Art Pact 147
"I'm begging you, sheriff," Carter said, his face pressed uncomfortably close between two bars. "Please, you gotta do it."
Sheriff Townsend kicked the edge of the table gently, stared at the ground and shook his head. He would not meet Carter's eyes, but nor did he put down the gun in his hand. He turned it over, looking at the smooth chromed curves of the metal and wondering if it would even fire. He distrusted the gun's ornamentation, the fact that it had been built for show. Surely that meant that something had been taken away from it, an essence of utility as if design were a zero-sum game and a weapon could either be fit for purpose or beautiful. He'd not thought of it since the townsfolk had given him the gun, but the idea was unavoidable now. Perhaps it would allow him a way out - if he were to aim the gun and pull the trigger but the gun didn't fire, would that be enough for God? Or would it be the act of gambling a man's life that the almighty saw?
"Come on, sheriff, have some mercy on me?"
"Be quiet!" Townsend snapped. Carter shut up and fell away from the bars, sagging back onto the cot bed that was the cell's only furniture. His face was a closed mask, nothing of the cocky bravado that he'd had when Townsend had first met him remained. Townsend thought back to that first meeting, cursing himself for not moving Carter on when he'd had the chance. But he hadn't wanted to be that kind of lawman. He'd just wanted to keep the peace, not trap the town in some kind of amber that would preserve it forever without change. He couldn't protect them from the future, and the future was men like Carter. And women like Miss Eaves, he thought suddenly.
He walked to the window again, and looked out over the crowd outside. They had given up their chanting, and it looked as though a couple of them had decided that they might as well get back to work while there was no chance of getting their hands on Carter. There was O'Reilly, though, and there Oxford, and behind them Mr. Arnold still holding the shotgun that Townsend had told him should stay on his farm. And yes, there she was, well behind the crowd, standing in the shade of the porch outside the general store: Miss Eaves, one hand on her hip, the other clutching a tin cup full (no doubt) of watered-down gin, watching the mob disapprovingly. Perhaps she saw him, because the hand at her hip raised up and waved - a terse wave, almost a salute.
"What if I did it," Carter suggested.
"What if you give me that gun, and I just put a bullet in my head? I swear, I'd shoot myself. That'd take all the blame off of you, right sheriff?"
Townsend hefted the weight of the gun in his hand. Yes, that would be much easier. Take out all the cartridges, hand over the gun to Carter and then throw the man a single cartridge from some safe hiding place, just in case it was some kind of trick. He looked at Carter's face, where hope and despair were battling it out and between them producing a grotesquely unreadable expression.
But that would be suicide, he thought to himself, and Carter's ticket straight to hell by God's law. Why let the man shoot himself just to avoid a horrible death at the hands of the mob outside if he was only going to meet a worse fate at Satan's hand?
"Can't do it," he told Carter.
"For God's sake, man! Have some mercy!"
"Now you calm down and let me think, will you?" Townsend ordered his prisoner. "I just need one moment to make this all clear in my head."
Townsend walked to the back of his office, behind the empty gun cabinet and the piles of horse-blankets that his predecessor had left. There the air was close and musty, and it pressed in on the head, so that thoughts were slow. He could still hear the noise of the crowd outside, but here it was duller, like he was hearing it on the wireless rather than right outside his office door.
So here are my choices, he thought. I do what they want me to do - hand over Carter to the town, and just sit back while they string him up for a slow death. Result: Carter's dead, Miss Eaves hates me, and I have to leave town because I can't look any of my neighbours in the face again. Or I shoot Carter myself. Result: Carter's dead, Miss Eaves hates me - but maybe a little less - and they run me out of town. Plus I got to make a representation to the Lord, and maybe that's a long way off but maybe it isn't, and either way I don't know as how he'll accept my excuse. Last choice: I give Carter the gun. Result: Carter's Dead, Eaves hates me, the rest of them will assume that Carter somehow tricked me out of it. They'll think I'm a grand fool, and it won't be long before there's someone else in here doing this job.
It seemed that whatever way he turned the problem in his head, the result was the same. Carter would be dead, his chances of courting Persephone Eaves similarly deceased, his time as sheriff of Haywardstown over for good.
"I've been thinking like the sheriff," he said out loud.
"What was that?"
"Like the sheriff," he announced, walking back out to the front of the jail. "I've been thinking like the sheriff."
"Well," said Carter gloomily. "You are the sheriff. God knows I wish you hadn't've been."
"You don't mean that," Townsend reminded him. "What I mean is that I'm more than the sheriff of Haywardstown. I was Honour Townsend before that, I'm Honour Townsend now, and I'll be Honour Townsend when all's said and done."