I was wrong! There is one last Roy Harper short left I’d forgotten about. This was inspired by another story I was reading that had what I felt was a very simplistic, naïve approach to the idea of justice. I wanted to see it interrogated a little bit so I wound up writing this story, which I now share with you. Hope you enjoy!
The Heathfire’s central flame burned bright and cheerful, tended by the careful ministrations of attentive Hearth Keepers. The young women alternated between keeping the hearth burning and helping the Storm’s Watch construct a bier for the late Morgan Hale. Hale’s funeral had been ongoing for the last hour, a rolling series of songs, stories and moments of quiet reflection.
Since his arrival in the town of Granite Valley six years ago, Morgan had become a local fixture. He was always on hand to raise a barn or birth a calf. When he’d first appeared in the company of the comely widow Jenny Templeton many had assumed some kind of attraction between them even though he was nearly twenty years her senior. These suspicions never proved true, although they persisted for years, until Jenny passed from consumption.
Morgan’s subsequent support of her son until the age of majority cemented the town’s good opinion of him. So it was no surprise that most of the bier was built by the townspeople, placing each stick of kindling after they shared their story of the deceased as tradition demanded. As of yet, no one had removed wood in a sign of disapproval. However, even now the stack of fuel was poor match to the task of cremating a body. Few, indeed, are the men of such noble character that such a task could be accomplished though the goodwill of their community alone.
So the servants of the Mated Pair labored to fill in the gaps as the service wound down. Dusk was falling and soon Morgan would need to burn his path into the night. However as the first long shadows of the sunset touched the Hearth’s building a stranger slipped into the building.
He went unnoticed by most of the mourners at first. In truth this was because he did not look very remarkable. He was on the short side, although his calloused hands and broad shoulders spoke of strength enough for most things. His dark blue suit was appropriate for the occasion. Only the embroidery on his bright yellow vest, hinting that he was a man of means, spoke of anything out of the ordinary.
When Samuel Templeton caught sight of the stranger his outburst shocked the crowd, finally drawing attention to the interloper among them. The new arrival ignored the young man. Instead he approached the bier, also ignoring the piece of kindling one of the Hearth Keepers offered him, and took a stick from the pile. Then he walked to the Hearth.
The crowd watched him in total silence. Doubtless they expected him to throw the kindling onto the main Hearth, a common sign of disapproval for the deceased at this kind of memorial. But the stranger didn’t do this either.
Instead he turned his back to the Hearth and sat down on its edge, the roaring light of the flames casting him in ominous shadow. If the heat of the Hearthfire bothered him he gave no sign. The stranger rested his stick of kindling across his knees and began to speak.
“My name is Roy Harper and my profession is violence.” He removed a sheaf of papers from the inner pocket of his jacket. “I first heard of Morgan Hale after the Carlyle Stage Coach robbery nearly seven years ago when he and the Carlyle brothers killed three guards, a man and his daughter, all in an attempt to steal a strongbox of silver marks on route to the Farnsworth bank in Rapids City.”
The end of Harper’s announcement was lost in an uproar from the townsfolk. Confusion and outrage warred with each other in the crowd’s emotions. Harper waited for them to quiet. While he did he unfolded his papers and pulled out a worn, tattered and dirty page.
It was a wanted poster for Morgan Hale, almost seven years old, issued in due course by the Mayor of Rapids City and witnessed by the Storm’s Watch.
Harper held it up and the last few professing how impossible or mistaken his accusations must be fell silent. He put the other papers away and laid the poster on top of the kindling in his lap. “Three men hit the Farnsworth stage coach, then they split up. The older Carlyle lit out for Sanna territory. It’d take a man with connections among their leaders and a reputation for fairness to catch up to him. Carlyle the Younger went south across the border to Tetzlan. The man to catch him couldn’t fear the magic in stone or blood. By the time I caught up with Hale, six months had passed since the robbery.”
“What?” Terry Schmidt the blacksmith was a large man with graying hair, a frequent partner of Morgan in booze and business. “Six months? Morgan would’ve been here in Granite Valley by then.”
If the question bothered Harper he didn’t show it. Call and response was a part of most rituals at the Hearth, after all, and memorials for the departed were no exception. “So he was,” Harper said, “so he was. In fact, he was mending a fence for the Templetons when I found him.”
“Was he now?” Terry glanced at Samuel but the youth didn’t meet his gaze. “I’ve been in more than one scrap with ol’ Morgan as both friend and foil. I can’t believe he survived a duel with one of the most famous firespinners in Columbia.”
“Do you know who Jack and Mercy Templeton were?” Harper asked.
Terry frowned, clearly confused by the sudden change in topic. “Sure. That was Sam’s old man and sister.”
“And did your friend Morgan ever mention that he killed them?” Harper held up his bit of kindling lengthwise between his fingertips. “Wood was Morgan’s trade and a wondrous trade it is. A large enough tree had a mind of its own but in the hands of a skilled worker even a few sticks will move on their own. Sometimes that’s all it takes to be deadly.”
For the first time since he’d started speaking the people of Granite Valley had nothing to say. “It’s a simple thing to break a wagon’s axle. Simpler still if one has mastered the ways of a hedge mage. You only need to see the stage coach you’ve targeted and you can work a magic to snap it like a matchstick.”
A voice in the back said, “No doubt Morgan was a master wood worker with magic and without.” The townsfolk turned on the speaker, aghast. It was Sheriff Delaney. The tall, gangly man stroked his graying mustache thoughtfully as he walked towards the front of the room. “I’m not saying he killed Sam’s family, folks, just that he could do what Mr. Harper’s saying.”
“The Carlyles were ruthless enough to kill the coachman and the guards but neither the brothers or Hale were expecting passengers on the Rapid City coach,” Harper said. “When the coach crashed the men on the outside were thrown free. The strongbox broke out of its moorings and crushed the two passengers inside – namely, Jack and Mercy Templeton.”
“He couldn’t have,” Terry snapped. “I’m telling you, Morgan Hale didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.”
“If I break open a dam and kill others with the floodwaters how malicious I was when I broke it isn’t important.”
“You’re not wrong, Mr. Harper,” Sheriff Delaney said, squaring off against the other man. “Perhaps Hale had a hand in their deaths. Why would he wind up with the rest of Templeton family when they came here to the Valley? Wouldn’t he have avoided them instead?”
“That’s not something I can answer,” Harper said. “I asked, but neither he nor Jenny would tell me how it was they crossed paths out there on the high plains. I have my suspicions.”
“Like what?” Terry demanded.
“I think he was looking for them, maybe even followed them from Rapid City.” Harper glanced at Samuel. “But I wasn’t there when they met, I don’t know what he said to Jenny to win her trust and frankly I don’t care, either. The moment is long past. If it matters to you, there’s one person who was there you can ask.”
Attention swung back to Jenny’s boy and he looked down, unwilling to meet the townsfolk’s eyes. After an awkward moment, the sheriff cleared his throat. “If you know so little about Mr. Hale, why bother coming here at all?”
“Oh, I know a fair bit about Morgan Hale.” Harper studied the sheriff with clear amusement. “Like I said, I found Hale about six months after the coach robbery. Took time to pick up the trail. Plenty of opportunities to learn about him while I was poking around Rapid City and talking to his old associates. In fact, when I found him here I’d say I knew more about him than anyone in Granite Valley at the time.”
“And then what?” Terry demanded. “You could’ve taken him in easy, so why didn’t you?”
“As I said, I found him working on a fence by a new house on the north end of your good town,” Harper said, making himself comfortable on the Hearth. “The Templeton house, although I didn’t know that then. Planned to get the drop o him and give him the option to come quiet. That fell through when a kid of about ten came out of the house with a jug of water and sat down to watch him work. Wasn’t the right time to step in, so I came back to the local hospitality for the night.”
“Nice of you to consider the innocent,” Sheriff Delaney said.
“Kids are a variable I like to avoid, if I’m honest,” Harper replied in deadly earnest. “Everyone goes a little odd when they’re around, law abiding or not.”
“Your compassion inspires.”
“Someone must’ve recognized me in town – not surprising since that old Tetzlani bounty was still on my head at the time. Whatever it was, word got back to Jenny and she found me at the saloon.” Harper folded his arms and leaned back until he was dangerously close to the roaring flames of the Hearth. “She had some nonsense ideas-”
“She told you the truth!” Samuel snapped, his patience finally stretched beyond bearing. “You just didn’t want to listen to it.”
Harper’s eyes narrowed and the Hearthfire behind him crackled and dimmed, the flames burning lower as if in response to his mood. “What would you know about it, son?”
“I’m more Morgan’s son than yours, Roy Harper,” Samuel snapped. “Ma couldn’t believe what an obstinate, hard headed man you were. I must’ve heard the story at least once a year. She asked you to leave Morgan alone and you refused.”
“I did,” Harper admitted. “The money on his head was more than just my room and board, Mr. Templeton. It was a sign of how heavy his crimes were and how strong the demand for justice. My job is to make sure people like Morgan Hale feel the weight of those demands.”
Samuel paced back and forth, gesturing wildly with his hands in a way that reminded the townfolk of his mother. “Justice? Justice from a firespinner? All people like you do is spread dath through the west. Violence only begets more violence.”
“Spoken like someone who knows little of the art.”
“It is your profession,” Terry muttered.
Neither Harper nor Samuel took notice, both men were seemingly lost in the recounting of a long standing dispute. Behind them the fire leapt and snapped, casting their shadows over the room. For a moment, as if by the magic of the Hearth, the son channeled the spirit of his mother to argue the fate of the departed man once more.
What does killing Morgan accomplish?” Samuel demanded on his mother’s behalf. “It won’t bring back what we lost. The dead will still be dead, you’ll just have created more of them.”
“The measure of justice isn’t life,” Harper said. “Nor is it restitution. Justice is measured by retribution so that those who take from others also lose what they gained unjustly.”
“Isn’t it enough that Morgan has created a widow and a grieving mother?” Samuel slumped, grief clear in the line of his shoulders. “How many more wives and mothers will suffer before your sense of justice is satisfied?”
“The absence of grief doesn’t create justice,” Harper replied. “And no one will mourn Hale. His mother threw him out of her home and he never married.”
“You know his family?”
“No better than you.” With each answer Harper’s intensity built and the fire stoked higher behind him. “If both are equally likely then our arguments are of equal weight wouldn’t you say?”
“I’d hardly say they’re equally likely. What mother could hate her children that much?”
Harper took a deep breath and let it out slowly, the fire behind him gradually returning to normal. “And yet it seemed to me that your mother hand little affection for her own daughter, given how little grief she showed.”
“It seemed that way to me, too,” Samuel admitted. With that, the spell was broken and they were back in the present, the crowd at the Hearth letting out a collective breath they hadn’t realized they’d been holding. “But mother had already spent what grief she allowed herself. Her concern was for me. I remember what she told me, over and over, when I cursed the people who killed my father. The same thing she said to you.”
Harper nodded. “She refused to raise her son in a world without Mercy.”
Terry put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It must have been hard to learn who Morgan was. When did your mother tell you?”
“When Mr. Harper came back the next year.”
Sheriff Delaney gave Harper a hard look. “You came back?”
“Every year, even after Jenny was dead,” Harper said. He held up Hale’s wanted poster for them all to see. “Four hundred and fifty silver marks. That’s not a price put on a head for just one or two deaths, cold as that may sound. Hale helped the Carlyles kill three other souls beyond the Templetons. Farnsworth bank went bust after that robbery and half the town moved out for greener pastures. Bandits and the Sanna picked over the rest. Jenny wanted to buy out all that debt in the name of Mercy.”
“You don’t think a girl’s life and memory are worth more than a few hundred marks?” Terry asked.
Harper took his stick and pointed at the funerary pyre. “A person’s life cannot be simplified to a pile of sticks or a stack of silver. To pretend it is goes beyond foolish into the realm of true evil. Yet we have to try something so we name a price in coins or try to repay sins in virtue. But Mercy? To pay a debt in Mercy both the one who offers and the one who receives must accept it and live by it. Jenny Templeton offered. I never believed Morgan Hale could accept it.”
Harper set the piece of wood aside. As he spoke he carefully folded the wanted poster in half once, twice and a third time. “So I came back here every year. Every year, Jenny met me to send me away, at least until she died. Then her son met me instead. I grew familiar with the arguments they made to defend their decision. I never agreed with it.”
“Why not?” Sheriff Delaney asked.
“I believed sooner or later Hale would take off again after easy money and bloody chaos.” Harper took the poster and the piece of wood and put them back on the pyre with the stick holding the paper in place. “But I was wrong. He never did, not even when he was poor and dying. He knew he was the same as Jenny, he couldn’t live without Mercy. I suppose I owed it to him to acknowledge that.”
“You didn’t have to come here and do it in the middle of his funeral,” Terry snarled. “Have some respect.”
“I’m not the only one out there who knew Morgan Hale as a villain,” Harper replied. “You’d have heard the story sooner or later. The fact of the matter is, you heard it here, in a position to weight it against all the other things Hale did in his life. If you heard it later? After your memories faded and the importance of being fair to a dead man was no longer forefront in your mind? Perhaps you wouldn’t see the issue with such clarity.”
Harper dusted his hands off and started through the crowd, which reluctantly parted for him. “You can’t change Morgan Hale’s fate now,” he said, stopping by the building’s door and facing them one last time. “All you can do is take the measure of his life and decide if it ended rightly. If it did, then Jenny and Samuel Templeton made the right decisions.”
“And if not?” The sheriff asked.
“Well, in that case next time you see a wanted man just send to Oakheart Manor in Keegan’s Bluff. Let me know. I told you, didn’t I? My name is Roy Harper and my profession is violence. I’ll get it taken care of.” He tipped his hat to the people of Granite Valley and left them to consider his words and the life of Morgan Hale.