I been doin' some research, and I think I know how t'make it turn a handy profit. The girls can come visit all the time, you can come back here t'see 'em. Bobby, too." He sensed Ennis weakening, and took his other hand so he had both of Ennis's in both of his. "Ennis...you told me once that you never shoulda let me outta your sight after Brokeback. Y'still feel that way?"
Ennis said nothing for a moment, but Jack could see the shine of moisture at his eyelids. "Worst mistake I ever made," he whispered hoarsely. "Shames me awful, 'cause it was all from bein' scared."
"Then don't be scared no more. We could set it right. It ain't too late. Ain't never too late, not unless y'give up."
Ennis was running his thumbs over Jack's knuckles, thoughtful and hesitant. "Y'say that...in Vermont...there's guys livin' together? And no one gives 'em no trouble?" At long last, he met Jack's gaze. Jack could see the echoes of his long-ago childhood horror, and the fear of the same fate coming upon himself or Jack.
"That's right," Jack said. "Guy I met at the show said he'n his fella go to church, and folks come to their house visitin', and they got lotsa friends." Ennis dropped his eyes again. Jack lowered his head, trying to catch his gaze. "It could be like that for us," he murmured. Ennis still said nothing. "Dammit, Ennis. We ain't bad guys. Why do we hafta be apart and miserable our whole lives? It ain't right. Don't we deserve t'be happy like other folks?"
Ennis sighed. "Maybe we don't. Maybe that's jus' the price we gotta pay for..." He hesitated, his voice dropping. "For bein' like this."
"I don't believe that," Jack said, his vehemence making Ennis jump a little and look up at him. "Does it feel wrong t'you when we're together?"
Ennis was staring into his eyes with an intensity that made Jack a little uneasy. He dropped one of Jack's hands and cupped his face, his touch rough and demanding. "No," he said. "It's the only fuckin' thing that feels right most 'o the time."
Jack gripped Ennis's wrist. "Do you want t'be with me? No, don't tell me why it cain't be, don't fuckin' run away, don't gimme no excuses. Just tell me, straight up, do you want us t'be together?" Ennis started to shake his head, his mouth opening, but Jack cut him off. "Jus' tell me the fuckin' truth, goddammit!" he shouted.
"Yes!" Ennis shouted back, his hand gripping Jack's neck. "Yes, okay? I always wanted it, asshole!"
"Then for God's sake, let's do it! Let's try! Y'cain't spend your whole life puttin' yourself on a fuckin' slab so's nobody else'll be troubled none. What about you? Don't you matter? Life's too fuckin' short, cowboy. We oughta try and find some happiness. Everybody deserves that, even a coupla sons of bitches like us."
Ennis was just staring at him; Jack could feel him trembling through the hand on his neck. Jack said nothing, wondering what the hell would come out of Ennis's mouth next. His mouth fell open but no sound emerged for a moment. He looked down, then back at Jack's face. "Okay," he breathed, the word riding out on an exhale.
Jack blinked. "Okay?"
"Okay." A little stronger this time.
Jack shook his head. "Oh, Ennis. You ain't so cruel as t'fuck with me. Don't you be sayin' that lightly."
"I ever say anythin' lightly?"
"No, but..." Jack's heart was thudding like he'd just had an awful fright. "Really? You fuckin' serious?"
Ennis nodded, seeming more sure with each passing moment. "Yeah. If there's a place where it gets by..." He lifted his other hand to Jack's neck as well. "Dammit, I cain't believe I'm sayin' this, but...fuck, if we could really have that life, that sweet life you used t'talk about, someplace safe, then let's do it."
Jack laughed, but it had a half-sobbing quality, too. He reached up and seized Ennis's face just as Ennis pulled him close to kiss him. Jack drew back. "You ain't gonna change your mind tomorrow, are you? 'Cause there's gonna be tough times...tellin' our families, and movin'..."
"I ain't never changed m'mind once it's set." Ennis took a deep breath. "Them tough times'll pass, won't they? I had plenty 'o tough times before. Least I won't be alone in 'em." Ennis ran one hand down Jack's face, his expression filling with a kind of tenderness that Jack had never seen there. Ennis looked away, blinking quickly, then turned back. "Jack...I..." He sighed, frustrations pinching at his features.
Jack just nodded. "I know, Ennis."
"I jus'...I cain't say..."
"Shush now." Jack stood up and pulled Ennis to his feet, then led him towards the bedroom. "Show me instead."
...one week until the party...
Liz heard the back door bang open. "Lizzie!" Jack yelled, sounding like he was in high dudgeon about something. She shook her head, keeping her eyes on the ledger. She heard him stomping into the kitchen, then a clatter and a few thumps, followed by a muttered "Goddammit." She rolled her eyes. "Lizzie!" he yelled again, bursting into the office. "Where the hell are my..." He cut himself off when he saw Liz wordlessly holding out his keyring. He took them, frowning.
"You left them in the bathroom," she said. "What's with you?"
"Aw, hell, I'm just...goddamned bungalow's not done and Junior's gonna be here in three days..."
"It'll be done. The appliances are in, the decorator's moving the furniture in tomorrow."
"I never thought I'd ever, in my whole life, hire a decorator," Jack said, sitting down in the wing chair.
"Somebody's got to paint the walls and put up curtains. You didn't want to pick out tile for the bathroom yourself, did you? Oh, and I thought I'd just pay Marianne extra to clean the place of all the dust and construction mess."
"I wrote out a check for Junior's tuition today, so she's all set up."
"From the business account, right?"
Liz blinked. "Uh, no...from the personal."
Jack's eyes widened in alarm. "You send it yet?"
"No, it's right here," she said, picking up the envelope in the Out basket.
"Oh, good. The business is payin' for Junior's college, swee'pea." He nodded towards the envelope in her hands. "That woulda bounced. I'd have to transfer money from savings to cover it."
Liz pressed her lips together, mortified. "Guess I better write a new one."
"Guess so." He looked around at the filing cabinets, the neatly organized task lists on the white board, the stacked in/out boxes on the desk. "I gotta say, you done a helluva job organizing this place."
Liz smiled. It had been a lot of work, but she was pleased with the results. "Thanks, Jack."
"Of course, now I got no fuckin' clue where anything is..."
She laughed. "Job security. You don't dare get rid of me."
He grinned. "Like we would anyway." He stood up, then bent and kissed the top of her head. "See you at lunch." He paused in the doorway. "Hey, you know where Ennis is? I ain't seen him since breakfast."
"Nope. Haven't seen him." In fact, Liz knew exactly where Ennis was, but was under strict instructions to keep it to herself.
Ennis returned to the ranch just before noon. Liz stashed the important item he'd gone to Burlington to collect in her room before going into the kitchen. Jack and Ennis were already at the table, discussing what to do with Jack's Mercedes. "Junior's gonna need a car. I say we trade it in for somethin' more practical," Ennis was saying.
"Why cain't she just drive the Mercedes?"
"Ain't that a little...I dunno. Show-offy?"
"Maybe it'll help her score some rich fella," Jack said, dropping a wink at Liz.
"Okay, don't ever say nothin' like that ever again."
Liz frowned. "I don't think many rich fellas go to the Community College of Vermont," she said.
"Hey, where were you all mornin'?" Jack said to Ennis. "I coulda used your help with the calves."
"Had somethin' t'pick up in Burlington."
Ennis glanced at Liz, then turned back to Jack. "Somethin' for you."
Jack frowned, his spoon halfway to his mouth. "For me?"
Ennis got up. "C'mon, I'll show you. Liz? Wanna get that thing?"
Liz darted into her room and hauled out the large, rather cumbersome, paper-wrapped rectangle. She carried it out to the living room and set it up against the hearth. Jack looked perplexed. "What's that?"
"Open it," Ennis said.
Jack leaned over and tore the brown wrapping off. He just stood there, staring, as the clock ticked on the wall. "Aw hell, cowboy," he breathed, sounding a little shaky.
Leaning up against the fireplace was a beautiful mahogany shadowbox frame; mounted inside it on dark blue felt was Bobby's football jersey. It was neatly folded to display his name in white letters across the shoulders. The base of the shadowbox contained a smaller inset, in which was framed a photograph of Bobby in the uniform, smiling and sweaty after a game, looking heartbreakingly alive and cloaked in immortality. Jack squatted down to look at the photo more closely.
"Where'd you get this?" he murmured.
Jack looked around. "You called Lureen?"
Ennis nodded. "Needed the photo, didn't I?"
Jack straightened up and stood next to Ennis, his eyes still on the jersey. "I dunno what t'say," he said quietly. "It's perfect." He met Ennis's eyes, then reached out and pulled him into a tight embrace. "Thank you," he choked out.
Ennis hugged him back, murmuring something under his breath into Jack's ear that Liz couldn't hear. She looked away until Jack stepped back, sniffling a little. Ennis picked up the framed jersey. "All we gotta do now is hang it."
The next day, Liz was anticipating a visitor: Max, her former next-door neighbor and cohort. He had been keeping her things while the bungalow was being built, and now he was driving up from the city to bring everything to her new home.
"Oh, Max, why don't I just rent a truck and drive down?" she'd said on the phone with him the week before. "I hate to make you come all this way..."
"I don't mind," Max said. "I need to get out of this godforsaken city once in awhile. Besides, I have to meet your cowboys, after all I've heard about them. If I'm going to lose my only friend in the building to this bucolic hideaway, then at least I want to see the place."
So, Liz had broached the topic with her cowboys. "Do you guys mind if my friend Max stays overnight? It's a long drive from New York to come here and go back in one day."
"This is your architect friend?" Ennis asked.
"Yes. My neighbor from when I lived with Charlie."
"Hmph," Ennis said. "Is he queer?" he said, looking dubious.
Liz cocked an eyebrow. "You know, Ennis, it is possible to be male, single and not gay."
"I'm jus' askin'! Wasn't that him called here last week? 'Cause he sounded like maybe he was queer."
"How would you know what queer sounds like? And he's not gay! He's British! Are you looking for a date for the weekend or something?"
Ennis flushed. "That ain't what I meant," he said. "And you ain't helpin'!" he said to Jack, who was chortling in his reading chair.
"Anyway, would it matter if he was? You're saying he wouldn't be welcome to stay here if he was gay?"
"Aw, hell...forget I said anythin'. Why doesn't he jus' move in, then? Everbody else in the goddamned world seems t'be!"
"What's he bringin' you?" Jack said, changing the subject. "He already sent your clothes, didn't he?"
"He sent me two boxes, just enough so I wouldn't be wearing the same two outfits over and over. I have a lot more clothes than that. Plus there's my books, and my albums, and all my pictures..." She sighed. "My whole damned life. It's only because of Max I'm getting it back at all. He'd like to drive up tomorrow, so...is it okay if he stays overnight?"
"Course it is," Jack said. "You live here too, now, 'n you c'n have guests if you want."
So now Liz was waiting eagerly to see Max drive up in the pickup truck he'd borrowed from his construction foreman, glancing frequently out the window of the office as she worked.
She could hardly believe it was only a month since she'd called Ennis, in tears, after being unceremoniously dumped. The time had flown. Between organizing the office, learning the business, and planning the party, her days had been jam-packed. It was damned good to feel useful again, something she'd rarely felt in the freelance journalism business. If she'd ever been able to write something that meant anything, something that affected people, it might have felt less hollow.
She thought of the stacks of notes Max would be bringing her, the body of work she'd already done on the book she'd hoped to write...the book that she no longer thought she had the stomach to write. This was her life now, and Jack and Ennis were just about the closest friends she had in the world, and she didn't know if she could handle it.
The month she'd been here had brought her even further into their day-to-day lives. She was aware that her initial visit had coincided with an uncommon run of unpleasantness, and some part of her had wondered if it was like that all the time. Happily, it didn't seem to be. Life on the ranch was profoundly uneventful most of the time. After breakfast, she'd go into the office while Jack and Ennis headed outdoors. Sometimes Jack was in the office to help her with something or take care of his own business, but more often than not she didn't see them again until lunch, and after that, not until dinner. Evenings were sometimes occupied by visits with friends, and she'd had a fair number of dates with Peter to pass the time. Otherwise, the three of them would sit around the living room watching TV and paying varying amounts of attention to their respective books or magazines. Then it was off to bed to do it all over again the next day.
She thought often of the hidden makeout session she'd witnessed a few moments of shortly after her arrival. She knew now that such a thing wasn't exactly the norm, but they both seemed more relaxed around her now, Ennis in particular. He no longer hesitated to touch Jack in her presence, but his reserve returned when anyone else was there, even Peter.
Her reverie was interrupted by the phone ringing. "Brokeback Ranch, this is Liz."
"Hmm. You know, from a business standpoint, it might not be the best idea to have a woman with such a sexy voice answering the phone. It distracts potential customers and makes them forget why they called."
Liz smiled, feeling her cheeks heat up. "Ha ha, very funny."
"I'm totally and completely serious. Right now, for example, I have no recollection of why I called, either. Your sexy voice has wiped my brain completely clean."
"I thought you had patients all day."
"Had a cancellation. Want to have lunch?"
"Oh, I'd love to, but I can't. I'm waiting for Max to get here, which should be soon. Are you coming over tonight? Max is dying to meet you."
"I don't know. He might talk about Charlie, and you know how that makes me angry. And, uh...you wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
"I know. You turn green and your clothes rip right off you...which, honestly, works out nicely for me. Saves me the trouble."
"You are such a brazen hussy. How have I gotten myself involved with such a brazen hussy?"
"Just lucky, I guess." Liz was grinning by now. In fact, she and Peter had not slept together yet. They'd engaged in a few heated makeout sessions on his couch, but had gone no farther. But as their intimacy had progressed, the level of sexually-charged badinage had risen in parallel. "But you are coming over, aren't you?"
"Of course I am, I'm just giving you shit."
"Thanks. I work on a ranch. I have enough shit at my immediate disposal for an army."
"Then I guess I'll just have to give you a hard time."
"Hmm. That sounds like fun," she said, curling her words into the double entendre she fully intended them to be.
Peter laughed. "Well, if my girlfriend won't have lunch with me, I guess I'd better get back to work. Sick people are just so demanding."
"I hope so. I'm not in the habit of feeling up casual acquaintances."
Liz giggled, feeling buoyant and girlish in a way she hadn't since she'd first met Charlie. She immediately banished that comparison. Peter was nothing like Charlie, and thank God for that. "I feel like I'm too old to use the word 'boyfriend.' It's so study-hall."
"Well, I could call you my 'special lady friend,' but that sounds like we ought to be going to Bingo night and smearing Ben-Gay on each other while our teeth sit in glasses of Efferdent on the nightstand."
She laughed. "Back to work, honey."
"See you tonight."
Liz hung up with a sigh, propping her chin on her hand and gazing out the window towards the drive. She passed the time waiting for Max by imagining Peter at work, wearing his white doctor's coat with the words "Dr. Peter Llewellyn" stitched in confidence-inspiring blue over his chest, chucking kids under the chin while he checked their glands, reassuring anxious pregnant women, dispensing advice and caring more than he got paid to care.
The time passed quickly.
"So I ran back upstairs to my flat and put on my robe, like I'd just gotten up, see?" Max said, gesturing emphatically. Liz, Peter, Jack and Ennis were all leaning forward, listening with rapt expressions. "And I'm waiting, because I know he's coming right back up. So he pounds on the door, and I open it oh so casual, and say 'Can I help you, my good man?'" Liz laughed. "His face is red as a baboon's arse at this point. And he says 'Where the fuck's my fucking car!'" Max screeched this last sentence in a shrill, overcaffeinated yodel. Everyone laughed. "I stayed calm. I was very 007. I said, 'You'll find out where your car is when you let me into that flat to go through all the books. I know goddamned well some of them have Liz's name in them, and you're not keeping them!'" Max shrugged. "He caved like Carlsbad."
"How'd you move the car?" Ennis asked, frowning.
"Duplicate set of keys, care of Miss Liz here," he said, reaching into his pocket. "You better take this back. Just in case." He handed her a car key, shaking his head. "I don't mind saying that it's been like guerrilla warfare with that man since you've been gone. I'm not even going to tell you what I had to go through to steal back your college scrapbooks."
Peter looked confused. "Why would Charlie keep all those things? You'd think he'd want to be rid of all of it."
Liz sighed. "He's probably just pissed at me for not being a content little trophy wife and putting him through all the trouble of getting rid of me. But it's all over now. The only thing of mine that's still in that apartment is my Kirby vacuum cleaner and he can have it."
Max was looking around at the house. "This place is brilliant," he said. "It's so North Woods rustic. Who designed it?"
Jack and Ennis glanced at each other. "We just told our builder we wanted a house. He did the rest."
Max looked horrified at this lack of attention to architectural aesthetic. "You just said you wanted a house?"
Jack shrugged. "We ain't picky. Hell, we spent the summer we met livin' in dirty old tents."
"Well, I'm sure going to miss my girl here," Max said, smiling at Liz. "But I'm glad she's well shut of that arsehole of a husband."
Liz smiled at Max, then felt Peter take her hand under the table. "We're glad, too," he said quietly, but when she looked at him, she could see that even though he'd said "we're," what he'd meant was "I'm."
At that moment, his pager went off. He released her hand and unclipped the irritating little device from his belt, checking the number. "It's the hospital." He got up and went into the kitchen to use the phone.
Max shook his head. "Perils of dating a doctor."
"I hate that thing," Liz said. "I know it's his job, and I understand, but...I still hate that thing."
Max turned to Jack and Ennis. "So, how long have you blokes been together?" Liz winced a little at Max's frankness. The blokes, as it were, weren't known for being forthcoming about their personal details with strangers. To her surprise, they didn't seem particularly put off.
They were, on the other hand, in disagreement about the correct answer. Jack said "Twenty years" while at the same time Ennis said "Seven years."
Max smirked. "My, that's quite a discrepancy. Anniversaries must be awkward for you."
Jack cleared his throat. "Well...we've known each other twenty years. We moved here seven years ago."
"And what was going on for the other thirteen?"
Jack sighed. "We tried to do what we were supposed to do."
"Do either of you have kids?"
Liz saw Ennis glance at Jack, who was just looking down at the table with no hint that he intended to respond. "I have two daughters," Ennis said. "You know that's why we built that bungalow, 'cause my oldest is comin' out here t'live."
"Right, of course." Max seemed to sense that Jack's fatherhood or lack thereof was a sensitive subject, so he didn't press the matter.
Peter returned from the kitchen, looking upset. Liz frowned. "What's wrong?"
"Paul McGill's been in an accident," he said. That got everyone's attention.
"Accident?" Ennis said, and Liz heard the suspicion in his voice.
"Somebody cut the brake lines on his bike. When he was riding home he couldn't stop at a crosswalk and he shot right out into traffic. A car hit him."
Liz gasped. "Oh my God, is he all right?"
"Yeah. He broke an arm, few cuts and scrapes."
Ennis looked thunderous. "Those sons 'o bitches," he growled.
Peter put up a hand. "We don't know who did it. Might have just been some kids getting up to mischief."
Jack was shaking his head. "That's bullshit and you know it, Pete. When kids get up to mischief they toilet-paper houses and spray-paint dumpsters. They don't cut somebody's brake lines and slink away without a word."
Peter looked like he knew Jack was right, but didn't want to admit it. "Anyway, I'm going to go over and look at his X-rays. If his arm's badly broken I'll have to take him into Burlington and have it fixed."
Liz got up and accompanied him to the door, hearing Jack and Ennis filling Max in on the recent history of gay-bashing incidents in Farmingdale. "Let us know if Paul goes up to Burlington," she said, hanging on to Peter's hand.
He nodded. She could tell by his preoccupied expression that his mind was already halfway to the hospital. "Not how I'd hoped to end the evening," he said, his eyes flicking to her face.
She put her free hand on his face and kissed him. "Drive careful."
Peter just looked at her for a moment, then leaned in and kissed her again, more thoroughly. "I'll call you later," he said quietly, then squeezed her hand and left.
Clearly, Ennis was in one of those moods.
Jack had been lying here for quite some time, just letting his mind go blank. Ennis was leaning over him, propped up on one elbow, kissing him. That was all. He didn't seem to have the goal of further intimacy in mind.
Ennis occasionally got into odd moods where all he wanted to do was kiss. Jack suspected that it was a test; that Ennis was trying to prove that he could stand to just kiss without wanting to move things along. If he could, that meant that their relationship wasn't all about the sex, a distinction that Ennis was always very keen to preserve. He frequently wanted to establish that he wasn't just here for the sex, and to be reassured that Jack wasn't, either. Jack suspected that Ennis was so paranoid about that because secretly, deep down, he knew that their first time together had been all about the sex.
That didn't bother Jack. It had been a cold night, he'd wanted Ennis, it had been a quick, half-drunk screw in the tent. Although the foundations were there, the real feelings had come later, and that was okay with him. It wasn't so okay with Ennis. It bothered him to think that he'd wanted Jack and had taken him, because Ennis Del Mar wasn't no queer. Men didn't get him off, oh no. Even now, he was reluctant to admit, or to let it be known, that he was physically attracted to Jack. He would rather give the impression that his deep feelings for Jack had overcome his fundamental objections to Jack's maleness, taking the sex out of the equation entirely and placing their relationship on some mythical, soulful (and to Jack's mind, ridiculous) level that transcended genitalia.
This bothered Jack for a number of reasons. He knew damned well that Ennis was just as enthusiastic about their sex life as he was. Ennis had spent enough time touching, kissing and otherwise appreciating his body for Jack to know that it wasn't repulsive to him, nor was having sex with him something Ennis tolerated only for the sake of their supposedly too-pure-to-be-horny love. To pretend otherwise was, to his way of thinking, dishonest. He also resented the implication that his maleness was something Ennis had to struggle to get past. He knew for a fact (because Ennis had told him so) that his male attitudes, manner and, to be frank, libido were things that Ennis appreciated.
He also wished Ennis could let go of his "I ain't queer" conceit. Maybe he wasn't what he thought of as queer, but that didn't make him any less homosexual. Ennis might not be a flaming queen or a cross-dresser, but he still fucked another man on a daily basis. Check and mate. It ought to be okay for Ennis to admit that he'd taken the odd glance at Willy the ranch-hand's ass. Throwing his hat into the ring with other men who loved men didn't automatically sign him up for the Pansy Brigade. Jack wished Ennis could be a little more secure in his own identity that such a label wouldn't threaten it.
But he said nothing. None of these things had ever bothered him enough to make an issue of them. It was just another quirk of their relationship that he'd learned to accept.
Besides, it wasn't as if lying in bed being kissed by Ennis was any kind of a hardship for him.
Ennis drew back and ran one hand down Jack's cheek, a thoughtful little smile on his face. "Somethin' on your mind, chief?" Jack asked.
He hesitated so long before answering that Jack began to wonder if he'd heard him. "How'd we live apart for all them years?" he murmured.
"We didn't know any better."
Ennis was starting to look a little distressed. "I'm jus' scared 'o losin' it."
"It's that damn bill comin' due. I keep rackin' up more 'n more charges. Now I got my daughter comin' home t'me, and you out on the ranch with me every day...it's all goin' too right. Cain't last."
"You could try being a little less superstitious, y'know." He sighed. The possible disruption of their protected existence was on his mind, too. Peter had called about an hour after leaving for the hospital, reporting that Paul's arm was a clean break, easily set, and that he'd be fine. That did not, however, ease their apprehension about this potentially hate-motivated attack on their friend. "Ennis, we could worry 'bout it till we give ourselves ulcers 'n go 'round lookin' over our shoulders all the time but it wouldn't do no good, and it'd just take over our lives. Best thing is jus' t'go on as usual." He slid over so he was under Ennis a little more, arching his neck up to kiss him.
"You comin' with me t'pick up Junior?" Ennis murmured, tipping his head back as Jack nuzzled at his neck.
"If you want me to."
"Course I do." Ennis pressed Jack down into the mattress, reclaiming his mouth...and this kiss was definitely going somewhere.
Liz walked Max out to his newly-emptied truck. Jack and Ennis had just left for Burlington to pick up Junior, so she'd soon be alone in the house. Max turned to look up at it. "This is quite a place, lady. I can see why you love it."
She smiled. "It's not just the house."
He looked thoughtful. "Your cowboys aren't quite what I expected."
"I thought they'd be all flinty and stand-offish, but they're...surprisingly soulful."
"And it isn't a punchline or a political statement, is it? They're not doing it to be counterculture or trendy. They really love each other."
He sighed. "Frankly, I'm a little jealous. If I become gay, can I have a cowboy of my very own?"
Liz laughed. "Take a number."
Jack and Ennis stood near the gate, waiting for the door to open and disgorge the plane's passengers, including Junior. Ennis was trying to play it cool, even though he could hardly stand still from excitement. For days, Junior's belongings had been arriving in boxes brought by the UPS truck, and Lizzie had been unpacking her things for her and busily making the bungalow homey with knick-knacks and personal touches. There were books on the bookshelves and dishes in the small kitchen, curtains at the windows and framed prints on the walls. Junior's room had a corner desk for her schoolwork, and Lizzie's had one for her writing. Ennis hoped that the place would feel welcoming to his daughter when she arrived.
He glanced over at Jack, who was watching him knowingly. "Excited, ain't you?" he said.
"Sure. Ain't you?"
Jack smiled and nodded. "Be nice t'have her home with us." He chuckled. "I guess our days as swingin' bachelors are over, ain't they? What with two women around the place."
Ennis looked at him, and made a surprisingly easy decision. He reached out and grasped Jack's hand, pulling him closer. Jack's eyes widened a little but he said nothing. "We ain't been bachelors for awhile, rodeo," he said, quietly.
He went back to watching the gate, his fingers laced through Jack's, trying not to be too obvious about the fact that he was looking around for reactions. So far, no one seemed to take much note of the fact that there were two men holding hands in their midst. Then he saw a woman's eyes flick to their joined hands; her lip curled and she turned away. He saw one man press his lips together and shake his head, as if bemoaning the sad state of the world. A younger woman smiled a little when she saw him looking at her. No one seemed moved to action or comment. That was just fine. He could handle their dirty looks and their quiet disgust. He just didn't want to have to administer a beatdown in the middle of the terminal. That'd sure put the kibosh on Junior's happy homecoming.
Finally, the plane arrived and the jetway was rolled to its door. Ennis straightened up as the gate door opened, watching for Junior's smiling face. Passenger after passenger disembarked, looking tired and travel-weary, their carryons over their shoulders, their eyes distant and distracted.
But then, there she was. She spotted them immediately and jumped up, waving. She pushed her way through the crush of people milling around the gate area. "Daddy!" she cried. Ennis dropped Jack's hand to catch her as she threw herself into his arms, grinning. "I can't believe I'm finally here!" she said. She released Ennis and went right to Jack, flinging her arms around his neck with equal enthusiasm. Ennis caught the happy smile that flitted across Jack's face to be included.
"Welcome home, Junior," Ennis said, touching her arm like she'd dissolve away if he didn't keep some kind of contact with her.
She let go of Jack and stepped between them. "Finally," she said. "Times I thought this day'd never come!" She looped her arms through theirs and they started off down the concourse. "Last coupla months have been kinda tense at home." They went directly out to the parking lot; most of Junior's belongings were already at the ranch, so she hadn't checked a bag.
Ennis was opening the car door for her when she let out a little squawk and grabbed his hand. "Daddy!" she exclaimed, holding up his left hand. "You're wearing a ring!"
He felt his face heat up; he glanced at Jack in time to see him smile and wink at him. "Yeah," he said. "Toldja Jack finally made an honest man 'o me."
She beamed up at him. "I think that's great." She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek, then climbed into the back seat. Jack got into the driver's seat, started up the car and they were off. "That's what this party's for, isn't it?" she said, once they were underway.
"Not really," Ennis said. "Mostly it's so's all our friends c'n meet you."
"Sure. I bet they all believe that."
"Now Junior, me 'n Jack don't wanna make no fuss. It ain't gonna be no weddin' party 'cause there ain't been no weddin'. Well, no legal one, anyway," he added, off Jack's look.
"Uh-huh. You just decided to have a big party, which I bet you ain't never done before, for no particular reason."
"There's a reason!" Ennis exclaimed. "Ain't you comin' reason enough?"
Ennis sighed. "All right, we kinda wanted t'have a party t?celebrate gettin? hitched, but we ain't sayin' so, y'hear? That ain't the reason we're tellin' everbody."
Junior put her hands up in a gesture of surrender. "Okay, if you insist." She sat back against the seat, some of the nervous energy leaving her posture. "I can't wait to see my little house," she said. "And Lizzie."
Ennis turned around and looked at her. "Now, you're sure it don't bother you that she's gonna..."
"Dad, we've been over and over this. I don't mind that Lizzie's gonna live there with me. I'm glad. I like her! It'll be nice not to be alone in the house! Will you relax? I'm just so glad to be out of Riverton, I think I'd bunk up with the hands if I had to."
Ennis glanced at Jack, seeing from the slight furrow of his brow that he'd picked up on the tension in her voice, too. "That's the second time you've said things in Riverton ain't so good," Ennis said. "You wanna tell me what's up? And why the hell don't Francie wanna talk t'me no more? Ever' time I call she's out, or busy, or jus' not in the mood t'talk."
Junior sighed. "That's part of it. Not all of it. Look, Mamma still ain't easy in her mind about me comin' out here. I swear, I don't know what she's afraid's gonna happen."
"She's been tryin' her best to set me up with some guy, hopin' I'd fall in love and not want to leave him." She snorted. "Fat chance. Then she started in with the guilt. If I leave, who's gonna help look out for Francie, and who's gonna help her with the kids, and on and on. I told her that wasn't my problem, and I gotta live my own life."
Ennis smiled, fierce pride in Junior swelling inside him. She had a lot more guts than he'd had at her age. If he'd been like her, he and Jack might really have been together twenty years. "Good for you, darlin'."
"I did feel bad leavin' her, but damn! Ain't I supposed to want my own life? Am I supposed to just live to make hers easier?"
"You did the right thing," Ennis said.
"Then Monroe'd go on and on about how I'd be ruined, or get in trouble, whatever the hell that means. It's like he thinks 'cause you and Jack are together it means you don't have any morals at all, and you'd just let me run wild. Not that I'd run wild anyway, but you know what I mean."
Ennis nodded. "I do."
"I told him right to his face that you'd been a better father to me from two thousand miles away than he ever was from two feet away."
Jack chuckled. "The hell you did," he said.
"As I live and breathe," Junior said, sounding pleased with herself. "Plus I told him that here I'd have two fathers looking out for me and probably getting out the shotgun if any boys came around, so it sure as hell wasn't for the free-spirited living that I was moving out here." She sighed. "Then he said that you and Jack weren't decent men and I'd be corrupted."
"What'd you say to that?"
"I told him to stick it up his ass."
Jack whooped. "Hoooo-ey! Right on!"
Junior was shifting in her seat. "That's when he hit me."
Jack's laughter cut off as if guillotined, and Ennis whipped his head around to meet her eyes, rage boiling up from his gut. "He hit you?" he asked.
"Just a slap across the face. Take it easy, Daddy."
"I'll kill him," Ennis growled. "Lay a hand on my daughter, huh? Where the fuck was your mother during all of this?"
"She was there. She wasn't sayin' much. She stepped in when he slapped me, though. Probably 'cause she could see I was ready to hit back. She told him to leave me alone, and that my mind was made up."
Ennis grunted. "At least your mamma's still got some sense."
"Francie...well, that's something else."
He frowned. "What?" Junior seemed reluctant to talk about it.
"She's changed some in the last few months."
Junior met his eyes. "She's got religion, Daddy, and not in a good way. She'd been acting out some, runnin' around with boys, getting in a little trouble. Nothing too bad, the way I saw it, just kid stuff, but to hear Mamma and Monroe talk you'd think she was out sacrificing live chickens or dancing naked in the moonlight. Monroe heard about this church camp for 'rebellious youth' and they sent her there for two weeks right after school let out. I don't know what kind of holy rollers ran that camp, but she came back talkin' like one of them. All of a sudden even my Patsy Cline records were the devil's music, and my skirts that were above the knees were indecent, and going to dances with boys was a one-way ticket to the fires of Hell." Junior shook her head. "It was so over-the-top at first I thought she was puttin' me on. Couldn't be serious. But come to find out she was serious. I think it even gave Mamma and Monroe a turn. Don't think that's what they expected. They tried to stop her going to these meetings she was going to, but she'd have friends from the church pick her up. She stopped going with them to their church. She and Mamma had this awful fight after Francie told Mamma she'd gone against God when she divorced you, Daddy."
Ennis felt cold. This was all news to him. "How come I'm just now hearing about this?" he asked.
"What good would it have done to tell you before?" Junior said. "Ain't nothing you can do about it. Either she'll snap out of it and get some sense, or she'll keep on with it." She shifted in her seat. "Besides, I didn't want to upset you. I just wanted to get away. You oughta hear what she says about you, Daddy. I can't stand to repeat it."
"I can imagine," Ennis said, quietly. He and Francine had never been as close as he and Junior had been. Junior was like him in a way that made her easy to understand, but Francie had always been a cipher. It pained him, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. Now it seemed the gulf between him and his younger daughter yawned even wider.
"She's ready to disown me for comin' here to live. I think she told her church group about you, and all of a sudden the last week or so, she's been after me to try and save you from your life of abomination and perversion."
Ennis snorted, irritated. "Yes, please. Save me, seein' as it was almost more'n she could do to talk to me on the phone for five minutes once a month the last seven years. I c'n tell she's real concerned 'bout my well-bein'. How is it she wants t'save me but won't speak t'me?"
Junior shrugged. "Don't ask me to explain it. I don't understand any of it. I asked my pastor back in Riverton what he thought, and he said that folks like that had forgotten about God's mercy, and Jesus's love of the outcasts." She shook her head. "It's just sad to me."
"Me, too," Ennis said, staring out the window. He could deal with Alma and Monroe's bad opinion of him, but Francine...that was harder. All he could think of was how her little face had turned to him as a child, how she'd looked at him as if he had the power to make all her dreams come true. Now, it seemed the only thing on her face would be judgment and condemnation. "I guess she feels it's her duty t'punish me for who I am."
Jack sighed. "Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone," he said quietly.
Junior was almost beside herself with excitement as Jack pulled into the long drive. When her father had told her that they were building an entire house for her to live in, she'd been overwhelmed. The next stop had been guilt. She hadn't wanted to cost her father and Jack so much money. She hadn't wanted them to go to all that trouble just for her. As the months passed, though, her guilt abated. When she talked to them on the phone, it was clear that they were excited for her to come and didn't resent the expense. Jack made it sound like the bungalow was something they'd been meaning to do anyway, and that Junior had just given them a good excuse to go ahead with it.
Jack drove past the house onto a brand-new little offshoot of gravel driveway that led down to the bungalow. Junior gasped when they crested the ridge and she saw her new home. It was set closer to the river than the main house, about fifty yards to its right, and smaller. It was the same stone-and-timber construction and had a wide porch on the side that faced the river. "Oh, Daddy," she said.
Her father turned in his seat, smiling. "What d'you think, darlin'?"
"It's beautiful." She felt herself getting a little choked up. "I just can't believe you guys did this for me."
"Well, we cain't believe you actually wanna live here, and help run this place. Least we c'n do is give you a nice place t'live while you do it."
Jack pulled up to the house and Junior jumped out. Lizzie came out the front door, smiling and waving. Junior ran to hug her. "Look at our little house, Lizzie!" she exclaimed.
"I know!" Liz said. "Come see the inside!" Junior let herself be led around, gaping around at the bungalow in amazement. It looked and felt like a home already, her home. Her favorite afghan was across the back of the couch. Some of her own books were in the bookcases. Her room, when she saw it, was full of her own belongings. "I hope you don't mind that I unpacked for you a bit," Liz said.
"Are you kidding? I'd been dreading it." She shook her head, grinning at her father and Jack, who were lurking in the doorway. "It's so beautiful," she said. "It's perfect." She walked back across to the door and hugged her father. "Thank you, Daddy," she murmured.
"You're welcome, sweetheart," he said. She just wanted to stay here forever, safe in her father's arms, where she'd always felt that nothing and no one could ever harm her. She hadn't appreciated how much she'd missed his daily presence until now, when she could look forward to seeing him every day again. She released him and moved to hug Jack, too, in keeping with the resolution she'd made on the plane...namely, to treat Jack as her father would want her to, as an equal member of the family. She was fond of Jack, but it was damn hard to get down to that last little stubborn kernel of resentment that still lurked deep inside. This was the hard stuff, those feelings that had withstood time, effort and her growing friendship with Jack but yet remained as sharp and distressing as ever. If it weren't for him... was their typical refrain. If it weren't for him, your mother would be happy. If it weren't for him, your family would be whole. If it weren't for him... She shut the voice down as she hugged him, doing her best to replace it with the thoughts she'd rather be having. Because of him, my daddy's happy. Because of him, he's successful. Because of him, I'm making more of my life than I would have in Riverton. Because of him, my father has love in his life.
She wanted that last one to trump everything else. Perhaps once she'd put Riverton far enough behind her, it would.
Jack and Ennis brought the car back to the garage and headed into the house. They'd spent most of the evening hanging out with Liz and Junior in the bungalow. Breaking in the sparkling-clean kitchen, helping rearrange the furniture, playing an impromptu game of gin rummy around the living-room coffee table. At dinnertime they'd ordered pizza, having to shout to the confused delivery boy when he'd arrived, and more than a few beers had been consumed.
Jack stretched and yawned as he walked into the living room. Suddenly he felt a hand grab his forearm and he was yanked backwards and spun around. Before he could even react he was in Ennis's arms, being kissed hard. "Mmmph," was all he could say. He pushed on Ennis's shoulders so he could wrench his face free. "What the hell?" he said, smirking.
Ennis had an predatory gleam in his eye. "Take your clothes off," he rumbled.
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
"Because for the first time in over a month we got the house to ourselves and I intend to do you right now, right here on the living room floor."
His flat, declarative you're-mine-so-get-used-to-it tone and the look in his eyes were getting Jack's juices flowing. "Well, when you ask so nicely," he said, stepping back to do as Ennis suggested.
The day of the party dawned bright and sunny. Good thing, too, Jack thought, because if it hadn't, he really feared that Lizzie might kill somebody. Possibly him.
He came up behind Ennis, who was brushing his teeth. "You ready, cowboy? Tonight you have to be sociable and charming to about a hundred people."
Ennis spat in the sink. "Don't remind me. Why're we doin' this, again?"
"It seemed like a good idea at the time." Ennis straightened up and Jack slipped his arms around his waist, resting his chin on Ennis's shoulder. He saw in the mirror a little smile come to Ennis's lips, and his hands went to Jack's arms where they encircled him. "And you know damn well the whole fuckin' lot of 'em are thinkin' this party's for us no matter what we say."
"I know." Ennis sighed. "I guess ain't nothin' we c'n do 'bout it."
"We c'n be gracious hosts and act like we got no idea what anybody's talkin' about."
Ennis turned around in his arms. "Well...if they all wanna come congratulate us for...you know...maybe we just oughta let 'em. They mean well, after all."
Jack frowned. "Am I hearin' this right?"
Ennis sighed and ran his hands up Jack's chest to grip his shoulders. "I've spent a lot 'o years hatin' life and keepin' my head down." He shrugged. "Maybe I got a reason t'celebrate now." He darted his head forward and kissed Jack, then drew back and made as if to leave, but Jack held him fast.
"No. Uh-huh. You don't get off that easy, Del Mar."
Ennis smirked. "Oh, I don't, do I? Then I guess you gonna have t'work extra hard." He kissed Jack again, and this time, he wasn't so quick to step away.
The sun was warm on Lizzie's neck as she directed the many proceedings in the backyard...in fact, she was starting to feel distinctly sweaty. The party was going to be held in the low flat area below the patio, down by the river...the area which a memorably shirtless Jack had cleared of debris a few months back. The band, a local bluegrass combo that Peter had recommended, would set up on the bungalow's porch, sparing them the trouble of setting up a platform for them. Rod Borrickson and a few of the hands were moving the big barbecue down to the riverbank where the food would be set up, courtesy of Marty Linebeck, who had gasped in horror when Liz had told her that she was planning to have the party catered by a barbecue restaurant in Middlebury. "I won't hear of it!" Marty had exclaimed. "I'll take care of the food and I don't want to hear another word about it!" Liz had been dubious (she'd been burned by homegrown friend-of-a-friend catering before) until she'd been assured by several people, including Jack and Ennis, that Marty did this all the time and was very good at it.
The rental company was setting up a temporary dance floor at the flattest place of the yard, just below the bungalow's porch where the band would be, as well as numerous tables and chairs. All the hands had been roped into helping, and none of them looked particularly thrilled about it.
Junior came staggering down to the yard with a large box full of red-and-white checked tablecloths that Liz had borrowed from the church. "Where do you want these?"
"Oh, set them anywhere. We're going to put them on the tables in a minute. Did you see those citronella torches?"
"Yeah, they're in the barn."
Liz turned around, contemplating the crates behind her. "I don't know what to do about these lights."
"What about them?"
"Well, we've got a whole bunch of these paper lantern-type things. They'd look neat strung between the trees. But then I've got a lot of these smaller lights and I don't know what to do with them. It's going to look Christmassy."
Junior flapped a hand. "Who cares? Put everything up. No one will mind if it doesn't all match exactly."
"And then we have the torches...so it'll be kind of a Christmas-biergarten-luau lighting scheme." Liz laughed. "I guess that makes sense for a party that doesn't know why it's being held."
"I better get started on those lumer-whatevers. Where are all those milk jugs?"
"In those garbage bags on the porch. There's a big bag of sand. Put about three inches in the bottom of each one so they stand up, then there's candles."
"I don't have to make enough to line the whole driveway, do I?" Junior said, looking daunted at the prospect.
"God, no. You'll be cutting milk jugs in half until doomsday. Just enough to mark out a path from the front of the house leading back here. You know...it's festive!" They both laughed. The phrase had become something of a joke between Liz and Junior as they made the final preparations. Whenever something didn't work out or wasn't exactly what they'd planned, they'd just jerry-rig something and exclaim "it'll be festive!"
A station wagon drove into the backyard, made a three-point turn and started backing down towards the river. Liz waved to Marty, behind the wheel, who waved back. Arlene Trimble was in the passenger seat. The two women got out, looking ready to cook for the whole county. "Where are we putting the meat, Lizzie?"
"In the big freezer in the basement. You can get in through the door underneath the patio. Jack put a big tub of ice down there for the...my God, is that it?" Liz said, peering into the back of Marty's station wagon.
"Yep," Marty said, grinning. "One whole pig, fresh from the butchers."
"It, uh...it has a head. With eyes in it."
"Of course it does. Haven't you ever been to a pig roast?"
"We don't do much barbecuing on that scale in Manhattan." Liz frowned. "My God, how are we going to cook it?"
"How God intended. On a spit. Grant's right behind me, he's got the hardware. He'll dig a pit and get it set up." Marty hefted a five-gallon pail out of the car and set it on the ground. "And here you got your sauce. My own special recipe."
Liz shook her head. "You really ought to go into catering, Marty."
"Everybody says that. I don't have time to make it a real business, and if I had to do it everyday I'd get sick of it. I'm just happy to do it once in awhile for friends."
Arlene was loading big foil-covered pans onto a cart that Rod brought her. "All this going in the basement, too?"
Liz nodded. "There's bags of ice down there, since we don't have a big enough fridge for it."
Arlene set off with the first load on the cart. Marty was looking around. "So we got the cooking area down here...tables and chairs here...dancing there..." She looked at Liz. "You going to put up a gift table?"
Liz frowned. "A gift table? What for?"
"For the gifts. As the name suggests."
"For Jack and Ennis."
Liz blinked. "People are bringing gifts?"
"Why? The party's for Junior!"
Marty gave her an are-you-kidding-me look. "Oh, Liz. That isn't fooling anybody, you know. Everyone knows this is really for them."
"Well, that's not very nice for Junior, is it? Her dad and Jack give a party so everybody can meet her, and they all just come thinking it's a party for them instead."
"Of course it's for Junior, but they wouldn't be having it if weren't...well, for that little thing they did that we're not supposed to talk about. It can be for Junior and for that, too! But you don't bring people welcome-to-town gifts. You do bring people wedding gifts, though, and everyone I know who's coming is bringing one."
"What'd you get them?"
"Me and Grant went in with Fred and Arlene and got them a VCR. I know they don't have one yet."
Liz sighed. "Well, isn't this just great. I didn't get them a damned thing."
"Oh, please. You organized this whole party! The fact that they didn't have to deal with the planning is the best present they could get."
Jack and Ennis rode in from the north paddock just after four, earlier than usual. The guests were supposed to start arriving at six, and they'd have to wash the day's dust off themselves so they'd be shiny and scrubbed for the party.
Their horses were walking towards the ranch in the distance, taking their time. No need to rush. This nightly ritual of chatting while riding in from the field had become important to them. Mostly they talked business, but it felt to Jack like a little daily check-in with his partner, in life as well as in the ranch. It was nice. "Think we oughta install phone lines out there?" Ennis asked. This had been a running discussion. Their satellite pastures were somewhat isolated, and their keepers had no practical way to communicate with home base if something were to go wrong.
"Lizzie's plannin' to set up the whole place with short-wave radios," Jack said. "We can all have one, so we can talk to each other and to her back at the office."
Ennis nodded. "Damned good idea." Beat. "Why didn't we think of that years ago?"
Jack shrugged. "Ain't been but a coupla years that we've been spread out enough to need somethin' like that. And we have been powerful busy in the meantime. Wasn't a priority, I guess."
"Stroke of luck gettin' her in the office," Ennis said after a few moments had passed. "It's workin' out real well."
"I think I'm gettin' the best part of it."
"How you figure?"
Ennis sighed. "It's jus' been real good havin' you out here with me again, instead of stuck in that office all day. Feels like old times." He cleared his throat. "Feels like we're partners again."
Jack frowned. "Ain't we always been partners?"
"Yeah, but...well, with me out here 'n you in the office...I dunno. Felt a bit too much like you was the boss and I was jus' a workin' man again."
Jack thought about denying it, but didn't. He couldn't. It had felt a bit like that to him, too, and he hadn't liked it. "I'm glad t'be out here again, too."
Ennis seemed to be gathering his courage to speak. Jack waited for him to put his words in order, something he found himself doing often. "Listen, I know I ain't good with the numbers 'n figures. It's you bringin' in all our business, and sometimes I feel bad I cain't help with some 'o that."
"Aw hell, Ennis," Jack said. "There's bringin' in business and then there's keepin' it. The keepin's more important, 'cause that's what lasts. And it's you keepin' it for us."
Ennis glanced at him; Jack could sense that this unexpected credit pleased him. "It is?"
"Yeah. You keep it by makin' sure everthin' runs smooth so folks that do business with us get what they pay for, and it's what they want, and it's what we promised 'em. It's on your account that folks c'n depend on us, and that's what makes for good business. So don't give me this 'I ain't important' crap just 'cause you don't balance the ledger. Any asshole with a calculator c'n do that. Ain't just anybody could do what you do."
Ennis didn't look entirely convinced. "I ain't smart like you," he muttered, keeping his eyes forward. "Times it gets t'me."
"I wish you wouldn't say shit like that 'bout yourself," Jack said with a weary sigh. "I ain't no Einstein, neither. How you judge somethin' like that? Ain't your fault you ain't got book-learnin'. Neither do I. We both learned what we know from life." He paused. "Remember Rory's fire?" Their dairyman neighbor, Rory Duchamp, was a sweet man and a good dairyman, but cursed with clumsiness and bad luck. He was forever crashing tractors, falling into sinkholes, and stepping on rakes. A small fire had begun in his stable a few years back during a family party Ennis and Jack had been invited to. Everyone else, including Jack himself, had flailed about in near-panic, but Ennis had been cool as a cucumber. Lickety-split, he'd corralled everyone and begun barking orders. Within a few minutes the horses were led to safety, flammable bales of hay were moved and heavy grain sacks were distributed to slap out escaping sparks. He'd set up an efficient little bucket brigade and before the fire department arrived, the blaze had been extinguished before it could spread and burn down the whole stable. Jack had admired Ennis's presence of mind and snappish leadership in that mini-crisis, and he'd never forgotten it.
"Sure, I remember."
"That's jus' what I mean. You don't get squirrelly. You just get it done. I love that about you. I wish I had that."
Ennis shot him a glance. "Well...you got other attributes, so I'll forgive you for the squirrelly."
They crested the hill, giving them a view across the river down to the house. The backyard was a hubbub of activity. Lights were being strung, a barbecue pit had been dug, tables, chairs and a dance floor were set up. "Christ, this is really happenin', ain't it?" Ennis muttered.
"Not too late t'back out. We could jus' hop in the truck, go up t'the cabin and have sex all weekend. No one'd notice. They c'n have the party without us."
Ennis sighed. "Fun as that sounds, I think we better put in an appearance." He didn't move. "I s'pose I'm gonna hafta say somethin'. Y'know, bein' that the party's for Junior and all."
"I thought we agreed that no one was buyin' that story."
"Don't mean we gotta quit tellin' it."
Jack smiled and patted Ennis's shoulder. "Don't worry, cowboy. If there's words t'be said, I'll say 'em."
"Don't I always?"
Ennis looked thoughtful at that. "Yep, you sure do."
Liz was proud of herself. Despite the mixed lighting messages, the yard looked great. It looked homey and fun, like it would be okay to put your feet up on the table and have a beer. That was what she'd wanted.
Grant Linebeck had put the pig on the mechanized spit (a procedure she'd been sure to stay far away from) and the coals beneath were glowing. The big barbecue was fired up and ready to churn out the mass quantities of meat that seemed to be required for these country parties. Buckets of ice full of beer and soda were everywhere. The tables were sagging with the weight of foil pans full of Marty's potato salad and baked beans. The band was tuning up. Junior had placed the last lumiere and then run into the bungalow to quickly shower and change, as Liz herself had only just done.
If she could just find the hosts, all would be in order. She ran up the porch stairs and into the house. "Jack! Ennis! It's almost time!"
Jack came into the kitchen, buttoning his shirt, looking a little disheveled. "Okay, we're comin'," he said.
Liz arched an eyebrow. "Looks to me like you just did."
Jack colored and rolled his eyes in a way that let Liz know she was right. "Get a move on, boss," she said, winking at him.
When she returned to the backyard, the first guests were arriving. Pastor Greenfield and his wife Sharon were greeted by the Linebecks and the Trimbles, who'd been here all afternoon helping set up. Sure enough, they were carrying a wrapped box, which Marty directed them to place on the table set up for this purpose.
Liz jumped when she felt hands on her waist. "Someone told me there was free food here," Peter murmured in her ear. She turned and slapped his arm.
"Not for you, buster. You're earning your dinner."
"Hmm. What do I have to do? Will I like it?"
She giggled. "You're my rent-a-date for the evening. That means you have to make sure I have a beverage at all times, deflect any would-be suitors who start bothering me, and dance with me upon my command."
He grinned. "You're so bossy. I like that in a woman."
"In return for your services, you'll be generously rewarded."
"Is that so?"
"With barbecue. All you can eat."
Peter arched one eyebrow at her. "Bossy and a tease. You New York girls are all alike." He blinked. "Which I would know because I've met a grand total of one of them."
She grabbed his hand and led him down to the yard, which was growing more crowded by the minute. "I guess it's time to mingle, now that my arm-candy's here."
As a rule, Ennis disliked parties. Small gatherings on someone's porch, that he could handle. Bars were fine, too. But at a party one was expected to do things like mingle and socialize. Especially when one was the host. He and Jack were frequently invited to parties, to which they usually went. Jack thought it was important that they be as social, friendly and well-liked as possible to deflect hostility about their relationship. Ennis could see the logic, but he hated putting on a dog-and-pony show. At some point in the past, however, it had ceased to be a show. They'd made real friends here, and their attendance at parties had begun to feel less like an obligation and more like part of life.
But he still didn't like it that much.
At least here, it was his party and his house and he could be sure that everybody here was a friend. He could relax a little knowing he was in safe company. He could joke and tease and let himself be joked with and teased in return. He could smile at Jack and speak to him in a familiar way without worrying that he was jeopardizing their status in town because some stranger thought it was disgusting. There were no strangers here tonight.
The smell of the pig roast was mouth-watering. The platters and bowls of snacks were being rapidly depleted as hungry partygoers listened to their stomachs rumble. Beers were quicky disappearing from the coolers and being replenished by Marianne, who was supposed to be a guest but insisted on "looking after things," as she put it.
Junior came up to his side and linked her arm through his, smiling broadly. "You look pretty relaxed, Daddy."
"S'much as c'n be expected, I guess."
"Liz and Dr. Pete seem pretty cozy," she muttered, nodding towards where Liz and Pete were standing, talking to Mayor Bill and his wife. Pete had his arm around Lizzie's back.
Ennis sniffed. "Well, they been datin' about a month now, I guess." He looked down at her. "You meetin' everybody?"
"Sure. Your friends all seem so nice."
He smiled. "What'd you think, that our friends would be jerks?"
"No, of course not! It was just something to say," she said, elbowing him. "Anyway, they're nice."
"I'm glad you think so."
"They brought you a lot of presents, that's for sure." She wiggled her eyebrows.
Ennis rolled his eyes. "They weren't s'posed t'do that, y'know. This party's s'posed t'be for you, Junior."
"C'mon, Daddy. They all know what it's for."
"Just go with it."
"Don't got much choice, do I?"
Liz would wonder for a long time if it had been planned.
They'd all sat down at the long tables to eat. Grant sliced off hunks of the pig roast while Rod Borrickson, at the grill, turned out burgers and hot dogs. The band was ordered to come join in, and the feast was demolished with impressive gusto. Jack and Ennis sat side by side at the table nearest the patio. Junior sat on Ennis's other side, Liz on Jack's with Peter next to her. Fred and Arlene were at their table as well, along with Pastor Greenfield and his wife, Grant and Marty, and Paul and Roger.
For some time, the only sound was the hubbub of dozens of overlapping conversations and the slobbery sound of people eating barbecue. Liz was glad she'd stocked up on napkins. As plates were pushed away and belts were loosened, laughter grew louder and talk grew more boisterous.
Suddenly, Fred Trimble stood up and hollered for everyone to shut the hell up. Jack and Ennis looked apprehensive. "Okay," Fred began. "As we all know, we're here tonight to...welcome Ennis's daughter to town," he said, lacing the last words with enough sarcasm to elicit laughter. "I for one think it's great she's come all the way from Wyoming to whip this penny-ante operation into shape, and good luck to her." He raised his beer bottle to more chuckles. "So welcome to Farmingdale, Junior. I hope you'll like it here as much as we do." Cheers and applause. "But!" Fred continued. "It's been a long time since your dad moved out here. I think you deserve to hear something of what he?s been up to in the meantime!" Louder cheers and applause. Fred put out his hands to quiet them down. "The first time I met Ennis, he was kicking the living hell out of the oldest, most beat-down pickup truck I'd ever seen. Damn thing made the trip from Wyoming and decided to crap out right in the middle of County Trunk R..."
When Fred finished his story, which involved a truckload of salvaged barbed wire, a pair of busted boots and an uncomfortable trip to the auto parts store, he sat down to more whistles and applause. Like they'd rehearsed it, Marianne stood up and told a very funny story about her first week on the job. Then Grant Linebeck told one about coming to the ranch to make his introductions and spending most of the visit trying to figure out where the new ranchers in town were hiding their wives. Paul McGill, his broken arm in a sling but his spirits apparently undimmed by his temporary disability, talked about he and Roger being welcomed into town by Ennis and Jack, all four of them totally unaware of the important thing they had in common.
One after another, Jack and Ennis's friends rose and shared a story, ostensibly for Junior's benefit. Some of them were funny. The old Labor Day Picnic punch-out story was hauled out again, much to Jack's chagrin. Many of them made veiled reference to how long it took the person telling the story to figure out that Jack and Ennis were a couple. A few of them were touching. Gus Flaubert talked about his dead son, and how Jack had been such a friend to his boy. Liz glanced at Jack and saw tears in his eyes as he listened.
She looked at Peter and saw the same thought on his face. They were keeping up the pretense that this party was for Junior, but they all knew why they were here, and they were doing their best to acknowledge it.
Finally, Fred rose again. "Well, now that we've all embarrassed them thoroughly," he said, "I think I'd like to hear what our hosts have to say in their own defense." Loud cheers and catcalls greeted this suggestion.
Jack grinned and started to get up...but then, to Liz's shock, Ennis stood up and pushed him back down into his chair. By the the expressions on the faces of some of the guests, she wasn't the only one shocked. Jack sat where he was, blinking up at Ennis in bewilderment.
Ennis fidgeted and harrumphed for a moment, his hands stuck in his pockets. "Well," he finally said. "I ain't no speaker. But seein's it's my girl's party, thought I oughta do the talkin'." He winked at Junior. "I thank y'all for comin' by. It's real nice 'o you t'make her feel so welcome. I'm over the moon she's here, and that's the truth." He paused, then abruptly bent down and kissed Junior on the cheek. She beamed at him. Ennis cleared his throat, looking around as if waiting for rescue. "I guess..." He stopped, seeming a little tongue-tied. Everyone waited. "I feel real lucky t'have such nice friends," he said, in a slightly lower voice. "I sure do thank y'all for comin'." Murmurs of assent. Ennis harrumphed again and spoke a little bit louder. "And now I guess we all oughta give a hand t'Marty, for the grub. Sure was good." Everyone clapped. Marty nodded and smiled, acknowledging the praise. "And of course, I'd be amiss if I didn't give a big thank-you to our Lizzie, 'cause she made all this possible." Liz flushed and tried to look while everyone clapped for her.
Ennis hesitated, his fingers fiddling with his beer bottle, his eyes on the table. It was clear from his posture that he wasn't done. He took a breath and went on. "And I guess I oughta say thanks to someone else, for...uh..." Ennis frowned and looked down at Jack. "What the hell d'you do, anyway?" he said. Jack shrugged while everyone chuckled. Ennis looked back out over the gathered partygoers, who'd gone very quiet once again. A little smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. "Well...I guess he makes me possible." Jack was staring up at Ennis like he couldn't believe it. Ennis put a hand on his shoulder. "So thanks again for comin'. It's real nice of you t'help us celebrate Junior movin' in, and..." Liz felt everyone waiting. Would he say it out loud? Ennis smirked a little. "And whatever else y'might feel moved t'celebrate."
The loudest applause yet followed this statement. Ennis sat down again, sighing the heavy sigh of a man relinquishing a very taxing burden. Jack was still staring at him, but his expression had gone from surprised disbelief to touched elation. Ennis held his gaze for a moment, then deliberately took his hand where it lay on the table, interlacing their fingers.
"So, this is the living room," Liz said, gesturing grandly for Peter's benefit. He looked around, hands clasped behind his back.
"And the kitchen..." She didn't get to finish her thought, because as soon as she turned her back Peter crossed the distance between them, spun her around, and kissed her. She's been half-expecting it. Why else had she suggested a tour of the bungalow while the band got set up again? She returned his kisses eagerly enough, but when he began gently leading her down the hall towards her bedroom she hesitated.
"What?" Peter said, his mouth moving down to her neck.
She tried not to think about how good he felt, but distance herself and remain rational. "I just don't think we should," she said.
Peter stopped, then slowly drew away. "Okay," he said, but there was measured impatience in his voice.
"I'm sorry, I just..."
"Liz, it's fine. I'm just starting to wonder what we're waiting for."
"You don't think it's too fast? That it's...improper or something?"
Peter was blank-faced for a moment, then she could see the comprehension crash into him. "Oh my God, Liz. Is that what you're afraid of?" He grabbed her hands. "Is that what you think of all of us? That because we live in the country that we all must be sex-averse, simple-minded rural folk who wouldn't approve of all your citified lascivious ways?"
"No, of course not!" Except that was exactly what she'd thought, without being fully conscious of it.
He cocked his head. "I think it is. And I think you're trying to be like that, too." He sighed. "I may be a quaint country doctor, but I'm no prude, Lizzie." He took a step closer. "I'd be glad to prove it to you." His eyes, the lids at half-mast, had taken on a dark, secret quality that made her shiver. "Would you like me to tell you about all the things I've imagined doing with you?" he said, leaning close and speaking in a low, sibilant murmur. He walked around her, staying close, until he was behind her. He leaned his head forward and spoke into her ear. "I think you're beautiful, and sexy," he said, pushing her hair away from the nape of her neck. She shuddered again as he pressed his lips underneath her jawline. "Are you getting the picture?" She nodded. "I want you, Liz." His hands grasped her hips and pulled her tight back against him, and she could feel that he meant what he said.
Liz whirled around and grabbed him, slamming her mouth into his and cutting him off mid-breath. "Citified and lascivious, was it?" she said, sneaking syllables into the tiniest pauses she could manage.
"What about it?"
She drew back a little and gave him her best maneating grin. "That doesn't even begin to cover it."
By the time they emerged, the party was hopping. People were dancing, milling around and talking, and the beer seemed to be flowing liberally. All the leftover food had been moved to a central table and everyone was picking at it. Liz saw Jack dancing with Marianne, who looked ridiculously short in his arms, Junior dancing with Fred Trimble, and Ennis sitting at a table, feet kicked up on a nearby chair, talking to Rory Duchamp and Pastor Greenfield.
Liz felt loopy and warm, and slightly dizzy. Peter kissed her temple as they tried to be subtle about returning to the party. She turned and kissed him back. "I've never had sex to a bluegrass soundtrack," she said.
"Happens to me all the time." His friendly eyes were sparkling as he looked at her, and Liz felt it again. The urge to push him away and run. This had happened to her before. He's not Charlie, she reminded herself. But Charlie hadn't even been Charlie at first. How did she know it would be any different?
He's not Charlie.
"Come on, let's dance," she said, to cover her disquiet. She grabbed his hand and dragged him to the temporary wood floor sitting incongruously in the middle of the lawn. "I hope you know how."
Happily, he did. She danced next with Jack, relinquishing Peter to Nora Flaubert's enthusiastic embrace. She smiled up at her new partner, who was positively glowing. "You look all lit up," she said.
"It's the booze."
"I think it's what Ennis said at dinner."
He shook his head. "Ain't that somethin'? Never figured he'd ever be able to string together more'n two words in front of people."
"I guess he was strongly motivated."
Jack's eyes were twinkling. "I ain't the only one lookin' all glowy," he said. Liz flushed. "Get that bungalow christened, didja?"
"Shut up or I'll step on your toes."
He laughed. "Pete's a real nice guy," he said. Liz nodded, but didn't respond. This did not escape Jack's attention. "He ain't like Charlie."
"You don't even know Charlie."
"I know he's a bastard, and that's one thing Pete ain't. What more I gotta know?"
She sighed. "This dating thing is so tiring. You should be glad you're safely married."
He nodded. "I sure am."
She glanced past him towards Ennis. "Think we can get him up here?"
"I'm sure he'd dance with you. I bet he'll take a spin with Junior, at least."
"I meant to dance with you."
Jack snorted. "That'll happen when we're playin' hockey in Hell, Lizzie. It'll be job enough to get him t'dance with a woman."
"Liz, it don't matter, honest. I really don't need him t'prove nothin' to me. He's done enough. More'n I coulda asked for, in fact." He blinked a few times, and Liz could see his emotions peeking through his affable partygoing expression. "What he said at dinner..." He shook his head. "I almos' got nothin' t'say about that."
As it turned out, Liz did get Ennis to dance with her, as did Junior, but he stubbornly sat out the rest despite numerous attempts to coax him. He endured a lot of good-natured ribbing about dancing with Jack. Once Jack himself jokingly propositioned him, earning himself a few forced chuckles and then a quick but perceptible knock-it-off look. Liz spent most of her time dancing with Peter, not doing much talking, just remembering how his face had looked when he was inside her, how he had touched her, and how he was looking at her a little differently now.
"So when do you start school?" Arlene Trimble asked.
Junior just smiled and answered amiably, hoping Arlene couldn't tell that she'd answered this question at least two dozen times already tonight. "Next week."
"How long's that drive to campus?"
"Not long. Twenty minutes."
"I bet you're excited."
"I am. And a little nervous. I've been going to school in the same town with the same kids for my whole life. This is...it's just going to be so different. I'm glad I'm living with my dad. At least that's familiar."
Arlene looked like she wanted to ask something, but couldn't think how to approach it. Junior could guess what it was. "So...you've enjoyed visiting here in the past, then?"
Junior smiled. "It's okay, Mrs. Trimble. You can ask me about Dad and Jack if you want to."
"Well, it's Arlene, first of all, and I admit I'm a little curious. So...you seem like you're completely fine with it."
Junior hesitated. "I wasn't always. It was hard when I was a kid, and I didn't really get it. Now I'm just glad Dad's happy. And I love Jack. Good thing, too, 'cause I guess he's my stepdad now."
Arlene laughed. "Not that either of them will say it."
"Isn't it silly? Everyone knows why we're all here."
"Oh, I know. But I'm sure I don't have to tell you how cautious your father is. Although I have to say, he's seemed a lot more relaxed lately. Ever since Jack got hurt. Marty told me they were actually holding hands in church last Sunday."
Junior's eyebrows shot up. "Really? Wow. I'm impressed."
"I do worry for them sometimes, though. Now with what's happened to poor Dr. McGill...that Forrester maniac might be gone, but I worry he left some of his poison behind inside some folks. I'm betting they're scared of Ennis now..."
"As they oughta be," Junior said grimly.
"Right, but maybe it's making them move on to Paul and Roger. They're not cowboys with a shed full of shotguns, you know. Might seem like easier targets, if not quite as visible." Arlene seemed to shake herself. "But that's hardly cheerful talk for a happy occasion, is it?" She gestured towards Ennis, now standing near the barrel of beer and laughing with the mayor. "Think we can get your dad to dance a little more?"
"On how much beer's in that barrel."
Jack came out of the house after answering the call of nature to find Ennis standing in the shadows on the patio. The lights on the back of the house weren't lit, and the deserted patio was dark and secluded, especially contrasted with the bright lights and music only fifty yards further down the lawn. "Hey," he said.
Ennis jumped. Jack didn't think he'd known that Jack was in the house. "Oh, hey," he said, a little too quickly. Jack saw him take a quick swipe at his eyes. "Jus'...needed a little quiet."
"Sure." Jack joined him at the railing. The band was playing some swaybacked old bluegrass tune that lolled and swelled with the banjo player's fingers. He saw Lizzie dancing with Peter, her head tucked down on his shoulder, and Junior dancing with Roger, quite a bit less intimately.
"Y'think Junior's havin' fun?" Ennis asked.
"What d'you think? Look at her. She's all smiles. Glowin' like someone turned on a light inside her." Jack sighed. "I been feelin' that way all night myself." Ennis turned his head and met Jack's eyes in the dimness, only reflected light from the party lighting their faces. "Ennis...what you said at dinner..."
"Hush now," Ennis murmured, raising his hand to Jack's face. "Jus' a few words. Ain't important."
"The hell it ain't. Few words from you is like a whole speech from somebody else."
"I owed you," Ennis said, dropping his hand and stepping to the railing.
"You don't owe me nothin'."
"Beg t'differ. I owe you this," Ennis said, sweeping a hand across his body in a vague, all-encompassing gesture. "I cain't believe this is my life sometimes," he said quietly. "Other times I cain't even believe that I'm me. Times I look at myself and wonder who that fella is. Runnin' a ranch, makin' a good livin', sendin' his girl to school, and goin' to bed next to...well, someone he never thought he'd get t'be with."
Jack took a step closer. "I said, you don't owe me nothin'," he repeated. "You done this, not me. You coulda kept it all from happenin' with one word. You coulda let me go back to Childress, like you almost did. So don't go givin' me all the credit when you done all this with one word." Ennis looked at him. "It started when you said 'okay.' And don't think I don't know what it took for you t'say it, 'cause I do. But you said it, and now here we are."
Ennis nodded. "Damn sweet life."
"And this is jus' the beginning."
Ennis was quiet for a long time. He turned around and leaned against the railing, crossing his arms over his chest. "C'n I ask you somethin'?" he said.
He hesitated. "Why me?"
Jack frowned. "Why you, what?"
"Y'know. Why did you...for me?" Jack was still puzzled. Ennis sighed, a tinge of exasperation in it, and tried again. "Why'd you feel that way about me?"
Jack smiled. "Because you let me."
Ennis just looked at him for a few beats, then pushed away from the railing. "C'mere," he murmured.
Jack let Ennis draw him close. "What're you doin'?" he said, as Ennis put one arm around Jack's waist, the other one holding Jack's hand to his chest.
"Cain't a fella dance with his husband?" Ennis said, his lips close to Jack's ear.
Jack slid his free arm around Ennis's back. "Well, I dunno 'bout fellas in general, but I never thought you would," he said, trying to play it cool while his mind was reeling and dumbstruck.
Ennis shrugged. "It's dark up here. No one's peekin'. It's jus' you 'n me, rodeo."
Jack nodded. "That's how we're best, ain't it?" Ennis didn't respond. Jack leaned the side of his head against Ennis's and let his eyes fall closed, their feet moving slowly in time with whatever song the band was playing. That sense of unreality came over him again, that same feeling of disbelief Ennis said he felt, too. Was this really happening? Couldn't be. He couldn't be here holding Ennis on the porch of their own house, on the ranch they owned and worked together. Surely he hadn't heard Ennis openly acknowledge Jack's significance to him earlier that same night, and that couldn't possibly be a ring on Ennis's finger that Jack had put there himself. As if that weren't enough to stretch belief, there was no way that a hundred of their friends and neighbors, even including Ennis's own daughter, were here celebrating all of it with them. He'd wake up any minute and be back in Childress, or in Lightning Flat, and he'd sob his despair into the unsympathetic darkness that such a perfect dream could never come true.
So what if it had? What would he have left to dream of then?
He sighed and squeezed Ennis's hand. "Know somethin'?"
"I'm gonna bed you down like a goddamn stampede tonight."
Ennis chuckled. Jack felt the motion through his own body. "Somethin' t'look forward to," he said.
Jack snorted. "Well, I hope that ain't the only thing."
"No, 'course not." He hesitated. "I know it's been seven years, but I'm still gettin' used to it."
"Used to what?"
"Lookin' forward to what's comin' instead of dreadin' it."
Jack held Ennis a little tighter, and felt himself drawn closer in return. Neither of them said anything more.
Well, six weeks and about 130,000 words later, I've finally completed this story. I would like to thank each and every reader who's taken the time to read my story, and to leave me comments or send me emails. It's your doing that I kept going with it, so don't thank me for writing, thank yourselves.
But don't think you're off the hook quite yet. I'm taking a brief writing vacation, and then in a few weeks I'll start the sequel I have planned. It will be titled "Two Crows Joy," and it will pick up about four months after "Human Interest" ended, around Christmastime. Some of the plot threads begun in "Human Interest" will continue, and some new ones will be introduced. I think every person who leaves a comment to this final chapter ought to include an idea for what Ennis and Jack might have received from their friends as wedding presents. And no fair citing the VCR, I told you that one.