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“Hello,” Junior piped up, and Ennis closed his eyes briefly. Jack lowered his head to look back into the truck cab, and Ennis wanted to run his hand along the lean lines of his hips, breathe in the sweet hay smell and cigarette smoke of his skin.

“Junior, this is Jack Twist. Jack Twist,” he said, looking at the man’s slumped shoulders and dark bruised eyes, “This is my daughter.”

“You that rodeo cowboy?” Junior asked, bright and cheerful, and Jack’s eyebrows rose.

“Yes ma’am,” Jack said hesitantly, glancing back at Ennis. “Midway champion,” he continued, flicking his belt buckle, a familiar shine coming back in his smile. Ennis watched his mouth, and felt something twist loose in his chest.

“So, you comin’ to dinner then? You like barbeque?” Junior had a shy smile on her face as she asked, looking for a minute so like her momma that Ennis pressed a hand to his stomach, and when Jack slid a columbine glance his way, hope shining behind his eyes like the moon coming out from the clouds, he shrugged and hoped his hands weren’t trembling too much. Jack fuckin’ Twist, so close Ennis could taste the tang of his sweat and the wet of his mouth when he breathed in.

“Yes, ma’am, I surely do, so long as it ain’t your Daddy fixin’ it,” Jack laughed, and when Ennis glared at him, he laughed louder, showed off his eyes and long honey-dark neck and white teeth. Jack didn’t know how close he was to having Ennis’ mouth on his, on his lips and jugular and veins. It was only fair, he figured, because each time he saw Jack a part of him bled out. Each time he left Jack, his veins felt a bit dryer.

“Up to you,” Ennis said, and began fishing in his pocket for the keys. He guessed something in his face showed what he was thinking. Jack’s slow smile was like a lasso falling around him, he figured, ain’t no two ways about it.

“You are comin’, aren’t you?” his daughter asked Jack, leaning across the car seat and brushing her long hair out of her eyes. “You can tell me stories about Daddy.”

Lord help him, the two were grinning at each other.

“Get along with you,” he grunted, wrestling open the truck door; damned thing always stuck. “Go on, get in.”

Jack steadied himself on Ennis’ shoulder as he climbed in, settled down between father and daughter like a purring cat with a canary between its paws and a saucer of cream in its belly.

Like to run off the road, Ennis thought dismally as Jack’s thigh pressed up against his and the countryside sped by. The truck was warm with laughter and gossip he couldn’t hear over the rush of blood in his ears. Some story about that damned bear, he suspected. Jack was smiling like the summer sun coming over the mountains, and Junior watched him with wide eyes as he waved his hands around and made some damn fool face, baring his teeth and growlin'. Ennis watched the road.

A bit later, unnerved by the sudden quiet, he spared a glance from the black tar and grey horizon to find two pairs of bright eyes locked on him. Lord save me, he thought, as they erupted into laughter. This is how them sheep felt when the coyotes closed in.

*****************

Junior wasn’t stupid. She’d seen the way her Daddy’s eyes lit when that truck had pulled into the yard, saw the quick smile he’d tamped down like a loose sheet in the wind. “Jack Twist,” he’d said. “Wait here, Junior.”

Momma had said “Jack Twist” with a curl to her mouth and a bite to her voice like a lemon wedge. Momma spat out “Jack” like it stung, but Daddy breathed out the name like a prayer and smiled like he’d just bought a new horse, just watched his mare foal. What did Momma know anyhow, Junior thought, watching her father’s shoulders hunch in a familiar pose of misery as he walked towards the car.

She leaned over in the seat, met Jack Twist’s tight unfriendly gaze as her father introduced them. She said, “Hello,” trying to keep the shyness out of her voice, “You comin’ to dinner?” and was rewarded by the bloom of the cowboy’s smile and the incredulous blank look her daddy gave her. Jack Twist weren’t so bad. Had a nice smile.

‘Sides, she thought, he looked hungry.

****************

It was easier’n Ennis thought it could be. Junior took to Jack like he’d been around her whole life, changing diapers and heating milk, coaxing stories of her Daddy’s youth on the mountain and of the rodeo circuits. Mostly, Ennis just sat and watched them, occasionally interrupting when tales got too tall. When Ennis did get to talking with Jack about ranching and livestock and the stud horse he wanted to put Lady Belle to next weekend, Junior’s eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. Shaving the next morning, he heard his daughter whisper to Jack she’d never heard her daddy say so much in one sittin'.

They spent the weekend playing poker and frying up pancakes, visiting the stables where Ennis kept his four horses and his new filly. There were no hands about other than Miguelito and Tony, and them out rollin’ hay, so he felt alright using some of the game trails. Jack made all the right appreciative noises, checking the hands and gait and teeth, and howled like a scalded cat when Ennis tossed him in the trough for calling Lady Belle a right likely rodeo pony, and somehow the hours passed even though Jack slept on a hard makeshift pallet of blankets and Ennis lay awake all night, imagining he could hear Jack breathing.

Come Sunday afternoon, Jack was sitting on the floor at Junior’s feet, because Ennis didn’t have but two chairs and was being damn stubborn about Ennis taking the second. Weren’t worth the energy to argue about it, not when Jack got that tilt to his smile. Didn’t matter much nohow.

Junior was folding her clothes, the fire in the stove was crackling, and Jack sprawled out on his floor like a large lazy cat, humming softly and tapping his boots. Ennis ground out another cigarette and watched Jack through the smoke and sunlight. There was a draft, likely more than one, eddying the smoke in riverine curls and ruffling Jack’s hair. Junior, digging through her overnight bag, wrinkled her freckled nose.

“You packed up, Junior?”

“Daddy, your house has more holes than a cheese,” she told him, shivering theatrically.

“Mmm. Well, it’s a bit a work.”

Jack snorted. “Tell you what, Ennis, be a damn sight warmer as firewood than a house.”

Ennis watched the lingering smoke wreathed about Jack’s head, wanted to touch. Lord, with his fourteen-year-old daughter beside him, still couldn’t tamp down on the need to shove Jack to the floor and taste. Jack looked up just then and caught his gaze, and stilled, eyes dark and lips red, breath coming a little fast. That easy, Ennis thought, and laughed low and rusty. Jack grinned at him, yawned and stretched.

“That kind of talk don’t make me too inclined to leave my property in your hands,” Ennis said, and made himself look away.

Jack laughed, after a beat had passed, and when he looked back the man had his shoulders resting against Junior’s chair and hat tilted down over his eyes.

“Don’t trust me, cowboy?” Jack asked out of the corner of his mouth, blowing a lazy smoke ring. There was a flash of silver as he tucked his lighter in his pocket. The smoke swirled lazily in the air, dissipated.

“Don’t be silly, Jack Twist,” Junior said, reaching over and fiddling with Jack's hat. “Daddy just don’t want to make the drive back from Riverton by his lonesome. ‘Sides, you can sing for us.”

Jack looked up and must have caught sight of the look on Ennis’ face because he near to bust himself laughing.

“Reckon I could, Miss Junior,” he said, and Ennis got to his feet, stood over Jack, and remembered another afternoon and a mountain sunset.

It was a bad idea, taking Jack with him to Alma’s house. She’d get that tight look she always got (she knows, she knows), he’d get another lecture on not caring about his daughters, skipping out all the time to fish, to work, to drink. It was a bad idea.

He dug a boot into Jack’s side.

“Up with you, rodeo.”

Jack grinned up at him, drew in another lungful of smoke before he ground out the cigarette on the scarred wooden floor. He held up a hand, wiggling his fingers patiently. Ennis glared at him, swallowed a shaky breath, and finally wrapped his fingers around that slim wrist and hauled Jack to his feet. How they’d done it this weekend, these long hours in the same house in separate sheets and separate skins, he didn’t know, but each brief contact thrummed in his veins and collected under his skin til he felt he could explode into phosphorsence and ash.

He jerked his hand back, and Jack watched him with a funny little half-smile, like he knew something Ennis didn’t. You sure do look happy, Ennis wanted to say. He cleared his throat and asked Junior if she was ready to go.

“Yes, Daddy,” she said placidly. “Where’d you put that jar I brought you?”

“Over by the sink,” he said, and listened to the metallic bounce of coins as he chased out a pink barrette from beneath the bed in the spare room and stuffed it in her bag.

“Been saving up pennies for’ya since school started,” she said, a happy lilt in her voice. “Made Franny give me some too.” He ignored Jack’s questioning expression (tilt of the head, wide eyes, quirked lips) and settled his hat low over his eyes. “Thanks, darlin,’” he said, and wrapped an arm around Junior’s thin shoulders, pressed a kiss to her temple. She beamed up at him.

“Getting late,” he said gruffly, and chucked her under the chin. “Better get going ‘fore your Momma gets her dander up.”

Jack got to chattering at Junior again, helping her into the truck with an exaggerated bow and smile. “Miss Junior, after you,” he drawled, holding his arm out stiff and formal. Junior rolled her eyes at Ennis as she got in the car, giggling.

Ennis sat down, waited for those two to sort themselves out and wound up driving down the empty highway with an arm around his daughter’s shoulders, humming along as Jack taught her the words to “Water-Walking Jesus.”

The horizon hovered before them, weak winter sunshine gleaming off the prairie grass. The road stretched black and long before them; his house already seemed years away. He was being a right fool, letting Jack stay with him down on the plains, two days, three days. He had fit in the cracks of Ennis' life like caulking but closer to town they got, the more he felt the drafts coming through.

A shock of laughter from the other side of the cab, Junior telling some story about Ennis’ pot roast that one Christmas Alma had the flu, and Jack caught his eye, shaking his head and snorting with laughter. I couldn’t bear it if you died, friend, he thought. He saw it, sometimes, dreaming. Jack beaten and bloody, drawn out and desert dry with death, motionless, with dull staring eyes. But it got so hard, hard like sleet and hail, hard like bone and iron, to see Jack’s eyes shutter and dim each time he pulled away.

It’s for you, he wanted to say. I can’t live without you, he wanted to say, so I have to. Sometimes it seemed like Jack couldn’t see, damn fool get himself killed one day, with his bright eyes and his careless smile, and sometimes it seemed like Jack saw better than he did, because the best moments in Ennis' life were the ones he’d hidden away.

“You’re mighty quiet, Daddy,” Junior said.

“Seems you two got me covered,” he replied, and she poked him. “Be there soon. No falling asleep, now.”

It wasn’t quite dark yet as they pulled into Riverton, and he wanted to make Jack slouch down, pull his hat over his eyes, but the confounded man was looking around brightly and Junior was waving wildly to some boy on the sidewalk.

“Who’s that, then?” Ennis asked.

“Oh, him,” Junior said. “That’s Troy. Look, Jack, there’s where I work, the soda shop, you ever in town you come by and I’ll whip you up a rootbeer float. And there’s Franny’s school, awful, the heater bust last week, she’s been wearing two coats and mittens to school.”

Jack nodded and hummed, made interested noises the whole time, especially about the bit involving ice cream.

“Who’s Troy?”

“Oh, Daddy,” Junior said as the truck pulled up in front of Alma’s house. “He’s a baseball player. He's nice.”

“Baseball, huh,” Jack said, and hopped out of the passenger seat, standing in the fading twilight with the city stars dim around him. “I never was much good at catching, but man, I loved to run them bases.”

“He treat you right?” Ennis said, looking at his daughter on the seat beside him, grown taller and brighter and beautiful. He wanted suddenly to keep both her and Jack in the car with him, drive forever. “You tell him he better treat you good.”

Junior kissed his cheek and hopped out the car. “See you next month, Daddy. You coming by for Easter dinner?”

He grunted an affirmative.

The curtains of the house twitched shut abruptly as Jack lifted Junior off her feet and spun her around, grinning and hooting and generally drawing all manner of attention to hisself. Ennis felt an ache, bone deep and wrapped about him like barbed wire.

"Goodbye, Miss Junior, until I see you again by the light a the moon!" The last bit a soulful howl some might call singing.

"Oh, hush," she giggled, gave Jack a smacking kiss on the cheek and hollered he should come home with Daddy for Easter dinner too, don't pay Momma no mind, and then she'd darted up the steps into the trim clean porch where she stood waving and grinning until the truck turned the corner.

"You done good by that girl, Ennis," Jack said finally, and Ennis snorted.

"She done good by herself, Jack."

The town, as dark fell, shrouded itself in the glow of streetlights, turned soft and empty, and Ennis stroked the back of Jack's neck and watched out of the corner of his eye as Jack's eyes fell shut and his head fell back and his mouth open and his breathing ragged.

"Ennis, goddammit," Jack said.

He kept driving.

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