Jack kept glancing at Ennis as they skinned the elk he'd managed to bring down. Whenever they did this, it reminded him of the time on Brokeback when Ennis had shot an elk. For a long time, Jack had thought that Ennis only did it to shut him up about the beans, but now he had to wonder. Perhaps Ennis had done it for other reasons, even if he hadn't been aware of them yet.
"What?" Ennis asked when he caught Jack looking at him. Jack shook his head.
"Nothin'. Just rememberin' that elk on Brokeback that you shot. Remember, when I kept bitchin' about the food?"
"Yeah, I do," Ennis replied, smirking. "You wouldn't shut up, so..."
"Ennis?" Jack suddenly asked, needing to know if his thoughts were correct. "Can I ask you somethin'?"
"Well...why did you shoot that elk? Was it just 'cos I was complainin', or...?"
Ennis looked at him, and sighed in defeat. "No. Part of it was that, an' I tried to convince myself that it was the only reason. But...I did it 'cos I thought it would...make you happy. I know you only get like that when yer miserable, so...I just wanted to...see you smilin'." His cheeks reddened and he couldn't meet Jack's eyes; he would never find it easy to talk about his feelings. "That's why I ordered soup even though I don't eat it. Thought you'd be happy about it."
Jack put down his knife and scooted over to Ennis, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Ennis...I kinda figured that was it. Just wanted to hear you say it. An' I did appreciate it when there was more to eat than just beans. I'm sorry if you got tired of me complainin', but...I was nineteen an' used to my mama's good cookin'. Didn't react too well to bad food."
"It's okay, bud," Ennis told him, nudging him slightly. "Don't matter now." Jack kissed his cheek and they finished up with the meat, wrapping it up for later. When they were done and were washing their hands in the river, Jack was overcome with his desire to tell Ennis how he felt, and he thought that he would be able to do it this time. He needed to say that word to Ennis, even if the man couldn't say it back.
"Ennis?" he asked softly, turning towards him. Ennis looked at him, unaware of what Jack was planning. "I've gotta tell you somethin'."
"What?" Ennis asked, fearful that Jack couldn't meet up with him anymore, or that he was ill. Jack took a deep breath.
"Well...we've been gettin' together like this for five years now...an' we've known each other for nearly ten. Been a long time...but there's a lot we ain't said."
"Like...?" Ennis enquired, suddenly very nervous. He didn't like where this was going; if he allowed Jack to say that word, and they got together, he could lose Jack if someone found out.
"Well..." Jack looked into Ennis's eyes. "Ennis, I...you know how I feel 'bout you, right? I mean...in here?" He pointed to his heart and Ennis panicked, not wanting to head down that slippery slope.
"Jack, don't," he said, standing up abruptly. Jack followed him, feeling confused.
"What? Ennis, we gotta talk about this..."
"We can't," Ennis protested, turning away and wishing that he could allow this to happen. But he had too much to lose; he didn't want to see Jack get hurt. Jack swallowed down his disappointment.
"Why not?" he asked quietly. "Is it 'cos you've got a nice little life in Riverton an' you don't want people thinkin' that you ain't normal?"
Ennis let that go; he knew how Jack felt about that. He turned around. "That ain't it, Jack."
"Then what?" Jack asked, growing frustrated. "Tell me, then. Why won't you let me say it? You already know what I wanna say."
"Yeah, I do. But we can't do that. If I let you say them words..." He sighed. "I won't be able to leave you again after this trip. If we say that stuff...I can't say goodbye to you."
"Then we could get together," Jack told him, trying to make him see the good in this. But Ennis had made his mind up.
"If we do that...you could get hurt. The wrong people find out...it's over. I don't wanna see you get hurt 'cos of me. It'd be my fault, 'cos I woulda agreed to a life together. It can't happen, Jack...this is the only way to keep us safe."
"I don't believe that," Jack said defiantly, folding his arms. "I think we'd be safer if we was together...we could take care of each other. Yer always sayin' you don't want someone hurtin' me...that won't happen if we're together...'cos you could protect me. Ain't that better than us bein' apart so many months?"
Ennis so wanted to just say yes, and run away with Jack into a life of happiness. But it was just a dream, and he knew that the reality could be very different. He longed to tell Jack that he loved him, but he knew that once he did there was no turning back. He just couldn't let it happen, but not because he didn't want to. They had to stay safe.
Jack seemed to concede defeat, and he sat down on a log. Ennis sat beside him, knowing that he'd hurt Jack once more. Jack tried to ignore him, but Ennis pulled him close and kissed his cheek gently; his resolve melted and he closed his eyes, feeling drained.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, taking Ennis's hand and squeezing it. "I know that it's probably a good idea to keep things as they are. I just...can't help wishin' it could be more."
"I know, darlin'," Ennis told him, somehow knowing that Jack needed to hear the endearment. "I'm sorry, too." They sat there in silence, feeling caught up in a vicious circle that they would never be free of.