Mr. Avery was wedged tightly. I buried my head under Jem’s arm and didn’t look again until Jem cried, “He’s got loose, Scout! He’s all right!”
I looked up to see Mr. Avery cross the upstairs porch. He swung his legs over the railing and was sliding down a pillar when he slipped. He fell, yelled, and hit Miss Maudie’s shrubbery.
Suddenly I noticed that the men were backing away from Miss Maudie’s house, moving down the street toward us. They were no longer carrying furniture. The fire was well into the second floor and had eaten its way to the roof: window frames were black against a vivid orange center.
“Jem, it looks like a pumpkin—”
Smoke was rolling off our house and Miss Rachel’s house like fog off a riverbank, and men were pulling hoses toward them. Behind us, the fire truck from Abbottsville screamed around the curve and stopped in front of our house.
“That book . . .” I said.
“What?” said Jem.
“That Tom Swift book, it ain’t mine, it’s Dill’s . . .”
“Don’t worry, Scout, it ain’t time to worry yet,” said Jem. He pointed. “Looka yonder.”
In a group of neighbors, Atticus was standing with his hands in his overcoat pockets. He might have been watching a football game. Miss Maudie was beside him.
“See there, he’s not worried yet,” said Jem.
“Why ain’t he on top of one of the houses?”
“He’s too old, he’d break his neck.”
“You think we oughta make him get our stuff out?”
“Let’s don’t pester him, he’ll know when it’s time,” said Jem.
The Abbottsville fire truck began pumping water on our house; a man on the roof pointed to places that needed it most. I watched our Absolute Morphodite go black and crumble; Miss Maudie’s sun-hat settled on top of the heap. I could not see her hedge-clippers. In the heat between our house, Miss Rachel’s and Miss Maudie’s, the men had long ago shed coats and bathrobes. They worked in pajama tops and nightshirts stuffed into their pants, but I became aware that I was slowly freezing where I stood. Jem tried to keep me warm, but his arm was not enough. I pulled free of it and clutched my shoulders. By dancing a little, I could feel my feet.
Another fire truck appeared and stopped in front of Miss Stephanie Crawford’s. There was no hydrant for another hose, and the men tried to soak her house with hand extinguishers.
Miss Maudie’s tin roof quelled the flames. Roaring, the house collapsed; fire gushed everywhere, followed by a flurry of blankets from men on top of the adjacent houses, beating out sparks and burning chunks of wood.
It was dawn before the men began to leave, first one by one, then in groups. They pushed the Maycomb fire truck back to town, the Abbottsville truck departed, the third one remained. We found out next day it had come from Clark’s Ferry, sixty miles away.
Jem and I slid across the street. Miss Maudie was staring at the smoking black hole in her yard, and Atticus shook his head to tell us she did not want to talk. He led us home, holding onto our shoulders to cross the icy street. He said Miss Maudie would stay with Miss Stephanie for the time being.
“Anybody want some hot chocolate?” he asked. I shuddered when Atticus started a fire in the kitchen stove.
As we drank our cocoa I noticed Atticus looking at me, first with curiosity, then with sternness. “I thought I told you and Jem to stay put,” he said.
“Why, we did. We stayed—”
“Then whose blanket is that?”
“Yes ma’am, blanket. It isn’t ours.”
I looked down and found myself clutching a brown woolen blanket I was wearing around my shoulders, squaw-fashion.
“Atticus, I don’t know, sir . . . I—”
I turned to Jem for an answer, but Jem was even more bewildered than I. He said he didn’t know how it got there, we did exactly as Atticus had told us, we stood down by the Radley gate away from everybody, we didn’t move an inch—Jem stopped.
“Mr. Nathan was at the fire,” he babbled, “I saw him, I saw him, he was tuggin’ that mattress—Atticus, I swear . . .”
“That’s all right, son.” Atticus grinned slowly. “Looks like all of Maycomb was out tonight, in one way or another. Jem, there’s some wrapping paper in the pantry, I think. Go get it and we’ll—”
“Atticus, no sir!”
Jem seemed to have lost his mind. He began pouring out our secrets right and left in total disregard for my safety if not for his own, omitting nothing, knot-hole, pants and all.