‘They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. Ennis, reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road, leaving them twenty-four dollars in cash and a two-mortgage ranch, applied at age fourteen for a hardship license that let him make the hour-long trip from the ranch to the high school. The pickup was old, no heater, one windshield wiper, and bad tires; when the transmission went, there was no money to fix it. He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work.
In 1963, when he met Jack Twist, Ennis was engaged to Alma Beers. Both Jack and Ennis claimed to be saving money for a small spread; in Ennis’s case that meant a tobacco can with two five-dollar bills inside. That spring, hungry for any job, each had signed up with Farm and Ranch Employment—they came together on paper as herder and camp tender for the same sheep operation north of Signal. The summer range lay above the tree line on Forest Service land on Brokeback Mountain. It would be Jack Twist’s second summer on the mountain, Ennis’s first. Neither of them was twenty.
They shook hands in the choky little trailer office in front of a table littered with scribbled papers, a Bakelite ashtray brimming with stubs. The venetian blinds hung askew and admitted a triangle of white light, the shadow of the foreman’s hand moving into it. Joe Aguirre, wavy hair the color of cigarette ash and parted down the middle, gave them his point of view.
“Forest Service got designated campsites on the allotments. Them camps can be a couple a miles from where we pasture the sheep. Bad predator loss, nobody near lookin after em at night. What I want—camp tender in the main camp where the Forest Service says, but the herder”—pointing at Jack with a chop of his hand—”pitch a pup tent on the Q.T. with the sheep, out a sight, and he’s goin a sleep there. Eat supper, breakfast in camp, sleep with the sheep, hundred percent,no fire, don’t leave no sign. Roll up that tent every mornin case Forest Service snoops around. Got the dogs, your .30-.30, sleep there. Last summer had goddam near twenty-five-percent loss. I don’t want that again. You,” he said to Ennis, taking in the ragged hair, the big nicked hands, the jeans torn, button-gaping shirt, “Fridays twelve noon be down at the bridge with your next-week list and mules. Somebody with supplies’ll be there in a pickup.” He didn’t ask if Ennis had a watch but took a cheap round ticker on a braided cord from a box on a high shelf, wound and set it, tossed it to him as if he weren’t worth the reach. “Tomorrow mornin, we’ll truck you up the jump-off.” Pair of deuces going nowhere.
They found a bar and drank beer through the afternoon, Jack telling Ennis about a lightning storm on the mountain the year before that killed forty-two sheep, the peculiar stink of them and the way they bloated, the need for plenty of whiskey up there. At first glance Jack seemed fair enough, with his curly hair and quick laugh, but for a small man he carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buckteeth, not pronounced enough to let him eat popcorn out of the neck of a jug, but noticeable. He was infatuated with the rodeo life and fastened his belt with a minor bull-riding buckle, but his boots were worn to the quick, holed beyond repair, and he was crazy to be somewhere, anywhere, else than Lightning Flat.
Ennis, high-arched nose and narrow face, was scruffy and a little cave-chested, balanced a small torso on long, caliper legs, and possessed a muscular and supple body made for the horse and for fighting. His reflexes were uncommonly quick, and he was farsighted enough to dislike reading anything except Hamley’s saddle catalogue.
The sheep trucks and horse trailers unloaded at the trailhead, and a bandy-legged Basque 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 never order soup. Them boxes a soup are real bad to pack.” Three puppies belonging to one of the blue heelers went in a pack basket, the runt inside Jack’s coat, for he loved a little dog. Ennis picked out a big chestnut called Cigar Butt to ride, Jack a bay mare that turned out to have a low startle point. The string of spare horses included a mouse-colored grullo whose looks Ennis liked. Ennis and Jack, the dogs, the horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind.
They got the big tent up on the Forest Service’s platform, the kitchen and grub boxes secured. Both slept in camp that first night, Jack already bitching about Joe Aguirre’s sleep-with-the-sheep-and-no-fire order, though he saddled the bay mare in the dark morning without saying much. Dawn came glassy-orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire. The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows, and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.
During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow, as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain.’
Read the rest of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” free at The New Yorker link here: