There was a puddle here before the sun came up, but in the blistering heat all that I see is hot yellow sand. The sand reflects the brightness of the sun toward my eyes, causing me to squint as I claw pathetically searching for any remaining trace of water.
I used to live by a philosophy.
I'm sheriff of a small desert town. Rather, I was sheriff of a small desert town. Now I'm a prisoner to the desert itself, and my town is miles away, in what direction I don't know. But I can never go back there now. I need to face my fate out here, and take it like a man.
I remember vividly the day of my appointment. It was a hot day. I was working out in the yard when the mayor, a personal friend of mine, asked me personally if I would take on the responsibility. The old sheriff had been shot in the night, he said. It was a dangerous job, he said. I responded with the philosophy I lived by; the one that my father had repeated when I was small.
"Justice is the pillar we all stand on," he said, "injustice needs to be punished."
I was motivated by an inhuman zeal. Maybe I was clinging to what I knew. Maybe that statement had taken such thorough hold of me that I couldn't think of anything else. Or maybe it was just my way of expressing grief for my deceased father. But I took that statement to heart, and did my best to cage anyone who took so much as a step out of line.
This continued for years. I was paid barely any, but I took my job more seriously than my own life. The mayor began to grant me money to enlarge the jail and hire a deputy.
Then one day my wife fell sick. So sick, in fact, that I couldn't get to work for the better part of three days. I felt cornered; I didn't have the money to find a doctor. I had stopped raising chickens when I took the job as sheriff, so I had nothing to trade for the service of a doctor.
And then one day the mayor stopped in to visit her. He pulled me aside. Told me what good work I had been doing. How he hated to see me stuck inside like this.
"Use some of the money." He said, "to find a doctor. The price is nothing compared to the money you've been granted to build a new jail, and it's going to a good cause."
That seemed reasonable to me. But in retrospect, that moment planted the seed of my undoing.
When my second child was born, I used some of the money to buy a larger house. And then a new horse when mine died. Even though my pay was raised enough to live substantially, I continued to expand my living outside my means. Before I knew what had happened, I was living well, all on money that was supposed to be going elsewhere.
When the mayor died, a new mayor was appointed. And his first act of business was pointing out the discrepancies in my account. Finally I realized: In my mad pursuit of justice, I had trampled on its very foundations, putting the money of the town into my own pocket. The townspeople would have revolted, given this information. But they never got the chance. I fled in the night, into the desert, to let myself slowly die as all of my prisoners slowly die in their cells.
This is a fitting punishment for my greed. As I starve out here, drenched in sweat, I always repeat to myself in the back of my head that I deserve it.
Injustice needs to be punished.