The next few months were bittersweet for Jackson and Will. They were inseparable; or as much as they could be because of their busy jobs.

They had stars in their eyes, but their feet had to be securely on the ground. Mary Anne was recovering nicely; however, she was going through a pretty typical depression. Jack took his mother to physical therapy and made sure she took her medication, and got her proper rest. All these therapies worked to improve her strength and to alleviate the dark moods. In addition, two or three nights a week they spent in her company. Some evenings, they managed to cajole her into playing Yahtzee or Chinese checkers.

Eventually, her spirits were up more often than down. She felt especially good following her daily walk with her young men. Jack would not let her walk alone yet. He was afraid she'd fall; or worse, have another attack. They talked non-stop while they strolled, and the three of them became friends as well as their original connections.

When Jackson needed to travel to Kentucky again, he hoped Ennis would be able to go with him. Mary Anne asked her youngest sister, Bitsy, to come visit for a week or so to look out for her. She immediately agreed.

All that remained was for Dr. Will to find a vet to cover for him during his absence. He ran into obstacles every which way he turned. Finally, with only one day to spare, he found that a new young vet assistant was coming home to the area, and with this able-bodied help available, the retired vet, Doc Bennett, agreed to over-see Will's practice for a bit. He had refused to cover on his own, so this was a perfect blend of experience and energy. Will's specialty was Large Animals. His usual patients were horses, cows, hogs, goats and other farm animals, requiring Will to go to them – not the other way around.

Ennis' last 24 hours in Fort Dodge were spent giving out contact information and introducing his clients to Kyle. Vet Assistant, Kyle Kinser, kept up the pace with Doc Will all that day, meeting many of his current patients.

At last they were off!

Jackson drove first; the vet was dead on his feet. The poor guy got some sleep that first morning out, waking only when they pulled off the highway into a truck stop called Dukes.

Ennis scooped up cold water in his hands and scrubbed his face, hoping it would make him feel refreshed, and not so groggy. They'd only been on the road a couple hours, he saw. Jack claimed a table and they got coffee while they looked at the menus.

"You always stop here?"

"No, I usually fly."

"So, you don't know what's good."

"No. But I saw a trucker over there with a humongous plate of fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, creamed dried beef, and it looked like it was on toast. . ."

"Okay, I see a picture here that looks like that. The Barnyard Buster, it's called."

They ordered and got their coffees re-filled.

Almost simultaneously, they stretched out, leaned back and closed their eyes, deeply sighing. "You sound done-in too; want me to drive from here?"

"Naw, I'll take it to the border; how's that?"

"Works for me."

"Did you take a lot of road trips with your family?"

"Some, yeah. My daddy lost the ranch and we picked up work wherever we could. Saw most of the Midwest, either picking fruit or carpentering when we got lucky. You?"

"No definitely not. My daddy was an asshole, and he never took us anywhere."

"That's a shame, Jack."

"Yeah but when I was eleven or twelve, mother married Mr. Appleton and it has all been better since then. She divorced my old man; she says she left him to stew in his own bitter juices."

"Wow. But your name . . . "

"I took my dad's name legally; the only one who deserved to be called Dad,"

"Where is he now?"

"Aaron Appleton died the year I graduated from A&M. He did get to see me cross that stage, I'm happy to say. We still miss him, mother and me."

"What was your name before you changed it?"

"I'd rather not say; makes me angry to even hear it. I'm Jackson Appleton."

"Good enough for me, then."

"You grow up in Iowa?"

"No. Illinois; but I came here for veterinarian school and stayed. Like it."

"You still got your parents, Ennis?"

"No; not as lucky as you. Have a sister and a brother though. We're not close any more."

"We'll be crossing into Illinois in a few hours, want to look them up?"

Ennis flushed, turned a little bit pink. "I thought this trip was for the two of us, to be together," he said quietly.

"Point made. Damned if you ain't right!" Jack reached his knee over to rub Ennis' leg, wherever he could touch him.

"Let's head on out if you're ready. I think as exhausted as we both are, we should make it an early night tonight."

"Sounds like a Blue Ribbon idea to me," agreed Ennis.

They ate a light super, showered, shaved, and got into bed at the Marriott in Peoria. They spent a luxurious ten minutes stretching and relaxing each muscle. Heavenly! They both turned on their stomachs, had their arms wrapped around their pillows just so, and their faces turned toward one another.

"When did you first realize that you liked boys better than girls? If that's the case, I haven't even asked you if you're Bi, or what," Jack stated awkwardly.

"No, just boys; well, men now. As to 'when' I'd have to say that I was 9 or 10 when I noticed my preference."

"Isn't that really young?"

"Yes, I suppose so. But we were at a picnic; mom and dad's friends all gathered, playing baseball, eating fried chicken, you know, the whole nine yards."

"Mmm hmmm."

"Well, I noticed dad's best friend Paul, how good looking he was, and I realized I was crushing on him. Not his well endowed wife, but Paul, a

man's man. That was the first time I knew. After that, I paid closer attention."

"To the Men?"

"No. To my reaction to the men. It really wasn't sexual at first, it was – I know this sounds stupid, but - it was romantic."

"When did it become sexual?"

"Within a couple years, I was like, 11 or 12. Course it was all in my head, I never let anyone know about it. What about you?"

"I knew early on, too. But I thought I was the weirdo of the world, the only one, and my daddy saw it in me. Beat the hell out of me."

"Christ! What for?"

"I was in first grade; getting off the school bus. I smiled and waved at my "friend" Jeremy. I was truly smitten, and it showed all over my face. Mother thought he was going to kill me."

"What did she do?"

"She threw him out, that's when she began divorce proceedings. He never put his hands on me again."

"That's good."

A few moments passed with no more conversation. They realized that they were fading, eyes drooping, and soon would be sawing logs. Jack leaned over to kiss Ennis good night, and they snuggled momentarily. Then the lights were turned out.

"Good night, gorgeous."

"Mmm mmm you too."

tbc