Chapter 25

The kids were in bed by the time Ennis and Jack returned. They thanked their neighbours for watching the house and locked up, eager to celebrate Ennis's birthday some more. When the house was secured, Jack took Ennis's hand and led him upstairs.

"So, you ready for some fun?" he whispered as they crept along the hall, turning to Ennis and grinning. Ennis smirked back at him.

"Reckon I am, rodeo..." Jack nodded.

"Since you've called me that twice this evenin'...reckon we oughta do what I've been thinkin' on," he said as they locked the bedroom door behind them. He pulled Ennis close by the hips and started undoing his shirt buttons.

"An' what would that be?" Ennis asked, reaching to pull off Jack's shirt. Their naked torsos were revealed and Ennis couldn't help but attack Jack's neck, biting gently at the bare skin. Jack shivered with delight and grinned, hands roaming Ennis's strong muscular chest. The man just knew how to press his buttons.

"Reckon we could play rodeo..." His voice was dripping with innuendo and Ennis immediately knew what he meant. The offer was simply too tempting to resist, and it was his birthday, after all.

"Mmm...maybe we could," he replied, turning Jack and pushing him towards the bed. Jack was happy to give himself over to his partner on this special day; he knew that Ennis would return the favour in October.

They sank onto the bed and managed to kick off their jeans and boots, crawling up and feeling their limbs tangle together; heated flesh connected and sent electricity between them. Both were hopelessly aroused by now, unable to think clearly about anything but having sex with each other. When the need struck them, everything else could take a number and wait.

"God, Jack..." Ennis breathed, rolling onto his back and pulling his lover over him. "Swear to drive me crazy..."

"Right back at ya, bud," Jack murmured in his ear, leaning over him and kissing his neck. "So you wanna play that game? Been a while since I rode a bull..."

Ennis grinned breathlessly and nodded up at him. "Sure, if you think you can handle it." It wasn't often that Ennis showed his dirtier sense of humour, but Jack loved it when he did. Being together for real was the best thing that could have happened to them; it was where they were meant to be.

"I'll take that as a challenge, cowboy," Jack replied, reaching for the lube and smearing it over his fingers. He slicked Ennis up himself, enjoying it when Ennis's eyes slid shut in pleasure. "You ready?"

"Uh huh..." Ennis's eyes opened and he watched as Jack lowered himself down, biting his lip in concentration. He was encased in velvet heat as their bodies merged, and he let out a shuddering gasp. "God, you feel good..." Jack smiled down at him and reached for his hands, lacing their fingers together. Ennis drew his knees up and their eyes connected. Despite how aroused they were right now, they could still take a moment to relish what they were feeling in their hearts. Being here together was worth all the trouble it caused, and they both knew that things would work out as long as they loved each other.

They started moving together, Jack rocking up and down like he used to in the rodeo. Only this bull had no desire of bucking him off; he wanted his rider to stay right there. Ennis squeezed Jack's fingers as wave after wave of pleasure rippled through him, sending shockwaves through his entire body. Jack gritted his teeth as Ennis took more of him, and he wondered just how far up Ennis could penetrate him. Both of them were always willing to try new things together, especially now. He knew that their sex life would improve now that they had the time.

"I love you," he choked out, head dropping as he shook all over. Ennis freed his hands and pulled Jack down to him, kissing him firmly on the mouth and winding their tongues together.

"I love you too," he replied against Jack's lips, heart full to bursting with the love he felt for the man in his arms. This was easily the best birthday he'd ever had, and he wouldn't trade it for anything. "Swear to God I do..." He kept moving inside Jack, thrusting quicker and deeper and hearing Jack moan in his ear. "Come on, baby..." The seldom-used word slipped from his mouth and Jack heard it, feeling ecstatic. Ennis was no longer shy with endearments, but this was one he didn't hear often.

A few more thrusts and Ennis was coming hard inside his lover, lips fixed on Jack's neck as he rode it out. Jack felt the spasms inside him and shot between them, hot and sticky. He collapsed onto Ennis's chest and started gasping for breath.

"Fuck me," he gasped, taken aback by how good this time had been. Ennis laughed in his ear.

"Think I just did, darlin'." They laughed together quietly and Jack rose up, looking beautiful in his flushed state. He looked freshly fucked and happy to be so.

"Happy birthday, bud." They kissed softly and Ennis pulled out, allowing Jack to roll off him to the side. He stayed close, tucking himself into Ennis's arms and curling up against him. Ennis was reminded of a contented cat that had been well looked-after. "You have a good day?"

"Mmm...the best," Ennis replied, brushing Jack's damp hair from his face and stroking his cheek. The intensity of his feelings for Jack would never fade; he knew that now and no longer had to fight it. "Love you somethin' fierce..."

Jack smiled and took his hand, kissing it. "The feelin's mutual, cowboy. Let's not worry 'bout tomorrow...just focus on this. Us. All that matters in the end..."

"I know." Ennis kissed him one last time and they leaned in close, letting their eyes shut and losing themselves to sleep.

September 28th, 1975

Two days later, their good moods were sullied by another piece of hate mail. Jack was at the mailbox on the road leading down to the ranch, rifling through. It was usually a mixture of bills, ranching information and Hamley's Saddle Catalogue for Ennis. Now and then there might be a short letter from his mother, telling them that she was thinking of them and was hoping for a visit soon. Sometimes there were even letters from Wyoming and Texas; for the kids from their old friends. Jack was glad that they were keeping in touch.

At the bottom of the pile, he found a thick envelope with no return address and no evidence of who it was from. He looked at it warily and opened it; inside was a note and a photograph.

Jack froze as he looked at them, his heart racing as he took in what he was seeing. He had to get back and tell Ennis about this. It was evidence that someone was watching them, and he'd never been this scared by a piece of mail in his life.

He hurried down the path as quickly as he could, hoping against hope that the trees were empty right now. The last thing he wanted was to be stalled when trying to show Ennis what he'd found.

"Ennis!" he called as he neared the barn; that was where he'd last seen the man. "You in here?"

"Just a sec, bud," Ennis called from the tack room. He emerged with a smile on his face and Jack hated that it would soon be gone. "Hey, rodeo. Anythin' good in the mail?"

Jack looked at him sadly. "There was at first..." At Ennis's confused look, he continued. "Bills, mostly. But there was somethin' else..." He held out the envelope with the note and photo. "Take a look."

Ennis took it and his eyes widened at the note. It was made up of newspaper letters, so there was no way of tracing it to the person who had created it.

Last warning, queers. Get out or you'll regret it.

"Jesus, not again..." He then looked at the photo and shock rippled through him. It was a photo of himself and Jack, out on the back steps just a few days ago. He was wearing his new boots from Jack, so it must have been taken on his birthday. It had clearly been taken from the trees, where someone had tried to shoot Jack. But the frightening thing about it was that there were red crosses drawn across both of them, as if they had been marked for death.

He looked up at Jack, who was looking scared. "What the hell...? Someone took this of us...on our property..."

"Yeah. An' they marked it...they're gonna..." He bit his lip and Ennis moved forward, pulling him close. As terrified as he himself was, he couldn't stand it when Jack was frightened. All he wanted was to provide comfort even if he needed it himself.

"Gonna be okay, darlin'," he murmured, rubbing Jack's back and feeling Jack cling to him. "I know it's scary, but..."

"I can't lose you, Ennis..." Jack mumbled into his shoulder. "I just can't..." He pulled his face back and his eyes roamed over Ennis's features. "Jason Marcus musta done this..."

"Probably. But we can't go panickin'...not now. We gotta tell Fred 'bout this, an' show it to him." Jack nodded and was relieved when Ennis kissed him; it was the kind of comfort he needed right there.

Back at the house, they called Fred and he agreed to come over right away to take the evidence. Neither of them wanted it around anyway, but they knew that they would have to tell the kids about this; they had a right to know what was happening in case Ennis and Jack decided to move after all. The way things were going, it was very likely.

While they waited for him, they sat at the table drinking coffee and holding hands. Both were silent as they thought about the photo. Somebody had trespassed, once again, and taken a photo of them. Then they had marked the two subjects and mailed it to them with a hateful note. Jack wondered what the hell they had done to deserve this; why did Jason Marcus hate them so much for being gay?

"What are we gonna do?" he asked in a sigh, rubbing his forehead. Ennis looked at him sympathetically. They'd had such a good day together on his birthday, including an incredible night of sex, and now it felt like they were coming back down to reality with a very hard bump. He hoped that these events didn't take their toll on Jack and make him worry more; Ennis preferred it when Jack was happy, for it kept him sane. If Jack started sinking into some kind of depression, Ennis didn't know what he would do.

"I dunno, bud," he admitted, squeezing Jack's fingers. Jack looked up at him.

"Do you think...we should move now? I know we said we'd wait it out unless someone got hurt...but I'm thinkin' that might be too dangerous now. I was nearly shot, an' now that photo...maybe we oughta go before it's too late..."

Ennis nodded, thinking it over. There was some logic to Jack's words; he'd thought it was best to wait and see what might happen, but now he could see what a huge risk it was. They were playing with fire by staying here waiting for something to happen and he wondered if the best plan was to leave right now, as soon as the kids got home.

"Maybe. But...I still reckon we got a chance. If we can just get rid of that guy...everythin' might get sorted out."

"I hope yer right, Ennis...I don't want nothin' happenin' to you or the kids." They fell silent once more, thinking of their options and how far things might go before fate decided for them.

When the kids left school later that day, Jack was waiting for them around the corner. He did this so as to avoid stares and whispers, both for him and the kids. While Jason Marcus appeared to be the only person actually doing anything, it was clear that many residents of the area didn't like his relationship with Ennis, and sometimes just a dirty look could lower his spirits.

He saw the kids round the corner and approach the truck in his rear-view mirror, and sat up straighter. They had agreed that they should tell the kids about the note and the photo so that they could be aware of how things were going, and the possibility that they might be moving. He and Ennis had talked it over and decided that they would give things another week to see how it panned out, and then decide whether or not to move once and for all. Neither of them wanted to leave it until it was too late.

The kids opened the door and piled into the truck. "Hi, Daddy," Bobby greeted him with a grin. He was doing a lot better now that he had a tutor, and was catching up fast to his classmates.

"Hi, Jack," the girls chorused, and he looked at them all with a pang in his heart. They were doing so well now, even with the whispers and stares. His and Ennis's families had weaved together into one, and he hated the fact that they might have to be uprooted again so soon.

"Hey, kids," he replied, trying to put on a brave face until they got home. "Listen, somethin' happened when you was here. Me an' Ennis got some nasty mail again, an' we already gave it to the sheriff. But when I get you home, we're gonna tell you everythin', okay?"

"That guy still bein' mean?" Bobby asked, looking slightly scared. He couldn't understand why someone could treat his father and Ennis this way just for being together; Jack sometimes wished he could have Bobby's childhood innocence, where everything was black and white. As adults, he and Ennis would have to deal with this whilst also trying to keep the danger away from the kids.

"He is, son. But we're tryin' to get him locked up before he does somethin' real bad." He got the truck into gear and started off, thinking about how they could possibly tell the kids that someone wanted him and Ennis dead. What kind of thing was that to say to a child, even if it was true? The kids shouldn't have to deal with this at their young ages; all he and Ennis had ever wanted for them was a quiet life in which they could grow up as normally as possible. This was why they had decided to move to a new home in the first place; so they could grow and mature in a safe environment where they would be looked after. Nothing was certain anymore.

When they got home, he found Ennis in the kitchen preparing dinner. "Hey, bud. Got the kids home; they're in the livin' room."

Ennis nodded and slid his arms around Jack's waist. "It'll be okay, bud. I know this is gonna scare 'em, but...they're pretty strong. Reckon they can deal with it." Jack nodded and held onto Ennis.

"I know. Let's go tell 'em." They exchanged a quick, reassuring kiss and then headed through to the living room, where their children were still blissfully unaware of how severe things were. "Hey, you three," Jack started as they sat down, hating what they were about to do. "We gotta talk to you."

The three kids turned and faced them, wondering what their fathers had to say that was clearly weighing on their minds.

"What is it?" asked Junior, looking between them and hoping that it wasn't too bad. "What was that hate mail you told us 'bout?"

"Well...the note itself wasn't all that bad. Just tellin' us to get outta here soon or...we'll regret it," Jack replied, squeezing Ennis's hand tightly. "But...there was a photo with it."

"Yeah. Someone took a photo of the two of us on the back steps, an' we think it was done on my birthday," Ennis continued, trying to keep his voice even. "Thing is...they put two red crosses on it, one on each of us."

"That mean they're gonna hurt you?" Jenny asked in alarm, working it out. The two men looked at each other; they could lie and say no, but that wouldn't be fair. They had to be honest with the kids and make sure that they knew just in case they had to prepare for another move.

"We think so," Jack told her, and all three pairs of eyes widened. "Well, they're gonna try," he quickly amended, trying not to scare them. "But we told Fred an' he's tryin' to sort it. We think it was Jason Marcus again."

"He's already tried to shoot you," Junior said, looking worried. "What if he...?" She bit her lip and got up, rushing over to them. "Don't want you two gettin' hurt..." She sat down next to her father and hugged him tightly, and he looked at Jack helplessly. Seeing his daughter upset tore at his heart and he wished that things could be easier for them. He would never wish that he and Jack hadn't met, but he hoped that one day people wouldn't hate them for being in love.

"We're gonna try not to be," he told her, and Jack rubbed her shoulder. Jenny joined them and also clung to Ennis, and Bobby sat with Jack. The two of them held onto their children, trying to find some strength in this young life that they had created. Being with their kids had been the one thing keeping them sane when they had been apart, and they hoped that now all of them were together it would be enough to see them through this.

The five of them tried to get through dinner as normally as possible, but the two men could tell that their kids had been affected by their news. They'd ended up spending the remainder of the evening on the sofa together, watching a movie and huddling close together. It was as if none of them felt safe here anymore, and a part of Jack was actually hoping that the week passed quickly, so that they could move.

He and Ennis got the kids into bed and reassured them that all the doors and windows were locked, and that nobody was about to break in. Jack considered talking to Ennis about buying some kind of dog to keep an eye on things downstairs, but then he realised that this would be impractical if they were going to move.

They locked the bedroom door behind them and sat on the end of the bed, sighing in unison. Both of them were very glad that the day was over, but they knew that their troubles were far from finished. They wouldn't be truly safe until their assailant was behind bars where he could no longer get to them, but they didn't know for sure when or even if that would happen.

"Really took a toll on the kids," Jack commented as they stretched, looking forward to lying down in their comfortable bed. One of the things that made it so inviting was the fact that they shared it together. "They got so scared before..."

"I know. I thought they could handle it...but I guess not as well as I thought," Ennis replied, tiredly reaching for his buttons. Today had been a huge strain on them too, and all he wanted to do was lie down and try to rest. Jack looked over at him and nudged him.

"Come on...we'll feel better once we're in." They stripped off and threw their clothes to the floor, deciding to deal with it in the morning. When they were under the covers, they turned to each other as usual. Jack looked at Ennis and felt conflicted; he wanted to have sex with him, but didn't know if he was physically up to it. He was tired and worn out after the evening they'd had. "Ennis..." he started, unsure of how to tell him that he might not be able to do it; there weren't many nights when they didn't usually do something sexual, even if it wasn't the full act itself.

"I know, darlin'," Ennis replied, going through the same dilemma and sensing Jack's uncertainty. "D'you wanna?"

"More than anythin'," Jack told him as their hands found each other and squeezed. He didn't want Ennis to think that he was outright rejecting him; that would be like poison to their relationship. "Dunno if I'm up to it." Ennis kissed his hand.

"Can we give it a try?" he asked, not wanting to force Jack into it if he couldn't. But Jack nodded with a slight smile, relieved that Ennis was willing to take over where he couldn't.

"Sure...but you might hafta do all the work." Ennis nodded and slowly rolled on top of him, trying to stay gentle and make it last. "Mmm...that feels good."

Ennis cupped Jack's face in his hands and leaned down to kiss him, taking it slowly and knowing that Jack was in need of comfort. He would do whatever it took to help his partner. As they kissed, Jack could feel himself becoming aroused and pulled his lips away. "I think...I think I can manage it," he whispered, and Ennis nodded, reaching for the lube.

"Okay." He prepared himself while watching Jack's face and he yearned to put a smile on there. "Just relax, darlin'..." When he was ready, he slid Jack's legs over his shoulders and let them rest there, knowing that it would thus require minimum effort from Jack.

Jack smiled up at him and then his mouth opened as Ennis pushed in slowly. He felt himself being taken and sighed, head falling back to the pillow. "Oh...nothin' feels as good as this, cowboy..."

"Think you might be right there," Ennis replied, biting his lip as he slid all the way in. "Like...we're supposed to do this."

"Yeah..." When they were connected, it was as if the world stopped turning for a moment. All they were aware of was each other and what they were about to do. No matter what happened, people like Jason Marcus could never take this away from them. Their love could never be destroyed now; it was a force of nature.

Ennis moved slowly inside Jack, knowing that he was doing everything he could to help Jack relax. Sometimes, sex was the only way of calming them down after a hard day. He leaned down and kissed Jack firmly, and marvelled at how Jack could be bent in half like this and not be in any pain; Jack would have told him if he was.

Jack pulled Ennis closer to him as they rocked together, trying for more as pleasure washed over him. He felt as if he would be safe as long as Ennis was there, and hoped that he never lost him.

When they were done and cooling off afterwards, Ennis stroked Jack's cheek with the back of his hand. "You feel any better?"

"A little," Jack replied, moving closer to him along the bed. "Sure was good..."

"Yeah. I'd do anythin' for you, know that, right?" Ennis asked him, and Jack nodded.

"I know. Same here. I love you so much..." He felt a lump growing in his throat and looked away. Ennis didn't reply but simply held him close, sensing that he needed all the love and support that could be mustered.

"I love you too," he whispered, and felt Jack's arm sliding around him. "Just get some sleep, darlin'...tomorrow's another day, an' I'll be right here when you wake up." Jack smiled and closed his eyes, thankful that they were together at last.

September 30th, 1975

On Tuesday, both of them seemed a little calmer. Fred had gotten back to them about the new note and the photo, but with bad news. There was nothing that proved Jason Marcus had done it, not even fingerprints, and as a result nothing could be done. But they were still looking for him; it had been proven that he'd tried to shoot Jack and he was still wanted for attempted murder. At least he would go to jail for that if nothing else, but both Ennis and Jack were extremely nervous at the idea of him being at large. He could strike at any moment and they felt as if each breath could be their last.

They spoke to their lawyer Sam Johnson about the whole situation; he had been recommended to them by Sarah and had witnessed their signing of the power of attorney document. He'd informed them that while they weren't protected by law as a gay couple, Jason's actions were still considered illegal and he would still be going to prison if he was caught. This made them feel better about everything.

Around noon, they were sat by the lake together on a bench, Jack resting against Ennis with their fingers intertwined. It was getting colder now that October was approaching, but they had found inventive ways of keeping warm, especially at night in their bed. That was always fun.

"I ain't sure we should be out here," Jack said suddenly, sitting up when he felt prickling on the back of his neck. "I mean...he could be watchin' us right now."

"Maybe, but that's okay," Ennis told him. "If he was gonna try an' do somethin', he woulda done it by now."

"I don't like him watchin' us," Jack replied, looking over his shoulder and wondering if anybody was there. "Hate livin' like this..."

"Hey," Ennis tried to soothe him, and he pulled Jack closer. "It's okay. It don't matter if he's just watchin' us. As long as he don't do nothin', it's alright. I don't like this neither, but there ain't a lot we can do."

Jack relented and leaned back down, wrapping his arm around Ennis's stomach. "I know. When I was on the circuit...doin' that stuff I told you 'bout...I was scared that the wrong people would find out. I was lookin' over my shoulder then, too. I knew people were talkin' 'bout me...part of why I let Lureen chase me. Figured it'd be safe."

Ennis nodded; he didn't particularly like hearing about what Jack had gotten up to on the circuit, but it was all in the past now. Jack only wanted him for the rest of his life, and that was enough to banish his dark, jealous thoughts. Their light shone brightly and could help them take on anything.

"You thought you'd be safe if we got together," he said quietly, and Jack nodded.

"Yeah. Thought we could look after each other an' keep safe if we was together. I do feel safe with you, Ennis..." He closed his eyes. "Just ain't all that sure I feel safe here anymore."

Ennis pulled him close and kissed the top of his head, hoping that their troubles would be over soon so that they could concentrate on building a life together. It was all they'd ever wanted.

Jason watched them in the trees, thinking over what he was seeing. He thought about everything he'd done to try and get rid of them, but nothing had worked. They weren't budging, and he wasn't sure what to do next. He was wanted by the police for trying to shoot one of them, but he could feel no remorse. As far as he was concerned, he was doing the right thing and they deserved to be treated in this way.

He would never forget coming home so many years ago from school back in Montana, only to find that his father had left his mother for another man in town. They'd left the area and he'd never seen either of them again. His mother had been left heartbroken and Jason had sworn that he would never forgive his father.

He remembered just two years later, when he'd found out that his father had been killed for living with another man. They had been living in North Dakota and the people there had found out about his relationship, and had killed him. Jason had automatically blamed the other man for leading his father astray, and ultimately to his death. Over the years, he'd come to the conclusion that gay men didn't deserve to live, for they corrupted people to their sinful ways and caused their deaths.

When the two ranchers had moved in and he'd found out about them from his daughter, he had seen red. He'd tried time and time again to get them out of town, but his plans kept failing. The law was on their side now and he'd carelessly left footprints after his failed shooting attempt.

He'd watched them just now. Twist appeared restless, like he knew he was being watched. It seemed as though he was becoming scared by what was going on. Then Jason watched Del Mar pull him close in a show of comfort, and it clicked. Del Mar was the one getting in the way. He'd prevented Jack from being shot, and certainly seemed like he was protecting all of them.

Jason smirked to himself; that was the answer. If he got rid of Ennis Del Mar, then Jack Twist would surely flee the area with the kids, and he would get what he wanted. He couldn't get Jack alone; the man was just too well-protected by Ennis. If the protector was removed, he wouldn't even have to go after Jack; he would leave anyway. Jason nodded as he watched the two men get up and go back into the house, and he stood up. He had decided what he was going to do now; he just had to wait for the opportune moment.