“Brokeback Mountain” begins with a two-paragraph, italicized section, narrated in the present tense, in which one of the two main characters in the story, Ennis del Mar, gets up in his trailer before five in the morning and makes some coffee. He is about to move out of the trailer in Wyoming, since the ranch where he works is being sold by the owner. He might have to stay with his married daughter for a while. In spite of his uncertain situation, however, Ennis feels good because he dreamt about Jack Twist, the other main character in the story. He thinks back to a much earlier time in his life, when he was young and worked on Brokeback Mountain, in Wyoming.
This short introductory section sets the stage for the body of the story. Ennis is about to look back at a time in his life when he worked on Brokeback Mountain with Jack Twist, “when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong.” That turns out to be quite a contrast to how their lives have turned out since.
Ennis and Jack meet in 1963, when they are both in their late teens. They are both from Wyoming, although from different corners of it, and they get jobs looking after sheep on Brokeback Mountain, north of the town of Signal. Jack had worked there the previous summer as well. Jack is designated by Joe Aguirre, the foreman, as sheep herder. He must sleep at night with the sheep and ensure that none are lost. Ennis is designated as the camp tender, looking after supplies. The first night both Jack and Ennis sleep in the tent. In the morning, Jack rides on horseback to where the sheep are.
One day Jack complains about the time it takes him to ride back and forth from the camp to the sheep. He says he is commuting four hours a day. He thinks he ought to be allowed to spend the nights at the camp. Ennis offers to switch jobs, and so Jack becomes the camp tender and Ennis the sheep herder. In the evenings they get to know each other over supper by the fire. They find they enjoy each other’s company.
This arrangement continues for a while. The sheep are moved to a different pasture, further away from the camp. One night at about two in the morning, Ennis says it is too late to go to the sheep, so he stays in the tent with Jack. Sleeping on the same bedroll, they find themselves sexually aroused, and have sex. The sexual relationship that begins continues throughout the summer, although they never discuss it, except that each denies that he is a homosexual.
One night in August Ennis spends the whole night in the camp with Jack, and the sheep wander off and get among another herd in another allotment. Ennis and another sheep herder who does not speak English spend five days trying to sort the sheep out.
In mid-August there is a snowstorm, and when another storm is on the way Joe Aguirre calls them off the mountain. He pays them, and their summer job is over. Jack and Ennis shake hands and drive off, with no plans to meet again.
Although they do not realize it at the time, the summer Ennis and Jack spend together on Brokeback Mountain will be one of the best times of their lives; they only time they find any kind of happiness. Although their relationship becomes a sexual one, it is also emphasized how well they get along with each other; the relationship is not just about sexual pleasure. Around the campfire at supper they tell stories, sing songs, and although their views may differ on somethings—Ennis has no interest in the rodeo, for example—they respect each other’s opinions. Finding companionship on the job is a bonus for them, since neither expected to find it in this rather isolated job of looking after sheep. Ennis “thought he’d never had such a good time.” Important also is the fact that neither man identifies as homosexual and it appears that neither has had sex with men before. They both have an interest in women; Ennis is even engaged to be married. It is as if the sex happens almost by accident, and they seem to agree that it is just a “one-shot thing,” as Jack puts it, not likely to happen again with someone else or in a different situation. This is how they explain it to themselves, although later events will prove them wrong.
That December, Ennis marries his girlfriend Alma Beers, and by January she is pregnant with Alma Jr. A second daughter, Francine, is born. Ennis works odd jobs on ranches, and then the family settles down in an apartment in Riverton, Wyoming.
A few years after Ennis and Jack worked together on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis receives a letter from Jack, who is living in Texas. Jack says he will be passing through Riverton and wants to look Ennis up. They agree to meet. When Jack arrives, the two men are excited to see each other, and he and Ennis kiss passionately. Alma catches sight of them.
It turns out that Jack is also married, to a woman named Lureen, and they live in Childress, Texas. That night, Ennis and Jack go to a motel together and stay the night. As they talk, it transpires that Jack makes a little money, but nowhere near enough, by riding bulls in the rodeo. He has sustained a number of injuries doing this, and was declared unfit for military service. He says he is going to stop the bullriding while he can still walk.
As he and Ennis talk, they both reaffirm that they are not homosexual, since they also like women, but they are both aware of the attraction that exists between them and discuss what to do about it. Ennis thinks there is nothing they can do, since they both have wives and kids. He is also scared of what the consequences might be if someone was to find out that they like to have sex with each other. Jack suggests they get a little ranch together, but Ennis says that will not be possible. He has to stick with the life he has built for himself. He tells Jack that when he was a boy his father took him to see a dead body in an irrigation ditch. The body was of a man named Earl, who had been in a sexual relationship with another man, named Rich. The two men lived together on a ranch. Earl had been beaten to death with a tire iron by some of the local men. Ennis does not want that to happen to him. He suggests that he and Jack just get together once in a while. Jack is not happy with this solution. He suggests that he and Ennis take a couple of days off right then and go up to the mountains together. It seems that Ennis agree to this suggestion, since he picks up the phone and calls Alma.
Over the next few years, Ennis’s marriage deteriorates. Alma gets dissatisfied due to many things: Ennis takes fishing trips a couple of times a year with Jack but never takes his family on a vacation; Ennis is satisfied with low-paid ranching jobs and does not seek a permanent, better-paid position. Eventually, when the eldest daughter is nine, Alma divorces Ennis and marries a grocer in Riverton.
Ennis and Alba remain on friendly terms, and Ennis even attends Thanksgiving dinners with Alba and her new husband. On one such occasion, in the kitchen afterwards, Alba makes it clear she knows that Ennis’s fishing trips with Jack are not really fishing trips at all. She does not approve of Ennis’s relationship with Jack, which angers Ennis, who tells her to mind her own business. He storms out of the house, goes to a bar, and gets drunk.
Over the years, Ennis and Jack continue to see each other occasionally, visiting various high meadows and mountains, although they do not return to Brokeback Mountain. Jack’s father-in-law dies, and Lureen inherits the family farm equipment business. She does well at it, and Jack acts as manager.
When Jack and Ennis meet again after a few years, it is clear that what happened on Brokeback Mountain was not just something that could be forgotten. Both men are now married, but it seems that the attraction between them is much greater than the bond that links them to their wives. But they are both hemmed in by their situations—married with children, it is not easy for them to see a path that would allow them to spend more time together. In addition, they live in a time and place—both Ennis in Wyoming and Jack in Texas—that has little tolerance for gay people, and Ennis in particular fears what might happen if they were ever to live openly together, as Jack suggests they do. Of the two, Jack is the more adventurous, more ready to try to make their relationship permanent. But Ennis cannot go along with it, even though he equally feels the strength of the bond between them. Although neither Ennis nor Jack actually use the word, it seems that they are in love, and face the usual complications people experience when they fall in love with someone other than their spouse. In this case, of course, the situation is made more difficult, and perilous, because they are gay (or at least bisexual) men. It is clear, though, that they are not likely to be happy just continuing in their present circumstances.
In May 1983, Jack and Ennis spend several days together, exploring the Hail Strew River drainage area on horseback. Ennis tells Jack that he is involved in a sexual relationship with a woman who works at a bar in Signal, but the relationship is not satisfactory. Jack admits that he has been having an affair with the wife of a rancher. He also says he misses Ennis. Ennis says he sees his two daughters about once a month; Jack responds that his fifteen-year-old son is dyslexic and cannot read well.
When they are ready to leave, Ennis to return to Signal and Jack to visit his father in Lightning Flat, Ennis says he will not be able to get away again until November. Jack complains that they had agreed to meet in August. He says they ought to go to Mexico one day. Ennis says he does not like to travel, and they will have a good time in November. Jack is not happy but Ennis insists that he has to workand cannot get time off. He also has to earn money to pay child support.
Ennis asks if Jack has ever been to Mexico, and Jack says he has. Ennis, thinking this means that Jack has traveled to Mexico to have sex with men, hints that if he ever finds out what Jack did down there, he will kill him. Jack gets angry, saying that they could have had a good life together, but Ennis is refusing to do it. Now all they have is their memories of the time they spent on Brokeback Mountain together. He says he needs more than just one or two meetings a year. Ennis is “too much” for him, he says, and wishes he had a way of breaking free of him.
Ennis seems affected by Jack’s outburst, and he responds by going down on his knees for a moment, but he gets up quickly, and the two part, without resolving the difficult situation they are in.
Jack remembers a time on Brokeback Mountain when Ennis embraced him one night in front of the fire and they stood together for a while. It was not a sexual embrace but Jack found it deeply satisfying. He later remembered that moment as the happiest one that either of them had experienced in their entire lives.
Twenty years have now passed since Jack and Ennis met on Brokeback Mountain, and the bond between them has remained, even though they have been able to meet only a couple of times a year and both still seek out women for sexual relationships. It is clear that the connection they have with each other is the deepest human connection they have or will ever have in their lives. Sex is only part of it, and perhaps not even the biggest part. They are in a way soulmates, but circumstances and social pressures ensure that their relationship will never have the chance to flourish in a way they would both like. Jack remains the one who pushes for more time together, and still Ennis holds back, which creates tension between them.
Ennis sends Jack a postcard but it comes back stamped DECEASED. He calls Lureen, who tells him that Jack was on a back road, pumping up a flat tire on his truck when the tire blew up. Jack was knocked unconscious and lay on his back. He drowned in his own blood. Ennis immediately thinks that may not have been the way it happened. Perhaps Jack was killed with a tire iron, just like the dead man he had seen when he was a boy.
Lureen says that Jack has been cremated. Half the ashes have been interred near his home; the rest have been sent to his family. Jack had once said that he would like his ashes to be scattered on Brokeback Mountain, but Lureen did not know where that was.
Ennis drives to Lightning Flat to visit Jack’s parents. He sits at the kitchen table with them at their small ranch. Ennis offers to scatter the ashes on Brokeback Mountain. Jack’s mother tells him he is welcome to take a look at Jack’s room, which she has kept as it was when he was a boy.
Jack’s father then says that Jack used to talk about bringing Ennis up to the ranch, building a log cabin there and helping Jack’s father run the ranch. Then Jack started talking about bringing another man up there to do the same thing—a neighbor of his in Texas. When he hears this Ennis is convinced that Jack was killed because he was involved in a relationship with another man.
Ennis goes to Jack’s old room and looks around. In the closet he finds an old shirt, going back to Jack’s time on Brokeback. Ennis sees dried blood on it, and knows that it is his own blood, caused by a nosebleed following an accidental blow from Jack’s knee. Ennis finds another shirt inside Jack’s shirt, and realizes that it is his own shirt he had presumed lost many years ago.
Jack’s father refuses to release the ashes and says they will be placed in the family plot. Ennis passes the cemetery on his way home.
A few weeks later, Ennis orders a postcard of Brokeback Mountain from the local store. When it arrives he pins it up in his trailer. Underneath it he hangs the two shirts, on a wire hanger.
Ennis starts to have dreams about Jack, seeing him as he was when they were on Brokeback together. When he awakes, sometimes he feels grief and sometimes joy.
Jack meets a tragic end, and it is left ambiguous about whether it was a genuine accident or whether he had in fact been killed because he was in a relationship with a man. Either way, Ennis has lost the person he felt closest to in life, and is understandably shaken and upset. Ennis’s meeting with the family shows that Jack, just like Ennis, had not been close to his father. Distant from their own fathers, they had found male companionship together, even though their relationship was a road they trod with great difficulty. The two shirts that hang together, one that belonged to Ennis and the other that belonged to Jack, provide quite a moving element as the story nears its end. The two shirts are symbolic of the closeness that existed between them—one almost inside the other’s skin, so to speak—and it is this memory that Ennis is able to carry with him as a consolation for Jack’s untimely death. Their story, like that of so many lovers, both heterosexual and gay throughout history, is made up of both joy and sorrow, and in his dreams of Jack, Ennis remembers both sides of it.