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The courtroom was as small and airless as ever. It had been early September the last time she was here, and even though the temperature had finally dipped below 100 F her damp dress clung to the pooch in her abdomen that had slowly become impossible for anyone to overlook.
Somehow she was no less nervous today even though neither her first nor this appearance in court was as a defendant. She reached down to pat Lemon’s soft, furry head. Lucio flashed a genuine smile at her as he walked into the room, the other ombudsmen following close behind.
Aunt Lucy, the oldest surviving citizen of the Mingus Mountain community, entered first with a confident stride. If Daphne had to guess she’d say the first ombudman was in her late 80s or early 90s as she could not remember this woman ever being young. The gods had never seen fit to give Aunt Lucy children, but they had given her robust health and an impossibly long life. Her presence in the community was so ubiquitous that after a few generations people began jokingly referring to Lucy as the aunt that will never die. It was (usually) said in admiration, but the nickname still stuck.
A middle-aged man with a port wine birthmark covering the left side of his face entered the room next. Gerald Perez’s previous lives must have been exceptional for him to know so much happiness in this one. All five of his children were alive and well, his wife was one of the few literate people in the valley, and his herd of goats had grown so rapidly he ended up giving away half of them one memorable summer. Not everyone always agreed with his rulings, but most respected his judgment and desire to divide hotly-contested property fairly. Gerald had cast the deciding vote in the case Daphne tried to keep tucked in the back of her mind.
Finally, a stocky teenage girl walked into the courtroom stroking her round belly. Daphne stared in shock as the girl immediately sat down at the far end of the ombudsmen’s table. Eva Harris was only a few months older than Daphne’s sons. How was it possible for her to face the possibility of motherhood before she turned 15? Most of the women Daphne knew well hadn’t had their first child until they were several years older than Eva. If only there was a polite way to ask the girl who the other parent might be if the gods were lenient.
“Daphne, your seat is in the middle,” Lucio said as the room began to fill up with plaintiffs, defendants and members of the general public. She had been hoping to sit at the edge of the table by the solitary window in the room so she could steal glances at snaggletooth rock. It was overwhelming to be surrounded by the nervous energy of dozens of other people when she was used to going days without seeing anyone.
Reluctantly, Daphne sat in the middle seat behind the ombudsmen’s table and waited for the hearings to begin. Lemon squeezed under the table and curled up around her legs. When everyone was seated Lucio stood and began speaking.
“Presiding over this hearing today is Gerald Perez, Aunt Lucy, Daphne Lewis, Eva Perez…”
Oh, so it was one of Gerald’s children, thought Daphne. That narrows it down considerably, but it also is going to make waves.
It was unheard of for two members of the same family to serve as ombudsmen simultaneously. The risk of blood relatives banding together to vote for their own best interests instead of what would do the most good for the community as a whole was too high. Lucio really must have been desperate for volunteers if he’d accepted such an arrangement. No wonder he had insisted she take a turn.
“And yours truly. Today we have three cases on the docket. Will Daniel Hart please rise?”
The morning scraped along. Lucio’s prediction had been right. The first two cases involved old men – none of whom looked as though they’d bathed or washed their clothing since last autumn – arguing about water rights for their livestock and gardens. In both cases Daphne voted with the rest the council and instructed the plaintiff’s to share the resources equally.
It really was the only way to survive in this world. During a drought especially there was no such thing as privately-owned watering holes, and anyone who lay down with a full belly or demanded unfair trade agreements with starving neighbours was considered monstrous.
Daphne had learned this lesson the hard way. Sadly, not everyone followed the rule if they thought they could get away with it. Some families tilled more fertile soil or had hardier livestock than others, and it was difficult to get them to understand the importance of feeding their neighbours unless they’d had a prolonged taste of hunger or thirst. Maybe this was why so many of the cases on the docket involved hoarding.
“Finally,” Lucio said, “Liam and Marcus Swood, please rise.” Two scowling teenage boys stood and glared at the five adults who were about to decide their fate.
“Ella Graber claims you broke the door to her chicken coop,” Lucio said. “She lost four birds last week and would like to know how you plan to compensate her.” Liam and Marcus stared at Daphne, the only face on the committee they hadn’t seen before. She shifted uncomfortable in her wooden chair and looked away. How could two boys barely into their teens be so full of hostility, and why was it directed at her?
“We didn’t do nothing,” Liam finally said. Lucio sighed and called Ella to the stand. She gave a detailed description of the clothing they had been wearing that afternoon and a list of witnesses who had seen the boys poking around her coop just before the chickens took flight.
When asked for an alibi the boys shrugged and said they’d been around. Neither one could produce a coherent story about where they had been or provide a list of people who could vouch for their activities that day. Daphne was torn between wanting to help and feeling frustrated with their flippant responses and lack of interest in taking this hearing seriously.
Tensions in the room grew.
The court room was temporarily cleared and the matter was put to a vote. All five members of the council agreed that Liam and Marcus were almost certainly responsible for Ella’s loss of livestock. Aunt Lucy and Lucio wondered why kids barely into their teens were being tried as adults. Surely their parents should be held at least partially responsible? Why not call it a mistrial, and prosecute the ones who raised them?
The Perez’s strongly disagreed.
“If you’re old enough to make a decision you’re old enough to face the consequences of it,” said Eva as Gerald nodded in agreement. “They need to work off their debt to Ella and the community at large.”
The tie-breaking decision lay in Daphne’s hands. She took a deep breath and said, “I agree with Eva. Let them learn to take some responsibility by building a bigger, stronger coop for Ella and her family.”
Daphne’s shoulders relaxed as she walked out of the courthouse. A full week of relaxation lay ahead of her before she had to face it again. Suddenly Lemon darted ahead of her barking with excitement.
Ephraim and Isaac were standing in the courtyard grinning at her.