Scrub brush formed a threadbare carpet of silvery green. Mesquites grew slanted, roots straining to hold against the near-constant wind.
The horse was tall enough to lift Cole above the meager shelter the trees provided. At first, the onslaught felt natural, reminding Cole of a hot desert half a world away. He wondered at that, how he felt so at home in a place so foreign, how foreign in a place that was once home.
“I, uh, hate to leave this on your voicemail.” The sound of Crystal’s voice riled Cole up, even after all these years. Then her voice broke and he was eighteen again, saying goodbye before he left for boot camp. “I guess I should ask you to call me back. It’s Danny. He’s– Call me, okay? Or come home.”
Cole held the phone to his ear long after the message ended.
A buzzard soared across the sky. Instead of smooth swoops, the ugly bird jerked around, buffeted by the swirling air. The horse hopped and shimmied. His ears swiveled nonstop.
“Can’t settle either, huh?” Cole patted the horse’s neck.
Pumpjacks bobbed in an attempt to wrestle oil out of the earth. Atop the escarpment, sleek white blades swept through the sky in lazy circles. The windmills were too beautiful for this place.
“What can I do for you, First Sergeant?”
“I need to request leave, Sir.” Cole stared straight ahead.
“Of course. How long?”
“A week. Maybe less,” Cole answered.
Captain Harris peered over his glasses. “Is everything okay?”
“My brother had an accident, Sir.”
Harris didn’t even try to hide the surprise that flickered across his face. Few people knew that Cole had a brother.
“Anything you need from me, Cole, and I mean anything, you let me know.”
Cole nodded. “Thank you. I will.”
The horse began to fidget even more. Cole didn’t know his name, but the sorrel was a dead ringer for the rangy old roping horse he had as a kid.
“Easy boy,” he crooned. “Settle. Does anyone around here ride you, or do they just use those ATVs in the barn?”
A jackrabbit burst across the trail. The horse jumped sideways before bounding straight up in the air. Some instinct kept Cole in the saddle. He hung on until the horse calmed, then nudged him forward again.
“I don’t know why we’re out here,” Cole confessed. “I don’t know why Danny drove that night or why Crystal got in the car with him.” Cole sighed. “I don’t know a lot of things.”
“You’re just going to leave? What are we supposed to do?” Crystal sobbed.
“I don’t have the sort of job where you just call in sick, Crystal.” Cole searched for patience. The blankets lay flat where Crystal’s right leg should have been.
“So that’s it then? You’re just going to walk away like you did before and leave me with nothing? What about your niece and nephew? What future do they have now?”
She was hurt and scared, but her words took Cole by surprise. “I didn’t walk away from you, Crystal. I had to get out of here. I couldn’t be tied to this place.”
“It was all I knew.” Crystal corrected herself, “All I know.”
Sympathy edged its way in, and Cole patted his sister-in-law’s hand. “You’ll be okay. We’ll figure it out. But I have to go back for now.”
Two decades had passed since Cole gave up one family for another. Twenty years, same choice. Love or duty. Just the last time, it wasn’t really a choice.
Pink and orange and gold streaked the sky as the sun began to set. Cole turned the horse for home. Behind him, a hawk folded its wings and dove for the ground. The shriek of a rabbit rose above the wind.