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Del mar eyed a long narrow wooden bridge above them spanning the shallow stream. It was suspended by ropes and looked sturdy enough for horses. Most likely he had the wrong impression of what it was for because he figured it’d take forever to get a thousand sheep across it single file.
Jack knew that sheep avoided drinking out of or crossing moving water and he had a hell of a time last summer getting them across, but this year he knew how and it’d go a lot faster.
Del Mar lovingly held a rifle in his hands that felt like it'd always been there. The old careworn Winchester model 1894 was nearly a twin of the one Rich had taught him how to shoot with as a boy with Michael. Later he reluctantly had to sell it for food and provisions for he and his brother to live on a few years back.
Maybe he'd use some of his earnings and buy this one from Aguirre.
He watched Twist carry the Winchester's brother towards the horse del Mar had just rejected. He nearly shouted out a warning when a sound distracted him and he turned around to see the Chilean herders babbling in Spanish or something at each other as they painted green "brands" on each animal’s chest counting them off of the trailer ramps.
The sheep trucks continuously unloaded at the trailhead and a bandy-legged Basque called him over and showed Ennis how to pack the mules; two packs and a riding load on each animal, ring-lashed with double diamonds and secured with half hitches telling him, "...don’t let 'em stray. Joe will have yer ass if j'you do. Only ting; don’t never order soup. Dem boxes of soup are hard to pack."
Ennis muttered, "Well I don’t eat soup," and went back to tying knots.
Sitting in the dark cab of one of the sheep trucks, Johnny-Jack Aguirre had come down to the staging area to watch the proceedings. If he were eventually going to take over his father’s business, he’d have to know all aspects of it to show he was more qualified than his older less interested brothers.
His eyes widened in astonishment as he spotted Twist milling around the horses. After his dad’s unfair actions last year, it was unbelievable that he’d been not only interviewed, but also rehired by his father!
Scanning around he spotted a handsome blond stranger talking to one of the sheep wranglers. He must be Jack’s new partner. Half jealous and half sad, the teenager wished again he’d been able to talk the doctor into clearing him for shepherd duty this year not knowing it was his father's refusal because of last year's fiasco.
He ducked down below the dashboard as the beloved object of last summer’s crush entered the horse corral only a couple of yards from where he sat.
Twist eyed the horses and chose a bay mare that looked like the calmest of the bunch, leading it on foot behind himself to a pack of dogs.
Three puppies went in a basket attached to Jack’s saddle. Twist was a sucker for puppies and the runt of the litter kept trying to get out to lick towards his face. Their mother was one of the herding dogs and she began persistently yapping at him as he climbed up into his saddle and his horse reared up kicking at the air.
He thought Ennis had just yelled something at him, but couldn’t hear over the bitch barking. Once he had the mare semi-settled, he reached behind into the basket to calm the crying little one and snuck it within his coat to keep it warm and quiet.
Probably not a good idea since excited puppies pee all over the place, but the rodeo rider was in love and decided to chance it.
Ennis had already picked out a big chestnut horse called Cigar Butt to ride. Being a better judge of stock, he’d passed up the mare and when he saw Jack try to mount it while a dog was barking at him he interrupted the Basque’s instructions to yell out, "Ya wanna watch it there; that horse has a low startle point!"
The bitch started barking again up at Twist and his mare twirled around. After finally getting his steed under semi-control and riding up to a skittish stop barely astride the mildly bronking horse, Jack smirked down at him and bragged, "Doubt there’s a filly that can throw me!" anxious to leave he added, "Let’s git, less'n ya want to sit around tyin' knots all day?"
Ennis shrugged, mounted his horse and followed.
Half an hour later, Ennis and Jack, the dogs, the horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like muddy water running uphill through the timber and out along the tree line into the flowered meadows and the coursing, endless wind.
His puppy seemed calm now, so he put him back in the basket with his two brothers and secured it. Their mother was somewhere up ahead controlling the flock.
Jack picked a trail he knew along a gurgling steam, eventually picking up a lamb that’d fallen and hurt its hoof, straddling it across his saddle.
His bay mare became skittish at a stream half a mile later, so he dismounted, slung the injured lamb over his shoulders and led his ignorant horse on foot behind him through the water, muttering to himself while kicking a reluctant sheep’s ass in front of him as he went.
He glanced back to find Ennis wearing an "I told you so" grin on his face.
Jack then parked his horse on the other side to again cross back and forth to forcefully coax or carry the cowardly ones through or over the water joyously kicking more sheep butt as he continued bitching about how stupid they were under his breath.
Ennis stayed mounted, instructing the dogs with high pitched and ear-piercing whistles through his teeth.
Jack surveyed their progress ahead and behind watching the dogs nip at the sheep to keep them moving uphill, while carrying yet another lamb across the water.
Last year Jack discovered a strange talent he had for simply raising his arms straight out like a scarecrow and the sheep would automatically run the opposite direction. Trouble was, he had to keep re-crossing the damned stream repeatedly to get behind another group. He looked back to find that del Mar now had a little one hanging from a bag at his right thigh.
Jack hated sheep because he was raised in the cowboy way and real cowboys hated sheep… everyone knows that.
Ennis on the other hand considered any farm animal "stock" and was indifferent to labels or breeds. Any job was a good thing, be it herding cattle, horses or sheep; they were simply things you sold and made money on, nothing more.
The trail narrowed and curved to the right around a dangerous ledge on their left near a point halfway to wherever it was that Jack was leading them. Twist paused as they skirted the brink of the steep cliff, seemed to be about to move forward again, but then stopped his confused and protesting horse.
Ennis had noticed in passing that it plunged directly down to the valley far below and had grown worried for the sheep.
Twist leaned dangerously forward on his untrustworthy mare as if trying to see something or dismount for a closer look.
Del Mar kept moving, but checked back for his companion in concern and puzzlement because he should've been ahead not behind. "We lose a couple downnare?" he called out.
The question jolted Twist and he seemed to blink as if coming out of a dream, then galloped silently ahead to take the lead without answering.
Scanning the flock, Ennis glanced backward again and then shrugged, whistling at a dog to gather a straggler.
The rodeo cowboy's mind wandered back to this thin crumbling ledge, dangling from an untested rope in the pitch dark and scared half out of his mind.
This was the very cliff that Johnny-Jack had tried to commit suicide from last summer; the one Aguirre eventually had to rescue them from in the middle of the night. That tree that the mules had been tied to, had plunged over it last winter as the crumbling precipice continued to deteriorate. He was thinking about the dangerous rescue that earned Twist an unjustified beating at the hands of his boss.
The full-body shudder that Jack experienced startled his horse and it took a minute to get her back under control. He should've listened to the handsome ranch hand and chose another steed when he could've this morning... a decision he was already regretting.
An hour or so later, lack of sleep was catching up to both of them and they felt the need for a break, so after another hour’s travel the two settled the herd far up on a hillside allotment.
Ennis scanned his surroundings in satisfaction, while Jack tended to a ewe's hoof.
Though it was distant, they could see from the herd down to the campsite.
When they were satisfied the flock would stay put, the dogs were left to baby-sit and the two young shepherds rode together back down about half a mile and got the big camp tent up on the Forest Service’s platform, and then secured the kitchen and the grub boxes.
They worked together cutting down small trees for firewood and equipment tripods that they didn’t want to carry around from campsite to campsite, barely speaking a word between them, always glancing back up the mountain to make sure the flock was grazing and still where it was supposed to be.
Jack got busy splitting logs with a mighty swing of a new axe while Ennis set up the iron fire grate for cooking. With the horseman’s experiences roaming the countryside with his brother, del Mar rarely had to ask how to set something up, only where, which pleased Twist knowing he had a reliable partner this year.
Later as they finished up, Twist hoped del Mar was a better cook than he was a talker as he hauled two collapsible canvas camp buckets of water up from the stream.
That evening Jack wanted to stay in camp, but reluctantly rode off up the mountain to join the flock for the night. Whenever he came to a clearing he looked down the dark valley to see Ennis’ cook fire and wondered why the young ranch hand’s rare smiles seemed to warm him.
Alone now with the mountain for company, he fell deep in thought about the stirring in his loins when Ennis’ thigh touched his.
Jack wasn’t no queer; that he was sure of after what happened last year. He distracted himself by thinking about a female barrel rider he’d had his eye on in Texas last spring...
...At daybreak Jack headed down for breakfast. Neither young man got much sleep, both wondering separately what had happened back in the bar yesterday, trying to figure out the compulsion to flirt with each other.
Twist's grin at seeing the horseman faded when he noticed two open cans of beans bubbling over the campfire’s grate, but the smell of coffee brightened his mood.
Whenever times were lean his mother always resorted to adding BetterMost beans to casseroles, soups, or just about anything she thought she could stretch meals with. Sometimes she'd send her son to school with a paper sack containing only a can of it, a spoon and an opener.
It was understandable why he couldn't stand the sight of that blue label sometimes.
Ennis lifted the lid of another pan by the fire that had been left there to keep warm and revealed eggs and fried potatoes.
Looking directly at Ennis, it came out of his mouth before he realized what he was saying. "I’m in love!" he gushed and took a filled plate from the handsome young ranch hand.
Jack sat down on a log facing him and gave out a huge eye-watering yawn declaring that he couldn’t wait to get a spread of his own so he wouldn’t have to "put up with Aguirre’s crap no more."
Ennis claimed to be saving money for a small spread of his own; which meant a tobacco can with two five-dollar bills inside. He told him how he’d planned to marry Alma when he came back down from the mountain.
After only a couple of days they fell into a pattern, each feeling he could trust the other’s abilities.
Ennis had never done this before but he was used to hunting, fishing, camping out and fending for himself. Cornelia and his mama had taught him basic cooking before he and K.E. were run out of Sage so he could fry up eggs and simple things out of cans, sticking mostly to what he knew.
Not knowing Jack’s distain for them, he heated beans over the fire with whatever else he cooked and had a stream cooled bottle of whiskey or a couple of beers waiting for Jack at breakfast and supper.
He eventually experimented with some redi-mix dough and fried some biscuits to go with eggs and some potatoes he’d peeled. They’d usually turn out as hard as rock or a cross between a pancake and a dinner roll, but he kept trying and eventually he got it right, warmed by the fact that Jack seemed to appreciate the effort.
Out of force of habit, on the way in he'd picked up the morning newspaper from the steps and brought it in with him. He shook his head to himself at his absentmindedness and made a mental note to put it back out front when he left, dropping it for now on the edge of a cluttered counter to his left in passing.
At the desk he shuffled through the papers and found only inventory sheets, veterinary inoculation information and bills, weather reports, updates from the Forest Service and an empty pack of smokes. On the wall behind him, he scanned the clipboards and found what he’d come for.
Pulling a notepad from his pocket, he switched on the desk lamp and leafed through applications paperclipped together in pairs with a couple of W2s attached to each. The next to the last pair revealed Jack’s name and he shook his head muttering, “Jackpot!” with a smile.
From the center drawer of the desk, he got a pen and scribbled on a notepad as he recited out loud, “16905 D Road, Lightning Flat, Wyoming.” Double-checking the form he frowned and asked quizzically, “D Road?”
Flipping the page, he found the partner’s information, took notes, "Ennis del Mar ...Riv-er-ton, Wyoming," and frowned.
His mind wandered back about three years ago to being introduced to an Ennis who was the right age, while on a family visit to his cousin Roy in Riverton. Nah, Ennis was a pretty common name, besides; the paperwork said Del Mar had just moved there and he wondered where he lived originally.
He also pondered if anything would happen between this Ennis and Jack as another twinge of youthful jealousy came over him.
As he mumbled again, "Ennis del Mar?" he stood up, pushed the notepad back in his pocket, switched off the desk lamp, and then hit the overhead light switch next to the back door.
As he crossed to the front end of the trailer in the dark, he bumped something and some papers fell on the floor. Not wanting to risk turning the lights back on, he just left them, closed the door and locked it, and then headed towards the Rambler.
Deep in thought he climbed back into the car and drove off.
The next morning Joe Aguirre would find the morning newspaper on the floor. Figuring it'd just blown off the counter by the wind from the door closing, he tossed it on the desk without a second thought as to how it'd gotten there.
Joe wasn’t as heartless as he let on and would occasionally pack up a few newspapers he’d already read and ship them up the mountain with the supplies rather than just throw them away.
The phone rang with more problems from the forest service. While he bitched them out... again, an employee came in and read the first couple of pages of today’s paper while he waited for his boss.
Later on when the truck driver left he took the paper with him.
On page 4 of the Signal Sentinel:
The following day a correction had to be printed because the reporter misunderstood the sheriff's office representative... The estimated population was 3,500, not 350.
DETAILS EMERGE ON BLASTS & FLOOD THAT DESTROYED SAGE WYOMINGSketchy details are still coming in, but here is what we know so far. Very likely corrections will need to be made in further editions.
With the exception of those in outlying farms and ranches, the entire population of approximately 350 in Sage, Wyoming is feared dead. The town, situated near the border of Utah was destroyed 2 days ago after a 60 car freight train carrying 6 propane gas tanker cars derailed and exploded near where its main street meets Lincoln County Highway at approximately 5AM Thursday morning. Half an hour later a second freight train coming east on an adjacent set of tracks struck the wreckage of the first and derailed, killing all aboard, setting off secondary detonations of fuel oil cars.
The multiple explosions were powerful enough to blow buildings off of their foundations as far as half a mile a way and everything in the downtown section was completely gone. The devastation was completed when the enormous blasts breached the earthen Twin Creek Dam holding back manmade Sage Lake, inundating everything in its westward flood path as it emptied, and then either swept away or buried debris and victims under tons of mud.
Twenty-five miles west, rescue efforts were hampered when a mountain of wreckage closed part of Utah’s Rt. 89 where Twin Creek passes under it, obliterating the bridge as it went. Rescuers from Diamondville to the east reported that Sage proper was inaccessible due to the extremely hot and still burning wreckage of both trains lying between the roadway and the site of destruction.
Access from Dead Horse Road was impossible after mud and trees closed it too.
Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy Hank Cordella, who flew a helicopter over the area at first light stated…
“It looked like a **** atomic bomb went off! You can’t believe the devastation. We began spotting parts of buildings, whole automobiles and pieces of the train a mile and a half out before we even got there; the surrounding hills are littered with ‘em! The heat was so intense even the railroad ties burned! The steel rails where the passenger station once stood were mangled and pointed straight up in the air!”
A railroad spokesman reports that a preliminary investigation revealed that the switch on a line side-spur into town was somehow left open, redirecting the speeding westbound train onto a sharp left curve just past the station. The slow-speed turn south was used to push cargo rail cars a quarter mile down to supply Sage St. Stores and to deliver automobiles to a hub GM dealership and storage facility there.
So far no evidence can be recovered as to whether the switch being thrown was deliberate or an accident. It is possible that the switch was moved during the wreck and was actually not the cause. Authorities refuse to speculate either way at this time.
The spokesman further stated that normal speed on that section of track was 55 miles an hour, but even if the train was traveling half that, the engineer would’ve never made the curve without jumping the tracks. Considering the short distance between the open switch and the curve, it’s doubtful the engineer even knew what was happening to him until it was too late to even try to apply the brakes.
The only reported survivors so far were a local retired doctor and his family, who were out of town at the time of the blasts. Despite it being 7 miles east of the carnage, their house was destroyed and their locally famous barn was severely damaged.
Lincoln County Sheriff Deputy Cordella further reported the entire downtown area of Sage was completely gone and everything not taken by the flood was still burning. The force of the water was powerful enough to push heavy train cars outward across the road and into the field on the other side!
Residents as distant as Salt Lake City, Utah heard and saw the blast and some reported what they thought was an earthquake. The rumbling mushroom fireball resembled an atomic bomb on their nighttime horizon creating a false dawn. It seemed to last well into the morning, causing the local civil defense to issue warnings, thinking that in view of recent events in Cuba, the Russians had mounted an attack.
Fanning the outer limits of the town uncovered approximately 120 bodies so far, but that estimate is expected to climb, though many may be buried under yards of mud never to be recovered.
…further details and corrections to follow.
In reality the death toll climbed to almost 2000 and so far only about 25 survivors had been accounted for; mostly folks that had been out of town at the time. By all accounts, downtown Sage was completely flat with not even remnants remaining to indicate it'd ever been there. Every structure that hadn't been blown apart and then blown away in a radius of a mile or so was buried under mud when Lake Sage emptied.
Several brand new cars that were being shipped on the first train were actually found blown onto the hills across Rt. 30 north of town!
In the morning he’d saddle her and she’d always buck, nearly throwing him as she wheeled around and around and it was the first time Jack saw Ennis laugh out loud, "I warned you!" he declared, as the rodeo cowboy just barely stayed in the saddle.
It eventually became an amusing daily morning ritual to watch Jack's steed abruptly gallop off as if it were determined to leave him behind.
Throughout the day Ennis kept feeling that odd yearning he couldn’t name. He was always alone with his thoughts because he’d always been taught not to share them. He’d roll up his jeans to his calves, wade into the stream, and while cleaning the breakfast pans would look up across a great plateau to the distant hillside and sometimes spot Jack, a small dot moving across the high meadow like an insect moving across a tablecloth.
Later, Jack too would pause often in his dark solitude to see Ennis’ night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain and wonder why he yearned for his new friend’s company. He’d shrug if off as making sure he knew what direction camp was in.
They settled deeper into the routine reluctantly but surely.
Several times over the next few days, Jack would spot a coyote stalking the herd and shoot at it, missing every time, cussing under his breath and glad Ennis wasn’t there to witness it. More often than not he’d lay on his back using a log for a pillow and doze, guarded by one of his favorite almost grown puppies.
The false alarms were becoming more frequent as the sheep seemed to bleat at anything and he began relying on the dogs to alert him when a wolf or coyote showed up, which had become increasingly more often as they learned where the herd was bedded down. About all he could do was shoot at the predators and hope the sound scared them off, which luckily it did.
Unfortunately it also sometimes scared the skittish sheep into running too. Jack blamed the rifle’s bent sites for all his misses though he knew better.
Down below it’d rain often and Ennis usually passed the time waiting out a storm in the camp tent whittling this or that and after a while settled on a little wooden horse for his future son that’d be later joined by a toy cowboy astride it that looked a lot like Jack.
Sometimes he’d hear Jack’s gun blasts and wonder what he’d bagged, but quickly deduced he’d mostly missed because the rodeo cowboy would’ve been braggin’ his head off when he came down for supper, but never did.
Early Thursday afternoon Ennis was sitting on a camp stool in front of the fire figuring out next week's grocery list and deciding what to make Jack for dinner.
A sound downhill from camp caught his attention and his eyes caught sight of a young athletic-looking teenaged boy on horseback with short dark hair wearing a black cowboy hat with silver studs on the headband. As the spirited black gelding he rode came up beside him, del Mar stood to greet the newcomer.
The young man gazed down at the ranch hand and seemed to study Ennis. He gave a friendly smile and explained that he was drawn in by the wonderful smell of coffee and wondered if he could have a cup.
Del Mar obliged and noticed the young man was wearing some sort of back brace as he carefully dismounted. The stranger looked to be no older than a freshman or junior in high school.
As Ennis poured him a cup, the boy introduced himself only as Johnny, adding that he was doing some camping over the summer before having to go back to school. He seemed curious as to whether the horseman-turned-shepherd was up here alone.
After a few minutes of conversation, the youngster drained his cup, thanked his host, mounted his steed with a little trouble and then rode off downhill in the same direction he'd come.
When Ennis thought back on it, because he noticed those things, the boy's saddle was identical to the company ones he and Jack had been issued.
Later at supper, Jack's face blanched when Ennis mentioned the stranger, his first name and the back brace but didn't seem interested in the details... almost as if he knew them.
Twist acted distracted until he rode back up to the sheep later that evening.
Friday morning, Jack squatted at the fire to eat breakfast. Another can of beans; some eggs and more of Ennis’ strange campfire biscuits. His hungry eyes strayed to Ennis without knowing why, watching his muscular body prepare the pack mules to go down for supplies.
He spotted Ennis scrawling on a piece of paper and said, "Don't forget whiskey 'n beer. We need more ammo for the rifles too; lots of coyotes up there."
Ennis nodded and jotted down something, then ambled up to the campfire grate.
Jack walked over, mounted his skittish horse, and farted loudly against the saddle, glancing back red-faced to see if Ennis had heard. The young ranch hand looked away just before their eyes met.
As he spurred the mare on, Twist yelled out in frustration, "No more beans!"
Del Mar nodded while collecting the breakfast pans to wash at the river, but Twist was gone in the time it took for him to look up…
As he neared the bottom of the trail and spotted the bridge, he checked the trusty inexpensive Timex he’d bought himself for his 20th birthday and smiled; he’d made good time.
He considered buying the horse from Aguirre because he’d come to like Cigar Butt a lot. He didn’t have much cash to offer though. What little he had would have to go towards supporting Alma and probably a son soon but he figured that with the accumulated pay he’d earn up here, maybe he could manage it.
Half an hour later he stood frowning while checking off his list with the Chilean herder after packing the mules.
"Sumting wrong?" the man asked with a heavy South American accent.
Ennis responded, "Yeah, uh, what, uh, why didn’t we get the powdered milk 'n the spuds?"
"Dat’s all we got."
Del Mar shrugged, grunted his disapproval and handed the man the list from his pocket muttering, "Well uh… well there’s next week’s."
Looking it over the Chilean frowned, "I thought d'you didn’t eat soup?"
"Well I’m sick of beans."
He smiled back knowingly, "Too early in de summer to be seek of beans."
Ignoring him, Ennis gathered the reins and began pulling the loaded down mules behind him over to his horse. After making sure everything was secured he headed back up the mountain.
Jack’d be pissed.
Ennis’ mind seemed to be filled lately with how much he’d taken to Jack. Remembering Michael, he reminded himself not to let his feelings go too far because they’d have to part company in only a couple of months and go their separate ways. They'd probably never to see each other again. That happened a lot in his young life so he’d guarded himself against letting anyone get too close to him.
Del Mar had let his guard slip only once… with Alma and that’s what puzzled him because he seemed to be having the same feelings about Jack.
He remembered waking up yesterday with a hard-on, as all young men his age did, and began pulling and rubbing thinking about her. He didn’t want to get her pregnant so had always fucked her from behind.
Without realizing it, Jack had somehow entered his fantasy. In his mind, Ennis' hand once again caressed up the taunt racehorse inner thigh of Twist's leg feeling the muscles flex beneath the tight blue denim. His palm caressed the taut ass muscles of an athlete and… Just as he orgasmed in his fist in loud gasps, he realized he was thinking of Jack bucking wildly on his lap and sat bolt upright in a cold sweat.
His past taught him well what happened to men who had "queer" thoughts.
So far Ennis had bagged a couple of wild turkeys over the last several weeks to add a little variety to their meals and also some trout. Jack really seemed to appreciate the effort. Encouraged; Del Mar thought of doubling his efforts with maybe a few mountain cottontails, a grouse or a possum for some wilderness stew.
From what he’d seen, the bullrider didn’t seem to be much of a hunter or at least he never seemed to come down from the herd with any game to cook up.
Bringing himself back to reality on the upward trail through the forest, Ennis realized he’d been so deep in thought that he’d made it about halfway up the mountain.
Distracted when one of the mules in tow began resisting as they came up on a narrow mountain stream, he turned around in his saddle to bitch at it.
Ahead of them a young bear that’d stopped to drink and look for grubs under a dead log roared a territorial warning and stood up on its hind legs.
Cigar Butt reared up in fear and kicked at the air in panic. Ennis got only the barest glimpse of the huge black beast before finding himself in mid-air falling first on his shoulder, then his face slammed painfully into the scattered muddy pebbles at the edge of the stream.
Scared as hell, dizzy and near panic, he had only seconds to determine if he were about to be mauled and was relieved to see the bear running away, spooked by the horse probably.
In the moment’s distraction the mules ran off hawing into the woods scattering the packs of supplies everywhere followed close behind by his horse.
Cussing his head off, Ennis took off after them concentrating on Cigar Butt because he needed the rifle in case the damned bear had company.
His shoulder hurt like hell and he worried maybe he’d broken it or dislocated something in the fall…
...Near dusk, Jack had come down from the herd for supper only to find an empty camp and Ennis nowhere to be found. Then he remembered it was Friday so he must be late coming back up from getting supplies.
He cussed under his breath.
As hungry as he was, even if Ennis showed up at that moment it’d take half an hour or more just to make something to eat and he was in no mood to settle for cold beans straight out of the can.
After an hour and almost half a bottle of whiskey, he didn’t know if he was more worried or pissed at his stomach growling. By the light of the campfire he’d just lit, he scavenged together a couple of potatoes to boil and one can of beans from what little they had left.
He’d come to know Ennis well enough to figure he could take care of himself and knew better than to go looking for him. Best to stay put in case Ennis came back and not find him there, and then set off searching for Twist.
Two people won’t find each other unless one waited where he could be found so he sat and waited… reluctantly.
Jack's mind wandered back to last summer when Johnny-Jack went missing during a supply run... "No... no comparison; but still if I hadn't gone off looking for him, the kid might've eventually fallen off that ledge... no nothing happened to Ennis, he's just been delayed... damn I'm hungry..."
A little after darkness settled he finished the can of damned beans. At least his stomach had stopped growling.
Now more worried about Ennis than pissed, he decided not to go back up to the herd and after making a third circuit of the immediate area and checking the tent for a note, he settled back in front of the fire.
A twig cracked somewhere behind him and he reached for his rifle and peered into the darkness.
Just barely in the moonlight, he spotted Ennis’ silhouette on horseback leading the mules. Letting the whiskey speak for him, he got up angrily as del Mar slowly got painfully down from his steed.
"Where the hell you been?" he spat out impatiently like a husband bitching at his wife. As Ennis approached he continued, "I been up with the sheep all day, I get down here hungry as hell 'n all I find is beans…"
As Jack threw the empty beans can at a rock, his friend came into the glow of the fire and that’s when Twist saw that the left side of his buddy’s face was scabbed over with dried blood.
Jack's anger swiftly changed to concern, "What in the hell happened Ennis?"
Del Mar angrily kicked the can into the woods and groaned to a seated position on a log while Jack pulled his neckerchief off, dipped it in a kettle of warming coffee water and approached his friend.
"I come up on a bear is what happened. God damned horse spooked 'n the mules took off, scattered food everywheres…" As Twist offered him the canteen Ennis added, "Dented cans of beans is about all we got left."
Jack moved intimately close, "Let me see," and began dabbing gently at Ennis’ head with the rag.
Del Mar took it from him and rubbed away most of the dirt, wincing from the pain. He waved away the canteen still being offered and asked, "You got whiskey 'r somethin’?"
Jack quickly reached over for it and Ennis took a swig from the bottle and muttered, "Dumb ass mule." wrung out the rag and then poured whiskey on it dabbing at his sideburn some more, using it as an antiseptic, wincing as the alcohol stung.
Jack looked pissed. "Well we gotta do somethin' 'bout this food situation," he said and then after a moment of thought added, "Maybe I’ll shoot one of the sheep."
Ennis stopped dabbing at his cuts long enough to huff, "Yeah, what if Aguirre finds out, huh? We’re supposed to guard the sheep, not eat ‘em."
Jack shook his head beside him. "What’s the matter with you?" he asked with a smirk, "There’s a thousand of ‘em up there, Aguirre would never know."
Ennis looked away, "I’ll stick with beans."
As if to close the argument before it damaged their friendship, Jack declared, "Well I won’t."
That night Jack rode out of camp without a word.
As Ennis watched him go, he frowned when he finally noticed something irritating his upper right thigh. Digging into his right jeans pocket he brought out Aguirre’s cheap dime-store watch; its crystal broken and it’d stopped at noon probably days ago from lack of winding.
He chuckled and threw it on the fire, turned the pocket inside out and picked at the tiny shards of glass...
He had nothing to offer for breakfast but beans, so he dressed and then cleaned his rifle while waiting for Jack to come down from the sheep. When he did, they set off together.
After about a half an hour’s ride into the woods, del Mar was so deep in thought that when he finally spotted a deer he reached quickly for the Winchester only to discover an empty saddle scabbard. He’d forgotten to put it back where it belonged after oiling and reassembling it in camp.
They were too far away to backtrack for it now which meant they’d have to depend on Jack using his.
Within an hour they’d spotted a wild turkey and a couple of deer, but Jack kept missing and scaring them off and everything else within earshot with his gun blasts. Then they’d have to move somewhere else and wait again …and again …and again through the early morning into the afternoon.
Twist was getting more and more pissed off and embarrassed in front of del Mar and turned to get some hooks and line from his saddlebag to improvise a couple of fishing rods.
In frustration, Ennis grabbed the rifle away from him and within another hour had spotted himself a praiseworthy elk. Beside him, Jack hadn’t seen it yet through the thick undergrowth of the forest and was still bitching about the sites on the rifle.
"Shhhhhhhut up!" warned Ennis in a harsh whisper.
Closing one eye del Mar took careful aim as Jack’s eyes widened at the intended prize. Choosing his moment carefully, Ennis waited. The elk moved into his sites and the young accomplished hunter gently squeezed the trigger with a deafening blast followed by a high-pitched squeak from the woods.
…Aside from some panicked birds flying off nothing else happened.
The great beast seemed to just stand there unphased by the loud sound and just as Jack was about to say "See, I told…" the elk seemed to suddenly go drunk, stumbled and then fell straight down.
Jack’s jaw dropped as Ennis sprouted a rare proud smile.
"Whooooooweeeeeee!" exclaimed Jack in glee, grinning from ear to ear. "Yeah!"
Ennis good-naturedly shoved Jack sideways and declared impatiently, "I was gettin’ tired of yer dumbass missin’!"
Jack leapt on Ennis with a congratulatory hug, cheering, "We're gonna have steak tonight!"
The intimate contact sent chills through both of them. Ennis experienced an uncontrolled shudder through his whole body as Twist’s fingers ran up the valley of his spine. Jack pulled del Mar closer as they both whooped and grinned like kids.
Neither wanted to let go but separated quickly with embarrassed glances away.
Jack turned red and grinned, "Let’s get a move on, we don’t want the Game 'n Fish catching us with no elk out of season!"
They spent the rest of the afternoon separately.
Ennis backtracked his path down the mountain and spotted a case of fresh eggs that miraculously hadn’t broken and eventually found enough undamaged canned food to last them a while. He shook his head at a cardboard box of shattered glass whiskey bottles by the stream.
Alone, he allowed himself to smile thinking if anyone downstream had caught some mountain browns it’d probably be because they were too drunk to know better than to avoid his hook.
When he got back to camp he found a note saying Twist had gone off to finish butchering the elk.
He rode out and joined him in the bloody chore. Fortunately the carcass was far enough away from camp to insure against unwanted visitors.
After a late good meal of fresh steaks at the campfire, Jack rode back up to bed the sheep down leaving Ennis to dry out the meat in strips, curing it with some salt.
That night Ennis’ thoughts were filled with Alma and their future together. If he was careful the money he’d make over the next few months would just barely cover a wedding and the start of a new life for them, but cash would be very tight.
He fell asleep thinking of her.
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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.