A/N: This story's title is taken from the Bruce Springsteen song, "If I Was the Priest."
If Jesus Were the Sheriff
He wondered if it was just his imagination.
Women, by their nature, are tactile. Those warm, lingering smiles could be his imagination. And he had to acknowledge tenuous sanity after losing, regaining, and losing his whole life.
But sometimes he could swear she purposefully brushed past him. When he entered a room, her body stiffened. Her voice, feminine and small, seemed to hum with electricity.
Or maybe he was crazy.
Rick pretended to relax, eyes sweeping across the road.
"How far you gonna push it?" Glenn asked beside him.
Rick shrugged, stealing a glance at Beth in the rear-view mirror. "We could make it to Clayton and back without much trouble. Wouldn't go further."
"It's a small town," Glenn said. "You think we'll find anything?"
"Clayton's not on the way to anywhere. If we're lucky, it hasn't been picked through."
Beth looked out the window, watching the trees zip past like a flip-book. Her momma always liked those. She remembered sitting in her lap, looking over the wheat fields, as they flipped through a book about cats who liked dogs. Beth couldn't remember the last time she'd seen a dog.
"You okay back there?" Rick's voice pulled her out of her thoughts.
She smiled in the mirror, enjoying his consternation.
"I'm fine," she assured him. "Just nice to get outta prison. Not that I don't appreciate it—it's sort of like home now—but that concrete'n'wire gets in your head."
Rick smiled back. "I know what you mean."
He stared longer than he meant to, looking off when she was blushed. Glenn didn't notice, lost in his own thoughts. His expression was s mask of disdain and worry.
Rick asked, "Something on your mind, Glenn?"
Glenn paused before saying, "I don't like it when both of us are gone."
"They got Daryl back there. And besides, this is important. I needed you—" Rick paused, glancing at Beth. "—both of you on this one. We can't protect anyone without guns and ammo."
Beth looked down shyly. He was only placating her—she'd barely talked Rick into letting her come—but it thrilled her that he was thinking about her feelings.
Glenn sighed. "I know. You're right. But we wouldn't need guns if—" He stopped on a dime, shaking his head. "Nevermind."
Rick understood his frustration, but it wasn't useful. "What's done is done. And anyway, it's my fault. I'm the one who let the other group take watches. Should've known better—leavin' a kid t'guard our guns."
Beth frowned. "It ain't your fault, Rick. You can't take all the shifts yourself. Sooner or later, we gotta trust people."
It was a fine effort at kindness, but Rick knew the truth. For the hundredth time, his mind's eye played everything back.
David, the Woodbury kid, took the midnight shift guarding the armory. Sometime around three or so, the kid got sleepy. He took a pillow to the adjoining corridor—telling himself he'd only rest his eyes. When he woke up, there a was gang of men—six altogether—hurriedly loading the guns into bags. David didn't dare confront them. He turned tail and sprinted to the main cell block, shouting at anyone who would listen.
By the time Rick reached the armory, the men were long gone. The only evidence of their crime was a mangled door, subjected to explosives, and the person-sized hole in the fence by outside
Rick's complacency had cost them the majority of their arsenal.
Seeing his friend's recrimination, Glenn forced a tight smile. "I bet you're right. Clayton's out of people's way. I'm sure we'll find something."
Beth's heart broke at the burdened look on Rick's face—the guilt in his eyes. He'd been alone so long, even before Lori passed, that he truly believed everything was his fault, that he kept letting people down. He'd been taking care of everyone with such singular focus that he wouldn't know what to do with any comfort he was given.
Beth decided that Rick was done being alone.
They parked the SUV behind a mom-and-pop pharmacy. Rick instructed Glenn to find what he could, taking Beth to explore Main Street.
There were no walkers about, for which Beth was grateful. As she and Rick walked, she tried to put the right distance between them—too close to be casual, too far to be intimate. She could have sworn he inched toward her, but perhaps she imagined it.
"We lookin' for a gun shop?" she asked.
Rick nodded, scanning both sides of the street. He tried to ignore how good she smelled. "Yeah. But we'll check the bar, too. And the corner store. Lotta heat beneath a counter."
An image of Rick in his sheriff's uniform filled Beth's mind. She could see him walking into a King County pub, clean-shaven but tired-looking, as he assessed the danger and calmly asked two parties to explain their conflict.
"You must miss it. Being a sheriff, I mean," Beth said, an admiring smile on her face. "You must've been so good at it. People trust you, and you've always got plans, and you keep so strong for everyone—" She trailed off with a nervous laugh.
Rick's mouth twitched. "I guess I was pretty good at it. Used to think the job was hard. Now? Hell, I'd sell my soul for a simple armed robbery."
"Take care with your soul," Beth chided lightly. "You only get one." She meant it playfully, but his eyes were somber. She added, a little desperately, "—and yours is special."
Rick chuckled softly, shaking his head. "You are relentlessly supportive."
Her stomach twisted in knots. She fought the urge to grab his hand.
"So are you," she said shyly.
The bar was a bust. The only gun was an antique blunderbuss displayed on the far wall. They had luck at the corner store. Rick smashed a lock box to unveil a pistol. They shared a triumphant grin, before Rick put it in his waist band.
When they were leaving the store, Rick's arm shot out, blocking Beth's path. He held a finger to his lips and nodded his head toward a commotion down the street. She followed his eyes to two cars a couple blocks away.
Rick crouched down, pulling her with him. The railing in front of the store concealed them.
He watched the car doors open. Two groups stepped out—six men altogether.
"Who are they?" Beth wondered softly.
They looked relatively young, and even from a distance, he could tell they were built. Rick couldn't be sure, but he thought saw fatigues. They could be an army unit (the last remnants, at least).
He watched patiently as they opened the back hatch of one of the cars. They began unloading bags. One wasn't zipped, contents spilling to the pavement. Rick squinted at the cargo with wrathful recognition.
"Are those guns?" Beth asked.
"Our guns," he growled.
"It's a doctor's office," said Rick. "I donno if they're holed-up there or just making a pit-stop. But they took the guns in with them."
Glenn knew well that stubborn expression. "We're not ready for this. We'll go back to the prison—come up with a plan."
Rick wiped his face, pitched forward in earnest. His eyes were cold and resolute. "We don't know how long they'll be here," he reasoned. "We leave now and that might be it. Once they're on the road again, those guns are gone."
Beth looked timidly between them. She trusted Rick implicitly, but this didn't feel right. "What are you saying, Rick?"
"We hit 'em hard, we hit 'em now," Rick hissed, pointing down for emphasis. "Glenn and I'll go in. You'll be waitin' around the corner. We'll take as much as we can and get the hell out."
Beth's lungs were in a vise. It was far too dangerous. And the thought of waiting at a distance, while Rick assumed all the risk, was detestable. She knew, objectively, that she wasn't much use. But that didn't negate her instinct to protect him.
Glenn's eyes narrowed at Rick. "Two of us against—what—six of them?" He shook his head incredulously. "That's some real cowboy shit."
Rick blinked. A slow smirk spread over his face. "Yeehaw."