by Herschel Cozine
The MacDonald Dilemma was originally published in Over My Dead Body in 2017.
Not much happens here in Sheepsvale. It’s a small town, mostly farms and open space that holds little attraction for city folks. This is fine with me. Too many visitors means crime and big city trouble. As sheriff, I am perfectly satisfied to put my feet up on my desk, have a leisurely cup of coffee, and let the rest of the world go by. So when I got the call that there was trouble at the north edge of town I was a little surprised. There are only two farms in that neck of the woods: McGregor’s and Old MacDonald’s. Both were operated by elderly Scotsmen who kept to themselves and never bothered anyone. But the caller was certain he had heard shots and wanted me to investigate.
Hunting season would not start until next month. So gunshots, if that is what my caller heard, spelled trouble. I recall some years back, when McGregor took a shot or two at some marauding cottontails. I gave him a talking to, but he was only defending his garden. Nobody was hurt. I hoped as I started up the old patrol car that this would be a similar situation.
It was getting dark by the time I arrived at MacDonald’s place. His farm straddled the county line, and, in addition to his two-acre vegetable garden he had a passel of livestock. In fact, I heard a cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there as I pulled into the front yard. A few chickens ran hither and yon at the sight of the car, disappearing behind the barn a few yards away. Then all was quiet.
Angus MacDonald was a widower, childless, who had occupied this farm for as long as anyone could remember. Except for an occasional trip into town for supplies, he spent his life on the farm. I liked the old man. He never gave me trouble. And he was far enough from his nearest neighbor that the noises from his livestock didn’t bother anyone.
I killed the engine, climbed out of the car and walked up the dirt path to the porch. The house was a frame structure showing signs of age. The paint was peeling and the railing leading up to the door was missing a few slats. There was a time, not too long ago, when one would be hard pressed to find so much as a splinter out of place. But, since Edna’s death, Angus had let the house and yard fall into disrepair.
Zeus, MacDonald’s ancient hound dog, was asleep on an old mat on the porch. He lifted his head as I approached. Seeing nothing of interest, he gave a half-hearted bark, dropped his head between his paws and went back to sleep.
I crossed the porch and knocked on the door. There was a scraping of a chair, followed by a shuffle of feet. The door opened slowly. Angus, unshaven and wearing a straw hat, peered through the crack. Recognizing me, he swung the door open and stepped out on to the porch.
“Howdy, sheriff,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “What brings you out to these parts?”
I tipped my cap in a greeting.
“I got a call about some shooting out this way. Don’t know who or why, but I thought I’d come out and take a look around.”
“Shootin’, you say?”
I nodded. “Do you know anything about it?”
MacDonald studied me for a minute, his face showing no sign of emotion. Finally he relaxed and hitched his thumbs through his suspenders.
“Is there a law against it?”
“Depends,” I said. “What were you shooting at?”
“Varmints? I don’t recall you having a problem with them before, and I’ve been sheriff here for fifteen years.”
Old MacDonald snorted. “Don’t matter, Sheriff. I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
I cupped a hand to my ear. “I hear a lot of moo-mooing, and a lot of cluck-clucking. But I don’t hear any oink-oinking. Why is that?”
Angus shrugged. “Maybe it’s because I don’t have any pigs.”
“No pigs? I was out here the other day and I heard oink-oinks so loud I could hardly think.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That was the other day. Today I don’t have any pigs.” He pointed to the house. “I got me a bunch of pork chops, ham, and bacon in the freezer.”
“You killed them?” I said.
“Well I didn’t stuff ‘em in there alive, Sheriff.”
I scratched my nose and shuffled my feet. “I’m afraid that’s a crime, Angus.”
He looked at me with a disbelieving frown.
“A crime? What in tarnation are you talkin’ about?”
“The SPCP says so.”
“SPCP?” Angus asked.
“Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Pigs. They’re a powerful lobby in this neck of the woods. Got an ordinance passed that makes cruelty to pigs a crime in this county, punishable by fine and imprisonment.”
MacDonald scowled. “Cruelty to pigs! Hell, sheriff, I ain’t never been cruel to ‘em.” He gave another snort. “I shot ‘em right between the eyes. They never knew what hit ‘em.”
“Don’t matter, Angus,” I said. “The law states that only licensed, authorized individuals are allowed to kill pigs.
And they have to adhere to very stringent procedures when doing so.”
“Is that a fact?” MacDonald said. He scratched his nose and pawed at the dirt with his oversized boot. “Now, don’t that beat all. I been killin’ pigs for a long time, Sheriff. And I never had a problem with the law about it.”
“Times have changed, Angus. And you have to keep up with it.”
Angus hooked his thumbs through his suspenders and stared into the distance.
“SPCP. Sounds like one of them foreign groups. What’s so dad gummed special about pigs that they gotta have laws fer
I shook my head, but didn’t answer.
“So, what are you gonna do? I ain’t a criminal. I don’t have any money and can’t afford no fines.”
I felt a surge of pity for old man MacDonald. He was a simple man without a trace of malice. Certainly a jail sentence for a misunderstanding was not a reasonable solution. Still, as sheriff I was sworn to uphold the law. There had to be a way to handle this that kept Angus out of trouble. The law was a silly one. It had come about after the Tom-Tom incident a few years back. Granted, it was an overreaction to a rather mundane incident. But silly or not I was sworn to uphold it.
I sighed and shook my head. “I need a little time, Angus. I don’t have any place in the jailhouse right now.”
The jail consisted of one cell, currently occupied by Jem, the town drunk.
“Promise me you won’t leave town, and I’ll be back in a day or two.”
“I got nowhere to go, Sheriff.”
I tipped my hat, climbed in the car, and drove away.
Gabe was waiting for me when I arrived back at the station.
Gabe Bailey, my deputy, is a drain on our town’s resources, receiving pay for making my life miserable. A red faced,
overweight individual who believes in law and order, he protects our citizens from dangers that don’t exist. He is also the mayor’s brother.
“What happened out there?” he asked.
“Old MacDonald killed a couple of pigs. That’s all.”
“That’s all!” Gabe said. “There’s a law against that, Chief.”
“Well, you can’t go around ignoring the law. I know the old man is a friend, but…”
I held up a hand. “I ain’t ignoring anything. I just need a little time to figure this thing out. There has to be some way to handle this without puttin’ the old man in jail. That isn’t going to solve anything.”
“Well, I’ll be a crosseyed mongoose,” Gabe said, scratching his balding head. “I don’t want to be a party to any underhanded shenanigans.”
“You have nothing to do with this,” I said.
“I most certainly do. As an officer of the law, I am sworn to uphold it. So are you.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t break any laws, no matter how silly. I just need a little time.”
Gabe stared at me a few minutes, jammed his hat on his head and stormed out of the room muttering as he went.
Judge Calvin Gerber, grizzled veteran of the bench, leaned back in his overstuffed chair and heaved a deep sigh.
“I sympathize with you, Sheriff. I really do. I don’t like this law any better than you do. But our hands are tied.”
I met his sigh with one of my own. “So you wouldn’t make an exception here, Judge?” I asked. “Angus has been farming that piece of land for longer than I can remember. And he must have killed a couple of hundred pigs in that time with no problem. It’s not fair.”
“‘Fair’ has nothing to do with it Mark,” Gerber said. “Old Gertrude Hennessey would have both of our jobs if we let him get away with it.”
Gertrude Hennessy. The richest person in Greenvale County who uses her wealth and influence to control the morals and actions of the masses. She had been influential in getting the “pig” ordinance passed. Unfortunately for her, Gertrude’s influence did not extend beyond the county lines. So it was limited to Greenvale and two other counties where she owned property—and mayors.
Greenvale had more pigs per square mile than any other county in the state, so the statute was having a significant effect on the residents. This was the first time, however, that I had to get involved. While the pig farmers did not like it, they complied with the law, knowing that it would be costly and futile to buck the system when Gertrude Hennessy was involved.
Angus MacDonald, on the other hand, was not a pig farmer. Pigs were only part of his menagerie and he didn’t raise them for profit. As a matter of fact, he didn’t raise any animals for profit. He sold vegetables: corn, tomatoes, green beans. His animals, while in abundance, were raised for his own use. He realized very little income from his vegetables and could not afford to buy meat at the store, so he would from time to time kill a pig or chicken for his own use. “Angus is exempt from this pig law,” I said in what I hoped was a confident voice.
“How do you figure?”
“The law only applies to pigs killed for commercial reasons,” I said. “MacDonald is using his pigs for personal consumption.”
Gerber grinned. “Nice try, Sheriff.” He tapped his fingers on his desk. “But I’m afraid old Gertie thought of everything. Read the fine print and you’ll see that there are no exceptions.”
“What’s in it for her, anyway?” I asked. “Does she get a kickback from the professional pig killers?”
“I wish it were that simple,” Gerber replied. “But she has more money than she could spend in two lifetimes.” He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Blame this one on Tom-Tom. Let’s hope he doesn’t start stealing chickens.”
“Well, Judge,” I said. “I can’t find it in my heart to arrest the old man. There must be something I can do.”
The judge shook his head. “I wish I could be of more help. But it looks hopeless to me.”
I looked at Gerber hopefully.
“First offense. Let him off with a warning.”
The Judge grunted. “I thought of that myself. Can’t do it. As I say, the old girl covered all the bases. Read the law, Mark. First offense is a week in jail and a $500 fine.” He picked up the paper on his desk and held it out to me. “It gets worse with each violation.”
I took the paper and muttered an oath as I read it.
“You made your first mistake when you blabbed this to Gabe. You should have warned Angus and forgot the whole affair. Nobody except you and him would be the wiser.”
“I guess you’re right, Judge. I had no idea what a mess this was going to be.”
Judge Gerber stood up, stretched, and looked at his watch.
“I’m due in court in twenty minutes. Sorry I can’t be of help. But there’s nothing you or I can do about this.”
“Maybe. But don’t bang that gavel yet. I’ll think of something.”
“Just keep it legal, Sheriff.”
I toyed with my badge, considered throwing it on Judge Gerber’s desk. I reconsidered when I realized that this would elevate Gabe to Sheriff. I shuddered at the prospect.
“How long do I have before I have to arrest Angus?”
Judge Gerber frowned. “I’ll give you two days, Mark.” He consulted his calendar. “That gives you until Sunday. So
let’s make it three.”
I stood up, nodded my thanks to Gerber, and left.
I slept fitfully, got up at dawn and took a quick shower. I hadn’t slept well. I had used my insomnia looking for an answer to my problem. Most of my thoughts were either wishful thinking or illegal.
The answer to my dilemma hit me on my way to the office. I almost cried out loud as I turned sharply and drove the
short distance to city hall.
“Well, Sheriff,” Mel Wilson said as I strode up to his desk. “What can I do for you?”
I told him what I wanted.
Mel excused himself and left the room. After what seemed an eternity, he returned carrying a thick file and dropped it on the table. I pawed through it hopefully, then straightened up with a smile.
“Voila!” I cried.
I thanked Mel, walked briskly to the squad car, and headed out of town.
Old MacDonald appeared, still wearing his straw hat and munching on something unidentifiable.
“Howdy, Sheriff,” he said.
He eyed me closely, apparently looking for some sign of hope. Seeing nothing, he dropped his shoulders and sighed.
“Did you come to lock me up?”
I started to say something, but he didn’t take notice.
“I don’t have no one to look after my stock; feed ‘em, milk the cows and such.”
I cut him off. “I don’t think it will come to that, Angus. But you have to help me out here. Answer a couple of questions.”
He nodded. “Ask away, Sheriff. I got nothin’ to hide.”
I stepped off the porch, Angus right behind me. At the head of the path leading to the barn, I stopped.
“Where did you shoot those pigs?” I asked.
He frowned. “Why, right here, of course. Where else would I shoot ‘em?”
“I mean where exactly?”
He pointed over my shoulder. “Down there. Behind the barn.”
I found what I was looking for at the corner of the barn. A cement marker. Pointing to it, I said, “which side of this marker were you on when you shot those pigs?”
“Over there,” he said, pointing to a spot a few yards beyond the marker.
I gave a huge sigh of relief. “Do you know what this marker is for?”
He shook his head. “It’s been there forever. Don’t mean a thing to me.”
“It means,” I said, grinning broadly, “that you were in the next county when you killed the pigs. And they don’t have any law that says you can’t kill a pig, or any other animal except maybe a mockingbird.”
“Just joking. But I’m not joking when I tell you that you didn’t break any law.”
“Then I ain’t in any trouble? I don’t have to go to jail?”
“You’re free as a bird, Angus,” I said.
His face dissolved into a mass of wrinkles and he shook his head.
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand the guv’mint.”
“Well, I’ll be dadgummed,” he said.
He put his hand out for me to shake. “I sure appreciate what you did for me, sheriff. I didn’t cotton goin’ to jail over a couple of ham dinners.”
“Glad I could be of help,” I said.
Angus grunted and swiped a tear from his eye. “I couldn’t leave this place after all these years. What would become of it?”
He swept a hand over the scene.
“I named this place for my wife, Edna. Rest her soul.” He took out an oversized kerchief and blew his nose. “She loved it here. In fact she’s buried out behind the outhouse. I put her there so I could visit more often.”
He blew his nose again, more noisily, pushed the kerchief in his back pocket.
“This is it. This is my life, this place. I’ll never leave. Edna is everything I own.”
I tipped my cap, climbed into the squad car and drove back to the station.
Gabe was beside himself when I told him of my visit and decision not to arrest Old MacDonald.
“You are the law, Chief. You can’t go floutin’ it because you feel sorry for the criminal.”
“Angus is no criminal,” I said. “He didn’t break any law.”
“He broke the ‘pig’ law and you know it.”
I laughed out loud. “Angus was in the next county when he killed his pigs. There’s no law against it there. I can’t arrest him. It’s as simple as that.”
Gabe patted the pistol on his hip and I was afraid for a moment he was going to use it. “What good is a law if you’re not going to enforce it? Them folks in Grissom County ought to be put in jail themselves.” With a shake of his head he turned and left, mumbling to himself.
I relaxed, sank into my chair and dropped my hat on the desk, feeling good for the first time in days. I recalled what Angus had said just before I left.
“Edna is everything I own.”
I smiled as I thought about it. EIEIO
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