Part 1: Changing Horses
He wouldn't have chosen to wear a secondhand suit to his little girl's wedding, but ranch hands didn't earn enough to keep themselves in new suits, nor did they have much use for them. And Ennis del Mar didn't suppose anyone would be looking at him much after he walked Alma,
Jr. down the aisle. She was the only one whose opinion counted.
Since he'd told her a few months ago he'd be there at the wedding, roundup or no roundup, he'd gone back and forth between dread and anticipation. Never one to be social at the best of times, Ennis had been consumed by both grief and work for the past year. No clandestine wilderness meetings with Jack to look forward to, and no two-week lapses from work that had made drifting from job to job a reality for so many years. And he had found long hours and working to exhaustion as effective a painkiller as whiskey still was.
But getting time for the wedding had been surprisingly easy. The foreman hadn't been happy, but "my girl Laurie's been talkin' about settin' a date in October, and I'll hafta be there whether I want to or not. So I don't know how I can tell ya no."
Ennis wasn't at all sure whether he wanted to or not. He hadn't given a thought to going back on his word to Alma Jr.; but being at the wedding meant facing his ex-wife Alma and her husband Monroe, even sitting in the front pew next to the two of them. He'd managed to avoid them for a long time now, ever since that Thanksgiving confrontation with Alma in the kitchen of their middle-class home. All the years he'd thought she'd never suspected what was between him and his "fishing buddy" Jack, and she'd thrown her knowledge in his face with venom she'd been storing up for years. Panicked, he'd felt that sourly familiar sensation of mingled nausea, terror and rage, and had come close to punching her. He'd stormed out of the house before the startled Monroe could even say anything to him. The only contact since then had been through the two daughters who were the only good thing to come from his and Alma's disastrous years together. And now, they'd sit next to each other in the front pew of Riverton's small Methodist church and he'd have to thank Monroe for catering the reception. And at that, he's giving my girl more than I've managed to.
But aside from that, he just wasn't a man who socialized or made conversation easily. Ennis had always been one to say what he needed to say and that was it: the need most people had to fill gaps between them with talk for the sake of talk had always mystified him.
She'd told him about the wedding not long after he'd returned from Lightning Flat earlier that year, with his and Jack's shirts, now enshrined just inside the closet door, Jack's shirt inside of his own bloodstained one. "Jack, I swear", he'd said shortly after Alma, Jr.'s visit, carefully buttoning a top button just to have a reason to touch all he had left of Jack. In a few days at most, he would unbutton it again. He'd sworn various things on other days, all of them shot through with pain: I wouldn't have kept pushing you away. I'd never have let you drive away without me to begin with. I'd do it different if I had another chance, danger be damned. But this time, after deciding that being with his daughter on the most important day of her life had to come before any job, before his fear of letting too many other people too close: I swear I won't waste the rest of my life. He was going to walk her down the church aisle, no matter who was looking at him, not matter any awkwardness, not matter what.
The "what" included the pain that had never quite left him since his postcard to Jack was returned marked "Deceased". It was like a persistent toothache, or an almost-invisible shard of glass in his foot. Sometimes the pain receded a little and sometimes it was close enough
that he could see or feel little else. No matter, it never went away; and its sharpest edges were easier to bear than the dull ache of his knowledge that he had helped create so much of it. And he often wondered what it was doing to his mind.
All that anyone at the ranch apparently noticed was that he'd taken no time off in the last year, volunteered for extra work more often, worked extended hours whenever he could. And while Alma, Jr. had called, and stopped by occasionally, she was too consumed with planning her wedding to much notice his loss of weight or the traces of his regular restless nights. But ever since her visit he'd increasingly felt like Jack was right at his elbow; like he'd be able to catch a glimpse of him if he just turned his head fast enough. He didn't believe in ghosts, never would, he told himself. The erotic dreams he regularly had about Jack, the only sex life he'd had or wanted in the last year, sometimes ended with waking up to sticky sheets but never with Jack in the bed beside him. No; it was just one of the drafts in the trailer that would brush against his hair in a way that reminded him of the way Jack used to nuzzle it. Or the harder wind hitting the trailer at night, sounding like the moaning noises Jack used to make during their lovemaking that still made him hard just to think about.
But there were also the dreams that he didn't look forward to: the soul-crushing, slow-motion nightmares of watching Jack being mercilessly clubbed to death. Listening to the screams and muted crunching of broken bones, even smelling the blood, and finding that his feet seemed to be set in concrete blocks. And his very throat frozen, unable even to yell at the evil men who would later play with their children, lie with their wives, sit serenely in church on Sunday. With no one in the trailer to wake him up, the dream always had to run its course until he woke sobbing in grief and torment. But in the past few months, he knew he could feel something brush across his face and the top of his head just before full wakefulness released him from the nightmare.
He wasn't going to think of that today, he told himself as he shut the trailer door and walked toward his battered truck. One appearance at a wedding wasn't going to make up for the distance he'd kept between himself and his daughters when they were growing up, but Alma Jr. had wanted him to walk her down the aisle, despite all that, not the stepfather who had been there every day since she was 12 years old. She wasn't going to regret that.
He did not lock the trailer door behind him. There was nothing in it a thief would think worth stealing.