I used to want to be a cowboy, a war hero

I used to want to be a cowboy, a war hero. I used to want a ranch in Hutchinson County and a cabin on one of those trickling branches of the Canadian River. I'd ride the fences bareback, no spurs, sun blazing, mud under my fingernails. And I'd have a sprightly, steadfast wife, with copper-lilies tucked up in her dark, windswept hair and able hands beyond rolled up sleeves, springing down the porchsteps and calling me darling. The smell of sweet acacia wood and juniper would hang by the windows, and the doors would have no locks.

I can't even sweat anymore.

Now, in this empty street, with thirst burning like bad whiskey in the back of my throat, I can feel a bit of it, that open prairie desolation, that battlefield stench of bile and rust, bleached skulls, dull barbed wire, blisters, marrow, dirt. In the wind I swear I can hear the coyotes in the cricket beds, the Inca Doves in the sun-parched Samnorwood swales. If I clench my fist tight enough, I can almost feel a pulse.

There's a diner up ahead with a patch of dry grass out in front straining at its concrete borders. I can appreciate the effort. I reach for the door.

Light footsteps carry me in.

Not exactly the heavy-booted, buckles-and-dirt, ramshackle grandeur I had in mind. Sometimes I miss mortality, its miry, rough-hewn soldier glory, its throbbing, earnest heart. I wish my boot heels could drag honest weariness across the diner floor, herald me like a prisoner of war with soot in my whiskers and gun oil between my molars. My suede gloves chafe between stiff fingers—my knuckles should have calloused by now, but I'm a goddamn beautiful undead snowflake, and the skin stays soft. I don't think I'll ever really be a man again.

Then I see her.

She sits at the bar, knees together, feet apart, dirt on her shoes. Her hair is dark and wild, her shirt a copper-lily yellow, sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She watches me with kind, light gold eyes, smiling like someone's sweetheart breathless for a welcome-home kiss, like I'm somebody's hero. I can't remember the last time a woman looked at me like that.

She springs from her stool nimbly and dances to me, all eyelashes and cursive streams and swaying acacia branches

"You've kept me waiting a long time." She extends one tiny hand, palm up, open. I catch the scent of juniper. "Darling."