Dust permeates the air, drying Wayne's bloodshot eyes, the invading particles grating like sandpaper. He recognizes a grove of scraggly trees—a sign that home is near—and speaks, the sound echoing back to him. "I'm coming home, darlin'."
He forces his chin upward, wincing at the crick in his neck. Starlight shines its soft welcome.
"Rose," he murmurs, his wandering mind shifting from the desolate landscape.
Memories of Rose flood back to him: the vibrant spark in her jade green eyes, bold questions, and resilience. Like the hint of whiskey on his tongue, she intoxicates and beguiles him, even in her absence.
He closes his eyes, imagining the feel of her porcelain skin and the hollow at the base of her neck, where perspiration pooled during intimacy, a physical testament of her desires.
Rose is a good wife. The kind who makes mouthwatering buttermilk biscuits, never ceases her amusing chitter-chattering, and keeps him up late at night. The only thing she ever asked from him—in an uncharacteristically bashful manner—was blue fabric, so she could sew herself a dress.
"By golly, I can't wait." Wayne chuckles to himself, patting his horse's mane. "How much longer, Wes?"
Wes continues trodding along. Night sings its lullabies, the cicadas humming so loudly they infiltrate Wayne's brain with non-stop buzzing. He drifts asleep, waking when Wes starts up a rocky hill—swearing he can smell Rose's sweet scent. He imagines the way the scar on her left cheek dances when she speaks. His. She's all his.
"Am I dreaming?" He says the words out loud, but Wes doesn't stop walking. "I've been gone too long."
Eighteen months ago, hankering for a wife, he placed an ad in the newspaper. Rose arrived on an inbound train. Their love flourished, smoldering the very first night. She'd barely warmed his bed when he left to drive cattle to railheads in Kansas. His absence—intended for only a few months—has been a tick shy of a year. Every day, Rose consumes him, filling his thoughts, and causing a gentle itch underneath his skin.
Rose's disposition is pleasing—even keeled, warm, affectionate. But when Wayne left, a hint of fear surfaced, shining in her eyes. He could see the reservations in her body, the way she pursed her lips and clenched her fists.
"What if you don't come back?"
He winked, tipping his Stetson. "As sure as the sun rises, I'll come back. Nothin' can keep me away."
But the heat kept him away. Exhaustion. Steers the size of the broadside of his small barn. One job led to another. He completed the tasks for Rose—for that mischievous smile, warm caress, and promise of a future, deep and true. A chance for love to blossom. The security to make their life worth living.
He pats Wes. "Time to build that new house I promised her."
Wes whinnies and lowers his head, the exhaustion evident in his deep, snorting breath.
"Okay, old boy. I hear ya."
Wayne sighs and climbs down, heading toward a small inlet in the rock cavern, Wes trailing behind. Constellations above glow, as if trying to engage them, whispering 'further, get a move on, Rose is waiting.'
Counting the stars, admiring the prosperity and hope of what lies in wait, Wayne falls asleep in the dust.
* * *
Light wakes him, the sun peeking out with a fierce, blazing persistence. He climbs back in the saddle, desperate to hold Rose in his arms.
Hooves approach as he rides through town, passing the saloon. Wayne turns, nearly falling off the saddle. "John? Is that you?"
His friend rides beside him, pushing back unruly curls from his forehead and spitting into the distance. "We thought you were a goner. Where you been?"
"Got to make money for the missus. Stayed away a bit too long with the cattle drives. How's Rose gettin' on without me?"
John avoids eye contact, ignoring the question. Wayne stiffens. "You have somethin' to say to me, John, then you say it."
The dust stirs up under the horse's feet. John clears his throat, leaning back in his saddle. "You've been gone a while. Rose was convinced you weren't coming back."
Wayne uses his handkerchief to dab at the sweat on his brow. The movement does nothing for the acidity building in his stomach, making its way into his mouth, filling it with vile bitterness. He's not a mean man—not the hateful type—but he can't help feeling angry at Rose.
"I told her I was comin' back, didn't I?"
"Yep." John nods, then pulls to the left with his reigns. "I've got business in town. Good seein' you."
Wayne had been driving cattle every day for nearly a year. No time to stop. He sent Rose a letter—one. One may not have been enough. An eerie prickling ascends Wayne's spine as his mind zips through overlooked possibilities. A lost letter isn't unheard of. A year is a long time to be gone.
The air becomes drier with each step, the anticipation of arriving home filling Wayne with an unfathomable weight. He clutches the reigns harder, the leather burning into his cracked, dry hands. His tongue is a foreign object in his mouth, dry and unmoving, but he doesn't stop to dig through his saddlebag for water. For better or worse, he needs to see his wife.
His dingy, one room home looms in the distance, the rickety fence barely upright. Small tufts of grass poke out of the sad pasture. Wes stops, as if on cue, as they both eye a horse inside the parameters of the fence. Wayne dismounts and stares at its shiny coat and bulbous gut. His heart pounds in his chest as he makes large strides toward his house. He nearly walks in, but stops, thinks better of it, and knocks.
Rose opens the door, her black hair stuck to the side of her face. Her expression contorts when she sees him, her lips quivering and the spark in her eyes vanishing entirely. She lets out a sharp whimper and then collapses, crying into her hands. "I thought you were dead. Why didn't you write?"
There's a man inside, getting up from the bed—his bed, their bed, the bed they made love in after they got hitched—and Wayne's heart is shredded. What kind of man lies with another man's wife? What kind of woman would break her vows in her husband's absence?
The man slinks out the half open door, not daring to make eye contact. Air fans Wayne's flushed face as he passes. He doesn't budge as the man gets on his horse and leaves, or when Rose crumbles on the ground, clutching at his legs.
"Please." She clasps her hands together. "I didn't hear from you. I didn't have a choice."
His instincts tell him to tear his leg away, to scream and berate her, to give in to the mounting pain and betrayal in his soul. Instead, he turns and heads back to his horse, reaching inside the saddlebag. He needs a distraction—anything that will take his mind off his wife. His soul is punctured, fragments of pain piercing him with malice.
Inside the saddlebag, his hand rests on his gun. His breath catches and he forces himself to look at Rose, a crumpled mess on the floor of their home, the bedsheets askew from the man's presence.
Her captivating face is smeared with tears. She gasps for air. "Please. You left me here alone. I have nothing."
She motions with her outstretched hand. Wayne allows himself to absorb the scenery. It's a desolate, barren landscape, with nothing to offer. He had to leave to earn money. She had little. But still . . .
"You're my wife." The words croak out when they exit. He barely recognizes them as his own. "You couldn't have done somethin' else to survive?"
His hand moves past the gun in the saddlebag, pulling out a small parcel. He tucks it under his arm, unsure what to do with it—now that his beloved wife broke her promises. To death do we part.
The door to the house remains half closed. Rose props herself up on her knees. Pain courses through Wayne. He tries to make it dissipate. A woman in this territory, alone with nothing, can't survive long. He overestimated her resilience.
"I told you I would return."
She stops crying long enough to look up. It's only now he sees how emaciated she's become. "How was I supposed to know you weren't dead? You didn't come back!"
He deadpans her. "Who was that man? What were you doing with him?"
"I met him in town. He brings me food and I . . . "
She needn't finish. The severity of what occurred between them is apparent. He fed her and she provided for him in other ways. The notion makes Wayne's stomach churn. All that time away from her. All that time spent pining for their future.
He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, knowing he has a decision to make: stay with his unfaithful wife, or leave and try to forget she exists. He takes a step toward Wes, ready to make the bleary trip back to Kansas, but his heart and pride battle one another, tearing him in two. He pauses, contemplating which to give in to.
The parcel from the saddlebag is still under his arm. He turns around and drops it on the floor. Rose's hand caresses it—five yards of blue fabric.
Wayne doesn't look at her, he can't. He made mistakes—he's to blame for leaving her too long—but he needs time to stew in anger.
"Well," he finally says. "You goin' to let me in or not."
He reaches down and grabs Rose's hand, pulling her up. It's only when he presses his other hand against the door, fully opening it, that he sees the dress-clad infant sleeping in a dresser drawer on the floor, and gasps.
"Is she mine?"
One look at Rose's face reveals the truth. If any doubt remains, the slight arch of the babies' nose and blunt chin confirm paternity. She's a mirror image of Wayne.
He scoops his infant daughter up, mesmerized by her tiny fingernails and the gentle tranquility he experiences by watching her breathe. He lets out a long exhale, sending up a silent prayer of thanks, and cursing himself for nearly walking away from his wife and daughter.
Tears continue streaming down Rose's cheeks, her body quivering. "Please forgive me. You don't understand how hard it is for a woman out here. I had to feed your daughter. I had—"
"There's nothing to forgive." Wayne pulls Rose into his chest with his free hand, allowing her to sob into his chest, wetting the layers of dust and grime clinging to his body. "Let's not speak of it again."