The afternoon sun has the cowboy squinting his eyes. A woman stands next to him, twisting her hips and smiling into his leather face. Both recline against a gray wooden cow fence. A warm breath lifts from the heat-soaked dirt and grass. The cowboy breathes in the prairie. His scent is rude and distinct; hard-labor and brine; a spicy, musky cologne from his button-down; he scowls. It disfigures the woman’s subtle bouquet—her’s is too delicate. He sniffs it up and lets it play on his tongue. He repeatedly taps his heel against a fence post, trying to guess what happens next. He had never made such fuss over a woman, even a fine one like Estrella. Why start now?
“What are you thinking?” asks Estrella. She dips her ear forward to see the man’s face. She squints an eye in the sun and smiles at him, eyebrows slightly raised.
The man looks to his boots then rearranges his hands and heels against the fence. He wishes they were not standing so close. He can’t move away now; she’ll think on it—the cowboy stops fidgeting. His cheeks and eyes wrinkle into his smile. “I’m just thinking,” he says, “that grainin’ won’t be so tough this year.” Christ his back aches in this position, but he is committed. “Not with you and Tommy here.” Estrella turns from the man and inspects her cuticles. “I mean,” he continues, “Tommy’s all right with his hands, but the crew ain’t never been so—together; and laughing. Not before Tommy and you—”
Estrella kicks a toe-full of dust, laughing. “Don’t. Please. Don’t say his name. It’s so nice here now.” She gazes over her shoulder into the horizon, nothing but flat land; hard land. The two sit looking each their own direction for a minute, then, since the man has said nothing, she says, “What are we doing out here?”
The cowboy tips his hat up and surveys the fields; heads of cattle, an ancient tool shed, a little tan house on a hill with red clay roofing. “I don’t know,” the man says. “We’re just talking’s all; taking a rest—”
The woman protrudes her chin and scoffs, shaking her head. “Darn you Fernando,” she mutters. She leans forward and covers her eyes. She laughs softly into her palms.
The cowboy presses his large hand to her back and starts to pat. His calloused palm catches on the shirt’s soft fabric and the feeling brings memories of little toes on cotton blankets and the man feels a tremor in his gut. “Aw, I knew what you meant,” he says. “I just didn’t know what to say is all. I’m not good talking about these things. What do I say?”
The woman frowns at the man, but it fades quickly. “Tell me the truth,” she says. “Tell me what to do, just tell me how, and I will, but not if you don’t want to, not if you don’t—if you don’t want me.”
“Goodness . . .” says the man. “You talk like it’s my choice. If it was my choice, my way, we wouldn’t be on this silly errand. I wouldn’t have to sneak you away for a few moments of looking into your eyes without feeling your—your husband breathing behind me. I don’t blame the bastard either, but I don’t play games when I don’t know the rules.”
“Is that what this is? A game? Fernando, this is serious. What are we going to do?”
“We aren’t going to do anything. We’re going to head back to the farm. If your husband’s there—well, you have two choices,” counting on thumb and forefinger, “you can tell him how you think you feel, how you’ve been telling me, and telling me you think you have for me, or you don’t say a thing; we keep on working like it never happened, and I don’t lose the best hand I’ve had in years.”
“You would do that? Pretend we didn’t—”
“As far as God and I’m concerned we did something.” He grips her hand and turns it so the tiny stone blinks. “Ha. But I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known.”
“You wouldn’t have loved me because of him?”
“That’s right, I wouldn’t have loved you. I wouldn’t have let myself love you. Think I’m the kind of man who watches out for other men’s wives? Sneaking around the shadows?”
“Well, are you? that kind of man?”
Fernando sighs; a long release. Then he steps away from the fence, swinging out his arms and arching his back. “I don’t know. But we’ll find out back at the house won’t we?” He holds out his hand. They both walk along the crooked fence toward the shack on the hill.
After a long time, the woman asks, “Do you love me?”
The words enter the cowboy’s head and beat around until all his other thoughts and feelings tumble out his ear. He watches the posts coming; going. Nearly reaching the farmhouse now; Fernando sees a green pickup kicking up dust out front; he hears its horn sounding loud and long, then quick, quick, quick, then loud and long again. He looks down to Estrella’s brown neck, at her slender collarbone, her swaying gait—“Hell,” he says, “I just might.”