The Sheriff and one of his burly deputies pulled the Defendant out of the burning mansion and dragged the old lady roughly down the circular drive, past the ruined fountain all the way out to the road that led back to Greenville. The men dumped her face first on the crumbling asphalt, the rough surface bit into her flesh, cutting her cheek and forehead.
Blood flowed into her eyes, and she silently wiped it away smearing it across her face. She knew what was coming, nothing she could do or say would change that. Catharine Webb was going to die this night, and she wouldn’t give these ignorant savages the satisfaction of hearing her beg for mercy.
The rickety white pulpit from the church was standing up in the back of the abandoned Chevy truck that had been sitting at the edge of the drive since before the war. The rusted hulk had belonged to the groundskeeper but on this night, it served as a judicial bench from which to judge her.
The good Reverend Jairus Price, dressed in a stained and tattered black robe, Bible in hand, stood behind the pulpit looking down upon his flock. Reflections of the growing fire danced in his eyes and sweat gleamed off his dirty face. Flames were now licking out of every broken window of the building.
The entire population of Greenville had come out to Webb Mansion to witness the drowning, the men gathered on the aged asphalt in front of the Reverend, the women and kids behind them on the other side of the road. The men had all helped the Sheriff and his deputies ransack the house and set it on fire and now nearly everyone held something that had been the Defendants just minutes before.
The old woman managed to roll over and sit up. Wiping more blood away, she gazed back at her burning home. The collected goods of her family for hundreds of years were in that house. Tears made furrows down her blood-smeared cheeks. A single sob escaped her lips when she noticed her roses were on fire. Without rain for the last six months, she had kept them alive by sharing her ration of water.
The Reverend glanced down at Catharine with utter contempt then back up at his congregation, “I need twelve good men to stand with me!” he shouted above the growing roar of the burning building.
“Oh Yaaaa!” young Gabriel pumped his fist as he pushed his way through the crowd. “I’m in! Come on boys! It’s time to do yur patriotic duty!” A second, third, and fourth lad joined him but that was it. Everybody else stood still.
“I asked for twelve honest god-fearing men! I got four.” The Reverend paused for a moment. “Alright then, I will choose. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, David, Peter, Isaac, and” his gaze locked on a tall blond-haired youngster, “you Michael. I want you to stand in judgment on this day.”
“No please Uncle Jairus. I can’t do this,” Michael replied.
“You will do like I tell you, now move!” the Reverend growled.
Michael bowed his head but went and stood with the other jurors gathered to one side of the improvised courtroom. The Reverend nodded to his Sheriff who blew a long shrill blast on his whistle, “Hear ye, hear ye, the honorable Reverend Jairus Price residing. This court is now in session.”
“Let’s drown the witch!” Gabriel exclaimed.
“Gabriel! This is God’s court. You will respect that or I can find another juror,” Reverend Price scolded.
“No sir, er, I mean yes sir. Your will be done, Father.” Gabriel said grinning.
The Reverend motioned to his Sheriff. The man pulled the Defendant roughly to her feet and spun her around facing the pulpit. “Catharine Webb, you stand accused of being a witch, how do you plead?” the Reverend asked.
The old woman wiped fresh blood from her face and said, “Oh, you know damn well I’m not guilty,” she mumbled.
“Speak up woman!”
“Not guilty,” she said louder.
“Sheriff, bring the girls forward,” the Reverend commanded.
The Sheriff approached the bench, his nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth on one side and niece Abigail Williams, age eleven, on the other. Neither of the girls ever saw a court of law or even been inside a schoolroom, for that matter. They couldn’t read or write and had never traveled further than the Wilson farm, about four miles from Greenville. The village didn’t have many books. The few that had survived the war, other than Bibles that everybody carried, had been inside Grandma Webb’s library.
“Lay your hand on the Sheriff’s Bible and tell the court what transpired last night. Elizabeth, you start,” the Reverend commanded.
“Eh, well, me and Abigail came out to visit Grandma Webb and bring her some potatoes. We sat down to talk, and she asked us if we had ever seen a light bug, and we said we didn’t. So she said to follow her, and we went into the basement. It was dark down there so we lit a candle,” Elizabeth paused giving Abigail a chance to talk.
“Then Grandma turned this handle round and round, and suddenly the whole basement was daylight! I swear on the Bible that’s what happened!” Abigail finished in a rush.
The crowd gasped and someone bellowed, “It’s the work of the Devil!” Someone else yelled, “Next thing you know, she’ll be teaching our children black science!” “We won’t tolerate a return of the old ways!” “She’d been warned!” others shouted.
“Order in the court!” the Sherriff demanded.
“Do you have anything to say to these charges?” the Reverend asked the Defendant.
“I am as innocent as the child unborn,” the old woman spat blood on the rutted roadway in front of the Reverend.
“Tsk… tsk… such disrespect.”
“You’re a fool Jairus. Technology and science are not what destroyed America. It was people like you,” the old woman said it loud enough for all to hear.
The Reverent threw back his head and laughed, “Enough nonsense! Are there any other witnesses?” Silence stretched out.
“Good, let’s get this done,” the Reverend turned to his jury, “What say you, guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty,” the jury spoke out, Gabriel the loudest.
“Michael, I don’t believe I heard your verdict,” the Reverend waited.
Michael frowned. “Not guilty! Grandma Webb is strange, through and through. Everybody knows that. But she’s not a witch!”
The Reverend’s eyes flashed, “I gave you a chance to mend the error of your ways, and this is how you repay me? I will deal with you later!”
Reverend Price angrily turned back to the Defendant, “Eleven to one. You have been found guilty by a jury of your peers, Catharine Webb. Your sentence is death by drowning to be carried out immediately.”
“I figured that the moment you set my house on fire,” the old woman mumbled.
Ignoring her, the Reverend continued, “If you are not a witch, you will drown, and we shall give you a Christian burial. If you are a witch, you will live, and we will throw you into the fire,” Reverend Price said.
“Either way I’m dead,” the old woman mumbled.
“Sheriff, carry out the sentence,” the Reverend Jairus Price ordered.
“Michael, help me bind her hands. Gabriel, bring the water,” the Sheriff ordered.
“I won’t do it! Grandma Webb’s my teacher and my friend. She doesn’t deserve this,” Michael said defiantly moving forward to confront the village men.
The crowd murmured. Teacher? It was another mark against a woman they have known all their lives.
“You people know her! She’s your friend too!” But it was useless. They scowled at Michael and many heartily booed him. They were out for blood.
The Sheriff brutally pushed the old lady to the ground and tied her hands behind her back amidst the loud approval of the villagers who pressed forward to get a better view.
“Uncle Jairus, you can’t do this! Grandma Webb’s not a witch,” Michael argued to no avail.
Gabriel and the Sheriff grabbed her ankles and hoisted Catharine bodily into the air, then jammed her head-first into the bucket of water. The crowd cheered as she flailed about but the old lady was no match for two strong men. They could feel her collar bones snapping as they forced the frail old lady into the bucket. Between the pain and utter defeat, Catharine Webb died quickly. The men let her body drop to the ground.
Gabriel pulled the bucket off her head, grinning into her dead eyes and said. “Guess she ain’t no witch after all.” He laughed again.
“May God have mercy on her soul,” the Reverend said in his best Sunday sermon voice.
The vast roof of Webb Mansion was heavy concrete tile built long before the war. The tile wouldn’t burn, but the rafters beneath them did. The roof collapsed with a thunderous boom sending a huge fireball hundreds of feet into the air. The villagers backed away from the inferno. That was when someone in the crowd noticed the fire spreading across the dry grass towards the apple trees beyond.
Jairus Price calmly said. “Sheriff, you and the boys start beating that fire down. We can’t let it get into the orchard.”
The flames were coming off the burning building with a fierce intensity, twisting upward for hundreds of feet like some hellish tornado. The big oaks in the backyard were already ablaze adding to the conflagration.
The Greenville townsfolk had come out here to watch the drowning but were now in the midst of a spreading inferno. The women and kids started running down the ancient asphalt roadway back towards the village. The apple trees formed a solid low-hanging canopy over their head. Back at the mansion, the men fought a losing battle with the fire. At the height of the confusion, Jairus Price began screaming at the men to run, and they did, following their womenfolk, the Sheriff and his deputy’s right behind them.
Glowing cinders spread out across the nearby orchard starting a dozen fires in an instant. Within moments, it was out of control and heading on gale winds for the heart of Greenville. It was only a few heartbeats before the fire storm overtook and consumed the villagers. In the end, only Michael, Gabriel and Jairus Price remained alive as Greenville burned.
“Well done Jairus, even if it did take a year,” Michael said grinning.
“It takes what it takes. Patience is a virtue, don’t you know?” he through his head back and laughed raucously then said, “There’s another village about thirty miles west of here. This time Michael will play my son and Gabriel, you will be some no-account drifter that I show the ways of the lord,” Reverend Price smiled coldly.
“Jairus Price! Slow down. Why be in such a rush? I want to enjoy this,” Gabriel said grinning, admiring their accomplishment. Fire was now spreading unchecked up the hillside beyond the village.
Jairus Price laughed again, “Sure, why not. Just remember, pride cometh before a fall.”