Jeremy was caught. For months he had snuck around the village stealing valuables and causing mischief. His latest misadventure involved stealing the Elder’s cherry pie as it cooled on the window sill. Not as profitable as his earlier thefts but infinitely more challenging and pleasing. That is until he was caught eating the stolen pie under Mrs. McGuffin’s porch. That one mistake revealed much.
The Elder convened a council and instructed the constable to search Jeremy’s home. What they found astonished them. All the treasures, the coins, the jewelry, the toys, he had stolen were discovered and brought before the council. For example, Mr. Harmon identified his favorite hammer. Mrs. Brecth an heirloom pearl necklace. Jeremy’s haul touched every home of the village.
“Young man, do you have any words to defend yourself?” The Elder boomed.
“Well…I… no sir,” Jeremy replied.
“You are right. There is no defense, no plausible explanation or reason why we should forgive you. You did not steal out of want or hunger. It would seem that you only stole these items to please yourself,” The folks of the village murmured their approval of the Elder’s words. The Elder solemnly rose and struck the Bell of Decision three times to pronounce Jeremy’s punishment. “It is the will of this council to sentence you, Jeremy Wilkins, to complete the Blackrock Challenge as punishment for your crimes.” A collective gasp escaped from the crowd at the sentence.
“Tomorrow at dawn,” the Elder continued, “You will be taken to the Wasteland Gate. You will have three days to travel the wasteland, find Blackrock mound, and return to the gate with proof. You may take nothing for your journey except the robe of shame.” The Elder struck the bell once, ending the council.
“No, no, no,” Jeremy muttered and sank to his knees.
“It’s a death sentence,” Mrs. Bretch whispered retrieving her pearls.
“No one has ever completed the challenge,” another responded retrieving a treasured book from the table.
“But he’s guilty, he must be punished,” declared Mr. Harmon as he retrieved his hammer.
An older man bent with age slowly approached the table to collect a pewter mug that once belonged to his great grandfather. “Yes, Jeremy is guilty. That fact is true,” he said. “But, well, something just seems wrong about all of this.”
“O come now, Joshua. He’s a thief many times over and getting what he deserves.” Mr. Harmon shot back.
“No doubt, no doubt,” Joshua softly agreed as he left the crowd around the table.
Neither Jeremy or Joshua slept well that night. Jeremy out of dread of the Blackrock Challenge. Every time he did find sleep his dreams were invaded with one of the many ways he could die in the wasteland.
Joshua struggled with other demons. Why throw away a life over such trinkets he kept thinking. Around midnight he gave up, put a match to the lamp, and retrieved the bylaws of the Village. “Perhaps this will put me to sleep,” he muttered.
Before dawn, the Elder, Constable, Jeremy, and a few hearty souls gathered at the Wasteland Gate. Slow to approach was Joshua. Once the sun peaked over the eastern mountains the Elder nodded.
The Constable unlocked the gate and unshackled Jeremy who was already wearing the corse robe. “Jeremy Wilkins, do you understand the rules of the challenge?”
“Sure, I die,” Jeremy muttered.
“Does anyone have any last minute words which would change this sentence,” the Elder announced per the bylaws of the Village.
“Yes,” Joshua softly said, “Yes I do.”
Surprised, the Elder answered, “Speak then.”
“I declare the right of redemption,” Joshua firmly said.
“You what!” the Elder chocked. “No one has claimed that right in over a hundred years, and never for this. Are you sure old man?”
“I claim the right of redemption,” Joshua repeated. “I will take Jeremy’s place and his punishment. You cannot refuse me, it is in the book.”
There was murmuring and bluster as the news rustled through the small crowd and out to every home and hovel of the village.
“Look, I appreciate the thought but you can’t do this. I’m guilty…” Jeremy began.
“I declare the right of redemption. This is my call and I will not change my mind,” Joshua declared.
Seeing that the path was set the Elder ordered the constable to take Jeremy and Joshua into a nearby home to exchange the robe of shame and prepare Joshua for the challenge.
Standing before the unlocked gate Joshua heard the Elder’s final pronouncement. “Joshua Higgins, since you have declared the right of redemption you will endure Jeremy’s sentence. You have three days to wander the wasteland, find Blackrock mound, and return with proof of our journey. You may take nothing save the robe of shame. As a gift of mercy, you may also take your staff because of your age.”
The gate mourned as the constable pulled it open. A blast of hot dusty air flew through the open gate. Jeremy fell to his knees and watched as Joshua walked through the gate without looking back. The Constable forced the gate closed and everyone drifted home. All except Jeremy.
For the first few hours, Jeremy said nothing but only wept as he knelt against the Wasteland Gate. At noon the Elder came by after hearing the murmurs in the village about Jeremy. “Go home Jeremy, it is over,” He said.
“Why did you let him go?” Jeremy asked with tears rolling down his cheeks. “He didn’t deserve to die.”
“I had no choice, he declared the right of redemption. The right to take your place so that you could live.” the Elder answered.
“Why did he do it? What am I to him?” Jeremy pleaded.
“That I cannot answer, no one can look with clarity into another’s heart. But it doesn’t matter. The deed is done. You’re free, go home.”
“I can’t, I have to see it through until the third day,” Jeremy said with the hint of resolve.
“Well if you must stay then take this,” the Elder said offering a wrapped piece of bread.
“No, he’s out there with no food or water struggling against the dry dust of the wasteland. Neither will I eat or drink until he returns or the three days expire.” Jeremy said with greater resolve.
The Elder shook his head at Jeremy as if to say “stupid child” and walked away. But the questions still gnawed at Jeremy. Why did Joshua take his place? What had he done to deserve it or earn it? Questions he couldn’t answer.
Throughout the day Jeremy sat in the dust with his back against the gate. Those who passed heard him muttering over and over again “why?” Those few who took pity by offering a cup of water or a bit of food were denied. But to all that offered, he asked if they knew why Joshua took his place.
At the time of the evening meal Mrs. Brecth, from whom Jeremy had stolen a pearl necklace came to the gate. “I’m going to miss that old fool,” she muttered.
Jeremy lifted his head towards Mrs. Brecht. “Why did he do it? Why did he take my place? Please tell me,” he pleaded.
Mrs. Bretch face softened, “I suppose he saw something in you that shouldn’t be thrown away. He has always seen things in ways others don’t.”
A strong silence enveloped them as Jeremy pondered her insight. “I’m sorry I stole your necklace. Is there something, anything, I can do to make it up to you? Yard work, fixing something, anything?”
“Perhaps that old fool is right. Yes, I think there is something you could do. Come around tomorrow after the first meal.”
“I’ll be there,” Jeremy said with a smile of relief.
The next morning Jeremy went to Mrs. Brecht’s and fixed a hole in her roof. All that day Jeremy sought those he had wronged asking them if there were any odd jobs he could do for them. By the close of the second day of Joshua’s Blackrock Challenge, he had mended a fence, hung some pictures, painted a door, and weeded a garden. In the evening he returned to the gate and resumed his vigil.
For the entire third day, Jeremy remained at the gate hoping to hear the knock of Joshua’s return but also fearing the worse. As the day wore on others joined the vigil. Each brought a little something, a bit of food, a little water, some clothes, all in hopes of Joshua’s return. By the time of the evening meal, the whole village was at the gate.
As the rim of the sun touched the western mountains the villagers quietly listened. Hoping to hear Joshua’s knock. But hope faded with each moment. When the sun disappeared behind the distant range the Elder solemnly declared “The challenge is over” and walked away from the gate. The murmur and buzz of the crowd grew as they all gathered themselves to go home. But Jeremy, seated with his back against the gate felt something.
“Could it be?” he whispered. He pressed his ear to the wooden gate and heard a faint tap. “Quiet!” He yelled. In the silence, all heard three weak taps.