Chapter 6: Jury of Peers

The houseboat is traveling up the middle of a broad river, thick with trees along both banks. Dead tree branches are standing like black, wet soldiers at arms, so thick in places no approach to shore is readily available. Finegan has Joey at his usual post atop the roof of the house. Finegan points ahead, along one side of the river.

What's that up there? Looks like a shack.

Finegan slows his peddling, letting the houseboat drift. Several young children are seen in the yard of the shack, clustered together. Finegan sees a place where some high ground is jutting out into the river, where one could walk ashore. He points in that direction, soundlessly, wanting to go ashore to see if something might be amiss. Why are there no adults around?

Finegan peddles quietly and steers with the rudder, while Joey hops to the front of the houseboat to throw a rope over a sturdy branch. They are downriver from the shack, and have apparently not been seen by anyone. Holding onto a branch, Finegan swings down onto the finger of land. He is holding onto branches as he goes along the land projection, stepping gingerly. He makes his way to the riverbank and up along the bank toward the shack.

Finegan walks up to a chicken-wire cage, strung from one tree to another and nailed firmly. The only opening is at a door of the shack, so there is no escape from the cage. The chicken wire seems to be buried in the ground, as well as strung overhead, so climbing or tunneling are not a ready option either. Finegan walks up to the fence, curling his fingers through the chicken wire, tugging it slightly, testing. It is immediately apparent that this is not a yard meant to keep children at play from falling into the river. Something else is afoot.

The half dozen children huddled in the center are young, 3 years of age to a girl of 7 years or so. They are thin, very pale, very dirty, and wearing tattered clothes. Because the children have fallen silent, Finegan's presence has been noted. The main door of the shack opens and a hag emerges.

Hey! You looking to buy?

The hag is thin, wrinkled, toothless, and has long greasy hair hanging straight down, some strands in front of her face. Her clothes hang on her, as though she has lost weight. She wears bedroom slippers and socks that are falling down around her ankles. Wanting to assess the situation, Finegan plays along. Finegan points to the 7 year old girl, who is standing to the rear of the clutch of children.

What'll you take for the girl in back?

Like the others, the girl has a solemn face. The girl blinks, stares at the ground, and is making fists with her hands as they are held at her sides, tense and frightened. Finegan pulls out a gold watch on a gold chain, dangling it in the air in front of the hag, but she objects.

Food! I want food. Else some'it useful, like a gun. Ammo. What cha got?

Finegan stuffs the gold watch back into his pocket and while pulling his hand out of his pocket flips it back to grab his pistol, which he has tucked into the waistband of his pants at the back. Pointing the gun at the hag's head, Finegan says,

I do just happen to have a gun.

The hag bolts for the door of her shack, but Finegan grabs her by the scuff of the neck. With the pistol at the back of her neck, she has no choice and throws her scrawny hands up in the air. Finegan says,

We're going to let those kids out.

Finegan gives her a shove in the direction of the shack door, all the while holding firmly to the scuff of her neck.

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The hag is on her stomach on the ground, her hands and feet tied together behind her. The girl is looping and tying and jerking on the piece of rope. Finegan has been holding the pistol on the woman. He puts his gun away and tests the knots briefly, giving them a tug. Suddenly, the girl is talkative.

She put a rag over my mouth. It smelled.

The girl points with a finger in the direction of the hills up above the river, swinging her arm back and forth indicating she is not sure where her capture took place.

I got tired and sat down for a spell.

The girl looks sad, glancing to the side at the cluster of younger children, now out of the cage but still huddling together.

She likes the little ones. They're easier, I guess.

Finegan goes into the shack and comes out with a bottle marked Chloroform and a dirty rag. The hag is furious.

Hey! You steal my kids but don't steal my stuff! I gotta live.

Finegan wets the rag with the Chloroform and slaps it over the hag's face, holding it there. Still trying to assess the situation, Finegan asks,

Has anyone come by?

The girl says,

Not since I've been here. She said if someone didn't come by soon, she'd have to eat one of us.

Finegan has been looking around, and has noted a rowboat pulled up onto shore. The boat looks sound. Finegan has formulated his plan.

Common kids, lunch time. Ever had a ripe peach?

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The rowboat is being pulling up alongside the houseboat, filled with the rescued kids. Finegan is rowing the heavily loaded boat carefully. Joey is reaching out to catch the rope attached to the front of the boat, securing it to the houseboat. Then he moves along the rowboat, pulling it close along the side of the houseboat, and holds the rear so the rowboat is now flush alongside the houseboat. Finegan lifts the kids out one by one, setting them on the deck.
Dole out some of them ripe peaches and set to frying the fish from this morning. It looks like they haven't had a decent meal in a week.
Putting his hands back on the oars, Finegan says,

I've got something to tend to.

Joey nods, and goes to untie the front of the rowboat, tossing the rope into the boat. Finegan pushes the rowboat away from the houseboat with one of the oars and turns the boat to head back to the shack.

When Finegan returns the rowboat is filled with loot he has taken from the hag's shack. There is a crossbow, a hunting knife, a rifle with ammo, several pots and pans, and wool blankets. He pulls up to the same spot along the side of the houseboat. The kids are all seated in various places around the front of the houseboat, where Joey has been frying fish and baking potatoes. They all have a plate of sorts in their hands, and are eating ravenously. The girl is helping dish food out and is passing a cup of water along from one to the other. Joey secures the boat as before, tying it at the front and then holding the back. Finegan heaves the loot onto the deck.

One last thing.

Joey nods and again unties him. Finegan again moves back again toward the shack.

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The houseboat is now in open water in the center of the river. They are returning downstream, back to the group of survivors at the bonfire. The kids are clustered together on the deck at the front, some nodding off, some sleeping, some looking forward at the river as though in a hypnotic state. Trailing behind Finegan is the rowboat with the hag on her knees in the bottom. She is complaining loudly.

You let me loose! That's my stuff, damit.

Finegan has a smile on his face, ignoring her.

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Toward evening the houseboat is approaching the shore where the bonfire party was held just the night before. Those on shore can see the front of the houseboat, which leads during the pedaling process, and can see a pile of youngsters now almost all asleep. One of the young kids jumps up, recognizing his mother on shore.

Mama! Mama!

The group on shore is gathering, more and more campers coming from the woods or from temporary shelters thrown together and rushing to the shoreline. As the houseboat slows and Finegan leaves the pedals to moor with the grappling hooks, some in the crowd wade into the water, not waiting. The kids are coming forward to stand on the edge of the houseboat front, some reaching their arms out. Finegan throws his hands up, smiling, and arranges to work with a couple men coming to help, handing them each a grappling hook, which is walked, rather than thrown, onto shore.

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That night, the hag has been tied to a chair, seated near the bonfire where her features can be seen. There are boxes and various chairs lined up to one side, where the jury has been assembled. Six men and six women are seated, listening. The camp mistress is bringing the girl to the other side, where her features can be seen by the jury in the firelight. The girl will testify as to her experience, and what she observed at the shack. The girl points at the hag.

Smelly rag over my mouth and held me down.

The hag of course is objecting.

She's a lying. I found them lost and brought 'em home.

In the shadows on the edge of the court scene, the parents can hardly keep silent.

Burn her, burn her alive! Why are we having this stupid trial, it's obvious.

Someone walks up to Finegan and hands him a bottle.

You've earned this, I recon.

Finegan takes the bottle, taking a swig. He points with his bottle hand.

Now what? I half expect them to toss her into the fire.

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Later that night, the hag, her hands still tied, is being muscled to the rowboat on the edge of the shore. She is resisting, being pushed and carried between two men when she tries to dig her feet into the soft earth along the shore.

Can't do this. Those kids lied. This is murder I tell ya.

Almost covered by the people who have muscled her to the rowboat, she is lifted and set into the center of the boat, and then tied down by numerous ropes - feet, knees, and elbows tied to the boat in some manner or another. The rowboat, without oars, is pushed away from shore and into the receding tide and the outflow from the river.

Exile at sea, to starve to death in the same manner she was starving the kids. The boat drifts from shore and into the night, the hag's cries becoming distant and barely audible.