There were five men in the office, and their tall black shadows shut in the space around the light from the overhead lamp. Wilson was pacing. He was the shortest man in the room, but projected the most energy. Wilson, whom few in town had seen in anything but his usual genial mood, was furious—restrainedly furious, but unquestionably so.
“I wish to all sense you hadn’t interfered,” he said. “I don’t know what you were thinking.”
Reardon was sitting in a chair by the desk, looking wooden but resolved. “Since it was my premises you were trying to protect, I expect I had the right.”
Wilson gave an exasperated nod. “Of course. But if I’d had a chance to talk to you first I’d have told you it was the worst thing you could have done. You went and undercut everything I’d just said and done.”
“That’s why he did it,” began Harrison, and then looked like he wished he hadn’t said anything. Wilson swung around on him, his eyebrow curling up in astonishment, and opened his mouth, but Reardon spoke up, stiff and stubborn. “I admit I did it for a reason. The plain fact is, we can’t afford to defy them.”
Wilson stared at him. “To—defy them!”
Merle Harper moved uneasily and spoke. “He doesn’t mean that, Ike. He means that—”
Wilson held out his hand to stop him, still looking at Reardon. His voice held a trace of dangerous irony. “No, Merle—I’d like to hear what it is that Mr. Reardon means.”
Reardon made a rather pettish sideways movement in his chair. “What I mean is that we can’t afford to antagonize them, Sheriff. Quincy isn’t—it’s a quiet town. We’re not built to deal with things like this.”
“I think he’s right, Ike,” said Merle Harper heavily.
“So do I,” said Harrison, rather muffled.
Bob Rutherford was over by the door, his shoulders against it and his arms crossed, watching and listening soberly. He was there to listen, not to speak; he was too young and too new in the municipal affairs of Quincy to think of doing anything else. He looked at each man as they spoke, but more often his eyes returned to the sheriff, watching his reaction to each word and speech.
Wilson glanced around at the others as if he still could not quite believe what he was hearing, and leaned toward Reardon, his short thick palms pressed on the desk. “Listen, I’ve been sheriff in this town for ten years, and you’ve never had any cause to complain of the way I handled things.”
“No, of course not! But things are different now than when you started. This is no wide-open boom town; we’ve got businesses and property and citizens to think of. You have one deputy. You don’t have armed men you can call on to back you in a play like this at a moment’s notice. We’re not equipped to deal with roughs like Bradley and his ilk, and the best we can hope for is to avoid provoking them into anything before they move on.”
Wilson straightened up. He crossed the floor again, and swung his arms back and forward in short movements, which Merle Harper knew for the sign that he was trying to keep his temper. “You weren’t here at the start, Reardon. And with all due respect, I don’t believe you understand what’s involved in protecting the property you’re talking about.”
Harper said, “Ike—”
“You ought to know better, Merle!” said Wilson shortly, looking at him. “I don’t want trouble with Bradley and his bunch any more than the rest of you. That’s why I went in there tonight; to let them know that I wasn’t looking for trouble, but I’d deal with it if they chose to make any.”
“That’s exactly what I meant!” said Reardon impatiently. “I don’t consider that a wise thing. More likely you’d provoke them into it. And that’s why I interrupted. I own that saloon; I’m willing to put up with a few bullet holes in the woodwork and a little broken glass if it means they’ll have their devilment out and pass on without doing worse damage.”
Wilson nodded sharply. “You’re right on one count. It wasn’t the best I could have done. What I ought to have done was lock up the whole boiling of them on a drunk and disorderly charge right then and there, make it clear we wouldn’t tolerate anything worse. And I can tell you this, Reardon: the reason I didn’t was because the way things stood, I knew I couldn’t make that arrest without someone taking a bullet—and it would most likely have been Bob, or you, or somebody at one of those tables who didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Reardon’s thin mouth worked a little, but he made no answer to this.
“Instead,” said Wilson, “you practically let ’em know that you don’t believe we can stop them from doing what they darn well please. That’s not going to encourage them to drift on; it’s a free pass to the town.”
“Well, that’s your opinion,” said Harrison, who seemed readier to speak up now Reardon had blazed the way. “We just wanted you to know how we all feel about this. After all, Sheriff, you’re only one part of the town government, and we have got a right to let you know what we think.”
“Yes,” said Wilson. He was looking from one man to the next. “Yes, I suppose I am.”
Ignoring, or perhaps not hearing, the undertone in his voice, Reardon capped it. “It’ll only be for a few days, I’m sure. There’s no reason for any trouble.”
Wilson nodded again—still spoke quietly. “Yes,” he said. “We’ll see about that.”
That was all; but Merle Harper, who knew him better than any of the others, knew the even, deceptively restrained tone of his voice that signaled the end of the conversation, and the meaning that really lurked under it: Get out of my office.
Harper moved from his place and crossed the wood floor to go, his hands in his overcoat pockets. Reardon stood up, and the others followed. Bob Rutherford uncrossed his arms and moved aside to let them reach the door; he did not meet the eyes of any of the older men.
When they were gone, and the door was shut, he looked at the sheriff, who stood in the middle of the floor with his hands on his hips. Wilson smiled ruefully at him. “And you thought all there was to being a lawman was being a good shot.”
Bob grinned, a little self-consciously, and looked down at the floor. It roused a quick little rush of sympathy in him that Wilson could joke about something that had to hurt this much.
Wilson sighed. He walked around behind the desk, and sat down at it, his arms resting in front of him on the tattered blotter. “You’d better get home, Bob. Anne’ll be worrying about you.”
Bob Rutherford nodded. “Right.”
He turned toward the door, and Wilson added without looking up, “Be here early in the morning, though.”
Bob paused in the doorway, and glanced back. Wilson was looking down, and the light from the lamp overhead threw into relief every line in his face, making him look older, harder, and wearier than he ever had in daylight.
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