Chapter 22: New Leaders

The houseboat is peddling along between the shoreline and an immense island formed by the rising water. There appears to be water on at least the three sides of the island that they can see. Joey brings Finegan a map while he pedals along, confused about their location. Finegan gets off the bike seat and comes to comb over the map with Joey, who has spread the map out on top of a box at the rear of the houseboat. Their heads are together over the map, while Finegan runs his finger along the Ohio River.

I think we've going up the Ohio by mistake. Hard to tell. All one big watery mess. . . I'm thinking more and more these days about heading back. Least I knew what I was looking at.

In the background they hear a drum set being played, then a saxophone bleating a few shrill notes. Finegan and Joey turn their heads in the direction of the island. Now they hear a guitar being strummed and tuned. Finegan and Joey look at each other and smile.

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Finegan and Joey are going over the rise of a hill, walking along a dirt road lying between fallow fields. A flea market is laid out in a pasture, dozens of blankets or tarps spread out on the ground with wares laid out for inspection. Some hold pots and pans, dish sets with many of the dishes or glasses chipped or cracked, incomplete tableware sets, racks of used clothing for both children and adults, hand tools, bags of apples and onions and nuts, chickens and roosters in cages, a calf, bicycle parts, a used shoe display, non-battery key-winding clocks including a large coocoo clock, a hair salon where a hairdresser is snipping away at someone's head, and a display of hubcaps which is getting zero attention.

On one side a band is being formed, with a drum set, sax, guitar, a violin, harmonica, and pebbles in a tin can. The band members are trying out various songs, this or that member suggesting a tune and playing a bar, then another having an opinion. Finally they settle and start to play "Happy Days are Here Again" in a disjointed manner.

Finegan and Joey are walking slowly down between the blankets laid with wares until they come to the shoe rack. Joey stops and begins comparing his shoe up against some boots and tennis shoes for children his age. Finegan asks,

Your shoes getting tight?

Joey looks up at Finegan and nods. The shoeman notes their interest and comes up.

There's some nice boots you got on. Quality. Make you a trade for some these others here.

The boots he is motioning to are not the same quality as the pair Joey wears. They are scuffed, have less tread, and have clearly seen more wear and tear. Joey is laying them alongside the boots he has on, measuring the size in this way. Joey sits on the chair the shoeman offers his clients and pulls off one of his boots, trying on the larger boot. He stomps on his foot and looks up at Finegan, smiling.

On the perimeter of the flea market is a barbeque pit, which is smoking, the coals glowing, but the meat to be cooked is missing. A horse drawn wagon is approaching this spot, loaded with a large dead pig and cages holding young piglets. The dead pig has tusks, was a feral pig, and is covered with coarse hair rather than the soft pink skin of domestic pigs. It has been gutted and is ready to cook. Two men riding on the back of the wagon hop off and pick up the ends of the barbeque spit which has been driven through the dead pig from one end to the other. They heave the pig into the air and carry it over to the barbeque pit, placing it on the Y stands at either end of the pit. Now that the meat has been placed above the fire, they complete the skinning process, pulling the skin up over the pig's head and over the tusks, which are attached to the head bones and resist breaking off.

The wagon master is a young girl about 11 years of age. She is barefoot, wears bib jeans with a t-shirt underneath, and has her hair in braids on either side. She secures the reins and hops off the wagon seat, pulling a board nailed onto a stake from the wagon bed. On the board, in red paint, are the words "Wild Piglets". She walks over to a clear area near the barbeque pit, reserved for her display, and hammers the stake into the ground there, tossing the hammer into her wagon.

One of her two men picks up a covered bucket of barbeque sauce from the wagon bed and returns to baste the now roasting pig. The other comes to help the girl unload the piglets in cages. The piglets are young, only about a foot long, and protesting, squealing. After they offload the piglet cages, she immediately turns on her heel and comes over to the shoeman, who says,

Howdy Matilda.

Matilda says,

They ate another pair.

The shoeman smiles and says,

You gotta stop kicking at them beasts.

Matilda walks into the shoe display area, scanning quickly, and leans over to pick up the pair of boots just added, the ones Joey had been wearing. She says,

Don't remember you having these.

Matilda sits on the chair provided by the shoeman for clients and slips her bare foot into one of the boots, standing to measure the fit when her weight is pressing down. She smiles and glances up at the shoeman, who says,

Consider it a donation to the campaign.

Matilda protests.

It'd only set them that can't donate to worrying. Favors and all . . You take one a them squealers. I'll tell John. . . Not that I don't appreciate the thought, Clem.

Joey is trying to get into the conversation as he meets few children his age. He points at her new boots.

Those were my boots.

Matilda drops her gaze briefly at the set Joey is wearing, quickly understanding that a trade had occurred, and just as quickly changing the subject. She asks,

You folks new in the area? Pleased to meet you. Stay for the barbeque!

Matilda extends her hand first to Joey and then quickly to a surprised Finegan, who is not expecting this from a girl.

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Finegan is returning from the houseboat with a hammer and small box of nails in his hands as he has found a saw he wants and has worked out a trade with the owner. He strides up to the hand tool display area and extends his offering in front of him.

These.

He places them into the toolman's hands and points to the saw.

For that.

Joey is wandering after Matilda, fascinated by her confidence and social skills. Matilda is working the crowd, on occasion offering her hand for a shake, on occasion placing her hand on someone's arm, but never lingering for more than a minute in any location. She comes up to a woman who looks like she is about to cry, talking to a man getting red in the face. The woman says,

But you owe me a hen. You promised. We ain't had meat ta home for a month.

The man is fuming.

They're all sitting eggs, I tell you. Cain't you wait a couple weeks?

Matilda is looking from one to the other, saying nothing. Finally, she sees a break in the argument and says to the woman,

How big did you say that old coop you got on your place is?

The man and woman stare at each other for a moment, suddenly realizing a solution. Both talking at once almost on top of each other. He says,

You got a coop? I'm outta space and with the new'uns coming. . . Ya know, chicks take to a new coop like its home after a day er so. . . They free range, just let 'em out in the morning and call 'em back at night.

She says,

Big as the house, but the hen's er all gone now since Earl passed. He did the chickens en all. . . We got no feed, used corn during Earl's day.

Matilda is walking away, smiling to herself. Finegan is again standing in amazement that a young girl is apparently in the running in a campaign, and taken seriously. He says, under his breath,

But she's a girl!

The toolman looks up, surprised at Finegan's reaction,

Matilda? She's the only one gets folks to work together. You otta see 'er move a crowd from somethin plain stupid to summit that'll work. My Mary says she's the jell that makes the jelly set.

He glances over and sees that Finegan is still agape with shock.

Put a bag over your head then so's you don't notice that she's a girl, and a young'un at that. . . We got too many a problem to be stuck in the old ways.

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The crowd of about 100 people is coming up to the barbeque to be served. Each has a plate in hand, with some sliced tomatoes and a piece of homemade bread, ready for a slab of barbecued pig. One of the men who arrived with Matilda is slicing pork on a board next to the roasting pig, which is now missing parts of its belly and hindquarters. A semi-circle of various chairs or overturned boxes has been assembled at the side of the barbeque, with the wagon Matilda brought stationed in the center of the semi-circle as a platform.

A man with a clipboard is wandering through the crowd, checking off names and handing out small paper ballots. The official approaches Finegan and Joey, who are in line for barbeque. He scans his list, then looks up at Finegan.

New to the area? Where you staying?

Finegan points over the hill and says,

We're just passing through. On that houseboat over yonder.

Joey asks,

Does that mean we can't get something to eat?

The official smiles and winks at Joey.

I recon you're future voters, if you decide to stay, and that there is for everyone. That's Matilda's stand. Them that has plenty, shares. Helping hand and all.

The official wanders off down the line. Joey looks up at Finegan.

One guess who he's gonna vote for.

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A tall, muscular man is standing on the wagon addressing the crowd. He is wearing suit pants and a vest, with a long sleeved white shirt on under the vest, rolled up at the sleeves. He is wearing a tie, but this has been loosened at the neck, his shirt collar open a bit as the day has gotten warm. He is showing a 5 o'clock shadow. From a distance one can hear his pitch.

. . build roads . .

The crowd seems lukewarm, only a half dozen furiously applauding. The first candidate nods and takes a slight bow, and then steps off the wagon. The second candidate is a stocky woman in a voluminous dress. Her hair has been piled on top of her head and she is bedecked with costume jewelry. Rings are stuffed over her plump fingers. She is helped up onto the wagon by a couple backers who stand under her ample buttocks as she heaves herself up the step. She straightens up and clears her throat.

The rule of law must be our first concern. There are simply no guidelines. I've taken the initiative of drawing up statutes that give clear guidelines.

A handful of people in the crowd stomp their feet and whistle loudly at this point, as she unfurls a roll of paper she has brought with her and proceeds to read off her proposed statues. Finegan and Joey are sitting side by side in the back of the crowd. Finegan is still trying to get his head around the idea that a little girl could be in the competition.

Her father ran a pig farm, and they all escaped when the troubles hit. Ran off into the swamp. . . Well they go wild after a time. But she got 'em back, is breeding 'em tame again. . . OK, so she's got guts, I'll give her that. . .

Finegan is shaking his head, muttering to himself. Joey says,

I watched her. . . It's not what she says. It's what she gets other people to do. . . I dunno. . . I dunno, but they're fretting and fussing. Then comes Matilda. Then when she leaves they're set to go off to do somethin. But I never hear her tell them what to do. . . She points to this or that one and asks a question. That's it. . . Huh.

Now Matilda is jumping up on the wagon, to thunderous applause.

Clem says I'm the jell in the jello, and my dad always said I brung his mind to a focus, but to my way of thinking it ain't me. It's you. It's you come up with what to do, and it's you who do it. But we rounded up the pigs now and I've got more time. If this is what you want me to do, then I'm happy to help.

With that, Matilda hops off the wagon and continues to work the crowd on the edge of the seating area. Finegan is still dumbfounded.

Huh.

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Finegan and Joey are walking up over the hill between the flea market and the houseboat, going home. They are silhouetted against the setting sun. Sounds of cheering and whooping are in the background. Matilda is being carried about on the shoulders of her backers, clearly having won. Finegan and Joey look back over their shoulders at the uproar, turning around to look back on the flea market for a moment. Finegan is shaking his head.

I still can't figure it . .

Joey is still trying to explain what he observed when Finegan was off trading and he was trailing along behind Matilda. He puts both hands first on one side and then the other, trying to indicate first confusion and then resolve.

You should'a seed her. First folks were looking worried. One lady looked like she was gonna cry. Some guy red in the face. Then Matilda'd come up and ask a bunch of questions. Then everyone'd be smiling and Matilda'd walk away.

Joey looks up at Finegan to see if he'd gotten his point across.

I swear.

Finegan is pondering, but finally says,

. . or it's the barbeque.