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Lame Jerry by Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

 

WITH her baby at her breast, Jane Oscar strolled through the woods one summer morning. There were memories in this young woman's life that sometimes violently agitated her heart, and at such times nothing pleased her more than to plunge into wild depths of the forest, and forget in physical fatigue the pain it angered her to feel. As she stepped on, fleet of foot, with down-dropped eyes, and arms tight as steel around her child, she was startled by a weakly-uttered curse, loosed apparently, like a poisonous odor, from the ground. Pressing on, flung among a heap of weeds beside a fallen tree, she saw a coiled, misshapen figure. An ugly, contorted face lay, with closed eyes, in a piercing sun-ray. It had, probably, been the sun-ray that he had cursed.

“Lame Jerry!”

“Jane!—is that Jane Oscar?”

“Yes. What's the matter?”

“They've done for me, I'm afeard, Jane.”

“Who? what? in pity's name.”

“Them wild-cat devils who helped t' run Welch's still.”

“You told on 'em to Peters?” in a loud, frightened whisper.

“Yes. d — n them! And they've killed me for it.”

“Mebbe not, Jerry. I'll go for Dick, an' we'll do all we kin for you.”

Then, with a woman's impulse, she took off her cotton dress waist and hung it on a bush in a way to shield Lame Jerry's eyes from the sun; and hiding her neck and her bare breast with her hair and the soft baby form, she hurried home.

“It wuz wrong in the boys—all wrong,” said Dick Oscar, when Jane had told him how she had found Lame Jerry half dead in the woods.

“Yes, it wuz wrong,” said Jane, hotly, “an' cruel, too, to treat a man so, just for bein' on the side o' the law.”

“Yes; they ought to 'a killed him outright,” said Mr. Oscar, thoughtfully.

“Dick! you don't mean it?”

“Come, come, my girl, you've got a soft spot in yo' heart fur sneaks, on account o' yo' sister; but you can't expect me to stomach 'em.”

“No, no,” said Jane, in a dull, low tone; “but you'll be kind to Jerry, won't you?”

“Lord! yes, Why not? But if he gits up agin, poor old devil! I guess he'll wish we'd 'a left him whar we found him.”

“That ain't our look-out.”

They brought him to their cabin, and nursed him, rudely, but with skill enough to bring him through the fever that set in from his inflamed wounds.

In his raving he called continually for his daughter.

“Cordy! Cordy! Cordy!” repeated in tones that rang, or moaned, or prayed; but no woman bent over him save brown-eyed Jane Oscar, and faithfully she tended him, while the baby screamed from its cradle in fright at the strange, rough voice.

A conscious day came, and he called to Jane, “Does Cordy know?”

He looked so pitiful lying there, a stunted, humpbacked figure, his eyes big in his gaunt face, his hair white—an old man hated by the mountain people among whom he lived, shaken by nameless fears for the one thing that he loved.

“I ain't been able to git word ter Cordy,” said Jane Oscar.

“D'ye know how she's got on, all alone there, the poor child? She wuz always one to be frightened at shadows and noises.”

Jane said nothing.

“Why don't you speak, Jane Oscar?”

“You're mighty weak, Jerry. I don't want you to have no set- back.”

“An' what could you tell me, woman, to give me a set- back?”

Jane put her lips together, and, taking up her baby, gave it the breast.

“Might 's well tell him, Janey,” said Dick Oscar; “it's got to come.”

“Tell him yourself, then.”

Lame Jerry's eyes glared at the two—the stolid beings who were hiding some awful secret from him—one smoking a cob pipe, the other suckling her child, removed remote from his terrible suffering as heaven from hell.

“Whar's my daughter?”

“Well, old man,” said Dick Oscar, “she's gone with Discoe.”

“Are they married?”

“Not as I's heerd tell.”

“Oh God! God! God!”

“Come, Jerry, don't take it so hard. He'll treat her kind.”

Treat her kind! I hope he'll kill her! Oh, my lost girl! my little lost Cordy!”

“I'm powerful sorry for you, Jerry,” said Jane, shifting her baby comfortably from one arm to the other.

“Keep yo' sorrow till it's asked for.”

“You know he may marry her,” said Dick, putting a fresh coal in his pipe, “if she's pleasant to him; he's a nice man, Discoe is.”

“A d — d whiskey-drinking devil!”

“He's got his faults, but they're the faults of a man,” said Mr. Oscar, impartially; “and he ain't a tattlin' sneak.”

Lame Jerry turned his face to the wall and groaned.

From that time he seemed to get well with a sort of fury. He rarely spoke, never smiled, and Jane could only guess at the thoughts that fixed on his rugged features the expression of a demon. He said little to her about having saved his life, but on leaving he flung into the baby's lap a purse of money.

“What's that?” cried Dick Oscar. He snatched the child up, and the purse fell to the floor. He kicked it toward Lame Jerry. “We don't want none of the money you wuz bought with,” said the stern husband of Janey Bleylock.

Lame Jerry did not go back to his now hateful home, but lived on the mountain as simply as a wild beast, hiding from men, indifferent to all things save the set purpose of his life. It was known to but few that he had survived the moonshiners' attempt to kill him. Jane and Dick Oscar were silent people, and news travelled slowly in that mountain country.

Lame Jerry lay in wait for Discoe, and saw him continually as he lounged about his occupations—hunting, fishing, hoeing his little patch of ground, riding down the mountain to join the boys in a frolic. But he never shadowed Cordy's lover as far as his cabin door. He would not see his child until—

The day came at last. Discoe was cleaning his gun in the woods, unarmed, inert, unsuspicious. Behind him, huge and misshapen, the hunchback crawled and coiled and sprung. There was little resistance— the surprise was too complete—and Lame Jerry's arm was nerved by hate and madness. When Discoe was dead the murderer dragged his body to Caney Fork, and weighting it with rocks, saw it sink beneath the hiding waves. Then he went to his daughter.

“Cordy!”

At the sound of his voice, and at sight of him, the girl fell, screaming. She fully believed her father dead, and being slow of wit, now conceived that his ghost stood in her doorway.

“Don't you know your father, Cordy?”

“You are his spirit.”

“No, I am flesh, my girl. Come to me.”

“You were killed by Welch's boys.”

“I wuz hurt, but I got well.”

Still, incredulity and fear were in the girl's big wandering blue eyes. “If you ain't a ghost,” said she, timidly, “taste my soup on the fire.”

“No, my girl. I won't taste Discoe's soup. But look here.”

He threw himself on the high, soft feather-bed, and rising, pointed to the impress of his form. She came forward, her hands outstretched, like one who is blind. He seized them, and gazed into her face. Yes, it was the same white, fragile Cordy, not altered by a line or a trace of thought. The same wide, simple blue eyes; the same weak, red baby mouth; the light hair falling in a smooth plait; the skin clear and colorless. But was his gaze distracted that he fancied a change in the slim girl's figure?

“Cordy! Cordy!” He clasped her in his arms, and she wept. But before he kissed her he wiped her face fiercely, as though rubbing off a stain. “And so, my girl,” he said, gently, after they had talked a long while, “you didn't think you wuz doin' anything wrong to take up with Discoe—and no preacher to make it honest?”

She twisted her fingers nervously. “I didn't know what to do. They said you wuz dead. An' Discoe said he'd like to have me. An' he's a nice, well-made man. An' I wuz so dull with fright an' grief that I didn't much care. But I care now. An' he's goin' to marry me, pappy, when—when the baby comes.”

“He's a black-hearted devil.”

“No, pappy, no. You don't know him 's I do. He's been powerful good to me.”

Lame Jerry sat long in Discoe's cabin, affecting not to see Cordy's restless glances down the mountain path.

“I'll go now,” he said, “ 'nless you like t' have me stop with you to-night, Cordy.”

“Better not, pappy. Discoe mightn't like it. But I'll tell him about you when he comes home, an' to-morrer you come t' see him.”

Her father came with the morrow, to find Cordy but slightly annoyed at Discoe's non-appearance. “I reckon he's off somewhere with the boys,” she said; “I ain't no call to fret.”

Days passed; weeks dragged along. Lame Jerry spent all his time now in Discoe's cabin, but Cordy rarely spoke to him. All her soul was absorbed in watching and waiting. Her hearing grew to be so finely attuned that she heard all strange sounds of nature that hide from dull ears; but never the sound for which she waited.

“Cordy,” said her father one day, “it's lonely here.”

“Not for me, pappy. I have to keep things ready for Discoe.”

“He won't come, girl.”

Cordy smiled—that dim, vacant smile that Jerry was learning to dread.

“Come with me, honey; let us go away.”

“I must wait here, pappy.”

“You don't feel as if you could give him up, my girl, for me as loves you so much, much more?”

And Cordy answered, very simply, “How can I give him up, pappy?— he's my man, you know.”

Again he said to her, “You didn't know I had money, Cordy, in the bank at Nashville?”

“No, pappy.”

“I've always kept you different from others,” said the old man. “I meant to leave the mountains with you when there wuz money enough for us to be free. But I had to hurry. You remember the day you wuz fifteen?”

“Yes, pappy,” she said, vacantly.

“You had been strange an' ailin' a long time, and that day you fell down in a fit. I knowed then I must hurry an' git you to the city, whar a doctor could cure you. That wasn't more'n a year ago. You're only a child now, Cordy.”

“Yes, pappy.”

“It wuz slow work makin' money, so I engaged as a spy to Peters; he paid well, or Government paid through him. It wuz for you, Cordy—for you.”

“ 'Twuzn't right, pappy. Discoe didn't think it wuz right.”

“Honey, have you had any of them fits since you came here to live with Discoe?”

“One, pappy. Sometimes I think that's why he left me.”

“Then you ought to hate him. Give up the thoughts of him, child, an' come with me to Nashville. It'll be pleasant. We'll have a pretty little house, not a rough log-cabin. An' I'll hire a woman to do all the work. You sha'n't soil your little hands, my girl; and I'll buy you ribbons and such gowns as city girls wear—blue and pink. An' I'll get a buggy an' take you drivin' every day like a lady. Won't you come, my girl?”

“No, pappy; I have to stay here. My man will be back soon, an' he'll want Cordy.”

And to every attack or entreaty Cordy returned the same unmoved answer. Once he threatened her. But at his tone of force and rough authority she fell in the dreadful convulsions that maddened him and shook her reason. After that he was always gentle with her.

One day a travelling preacher stopped at the cabin and asked to stay all night. When Cordy learned who he was an unwonted excitement took possession of her.

She called her father apart.

“Discoe said he'd marry me the first time a preacher come this way,” she whispered, her light eyes shining. “P'r'aps he has sent this one.”

“No, no, my girl; don't think it.”

“But I will think it,” she said, shrilly, and springing toward the stranger. “Mister, did my man send you? and will he come after you soon?”

The stranger stared.

“Don't mind her,” said Lame Jerry, roughly. “Her man left her, and she ain't been right in her wits since.”

Looking from one to the other, Cordy burst into a low laugh.

“I see; Discoe wants to surprise me. But never mind; I'll be ready.”

As the sun went down she dressed herself in a white dress, and braided her smooth, thick hair. Then, with a smile, she sat watching by the window. Ah! it was a sight for God to pity! The young, unrested head, the eagerness of the sharpened face, and, defined against the rough walls, the most pathetic shape of one soon to become a mother, with Shame and Despair for her furious handmaidens.

After this her father hoped no more. A little later, in a driving storm, he plunged down the mountain to find Jane Oscar and bring her to his child. At the wild midnight hour a babe was laid on Cordy's piteous young breast—both breathed faintly until the rising of the sun, when their souls went out together. And Lame Jerry was left to live with his money—and his memories.

 
 
 

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