May watched as the cigar smoke trailed out the open window. The train slowed to a stop. The smoke lurched back into the cabin, as though reticent to emerge into the otherworldly landscape. May leaned forward, cigar still in hand, as she rested her elbows on her knees to get a better look. The painted stripes of the desert were childishly unreal, yet probably the most gorgeous scene May had ever viewed. She heard the train workers cuss as they talked about how long it would take to fix the rail. They’d be stuck here for a long while.
Maybe the old German doctor was right, she thought to herself. Some people don’t belong in this world. They have to be exiled and where they are banished to can’t resemble anything they have known before. It has to feel unreachable. Maybe the train would never advance. She was a free woman now. If this was where her journey ended, she would not stay with the people on this train. She would go out there, into the desert, and live among the wolves and wild creatures that scuttled in the shadows.
A hermit, that’s what I’d like to be. She grinned at the thought. Living in a cave and counting the stripes of the desert to pass the time. Despite the heat and the dangers, the vast desert offered a sense of comfort. It’s why she came to Tombstone in the first place. This time would be different. No people. No way of getting into trouble with the kind of men she always wound up drawn to. Maybe this was genuine freedom. It wasn’t the type of freedom imagined by the governor who released her from prison, but then again, did they ever imagine what freedom meant for an exile?
Far off in the distance, a shot was fired. Her eyes narrowed as the memory she wanted to forget was conjured once again. When she fired the .38, the bullet tore through her heart as much as it tore through Billy’s back. She cursed the men who wrested the gun out of her hand before the second bullet could reach its mark.
The passengers grew restless as the heat baked the train. A mother and two well-dressed children walked by May’s cabin. The children stared in at her as though she were a caged beast.
“I know her!” The boy exclaimed. “That’s the woman who killed a guy right on the same corner where Virgil Earp was shot!”
The mother hushed her son. The look she shot May was unmitigated disgust. “Adulterous slattern,” the woman muttered as she hurried the children along.
May leaned back and rested her boot heels on the bench across from her. She puffed on her cigar, winking at the little girl who stared at her, wide-eyed and half-fearful. She remembered this family. Friends of that busybody newspaper correspondent who told the world about May’s “scandalous trial.” “That’s right, Mama Bear. Take your children away from Tombstone before it corrupts them. Shouldn’t have moved there in the first place. Tombstone isn’t for people like you.”
She didn’t hear the response, though the woman turned back to her and May watched her mouth move in grim amusement. May stretched out comfortably and blew a few smoke rings. She turned her attention to the desert, trying to forget the people on the train.
The desert stripes reminded her of the rings seen on tree stumps. She mused that by counting them, she could figure out how old the earth was. She imagined walking off the train and heading up the slope into the heart of the Arizona desert. A stone wave, frozen in time, ready to carry her away into perfect solitude. One can only truly be free when alone. A solitary nomad—the eternal outsider with only the moon as a cyclical companion—such was her fate, and she accepted it. She welcomed it now. After so many years of trying to fit in, attempting to obtain the sort of happiness coveted by the rest of humanity, she realized that life didn’t belong to her.
With Billy’s murder, May struggled to let go of the life she cultivated in the dusty streets of Tombstone. The shock of that gunshot freed her soul in an instant. Her soul fought it at first. The indignation of the trial brought her to the bleakest of all decisions, yet they prevented her from following through on her urge to follow Billy into the grave. While she would never admit it to them, she was grateful now. The internal government scandal that brought about her release from prison was now seen by May as divinity’s way of giving her another chance to redeem herself. Maybe not redeem, exactly. But to embrace the liberty of solitude.
The call of the desert faded as the train lurched into motion again. The chugging engine drowned out all other sounds, and May put her head against the glass, watching the past and the future that never was disappear.
The conductor strolled though the narrow aisles of the train cars, announcing how many hours it would take to reach California now that they were underway again.
This time will be different, she thought. This time, it truly will.