Diego woke up early Saturday morning. Many of the vaqueros had left the island for the weekend, and the few remaining were sleeping soundly in the darkness. He packed a saddlebag with his blanket, a beautiful embroidered shirt, fancy necktie, polished boots, and a horsehair bracelet he had woven during idle hours in the cookhouse. He donned the outfit he had worn as a vaquero: faded blue jeans with tooled leather belt and brass buckle, blue jean jacket, parka, riding boots, and white Stetson straw hat.
On the way out, he checked his image in a mirror and liked it. He felt like a vaquero, not a cook’s helper, always taking Jose Flores’ orders. He had been a vaquero until seven years ago, then fallen off his horse and broken a hip. It never healed properly, and the vaqueros no longer trusted him as before. Raul Martinez offered him the cookhouse job. What else could Diego do? Barely literate, he had few skills and no other job prospects. But a cook’s helper was lower than any vaquero, disrespected, butt of jokes, powerless.
He went to the cookhouse, ate breakfast, packed food for a long ride. When finished, he slung his saddlebag over a shoulder, went to the stable, and told Modesto, the stable boy, he was taking out Aldonza, a gentle mare, and would bring her back the next day.
“Where you going, Diego?” Modesto said.
“To see my wife,” Diego replied with a smile.
Modesto laughed. “You wish you had a wife.”
“So do you, compadre.”
“Take good care of my Aldonza.”
“I always do,” Diego said.
He hung his saddlebags, mounted, rode into the pasture at a steady gait. All week long the vaqueros had been herding cattle from the pasture onto the cattle boat. They said they would finish the job next week. When it was done, most would leave the island. A few would take jobs on the other Stockton cattle ranches but others would be unemployed. Diego would soon be out of a job, too.
He did not know what he would do then. He was forty-six years old, had not seen his family in Mexico in almost thirty years, not talked to them in almost that long, never written to them. He was alone in the world except for the people and spirits of the island. Soon the people would be gone. The spirits, eternal, would always be here. He wanted to stay, even as the last and only person.
He rode inland to the northern fence line, followed along it. It was familiar, an old friend. He had ridden here as a vaquero, and afterward, making his weekly visits to his common law wife. To his left, the land rose gently, covered with wild grasses, dotted with coastal sage scrub, pine chaparral, island oak. The pasture land to his right was green grassland, but the trees and shrubs were sparse. Beyond the pasture, the ocean licked against the shoreline and, beyond that, the Santa Barbara channel dark blue with whitecaps of an unsettled sea and the California coastline that Diego barely remembered setting foot on. He could not even remember the year, who was the American President, or what was in the news.
He had overheard vaqueros talking over temporary jobs. Some would help the bison wranglers. It was dangerous work, and he was not up to it, but maybe there was another job he could handle. It did not matter what it paid, how dirty, or how hard. Any job on the island was okay. If only he knew who to ask, how to ask. His English was poor, he could barely read or write. If not for Raul’s pity, he would not even be in the cookhouse. Unfit as a vaquero, all he could do was serve food, clean up, do scut work.
He rode on to the end of the pasture, dismounted, walked Aldonza through the gate, stopped by a stream. He took his lunch from the saddlebag, let Aldonza loose to drink, wander, and graze. She came close, nuzzled him. She was not his and he was not hers but they loved each other. He kissed her on the nose, felt her warm breath on his face, and then she pulled away and wandered alone. He looked off at the mainland. What would he do there? A shiver went through his body. Die.
He sat on a rock and ate, tried not to think about the mainland; instead, his wife, near, waiting for him, as always. He would see her soon. He recalled their first meeting, one Saturday. Riding alone, east of here, he passed an island fox, staring at him from the center of the trail ahead. It scurried off into the underbrush as he approached and, when he looked up, he spotted a woman near a stream a quarter mile away. He could tell she was a woman by her clothing and how smoothly she moved. At first he did not believe his eyes. She was not from the ranch, and the only woman who might be there was a trespasser. But she did not look or move like a trespasser.
He watched her from horseback, saw her bend down, sit on the stream bank. Doing what? Curious to find out, he rode closer, closer still, until he was twenty feet away, and stopped.
She stood up, turned to face him, smiled. A beautiful, dark-haired young woman, olive skin, noble features. Barefoot, she wore a white blouse, brown skirt, held a pottery jug she had filled from the stream. She looked at him, straight in the eyes, the way no woman ever had before. Short, ugly Diego felt his heart pounding in his chest.
“Hola,” she said, still smiling.
Diego drew in a breath, lips trembling, throat tight, struggled to reply, finally said, “Hola,” in a voice that sounded strange to his ears.
“Do you live here?” she said in Spanish.
“I work at the ranch,” he said.
“Are you a vaquero?”
“What else do you think I am?” He hesitated. “Where are you from?”
She blinked. “From here, of course. I been here all my life.”
He scratched his head. “No one lives way out here, only on the ranch.”
She laughed, her voice like a sweet bell. “I do. Yes, of course I do.” She walked slowly over to him, looked up, smiled. “What’s your name?”
“I am Diego Lopez.”
“Ay, Diego, would you like to come visit my house?”
“Listen up, Diego Lopez. I am all alone, I get lonely. I like visitors. Come, keep me company for a while. We will talk, get to know each other, become friends.”
“Where do you live?”
“It is not far from here.”
He had a strange feeling. Was it love, or had she cast a spell?
* * *
Nearing island’s end, he heard the barking sounds of sea lions from the Marine Sanctuary. Before him lay a flat meadow bounded on the left by the gently rising slope of Santa Rosa and ahead by a hill before the beach. A lively stream coursed down Santa Rosa and crossed the meadow to the sea. He had been here countless times, explored the meadow on Aldonza, ridden along the beach, seen sea lions, harbor seals, otters, whales. Waiting for her, he had sighted deer, elk, eagle, falcon, butterfly, frog, and strange creatures from another time. They all wandered freely, fearlessly, as if unaware of his presence. The meadow was peaceful, a pleasant place to live, no people or bosses.
He waited for darkness, as always, watching the clearing at the base of the hill. There lay the outlines of foundations and tumbled remains of shacks where the hunters had lived long ago—Sealtown. Gradually, darkness came. Flashlight beams wandered from the sanctuary; visitors moving around from one place to another. Eventually, complete darkness.
Don’t fall asleep, Diego, he told himself.
Now, the full moon was high in a black sky filled with stars. When he looked down at Sealtown, he saw a yellowish light; Isabel’s signal: Come to me now, Diego. He shut his eyes, and when he opened them the vague outlines and remains of Sealtown were solid, with shadows, and real.
He mounted Aldonza, rode her slowly across the meadow toward the yellowish light, and then along the path that ran to her shack, a wooden structure with a door between two open windows, an oil lamp burning in one. She was standing in her open doorway, waiting for him. He stopped, dismounted, went to her, she raised her arms, they embraced, kissed.
He unburdened Aldonza, set her free to roam.
“What have you brought me?” Isabel said.
“A bracelet,” he said. “I made it myself.”
“Show it to me, Diego.”
He placed the bracelet on her wrist.
She admired it, and smiled. “It is beautiful, Diego.”
“I have also brought food.”
“I am not hungry.”
“You are never hungry.”
“Does it make you angry?”
“No. I love you too much.”
“How long will you love me?”
“Will you leave me?”
“Promise me that.”
“You always say that.”
“And you never answer me properly.”
“I will come to see you.”
“That is not what I asked. Why not stay with me?”
“I must work. Soon I will finish. Then I will come and stay with you.”
“Never leave me, Diego.”
“I promise you on my mother’s sacred name and my personal honor.”
He loved her, but feared being truthful. Staying with her depended on others and was out of his control.
He said, “It is cold in here, Isabel.”
She took his hand. “Come to bed now, Diego. I will keep you warm.”
She always said that, too, but never warmed him, only his heart.
Something terrible would happen. He swore to himself he would tell her the truth soon. It might break her heart, but he must do it.
Lying beside her in the cold, he realized he could stay, face the unknown that followed, or be a coward and leave. How many times had he already proved himself a coward? Would he ever show his love with more than words?
Next morning, he awoke alone in the ruins, Aldonza wandering nearby. He whistled, she came over, nuzzled him, he kissed her. Beloved Aldonza. He saddled and mounted her, gave her reins to follow her nose home. Leaning forward, he whispered in her ear. “Did you see that, Aldonza? My beautiful Isabel. Did you see her?”
Aldonza turned her head, an eye staring directly at him, and then turned back. He wondered what she knew.
Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017).
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Photo by Jakob Owens