A Broken Heart & 42 Dead Sheep
A bullrider friend of his named Buford offered him a midnight ride south as far as Riverton... he didn't make it by half.
During the entire trip the big crazy cowboy kept making fun of Twist because "real" cowboys hate sheep. He and his father's old army duffel bag were put out after losing his temper in the north central part of the state somewhere between Buffalo and Kaycee. Jack wound up walking and hitchhiking the rest of the way in the dark. Fortunately he was smart enough to bring a roadmap and a compass with him.
He had hundreds of miles to cover and fortunately he caught a few rides over the next five hours, though they were few and far between.
Twist hated sheep too but with work nowhere to be found in Lightning Flat what other choice did he have?
Shrugging into his jacket in the chill air somewheres before dawn, he was on foot again headed southeast on Route 82. Jack encountered a triple set of railroad tracks and while crossing them noticed a darkened pickup truck off to his right. It was parked idling in the moonlight pointing south, seemingly perched atop the rails.
A set of tracks ran along the south border of the Twist ranch so Jack had seen these trucks whizzing by before, but never up close.
As he approached he noticed it had an odd set of "training wheels" that kept it on the rails.
It was a white two-year-old Dodge stretched crew cab job that the railroad had custom made with three doors on each side capable of carrying nine men. The rodeo cowboy immediately wished he had one... then again he felt that way with just about any vehicle he laid eyes on.
Jack wondered about it being broken down and potentially getting hit by a train or maybe it was just waiting for someone.
He reached the open driver's window just as the remains of a thermos cup of cold coffee got thrown out of it barely missing him. There were two men in the front seat, one in the passenger side middle and the back seat was empty. Twist asked how far Signal was and they said they were fixing to go right past it on their way to work and offered a ride which was gratefully accepted.
After parking himself and his duffel bag in the middle seat behind the driver, Twist told them about taking a job working up on the mountain which resulted in a couple of groans from the men. The guy seated to his right said to watch out for bears, snakes, coyotes 'n such and also suggested taking some whiskey and a deck of cards with him to help with the boredom.
Jack had already thought of that. In fact he was surprised when the glass bottles in his big canvas sack didn't rattle together when he climbed in.
"Tell yer boss it's a good antiseptic in a pinch if he objects," suggested the driver.
The front passenger remarked, "I hear tell that Uhgeeree fella is still a goddamned heartless bastard. I don't envy ya one bit." He added with a laugh, "In school we useta call him 'Ugleery'."
The man seated next to him leaned closer in the dark, frowned and then asked, "Ya even old enough to drink boy?"
Jack was startled when his door was suddenly pulled open. A tall ghostly negro peered in at him from the moonlit darkness. Seeing that his usual middle seat was occupied by a stranger, he silently pushed the door closed again and then tried the door behind finding it locked.
Twist's eyes darted between the others who seemed unconcerned as the new arrival walked around the back of the vehicle and opened the third passenger-side door. Hauling himself in with a lunchpail and a railroad hardhat, he gruffly grunted a sleepy hello, parked himself in back and then pulled his door closed.
The driver called out a friendly, "G'mornin' Dale."
He seemed to be in his late thirties and spoke with an educated Midwestern accent. To no one in particular he asked, "He a new hire?"
Jack was mildly surprised when a chorus of "No sirs," came from the men.
The front passenger explained in a pouting tone, "We're totin' this here poor unfortunate hitchhiker down to Signal sir," then he picked up a little black plastic microphone and told their dispatcher where they were on the tracks and their destination. A burst of static acknowledged his transmission as the driver put it in gear and they began moving.
Jack became fascinated with the strange singing sound the pickup made riding the rails as they picked up speed.
From behind, the newcomer began sarcastically bitching that some day his people wouldn't have to always be riding in the back of the damned bus, which elicited some friendly laughs all around.
Considering the recent news reports of racial trouble and civil rights riots in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas they seemed comfortable with the man. The young bullrider relaxed and stopped worrying about somehow offending the colored supervisor without intending to. The situation contradicted everything he'd been brought up to know and Twist smiled to himself as the other men laughed and joked with the boss about their wives and their boss' boss.
Gratefully Jack came to know that except for the color of his skin the important man was just a regular and very likeable guy to them.
Not many people those days considered their employer their friend.
Twist was confused about acceptable 1962 labels, but smiled and reached his open palm back over his seat in the dark to shake hands with the very first colored/African-American/negro/black person that he'd ever met personally and probably only the third he'd ever laid eyes on in these parts.
"Jack Twist, sir."
The big man responded by shaking the offered hand firmly and responding, "You don't work for me so you can call me Dale. Glad to know you."
The men in the truck chuckled softly to themselves.
In a little over ten minutes they covered in a straight line what would've taken Jack an hour or more on foot. They left him off at a railroad crossing in Signal pointing him to their right (west).
They went on their way having given Twist a civics education he hadn't expected but truly welcomed.
Scanning his surroundings in the dim pre-dawn hours he thought there was nothing but lonely asphalt and open fields. Just then lights suddenly sprang to life in a business thirty yards or so ahead on his right. Yawning and foot weary, he spent 20-25 minutes downing scalding but fresh coffee at a little combination ma & pa restaurant-food store with an Esso gas station attached to its right side.
Eventually the young man asked directions at the cash register and the young lady frowned.
The waitress pointed vaguely out the window towards the west and said it was one stop sign... east-no-west... um that-a-ways, turn right and uh around half a mile up that-a-ways on the right... no, uh on the left-hand side. She added something about a hardware store somewhere but that's not what he was trying to find. He figured he'd get even more confusing directions if he pointed that out to her.
He set off on foot again with the rising sun at his back. The damned duffel bag seemed to be getting heavier and heavier. He was beginning to rethink bringing his own bedroll and the lucky saddle blanket, though they did dampen the sound of those four whiskey bottles.
Ten minutes later after changing direction onto it, the young bullrider walked northward crossing to the left-hand side up a sleepy deserted street he'd already forgotten the name of. The sidewalk (if you could call it that) was parts cracked concrete, gravel, wooden planks and mud. One abandoned place constructed from a WWII rusted Quonset hut even had rotted wooden hitching posts in front of it for horses.
His side of the thoroughfare was lined with ramshackle one-story businesses that hadn't opened yet and was punctuated occasionally by empty lots or narrow gaps just wide enough to back a pickup up to a garage door or a loading dock. Most shops were vacant with faded dark-gold and black newspaper pages taped to the inside of their dusty glass. Many looked ready to fall down with chipped and faded paint over warped and cracked wood. Most of the signs had blotted-out business names.
Across the street to his right was the triple set of railroad tracks he'd just traveled down to get here. Between them and him was a forty yard wide stretch of field grass that stretched as far as the eye could see ahead and behind. It was empty except for an occasional tree here and there or an orphaned hulk of a rusting pickup truck picked clean of any usable parts.
A semi-truck whooshed up from behind disturbing his hat and jacket. It passed by fast, hauling the sound and smell of a load of sheep somewhere up north. A big pickup hauling a long horse trailer followed a few seconds behind it.
Brokeback Mountain and its assorted peaks rose majestically off to the east-northeast beyond the rails framed by a now blinding bright sky. There was still snow on its higher elevations and the sun had just barely topped its highest crest.
Twist's undulating solitary shadow walked beside him on the walls to his left while he noted address numbers. Other than his boot steps bouncing off the storefronts, the only sounds were of morning birds trying to out-sing each other.
Ahead was a well-kept and freshly painted white building with an overhead sign that stuck out over the sidewalk. It read CULLEN'S HARDWARE and had an address only two below where Jack was headed. Beyond that was a wide gap and then further on was Dave's Auto Body & Paint Shop.
He frowned and rounded the far cinderblock edge of the hardware store to discover he’d been hired out of a completely unmarked gray-green colored converted house trailer parked sideways all the way to the back of an open gravel lot. No street sign, address numbers, no building sign saying what it was... nothing.
Except for a multi-colored and derelict old pickup with partially flat tires, the lot was empty of vehicles and no one was in sight. The rusted truck had seen better days and it rested peacefully wedged between the office and the body shop's white wooden fence to the right. As usual with any vehicle he saw, Twist wondered if he could get it running while his feet reminded him of how far he'd walked between rides to get here.
As he paused about 30 yards from it he noted that the office was perched atop railroad ties and concrete cinderblocks stacked five high and had two doors near opposite ends. The left entrance of the dusty, weathered and faded portable building had no steps up to it. To the right of the other door was a mailbox nailed to the wall above a slotted wooden drop-off box for employment applications.
Somewhere off behind it, a church bell counted out 8AM.
The sound of the garbage can being bumped made him look up in time to see a lanky young guy in his mid-teens sporting closely cut dark brown hair, a T-shirt and new blue jeans. He'd just emerged from between the right side of the trailer and the old pickup carrying something that he laid down on the fourth step.
The youngster moved to the left of the stairs and plugged an electric drill on an extension cord into an outdoor electrical box below and to the right of the central window, then mounted the steps and set to work boring pilot holes into the middle of the door in a wide rectangular formation.
He had his back to Twist and so far hadn't noticed him. He was maybe an inch shorter than the bullrider.
A glance backwards at the sound of Twist's approaching boot steps on gravel revealed a friendly smile before he turned back to his work. He began using wood screws and an old screwdriver to attach an oblong wooden sign just beneath the front door window of the makeshift company office.
He appeared younger than Jack expected for someone employed to herd sheep and looked to be in about 10th grade. Probably some local kid hired to do chores around the trailer. He was the first male Jack had seen over fifteen that didn't wear a cowboy hat.
A rumbling from a compact southbound diesel distracted them and both took a glance backward to watch a railroad utility tug lumbering down the rails pulling a set of five big black tank cars and six boxcars with no caboose attached. It disappeared to the right beyond Cullen's with its whistle roaring a warning at the crossing Jack had been left off at earlier.
It was probably part of a train headed for assembly at the rail yard where the men he'd met an hour or so ago worked.
As the cowboy arrived at the steps, he expected maybe a company banner or logo on the boy's newly stained and varnished placard. Instead it appeared to say something about trespassers and solicitors but Twist wasn't interested enough to stand there and read it.
Jack almost asked if this was the right place when he noticed silver and black stick-on letters that spelled OFFICE on the door glass and the name J. AGUIRRE on another little white sign just above the window. He had a postcard in his pocket with that name on it.
Except to exchange “Hi”s, the two ignored each other. The busy kid hurriedly got back to work as if he were trying to finish before someone else got there.
Jack dropped his duffel bag to the left of the stairs and moved to crowd up to the right of him in order to knock on the door. He'd no sooner put his foot on the second step when an older blue Dodge station wagon pulled into the lot.
The youngster quickly backed off down the steps as it approached, and the kid silently gestured for Jack to do the same. The car swiftly came directly at them in a cloud of gravel dust and veered to the left of the steps at the last second. Whomever it was behind the wheel had a warped sense of humor and liked to watch people panic.
A sour looking middle-aged man with touches of gray in his dark hair and mustache got out of the car clutching a chromed lunchpail and some papers in his left hand. He leaned back in, grabbed a grayish colored cowboy hat with a flat brim and stuffed it on his head as he pushed the car door closed with his knee. He transferred around five or six manila file folders to under his left armpit.
He ignored Jack completely while rounding the front of the old station wagon. Pausing at the foot of the steps to read the kid's sign, he rolled his eyes in exasperation and growled impatiently, “Ya spelled it wrong. Go do it again and be quick about it er ya ain’t goin’.”
The boss topped the stairs, unlocked the door, stepped aside to pull it open and then turned to meet Jack's eyes for the first time. Sizing the youthful rodeo rider up, he huffed derision and then entered the dark interior. As Jack was fixing to follow him in, the old bastard abruptly pulled the door closed behind himself in Twist’s face.
The young bullrider frowned at the door while listening to the sound of the foreman stomping towards the back of the trailer.
The schoolboy heard his new companion mutter "Well fuck you too," under his breath at the door. The teen snorted a laugh as he climbed the steps up to the entrance. Reading his placard again, he cussed under his breath and got to work taking the sign back down. Fortunately he'd cut, stained and varnished two wooden blanks for it just in case and thinking ahead, he'd also brought his wood burning kit with him.
Jack uttered, “’scuse me,” intending to reach for the doorknob again to enter while a pesky bee buzzed his head.
Just then the cranky employment manager, now minus his hat, pushed the left rear door open and called out with a smirk, “Ya want the job er not? Climb up this-a-ways pronto lessin’ yer loco enough ta stand out there all day.”
The back entrance next to the boss’ desk had no way in, so Jack had to haul himself up. After pulling the door closed, he walked around to in front of the desk while his eyes adjusted from the bright morning sun to the dim interior. Noticing no chair to sit in, he planted himself confidently on wide spread feet facing the rude old bastard and handed over his employment confirmation reply postcard.
Twist silently wondered just how much bullshit he'd have to endure from this man.
Without so much as even glancing at it, Aguirre tossed the card in the wastebasket next to his desk. Jack took it as disrespect but old Joe didn't need it since Twist's application was right in front of him amongst the clutter.
An expectant silence filled the trailer while the boss rifled his desk drawers looking for something. Out came an empty cellophane encased paper cigar 6-pack that he crumpled and threw away cussing under his breath. Next he took his good old time lighting a cigarette, taking a couple of deep tokes while he scanned the paperwork.
Finally he said with a smug expression, "Twist; This here job requires just two things. Stamina and enough brains to outwit a goddamned stupid sheep."
As if daring his young applicant to reply, the old man looked doubtfully up at the bullrider and took another couple of drags off his Marlboro, exhaling a building cloud of smoke while flicking the ash in a stained bakelite ashtray. Jack was tempted to light up one of his Salems himself and remained silent despite the provocation.
The black desk phone rang. "Yeah?... Okay get 'em unloaded 'n inventoried 'n I'll be out there in half ah hour. Ya got enough paint this time? ...What color ya usin'? ...okay."
The boss hung up the phone, reached around behind for a clipboard hanging on the wall and then scribbled something on it before putting it back up.
Aguirre stood up to walk over to the door Jack had just entered from, pushing it outward until it swung around to the right and banged against the outer wall. The bright morning sunlight suddenly streamed in and turned the cigarette smoke into a swirling hazy fog. Joe peered out to the left to check on the kid's progress, turned back in and then hit a light switch on the back wall behind his desk.
An exhaust fan set in the wall near the ceiling hummed to life and rattled in its cage every so often just enough to be distracting. A tiny dispersing stream of gray smoke trailed upward from the ashtray as the air suddenly cleared.
The sounds of a far-off train horn and a passing couple of tractor-trailers hauling sheep rumbled through the open door as Aguirre sat back down in his protesting swivel chair.
If it weren't for a stapler, paperweights, and assorted date stampers holding them down, the piles of paper in front of him would've been blown across the room by a gust of wind. As it was, they just fluttered and flashed in the early morning glare.
Aguirre frowned as if something was missing from his desk and startled Jack by abruptly yelling towards the door, "HEY! Bring me my thermos outta the car."
After a few preliminary instructions, Joe told him not to worry that he’d never done this kind of job before because the kid would teach him the ropes. Twist would be fine as long as he followed the instructions he was given.
A hand thudded a tall chromed thermos on its side at the threshold of the open door and just as quickly vanished. It rolled once towards the desk and stopped as the attached cup's handle rotated around to the floor.
Aguirre struggled up in his chair just enough to reach around to the top of a pale green file cabinet against the wall. From a small cardboard box full of identical cheap wrist tickers, he fished one out and then quickly tossed it at Twist without warning, smirking when the rodeo rider fumbled and nearly lost it in surprise.
One out of ten of the watches were dropped and broken in the process but since he paid next to nothing for them in bulk, the entertainment value alone was worth it. The self-important boss man figured that anyone without the coordination or moxie to catch one probably wasn't worth shit anyways.
The documents on his desk were now blinding white from sunlight coming through the open door. Aguirre proceeded to tell him about weekly scheduled supply runs that he or his young partner would be required to make.
Jack was pleasantly surprised to find out that the company would provide him with certain amounts of free cigarettes of the brand he smoked and whiskey per weekly request. The liquor was a cheap brand but it was better than nothing or having it deducted from his pay.
Aguirre pointed a finger at something outside, "That kid had better not get none of either," he warned.
If any hint of a forest fire up there came down to him, or the Forest Service reported any camping or grazing violations, they'd be on only bare necessities for the rest of their time up there.
While winding and setting the wristwatch Jack suddenly frowned and silently wondered, "Kid? ...What kid?"
To Twist's chagrin he found himself assigned to a 16-year-old named Johnny who knew the trails and Forest Service procedures. Without being given the time to digest that news, it turned out that his new boss was the very teenager who was outside fiddling with the door sign when he arrived!
The 18-year-old bullrider opened his mouth to object and decided against it at an expectant warning glance from the foreman...
...Five minutes later Aguirre grunted as he bent down to pick up the thermos in the doorway. He straightened up deep in thought and watched the young cowboy walk away towards the street to vanish after turning left up the sidewalk. The foreman had pointed him north towards a bar to wait out the kid finishing up the sign. Joe hoped he'd made the right decision hiring Twist. Jack for sure didn't know it yet, but he'd been given a hell of a lot more responsibility than he'd bargained for.
As a rule ranch cowboys and sheep don't mix well. Neither do rich cattlemen and lowly sheep owners, but Joe was very shorthanded this year.
Meanwhile, after being told he wouldn't be needed for about an hour and that his duffel bag would be fine where it was, Twist made himself comfortable at the bar in a nearly empty tavern and smoked three cigarettes while nursing a couple of pleasantly ice cold beers. Having been left nothing to munch on but a wooden bowl of pretzels, he was beginning to regret not eating breakfast at the diner.
Jack looked up at the husky bartender and protested, "That ad o' theirs' didn't fuckin' say nothin' bout havin' to babysit some brat whilst I was up there."
The man just frowned in puzzlement and went back to wiping down the bar, figuring it was the beer talking...
...The youngster, still minus a hat, appeared at the door forty-five minutes later. Being too young to enter, he simply called out Twist's name and the 10th grader introduced himself as "Jack" as he shook hands out on the sidewalk. Twist objected and said Aguirre said his name was Johnny. The kid tersely replied that his name was Johnny-Jack and then turned and left before the young bullrider could reply.
They were trucked out to the "Proulx River #A" trailhead a half an hour later.
After a few false starts over forgotten items the two of them selected horses, gathered up five hundred sheep and lambs, eight herding dogs, two pack mules and supplies, and then finally headed out up Brokeback Mountain late that afternoon.
The kid apparently was a fan of the TV show "Rawhide" because he wouldn't stop joyfully yelling, "Head 'em up 'n move 'em out!" at Jack and the dogs. After around the fifth time Johnny did it, the rodeo cowboy intentionally let out with a piercingly loud whistle to drown him out.
Twist was reluctant to take orders from someone younger at first but the young man seemed to have the skills for the job and they soon got along fine. By mid-afternoon though, the kid started getting cocky apparently enjoying being able to boss someone older around.
The dogs kept the herd ahead of them on course and moving... for a little while. As more and more of them bunched up eventually the flock came to a dead halt and the two herders rode forward to find the woolies milling around this side of a stream. Despite the K9s barking and snapping at heels nothing moved.
Jack dismounted and stood at the edge of the water completely mystified. Thirty feet behind and surrounded by a jostling sea of wool, Johnny came to a halt in the saddle and just nodded as though he'd expected this.
Jack frowned backwards towards his partner completely lost and protested, "They cain't be a'sceered of the water, we've been crossin' it all along the way!"
Still atop his mount, the kid scoffed downward at him, "We've been crossing little brooks. This'n is wider… and faster. Sheep don’t like that."
Jack turned around to scan the flowing water. His gaze returned to find a look that dripped disrespect as the kid took the attitude of a parent ordering an ignorant child around.
"Pick up one of the lambs," he said jutting his chin towards the one closest to Twist. "then carry..."
The rodeo cowboy straightened up. "If'n ya think I'm gonna carry five-hunderd sheep acrossed..."
The kid got angry and bellowed, "I'm tryin' ta teach ya somethin' er are ya forgetin' I'm the damned boss a ya ‘n this herd?"
Jack stood there balling and unballing his fists, nearing the verge of stalking over and tearing the brat off his high horse and then beating the shit out of him.
Johnny's steed was becoming nervous from the angry voices. The youngster leaned forward, gently patting the steed’s neck comfortingly, then straightened up and threatened, "Ya can either do what I say, er ya can turn tail ‘n ride down ta see Aguirre about yer walkin' papers."
While Jack's temper was in danger of coming to a boil, he weighed which he needed more, his job and the money to escape Lightning Flat... or his pride.
"WE'RE LOSIN' DAYLIGHT HERE TWIST!"
All around them sheep bleated while dogs barked trying to get them moving again.
Swallowing hard as if he were trying to force his pride down his gullet, Twist asked, “Now what?”
John said in a more patient tone, “Look around you, find the youngest lamb that you can grab, ‘n then sling it up over yer shoulders.”
Jack complied and then turned to face his young boss barely controlling his anger, fixing the teenager with an icy stare, his teeth gritted to keep from speaking.
Johnny simply nodded across the shallow rocky stream.
As Jack obeyed, the teenager warned, “Don’t look back till you reach the other side.”
His burden began protesting loudly in his ear while the rodeo cowboy crossed, choosing his footing carefully. He cussed under his breath feeling the icy water leaking into his worn old left boot and slipped a couple of times but kept his balance despite being top heavy... He wasn’t about to give the little bastard the satisfaction of seeing him fall.
Reaching the other side, and still facing away he slipped the squirming little beast up over his head and gently set it down on the ground. As it continued crying out for its mother, Twist finally turned back around and was astonished to find he’d been followed by around forty sheep and most of the dogs.
The rest of the flock was still reluctant until Johnny spread both arms straight out like he was hanging on a cross. He got the flock’s attention by yelling, “HEAD ‘EM UP ‘N MOVE ‘EM OUT!”
The startled stragglers began crossing en mass.
Jack’s jaw dropped in astonishment as they passed on either side of him while the Border Collies and Australian Shepherds guided them up the path ahead. Johnny rode up aside Jack’s blonde horse, grabbed the reins and then brought the Palomino mix across with him. When they met on the other side, Jack swung up on his steed, looked away and muttered, “Thanks.”
“Stay behind and watch fer stragglers,” he replied, then added, “Join me up ahead when yer sure they’re all across.”
A while later after they came together again, the boy acted as if nothing had happened between them, and spent most of the first leg of their upward journey complaining about Aguirre only trusting him with half a flock compared to what the other herders were assigned.
Jack remained silent while he recovered his pride, but eventually he opened up and began conversing with the kid.
Over the next several days they traveled uphill in stages. They slept together in individual bedrolls inside a big portable camp tent on concrete pads designated by the Interior Department. These areas were scattered all over the National Forest that encompassed Brokeback.
They shared cooking and cleaning chores and as they warmed to each other’s company, Jack even shared a few sips from one of the four bottles of "good" whiskey he’d secretly brought with him.
Over the course of a week or so they guided the woolies up the mountain and the rodeo rider had to admit the teen knew what he was doing. Johnny confidently taught him strictly enforced Forest Service fire rules and the regulations concerning where the sheep could graze. He warned Jack twice about making sure they were out before flicking his cigarette butts anywhere, and suggested he store them in a pocket to make sure and then unload them in a stream along the way.
He also showed him the proper way to set up camp and assemble their equipment in case a ranger came out to inspect. The youngster demonstrated how to choose and cut down disposable tall thin trees instead of always carrying clumsy poles around with them. He explained that they were used in order to make tripods to string up their bagged food high above the ground against hungry animals like bears.
Early on, the boy asked Twist to bring up a couple buckets of water from a stream for cooking and their canteens. A puzzled Jack couldn't locate a bucket anywhere. Johnny laughed and pointed to a couple of flattened tan colored collapsible canvas pails lined with soft plastic.
They cooked in turns until it became plain that Jack could only manage things that came out of a can like stews, ravioli, corned beef hash and condensed soup... anything but beans. Jack's mother bought fifty cans of pork and beans at a going-out-of-business sale when he was a boy and after a month Twist to this day could barely stand the sight of them.
The kid must've been out camping a lot because he was a very good cook and by eventual mutual agreement, he made most of the meals, usually with seasoned baked potatoes and/or corn on the cob in foil and delicious concoctions involving canned or jarred gravies, sauces and vegetables. He also knew that the frigid snowmelt streams were cold enough to keep leftovers in submerged glass mason jars along with turning bottles of Coke, Orange Crush and root beer ice cold. Despite requests for it no beer was sent.
It became Twist's job by default to do the dishes and general cleanup afterward.
Together was the operative word. They lived, slept, ate, stream or rain bathed, guarded the sheep at night and herded the flock by day ...together. Even though they didn't want to, they were gradually forming a bond with each other. The only time they acted separately was when the kid went down on Fridays for supplies. When he thought about it Twist figured he had it pretty good. Since the sixteen-year-old was the "boss" he had to fill out the weekly paperwork on losses or incidents for the reports that went down too...
...on top of having to deal with that prick Aguirre.
Johnny turned out to be a fairly good hunter and fisherman (much to Jack's relief) and many times they ate trout. The youngster shot an occasional wild turkey for dinner, and made a gift of a particularly colorful tail feather from one for Twist's black "bad guy" Stetson.
The young bronco-bull rider loved that expensive hat; it'd taken nearly three weeks' rodeo pay to buy it last year. Maybe... Just maybe... Jack would buy the kid a cowboy hat for his very own as a parting gift when they came back down this fall.
When a wolf or coyote was spotted, Jack would point it out and "generously" let the kid take the shot. The boy acted grateful thinking Twist was just being nice and was appropriately proud when he'd hit it or scared it away.
As they traveled, Twist soon got the hang of commanding the dogs around and learned tactics to keep the flock under control. He also learned that the higher they went, the more likely a freak snow storm would hit. In fact according to Johnny it was common for flurries to fall every month of the year on Brokeback just like in Yellowstone Park.
The kid tried to correct his older companion whenever he was called "Johnny" but to no avail. The teenager kept asking to be called "Jack" like their popular President John F. Kennedy but Twist thought it’d be too much like talking to himself and wouldn’t play along. The two-year difference in their ages was important to someone who considered himself a man now standing on his own two feet.
In the coming days and weeks a tension would build between them because despite Twist's respect for the boy's abilities he was still, after all, a child in the bullrider's eyes. From then on Jack hardly ever addressed Johnny as anything but "Hey Kid!" which didn't help matters.
Showing an amount of maturity, Johnny realized that he ranked on 8th graders in school much the same as Jack was treating him. The teenager would just have to gain the man's friendship and affection some other way, since respect seemed to be out of the question.
Speaking of being a man, Aguirre sent word up with their first supply shipment that the government had notified the company that Twist had neglected to apply for his draft card and that his employer now was required to do it for him since the cowboy couldn't do it himself in a timely manner.
A resentful Jack told Johnny bitterly that at eighteen he was old enough to be drafted and die for his country in some war, but not old enough to vote until he turned twenty-one.
One night around the campfire, Johnny pulled out a big fancy harmonica and began playing, stomping his feet to keep time, and singing in an exaggerated Southern Redneck accent,
"Ever' time ah go to town,Jack replied by doing his best Elvis Presley impression of "You Ain't a Nothing But A Hound Dog!" which had them both in a pile of hysteric-laden laughter.
The boys start a-kickin' mah dowg... around.
Makes no difference if he is a hound,
Ya better stop kickin' mah dowg... around.
...Go on Bl-uuuuuuuuue..."
The two boys howled like dogs and laughed.
"Ya good dawg you."
Johnny threatened to start calling Jack "Ol' Blue," because Twist wouldn't call him "Jack."
The next few weeks were filled with continuously moving the herd ever upward. They talked about girls, their fantasized futures, girls, pickup trucks that they lusted after, girls, how glad they were to be spending time away from the authority of their parents... and girls. Jack brazenly bragged about how when he rodeoed he only needed to remove his shirt and show off his muscles to get any girl he wanted in the stadium... and sometimes he did. He advised the kid to "Always fuck 'em from behind so they don't get pregnant."
Traveling light, they'd only brought the one set of duds they were wearing. Johnny became good at washing their clothes in any stream they camped near and about once a week they'd string a clothes line, peel off their sweaty shirts, jeans and socks and then later they dried them above the campfire while they huddled bare-assed around it for warmth.
Twist began to suspect the kid was an orphan hired as cheap illegal labor.
Jack would try to draw the kid out by telling him how miserable his home ranch was and then tried to get Johnny to talk about his family. The boy would always change the subject and eventually Twist let it drop. The eighteen-year-old was well versed on fathers not getting along with sons. Jack's dad once humiliated him by telling a room full of people that his boy was such a bad rifle shot that he couldn't hit a bullet with the side of a barn.
Johnny silently remembered his father had once started a talk about sex with him and took him out to watch a couple of horses mating in a field. From that day forward the teen was fascinated with how incredibly huge the stallion was hung and how puny he'd felt in comparison. The first time he saw Jack naked, the teenager was relieved to find that he was "normal" ...just like the bronco rider was.
For a few days Twist started feeling uncomfortable because the youngster seemed to be constantly staring at the bullrider's crotch until one day Johnny said he liked the gleaming silver belt buckle that Jack had won recently at a local rodeo. The teen asked for a closer look and Jack was only too proud to jut his hips forward clicking it with his fingernail as the impressed kid approached to admire it.
Before he could take his belt off to show the youngster, the teenager moved in uncomfortably close and clutched the buckle with both hands. Johnny ran his fingers over it as if it were the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Suddenly having trouble breathing, the boy looked up into his new hero's eyes and abruptly rushed away to find something in their tent without giving an explanation for his haste.
After about another week of trying the kid finally gave up on getting Twist to call him "Jack."
So far they'd only encountered three coyotes and a bear, but both guys figured that'd change once wolves got the scent of the flock. The alpha predators may have been all but completely killed off in Yellowstone, but the survivors seemed to have migrated to Brokeback and the mountain now had more than its share.
Since they regularly had an excuse to be naked and both being adolescent, they were at that age when one thing was always on their minds, which meant quietly sneaking off in opposite directions for privacy on laundry days to "satisfy" themselves, though neither talked about it.
Jack's fantasies were about a girl he'd fallen in lust with back in high school...
...Young Johnny became increasingly puzzled and troubled when for no reason he could fathom, his own fantasies began involving a busty luscious blond girl with bouncing breasts. Riding a violently bucking monster bull, suddenly she was joined by Jack who was also naked. As the girl flailed around in front of him, his forearms securely came forward to securely hold her just beneath her incredible huge-nippled breasts... while he fucked her from behind.
In the next session days later, the bull became a big magnificent white stallion so Johnny found a tree stump away from camp that felt like a saddle under him. He closed his eyes and fantasized that a muscled and naked Twist rode up beside him. The cowboy's naked girl invited the young teenager to shed his clothes and join them... so he did.
Suddenly she vanished in a fog and Jack reached down to help the teenager climb aboard in front of his hero. The bucking bronco tossed and turned beneath them while Twist securely and bravely held onto him tightly to keep them from falling off. At first he thought it was the saddle horn but knew it was Jack inside him... where he wanted him... where he needed him.
The rodeo rider's huge strong left arm tightly wrapped around the teenager's waist. His fantasy man explored across his chest with his impassioned sweaty right palm, lips nuzzled his neck from behind, and the fierce horse bounced them violently while Twist began throbbing up within him, promising never to let him go.
He'd come out of it drenched with sweat and cum... completely confused and crying. The next times he'd try to put the girl back into it, but couldn't get hard unless he brought Jack back into it too... instead of her.
From then on he couldn't run his hand over the horn on his saddle without thinking of Jack.
Completely oblivious, the sixteen-year-old's rodeo cowboy hero had absolutely no idea about the obsessive crush the young man had on him. Months after they eventually came down from the mountain and went their separate ways, the teen would happen upon a newspaper photo of Jack Twist riding a bull in a rodeo and hide it in a special place in his bedroom where no one would find it...
...One night a week into July they'd almost finished packing up to move the herd when a driving thunderstorm swept up suddenly. The young men rushed out and unloaded the freshly packed mules and brought the large heavy bundles inside the tent. Johnny wanted to run back out and make sure the horses were tied securely. Before Twist could grab ahold of him to prevent it, the kid was out there fighting to get aboard his frightened steed.
What else could Jack do but chase after the crazy headstrong brat?
It took them hours in the downpour to get their charges back on their allotment and the two young men spent the rest of the night together shivering in soaking wet clothes huddled at the campfire in front of their tent.
Early the following week another even more intense storm popped up, this time with almost constant lightning, dime-sized hail and even more intense wind.
The gale shrieked like a dog being slaughtered as they again brought the supplies inside the tent.
This time the sheep were too far up the mountain to chance checking on them and fortunately (or unfortunately as the case may be) a tall spruce fell across their nearly enclosed grazing pasture blocking their escape. Also in their favor were the dogs trained to sleep with the flock, keeping the remaining ones still
The large number of woolies that got loose ran bleating back down the hill and as they passed the tent it sounded like the whole flock was lost.
In the chaos this time Jack kept a firm hand on Johnny in the dark. They could hear the frightened cries of about a dozen of them all around the tent and Twist figured they were safe if they stayed put.
What they didn't know was that thirty more of them blindly following the leads further down the trail had tumbled in the dark to their deaths over a steep cliff at a too-narrow curved passage and into the deep canyon below.
John and Jack fought to keep the violently flapping canvas tent from being swept away and spent hours cowering under it as near constant blinding flashes followed by ear-shattering whip cracks and crashing booms struck seemingly only feet from them.
The crown of a tall lodgepole fir tree crashed down loudly just outside the tent. The resulting impact wind nearly blew them and their canvas shelter away in the process. As violent electrical charges crackled the air in bursts around them, they huddled together in the dark, fearful that at any moment one of the collapsible metal support polls would be struck.
Within seconds another tree fell close by and the terrified kid, fearful of being crushed at any moment began sobbing in terror, clinging to Jack like he’d never let go.
Despite the upraised platform, high water and mud flowed freely downhill inundating the tent soaking everything that wasn't in plastic bags or oilcloth canvas. Anything light enough not to stay put immediately flowed downstream never to be seen again.
As the situation worsened, the cocky self-assured man that young Johnny-Jack pretended to be was slowly dissolving into a frustrated teenaged kid in tears because he wasn't able to deal with uncontrollable and unforeseen circumstances.
Jack wasn't doing much better but fought not to show it, knowing that if lightning struck the wet ground they stood on they'd be fried for sure if they weren't carried away in the flood first. Both hastened to pile their supplies up in the middle of the tent to form an improvised island to perch on.
Around three in the morning the storm subsided down to a light drizzle and the two young men decided to wait until daylight to assess the damage, hoping and praying that the horses and mules hadn’t escaped their hitching and bolted in panic.
In the silence, neither heard a single sheep as they wondered and worried for the dogs.
Jack got Johnny calmed down by making him help reset the tent in the dark. They stripped off their soaking clothes afterward and crawled naked into their individual bedrolls atop their supply island above the stream that still flowed through the shaky canvas shack.
Forty-five minutes later the kid complained that his bedroll was soaking wet and he was unable to sleep so Jack told him to crawl in with him. They barely fit in the sack back to back but at least they were now warm from their shared body heat and Johnny seemed less scared.
At sun up they both woke facing each other in an intimate sweaty embrace with the typical teenage boy’s morning hard-ons.
Jack swiftly got out of that bedroll like he’d just discovered a snake in it and in moments they exited the tent sopping wet clothes in hand. They were greeted with a scene of devastation.
Broken branches and debris littered the ground half buried in mud. Stones too heavy for them to lift had been scattered like toys all over the site. All around them the tall wild grasses were flattened. A wide path straight through their camp bared the landscape empty of only the strongest of trees... those that weren't lay uprooted or skewed all around them.
The flock was too far up-trail for them to see or hear.
An uprooted tall pine had toppled over, its outer branches only four feet to the right of the tent, and another fell only ten feet beyond it. Johnny looked skyward and loudly gasped, startling Jack into following his gaze. Directly above their heads another of the towering trees tilted right over them as if about to fall.
A light rain still fell and they took advantage of it to soap up and shower. When it stopped they set up the rope line to dry their clothes and the kid's bedroll again with what little dry wood they'd scrounged.
Standing naked around the fire trying to warm themselves, the wind suddenly changed and a putrid smell overcame them that had them vomiting in reaction.
Jack immediately thought of the horses and pack animals.
Johnny carefully tip-toed on bare feet through the mud and broken branches towards it and suddenly ran back to Jack, puking again as the youngster reached him.
Hidden just beyond the fallen lodgepoles were at least a dozen dead and bloated sheep that’d been struck by lightning only yards from where the two boys hid from the storm. They were scorched black and already covered with flies.
This many dead was sure to attract predators. Other than those twelve, no living sheep were milling around nearby that they could hear or see.
Fortunately the clearing half a mile up the trail from their camp was surrounded by dense forest that acted like a natural corral for the woolies.
Jack thought again about their mounts and checking behind was relieved to find the horses and mules still where they'd left them. The cowboy looked heavenward and mouthed a silent "Thank you."
It was then that he noticed four vultures circling... not good.
Jack's gaze followed the worrisome lodge pole's trunk down and confirmed that the saturated ground wouldn't hold onto that tree's roots much longer. They decided to strike the tent and get the hell out of there before it crashed down on them.
Their clothes were still damp when they put them on but at least the fire had warmed them.
Jack would be in a foul mood the rest of the day after he discovered his stash of cigarettes bundled with the supplies had been either ruined or washed away... which meant he only had a pack left from the inside pocket of his coat that would have to last until the next supply run.
"Fuckin' Johnny better fuckin' stay out of my fuckin' way."
Within an hour they’d hastily broken camp and began moving what was left of the flock uphill towards another allotment that the kid knew of. Johnny kept giving them a worried look and mentioned that it appeared as if some were missing.
Jack had the teenager and the dogs take the lead while he lagged back to count the herd as it passed... They were missing exactly thirty sheep, not counting the dozen dead they’d just left behind. A rough second count by both of them confirmed it and after getting the dogs to keep the flock still, they spent an hour looking and listening for the missing ones but never found them.
Forty-two fuckin' sheep. Aguirre's smartass remark about being smarter than one rang in his ears.
Their foreman would have a shit-fit when he found out, though young Johnny-Jack didn’t seem too concerned about it. After giving up hope of finding them, the young men camped late that night further up into the hills.
Jack dug into his stash of whisky after so rough a day, and he grudgingly began sharing it with his youthful companion until they'd finished off the whole bottle.
A crystal clear and starry sky brought a drastic drop in temperature. They built a larger than usual campfire but its warmth didn’t spread to the tent.
An hour after they bedded down, an obviously drunk Johnny woke Jack asking if he could sleep with Twist again and the cowboy consented since they were both dressed in dry clothing this time.
In the middle of the night Jack woke with a start to find the kid trying to kiss him. The young teen had undone Jack’s jeans too and his trembling hand had fondled Twist to a drooling erection.
A few violent moments later the kid lay in his own bedroll out by the campfire alone in the dark cold early hours of the morning. After half an hour or so of listening to the teen calling out how sorry he was, Jack got up, pulled an unused little rolled up pup tent for some extra warmth from their camp supplies, dropped it next to him without a word and went back to bed.
The rodeo cowboy had only four cigarettes left... he smoked two and had to fight with himself to keep from lighting up a third.
For the remainder of the week afterward that’s how it went between them; Jack slept in the camp tent and John in the pup tent. They went about tending the herd barely speaking to each other. The young teen passing a miserable doe-eyed glance at Jack when he wasn’t looking.
Thursday afternoon the flock came to a dead halt when they encountered an impassable mudslide blocking the trail that headed up to their next allotment...
Jack offered to go in his place to spare the kid having to face Aguirre with the loss of almost fifty of their charges, but Johnny insisted it was his responsibility as the leader.
The young man rose up proudly, reminded Twist that he was the boss of this herd, and then ordered him to search for an alternate route around the slide. Without waiting for a reply, the kid turned, mounted his horse and left camp trailing the mules behind him. Johnny kept looking back towards Jack like he badly needed to say something but Twist's cold gaze discouraged him...
...An hour later and long passed noon, Jack had to recapture his flock twice with only the help of the dogs because Forest Service helicopters assessing damage spooked the flock of 458 ewes and lambs into stampeding in all directions.
After a long afternoon with the sheep, Jack returned sweat-soaked and exhausted, in desperate need of one of only six expected precious packs of Salems he was allotted per week and some strong coffee... or maybe something stronger. He was having a tough time with his smoking habit as it was, especially after finding out cheapskate Aguirre limited him to half a dozen packs a week which meant he had to cut down to smoking less than a pack a day.
...the son of a funkin' bitch.
Over the previous week his mind was clouded over and all he could think about was if he'd somehow encouraged the kid to do what he did in the bedroll.
How could the teenager think he was... queer?
The kid hadn’t come back to camp yet and Jack waited until it was nearly dusk. He went worrying to the big tent looking for the one remaining partial bottle of whisky that he had left...
...he found it immediately.
...it was empty on his bedroll.
"SHIT," he yelled. "No cigarettes - no whiskey neither?"
Something caught his eye. Beneath the bottle was a note. It was written in smudged pencil and had barely legible cross outs and seemed to run together into one mangled sentence.
"I can't live with this terrible loco sin love for you inside me no more I wish I could make you understand how I feel how much I love but well I since I can't figure it neither I guess I'm a damned sinner faggot or something and you probably hate me and now that bastard will remind me forever that I was too stupid to even keep only 500 sheep together and now we've lost too many to have to face him can't face him if it'll be my fault if you get fired and I hate that and I'm sorry so sorry Jack really I’m sorry please forgive me for what I did and don’t hate me I'm going gonna go to my final glory today loving you forever.The damned kid must've been drunk when he wrote this. Balling the note up and shoving it in his pocket, Jack quickly mounted his horse and set out at a gallop down the trail.
An anger built up in him as he rode past two bears fighting over the dead sheep. Aguirre's words came to him again. He'd probably said the same thing to the kid and if the youngster killed himself over the whole thing, Twist would be sure that their boss shouldered some of the blame. The man had to be crazy to send a boy that young to do something like this anyways.
He was frightened for the kid and what he said he might do.
He was plumb confused trying to grasp what he'd just read because he'd never encountered such a thing before. He'd never loved a girl enough to kill himself over and the concept of a boy doing that because of another boy made him lost just trying to grasp such a queer idea.
In the near dark it’d be impossible to find the stupid kid but he had to try. All the while he kept worrying that the young love-struck teen might actually just be dumb enough... and drunk enough to try to kill himself over a silly adolescent crush gone wrong.
Would he be held responsible?
Would they somehow blame him if the kid showed up drunk at the office trailer and confessed his "love?"
Part way down the mountain he heard and then followed the panicked screams of a mule and in moments found both of the pack animals being confronted by a snarling wolf. Jack quickly grabbed his rifle and shot at the alpha predator, missing it but scaring it away. Just to be sure he fired two more shots.
If the mules hadn’t been securely tied to a tree near the edge of that cliff they’d have bolted too…
…Three quarters of a mile down the trail, Joe Aguirre and two of his men were making their way uphill. He'd gotten a bulletin from the Park Service about several rock slides and widespread damage. When the kid didn’t report to the corral bridge for supplies he assumed the worst and that the two he’d sent up there were in trouble after that big double storm.
He’d had reservations about sending that tenderfoot brat up there but Johnny had studied every trail in detail and had convinced the foreman that he could handle the job. Aguirre only consented to him taking on the summer task because the company was short-handed and he felt sorry for him - the damned kid was saving up for his first car.
Though he hadn't said so, Joe had chosen Twist specifically for this job to keep an eye on the kid. Bullriders had to be quick-witted, strong, smart and agile. They had to make lightning speed decisions or be mauled... the perfect protector for a snot-nosed youngster who thought he knew more than his years.
How could this fuckin' happen?
From somewhere uphill through the trees a rifle blast rang out and another...
...and then a third.
Aguirre spurred his horse to a gallop followed close behind by the two South American herders he’d brought with him…
…After calming the mules and locating Johnny’s horse, Jack began caterwauling for the kid at the top of his lungs with no answer.
The sun was setting and he was losing daylight fast. Before long he was cussing loudly in frustration as he continued yelling for his young companion until he was nearly hoarse. He sat down angrily on the edge of the cliff overlooking a deep red-hued and swiftly darkening valley.
About a hundred yards straight ahead in midair a majestic bald eagle seemed to hover in an updraft looking for a late evening meal for its family. In his younger days Twist once thought of shooting one just to sport a unique feather in his cowboy hat but was told it was illegal. Watching the big bird continue to circle he was glad he hadn't now as he pulled his cowboy hat off to admire the striped turkey feather.
As he put his Stetson back on his head, a sadness came over him thinking about the boy hurting himself. Twist grudgingly admitted really liking the kid and Jack started regretting the way he'd been treating the teenager.
He rose and took stock of the situation. The two of them had brought the flock up this way and Jack remembered being concerned about the narrow passage between the high bluff on their right and the precipice to their left.
Glancing around, he noticed the mules weren’t packed so the boy hadn’t reported to the jump-off trailhead below for supplies.
Fifteen minutes later, night had fallen to reveal the stars as he still stood there pondering his next move.
A low groan barely came from the empty space in front of him somewhere below.
He dashed to his horse for a flashlight, then tied himself with his lasso for safety edging reluctantly out carefully to scan over the area beneath the ledge. He spotted Johnny in his light beam on an outcropping of rock some thirty feet down. The teen was lying flat on his back; his face contorted in pain with his right hand reaching blindly towards Twist’s light.
The boy weakly smiled and said softly, "Old Blue to the rescue."
Hoping to lighten things up a little, Twist replied, "Shut up Kid."
Ten minutes later a very frightened Jack dangled in the dark from that saddle rope secured to the same tree that the mules were tied to. To his dismay the lower ledge only jutted out about five feet and then dropped straight down at least a mile into the empty black night.
The kid apparently hit a cushioned muddy patch covered with grass and rolled onto his back only inches from falling further. The fact that his injured spine left him unable to move and that he'd been briefly knocked unconscious probably saved his life.
Jack lowered himself the final few feet to the far left of the shelf, and stood on its crumbling rocky edge. Every movement seemed to send pebbles and rocks skittering down the cliff face and the surface felt like the whole thing would give way at the slightest misstep.
He gently bounced at his knees and felt the ground beneath his feet move.
For a moment his fear nearly took over and he contemplated saving himself, leaving the loco and babbling teen here to die alone.
Finally getting a grip on the situation, he retied himself off for safety and then struggled to keep the kid from moving as Johnny began gasping out shuddering choking tears and started pleading for Jack to let him die while complaining that his head felt like it'd been split open.
Twist was totally lost. Having lived all his born days feeling unloved he was confronted with the raw emotion in its purest form and he was unable to react or return it. Here was someone who was willing to kill himself because Jack didn’t love him.
The cowboy had come down thinking the kid would be able to come back up his rope without help...
...then the love-struck teenager announced that he couldn't move or feel his legs - only his arms.
Twist began cussing his inexperience at not bringing two ropes with him which meant going back up for another to tie to the teenager and then have the mules haul him deadweight up.
He knew one thing, he’d never succeed without the boy’s willing help so Jack grasped Johnny's hand and softly comforted him.
At least he'd had the presence of mind to bring the flashlight and a quick check revealed that the boy didn’t seem to be cut or bleeding which was a good sign. He had a bad bruise on his forehead though.
Again the boy gasped out his love and Jack rested a palm on his chest to calm him. As uncomfortable as it was to hear, he needed Johnny conscious if Twist ever hoped to rescue him off of this ledge.
A sound from above distracted Twist and he thought of the panicky damned mules and the wolf coming back. Jack looked skyward and realized he’d have a hard time climbing back up the rope in the dark and now he'd have to do it twice somehow without getting them both killed.
He’d just started to lean forward to comfort Johnny again when an ear-splitting blast from a shotgun rang out just above them. Jack was so startled he toppled over the edge and only the rope tied around his chest saved his life.
The portion of the shelf he'd been standing on only moments before clattered downward. Jack Twist was truly terrified for the first time in his life and fought not to panic.
After what seemed like forever, the debris finally hit bottom below, signaling just how far that drop was.
"JOHNNY!!!" was screamed out. It took Twist a moment to realize it was Joe Aguirre’s voice.
"Here!" yelled Jack in reply; fighting sideways to his right to regain his footing as the teen began pleading with him not to tell the boss what really happened.
Half an hour later the foreman and his men hauled Johnny and then Jack up. After making sure the kid was lying comfortably while the others made a makeshift rig to take the boy down the mountain, Aguirre turned to Jack and hauled off and hit him in the face hard with his right fist.
The sucker punch laid Twist out at the kid’s feet.
Grabbing Jack by the collar on the ground, Joe snarled, "Why’d ya let this happen, huh? Ya fucking rodeo stiffs ain’t never no good."
Johnny called out in agony, "It ain’t his fault!"
Aguirre let go and Jack fell back onto his shoulders in pain.
Joe turned to the kid lit only by a newly laid campfire.
The teenager lied, "I was a-comin’ down fer supplies and thought I heard somethin’… we lost a bunch of sheep in the storms 'n I thought one of 'em had fallen over the side. I… I slipped in the mud 'n fell over the edge; Jack was still at camp waitin’… he only come up on me an hour ago."
Aguirre looked over at Jack laid out on the wet ground for confirmation but the rodeo cowboy only looked away into the darkness as if he hadn’t heard.
Shortly after, they left Joe’s men to tend to the woolies and see about supplies.
Following a long careful ride down in the dark that night, Jack was put up in a cheap room in town over the local bar he'd waited in earlier a few doors up from the portable office.
Meanwhile Aguirre rushed the kid to the hospital in his old ’58 Dodge station wagon...
...He hadn't been in the office an hour and already Aguirre's morning was going sour. His wife volunteered to stay at the hospital and kept calling to bitch at him about how badly Johnny was hurt and how long it'd take for the kid to recover... if he recovered.
By the time the sun finally crested Brokeback, Tuesday was completely shot to hell. The men he'd sent up to break camp and collect the woolies reported the burnt corpses of a dozen sheep. They also reported that thirty more were missing. Another report from two herders assigned to the lower western flank reported at least twenty-five more at the bottom of a steep bluff.
Joe's plan to buy the company to get his bosses off his back would have to be put off for a while if Johnny's medical bills became as bad as his wife suspected they would.
Rowan at Head Office had already called twice and by the end of the third demanding an explanation for the losses, Aguirre decided he needed a scapegoat to protect his own job. Fair or not there was only one choice.
The final nail in the rodeo rider's coffin was a hysteric-laden phone call from his wife saying that a blood test had revealed that Johnny'd been drinking...
...Expecting an apology from his boss, at first light Twist went over to see Aguirre about when he’d be heading back up onto the mountain again and to find out how the kid was doing. Jack's jaw was stiff and his right cheek was swollen and tender to the touch.
When the rodeo cowboy entered the trailer, Foreman Aguirre was sitting at his cluttered desk cussing someone out on the phone and didn’t look up as Twist stood patiently waiting. Atop the scattered pile of paper in front of him was an old black typewriter and beneath the lamp was his wallet and a couple of balled up envelopes as if he'd mistyped something twice.
After a minute or two Joe reached for a clipboard and shoved it up at Jack, pointing to a pair of envelopes clipped to it as he continued talking over the phone. On one was written J. E. Twist which had his new draft card attached to it with a paper clip.
His eyes widened and his jaw dropped in shock at the name on the other one...
Johnny J. Aguirre with an address here in Signal.
It suddenly dawned on him that he’d never once asked the kid his last name in all that time up there! Was this bastard heartless enough to not even once call his own boy "son?" Maybe he was a nephew. Then it dawned on him that the kid had never referred to him as anything but "the boss" or "that bastard" instead of Dad, Father or at least Uncle Joe.
Whatever the case, if Twist ever took a job here again he’d make damn certain he found out his next partner’s last name.
He stood there wondering who would be going back up the mountain with him since the kid was in no shape to do it.
Jack frowned and looked down at what he was holding and opened it. The envelope held far less cash than he expected. Typewritten on the seal was a tally of his pay to that date... Listed amongst the tax deductions was an additional item... the cost of the room he'd stayed in last night.
That fuckin' BASTARD!
He opened his mouth to angrily object, but the foreman was still heatedly bitching out whomever he was talking to on the phone. Twist approached the desk unnoticed, swiped a pen and scrawled Johnny's address on the back of his own envelope.
He opened his wallet and slipped the draft card and money into it, saving the envelope out for when the boss got off the phone.
Calming down, he figured this was just partial pay for what he worked so far. He went back to waiting patiently, staring down at the name on that other envelope again.
The phone was slammed down on its cradle startling Jack, who immediately asked how the kid was.
Momentarily distracted, Joe told him the boy was temporarily paralyzed from the hips down but the docs expected him to be up and walking around in about nine months.
Suddenly without warning the foreman came around the desk and angrily tore into Jack, blaming him for not securing the sheep before the storm hit. Blaming him for not having the sense to hear the thunder coming. He even asserted that despite the dangerous lightning one of them should’ve been up there with the herd at all times to keep them from shifting.
"On toppa all that MY BOY WAS DRUNK! What the hell really happened Twist? Did he fall off his horse and roll offa the cliff?"
So the heartless jerk was the boy's father as suspected!
Unable to get a word in edgewise to defend himself, the young rodeo cowboy remained silent for another five long minutes while Aguirre unfairly blamed him for the loss and for not watching out for the kid’s safety.
When he finished, the foreman pointed to a canvas sack in the corner next to the entry door with Twist's belongings in it that must’ve been brought down the mountain this morning by one of the herders… then he threw Jack out of his office trailer to land in a heap at the foot of the stairs.
On his way down to the diner to try to catch a ride, he spotted a shop on the way and stopped off to buy a gift...
The mood had changed at home and it was obvious when he walked in the door. A thick hand-made Christian cross adorned the wall next to the kitchen and instead of being at odds, his parents wore warm smiles.
In Jack's absence his father had finally gained comfort for his sins through a new minister at the local Pentecostal church. Like John Twist's father before him, God had become his guiding light and protector. "Jumpin' Johnny Twist" ceased to exist like the rodeo that'd made him famous. With the Lord's help his past life and sins were blissfully just a vague memory hopefully never to be revisited again in a biblical haze.
What hadn't faded was the elder Twist’s suspicion as to whether his son was really his.
Up in his tiny room, Jack unpacked the knapsack and discovered the fancy chromed harmonica that belonged to Johnny Aguirre. It must’ve been packed by mistake by one of the foreman's men. The discovery reminded him of something else and he pulled the crumpled love/suicide note from the kid out of his jeans pocket.
In a mental haze, he thought again about how a boy could love him and how impossible it was to wrap his mind around the concept.
His cigarette lighter came out and the scrap of paper was set ablaze. It made Jack strangely sad somehow. He looked over on his desk at his hat, pulled the turkey feather out of it and then thumbtacked the souvenir to the wall between the door and his open closet.
An open hall door across from his own revealed that his parents’ central and large upstairs bedroom was now empty. They must’ve moved downstairs after his dad’s back got worse over the summer. Jack thought of trying to claim it but figured since he was getting out of town soon anyway it wasn’t worth hassling over.
When he went down for supper that evening his father implied that he should give half the meager amount of money he’d earned over to his parents for raising him.
Four days later in an act of defiance Jack used most of it instead to buy an old red broken down 1950 GMC truck from a ranch neighbor. It had a nearly useless clutch and a bad carburetor. It'd been sitting out in the fields for a couple of years and had seen better days but it was his. He used what little he had left towards parts to barely get it running before he ran out of cash.
He bought a few spray cans of semi-gloss navy blue paint to cover the rust and bondo. After using turpentine to clean off the windows, chrome and lights, despite the unfilled in dents and scratches, it looked almost brand new... from a distance.
His resentful father scoffed and declared it'd have looked better if he'd taken some house paint and a roller brush to it.
Jack started making plans to escape from home... just like his Dad had.
Fortunately for the Twists, Uncle Harold, his wife and young son drove up twice a week from Signal to help John run the ranch. Even if they could afford them, there was nearly no one left locally to hire as ranch hands...
...Johnny-Jack Aguirre was propped up on the living room couch watching TV when his mother brought in a medium sized cardboard box that had just been delivered addressed to her son.
As she curiously watched him open it, his eyes lit up and his face grew a big smile like she hadn't seen in a long while.
"What?" she asked.
Johnny lifted a black cowboy hat out of the container and grinned as he put it on... perfect fit.
She pulled a card out of the box before her son "Jack" could. (everyone in the family but his father called him that).
She read, "Get well soon" and it was signed 'Old Blue'; Who's Old Blue?"
Johnny-Jack gushed, "Jack Tw-Jack Blue... uh, I met him in the hospital."
"Well then you should write him a very nice 'thank you' note dear."
Johnny would eventually take his pocket knife and scratch JT in the inner leather head band...
...for "Jack Twist," and fantasized about that becoming his name somehow... someday...
...The damned Brokeback Sheep Operations foreman was damned pissed off.
It was eight in the damned morning for Chrissakes and it had to be at least two below damn zero. Two damned feet of fresh powder snow had drifted all over the place and buried damned Signal last night and the only damned things moving that morning were the workers over at the gas station/diner, the damned trains and Joe Aguirre.
The damned office trailer had been shut down for two months now after the season ended. With no basement to keep them warm, the water pipes had been drained along with the toilet and tank to keep everything from bursting in the frigid air.
Joe held back secret plans that were going to earn him a lot of money when he purchased (and only after he purchased) the sheep operation next year. After all, why share a bonanza with the company if he could have it all to himself? There might even be some grateful kickbacks from the railroad.
After exceeding his goal of saving up enough to do it, he and his wife went out celebrating a sure thing by going on a spending spree over September and October.
His wife constantly reminded him that all he had to do now was keep his damned fool mouth shut about it... definitely not an easy thing to do.
Back in late August, Good ‘ol Joe had even given the ’58 wagon to his middle son Cliff on his 18th birthday to drive to, around and from college in, and bought himself a used (but new looking) white over gold ’60 Rambler to replace it. The damned thing wasn’t worth shit on snow but it sure had more pep than his old car. With gasoline prices threatening to climb above 30 cents a gallon, thankfully it was easier on that too than the wagon.
His wife had spotted it for sale in a field down the street from the office between two closed shops and thought it was "cute."
Joe only bought it because it was in damned good shape and he was going to give it to her as a birthday present, but kept it for himself after gifting the wagon to Cliff.
It took him a while to get used to using his left hand on the push-button shifter in the dash. The damned thing was located to the left of the steering wheel and several times he'd hit the starter button by mistake which ridiculously enough was set in the same cluster next to PARK.
Someday he’d actually buy a brand new one right off the showroom floor after all of his expensive kids grew up and left home... but with a regular column shifter and a manual transmission this time.
With the parking lot unplowed, he had to leave the car in front of Cullen’s and slog in the early morning dark through the heavy accumulation on foot to the office trailer. A mercury security light on the side of the hardware store lit the way with an orange hue as he kicked a diagonal path through the knee-high virgin snow. He carried a heavy portable heater in his right hand and a bulky paper sack in his left.
His teeth chattered while he regretted leaving the warmth of the car. This better be damned important.
When he got to the stairs that led up to the door on the right, he put the heater down, climbed the steps, stomped the snow off his boots, unlocked the door and then backed off a little to let it swing open. Then he reached back for the miniature electric fireplace. The trailer didn't have a furnace since it was never used during the winter.
As he pulled the door closed behind himself he thought again about the phone call he’d gotten last night from his fat-assed boss Gilbert Rowan over at Head Office. The bastard had called him at home during dinner last night and insisted on phoning him this morning on the Q.T. at the damned trailer because of something supposedly "top-secret."
The sun wasn't due up for an hour or so. In the dull yellowish light coming from next door through the window, his breath created a haze around him in the sub-zero air. He carefully placed the big paper bag on the desk then turned around and had to search for the outlet next to the back door to plug the heater into.
...Of course that's when some damned timer decided to shut the lights off at Cullen's.
He swore under his breath, found the socket by touch, flipped the plug upside down when he'd guessed wrong and it wouldn't go in... and then he frowned when nothing happened.
He huffed a laugh and moved towards the front again across the ugly linoleum floor to a closet, screwed the glass fuse back into its socket returning electricity to the outlets, and retrieved an old box fan he used in the summer.
Out of the midnight blue gloom, a cheery red glow colored the floor and the side of his desk and he set the fan down in front of it and turned it on low speed.
The spinning blades drew warmth from the ticking device delivering God sent warmth. He wriggled out of his heavy overcoat and decided to leave his favorite vest on.
He sat down at his unusually empty desk's top. Hell, except for telephone and light bills attached to one, the usually cluttered clipboards behind him were vacant, as was the in/out box to the left of the phone.
He'd worked damned hard all of his life for a bright future and he felt he damn well deserved it.
After a moment he sighed as the place heated up even more and the windows began to glaze. Finally he reached over and his finger encased in a glove touched a black plastic switch. The dim blue-gray morning sky glow that barely made it through the glass was abruptly replaced by his fluorescent desk lamp's bright glare.
He grinned up at the big electric wall clock with its slowly rotating red second hand and wished it really was 5:12 in the afternoon.
Eventually he stopped being able to see his breath. A cold draft cascaded down his back from an imperfect seal around the exhaust port above and behind him. He stretched his toe out and gently nudged the box fan to divert the chilly air from him.
Pulling his gloves off, he opened the paper grocery sack from the restaurant/gas station to reveal a couple of square sandwiches cut diagonally with some hashed browns next to them on one of the diner’s borrowed china plates. Next came out the thermos and he opened it to a cloud of steam and the heavenly smell of coffee invading the room.
The man was feeling smug from hearing rumors that Head Office got wind of his plans to buy the Brokeback portion of the sheep operation. To placate him, or maybe just to delay him, he'd heard they were going to offer him an office in a local permanent building instead of this cheap old trailer.
He was startled as the phone at his left hand rang.
Let his friend Gil wait dammit, "Fuck ‘im, I’m eatin’ breakfast first…" it stopped after the eighth ring.
He picked up one of the triangle shaped sandwich halves, his teeth crunched down, and he sighed happiness. Barbara the cook had hidden a sinfully good melted slice of Velveeta beneath the perfectly toasted bread along with crisp bacon, sausage patties and scrambled egg. By the time he’d finished there were only crumbs all over the desk and his chest.
He exclaimed aloud, "Damn that's good!" and wondered why his wife couldn't make 'em like this.
After putting the diner's plate and fork back into the empty bag and stashing it by his coat on the floor beside his chair, Aguirre tossed napkins and a used paper coffee cup into the wastebasket.
He belched and got up to pull the 1962 calendar off of the wall, replacing it with next year’s 1963 that he’d gotten at the Rambler dealer's repair garage after a tune up. The January photo of the coming new 1964 model looked ugly... damned ugly, though the scantily clad girl draped over its hood wasn't bad. It was one of those special editions where each month's photo had a clear cellophane cover sheet with the girl's bikini printed on it and when you lifted it the buxom sexy female's bathing suit disappeared.
He chuckled to himself. His wife still thinks he's going to pin up the calendar she got at the bank last week.
The phone started ringing again.
Joe turned down the heater and paused to leisurely light a cigar in the now-warm room…
…He finally decided to pick it up just after the ninth ring. The receiver felt like holding an ice cube and he had to momentarily hold it away from his face.
“Yeah?” he barked exhaling smoke.
“Joe; ya alone?”
“Nah, damn Sannee Clause is sittin’ here acrossed from me two weeks early writin’ down my fuckin’ Christmas list. Ya want somethin' while I got him here?”
“DAMN it Joe, SHUT UP and listen," was shouted across the line. "At least half the executive talk at yesterday’s Christmas party at Head Office was about demotin' or out-and-out replacin’ ya before next season.”
Aguirre straightened in his chair and closed his eyes instantly humbled in fear. This sure as shit wasn't the time for things to crash down on him. He wasn't used to being scared of losing his job. He took particular joy in doing that to others; not the other damned way around.
He’d just bought a “new” used car, a refrigerator, stove and a fancy oak dining room set. He'd planned to put a down payment on a second-hand Chevy Corvair as a damn Christmas surprise for his wife. His oldest boy Seth was in his third year of college down in Texas too with quarterly tuition due again soon. Johnny still needed a damned expensive nurse twice a week.
He actually felt his eyes burning and fought it because real men don't cry... but he was close... damned close.
“Yeah, what brought this on Gil?”
“Out of a total of 89 allotment pair assignments, we lost 114 sheep last season Joe ...51 of those were yours. Yer goin' against the rules 'n sendin' yer boy up cost us a lot in medical bills not to mention expensive and ongoing physical therapy. If it weren't fer me keepin' it from 'em that Johnny was drunk when he got himself hurt you'da been fired on the spot. You were the only one who had an unprofitable period and believe-you-me Boy they noticed! Now they’re sayin' yer gonna miss yer April ‘63 hirin’ quota again next year like ya did this year.”
Aguirre took a long draw off his cigar and exhaled smoke while replying, “What ain’t ya tellin’ me Gil?”
“Christ Joe, the same damned thing I been tellin' ya for five years. Ya ain't been showing respect to people in this office that hold yer fuckin' future in the palm of their damned hands. ...Joe, ya may just be arrogant enough to think the company cain’t live without ya but yer damned wrong son - DAMN dead wrong. I ain't one of them 'n I’ll do everything I can for ya, but if ya miss that quota it’s gonna end up a bein' a nail in yer coffin that even I cain’t pull out.”
“Look Gil ya gotta stall ‘em, I got it almost worked out with Dale Jefferson to put in a railcar siding over at Proulx River. If we succeed we can cut out the expense of the truckers completely and unload stock, equipment and supplies directly off the train on site. We damn well could go from the least profitable to the most in one season and ya damn well know it.”
“Jefferson? That’s that 'boy' that’s a supervisor over at Rendrag & South Railroad ain’t he?”
“Dale’s the MAN that's gonna pull our friggin’ bacon out of the fire and he just happens to be a damned good friend of mine. When the hell did you join the friggin' Klan anyways? What: ya gonna refer to him as a nigger next?”
“It’s just a figure of speech, Joe.”
Aguirre warned, “If Kennedy lights a match under Congress' asses and gets that Civil Rights Act passed in ’64 like he keeps threatening to, to get hisself re-elected, yer gonna have ta watch yer turns of a phrase… Boy! We're all gonna have to.”
There was a long silence. For a moment Joe thought Rowan had hung up on him.
In a tone that indicated Gil was holding his temper with his old friend he finally replied, “Get to work tomorrow. Run ads in every goddamned hick town paper in Wyoming and the surrounding states. Post flyers in every damn bus station, train station and post office from here to tim-fucking-buck too. I want so many damned responses that George Pitchfield will have to take our overflow of men and cry ‘Uncle!’
Mr. Rowan continued after taking in an asthmatic breath, “Meanwhile I’ll get my staff down here to run off postcards to every ex-herder that’s ever worked for us. We need experienced ones to pair with inexperienced ones so don’t turn nobody - ‘n I mean nobody - away. We supply farm equipment but we also supply farm workers and if ya can help with that from yer unexpected overflow, it’ll go a long ways towards smoothin’ things over.”
Aguirre was about to reply, but suddenly covered the phone to loudly burp what smelled and tasted like the breakfast he’d eaten too fast.
Gil added, “I can only cover yer ass so far Joe… don’t let me down. Send me the bills fer the ads and such through my office and I’ll approve 'em fer ya.”
After a few useless and pretended family pleasantries, they hung up.
"Damn," he groaned and rubbed both palms over his face. With the new appliances, Rambler and furniture, Joe had bills that would be painless if they were spread out over the coming year… but not if he lost his job. He hadn’t mentioned that the biggest damned hurdle of all was getting the Interior Department/Forest Service to approve the railroad siding on government owned land - even if he did pay for it out of his own damned pocket.
Over the next three months he was flooded with hundreds and hundreds of applications. His wife had to come in three days a week just to help him with all of it. The seasonal herders from damned Mexico and South America came north too. Experienced or not, Aguirre had to pair them up with each other because they only jabbered in Spanish or Portuguese or whatever the hell it was.
By the end of April of ’63 he’d seen so many damned faces and read so many damned names that they all blurred together into one damn mess. He gave up and told his wife to ignore names and just skim for if the applicant was experienced or not. She'd rubber stamp each ACCEPTED when she spotted one and then went on to the next one.
When his pile of experienced equaled his inexperienced, he sent …and sent …and sent all the extras to Pitchfield’s office who within two weeks was having fits.
…but Joe Aguirre was happy. He tripled his expected quota and Gil sent word that the company would leave him alone.
In fact the personnel department kept calling to ask him what his damned secret was…
...In March of 1963 after a hard winter off and with nowhere else to go locally, Jack accepted a surprising last-minute offer that came in the mail in February to work down on Brokeback Mountain again that coming June. Johnny-Jack was pretty badly hurt so Twist was reasonably sure he’d have a new partner and he’d be the teacher/leader this time… unless it turned out to be another of Aguirre’s damned kin.
This offer didn't make sense. Jack knew the man was too bullheaded to admit he was wrong... maybe Aguirre'd been fired and replaced because of the losses? ...his losses.
In any case, if he could manage to stay up there long enough to earn full salary this go around, he’d never set foot on his home ranch again.
His new goal was to marry a woman prettier than his mother and to raise a larger family than his father’s, then move back to Lightning Flat on a ranch bigger than the one he grew up on and rub it in the old man’s face.
That was his dream anyway. That fantasy would eventually leave his parents to run their spread on their own with what little help they could get from Harold Caine and his son Silas, and no money to hire anyone else. Like his grandparents before him, his parents were now reaping what they’d sewn… a son whose only wish in life was to escape out from under his folks’ uncaring thumb.
By then both Martha and John had come to realize that the flame of their marriage had gone out. Neither had a choice but to stay together with nowhere else to go.
Martha used to sadly tell her close friends that lighting their candle turned out to be the waste of a perfectly good match.
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Important notice about this novel: This adaptation of the original short story was
written by Vernon "Jet" Gardner © 2005-2012 and contains enhanced versions of all of the original's events written by Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana in red/black/green
All text in blue written by Vernon "Jet" Gardner published here ©2005-2013.
Reproduction in any form or use of unique characters is
forbidden without permission of the author.