The arbitration between Mrs. Harbibi and the "Federal Five" -- presumed murderers of her late, unlamented (but nevertheless fairly-useful-around-a-hog-farm) husband -- was ready to "go live."
But were the attorneys, the culprits, and the few media types who'd managed to find their way into town ready for Hardyville justice? Most of the media crowd was still wandering around Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, looking for a place on a map that contained a county seat and a courthouse -- none of which would anyone find here. But a handful were wandering our town, dazed and confused.
The Young Curmudgeon and a conspiracy of hard-core bar-hoppers invited the reporters out to Bark's Tavern as the arbitration got rolling. Some of Miss Fitz's young ladies awaited them there and kept them too busy to realize events were about to roll. Instead of coverage of Hardyville's non-trial of the century, they got uncoverage. The young lady reporters ... well let's just say that some of Carty's buff young militiamen can do a pretty good Brad Pitt when they have a mind to.
So all those living, breathing, blow-dried threats to our privacy were, shall we say, otherwise occupied as things got under way.
* * *
Those of us with nothing better to do were assembled in the Hardyville One-Plex, the only building big enough to hold this particular attraction. We hunkered down in our seats, clutching tubs of popcorn, Swedish Fish, and bags of Extreme Sour Patch candies, and got ready to enjoy the show.
At stage right sat Mardi Harbibi, the grieving widow (no doubt holding an onion in that handkerchief she pressed to her weepy eyes). With her were two members of Acme Arbitrations and Mediations, the company with whom she had a contract for services. Stage left, a considerably larger crowd jostled for space -- five culprits, five attorneys, and the two arbitrators who'd agreed to serve as their consultants. Center stage sat a citizens' panel of seven volunteers, which the arbitrators for both sides had chosen randomly out of the phone book and asked to serve. The panel wasn't customary in ordinary arbitration cases. But this was a Big Event and nobody wanted any doubts about the integrity of the process.
The panel's job was to time the proceedings, making sure both sides got the same amount of time, and to decide any questions that might arise concerning procedural fairness -- whether one side was kicking mud on the other's cowboy boots, so to speak. If the arbitrating parties couldn't agree on a decision about something -- up to and including the final settlement -- the panel would also function as a jury.
("Where's the judge?" you might ask. But that would be silly. What kind of bizarre legal system would put godlike power into the hands of any one individual, let alone some guy who is both a lawyer and a politician?)
Meanwhile, Carty and his Minutemen were on the rooftops and in the mountain passes, manning the Barretts and Serbus and such in case the federales decided to try to pluck their agents from the clutches of us ungovernable savages. Sure, the agreement the feds had made with the billionaire Delaval interests told the whole U.S. government, "Trespass and the dollar will drop like Bill Clinton's drawers." But we figured better safe than sorry.
So far, so good, though. The Minutemen sat idle at their guns. Even the feds were acting like civilized human beings for a change.
Civilized, yes. But still misguided. The fed attorneys -- the poor, muddled, overpaid legal "experts" -- just couldn't bring themselves to get it. Among other things, they were still trying to argue "jurisdiction." They nattered about moving the case to federal court under some bizarre interpretation of the Constitution's supremacy clause. And the poor local arbitration teams had to explain over and over again that "jurisdiction" had nothing to do with it.
"Your clients killed Mr. Harbibi and therefore they have to settle with Mrs. Harbibi for her loss," Samuel Webster of Acme Arbitrations and Mediations explained for the umpteenth time. "We don't know anything about 'jurisdiction,' here. This is between Mrs. Harbibi, John Davis Melvin, and ..." he tried to remember the names of his four subordinates. It's so much easier just to call them War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death. "Government's got nothing to do with it," he shrugged. "Offending party, offended party. They decide responsibility and work out a settlement. Simple."
But of course the attorneys weren't in the business of accepting simplicity. They piped up to protest:
"The death occurred in the course of legitimate enforcement of federal law. Therefore ..."
Members of every Hardyville arbitration service -- on stage and in the audience -- sighed. Daniel Adams, one of the consulting arbitrators for the Fed Five, gasped, horrorstruck. He tugged at the sleeve of the lead attorney, shook his head frantically, and whispered something. The citizens' panel scribbled notes. Samuel Webster smiled at Mrs. Harbibi. It was a money smile. No doubt Daniel Adams informed the attorneys of the perils -- not to mention the complete uselessness -- of using words like "legitimate" and "federal" together in a Hardyville sentence.
The proceedings proceeded.
They proceeded despite the fed attorneys, who expected their clients to have to enter a plea, expected some invisible judge to rule on pre-trial motions, and expected somebody, somewhere, somehow to provide them with the number of some statute or another their clients were accused of violating. But none of that was to be. Nor were there any bailiffs -- just armed Hardyvillians. Nor any state to press its case. None of that stuff.
"We just sort of sit down and talk it out," Daniel Adams, their consultant, had explained in advance. "You know, check whatever information either side wants to produce -- and it's entirely up to them what they want to present, it being their own limited time and all. Then all put our heads together and agree on who did what and what to do about it."
"You people expect us to agree our clients are guilty?" one of them was overheard to bark.
"Well, no. Not guilty, per se," Adams explained. "But responsible. After all, who the hell else was out there that night, shooting at Marty? Nobody around here's gonna believe it was the standard 'bushy-haired stranger.' We've all seen the ballistics report and the medical examiner's conclusions, right? You know who did it. We know who did it. If you had evidence it really was a bushy-haired stranger you'd have dragged it out by now, wouldn't you?"
"But we don't have to prove our clients aren't guilty."
"Right, right," Adams explained, growing frustrated. "Like I said, not guilty, per se. Just responsible."
After that, the fed attorneys kept Dan Adams and his associate around because they'd signed a contract. But I don't think they listened to 'em much.
Sometimes the attorneys were reasonable in their desire to make things unsimple. As forensics and ballistics guys, local, from the Big City, and elsewhere, paraded to the stage on that morning to answer questions about their crucial, but excruciatingly boring, information (which both sides had already studied exhaustively), factions soon appeared at the federal table.
"The evidence shows that my client, Pestilence, did not fire the shot that ..."
"My client, John Davis Melvin, did not give an illegal order to ..."
"My client, Death, was acting strictly under orders from John Davis Melvin ..."
"My client, Famine, fired only after the decedent pulled a weapon ..."
"My client, War, was not present, as the evidence clearly indicates, when Death and Famine fired upon Mr. Harbibi."
We had to give 'em points: Being individually responsible, the Federal Five were entitled to individual defenses if they wanted 'em. And the less culpable ones and their attorneys soon wanted 'em badly.
The facts were pretty darned clear. Once their attorneys' procedural ploys failed, those from whom the facts looked more favorable were willing to jettison their co-conspirators.
Eventually, War and Pestilence -- who had fired weapons but hadn't actually hit Marty (they might have to account to Jasper in a later arbitration) -- begged to have their arbitrations separated from those of Death, Famine, and Melvin.
Death had fired Marty's fatal shots. Famine had hit Marty a couple of times with shots he might have survived. And Melvin, of course, had given the orders for his guys to gun down fleeing men.
In the way of arbitrations everywhere (and very unlike real-world trials), the proceedings proceeded into the evening. Mudge and friends kept drinking the reporters under the table. And under the bed. And half the population of Hardy County wandered into that theater at some time or another -- although a few stalked out after realizing the One-Plex wasn't going to show them the latest installment of Harry Potter.
* * *
The idea of dividing into two or more separate arbitrations was a scary development for the hog-farming side of the dispute. Not for the Widow Harbibi herself. But for her hired arbitrators.
When War and Pestilence asked to go it alone in a separate proceeding, Samuel Webster and his Acme colleague, sitting beside Mardi Harbibi, blanched.
Now, I mentioned that the citizens' panel up there on the stage was present to determine issues of fairness that the arbitrators might get stuck on. This was one. You see, Acme wasn't getting paid by the hour. They were simply spending the premiums the Harbibis had paid them for a bunch of years -- and those premiums had never been structured around a murder case, let alone two or three or four separate murder cases. Far from it, Acme had never expected to arbitrate anything hotter than a question of whether an old oak tree was on Joe's property or Marty's.
"Fair" to Acme meant getting things over with quickly. Do understand, they wanted to do as well as possible for their clients. That, after all, is their best advertisement for getting more clients. But they wanted to do it efficiently, too.
"Fair" to the other side might have meant drawing things out as long as possible (except for the fact that each side had an equal and pre-determined limit of time to work with and didn't dare squander it). But "fair" certainly meant each culprit had a right to have his individual culpritude considered on its own lack of merits.
So the citizens' panel called an hour's halt and went off to consider what "fair" in this instance might really be.
When they came back, they said that "fair" meant having as many as five different arbitrations, if that's what individual justice required.
Samuel Webster might have blanched again at hearing that costly bit of news. But he had anticipated what was coming. During the panel's recess, he had taken Mardi Harbibi to dinner at the Hog Trough, got her liquored up and, in a desperate effort to forestall the worst (from his viewpoint) possible outcome, talked her into extending a settlement offer to the Five Feds:
$50,000 in restitution from John Davis Melvin for giving the orders and leading the invasion.
$25,000 in restitution from Death for firing the fatal shots.
$10,000 in restitution from Famine for firing shots that weren't fatal but didn't exactly make Marty Harbibi's day.
And $2,000 apiece in restitution from War and Pestilence for being lousy shots.
After the break, the Harbibi side handed their written proposal to the federal side, then stepped back to wait.
The feds and their attorneys gazed at the offer in disbelief. A total of $89,000? They whispered at each other, urgently. Only $89,000? Heck, a D.C. legal team could spend that much on photocopies on a good afternoon. They could run up bills for mochas and lattes that would be higher than that!
Here they'd been expecting ... well, surely they hadn't known what to expect from these strange people in these strange proceedings in this strange place. But something in the range of millions of dollars in fines, or maybe hanging from a lonesome tree at dawn. Something like that, for sure. But $89,000?
"Um, well," Dan Adams, arbitration consultant for the feds, started to explain. But nobody was listening.
Leaping at the chance to get free for mere pocket change (which they were sure their federal bosses would pay), War and Pestilence demanded that their attorneys accept the offer. Now!
Death and Famine followed.
"Really," said Dan Adams. "I recommend you give this more thought."
"Are you kidding?" Famine snarked. "It'll cost more than $89,000 in legal fees just for the lawyers to think about it. If that's all these rubes believe one dead guy is worth, I'm takin' it. I'll put my share on my credit card and be out of this hellhole tomorrow."
Even John Davis Melvin, aggrieved at being held more accountable than the actual shooters but not wanting his men to think he'd turned into a total moron, ordered his attorney to agree to the terms. All he asked, in addition, was a stipulation that he was "not admitting guilt."
As if anybody in Hardyville gave a damn what he admitted.
"Admit any old thing or not," Mrs. Harbibi told Samuel Webster. "Admit he's the Virgin Mary. Don't admit he's got ugly toes. I don't care. As long as I get what's coming to me."
So each of the Federal Five agreed to settle in a howling hurricane of haste.
And thus all the federales missed the implications of a teeny, tiny bit of fine print Dan Adams had probably been trying to point out. That teeny, tiny and truly quite innocent bit of print said: "...in lawful money."
* * *
You think they'd have gotten it, back when nobody in town would so much as rent a room to them. But those smart, super-educated attorneys never did get a clue. They never did understand Hardyville or anything that it's built on. Not until it was way too late.
"Lawful money" isn't a paper receipt for goods that aren't ever going to be delivered. "Lawful money" isn't a promissory note for a promise that's never going to be kept.
And that, of course, is all those federals had: paper.
Sure, we accepted paper for transactions in Hardyville. But only as a convenient token for the gold, silver or (depending on the wishes of the transactors) other commodity actually being used as a medium of exchange.
And those federals -- they didn't have one dime's worth of lawful money between them. Matter of fact, even if they had tons of gold, silver, pork bellies, old Beatles records or something else Hardyvillians might have recognized as being of value, they wouldn't have had it lawfully because they got every dime they ever had by stealing.
And that's why nobody would rent those attorneys a room or sell them a meal when they came to town. That's how they ended up on Mrs. Harbibi's charity in her bug-infested bunkhouse. And that's why the Federal Five and their smart out-of-town boys made just the slightest little bit of a mistake when they lined up so fast to sign that agreement.
I wish I'd have seen their faces when they realized how they'd been outfoxed.
But by then Death, Famine, War, Pestilence, and Melvin were right where Mrs. Harbibi wanted them: Back in her bunkhouse, under guard, being instructed on how they would work off their debt. Instructed by the Widow Harbibi herself. Whose profound, if wholly manufactured, grief for her Dear Departed was matched only by the amount of work he left undone and the Annie Wilkes-like charm of her personality.
I told you once that the Hardyville justice system isn't perfect. It really wasn't structured to deal with murderers (of which we have very few and, face it, those are customarily shot to death by their prospective victims, which somewhat forestalls the need to bring them to arbitration). I'm sure that dedicated patriots of Libertopia or AnCapistan would look down their noses at the process I just described.
Nevertheless, there's a certain poetic justice for freedom lovers in the fact that this particular group of federal agents would now be feeding the hogs.
Oh, and did I mention that, since our money hasn't had 95 percent of its value inflated away like the money of certain snaky and unreliable governments ... $50,000, or even $2,000 takes a long, long, really very, very long time to work off?
* * *
The Fed Five did get one break, though. A few days after the settlement, Jasper wrote from her Billings hospital bed to say she wasn't going to take War, Pestilence, or Melvin to arbitration. She didn't want anything more from any of the feds, despite everything they had done to her.
"All I want is peace on earth," she wrote.
Well, good luck on that, Jasper. Unfortunately, as the Federal Five waded into the slop for the very first time, we weren't exactly having peace in Hardyville.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to Oliver Del Signore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.
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