“It’s hot enough to fry eggs in sand.”
She could hear him say it. Right down to the peculiar emphasis he put on the word, “fry.” It conjured up images of grease-darkened frying pans, sand blowing so hard it pried the eyelids open, eggs costing two dollars a dozen and not having a dime to her name.
Those were the good memories.
In truth, there was only one bad memory associated with that statement.
The man who originated it.
The man she had heard repeat it, time after time. One thousand times. Until she was so tired of hearing him utter such nonsense, she told him if he said it once more, she would leave him.
Which was a lie.
It was he who ended up leaving her.
For a grave on boot hill.
Lowercase “b,” small “h.”
Not a famous cemetery, not in a notorious cow town.
In a no-name graveyard, in a town that would not outlive the railroad tracks bypassing its borders.
If it had been for another woman, she would have forgiven him. If he had tottered away under the influence of too much red-eye whisky, she would have understood. If lightning had struck him, she might have accorded such as the Will of God.
If he had developed fever and withered away under its burning tortures, she would have nursed him to the last, without question. If he had been trampled on in a stampede, thrown from the back of a wild mustang, been crushed in a rock slide, she could have borne her grief with dignity.
If he had died of old age, she could have accepted his passing with grace.
Of all the ways to die on the frontier, only the last was improbable.
Which caused her to laugh. The first mirth she had expressed in years.
Her man had been a lawman. He had worn the Badge.
For “justice,” he said.
The irony was, he meant it.
Justice of acquittal for men accused of crimes they did not commit. Justice of the rope for men who used guns without giving a damn who they shot, or why.
Justice for homesteaders driven off their land; justice for Wells Fargo, recovering cash boxes filled with other people’s gold.
Justice behind bars for swindlers, card sharks, brawlers and water witches.
The only one not accorded “justice” under his system of law and order, was his wife.
She was expected to understand.
Fairness was for others.
That was part of the deal he made for both of them when he pinned that “tin badge” on his chest.
“For better for worse.”
She could hear him say that, too. He had only said it once. It was enough to sear the sentiment into her breast.
Closer to her heart than his head lying on her bosom.
He stood tall that wedding day, a brave man sweating under the burden of the oath he was about to take. Comfort. Honor. To love and to cherish. He had nodded gravely at each word, pledging his troth with a stiff nod and a firm, resounding “I will.”
He swore to love, to have and to hold, to keep himself only onto her, “as long as ye both shall live.”
He was not generally a swearing man, but he took that oath, kissed her on the lips and paid the itinerant preacher ten dollars in gold for his trouble.
He said afterwards, it was the most expensive swearing he had ever done in his life.
She asked him once, what oath he had taken when he first put on the badge. He knew what she meant and did not answer her.
Their marriage had many silent days, many cold nights.
If his death had a purpose; if it had made a difference; if anyone had cared, the widow might have been left with a memory warm enough to sustain her one single night.
It did not seem too much to ask. One night. Eight hours.
She did not get five minutes.
Nor five seconds.
Where was the justice in that?
To be sure, there were the graveside testimonials, the two-paragraph obituary in the weekly, out-of-town newspaper, condolences from his superiors in Topeka. The governor had sent a hand-written letter, penned by an anonymous aide.
Nowhere was the word “justice” mentioned.
Which, in its own ironic way, was a form of justice.
Without meaning, without empathy.
No one could understand her loss. She was expected to grasp the meaning without being told. She was a woman of the world.
A world exactly ten feet deep and four feet wide.
There had been no money for a headstone. Someone from town carved his name on a wooden cross.
The gesture held no meaning for her.
He was dead. That was the only fact she understood.