Updated: Jan 1, 2022
By Frank N. Stratton
Everybody’s Magazine, March 1904.
I kain’t understand it. I jest kain’t understand it,” wailed the old woman, rocking her bent body to and fro. “Fust they killed my old man, then they crippled Tommy fer life, an’ now they’re a-tryin’ to send Jimmy to prison."
“Why did they kill your husband?” the old lawyer asked.
“Why? Thet’s jest it—why?
Didn’t he hev ez much right to shoot ez they had? What call did they hev to come a-breakin’ up his bizness, an’ him a-tryin’ to make a livin’ fer his fambly ? Ef a man ’ud ruther make whiskey than meal outen his own corn what bizness wuz it uv theirn? That’s what I’d like to know.”
“And Tommy—what did Tommy do?”
“Do? What did Tommy do? Nothin’. Thet’s what. Nothin’. Th’ hoss wuz hisn. Traded fer it, fair an’ squar’. I heered Tommy say so. An’ jest bekase he’d fergot th’ man’s name, they wuz ackchuly agoin’ to take him to jail. What bizness wuz it uv theirn who he got th’ hoss uv? An’ they up an’ crippled him while he wuz agoin’ ’s way peaceable. Wouldn’t they ’a’ run too? Reckon they’d ’a’ hung him ef they’d ’a’ ben smart enuff to ketch him.”
“It is very unfortunate that your–”
“Unfortunate. Thet’s what. They’ve jest ben a-pickin’ an’ a-naggin’ at me all my life. An’ now they’ve gone an’ ’rested Jimmy, th’ only one I’ve got left, jest bekase he made a mistake an’ got in th’ wrong house. They say he wuzn't drunk, but Jimmy sez he wuz. I’ll believe my boy ev’ry time. Yes siree, ev’ry time. D’ye s'pose ef he hadn’t ’a’ ben drunk he’d ’a’ got so turned ‘round ez to think thet big house wuz our little shanty? No, sir. Don’t tell me. They know a sight better, but they’ve jest got it in fer me an’ mine; want me to starve, ez I will ef they take Jimmy away.”
“He hain’t guilty, an’ you kin save him—you must save him. I hain’t got no money now, but I’ll work these old fingers to th’ bone ef you’ll only save my boy.”
“My good woman,” said the old lawyer, kindly, “I fear your boy’s case is hopeless, but I’ll try. Don’t worry about the money. I’ll do my best, not for Jimmy, for I suspect he’s not what he should be, but for his old mother. You see—I had a boy, once, long ago, and he—well, I know how you feel.”
The careworn face lighted up, the calloused fingers wiped away a tear.
“God bless you, sir, an’ may you never know sorrow. Ah, ef they wuz all like you there’d be some joy yit for an old woman who hafn’t got long to live.”
Jimmy, surly and defiant, was guilty. The lawyers knew it, the judge knew it, the jury knew it. None but the old mother entertained a doubt. She, knowing him innocent, sat at his side, caressed him, pleaded silently but even more effectively than the old lawyer who so eloquently begged mercy for her sake.
Late in the night the amazed bailiff saw an old woman crouching, listening, watching, at the door of the jury room,
“They’s only one agin Jimmy,” she whispered, as he hurriedly approached her. “They’s only one agin him now. . . an’ he’ll come over . . . he’s got to come over.”
“You can’t stay here, ma’am,” the bailiff said; “you must go home.”
“Not without Jimmy. I jest kain’t go home without Jimmy, It’s too dark, an’ lonesome, an’ far. Let me stay back yander in th’ dark corner. I’ll not move.”
“Back yander in th’ dark corner” of the court-room she kneeled, and prayed in whispers, listening between the prayers.
At intervals, through the open transom, the voices of the jurors came distinctly to her anxious ears.
“It’s of no use to argue with me, gentlemen. The boy is guilty. That’s enough. We swore to bring in a verdict according to the law and the evidence, and I have some regard for my oath, if you haven’t.”
“That’s th’ little skinny feller,” muttered the old woman to herself. “O Lord, make him come over, please make him come over. You know Jimmy hain’t guilty.”
“We’re not sayin’ he’s not guilty,” came a deep, strong voice. “That’s not th’ point. Do you want to kill the old woman? That’s about what you’ll do if we disagree, and th’ boy goes back to jail for want of bond. Wouldn’t that be a heap worse than to let him go free? Who’ll suffer th’ most, him or his old mother? As for our oaths, the judge said we are th’ judges of th’ law and th’ evidence, and us eleven are makin’ some law to suit ourselves.”
“Thet’s him — thet’s th’ big man with th’ whiskers,” whispered Jimmy’s mother. “May th’ Lord reward him. He knows Jimmy hain’t guilty.”
The dreary hours dragged on, and still one man opposed eleven. Finally, the patient watcher heard the weary jurors stretch themselves upon their rude cots, abandoning the contest. She felt the oppressiveness of the ominous silence, she saw the lights go out, but she could not see the vision that came to “th’ little, skinny man” during his fitful sleep: a vision of a face of long ago, fresh and fair as it bent over a child’s little bed; then, tearful and more mature, bidding farewell to a youth in blue with musket and knapsack; then, wrinkled and seamed, with eyes forever closed.
She did not see the dreamer rise from his cot and pace the floor while his companions slept, asking himself, “What if it were she? What if it were she?”
When morning came, the old woman, weak from the night's vigil, tottered forward to greet Jimmy when he was brought in to learn his fate. When the clerk stood up to read the verdict, she too arose, trembling, her hand upon her boy’s shoulder, her dimmed eyes fixed upon that fateful slip of paper.
The old woman sank into her chair, laughing softly, the pale lips murmuring indistinct thanks, a light marvelously like the glow of girlhood illumining the wrinkled face.
The lawyer, a suspicious moisture in his eyes, took the bony, calloused hand as reverently as any knight his ladylove’s, and said, huskily:
“That’s all. You may go—and take Jimmy.”
“I knowed you could save him,'” laughed the old woman. “I knowed ef enny man could save him you could.”
The old lawyer smiled.
“It wasn’t me,” he said. “It was his mother.”