The four-legged man

By Jefftaur 
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I remember the day the four-legged man came to town, 'cause that was the day that Mary Jane's cat bit Billy Crandall. 'Course, I woulda remembered it even without Mary Jane's cat, 'cause I'd never seen a four-legged man before. Don't think no one had.

I think it was Tommy first saw him. We were playin' behind the rain barrels next to Mrs. Bray's store, and Tommy, he was peekin' over 'em at the street, on the lookout for pirates. But then he suddenly stood real still, and used that word that his daddy uses all the time that none of us is supposed to say. Johnny kept asking him what it was, but Tommy wouldn't answer, just kept starin', so we poked our heads up over the barrels, too.

And there he was, the four-legged man just amblin' down the street in front of the store. He didn't look like no beggar, he wasn't dirty or nothin' and his hair was neat and he was shaved, but he wasn't carryin' nothin' or wearin' nothin' but four-legged overalls, and his four feet were bare, and even some of the beggars that come through town have shoes. But I guessed it made sense anyway, because I wasn't a beggar and I only had shoes that I wore special for Sunday, and buyin' four shoes must be even more expensive. I wondered how long he'd walked those four feet from.

Tommy, Johnny, and I just stared at him over the tops of those barrels as he walked his four feet by. Once he passed, and Tommy and Johnny stopped being scared, they started giggling and pointing at the four- legged man's behind, which sort of stuck out behind him over his hind legs, like he might be bendin' over. I stared at it, but it just didn't look funny to me. I started wonderin' what it would be like to have four legs. Kind of like a horse, maybe. Did he gallop? But the four-legged man had arms and hands, too, and no hooves, just four feet. I wondered if he ever accidentally stepped on his back toes.

I didn't get long to think about it because as soon as the four-legged man went out of sight 'round the corner of the dress shop at the end of the street, Tommy was draggin' me and Johnny out from our hiding place and runnin' at top speed to find the other kids. See, Suzy had got to tell everyone when the crazy lady that wandered into town went and drowned herself in the old mill pond, and Tommy wanted to be first with this news, 'cause even a crazy lady drownin' herself in the old mill pond couldn't hold a candle to a real four- legged man. And he needed me and Johnny for witnesses.

At first, nobody believed us, even though me and Tommy and Johnny all swore up and down and crossed our hearts and hoped to die that the four-legged man was real. But the other kids just laughed, and Suzy said that Tommy'd just made it up because he was jealous.

Tommy was taking a deep breath and thinking of what name to call her when we all heard Mary Jane scream. We all turned and saw her cat, Primrose, go streakin' out the front door of their house. There was all sorts of yelling inside, and then Mary Jane came running out the door after Primrose, and then Mary Jane's daddy and her momma, and then old Doc Henderson, who ain't really a doctor, but everyone calls him that.

Mary Jane was callin' after Primrose, but the cat had gone and vanished. Her momma and her daddy told her what a bad girl she was for lettin' the cat escape, and then Mary Jane's daddy ran off to find the cat, while her momma took Doc Henderson back inside. Mary Jane just stood there cryin'. We all went up to her and she 'splained that Primrose got real sick, and Doc Henderson wanted to kill her. Primrose, I mean, not Mary Jane. And so Mary Jane had stopped him at the last moment, and let Primrose escape, and now her momma and daddy were real mad, and Primrose was probably gonna die now anyway, especially if Mary Jane's daddy found her.

We reckoned that if we found Mary Jane's cat first, we might could save her. Johnny said we could hide the cat up at the old mill until everything blew over. That's where we always hid whenever there was trouble, so it made sense.

Soon almost all the kids in town were looking for Primrose, but it was Billy Crandall found her first, which was bad. Billy Crandall was an older kid and mean, and even though nobody could prove nothin', most folks say he was responsible for what happened to old Widow Baynes's cat when she died. They only ever found little bits and pieces of that little ol' cat. Billy cornered Primrose in the alley behind the hardware store, and we knew when he'd found her because there was a lot of hissin' and yowlin' and then Billy yelled, “Ow! Stupid cat!”

There weren't never anythin' flowery about Primrose, an old alley cat with brown fur and white splotches, but when we all ran 'round behind the hardware store to see what was goin' on, she was lookin' even worse than usual. She was hissin' and mad and her fur was messed up, and she was droolin' funny, which was odd 'cause we'd never seen a cat drool, and she was limpin' funny too 'cause I think one of her legs was broke, and I bet that Billy'd done that.

Mary Jane ran up just in time to see Billy raisin' a big ol' board from the woodpile over his head, aimin' for Primrose. She screamed real loud, but Billy just laughed and said he was gonna teach that cat a lesson.

But everyone, even Billy, stopped and stood stock still when we heard that voice.

“Stop.”

That was all he said. Not real loud, or yellin' or anythin', but it put the fear of God in all of us, I tell you. We all turned and there was the four-legged man, standin' there, starin' real hard at Billy Crandall.

Billy turned white as a sheet.

The four-legged man started walkin' forward on those four bare feet, and all of us moved out of his way real quick. Billy started shakin', and then he dropped the board and ran out the other end of the alley, faster'n we'd ever seen him run before. The rest of us just stood there, watchin'.

The four-legged man walked up to Primrose, even though she was still hissin' and yowlin' and clawin' at him. But he just knelt down on his four knees and touched her, and suddenly she stopped. He gathered her up in his arms and started strokin' her, kneelin' there on his four knees, smoothin' out her fur, and she curled up in his arms, not mewlin' or nothin'.

Eventually the four-legged man stood back up on his four feet, front legs first, kinda like a horse, and turned to us. Everyone sucked in their breath real fast and sorta backed away, but I just stood there lookin' at him. He stared back at me for a little while, and then walked right up to me on his four feet. I heard everyone behind me slide back again, but the four-legged man just held Primrose out to me and I took her from him.

She was perfect. Her fur was all smooth and she looked the right shape, not all skinny and broke-lookin' like before, and she curled up in my arms and started purrin'.

I looked back up at the four-legged man and he just smiled at me for a moment, then turned and ambled away with his four-legged walk down the alley and disappeared 'round the corner.

It took a few minutes before anybody could move again. The first person who actually said anything was Tommy, who turned to Suzy and said, “I told you so,” and then Mary Jane let out a yell and came runnin' up to me and took Primrose, and saw she was okay, and then she started laughin' and dancin' around with Primrose held high over her head.

Everyone else just started talkin' 'bout the four-legged man, and wasn't he strange, and funny-lookin', and where did he come from, and would he be back?

When we got back to Mary Jane's house, Mary Jane's momma screamed when she saw Mary Jane holdin' Primrose, and Doc Henderson came up and took Primrose from her. Mary Jane's momma started to scold her for lettin' Primrose run away.

“But, Momma,” she said, “the four-legged man fixed her!”

And we tried to explain about the four-legged man, but Mary Jane's momma wouldn't believe us, she just got madder. But Doc Henderson was just standing there, holdin' Primrose, starin' at her like he ain't never seen a cat before.

When Mary Jane's daddy came back, he didn't believe us neither, but then Miss Katie from the dress shop came runnin' in, all breathless, and asked if we'd seen the four-legged man walkin' about town, and then they had to believe us, because Miss Katie was almost a grown-up like them. Mary Jane's momma and daddy still wanted to kill Primrose, but Doc Henderson said he wasn't going to harm a perfectly healthy livin' creature, so that was that.

The next day was a Sunday, and so all the grown-ups had a meetin' after church to decide what to do about the four-legged man. First they had to decide whether it was man or animal, and some said he must be animal because he walked on four legs, but others said that no animal had hands like a man. They looked in the Bible and it said stuff about the creatures that crawleth over the face of the earth, but nothin' about no four-legged man. Ol' Mrs. Bray shook her cane and said that this wasn't one of God's creatures, she was sure it was the devil in disguise, because only the devil would walk on four legs like animal. There was a lot of agreement to that, but then someone in the back said that the devil ought to have hooves like a goat, but the four-legged man had normal feet, it was just he had four of 'em. And then they argued a lot more, but they didn't get nowhere, because only a few of them had even seen the four-legged man, and none of them had talked to him.

So they all turned to Reverend, who looked a bit nervous-like, and he said maybe they'd better just wait and see. And then Mrs. Bray clucked her tongue and whispered to Mrs. Cartwright that if old Reverend Simpson were still alive, he would have already sent this four-legged devil back from whence he came.

But nobody sent the four-legged man anywhere, and the only person that even talked to him was Jimmy Walker, but that weren't no surprise, 'cause Jimmy made friends with all the undesirables who wandered into town. Probably because he was an undesirable hisself. Nobody knew where he came from, he just wandered into town one day and started doin' odd jobs for whoever needed work done. Usually one or t'other of the farmers would let him sleep in their haylofts. People said he was trouble, that he got kicked out of the town he grew up in for doin' somethin' awful. And, Mrs. Bray would always remind everyone, he didn't go to church on Sunday.

I asked him about that once, when I was watchin' him work on the door to Mr. Pearson's barn. I liked to watch Jimmy work. He was really strong and good with his hands, and I wanted to be like him someday, even though Momma and Daddy would always scold me if they ever caught me talkin' to Jimmy. Anyway, Jimmy just laughed and said he'd already learned to read the Bible, and he didn't need to go to church to have someone read it for him and tell him what to think. But that was Jimmy all over.

So that was the way it went: the four-legged man stayed around town, sleepin' up at the old mill, and everyone except Jimmy pretty much ignored him whenever they saw him walkin' around on his four bare feet.

But then there was the day when Mrs. Bray was closin' up her store to go visit with her friend Mrs. Cartwright across the road. She was just steppin' down off the steps to the store when the four-legged man came walkin' 'round the corner. Mrs. Bray sucked in her breath real fast like she was scared, and started tryin' to walk real fast, which was hard with her cane. Mrs. Cartwright and ol' Miss Green just watched from Mrs. Cartwright's front porch, but you could tell they was scared, too.

Then Mrs. Bray stumbled a bit with her cane, and almost fell over, but suddenly the four-legged man was beside her, helpin' her back up, really steady because he had four legs to stand on. Mrs. Bray made her little puffing sound she makes whenever she's angry with us kids and tried to shrug him off, so he just stepped aside on his four feet and went off amblin' down the road. Mrs. Bray stood there for a moment starin' after him and then she realized she wasn't holdin' her cane no more, which was incredible 'cause Mrs. Bray couldn't so much as turn in her chair with our her cane, usually. Then Mrs. Cartwright and Miss Green came runnin' down from Mrs. Cartwright's porch to see if Mrs. Bray was all right, but Mrs. Bray just harrumphed and picked up her cane, mumblin' somethin' about devils quotin' scripture. And she was still sayin' that the four-legged man ought to be kicked out of town, but sometimes she'd forget and walk without her cane.

The only other strange thing that happened was that in the middle of one night Mary Jane woke up because Primrose jumped onto her bed chasin' a moth or somethin' and Mary Jane heard laughin' outside so she looked out her window and she saw what looked like the four-legged man and Jimmy Walker runnin' over the side of the hill next to Mr. Murray's corn field only it looked like Jimmy Walker had six legs and four arms… but everyone just thought she'd dreamed it.

It was about a month after the four-legged man first showed up that Billy Crandall got awful sick. He was hackin' and coughin', and he couldn't eat nothin', nor even drink water. And ol' Doc Henderson said that Billy had got what Primrose had, and there weren't no medicine for it, except all the way away in the city. So they sent for it, but it didn't look like it'd get here in time.

When Mary Jane heard about this, she told Billy's parents that if the four-legged man could help Primrose, maybe he could help Billy, too. But Mrs. Crandall wouldn't hear of it, she wasn't letting the four-legged man anywhere near her Billy, and Mr. Crandall said on no account was that… that creature setting foot- any of them-in his house. And they didn't believe her story, even though she brought me with her as witness, and even though Primrose was okay and not sick no more. But then Billy started coughin' again, so Mary Jane turned to me and whispered to go find the four-legged man, so he could help Billy.

So I ran to the front door, and when I opened it up, there was the four-legged man, standin' there, his four bare feet on the Crandalls' front porch.

I was a little frightened, but I said, “Please, sir, could you come in and help Billy? He's awful sick.”

The four-legged man just smiled at me and said, “I know.” He walked in, his four bare feet slappin' on the wooden floor, and walked straight to Billy's room, without me even tellin' him where it was.

When they saw him at the door of the room, Mr. and Mrs. Crandall stood right up and it looked like they was about to start yellin' at him to get out of the house but they suddenly shut right up and just stared at him. The four-legged man just walked up to the side of Billy's bed on his four legs and rested his palm on Billy's forehead. Suddenly, Billy stopped coughin' and just relaxed, lyin' there peaceful. And then he opened his eyes and he was scared when he saw the four-legged man but the four-legged man just smiled at him and then walked away. I opened the front door for him again and he looked down at me and said thank you and then he just ambled off again with that four-legged walk of his.

The next day Billy was up and playin' with the other kids just like before, 'cept it seemed like he wasn't quite so mean no more. But folks say that a brush with death will do that to a person.

The four-legged man disappeared after that, no one saw him walkin' on his four bare feet through town no more, and us kids could start usin' the old mill as hideout again. Seemed like most people forgot he was ever there, but I always wondered where he came from, and where he went to, walkin' on those four legs.

I was watchin' Jimmy work on Mr. Marshall's fence one day, and I asked him if the four-legged man was ever comin' back. Jimmy looked at me kinda surprised-like and asked me why. I said I didn't know, and then I asked him if I could be a four-legged man when I grew up. He laughed, and said that if I still wanted to be a four-legged man when I was grown up, then I should come to him. And then I heard a funny sound on the gravel, and I looked down and I thought I saw another pair of bare feet on the ground behind Jimmy's, but then they were gone and I guessed it was just my imagination.


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